by Liz Warren-Pederson
He blew a tire on Route 66, on a flat stretch of scrub desert at sunrise. His instinct was to slam on the brakes; like many of his instincts, it was flawed.
His bottle of Mountain Dew, lukewarm and half empty, somersaulted through the air as his right hand joined his left to white-knuckle the wheel. The bottle bounced off the seat, spraying yellow-green liquid as he fishtailed over the blacktop.
He knew that he would have to lift his foot off the brake. As he did, he recognized something in the road: a coyote. Thin as bones, it loomed suddenly large as he bore down on it. Its eyes were amber and fierce.
He threw the wheel.
It occurred to him, as the world spun around like a carnival ride, that when it stopped he might not get off. This thought had no power over him. He let go of the wheel, and his arms whipped up around his ears of their own volition, jerking like an articulated toy. Then the roof was the floor and he was flopping upside down from the seatbelt. The position was comfortable, and comforting, and he closed his eyes.
Time passed. Thought returned. Music, tinny and strange, still issued from the speakers. Every night my dream’s the same... Same old city with a different name… The music was accompanied at irregular intervals by a dripping sound. And footsteps, the sound lug soles make grinding desert gravel. The footsteps paused somewhere near his head. Was that a hot breeze or hot breath blowing through the open window to touch his cheek? Men are coming to take me away… I don’t know why, but I know I can’t stay…
The smell of dust and body drifted into the car, and something – a thick arm – pushed past his dangling form. There’s a weight that’s pressing down… Late at night you can hear can hear the sound… The arm withdrew with the heavy set of keys from the ignition. They clipped his chin, and the smell retreated with the footsteps, headed to the rear of the car. “No,” he said, but his mouth didn’t move.
The sound of a key pushed solidly into the trunk lock galvanized him. He forced his eyes open, but they closed instantly, against his will. He moaned and tried again. The lock clicked home, and he heard the contents of the trunk spill out into the desert, landing hard. He willed his eyelids up, and caught a couple images, flicking like a ViewMaster. First, straight ahead: thrashed windshield, bent in, irregular blue-tinted mosaic rectangles. Next, to the right: empty green plastic bottle, resting against the interior light on the tatty perforated vinyl of the Nova’s roof.
Then he heard the halting sound of something unwieldy being pulled over brush and pebbly ground. He struggled to turn his head toward the sound, made his eyelids open. Upside down, and blurry: a tall man in a plaid shirt. The bogeyman. Bright-lit in the sunrise and bald, dragging a long narrow form wrapped in a chamois-colored canvas tarp, trussed in jute. The bogeyman moved out of his line of vision; the last thing he saw was the load rebound off a rock the size of a hubcap.
He twitched, deliberately, to shake off the lethargy. The seatbelt, sharp and sturdy, cut into his neck and jaw. His right arm felt like it was filled with sand, but he concentrated until it rose up. His fingers closed around the metal latch. He mashed the button with his thumb, and tumbled suddenly in a heap onto the roof of the car, still tangled in the seatbelt. Breathing hurt. It occurred to him that he probably had a broken rib. Or more than one. He wrapped an arm around his torso, rested his forehead on the edge of the window, and closed his eyes. He heard a car coming, arriving, withdrawing – a textbook Doppler effect.
The air from its retreat rushed over the Nova. He felt the car barely rock. The hinges on the trunk squeaked, gently. Hinges. Trunk. Body. “No,” he said, and this time his voice worked. Clutching his ribs tighter, he reached out the window with the other arm. He gripped the car frame. In stops and starts, he pulled himself into the sunrise. He lay on his back, knees bent. The rocks were sharp under his neck. One dug into the small of his back. The air was dry and crisp. The sun had come up hot; the heat seemed to pulse with his heartbeat. He turned over, began to crawl, then paused and finally stood. He staggered into the desert after the bogeyman.
Someone was trying to call her. She thought she knew who. Last time, the phone rang fifteen times. She didn’t pick up. The caller waited five minutes and tried again. She knew it was coming, but it still made her jump and bark her shin on the coffee table, hard enough to bruise.
Sam kept the money over the couch. It was behind a plastic-framed latch-hook project his mother gave him, big as the TV set, a beach scene with a dirty white seagull. In March, when she was still expecting, she had to get up at all hours to pee. One night she came out and saw him closing up the square he’d cut out of the drywall. She didn’t see what was inside, but she didn’t need to. She knew. And he hadn’t seen her.
Now the incessant shrill of the phone made her move faster. She was shaking when she pulled the frame off the wall and tossed it on the couch. He was a fool for his fear of the bank. He was a fool for his refusal to get an answering machine. He was a fool for marrying her. For enlisting when he did. For thinking it would all be fine when he came back. For trusting his brother. For trusting her.
“Shut up, shut up,” she muttered at the phone. When it did – mid-ring – she blew out a breath of relief. She reached up and slid a fingernail into the neat crack in the drywall. She worried out his little square and let it fall. It bounced off the back of the couch, snagged on the nubby orange fabric and left a chalky streak. The opening was dark, and deeper than she expected. She reached in and felt around. There was something in plastic, wrapped tight in what seemed to be duct tape. She sought out a corner and tugged it until it tipped into her hand. A neat brick. Hefty. She set it on the couch, and reached in again. When she was done, there were three plastic-and-silver bricks, side by side.
She stood back for a minute, hugged her skinny arms around herself and bit her bottom lip. After she lost the baby, she had gone to a psychic. The psychic told her two things: one, that Sam was hiding something from her and two, that she’d do well up north, maybe Canada. Yesterday she cleaned the last motel room she’d ever clean.
She smiled, then shivered, but she wasn’t cold. She didn’t bother to put the wall back together again. Her suitcases were already in the bed of the pickup; she’d started packing as soon as he’d gone off to pick up his brother in the Nova. God, how she hated that car. It was from ’74 and looked it. He was always cleaning it, waxing it, buffing it. One time she told him you can’t polish shit. He’d come close to hitting her.
Just as she reached for the door, the money heavy in her purse, the phone rang again. She shuddered, turned back and looked at it. Sam had bragged about finding it at a yard sale for $1. It was avocado green, with a rotary dial, and deafening. What if something had gone wrong? What if it was Sam, not his brother? Her stomach clenched. She reached out, picked up the receiver and listened.
“Where have you been?”
It was his brother. She could breathe again. “At the store.”
“It’s done.” His voice cracked. He cleared his throat and tried again. “It’s done.”
“OK.” Her fingers twitched on the strap of her purse. “Where are you?”
“Black Canyon City.”
“When are you leaving?”
“I love you,” he said, uncertainly. “I’ll see you in Needles.”
She hung up and left the house for the last time. The street was quiet; she didn’t bother to give it a last look. She’d never been to Canada before. She reached across the bench seat, buried her hand in her purse and held onto the brick. She’d earned that money. Her hands were clean. Her hands were clean.
It had rained that afternoon. They drove east on the 60, out past Apache Junction, with the windows down. The hot air barreled in, deafening, carrying the smell of creosote and ozone. Will’s hair was too long. It whipped around his eyes, stung his cheeks. He could barely make out the music. You say it's money that we need… As if we're only mouths to feed… He clenched and unclenched his fist. Sam was behind the wheel.
Sam drove with instinctive ease, with the absolute control of a stock car driver. He should, Will thought, he learned from the best. From their father. I know no matter what you say… There are some debts you'll never pay…
They pulled off the highway onto a dirt road. Sam was driving too fast. The Nova handled the washboard road like a champ. Will reached out, grasped the emergency brake and pulled it up, hard and fast. The wheels locked up. The Nova sheared sideways into the stand of weeds on the side of the road. Sam was laughing. He brought the car out of the skid one-handed, using the other hand to drop the emergency brake. He cuffed Will on the back of the head. “Son of a bitch,” he said.
I can taste the fear… Lift me up and take me out of here… They rounded a long curve in the road and headed for a rocky mesa. They’d had luck there before, shooting. Will turned around and reached into the back. His .22 was tossed on the bench seat. He dug a Mountain Dew out of the knotted plastic bag on the floor. He twisted the lid slowly, but it didn’t overflow. When he went to take a swig, Sam punched the brake.
The soda shot up Will’s nose, soaked his face and streaked down his neck. Don't wanna fight, don't wanna die… Just wanna hear you cry… “Asshole,” he said. He wiped his face with the bottom of his shirt and capped the Mountain Dew. Sam pulled off the road, crawled the Nova over a weed-choked rise in the desert and parked under a ragged tree.
They got out. Sam stretched. He walked around to the trunk and put the key in the lock. It opened with a mechanical thrum. Will came up behind Sam, holding his .22 in one hand and his Mountain Dew in the other. They looked in the trunk. “Whatcha got?” Will poked a chamois-colored tarp with the butt end of his rifle. It didn’t give.
“Anniversary present for Shelly.” Sam reached behind the tarp, pulled out his rifle and a box of cartridges. He slammed the trunk closed.
“What is it?” Will followed Sam up the hill. The ground was spotted with rain patter.
“A melodica.” Sam checked his rifle, then shoved the cartridge box into his back pocket. The box dragged his jeans low; they hung off his bony hips. Shelly said he didn’t sleep anymore.
“What the hell is that?”
“It’s a musical instrument. Got it at the Goodwill. Ten bucks.”
“I didn’t know Shelly played anything.”
“There’s plenty you don’t know.” Sam glanced over his shoulder at Will. He was smirking. That same smirk he used when he razzed Will about the bogeyman, long time gone.
Will looked north. Just under a pile of boulders, he saw the coyote. It was standing perfectly still under the flat sunlight, just bones covered with pelt. Sam saw it too. He raised his rifle and took a bead. It was too far away to do any damage. Will came up close, dropped the Mountain Dew bottle. Held his rifle against the back of Sam’s head and fired.
Sam pitched forward. He landed on his hands and knees, then tumbled onto his face. Will was shaking. He saw the coyote lope off into the desert. “Will.” Sam had turned his head, was looking up. The bullet hadn’t made it out the other side. “Call 9-1-1.”
“You don’t understand.” Will stooped, clipped the carabiner with the keys off his brother’s belt loop. He turned back to the Nova, to get the tarp.
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