By Ava Graves
Congratulations to Ava Graves on winning first prize in our Trojan Times Writing Contest! Please read their winning submission below.
Autumn is the beginning of many things. The days begin to shorten and the leaves begin to desert their trees. The smell of decaying leaves permeates the air. The bats begin to dart into the night sky. The trees begin to lean in the wind and they ballet in perfect rhythm with the wind and eerie mood. Their branches rattle to create a symphony of sounds. The leaves, the sky, and the temperature begin to reflect less of the summer. They enter a transition, a shift from scorching and long days to short and chill days.
The equinox of fall is the commencement of many an event. It is also when Copper Cove College comes back into session.
Zeke should be enjoying the colorful leaves and brisk weather. Instead, he was blindfolded in the backseat of a frat boy’s car.
Fall is not just when the leaves fall but when Beta Phi Nu begin their initiation.
Zeke sat there tapping his foot against the floorboard of the sedan, his eyes blindfolded. His head bounced against the headrest of the backseat. The lull of the car settled against his back.
He sighed, smelling the dull scent of old fast food.
Fall did not just bring along crisp breezes, but hazing.
Hazing was a game to most frats, but to Beta Phi Nu, it was more than initiation. Zeke had heard whispers of the previous hazing activities. Some said they were wild and like a typical fraternity and others said they were something out of Skull and Bones. Although everyone was aware all members had to sign an oath to never reveal what the initiation truly was. If a brother was caught spilling the beans, they were practically blacklisted from the fraternity. It brought an air of mysticism to the club and that just intrigued Zeke further.
Zeke had to get in.
He had worked tirelessly to get into this university and Zeke wasn’t going to stop at that feat. No, he would enter the ‘best’ fraternity on campus.
All it would take is one event from the ‘Haze’ as the frat brothers had put it so eloquently. Now, here he was, in the backseat of a sedan, blindfolded.
God, what am I doing? Zeke asked himself. No, no. This is it. After this, you’ll be in.
A crisp wind rattled the branches of the canopy of trees above, and a branch hit the roof of the car, making a soft ‘clink’. Zeke blinked away his thoughts and lifted his head up. Zeke couldn’t tell if it’s been hours or maybe just a few minutes. All he knew was he was anxious to ‘rip the band-aid’ off.
Michael Knightly sat in the front seat. He was known for being a wild partier and a pompous sports guy. His appearance suited him for this stereotype, his blonde hair and broad shoulders fitting the part.
Zeke was not sure what Michael was doing but he could hear him lightly tapping his steering wheel. Zeke knew he had to appeal to Michael, he was one of the most influential brothers of Beta Phi Nu and if he succeeded at this task, Michael would certainly put in a good word.
“Hey, man, we almost there?” Zeke asked.
“Bro, just take a chill pill. I’ll tell you when we’re there.” Michael replied hastily. Zeke wished the junior could see him rolling his eyes. He’d been back here for a while and he still has no idea what he is doing.
“What? Are you going to leave me out in the woods to find my way back to CCC? I don’t have any water. And you know, I’m blindfolded.” Zeke pondered this. What if he did leave him out here in the North Carolina wilderness?
Michael let out a grumble. “Dude, zip it.”
Zeke sighed, “We’ve been driving around for hours. What’s the deal? I know it’s a hazing thing, but- “
“Stop talking!” Michael snapped back; Zeke jumped a little.
He couldn’t see Michael’s expression but he knew he definitely had a scowl on.
He leaned his head back to the headrest and sighed. He listened to a stray Coke can roll across the backseat as Michael’s fingers picked up their continual tapping.
Suddenly, Zeke felt the car turn sharply left as his body leaned with the motion. Then, he heard Michael shift the car into park.
He heard the sound of Michael getting out of the car, and slamming the door, before coming to the backseat. He slung the door open as he commanded, “Take your blindfold off.”
Zeke took off the blindfold and his eyes stung as he got used to the light around him. The car was parked in a vast sea of trees, that swayed as the crisp fall breeze whipped through the woods. A canopy of trees leaned above the road as soft leaves floated gracefully to cover the pavement. It was quiet and vacant. Zeke gulped as he realized that there might not be anyone out there.
“Dude! Get out!” Michael broke Zeke from his trance. His steely blue eyes stared down at Zeke with intensity, “C’mon. Let’s go.”
Zeke moved out of the car. The light wind made Zeke shiver as he shut the door behind him, leaves moving in a sort of dance to the rhythm of the wind. “What are we doing?”
Michael turned to him, “I’ll tell you.” He then turned hastily back and began stomping towards the trunk. Zeke followed him closely; leaves crunched beneath his feet. Michael then paused as he put his hands on the handles of the trunk, turning back to Zeke. Michael sighed.
He puffed out his chest, his neatly trimmed blonde hair waved a little in the wind. His face went serious, before putting a hand in his letterman jacket pocket.
The wind whistled. Zeke shivered.
“Alright, this is your final pledge. Do you promise to swear loyalty to your brothers of Beta Phi Nu?” Michael asked, his breath materializing in a nebulous cloud. Zeke nodded.
I’d do anything for Beta Phi Nu. Look. It can’t be that bad. Just breathe, Zeke. It’ll be okay. Just one task then you’re a brother. Michael is in control.
Michael’s eyes seemed to search Zeke’s expressions, he let out another sigh. “I did something… stupid.”
Zeke paused. Frat boys do stupid things all the time. And Michael was known for being an arrogant and wild partier, what could he have possibly done?
Something that made him bring me all the way out here.
“What did you do?”
Michael glanced back at the silver sedan trunk before meeting Zeke’s gaze again. “I was partying, you know, the typical. And, uh.” He began to bite his bottom lip as he glanced around the trees nervously. Zeke noticed he was going up on his toes, checking all directions.
Zeke felt his heart race a little. He shifted a little bit in his place. The leaves crunched beneath his shoes.
“I was driving home and I, erm… hit a girl.” Michael looked at Zeke. Zeke felt the blood drain from his head. “Down by Eastwood Street.”
“Where’s… Where’s the girl now?” Zeke felt himself stammer. Please. Please. Please be a prank. But Michael’s expression gave it away that it did not appear this way.
Michael lifted his hands out of his pocket, showing his keys.
Michael lifted up the trunk to reveal a corpse-shaped figure covered in a pink blanket. It was wrapped around it like a cocoon for a butterfly. A red substance bled through the cloth and Zeke felt his vision blur.
“NO! NO! NO! I can’t do this! What the-“, The words fell out of his mouth like vomit. This could not be happening. He began to pace around, his heart pounding like it wanted to shatter his rib cage. He glanced back at the body and felt faint.
“CHILL! Okay, man, all the other brothers must do something that will bind them for life. Alright? This is ours?” He demanded, his voice rising to an almost frightening level. “Dude, be quiet! This is our binding thing!”
“Gamma Zeta went skydiving!” Zeke felt his voice quivering with anger. This could not be happening. Why didn’t Michael call the police? Panic overtook his mind as he ran his hands through his hair. “Why didn’t you call the police?”
“I was panicking!” Michael yelled at full volume, throwing his hands up as if that was the only explanation.
“That’s not an excuse!”
Michael seemed offended, “Well, I was dr-.”
A voice broke the quarrel. “You boys need help?”
Zeke and Michael whipped around quickly.
A slender, balding man stood before them, stepping out of his rusty pickup truck. He was wearing a baggy jacket and torn jeans, holding a cigarette in his mouth. A soft smoke emitted from the tip of the cigarette as it dangled from his lips.
Zeke felt himself fall silent. Michael became composed, how?
“Oh, we broke down.” He replied, gesturing vaguely to the car. “Don’t worry. We called a repair man, it’s all good.”
The man laughed, “Hm. Well, don’t worry. I’ve got a tool kit in the back-“
He paused; his white hair whipped in the breeze. Zeke realized he glanced at the trunk; his heart began to race. They’re done for. He couldn’t go to jail. Not for this!
The older man scowled, “What’s in the trunk, fellas?”
Michael shifted uncomfortably. “No, sir. It’s nothing. Just a picnic.”
“I saw it. That ain’t no picnic.”
The old man ran back to his truck and began searching, pulling out a pistol. Zeke felt his vision blur, they were going to get killed. His heart began to slam. He felt himself blink, taking in the brief darkness of his eyelids. He wanted to wake up in his dorm room, enveloped in his blanket.
I can’t do this.
He heard screaming. It sounded male but it was grabbled. What was that Michael? What happened? Was this a nightmare? It was muffled but he began to realize that light was streaming back into his eyes, stinging. A frigid wind made him awaken with a shudder.
He felt the decaying leaves on his skin, crunching as he moved.
Michael was shouting, panicking. “WHAT DID YOU DO?”
Zeke looked at the leaves below his hands. It was stained in red… blood. His stomach dropped.
No. No. No.
Michael was pacing and gawking at the man’s body before them. Zeke turned on the bigger man, “He was going to kill us!”
Michael shook his head, “No.” He moved back to the trunk and grabbed the blanket covering the corpse. Zeke felt his stomach drop as he saw a plastic limb. Anger rose in his gut.
“What? WHAT?” Zeke stammered. “This can’t be happening!”
Michael put the dummy down, a bead of sweat sliding down his cheek. Zeke placed his hands over his eyes. Some part of him wished he was back in the backseat blindfolded again.
“What- What kind of hazing initiation was this?” He yelled. Michael flinched.
He killed a man.
Zeke began to pace; the red substance began to dry on his palms. It was like a stain of sin.
The chilling wind was less soothing. Michael just stood as if he was stunned; Zeke’s gaze flickered over to him briefly. He wanted to slap the upperclassman’s stunned expression off his face. He paused as he gazed at the body before him. It occurred to him that he hadn’t looked at the man. His white beard was stained with red, it dripping down to his chest.
A gaping hole lay in his right cheek. The yellow leaves cradled his body like a blanket.
“We can go to the police. S-say it was in self-defense.” Michael spoke. He walked up to Zeke, who glared at him. “We’ll be fine.”
“No! It won’t! I’m going to go to real jail, Michael! How do I explain this?” He gestured at the man. Another chilling breeze rustled Zeke’s hair; goosebumps slid down his back like a snake. “I’m going to go to jail. My life is over.”
All of his work was wasted.
Michael glanced at his shoes before turning back to the trunk.
The wind was like an ominous omen as the trees danced, rustling their leaves. The autumn atmosphere made Zeke shudder.
He pulled his jacket on tighter. His life lay in ruin, right here, in the middle of nowhere.
No. He would not stop. He worked this hard. He would complete it.
“Pick him up.”
Michael’s face scrunched up in confusion. “What?”
Zeke folded his arms over his chest. “You heard me.”
“What about loyalty and all that crap? Fraternity and all that?” Zeke raised his voice, and Michael stepped back. “Do it now!”
Michael opened his mouth to say something, but one glance at Zeke’s determined expression made him close his mouth. He seemed to hesitate before picking up the man surprisingly easily. Zeke watched as he did it, shaking his head. He had to do this.
The older man’s head dangled as Michael hoisted him over to the car, blood dripping over the teal fabric of his letterman jacket. Zeke began to walk to the front seat.
“My turn.” He mumbled to himself. He heard Michael slam the trunk and heard him mumble something vague. It’s clear he was panicking but was trying to remain calm. Zeke’s stomach turned and twisted with horrible intensity.
Michael couldn’t take control but Zeke could.
Zeke settled into the driver’s seat as Michael jumped into the passenger’s side. Zeke lifted his hands up to check his mirrors. That’s when he saw it.
His face was painted in dried blood, drops of it scattered along his sweatshirt. His light brown hair was disheveled and to be honest, it took a moment for Zeke to recognize himself. He watched himself scowl at his reflection before gripping the steering wheel and putting the car into drive.
He pulled out of the grass and began to drive down the road. He watched as the trees above leaned over the road like a canopy. Each of them rushed by in succession. It would have been peaceful if it weren’t for the fact Zeke currently had a body in the back of the car.
“What’s the plan?” Michael asked. It was almost funny to see the bigger man gazing out the window, nervous. Zeke grabbed a napkin from the dash and began to rub the blood off of his face. “Maybe we should just turn ourselves in. It’s not too late.”
He almost seemed hopeful.
Zeke wanted to roll his eyes, but he couldn’t ignore the warm taste of vomit rising in his throat at the thought of the corpse in the trunk.
He could picture the eyes of the man rolling back, he shuddered. He swallowed.
“We gotta get rid of it,” Zeke repeated. He didn’t even have a plan, what was he thinking?
Michael began to roll down the window, crisp wind hitting Zeke in a refreshing wave.
As much as he loved the autumn breeze and the appealing smell of the outside, he couldn’t stand it. Get rid of the body, then enjoy the outside. “Roll up the window.”
“Dude, I feel like I’m going to hurl.”
This reminded Zeke of his impending vomit, a wave of nausea rushing over him. He lifted his eyes from the leaf-engulfed pavement to Michael. “Yeah. Roll it up.” He replied sharply.
He looked back at the road; he could feel sweat oozing from his bloody palms onto the leather of the steering wheel. A stream of fresh air still filled the car; Zeke turned back to Michael.
“Michael. Roll up the window!” He rose his voice again. Hopefully, Michael couldn’t hear his voice crack. Despite his façade, he was horrified at the mere idea of losing his career, his college life, and his future for some foolish fraternity hazing ceremony. How did he wake up this fine fall morning and end up carrying a dead body in a junior’s trunk?
Michael seemed to register this command. From his mirror, Zeke could see him chewing his bottom lip again. A small scattering of blood dotted his cheek near his right ear, right above his light stubble. He still hadn’t rolled up the window.
Zeke had to be in control.
“ROLL UP THE WINDOW!”
Michael raised an eyebrow, “Hey, man, I’m the upperclassman. You listen to me.” He gestured to his chest with his pointer finger then back at Zeke.
Zeke glanced over; he furrowed his brow.
“Yeah, well, you’re the one who got us into this mess. We should have done something normal!” Zeke said. “Like, I don’t know, not pretending to kill someone!” He let the sarcasm ooze from his lips.
He felt the fresh crisp air suddenly halt as Michael rolled up the window. The sweet smell of autumn stops with it.
Zeke heard Michael sitting up from his previous slouching position. He had looked so meek after the incident despite him being a broad and huge man. Zeke suddenly realized the man was kind of intimating. A few hours ago, he would never have imposed on Michael like this.
Well, that was a few hours ago.
“Yeah, well, if we’re going to dump this thing,” he gestured behind him with his thumb, “we need to pull off this backroad and go into the deep woods.”
Zeke kept his eyes on the road. “Yeah.”
Michael opened up the glove compartment, and an assortment of junk food napkins and plastic utensils sprung from inside. Zeke watched from his peripheral as Michael scavenged through the stuff like a raccoon in a trash bin. Eventually, he landed on something and pulled out a box of cigarettes. His hands trembled as he lit it and attempted to light it. Zeke vaguely watched as he kept shaking the lighter before attempting again. It wouldn’t light as his hands were too shaking. It was pathetic. A big jock like Michael trembling and smoking. It’s not the image Zeke had of him.
Zeke grumbled. This was pathetic. Suddenly, he reached over and snatched the cigarette out of Michael’s hands before he could hold it to his lips. Pressing down his window, he chucked it out the window. Michael gawked.
“Dude! I was gonna use that!” He seemed appalled. Zeke looked back at him. He kind of wanted to punch the guy. Sure, Zeke had killed the man, but it wouldn’t have happened if Michael did not have such a ridiculous calumny of a hazing ceremony.
The man’s lifeless expression lingered as Zeke blinked. His stomach turned.
“Oh, jeez. Zeke.” Michael suddenly spoke. Zeke shook out of his thoughts and looked at his mirror.
A pair of flashing red and blue lights trailed them.
Michael panicked. “Oh, God! This is it! We’re done! This is it! We’re going to get arrested!”
Normal Zeke would have surrendered. He would have rolled over. Not now. He was in this for the long run.
“Shut it, Michael.”
Zeke pulled out to a small enclave next to the road. The sleek black police parked behind them and as expected, a balding officer with a portly build emerged from the car. He marched up the car. Zeke rolled down the window.
The officer leaned over, placing one arm on the roof of the car hoisting himself up. He peered down his long nose, “You were driving kind of erratically, fellas.”
Michael was breathing heavily. Zeke gave him an icy stare and Michael soon fell silent. Zeke turned back to the officer. Zeke could smell the faint potent aroma of cigarettes exuding from the man.
His name tag was engraved with ‘Jones’.
“Yes, sir. We’re aware.” Zeke replied smoothly. He wished Michael wasn’t tapping his foot so loudly. He felt like slapping him in order to make him stop. Did he not get the memo? They don’t want to go to jail.
The officer sighed, his breath materializing in the crisp winds. Zeke flinched as his breath hit his face, it smelled of tobacco. “What were you two boys doing? No need to drive that erratically.”
Michael answered, “N-nothing, sir.”
“It’s a beautiful fall day, Officer Jones. We just figured we would… uh, bask in the glory of it all.” Zeke replied. “No biggie. We shouldn’t have-“
The officer sat up, his eyes glaring directly at Michael now. “Is that blood, son?”
Michael seemed to pale at this. He looked back up at the officer and gulped. Zeke really wanted to punch him now, how could he forget that?
Zeke cleared his throat. He had to put on his charisma. “See, officer, we were just hunting. Yes, sir, that is blood. But it’s from an animal… sir.”
The officer made an incredulous expression, he leaned back looking in the backseat. He then turned back to the two boys. “Where’s your gear?”
Zeke felt his fingers tighten over the steering wheel.
“In the trunk.” Michael blurted. Zeke felt his stomach drop. He glared at Michael, hoping he would drop dead right there. Michael seemed to shrink under Zeke’s gaze.
The officer nodded absentmindedly. “Mind if I take a look?”
Michael’s mouth gapped open, “Zeke, man, we have to let him look.”
“Yeah… no.” Zeke blurted again, putting on his best defiant expression.
The officer suddenly slammed his fist on the roof of the car. A thud echoed around the car making Zeke flinch. He gritted his yellow teeth, “I make the rules here, son! Bring me back there yourself. NOW!”
Zeke sighed. This was it. What else could he do?
A small clink was heard outside of the car and Zeke did not see the officer anymore. He must have already walked to the back. Zeke mouthed, “This is it”.
Michael shrugged at him while Zeke slung the door open.
He felt something heavy hit the door. It feels backward with a loud thud. Zeke scrambled out of the car.
Officer Jones lay on his back, blood leaking out of the corner of his head onto the black pavement. Michael was yelling something but Zeke couldn’t hear it.
Zeke couldn’t feel himself. He felt distant like the world had gone numb. He felt shaking on his shoulders. He was locked in some labyrinth of nightmares, entrapped by thorns and sharp rocks. He could not escape. The maze just grew and grew. Like an abyss. He was trapped in the middle of it.
Suddenly, the world came rushing back into glaring focus. The crisp breeze became tangible and the decaying aroma of autumn filled his nostrils.
“Dude!” Michael exclaimed. “You killed an officer!”
“I know that!”
“Then, do something!”
Oh, so now he wants me to do something?
Truly, he was not. He was lost. Stuck.
Zeke kept his gaze down at the portly man. His blue uniform contrasted absurdly with the soft reds, yellows, and oranges of the leaves beneath him. In the man’s plump fist was a pen.
The officer was dead.
His mind began to rush back from the emptiness of before. It raced. Leave him here? No. Put him back in his car? No. We could just leave him? Maybe? No. We can’t.
As the battle waged in his mind, one singular answer popped into his brain. It held onto his consciousness like a tick on a dog’s skin.
It itched at his mind. The bile began to rise in his throat again.
Zeke felt his chest tighten. He couldn’t say it.
“Put him in the back,”. He wanted to let the bile out. “Use that spare blanket and hide him under the seat. We’ll deal with it later.”
Michael’s jaw went slack. His cropped blonde hair disheveled and back in that slouching position that made him look meek. “What? You’re kidding. You’re actually deranged!”.
Zeke’s veins roared with adrenaline. He marched up to the man, grabbed him by the collar and whispered through gritted teeth, “Put him in the car. Now. You got me into this mess. You’re going to get us out.”
Michael seemed to search Zeke’s eyes. Zeke met his steely blue eyes and let out a short breath. Zeke then moved away from the big man. His stomach grumbled as the bile rose again.
No. Remain strong. Lead.
Michael nodded and scooped up the officer. It would have been funny to watch the football-playing jock being commanded by a scrawny freshman, but to Zeke, it was less than funny. This was his future at stake.
As Michael carried the man over to the backseat and began to tie him up, Zeke bent over to the pavement and vomited. The bile burned his throat and his eyes stung. His head pounded and he felt a dull pain in the center of his forehead.
He did not care about Beta Phi Nu. He had to do this. He was in it for the long run. This was literally germane to his entire life because if he failed now… well it was over.
He wiped his mouth with his sleeve before turning back to Michael. He had tucked Jones under the seat but concealed him with a thick blanket. The sleek black cop car had gained a few new yellow leaves on its hood. Zeke watched as another leaf drifted slowly to the ground, stained with the officer’s blood. He shuddered, but this time not from the breeze.
Michael and Zeke climbed back into the car. Zeke sat and let out a breath.
Two bodies in the car. What a day.
Michael tapped his foot frantically before speaking, his voice quivering. “Just drive, Zeke.”
So, Zeke took off. They watched as the canopy of trees passed by and revealed a clear blue sky dotted with the occasional dance. The trees became sparser and the road began to diverge; Michael leaned as they took a left turn.
Zeke had not said anything. He’d kept his firm scowl in place, every once in a while, sighing. His eyes were darker than before. Nearly cloudy.
“Hey, dude,” Michael broke the silence. Zeke glanced over briefly. “If we want to get rid of these things, we need to do it soon.”
Zeke nodded, “Yeah. I’m thinking.”
Although Zeke had been silent, his brain had been the opposite. He’d been thinking of different ways to dispose of the ‘luggage’ and was coming up short. When he woke up this morning, he hadn’t imagined the day turning out like this. This was all a burden now. He wished he never applied for this frivolous fraternity in the first place.
He could be at his dorm. Reading, writing, studying, anything! Instead, he was chauffeuring two dead bodies around trying to find a place to dispose of them.
It was honestly morbid.
The vile would occasionally resurface on the drive, but he’d tighten his clammy hands on the steering wheel and gulp. His headache still roared on. It made him want to winch.
Michael cleared his throat. His deep voice came out softer. “Hey, I wanted to let you know… you’re in.”
Zeke should have been ecstatic about this. He should be wildly jumping up and down. He felt his insides twist up. He looked over at the blonde jock beside him. He was being sincere.
“Well, we have two bodies in your car currently so… it’s really not up there on my list of importance,” Zeke replied with exasperation. They had to get this whole ‘body’ mistake over with.
“Yeah… yeah…” Michael drifted off. He then refocused his attention back on the forests beside them.
Zeke looked at Michael looking out at the sea of wild grass appearing to race by. He then turned back and looked at the gauge. “Aw, crap. Zeke. Look.”
A small blinking red light flashed on the dashboard; low gas. They’d have to fill up. Out in the middle of nowhere. Zeke cursed under his breath.
“Another problem to add to my mountain of problems,” Zeke muttered as he peeled his eyes away from the gauge and back over to the road ahead. Michael then announced that up ahead lay a gas station.
He was not wrong.
Up ahead, concealed behind a few barren trees, was a gas station. It had two pumps, only one looking serviceable, the other crawling with rust. It looked to be vacant minus 1 car lingering outside the small store adjacent to the pumps.
“Dude, we have to go here,” Michael announced. “C’mon. We don’t want to get stranded out here. Especially not-.”
“What? With two bodies in the trunk? One being an officer!” Zeke shouted.
Michael flinched as if hit with the information. “I was going to say at night.”
Zeke took one hand off the wheel and massaged his pounding forehead.
How much is therapy going to cost for this?
Zeke reluctantly pulled into the gas station next to the one functional pump. He began to fill it up, noticing the quaint store next to the pumps. The store was a weathered wood with a few missing shingles off of its low-hanging roof. Discarded beer cans and old cigarettes littered the entire property; the smell of tobacco stinging Zeke’s nose.
Zeke surveyed the entire property. He kept scanning, nothing but a semi-circle of crooked trees who’ve lost their leaves besieging the property. A sign embroidered in neon lights hung from the tinted window, ‘Pay for Gas Inside’.
He looked back at the unpaved property. It was silent like the forest. Just not a serene quiet.
There wasn’t even the sound of cars out here.
Well, there was one thing out here: a shaggy man wearing baggy pants with gaping holes and a thread-barren shirt. He had a scruffy beard, gray circles under his eyes, and greasy brown hair. Zeke looked back at the car; Michael was now leaning outside near the trunk. He was attempting to light another cigarette.
Zeke whispered over to Michael. “Hey. I’ll be right back. I’ve gotta pay.”
Michael perked up and turned to look at Zeke, giving a thumbs up. “Gotcha.”
The pump said it was almost done, so he began to march over to the store. He gave one glance back at Michael and the sedan outside, before gripping the handle of the door and going inside.
A small ‘ding’ sounded throughout the small store. AC embraced Zeke in a hug that he missed.
He gave a quick survey. The selves on his right were surprisingly organized for the pumps and property being so run-down. He noticed a reach-in refrigerator placed in the back; flyers, and ads placed all over the glass. On his left, a counter separated the isles from the office. It was littered with bills, trash, and an old Chinese take-out box. A Plexiglass frame hung from one chain with a window cut in the middle of it for transactions. A door was closed in the back, a small calendar pinned up on it. Down next to the door, a hand-held radio sat propped up on a wooden stool. It played a garbled crooner tune. A plump tabby lay curled up next to the stool seemingly unbothered by a guest barging in.
Zeke walked up to the counter, pushing a small little bell next to the register and box of gum. Suddenly, a man rushed out from behind a closed door, obviously startled. He had a receding hairline, a clean-shaven face, and a robust belly. His Hawaiian shirt was seeping with sweat and his white skin was almost strikingly pale next to the vibrant greens of the shirt. He seemed to grin when he saw Zeke standing in front of the counter.
“Ah, how are you doing?” He asked, seemingly genuine. A thick Southern accent dripped with his words. Zeke merely nodded at this question. He didn’t want to give anyone too much information.
The clerk cleared his throat, looking Zeke up and down. “Say, boy, you look rough.”
“Yeah…” Zeke then took one glance at the translucent glass. He could see his tired eyes, the shamrock green color from before looking so much darker. His hair was damp with sweat and his teal baggy sweatshirt wrinkled and dotted with splotches of a red substance. He realized he hadn’t taken a good look since Jones died. The clerk was not wrong.
The man’s voice broke Zeke’s trance. “Hey, is that blood?”
Zeke shook his head, some of his unkempt hair falling into his eyes. He pushed it back. “No. My friend spilled some, uh, juice in the car. It’s all good. No biggie.”
He forced a smile, it almost hurt his cheeks. The clerk seemed satisfied with that answer, he opened his mouth to say something else when Zeke heard a loud sound from outside.
Zeke looked outside. The window was practically concealed with ads for drinks and food, it was hard to even see the sedan or pumps. They blocked his view. He didn’t hear anything else. He had to just pay and go.
Zeke suddenly cleared his throat, the clerk glanced over at him. “I’d like to pay for my gas.”
The clerk opened the cash register with a clink as Zeke shoved his hands in his jean pockets and pulled out a crinkled 20-dollar bill and placed it on the desk. The clerk took it and began crunching some numbers. Zeke kept trying to maneuver his body to see past the ads plastered on the foggy glass.
“Son, you want any change?” The clerk asked. Zeke realized he’d asked twice beforehand; Zeke just did not absorb the question. Zeke blinked and looked back at the man.
“Oh, no, sir. Thank you. Have a nice day.” He blurted absentmindedly. Zeke nodded at the clerk and pushed the door open, the little ‘ding’ sounding off again.
The fall air washed over Zeke as he looked outside at what was the cloud of dirt pulling out of the station. The silver sedan was driving down another road quickly.
Zeke felt his stomach turn over. It was not the same feeling as before. It was different. A good turn if that was a concept. Zeke watched as the silver sedan drove out of sight, becoming a small dot.
“WAIT! That’s our car!” Michael shouted, stumbling around in the thick cloud of overturned dirt. He cursed as he stood up and began to jog after it; Zeke then ran up beside him and touched his shoulder.
“Stop,” Zeke said. The car was gone. He stood beside the man.
Michael looked around frantically. “T-That man! Dude! He was quick, man. I’m so sorry. Oh, God. I’m so busted. The bodies. Oh, no. No. This is bad! I mean, I’m insured but still! I’m going to get the manager. “
Michael started to run up to the store.
Zeke then repeated himself. Michael then stopped in his tracks.
A bubbling feeling came up in Zeke’s throat, it came out as an awkward laugh that shook his frame. He threw his head back and cackled. The absurdity of it all! Michael stood shocked, watching Zeke laugh. His chest ached as he laughed.
This was great.
His body shook as he laughed. “Oh, man. This is great!”
Michael furrowed his brow, then approached Zeke. He put a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, man. This is not good. I don’t know what kind of psychotic break you’re having but-“
Zeke’s laughter turned to a small chuckle. A smile peeled his lips, he ribbed Michael softly in the side. Michael shook his head in disbelief. He gave a confused shrug.
“No! Get your phone.” He commanded, ribbing him again. Michael opened his mouth in protest but Zeke smiled at him. Michael complied and dug his hands into his letterman jacket pocket and pulled out a small silver device. Zeke put out a hand and Michael placed it directly into it.
Zeke opened the phone and dialed a few numbers. He felt his lips break into an even wider grin; he gave a small wink to Michael.
“Hello, 911. I’d like to report a stolen vehicle… yeah, last time my friend saw it was… this morning.”
He glanced back over at Michael. Michael smiled.