THE ROAD TO HELL by Simon Easton
“We’re lost,” Di said angrily, a tone which was not unusual for the past couple of years, at least where her husband was concerned. “We’re completely lost.”
“No, we’re not,” said Andy, unconsciously squeezing in his stomach paunch to puff out his chest, trying to radiate husbandly protection and authoritative calm -- and failing miserably.
“We’re never going to get there,” sighed Di, pronouncing the last word with utter distaste, her pretty face and blonde head crooked against the passenger window. “We’re in the middle of nowhere.”
“So I took a wrong turn. I’m human.”
“Then you should’ve bought a GPS. I told you to buy a GPS.”
“We don't have the money for a GPS and you know it.”
“You could have at least gotten a map.”
“Who's going to read it while I'm driving? Because I only see you here.”
“Screw you.” Di watched the trees go by through the window. “You lost your father’s business and gave him a heart attack. How the hell do you go bankrupt distributing Trojans?”
"I keep telling you, that was another brand. We made 'Romans.' And we went bankrupt by the load." He barked out a short laugh.
"You are disgusting," his wife declared. "Be serious."
“I didn't lose the money. Dad spent the money on bookies and hookers and didn’t listen to me when I said the business was going down the tubes.”
“Then you burn down the house," she continued, dead to his protests. "You take a job in Cleveland, Cleveland, for Christ’s sake, and then, of all the other things that can go wrong, you get us completely lost in the middle of nowhere.” Suddenly, she screamed.
“What?” shouted Andy, jabbing the brakes.
“You just killed a squirrel. Why don’t you watch the road?”
“I’m sorry. Your litany of my failures had me entranced.”
“Don’t tell me. Tell the squirrel.”
They drove in dreadful silence past several hundred more trees.
“It was the wiring, anyway,” Andy said at last.
“That burned down the house. The wiring.”
“Yeah, the wiring in the microwave you left on for an hour while you were drunk and sleeping in front of the TV.”
“What do you want me to do, huh?”
“Stop and ask directions. If I have to spend another five hours in this car with you, I’ll kill myself.”
“Why wait? Get out now. No, wait, I’ll speed up.”
“Just ask somebody!”
“When I see a gas station, okay? Unless you want me to ask a squirrel, or maybe check the moss on the goddamn trees.”
“Like they’d tell you. Murderer.”
Seven years ago Diane Dougherty of southwestern Missouri had been the proverbial belle of the convention hall. She was smart and beautiful, the whole package, wasting her life as an administrative assist to some executive schmuck from Lifestyles. Pinging her at the bar the evening of the second day, Andy had moved in quickly to buy her another white zinfandel and chat her up. Physically she was out of his league, but apparently Cupid was working overtime that day. He scored digits. It didn't take long before he was hooked. He spent the next several months pitching furious woo via telephone and weekend commutes until she agreed to marry him.
Andy empathized with the poor dead squirrel. He too had been an innocent little rodent, going about his business, fetching some nuts, not realizing that he was standing in the middle of the tracks while the succubus was bearing down on him like a freight train. She hadn't been like this when the family business had been thriving, certainly not this surly gold digger hoisted on her own petard who sat beside him.
When Andy looked over at his wife, she was doing a crossword puzzle with a violence only she could bring to such an innocuous pastime. It was too easy for her, so she filled in each answer like it was a personal affront, baring her teeth on occasion. Andy could hear the pen tear through the pulp pages.
“How do you do that in the car without getting sick?” Andy asked pleasantly, hoping to get something pleasant in return.
“It’s not easy with the way you drive.”
“Sorry,” Andy sighed, too tired to resume arguing. Di didn't even look up. Andy scanned the horizon for signs of civilization: a gas station; a burger joint; a telephone booth; another car. Anything, anything at all. He'd never admit it to Di, but they were seriously Texas Chainsaw Massacre lost. Not knowing what else to do, Andy drove onward through the darkening and miasmic forest.
After an age, a sign proclaiming “Gas” appeared over a rise. Andy slowed the car and began peering at the sides of the road, looking for the station. Di had fallen asleep at last, her head tilted uncomfortably back against the headrest. She drooled only slightly out of the side of her mouth onto her sweater. Andy sighed, realizing that in all the years to come, she would never get any more attractive than she was at that moment. Finally, the gas station entrance appeared.
Andy slowed the car, signaled to no one, pulled in and parked beside a pump.
The gas station was from another time. The old domed pumps looked like they should have been filling up Nashes and Studebakers rather than cars like Andy’s Le Sabre. Di remained asleep, oblivious to the scene she could have taken so much joy in deriding. She only came close enough to wakefulness to shift in her seat and growl softly with her own special brand of somnolent hostility. Her spittle was forming a soft wet splotch over her right breast.
Andy switched the car off. He peered over to the decaying shack that sat several yards away. Although the sign in the dirty window said, “Open”, he could sense no movement within. Normally, by this time, he would have honked the horn to get some attention, but he did not want to wake Di if he could help it. He let himself out of the car gingerly and pushed the door shut gently. He left the window open a crack so as not to suffocate his wife, pushing away the errant thought that suffocating her was a pretty good idea.
Andy stood by his car and looked around for signs of life. For some reason, he dreaded going to the building. Nothing was moving over there except for a squirrel. Andy watched it enter the shack through a hole in the screen door. Squirrels everywhere, he thought. Squirrel country. Home of the squirrel. The Squirreleye state.
“Hello?” he called out gently as he walked the few yards between his car and the station's little building. “Hello?” The screen door screamed in rusty peals as he pulled it open. “Is there anybody here?” He let the door slam shut behind him in the hope that the noise would attract some old gaffer from the termite-feeding woodwork and, at the same time, not rouse Di from her dragon’s slumber.
The interior of the station was like the rest of it: dusty, Spartan, and looking as if it had not been cleaned or exposed to direct light in a thousand years. Abandoned. There were some grimy-looking posters adorning the walls, advertising various fluids for cars. An old mechanical cash register sat on a bare counter, ‘No Sale’ showing through the window. Andy wondered idly how it was that no one had made off with it. He was tempted for a moment to open the register and check for cash, but he knew he could never do that. His father would have. Andy was certain of it. The quick fix. The short-term gain. Easy money.
“Hello!” he called out one last time, surprising even himself with the force and determination in his voice. He began counting to himself, knowing that upon reaching the number ten he would depart. One-one thousand, two-one-thousand, three...
“Down here!” came a muffled voice from somewhere deep and far away.
“What?” Andy called back.
“Down here, goddamn it! Are you deaf? Through the door and down the steps!”
Andy peered into the blackness beyond the only interior door. “Aren’t you coming up?” “Can’t!”
"Do you need help?"
Andy put a first tenuous foot onto the creaky wooden step. He felt along the wall for a switch.
“Where’s the light?”
Andy began feeling his way down the stairs. At the same time that a stale breeze slammed the basement door shut, he discovered the fourth step was missing. He was so surprised that he forgot to regret all the things he had done and had not done in life on the way down.
Lying prone on a stone floor, Andy opened his eyes and peered into shimmering, gossamer blackness. He blinked several times, but it did not go away. Wondering if his neck was broken, he clenched his fingers and, finally, with trepidity, his toes. He seemed fine, except for his vision. He must have hit his head, even though it didn't hurt at the moment. Di would have gotten a real kick out of this, he thought. Physical comedy was the hallmark of humor for her. She might have even laughed.
“Is he dead?” asked a faraway voice.
“Just lazy,” said a distant, more familiar one.
“Who’s there?” said Andy, sitting up. Two figures came into view, one the size of a man and another which was much smaller, the size of a cat, or maybe half a cat. Both were hazy.
Andy could not focus on either one. “I need help. I’m hurt.”
“You’re fine. Get your ass up, boy.” There was something familiar to Andy about the way those words were spoken.
“Do you have any whiskey? Cigarettes?”
“Of course not. Am I dead?”
“From that little fall? Don’t be a wimp. Have you got any food or anything at all?”
Andy slowly felt around his pockets. “I’ve got...uh, breath mints.”
“You always were a tight-ass, kid. Toss ‘em over.” Andy threw the almost-empty roll towards the larger shape. Gradually his father came into view as the smell of peppermint filled the stifling air. His father took another mint from the roll and dropped it to the smaller, wispy shape beside him. Andy watched with slack-jawed amazement as a squirrel took shape, clutching a mint in his little paws.
“Thanks a lot, pal,” the squirrel said between nibbles. “Why don’t you watch where the hell you’re going?”
“I’m sorry,” said Andy. “It was an accident.”
“Do you know how fucking boring it is down here?”
“Where is 'down here?'”
“Figure it out.” The squirrel took a final bite of the mint. “I’ll see you again soon enough.” With a final, derisive chirp, the squirrel turned, shook his tail insultingly, and darted away. Andy watched his father eat the last of his breath mints.
“So, Dad...” Andy began, faltering for words. Conversations with his father had not been easy even when he was alive. “How have you been?”
“Dead. Listen up. Time is short, and this is important.” Andy nodded. “You want to keep going in the same direction. At the next fork, keep to the left. That will take you to the main highway. You should know where you are from there.”
“You mean, do what I’m doing now? And eventually I’m going to have to make some kind of choice, and I'll know what the choice is when I get there? I’ll know where I am in life?”
“No, dummy. This is how you get to Cleveland. It’ll take you another six hours or so.”
“That’s what you brought me here to tell me?”
“That’s what you wanted to know, isn’t it?”
“Well, yeah, but...” Andy thought for a moment. “Don’t you have any advice for me?
Aren’t you going to tell me what death is like? Something? Anything?”
“Advice?” Andy heard his father begin to chew the last mint. “Don’t die. The squirrel was right. Death sucks.” With that, Andy watched his father fade once again into nothingness.
“Dad? Dad!” But his father was gone. Andy peered through the darkness looking for a way out. He finally found the stairs he had fallen down. He mounted them cautiously, acting as if each one was the missing step that had brought him down there in the first place. Finally, he reached the door at the top of the steps, twisted the knob, and re-entered the surface world.
Stepping outside, he squinted into the sunlight, momentarily blinded. His head was throbbing. Just what had happened in there? Was he hallucinating? He touched the occipital region of his head. Nothing appeared to be broken, anyway. Andy brushed himself off and began walking back to the car. He noticed that Di was awake and moving around, fishing something out of her purse. She saw him and rolled the window down as he approached.
“Did you get directions?” she asked.
“Yes. I know where I’m going now.”
“How long? How long is it to Cleveland?”
She removed a pistol from her purse and put it under her chin. “I told you I’d kill myself if I had to spend another five hours in the car with you. Six? Six! You bastard.”
“Di, wait a minute! Di! What the hell are you doing? Di!”
She pulled the trigger at 3:42 p.m. Andy checked his watch because he knew that the police would want to know later.
She’s been unbalanced for some time, Officer, he silently rehearsed. Her Prozac is right in her purse. I’ve got the name of her psychiatrist written down somewhere. Yes, she used to threaten a lot, but I never thought she’d actually do it. We were fighting because she didn’t want to go to Cleveland. I think it’s a fine town, too. I don’t know where she got the gun. I think it was my father’s. He just passed a little while ago...
He delicately extricated his cell phone from the bloody mess in the car. He was tempted to return to the basement and gloat, but he was all out of mints.
“Thanks, Dad,” he said out loud. “I owe you one.”