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Roadkill

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“’Scuse me, sir.” Leaves rattled like tar-paper across the pavement. The wind caught the office’s screen door, pounding it open. Shut. Open. “Motel’s closed for the season.”

Travis shifted his weight. His tire iron squeaked, heavy with oil.

In the pit of his belly something uncoiled—

—and the chill breeze, the clerk’s fishbelly-white face, lulled it back to sleep.

“Looks like I’m moving along.”

 

He slung the tire iron, the chains, the thick-handled shovel, into the belly of his cab. They rattled there like bullets.

 

“Don’t bother.” The cold put a bite in his words. “They’re all closing up for the winter.”

Through the yellow smell of exhaust, through the dingy cold, the kid’s mouth twisted. “Great.”

“Tourist season’s over, bud.”

He idled, foot resting easy on the brake, and watched. The kid’s face worked like a bad ventriloquist dummy’s—

—like Momma’s on a real bad day—

—and Travis leaned over. The cab door clicked open.

The kid stared. “Look. Just point me out of town. I’ve got money. I can get a room next town over. No big deal.”

“Hey,” said Travis more gently. “You want a ride, you’re coming with me—or you’re waiting two hours for the next guy.” He jerked one shoulder; in the rear-view mirror, unlit motel signs bulged like dead fireflies. “Not many rigs out here.”

And—God loves fools and kids—the boy believed it.

Funny.

He’d never been much of a liar.

 

“Tell me something, buddy,” said Travis, just past Arkham. “You really have that money?”

The kid raised his hands. “You know how it is. Had to say something.”

“Daddy told you not to hitch rides, huh?” Travis snapped off the radio. The road rumbled like a living thing; the tire iron rolled and bucked, nudging their feet.

Not tonight, old man.

“Never mind,” said Travis. “Guess you’re right.”

They rounded a sweeping curve, climbing through swathes of pine forest. The engine churned and spat.

“Guess I look like a real psycho.”

“Jesus.” The kid’s hand dropped soundlessly to his lap. “Jesus, that’s sick.”

Travis shook his head. Chuckled.

“Relax. Bad joke.”

The kid gave him a hard stare—a child’s stare. “That was fucked-up.”

“Might be a little unhealthy,” said Travis.

They shared a laugh. The tire iron, scraping metal-sour on the cab floor, joined in.

 

He was a soldier, he said, and Travis nodded and said all the right things—

—or close enough as made no matter.

On the long winding stretches, under curdled October skies, he watched the boy’s face.

Doing the straitjacket shuffle. The Thorazine two-step.

“Military hospital, right? You on anything?”

The kid—Alex—grimaced. “Watch it. Christ.” He had tensed at once; now he sank by degrees into his seat. “Guess it shows, huh?”

“Just a little.” Travis sipped his coffee. “I’ve seen a lot worse.”

 

“Watch it, Robin,” Richard Grady had said. “Christ.”

“Aw. The kid’s old enough.” And Robin Matheson refilled Travis’s glass. “Getting to be a real big man, aren’t you, Travis?”

Travis grinned, drumming heels that did not reach the floor.

Already he was a little drunk.

Matheson leaned in, breathing great gouts of beer, and his face glistened like conspiracies. “Your momma—”

“I said enough.” Richard’s glass rattled in his hand. “Goddamn it, Robin—”

“I took your daddy to the crazy house last night,” Matheson hiccuped, and Travis had leaned in, too, unthinking. “Your momma didn’t say too much. Just sat there like a big old dolly.”

And then Matheson was blinking, and beer puddling like piss in his jeans, and Richard Grady was cussing and raging, motel-light screeching off his glasses, and—

“Daddy?”

 

“You were in the—”

“Try again,” said Travis. “Tell the truth, you’re not the first guy I’ve driven up from that hospital. You pick up the signs.”

For long minutes Alex sat there, doll-stiff and slack-eyed. Wondering, by the numb animal look of him, what else Travis saw.

Better sharpen up, bud. You got roadkill eyes.

Yes, you learned the signs. (Travis eased off the gas; the road peeled by in infinite silence.) If you had the decent sense to shut up, if you watched—from heaven on high or hell down below, wherever you might happen to find yourself on empty roads—

Then yes, you’d learn a thing or two. You’d give names to the various afflictions of man, and thank your maker you weren’t so ill-made as all that—

Dumb as carrion.

Stupidity: the most forgivable of sins.

 

Travis was a gentle man, and abhorred cruelty.

The Butcher had died in Silent Hill, died doing his job. Not such a bad way to go, Travis thought some nights, if you got to pick.

And now there was only Travis. Alone, but he’d never minded that.

Awake now.

Doing his job.

 

He pulled off I-295 as the sun reddened tin roofs. His radio hummed and chirped—lot lizards and chasers, muddying up the silence.

Not tonight, kids. If I get my way, not any night.

A scatter of images worried at him, small and sharp: a truck chaser with his legs spread, a cleaver handle jutting cock-hard and jaunty; his father’s body, turning, turning—

Simple things. Easy to push aside.

Alex had nodded off some miles before. The sunset cast unseasonable shadows over his face, young and smooth; Travis watched him with stark pity.

He might have done it then, in the shadow of the truck stop. But pity always stayed his hand.

“Hey, soldier.” Travis snapped the radio on. “You hungry?”

The squawk of static, the cheer in his voice, buried the moment.

Alex jerked to life. His eyes came alive last, and incompletely.

 

“Man,” said Alex as they pooled their little cash—

—and you lied to me, bud, bare-faced and grinning—

“—I owe you one for the ride. I mean it. You saved my ass.”

Travis jerked his head. “Got places to be?”

And from that he learned—he believes it. Every word.

They talked a bit. Laughed dispiritedly at their own jokes.

The din of the diner filled in the silences. Alex’s pill bottle clicked open, shielded in the palm of his hand. “Painkillers,” he said, reddening a little.

“As though a guy like you would need them,” said Travis with a grim nod. “Medical BS.”

And they chuckled. And Alex did not follow Travis’s gaze.

 

Here comes a candle to light you to bed.

He’d washed the Butcher’s cleaver in a Brahms parking lot, squinting through the gritty dark. With callused hands and splintered nails he’d scraped off bloodstains.

He’d kept it long enough. Thrown it from his window and, in the indistinct light of morning, watched it arc over the fields.

 

Here comes a chopper—

“I’m tapped out.” Travis cracked his knuckles, yawning. “You’re gonna have to sleep in the berth.”

Alex eyed him. “It’s fine. I can—”

“Like hell,” said Travis. “You’re still recuperating, ain’t you? Need your beauty sleep.”

Catch them in their own lie. Easiest way to shut them up.

“You sure you don’t mind?” Alex spread his hands, grimacing. “Shit, I don’t want to bother you.”

“How ‘bout this, bud? Keep your hands to yourself, don’t snore, and don’t crap the bed.”

Humor, such as it was. Men’s humor, uneasy and tight-assed.

But he meant it, and perhaps that did the trick. He meant every word.

 

“Can’t sleep?” said Travis after a while. The dark smelled woolen, impossibly thick, and the blankets lay sweat-sodden on them both.

“Hell, man, you’ve got yourself a rolling coffin.”

Travis chuckled. In the scratchy air it sounded harsh. “Just count the bodies.”

Alex shifted; the mattress squeaked protest.

“You sick fuck,” he said at last.

For minutes unending they lay still. Still, and awake.

Alex sat up, the blanket puddling round his hips. “Hotter than Satan’s asscrack in here. You mind?”

No. He did not mind.

Alex’s jacket slithered to the floor. From the sound of it, the raw salty smell of bare skin, his shirt followed.

They lay awake. Alex settled against the wall.

The berth vibrated, low and sweet as a bell; the highway yawned beside them. Travis swallowed his spit.

They lay awake.

 

Since Silent Hill he’d slept well enough, most nights.

You accepted what you were—you cauterized the wound, in the bitter heat of daylight—or you went under.

Yet he’d never quite stopped dreaming of home, and of Momma twitching and yawing in her nasty gibbet, and of knives.

Knives and shovels.

He accepted that, too. Good to know where you came from.

 

“Missing your gun, soldier?”

He reached up. Fumbled for the light switch.

Alex sat cross-legged, slick with vinegary sweat. He blinked like a cow. “Easy. Easy.”

“I’m not gonna hurt you,” said Travis, and he, too, sat up. “I’m not that kind of crazy.”

“Jesus,” said Alex, “I didn’t think—”

“Don’t fuck with me,” said Travis. He yawned, a heavy, full-body yawn. “You’re either crapping your pants with terror or—”

“So I can’t sleep.” Alex shrugged, straight-backed, easy as anything. Travis admired that. “Big fucking deal.”

“Or you want into mine.”

He paused. Savored the doll-stiff indignation, the artificiality of it, the dead stillness behind Alex’s carrion eyes.

The plastic walls were sweating. Beads of condensation trickled down Travis’s back.

“Two steps ahead of you, soldier boy,” said Travis calmly.

“Fuck you,” said Alex, and for a moment Travis believed the lie.

Kid, you curse like a soldier. You’d have washed out of boot camp, don’t get me wrong—they don’t like crazy over there, either. Our kind of crazy. The kind they can’t use.

Believe me. I know. Five hours in my cab, and I know you body and soul.

But you curse like a soldier.

But instead, he said, “Now, you can get yourself to sleep. Pretend we never had this little chat. And I can drop you off in Cumberland County tomorrow, and none of this ever happened. You go on your way. I go on mine.”

Alex fixed him dead in the eye. “Yeah? Or what?”

“Or nothing,” said Travis. “Go to sleep.”

 

He shoved a wad of paper beneath the tachograph’s needle. Jabbed the keys into the ignition. The truck rumbled to life.

Five hours to Brahms.

It was always to Brahms. Never to Silent Hill.

As Travis pulled out of the truck stop, the tire iron nudged his foot.

I could, he thought. I could, I could—

And the thought carried him a million miles, as the smell of carrion filled his lungs and throat and coated his tongue, as power lines whistled by like streaks on the sky.

I could—

—let him off early. Stop for coffee in Brahms. Sleep like the naked dead.

 

Often they came alone. Most of them had one story or another: a wife; a mother; a gaggle of kids. A few visits. A few china-doll smiles. And then, the silence—incomplete, and worse for it.

Buck up, buddy. Put a grin on that face.

You know, part of being an adult—

You’ve been on those meds for a while, Jenny. Aren’t—

Helen, you really are dead.

And then the visits would stop. In a busy world there was no time for the dead.

So they came alone, in clothes still creased from the hospital closets, smelling of Lysol and tears. They came alone, and he gave them what small comfort he knew—

—and thought always of the tire iron, the shovel, the welcoming dirt and the conqueror worm.

The dead were not missed.

 

The curtain rustled, and Alex stepped into the cabin. With a dull grunt he settled beside Travis.

“Buckle up.” Travis massaged his brow. “Officially, I ain’t driving.”

“Yeah, well, officially,” said Alex—if you want to play that game, kid—”I’m not here.”

“Never happened.” Travis extended a damp hand.

They shook on it.

Truce—or if not truce, cease-fire.

 

When he looked over next, Alex was asleep, sweat tracing the line of his temple. He shuddered like shocked meat, eyelids fluttering half-open with every jolt.

You ain’t a soldier, kid.

They peeled round a curve in the road. The coast fell away, smooth as a sigh, and the cabin rose through whispery darkness. The odd light bobbed and blinked on the beach below.

Travis rubbed sleep from his eyes.

His hand twitched.

 

“It’ll all be okay,” Helen Grady had said, through the gathering dark, “once you get where you’re going, Travis.”

His head had been heavy in her lap.

The kitchen had swum, rippling like oil on water. He’d wanted to cry out—

But she’d stroked his hair, lightly, as mothers should, and he’d known no more.

 

And if there is a God—

In sleep Alex’s face was slack. Travis shuddered; something chalky rose in his throat.

You ain’t my momma, either.

Though at times he had been unsure about God.

 

He pulled off at the next exit. Under truck-stop floodlights, sour and indiscriminate, he wrote:

SOLDIERS DON’T HITCH RIDES

I KNOW WHAT YOU’RE GOING THROUGH

NEXT TIME YOU TAKE THESE, GIVE ME A CALL

207-555-0193

Alex did not stir. With chill and certain hands Travis replaced the pill bottle.

Could use a few of those myself.

Alex’s dog tags slipped, chinking sweetly. In reflective silence Travis read the name.

 

He supposed he was crazy.

Like momma, like son.

You’re a bad boy, Travis.

He supposed he was that, too.

 

They drove on, through huddled forest and slumped cliff faces. A dispirited fog streaked the windshield.

At four, they crossed into Cumberland. Road signs flashed up in the tarry darkness: Silent Hill, 4 Mi. Shepherd’s Glen, 13 Mi. Brahms, 19 Mi.

The shortcut through Brahms, he called it in his own mind.

Portland, 32 Mi. whipped by.

The shortcut through Brahms.

He repeated it uncertainly, like a prayer. They pulled onward, never slowing a second, through a night as inexorable as gravity.

 

At four-ten, Alex cried out.

Travis did not turn, did not stir. “Bad dream?”

“Yeah.”

The cabin felt cramped. Nauseous. Travis flicked the radio dial, tasting meat.

 

Never happened.

 

They rounded the lake. On 73 County they sped through congealed fog, the stink of mud and rushes, the shadow of church steeples. They did not speak.

 

At four-eighteen, they pulled into Shepherd’s Glen.

 

“Hometown?”

“You could say that.”

You could indeed.

“Well,” he said, and meant it, “good luck, soldier.”

He did not look back. His tire iron thudded like a reproach as he pulled out.

Not today, buddy.

Alex Shepherd, alive and well and fucked to hell, vanished in the mist.

 

In Brahms he exhaled. Rolled down the window and gasped, dog-sick, for air. Brahms still smelled of Toluca Lake, hazy, drunk on graveyard soil.

He rubbed his sides, and breathed (slowly at first), and stopped for coffee.

The diner hummed with processed air. Tourism pamphlets faded, bloated with humidity, in neat rows: Experience the History! Family Fun at Devil’s Pit! Toluca Lake Ghost Tours!

Travis sipped his coffee. Cracked his knuckles. Waited for the dawn.

 

Morning came, the sky a curdled butter-yellow. Morning always came.

One day at a time, buddy. Just one more day.

“It’s all right, Momma,” he said to the bitter breeze. “I’m still here.”

In thirty-two years he had not killed.

He got the call the next day.