An excerpt from Tunnel Road: A novel by A. Paul Cartier

TUNNEL ROAD

by

A. Paul Cartier

1. The View

This was no time to agonize over the decision. H had to make it quickly, really soon, like NOW.

The car was stopped, along with many, many others on the 101, under the shadow of San Bruno Mountain. He had seen the brake lights ahead, blooming in the growing gloom. He started braking to slow, hoping no one plowed into him from behind. But suddenly his controlled braking sharpened as it became clear that this was a full stop ahead, not a creeping caterpillar of cars.

He knew that a storm was on its way, but this was something else. A quake, maybe? You didn’t necessarily feel a quake if you were in a fast-moving car. He’d missed feeling several that way. He turned on the radio. Static. Punching the presets, then the scan button. Lots of static, and distant, whispery voices, like announcers way off around the curve of the planet.

– Daddy, why are we stopped? I need to get home. I’m tired. I’m sweaty. Hungry! I got homework up the…

– Yeah, me too, Boo. But there’s a hangup somewhere ahead. Nobody’s moving. What is weird is that I can’t get anything on the radio. Can you check traffic on your phone? See what it is. We just passed an exit. If we can get off this thing here, maybe…

He looked back and around the car. Locked in, but still could probably get off the road. His freeway claustrophobia was starting to kick in.

– We’ll wait a few minutes first. These things often clear out after a few…

He drummed his fingers on the wheel. Not going anywhere soon; might as well as shut off the engine. He paused. Should check ahead to see if anything’s happening. People were starting to honk impatiently.

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A. Paul Cartier is an artist and writer based in San Francisco, CA. To see Cartier’s artwork and contact the artist, click here.

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– Daddy, I’ve got to pee.

– Ooh boy. Can you hold it a bit?

– For a little while, I guess.

– Good girl. Listen, stay here. I’m going to leave the car running. You know how to move it, if something comes up?

– Where are you going?

– I just want to get to some place where I can see something ahead. Maybe I can figure out what to do then. See there? That guy standing on his roof? He’s trying to see, but I’m not sure he’s high enough up to really see much. I’ll try our roof first, but I think I’m going to have to go up that hill over there to really see much.

– Daddy, don’t leave.

– Don’t worry, Boo. Just hop over here to the driver’s seat, and lock the doors behind me. Stay alert for movement in the cars. Watch where I go. If things start to move, move over to the shoulder where I can meet you. I’ll be back in a jif.

– What’s a ”jif?”

H scrambled over the median to the other side. No cars coming. Very eerie. A complete shut off of the giant valve of traffic. He hopped the shoulder fence and started to clamber up the hillside. Periodically, he glanced north to see if he had enough height to observe what was going on down along the Bayshore. He glanced back at where the car was. He could see Em’s face pale against the dark interior.

He could see the ballpark, but it had no lights on. This is no ball game backup, he thought. But there was a stream, a sea, of red-lit taillights. They stretched from here to clear down the freeway and up the rise into San Francisco. He thought he heard a pop. Then two more pops. He could almost tell where they came from, way down near the rise at the far end.

Road rage? Fireworks? The light was glowing from all directions since the sun had gone down behind the bank of fog coming over the hills. It was beautiful, magical, illuminating everything. He knew it wouldn’t last. He had to get a little higher. He wished he had his binocs.

There was another pop from the same area. He thought he heard screaming and yelling. It was too far away to be sure, even in the evening stillness, with the drone of the cars down the hill. There were too many cars revving their engines.

He squinted. The light was fading and his pupils were enlarging to accommodate it. Definition was decreasing for his distance viewing. He’d always been myopic, but the dimming of the light made it worse. A flash, then a pop. He thought he could see movement way down at the end before the rise. There was definitely some yelling, and some more screams. More flashes, but with immediate pops. Somebody, actually several somebodies, were shooting and hitting people.

What the…? There were several flash/pops in several different places down there. This wasn’t road rage. It was a rage of another kind, probably. Terrorists? Why were they shooting, and so indiscriminately, it seemed? He could see a group moving through the cars in dark clothes. They were heading south – this way.

Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit… He started jumping, stumbling down the hill. His mind raced ahead.

Don’t know who they are or who they are shooting. Why are they shooting? Why? Is it random or somehow targeted shooting? They aren’t shooting everyone, but enough to scare everybody. Well, he was scared.

He had to get Em out of the car and away from the freeway. Should he warn the other people? Em first. Take the bike, and the other stuff? There were probably only a few minutes before they get here – maybe ten or more. He should take the bike, and any food and water, just in case. Leave everything else. Can we move the car to the shoulder? Hope it doesn’t get towed. Acch, what an absurd thought. Not helpful. Stay focused.

But just then he was nearing the car. He could see Em’s face eagerly awaiting his return. He started signaling for Em to open the doors. She did, and he immediately started giving instructions as he approached.

– Listen, we’ve got to move, get away from here. Leave the car. I’m going to grab the bike off the top. Is there any food or water in here, or the trunk? Grab them, and also clothes for warmth. We don’t know how long…

– Wait, wait, wait. What’s going on? Why do we have to leave the car here?

– Because we can’t move in the car. We have to get away from here, away from the road.

– But where? Where do we go?

– No time. I’ll explain, but not now. Now MOVE!

She looked shocked at his command, and the look on his face. She was about to retort in reflex fashion, but thought better of it. Her face took on a worried look as she leapt into action.

His fingers wouldn’t work. They fumbled at the straps and lockdowns on the bike rack, but he finally got his bike off. He quickly put the front wheel on, then the pannier. He glanced around, noticing a few people watching him. He was pretty sure that he would not be able to maneuver the car to the side of the road. They would have to abandon it where it was, and hope they could get it later. Em found some water and energy bars, along with a towel, in the trunk. She grabbed all their clothes and stuffed everything into the pannier. He locked the car, and started walking the bike back to the exit that they had just passed.

– Stay close.

– Why are we going this way?

– Hey, where you guys going? You can’t just leave your car there. It’s blocking traffic.

– Yeah, it’s not going anywhere soon. But we’re leaving, and you should, too.

– I’m not leaving my car!

The guy was in a shiny Mercedes.

– I understand, but you should leave.

– Why?

He knew he might regret what he was going to do next. He tried to speak quietly and calmly.

– Somebody’s shooting up ahead, and they’re headed this way.

– What? Shooting? Shooting! Who? Why?

Over his shoulder he replied.

– I don’t know, but there’s a bunch of them.

– How do you…Are they terrorists, ya think?

– Well, they got me scared, for sure.

The guy looked uncertain. He glanced around. Everyone else was still in their machines. Some were watching their exchange.

– Well, I’m not leaving.

– Suit yourself. Gotta go.

There were several others now opening their windows and doors, yelling, questioning.

– Hey! What’s goin’ on? You leavin’? You gonna leave your car right there?

H didn’t want to stop. He was starting to fear a panic, a stampede that would catch them up and get in their way. He wanted to get away as fast as possible, stay ahead of the crowd. But where…? He wasn’t sure. First get off the freeway. He could hear them behind him: more voices yelling and questioning.

– Daddy, what are we doing? Shouldn’t we tell them, too? We can’t just leave!

– Yes, we can, and we have to, right now! We don’t have time to pry people out of their cars. And when they do realize what’s going on, there will be a panic, maybe a stampede. We don’t want to get caught in that.

She objected almost out of routine, but then fell silent. They had reached the exit ramp. The light was starting to fade from that magical illumination into a more somber reflection.

– Here, hop on the rack. We’ll coast down the ramp. Remember how we used to come home from school sometimes?

He hoped he could lighten the circumstances a little. Em was starting to look at him with different eyes after the exchange on the freeway.

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Click here to read more from Tunnel Road.