He turned the knob. There was a slight delay, then the chaos of radio static filled the air. Peppered by tinny human voices, the noise went in and out. Harrison Treadwell fiddled with the tuner knob until the static receded and the chatter clarified. Crystal clear. Like he was on the telephone with them. Static spiked again. Harrison swore, and clicked the radio off.
It was these damn hills, he thought, and this weather. Typical Washington. Never got great reception this deep in the Skagit Valley, anyway. Even if it wasn’t pissing cats and dogs. The wipers of the Chevy could scarcely keep up. Harrison was hoping to get a glimpse of Mt. Baker on the trip home, but the cloud cover and rain reduced visibility to a few hundred feet. It was forty degrees if it were anything. And goddamn raining. He missed San Diego.
The sun dropped behind him in the West. Sunsets in a lot of places tended to be followed by an hour more of fading twilight, but not here. Not in the midst of Autumn. Not in Concrete, Washington.
Harrison grabbed the pack of Pall Malls from the bench seat and lifted it to his mouth. He pulled one of the cigarettes free with his lips and thumbed the in-dash lighter. Thank God for the lighter. Genius development. His last car was a nineteen and twenty Ford, which didn’t have a lighter in the dash. It was one of the reasons he picked the thirty-five Chevy. That, and the radio.
The lighter sprang out with a distinctive ping. With one hand on the wheel, and both eyes on what he could see of the road through the rain, Harrison puffed until the cigarette was lit. He wanted to quit. He hated the way it made his fingers smell, but by God, that flush of calm that stole over him after that first drag — it kept him coming back. Though as it often did, it took him all the way back to Europe, nineteen eighteen. Twenty years ago. Might as well be yesterday. He smelled gunpowder and the stench of death. The gangrenous reek of rotting human flesh. He shook his head and banished it, focusing on the road. Good. Sometimes it was that easy to get rid of the intrusive memories. Other times it wasn’t. Too many other times they woke him in the middle of the night. He figured the cigarettes triggering memories of the war should be sufficient reason to quit them, but it wasn’t. They called to him. Filled him with a moment’s peace when he lit up. It was the ritual of it. He wanted to smoke. And cigarettes certainly weren’t the worst activity to engage his idle hands.
Red streaks flashed across the windshield. Harrison blinked. Glancing at the rearview he saw the unwelcome lights of the law. He sighed, slowed, and pulled to the side of the road. He puffed the last of his cigarette, cranked the window down and tossed the butt into the rain. Harrison grabbed the rearview mirror and tilted it, redirecting the invasive flashing lights away from his eyes. He caught a glimpse of his own haggard face. A couple days worth of salt and pepper stubble shadowed his jaw. Lack of sleep during the drive from San Diego to Concrete lent him dark circles under bloodshot eyes. His gray hair was greasy and disheveled.
Harrison quickly looked away from his reflection, uncomfortable with the hollowness of his own post-war gaze. The glow of Concrete lit the night. A dark streak split the town where it straddled the Baker River, and the Henry Thompson Bridge shone like a beacon in the night.
Fat drops fell through the open window onto the interior of the Chevy Coupe as the deputy approached the vehicle. Rain dripped from a pair of rough hands that settled on the edge of the car door.
“Well I’ll be god-damned if it isn’t Harrison Treadwell.”
Harrison looked up into the face of Sheriff’s deputy and former school-mate Jimmy Lawson. He gave Jimmy a small nod.
“Well what the hell brings you back to Concrete, soldier-boy?”
Harrison unlatched the door and kicked it open into Jimmy’s gut. Jimmy doubled over, the wind knocked out of him. Harrison exited the vehicle and grabbed Jimmy by the collar of his coat. With his free hand he struck Jimmy Lawson in the face, over and over again until blood sprayed from his nose with each impact. At least that’s what Harrison wanted to do when Jimmy called him “soldier-boy.” He didn’t though. Instead, he locked eyes with Jimmy, and said nothing.
In a moment, Jimmy looked away, not eager to face down Harrison’s thousand-yard stare.
“Word around town is your cousin Vincent’s still running ‘shine out of the farm. Old habits die hard, I guess. That wouldn’t have anything to do with you coming back to Concrete, would it?”
“I’m not a soldier anymore.” said Harrison.
Jimmy was taken aback by the delayed response to his crack. He forced a laugh.
“I sell insurance, now.”
“Well if the Germans have their way, you might get to head back to Europe again real soon.”
“Ought to sit down some time over coffee. See if I can’t get you into nice comprehensive policy.”
Jimmy laughed again, nervously. Harrison’s tone left no impression that he wanted to sell insurance to Jimmy. Or sit down and have coffee with him.
“I’ve already got life insurance through the Sheriff’s department.”
Harrison’s cold gaze remained unbroken.
“Anyway, I stopped you because you were going awful fast ‘round those corners back there. Bit of trouble keeping up with you. It’s easy to lose traction in this piss and slide off the road. End up right in the river. Happened to a couple out of Seattle last month. Wasn’t pretty.”
“Don’t imagine it was.”
“Well, welcome back to Concrete, Harrison…”
A flash lit the underside of the clouds from the outskirts of the town. The flash subsided and the lights in the town blinked out. Harrison realized it was an explosion. A second later a boom that reminded him of an artillery shell rocked the car.
Jimmy spun to see what happened. In the second after the explosion, every light in the town of Concrete went out. The glow of the tiny town astride the river was gone. Flashing red from his cruiser danced with the headlight glow on his face, the only light as far as he could see.
“What in God’s name?” Jimmy ran back to his car and lit off toward town, his spinning tires laid a trail of steam on the wet asphalt. The pungent stink of burned rubber pierced the rain. Harrison fired up the Chevy and raced after Jimmy.