Speeding, Vodka, Malcolm, and Rich

George August Meier

 

Billie was three or four turns past knowing where he was, but he didn’t care. Anyways, he thought, who needs to know where you’re going when you’re out with your buddies raising hell? The rusty pickup and its four hell-raisers raced deeper into the Georgia backwoods, the road changing from asphalt to dirt. Road grit flung into the wheel wells clattered like a barrage of bullets. A wall of pines was straight ahead.

“The road’s ending!” Davis, riding shotgun, yelled out.

“Not stopping!” Billie yelled back.

Billie squinted into the dropping sun. He spotted a trail to the left and flicked his wrists. The pickup lurched and shot between two trees, side mirrors ripping loose. He grinned—not bad for a guy with a belly full of vodka. A rumble from the oversized tires filled the quad cab and joined “Born to Be Wild” booming from the radio. Billie eased off the gas to gain some control.

“You got a sissy foot or what?” Malcolm yelled from the back seat. Rich, next to him, giggled.

Billie jerked his head around and glared at Malcolm. “First you get me fired, and now you bad-mouth my driving.”

Malcolm wore his permanent smirk. “Hey, I got the axe, too, remember?”

Billie responded by pinning the gas pedal to the floor. The engine roared with enthusiasm, a ready accomplice in the pursuit of speed.

“Woo-hoo!” Davis screamed. The buddies, all in their twenties, screeched and hammered the seats with their fists. The truck bounced off rocks and roots, and branches slapped the cracked windshield.

“Drink up,” Malcolm shouted as he leaned forward and shoved the half-gallon bottle of vodka at the wiry driver.

Billie snatched it and raised it to his lips, the sloshing liquid splashing orange sunlight randomly throughout the cabin. Davis stripped off his shirt. His pale, white skin contrasted with his dark beard and hair. He leaned out the passenger window all the way to his waist, pumping his right arm, feigning rabid anger at the sky. As Billie took another slug, he ran out of trail. The truck plunged through a thicket of rhododendron, the tightly knit branches raking skin from Davis’s torso like a wire brush removing paint.

The pickup hurtled forward, mowing down tall, leafy plants one after another. Malcolm and Rich cheered. Davis, striped red like a candy cane, hung out the window yelping like a wounded animal.

Billie heard two sharp pops and two clinks, and then the truck bucked over what seemed like a speed bump. A man appeared right out front. The truck struck him hard and flung him upwards. He came down on the hood and sprawled against the windshield. Billie jammed the brakes. The truck skidded, hit a tree, and came to an abrupt stop. The crash heaved the boys forward, then the man on the windshield and Davis vanished. The engine snorted, shuddered, and quit. Billie pivoted to see Malcolm and Rich still in their seats.

Malcolm was still smirking. “I still say your driving sucks.”

Billie opened his door. “Let’s find Davis.”

The area resembled a large cornfield, with the stalks planted among scattered trees, but the crop was marijuana. Billie had heard rumors of such places, but regarded them as urban myths. They exited the vehicle in amazement.

Billie called out to Davis.

“Over here. I’m hurtin’.” Davis, some twenty feet from the truck, lay between two rows of plants.

Billie rushed to him. “I’m so sorry, man. I should’ve stopped sooner.”

“I guess I shouldn’t have been trick ridin’,” Davis said.

Davis’s bare chest looked freshly painted red. His right leg bent awkwardly below the knee, where his filthy jeans were also red. Through a vodka fog, Billie recalled the summer Malcolm accidentally shot Rich in the leg while demonstrating how to safely handle a pistol. The paramedic had applied a tourniquet to stop the bleeding.

“We gotta’ put pressure on his leg,” he said. Getting no response, he turned to see Malcolm and Rich motionless as scarecrows.

“Go find out who we hit,” Billy yelled at the other two, who moseyed off like they were out for a stroll.

Billie cut away Davis’s right pant leg with a pocket knife, which revealed bone sticking through pulpy flesh. Blood spurted. Billie cinched the leg with his belt, and the bleeding gurgled to a halt.

He turned to Davis. “Gimme your phone!”

“Forgot it at home.”

Billie heard what sounded like a shriek from someone being tortured. Malcolm and Rich appeared dragging a guy by his legs. The man was a mess, with blood in his beard and on his chest.

“He’s one of the guys you ran over,” Malcolm said.

“Why drag him here?” Billie asked.

“We figured you’d know what to do with ’em,” Malcolm said. The boys dropped the stranger’s legs when they got to Davis.

“Wait. Did you say one of the guys?”

“The other one’s dead,” Malcolm said.

“Dammit. You call nine-one-one?”

“Can’t.”

“Why the hell not?”

“My phone’s dead, too,” Malcolm said, with a single chuckle.

Billie pressed his eyes shut and hoped when he opened them, he’d be somewhere else, anywhere else, but no such luck. “See if you can get the truck started and back it over here so we can load Davis and this guy, and get the hell outta here.”

“Doubt it will start,” Malcolm said.

“Give it a damn try,” Billie yelled.

Malcolm and Rich headed for the truck, and Billie turned to the injured stranger. He removed the guy’s shirt to find a gash in his ribs. The guy stopped breathing. Billie pushed hard against the man’s chest and a gush of blood squirted from the wound. Still no breath. He pumped the chest with his full weight several times. Still nothing. He put his head to the bloody chest. Still no heartbeat. “Damn,” he muttered.

He kept listening for the truck to start. Maybe the engine was shot. He trotted to the truck, but the boys were gone.

Shouting their names, Billie walked through several rows of plants to find Malcolm and Rich furiously picking buds and stuffing their pants pockets, shirts, and underwear. Without looking up, Malcolm said, “Free weed, man,” his voice squeaking with glee.

Billie resisted the urge to tackle Malcolm and stuff marijuana down his throat. Instead, he grabbed both boys’ biceps and yanked them back toward the pickup. The boys grumbled about the lobster grip on their arms.

Opening the truck door, Billie shoved Malcolm into the front seat. “Start it up!”

“Okay, okay,” Malcolm said.

Billie hustled off. Davis was unconscious, but breathing steady. Billie heard the truck growling under Malcolm’s heavy hand. Start please, he thought. The engine grunted and started—finally, some good luck. As the truck backed toward them, the right rear tire hit a patch of soft dirt and began to spin in place, rocking into a shallow cradle and finally coming to rest. Easy on the gas, you idiot, Billie thought.

Malcolm gunned the engine, and the tire burrowed in deeper. He killed the engine, climbed out of the cab, and lumbered over to Billie. “Stuck.”

“I can see that,” Billie barked. “The sun is dropping on us. It’s gonna’ get dark real fast. You and Rich get it unstuck so we can go. Now!”

While the boys worked on the buried wheel, Billie kept a hand on Davis’s sticky red chest to make sure it was still rising.

It was nearly dark when the truck started again and approached. It stopped just short of Billie, Davis, and the dead man. When the engine was cut, Billie wondered why.

“Idiots,” he muttered. The boys stumbled toward him in the dusk shadows.

Three loud cracks rang out. Gunshots! A bullet clanked off the cab, and two whizzed overhead.

“Must be some more of the dudes growing this stuff,” Billie yelled. “You guys load Davis into the bed, and I’ll get ‘er started.” Billie ran to the cab as he heard another shot. “Hurry!”

Finally, the boys sprinted. Billie had barely started the engine when the two scurried into the cab. I guess there’s nothing as motivating as bullets flying at you, Billie thought.

“Davis in the bed?” Billie asked.

“He’s in,” Malcolm shouted. “Get me outta’ here!”

A metallic bang came from the rear of the cab, followed by a cracking sound on the back window. Billie floored it, and the truck fishtailed as it gained traction, spewing dirt, leaves, and rocks like shrapnel. Billie followed crushed plants to the hole they had made in the rhododendron. The trail and the dirt road seemed a lot longer than Billie remembered, and he prayed they wouldn’t be cut off by the riflemen. When the tires met pavement, he felt a little better.

He wanted to check on Davis. After glancing in the rearview mirror for the twentieth time to confirm no one was following, he pulled into a gas station. He told the boys to stay put and hopped out. His guts twisted when he saw the man in the bed of the truck.

“You idiots! You loaded the wrong damn guy!”

His friends sat mute, Malcolm with only half a smirk.

“Now we gotta go back for Davis,” Billie said, as he climbed back into the driver’s seat.

Malcolm opened his door. “No way am I goin’ back there.”

“What if it was you back there?”

“It ain’t.”

Malcolm got out, followed by Rich, his eyes fixed on the ground. The two walked toward town.

The tires squealed as the pickup skidded through a half circle and Billie headed back for Davis, unsure of what he would do when he got there. He thought the shooters would have surely found Davis by now. Maybe they shot him. Maybe they would be waiting for Billie to return, guns cocked and loaded. Without any reasonable plan, he hit the accelerator. As the truck responded, he patted the dash and silently thanked the truck for once again coming through, unlike Malcolm and Rich.

Shortly before reaching the end of the paved road, Billie saw flashing lights ahead, approaching fast. The ambulance passed him in a blur. He slowed to make a U-turn and saw more flashing lights as a police car pulled alongside. He was pulled over, and a couple of officers headed to inspect his cargo. Billie got out of the truck, leaned over the hood, and put his hands behind his back. He figured this might minimize the rough stuff when he got cuffed.

*

After a night in jail, Billie was led to a small office where he met Harlan “Buddy” Baker, a public defender, who was seated at a gray metal desk. He was a short, heavyset man in a well-worn brown suit and seemed to be about fifty. He extended a big hand, and his grip was firm and wet.

“How’s my friend Davis?” Billie asked.

“Lucky for him those hunters found him and called nine-one-one.”

“Hunters? They shot at us.”

“Yeah, they’re really sorry ’bout that. ‘Thought you boys were a herd of deer.” Buddy smiled.

“But they were shooting at shadows,” Billie said, exasperation in his voice.

“Yep. A little too eager to shoot something, in my book. But they never hit anyone. Bad shots, I guess. And did they ever get a scare when they came upon your friend Davis treading his own blood. ‘Thought they’d shot him.”

“Davis is okay?”

“The boy needed a few gallons of blood, but he’s gonna be fine. But the guys you ran down aren’t. Here are the facts, Billie Boy. You were driving drunk as a skunk, ran over two men, and then skedaddled from the scene.”

Billie just stared at the lawyer.

“But you’re the luckiest rascal I’ve ever had the pleasure to represent. The punks you snuffed out had criminal records longer than a monkey’s tail. And they were big-time marijuana growers. Horticulturists, if you will.” Buddy laughed. “And they shot at you before you plowed ‘em under. So…you were acting in self-defense, at least according to the prosecutor’s office.”

“I sure don’t wanna’ talk nobody out of that, but how do they know they shot at me?” Billie asked.

“Ballistics, young man. Your victims’ pistols had been fired recently. And apparently two bullets from those guns were lodged in your piece-of-shit pickup. Oh yeah, our lazy-ass prosecutor muttered something about being overworked and you doin’ the public a real big favor.”

Billie liked what he was hearing.

Buddy’s face drained of all humor. His sagging eyes focused on Billie. “So here’s the deal, son. If you plead guilty to DUI, reckless driving, and trespassing, you’ll get six months in the pokey, lose your license for a year, and be on probation until you draw social security. Let me tell ya’, sounds like a solid deal to me.”

Billie closed his eyes and thought about how they might have locked him up for a long time. He let out a long sigh and said, “Deal.”

§

Six months later, at 7:00 in the morning. Billie was processed for release and introduced to his probation officer. While a guest of the county, his only visitors had been his mom and Davis.

Billie walked out of the county jail, and when he got close, he noticed some of the dents had been banged out and it had two new side mirrors. Davis leaned against it. When he got close, Davis tossed him the keys. Once behind the wheel, the fear and loneliness that gripped him on the return trip for Davis swept through him like a déjà vu. He started the engine and extended his head out the window, then tilted his face to allow the sun a full broadside. In the warm comfort of a new day, he closed his eyes and vowed to give up speeding, vodka, Malcolm, and Rich.

 

George August Meier is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in Amarillo Bay, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Forge, The Write Room, and Writers’ Journal. He is a graduate of Colgate University and The Ohio State University. He is a native New Yorker, residing with his wife, Yvonne, and their yellow lab, Lily, on a gator infested lake in Winter Springs, Florida.