You hold one shaking hand in front of your face, trying to steady it.
It’s useless, your body is flooded with a mixture of fear, anger, adrenaline—you decide white knuckling the faded leather steering wheel of your father’s jeep is the best way to go. The steady thrum of the weathered engine pushing you up the mountainside drones incessantly in your head. It is all you can focus on.
The headlights illuminate a portion of the pot-holed road and the overhanging branches of poplar and willow trees; a recent storm has knocked some of the smaller branches loose and onto the road. The scent of wet pine, if it was not cloaked by the waste in the rear of the vehicle, could be smelled pleasantly wafting through the air vents.
You crane your neck around to the backseat where three black garbage bags are secured with seat-belts. Please don’t burst, for God’s sake you think. Your father will be furious if you dirty his jeep. You’ve always had a deep fear of angering your father; some of your earliest memories are serrated with the painful edges of his drunken aggression. All it took when you were a kid was a particular look from him and you would have pissed your pants, then and there.
You turn the radio on, then immediately back off. Silence is best on a night like this. Myriad stars pinprick the velvet black sky.
An empty Budweiser can rolls around by the pedals. You lean down, grab it. When you sit up again you see a small animal just up ahead—a coyote, perhaps—dashing from the side of the road and into your pathway, where it freezes, blinded by the jeep’s garish headlights.
You swerve, look out the back window and see it scampering away, calm; like nothing happened. . .
. . .The memory flashes back in vivid detail despite your trying to suppress it: seven years old, just home from school one late spring afternoon. Father was home, too, leaning against the kitchen counter with an apple juice-colored drink in his hand, which you knew from experience wasn’t really apple juice.
What’s wrong? you asked. You could tell he was in a bad mood. The skull tattoo on his neck glared even more angrily at you than usual when he was like this.
What—do—you—think, was his gritted-teeth reply. He wasn’t looking at you.
I-I don’t know, you said, backing into a corner.
Of course you knew what was wrong, you were thinking about it all day—but you couldn’t admit that. You were supposed to take the garbage out that morning, but you had forgotten; a simple mistake. You were desperately trying to finish an essay about butterflies for Ms. McGreevy and it had simply slipped your mind.
Your father, furious, bolted toward the overflowing trashcan in the corner of the room, where he proceeded to lift and throw it as hard as he could against your small, quivering body, sending you backwards into the wall.
You need to learn, he barked then, picking you up by your collar and hauling you to your bedroom. You need to learn.
You knew what was going to happen. He had threatened he would do it, and now it was your fault.
Please, please, you begged, tear-filled eyes. Don’t!
You wished the trashcan had hit you harder, knocked you out, so you didn’t have to see the look of terror on the hamster’s face as your father squeezed the life from it. Its eyes gave out first; two tiny coal-black opals which burst with a trickle of blood. He eased his grip then, drawing the death of the animal out. It squeaked and thrashed and sank its teeth into his calloused hand.
You ran at him, but it was pointless. He knocked you away with ease and began squeezing again; you heard the tiny cracks of bone and covered your ears. He threw the mangled body of your hamster out the open window when he was finished . . .
. . . A flash of blue followed with a sharp, piercing siren snaps you back to reality.
Pulled over. What are the odds of it on a quiet road like this? You breathe on your hand and sniff it to see if the smell of beer is overpowering. You can’t tell. You’re simultaneously too fucked-up and not fucked-up enough.
You pull over and the police car does the same, behind you. You get out and stand by your door and wait for the officer—tall, slim—to approach. He has a flashlight which he clicks on, shines it in your face.
Everything okay here? he asks. His tone is affable, unassuming. Blood pounds behind your ears. He shines his flashlight to the backseat of your car. You shuffle slightly, trying to block his line of sight; hope any beer cans have rolled under the seats.
Uh, yeah. Was I speed—err, speeding? you fumble. Light back in your face.
No, but you were weaving over the center line.
Oh, you snap your thumb and middle finger, sorry. I think I’m tired.
Mhmm. How come you’re out so late?
Just taking a late-night drive, you tell him. My parents are getting divorced, so . . . they’re arguing all the time. It’s upsetting, hearing all the shouting. You’re purposefully oversharing in hopes he’ll feel uncomfortable and leave you alone.
Oh, he says. I’m sorry to hear that.
I’m going to the dump, you tell him when he continues to shine his flashlight. Gives me an excuse to get out for a little while.
Mmm, he wrinkles his nose. Well, alright then. But don’t take too long. I seem to be hearing more and more often about people falling asleep at the wheel these days.
I won’t, you say. You nod at each other and he moves off. Then you’re back in the jeep, your heart trying to break out of your chest, waiting for him to drive away before you start the engine.
You promised him you won’t take long, and you won’t. Your destination is about three miles away. At the next crossroads, you turn left and continue along the steep gravelly back-road for about eight minutes. Then you stop near the treeline, put the car in neutral; open the last can of what is now lukewarm beer and get out.
The garbage bags are heavy; you take them out one at a time. The lightest one you carry on your shoulder. Dragging them through the dense forest, you eventually come to a ravine. Roughly 40 to 45 feet deep, you guess. Although rare, teenagers sometimes come here to drink, sitting with their feet dangling over its lip. You have a few times yourself. Down at its base, mixed with the moss-covered rocks and wet sludge are empty bottles of alcohol and degraded cigarette packs; there is even someone’s old, lime-green sofa.
You roll the first two bags over the edge in quick succession. Watching them tumble down offers you a twinge of satisfaction.
Taking a gulp of air; you reach into the remaining bag and pull out the severed head by its rusty blonde hair. The eyes have been scrambled out with a carving knife. You hold it a few inches from your face; the dripping blood staining your unlaced Converse. How could you have ever been afraid of those eyes? Or that tattoo. It all seems pathetic now. Gray; drained of color. From somewhere above an owl screeches.
You let the head drop and kick it into the ravine.
Finish your beer, crush it, and kick it down, too. You think about how you always knew it would come to this.
You know it will be quick; you know it will be painless. And then it is your turn.
Calum Armitage is a journalism undergraduate from Northern Ireland. He is a writer of short stories, flash fiction, and articles. He runs his own blog at: https://medium.com/@calumwriting67.