Brainstorm was written to accompany a photograph by artist Charles Chan Casela, featured in Musee Magazine's second issue on fears.
It seemed a good omen that the road was not on the GPS. Today, he’d been averaging forty miles an hour on a pot-holed highway weaving through desolate towns. He’d just filled up at a gas station that boasted diesel and hard liquor when a snappy sign at a brand-new fork pointed right ahead to his final destination. This route too new to be in the navigation system jolted his adrenaline. There was something unbeatable about shortcuts. He could have told a few good stories about that, if he ever cared to look back on his life. But he didn’t.
The new highway was a wide empty spread of asphalt cutting through miles of thick prairie. Up to the horizon lines of the windshield and the mirrors, no other cars. Nothing else buta gathering of heavy clouds ahead. He pressed the gas pedal. Eighty, ninety miles an hour. One hundred. Nice. The story of his life, yes. Straight ahead, full speed, just focus on where you’re going, forget what you left behind. He grinned at the GPS showing him smack in the middle of a green expanse, the web of roads all around zigzagging through towns too small to have a name and him darting in a straight line. Then the screen turned into a dull grey, and wouldn’t answer the controls.
Either the car was really going fast now, or a powerful wind was blowing right ahead. Maybe both. Within minutes, clouds and car had caught up with each other. Lightning snapped right next to him, so close he never heard the thunder, but was dizzied by the violent whip. The car kept going. He waited for rain that never came but lifted his foot off the pedal a bit, just in case. Continued easing due East.
A glistening in the distance could be a car or two. He let go of the pedal a little more, let the car slide back to a civil speed. It took longer than he expected to meet the lights, and when he did, there were no cars, just a couple of streetlights over the big dark lumps of scattered houses tied to power lines like ships at anchor. To think that his life had started in a place like this. But look where he was now. He’d never turned back, and he was glad he hadn’t.
He was about to pass that soulless mooring when his car went awfully silent and his gas pedal loosened. His instinct was to hit the brake pedal, but it barely nudged in, even with his body arched against his leg. His knuckles cramped around the stiff steering wheel.The dashboard was blind. The tires rumbled a mad bass against the brand new road. The car’s course died next to the houses scattered along a street empty but for a kid shuffling his feet.
He tried his cellphone. There was no network. Of course not. He opened the hood for the heck of it--what did he hope to find? Then he walked to the kid and said, “Are your parents home? I need a phone,” and the kid said nothing, just started straight down Only Street as if he’d been waiting all along just for that.
As they neared the first house, a curtain moved.
“I’ll try these folks,” he said.
The kid shrugged, stopped and shuffled.
His feet crunched the gravel of the driveway. The kid’s gaze was like a burn between his shoulders, a heaviness not unlike guilt. But for what? He was just trying to get out of here.
He knocked. Behind the window closest to the door, the curtain moved again. A parting with one finger, a count to two, then the curtain was dropped. He could have sworn he also saw a shadow move away. But he only heard the wind, and the kid’s shuffling. He lifted the flaps of his jacket around his neck and knocked again, a stronger rap, and again. He might have even called. No one answered but the indecent smell of laundry detergent.
He tried a couple of other houses, with the kid sticking after him like an unpleasant memory. Leave already, he wanted to tell him. The first house had bright lights on. In the second, music played like wind chimes in a storm. No one answered him.
His heartbeat picked up, a dull throb that made him want to run. “Where do you go to school?” he said, and really it was only to hear his own voice--to shut the wind whistling through the power lines.
The kid ducked his fists in his jacket and hurried his steps. The thick smell of fresh moist earth grabbed his throat. Cold dampness crept through his suit. The street turned into a trail, and their shoes sucked up mud. Right and left, the wind flattened hedges of hairy grass. A boarded house closed up the decaying trail, and a feeling of déjà vu tied up his stomach. Across a bed of weeds posing as a front yard, strewn chipped planks opened a path to the front door. The silent child tramped on the soaked weeds.
As he stepped on the planks, the door creaked open.
In the doorway stood a woman not unlike his mother, both soft and irritating in unbearable ways. “Where have you been?” she said. He turned to see if the child would speak at last, but the grass where he had stood was straight, the mud had only one set of footsteps, and the mother was waiting for him to answer.