Lonely road

by Albert J. Manachino

 

Watch your step when you’re driving

     The fog was so thick that it threw the illumination from the headlights back into the driver’s face as if it was a basin of wash water. Groyser brought the vehicle to a halt. His passenger complained.

     “This is a bad place to stop. No one can see us in this pea-souper and we could be rear-ended.”

     A possibility the driver had already taken into consideration.

     “Now, Hupdale, we’ll hear them a long time before they hit us. Fog amplifies sound,” Groyser said patiently.

     He ran the window down in a futile attempt to obtain a better look. Neither Groyser nor his passenger could see as far as the banister. Hupdale recited a long list of disasters and near-disasters that had occurred under similar circumstances. Groyser made a mental note to change car pools at the first opportunity. The passenger ended with “There’s not a single car on the stairs.”

     “Then let’s not worry about being rear-ended.”

     “But there ought to be some traffic. It’s eerie.”

     “Eerie” was the word. Groyser could not recall a single instance where the feeling of isolation was so complete.  It was as if they’d fallen off the world. He put the car into low as they crept slowly upward, the wheels spinning dangerously on the slippery stair treads. Fog exercised a clammy dampening effect like a cold drizzle, so that it was not long before he was forced to crank the window back up.

     The heater produced warm sluggish air that turned into mist so that Groyser eventually was forced to turn it off. Their breath collected on the glass in the form of condensation. While he was able to turn the heater off, he had less success in turning off his companion. Hupdale’s complaints were diverted from the road conditions to conditions at their place of employment. Groyser found the continual carping wearing on his nerves. “What’s gotten into Ogreman?” Hupdale demanded. “Setting up a night shift when a few hours’ overtime would take care of the extra production.”

     Groyser suggested, “Maybe he landed a big contract we know nothing about yet?”

     “Ogreman” was president of the Ozone Improbability Factory  at which they were employed. It specialized in the manufacture of improbabilities, such as tombstones inscribed in braille.

     Abruptly, Groyser held his hand up for silence. “Did you hear that?” he asked.

     “Did I hear what?”

     “Listen!”

     Hupdale listened. “I don’t hear anything. What did it sound like?”

     “It sounded like a crash on the third or fourth floor.”

     “The fourth floor?” That’s where we get off. Like you said, the fog does funny things to sound.”    

     “The sound is salt.”

     “I know THAT, but it doesn’t matter here and now.” Groyser was reluctant to open the window again and the tearing, rending noise he thought he’d heard was not repeated. Moreover, the fog that lay on the steps seemed to be turning into ice and it was with difficulty that he was able to keep the car in the upward lane. He sighed with relief when they reached the third floor landing and made the tight turn at the newel post. Groyser drove a short distance on the landing and made another accurate right turn. The steps to the fourth floor were even slippier than those on the previous levels of the staircase. He swore and Hupdale showed nervousness. He moaned, “If we lose one inch of traction, we’ve had it. Oh, how I wish we’d called in sick.”

      Suddenly the driver sat bolt upright. So delicately were the wheels balanced on the icy treads that the unexpected motion caused a dangerous skid. Hupdale screamed. Skillfully Groyser brought the car to a standstill but it straddled both lanes with the front bumper barely a foot from the downward banister. “What got into you?” Hupdale shouted, almost hysterically. “We almost went into the stairwell.”

     “I saw a light in the rear view mirror.”

     “So what! There’s other drivers on the staircase.”

     “These weren’t headlights.”

     “Not headlights? What else could they be?” Hupdale had to look out the side window to face rear. “I don’t see anything. I haven’t seen anything since we left home—not even a canjalouper.”

     He had mentioned a common staircase predator that preyed on stalled motorists, drinking the gasoline out of their tanks. His remark was accurate. It was as if the beasts had also been driven to shelter by the ice and fog that so heavily blanketed them.  But, more likely, the stairway patrols had thinned out their numbers.

     Groyser said, “You weren’t looking out the rear window. I saw it distinctly—a flashing red light about eight feet off the stair treads.”

     “A red light? Then it can’t be another motorist. Try to straighten out this car and get going again.”

     “Someone may be in trouble out there. God help him if…”

      Hupdale interrupted. “That’s none of our business. Even if there was someone out there, you can’t tell who or what it is.”

     Groyser saw the blinking red light again. It seemed to be too high in the air to be carried by a human being. He opened the door.

     “Stop it! What are you doing?”

     “I’m going to see if he needs help. This is no place to be afoot.”

     Groyser got out and inched his way across the icy treads to the banister.  Gripping it with both hands, he started downward, one step at a time, as if his life depended on it—which it did. If he slipped, Groyser would fall to his death at the bottom of the flight.

     The blinking red light was closer. “Hello!” he called out.

     The light paused as if surprised. “Who, you? Hello yourself!” Hupdale blew the horn frantically. It was evident that he too had seen it. Groyser heard the wheels of his car spinning wildly in search of traction. He thought, “The damned fool is trying to straighten it out, and he doesn’t even have a class seven licence.”

     “Hello!” came the voice from the fog. “Keep calling so that I can find you.”

     Groyser called. Soon a figure emerged from the mist. The light was held high above him on the blade of a scythe which he carried over his left shoulder. The stranger wore a black, shapeless hood and robe. The robe came to his feet, effectively hiding his form, and the hood hid his features, which, suddenly, Groyser did not want to see. All that stood out was the lantern and a pair of luminous eyes in the hood. “Who are you?” the stranger asked in a dry whispery voice.

     “A traveler,” Groyser replied.

     Somehow, Hupdale straightened the car. It proceeded up the stairs, slowly at first, but gaining momentum as it went.

     “He’s deserting us,” Groyser said calmly.

     “Why did you stop?”

     “Because I thought you needed help.”

     “That was very kind of you. Your friend has abandoned you. We may as well travel together.”

     “Delighted,” Groyser replied, not quite sincerely.

     They climbed the stairway side by side. The lantern lit their way in a manner the headlights of his car never succeed in doing.

     “Where are you going?” the figure asked.

     “To work—the Ozone Improbability Factory—that’s on the fourth floor. Who are you?”

     “I’m the safety monitor. I am on my way to mark a break in the banister where a vehicle plunged through. That’s on the top floor too.”

     “The fourth floor? Hell! Hupdale is headed that way—in my car.”

     “He isn’t going to make it.”

     A short distance above them, Groyser heard the thrashings and skidding of a car being fought to be brought under control. They heard a scream of terror and the rending crescendo that bespoke a car going through a space formerly protected by the banister. Metal tore. Tires exploded. A heavy weight struck the wall and the stairs shook under the impact. Pieces of ice broken from the treads by the impact skipped down the steps past them.

     There was nothing to keep Hupdale from plunging into the stairwell. This was all heard—their imaginations supplied the rest. It was too foggy to see and for that Groyser was thankful.

     They arrived at the break in the banister. The whole landing was gone. Only a heavy truck could have caused so much damage. The iron newel post hung rigidly erect over the foggy chasm like the fingernail of a precipice.

     Groyser said, “I thought I heard a crash earlier.”

     His companion stopped. “This is the place I came to mark.”

     He stood in front of the break with his arms outstretched. In both directions. The light continued to blink on and off and every time it went on the bones hidden by the robe were momentarily revealed like an X-ray plate. It provided enough light so that Groyser was able to pick his way around the chasm and proceed to his place of employment.

     The figure waved a goodbye to him. “Thanks for your company. Sorry you lost your car.”

     Groyser sighed. “It couldn’t be helped. There was a nut behind the wheel.”

CONTENTS