Nobody could figure out what he wanted with that car. For years he’d proudly hung on to his restored ‘71 Camaro, then out of the blue had bought an electric, the kind that could drive itself most of the time. “Oh, I thought it was time for a change,” was all he said. His daughters, who were as baffled as everyone else, let it go because they knew he didn’t have much to enjoy.
Now he was locking the house and opening the garage door. The EV sat next to the Camaro, and over by the wall was Bonnie’s Celica, which hadn’t been driven in some time. Dressed for comfort in faded khakis, a white button-down shirt, and a dark blue Vietnam Veteran cap, he carefully climbed into the gleaming new coupe.
Then he gasped, his face twisting as fire shot through his pelvis and lower back. His breath ragged, he input the destination and turned on the self-driving mode. As the car backed gently out of the driveway, he sat with his eyes half-shut, praying he wouldn’t hurt anyone.
He relaxed a little when he passed the airport, which meant he’d gotten clear of Atlanta before the notorious afternoon rush. Although he’d lived there for much of his life, he felt no regret, only relief as the skyline disappeared behind him. Since Bonnie’s heart gave out, the place he’d left – the suburban five-bedroom house that might sell for $2 million– had been a cold, lifeless shell.
The car salesman had told him the system wasn’t really “driverless” and he should keep his hands on the wheel. “But the whole point is to make it easy and safe,” the guy added, and whispered, “As long as you stay awake, you’ll be fine.”
Wakefulness wasn’t the problem. He rarely slept through the night. The trouble was that pain, frailty, and fatigue wouldn’t let him drive for four or five hours the old-fashioned way, unassisted. He couldn’t ask anyone he knew to take him and feared a gig driver might end up in trouble. He’d picked Wednesday afternoon, as safe a time as any, and could only hope the machine would do the rest.
He’d almost reached his exit when I-85 southbound slowed to a trickle. A short while later, he swung onto a state highway, cursing and hoping the detour he’d taken hadn’t consumed too much power. His journey required a full battery, and with no charging stations in the country in south Alabama, he could picture himself in a dead vehicle on a dark road.
Tall trees, houses, and barns drifted by as the car rolled quietly down the two-lane ribbon under an ice-blue, uncloudy sky. His medication and the relaxed posture the car allowed him had kept his pain in check, but now daggers were probing his spine. He glanced anxiously at his watch and the battery level.
A rush of agony jerked him forward in the seat. When he was able to look up, a sign loomed ahead: BETHEL POP. 2,733. As the car slowed, he briefly closed his eyes again, this time in gratitude. With every landmark he passed – the red brick school, the barbershop, the railroad bridge, his aunt’s old café – his anguish melted away, replaced by a sense of peace he’d almost forgotten he could feel.
Ignoring the flashing battery light, he took control from the system and soon pulled up to a small house under a high, shady oak. He was afraid he’d find a wreck or a vacant lot, but the place was still standing, his grandfather’s carpentry having lasted a hundred years. Tears spilled out as he remembered the wonderful tastes and smells in the kitchen, his dad in his favorite chair laughing at the TV, and the woods out back where young cowboys and soldiers played on long summer days. While he longed to knock on the door, to be inside those walls one more time, his strength and the battery were fading fast.
By the time he reached the white clapboard church on the hill, he had barely a mile’s worth of electricity left. A bit sadly, he locked the doors, wishing he could drive this car some more, consoled by knowing it would bring a good price. Stooped over, struggling for breath, he walked slowly to a grass field behind the church and took a small bottle from his pocket.
A lush valley unfolded below, bordered on the other side by low mountains, which the sun was slipping behind. He’d gone there many times with Bonnie, long ago and before the war, to watch the sunset, talk, laugh, and dream about the life they’d have together.
As the western sky glowed brighter, he silently blessed the engineers and the heavens for bringing him to this place, then lowered himself to the ground. With steady hands and a certain mind, he opened the bottle of pills and swallowed every one. He whispered a few words, took one final look at the sky, closed his eyes, and lay down to rest on the cool earth.
The email to his daughters would go out soon, automatically. He’d written to Bonnie in longhand and left the paper on her side of the bed.
It’s time to head home. Don’t worry, I figured out how to get there. The doctors wanted to put me in hospice but I wouldn’t go. When they first found out it had gotten into my bones, I knew this day would come and how I’d spend it. I realize you’re not going to read this, I just needed to tell you. I sure hope we’ll see each other again. I really don’t know. I guess if I were making a bet, I might not lay odds on it. But if there’s no next world, my last thought in this one will be that I love you with all my heart.
Dave Swan is a former journalist and lifelong writer. His stories have also appeared in the Red Fez, Close To The Bone, Sledgehammer Lit, and the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.