People argue all the time. Tom and his fiancee Jessa are no different. Their latest fight has caused Jessa to stay at her parents’ summer home in a neighboring town. When Tom decides to pay her an unannounced visit, he sets off a chain of events that will forever change their lives.
He hated himself for calling back right after she hung up the phone, acting like some kind of crazy son of a bitch. Look at how she instigated, though. Said, “Someone’s at the door.” Click. No names, no explanation. Like that was normal fucking behavior for midnight on a Tuesday. Or any day for that matter.
Not even fifteen minutes later he was doing sixty on the old country road to her summer cottage. Not even mad about her hanging up anymore, he just wanted to make sure she was alright. If he heard, “This is Jessa. I’m not here right now, so leave me something good,” one more time from her answering machine though, he’d crush the fucking cell phone right there in his palm.
Any time they got in a fight she had that damn summer cottage to run away to, shut him out. “Have some time to think on my own without you screaming at me,” she’d said once. Like he was some nuisance, some overgrown puppy dog needed shooing. He thought about what she said those nights she stayed with him, when they got along alright, so he didn’t lose his shit. How she felt safe in his arms. How they were soulmates. What a wonderful father he’d make. Or think about how she looked there laying next to him in the middle of the night, face turned to one side on the pillow, eyes halflidded with sleep. So serene. Precious. The way she curled into him, smooth thigh brushing his crotch, their bodies cocooned in the bedsheets. The flowery smell of her long, dark hair draped over the pillow, the cool touch of her cheek.
When she didn’t pick up the sixth time he tossed the phone on the passenger seat. Look at him, getting all worked up. He’d be there in ten minutes anyways. Could have been her aunt visiting from Florida. Jehovah’s Witness behind schedule. Girl scout been lost in the woods living off her own stock of Thin Mint cookies the past month, needed rescuing.
Naive little dumb-ass. More like some desperate junkie clubbed her over the head when she answered the door in her see-thru nighties, starting rifling through her dresser drawers for drug money. Or even worse, her ex-husband was there, shit-eating grin on the runt’s sweat-shined face as he and Jessa glanced over at “Missed call from Tom” over and over again on the phone screen while he gave it to her doggystyle like the little chihuahua he was. The more he thought about it, the more he reached down into his hip holster, ran his fingers over the curved hammer block of the .500 S&W Magnum. The bolt plunger.
That’s when he almost hit the guy. Haggard-ass hobo shambling roadside, hands balled in the coatpockets of his tattered winter jacket. As Tom was driving up on him the man cocked his head to one side like an owl, eyes gleaming in the bore of the headlights and his lips quivering like he was real cold. Or talking to himself. Old bastard didn’t even try to move out of the way. Just made a lazy turn the whole time Tom grappled the steering wheel and jerked the truck back into the right lane and outstretched his arm, thumb pointing. A look on his face that was funereal. His grimy beard hanging in clumps. His sad eyes.
“Shit. You’ve gotta be shittin’ me.”
He shifted the truck into first gear, watched in the rear view mirror as the old man shrunk into the distance among the pale rags of dust. “Crazy ass son of a bitch.”
When he calmed down he thought about how funny it was, a person that fucked up looking hitchhiking in the first place. He guessed it made more sense than the opposite, guy in a nice Gucci suit thumbing the road, hoping the extra effort in presentation hid the fact that only an asshole without a lick of sense would pick up some stranger off the side of the road these days. Hell, if he saw the pope prostrate and bleeding through his papal regalia roadside, pastoral staff sticking through his chest, he wouldn’t have slowed down enough to give him the sign of the cross as he drove by. Knowing his luck it’d be some dumbshit kids playing a prank, try to put a video of him up on the internet before they realized he’d put a bullet through each of their cell phone screens. Their kneecaps too, if they had something to say about it.
Coming up on Jessa’s parents’ place now, big log cabin at the top of the hill. Smoke coming from the stone chimney. Orange-red candle in every window even though the lights were on. Front door wide open.
Of course, that’s when his truck decided to shit the bed. The frame shuddering drunkenly as he grappled with the wheel and when he tapped the brakes a muffled pop thumped the underside of the hood. In the air the smell of burnt rubber. Hot grease. Sulfur. He fishtailed into the breakdown lane, scuffed the guard rail with the rear bumper twice and came to a stop.
The curtains in the far window sliced open and a young woman’s face peered at him from within. It looked just like Jessa, only her hair was blonde. A wig? The fuck was she doing while she was up here, some kind of freaky ass roleplay? She was glowering at him. What’s the matter, bitch? Mad you got caught? Don’t bother to call for help with the truck, he could handle it. Just get back to your debauchery. He watched her seal the curtains up, stand there in silhouette. As if she were still watching. Another silhouette stood looming behind her now, moved real close, until the two of them became an amorphous blob. The windowpane rattled. Hot breath steamed on the weather-blemished glass. He heard Jessa’s voice call out in want. He looked away, closed his tear-welled eyes. The noise stopped. He looked back and the silhouettes had disappeared. He sat there for a few moments in eerie silence. His broken down truck stranded there beneath the starless sky, in the endless dark, with its waning headlights flaring through the seagreen stems of smoke looked like some bioluminescent sea creature.
He slapped the wheel. He looked through the window at Jessa’s cabin. The lights had been turned off again, the front door closed. They wanted to play games, he wouldn’t feel so bad about putting a bullet between both their ankles now. He reached under the seat and got his flashlight and swung the door open and sprinted towards the cabin. Passing through a fold of blue light and into the front yard. Holding the flashlight out in front of him in one hand and the pistol in the other.
The front door was locked. He was about to stomp it in when a pale shape stumbled out of the woods and into the front yard. Wailing, ghost-white against the dark contrast of the forest. He brought the flashlight onto it and his heart sank. Her palms held out, thick ribbons of swampmatter curling down her wrists and forearms. Dark hair matted and eyes redrimmed and slashes of green-brown bogwater going slantwise on the thinstuff of her bodice like shitstains. She was saying “Oh God, Tommy,” over and over in a frantic chant.
“Oh Jesus, babe.” He sprinted over to her, cradled her in his arms. He’d never even seen her leave the house without doing her hair much less like this. “Look at you.”
“There’s still time. Please, baby. There’s still time.”
“Time for what? Christ, the hell happened to you? Did he hurt you in there? Please tell me he hurt you so I can fucking end him.”
She shoved him away and fled back into the forest. He took one last look at the cabin, the house sitting there in complete quietude. Shitbird in there could wait. He went after Jessa instead. Followed her down a path plagued by kneehigh ferns and coarse shrubs. He was holding the flashlight out in front of him just so he could see, the yellow bore teetering. An ambercolored creek beside them hissed like some enormous serpent. She clambered the hillside path, moving so fast, the dark shapes of scrub pines and red junipers closing them in. He was having trouble keeping up. Heartbeat hammering in his chest. He was calling for her to stop, telling her she was acting like a fucking maniac but she was already cresting the hill, possessed of some newfound agility, standing now at the mouth of a cave.
“No, baby. Don’t go in there.”
She stepped towards the entrance and seemed to dematerialize. He had his hands on his knees, head down, breathing hard. He could close his eyes, suck up his dumb pride for once. Call the police, walk away. Then he heard her screams reverberate on the cavewalls. Incessant. Banshee-lunged.
He thought about their first kiss. How they’d stayed up all night together, talked about everything. Talked about nothing. The way she tickled his palm with her thumb when they held hands. The way she arched her back, raked her nails down his shoulderblades when they fucked. He followed her.
Subsequent chapters of “To The Bitter End” will be posted here on Adventures in Poor Taste in the coming weeks. In the meantime feel free to share your thoughts, inquiries and criticisms in the comments section.