Authors: Bryan Smith
The Falcon’s rust-flecked trunk lid stood open. Hoke blinked against the abrupt intrusion of bright sunlight and stared up at her. He was in a fetal position, his knees
tucked up against his chest. He looked ragged. His hair was soaked with sweat. His flesh glistened where the sun hit it. The trunk was big, typical of cars of the precompact era,but it was crowded with many years’ worth of accrued junk. An old battery, two pairs of jumper cables, a filthy and rotting old blanket, empty bottles and beer cans, a stack of moldy newspapers, a rusted tire jack, a folded tent, and more. It could not have been a comfortable ride for the fucking rapist.
She suppressed a smile and kept her voice hard as she said again,“Get out.”
Hoke blinked hard one more time and focused on the .38’s looming barrel. He stared at it for a long, silent moment. His throat moved as he swallowed with difficulty. Then he looked at her, and she wanted to scream at the absence of terror in his blue eyes. “Come on, sugar. You ain’t gonna kill me.”
Fury seized her. She reached past him and grabbed the tire jack. A fluttery hand moved to intercept her, but she was too fast. She swatted Hoke’s hand away, shifted the .38 to her left hand, and hoisted the tire jack in her right. The old jack was caked with rust, but it was a solid hunk of iron. She shifted her grip on it and swung it down. Hoke had time to utter one weak cry of alarm. Then there was a meaty thunk as the jack smashed against his knee. The weak cry became a howl of agony. She lifted the jack again, adjusted her aim, and delivered one more blow, this one a harder strike to his right hip. He howled again, and then he was blubbering, begging her not to hit him again.
She tossed the jack to the ground and aimed the .38 at the space between his watery blue eyes. He looked at her again and his jaw quivered. This time she allowed herself a small smile. There was the terror she’d hoped to see before. She thumbed back the .38’s hammer, and a
thin sound somewhere between a whimper and a moan escaped his trembling lips.
“Get out. I won’t tell you again.”
Hoke’s chest hitched as he visibly struggled to respond. His mouth opened. His teeth chattered.“Y-yeah. O-okay. P-p-please…”
He gripped the edge of the trunk with a shaking hand and began to haul himself out. She kept the gun leveled at his chest as she moved back a few steps, staying alert for any indication of a sudden lunge in her direction. But he made no such attempt, was clearly incapable of it at the moment. His knees creaked audibly as he set his feet on the ground and stood upright. His gaze stayed on her a moment longer. Then he frowned as he began to perceive his surroundings. His head swiveled as he surveyed the little clearing in the woods.
He looked at her again and said, “Where in tarnation are we, little girl?”
She bit her lip and gripped the .38 harder. Another tiny ounce of pressure on the trigger would send a slug ripping through his heart. And she wasn’t ready to do that. Not yet. She eased her finger off the trigger and said, “My name is Jessica. Not honey. Not sugar. Not sweetheart. You won’t call me any of those things again. Got that?”
He just stared at her. His eyes were flat, unreadable. Then he licked his lips and shrugged. “Sure thing, Jess. Hell, didn’t mean to offend you none.”
Her eyes narrowed to slits. “Sort of a funny comment from a fucking rapist.”
An odd thing happened.
And that damnable grin was back. His eyes flickered with genuine amusement. “Aw, come on, girl. I didn’t rape you.”
She wanted to scream at him then. Wanted to shoot him in the kneecaps and listen to him cry and scream as he writhed in agony on the dusty country ground. But she kept her tone even as she said,“What?”
His resurgent grin didn’t falter. “You heard me, baby. Hell, you were givin’ off signals like nobody’s business while you was checkin’ out my ride. Bending over in them sexy jeans when you looked at the engine, liftin’ that sweet ass of yours in the air. Even wiggled it a little. Same deal when you checked out the interior. Posin’ like a fuckin’ Penthouse Pet all over my car. And there was the way you looked at me when you thought I wasn’t lookin’. With them bedroom eyes. Like you wanted to fuck my poor little brains out right then and there. Shit.” He chuckled. “I was just givin’ you what you wanted.” Another chuckle.“And you know it.”
She looked at him. Really studied him. He was maybe thirty. Maybe as old as thirty-five. Shaggy hair a darkish shade of blond. Skin bronzed from years of wallowing in summer sun. Attired in khaki cargo pants and a Grateful Dead T-shirt. Puka-shell necklace around his throat. Designer sandals on his feet. This was the man she meant to kill. The scumbag sociopath who’d raped her. A goddamn goofball. Looking at him, it was hard to take him seriously. A memory surfaced. Herself prone on his kitchen floor. The smell of spilled beer thick in her nostrils. The strange look of hate on his face as he grunted above her.
“Get on your knees.”
His grin died then, and he squinted at her.“What?”
“You heard me.”
He was silent for a moment. Then he said, “What if I don’t?”
“Then I shoot you where you stand.”
He locked eyes with her.“Hell you will.”
She shifted her aim slightly, almost imperceptibly, and squeezed the .38’s trigger. The gun’s report was massively loud in the otherwise-empty clearing. The slug punched a hole through the Falcon’s open trunk lid. Hoke fell screaming to his knees. He looked up at her through eyes streaming with sudden tears, hands clasped before him in an almost prayerful pose.
“Please…” He was blubbering again now. “P-p-please…I didn’t mean you no harm. You got to believe me. Please…”
Jessica moved a step closer, aimed the .38’s barrel at the space between his eyes again.“Say you’re sorry.”
His face was a study in confusion for a moment, then his head bobbed repeatedly, nodding several times in a vigorous gesture of assent. “Yeah. Jesus. Shit. I’m sorry, girl. Oh, fuck, I am so fucking sorry. Please don’t kill me. Please…”
Jessica’s face remained expressionless as she said, “I accept your apology.”
Hoke abruptly ceased his blubbering. He frowned at her.“You do?”
“Yes.” The barest of smiles glazed the corners of her mouth.“But unlike God, I am not merciful. I’m going to kill you now, Hoke.”
The word was a thunderous exclamation of disbelief. The man’s features twisted in an expression that evoked feelings of betrayal, as if she’d just breached the terms of some unspoken covenant formed between them in these last moments. On some level, he’d really believed she would spare him in exchange for a simple apology. “But you can’t do that. You can’t. It’s…it’s…
She thumbed back the .38’s hammer again.“Say goodbye, Hoke.”
“You can’t do this.” He changed tactics now, attempted to reason with her rather than plead for his life. “You
can’t get away with it. People will look for me. The cops will come after you.”
Her smile broadened some. “Oh, but they won’t. I never gave you my full name. None of your friends know me or even saw me. I didn’t tell anybody about you. I found you on craigslist and called from a public phone. There’s nothing to connect you and me, Hoke. Face it, I’m gonna get away with this. You’re going to rot out here in the middle of nowhere, and I’ll go on with my life.”
He spluttered. “But…but…the car! The Falcon! They—”
“I’ll have to ditch the car, of course. After I get back to Nashville and wipe it down.”
Fresh tears spilled down his cheeks. His chest heaved. He continued to plead at her with his eyes, but he didn’t say anything. He was out of arguments. Maybe out of hope. She looked at his legs, watched for a coiling of calf muscles indicating a last-ditch lunge for the gun. But his whole body remained slack, frozen in a posture of defeat. He bowed his head, a penitent awaiting the final deadly blessing of the bullet.
The .38’s barrel was aimed at the crown of his skull now.
This is it,
She drew in a deep breath.
Held it a moment.
And began to apply pressure to the trigger.
The snapping of a twig jerked her gaze away from Hoke. Her head snapped to the left and then to the right. She saw nothing. She backed carefully away from Hoke and turned in a slow circle to survey the edges of the clearing. Still nothing.
The sound came again. Louder this time. Definitely
the snapping of a twig. Someone or something moving around out there. Animal or human. Some deep-down instinct told her the latter. It was something to do with a perceived deliberateness in the movements.
“Who’s out there?” Her voice emerged thin and reedy, projecting fear and confusion rather than the strength she’d wanted to show. “Come on out and show yourself!”
Hoke was checking out the edges of the clearing, too. His expression had changed. It didn’t exactly project hope now, but some of the terror had drained from his features. “You heard the lady!” he shouted in a hoarse voice.“The bitch means to kill me. Do something, goddammit!”
Jessica continued to spin in a slow circle. A chill went up her spine. She still didn’t see anything, but she experienced that creepy, precognitive awareness one feels when being surreptitiously observed by unseen eyes. Dammit. There shouldn’t be anyone out here. The area around Dandridge was supposed to be deserted for miles. The woods here bordered neighboring town Hopkins Bend, but she’d been sure no one from there would wander this close to the blighted ghost town. No one with any sense ever wanted to go near Dandridge, where, if you believed the government’s story, terrorists had exploded a dirty bomb years earlier.
After several more silent moments elapsed, she allowed herself the hope that she’d only imagined an unseen human presence. It was understandable, of course. Her nerves were on edge. And despite her resolve, she was frightened out of her wits. She wasn’t a killer by nature. This was admittedly an extreme thing she was doing. She meant to see it through, but that didn’t mean she was unaffected by the prospect of taking a human life. It would haunt her the rest of her life, despite the righteousness of her position. Little things like auditory hallucinations
and other faulty perceptions were to be expected, given the circumstances.
Something moved beyond the line of trees, a flicker of white passing through shadows.
Startled, Jessica squeezed the .38’s trigger. The bullet hit something alive. There was a cry of pain, followed by the heavy thump of a body hitting the ground. Another sound behind her spun her around, but this time her finger froze on the trigger as she saw a man step into the clearing.
A man, but not a normal man.
Too big, and with a face like something out of a nightmare.
Jessica could only stare at him.
Hoke let out a low whistle and said, “I think I done shit my shorts, sugar.”
The sound of snapping twigs came again.
More nightmares stepped into the clearing.
Jessica’s knees began to shake. The gun felt heavier in her hands now. She began to move backward, but heard another sound of snapping twigs behind her. She stopped moving. A hopeless thought streaked through her consciousness.
. She gave a moment’s consideration to putting the .38’s barrel in her mouth and pulling the trigger. Suicide was certainly a better option than whatever these monstrosities had in mind for her.
The first one through the trees moved a step closer to her. He wore only faded and tattered overalls over a body roughly the size of a houseboat. Something vaguely like an elephant’s trunk dominated the center of his jowly face, where a nose should have been. One eye socket was much larger than the other. A bulbous red eye protruded from it. The trunk twitched in her direction. Jessica’s stomach churned. A big double-barreled shotgun was
propped on the man’s shoulder. He grinned at her, showing her a mouth full of rotting teeth.
He began to lift the shotgun off his shoulder.
No time to think.
Jessica glanced left, glanced right.
Saw the only possible way to go.
And took off running.
The shotgun boomed behind her.
“We’re gonna have to stop here.”
Pete Miller slowed theVW Jetta and cranked the steering wheel slowly to the right, easing into the gravel-strewn parking lot. He pulled to a stop next to a gas pump that looked like a relic from another age. It had spinning rotary numbers rather than the digital displays he was used to seeing. There was no slot for a credit or debit card.
“Welcome to 1970.” He made a sound of annoyance. “Guess I’ll have to go inside.”
Megan Phillips looked up from the paperback novel she’d been reading—a lurid-looking thing called
—and squinted at him from the passenger seat. “Inside? Why?”
Pete rolled his eyes and hooked a thumb at the antique gas pump. “Because apparently we passed through some kind of time warp a few miles back. Fuck. I hope these rednecks take credit cards.”
“Don’t you have any cash?”
He shrugged.“Didn’t think I’d need any for a while.”
“Maybe you should hit up their ATM while you’re in there.”
Pete showed her a deadpan expression. “Oh. Yeah. Right. And while I’m at it, I’ll grab us each a chilled latte and a copy of the
New York Times
Megan wasn’t looking at him anymore. Her attention had returned to the apparently fascinating book. He watched her lick her lips and turn a page. She scrunched down in her seat and brought the book closer to her face. She said,“Sounds good, honey.”
Pete looked at her. He loved her. He really did. Or maybe it was just lust mixed up with a serious case of like. But that was splitting hairs. He was genuinely fond of her, both for her lithe, supple little body and her fun personality. They’d been dating for seven mostly drama-free months, which was some kind of record in his experience. They had yet to have that first big fight, which he’d found normally occurred somewhere within the first two to three months of a relationship. The girl was beyond easygoing. She had achieved a state of mellowness so rarefied, it was almost Zen-like. The disagreements they did have were minor and were usually resolved in a matter of minutes. Pete liked to remind himself of this in moments like these. Yes, she could be a bit slow on the uptake, but otherwise she was fucking perfect.
He leaned over for a kiss and said, “Be back in a snap, baby.”
She lifted her face for the kiss and smiled after he planted an enthusiastic one on her soft, bee-stung lips. “Hurry back.”
He grinned.“You know it.”
He got out of the car, threw the door shut, and started walking toward the little general store. He knew it was a general store thanks to the sign in the window to the left of the front door. It read, in carefully printed black block
lettering against a white background, H
A bell rang as he pushed through the door into the store’s musty interior. Two men playing cards at a rickety wooden table glanced up as he came in. They regarded him with hollow, unreadable expressions for an uncomfortable moment. One of the men spat on the floor. What the hell? Was that some kind of colorfully rustic judgment of his character? Hard to tell. Not that he cared what these rubes thought. He was just passing through on his way to another grand adventure in his young, prosperous life. They, on the other hand, would spend the remainder of their dreary days rotting away in this nothing little Podunk town. You sort of had to feel sorry for the poor, ignorant sons of bitches. He shoved his sunglasses up over his forehead and flashed them his best winning smile before moving farther into the store.
Another man sat behind a counter at the far end of the store. An enormously fat man, wearing a faded and sweat-stained red T-shirt that looked ready to give beneath the strain of his vastly protruding belly and red-wood-sized biceps. He had a jowly, florid face. A fat lower lip pooched out as he slowly flipped through the pages of a magazine. He wore a weathered cap with a slogan emblazoned above the bill: A
OUTHERN BY THE GRACE OF
Bubba the Hutt.
He then made a mental note to keep the observation to himself.
The store itself consisted of two aisles stocked with food and household items, as well as a cooler stocked with only the cheapest American beer. A scan of the selection indicated even Budweiser would be thought a luxury in these parts. Another cooler next to the counter was stocked with little cardboard bait tubs. He consid
ered buying one to gross out Megan, then recognized the impulse as pure insanity. But perhaps he could pick up some other memento of their backwoods detour. Something they could chuckle over years later as they regaled their children with tales of their adventures en route to the big outdoor music festival in Tennessee.
Where had that thought come from? At twenty-three, he was still too young to be thinking such things. Hell, he was still practically a kid himself. He figured he had another five to ten years before he could seriously start to think about settling down. Megan was fun for now. And how. He liked her to pieces. But she wasn’t wife material. She was someone to have fun with while he was young. A girl he would recall with a sort of sweet nostalgia in later years, but without regret for the loss. His eventual wife would have to be someone smarter and more down-to-earth. Someone…not fun. His brow creased as he thought these things. His mind had gone around a dark corner without his even realizing it, and he wasn’t happy about it.
As an antidote, he thought of Megan naked and laughing as he licked whipped cream off her breasts at that motel in Kentucky the night before.
The dark thoughts banished, he stepped up to the counter and cleared his throat.
The big redneck didn’t look at him.“What ya want?”
The man’s thick drawl was barely intelligible and added to his growing distaste for the man. He looked and sounded like something dredged up from the bottom of a swamp. Pete’s conscience spoke up then, telling him that there was more than one kind of prejudice. The people
in Hopkins Bend lived a different kind of life from the one he knew in Minnesota, where he and Megan lived on the outskirts of the Twin Cities. But different didn’t necessarily equate with bad. Or wrong.
It was just…different.
But knowing this mattered very little. The man unsettled him. The store unsettled him. The scowling card players unsettled him. This was alien territory. He didn’t belong here. He knew it, and the other men in the store knew it. He suddenly wanted nothing more than to be gone from this place. He considered leaving then and there. But the Jetta was very low on fuel, and he wasn’t sure how far away the next gas station was.
Just get it done,
Get it done and get the hell on out.
The man looked up from his magazine. There was a disturbing flatness in his dark eyes.“Well, boy?”
Pete cleared his throat again. “I, uh…need to fill up at your pump out there.”
The man’s jaw muscles moved almost imperceptibly. He was chewing something. Gum or a wad of tobacco. Pete figured the odds favored the latter.“Pump’s broke.”
Pete frowned.“Oh. Well. Okay, then. Um…could you maybe tell me how far to the next gas station?”
The corners of the man’s mouth dimpled and lifted slightly, forming the ugliest smile Pete Miller had ever seen. A smile to make nuns and young mothers wake up screaming in the middle of the night. “Don’t matter none.”
“Is that—” Pete’s frown deepened.“I’m sorry…what did you say?”
The big man reached beneath the counter, groped for something, found it, and stood up. Pete gulped at the sight of the pump-action shotgun and felt his knees turn to jelly as the man aimed it at his stomach. He raised
his hands before him and began to back away from the counter. He kept moving until the men from the card table intercepted him, each seizing an elbow and wrestling him to the dirty floor.
Pete thrashed with all his might against the men holding him down. He saw the man with the shotgun emerge from behind the counter and walk past them to the front door. The wooden floor groaned beneath his heavy tread. Pete’s mind reeled. Thoughts for his own safety were temporarily forgotten. He couldn’t let these bastards get to Megan. The very thought made him want to scream. It was funny, the kind of things a man could suddenly know in the midst of intense crisis. He would throw his life down for Megan, do anything he could to save her. He loved her. Oh, Jesus, how he loved her.
He screamed, and one of the men clamped a sweaty palm over his mouth. Pete bit down on the fleshy curve of the man’s thumb and wrenched his head backward as the man’s hand came away from his mouth. The big man was at the front door now. Pete expected to see him step through it and return in a few moments with a shrieking Megan.
But that didn’t happen.
Instead, he flipped the sign on the door around to read
. Then he pulled a shade down over the door and moved to the windows, where he did the same.
Then he locked the door.
And Pete realized something.
He’d never told these men he had a traveling companion. And, if his guess was correct, a cursory glance outside would show an apparently empty VW Jetta parked at the pump. Because Megan would be scrunched way down in her seat, absorbed in the story she was reading and utterly oblivious to what was happening inside the store.
For the moment, she was safe.
But that wouldn’t last forever. He had to think of a way out of this fucked-up situation before these animals caught wind of Megan’s presence. But what could he do? He began to hyperventilate as his mind scrambled for elusive answers. Then he heard the plod of the big man’s booted feet coming back across the wooden floor. A moment later, one of those feet pressed heavily into the small of his back.
The man cleared his throat phlegmatically.
Pete winced as moisture splashed against the back of his neck.
His voice emerged as a whine.
“Why are you doing this?”
A rumbling sound emerged from the big man’s chest. It might have been an asthmatic laugh. And then he said, “Say good night, bitch.”
And that was all Pete Miller knew for a while.
The stock of the shotgun crashed against the crown of his skull.