Life Expectancy Page 20


In the pocket of more hospitable territory where we live, five houses stand on large properties: three on our side of the highway, two on the east side of the blacktop.


We know and are friendly with the neighbors in four of those houses. In the fifth, directly across Hawksbill Road from us, lived Nedra Lamm, who had been a local character for decades.


In Nedra's front lawn stood half a dozen eight-foot-tall totems that she carved from deadwood and accessorized with deer antlers. These


grotesque figures faced the highway, threatening a rain of hoodoo violence on unwelcome visitors.


Nedra Lamm was a recluse with a sense of humor. The greeting on the mat at her front door did not say welcome but commanded go away.


Through the falling snow, I could barely see her house, a pale shape in a paler landscape.


As I followed our driveway to the county road, movement at the Lamm place caught my attention. From the dark hole of her open garage came a rushing shape that at a distance first appeared to be a large pickup truck with headlights off.


For more than thirty-eight years, Nedra had driven a 1960 Plymouth Valiant, arguably the ugliest car ever produced by Detroit, which she maintained in pristine showroom condition, as if it were a classic of automotive design.


As the oncoming vehicle reached the end of her driveway and raced onto Hawksbill Road, parting the veils of snow, I identified it as a black Hummer, the civilian version of the military Humvee. Big, fast, with four-wheel drive, undeterred by snow and ice, the Hummer turned neither left nor right but, lightless, crossed the highway toward us.


"What's he doing?" Lorrie wondered.


Fearing a collision, I braked, halted.


The Hummer slid to a stop at an angle across the driveway, blocking our exit.


The driver's door flew open. A man got out. He had a rifle.


Tall, broad shouldered, given additional bulk by a fleece-lined thigh-length leather coat, the man wore a toboggan cap pulled down over his ears and low on his forehead.


I noticed no additional fashion details because I fixated on the rifle, which looked less like a hunter's gun than like a military piece, with an extended magazine. Stepping in front of the Hummer, only fifteen feet from the Explorer, he raised the weapon either to intimidate^ or to kill.


The average baker might have been confused and paralyzed by this development, but I was primed for action.


As he brought up the rifle, I jammed my right foot on the accelerator. He had started this, not me, so I had no compunction about responding with overwhelming force. I intended to crush him between the vehicles.


Instantly realizing that he might place a bullet between my eyes but could not stop the Explorer, he dropped the rifle and scrambled onto the hood of the Hummer with an alacrity suggesting significant monkey blood in his family tree.


As he reached up toward the rack of spotlights above the windshield, perhaps intending to pull himself onto the roof, I cut hard to the right, to avoid a now-pointless collision. The Explorer's bumper roughly kissed the Hummer, offended metal shrieked, dancing sparks lived briefly in the descending snow, and we were out of there.


I angled across the front yard, grateful that the ground under the snow had weeks ago frozen almost as hard as pavement and would not be churned into sucking mud.


"What was that about?" Lorrie asked.


"Beats me."


"You know him?"


"I don't think so. But I didn't get a really good look at his face."


"I don't want a really good look at his face."


The drooping boughs of the immense deodar cedar were laden with snow, rendering it a looming white form against a white background. Cataracts of falling snow further obscured it. With not a second to spare, I pulled the wheel hard left, barely avoiding taking a header into the tree trunk.


For a moment I thought the Explorer would roll, but it didn't. We thrashed through the perimeter of the cedar. Branches scraped the roof and the passenger's side, and cascades of snow poured off the boughs, across the windshield, blinding me.


Most likely, even as we'd roared past him, the gunman would have rolled off the Hummer and snatched up the rifle. I wouldn't even hear the high-powered round if it smashed out the rear window, punched through the headrest, and blew open my skull. Or Lorrie's.


My heart seemed to clench into a fist and thrust into my throat, beating there with such force that I had trouble swallowing.


I switched on the wipers, front and back, and the blades swept the snow away, swept the night into place once more, as we reached the highway. We crossed the drainage swale with a jolt and swung right into the southbound lane.


"You okay?" I asked.


"Watch the road. I'm fine."


"The baby?"


"He's pissed-someone tryin' to shoot his mama."


Turning in the passenger's seat as far as her safety harness and her condition would allow, Lorrie squinted back toward the house.


I could see nothing in my mirrors other than empty highway directly behind us and a tumult of snow whipped into horizontal spirals by our wake wind, reflecting our taillights.


"See anything?" I asked.


"He's coming."


"We'll outrun him."


"Can we?"


The Hummer had a more powerful engine than the Explorer. Because he didn't have a pregnant woman aboard, the gunman would be quicker to take risks, to push his vehicle to its limits.


"Call 911," I said.


The cell phone was plugged into the cigarette lighter, nestled in a console cup holder


She plucked it up, switched it on, made an impatient wordless sound as she waited for the phone-company logo and the preliminary data to fade.


Headlights appeared in my rearview mirror. They were higher off the pavement than the lights of the average SUV. The Hummer.


Lorrie keyed in 911. She waited, listened, pressed end, and entered the three digits again.


Cell phone service in some rural areas wasn't as good in 1998 as it is now, just seven years later. Complicating matters, the storm chopped the signal.


The Hummer had gained on us: about twenty yards back, a vehicle with a personality, beetle-browed and belligerent.


I had to weigh which risk was worse for mother and baby: pushing the Explorer faster in terrible weather, or waiting to see if the Hummer could catch us.


We were already doing forty, too fast for these conditions. Accumulated snow concealed the lane markings. I couldn't easily tell where the pavement ended and the shoulder of the road began.


Having often traveled this highway, I knew in some places the westside shoulder was wide, in other places narrow. Guardrails edged the steepest drop-offs; but some of the unprotected slopes beyond the shoulder were abrupt enough to tip us into a roll if I went more than two feet off the pavement.


I accelerated to fifty, and like a ghost ship fading into haunted fog, the Hummer receded into thickening snow.


"Damn phone," Lorrie said.


"Keep trying."


The night abruptly grew blustery. Rugged land looms over Hawks-bill Road in the east. In certain storms, the wind comes down off those slopes and builds velocity on its way into the lowlands, scourging the highway.


Higher-profile vehicles-big rigs and motor homes-are sometimes blown over along this route if their drivers ignore wind advisories from the highway patrol. Fierce gusts hammered us, hampering my best efforts to keep the Explorer in what I perceived to be the southbound lane.


Feverishly I wracked my brain for a better strategy than this headlong flight. I couldn't think of one.


Lorrie groaned louder than before, sucked breath between her clenched teeth. "Oh, baby," she told our unborn, "please take your time. No rush, baby, no hurry."


Out of the glittering white murk, the Hummer reappeared behind us: black, big, blazing, like a demon-possessed vehicle in a bad horror movie..


We hadn't gone a mile. The outskirts of Snow Village still lay over four miles away.


The tire chains made a bell song on exposed blacktop, churned with much crunching and creaking across ice. In spite of the chains and the SUV's four-wheel drive, any speed above fifty invited catastrophe.


Headlights flared in the rearview mirror.


Lorrie was having no success with the phone. She made a rude suggestion to our service provider, and I seconded her sentiments.


For the first time in this pursuit, I detected the growl of the Hummer's engine separate from the roar of the Explorer. It was just a machine, not capable of intention, not evil, yet it sounded sinister.


Regardless of the risks of speed, I couldn't let the gunman ram us from behind. On this snowy pavement, we would spin out of control, tip over, and roll along the road or off it.


I pushed the Ford to fifty-five. Sixty. When we came to the next descending stretch of roadway, it would feel as though I had driven onto a bobsled chute.


The Hummer dwindled in the mirror as I accelerated, then almost at once began to gain on us again.


In a blizzard as daunting as this, sheriff's deputies sometimes cruise Hawksbill Road in Suburbans equipped with plows and winches and multiple thermoses of hot coffee, searching for motorists in trouble. With luck, we wouldn't have to get all the way to town to find help. I prayed for a police storm patrol.


Behind us, the spotlights on the Hummer's roof rack suddenly blazed, filling the Explorer, illuminating us no less brightly than we would have been if we'd been performing on a stage.


He couldn't possibly drive and use the rifle at the same time. Nevertheless, the back of my neck crawled.


Time-smoothed rock formations along the west side of the highway formed an effective block to the banshee wind that howled out of the east. Snow had drifted against that barrier, forming a mound that diminished from west to east but remained formidable across the width of the roadway.


Trickster to the eye, the storm deceived with every device at its command. The thick falling snow half blinded but also imparted the false impression of a tilt to the landscape. White on white, in white, the drift had been sculpted as if by a master of camouflage, so that it appeared to be a smooth rise in the pavement.


A soft wall, three feet high, met us before I could brake, and we plowed into it, losing a third of our speed in an instant.


Lorrie cried out as we were thrown forward in our harnesses, and I hoped to God she'd taken most of the jolt with the shoulder restraint, not with the lap belt.


Once into the drift, the front wheels chewed at it, tried to crawl over it. Compacted snow scraped the undercarriage. Although rapidly losing more speed, we struggled forward, one tire spinning, three taking grip, and I thought we would make it, but then the engine stalled.


^ 1


The engine never stalls when you're enjoying a lazy drive in the country and have ample time to assess and deal with the problem. No, the engine stalls when you're rushing your pregnant wife to the hospital in a blizzard with a gunman chasing you in an SUV the size of a battleship.


This proves something. Maybe that life has a design, though one that's hard to understand. Maybe that fate exists. Maybe that when your wife is expecting, you should live next to a hospital.


Sometimes, as I'm writing about my life, I get the weird feeling that someone is writing my life as I write about it.


If God is an author and the universe is the biggest novel ever written, I may feel as if I'm the lead character in the story, but like every man and woman on Earth, I am a supporting player in one of billions of subplots. You know what happens to supporting players. Too often they are killed off in chapter three or in chapter ten, or in chapter thirty-five. A supporting player always has to be looking over his shoulder.


When I looked over my shoulder there on Hawksbill Road, I saw that the Hummer had come to a stop no more than fifteen feet behind us. The driver did not immediately get out.


Lorrie said, "We leave the Explorer, he shoots us."


"Probably."


I twisted the key in the ignition, pumped the accelerator. The grinding of the starter and the complaint of the engine didn't inspire hope.


She said, "We stay here, he shoots us."


"Probably."


"Shit."


"Deep," I agreed.


The Hummer drifted closer. The array of spotlights on the roof now shone over the Explorer, both dazzling and darkling the highway ahead.


Worried that I would flood the engine, I gave it a rest.


"I forgot my purse," Lorrie said.


"We aren't going back for it."


"I'm just saying-I don't even have a nail file this time."


As the Hummer came forward, it began to arc around us, into the northbound lane.


Focusing on the hand in which I held the key, trying the engine again, I didn't dare look up, not because I dreaded the Hummer but because the sight of the ceaselessly falling snowflakes in their millions resonated with me in a troubling way. I felt borne on a wind, as they were, subject to every changing current, helpless to chart my own course.


"What's he doing?" Lorrie asked.


I didn't know what he was doing, so I stayed focused on the key, and the engine almost caught.


"Jimmy, get us out of here," she urged.


Don't flood it, I warned myself. Don't force it. Let it find the spark.


"Jimmy!"


The engine caught, roared.


The Hummer had pulled beside us, not parallel but at a forty-five


degree angle. Its front bumper gleamed inches from my door, as high as the bottom of my window, allowing me no exit.


Close up, it appeared huge, in part because it stood on enormous tires that added a foot to its showroom height, as though the driver intended to compete in a monster-truck rally.


The Explorer churned forward, not fast but doggedly, tearing at the drift, climbing over it, but the Hummer paced us, angled into us. The metallic clunk of impact was followed by a shriek of tortured sheet metal.


With advantages of size and power, the Hummer began to shove the Explorer sideways toward the rock formation along the western shoulder even as both vehicles continued crawling forward.


I glanced out of my side window, up at the Hummer, trying to see the crazy bastard's face behind the windshield, as though something in his expression might explain why. Through the glare of headlights and roof-rack spotlights, I couldn't get a glimpse of him.


One of our snow chains broke but continued to cling to the spinning tire, flailing loose links against the wheel wells and the undercarriage, rattling out a series of hard knocks reminiscent of gunfire.


I couldn't negotiate the impeding wall of snow and at the same time attempt to accelerate around the Hummer.


As I despaired of escaping him, an abrupt diminishment of resistance indicated that we were through the drift, and suddenly I had hope again.


From his higher vantage point, our attacker must have seen what had been about to happen and must have tramped his accelerator at the penultimate moment. Instantly, as we lurched forward, so did the Hummer, jamming harder against us.

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