1 Broken Reel
What the fuck? Where am…
Andy Solomon cut his own question off as his body jolted into an upright position. He felt as though he had been asleep only to wake up with his hands on the steering wheel of his beat up old Volvo. He inadvertently jerked the car to the left, almost entirely off of the far shoulder, before settling back into his own lane. The tires screeched in direct protest. He could feel his pulse pounding in his neck and throbbing at his temples.
Thank God the road's dry.
He had been lucky that no one was coming towards him. Damned lucky. The thought raced through his mind that if he woke up just in time to be creamed by a log truck that he'd spend eternity wandering around in limbo, not knowing for sure if he was alive or dead. This cheery thought was forced from Andy's mind and replaced with his original question:
Where was he?
He had no recollection of leaving the house. No matter how hard he tried to focus, he couldn't remember anything prior to waking up in the car. Andy found that no matter what he did, he couldn't really remember anything. There seemed to be some idea far off, like an unreachable itch deep down in his brain. He ran his left thumb and forefinger under his eyes and down his face, over the scruff of a fledgling beard. Ahead of him, the road winded through a seemingly never-ending greenbelt, around curves and over hills.
One of these hills gave way to a sharp, banked curve. Something along the roadside caught Andy's eye; there was a wreath, the kind that you often see placed to commemorate an event that Andy thought most people would rather forget. There was something else. Attached to the main wreath was a second, much smaller wreath.
Andy put the makeshift memorial out of mind, which was still racing though the pace seemed to be slowing down somewhat. Coffee. There had to be somewhere to stop around here, a coffee shop or truck stop. Christ, the road seemed so monotonous. Maybe it was only due to the exhaustion that was soaked into his bones. Pulling one hand off of the steering wheel, he slapped himself across the face, hoping to knock off some of the grogginess.
He scoured the dash, console, and passenger seat for his cell phone. If he had signal he could find out where the hell he was. No phone. He checked his pockets, then the cup holders. Nothing. His pulse was picking up again, this time due to anger more than anxiety.
What the fuck? What the fuck? WHAT THE FU.
The last word slowed and stuck in Andy's throat. He switched his foot from the accelerator to the brake and gently guided the car onto the shoulder, his eyes wide and disbelieving. For a moment, he sat in the idling car, his breathing heavy and fast. He looked into his rearview mirror and there they were, grotesquely illuminated by the Volvo's brake lights:
Those damned wreaths.
Andy looked at the console clock. 10:01. A vicious panic attack swept over him like a tsunami consuming a village. He reached for the shifter only to realize that he had never taken the car out of drive. His right foot slammed down on the accelerator, the tires throwing up plumes of dirt and gravel. Behind him, the wash of brake lights slowly evaporated, and the wreaths faded back into the darkness.
A blanket of dead leaves was illuminated briefly before being blown off of the road. Despite his increasing speed, Andy was still casting long looks behind him, as if some haunted tree was going to uproot itself and come lurching after him. This all-encompassing fear was wholly irrational. Andy knew this, but knowing it did not lessen the quality of it. It seemed to fill the car like a dense fog. The fear did have the benefit of keeping Andy alert. He seemed to know each curve of the road before he got there, every hill, every…
"No!" Andy cried out, his fear percolating into anger. "There's no goddamned way!"
His eyes drifted down to the clock again.
He brought both feet down hard on the brake pedal sending the car into a near fishtail. Andy threw the transmission into PARK, not bothering to pull off onto the shoulder. After all, he hadn't seen another car out here since, well, since he could remember. Throwing the driver's door open, Andy stepped out and walked to the trunk. Inside, he found a roadside emergency kit containing reflective tape, which he took. Leaving the car behind, he made his way to the wreaths, squatting down in front of them.
There were no legible names on either the large wreath or its smaller counterpart. All that could be made out were "Loving Mother, Devoted Wife" on the larger one and "Beloved Son" on the smaller one. To Andy, they seemed familiar yet strange. He mused over them a moment longer before tearing off two strips of the reflective tape, which he used to make an X on the top of the larger wreath. Returning to his car, Andy tossed the tape back into the trunk before closing the lid and sliding back into the driver's seat. Once more, the wreaths faded into the black of the night.
Time passed. Andy had no idea how long. The clock in the car had not changed. His cell phone was nowhere to be found. He had passed the wreaths thrice more, his reflective marking proving them to be the same from before. He found no roads to turn onto. Nothing. The same trees, the same curves. Nothing new. He had moved from anger to terror and finally to hopelessness. Strings as thin as spider web were all that was holding his sanity in place.
"Sanity," he said to no one other than himself, a maniacal grin slicing its way across his face. The grin widened and gave way to a laugh devoid of any joy. It was pure, unadulterated madness, no question about it.
Andy threw his head back and laughed harder, all of the air blowing out of his lungs. He was breathless, white spots dancing in front of his eyes. Still, he laughed. He was still laughing when his Volvo eased off of the road at 66 miles per hour and slammed into a ditch, rear end switching places with the front, coming to rest facing the direction that it has moments earlier been coming from.
He never lost consciousness, nor did he really feel any of the impact. He reached up and flicked on the dome light, looking his head and face over in the mirror. There was no blood, not even a scratch. He reached back up to cut the light off, and then decided that it was akin to putting a band-aid on a shotgun wound. He pulled himself across to the passenger seat and rolled down the window.
Fighting exhaustion, he pulled himself through the window and out of the stricken car. He slapped his face briskly, trying to shake off the coming fog of sleep. Using the thumb and forefinger of his right hand, Andy rubbed his eyes hard and blinked rapidly. When he opened his eyes to refocus, they were there.
The goddamned wreaths, mocking him.
"What do you want?" he screamed. It seemed to Andy that he could feel the skin peeling off of his throat, but he pressed on.
"What do you want? What are you trying to tell me?"
His voice broke, and he fell onto his knees, burying his face in his hands and resting his forehead on the soft earth. Within an instant Andy was back on his feet, running towards the objects of his overpowering hatred. As he ripped them out of the ground, his maniac's laugh returned.
"Fuck you! Fuck you, you stupid fucking wreath! You and your little fucking friend!"
Pivoting on his left foot, Andy threw the conjoined memorials into the woods. They flew past the first few trees before giving Andy the shock of his life. The wreaths literally tore into the darkness, leaving a gash in the wood line. A brilliant white light spilled out, like the highbeams of a Peterbuilt bearing down on him. Shielding his eyes, he walked towards the blighted area.
He reached out, touching the gash, anxiously pulling his hand away as though he expected a great amount of heat. There was none. The area around the light felt like canvas, almost as though he was standing behind a movie screen looking up at the projector. Looking back over his shoulder, Andy saw nothing. His car was gone. The road was gone. There was just Andy and this phenomenon.
He reached out with both hands and tore the opening wider, flooding the darkness with light as bright as the sun at noon. Now he could see beyond the edge, beyond where he was standing.
"Oh. My. God."
Tears filled his eyes and spilled down his cheeks. Every ounce of fear, anger, and anxiety that he had felt was flushed out of his system. Calm and understanding enfolded him like a lost child who had reunited with his mother.
With a new sense of vigor, Andy ripped the opening wider until it stood as tall as Andy himself and maybe twice as wide. He took a deep breath, which seemed to cement the tranquility that he felt, and then released it. Before his next breath, Andy had stepped through the opening and into the source of the light. As he moved through, the hole healed itself, leaving no sign of ever having been there.
Joe Foreman wound his police cruiser through the twists and curves of HWY 581 as it approached Lake Benjamin. A resident who lived on the lake had called in an abandoned vehicle this morning. The caller had abstained from investigating further and would only say that the car was in a cutoff by a small dock. There were, unfortunately, a large number of small docks and cutoffs all around the lake.
Thankfully, Joe had grown up around here and had a pretty good idea where he was heading. As he approached the cutoff, he saw a Sheriff's cruiser parked beside a dented, green Volvo. Joe knew that Volvo. It belonged to Andy Soloman. Poor bastard had lost his wife and baby boy a few months back when their car was hit head-on by a drunk driver. Andy, who wrote for the local paper, hadn't been the same since, but who the hell would be? Andy was a good man, and Joe's heart had gone out to him. His heart sank as he pondered what might be going on.
"Jesus," Joe said to himself solemnly.
As he pulled clear of a few smaller trees, Joe could see what had gone on and his heart dropped to the soles of his feet. He threw a hand up to Jim Alexander, the Sheriff's deputy who was already on scene. Joe put his Crown Vic in PARK before carefully making his egress.
As he extended his hand to the deputy, his eyes traced a run of rubber hose that led from the Volvo's tailpipe into the rear driver's side window. There was a crude construct of foam set up to insulate the car's cabin. As he continued walking, Joe saw that the driver's door was open a prescription bottle lying on the ground. If Joe were a betting man, his money would be on sleeping pills. Jesus Andy.
"Mornin' Joe. Can't say there's much good about it."
Joe nodded silently. He could see Andy's left arm dangling lifelessly out of the car and he was vaguely aware that Jim was still talking. He picked up 'suicide' but little else. Joe had known Andy for 10 years and didn't want to see his friend like this, but something was drawing him. Years later, Joe would have no real explanation for it. He just needed to see. Jim was still talking, his words fading into background noise along with the morning birds. When he was beside the open door, Joe took a deep breath and looked.
Andy was in the driver's seat, which was reclined. His cheeks had high color, common in cases of carbon monoxide poisoning. There was an enormous smile on his face and Joe thought to himself that it was the happiest Andy had looked since losing his family. Andy's right arm was curled around a set of wreaths, which had been taken from the roadside. Joe recognized the wreaths and had passed them almost every day for the past few months. He glanced back up to Andy's smiling face, then back to the wreaths. Along with the original dedications was a new line, which had been written in with a Sharpie:
Veronica Soloman: Loving Mother, Devoted Wife
Thomas Soloman: Beloved Son
And, added in via permanent marker:
Andrew Soloman: I'm Going Home