Desi woke me in the late afternoon by turning the TV up full blast. She watched soaps all day every day and when I came to there was a plane rip-roaring through the sky. It was losing its engines and about to crash into the side of a mountain. A big fireball filled the screen as Desi put my steak and eggs on the kitchen table.
Oh no, she said as I rolled off the couch. There’s three people on that plane.
Eh, I said and sat down in my chair. You know well as I do nobody dies for good in this shit.
No, she said. I guess they don’t.
I cut in my steak, a gray-looking T-bone, and it was so rare that blood leaked out and sogged up my eggs. It didn’t matter though because I was so hungover and a little bloody steak was known to do wonders. I gobbled it up and drank my coffee while Desi sifted through the paper and sighed.
If you’re gonna sigh like that, I said, could you go in the other room?
Bill, she said, there’s so much awful.
Course there is, I said. Course there is.
They’re killin’ all kinds of folks in Africa, she said.
They always are, I said, getting angry. Something had been lost for us, though I didn’t know what it was.
Machetes and machine guns, she said.
As if on cue, Desi’s cat Patton came sauntering in from the other room. His hair was matted with snot. He was seventeen years old, barely going, and was Desi’s parents’ cat before they kicked off.
Hi Patty boy, Desi said, setting down her paper.
Patton let out a pathetic little cry and stumbled to the sink. Ever the bleeding heart, Desi picked him up and set him on the counter. She got the leftover eggs out of the microwave and put them in front of him. He more or less fell into those eggs and snorted and coughed until they were all gone.
Just save it, Desi said to me.
I’m not sayin’ nothin’, I said.
You thinkin’ it though, she said.
I’m just sayin’, I said, that if you love that cat you ought to have him put down. Show some mercy for once in your goddamn life.
Oh god, Desi said, that’s awful.
Just then Patton took a weak step away from the bowl and fell to the floor.
Patty boy, Desi said. You okay?
He gave another half-assed meow.
He’s sufferin’, I said. Cat that old ain’t nothin’ but misery.
You can be so cold-hearted, she said to me and picked Patton off the ground. She held him in her lap like a baby doll and he looked like he’d run the hell away if he had the energy. He’s part of the family, Desi said. That’s no way to treat someone you love.
All right, I said. I’m gonna clean up and head out.
You just got up, she said as Patton finally escaped, and you’re leavin’ already?
Got things to do, I said, grabbing a beer out of the fridge for the shower.
After something of a fight I got in my truck and drove the five miles into town and parked in the lot for The Winding Way Bar & Grill. My buddy Gus managed it of the week and he made sure the bartender got me my beer at gas station prices. There was no one there ‘cept for a fella playing pool by his lonesome and I had my pick of seats at the bar.
Budweiser? the bartender asked.
Yessir, I said.
I polished it off quick. Then another. I was already feeling the old buzz flooding back when Gus came in and made a beeline for me.
Hey Gus, I said. What’s the word?
Same bullshit, Gus said, different day.
I heard that, I said.
So, Gus said, I got some work to do, but you gonna be around awhile?
Think so, I said.
Okay, Gus said and let out a big gulp of air. Gus was a big guy, maybe three bills, and when he exhaled it was like a whale breathing on you. I got someone wants to meet you, he said.
Someone wants to meet me? I said. Hot damn. This someone have a name?
Gus stared at me and then smiled. Katelyn, he said. Her name’s Katelyn.
Katelyn, I said, like I was trying it on. Okay.
Gus smiled again and took off to do god knows what. I’d known the guy four years, since I made the move, and he’d always been kind. Sometimes he swung by and the two of us would down some beers and pop off a few rounds out back. He was good people, for sure, but I still didn’t tell him anything about my past life.
It was a funny thing to carry so much shit around. One day you’re set up for life in Illinois and the next you’re driving off in the middle of the night and renting a place in Warsaw, Kentucky of all places. And the distance didn’t help, no sir. I was still careful where I went and who I said what to.
But right then, at the bar, I wasn’t worried about that. I had a belly full of Bud and I wasn’t sweating Illinois or Desi or that damn cat or anything at all. I was thinking of Katelyn, who I’d never so much as seen but was in full and glorious love with. How Katelyn could’ve been anything but a big-tittied knockout with a love for literature I’d never know.
I tipped back another Bud and looked at the clock. Ten ‘til seven. I imagined her walking in, big hips under a plaid skirt and even bigger boulders squeezed into a tank- top. In my head she’d sit next to me and I’d say something smart about Sartre or Keats and the next thing I’d know she’d have my hand under the bar and trapped between her big thighs. By the time door got kicked in, I was asking her to run away in my dream. Asking her to come along and start things over again.
But the door got kicked in and when I looked around I noticed the bartender and that fella playing pool had all cleared out. Gus was nowhere to be found either. And the guy who walked in the door was a beast named Bower I knew from my previous life.
Blood, Bower said. Bloodbloodblood.
Hello old friend, said a voice from outside. I knew it was Teddy well before he stepped in, dressed in a cute little cream-colored suit.
Bower crossed the room in no time and got his paws around my neck. I was blacking out when he let go and Teddy’s face was a few inches from mine.
You left Illinois in such a hurry, he said with a frown. We didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye.
I was led out of the bar by Bower and tossed into the back of Teddy’s green Jaguar. Before Bower got in the front seat he handcuffed me and slapped me so hard across the mouth that two of my teeth popped out and landed on the seat next to me.
You’ll excuse the restraints, Teddy said, but we don’t want you cutting this reunion short.
Teddy started the Jaguar and it hummed like a kitten. I’d been in that car so many times before, but never under that bad of circumstances.
Hey, Teddy said, pulling out onto the gravel road and flipping on the headlights. Bower, my good man, won’t you give our friend here something to look at?
Bower grumbled and threw a handful of polaroids in my face. It was dark in the car, but I didn’t have to look to know what they were. They were of Desi from years back in all manner of undress. Some of her in the shower, sopping wet. Some of her on a bed, showing me everything and teasing me nearer.
You recognize those? Teddy said.
I do, I said.
I thought maybe you did, he said. It’d be odd for such an accomplished photographer not to recognize his own work.
We drove in silence for the better part of twenty minutes, Teddy winding the Jaguar around the back roads and through the state forest. Every now and then Bower would get to breathing hard and he’d turn around and press his big gorilla-like face into the backseat and rain my cheeks with spit.
Bower’s angry, Teddy said eventually. You see, Bill, he’s a very reasonable man, Bower, and he doesn’t like injustice. He doesn’t like it when people take things that aren’t theirs.
Who does? I said.
Bower reached back and drove the mountains of his knuckles into my chin and knocked my jaw out of place.
You’re a funny man, Teddy said. A very funny man, Bill.
The car was silent again and I watched the headlights ahead of us bobbing through the dark. I could tell we’d entered the next county by how the signs had changed. We were heading, no doubt, for Berea, an hour or so away. I knew Teddy kept a safehouse there and if we got that far I was good as dead.
I’ll never forget, Teddy said maybe a half hour outside of Berea, the morning I woke up and she was gone. I’d had a dream that I was a fish and I was swimming upstream. The other fish were all coming at me, head-on, and when they hit me I could feel their scales and slime and I had to keep pressing forward.
Bone, Bower said. Motherfucking bone.
In due time, Teddy said to him. And when I made it upstream, Bill, do you know what I saw?
What? I said.
The bodies, Teddy said. All the bodies that I’d left in my wake.
I slumped back in the backseat and tried to work my hands out of the cuffs without any kind of success. I’d seen what Teddy and Bower were capable of. Had seen Bower bash a man’s head in until all that was left was soup and bits of hair.
What happens now? I said.
What happens? Teddy said. Oh, nothing much Bill. We take you to a nice, safe place, we strap you to a bed, and we let Bower here live out all of his fantasies.
Bower turned around in his seat and gave a smile so big in the dark that his rocky yellow teeth glittered.
He’s had dreams too, Teddy said. And in his dreams he removes a man’s arms and legs and every last breathing organ until he simply disappears.
Bower reached into his pocket and pulled out the longest and sharpest skinning knife I’d ever seen.
It’s a wonderful thing, Teddy said, when dreams come true.
I closed my eyes then and concentrated on my heart. The thing I wanted so bad right then was to reach in and make it stop. Dead cold stop. Turn it off like turning off a switch to a lamp. I said to it, Stop. Stop right now. And it just kept on beating. I gave up finally and opened my eyes and that’s when I saw the deer.
Up ahead, in the middle of the road, a buck stepped out onto the center line. It had a huge rack, maybe an eight-pointer, and it turned its head to us and watched the headlights race closer and closer. Teddy made the mistake most people do. He slammed on the brakes and wrenched the wheel of his Jaguar. The car went up on two wheels and then rolled over and over, three or four times, until we landed rightside up with a thud in a roadside ditch.
The front windshield was spidered through with cracks and splattered with blood from both the buck and Bower. Bower had rocketed forward when Teddy hit the brakes and the crown of his head bounced off the glass and caved in. He was sitting face-down against the console, his blood leaking out and onto the fine upholstered floor.
Teddy, from what I could tell, had been killed too. He didn’t move, didn’t seem to breathe, and when I yelled at him, Teddy, hey Teddy, he didn’t budge. I was all right for the most part, maybe a broken rib or two, because I’d thrown myself in the seat just as soon as Teddy hit the brakes. I hurt bad as hell and blood was dripping down and stinging my eyes, but I had my faculties about me in a short.
The first task was to get the cuffs off. I tried a trick an old buddy of mine had taught me where you rub one of your wrists against the metal until the skin starts to peel away. After a whole mess of blood and flesh was lost I could just barely slide my hand out of the cuff. The door was dented in so far that I had to lie back down on the seat, among the glass and blood, and mule kick until it finally flew out with a groan.
On the road, in the headlights, I could make out the deer. It had tumbled into the Jaguar and been thrown off the back end. Almost a perfect line from where it’d been hit. It laid there in the road, gurgling and hissing and moaning. Its back legs were shattered, crooked at different, unnatural angles. One of its shiny black eyes caught mine and I thought of how lucky I’d been for that goddamn animal to step out and take a hit like that, and I thought about how I should do it a solid.
I went back to the Jaguar and knocked out the window where Bower was slumped over. The knife he’d showed me was on his lap and I reached in and got it. That was when I heard the noise from the driver’s seat. I walked around the other side, that knife at the ready, and smashed that window too. Teddy couldn’t look up, but he was breathing and moaning just like that deer.
How bad you got it? I said to him. God, he said, oh god.
Teddy, I said. How bad you got it?
Bill, he said. Oh god, Bill.
I reached in and pulled him off the steering wheel. Glass caked his face and was sticking out of his cheek and lips and eyes. He was a mask of blood and gore and with every breath he moaned and whimpered.
Hey, I said. Teddy.
Bill, he said. Bill, oh god, it hurts. Oh god, I never knew.
You never knew such pain? I said.
No, he said. Oh god, Bill. No.
Good, I said and walked into the middle of the road. The buck was still struggling there, his broken legs running on their own. He let out a muzzled cry and I took that knife, Bower’s knife, and ran it gently across his throat and let him go. The crying and the running stopped.
Teddy, I said from the road.
Yeah, he said mournfully.
You good in there? I said.
God, he said. Bill, he said. End me.
Visit again sometime, I said. We’ll have us a reunion. A good one.
Bill, he said.
I got to go home to Desi, I said to him. Maybe we’ll get the camera out for old time’s sake.
Bill, he said as I walked away. Please.
Jared Yates Sexton is a born-and-bred Hoosier working as an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia Southern University. His work has been nominated for a pair of Pushcarts, The Million Writer’s Award, and was a finalist for The New American Fiction Prize. His first book, An End To All Things, is available from Atticus Books.