DRIVING down the expressway at 20 kilometers per hour wasn't the escape plan Goran had in mind. In reality, he wasn't following an escape plan at all – he was just making everything up along the way. It was still late in the afternoon but the rainclouds dampened the light quite a bit. The headlights of the oncoming vehicles blinded him. His sweat dripped down and burned his eyes, blinking heavily.
“There you have it, folks! Your Pemberland City Stallions are the 2014 Holtzmann Cup Champions!” the car radio blared, the background noise filled with incessant cheering. “Tremendous display of athleticism, wouldn't you say? Now, we go live to David Asmus with the MVP: Gustav Heidegger. David?”
The announcement hurt like a dagger through his heart, dashing what little hope he had left. This was supposed to be his game, this was supposed to be his ticket to the big leagues. Things weren't all that rosy for Goran before, but he knew when he was standing on a goldmine. Unfortunately, he also knew when the shit hit the fan – and, the shit hit the fan at about 5:41 left in the 4th quarter when the Stallions were up by, what seemed like, a hundred and the Turncoat's ace went down and grabbed his knee, wincing in pain. In reality, the Stallions were only up by 35, but the lead became painfully insurmountable when the only player that managed to close the gap was lifted out via a gurney. It might very well have been a hearse – at least in the minds of the Wendelsson hopefuls.
He had the good mind to shut the radio off with his finger instead of his fist, before his rage became too frantic to be restrained. Get your head in the game, Gor. He pounded on the steering wheel, hoping that the harder he beat at it, the faster the traffic congestion would dissipate. From time to time he would join the chorus of honking, just so he felt that he and his dilapidated, silver hatchback belonged.
“Goddamnit, Heidi,” he cursed at the incumbent MVP with the rhythm of the cacophony of horns as his background. “Goddamn you to hell!” He tried dialing his childhood neighbor, to no answer, as the latter was otherwise preoccupied at the moment. His neck stiffened while he gripped his phone even tighter. He imagined that he was wringing Heidi's neck with one hand – it didn't please him but he had to vent somehow.
The two of them weren't far apart in age, about 4 or 5 years, but it didn't show. Gustav Heidegger was well-built, had looks that Society Magazine described as 'good' and 'chiseled,' tall and had a model-actress girlfriend that was the erstwhile 'Sexiest Woman of the Year.' On the other hand, Goran was balding, short and stubby. He had eye bags large enough to be considered a sovereign nation, a lazy left eye and chipped teeth, but was in shape – if you consider 'round' a shape.
For all his misgivings, Goran also had a loving and caring live-in partner – Norah, his high school sweetheart whom he knocked up when she was 17 – and three kids that, fortunately, inherited their mother's features. She had every chance of leaving him before their second child was conceived but she chose not to. Even with all the abuse and the cheating, Norah just couldn't bring herself to disappear with their kids and leave him to his own devices. She loved him, and no one else but her knew why.
The traffic drew to a standstill, and the rain started to pour. The condition on the other side – the one heading toward the city – wasn't doing any better. He was at the bridge, 20 kilometers away from the city limits. The gap between the outgoing and incoming traffic was usually home to jumpers who didn't want any sort of media attention – the shallow river beneath the bridge often killed them instantly, and they were too far away from the city for their friends and loved ones to stop. Goran thought about heading down the same road for a second, but just didn't have the stomach for it.
On the other side of the gap, two children teasing and making faces at Goran, sat at the back of a sedan while their parents were busy talking at the front. They were too far away and the rain obstructed his view – he didn't know if the two were boys or girls, he just knew that they were children, and they were laughing at him. He didn't have the patience to indulge them so he flipped his middle finger at them and went back to honking. Fucking runts.
Slowly growing restless, he turned on the radio – switching to different frequencies – but it didn't ease his nerves. He gorged down on a microwaveable burrito that he managed to snag on his way out and guzzled down some coffee that he had left in the car this morning. He tightened his grip on the steering wheel and kicked the floor.
“What the hell is with this traffic?” he exclaimed. “Fuckin' move! Come on!”
A sour smell permeated through the windows, as it fogged up along with the windshield, even though it wasn't all that cold. It was kind of smoldering even, he noted. Goran tried to wipe the fog away but just couldn't get it out. He used the wipers but it only cleared out the rain. If anything, it only hastened the fogging. It didn't matter, he thought, the traffic wasn't moving anyway.
He slid his fingers in front of the air conditioner and felt that it was slowly losing its chill. “Piece of shit hunk of scrap,” he muttered angrily to himself.
He called his car 'Delilah' – after his favorite prostitute. It wasn't that long ago when the car went from 0 to 60 in less than 2 minutes, had a paint job you can see your reflection in and an air condition unit that shamed freezers all across town. He rode her every time – in inappropriate places – without any sort of care or protection, and the wear and tear showed not far after. It wasn't pretty anymore, but it still did its job.
The jazz station – his radio fixed into – calmed his nerves; it took his troubles and locked them away in a flimsy mental locker. If this traffic goes far back as the city, then they couldn't get to me. I'd be miles away when they get to where I am now.
“This is the Emergency Broadcast System,” a feminine – almost robotic – voice interrupted. “This is the Emergency Broadcast System.”
He tried switching to other frequencies but the broadcast was identical, simulcasted over every station. 'Emergency Broadcast System?' What is this? Some kind of joke? Goran turned up the volume, as the sound of the downpour outside increased exponentially.
“For everyone's safety, it is advised that you do not step out or make direct contact with the rain,” the voice on the radio warned. “I repeat: Do not make physical contact with the rain.”
Goran's eyes widened; he swallowed a large amount of saliva, loosened the top buttons of his soiled long-sleeved shirt and wiped the beads of sweat from his forehead. He was stunned but, now, listened intently to the warning on the radio.
“It is advised that you stay under covered residences and stock up on food supplies for the duration of the ongoing storm.”
“A bit too late for that, don't you think?”
“Emergency units will be dispatched to aid civilians caught in the middle–“
“Great,” he whispered, sullenly. Screams started to be heard from a distance – the tortured kind of wailing, a chaotic chorus of distraught people in pain – muffled slightly by the unrelenting downpour. He panicked silently in his seat, unnerved at the grim realization. Suddenly his phone rang – the screen read 'Norah,' and he debated whether he should answer the call. As an excuse, he had told his wife that he would only be going to the bar two blocks away to get a little inebriated.
“Where are you?” Norah worriedly asked.
“I-I'm on my way out, sweet cheeks,” Goran replied, lowering the volume of the radio to simulate him leaving the bar. “Turns out it was a Turncoat bar, then some guy walked in wearing a Stallion tee, cheering for the fucking horsies. Can you believe the nerve of that guy? 'Not in our house!' they said. So they beat the living–“
“Listen to me! C-Cover up!” Norah interrupted, stammering. “Whatever you do, d-don't get caught in the rain!”
“Huh? What? Why?” Goran asked, feigning ignorance.
“It's all over the news … acid rain pouring down the sky!”
“It's nothing, bunch of pussies scared of getting wet, s'all. Look, see, I'm getting drenched and I feel fine!”
The screaming continued to grow louder, terrified people braving the deluge foolishly, despite constant warning on the radio and common sense. None were visible to Goran but the noises that he kept hearing was undeniable.
“G-Get out of the rain!” Norah stressed, laboring her breath. “Dump your clothes and r-run for cover!”
“Alright, alright! What has gotten into you? You know those news guys are just bunch of liars and leeches, right?”
“Are you hurt? Are you burnt? Are you out of the rain?”
“Will you get your panties out of a bunch? Relax! I feel fine, a little wet, but I'm in one piece. I am all good, baby.”
“It's just … it's just … all over the news. People getting burnt, their skin … Oh God–” Norah rarely overreacted; she wasn't the type to panic at the first sign of trouble. Goran liked to think that being around him made her as tough as she is now. “Baby, please be careful. The T.V. says you can't last a minute out there in the rain exposed.”
“Calm down, baby. Who are you talking to here? Relax, okay?” You want take-out? The kids want any fast food?” he chuckled, trying to mask his growing concern for his safety. “I'll be there faster than you can say 'put another baby inside of me,' okay?”
“But the news–”
“Fuck the news! Nothing but bad news everywhere!” He flailed his free arm around, in disgust.
“I bzzt even bzzt bzzt consider bzzt–” The connection was skipping as the tempest started to pick up momentum. The winds howled and the acid splashed violently on the freeway.
“Baby?” he queried. “Baby, are you there? You're breaking up.” Silence followed – not even a decent goodbye or a busy tone. “You're too good for me; I just … want you to know that.” He hung up the phone and placed it gently on one of the two cup holders behind the transmission. He forced a smile to his face hoping that it could ease the tension building up inside.
He tapped on the steering wheel, more lightly now. It was more of anticipation than nervousness. I'm safe inside my car. Damn fools just had to test if what they're saying on the radio is true. And, who the hell would get out of their car on a rainy freeway? Serves them right!
He switched the car radio back on, hoping there would be developments with the traffic situation going out of the city.
“To the best of our knowledge, this is unlike any acid rain that we have encountered before,” an unfamiliar male voice declared. Static noise was quickly building up in between the sentences, then the phrases, then the words. “Pure acid is falling from the sky; a melange or cocktail, if you will, of different but natural acids precipitating at an alarming rate. As of present, we have no confirmation of the extent of this catastrophe, or how long the rain would last–” Silence interrupted the broadcast, just as it did the earlier phone call.
Flipping to other stations, feint glimpses of the broadcast could be heard but none made any coherence. Goran sighed then gasped heavily, breathing in a fair amount of the noxious odor that seeped from the outside. Feeling lightheaded, he looked around at the other cars only to be greeted by the sight of silent panicking. The two children, across the gap, at the back of the sedan, were woefully unaware of the predicament they were in: one was sleeping while the other one was fiddling around with an electronic device of sort.
He turned the engine off, slid his tongue across his teeth, bit down on his lip, scrunched up his nose and cracked his neck – in an almost rehearsed motion. Restless, Goran unbuckled the seat belt and shifted to a more comfortable position. Feeling his sweat drip down steadily, he unbuttoned his shirt to reveal an even sweatier, stained, white, sleeveless shirt underneath, and then used the unbuttoned shirt to wipe the sweat off his face, before tossing it to the back. This is just my luck.
Ever since he hit the ignition, he knew that this was going to be a long night, but this wasn't the kind of night he had expected. This was a situation he was deplorably unprepared for. He took some solace at the thought that no one could've prepared for something like this, at least by his own estimation.
Will be uploaded soon. Follow me on Twitter @jedau for updates.