I had an idea for a story this morning, and I’m just gonna run with it.
What you’re about to read started as a first draft, edited and revised while writing. I’ve since gone through and cleaned up a couple of things. Otherwise, it remains as it was when it was first published. Now I’m on to the second half, so make sure to look for it when you’re finished with this one.
A Tale of Two Psychos (Part 1)
Mark Horton set down his glass of orange juice with just enough authority. Then he slowly lowered his paper and looked at Ruth and Matthew. The juice in the glass had barely moved, but that particular sound, that sound brought them to attention. The ice in his eyes froze them in place.
They were supposed to be gathering their things. Silently. Mark didn’t like to be disturbed while he read his paper in the morning. Sarah came through the kitchen door with a plate of toast and two eggs sunny-side-up. She set it in front of her husband and stepped away from the table, looking for the slightest sign of approval or disapproval.
She’d been so concerned with breakfast she hadn’t noticed the noise the children were making. Now she saw Mark’s eyes, and the fright on her children’s faces. She stifled a gasp. She knew exactly what was coming.
Mark made a nodding gesture with his head and looked at the space beside him. Without a word, Matthew walked toward his father and turned his back to him. Mark stood from the table and gave his son a swift, hard slap across the backside. Matthew’s body jerked with the impact and his pelvis shook the table. He winced, but didn’t make a sound. He knew better. He felt a tap on the shoulder, and he left his place at the table.
Ruth filled the gap immediately and also turned away from her father. Again, Mark’s hand found it’s target on his daughter’s backside. And again, the impact was enough to send her into the table. She, like her big brother, also knew better than to make a sound. She also received a tap, then joined her brother in silence. They each went to their rooms and began gathering the things they would bring with them that weekend.
Once Ruth was out of the room, Mark looked up at Sarah, who stood by watching silently. She looked down, only keeping eye-contact for a brief moment.
“I’m so sorry, dear,” she said. “I didn’t hear them through the door or I would have…”
Mark held up his hand and looked back down at his breakfast. He took a bottle of jalapeño Tobasco sauce from the center of the table and smothered his eggs with it. Then, he took a piece of toast and broke a green-Tobasco covered yoke to make something that was a color Sarah could have only described by referencing the days when she last changed Ruth’s diapers.
Without another look at his wife, Mark said, “Don’t worry about it this time. You’re too soft anyway. Sometimes they need to remember that my hand rules this house.”
“You’re right, dear.”
Sarah waited for a moment, but Mark didn’t say anything else. He simply ate his yoke-and-tobasco-dipped toast and stared down at the paper. She turned around and went back into the kitchen to finish her making her own breakfast.
When Mark had finished eating and reading the paper, he announced to the rest of the family that they needed to be in the car with seatbelts on no later than 9:30 am. That was at 8:17 am. He knew he was being generous with them, giving them almost a full half-hour longer than they’d originally planned, but this was supposed to be a fun family trip, so he didn’t mind being slightly lenient on this one issue.
Besides, even with a half-hour, they’d still make the campground outside of Cannon Beach with plenty of time to have a nice dinner and enjoy watching the sun set below the North Pacific.
Despite the despots that infested the coast, Mark had a fondness for the ocean. His own parents brought him there for the first time on the last vacation they ever took before his father left. Something about the salt and brine smell in the air took him back there—to that time. The thrill and wonder of feeling so small against something so big had enrapt him at first. It was, he thought, a perfect metaphor for how he felt about the constant turmoil of his parents’ bickering.
His mother was a violent drunk, and his father was a coward. Even at eleven years old, he could see that as plain as he could see the waves in front of him. He stood, transfixed, pondering his new aqueous friend. The ocean kept secrets. That was immediately apparent. He stared at it as if he were gazing into an abyss—a void where he could toss anything, and it would never come back. Sure, it might wash up again somewhere, but that somewhere would be far from his mind, and whatever he threw in wouldn’t be his burden anymore. He stood there, facing the wind and the waves that early morning, and wished he could toss his parents in. Every little airline bottle of Jim Beam his mother kept in her purse. Every time his father lost his nerve. He felt the ocean could take it all.
It was then he saw the seagull.
About fifty yards down the beach, it flopped around in the wet sand, unable to make its way out of the surf as the morning tide rolled in. Mark walked toward it, curious. When he got close enough, he saw the problem. The bird was caught in a plastic six-pack holder. One of its wings had gotten stuck in one of the can holes. Its neck was twisted around, stuck inside of another, and one of its feet was stuck in yet another hole.
Mark watched it flop helplessly, crying out, while others of its kind savagely circled overhead, squawking themselves, waiting for the inevitable carrion. He saw a stick nearby and decided to start prodding the bird with it.
He jabbed it with the end of the stick. The bird cried louder and louder, lurching as it tried to get away from its new tormentor. A wave came in and soaked the bird. Mark saw it gasp and began moving without thinking.
He grabbed one of the rings that wasn’t stuck to any of the gull’s body parts and picked the bird up. The gull began to flap its free wing frantically and jerk about, but nothing it could do would free it. Mark, his face locked in a slight smile, walked deeper into the freezing water. He waited for the next wave, and dunked the bird under, holding it there for a few moments. He felt it jerk and gyrate, and it thrilled him. Then he pulled the bird up and let it catch its breath before it started squawking again.
The feeling, the knowledge that he had power over this, changed him. He had control over this bird’s life right now. He was like God. He could save this miserable scavenger, or he could make it feel as powerless as he felt when he heard them scream at one another. The squawking started to irritate him, so he reached in to grab the bird’s beak, but it bit him before he could grab hold.
Mark nearly dropped the bird as he saw the blood come up from his hand. Instead he trudged out of the surf, found a rock on the beach, and smashed the bird’s beak with it. Then he grabbed the bird by the neck, walked back into the surf, twirled it around a few times overhead, and hurled it as far as he could into the ocean.
He felt a rush come over him, like the one that came over him when he saw his dad’s dirty magazines in the closet for the first time. The rest of the trip, he thought of that gull whenever his parents fought. He saw it struggle again and again, and he didn’t feel quite so powerless. He knew that someday, someday soon, he’d be free of the two of them, and he’d be able to control everything.
At precisely 9:30 am Mark, Sarah, Matthew, and Ruth pulled out of their driveway. The Eastern Oregon desert surrounding their property south of Umatilla glared in the sun, dry and brown as ever. Mark planned this Fourth of July trip to the coast months in advance. That was his way, of course. And in Mark’s world, everything went his way.
The family made their way up the desert back roads, past Pine City, and, a short time later, merged onto I-84 West. Their dark green Chevy Tahoe was relatively comfortable, and in the 110-degree heat of July, Mark was thankful that he’d remembered to have the air conditioning recharged. They cruised down the wind-swept desert freeway that followed the mighty Columbia River down the Washington-Oregon border.
The children marveled at rows upon rows of wind-turbine generators, hydroelectric dams, and tree farms—the neat, straight rows of conifers destined to become paper products. The children thought they looked like the slots on a fence as they sped past at 75 mph. They saw the powerboats and windsurfers taking advantage of some of the best wind and waves in the country. Overhead, the deep blue sky had banned all cloud cover, as strict as ever.
Mark had his phone connected to the Tahoe’s Bluetooth stereo system and played sermon podcasts from the family’s church throughout the drive. As he was wont to do.
At precisely 11:48 am, they came upon the town of Biggs Junction. (Actually, “junction” is the more correct term than “town.” Biggs was little more than a smattering of truck stops and fast-food joints with the few houses of those who worked there dotting the deep umber basalt landscape that surrounded the area.) Its sole purpose for existence was that it was closer to Umatilla than The Dalles was, so anyone driving a V6 or bigger would probably have to fill up there rather than risk driving the extra 20 miles or so to the bigger town.
They pulled into a Pilot truck stop and Mark parked the Tahoe at one of the open pumps. The attendant, Mark couldn’t tell what ethnicity, came up to the SUV and Mark told him curtly to fill it up. He handed the attended two twenty dollar bills, then walked into the truck-stop. Sarah, Matthew, and Ruth followed without a word.
Inside the station, they saw a McDonalds, a Cinnabon, and a standard convenience-store island full of hot-dogs, deep fried taquitos, and other slow-death entrees being slowly overcooked by hot rollers and heat lamps.
“One bag of either trail mix or beef jerky,” Mark said. Sarah and the kids nodded.
“Which would you like, dear?” Sarah asked.
“Jerky,” Mark said. Then he went in to use the restroom.
He didn’t know it, but the very same moment Mark began to unzip his pants in order to piss, a bright yellow, stolen 1979 Corvette Stingray pulled into the Pilot station. The man driving it decided to make use of the fact that the T-tops were removed. Gracefully, Danny Boulder hopped out, handed the attendant a $50 bill without a word, and headed toward the station.
Danny wore a pair of Levi’s that, despite his nearly emaciated frame, still managed to look too tight. The left leg had a hole just above the knee, while the right had a large oil stain on the upper thigh, where the pocket is.
He also had on a wife-beater tank-top and a red and blue floral-pattern Hawaiian shirt on over the top. HIs hair was not long, but definitely unkempt. It was messy, greasy, and disheveled, yet managed to look purposely so. He had dark eyes and dark eyebrows, and he seemed to look through everyone as he made his way inside.
When he got into the store, he walked straight up to the McDonald’s counter and ordered a ten-piece Chicken McNugget meal with a large fry and a strawberry milkshake. Danny stood at the counter, leaning on his left hand, and waited for the McEmployees to make his order. He looked around the truck stop. Places like this were perfect. Hell, that’s why he stopped here instead of The Dalles. Nobody remembers any particular stop in Biggs Junction. It’s a place to get what you need quickly and then get the hell out.
While he waited, he looked at the main cashiers’ counter. He was in the self-contained McDonalds, but all of the actual Pilot patrons needed to pay for their wares at the large, bank-teller-style counter at the side of the store. Danny began to whistle to himself as he watched consumer after consumer buy cheap sunglasses, packs of cigarettes, and of course, four to five snack items with every transaction. Herbivores… Danny thought. He was a consumer, too, after all. But he was a predator.
He saw Sarah Horton approach the counter with her two children. She wore a light blue floral pattern sun dress that accentuated her modest curves lightly. Danny, of course, didn’t know this, but Matthew forbade her from wearing makeup and chose her clothing for her. All Danny saw was the way the light cotton fabric clung to her skin in just the right spots due to the scorching high-desert heat. He didn’t even notice the children at first.
He did, however, notice Matthew as he returned from the restroom and joined his family at the cashier’s counter.
Somewhere, deep in the recesses of Danny’s mind, a switch clicked. He’d found his new fixation. He watched as Matthew paid the cashier and ushered his brood out the front doors. He saw the family get into the dark green Tahoe and buckle up.
He made note of their license plate. Then he went into the bathroom.
He was hard before he even got to the door. When he got inside, he saw two other men standing at urinals. The stalls appeared to be empty. He went into the stall nearest the back wall, and listened intently.
Neither man said word, but Danny heard the urinals flush, and then he heard the faucets at the sink counter turn on. The whole time his loins throbbed with uncontrollable anticipation. When they’d finally left, he walked over to the door, looped his belt around the handle and the paper towel dispenser so that it couldn’t be opened, and set about his business.
When the fire alarms went off, Danny walked calmly out of the restroom. He’d set about three pounds of paper towels and toilet paper on fire in the bathroom garbage can. He moved it to the stall at the far end of the bathroom so that nobody would see the source of the smoke until he was long gone.
Danny was satiated, for the moment, and as he walked back out to his Stingray, he looked toward the bridge and saw the Tahoe take the on-ramp for I-84 West.
He got in the car, and absently handed the attendant a five-dollar bill before starting the engine and speeding out of the parking lot. Meanwhile, every patron and employee inside the Pilot truck stop at Biggs Junction was now exiting the building in a disorderly and panicked state. Danny smiled and pulled the Stingray out onto the bridge. He took the on-ramp for I-84 west, and briefly smiled at the pandemonium still unfolding behind him.
To be continued next week…
Because it’s 10:45 and I’ve been writing this thing since 5:30. 🙂
Stay tuned to find out what happens.