Fiction: Signal Ahead

By John Sheirer

“You saw that, right?” Hector said, turning in the driver’s seat to face Phil.
After a long moment of staring through the windshield, Phil said, “I don’t know what I saw.”
The two men had been on the test drive for barely ten minutes. Hector had arrived at the dealership that morning in his 2004 Honda Civic, a car he bought used twelve years ago. He was approaching 200,000 miles, but he planned to drive that car until it died. He came to the dealership to get a car for his daughter Maria’s commute to the state university thirty miles away. She would have been happy with the hand-me-down Civic, but Hector wanted her to be safe. The father could handle the Civic. The daughter would have something better. If he found something appropriate today, he planned to bring Maria in this afternoon for a second test drive.
Phil had greeted Hector in the showroom of Bonderton Toyota when the dealership opened at 8 a.m. that Saturday, and he accurately sized Hector up as someone who didn’t want to spend more than he had to. Phil suggested a new Camry or Pathfinder anyway, but Hector told him exactly what he wanted.
“A Prius,” Hector said, taking in the fact that Phil was at least half a foot taller than he was but looked much closer to Maria’s age. In fact, Hector thought Phil looked barely old enough to drive. He looked like a gangly, oversized child pretending to be an adult.
“But not the new ones,” Hector continued, making a commitment to talk to Phil as one adult to another, despite his youthful appearance. “I want the 2015, the last year before the redesign.”
Phil nodded enthusiastically, making him seem even younger. “Very practical,” he said, giving up his dream of a major commission but settling for the hope of a solid sale. “Great gas mileage, of course, reliable, better in the snow than people think.”
“I read that online, about the snow,” Hector replied. “My daughter will be commuting to college this fall, part interstate, part side roads. They’re stubborn about canceling classes when it snows, so she’ll need something that gets there in bad weather.” Hector had already said more to this young man than he had planned. His strategy when he walked in the door had been to play it quiet, make them talk, but this young guy didn’t seem like he was trying to cheat him. Maybe, Hector hoped, this guy would be that rare creature: an honest dealer.
“I just heard at our morning staff meeting that we got something in this week that might be perfect for you,” Phil said. “It’s a 2014, but low miles and a nice, dark blue. Lots of quality safety extras, too, lane monitoring, side-obstruction warnings, one of the first ones with a backup camera.”
“Aren’t those kind of a waste if you know how to use your mirrors?” Hector asked.
“You might be surprised,” Phil replied. “Anyway, it’s a great value for $12,500. Let me get the keys, okay?”
Hector nodded as the kid shuffle-jogged away in the manner of a boy whose coordination still hasn’t caught up to his growth, hair flopping as changed jingled in his loose pants pockets.
Hector hadn’t said that his goal was to stay under $15,000. That’s what he could pay for Maria’s car without wasting money on financing and interest payments. He and his wife Maya put a little money away every month from his salary at the supermarket since he’d been named manager thirteen years ago. “The Wheels,” they called that account. “Did you grease the wheels this month?” he’d ask Maya. “Me too,” he’d say. Maya’s teaching salary was enough to help pay for the used minivan they’d had for seven years. “The Wheels” account grew steadily through good months and not-so-good months, and Hector and Maya were happy to pay themselves instead of interest to the bank for a car loan.
Five minutes later, Hector and Phil pulled away from the dealership in the dark blue Prius. Hector fit comfortably into the driver’s seat. Maria had grown almost to his height, so she’d have plenty of room. By contrast, static pulled Phil’s hair into the one-inch space between his slouched head and the car’s roof.
Hector noticed that he had to be firm with the gas pedal to get adequate acceleration. That suited him fine because he knew that accidents could be caused by jack-rabbit acceleration. Maria’s first driving lessons had featured a few comical jumps forward in the supermarket parking lot, but she had improved considerably since then.
Hector looked both ways twice and slipped smoothly onto the industrial road that was home to Bonderton Toyota. He guided the Prius just below the speed limit along a series of chain restaurants, mattress stores, discount liquor outlets, and any number of interchangeable box stores. The abandoned mall yawned like a mouth missing a quarter row of teeth top and bottom, opposite sides. Hector had enjoyed that mall when he was Maria’s age. He wondered if Phil was old enough to have seen it before the stores flew away and pigeons flapped to nest within the cavernous interior.
Phil explained the graphics on the dashboard, but Hector tuned out his memorized speech. He knew Maria would learn what that all meant if he bought the car. She was going to major in engineering, after all. He was more concerned about the steering, which was solid and responsive. The Prius rode slightly higher than his Civic, and that was a pleasant change, giving the car a smoother ride and a good view of the road.
“These models can be a little bouncy,” Phil said as they skimmed a series of potholes.
“Better than I expected,” Hector said, mildly regretting his words. His brother had told him to pretend to hate everything about the car to get the price down, but he didn’t want to deal that way. He wanted to save money, yes, but he didn’t need to act like a jerk to keep a few dollars in his pocket.
Without warning, a high-pitched tone filled the car. Phil waved a hand leftward. “No worries. That’s the lane warning. You drifted over the line just a touch.”
Hector corrected his path, slightly embarrassed that he let the car slip into the next lane, even if only by an inch. He could get used to the piercing beep if it helped Maria stay safe.
“Gnal head,” Phil said, chuckling.
“What?” Hector asked.
Phil pointed. An electric sign hung above the road. The sign once read, “SIGNAL AHEAD,” but some of the lights were out, creating the oddball message. Hector took in the sight and wished people drove sensibly enough that the intersection didn’t require a warning.
“See those indicator lights?” Phil asked, now directing Hector’s attention to the side view mirror just to Hector’s left. “They let you know there’s a car in your blind spot.”
Hector nodded. He checked the other side mirror and noted the light there as well. His Civic had nothing like this. “Useful,” Hector said.
“The safety features in this baby are fantastic,” Phil said. “Everything is so automatic. It’s literally almost impossible to get hurt in this car.”
Hector imagined Maria driving to school on a dark morning with her bookbag in the back seat, maybe a friend or two laughing and talking about their teachers or cute classmates. The car’s multiple protections against accidents might make it okay for her to live a teenager’s life without parents needing to worry every second of every day. Hector and Maya trusted Maria, and adding a trustworthy car made the equation even better.
As they slowed for the red light, Phil smiled. “Want to see the backup camera?”
“Now?” Hector asked.
“This light takes forever,” Phil said. “Might as well use the time. Keep your foot on the brake and slide it into reverse. That’s up and left on the gearshift.”
Hector toggled the strange shifter into reverse, the backup beeper adding to what felt more like playing one of Maria’s video games than shifting a car. The postcard-sized display immediately changed from the radio controls to a fish-eye video of the car behind them. A big, young man sat in the driver’s side, gripping the top of the steering wheel. A woman occupied the passenger seat, and Hector could see a small child wiggling around in the safety seat secured in the back.
“Cool, huh?” Phil said.
“Yeah,” Hector replied. Even this brief glance showed him how practical the backup camera was. The driver wouldn’t have to pivot back and forth between side-view mirrors or rely on the narrow view from the rear-view. And the video was surprisingly vivid and clear. He could make out the detail of each knuckle flexed on the steering wheel.
Three cars ahead, the light changed to green. Hector popped the car back into drive and pulled forward with the traffic.
“That’s weird,” Phil said.
“What?” Hector asked.
“The backup camera’s still on.” Phil tapped the screen, nudged the gearshift.
Hector looked down to see the car behind still framed in the screen. He saw the driver gesturing and the woman leaning away.
“It always goes off when the car comes out of reverse,” Phil said. “This doesn’t make …" His voice trailed off for a second. “Hey, I think that’s—”
Phil’s words cut off as he sucked in air through his suddenly tight throat. Hector glanced at the video screen. In the car behind them, something happened quickly, a flash of movement, then another, both violent. It all happened so fast that Hector had trouble processing it for an instant. Then the image shifted and reverted to the sound-system control display.
After a three-second delay, Hector’s brain stitched together what his eyes just took in. Pain flashed from his chest out through his arms as his heart hammered. There was no mistaking the scene that just played out, no way to deny what he witnessed. “You saw that, right?” Hector said.
Phil said, “I don’t know what I saw.”
“That guy just hit her,” Hector said. Phil remained silent, his eyes glazed forward. Hector’s voice rose. “He hit her!” He tapped the screen where the image had been seconds before. “You saw it! Twice. He hit her twice!”
Just then, a horn blared from behind them. Hector realized he had slowed to a near stop, and the car behind roared around him in the left lane, a lane reserved for turning, not passing. Hector caught a glimpse of the woman in the passenger seat, dark hair dangling and her hand covering her downturned face. The car swerved back to the right and sped ahead, weaving through more traffic. For an instant, Hector considered flooring the gas pedal to give chase. But traffic was too heavy, and he was unfamiliar with this car. Suddenly, his hands felt heavy on the steering wheel and he had to remind himself to breathe.
“Dammit!” he hissed. “Did you see the license plate?”
“I …” Phil stammered. “I don’t know.” He stared straight ahead. “Pull over.”
“What?” Hector replied. “Where?”
“Anywhere,” Phil said, pointing. “Here. This gas station. Pull in.”
Hector cut the wheels and clipped the curb, bouncing them against the belts and a couple of inches off their seats. He zipped into a parking space and stopped abruptly, not used to the brakes, yanking them against their seat belts one more time.
The hybrid engine ticked and then idled soundlessly. They could hear each other breathing. Hector looked at Phil, who still stared straight ahead, face a flush of pink across his smooth cheekbones, making him look even younger.
“We have to call the police,” Hector said, pulling his phone from his pocket.
“No! Wait!” Phil snapped.
“No?” Hector said, straining to control his voice. “He just backhanded her. He just assaulted her. You saw that! That’s a crime. We need to call the police. Did you see the plate number? What kind of car—”
“It’s my car!” Phil interrupted.
“Your car? What?” Hector stammered.
“My car,” Phil repeated.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Hector shouted.
Phil winced and curled his tall frame deep into the seat. “It’s from the dealership. My dealership. I mean, my dad owns the dealership. Bonderton Toyota. I’m Phil Bonderton. That’s one of our cars.”
Hector stared at Phil. “I don’t understand.”
“I don’t really work there, not really.” Phil’s words ran out of him now. “I’m home from college for break. My dad makes me pull a couple of shifts selling cars. He thinks I’m going to work there after college, but I don’t want to. I don’t know what I want, but I know I don’t want to sell cars forever. I do it just to keep him off my back. He’s going to be so mad when I tell him. I’ve been putting it off. But my brother works there. Worked there for years. He loves it.”
Hector stared at Phil. “I still don’t get it. We need to call 9-1-1.”
Phil turned to look at Hector. His eyes were red. “That was my brother. That was Tim. He just hit Marcie, his wife. Tim hit Marcie. I should have seen this coming. That was my nephew in the back seat. That’s Jimmy. I think I saw Jimmy crying. I’m Jimmy’s godfather, whatever that means. Holy shit.”
Both men looked at each other for a long moment. Hector took a deep breath, blew it out slowly. He looked around the gas station parking lot. People filled their tanks, stuffed trash into the cans, popped open soda cans, unwrapped candy bars, and went about their day as if nothing insane had just happened. He looked away when he saw a dark-haired teenager who reminded him of Maria climbing out of a small car. When Hector looked back at Phil, the younger man was staring at his clownish big feet between ludicrously bent knees. Hector thought he looked like the world’s tallest twelve-year-old.
“We have to call the police,” Hector said.
Phil sniffled, wiped his face with his sleeve.
“Hey!” Hector said, nudging Phil’s arm. “The police. We have to call now.”
Phil nodded. He held his phone in his lap but made no move to use it.
“Now,” Hector said, softer this time, but insistent.
“Okay,” Phil said, stirring himself as if waking from a dream. “The police. Right. 9-1-1. You’re absolutely right.”
“You want me to do it?” Hector asked.
“No,” Phil said. “Thanks, but I’ve got to do this.” He lifted his cell phone. “It’s family. You drive back us to the dealership. I’ll call.”
“It’s the right thing,” Hector said.
Phil nodded, repeated, “the right thing.” He tapped his phone screen as Hector let out a long breath and pulled the car back into traffic. Phil cleared his throat, preparing himself, and leaned his long torso away from Hector, rolling his shoulder forward against the passenger door. He seemed to be searching for his face in the side-view mirror but the glare kept him from looking himself in the eye.
Then he spoke firmly into the phone: “Dad? Yeah. There’s a problem. Tim. Yeah. He did it again.”

John Sheirer lives in Western Massachusetts and is in his 31st year of teaching at Asnuntuck Community College in Northern Connecticut where he edits Freshwater Literary Journal (submissions welcome). His work has appeared recently in Five Minutes, Wilderness House Literary Review, Meat for Tea, Poppy Road Review, Synkroniciti, 10 By 10 Flash Fiction, The Journal of Radical Wonder, Scribes *MICRO* Fiction, and Goldenrod Review, among others. His latest book is Stumbling Through Adulthood: Linked Stories. Forthcoming in fall 2023 is For Now: One Hundred 100-Word Stories.