If you like it, please consider ordering a copy of Mark's collection, Tales From the Midnight Shift, Vol. 1. I promise you won't be disappointed. I read this one in a single sitting, and that's not something that happens with me too often these days, the crazier life gets. This guy's the real deal. If I didn't think so, I wouldn't currently be collaborating with him on a really kick-ass novella (details to come soon, and I promise you guys are gonna love it!)
Get your copy of Tales From the Midnight Shift right here.
Enjoy! Like I said, I dig the hell outta this one. It reminds me of some of the best of Bentley Little's work . . . but don't take my word for it . . .
by Mark Allan Gunnells
Elliot was running late for work. Which wasn’t unusual, was actually quite the norm. He knew on some level that he was probably acting out his dissatisfaction with his job through chronic tardiness, but he wasn’t one for self-analyzing.
He checked his watch as he sped down the interstate at eighty miles per hour, twenty over the posted speed limit. He was already ten minutes late, and he was about twenty minutes away from his exit, add another fifteen to get to the office from there. That put him at his desk at around 8:45. Even for someone who was perpetually late, that was pushing it. But as long as he made it to the office in time for the weekly department meeting at 9:00, he should be fine.
On cue, as if the gods had heard Elliot’s thoughts and decided to teach him a lesson, he rounded a curve in the road and saw nothing but cars up ahead. Stationary cars. As in not moving, still, going nowhere. Across all four lanes cars just idled, stretching away to the horizon. It was like a fucking parking lot.
“Son of a BITCH!” Elliot shouted, banging his hands on the steering wheel. A traffic jam, just what he needed. Whenever he was in a hurry he could always count on a train blocking his path, or an endless succession of red lights, road construction, heavy rain having washed out a chunk of the street, or a goddam traffic jam. He just couldn’t catch a break.
Elliot braked to a complete stop behind a gray SUV. He was in the second lane from the right, and he was soon boxed in as other cars rounded the curve and got in line. The jerk on his left, some teenaged dick with a backwards cap, actually honked his horn, as if it were just a matter of people not realizing they should be going forward. Jackass.
FIFTEEN MINUTES LATER…
Traffic had not moved, not an inch, not a smidge, not a bit. Elliot assumed there must be one hell of a car accident somewhere up ahead. He could only see about a mile and a half away, then the interstate crested a small rise and dipped down out of his field of vision. Whatever it was had blocked all four south-bound lanes and had traffic at a standstill.
But was it only the south-bound lanes? Elliot noticed that the traffic in the north-bound lanes of the interstate had petered out until it stopped altogether. The north-bound lanes were as empty as the south-bound lanes were packed with immobile vehicles. Could the hypothetical accident have been so bad that it effectively sealed off the south-bound and north-bound lanes of a major highway?
Elliot turned on his car radio and tuned it into the local station, WJAM 106.6. If there was some disaster up ahead, WJAM was sure to be covering it. The hours of 7:00 to 11:00 were devoted to Dillard and Kimbo—or Dullard and Bimbo, as Elliot thought of them—the station’s morning disc jockeys. Elliot rarely listen to them because their inane and monumentally boring chatter was enough to tempt him into plowing straight into a guardrail.
“—and that’s why I always use tinfoil instead of plastic wrap,” Dullard was saying as Elliot found the station.
“Well folks, you heard it here first,” Bimbo said with a laugh. “How to avoid that unfortunate freezer burn. Maybe tomorrow I’ll tell you why I prefer whipped cream over chocolate sauce.”
“Hey, hey, keep it G-rated there, Kimbo,” Dullard said with mock seriousness. “There may be kiddies listening.”
“Oh come on, Dillard, you think anyone is listening?”
“Yeah, my mom for sure.”
“Please, everyone knows your mom prefers the Chuck and Kelly show on WBKY.”
“Mom, no, you swore—“
Elliot punched the button to silence those humorless pricks. Whatever was happening apparently wasn’t dire enough to warrant a break in the standard routine of easing people into their work day by making the commute so excruciating that they were practically begging to get into the office by the time they finally got there.
TEN MINUTES LATER…
Elliot dug through his satchel looking for his cell phone. He obviously wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. He had the car in park and was considering turning off the engine altogether. The gas gauge was hovering just above the E, and he needed to conserve every drop.
He finally found his cell phone, but pushing the small button on the side did not turn the damn thing on. Apparently the battery had no charge. Leaning over, he popped open the glove compartment and rummaged around for the battery charger that plugged directly into the car’s otherwise unused lighter.
“Gotcha,” Elliot said, snagging the charger and plugging in the phone. The small screen lit up and played a little tune, letting him know it was operational and happy to be so. He keyed in his boss’s number and put the phone to his ear. Nothing. He looked down at the small screen and saw that the phone was not getting a signal.
“Goddam piece of SHIT!” Elliot yelled then tossed the phone into the passenger’s seat. It pulled loose of the charger and lay there, dead, as useless to him as a block of cheese in a crisis.
He would definitely not be there for the 9:00 meeting, and he had no way to get in touch with his boss. And it wasn’t even his fault this time, for Christ’s sake. Act of God, force of nature, my dog ate my homework, whatever, but for once it wasn’t his fault and he had no way to let his boss know that.
HALF AN HOUR LATER…
Most of the people around Elliot had turned off their cars, several of them stepping out to stretch, walk around, grab a smoke. Conversations were struck up, laughs were shared, complaints were swapped, speculations arose. The prevailing theory seemed to be that two tractor-trailers had collided, one laid out across the south-bound lanes, the other across the north-bound lanes. There was nothing to support this particular hypothesis—Dullard and Bimbo, heard through the rolled-down windows of several cars, had still made no reference to the colossal traffic jam on the interstate—but it seemed as plausible as any other.
Elliot sat on the hood of his Celica, playing a handheld Tetris game he’d found in the glove compartment when searching for the phone charger. Maybe his boss had heard about the traffic jam and concluded that Elliot was stuck somewhere on the interstate, or maybe she thought he was an irredeemable slacker and was planning to fire him as soon as he got in. Either way, he didn’t give much of a fuck at this point. It would almost be a blessing to get fired, to be able to wake up in the morning without a sense of dread weighing down on him like a coffin lid.
Elliot stretched his neck until it popped, then leaned his head back and gazed up at the sky. Easter-egg blue, with a few cotton-candy clouds floating by like barges in the sea. Damn, nothing like a traffic jam to get a person’s poetic juices flowing.
He looked around at everyone milling about the interstate, visiting other cars, walking dogs, a ragtag game of football had even broken out in the median between the north and south-bound lanes. It was like an old-fashioned block party, Elliot thought. Not that he’d ever been to a block party, but he’d seen them on television. The whole situation had a surreal quality to it, like something experienced in a dream.
The teenaged dick from the Ford pickup to Elliot’s left was flirting with the teenaged daughter of the driver of the SUV directly in front of Elliot. Papa was keeping a disapproving eye on the whole affair. To his right was an elderly woman who seemed made up entirely of wrinkles, chewing on beef jerky while leaning against the door of her gas-guzzling boat of a Chevrolet. Behind Elliot was a minivan filled with screaming children and a frazzled woman who looked like she might be contemplating suicide as an escape from the hell that raged inside her van.
A light breeze sprang up, cooling the sweat on Elliot’s forehead, and he closed his eyes and smiled. There were lots of grumblings around him, people ready to get on their way to wherever they were going, but Elliot found that in an odd way he was enjoying himself. Sure beat the hell out of going to work. Where were you all day, Elliot? Why, I was attending a block party out on the interstate.
TWO HOURS LATER…
People were starting to get hostile. The whole situation was wearing on people’s nerves, and there was bound to be some spillover. Small disagreements sprouted, blossoming into full-fledged arguments. Somewhere several cars ahead there was a fistfight. Some helpful truckers broke it up before anyone got hurt.
Elliot cranked his car for a moment, plugged his phone back into the lighter, and tried again to make a call. Still no signal. He’d heard several people complain of the same problem.
A man who looked to be in his mid-thirties, dressed in a suit and silk tie, knocked on Elliot’s window. “Hey, some of us are gonna go get something to eat? You want anything?”
“Something to eat?” Elliot said. “From where?”
“Well, there were a couple of fast-food places off the exit about two miles back. A few of us are gonna hike back that way and get some grub.”
“What if traffic starts back up while you’re gone?” Elliot asked, not really believing it would. It had been so long, the very idea of traffic starting back up just seemed unthinkable. Had there ever been a time when these cars moved?
“My wife is staying with the car,” Silk Tie said, pointing toward a very pregnant woman standing by a white Subaru. “If traffic starts up again, she’ll just pull the car over on the shoulder and wait ‘til I get back. Same with the other fellas going with me.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Elliot said, fishing a five out of his wallet and handing it to Silk Tie. “I’ll take a cheeseburger and any kind of soda. I appreciate it.”
“Not a problem,” Silk Tie said, then he and three others headed off down the interstate, weaving through the cars like survivors of some cataclysmic holocaust.
FIVE HOURS LATER…
Silk Tie and his three buddies never came back. Silk Tie’s pregnant wife couldn’t seem to stop crying, interspersed from time to time with some hysterical screaming just for the sake of variety. People were scared; there was a lot of praying, more fights, and more than a little fucking. The driver of the SUV had been one of the three to go for food with Silk Tie, and his daughter’s method of grieving her father’s disappearance was to climb into the back of the SUV with the teenaged dick for about twenty minutes.
Elliot had discovered a half-empty bag of M&Ms under the front seat of his car, buried treasure. He huddled in the backseat and ate them slowly, savoring each one, trying to be as discreet as possible. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to share, it was just that he wasn’t going to share.
Through the windshield, Elliot saw SUV’s daughter and the teenaged dick emerge from the SUV, tears on her face and a grin on his. He swaggered back to his truck, leaving her alone.
THE NEXT DAY…
Elliot sat on the pavement, in the meager shade thrown by the teenaged dick’s pickup, gnawing on a piece of beef jerky that Ms. Wrinkles had been kind enough to share with him. It was a lot like trying to eat shit-flavored leather, but it was better than nothing. Elliot had finished off the M&Ms last night.
Nearby a group of people were having a theological discussion of sorts. A fat woman in a floral dress was saying she believed there had indeed been a horrible accident on the interstate. Her theory was that they had all been killed in the accident and were now in some kind of purgatory. Elliot almost chimed in that he didn’t believe in hell, or heaven for that matter, but then thought better of it. Tensions were high, if he were to espouse the wrong opinion, these people were liable to attack and tear him to pieces. He’d read Lord of the Flies. Well, he’d seen the movie.
ONE HOUR LATER…
Dullard and Bimbo were discussing the latest Keanu Reeves film as if it had the power to change lives and enrich the world.
Maybe there was a hell, after all.
SEVEN HOURS LATER…
Elliot noticed that he kept seeing Minivan Mom, but he no longer saw any of her children. And he didn’t hear them in the van. The fat lady in the floral dress asked about them, but Minivan Mom just smiled strangely and said, “They’re sleeping.”
THE NEXT DAY…
Silk Tie’s wife went into labor early in the morning. People started spreading the word up and down the line, trying to find a doctor. It reminded Elliot of that children’s game where everyone sits in a row, and the first person whispers something to the next person, that person whispers it to the next, that one to the next, until you get to the last person in the row, the fun of the game being how different the end statement is from what the first person originally whispered.
Is there a doctor in the house?
Is there a doorway for the house?
Where’s the doorway for the mouse?
Is he a boring mouse?
He’s a bore and a louse.
We’re never getting out.
TWO HOURS LATER…
No doctor was found, but two nurses got the message and came to lend their services. Silk Tie’s wife screamed loud enough to wake the dead, but not loud enough to summon back those in search of cheeseburgers. It was her first child, and the nurses informed her that her labor could take hours.
A burly trucker organized a scouting party. They decided to head out on foot south down the interstate, to try to find the beginning of the traffic jam and see what was causing it. The plan was to walk for two hours, and if they hadn’t found the cause by then, they would turn and head back. The idea that they still believed something tangible and logical was causing the traffic jam struck Elliot as funny. He did not volunteer for the party.
SIX HOURS LATER…
The scouting party did not return. No one really expected them to.
THE NEXT DAY…
It was a day of death and violence.
Silk Tie’s wife gave birth, the child stillborn. She began to hemorrhage, and the nurses were unable to stop the bleeding. She and her infant were buried together in the median.
The fat woman in the floral dress went to check on Minivan Mom and discovered what everyone already suspected. She had slit all their little throats with a pair of scissors. Minivan Mom would just smile and say, “Shhh, they’re sleeping.”
SUV’s daughter, who had been ignored by the teenaged dick since their tryst in her vanished Papa’s vehicle, took a switchblade she found in the back of the SUV and removed the offending part of him. He was now just the teenaged.
Elliot began to wonder if perhaps they were all stuck in a single moment in time. Maybe it was still 8:10, and he could still make it to the 9:00 department meeting if he could just somehow get himself unstuck.
Elliot recognized this as an insane notion, but this was an insane situation. Two wrongs may not make a right, but can two insanes make a sane?
The batteries in Elliot’s Tetris game had died. His car would no longer crank, so he couldn’t even plug up his phone and play the games on it. He had borrowed a book from Ms. Wrinkles, but it was a romance novel with a plot as predictable as life never is.
Elliot was bored. It was time to go, time to get unstuck.
Going back didn’t help, going forward didn’t help. What about off to the side? A lovely green field ran along the side of the highway to the left. What if he just walked straight across it? Would he eventually run into civilization? Would he find people again, life, the world? Or would he end up with Silk Tie and the scouting party, in whatever dark place they had found along the interstate?
Fuck it, he’d have to risk it. He’d run out of things to do here. Besides, people had dug up Silk Tie’s wife and child and were roasting them, along with Minivan Mom’s brood, for dinner. Elliot had a feeling they might taste worse than the beef jerky.
He walked over to the shoulder of the highway and hesitated just on the edge of the pavement. He wasn’t going to tell anyone what he was doing, wasn’t going to invite anyone to join him. If this plan failed, he would doom no one but himself.
And if it succeeded, he’d send help.
Or maybe he’d just get a cheeseburger.