“The Road to Heather Cove”
by Richard A. Lovett
Death was piloting a shiny, black Ford Expedition, although Duncan Jones thought he was the one in command.
Like most people, Duncan believed himself a better-than-average driver. Until recently, he’d been right. Then Death aimed him at the car and he changed.
Initially, he thrilled to the simple pleasure of looking over the tops of lesser vehicles. Then he began practicing skillful driving. People honked and gestured but he knew they had nothing to fear.
When he got his first ticket, Death encouraged him to shrug it off. He wasn’t going all that fast; the cop was on a quota and picked him at random. It happens. What can you do?
A month later, when he stretched a yellow light and collected his second ticket, he needed no help coming up with an excuse. By then, he was dressing in black and had found a skull key-ring pendant at a flea market.
The pendant had supposedly been made by a lost tribe of sea Dayaks from northern Borneo, hundreds of years before someone modified it for a key ring. If it was a fake, it was a good one, made of carved ivory or maybe real bone: stark, cruel, and remarkably detailed, like an actual skull somehow shrunken. It had an odd tendency to absorb his body heat and return it, magnified. From the moment he touched it, he knew it completed his new identity. And the price was right, as though the merchant was desperate to unload it.
Death had long been nibbling at the edges of Duncan’s life. Now, it embraced him whenever he started his car or caressed his strangely cold–warm pendant. Sometimes, impatient at a traffic light, he’d find himself staring at the skull’s eyes. Time would slow to a pace that matched the traffic and Duncan would be half-convinced that if he could just see a bit better, there was something inside looking back at him. Then, he’d pull his gaze away and time would shudder back to full speed.
More and more, even when he wasn’t driving, Duncan would gaze into those eyes, as the realities of family, work, and daily life grew chill and distant. Until only the skull burned in his brain.
Only Duncan knew how often he stared and thought unthinking thoughts. His job performance faltered, but only slightly. And even Death didn’t want him to forget his family. Not yet, at least.
Every third weekend in the winter, he took his wife and kids to a timeshare cabin, across the mountains. Driving, he still knew better than to gaze into those hypnotic eyes, and for minutes at a stretch he could almost forget they existed.
Instead, he relished the car. He loved the way his vehicle hugged the curves, thrilled to the power of the engine, and was amazed by the ease with which he could accelerate on snow-slicked roads. What Death did its best to do was to keep him from learning was that these merely allowed you to get into trouble more quickly. They did not help you stop. On the rare occasions when Duncan might have wondered about such things, he found himself caressing his pendant. As it warmed to a fierce, not-quite-painful heat, he felt a wondrous, calm detachment— somewhere on the margin between invincibility and inevitability. Whatever would happen would happen. He and the big car were simply along for the ride.
Duncan was Death’s tool but not its target. Neither was his family, who, one weekend in January, left early in his wife’s car. Unable to get away from work until Saturday afternoon, Duncan followed alone, trying to make up time. The road was snow-free, and when nobody was blocking his way Duncan was courting his next ticket. He wouldn’t get it. Between him and the nearest police car was a poorly banked curve, sheeted in black ice.
Jill Lyons loved cross-country skiing. She’d raced in college, back in Vermont, and whenever possible, dragged her husband Paul to Heather Cove, which boasted the area’s finest trails. Typically, she would amble for a while with Paul, then kick into high gear and lap him, amble a bit more, and race the clock in an effort to catch him a second time before the finish. Paul wasn’t offended. While she was gone, he’d drop to a slow shuffle and watch winter-fluffed squirrels, or simply allow himself to be transported by the chill, dry air. When Jill’s lithe form kick-glided back to him, he recalled the girl who’d first caught his eye and thought again how lucky he was that she still wanted to spend not only the day but the rest of her life with him.
He was a good man, and Jill very much appreciated him.
Their outings usually ended in a dead heat. Jill knew how fast she could get around the loop and postponed her second speed-circuit until she had to work hard to catch him. This time she waited a little too long and Paul was unsnapping his skis as she panted up.
“I’ll drive,” she said. Skiing energized her; driving relaxed her. She liked the balance of doing both. Paul preferred to nap. He’d be snoring by the time their economy sedan reached the ice-covered curve. With his seat tilted back, he’d fare badly in a crash.
Jill mopped snow from the windshield, wiggled frozen wiper blades free of the glass, and started the engine. She pulled out of the parking lot and drove to the highway.
Normally, she’d head home by the shortest route, where today, Death hurtled toward her at seventy miles an hour. She was already beginning to spin the wheel when something entered the car with her. Call it Life, God, a guardian angel, or blind chance: she was no more aware of it than Duncan was of his guest. All she knew was that she remembered it was possible to go home by a longer way.
She paused. It had been a long time since she’d taken the scenic route. “You in a hurry?” she asked.
Perhaps the same presence touched Paul. “Nah. Nothing to do but clean the basement and I’ve got all the time in the world for that.”
Fifteen minutes later, Duncan hit the ice. Panicked, he went for the brake. Nothing much happened, except that the car slid toward the centerline. Still braking, he steered right. That got him just enough traction to put the car into a spin. It rotated once, twice, three times, clipped a guardrail, and came to rest tail-first in a snow bank.
Shaken, he climbed out to survey the damage. At that moment, Death could have taken him as a substitute for Paul, for a pedestrian on an icy highway is an easy target. But Death wasn’t interested. Cheated of its intended victim, it was already scheming other, more entertaining, challenges.
The car was dented, though still drivable. But Duncan was thinking of his family and how grateful he was that they hadn’t been with him. He no longer felt any need for hurry.
The death-head key-ring pendant caught his attention. Stupid thing, he thought, and hurled it into the snow bank. There, unnoticed, it hissed and sizzled, melting downward, as though digging in for a long, malevolent wait.
Miles away, Jill drove through a fairyland of snow. Sun gleamed on cliffs, and firs shed their burdens in rainbows of fine, white powder. She nudged her husband. “Wake up, honey,” she said. “Isn’t it a great day?”
Richard A. Lovett is the author of 25 science fiction stories and more than 2700 nonfiction articles. A prolific contributor to Analog, he has won three AnLab Awards and written nearly as many science articles as he has science fiction stories. In “real ” life, he writes for a living for a publication list that includes New Scientist, Science, Psychology Today, National Geographic News, and many large newspapers. A veteran of Greenland ‘s 100-mile Arctic Circle (cross-country ski) Race, he has also coauthored a book on cross-country skiing.
Story © 2007 Richard A. Lovett. All other content copyright © 2007 ByrenLee Press
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish