13 November, 2016 — Illinois
A car horn blaring right next to him wakes Mike Marek up. That is distressing in itself. Much more distressing is the fact that he comes awake at the wheel of his car, doing seventy miles an hour on a highway he does not recognize. Terrified, he tightens his unexpected grip on the wheel, causing the car to swerve left and right in the lane before he gets it under control. The car with the horn passes him, the man driving it shouting angrily but silently behind two layers of glass and six feet of rushing air.
His heart hammering, Father Mike can’t imagine how he got to be on this road. His last memory is of lying down on the couch in the rectory, exhausted after the sermon. But now, as he desperately slows the car to a little below the speed limit—a speed he can mentally deal with, and a piece of sanity he can cling to in the flood of impossibility of waking up on a highway—he gets the impression of something: not quite a memory but perhaps the ghost of a memory, as though of someone else’s dream long ago.
He gets an impression of driving fast—very fast, eighty-five or even ninety miles an hour—of picking up admirers in his wake like an automotive comet. And then, inexplicably, of slowing down and boxing the boldest of his followers in behind him, of keeping the man bottled up until he was boiling over with anger. And then letting him go.
Mike Marek has not done anything aggressive on a highway since he was seventeen years old when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and he still wasn’t sure whether he wanted the priesthood or a girlfriend. The thought that he has somehow been sleep-driving and behaving aggressively to boot, shocks him worse than if he had woken up with blood on his hands.
Breathing deeply, shaky from reaction, Father Mike watches the car in the left lane, finally released, zoom ahead of him, accelerating ahead around a long rising curve in the highway.
And just like that, there’s a cop. An otherwise-nondescript car, parked in a median crossover, suddenly erupts with red and blue flashers, accelerating so hard out of the gravel that it kicks up a brown dust cloud in spite of the thin crusting of snow covering the ground. The man that Mike let go ahead of him just now is the target, and the cop is definitely excited to get him. The guy had to be doing ninety-five as he crested the hill. That’s a five hundred dollar ticket if it’s a dime.
As the man and the cop pull off to the right shoulder Mike turns his head to look as he passes by at his sedate sixty-five miles per hour.
I did that, he thinks. I did that on purpose.
He sees himself driving just five minutes ago, somehow knowing that a policeman would be up ahead soon, deliberately bottling up the eager driver behind him so that the man could be released at the proper moment to go ahead and get caught. Thus clearing the road for himself, so that he would be able to speed up again.
With that image, more memories return. He sees himself rising from his nap in the rectory after a short time, throwing a few items into a bag, and driving away with no more ceremony than if he had been on his way to get groceries at Copp’s.
After leaving, he took Bristol up to 151 and turned toward Madison just as he has done a thousand times. But then, a little ways past the hospital, instead of continuing into town he turned south onto the highway. Past that he remembers nothing until the horn woke him.
The memories are like seeing himself as a different man. Or like a man possessed.
He has always known that his life was special, and that, in return for that specialness, he owed a debt to—someone. But who? He is under no illusions that the Shining Man is Jesus. But then who is the being that Michael Marek has always felt he has known, but has never met until a few days ago?
Gripping the steering wheel, his hands tremble. Cars doing the speed limit swerve to pass him as he lets his speed drift lower and lower, barely aware of the road around him.
What is this being, and where is it taking him? But he knows why he is being taken, doesn’t he? Mike Marek has always known why.
Up ahead is a sign announcing Mendota in twelve miles, and right under it a blue and white rest area sign. He has no idea where “Mendota” might be, but the rest area is a life preserver thrown to a drowning man. He turns the wheel so fast he almost goes off onto the highway’s gravel shoulder.
Outside his car the air is cold, even for November in Wisconsin. He walks toward the rest area building, a nice modern-looking structure with big windows. It’s at the top of a small rise in the land, and has two flights of broad steps leading up to it. Low-angled sunlight reflects off the building’s angled windows. It’s only 4:30 in the afternoon, but already the sun is getting low and the empty blue sky promises more cold after dark.
He hurries into the building, already troubled a little both from the temperature—whatever has controlled him these last few hours is apparently not greatly concerned with physical comfort—and from reaction to his situation. It’s one thing to tell yourself I have always known that this day will come, and quite another thing to find yourself in that day. And in its late afternoon.
There were few cars in the parking lot, only a lone truck in the large lot on the other side of the building, and when he goes into the men’s room it’s empty. With trembling hands, he tries to get some water at the sink but it’s one of the damned automatic things that are supposed to be able to sense your hands in front of it. Do they sense heat? If so, Marek reflects, he’s probably shit out of luck. He waves his hands up and down within the confines of the filthy porcelain sink. It strikes him that the way he has his hands pressed together looks like he’s doing some kind of prayer. Terrific. Post it on the internet as a sign of the times. The sixteenth century had Praying Hands by Albrecht Dürer imploring God for grace. The year 2016 has an animated gif of a priest begging for washwater from a two-dollar sensor in a sink that looks like it hasn’t been cleaned since the 90s.
“Please,” he snarls, and is rewarded by a three-second burst of water. Cupping it in his hands he splashes the frigid water on his face, then leans forward head down, supporting himself with his hands on the sink, eyes closed.
“You don’t have to do this,” he whispers. Opening his eyes, he looks up into the mirror to deliver the same message face to face, so to speak. “You don’t have to do this.”