Funeral for a Friend
“Hey man, this is Dusty’s brother, can you call me when you get a minute?“
The text message caused my phone to teeter onto the floor at just past two in the morning. Our small family reacted accordingly. My wife groaned amicably and rolled over in bed. Our big idiot German Shepherd snorted herself out of sleep and sashayed her way over to lick my face. I grabbed my glasses from the nightstand, picked up the phone from the floor, and stared at the screen.
The words sent a shiver down my spine.
I could not think of a single reason for Ryan to be texting at this hour with anything other than bad news. We were not friends. Our only connection in twenty years had been his brother; my best friend. I padded my way out of the bedroom quietly to call him in the hallway. Ryan answered after a few rings.
The sigh on the other end of the line confirmed my worst fears.
“There really is no easy way to say this. I’m sorry. Dusty passed away last night.“
I felt myself fall to the floor.
“What… how… I just talked to him. When did this happen?“
I could hear Ryan holding back tears.
“Early this morning. I’m sorry it’s so late. I’ve been dealing with my parents and sisters and police all day.“
I let out a breath as my chest ached alongside it.
“What the fuck happened?“
Ryan sobbed openly.
“We don’t really know yet, man, I’m sorry. It was an accident, but the police are involved. I’m not supposed to share a lot. They have been here all day.“
Bullshit. How could they not tell me? Dusty was the best man at my wedding. He was the Godfather to one of my children. After twenty years of friendship… how could they not tell me what happened?
“I’m coming up there.“
Ryan sounded surprised on the phone. He tried to argue that point awkwardly.
“No, Matt, that is really not necessary. The funeral won’t be until next week… they are still conducting an investigation.“
I replied with the firmest tone possible.
“I need to be there.“
I hung up the phone. The trip to Dusty’s family home required an hours drive north. It seemed better to leave in the night and avoid the morning’s traffic. My wife would need some convincing. The dog would need to be walked. I pounded out an email to my office to tell them I would not make it in the next day. Then, I padded back into the bedroom and shook Emily out of her sleep.
“What’s that?” Em mumbled sleepily.
I did not know how to tell her.
“There’s been an accident. Something happened to Dusty. I am going up there.“
The words ripped my wife out of her daze immediately. Lola, sensing some excitement, jumped on the bed to lick her face.
“Down, Lola… what happened to Dusty? Do you want me to go with you?“
I looked at my feet when I told her.
“He’s gone, Em. Passed away.“
The shock on her face must have been the same as mine a moment ago. Em got out of bed and started to put on sweatpants.
“No, no…” I kissed my wife’s forehead gently. “The funeral is not until next week. I just want to see the family. I’ll be back tomorrow.“
Em nodded and looked at me worriedly. I tucked her back into bed and told our pup to watch the house.
“Be careful, she said.
I left the room and opened the kitchen door that led outside. It was freezing that night. A small snow storm had started up sometime before we went to sleep. A thin sheet of white covered everything from the grass to the street. I thanked God for four wheel drive as I got into my rickety SUV and punched the address into my GPS.
For those who don’t already know it – the road is a massive super highway that encompasses the entirety of the East Coast. It runs from Florida to Maine. During daylight hours, it can be one of the most congested in the country. But we were coming up on the witching hour. The time on my dashboard read 2:30. I hoped that meant less traffic.
I was right.
The road opened up to six lanes in my state. All of them stayed mostly empty for the first forty-five minutes of my journey. A couple stray cars passed by occasionally. I wondered about their story. I wondered if their friends were still alive. I wondered if something had pulled them out of bed in the middle of the night in complete surprise, too.
I thought about Dusty. I thought about where he could be at that moment. I tried to text his phone a couple times. I know this seems stupid… but part of me hoped he would still reply. It just felt bizarre to not expect a response back.
The snow started to pick up once my car clicked across the Connecticut border. Storms tended to drift that way. New Jersey almost always received a softer smack compared to our Northern brothers. I noticed that the streets started to get slick with black ice, and slowed down accordingly.
A paneled station wagon entered by rear-view mirror at exactly 3:25 in the morning.
Ten minutes away from the family house.
The car started to tailgate me. That made me worry right away. Sure, I was going slow. But several other lanes stayed opened the whole time. He could have easily went around me and continued uninterrupted on his journey.
But he didn’t.
At 3:27, the driver shined his brights. I did not know what that meant, so I switched lanes.
He followed me.
The bright white lights allowed me to see that the front bumper of this station wagon drifted listlessly to the side. I watched it while trying to speed up and avoid the guy. But, suddenly, softly, that hanging piece of metal clipped the back of my car.
That tiny movement caused my car to skid out at over sixty miles an hour.
I panicked and tried to adjust. I got lucky. Stellar breaks and the lack of anyone else on the road caused the skid in reverse without collision.
I caught my breath and looked around into the night. The station wagon sat twenty feet away. I pulled out my cell phone to dial 911. The line hung a couple moments as I looked down and anxiously awaited a reply.
Before that could happen, a flash of wood paneling appeared on my passenger side.
The impact felt like being struck by a train.
My car screeched noisily above the pavement. I tried to accelerate, but the metal pieces of our vehicles intertwined as the station wagon pushed me sideways. I expected death when my car collided with the concrete barrier. I offered up a prayer to whomever the fuck might be listening to my ever-growing shit show of a night.
But death never came.
Airbags deployed and smacked me in the mouth. I pushed them back as I felt the blood flow from cuts and bruises around my eyes. The barrier on my driver side blocked one way. The station wagon blocked the other.
Someone opened the door.
My phone stayed on speaker phone as I frantically described the man approaching from outside.
“Six feet tall. White male. Black sleeveless shirt. Black mask. Tattoo on his shoulder. Oh God, oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck. He’s got a bat. He’s coming. What do I do? I’m trapped. What the hell do I do?!“
I know those were my exact words because they were replayed for me later that day. The unusually calm dispatcher offered one final piece of advice that probably saved my life that night.
“PUT THE CAR IN REVERSE.“
I slammed the pedal to the floor just as the black masked man approached my driver side door. My shitty little SUV hummed to life. I thanked God again for Honda. The metal binding our cars together bent back. In one swift motion, I slipped twenty feet in reverse and left my would attacker flailing his arms wildly on the side of the highway.
I caught my breath again.
I stared at the man in a daze, begging confrontation, as he cocked his ski masked head and laughed into the empty night.
Then he charged.
I slammed the gas. My bumper skidded on the side of the road and slowed me down, but I still had good speed. I swerved to the left just as the man planted his feet and attempted to swing. A piece of metal debris caught him in the stomach.
I saw him go down in my rear-view when I drove away.
Dusty’s parents lived only a short distance from the scene. I pulled up to their house and saw several lights on inside. I parked my metal piece of rubbish on the curb and climbed out of a shattered window. I walked up and rang the doorbell. Then I collapsed.
Additional officers and EMTs arrived moments later. I sat on the curb and coaxed up to my new found PTSD while two different mustachioed police officers asked me a million of the same questions.
I stayed in town help with the investigation. The case caught a bit of luck along the way, when someone reported a damaged station wagon at a gas station. My attacker was arrested the day of Dusty’s funeral.
I identified him in a line up that night. A bat in his back seat was submitted for DNA analysis. The blood found in the grooves matched brain tissue from my best friend. The murderer, now known as a serial killer, ended up taking a plea deal. The confession confirmed everything we already suspected.
He tried to kill me. And he did kill Dusty. My friend died in a car accident the previous night. It was a hit-and-run. The suspect attempted to bury him in the grass along that same stretch of I-95. A jogger found the remains hours later and reported it to police. Hence the delay.
In his confession, the killer described the murders with way too much delight. He had a system. A preferred method of killing and capturing, if you will. He said he only went after travelers. He said its just too easy to see who is all alone on those lonely roads.
Especially late at night.