ROAD CLOSED AHEAD
TO FISHERMAN’S WAY
(OLD S.R. 52)
“Ah shhhhhiit.” Dillon leaked out the word, reluctant to acknowledge the sign. A detour at two in the morning. Great.
He’d made the decision just over the Florida state line, the sun throwing off its final red and purple shafts as it bled into the horizon. He’d made it out of Houston by noon like he’d wanted, but there’d been rush hour in Baton Rouge, then construction, then a three-car accident west of Mobile. Reading the map by twilight, Dillon guessed he had another seven hours before the cottage.
That’s when he decided. Fuck it. Keep going, even if it takes all night. Drew and the others had gotten into Weeki Wachee this afternoon, and Dillon was NOT spending his first night of Spring Break ’97 alone in some motel watching cable. And it could be very cool to get there just as dawn was breaking; he’d wake their assess up with the car horn and start the party as the sun rose. Beers for breakfast, drink or be gone.
Well, it sounded like a good idea at the time. He banged his palms against the steering wheel in sleep-deprived frustration. With three burnt-out bulbs, the flashing arrow on the detour sign looked like some strange constellation, stars short-circuiting in unison. He U-ied the Fiero around in the middle of the road and took off with an aborted squawk.
Fifteen minutes later, the harbor unfolded on him quietly, unexpectedly. The low brush that edged the road suddenly curved and dipped down, disappearing into an expanse of humped waves and ripples. The water had a dull luster to it, like a field of worn ebony. A sheet of fog was tightly tucked against the harbor’s surface, with hazy feelers beginning to creep their way across the road. At first they were only thin and infrequent. Soon, the tendrils had enveloped the Fiero in a curtain the color and consistency of ranch dressing.
His right hand drove while his left fiddled at his piercings, wandering between the three rings in his ear and the one through his eyebrow. He played with them in a half-conscious attempt to distract himself from the increasingly drowsy comfort of the driver’s seat. The tires kicked at occasional potholes, stoking the headache that had hung with him since midnight. He twisted the radio dials. Everything was either too loud for his head or too slow for his eyes. Or country. No.
Dillon could make out the glowing over the harbor before the road lines began veering toward it. The lights, tainted a fuzzy saffron as they attempted to penetrate the fog, seemed to flatten and lengthen from an arc into a line as the road swung out across the water. A billboard spelled out “FISHERMAN’S WAY” in faded red letters; the words were underscored by a huge, gaudy arrow. The causeway marched out into the harbor like a thin gangplank. Sour foam licked at the slabs of rock attempting to cordon off the strip of road from the Gulf of Mexico.
Ahead, the bridge buckled toward the sky. It was old and ungainly, a mountain of concrete and steel with a gaping slit running down its center. Apparently that gorge was supposed to be the median. The car thudded over the metal plates marking the beginning of the bridge’s assent, and the tires’ steady hum lurched into a hollow growling. While the Fiero climbed, the fog began to break back into tendrils, winding through the slotted railways and around the tall light posts. The bridge’s slope was gentle, languid. Fucking boring. Dillon leaned harder on the accelerator, his mind drifting to pale beaches and cooper bodies.
And tattoos. When he and the others first decided they were hitting Florida for spring break, Dillon had figured he’d commemorate the trip by getting his tongue pierced. Give his parents one more thing to have a shit-fit over. About two weeks ago, Drew’s urgings and eight beers had convinced him doing his navel was appropriate practice, a prelude to the main event. So, in the interest of economics (Dillon’s reasoning) and entertainment (Drew’s), they did it themselves: Dillon with a beer in one hand and a needle in the other, Drew with the puffy little lip of Dillon’s belly-button clamped in the teeth of the pair of pliers they’d used to assemble their loft.
The soupy discharge was all but gone, but the wound was still tender enough that he flinched as the seatbelt rubbed over the jutting hoop. Next time, his tongue in the grip of pliers? Even professionally done . . . maybe not. He thought he’d settle for a mandala instead, on his right arm, or maybe between his shoulder blades –
He almost didn’t see the thing come at all. It seemed instantaneous; there was fog, bleeding in and out of itself, and then there was a large form rushing at him, a fog-colored shape with eyes, off-centered and jaundiced.
His foot mashed the brake to the floor. The back tires screamed as lights, bridge, and ocean swooped past him, long and shuddery. Momentum ripped at him as the seatbelt death-hugged his chest; he didn’t even notice the hot-pain in his navel. The form filled his windshield, and then the car lurched to a stop.
Dillon lifted his head. The big Impala diagonally crisscrossed the road, swallowing both lanes in its bulk. Dillon’s headlights stared at him in an unblinking reflection off the slanted rear window. He guessed the two cars were less than a foot apart.
He suddenly thought of Drew and the rest of his friends. Yeah, go ahead and fly, you rich assholes, stick those of us on a budget with driving all night through the middle of butt-fuck nowhere . . .
“Ok. Ok.” He said the words slowly, letting the sound of his voice fill the car. Once his breathing felt more normal, he opened the door.
His legs ached sweetly from the drive as he stood up. Dillon approached the Impala. There wasn’t anything visibly wrong with it: no blown tires, no oily pools. Still, it looked less like a car than like a statue, immobile and forgotten. Except it’s in the middle of the goddamn road. Through the windows he saw an ugly tan interior, devoid of anything except a box of tissues, scattered like white leaves across the back seat. He yanked on the locked driver’s door, then headed around to the passenger’s.
Maybe it died on him, couldn’t get it over to the side. The air, heavy with fish and burnt rubber, assaulted his nose and clung to his arms.
Something flickered in and out of the fog, up ahead, by the harbor-side railing of the bridge. No, that was just the shifting mist, thinning and thickening, giving the illusion of motion.
No, wait. There was something there, a monolithic figure staring into the Gulf. His arms were out in front of him, resting against the rail, occasionally twisting and pulling on a thin rod that dangled over the water.
Wow, that’s fuckin’ brilliant. “Hey, man, get your car outta the road. I about wiped both of us out.”
The figure turned slightly. He was skinny, with the high cheekbones of a cadaver. His bored eyes considered Dillon. The figure adjusted the red ball cap on his head, then reeled his line in and walked off into the fog.
“Wai– “ Dillon took a few steps after him. The fog thickened, as if the figure was staging a magic trick, and then the milky veil inexplicably parted again.
The fog revealed the forms in rapid, eerie succession. A sulking boulder of a man had materialized to Dillon’s right. He was easily twice as wide as the thin man, who sidled next to him and cast in. The giant stood at an angle to the rail, his unseen face pointing out to sea. Past the giant clustered another group of people, two men and a woman. A solitary fisherman a ways beyond them, and then another two figures even further in the distance. The fog gathered around them in silky bundles, like the wispy husks that dotted spider webs. To his left, two men and another woman were fishing from the canyon in the center of the bridge. The woman appeared to have no trouble balancing her fishing pole in one arm and a small child in the other. The child picked its nose as it stared up at the bridge lights.
What the hell is this, a party? “Is this somebody’s car?”
A few faces acknowledged him with disinterest, then returned to their work.
“Hey! Will somebody please move this goddamn car out of the road?”
The forms give no response. A couple of wrists flicked and snapped, casting their baited lines into the dark sea.
The slap on Dillon’s shoulder was light, but he jumped anyway, spinning around with his arms half-raised.
The man in the wheelchair came to just above Dillon’s ribs. He had the face of a middle-aged cherub, his forehead red and his eyes set too far back in his skull. Tufts of hair, wild and pubic, sprang out from beneath a webbed baseball cap. A dirty gray blanket covered his stubby lap; it dangled flush over the seat’s lip. The fishing pole that grew out of the man’s fist bounced off Dillon’s shoulder again.
“Mind your mouth, son.”
The large hook passed close enough to Dillon’s eyes that he could see it was wedged into the rod’s top ringlet, like some backwater version of a torture tool.
“Fuckin’ watch it!”
“I said mind your mouth. There’s a child present. Bad enough you come through here like hell on wheels, driving like you ain’t have the sense God gave a rock –“
“Look, I’m not the one who parked the car in the middle of the fucking road so I could throw an all-night fish fry. Do you know how close -”
“Say that word again, son.” The man’s face had turned an ugly color. “Give me an excuse to run you in.”
Run you in? Who talks like that? “What?“
A hand appeared from beneath the blanket, clasping a black square with a splatter of gold. “Deputy Joshua Evern. Prematurely retired.”
Dillon felt like he was in a bad sit-com. “You’re gonna arrest me for foul language?”
“Try reckless operation of a motor vehicle and reckless endangerment of life and property, for starters.”
Careful. He ignored the voice in his head. “You just said you’re retired.”
“I got a dispatch radio in my car.”
“You’re gonna call somebody out here – “
“The officer on duty’s an old friend of mine. I’m sure he’d agree with my judgement. So, son, if you want to start what I assume is your spring break in jail, say that word again. Please.”
Dillon slowly pulled his hands down over his face. Cool it down, or Deputy Torso here’s gonna bend you over. “Fine. Sorry.”
The deputy still looked like he had smelled a carton of sour milk. Oh please. “Look, sir, I’m sorry about the language. I didn’t think there’d be anybody
(in the middle of the FUCKING road)
this late to look out for – “
“This is Fisherman’s Way.” He said this as if it explained everything.
“Oh. OK, well – look, I really don’t want any problems. Could we just get whoever owns this car to move it so I get out of your hair?”
“Love to, son, but I’m afraid we can’t do that.”
“This ain’t any of these people’s car. Illegal to park on the bridge. All their cars are down by mine, on the other side.”
“Was sittin’ there when I got here. I just got back from calling a tow truck. Should be out here in hour, hour and a half.”
Hour and a half! “Look, is there anyway we could push it to the side, at least enough so I could squeeze by?”
“Officer, I’m sure that big guy and I and a couple other people –“
“Too dangerous. What happens when you’re all out in the middle of the road and the next maniac comes flying along?”
“It wouldn’t take that long – “
“Son, my advice to you is to get back in your car and wait for the tow truck.”
“You want me to stay in the middle of the road? What about all the other ‘maniacs’?”
“Put on your hazards. Besides, there’s not that many people come through here this late.”
“You just said – “
The deputy folded his arms and stared hard at Dillon. “Son, I’m real upset you’re vacation’s gonna be delayed an hour. I really am. Now if you’ll excuse me, I got some fishing to do.”
You fucking hick dickwad. The words trembled at his lips as the deputy wheeled away from him. Dillon blew his exasperation at the gaudy lights. The fishers had remained mute throughout the conversation, their eyes devoutly cast down at the water. Fine. If you don’t belong to the United Elks Fishing Club of Two-Shits-ville, you’re not even worth a dirty look. Whatever. He retreated from their smug silence to the Fiero, plopping into the front seat and slamming the door as hard as he could manage.
“So the sign’s up.”
The raspy voice was immediately behind him, nuzzling his ear. He jerked around. The figure was crammed into the shadows of the back seat, so that Dillon could make out only a shaded oval for his face.
“Yeah the sign must be up. Why else would you be here? ‘Road out ahead, please take the detour.’”
“Who – Get the hell out of my car!”
The stranger either didn’t hear him or didn’t care what he’d said. “I wish I could figure out how they manage the sign. That’s the trick, you know? Must be some link, sewer pipe, maybe. I wonder how.”
“Wha – “ Dillon gave up in mid-word. He reached for the door handle.
“Can I bum a light off you?” The stranger used the large gun in his hand to gesture at the cigarette lighter lying on the front seat.
Oh shhhhit. Dillon slowly pulled his hand away from the door. “Ok, sure man, whatever you want.”
The stranger deftly pulled the lighter back to him. Orange sparks flickered twice in the rearview mirror, and then a red nub appeared. Dillon coldly realized he had probably just missed his best chance to do something. I hate detours.
“Look, “ Dillon said, “I got cash if that’s what you want. I mean, whatever you want – ”
“Where’ s the deputy at?” The stranger took jittery drags off the cigarette, his eyes pacing the windshield.
“He’s somewhere close by. He said he was gonna check back with me in a couple of minutes.” Dillon searched futilely for a shape half the size of the others. The fog was thickening into froth again, obscuring the fishers into opaque blocks, featureless and too far away.
In the rearview mirror, a knowing smile appeared around the glowing nub. “Oh, I know. I’m sure he’ll be along soon enough. That’s why I don’t have much time.”
The stranger twisted around, looking over his shoulder, eyes searching. He pulled long on the cigarette, held it, blew it out contemplatively.
“People that live on the water get weird. I’m serious; take it from someone who made their living on the ocean. Twenty years as a charter captain, and I can testify that the water does something to you. Creates this . . . this thing. This need. I think it’s ‘cause you can’t ever trust her. You pull food from her, you make your money by crossing her, you swim in her for fun. And she never ignores the chance to take you. Fill you up. Make you a floater. You can drown on a tablespoon of water, you know that?”
He paused, looking meaningfully at Dillon. “The Indians worshipped the ocean. Bet they even offered sacrifices to it. Bring in big schools of fish, keep out the hurricanes, that sort of thing. That’s what I mean. People get weird around the water. Think they can make deals with her.”
Oh yeah, anybody want some home-rolled smokes?
“Did you know this bridge is the site of a lot of suicides? No, of course you didn’t. You’re a tourist. Of course. That’s why you’re here. The locals know better, know to stay away.” He took another drag. “Well, some of the locals.”
“Ah . . ., well, guess that makes sense. The suicide thing, I mean. Easy to jump off of.” Agree with him, stay on his side.
“See, though, we don’t get jumpers up here. We get drivers. Drive right off the bridge. That’s what the police think, anyway.” Dismissive click of his tongue. “I bet they don’t know even half the cars sitting on the bottom of this harbor, just rusting away. Well . . . no. I’m bettin’ there’s one deputy who knows about every one of them. But the rest of them . . .”
His words were like the fog, runny and elusive. Dillon felt himself slipping into the disjointed narrative, even as he still watched out the window for signs of rescue.
“You ever seen a car drop into water? I mean from high up, off a cliff or something. A bridge, maybe. This huge plume of water shots up. Looks like an old feather duster. The sound . . . when the car hits the surface, there’s a flat, kinda smacking noise. It’s overwhelming. But even before that’s over, the other noise is there, too. The sucking. It’s like the ocean wants it as soon as the car hits, like she can’t get it fast enough. Hell, half the time water from the splash is still coming down when the headlights go under.”
His voice was trailing to an emphatic whisper. “They were tourists. Every one of them. Like you. Because the locals know better. Do you see? She’s greedy. She makes them greedy.”
He purposefully closed his mouth. His eyes were fixed on a bare spot on the dashboard, as if trying to concentrate.
Where the hell is the depu-
“IT’S NOT LIKE IT WAS THE EXXON VALDEZ OR SOMETHING!”
Dillon jumped at the sudden explosion. The stranger was jabbing his arm toward the harbor. “I wasn’t drunk. I was just tired. I mean, look at this fog. It wasn’t my fault. LOOK AT THIS FOG!”
“Look, man, I . . . I know. Believe me, I know what it feels like. I mean, to be tired . . .”
The stranger’s arm slashed at the air. “But it doesn’t end, you know? No sleep. No rest. Even after . . . after everything I’ve tried, everything I . . . I DID to make up for this . . . Still here. Still stuck here.”
“Look, why don’t . . . if you don’t like it here, why don’t you just leave, you know? Just leave, man.” Just please get out of this car you doped-out freak.
“Just leave . . .” He said it as though it was a rhetorical question, as though Dillon didn’t understand. The color and energy in his face slowly leaked away like a deflating balloon. “Yeah. Yeah, I think I gotta go. I can’t stay around for this.”
He leaned forward, opened the door, and glided out of the car in one graceful motion. “Thanks for the smoke.”
He paused, looking down toward the fisherman.
“If I were you, I’d get off this bridge before the deputy gets back.”
“Wh-“ Dillon began, and the question died in his throat.
The stranger hurried toward the harbor. From behind, Dillon could clearly see the exit wound that had opened the back of his head. The mouth of a crusty pink-and-black tunnel gaped among his matted hair. A bony chip dangled precariously off a strip of skin, occasionally bouncing on his shoulder. The stranger’s gait slackened only briefly as he stepped up onto the railing; he threw the other leg over and out into midair. The pieces of his head fluttered as he dropped over the side.
Dillon’s eyes clung to the spot the man had disappeared from, struggling to wrap logic around a memory not yet seconds old. He was vacantly aware his heart was slamming against his ribcage as though it wanted out. Everything between his legs had pulled in on itself, attempting to hide.
Fuck this, time to go. He stabbed the keys into the ignition.
“You know, it’d been a lot easier if you’d just gone to sleep.”
Deputy Evern’s broad face leered in at him through the open driver’s window. Dillon managed not to scream.
“Yeah, you’d be surprised how easily they drift off once they’re stopped. Late night, hazy and warm, usually been driving all day. Most go in fifteen minutes, half hour at the most. ‘Course, that’s if . . . well, that’s if certain other parties aren’t running their yap when their not supposed to.”
Dillon found his voice. “Deputy, I think I’m gonna get go-“
The deputy smiled, getting ready to tell the punch line. “You know what I don’t understand? Why good-lookin’ young fellas like you need to stick all that crap in your face. What the hell kinda trend is that? I mean, take a look at Curtis over here. Curtis, turn around for the boy.”
The deputy had called to the hulking giant. The man-shape carefully leaned his fishing pole against the metal railing, regarded Dillon with his broad back and dangling arms, and then turned.
Dillon’s gasp was similar to the slight whistling that emerged from what was left of Curtis’ mouth. The chunk of glass was embedded in his face at an angle, starting just beneath his left eye. It had shaved off his upper lip and punched most of the teeth inward. The glass extended a jagged half-foot out from his face, as though Curtis was teething on a giant, translucent razor.
The deputy’s voice was tiny, far away. “Now see, that’s why I was wondering why you would put all that stuff in your face on purpose. Ol’ Curtis, I think he’d love it if he could get unpierced, or whatever you’d call it. Not likely, though, not without losing the rest of his teeth, anyway.”
The fishing hook ripped into Dillon’s cheek. For a second, he thought a mosquito had bitten him, and then there was the sickening punctured sensation as the hook sliced through to the tender inside of his mouth. It sank in over his teeth, jabbing between two molars. The sticky tastes of worm and blood washed over his tongue. He gagged in surprise, in revulsion, and reached toward the line.
“No you don’t,” he heard the deputy say, and suddenly his head was yanked to the left. The hook carved a trench across his gum. Dillon tried to pull against the force, and a dangerous feeling of stretching rippled across the side of his face. The fishing line grew out of him like a tense muscle; he grabbed hold of it in an attempt to reduce the pressure.
The deputy was leaned back in his chair, both hands wrapped around the pole. In his eager squirming, his blanket had slipped off, revealing the knobby end of bone that jutted out of his right leg. A limp snake of intestine hung out of the gaping hole where his left leg had once been. He pulled the pole closer to his chest, forcing Dillon’s head and shoulders further out the window. Dillon’s hand was locked against his cheek in an attempt to fight without having his face ripped open.
“Come on over, folks, I got a lively one, need some help landing him!”
Past the Impala, Dillon saw the rest of them turn. They came at him instantly, their lethargy horribly gone. Now they were like wolves, with loping gaits and rolling shoulders. They swarmed around the Impala, their own wounds suddenly all too clear, bloated blue faces dragging along broken limbs and blood-soaked clothes. The thin man Dillon had first met was the only one who appeared whole, but his eyes were as vacuous as the others. He grasped the deputy’s wheelchair in an attempt to steady it. The rest encircled the Fiero, Curtis’ strange shadow looming over the hood.
The deputy hauled again, and Dillon tried to cry out. The pit in his gum throbbed as the hook played deeper into it. He was almost sideways in the car, his upper body crammed through the window’s opening.
“OK, let’s threw him back. Everybody lift at the same time, on three. Remember, use your legs, not your back.”
They all bent down and grasped the Fiero as the deputy began the count. The car began to reluctantly levitate. They brought it up slowly, until it was even with their waists. Most of them looked emaciated, but they seemed to draw strength from Curtis, who handled the front end by himself. The deputy remained where he was, letting out just enough slack to keep Dillon rigid in the car without completely dragging him out. The child was sitting on the ground near the deputy. It flapped what was left of its left arm at Dillon, perhaps waving. The others began shuffle stepping, bearing the car toward the ocean like a dead animal.
The smell of salt water swelled in Dillon’s nose as he was carried closer to the bridge’s edge. He had both hands clamped on the sinewy line, trying to pull the line even closer to him to get some leverage. The hook tickled a nerve, and his jaw spasmed. Suddenly, the curved sliver slipped out of the gum. He guided it back toward its entry point, but the deputy had too much torque for Dillon to slide it out. The car was past the right hand lane, in that slim space between road and railing.
The sucking, like the ocean wants it, as soon as it hits . . .
Dillon squeezed his eyes shut, released the line, and wrenched his body back into the car as hard as he could. There was a wet pop, a second of numb nothingness, and then the air, like acid against the edges of his ragged gill.
The night was swallowing the right side of the car as he twisted the key. The Fiero rumbled like a bear waking up, and Dillon saw what passed for a surprised look on Curtis’ face. He could hear the deputy screaming, “Throw it, throw it!” He jammed the stick into Reverse and floored it.
The tires whirled, spraying fingers like dirt. The right back tire scraped against the guardrail before the rear end slammed back down onto the bridge. The front end landed a second later as it dropped out of Curtis’ hands. There was a confused milling around the car, and Dillon floored it again. The rear bumper knocked two of the fishers aside, but one was standing even with the license plate. The car chopped him at the knees a second before the plate smashed his head in.
Dillon was flying backwards, weaving wildly. The deputy’s arm blurred as Dillon passed him, but the hook meant for Dillon’s eye caught on the door frame instead —
The wheelchair took off like a rocket-powered chariot, the deputy’s hair flapping from beneath his ball cap like wings. Dillon slammed on the brakes and swung the wheel around, fighting against crashing into the railing. The deputy had enough slack on the line that the car didn’t mow him down, but inertia snapped the fishing rod at the end of the car’s screeching arc. The wheelchair shattered as it hit the guardrail, sending a torso pin-wheeling out across the water.
Dillon tore through the gears, almost missing the clutch going into third, and he forced himself to take a breath and look back. They didn’t try to come after him; they stood motionless before the Impala, shrinking into the rearview mirror and the returning fog. The wind streaming through his face was beginning to awaken the runny pain in his lop-sided, gory smile. The car thud-dunked onto the causeway as Dillon glanced one last time in the rearview mirror.
The bridge was gone.
When he got the car stopped, he was shaking so bad it took him three tries to get the door open. Stupid fucking stupid keep going, but he had to get back out, had to see this with his own eyes, to know that it wasn’t some optical illusion.
A hundred feet or so behind the Fiero, the causeway dead-ended into a four-foot high concrete embankment running the width of the road. Beyond the blunted end of the road, the harbor stretched out into the night sky, uninterrupted by anything human, black sky and black water merging as one. It was a strikingly clear night, without a wisp of fog.
Posted on the embankment was a white sign. Its lettering was respectful, simple in the manner of a memorial:
THE FISHERMAN’S WAY (OLD S.R. 52)
Memorial Fishing Pier
DEDICATED TO thosE WHO PERISHED
when the fishing charter Alma Marie
collided with the Cocene Bridge
JULY 27, 1989
Dillon hadn’t finished mouthing the words when a silvery strand dropped out of the sky with a clang. The fishing line lay draped over the railing for a few seconds, hook still swaying, before being whipped back out into the water.
A gurgling tenor rippled out from some indeterminable point in the harbor. “Ah, come on, son, stay a while. We’ll do the other cheek for you.”
By the time Dillon made it off the causeway, the Fiero was doing well over ninety.