Phil was the kind of guy nobody wanted to carpool with. Reggie had no choice. His old Cutlass finally gave up the ghost and he found himself with a choice to ride with Phil or lose his job. He loved his kids more than he hated Phil, so he rode.
It wasn't generally as bad as he thought it would be. Phil loved having a captive audience for his angry rants, and Reggie had no desire to argue or debate his often questionable logic. He sometimes felt bad that he didn't speak up against some of the more egregiously hateful things that Phil said about various segments of the population. However he consoled himself with the knowledge that nobody had yet gotten Phil to back down from any of the various soapboxes he was fond of standing on, and so he was only saving himself the grief of trying.
The worst part was not having to be Phil's sounding board. Reggie was pretty good at zoning the noise out and grunting or nodding in the appropriate pauses in conversation to give the impression that he was listening. The worst part was Phil's road rage. Heaven forbid anyone else on the road think that they had any right to be there. If ever Phil felt that he had been dishonored by the actions of another driver, he would do whatever he could to exact his revenge. Tailgating, honking, flashing lights, various hand signals, even the occasional beer can hurled out the window at the offending motorist were the penalties for crossing the path of Phillip T. Hurley.
Having the use of a company work truck made Phil's feeling of invulnerability even worse. Other than tractor-trailers, there were few vehicles on the road bigger or more powerful than the line-repair truck. Phil had earned the right to drive the truck home by volunteering to be the 24-7 on-call technician. Having no wife and kids, and presumably, no life either, he was happy to earn time and a half at two in the morning when some drunk kid wrapped his daddy's Camaro around a light pole and took the power out somewhere. The two-and-a-half ton line repair truck had wheels taller than most vehicles, a cherry-picker on the back, and a grill that was simply terrifying filling the back of whatever poor motorist had earned the ire of Phil.
Reggie knew the moment that Phil's tirade changed tone that he was no longer railing on self-righteous churchies and had found a new target for his profane anger. He glanced over to see him looking angrily in his mirror and muttering curses at the car behind them.
"Ten over the limit ain't fast enough for ya? Ya fuckin' prick. I oughta brake check ya and see how shiny that fuckin' Charger looks with a pintle hitch imbedded in the fuckin' radiator, huh." Reggie looked to the right and saw the Charger in question. It was one of the newer ones that reminded him of something out of a Dick Tracy cartoon. It was black, and even the windshield looked to be smoky dark. He was pretty sure that was illegal, but it may have just been the way the light played across the shiny glass. The car was following pretty close, and kept weaving to the right and left as if it wanted to pass. Phil was having none of that.
"Fuckin' city prick wants to go faster ... I'll show him what a coutnry boy thinks about that." Phil grabbed the gearshift and slammed it down a gear and popped the clutch. The entire truck lurched as the engine raced against compression, pushing Reggie into the seatbelt as it decelerated. He heard the Charger's tires chirp as it slammed on its brakes to avoid colliding with the truck and Phil snorted laughter.
"Fuckin' prick. That oughta teach 'im to follow so close. If he don't like it, let 'em try to pass us on this road. I hope there's a fuckin' pig lookin' to collect revenue today. I would love to see this ignernt prick git a fuckin' ticket." Phil was barely watching the road ahead of them as he swerved the truck back and forth to stay in front of the Charger as it tried in vain to get a look in front of the truck. Reggie shrunk down in his seat, fearing that his ride home today was going to end in violence.
The two-lane highway they were on was marked with a speed limit of 45 MPH, and there were only a few short stretches without curves or hills where the double-yellow lines allowed for passing. This particular highway had more than once been the battleground upon which Phil executed his judgments against some other motorist for having the unmitigated gall to try and pass him. And the Charger was getting more and more aggressive in its attempts to scan the road ahead for its opportunity.
Then, it saw one, and took it.
Phil was riding with two tires across the yellow line when the road straightened out and the Charger made its move. Phil anticipated it, and moved even further to the left to keep him from passing, but then the car disappeared from his rear-view mirror altogether and before he realized what was happening, its tuned exhaust was roaring through Reggie's open window as the driver jinked to the right and passed them easily. Phil swore loudly and angrily as he yanked the wheel over trying to run the car off the road, but it was much too quickly out in front of them and already starting to put distance between them.
Phil wasn't about to let the contest be over that easily. He reached up and hung two fingers over the string that blew the airhorn and pulled it to its utter limit. The horn bellowed as he put the gas to the floor and shifted again, trying to catch up to the Charger.
"Fuckin' bastard thinks he's hot shit 'cause he's got a half-foreign fucking rice burner. I'll show 'im who's the fuckin' king of the road and I'll run his smart ass over and then I'll get out and stomp his fuckin' head into the dirt and take a shit on it ..." Phil was now yelling through clenched teeth, with the turbo-charged diesel engine rapping up as high as he could get it before slamming the gearshift lever into the next gear with one hand while his other kept pressure on the air horn.
Reggie was shocked to see the distance between the two vehicles shrinking. The line truck was built for power and for handling rough terrain. It should not have been gaining on a muscle car, regardless of how hard Phil slammed the gearshift or how high he revved the engine before shifting. A feeling of foreboding began to grow in the pit of his stomach, and he began to understand that something bad was about to happen.
Right before it did.
The Charger was about three or four car-lengths ahead of the truck when it suddenly locked up its tires and cut to the left and then instantly to the right. The car spun half-way around and slid sideways before coming to a stop blocking both lanes of traffic. Reggie pressed both feet into the floor of the truck, unconsciously trying to stop the truck himself while his right hand unconsciously groped in the air for his wife's knee where it would be if he was driving. His panicked efforts, of course, had no effect whatsoever on the speed of the truck. Luckily, Phil's did. He locked up everything rubber on the truck and the huge dual-tires in the back howled in choppy protest as they bounced across the rough pavement. The truck slewed slightly to the right as the Charger grew larger and larger in the windshield, and no matter how hard Reggie tried to close his eyes, he couldn't stop himself from watching every detail of the disaster unfold.
Luckily for the driver of the Charger, the brakes on the truck did their job, and it stopped less than a foot from the passenger door of the Charger. For an instant, the world stood still. The engine of the truck growled quietly, and Reggie caught the distinct sound of a crow cawing somewhere in the surrounding countryside. He looked over at Phil, and for the first time in the six years he had worked with him he saw fear in the man's face. He had a theory that Phil was actually afraid of just about everything and that his excessive anger was nothing more than a form of overcompensation. But whatever facade he usually wore on his face had been wiped away by the seemingly suicidal maneuver he had just witnessed performed by the driver of the Charger. Reggie knew that Phil depended on his aggressive personality to bluff his way through most confrontations, and such a naked act of fearlessness in the face of his anger left him with nowhere to go.
It only took a few seconds for Phil to recover, though. He glanced over at Reggie and saw him staring at him openmouthed in amazement. He misinterpreted his look of disbelief for disdain at having been bested in a road rage contest and the thought was enough to chase away the uncertainty and re-ignite the customary facade of anger and aggressiveness.
"Fuckin' prick thinks he can pull a stunt like that and get away with it?" he yelled, spittle flying from his mouth and across the truck. He pulled the truck out of gear and punched the parking brake button hard enough to crack the round plastic knob and reached for his door handle. At the same time, he was scrabbling underneath the seat for the 18-inch crescent wrench he kept there for just such a time as this.
He never found the wrench, and he never got the door open.
The driver's door on the Charger opened up and a man stepped out. He was dressed in a dark suit, with a crisp white shirt that was so white it was blinding. His dark hair was styled immaculately and slicked back without a single strand out of place. He wore wraparound sunglasses with reflective lenses that blinded Reggie and hid the eyes that he was sure were right now flashing with rage. He moved with unhurried grace that revealed the well-muscled shoulders that were complemented rather than contained by the expertly tailored suit jacket. He had an unmistakable air of danger about him, and Reggie suddenly found that he was less worried about what Phil might do, and much more worried about what was about to happen to Phil.
Then he brought the shotgun up and aimed it at the huge grill on the front of the truck.
Phil's grasping hand had a hold on the door handle, but he was still scrabbling for the wrench when the first shot went off. It hit the truck square in the middle of its giant radiator, and boiling antifreeze and steam exploded from the holes ripped through the thin metal by the double-aught buckshot. The engine began rattling as moving parts were destroyed by the first shot, and the second and third shots flattened the front tires. Reggie felt the truck settle quickly to the right and then the left as the air left the tires. He was paralyzed by the image of the man calmly working the pump on the shotgun and taking aim again. He realized that the muzzle of the shotgun had elevated slightly and was now aiming directly at the windshield. He doubled over and put his head between his knees and a terrified scream escaped his lips as the windshield of the truck exploded inward. He felt the rain of glass dust and heard the buckshot ricocheting off of the metal of the cherry-picker on the back of the truck and wondered if Phil was still alive.
He decided he didn't care.
He rolled sideways off the seat and curled into a ball on the floor of the truck beneath the dash as the fifth shot went off. He could no longer even tell what was the target, but he was vaguely aware that he was still screaming like a little girl, and could feel tears streaming down his face. The sixth shot opened up a half-dozen holes in the driver-side door and Reggie could actually hear the balls of shot whistle past his head and impact the door on his side. Images of his wife and kids flashed through his consciousness and he knew the unmistakable fear of dying. Another shot went off, somewhere near the rear of the truck, and he looked up to see Phil, pale as death and curled up underneath the steering wheel. His eyes were wild and unseeing. He was gibbering and sobbing and swearing incoherently, a string of saliva dripping from one corner of his mouth.
The driver's side door opened, and the man in black stood there, his sunglasses glinting and the barrel of the shotgun pointed at Phil, a curl of smoke rising from its muzzle.
Reggie tensed, staring into the eyes of the stranger. He wished he could find the courage to at least speak, to beg for his life, to tell this emotionless killer of his beautiful children and their need for a father. Yet his tongue was paralyzed and his throat closed. His lungs seemed to be empty, and he just knew that the very act of taking a breath would bring down the coldness of death upon him from the gaping muzzle of the shotgun.
The man in black stood there silently for a few moments, until Reggie could smell the brimstone stink of burnt gunpowder filling the cab of the truck. Reggie wondered what he was waiting for ... why he just stood there. Then, he prodded Phil with the barrel of the gun. Phil screamed and farted and pissed simultaneously while trying to climb even further under the dashboard. The stench of his fear overwhelmed the brimstone and Reggie felt the acid in his stomach rising in protest.
The stranger's mouth curled in the vaguest hint of a smile, and he withdrew the shotgun and disappeared from sight. Phil continued to sob and moan, his head covered in his hands as the engine of the truck idled on unevenly.
As soon as the smooth and powerful sound of the Charger's engine had faded, Reggie frantically pulled open his door and jumped out of the truck. He hit the shoulder of the road and rolled into the grass, gasping for breath. The smell of the weeds and grass were almost heavenly to him, the blue of the sky was beyond beautiful. He had stared death in the face and survived, and suddenly life had a flavor that he had never imagined possible.
Reggie lay there, enjoying the feeling of the dry stubble and bits of gravel digging into his back. The fact that he could feel them meant that he was still alive. He was sure that he would never be annoyed by anything so trivial again.
The sound of Phil coughing and sobbing in the cab of the truck finally permeated his consciousness and he pondered only for a moment his next act. He rose unsteadily to his feet, but with firm resolve walked back over to the truck. He looked in through the open passenger door to where Phil remained wedged beneath the steering wheel in a puddle of his own excrement. He craned his neck up and looked plaintively at Reggie.
"Is he gone?" Phil asked, his voice low and quavering. Reggie didn't answer, simply looked a moment longer and then slammed the door and began trudging up the highway towards home. He had not gone ten steps before he began whistling a tuneless melody.
Life was good for Reggie.