Jord and Tom and the two Bens bundled in the 69 Montego. Tom up front bent over the heater churn. Descending cold February evening. A whole hour south before home. Soft rock radio weeping like old pictures on the wall. Flat receding signals. Canopy lights purr and stutter. Neil ushered out of the store. Doors locked; lights shut off. The clerk’s outline in the glass waiting.
“Who saw the guy that came out before me?”
Neil hands off the bags full of junk food, throws the car up the onramp. The two Bens go back to their game of swapping baseball cards.
Long loose stretches of silence.
“It’s a moose.”
“That’s not a moose.”
Neil strains as he slowly bridges the gap with the brake lights up ahead with the effort it takes to fold the distance bare handed.
“It’s a runaway moose. They chase those big trucks off the road when they’re in heat.”
“No they don’t! Why? There’s no moose.”
“Can we stop at the drive-through?”
“Not anymore, we passed it.”
“Lets us have a piece of your donut there.”
“That’s not what that is.”
“Unless it’s circled back.”
Just two cars in the dark on the world’s smallest convoy. Just black wind and outer space grinding together. Neil patiently chases the brake lights through the loop to the overpass that slingshots over the highway. Mountains hiss and fall back as they loom closer, their veins opening up, catching both cars in one wounded gulp. It was hard to see over the noise of snow drifts that came over them as their hour finished up, whipping over the asphalt like worms in a lovely dim well.
“Look at the size of it!”
“Come to put it in our gas hole!”
“Can you stop?”
For a while they sit idling at the bend of a two-lane camping road. The car ahead about sixty feet doing the same. Jord leans forward, “It’s not supposed to snow. We should go back.”
“Don’t move. Nobody gets out, okay?”
They all nod. “Nobody gets out.”
Tom turns off the radio to watch Neil march the headlight’s path over to the compact two-door, smoke-sock dancing out of its exhaust pipe. They all watch Neil stoop to speak to the driver. Frozen in the spotlight as the engines applaud. Unclear what happened; Neil returns to the car.
“We need to get out of the car. I think he wants to kill us for it.” Neil ushers them out into the cold, to a clearing lit with packed snow tamped down by tread-tracks.
They wander for a long time in noise and dark with nothing but their jackets and caps. Angry gales of frost so cold they cut and seal the skin. The storm singing a single note. Ben J shouts that hands are tugging at his jacket. He blames Ben M behind him in procession. Ben J blurts something and breaks out; vanished swiftly behind the pine rows. Jord chases after him whistling for Ben J like a dog. Ben M sobs to himself.
“It’s always like two heads and one arm with you guys.” The wind blasts like inverted antlers into their soft tissue.
Before them sits a small camp. Two small sheds and a trailer with the window smashed out the back.
Center light fades up.
Jord stands in the center of the front room. “Oh, this is nothing.” He raises his hand, bandaged in a dishrag. He doesn’t say if he caught up with Ben J. Ben M moans like a deaf man by the west wall, slapping his left palm against his thigh. Neil’s voice trembles, pacing. “Wasn’t that Pete Orston’s car? I thought it was Pete Orston’s car. It had to be. I was going to catch up to him. He’ll be looking for us now. He said he’ll shoot us—You shouldn’t have done that. Now you’re bleeding.”
Ben M, rocking himself in a chair by the east wall, crying for the food he left in the car.
“No. He’ll see us. It’s too cold. You’ll die. We’ll die.”
“Who’ll see us?”
Center light fades out.
“Was it a mad hungry giant?”
“Was it Dr Cyclops or his eye?”
At daybreak Tom takes Ben M back up along the clearing to retrieve the food he begged for all night. Horrifying sheen on everything. The mountain spits it all back on them. Too deep; binding. White hot against the foot.
Center light fades up.
Jord sits at the table in the center of the front room. Neil by the door. “I’m going to check the sheds. Don’t break anything. We could get in trouble.” Once Neil is gone Jord retrieves a piece of candy from his pocket and gobbles it.
Tom stands in the kitchenette beyond the front room. “Neil found enough cans of beans to last about ten or more days if we’re careful. We have to be careful.” Jord lays on his side in the front room by the east wall, clutching his stomach. “Where’s Ben?”
Center light fades out.
Dawn comes and ground is always different. A little or a lot. Unstoppable rise of hard ice and snow. Again, Tom and Ben M go out to see how far down the clearing they can get before having to turn back. “I can’t see anything.”
“I think I hear a baby crying.”
Two six-foot tanks beside one of the lean padlocked outbuildings. Neil buffs the side of one with the sleeve of his jacket. “There’s a beauty to this place. You have to be careful about sleeping or you will die. We don’t want that. We should sleep one at a time to make sure one of us doesn’t go under. We have to keep an eye on each other until help comes.”
Center light fades up.
Neil stands in the center of the front room. Tom in the kitchenette. “Where were you? Ben hasn’t come back from looking for Ben.” Tom’s arms are trembling. Cold made stiff rags of his face. Jord eats beans from the can at the table by the eastern wall. “We’ll go looking in the morning.”
“He’ll be dead by then.”
Neil stands in the center of the front room. Jord splayed on his back by the west wall. Neil tries to explain why Tom hadn’t returned with him, but he trails off. He can’t. Jord does not appear to be listening. “I was looking between the upper winds and the lower winds, a space I could fit maybe three fingers, in the whole sky.” His mouth trembling. “And those cold blue glass eyes hanging on the face of the air, like screeching hawks, trumpets. Ambush. Snow could bury you in minutes. I’ve seen it before. They lure you out with matches.”
Neil crouched in the corner of the front room by the west wall. He thinks about the last woman he was with. The inside of the taco bar looked just like the outside. An odd sensation; a building that could make you forget you were in it. Men and women spit on the floor. It was slick between the table legs. She said not to worry about a condom. He watched her sit on the toilet and try to piss it out.
Jord stands in the kitchenette. Tom is on the floor of the front room by the west wall. “Five cans for the rest of your life.” Tom lifts his head. “Where’s Neil?”
“He’s still outside. He hasn’t regained his former self.”
“Oh, this is nothing.” Neil stands in the center of the front room. His sneakers are so soggy they detach at the seams. They ooze on the laminate slats. In his arms a hefty pile of candy. The trailer is empty. “It wasn’t blood coming out of him. More like milk or jizz or I don’t know. I can’t unsee it.” Knocks booming from the door. “I’m sorry. I can’t.” Knocking continues.
Jord lays on the floor of the front room by the east wall. Shivering under a bedding of leftover linens. He spoke over the noise of hot and cold pain wriggling through his abdomen. “I am innocent. I never did it. My god am I innocent!” Tom sits at the table in the center of the front room, digging his finger at the bottom of a can of beans. “Don’t move. There are cameras everywhere.” Jord couldn’t stop pissing himself. Tom said nothing about it. There was a sound. Like an infinite number of words. Every inch hurts. Painful wind of fever holding him still for the cold to take his blood and starve his brain. “Just slip into the role and don’t worry about yourself anymore. The role has your words down already. Don’t just say it, play it.”
Neil sits at the table in the front room by the west wall, chewing on a portion of his belt. Jord at the sink in the kitchenette. Tom laying on the floor against the east wall. “He smells like he’s already dead. Tonight or in the morning. Watch his eyes.”
Center light fades out.
Neil stands outside, hands at his waist, as Tom backs the 69 Montego to the trailer door. The snow has all cleared. Sun shines life into the landscape. A sticker on the back bumper: WE ARE THE VEHICLES. Tom rolls his side window down. “We followed you here from the gas station.” Neil turns to open the trailer door but it’s locked. He bangs his fist against the door but there’s no answer. “Do you know where we are?”
Center light fades up.
Neil and Tom stand over Jord’s body in the center of the front room. “It’s clear from his posture that he has achieved sleep from the very bottom. He’s collapsed under the weight of a cruel world.”
“Yes, cruelty. He has been revealed to himself via the audience. It’s through his surroundings that he speaks, not his words. He has made our truest expression of love toward criminal ambition. Look at that fucking steam pile out of him. Those shiny black and dirty brown beetles.”
“The way they gorge on his middle like that, bubbling and writhing, like a dead piece of lust and the inevitable stink of abjection that surfaces when you look at it too long.”
Ben M lays on the floor of the front room by the east wall, holding his belly with both arms. Neil sweeps crud and bug parts from the stain on the floor along the west wall. “It’s always two heads and one arm with you guys.” He takes a seat at the table in the center of the front room. “I guess I always knew this would happen to someone. But how can I watch it happen to me?” It sounds to him like his words are coming out of the sink instead of his mouth.
Neil and Tom sit at the table in the center of the front room. Jord sits on the floor against the west wall. Ben M snores on his back by the east wall. “Why doesn’t anyone ever sleep in the other room?” The door knocks violently. Neil, Tom, and Jord turn to look but do not rise to answer. Tom speaks so that everyone can hear. “Let’s look at the facts. Neil’s been to prison. And he takes medication because he hears voices. You can’t trust him. Where are the keys?”
“Keys to what?”
Neil scrubs a pot in the kitchenette sink. Tom sits at the table in the center of the front room, watching the door. The pot bangs against the sides of the sink as Neil cleans. Thump. Thump. Thump. Tom shouts at the door. “No dogs in the house, you hear?” Thump. Thump. Thump. “Nobody gets in until you’ve done your business!”
Tom stands in the center of the front room. Ben M chews on a piece of wood at the table by the east wall. “Neil’s out of his goddamn mind. You can’t hide shit in here. Where is he? If he comes near me I’ll blow his fucking head off.”
Tom stands in the center of a dark cellar. Flanked by shelving; a stockpile of dry goods and preserves. Neil stands by the door. He leans his ear closer, listening to the sounds of scratching from outside. “If he comes in here I’ll blow his fucking head off. One long mad clean jet. Poof!”
Dr. Cyclops’s Left Eye, naked on his knees in the kitchenette. Hog-tied and handcuffed, blindfolded, ball-gagged, strung up by the neck with a leather cord tied to the faucet, needles hanging from both arms, puncture wounds, various graffiti on his flesh with red lipstick, sunrays over the left nipple, vagina on lower abdomen, phrases including: make me a slave, make me a sucker, make me a whip. At the front door is violent knocking. Handle rattling. Neil and Tom’s voices shouting from the other side, panicked, begging to come in.
Neil leads Tom by candlelight through a dark cellar, much larger than the previous. He raises the candle to show Tom his trophy displays of mounted human heads. The nameplates he points out: Ben A, Ben B, Ben C, etc. “My agents in the valley have developed an extract—all natural—from all natural bodies—bone marrow mostly—don’t ask—not that you wouldn’t want to know—supports cellular immunity and regeneration—energy you see—easier than you can think—I left a bottle in the sink—only a few drops—just trust me—trust in me.”
Neil, pelted by drifts of ice, stoops to glimpse the driver. Dark wind made of running engine. The man at the wheel chokes his words out. “Get the fuck away from me or I’ll blow your fucking head off.” Face drawn into a twisted fist. A nightmare in the driver’s seat. “I didn’t mean to follow you here. Where are we?”
Jord and Tom stand, backs against a brick wall. On all sides the barking and howling of wild dogs. Scraping of claws. Tom’s eyes dart nervously. Jord smiles. “It’s the idea of needles that scares you. But once you shut up long enough to listen, when they go in it’s delicious. There’s plenty of paths leading to and from the major ports of sensation. Millions. About ten thousand that go right to the gonads. Me, I just jam the needle straight home and cut out the middle vessel!” Jord laughs.
Ben M sits in a dentist’s chair in a well-lit examination room. Neil stands over him with his fingers in Ben’s mouth, feeling for the signals of decay. “Have you ever masturbated in a dark room, chanting the name of a three thousand year old demon? It can take hours my friend.” Ben M chokes on his response. “Nit—away—rum me—oh I—vlow your vvvuvky—vace ov.”
“Yes, exactly. I don’t know what I’d do without you guys.”
Neil sits at the table in the center of the front room, hands cuffed behind the chair. Tom and Jord stand on either side of him. Center light narrows into an interrogation lamp, throwing a yellow cone over Neil and the tabletop. “You know it’s possible he tied himself up. People do it behind closed doors all the time I hear. Saw a poster at one of the Polk Street massage pads with step-by-step instructions on tying your hands together, or to a post, or both arms behind your back. Sounds impossible but with the right ambition. Didn’t see instructions on escape methods. That poster sells separately.”
“We’ve brought you here for your confession. We can wait as long as it takes.”
“He said he was going to kill us.”
Center light widens out.
Neil stands in the center of the front room. Jord sits at an upright piano along the east wall. Tom sits at the table by the west wall. Jord starts playing a simple blue waltz at a glacial pace. Between the changes he turns to look at Neil, who eventually starts shuffling his bare feet to the music. Measure by measure Jord picks up the tempo. “Faster!” Neil’s shuffles increase their beat. Heels slipping slightly. Painful wet thuds. Knees make uncertain arcs. Neil’s heavy breathing drowns out the piano. “Harder!” Tom looks down and stirs his drink thoughtfully. Neil’s lungs heave and rasp. Jord reigns hammer blows on the keys, face drawing as close as it can. “Don’t stop!” Neil’s torso flaps like a windsock. Sweat misting across the room, filling in dark spots on the floorboards. Tom takes a drink and places his palm over the glass to keep the sweat out. “Yes I—” Neil’s feet slip out from under him. Lands flat on his face. Jord bares his teeth and growls. “Goddammit Neil…”
Neil stoops to catch a glimpse of the driver. The man smiles back. “Why don’t you get in the car before you die in the cold?”
“Thank god. I thought they were going to kill me.”
Jord, Tom, and the two Bens in pajamas, bed down in their sleeping bags laid in the four corners of the front room while Neil sits at the table in the center. He’s reading from a paperback by candlelight. “Alright guys time for bed. Tomorrow’s a big day. So let’s all get some sleep.” He snuffs the candle.
Center light fades out.
He sits in the dark. The others fast asleep.
“Why are we still here?
“This room is fine with me.
“Maybe we shouldn’t go outside anymore. The horror is too great. This is a nice place. We could just wait. It’s killing me out there. And you’re all killing me in here. But we can find food here somewhere. We don’t need anything out there. I’ve never felt more at home.”
Door opens. Light enters.
“I’m sorry, do you live here? Was this your room? Does anyone live here? This is the kind of room you can truly sit and enjoy. What’s it like out there? Cold I bet. We don’t bother anyone. We keep to ourselves. Did you bring us here? Did you bring us into this world? I’m kidding. Is this room occupied? We don’t know anybody. Could we stay here with you? I recognized your eye soon as I saw it twice. You know. I’m not myself at all. None of us. Did you have something to say to me? Should I come out there with you so I can hear it? We’ve never had the chance to be alone.” Neil stands up and walks to the door.
Kermit Woods lives in East Tennessee with his wife and cats. He has previously published work at ergot.press.