General Fiction posted May 18, 2019

Not yet exceptional. When the exceptional rating is reached this is highlighted
Two strangers meet


by Richard Van Kirk

No coverage, not even one bar. It was past nine PM when the Ford Aspire quit. Again. "These cars are only good for four years," his smartass brother chided. "Yours is what? Twelve?" Ha, ha, chuckle, chuckle, yada, yada. The sky was overcast all day, now it's dark with no stars, no light, and the battery on the cell is too low to waste on the flash light. He shook his head and took a deep breath, and then another. In through the nose, out through the mouth. He had been thinking of how nice the road was. New tarmac, no bumps, holes, interruptions. Then the car quit. This time it overheated. Maybe a belt, or the thermostat, or worse, the water pump.
Twenty-four-year old Gerald Fitzgerald stood on the side of the road, looking up and then down, squinting through darkness, as if that would help him see something he may have missed. How can this be happening? I'm going from one problem to the next. It's terrible, he thought. There's no peace. He left the Army seven months ago. Two tours in Iraq. He lost four of his squad in an IED explosion. They were in his Humvee. He should have been in it with them. He should have died with them. But he didn't.

Hoping someone may drive by, he walked about twenty feet from the dead car to get away from the creaks, moans, hissing, and snaps that erupted as the engine cooled. As he listened, he felt more than heard a presence; someone, or something, was watching him from the darkness of endless brush and scrub oak he passed through for hours. He held his breath, not moving. He was sure something was there watching. He heard nothing.

There was no traffic on the perfect road, so Fitz, that's what he'd been called since he was three, walked in the middle of the blacktop with his well-worn Martin guitar slung over his back. The night air was damp, muggy, drawing in hungry mosquitoes. He used the guitar to swat the incoming bugs. There were more of them than he could handle. He would have loved to call in an air strike just then. Something incendiary. He was afraid he'd damage the Martin if he kept using it as a bat. He needed it for money, playing guitar was his only income, except for unemployment.

He heard an earsplitting whistle and jumped, wild-eyed. The sky lit up with light brighter than the sun. He wanted to run into the brush, but he was sure there was something there already, waiting for him.

The light came from a high tower, at least two-hundred feet tall. It held a massive group of LEDs, millions of candle power, pointing in every direction. In the brilliance he saw the top of a cabin's chimney in woods thicker than the scrub lining the road. He began jogging, scanning for a break in the brush that would indicate a roadway into the woods to the cabin. He saw the break just when the lights went out, leaving him bathed in darkness deeper than before.

He slowed, creeping steps, keeping the small opening in his memory. His foot caught something large and he fell hard, smashing his right knee when he landed face-front on the tarmac. With his cell phone he hit the light and saw a two-foot long armadillo, rolling itself into a ball for self-protection. Fitz grabbed his knee and bellowed at the creature. "What the hell!" he yelled, reaching for the guitar and setting it on the ground next to him. He rolled on the warm tarmac. "Good God! This is all I need. Tripping over an armadillo? Really?" Pain shot up his leg to his back.

Fitz wasn't sure if he could stand. The pain got worse, coursing through his leg and up his back. Gingerly, he straightened his leg out. "Ow, alright? Ow-freakin-ow!" He heard the armadillo inch off the road and into the brush. "Good riddance!" he yelled.

He smelled wood burning. It may be from the chimney. It was too far for anyone to hear him. He yelled anyway. "Hello! Hey, can anyone hear me? Help!" He held his breath to listen. For an instant he wondered what armadillos ate. The thing was gone. He was alone.

He heard a sound, someone walking on the dirt shoulder, coming out of the brush, scuffing his feet. Or her feet. It may have been what was watching. He felt his neck hairs tingle. For a moment he wished he hadn't yelled for help. One day he will learn to keep his freakin' mouth shut. He heard a voice.

"Are you okay?" A woman's voice.

"Hello, I'm lying on the road. I fell over an armadillo."

A low-powered light came on and played over him, lying on the tarmac, next to the guitar. "My car broke down. I was looking for help."

"Can you stand?"

"Not sure. I crashed down on my knee. The one I usually use first to get up. Do you have any suggestions?"

"Let me help you," she said, standing near his side. "Which knee is bad?"


She reached down and told him to grab her wrists, "sit up."

He held her arms as he moved to a sitting position. "That's better," he said.
The woman told him to get his left leg underneath, and she would be his right leg.

"I'm kind of big," he said, thinking of his six-feet two inch frame and two hundred pounds.

"Let's do it together," she said, ignoring his comment. "Hold tight. At the count of three I'll pull and you use your left leg to push." She counted, he pushed, she pulled, and he stood. She kept her hands on him, holding him at the waist as pain soared through his leg and back. "My head hurts, too," he said.

"It's from the pain." She wiped her hand over his head, front to back. "No swelling, no bleeding. Does it hurt when I touch?"

Fitz thought for a moment. "No."

"Sometimes falls make everything hurt." She had a southern accent. She was tall, maybe five eight or nine. She played the light over her face and features. "I'm Lisa," she said.

"Fitz. Thanks for helping me. I could not have gotten up alone."

"You would have, if you waited long enough. Oil tankers -- twenty-two wheelers come by here about every hour or so. You would have gotten up when you heard it. Or you'd never get up."

"Was that a joke?"

"Sort of. But the trucks do come down this road in a big hurry. Try to take a step."
Fitz moved inches. Pain shot up his leg and he stopped moving. Lisa bent down and put her hands on his ankle, working them up his leg to the knee. She said touching it may hurt, but she needed to feel it. When she put her hands on his knee, it didn't hurt as much as he thought.

"It's bruised good, there's a wet patch of blood. But the knee cap is in place and I don't feel a lot of swelling like I thought I would if it was worse. Put weight on it."

Fitz put his foot down on the tarmac, lifting up his left foot. He took a step.

"Good job," she said, grabbing the guitar. "It's a bit of a walk, but I think you can make it to the cabin." Lisa used her light to show the way to the dirt road. Fitz found the pain manageable as he limped along. He kept his arm around Lisa's waist, for security.

The cabin was small, rustic. Lights from the windows splashed warm glow across the drive. It was one step to the porch. Fitz held the post to steady himself.

"It ain't much," she said. "But it's all I got."

"Do you live by yourself?"

"Mostly, except for people who trip over the armadillo and have to spend the night!"

"Was that a joke?"

"Sort of," she sighed. "I've been alone for seven months."

Fitz cocked his head, questioning. Lisa opened the screen door and led him into the cabin. There was a small sofa that looked new. She motioned for him to sit. Lisa placed the Martin against the wall next to the end table. Fitz sat on the sofa and watched Lisa take off his shoe and put his leg up. She took a towel from the bathroom, probably next to a bedroom, there were two doors, and put it under his knee. "Are you ready to take a look?" He nodded. Lisa lifted his pant leg up while holding his foot off the sofa. When she got to the knee she pushed the material over it. It was bleeding, but not as much as Fitz thought. She tsked. "It's not too bad, but it does look like it hurts."

Fitz gazed at her. He thought she was being facetious. She got a small bowl of warm water, a bit of soap, a wash rag, and held it over his knee, gently wiping the blood. She felt behind the knee and thought there was no damage. She bandaged the wound and left the pants up so it could get air.

Fitz was curious. "You've been alone for seven months?"

She sighed, nodding her head. Her hair was brown with blond highlights. Her eyes green, like his.

"Feels like seven years," she said, her head down. "Ron died at the Refinery, just after New Year's. Crushed, they said. Accident." He knew her pain ran deep. A flash of Humvee blowing into pieces flooded his mind. He knew seven months felt like seven years. He changed the subject, for both of them. "You were watching me when my car died?" She nodded.

"I was off the shoulder. I go there sometimes to watch the lights come on."

"What was that about?"

"The Refinery. They blow the whistle and slam on the lights every night at ten. It's a drill. In case of an accident."

"Did that happen when Ron died?"

"No. The insurance company made them start it after he died. They had to pay me more than they paid anyone else."

Fitz knew money was useless without someone to share it with. "Doesn't matter how much it was," he said. "Money is useless without someone to share it with."

Lisa looked at him startled. "That's what I said. That's what I always say."

Fitz nodded. "I didn't lose someone I loved, but I did lose four good friends in Iraq." He took in a deep breath, letting it out slow. "I guess, in a brotherly way, I loved those guys, too."

"Did they give you money?"

"Naw, their families got it. I wouldn't have taken it anyway. You can't eat it. You can't use it to keep warm."

"True, but you could buy a car that works."

"That too, is true," he sighed, laying his head back on the arm rest of the small sofa.

"You can sleep here, Fitz," Lisa said. She stood and walked into the room next to the bathroom. She came out with blankets and men's shorts and tee shirt. "Ron's," she said. "Let's get you into the bathroom. You can use his clothes. They're all clean. I'll make your bed."
Fitz washed and put on her husband's clothes. Lisa pulled out the sofa into a bed and put the sheets and blanket and pillow in place. Fitz was grateful. And exhausted.

"Tomorrow we'll call the tow truck from town. It's ten miles." I'll drive you in and wait until you find out the damage."

"Thanks Lis, you are very kind." She smiled, lowering her head. No one's called her Lis since Ron.

"The least I can do after my armadillo accosted you."

Fitz did not ask if she was joking. She gave him aspirin and a glass of water. "What am I doing?" she said. "Are you hungry? I didn't ask if you were hungry!"

"Dog tired," he said, finishing the glass of water. She gave him another glassful.

"You're right, Fitz. Sleep is what we both need." She made sure he was tucked in, and turned off the lights. He heard the lock on the bedroom door click. Smart woman, he thought.

In the morning, Fitz's knee was swollen, but not terribly bad. Lisa offered coffee, scrambled eggs, grits, toast, and aspirin. By 8:30 she asked him if he wanted to drink his coffee outside. "We can watch the balloon."

"Is that a joke?"

"No, I'm sorry. The Refinery sends up a weather balloon each morning to get actual wind speed and air currents. It helps them decide what airducts and exhaust chimneys they'll use. The law states they can't allow the fumes to course over the town. They have three sets, depending on which way the wind is blowing."

"Is that because of Ron's accident?"

She nodded.

Fitz shook his head, trying to fathom the depth of tragedy the woman experienced. He wanted to ask her why she stayed there, so close to the refinery. But he didn't. He wanted to ask her if she had any family, but was afraid of the answer. She walked in the woods at night, alone, waiting for the refinery that killed her husband to blast a whistle and light up the sky. He wanted to hold her. Instead she held him, as she walked him to her car. "The tow is waiting at your car. We'll follow him into town and see what's up. OK?"

Fitz nodded.

"Look," she said, pointing over the trees, in the direction of the light tower. A twenty-foot cylindrical balloon moved quietly up, past the lights. They craned their necks watching the weather balloon disappear into low-lying cloud. "Don't you wish you could put your cares and problems, and worries in that and just watch them disappear?"

Fitz nodded, and never be alone, he thought.

Every Story Has A Beginning contest entry

Your scenario is- A man?s car breaks down on a deserted highway. There is no cell phone coverage. He gets an eerie feeling of being watched when suddenly the night sky is lit a brilliant white?
You must include a weather balloon, an armadillo and a whistle. These must be incorporated in a meaningful way ? not just mentioned.
Pays one point and 2 member cents.

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