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‘Till the Road Runs Out
by Luciano Marano
The ratty doublewide burned faster than they expected, and when the whiskey-fueled flames reached the meth lab in the trailer’s back bedroom, the explosion was likewise extraordinary.
Hicks gulped the last of the Jack Daniel’s, wiped his mouth with his hand. The flames were warm against his shirtless torso, his muscles hard and lean from his most recent turn inside. He leaned back on the Mustang’s hood, feeling toasty inside and out as he was tickled by the heat of the fire and the fuzzy embrace of booze. He ran a hand over his fresh buzz cut, crossed one booted ankle over the other and casually lobbed the empty bottle into the fire.
He cast an admiring glance at Dakota. He looked hot, like something out of a vintage heavy metal video, standing near the trunk in tight jeans, black boots and a tank top. Platinum highlights streaked through his long, raven-hued hair. Dakota hugged himself and watched his childhood home burn, a cocky smirk on his glossy lips. Hicks felt something at his feet and looked down to see a fat orange cat rubbing against him. He kicked it, not hard. It hissed. He chuckled.
Dakota stepped over, slapped his shoulder and picked up the cat. “Asshole,” Dakota said, nuzzling it lovingly. “Be nice to my pussy.”
Hicks shoved off from the car and pulled Dakota close, the warm cat pressed between them. He grabbed a handful of that luscious dark hair and pulled, just hard enough, the way Dakota liked, and said, “Fuck your pussy.”
Dakota’s tongue snaked out and licked Hicks’ stubbly chin. “Promises, promises.”
“First things first,” Hicks said. They kissed, the fire roaring before them. “First we see the Duke, sell this shit.” He looked at Dakota, looked him up and down real slow, like he enjoyed every inch of the view. “Then we’ll take care of the rest.”
Hicks opened the passenger door, and Dakota slid in, petting the cat. Hicks slammed it shut and walked around, grabbing his jacket from the top of the pile of bags in the backseat through the open window. It wasn’t much to look at, but it was everything worth taking from this place — plus a shitload of crystal.
Whatever else he’d been before he became barbecue, Dakota’s father had been a hell of a cook. He’d offered up his whole stash before Hicks had introduced his face to a shotgun. A right nice gesture. Of course, they were taking the stuff anyway. And his money. And his guns. His blubbery apologies were years too late for Dakota, and Hicks had done worse things for less worthy causes. Killing that S.O.B. had been just the cherry on the sayonara sundae on their way out of this pit.
“That was so hot, babe,” Dakota said. “The way you made him cry.”
Hicks put on his coat and slipped into the driver’s seat, gunned the engine and spared one more look at the conflagration. “Didn’t I tell you I’d take care of it?”
Dakota hugged the cat. “Do you love me?”
“All the way, baby,” Hicks said. “Till the road runs out.”
He threw the hotrod in gear, peeled out and made for the highway, bearing down hard, chasing — and finally gaining on — his own little bloody slice of the American dream.
The Mustang devoured road. The engine roared like a hungry beast as they sped west into the humid north Florida night. Hicks turned his head and Dakota slipped a Marlboro between his lips, holding out the flaming Zippo. He sucked deep and pressed down on the gas. Ozzy wailed from the radio. Waffles slept on the bags.
“What kind of name is Waffles for a cat?” Hicks said.
Dakota only shook his head patronizingly, as if the question were too stupid to bother with, and lit a cigarette for himself.
Hicks said, “Good thing you’re pretty.”
Dakota rolled his sparkly eyes and smiled. He could be on his way to the grocery store instead of fleeing a murder scene. Hicks liked that. He’d been concerned that Dakota was all talk in the joint, and he’d watched real close for signs of doubt back at the trailer. When Dakota kicked things off, breaking a lamp over dear old Dad’s head, Hicks had known he was for real, and he had been glad. He’d had every intention of making off with the goods either way — alone, if need be. But that’s not how he wanted it. Not anymore.
Hicks wasn’t nervous either. He felt no guilt. The speeding was more for the joy of the ride, his love of his car and the rush of newly reclaimed freedom, than fear of getting caught. The cops didn’t come out here unless they had to. No neighbors in the trailer park would have called them. They all had secrets of their own to hide. The fire department would come, but even after they found the body it would look like another meth lab accident. By the time the so-called authorities figured how Brad Chambers actually bought it, they’d be long gone.
Hicks was calm, though he wouldn’t be totally at ease until after meeting with the Duke. He didn’t like drugs and he hated drug dealers, hated their fake-ass tough guy posturing and drama. Still, there was nobody better to help them unload a stash this size. The money wouldn’t be exactly fair, but it’d be pretty close. And for now, pretty close was close enough. He pulled a pistol from between the seats, switched it to his left hand.
“What are you doing?” Dakota said.
Hicks aimed at the highway marker and pulled the trigger without slowing down. A hole exploded in the green metal sign overhead, a crater replacing the dot above the “I.”
“Show-off,” Dakota said. His flirty giggle made Hicks think about porch swings and camp fires, sunny beaches and snow on Christmas, cold beer in the morning and hot sex at night. All good things.
Hicks replaced the gun. Dakota leaned over and laid on his chest, one hand moving under his jacket, lazily stroking the smiling devil tattoo on Hicks’ stomach. The kid was asleep in seconds. He wasn’t really a kid, of course, but he seemed so young to Hicks that sometimes there wasn’t anything else to call him. Hicks snuck a peek down, feeling Dakota’s warm, rhythmic breathing on his chest, and watched his lover’s closed eyes twitch. He’d been sneaking glances at the kid for days, thinking about not thinking about him, after Dakota first arrived inside, long before they actually met.
It had been Dakota’s first time in a real jail, and it had showed. Hicks had seen the kid take a few beatings, but he hadn’t stepped in. He’d been a career con doing his own time, and he’d only wanted to be left alone. Helping people got you killed, he knew that for certain, though Hicks had still not been able to help himself from thinking about the new arrival with the pretty eyes.
Theirs was not a meet-cute by any Hollywood standard, not even by porno standards. But we don’t get to choose who we love in this world, Hicks thought, no more so than we get to choose how we meet them. He had come across two big Aryans going at the kid, and he hadn’t thought twice. Having caught them with their pants actually down, he had all the advantage he needed and more.
By the time the guards responded, Hicks had painted that cell in a fresh coat of red blood. To the hole he’d gone, but it was a small price to pay. When he came back to the block, Dakota was waiting for him. They started talking. When Dakota got out, there were letters. Letters became phone calls, visits. By the time Hicks got out, they’d had a plan. He’d made a few calls, picked up his car, and come calling on Dakota.
Happiness isn’t just for pretty people, Hicks thought. It’s not just for rich people, smart people or even just for nice people. After a lifetime of tough breaks and raw deals, bad choices and worse luck, he figured it was only fair that even a broken-down con inching ever further past forty had the right to a shot at some happiness in this fucked-up world. Everyone should get a chance, and this was his. He knew he wouldn’t get another.
But that was okay. One was all he needed.
He’d always been a good shot.
A solitary figure was stumbling down the dirt road, and Hicks could smell his happy ending begin to rot.
There shouldn’t be anybody out here, he thought. That’s the point of the spot. The Duke didn’t hold court in Nowhere, Alabama for the scenery. It was a lonely place a million miles from anywhere a sane person would want to be. He flicked on the high beams, recognized the wounded man and realized that as bad as he thought it might be, it was actually much worse. He threw the car into park.
“Stay here,” Hicks said to Dakota as he grabbed the pistol and got out. Before him the man fell to his knees into a widening pool of blood, squinting dazedly into the car’s lights.
“Georgie?” Hicks said, kneeling to look the man over closely. “It’s Hicks. What happened? Where’s your brother? Where’s Duke?”
Slowly, Georgie turned to look at Hicks and his bruised lips spread into a lazy smile. “I got guts,” he said, voice cracking with a sudden, tittering giggle. “I got guts, Hicks. So much guts.”
He really did. They were in his hands.
Cupped near his waist, Georgie carried two handfuls of dripping intestines. A few loose ends dangled absently, having slipped through his fingers. Blood and bile oozed out of the ragged gash in his stomach beneath a silk shirt that had once been white. Dakota’s door opened, but Hicks waved him back. He grabbed Georgie’s shoulder and shook him. “Where’s Duke? Who did this to you?”
“Santa Muerte,” Georgie whispered.
As cold as it was, Hick’s heart was gripped by icy fingers of fear at the words. Saint Death. A folk-tale god, deity of the damned. The skeletal Madonna had become the patron saint of murderers, drug dealers and even more deranged members of the underworld. Hicks had seen tattoos and prayer cards in the joint. Most of it was harmless, a sort of grass-roots religion among the new outlaw class. Like all religions, though, it had fanatics, and they were maniacs.
This was as ugly as could be. Legit Death Heads were bad news: a cult of criminals who worshipped the grim reaper. If Duke and his boys had run afoul of lunatics like that, there would be nothing left of them to save — not that Hicks was interested in coming to their rescue. What he wanted was much more practical than salvation.
“Georgie,” Hicks said. “Did Duke bring the money?”
No answer. The gutted man swayed on his knees, stared into the headlights.
Hicks tried again. “Did Duke bring the money? Is it still at the spot?”
Georgie retched, the bloody vomit spilling over the mound of exposed guts he cradled in his arms.
Hicks grabbed the man’s slim ponytail, jerked his head back and pressed the pistol to Georgie’s crotch. He spoke very slowly. “Is my money still at the spot? Answer me, or I swear I’ll bury your balls with whatever’s left of your brother.”
Georgie nodded. “He brings it.”
“Tell me where.”
“You’re not serious,” Dakota said. “We can’t.”
“We can’t,” Hicks agreed, pushing the Mustang off the dirt road. “I can.”
“We can’t make a new life with fifty grand worth of ice. We need the money.”
“I’m going, too.” Dakota reached into the backseat and grabbed the shotgun.
“No,” Hicks said. “I’m just going to have a look.”
“Then there’s no reason I can’t go.”
Georgie moaned from the passenger seat.
Hicks said, “Don’t you bleed in my car, you stupid spic.”
Dakota held the gun by the slide and cocked it with one hand. He reached for the blue duffel bag that held the others and slung it over his shoulder, then smiled and blew Hicks a kiss. “Sissy.”
“Bitch,” Hicks said.
The night wind swept through the sparse trees and silence held sway over the world. One shot, Hicks thought. Make it count. “Fine. Let’s go.”
Waffles meowed in the backseat as he watched them leave, and Hicks couldn’t help but wonder: Was the fat bastard shouting encouragement or a warning at their backs?
The bonfire in the center of the circled vehicles burned bright, fueled by the bodies of the slain cartel members and the wood and shrubbery gathered beneath them. Duke and his gang were crucified, hoisted up on makeshift timber crosses, blazing away before the writhing orgy of carnage below them, a pyromaniac’s version of Jesus.
Hicks smelled the charred flesh before he saw it. He expected the worst, and he was not disappointed. At his side, he heard Dakota gag.
On the ground, the Death Heads painted each other with the innards of another body. They were naked, emaciated and awful to see. He’d heard that the true believers often starved themselves to look more like their gruesome god. Their skeletal fingers tore slippery pieces from the gaping wound in the dead man’s belly, smearing themselves with gore. The body had no head. Hicks saw three of the psychos off to the left, kicking something around like a soccer ball — something with long dark hair.
A putrid corpse dressed in white robes sat before the fire and the burning bodies in a ratty armchair. Dead flowers, along with severed body parts, were scattered around it. Burning red candles encircled the cult’s dreadful idol as it watched over the ritual.
Hicks and Dakota sank to the ground outside the light of the fire. Hicks counted at least eight of the cultists, maybe more in the clearing. Even if there had been nine or ten enemies, he might not have hesitated to take them on alone, armed as he was — he’d beaten worse odds. But Death Heads were something else.
Hicks eyed a black Durango with tinted windows on the far side of the fire. “There it is. That’s where Georgie said it’d be.”
Dakota shook his head. “No way.”
Hicks said, “I’m getting what we came here for.”
“We don’t need it. We’ve got cash already.”
A wail rose up from the gathering by the fire as the Death Heads finally clawed the eviscerated corpse apart.
“Fuck it,” Dakota said. “We’ll figure something out. Let’s just dump the drugs and bail.”
The kid didn’t get it. He couldn’t possibly understand what it had taken Hicks a lifetime of eating shit to learn. Starting fresh, hitting the road with nothing, is only exciting when you’re young. But after starting from scratch again and again, after having nothing for so long, Hicks knew it wouldn’t work. Not in the long run, and this time was for keeps. Till the road runs out, right? This was his shot. He was going to do it right, and that included getting that money.
They’ve said that hope is free, that it didn’t cost anything to have faith. Bullshit. Hicks knew they were full of it, whoever they were, and that hope was plenty expensive. A clean start, safe home, doctors, all the operations — the life that Dakota wanted, that he deserved? Hicks tallied these mounting aspirations in his mind’s ledger. A better tomorrow cost money. There was a whole lot of hope in the gutter. Hicks had spent enough time there to know.
“Go back and start the car,” he said. “Be ready.”
Hicks grabbed the bag, got up and moved into the darkness before Dakota could say anything else. He knew that if he gave himself half a chance, he’d stay. He’d give in and they’d leave with nothing. He walked fast, making his way around the edge of the firelight and staying behind the cars when he could. Dakota’s scared, pretty eyes burned in his mind, and the shrieks of maniacs rang in his ears.
Just one more bad thing, Hicks told himself. Just be that guy one more time and you’ll have the rest of your life — your real life, it starts today — to get over it.
Better men have done worse things.
Hicks reached the Durango and opened the door without being seen. He found the suitcase in the backseat, just like Georgie’d said he would. He opened it and began stacking packs of bills into the duffel bag beside the guns. Every squeal and scream from the fire made him jump. When he was finally done, he started back.
About fifteen feet from the SUV, something struck the ground to his left. The head. A wild kick had sent the dusty severed head flying high, arcing through the air to land, bounce and roll to a stop right next to him. The cult was quiet as all eighteen of their hollow eyes turned and stared at him in unison. Hicks leveled the shotgun.
The Death Heads fanned out and began to approach. Hicks thought of ordering them back and dismissed it. Even if they understood, they would not care about his threats. They loved death. What other threat could he offer?
He tucked the shotgun under his arm, and drew two pistols from his jacket pockets. The Death Heads were closing in fast, clawing their own flesh with sharp, dirty fingernails, working themselves up into a frenzy of bloodlust.
Hicks opened fire.
The tall bald man on his far left took the first shot in the chest and went down quick. On his right, Hicks managed to hit a woman in the shoulder. She spun around and fell, but she kept crawling toward him. His second shot found her head.
Hicks kept shooting as he backed toward the Durango. The seven left were spread further out now, flanking him in the dark like Halloween decorations come to life. He kept shooting at the four he could see.
Reaching the car, Hicks dropped the bag of money and the shotgun by his feet. He rested against the vehicle and sited a man with a grizzly beard. The first shot hit his chest, the second, his neck. Hicks moved on instantly to a young girl nearing him on the right. She was close. He could smell her. The reek of shit, blood and vomit made his eyes water.
He pulled the trigger, and the gun clicked empty. He tossed it, tried the other one. Same story. He reached down and came up with the shotgun just as she lunged, emptying both barrels into her stomach and cutting her in half in mid-air. Splattered with a warm rain of blood and guts, Hicks dropped the empty shotgun and pulled another pistol from the bag. The only sound as he scanned the dark was the crackling of the fire.
Pain erupted in his shoulder, and Hicks screamed. From the roof of the Durango, a young boy wearing a necklace of bones raised a long wooden spear and plunged it down again. Hicks tried to duck, but the spear sank into his back. He stepped away and shot the boy, saw him fall silently from the roof.
Suddenly, he was knocked to the ground. The spear fell from his back, and the wind rushed from his lungs. A big man loomed over him, brandishing a machete. Hicks raised the pistol, but the lunatic brought the large blade down onto the back of his hand. Several of his fingers fell cleanly away, and Hicks saw himself drop the gun.
With a shrill cry mismatched to his size, the man raised the blade high above his head. Hicks, half-blind with pain and struggling to breathe, kicked as hard as he could up toward the man’s dangling genitals. The big man doubled over, clutching himself, as Hicks rolled out of reach.
Getting shakily to his feet, Hicks saw the other three coming closer: two women and a man with his long hair slicked back and shiny with fresh blood. Hicks reached into his boot and pulled out his hunting knife, tucking his wounded hand close to his chest.
A sound erupted from the far side of the fire, one Hicks knew well. Two bright spotlights grew large in the dark as Hicks’ car burst over the hillside, flying through the air like a V8-powered magic carpet. The Mustang came down hard and clipped the seated corpse idol. It sailed into the fire, chair and all, as the car skidded to a stop, flinging dust and gravel.
Hicks smiled as he saw Dakota at the wheel, looking mad as hell. He leapt out, blasting away with a sawed-off pump-action like he’d been born to do it. The girls scattered, and the long-haired man scurried behind a nearby pickup.
The big man with the machete, though, having recovered from the shot he’d taken to the balls, ran straight at Hicks.
Dakota, too far away to shoot without hitting Hicks, watched him and the man with the machete meet in a bone-snapping collision. The big man landed on top of Hicks, who thrust his blade desperately up, gouging into the lunatic’s left eye. Distantly, he felt the rusty blade of the machete push deep into his stomach, an enormous pressure crushing his neck.
His vision failing, Hicks tore his knife free from the big man’s eye socket and stabbed it into the side of his neck, pulling as hard as he could. The Death Head’s throat ripped apart like a soggy garbage bag, spilling blood and stringy bits of muscle and flesh down onto Hicks’ face. Still, the maniac squeezed harder at his throat and pushed the machete up deeper into Hicks’ belly. It felt like the tip was in his chest, poking a lung. Every breath was agony. The handle jutted out from the mouth of his laughing devil tattoo like a strange black tongue.
Dakota appeared above them suddenly and emptied a small .22 pistol into the big man’s back. The maniac finally slumped over and was still, and Hicks fell into blackness.
The screech of jamming gears roused Hicks. He forced his eyes open and saw the world rushing past outside the car. His hands were heavy in his lap, one wrapped in a stained sweatshirt and throbbing. A sticky, warm puddle squished beneath his ass as he tried to sit up. Pain, indescribable pain, pushed him back down.
“Hold on,” Dakota yelled, tears streaming from his eyes. His foot slammed the gas pedal to the floor. “Hold on, Hicks.”
Hicks tried to speak but found his tongue was too heavy. He blinked hard and saw the blue bag at his feet — feet he could not move — spilling over with cash. The kid would be OK. He could be anything he wanted, whoever he wanted to be. In countless mirror and window reflections over the years to come, that sly, sexy, beautiful smile would be Hicks’ memorial. On whatever face the kid chose, beneath any hair, that smile would sit resolutely below those wonderful, sparkly eyes, just for him. Not a bad legacy, Hicks thought. Better men have checked out with less.
And where was Georgie? Only Waffles stared back at him from the backseat, ambivalent, as if he were not surprised by these recent grim developments. Hicks decided he didn’t care. It was getting hard to focus. He threw up, and spit and blood spilled down over his chest. It pooled in his lap on the already sodden blanket that was wrapped tightly around him like a big plaid bandage.
“You just hold on,” Dakota said. “Just hold on! All the way, remember? Till the road runs out.”
But the road was ending. Dakota couldn’t see it yet, but Hicks could. A large black tunnel was approaching just up ahead, swallowing the horizon. They were speeding right toward it. Hicks saw the sun rising behind them in the side mirror. They were driving west. If you drive west fast enough at dawn, Hicks thought, it’s like you’re driving into the past, back into yesterday.
Hicks didn’t care for yesterday much, not any of the many yesterdays he’d known. He wished he could have been born later — ten, maybe twenty years from now. Maybe the world of tomorrow would have been his time. He’d been too early, and now it was way too late. But maybe that’s what it would take. Maybe he was the kind of guy that fueled the machines of progress. The pain flowed out of him then, sudden as a blink, and with it the regret. It was silly to regret. He’d had his shot, after all.
The world doesn’t care if you’re in love. It doesn’t care about your regrets or your promises. It doesn’t owe you anything. The world is full of monsters. They grow out of slinking under beds and crouching in closets, and they get worse. Once, a little boy named Gavin Hicks had thought you could beat those monsters if you were tough, if you made yourself scary enough, so he’d bloodied his knuckles and sharpened his tongue and cultivated a good glare and big, hate-filled muscles. He’d injected an armor of ink beneath his scar-covered flesh to hide the cracks.
It had worked, too, for a while. But he’d learned too late that grown-up monsters don’t fight like that. They’re carved of brick and steel, made of disappointment and regret, and they’re relentless. In order to take down those monsters, you have to have the right ammo and you’ve gotta be very quick. There are no second chances, none that ever really count. It’s not fair, but in the world of grown-up monsters, hate is a half measure and even love is most often a bullet of insufficient caliber. Maybe tomorrow it would be enough. Hicks had time to hope — quickly, just before the darkness got too deep — that it would.
Dakota was shouting. It sounded faint and very far away. They drove into the tunnel, and there was nothing but cool darkness and the lulling pulse of the engine.