So, last night I was reading this wonderful short by Josh Malerman, International Bestselling author of Bird Box, and I decided to start another phase of the blog. I am going to start posting short stories from some of my favorite authors throughout the year that I think you should give a read, starting with “Clark! Stop!”
A gas station. Shut down for the night. Lights off. It’s night.
A grocery store. Stickers on the window.
Street lamps. Three of them. Total.
A hardware store. BILLY’S.
Two parked cars. Rusted out. Both.
A bar. WILLY’S. No people outside. No noise from within. Pink neon OPEN sign is on, though. Kinda paints the whole town pink, that one dollop of color.
High full moon.
Telephone wires cross the street overhead.
A post office/police station.
Speed limit sign. 25.
But Clark is going 40.
Who cares. Town is empty. One block town. What’s the worst that can happen? One block. Fifteen over. Not even enough time to slow down. So he doesn’t. Doesn’t even want to.
But it isn’t the pink neon that colors the one block after all; it’s the red light up ahead.
Clark sees it so Clark slams on the brakes.
Sees a cop car, parked, as he slows. Sees someone sitting in it, too.
Clark’s Volvo comes to a stop just about level with where the sidewalk ends.
Clark’s heart is beating hard, despite having nothing in the Volvo that could get him in trouble. How much trouble could a public speaker, self-help, family man get into anyway?
That’s how much.
So calm down.
And yet, he did speed by a cop in a one block town and now he’s sitting at the town’s one light and the cop is probably writing down Clark’s license plate number before pulling out just as silently as he sits there and even if you have absolutely nothing to hide, it’s a freaky thing, speeding by a cop. Especially in their town.
It’s always their town.
It is. But this one feels especially owned.
Clark is trying not to look into the rearview mirror at the cop car. But that’s what he’s doing. Looking in the rear view mirror at the cop car. He sees the shape of the man, the brim of his hat, sees him shift in his seat, too, in case there was any question whether or not the body is real.
Some towns set up mannequin cops. Not this one.
Clark listens to the soft purr of the Volvo’s engine. He’s always liked the way it sounds. Hell, he loves this car. Even loves the way the turn signal clicks.
But no turn signal right now. Just sit still
Silhouette of the cop in his car. In Clark’s rearview. Behind him and to the left.
Otherwise the street is empty.
The town is empty. Otherwise.
Clark turns the radio down. Just a notch. Just so that he’s not distracted. Doesn’t suddenly, accidentally, drive through this light.
Clark thinks of Helen.
No real reason to, she just pops into his head. Helen. His ex-wife. His dead wife. Died in a car accident.
Clark ran a red light that day. Ford truck smashed into the passenger side. Helen’s side. Sometimes she drove, too. But that day the passenger side was Helen’s side. That day.
It is a long light. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s been twenty seconds and yet Clark feels like the cop has had enough time to draw a pretty detailed sketch of the newcomer. The man at the red light. Clark.
Clark catches himself staring at the rearview. So he stops.
Ahead is open empty road. Only thing keeping Clark from experiencing it is this light. This one circle of red in all this tiny town and huge world. One circle of red, like when the sensei stops a pupil from advancing by placing only his pinkie under his nose.
Crushed her. The Ford. Clark isn’t afraid to talk about it. Talks about it all the time at his seminars. It works well there. Packs a punch. The crowd gets real interested when the man who has all the answers reveals his own little tragedy, his own reason to pack it in. People like to know that he’s got problems, too. That he’s not just up there espousing the golden slabs of life and living. People like to know that he’s suffered, too. The Helen story does that. Boy does it.
Clark is adjusting his tie. Loosening it. He’s always liked driving the Volvo in a suit jacket and tie. Likes the looks of his thin white hands gripping the wheel by the blue dashboard lights. Likes to see the shirt-cuffs coming out of the jacket just so. Makes him feel like a success in business. That’s important to Clark. Believing in himself.
Light is still red.
Clark shakes his head. Wonders if the cop saw that, wonders if the cop is thinking this stranger in town is getting impatient. Why would he be impatient? What’s the problem with stopping at a light for a moment? Not enough people enjoy stopping for a moment. That might be a thought a small town cop might have.
Clark rolls down his window. Smooth gliding sound. The Volvo. Clark loves it. Fresh air enters the car. Air from all that open space ahead. Hell, even the short distance the head-beams reveal is enough for Clark to see that it’s all open space out there. If he squints, he thinks he can see another speed limit sign about a hundred feet past the light. Probably says something like 50. The way out of town. Off this street.
Or is it?
Clark looks to the rearview mirror. Sees the cop shift again. Just shifting in his seat. No doubt watching the prissy Volvo idling. Clark wonders if there’s a white line under his car, a sign, too, in his blind spot that reads:
STOP HERE FOR LIGHT
It’s possible he missed that. Possible he’s pulled up too far. He places his hand on the shifter. Thinks he might go in reverse a few feet. Thinks again. Sits still. The cop is going to wait until the light turns green, wait for Clark to pull away, then he’s going to slowly creep out after him. Isn’t that what they do? It’s like they don’t like it when you’re already pulled over, like that ruins half the fun.
A sound from the outside world. Clark turns the radio down another notch. Sounded like a scream. Sounded like a girl. He looks in the rearview mirror, past the cop, back to that bar. He’s expecting to see a woman tripping out the meager wooden door. She would know the cop. And depending on what she knew about him, she’d either twirl a carefree hand in his direction and stumble off toward home or she’d straighten up, quick, frightened that he knew she was hammered.
But there is no girl.
Yes, of course Helen screamed. She screamed before the Ford hit them. She screamed,
But Clark didn’t stop. Not that time. He did this time. He’s still stopped. Is starting to feel like he’s still stopping. Like the time between noticing the red light and coming to a complete stop is infinite, that whole idea about an infinite number of points between A and B. A) Clark finally noticed the stoplight. B) Cark stopped. But maybe it hadn’t happened yet. Maybe he’s still rolling along those infinite points, an endless and linear series of saucers floating in a red and black emptiness, continuing on into forever.
How long is this light?
Clark clears his throat. Wonders if the cop heard it. Wonders if the cop is wondering why the stranger in town is getting antsy at a simple red light. Maybe there’s something in the trunk? Maybe there’s someone curled up (tied up) on the front seat?
He cleared his throat after all.
In the distance, beyond the reach of the headlamps, in what looks like an empty field, a figure rises.
Clark gasps not because the figure is particularly frightening but because any movement at all is somewhat shocking.
It’s a figure for sure. A figure cut by the moonlight, a figure cast against the empty open sky and open fields framing it like forever.
Clark can’t take his eyes off it. What else is there to look at? The light is still red. The cop is still sitting in his car. The miles aren’t changing on the odometer. The street is still empty.
You heard a woman scream.
Is that a woman standing in the field?
Is she facing him? Facing the stoplight?
Clark loosens his tie further.
He turns the radio up a notch. Then back down a notch.
“Fucking light,” he says and he quickly looks to the rearview mirror. The cop definitely shifted in his seat. The cop definitely heard him say fucking light. Now we’ve got an angry antsy stranger in town. The kind of Volvo driving, cuff-caring, stiff who thinks he’s bigger than this town and can’t stand being stopped for a minute or so here, here, in this town.
Clark doesn’t even know the name of it. This town.
No, this town is not named Helen. And no, with Helen, that day, Clark did not stop.
He saw the Ford before she did. He saw the light, too. But while Helen was prattling about picture frames for the foyer, Clark was crunching numbers, considering odds, wondering what the chances were that he would survive a car crash, the same crash that would kill Helen, if he were to run a red light.
Now, he remembers the exact thought that crossed his mind:
It’s worth it.
Yes, that was it. Those three words came clear as a third eye to him as they approached that intersection, just before the Ford came barreling into the passenger side and crushed Helen’s body into his, crushed her so immediately that
he’ll never be able to extricate the sight of her seemingly two dimensional figure with the words Clark! STOP!
The figure, the woman in the field ahead, is moving. Moving toward the intersection.
Clark is thinking of Helen.
The woman is moving like she’s dragging something, or like she’s been injured in a bad way and Clark can’t help but imagine the woman is Helen. Surely it’s just some field-jockey, trashed, stoned out of her mind, a sight the cop has seen a hundred times. Perhaps she’s imagining herself galloping gracefully toward the intersection, just coming out of some wavy dope funk, dragging something yes dragging her dignity toward the bar where she’s gonna pour some tequila on it and set it aflame.
Now Clark’s done it because now Clark’s flat out said her name and his window is still open and the cop probably heard it and maybe he heard just enough of a tremor in Clark’s voice to detect that, uh oh, this guy intentionally ran a red light many moons ago with a mind to murder his wife.
The figure’s head perks up at the name Helen.
Clark loosens his tie even more.
He’s tapping his fingertips on the steering wheel.
I know sorrow, Clark likes to tell the crowds who come to hear him speak about self-confidence. He likes to start the “Helen Segment” that way. I know sorrow… TOO. Just like you! I know of a loss resonating at a frequency so low… so deep… that at times I thought I would no longer be able to hear it. I lost my wife. This got gasps. Always. An autumn afternoon’s drive and on the way back, we approached a small town, the last we’d encounter before turning onto the gravel road to home. “Home” not “House.” Much warmer that way. There’s a stoplight there, at the Wiggins Lodge, where families flock to buy flavored coffee, maps of the state parks, and framed photographs of the magnificent woods. I even saw a family, that day, as we rolled toward the light, saw a mother holding her young son’s hand on the sidewalk, saw a father pointing at something on a shelf through the window of Wiggins. A pause here. A deep breath. A light we’d obeyed one thousand times but this once, this one oversight, and I lost my Helen that day. I was driving. More gasps. Tears, too. And (most meaningfully) the galvanizing of a bond between speaker and attendee.
If this guy could still love life, with all he’s been through…
Clark looks to his fingertips on the wheel. They’re painted red from the unflagging light suspended not ten feet ahead. Clark isn’t an artistic man, but darnit if it doesn’t feel like he’s part of a painting, one piece of a morbid still life.
Clark still has his life. Helen does not. Clark gambled. Helluva risk. Let the Ford smash into us, maybe I’ll survive. Maybe she won’t. He did. She didn’t.
The silhouette stumbles into the road now, though Clark can’t see her features yet. She looks thin. Too thin. And still walks like she’s dragging something.
Bum leg, Clark thinks. That’s all. Probably fell off a bar stool shit-canned.
Clark gives the Volvo a little gas. The engine revs. He looks to the mirror and sees the cop shift once again. That damn hat, makes the man look like a state trooper. Something scarier about a state trooper. Wyoming Police doesn’t intimidate like Michigan State Trooper.
Though he can’t see her features, the figure ahead has stopped in the middle of the road. Clark imagines she’s going to cross it. But she doesn’t. She just stands. Everything in this town takes a long time, he thinks. For fuck’s sake, he thinks.
“Hey, lady!” Clark calls out the window. “Get out of the road!”
Because the light’s going to change. Because it has to. And when it does, Clark wants to go.
Clark looks up to the light.
Come on. Come on come on come on.
The light must be broken. And it’s okay for motorists to stop and look both ways before passing under a broken red light. In fact, it’s starting to feel like Clark is more suspicious for sitting this long rather than running it. The cop must be wondering what Clark has to hide, obeying the rules so rigidly like this.
Cant you see the light’s broken? The cop is going to say. What’s the matter with YOU?
No, not suspicious. Nobody was suspicious of him after the accident. Not even Helen’s difficult parents shot him an accusatory glance. Accidents happen. Losing your wife in one of them made it extra bad. Nothing suspicious at all.
Clark removes his tie.
He turns the radio up a notch. Commercial. Turns it back down.
Helen was too much. In every way, Helen was too much. What was that saying she used to say? The one about being…
Being me is like being anybody else. Only more so.
That got a rise out of every dinner guest they entertained. Not because it was funny. Clark knew that. People laughed because what else was there to do?
He should stop. Stop thinking about Helen. Stop thinking about cops and the past and the present and the woman standing in the middle of the road. He should focus instead on the purr of the Volvo’s gorgeous Swedish engine. Wait for the light to change… and split.
That was the inane cartoonish word that crossed his mind when he decided to run that light, when he decided to chance it with the Ford. Splat. As if the collision would create an explosion of colors with round edges, a funny horn sound, a drum hit. But nothing went splat. Instead, it was a crunch. And suddenly Helen, mashed, half her natural width, was pressed against him, eyes closed, as if she’d rolled over on him in bed, dreaming beneath a cider press.
Nobody suspected him. Nobody at all.
And didn’t that mean something? Didn’t that mean he was justified? In some cosmic, karmic way?
Clark shakes his head again and realizes the woman is now standing just beyond the reach of the red light, splashed across the road. This means she’s gotten closer.
And the light hasn’t changed.
He looks to the mirror. The cop still sits in his car.
The woman steps into the light and Clark shudders but what he wasn’t to do is scream.
There’s something wrong with her. Like she’s been hurt in a bad way.
Clark feels something cold wash over him because this word, his name, has been spoken.
The woman said it. Said his name.
He puts the Volvo in reverse.
The cop shifts in his seat.
The woman steps closer, she’s coming toward the car and Clark sees she’s been hurt bad, smashed, like she was kneeling as two logs met.
A doctor, Clark thinks. This woman needs a doctor!
He puts the car in park and places his hand on the door handle, ready to get out.
It’s the woman again. Saying what Helen said way back when and Clark removes his hand from the door handle and shifts the car back in drive.
The light is still red.
We’d passed through that light one thousand times, he’d told the audiences, the people looking for a reason to remain optimistic in a world where men risk their own lives to kill the women seated beside them in cars.
It’s Helen, slowly crossing under the light now, crossing the intersection. Of this Clark has no doubt.
And she doesn’t look good. She looks just like she did in that memory of his, when everything became bright noise and bent metal and he saw, for a moment, Helen’s mashed features.
It’s her and her eyes are closed and she’s dragging (the truth?) toward him, under the light, unable to raise her hands but somehow pointing at him all the same, pointing, as if to say, he did it officer he did it he did it he did.
Clark considers running her over. Running the light and running her over and trying to outrun the small town cop, too. Maybe if Clark does it fast enough the cop will have to stop and check on the woman, check on Helen, and by the time he determines she’s twice dead Clark will be well out of town, far beyond the infinite red light that holds him.
He gives the Volvo a little gas. A little more than he means to. The engine revs loud. In the mirror he sees the cop move, but not much. Still not getting out of his cruiser, still not pulling out, pulling up next to him, asking him why the hell he’s obeying the rules so tightly because the only people who do that are people with something really terrible to hide.
Helen’s close now, awful under the red light, a still life of that ghastly image Clark has held so tight to his body that nobody has ever seen it but him.
She can’t open her eyes but she seems to be looking at him all the same.
Clark unfastens his seatbelt. He must get out of here. Must get out of the car. He can’t just sit here as this woman (Helen) inches toward him, with the red light like the eye of God above him and the cop the hand of God waiting to move, to pounce, to cup Clark up and drop him into a prison cell for the rest of his life.
I know sorrow, too. Like you.
Sometimes the attendees had questions and sometimes those questions stuck with him.
Clark reaches into the glove box, mistaking the situation for one in which he has been pulled over. He’s looking for his registration and proof of insurance before he realizes nobody has pulled him over, after all, the cop hasn’t moved. He’s thinking of one particular question that has really stuck with him over the years, asked by a bearded man wearing a red button down shirt.
Do you feel guilty that you survived?
Clark looks up suddenly because the woman is now at the passenger side of the Volvo. She’s opening the door. Clark can hear broken bones working beneath her wrinkled, rice paper skin.
“Hey! Don’t come in here!”
But she’s coming in. She’s opening the door.
Of course I feel guilty, Clark answered the bearded man. But I’ve chosen to live my life.
She’s opening the door. She’s getting in. She’s sitting beside him in the passenger seat.
But when did you choose to live your life? The man asked and it was the “but” that stuck with Clark, that tore him to shreds in his hotel room that night and a thousand hotel rooms since.
Because there was a second question. You answered, sir,
WHEN did you choose?
Before or after?
Before or after the accident?
“Before!” Clark yells, shaking his head, as the woman turns to face him, her battered features no wider than the spine of one of his self-help books.
She’s leaning toward him.
The light is still red the light is still red of course the light is still red the light will be red forever…
Do you ever feel guilty?
But when did you decide to live your life?
Clark is out of the car. Doesn’t remember opening the door. The world is red out here. Everything, it seems, is red. Clark is racing up the street, to the police cruiser, banging on the driver’s side window.
The officer is asleep in there.
Clark is banging on the window.
The officer is waking up, eyes wide with surprise. He’s quickly rolling down the window and facing this stranger in town.
“Hold on now,” the state trooper says “Just hold-”
“I killed my wife,” Clark says, putting both hands through the cop’s open window, palms up, asking to be arrested, cuffs perfectly extended beyond the ends of his sports-jacket sleeves. A voice is telling him not to do this, Clark! Stop! But he’s already confessing. “I killed my wife…”
via The Metropolitan
Josh Malerman is an American author and the lead singer for the rock band The High Strung. Malerman currently lives in Ferndale, Michigan.
Malerman first began writing while in the fifth grade, where he began writing about a space-traveling dog. Since then he has written several unpublished novels and his debut novel Bird Box was published in the United Kingdom and United States in 2014 to much critical acclaim.