The sky was getting darker all the time.
I set the red can under the glove box and drove away from the pumps, steering with one hand so I could gulp down some coffee. Then I hit the brakes before I got to the street.
The can worried me.
It was still upright but I heard the gas sloshing. There were a lot of turns between here and the house. What if it tipped over? I’d be sucking fumes before I got home.
I reached into the backseat, grabbed the plastic bag from B&B Hardware and wedged it next to the can. But it wasn’t heavy enough. So I had to shut off the engine, climb out and make room in the trunk, between the spare tire and the suitcase. That way the can wouldn’t move around no matter how fast I took the corners. I turned the key again and headed east on Washington, picking up speed, with only one question in my mind:
Which of the following is a Burt Reynolds film? (a) Cannonball Run, (b) Stroker Ace, (c) Smokey and the Bandit, or (d) The Night of the Following Day.
I couldn’t remember the winning answer but it didn’t matter now. The gas station was history.
The sky was so dark by now that I had a hard time believing it was still early afternoon. The clock on the dash said the same as my watch, a few minutes past three. Rush hour wouldn’t be for a while yet. I changed lanes, weaving in and out, flexing my fingers till the joints popped, the sound like little arcs of electricity below the windshield. I thought I saw a barricade of squad cars at the next corner, colored lights spinning, but it was only a road crew setting out detour signs. Their red vests glowed in the underpass. I shook my head to clear it and noticed that the coffee was almost empty.
I worked my way over between the trucks and sport utility vehicles, heading for Venice Boulevard. It would have been a lot easier to take Sepulveda to Lincoln straight out of LAX. I’d be home now. But this way I had everything I needed. I could do the rest in my sleep. As I turned onto Venice another question flashed before me:
In what film does William Shatner appear? (a) The Intruder, (b) The Brothers Karamazov, (c) Big Bad Mama, or (d) Anatomy of a Murder.
That one was easy. It was from Day Two, Show Five, the one we had just wrapped. How many hours ago? I could still see the answer on the card in front of me. I pretended to play the game, jabbing the steering wheel as if it were a buzzer. The horn went off and he glanced up.
The first thing I noticed was that he might have been anyone.
A beach boy, nothing special, the type you see around here all the time. Sun-bleached hair, sweat collecting in his squinty eyes and a walk that said he was not going to slow down for anybody. He stepped into the street and one of us had to stop. I could tell by those eyes it had to be me. He glared back like a hot spot on the glass and didn’t move.
Then he did something strange.
He folded his legs and sat down right there in the crosswalk, daring me to hit him. I didn’t, of course. The light was red.
I opened the window.
“Hey, you want to move it?”
He shrugged. Not defiantly. He just didn’t care.
Cars were stacked up behind me now and they didn’t like this game. The light changed. I heard a horn tapping. For God’s sake, I thought.
“What’s your problem?”
When I leaned out his eyes got big.
“God, you’re him!”
I shook my head. “Move your ass.”
“Yeah! The guy on Green!”
Busted. I didn’t even have my make up on. Did I? No, that was hours ago, in Honolulu. I would have taken it off. I checked the rearview mirror. My eyes were like two cigarette burns. I had a hard time recognizing myself. The kid’s legs unfolded as he got up. But not to move out of the way. He started walking toward me.
He was going to ask for my autograph.
The rest of the drivers leaned on their horns.
I had to make a decision fast so I unlocked the passenger door. I’d drive around the corner and dump him off once we were out of the intersection.
When he got in I took a close look at him. New Nikes, clean T-shirt and jeans, no dirt anywhere that showed. He was not a beach bum and he didn’t really have an attitude. He had just plain given up. He probably didn’t know he was going to until that moment and then something—the traffic, the sun, all the people on the street who couldn’t care less—made him lose it. Now I could see that it wasn’t sweat under his eyes. He had been crying.
He closed the door and wiped his face. “Shit, I’m sorry. If I’da known it was you…”
“What happened?” I said.
“Oh, nothin’.” He tried a laugh to make light of it. “My old lady. We had a, you know, fight. She kicked me out.”
“Right here, in the middle of the street. Told me to fucking split. So I did.”
“I understand,” I said.
“She’s a bitch.”
“Sure, she is. Acts like you’re always bothering her. No time to talk. When you call, she’s never home.”
“How did you know that?”
Which is proof that your wife is cheating? (a) Staying out all night, (b) mysterious stains on her clothing, (c) phone calls from someone who hangs up when you answer, or (d) frequent trips to see her “mother” in the hospital.
“They’re all the same,” I said. “Think about it.”
“Yeah,” he said, as if it had never occurred to him, “I guess they are…”
Now we were close to Admiralty Way and the grid of side-streets by the marina. It was hard to tell them apart in this light. Got to bear down, I thought.
“Where do you want me to drop you?”
“Wait,” he said. “What do I do?”
What should you do once you know she is unfaithful? (a) Make her account for every hour of her day, (b) hire a private detective, (c) hide a Global Positioning Device in her car, or (d) kill her.
“Only one thing to do,” I told him, “isn’t there? How about the corner?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Where’s your house?”
“I can’t go back there.”
“Maybe you should.”
“To make it right.”
“I don’t know how.”
“Yes, you do. Think about it.”
“Okay. I will.”
He squinted at the shadowy rows of condos as we neared the end of the boulevard. We both saw sparks of light like tiny fires starting between the buildings. It could have been the sun on the ocean except that the sky had closed over.
“I have to let you out,” I said.
“I can’t take you with me. Not where I’m going.”
“That’s cool. The market, okay?” There was a Stop ’N Start ahead, at the corner. “I need some stuff.”
That was cool with me. I could get a refill on my coffee, as long as it didn’t take too long.
I pulled in between a brand-new Land Rover and an exterminator’s truck. The mannequin on the roof had a tux and top hat and a big rubber mallet behind his back and he was standing over an innocent-looking mouse. On the way to the glass doors I saw the little rat out of the corner of my eye, twitching his whiskers and scooting away over the hood. Go on, I thought. You can run but you can’t hide.
Inside the convenience mart I poured a big 22-ouncer, black. The kid was in the aisle where they keep the dog food and soap and aspirin and Tampax, for when you’re running late and she gave you a list and you promised. I popped a lid on the coffee and left a dollar bill on the counter, thinking: Which method is best for a crime of passion? (a) Gun, (b) rope, (c) knife, or (4) gasoline.
“Good luck,” I said over my shoulder.
The kid had a couple of household items in his hands. He must have wanted to do the pots and pans or something as soon as he got home. So he was going to try and make up after all. He could hardly wait. The poor bastard. I went out while he was paying for his stuff.
The mouse mobile was gone. Now a pool-cleaner’s truck was parked next to me, the kind I’d seen in the marina, sometimes in front of my own house even though our pool wasn’t finished yet. I wondered if it was the same one. If it was, maybe I could do something right here before I drove off and took care of the rest.
Let’s see, I thought.
I hadn’t figured on this part and didn’t have the right tools for the job. It wouldn’t take much to give him the message, say a screwdriver stuck in a sidewall or the radiator, like a note on his windshield, only better. He’d know what it was for and look around and I’d be gone. Or I could wait for him to come out and see what his sorry ass looked like. Was he inside? I hadn’t noticed. What should you do to her lover? (a) Make his life a living hell, (b) tie him up and torture him, (c) castrate him, or (c) kill him. But this was his lucky day. I wasn’t sure.
Time to go.
The kid walked around and opened the passenger door like he wanted to get in.
“One question,” he said.
“What?” I swallowed hot coffee, put the cap back on and took out my keys.
“Can I get on the show?”
“I don’t have anything to do with that,” I said, revving up.
“But if you put in a good word…”
“I’m out of here,” I said. The sky went black like a shadow had passed over the earth. Night was ready to fall. I could feel it in my head. “Close the door.”
“Okay,” he said and got in.
Now he thought we were friends. He was really innocent. Like the Fool in a deck of cards, too busy smelling the flowers to notice that he’s walking off a cliff. I didn’t want to tell him the whole truth. He wouldn’t be able to handle it.
“I guess you have to be pretty smart, anyway.”
“Do you watch the show?”
“Then you know the rules,” I snapped. We were driving again and traffic was heating up. I couldn’t waste any more time. “It’s not what you know. It’s what—”
“‘You don’t know!’” he finished for me. “That’s so cool. All those other shows, you have to get the answer right. But on Green, one right answer and you’re—”
“History,” I said. “Look, I have to be somewhere.”
“Sony Studios, Culver City, seven o’clock. Right?”
“But this is Friday…”
“We tape the shows in advance.”
“Five a day. I just flew in from Hawaii. Yesterday San Francisco, Atlanta the day before, New York on Monday. A month in a week.”
“Jesus, when do you sleep?”
“It’s been awhile.”
He held out his hand. “Ray Lands, right?”
“I thought you were live.” He tried to give me some kind of brotherhood handshake but I got out of it.
“I used to be. Now they want it every night. We had to get some shows in the can.”
“’Cause it’s so popular?”
He put his bag of household crap in the backseat, cheered up already, sure everything was going to work out. It didn’t take much. Even if she threw him out again he could sleep under a blanket of stars and eat dates off the palm trees while he figured another way to get her back. That would be cool. Somebody needed to burst his bubble but I didn’t want to be the one. I had things on my mind.
What is the best way to obtain satisfaction? (a) Catch her in the act and take pictures, (b) expose her betrayal on national television, (c) beat her within an inch of her life, or (d) tie her up and burn the house down.
“All ri-i-ght!” he said.
He was still leaning over the seat and now he had his hand on the plastic bag from the hardware store. “You go to B&B, too! Over on Washington, right? They have everything. It’s great, huh?”
He reached into my bag and took out the long butane lighter. It balanced across his palm like a combat knife. He fingered the switch, ready to test it.
“I like these babies. For when you have to start a barbecue.”
“Leave it,” I told him.
“Duct tape, nails, rope…” He put the bag back down next to his. “Need to fix something?”
“At your place?”
I stopped the car at the last corner.
“You better get out now.”
“Oh, yeah.” He took his bag from the backseat, then hesitated. “Need any help?”
A private security patrol car nosed out of the alley by the gate and sat there idling, the guard watching me behind tinted glass. I hovered for a minute while I downed the rest of the coffee and let it absorb into my bloodstream.
I could see the stars already through my eyelids and then the streaked sky over Waikiki Beach, the way it was outside the window of the hotel room when the storm started moving in, and my hand as I picked up the phone to call her for the hundredth time. I felt the rumbling of the surf. It sounded like a car engine. I opened my eyes and checked the mirror. So far there were no other patrol cars rolling up to block the way, only the one in the alley and while my eyes were closed he had camouflaged the front end so it looked like a trash can in the shadows. I saw waves churning in the marina. The water was blood-red.
“You sure?” the kid said. “I’m good with my hands.”
I would have bet that he was. I considered. If she was alone I could handle it and if she was out that would give me time to get set up while I waited for her to come home. But if she was not alone there might be complications.
“Still want to be on the show?” I said.
“Sure. Ten million greenbacks!”
“It’s easy. All you have to do is give the wrong answer. Prove that you’re an asshole, in other words, like everybody else.”
“If I gave you something to hold, could you do that, and not ask any questions?”
“What would you do if you saw a rat?”
“Um, kill it, I guess.”
“That’s right. You’ve got to kill them, don’t you?”
“Then come on.”
“Where are we going?”
“I want you to meet my wife.”
He swung his legs back in and closed the door. “You’ll put in the word?”
We drove around to the multi-level ranch houses at the end of Circle Vista.
“Uh, one thing,” he said, “just so’s you’ll know. I’m not into anything weird.”
“That’s cool,” I told him. “Neither am I.”
Her lemon-colored car was in the driveway. I took the hardware store bag from the back and as I climbed out a curtain flapped shut in an upstairs window. The bedroom.
“Wait here,” I said.
“You got it.”
I started along the flagstone walk to the side of the house. Better check it out, I thought, before you bring the red can from the trunk, just to be sure. Before I got very far the front door squeaked open and I heard a voice.
I backtracked, holding the bag casually at my side.
I waited for her to ad lib an excuse to keep me outside. Her eyes were puffy, almost swollen shut. She hadn’t been getting much sleep, either.
“Ray, I’m so glad you’re here!”
“You don’t know…”
I nodded knowingly. “Your mother? I see. Is she still ‘sick’?”
“Oh, really? Where did she go?”
“She passed away last night. This morning. I tried calling you from Kaiser but you’d already checked out. I don’t know what to do. I have to make the arrangements…”
I dropped the plastic bag and held her off, feeling her wrists trembling, so thin I could snap them like chicken bones. She came at me again and struggled as I pushed her away. Then her face twisted up and she started sobbing. I grabbed her around the waist and lifted her off her feet, carrying her out of the yard before the neighbors could see our hysterical little scene. The only one who saw was the kid. He watched from the car, taking it in.
“What’s wrong with you?” she screamed as the sirens started closing in.
Why is a mouse when it screams? I thought. (a) Still shitting me, (b) scared shitless, (c) full of shit, or (d) shit out of luck…
The next thing I remember is this:
She got her arms around my neck and then I wasn’t fighting her anymore. I stood there feeling her lips against my neck and her breath was hot like a child’s from the crying and my eyes finally closed all the way. And when they opened again it was like I was waking up.
I smelled her hair and tasted her skin and knew where I was. Everything else had been a dream. The sirens receded and there was only the quiet lapping of blue water behind our house. The weight lifted and the sky opened and there was light again and the pounding in my ears was her heart beating in my chest. Then her legs went out from under her and I had to hold very tightly to keep her feet from dragging as I pulled her inside.
I was sorry the kid had to witness any of this. He would have to walk home from here. I had a vague recollection of the bitter, twisted things I had said to him and felt ashamed. Someday he would understand how burned-out a man can get when he’s really exhausted and wired and how bent out of shape things seem when you’re like that, and maybe he’d forget this day. I had been out of my head. It can happen to anybody, I told myself.
Her clothes were so wrinkled she must have slept in them for days on a cold bench somewhere and her hair had come loose and there was no makeup on her pale face. I set her on the couch.
“I’m so sorry,” I said and kissed her forehead.
“I have to call the funeral home…”
“And my brother—”
“I’ll take care of it. Rest.”
“Where are you going?”
“The phone. I’ll be right there, in the kitchen. Okay?”
I found her brother’s number by the phone. No answer. He was probably on his way. I’d try again in a few minutes if he didn’t show up. The next thing would be to call the funeral home. I didn’t know which one it was. I started back to the living room and heard her cry out suddenly, louder and more desperate. The sound stopped before I got there.
The kid moved in front of the couch to block my way.
“Everything’s cool,” he said.
Across the room the front door was still open. There were spatters on his clean white T-shirt. His bag from the convenience mart lay on the carpet with the contents spilling out: a blister pack of cheap steak knives, a roll of twine and a dispenser of wide package-sealing tape. In his hand was a pizza cutter.
She was where I had left her, only now her ankles were bound together with the twine, a piece of the tape covered her mouth and one of her arms dangled to the floor. Blood dripped from the wrist.
“I was gonna save my stuff,” the kid said, “for when I get home. But I could tell you needed a hand.”
I tried to get past him before the room became any blacker. He stepped aside and grinned.
“You really got it down, man, about the bitches. I guess I always knew. There just isn’t no other way…”
“What have you done?”
“What you said,” and he winked at me, his eyes dancing wildly in his skull. “I mean, like, you got to kill them all. Right?”
Dennis Etchison, 1943 – 2019
A critically-acclaimed writer (and editor) of fantasy and horror fiction, particularly short stories, he was a three-time winner of both the British Fantasy Award and the World Fantasy Award for anthologies he edited. His collections include The Dark Country, The Death Artist and the recently released It Only Comes Out at Night & Other Stories (Centipede Press) and Fine Cuts: The Dark Side of the Silver Screen (Borderlands Press).
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