Beyond the mangled guardrail, the ground dropped steeply away, a mile down to the valley floor. Dan stepped toward it, heart pounding.
When he was a child, Dan’s father told him guardrails were braces for roads. They kept all the teeth — cars, trucks, bicycles — in harmony, so they could work together to bite down on the food of…
It was an imperfect metaphor. Dan never thought it made sense, especially once he got braces. Sure, they looked similar. But guardrails weren’t attached to cars, and if they were, nothing would work. He figured the road, not the vehicles, represented teeth, but he didn’t understand what roads ate, either.
Until the day his father’s ‘06 Impala sailed over the edge, through the guardrail, tumbling down seemingly without end. Then Dan knew what roads ate. They ate cars. They ate fathers and mothers. They ate everything and left him nothing.
Dan figured the wreck explained his fear of heights. He couldn’t live in the mountains after it — when he looked over the edges his knees locked and his mouth went dry, the imagined smell of blood filled his nostrils. So he’d moved in with Uncle Kevin, his only relative on flat ground.
Kevin, a pilot, tried week after week to get Dan up in his single-engine Cessna. Dan always refused, first with tears, later with shouting. “You’ll love it!” Kevin said. “It’s fun.” But Dan avoided anything he perceived as dangerous, which was almost everything. He didn’t ride amusement park rides. He didn’t drive on the freeway. He didn’t even like to go down slides. Though braces had given him perfect teeth, very little made Dan smile.
The wreck definitely explained why Dan had always wanted to work for OnStar. The Impala had flipped and spun, engine slamming into front seat, windows smashing, frame twisting. But the backseat — where Dan’s car seat was belted in — survived. Mom and Dad didn’t. Dan would never forget the shapes their limbs and heads were twisted into, the coppery smell of fresh death. He’d been trapped, alone, except for the Voice. The calm, friendly Voice. Dan had never met her, but he would never love anyone as much. She stayed with him through the hours waiting for rescue, through the sawing and squealing of firemen’s tools, keeping Dan’s mind as far as possible from thoughts of his future, or from dwelling on the blood dripping from what had been the front seat.
Dan stepped now toward the edge of a different mountain road. He’d driven all day, fighting the urge to close his eyes when he crept past steep cliffs at fifteen miles an hour, to get here: the scene of his career-ending blunder. Now he stood at the top, in the thin air of his childhood, surveying the scene of the accident. The guardrail looked like braces hanging from broken teeth.
For nineteen years Dan had worked his dream job. He was a Voice, and though he could never be as perfectly reassuring as the one that saved his life, Dan had saved lives, dozens if not hundreds. It made him as close to happy as he got. His stomach lurched with excitement whenever his phone rang with the chance to help someone. He’d fielded thousands of calls — most simply asking for directions or a tow truck — and still he felt a rush each time. It was almost like fun, but always he was safe, warm, dry.
The problem was that 2038 model cars gave OnStar too much control. From his safe, warm, dry cubicle, Dan could disable a car, or he could start it. He could honk the horn. He could apply the brakes, or the gas. He had done all these things and more when his clients — those precious, frightened voices — had needed him to. But this time they hadn’t needed it, and he hadn’t meant to. He had driven the clients’ car right over the edge, into the abyss.
Holding with white knuckles onto what guardrail remained, Dan saw it: the crumpled and torn metal that had been a car. It was impossibly far below, thousands of feet probably, much farther than his father’s Impala had fallen. There had been four people in the car, a family, and no one had survived.
It should have been me, he thought. And it’s not too late.
Trembling, Dan stepped over the broken guardrail, then slowly he straightened up, breathing deeply. It was steep enough where he stood that one leap would take him into freefall; hang gliders used the spot to launch, then float like leaves down into the valley. His own Uncle Kevin had done it.
Dan took one last look at his life. Was there any part of it worth clinging to, any straw he could clutch at to save his life? Any heavenly Voice to guide him through the dark time? Anything to make him smile?
There wasn’t. The Voice was gone. His wonderful job was gone. His usefulness was gone. All of these things had plummeted from the cliff on which he stood.
Dan closed his eyes and jumped after them.
Immediately he felt wind on his face and tearing at his hair. His stomach rose inside of him, then dropped like a stone. Tears leaked from his eyes as he opened them, looking around. The hillside behind him rushed by, but the valley before him seemed unchangeable, and more beautiful than he’d ever thought.
Against the force of air battering his face, Dan laughed. Falling wasn’t scary; it was fun! It was perhaps the only fun he’d ever had.
The hikers who found his body wouldn’t know it, nor would Kevin or anyone else. His teeth, like the rest of him, were shattered. But Dan had been smiling when he hit the ground.
Emily C. Skaftun lives in Seattle with her husband and their child, a cat who thinks he’s a tiger. When she’s not teaching or writing, she dabbles in roller derby, flying trapeze, and other absurd activities. But mostly she writes, because the world is a better place with monsters and flying tigers in it. Emily has an MFA in Creative Writing and is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Ideomancer, and FLURB, to name a few.