The Road Home

by Paul Silverman

The weather delay at Logan almost made Charles Mulcahy miss Christmas Eve. But now, the silver 600SL was humming and the visibility was fine despite the snow. The road ahead seemed exceptionally clear � nothing in sight to slow him down. It was the holiday, of course. Its onset had swept the highway clean of the usual commuting traffic, and the last of the afternoon light was rapidly going home too. To his left were the Park �n Fly lots, silent as cemeteries; to his right, a sooty hill capped by a tall Madonna statue and shrine, standing exactly as they had when he was a schoolboy. As the billboard lamps and neon signs came on, the snow glistened like tinsel, and the traffic signal turning from green to red struck Charles as almost playful, because there were no other cars surging behind or beside him. No police either, he reckoned, and he saw it would be a cakewalk to simply keep on going and run the light. For an instant he leaned on the pedal but in the next instant he came to a resolute stop, applying his brakes in a voluntary act of gratitude and civic decency, even reverence. He found himself giving prayerful thanks to the law - to the heavens as well - for bringing him to where he now sat, both hands on the wheel, both eyes enjoying the merry red circle of light and the silvery ice-threads pelting and melting on the windshield.

Charles bit his lip, readying himself for the blink of an eye when the red would turn green and the car would burst forward like a race horse. But the thrust that came and shocked his body was different and opposite in every possible way � a  crumpling slam from the rear, not caused by the action of his own engine and gears but some large foreign object ramming against his trunk. It flung him towards the windshield like a crash dummy and instantly stiffened the seat belt, which slapped him back into his place. Before he could think to unbuckle, before he could get used to the fact that the previously empty rearview mirror was now filled with blaring light and a hideous metallic mass, a hand shot towards the left side of his head and knuckles rapped against the driver�s window.

Next came a voice, loud and pleading. �Are you okay?� The fist pushed its index finger at him. �You, you�okay?�

Charles fingered the button on the door, dropping the window half-way. He caught a blast of breath as rank as a brewery. Now the voice was even louder, an urgent bellow, repeating its plea � okay? And behind the jabbing finger was a brawling, boozy face, thirty or forty years his junior � a white face, Irish as his own -  head shaved clean as the snow. It was the anonymous lout�s head Charles saw all over his warehouse, attached to scores of neckless beef-bodies running his forklifts, pumping his crates, shimmying up and down  ladders like a colony of young apes.

If Charles Mulcahy knew anything, he knew how to be the CEO of men in the trenches. �What the hell happened, son?� He made the front part sound threatening and the last word fatherly. It left no doubt as to who was in command.

�I hit an ice patch, man. Jesus, I�m sorry, I wrecked your beautiful car. Are you okay?�

The images ran through his head like a river of poison. He would be late for the home crowd, his triumphant mood gone sour, his car ugly and maimed. Everything had turned upside down, all because of some gorilla in a shitbox and his gorilla friends. In the rearview mirror he could now make out the shapes of two other neo-Neanderthals. He imagined the reek of the interior and its occupants, every inch of skin, clothing and upholstery steeped in pot fumes and cheap beer, their adolescent ideal of holiday ambrosia. He knew it because he had lived it himself, back in the days when he was a warehouse monkey too. Chugging longnecks up on the hill behind the outstretched arms of the towering bronze Madonna.

�Do you have insurance, son?� Charles contained himself. There was no point in making it worse.           

�Hey, I�ll call 911 if you want me to. Shit, I can�t believe this. My fault, definitely mine. Hey. But the ice, I�m telling you��

�I don�t need any 911. I�m not that far gone. Let�s pull over to the shoulder. Do you have your papers?�

�Thanks, man. I�m sorry. Damn, I wasn�t tailgating you, I swear it. What a holiday, what a freaking holiday. �

Charles watched him turn and jog back, like a private who�d been caught on a bender by the MP or drill sergeant. As they crossed the road to the shoulder, Charles in the lead, he noticed what a true crap-heap the assaulting car was. An ancient Lumina, dented, rusted, sagging and groaning. It was his luck, tough luck. But it could have been anything. A falling meteorite, a piece of shrapnel crashing down from a million miles away.

He could still smell the driver�s beer breath as he inched the car into position, as far off the road as he could get it. The stench was in his lungs and head and worse, it was circulating in the cabin. He saw it as causing yet more damage � not the kind a body shop could fix - oozing into the hand-tooled leather of the seats and dash; infecting the shiny burl of the wooden driver�s wheel. With a flick he sent the window down all the way, and the passenger window too, to create a cross-draft. He kept the motor running and turned the fan dial to its highest position  � the idea was to be quick about it, perform his due diligence with the paperwork and just get the hell out of there; no dressing the boys down, no threatening to press charges � he would keep his mouth shut and decide all that later.

From the glove compartment Charles extracted the black calfskin folio that contained his ownership papers. Glancing at the mirror he saw the driver and one of the two companions, milling oafishly between the two cars, pointing to their bumper and to his trunk, shaking their heads. He climbed out and joined them, very relieved at what damage he found. Incredible, his rear bumper was intact, more scraped than mangled or bruised. The Lumina was less lucky. You get what you pay for, Charles said to himself.

�Do you have a pen?�

The driver shuffled and shrugged. He looked haplessly at his friend.

�It�s okay. I�ve got an extra one � take it. Let me see your license and registration.� The way Charles said this made him feel like a policeman, a feeling he didn�t at all mind. He slid his own papers out of a pocket in the calfskin. And then the meteorite did fall from outer space, fell and struck � but in two pieces � slamming him from more than one direction.

The first slam he saw. It was the same fist that had rapped on his window � only this time it smashed into his mouth and teeth. The next blow was from behind, the crunch of stone or hard steel cracking the back of his skull. The pain cut all the way through to his eyeballs and filled them with fiery colors and hellish shapes. He thought he had been thrown from a building when a third wallop came. It seemed to be from the earth itself, as the cold rubble of the roadside rose and drove the full force of the planet into his face.

Through the swirl of agony and visual chaos a tiny part of Charles stayed alive and battling. It was a beam of something no wider than a single cell, but it kept sending him information. The calfskin being snatched from his hands. His prized silver car throwing back a roar and a screech as it pulled away and took off without him. The ragged Lumina screaming and racing to join it. The two vehicles barrel-assing down the highway, exhaust pipes firing like guns in celebration.

Hot as the pain was, it grew even more searing as he lay there, begging his hands to find the cell phone he had left on the seat. He tasted the gossamer snow as it danced onto his lips and melted away, erased by the stronger substance, the bubbling blood.          

Eventually there were blue lights and a screaming ambulance, and on Christmas morning Charles awoke in the Massachusetts General Hospital, surgically stabilized, sutured, encircled by family and injected with a cocktail of medications for body and mind. By noon he had the wherewithal to absorb the front page of the Boston Globe, where it described the deadly collision of a silver Mercedes and an eighteen-wheeler, in which only the  truck driver survived. To Charles, it was not luck that had left him the last man standing, not at all, but a certain justice built into the natural order of things, a leaning found even in the instruments of civilization. His car, in the end, had served him well, like a fallen soldier. And there would be honor, he thought, in replacing it with a new model that matched the paint exactly.

BIO: Paul Silverman's stories have appeared in The South Dakota Review, Tampa Review, Eureka Literary Magazine, Minnetonka Review, Worcester Review, Alimentum, Coe Review, Jabberwock Review, Eclectica, Hobart Online, Pindeldyboz, The King's English, Smokelong Quarterly, Laura Hird, The Pedestal, Adirondack Review, Dogmatika, Summerset Review, VerbSap, Word Riot, Thieves Jargon and many others. He has three Pushcart nominations, a Best of the Net nomination, and was shortlisted twice for The Million Writers Award.