Red and blue lights flashed along a quiet southern stretch of Highway Ninety-Nine. California State Trooper, Howard McCallister, cautiously approached the silver Honda Accord he had just pulled over. The driver’s window had been rolled down and McCallister could see the driver’s hands positioned atop the steering wheel. Light from the officer’s flashlight spilled across a tired face whose eyes stared off into the distance.
“Know why I pulled you over?”
The driver of the vehicle sat silently a moment. His hands never moving. His eyes always forward. Seconds passed with agonizing slowness.
“Hey! Dumb ass!” The state trooper raised his voice. “I asked you a question. Do you know why I pulled you over?”
“Because,” the driver sighed, “you were assigned to patrol this stretch of the highway. A once exciting assignment rendered slow and unrewarding as families choose to stay home to avoid the pandemic. Bored, you saw my vehicle and said to yourself, ‘you know what, Howard? Let’s stop this asshole and see what he’s up to driving around at two in the morning.’ Sound about right to you, Howard?”
The state trooper allowed a free hand to find the comforting cool metal grip of his service weapon. Slow. Inconspicuous. The driver had not moved, had not even lifted his eyes to meet the trooper’s flashlight as so many before this man had done, but still McCallister felt an uneasy churning in his gut. The sour tang of fear burned in the back of his throat. Ancient and primal. He had never seen this driver before, yet something about the man, or more appropriately – his energy, felt familiar and filled him with an increasing sense of dread. How does he know my name?
“You’re a, um, a long way from home. Aren’t you, son?” McCallister asked.
The driver said nothing. His eyes never seemed to leave the long road ahead of him. He hadn’t done anything illegal. He wasn’t speeding. Used his turn signal while changing lanes despite being the only vehicle on the highway. Arguably, the driver had been a model motorist. His only crime had been to cross McCallister’s boredom. The state trooper glanced around for any devices which might be recording the encounter, though if challenged, he had been prepared to explain he was merely trying to verify there were no other occupants in the vehicle. He saw none. Occupants or devices.
“Your plates. They say Virginia, but here you are in California. Kind of a bit off course. Where you headed?” McCallister affected a stern and aggressive tone to mask his nervous discomfort.
The driver sat silent.
“Look. I’m trying to help you out here. Give you a chance to explain yourself. And you’re not giving me much to work with, so do you want to spend the night in jail? Because we can do that.”
The driver continued to refuse to speak.
“Alright. Alright. How about you give me your license and registration?”
The driver extended the first two fingers on his left hand to bring his license and vehicle registration into view. He held them like a lit cigarette in the hands of a driver far too focused to lift his hands from the wheel.
“Hand them to me.” McCallister demanded.
“I will not.”
A voice in the back of McCallister’s head pleaded for him to be done; to let the driver be on his way and pray he never looks back. This is stupid. What are you even afraid of? He’s white.
“I said, hand them to me! Now!”
“No. I move my hands and you go guns ‘a blazin’. I’ve seen this movie. I know how it ends. Take them.”
“Sir, I will not –“
“Then we are done.”
“We are not done!” The State Trooper drew his weapon from its holster and trained it on the driver. “Step out of the vehicle! Now!”
“Howard, you know that small voice in the back your head? The one pleading for you to let me go? Listen to it, Howard. Heed it.” The driver’s fingers curled back over the steering wheel. He sneered, but did not move, nor look away from the road ahead of him. “What’s it gonna be?”
McCallister stared through the quivering sites of his weapon. His breathing grew rapid, keeping time and rhythm with his heart. He seethed. Boiled over with frustration at the driver’s lack of compliance – his lack of respect. Who the fuck does he think he is! His lips, tight, lifted like curtains over his teeth in a snarl. He went to cut the power from his bodycam but found it already dead. How long it had quit working didn’t matter. Part of him was relieved. Less recorded footage meant less to explain and greater control of the narrative. His act of boredom had escalated out of control. More importantly, he knew if he could not get the situation back under control – his control – then he might have to shoot the driver. If he shot the driver, then he’d have to kill the driver. Riots already raged across the U.S. – a direct result of police corruption and the murders of innocent black men at the hands of law enforcement. An incident here might trigger protests throughout Fresno County. No one wanted that. Not with the pandemic rapidly cutting its way through the whole of the central valley. McCallister needed to control the narrative at all costs.
“So we’re done, then?” The driver asked.
The state trooper looked up, ripped from his thoughts. He had somehow managed to step several feet back from the car. “Get out of the car! Right the fuck – “
Before State Trooper Howard McCallister could finish issuing his order, his body was carried several hundred feet down the highway. The sour smell of burning rubber filled the air as a number of speeding cars and trucks piled on top of one another. Smoke and flames lit up the night sky like an offering of incense to ancient sleeping gods. Amidst the chaos of sirens and death, no one noticed the silver Honda Accord continuing its southward journey.