Mile Marker 327

Mile Marker 327 by J. Kuzmier --  photo by John B. at JohnBdigital.com     

Life is hell. The preachers got it all wrong with all their fear, fire and brimstone. Hell isn’t a place that God sends the naughty after they drop dead.

Want to know why? Here’s why: God’s the devil. Hell is all he ever created. And that’s where we’re stuck, for all goddamned eternity.

This is Foster’s grand conclusion about God, as he passes Mile Marker 228 on the national highway in his ancient Dodge Dart. He notices his burner phone on the passenger seat, and for some reason this sparks a momentary pitch for a bad public service announcement in his mind. Did you remember that God doesn’t give a shit about you today?

When he condemns the Higher Power for what seems like the umpteenth time in a day, he’s traveling eastbound on his oh-so favorite national highway for his oh-so lucrative profession. It’s the same road every day, for what’s been over a decade now. Only the mile markers where his journey begins and ends differ.

On some level, it’s as though the real Foster exists somewhere else. Like he’s watching some cinematic shell-like version of himself on a bad infomercial. The real Foster, wherever or whomever he is, has a real awesome exquisite treat. He gets to watch the shell version of himself rotting away like bad horsemeat. In an overheated rust-bucket excuse of a car, a million year old Dodge Dart. On the same exact damn road, day after week after month after year. No way off, no exit ramp, no throughway, no way out. What a total gourmet buffet that must be to sample.

When did it all get like this? And how? Foster doesn’t remember. He probably doesn’t want to, hiding demons deep in a psychic closet that he lost track of a long time ago. But truthfully, Foster doesn’t even know if he cares. And God, in his infinite and omnipotent silence, sure as hell seems like he doesn’t either. So it’s just up to Foster, him and himself locked in some kind of unholy trinity. Whether it’s the imaginary shell version of himself, or the real deal live in the flesh, Foster’s condemned to roam this road alone. All while everything around him burns to hell. Including himself, literally.

Speaking of hell, he observes his surroundings. The unseasonably hot March temperatures are burning up the landscape, along with the interior of his ancient Dart. Drought parches the land, consuming it with its own rabid thirst. It reminds him for a moment that he drank his last water an hour ago.

But Foster doesn’t have time to worry about useless things like dehydration. The threat of violent death has a way of crystalizing priorities, writing most things off as useless trivia. The down side to this? It’s hard to appreciate anything, when he knows in the end it’s all pointless. Even God’s given up on all of it.

At this point in the road-to-nowhere’s game, Foster drifts the same cows that he always does wilting in the sun. March shouldn’t be a time for wilting, but with this winter, nothing even got a chance to even freeze. What kind of cows are they? Foster has no idea, even after a decade plus whatever amount seeing the various characters. They’re always the same bland color, somewhere between off-white and a hue Foster can only describe as off-brown. Did mud do that? Did God paint them that way? Who knows and who cares. God probably didn’t care, so why should he?

Toasting Foster’s mood, the region is appropriately decorated with trailers that resemble bombed fallout shelters. Overgrown weeds sprout all about them, peeking through the cracks of what once must have been driveways to a place that once was home to someone, sometime long ago.

While viewing the decay surrounding him, Foster imagines a nuclear bomb tearing through the grasses while the doomed residents throw rotten eggs at the death missile. He decides they’re the kind of people who won’t go without a fight. Even if it’s a useless one, and they go out anyway. God seemed to love to see people uselessly squirm. It would explain why so many humans got a kick out of watching hamsters run aimlessly in a wheel. Made in the Creator’s image, right?

There was a time in Foster’s life when he believed what he did mattered, that his actions had consequences, and so morality meant something. But not anymore, and not for a long time. The Lord who supposedly knit him in his mother’s womb seemed to not give a shit about him, or about anyone for that matter.

Foster wonders why it bothers him at all. It’s obvious to him the deity doesn’t care about one lousy goddamned cell on this earth, letting the whole thing burn up because of careless jackasses like him. Being bothered about God was energy on wasted on useless anger. He decides he should direct his concerns to his own survival, since it’s all up to him anyway.

What Foster does know is that right now he has to complete this lame-ass journey by 2pm. On a road like this with a high speed limit, it shouldn’t be a problem. Not normally, at least.

But that’s only if he runs into absolutely no obstacles at all, no soccer moms trying to dress their kids while driving, no construction delays, no accidents along the way. It’s only not a problem if Foster was dealing with a merciful employer, one who was flexible with the time of delivery. Which, with Foster’s luck, of course he isn’t. Not today, anyway. Foster’s timing is taking him right down to the wire, with only moments to spare. He doesn’t like that narrow knife’s edge, not at all.

How Foster got such a slow start, he’s not exactly sure. Maybe because his air conditioning quit on him over an hour ago, so now everything else was shot to hell along with it. Who the hell would have thought he’d need air conditioning anyway, this early in the year? At this latitude, closer to the arctic than the tropics?

Well, there’s not much Foster can do to about it. He’ll have to just hope that his timing is just right, with no distractions thrown in his path.

For one, Foster can’t go any faster, can’t risk being pulled over. As far as trolling cops went, this road was pretty much the gold star for his line of work. It had the fewest amount of cops looking to feed their speed ticket quota with traps and radar.

That being said, it didn’t mean the lawmen with their speed traps didn’t exist here. In Foster’s supremely lucky experience, cops had a way of showing up when least expected. Because of that, he had to stay under the radar in the most literal sense. He had to pretend he was a super-conscientious citizen, despite the time crunch he faced. It was ironic that even in the road’s wilderness, he still had a timecard of sorts to punch.

And somehow he has to remember this lunatic agenda, all while simultaneously forgetting the terror waiting for him at the journey’s end. So that means, somehow he’s got to keep two things in his head, while simultaneously ridding his mind of both. It’s Multitasking for Grey Market Couriers 101. Now, who said he never had higher education?

It’s because of this bizarre balancing act why he quit drinking a year ago, to keep his wits about him. At least, it’s the main reason. Foster doesn’t bother to think about reason number two, keeping his corrupt meth-addicted parole officer off of his back.

Regardless of his reasoning, whether it’s door number one or two, or it’s behind some portal to the outer edge of the universe, his whole lifestyle choice translates into the fact that he’s a sober con man. A nonsmoking one at that, as he plugged up that hole several years earlier. Yet the way he lives is a whole new meaning for being on the fence. It’s like he’s a character added into a noir graphic novel for comic relief. How’s that for keeping it simple, stupid?

To add to the absurdity of it all, he even goes occasionally to sober meetings. Hearing their war stories helps him fight temptation, reminding him that with just one small mistake, just one more drunk escapade behind the wheel, and back in prison he’d go. The generosity of his employers might have worked to keep him out this time around, but there already had been too many times to count. In money man’s terms, Foster was in the red when it came to debts owed to the people who paid him. Convicted two-time felons didn’t get a lot of choices to work with, he’s found.

So, he’s stayed sober. Just so he can stay on the outside. It isn’t the end of the world, because drinking only brought him black eyes, sore knuckles, two costly divorces, and a manslaughter indictment.

In fact, he’s only found one really big problem with the sober life so far. Booze wasn’t available anymore to sentence his emotions to a cryogenic chamber. Thus, all the demons he buried in past drunken binges constantly threatened to reawaken, always when least expected. Sort of like when cops popped up on this road. When those hidden ghost did resurrect, it always felt like meeting bit characters in a bad zombie movie for leftover coffee at an all-night-diner.

But on the plus side? One that was a very, very important entry on the ledger? Being sober helped him navigate dangerous terrain with the psychotic black market entrepreneurs, the ones that kept him alive and in the black. It was just enough a margin to risk a chance meeting with his own dark side.

To help his current mental balancing act, he decides to roll down the windows in his ancient Dodge Dart. If anything, it will help him stay awake, sucking out the heat that’s sucking him. It would have been nicer just to have air conditioning, but he can’t complain. The Dart is a car that has seen better days, but it’s better cover than the brand new models he can afford, year after year. Screw Big Brother with his EDRs and GPS systems. Nope, no thanks.

Foster exhales deeply, breathing out some deep torpor he can’t identify. Maybe it’s heat exhaustion. Or just sheer psychic fatigue. He really has no goddamned idea anymore.

He’s driven this highway for what, how many years now? Hell, even he’s forgotten. All just to fence packages of shit between Psychopath A in the beginning to Psychopath B in the end. What kind of shit, one might ask? Drugs? Guns? Severed fingers? Freshly cut eyeballs served on a bed of dry ice? Foster has goddamned no idea. Never did, in fact. He was never told, and he never asked. Seemed safer all around that way, or something like that.

Today’s Psychopath B? He’s a real hot one, just like the air Foster’s dealing with. Psychopath B wanted his package at 2pm sharp. No later. No sooner. Deposited in garbage can. Behind a gas station located at Mile Marker 357, just before the state border.

Foster has been informed that after completing that phase of the mission, he is to buy a pack of cigarettes that he hasn’t smoked in a year while Psychopath B inspects the package. It’s also been explained to Foster that couple of goons will meet up with him in the gas station. ‘ To see to his needs’, of course, which was basically hitman shorthand for babysitting him. So if he’s supposed to be killed he doesn’t run off.

After all of that, the kind gentlemen will escort him to his Dart if fate’s coin tosses in favor of letting him live. Foster doesn’t really consider what the other side of the coin means. His sanity depends on believing it will never flip that way. Not so strange, he considers, as so far that’s the way the coin has turned. He’s still here, after all.

Foster likes to believe it helps his odds that the requisite money has already been taken care of, or so he’s been informed. All he has to do is get the requisite package to the requisite garbage can. What’s in the requisite package? Well, it was none of his lowlife goddamned concern. That is, other than the fact that his life was in the hands of a psychotic.

Foster has dealt with him before, today’s Psychopath B. He’s always been a finicky kind of crazy man. Hot under the sun, just like the air that Foster’s stifled by. Foster had seen him kill a man or two, just because he didn’t like what was in his horoscope that day. The global warming of psychopaths, heating up as the market got tighter.

For example, today’s Psychopath B had a whole slew of men willing to kill for him. That being said, there were times he take matters in his own hands. Sometimes, literally. Having seen the results of all the killers, Psychopath B and his cronies, Foster would rather take his chances with the paid henchmen. But boring as Foster’s life was, he’d rather avoid limiting his options to a choice between a bullet to the brain or being waterboarded until he dropped dead of a heart attack.

By delivering the right packages, Foster’s managed to avoid dealing considering whether he’s going to be murdered quickly or slowly. He’s also managed to avoid being a three-time felon. Besides sobering up enough to convince the law he was worthy of parole, his job skills are why he’s out of prison at all. His grand career as a courier. All he needed was a little light on his Dart like the corporate pizza delivery guys, and he’d be set for life. Doing business as Get Your Shit Quick, Ltd.

All joking aside, utilizing his one expertise in life is why he’s still free, even though back in Texas he was indicted on a manslaughter charge in a deal gone wrong. He messed with Texas, and Texas was ready to mess with him until his current employer came and saved the day. Connections are everything in this business of survival.

But he couldn’t rest, couldn’t stop. Why? Because there’s a very special package with very important places to be. It’s stashed under the passenger seat along with the gloves he uses to conceal fingerprints, guarded behind his 38 Specialty. That’s his personal pet name for his piece, according to Foster’s infrequent search on the Internet.

God, the marvels of modern technology. In Foster’s line of work, technology wasn’t much of a friend. Staying under the radar, whether that of the police or of the third eye in the sky, was more in keeping with the sentiment of his lifestyle.

So, Foster stayed hidden and silent, as much as he could given he dealt with raging maniacs that made him look sane. Drove the road. Erased himself from the equation, much like the serial numbers on both the 38 and the Glick 19 holstered by his ankle under his jeans, which luckily he hadn’t had to use in a very long time, even for show. And delivered very special packages with very important places to be. The terror of it had become so old that he too numb to realize it.

Even the radio has become tired and old over the years traveling this road. On occasion, he’s wondered what it would like to get apps and satellite radio, pretending he’s part of the twenty-first century rather than a bit character from a nineties Tarantino movie. Because radio for old farts like him has sure gone to shit since the geeks hijacked the radio waves. Every song sounds the same after awhile, he’s found, despite his attempt to change stations.

Take this one station, for example. They promise Foster that his workday will be energized by Today’s Best Hits and Super Songs You Never Forgot. So what does this wonderful platform feature?

Well, there’s a group that yowls like cats getting their rabies shots, their voices scratching and clambering over the bad radio signal. This group’s all the rage, according to the people who know these things. They’re part of the Modern British Invasion Of America 2.0, 3.14, or whatever do-over the trendsetters are plagiarizing nowadays.

Foster’s not buying the hipster bait. To him, the pretty boys from across the pond sound like Menudo Does The Beatles, or more accurately, Menudo Destroys The Beatles. There’s someone else, someone named Queen Gag or Lady Caca, who sounds like Madonna done backwards. Not in a particularly pleasurable way, either.

After all that, as far as Foster’s concerned, the radio may as well go the way of the air conditioner. Straight to hell. But of course, it doesn’t. It never does, just continues barfing hyenas over the white noise at him, while the one station that could possibly save him from this radio hell sounds like a drowning victim in a sea of static. That’s been his luck, over and over.

Over the years, he’s developed different ways of handling this personal crisis. Sometimes he just curses his fate, swearing at the radio the way he can’t swear at anyone else in real life. It helps a bit, keeps his frustration underground so he can go back to his numb state of mind. Other times, he keeps his eyes out for anything interesting that will keep him going, like now.

This particular torture run, he thinks about other trips he’s taken on the road. There’s the very fascinating time early in his career when he counted how many Baptist churches there were in a precise two hundred mile drive, from Mile Marker 3 to 203. There were 132 of them in total.

On that divinely inclined trip, Foster delivered a box outside a warehouse by Mile Marker 206. As usual, he had no idea what was inside the box. He only knew that whatever was in it compelled the recipient to threaten to shoot him, because he thought the inventory was short.

Luckily for Foster, the belligerent customer’s right hand individual went through the product again, and found out his boss had miscalculated. Which probably got the assistant shot afterwards, for humiliating his boss in front of a delivery boy, Foster thought once he was safe. Whatever happened there, at least Foster had made it out, the first of many near misses.

When Foster thought he was going to die that day, he thought of the 127th Baptist church he passed by Mile Marker 187. He’d passed by it today, in fact. Still looked exactly the same, just like everything around here was the same. It looked like a duplicate the church he got dedicated in all those years ago, a plain but huge tannish brick conglomerate with a big white cross dressing its front. Maybe they all looked like that, or maybe that was just his cynicism talking.

On the day that Foster was almost offed by the client and thought of that good house of God, he apparently still had a half of molecule of innocence. Because he thought that if he walked into that church to beg for forgiveness, God would strike him down with lightning after the life he lived. Which meant at that point, he still assumed God gave a shit about what he did. Foster even had a foxhole prayer as the insane customer cocked his piece by his temple, asking God to save him. He did, apparently. Or maybe the customer just didn’t like blood on his leather couch. Foster had an inkling it was more the latter than the former.

Regardless, Foster lived through that day. Even now he remembers how that whole evening he tasted metal in his mouth, and couldn’t get it out for shit. He gargled, drank vodka, smoked a pack of cigarettes, and finally begged God for mercy. Everything he could possibly do to purge himself, he did it all.

Perhaps God had been responsible for saving his ass that day. But apparently Foster was pushing his luck, asking God to exorcize for the metal taste of death from him. Because all that night, the next day and the next, God let Foster suffer with the sensation of iron mashed in his mouth, no matter what Foster asked.

It was then that Foster decided that God was messing with him, and enjoying it. Just like he had all those years before, when Foster realized his own heart had no worth. Now, God himself didn’t either.

In any event, Foster went right back to the life the next day after surviving that ordeal. He did the same thing and drove the same road he had every other day before that. And after that initial encounter with a gun barrel of doom, he cheated death so many times that he didn’t even keep count. He’d witnessed so many others not surviving, he’d forgotten to be horrified.

Spending years of his life this way, Foster settled on a new line of logic. Thinking God would strike him down for entering a house of worship would imply The Divine One cared. But God wouldn’t strike him down. Not because he was a god of mercy. What a line of bullshit that was, anyway.

No, God wouldn’t strike Foster down, because God just didn’t give a shit. That was the real Divine Truth that no preacher would have the guts to ever say. They were too busy thinking man was so important to God, that God would kill off his son. For no other reason than because humans were a bunch of narcissistic dipshits. But Foster knew that was a line of bullshit, too. God only killed his son off because he became human, and so he didn’t care about him, either. Hell, God even dissed Jesus in the garden before Judas sold him off to his executioners.

Foster decides to forget the lovely fact that the Creator was a stuck-up and indifferent fool. So he thinks of other lovely games he’s played on the road over the years, to kill time and white noise. There was the time when he noted how many diners there were in a fifty mile stretch, from Mile Marker 73 to 123. The number totaled 20. That time, like today, he was in a rush. But just like then, his stomach growled just thinking about diner food. No matter how greasy it could possibly be, it sounded good to him. Better than what he was doing with his life instead. To think of it, all the luxury he had with easy money and not sitting behind the desk, and yet he wasn’t even free to just stop and get a lousy greaseball of a hamburger if he felt like it.

As if sensing his mood, another diner whizzes by him. It’s just past the hospital near Mile Marker 310. Foster’s assailed by a yearning stronger than hunger that tempts him to stop everything, and turn into its parking lot. It’s as though his soul wants to climb out of him, escaping into the world of greasy food forever.

But instead, he ignores the impulse and stays on the straight path he’s created. He stays put, and he stays centered. His soul, such as it is, remains trapped in the vortex of the winds surrounding the car. As he does. the diner disappears further and further behind him. Then, like a child denied its candy, his soul sulks back into his body. It’s a very reluctant occupant, Foster notices.

The diner is still calling out to him when something else catches his eye, a brief flicker of orange. He takes his eyes of the road for a moment to see that it’s a butterfly, an off-season, off-course one.

It’s not supposed to be here, not at all. He’s ignorant of entomology, just as he’s ignorant of most things. He has no idea what kind of butterfly it is other than it’s orange. He’d be one of those turds that would assume it’s a monarch, while those with half a brain to care would have roll their eyes at what a moron Foster is.

But stupid as he is about anything worthwhile, even Foster knows that butterflies are supposed to either go south. That, or hide in some tree cave because of the snow and cold. They generally wouldn’t be flying around in the cold and snow. Which was supposed to happening this time of year.

And yet here it is, a butterfly flying through an early March summer breeze that shouldn’t even exist in one’s imagination. The butterfly flutters freely through the sky, like it doesn’t have a care in the world besides the global warming that shit humans stuck it in.

For a moment, Foster is transported. The butterfly, innocent looking as it is, cuts into his memories. Slicing through his personal psychic armor in a way that no violence can, it brings him back to a self that was no longer belonged to him. It carries him to a time he had hoped to forget, because he’d destroyed it so utterly. A shadow of a voice asks him, Did you know a flying butterfly can make it have a hurricane in another part of the world?

The butterfly dissolves as quickly as it appears. So does the sliver of the voice, like both were apparitions sent by the God-devil himself to simply haunt and taunt him. Foster searches the sky for the butterfly ghost, but it’s like looking for the whisper of himself from a long time ago. Something he promised himself he’d never do.

Besides, that sliver of himself was a lost cause anyway. That was the boy who had believed God cared, the one who believed when the good shepherd pastor at church said God watched over everything you did. That God cared, and remembered it all. Foster has to remind himself that he decided that particular God died a long time ago. Maybe he never even existed. And maybe that was so, for the boy who believed in his loving promises as well.

Foster’s distracted lamentation almost causes him to flame out. He’s veered off course so much, he’s almost into the ditch on the side of the road. Swerving violently, he regains his original trajectory. But not before an angry horn blares from behind him. Foster looks into his rear view mirror to have the pleasure of witnessing some jerk turning onto the highway at full speed. All while driving up Foster’s ass, blaming dickwad impatience on Foster.

Instantly, there’s no more than two yards of room between him and his tailgate stalker. A closer scan tells Foster that his harasser is, of all things, a suburban dad in a minivan with his family in tow. The irony of the situation makes him laugh. Foster’s the two-time felon who’s still fencing for the black market. Yet who’s the one getting tailgated here?

The asshole behind him resembles the picture perfect dad out for a Sunday drive, except it’s a Wednesday afternoon. In the passenger seat, there’s a blonde chick holding a baby. The baby’s bouncing up and down on the chick’s lap, according to Foster’s rear view mirror. And apparently, bouncing a baby on your lap is quite conducive to putting on makeup, according to what he observes the chick in the passenger seat is doing.

In the midst of this wholesome scene, Daddy Dearest is showing Foster his hand, implying to read between the lines. All while running up Foster’s ass. Foster responds to this friendly nonverbal statement by tapping lightly on his brakes, just enough to trigger his brake lights. Foster has to laugh when he sees the asshole practically skid off the road in panic.

Not surprisingly, the asshole’s next move is to veer to his left in an desperate attempt to pass Foster. Both chick and baby flail in their seats as he does, and the chick throws something inscrutable at the asshole’s head, possibly her cosmetic kit. Mr. Asshole Daddy Dearest then turns his wrath towards the chick, throwing whatever it was right back at her, missing the baby by inches as she holds the infant above her head.

Christ, Foster thinks. This looks exactly like the kind of guy that in public is the chief elder of his church and president of the Elk’s Club chapter, but then beats the shit out of his wife the minute the doors are closed. It’s mostly what Foster has seen of these kinds of assholes in his life, and a minor fact as to why Foster gave up on a civilized God with a temperate flock. God was only proving to Foster what a shit world he created with this scene going on.

At this point, the only obstacle preventing the stupid jackass from cutting Foster off is oncoming traffic. There’s a tractor-trailer coming the other way, followed by another, and another, and another. The asshole behind him is reduced to screaming and fuming, and Foster is not surprised to see the faces of both the woman and the infant reduced to a featureless, beaten beet-red. Their world is crumbling around them, and nothing would stop it, maybe not even leaving the piece of shit driving the minivan. The guy would probably kill both of them before letting them go anywhere out of his sight. Or at the very least, slander the chick’s name on Facebook so she could never get laid or have a legitimate paycheck again in her life. Then, kidnap the kid for good measure.

Just when this scenario couldn’t get more like a bad video game, another clown decides to walk on stage. At first, it’s hard to tell from Foster’s vantage point grabbing glimpses in his rear-view mirror. But it appears that a second vehicle behind him has also decided that Foster drives too much like a blind grandpa. For just as the oncoming traffic clears and the asshole in the minivan tries to overtake him, a red pick-up truck tries to jump into the lane to overtake the both of them.

This day is just full of surprises, Foster thinks. If only it didn’t have a psychopath waiting for him at the end of the road, it suddenly would be a really fun and exciting day.

At first, Foster is entertained by observing both vehicles swerving back and forth, engaged in a bad game of attempted chicken. He watches as the asshole Daddy Dearest alternates between giving the finger to him, and the guy next to him in the red pickup truck. If he weren’t in such a rush, Foster would slow down even more just to amp up the fireworks. This is the most action that he’s seen in months on the road. It almost makes him forget how hot it is, how bad the radio is, and where he had to be at the end of the day.

There’s a religious cross hanging from the rearview mirror of the red pickup truck, Foster observes. It’s not that hard to decipher, as the monstrosity is almost the size of the pickup’s windshield. The pickup driver has made it relatively easy for Foster to notice the relic, as he almost overtakes the minivan in the wrong lane.

But alas, he doesn’t quite succeed. Daddy Dearest makes a defensive cut by swerving menacingly at him. Which forces Mr. Religion to back in the line again. Amen brother, Foster thinks with irony as he sees Mr. Religion flipping the bird in response to Daddy Dearest’s moves, the crucifix flailing to and fro in tandem to the truck’s reckless driving skills.

Well now, wholesome day that this is, the poor excuse of a family man now has two objects of his narcissistically justified wrath. He guns his engine just enough so the pickup truck can’t edge in front of him. In fact, he’s literally kissing Foster’s Dart ass. The pickup truck responds to this by coming within inches of the minivan. Like a crazed grownup version of a toddler saying, ‘so there’. The baby in the minivan seemed more mature.

But Family Guy? This oh-so-awesome dude has decided he isn’t going to let anyone mess with him. He jams on the brakes, so Foster starts to lose the tail of both of them. But lucky him, it isn’t too long before the two yahoos catch up with him displaying a pointless peacock preening of their five-millimeter egos. Given this display of pathetic competition, Foster surmises that their other sign of manhood is even smaller than that.

This conclusion amuses him. Especially when a sports car, probably a Firebird, one that maybe was the last of its kind, appears out of nowhere in the opposite lane. The brilliant arrow of a vehicle forces both of Foster’s adversaries to spin out. Like chastised children with scolding elders watching, they right themselves back into the correct driving lane. The car soars past them in a flaming ball of orange just like its namesake, and the orange butterfly that Foster had observed earlier. Foster had just realized this, but then the car disappears. Just like it never had been there. Just the way the butterfly had been.

Foster doesn’t know who to feel sorrier for, as both jackasses seemed to have stirred up their own personal hornet’s nest. Shit like this was why Foster had no trouble justifying why he stayed on the path he rode. Get on an ant trail to join up with morons like this? No goddamned thanks. He’d rather get his ass blown up by his psychopath employers.

Because Foster comes to this conclusion regarding his loving neighbors relatively soon, it isn’t too long before the novelty of their stupidity becomes tedious. Back and forth, back and forth they go. One practically knocks one off the road, then the other one gets a try, on and on, same same same over and over again.

Foster wants to pull out his Glock just to get rid of the two morons, rationalizing it as a mercy killing of rabid dogs. He doesn’t, simply because he knows jackasses like that aren’t worth the jail time. And he’s so late, he can’t afford to stop his car just to do waster a couple of bullets. If he stops at all, he’ll have a different jailkeeper to face.

Besides, there isn’t even a shoulder anymore to pull over in this part of the highway to lose them, let alone shoot them. The road is now just a long stretch of rural road, with drain-off ditches where the sides of the road should have been.

That means he’s hit the doldrums of the highway. Nothing for miles and miles but a deserted butterfly sanctuary at Mile Marker 327, and a couple of burnt out trailers. Nothing but him, and two stupid yahoos that have even less than a life than he does, getting off on being useless dickwads to total strangers.

The sense of absurdity long burnt out, he returns to his state of heated torpor, fighting off sleep. Once, he even catches himself nodding off. Luckily, it’s during a portion of the road where it’s shooting straight, no curves at all.

Adrenaline courses through him, causing him to slam on his brakes in newly wakened panic. He’s not surprised to see his buddies behind him take advantage of his momentary delay by gunning past him, nearly sideswiping his Dart with their vehicles as they do.

Like the wannabe showmen they seem to be, Foster isn’t surprised by their farewell salutations to him. First, comes the occupants of the minivan. Their encore consists of both the woman and the man screaming at him, giving him the finger like unthinking turds.

He waits for the baby to join the up-yours fracas, but he/she doesn’t. Foster decides that perhaps the infant doesn’t know what reading between the lines is yet. It seems like that lesson will have to wait until preschool, when his/her buddies teach him/her on the jungle bars. Then, Mommy and Daddy will lament how MTV and YouTube ruined their child, while they were nothing but oh-such good souls. But for now, just like before, the kid remains the wisest grownup of them all.

Next comes the pickup truck’s performance. This audition entails sitting on his horn and frothing at his mouth. Foster doesn’t have trouble deciding that the driver’s writhing enthusiasm has nothing to do with the flames of the Holy Spirit. The crucifix held captive on the rearview mirror is flopping about so desperately it looks like it would be happier in a recycling plant, hoping for a better fate in the next life coming back as a toothpick.

If it didn’t seem like he was entertaining mental illness, or if God actually gave a shit other than messing with everyone’s mind, Foster would say a prayer of mercy for the relic. But he remembers he doesn’t believe in that shit, so he doesn’t and leaves it to its own fate. Besides, Foster has his own problems.

Like, dealing with the asshole in the pickup truck passing him in the wrong lane. He nearly runs him off the road in the process, but Foster is barely fazed by this umpteenth brush with death. Instead, he uses this close encounter of the moron kind to observe his enemy head on.

This particular charter member of Jerks For Jesus has red hair and a cropped goatee, topped of with a hint of two day shadow. White, thirty-something, Foster observes. Sporting the clean-cut redneck look, the kind where a guy spends an hour every day to look like he’s been out in the woods for days. He has the kind of looks that probably would be considered handsome, that is if he wasn’t so hung up on his bullshit anger, Foster notes.

But really, all the antics went perfectly with the jerk’s presumable mindset. Being so oblivious to his own shit, that he couldn’t see the distortion in his own vehicle’s mirror. And unfortunately, there were plenty of chicks who found rage sexy. Foster knew about that one, all too well. It gave less incentive to ever change.

In the middle of Foster’s somber contemplation, the pickup truck nearly knocks him off the road in passing. As it does, Foster gets to read the bumper stickers it sports on its rear end. Not surprisingly they read, in no particular order: “Put The Christ Back In Christmas and God Back Into Our Schools”, “America Was Founded By Christian Soldiers”, “Liberals Have Sold Our Souls To Socialism”. And of course, this lineup wouldn’t be complete without the all-important “Honk If You Love Jesus” as the cherry topping this cake built upon sand.

So, honk is what Foster does. Just for the hell of it, following the gesture by a big friendly wave with his left hand out the front window. Foster doesn’t feel the least bit hypocritical with these theatrics, as he’s totally down with Jesus Christ. It’s his father that Foster has issues with. Divine Daddy Dearest was the one who fucked his son over by letting him get tortured to death, or so said the legend. All so assholes in the truck in front of him could pretend they could get a free pass to heaven, if they sucked the right heavenly toes. To Foster, honking feels like solidarity with God’s forsaken son.

And how does Foster’s Christian brother respond to his generous gesture of fellowship? Why, by giving Foster the finger, of course. Exactly like the family-friendly group preceding him. What else could be so fitting? Foster can see the digit waving frantically out the driver’s window, as the truck cuts him off during its return to the correct lane. What Would Jesus Do, my friends, in this particular scenario? Apparently, indulge in an extra helping of road rage, if the good Christian patriot was any indication of the Son of God’s divine inclinations. No wonder the Prince of Peace let Judas Iscariot and Pontius Pilate waste him, Foster laments. Even he couldn’t put up with this shit anymore.

Foster stares at his two frenemies becoming smaller in the distance, almost vanishing but not quite. With their near disappearance, he’s on the verge of returning to a state of nothingness that he desperately craves. It’s a state he feels has eluded him, despite his efforts to push all that he hates about his life underground. Numbness is not quite nothingness. He’s heard it called nirvana in some circles, one being a chick he dated while still drunk. Numbness is not the same as bliss. Not the same as inner peace. Not the same at all.

His mind feels like the strange wilderness around him, something that should be familiar after all this time, but yet he can’t identify. Here in the vast valley of high grasses and hidden trailers, he’s not exactly able to place where he is. It’s probably before the defunct butterfly sanctuary at Mile Marker 327. The dilapidated sign decorated with the forlorn orange monarch stands out simply because it’s the only thing of significance for miles and miles. This wasteland is not helping his mind from feeling like a black hole sucking him in.

Trying to place himself on the road, he tries remembering if he saw the sign any time soon. He has no memory of doing so, but it’s possible he overlooked it while playing badly with others. Or maybe he just truly forgot seeing it. His life is so automatic, so boring, that even the one milestone along the way can’t pierce his oblivion. The static from his radio seems to concur with his nihilism, agreeing that nothing he or anyone else did in this world would ever change a thing.

In a hazy state of mind, Foster’s attention wanders to the radio’s white noise. Even the radio was muddled from too many signals, he thinks with irony. Foster hears a voice again, the same long ago one that reminded him about butterflies and far-flung hurricanes. It says, did you know that white noise is the combination of all frequencies of sound? So you can’t know one from the other? And, Do you think that white noise is the voice of everyone who has died? Or the voice of God?

Foster’s response is a lame attempt to ignore what he’s channeling. He fiddles with the radio dial, hoping the irritant of bad radio will distract him from what he hears. Diversion was what he’d hoped for. Instead, he’s slammed with the polar opposite as he glides through the spectrum of stations. Muted strains of a particular song reach across the wasteland to his ears, the last notes of a refrain as the song dies away.

Foster hears just enough to identify it as a song called Butterfly, by a group appropriately called Crazy Town. Appropriate, because crazy town was exactly what he felt like, each of the many times Foster was tortured by that song over the years. Always when he least expected it, of course. Like now. The fact that Foster’s in the vicinity of the butterfly sanctuary doesn’t escape him either. God is nothing but a mindfucker, he swears.

Foster curses God for screwing with his head, barely registering the specks of his two frenemies without benefits out on the horizon swerving violently to the left side of the road. He twiddles with the radio dial, only to hear the butterfly song pop up once again somewhere else, like it’s stalking him and his memories.

Cursing his fate, he violently tweaks what he thinks is the tuner. Except in his frustration, he’s gotten hold of the volume control instead, spinning the song to maximum decibel levels. Rage lures his attention to the radio dashboard and away from the road. The sentiment’s venom compels him to punch the radio ten times in futility, before shutting it off for good with a violent twist of the knob.

His internal demons temporarily thwarted by this gesture, Foster returns his eyes to the road. As it turns out, it’s a good thing he does. Because he’s just in time to slam his foot on the brake pedal, a reflex response to an unknown object sprawled in the road. God’s probably messing with his head as usual. But Foster swears he sees a bloodied angel, arms and legs spread wide in some kind of prayer that God will probably ignore.

The heat must be eating up his brain, he decides. Because sitting there in his stopped car, his heart and pulse slamming furiously in his skull, Foster sees absolutely nothing. Not a single thing that resembles an angel, be it heavenly, demonic or otherwise. He’s frozen still in his car, thinking he’s being zapped with otherworldly messages, and then God tells him it’s all a joke by saying nothing’s going on. He’s sitting with his foot slammed on the brake for a hallucination, for something less than a ghost. He’s stopped short for absolutely nothing at all.

Frozen completely numb with fury, his breath feels like fire condemned to burn him alive without the mercy of death. God is a fucking cocksucker, he whispers with feral rage in reply to this whiplash. It’s the same blind venom he felt the time he punched that racist jackass in Texas in the throat, sending him back to the Divine Jokester. However, the Higher Power isn’t so easy to dispatch, and so Foster was stuck with his mental torture probably for the rest of eternity.

Still in his limbo position with his foot on the brake and his car in drive, he settles for slamming his fists onto his steering wheel. His rage eclipses any physical pain he inflicts on himself, so his effort in dispelling its venom is one of utter failure. Was he stupid enough to expect anything different? Of course he was. He was every time. Which is why he is here, sitting in rusted box roasting away with his foot on a brake pedal for an Imaginary Playmate.

Out of spite, Foster almost floors the gas pedal, just to show the Higher Power where he can take his little messages that he uses to bait the flock. Foster almost guns the engine, cops and radar be fucked. Hell, maybe he can catch up to Daddy Dearest and the Redneck Hypocrite, and run them off the road like he should have when he had the first chance. And then for good measure, blast away the psychopath client at the end of the road with his Glock.

His eye catches something on the floor. It’s his burner phone sitting on the floor of the passenger seat, ostensibly a casualty of Foster’s Game of Chicken Thrones. It tells him it’s 1:20. Still with his foot inexplicably on the brake, he absently picks it up and puts in his cargo pants. He’ll be just in time to blow the asshole away for the 2pm deadline, if Foster leaves right this second. Granted, the asshole’s lackeys would take him out, but at least Foster would accomplish something good in the last moments of his life. Have a good death, if not a good life. Or some pathetic shit like that.

Foster almost does all these things, but then he doesn’t. It’s another pesky picture that throws him off his death-wish game. He catches the image off the far corner of his right eye, just as he’s ready to take his foot off the brake. Unmistakable with its bright orange color, he recognizes the painted monarch on the sign highlighting the deserted butterfly sanctuary, just in front of the Mile Marker 327 sign. It speaks to him, not surprisingly, in the voice that haunted him for so many years.

Did you know a flying butterfly can make it have a hurricane in another part of the world?

He wants to reply, this butterfly is dead. Everything that surrounds this place is dead. But as much as he does, in the silence, the voice continues.

Everything we do has consequences. Isn’t it beautiful how much we are connected, in so many ways we can’t even see? Everything we do matters. God remembers everything. It’s in the imprint of his creation. Can’t you see?

No, he couldn’t see. Not then, at least. Back then, he remembered nodding yes. And the girl behind the voice had said to him, No, you don’t. I can tell. I can read you, you know. Love does that. You can read a person’s heart. Everyone can. You don’t see that yet. But you will, I know. One day, you will. I’m sure of it, you will. I can see it in your heart. Because I love you!

The insignia of the butterfly drills into his line of sight as the voice drifts away. As it does, orange spills throughout his field of vision like paint dropped from a skyscraper roof. Indeed, it feels as though paint is truly burning his eyes, blinded as he is by the fiery sea of color. Only then does he realize that a sentry of tears has massed behind the dam of his eyelids, the force of their army storming throughout his brain and his mind.

Clenching his teeth, clamping his eyes shut, he defeats their onslaught. But just barely, only a quark of a microsecond before they flood and drown his face. And not before they scar him, morphing into a pounding fist that pounds throughout his head and temples. It’s as though their next tactic was to explode his head like a squash.

Throughout the attack the painted butterfly in its static innocence remains, like a specimen frozen forever in a child’s bug collection. It’s a deception, of course. Like a mirage of everlasting beauty. When clearly, beauty had to die just to play its part in the hoax. With the rawness of a metaphor that surprises him, the voice returns again full force.

You can read a person’s heart. Everyone can. You don’t see that yet. But you will, I know. One day, you will.

Foster senses the words finishing, but tunes them out by reading the butterfly sign instead. Because the last thing he wants to do is remember. but trains his vision upon the butterfly sign. In small fading letters, the sign says to come visit the monarch butterfly, the official state insect of Texas. It catches him, because he thought he left Texas far behind.

Yet here he is, hundreds of miles away, and here is Texas, right in front of him. He remembers hearing something about a drought in Texas while traveling this very road some time ago, on a public radio station that had long since gone under due to lack of funding. The commentator had said drought and wildfires in Texas were proving fatal to migrating monarchs, literally burning off their food supply of both wildflower nectar and the milkweed which fed the larvae. Fire and brimstone coming in judgement, just like the sermons of his youth said.

You weren’t supposed to mess with Texas, according to state lore and the state’s transportation department. Yet both Foster and global warming had done exactly that. Neither would exactly be welcomed back. What a great life he’d led, to be quarantined into the same category as a worldwide climatological hazard.

Did you know a flying butterfly can make it have a hurricane in another part of the world?

He needs a drink, desperately. If ever there was a time that a hidden fifth of vodka would come in handy, it would be now. Wondering why he had ever been stupid enough to quit the bottle, he swears and curses God.

Screaming in the heated torpor of his car, no one but the reverberations of his own voice reply anything at all to him. Gripping the steering wheel until his knuckles are white as blood-drained death, he feels he’s one step away from insanity going from theoretical to clinical.

But as he rants yet once again, still feeling his foot strangely glued to the brake pedal, he becomes bored by his own juvenile rage. He’s worn out by its uselessness and repetition, of the same repetitive words he’s shouted because of its venom. He cried out in rage during his drunk days, having no cognizance of how stupid he was doing the same thing over and over.

Now sober, or at the very least, dry, he still had changed absolutely nothing in his mental dialogue. Saying the same damn thing, over and over.

If he didn’t expect something different from all of this, then why did he keep hoping for a response of some sort? Maybe he was insane on some level, for hoping something would change while never changing anything about what he said or did. Else, why bother to curse the Creator at all, if Foster didn’t think the Almighty was listening?

With this realization still buzzing through him, he’s left with a sense of loss as to his next move. Somehow, despite his inattention, his foot has remained on the brake while vehicle is still in drive gear. The car’s engine rumbles, grumbling at the standstill it’s forced to wait out.

He identifies with the idling Dart, feeling his limbo synonymous with his aging car, nowhere to go, no good choice good available to him. Let’s see, deal with psychopaths, confront a demon or angel in front of his car, shoot himself, shoot someone else…. well, that was one hell of a diarrheal smorgasbord of options.

But yet, a decision would have to be made. Else, be made for him. That’s the way these things went. Even if nothing meant anything at all, and old spirits from the past claimed otherwise.

To push past the inertia he’s stuck in, he weighs his options, mediocre as the selection might be. These choices seem to exist somewhere at the last edge of reason his mind seems to inhabit. He can take his foot off the brake and resume driving. Then, he can forget about apparitions of butterflies and ghosts that haunt him. Maybe feed the craving of drink invading him, and succumb to oblivion once he survives the day.

Or, he could quell the anxiety provoked by the so-called angelic image. He can simply look for himself, see if he was truly going crazy or not. Simple, just like the good people of the sober meetings liked to suggest was the very best way.

He tries to ignore the shimmering orange butterfly in his visual periphery. But like everything he wants to ignore, his effort only makes the butterfly all the more prominent.

God wants us to be kind to strangers. He sometimes sends angels, to see if we will be as loving to them as he is to us. Did you know that?

One more look at the painted butterfly, and he makes his choice without fully understanding why. Perhaps it’s for no other reason than to pour acid into old wounds. Regardless, his decision creates a chain reaction he wouldn’t have predicted any other day on the road previously.

Cursing so much he doesn’t even know who he’s cursing, he shoves the Dart’s gear selector from drive to park, flips on his hazards like he’s giving some unknown entity the bird, rips off his seatbelt, shuts down the ignition so his whining Dart goes into a sulky silence, throws open the car door without any concern about oncoming traffic, and stomps out of his vehicle to see for himself how crazy he is. It’s 1:24, and he’s thirty miles from his destination. He has just enough time to put this crap to rest before moving on to the next stage of psychopathy in his life.

Somewhere inside himself, he hopes this is all just God screwing with his head as usual. That his witnessing the angelic apparition was something akin sober DTs. Wouldn’t it be his luck that God would afflict him with a psychiatric condition that only one in seven billion people ever suffered? Of course it would. That’s why Foster has no compunction in blaspheming him. Everyone’s getting what they deserved in this deal.

Still mentally absorbed with cursing out God, he reaches the front of his car. Then, he stops cold at what he sees. More accurately, he freezes.

It takes time, valuable time that’s burning away from him, before he even knows that’s what he’s doing. And it takes even longer to recover at what he encounters. But he’s unaware of this. His eyes move without him knowing, because he’s transfixed past what he can conceive.

Lying on the asphalt, as plainly as the scorched grasses surrounding him, is a woman, arms and legs spread like an angel. More accurately, it’s a girl, or at least a girl-woman residing in the hazy years that bridged a child’s life to an adult’s, if the smoothness of her unlined but freckled face was any indication of her age.

The girl-woman’s face, though white and pale and with blue-tinged lips, is unmolested and unblemished enough for Foster to estimate her years on this hellhole. It was one of the few things unmarred on her, from what he observes. It’s as though someone decided to try to take her out with the death of a thousand cuts, but left her face untouched as some kind of warning. The top of her head is surrounded by a bright red halo, like a blood angel of dark omen. It’s coating the crown of her long wavy dark hair, a reign made of thorns.

Much of her exposed skin is marked by crimson slices. Though mostly surface wounds, they are prolific throughout her body. Her feet, her hands, her arms, her shoulders and chest, all of them are pooling with congealed blood. What is left of her clothes after the assault shows she’s wearing a sleeveless yellow baby doll top with black hearts on it, exposing her midriff, no bra from what he can see. Her jeans shorts are stained brown with blood, the fringe at its edges only enhancing the shattered image than making any fashion statement.

Despite the carnage on her upper torso, Foster can detect no knife wound on her exposed legs, although caked blood like a drained river in a drought runs in stripes upon them. She wears only one shoe, a sandal on her right foot. It’s a brown one, exposing each and every one of her toes. The sole on her left foot looks as though it’s been chewed up by a hungry dog.

In what would be an ironic statement if this scene held any humor, all ten of her toes are neatly painted red, all ten nails perfectly rounded. It’s as though her assailant painted her toes with her blood.

Strangely enough, reality might even be worse than the metaphor. Foster realizes this as a foreboding image enters his mind. In this vision, he sees the girl in what looks like a living room, presumably her home. He can hear her Pandora, radio, MP3 player or whatever it is as it blasts hardcore music. The girl sits on a chair with her right foot propped up on a table. She’s painting acrylic on her toenails, veiling them in the crimson red that they wear now.

It’s almost as though without being fully aware of it, she was clothing herself in the colors of violence she would wear today. Perhaps some part of her was dressing herself her funeral, which seems only moments away from now.

Her nails were shiny then, and she was laughing. Her nails are dulled now, and her laugh has been choked into silence. How could she have known she might die today, if she was laughing? Or did she laugh because she knew that no matter what happened today, somehow she’d be saved? Not by him, obviously. Who the fuck was he, to play hero to anyone? Hadn’t he let absolutely everyone down already?

His attention returns to his present circumstances, and the figure at his feet. The girl-woman, or what is left of her, lies only inches away from his front tires, and even fewer from Foster’s where Foster stands. The sign to the butterfly sanctuary and the mile marker 327 lay just past her. Foster realizes that if he had chosen to let his foot off the brake without reversing, he would have crushed her, worse than she was now. Her chest rises and falls, albeit barely. If he had defied the impulse to keep his foot on the brake, she would most likely be dead.

With his multitaksing prowess lost and his ultimate destination forgotten, every bit of his being is now fixated on the wounded doll in front of him. Before, it was just a theory that God was messing with his head. Now, he knows it. For absolute surety, he does.

Surrounded by this chrysalis of numbed fear, every sensory detail he experiences is magnified exponentially. Sound punches into him, like an alarm in a torture chamber. Hot wind rips through him, transforming itself from a breeze to fiery roar. A pulsing, whirring noise shocks him, as though he’s stepped on an electric plug steeped in standing water. When he realizes it’s the rumbling engine of his Dart that’s tripped him up, he feels like he’s slipping. Because even things that are familiar beyond routine seem like alien nightmares.

And all the while, the body still lies there near his feet. Unmoving, and waiting. For what? Come to think, of it what is it that he’s waiting for? He can’t even answer that, let alone move in response.

He should go, that’s what he should do. For all he knew, this girl was some kind of decoy, and someone was lying in wait to ambush him. His reasoning, flawed as it is, reminds him what he’s doing, who he’s been dealing with, and what he’s about. Surviving, at whatever the cost. It’s what he’s been about, for as long as he wants to remember.

But there had been a time before…

You can read a person’s heart. Everyone can. You don’t see that yet. But you will, I know. One day, you will. I’m sure of it, you will. I can see it in your heart. Because I love you!

He’s staring into a blur of orange when the voice pierces him yet once again. It occurs to him that the bottle he nursed over the years was the pacifier to shield him from its melody. Now, naked before its power, slammed against every metaphor possible to drum its tenor into his current reality, he has nowhere to run from it. It’s as though the body of the girl beneath him was the bookend to the nightmare he’d run from for so many years, reminding him of another dying girl that stole his soul with her last breaths on earth.

Blinking away the vulnerability of a broken heart, he surveys the road to distract his emotions. Behind him, and ahead of him. On a clear day like this one, you could see for miles down this straight section road. There’s not a car in sight, strange even for the doldrums of this stretch of hell. It’s almost though he’s been deposited as the last good hope this girl will ever see. Pathetic if it’s true. But no proof that it’s impossible.

Foster wonders how long the girl has been here, cast upon the streets like garbage. He thinks of the tractor trailers that came before from the west, the ones that his frenemies were agitated about because their presence meant they couldn’t cut him off with impunity. He recalls his last image of the two sets of jackasses, as they veered so far to the left he’s surprised they weren’t both in the westbound ditch. From what Foster recalled, there had been no slowpoke old fart driver like him that they had to pass.

It’s as though his frenemies swerved to avoid something, like an object in the middle of the road. He takes one more look at the girl in front of him, and he’s got a pretty damn good idea what it is. All of them, the jerks who cut him off, and the truck drivers heading in the opposite direction, letting this girl lie like this in the road. Shit, there was nothing like the good Christian folks of America hard at work.

A beeping noise erupts from his pocket, disrupting his profound rumination. The culprit is his burner phone, which alerts him that it’s 1:30, sharp. His phone will now beep every five minutes on out until 2. It’s a method he’s employed since he started in this line of work, a way of keeping himself focused on his version of the straight and narrow path. It’s a procedure that’s worked quite well up until this very moment.

Despite its inherent simplicity, the alarm contains many warnings. If he wants to continue his perfect record of perfect attendance, he has to leave now. If he wants to live, or at least keep all his fingers and/or both his balls, he has to leave now. Between the pallor of her skin, the blue cast to her lips, and cut up as this girl is, death is probably ready to take her any moment, anyway.

It’s not his concern how God messes with other people, he rationalizes. After all these years of seeing God’s neglect, Foster knows that fact all too well. And who knows, maybe one of the other assholes called an ambulance before ditching her like discarded underwear or a whiny one-night stand. Foster has his own shit to be worried about. If he cares at all about any of that bullshit, he has to leave now.

In response to his beeping phone, a counterpunch of a brief, soft melody jolts him. It stops before it even started. But it’s a sound that is reminiscent of something in his life. What, he’s not quite sure. Less jarring the phone, but no less insistent. It holds him in place, and the warning from his phone is forgotten. He holds his ear to the wind, as though thinking it will tell give him a clue.

If Foster could step outside of himself, he would call himself crazy for letting temporary distractions put his life in danger. But he can’t step outside himself, or perhaps just refuses to. Because instead of getting down to his world of business and leaving, he remains standing where he is, attentive to the wind’s song for a clue to what he’d just heard. In an instant, time metamorphosizes into a state of infinity. He has no idea if he waits for a moment, or hours. All he is aware of is the wind tearing into him, the girl at his feet, and the silent whisper of his own breath as he waits.

The melody returns, more pronounced now that he’s looking for it. Foster’s relieved that it’s not his imagination, or a hallucination from the past. Now alert to it, he’s able to track it’s location as it rustles towards him. Just loud enough to carry over the wind, he’s able to track the melody to the girl as she exhales. She might be on the verge of dying, but her mouth is open in a type of song like an angel in a choir.

It’s then that he notices a small tattoo on her shoulder, a patch of skin that somehow escaped the slaughter knife that had marred the rest of her. It’s of an orange butterfly, much like the one he had just seen on the road. She punctuates his discovery by sighing in her singsong voice, once again.

In the same moment, the memory-voice of another girl speaks to him, asking just one question of utter simplicity. It’s the girl Helena, the girl from another soul-time before.

Did you know a flying butterfly can make it have a hurricane in another part of the world?

The simultaneous utterance of her songlike sigh and the voice from his abyss speak at the same time. Between that synchronicity and the coincidences of the tattoo, the sanctuary, and the butterfly song on the radio, he’s afraid, and not because of the psycho at the end of the road.

Right here, standing at Mile Marker 327 in front of an innocuous butterfly sanctuary sign, the pain that he’s suppressed like a submerged beach ball for years and years has popped to the surface instantaneously. Every fear unearthed, like demon butterflies awakening from their semi-comatose chrysalis. He has never felt more afraid in his life, and the weight of every terror he has known pushes into him like the heaviest gravity in the universe.

A strange whisper nearly crumbles him, and he’s so entranced it takes him a moment before he realize it’s his own breathing that he’s being chicken-shit over. So many fears swimming at him and pulling him into an undertow, that now he’s afraid of everything there is.

He can leave right now. He could just get in his Dart, pull away, and forget any of this happened. It wouldn’t be so hard, once he got himself moving again. He could pretend he just had a bad dream, and move on. After all, the girl herself meant nothing to him, not really. If he wanted to pretend he was a Boy Scout for three minutes, he could call 911 and make an anonymous report. And then, be on his way. He could forget about this freaky voodoo shit with butterflies and old nightmares, and get back to his oh-so-wonderful life.

In response, his mind recounts an image of the Jerk for Jesus in the pickup truck. He recalls the asshole counting days of the workweek on his hand at full throttle, giving Wednesday a whole definition of hump day. That jackass left the girl right here. As did the psychotic occupants of the minivan.

What would Jesus do in this situation, he wonders, thinking of the pickup’s bumper stickers. If the King of Kings was anything like Foster’s frenemies, the Good Lord and Savior probably take one look at the girl before ditching her, and get a flame-broiled burger on the 99 cent special menu. After all, that’s probably what his bird-waving frenemies probably did after leaving the girl here in the middle of the road to die.

But was dropping off a package of God knew what shit to some asshole really any better? Did Foster really want to be no better than any of the other dipshits he’d encountered today, deserting this girl?

I think God’s heart breaks every time that he sees one of us in pain. Do you think so?

The soft brush of the voice mentioning God opens the channel to Foster’s Sunday School days, the many sermons he’d learned both in and out of church growing up. Lulled by its caress, he wonders if what he’s experiencing right now is what the Good Samaritan felt, after the two supposed upstanding citizens deserted the wounded man on the road. Foster wondered if the Samaritan was as despicable as he was as a human being.

Probably not, he decides as he snaps awake. Why did he think he had it in him to be a hero to anyone? And why would God care anyway? Hadn’t God proved all his life that he hadn’t?

His phone beeps again, which means it’s 1:35. Twenty five minutes to reckoning. He will have to break his own rule and drive somewhat over the speed limit rather than somewhat under. But he’d already broken one of his rules, stopping and staring at a body. What’s another, especially when he had places to be to avoid being a person to be shot?

And yet, there is the girl right in front of him. The pool of blood around her head is static. Her skin is pale, so white that in between her shallow breaths he thinks she’s dead. Someone did this to her, and others left her here. What would Jesus do? What would anyone do? What will he do?

In response, he hears the butterfly song again. With the melody’s entrance, the time constraints he’s been so worried about dissolve like they never existed. It’s as though the song coming from his own auditory memory, feeling far away and yet so close it teases him with a feather. Hearing it drives him into a whole new kind of crazy town. Yet in a strange way, it soothes him as well.

When the song was at its prime all those years ago, Foster would listen to it with intent, despite it being a hardcore rap-like song that normally he would never listen to. He related to the singer’s words, reflecting an empty vessel of an incubus that sucked the life out of his woman’s soul and made her the reason for living.

When Foster gave up on God, that is what he did himself to every woman he knew, slept with, attempted and/or promised to love. He might have always done it, sucking the lifeblood from anyone who showed him an grain of generosity. Maybe to him, God had been nothing but a projection of his own need onto the ones he had loved.

Like onto the one that he had loved first. Helena, the girl with the butterflies. That had been his first love he remembered. She was the one that he wanted to forget, the girl who loved God and let him feed off of that love. Maybe that was why the song had meant so much to him, even as he detested it. Maybe because he was just like the singer, a lost soul without his crutch.

He’s staring at the butterfly tattoo on the girl’s shoulder as he contemplates this, before realizing the song isn’t coming from the depths of his mind. It’s stopping and starting, over and over again, only featuring the very first measures and phrases in the song’s beginning.

Every time, just as the singer begins chanting the rhythmic poetry of its lyrics, the song is decapitated in the exact same place. The song is coming from outside his mind, like the girl sighing. But not as obvious, and this perplexes him more.

To locate its source, his vision transforms into a wide-angle reconnaissance. He gathers as many details as he can, not just visually, but with every sensory tool at his disposal, smelling the scorched dirt, feeling and hearing the hot wind, even tasting it on his tongue. He’s mastered this skill in his current profession’s tenure, particularly while anticipating danger or scoping out a target.

Strange how much hunter and prey were so much alike, he thinks. At this moment, he feels like a bit of both. Especially when he realizes how much he missed in those first seconds of shock.

Right near the girl’s body, so close he wasn’t sure how he missed it, there are several bloody footprints. Not of a shoe, but with the imprint of five bare toes plus a heel. Given the detail, he has no trouble deducing that they are of the girl’s left foot.

Like breadcrumbs, the bloodied trail leads into to the tall grassy plain of the old butterfly sanctuary before disappearing. Presumably, the girl had come from there. Why, he had no way of knowing. As he stares towards the original source of the footsteps, the butterfly song plays again in the same truncated manner as previously. Wherever it’s stationed specifically, it’s definitely coming from a hiding place amidst the grass.

Foster scans into the foliage’s transparent wilderness, expecting at first only to see more of the same stretching densely in his field of vision. Given that, he’s startled when he sees a large white object in the midst of the landscape, only about twenty feet away. The object is about the height of the grass, with two large triangles ejecting from its sides. It resembles a plane that had its nose sliced off.
Like a mirage shimmering in the hula dance of the wind, lies a much smaller tan object underneath the triangle on the right. This is where she had come from, for whatever reason.

He’s caught now. A repeat felon who got lucky, standing over a severely injured girl. He should go. Get the hell out of Dodge with the Dodge he had, go about his business.

Yet he’s the one who’s stopped, not the Jerk for Jesus with his hanging cross, or the American Psycho Family-Style Outing. And though the danger of this being a trap being all to real, the image of Helena eclipses the fear. He had felt he had deserted her that last time. Was it possible that somehow, even the God Most Highly Indifferent was actually trying to give him another chance?

In a state of indecisive vertigo, he barely hears his watch tell him it’s 1:40, barely registers that it’s been sixteen minutes of his standing here with no one else on the road but the girl and him. If he left right now, no one would even know he was here. Clipping at a furious speed, he might very well make his destination. If he leaves right now.

In the seconds before he makes his final decision, he stares into her face and with it, the face of his own past. Of the girl Helena, and what he left behind by forgetting her and everything about her.

But today, everything changed, and now he remembers. It’s as though the entire world and its biosphere transformed into something new and unrecognizable, in just one single day. Swept along in the evolutionary avalanche, all of Foster’s resolve from moments before is completely shattered. He’s too shaken by the surprise onslaught to realize how weak his defenses must have been, to be punctured so effectively and decisively.

Or, maybe he’d always left a crack open in the fortress. He’s not sure what that’s supposed to mean, either.

Helena never lived to be anywhere as old as this girl, yet staring at the girl’s face, Helena is who he sees. There is a resemblance, the same freckled pale face, the long wavy dark hair. Strange that in looking at tattooed young adult he remembers a laughing ten-year-old girl tumbling through fields, playing with butterflies and saving injured rabbits.

Yet, in looking at the girl, Helena is who he sees. Maybe if she had lived, this girl might have been her. Correction: if she had been foolish enough to continue to hang around a loser like him, maybe she would have been this girl.

A voice speaks to him again, but it’s one without the warm familiarity of Helena’s soft melody. You have it in your power to choose which will win in this moment, gentleness or cruelty. Did you ever stop to think God created both for a reason?

The voice which speaks now almost doesn’t have a voice, unlike the voice before. A strange way to explain the phenomenon, but it’s the best description that Foster can come up with. It’s not distinctly male or female. Yet, it speaks with more clarity than any thought he ever had.

What is this voice? Who is it, or is it even a who? God wouldn’t ever be bothered with the likes of him, right? Who the hell was he to think that after all this time, The Almighty actually was speaking to him of all losers?

And yet, the more he watches the girl, the more clearly the voice speaks to him.

You keep scorning people for their choices. You keep score and record all of their hypocrisies. You keep insisting that they don’t follow their leader, saying ‘what would Jesus do’?

But what about you? What would Helena do? Would she have lived as you have? Would she ever think of living the way you are doing? Would she ever bother knowing you, seeing who you are?

The more he looks at the girl, the deeper the words from the unknown voice seer into him. Yet, he makes no move to leave so as to run away from their power. He finds it’s not because he’s frozen in shock anymore. He simply has no intention of leaving the girl here alone.

Somehow, staying with her means something. And with it, everything is changing like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. What would Helena do? Helena would stay. Helena would care. For some reason, this suddenly seems important to him as well.

Kneeling next to the girl, he feels he is transported away from the strangely deserted road in his present middle years back to the days when he was a child basking in Helena’s radiance. Foster had only seen Helena once in that last week when everyone thought she’d had the flu. Everyone had been so convinced she was going to be fine, yet staring at the girl, he remembers Helena as pale as the girl here sitting by her bedside only days before she died.

He’s startled by a melodic note, before registering that it’s coming from the present, from the wounded girl on the ground. Helena was gone from him, but this girl was still here. Even if just barely so.

And yet the voice speaks one more time.

Did you know a flying butterfly can make it have a hurricane in another part of the world?

The bleeding from the girl’s wounds seem to have subsided, yet she remains still. He’s already made the decision with the gravest consequences, even though he has done nothing at all. He has chosen to stay, and in doing so he has changed the course of his life. Realizing this, it’s as if the world opens with the possibilities. Regardless of the outcome, he feels like a logjam has been broken and the world suddenly seems larger to him. As if to confirm this, his phone beeps 1:45. He responds to this by promptly muting it, though somehow he feels compelled to keep it on vibrate. Regardless of why, the phone’s current itinerary is no long relevant. Nothing more than old tired news.

His next moves come swiftly to him, making him feel like he’s not himself at all. Maybe because he isn’t, pushing off his sinking couch of misery and facing a different window in the rooms of his life. His decision is to carrying the girl to his car, placing her gently on the back seat before shutting the door. It’s a shocking move that the old Foster would normally never do. As he defeats the inertia that would rationalize that moving her would kill her, he receives some instinct to cradle her neck in his arms as he carries her. She moans softly, which startles him. But then she goes silent again, as though giving assent to the choice he’s making.

The butterfly song juts itself into this scene, much louder this time. That’s when he sees the phone in the ditch in the midst of bloody footprints by the butterfly sanctuary sign. The phone is a pink smart one, vibrating with the infamous Crazy Town song. Lying next to the phone like an obedient puppy is a blue wallet. An instinct compels him to grab both.

As Foster picks up the phone, he catches the phone’s wallpaper before the incoming text dissipates into message world. There’s a picture of the girl with a smiling corn-fed young man about her age, and a dark-haired toddler in her arms.

Superimposed over it, in shouting caps are the words R U OKAY??? WHERE THE HELL ARE U??? The text is from someone calling himself Mark.

Before the phone can go into sleep mode, Foster presses the folder for messages. The recent messages are all from Mark, getting progressively more panicked as the chronology advances. The girl was supposed to have been home over two hours ago, and from the narrative someone and threatening to steal the girl’s child.

The wallet is full of cash and credit cards, and a license that says the girl is named Heather Trainor and twenty-two years old. She lives relatively locally, in a town around Mile Marker 310, right near the hospital. His new self, the one that remembered Helena and shunned black market entrepreneurs, says that this is where he will go now. He will drive to the place right near the diner with the medium rare cheeseburger he craved so badly.

As he makes his way back to his Dodge Dart with the wallet and the phone, he thinks about how the diner felt like such a homing beacon to him, even before he stumbled upon this carnage. He reaches the road, right near the butterfly sign and wonders if all this is really happening to him, because in every way, what is happening right now has changed his course forever.

As if in perfect response to his psychic question, his phone vibrates revealing that a blocked number seeks to contact him. The phone says it’s 2:01. Somehow, sixteen minutes of slipped from him. In the old limited world, his sentence has been carried out.

Foster’s surprised at how light he feels in response to this sentence. He’s truly a man now with nothing to lose, almost as though that old weight meant nothing to him. He smiles, feeling suddenly more awake in years, regardless of the heat, the wind, or whatever the elements have to throw at him. Whatever man with his arbitrary rules of jungle or the law judge him with, whether it be prison, death or freedom, he was ready for it.

An instinct tells him to check on the girl, which he immediately obeys. Opening the passenger door of the Dart, he sees the girl’s breathing is steady. Yet, her eyes are still closed. Touching her hand for just a second, he recalls that last moment that he spent with Helena.

He jumps slightly when he perceives a slight pressure in response to his touch, not expecting the girl Heather to return the gesture. It must be his imagination, he presumes.

But then, it happens again. Like a ripple across time’s universe, he imagines Helena’s smile within the soul of this present girl. He remembers Helena’s words, barely catching the dance of a real-time orange butterfly in the corner of his eye as he does.

So entranced by the butterfly he is that he’s startled when the pressure on his hand suddenly becomes stronger, more forceful. It’s the girl, Heather. Her eyes are open, and Foster panics for a moment wondering if she has died in some abject sense of pain. But her face transforms with a brief smile, a sign of life. Her grip on his hand is surprisingly strong for someone so injured, but Foster is not prepared for her speaking to him in a steady voice, clasping his hand. Not prepared for how blue her eyes are, or for how directly they meet his own.

She says one sentence before closing her eyes once more, before resuming her slow-breath meditation under deep hypnosis. One sentence, and one sentence only.

“Thank you for saving me.”

In that moment, Helena feels alive to Foster once again, and with it his faith in life. Maybe, in a way, both had always lived. Maybe the love he thought once died never did. It was only asleep.

Newly awakened to himself as he gets behind the driver’s wheel once more, he turns the Dart away from the east towards the west, to the hospital and the fate that awaits him there. His original destination fades from few as his new one creeps closer and closer. The road is no longer the same.

He chooses to drive to a new destiny.