“I don’t see why we have to do this every year.” Debbie’s tone was carefully pitched for maximum effect; somewhere between Sad Little Girl and I’m Warning You, Mister. “It’s not like your mother appreciates it.” She examined a hot-pink acrylic fingernail. “You know she never liked me.” Lounging in the passenger seat of a rust-speckled gray Cadillac, dressed in a flouncy coral party dress and matching heels, she fiddled with the wilted purple bow on a carelessly wrapped gift. Her husband Ralph maintained intense focus on the road, navigating through downtown traffic in a torrential downpour.
Behind Ralph, eight-year-old Maxwell rolled his eyes, snapped a grape gum bubble and returned his attention to the cell-phone video game he was winning.
Ralph squeezed the steering wheel as he slowed to a halt beside a crowded bus-stop shelter. He stared at the blurry red traffic light, which seemed to wink on and off as ragged windshield wipers slapped back and forth: slosh-thump, slosh-thump, slosh-thump.
“It’s my mother’s birthday,” he murmured, lips barely moving. “What do you expect me to do?” He cleared his throat forcefully, a nervous habit he’d acquired as a teen. “We barely see her as it is.” He straightened his too-tight coral necktie (purchased to match his wife’s overpriced frock), and glanced at her sideways. She huffed and turned her entire frame away. He reached to touch her, then drew back and made a fist in his lap. “She always remembers your birthday, Debs. Why can’t you… I don’t know… make an effort?”
Debbie whipped back toward him, a striking rattlesnake. “Make an effort? I’m the one who shops for her gift every year. I’m the one who wraps it.” She shook the box at him. “I’m the one who makes reservations at her favorite restaurant, even though we can’t afford it on your salary. And I’m usually the one who has to keep the conversation going.” She forced a sniffle. “Even when she’s being condescending…” Sniff. “And stupid…” Sniff. “And petty…” Sniff. “And–”
The door behind her flew open and cold rain spattered her neck. A man wearing a drenched black hoodie and unfashionably torn jeans plopped onto the faux-suede back seat beside the child. A mixed bouquet of body odor, stale cigarettes, and cheap beer wafted. He slammed the door, pulled a handgun out of his sweatshirt pocket, cocked it, and aimed at Ralph’s head.
The light turned green.
Ralph’s jaw dropped. “W-what do you mean, drive? You can’t just… just climb in here and tell me what to do!”
The car behind them honked. The intruder moved the barrel to Debbie’s peroxide-blonde curls. “I said drive. Now!”
Debbie shrieked and slapped her husband’s thigh. “Ralph! What are you doing? Drive the car!”
Ralph cursed, cleared his throat in a series of machine-gun bursts, and pulled into the intersection. “All right. All right! I’m driving. Where am I headed?”
The man in the backseat combed shaking fingers through dripping ochre hair. “Just keep goin’. We’re leavin’ town. Follow this road to the highway. When you get there, turn north. You got enough gas in this boat?”
“Depends on how far we’re going,” Ralph muttered, more annoyed than frightened.
Debbie’s chest heaved. With each exhalation, wounded kitten mews hummed through pursed lips.
The man re-set the gun’s safety and returned it to his hoodie pouch. “Quit your whinin’, lady. I ain’t gonna hurt ya.” He grinned at Ralph in the rear-view mirror, exposing nicotine- stained teeth. “Yet.” He wiggled his eyebrows, then waved a “just kidding” gesture.
Debbie’s breathing quickened, each intake now a hitched sob. Her son stared at the man beside him with slacked jaw and boggled eyes. The intruder chuckled and stuck out a hand.
“Hey, kid. Name’s… Tony. What’s yours?”
Maxwell sat frozen. Tony smirked, seized the boy’s free hand, and pumped it up and down. “What’s the problem? Cat get yer tongue?” Maxwell nodded. His greying grape gum fell from his open mouth onto his lap. He blinked, released Tony to snatch the wad, examined it, and popped it back into his mouth, lint and all.
The man whistled through his teeth. “Kids today.” He turned his attention back to the road.
Light flashed beside him. “What the…” Tony smacked the cell phone away from the child. “Hey! No pictures! Gimme that!” He reached down to retrieve the phone from the floor.
Maxwell sprang to life, beating the man’s back with both fists. “You leave us alone, Mister!” he shouted. “Just leave us alone!”
Debbie undid her seatbelt, threw down the gift, twisted to her knees, and slashed manicured claws at Tony’s neck. “Don’t you dare lay one finger on him, you monster!”
The highjacker swiped at the air above his head, attempting to seize her hands. “Hey! Cut it out! Hey!” He sat up and faced her, cell phone in one hand and gun in the other. Mother and son kept swinging. “Cut it out!” Tony shouted. “I swear, lady… Hey! Kid! If you don’t… Ugh!” He aimed backward and pulled the trigger. A deafening boom rocked the car, accompanied by the crash of exploding glass. Ralph screamed and ducked, losing control of the steering. The massive vehicle swerved violently side to side, a drunken metal whale careening down a concrete river. Debbie was slammed backward against the dashboard, shrieking. Maxwell’s forehead bounced off the driver’s seat. He inhaled his gum and gagged, clutching his neck. Tony rolled his eyes, shoved the gun back into his pocket, and grabbed the child. He whacked him until the offending gob projected forward, stuck to the windshield for three seconds, then plopped onto the dashboard, a tiny meteorite oozing saliva.
Tony’s attention moved from the wad to the still slaloming road ahead. He swore. “Hey, man! Wake up! You’re gonna miss the turn!” He slapped Ralph’s ear. “Go right! Turn right!”
Ralph seized the wheel and jerked it. The car tipped on two wheels, then crashed back down, bowling through sheeting rain onto the highway. They swerved wildly, everyone screaming, until Ralph regained control.
Tony waved the phone in the child’s face. “See this? Well, you can kiss it adios!” He pressed lips against the screen with loud smooch, then hurled the device through the broken rear window, watching it burst into shards on the pavement.
Maxwell uttered a pained squeak, hunching into the corner.
Tony turned to glare at Ralph and Debbie. “What the hell does a little kid need with a cell phone, anyway? Man!” He flopped back in his seat and chewed his chapped lower lip, huffing.
Stunned silence followed for several beats, except the growl of the aging engine, Ralph’s compulsive throat-clearing, Debbie’s sniffles, and the amplified percussion, through the shattered rear window, of rain splattering the trunk.
Soon, the angry flush drained from the felon’s cheeks. He relaxed his expression and spoke with deliberate calm. “Okay. How old’re you, kid?”
“Eight,” Maxwell whispered.
“And you got your own phone?”
“It was mine,” Debbie snapped, as she re-buckled her seatbelt and fluffed her rumpled skirt. “I let him play games on it, that’s all.” She sat board-straight, violently twisting a blonde lock around one finger.
“Video games.” Tony wrinkled his nose, as if the concept carried an offensive odor. “Man, oh man. Rot people’s brains, that’s what.” He poked a finger toward Maxwell’s chest. “You wanna end up a criminal like me? Huh?”
Maxwell shook his head.
“Good! Then concentrate on books. School. Leave them… tranquilizers to some other Bozo.”
Maxwell nodded fervent agreement.
The man squinted one eye, sizing him up like a pirate, then relaxed and smiled. “All right, then. You do that, kid.”
No one spoke for a time. They watched the changing landscape, each alone with his thoughts. Now outside the city, vast fields of dripping mid-summer corn and drenched soybeans spread for miles. Every so often, crops gave way to hilly pasture land, dotted with sodden, but indifferent cattle.
Soon the rain dwindled to a gentle sprinkle, then a fine mist. Windshield wipers squawked across dry glass. Ralph flicked them off. He broke the monotony by sucking the roof of his mouth with the back of his tongue, producing a satisfying series of squishy clicks he hoped would irritate his wife.
Debbie had continued twisting her hair and coiled it so tight, it had turned her index finger purple. She unwound it with a huff and let go, then folded her arms, stage-whispering unintelligible curses beneath the rumble of the engine. At last, she jabbed her husband’s khakied thigh hard enough to leave a moon-shaped imprint in his skin.
“You do know this is all your fault. Right?”
Ralph quit clicking and batted her hand away. “My fault?”
“Of course! If you would just stand up to your mother once in a while… Better yet, if you would stand up for me now and then, we’d be at home right now, safe and sound. But, oh no! Every year when that calendar page flips, you have to drag us into the country, spending who knows how much on gas, just so we can all bend over and kiss her thankless backside!”
“Hey!” Ralph countered, volume rising. “Nobody’s making you kiss anybody’s anything!” He dropped back to a mumble. “You’d probably bite her anyway, you shark-faced, foul mouthed…” A fit of coughs. When he finally caught his breath, he cleared his throat like a revving motorcycle.
Debbie’s upper lip curled back. “You take that back, Ralph Johnson. You have always loved your mother more than me and you know it! Whatever happened to cutting the apron strings? I swear, I try and I try and I try to please you but I’m never good enough, am I? But all she has to do is dial your number with some phony emergency, and you rush off to Mommy like a dog on a leash! Forget about Debbie, waiting home all alone! Just forget about me!” Her seething anger prevented actual tears, but she made an effort for show, blinking spasmodically and pretending to wipe away dewy mascara.
“What about me?” Maxwell whined from the back seat. “He leaves me home, too.”
Debbie raised one hand and clamped the fingers together, a puppet shutting its mouth. “Stow it, Max.”
Ralph glared at his wife. “Oh, come on! We’re back to this again? Last time I saw my mother was January, for cripe’s sake! Her furnace was dead and her pipes were frozen. She could’ve died!”
“But it was my birthday,” Debbie wailed. “You couldn’t call the heating company? They’d’ve sent somebody who actually knewhow to fix a heater.”
Ralph slapped the steering wheel with open palms. “I fixed it fine! And we celebrated the next day. What’s the big deal?”
“Oh, sure.” Debbie finally produced a real tear. “We got around to me it when it was convenient.”
“Woman!” Ralph growled. “One of these days, so help me I’m gonna… I swear on my grave! One day, I’ll–”
Debbie’s voice climbed half an octave. “What? You’ll do what, Ralph?”
“All right!” the highjacker roared, punching both front seats. “That’s enough! What is wrong with you people?” He turned to Maxwell, who had shrunken several inches, staring at his empty hands. “They always like this?”
The boy shrugged. “You get used to it.”
Tony cracked his knuckles. “Man, oh man. Here I thought my parents was dysfunctional, but y’all take it to the next level!”
Debbie turned and leered. “You’re joking, right? As if you had Parents of the Year.”
“Excuse me?” Tony leaned forward so they were nose to nose. His voice was low. “Lady, did you just disrespect my family?”
Ralph’s sinuses wheezed with each rapid exhalation. “Let it go, Deb.”
She guffawed. “Or what?” Her narrowed eyes examined their uninvited guest, sizing up his dirty hands, old clothes, weather-worn face. “Are you honestly going to sit there and pretend you were raised by decent people? Look at you! Soaking wet, dressed like a tramp, holding an innocent family hostage in a hijacked vehicle. You clearly weren’t brought up by the Kardashians!”
Tony’s jaw dropped. “What’re you talkin’ about, lady? That family’s a friggin’ soap opera!”
Debbie smirked. “Maybe. But you don’t see them shooting holes through other people’s windows, do you? You don’t see them living paycheck to paycheck… or heist to heist, in your case. I swear you men are all alike! Does your mother know what kind of life you’re living?”
Tony blinked wide eyes. “What?”
“Better yet, what does your wife think? You married?”
His voice dropped again, menacing. “No…”
“Well then. Tell me what you think, Tony.” She spat his name like a sour cherry pit. “If you had a wife who cooked and cleaned every day, washed your stinking clothes, and did her best to look nice all the time just for you, would it be totally unreasonable to celebrate her birthday on the exactdate she was born?”
Ralph moaned, massaging his forehead. “For crying out loud, Debbie. Leave the poor man alone.”
“I… wasn’t… finished!” She held Tony’s gaze with stone-cold resolve. “And furthermore… if your deadbeat mother called you up, knowing it was your wife’s birthday, would you just drop everything and leave your lonely, helpless, Till-Death-Do-Us-Part blushing bride all alone, just to go wait on some crusty-assed has-been?”
Tony’s cheeks reddened, trembled. He whispered through clenched teeth. “What did you say about my mother?”
“I’m saying…” Debbie bared veneered teeth with wicked satisfaction. “…if some measly old hag interrupted your one and only wife’s twenty-ninth birthday–”
Ralph bleated. “Twenty-nine? That’s a good one!”
Debbie backhanded his head without pause. “Would you abandon the woman you promised to love and cherish forever, or would you tell the old battleax to call a fix-it-man like everybody else?”
“That’s it!” Tony roared, his face purple. He struggled to extract the weapon from his hoodie pouch, cursing under his breath. He finally got it, dropped it, caught it mid-air, and aimed at Ralph’s jugular. “Stop the damned car! Stop it!”
They skidded to a halt on the road’s gravel shoulder, beside a field of gently swaying corn. Ralph cautiously turned off the ignition.
Tony’s eyes were wild. “Now, pop the trunk!”
Ralph turned to face him, then recoiled from the gun. “W-what do you want me to pop the trunk for?”
“Just do it!” Tony screamed, voice cracking like a twelve-year-old’s.
Ralph cleared his throat quietly for once in his life, a man paying final respects at a funeral. He pulled a lever beneath the dashboard. The trunk thunked open.
Tony climbed out of the back seat into the hazy outdoor air and aimed through Debbie’s window. “Now, both of you, get out. Now!” He glanced at Maxwell, who peeked from behind splayed fingers. “You stay put.” He kicked the back door shut and yanked open the front.
Ralph and Debbie slowly emerged, hands in the air. Tony shuffled toward the trunk. “Back here.” He gestured with his head. “Get moving. And no funny business or she gets it in her big, fat piehole!” He aimed toward Debbie’s pale cheek. Husband and wife inched to the back of the car. “Now you,” he wiggled the gun at Debbie. “Yeah, you. Get in, Queenie.”
“What?” Debbie lowered her hands and placed them on her hips, then raised her chin with exaggerated dignity. “I most certainly will not.”
Tony aimed at the sky and fired. “I said now!”
Debbie glared, but sashayed forward and gingerly folded herself inside the trunk, taking her time, and made sure to avoid a greasy tire iron and rusted tool chest. She flipped the bird as Tony slammed the lid.
He turned the gun on Ralph. “Am I gonna have problems with you, too? ‘Cause I’d just as well stick you in there with her. Then you can kill each other in private and leave me and the kid in peace!”
Ralph shook his head, hands still raised, actually smirking. “No, sir. No problems here.”
Tony blew out his cheeks and exhaled through puckered lips, nodded, and re-engaged the gun’s safety. “Good. Back in the car.”
Ralph lowered his arms and started walking.
“Hold up,” Tony said, stopping abruptly. “That ain’t gonna work. I gotta take a wiz. Let’s go.”
“Yeah! What? Think I’m stupid? I’m not leavin’ you to uncage that viper and leave me stranded! Now get movin’. We’ll walk a ways, then come back. Stay in front of me and keep your hands where I can see ‘em.”
The men waded into the glistening corn. Behind them, Maxwell pressed his face against a steaming window, watching. After a short time, the grownups were hidden by stalks.
“All right,” Tony said. “Stop here. And no peeking. Don’t need no audience.” He opened his belt buckle, unzipped his pants, and began to empty his bladder.
The car’s engine turned over. Both men spun toward it and peered toward the road. They could just make out the Cadillac’s hulking shape as it swerved onto the highway. Maxwell’s head was barely visible behind the steering wheel.
“Holy… Woo-hoo!” Ralph slapped his knee, grinning. He cupped hands around his mouth. “Run, Maxy! Run!”
Tony whirled on him, spraying hot urine on both their shoes. “Son of a…” He hitched his falling pants and wrestled with the fly, attempting to hold onto his weapon.
Ralph leapt forward and punched Tony squarely in the face. Tony tumbled backward, a bright stream of blood spattering from his nose, fists still clinging to both the gun and his waistband. A cornstalk broke his fall and snapped in half, the sharp remainder carving a deep, bloody gash from tailbone to shoulder blade as he went down. He roared a nonsense string of curses and rolled to one side.
Ralph kicked the injured man’s lower back, then pulled his foot back for a second shot, but Tony spun and whipped out a leg like a break-dancer, tripping him. Ralph went ankles-over-head and landed hard, wheezing. Tony scrambled to his knees and pointed the gun at Ralph’s face with both hands, letting his jeans slide and bunch.
“Stay down!” Tony panted. “Just… just stay put, man!” He kept the gun trained on the spot between Ralph’s eyes as he stood and fumbled to hitch his pants and button them with one hand.
Ralph relented fully, sprawling as much as possible in the narrow vegetable row, exhausted. He hacked tonelessly to clear his scratchy throat, a lame cat with an old hairball.
Tony towered over him, panting and furious, scanning the abandoned highway through the stalks. Then, he surveyed nearby emerald leaves, attempting to steady his hands. He wiped blood and snot on a dirty black sleeve, and breathed deeply, seeming to count off in his head as he spoke to himself with a trembling voice. “Saturday afternoon. Middle of nowhere. Injured.” He bent forward to rest fists on his knees. “No car. Hostage.” He waggled the gun in Ralph’s direction. “And if that kid don’t kill himself first, he’s gonna go straight to the cops.” He hocked deeply and spat, shaking his head. “Day just gets better and better.”
Ralph sat up gingerly and shook his head with a cockeyed, slowly widening smile. He wiped filthy palms on his chest. “No, sir. You’re just not looking at it right.”
Tony eyed him suspiciously. “What d’you mean I ain’t lookin’ at it right?”
Ralph squinted toward the sun, then back at his companion. “Let me explain. You and I were both having a rotten day, am I right? First there’s you, on the run or whatever, out in the pouring rain. Then me. Locked up in that heap of trash with a god-awful woman, on my way to see another one just like her. And now, look around!” He gestured with wide arms. “Rain’s stopped. Car’s gone, probably done for. My For-Better-or-Worse Lord-God-So-Help-Me wife is headed I don’t care where, and I’ve got a mighty good excuse not to see the other Mrs. Johnson today.” He laughed, increasingly unhinged. “Here I am, out in God’s own creation with the sun coming out and nowhere to go. I’m a free man!” He scooped a handful of loose, wet soil and tossed it in the air, then pointed at Tony. “So are you. For now.”
Tony straightened. “Well, that’s all fine and good for you, man. But I’m still on the lam, and now my time’s runnin’ out, thanks to your kid.”
“True enough.” Ralph yawned. “Well, then…” He stood slowly and bent to crack his back, first to the left, then right. “I suppose you’d better get a move on.” He thumbed toward the road. “I’ll tell you what. When you’re ready to go, I won’t try to stop you. I’ll stay right here, where nobody can see me. You can hitchhike. Once you get picked up, I’ll come along and flag down my own ride. Nobody’ll be any wiser. How’s that?”
“Hmm.” Tony scratched his head with the gun butt. “I don’t know.” He eyed his hostage. “You really not gonna call the cops?”
Ralph shrugged. “Like you said, Max’s probably headed for the next town as we speak. But, look…” He fished a royal blue cell phone out of his breast pocket and extended it. “Take it. This way, I can’t call anybody, at least until you’re well on your way. You’ll have a fighting chance.” He heaved a big, clean sigh, lungs miraculously clear. Patted his belly. “What do you say, Friend?”
Tony nodded slowly. “Ok. Yeah. You’re right. That’s prob’ly the best plan.” He accepted the phone and pocketed it. “There’s just one thing.”
Ralph tilted his head, truly curious. “What’s that?”
“I can’t have you jumpin’ out when the first car stops. See what I mean? You’ll blow my cover, man.”
“Oh.” Ralph rubbed his smooth chin thoughtfully, releasing the scent of after-shave like a scratch-and-sniff sticker. “Well… I give you my word I won’t.” He drew an X on his heart with two fingers and offered a Boy Scout salute.
“Uh huh.” Tony seemed to consider. “Yeah. Just the same…” He aimed low and fired.
Ralph screamed and collapsed, clutching his shattered left shin. “You shot me! You son of a… I’m shot!”
Tony nodded with sympathy and started backing away. “Yeah. There is that. But… Friend… you just ain’t lookin’ at it right.” He pocketed the gun. “Listen. By the time you make it to the street, somebody’ll see you. They’ll stop for sure. Then, you get to spend a few sweet days in the hospital; good drugs, pretty nurses left and right, far away from all them problems of yours. You’ll be a hero! Trust me, man. It’ll be just like vacation. You’ll see.” He turned to jog away, calling back over his shoulder. “Sorry, man. Thanks for the ride!” Then, he was gone.
Ralph’s glistening white teeth gnashed. Hot tears flowed down his moisturized cheeks. He undid his necktie with callous-free hands, snaked it off, and made a tourniquet just below his knee, cursing as he yanked it tight. Then, he lay flat and watched silver-lined clouds dissipate overhead. Cold mud seeped into his starched dress shirt, staining it for sure. Somehow a comfort. Although he imagined hundreds of worms wriggling to the surface beneath him, plus the serious possibility that he was marinating in manure, his breath steadied.
The thing was, the gunman had been right. Whatever time Ralph spent convalescing would be a blessed relief. Truth ached much worse than his leg.
Astonishingly soon, he heard a car pull over. A door creaked open, and a woman spoke. He faintly made out the cheerful reply: “Thanks, lady! You’re a life saver. Name’s… Tony.” A door slammed. The engine revved and faded down the highway.
Ralph counted to ten, then kept on to twenty. Finally, he drew a ragged breath, mustered his last resolve, and rolled over onto all fours… a position to which he’d become pitifully accustomed… and began to crawl for help.
Sara Shalom Scharrer
Sara Shalom Scharrer is a creative maverick, on a mission to create artistic encounters which challenge people to reflect upon themselves and society, and make conscious choices toward healing and wholeness. In addition to writing, she is a successful actor, musician and visual artist.
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