By Carol Cail
|Larry’s Chrysler minivan had just passed mile marker 80 going west on I-70 on a lovely September day when, from the last row of
seats, a man rose up behind him. Catching the motion in the rearview mirror, Larry instinctively stepped on the brake, but only for a
second, since the man’s gravely voice ordered, “Keep going!” Heart pounding, he stamped on the gas, and the van charged up the
“Easy, easy,” the man said as he slithered into the seat immediately behind Larry. “Don’t kill us.” Then he added, “Yet,” and chuckled
He must have climbed into the car at the Effingham rest area--Larry couldn’t remember locking up. Damn! Now what?
“Take her down to seventy and set the cruise control,” the man directed, his voice a soft buzz as he leaned toward Larry’s right ear.
“Relax. I’m not going to hurt you. I just want to talk.”
Sure. That’s what the bad guys always say. Larry’s hand vibrated so he could hardly push the buttons.
The man settled back into his seat and buckled up. “What’s your age and name, mister?”
“Sixty. Newson--Larry Newson.”
“Okay. Just checking. You’re the right one.”
“The right one what?” He cleared his throat, ashamed of how high his voice had gone.
“The right fella. I have a message for you. But first, tell me a little about yourself.”
“Like what?” he choked.
“Where are you bound?”
“Going to visit my brother in St. Louis ,” Larry lied. He’d never told anyone about his hobby and he sure wouldn’t confide in this
He swung the minivan out and around a rig towing a load of Toyotas. Ahead was a string of semis to pass, and in the side mirrors
another string that would be passing him.
This was the real reason he was on the road. He loved to drive an interstate, loved the intricate pattern of traffic, the serendipity of
being at this spot at this time, among strangers, all on their way to different destinations, but for the moment a part of his life, the
“Larry? Hey, kiddo. I asked where you’re from.”
“ Columbus .”
“How do you feel?”
“How do you think I feel! Scared,” he blurted.
“That’s normal. You don’t have to be afraid of me, though. I’m here to help you. But I meant, how did you feel before I came along?
Any pains, any medical problems whatsoever?”
The guy was crazy and dangerous. It was all Larry could think of, leaving no room in his mind for an escape plan. The highway
disappeared under his wheels, mile after mile, and about now he would normally turn on the radio, NPR, to keep him from giving in to
the hypnotic allure, the rush of landscape on either side, the current of cars and trucks and motorcycles and buses--
“Back seat to Larry.”
“I’m fine. I’m not sick much.”
“Good. Had a pretty good life, all in all?”
Yes, he had enjoyed health and happiness most of his life. He’d been married a while--no kids--and liked his job as a carpet installer, till
his knees gave out. Then he retired, and he’d discovered or invented this hobby of driving the interstates. Simply driving one way out
and then the same way back, usually in one long day. A wonderful pastime that didn’t cost much, until gasoline prices kept climbing.
He carried an overnight bag in case he wanted to go farther than usual, but most of his weekly trips were only--
“Larry, you awake up there?”
“What do you want from me?” he mourned.
“Buddy, I don’t want anything from you. I’m here to give you information you can use. See, I have this power . . . .”
Maybe there would be a patrol car ahead with someone pulled over on the side. Larry could blow his horn, weave and speed, get the
cop’s attention with eratic driving and then brake hard and jump out and--
“You’re going to die.” The man managed to sound regretful.
Larry clenched his teeth, anger overflooding fright. “We all die, buddy. I didn’t need you sneaking into my van to tell me that. I didn’t
need you to speed up my expiration date.”
“No, no! You’ve got it wrong. I don’t want to speed your death. I want to expedite it.”
“Same thing.” With the man’s admission, Larry’s wet eyes washed away his rage. “Why do you want to kill me?”
“I don’t. I want to help you choose an easier death.” He unfastened his seat belt and squirmed forward to murmur beside Larry’s head.
“I’m an angel of mercy.”
The white line separating the two lanes swam toward the horizon. Cruise control pushed the Chrysler around a dump truck, a camper,
a Jeep, another dump truck. The highway flowed empty ahead, nothing more to pass, no patrol cars to signal. In the rearview mirror, a
purple semi hove up, passing even though the speed limit here was--
“Larry, you ever hear of amyotropic lateral sclerosis?”
He sniffled, shook his head.
“How about Lou Gehrig’s disease? ALS. Awful way to end up. Starts out as cramps, weakness in the limbs, clumsiness. You find
yourself more clumsy lately?”
Larry shook his head. He did feel weak and achy, but that was part of growing old.
“Right now you’re feeling uncoordinated, slow, and short of breath.”
“That’s because you’re coiled up behind me hissing down my neck,” Larry snapped, glad for the resurge of anger.
“Yes, but you’ve also felt these symptoms other times while you were alone, not just driving but puttering around the house.”
Larry flinched as the man leaned between the front seats and held up a pale arm. His denim shirt sleeve was rolled up to his elbow. “I
want to prove to you that I really am an angel of mercy.”
“Uh-huh, and you came all the way down from heaven to visit me,” Larry felt brave enough to scoff.
“Not heaven. But definitely an angel.”
Larry glanced sideways at the face looming near his. It was uncommonly white below a bald or shaved head, the cheekbones sharp, the
chin and mouth skeletal. Just before Larry looked again at the highway, he glimpsed the man’s eyes in the rearview mirror. They were
intensely blue and the whites shone like glass.
The man tipped onto one hip and drew a blade out of his boot. Larry’s hands jerked the steering wheel left and right.
“Watch it, son. This here isn’t for you.” The man held the knife out between them as if for admiration. “I’m gonna prove to you that I’
m special. I’m going to cut myself, soon as we’re past this next big rig. Show you I don’t bleed.”
“Please don’t do that. I believe you.”
“No, you don’t. But you will.”
Larry touched the brake to disengage the cruise control. But still the monster truck beside them moved too slow--he had to pass it so
the car behind him could pass it, and then he’d move right and the car would pass him, too, and the dance would go on, vehicles
changing lanes, speeding up, slowing down, sometimes strangers following one another at the same pace for miles, hours, till one of
them turned off, and Larry always felt a little twinge of regret that the bond had broken, until he found another driver to lead or
“Now,” the man said, and left-handed sliced his forearm from wrist to elbow.
Larry fell against the driver’s door, away from the expected burst of blood. For a long moment, the minivan drove itself. Then the
man stretched to take the wheel and guide them straighter, using the same arm that should be dripping red. A thin, puckered line, as
white as the rest of his skin, marked the blade’s incision.
“It’s sharp all right.” The man stabbed into the passenger seat, which wheezed as the blade buried halfway to the hilt and squealed as it
“You got the wheel,” the man said, taking his hand away and sitting back to roll down his sleeve and return the knife to his boot.
“Now you got to admit. I may not be an angel, but I’m dang sure not human.”
Larry drove. The sun hung hot and bright in the southwest. The mile markers and exits counted down. The towns called to him like
carnival barkers--stop at me, eat here, sleep here, buy gas, see me, Vandalia, Hagerstown , Mulberry Grove--
“This is the deal, Larry. I’m giving you the opportunity to not die long and slow of ALS. I’m telling you that’s what’s in your future
unless you take immediate steps.”
“What is this--some kind of religious thing? I’ve been bad, but I can repent and save myself?”
“Not that simple, Larry. You aren’t a sinner. This is just the unfair way life is, sometimes. You picked up a virus or something. All I
know is, in a month or two you won’t be able to move anything but your eyes. It’s a hideous disease. Harrowing.”
“You’re getting out at the next exit,” Larry snarled. “Shut up until then.”
“You haven’t heard the choice I’m offering you. Listen, and after I’m gone, think.” The man rubbed his chin; even over the sound of
the engine, Larry could hear it rustle like dry leaves. “I don’t have the capability to stop the disease. All I can do is warn you so you can
pick your own time and place.”
“Kill myself, you mean.” He wanted to say it with a sneer, but found it difficult to sneer when he could scarcely breathe.
“Yes. You see, if you do it within the next twelve hours, you can completely avoid any of the agony of the growing illness. But if you
procrastinate even one day, you might be powerless to do it at all.”
“Yeah, well I’ve got tickets to a Reds game next Saturday.”
“Believe me, the quality of your life will not be worth another week, not even another day. It’s best to leave life now, before ALS taints
any part of it.”
Larry slapped the steering wheel, and the sting of it coursed into his shoulder. “Okay, you talked me into it. I’m going to run right up
the back of the next tractor trailer we come to.” Larry toed the accelerator. He should have tried speeding before, a sure way to make
a patrolman materialize.
“Don’t backend someone. You mustn’t involve another driver in your troubles,” the man chided. “If there really is a heaven, you won’t
go there if you’ve harmed innocents.”
All those jokes about the skeleton with the scythe--Larry wanted to ask the man his name, but why bother when the answer would
undoubtedly be a smart alecky “G. Reaper.” Several exits flew by and Larry didn’t stop to eject his passenger. They rode in silence, a
crosswind rocking the car every few minutes, the gas gauge slinking lower, the sideditch falling away into cravasses where a front tire
might drop off and tow the rest of the van over and over and over--
“You can drop me off at the Silver Lake rest stop.”
Larry couldn’t believe that almost an hour had lunged by. They were almost to St. Louis . Would the man actually depart, step out of
Larry’s van and not slit his throat first?
“It’s easy.” The man scooted up next to Larry’s ear again, his gruff voice as quiet as sand. “Take a hard turn into an overhead bridge
support at seventy-five miles an hour. You can’t just slant into it, because they’ve got these metal guardrails to keep you off. A hard
turn will do it--you won’t feel a thing.”
Larry nodded. He slowed for the rest stop lane as if actually believing the man would climb out here.
And he did climb out, but not before saying, “Remember. Don’t do it if there’s any traffic. You don’t want to involve anyone else.”
The moment the side door slid shut, Larry accelerated toward the exit. He needed a urinal, but he needed to be away from the man
worse. He couldn’t help glancing into the rearview mirror. The lank, blue-clad intruder stood staring after the minivan, bloodless arm
upraised as if in benediction.
Bearing down on St. Louis , Larry alternated between exhiliration at his escape and depression at the fortune he’d been told. The man
was crazy. Larry ought to stop and report him to authorities.
When he did pull off to gas up and use the rest room, he didn’t phone anyone. He was tired. The story was too unreal. But mostly he
was too damned tired. Nevertheless, he kept driving, on 270 for a while, crossing the Mississippi River, rush hour traffic, the sun
worming into his head, every joint inflexible and awkward--
How did that guy cut himself without bleeding? The arm was real, with black hairs and blue veins. The knife was real, commando style
with a blade as long as a bayonet. Larry could still see it punch into the skin and rip a furrow.
What if it was true? What if the aching in Larry’s shoulders and legs and neck wasn’t merely driving fatigue? He didn’t usually
experience pain after a day on the road. He should find a motel and rest up for a trip home tomorrow.
But what if he woke up unable to move?
No, he’d stop for coffee and aspirin, and then go on through Missouri, see how he felt, nice evening for driving once the sun was
down, too much traffic here to do anything anyway, Kansas would be better, Wentzville, weigh station, Warrenton, patrol car parked
on the side behind a red sedan, Kingdom City, congestion at Columbia, orange cones, a sandbag in the median or maybe a body,
Kansas would be less traffic, there’d be long, empty stretches in Kansas, and he wished he’d asked the man his name . . .. .
The man would have said “ Altamont .” He always picked the first signboard he saw once he was in the vehicle. He thought Altamont
sounded especially like an angel of mercy.
He grabbed a ride into St. Louis with a Texan hauling an empty cattle trailer. Most of the way, Altamont dozed against the passenger
window, his left hand cradling his right arm, the knife sheath snug against his ankle. He’d made a living as an magician for a while and
was proud that he still had the touch. He’d been a preacher, too, with a talent for convincing folks that they could kiss rattlesnakes and
He’d check the local newspapers for a few days, see if he’d succeeded with Larry. There was no profit in hiding in vans and selling
suicide to old men. It was just recreation more damn interesting than golf.