They both stared down at him. They had walked over to him without a word, without thought. Now they were standing on either side of him transfixed until Scooter was forced to step out of the way of a growing pool of blood.
He cleared his throat as if to eulogize and said, “His shirt says Doug on it.”
“Seemed like a good enough guy.”
They stood there and looked. The crash had shut off all sound, but now Jake could hear the wind.
“You’re bleeding,” Scooter said.
“Look.” He pointed at Jake’s left arm, and Jake looked down and saw a crooked red line going from his forearm to his wrist. It slowly ran to his index finger.
Jake wiped at his wound with the front of his shirt. “It’s metal.”
“It’s small.” He pinched it between his fingers and pulled. It gave easily, a little triangle stained pink in the sunlight. He threw it over the guardrail into the brush. They stood in silence awhile longer.
“Are we gonna move him?” Jake asked.
“You really want to try?”
“I dunno, I feel like this is our mess.”
“It’s not our mess. We’ve got our own mess.”
A bird circled overhead, hoping for an easy meal.
“Get his wallet,” Scooter said.
Scooter bent down and patted the man’s back pockets. There was no wallet. He stood up and walked over to the bent and broken car, glass and asphalt crunching underfoot. He pushed a piece of safety glass out of the way and poked his head in, coming back with an opened box of Ding Dongs.
“You want one?” he called back.
“Those are his.”
“They’re still his.”
Scooter opened a cellophane package and stuck a Ding Dong into his mouth whole.
“This is real, man. Those are his.”
“Why are you being an asshole?”
“Well, a fike mahor wood say iss a hiffense mefanism.” He swallowed large. “But I see it this way. Doug was alive. Now he’s not. That’s it. He doesn’t exist. And someone who doesn’t exist can’t really own some fucking Ding Dongs.”
Jake looked at the sun like he was trying to tell time. He didn’t want to look down anymore, and he took a few backwards steps towards the station wagon and noticed the lazy arc of the carrion bird in the sky.
“That crash was fucking astounding,” Scooter said. “The way he just flew out.”
“This isn’t entertainment.”
“Yes it is,” he said, but it sounded like he didn’t believe it, like he was just posturing for the audience. But he had a point. “Don’t you watch TV?”
They stood on opposite sides of the road, a dead body between them, doing everything they could not to look at it or each other. Jake looked at an ant bed. Scooter looked down the road. I’m paralyzed in this paragraph, because who knows what should happen next. I stop time so I can think a minute. And I mean really stop it, so that light waves stop moving and you can’t see anything anymore and you can’t breathe because the atoms have gone still. It’ll start up again in a minute.
. . .
Scooter brought Jake around to his nihilistic view of property ownership while they waited for their car to cool down and for somebody to pass by. They yelled at the bird. Scooter tried to crack a joke but it just fell flat. When Doug’s car didn’t catch fire, they decided to siphon the gas out of it. This is how the police officer pulled up to see Jake retching in the road and Scooter hunched over a red plastic gas can next to the wrecked car. Admittedly, it looked suspicious. Admittedly, the timing was inconvenient for everyone but me.
He flipped his siren on and off to get their attention and stepped out with his hand on his gun. He used to be an archetypal cop with a belly bulging over his slacks and straining the buttons on his tan shirt, the kind of cop that wore mirrored aviator sunglasses that gave off the impression of looking a shark in the eyes. The kind of cop that lorded power and chewed on a toothpick. But I’m sitting here thinking that that’s boring and I’ve done that trick twice already, that you’re going to start thinking I’m not doing it on purpose and that it’s just a crutch.
So this cop was well under six feet and scrawny, he walked toward them with purposeful and controlled energy, he still wore the sunglasses because I like the way they look. He said, “Stand up and move over to your friend,” to Scooter, and then he looked at Jake and said, “You put your hands on your head and keep your mouth shut until I ask a question.”
They did this. When he saw Doug in the road behind them he drew his gun and held it in both hands in front of him, pointed at the ground. Then he looked around, still standing ten feet away from them. “Is anyone else here?”
“No, sir,” Jake said.
“Is that man dead?”
“Did you do it?”
He looked at the cinder blocks in the road. “Kind of looks like you might’ve.”
“Would make a pretty good news story. Way I see it, two guys on the side of the road set up an ambush, steal the gas. Straight out of Road Warrior.”
Scooter said, “This isn’t peak oil scare mongering. It’s a car accident.”
“What did I say about talking?” The cop said it with the same flat, considering tone as he said everything, but Jake noticed his right hand tense around the gun grip.
“Don’t move from where you’re standing,” he said. He walked around them wide, making sure to give himself enough distance to have time to shoot before they could cover the distance between him and them. He stooped over Doug and came back, this time standing just a few steps in front of them.
“Yup,” he said, “this just in from the four dollars a gallon department: two white males arrested for reportedly murdering a local man over the gas in his car.” He chuckled to himself.
“You have to know we didn’t do this,” Jake said, pleadingly.
“That’s strike two on talking. Go ahead and try it again, I got a pregnant wife at home who yells all day and don’t put out, and you’re gonna ask me to work out my personal demons on your face if you talk again. So try it again.”
They were silent, hair blowing in the wind and gas and bile all over Jake’s shirt front and caught in his beard. Jake looked down at his shoes, but Scooter and the cop met eye to eye and played an age-old game, the staring contest between authority and resistance, however petty both of their stances.
“Where’d the bricks come from?”
“Fell off a truck going up the road,” Scooter said.
“No bullshit. We just happened to be here.”
The cop looked at Jake and said, “Why’s your friend look so beat up?”
“He got in a fight.”
“Not in your county,” Scooter said.
“Good answer, but I wasn’t talking to you.” He thought for a second. “Alright, I gotta take you guys in for questioning irregardless.”
“You can’t hold us without charging us,” Scooter said.
The cop leaned in close to Scooter, and he gave off the impression of a tightly coiled snake. He raised his gun up and gave Scooter’s forehead a sharp tap with the butt. “You real fucking smart, ain’t you, kid.” Even in this his voice only showed a mild bemusement and nothing else.
“Scooter, shut up,” Jake said.
Scooter rubbed his forehead. “No. No. We’ve got places to go, and if this guy isn’t charging us with a crime then I’m not going to volunteer a statement.”
“If you try and walk away from this you’ll be resisting arrest. I’ve still got both of you on misdemeanor theft.”
“Then write the ticket, but you’ve got no right to bring us in,” Scooter said.
“Scooter, let’s just go with him, Jesus,” Jake said.
“Listen to your friend.”
“No, man. No. This is bullshit.”
He turned and tried to walk away, but the police officer grabbed him around the neck and hauled him down sideways. He caught himself, but the cop grabbed one arm out from under him and was on top of him immediately, forcing his face into the hot asphalt. The cop had his cuffs out and on Scooter’s wrists in a matter of seconds, and then drove his face into the ground once more for good measure before standing up and facing Jake, legs apart, one slightly in front, gun held forward.
“Turn around.” It’s funny how he talked, everything was with the same even tone. This is what Jake was thinking. He said it again: “Turn around.” Jake just kept thinking about how he was saying it, how there was no anger in it, just control. He wondered what kind of man this was in front of him, if he was a zen master or just a sociopath. Did he talk like this at home? Was this how he treated anyone who challenged him? This is what Jake was thinking when he got hit in the left ear with the pistol and fell down beside his friend.
And all of this happened because I couldn’t think of any better way to get where I’m going. If it weren’t for this, I’d never get my happy ending.