Killing someone with your car teaches you two things:
First, the radio doesn’t stop playing when you hit them. You look ahead after checking the mirror, then flash of flesh and hair, blue jeans and mauve tank top, red sneakers, I remember those, and panic hits you in the spine as all your neck muscles clench like a bear trap and you’re trying trying to brake, but it’s way too late for that and you haven’t gotten brake replacements in a couple years and
and there’s a crack in your windshield with a few of her blond hairs stuck in it.
Second, you don’t get to pick the song that’s playing. I was listening to “Jump” by Van Halen when I killed Sara Jackson. Well, maybe you get to choose the song if you do it on purpose. In my case, the cops ruled it a suicide by stepping into traffic.
Not that I love hair metal or anything. I used to call it butt-rock back in high school, as in it will rock your butt off, right, sneering behind a cloud of pot smoke, listening to In Utero in my red flannel and ripped fishnets, wishing that it rained in Youngstown like it does in Seattle.
Later, I go to the music store, and ask the guy at the counter with a bone through his nose what Van Halen album had “Jump” on it. He doesn’t know either, but looks it up on his phone. I leave with an album called 1984.
In my office at home I close the door and unwrap the CD. There’s an old pot of coffee, so I press the button to start it heating again. It smells like stomach acid.
Track two is “Jump.” It’s the synth riff I remember from that day, the up-beat keyboarding that’s just so inspirational. It was playing as I went for my customary drive around town after working. I’d clicked on the radio in my ’93 Sentra to the only station I ever have it on, the hard rock station, not that this song was particularly hard, but there aren’t a lot of choices in Youngstown. I drove past the fireworks store with the gigantic paint-cracked Uncle Sam to
I get up, and nothing gets me down
and maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention, because I almost didn’t stop at that stop sign. And I was going again and maybe nodding my head a little to
I’ve seen the toughest all around
because, hey, it’s catchy. And maybe I’d heard this song before because I was mouthing
You’ve got to ro-oh-oooll with punches
looking in the mirror and when I looked up again and all I saw is all this blond hair like David Lee Roth
to get to what’s real
and I was stomping my brake pedal and hearing the screech of brakes I was supposed to replace last year
Can’t you see me standing here? I got my back against—
and my car was stopped, but it was too late.
A minute later, I was sitting on the curb, watching blood run down the gutter and the keyboard solo to “Jump” was still playing. People stood around with their hands over their mouths. A cop was saying to me, “Ma’am, ma’am, please stop crying.”
I was mouthing, go ahead and jump, between puffs on my inhaler. The cop had his hand on my shoulder and was holding a breathalyzer. He said he needed to run the test.
I run my fingers across my appendicitis scar, occasionally lifting my hips off the chair. I touch and sigh. The trick is to not overstimulate. You don’t want them to finish and go back to their emails or office job or whatever.
You’d be surprised how many guys get off on scars. Men (and women too, for all I know) pay $1.98 per minute to watch and type in my chatroom. I name my chatroom things like, “Scarred Slut with Hairy Pussy,” or “Girl With Glasses Tattoos and Scars.” Whatever gets the clicks.
They ask me to use my inhaler, enjoying the sight of my lips around the blue plastic.
The money was better when I was in my twenties, but the advantage to doing this as long as I have is that I have a loyal core following, subscribers who have been with me long enough to become chat moderators. If someone starts spamming anything racist or violent, one of the mods will ban them from chat. But they still get to watch, and the credit card is still ticking.
And they love it when I answer their questions:
DatDickXXX: ScarSlut, why you no call me? Private chat????
I say, out loud to the audience: “But I’m here for everyone.”
SixtyNine69: Check out my dick pics on Reddit, ScarSlut.
I say, “What’s Reddit?” They love naivety, the idea that they are more worldly and experienced than me.
YourDad84: Tell us a secret.
“I killed a girl once. With my car. It was an accident, but I haven’t stopped thinking about it for the last ten years.”
You wouldn’t believe the uptick in clicks I got after that.
There’s a car I see around town sometimes: a brown/gold 2003 Taurus. The color is awful, and the body of that model of car, in a vain attempt to look early-2000s futuristic, curves in places it should not. This one is hard to miss: I first noticed it due to the decal that covers the entire back windshield. It reads:
In Loving Memory of My
Sara F. Jackson
May 1, 1984-May 30, 2004
Killed by a Drunk Driver
I hear a little about Tim Jackson. He and his wife divorced shortly after Sara stepped in front of my car. He’s lived alone ever since. He gets drunk at Cattleman’s sometimes, was once thrown out onto the street crying. He works at the computer repair shop, is apparently pretty good with hardware. I see him driving around town with his blond mustache and that epitaph for a back windshield. Sometimes I think he just goes for drives to remind anyone who will see of what was taken from him.
And I wasn’t drunk. The breathalyzer test ran 0.0. The decal is hard to miss, but as I said, I hate looking at Tauruses. The reason I noticed it the first time was that I saw, “May 1, 1984.” It’s the day I was born. Sara Jackson and I have the same exact birthdate.
I suppose that I might point out that we are/were both Tauruses as well.
I research suicide, ways to do it in Ohio. I’ve always thought the best way would be to drive off a cliff, but Ohio lacks mountain ranges, so I type in the search bar, best cliffs to drive off, and then add, Pennsylvania. What you get when you type that in is cliff diving and bungie jumping locales. Though there is a video link of a BMW skidding and tumbling down a red desert mountain. The best places to do it seem to all be in Arizona. But one search result, “scenic drive in Bethlehem, PA,” seems promising.
I should have known mainstream methods wouldn’t be conducive to my research; our country still has conservative, religious views on suicide, but further digging led me to this thing called Reddit, and a subforum of people writing about their need to kill themselves and asking for suggested methods. I’ve been talking to a guy for a while who calls himself Blair.
Blair48: So… why kill yourself?
Laura51: That’s not really why I’m here.
Blair48: Are you sure?
Blair is helpful. He sends me links to pictures of dirt roads without barriers overlooking miles of western Pennsylvania forest.
Blair48: I’ve been out there. It’s gorgeous.
Laura51: I’d like to see it. For research.
Blair48: I have a story about that place.
Blair48: Once, walking around a bend in a forest path, I startled a squirrel absorbed in cracking an acorn. It ran into the woods, and immediately a hawk swooped down to where the squirrel was. I must have scared the squirrel just before the bird got there. I swear, the hawk looked up at me like, WTF bro?
Blair48: Maybe I could take you sometime and show you around.
You could drive out there, watch the sun set over trees and cliffs. You could breathe air far away from rust belt factories. And you could drive off alone, serene and at one with yourself.
I don’t know if Sara Jackson had a car to drive out to Pennsylvania or not, but that seems a better way to do it than jumping in front of my fucking car.
After my post-researching drive, I come home and do my other job.
Lately though, I haven’t been as involved. I type with Blair about Pennsylvania on a separate screen while working. I tell him about Sara Jackson. He is sympathetic.
The chatroom is revolting.
DatDickXXX: Cant see scar while you typing
FukYuImAsian: Look at camera
RealEstateAce72: Stop ruining my fucking lunch break you slut.
SixtyNine69: She’s looking at my pics right now, guys.
YourDad84: Kill yourself.
I ban everyone in the room from chatting, but they still stick around.
Blair and I talk about meeting. He also lives in the Midwest, but won’t tell me where exactly. He says Youngstown isn’t a terrible drive for him. I look at the angry silence of my chatroom. I can’t remember the last time I talked to anyone without being in character. I agree to meet Blair at Cattleman’s on Friday.
My computer has a virus so I drive to the computer repair shop and park in the dirt lot. Tim Jackson’s gold/brown Taurus is parked close to the door, proclaiming his daughter’s former existence to all who drive past.
I know this is a bad idea, but it’s the only computer repair shop in town, and I don’t have time to drive to Columbus. I need this thing fixed immediately. Already my subscribers are wondering where I am, poking their dicks into new chatrooms, forgetting about ScarSlut. Regularity is key to my target demographic.
And I’m meeting Blair in a few hours.
I walk into the shop. Tim Jackson stands behind the counter and looks up from his computer screen. He begins to smile, but his blond mustache twitches into a flash of anger as he recognizes me.
“What?” It’s barely a question.
“My computer is broken. I think it’s a virus.”
“Watching a lot of internet porn?”
“Look. I need it fixed. Can you do that?”
“That’s my fucking job.”
“Whatever. I need it.”
He grunts and starts filling out a slip. He puts the laptop under the counter and goes back to his computer screen.
I say, “So it’ll be ready tomorrow?”
“That’s what I said.”
As I turn to leave, I hear him muttering under his breath something like, drunk whore or whatever.
No work to do, no way to write, I drive around town. Sara Fucking Jackson. I’m pretty goddamned sure that’s what the F stands for. Why’d she choose me? My car is tiny. Surely a semi out on the interstate would have been a surer way. And I was driving in a forty-five zone, so death really was about fifty/fifty. Probably would have lived if her temple hadn’t slammed into my windshield just right. She was so desperate to off herself that she couldn’t walk an extra ten minutes to make sure?
And then I wonder, as I always do: was she just crossing the street, on her way to the Marathon to buy cigarettes or a Hershey’s bar? Had I drifted too far into my own thoughts, checking my mirror, mouthing Van Halen?
Here’s what I know:
It was apparent from the Marilyn Manson and Sylvia Plath quotes on her Myspace page (which still exists) that Sara was depressed. Home for the summer from college, the last thing she posted was a short story about a vampire choking a high-school girl until she came.
Cops found a note in her back pocket with “I’M SORRY” scrawled on it. Due to the jagged Sharpie strokes, the note was obviously written by someone experiencing high amounts of distress.
I park in front of Uncle Sam’s Fireworks Store. The giant sheet aluminum statue grins in his red, white, and blue suit that has always looked to me like pajamas. The top hat thrusts into the cloudless sky as Sam surveys all of Youngstown.
Paint chips off the elbow joints of the statue as he raises his arm to remove the hat. Uncle Sam’s eyes roll in his head and focus on me. A few flecks of patriotic paint fall away as he bends toward me. I hear metallic scrapes as the statue, alive and groaning, flexes its rusty muscles. His grin is gone, in its place a piteous frown.
“Hello Laura. Why are you crying?”
I open my sunroof. “Because I killed someone.”
“Laura, do you know how many we had to kill?”
“This was pointless.”
“The best deaths are.”
“What can I do? How can I move on?”
The metal screeches and bends as Sam points to me again. His lips curve into an almost smile, something that seems like a look of stern encouragement. “Laura, I want you… to enjoy your evening. Don’t you have a date?”
I go into the store and buy a bag of fireworks.
Cattleman’s smells like smoke and the dust of AARP members. Right away, I need a puff of my inhaler. I look around, only seeing geezers in foam trucker hats and waitresses in short skirts and black shirts. No one here matches Blair’s description, so I sit at the bar and order a shot.
The jukebox clicks into place and starts a new song with an upbeat synth riff. “Jump,” by Van Halen.
Someone sits at the bar next to me. I look up to a blond mustache above a mouth pressed into a solemn thin line. Tim. He holds two bourbon shots and puts one in front of me.
“Laura, right? I want to apologize for earlier.”
I keep looking for Blair. I don’t say anything.
He continues, “Look, it’s been hard. Ten years. And we’ve never had a face-to-face.”
He drinks his shot and orders us a couple beers. “That okay?” he asks. His face is washed in lunatic credulity; the music is just the right pitch.
I still don’t see Blair. I say, “Sure,” and drink the bourbon before the beer arrives.
“I just miss my girls. Sara’s gone, of course, and then Carol left. It seems almost the old-fashioned way. A kid dies and all the other relationships fall apart.”
“It fucked up my life too, you know.”
He looks at me, and for a moment his face is hard again. But his eyes melt into true sympathy. “There is no ear at the key-hole to death,” he says.
“What?” I’m starting to feel sick, but I want to hear what he’s saying. It really has been a long time since I’ve had a conversation with a person in person.
“I’m saying I get it. Actions have consequences and most are negative. I see your pain.”
And I see his. My face is hot and I imagine it must be some shade of red. He touches my hand and I feel something slipping away from me.
“But the past is alterable,” he says. “Or maybe it isn’t.”
Van Halen plays and plays and plays. The room spins in blurs of synth and neon light. I think, Tim, we’ve shared so much. And I think, Jesus, is the length of one song enough time for me to decide to sleep with this guy? And, Fuck, how much have I had to drink?
Spinning, and I’m saying something to the mustache. When I finally get my eyes to lock on Tim’s face, he’s expressionless.
“Had a bit too much to drink?”
I’m trying to say something, but my mouth isn’t working.
“Don’t worry. I’ll take you home.”
Beyond the miles of cornfields, the corn syrup factory wafts plumes into the purpling sky. With the windows down, I smell the sugar fumes from the backseat of the car. The hot air feels bitter, like yellow bile, blowing on the skin of my bare arms. My neck and back ache, twisted into crazy directions, my chin sore from resting on the door’s cup holder, but I can just see between the front seats to know that we’re driving into the remnants of sunset. West.
“Mlhmmmnnnhmmm.” For a second I hope that my inhaler is in my pocket.
Survival instinct and struggling. More attempts at smeared, muffled speech. My breathing quickens and already I can feel the blockage, like my lungs can’t inflate, like they’re being hugged into suffocation from the inside. I’ve never been able to rely on my nose for anything good, especially breathing, but now it’s all I have, all I am, trying to get corn syrup-tainted oxygen into blood.
“You sound like a lawnmower.”
Between the seats, I see a hand holding my inhaler.
On the dashboard is a suction mounted Cleveland Indians bobble head. The car engine vibrates as the head nods. I watch the grinning Indian and breathe. He encourages me as the breaths become longer, deeper. I picture a diamond, base to base, breath to breath.
“You understand what it is to no longer have a thing dear to you?”
I look toward the rearview mirror, searching for a face, eyes, mustache, but all I see is the reflection of a number: 1984.
“Maybe you were driving and saw a squirrel. Maybe you swerved. Maybe the squirrel survived and fucked and made more of itself. Maybe.”
The cornfields thin. The air cools. I force in breaths.
“Maybe there’s a whole genetic line of squirrels in Ohio that owes its existence to your perceptiveness.”
I can feel the car driving up an incline. Beyond the bobbling mascot, the horizon fills with the dark outline of hills or mountains. Rising elevation, deeper breaths. I wait for the nosebleed, hoping it doesn’t come.
“Probably not so good from a Darwinistic point of view. I can admit that.”
Red metallic taste of iron in the back of my throat, a wet, sticky drip off of my chin and onto my chest like a stream of corn syrup. I feel the blood rolling along my chest. When it reaches my stomach, I resist the urge to vomit. There’s no place for it to go.
“I mean, now there’s a bunch of squirrels out there that don’t realize that walking across the street for another acorn can get them killed.”
Outside, what’s left of plants, shrubs, burn, and I breathe in the refuse of all of it, everything, disintegrating into grayness. Into desert.
“But say you didn’t notice the squirrel. Say you smooshed it under your tire. Now it’s gone, and you’re the one going around town fucking and making more of yourself.”
The horizon is bright, like a great fire, but it can’t be the sun because it just set.
“Now there’s a genetic line that goes around murdering without even knowing what they’re doing.”
We’re still hurtling west, and I’m breathing and burning and bleeding.
“That’s how we as a species go from predators to casual killers.”
It’s getting bad again.
“I have a secret to tell you.”
Next afternoon, I wake up in my bed remembering the last words I heard Tim Jackson speak: “I can’t do it. I just can’t do it.” He was crying, hunkering in a pool of his clothes and limp genitals. He was covered in what was either red desert dirt or bedroom dust.
I drive to the computer repair shop to pick up my laptop. Tim stands behind the counter. He’s shaved his mustache. He doesn’t look at me, but disappears into the back. When he brings me my computer, he doesn’t say anything or look up, just runs my credit card. I leave.
I drive west while ordered rows of corn and soy beans disappear into the horizon. I see the corn syrup factory, but I don’t see any mountains or desert. I don’t see any fire or charred plants.
At home, I use my cell phone as a weak flashlight in the dark. It casts a bluish light over my ottoman and shoes. I think of the fish-creatures that were our ancestors a billion years ago groping in blue-black water with their newly formed multicellular muscles. They began eyes, one at a time, and discovered the sun somewhere above the murk. Creationists love to cite eyes, the complexity of the human organs and the inexplicability of sensibility, as proof of intelligent design. Eyes can’t form in a vacuum. But it makes sense to me. Eons of striving toward the light, wading through black depths until they turned blue, then yellow, then green. We have only ever tried to get closer to the sun.
Sweeping the light of the cell phone over my living room, I find the entrance to the kitchen. I fill a glass of tap water and drink. The blinds are closed, so it is just as dark as anywhere. I wonder if billions of years from now our sensations might be reconstructed, watched on an alien television screen. I wonder if future beings might see our frail perception and imagine our perpetual darkness. I wonder how close to the sun they will be.
I reach into the kitchen drawer and pull out one of the fireworks I bought. It’s in a cardboard box with an Uncle Sam logo on it. The picture of Sam looks at me with concern. “Now Laura, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. I want you…. to live a full and complete life.”
I take the bomb out of the box and throw the cardboard in the trash. The outside feels papery and oily, yet grainy as if it had been dipped in gunpowder. At one side the paper twists and ends around a wiry fuse.
I take a cigarette lighter out of my pocket and light the fuse, dropping the bomb into my dry sink. It sputters and sparks, filling my kitchen with orange flashes.
Outside, Ohio is damp and greening.
The fuse burns down. When the flame lights the powder inside, will it explode in purple or white? Will it detonate in a hollow explosion or will it fire like a machine gun ripping off rounds or will it wheeze like a balloon slowly letting out air? Will it will fizzle into nothing?
I await the bursting flame or silence.
“Sam, I want to put you at ease. Nothing gets me down.”
There’s still so much more to do. I need to research the cliffs of Pennsylvania. I’ll be here awhile.
Clinton Craig is a writer in the University of Louisiana at Lafayette creative writing PhD program. His work has appeared in Tammy, a glimpse of, Coldnoon, and others. He's from Arizona.