“What the fuck did you say to me, boy?”
“Sir, I just asked if you want to add fries with that.”
“Don’t fucking sir me, boy, trying to act all high and mighty and proper. Just get me my fucking hamburger, fucking raghead.”
The teenager’s head snaps back, as if he was slapped, and his mouth drops open. He throws Earl’s hamburger into its bag and, gritting his teeth, thrusts the bag through the drive-through window. Earl snatches the food and immediately claws open the hamburger wrapper.
“You probably spit in this too, didn’t you, raghead? Didn’t you?” Earl separates the pieces of the hamburger: pulling apart the bun, the beef patties, the lettuce, looking for the evidence of spit that eludes him.
“I didn’t…” starts the drive through clerk.
“SHUT THE FUCK UP TOWELHEAD!” screeches Earl as he jerks his eyes back to the face of the clerk, to the face of his hate, to the face of his enemy. The kid is no more than twenty, and stands frozen and wide eyed as Earl’s disgust burns into his flesh.
“I’m – I’m not…”
“SHUT! UP!” screams Earl, spit and mucus flying from his mouth and nose as he bangs on the steering wheel. “SHUT! UP! SHUT! UP! SHUT! UP! SHUUUUUUT UPPPPPPP!” Earl hysterically continues as the clerk’s protestations and the blare of the sounds of the world dull into silence, as if Earl suddenly dove into bed and hid beneath the covers. His heart explodes out of its cavity and smashes against his chest. BOOM. BOOM. BOOM. BOOM. Each hit accompanied by a wheezing cough and a gasp of air, a rasping death rattle for any normal soul, anyone sane enough to just give up, keel over, and die. His bloodshot eyes burst from his skull and a single thick sinewy vein snakes up the side of his face – from his left ear, across his forehead and disappearing somewhere into the thinning black mess that lays atop his head.
Slowly, Earl’s coughs become less spastic and his gasps less punishing. His breaths slow to a funeral procession march and his eyes slip back into their sunken homes. He bows his head to the steering wheel as the sweat drips down his cheeks and plip-plop-plips into a moist circle on one knee.
His fingers snake through his unkempt midnight beard and up to the greasy blackness on his head. He rubs his eyes and leans his head back and slowly the sounds and noises begin to filter back into his consciousness. Earl squints and his eyes refocus on the silhouette staring at him in a white cap, white shirt, and white trousers. The outline materializes into the drive through clerk; his lips are moving, and his mouth is opening and closing and opening and closing. His hands are moving in circles – no, no they’re waving.
Like a wave crashing into the shore, the sounds smash into Earl suddenly and forcibly and frighteningly. The clerk is screaming at him. The cars behind him are honking. The nearby highway is pouring its cacophony into Earl’s universe. Earl blinks stupidly and lets his body operate separate from his mind. His right arm falls and his fingers dig beneath the fast food wrappers and old newspapers that litter the floor of his decrepit 94 Toyota Tacoma pickup.
The clerk’s outline fades into the darkness of the restaurant’s interior as Earl’s pudgy fingers find the cold metal steel of the gun’s nozzle. His fingers rub the contour of the muzzle gently, as if he is trying to remember its purpose. They dance upon the metal for a bit and fall into an embrace around the ivory handle. Earl raises his shoulder and his arm and his fingers and the revolver come along for the journey. The revolver pokes its head out of the swamp of trash when suddenly –
– Knock, Knock –
Earl turns his deadened eyes and stares blankly at the teeth shining at him from the passenger side window. He releases the gun and lets it slip unseen back into the depths of the mess, and leans over to the window.
“I’m leaving now.” Earl states blandly without rolling down the window. The man makes some muffled noises and points behind Earl’s car at the line of cars waiting to pick up their food, but Earl simply puts the pickup into drive and maneuvers out of the drive through lane.
He turns onto the highway and heads south out of the town limits. He drives until the suburbs disappear and then drives some more. He turns onto a small gravel road and follows it into the dark forest – the dusk light barely penetrating the thick canopy. Five minutes after seeing the last house, he turns into his driveway – more a small dirt path than something that would be seen as suitable for automobiles.
Earl’s truck bounces through the potholes and heads deeper into the black forest. He holds the wheel with one hand and lets his other run through his hair to the back of his neck, ending just below the neckline of his shirt. He can feel the slightly deformed, raised skin where his old back tattoo healed poorly and he rubs it, tracing the path of the lines, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
The truck stops jumping and Earl whips the wheel with the assured motion of an oft practiced routine. A dilapidated cabin springs into the light of the truck’s headlights. The forest has grown close and wild and the trees lean upon the walls like carpenters taking a brief break from work. Earl turns off the truck and flops outside, slightly ungainly, as if he is still trying to adjust to a few pounds of extra weight that sprang on him unnoticed.
Earl walks to the darkened cabin porch and slumps himself ungracefully into an ancient half molded wooden rocking chair. He puts his feet up on the porch railing and leans back until his chair rests upon the wall of the cabin. One hand flops down and picks up a bottle – empty. He drops it and picks up another – empty. He rummages on the other side of the chair and comes up holding a half-full bottle of whiskey, which he immediately inhales three large mouthfuls before resting the bottle against his stomach.
His eyes reflect the slightest light – two small orbs in a sea of night – but everything else is the blackest black of a bottomless abyss. Of nothingness. Earl swallows another mouthful and lets a bit of whiskey dribble from his mouth and down his shirt. His eyelids droop as he takes a final long slug of whiskey – shaking the bottle above his open mouth and letting the last hiding drops drip onto his tongue. The bottle slips out of his fingers with a dull thud and Earl drifts into hazy uncomfortable memories of the past.
He always remembers the sand first; the boring of the tiny flecks of grit into his skin, deep into his pores, and the itch, the horrible itch that couldn’t be scratched. The sand floating gracefully, beautifully in the wind – twisting and turning and spinning like a pale gymnast in the sun – and then lunging at him, spraying him in the face, diving deep into his throat, assaulting his eyes, and swimming up his nose and suffocating him.
They stand over Earl’s body and laugh as he spits and chokes on the sand. They laugh as he, laying helpless on his stomach, fruitlessly tries to roll his body over, and they laugh as he curses at them with the only Pashto word he knows – “whore.” His hands are bound behind him to his ankles. If he could understand his captors he would know they are gleefully comparing him to a goat tied up for slaughter. His face lays half covered in the sand, and he bitterly notes that his captors have formed the exact semi-circle required in order to offer him the fullest brunt of the rising sun. He struggles against his bonds, keeping his eyes closed to a slit to ward away the harsh, burning light and the constant whip of the sand. A slight itch on his forehead increases to a raging fire; Earl ignores the jeers of the crowd and twists his head into the sand, quenching the desire and sending roars of laughter through the onlookers.
Everything that creeps and crawls or stings or bites or slithers is here and bigger and uglier, and from the ground, from Earl’s perspective, it all looks worse. There’s a rapid increase in the conversation between Earl’s spectators, and he knows something is happening. His captors point their fingers and hoot and laugh wildly as Earl strains his eyes to see what is coming. He doesn’t have to strain long; suddenly a devilish scorpion enters his field of vision. The sand colored demon clicks its claws and scampers carefully toward Earl as directly as a scorpion will, which is to say, not directly at all. Its tiny limbs power over the miniature sand dunes, and Earl can only sweat and stare as the creature zig zags closer and closer. Earl can see the sharp, thin bristles covering the body of the scorpion and he can differentiate between the shades of pale orange that cover the legs. He can see the overly large, powerful claws that snap and snap and snap incessantly. Click. Click. Click. Click. He can see the curved tail and the cruel stinger that rests upon the end. Click. Click. Click. Click. He can see the blank black soulless holes for eyes. Click. Click. Click. Click. And, worst of all, he can see his sweat soaked, grotesque face staring back at him, a horrified reflection of terror. The scorpion’s stinger rises, and Earl has one final look at the devil before closing his eyes and letting darkness sweep over his body.
With a yelp, Earl wakes up and jumps out of his moldy porch chair. The bottle of whiskey smashes to the boards below and splashes against his weathered boots. He blinks his eyes rapidly and shakes his head and rubs his eyes and lets them adjust to the darkness as he remembers where he is. The moon has risen high into the sky and a few glimmers of its brilliance filter down through the interlocked leaves and branches. Patches of light dot the yard around the cabin, white-hot and glowing like icy fires, they blink and shimmer and dance for Earl.
The wind sweeps through the clearing and up into Earl’s jacket. He looks down to zip up his old military jacket realizing once again the zipper remains invisible in the darkness. His fingers shakily trace the contours of the jacket before finally succeeding in reforming the pieces.