A man and his passenger squint into the insistent golden burn of the setting Los Angeles sun. The passenger has been filling the truck's cabin with smoke from a cigarette, insisting every thirty seconds that the driver take a drag. He blows a sharp trail of smoke across the steering wheel. He puffs three smoke rings and they expand and contort, bouncing off of the driver's ear and fading into the rest of the smokey haze.
“Just one drag, man. You think you're going to get cancer from one drag?”
The driver ignores him. The low light of sunset is making it difficult to judge the distances of the cars in front of him. He considers the limited visibility. He knows if a car were to suddenly slow down, or if someone were to walk out into the street, there is no way he could stop in time. He thinks about the poor person unlucky enough to step in his path. He isn't sure he would be able to even slow down before the impact. Between thinking about slamming on his brakes and swerving, and considering the potential damage and destruction that would be caused by side-swiping the mini van to his right or the small sedan to his left, he considers the brief thought of not slowing down at all. This is a highway, anyone who walks onto a busy highway at sunset knows what will happen. They deserve what happens. The last thought, before he catches the spiral of negativity and redirects it, is that anyone who steps in front of him will have killed themselves. It would be out of his hands.
“At least open the window,” he says, rolling down his own window a little more. The noise of the open window isn't as bad as the oppressive smoke and heat inside the air-conditioning-free truck cabin. Now, with the window nearly all the way down, wind-driven resonance thumps through the cabin. The smoke is clearing out, but the thumping and pressure pull and squeeze and pull and squeeze the driver's head.
“You're letting out all the carcinogenic clouds, the air of the gods!”
The driver decides to endure the noise and wind in order to clear out the smoke and let in some of that cool late afternoon air. He waves at the smoke in front of his face, ushering as much of it out into the glowing dusk as he can.
“I don't think the air of the gods is brown and gray and packed with toxic chemicals.”
“That's where you're wrong. This stuff will make you immortal.”
“The smell in the upholstery will be immortal.”
“It's almost done, see?” The passenger flicks a touch of ash from the cigarette onto the driver's pants. A sliver of white remains at the end of the filter. “One more good pull left on this bad boy, you sure you don't want it?”
The driver slaps his thigh, swatting frantically from knee to hip crease.
“Jesus, just roll the window down.”
The minivan to the right is beginning to pull ahead. There is a baby in a middle car seat and a boy, under five years old, sitting in the other middle seat. The boy is looking at the truck as it passes.
The passenger rolls down the window. He was told to roll down the window and he does. He wasn't given any other instructions. The driver is usually so good about spelling out exactly what he wants. The slight vagueness offers an opening, a chance for improvisation. The passenger takes advantage.
Just before the boy in the mini van is going to look back to the five-by-eight-inch movie screen on the back of his mother's seat, a low thump and a flash of light bring his eyes, wide with surprise, back to the window. Something hit the window. Something sparked and puffed when it hit the window, and it left behind a small gray smear. The boy's eyes pass through the smear and focus on the truck beyond it. A man is staring at him from the truck. The man is not making a nice face, and before the boy can look away, two ribbons of smoke slither from the man's nostrils and billow up above his chest before being pulled out the window by the rushing air.
The boy's cries fills his mini van and the mother jumps at the sudden scream. She looks into the rear view mirror and asks him what is wrong. By the time she is understanding what he is saying, the scary man and the ugly truck are four car lengths ahead and accelerating.
“See,” the passenger says, holding his hands up and smiling, “all gone.”
“What is wrong with you?” the driver asks.
“Just havin' a little fun.”
“Well you might want to consider growing up at some point. Just a little.”
The passenger snorts. He rolls up the window, leaving two inches at the end. He snorts again, then chuckles. The chuckle gets caught in his throat, and he wheezes and gasps and coughs more laughter out. The more he coughs, the harder he laughs.
“Okay, easy now,” the driver says. The passenger laughs harder at this, slapping his thigh with one hand while pounding on his chest with the other. The driver's fingers slide over the steering wheel to ten and two. The tendons in the back of his hands appear. His knuckles bulge and go white at the rims. Several of his knuckles crack. He relaxes his forehead and lets his eyelids return to a more neutral expanse. The sunlight is still bright. The direct light shines on his reddening face, and the glints and glares from the truck's hood, from the glass, from nearby cars and poles and signs and buildings isn't enough to make him squint. He wants his eyes open. He welcomes the brightness, the burn.
Is that all you've got?
The laughter subsides and the passenger wipes the tears from his eyes. A few final chuckles escape as he runs his large hands down from his hairline to the tip of his chin.
“Growing up?” he laughs one final time. “Is that why your life is so great, because you're such a grown-up?”
The grip on the steering wheel tightens. The leather wheel cover squeaks and pops. The driver shuts his lips, smashes them together, and his cheeks swell and bulge around grinding teeth.
“That's probably why she left you, right, because you're such a grown-up?”
The driver opens his mouth to talk but doesn't. He shuts it again, harder.
“Oh sorry, did I say something too grown up?”
The truck swerves hard to the left. The driver didn't notice the break lights of the truck in front of him. The driver of the sedan next to him saw it and slowed down. If he hadn't, the truck would've slammed the sedan into the median.
“Whoa, easy there, tiger,” the passenger says, reaching below his seat. When he sits up again, he has a six pack of beer.
“Don't,” the driver says. “Just... don't.”
“What, don't crack open a cold one? On a warm, sunny evening like this, what could be better than breaking out a few beers? When those sweet suds hit your lips and that warm rush tunnels its way into your fingers and toes, you'll thank me.”
“I'm driving. Cops tend to frown on open cans of beer inside a moving vehicle. Put them away.” The passenger cracks the top on the first beer.
“Aahhhhh, that's good. That's the stuff right there. Anyone who has a problem with alcohol has a problem with me.”
“Just... just keep it low, you moron, and go easy.”
The passenger takes another long pull.
“Oh good lord you have to have one. Icy cold bubbling refreshment. I feel better already. Here...” he offers a beer, “just a few quick sips, you'll thank me.”
The driver swerves again, back into the center lane, now in front of the truck he almost rear-ended. The truck is honking as he speeds away.
“Honk back at him.”
“I'm not honking back at him.”
“Come on, it's the way cars talk. His car asked you a question, it would be rude not to answer.”
“I think they've said enough to each other.”
“Want me to do it?”
“You feel bad, I see. I'll do it.”
The passenger reaches for the horn. The driver raises his arm to block, then swats the hand away.
“No! Don't touch the horn. Don't touch anything!”
“Okay, honey bunches, okay. Jeez.”
“Just sit there.”
He switches lanes again.
“You know, watching you drive, I think you need this beer. You need to relax, man. Relax.”
“I am relaxed. I just...”
“It's a good thing to hate, I guess.” The passenger finishes the beer and cracks open the second. “Traffic is all about being where everyone else is, you know, going where everyone else is going. It's not a good thing, to do what the masses do.”
“Hey, if a mass of people are doing it, it can't be that bad, right?”
“No. No, you are wrong about that. It is bad. It is bad for you. It's not bad for everyone. I'm sure there are a lot of people out there who need to follow the leader and move with the flock. There are a lot of sheep out there, but you... you are no sheep. At least, you weren't always a sheep. Are you a sheep? Did that woman and that job turn my wild man into a frail, obedient little sheep?”
The passenger punctuates the sentence with a wet belch.
“You think doing anything that other people do makes you a sheep?”
“Anything that a thousand people are doing, yes.”
“Well, being a sheep has made me a living, bought me a house, bought this truck, bought those beers. Being a sheep worked out all right.”
“You sound like a slave complimenting his master.”
“Good golly, Mr. master, these chains sure do feel mighty fine!”
“A slave. You sound like a happy slave when you talk like that. You sound like someone too weak to make their own path. Are you too scared to do your own thing, to do something a little bit risky?”
“I like what I do.”
“You like driving soda around the county?”
“Yes. It's a good job, a necessary job. It's a service.”
“And what a noble serviceman you are.” The passenger raises the beer before sucking three long gulps. “You're really adding value to your fellow human beings. You're the Gandhi of soft drink drivers.” Another beer down, the passenger reaches for the third.
“You really should slow down.”
“You really should learn to live.”
With that, the passenger crushes one of the empty beer cans into his forehead. The driver jumps at the sudden crackle, then screams as the passenger tosses the crumpled can out the slightly open window. He hears the hollow tinny sound of the can hitting the asphalt, then immediately hears the metal on metal sound of the can bouncing off of one of the neighboring cars before the rush of the highway drowns out the rest of the can's clanking highway pilgrimage.
“What are you doing?”
“What the hell is wrong with you? Are you trying to get me pulled over, trying to get me arrested? The can hit another car, did you hear it? I heard it, and I'm sure the driver of that car heard it. He is probably getting our license plate number and calling us in right now.”
Beer number three cracks open. This one foams and spills onto the seats, shaken from all of the commotion.
“No, not another one, stop!”
“What, stop what? I don't even know what you're talking about.”
The driver reaches for the beer.
“Give it to me. You're done, that's it. You're done. Give me the beer.”
“Nah, you can't have it.”
“Give it to me, now. I'm done playing around with you.”
“I love it when you get mad and bossy.”
“Give it to me!”
“Here, you take the beer and I'll take the wheel. I'll drive, you drink.”
The driver grabs the beer can and pulls. Foaming beer splashes everywhere, soaking quickly into the seats, into his pants, his shirt, across the steering wheel and dash board. He finally wrestles the now mostly empty and dented can away and holds it, in his left hand, away from the passenger.
“So what, are you just going to hold it?”
“Yeah, I'm going to hold it.”
“Do you think that the cop behind us will mind?”
The driver looks in the rear view mirror. He has a flash of hope that the passenger is playing around again, trying to scare him, but the telltale grill and the low profile light panel on top confirm the declaration.
A police officer is directly behind him.
“Of course there is. Of course there is!”
“We can outrun him.”
“Shut up, shut your mouth!”
“Want me to throw the rest of the beer out the window?”
The driver can see the officer's face in the rear view. He can't be sure but it looks like the officer is staring back at him. He imagines the on-board computer lighting up with the license plate of the truck, with his ID, his traffic violations, his complete criminal history. He imagines the call going into dispatch, and the return call from dispatch causing him to unbuckle the strap on his sidearm holster and hit the lights and siren.
“Hey, stay cool, it's just a stupid cop driving back to the station. He's not here for you, he's just driving behind you.”
“Please shut up.”
“You want me to take him out?”
The sentence is funny until he sees the gun.
“Jesus! Put that away, what the hell are you doing?”
“Sometimes you have to do what you have to do.”
“Put it away. Beer, guns, do you want me to go back to prison?”
“I'm just saying that, if necessary, I'll smoke that fool.”
“Smoke that fool? Oh my God you just lost your speaking privileges.”
The road is opening up in front of them. Two exits have thinned out the highway traffic, and the left lane is open for at least a quarter of a mile. The police officer turns on his left blinker and slowly changes lanes. The sudden flashing light nearly kills the driver.
“Oh God, I thought he was turning on his flashers. He's just changing lanes to pass.”
“Should I show him the gun, show him we're not scared?”
“Don't even joke about that, put it down.”
“I could show him the beer cans.”
“You could do nothing for the next thirty seconds.”
The officer accelerates. The nose of the cruiser is even with the truck's back tires.
“We should race.”
“I don't think he wants us to race with him.”
“How do you know? He's probably had a very boring shift. He could probably use a little adventure. I know you could.”
The cruiser edges even to the driver's door.
“Should you nudge him? I think you should nudge him, just a little. A gentle, playful nudge. It will make his night.”
The passenger lays his hand suddenly over the driver's hand. He pushes, turning the wheel slightly left before the driver can correct.
“Whoa, watch out now!”
“You crazy bastard, stop!”
“Nudge nudge nudge.”
“Forget prison, you're going to get us killed!”
“He's getting away, we have to act! Faster!”
The passenger scoots over to within leg reach of the pedals. He slides his hips forward and stretches out his left leg, laying his foot over the driver's foot, and presses down.
He doesn't stop. He presses harder, and the driver tries to lift his foot from the gas pedal but it won't move. The engine cries out under the new demand and jerks forward, keeping the truck even with the cruiser. The driver looks over at the officer. The officer is looking back at him now.
“See,” the passenger says, “he sees what's up. Look at him, he's down to party. He's down to race.”
The cruiser's lights go up, sudden spirals of blue and red bouncing across the truck's cabin and over her hood. The officer motions for the driver to pull over. He mouths, “Pull over, now,” before speaking into his mic. He is calling in the incident.
“He's calling it in, you idiot! He's calling it in!”
“You can't let him call it in, you know that. You know what happens if he pulls you over.”
The driver grips the steering wheel harder, like he is pulling at the bars to his cell. He is wrenching his hands as if he will break the wheel.
“You can't go back there, you said that yourself. You can never go back.”
The cruiser has an intercom system.
“Pull over. Pull your vehicle over to the left!”
“You can't go back there...”
I can't go back there.
“You said it yourself...”
I'll never go back.
“What are you going to do?”
The driver's grip loosens slightly before pulling the wheel hard left. The truck dips and slams its front fender and headlight into the nose of the police cruiser. The impact sends glass and plastic crackling to the asphalt. The force is focused into the front right tire and axle of the cruiser, and the axle immediately breaks, locking up both front tires. The sudden change in torque and the truck's weight and velocity send the cruiser almost directly into the cement median. The truck stays with the cruiser, pressing it into the median, grinding it against the oscillating scrape and thump of the cement blocks and their seams. Sparks flash from the cruiser's side like a fiery rain, and the passenger turns the wheel harder to the left and presses down into the gas pedal even harder.
The noise carnage swallows up the screams of the driver and the officer.
One seam in the median is jutting out two inches farther than the others. When the cruiser's front left end catches it, the impact tears the entire left side of the squad car off and sets off the cruiser's airbag. The car and truck blast back out onto the highway, the truck veering right while the cruiser slides out while turning to the left. The truck hits another sedan, a small four-door with two occupants. This clash sends the sedan into the far right lane where it crashes into a small pick up truck full of masonry blocks.
The four cars spin and skid, spilling fluids and glass and plastic onto the roadway below. The cruiser spins and slams, rear end first, back into the median. The sedan and masonry truck slide to a stop, having hit nothing else.
The truck croaks and moans to a stop in the middle of the highway. One of the collisions caused enough damage to the engine for it to choke and peter out. The driver grabs the wheel again. The impact shook him in the cabin, slamming his head into the window beside him and into the steering wheel itself. Warm fluid is running down the left side of his face. His hand goes to it instinctively, and when he pulls it back to see what is wet all over his fingers, it is covered in blood.
“Let me see your hands!”
There is a flashing, a rhythmic pattern of red and blue all around him. As the ringing in his head clears, he hears the siren.
“Get your hands where I can see them!”
The driver's head sags. His head is reeling from the impact, like it suddenly weighs hundreds of pounds. As it droops forward, he sees the floor of the truck. It is salted with sparkling glass, and shining among the pebbles is the pistol. Wooden grip, cold gray cylinder. The grip asks to be held. The cylinder wants to spin. The driver's seat belt is jammed and his first and second try to reach the pistol fail.
“Driver, show me your hands or I will fire!”
He finds the button on his seat belt. It takes a second and third push but the button finally releases. He pitches forward and rams his chest and chin into the steering wheel. His hand fumbles below for the pistol. He feels the wooden grip. It fits so well into his hand. It always has. It fit perfectly when he shot that convenience store owner. It fit perfectly when he shot those two homeless men behind Best Buy. Without thinking as he picks it up, he cocks the hammer back.
I'm not going back.
Before he looks out his window toward the officer, he looks to the passenger seat. It is empty. The window isn't broken and the door is still closed.
He knows where. As the officer approaches he is talking to dispatch, “White late-eighties Chevy pick-up, single occupant...” He doesn't have to listen to the rest. He knows what happened. He has done this before. He realizes what he has done as he licks blood from his lips. He can taste his blood and something else.
Beer. Miller, his beer since he was nine getting drunk in the woods behind his old house. Millers whenever he was hiding from daddy's red-eyed gaze, his wavering voice and his wrath. Millers to calm the nerves, and Millers to numb the beatings.
“Police, get your hands up!”
His beer cans are all over the cab. His forehead is hot from the wreck but he can feel the ring where he crushed the can. He thought the can felt stronger than he remembered them being. He could tell there would be a bruise. He wondered if he'd gotten softer in prison, or if Miller had, for some reason, started reinforcing their cans.
But the passenger? He had been here, hadn't he?
He'd always been here. Since those days in the woods, climbing trees and hiding in stumps, he'd been there. Whenever things spun sideways, he'd been there. Sometimes he'd been there to help. Sometimes not to help.
Sometimes, to initiate. To instigate.
To take control.
Daddy hadn't liked the passenger very much. The beatings got worse, at first. But then they stopped altogether. Daddy, passed out in his lazy-boy, the top of his bald head shining in the lamp light, went to sleep for the last time. After pistol-whipping the boy, he'd kept the pistol in his hand when he sat down, and it was still there, stuck to his thick fingers, when he fell asleep. It didn't take much for the boy, and the passenger, to slide the gun from daddy's grasp. When the boy needed someone there to take charge, to challenge the authority in place, the passenger was there. When the boy needed a way for the beatings to stop, the passenger was there. When the shot rang out that night and daddy slumped into his lazy-boy never to get up again, the passenger was there.
“You're always there for me,” the driver says, staring into the empty seat beside him. “You're always there.”
The driver holds the pistol up to his chest to look at it. It is fully loaded, hammer cocked, ready to work for him, again. He looks out his window. The officer is poised to fire.
“It feels good,” the driver says, squeezing the wooden handle.
“It always has.”
Before the pistol's first shot can ring out, the officer's hands jolt against five fiery pops. The first shot strikes the driver in the neck. The second goes high, into the passenger side ceiling. The third strikes the driver in the chest. The fourth goes through the door and into the driver's stomach. The fifth tings into the far door. The explosions flash orange in the officer's eyes. Each blast illuminates more grief and regret. Each trigger pull lights up a more contrition, and the fifth shot shows his eyes pleading for the shooting to stop. His eyes plead for the shooting to have never happened.
The driver sighs and slumps back in his seat. The pistol stays in his hand as it drops into his lap. He takes in a breath that he never seems to let out. He takes another, and another, like he is storing a few mouthfuls of air for eternity. He looks at the officer and tries to smile. “It's not your fault,” he tries to say. The words don't appear and he hopes the officer can see the message in his eyes.
The voice is from behind him. As the driver turns his head, the passenger is back. The passenger shrugs his shoulders. His palms go up. An apologetic smirk says, “I tried, man. I messed up but I tried.”
“It's okay,” the driver says.
The officer is calling in the shooting, calling for an ambulance.
“They're going to remember you, now. You know that, right?”
The driver closes his eyes and nods.
“They're going to remember me now.”
“I am sorry. You believe me, right, that I'm sorry?”
“I believe you.”
“I am sorry.”
“I'm sorry, too.”