Grimstad, North Dakota
TWELVE-YEAR-OLD Kyle Westergaard was halfway through his route delivering the Grimstad Tribune when he heard the high whine of car engines out on the highway in the dark. He eased his bike to a stop—never easy with the bulging canvas newspaper panniers hanging down on either side of the front wheel—and squinted south across the dark prairie. There were a lot of hot cars around town these days, and these particular cars were screaming. Kyle wanted to see them before they had to slow down to enter the town of Grimstad.
He liked this view from the chalky bluff and he looked forward to it every morning. It was the only thing on his route he looked forward to. His newspaper route was the worst one in town and the farthest one from the Tribune dock. It was assigned to him because he was the newest carrier. His mom had said she’d drive him when he signed up for the job and he handed over his signing bonus of $250, but after his first day on the job two weeks ago she’d never been able to get up on time. Instead he pedaled his bike to the Tribune and got in line behind the other carriers, most of whom were older and had cars. His route included all the new houses they were building on the south side of town and the homes that got the newspaper were few and far between. Kyle spent a lot of time and effort riding his bike around mounds of dirt, fresh concrete curbs, and piles of lumber and building materials to locate the subscribers. Most of the people who lived in the new part of town were from somewhere else and couldn’t care less about local news so they didn’t subscribe to the paper yet. At least that’s what Alf Pedersen, the old gnome in charge of deliveries, told Kyle at the newspaper building.
Although he had no trouble locating the houses for subscribers—he was good with street numbers and numbers in general—he was still having trouble keeping track of all the special requests. Some people wanted their paper placed inside the storm door, some wanted it on their front porch, and one lady wanted it in her mailbox. He got confused over who wanted what, and he heard about it when the angry customers called Alf to complain about him. Too many had called, Alf said. Kyle’s job was on thin ice.
He paused and listened as the car engines got louder. He still couldn’t see them. It was unusual to be able to hear them. On most days there was an endless stream of heavy trucks on the highway to Watson City, and the usual traffic noise would have drowned out the sound and impeded the car race.
* * *
IT WAS another cold morning in the town of Grimstad in western North Dakota. Condensation billowed around his face and his lungs stung from the cold. Frost clung to the metal frame of his bike and the seat felt like a block of ice. His feet and hands were cold because he’d outgrown his boots over the summer and he couldn’t find his gloves that morning. Kyle liked to V his fingers and draw them to his mouth as if holding a cigarette, then exhale breath that looked like smoke. He did it now while he waited. It made him feel sophisticated.
The prairie, as far as he could see, was punctuated by natural gas flares next to oil pumper units. The pumpers had heads like grasshoppers and they bobbed up and down. The flares made what was once grassland look like a big city, although Kyle chose to think of those flames out there as Indian campfires. He liked that idea—that the prairie looked the same as it had when the Sioux and Cheyenne were around.
Between where Kyle was on the bluff and the flares out on the prairie was the Missouri Breaks. The iced-over river steamed in the cold. Kyle had a plan and it involved that big river.
* * *
TWO SETS of headlights blasted out of the darkness to the south on the highway from Watson City. At first, they looked joined together—nose to tail. Then the second car swung alongside the first car and they were neck and neck. The headlights of the outside car were bright white halogens. Kyle thought, It is a race!
The two hot cars stayed like that for a quarter of a mile, their engines wrapped up. There was a bang and squeal of tires and the inside car suddenly veered off the road. Kyle could hear the crashing of glass and metal, and the headlights made circle after circle. Something small and white shot through the beam of the rotating headlights and vanished. The car stopped rolling and Kyle couldn’t tell if it was on its wheels or on its roof.
He realized he’d been holding his breath the whole time and exhaled with a puh sound.
The driver of the second car on the road below hit the brakes. Kyle saw the car fishtail on the highway before it came to a stop. After a few seconds, it reversed to where the first car had gone off the road.
Kyle turned his front wheel toward the lip of the bluff and pushed off. There was a trail there that would take him to the basin where the crash had occurred. He knew about the trail because he took it home when his route was complete. He didn’t even think about what he was doing.
* * *
THE WRECKED car was upside down. Its motor was no longer running but the headlights were still on. Dust swirled through the beams.
Kyle was about fifty yards away from the wreck when he looked up toward the highway and saw that the second car had come back and was now pulled to the near shoulder of the road. The driver’s and passenger doors opened at the same time and the dome light came on inside. Two bulky men stepped out. One was bald and the other wore a stocking cap. Kyle was too far away to see their faces, but by the way they moved they looked determined to do something. Kyle heard a shout and couldn’t make out the words except for the word “fuck” several times. Something about that word just cut through the air.
He slowed his bike on the trail, not sure whether to proceed to the wreck or wait for the men to hike down to it from the road. Crashed cars always blew up on TV, and Kyle had no idea if that happened in real life. He could smell gasoline fumes from the wreck, and green smoke was now rolling skyward from the undercarriage.
Kyle thought there was someone in that wrecked car who might be hurt or dead. Maybe even more than one person. There was no light from inside the car so he couldn’t tell.
He walked his bike back a few feet so he could hide behind a tall, skeletal, Russian olive bush. From there he could see the well-illuminated scene in front of him but he doubted he could be seen himself. As he backed up, his rear tire thumped against something in the trail that stopped his progress. He assumed it was a rock at first but when he pulled on his handlebars for leverage the rear wheel didn’t climb over it. It wasn’t a rock because it had some give to it.
Kyle twisted around and looked behind him. He remembered he’d seen something small and white eject from the rolling car. It was bigger than he’d thought, though: a thick bundle of something.
He wasn’t sure what to do. Leave it there behind the bush? Or take it?
While he was trying to make up his mind, he looked up and saw the two big men start to walk down toward the wreck. One of them had a flashlight. The beam illuminated the wrecked car and Kyle could see inside briefly for the first time. A man—Kyle guessed it was a man—was partially extended out the driver’s side window clawing desperately at the ground like a dog digging a hole. But the poor guy couldn’t get out of the wreck because the lower half of his body was pinned between the frame of the car and the crushed roof. The man glistened because the light reflected off the blood and the pieces of glass embedded in his face and hair.
There was a roar of an oncoming vehicle and a sweep of headlights and the flashlight in the field went off. Kyle turned his head toward town and saw a big SUV speeding up the road. The car was coming fast but it would still be several minutes before it got here. Kyle guessed the driver of the SUV had seen the wreck happen and was coming to help whoever was in the rolled car.
He heard that word again from the two men, who had turned on their heels and were climbing back up the ditch toward their car. It took less than a minute for the two men to throw themselves inside, do a three-point turn, and roar back the way they’d come.
Kyle wondered if the driver of the SUV would pursue the fleeing vehicle or stop at the crash. His question was answered when the SUV slowed at the place in the road where the car started rolling. It was easy to find because the earth was churned up.
He winced when bright spotlights bathed the wreck in white. Kyle could see that the driver of the wrecked car was still and was no longer trying to claw his way out. The driver had either passed out or died. Kyle knew the image of that man trying to crawl out of the car would stay in his mind for a long time, like when that Nazi’s face melted off in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He still had dreams about that. Kyle was sickened by what he’d seen but fascinated at the same time.
Copyright © 2015 by C. J. Box