BADDERLANDS - WALTER CONLEY
The foothills south of Moreno Valley, CA, are known locally as the Badlands. A divided highway carves through them from the Valley into Beaumont; beyond that lies Thousand Palms, Indio, the U.S/Mexican border. Although the hills appear low and rumpled from a distance, the clefts between them run deep. It’s early but the sun is blazing. Traffic is light.
Edward hitchhikes along the southbound shoulder. He’s in his late twenties, but his age is hard to pinpoint through the dust and weathered skin. His clothes are as ragged as he is. He slouches and limps, dragging one foot, eyes on the ground before him. He looks to be in such bad shape that holding his thumb out for a ride is difficult.
There is a crunch of gravel behind him. He turns as a station wagon rolls by, comes to a stop near the guardrail ahead.
He shuffles up to the wagon. It’s decades old and colorless. There are no smudges or dents, no bumper stickers. The back is empty and clean. He braces himself against the passenger’s door and looks inside.
Kyle grins out from the driver’s seat. He’s somewhere in middle-age, wearing an off-the-rack suit with the jacket folded beside him, as nondescript as his car.
“Where you headed?” Kyle asks.
“Thousand Palms,” Edward says. “Anywhere on the other side of these hills will do.”
Edward bows. “Thank you, sir.”
He makes a tortured ballet of climbing in. The wagon sinks a few inches. He shuts the door and sighs, falling into the hard, hot vinyl like it’s a featherbed.
Kyle pulls back onto the highway, glancing in the rearview mirror. “No bags?” he asks.
“Nothing to pack,” Edward says.
“So you’re just kind of drifting around?”
“Pretty much.” Edward shrugs, thinking. “I guess I’m what you’d call unhireable.” He laughs and Kyle laughs with him. “I spend more time looking for work than actually working.”
“No family to help out?”
“Sorry to hear that,” Kyle says. “Family’s important.”
Kyle slows as they crest the top of a hill. A semi carrying livestock passes in the opposite direction.
Edward watches him, one eye squinted shut. “No work out here, anyway,” he says. “Might be something for me in Thousand.”
They drop below the hilltops. Edward checks the sideview mirror. He hooks his left arm over the seat, looks behind him. There is no traffic in either direction. With his right hand, he draws an old .22 revolver from the waistband of his jeans. He trains it on Kyle. In an instant, he goes from kindhearted bum to coldblooded killer.
“Hey,” Edward says.
Kyle drives on, oblivious, seeming lost in thought.
“Hey,” Edward says again. Kyle turns with almost no visible reaction to the gun.
“I’m going to give you a choice.”
“What is this?” Kyle says.
“You’re a nice enough guy, so I’ll give you a chance. You either hand me your wallet, right fucking now, or I’ll blow your head off.”
“Are you serious?”
“You have about two seconds. One...”
Kyle turns his attention back to the road. He sucks his lips between his teeth, then lets out a heavy breath.
“I’m pulling the trigger,” Edward tells him. “See?”
He moves the gun towards Kyle’s face until it’s almost touching his cheek. Kyle, still looking ahead, starts to laugh.
“Oh, boy,” Kyle says.
“I don’t think you understand.”
Kyle looks over at him and says, “It’s the other way around.”
“I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you.”
Now Edward laughs, but it’s not pretty: it’s a man with a handgun losing his temper.
“I’m afraid...” Kyle begins. “Well, there’s no easy way to say this. You picked the wrong car to hijack, son. I came out here to kill myself.”
Edward is stunned. “What?” he says.
“You want to get out? You can, if you want. Here,” Kyle says. “I’ll pull over.”
He slows the wagon as they take a sharp curve, eases onto a turnout, midway through the hills. Edward is speechless for a moment. He keeps the pistol trained on Kyle as they come to a stop. Kyle puts the car in park. They look at each other.
“What difference does it make if I rob you, then?” Edward asks.
“I don’t have anything to give you,” Kyle says, shaking his head. “Honest. I wish I did. I mean...I have one thing in this life. I have a daughter. Her name is Claire and she’s very sick. She was born sick, nobody’s fault, and now it’s getting worse. I can’t afford insurance. Don’t have enough cash to do anything. My credit’s shot. And I don’t have any family to help me, either. Not when it counts.”
“Jesus,” Edward says.
Kyle starts to cry unexpectedly. He covers his face with his hands.
Edward tucks the pistol back into his waistband. He stares out the windshield, feeling awful. After a minute, not believing what he’s about to do, he takes an old wallet from his back pocket.
“Here,” he says.
Kyle wipes his eyes, looks over. “What are you doing?”
“Take it,” Edward says. “It’s not mine, anyway. Use it for your little girl. Just do me a favor and forget you ever saw me, okay?”
He pushes the wallet into Kyle’s hands, then gets out, shaking his head. He eases the door shut.
“Thanks,” Kyle says.
He sounds like he’s starting to cry again. Edward leans back in the window. But Kyle isn’t crying, he’s laughing. He has a gun of his own—a big stainless .38 that makes Edward’s look like a toy—pointed at the younger man’s chest.
“Thank you,” Kyle says, “you stupid son-of-a-bitch.”
Edward takes his hands off the door and stands upright.
Kyle says, “I didn’t come out here to kill myself. I came out here to rob somebody, same as you. I know all about you guys. You’re easy. Lazy, good for nothing punks. You’re all full of shit. You can work, you just don’t want to. You’d rather rip people off instead. Or beg and beg until we can’t stand it anymore. And every time, every single motherfucking one of you has more cash on him than I do.” Kyle eases back the hammer. “I was going to rob you, understand? You just saved me the trouble.”
Edward turns, but there is nowhere to run. The shoulder drops away after only a few steps. He’s moving, though, too scared to stop. The .38 fires out the passenger's window. As a round digs into his back, Edward is tumbling over the canyon. The wagon glides into the right lane and then slowly heads off, out of sight.
BIO: Walter Conley has written for comics, children’s entertainment and film. His fiction has appeared at such online venues as Opi8: New Dark Culture and Blue Murder Magazine. Walter has an ongoing Gutter-level Soap at Bridey's All-Night. You can reach him at email@example.com.