They were told to take care of the old man, but they weren’t told how, so they decided to have a little fun first.
There were three of them: Payden, the oldest at twenty-six, the acknowledged ringleader, slow to act but definitive; and the two Blaylock boys, Jimmy and Tommy, twenty-two and twenty, given to messing with each other if left untended, like a cigarette butt in a pile of dry leaves.
Even while they were waiting, in the muddy turnout across the lane from the roadhouse, they started fidgeting in the back seat of Payden’s truck. Jimmy accused Tommy of farting. Payden ignored it as long as he could until the squabbling turned to actual violence—the echoless smack of meat on bone, Tommy’s plaintive whine as he fought back—and he had to do something.
“Quit it,” he said. He had one of those deep, tired backwoods voices, the vowels hanging together. The Blaylock boys laid off.
About ten minutes later a rhombus of light cut across the roadhouse’s woodchip lot. A burst of classic rock followed it. Heavy footsteps chuffed across the chips: an irregular stride, weight shifting between worn Carhartt boots. Payden’s vantage point was narrow, just a gap between the thick pine trees at the end of the driveway, but it sounded like the old man. He raised a hand to get the Blaylocks’ attention, quieting them, forestalling a discussion over who’d stayed hot after they graduated that was about to turn into another fight.
It was the old man. He was walking heavily but not staggering. More tired than drunk, Payden guessed. A woman closer to Payden’s age trotted out after him. She caught the old man while he leaned against the doorframe of his Tacoma, one hand on his elbow.
He shrugged her off. Not angry, but weary. Payden, who’d spent two hours in a cramped Ford cab with the Blaylock brothers, almost sympathized. Then he blinked and shook his head, as if cleaning the emotion off the slate of his mind. Sympathy wouldn’t help.
The woman backed away, saying something else. The old man didn’t respond. Her body language cycled from hope, to reluctance, to defeat: hands dropping to her sides, shoulders slumping, turning her back to him as she walked back inside. The old man unlocked his truck and climbed in. In the pale glow of the dome light, Payden saw the old man slump back against the headrest. Sleeping another one off in the parking lot, he thought.
“Here we go,” Payden said.
Payden patted the heavy lump in his jacket pocket to keep it from swinging with his stride.
They approached the old man’s truck. Payden waved the Blaylocks around to the driver’s side. When they were in position, Payden opened the side door, pulled himself up via a meaty grip on the cabin roof, and slid into the front passenger seat. He shut the door quietly behind him.
The old man blinked out of his unconscious stupor. He stared at Payden, uncomprehending. Payden had been rehearsing this bit in his head—he had an opening line he was happy with—but for the moment he stared back. For the Blaylocks, the violence was the fun part. But for Payden, it was having someone in his power: that moment they surrendered, acknowledging that they no longer had a say in what was coming. Sometimes they begged, which was always nice.
The old man spoiled it. “The hell you doing …” He trailed off, wiping some spittle off his beard.
The dome light clicked off.
Well, let’s see how that opening line works, Payden thought. “You promised to give us a ride! Remember?”
The old man blinked, processing “us” for a second. He took in the Blaylocks, standing just outside his door. He said nothing, but his breathing grew shallower and quicker.
“Remember?” Payden’s plan didn’t hinge on the old man swallowing this line, but he wanted to try it out. He thought it was clever. “They’re closing up? Kicked us out? I told you we could go drink at my cousin’s cabin, maybe smoke a little. Just need you to give us a ride, is all.”
The old man’s soft chest rose and fell, a pulsing little flannel lump. He looked at Payden’s hands. “I haven’t said anything.”
Payden glanced toward the roadhouse. The old man’s truck faced the front corner. The nearer wall didn’t have any windows. Whoever was inside might see the truck if they went to the front door and stared at an oblique angle through the glass panel in the front, or if they opened the door all the way and poked their head out. But they’d be cleaning up now. Payden could hear the bass of the stereo echoing around the empty interior. The dishwasher would be running and mop water would be sloshing across the floor. They’d have bigger things to worry about than a regular sleeping one off.
“Keys,” Payden said.
The old man didn’t move. “I haven’t said anything.”
“That’s not what I fucking asked you.” He shoved the old man’s arm aside and fished in the pocket of his denim jacket. He took the keys out. He reached across the old man like he was some mute obstruction—a coat thrown over the seat, perhaps—and opened his door. Jimmy caught it and opened it the rest of the way.
Payden got out on his side and dragged the old man across the front bench so Jimmy could get in. The old man didn’t even put up a token fight. Payden watched him—his head limp, staring at his hands curled up in his lap—while Tommy came around and got in the passenger seat. The Blaylocks sandwiched the old man in the front.
“The switchback. Like we talked about.” Payden shut the door. Jimmy peeled out while Payden was still crossing the road. His heavy jacket pocket knocked against his hip bone while he jogged.
Payden got in his truck and followed the Blaylocks as they drove the old man down the road, down the winding tree-lined path that took them out of the hills. Having the Blaylocks out of his truck wasn’t the relief he thought it’d be. It was too quiet. Payden didn’t mind the quiet, but he needed something to set it against. He needed those two morons’ aimless squabbling to be quiet alongside, to be superior to.
They emerged from the trees, with the wall of the hill on one side and the few streetlights of Cullinan in the valley below. Payden wondered who else might be up at this hour. Other drunks like the old man, perhaps, and the businesses that served and cleaned up after them. Maybe one of the sheriff’s boys, circuiting the six-block downtown in his rattling cruiser. But Cullinan didn’t have much of a nightlife. Not that Payden worried about witnesses. He just liked moving around when no one else was.
Ahead, the old man’s truck jinked sharp, left to right. Brake lights flared. The truck pulled onto the shoulder, overlooking the valley.
Payden didn’t swear. Why disturb the quiet with cursing that no one else could hear? Instead, he pulled onto the shoulder about thirty yards behind the old man’s truck. He got out and approached on foot. He pressed one fist against the heavy jacket pocket on his right side.
Jimmy got out while Payden was still approaching. He looked down at himself, preoccupied with wiping something off his jacket. He didn’t seem to realize Payden was approaching until Payden drew within a foot, and even then he didn’t look up. “Son of a bitch,” he murmured.
Payden grabbed Jimmy’s shoulder. Jimmy stopped. Payden angled him forward. “The switchback.”
“I know, Payden, but son of a bitch got sick.” The epithet was slurred, its edges worn off from frequent use: suvvabitch.
“And you had to stop to clean up.”
“It’s all over my fuckin—” Jimmy looked down at his jacket. He let his hands flop to his sides.
“Because you wanted to look good? It’s important for something like this that you look good?”
The truck rocked on its springs. From the darkened truck cabin came a violent motion and the sound of a fist smacking flesh.
Swearing, Payden opened the driver’s door. Tommy wailed on the old man, brushing his arms aside with one hand and punching him sloppily with the other. The old man grunted, trying to stretch back and cocoon up at the same time. The result would’ve been comical, even to Payden, if it hadn’t been a complete waste of time.
Payden tried to reach past the old man to push Tommy off, but there wasn’t enough room in the cabin. The old man flailed, pushing Payden away, as if fearing assault from both flanks. Growling in frustration, Payden got out, jogged around the hood, and opened the door on Tommy’s side. He dragged Tommy out by the belt, tossing him to the muddy shoulder.
Tommy skidded back until he hit the crooked guardrail. He pressed himself against it to help himself up. He glared at Payden. “He got sick on me. All over my pants. Some of it got in my—”
Payden crossed the distance between them in two strides. The second stride turned into a right cross: foot planted, shoulder twitched forward, marble fist into porcelain jaw. It wasn’t a beatdown out of anger, as Tommy’s had been, though Payden was plenty angry. It was discipline.
Tommy’s knees buckled, pointing outward, and he slumped to the mud.
Payden went back to the truck. The old man propped himself up on his elbows and touched his face. He winced as he made contact with his busted lip, his reddened cheekbones. The numbness from his earlier drunk must have worn off.
Payden climbed into the cabin. “Hell.” He took a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped the blood off the old man’s mouth. “How you feeling?”
The old man’s jaw shook as Payden pulled his hand away. “I haven’t told anyone. I won’t tell anyone.”
Payden nodded. “How’s the jaw? Go like this; does it click or anything?” He opened and closed his mouth like a nutcracker.
“Please.” The old man’s shoulders heaved. “Just … just let me …”
And that was what summoned Payden’s anger back: the sheer stupidity of that plea. Just let you what? Let you keep drinking yourself to death? Let you keep whining to anyone who’ll listen about how you caught a bad rap? What do you have to live for, anyway?
He reached back for his laden jacket pocket. “I’ve got something for you.”
Payden pulled out a fifth of vodka. He unscrewed the cap with one hand. The other hand pulled the old man closer, sliding him across the vinyl bench.
“I haven’t told anyone. I’ll never t—”
With one massive hand, Payden pinched the old man’s nose shut and forced his head back. He forced the bottle between the man’s teeth and tipped it. The sharp varnish smell of cheap spirits filled the cabin. Payden tucked his chin to keep the old man’s flailing from scratching up his face.
The old man started sputtering and choking. Payden kept pouring. Much of the glugging vodka seeped down the old man’s jaw, soaking his shirt.
When the bottle was empty, Payden let go of the old man’s nose. The old man sat on the bench, arms limp at his sides, gasping for air. Payden got out and went to the guardrail, wiping the bottle down as he went. He flung it into the darkness and waited until he heard it land in some underbrush.
He went back around the front of the truck, nearer the road, where Jimmy was helping Tommy walk off that right cross. Jimmy looked up at Payden. His eyes were blank: not scared, not angry, not even questioning what had happened—just a pair of big empty saucers, waiting for Payden’s instructions to fill them.
“Go get your truck from the switchback,” Payden said.
“That’s like …” Jimmy turned, staring into the unlit distance, as if he might see a sign. “… like, two miles from here.”
Payden ignored the interruption. “Stay on the shoulder. If you see headlights, hit the deck. No one can see you out here, remember?”
Without waiting for further objections, Payden clambered back into the driver’s side. The old man hadn’t moved. His breathing had slowed a great deal, like a child about to fall asleep. But he wasn’t out yet. His head turned on his limp neck, and his watery gaze rested on Payden. His lips moved weakly, pulling back from the teeth. “D …” Flooded with cheap vodka and stinking of fear, he lacked the strength to finish. But Payden might have guessed what he was trying to say.
Payden put one hand on the old man’s jaw, the other on the crown of his head. He tilted the chin up, resting the head perpendicular to the spine. Then he took a deep breath and twisted sharply.
The crick-ack reverberated through the cabin.
Payden used his handkerchief to wipe down the steering wheel, console, and bench. He got the door handles, the door levers, and the little calf tongue that adjusted the rearview mirror. When he was satisfied, he pulled on the kitchen gloves he’d tucked inside his jacket earlier in the evening.
There was a narrow gap between the guardrails at the edge of the shoulder. A man would have to turn sideways and shimmy to get through it, and it would lead to nothing but a forty-degree decline and a long tumble through the underbrush. But it was wide enough that a man might stagger up to it and piss if he pulled over.
Payden slung the old man over his shoulder like a sack of laundry. He carried him to the gap in the guardrail. With one grunting heave—bend at the knees, deep breath, explode upward—he tossed the old man down the hill. There were a few moments of splintering branches and dislodged pine needles. Then silence.
Sighing, Payden turned and headed back to his own truck. He left the old man’s vehicle in the darkness behind him, the door open, the door alarm chiming into the night. He trudged uphill, feeling it in his calves, the adrenaline and anticipation wearing off. As much as he hated to admit it, the whole improvisation had stemmed from trying to have a little fun with the old man first. Next time—and Payden didn’t kid himself there wouldn’t be a next time—he’d dispense with the frivolities.