Sneak Preview: ''Walking after Midnight'' By C.S. Fuqua
The tools in the back clanked and rattler as the truck's front tire edged off the road onto the bumpy shoulder. Jeremiah's head nodded, bounced. He jerked straight, arms rigged, snatching the wheel, swaying the truck back onto the highway. His muscles began to twitch uncontrollably. He'd nearly hit a hitchhiker. Someone who looked familiar, too familiar.
He stopped, shifted into reverse, but when he backed to the point where the truck had left the road, the hitcher had disappeared.
Probably figured I'd try again. He drew a steadying breath and wiped away tiny droplets of sweat that had popped out above his lips. He put the truck in first and drove on. Rain streamed down in tinfoil strips as the windshield wipers beat steadily side to side. And soon Jeremiah again felt the monotonous rhythm lulling him toward sleep. He slapped his face, shook his head.
Getting too old for this.He steered the truck into the parking lot of a small grocery store, closed for the holiday. A Santa Claus grinned from the doorway. He punched off the lights, switched off the engine, closed his eyes. And though he'd stopped here simply to catch a nap, without the monotony of the road and the wipers, sleep became impossible.
He twisted out of the seat and stepped into the rear of the truck. Maybe straightening his tool stock would at least get his blood pumping enough to keep him awake until he got the truck home--''after midnight,'' he mumbled bitterly, but the words conjured up a smile. In his mind, Bessie smiled back. She had loved country music, but no artist better than Patsy Cline. And though she couldn't remember the words, she used to sing one song relentlessly, the tune Jeremiah's grumbling had brought to his own lips now--''Walking After Midnight.''
The frigid breath of December whispered in through the door cracks. A half-century of pushing wrenches to service station owners, to hardware store operators, to anyone, to everyone. Jeremiah had worked for three companies, none with a retirement program. Yet Bessie had begged him to retire ten years ago: ''We can live on social security.'' But a man and woman, he argued, can't buy much of a life with peanuts. Still, Bessie pleaded, and finally Jeremiah said okay; he'd give up the road, he'd come home putter. Then Bessie had to go and have that heart attack just two days before he was to give notice.
''Gramma said you were going to quit.''
''I was, baby, but I got no reason now. Living alone ain't much of a life.''
''But you're not alone, Grampa. You have us.''
''On weekends, Missy. I can't live my life on weekends.''
A crescent wrench clinked against pliers in Jeremiah's quivering hands. Bessie had lived her life on weekends.
The rain gradually hardened, grew into sleet that battered the roof. Wind whistled under the doors. Jeremiah cupped his hands around his mouth and blew as he started for the front. He crawled into the seat behind the big wheel and cranked the engine, remembering how Bess used to wait up until he got home, no matter how late. He peered into a night he had not seen the likes of in a good twenty years. Last time the rain had turned to sleet this early in the season this far south, the government had called about his son.
Jeremiah's truck pulled onto the deserted highway, headlight beams driving deep into the mercury slick sleet. Another hour, he'd be home. For the weekend. Clop-clop. The windshield wipers did their job, allowing thin sheets of ice to form only around the edges where the defroster could not make itself useful. The road passed in hypnotic streaks of white.
''Sarah says you got someone else on your route, Jerry.'' She laughs.
''You believe everything Sarah says?''
''If I did, I'd've left you a long time ago.''
No one laughs. They lie in the darkness until one of them---they never remember which---kisses the other, and they bring their bodies together, caressing, lingering.
Jeremiah's head bobbed.
A whisper: ''Jerry.'
He gasped, snatched himself erect and yanked the wheel, bringing the truck weaving center-road. He glanced around, his eyes filling. That voice. He'd heard it a million times in dreams, conjured it up a million times more in memory. But this time---so real.
In the fringe of the headlight beam, someone waved from the ditch. Jeremiah wrenched around for a better look, but the image was gone. A mirage. A senile old man's wish image. He shook his head sadly at his mistake.
First to go's the mind, then the body.
Bess had said that. Used to call him crazy when he'd sneak up behind her in the kitchen and race icy fingers under her dress and clamp his hand to her thigh. She'd scream like a psychotic killer and chase him through the house with spatula in hand, dripping spaghetti sauce down her arm. Then he'd spin around, catch her in a bear hug, and they'd kiss and fall on the couch, tangling, forgetting the meal on the stove. And when they would finally sit down to dinner, he'd laughingly sop up as much as he could hold, all the while saying,
''Charcoal's good for you!''
First to go's the mind. . . It was a joke back then, but hearing and seeing things that just aren't there isn't funny at all. Too distracting, too discomforting. If Jeremiah did't face the inevitable, on one of these late-night, long-route drives he'd find himself. . . .
In the ditch, in waste-high weeds, a man in army fatigues, his hands cupped at his mouth as if holding a harmonica.
Jeremiah slammed his foot onto the brake pedal, and immediately realized his mistake. Never an accident in his career, and now, the very night his mind starts to go, he destroys his perfect driving record.
The truck broke into a dream-like skid. By the time his body began to respond, the dreamy skid had turned into a nightmare roll. Wrenches clattered and banged from their bins. Jeremiah felt himself rise into darkness. He heard the crash from far away, a tiny sound, a pin dropping. Then gradually, he drifted back, back, could hear the steady rain of sleet on steel, the clop-clop of the windshield wipers, the hiss of water on a hot engine.
Jeremiah raised his head and groaned. Crystals of freezing water dripped in from somewhere above. He touched his forehead, winced, pulled his fingers away. In the dim dashboard light, he could see blood.
''First the mind,'' he mumbled, ''then the driving record.'' He raised up on one arm, got bearings. The truck had come to rest on its side about twenty feet off the road. And for what? A trick of his mind, the image of a man who died twenty years ago in someone else's war.
Jeremiah sat up, bracing himself against the driver's seat. He got to his knees and checked his forehead in the rearview mirror. A superficial cut, more blood than wound.
Jeremiah clicked off the ignition. The wipers fell dead. He cut the lights. Sleet sliced against the truck, clung to the frame in freezing fingers. Jeremiah shivered, pulled his coat from the back of the seat and slipped it on.
''You can't drive today. There's ice on the bridges, all over the road. You'll kill yourself.''
''Guess I'm stuck here then.''
She grins, begins unbuttoning his shirt. ''I quess so.''
Jeremiah's teeth began to chatter as he sat there, trying to decide what to do next. If only someone would pass on the highway, but that was unlikely. He hadn't met another car more than an hour.
Weather's going to play havoc with business this winter.
The sleet began to ease as Jeremiah scraped his hand across the windshield and peered into the night. The darkness possessed and odd, metallic glow, and he could see tiny flakes of white intermingling with the waning sleet. Jeremiah's eyes warmed with the sight. He sniffled, wiped his nose with his wrist.
She shudders and snuggles closer.
Her breath is a feather stroke on his neck. The sky is pewter through a window flecked by snowflakes. He thinks she is asleep until her fingers begin a slow walk down his stomach. Her lips tickle his ear. She hums softly, that same old song about walking after midnight. Before the army, Bill sometimes accompanied her singing on harmonica. But today she hums unaccompanied as she slides onto Jeremiah. The snow falls into a silent, gentle drift on their bedroom windowsill.
Jeremiah stood up shakily, his knees tight with age arthritis. Worse every winter. He moved them in a circular motion, loosening up, then climbed onto the shelving to work his way to the rear. Hr flung open the back door, and the wind sang over him---chilling, yes but somehow a relief from the feeling of being trapped inside. He lowered himself to the soggy soil, then pulled his collar tighter. The sleet had stopped completely now. Snowflakes gathered in his hair, settled on his eyebrows. A thin blanket of white had begun to spread on the highway.
He struggled up the bank, slipping once, then started walking in the direction from which he'd driven. He'd passed a couple houses since leaving the grocery, but he he couldn't recall how far back those houses lay. Didn't matter. They were back there. And he needed a phone. Might as well get started. With luck, someone would drive by and give him a ride. Then he'd call for a tow, call the cops, call his boss. That would satisfy all the requirements. So ehat if the last guy yo wreck a truck got canned? So what if that man had been with the company two years longer than Jeremiah?
''What're you supposed to do, drive in the snow? Even the plows won't get through this mess.'' She nuzzles closer and nibbles on his neck. ''And this'll give me a couple of more days with you.''
The phone rings. She groans playfully, answers, ''Helloooo?'' A moment's silence, then she whispers, ''Thank you,''
cradles the receiver and holds him tighter. He feels the warmth of her tears, the mucus she can't stop. ''B-billie's missing''
Two days later, the uniformed men arrive at the door of Jeremiah's daughter-in-law. Jeremiah is on the road, trying to make up sales lost because of the early snow, when Cindy comes to Bessie and tells her that Billie is no longer missing: All that's left of Jeremiah's son is a medal, a flag, a set of dog tags and a body. No one knows what happened to the harmonica that Cindy gave him their first Christmas together, the harmonica he played when Bessie sang. ''Charley probably took it for the gold.''
Jeremiah raised his face to the sky. Snowflakes settled on his brow and melted into tiny streams down his face, mixing with tears to soak the collar off his jacket. The winter wind that had earlier robbed the truck of its warmth had calmed now. Snow settled around him in a soft crackle, a swish. Jeremiah felt as if he could lie down here, draw the white cover around himself and wait until someone, anyone came by.
''So why don't you?'' came a voice from behind.
Jeremiah caught his breath and spun around. When he saw the man, Jeremiah's mouth went slack.
The man wore no jacket, only army-issued camouflage pants, shirt and boots. A Purple Heart dangled from his helmet. The man glanced up, following Jeremiah's stare at the medal. ''Best place for it. I'm a hero you know.''
Jeremiah's eyes glittered in the plae night glow; mucus streamed from his nose.
''Grampa, Grampa!'' The youngest one's killed a thousand Charleys in the back yard. Now his machine gun dangles silently off one shoulder. ''Grampa, I saw Daddy''
Jeremiah folds the newspaper, lays it on the floor. He slides to the edge of the chair and pulls the wide-eyed boy between his knees, his speckled hands on the boys's shoulders. His voice cracks: ''Your mommy already explained about your daddy. You know he won't be coming home.''
The boy twists in the old man's grasp.
''But I saw him, I saw him!''
Jeremiah shakes the boy ''Stop it! Your father's dead, Tommy. He's dead!''
The boy wrenches free, shatters the plastic machine gun against the doorjamb as he flees the room. Jeremiah buries his face in his hands.
''In the flesh. . . . well, almost,'' the man replied, chuckling.
Jeremiah swallowed, felt his mouth grow as dry as sandpaper. First to go'S the mind. . . .
The young man in the uniform laughed again. ''Then the body.''
Isn't real! Jut my mins. Jeremiah turned away and started down the road.
First to. . . .
''Dad,'' his son's voice called.
Jeremiah slapped his hands over his ears. His lips trembled. Tears rivered down his face. But he kept walking.
Then softly, pleading: ''How's Cindy? The kids?''
That was all Jeremiah could take. His body began quaking uncontrollably. One more step, he knew he'd collapse. ''Don't y-you know?'' he whispered.
The young man's image shimmered; snowflakes drifted straight through. ''Once, I tried once,'' replied the man. ''How I wish I could let her know. . . .'' The image faded completely.
The old man reached out weakly, croaking, ''Son?''
A second later the young man rematerialized, but his clothing had changed from army camouflage to jeans, a western shirt, a cowboy hat; the way he dressed the day he left home. A harmonica glittered into his hands. He raised it to his lips. But when the young man began to play, Jeremiah heard more than the harmonica's music; he heard the melodious humming of a woman. The he saw her, emerging from the shadows behind the young man.
A lump grew so large in Jeremiah's throat, he was certain he'd choke. His knees wobbled weakly as the woman approached, her arms beckoning. And then he felt those arms surround him. He buried his face in her hair, sucked in her musky aroma, savoring. The flesh of her lips pressed against his neck; her breath fell hot and moist his skin. The harmonica whined softly. And the woman hummed the old song about walking a highway after midnight, lonesome, hoping that somewhere he would be searching for her.
Jeremiah raised his eyes; the young man was gone.
''Bess. . . .''
The woman put a finger to his lips. She took his head in her hands, spreading her fingers like webs, and slowly pulled him down, down, until they were lying on a bed of white, as warm and as soft as their bed at home. A delicate blanket settled over them. And Jeremiah drifted as lightly as a snowflake.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Sam Posner pulled his sunglasses off and squinted. In sunlight, snow always appeared ten time brighter. He opened the squad car door, stepped into the driveway. Some guy in a tow truck looking for a few extra bucks on Christmas day had nearly run over a old man's body not ten feet from this drive a little past daybreak. The trooper climbed the steps of the house, knocked on the door. A few seconds later, a tiny, gray-haired woman appeared.
Yes, she had heard something during the night. ''Sounded like music, but I guess it was the wind. I looked out, but all I saw was snow.''
Officer Posner thanked the woman for her time and climbed into the squad unit. He backed the car out of the driveway, and, with a sigh, headed for town. Now came the hardest part of the job: informing the-next-of-kin, the old man's widowed daughter-in-law. Maybe the dead man's few personal belongings would soften the moment---a wallet, some change, a pocket watch. And of course, the gold harmonica.
Author C.S. Fugua
Official Page: csfuqua.com
C.S. FUQUA AND HIS AMAZING WORKS
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Sinner's Suite, a musical metaphor representing the stages of a lifetime by combining elements of jazz, New Age, meditative, progressive, Americana, and indigenous styles, utilizing guitar, Native American flute, bass, percussion, and synthesizer. Perfect for meditation, relaxation, and contemplation.
Author Mini Bio
Chris Fuqua has worked as a newspaper reporter, magazine editor, book editor, English tutor, substitute teacher, janitor, respiratory therapy technician, gas station attendant (when such things existed), salesclerk, musician in a Mexican restaurant, writing instructor, and more.. Chris’s work spans a broad spectrum—historical, musical, and social nonfiction, and dark fantasy, literary, and science fiction and poetry—appearing in hundreds of publications worldwide as diverse as Bull Spec, Main Street Rag, Slipstream, Pearl, Bogg, Chiron Review, The Year’s Best Horror Stories, Cemetery Dance, Christian Science Monitor, Honolulu Magazine, Naval History, and The Writer. His published books include Native American Flute Craft ~ Ancient to Modern, The Native American Flute ~ Myth, History, Craft, Trust Walk and Rise Up fiction collections, The Swing: Poems of Fatherhood, Big Daddy’s Fast-Past Gadget, Muscle Shoals ~ The Hit Capital’s Heyday & Beyond, Cancer, White Trash & Southern ~ Collected Poems, and Notes to My Becca.
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