Sunday, 10 January 2010
13 ACROSS By Tim Fenster
James Ferguson never thought of himself as a bad man. He paid his taxes, gave money to charity, and tried to live a good life. However, he’d be the first to admit that some of the choices he’s made were bad ones. He had a wife and a job as a manager of a construction company and a home in the suburbs of Chicago.
Friday night, one July 13th, Jim found his way to a party some of his friends at work had thrown. Immediately upon arriving at his friend, Phil Simmons’ house, he noticed the host was standing behind an improvised mini bar.
“Hey Phil, my man. Give me a shot a Mr. Daniels,” Jim said.
Phil poured Jim not one shot, but rather filled a tall shooter which must have been two shots at the very least. Jim vaguely noted the extra size of the glass, but proceeded to empty the glass anyway. He paused once halfway through the drink, then poured the rest down.
Jim made the long drive home alone that night. He felt tired and dizzy although he promised himself that this was from fatigue rather than inebriation. Two pieces of Big Red bounced between his teeth as he set to work on his third can of Coca-Cola. A voice inside said he’d be able to get home with no problems. He sort of figured that driving in his state would force him to focus and he may even drive better. As a matter of fact, his driving that night wasn’t even half bad.
Then, for a split second, he was caught in the grip of the whiskey and fatigue. In that moment, his head ducked down and his arms went limp, causing the car to swerve to the right just off the edge of the road.
Something hit the car with a loud thud. A hairline crack shot through the windshield as the object rolled over the hood and landed behind the car. Jim bolted upright and slammed on the brakes; the car immediately screeched to a stop. A million thoughts flew through his impaired mind. He was aware that he should be terrified, but some call alcohol liquid courage, so he wasn’t especially worried.
For a long time, Jim peered through the rearview and side mirrors at the indiscernible object lying beside the road. Finally, Jim chose to believe what he wanted and convinced himself that he had only hit a deer. It was that simple at the time. The possibility of him hitting someone’s pet or another human being was forced out of his mind. He drove on without ever exiting the vehicle to see exactly what he’d hit.
The next morning Jim awoke to unpleasant nudges and pushing by his wife. “C’mon Jimmy. It’s 10:30. Wake up before you waste the whole day.”
Jim’s only reply was a brute grunt.
“Get up. The only reason you’re still in bed is because you were out drinking all night.” Some anger showed in her voice.
“Not all night,” he grumbled.
“C’mon, I’ll get you some Aspirin and a nice hot cup o’ joe.”
“Awright honey,” Jim replied as he crawled out from beneath the covers.
Jim read the paper as he ate a breakfast of water, Aspirin, and coffee. At the bottom of the front page, where they only wrote the first sentence or two of the article, was a story about a journalist who wrote for the local paper. Apparently he’d been killed in a hit and run accident the night before. Nothing registered in his mind at the time.
He quickly grew bored with the news so he turned to the crossword puzzle in section D. The last word he found in the puzzle was number 13 across. The answer was BACK ROAD. For one reason or another, the word stuck in his head that morning.
That afternoon he drove south into the country to work on the construction of a Walmart in a small town called Fairbury. Since the site was far from the suburbs, Jim got a room in a nearby Comfort Suite and planned to stay there on week nights until the project was finished. Near the end of the ride, Jim chose to get off the I-55 and finished the drive on back roads, even though he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to find his way. He couldn’t explain why he chose to do this. It seemed a random choice, decided only by some natural instinct.
That night Jim found himself caught in a deep, elaborate dream. He saw himself driving alone on the thruway. Everything on the road seemed fine, but he had the strangest feeling that something wasn’t right.
Suddenly a red Mitsubishi inexplicitly planted itself in the road just yards ahead. There wasn’t even time enough to move his foot to the brakes. Just as the sight of the red Mitsubishi filled the front windshield, the dream world disappeared. He jumped up in bed and uncontrollably bellowed a short scream. His pajamas were soaked in a cold sweat and the hairs on the back of his neck stood up straight. He remained sitting upright in bed for the longest time as his pulse decelerated and his breathing returned to normal. He eventually lay back down, but found that he wasn’t able to sleep the rest of the night.
The next morning Jim bought a copy of his local newspaper from the hotel lobby. After having a cold breakfast from the disappointing breakfast bar he finally got around to reading it. He read the paper before a pile of empty plastic dishes as he sipped on his second cup of coffee. Just then a story at the bottom of the page caught his attention and sent a wave of fear piercing through his every nerve.
Two motorists killed in freak accident on the I-55
Jim didn’t notice that his grasp on the Styrofoam cup of coffee had loosened and it slipped to the floor. Speckles of hot coffee splattered on his bare legs and ankles, but he took no notice.
He read every word of the story with the upmost concentration. It described how a red Mitsubishi fell off a tractor trailer carrying a dozen such vehicles and was then struck by oncoming traffic.
Mainly out of instinct, although partially from paranoia, he bolted up to his room with the paper immediately after finishing the story. Once alone in his room, he found a Comfort Suites pencil in the top drawer beside the bible and proceeded to complete the crossword puzzle. The last word he found was again 13 across, the answer being VENDING MACHINE.
Every bite of food Jim ate that day came from the only vending machine he could find; the one near the lobby of his hotel. That evening he turned down an offer by his friends to have dinner at a steak and seafood place, although by then just the thought of more chips or candy made him feel nauseous.
The moment Jim awoke the next morning he bolted out his room and down to the lobby. He ignored the hotel employee’s greeting as he searched through the magazine/newspaper rack for a copy of his local paper. Once he found it he threw two quarters at the cashier behind the main desk and rushed back to his room. At the bottom right corner of the page was the first two sentences of such a story that he’d feared.
Food poisoning at local restaurant kills two, dozen’s sent to hospital
A wave of terror passed over him. Although he remained calm on the surface his mind was that of a raving lunatic. A slight madness shone in his shocked open eyes, only the woman behind the desk noticed this.
He quickly went back to his hotel room with only section D of the paper. The puzzle took him over an hour to complete. The final word, 13 across, was HOME.
Jim called in sick immediately. He then began packed his bags and was on I-55 North in less than twenty minutes.
That night Jim had a grisly nightmare about a man randomly shooting at him and the lower level workers on the construction site. The paper he read the next morning had a small article in the bottom right corner of the paper, telling of a disgruntled employee who opened fire at workers on the construction site of a Walmart. Ten of his employees were shot, three of them now dead.
The week that ensued was grisly and horrifying for Jim. As the days passed, he increasingly became a slave to the crossword puzzle in section D. The answer for thirteen across was to be followed with the upmost obedience, no matter how unusual or misguiding the sign seemed.
Jim’s wife began to think that he was having some kind of nervous breakdown. She came to this conclusion after noticing his unusual obsession with the morning paper, particularly the crossword puzzles. It also bothered her that he woke up frequently in the night, often screaming and covered in sweat. Whenever she would ask him what was wrong he would reply, “Just a bad dream” and usually added that he didn’t want to talk about it. In addition, Jim began acting obsessively, with his odd little obsessions changing from day to day.
However, what disturbed her far more were the accidents. She could understand why Jim may be unstable now, considering all the recent accidents which had claimed the lives of a number of his friends and co-workers. Jim wasn’t the only one losing his mind. Three other employees from Jim’s company refused to go work by the end of the week, fearing they would die from another freak accident such as the shooting rampage, falling steel beams, and the drunk employee who couldn’t quite operate the bulldozer properly.
That Sunday Jim awaited the arrival of the morning with extraordinary anticipation. The instant he saw his wife enter the kitchen with the massive Sunday paper, he leapt forward and ripped it from her hands.
“What is so important about that damn paper,” she hissed. Jim ignored her and searched the front page for the article he’d feared since the dream from the night before. He thumbed quickly through the story about a restaurant fire he’d escaped yesterday; even though his wife had been furious about his choice to cancel their anniversary dinner plans.
He vaguely noted that she screamed something about his obsession with crossword puzzles, but he ignored her completely. Halfway through the story, he tossed away sections A through C and searched D for the crossword puzzles. His heart and jaw dropped to the floor when he realized the only crossword puzzle on the page ended at twelve, down and across.
Tim Fenster is a creative writing and journalism major at SUNY Brockport. He is a native of Buffalo, New York.