You crawl out of the backseat of Tony’s Firebird, roll into a kneeling position next to the car, and carefully reopen the passenger side door enough to reach the glovebox. Inside, tucked beneath the driver’s manual, is Tony’s gun. You reach for it, your entire body trembling, your pulse drumming in your ears. The weapon in your hand does nothing to calm you, but its weight does ground you, helps you focus. You’ve been shooting with your uncles a few times. You stare at it, try to remember how it works. You grip the slide and ease it back with your left hand just enough to see the flash of brass in the chamber. Loaded. You find the safety, thumb it off.
Something cold pushes against the back of your neck and your heart stops. There’s nothing you can do. You’re dead. Then the cold nudges you forward, licks your ear, and your heart begins to beat again, even more wildly than before.
You manage to find the half empty package of baloney on the floor of the car and slide it behind you into the salivating maw of one of Timo’s ranch dogs. Easing backwards from between the door and the inside of the car, you let the handle click shut. With your shoulders pressed against the car, you look out across the patch of desert, mostly drift sand, dry weeds, and small bushes, to scan the edge of the vineyards. There is no sign of the girls.
You hear the driver’s door open and feel the car move against you with the weight of a body in the seat. “Fuck,” you hear Timo say as his weight lifts and the door slams shut. No key in the ignition.
Ready for Timo to appear around the car at any moment, you hold the gun close to your chest with both hands.
“Thumper! Bambi!” he snaps. “What are you eating?” It sounds like he’s heading back to the shed. “Where did you get that?” The dogs must have given themselves away, exposed their baloney bribe. “Fucking Tony,” Timo sighs, and you want to hear something in his voice, guilt, regret, but you’re not sure.
Move, you tell yourself. He’ll be back in a minute with Tony’s keys. You crawl to the front of the car and peer over the hood. The old white truck is between you and Timo. Staying low, you use it as cover and make a run for the side of the mobile home where you hunch down behind the wide metal beam of the trailer hitch.
A minute later, the Firebird starts up with a low growl. The edge of the car is still visible from where you are and you watch as it slowly rolls backwards, stops, and then pulls forward and out of your view. At first, you think Timo might actually be turning the car around to leave. There must be a phone in the trailer, you think. You can call the police. But the engine continues to rumble somewhere nearby and you realize he must be moving Tony’s car into the cover of the shed. And why not? He doesn’t know there was anyone else in it. He doesn’t know about Ruth and Joanne running desperately through the vineyards in search of the nearest house, the nearest phone. He doesn’t know about you curled up against the faded aluminum siding of his rundown trailer waiting for the chance to make your own run for it and join them.
You close your eyes, only for a moment, but long enough to see Tony’s head jerk back, his body fall. You open them wide, afraid to blink. If Timo walked around the side of the trailer now, not expecting to see you. Could you do the same? Point the gun at him, pull the trigger? Could you make it around the corner of the house right now, sneak up on him from behind, end him as easily as he ended Bobby and Tony?
There is a sound from inside the trailer, a muffled thumping, someone walking maybe. How did Timo get inside so quickly? Wasn’t he just in the car? You can still hear the engine running. There it is again, the sound. Not walking, more like knocking, something hitting repetitively against the wall or floor in the trailer just above you.
The car’s engine shuts off. It can’t be Timo, you realize. He’s still with the car. Someone else is in the house.
You stand, slowly easing your head up to the window above you. There are no curtains or blinds and you can easily see inside the trailer, but not much from this angle. You’ll have to get higher. You click the safety on and slide the gun into the back waist of your jeans. Then, one foot on the trailer hitch and both hands on the window’s edge, you pull yourself up to look inside.
There is a metal bedframe in the center of the room with a bare mattress on it. On the floor beside the bed is a woman in only her underwear. Her arms are taped behind her and there is more duct tape around her ankles and over her mouth. She is lying halfway beneath the side of the bed, repeatedly striking her taped wrists upwards against the bottom edge of the bedframe in an obvious attempt to free herself.
You drop down again, pull the gun from your waistband, and make your way to the back edge of the trailer. The first thing you see as you peer around the corner is the trunk of the single giant cottonwood tree shading the property. Between it and the mobile home are some beat-up lawn chairs circling a makeshift cinderblock firepit. Your gaze moves upwards and across the back of the property where, from this angle, you can see that the shed is actually a large garage or auto repair shop of some sort. There is at least one other car parked inside, and something else, but it’s hard to tell with Tony’s Firebird blocking your view. There is no sign of Timo.
“Goddammit, Thumper,” you hear Timo say from somewhere inside the garage. “Get away from there.”
You turn and look behind you at the patch of open desert and the vineyards just beyond. The thumping noises from within the trailer continue to sound weakly in your ears. What kind of sick fuck is this guy? What does he plan to do with that girl and how long does she have to live? You think about the nearby lawn chairs circling the now cold firepit. How many times did Tony sit in front of the flames there with his cousin drinking or getting high? Joking, laughing, trusting?
You look down at the weapon in your hands. Your legs say run, but your hands, your hands say something else.
You take the safety off, hold the gun out in front of you with both hands, and move toward the Firebird, staying as close to the side of the trailer as possible. You are terrified, overcome with dread, but it doesn’t stop you. Instead, the fear, the adrenaline, fuels your movements, heightens your senses.
There is Timo on the other side of Tony’s car, bent over something, moving toward the shed, his shaved head bobbing in and out of view.
Your legs take you forward more quickly than you intend. Like running down a hill, you are propelled toward your target. As soon as you have a clear shot, you tell yourself, take it. Shoot him like he shot Tony and Bobby. Kill him before he kills you.
The top of Timo’s head is never out of view for more than a moment. He doesn’t have a clue you are coming for him, that you even exist. Don’t hesitate, you remind yourself. Don’t give him a second. But as you round the back of the Firebird, your finger on the trigger, and see Tony lying upside down in the dirt with both arms flung loosely above his head … you do, you hesitate. Timo has his cousin by the ankles, dragging his body backwards across the yard toward the shed. He sees you, drops Tony’s legs, and reaches for the gun in his waistband.
Shoot him! screams the voice in your head. Now!
But Tony continues to stare blankly up at you with one, unblinking eye. The other is missing, a dark and gory hollow in his skull.
Timo raises his gun at the same moment blood sprays from the side of his neck, the shock of the blast only now registering in your ears. He reaches for the wound with one hand, continuing to lift the gun with his other. A second blast jerks him sideways before you realize it’s your gun, your finger pulling the trigger. He drops to his knees as blood spreads from the center of his chest onto his once white t-shirt. Then he collapses face forward in the dirt, a matching stain expanding swiftly across his back.
Something moves at the edge of your vision, and when you swing your outstretched arms toward it the gun fires a third time, hitting the side of the shed with a muted clank. The two ranch dogs, without so much as a whimper, bolt past you and disappear into the desert. Still shaking, you manage to click the safety on and slide the gun into the back waist of your jeans.
Avoiding Tony’s vacant gaze, you step past his and Timo’s bodies into the shed and try to make sense of what you see.
Inside, tied with an orange electrical cord to a metal folding chair, with duct tape on his bare ankles and the wrists behind his back, is a dead man in only his boxers. His head is slumped forward and there are three very obvious bullet holes in his chest. Multiple burn marks, each the size of a quarter, cover his legs and arms, the skin blistered, broken, and charred at the edges. Shit, dark and runny, drips from the seat of the chair and mixes with the blood pooling beneath it on the bare-earth floor.
You turn and vomit beer and Doritos onto the oil-darkened surface of the makeshift garage.
When your stomach stops heaving and you can breathe again, you shift your attention to the blue sports car parked inside the shed, a Camaro maybe, with its hatchback up and both doors open. Inside the open trunk space are two duffle bags. One is made of heavy black canvas and the other, only slightly smaller, is red and looks more like something you might keep your PE clothes in. When you reach to unzip the larger bag, you notice the figure inside the car slumped against the sidewall of the backseat. Bobby.
Your hand recoils, but you force yourself to open the duffle. Inside are brick-sized shapes wrapped in plastic and duct tape. The other bag is stuffed with thick stacks of twenty-dollar bills bound with rubber bands.
What did Tony and Bobby interrupt, some kind of drug deal gone bad, a double cross maybe? And what was Timo going to do, put Tony and Bobby inside the Camaro along with his torture victim? Then what, set it on fire, burn the whole garage down? Was his plan to escape with the money and drugs in Tony’s Firebird?
And what did it matter now, anyway? Backing away from the car, you turn to find yourself staring at Timo’s unmoving form lying next to his cousin’s in the sand and you are overcome with a feeling of regret so intense that it steals your breath and leaves you gasping for air. Not for killing Timo. For that, you tell yourself, you had no choice, but for everything else. For coming here. For buying the beer. For following Ruth to the parking lot. For waking up this morning.
You inhale deeply and try to calm the thumping of your pulse in your ears when you realize the sound is not coming from you but from inside the trailer, and you remember the lady beneath the bed.
The back door is unlocked and you enter through the kitchen. Among the clutter of unwashed dishes, a steak knife catches your eye. You grab it on your way to the living room, skirting the worn-out sofa and battered recliner to get to the single door at the back of the trailer. You push it open to find the woman in the same position as earlier, on her stomach beneath the edge of the bed striking her duct taped wrists upwards against the underside of the bed frame.
She stops moving the moment she sees you and her eyes go wide with fear.
“No,” you say, remembering the knife in your hand. “I’m not going to hurt you, I swear. This is for the tape, to cut the tape.”
Her panicked gaze remains fixed on you as you enter the room, her head twisting over her shoulder to watch as you kneel by her side.
“Please don’t move,” you say, even though she is already completely still. Her bruised and chafed arms look to have taken more damage from her efforts than the tape. Careful to keep the blade as far from her skin as possible, you start at the widest edge of her bindings and saw a couple of inches down before setting the knife aside in order to tear away the rest with your fingers. You try to focus on the tape and not the naked skin of her lower back or the lacy waistband of her black underwear.
As soon as her arms are free, you move to her ankles while she works to peel the tape from her face. “Where is he?” are her first words, eyes moving between you and the door as she struggles to sit up.
The look she gives you is answer enough.
“Dead,” you say.
“Jesse?” she asks, with a different kind of urgency. “Jesse? Is he…?”
She stares back at you, unblinking, and you think maybe she doesn’t understand, but then her green eyes seem to shift out of focus and her gaze drifts slowly downward to the floor.
“Are you hurt,” you ask, not knowing what else to offer. “Can you stand?”
“I think so,” she says, pushing herself up with the help of the mattress behind her.
You quickly get to your feet and offer your hand, but she stands on her own without taking it. Her straight brown hair is tangled and matted to one side of her face. She’s older than you, no doubt, but by how much you can’t be sure. The cups of her black bra have the same lacey edges as the waistband of her panties. She catches you staring and you immediately look away, eyes on the front of your own chest as you begin to undo the buttons of your blue plaid shirt.
“What the fuck are you doing?” she asks.
“My shirt,” you say. “I’m giving you my shirt. It’s just that, I thought—”
“Thank you,” she says, crossing her arms over her stomach. The look on her face turns from anger to something else, amusement maybe, as she watches you remove it. She slips into it as soon as you hand it to her but doesn’t bother buttoning it closed. “Show me,” she says, pointing to the door.
You leave first and let her follow. Halfway to the shed, she runs past you to the man in the chair. “Jesse,” she cries, reaching for him. She stops just short of touching his face and slowly retrieves her hand. “You stupid, stupid, fucking, stupid, man,” she says and then begins to cry.
Not knowing what else to do, you step closer but not enough to enter the shed.
“I knew there was something wrong,” she says as if she’s speaking to him. “I heard it in his voice, but what choice did I have?” She turns back to look at you, her face red and wet from tears. “How could I have known? What else could I have done? I never—” She turns away again and buries her face in her hands.
You need to find a phone, to call the police. There must be one in the trailer. Ruth and Joanne are alone out there. You need to find them. But you can’t just walk away from her now.
Not until she finally backs away from the dead man does she turn to discover the bodies in the dirt near her feet. “Who is that?” she asks, pointing at Tony, and then, as if seeing you for the first time, she demands, “And who the fuck are you?”
“I, we,” you stammer. “We shouldn’t have been here.”
You watch her walk to the back of the Camaro and peer inside.
“He just shot them,” you say. “I’m sorry, he said, and just … killed them.”
The sight of Bobby in the back seat gives her pause. But like you, she remains long enough to look into each duffle bag.
“We were hiding in the car. Tony said it was better. Him and Bobby only, he said. Said his cousin was a little paranoid sometimes, that we should wait in the car. We—”
“We? Who else?” she asks, walking toward you.
"Ruth and Joanne,” you say, glancing in the direction you last saw them. “They ran into the grapes, I was supposed to follow, but…”
She’s standing before you now. “But?”
“Please,” you say. “We need to call the police. My friends are out there all alone, and—”
“Hey.” She reaches out to touch you on the elbow and you glimpse the dark hollow of her navel through the parted curtain of the open shirt. “You’re just a kid, aren’t you?” she asks, sliding her hand down the length of your forearm.
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing, I just…” Her fingers curl around your wrist, slip into the palm of your hand. “What’s your name?”
“How did you know I was in there, Matt?”
“I heard you. I saw you through the window.”
She moves even closer, her green eyes still glossy with tears. “And you came back, for me?”
You feel the heat of her body as it pushes against you. “I, I couldn’t—”
She kisses you, once, softly on the lips. “Thank you,” she says, and then her tongue finds yours as the salty warmth of her mouth covers yours completely. Her arms wrap tightly around you, hands caressing your shoulders, fingers sliding downward along your spine.
Suddenly she pulls away, steps back.
“And I want you to know,” she says, pointing Tony’s gun at your chest. “That it’s nothing personal.”
“Wait—” is the last thing you say before the flash and pop, the sudden tilt of earth beneath your feet, the blue sky filling your vision from edge to edge, the slow swaying branches of the cottonwood tree leaning into view, and the yellow brown leaf fluttering free and falling, falling, falling.
Earlier that morning…
THE MISADVENTURES OF MATTHEW VAN DER BOOT is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental … no matter how many times you ask.