The shittiest day ever began without a hitch. It was December 2nd, my birthday. I just made seventeen and instead of planning to attend my kickass, nonexistent birthday bash, I drove on the only highway in Sulphur Springs to Lake Rose wondering what the hell was wrong with me.
Wait. I should tell you a smidget about Sulphur Springs. It wasn’t the type of place you’d find on a 100 Best Getaways site, or Wikipedia. A rustic sign hung just outside of town:
Welcome to Sulphur Springs.
Come on in.
But Wade always spray painted over the “COME” and “In” and put “BLOW” and “Me” instead. We had a Super Wal-Mart, Piggly Wiggly, and every fast food franchise imaginable. Dumb, I know. Our four-way stop light in the middle of town blinked after 9 o’clock because no one drove after 7. We were home of the famous 1970s weekends.
The VFW Arena ended up being the ‘adult hot spot’ for those needing to pour old memories into a shot glass. We were also home to Ted the Wino, the town drunk who slept in front of the gas station/ABC/convenience Store. Which had the best freaggin’ corn pups this side of Bumfuck-Egypt, hands down. But now that I think about it, stocking the Gummi Bears next to vodka and Melon Ball flavored Boone’s Farm had to violate some kind of health code.
Anyway, Sulphur Springs was the kind of place that grew on you, and then you got over it.
It was colder than polar bear snotcicles out. The type of day you’d wrap in a Snuggie and watch reruns of Degrassi. Mom and Dad drove to Beaufort to see Uncle Joe. I stayed behind to finish some homework, although Uncle Joe was funny as hell and I missed him. Besides my parents, he was the only person that didn’t make me feel self-conscious about my stutter. Plus, today was primed for ice skating, less the irreversible frostbite. But Fancy Porsche Driver wasn’t getting me any closer to the lake.
Ten bucks said it was a gray-head behind the wheel. It had to be. Old people were notorious for buying oversized or fast cars in which they never drove over thirty or could see past the steering wheel. I waited a few minutes, thinking the driver would speed up before I made my move. Didn’t happen, and when I passed him, I spied a dude behind the wheel. Through the misty fog, he looked at me and spread a wicked grin. I turned back to the road, startled because (a) that was one freaky grin, and (b) Wade, who probably just came back from painting the welcome sign, sped toward me in his truck, whooping with one arm out the window. He wouldn’t slow down. He liked crazy, dare devil, chicken shit games like this. Wade laid on his horn and I panicked. When I swerved back into my lane, I cut Fancy Porsche Driver off.
It was an accident, and I scrambled to roll my window down and stick my arm out to wave. “S-s-sorry.” I expected him to blow his horn or flip me off, I got neither. Just his car disappearing in my rearview from all the fog.
Hell’s Curve was up ahead. Probably should’ve thought about that before I overcorrected and ran off the low shoulder. Hell’s Curve wasn’t life or drunken-Saturday-night friendly. You couldn’t survive shit like that. If tumbling down the seventy-foot slide full of rocks and tree stumps didn’t kill you, the lake at the bottom would. Since Rose was frozen, well, you’d be royally assed-out.
I turned down into Devil’s Mouth right at the bottom of Hell’s Curve. Sounds wicked, trust me, but the steep path led straight down to the lake. Gnarly branches reached out like claws, and large roots did a number on the undercarriage. Summer nights, all you’d see were the flames of bonfires at the bottom, butts of cigarettes that looked like lightening bugs, and bra’s adorning branches like ornaments, with sprinkles of condom wrappers for an added teenage, hormonal touch. But now it was winter, and it looked, I don’t know, barren, sort of grungy? The half-buried beer cans and Red Bulls sprawled everywhere made me feel like I was late for a party.
I blocked the path with my Gremlin, got out and laced my skates on the bumper. The head rush started and when the stinging felt like fifty fists coming down on me en masse, I pressed the heels of my hands against my temples. It was like the first time I tried pot and my brain cells were pop locking and river dancing to funky techno music. Only this was amplified and hurt like shit, and definitely didn’t get me high.
Images pressed behind my eyes: me skating, the car, something bro—Stop. Stop. “Sssstop.”
I snapped out of it and rubbed my forehead. In the beginning, I didn’t mind having the occasional images pop up in my head. Sort of like Déjà vu and Vision bumped uglies in the back of Premonition’s van, and what I saw every now and then was their estranged love child. Sometimes it came in handy. But lately my lazy ass synapses/neurons playing catch up with the rest of my brain was like someone taking a sharp fountain pen and etching the images into my eyeballs. Not cool.
I looked over my shoulder for the screeching bird. A ginormous freaggin’ black bird flapped on the ground near a tree. I sucked air through my nose like I couldn’t get it in fast enough, hopped down and walked over. “Jeez, aaaren’t you s-s-supposed t-ttooo fly t-to Florida or sssomething like that during wa-wa-winter?”
It croaked again, spreading its wing revealing a white feather and flew away. What lay frozen on the ground behind it didn’t croak, didn’t move. This bird was smaller and…frozen. I bent down and thumped it. Nothing.
Uncle Joe told me once he thawed a frozen fish back to life. And this one time in Biology, Mr. Reamer showed us a video of these frogs that freeze when a single snowflake lands on their skin. In spring they come back alive, toad slime and all. Then again, Uncle Joe could’ve been full of it, and Mr. Reamer thought a photo-shopped picture of Principal Cooley kissing Sean Connery was genuine, so who knows if that video was real.
Couldn’t hurt to see. I didn’t know how long this little thing had been lying here, but I picked it up anyway, put it inside the breast pocket of my red parka, and flat-footed it over to the edge of the lake. There was something about seeing all that water, frozen as it was, that made my bladder do the hokey-pokey.
“T-t-to pa-pa-pee, or not t-too pa-pee?” I thought about it, and the fact that I had zero tissue. I mean, I could’ve squatted behind a tree and jiggled dry, but that would leave my undies all moist, so…
I hit the ice.
And I was kind of the shit when it came to ice skating. Didn’t know where all the talent came from. It wasn’t like I was formerly trained, well, not that I could remember. I didn’t have much of a memory anyways. Someone took one gigantic piss on it and wasn’t courteous enough to wipe up after. So as you would imagine, I’ve had a craptastic time getting over it. Long story short, I was damaged goods. And not in a dented-can-of-soup kind of way.
At the half-mile point, I turned and skated back toward the Gremlin. The sunset changed the sky to a red-burnt orange-ish swirl. I had to whiz something awful and I saw a spruce that had my name on it. I stabbed my skates between the roots to make it up the path.
A gleam of light caught my eye. It reflected off a shiny, black as pitch car parked bumper to bumper with mine. What the hell?
Before I could reach for my keys, a slender man stepped out from the trees. Snow white hair, dark veins spread like roots beneath an onion skin, pruned face and sunken eyes. A cigarette was stuck to his lips by the crusty looking spit around his mouth. When he bared his teeth into that freaky smile, that cigarette fell, and breath steamed from his nose like some demented, raging bull.
It was Fancy Porsche Driver.
“Whhaaat the f-f-flip dude, g-g-get back.” I looked to the Gremlin. Guess I thought it would crank itself up, I’d hop on the hood, and we’d ride on the frozen lake into the sunset.
I was a fool.
“Too late,” he said, as if he knew I wanted to get the hell out of there. His grungy voice chimed like two others were fused with it. He stepped closer. Pale hands. Nosferatu fingers. Oh snap. A gun.
I couldn’t move at first. Damn. All I did was pass him.
“St’—wait, wa-w-wait.” It was like pleading with a dumbass at a party not to push you into the pool with all your clothes on. Pointless. The more you begged the more the idiot wanted to do it. And I could see he wanted to do… something. My skin prickled like thousands of safety pins were stabbing my body and I just had to wait for the pain to fade before I could do anything. When my legs finally got the message to book it, my skates caught in a root and I fell nose down near a can of Red Bull.
This was supposed to be my fight or flight response and I was sucking major assage at both. I just lay there, sort of numb for a minute. Strange, to be so scared you think you can transport yourself out of it, beam-me-up-Scottie style. I couldn’t do any of that. Just didn’t want to face what was behind me, what was about to happen. I tried to focus. But the words and the two bulls colliding against the sunset on the can in front of me took hold like a bad habit.
He cocked the hammer.
B Vitamins and glucose.
The ground crunched under his boots.
Red Bull gives you wings.
He kicked me in the gut and I rolled over, coughing. My hands were on fire, growing hotter with blue, darting sparks disappearing between my fingers.
I wanted wings.
Was this real? You’d ask that a lot when a gun was pointed at you, like a part of you wanted to believe he won’t shoot, even while he fired three rounds to your legs and chest and you smelled your flesh burning. You’d ask that same dumbass question when you felt pee running down your crotch, when he looped his hands in the top of your jeans and dragged you between his legs. Or when he ditched the gun, pulled out a knife, straddled you and said, “Let me in.”
Of all the things I should’ve done, I only did one. And he allowed me…watched me do it. What told me to reach for my pocket? I couldn’t say. Maybe I felt it move. I couldn’t be sure now that my body was one big heartbeat. Or maybe I believed it was alive again, thawed, and I didn’t want the little bird to die with me like this. I set it free.
“P-P-Pleeze,” I begged.
He leaned forward and his jaw unhinged like a boa constrictor taking down a rabbit, bones popping, teeth dripping with black glop.
He drew back the knife and shimmering lights covered him, growing darker around the edges until it was pitch black. Until he was gone.
Loud growls. Screams. No pain.
I hallucinated being saved, though I knew I was dead when I saw him.