Monday, July 18, 2011

Milemarkers - Part 1 of 2

© 2011 by Henry Melton

This story has gotten so many puzzled responses as I sent it to various magazines.  So just clear your mind and read.

Black arrows on the yellow warning signs shook Dan from his driver's daze.  He downshifted the Jeep with practiced ease, bringing him into the zone, edging the yellow stripe through the curve.  A white mile marker flickered by, the text a blur.
He had been driving five years now, and it seemed as if he had been doing it his whole life.  The Jeep seemed perfect for him–fast enough on the highway, but when the mountains called, there was always four-wheel-low and high clearance to get him through.
He glanced at the girl beside him–still not used to having Julie riding shotgun.  She returned his grin, her black close-cropped hair whipping in the breeze.
There!  Another mile marker.  He frowned.  It was hard to read them.  Someone had put a lot of information on the small sign, no more than six inches wide.  Did that say Monday?  He shrugged.
Dan was ready for the next one.  Friday - April 7 1989.  He nodded.  He was making good time.
There was a sweet scent in the air, and the trees were decked out in white blossoms, but that passed quickly.  He started to make a comment to Julie, but she was asleep, her long black hair tied back in a bun.
Wednesday - October 16 1996.  He was getting better at reading them, now that he knew the format.  The trees were brilliant in fall foliage, as the road passed through a protected valley.  He rolled down the window on the Chevy pickup, to catch a whiff of the crisp cool air.  In the rear view mirror, he could see a low slung Corvette advancing rapidly.  The two-lane blacktop had far too many curves for easy passing, so he accelerated a little.  By the time Saturday - February 2 2002 flickered off the side of the road, the guy behind him pushed his luck and passed on a blind curve.  Luck was with him.
"Idiot," Julie muttered.  He saw from the way she shook her blond hair that Mr. Sports Car was now in her Little Black Book of Permanent Grudges.  He had made up that name as a joke, but he wouldn't be surprised if she hadn't gone out and bought one.
When Dan crested the summit pass, and their Volvo passed the sign declaring Tuesday - June 28 2011, he absently reached for the gear shift that was no longer there.  Old habits die slowly he thought, but the Volvo was smart enough to shift gears anyway.
"What is it?"  Juliana asked.  
He gave her a shake of the head.  "Nothing.  Just thinking of old times."
She made no comment, sitting upright, her pinstriped suit and careful makeup making an impressive picture.  These days he didn't know whether her silence was the same as disapproval or not.
He turned his mind back to the road.  Out of the valley now, the road divided and he could inform the Suprim's cruise control to pay attention to the guide strip.  Three higher powered cruisers whipped past in the fast lane, tired of riding behind him on the narrow road.
He didn't mind.  The speed limit was fine with him.
Up ahead, he saw another mile marker, and watched until it came into focus–Monday - September 8 2025.
Still making plenty good time.
Juliana was staring straight ahead.  He would have called it a glare, but he knew it was just her natural expression.  When the gray started in her hair, she had gone with a streaked look, and it gave her the appearance of an hawk on the lookout for an unwary rabbit.
"Can't you go any faster?  That was the Jacobsons who passed us."
He put more pressure on the accelerator.  "I don't think we need to get there any sooner."  He felt her response rather than heard it.  She would never be happy unless they were doing the passing.
A Lexus Grande swept past so fast he hadn't realized it was approaching.  Juliana was silent again.
He gave their Lexus more power, but there was nothing he could do.  They were already well over the speed limit–and still the slowest car on the road.
Saturday - January 29 2033.
Dan gritted his teeth, and tried to ignore the ache in his back.  We are still going too fast.  I don't know why we have to get there in a hurry.
Another mile marker flickered by, and for the first time in a while, it blurred past too fast to read.  He let off some speed.
"What are you doing?"
"Slowing down."
"You idiot, we can't do that."
He turned to her, noting that the hunch in her back was getting worse.  With her hair gone gray and wiry, she looked like a crone.
There was a honk from behind, and a blink of headlights.  Even with two lanes, he was becoming an obstruction to traffic.
Sunday - May 13 2040.  The cars in the fast lane were whipping by bunching up the ones behind, making it impossible for them to pass him.
I'll have to speed back up.  But he didn't want to.  Where am I going anyway?  Why am I driving?  He blinked his eyes shut for a long second–anything to get a moment's peace to think.
Another sign appeared, off to the left in the center lane.  It was a crossover.  Authorized vehicles only.  
A flicker of motion in the rearview mirror.  He took a breath, gritted his teeth, held the horn down, and with a shriek of rubber on the road, jumped across the fast lane and skidded sideways onto the gravel crossover lane.
"Daniel!  What are you doing?"
"Going back!"  He struggled to turn the massive vehicle onto the opposite lane.  With a sigh of relief that the lane was empty, he pulled out and gained speed.
"Stop it this instant, Mister!  This is illegal, and we are going the wrong way!"
Dan ignored her, as he ignored the chorus of honks from the vehicles he had barely missed.  At least those were receding into the distance.
"Juliana, bear with me.  This is something I have to do."
She was glowing with rage.  She slapped at his arm.  "Stop this.  Stop at once!"
"No."  Dan kept his eyes on the road.  He put the accelerator all the way to the floor.  There was no traffic, and with two lanes he could flatten the curves.
Opposite the divider, there was an endless stream of cars.  They flickered as day and night passed several times a second.
How fast am I going?  The speedometer was stuck, trying to read a negative speed and failing.  He looked for mile markers.  Strangely, there were none on this side of the highway.  He could see them pass on the other side, but he couldn't make them out in the rear view mirror.
Oh well, I know the road.
"Now you've done it!"  Juliana declared.  He saw she was back in her pinstripes.  It was good to see her sitting straight again.  The pain in his back had vanished as well.
"What do you mean?"
She looked behind them.  "The cops are after you."
He saw that she was right.  Far back in the distance, a familiar flickering light was following them.
Whether it was the illegal crossover, or their speed, or even just going back the wrong way on the highway, Dan knew that if they caught him, he would be in serious trouble.
Up ahead, he could see the merge signs as the road narrowed to a two-lane highway again.  He could still make good speed on the twisty lanes, but he would have to be careful.  He let off the accelerator and whipped by the speed warnings and curve signs.
The first curve almost took him as the car shifted from the Suprim to the Volvo and he wasn't prepared for the weight change.
"Let me out!"
"I can't.  The cops are still coming."
"More the reason not to be here in this car with you when they catch you."
The blinking lights were gaining on him fast.  He couldn't maintain speed on these curves.  He looked at Julie carefully, taking in the length of her black hair and the style of her clothes.
It was the expression on her face that gave him the clue where they were on the road.  It was concerned, angry but not hateful.
"Hang on."  She gripped the safety handle.
He remembered bridge on the way up and sure enough over the next rise, he saw it.  He braked heavily and rumbled off the shoulder into the grass.  The pickup bounced over the rough terrain, but he jerked it around out of sight of the road.
Seconds later, he could see the reflection of the cop's lights on the trees as it passed with a whoosh, and the eerie shriek of its siren.
The door slammed shut.  Julie was out.
"Julie!  Come back here."
"Not on your life, Dan.  You've gone crazy.  I'm not going to go down with you."
There was a tightness in his chest, along with the racing of his heartbeat.
"Julie, you have to stay with me."  It was a simple statement of fact, an emotional truth.
"No."  He could hear the pain in her words.  "You have to go, now!  They will be back for you.  You will have to get off the road."
He still sat paralyzed.
Quietly, she repeated, "Dan, you have to go now."  And then she was gone, clambering up the rocks and out of sight.
What did I do?  Why is she leaving?  The memories up the road were rapidly becoming indistinct. 
Dan couldn't take it in, but his hand moved on the gear shift and he backed the pickup around and back on the road.  He glanced at the traffic moving on the far lane, but the determination to go the other way remained.  He pulled into the vacant lane.  
The police car had gone ahead of him, but Julie was right, it would turn back for him soon.  He had to backtrack on the highway as fast as he could before there was the glimmer of cop-lights coming his way.
He felt the gear shift morph back to the old Jeep's knob in his hand.  The wind whipped at his face, smearing and drying the tears.
"You have to get off the road."  Julie was right, and he had a vague memory of where to go.
The two-lane highway passed an old dirt road, and he almost missed it.  He smoked to a stop, in the middle of the lane, catching the sight of the passing travelers gawking at him.  He backed up the two hundred yards and turned through a gap in the traffic.
The rutted lane turned quickly uphill.  He paused long enough to shift to four-speed-low and kept on as the road became little more than a trail.
The siren echoed across the mountain.  He killed the engine and watched from an overlook as three police cars passed by.  The first one hadn't turned.  It just called for reinforcements.
He sat on the rock, taking a moment to breathe and to think.
They would not give up the chase.  No one was allowed to cross over.  He would have to give up the road altogether.  He ached inside–feeling a loss, although he couldn't put a name to it.  Fear was driving him now.
He walked back to the Jeep and scavenged an old backpack that he tossed into the back seat the day he had started driving.  He turned the steering wheel to the side and with a great reluctance, he released the hand brake and slipped the gearshift into neutral.
It gained speed, rolling back and off the trail, crashing noisily into the trees.  Satisfied it was out of sight, he slipped on the backpack and set off across the ridge line, leaving even the trail behind.

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