Joy Ride, fiction by Nick Kolakowski

 

The year Max­ine turned four­teen she found her true call­ing, at the cost of two lives.

Max­ine spent her child­hood morn­ings at the front win­dow of the crum­bling farm­house where she lived with her broth­er Brad and moth­er Joan and her mother’s big bas­tard of a syn­thet­ic-hero­in mon­key, watch­ing for cars on the road. When­ev­er one passed, she imag­ined her­self behind its wheel, zoom­ing out of her life with glo­ri­ous speed, and her heart ached with need.

Max­ine knew that, with­out her, life in the house would fall apart. She need­ed to feed and clean Brad, kill as many cock­roach­es and rats as pos­si­ble, keep the phones pow­ered, stop her moth­er from chok­ing on her own vom­it dur­ing the bad highs, and throw rocks at the junkies who lurked in the weedy dri­ve­way. That was a typ­i­cal list of tasks before she left for school. Every two weeks or so, her uncle Preach­er came down from the hills and, liv­ing his nick­name to the fullest, spent hours yelling at her moth­er to clean up her act. Her moth­er would groan and shake her head and agree to go straight, only to break that promise once he dis­ap­peared back into hid­ing.

Max­ine liked to play the No Cry­ing Game, which goes like this: you run into a wall so hard it knocks you back­ward, leav­ing your nerves hum­ming like gui­tar strings and your mouth salty with blood, but you nev­er cry. If you slam your­self hard enough to chip a tooth or bruise your face, and not a sin­gle tear rolls down your cheek, you can stop doing it for a week.

On the fifth of every month their ben­e­fits came, and Maxine’s moth­er would pile them into the family’s rat­tling wreck of a van for the fif­teen-minute trip to Red Junc­tion, where the big gro­cery store glad­ly accept­ed EBT. Max­ine loved the store’s bright lights, the aisles lined with shiny pack­ag­ing, the sleek­ness and col­or that remind­ed her of the cars zip­ping down the road: signs that some­one out there cared enough to do a good job, to make some­thing per­fect. Max­ine chose not to see how some of the shop­pers looked at them with hor­ri­fied pity, as if they were road­kill.

Maxine’s moth­er always act­ed hap­py in the store. She whis­tled and told knock-knock jokes as she filled their cart with cere­al and the cheap­est kelp-meat, which Max­ine could stretch far if she mixed it with herbs and roots pulled from the small yard behind the house. When she was sober, her moth­er was very good at cal­cu­lat­ing every­thing down to the cent, in order to pre­vent the embar­rass­ment of hav­ing to leave food on the cashier’s con­vey­or belt. That hap­pened once, and Maxine’s moth­er had yelled, and some­one called secu­ri­ty, and it was only because Max­ine act­ed so cute with the man­ag­er that they were ever allowed to come back.

Maxine’s father was in prison for­ev­er, thanks to a drug deal gone wrong, and all their rel­a­tives were dead except for Preach­er, who need­ed to stay in the hills because the police want­ed him in a cell or a cof­fin, prefer­ably the lat­ter.

Max­ine hat­ed the police, espe­cial­ly the two who came around to stand in the weedy yard and call her a waste of life, dan­gling can­dy bars as they asked where her uncle was hid­ing, as if she were stu­pid enough to give up a blood rel­a­tive for a sug­ar rush. Max­ine would hiss at them and bare her teeth, but knew to go no fur­ther. A friend of hers, Mon­i­ca Miller from down the road, once bit a cop on the ankle dur­ing a scuf­fle and they hit her in the head hard enough to put her in a coma. Some­times stuff just hap­pens. It’s a mean world.

The cops called her fam­i­ly red­necks and trash and hill­bil­lies. “You gonna be just like your mama,” one of them liked to tell Max­ine, “and your kids gonna be just like you. How you feel about that?”

Max­ine always stuck out her tongue at that cop, whose name was Dwight, and who rocked a blonde cater­pil­lar of a mus­tache. Dwight liked to take out his club and run at Max­ine as if he intend­ed bash her brains all over the porch, but she knew to hold her ground.

You nev­er get­ting out of here,” Dwight usu­al­ly said. “You’re just anoth­er waste of breath, you ask me.”

Max­ine thought of Dwight as an angry pos­sum in a tent, anx­ious to bite any­thing trapped in there with it. But deep in her heart, she feared the cop was right. She had no idea of a life oth­er than this one. On the cracked screen of her cheap-ass phone she watched shows where beau­ti­ful peo­ple in sleek dress­es and suits marched through gleam­ing spires of steel and glass, scenes from New York City that might as well have tak­en place on a plan­et far from this one. Her own eyes had nev­er seen any­one in clothes so shiny, or build­ings so mag­i­cal.

When the cops came by, Max­ine imag­ined Preach­er watch­ing them from the black trees along the top of the ridge. When the roof col­lapsed, or some man in a suit threat­ened to kick them out of the farm­house, or mother’s EBT card no longer worked at the store, Max­ine sent up a silent cry for Preach­er to save them, know­ing that he would nev­er appear, not until the dan­ger had passed. So she learned to do every­thing her­self.

Max­ine was very good around cops until she turned four­teen, and then every­thing went to hell.

II.

To cel­e­brate her birth­day, Max­ine took a lit­tle joyride.

She had skipped school that morn­ing, choos­ing instead to hang out on the porch of The Tony Eight with her best friend, Michelle. The Tony Eight was a hard bar but its own­er, Tony the Third, kept a counter by the front door stocked with good­ies such as can­dy and burn­er phones. He let kids use his porch as a chill-out zone (“Bet­ter they stay here than go in the woods. They don’t all come back from the woods,” is how he defend­ed that choice) from eight in the morn­ing until five in the evening, when the num­ber of drunks inside reached crit­i­cal mass, and he only had two rules: no curs­ing with­in his earshot, and none of that boy-band crap on the throw­back juke­box he kept in one cor­ner.

That Tues­day, Max­ine and Michelle had already spent two hours on the wood­en steps, smok­ing cheap Bei­jing Blue cig­a­rettes and talk­ing boys, when a red Mus­tang screeched into the bar’s grav­el lot. They both tensed, know­ing it was Ricky, a local weed deal­er who liked his girls a lit­tle too young.

Ricky lurched from the car, creepy smile in place, and paused to check his phone before saun­ter­ing toward them. Max­ine reached into the left pock­et of her jeans jack­et, palm­ing the small knife she kept there. Even with­out look­ing up, she could feel Ricky’s gaze slith­er­ing over her legs, and shud­dered. Please God, she thought, just make him go away.

God declined to answer, but some­one else did. Ricky made it ten yards across the lot when a big black car slith­ered into view behind him, its lithi­um-ion motor silent but its tires squeal­ing on the slick road, its pas­sen­ger win­dow zip­ping down to reveal a hand with a pistol—pop, pop, pop—and Ricky col­lapsed, his pur­ple jump­suit puff­ing as the bul­lets punched through his flesh. The black car zipped past the bar before dis­ap­pear­ing around the far curve.

Through the open door behind her, Max­ine heard Tony the Third curse. Michelle clutched her knees and rocked back and forth, tears rolling down her cheeks. Max­ine felt curi­ous­ly numb, her breath­ing nice and reg­u­lar as she stood and walked over to Ricky just as he man­aged, with a loud grunt, to roll onto his back, his front stained black from moist grav­el and prob­a­bly a quart of spilled blood.

Max­ine pulled out her phone and dialed 911. Those calls were free, which was good, because she was run­ning low on min­utes this month and didn’t like the idea of burn­ing a few on a piece of crap like Ricky. As she held the phone to her ear, she knelt and began rifling through the pock­ets of the jump­suit, remov­ing a wad of pleas­ing­ly retro twen­ty-dol­lar bills in a gaudy mon­ey-clip (bloody), a key-fob attached to a sil­ver dog’s head (ugly), and a brand-new phone (bonus!) with one of those cool bend­able screens.

Some of your deal­er friends tracked you down, huh?” she asked Ricky.

Help…” The sides of Ricky’s mouth bub­bled with pink froth. “Help…”

Nine-one-one’s on hold,” she said, pop­ping open the mon­ey clip and flick­ing through the stained mon­ey. “Like, what else is new, right?”

The sight of Max­ine rifling the cash shocked a bit of life back into Ricky. His cold hand gripped her wrist and squeezed, as he rasped: “Don’t… take… bitch…”

She smacked him on the fore­head with the mon­ey clip. “Hold on, the phone’s ring­ing.” A moment lat­er, the oper­a­tor clicked to life, ask­ing about her dis­tress, and Max­ine cheer­ful­ly told her all the gory details about a dri­ve-by shoot­ing at The Tony Eight. That task com­plete, she called over her shoul­der: “Michelle, go inside. Tony got a med-kit.”

Michelle obeyed with­out back­talk. She was one of those types: prick­ly as a por­cu­pine on a mega-dose of Heisen­berg Blue most days, but a total lamb in a cri­sis. Max­ine knew that Tony kept a ful­ly loaded med-kit behind the bar, next to the shot­gun. While she wait­ed for Michelle to return, she helped her­self to Ricky’s car keys.

Ricky hissed: “Don’t… take…”

Look,” she said. “You got shot, but you’re gonna make it.” That was prob­a­bly a lie, giv­en the amount of blood pump­ing out Ricky’s holes. “Tony got a good kit. Ambu­lance be here in a minute. We going through all this trou­ble for you, means you owe us a favor. So I’m tak­ing a spin in your sweet car over there. Don’t wor­ry, you’ll get it back.”

Ricky tried to spit blood at her and missed.

She slid behind the Mustang’s wheel, unsur­prised at Ricky’s choic­es in trick­ing out the inte­ri­or: a blue glow from LEDs beneath the front seats, over-sized speak­ers that prob­a­bly cost three times more than the engine, and a steer­ing wheel wrapped in the finest imi­ta­tion leather. Max­ine wrin­kled her nose at the near-over­pow­er­ing stench of cheap cologne and spilled beer as she popped the key-fob into the slot on the dash­board, the gas engine awak­en­ing with a roar, the stereo boom­ing vin­tage rap-rock (classy, Ricky, classy) loud enough to rat­tle the sub­stan­dard fill­ings in her teeth.

Max­ine smacked dash­board but­tons until the music went qui­et, spun the wheel, and gunned the Mus­tang out of the lot. In the rear-view mir­ror, she saw the Tony rip Ricky’s jump­suit open and squirt some­thing from a can into the wounds, but not before giv­ing Max­ine a big thumbs-up. What more pseu­do-parental approval did she need?

Her first joyride almost went wrong ten sec­onds in, as she tried to mus­cle the Mustang’s fat ass into the first sharp turn and almost skid­ded out, near­ly ram­ming head-on into a truck in the oncom­ing lane, spin­ning the wheel to cor­rect and over­com­pen­sat­ing, clip­ping a rusty Stop sign, shriek­ing in fear and joy as she final­ly point­ed the car’s nose in the right direc­tion and slammed the gas ped­al to the floor. The Mus­tang growled in response and began to eat the miles. It was her first time dri­ving and she was a nat­ur­al, pow­er­ing into each curve, feath­er­ing the brake at every inter­sec­tion.

The black car appeared just ahead, and her jubi­la­tion cur­dled into unease. From Preach­er she’d learned the first rule of doing crime: you hide after the crime’s been done. So why were they still on the road? She need­ed to get out of here before they noticed Ricky’s car in their rear view mir­ror, but they were on a straight­away: no turnoffs, no side-roads.

The black car tapped its brakes. She slowed to keep dis­tance, her dread ignit­ing into out­right fear as the car’s front-pas­sen­ger win­dow buzzed down and the hand with the pis­tol emerged. She veered the Mus­tang left just as the gun spat fire, a bul­let snap­ping off her roof.

If she stayed back, the next bul­let might smash through the wind­shield and her fore­head. If she stopped, they would turn around and hunt her down. That left her with one choice.

Punch­ing the gas, she rammed her fend­er into the oth­er car’s trunk, bump­ing it for­ward and to the right. The shooter’s head and shoul­ders appeared above the car roof, sil­hou­et­ted by the sun, the gun wav­ing as he tried to aim, and she accel­er­at­ed again until her front tires came par­al­lel with the oth­er car’s rear door and she swung the wheel hard right. With a crunch of met­al the oth­er car left the road—a faint scream from the shoot­er above the boom of two tons of met­al rolling into a deep ditch. The wheel slith­ered hot in Maxine’s hands as she fought for con­trol, final­ly skew­ing to a stop in her own lane.

You need to dri­ve away, she thought. Get out of here. No, can’t do that. I need to see if any­body sur­vived. They might come after me.

She eased the Mus­tang onto the shoul­der and climbed out, after wip­ing her shirt­tail on the steer­ing wheel and any­thing else she might have touched. Her hands shook, her knees weak as she tip-toed into the weeds.

The black car had entered the ditch on its side, land­ing in three feet of oily water. A bro­ken tree-stump jut­ted through the crum­pled steel of the hood. The wind­shield had cracked but not shat­tered, and through the webbed glass (Max­ine snuck close now, breath­ing hard, ready for the bul­let) she could see the body hunched in the driver’s seat, limp hand on the steer­ing wheel.

She leapt onto the far side of the ditch, and saw the top of the shooter’s head in the water, blonde hair stream­ing like kelp. No bub­bles meant no breath­ing meant it was safe to come clos­er, which she did, rec­og­niz­ing the face just beneath the sur­face:

Her good friend Offi­cer Dwight, his tor­so pinned beneath the car’s frame.

Maxine’s fear deep­ened into nau­sea. She sank to her knees on the wet grass and vom­it­ed a neon spray of half-digest­ed junk food.

Get out of here.

Yes, that was the best idea. Wip­ing her mouth, she stood and walked across the field beyond the ditch, toward the dis­tant band of for­est that would give her cov­er from any­one dri­ving past on the road. Her boots sank into the muck, slow­ing her progress. Max­ine pulled out her phone and made anoth­er call.

III.

The inside of the din­er was a time cap­sule, from the fad­ing Trump for Pres­i­dent poster on the wall above the old-fash­ioned cash reg­is­ter, to the deep-fat fry­er siz­zling away in com­plete defi­ance of all state health laws. Behind the reg­is­ter leaned John­ny Oates, whose burn­ing hatred of every­thing polit­i­cal­ly cor­rect had led him to cre­ate this tem­ple to a fan­ta­sy Amer­i­ca where every­body enjoyed a God-giv­en right to clogged arter­ies and black­ened lungs.

Max­ine entered, check­ing out the three reg­u­lars sit­ting at the counter, all work­ing dogged­ly on their eggs and but­ter-soaked car­bo­hy­drates: red­dened men, their mid­dle-aged mus­cles dis­solv­ing into fat, their knuck­les beat­en into scar tis­sue.

Hunting’s for wimps,” Oates was telling them, engag­ing in his favorite pas­time of goad­ing cus­tomers into an argu­ment. “You’re just killing some­thing can’t shoot back. If I’m going to head out into the woods after some­thing, it’s gonna be a human being.”

At the far end of the counter, Oates’ biggest cus­tomer at two hun­dred nine­ty pounds, the one and only Per­ry Parks, trem­bled and pur­pled and seemed primed to explode in a fury of grease-fried rage. “You got no idea how dif­fi­cult it is. The skill it takes. Even for deer.”

Why don’t you wire a machine gun to a deer’s horns? I mean, that’s a fair fight. Give it the chance to take a few of you with it,” Oates smacked a few but­tons on the reg­is­ter. “Jane, you agree with that?”

The wait­ress in the far booth, eigh­teen going on forty, e-cig­a­rette clenched between pil­low-puff lips the shade of a ripe plum, low­ered her phone and said, in the flat­test pos­si­ble tone: “What­ev­er.”

Max­ine took a seat in the booth fur­thest away from the action, won­der­ing if Oates and the rest of them could see her sweat. It was an hour after the crash and her hands still shook, so she placed them under­neath the table where nobody could see. Oates wan­dered over, a smile unzip­ping his face. For all his attempts to sink barbs into his cus­tomers’ psy­chic meat, he was a decent human being. “How’s it going?” he asked her.

Okay,” she said.

I’m sor­ry, dar­ling, but I got­ta ask before you order: you got cash?” Oates dropped his voice a few deci­bels, even though every­body in the din­er could still hear him. As Max­ine reached into her pock­et and tugged out a few bills from Ricky’s wad, she felt her face flush with famil­iar shame.

From the way his eye­brows arched, she knew Oates want­ed to ask where she’d earned that mon­ey, before decid­ing any answer would only lead to grief on someone’s part. “Okay,” he said. “Good. Sor­ry about that. What can I get you?”

Cof­fee,” she said. “Toast is awe­some, too.” More than any­thing else, she want­ed to step into a show­er and crouch under its hot drool and stare at the drain-cov­er as if she could some­how shrink and slide down that rab­bit-hole into a bet­ter life. Bar­ring that, she need­ed some food in her bel­ly, for the ener­gy to deal with what­ev­er was com­ing next. After vom­it­ing her stom­ach into a ditch, all she could han­dle was some­thing plain.

Oates nod­ded and head­ed for the kitchen, return­ing a few min­utes lat­er with cof­fee. She dumped rough­ly half the sug­ar dis­penser into the steam­ing liq­uid, not car­ing whether the sweet­en­er was the real deal (unlike­ly in a place as cheap as this) or one of those syn­thet­ics that pro­vid­ed half the taste and all the dia­betes and can­cer. She drank it boil­ing-hot, bare­ly notic­ing how it scorched her tongue, eyes focused on the screen above the counter, where a talk-show host cracked bleak jokes about the lat­est round of sui­cide bomb­ings in Seat­tle.

The food arrived, and Max­ine found her­self sur­pris­ing­ly hun­gry. She was chew­ing the last bit of crust when the bells above the front door tin­kled. Preach­er walked in like John Wayne in those old movies that Oates loved—only Preach­er was more John Wayne than John Wayne, who had been a mirage, a Hol­ly­wood actor named Mar­i­on Mor­ri­son who dis­cov­ered that, if he held his hips right and aimed a rifle, peo­ple would start call­ing him “sir.” Preach­er came through the door look­ing sol­id as stone, bring­ing his own weath­er with him. Every­body in the place fell silent.

First Preach­er flicked the thumb-lock behind him and flipped the old-fash­ioned sign on the door so it read ‘Closed.’ Next he pulled a plas­tic bag out of his pock­et and walked along the counter and back into the kitchen, col­lect­ing phones from every­body. After he tossed the phone bag to Max­ine in the booth, he reached into his pock­et and pulled out a thick wad of bills and dis­trib­uted them to all cus­tomers and Oates and Jane and the short-order chef.

With those tasks com­plet­ed, he helped him­self to a cup from the ancient cof­feemak­er behind the reg­is­ter and sat across from Max­ine, tak­ing his first sip with a hand­ful of pills from his jack­et pock­et. His love of med­ica­tion stemmed from his three years in the mil­i­tary: red painkillers to ease the burn­ing pain in his shoul­ders, from the shrap­nel embed­ded in the mus­cle, always fol­lowed by two or three blue gel­caps that kept his mind crack­ling. The Army fed you a steady diet of chem­i­cals that helped you deal with cog­ni­tive load, think your way light­ning-quick through fire­fights. The down­side came after they dis­charged you, when you missed that sharp­ness to your thoughts, even if it came with side effects like sweaty ner­vous­ness, para­noia, and the occa­sion­al burst of epic flat­u­lence. Preach­er kept his pre­scrip­tion filled through a back-chan­nel to the local VA.

Max­ine fin­ished chew­ing, admir­ing Preacher’s gun­slinger gait, smil­ing at how every­body in the din­er resumed their con­ver­sa­tions a lit­tle too loud­ly, anx­ious to show their new guest how they could play it as cool as him.

You mak­ing some trou­ble on your birth­day, kid­do?” Preach­er asked.

I didn’t start noth­ing,” she said.

It’s okay. I’m not mad. Just tell me every­thing.”

So I’m down at The Tony Eight…”

Wait, why weren’t you in school?” His cheeks red­den­ing.

Max­ine rolled her eyes. “Thought you said you weren’t mad.”

You need to be in school.”

Max­ine sighed. “You know how that place sucks. I learn more read­ing on my own.”

You’re not think­ing like a gang­ster, dar­ling.” Preach­er cooled down, his lips break­ing into a slab-toothed grin. “You don’t show up to school, the so-called author­i­ties notice, they start get­ting up in your busi­ness. You go to school—even if you just sit there and read—it gives you lee­way to do what­ev­er else you want in your life. Make sense?”

Max­ine didn’t like peo­ple cor­rect­ing her. “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah, okay.” Preach­er leaned for­ward and gen­tly pinched her chin, know­ing how much she hat­ed lec­tures like this. “So tell me what hap­pened.”

I took a joyride, ran into a cou­ple of cops. They’re dead.”

So my guy said, when you called him. How’d you get his phone num­ber?”

You gave it to me, remem­ber? Told me use it in an emer­gency. If you actu­al­ly owned a phone, I would have called you direct.”

Yeah, well, he’s got one of those spe­cial phones, it’s hard­er to trace. I can’t fig­ure out how those work.” In Preacher’s world, nobody car­ried hard­ware con­nect­ed to the Inter­net, or went online with­out hid­ing behind lots of elec­tron­ic voodoo. “My guy, he said it was Ricky’s Mus­tang ran those dirty boys off the road?”

Yeah, it was Ricky’s car.”

Preach­er looked con­cerned. “You shoot Ricky?”

No, the cops did that. I was just hang­ing out. You ask me, he had a deal with them that went bad, or some­thing.”

Who knows? Ricky bled out before they made the hos­pi­tal.” Preach­er washed down anoth­er pill with his cof­fee, his eyes hum­ming elec­tric. “I’m going to clear this up. You don’t need to do any­thing. Hang tight, don’t say any­thing to any­one, okay?”

She sighed. “I’m sor­ry. It’s trou­ble you don’t need.”

Preach­er reached for­ward, his giant paw set­tling on her small one. “When I was your age, I got in scrapes like this a lot. It’s part of grow­ing up.”

So this’ll sound kin­da psy­cho.” She smiled a lit­tle. “But I liked the dri­ving part.”

See? Sil­ver lin­ing,” he said. “And here’s the oth­er good thing: no more cop to sniff his lit­tle pig-snout around your house. Five-oh knows one of their own was crooked, they’ll be glad to see him dis­ap­pear. In exchange for all this, though, you owe me a favor.”

She nod­ded. “Name it.”

Fin­ish high school, try to go to col­lege, the whole run. You can read your books there. You keep a low pro­file, you grad­u­ate, and if you still want, you can come work for me. We’ll have some fun togeth­er. Deal?”

I go to col­lege, who’ll watch Brad? Or my mom?”

I will.” Preach­er held up a hand, antic­i­pat­ing her argu­ment. “I know I haven’t been great about stick­ing around. But I’ve start­ed pay­ing the right peo­ple, and I got some good folks on my side. I’ll be around more, I swear. So, do we have a deal? Low pro­file?”

Max­ine laughed. “Okay,” she said. “You got a deal.”

Preach­er depart­ed, after hand­ing the bag of phones to Oates behind the counter. Max­ine fin­ished her cof­fee and left. Nobody ever found the wreck­age of the black car, or Dwight and his part­ner in crime. No cop ever swung by her family’s lit­tle house again.

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3 Responses to Joy Ride, fiction by Nick Kolakowski

  1. Jill Blythe says:

    I real­ly liked this. It had enough ten­sion to keep me just a bit on edge, but noth­ing too hard core nasty, and you kept the lan­guage decent enough so any­one could read it, kud­dos on that..

  2. Bill Baber says:

    Always enjoy Nick's stuff. This was great!

  3. Jim Wilsky says:

    Real­ly enjoyed this Nick. Ter­rif­ic writ­ing. Best I've read for a long time.

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