Chance is a curious thing. Usually happenstantial occurrences are mundane or thought very little of, such as the coincidental meeting of an old friend in a public place, or finding a penny on the sidewalk that you yourself unknowingly dropped from your pocket a week before while retrieving your keys. Other times, chance can be profound. Like the plain-clothed policeman who decided to open a new bank account on his lunch break only moments before the armed robber walked in. It is these profound instances of chance that can be jarring and powerful enough to cause one to question their understanding of reality. That our fates can be determined essentially by the flip of a coin. Scholars call it Chaos Theory. The layman calls it coincidence. The religious call it providence. The romantic call it fate. No matter what you call it, it is chance, the unknown, incalculable factor that can make or break our futures, regardless of any amount of meticulous planning or safeguards we can implement.
It was just such a chance occurrence that found Daniel Clark driving along the seldom traveled Highway 32, also called Banes Highway, at two o’clock in the morning in his old work truck. The speed limit was fifty-five on the rural road, but Clark was tired, a little drunk from a later-than-usual visit to his usual bar, and in a hurry to get home, so he was traveling closer to sixty-five at the time of the accident. It was just past mile marker forty-one where Banes Highway crosses under Millsaw Road. Millsaw Road is elevated, with Banes Highway running beneath it, and two concrete pillars support the elevated road. Clark had driven down Banes Highway hundreds of times and knew the underpass well. That was how he knew he was only five minutes from the turnoff for Blackstone Street and home.
A beer bottlecap had been rolling around the floorboards of his Ford for months, and Clark meant to pick it up for some time. As a habitual drinker and driver, anything that may point to inebriation during a potential traffic stop was something he wanted to avoid, but somehow he’d managed to consistently forget about it whenever he reached his destination. For reasons unknown, even to himself, Clark suddenly decided to reach down and retrieve the bottle cap from his floorboard while driving. In doing so, he inadvertently pulled the wheel slightly to the right. The seatbelt stopped him from reaching the cap and he sat up to unbuckle it, but before he did, he saw the concrete pillar dead ahead. There was no time to swerve or brake, and the head-on collision was the most violent thing Clark had ever experienced.
The next thing he remembered was waking up, slumped over the steering wheel, completely disoriented and unsure of what had happened. He blinked. His eyes felt irritated. Seeing the red liquid on his hands after touching his face, he realized he was wet with blood. Wiping the gore from his eyes and face to see better, he realized first that he had been in a collision, and second, that a combination of his seatbelt and the sturdy frame of his work truck, a 1971 Ford F100, had saved his life. The truck, however, was totaled. Clark inspected himself and discovered the source of blood was from a nasty gash on his forehead, which may have been from the shattered windshield or from contact with something else in the truck. Everything was such a blur. There was a sharp pain in his ribs and breathing was difficult. He knew that if his ribs were not cracked, they were at least badly bruised, and Clark cursed his truck’s lack of an airbag, which may have spared him the injury. But even so, no other injuries were sustained other than minor cuts and bruises. He unbuckled his seatbelt and opened the door, but before he could get out, he noticed something among the broken glass in the passenger seat. It was the bottle cap. He snatched it angrily from the seat and got out of the truck. To inspect the damage. Clark kicked at the ground and spat profanities as he assessed the state of his only way to and from work.
One of the truck’s headlights was still functional and it was his only source of light. The light was still bright, but it’s direction made using it difficult. Half the beam fell on the lower half of what was left of the pillar, which reflected the light back onto the truck. The meager lighting was enough to confirm his fears. The truck was beyond repair. The front of the truck was crushed in far enough to damage the engine block. Clark felt lucky that it hadn’t ended up with him in the front seat. When he looked at the damaged pillar to see what his truck had done to it, the subtle things that happen to let you know time is moving seemed to stop. The crickets, which were noisily chirping all along suddenly quieted. The slight breeze that was blowing ceased and the air was dead calm. A chill went up Daniel Clark’s spine. He did not initially understand what he was looking at or why it caused him to feel so disturbed. A primitive need to flee and a curious desire to investigate struck him simultaneously, but curiosity won out. What was that thing sticking out from the inside of the pillar? It was not until he was only a foot or so away from it that he realized what it was and reeled back in horror.
A skeletal arm hung twistedly out of the pillar, and just inside the pillar, a face, practically only a skull, with long grey hair and gold framed glasses gazed out at Clark. Its head was cocked to the side in a manner that would look playful in a living human. Clark felt sick. He needed to leave. Quickly.
It would be at least a couple of hours walking to make it home to use the telephone, so Clark decided to walk to the Pritchard place on Cotton Street to call emergency services. He didn’t know them very well, but out in the sticks, nothing was a close walk. Mike Pritchard was a contractor Clark once hired to repair a damaged fence on his property, and the two saw each other around town a few times since then in happenstantial meetings while out and about, always taking the time to offer a friendly, “Hello.”
The Pritchards lived just on the other side of the Blackstone intersection. If he was able bodied, he could walk it in twenty minutes. With his injured ribs it would take longer. It might be dawn before he made it home. Dawn. Clark longed for daylight. The dark rural night made him feel vulnerable. He constantly glanced over his shoulder as he walked, telling himself it was so he could flag down any passing cars, but really it was because he had the nagging feeling that something was following him. He couldn’t shake it. Something was approaching. Something unseen, bearing down on him with intent, closing the gap between them, and with each step he took away from the accident, it took two in his direction.
After what felt like hours, the dark outline of the Pritchard house was in sight. He felt that the something that was coming for him was very close now, though the pitch black darkness hindered him profoundly. He could see the stars, but no moon, and the tops of the trees that bordered his view of the night sky. Beneath them, it was near-perfect darkness. His feet found the walkway to the Pritchards’ front door. He listened for footsteps, but dared not cease his own to listen more closely. He didn’t think he heard any footsteps but his own, although he wasn’t sure. He walked up to the Pritchard family’s front door and knocked loudly.
“Mike!” he yelled. “It’s Daniel Clark from down the road! I need help!”
There was no answer, so he tried again.
“Mike! It’s Daniel! I was in an accident!”
Daniel Clark spun around, having sensed someone walk up right behind him. But when he turned, heart pounding, no one was there. The door opened suddenly, causing Clark to jump. Mike Pritchard stood in the doorway in a bathrobe, with a .357 revolver in his hand.
“Daniel, are you okay?” Pritchard asked.
“No.” Clark said. “I don’t know. I think I need a doctor.”
“Lisa!” Pritchard shouted to his wife, shoving the revolver into the pocket of his robe. “It’s Daniel and he’s hurt!”
Pritchard helped him inside and sat him down on the sofa while his wife got Clark a glass of water and some wet rags to clean himself up with. Then she picked up the phone and began dialing emergency services.
“What happened?” Pritchard asked.
“I hit something on Banes Highway.” Clark said.
“Oh, Daniel, I’m sorry to hear that. Was it insured?”
“There was a man inside the pillar.”
“There was a… what??”
“A dead man. Inside the pillar.” Clark’s voice began to quiver.
Pritchard’s wife slowly put the phone down and listened.
“What do you mean, there was a man inside the pillar?”
“I hit one of those concrete pillars where Banes Highway goes under Millsaw Road with my truck and the front of it crumbled off. There was a dead man inside the pillar.”
The Pritchards were silent for a moment.
“Lisa, you know who to call. There’s a dead body on Banes Highway. I’m taking Daniel back out there to meet with the police and ambulance when they arrive.”
Mrs. Pritchard picked up the phone again and began to dial as the two men walked out the door.
They walked toward the barn where Pritchard’s truck was kept. Clark described the experience in detail while they walked. Once they were inside the barn, Clark walked to the truck, still telling his story. Pritchard walked up beside him and took what he expected to be keys from his pocket, but when he pointed the metal thing at Clark, Clark stopped talking, suddenly confused and not knowing what to say next. Pritchard cocked the hammer and pulled the trigger.
A week went by and someone reported the damage to the concrete pillar on Banes Highway to the county office. There was a routine inspection of the site with nothing extraordinary to report. Someone had crashed into the pillar and the vehicle had been removed. To have done so much damage the vehicle surely was totaled. But in a place so far out of the way, it did not surprise the inspectors that someone had managed to wreck a vehicle into county property, remove the vehicle and scrub the area of pieces of the car, whatever it had been, before it could be reported. The county inspector wrote off the damage and called their usual contractor, Pritchard Construction Services, to replace the concrete pillar. The new pillar contained several unreported items, one of which is a bottle cap.