One Last Ride, Pt. 2 of 2
The following story contains: Violence, violent imagery, some profane/crude language
For six-hundred seconds, the air sat void of volume, only the assault of the rain, the annoying metronome of the wipers, the deafening absence of engine noise. And then there was woman, her expression cut from scowling stone, her stubbornness a mountain of diamond. He saw the fire of neon lights over the lightless horizon, and knew his time was running out.
My time running. Always mine; never hers. He clicked his teeth, wiped searing sweat from his brow, loosened his collar. Was she making him this tense, or did the old man have glaciers in his veins? “Jackeline, I told you nothing happened.”
“That picture she sent you says different,” she said with that signature, harsh laugh. He always hated it, the type of laugh you gave to those you pitied, never to jokes.
“That’s the point, Jackeline. It didn’t say anything. It was only a picture,” he said, making light of his trespassing, as always. If she had a quarter every time a man in her life treated his offenses as Fall leaves, she’d be a millionaire. Even a penny each time would do.
“Only a picture? She was butt-naked, Allan! And bent over! Women just don’t send pictures like that.”
“She’s just someone at work I share ideas with.”
“So that’s what you want, Allan? Just a fan girl who drools over your work?”
“Could you let me finish a thought for once?!” Neither of them heard the rain any longer, or saw its film blinding the driver, but they felt the rumble of their own thoughts quaking in their skulls, yearning to break free, the strain in each other’s no longer avoidant, twisted necks. “She must have taken our friendship the wrong way. I’ll end it when I get back, honest.”
“You’re a damn liar. No woman would just send someone a picture like that. If she sent you any other messages or pictures, you probably deleted them.”
The driver glanced back. The windshield didn’t resemble glass anymore, but a Van Gogh painting, its vibrant colors supplanted with deep black. “Could you kids clamor down back there? I can’t concentrate.” Neither heard him.
“You’re one to talk! What about that guy who was giving you rides to work, huh? You never told me about that.”
“That’s comparing shit to horseshoes! My ride was sick for two days, so he just took me to and from work for two days! My Mom told you, my best friend confirmed it-”
His throat was dry, clothes soaked, he saw her wipe a bead of sweat from her forehead like a tick, yet he had to scream. He wanted to scream. “All you women stick together, anyway! I’m the liar?! You’re the liar!”
“You’re a stupid asshole!”
“You’re a bitch!” The car swaying and a screaming horn prompted Jackeline to release a scream of her own against the approaching high-beams. Both cars veered from the path of another vehicle, its model indistinguishable in the darkness, cursed them with expletive honks in its passing. Allan and Jackeline sat dumbfounded, hearts racing.
“You… nearly… killed us,” said Allan through a sore throat and punching breaths. “You nearly killed us!”
“Sorry about that. Told you kids to quiet down. At least the rain’s letting up now.” And so it was. The raindrops slowed to the rhythm of their recovering hearts. He released a sigh of relief; she sobbed puddles into her hands. Crying and whining: Effective techniques in garnering sympathy from the opposite sex since the Stone-Age. Allan believed most men needed to evolve.
“You’re getting upset over nothing, Jackeline. I told you nothing happened.” Her mind became as jagged as a valley of swords, her eyes consumed with wet red. He didn’t care about her. She sat-up every night; primed like an anxious puppy, believing his sweet talk about a new life in the city, all while he banged Miss Ass-in-Pus-Picture. He was no different than her philandering father, who left her and her mother to wither in the countryside. She fell for it again, and she couldn’t take it. Wouldn’t. She released her eyes from hands as red as blood, glared at the charcoal seat beneath her, and let her thoughts growl like a cornered bobcat.
“I hate you.”
“Well, I’m sorry you feel like that now,” he responded, humping his shoulders.
“You’re not sorry, but you’re gonna-” The soreness in her throat drowned her words in valley of needles. Her lungs exploded with a vehement, violent fit of coughs.
“What’s wrong? Choking on your own words?” She didn’t feel the knife at her throat, but in her throat. She swallowed spit, tightened her esophagus to circumscribe the coughs, but they continued. Allan feared she contracted Ebola or tuberculosis. “Are you okay?”
“We’re at your stop, Miss,” said the old man as the vehicle slowed to a halt. The steady drizzle began to build to a hesitant stoning. He reached for her; the car door flew open as she smacked his arm between her coughing her lungs out. The icy rain and breeze actually felt good against the searing sweat on his forehead.
“Don’t…touch…me!” Jackeline slammed the door on her exit.
The driver looked back in the rearview. “You think she’s all right, coughing like that?” Allan still leaned for the door, the spot where she checked his consolation weighing fifty tons, stinking like an infection cardio-deep. She hated him. After all the money he spent to see her, the time he wasted convincing her of the possibilities outside the rural void she stubbornly called home, a place that took, but never gave back. It took her Dad, took her Mom’s job, was taking her, yet she hated him.
“She needs time to cool-off,” he said. “Besides, her brother’s on his way. That guy’s a dead-beat who blames the world for his problems, and always looks for an opening to punch me in the face. She’s fine.”
“If you say so, son. I’m pulling-off now.” The car pranced until it caught its rhythm again.
“She worked two jobs taking care of those ungrateful bastards she always crawled back to, I give her a reprieve, and she hates me! I’ll give it a week before I’m dancing to her ringtone.” The driver said nothing. He shook his head, frowning as he squinted against the crying sky. Allan twisted his neck to get one last look at his churlish girlfriend. He was happy to see what must have been her brother approaching her, even happier the son-of-a-bitch missed the opportunity to pick a fight with him… But something was wrong. The rain and glass must have distorted his vision, because the guy towered over her by at least four or five feet, and his skin competed with the night, black as soot, the physique as gaunt as a skeleton’s. Soon, her and her brother faded into the horizon.
An hour later, nothing changed. The station wagon coasted silently to miles of highway, grass, and billowing forests. An hour of driving, yet he saw no signs of civilization, save for the hotel Jackeline’s brother retrieved her from. He was sure at least a Corner Mart, a gas station, or some type of rest area waited after the hotel, but the black and green persisted as a flock of war paint, caging his ride in monotonous trepidation. The only thing that did change was Allan’s perception of the moving sanctuary from the elements. The cozy warmth became an unbearable furnace. Allan could hardly breathe, was forced to remove his jacket, and rolling-down the window provided temporary relief until buckets of ice-water threatened to give him sitting pneumonia. His stillness in the leather seats made his ass an annoyance of pins and stings, it as sleepy as a drunk on Saint Patrick’s Day. His tongue was sandpaper, sweat failed to quench the needs of his cooked brain, tricking him into believing he wasn’t riding in a car at all. Like a mime, he placed quaking hands against invisible walls on both sides, the walls manifesting before his eyes, the car’s leather seats surrounding him, enclosing him in darkness. He screamed, which returned his mind to reality, yet prompted no reaction from the driver. He bit blood from his cheeks to moisten his tongue.
“Where are we?” he asked, his voice slurred, heavy.
“I said where are we, you lying bastard! There’re no shops, gas stations, trailers! Did she put you up to this?”
“You’re way off, son, but I’ll applaud you for figuring out anything at all. Most stay dumb through the whole ride, right-up to the end of the line.”
“Let me out.”
“Sorry, can’t.” Whatever the hell was happening, he wanted no part of it. Not anymore. He tried the handle, tried to break the fucker, but it remained solid. He tried to lower the window again; the antique reliever became as stone as a gothic Gargoyle. He drank more blood, savored it through bleeding teeth. A horrifying realization, bordering on phantasmal epiphany, made him crawl back in his seat.
“Are you the Devil?”
The old, black gentlemen boomed a laugh. “Why does everyone assume that? I’m just a transporter, and a test proctor. I personally had high hopes for you, son, but you failed, just like the rest.”
“Please, you have to let me go. My family needs me. I’m a beacon to the kids in my community. I’ve never attacked anyone in my entire life. I’ve never stole anything, killed anyone… And Jackeline needs me! No one else helps her but me.”
“Jackeline you say?” said the old man, shaking his head. “Don’t you think it’s about time you woke-up, son? How’d you think you got in the rain?”
“Jackeline and I had a fight, then…” A sharp pain in his side cut him off, buckling him over. He removed his hand from the pain, pulled back a hand caked in hot red, and just like that he remembered. The argument they had in this station wagon was verbatim the argument they shared in the hotel, the difference the conclusion. Instead of her vacating a car with the whooping cough, he turned to leave the hotel. He turned-back when he heard her footsteps from behind, believing she intended to beg him to stay. She greeted him with a steak knife to his side instead. So, he wasn’t getting abducted. The situation was worse. Far worse. He was dead. And if she also hitchhiked on the road, in this place, then…
“That’s correct; she’s dead too,” said the old man, taking what color Allan had left from his ghastly expression. The driver reading his mind bulldozed any remaining doubts. Allan cried. “She slit her throat after she stabbed you.”
“But why? All she saw was a stupid picture! Why’d she do that to me? To us?”
“More must have happened than you realized. I think you humans call it a game of Jenga? The more blocks you take from the tower, the more unstable it gets. It takes more than one egregious suspicion to cause a human to snap, unless they’re insane to begin with, and, from my experience, her psychology, given her background, wasn’t far from the norm. You just happened to be the unlucky soul to take the block that brought everything crumbling down. Nothing complicated about it.”
“Please give me another chance!” he shrieked through sobs. “Tell God I see now! I’ll do anything he wants! ANYTHING! Please stop the car!”
“Sorry, son. Out of Chance cards.” He started kicking the back of his seat, wishing he had stayed in front so he could have more impact on his driving. If begging didn’t work, making the car swerve off the road would. The wagon did skid to the left, but the driver, his face piqued, as if someone bumped him on a busy sidewalk, or an ant threatened to touch his food, regained control of the wheel. He raised a hand and snapped a finger. The heat skyrocketed to unbearable temperatures, asphyxiating temperatures. Allan fell back on the steaming seat in a hyperthermia-induced seizure, then his body went limp. His clothes became frying pans stuck to his skin, his eyes cooked in his skull like boiled eggs, rendering him blind in seconds. The most excruciating pain he ever experienced, yet he had no release. He couldn’t scream, move, or think. He felt on the eve of dying, but never dead. The old man laughed as if it was just a day at the beach.
“I still don’t know why He started this Last Ride Initiative. In all the centuries I’ve done it, no one has ever tipped one’s scale back. Not once. The boss really won’t give-up on you guys, even till the bitter end. Guess that’s why we’re we, and he’s he,” he said, humping his shoulders. He let out a huge yawn before braking the car, stopping at the same hotel he released Jackeline to earlier. “This is your stop, son.” The car door opened beside the living corpse of Allan Mason, his skin lobster red, his white eyes crying blood. A black shadow, darker than the starless, cloudless sky, with the height of a basketball player for the Hell Demon-Dribblers, dragged him from the car.
“Take care of him now, you hear?” said the old man with a wink. The tall shadow paid him no mind. The car door shut itself, then the black wagon drove on.