The machine maneuvered the road nimbly, despite the snow that had accumulated four or six inches deep, falling steadily since the late afternoon. The car was new to Leo -- he had made much more money at work this year than last and decided to treat himself to German engineering. He opted for a model that was slightly smarter and nicer than his tastes, and he felt the need to impress the vehicle by performing tasks out of the ordinary. Like tonight: staying late at work simply to navigate the snow-covered roads after the sun had gone down.
Leo sped along the Shoreway, rapidly approaching the wake of a mammoth city snowplow. He passed the towering smokestacks that powered Cleveland. Off in the distance, he swore he saw a bright plume of fire between the branches of many many snow-logged trees. Snow lightning sparked with kinetic purple bursts. The spraying salt rattled against the front grill of his car, threatened to compromise the clear coat. Leo signaled left and pressed harder on the accelerator. He swung the car out into the passing lane. The thing held steady and pushed past the plow with nominal effort. Flakes clung to the windshield and wipers with increasing rapidity. The spiraling amber light atop the plow filled the inside of his car.
Soon, the truck was far in his rearview so Leo shifted back to the right lane and awaited his exit. Through the motor and the high velocity winds, Leo thought he heard an aggressive horn from a diesel truck. From behind all he saw was the puny flicker of the plow light, way back. He signaled right with the intent to exit.
As Leo predicted, MLK Blvd. sat neglected, snow-covered, empty, much like the depraved neighborhoods that surrounded it. The road, essentially a trench connecting the Shoreway to University Circle and Cleveland Heights, twisted through the Cultural Gardens. On his left and right sat foreign monuments -- Armenia, Azerbaijan, Serbia -- and their flags, obscured despite spotlights by the white-out.
Leo could push his vehicle into the 30s before the traction control light would flash. A pair of serpentine lines would illuminate lime green on the dashboard. At 40, they shifted to yellow and the handling became loose toward the rear. The manual stated that the indicator would turn red to signal loss of control. It had not yet turned red for Leo.
He passed below St. Clair Ave pushing 40, sliding into a shallow turn, letting off the gas enough for the tires to catch and whip him through. In his rearview, he caught sight of two headlights dropping down onto MLK behind him. A rotating orange light signaled that this was another snow plow. Despite being a long distance behind him, the headlights reflected from the mirror into his eyes. Leo held a hand up to his face, nearly skidding into the curb. The mirror automatically corrected itself and with an internal mechanism dimmed the light. Briefly, Leo thought about how intelligent this vehicle was, how it made the decisions for him. He pushed harder in attempt to pull away from the plow.
Passing below a jagged stone bridge, he hit a patch of black ice and slid into the opposite lane of traffic, bounding off the far curb with wheels cut in the opposite direction. The left side of the car lifted off the ground and make a sickening scraping sound along the curb, then came back down in the road with a muffled thud. The traction control light was not on.
"Where were you on that one?" Leo asked, shaken.
The car idled.
Fortunately no one had been coming the other way, Leo thought. Then he remembered the plow truck. He turned around and peered through the bridge as if were a shark's mouth. He saw the thing stopped a few dozen feet back, headlights on, siren flashing. Leo wondered why the driver hadn't come over to see if he was alright. Why was it just sitting there?
For some time, Leo waited, hoping the truck would move past him and clear a path so that he wouldn't wipe out again. The snow continued to fall. The thermometer on his heads up display read -17 degrees. After a while, maybe 15 minutes, his back windshield was covered. Leo switched on the rear defroster. The plow had not moved. Leo saw that he was running low on gas, which was disconcerting because he'd had nearly a half tank upon leaving the office earlier. Maybe, he thought, snow driving consumed more. Either way, he very well couldn't sit there all night, waiting for the damn plow to go.
Leo released the parking brake and swung the car back into the correct lane, proceeding at a more gingerly pace than before. He noticed that the steering was not as responsive and assumed that a wheel had been knocked out of alignment when he struck the curb. He punched the steering wheel, annoyed that he would have to take the thing to maintenance so soon after buying it.
Halogen light pierced into his eyes, this time from the sideview mirrors. The plow gained on him rapidly. Leo pressed down on the accelerator, but the car kept pulling to the left and the traction light fluctuated between green and yellow. The plow kept moving up on him. Leo thought that maybe it was an illusion generated from the magnifying effect of the mirror. He attempted to resume a safer speed. The traction light disappeared.
With a tremendous jolt and clamor, Leo lurched forward. The plow had rammed him. The snow fell away from his back window and Leo's cockpit burned with high beams. The car began fishtailing wildly. Leo corrected and accelerated, still blind from the intense light. But he was fighting the road surface here and his vehicle was fishtailing without help from the truck. The traction control flashed red. An exclamation point framed by a triangle appeared on the heads up display. The plow slammed him again. All things were white and yellow and bright.
To his right, Leo caught sight of a side street and swung the car off MLK. The plow caught the back corner of his car and directed it, sliding, into a telephone pole on a small island. The plow continued on, never slowing, crackling salt in concentric circles, like birdseed littered before a park bench in summer.
Leo hugged the airbag, smelled a combination of ozone, compressed air, radiator fluid and gasoline. In the front of the car, he heard a sort of sizzling, and all around him, clicking sounds. Not necessarily sore, but extremely shaken up, Leo reached for the door and opened it, stepped outside. His leather shoes disappeared into the snow drift, as did his pants up to the knee. He shut the door and trudged over to inspect the damage. As he expected, it was hard to tell where the telephone pole ended and his car began. The thing was lodged deep into the front end. Around back, his bumper was dented and cracked from the plow striking it. Though he didn't know much about it, he knew his car was totaled.
He went to grab his phone out of the console, reached for the door handle. It wouldn't budge. Somehow, the car had locked when he stepped out. He recalled some sort of safety mechanism that would lock the doors if the engine was off and the car was left untended beyond a certain amount of time. Leo thought he had not been out of the car for very long, but then again, the thing may have malfunctioned due to the trauma. Either way, he thought, I'm stuck out here.
He flipped out the lapels on his overcoat and hugged his arms around himself. His adrenaline flow had ebbed and he felt despair setting in. He heard nothing of the plow -- only the high pitch of wind between bare branches. And footsteps. Rapid footsteps. Approaching. A growl.
Leo caught sight of several hunched, four-legged figures descending from the wooded slope to his right. Their eyes flashed yellow in the street lights, the color of his traction control warning beacon. The dogs' eyes flashed of wild. First there were four, then two more, then two more, all as black as the night. They staggered their numbers, split in two groups and approached the car, heads low, ears back. Leo remained cautious, did not panic, not right away. He ineffectively tried to open a back door to his car. The lead dog caught sight of this move, bared its teeth, raised the mangy hair on its back. If the thing barked, Leo would have worried less, but it did not. The silent dogs were the ones to worry about. These dogs did not make a sound.
The lead dog, 4 feet tall and pitch black, approached the telephone pole. It lifted its leg and urinated, then jumped on the hood. Teeth bared, it let loose a growl. The dogs behind it broke into a dead run at Leo. He fled around the back of his car, cutting left across a small bridge spanning a creek. The dogs pursued. Once across the bridge, he drew them into a long field leading up a hill out of the Cultural Gardens and into a neighborhood. The snow had drifted here and was very deep. Leo was having trouble making progress, but glancing over his shoulder, he could see the dogs were likewise, but they were still gaining. Near the summit, he slipped and scrambled to regain traction. He found his stride but the delay proved costly, for one of the dogs had clamped on to the back of his coat. It writhed its head wildly. Tearing the buttons off, Leo allowed the coat to slip over his shoulders and he kept running. Looking back, he saw two of the dogs wrestling over the coat, but the other six were still in pursuit.
Clearing the treeline, he entered into Glenville. Straight ahead, a burning house lit the sky. Its heat radiated and the light shone like a halo around the snow. Leo jumped down into the street, ran closer to the blaze. He turned. The dogs, panting, had stopped at the treeline. The fire must have startled them. Slowly they faded from the light, vaporizing like the steam from their snouts into the atmosphere.
Wearing only his work shirt and pants, Leo approached the warmth. A man stood in the sidewalk staring up at the inferno. The house used to be one of those Cleveland doubles, with a porch and balcony in the front and about six bedrooms, all wood construction. Everything went up. The man had a large wool blanket draped over his shoulders. Leo came to stand next to this man with face covered in soot. The man, never casting a sideways glance to meet Leo's, nodded. He swung the blanket over Leo's shoulders as well and the two drew closer together for warmth.
Leo scanned the distance for a hint of the Fire Department, a red siren, but all he could see were sporadic orange lights -- snow plows.
The roof buckled and collapsed, sending timbers inward toward the center of the building. Red hot embers launched upwards into the sky, collided head-on with stark white snow falling down.