Anything could be out there.
They maneuvered the cars as far over on the shoulder as they could and waited for the police. It was just a fender bender, one car rear ending another, but they all knew it could have been so much worse.
Helen and Harold Cook stood in front of their car, both of them dressed for an early family dinner, Helen in her good dress and heels and Harold in his suit sans tie. He’d refused to wear it today. They’d been chugging along home, slow and sure, when they were hit from behind by the other couple. Sandy and Steve Foster stood behind their car, both of them dressed for a quick trip to the mall, both wearing jeans, Sandy in a t-shirt with a jacket and Steve in a sweatshirt sporting the team of a college he never went to.
The fog had come from nowhere. Helen and Harold had sat down to dinner with their children and grandchildren with the sun shining. Sandy and Steve had walked into the mall leaving behind a bright day. When both couples emerged from their respective locations, they were greeted by a wall of gray fog that didn’t just blend into the gray sky above, it obliterated it.
Steve and Sandy took the state highway home, their usual route, but drove well under the posted speed limit. The fog limited visibility to around a hundred feet at times. The best it got was a hundred yards, but that was rare. Steve took it slow, but Harold Cook had been taking it slower. His dark red Lincoln Town Car materialized out of the fog and all of the brake slamming in the world couldn’t change physics. Steve’s Ford Focus smacked into the land yacht’s rear end.
Anger was instant for Steve, but lasted only a second as Sandy threw off her seatbelt and hurtled out the door, bolting for the other car. Steve heard her calling out, asking if they were all right. It was hard to be mad when his wife was so concerned for someone else’s well-being.
Harold had been angry, too, and his rant about irresponsible drivers was stopped short by the shaken look on his wife’s face. He took her hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze just as the pretty face of a young, blonde girl appeared at his wife’s window, looking so concerned that Harold’s anger had no chance to reignite.
Once it had been established that no one was hurt, it was quickly decided that they should move the cars off the road. The fog, they agreed, made it too dangerous to leave the cars where they were for a formal police investigation. No one would see them until it was too late.
The damage was minimal and Steve tried to convince the Cooks that it would be best if they just exchanged insurance information and filed a police report later, but Harold wouldn’t budge. He insisted they wait for the police. So, the four of them stood on the side of the road separated by their cars and surrounded by fog.
Anything could be out there.
The fog rolled, slipping tendrils of gray around the two couples and their cars. Lights flickered occasionally in the dense cloud, headlights of cars driving south across the median. Aside from the quick flashes, they were invisible, only the sounds of their engines giving away their identities.
Sandy moved closer to Steve and he wrapped his arm around her, pulling her tight against him. She shivered a little.
“Maybe we should wait in the car,” she said. The fog chilled the day.
Steve shook his head. “No way. It’s too dangerous. The way the fog is, the lack of visibility, anyone could plow into the back of us.”
Sandy looked in the direction of traffic. The fog billowed at her. She couldn’t see anything, of course, and only took slight comfort in not hearing anything either.
“Then why are we standing behind the car?” she asked, looking up at Steve. “We could get creamed!”
Pulling away from him, she moved to stand on the small strip of pavement left between the car and the late winter ground leading to the ditch. Steve moved to stand next to her.
“This isn’t that much safer, you know,” he said.
“It feels safer.”
Steve smiled down at her and put his arm around her again.
Helen watched the couple and then looked at her husband.
“Harold, do you really think it’s safe standing on the side of the road like this?” she asked.
“It’s fine, Helen. You worry too much.”
“But if any cars came by, they won’t be able to see us until the last minute.”
“So far all of the traffic has been going the other way. We’ll be fine. People are going slow.”
“Not slow enough for my taste.” Helen tilted her head in the direction of the other couple. “They were going slow, too, and look what happened.”
Harold frowned at her.
“That young man made a perfectly reasonable suggestion,” Helen went on. “Driving to the police station to file a report would be much safer than standing here on the side of the road waiting to get run over. I’m sure the police wouldn’t mind. The cars aren’t even hurt all that badly.”
Harold looked towards the direction of traffic, his frown deepening. The bumpers of both cars were dented and the grill of the other car would have to be replaced. Harold would have to replace of the taillights of his car, too. Insurance would cover everything, but Harold didn’t trust it. They looked for any excuse not to pay for something and driving to the police station instead of waiting for the police would be just the thing. It was bad enough that they had to move off the road.
Harold looked at his wife, still frowning. And then he took her hand.
“It’ll be fine, Helen.”
The fog pushed in and receded, almost like it was breathing. Sometimes they could see the two lanes on the other side of the median ditch and occasionally an actual car, more than just the headlights and the engine noise, which somehow seemed further away than it should have. It was almost like the fog muted it. When the fog swelled, it made it hard to see much past the little bubble of their two dented cars on the side of the road, the engines of the cars on the other side of the highway building in a gradual crescendo followed by the inevitable fade away without much more than a headlight flicker in the gray.
The sound of an engine from their left startled all four of them and they all looked, seeing nothing but a gray wall that couldn’t stop the noise. It started as a muffled rumble, the muffler not quite muffling. As it got closer, the sound of tires on a wet road rose with engine. Maybe the car wasn’t going too fast, but it certainly sounded that way.
Sandy tensed against Steve and he tightened his arm around her. Helen pulled Harold back to the edge of the road, almost using their car as a shield.
At no more than a hundred feet away the headlights became visible, two gauzy yellow globes that grew as the car closed in. At no more than fifty feet, the grill of the car became visible and a second later, the windshield. The car suddenly jerked into the other lane and slammed on its brakes slowing considerably as it passed them at a safe distance.
It hadn’t seen them until the last minute.
“Do we have any flares?” Sandy asked. “This is just too dangerous. They can’t see the hazards.”
Steve let go of her and walked to the trunk of his car. Opening it, he rooted among the bags of clothes that should have been taken to charity months ago, but he kept forgetting about, finding the jack and tire iron, but not his emergency kit.
The sound of another car approaching kicked his search into high gear.
“Steve?” Sandy called.
“I hear it. I’m hurrying.”
“Never mind it. Just come back over here.”
“In a second. I know the flares are in here.”
“It’s too late now. Just come over here.”
“Just a minute, Sandy.”
He had all of the bags shoved to one side and he thought he saw the kit under a floor mat, but the urgency in his wife’s voice forced him to abandon his search. He hurried around the side of the car just as the approaching vehicle, a truck, sped past them without switching lanes or slowing down. Helen Cook gave a startled cry and Sandy outright shrieked. Harold Cook started raving, shaking his fist at the offending driver.
“Are you crazy? You’re gonna kill somebody!” he shouted as the truck disappeared in the fog. “You could have killed us!”
He turned to his wife and patted her shaking hand.
Steve ran back to the trunk of the car and grabbed the emergency kit. He hurried around the car again, around his wife, to the hood of his car, setting the emergency kit on it.
“Mr. Cook,” he said. “Do you have any flares? We’ve got to give people more of a warning or we are going to get killed.”
“I think I do,” Harold said, leaving his wife for a moment to go to his own trunk.
There wasn’t much room between the two cars, but Harold managed to squeeze between them, his knees rubbing his banged in bumper, and opened his trunk.
The engine of another vehicle sounded like an alarm.
“Hurry, get out of there!” Helen said, her voice hitting a hysterical high note. “You’re going to get squished.
Harold’s trunk was organized, everything in its place and not an oil stain to be found. He grabbed his emergency kit, shut the trunk, and scooted from between the cars before headlights even appeared.
Both men opened their emergency kits as the car passed by, suddenly slowing, but not changing lanes, and retrieved their flares. Harold had three; Steve had two.
“I think we should put at least one in front of the cars,” Harold suggested. “The police will be coming from town.” He pointed to the other side of the highway. “It might give them something to look for.”
Steve nodded. “That’s a good idea. If you want to do that, I’ll take the other four and walk down that way.” He jerked his thumb towards the flow of traffic. “I’ll try to spread them out at least fifty feet. That should give the cars at least a two hundred foot warning.”
“I hope that’s enough,” Harold said.
“I think we should get everyone off the road entirely,” Harold said. He looked at the ditch and field next to the road. “I know it’s muddy, but I think we’ll all be safer. That one car just came too close.”
“Yeah.” He looked to his wife. “Sandy, take Mrs. Cook and go stand on the other side of the ditch. I don’t think it’s safe standing on the road. We’re going to set the flares.”
“You think that’s safe?” Sandy asked, looking at him like he was an idiot. “You’re going to get killed!”
“Sandy, we’ve got to give the other motorists a heads up, otherwise we’re all going to get creamed,” Steve said. He slammed the emergency kit closed. “Now, please, go stand on the other side of the ditch with Mrs. Cook. I’ll be back in a minute.”
“Why don’t we just drive to the police station?” she asked.
“My thoughts exactly,” Mrs. Cook said.
“Because we are waiting here for the police,” Mr. Cook said.
Steve watched the flush of angry red spread then fade over his cheeks. He looked at his wife. Sandy stared at him for a second, fear and anger working over her pretty features.
“Fine,” she said and worked past him and Harold Cook. Sandy extended her hand to Helen Cook. “Come on, Mrs. Cook. Let’s go stand in a field while our husbands insist on being stubborn.”
Sandy ignored her husband.
Helen took Sandy’s hand, giving her a husband a worried look. He nodded to her and she descended the side of the ditch with Sandy, who took her arm to help steady her descent.
“It’ll be all right, dear,” Helen said, doing her best to maintain her footing, her heels not made for the muddy sod.
Sandy didn’t answer her. Instead, she straddled the mud-filled ditch and steadied Helen as she gave a little jump across it. The other side of the ditch was less steep and the two women made it up with no problem. Helen and Sandy turned in time to see two flares disappear into the fog in opposite directions.
They stood together, waiting. Sandy kept hold of Helen’s hand and she could feel the young woman’s worry. Helen patted her hand.
“It’ll be all right,” she said again. “So long as he stays to the edge of the road and pays attention, he’ll be fine. He’s at the advantage, you know. He knows the cars are coming and can act accordingly. He’ll be fine.”
Sandy took a deep breath and smiled weakly at her.
Both women tensed at the sound of a vehicle, this one sounding jacked up and ready to race. Harold appeared from the fog and Helen noticed the dirt on his knees from where he’d squeezed between the two cars. He was huffing a little bit as he crossed the ditch and squished his way over to them.
The headlights appeared just seconds before the rest of the car, the driver going much too fast for conditions. He zipped by the two cars without a hesitation. Harold shook his head.
“Unbelievable. He had to have seen the flares, too. What an idiot. People are idiots.”
Another engine made them all turn to look.
“Where are all of these people coming from?” Harold asked.
Tires squealed in response and the three of them jumped. Helen’s free hand flew to her mouth and her other hand squeezed Sandy’s tight. Sandy just stared, looking horrified.
“Idiots,” Harold said softly, shock taking away any impact of the word.
Sandy tried to pull away, but Helen held fast. Sandy looked at her. Helen shook her head.
Sandy looked back to the wall of fog. Headlights appeared, creeping through the gray, an eon elapsing before the rest of the car appeared. It gingerly moved into the far lane and passed by slightly faster than a crawl.
Helen let out a long breath.
“There you go,” Harold said. “He’s okay. They would have stopped if they hit him.”
Sandy whipped around to look at him.
“Not if they’re idiots,” she said, fear far from abated.
“They weren’t idiots,” Harold said gently.
“I’m going to look for him,” Sandy said, prying her hand out of Helen’s.
“Now, don’t go doing anything foolish,” Harold said.
“Foolish? You’re the one keeping us on the side of the road like this! The police wouldn’t care if we took our accident to them. They wouldn’t care if we even reported it! If Steve gets killed…if any of us gets killed, it’ll be your fault!”
“Now see here, young lady-”
“Here he comes.”
Helen’s voice was so gentle in comparison that the sheer lack of volume made it louder than anything else. Sandy and Harold both looked.
Steve emerged from the fog looking less like a super hero and more like a scared rabbit. He hurried along, not quite running, looking over his shoulder even though no cars could be heard.
Skidding down the side of the ditch, he made his way to the group.
“They’re all set,” he said a little breathlessly.
Sandy hugged him hard as soon as he was within reach.
“What was all that squealing tire business?” Helen asked. “You scared us all to death.”
“Oh, that,” Steve said with a laugh though Sandy still clung to him. “That wasn’t me. A deer ran across the road behind me as I was walking back, just in front of that car. It was already slowing down due to the flares. It missed the deer, but scared the hell out of all of us for sure.”
Sandy hugged him harder. He hugged her back.
“Well, thank goodness you’re all right,” Helen said, giving a little chuckle, but clutching her pearls.
“Of course, I’m all right. I said I would be.”
“We all will be now,” Harold said. He gestured across the highway.
Red and blue lights flashed beneath the layer of fog, heading out of town. They’d have to go two miles down to the access road before they could execute a U-turn and come back.
“We’d have been all right an hour ago if we’d all just driven to town in the first place,” Helen said, the tone of her voice only half-scolding.
Harold frowned, but slipped his hand into hers.
“Yes, dear,” he said and led her across the ditch and up the muddy incline to the road.
Steve and Sandy followed close behind.