Recalculating

📅 Published on November 9, 2021

“Recalculating”

Written by Bart Hopkins
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

ESTIMATED READING TIME — 26 minutes

Rating: 10.00/10. From 1 vote.
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Maggie pulled her Honda Civic to the curb and cut the engine.

It was her second stop of the morning, garage sale number two.  And, boy, is it a big one! she thought.  People were clustered alongside the road, ambling eagerly toward the lawn further down the block that was dotted with tables and knick-knacks.

She gingerly grabbed her purse from the passenger seat, put on her sunglasses, and after looking both ways, stepped out onto the blacktop.  Even at 9:00 a.m., the Texas heat threatened her sanity and Maggie briefly regretted leaving the comfort of her air-conditioned car.  She closed her door with a gentle shove and joined the veritable crowd of people that seemed to be increasing in size by the minute.

The neighborhood was comprised mostly of older, lower- and middle-class homes in good repair, the kind you’d see on an episode of The Wonder Years or The Brady Bunch.

Maggie made her way to the sidewalk, but stopped short as she got a closer look at the spectacle before her.

Wow, she thought.  I’ve never seen anything like this!

It was the mother lode of garage sales, the world series of cheap, the season finale of used wares.  There were easily twenty-five tables distributed around the yard, piled high with everything a person collects in life.  Maggie watched the motley crew of shoppers sifting through the gold mine of goods, searching for that proverbial golden nugget.

There were a few men, but not many.  From her experience, men at garage sales were looking for something specific.  That or they were making a business of selling used things, and, as such, were business-like in their doings.  Devoid of spirit.  Zero magic.  No gleam in their eyes, only dollar signs—the calculation of potential profit.

Most of the customers were women, which didn’t surprise Maggie.  And most of those women were older ladies; again, she wasn’t surprised.  Despite the age differences, there was a universal sparkle in the eyes of the ladies—magic—anticipation of the treasures waiting to be found and bought for ridiculously low prices.

Hmm … so many of the ladies are shabbily dressed, Maggie observed, same as always.

She was a veteran at the garage-sale game and had seen this dozens of times.  Her studied conclusion was that some—no, the majority—of those women dressed down intentionally.  She suspected they dressed in their worst clothing, specifically set aside for garage sales, feeling they could more effectively haggle prices if they looked poor.

Maybe they get that used 5 x 7 picture frame for $1.00 instead of $1.50, Maggie mused, almost laughing aloud at the memory that popped into her head.

It was one of her first garage sales, years before, and she was rapidly becoming an addict.

She was delighted that day when she discovered a medium-sized flowerpot with a price tag of only $5.00.  It was the sort of thing that would sit in the mulch along the side of their house, more decoration than function, but she’d never seen one so cheap.  It was, quite literally, a steal, and she had no intention of trying to get it for a lower price, which she rarely did anyway.  Some people were hagglers—she was not.

She gleefully marched toward the lady with the cash box, but stopped quickly when another lady abruptly jumped in front of her.  The interloper was tall with brown hair in curlers; it was the sort of thing you don’t venture out in publicly.  Interloper’s threadbare gray dress added to the impression that she was far from wealthy.  What happened next shocked Maggie.

The woman proceeded to badger the seller for nearly five minutes over the price of a picture frame.

Think about that … count to ten silently to yourself … and then count to ten another twenty-nine times.  That was literally how long Mrs. Interloper, Mrs. Picture Frame, argued over the matter of fifty cents.

Maggie felt her own joy wane as the lady repeated herself again and again.

“I’ll give you one dollar for it, but nothing more,” she’d say.

“Look, I’m sorry, but it’s already priced so low…” the response came.

“One.  Dollar.”  The reply was steely, almost rude.

Maggie was on the verge of plunking two quarters down herself, just to move things along, when there was a swift and palpable change in the air around them.  Sure as anything, Maggie felt the change before she heard the words.  It was like the cool breeze from an outflow boundary that might precede rain showers.  There was something charged, something electric, in the air.

Maggie glanced quickly at the lady with the cash box, the lady whose eyes were now fixed on Mrs. Picture Frame’s hand.

Maggie looked down.  That’s when she saw the game changer: Mrs. Picture Frame’s ring finger.

On that finger, almost defiantly, sat a massive rock—the mother of all diamonds—easily worth $15,000.

“That’s a lovely ring,” Mrs. Cash Box purred.  Her voice had a new tone to it—sarcastic and triumphant all at once.

There was a moment of silence when time seemed to stretch out, and all movement became slow motion.  Maggie looked at Mrs. Picture Frame.  Mrs. Picture Frame’s eye twitched.  Mrs. Cash Box’s smile broadened.  It was comical and crazy, all at once.

“Well, I never!” Picture Frame finally hissed.  She slammed two one-dollar bills down and stormed off.

“Tell your friends!” Cash Box called after her.

Maggie smiled, handed over a five-dollar bill for her pot without a word, and walked away.  She barely made it to her car before breaking into an uncontrollable fit of giggles.

Yep.  There were people like that out there.  People ready to dress up and deceive to save fifty cents on what was, really, just junk anyway.

Of course, some of these ladies were probably down-and-out, and to them, Maggie extended her heart.  But how many of them were doing just fine?

And did any of it really matter anyway?  It wasn’t like any of them were going to the prom; it was a garage sale—no need for glass slippers.  There should be a sign staked down in the front yard: House Robes Welcome Here.

Then there were the random, middle-class housewives, herself included, there for the adventure and the hunt as she thought of it.  Always hoping for the glory of finding something unique or getting something common, but at a great price.

As she picked and poked at things on her second table, she overheard a man talking to the young woman she assumed was hosting the garage sale.

“So, why are you selling all of this?  Are you moving?” the male customer asked.  He was a tall fellow, stooped over, spectacles near the tip of his nose.

“Well, no, I actually live in Maine.  These are my aunt’s things.”

“Oh, did she move?”

“Um, no … there was a car accident … she died.”

“Oh.  I … oh.  Hmm.  Sorry.”

It was an awkward conversation to begin with and ended decisively with that revelation.  Mr. Spectacles gave what Maggie guessed was supposed to be a forgive-me-for-sticking-my-foot-in-my-mouth look, but to her, it looked more like the grimace of someone who had just bitten down on something hard in their mashed potatoes.  She made a mental note—no small talk with the proprietors.

The squeal of brakes, and the quick double-jab of a car horn, stole her attention from the lady’s tragedy.  She watched a man in a Jaguar raise his hands animatedly at two patrons, older ladies, who were slowly crossing the street with armfuls of loot.  They glared at the driver in return and moved very, very slowly out of his way.  As soon as they were clear, he roared down the street obnoxiously and was quickly out of sight.

You really showed them, Maggie thought sarcastically.  Gunning your engine at two old ladies who got in the way of your precious Jaguar—what an ass!

She watched the ladies struggle to hold onto their newfound treasures while simultaneously digging through their purses.  Finally, an arthritic, shaky hand emerged from an oversized purse with a set of keys.  It had been a tough battle, their balancing act, but the old ladies triumphed without any casualties—all of their wares in hand and intact.

Speaking of cars…

Wow!

The street was packed!  When did that happen? she wondered.  More than just busy, it was now a parking lot.  There was only room for a single car to pass through the double-parked row of vehicles lining the block.  It was busy before, but now it was getting out of control.  She couldn’t remember seeing anything like it and was thankful she had parked down the street.  There were easily fifty to sixty people milling around with more in transit.

She forced herself to look away from the madness and focus on the task at hand.  People were now periodically jostling her … purses brushed her back and elbows nicked her.  It was quickly becoming the opposite of fun—a rare experience for Maggie and garage sales.  It was like being on Bourbon Street in New Orleans sans alcohol.

Yet, she didn’t leave.

She moved slowly, walking in an indiscernible pattern, but one that was leading to the very last table in the back, in the rear corner of the large yard.  Her sandals crunched on brown, dead grass as she walked—felt pulled really—toward that area.

Then she was there at the table; it felt strange—like she was supposed to be there—as if fate led her there.

How absurd, she thought, laughing to herself.

She looked down and found an assortment of things.  A weird mishmash of junk littered the table: a cigarette lighter, a bobblehead dashboard Jesus, a GPS, one of those u-shaped pillows that you wear around your neck on airplanes, and a number of other knickknacks.

She traced her fingers across objects, soaking up their essence, taking it all in.  There wasn’t excessive scrutiny; she waited for some deeper, base appeal to draw her to an item.  She was like an emotional metal detector at a garage-sale beach.

After a sweep or two, her eyes found their way back to the GPS, and she felt compelled to pick it up.

There wasn’t anything special about it. Quite the contrary.  The screen had a slight crack running diagonally across the face.  She traced it with her finger, even pressed down, but the damage seemed to be superficial.  She flipped it over; the rear of the gadget was plain, black plastic with more scratches, but again, only superficial, or so it appeared.  She flipped it again and grunted in consternation—there was no branding—so it was impossible to tell whether it was Garmin, or Nuvi, or any of the other dozen brands floating around on the market.

It was a run-of-the-mill GPS—nothing distinguishing about it.

She jumped a little bit when she heard a throat being cleared.  It was the lady running the garage sale, standing in front of her, staring at her.

“Oh!  Hello… didn’t see you there,” she said.

The lady just stared at her.  Maggie felt goosebumps on her arms, and her neck tingled as all the hair stood up.

“Um, how much is…” Maggie asked, but trailed off.  The woman shook her head and looked at her again.  She seemed to have snapped out of whatever trance she was in moments before and was back in the here and now.  Maybe she’s just weary of the crowd, Maggie considered.

“That’s … well … five dollars,” the lady replied, with some hesitation.

“Wow, that’s cheap!”

“Yeah.  We won’t be needing it,” the lady told her.

She couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that seemed to emanate from the woman and decided it was time to leave.  She withdrew a five from her purse and handed it over.

“Thanks.”  The lady tucked the bill into a pocket without even glancing at it.  That’s just not normal, Maggie thought, backing away a few steps.  She bumped into a table behind her, and it would have toppled had she not reached out and steadied it.

The woman’s staring started up again, and Maggie had enough.  She turned and walked hurriedly through what were now throngs of people, out to the street, and to her car.  She jogged the last fifty feet or so.

When she was safely in her car, she cranked the engine, and only then risked another look back.

It seemed impossible; nonetheless, the woman was staring in her direction.

* * * * * *

Don stepped into the cool air of his and Maggie’s house, sighing audibly with relief.  His shirt was sticking to his back in several spots, the result of a sweaty ride home in his truck.  It was only five years old, but the damn air conditioning wasn’t working, and it was making him a little crazy.

He took his sports coat and put it in the closet, dodging a bullet on one of Maggie’s pet peeves.  She didn’t like it when he left his coat or shoes out.  It’s the reason we have a coat closet, he could hear her say, in that always-reasonable tone she reserved for his listening pleasure.  And she was right, he figured; that’s what happened when you married a smart lady.

“Mags?” he called.  The sound of his voice lingered momentarily in the air … an invasion of the pervasive silence.  It was quiet.  It sounded like a bad movie line, but he couldn’t stop himself from thinking—It’s a little too quiet.

He wandered into their living room and was surprised to see Maggie sprawled out on the couch, snoring softly.  Maggie wasn’t a nap-in-the-middle-of-the-day sort of gal.  No, Margaret Johnson had no need for naps; she slept deeply for eight hours every night and was full of energy the other sixteen hours of each day.

He wondered if everything was okay—thought about waking her up—then decided to let her sleep.  She obviously needed it.  He leaned over, gave her a peck on the forehead, and that was when he noticed it.

Cradled in her hands, across her midsection, was the GPS.  The screen was on, but dimly lit, so he leaned over, yielding to mother curiosity.

“What in the hell…” he said softly.

Where in the heck does she want to go now? he wondered.  Is that Mexico?  He studied the image on the screen for a moment longer and realized it was that place on Earth he and his brothers referred to as “the armpit of Texas” when they were kids.

He shook his head a little, crinkled his eyebrows, and wondered what ideas had gotten into Maggie this time.

“Hey, honey.”

He jumped at the sound of her voice, just inches away.  “Babe.  You scared me.”

“I see that,” she said and smiled.  “What time is it?”

“It’s only five o’clock … are you feeling okay?”  He put his hand on her forehead, but there wasn’t any sign of fever.

“Mmm.  Yeah … yeah, I feel great, actually.  I just fell asleep.”

“Dreaming about Southwest Texas?”

“What?  Oh!  Right … look at this G-P-S I got at a garage sale today.”  She handed it to Don, who turned it over in his hands.

“What kind is it?”

“I don’t know.”

“How much did it cost me?” he asked.

She smiled broadly at him.  “Just five dollars.”

He always chided her about how much her addiction to garage sale hand-me-downs was costing him.  It was one of those running jokes that couples have that have no foundation in reality… just a whimsical, shared silliness.

“What’s with the GPS?  Planning a trip?”

“Well,” she began, “I wasn’t, but then I bought this, and I don’t know.  I just started tapping away and then it hit me—we should take a vacation.”

“Really…” he said, amused at the sound of revelation in her voice.  It was as if she thought it was the greatest epiphany ever.  He glanced down at her face, which was absolutely glowing with excitement.

“Really.”

“Well, okay, I guess we could get away for a few days …”

* * * * * *

Don saw the gas station, slammed on his brakes, and jerked hard on his steering wheel.  Gravel sprayed and there was a second or two when Don lost control.  The sensation was eerily similar to hydroplaning.  Finally, his tires gained traction, and he was moving down the road again, leaving behind a cloud of dust for the wind to disperse into the Texas prairies.

“Sorry about that,” he said with a chuckle, sneaking a glance at Maggie.  “We’re low on gas … I only just noticed the Texaco.”

“Well, as long as they have a defibrillator, so I can get my heart started again,” she replied.  He looked over at her, she looked back at him, and they both laughed.

“As soon as possible, make a U-turn,” the GPS interrupted.

“Don … did you really need to change it to the British female voice?”

He looked at her with an innocent expression: “What?”

“You know what.

“Huh?  I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, raising his eyebrows.  He shrugged his shoulders and pulled up next to the unleaded pumps.

“Hmm.  I’ve seen how you perk up whenever you hear her…”

“Her?” he asked, smirking, stealing a glance at his wife.  “So, now it’s a her?”  She punched him playfully on the arm; he reached over and gave her leg a squeeze.  “What if I name her Queen Elizabeth?”

“That would be very insulting to the Queen,” Maggie replied.

“Why?”

“Well, it’s a gadget, for one, and for two, the voice is just so … loose.

“Loose?” he prompted.

“Slutty,” she clarified smartly.

“Oh, Queen Elizabeth, you are a duhty guhl,” Don told the GPS in a horrible British accent.  Maggie just shook her head.

“Make a U-turn,” Queen Elizabeth injected.  Don and Maggie laughed at that until Don snorted, then they really lost it.

When their laughter subsided, Don pointed at the map on the cracked display.  A broad, purple band looped back on itself on the screen; it looked like the eye of a needle.  “She’s right, you know.  Elizabeth just wants us to turn around.  I can’t believe you only paid five bucks for this!”

“Me either,” Maggie agreed.  “I told you garage sales would pay off.”  She smiled and he gave her a friendly humph in reply.

Don got out and was immediately confronted by the West Texas heat.  It was a dry heat, for sure, but it was unyielding.  Sure glad I got the air conditioner fixed, he pondered briefly, this heat would have killed us without it.  He licked his lips and grabbed the hot metal handle for one of the unleaded pumps without ethanol.  (He never chose ethanol!)  Soon, he had gasoline flowing and clicked the little locking mechanism into place so that he could leave it to pump on its own.

He looked at the land that started just across the road from the gas station and extended all the way to the horizon.  The pervasive colors were yellow and brown and burnt orange.  Dirt, dust, and rock dominated the landscape.  Everything looked hard.  Nothing looked soft, not even (especially not) the scraggly bushes that provided a splash of pale green here and there.

There were small trees, or what looked like trees, though Don couldn’t be sure.  There were no discernible leaves.  They were bare—small, barren branches that seemed to just jut up from the ground without purpose, clinging to life in the impossible heat.

On the horizon, he could see what he figured were the Chisos Mountains.  Puffy, white cumulus clouds hugged the taller peaks.  If his sense of direction was correct, that’s where they were headed.  It was beautiful—in a rugged way—and he doubted it had changed much the last few centuries.  He squinted and imagined cowboys atop their horses, slowly weaving in and out of those leafless trees and shrubs, on their way to the nearest town.

He heard the slight creak of the passenger door and soon Maggie was standing next to him.  She had on a broad-brimmed floppy hat and sunglasses, which were simultaneously feminine and useful, as they blocked the sun from touching her neck and face.

“It’s very pretty,” she remarked.  “Untamed.”

“Yeah.”  They both watched quietly for a moment, then Don pointed and added,  “I think those mountains are part of Big Bend.  Wikipedia says it’s the only mountain range that’s completely within a national park.”

“Hmm.”

“Yeah … and Jack says Big Bend is sort of like the Grand Canyon of the South.”  Jack was his outdoorsy buddy, always camping and hiking, and he knew a lot about the parks.

The pump clicked as the tank reached capacity, triggering the release of the locking mechanism.  Don gently pulled the pump from his car, tapping it gently on the rim to let the excess gas fall into the tank.  He didn’t want the gasoline getting on his paint job.

They walked inside the store, looking around for some snacks and drinks.  He stared longingly at the chewing tobacco for a few seconds but didn’t let temptation get to him.  It’d been almost a decade since he’d last had any.  Still, he thought about it at least once every week or so.

Don watched Maggie go for one of the cherry-flavored colas—the usual—and he picked out a Pepsi for himself.  A quick trip through the snack aisle and they were ready to check out.

They put all of their goodies on the counter and watched as the cashier laboriously pushed through the process of entering prices for each thing.  Don guessed that the guy was in his thirties, though it was hard to tell.  Definitely a burnout, probably a doper, he thought, evaluating the unshaven face and bloodshot eyes.  The cashier attempted, unsuccessfully, to fit everything into a smallish paper bag, but it split down the side, spilling the contents.

“Oh.  Oops, my bad,” he told them.  “Oh, that’s gonna be $89.25.”  He went about putting everything into a different bag while Don worked his wallet out of his back pocket and slid a credit card across the counter.

The cashier picked up the card and studied it for a moment.  He was about to put it through the machine when he did a double take and looked at the card again. He smiled broadly.  “Um, ha ha, can I see some ID?” he asked, trying not to laugh.

Don sighed and reluctantly handed over his driver’s license.  He knew what was coming, and for the millionth time, cursed his parents.

“Um, you’re name is, like, Don Johnson?” the cashier asked, chortling.

“Yeah…”

“Oh, man, that’s so righteous.”  Burnout slid the card through the machine and then held it up alongside Don’s driver’s license for another look.  “Righteous,” he said again under his breath.

“Can I have my cards back?” Don asked, mildly annoyed.

“Right.  Right.” Burnout slid the cards back across the counter with a snicker.

“Thanks,” Don said, eyeballing the grinning cashier, while grabbing his cards and shoving them deep into the pocket of his jeans.

Maggie kept a straight face until they got into the truck, and then she burst into a fit of giggles.  Don wanted to be angry, but couldn’t, and before he knew it, he had caved and was laughing along with her.

Righteous,” Maggie said, imitating the cashier and laughing.

“Oh, Maggie,” Don said, laughing with her.  “Nobody can ever understand how awful it is to have this name.  It’s better now, but the 80s were especially painful.”

“Could be worse … your name could be Anthony Weiner.”

“That’s true, I guess.”

Maggie divvied up their purchases while Don turned his key in the ignition.  The truck easily cranked to life. He watched while the dashboard lights came back on and the GPS screen flashed.  The cool air from the vent was like a loyal dog, welcoming, lapping at his face.

“Recalculating,” Queen Elizabeth told them.  A percentage calculator appeared and began making its way from zero to one hundred.

Don looked at Maggie and shook his head.  “God bless the Queen.”

“But for five bucks…”

“You’re right,” he replied, smiling at his wife.  “I love you, dear.”

“I love you, too.”

“As soon as possible, make a U-turn.”

“Alright, Liz … alright.”  With a sigh, Don got back on the road.

* * * * * *

An hour later, the sun was coming closer to its daily liaison with the Chisos Mountains and the Texas skyline.  Maggie and Don had pulled over to take pictures next to a Big Bend sign, but then stopped to admire the brilliant colors in the sky.

“It’s going to be a nice sunset,” Maggie told Don.

“Sure is,” he responded. The peaks were bright and orange in the open sunlight; they were cool and dark beneath the clouds, which had grown in size and were no longer friendly-looking puffs of cumulus.  “I hope it doesn’t rain.”

“The weather forecast said zero chance of rain…”

“Yeah, well, you know how often those weather people get anything right,” he told her with no small amount of disdain. “Look at those clouds, how tall a few of them are.”

“We’re fine,” she told him, putting an arm around his waist.  They enjoyed the view in silence for a few minutes before walking back to the truck.

“I wonder if staying on 385 is the best way to get to the lodge,” Don said.

“I’m sure the GPS will get us there.”

“Humph.  Maybe.”  He eyed the gadget suspiciously for a second before he cranked on the engine.  He had his doubts when it came to technology.  He’d worked in construction for years before starting his own business; he preferred physical labor, the satisfaction of making something with his hands.  In fact, he wouldn’t own a cell phone if it weren’t necessary for work, and he’d rather be caught dead than use Facebook.

“Recalculating,” Queen Elizabeth reassured them.  Don watched the percentage numbers increase slowly—but he felt uneasy.

* * * * * *

“Turn left.”

“As you command, Your Highness,” Don said aloud to the GPS.  He turned left onto Park Route 12 and almost immediately hit a bump in the road.  It wasn’t bad, but it made him realize that the new road they were on wasn’t going to be as comfortable as the interstate.

I only hope this is as bad as it gets, he thought, but aloud he asked, “How much farther does it say we have?”

Maggie studied the device, tapping through the different screens with nimble fingers.  “Looks like another half hour or so and we should be there.”

“Really?”

“Really,” she agreed.  “The sun is beautiful,” she exclaimed, pointing.

“Yeah,” he agreed.  He noticed that the sun was, indeed, beautiful, but that the clouds had grown even larger.  “Looks like some cumulonimbus clouds now.”

Before Maggie could reply, the GPS went off again, “Turn right.”

Don turned the truck onto Glen Springs Road.  “Thanks, Liz,” he said and touched the GPS.  He imagined that it looked happy.

“Turn right in one mile.”

“Maybe she isn’t so bad, huh?”

Maggie looked over at him.  “What?”

“Queen Elizabeth,” he said and touched the GPS.  “She isn’t so bad.  I mean, she’s doing okay so far … she never gives me any grief or anything … and she’s got that lovely accent.”

“Ah-ha!  I knew you liked that slutty voice!” Maggie replied, giving him a playful slap on the arm.

“Jealous?” Don laughed as he put his hand on Maggie’s leg.  She tried to bat him away, but he kept putting it back there, a little higher each time, and soon they were both giggling.

“Turn right,” the GPS commanded.

“Okay, okay…” Don swiveled forward, annoyed at the interruption, but didn’t see any road.  The sky was getting darker as the clouds overhead moved in front of the sun, casting a gray hue across the terrain.  At last, he saw the turnoff and turned sharply to the right.  The truck bounced hard as it dropped nearly a foot from the paved road to the dirt road that they entered.

“Whoa!” Maggie cried, holding her door with a vice-like grip.

“Sorry!”  He worked the steering wheel and eased his foot down on the brake.  The truck bumped along, hitting a few more potholes before it leveled off at a slight incline.  Don glanced over at his wife and asked, “Are you okay?”

“I think so.  Maybe we could just focus on driving, huh?”

Don wiped the back of his hand across his forehead, and then wiped his hand off on his jeans.  “Yeah, sorry about that, honey.”  He slowed down a few minutes later as the grade increased, and they continued uphill.  A few raindrops splattered against the windshield.

“Turn left in one mile,” Queen Elizabeth said.

* * * * * *

The sun was gone.  Maggie wasn’t sure when it had disappeared, but it was very dark outside and the rain was beginning to fall harder.  The road they were following became narrow—not enough room for two directions of traffic—and Don grunted.

“What is it?” Maggie asked, seeing his agitation.

“Well, the road is getting pretty narrow, and I don’t think two cars could pass each other if it stays like this…” He squinted through the windshield at the road ahead, but couldn’t see far enough in the rain to determine whether it was just a temporary condition of the road.

Maggie also peered ahead.  The headlights sliced through the weather, twin daggers that petered out thirty or forty feet in front of the truck.  “I’m sure it’s okay, Don.  The GPS is telling us this is the right way.  It’ll widen up soon, just watch.”

“Yeah … you’re right,” he agreed.  Still, he leaned in a little closer to the steering wheel and focused on the road.

* * * * * *

Fifteen minutes later, the road hadn’t widened—it had gotten even narrower.

Don was getting worried, though he tried not to make it more obvious than it already was.  Maggie could always read him like a book. He figured that she knew they were in a bad spot, but she was thankfully keeping quiet about it.  His innards were twisted up a little bit.

The rain was really coming down and his visibility was reduced to maybe twenty feet now.  Sheet after sheet of water cascaded down upon them.  On top of the weather and the road conditions, their steady climb upwards had gotten steeper.  If that were all, he might still have felt okay about the situation.  But, just as suddenly as everyone at a surprise birthday party jumping out with the big—Surprise!—the land on Maggie’s side of the truck had dropped away completely.

One second it was there, and then the next time he looked, it was gone.  The road completely fell away, just a foot beyond his right front tire, revealing a ravine, possibly, between some of the hills in the area, though he couldn’t tell anything for sure.  He inhaled sharply, Maggie looked at him, and then she looked where he was looking.

“Oh, my goodness!”

“Just calm down, okay…”

“Oh!” she exclaimed again, staring out of her window, almost in terror.  She’d never enjoyed rollercoasters and this wasn’t far removed from that.  Maybe worse.  She couldn’t tell whether the drop was twenty feet or two hundred.

“Maybe we could just turn around,” she pleaded.

“We can’t turn around on this road, Mags…” Don replied.

“Well, I mean, maybe we can just go in reverse…”

“Maggie!  I can hardly see the road in front of me much less drive in reverse in this damned weather!”

Maggie opened her mouth to reply but was cut off.

“Turn left in one mile.”

* * * * * *

“Turn left,” the GPS proclaimed some minutes later in its cool, worry-free voice.

Don drove on slowly, searching for the next road, and then jammed on the brakes.

“Damn it!” he hissed, looking to his left. “Damn it!” he said again, banging his hand hard against the steering wheel, making Maggie jump.  He stared out of his window to the left, frustrated, and let out a huge sigh.

There was a road to their left, but it led sharply and steeply up before disappearing behind a wall of rain.  He could see rivulets of muddy water running down the hill.  They merged at the base, ran in front of his truck, and formed a small waterfall that cascaded and vanished over the edge on Maggie’s side.

“What in the hell made you want to come out here, anyway?”  Don growled.  He could feel anger welling inside of him.  It was Maggie’s idea to drive all this damn way and he had blindly followed her, doting as always on her every whim.  But he was at the end of his rope. For the first time in his life he felt scared and helpless.

“Well?” he asked, nearly shouted, at Maggie.

“When I turned the GPS on … the destination was already there,” she stammered.

“What?  That doesn’t make any damn, fool sense.”  Don looked at her, confused.

“Yes, when I turned it on, it was already set to come to Big Bend.  It just seemed perfect to me, at the time, like fun…”

Don stared at her blankly.  They were here because the GPS was already set to come here.  Great! he thought.  Hopefully, the stupid thing can get us out of here.

* * * * * *

“Recalculating…”

“Shit!”  Don cursed.  He’d begun moving the vehicle forward, then backward, just inches at a time, as he tried to work it into the left turn that the GPS had told them to make.  And, now it was recalculating?  “What in the hell is wrong with that thing!” he shouted.

“Turn left.”

Don sighed and put the truck in drive again.  He moved forward six inches.  Reverse.  Six inches.  Drive.  Two inches…

Bang!

Don clenched his rectal muscles at the sound of the collision, watching helplessly as his driver’s side mirror wedged itself into the rocky wall.  He braked, but it was too late—the damage was done.  The mirror’s casing snapped inwards from the pressure, severed.  The mirror itself cracked, pieces falling away somewhere below the truck.

Anger and frustration bubbled violently inside of him.  He resisted the urge to scowl at Maggie.  This is all her fault, he thought.  With a mighty effort, he resumed the long, slow work of getting his truck around the corner.  It was tough going and the rain only seemed to worsen.

Then, just as suddenly as it had begun, it was done.  He’d made the impossible turn!  “Whew!  Glad that’s over,” he said, wiping sweat from his brow.

Maggie sighed.  Barely audible, yet pleasant.  This time, Don did look over at her, and Maggie looked back.  They shared a smile and Don patted Maggie’s leg.

She returned the pat with a pat of her own.  Me and Don are bulletproof, she thought to herself—survivors!  Nothing can stop us.  She bathed herself in the look Don was giving her.  She’d seen the same look in his face on their wedding day.  She drifted back for a moment, to that time, and thought about the vows they’d made on their special day.

Don found himself similarly sidetracked.  He was, indeed, giving her the same look he had given her those many years ago.  But it wasn’t their vows that occupied his thoughts.  It was the culmination, and relief, from the months of waiting when they finally got to their hotel room that night.  He smiled mischievously as he considered his options; he would give Maggie a second honeymoon when they reached the lodge.

The moment stretched on a second longer … then they broke their eye contact and looked forward…

Maggie screamed.

* * * * * *

A two-foot wall of water appeared out of the blackness and struck with surprising force.

Maggie’s scream stopped abruptly as she and Don scrambled to gain some semblance of control over their situation.  Maggie put one hand on the dashboard and grabbed what Don called the “Oh-shit-handle,” protruding from above the door, with her other hand.

On the driver’s side, Don grasped the steering wheel at the ten and two positions and pushed his back into the seat.  His knuckles went white instantly from the pressure and he clenched his jaw muscles involuntarily.

The truck slid backwards as all four tires lost contact with the road surface.  Maggie fleetingly thought that it felt like they were floating.  Then…

Silence … silence…

Crunch!

The rear of the vehicle on Don’s side slapped against one rocky wall and rebounded.

Silence … silence…

Boom!

Maggie’s window exploded inward, peppering the side of her face and head with glass.  Somehow, she maintained her grip on the handle over the window.  She opened her mouth to scream again, chunks of glass decorating her hair, but froze silently at the cartoonish image that passed in front of her.  The rocky wall disappeared and a small shrub poked up momentarily through the opening where her window had been.  It was like an optical illusion—or a magic trick.  Window.  Rocky wall.  Shrub.  Then nothing—nothing but a gaping hole—through which rain now entered in earnest.

With a sickening lurch, the Ford pick-up continued moving backwards, accelerating, gaining momentum.  Don realized too late where they were going, where the truck was rolling.  He tried to tell Maggie to hold on, but the confusion and speed of the situation left him impotent and the words never made it beyond the confines of his own mind.

“Recalculating!” the GPS cried, taunting him, sounding almost joyous.

He reached a hand out in Maggie’s direction as they rolled backwards across the road from which they’d made that treacherous turn … and over the drop-off on the other side.

* * * * * *

If Maggie had been able to see, she would have never allowed Don to make that last turn.  But she couldn’t see.

There was no protection.  Thirty feet of guardrail dangled over the edge of the ravine, hanging on by a thread, ripped away during a previous accident.  It pointed down, visible only when it was too late, as if to say, this is where you’re falling.

Their Ford rolled over the edge without fanfare.  The drop was close to 120 feet: twelve sheer stories, straight down.  In just under three seconds, it hit the ground below, landing tailgate first, Don and Maggie sitting upright, facing a sky they couldn’t see through the rain and darkness.

The bones in Don’s arms were shattered instantly with the impact.  Held neatly in place by his seatbelt, the steering column drove downward, crushing Don’s sternum, and penetrating his torso and lungs.  It took several minutes for him to bleed out and die though, thankfully, he was unaware of the pain; he blacked out almost instantly while his arms were breaking.

As the truck landed, and then settled upside down, Maggie was thrown through her open window.  Even in this modern world of statistics and safety, she often didn’t wear her seatbelt.  As a result, she was tossed about thirty-five feet from the vehicle, where she struck her head against a stone and was knocked out cold.

“You’ve reached your destination,” the GPS intoned pleasantly from the seat of the truck.

The rain had ceased by the time that Maggie awakened.  She lay still for some time, until a ray of sunlight kissed the ground beside her.  The inside of her eyelids grew brighter—a catalyst for her regaining her senses.  She opened her eyes with a series of rapid blinks.

Maggie groaned with pain.  Lightheaded and thirsty, she licked her lips with a tongue like sandpaper, and looked around for Don.  When she saw their truck, her eyes watered, and she only dared to hope that Don was alive.

Lifting to all fours, she almost fell over. She paused, poised like a dog, and shook her head.  She looked at the wreckage of Don’s F150.  If not for the tires, she wasn’t sure she would recognize it as a vehicle.  She tried to stand, but fell backwards, head spinning from the effort.  Landing hard on her backside with a grunt, she jumped when she noticed the ground beside her moving.

Only it wasn’t the ground that was moving.  Fear wrapped its hands around Maggie’s heart. Lying next to her, in the shade of a cactus, were several snakes … just inches from her right hand.

“Oh, God,” she breathed.  She knew (thought) that she wasn’t supposed to move and she tried to convince herself to be calm.  Two of the snakes shook their tails; the rattles raised the hair on her neck and sent her into a panic.

As Maggie rolled away, the first, and largest, of the Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes lunged, biting her on the calf.  At just over five feet, the snake nailed its target with disarming speed.  Maggie cried out in pain.

As she grasped at her leg, another snake shot forward, sinking its fangs into the flesh closer to her ankle.  She arched her body, trying to move away, but she only served to draw the full attention of all seven rattlesnakes napping nearby.  One after another, they filled her with their poison.  She reacted sharply with each bite and their attacks continued, spurned on not by anger or revenge or hatred, but instead by her erratic movements, which switched on their natural instinct for defense and attack.

When the big snake hit her a second time, on the side of her neck, her movements stopped.  She closed her eyes for the last time and waited for death.

* * * * * *

“Sheriff, look at this,” the deputy said as he squatted down next to Maggie’s bloated corpse.  He checked for a pulse, a habit from his years of training, even though he knew she was no longer of the Earth.

“Rattlers, Tom?”

“Yeah, Sheriff … looks like she stumbled on a whole nest of ‘em.”

“Hmm.”  Sheriff Bigsby eyed her body; puncture marks riddled the exposed skin.  He’d seen plenty of snakebites in his time—it was Southwest Texas after all—but this was the most vicious attack in his memory.  “Son-of-a-bitches were really ornery with her,” he remarked, pushing his mustache down thoughtfully with his thumb and forefinger.  Tom knew that meant he was deep in thought and stood patiently at his side.

The pair wandered over to the truck in a comfortable silence.  They’d been working with each other for two decades; Sheriff Bigsby had been friends with Tom’s daddy.  They were, in their way, like an old married couple.  An old married couple with matching mustaches and uniforms.

“That’s a mess,” Tom said, looking inside the cab.  Don’s internal organs were splashed around the dashboard and seat like an abstract mural.

“Yep,” Bigsby replied.

“Hmph,” Tom grunted.  “Don’t smell too nice, either.”

“Nope,” Bigsby agreed.

They stood together in silence for a while.  The sheriff stroked his mustache again.

“That’s the third one this year,” Tom remarked.

“Yep.”

“Same area, too,” Tom added.  “Maybe there’s a connection.”

Sheriff Bigsby raised an eyebrow and looked sideways at Tom.  He’d been thinking the same thing.  “Two times could have been a coincidence…”

“But, three—”

“Three doesn’t smell right,” the sheriff finished for him.  He squatted down and pulled a telescoping rod from his shirt pocket.  Extending it, he poked around the inside of the truck.  A flicker caught his eye and he reached in further, leaning the edge of his hand against the doorframe for support.  Pushing from side to side, he was able to wiggle the object over without touching it.

“GPS,” Tom said.

“Yep.”

“Hmph,” Tom grunted.

While they watched, the screen flickered to life … then turned off again.

“Never trusted them things,” Tom said.

“Me either,” Bigsby agreed.  He brushed his fingers across his mustache again and thought about the three wrecks they’d had along that part of The Bend as they called the park.  He looked at the GPS.  Then he looked at the truck again.  For a second, he wondered if … maybe…

“Oh, hell…” He shook the thought out of his head.  “Let’s get our guys out here and get this stuff collected up for the next of kin.  After the forensics guys get done with it.”  He squinted and looked at the GPS—felt drawn to it—sort of wanted to touch it.

“You got it, boss.”  Tom interrupted his thoughts.  He radioed in the sheriff’s request to the dispatcher, who arranged everything.  The sheriff shook his head yet again.

“Let’s get back to the SUV, Tom.  We’ll wait for the forensic boys there.”  They started the half-mile walk back, each considering the situation silently.  It’s probably time to retire, Sheriff Bigsby thought to himself.  Maybe take a vacation…

Rating: 10.00/10. From 1 vote.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Written by Bart Hopkins
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: Bart Hopkins


Publisher's Notes: N/A

Author's Notes: N/A

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