(THE FOLLOWING IS (A VERY ROUGH-DRAFT) PART FOUR OF THE ORIGINAL, SERIALIZED VERSION OF “THE LAST ITALIAN TUNE-UP”. BUT AS WE ARE NOW NOVELIZING THE STORY, WE ARE TREATING THIS DRAFT, AND ALL OF THE PRIOR SHORTS THAT WE’D RELEASED, AS A SORT OF “ROUGH DRAFT” FOR EARLY CHAPTERS OF THE NOVEL. WE ARE ALSO THEREFORE RELEASING THESE SHORTS NOW TO READ FOR FREE, UNTIL THE FULL NOVEL VERSION IS COMPLETED. ENJOY! (AND PLEASE KEEP IN MIND, THIS ONE IS ESPECIALLY ROUGH; IT’S THE POINT WHERE WE LEFT OFF BEFORE DECIDING TO NOVELIZE. ALTHOUGH IT’S ALSO THE POINT WHERE THINGS START TO GET TRULY UGLY .))
His eyes left Denise and went again to the onrushing road. Then to the rearview. Then the road again. Then to the Chevelle’s gauges… Dammit, dammit. Then back to the road.
Behind them, Jack caught snapshot glimpses of the wall still rolling on toward the intersection. Its blue-ness filled the entire reflected sky. Meanwhile, the drivers of the wrecked cars- Jesus, what’s wrong with you? They were just standing there, watching it come. Why aren’t you running?
“Run, you fucking idiots! Jump in whatever you can and run! Jesus! Just-” Jack suddenly realized that he’d begun shouting the words without even knowing it. Worse, his voice had sounded- God, had he ever done that, and sounded like that, in the O.R. No, no- you’ll scare the kids. Just drive. Stay quiet. Just drive. And stay alert.
He looked ahead. Up ahead, the minivan still raced on, darting and weaving through traffic.
Jack’s brain couldn’t decide which was worse: the sight of the wall and what it was about to do, or the unsettling sight of the little bicycles bouncing and swaying behind the minivan.
Two seconds later the wall reached the intersection…
And Denise was right; Jack watched in wide-eyed horror as everyone standing in the road just disappeared. He also saw the headlights go out on one of the wrecks. No longer populated with anything but smashed, dead cars, the intersection devolved into a junkyard.
It was Gary’s first time seeing it happen. He gasped, and his hand fell from his father’s shoulder, all excitement about being alive apparently drained away. Denise began to shriek again, almost to gibber.
“Oh God, Daddy, did you see it? I told you! They’re gone! They just disappeared like I told you!”
For one horrible moment Jack thought, she’s just not as strong as her mother was-
But then his mind jerked to a halt.
His realizing that he’d used that word, that past-tense word: was, suddenly shook him, and badly, because of the twin horrors that his using it implied:
My sweet, smart daughter’s having a nervous breakdown and my wife is dead- Jesus, everything behind us is dying… What the fuck is happening?
Denise had gone silent, and was staring at him now through the rearview. But although she’d quieted, her eyes were red and they streamed tears. Which still only served to drive home Jack’s earlier conviction: his sweet, smart daughter was indeed falling apart on him. Because, he had to admit, her mother probably was-
No, it’s because Deni’s barely a teenage girl. Ten minutes ago, the most important thing in her life was a boy coming over for lunch. And Jane’s a big girl. She IS- present-fucking-tense, a big girl. And she can take care of herself. Jack took a deep, sharp breath, and then exhaled it just as quickly. But Denise isn’t- she needs you. They both- he looked over at Gary, then back at Denise again, need you. You put this brave face on for your patients, you tell them to have hope- even the ones who’ve been hopelessly smashed. And now you need to do it for your kids-
So get your shit together…
“I saw it sweetheart, I saw it, but that’s not gonna happen to us, okay?” He looked over at Gary, and then back at Denise. “I promise. Okay?”
He darted looks at his children, expecting to see them convinced and confident in what he’d just said. But neither answered him.
“I said, okay?”
He’d tried so hard, through the years, to impart what he’d always thought to be strength and wisdom into his children. But always in small doses, so as to avoid seeming patronizing.
He remembered all too well the dismissive attitudes of his own parents. Not just their unrelenting, “my way, or the highway” philosophy, but their constant implication, in everything they’d taught him, that he’d needed to be taught, because he’d somehow been too stupid to ever figure anything out for himself.
That attitude, and his eventual angry rebellion against it, had ended up costing both him and his parents dearly. So dearly, that for Jack the mere possibility of his repeating his parents’ mistakes, even accidentally, terrified him.
Therefore, he’d resolved instead to deliver his knowledge a little at a time. Like, well… like small swipes of polish to a fender. And though his parenting philosophy might’ve sounded odd to anyone else- ridiculous, even (after all, he’d essentially based it on the same advice one was likely to find on a can of Turtle Wax: “work slowly, one small section at a time”), he’d firmly believed in it.
So, little by little, one small section at a time, he’d worked. Slowly and patiently, but always with an eye out for the day when his children might finally become shiny adults.
And for a while, it had looked as if that day would be coming soon, which was much earlier than he’d thought. Lately, Denise had begun wearing makeup, and was starting to bulge in places he’d secretly hoped she never would. Two days earlier, Gary had asked him for advice about talking to a girl he liked. Their childhoods had looked to be over, and the practice of guiding young adults had looked set to begin.
Looking at them now though, he realized that it had all been an illusion. The new blush that Denise had bought for herself at the CVS just a week ago now stood out in bright relief against her cheeks, because fright had drained them of any other color. Gary too, sat white faced and staring, his hand no longer cutting nonchalantly through the slipstream but instead clutching, white knuckled, at the armrest beside him, any pretense of adulthood now gone.
The looks on their faces reminded Jack instead of when they’d been toddlers. Of the times when he’d gone in to one or the other’s rooms and found them standing in their cribs, crying, because they’d dropped a favorite toy on the floor. Until, upon seeing him, they’d always stopped, and fixed him with the same questioning look. A look he was seeing again today.
Both times, the question in that look had been heartbreakingly simple. Back then it had asked, will you pick up my toy for me? Now, in the present it asked, will you save my life for me?
He saw his younger self bending down to pick up Gary’s stuffed bear, then saw himself giving Denise that little toy kitten she’d loved so much. He spoke again while the memory still played across his mind, not quite sure which version of him was doing the talking.
“Hey, we are gonna be okay.”
A small part of him suddenly and absurdly wished that they’d just answer with delighted gurgles and a “Da-Da”. Although of course, they didn’t, and the memory evaporated when he instead heard their answers come out in frightened teenage voices. But at least he heard belief in those voices too.
“Good.” He managed a brief smile before turning his eyes back to the road.
Now, keep your hands on the wheel, so the kids won’t see them shaking.
He again tried to open the distance between them and the wall. The Chevelle quickly climbed through one hundred miles per hour.
But as it did, he noticed a problem. The car had begun to shake.
The wheel must be bent where we were hit. Oh please Jesus and God don’t blow out oh God please don’t let the tire blow out.
He noticed something else too: the faint smell of exhaust. It had begun leaking in from somewhere on the car’s battered rear end, maybe even through the rear window. He reached under the dashboard and pulled open the car’s vents. Only warm air rushed in, but the smell abated a little.
It would have to do. His eyes went back to the road, and to the rearview.
Other people had started to understand what was happening. Ahead of them, a silver station wagon swerved onto 87 behind the minivan and quickly matched its speed. Behind them, yet another car slid on from a side road just ahead of the wall. Soon the convoy of fleeing cars began to pass slower moving ones.
Gary and Denise tried to alert the drivers they passed, but most of them just scowled back at their attempts, probably thinking instead that the kids in the loud muscle car were just out racing and causing trouble.
A flash of white caught the corner Jack’s eye, and before he realized what had happened, a small Honda with a coffee can muffler car swerved on to the road right in front of them. It made a bwaaah sound loud enough to heard over the Chevelle as it struggled to gain speed. He jerked the Chevelle around it and kept on going.
Fear is giving me tunnel vision. I should have seen that. Thank God the road is straight, although at Jasperville there’s a li–
Brake lights flared up ahead. Another stoplight hung over Jasperville’s lone intersection. Somehow, it was working.
And it was red.
The minivan still had the lead by then. It barely slowed for the light and the three cars sitting at it, trying instead to snake through at speed.
But even from a distance, everyone in the Chevelle could see the maneuver wasn’t going to work.
And it didn’t. The van ricocheted off of a car that was sitting on the far side of the light. To make matters worse, another car from the right side of the intersection hit the van as it passed. The van went into an airborne spin and bounced off a telephone pole before somersaulting to pieces across a parking lot. The bicycles finally tore free of their mounts and spun off in various directions.
Heedless of the wreck, the station wagon zig-zagged past it and raced on. Jack also slowed the Chevelle only as much as he had to and then floored it again. One of the bicycles had fallen onto the road. Jack could see that it was blue and white, just like the Chevelle. He swerved around it. The minivan’s remains lay upside down and burning off to the right. He tried not to look, but more colors scattered amongst the other wreckage still caught his eye. He thought he saw- but then it was gone.
Don’t see it, don’t see-
“Oh Jesus Dad. That was-”
Gary’s breath hitched.
“Oh God, Daddy, there’s a-”
Denise began to sob.
“Don’t look at it.”
“But Daddy that’s a-”
“GODDAMMIT I said don’t look at it!”
But Denise wouldn’t stop. Worse, her voice regained the high sound it had begun to affect earlier. And hearing it over the screaming engine only made it worse.
“Daddy, that was a ba-”
He swung his right hand backward at her. It missed.
“Stop it! Just shut up!”
Jesus, what did I just do?
“Dad, don’t yell at her! She’s scared!”
“You think I don’t know that Gary? Jesus! I’m scared too! But-” He twisted around for the briefest of looks at Denise. “You’ve got to get your shit together Denise! Or you’re going to get us all killed. I can’t do this with you going to shit every time something happens! You want to end up like them back there?”
At the intersection, people had gotten out of their cars and run to the parking lot. No one seemed to notice the wall; they’d all been distracted by the wreck. Two seconds later they all disappeared. Jack let out a hoarse cry at seeing them go.
“Jesus, I can’t stand seeing that anymore! Shit! Shit! Shit!”
With another hoarse sound, he snapped the mirror from the windshield and threw it down to the floor.
Gary recoiled from the flung mirror as if it were on fire. But then the boy suddenly reached out and put his hand on Jack’s shoulder. It was shaking. In fear, or because of the bent wheel, Jack couldn’t tell at first. But-
Fear… Jack decided. Because when the boy suddenly spoke, his voice shook too.
“Please Dad, just… don’t do that. Please? Just drive, okay? Or that is gonna happen to us.”
“I’m sorry, Daddy. I’m scared. I don’t want to disappear. I just want to go home. I want to see Mom. Do you think she’s-”
At her mother’s mention, and after seeing the fresh disappearances that had just occurred, Denise seemed to suddenly, really, realize what might have happened back at the house. So too did Gary.
“Dad, do you think Mom’s okay?”
Jack thought back to the intersection by Murphy’s field.
By the time we’d seen the wall coming, it had probably just slid over the house. Did it get her if she was inside? Jack thought of the overturned car. Whoever had tear-assed along the field road had probably seen it and was trying to run, but it got them anyway. Did the wall get the driver inside? Where did the wall’s effect end? Which then made Jack think of the Mustang. But the Mustang had been a convertible, open to the sky… So…
He didn’t know. But something in his heart told him to be honest about it.
“I don’t know guys, I hope so. For now we have to worry about us. Your Mom can take care of herself.”
If she’s still alive.
Denise didn’t seem convinced. She slammed a fist against the seat.
“Mom… she’s dead! She’s dead!”
Denise began to cry again. Gary’s breath began to hitch again too.
“You two stop it! I need you to be strong for me. Whatever this thing is- maybe it’s a solar flare or something, I don’t know. But it’s gotta run out, so we just have to stay ahead of it until it does. We’re lucky, a hell of a lot luckier than them,” he thumbed backward, “because at least we have a chance. But we have to keep it together. So don’t you two flip out on me. Just keep an eye out and let me drive. We just ha-”
But then, something else Jack had seen back at Murphy’s farm suddenly flashed across his memory. And that vision made him think of Atlas. Which then made him think of…
Yes… Yes, there’s still a chance, he realized- for Jane, and-
Yes! For us!
It was an admittedly small chance, but a chance nonetheless. And they would try for it. He just hoped Jane had thought of it too.
“No, no- wait… I think- Yeah, I think I have another idea. But you’ll both have to trust me for a while and keep it together still. Can you guys do that for me?”
Gary and Denise both nodded.
“But Dad,” Gary asked, “what-”
Jack’s voice suddenly went flat. “You just have to trust me,” he said without looking over.
Because if I tell you what I have in mind, well… you’re both smart kids. And I’m afraid that if you really think my idea through, think about what will happen afterward- if, and that’s a big if, we even get that far, you’re not going to like it. So please just don’t ask me anymore.
Which, surprisingly, they didn’t. He’d fully expected at least one of them to offer some further resistance. After all, they were both smart kids, and not likely to settle for such an open-ended answer. But after that, Gary and Denise both seemed to calm down. They still looked terrified, but so was he, and at least now they all had something to cling to: Jack to his new idea, despite how uncertain he still felt about it, and the kids to his assurance that he at least had an idea. Whether that idea would work or not, would be something else altogether, but for the moment, its mere existence was at least enough.
The Chevelle passed through one-hundred-and-ten miles per hour, while out under the hood, its engine spun at over five-thousand RPMs. Two factors which, when combined, caused a throbbing drone that resonated through the car’s cabin and then directly into everyone’s brain. At the same time, the slipstream that roared past the open and broken windows created an erratic pressure wave which tortured their eardrums.
The wall seemed to be falling behind again. Although, the shimmy from the bent wheel still got stronger every time he pushed the car too fast, and the exhaust fumes still seemed to get stronger with speed. They swerved around two more cars, but the road was wide, and he knew it would stay that way almost to the Thruway. Five more miles…
They passed the Redstone State Police barracks. Out front, a trooper stood near her cruiser, looking north and talking on her radio. The roaring, speeding Chevelle didn’t even get a glance from her. Jack honked the Chevelle’s horn and the kids both pointed backward, trying to get her to run. But the trooper started for the barracks instead. That was the last they saw of her.
Ten seconds later they caught sight of a southbound tractor trailer, going far faster than it should have been. Apparently, its driver knew what was happening. Thick, white smoke streamed from its stacks.
The CB… Jack thought. Word must have gotten out there too.
The silver wagon—it was some kind of Audi, Jack could now see—caught up with the truck and passed it. A moment later the Chevelle caught up with it too.
Jack tried to bring the Chevelle around, but had to swerve back to avoid an oncoming car. He tried again and started to pass, but just as they came alongside the semi’s cab, another car appeared ahead of them. The Chevelle topped one hundred and twenty. Jack estimated the closing speed at one hundred-seventy. It would be close.
The semi’s air horns suddenly blared to life and everyone in the Chevelle jumped. That’s when the oncoming car began to brake- and fishtail out of control. But the Chevelle swerved in front of the semi just in time for the other car to slide by.
But the other car wasn’t so lucky. Its rear end fishtailed one last time, and then hooked the semi’s massive front bumper. Jack twisted his head around just long enough to see the car’s back half fly apart under the impact- But then he turned his eyes back to the road ahead. He already knew what would happen next. And unless he paid close attention, he knew, sooner or later it would happen to them.
But apart from the other fleeing cars, the road seemed (at least for now) to be clear. Satisfied, Jack finally did dare to look in the side mirror again.
And there, he was surprised to see, was the semi, still trailing behind them. The front left half of its bodywork had been ripped away, and one of its tall smokestacks now hung askew from its cab, but there it still was. It had fallen a little behind, Jack noticed, but so had the wall. Soon they all: the Chevelle, the Audi, and the semi (which now mostly blocked out any view of what might be behind it), led the wall by roughly half a mile.
Good. Soon we’re gonna need every inch.
He didn’t know what the tractor trailer driver was going to do about that, but in a few minutes, Jack guessed, they’d all find out; the first sign for the New York State Thruway had just whipped by.
Almost there. Jack looked out across the Chevelle’s hood. The smooth, shiny sheet metal was jittering every so slightly, in tune with the shimmy that still came through from the bent wheel. Hold together, please…
Soon after, another sign loomed large. And it too also whipped by, so fast that he almost hadn’t been able to read it. Not that reading it would have helped, because he didn’t have time to act on what it had said. So in the end, all it did was make his stomach drop.
Suddenly, the Audi bounced violently upward, and his fear was confirmed.
Yeah… oh God, that’s what I thought…
The sign had said:
At fifty miles per hour the bump, more like a hump, would have been barely noticeable, but at over a hundred miles per hour, it became a ramp. There was just enough time to scream before the Chevelle hit it.
The nineteen-foot-long car went airborne. As it did, it slewed right, so that when it came down it landed-WHAM!-hard on its left side. Something underneath screeched, and for a frightening second the Chevelle fishtailed. Only by the blind grace of physics did it straighten out again; the momentum of the car’s engine-heavy front end had dragged the lighter rear end into line.
But physics also exacted a price.
Shit- that’s the side with the bent wheel.
And, just as he’d feared it would, the car began to vibrate harder. By the sound of things, one of the mufflers had been damaged too; a blatting sound came up from through the floor and the exhaust stink got even worse.
Ahead of them, a part of the Audi’s front bumper peeled away and pin wheeled through the air, but the Audi itself sped on. They passed another sign. NEW YORK THRUWAY 1 MILE.
Jack thumbed backward. “How we doin’ Denise? Where is it?”
“It’s still there, maybe a half mile back, Daddy! What are we gonna do?”
“We’re gonna hit the Thruway and haul ass south for the Rook Mountain Tunnel. That tunnel goes real deep- through the mountain, sweetheart, so I don’t think it’ll get us in there. Beyond that, I don’t know. I’m sorry guys, but we won’t make it another fifty miles past the tunnel. We’ll run outta gas.”
“But Daddy, you said-“
“I know what I said Deni! But trust me. We’re gonna outrun this thing to the tunnel. It’ll work.”
Denise didn’t look convinced.
“That’s it? That’s the plan?”
“I’m telling you, sweetheart-”
“Oh, okay, so what are you, some kind of “killer wall” expert now? You said we would-”
He snapped around to look at her. I was wrong- she’s just like her mother. But without her mother’s wisdom. I’ll fix that.
“You shut up and pay fucking attention!” He’d shouted louder than needed maybe, even with the failing muffler, but- Dammit… she needed that.
And he hadn’t really wanted to use language like that with her either, but he also wanted her to hear him speak to her like an adult. Maybe that would finally make her act like one.
“Didn’t you see what happened back at Murphy’s farm? To the Buick?”
“Who cares about Murphy’s stupid car!”
“Jesus– will you shut up and listen? You’re so worried about your Mom, why don’t you try acting like her! That’s what she’d want you- both of you, to do! She’s tough and smart, and so are you, but the difference is your Mom knows when to shut up and listen!”
Denise fell back into her seat. Her hands dragged over her face.
“There! Right there is the shit I’m talking about! Now sit up and listen to me…” But she didn’t respond. He went on anyway. “Where he kept the car, in that container thing, remember? In the hillside? When the wall got there, I noticed it couldn’t get down through to it right away. Some sparks fell inside, but the wall couldn’t get in right away. Like whatever it was, it had to push a little harder to get in. I saw it. So whatever that… thing does, I think it can only reach so far. So… the tunnel is a hundred feet under the mountain, and made from concrete, probably with metal around it. When they dug it out, they used a big boring machine, and I remember reading that they’d lined each new section with metal tube for strength. Which makes it a Hell of a lot better than a box stuck in a hillside, right? So if we can just get there, I think we’ll make it!”
Gary turned to him.
“You really think so Dad?”
“I do. And there’s something else. It means- Jesus!“
A car flashed past them going the other way. Gary spun around to watch it.
“That was a state trooper! Dad, he’s not stopping! He’s driving right at it! He’s gonna-”
Gary turned back around. His next words came out flat. “Didn’t make it. I saw a fireball.” Then the boy slumped in his seat.
Denise however, didn’t seem to react at all that time. Jack had braced himself, but… nothing. For a few seconds, the car’s insides went relatively quiet. Which surprised Jack so much that he pulled his eyes off the road for a second to check on her. Part of him feared that Gary’s flat pronouncement might have finally pushed her over the edge and into a quiet catatonia.
But no. When Jack looked back at her his eyes were met not by some blank stare, but instead by the sight of his daughter actually smiling. And when she finally did say something, she suddenly sounded bright and alive again, as if nothing- not the trooper, or the wall, or any of the other horrors she’d seen in the last few minutes, had ever happened. “But you said there was something else. What? What did you mean Daddy?” Apparently, she’d become so entranced by their sudden new chances of survival that she’d let the rest go.
Good, Jack thought, we’ll use that. Soon we’re gonna need all we have there too.
She pressed Jack to go on.
“It means that your mother might be alive!” Jack noticed that even he’d sounded excited at the prospect of Jane being alive. And that, combined with the sight of Denise finally smiling, made him smile a little too.
Denise sprang forward again. Gary spun around.
“How?” They’d asked the question in almost perfect unison.
“Don’t you see? Atlas… She’s got Atlas!” The words tumbled, even more excited now, from Jack’s mouth. The full promise of what he’d just realized, and was now about to tell the kids, was still dawning on him too. “Atlas is underground too. Not as deep-” he broke off to honk and flash a warning at two approaching cars, but- “Ahhh- Jesus…” Jack sighed, but then he went on, albeit in a slightly less enthusiastic voice. “It’s not as deep as the tunnel, but it’s a Hell of a lot deeper than where Murphy kept his car. Hell, deep enough to survive a near-miss from a nuke. That was the whole point of it- survival!” Jack’s voice began to brighten again.
“And I know that door at the top of the stairs is kind of a pain. I told her if anyone, or anything came along that she couldn’t handle- because I know, and you guys know, how far out in the boonies we are, she could always just hide downstairs.”
“But how do you know she went into it?” Denise asked.
“Because I told you, she’s smart and tough, like you are-“ he looked at Gary, than back to Denise, “like both of you are, but your Mom listens. If you ever want to see her again, maybe you want to try that too. Okay?”
A sea-change of emotion washed over Denise’s face. The frightened, desperate look went away, replaced with one that reminded him again of the little girl in the crib, the one who’d gotten her toy back and had clutched it to her chest. She’d needed much more than a simple toy kitten this time, but the smile on her face said everything.
Gary, meanwhile, wasn’t smiling. Instead he appeared to be deep in thought. Jack knew why; Gary had driven that way just a few days before, with his mother. He saw the problem that Denise couldn’t.
“Dad, what about the toll booths? There’s only three, and no way around them, and they’re not that big. If we get stuck in-“
“We’re not gonna get stuck, Gary. We’ll make it.”
Another sign flashed by: PENSSYLVANIA THRUWAY KEEP RIGHT.
The road took a turn downward and then made a sweeping turn to the right as it ducked beneath an underpass. He had to brake the Chevelle to keep it from sliding and couldn’t see-
Jack slammed on the brakes. The Chevelle screeched and fishtailed to a sideways stop- just feet from where the silver station wagon sat smashed in the middle of the road. Most of its front end had been torn off. A spider-web of cracks circled outward from the driver’s side of the windshield, where the glass glittered red with blood.
Beyond the wagon, another car lay on its side. Its front end had been obliterated, and the road around it was wet with what Jack hoped was only coolant. Its windshield had two holes punched through it. The two cars had obviously hit head on. Worse, they blocked most of the road.
The wall, however, didn’t care about road blocks.
“Daddy! It’s still coming!”
Jack searched frantically for a way around, but saw none. Which left them with only one alternative: through. He started the Chevelle forward, faster than he probably should have. He’d always said the car was built like a tank, but he’d never wanted to try-
CRUNCH. The Chevelle’s bumper hit the wagon. At that moment he realized that the movies were wrong. When you try to run a road block, the sacrificial cars didn’t just fly out of the way. The wagon moved only a foot.
“Daddy! It’s coming down the hill!”
He stomped the gas pedal. The big engine spun up to a howl again as it strained against a load it was never intended for.
If it stalls, we’re done.
The transmission started to slip. Then the tires broke loose. To his ears, they sounded like a hurt dog. The wall started coming down the road behind them, less than two hundred feet away. Denise screamed and he realized that Gary was screaming too, screaming at the Chevelle in a high, gibbering voice to-
“Go you piece of shit! Go!”
Jack-helpless now not to-joined him.
“Come on, dammit! Go!”
The Chevelle’s fender started to buckle, then to screech, as it was alternately crushed and wrenched sideways against the Audi. A small shiny piece of something sprang loose and twirled away. Jack looked backward-
One hundred feet.
The Chevrolet’s rear end shuddered and bounced as the tires struggled for traction.
But then suddenly-miraculously Jack thought-the wagon began to yield, and the Chevelle began to scrape its way past, losing the driver’s door handle and mirror in the process. Once free, it accelerated down the road. Gary and Denise shouted hoarse cries of triumph. Jack realized that he was shouting too. Then Gary spun around.
“The tractor trailer made it Dad! The wall caught him but he kept on going! I think he’s-”
But then Gary stopped. And when he finally did speak again, his voice sounded unsteady, with all the previous moment’s elation gone from it.
Jack took a brief glance at the remaining mirror. Through the blue shimmer he could just see the semi’s trailer go through the guardrail on the far side of the turn.
But that was all he had time to see, because the Thruway ramp was now just a few hundred feet away. He didn’t brake for it until the very last moment. The reason quickly was obvious to everyone in the car; he couldn’t afford to.
Jack quickly scanned the way ahead and didn’t like what he saw. The onramp to the Thruway made a wide circle up and to the right before it went through the toll booths and then down onto the Thruway itself. If he couldn’t get the Chevelle around it fast enough, the circle would carry it-and them-right through the wall and into whatever oblivion lay beyond it.
The wall was just under a hundred feet away when the he swung the Chevelle onto the onramp and started to accelerate again, but he gave the car too much gas. The car’s rear end broke loose, and the only thing that stopped them from spinning out completely was the curved barrier that ran along the middle of the onramp.
Instead, the Chevelle scraped along the barrier to the sound of shrieking metal and squealing tires. It gained speed though and started to push ever faster along the circle. Off to the right, they could see the wall trace across the underpass. Then it began to close on the onramp. The Chevelle howled and shrieked its way further along the circle, and for a second they found themselves headed directly toward the wall. Soon they would begin to arc away.
But not soon enough. The distance was closing too quickly. His brain scrabbled for last minute ideas, but found none.
It’s not enough. It’ll get us broadside before we can turn away. Oh guys, Jane, I’m sorry- I really tried…
He turned for one last look at his children. Blue already tinted their skin, and washed over the car’s interior.
Then the car bounced and he had to look ahead again so that he could keep steering. He made a conscious decision- probably his last on Earth, he decided- that even if all he did from that point on ultimately proved to be futile, his children’s last sight would be of their father doing his best until the end. He could see blue reflected on his hand as it gripped the wheel. Outside the driver’s window, the shimmering color seemed to spread off to infinity.
Twenty feet, ten.
“Don’t look at it! Focus on me! Look at-“
The wall touched the Chevelle broadside, at the apex of the turn, just as it began to pull away. Denise and Gary shrieked sexless screams as it splashed through the driver’s side window. Denise unsnapped her seatbelt and scrambled to the other side of the car. The wall spattered down through the car’s roof. Jack snatched at his belt too and unsnapped. He tried to pull himself away from the wall while still steering the car and keeping his foot on the gas. Gary grabbed at him and tried to pull, but Jack’s foot started to slip from the accelerator as he did.
Suddenly pain flashed along his left hip, making him scream. He couldn’t see it happen, but he knew that the wall had begun removing his flesh, exposing nerve endings to the open air. Still, he hung on to the wheel and kept his foot on the throttle. Gary tried again to pull him away, but Jack shoved him off with one hand as he steered with the other. The Chevelle bellowed and scraped on, slowly turning its rear to the wall.
IF SOMETHING HAPPENS, SHOVE ME OUT AND KEEP GOING
Inside, the spattering blue seemed to hover, nibbling at him and sending bolts of pain wherever it touched. Then, as the Chevelle opened the angle up further, the wall seemed to swing around toward the rear seat and slide toward Denise. She pressed her body sideways to get away, shrieking as she grabbed at the seatback. For an instant he felt the mad urge to swing back with his free hand, as if simply hitting the wall would be enough to make it leave his little girl alone.
Then he realized that he didn’t need to. The Chevelle kept opening the angle as it pushed through the turn, and they began to pull away. As quickly as it had come, the blue receded through the rear window and across the car’s trunk as it lost ground to the Chevelle.
At last the turn ended. He pointed the car straight down into the toll booth plaza and floored the accelerator again. One car blocked the left lane, but the other three lanes stood empty. Several people clustered to one side, watching. He laid on the horn and aimed for the center booth. None of its lights were working. He wondered for a split second if EZ-Pass would ever charge him for the toll-
They roared through the booth at seventy five miles per hour. Some part of the Chevelle caught on the narrow opening and ripped loose with a bang, but they kept on going down the long, straight onramp to the Thruway. The Chevelle’s engine wound up to its redline, then wound up again.
Behind them, the wall slid on. And while they’d opened up another lead, it was still a small one that left little margin for error. Jack could only hope that once they got on the Thruway they’d be able to stretch it further. He took a quick survey of the traffic running beside them and realized that doing so would be harder than he’d thought; traffic looked heavy for a Sunday-
He merged the Chevelle at over ninety five miles per hour, but still had to force his way on. The car that he cut off blared its horn and flashed its lights. Then it swerved over and tried to pass. Others still paced the Chevelle, even as its speedometer needle swung past the “100” mark. For a moment he couldn’t understand what was happening, but then Gary and Denise gasped. Denise’s voice came out sounding dazed.
“Oh my God Daddy…”
He looked back. Half a mile behind them, the wall crossed over the crowded highway…
He watched in horror as over a thousand vehicles suddenly twitched and went driverless. Sparks flickered off the roofs of some, or spattered down behind suddenly empty windshields. Headlights went dark, and he saw several vehicles dip their noses as their engines lost power, although momentum still flung them forward at high speed.
But with no one behind their wheels the painted lines between them lost all meaning, and they became nothing more than a hurtling mass of lifeless projectiles. From there, it didn’t take long for one to drift…
Everything behind the wall went into a vast, tumbling crash, as if giant hands had snapped the highway like a beach towel. A tractor trailer jack-knifed and went into a disintegrating roll. Then came the first puff of blue-tinted fire. Jack couldn’t watch the rest.
Instead he took a nervous look around. Three spots back, a new Dodge Challenger swerved nervously back and forth, trying to pass the Toyota that ran in front of it. A man in the passenger seat of the car beside them gestured and yelled at a grim faced woman who sat behind the wheel. To their rear, a man in some kind of uniform huddled over the wheel of an old BMW. To their front, a child stared out the back window of a dirty Honda, apparently mesmerized by the rushing blue.
Everywhere Jack looked, the scene was some variation of the same grim subject: frightened people, framed in the windows of whatever they happened to be driving. All of them charged on, heedless of what had just happened behind them, bunched dangerously close together at over a hundred miles per hour. To Jack, they looked like competitors in some lunatic version of a NASCAR race. Or “Cannonball Run”, or that Stallone movie-
That was when the realization came to him, and his heart sank as it did.
From the moment they’d taken that first panicked right turn back on Burger Hollow road, to the moment they’d reached the Thruway, they’d been fleeing for their lives. They’d been a small island of humanity, just trying to survive. But if this thing was running south, then how long had these people been running?
Looking out at their new surroundings he realized- it had all been for nothing.
Because they’d just joined a death race.
And, as if that weren’t enough, Jack realized something else: his left side hurt like a bastard. That much pain; it couldn’t be good. He took his eyes off the road for a split second and looked down to see if he was bleeding, then looked back up at the road. Then he did a double take, and looked back at his side again-
No, no, no…
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