The thought rampaged through Harlan’s mind. The notion, and the rage that came with it, wasn’t the result of Harlan D. Alexander’s normal, hyper-rational thought process. It was a knee-jerk reaction—the instinctual response of his subconscious to the stimuli around him.
An engineer by trade, Harlan Alexander didn’t trust instincts—least of all his. He trusted data. He trusted principles. He trusted mathematics and physics and chemistry. He hated instinct because he found that it rarely served him well. But today, beginning with a missed flight out of LaGuardia, he’d given his life over to instinct. He’d flown by the seat of his pants for the first time since high school. He’d obeyed whatever decision his gut made, his shitty instincts digging him deeper and deeper into trouble even as his Harvard-educated brain screamed for the lunacy to stop. Blaming this on a fucked-up case of the Mondays was pure instinct and, like every other instinct he’d had today, this one was dead, fucking wrong.
It wasn’t Monday. It was Friday. It was just the long parade of I-can’t-believe-that-shit-just-happened kind of events Harlan had endured over the past twelve hours that made it seem like a Monday. One never-ending, shit-storm of a day.
Harlan’s thin hands clutched the steering wheel, a bony, white-knuckled death-grip that was only one of the visible indications that this day had well and truly gone to hell in a handbasket.
Harlan’s arms were tense, muscles flexed against an impact that was already more than a minute in the past. Those tense arms, the sinew and tendons pressing through the thin layer of fat and skin, connected to Harlan’s taut shoulders and strained neck—each of which were also still braced to protect against the massive physical forces which the immutable laws of science mandated to be present when an two-thousand pound car collides with a ninety-thousand pound building at more than double the posted speed limit.
Ninety seconds after impact, the first audible word escaped from Harlan’s clenched jaw, falling onto the semi-deflated airbag which drooped from the steering column like the world’s most depressing birthday balloon. That the damn thing hadn’t blown his arms to the sides, dislocating them in the process, surprised him, but only for the fleeting nanosecond it took for the thought to form and dissipate.
Harlan stared straight ahead through the spider-webbed windshield of what had been, until around two minutes ago, a moderately expensive sports car. The hood, normally a smooth sheet of pressed metal painted the same deep black hue as the midnight sky, was folded and creased at various angles, driven up and back into his field of view like some weird mountain-scape diorama. Wisps of steam, coming from whatever was left of his radiator, drifted up and evaporated into an ungodly cold sky that was threatening to shit the first flakes of snow that the forecast had been calling for all day.
Harlan was still staring forward when a knock six inches from his ear shattered the silence. Without peeling his grip from the wheel, he turned his head.
There was a man there. Harlan could make out the vague outline of a face staring through the steamed up, and intact, driver-side window. The mouth on the figure appeared to be moving, but Harlan couldn’t hear anything but his own pulse—the sound of his adrenaline-fueled heart pounding away echoing through his skull.
The dull booming in his ears continued for what seemed like an eternity as his body processed the fight-or-flight chemical—trying to ease him back into the normal flow of time. Harlan’s hearing returned—slowly—as his body began to register the aches and pains commensurate with a fifty-mile-per-hour collision.
“Hey buddy. You ‘kay.” The voice was muffled and soft.
Harlan stared at the man, his brain chewing on the words, searching through a lifetime of collected vocabulary for the appropriate response.
“You ‘kay, man?”
As the adrenaline continued to subside, Harlan began to shake. Various parts of his body began yelling at him, scorching bundles of nerves that indicated the location and general severity of his injuries. His neck was sore, as were his arms and legs. The opening flickers of something like a rope burn began to blaze a diagonal line across his chest. Harlan looked away from the man at his door, detaching his fingers from the wheel as his hands began to shake violently. He stuck the rogue appendages in his armpits, because he didn’t know what else to do with them. Harlan squeezed his arms across his body, aware again of a voice and knocking to his left. He turned to see the man reaching for the door handle.
The man at the window pulled and tugged while Harlan sat there, shuddering. The door proved immovable, jammed, covered by a portion of the car’s frame that should have been two feet forward of its current location.
The knocking returned. Harlan looked again.
“Hey man. Door’s stuck. You ‘kay?”
Harlan understood the words now. He nodded. The man yelled a bit louder.
“Got to get out, man. I smell gas.” The blurred figure pointed to where his nose should be.
Gas? Harlan’s brain shifted focus, ignoring the shakes and kick-starting his sense of smell. Above the faint odors of clean leather and barrel-aged whisky, the unmistakable aroma of gasoline drifted into his consciousness.
Harlan’s eyes shot fully open. He was in a wrecked car that was leaking fuel! Despite a lifetime of professional engineering work, his brain locked onto a single idea. In every action-movie he’d ever watched, this was the moment when the car exploded, blowing whatever poor bastard was trapped inside to hell and gone.
He fumbled for the seatbelt release as his eyes traced around the car. He noted that the electrical system was still functioning as he tried to open the door. He gave it three good shoves as the man outside rapped on the windows.
Nothing. The door wouldn’t move. He looked to the passenger side door as the knocking intensified. All other smells vanished as his mind focused on the threat most likely to incinerate him. Harlan leaned across the center console, working that door handle with an outstretched arm. He could still hear the shadow beating on the window. That angered him. Christ dude, I’m trying to get out!
The passenger door wasn’t working. Harlan tried to think. The beating on the driver’s side window continued, the cadence a timer ticking down to the moment when the car would vaporize with him inside. Harlan turned to yell at the hazy stranger, stopping as he saw was the vague outline of a finger pointing up. The voice came back to him now.
“The roof. Out the roof!”
Harlan looked up. The sunroof! He reached out and mashed the button to send the smoke-colored glass rearward—watching as the last luxury option he’d selected for this car inched open and stopped. Harlan mashed the button again. The glass moved a few more inches and stopped again.
“Come on!” Harlan screeched. “Open, you piece of shit!” He pressed the button again, visions of a fiery death dancing through his mind. The sunroof opened fully, grinding to a halt against the rubber stops.
Harlan struggled upwards into the frozen night, eager to escape the car that had to be burning by now. Never a particularly athletic man, his bruised and battered limbs fought his every effort to extract himself from the wrecked vehicle.
It took four tries before Harlan made it to the roof of his once pristine car. The smell of fuel was stronger out here. Much stronger. That realization panicked Harlan who, forgot where he was. Harlan attempted to stand and run. As soon as the hardened leather soles of his cordovan dress shoes made contact with the slick metal roof of the car, Harlan was thrown off balance.
He landed in a pile on the frozen sidewalk amid the first flakes of snow with the temerity to stick. Despite the sub-zero temperatures of the air and the concrete, he could feel a warmth on his face—a sensation he figured to be road rash from his unceremonious tumble off the wreck.
The wreck! Shit!
Harlan hauled himself up on his hands and knees and worked to scramble away from the car. His irrational brain told him that there could only be mere seconds before the explosion and he needed to put some distance between himself and the mangled two-seater. In his mad, crawling dash, he brushed past the blurry stranger.
Harlan figured he’d traveled a good fifty yards before deeming himself safe. His hands and knees were on fire, the skin on his hands and knees torn away during the crawling escape across hardened concrete. Exhausted and injured, Harlan flopped onto his back and waited for the explosion.
Nothing happened. He listened, confused by the silence. Where was the deafening boom and the roar of a fuel-fired inferno? That shouldv’e happened by now, right? None of that was happening. All he felt was cold and aching. All he heard was an odd zip-zopping shuffling noise that his mind struggled to place until the blurry stranger’s face appeared over him again.
“Shit, man. You ‘kay?”
The man’s face came into focus. It was old and creased, folded and weather-beaten. Wisps of grey hair stuck out at odd angles from what Harlan thought to be at least three different knit caps—the most visible of which was brown and red and…
“Is that Rudolph?”
The creases moved, waves of frozen lava splitting open in a wide grin.
“You fine.” The face pronounced.
A hand was extended. Harlan blinked and took it. The stranger helped him, slowly and gingerly, to a sitting position.
“What happened?” Harlan asked.
The face cocked quizzically in front of Harlan as the stranger squatted down. Harlan looked at him. The man was covered in dirt and appeared to be wearing several layers of clothes. Harlan could make out at least two sweaters, the outer-most one looked like it might have been purple at some point. The stranger was also wearing at least two overcoats—one brown and one orange, both full of holes and poorly patched in places. As Harlan took in the rest of the man in front of him, the stranger spoke.
“Smacked that buildin’. Smacked it good.” The voice, an odd combination of rough English and smooth bass, sounded like a connoisseur of tragedy.
Harlan wasn’t listening. He was focused on the man’s pants. Curiosity got the better of him.
“Are those snow pants?” Harlan hadn’t seen snow pants since childhood, not like these anyway.
The face looked down and back up and cracked into a massive smile again.
“Yep. Don’t make ‘em like this no more. Nope.”
Harlan shook his head, his battered neck reminding him that it was stupid to do so. The stranger spoke again.
“Why’d you jump off the car? Ain’t that much hurry. A man could hurt hisself that way.”
Harlan nodded, forgetting his years of experience in mechanical design. “Smelled gas. Thought the car would explode.”
The wide smile returned, accompanied by a fatherly look that was part disbelief and part amusement. “Cars don’t ‘splode, man. Catch fire maybe. But ‘slpode? Nah.” The stranger shook his head like a disappointed professor. “Hell, man. Your car ain’t even burnin’.”
What? Harlan looked up at the wrecked vehicle. It wasn’t on fire, wasn’t even smoking. It sat, what was left of the front end touching a concrete wall, one headlight—still on—hanging by a cable like a dislocated eye falling out of its socket.
“Can you help me up?” Harlan asked.
Harlan nodded and held up an arm. He was sure. If the car wasn’t on fire, he could get his wallet and cell phone.
A surprisingly strong hand—Harlan hadn’t noticed that before—grasped his and pulled, evenly and slowly as Harlan struggled to stand erect, wobbling like a newborn colt.
As he pulled himself upright, he was assaulted by a violent urge to vomit, a condition exacerbated by a sickening swirling feeling that threatened to tip him right back over onto the frozen pavement. With his arms out, waving and wiggling to counteract the pulling and tugging of gravity from every point on the compass, Harlan couldn’t quite decide whether the sensation was the result of a badly jumbled collection of inner ear bones or the four tumblers of whisky he’d consumed with dinner. And those two at the airport. Plus a couple at that roadside bar. Damn.
Harlan closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths, sucking in lungfuls of icicle-laden air. The whirling inside his body slowed and the watery, pre-puking tension in his mouth eased—not gone, but not nearly as threatening. He opened his eyes and caught the stranger looking at him.
“You gon’ be alright?”
The man shrugged and used the grimy sleeve of his outer-most overcoat to wipe his nose.
“You don’ smell fine.” The man noted. “Smell like you been imbibin’ a bit.”
Harlan turned, briefly angered by the poorly-veiled accusation. The hopeful look on the man’s face shoved the anger back down inside. Harlan shrugged.
“Sorry, man. Fresh out.”
Harlan flashed a wan smile and took a first step, paying close attention to the previously simple mechanics of placing one foot in front of the other.
“Take it easy, my man. You wobblin’ like Smelly Bob.”
Harlan shuffled forward a bit, the stranger on his side like some training wheel for drunks.
“Who’s Smelly Bob?” Even inebriated and injured, Harlan couldn’t not ask about such a moniker.
“A fren’. Betcha wanna know why I call him Smelly Bob.”
Harlan continued his shuffle. Left. Pause. Right. Pause. Repeat. “I can guess.”
“You’d be wrong.” The man noted. “Where you goin’?”
“Back to the car. Wallet and phone.”
Step. Pause. Step. Pause.
“You sure? Still smells like gas.”
Harlan stopped, looked up from his feet. He took in the scene for the first time, sniffing the air as an increasing number of snowflakes fluttered through the air, a collection of crystalline butterflies cavorting in the cold.
In front of him, still more than thirty yards away, what was left of his car laid against the heavy concrete wall of what looked like an old warehouse. As his nostrils pulled in the frozen fresh scent of clean snow and a hint of petroleum vapor, he examined the rest of his surroundings. The building that had demolished his car wasn’t actually a building anymore. He’d collided with the only undamaged wall of an edifice that had clearly been consumed by fire in the recent past. Even in the dark—there was only one flickering streetlight and the light from the car’s eyeball headlight to provide any illumination—Harlan could make out the charred remains of the structure.
To the right, the road Harlan had been using trailed off into the distance, disappearing into nothingness. No lights. No homes. No buildings. Cornfields? Do they have cornfields in December? Is it just a field during the winter? Harlan wasn’t sure. He turned the other way, his neck bitching about the movement.
To his left, past the onlooking face of the stranger, an empty street stretched on into the night, each side of the roadway lined with two-story shops and crumbling stores, the detritus of a mid-twentieth century American small town.
Something was wrong, but Harlan couldn’t quite put his finger on it. He looked right again. Then left. His neck whined. His brain joined as inertia bounced it off of the inside of his skull. What was missing? It hit him. He looked to the stranger.
“Where is everyone?”
“Sheet, man. Ain’t nobody here ‘cept you an’ me. And Smelly Bob.”
“Nope. Just us. And Smelly Bob’s big ass.”
“Where’s Bob?” Harlan couldn’t bring himself to call the man names, not having met him yet.
A shrug. “Home. Drunk. Stinkin’ up the place.”
Harlan resumed his aching shuffle. “Where’s home?”
The man had a booming laugh that startled Harlan, zapping his already twitchy nerves. “Wherever we want. Ain’t no one here. Last decent folk left ‘bout ten years back.”
Harlan was concentrating on his feet again, but the thought dug its way in between the pain and the remnants of the whisky. A ghost town? He briefly considered the matter before his brain lost track of his feet and he began to fall. The vise-like grip of his human training wheel saved Harlan from further damage to his face.
“Thanks. What’s your name?” Harlan hadn’t even though about asking that yet.
“Mom called me Frank. Smelly Bob calls me Fat Tim.”
“And your dad?”
“What do I call you?” Harlan wondered how men like this got these nicknames.
“Whatever you want.”
Harlan began tipping over again. The strong hand of Tim held him up.
“Say man. Want me to get your things?”
Harlan shook his head, his brain recoiling at the idea. The phone was a thirteen-hundred-dollar piece of high-tech gear and his wallet had about five hundred in cash stuffed inside. No way in hell this guy was touching either. “I’ll make it.”
“M’kay man, but you look like hell.”
“Thanks.” Harlan was concentrating too hard to roll his eyes.
Harlan looked up. He’d made it maybe ten more yards. His brain, and the rest of his battered body, was pissed about the events of the past several minutes and positively seething about the need to crawl back inside the car and out again. Harlan set his jaw against the aches and pains led off again with his left foot.
He’d taken two steps, pain coursing through him and the aroma of gasoline overpowering his scuffed-up nose when he felt Tim grab him from behind. Harlan’s brain screamed “robbery” for no reason other than that’s what instinct told him was going to happen.
Beat up as he was, Harlan turned on Tim and swung. The comically slow punch landed on a surprisingly solid shoulder like a fly colliding with a freight train. Tim, startled, let go. Harlan swung again, knocking himself off balance and landing in a heap at Tim’s feet.
“What’s that for?” Tim didn’t look angry, just confused.
Harlan panted, laying helpless on the cold pavement. “Just get it over with.”
“You’re gonna rob me now, right?”
Harlan gestured weakly. “Because.”
“Man, I ain’t gonna rob your drunk ass.” He sounded more hurt than angry.
“What the hell did you grab me for?” Harlan’s voice got loud, surprising only himself.
“Keep you safe.”
“From what.” Now Harlan was confused.
“That.” Tim was pointing. Harlan rolled to his side and lifted his head. At first, he saw nothing. Then, as he watched, he saw an army of pale blue flames licking the underside of his wrecked car. He dropped his face to the asphalt, a fortunate patch of ice cooling the road rash.
“Sorry man. That’sa bum-ass deal.”