I-95 locked up till Daytona, nothing on the radio (CB or FM) about an accident, Rodney Fehr killed the engine of his Peterbilt flatbed and let his face settle into what his soon-to-be ex-wife called “the mugshot,” a hereditary, beat-ass, don’t-give-me-this-shit-now boxer look, despite Rodney’s perfect 24-year lifetime record of never throwing a punch. He caught one a time or two—wrong place, wrong time, wrong car to jack—but he cut that out once his boy Tanner matured from thoughtless lump to smiling, giggling baby. Rodney flipped the laminated picture of the kid hanging with his Daytona State College tassels from the rearview mirror. Four years old now, handsome little brat with a buzz cut just like his dad, Tanner fixed the camera with a gap-toothed grin.
White flashed past the driver’s side window, nearly clipping the mirror. Rodney dropped the picture and threw open the door, but the van shambled on down the shoulder, Eye Witness News in bold letters on its rear windows. Bastards always up to something, sniffing out the carnage no matter what it is. Rodney and his soon-to-be ex Allison watched that garbage every night; her after a day’s shift in Halifax ER, him post-wreckage-picking all across the county, think they’d get tired of their neighbors on display, but no. Rodney locked the cab and followed the news van in its dusty wake.
He passed a teenager standing in her sunroof, a pair of joes in paint-flecked coveralls mid-parley in español, agreeing between themselves to join the chase. Soon a body of the irritated and curious left their cars to trail the news van, around the bend in the pines, into the dusk.
Away from their cars, the wind over the highway shifted, molten tar with aerosol, muggy suddenly liquid. Ahead the lights of ambulances, of fire crews and police glanced off three figures in white and the line of demarcation after which the interstate continued on, desolate.
Coming up behind the crowd, a siren squawked, and Rodney with the others moved aside to make a gap for the police car, its loudspeaker crackling. “Return to your vehicles,” said the officer, obscured by the tinted glass. “The situation is under control”
“What situation?” the housepainter shouted.
The police car’s passenger window scrolled down, revealing the insectine face of a gasmask.
Muffled, the officer ordered the driver of the abandoned flatbed truck to show himself.
Slowly, Rodney stepped from the crowd.
Hazmat suit crinkling, Rodney stepped into the safe cockpit of his flatbed. He gripped the wheel with knuckles paling and watched through his rearview mirror: a dozen likewise suited volunteers from traffic clambered onto the bed. His CB squawked on the police frequency, telling him to go ahead, merge into the wasteland.
The trucks began to crawl out of their makeshift camp in the halo of the floodlights. They passed cars raptured empty from the evacuation. One mile. Twelve minutes. Into the glare of the lights braced over the wreckage, warping in the stir of fumes that shimmered like summer mirage over a blacktop. One hulk the toothy maw of a back hoe, the other a bulbous pustule of metal blown out in a fissure, mountains melted into the Dalí-esque sedan, recognizable in the Neolithic shape of wheels, the back windshield held together by two stick figures holding hands, a mom, a dad, a dog, a baby. Could have been anybody, could have been Allison and Rodney and Tanner, still could be but to ease aside the hulk, coached by an officer with binoculars who spoke into the radio as if calling a game of Twister as he watched the bodies tangle.
Rodney parked, turned the key slowly. The engine out and settling, Rodney breathed in the distinct smell of burnt hair, like feathers. The voice over the radio told him to get out and help. Rodney closed his eyes. Should have lied, he thought. Again he thought of Allison. He touched his hip where the cell phone should have been.
“Hey, driver, are you there?” said the radio.
“The faster this gets done, the faster you’re out of here, understand?”
Rodney unlooped the picture of his son from the rearview. He tucked it into his shirt. The plastic stuck to his chest. “I understand,” he said.
“The faster traffic can get going again.”
I said I understand. Rodney swallowed those words. He climbed out of the truck.
The litter used to sop up the spill crunched under his feet. Sculpture of the car and tanker rose and fell in topographical relief, the car tucked into a niche like a swaddled child rejoining itself with the mother. The men worked here, digging protected hands into plastic that flaked away like paper. Rodney stepped around them, not wanting to get in the way. They freed the back passenger door and then recoiled. “Madre de Díos,” one said. Another dodged behind the bumper and retched. Rodney did not move in time. He saw the body and could not look away.
I was driving when the tanker’s wheel blew. The tanker swerved. I hit the brakes, but they failed. I slammed into the underside of the tanker. My lungs, my skin, my clothes, they turned to ash.
Rodney separated himself from the vision of death. He picked up the disembodied car door and tossed it with the rest on the bed.
The housepainter grabbed his arm. “Careful. No sparks.” He let Rodney go, leaving a lingering sensation of his grip that slowly filled with circulation. Rodney fled into the flatbed’s cab. He tried not to breathe too deep, hearing the backhoe come alive in hiss and scrape and whine, feeling the weight of each fragment as it came down with the rest. No sparks. No sparks. Rodney lay down across the seat with his arms over his chest like a sarcophagus, tried to think of anything else. His son, his wife, pristine air. The radio squawked, sending him bolt upright. He grabbed the mic. “Yeah?”
“Everything secure?” said the radio.
Rodney shook off the pin pricks and turned around to look into the bed. A tarp had been thrown over the mass, and men were still tying it down.
“Almost,” Rodney answered. One of the men flipped him the bird.
The voice over the radio started giving him instructions drowned out by that vacuum of time before Rodney turned the ignition. The engine took. Nothing burst into flames.
Rodney had to get the officer to repeat what he said. Continue forward to the cloverleaf at Beville. Going to Tomoka landfill. Rodney knew the way.
He eased up onto the road, the other trucks and emergency vehicles following. Looked back on the flatbed. The men were gone. It was just him. A silent summer night drive with the hum of the engine and the flap of the tarpaulin spreading ionized who-knows into the backwoods. Someone was still with him, Rodney thought, back there in the wreckage, pull of the grave in the dark.
Rodney turned onto the long drive up to the landfill, isolated in the pine scrub in the middle of the county, until the radio reawakened: “Go as far as you can until you see lights. It’s at the very back of the complex, by the woods, a warehouse.”
Their engines sent gulls from their sleep into the sky. To the east, Daytona lit the bellies of the clouds in yellow. Farther to the west, the searchlights scattered over Orlando.
Heaps of refuse rose on both sides of the road. Rodney’s high beams glinted gold off broken glass; and the smell, waxy and rotten, spoke of decomposition, reincarnation—until the headlights spread into a cul-de-sac of waiting cars and the throw of the lights inside the warehouse.
Rodney pulled inside, as did the other carrier trucks. The doors came clattering down on their chains.
“Get out, move,” the intercom crackled. “Everybody out.”
The drivers stumbled into the night. Figures in white hazmat suits stood before the headlights of the cars, washed out in the light. A voice came over the clearing, lifted by a megaphone.
“This is Gayle Wedemeyer. You may know me as Mayor Wedemeyer of Daytona Beach.” As Rodney’s eyes began to adjust, he found her, a stout, small figure holding up a bullhorn. “I want to thank you,” she said. “For sacrificing your time for the good of the community. You will be reimbursed for any property lost, but for now, if you please, we would like to keep mum on this topic, especially seeing as it’s almost Memorial Day Weekend!” She let out a whoop that no one returned. She cleared her throat. “Now I’m turning you over to Dan from Disaster Management.”
The bullhorn magnified this shuffle of exchange. A pinched male voice took over. “You see we’re taking every, uh, precaution.”
The workers shifted uneasily.
“That means everything that has come in contact with contaminated debris must be confiscated. Your clothes will be burned—this is just a precaution, like I said, a precaution—your clothes will be burned, the vehicles stripped, scrubbed and reupholstered. We have managed to put together these stations—” He gestured back to the crisscross of headlights. “To cleanse you of contaminants.” Under the headlights, garden hoses ran to four plastic kiddy pools. “Please remove your clothing and give your items to one of the specialists in the hazardous material safety suits.” Disaster Management Dan waved to the set of these four identity-obscured county workers like a flight attendant signifying an exit row. Rodney laughed. No one else did.
Without speaking, the workers stripped down to their skivvies. Rodney touched his chest, finding the laminated picture of his son stuck there and forgotten. He peeled it off, but with no place to hide, it was confiscated by one of Disaster Management Dan’s specialists, and Rodney lined up for the pool, face warm from embarrassment. He looked around at the tops of the pines and the crests of the trash heaps that glittered in the runoff of lights, anywhere except to the other naked bodies. The only sound was the splash of the water and the plastic squelch of the hazmat suits, bringing Rodney back to the stillness, the uncertainty of the inside of the cab, seeing the driver’s death, rehearsing his own. He wouldn’t let it win.
Rodney reached the pool, and the water poured icy cold onto his scalp on down his chest. He imagined the beach, his wife’s tan legs, his son’s bright eyes, and he was there.
Four of them squeezed into the back of a squad car. Rodney, the last to get in, smushed against the door, while the man to his left—dressed identically in the white t-shirt and blue sweatpants the mayor had doled out—did his best to ignore Rodney’s thigh against his own. The only one who spoke to Rodney was the driver, a young cop. He turned around and asked through the grate, “Where to?”
“Countryside Apartments in Port Orange.”
Rodney touched his pocket, wanting to check the time on his phone. Probably left it in the truck, he thought. He considered changing his mind, telling the driver to go to his house in South Daytona, but they were already driving up Taylor, passing the gas stations lit up and empty by the interstate, joining Dunlawton, green light after green light, the town of Port Orange asleep and unaware of the explosion.
Once in the complex, Rodney told the young cop the apartment number. The enclave was shaded from the moon by tall oaks. The squad car stopped, let Rodney out, and sped away.
Blue television light flickered through the venetian blinds in the living room of Allison’s apartment. Rodney ducked under the stairs into the musky smell of bats. He poised his fist before the door, not ready to knock, not ready for her to leave him there to walk across town in the dead of night.
“Is someone there?” Allison’s voice came from behind the door, diluted by the sound of TV news. “I’ve got a taser.”
He leaned against the doorframe. “It’s Rodney.”
The deadbolt slid. Rodney jumped, unable to compose himself before Allison flung her arms around him, pressing her face into his chest, squeezing his ribs. His legs nearly gave out. Her words, incoherent while she sobbed, gradually gathered into Rod, you’re alive. She pulled him inside, steered him to a barstool. Still holding his hands, she sat on the next stool. Her face was puffy. Mascara had run down her cheeks, muddying her freckles. She was still in her scrubs from her shift at the hospital. She swallowed, forcing back the tears, letting forward a smile. “My God, you look so baffled.”
Rodney shook his head, open-mouthed, unsure of what to say. The TV on the opposite counter, like the one in the living room, clipped soundlessly from an Appliance Direct commercial to a conventionally pretty news anchor. The picture cut to a local beach where a gull pecked at a French fry; a panorama of the coast, a hotel--
“They stopped talking about it hours ago,” said Allison.
Rodney focused on his wife again as she drew an index finger under both eyes to clear away the gunk. He shook his head again. He’d given all his words up to the CB.
“The explosion on the interstate,” she said. “That is where you were, isn’t it?”
Rodney nodded. Then he got down from the stool. He plucked a tissue from the box on the table and wet it with water from the sink.
Meanwhile, his wife went on, “When I got home from work, I turned on the TV and started making dinner when Tan says, ‘Look, mommy. Daddy’s truck,’ and of course I didn’t believe it until I saw it for myself.”
Rodney returned to Allison’s side of the bar. When he dabbed the wet tissue under her eye, fresh tears began, and she took the tissue from him and turned away. He kept his distance.
She took a breath deep enough to straighten her back, faced him and continued with the tissue clutched on her knee. “I didn’t start freaking out until the coverage stopped. It absolutely stopped, and I was like, What happened? What happened to my husband? I called you. I called and I called and you didn’t answer. And now Tanner thinks you’re dead because I’m out here crying like a lunatic.”
“Where is he?”
Rodney got up.
Allison reached for his hand but caught his shirt. “You really were there, right? I’m not just freaking out over nothing? That was your truck.”
“I’m sorry, I’m so—” He took her hand and leaned into her until his face rested against her neck. “It was me.”
She touched the base of his skull where the hair bristled soft, black.
Tanner’s sniffles travelled into the hallway. Together, Allison and Rodney crept into Allison’s bedroom, panning the hall light over Tanner curled into a ball in a ruckus of white sheets. “Mommy,” he said. Allison, choked with tears, shoved Rodney.
The bed creaked when Rodney sat down on its edge. Tanner turned his head. “Daddy,” he said, as if he never had any doubt. He stretched out his arms, and Rodney picked him up, held him in his lap where the boy quickly fell back to sleep.
Allison changed into one of his old shirts and shut out the hall light. In the darkness, her shape crossed before the stripes of light from the courtyard. Rodney whispered to this silhouette. “I’m sorry.” Not for losing his phone. For not being there when he needed her. For fucking up so much she had to leave and take away his son. For every woman he touched who wasn’t her. For every hour he missed her. It was the smell of aerosol on him, the stench of burning feathers he’d suppressed that lingered in his skin.
She lifted up the blankets and crawled under them. “It’s okay if you sleep here tonight,” she said.
Tonight? was his last thought before drifting, only an hour later to wake up in the blue hours of the morning, the prickle of invisible threads up his arms, blood on his lips.