by Terry Sanville
For Ephraim, it was a strangely satisfying Thanksgiving afternoon at his brother’s house in Santa Barbara. His mother brought the turkey and hadn’t started badmouthing their dead father until downing her fourth Seagram’s. Rich and Elise must have fed their kids extra Ritalin; the brats stayed quiet until dinnertime. By then, a third pitcher of Margaritas was history. The adults watched college football on TV and ate off wooden trays. Ephraim fell asleep on the couch.
“Come on, Effie. Get up.” His mother shook him and he swung his legs to the floor, head throbbing.
“It’s after midnight and you’ve got a long drive. Drink this.” She slid a steaming mug of coffee onto the end table.
He grunted a thank you and sipped, his hands trembling. In the bathroom, he rifled through the medicine cabinet for aspirin. After sticking his head under the faucet, he stared at his dripping image in the mirror and tugged a blue comb through thinning hair. Shit, I look ten years older than Rich…and he’s the old one.
Before leaving the house he kissed his mother on the cheek. “I’ll send you an e-mail when you get home.”
“That’s sweet, Effie…but I’m not holding my breath.” She had settled onto the sofa and was watching a Conan O’Brien rerun.
Outside in the dark driveway, he let the Corvette warm, his breaths coming in little fog puffs. He reached under the seat for the bottle, took a long pull, shivered as the booze warmed him. In a couple hours I’ll be snuggling with Jen. Wish she could stand being with my mother…but I can’t really blame her. Still, it be nice if the family could…
He flipped the bottle under the passenger seat and drove north, the freeway deserted except for an occasional big rig rumbling along at half his speed. At the San Marcos Pass exit he turned toward the looming coastal mountains lit by a full moon. Ahead lay 30 twisting miles, a perfect sports car road.
Downshifting into third, he powered through a sweeping right-hander that opened onto a short straightaway. Up the road, taillights winked at him before disappearing around a bend. Mashing the accelerator, he grinned…I can catch anything with this baby…nobody gets away. The two-lane highway slanted upward as he entered a series of fast s-turns. The Corvette’s’ tires howled. Ephraim began to slowly reel in the fleeing car. He drove holding his arms straight, his hands clenching the steering wheel.
As he rounded a turn near the summit, high beams struck him full in the face. A brick-shaped SUV was three foot over the centerline and charging straight at him. He leaned on the horn and eased to the right. At the last moment, the vehicle moved left and flashed past.
“Fucking asshole,” Ephraim muttered. He downshifted and scanned the highway for the car he’d been chasing. But after three turns, the road remained empty. That guy couldn’t have ditched me. I never even slowed. Can’t disappear like that unless…
At the summit, he pulled onto the shoulder and hung a u-turn, motoring downhill slowly until reaching a curve where tire marks angled outward toward the canyon’s blackness. His heart pounding, he pulled onto the dirt fringe and grabbed a flashlight. Outside, the air stank of scorched rubber. He backtracked along the drop-off’s edge, examining the ground. The dirt was rutted at the point where the tire marks left the pavement.
He stared downslope. “ANYBODY DOWN THERE?”
The night stayed quiet, the highway empty. He fumbled for his cell phone and keyed 911.
The woman’s voice was all business. “This is 911 Rescue. What is your emergency?”
“I’m on Highway 154, about a mile south of San Marcos summit. There’s been an accident. Send paramedics.”
“What is the nature of the accident?”
In the moist air, a cloud of smoke wafted upward from a chaparral-covered knoll. Moonlight outlined a hulking shape. “Gotta go. Just send the paramedics…and fire.”
He began working his way downslope, his leather shoes slipping on the shale, the shoulder-high brush shredding his dress slacks. A branch raked across his face, but he kept moving until the vehicle lay before him, a big Mercedes, on its roof. The stink of gasoline was overpowering. He shuddered and shown the flashlight’s beam inside. A woman dangled from the seatbelt, surrounded by deployed airbags. Her long red hair hung like a curtain.
“Hey lady, you okay?” he managed.
The woman groaned and flailed her bloodied arms: “I can’t…I can’t get out….”
He tried the doors, but they were hopelessly mashed. “Just take it easy, helps on the…”
A flame flickered from under the wheelwell and things began to pop. Shit, this thing’s gonna light up…
The car’s windows had been smashed out. Ephraim squeezed through the rear opening in back of the drivers seat, cutting his hands on the beaded glass. He moved next to the woman and worked the seat belt release. It was jammed. Fumbling in his pocked for his Swiss army knife, he dropped the flashlight. It went out. Mother fucking clumsy idiot, why can’t I…
He opened the blade and began sawing through the seatbelt.
“Hold still,” he ordered, but the woman continued thrashing. The seatbelt snapped and she fell on top of him, screaming, clutching a leg. She was light, slender, not much more than a girl, wearing a skimpy party dress sticky with blood. He scraped the headliner clear of debris and hauled her into the rear of the sedan. A loud pop shook the car. Flames curled up around the front fenders. Choking smoke poured inside. He pulled her to the window. She screamed for him to stop.
“We gotta go.”
“I…I…can’t. It hurts…”
He crammed his linebacker’s body through the opening, turned and dragged the girl out, her body limp.
“Hey…you okay? Talk to me.” She didn’t answer. He felt for a pulse and got a faint throbbing. The smoke smelled of burning brush. A vain of fire streaked uphill, crackling, alive and angry. He pulled the girl onto his back, clasping her arms to his chest, and charged upslope, moving to the right. His shoe came off but he kept digging. The fire closed in behind them. He fell once, twice, got up and continued pumping his legs. Move it, move it, move it. The pungent fumes burned his eyes and throat. He crashed through the brush at highway’s edge and collapsed onto the dirt. His sports jacket and her dress smoked. A fire truck rolled up with the paramedics right behind. They took the girl inside the ambulance while they worked on him, taping the gash across his forehead that he didn’t even feel. The fire crews doused the blaze before it could jump the road.
“Do you want a ride to the hospital?” a paramedic asked. “You sucked in a lot of smoke and should probably get that forehead stitched.”
“No…no…want to get home. My wife will be worried.”
“Sure, I understand. Just sign here.” He pointed to a line on a printed form.
Ephraim steadied his hand and scratched his signature.
“Will you step over to my cruiser?” a Highway Patrolman asked without it sounding like a question. He was heavyset and carried a clipboard and flashlight. “Can I see your driver’s license…and tell me what happened here.” As Ephraim recounted his actions, leaving out the part about him chasing the Mercedes, the officer recorded the details.
“Can you describe the SUV?”
“No. That asshole was on me too quickly… but I think it was silver. Say, do you know if that girl’s gonna be okay?”
“Thanks to you, she’ll be fine. A broken leg and some cuts…she’ll be fine.”
“Thank God.” Ephraim let out a deep breath. “When I saw that smoke, I knew I couldn’t wait. She would’ve fried before rescue got here.”
“You’re right about that. You’re definitely her hero. Is that your car?” The officer motioned toward the yellow Corvette.
“Yeah. She’s a sweet ride.”
“Turn around and put your hands behind your back.”
“What…what the hell’s going on?”
“Just do it.”
Stunned, Ephraim turned and felt the cold steel of handcuffs clamp around both wrists. “What’s this all about? Am I under arrest?”
“I found an open whiskey bottle on the passenger side floor in plain sight. And I can smell it on you, even with all the smoke.”
“But I wasn’t… wasn’t drunk. I couldn’t have been and saved that girl and…”
“Yeah sure, you’re the hero this time. But what will you be when you run some poor soul off the road a few miles farther on? You’ll be just like that SUV driver.”
“But…but I did a good thing here,” he complained, “and this is what I get for it?”
“Sorry, being a hero doesn’t give you a free pass. Watch your head. You can call your wife from central booking.”
The patrolman placed a palm on Ephraim’s scalp and guided him into the cruiser’s rear seat. His temples pounded. He sucked in deep breaths, letting them out slowly. Outside, the officer was talking with the fire captain as the crews mopped up. The ambulance tore off, lights flashing. He yawned, and slumped against the door, his limbs heavy, lips thick and dry. No way I’m like that SUV driver…but…but what if she wasn’t looking ahead? What if she was looking at the lights in her mirrors?
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