“The Last Italian Tune-Up, Part One: See Jane…”: (Version 2.00.0)

I’ve screwed around with this story so much- sooo much. But now I think I finally have it right.

I’ve made it richer, made it darker. The main character went from being a relatively flat, hapless housewife who’s had something terrible happen to her, to being a tortured, regret-filled woman with a barely-hidden mean streak- who’s also had something terrible happen to her, but whose reaction to that “something terrible”, as well as how that reaction has manifested itself (after my near-endless fiddling with her character), now (I hope) seems all the more ominous. Likewise, the stakes are now higher.

If you give this one a read, I’d love to hear what you, the Reader think of it. Especially as it’s still very much subject to further revision, and as a “Part One”, also has a lot to set up, with the aim of hopefully making the Reader want to go for a “Part Two”.

THE LAST ITALIAN TUNE-UP

By Joseph Jacovelli

Jane Mattheson steps from the front door of Atlas House at exactly seven A.M. The world that greets her stands absolutely silent and still.

As usual.

But she listens to it anyway, and does her usual careful scan of the bright green landscape which now lies, panoramic, before her. Just in case.

Because as she always tells herself-

You never know.

Today, however… She holds her breath and listens for a few seconds more, then does one last sweep of the distant hills. An array of five tall, spindly, white wind turbines stand atop the furthest. Only one of them is spinning this morning, very slowly and without purpose, against the deep blue sky. On the nearest hill, a blue speck, which she knows is a tractor, sits motionless amidst a field. The tractor had been mowing or harvesting or something. She can still see the faint shift of color which marks its progress. About two thirds of the way down, the green goes from light to dark.

But beyond that… She strains her ears for just a moment longer. 

Nothing.

So, she makes her way quietly down the front porch steps. Then she pads along the short, flower-lined walkway which cuts across the overgrown front lawn, toward the semi-circular strip of weathered asphalt which passes for Atlas’ “driveway”.

There, she clips a small Garmin GPS to her waistband. The fastener makes a loud CLICK-sound. Then she takes a deep breath, presses the “POWER” button, and hopes for the best.

The device chimes: SEARCHING…

That done, she starts her stretches.

Walking Lunge: Ten of them. And go…

Kneeling Hip Flexor: Five… Aaand switch…

Side Stretches: Two breaths… And switch…

Dynamic Pigeon Pose-

(My GOD, that’s such a stupid, stupid name.)

She half-groans, half-growls to herself. …DYNAMIC! PIGEON! POSE…! Two… And switch… And two…

Hip Flexor Stre-

BEEP-BEEP-BEEP

It’s the Garmin. She looks down at it.

LOST SATELLITE RECEPTION

She sighs. She’d been thinking that the GPS was finally starting to fail, and she decides on that morning that she’d been right. Over the past nine days the device had begun finding fewer and fewer satellites. At least until three days ago, when it hadn’t been able to find any.

And every day since, she’s gotten only the three flat-sounding beeps.

At first, she’d kept taking the Garmin along, hoping it might start working again, but today she puts it down on the edge of the driveway. There’s no sense in carrying the extra weight, and really, the GPS didn’t do anything that she can’t already do with her own brain and the taped-up, marked up and by now very dog-eared AAA road map that she keeps in her pack.

The Garmin was running on borrowed time, anyway.

(Just like you?)

Jane sighs.

“Are we already doing this? So early in the day?”

(Apparently. Although I still fail to see the point in what you are doing.)

Jane sighs again.

(What? You still think that maybe one of these days I’ll just go away? As if it’s that simple? Oh Janey- yes, you get up every morning and you listen and then you run and you run and you run… but do you ever really look around? Haven’t you seen it? Yet? We are completely, totally-)

This time Jane growls. “How many times do I have to tell you? I’m not listening to you anymore. The Garmin was running on borrowed time, and I knew it, because it pounded through batteries-”

Hip Flexor Stretch… Ten of them.

“Even with the “Baud” rate set to its absolute minimum, the thing still ate batteries. If it hadn’t been for Jack’s paranoid insistence on having a shit-ton of them in the house, it already would’ve-”

(But how are your batteries, Janey? You’ve also been pounding through-)

“Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! SHUT UP! Just for today? Please? Jesus, you know, you used to be so helpful, but now… now you’re just like…”She points at the GPS. “-that! You’re worse, really, because at least that has an excuse! But you? Nothing’s wrong with you. Not really. The only thing wrong with you is that you’re a suicidal bitch.”

(No, I am NOT useless, and I’m not suicidal; I’m just being logical. The way you wanted me to be. The same as I’ve always-)

At least she still has her watch, and all that needs in order to work is the sun-

(No! You will listen to me dammit! That’s why we’re in this mess now; you don’t listen anymore. But you’re gonna listen to me now: I’m the same as I’ve always been. But you? Shit, sweetheart, let’s face it… You’re delusional.)

“Says who, again?”

(Says the one who-)

-or movement? Maybe it’s movement that keeps the watch working. She doesn’t really know.

(Fine! Go ahead. Tune me out. Again. I know where you live. Down in your hole…)

The watch had been a present from Jack, and all he’d told her about it at the time was that she’d never need to wind it, because, as the little letters on its face proclaim, and as Jack had once proclaimed to her

“It’s an Eco-Drive!”

Jack had said the words with a kind of excited grandiosity, as if they meant something magical. Which they very well could, for all she knows, because-

(“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” -Arthur C. Clarke’s “Third Law”, “Hazards of Prophecy”, Nineteen Seventy-Three.)

“I know; I read it.”

(Oh, really?)

“Second bookcase from the left, third shelf down, eighth from the right. Between The Things We Carried by Tim O’Brien and good ol’ Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan.”

(Hmm. I thought I read that one. Although sometimes… you do cheat. Copycat.)

“Whatever. They’re still my eyes, and-”

(For now. Although I’m still counting on you seeing things my way sooner or later. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe even today. When you finally realize what a-)

In any case, whatever it is that good old, semi-magical “Eco-Drive” runs on: sun, motion, magic, fucking… happy-thoughts; hopefully it will keep running.

(Yeah, “hopefully”. Right? That’s you! Hope, hope, hope!)

She doesn’t know how she’d get along without knowing the time. It’s one of the few things she has left, and her watch is one of only two devices (that she knows of, anyway) still keeping track of it. The generators have run out of fuel. All four of the electric clocks on Level 2 now hang frozen at 3:02, 4:02, 12:02 and 10:02, respectively. And since the other four on Level 1 have been dead for way longer than that…

(The grandfather clock?)

“Yes.” She replies without even realizing, her voice toneless.

(Oh Jesus. Don’t bother…)

Jane suddenly straightens, incredulous. “The hell do you mean? Don’t bother?”

(Never mind. Keep it up. You’re doing great.)

She’ll have to be extra-careful with the grandfather now. Because although it only needs to be wound once a week, and although she already makes sure to wind it every day, carefully pulling the long brass chains that hoist the drive weights, she knows that if she should forget to wind it for too many days, or someday can’t get back to Atlas House for some reason, or maybe somehow gets hurt badly enough that she just can’t wind it, just one time…

Speaking of time… She looks at her wrist. Shit! 7:06.

(Uh, oh! You’re running late! For what? Who knows! But you are…)

She gives Atlas House a final look, then sets out down the driveway.

From there she runs past the blue and white Cessna. Then across the near end of the runway, and down the empty gravel access road that lies adjacent to it. Past the far end of the runway, where the scorched remains of Maleficent’s immense green tail jut out at an awkward angle from the savage gap she’d left in the tree line beyond. The smoke has died down, Jane realizes. Hopefully the fire has finally burned itself out. She never would have thought that a fire could burn for so long.  

Then she runs past the three graves—none of which she spares a glance; she is still too angry—then further on down the access road, toward the main.

Yet again.

***

Two minutes, and a quarter mile later, she reaches the main road.

There she checks her pulse. She should stop running while she does this, but…

One-fifty.

(Wow, one-fifty! That’s excellent! We’re really kicking ass lately!)

There’s a note of sarcasm in the voice, but what it says is true. In fact, one-fifty is the best Jane’s ever seen. Her breathing too, is still slow and steady.

(Too bad none of it really mat-)

The weather is definitely helping. It’s been so nice the last few mornings: the air feels cool, the way one would expect a late summer morning to feel, and the humidity finally seems to be decreasing too. She likes it.

The morning’s only apparent blemish is a low-hanging fog which seems to come out of nowhere. She notices it just as the road carries her through another tree line, into the backside of the same woods that border the runway. Ordinarily, she’d be able to see the smashed remains of Maleficent’s nose through the trees from here, but…

Not today. The fog starts about a hundred feet beyond the tree line. It builds gradually at first, grey tendrils creeping around the bases of the trees, but then suddenly stacks higher and thicker, cutting visibility to less than an eighth of a mile.

That she doesn’t like, because it also blocks her view of the sky and the horizon. The next mile of the main road takes an especially circuitous route through the woods too, which she knows will only compound the fog’s effect.

Although really, what does it matter? If anything should come sliding along the sky from that horizon, she knows, she won’t be able to outrun it. Not even now, after all this time. She’s been training for endurance, not speed.

So she just runs on. Twisting road and trees emerge from the fog one stride at a time. She passes them, almost noiseless, like a somehow-still-breathing ghost.

Her body is a tightly wrapped package that runs quiet and smooth. What little clothing she wears anymore is made of slick, skin-tight Spandex, while the soft soles of her sneakers completely absorb the sound of each footfall. Even her hair is coiled in a hard knot behind her head, and she keeps what little weight she carries strapped close to her belly in a zippered pack, so that neither will bounce.

Anything that can bounce is called “unsprung weight”. She’d learned the term ten weeks ago while leafing through one of her husband’s old car-magazines. Apparently unsprung weight had once been the enemy of the world’s faster cars, because it effectively stole energy that was supposed to propel them forward and then pissed it away in miscellaneous other wasteful directions.

As she’d read the article, her mind began to apply what she learned to her running. Unsprung weight became her enemy too.

But fighting that enemy, it turned out, would require sacrifice.

At the time, she’d been running with her son’s backpack strapped to her shoulders. She’d thought the pack a good idea, even though it did flop a bit, and so she’d been reluctant to give it up.

She also has to admit, she’d been taking the pack with her because, well… it was her son’s, and thus had of course been reluctant to leave it behind for the same reason.

Still however, one day she’d tried going without it, and had been unable to deny the improvement in her time.

That little discovery had taught her several things: about waste, about unnecessary attachment to objects, about emotion. She’d realized that they are all a kind of unsprung weight; all of them wasted energy, energy that she now knows she needs to preserve. If she wants to reach her goal.

And nothing, she’s concluded, can be allowed to prevent that. The goal is everything.

So now her son’s backpack hangs in his closet back at Atlas House, and what little she still takes with her is kept cinched so tight that it feels like a part of her own body. While her memories: of her son, of her husband, of her daughter, all stay back at the house as well.

Leaving them behind lightens her in much the same way that leaving the pack had. Oh, she’d been sad at first- until she’d also realized her sadness for the weight that it was. Then, even her sadness got left behind.

Now she focuses only on running.

She’s been at it for just a hundred and seven days, but her progress pleases her. Right along with the weight of her memories, she’s also shed pound after excess pound from her frame, and she still grows leaner every day. It’s gotten to the point that the body she now sees in the mirror hardly resembles anything she’s ever known, even in her high school years.

She looks pretty damned good, she thinks.

The scars are still there, of course, and they still don’t look very nice—in all honesty, the weight loss has actually made them look a little bit worse—but the trade-off is more than acceptable. And really, in the spots where they cut through her tattoos, even her scars somehow look good, almost sexy. In a way, at least. Mostly because they give her body character. A sort of, “been there, done that” character.

Her scars. “Rub marks on the fenders”, Jack might have called them. As if she were some kind of human race car, and her scars evidence of some hard-fought race.

(But where’s the finish li-)

Of course, he never would have thought that before. No. Before, he’d regarded her scars as more like parking lot dings on a lease car. Unfortunate evidence that she’d once done something stupid and had to pay for it.

She recalls that time outside the Sam’s Club in Whitley. What he’d said.

“Oh, c’mon Janey, you know damn well why I park this far out, sweetheart.”

Yes. He’d parked them out there at the end of the lot for the same reason that he’d made her move out here, to the foothills of nowhere.

“To be away from all these other assholes” he’d said, sweeping his hand around at the more closely parked cars. “Because the last time I parked next to somebody, I came back to a dent and a Post-it note that just said “Sorry”.

That, and because he just didn’t like being near people in general. Which still amazes her to this day; a guy in his profession, not liking people.

That’s not the reason why she remembers that little exchange, however. She remembers it because of what he’d said next.

“Besides, you look like you could use the exercise.”

And because of what she’d done after that. The thing she’d once told herself she’d never do.

“Ah, dammit Janey. Wait, honey please, come back.” Although he hadn’t come after her. No, he’d just stood there, as if her coming back to him was a given, for no other reason than because he’d asked. And why not? That’s what he did at work. He would ask for something, and then, without even looking, just hold out his hand. Then that something would be given to him, slapped into his hand with an assuring mechanical precision. And that was what she did with him too. He asked her for something, and she always gave him exactly what he wanted.

But that day, when she’d just kept on walking, further and further away, he’d finally come after her. “I’m sorry hon. Look, it was just a long shift. We had this fucking wagon train of medevacs come in just after midnight. Brought us three- well, more like two-and-a-half kids from out on Glenn Rock. And I tried- shit did I try, but by the time I punched out there were only two. The other one… her pelvis- shit, everything south of her bellybutton was just obliterated. Her boyfriend had a ’68, maybe ‘69 Barracuda- nice one, according to the EMT, or at least it used to be. But Jesus, old cars can be such death traps. Fucking engine ripped loose and came back into-

Oh c’mon Janey-” He’d caught up with her by then, but she’d still kept on walking.So, he’d kept on talking. And he’d tried to change the subject too, of course. “They need to put more troopers on that fucking road.” Until finally, he’d put his hand on her shoulder, “Look, I’m sorry,” and she’d finally stopped. “I really didn’t mean it.”

Except he had meant it, and worse, he’d been right. About her weight, and its implications. Just as her other, “official” doctor had also been right about it just a week before, when he’d reminded her too, albeit more gently. And not just because she’d gotten more than a little “round at the edges” again, but because both men could sense in their own ways that she’d been slipping.

Not now though. Now she’s lean and mean, in both her body and her mind.

(Yeah.)

Exercise.

Well, she’s gotten plenty of that by now. She thinks again of her naked body in the mirror: all ropey muscle and sinew. And yes, scars. Her rub marks. What would Jack think of them today?

He certainly wouldn’t have anything else physical to complain about anymore. The last few months have at least done that one favor for her. Oh, she might be a little shaggy in some places. Electric razors are a thing of the past now, and her last Lady Schick finally gave up the ghost a few weeks ago. The rest of her, however, is clean-cut and sharp. As the song went: she used to be a wad of cookie dough, but now she’s carved out of wood.

No, that was from a movie. Oh, what the Hell movie was that from?

(Don’t ask me…)

“I didn’t.”

She can’t recall and soon stops trying. Movies too are a thing of the past.

Which is no loss; they’d been a time waster anyway. And time-

Oh time.

(Time, time, time! See what’s become of-)

Time, she has come to realize, is much better spent like this: running, in quiet solitude, without distraction.

It still amazes her how difficult it had been, in the beginning, closing her mind to all but the cadence of her footfalls and the contemplation of a single thought. Now though, now it feels like second nature. Now it feels comforting. Her mind can range in tight but idle circles around her head while her running body gets, as her husband had called it, the “Italian Tune-up”.

He’d loved that expression. Although his version of the concept hadn’t exactly been the same as hers. His version had been to run the shit out of his old Chevelle. It kept the valves clean, he’d once told her.

Which was bullshit, of course. If anything, maybe those little hot-rodding sessions had kept his valves clean, but they’d mostly just been an excuse to go out once in a while and act like the nineteen-year-old boy he’d been when they’d met. A chance to drop all the worry, and the responsibility and the weight, lose the memories, and just go have some good ol’ innocent fun.

Hadn’t the runway been one of Atlas’ key selling-points? At least for Jack. Partly, sure, because he had the Cessna, (another great way to go be alone for a while), but mostly because he’d realized that the runway would double nicely as an impromptu dragstrip. And how many of his hotshot doctor-buddies, with their hopped-up Porsches and their “Ludicrous Speed” Teslas, could say they had one of those? Never mind the rest of Atlas House’s unique… characteristics.

Still, the basic concept behind both exercises is the same: occasionally running something reasonably hard somehow keeps it healthier than just letting it always sit at rest. And if said healthy exercise happens to be enjoyable? So much the better.

God, if only she knew where that Chevelle was now.

She wonders, for maybe the thousandth time, if it is still healthy.

It probably isn’t though. She’s come to accept that idea as fact. One day, she knows, she’ll find it somewhere, smashed up and dead from that one, last tune-up that hadn’t gone as planned.

Or maybe she’ll just find it sitting there on the side of the road, having long ago coasted, horribly empty, to a stop. She just doesn’t know. Maybe she’ll even finally find Jack and the kids with it.

She doubts that though.

And really, she hopes she won’t. That would be too much. Seeing them, like… that.

God damn Jack; the kids had always loved to go out on those rides. So much so, that she sometimes feels like he’d stolen them with that car.

Because in a way, he had.

Or had he saved them? After all, she’d barely managed to save herself, and no matter how many times she replays that day’s events in her mind, she can never envision a scenario in which they all manage to make it together. Things had just been too close, too chaotic, and too… frankly, accidental. No, only one of them- maybe two, might have made it.

Not Jack. That’s certain. Not with his leg.

(Or maybe if you hadn’t pussied out at the last minute. And let him take them for that one last ride, before-)

And not her, certainly. The only reason she’s alive is because on that day she’d been home alone. Otherwise, the big door and the stairs and the tunnel would have acted like a bottleneck, and since she of course would have made sure the kids went first, would have shoved them through the doors and down the stairs and then, if she’d still been alive by then, screamed at them to just run God run and don’t look back!

But which of her children might have made it? Which would have lived (maybe)? Which would have…

And even then, after that? What would they have done? All by themselves? They were- are still kids, after all.

So maybe they’d fared better with their father. Maybe they’d all somehow been able to-

To what? She just doesn’t know.

All she does know is that one day Jack and the kids went out for one of his God-damned, stupid, fucking “tune-ups”. When he should have been home, with her. They’d roared off in a cloud of tire smoke, probably blasting that stupid Kenny Loggins song they’d always listened to, laughing and having a good ol’ time.

But then the world changed, and they never came home.

(And you missed your chance.)

Jane is finally breathing harder now. “I missed several.”

***

Fewer and fewer trees emerge from the fog. She is getting clear of the woods.

Also falling behind her now is the cluster of three houses that sit on the corner at the end of the access road. The Harmon place is really starting to fall apart. When she’d run past it a few minutes earlier, she’d noticed that, overnight, one of the gutters on the sharply angled, brown and white Tudor house had somehow come loose, and was now hanging askew. Almost like a loose lock of hair. Which gave the already severe-looking house a sort of angry, I was a nice, middle class home… This shit shouldn’t be happening to me, sort of look.

How long, she wonders idly, will it take for the entire thing to go? Not in her lifetime-

(That’s for sure.)

All it probably will do is grow more and more decrepit. Along with all of the other things she has neither the ability nor the desire to maintain.

(Is no my yob mayn… SNICKER)

She thinks briefly of burning the house down instead. Just to get the process over with. To save her the daily depression of watching it rot slowly.

(There! That’s the spirit!)

“And I suppose you’ll want me to hang out inside while it goes?” She asks the question between carefully paced breaths. “Wouldn’t that defeat the purpose?”

But her rebuke goes unanswered.

Unless of course she chooses to consider the very conspicuous silence to be an answer in itself. Which it very well may be. She’s used the tactic herself more than once. Typically, on Jack. And the voice had to have learned it from somewhere. So…

She supposes then, that this sudden non-response is meant as some petty form of retaliation, this time for her sarcasm. Yes, that’s it. And it’s definitely her; she’d been doing that to Jack too, especially toward the end.

Because he’d deserved it.

How odd it feels though, now, to have the tables turned like this. To have the same cheap trick pulled on her, by-

Well… her.

Although-

“Whatever…”

-petty is all the non-response is, and all it can be. Because as both she and the voice (which wants its own name she knows, a name like Krissy or Karly or some other mischievous-sounding moniker, but which she refuses to give to it, because to do so will be the last step toward acknowledging it) both know, silence doesn’t bother her anymore. She’s gotten used to it, in much the same way that she’s gotten used to hearing herself talk to no one at all. Not as quickly as she would have liked, but she has.

(Bitch…)

“Oh yeah, good one…”

She crests the top of a gentle hill. There the road flattens out and stretches for a quarter mile towards, she can’t see it yet in the fog, but it’s definitely there, an intersection.

At the intersection the road will break off in three directions: left, right and straight, with each further road heading out across wide, deep fields.

Corn fields. They’d been planted in the spring, and now stand a tall, gangly green. The cobs are good too; white ones, with small crunchy kernels that cook well over fire. She’s enjoying them while they last. Because of course, they won’t. Nor will they be back next summer.

(And neither will we.)

Only two of those roads concern her anymore: the one to the left, Wilson Road, and the one to the right, Noland Road. The other, Griffin Road, the one that goes straight, she already knows to hold no further promise. In fact, after about 1.7 miles, Griffin holds the exact opposite of promise.

Green Honda. Empty booster seat. Staring eyes. Sippy cup.

On the other hand, Wilson and Noland, while not exactly promising in and of themselves, have turned out to be quite useful.

Wilson, for instance, after an initially straight shot north through the fields, then follows a roughly half-circular route that she calls “The Loop”, right back to Atlas House. In fact, the route as a whole practically makes a perfect circle around it, according to the now-dead Garmin. Almost like a perimeter; the kind Army guys were always talking about in war movies. She wonders on occasion if it used to be a patrol road back in the day, for circling Atlas and making sure no one got too close.

The best thing about “The Loop” however, is that it runs for just over five kilometers. “5K”: a term which stands for either the distance, or more often, the kind of race.

The kind of race that girl, Shawnda, in Accounting, was always talking about running. So, wow, I did this great 5K in Connecticut, cross country, and omigod it was sooo beautiful. Ran it in like, twenty-five minutes, so I ran it again. You know, like, just for fun.

Which, since Jane knows the distance and how long it took for a ridiculously fit someone like Shawnda to run it, allows Jane a relatively good guess at how she herself is doing.

O… M… G… Shawnda, I’ve been doing this wicked “5K” around my house, for like, a hundred and seven days, and I totally own it now. Like every… single… time… How does 19:51 shake you? Yeeeah girl, right?

Most days she runs “The Loop”, and today is one of those days. She will run it, then run it again, and again, making the left at the intersection two more times. You know, like, just for fun. In total she’ll cover nine-point-nine miles today. Then, tomorrow she’ll strength train and do only one loop. After that, she’ll rest and take care of Atlas. What there still is of it, at least.

Every third day however, she goes right. On Noland. Noland has become quite useful too. Albeit for a much simpler reason. Noland is the road she takes whenever she goes out searching. On what she calls her “Long Runs”.

Drawn in red pen, on the AAA map which Jane keeps in her pack, is a shape which very much resembles the outline of an ice cream cone. It’s not a doodle, however; far from it.

In Jane’s previous life that shape would have been called a “Cone of Uncertainty”. Originally conceived for corporate project management, but since adapted for many other uses, most people would probably have remembered seeing a version of “The Cone” in a weather forecast, probably superimposed over the Gulf of Mexico, or maybe the Atlantic seaboard, trying to predict the path of a hurricane.

In any case, the purpose of the cone is always the same: to define and then calculate probability, starting from a point of certainty, then widening out along a plotted line which represents time and ever-greater uncertainty.

Which is exactly what Jane’s cone does. Except in this case, the cone is upside down, and its point of certainty, marked by a small red circle, starts at the approaching intersection. Then it widens, at a thirty-degree angle, out to a radius of fifty miles. By now, almost every road within the cone is traced in black, while just outside the cone, on both sides of it, are drawn long red arrows which also point down.

South. Because that was the way they had gone-

That was the direction… it had gone.

On that horrible day.

***

STOP

Says the big red sign, and she does.

But not because the sign tells her to. Hell, she can run back and forth through the intersection all day long if she wants, flipping the old middle-finger salute at the sign every time just for good measure. Nothing will happen. The sign’s days of telling people what to do are over. A hundred and seven days over.

No, she’s stopped for something else.

Well, hasn’t really stopped; it isn’t good to just stop in the middle of a run, so she’s instead begun jogging in place.

But as she does, she looks down at the pavement… and sees the same things she’s seen several hundred times before. The things she’s really (sort of) stopped for.

There are two of them: one off to her left, the other to her right, both of them still as dark black on the grey asphalt as they’d been when she’d first seen them. Even after the passage of months.

They start before the STOP sign and break right, scrawling down Noland road for what has to be fifty feet, until they finally trail off. Then, about six inches further along, a second set picks up right where the first set leaves off. And that set runs for another twenty feet. Shorter than the first, but still just as black. And ugly…

(Aaand heartbreaking. It’s okay. You can admit it.)

Yes, heartbreaking…

Tire marks.

Most people might have easily guessed at what had caused the first set. Probably some hot-rodding asshole, they’d say, trying to impress someone, or perhaps even just himself.

But the second, further set of marks? And that little pause before it? That would have been harder for the average Joe or Jane to hypothesize on. That would have meant delving a little deeper into specifics, like in that scene from “My Cousin Vinny”, where Marissa Tomei had gleefully explained in her faux-Bronx accent how the tire marks out front of the Sac O’ Suds absolutely must have been made by a 1963 Pontiac Tempest, and, oh my freakin’ Gawd! NOT by a 1964 Buick Skylark!

It would have meant knowing about things like gear ratios and “Posi-Traction” rear ends (Marissa had said it more like “Pawsi-Traction”), and power-to-weight ratios. Which most people hadn’t known the first thing about, of course.

Because- well, they hadn’t needed to.

For better or worse however, Jane knows exactly what had caused both sets of marks, and why. Because now, she knows all about cars, and especially about 1970 Chevelles. She’s read all of Jack’s old car magazines, and the shop manuals, and the specifications. After all, she’s had plenty of time, and by now she knows them all by heart. Can quote them at length, in fact, and well enough to probably give Jack or any one of his hot-rodding buddies a pretty good hard-on. The only thing they’d liked more than good-looking girls and fast cars was good-looking girls who knew fast cars.

The marks had been made by a (in Marissa’s Bronxy twang again)-

Aaand I quote: 1970-model Chevrolet Chevelle SS-396, “Fathom Blue” in color, powered by a 375 horsepower (SAE Net Rating), L78, Mark 2, “big-block” V-8, running a model-M40 Turbo-Hydramatic transmission and a 3.55:1-ratio “Pawsi-Traction” rear differential.

How’d you like that, boys? Whoa, WHOA! Down, boys, down! Remember, I’m taken!

(Well, except for those times when Jack decides- decided, to go off and fuck that mean little-)

And that second, shorter set of marks? The Chevelle had made those as it shifted into second gear under full power. By then, the ignition timing would have been pegged at 36 degrees “BTDC” (which means Before Top Dead Center), and all four of the “Holley” model-4346, 780 CFM (Cubic Feet/Minute), “square-bore” carburetor’s 1.6875-inchbarrels would have been wide-open, barely-atomized fuel ripping through them from primary and secondary venturis at roughly the speed of sound.

The power valves would have gotten in on the act by then too; with the accelerator pedal floored, the hungry engine’s manifold vacuum would have been way below the valves’ 8.5 inches-of-Mercury threshold, and so they too would have been dumping fuel- raw fuel, in that instance, straight down into the manifold’s intake ports. Practically pouring it down the engine’s throat.

And all while the big V-8 had still screamed for more-

Because right about here, she guesses, at this intersection, is where the Chevelle had begun running for its life.

***

Hadn’t Jack once proudly told her how the car could “just fucking burn the tires” in second gear? If you were really laying on it.

“Not that I’ve ever really tried,” he’d once told her with one of his big, goofy smiles.

Which of course had been bullshit too. He’d probably “burned the tires” at every possible opportunity. Even, she had to admit, with the kids in the car.

Although, why not? It wasn’t really that dangerous. Right? And besides, it kept the valves clean. In her mind’s eye, she sees him smile that big, goofy smile again.

God- He could be so convincing with that smile. She wonders how many people might have been rolled into an E.R., all smashed up, or shot, or whatever, but still conscious enough to see and understand that smile, and then felt instantly better because of it. Even when it would turn out to be the last thing they’d ever see.

“Hello? Mr. or Mrs. So-and-So? Can you hear me? Okay, well I’m doctor Mattheson, and I’m going to take good care of you. Just relax.” (Big Assuring Smile)

How many times had she seen that smile, maybe paired with that little twinkle he sometimes got in his eyes, and felt better herself?

“C’mon Hon, you know I’d never do something like that with the kids in the car. So just relax.” (Big Twinkly Smile)

Or just been disarmed by it?

“Look, dammit. It’s not like I asked for this. I was drunk, and she came on to me. How many ways can I say I’m sorry? But it was just one time- one damned time, and it won’t happen again. Okay? Now please… just relax… And put that goddam thing down.”

“Never again Jack? You swear?”

“I swear.” (Big Sincere Smile)

(Clatter)

That smile…

That fucking liar.

(Yeah well, say what you want, but when you finally got another chance, you blew it again anyway.)

Jane snorts. “Yeah, well I sort of got distracted that day.”

But that’s not even close to the truth, and she knows it. Therefore, so does the voice.

(Uh huh. And now here we are…)

“Yup…” Jane stares across the intersection, down Griffin, the road that goes straight. She thinks again of the Honda, lying on its side 1.7 miles away. Its driver even now is probably still hanging sideways in her seatbelt, the left side of her head in ruins where it lies amongst the bits of smashed safety glass, while the pink and green booster seat still hangs empty in the back.

The sippy cup is probably still there too, still standing impossibly upright next to the center line, as if someone had placed it there. Unless maybe the wind has knocked it over. Jane should bury her, she knows, maybe bury the booster seat with her too, even though the act would be pointless. It’s the decent thing to do. Yet-

Jane just jogs in place, hearing nothing but the soft, rhythmic sound of her sneakers padding on the asphalt, and continues to stare.

“You’re right. Here we are.”

***

She jerks her head around with a start and blinks, confused. She’s somehow drifted beyond the sign, out into the intersection. The realization makes her heart skip a beat as she instinctively checks both ways for oncoming cars.

Until she remembers. Then she smiles at her foolishness. Old habits apparently do die hard.

I’ve been zoning out more and more though, and that needs to stop, or before long I’m going to do something a lot stupider than sleep-jogging my way into an empty intersection. And that stupid thing could easily get me killed.

(Oh, Heaven forbid.)

“Oh fuck you.”

(Well then DO IT! Get it over with! Stop having this three-way bitch-fest with you, yourself and I, so we can go on! And on, and on, and on… That’s the way you seem to want it, anyway. But I’m tired of this, and of helping you draw it out! See Jane Run! Jane runs fast. Jane runs down Silver Spring Road fast. But finds nothing! Jane runs down SR208 fast… but finds nothing again! Jane runs down Griffin Road fast, and- Hey! Look! Finds a fucking horror show! But still, in the end, really finds…? That’s riiight! Nothing. Because they’re all dead! Either gone without a trace, which by now I’m sure you’ll agree is the same as dead, or just plain dead-dead! Oh, and yeah, the dead ones might still look like they’re alive- sort of, in that weird, wax-museum sort of way. The girl in the Honda. Even the ones in that car from Day One- shit, they fucking burned! Not completely maybe, but they burned all the same. And yet they still haven’t started to-)

“God damn it!” Her sudden cry echoes impossibly loud in her ears, even as it evaporates into the larger silence around her. It feels good to yell though. Partly just to get it out. That, and because this bitch really needs to be put in her place-

Shut, the fuck, UP! I know perfectly fucking well what they haven’t started to do!”

She still doesn’t understand it, but she knows. After three months of summer heat, the dead—the few that she’s found anyway—should all be stinking, maggot-infested messes by now. But they’re not, at all. There aren’t even any flies on the bodies, and there never have been.

It had been that thorough, its devastation that complete; it even took the flies.

And probably the bacteria too, or else the bodies would have started to go on their own, she knows, flies or no flies.

(We each carry the seeds of our own destruction…)

Which is certainly true, but not just in the poetic, fatalistic, metaphysical sense. Oh no. The flies and their maggots are just part of the process. She’d read somewhere that the human body doesn’t just rot from the outside. When a person dies, so do the white blood cells that normally keep their gut bacteria in check. So, with nothing to stop them, those bacteria suddenly flourish, first chowing down on the intestinal lining and then maybe the stomach. Until eventually they burst free. Then they go to work on the other organs, and that’s when things get really messy.

But that process just isn’t happening anymore. None of it is. Because everything that had been alive that day, right on down to the smallest of the small, is gone now.

(But you still keep looking! Despite what I’ve been telling you, your dumb ass just keeps going- on and on and on! You do know what you’re going to find- if, and that’s a big IF, you ever do find it… find them. Is that what you want? To remember them like that? Why would you want that? So why? Why keep going? In such a horrible, silent, dead world? I mean, come ON Janey… Isn’t it time to just… You know what you’ll find. Do you really want that?)

The thing is, she doesn’t want… that. And she doesn’t want to keep going on. Not running, not wondering, not waiting- none of it. She truly does want it all to be over.

But just not yet.

***

She finally makes the left and starts down Wilson, leaving Noland, the tire marks and what they mean all behind.

It doesn’t bother her to do this anymore. Nor will it the next two times she runs past the intersection.

Because in two days, she knows, she’ll follow them again, when she is good and ready. The relentless, emotional urge to always run down Noland every single day has long since passed, replaced by a similarly relentless, but oh-so-much-more productive (and saner) logic. A logic which despite its… eccentricities, has also done a great job of keeping her alive.

(For which you’re welcome, as always…)

At least until recently. The logic, she’s come to learn, is also cold.

(Logic, by definition, is cold.)

Her ET will be total shit this time around of course, but that’s okay too. Her next lap will go better. See you in twenty. She just won’t bust her ass over it; she’s training for endurance, not speed. A classic case of- well, maybe not “slow and steady” winning the race, more like “optimal” just getting it done. She doesn’t know how marathon runners used to train their bodies, but she thinks she’s figured out they’d trained their minds, their philosophy, and now she practices it to ever greater extents. And distances.

She has to. Atlas House is very much “out in the sticks”, as most of her friends and family- especially her family, had always seemed to need to remind her (as if she didn’t know). So, if she hopes to follow Noland and the further roads all the way to 87 South next time, she’ll have to cover almost thirty miles according to the AAA map, and through nothing but near-empty countryside. Just to get to 87, never mind run down it.

That’s the only way to go anymore however, and her only hope of finding whatever she might find. That’s the only way they could’ve gone to get away from the-

For the longest time, she hadn’t known what to call the thing she’d seen that day. Something so big and all-consuming would seem to demand a grand name. She’d thought of biblical words like Leviathan, remembered a line from the Hindu Gita about the god Vishnu proclaiming himself “Death, the destroyer of worlds” and considered that name. She’d even considered the Jewish Tanakh’s “Creeping Death”.

Ultimately however, its apparent mindlessness and seemingly utter pointlessness had belied any notion of true grandiosity. The only thing “great” about it, she’d decided, had been its scope. That, and perhaps the silence it had left behind. The thing otherwise made no sense to her, no matter how hard she’d tried to wrap her mind around it. Until doing so had begun to feel more like banging her head against a wall-

A wall. “The Wall”. Not a perfect name perhaps, but it’s still the best she can come up with for describing both its brutally singular function and terribly simplistic form.

She can see it so clearly, even now. That horizon-wide monstrosity of rushing, boiling blue, sliding toward her over the hills just north of Atlas, remorseless and unrelenting behind its seemingly endless line of angry black thunderheads and worldwide stabs of lightning, across-

Jesuseverything.

-roaring south.

South. That was the way the wall had gone. She doesn’t know much else about it, but she knows that much for sure. It had travelled north to south, coming first for her, and then running her family down. All while its wider expanse had devoured the rest of the world.

She always tries not to think about what must have happened next on the road that’s now falling behind her. Instead, she tries to think only of the road itself, and of what it represents: a “point of certainty”, and nothing more.

Or sometimes, she even flat-out lies to herself about it. The way she does in her dreams. In those, the tire marks instead always go left, on Wilson, and thus north. Because in her dreams, Jack, Gary and Denise never see that towering, horrible blue. Never have to run from it. Never get chased down by it-

Until, finally…

Because in her dreams, that horrific thing never exists. In her dreams, Jack and the kids always pull into the driveway ten minutes after they’d left. And from there, everything else always goes blissfully, wonderfully the same. The Chevelle’s engine goes silent but for the tick of cooling metal, its rumble replaced by the sound of slamming car doors and chattering children. And by the voice of their father, sounding a bit like a boy himself.

The voices then go hushed for a few moments as they get their story straight. The burnout will stay a guilty little secret. They will have a wonderfully normal lunch outside, and a pretty, green hummingbird will come to the feeder.

***

The real tire marks, of course, tell her different. She doesn’t know whether to be thankful for them or not.

For better or worse though, she knows that Jack and the kids had seen the wall coming. Had probably seen the Mustang and the crash of the burnt car too. And so, instead of turning left onto Wilson and heading for home, Jack had swung the Chevelle right and floored it down Noland, leaving the tire marks like two long, unwilling, black breadcrumbs for her to follow.

From there she can only think of the car, and not of the people inside. She thinks only in terms of it; never them. Every time she runs to the right, her mind says, this is the way “it” went; never, this is the way “they” went. Every time she tries searching down a new stretch of road, she wonders if she might finally find “it”. To think in any other terms, to imagine what might actually have happened inside of it– to them, is just too much. And if thought about too hard, or for too long, she knows, the idea of it will surely drive her insane.

(Oh Janey, come on, you’re already th-)

So, from then on it was just the big blue Chevelle that had roared south, chirped its tires and continued to accelerate. It had gone dodging down whichever roads promised to keep it south of the advancing blue wall, getting one last “Italian tune-up” as it ran for its life.

She is certain by now that it made Route 87. Beyond that however, she just can’t be sure. All the other ways they might have gone, the easier ways and the maybe faster ways, have come up empty, though she can’t understand why.  

Her only hope now is the tunnel that runs deep under Rook Mountain, on the turnpike. If Atlas House had somehow saved her, well… then maybe the tunnel had somehow saved them.

It’s possible. About ten miles south of the intersection with SR208, Route 87 has an on-ramp that the Chevelle could’ve taken to get there.

But the on-ramp is a long, looping affair that turns back on itself for almost a quarter of a mile before joining the turnpike. Which means that taking it would have carried the Chevelle straight toward the onrushing wall. Only for about twenty, thirty seconds maybe, provided the ramp itself was clear, but to Jane that still sounds like a deadly proposition, especially at a time when every single second must have counted.

Then there would have been the toll plaza, its lanes made narrow and flanked by jersey barriers, all in a deliberate effort to slow passing traffic down to the five (dear God, five) mile-per-hour speed limit. The wall had gone a lot faster than that.

But what if they had cleared the toll plaza, and the onramp? What then? The tunnel itself would still be far away, and by then the turnpike leading up to it would probably have been choked with other fleeing cars. Based on what she’s seen already, the intersection where Franklin Hollow crosses SR208, far beyond Noland but still well-shy of the Turnpike, is now a junkyard/graveyard. One of the traffic light poles had been hit and is now laying across the road. She still can’t see how the Chevelle made it through.  

In any case, it means the Turnpike is probably now just one endless, rusting (but nowhere decomposing), high-speed wreck, with the Chevelle perhaps tangled up in it, somewhere along the way.

(Yup. There, or maybe outside the tunnel…)

Jane can picture that too; the tunnel’s tall, grey, concrete face, so incongruously smooth against the rocky mountainside. She can see the tunnel’s two-lane mouth, arching up so high and wide yet still looking so small against the wide expanse of concrete and the by-far-larger mountainside.

But now the tunnel’s smooth face is spiderwebbed with cracks, and a smear of black soot snakes up it from the tunnel’s mouth. Off to one side, a semi has smashed, headlong into it. That’s where the cracks come from. They radiate outward from the point of impact, in the same way that the roads she’s marked on the AAA map spread out from intersection of Wilson and Noland, in her cone of uncertainty.

There’s no uncertainty here, however. The semi hit so hard that it accordioned, and she knows that somewhere inside of it is its driver, also smashed flat, albeit somehow still intact. Meanwhile, the road leading up and into the tunnel is littered with a thousand more smashed hulks, and perhaps even a few smashed bodies. Most of them are burnt black.

Although- can’t she see just the faintest glimmer of blue somewhere amidst them? Detect the smallest twinkle of chrome?

(Or else they would’ve been back by now. They should have been back a looong time ago, Janey. That’s what I keep telling-)

Nevertheless, there are no other roads left to try. The others on the map are by now all traced in black. A long run down the Turnpike to the tunnel is her only remaining hope.

She’s prepared for the trip as well as she can: there is a bottle of mineral water two miles out on the steps of the Quonset General store, then another water bottle and an energy bar in the open hatch of the minivan at the intersection. Another bottled water on the Sunoco pump across from the State Police barracks, then yet another, along with a Redbull on the step side of a dead Peterbilt just before Redstone.

From there however, she’ll be on her own to the tunnel. Which, yes, will push the practical limits of what her body can do, especially if the Turnpike is as messy as she thinks it is. That will make it hard to navigate, but she has no other choice.

Out and back in one day; that’s the rule.

(Because we have to be home for beddy-bye, evewwwy night. Right, Janey?)

 “Hey, if I don’t sleep, you don’t sleep, and you’re an even bigger bitch when you’re tired, so…”

(I still think it’s stupid, and illogical; sleeping down there. In the dark. It smells, it’s hot, that water is disgusting-)  

“I don’t like it either, but…”

(What if you reach the tunnel and still find nothing?)

Jane sighs. “I think we both know the answer to that question already.”

The voice is just doing the usual, Jane knows. Egging her on. Because they both know perfectly well what would happen. “The Cone” extends out past the tunnel.

She wonders for probably the hundredth time if maybe she should give up running altogether and really try to find a good bike. She carries little hope for that idea though. With Atlas being so far out “in the sticks” there just aren’t many houses around. There’s a lot of roads, my God such a lot of roads, but aside from the cluster of houses on the corner, which she’s already confirmed to be bike-less, Atlas sits very much alone amongst them. Which of course, again, was the point: both in Atlas’ location and in Jack’s moving them all there.

She thinks of her friend Ginny. Ginny had been a big mountain biker. Which makes Jane wonder once in a while about her bike.

But then Jane always reconsiders. Ginny’s house is maybe 30 miles north, and roughly a thousand feet up Mt. Jenkins.

Another potential problem is that Ginny had been a big mountain biker, and thus she’d liked nothing more than a good Saturday morning ride. So her bike is probably nowhere near her house. More likely, it is laying somewhere out on a now overgrown trail. Maybe Ginny is out there too. She doesn’t know whether to hope for that or not. A surprising lot of people died just trying to get away that day. Well, not many in the grand scheme of things—the ones Jane’s found are more a testament to the untold thousands she… hasn’t found, but more than a few.

It doesn’t matter anyway. According to “The Cone”, Jack and the kids couldn’t have gotten that far. Even if for some reason they ran past the tunnel. Eventually, one of two things had to have happened; either they found some other kind of safety, or the odds finally caught up with them. One way or another, they, or at least the Chevelle must be out there. Somewhere.

So if she has to keep running, she will. She’ll run until she finds the Chevelle, or until she’s absolutely certain that she’ll never find it. That is her goal.

Only then, when she finally reaches that, will she be able to think of her loves in the car again. To force herself to bear the heart-crushing totality of what happened to them. To re-shoulder all their unsprung weight until she can’t bear it any longer. She will cry over them one last time.

Then she will unzip the pack on her belly, take out Jack’s gun, the same gun she’d once pointed at him, and calmly shoot herself through the head with it. She’s certainly had plenty of time to assess herself, and she’s sure she can do it. It will be a relief.

(For both of us.)

“Yeah, maybe. But, for the time being…”

(I know, I know…)

The intersection falls further behind her. Ahead lies the field road, still shrouded in fog, emerging one stride at a time. Off to the left, she can just make out the faint red shape of the Mustang, sitting in the field, right where it had presumably coasted, lifeless, to a stop so long ago. Further off, she knows, lying upside-down amidst the corn, is the twisted wreck of the other car that hadn’t stopped so peacefully. With the burnt-but-somehow-still-not-rotting hand still sticking out of it, and the disfigured but somehow still intact bodies hanging within.

She looks down at her watch and suddenly frowns; she’d thought she’d only spent a few minutes daydreaming back at the intersection, but it looks now like she’d actually been there for almost ten. And the delay has really screwed her time. On the upside though-

(Oh Christ- “On the upside”, “on the upside”- always you and the God-damned “upside”… STOP already! Just fucking-)

From behind her suddenly comes the faintest rumbling sound. Coming from… the south? She thinks. Maybe… two miles distant. She looks back over her shoulder as she runs and tries to discern its source but can’t. The fog is still cotton-thick, not just blocking her view but also muffling and distorting the sound.

So, she spins around and begins to backpedal, eyes narrowed. The sound is definitely still far off, whatever it is, but it’s coming closer, coming northward.

And coming quickly, she realizes, because whatever it is, it’s growing appreciably louder with every second.

Suddenly, something that sounds like lightning, or far-off gunfire, joins the rumble. Her hand feels for the pack and her fingers find the zipper. Meanwhile, the sound keeps building, coming ever closer. Her eyes still try, strain now, to see… But the fog, in turn, still gives up nothing. So she’d been right, this morning, to be worried by it. Here now is the proof.

And she won’t be able to outrun it, she suddenly knows. Not even now, after all this time. She’s been training for endurance, not speed…

So why bother trying…

(Exactly! Wow, you’re finally getting it…)

She stops backpedaling. Well, she doesn’t really stop. It isn’t good to just stop in the middle of a run. So instead she jogs in place, waiting.

The sound grows suddenly louder, as if its source has just cleared the nearest hill. A rolling, pulsing boom.

She begins to pull…

But then she stops jogging altogether and just stands, perfectly still. Her hands fall limp at her sides, and tears well up in her eyes. She recognizes the sound. And through the fog she sees the first hints of blue-

A thought flashes, haphazard, through her mind. My running days are over. Because-

My God… It’s coming back.

(Oh no…)

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