Most love Fall in New England, but I hate it. The rain. The cold. The leaves. The colors. It’s not picturesque to me. It’s just inconvenient. I prefer to be able to walk from my car into buildings without having to trudge through puddles and colorful leaves that have been turned to sludge. I don’t even really like apple cider, despite having worked at a diner which specializes in it since I was 16.
This particular Saturday night in October contained everything I hated about Fall in western Massachusetts. I felt my wheels skid twice on the drive away from the banquet hall in downtown Williamstown and it took me an extra 10 minutes to get out of town because of the tourists who were up from New York and Boston. I was buzzed and angry by the time I got onto the open highway and hit the gas, hoping I could make it home by midnight and get some sleep. I had to get up at 5:30 in the morning for work the next day where I had to tend to the tourists myself and fetch them fresh apple cider, so I needed to be fresh and perky.
The four gin and tonics I downed to tolerate the awful engagement party of a former high school classmate who I was barely ever friends with combined with the Miranda Lambert break up playlist pumping out of my speakers pushed my right foot heavy on the gas. I had to be going at least 15 over on the dark highway which stretched back to the isolated town I called home in the Massachusetts forest.
I didn’t fear the cops the way I should have. My dad was the head of the state patrol in our county and I maintained a blanket of good ol’ boy comfort which made me feel no office in the entire county would write me a ticket for “buzzed” driving or maybe even legit drunk driving.
Those thoughts put some relief in my head, but it didn’t last long because a pair of headlights entered my rear-view mirror after a long turn – just as I pulled onto a long straightaway. I kept my eyes in the mirror and watched those headlights get closer and closer.
I started to slow. I was no longer bold about my lack of fear of law enforcement. I let the speedometer dip down to 50 miles per-hour.
A shot of relief pulsed through me when the lights in my rear-view got close enough to where I could see the vehicle was not a cop car. I don’t know if “relief” is the right word though, because the car kept getting closer and closer, until it was almost on my bumper despite me rolling at nearly 55 miles per-hour. At that point, I would have preferred a state trooper.
I figured the trailing car was just another drunk driver who was in a little bit more of a hurry. I let out a deep breath when they pulled out to the left in the other lane to make a move to pass. They would be out of my life, very soon.
I felt the other car line up with my field of vision on the left, but kept my eyes on the road. The last thing I wanted to do was make eye contact with some drunk weirdo on the highway and spark some kind of disturbing interaction.
Some more relief came when I saw the car start to pull ahead of me out of the corner of my eye. I would be alone again soon and was about 15 minutes away from home.
The accident happened in a blink. So fast that I can’t even remember exactly what happened. I was suddenly over on the side of the road, trying to catch my breath.
I reached over and turned off my music, then looked at myself in the rear-view mirror. I appeared physically fine, but was severely rattled. Nothing inside me hurt. It seemed to have been a somewhat small fender bender. The other driver was probably drunk and swerved when they tried to pass me, dinged my car and took us off the road. The biggest inconvenience was going to just end up being getting home 20 minutes later than I was previously. I wasn’t even going to ask to exchange insurance unless something was seriously wrong with my car.
Starting to recover, I began to develop a plan. I didn’t have cell phone service in this particular strip of forested highway, but I was pretty sure I could dial out to 911 if the other driver was hurt or too drunk to drive.
That plan would not get off the ground though. My thought process was interrupted by a soft tap on my driver’s-side window.
I screamed and recoiled from my door in a panic.
Peering in my window was a tall man with a well-manicured brown beard and close set eyes.
“Are you okay?” The man asked through the wet glass of the window.
I took a second to catch my breath. The eerie tap shocked me, but the look in the man’s eye looked genuinely concerned. He actually looked a lot like my dad. Late-50s, rugged and weathered. The kind of older man who appeared to be permanently tired and always drinking a coffee or can of beer.
“Are you okay?” The man asked again with a tone that was softer and more high-pitched than his exterior would suggest.
I took a deep breath. Looked the guy up and down.
“I’m okay. Are you?” I asked through the still-closed window.
“Yeah,” the man agreed with a nod which quickly turned to a shake. “Messed up though. You aren’t going to call the cops are you?”
I shook my head. The man didn’t appear drunk, but judging by the accident he caused, I assumed he was drunk.
I had no plans on calling the cops. I was borderline drunk myself. All I wanted to do was drive the fuck out of there. Get home, and sleep off the booze.
“Good,” the man garnished his agreement with a glazed look and a lazy thumbs up.
With that, the man walked over to the other side of the road where his rusted Ford pickup truck rested halfway off of the road. I watched him until he disappeared around the other side of the truck.
I fired up the engine of my Camry as soon as he was out of sight. Sighed when the thing roared to life. Time to get back on the road.
I put the car in gear and heard the worst grating sound I have ever heard come from the front of my car.
“Shiiiiiiiiit,” I let out a deflated curse.
I looked ahead and saw the taillights of the man’s truck stop on the road ahead of me.
I smashed my hands hard onto the steering wheel and felt them vibrate in pain for a good 10 seconds. I watched the man step out of his truck and walk back towards my car in the rain. I bit down hard on my lip.
The metallic taste of fresh blood started to seep into my mouth when the man walked back up to my window and looked in with concern. He waved and I noticed a wedding band. Hopefully I was being overly fearful of this guy.
I rolled down the window and let the night air in. The man kept a safe distance, his face a few inches outside of my window space.
“That didn’t sound good,” the man said a little more soberly than I expected.
“Yeeeeah,” I grumbled.
“I don’t think it is too bad though. I think I might be able to help you,” the man explained sheepishly. “I think it is just a quick fix and I have some tools in my truck.”
“Yeah, okay, okay,” I agreed without mentioning that I was only okay as long as I didn’t have to get out my car.
Otherwise, I would just call 911 and unfortunately both of us would have to hope the cop didn’t pull out a breathalyzer. Though, I hadn’t picked up a whiff of alcohol coming off the guy and he didn’t appear to be nearly as drunk as his accident and first interaction with me seemed to suggest.
I checked my phone again while the man walked back to his truck. Still no bars. Just emergency calls.
I bit down on my lip again when I saw the man walk back from his truck with what looked to be a crowbar in his grasp. I looked out both windows at the forest all around me and rolled my window back up. Checked the locks. All of them.
The man ducked out of sight and appeared to go to work on my left front wheel. I heard the smashing of his crowbar against metal and winced. Based on my track record, every single guy I had ever met who looked like that man had been able to work on cars, but I hoped the guy knew what he was doing. The last thing I needed was for him to make things even worse.
I took a few moments to calm down a little bit and fully absorb my situation. Something about the whole situation seemed off from the get go. My blood felt a little bit colder and more sober as I sat there looking at the scene through my windshield and the periodic swipe of my windshield wipers. It felt like the initial T-Rex attack scene in Jurassic Park where there was an eerie, quiet calm before disaster was about to strike.
The man’s head came back in view and shook me out of my tense daze.
“Your wheel well got bent into the brake when we hit. I’m putting it back,” the man said and then went right back to work.
The man’s explanation sounded believable to me. It sounded like something I had heard my dad say and the man was working right where we hit.
Like a gopher on the prairie, the man’s head popped back up into vision again.
“You’re almost good to go,” the man yelled through the rain which had picked up into a steady fall.
I watched the man walk towards my window again and I rolled it down as he approached.
“I think I got it fixed. Can you start your engine and then come check it out?” The man asked without making eye contact.
Without thinking, I fired up the car then unlocked my door and stepped outside.
I followed the man to the driver’s side wheel. I watched him squat down and grab hold of the crowbar which had been resting on the rubber of the tire.
“You can kind of see it. Your wheel had been all bent up and it wasn’t going to let you drive because of the brake.”
I gave the wheel a quick look, but was more focused on something else. A still puddle just to the left of the man’s foot. I could see a mirror reflection off the puddle because of the harsh light beaming onto it from headlights of my car.
All I could see was a faint outline, but with a few moments of focus, I was able to make out that the man’s left hand was tucked into the inside of his jacket. I watched for a few moments only to see his hand slowly slip out of the jacket with something sharp in it.
“You gotta come down here a little closer to check,” the man said calmly as I started to slowly back away.
I didn’t want to run. I didn’t want to set him off. I let him know that I saw the knife or whatever sharp object he had in his hand.
The man turned in my direction and revealed what was in his hand. A harmless pressure gauge. He stuck it onto my tire and checked the pressure.
The two of us exchanged an awkward glance. I’m sure he wondered why I was suddenly a few yards away from him.
“You should be good to go,” the man said with a tone that suggested he might have been a little bit hurt by my clear fear.
I watched the man pull the gauge off the tire, extend up onto his feet and step away from me a little bit.
“You can give the thing a try. I’ll wait in my truck and come back out if it still doesn’t work,” the man explained sheepishly.
The man gave a strange, half wave you might give to a co-worker you really didn’t want to talk to when you bump into each other on the way to bathroom and then scurried off to his truck.
I piled back into my car and locked the doors. Took a few moments to catch my nervous breath and then put the car in drive.
The wheel groaned when I pulled out onto the road, but it worked through it and I was quickly back on the road, jetting my way home, watching the taillights of the man’s truck burn off into the night until they were out of sight.
It has been months now and the eeriness of the night still tickle the back of my brain even though nothing happened. I just couldn’t shake it for some reason. It felt like the memory of a bad dream which kept popping into my brain each night before I went to sleep.
Especially considering what happened last week when I was getting an oil change.
The mechanic came over to me in the middle of the operation and presented me with a small black box which almost looked like an old bulky cell phone from the mid-2000s.
“I found this underneath the front of your car. Thought you should know,” the mechanic set in. “It looks like this thing my psycho ex-girlfriend put on my car a while back. I think it’s a tracking device.”