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Nick Ellis

Next of Kin

 

Mrs. Patterson and her daughter live in a flat just down the block from a steel plant on the edge of town.  The evening sun caresses the pale little house, a parting gift before darkness reigns.

I've been here so many times, sitting in front of her house and watching her go on with her life.  So many times, and I still don't know why.

"Know something?  You ain't too bright for a college boy." 

Mrs. Patterson's husband sits in the passenger seat next to me, shaking his head.  He sighs and takes a look around us. 

"Yer old car was nicer," he drawls. 

"Thanks."

"Here we are again, eh?"

"Again," I manage.

"Ought ta set up a cot for you on the curb."

I don't really know how to reply to that, so I don't.

"You don't look too good."

"I'm fine."

"Bullshit," he laughs.  "When's the last time you slept?"

"What the hell do you care?"

"Don't," he replies, and spits tobacco out the window for emphasis.  "Truth to tell, I'm gettin' kind of a kick out of it."

"That figures."

"Oh, now, listen to you.  The whole world just went and done you wrong, is that it?  You think I got the better end of this deal?"

"Some days."

"Think again."

We don't talk for a while. 

"Listen, kid.  Lord knows we got a lot of bad blood between us.  Fact is, I don't even know why I'm here at all.  My guess is you want something from me.  My guess is you're lookin' for forgiveness."

"I know better than that," I say, perhaps a bit harsher than I intend.  If he's offended, he doesn't show it. 

"Then stop this.  What's done is done, and can't be taken back.  You had no other way out, and you did what you had to.  Stop beating yourself up over it.  Concentrate on the living, kid; and leave death to the dead."

I laugh a little, one of the few times I do that anymore.  A few appropriate replies come to mind, and if I had someone to use them on I would. 

But of course there's not; my passenger was never here at all. 

For some the past is a fading memory.

For me it is a voice.

                                                                     

"Come on, college boy.  We both know this crate can move faster."  I could barely make out his faint southern drawl over the rushing of the wind, but his request was clear.  I shifted up into fifth and scanned the dashboard.

MPH:  61                                   RPM:  2700                Trip Set:  002

"Nice car you got yourself here, college boy.  Daddy buy it for you?"

An old memory invaded my mind; one of an awkward sixteen year-old looking at a rusted out old convertible and seeing something beautiful.  Buying it for fifty dollars and working for the whole summer, putting it back together without help.

"Not exactly."  The road had begun to curve, so I downshifted back to fourth.

MPH:  53                                RPM:  3400                Trip Set:  003

"Where are we going?"

"Cumberland.  It's about . . ."  I could smell the sweat that hard work puts on a man as he leaned over and glanced at the odometer, making my skin crawl.  "...five more miles."

The Who came on over the radio.  I almost laughed at the irony of hearing Pete Townshend go into the first verse of "Goin' Mobile."

"Look, I don't understand why you think you need that gun.  I mean, I'll take you where you want to go--that's no problem."

"You don't get it, college boy.  What you got yourself here is a real problem.  Speed it up again.  We got a straightaway." 

I threw it into fifth, and the Firebird responded with its usual power.

MPH:  68                                RPM:  2750                Trip Set:  003

"1967 Firebird convertible.  Yes sir, one hell of a car.  Must be nice, college boy.  Must be nice."

I couldn't respond.  Anything I had said would have been taken the wrong way.  A bead of moisture formed on my forehead and traveled down my cheek, wind-blown but not at all cold.

"You figure out what this is all about yet?" he asked.

"Is it money?"

There was a pause as the passenger considered this.  "Yeah," he finally said, "I guess you can say that."

"I've only got about fifty dollars on me."  As soon as the words were out I could feel my mistake.  Over the roar of the wind I heard the passenger inhale deeply through his nose, the way someone does when they're about to scream.  I braced myself.

"That ain't what I'm talking about," he said, in a tone much calmer than I'd expected.  "I'm talking about pulling out of the driveway in the same old piece of shit pickup I been driving for ten fucking years.  I'm talking about ripped seats, no air conditioning, and a radio you got to hit in just the right spot to get a good station.  Can you imagine that, college boy?"

"I guess not."  The curves came back, and I shifted down to fourth.

MPH:  57                                RPM:  3525                Trip Set:  004

"Well, give it a try.  Here, let me finish the picture.  Try to imagine waking up every day and looking twelve hours at the steel plant in the eye.  Imagine working in that plant and having to wonder just how you're gonna support your wife and kid on $350 a week.  Try to imagine walking down the street in two year-old shoes to pick up that piece of shit truck from the service station because it's broken down again and seeing you--fresh young college kid, sitting in a red fucking convertible and having the attendant fill it up with high octane.  Can you imagine, that college boy?  You starting to see what this is all about?"

The hammer clicked back. 

"Yeah.  I guess I see now."

"Good, good.  Then I guess a smart kid like you can figure out why I got this gun out of the truck and asked you for this little ride.  I bet you can see now why you got such a big problem."

Suddenly I felt my sympathy slip away, replaced by a cold and ugly thing in the pit of my stomach; something dark and unspeakable took hold of me and told me that there was only one way I was going home alive.  In that moment, the darkness overwhelmed me.

No.  No, that's a lie.  I welcomed the darkness. 

Embraced it. 

The gearshift jumped into fifth.

MPH:  71                                RPM:  2800                Trip Set:  006

"But I guess we've both got a problem now."

MPH:  76                                RPM:  2900                Trip Set:  006

"You pull that trigger, and this car's gonna go straight off the road.  And you can bet that at this speed we'll flip.  Don't forget--we're in a convertible."

MPH:  81                                RPM:  3000                Trip Set:  007

Cumberland appeared on the horizon, a mass of squat buildings contrasting with the barren desert.  I knew that I wouldn't reach the town--knew what it was going to come down to--but I made the effort anyway.

MPH:  89                                RPM:  3150                Trip Set:  007

The passenger's hand grabbed the wheel as his voice rose above the wind.  "Hell, boy--I always wanted to drive a convertible.  Now slow down."

"You can steer that way," I said, "but who's going to hit the brakes when we reach those curves up ahead?"  The passenger raised his head and saw the jagged road in front of us.

MPH:  95                                RPM:  3300                Trip Set:  007

"God damn it boy, slow down!  Slow down or I'll blow your fucking head off!"

"I thought you were going to do that anyway--I might as well take you with me."

MPH:  103                              RPM:  3450                Trip Set:  007

"One more time, college boy.  I'm gonna tell you one more time to slow down and then I'm pulling this trigger.  And don't worry.  I got myself a nice, firm grip on the wheel.  Your pretty red convertible ain't goin' off the road."

MPH:  115                              RPM:  3500                Trip Set:  007

I still miss that car.  You can't help but miss something you put so much time into, something you loved so much.  For a moment I wondered if it was necessary to sacrifice it, but that sentiment was just so damned silly--a car for a life?

Pete Townshend began to wail the final verse.

MPH:  125                              RPM:  3600                Trip Set:  008

The clutch hit the floor as I threw the gearshift into reverse.  The car shuddered, relieved of its forward climb, and I released the clutch.  125 miles per hour and the transmission locked up firmly. 

I'm goin' home

Two years ago when I had to replace the transmission, the old guy who sold me the parts warned me about this.  Tried to peddle something called a shift safety guard on me and said the last thing I wanted was to accidentally shift from fifth down to reverse when I wasn't paying attention ("You'll lock those gears right up, kid--probably throw your damn head right through the windshield.")  I was ten dollars short, so I couldn't buy it.

And when I wanna go home

The screech of the tires met my ears as the seat belt bit into my chest.  I heard my fathers voice ("Always remember to wear your seat belt, son--it could save your life someday."). 

I'm goin' mobile

There was a crackle, like ice being dropped into warm water.  The sound didn't even remotely match the one I had imagined.  A hundred white lines sprouted across the glass and I looked to my right, almost hoping that the sight wouldn't be too bad as his head bounced against the windshield.  The car lurched forward as the drive train came apart in with a shriek of tearing metal, and the passenger slammed back into his seat.  I turned away from him, grasping the steering wheel with damp hands and searching for the right pedal as he fumbled for the gun that bounced between his feet. 

"God damn it . . ." 

I heard those words so clearly; I'd swear the world went silent to give him a moment to speak.  It was almost comical, the way he said them--as if, more than anything else, this was an everyday frustration; just a distraction keeping him from doing something he didn't want to do anyway.  I found the pedal and turned to the right, watching the silver rise for a moment before stamping down with all the strength I could summon from shaking muscles. 

Again the car angled downward and threw us, me against the belt and the passenger back into his impression in the glass.  This time the entire windshield failed him, flapping open as if it were on hinges and allowing him through.  My eyes seemed glued to him as he slid across the hood and hit the ground rolling.  The car finally gave up its motion and obediently came to a halt.

MPH:  0                                  RPM:  0                                  Trip Set:  008

I thought my heart had stopped.  Something in my shoulder made a popping noise as I leaned back in the seat with a moan.  Guess that old man knew what he was talking about. 

The passenger lay twenty feet in front of me, still grasping the gun.  A sign on my left screamed "WELCOME TO CUMBERLAND."  I thought about all the movies I had seen where this situation had come up:  the hero, thinking that the bad guy is dead, goes up to his "corpse" to investigate.  The corpse jumps up, screams a bit, and is shot by the hero's friend.  Fade to black, everyone lives happily ever after.

I walked up to the bent form in the road and kneeled.  I took out his wallet and looked at his driver's license.  The picture somehow didn't look like him.

Ted Patterson, 32 years old

A snapshot fell to the ground.  I picked it up and felt my stomach twist into a knot. 

Melissa, age 3

A blond haired girl in a pink dress smiled at her daddy's killer.  I heard the approaching police cruiser and slipped the picture into my pocket.

                                                                     

Mrs. Patterson and her daughter live in a flat just down the block from a steel plant on the edge of town.  The evening sun is gone, and darkness reigns.

I've been here so many times, sitting in front of her house and watching her go on with her life.  So many times, and I think I finally know why.

Concentrate on the living, kid; and leave death to the dead.

My heart jumps up into my throat as I step out of the car and walk across the street.  I stand at Mrs. Patterson's door, noticing how different everything looks from this viewpoint.  The door cries tears of chipped white paint, showing the original brown of the wood underneath.  I knock, watching the chips fall to the ground as I hear her steps coming closer and my heart pounding faster.  The door opens.

She looks older now.  Her long brown hair is pulled back in a ponytail, and there are bags under her eyes.  Her lips part, showing the white teeth behind them.  Then they snap shut, and it looks like the deep breath she takes is going to come out in a scream.  I try to talk.

"M-Mrs. Patterson.  I . . . I've got t-to . . ."  I can't think of what to say.  I can't find the words.  She's shaking, and so am I.  Everything I've wanted to say these past two years remains pent up inside of me, and I can't pull myself together.  Then I see a tear being born in the corner of her eye, and it all comes gushing out.

"The . . . the law forgave me . . . my family forgave me . . . but I never did.  They all said it was okay that I k-killed your husband, and--and now . . . now I know that it's not--it's not . . ."  The tear travels to the edge of her eye, and finally begins its journey down her cheek.

"And I've talked to so many people . . . I've asked God for forgiveness, I've talked to the priests.  They all say it's okay.  I said a few Hail Marys and some Our Fathers and now every fucking one of them says it's okay and it doesn't--it doesn't mean a goddamned thing and I'm just so tired . . ."  I can't stand to look at her anymore; can't bear to see her just staring at me with no emotion.  The words stop again, blocked by the muscles in my throat as I break down. 

I killed her husband, for God's sake.  What am I doing here?

Then I feel her arms around me, and she's saying something but I can't make any sense of it because we're both crying so hard.  She pounds her fists into my back.

"Damn it," she cries.  "God damn you, you son of a bitch."

I feel her strength; feel a release from both of us.  I hold her tighter, as if to keep that strength inside our embrace. 

I hear her whisper something so soft, so barely audible that I miss it.  I'm about to ask her to repeat herself when she saves me the trouble.

"You're forgiven," she says.

"Forgiven."

                                                                     

Time passes.

I concentrate on the living, on treating the days as if they were new again. 

I leave death to the dead; he does not struggle against fading into memory.

 

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