We’re going to hell this week in Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge! The usual 1,000 words, any genre, dealing with the topic of “hell”. It seemed obvious to me.
As always, comments and constructive criticisms are appreciated.
Grey skies, leaden, gloomy, dark enough so I was half blind with my sunglasses on, but bright enough so I was squinting and getting a headache with them off.
We crawled past National. Even the carpool lane was at a virtual standstill. I couldn’t even remember how long I had been stuck here. The mental agility to calculate my ETA had long since abandoned me.
The air was heavy, muggy, an unusual misery for Los Angeles. It was unnaturally hot for this time of year, even for Southern California, up into the upper-90s even with the overcast. On top of that, out here everything stank from exhaust and diesel fumes. What happened to all of the pollution controls they had put on everything thirty years ago?
Of course, today had to be the day the air conditioning had given up the ghost on this piece-of-crap-mobile. Sometimes it felt like it was actually blowing hot air on me. That might end up being useful if the radiator ever came through on one of its threats to overheat.
The multiple lines of cars and trucks stretched on and on beyond the end of eternity. We were barely crawling, a couple of car lengths here, a couple more there, followed by sitting perfectly still for five minutes or more. Repeat endlessly.
I had tried to get some traffic news on the radio, but everything I could pull in was either in Spanish, Korean, or so full of noise it couldn’t even tell what language was being spoken. All across the AM spectrum there were bursts of loud static, as if from massive bolts of lightning nearby. There should have been peals of thunder loud enough to crack the windows, but I couldn’t hear a thing over the sounds of the traffic and car horns.
Everyone out there was just as pissed off as I was, going nowhere fast and making lousy time doing it. Some drivers would occasionally try to force their way into a neighboring lane, earning themselves a chorus of braying horns, explicit obscenities, and rude gestures from twenty-nine different cultures.
Every time I had gone seeking a lane that was crawling ever so incrementally faster than the one I was in, the new lane would come to a complete halt as soon as I got into it. I hadn’t bothered for a while.
We crawled around a curve at about a quarter the speed I could walk. The sign said we were coming up on Sherman Way. (Sherman Way? That’s nowhere near National. Weren’t we just passing National?) But I knew there were services there I needed. My gas gauge was on empty and my bladder was on full.
It took almost twenty minutes to go the mile to the exit. Twice while moving over to the right I thought I was going to get shot at by some irate, road-ragey type, but I had to keep going. I had needs.
The off-ramp was just as crowded as the freeway had been. I was trapped behind a semi as we headed down the ramp, so I couldn’t see anything other than the back of the truck and the very top floor of a hotel peeking over the tall sound walls. I had been hoping for at least a little movement on the surface streets, but obviously I had been wasting my time. I couldn’t even see the stop light at the bottom of the off-ramp.
Then we were merging back onto the freeway. What happened? Where had I gotten back onto an onramp?
How could I be this lost in an area I had driven every day for the last forty years? I was now desperate to get off on Van Owen, the next off-ramp.
Except, once we finally crept forward to where I could see the sign past the truck, the next exit was Beach Boulevard, in three miles, not Van Owen. Beach Boulevard was in Orange County, not the San Fernando Valley.
I didn’t have any choice but to keep crawling along until I could get off this God-forsaken twelve-lane ribbon of Hell. Stewing and trying hard not to think of anything involving fluids, I kept on keeping on.
An hour later, we still hadn’t gotten to Beach. We weren’t moving fast, but we did occasionally move. How could we not have gone three miles? I would have liked to have seen some buildings near us, but everything was hidden by the sound walls. All that I could see were the other cars.
Another hour later, another sign came into view. “Long Beach Boulevard – 2 miles.”
The road and the conditions had made me complacent, beaten me into a daze, but now I was starting to panic. The adrenaline was doing wonders for my focus. Where the hell was I and what the hell was going on?
At the side of the road, I spotted one of the Caltrans mile markers. Okay, even if I couldn’t see over the sound walls, I could see those. I was at mile 666. On a seventy-two mile long freeway.
Panic began to rise uncontrollably. As we kept creeping forward, I looked around desperately at my fellow drivers, hoping maybe someone could help make sense of the situation. I was sweating like a pig as my head whipped from side to side, looking into the cars and trucks around me.
Every car was occupied by one person. Everyone was travelling solo. Every single person I saw was wide eyed, terrified, sweating, and desperately looking into all of the cars around them.
Something caught my eye in the rear-view mirror, something moving fast in the gridlocked array of steel and glass. Between the lanes whipped a squadron of motorcycle riders, splitting the lanes and flying like demons. In a flash they were gone, leaving only a fading scent of sulfur.
Time slowed as the next mile marker came into view. I was at mile 666. The exit ahead was Sherman Way.
The car was filled with hysterical screaming, but I couldn’t stop myself. I had no choice but to keep driving.