Recovery from the car accident was grueling; nasal feedings as my throat healed, the anguish of regular changes in gauze and packing on my arms and fingers, a constant morphine drip to keep the worst of the pain at bay.
Doctors told me I was lucky. Were it not for the sleet and wind cooling the burns my injuries would’ve been far worse.
I couldn’t fathom worse.
Samantha’s olive-colored eyes never lost their pools of devotion. She was there when I awoke from skin-graft surgery. She worked with me in rehab, helped massage my scarred fingers as I fought to grasp a pencil, encouraged me to tie my shoelaces when I wanted to quit. Seeing her face, her fawn-colored hair bunched over her shoulders, her glowing complexion, her warm smile, made everything almost seem okay.
But nothing was.
Our finances were in shambles. Samantha’s waitress job and my former as a restaurant chef didn’t offer health benefits. And the woman I’d tried to save didn’t have car or life insurance.
By the time I’d gotten out of the hospital Samantha had sold most of our possessions to pay the mortgage. “For better or for worse, in sickness and in health,” we’d proclaimed to each other last May. She had certainly kept up her end of the deal, clinging wistfully to ghosts of happier times.
I, on the other hand, have become a passionless replica of my former self. I’ve been unemployed since the accident, but not for lack of trying, my hands can no longer handle the intense labor and heat of working in a kitchen. And I’ve been depressed, drinking more than I should, more than ever before; spending our last dollars on booze. Some weeks the Seagrams whiskey and Budweiser bottles spill over the edge of our fifty-gallon recycling bin.
Samantha sobs at night in the bathroom before she comes to bed. She doesn’t realize I can hear her. She thinks I’m drunk and passed out.
She doesn’t know I’d risk everything to change our lives.
She’s doesn’t know I’d do the unimaginable.
Wednesday, April 22, 1:30 a.m.
Cody Larson was a big man, barrel-chested and full of prison-yard muscle and tattoos. We’d been traveling on the turnpike for several hours and were approaching the Appalachian Mountains when he told me to turn off at the next exit and head down a side road. He withdrew a small plastic bag stuffed with marijuana from his front pocket and displayed it in the neon glow of the dashboard lights.
“I got this shit off a college chick in Seattle,” he said. “I figured we’d spark some here and then get back on the turnpike up the way.”
He pulled out a sheet of crumpled aluminum foil, flattened it, rolled it into a tube, bent one end up, and molded it into a makeshift pipe. He dumped the marijuana into the bowl.
“Just like old times, huh?” he said.
I didn’t acknowledge him. I was still thinking about the way I’d left home. The teary, disappointed expression on Samantha’s face as I said goodbye and headed out. The lump in my gut that still remained.
Cody flicked his lighter and held the flame steadily over the bowl as he inhaled. Vegetative matter crackled and popped under the concentrated heat. He chortled and white balls of smoke rolled from his nostrils. A pungent, burning-hay odor suffused the interior.
He pushed the hot pipe into my hand.
“Take it!” he urged, his voice tight from holding in the draw.
He leaned his head back and blew out a stream of smoke that exploded against the ceiling and clouded the interior. He turned to me.
“What are you waiting for?” he asked. “Take a hit, buddy.”
Something about the way he said the word buddy caused a shiver to run down my spine. As if we really were still pals. As if all the sleazy bullshit that had caused our friendship to all but vanish years ago had, in a strange way, vanished itself over the passage of time.
Coughing a bit, he added half-jokingly, “Don’t make me force you.”
I raised the aluminum foil to my lips, glanced at him and his stony grin, and breathed through the pipe. At first, I didn’t even know if I was getting anything; the draw went down my throat smooth as ice cream. But then, fiery cinders hit the back of my tongue. I coughed through the mouthpiece causing tiny, flaming meteors to fly across the dashboard. I coughed uncontrollably, dropped the pipe, and lost my grip on the steering wheel. The car swerved, threw gravel along the embankment, and headed on a collision course for a pine grove.
“Look out!” Cody shouted.
I counter-turned, threw more gravel, fishtailed, and then got us back on the roadway. Cody snatched the pipe from between my feet and focused on igniting what still clung to the sides of the foil.
The car’s interior came alive with revolving red and blue lights.
“Oh, shit!” Panic ricocheted through my brain. “Cops!”
A siren whirred and a police cruiser closed the distance between us. Cody lowered the pipe from his mouth; a sliver of smoke escaped his lips.
“What should I do?” I said, adrenaline-jacked.
“Pull over,” he replied simply. “What else.”
“What about Jake’s arm? How are we going to explain that?”
Cody smiled crookedly and the corner of his mouth twitched. “I’ll make certain they don’t find the arm.”
He leaned down and pushed the pipe under the floor mat, then lit a cigarette and dragged. I braked, edged to the side of the road, and parked. The cruiser quickly took up residence behind us. After a moment, an officer opened his door and stepped out. He put a hand to his sidearm and started toward my door. His partner stayed in the cruiser.
I rolled down the window as he approached.
“Evening,” I said friendly-like, my stomach sick with worry.
“Shut off the car!” the officer ordered. “License and registration!”
I turned the key and the engine cut. A flashlight flicked on and the officer threw the beam into my eyes. I blinked at the sudden wash of illumination. The beam swung to the bits of scorched marijuana on the dashboard, to a drift of smoke hanging diagonally across the interior, and then into Cody’s eyes. He squinted.
“Had quite a swerve back there,” the officer said. “Anything you gentlemen would like to say before we proceed further?” He flung the light back into my eyes. “I’m assuming you’ll give me permission to search the car? It’ll make it easier on you both.”
My heart chugged and I was almost certain the policeman could see it beating in the veins of my neck. I looked at Cody. He kept his face forward and his gaze ahead, drawing on his cigarette as if he were breathing through it; seemingly lost in his own world.
“You can’t search the car,” he said.
Another police cruiser pulled up with lights flashing. The officer beside my window signaled with a cautious wave. Two more officers opened their doors and got out. The officer beside my window stepped back, unholstered his weapon, and leveled it. My bladder suddenly felt very full.
He signaled the two other officers to take up positions behind my Sentra. They came around the back bumper. One leveled his gun while the other jotted down my license plate number.
“Both of you step out of the car!” the officer beside my window ordered. “Extinguish that cigarette and keep your hands where I can see them! Permission or no, I’ve got probable cause!”
Cody and I remained in our seats. My mouth went cotton-dry and my lips stuck together briefly as I opened them.
“What do we do?” I whispered.
The other officer stepped menacingly toward Cody’s window.
“You boys deaf?” the officer said. “Exit the vehicle!”
I shifted in my seat and forced myself not to freak out. Cody clenched and unclenched his right hand. His face, silhouetted in the headlamps from the police cruiser, was dry except for a single drop of sweat that had rolled down between his eyes and now hung from the tip of his nose like a wart.
“Okay,” Cody said, in a tone of finality; the corner of his mouth twitched. “I’m comin’.”
I watched as he unhooked the keys from the ignition, opened the passenger’s side door, and swiveled to step out.
“Get against the trunk!” the officer stated. “Hands where I can see them!”
Cody doddered around to the back and stood facing the car. Fear coursed through me as I moved to open my door.
“You,” the officer said to me. “Throw the keys and get out!”
“I’ve got the keys,” Cody said, and jingled them.
“Against the car!” an officer hollered at him. “Throw the keys and get against the car!”
“Whoops,” Cody trilled.
He dropped the set. The officer closest to him looked down. In that brief instant, Cody launched himself into the man and pummeled him to the ground. They wrestled fiercely. The other officers lunged to help.
“Get his hands!” One of them shouted. “Oh Jesus, he’s got my— ”
I jumped in the seat as blood spattered against the back window. The injured officer staggered up momentarily. There was a hole in his forehead where his right eye had blown out. Blood streamed down his face. He took a step and then crumpled to the asphalt.
Bam! Bam! Bam!
The officers fired. A bullet pierced the car door and whizzed inches from my side into the dashboard. Another shattered the rearview mirror.
Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam!
“Die! Die! Die!” Cody shouted, over the sound of repeated gunshots. “Die!”
“Officers down! Officers down!” the policeman in the patrol cruiser screamed into his radio’s microphone.
Cody stormed toward the car and aimed his pistol. The officer fumbled for something and then raised his hands protectively and tried to duck.
Two quarter-sized holes punctured the windshield. The officer slumped forward.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Feeling drained from my body. My cheeks went cold. I sat frozen in a complete state of shock, mesmerized with horror and disbelief, hands glued to the steering wheel, too numb to speak, too appalled to move.
An injured officer crawled toward the far cruiser. It was a sick movement, like a possum attempting to drag itself to the side of the road after being squashed by a tire. Blood poured from his side and colored his uniform with a spreading, crimson hue.
Cody advanced on the man and lowered the tip of his gun to the officer’s forehead. The officer breathed fast and wept openly.
“Please, no!” the officer cried, his voice emptied of all brevity. “I have children!”
“And you’re never gonna see ‘em again!” Cody said. “Take a last look around at planet Earth, cop!”
I tried to scream, to holler stop! To shout. But I was so appalled I couldn’t make a sound.
The officer collapsed, legs askew, arms quivering.
Another shot to the head. The ozone-metallic smell of gunpowder and fresh blood overspread the air.
“I like the way people look at death,” Cody said. “Their faces are so gentle, so at peace. Every time I take someone out I feel as if I’ve done their soul a favor. Set them free in a way. And with it comes a high, know what I mean? The same high God must feel when he creates and destroys.”
I felt woozy and breathed deep, filling my lungs with air, trying to comprehend and make sense of the moment.
“Jesus…What have you done?”
Totally unfazed by the atrocities, Cody calmly shook out a Camel cigarette from a pack in his back pocket.
“See how easy it is?” he said. “A gun is like a sorcerer’s wand, complete control over life and death. Press the trigger and someone disappears. And they don’t ever come back to bother you. Not ever.”
My lips were numb and hard to control. My stomach lurched. “You’ve murdered these men. Murdered them!”
“Never liked cops much,” He made a swiping gesture with his hand as if the men’s souls had reincarnated into the mosquitoes now swarming around us and feeding from the corpses. “Power-hungry motherfuckers is what they are.”
He leaned down, lifted his pant leg, and placed the pistol into an empty holster.
“Fits perfect! I’m glad they use .38’s here in the East. I was beginnin’ to feel uneasy without a piece. I lost the one that went in here somewhere around Indiana. Had a bit of a ruckus there.”
Cody flicked his lighter and set fire to his cigarette. I should have done something. Maybe attacked him with the ice scraper or knocked him unconscious with the blunt spine of the owner’s manual in the glove box. But I was scared out of my skin. Fear! Real fear! The kind that reduces even the largest horse of a man to a sobbing colt. And believe me, I was no horse. The complicated landscape of the human mind works in mysterious ways when faced with unanticipated, high-stress situations. My courage shut down completely. I sat in the driver’s seat rabid with fear and intense hate for this man; but unable to act, unable to do anything, as he ransacked those dead men of their guns, ammunition, and supplies. He wrestled the jacket off the closest body and wiped our back window clean of blood. Then he loaded the materials into the trunk, got in, and dropped the keys onto my lap.
I wiped my lips with a trembling hand, realizing my whole world had irrevocably changed in an instant.
“Let’s go,” he said calmly.
I strained to control my outrage. “You’re mad! I’m not going anywhere!”
“Normality, my friend, is defined by a person’s level of emotional discomfort at committin’ abnormal acts. I feel fine about what I did. Those men got in the way of what we’ve set out to do. What’d ya think would happen when they found Jake’s arm? Didja think we’d talk our way out of it? Imagine what God would do if these guys harassed Him? I suspect the same thing.”
“You’re not God!”
His eyes squinted and seemed to sparkle in their sockets. “Not yet.”
I dry-heaved and swallowed repeatedly.
“I’m going home!”
“You’ll do no such thing!”
A car drove up. Its lone occupant stared out the window with wide, horrified eyes, and then quickly pulled around us and accelerated.
“Murder!” I exclaimed. My whole body shook. “Fucking murder! These are human beingsspread in front of us! Police officers for Christ’s sake!”
“Speakin’ of which,” Cody interjected. “We’d better get outta here. Cops’ll be swarmin’ this place in minutes.”
Lingering effects of the harsh hit of marijuana whipped my thoughts into a paranoid frenzy. I envisioned myself hauled off to jail. I imagined Samantha staring at me through the protective glass at the maximum security visitor’s room, tears streaking down her face asking; Why? Why? Why? And me sitting in handcuffs trying to explain that I had nothing to do with these crimes, nothing at all… and no one believing me.
“I’m not going any further!” I made a feeble effort to straighten my posture. “I’ll drop you at a bus station or train station or wherever you want! You can have the money! You can have everything! I’ll keep my mouth shut about what you did, but I’m not continuing!”
“We made a pact.” Cody’s jaw muscles bunched. He grit his teeth and spoke with a low, heavy growl. “Let’s go.”
“I… I can’t!”
He pushed a gun into my hand. “You’ve only got one out! Kill me! Put a bullet through my brain! Go ahead. No one will be the wiser. You can drive this piece-of-shit car back to your piece-of-shit life and the money and smack will sit there, year after year after year, rottin’ in the ground, same as the regret that will rot inside you, turnin’ your guts black. You could’ve been rich. Could’ve kept that beautiful wife and home. Your morals, buddy, not my actions, will ruin your life.”
I shrunk back from him. “Murder in cold blood! I can’t accept!”
“Killin’ is an instinctive act that lies outside the realm of culture’s principles. The situation needed resolution. The cops were gonna search the car. They would’ve opened the trunk and found the arm. Didja want to spend the next twenty years rottin’ in a jail cell? Cause that’s what woulda’ happened to you as an accomplice to Jake Romano, which you and I would be labeled. This was self-preservation.” He paused. “So what’s it gonna be? You takin’ my life or do we continue with our treasure hunt?”
The gun slipped from my fingers and clattered against the center console. I glanced in the rearview mirror. Grisly red rivers flowed from the three bodies sprawled on the blacktop. Larger and more aggressive night insects had arrived for the morbid feast.
I cranked the engine and slammed my foot on the gas pedal. We took off, tires squealing. Surrounding nightscape smeared into a blur of shadow and dappled moonlight. Odors of burned rubber filtered through the vents.
“Give me a drink!” I stated. “Give me that bottle!”
Cody reached behind him into my bag and pulled out the Seagrams whiskey. I spun the cap and swallowed greedily, grimacing as the liquid drained down my throat. I tried to steady myself. Tried to rationalize what had just occurred.
“Take it easy on that shit,” Cody warned.
I kept my eyes focused out the windshield because I couldn’t look at him; at his face, so at ease with what he’d done.
“Had no choice but to resolve the crisis this way,” he spoke. “My way. My terms. Survival of the fittest is what it’s all about. What’s four fewer people takin’ up space anyway? Consider me the ultimate human population controller.”
My hand trembled as I gave the bottle back to him.
Cody stowed the bottle under his seat. “My actions are deemed immoral by a culture only if it violates their rules of the moment. During a war, my carnage against the enemy would be acceptable, even encouraged. This is a war we’re wagin’. To the victors go the spoils. You’d better get that through your head.”
He pulled up his right pant leg and withdrew a Phillips head screwdriver tied to his calf with an orange bandanna. He used the tip to scrape off tiny red drops dried on the back of his hand.
“Didja know a screwdriver is one of the most versatile weapons in the world? Think of the injury it can do to the human body when properly executed.”
I suppressed the urge to pull over, throw open the door, and run; run like the wind. Take a chance on racing into the wilderness and escaping this madman. But Samantha flashed into my mind. And then the policeman’s blasted face. And the maroon, almost blackish color of his blood. And the officer crawling for his life. And Cody smiling as he pumped another round into the already dead officer’s forehead. And what Cody could do to Samantha if he took revenge on me for leaving.
Cody stuck his hand into his back pocket and came out with the map. He unfolded it, dabbed his index finger into a large drop of not-quite-coagulated-policeman-blood pooled in the fold of his t-shirt, and traced an unsteady line from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania all the way across the paper to Seattle, Washington.
“Don’tcha worry ‘bout nothin’,” he said, and patted my shoulder with his other hand. “I’ll take care of anymore problems.”
I clenched at a sudden sharp pain in my belly, slammed on the brakes, threw open the door, and vomited.