"Redemption" - Joseph Pfister

The nameless U.S. interstate that unwound beneath Shea’s slightly rusted, lime green ’75 Pinto was as long and straight as the picket of telephone poles that lined the asphalt. Looking across the passenger seat, it was difficult for him to determine exactly where the Rockies’ jagged peaks met the colossal column of white clouds that filled the wide Wyoming sky. He had been following the same minivan for the last half an hour and the SUV in his rearview mirror had been there almost as long.

The radio in the car was on, but he was only half-listening over the reassuring sound of his tires on the pavement. It was invigorating to be out on the road, free of any commitments and with nowhere to be. Shea screwed up his face into a goofy expression for the small redheaded girl with a sprinkling of freckles in the backseat of the minivan, who giggled and disappeared out of sight. He had never had kids, had never wanted any. In fact, he hadn’t done much with his life to that point, he reflected without resentment, but he nevertheless wondered if he would leave any lasting impression on the world when he was gone. He was, after all, 52, single, and the only remarkable thing he could think to tell a stranger about himself was that he owned the complete, mint 1957 Topps baseball card set—the year in which he was born.

WHAT CAUSED THE minivan to slam on its brakes under the massive interchange wasn’t clear. Maybe there had been something in the road. A deer or maybe a coyote. Or maybe the minivan’s driver went looking for a lost Chap Stick or turned around to discipline her children. Whatever the reason, Shea hadn’t thought he was following that closely. The shock from the sudden glare of brake lights slowed his reaction and he watched as the front of the Pinto slammed into the rear of the minivan at 55 miles an hour. The tiny car careened into the guardrail in a hail of broken glass and burning brake pads, the gut-wrenching grind of metal sounding like nails on a chalkboard. He clutched the steering wheel in a death-grip, holding on for dear life, as an invisible hand yanked his body against his seatbelt violently.

The car grinded to an unexpected halt at last, and it was finally quiet again.

Shea didn’t move. Through a spider web of broken glass, he could see that his car was sitting sideways in the middle of the road; the minivan—some twenty feet away—had fused with the median, leaving a trail of debris and black skid marks in its wake.

He had made it. He was alive.

Releasing a much-relieved sigh, Shea glanced across the passenger seat. The last thing he remembered was the blinding headlights of the braking SUV before the gigantic vehicle plowed into him and everything went black.

WHEN SHEA OPENED his eyes again, he wasn’t sure where he was. It took nearly a full minute sitting in the dim quiet of the car before the details of the accident came rushing back to him. The minivan. The SUV.

He quickly realized there were small shards of broken glass everywhere—in his hair, on the seat—and the steam escaping from the crumpled hood of his car danced carelessly in the breeze. He thought he heard a faint cry. Was it the little girl or just the wind? Shea attempted to move before a shooting pain brought tears to his eyes. He groaned and laid his head back, closing his eyes. He was trapped. The sound of dripping gasoline, like rainwater through a rusty pipe, was the only indication that time was passing. He could smell fuel now—the way he used to when he was a boy and his father would fill up their old Chevy—and imagined it seeping through the cracks in the cement, pooling beneath his car. His shallow wheezing quickened and, looking down, he noticed that his right hand, bloody and swollen, was trembling.

“We had a good run toward the end there, didn’t we?” he muttered, letting his head roll toward the passenger seat. He opened his eyes again and felt a cold shiver run down the path of his spine. There was a stranger—broken and bruised—slouched in the passenger seat beside him. The stranger had a dazed, lifeless look in his eyes, and Shea wondered if that was how he looked.

“Sure did.” The stranger had broken glass in his hair as well, and a long cut across his forehead that glistened in the weak light.

“So, what do we do now?” asked Shea. He had gotten over the shock of seeing another person in the seat next to him. He attributed the coincidence to an aftereffect of the crash.

“Now?” said the stranger, raising an eyebrow. “Now we wait.”

Shea nodded. Something about the whole scene and its intimate destruction was oddly comforting to him as he sat there with a man whose name he didn’t even know, counting his last breaths. The ending—his ending—he knew was coming. There’s a certain feeling of finality when you reach the end, he thought, regardless of things you may’ve left unfinished.

“You all right, mister?”

Shea turned his head in the direction of the sudden, unsure voice that had interrupted his reverie. A sweaty, bearded face, glowing faintly in the light from under the interchange, had appeared in his window.

Shea felt himself nod.

“Okay, we’re gonna get’cha outta here,” the man said, reaching into the car and placing a firm pair of hands beneath Shea’s armpits. “Hang in there. You’re gonna be all right.” Shea realized that the man had cuts on the palms of both hands, possibly from searching through the wreckage for other survivors. “Ready, amigo? All right, one…two…three.”

A searing pain shot through Shea’s lower limbs, bringing tears to his eyes again, but this time he felt his legs come free. The man hoisted him up over his shoulder.

“Wait—wait! There’s somebody else!” Shea shouted. His frantic squirming toppled them over and they both fell to the concrete in a tangle of arms and legs. Shea felt the air leave his lungs. The man clambered back to his feet, breathing heavily.

“We have to get you outta here first!” he yelled, forcing his hands under Shea’s arms again. “Then I’ll go back! I didn’t see anyone else, though!”

Shea could see the stranger watching them, stone-faced, as the bearded man dragged Shea across the rough gravel. Shea tried to point to the passenger seat of the Pinto, but he found he didn’t have the strength to lift his arm past his side.

Reaching the median, the man propped Shea up against the cement barrier, asking in a voice desperately short of breath, if he would be all right until the ambulance arrived. Shea nodded and the man turned to go back. Before he could, however, an earsplitting explosion shook the overpass, coloring everything a brilliant orange. The man and Shea watched wordlessly as the blaze incinerated what had been left of the car, producing an inky black plume that rose into the wide Wyoming sky.