Anita gazed at her infant son asleep in his carrier: so sweet, so adorable. So much work! She took a sip of iced coffee and sighed.
“I have to pee,” said five-year-old Lauren, poking her brother with a spoon. Arms flailing, he began to scream.
“See what you did?” said Anita, placing a pacifier in the baby’s mouth. “Now you’ll have to go to the bathroom by yourself. I need to get him settled again.” With a nod toward the café’s ladies’ room, she said, “Hurry back and no talking to strangers.”
While Lauren was in the bathroom, Anita fed Joey his applesauce. She paused, dropped her head, wondering why she’d ever married, had children. Too late now, she mused.
A gruff voice caused Anita to look up and, most importantly, return to her senses. A middle-aged man, at a nearby booth, brought forth a string of obscenities. His features, while unexceptional, showcased a turned-down mouth spewing spittle toward the two cowering women, sitting opposite. They stared helplessly at their laps. When the toddler between them began to cry, the man raised his fist. Other patrons turned to stare.
“You got a problem or something,” he snarled, swiveling his head toward the stunned onlookers.
“Please Bill,” whispered one of the women as she lifted her arm, attempting to block an oncoming blow. Her wedding band caught the sun’s rays, and Anita blanched at the universal symbol of love, now baring a lie. Unfortunately, the woman’s bold attempt proved futile as the monster easily brushed her hand aside, knocking off her glasses and sending them flying to the boy’s basket of fries. The child’s scream aroused Anita’s baby, who added to the ruckus.
“Shut your kid up or I’ll do it for you,” yelled the man at Anita. Instinctively she pulled Joey from his carrier and held him against her chest. Lauren, just back from the bathroom, began to tremble.
“Screw this,” said Bill as he swept his fingers across the table, overturning the drinks before stomping out with his parting words directed at his wife: “You, your fat sister, and the kid can all go to hell.”
The two women grabbed for each other and then tried to soothe the little boy by patting his hands.
“Good riddance,” spit out the plump sister, the target of Bill’s mockery. “I told you to leave that beast years ago. Now will you finally listen?”
The boy’s mother just closed her eyes, her features now fixed as granite and her lips locked together in a seal. The only sign of life were the tears streaming down her cheeks.
Anita bit her lip as Lauren pushed away the last of her fries. “I want to go, Mommy. I don’t like it here.”
“Okay,” said Anita, nodding her head. With one final glance at the three sad-faced victims, she rose to leave. She thought of saying something nice, but decided against it. What could she possible say? They were strangers, after all. Still her cheeks turned pink as she passed their booth on the way to the door.
After strapping the baby in his car seat and checking that Lauren was properly secured, she drove toward the bridge which would lead them to the highway.
As she got closer to the entrance, a detour sign caught her attention with its large black arrow pointing to the obsolete lower span. Pressing on the brakes, she shrieked, “What the …?” before coming to a complete stop. But when another car, a red sedan, drove onto the lower level, she shrugged and followed.
Since the underpass hadn’t been used in years, she looked around to see what caused the problem, but the fog engulfed her in its swampy mix, preventing a clear-cut answer. With sweat dripping into her eyes, she drove cautiously, soon feeling the vibrations of what could only be cars above. Shaking her head in confusion, she approached a bizarre-looking tollbooth, perched on circus-leg stilts.
“What’s going on, Mommy?” said Lauren from the backseat.
“I’m, I’m really not sure. I must have made a mistake.”
Despite squinching her eyes, Anita could not see anyone in the tollbooth, but an adjacent striped bar, lying in a horizontal position, prevented cars from going through. The red sedan, still in front, had squealed to a halt. Its driver, a broad-shouldered man, got out, his face half hidden beneath a cap pulled low on his ears. He slammed the car’s door with his foot and went into the tollbooth.
Anita checked her watch and mumbled under her breath. Finally, with one child in her arms and the other trailing behind, she headed up the stairs. Clearly something was wrong, and she needed a way to continue forward or turn the car around.
Upon entering the premises, Anita did a double take. The room appeared not only bigger than she’d imagined, but egg-shaped, too, as if someone had huffed and puffed, and turned it into a giant balloon. But more surprising was the familiar voice, a grating roar, scraping at her eardrums. Of course! It belonged to Bill, the brute from the restaurant. He was arguing with an old man, whose name, Sam, was emblazoned on the pocket of his shirt.
“Sorry,” said Sam, standing bent at the shoulder behind a counter. “There’s no landline or cell connection on the bridge, and we don’t allow people to use the two-way radio. It’s for emergencies only.”
“Well, this is a stinkin’ emergency, asswipe.”
Sam’s lips formed a crooked grin. “Yes, I suppose it is, but I already notified my superior, so someone will be here shortly to fix the problem. In the meantime, why don’t you have some candy? He raised a gnarled finger and pointed to the machine in a corner. “I just set it so it doesn’t require money. Help yourself.”
The man walked over, pressed a selection, then another, and another. His wise-ass smile revealed yellow teeth, a mere shade lighter than the old man’s snuff-colored ones.
“You got a bathroom in this dump?”
“Sure,” said Sam, nodding in its direction. “Like the radio, it’s not for public use, but under the circumstances, I’ll let you use it.”
“Let me use it? Try and stop me you old, dried-out turd.” He stormed off through the door, purposely bumping into Sam, who merely cocked an eyebrow before turning his attention to Lauren.
“What a cute child you are,” he said, reaching out to pinch her cheek. She flinched at his touch and squirreled away, taking refuge behind her mother.
Sam frowned and his skin flushed, deepening the highway of wrinkles seared on his forehead. “Maybe you’d like some candy, too, little girl?”
The baby began to coo and Sam’s face softened. “I had a baby once,” he confessed. “Was about the same age as this young’un, last time I seen him. I’m afraid I wasn’t the best father. Abandoned him and the mother.”
Anita pursed her lips. “It’s never too late to do the right thing,” she said. From the fiery glint in Sam’s eyes, she knew sermonizing was the last thing he wanted to hear. Fortunately, a shout of dammit, and a pounding on the door, deflected her blunder.
“Hey asswipe. I’m locked in.”
Sam ran a long, curled tongue across his open mouth, which reeked of old food, turned rotten. “Almost lunch time,” he said, smacking his lips.
The hairs on the back of Anita’s neck began to tingle. “The bar. Is it still lowered?”
The old man, as if he were involved in some internal debate, drummed his fingers on the counter. “Forget about the bar. It’s not your concern, and you can thank your son here. But you’d better hurry before I change my mind.”
Anita gulped twice.
“You’ll have to drive in reverse a bit. But don’t worry. It’s only a short distance, and I guarantee no other cars are coming today. You’ll see a ramp. Follow it. It will lead you to the upper section of the bridge.”
Despite the tremor in her voice, Anita couldn’t help but ask: “What about the man in the back?”
“Him?” said Sam, pointing a clawed fingernail. “The fool? No need for you to worry your pretty little head. He’s fine. In fact, he’s perfect. You see, even fools come in handy. I may be an old goat, but old goats are wily and eventually retire. Yes, he’ll do quite nicely.”
Anita swallowed hard. Then without wasting another second, she dashed out the door with her children, but gasped upon discovering that the red sedan had vanished. “What’s going on!” she exclaimed, nearly losing her footing. Then certain their lives depended on it, she secured both children and took off as directed, swearing she’d never complain about anything again.
Within minutes she found herself on the upper level of the bridge, breathing as if she’d run a marathon. With traffic light, Anita lifted her foot from the gas and slowed the car to a leisurely pace. As an explosive caterwaul bubbled from her throat, she moved her hand to the radio, searching for a distraction.
A song, one with an upbeat tempo, rose to her ears and Anita began humming along. Soon her pulse slowed to normal, her grip relaxed on the wheel, and her wide smile displayed pearly teeth. Looking up through the rear-view mirror, she noticed her children asleep, but cocked her head, puzzling why she didn’t remember a thing since leaving the restaurant. Only a trace of foul air, like the smell of rotten food, caused her nose to twitch. Then moments later, when she approached the end of the bridge, the smell disappeared and she no longer remembered that she didn’t remember. In fact, life seemed good and even the disc jockey agreed.
“Hey, hey, hey,” he whopped. “This is Sam the Man, speaking. Hope you have your swimsuits handy ’cause it’s hotter ’n hell, but, holy moly, life’s still lip-smacking groovy on this sunshiny bee-yoo-ti-ful day! And now, before I pause for a commercial break, here’s a special song for a special someone’s listening pleasure.”
Moments later “The Ballad of Big Bad Bill” crossed the airwaves. Anita scratched her head, wondering how she knew all the words, but with a wag of her shoulders, she cleared her throat, and began to sing.
Nandy Widrew has had both short stories and nonfiction published in webzines and print, along with a novel (horror), Something Down There, published in 2017.