“…The big car finally slides to a stop in the cold, snowy darkness. She slams it into PARK, then closes her eyes.
Breathe Gardy… Just breathe.
She inhales slowly.
She exhales, slower still.
Until her heart finally slows-
There’s no room for error. In… Out…
And her hands go loose on the wheel-
I can’t fuck this up- I won’t fuck this up. Daddy would kill me. Momma would just…
And she is calm once again.
Good. Now, open your eyes.
She finds herself looking down at the dim, red-orange buttons on the car’s radio.
She pushes one.
“-of 1989. In other national news, the folk-rock singer Bruce Springsteen yesterday declared victory after a five-year fight to publish his controversial, and as some have claimed, outright subversive song, “Born in the USA”. Speaking on the steps of the Supreme Court, Mister Springsteen had this to say:
This victory is not mine alone. It is for every American voice that wants to be free to talk about things in this country’s history as they really are. Not as they are purported to be, in some federally-approved history book.
Springsteen’s song was banned from radio airplay in 1984 by the Censor Board. There has been no official comment yet from the administration, but Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy has stated several times previously that if the Supreme Court did not decide for the Censor Board, the administration would look for other, quote, constitutionally-viable means, unquote, to control what the administration refers to as quote, unpatriotic expressions, unquote. Meanwhile, the United States Senate today will begin debate on the FCIA’s extremely controversial “Birdsong” project, which some critics suggest would-“
She looks up. Fat snowflakes fall out of the darkness and skirl across the car’s long silver hood, while yet others fall to their ends on its warm windshield.
She’s long since decided that taking it out in weather like this will prove to be a bad idea. Oh, it had done well enough at first, but roughly halfway between where she’d been and where she is now, the snow had picked up, and the roads had gotten worse. So much so, that by the time she’d reached the long off ramp to the parking lot where she now sits, she’d had to rein the car back from at least three slow, but still frightening skids.
The worst had come at the off-ramp, where the road angled downward from the highway while making a sweeping left turn onto a smaller service road. The car, a brand-new BMW 7-series, had begun to slew right, before almost going into a looping spin that would surely have carried it right across the service road and into the guardrail beyond.
A wreck like that would have been hopeless; even if she’d somehow succeeded in calling a tow before a cop showed up, she felt sure that a state trooper, or maybe even a federal park ranger, likely would have showed up. Then, if he’d started nosing around…
“Thank you, Daddy,” she’d whispered, after bringing the car under control one last time.
Her father had always been a deeply worried man, and eight years ago one of his worries had extended itself into his daughter’s learning to drive. So he’d gone to great lengths: teaching her how to go, how to stop, how to negotiate turns. How to drive at speed-
“I’m not going to bullshit you,” he’d said, “everybody speeds. You know I do. But Hell, so do West German grandmothers… every day. And they aren’t splattering themselves all over the autobahn at any higher rate than the rest of us. And why is that, my Love?” He’d asked.
Though of course he hadn’t waited for her to answer. He’d almost never waited for an answer. “The difference… is that over there it’s a stone-cold bitch to get a driver’s license. You actually have to be a good driver. Not like the kindergarten-spelling-test of a driver’s exam they have over here. So here’s what you do-“
He’d taught her about always leaving an escape route, whether while driving or just stopping at a light. Because, he’d told her, you might need room to swerve in case the asshole in front of you does something stupid.
Or, he’d gone on in a lower, more ominous tone, room to escape, in case someone decides to ram you from behind. Maybe with the idea of pushing you into the path of, say, an oncoming locomotive.
The locomotive… She smiles at the thought, and then smiles wider at the memory which follows.
He’d even taught her the right way to cross railroad tracks. They’d just crossed a set in Utah when-
“BAM! WE ARE NOW DEAD!”
He’d fairly screamed the words at her after slamming both of his hands on the dashboard of her first car; a big, boxy (but safe!) ‘79 Chevy Zafira.
Because, as he’d gone on to explain in a much softer voice, she hadn’t stopped to look for that speeding 200-ton diesel locomotive that had somehow failed to trigger the crossing gates, seconds before “killing” them both.
“But Daddy I-“
“SHUT UP! And listen to me! Dammit, Gardenia, you know, you talk too much. Your mother hardly ever talked. And do you know why?”
“Didn’t I just tell you to shut up? She didn’t talk because she was smart. Your mother listened… Jesus, Gardy, how many times do I have to tell you…”
She could not, her father had gone on to tell her, once again in that softer voice, just assume that no train was coming. She had to look. And see.
The greater lesson being that you shouldn’t assume anything on the road. The greater, greater lesson being that you shouldn’t assume anything- period.
“Forget that making an ASS out of “U” and “ME” bullshit,” he’d told her. “Because it’s my experience that assuming can get you hurt, or yes, even killed.
“So don’t fucking do that… ever again.”
Most of his lessons had been delivered like that: simple, brutal, and yes, often infused with various types of profanity. Although she’d never once doubted that his lessons-profanity and all-had been given out of love, or out of the worry that sprang from that love.
It was, she had come to understand, the only way that her all-business, ex-soldier father had known to effectively impress upon her the things that he’d thought were important. Especially when there’d been so many of them, and when he’d had so little time in which to teach her, split as it had been between Gardenia’s lessons, and the hours he’d spent every day caring for her dying mother, Catalina. Not to mention the constant pressure of knowing that before long, his own ticking time bomb, of the same make and model as the one that was killing Catalina, would eventually go off, and finally get him too.
He’d taught her the bulk of her early math and spelling- no, sweetheart, it’s p–h-o-n-e, note f-o-n-e. The “ph” makes an “f” sound. It’s f-, f-, fucking stupid, but that’s the way it is. He’d taught her how to cook. He’d taught her how to start a fire and how to fix a car and how to balance a checkbook. He’d made sure she knew how a lady should be treated, and how to deal with boys who didn’t know. Or didn’t care. He’d taught her how to shoot a handgun. And then another handgun. And then a rifle. Then a bigger rifle. Then an even bigger rifle.
And always with the same exhortation: “Your mother should be- No, no: first exhale, then pull the trigger, just let it happen, same as taking a picture. Like I say, your mother should be teaching you this shit-” BOOM! “There! Fuckin’-A, that’s it! Just like your Momma. Though I wasn’t such a bad shot either. And I shot out the side of an airplane, in the friggin’ dark! Of course, I needed a waaay bigger gun, and a few thousand more rounds than your Mom usually did…” Then he would smile—he’d always smiled when he talked about Gardenia’s mother—and he would go on with the lesson. Lesson, after brutal-but-important lesson.
Then, after that final stretch of four, horrible months, that last, steep slide before her mother finally passed away, he’d taught her how to grieve. Though there’d been nothing brutal in that particular lesson. It had only been simple…
And of course, he’d taught her how to drive. And thankfully, how to recover from a spin. His worry had saved her again.
Now, however, she is worried. But not about killer locomotives, or random roadgoing assholes doing stupid things, or even about the ever-deepening snow.
Well- actually, she is sort of worried about the snow, isn’t she? Not about the snow itself, but about what she’s just noticed in it. The BMW’s wipers take another casual sweep of its windshield, giving the sight before her a fresh, new, if only momentary, clarity.
The parking lot belongs to the Kittatinny State Canoe Park, a small strip of riverbank which lies just over the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border, on the Jersey side of the Delaware River. And true to its name, the park has several small slips that are just big enough for canoes.
In the summer, the place is a mob scene of tourists and college kids, all of them either barbequing by the riverside or dropping anything that will float into the river for a lazy ride further downstream.
Now of course, the place is deserted. Except for her. Or at least she’d thought so.
Until a few minutes ago, when she’d first seen.
The BMW has excellent headlights. The high-beams, especially, are fantastic; quartz-halogen “Hella” lamps that throw four big, bright cones of light over a distance that seems long enough to night-land a small plane on. God knows the lamps mounted out in the car’s nose even look like the ones that had been in the left wing of her father’s old Cessna.
Hell, knowing the Germans, she wonders if maybe the lights are aircraft lights. Just re-purposed into headlights, after having been stuck there by some whack-job German engineer who’d decided that Zeez lights vill be zehr gut! Perfect for zee Autobahn! Mein grandmother vill be able to go ein hundert miles per-
She looks down at the car’s speedometer, where “kp/h” has been grudgingly printed beneath “MP/H”, for the roughly three people in the U.S. who actually gave a shit how many “kp/h” are in an “MP/H”, then tries again-
-ein hundert-funfzieg kilometers per hour! In full dark, viss no stars! She’ll never out-drive zeez babies! Und shplatter herself all over zee place!
That had been another piece of driving/life advice from her father, another product of his ever-present worry: never out-drive your headlights. He’d meant: never drive faster than your eyes can see, or than your right foot can react. Implied in that advice, again by his constant fear, was a more intrinsic warning, and another of his greater, greater lessons: don’t get yourself into anything you can’t get yourself out of.
She’s never tried to out-drive the BMW’s headlights. That, of course, would be stupid. She doubts she could anyway, even if she wanted to; despite how fast the car can go, its lights always seem to stretch out into forever, seeing everything.
Even, on occasion, seeing things she wished they wouldn’t.
Because what they see now is what worries her. What they see has suddenly made her wonder if perhaps she’s finally out-driven her own headlights.
She’d stopped the BMW roughly halfway down the long, narrow parking lot that runs parallel to the canoe park. She hasn’t parked the car however; the lot’s spaces are arrayed perpendicular to its length and would have required her to turn the car into one of them. That, in turn, would require her to turn yet again to leave; a big no-no if she has to leave in a hurry (escape route). To her right is the canoe park itself, and further beyond it, the Delaware river. To her left and above run route 80, as it follows the Delaware through the Water Gap and into New Jersey.
To her front, obscured by the swirling snow, but still easy to see in the BMW’s oh-so-fantastic headlights, is a set of tire tracks. Left, it seems, by someone who’d been there maybe ten minutes before her. They run in a straight line all the way from the far end of the lot before making a gentle u-turn roughly fifty feet shy of where she now sits. From there they trace another straight line back to the far entrance, turn right down the service road, and disappear.
The tracks could have been made by anything: a roving park ranger, or a state patrol, or maybe even just some passing joe-shmo driver who’d pulled off into the park thinking it was a rest area, then realized different and left again.
But she doesn’t think so.
The problem with all of those theories is the footprints. Somewhere in the middle of its u-turn, the unknown car had apparently disgorged a passenger. Only one passenger, by the look of it, but the car had let someone out, and that someone had not gotten back in. Nor had they stuck around.
According to the footprints, the person had only made a beeline away from the tire tracks. And according to the spacing of those footprints, that person had either been very big, or at least long-legged.
Or… in a big hurry.
A hurry… she decides. That makes the most sense; there are some big people in the world, but not many big enough to have strides that long. Those are Harlem Globetrotter-long.
So, “hurry” it is. Of course, a lot of people tend to be in a hurry when they get out of a car that’s just gotten off the highway; most often to go to the restroom. And the canoe park does have a set of restrooms- in fact they stand right along the edge of the parking lot. Perhaps that’s why-
But the footprints don’t lead to the restrooms.
They lead instead, right past the restrooms. And from there they continue on: over the now snow-covered lawn that lays beside the restrooms, on through the picnic areas, then finally, off toward a darkened ridge where the ground breaks downward and out of sight, toward the river.
There the footprints finally go beyond the BMW’s field of view, and into near darkness. But she can still see them, still running straight, and still spaced as widely as ever, still driving the word “hurry” across her mind.
So why in the Hell would someone get out of a car in a snowstorm and tear ass through the snow toward nothing but darkness and an ice-cold river? And why would the driver of the car they’d gotten out of allow something like that? Especially at zero-dark-thirty in the morning? And then, to top it off, just leave?
Her mind calculates a refined set of scenarios. Was the runner maybe a rape victim? Or perhaps someone escaping a rape, or some other violence? This otherwise-deserted park is the perfect place for that sort of thing. After all, she herself isn’t exactly here to use the bathrooms either.
Or maybe the runner had just been a hitchhiker, dropped off by some unknowing good Samaritan. Maybe because the hitchhiker (or even the driver, who knows?) had decided that this was as far as they could go?
As far as they could go… running to the river- the ice-cold river… Another Bruce Springsteen song pops into her head just then, a song about going down to the river, and diving in. It was such a sad song, she remembers; a song about a man who’d had very little to hope for anymore, and whose only solace was his thoughts of going “down to the river”. Apparently before his life had gotten much harder and complicated. She’s always wondered if he was singing about diving into that river one last time, and then never coming back out of-
A person running from a crime is one thing; that person would have been trying to save themselves, and had probably succeeded. No one had chased whoever-it-was. And this isn’t exactly the middle of nowhere either. Hell, there’s a McDonalds not a mile away. She can even see the restaurant’s golden arches in the BMW’s rearview. They’re mounted on an extra-tall pole so that hungry drivers for miles around will know it’s there. And the arches would likewise have beckoned anyone who’d found themselves running for any well-lit place of safety.
But what if it’s a suicide? What if someone is on the riverbank right now, thinking about jumping in? Or already has jumped in? They could be down there right now, dying, or about to die. Suddenly she finds herself fighting an urge to run off into the snow too.
Then again, she also has to consider the possibility that if some crime has recently been committed here, or even attempted here, that the place will soon be crawling with cops; cops who will be very interested to know who she is and just what she’s doing here. If that happens, her “Oh, I’m just waiting for the rest of my carpool to get here, officer” story will not fly.
She needs to make a decision, and quickly. Should she run down to the river too? Or stay here and just wait, footprints-be-damned? Or should she maybe just—to use one of her father’s favorite expressions—”get the fuck out of Dodge”? That last choice would certainly have consequences; it would screw a lot of other things up. Jesus, if only they’d thought- or she’d thought, to plan an alternate meeting point, just in case the original one went to shit, as this one seems about to.
She looks toward the river. Then at the footprints. Then toward the river again…
Oh Hell, I can’t let someone die like that.
She reaches for the door handle-
But just then, a set of headlights swings down from the off ramp behind her. She hopes against hope that they will turn right at the service road and head away, but she knows in heart that they won’t.
And they don’t. The lights instead angle left, toward the park entrance. Toward her.
Shit! Shit, shit!
She debates running off toward the river anyway. Whoever he lights belong to- they won’t be going anywhere. Hell, a cop will probably run after her- probably try to help her even-once she explains what she thinks is going on.
And after that she’ll just have to hope that her “carpool” story holds up. She’s dressed the part: nice coat, nice, conservative slacks, hair done up in a nice, neat ponytail. And if the cop happens to be a man, well, the button-down blouse she’s wearing—when she undoes the top few buttons—looks “nice” too.
Unfortunately however, the approaching vehicle, she can see, is no police car. It isn’t even a car; the headlights are far too high off of the ground. It is a truck. Probably Stoney’s truck. That stupid, jacked up pickup he’d been bragging about. She watches it slew around in a wide arc as it enters the parking lot, barely muffled exhaust blatting out of its smokestack pipes.
Yes, that has to be him. She’s only met him in person once before, but she can tell; he’d struck her right away as the kind of kid who’d do something stupid like this. And who’d be stupid enough to do it at a time like now.
He’ll probably have that gigantic Swedish guy with him too. Arn. Who looks like he should’ve found fame as a pro wrestler, but instead ended up as the right-hand thug to a very lucky, over privileged little scumbag.
She looks once again at the river. Time is running out, might already have run out. Had whoever-it-was heard the truck? Would they turn toward the sound of it and come running for help? Then what would she do? Stoney would probably shoot whoever-it-was just for the Hell of it, because he is also stupid enough to do something like that at a time like this. She can even hear what he’d say-
“Cain’t have no witnesses!”
Or had the sound of people screwing around in the snow with some hot-rodded truck been the last straw, literally sending whoever-it-was over the edge? In her mind she can see the poor, hapless soul already floating down the river, already stiffening, dying of hypothermia.
Or, or, or; there are too many damned “or”s, too many possibilities. Too many ways for things to go wrong. She imagines the cops again, rolling up “hot” on what they think is a fresh crime scene, only to find… surprise, surprise… her, and now also her motley little, known-criminal crew. If that happens, you can bet your ass the carpool story won’t hold up, “nice” blouse or no. If, that is, Stoney doesn’t just open up on the cops first and get them all killed. Her included.
What am I doing here? What do I do? Shit! Shit! Think!
But before she can, the truck pulls up behind her, its rumbling exhaust vibrates even the BMW’s well-insulated interior. Then it cuts left and pulls in perpendicular to the car’s rear. Its engine shuts down not a second later, before the truck has even came to a full stop, and with no discernible delay, she hears, but can’t see, it’s doors open and then slam shut again. It sounds like Stoney is in a hurry.
So this is it- too late to run now. She should have when she’d had the chance, but now that chance is gone. Because she knows that if she tries anything now, especially something like running off into the darkness, Stoney will suspect a double-cross (for good reason; he’s apparently pissed a lot of dangerous people off in his 24 years) and probably shoot her just as easily as he would some stranger/potential witness come running out of the snowy darkness.
Both of the BMW’s rear doors open simultaneously and both men get in. She feels the car’s suspension sag appreciably under the weight and then readjust itself. That has to be Arn- she looks in the rearview at her new passengers. Yes, there he is, and my God is he big- scary big. Were he to reach forward with one of his meaty hands and put it to her thin throat-
Yet even with that vision burning fresh in her mind, she just can’t stop thinking of the footprints. She looks out into the snow again and then off into the darkness. The prints have begun to soften and lose their definition under the steady accumulation, but she can still see them. A now semi-vague line of pockmarks. They bother her in so many ways…
Stoney’s voice brings her eyes back to the rearview.
“Alright, let’s roll. That is, if this fat German turd can even get out of its own way in this shit. I’m surprised you even made it here. You people don’t have any four-bys for shit like this?”
She tries not to look back out into the snow before answering him, but when she does, her voice still sounds distracted, even to her own ears.
“The car will be fine. It… It has traction control.”
“Traction con-trol? The fuck’s that?”
“It’s uh, complicated…” She looks sideways again out into the snow.
“Still ain’t no four-by.”
“The car will be fine. It’s-” She begins to turn her eyes back to the windshield, when-
Wait… Did she just see something move?
Stoney doesn’t seem to have noticed anything. “Well alright then, sweet cheeks, let’s fuckin’ roll.”
“Yes,” she agrees in a still-distant voice, “lets get-” Oh Jesus. Something is moving. A dark shape against the deeper darkness, low on the ridge out by the river. Is someone crawling-
“Well? The fuck are you waiting for? Let’s get-”
SMASH-BOOM! -the rear window on Stoney’s side of the car suddenly explodes inward and bullets begin to hammer in through the BMW’s passenger side. She hears the metallic PUNK! PUNK! noises of their passage through the car’s rear door and the hard THWACK! sounds of them hitting their marks. Cold air and snow suddenly pour in through the fresh holes they’ve left behind.
Stoney starts to scream, but then stops. His voice instead devolves into a wet gurgle. Gardenia’s ducked down by now and can no longer see the rearview, but when she looks backward between the seats, she can see what has happened; most of Stoney’s throat and lower jaw have been shot away.
A fact Stoney doesn’t get much time to contemplate, because not a moment later several bullets turn his head into a bloody, caved-in mess. What remains of him slumps sideways, pushed along by the vicious, thudding impacts of ever more bullets.
Arn doesn’t fare any better. When the first rounds hit he’d tried to bail out from his side of the car. But he never made it. She can’t see exactly what has happened to him, but she can see one of his big legs, splayed awkwardly across the BMW’s floor, twitching (now) mindlessly.
Or maybe it’s just twitching under the impacts of the bullets that still tear through the BMW’s back door; in the chaos, she can’t be certain. Whoever is doing the shooting seems to want very much to make sure that both men in the back seat aren’t just killed, but also destroyed. Whoever-it-is seems to-
And that’s when the thought hits her. It strikes with such force that she twitches, in much the same way that Arn’s leg is twitching behind her.
She thinks again about the tire tracks in the snow, and of the footprints that seem to sprint away from them. Then about the movement, the direction of fire…
Oh God… it makes sense.
She does a brief set of last-second calculations, and reaches the same conclusion that an FBCI ballistics technician will reach about six hours later.
“Whoever-it-is” had gotten out of a car not long before she’d arrived, and indeed run through the snow and out into the darkness. There, they’d found a good spot on the ridge above the riverbank. A good, hidden spot, with an excellent view of the parking lot, and good coverage of both exits. A perfect spot from which to spring an ambush…
Still ducking down, she floors the BMW. Its engine responds immediately, winding up to redline with a muffled roar.
The car, however, doesn’t move. Shit! She realizes that it’s still in PARK. She fumbles blindly for the shift lever, finds it and yanks it backward to DRIVE. The engine revs again- but the car still doesn’t move. The tires are just spinning in the snow. A yellow light flashes up in the instrument panel: “TRAC-TRAC-TRAC…”. The car is trying, but in such deep snow, traction is nonexistent… Even with—she hears Stoney say it— traction con-trol. Zero-times-zero still equals zero.
Realizing what she is trying to do, whoever-it-is shifts their aim to the BMW’s front end and begins to pummel it with as much fire as they’d put into the rear. The front door’s glass also blows inward, and she begins to feel snow skirling across her face as the fresh torrent of bullets punches hole after hole through the rest of the car’s front end. She hears a tire blow out. Hears a warning chime start to sound from the car’s dashboard. The still-racing engine begins to make a terrible, hammering clank-sound, and then an acrid, oily smoke starts blowing in through the car’s cabin vents.
Then the shooting stops. Only for a moment, and probably just because whoever-it-is needs to change magazines, but it still stops. Just long enough for her to hear her father’s voice, one last time-
BAM! WE ARE NOW DEAD!
-and to think of locomotives.