‘You ain’t gonna feel a thing.’
Chris pulled into the parking lot of the box store off I-75 and scanned the grey expanse, a shade darker than the mid-afternoon sky. Drawing closer to the building he spotted a figure standing by a column to the left of the entrance. Skinny, with a patchy beard and glasses, the stranger smoked in a hunting jacket, shifting his weight on the curb as he sucked. Chris pulled up and asked if he was Alex. The other smiled wanly.
“Yep. Hop in.”
The man flicked his cigarette, opened the door and swung into the passenger seat of the Sebring. As Chris accelerated his passenger made a stir warming one hand against a vent and adjusting his seat with the other, releasing the smell of smoke and cheap personal products.
“Cold out there,” he said, boy-voiced.
“Were you waiting long?”
“Nah, not too long.”
“Sorry you’re where you’re at with things. I ain’t gonna try to change your mind. That’s between you and God.”
“I appreciate that.”
“Mind showing me the cash before we head out?”
Chris withdrew the bills from a pocket and Alex nodded.
“We’re going up to my family’s farm,” said Alex. “There’s a state park runs adjacent. We’ll park there and cross onto the property.”
After a short stretch on the road Chris merged onto I-75 northbound, passing a billboard for the largest Christmas store in the world, a few exits up the highway.
“But I hear you, man,” Alex said. “You can’t even call it Christmas anymore.”
Chris just toggled the radio stations. Soon the wind, the vents’ steady warmth, and the radio at low volume made the only sound. On either side of the highway dormant fields crept past.
“You mind if I rest my eyes for a bit?”
“Go for it.”
“Wake me up when we make it to Flint.”
Chris said he would. Before long, Alex slumped, hairs on the back of his head swaying in the warmth. Chris found a Canadian hockey broadcast and returned his hand to the wheel. During a break the commentator previewed a west coast matchup, the game whose call used to portend his removal to bed Saturday nights.
Chris hadn’t slept for days. Now his eyelids grew heavy. The game was going to a shootout.
Rumbling under rubber. Chris regained the lane and glanced at his passenger, who hadn’t stirred. He gripped the wheel for a moment, then pressed his left wrist to the glass, holding it there until his arm ached.
Most of an hour passed before a sign emerged to inform Chris that the next exits led into Flint. He woke Alex, who indicated an exit. They went down the ramp, then turned onto a two-lane road headed out of town.
“I ain’t been this way in years,” he said, yawning and looking out at the country, stark as a barcode. “Great place to grow up.”
“Sounds fun, having all that room to run around.”
“Oh yeah. Hunting, fishing, biking, paintball. Sometimes we’d get too spread out, lose each other and have to wait at the house ‘till the rest put two and two together.”
They passed a barn whose red paint flaked away to reveal grey planks. A mile or so later pavement became dirt. On one side pines grew in rows, a single breach in the line of trees seeming to follow the car.
“Christmas trees,” Alex explained. “For next year.”
The woods took over. Shortly after a small lot emerged on the right and Chris pulled in. He parked the Sebring and they got out, Alex lighting up. Chris popped the trunk and as he guided the hatch upward Alex removed the shovel. They stepped over a chain marking the trailhead and started down the path, Alex using the tool as a walking stick as he puffed.
“You know,” he said, tossing his butt into the silence. “My folks kicked me out when I started using, but I don’t think I’d change nothing.”
He thudded the blade to the ground with every other step, eyeing the trees. Chris traced a hardened swath of mud with his gaze.
Alex turned onto a narrower path and Chris followed, the two men walking single file. The land began to undulate beneath the leaves. They approached a low rusted fence at the top of a ridge and, stepping over it, left the park.
On a subsequent crest, Alex paused, looking around, then pointed out a hollow set back from the trail, brought into dull contrast by the light of the clearing it made. They started down through the leaves, ankle deep.
“Well,” said Alex as they trudged. “I’m blessed to have met you, man.”
“You ain’t gonna feel a thing.”
Reaching the clay floor of the depression, Alex tried to plunge the shovel into the ground but it toppled over. Turning to face Chris, he unzipped his jacket to withdraw a handgun that glowed in the soft light, removing and replacing the magazine to check that all was in order.
“I want to do it,” Chris said.
“I want to fire the shot.”
“Otherwise, it’s murder.”
Alex looked at him a moment, then approached, placed the butt in his palm and backed a few yards away. Chris weighed the weapon, warm from its owner’s breast pocket. Their breath appeared, vanished.
He pointed the gun at Alex, cocking it.
“Listen, I don’t want—”
But Alex was already ducking toward the nearest tree, drawing a second piece, and Chris shot. Alex fell back, chest welling, gun nestling among the leaves. Chris advanced toward the wounded man, who heaved, gurgling, and fired again.
The last report escaped through naked trees. He would dream across the straits tonight.
Theo Czajkowski is a Michigan native living in New York City. His fiction has previously appeared in Northwest Indiana Literary Journal.