Tod Slaughter's

Tod Slaughter's

Friday, July 24, 2015

Hand in Hand

This one's a personal favorite. -T.S.


Just like before, I had waited in the parking lot until the time was right. Almost closing. The last customer left and I strode quickly into the bank and fired a couple of rounds in the ceiling. A woman reached under the counter and I waved the gun at her.
"Don't touch no buttons."
She nodded and I made quick work of the tellers' tills, ignoring the safe, and left less than two minutes after I entered. Smooth as silk, easy as apple pie.
The trouble all started with that damn sheriff. 
Random chance really, a cop passing by just as I fled the bank with a Thompson in one hand and a sackful of cash in the other, but it must have made a hell of a picture. The cruiser's brakes squealed, tires smoking as it wheeled into the lot. I fired a long burst in the cop's direction, the shells making dull thumps in the sheet metal, but the car kept coming, so I dove into the van and threw it in reverse, crunching the cop's fender. Bullets popped into the van, opening pinholes of light.
A quick glance in the mirror before I floored the gas showed the cop curse at his radio and hurl it against the dash. A bullet to the radio; maybe luck was swinging back my way, right? I tore out of the parking lot with the cruiser just behind me, racing toward the desert sun.
We roared away from the little town, the cat and the mouse, flying into the desolate sands. After a few minutes, I whipped the van onto a dirt road, the passenger side nearly leaving the ground. The cop plowed in right behind me, his rear tires kicking up huge rooster tails of sand as the back end of the car swung off the crude road. I reached over and picked up the big gun from the passenger seat, pointed it backward as best I could with one hand on the wheel, and pulled the trigger. It jumped around, blowing holes in all parts of the van, and when the drum was empty I let it go, clattering loudly on the van floor.
The road cut straight through a wasteland of flat sand and dry tufts of grass. I pushed the van up around seventy until a curve finally appeared. That's where the real trouble started.
As I slowed, the cop caught the rear corner of the van and pushed forward, spinning me around. I snatched at the wheel but over-corrected and the van rolled, throwing me out of my seat and hard into the roof. The desert day turned black.
"Wake up, boy," the sheriff said. Water splashed on me. One eye wouldn't open, but the good one saw black leather cowboy boots with silver tips, lightly sprinkled with dust.
"Stand up. Nothing funny now. Business end of a .45 looks like a black hole, don't it?" 
Indeed it did. The gun gestured, telling me to rise.
I shook my head a bit and slowly sat up. The sheriff waited a moment and kicked me hard in the thigh with the silver point of his boot.
"This just ain't my day," the sheriff said. "Lost my house keys. Dropped my phone in the station toilet. And now you."
The gun whipped out, catching the side of my head and knocking me back to the ground.
More water splashed down on me. "Get up. You're that Dollface, ain't you? We'll have to fix that." He clubbed me again. And again. A pistol makes a terrible sound in your head when it's beating on you.
"You had enough, boy? I told you to stand up."
I grunted something at him. 
"That's how people get false teeth," he said and brought the pistol down once more. Both my eyes were closed now, refusing to open even a sliver. A rough hand grabbed me by the collar and pulled me to my feet. A car door opened and the sheriff shoved me in the seat.
"I've heard you're a hard man to contain," the sheriff said. "You ride up front."
Shoes moved softly through the sand and the trunk opened. There were sounds back there, probably the bank bag and the Tommy gun. I felt around with blind hands, finding a ballpoint pen in the door pocket. As the trunk slammed I closed my fingers around it.
The driver's door opened and the sheriff plopped down, rocking the car. He slapped a handcuff on my left wrist, then attached the other end to his own right hand.
"Reckon we'll ride together."
The sheriff started the car and pulled it into drive, the movements tugging at my arm. We rode in slow silence back down the sandy road.
How far ahead was the highway? Five miles? Ten miles? How much time did I have?
Slashing over with the pen, I felt it strike flesh, burrowing in. I ripped it out and stabbed again, feeling warm blood in my fingers. The sheriff made some gurgling sounds and fought with me, but I forced the pen deeper and deeper. The steering wheel turned this way and that and eventually the car rolled to a stop.   
The sheriff wasn't moving.
I reached over to put the car into park and removed the key. It was a single key, attached to only a plastic tag. I leaned over and felt around the sheriff's waist, and my movements grew more and more frantic. 
What had the sheriff said? 
Lost my house keys.
The key to the handcuffs. It had to be with them. The sheriff wasn't worried. He knew there would be another at the station.
The car was hot and full of the coppery smell of blood. I pulled against the handcuff but it was tight around my wrist. I tried pulling the sheriff's end of the cuffs off, but even covered with the slick blood it refused. 
"Can't win for losing," I said, and my voice sounded alien. 
The car was unbearable, so I opened the door and drug the corpse out the passenger side with me. There was a little shade on that side of the car, and I slumped down in it, beads of sweat rolling down my forehead and over my poor swollen eyes.
We had driven off the road in the struggle and the sand was loose and warm beneath me. Which way was the highway? The town? It seemed like the sun was on my left, but then again, the sun seemed to be everywhere, even here in the shade.
The gun. The sheriff's gun. I unholstered it and positioned it on the sheriff's end of the handcuffs, bracing the dead hand against the wheel for support. One of his fingers, already colder than I thought they'd be, wore a fat ring, a hallmark of some faded high school glory. I pulled the trigger and there was only the click of an empty chamber.
I laughed, and it was a dry and deathly sound. While I laughed, I felt around on his belt for another clip and when I found one my fingers told me it was empty too. How many times had the damn sheriff fired?
When the laughter died, I looped my hands under his armpits as best I could and pulled him up, draping the body over my shoulders. If the sun was to my left, I would go right. I started walking.
The sheriff was a solid man. He weighed a ton. Thick, half-clotted blood ran down my back and mixed with sweat, sticking the shirt to my back. My face was hot and I lamented the loss of my shady fedora. 
The sandy earth was peppered with tufts of desert grass, each threatening to upset my balance, so I walked slowly, feeling ahead with my feet. Even so, I tripped over a shallow washout, spilling the dead sheriff to the ground, the body pulling painfully at my arm.
I should have reached the dirt road by now.
For a long while I stayed on my back, breathing heavily. My skin no longer burned and I couldn't feel the sun in my eyes anymore. A light breeze picked up and my arms broke out in goosebumps. Something I'd read in school so long ago. Something about the desert nights being cold. I should keep moving.
As I was already blind, the darkness was no more a hindrance than the day. Grunting, I hoisted the dead sheriff again, but I'd not gone far when the sounds came, high and keening on the night air. Yipping. Barking.
Howling.
I stopped to listen. Jesus Christ, what could that be? Wolves? Were there wolves in the desert? That didn't seem right.
No. Not wolves. The old man at the gas station, the one I'd filled up the van at before the bank job, he was cursing the coyotes. They ate my dog, he'd said.
They ate my dog.
What would they do to a dead sheriff?
Though I walked away from the sound, the howling seemed closer and I panicked, running, stumbling, fighting with the dead weight of the sheriff. Dead weight, get it? I fell, fought with the body, and ran some more, until finally I pitched over in the sand, breathless.
It was quiet now. I tried to close my eyes and laughed at myself, that hollow sound again. Close my eyes! I laughed and laughed and fell into a restless half-sleep. 
My body was a network of agony, all sore muscles and broken skin. I was cold, shivering. And what was that sound? It was wet and obscene. Reaching out an arm, my hand touched fur. I recoiled and the creature made some kind of noise. There were others too, and they joined in.
"Get away from here!" I yelled, thrashing my arms around, flinging handfuls of sand at the sounds. The creatures yipped and yelped and scurried into the night.
I stared at the backs of my eyelids and it seemed as though colors washed over them. The handcuff felt cold on my wrist and any movement brought a reminder of the package on the other end. After an indeterminable period of time, the colors of my eyelids changed to pale light and the air got a little warmer. The sun was out.
The first attempt to sit up brought dry, sputtering curses, but I worked my way up. My mouth was dry and foul. When I tried to stand I lost my balance, falling onto the sheriff, and as I frantically pushed off the body my hands felt raw, gaping wounds under the tattered uniform.
They ate my dog, the old man had said.
No. No no. It couldn't end like that. Eaten by some dogs in the desert.
"Not dogs, boy. Coyotes." It sounded like the old man's voice. What was he doing out here? I whipped my head around, still unused to the fact that I was blind, and I stretched out my free hand, feeling the air around me.
"Help me, please," I said, the words cracking against my arid lips, "help me."
No help came. Eventually, I stood and hoisted the sheriff again onto my shoulders. The body felt lighter than yesterday, but it was slippery with blood. For a moment my legs threatened mutiny, but I bent them to my will and remained standing.
Honestly, I had no idea which way I'd come from. The sun seemed to be on my right now. If I had headed away from it yesterday evening, I should head toward it in the morning. That made sense. I started walking, picking my way through the tufts of grass.
How long had I been in the desert now? Twenty four hours? Carrying around a dead body, no less. No food. No water. I should have come to the highway by now.
It felt like the sun was on top of me. I eased the sheriff down to the sand and sat beside him. There had to be a way to get free. I grabbed the handcuff around his wrist and and fought with it. The skin ripped and tore and yet the handcuff would not slide over his wrist. I felt around and found a small rock, bashing it against the metal and skin to no avail. A few tears squeezed through my swollen eyelids.
My stomach churned. I used my free hand to pull some dry grass loose from one of the clumps and slowly put it in my mouth. There was no saliva. Swallowing the dusty, tasteless grass was nearly impossible.
"They ate my dog," that voice said again. "They'll eat you." 
"The hell they will," I said, picking up the sheriff. He smelled loathsome and there were flies everywhere. I shuffled on, straining my ears for the sound of a car, but there was nothing save the buzz of flies and the sounds of my feet in the sand.
After an aeon of walking, I could feel night in the air again. My legs were done, so I bent and dropped the sheriff. Then I laid down next to him, propping my head on one of the grass tufts. Sleep washed over me and I dreamed strange dreams. It was long ago and the sheriff was my friend and we were playing in the park. It was night and we were camping together in my backyard. I had a pet dog and it was howling because it wanted in the tent.
Howling.
I woke quickly, my eyes darting around beneath my eyelids.
They were back.
I tried yelling at them, but found I'd lost my voice. Only a low rasping came out and the night creatures didn't seem to mind that. I threw sand at them but they growled at me. One sounded very close, inches, and I punched it. The creature bit me on the forearm, drawing blood, and then returned to the sheriff. A part of me thanked them for what they were doing. After all, the longer they stayed, the less he seemed to weigh.
"They'll eat you too," the voice said again.
"We're friends," I said, laughing, "but I never really liked him!"
I sucked at the blood on my arm, letting it fill the dry cracks of my mouth.
The coyotes grew bolder. They tugged at the sheriff, perhaps intending to drag him off somewhere a little more private, but I refused to go with them and they eventually gave up. I pulled him back toward me and now he moved easily.
Dawn broke once more, cold and gray. I ran my free hand over my face, pulling at my cauliflower eyelids. The right one separated and a beam of light broke through, a piercing ray that burned like fire. I screamed, a terrible cracking sound. 
But it was light! I forced the eye open, holding it until the blinding white resolved into an unbroken expanse of flat sand and grass. No distant power lines marked the horizon, no cars moved along some far off road. There was nothing.
Did I dare look at the sheriff?
I did. The coyotes had done terrible things to him. His face was a red mask of bone, and his stomach gaped empty save for a trailing intestine that pointed the way they had gone home. I let the eye slip closed again so I could tend to our morning ritual.
First I tucked what was left of his insides back in as best I could and, though he felt awfully light, still I struggled to lift him. Everywhere I touched broke open clotted blood and made him all slick and greasy. When I finally got him across my shoulders, he felt like a bundle of wet sticks.
I was a ghoul, a ghoul carrying my carrion prize through hell. My face and hands were boiled with sunburn, my torn clothes were a matted mass of gore, and everywhere was the stench of death. Occasionally I stopped and opened my eye to check on my progress, once spotting a few joshua trees in the distance. My heart leapt at this little variety and I walked faster, turning my path slightly to meet them. Hours later I arrived and sat among the stunted trees. Maybe I spoke with them. I know I wished them farewell when the sheriff said we should be moving on. 
After a couple of miles it began to get dark and for once I could see the sunset. I put the sheriff down and held my eye open, watching as the sky turned to orange fire and cooled to purple ash and then it was black, the blackness of infinity studded with a billion pricks of white. 
It was hard to sleep knowing they'd be back, and it wasn't too long before the accursed howling began. I could hear the pads of their feet on the sand as they got closer, and then I could hear their breathing. I knew they valued privacy, so I kept my eye closed while they spoke with the sheriff for a while. They wanted to talk to me too, but I thrashed around too much for their liking. When they left, I finally dozed off but it seemed only a few minutes before the first rays of morning fell on my tortured eyelids.
My right eye flickered a bit and managed to stay open. Ah, the sweet little victories that make us feel alive. The sheriff was gone, but he'd left his arm behind. It was still attached to mine, so I picked it up for him. He'd probably be looking for it.
Making sure the little joshua trees were behind me, I started walking again. Well, shuffling or hobbling is probably what you'd call it. I shuffled along, a bloody, bony ghoul keeping an eye out for my friend who'd lost his arm. Get it? An eye? One eye? It's not like I had an extra.
There were beetles crawling across the horizon every now and then, fast little beetles, some going one way and some going the other. Having nothing better to do, I decided to investigate. 
"Those aren't beetles, you idiot. They're cars."
Right you are, old man, right you are. Cars. But shouldn't you be worrying about those coyotes? I've heard they are notorious in these parts.
As the sun climbed, the road came into focus. Random chance really, that when I stumbled down to the ditch the first car that came by belonged to a policeman. I flagged him down, raising the sheriff's arm up for the extra height so he'd be sure and see it, and he skidded to a stop in front of me.
For some reason, the policeman was very angry. He pointed a gun at me and yelled something without meaning.
"I ... I could use a lift," I said. "My van's back that way."
He didn't seem to hear me, so I waved the arm at him. The long arm of the law.
"And I need to give this back. He lost it."
That only made him even more angry, but I walked toward him calmly. If I could just give him the arm, he might at least drive me around a little while to look for the sheriff. Maybe we'd even find my van. It was stupid of me to leave it out there in the desert. But he only yelled at me some more. I couldn't really understand what he was saying until I got a little closer and stuck the sheriff's hand out for him to take.
"You bastard!" he yelled. "That's my brother's ring!"
And then he pulled the trigger.