TWO BOYS ON THE ROAD - BARRY JAY KAPLAN
The incident occurred in November, rainy day, early evening, darkish but not yet completely dark, on a two-lane highway just outside Stellar City, near the Macomber Lake campsites. There were woods, and a lake that steamed at dawn, ringed by stands of tall fir trees, a few cabins near the water, rentals for the most part, though one or two were occupied by the owners on a weekend basis. Of the four people involved in the incident, the two boys were badly shaken, though aside from a few bruises, not hurt. The two men were dead.
According to the one of the boys not shaken as badly as the other--who could barely speak at all but sat still, staring, his lips moving, faintly blue--the two of them were coming home early from a camping trip cut short because of the rain. Their mothers had insisted they pack rain gear and they had, reluctantly and with much eye-rolling, but were glad in the end, because once their tent had sagged and finally collapsed under the weight of the pounding rain, they needed that rain gear and grudgingly praised their mothers, though silently, as boys will do.
They stuffed the tent into their knapsack, shook out their folded rubber ponchos and pulled them over their heads, and started out, first along the shore of the lake until the drop off to the water was too steep, then through the woods and out onto the path that lead to Route 19, not far from Hooly’s store and a telephone to call their parents. A pick-up had been arranged in advance, of course, but the rain had of necessity made for a change in plans. This was years ago, you understand, and no one had yet imagined such a thing as a cell phone.
The boys made their way through the woods where they could hear but not feel the rain, and onto the dirt road, where the rain pounded on their rubber ponchos as they walked Indian-file through the mud that had been hard-packed and dry only the day before, watching their feet slide, careful not to fall and feeling, the boy who told the store admitted, that this was the best thing that could have happened. It was an adventure, he said later. The boys were twelve years old.
It was getting dark though, and one of the boys, though he’d never let on to his more garrulous friend, did not like the way the situation was going. It was one thing to be out in the rain, that was OK; it was another thing to be out in the dark in the mud with only the darkening woods as shelter. This boy had a lot of imagination and it usually took him to places that frightened him. What might come out of those dark woods? A bear nine feet tall, maybe. A strange man with a weird stare and an axe, maybe. Or something else, something unknown, something silent. As long as they got to Route 19, though, as long as they were within a couple of miles of Hooly’s and a telephone, they’d be OK. Except it was getting awfully dark and he wondered if they’d even be able to see Route 19 once the light was really gone. The sky was dark grey verging on green. The storm was getting worse.
Finally, they were off the muddy road and onto Route 19 though things were no better there. There weren’t cars where there were usually a lot of cars. Hooly’s was a few miles away but maybe it wouldn’t even be open and suddenly they weren’t even sure of the direction. They stood still for a long few minutes. Underneath the pounding of the rain there was a strange sense of the universe being quiet, waiting for something to happen.
Then there was the sound.
“What is that?” the more frightened of the two boys asked, turning in every direction, though the sound didn’t seem to come from anywhere in particular. It was just there.
“You’re scared!” his friend said, though he had been startled by the sound too, which now that they had stopped to listen seemed to be getting louder.
The two boys moved closer together and backed slightly away from the road until they were up against a tree. They waited, breathing in short shallow breaths, as the sound got louder and was definitely coming from somewhere particular by now and now there was a faint light too, two sources of the light, hazy and blurred and—It was headlights! It was a car! The boys laughed and pushed themselves away from the tree out into the road. When the car crested the hill, the headlights found them. The boys retreated a few feet back again and stood still at the very edge of the road. As the car came closer it slowed down and finally stopped about ten feet from them.
“Come on,” one of them said and started for the car but the other one balked.
“Let’s keep walking,” he said to his friend.
“Aw, come on. They’ll give us a ride to Hooly’s.”
“How do you know what direction?”
“We can find it on foot,” he said, but, by this time, his friend was walking towards the car and, as he approached, the back door of the car opened.
His friend turned to him.
“See?” he said, then turned away: “Hi!” he said. “Thanks!” And got in the car.
The boy who was reluctant moved to the car, though he said later that this was the moment that time began to slow down, as if he was stepping into another world, though that didn’t really explain his feeling very clearly. His friend leaned out of the car and gestured to him to hurry. He ran the last few steps, more to be with his friend than to get into the car. At this point, the sound of the rain pattering on his rubber poncho was comforting to him. He hesitated before he stepped inside. Was the man in the driver’s seat wearing an eye patch? Was the other one holding a hatchet? Was this a nightmare? Was he going to wake up in a second? A chill ran down his back and legs. He wanted to sink back into the mud where he would be safe but his friend said, “Come on, come on,” beckoning with his hand from the backseat, and so he put one foot on the running board and hauled himself inside. He thought, as he sank his weight onto the seat: something very bad is going to happen.
The boys leaned back. It was very quiet, just the sound of the rain on the roof of the car, the swish of the windshield wipers, and the hum of the motor idling. The driver kicked the car into gear and the car started down the road.
The men were drunk, the boys knew that familiar smell from their parents’ parties. The more reluctant of the two boys, the one who felt the possibility that this was his own personal nightmare, wished very hard that he had not gotten into this car, especially as the road got steeper and curvier. He didn’t think this was the way to Hooly’s. There was a distant rumble of thunder, a flash of lightning. The car went into a skid. The boys were thrown against each other. The car came out of the skid. The boys laughed in relief and pushed each other away.
Have you boys been camping,” one of the men said, and as he flicked his cigarette lighter, threw his arm on the back of the front seat and turned to look at them. He was smiling, the boy telling the story remembered, but when the other boy yelled—he couldn’t help himself and blamed himself forever after—“Don’t hurt me!”, the man’s mouth flapped open and his cigarette slid from his lips.
“Oh, no,” he whispered. He brought the flame of the cigarette lighter closer to the boys’ faces. The boys backed away.
“What’s up?” the driver asked as the man in the passenger seat said no no over and over, no no no no. The driver turned in his seat and, when he saw the boys in the flame from the cigarette lighter, he started to say it too. No, no, no.
Both men were saying it now and the driver’s hands flew off the wheel as he clutched his friend and the car went into another skid and this time didn’t recover because there was no one holding the wheel and careened off the road, down the embankment, bounced against rocks, scraping, crunching metal, then smack into the trunk of a fir.
A few hours later, when another driver who had left his lakeside cabin because of the rain found them, the two boys were sitting on a log next to the car, stunned and bruised, and the two men were still inside the car. Both of them were dead.
The last patient of the day, the man with anxiety disorder who would not go out in the dark, left Martin’s office, the front door of the house closing with a sharp click that signaled it was time for Martin to pour out a half jigger of rum from the bottle in the bookcase hidden inside a hollowed out volume of Dickens’ Hard Times. It was odd, wasn’t it, he thought, that it was rum he drank and not gin or rye or something softer, wine maybe or beer. Rum? When had he chosen rum? Martin didn’t think very hard about this, not towards any resolution, but let his mind wander as he often did after a day’s work, feet propped on his desk, one hand idly loosening his tie, the other swirling the rum in the glass, but as soon as his mind took a certain turn he stood up, swallowed the rum as if it were medicine, which it was, of a sort, cleared his throat because his heart was pounding, and went upstairs find his wife.
The note on the dresser said she was out, simply that, but when dinner time came and she had not come home or called, he phoned her sister and was informed that yes his wife was there and that no she did wish to speak to him and that for his information she was not simply out but out for good, that she would send for her things, that he, her husband, was to vacate the premises while she did so which would be the next morning and that her lawyer would be in touch with his.
Martin stretched out in the middle of the wide bed, spread his arms to the sides and thought that if he was going to be perfectly straight with himself, he would have to agree that she had been well within her rights to leave him. He had not been much of a husband and supposed now that it had been a lot to ask that she not notice: driven, but by shame and fear rather than any hope of success, and in the end, or close to it as this was, not achieving all that much: a home practice ministering to people who did not understand themselves and did not even understand that they didn’t. He was getting nowhere with them and never had. His chaotic interior life required an exterior of quiet and regularity and modesty. He had no interests that set him apart from other men, no hobbies or compulsions, no friends or social life, no appetites or desires to have anything other than what he had. Of course his wife had had enough. Of course she left him. The question now was: am I better or worse off? Sleep overcame him before he could decide and as he slept the nightmare began. He reached out for his wife to pull him back, to tell him not to go but his wife was gone and the nightmare played itself out until he woke up screaming.
Eddie turned up the volume on both speakers in the garage and listened to the balance of sound. Inside the house the kids were yelling at their mother and she was yelling back. He went to the garage door, raised his arms very high, caught the chain, and lowered the door from the inside. He lit a joint and leaned back against a pile of tires to smoke it down. When he was done he ate the ash. Now there’d be some peace.
The garage contained everything he wanted: his jeep, his old jeep, his good old jeep. Running his fingers along the fenders he thought this old car this old jeep, jeez tears came to his eyes she was loyal and sweet as a golden retriever. He’d take her out later, had to or wanted to, he wasn’t sure which but something told him he’d be behind the wheel today. His hands slapped his thighs. He looked around the garage: tools, tires, dartboard, freezer, the same bike he had as a kid still working, stacks of magazines, shelves of motor oil and anti freeze, a workbench, a vise, a set of free weights. Yes yes and yes. He had it all. There was no other path he’d wanted to take, nothing he regretted, nothing he thought he’d missed out on, no trails he’d wanted to blaze, no women, no mountains, nothing he wanted to see he hadn’t seen, no drug, no sensation, nothing new, nothing that he hadn’t thought about as a boy, gone after and gotten.
When did it happen, Eddie wondered, that he lost control of things? Hadn’t he been a go-getter once? Wasn’t he the guy who was going to be something? Or was it that he liked to think of himself that way when in reality he’d always been a loser, loud and bragging but with little to show for all the noise. His chest was still muscular and hard. He touched the tip of a dart through the opening in his shirt until the point touched his flesh and drew just a tiny drop of blood. Don’t be a fool, he thought. That’s all he’d need was for them to find him like this, stoned and bleeding. He flicked his tongue over the point of the dart and sent it sailing across the span of the garage to the dartboard on the far wall: whut! Saw it land in the deep cleavage of Miss November. Bingo! Never lost the touch.
He sat down and closed his eyes, listening to the muted sounds coming from the house. He saw some funny things with his eyes closed like that and opened them with a click. He reached for the rifle and set it on his knees. It’d be so simple, he thought. He stared at the dartboard, at the shadow between the girl’s breasts, at the dart which seemed to be quivering still, until his head drooped onto his chest and his eyes focused again on the rifle on his knees.
So I told ‘em shut up shut up shut up! Jeez the names they call her... And she takes it, don’t ask me why.
“Whyn’t you roll down your window?”
“Oh, yeah, I forgot. You’re of the melting variety.”
“A hothouse bloom.”
They drove in silence for a while. The driver kept one hand on the wheel, the other reached in the glove compartment and pulled out a fifth of rye.
“Not my drink,” his friend said.
“Yeah, I know your drink. Mister Rum. Look in the back,” he said. “Never mind I got it,” and he pulled out a brand new bottle of rum, the seal still on it. “To friendship.”
Neither man spoke for a long while after that, though their eyes met over the rims of their respective bottles as they got progressively drunker and quieter. Then, finished, they stared out the window without thinking of where they were going but glad to be getting further away from what they were leaving behind, though neither of them knew the other well enough, or trusted the other with enough confidence, to tell what that thing was. They were old friends, at least that’s what they called each other. They went way back, that was all they knew, friends since they were boys and the bond was there and that was it, they didn’t question it any more than they questioned each other about their lives, any more than they asked themselves what it was they liked about each other or even if they liked the other one at all any more or ever had.
“Does the heater work in this heap?”
“Watch who you’re calling a heap,” the driver said and flicked on the heat. “Hothouse.”
The two lane highway which was usually well trafficked during this time of the day was emptying out with the storm warnings that had been on the radio all day. It was raining steadily now and the sky was turning the green that said it was going to rain and rain hard and long. It looked like their little trip was going to be ruined.
“We better turn around.”
The driver didn’t answer for a moment, just to show he was considering it when actually he agreed right off.
“Yeah,” he finally said, but there wasn’t a likely place to make a U and so they continued on, lulled by the sense of forward motion, unwilling to turn around and admit to going back. The future was ahead. They already knew what they’d left. A few minutes later the sky really opened up and the mountains they were driving towards were lit stark and vivid in flashes of lightning.
“Wouldn’t want to be out walking tonight.”
He wanted to say better turn around but he’d said it already and he knew anyway that it was futile, knew they’d keep driving until they no longer could.
“Look,” he said, a few minutes later, up ahead. The headlights illuminated two people walking.
“They must be soaked to the skin,” the driver said.
“Don’t stop,” his friend said.
The driver stared into the rain. “Gotta.”
The driver shrugged.
“Gotta,” the driver insisted without knowing why and slowed down so he could pull off the road.
The rain sounded very loud on the stopped car. The two men sat still and watched through the streaming windshield as first one, then other of the two figures ran towards the car and hauled themselves into the back seat. The driver put the car into gear and started back on the road.
“Have you boys been camping?” the other one said, as he took a cigarette from his inside pocket and put it in his mouth, then flicked his lighter into flame. He turned in his seat to look at the two boys in rubber ponchos, who sat shivering in the back seat.
“Don’t hurt me,” one of the boys said.
BIO: Other stories of Barry's have appeared in Descant, Bryant Literary Review, Upstreet, Storyglossia, 971 menu, Storyglossia, Apple Valley Review (Pushcart Prize nominee) and others. “His Wife” is included in Best of the Net Anthology 2008.