Annie Reid is a double expat American currently residing in Sweden after a decade in Canada. She writes apocalyptic video games for a living and fiction for her sanity. She has stories published in American Short Fiction, Alaska Quarterly Review, Nimrod, Another Chicago Magazine, Ergo!, and on the CBC Canada Writes website as a finalist for the CBC Short Fiction Prize. She is currently completing a novel.
Something rolled in the trunk as Leonard pulled the Mustang onto the gravel shoulder, knocked heavy against the back seats; a deft, quick thud. An elbow, perhaps, a knee. The police car pulled in right behind him, close, the flashing lights hammering the twilight. He closed his eyes, but those lights did not stop penetrating, sinking through the thin skin to his sight. Like salt in the membranes.
Hindsight being 20/20, it was a poor time to consider that he really ought to have tied the body up with some rope, might have at least weighed it down so it wouldn’t roll around, knocking into the tire iron, the briefcase, the steel lunch box, making so much noise. And of course there was the faint possibility—despite all that had occurred back at the little cottage over on Elm Street, despite the length and vigour of the discussion, despite its energetic conclusion— that Sprocket was still alive. Stranger things have happened in this wide world; far stranger things do indeed happen each and every day, and so it will continue, long after we are all good and gone.
The cop got out of his car. Leonard chose not to accelerate away, spitting up a haze of stones into the man himself, nor did he throw the car into reverse to crush the officer of the law between the two vehicles, although each of these options played out clearly and without pitfalls in his mind. Leonard regretted the lack of initiative his mother had ceaselessly warned him about over the many lukewarm dinners they had shared together, waiting for his father, watching the meat cool, salivating while a thin skin formed over the open skull of the gravy boat. But it had already been a long and ugly day, and he wanted things to go easy. He wanted to go home, have a cold beer, and put his feet up. And the gun was still within reach, underneath a tweed jacket on the front seat of the car, a tiny blue ukulele sitting atop them, comical and obtrusive as a groomed lap dog.
The cop eased up slowly, like they do, checking out the car, assessing the man at the wheel, rendering judgement. Leonard knew himself, and he knew himself to be a bad man, but he was a bad man with a clean driving record. The Mustang was twenty-three years old, and didn’t even have a dent.
Leonard rolled down the window. The cop was nearly there when there was another thud from the trunk, louder. Sprocket was definitely alive. Leonard had been sloppy; he saw that now, full of reprimands for the person he had been an hour ago. Leonard put this down to his own sentimentality, his own lack of conviction. He had once liked Sprocket, and had not wanted this job. He had specifically requested a pass on the assignment, despite the needs of the organization and Sprocket’s own poor life choices. But the boss was unyielding, and now Leonard was here at the side of a lonely highway at sundown, a live man in his trunk and another one at his window, the fate of many lives hanging in the balance. Given the current, sad condition of Sprocket’s face, it was unlikely that he could speak, but there are other ways of making noise. There is always a way.
“Sir,” said the cop. He wore mirrored aviator sunglasses despite the hour of the day, and a wide-brimmed hat that resembled an airliner settling in for a landing on his skull.
“Officer,” Leonard said.
“Do you have any idea how fast you were going?”
“Oh, at least ninety,” said Leonard. “Regrettably.”
The cop said nothing, his chin sharply outlining the quieting blue sky above them. Leonard noted not a trace of stubble.
“Possibly ninety-two,” Leonard said. “Distracted. Absolutely my fault.” Honesty might get a man a bit of leniency. And he was unfocused, just as his mother had always said. He was thinking about Ellen all those years ago, about the ukulele. But a man cannot afford a distraction if he wants to do quality work; a man must be nothing if not consistent.
“Ninety-five,” said the cop. “Is what you were doing. Are you aware, sir, that the limit on this road is sixty?”
“There is no excuse for my behaviour,” Leonard said. If Sprocket were conscious, he must surely have heard the sirens, the distant murmur of the dispatcher on the radio back in the cruiser, static breaking through the crisp fall air like a failing heartbeat.
“License,” the cop said. “Registration.” And there it was. The faintest tap.
The cop heard it too. He froze, like a lion that has heard the faint, fearful shift of prey in the bush, the merest quiver of the blade of grass in the windless savannah. A good cop has good instincts.
Leonard began to tap his feet.
“Nervous?” The cop paused, smiling with delight at Leonard’s failure to answer. “Anything else you want to tell me?”
Leonard held his breath. He waited for another tap, a thump, a knock, the faint whimper, for Sprocket to sing one last song to finish the both of them. It would be all over in just a minute now. All these years he’d never gotten to the inside of a penitentiary, all these years he’d been cheating the law, playing just a little bit close to the open flame. Perhaps it would be a relief. At least there’d be three squares a day, and he’d never have to do something like he did this afternoon again, not to an old friend.
Leonard looked over at the ukulele, the gun sitting just underneath the jacket it rested upon. So many things could happen, just now. The squeeze of the cold metal in his hand, going all hot as everything burst around him, a thousand miles of highway until the border and one long night ahead. All the quantum possibilities of the universe seemed poised to occur, spread out like the bellows of an accordion just before the big squeeze.
“Got a song in my head,” Leonard said. “One I was making up. Trying to get a feel for the tune before I forget. Reminded me of a woman. I lost track of things. You know how it is.”
“You’re talking like a man I should be giving a sobriety test to,” said the cop.
“Oh, I’m sober, officer.” It was true that he and Sprocket had enjoyed a last glass of scotch together before getting down to business, but in practical terms Leonard was not drunk.
“Oh, are you now?” The cop leaned in the window, surveyed the back seat, and took a theatrical sniff. His eyes stopped at the ukulele.
“Maybe you can play me a little something if that’s the case,” said the cop, smiling, and not without a bit of pleasure, in Leonard’s estimation.
Looking back, Leonard was not really certain what had provoked him into returning to the dark cottage to retrieve the ukulele from the tumble of furniture on Sprocket’s floor. Leonard hadn’t played in years, not since Ellen. This one was blue, had been tucked away on a bookshelf that held no books, dusty with age and neglect, an impulse buy of the past, someone else’s quaint regret.
Leonard himself had smashed his own ukulele shortly after Ellen had blown her nose into the white linen napkins he’d purchased just for the occasion, that dark evening in October she’d returned his engagement ring, twenty-three years earlier. It scared her, the way he broke it to pieces, this thing he loved and she loved too, and she had fled the house, tears shining on her face like she’d been stuck in a heavy rain. She did not return. He had learned to play, years earlier, because she liked the sound of it, sweet and sad both at once, like a woman laughing even as she was crying. He had not played a note since Ellen had left him.
Ellen had disapproved of his work, asked him to reconsider the future, find another occupation. Piano tuner, she suggested, baker, handyman – an honest trade can be learned, she said. It doesn’t matter about the past.
Unless you get off the road, you’ll arrive exactly where you are going, she always said to him, in the mornings when she would walk around the kitchen, her robe hanging open, just a bit, just enough to tease. He would shrug, pour another cup of coffee for the long day ahead, admire her long neck that always made her look so good in pictures. What she said didn’t sound so bad.
But it made him sad, how inadequately she understood him. He would hold out his meaty hands to her, showing her their lack of delicacy by the very way in which they moved, never mind the thick and awkward fingers, their muteness in the presence of all but the loudest blows, the music they could only make when clenched into fists. That was his only gift. An ugly one, but the only one. She shook her head, suggested the integrity of a simple and honest calling. A musician then, she said, looking at the ukulele. You don’t know how good you are.
Now he smiled up at the cop. Twenty-three years he hadn’t played, not for anyone but Ellen. Leonard picked up the ukulele, strummed it, adjusted a few strings.
A musician, he had scoffed at Ellen that night twenty-three years ago. I’m a thug, he’d told her. A high school dropout. I’m lucky you even looked at me twice. But the organization. We’ll take care of you, he told her. They take care of me. Of us.
She shook her head. All you have to do, Leo, is start over.
The policeman put his hand on the driver’s door, leaned his weight against the car, waiting. Leonard smiled, gave a nod, put his head down. He strummed. He fumbled the first few notes. Puffs of dust rose like the tiny ghosts of his own doughy fingers from each string he plucked. The policeman’s smile under his mirrored eyes became thin and tight.
Leonard’s index finger dropped and the others followed the instinct into a chord, sad and sweet—a beloved piece of rare glass breaking, then miraculously becoming whole again. Leonard closed his eyes. He felt the shift of the car as the policeman took his hands off the driver’s window and stepped back. Giving him room, giving the music space. Leonard played, a song he didn’t remember knowing, but each note came to him like a distant memory sparking to life, the way a smell in a stranger’s kitchen could remind you of one moment from a summer night in your childhood long away.
The tips of his calloused fingers stung from the sweet pressure of the strings, the hollow curve of the box nestled against his ribs, beating. The cop was silent, Sprocket motionless in the trunk, dying. Each note drifting for a moment through the air, heard, then unforming itself again, waves and matter untangling as though never present at all.
Finally Leonard stopped playing, remembered where he was and who was present, all of them. He opened his eyes, the light too bright, even though it was nearly dark, his face frozen.
“Damn,” said the cop.
Leonard forced himself to smile, and reached out to take back the license and registration the policeman was handing back to him.
“You’re a talented man,” said the cop. “Might want to keep your speed down in the future.” The cop kicked the front tire of the Mustang.
“Sounds like she needs a tune up,” he said. “Have a nice day.”
The policeman finally took off his glasses. It was night now, and the man was older than Leonard had thought he was a few minutes earlier, now that he could see the lines around his eyes. He walked back to his patrol car and got in. The patrol car peeled off the gravel with an urgent moan.
Leonard sat there for a few minutes, the ukulele cradled in his arms, watching the cruiser grow smaller in the distance. The blue and ruby lights flared up as it reached the horizon. Emergencies were everywhere; they could not be avoided.
There was a shift in the trunk—quieter, calmer, as though the song had been a comfort, even though they were both bad men, the two of them. Even then there could be comfort. Leonard knew he should turn the key in the ignition, to get back on the road and drive away, but he found that he could only sit as the night deepened and think of Sprocket, trapped in the heat and the dark of the trunk, too wounded even for rescue to amount to anything.