Second Chances like a Shot in the Head
The music blared through the car speakers. It wasn’t good by any stretch of the imagination, but it was loud and it was fast. He pressed down the pedal a little more and felt the warmth of the wind blow through the window. Life was good. A slow fade out and the next song came on. Like the one before it, Greg didn’t know it was it called but he hummed along anyway. Occasionally he tapped his fingers on the wheel. On beat or off beat it didn’t really matter. Either way it was another Saturday night.
Being sure to keep one hand on the wheel he reached out and turned the small knob releasing the glove box door. A brief moments rummaging was all it took to fish the pipe out from the pile of useless papers that stuffed the small storage area. In a practiced fashion his knees shot up, steadying the wheel, while his other hand positioned the pipe up to his lips. “Wha nan a na, boom boom ka doom” he hummed.
Anticipation began to build as he grabbed the shitty disposable lighter from his chest pocket. A spark turned into a small flame and he breathed in warm smoke. The green crumbs turned to a blackened brown as he puffed. Something about the taste always reminded him of mashed potatoes. He rolled this around in his head while he held his breath. One eternity later smoke came billowing out of his mouth like an impotent dragon. Life was good. The speedometer crept up to thirty. Greg put the lighter to the bowl of the pipe and took in another deep breath. The small pickup truck began to fishtail as it bounced over ruts in the gravel road. Greg eased up on the pedal and the dragon let out another breath of smoke. Gingerly he set the pipe and lighter on the bucket seat next to him. Soon enough he would need them again. He felt good, like he just got home and it was finally time to relax. Greg closed his eyes, titled his head back and breathed in deeply. For a moment he held the night air in his lungs. The trees began to blur and the branches overhead made it feel enclosed, like he was driving through a never-ending archway. The kind where you can always see the end but every step you take pushes it further away. A softer song than the previous ones came on the radio and he drove through the archway with an empty head. The mental image stuck in his head as the trees gave way to fields fenced with barbed wire that was punctuated by the occasional private property sign.
He didn’t see them off in the distance, as he reached for the pipe. Fumbling with the lighter took all of his focus and after a couple attempts, he was yet again breathing in warm smoke. The movement as the double yellow shifted to single file barely registered. His eye was fixated on the burning ember as he deeply breathed in. Then, like a rocket, it shot through the glass pipe and into the back of his throat. Instantly he began to cough, shooting billows of spit and smoke out. Gasping for air only brought the smoke back. The gas pedal slammed down and the truck began to fish tail. For the first-time shapes registered through his watering eyes as he tried to keep the small pick up straight. In a panic he overcorrected and lost what little control he had left. For a moment the figures were illuminated in the headlights, people, a man and woman. One of them dove headlong into the field while the other stood there. Slamming on the brakes Greg locked eyes with her. The frightened look on her face just before her head smashed into the windshield was burned into his mind. From time to time, throughout his life, this image would appear just as he was falling asleep. Each time he would reflexively slam on the brakes, shattering any hope of sleep for the night. It would always play out the same, just as it did now with her body twisting and breaking as the truck rolled over it. The body came to a stop a few yards into the field. The song on the radio faded out and silence filled the night air. Greg’s head slumped forward as if weighed down with the gravity of what had just happened. The first notes of another song rang out and Greg threw up all over his shirt. Even as the stench filled his nostrils it was a moment of relief. A brief interlude before he would have to face the situation. Greg didn’t open his car door, or call out from his window. He just breathed in deeply through his nose, mustered all the courage he could, and rose his head to look into the rear-view mirror.
The body hadn’t moved. It was still mangled and likely dead. A million thoughts rushed through Greg’s head at once. The terrible thing he had just done, how he had to help, had to hide the weed, wished it would all just go away. Scenes began to play out before him. In one he was being locked up in jail, in another he was saving the girl who looked so helpless and frail. Greg knew you weren’t supposed to move someone with a neck injury but he risked it, putting her in his truck and rushing her to the hospital. It took a little while but eventually she made a full recovery. Greg sat with her until she was well enough to leave the hospital and asked her for the coffee, they both knew was coming. She accepted, of course and their courtship was short. They were about to have their third child when a piercing set of eyes brought Greg back to reality. Standing over the girl was a figure, perfectly silhouetted by the moon. A hat obscured the light on his face making any features virtually impossible to make out, save for the eyes which almost seemed to glow. Through the rear-view mirror, they stared at Greg, unwavering, unblinking.
Without even realizing what he was doing he pressed in the clutch and put the truck into gear. It began to roll away. The figure stood motionless. Before finally taking his eyes away from the mirror Greg noticed the figure had something strapped to his back. It had a funny shape, almost like a guitar case. Though he never turned off the music, the rest of Greg’s trip was completely silent.
After what could have been as long as a month or as short as a minute Greg pulled into the driveway of the small house he rented. It was a nice two-bedroom place, small, but somewhat cozy. Until recently both rooms had been occupied but now it was only Greg. He went back and forth on posting an ad looking for another roommate, but ultimately decided against it. Instead he was able to make rent by using money left him by family that he didn’t really know. An aunt or cousin perhaps, once removed? It wasn’t a staggering amount by any stretch of the imagination but it was enough to see him through college, a nice down payment on a house, or squandering away while renting.
Greg sat in his truck in the driveway as it idled. Among the millions of thoughts speeding through his head one stuck out. Fumbling around in the glove box he did something he hadn’t done in years. He pressed down on the single large button and the garage door began to open. The truck eased forward into the privacy of the garage. Greg was glad he hadn’t found a new roommate. With another person’s stuff and it would have been a tight fit.
It wasn’t until the garage door was completely closed that Greg cautiously opened his car door. Everyone knew what he had done, he was sure of it. If the neighbors knew he was home they were sure to call the police. Groping for the light switch he laughed at the absurdity of the thought. To them it would be just like any other night. There was no way anyone could know what had happened, save for the girl and that other guy. The smooth wall of the garage gave way to the plastic light switch. He paused. Rather than turn on the light he groped for the door knob and made his way into the house.
The garage opened into a small washroom, that gave way to the kitchen and dining room. Greg beelined past the washer and dryer, through the kitchen and off toward his bedroom. The bathroom door was left open and as he walked passed, he caught his reflection in the mirror. For a brief moment his reflection stared back at him, illuminated in the moonlight that washed through the window. The gravity of the night was undeniable and before he could avert his eyes, one piercing thought rang though everything else. Greg hated himself.
He got into bed and pulled the covers up close to his neck. Some of the now dried vomit flaked off his shirt and mixed in the covers. That night was marked by restless sleep as he struggled to keep his eyes open. Afraid of the images that flashed in his head every time he closed them.
The alarm clock came and went, achieving little more than a groan as Greg rolled over and ignored it. When he finally woke up it was half noon. Rolling out of bed the memories of last night seemed distant, like a dream. It stayed that way as he sat down at the table and poured himself a bowl of cereal. He sat, intently studying the maze on the box of his lucky charms. It wasn’t until a stubborn piece of vomit flaked off that he was forced to face reality. Greg watched it float around mixing with the milk and marshmallows. There was no denying it, he was a murderer. And a coward.
Most of the rest of the day continued like that. Crushing guilt brought on by something that otherwise would not merit a second thought. From the stray flake of vomit in his cereal to a look in the eyes of one of the girls in his magazines. The two hours he spent trying to bang out the dent in the truck were the hardest. There was no blocking anything out then. For all his effort there was some improvement. Small though it was, it was improvement none the less. Eventually he opened his garage door and pushed the truck in the driveway. Greg wasn’t able to bring himself to sit in the driver’s seat, not yet.
After taking several photographs he pushed it back in and shut the door. The plan was to wait a couple of weeks and then sell it. Had he managed to live that long he probably would have.
That night he dreamed of the man with the strange pack and piercing eyes. Twice he woke up, sweating with the AC on. Each time had to gasp for a moment before air finally entered his lungs. Terrifying it its own right, it was made almost unbearable as each dream slowly faded. Only the vague memory of restless sleep remained with the sun.
Monday morning came and went. Greg’s shift didn’t start until the evening which meant most of the day light was spent playing video games. He couldn’t relax and became increasingly frustrated with each game. The only significant break in the first few hours came in the form of a short walk down to the newspaper boxes. He jammed a couple of quarters into his pocket on his way out the door. In total he got three papers, one from each box. Two were legitimate news publication with the third one being questionable. The front-page article was something about a woman giving birth to a turtle. Scanning it Greg gathered the bulk of the article was about locating the father. Greg didn’t normally trouble himself with the news but he scanned through each page none the less. Not one of the three papers made mention of a body. Greg felt calm as he tossed the papers in the garbage can and sat back down in front of the T.V.
The shift was mostly uneventful, punctuated by routine happenings at a mundane job. Luckily the gas station he worked at was only three quarters of a mile from his house so he didn’t technically need to drive. Even so most days he did. This time however, he opted to walk. He worked behind the counter, a simple and stress-free job. Unless it was a known travel day there were generally only two people staffed. One person would work the counter and the other would run out and pump gas.
By about nine thirty everyone that was going to get gas already had. From that point on it was a trickle of people. A few would get gas, sure, but for most it was cigarettes, or, beer, or chewing tobacco. Every once in a while, someone would come in and buy one of the single condoms hung up on a little stand near the counter. Next to it hung diet and penis extension pills with less than convincing packaging. By eleven it was hard to understand how it made fiscal sense for the gas station to be open, and by midnight they were closed. Technically they were supposed to stay past closing to clean and what not. It made more sense to Greg to just start mopping as soon as it closed down and just say you worked a full shift. It wasn’t even 10:45 when Greg got the broom, but it was slow. As he began to sweep the store, Jerry, the pump man for the night vaped a cigarette. By 11:20 The place was cleaned up and ready to go. Jerry pulled out of the small parking lot around the back at 12:10 and Greg was locking the doors less than a minute later.
A few scattered stars twinkled invitingly in the night sky. Greg felt a profound sense of optimism and determination as he looked up at them. To him, each one was a survivor. First having to dodge the streaking clouds that floated overhead, then without even a break, having to fight to not get drowned out by the street lights and neon signs. It was a wonder that Greg enjoyed as he walked home. “Sparky” he named one, “Shining balls” and so on. Half way through naming the eleventh star he heard them. Footsteps. They fell almost in perfect time with own. It was the almost that made him think twice and sent a chill down his spine. Suddenly he was aware that he hadn’t seen any cars for at least two blocks. By this time the bright lights of the store fronts had given way to dim porch lights and picket fences. He froze and the steps froze with him. Standing there in the middle of the sidewalk his heart rate rose. Taking a deep breath, he whipped his head around only to find an empty sidewalk. A smile began to form as relief washed over him. Just as he was about to his head back something caught the corner of his eye. “Just the wind” he told himself, trying to explain away the rustling of a bush a few houses back. He was quick to shut out the part of him that wondered why none of the bushes were shaking. Or why he didn’t feel a breeze on his arm. Surely a stray cat or maybe bird had found something of interest in the bush. Greg forgot all about “Sparky” and “Twinkletee bum” as he resumed his walk. Even though his footsteps rang out alone it was impossible to shake the feeling he was being watched. Little by little his pace grew in step with his unease. To any passerby he must have looked mad, almost jogging as he turned up the small walk to his front door. In no time at all his key was out and thrust into the handle of his door.
Inside was like a sanctuary. The familiar surroundings provided a sense of security and control. Feeling confident he opened the door, confirming again that there was nothing behind him. With that the last bit of insecurity faded and he closed the door, ready to continue his nightly routine. Step one was to cook some food. Really that meant having some cereal or heating up a frozen pizza. After that it was a quick wank followed by slowly nodding off huddled under the covers, basking in the warm glow of the television. Tonight’s program was an infomercial selling a bending ladder and an assortment of tools that could not possibly function as advertised. The sound of an overly enthusiastic woman droned on. Less than a minute later Greg’s eyelids began to grow heavy. The noise from the television began to fade into a hum as Greg found himself surrounded by friends. They laughed and told jokes that in any other setting would have elicited nothing more than a sympathetic chuckle. By any account it was perfect, and it was the last dream he would ever have. Waking up he could still almost hear the laughter, fading into the distance as the dream slipped from his mind.
Fading into the distance, the dream slipped from his mind. Many times over the years he would think back, desperately grasping at the memory of a dream. Even though he was never able to make out the faces the thought of it made him feel warm. It made him feel hope.
Greg rolled over onto his back, disturbing the small puddle of drool that had formed on his pillow. The television was still playing, casting a dim glow that silhouetted the figure standing in front of him. Though he was sure this was probably most likely certainly a dream Greg still had to hold his breath to keep from screaming. His knuckles clenched the blanket, turning white as he held the blanket up near his chin. The creature towered over him with its face covered in shadow. The only thing he could make out were the eyes, piercing and cutting straight through to him. Eyes that Greg recognized, though this time there was no rearview mirror to separate their gaze. Without saying a word, the creature raised his arm, extended a finger and tapped on the night stand next to the bed.
He didn’t smell urine or feel the warmth on his pajamas. His ears didn’t pick up the sound of the television or the tight squeal of his own mouth. All he could do was stare at the eyes staring back at him, piercing, cutting through the shadows. Even when the creature reached behind it’s back and pulled out a pistol Greg couldn’t break the stare. From his periphery he watched it raise, and felt steel against his forehead. Knowing what was coming, feeling helpless and deserving, he began to shiver.