Driving at night sucked. The poker game at Tom’s had gone long and now Jim had thirty miles in front of him at just past midnight. Beyond the windshield, the cracked two-lane unraveled slowly. He longed to be home already, tucked inside his warm bed beside his warm wife, spooning on their flannel sheets.
Soon enough, he thought. The second place cash in his pocket made him smile. Monday he could crow about it to his co-workers, how his pocket queens got cracked by pocket tens. Just another sad poker story, but at least he finished in the cash.
Meat Loaf crooned on the radio. Jim tapped his fingers on the steering wheel and hummed under his breath. He felt pretty good. Probably shouldn’t have had that last beer. Though he didn’t feel drunk, a light aura of contentment enveloped him. The yellow dashes between the lanes flickered by like dead echoes of Morse code.
He didn’t see the bicyclist until it was too late.
"Jesus fuck!" he screamed and slammed on the brakes. The truck squealed in protest. His wheels locked and skidded toward the static tableau of a young man halfway across the road, gaping in wonder at the vehicle bearing down upon him. Jim pumped the brakes frantically, his hands gripping the steering wheel as if it were a life preserver. His eyes bugged. His teeth ground together. He prepared for impact.
When it came, the whole scene slowed, every microsecond preserved for him to observe in excruciating detail.
The front of the truck impacting with the rider.
The young man launching himself upward out of his seat to avoid having his leg pinned between the bumper and the bike frame.
The grinding crash of the pedals meshing with the metal grille.
The rider rolls up onto the hood of the truck, leaving a dent, and continues to hurtle toward the windshield.
And then momentum ceases. The brakes do their job. Time spits everything back out in reverse. Both the bike and the rider are launched forward into the road, about twenty feet from the front of the idling truck.
"Fuck!" Jim yells again and puts it in park. His hands are shaking badly, nerves taut like bowstrings. For a minute, he can’t find the door handle to get out. When he does, he stands unsteadily on the concrete. He has to lean against the truck for a moment, wondering if he’ll be sick. The feeling passes and he stumbles to the still prone man illuminated by the headlights.
Jim is sure the man is dead. As he nears, though, the rider stirs.
"Don’t move," he says. "You’re hurt." He can see now the young man is probably in his late twenties, dark complexion with a ghost of a goatee. Medium build, dressed in jean shorts and printed T-Shirt depicting a well-endowed Chihuahua. Above the dog’s head hung a cartoon bubble proclaiming Yo quiero this!
The rider stood up anyway. He shook his head and seemed dazed. Jim watched him nervously, expecting any moment to see blood blossom on the shirt or begin streaming from numerous cuts and scrapes. For some reason, he thought about the time when he was thirteen. He and some friends were walking downtown, heading to a movie. They came across an old hub cap lying on the road. He picked it up and tossed it like a Frisbee, showing off to his buddies. As it left his hand, the rusty metal disc tore a strip of skin off his thumb. He stared at his hand for what seemed a full minute before the blood finally welled to the surface of the deep cut. During that minute, he’d always wondered what his body had been thinking while it prepared to send plasma to the damaged area.
"I think I’m okay," said the rider. To his surprise, Jim didn’t see any blood erupting like geysers from the man’s broken body. In fact, the young man didn’t appear hurt in any way. He was walking around his twisted bicycle in wonder. "Holy shit," he whispered.
Jim nodded. The bike frame was bowed in the middle like a concave piece of art on display in some inner city gallery. The back tire bore a striking similarity to one of Dali’s melting clocks. Shards of plastic from the broken reflectors littered the road. How the young man escaped that transformation without being touched...well, it approached something akin to miracle.
Suddenly Jim became nervous. He’d been drinking all night. If a cop happened along and gave him a breathalyzer test, it would be the end of his driving days for a while. Might even toss him in the clink.
"Well, if you’re sure you’re okay," he said and got back into the still idling truck.
The rider watched, his face hardening. "Hey, man. What about my bike?"
Jim shrugged. "You were in the middle of the road at night, for shit’s sake. Next time you’ll know better." He put the truck in drive. "At least you weren’t hurt."
As he rolled away, he saw the young man in his rear view mirror flip him off then turn to collect the mangled remains of his bicycle. Jim held his breath until he got around the next curve. His whole body trembled. No more late night poker games, he told himself. No more drunk driving. The truck picked up speed.
A couple miles from home, he thought he saw another cyclist just beyond the cone of his headlights. He was sure he saw the metallic glint of turning spokes. But it was nothing. Nothing but his overworked imagination.
The next morning, he nearly choked on his bagel when he saw the headline in the regional section of the Sunday newspaper.
Bicyclist killed by drunk driver.
Jim swallowed hard. He read further.
Sometime after midnight, Jacob Christopher, 27, of Grand Rapids, was struck and killed by a car driven by Troy Hyams, 19, of Rockford. According to police reports, Christopher had been riding his bicycle to Steele Manufacturing, where he worked third shift. Hyams was returning home after a house party, when his SUV struck and killed Christopher. Hyams reportedly blew twice the legal limit during a routine breathalyzer test, and was taken into custody. Family members were notified...
He skimmed the remainder of the article, his face pounding with a mixture of embarrassment, relief and guilt.
Jacob Christopher. The young man’s name had been Jacob. For some reason, Jim wished he’d known that last night.
He folded the paper, finished his breakfast and washed it down with a bitter cup of black coffee. Nobody knows, he thought. I’m off the hook. If I had left the poker game even two minutes later, Hyams still would have creamed Jacob’s bike. Things would have turned out the same.
For the rest of the day, he tried to shake the feeling that people were watching him. A little girl stared while he waited in line at the bookstore, her forehead creased as if deep in thought. Pedestrians seemed to inspect the dent in his hood as they passed by. At the grocery store, an old woman accidentally bumped into his cart and scowled at him with outrage.
"Watch where you’re going!" she shrieked. Everybody in the store looked at him.
He mumbled an apology and practically ran away, his chest thumping, hands sweaty.
He gave every bicyclist a wide berth on his way home, though it was full daylight.
Each little noise in his apartment became the knock of the police. He sat in front of the television, watching nothing, drinking a beer but not tasting it. Soon it was time for bed.
Some time past midnight, he awoke from a nightmare that he couldn’t recall, a scream stopped cold in his throat and the phantom echo of broken spokes rattling in his ears.
For the next three months, Jim tried to forget what happened that night. The memory dissipated surprisingly fast. He fixed the dent. People stopped looking at him strangely. And the dreams went away. Life returned to normal.
"Come on," said Tom, his words slurred together so they sounded like one. "We’ll get another game going in just a minute. You haven’t played in so long!"
Jim shook his head. "No thanks, I gotta get home." It was true; his brother was coming in from Detroit tomorrow morning to help him move some stuff into storage.
"Oh sure, take your winnings and run. I get it." Tom stumbled back to the poker table while Jim retrieved his coat.
He bid everyone goodnight, then went out into the darkness. Although it was mild for a November evening, the gusting wind gave the air a wicked bite. He climbed into his truck, fumbling a little with the keys. How many beers had he drunk? Five? Six? A few, anyway. A warm pall enveloped his body.
For just a moment, he thought about going inside and crashing on Tom’s couch. He’d have to get up at dawn, race back home, shower, change and then meet his brother. It could be done, but it would be inconvenient. Better to get home right now and be done with it. He could sleep in his own comfortable bed, cuddled under his own flannel sheets. Just the thought decided it for him. He cranked the engine, gave it gas and headed toward home.
The road stretched out ahead. The truck’s headlights carved only a small portion of the blackness. Out here, street lamps were few and far between. It felt like he was swimming from buoy to buoy in a midnight sea.
Slowly, a wave of déjà vu swept over him.
This was the spot, up ahead, where Jacob Christopher died. Unconsciously, Jim let up on the gas pedal. The truck’s speed dropped until he rolled along at just under thirty miles per hour. He scanned the dark, expecting to see something…some kind of sign, perhaps? A message from beyond exonerating him from guilt? He chuckled drunkenly. Yeah, right. Like the dead have time for forgiveness.
Jim blinked away the bleariness creeping in at the corners of his vision.
A single blink.
Jacob Christopher appeared in the road, astride his bicycle, that same dismayed look of surprise on his face.
Jim kicked both feet onto the brake pedal. Momentum surged forward while the truck tried to stop. Too late. Jacob slammed onto the hood, his neck snapping sideways with the impact, his body like a ragdoll, rolling up against the windshield where his head smacked a spiderweb crack in the glass.
Then he was gone, thrown back out onto the street.
The truck shuddered to a stop. Jim peeled his whitened hands off the steering wheel and got out, trembling with that familiar mixture of fear and adrenaline.
The road was empty.
He stared. No twisted body in the road, no wrecked bike, no debris. Nothing but empty concrete and oil stains.
Jim looked at his truck. A fresh dent on the hood and grille. The newly-formed crack in his windshield. None of that was his imagination.
"You fucker!" he yelled into the night. "It’s your fault, not mine!"
A forlorn wind soughing through the trees answered him.
Shaking badly now, Jim climbed back into his truck. He put it in drive.
Down the road, less than a quarter mile, Jacob waited for him again. Only instead of that innocent, shocked look, he now smiled smugly into the headlights.
Jim floored it.
"Take that, motherfucker!" he shrieked as the body struck his vehicle. More dents, more cracked glass. In his rearview mirror, nothing lay dead in the middle of the road.
The truck hurtled down the road.
Suddenly, bicyclists were everywhere. Ten Jacob Christophers, a hundred, a thousand. The truck plowed through them until it sounded like driving through a hailstorm from hell. Jacob’s twins leered at him through the spidery windshield. A multitude of bicycles bounced off the truck, aluminum screeching in death throes.
But no blood. Never any blood.
Jim leaned over the steering wheel, foot steady on the gas pedal. This wasn’t his fault. He refused to take responsibility. After all, it had to end sometime, right?
The truck continued to hurtle through the darkness, no longer on the road, no longer near any road on any map. Countless Jacob Christophers waited on their bikes, patient, grinning.
A long, endless night of driving lay ahead.
# # #
This actually happened. Well, not exactly as written, but I did run into a bicyclist many years back. It was during the day and the biker was going the wrong way. He was unharmed except for some minor scrapes, but I felt so bad I took him to a wellness center nearby then bought him a new bike. We never met again. Just one weird afternoon that will haunt me until I die. At least I got a story out of it!