Three Views of a Car Crash
The car screams down the undivided highway, a blur of chrome and white as it crosses the half-broken yellow line and passes Alice on her left. “Jesus fuck,” she says. The move is legal, there is no oncoming traffic, and the white car makes it back to its proper lane untouched. Even so, Alice tenses and leans long on her horn as the white car pulls ahead. She looks to the bulbous paper bag on the passenger seat. “Even you wouldn’t drive that badly,” Alice says, “and you’re bread.” She prods at it gently to make sure the loaf within is not going stale in the car’s moist summer heat.
The road undulates, mapped to the shape of hills that have stood for centuries. A sinusoid waveform of some ancient sound. As Alice crests one, a long, sloping view opens before her: glimmering windshields and shadeless tar; brown grass and stunted trees. An entire world beyond the red hood of her car. It’s hard at this remove, she thinks, to remember that there are people in the other cars. That the glimmering forms are more than something to be overcome or feared. They have destinations, wants.
Some distance ahead, the rushing white car is stuck behind an eighteen-wheeler, riding close enough to kiss it. Passage blocked by the double yellow line.
“It would be so simple to dip into the other lane,” Alice tells the bread. “It’s only paint. Flat stripes and the power of suggestion. You can’t even pick them up.” She wonders where the white car is headed in such a hurry. All she can think is that it, too, is going to visit some dying friend. “Except if it were actually that simple, we’d ignore them far more.”
The bag is crumpled sadly around the loaf. Adrian will not accept sympathy and so Alice must bring something else: a gift, bought at a discount from the bakery where she works. Adrian’s legs have been turning to stone, a dark and mottled gray. When she Skyped him last Tuesday, it reached from his toes to just below his knees. Heat poured off the ragged seam between flesh and not and hazed the air. She remembers when it was only a blotch, an innocent island of slate in the middle of his heel.
“So what stops us? What keeps us from crossing over?” The bread has no answer. “Natural impulses, I guess. A reflex against suicide.” As if breaking a spell, the white car zips into the left lane, twenty miles at least above the limit, and slots ahead of the eighteen-wheeler. It disappears as they mount another hill. Alice says, “We think we’ve conquered so much.”
Last month when she visited Adrian, Alice came back at night through the mountains. It had rained all day and as the world cooled down, the densest fog she’d ever seen settled over the pass. Headlights barely illuminated each set of roadside reflectors, ten feet apart. Each new moment seemed it would reveal some horror in the mist, some obstacle that would send her reeling from the road. The fog would not disperse. There was no choice but to crawl on through.
“Ten thousand years of human progress and we have no solution for clouds on the ground.” She laughs. The roadside grass moves in waves, invisible animals seeking some small nourishment in it and finding nothing.
Although she wouldn’t admit so to Adrian, the experience gave her hope. Here and there the Earth stills the rot of human progress. The world scabs over, heals itself, says I will not make this easy for you. Her slow trawl through the fog renewed Alice’s belief that what humans destroy might be regained after they are gone. The same as a tree wrecks a sidewalk; storms unmap the southeast, change the coastline. And now this disease, this curse, turning people—turning Adrian—to stone.
Not that he lets it slow him down. Him, with his Atticus Finch complex. His bed stays stacked high with case files, his wheelchair ever ready to carry him into the world. My clients still need me, he said. I’m going to court until there’s nothing left of me. But even this determination could not hide the fear, the exhaustion. The occasional and secret wish that if death was coming for him, it would hurry the hell up.
Alice cranes her neck, looking for the white car ahead, but it has disappeared. She feels relieved. “It’s hard to believe there’s any order in the chaos of life,” she says. “Like, everything is up to chance. Who lives, who dies.” She prods the bread. It seems certain that this, too, will petrify without warning. “If I hadn’t worn a Modest Mouse shirt the first day of camp ten years ago, I never would have met Adrian. If he hadn’t come up to me in the cafeteria and said ‘Hey, nice shirt,’ I wouldn’t be here now. Wouldn’t know if he went missing from the world.”
The loaf waits, well-ordered.
“Jesus, Alice. Talking to bread. What’s next.” She rubs her forehead with the heel of her hand. Tries not to think of this as practice, as preparation for the end of her longest friendship. The loss of the person who cleaned her house after her father died, who went with her to pick out her cat, who baked with wild yeast in her kitchen when she was broke and starving, making the whole apartment sour-smelling and warm.
“Ten thousand years of human progress,” she says and the car crests the hill.
On the road ahead, two points of light collide. The white car in its lane, smashed by an errant on-comer.
Everything stops. Alice against her seatbelt, bread on the dash. Crumbs over everything.
Alice stares out at the halted rows of red taillights glaring in the bright day. She slams the horn out of instinct. “Jesus fucking fuck—”
Quentin roars past the red car, gives it the finger as it honks. He regrets this immediately. What if the driver calls the police and they catch him and call his parents and he has to explain where he was going and, most importantly, does not get to fuck Maggie Burnside?
Heart doing seven-four time, his mind is too blurred to imagine a single plausible lie should this horror come to pass. He retreats across the yellow line, back to his lane, and hits the cruise control. Feet tapping in time with his heart, trying to calm his nerves.
Checks his phone. No updates from Maggie.
Last message from Quentin: omw
Last message from Maggie: chrissake Q come and fuck me or I’ll find someone who will
Quentin does not know if any part of this is true, or if Maggie is only taunting him. He is determined to find out. This is what summer break is for, he thinks. The freedom to explore new territory, to map new pathways through life while your parents are at work.
Maggie had never shown interest in him until recently. Lathe said her older brother had gone to fight in the resource wars out East and disappeared. Maybe, Quentin thinks, she is looking for a substitute, a new masculine presence.
Does he smell? Should he bring candy? Flowers? Is that the customary gift to bring to one’s first time having sex—is that why they call it deflowering?
Hopefully the sex itself is enough. Quentin has seen enough porn to be pretty sure he will be good at it. The thrusting, the pulling, the gentle slapping and prodding. Quentin flexes his thighs, like Dimbo taught him to do to avoid coming too soon. He’s been practicing this while masturbating.
Quentin honks his horn. The eighteen-wheeler before him continues its even pace. The left lane is filled with an almost endless stream of traffic. In the narrow gap between his car and the truck, something round and dark sits in the road and he slams his brakes, worried that it is a turtle or a cat or something. It is only a cluster of leaves; Quentin accelerates, catches up again to the truck. He taps his feet, checks his phone. Nothing.
The Maggie of his mind is a series of soft swells, a mass of auburn hair. A single dimple when she smiles. Last weekend they stood on the footbridge, the river sparkling and endless before them, and she put her arm around his waist, whispered,’ Jump you fucking pussy. Dimbo and Lathe and Vikki and Weeps all bobbed in the water below. He’d watched them fall, seen how they were suspended right above the water. The boys kicked at one another or tried to splash the girls until the magic faded and they fell into the wet. He hadn’t been able to join them, hadn’t given himself over to falling, to fearlessness.
And so Maggie fucking Burnside stood beside him, kitted out in her black suit with white polka dots, twenty nails lavender and gleaming. The boys acted like they weren’t staring at the girls, like they weren’t memorizing the places where bathing suit matched the territory of their bodies, guessing at how those hidden places looked when uncovered. Quentin wondered why he never caught the girls looking—if it was because they didn’t, or because they were so much better at disguising it.
Even if you don’t stop, the water’s deep enough, Maggie said.
Does that happen? The rusted railing was rough and hot beneath Quentin’s feet. He swallowed. Would his be the lone body whose fall this mysterious power did not stop? By speaking his secret worry, she’d made it seem more certain.
Fuck’s sake, Quentin, did you hear what I just said? Maggie did not wait for a response. She sailor-dived off the railing. He barely kept from crying out as he watched her fall headlong toward the river. He was certain she would vanish, leaving only a bloom of blood on the water.
But she slowed, slowed, stopped. She hung perfectly in mid-air—heels over head, a foot and a half above the water. Dimbo whooped, Nice rack, Maggie, and Weeps smacked him in the neck.
For thirty seconds, Maggie was suspended there. Gradually her painted toes gave way to gravity, her tired legs curling forward. Her body bent waterward until she was submerged to the knees. Whatever had held her yielded to the natural way of things, and she splashed down, came up bright and laughing.
No one knew why the river did this; none of them cared.
Still standing on the railing, Quentin felt the dry heat of the boards behind him, the eyes of his friends and the girls below. Terrified, yes. In awe that one could willingly abandon one’s body to the void.
His car rolls on toward Maggie and oncoming traffic peters out. Yellow lines open to black. Quentin swoops around the eighteen-wheeler, flits by like a thief in the night.
This awe, he reasons, is what he likes so much about her. Her willingness to commit the unfathomable. The tricks she does on the cafeteria patio with that knife her brother gave her, how she sleights it away when a teacher walks by. Or that time at summer’s start, when they found a turtle with a transparent shell on the riverbank. Spine and tiny organs visible within. Its mouth half-gasping at the humid air. Tears brooking in Quentin’s eyes and all others frozen except Maggie, who picked it up and put it in the water to survive or die. Rubbing her fingertips where they’d touched its shell. It’s plastic, she said, and frowned, and no one said anything else.
Before him, the hill-shaped road is wide open and full of possibility. How will it feel different to be in the world a non-virgin? Will he no longer hesitate to jump, to make silver blades dance in the air, to touch the dying?
He imagines the conversations he will have with Lathe and Dimbo when next they skate at the abandoned mall, swapping sex techniques as they slalom around blacktop broken by new grass and old garbage. Being inside another person must be like a new knowledge of reality. The body’s porousness more deeply understood. Double lines breaking open, invisible things passed back and forth.
The world rushes by on all sides. The white hood of his car glows in the light of afternoon. The engine’s roar. His heart.
The water had spread before him, wavelets rising in their own rhythm. A sky-toned ribbon pricked with light where it changed. Five glittering heads below. A wall between him and them. Jump you fucking jerk, Maggie yelled. She smiled. Quentin toed the emptiness that blanketed the world.
Everyone chanted, even Weeps. Jump! Jump! Jump!
Quentin wondered if he was like a toy for Maggie. A doll to make do things because she could. A way to exert some modicum of control. He tilted forward. It doesn’t want us, he thought as he fell. The river—
Timothy looks so pale and frightened in the seat beside her that Blair nearly turns the car around. The damp rope around his wrists would bring her to tears were she not the one who tied it. She faces him and the road and him again. In the implacable light of day she sees the shadow beneath his shirt and her hands tighten on the wheel, as close to fists as they can come.
“Mommy,” Timothy says. His voice the smallest thing in the world. “I’m scared.”
“It’s going to be okay, sweetie.” Blair speeds ahead, short-stops ten feet from a car going the limit. “You trust me, don’t you?” She eyes him sideways. This is the worst of it: not knowing when he’s telling the truth, and when the thing is manipulating her.
Doctors had done nothing. Priests, rabbis, and mullahs all useless. Crystalworkers, salt circles, apothecaries, holy water all applied to no avail. This metallurgic healer in the city is the final hope. If this does not work, Blair has no idea what she will do.
A leg pokes from the corner of Timothy’s shirt. Tapered and dark. She turns to look more closely and it disappears beneath her glare.
“I want Daddy,” Timothy whines.
“He’ll be back soon, love.” David is on another of his back-to-back long hauls. “He’ll be back so soon, and you’ll feel better, and we’ll all go camping again. You’d like that, right?” Her husband had only ever responded to Timothy’s condition with mute horror, holding his son tight between his hands and at arm’s length. David won’t let her tell him about the doctor’s appointments, the online forums, the ribbons of horsehair meant to tether their son to his body. Blair tries not to blame David for his desire to disappear, to avoid it all until it is over.
And at least he’s working. They need the money. The farm has been a disaster since Blair’s mother died. And she wonders if this is actually what scares her most: that she will solve this problem and suddenly be confronted with a dozen other, longer-standing problems.
Blair kept notes on all her mother’s farming wisdom: crop rotation, soil chemistry, fertilizer types. Even so, everything she grew died. Corn stalks grew stubby and withered, blueberries rotted to purple pustules on their bushes. Zucchini strangled the garden and soured, insects bursting from them like alien invaders. The land carried none of its old abundance, none of the fat and gem-colored crops of her youth.
Something in the land had changed. David made non-committal hmmph noises when she suggested this, so she said, What, you think it’s me? I’m just useless?
No, that’s not it. He did not offer an alternative.
It’s not like I’m failing on purpose.
Whatever the reason, it needs to change. I need you to pull your weight. His teeth gritted, stage-whispering so as not to wake Timothy. That was when the back-to-back hauls began.
Hills rise and fall. Blair watches the cars ahead, orderly and constant on either side of the undivided road. She should have taken the interstate—there would have been more lanes, a greater range of motion. She should not have taken so long to find this healer in the city, this woman who claims to know what the thing inside Tim is. Who promises to pierce it with beads of neodymium, to bind it in a golden jar. But there’s nothing she can do about that now.
It began with a storm. David was gone then too. Sheets of rain made a broken, muddy mirror of the farm and Blair thought Maybe it’ll wash everything away. Maybe we can start again. They had insurance, after all. Timothy sat in the living room, building a tower of LEGO he said would reach the sky. She watched the quiet sureness of his hands, the way he held plastic humans and mimed them helping each other in its construction, and she felt something like hope.
Her complacency with destruction did not last long. Whether the crops lived or died, this had always been her home. Her earliest memories were of golden sunlight between its rows of corn. Putting her heels to the closet door so her mother could mark her height. The ditch she’d lain in with David at prom night’s end, drunk and counting the stars. This land her family had worked for decades.
Blair told Tim he could watch TV while she sandbagged the house. If her mother were still around, she could play Scrabble or Double Solitaire with him, soothe him when he cried and teach him the uses and names of herbs. But the TV would have to do.
After dragging out half a dozen bags, she could tell it was useless. Water slipped through any barrier she made, eked through the cracks and collected in invisible pathways through the grass. A small stream that rushed toward the house. When she came inside, the TV played to an empty room. She shut it off. She ought to have looked for him, she knew even then, but he’s seven, and timid—he never so much as set a toe in the road without asking permission. Blair was muddy and cold and desperate for a bath. And so she left things.
It wasn’t until she was clean that she found Timothy. The basement door hung open, a sharp darkness between it and its jamb. “Tim?” she called out. No answer. She grabbed a flashlight from the closet and raced down.
The bottom of the steps and floor beyond were swallowed by black water. Blair’s light played across the surface, revealing ancient Nat Geos and cardboard waiting to be recycled, now soaked to disintegration. There bobbed bottles of purified water, canned beans and empty propane tanks. Detritus of David’s apocalypse prepping, things she’d teased him about when they first started dating. It seemed so sad, so easily borne away.
Tim, she said. Come on out of there. He splashed through it all in waterwings, otherwise naked, pale skin shining in the sweeping light. A baby beluga with a dark crown of hair. C’mon, Timbo. Blair’s laughter belied fright. Who knew what those depths held? Poison snakes, rusted nails. Let’s get you dry, baby. Come on out.
A voice his in timbre but not in tone: Make me, you cunt.
Timothy. Had he been closer, she would have slapped him. Where did you learn a thing like that? Adrenaline spread coolly through her. Was it something David might have said in his presence? She couldn’t think. Timothy splashed around a few minutes more, undisturbed by the punishments she promised. And then, without further prompting, he came to her on the stairs, eyes wide and happy.
Something—a leaf?—stuck to his chest. Blair rattled off admonishments as she led him upstairs. It wasn’t until she tried to clean the thing off his chest that she saw it clearly: a fist-sized hole, black and bloodless. The flashlight revealed nothing in its depths.
Now, Timothy looks out the window, eyes tracing the daytime moon between dead trees and telephone poles. Not even six months ago he asked her how it was the moon followed them in the car, how it remained fixed in view even as they moved so fast.
“The ropes hurt, Mommy.”
“I know, love. But they keep you safe.” The lavender-soaked rope was a forum remedy—to reduce the chances of the thing coming out.
The car ahead turns onto a side road and Blair accelerates. She breathes deep, forces herself to slow. What would the cops think if they pulled her over? What would Tim say to them? Blair pictures her son taken from her: the untreated shadow growing within him, gnawing away whatever remains. Of course, if this happened, it would no longer be her problem to deal with. She quashes the thought.
As days passed, the hole had not widened or healed. Timothy was not the first person this had happened to, though. Loved ones of the afflicted found each other in quiet corners of the internet, offering tips to keep the hole from infection or itching. Blair found chatrooms for the occult, forums for strange scourges: people turning to stone or trees growing from their mouths or glass blades rising from their lawns. She devoured a Lovecraft scholar’s blog. Anything that seemed it might offer some solution. But nothing helped. Doctors asked her if she knew what Munchausen-by-proxy was. The ragged hole waited, an unblinking eye.
There were hints of darker things, too. Sentences that trailed off, unable to bear describing something. Locked pages and private messages. Whatever Blair was able to glean from them, she assumed that it was not her problem. It was only a hole, she thought. The body knew how to heal itself.
The first time the thing had crawled free, Timothy woke her in the middle of the night, shivering. “I’m cold,” he said. “I’m really cold, Mommy.” She’d brought him into her bed, secretly glad to have him there, though she knew David thought it would emotionally stunt the boy. Earlier that night Tim had yelled at her, called her a stupid bitch and asked why his father wasn’t home. He smashed a plate. Blair hadn’t known what to do—she thought she’d have seven or eight years to prepare for her son to treat her like this.
And then in her bed he was so small and soft and his hair smelled like warm milk. His body lost its tension under her hands. In the hall there was a scrabbling noise. Blair assumed it was mice.
The next day she saw it. Black legs and carapace, a piece of animate night the size of a cat standing in the middle of the living room. It chattered across the floor. Blair threw a phonebook at it and it scurried up the wall, onto the ceiling, twisting like a cloud of gnats. She stabbed at it with a broom handle—again, again; it dodged each thrust. The thing scuttled to Timothy’s room. He sat before a LEGO gallows and did not react as the thing climbed beneath his shirt and disappeared back into his chest.
She tore through the basement muck, the dented cans and sopping magazines, searching any sign of the creature’s origin and found nothing. Online, she was welcomed into the private forums, the group chats. No one there had any ideas either. Similar things had appeared out of leaf piles, beaches, quarries, old railroads.
Blair watches the other cars’ leisurely passage down the country highway. Shadowy outlines of heads bobbing in time with the music. She watches the oncoming lane, daring a car to appear, and when none does she drifts across the line, accelerates. Timothy says “You’re a real sick fuck, aren’t you Mommy?”
“Shut up.” She pushes on the gas pedal and the pedal pushes back.
“Husband never home so you bring your boy into your bed. You’re a monster, Blair. You’re a cancer of a human being.”
Blair insists to herself that it does not understand her, that it only knows how to hurt her because anyone would be hurt by this. Two black legs tug at Tim’s collar. Waving, taunting.
One night she woke to find Timothy climbing through a second-story window, teetering above the too-solid ground below. One night she sat in bed holding David’s pistol, wondering if a bullet could pierce the thing’s shell, and what would happen if it did. She bought new locks for the windows. She put the gun away, thankful that David was not there to insist on its use.
Every day she tried to treat Timothy with love and every day she failed. This was another thing that scared her—the fear that it was not always the thing inside him that made him call her a cunt, knock over furniture, break David’s guitar in half. That, some days, she could not tell who the words belonged to.
“It’ll all be over soon,” she says. She drifts to the right as she sees another car coming toward her.
Tim rubs his eyes with his bound hands. “Mommy, I’m so tired.”
“Take a nap, sweetie.”
“Tired of you being such a stupid slut.”
“Oh, get some original material you piece of shit.” Blair stares straight ahead, though she knows the thing can see the tears in her eyes. She adds, weakly, “The Exorcist came out like fifty years ago, for fuck’s sake.”
Tim wails. Fat tears trail down his face, glistening with sunlight. “Hey, love.” She reaches for him, rests a hand on the back of his neck. “It’s okay. It’s okay, I’m sorry.” She does not care if this is a trick.
She thinks of the change in his voice when the thing takes over, the ineffable shift in something beyond pitch or volume. A sharpening, a hardening. A guitar string plucked severely, snapping against the neck that holds it taut. Blair thinks of the night in the mountains he’d been conceived. David had played Leonard Cohen songs on his guitar and danced with her beside the fire and it seemed all the world was only this.
When she wakes in the hospital, Blair will tell herself she did not see the dark limbs come out, that she was too focused on the road. She will tell herself that she was scrutinizing the face of the boy driving toward her, his quiet strain and desperation clear even at a distance. She will say, when asked, that the smooth, sharp legs pinned her through the wrist to her son—two others fast upon the steering wheel jerking it sharply left. A vast darkness filling the windshield, then silence.
Some days Blair will feel relief that the police have not found Timothy; most, she will feel despair. In the courtroom where she’s called on to account for things she did or did not do, she will see the parents of the other boy, photos of his mangled white car. Blair will not admit that she is envious of the unambiguous, simple familiarity of their loss. She will watch their lawyer, propped and sweating in his wheelchair, and note the small gray gap of stone flesh between his socks and slacks. She will wonder if he, too, knows the abyss of the message boards and chatrooms, and why he doesn’t seem to believe her.
She will miss her mother. Will miss being Timothy’s age, able to climb into a warm bed and feel nothing but uncomplicated comfort and love. Will wish every day that her mother had told her that the world could hurt like this.
But for now, Blair is racing toward the city, toward hope. The child who is both her son and not, who is both a boy and something else, sits beside her, reeking of lavender and crying. “I love you, Timothy,” she says through gritted teeth. And again, louder and less convincing: “I love you.”
Jeremy Packert Burke is a graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop and an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama. They’ve had work in, or forthcoming from, Tor.com, the Indiana Review, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Quarterly West, The Adroit Journal, and other places. They exist on Twitter @jempburke and on the regular internet at jeremypackertburke.com.