Charlestown, Rhode Island October
Tobacco smoke and moonlight filled the car. Outside, the headlamps painted a blur of green and tan onto whatever they touched in the forest as the old Lincoln raced through the gray night. From the backseat, Stu listened to the big V-8 gargling under the hood. He saw the slick of sweat on the driver's face as the young man hunched over the wheel, gasped and wheezed, and willed the lumbering car through the twists of an old country road. The driver's as goddamn scared as me, Stu thought. And the driver didn't have the gun at his head. Stu flinched at the casual tap, tap of the carjacker's pistol on the bump of bone at the base of Stu's skull. The dashboard clock said 1:30 a.m. The road through the woods followed the curves of a river. The trees were almost on the road. Stu would never forget those trees. White oak, six feet through their middles, older than the Constitution, stiffer than the hurricane of '38, unbending and unforgiving.
Stu's hands quivered in his lap. His palms stung with road burn,from falling when the gunman had dragged him out of the car. Why did I stop? Never stop for strangers. Even two strangers around his own age, midtwenties, hitching along a darkened road. They had looked in Stu's headlights like a pair of graduate students desperate for a ride to the university. They were desperate all right, each for a different reason. Stu tried to understand what was going on here. A kidnapping, maybe? The gunman had taken the other man hostage. He sighed; the breath left him in a shiver. I've been carjacked. Still hardly seemed real. He swallowed hard. Stu thought back ten minutes. What could he have done differently? He had not seen the gun until his transmission was in park and his window powered down. The pistol jammed into his face had touched Stu's upper lip. His legs had turned to liquid at the smell of black powder and gun oil under his nose. He could not have run if he'd tried. Still couldn't. The scent lingered.
In the backseat with Stu, the carjacker pulled the gun from Stu's skull for a moment, flicked a lighter, and fired up another cigarette. Stu chanced a glance at him. The lighter was turned down low, to make a flame no bigger than a kernel of glowing golden corn. He saw sharp features, a long pointed nose with a bump at the bridge, no more than a day's worth of whiskers. Wet eyes unblinking, big round pupils that shrank from the light. A dark smear of blood on his cheek, though he had no cut. Not his blood? Stu lost his nerve and looked away before the gunman met his gaze.
"A little faster," the gunman urged. He was calm. The gun returned to Stu's head. Tap, tap.
"I don't dare," the driver said, eyes never leaving the road. "This thing's a sled."
The driver had a thin voice, shaky. Stu was vaguely angry with him for just standing there by the side of the road and letting Stu stop for this madman. He could have sent a warning, Stu thought. Even with a pistol pressing against his ribs, he could have shouted. Villain with a gun! His sacrifice would have allowed Stu to escape--he'd beremembered as a hero. But instead he'd let Stu get stuffed into the backseat, allowed himself to be pushed into the front to drive. Now he complained about the goddamn car. From the middle of the backseat, the gunman on his right, Stu could see only a slice of the driver's face, skin and shadows in the moonlight, shining with terror. Stu suddenly felt a scrape of pity in his throat for the young man at the wheel, and then toxic guilt for blaming him--two more emotions to stir with disbelief and raw fright. He made a silent apology in his head to the driver. My final thoughts must not be petty, Stu decided. He surprised himself with this reasoning. Stu was a freelance musician for hire--brass mostly, the guitar in a pinch, drums in an emergency; he never thought himself a deep thinker. He concluded that all men are philosophers at their last breaths, and surprised himself again.
The night was clear, cold for the season. Stu stared through the untinted sunroof, to the stars. So many stars were visible from the woods of South County, far from the lights of Providence. He imagined the pinpricks were a handful of salt scattered across black velvet. There was no helicopter trailing them up there, no help anywhere. The car swept down a steep dip and Stu felt a cold whoosh in his belly. The driver worked the brake as the road turned hard right. Stu's trumpet case in the trunk tumbled over noisily. He resisted the force of the curve pushing him toward the carjacker. The driver worked the gas again, the V-8 snarled under the hood, and Stu let himself be gently pushed to the seat back. His window was cracked a half inch and the wind hissed though it. Stu leaned toward the door, felt the fall air.
"Where the hell are we going?" the driver asked.
The red dot at the end of the butt glowed brighter when the carjacker sucked the cigarette. He blew the smoke straight up toward the stars. He yawned. "Stay on this road a while yet," he said, speaking out of half his mouth while the other half clenched the butt. He gripped his chin and gazed out the back window to nothingness. Asan afterthought, he added, "You're both free to go when I get where I need to be."
Stu's eyes widened. Free to go? He had dared not even dream it. He wiped the sweat off his forehead and eyebrows. The salt stung the bloody scrape on his hand. His face steamed hot, his body shook with chills.
The driver muttered, "You're a goddamn liar."
The carjacker said nothing, but he withdrew the gun from behind Stu's head and aimed it generally toward the front seat.
"You can't kill the driver," Stu croaked, shocked at hearing his own thoughts, not in his mind but with his ears. Was that out loud?
"Oh, fuck that," the driver said in disgust. His fists flexed on the steering wheel for a few seconds, clenching and unclenching. He spat into the dark space where a front passenger would sit. Rage rose in his voice. "You can't let me live. Not after what I seen."
"Drive the car," the carjacker said sharply. He shifted in his seat, cracked his window an inch, and stuffed the cigarette butt out.
"You can't," the driver said again, more to himself than to anyone else. "You couldn't take that chance." He pressed harder on the gas. The car revved to attention and sped faster into the night.
"Easy now," Stu said. His mouth was dry. He gripped the seat in front of him with one hand and felt for the seat belt with the other.
The old Lincoln barreled around a curve. The tires whimpered. With the road ahead straightening, the driver pounded the gas. The engine gorged on superpremium; the car's chunky chug-chug noise smoothed into a heavy purr. The big V-8 liked the speed. Trees zipped by on either side. The tires rumbled over bumps. Where is that goddamn seat belt?
"That's enough!" the carjacker shouted.
"Can't shoot me now," the driver called back.
"He said he'll let us go!" Stu yelled.
The carjacker leveled the gun at the driver's head. Sounding calm again, he said: "I will blow your skull open."
"Fuck you, you will," the driver said. "Kill me, kill yourself." He grimaced and tugged the wheel left and right, working the play out of it. "Throw the goddamn pistol in the front seat!"
The road suddenly bent left; the driver gasped, let off the gas, and yanked the wheel. Stu's body hit the door. The trumpet thudded back across the trunk. The engine took a breath. Then the driver punched the pedal again and the car roared. "The gun! Throw it in the front!"
The gunman barked, "Count of three--you're dead."
"No!" Stu cried.
Hairpin turn to the right, out of the blackness. The driver cursed and banged the brake. The pads ground into the rotors. The hood dove down and the tires yelped. A white oak scraped alongside the car and plucked off the mirror.
"Jesus!" Stu heard himself shriek.
The Lincoln bounced off the road and careened over a hill. Dark shapes rushed at the car. The headlights bore down on the final white oak. The light played within the grooves of the bark and electrified the tree with flickering shadows. Stu instinctively reached over the seat for the wheel and added his wet scream to the chaos of voices in the car. The oak forgave them nothing, probably didn't drop a leaf. With a tremendous crunch, the car crumpled into the tree and spun off. The windshield shattered with a muffled pop and the forest twirled. The gunman rolled onto Stu, then Stu rolled on the gunman. The car tumbled with a deafening boom into a boulder and bounced off the earth. The lights went black. For a second there was silence, like a gasp between screams, and then the head-splitting noise of the Lincoln rolling over and over and ravaging itself against the ground.
LOOT THE MOON. Copyright © 2009 by Mark Arsenault. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.