I slid into the booth opposite Deirdre, my hands still trembling, sweat cooling on my forehead.
She looked up from her menu. “You look like hell,” she said.
“Yeah, I know.”
“Everything all right?” She put down the menu, reached across the table for my hand. “Your hands are cold. And you’re sweating. Are you feeling okay?”
I started to nod, then stopped myself. “Not sure really. Something strange happened on the way here.”
A waiter put a place setting in front of me, filled my water glass.
“Would you like something to drink, sir?”
“Um. No, water’s fine.”
“Are you ready to order?”
Deirdre shook her head. “Give us a minute.”
The waiter left. I sipped my water, barely managing to lift the glass to my lips and return it to the table without spilling it.
“Tell me,” she said.
It occurred to me that I had been about to start the story in the wrong place. “It started yesterday, actually,” I said. “First thing in the morning. I was at the gym, on one of the rowing machines. There was another guy there, two machines down. I’ve seen him there before but . . .” I shook my head. “I’ve never learned his name. I guess it’s not important anymore.” I shuddered.
“Anyway, I’d been there about fifteen minutes, when another guy came and started working on the machine between us. Me and the other guy hadn’t been saying much, but the new guy was pretty chatty. Started asking our names, what we did, where we lived. Normal stuff.
“But then he started getting a little weird. Creepy, you know? Talking about these accidents. Horrible stuff. Guns going off in kids’ hands, families dying in car wrecks, plane crashes, stuff like that.”
“Just talking about it?” Deirdre asked. “For no reason?”
“Well, that’s the thing. At first it seemed that way, like he was repeating things he’d heard on the news or read somewhere. But after a while I realized that he wasn’t talking about stuff that had happened he was . . .” I shook my head. “It sounds crazy, I know, but he seemed to be talking about things he had done.”
“Plane crashes?” she said, frowning.
“I know. Crazy, right?” I reached for my water again, but didn’t pick up the glass. It just felt good against my skin; smooth, cold, slightly damp.
“At this point the other guy left,” I said. “And then it was just me and the newcomer. He follows the guy with his eyes, and then turns to me, calm as can be, and says ‘He’s not going to make it.’
“I said, ‘Excuse me?’ and he points to the guy as he’s walking away and says, ‘That one. He’s not going to make it.’ And then he gets this little smile on his face and says, ‘You I’m not so sure about. We’ll just have to see.’
“Well, at this point, I’ve had enough, you know? So I stop rowing, gather my things and say goodbye to the guy. To be honest, I couldn’t get away from him fast enough.”
“I would think,” Deirdre said. “How bizarre.”
“Right. But that’s not the end of it.”
She sat back, watching me.
“I tried to put him out of my mind. I had a full day yesterday — meetings, a presentation, a couple of calls to Zurich. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the guy and the stuff he was talking about. All day long it stayed with me. And then I was up half the night, running through it all in my head.”
“I don’t blame you. I would have been the same way.”
“Yeah, well when I woke up this morning, I felt better. I finally got some sleep, and I managed not to dream about the guy or the stuff he was describing. I skipped the gym, but . . . well, I had some things to take care of this morning and so I might have done that anyway.
“But as I was driving here, something happened. I was on the interstate, taking that curve near the downtown exit, and all of a sudden the car in front of me — its rear axle breaks. One minute it’s going along fine, and the next minute its left rear tire is splayed out to the side and the car is swerving all over the place. There are cars and trucks on either side of me, a semi right behind me, and the guy in front of me is barely hanging on.
“And then his rear wheel comes off completely and bounds back toward my windshield. He’s riding on his axle now, sending a shower of sparks back at me, and I’m half-expecting his gas tank to explode.”
“My God!” she said, eyes wide. “So what happened?”
I shrugged. “I got through. To be honest with you, I don’t know how. But I managed to dodge the tire and make my way past the guy without getting hit by the other traffic.”
“Well, thank goodness.”
“I know. The thing is, though, as I drove on I saw someone walking along the side of the road. Some guy in jeans and a t-shirt. And as I passed him . . . well, I’m almost sure it was the weird guy from the gym. And — God, I feel like an idiot even saying this — but he had a lug wrench slung over his shoulder and I thought I saw him give me a little wave. But when I looked back for him in the rearview mirror, he was gone.”
[The part with the car breaking its axle and losing its rear wheel is true. I was on my way home from the South Carolina Writers’ Workshop, and it happened to the car directly in front of me while I was surrounded by traffic. I have no idea how I managed to avoid an accident. Lucky, I guess. And I got a story out of it.
Happy Halloween, everyone!]David B. Coe http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://magicalwords.net