All Is Bright (18)

A Christmas Eve story in 24 installments 23 hr edit

Eighteen

Larry is again behind the wheel but has no idea where or how long he’s been driving. He is no longer drunk, or at least not as drunk as when he first came home. The fight with Michelle—the one-sided onslaught—sobered him, as did the gripping blast of cold air that hit him as he stepped outside. Though he would probably fail a sobriety test, he is alert, driving straight and steady, being neither a threat to others or a candidate for being pulled over by the police. But he seems to drive only on pure instinct, his consciousness all internal, his attention drawn entirely inward. 

As the Buick rolls through the west side streets, he obsesses over his life, the life that brought him here, the life he has now. The choices he has made and the problems they have caused. At some point he turned off the radio—he never heard that Stones song he had wanted—and remains in complete silence. 

For however long he’s been driving he hasn’t passed another car. This might have seemed logical—late on Christmas Eve, but still two hours before Midnight Mass—had he been at all aware of his surroundings, which he isn’t. But the absence of other cars was so pronounced, even to his subconscious mind, that as he paused at a four-way stop to let another car take its turn before him, he suddenly realizes that, yes, it’s another car. Everything about the car—the angle of the windshield, the posture of the driver leaning into the wheel, the salt stains on the fender, the shape of the taillights—jumps out at him in vivid detail. He is fully awake, his mind and vision clear.

He finds himself alone and longs for company, but recalls just enough about his evening to know that he can’t go home. And that tonight there are few places he can go. He thinks that his best opportunity might be downtown. He looks up at the street sign and is shocked to realize how far he must have driven. He turns the car to the east, and drives on. 

The downtown streets are barren, every building dark and parked cars only scattered here and there. At each intersection he cranes his neck to peer down the side street in both directions, but sees nothing. He tries to remember what he saw during his first drive through, coming back from the Christmas party, but comes up with nothing until finally there is the faint memory of a bright storefront beaming into the night.

He turns from Jessup onto Central, then drives the three blocks north to Chapman where he pauses for a red light. On the green he turns, looks ahead and sees the lit-up diner, and is relieved only for an instant before he then sees a squad car at the curb. He freezes, braking the car down to a slow roll as he feels panic well up from deep inside him, and fear of how high his blood-alcohol level might still be. But he sees the squad car’s brake lights briefly flick on, then off as it angles into the left lane and drives away. 

He feels his throbbing heart begin to slow, and slowly accelerates the car until he finally pulls into a parking space on the opposite side of the street.