TO AUTUMN CONTESTS
©2000 Bev Vincent
Publication Credits for Bev Vincent
Art ©2000 Gak
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It had been a gentle bump.
A small jolt.
Surely too small to have been caused by a child.
So many small children were running around on this dark
night, though. What if it had been a child and not a pothole or a cardboard box?
It could have been a child. In the darkness, the trick-or-treaters were well camouflaged in their black vampire and witch costumes.
It could have been. What if it was? What if?
This was not the first time Victor thought he might have hitsomeone with his car. Every timeand there were days when it happened on a dozen or more occasionshe had to go back to the scene to convince himself that it had been his imagination.
Sometimes he spent fifteen or twenty minutes combing through
ditches and hedges, adrenaline rushing through his veins, awash in guilt at the possibility that he might have carelessly caused a death. Often he returned a second or third time to reassure himself that he hadn't overlooked something.
Victor stopped the car in the middle of the road. He had never struck anyone. Every time he had gone to look, there had been nothing.
What if it had been real this time? All those other times didn't matter. What if a child cloaked in a dark costume, too preoccupied with tricks and treats to pay attention, had gotten too close to his car? What ifeven nowhe or she lay in the road behind him, a small body surrounded by candy that had tumbled out of a plastic orange jack-o-lantern?
Bleeding, suffering, dying?
The more Victor thought about it, the more he was sure that it had not been a simple bump in the road. It had felt different.
It must have been a child.
So many of them out tonight, and they weren't paying attention. They never did, but especially not tonight. It made driving nerve-wracking.
He swore under his breath as his heart throbbed in his ears. Why was he out on a night like this? It was crazy. Eleanor knew how he got when he was driving, but she had insisted. They were running low on candy, and it was up to him to get more.
His hands clutched the steering wheel while sinews stood out on either side of his neck. Sweat beaded on his brow, even though it was one of the coldest autumn nights yet. Risk of frost, the forecast had said, and here he was sweating in his car.
Resigned to the inevitable, Victor opened the door and stepped into the brisk night. His flashlight was in a compartment on the driver's door where he always kept it. This was not the first time he had needed to search the roadside in the dark.
It probably wouldn't be the last.
It's just my OCD talking, he chided. His therapist wanted him to stop fighting the obsessive-compulsive disorder and talk back to it to remove its power over him, but it didn't work. "Harming obsession" was the official diagnosis. "Hit 'n' Run" disease. He knew that a chemical imbalance in his brain was responsible for his feelings of guilt over something that hadn't happened.
Probably hadn't happened.
But what if? It was possible, wasn't it?
And the bump had felt ... different.
It could easily have been a small child, crushed beneath his back wheel, now lying mangled on the roadside.
Victor turned on the flashlight and swept its intense beam back and forth across the street. He looked under the car to make sure that the child wasn't trapped beneath, caught in the muffler or the axle.
Nearby, a gaggle of costumed kids trick-or-treated from one house to the next, a jumble of legs, candy sacks and laughter.
No one paid any attention to him as he continued his search, flashing the light over the median strip, obscured by bushes and plants. Many of the shadows could hide a child's crushed figure.
No blood, no body.
He pushed his way through the hedges to the other side of the median for fear that he had struck the child hard enough to throw him or her all the way across the street.
He searched the same places again from the opposite direction, in case he had missed something. Back at the car, he looked underneath again.
His heart rate gradually returned to normal and a chill seeped into his bones. He chuffed a lungful of air and watched his breath vaporize.
Another false alarm. He got back into the car and slipped the flashlight into the door pocket.
An automobile horn beeped gently behind him as lights flashed across his rearview mirror. He was blocking the lane. Victor waved into the mirror, started the engine and continued to the convenience store.
The return trip was excruciating. Children scurried everywhere. Victor drove at a crawl, trying to focus his concentration on the street and his driving, but was continually distracted by the small people milling around on the sidewalks and at street crossings. They were so close to him! The exterior of the car chassis felt huge while at the same time the interior constricted around him.
The convenience store was a little over two miles from Victor's housenot so convenient as all that, he ragedand it had taken him fifteen minutes to cover only half the distance so far. He had stopped four times already to look under his car, to sweep the road behind him after feeling a bump.
His mind raced. Still another mile to go. He was tempted to pull over, leave the car where it was and walk the rest of the way home. Eleanor could come and get the blasted thing herself in the morning. It was her fault he was out here, after all.
Huge raindrops ricocheted off the windshield, increasing rapidly to a steady drizzle. Victor shivered as he imagined spending the next twenty minutes or more plodding home through the frigid rain.
The windshield wipers scraped and moaned as he reduced his speed even more and continued down the dark street.
Ahead, lights gleamed. In the darkness, compounded by the streaking rain on the windshield, Victor couldn't be sure of their color. They seemed to be flashing. Red and blue. An accident?
The lights came from the opposite lane, across the median. As he drew close, he recognized the surroundings. It was where he had first stopped earlier this evening to search for an accident victim.
He had been right!
Deep inside, he had known that he was right this time. Vindication gave him a perverse feeling of elation. All those times, stopping and checking, searching, crawling under the car, poking in the bushes, were suddenly validated. He hadn't been crazy after all.
He pulled up onto the edge of the road and sat behind the wheel with the engine running, his wipers dragging across the windshield.
In addition to two police cars, a fire truck, an ambulance and a tow truck had gathered at the scene. Automobiles were backed up as far as he could see in the opposite direction. It had been over half an hour since he had passed by this spot, so traffic had been tied up for a long time.
Victor wondered what he should do. Part of him wanted to go to the police, turn himself in, proclaim his guilt. He could see himself doing that. He could also see the crowd turning on him.
He had left a small child to die in the cold, dark street, rain pelting off her foam-rubber Halloween mask. He could picture rain puddled around her little bodyhe was sure that it was a girlas dissolving candy dyed the water red and purple.
He couldn't see how he had missed the girl's body, though. He had searched thoroughly. Three times, no less. Still, what was done, was done. He had hit and he had run.
Now he had to see if he was going to get caught.
Sitting on the roadside was probably not the best strategy to avoid the attention of the police. He put the car into gear and eased forward again.
As he drew even with the accident scene, he tried to adopt an appropriate mixture of interest and indifference. If he ignored the accident altogether, that would certainly be noticed and marked. If he showed too much interest, that, too, would be suspicious.
Only when the wrecker maneuvered to hook up to a damaged car did Victor realize that this was not a hit-and-run scene but rather a routine traffic mishap. One car had rear-ended another. Quite solidly, by the look of it. The front of the rearmost car was badly crumpled. Firemen worked with rescue gear to try to open the driver's side door.
The scene gripped Victor's attention as his mind raced. No hit and run! He hadn't run anyone down!
He was so obsessed with the accident scene, the scene for which he was not responsible, that he ran his car against the median curb. The front wheel scraped along the prominent concrete ridge, twisting the steering wheel in his hands. He fought against the pressure that tried to drive him across the road and finally straightened the car out. He had probably scraped the hell out of his front hubcap, but he was back in control.
He looked back at the accident scene, watching it as he eased along in the rainy darkness. The lights flashed in his side and rearview mirrors, growing fainter in the gloom.
The car didn't handle well on the rest of the trip home, but at least he did not have any more illusions that he had run someone down. The road was slick but smooth and there were no potholes or speed bumps to induce that gripping, inescapable certainty that he had hit someone.
He had likely done some significant damage to his car, though. Thrown the front end out of alignment, perhaps even ruined something in the undercarriage. His muffler, perhaps, or the oilpan. His eyes flashed to the array of gauges around the speedometer, but no warning lights were illuminated.
Tomorrow would be plenty of time to worry about that. He could take the car to the garage and get it checked out.
He pulled into the driveway, slammed the transmission into park, grabbed the sack of candy from the seat beside him and locked the door as he got out.
The cold, unforgiving drizzle made Victor clutch his coat tightly around him as he walked the ten feet to the back door and its protective canopy. Jack-o-lanterns grinned back at him ghoulishly from the railing, the candles within fighting to stay alive against the rain and growing wind.
As he opened the front door, he stripped off his wet jacket and greeted the warmth within the house.
How good to be home after such an excruciating ordeal!
In the driveway, rain gathered in puddles around the wheels of his car.
Although it was dark, a careful observer would notice that the water on the driver's side was slowly turning purple and green as candy spilling from the shredded pumpkin pail caught in the undercarriage dissolved.
On the passenger side, the water slowly turned crimson.
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