When Tommy slammed on the brakes of the ’56 Chevy Bel Air, two things happened: Ellie’s face bounced hard off the dashboard and the body on the back seat bashed against the front seat and collapsed on the floor.
“Gonnamn it, Tommy!” She sounded like she was talking in a bucket.
Ellie punched him hard in the shoulder. The other hand cupped her nose. Blood oozed between her fingers. Tommy pulled off the road into a dim slot between the last two street lamps that marked the edge of town. He chanced a glance at Ellie. She tilted her head back on the top of the seat, hoping to stem the flow of blood. He knew she wasn’t a bleeder. Her face, wet and shiny, looked kind of crumpled from her crying. He couldn’t tell the blood from the tears. In the half-light, it all looked like Hershey’s chocolate syrup.
He shrugged. “A dog crossed the road.” That’s all he said.
“A donk!” She talked thick and wet, like she was under water. She shot upright and faced him. “Smashed ma dose fer a fuckin’ donk!”
“Did I mention it was a big donk?” he said.
Ellie slapped him on the back of his head, harder than she needed to. He was her brother. Making her life miserable was his job so a hit now and then for good measure hurt nothing. She didn’t care so long as he could take a beating for it. She never let on, but she secretly liked the teasing.
Tommy knew you gotta be ready to get as good as you give. He didn’t mind the slap. If he could get Ellie’s goat, he was a happy guy.
“The baby OK?” he asked. Ellie placed her hand on her tummy.
“Baby’s fine. ‘S my dose.” She ran her fingertips over its swollen shape.
Knowing Ellie’s temper and against his own better judgement, Tommy leaned in for a closer look.
“Looks like you got a fat lip startin’.”
She spat her words at him. Spittin’ them cleared her head. “Guess there’ll be no kissin’ tonight then. Thanks to you.”
He leaned back. “Night’s young, sis. No kissin’. Fuckin’ maybe.” He grinned and fluttered his eyebrows.
“Been there.” She patted her stomach. “Just wanna be kissed too.”
“What you want and what you get may be two different things. Careful what you wish for.”
They both stared out the windshield at the night. Beyond the last street lamp, Tommy spied a sliver of moon, encircled by a bright pattern of stars in a cloudless sky,.
“Nice night for gittin’ hitched,” he said.
Ellie wasn’t convinced. It’s what her pa wanted. He didn’t bother asking her opinion. Even a country girl has dreams, small ones maybe, but that’s how they start. As she watched the empty road disappear into the back of beyond, into nowhere and nothing, she imagined her life would be something more than what felt like a dead end. She wished for more. She may not get more, but maybe wantin’ more, wantin’ to be kissed besides, was a start. She’d done the other. Look where it got her. She rubbed her tummy and for just a little while, sitting there in the dark, pondered the future of her small dreams and made up her mind. She turned to Tommy.
“Let’s kill ‘im.” The solution came to her all at once, but hearing the words kinda surprised her.
“Whoa. Kill who?”
“Donnie.” She tilted her head toward the back of the car.
They both turned. The back seat was empty.
“What the–!” Tommy jumped out of the car and looked around, up and down the road.
When he’d pushed open the driver’s door, the dome light came on. Ellie got to her knees, looked over the top of the front seat at the floor. She yelled after him. “Donnie’s down there. The bastard’s sleepin’ it off.”
Tommy scrambled to the back door and yanked it open. Donnie’s head fell out, bent over the bottom of the door frame. His eyes were open. He stared right up at Tommy but he didn’t see him. A trickle of blood ran from his nose and across his cheek, plotting a course for his ear. Tommy pressed the side of Donnie’s neck, feeling for a pulse.
“Shit! Shit! Shit!” Tommy stomped and jumped, kicked the car, pounded the roof.
Ellie scooted across the seat and out the driver’s door. She ran around the open back door and stopped when she saw Donnie.
“Shit is right. He looks dead.” She took one step back.
“Think so, Sherlock?” Tommy leaned against the car, trying to light a cigarette. His hands shook, but he managed.
“How much of that ether did you give him?”
“Just enough. OK?” He glanced at Ellie, puffed on his cigarette.
“He was already drunk when he stumbled outta Shorty’s and you grabbed him.”
“So? You blamin’ me?” He pushed off the car, gave her his hard stare.
“Just sayin’s all.” She raised her hands in surrender.
“Yeah. Right.” He stomped out his cigarette. “We gotta git goin’. Pa’s gonna be pissed. I know he’s got his shotgun primed and that young preacher from the New Holiness Church comin’ over. S’posed to be a wedding t’night. Now we got no husband. Shit!”
Ellie hopped back in the car and slid over to the passenger seat. She spoke loud enough so Tommy could hear.
“What’re we gonna tell Pa?”
Tommy was thinking hard about that when he reached down to lift Donnie’s head and push him back in the car.
”His neck’s broke. Head’s wobblin’ ’round like one o’ them toy dogs ya see in people’s cars.”
He lifted the body by the shoulders up to a sitting position. Donnie’s head bounced around on his shoulders, following gravity’s pull and its own unfettered orbit. Tommy pushed Donnie’s head forward, then jumped free and slammed the door closed. Ellie watched it all over the top of the seat, and kept watching as Donnie’s body fell backwards to the floor, his head slumping at an odd angle against the side of the door.
She expected Tommy to hop in the car and head for home. Instead, he circled the car once, his head down, hands jammed in the front pockets of his jeans. Her eyes followed his complete tour until at the end of the great circle, he paused for a moment just outside the driver’s door. Then he climbed into the car, closing the door with a subdued thunk.
“Well?” Ellie asked.
“Sorry ’bout Donnie.”
“I ain’t. Was Pa’s idea. Not mine. I mean, sorry he’s dead, but shit happens.”
They sat in silence for a moment.
“I figured it out,” he said. “Musta flew off the back seat, twisted his neck when I slammed on the brakes for the dog.” She touched her nose.
“The donk,” he said. Ellie punched him in the shoulder again but not as hard as before. “That’s our story, and I’m stickin’ to it. We blame it on the fucking donk.”
“Okay.” She didn’t hit him this time.
Not a word more was said as they drove down the road, heading for home. Ellie was just quietly pleased her little dreams were still in tact.
When they screeched to a halt in front of the cabin they shared with their pa, the porch light was on. Pa’s old bloodhound, Red, shot to his feet and barked once. Their pa and the preacher stood at the top of the porch steps and watched the dust settle. The preacher tugged at his stiff clerical collar while their pa flipped his shotgun back on top of his shoulder.
“Here we go,” Tommy said.
He got out of the car as his pa came down the porch steps.
“Where’s Donnie?” his pa asked.
Ellie stepped out her side of the car.
“Where’s that sonuvabitch!” He brought the shotgun down off his shoulder. Tommy stopped him before he got close to the car.
“Pa, he ain’t here,” Tommy said.
Her pa watched Ellie as she ran around the back of the car, trotted up the porch steps, and stood by the preacher.
“What you mean he ain’t here?”
“Pa. Come over here. We got to talk private like.”
He steered his pa off toward a corner of the cabin. Tommy did his best to explain, paced back and forth, held his head in his hands, pointed at the car, shook his head, and finally just shrugged. Neither Ellie nor the preacher could hear the conversation. She didn’t need to, she knew the story. But the preacher was ignorant to what happened and impatient. He took two steps down off the porch.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Is there going to be a wedding or not, ’cause I see no groom?”
Hearing his words, Tommy and his pa looked at the preacher and then up at Ellie. She stood on the front edge of the porch, her head haloed by the yellow porch light. She looked like a bride. His pa strode over to the foot of the porch steps. He raised his shotgun and pointed it at the preacher. Ellie felt her small dreams shrink even further.
“I hear you’re single, preacher,” was all their pa said.
Red lifted his head off the porch floor and howled once.
Bio: Jim Shaffer grew up in rural Pennsylvania, spending his early years on his grandparent’s farm. Since, he’s lived almost half his life abroad. Recently, he’s appeared in Wrong Turn, a mystery/thriller anthology by Blunder Woman Productions, and will soon feature in the Hardboiled anthology series from Dead Guns Press. More of his short stories and a novella can be found on line at Close to the Bone, Flash Fiction Offensive, and Bewildering Stories.