Anderson Bartholomew Mortenson was pissed! He would deal with that ‘Bitch’ in his own way and in his own time! He slammed the door of his car and squealed out of the parking lot! He didn’t care what direction. He was one of the elite, one of the privileged people, he had money! His wealth gave him certain privileges! Privileges that did not include getting a tongue lashing from a servant! Anderson shook his head, this was ridiculous. He did not have to justify his presence to anyone.
That woman in the gallery might be the manager but she had no right, no bloody right to embarrass him in front of his friends or to call him a ne’er-do-well. A ne’er-do-well! Bloody archaic expression and he was offended! His family, his grandfather, sponsored that gallery and that entitled him to certain privileges. How could that bloody woman not know that! How dare she ask him to leave! The people there seemed to think his jokes were funny. They were a little off colour but still they laughed. So what was the big deal? These affairs took themselves far too seriously.
When Anderson was strongly invited to leave the Art Gallery he did so alone; his friends decided to stay and enjoy the free champagne. Perhaps that is the reason he took the wrong road, or maybe it was his anger, or perhaps something else was at work. Regardless, Anderson was lost. He didn’t know this side of town well but he was sure that at any moment he would come across some buildings, a highway exit sign, something to denote civilization as opposed to this endless ribbon of nothing. The road seemed to be mocking him, laughing at him: he was lost, what a fool!
With a sigh Anderson took stock of his situation. Okay, he thought, I’m lost. Bit deal. People get lost. The fact that he was not in control was annoying but knew he could get out of this. He forced himself to relax and think. First he needed to find out where he was and where this bloody road went. There were no signs, there were no buildings, there were no street lights, and it was dark. There was, however, a familiarity to the place. He didn’t know where he was but there was a memory buried deep that knew this road. This was not a promising situation.
As if it was written in a script, a figure materialized out of the dark. He slowed the car as the headlights brought into focus a man dressed completely in black. Maybe this person could direct him back to civilization. Anderson pulled the car over and rolled down the passenger side window.
“Excuse me,” he started, “I’m afraid I’m lost can you direct me–“
Before he could finish his question the stranger opened the car door and got in.
“I think young man that we are headed in the same direction.” The voice that emanated from this strange man was deep with an almost hypnotic quality and his eyes were painfully intense. It was the only part of his face that seemed to be in focus.
The car door slammed shut as if to punctuate the comment. Without thinking Anderson put the car in gear. As they moved slowly forward Anderson’s mind, equally slowly, became clearer. With a mental shake of his head he turned to the stranger,
“As I started to say sir, can you direct me to a main thoroughfare?”
Anderson was quite pleased with his manner, all he wanted to do was to kick this sorry sot out the door and take off. But he did not. He restrained his impulse. His mother would be so proud. As he spoke Anderson glanced at his passenger: this strange man hadn’t moved since he sat down, his head was in shadow and facing straight ahead. His entire body was as if it were made of stone. Not even a sign of breathing was apparent. His hands rested on his knees, relaxed and unmoving.
“I will take you to where you are headed, but you may not like the destination.”
It was a strange comment but Anderson ignored it and once again glanced at his travelling companion.
“My name’s Anderson, and you are?”
The stranger remained silent. Anderson wasn’t sure what to make of this guy. He had helped himself into the car; he had offered no information, not even his name. How does one strike up a conversation with a man who seems to like being an enigma? Well this stranger had gotten into the car under false pretences. Either he coughs up a way to get out of this situation or he’s getting dumped! In his mind Anderson could be as tough and as authoritative as he wanted. But when he again glanced at this strange man dressed in black he felt like the child who had done wrong. Anderson wondered what the great Cecil Mortenson would do in a situation like this one. His grandfather was a successful businessman who had built himself up from very humble beginnings. While Anderson admired that in his grandfather, it also intimidated him and made him want to rebel. So, what would his grandfather do in a situation like this?
“I doubt very much your grandfather would ever be in this situation.” The stranger had spoken again.
Anderson was startled; does this guy read minds?
“No son, but I do read faces. You are surprised that I would know about your family. You would be very surprised at just how much I know about a great many things. And I will see your Grandfather one day soon.” There was an ominous quality to his voice.
As he spoke the man continued to look straight ahead, his eyes only on the road disappearing into the distance. Now that the stranger had broken his silence Anderson thought he should direct another question:
“Are we headed back to town? I don’t know this road at all.”
“Actually,” said the stranger, “I believe you need to spend a little more time on this road, or perhaps it needs to spend time with you.”
The words that the stranger spoke were bizarre and the feeling that they instilled in Anderson was one of desperation. He was feeling more and more out of control. He took his left hand off the steering wheel and placed it on his hip and without thinking he started to tap two fingers against his leg. It was a nervous habit he had picked up as a child. Only one person had ever noticed it, other than his mother, and that was his friend Bob. It was strange to think about Bob in a situation like this. It had been many years since he’d spoken to him but he had thought of Bob often and always fondly. Bob had been Anderson’s roommate for the three years he had spent at University. He had never been impressed by Anderson’s wealth nor was he intimidated by it. He really just didn’t care. What he did care about was friendship. Bob believed Anderson was a better man than he really was. How could he have let that friendship lapse? And why did he think about him now of all times?
“I met a friend of yours the other day,” offered the stranger, “his name was Robert Delaney. There was a car accident. I believe you knew him as Bob.”
This time when Anderson looked over at the stranger he seemed to see a small smile starting to curl up his lips. It also seemed to grow colder in the car and yet Anderson could not make his hand turn on the heat. He just sat there in the cold and in his growing fear. This man knew things he had no business knowing! What exactly did he know?
“You have done a great many things you should atone for, young man.”
That voice again. Anderson felt paralyzed, but only in his body. His mind raced frantically. He was ashamed as he remembered the cutting comments he had made to perfect strangers, the complete disregard with which he treated those who offered him their services and he could not forget, nor could he excuse, his behaviour in the art gallery that had happened only an hour ago. The night should have been in celebration for a new and upcoming artist. Instead he had turned it into a bad stand-up comedy routine. But that was who he was: the jokester, the bad comic. Why should he have to atone for lousy manners? And then the memory that was buried deep within his mind surfaced. It was not a pleasant memory.
It seemed as if he had been driving for days. He felt as though he had been locked inside a prison, unsure of his crime. But he knew now, he was sure. He had committed a terrible crime three years ago, on this road. How can you atone? They say that when you are about to die your life flashes in front of your eyes. That’s how Anderson felt. He loved his grandfather and yet he had never told him that. Quite the opposite, he went out of his way to antagonize the old man who had done so much for him. He remembered his deceased mother and the dreams she had had for him. He had not lived up to those dreams. He remembered his father but not fondly. He simply thought of him as a sperm donor. He hated the fact that he was named after this man who took great delight in calling him ‘Junior’. To Anderson, being in his father’s presence was pure purgatory. At least he had had the good sense to die many years ago. With any luck he was in hell.
Throughout his life people had tried to be kind to Anderson and he had belittled them and denigrated them. Bob believed the he was a better man than Anderson himself believed. It was his shame. And now because he was lost on a lonely road with a strange man sitting next to him it was causing him to question his life and to remember. Anderson squirmed in his seat, his eyes still focused on the road ahead just like the stranger. Did he deserve what he had? He felt as if he were on trial for his life! It wasn’t his fault, he had been drinking three years ago. That young girl had no business being on a dark road at night. It wasn’t his fault!
The road was the focus of their journey. There was no lessening of the darkness. The road itself never varied off the straight and narrow, there was no relief. No other cars were in sight, there were no sounds of crickets or of people. It was almost as if nothing existed outside the space that the car traveled each second. There seemed to be nothing behind and nothing ahead, only dense forest on either side of the long and unforgiving road that they must travel. Anderson was lost in thought: they say the road to hell is paved, where was this road taking them?
As Anderson was staring at his traveling companion his peripheral vision registered something. It took his brain a split seconded to realize he was looking at a deer in the middle of the road, a big ten-point antlered buck.
Deer. Deer! DEER! Anderson wrenched the wheel of the car to the right! Adrenalin purged all thoughts of the stranger. His concentration now was on the trees that were fast approaching. The deer was startled and moved into the forest. At least it’s life was saved. Anderson reacted to the movement of the deer and quickly pulled the wheel to the left. He had missed the trees on the right-hand side of the road by millimetres, but now he was looking at a ditch on the left side of the road. Anderson stomped on the brakes and the car came to rest straddling both lanes.
With what seemed to be a focused determination a mist began to emanate from the tarmac. It drifted slowly over the car like a ghostly embrace. The silence was total. Anderson put his head down on the wheel and started to weep.
The depth of the sorrow that Anderson felt was out of proportion to the certain death he had just escaped. He was thankful he was alive and he knew it was a near a thing but that wasn’t why he was crying. He was crying for missed opportunities, for the cruelties he had inflicted on others, he was crying for a young girl and he was crying for his mother. She had expected better of him and he had let her down. But now he had a second chance to recognize his shortcomings and he knew that it was in his power to correct them. He didn’t know if it was a cliché, but he felt himself a better man because of this epiphany
Anderson sat back in his seat. As he raised his head he could see the dawn rising in the east and through the lessening of the shadows he saw a sign: L ST CHANCE CAFÉ. His long drive was over. With a smile Anderson turned towards his passenger just as the stranger turned towards him. In the early morning light he could see the full face of the dark man for the first time. Anderson stopped smiling. It was a familiar face.
It is said that time is not the only way to make a young man old. A sour disposition, an angry character or overwhelming terror can cause men to be old and withered before their time. A man can age a lifetime in a second. Purgatory is a place that all men fear and more than a few will face in their own time.
Anderson shook his head, he was confused, unsure of something. As his eyes started to focus he became aware of his surroundings. He was on a road, a dark road. There were no lights and no buildings anywhere in sight. He also noticed something else that terrified him. He was sitting on a bicycle. It was a young girl’s bicycle. It was terrifyingly similar to one a young girl was on three years ago, a young girl that he drove down in a drunken stupor. She had died, miserably. And now he was on that bicycle on that road on that night. He could hear the wind in the trees and the faint murmur of a car approaching him. Anderson was going to die just like she did under the wheels of his car. “Welcome to Hell son.”