Wind Shares

Friday, October 01, 2010

The Jerky

“I love jerky,” the boy said, as he crammed another slab into his mouth.

“Jesus Christ, will you shut up?!” Walter screamed, clutching the steering wheel even tighter. Walter planned to murder the boy at the end of their trip. It had been fifty-three days since he had murdered anybody, and he was beginning to feel the lack like a fist closing around his heart.

“Jerky is good,” the boy said, by way of response. “It’s brown.”

The boy was about seventeen and very fat. Walter did not know his name. He had asked him this and other friendly questions to put the boy at ease when Walter had picked him up outside a gas station in Mountain City nearly four hours earlier, but the boy had talked of nothing but jerky. As the boy never made eye contact with him, Walter was not sure if the boy actually intended his opinions on jerky to be for Walter’s consumption, or if he just wanted to put them out into the world. After a while Walter stopped asking questions and sped up the car. His only concern now was to get to the clearing and get this over with. He desperately wished the car had a radio.

The boy had been eating jerky nonstop throughout the entire trip. Every time Walter decided that he couldn’t possibly have any more, he would somehow produce another chunk from somewhere on his person. Part of Walter had begun to believe that he was excreting it.

“Jerky,” the boy continued. “Jerky jerky jerky jerky.”

He was taking the boy to the same place he had taken the thirty-one before him. It was a small clearing in the woods some fifty miles farther down the road. No one in the world knew about it besides Walter. You could see nothing but trees in whatever direction you looked, and on clear nights he could watch the north star rise over the pines. He had no idea if it was really the north star or not. But it pleased him to imagine that it was.

“Jerky is made from meats,” the boy explained. “Meats give their lives to be jerky.”

Hitchhikers, as a rule, tend to be strange and unpleasant people. The exceptions were those whose car had broken down on the highway, who were usually friendlier, and smelled far better. Walter much preferred to pick these up for this reason. But even in the worst there was always something recognizably human. Walter had never encountered anything like this before.

“There are many kinds of jerky,” the boy said. “The best is all of them.”

Walter pulled over onto the shoulder and massaged his temples. There was a hot red spot of pain above his right eye. Just fifty more miles, he told himself. Just fifty more miles.

“I love jerky,” the boy said.

“The hell with it,” Walter said, and lunged across the seat. The boy evinced only mild surprise as Walter’s thumbs dug into the thick flesh above his trachea. When it was over, the boy slumped forward and jerky poured out of wherever he had been hiding it onto the floor and seat. The piece he had in his mouth remained stuck to Walter’s shirt when he pulled away.

Walter pulled the car back onto the highway. As soon as he did, he felt his chest tighten again. It had never started again this quickly. Usually it took weeks, at least. But this one had been singularly unsatisfying. It had been the only one that hadn’t happened in the clearing, on his terms. He needed to find someone else, quickly. But that was impossible as long as he had the boy’s corpse in his passenger seat. Maybe he would feel better after he got the body to the clearing and did what he needed to. Maybe he could still salvage something.

It would be better for him to get the boy out of sight somehow. He might even be able to pick someone else up. But the car was a two-seat hatchback, and there was no place anywhere he could move him. He knew that the car was completely unsuited to someone with his particular needs, but he could afford nothing else, and he had been unable to find a job that would allow him the necessary time off for his excursions. The irony was not lost on him.

Maybe he should apply for that trucking job again. He had applied for one three years earlier, but when he had come in for an interview they had made him answer pages and pages of questions that seemed to have nothing to do with trucking. The woman at the desk had smiled and said that they would call him, but no one ever had. He knew that it was a test, and he had failed somehow. But that had been years ago. Maybe there was another company that would not need to test him first.

Ahead of him he saw a woman standing on the side of the highway, next to a car with its hood open.

It had been seventeen months and eight days since he had brought a woman to the clearing. The overwhelming majority of hitchhikers were men. The woman was not pretty, exactly—her face was long and horsy—but she had dark red hair and was tall and fit. The last woman he had picked up had been fat and loathsome, with limp whitish hair that blended into her scalp.

She would have been perfect. If he had just left the boy at the gas station this afternoon, the woman would be in his car right now heading to the clearing with him and everything would be fine.

“This is all your fault,” he told the corpse. “You did this to me.”

Walter was already half a mile past the woman. He could feel his throat beginning to close up. There had to be something he could do. Maybe he could dump the boy somewhere by the side of the highway and then turn back around and pick her up. But there was nothing but bare dirt by the side of the highway and nowhere he could hide the corpse, and he knew that by the time he turned back the woman would probably already be gone. What few female hitchhikers there were never had to wait long.

He pounded his fist into the dashboard. And again, with mounting fury. The glove compartment popped open, spilling pencils and loose change onto the boy’s gut.

He had to know. At the least he had to get another look. He spun the car into a U-turn and headed back the way he had come.

Walter derived no satisfaction from learning that he was right. A man in a dark blue Lexus had pulled over and was chatting with the woman. He had glossy black hair and wore a suit the same color as the car. (Walter’s own pants fastened with a drawstring.) He was probably going to murder her in a nice hotel in the city on clean sheets, Walter fumed, instead of in the forest on a bed of matted leaves and raccoon poop. He spun the car back around.

He punched the dashboard again, but this failed to make his point emphatically enough. So he began kicking viciously under the dashboard with his boots until he could feel things breaking.

“Fuck!!” he howled. “Goddamn fucking asshole bitch cunt twat!”

Over his screams he could hear a dull squealing coming from somewhere in the car’s workings. This gave way to a loud squealing. Then an intense grinding. Steam started to pour from the dashboard vents. Walter knew nothing about cars. Why would anyone put anything important on the inside of the car where someone could kick it? Who would do that to him? Walter managed to pull the car back onto the shoulder, just as the engine gave one final groan of protest and stopped entirely. They were nine and a half miles from the turnoff to the clearing.

He could not have told how long he sat there before he became aware of headlights slowing behind him. He recognized the car. It belonged to the sheriff’s department.

He never should have brought all of them to the clearing. The thought entered Walter’s mind like a shot. He should have buried them in thirty-one different places, all around the country. Then he could let the locations drip out of him, one by one, over a period of many years. They would have to keep him alive for that. As it was, as soon as they found the clearing, it would be a matter of weeks before they found all of them. They would have no further use for him.

The sheriff’s deputy approached Walter’s car and pointed his flashlight through the open window. He was twenty, at most. “Your car break down?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Walter managed to say.

“That blows,” the deputy said, not unkindly. He moved his flashlight’s beam to the slumped body in the passenger seat. “What is that?” he asked, with a catch in his voice.

Walter continued to stare into the light.

“Is that jerky?” the deputy asked.

Walter opened his mouth but no sound came out.

“I love jerky,” the deputy said.

It took Walter a full half-minute to bring some saliva up to his mouth. “You…” he croaked. “You want some?”

The deputy’s eyes widened. He nodded eagerly.

Walter gingerly picked up a piece from the seat next to him and handed it through the window. The deputy took a bite and closed his eyes in rapturous ecstasy. “So,” he said after a time, continuing to chew contentedly, “you want me to call a tow truck or something?”

“No,” Walter answered weakly. “I already called somebody.”

“Cool,” the deputy said. “You know, it was smart that the two of you stayed in the car. A lot of times people don’t, and they end up getting run over or something. It’s dangerous.”

“Uhnh,” Walter agreed.

“Okay, well…uh…thanks,” said the deputy, tipping the jerky towards Walter. “Have a nice night.” With a final wave, he got back into his car and drove off.

Walter emerged into the clearing on foot five hours later. He was chewing the piece of jerky that had been stuck to his shirt to try to get the taste of vomit out of his mouth. It was fairly linty, but besides that it really wasn’t bad. There was a distinct undertone of flavor that Walter couldn’t place. Was that mesquite? Is that what mesquite tastes like? He wondered if they had found the car and the body by now.

He was glad he had brought them all to the clearing, he decided. They were all here together with him. And he never could have remembered thirty-one separate locations, anyhow.

He cleared a place among the leaves and sat on the cold ground and waited for the north star to rise.


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