The Central Valley spreads out like a giant patchwork quilt. Green squares of orchards, brown rectangles of newly tilled ground, ready for seed. The man was tired after a long weekend of hiking in the treeless ridges near Sonora Pass. He had learned that there was a price to pay for delaying his departure from the mountains. Getting to his car in the late afternoon always meant a three-hour drive west, across the valley, with the setting sun in his eyes the entire way. And if he left too late then it meant a very late arrival in the Bay Area. He very rarely made the perfect departure time.
Coming down into the valley this evening he was a little on the late side, the sun had already set by the time the road had flattened out on its stretch to the west. The rolling cattle range had given way to flat orchards and produce fields. On Sunday nights the road was the only thing open. The man had made this trip hundreds of times in his life, starting as a child, traveling with his parents on weekend camping trips. And now after several years of serious backpacking, he felt a familiarity with the road that was similar to his weekday commute.
The miles ticked off, and the small towns faded in the rearview mirror. Every few miles he would come upon one of the several dozen small crossroads that ran north to south. The effect on the driver was that no matter where he descended from in the Sierra, he had to cross those blacktops, almost as if they were his personal longitude lines as he traveled west. One of those crossroads was called “Jack Tone Road.” When the man reached this road he knew he had been traveling for over an hour, and that he had about two hours left in his journey. It was just another marker in his trip home, but it was special in another way.
“Jack Tone Road,” he didn’t know why, but the very first notice of the name gave him goose flesh. It started when he was a teenager, traveling homeward with his parents, using this same route. Perhaps it was the tedious trip across the valley, perhaps it was the hypnotizing effect of watching the trunks of trees line up in the groves, then spread out like a line of soldiers as the car passed. In either case, when the crossroad sign flashed by the window, the young teenager perceived it almost like a hot brand, searing his mind. “Jack Tone Road.” Why was it named that? Who was Jack Tone? Was he a local farmer, or politician, or was he a desperado, robbing stagecoaches in the days of the gold rush? Was Jack Tone a dead man, found with his pockets turned out, face down in the ditch? Had something terrible occurred on “Jack Tone Road”?
And then suddenly the family was near the Bay Area and home, and the curiosity and fantasy about Jack Tone Road would end- until the next trip. And then it would begin all over again. It was odd because the sign always surprised him. His thoughts could have been anywhere, but when the crossroad sign flashed in the headlights, his mind grew cold, and he pondered about the dark deeds done on Jack Tone Road. He was certain now, that something horrible had happened there, and he sometimes hoped that his parents would stop, and then talk to the locals, and maybe he could find out the details. But they never did, because they never felt anything about “Jack Tone Road” except that it marked a passage of time and distance.
The boy is now a man, driving his own car, fully capable of stopping anywhere he wished. And he still crosses Jack Tone Road on his way home, and he still has his dark feelings and thoughts, but he never stops to ask why. By now he is sure of long knives flashing, gouts of warm blood from an innocent victim, and an insane murderer with madness in his eyes and evil in his heart. The tale had become quite detailed over the years, almost as if he had read about it in the local newspapers. And then he enters the Bay Area and thinks no more about it.
Now again, on this trip, he is nearing the crossroad. As always his mind is never aware of the approaching sign. He is only thinking about the days hiking and the chore of unpacking when he gets home. It is getting very dark, with some patches of tule fog settling in the groves, and banding across the highway. It is late enough that he is alone on the road, and no cars are following him, although he knows that there are still many cars heading back to the Bay Area. It is just an oddity that at this moment he is the only vehicle in sight.
And “Jack Tone Road” was five miles ahead.
Just as one band of tule fog dissipated, the man sees a hitchhiker standing near a turnout, not holding out his thumb, but holding his arm, and perhaps in the flash, as he left the headlights, he notices that he is staggering slightly. Looking in his rearview he sees no headlights, no one else coming or going. The man senses that the hitchhiker is in trouble and thinks he should stop and help. He pulls into the turnout and watches the hitchhiker come up from behind. The driver is right, the hitchhiker is hurt, and he limps to the car. He appears to be in his early twenties, well dressed and injured. As he approaches the window he can see that the hitchhiker’s left forearm is covered in blood, and that there are several scratches on his face and rips in his clothing. “An accident…” he mouthes through the rolled up window. “Can you get help?…”
The man unlocks the door and motions the hitchhiker to get in, “I better drive you myself, you’ve lost a lot of blood.” The man knows enough about first aid to give the hitchhiker a tourniquet and to be on the watch for shock. He knows it is important to keep him alert and responsive. “What happened?”
“Swerved for a dog, car tire caught an edge and flipped. I don’t know how but I was thrown clear.”
“How long ago, I didn’t see anything?”
”Just a few minutes ago, I think, I dunno, maybe I blacked out for awhile. Several cars passed, but I guess I just scared them, anyway they didn’t stop. Sure want to thank you, what’s your name?”
And Jack Tone Road is now two miles ahead.
The man considers what had been said. He had often seen dogs on the farms but he couldn’t remember ever seeing one loose and crossing the road. But all it takes is one and trouble can happen. He hadn’t seen any wreckage, or skidmarks. And he hadn’t seen any taillights by the side of the road, rightside up or upside down. He guesses the battery could have come loose, that would explain it. The man then notices that the hitchhiker is still holding his left arm, and that he is slowly moving the cuff up his arm, uncovering the hitchhiker’s wrist and forearm. It looks to the man that the blood is on the surface of his shirtsleeve, but he doesn’t see the wound on the arm. And the way he is holding his arm looks suspicious, like he is hiding something.
And Jack Tone Road is now 1/4 mile ahead.
“Say mister, did you hear me? I asked you for your name…”
The man now feels that something is wrong, the tone in the hitchhiker’s voice has an edge to it. And there is something more, for the first time in his life he has become aware that he is approaching the crossroads. He suddenly knows with a certainty what is going to happen in the next few minutes. He hesitates, then, he tells the hitchhiker…
“My name is John…”
Just then the sign flashes in his headlights and the sound changes as the car crosses the road. It has come. Jack Tone Road. And as before, the man experiences all the years of dark thoughts, of madness and murder, of flashing knives, and bright red pools of blood. His hands grip the wheel until his knuckles are white, and with his peripheral vision he sees the smile. A hideous grin, with lips stretched beyond the normal, his clenched teeth even and white. In his eyes he sees madness and mayhem. And he knows that he will soon reach for the long sharp knife that he has hidden from view. The only thing remaining is to readjust the mirror to check that no one is behind him.
“…But you can call me Jack.”