THE SPARED - A.J. BROWN

  

The left turn was dangerous. Garrett sat in the median, waiting as vehicles zipped past. The draft from each one shook his car. The big rig that went by, entirely too close for his liking, did a little more than make the car shiver. It made it rock on its wheels and sent a touch of worry through him.

"I should have gone to the light," he said, more to himself than his wife, but she heard him.

"It will be okay. An opening will come up soon enough. Just be patient."

Garrett wasn't so sure, but didn't tell Kerri.

The turn signal clinkclinked as it flashed, the green arrow on the dash blinking right along with it. Further down, the stop light was green and cars appeared like an endless stream of metal and glass and rubber, impossible to see beyond, impossible to even attempt crossing the lane anytime soon.

"I'm going to go on down," Garrett said. He regretted suggesting a stop at the yogurt creamery, Yummy-Yoga’s. He didn’t even like the stuff and thought of it as the flavor of the month, like bagels had been a few years earlier and cupcake shops a year or so ago. The Yummy-Yogas of the world would run its course and be gone and forgotten soon enough. But the kids and Kerri both loved the place.

"Wait," Kerri urged and pointed. "Look, the light just turned yellow."

It had, and in the instant it took for him to look, it turned red. Several cars ran the light, making the processional of vehicles last a few seconds longer.

"Come on," he said, knowing full well that intersection poured more cars onto Highway 378 than any other crossroads. It was also a quick light, less than a minute long for those wishing to cross into one of the shop parking lots to the left or turn onto the highway.

Just as Kerri had said, an opening did come up, but it wasn't until the light had turned green and the last of the cross traffic had passed through. Those waiting their turn began forward.

"Go," Kerri yelled after a silver sedan went by, the driver an elderly man bent over the steering wheel, his eyes as close to the windshield as possible.

That's when Garrett Lee saw another elderly man standing on the sidewalk, not too far from where he needed to turn into the parking lot. The man was dressed in black, from his dull shoes to his trousers to the heavy blazer that draped his shoulders to the derby on his head. He clutched a black cane in one hand, its stopper well worn. There were wrinkles that formed deep crevices in the man's face, and bushy gray eyebrows that seemed to disappear right into the derby. It wasn’t so much the man looked older than the Earth itself, but the clothes he wore were made for the cooler months not mid-April in the south, and an unusually hot spring at that. And his clothes were dirty. They may have been the old guy’s Sunday best, but they looked as if they had been thrown on the ground and stomped on. 

“Go,” Kerri yelled again.

Garrett hesitated, and in that moment, the car jerked slightly forward, though he was certain he never took his foot off the brakes.

“Garrett!” Kerri’s voice was almost a scream.

The cars barreled down on them. He could see the oversized pick-up, its chrome grill shining in the late afternoon sun like a grinning mouth with steel teeth. He could see the car just to its left, in the second of the double lanes going in the opposite direction. That car was green and the windows were tinted. Garrett Lee mashed the gas. The front tire caught black top and the car darted across the two lanes. The front end hit the ramp-like parking entrance, scraped on the asphalt and bounced them around in the car.

Kerri screamed and covered her head. In the back seat, Emma screamed as well and tried to pull away from the door. The boy, Danny, snapped awake from his nap, his eyes suddenly wide, his mouth opened and a yell spilling from it. He may not have known why, but when one person screams, others tend to as well.

The truck blared its horn as it went by, not slowing for the car that had just cut across two lanes of traffic and into the parking lot of one of the many strip malls in the area.

Garrett slowed the car to a crawl and eased into one of the parking spots. He let out a breath in one long stream of air.  His hands were still tight on the steering wheel. His heart thumped in his throat.

“You almost got us killed,” Kerri yelled and swatted his arm.

“You’re the one who yelled for me to go.”

“If you would have gone when I said to, then we wouldn’t have almost gotten ran over.”

Garrett said nothing. She was right. He turned and looked toward the entrance. The old man in the dusty suit looked at them. He shook his head, once to the right, once to the left, then back to center. His eyes, which Garrett hadn’t gotten a good lock at before, were black, the skin around the sockets as well as his lips grayed and cracking.

“Garrett,” Kerri said, and shook his shoulder.

“What?”

The kids stood outside the car, both looking at him curiously.

“What were you looking at?”

Garrett looked back toward the road, started to point and speak, but stopped. The old man was gone.

”Well?”

“Umm … just the road. That was a close call.”

“It’s alright. We’re okay. Let’s get some yogurt”

He looked back to the road one more time, and then opened his door and stood from the car. He closed the door and they made their way up the sidewalk. Before they reached the entrance, there was a screech of tires, the sound of the undercarriage of a vehicle scraping concrete and another blare of a horn. They all turned around. Another car had barely missed being ran over. It was a dark blue, four-door variety—a newer model. Expensive. 

The old man stood on the corner, his black eyes following the new car.

Garrett’s heart was in his throat again and beating too fast.

“Honey?”

He tried to shake the unnerving feeling dancing along his skin. He grabbed the door and held it open for them. The kids ran inside, saying all sorts of things, none of which Garrett caught. He heard laughter and thought it was the most beautiful sound.

Half a second, he thought. Just half a second more and …

Kerri brought him back. “Hey,” she said, and put an arm around his waist. “It’s okay. Stop worrying about it.”

His nod was reluctant, and he wasn’t sure he could stop worrying about it. It wasn’t just that they had barely escaped a bad accident, one that would have surely killed both Kerri and Emma. As fast as that truck was going, it probably would have ended all four of their lives. It was the old man, the way he stood looking at him, the way he slowly shook his head, his dark eyes and cracking skin and that dirty black winter suit. It was all so … so disorienting.

He did his best to shake it off and went inside.

Bright oranges and contrasting browns were the colors of Yummy-Yoga's. The center of the large room was lined with false leather couches, the same brown as the trim on the walls, all shoved together to form a squared 'C'. Several tables, short enough to be coffee tables, but much smaller in size, like end tables that were better suited for beside a bed than a gourmet dessert bar, sat at the two ends of the C. To the left was a long counter that ran the length of the window facing Highway 378. Plastic orange stools on metal legs lined the counter. On the interior wall were the yogurt dispensers, nothing more than the typical ice cream churners at the dessert bar in a Ryan's or Quincey's. Thirty-two flavors, all low calories, all with a touch of tanginess.

The one pleasing aesthetic—at least to Garrett—was the music that blared through speakers hidden somewhere in the ceiling. Walking inside to The Animals' House of the Rising Sun was a treat far sweeter than any of the yogurts Yummy-Yoga's had to offer.

Danny had one of the bowl-like cups in his hand and was going from one dispenser to another, doing his best to read the labels.

"Where's cake batter?" he asked, then went to the next dispenser. "I can't find it."

"You overlooked it," Garrett said. It was the first one in the row of flavors when they walked in. He pointed at it and watched as Danny's eyes lit up.

Again, Garrett thought of the accident and how those eyes could have never lit up again.

Danny placed his bowl under the spout, pulled the lever down. Garrett thought about helping him, but refrained. A moment later the white cake batter flavored yogurt with colored sprinkles in it began to fill the bottom of the bowl. Danny moved the bowl from side to side, letting the creamy dessert fill it evenly. He let go of the lever and turned to Garrett, his eyes dazzling, a broad smile on his seven-year-old face.

Until then, Garrett hadn't noticed the other family enter Yummy-Yoga's—no doubt the one in the expensive dark blue four-door variety that had almost gotten run over as well. The kids were quiet, well behaved. The father wore dress shorts and a polo style shirt, tucked in. His hair was perfectly combed, a part down the side for good measure. The proper sort, Garrett thought.

It was the wife that looked out of place. Her hair was cut short, but not neatly combed, and frosted with white highlights. Her make-up was a little heavy. Though she wore sensible shorts, a pullover shirt and flip-flops, she didn't strike Garrett as the type of woman Mr. Proper would date, let alone marry.

It was also the wife who brushed by Danny as he turned to show his father the yogurt in his bowl. Most seven-year-olds aren't sure handed, and Danny wasn't the exception. The woman's hip bumped his arm and the yogurt toppled from his hands and landed on the floor at his feet. She glanced down at him, said nothing, not even a slight 'excuse me,' and walked off.

Danny's bottom lip poked out, his eyes watered and his brows formed arches that wrinkled his forehead.

Garrett started to say something to the woman, clipped it off before he could. Instead, he bent down and scooped the yogurt into the cup as best he could. "Go get a couple of napkins, okay?"

Danny trudged off, his head down, shoulders hunched. In that instant, Garrett wanted to grab the woman by her hair and shove her nose into the mess on the floor. This is your fault, little Mrs. Rude.

"What happened?" Kerri asked. "Did Danny drop his bowl?"

"No." He grimaced at how sharp the single word sounded. He tipped his head to the left and raised his eyebrows. "That woman over there knocked it out of his hands."

"Did she say anything?"

"Nope."

"Does she know?"

"Oh yeah," he answered. "She looked down at him and then walked off."

"And you said nothing?"

"Danny looked like he was about to bawl."

His son came back, stuck out the napkins with a grunt, his bottom lip still jutting out. 

"Go get another bowl," Garrett said, tussled his hair. "This isn't your fault."

Again, Danny's face lit up and his eyes held that shine. There was a skip in his step as he went to get another bowl.

Garrett finished cleaning the mess, dumped the napkins in the trash.

It was only two minutes or so, but in that time, the woman reached over and around Emma to get to whatever flavor she wanted.

"Excuse me," Emma said in her sarcastic ten-year-old tone. "You can't wait your turn?"

Mrs. Rude's eyes frowned right along with her lips. "You can just move out the way."

Garrett spoke up, his fatherly defensive reactions kicking in. "I believe the little girl was there first."

Mrs. Rude—and yes, that's how Garrett came to see her—cocked her head slightly to one side. "I think it's none of your business."

Sometimes when arguments like this arise, Garrett would smile. He liked them, not so much the arguing, but knowing he was about to trump the person he argued against. He didn't smile this time.

"That's my daughter, so that makes it my business."

"Well, maybe you should teach her manners."

"You mean like your parents taught you?"

She squinted and pursed her lips. Her nostrils flared as she inhaled sharply. "I see where she gets her lack of respect from."

"Lack of respect? Lady, I don't know what planet you're from, but on this one, we don't reach over someone because we're too impatient to wait our turn. The only person showing a lack of respect here is you."

"Mary-Anne," Mr. Proper spoke. "Go sit down." His voice was strong and authoritative.

"But …"

"Mary-Anne, go sit down."

Much like Danny had done earlier, Mary-Anne frowned, and hunched her shoulders. Unlike Danny, she stomped off, her flip flops slapping the floor until she reached the couch where the two children sat eating their frosty desserts. She plopped onto the chair and dropped her own yogurt onto the table.

"I'm sorry about that," Mr. Proper said. "She's not always like that."

"No problem," Garrett said, positive that Mr. Proper's rose-colored cheeks told the story of embarrassment and Mary-Anne was exactly like that all the time.

Emma's smile broadened and she bordered on laughing out loud. She snickered a few times, her hand going to her mouth to keep anyone else from seeing it. "That was awesome," she said.

They paid for their yogurts, all of them topped with some candy or other, and made their way to the counter that ran along the 378 side of the building. Garrett helped Danny into a seat and stared out the window as the music played.

The Animals had given way to Billy Idol who sang of white weddings. Idol gave way to Loverboy who begged to be turned loose because he just had to do it his way. Loverboy gave way to Bob Seger and old time rock and roll. As Seger transitioned smoothly into Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Garrett found himself humming along to Free Falling.

He stopped when Petty sang about a freeway that ran through the yard. Garrett looked toward the parking lot's entrance.

Right there, he thought. That man stood right there and …

That's what bothered him. The man had stood on the sidewalk, a few feet from the road and on the edge of the entrance to the parking lot. But he wasn't there before Garrett went to turn and he wasn't there whenever he got out the car. Then he was again when Mr. Proper and his family barely made it across the traffic.

Someone's going to get killed there one day.

It was a natural thought, followed by one that haunted him since arriving there. It was almost us.

Garrett glanced to his left. The kids ate their yogurt with all the zest you could associate with children and sweets.  Kerri did the same, just not with the same fervor as Emma and Danny. Garrett looked back to the road.

Cars zoomed by, but there were less of them now. He watched as several vehicles made the left into the parking lot without much of a harrowing experience. There were no near misses, no tires boring into the sidewalk as the driver of a fast-moving truck slammed on his brakes to avoid hitting a car that just crossed in front of him, no horns blaring. And no old man leaning on a cane wearing a suit fit for winter.

Across the street was a Target. Next to it was a Best Buy and a few other smaller shops. Closer to the road, but in the same wide parking lot, was a Rush's, where you'll rush back for more. The world went about its business as if nothing had happened, as if the near misses were of no consequence. It was just another thing, as the kids would say once upon a time.

Tom Petty gave way to Led Zeppelin and Garrett found himself needing to use the bathroom.

"I'll be right back.”

"Okay," Kerri mumbled around the yogurt in her mouth.

He rounded the orange couches, paid little attention to the four college-aged females sitting in a corner section, chatting about boys and other things girls are known to talk about.

The restroom was small and quaint. Garrett locked the door, relieved himself and zipped up. At the sink—a pedestal basin with fake pearl handles—he washed his hands, looking at them as he did so. They shook. When he glanced up at the mirror, he was startled to see the old man standing behind him, his hands clasped behind his back.

Garrett spun around, his hands dripping water across the floor. 

"How did you get in here?"

The old man said nothing, only stared at him with eyes that were nothing more than pupils.

"How did you get in here?" he asked again. "The door is locked."

It was bad enough the old man’s face held a creepiness to it, with the eyes and the way the skin cracked around the sockets and lips, but there was more. It might have been the dusty suit in the middle of a hot spring where temperatures had recently reached as high as 91 degrees. But even that wasn’t quite it.

Then he saw it.

The old man wasn't completely solid. Garrett could see the door behind him, see it was still locked. He could see the floor beneath his feet. The old man stretched a haggard hand, pointed to the mirror behind Garrett.

When Garrett turned, he saw the events of earlier playing out; them sitting in the median, the traffic rushing by, drivers with places to go and people to see, lives to live. Kerri urged him to go when the light down the road turned red. But in this vision, Garrett hesitated a little longer—a half second longer—after the silver sedan passed them by, the old man hunched over the wheel, his face close to the windshield. On his head was a dusty derby that had seen better days and that old man—much like the one standing in the bathroom with him—had dark eyes and cracking skin around the sockets and mouth. There was no one standing on the sidewalk near the parking lot entrance. No, that man had been in the silver sedan and had slowed down on purpose. Garrett was certain of that. Garrett's little red car darted into the oncoming traffic. There were screams as the front of the truck smashed into the passenger's side of the car. It didn't bother slowing down and the driver of the truck was clear behind the windshield, his eyes two giant orbs that seemed to take up half his face, his mouth a dropped open 'O'.

The sound of metal on metal, shattered glass and screaming was replaced by screeching tires. Another car rammed the back end of the truck. The green car with the tinted windows nailed the front of Garrett’s car. By the time the accident was complete, three other cars had been caught up in it.

Glass tinkled on the ground and somewhere someone was crying. The old man was there, on the sidewalk, his hands behind his back. He stepped into the road, peered into the green car, and nodded. He did the same to the other vehicles, stopping only at Garrett's, where he reached in and took Kerri's hand. She rose from the vehicle, though her body remained perfectly still and in the seatbelt.

Emma lay in the backseat crying, blood soaking her shirt and face. Danny sat, his eyes wide, face pale, a small child frozen in fear. Then there was Garrett. His head was split on the left side, the impact with the window doing the damage. His hands still clutched tight to the steering wheel.

Garrett turned from the mirror, tears trickling from his eyes. "Who are you?"

The old man didn’t speak. Garrett stared into his eyes and saw nothing. But he felt something. Garrett felt a malevolence spilling off the old man that spoke of all the anger a person could ever muster for another. Garrett took a step back, fearful for his life, fearful the odd old man in front of him was something far more sinister than he appeared to be.

The man pointed to the mirror again.

Garrett shook his head. "No. I'm not going to look."

The man extended his arm, and the finger attached to the somewhat bony hand, and pointed emphatically. Though he didn't want to look, Garrett thought he had no choice. He turned on his heels and faced the mirror.

Again, the man was there, but this time he saw Mr. Proper and Mrs. Rude's family leaving Yummy-Yoga's. They got into their car and Mrs. Rude was driving. A scene, much like the one the old man had shown him about his family, played out in the mirror, only this time it was Mr. Proper’s family.

Garrett turned around. The old man’s lips were curled up into a smile.

“What? What’s so funny?” Garrett yelled.

The old man’s smile grew larger and he pointed at Garrett with that ancient, bony finger and then back at the mirror. When Garrett looked, he saw the old man walking between the cars. He had Mrs. Rude by the elbow. She looked confused and out of sorts, as if she couldn’t understand what was going on. Then Garrett knew. It was either Mr. Proper’s family or his. One was doomed to tragedy. The other would be spared.

Garrett shook his head as he stared at the mirror, the images in it no longer of a horrific accident, but of Garrett and his stunned eyes, his lips clamped together. He didn’t know why the old man showed him the two images. Not at first. As he stared at the weary man looking back at him, he realized a truth he hoped wasn’t so.

“You can’t have my family,” he said and turned to face the old man who was no longer there. He swallowed hard. A pit formed in his stomach and a lump lodged itself fully in his throat. He dried his hands and left the bathroom. He had only taken a few steps when he noticed the section of couch and table where Mr. Proper’s family had sat were empty. The door to the entrance was closing and he thought he saw the back of Mrs. Rude's pullover. He hurried toward the door, but stopped short of opening it.

Mr. Proper and Mrs. Rude stood near their car arguing. He couldn't hear them, but it was obvious there was something wrong. She wagged a finger at him and rounded the car, heading for the driver's side.

“No,” he whispered. A guilt so sudden and real swept over him. The truth from the mirror hit him hard. The old man had let Garrett choose who died, and he was certain he had chosen Mr. Proper’s entire family, not just his wife.

His skin prickled as if a jolt of electricity had gone through him. The hairs on his arms and neck stood on end. Later he would swear his heart stopped, but in reality, everything had stopped. Garrett shoved the door, but it wouldn’t open. He tried again, this time putting his shoulder into it. Still, it didn’t budge.

He turned to his family, to Danny picking out the M&M's from his cake batter yogurt, then to Emma who ran her fingers along the inside of her bowl, then licked them dry, to Kerri, who stared at him with heavy concern draped across her face. In the mirror, she had been dead and the old man had pulled her spirit free from her mangled body. But here she was safe and breathing and looking at him as if something was wrong.

He started to speak, to tell her about the old man in the bathroom, but he knew it wouldn’t matter, and that look of concern on Kerri’s face would deepen. They couldn’t see … they couldn’t see the man. That’s why the kids were oblivious to the panic rising in him. That’s why Kerri looked at him the way she did.

Garrett turned back to see the blue four-door pulling out of its spot, a little too fast he would later say to the police. At the entrance, which at that point became an exit, the car stopped, but not for long.

The old man appeared by the driver's side door and bent over slightly. He peered into the window, motioned for Mrs. Rude to go ahead and pull out, to go ahead into traffic. Then the old man stood straight and glared at Garrett. He shook his head. His eyes dripped black blood. The skin around the sockets peeled away and his lips crumbled like ashes, but not before they turned up in a grin.

Garrett then knew for certain what the mirror had been. One scenario didn't play out the way it was supposed to. The other one had yet to happen. But could it be altered? Could something change? Anything? If it could, what would that mean for his family?

Again, he glanced at his family—only a second and no more. What if? Garrett began to shake. What if he tried to stop them? What would that mean for Mr. Proper and his family? What would that mean for Garrett’s? Could death be cheated twice?

Garrett shoved the door hard. This time it slung open. He yelled, "Stop!" But the windows to the blue four-door were up. He ran toward them, waving his arms, trying to get their attention. Mr. Proper saw him, began to roll the window down, and then stopped when Mrs. Rude swatted at him. He looked to his wife and appeared to say something just before his left hand shot out. Her head rocked on her shoulders and the car jerked forward.

"Stop!" Garrett yelled again, but it was too late. The woman's hands had come off the wheel and her head had snapped to one side. He wasn't sure, and he would spend many hours that night trying to recall for certain, but he thought her head hit the window.

The rest played out the way it had in the mirror earlier.

The car went forward. A horn blared, but Mrs. Rude, who may not have been so rude after all, given the circumstances of what Garrett had seen, didn’t to respond. Metal on metal, glass shattering, wheels screeching, and bodies breaking. The car's passenger wheels caught on the road and lifted the opposite side into the air. The car tumbled end over end, all in slow motion. By the time the blue four-door came to a stop, it sat in the parking lot across the street from Yummy-Yoga's. The silver sedan that hit it had run up on the curb, the front end smashed into a light pole.

The smell of gas and oil wafted up from several cars mixed in the fray. Smoke billowed from the hood of the silver sedan.

In the center of the road, amid the chaos of crashed cars and dying people, stood the old man. He leaned on his cane, the derby firmly planted on his head.

Garrett ran toward the car, hoping everyone was okay, but knowing that wouldn’t be the case. Halfway there, the old man appeared before him. His cane was in his hand and he stuck it out at Garrett.

'You've been spared.'

The words were nothing more than whispers, but they felt like he had yelled them. They held each other's gaze until the old man spoke, this time the words were truly a whisper.'Go. While you still can.'

Garrett took a step back, then another. He stepped onto the sidewalk and watched as the old man turned and headed for the car Mrs. Rude had been driving. He lifted the cane above his head. A blade formed where the rubber stopper should have been. Garrett heard a scream and shivered when it suddenly ended as the old man brought the blade down across the top of the car.

He looked back at Garrett. His face had lost its flesh and a skull with blackened sockets stared back at him.

"Garrett," Kerri asked, touched his back. "Honey, what happened?"

"I … I don't know," he lied.

Even so, the lie may have been more truth than he realized. It was all she needed to know. All anyone needed to know. There was no real way to explain what he had seen, not without him being committed to the nuthouse. He squeezed her tight, tears spilling down his face.

Their lives for ours, he thought.

He lay in bed that night, the images playing out before him, the mirror and the deaths he had seen, not of Mr. Proper's family, but of his own. He pulled Kerri a little closer, letting her warmth comfort him. He tried to justify the tradeoff. Mrs. Rude had been mean to his kids and Mr. Proper may not have been so proper after all. Their kids had been so well behaved, but was it out of respect or fear of their father? Death had been discriminate, something he thought it would never be, and his family had been spared. Hours passed before he finally fell asleep. He didn’t dream that night, and when he woke, there were no memories of a little old man in a dusty black suit and derby.

 



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