She put her arm over the back of the seat and cocked her head to the rear. The 546 words lined up behind the trailer hitched like railcars. She threw the old truck into reverse and pushed them out of the dead end they had driven into, across the empty highway into the parking lot of the deserted shopping mall. She popped the clutch. The truck shuddered and jumped, severing the causal link. Despite their murmurs and cries, their embittered shouts, she left them all behind.
That’s what she got for trying to start at the beginning, despite what she’d been taught at school about the middle of things.
“Sorry,” she said, the nasal twang of her voice always surprising her, not something she would have chosen for herself. “Sorry, but you aren’t the words I was looking for.”
Taylor laughed at that, a low chuck-chuck sound she was still getting used to. “Eugenie, you have to start somewhere,” he said.
She wasn’t sure about that. She wasn’t sure this story had a beginning. Not one she was part of, and the chance for an end seemed slim. Maybe there was only this muddling middle.
The road flowed over a hot flat plain. The heat rippled from the surface so it seemed the truck floated on the surface of a never changing sea. This was the way she dreamed it. She looked over at Taylor and caught him looking at her. His eyes were bright and a smile — the first of the day — came and went on his lips. He looked down and she looked back at the road.
His fingers settled on her leg in the space between her knee and the hem of her skirt and, when she thought about it, she decided it was okay. It was all in the eyes. Always in the eyes.
But, for now, it was all okay. She was here and Taylor was here and there was nothing between them but words and forgotten memories.
Memory gnawed at her the way a cat gnaws at a dead bird: feathers tickling in her throat and the taste of blood and breaking bones. She remembered her brother’s eyes when It took him, flat and grey and inward looking, staring at his own hunger so intently, he couldn’t see anything else. Then, in the night, her brother’s hands where Taylor’s hand had been a moment ago, but not like a whispered promise; like a shouted curse, like nonsense verse.
She had pushed him away, pushed him down the stairs, his legs and arms askew, mouth open in an aborted scream, bones broken, maybe, blood flowing, sure. Eyes flat and grey as he rose up. Once It took them, It never gave them back.
Running then, words following after, nouns, verbs, adjectives, even filthy adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions. Propositions, apologies, explanations, excuses. Lies, lies, lies, lies. She took the keys from her father’s pocket, while he slept, while her mother looked away.
The truck was old, older than her, older than dirt, maybe, the colour of dirt, in any case, rust and paint and dust blended and merged until only rain knew the difference. But it ran like a top, that is, its steering so loose it bobbed from side to side as it fishtailed down the lane to the road.
But it ran. Running was a good thing. Running was a gerund. Did that mean gerunds were a good thing? She thought of other gerunds she knew — lying, killing, fucking — and decided that it didn’t.
The road was empty if you didn’t count the other cars. Empty of life, anyway. Or life as she defined it. No other runners, only hunters. Only those It had taken.
Except Taylor. Taylor, by the side of the road. In grey sweatpants and white T-shirt. The shirt had the drawing of a dragon in a library. Book Wyrm, it said. She liked that. Taylor, his shoulders slumped from the absence of hope, but arm outstretched in a hopeful, silent gesture. Thumb up. White arm against the blacktop. White arm with bruises. There were always bruises.
It was his step-father who was taken. Step-fathers, it seems, are particularly vulnerable but not particular about vulnerability.
He came in the night, slithering along the floor like a different kind of worm, creeping over the bedstead, all hands and lips and flat grey eyes. Taylor, scrunched up like a pillow pushed too far. Searched for words to protect him. Words like: no; like: I love you; like: it hurts; like: please please please please please please please please. New words every night, same result.
Finally, no words.
A foot thrust hard into a face, a nose bending, squishing, breaking, spurting, thrusting. Blood and broken bones and silence.
Through the window and down the shingled roof to drainpipe to driveway. Rocks cutting bare feet, running feet, running to the road, running to some sort of freedom, maybe, some sort of escape.
Standing, then, in the heat and the rain and the light, the dark, the cold, the rain, the light, the heat as hunters stopped and looked and stopped and looked and whispered promises and promised lies.
Until she came. St. Eugenie of the Rusty Truck.
Braking. Breaking every rule she made for herself. Instinct overcoming experience. Hope triumphing over reason. Eyes searching eyes. Not flat, not grey but brown and hurting. Another gerund.
She gestured him in and he climbed up and in, up and in and huddled against the door. Not looking or speaking; not touching. Not until later, after food — a chocolate bar, an apple, potato chips, my body — and drink — orange juice, water, ginger ale, and, yes, my blood — were there any words, one or two, a phrase, two sentences, a tumble, a torrent, a flood, a rushing river.
His story. If not from the beginning, then the end of the beginning because you had to start somewhere.
She tried to reciprocate. A big word; too big for most people. After 546 words she stopped, pushed into a dead end by the failure of words ever to explain or excuse or apologize. Things done can be forgotten and they can be forgiven but not at the same time and not forever. Things done can never be undone, no matter what they tell you. Time’s arrow is a prick.
Back on the highway, on the river of asphalt, going nowhere, but going and sometimes that’s enough. She had gas — two big tanks full — and money for more gas and apples and ginger ale. And a gun, if money wasn’t enough. Money won’t buy you happiness when It comes calling but, sometimes, a warm gun will.
And that’s how it was for a while. But things change. And the more they change, the more they become the same.
Same flatness, same greyness, same eyes.
One day, was it the same day? Taylor’s hand on the space between her knee and her skirt moved. It no longer whispered; it grunted, it growled, it groaned, It howled.
More words. Mean words, hard words, nasty words, loud hungry needy. Words like: now; like: want; like: I love you; like: please; like: bitch cunt whore. Flat grey eyes.
It is a disease. It spreads from hunter to victim, from predator to prey. Pray. Pray It never comes to your house. To your happy family. Prayers are always answered. No is an answer.
Sometimes the contagion fails. Sometimes, sometimes means never.
No beginning. Now, it seems, no happy ending, either.
Another foot, another face. Eugenie and Taylor, up the same tree, k-i-c-k-i-n-g. The truck door — good old door — never secure door — blessed door — swings open and Taylor, no more words, is a tumble, a torrent, a flood, onto the rushing road. Eugenie watches him in the mirror, watches him cartwheel and bounce and spin like a top, fishtail to his feet and shamble after the fleeing, running truck, arm outstretched in a hopeful, if shambolic, gesture.
Is that blood on his broken face or red dirt from the shoulder of the road like makeup on an evil clown?
No happy endings that you don’t write for yourself.
Eugenie tilts the mirror up. Sometimes the only way to forget is to look away.
The heat has returned, re-writing road into river, into ocean; truck into sailboat; wheel into, well, wheel.
Maybe this is what the dream means. No beginning, no ending, simply sail on and never…
Story copyright © 2014 by Hayden Trenholm
Artwork copyright © 2014 by Luke Spooner
Hayden Trenholm has published over 15 short stories in magazines such as Talebones, On Spec, Neo-Opsis, and Challenging Destiny, among others. He won the Prix Aurora Prize in 2008 and again in 2011 for Best Short Form, and was nominated for Best Long Form Fiction in 2009 for Defining Diana, the first in the Steele Chronicles Trilogy, published by Bundoran Press. The second book, Steel Whispers, was nominated in the same category in 2010. The third in the series, Stealing Home, was published in August 2010 and was shortlisted for both the Sunburst and Aurora Awards. He recently edited Blood and Water, stories of near future resource wars, which appeared in August 2012 and won the Aurora Award in 2013.
Carrion House a.k.a. Luke Spooner currently lives and works in the South of England. Having recently graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first-class degree, he is now a full-time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence.