“GARDENIA SIX”

The following short is one we’ve been kicking around for a while.

The original was written by “William” in 2015, before there was even an “Ann William”. Then, starting in 2016, after Leigh Ann finished reading the first draft and subsequently threw it at William in disgust because of the way it ended, the story began a slow evolution into what is now the prologue for a larger story that we’d like to someday tell, a dark, alt-history thriller called “Gardenia Six”.

For now, however, we think the current story (we’ve chosen to call it “BAM! YOU ARE NOW DEAD!”) stands very well on its own. And so we hope you’ll give it a read. Feel free to comment too; we’d love to hear back about it. Just please don’t throw it at us in disgust over the ending. Remember: it’s just a prologue…

“PROLOGUE: BAM! YOU ARE NOW DEAD!”

The big car slid to a gentle stop in the cold, snowy darkness, and she immediately put it in PARK. Then she closed her eyes.

Breathe… In- She inhaled slowly. Out- She exhaled, slower still.

When she opened them again, she found herself looking down at the dimly-lit buttons of the car’s radio.

She pushed one.

CLICK.

“-other national news, the folk-rock singer Bruce Springsteen yesterday declared victory after a five-year fight to publish his controversial, and as some have claimed, outright subversive song, “Born in the USA”. Speaking on the steps of the Supreme Court, Mister Springsteen had this to say:

This victory is not mine alone. It is for every American voice that wants to be free to talk about things in this country’s history as they really are. Not as they are purported to be, in some federally-approved history book.

Springsteen’s song was banned from radio airplay in 1984 by the Censor Board. There has been no official comment yet from the administration, but Attorney General Robert Kennedy has stated several times previously that if the Supreme Court did not decide for the Censor Board, the administration would look for other, quote, constitutional means, unquote, to control what the administration refers to as quote, unpatriotic expressions, unquote. Meanwhile, tensions along the Mexican-“

CLICK.

She looked back up. Fat snowflakes fell out of the darkness and skirled across the car’s long silver hood, while yet others fell to their destruction on its warm windshield.

The young woman who sat behind the car’s wheel had long since decided that taking it out in weather like this would prove to be a bad idea. Oh, it had done well enough at first, but roughly halfway between where she’d been and where she was now, the snow had picked up, and the roads had gotten worse. So much so, that by the time she’d reached the long off ramp to the parking lot where she now sat, she’d had to rein the car back from at least three slow, but still frightening skids.

The worst had come at the off-ramp, where the road angled downward from the highway while making a sweeping left turn onto a smaller service road. The car, a brand-new ‘89 BMW 7-series, had begun to slew right, before almost going into a looping spin that would surely have carried it right across the service road and into the guardrail beyond.

A wreck like that would have been hopeless; even if she’d somehow succeeded in calling a tow before a cop showed up, she felt sure that a state trooper, or maybe even a federal park ranger, likely would have showed up. Then, if he’d started nosing around…

But-

“Thank you, Daddy,” she’d whispered, after bringing the car under control one last time.

Her father had always been a deeply worried man, and eight years ago one of his worries had extended itself into his daughter’s learning to drive. So he’d gone to great lengths: teaching her how to go, how to stop, how to negotiate turns. How to drive at speed-

“I’m not going to bullshit you,” he’d said, “everybody speeds. You know I do. But Hell, so do German grandmothers… every day. And they aren’t splattering themselves all over the autobahn at any higher rate than the rest of us. Now, why is that, my Love?”

She’d shrugged.

“The difference… is that over there it’s a bitch to get a driver’s license. You actually have to be a good driver. Not like the kindergarten-spelling-test of a driver’s exam they have over here. So here’s what you do-”

He’d taught her about always leaving an escape route, whether while driving or just stopping at a light. Because, he’d told her, you might need room to swerve in case the asshole in front of you does something stupid.

Or, he’d gone on in a lower, more ominous tone, room to escape, in case someone decides to ram you from behind. Maybe with the idea of pushing you into the path of, say, an oncoming locomotive.

The locomotive… She smiled at the thought, and then at the memory which followed it.

He’d even taught her the right way to cross railroad tracks. They’d just crossed a set in Utah when-

“BAM! YOU ARE NOW DEAD!”

He’d fairly screamed the words at her after slamming both of his hands on the dashboard of her first car; a big, boxy (but safe!) ‘79 Chevy Zafira.

Because, as he’d gone on to explain in a much softer voice, she hadn’t stopped to look for that speeding 200-ton diesel locomotive that had somehow failed to trigger the crossing gates, seconds before “killing” them both.

“But Daddy I-“

SHUT UP! And listen to me! Dammit, Gardenia, you know, you talk too much. Your mother hardly ever talked. And do you know why?”

“Because she-”

“Didn’t I just tell you to shut up? She didn’t talk because she was smart. Your mother listened… Jesus, Gardy, how many times do I have to tell you…”

She could not, her father had gone on to tell her, once again in that softer voice, just assume that no train was coming. She had to look. And see.

The greater lesson being that you shouldn’t assume anything on the road. The greater, greater lesson being that you shouldn’t assume anything- period.

“Forget that making and ASS out of “U” and “ME” bullshit,” he’d told her. “Because it’s my experience that assuming can get you hurt, or yes, even killed.

“So don’t fucking do that… ever again.”

Most of his lessons had been delivered like that: simple, brutal, and yes, often infused with various types of profanity. Although she’d never once doubted that his lessons-profanity and all-had been given out of love, or out of the worry that sprang from that love.

It was, she had come to understand, the only way that her all-business, ex-soldier father had known to effectively impress upon her the things that he’d thought were important. Especially when there’d been so many of them, and when he’d had so little time in which to teach her, split as it had been between Gardenia’s lessons, and the hours he’d spent every day caring for her dying mother, Catalina. Not to mention the constant pressure of knowing that before long, his own ticking time bomb, the same make and model as the one that was killing Catalina, would eventually go off, and finally get him too.

He’d taught her the bulk of her early math and spelling- no, sweetheart, it’s ph-o-n-e, note f-o-n-e. The “ph” makes an “f” sound. It’s f-, f-, fucking stupid, but that’s the way it is. He’d taught her how to cook. He’d taught her how to start a fire and how to fix a car and how to balance a checkbook. He’d made sure she knew how a lady should be treated, and how to deal with boys who didn’t know. Or didn’t care. He’d taught her how to shoot a handgun. And then another handgun. And then a rifle. Then a bigger rifle. Then an even bigger rifle.

And always with the same exhortation: “Your mother should be- No, first exhale, then pull the trigger, just let it happen, same as taking a picture. Like I say, your mother should be teaching you this shit-” BOOM! “There! That’s it! But I wasn’t such a bad shot either. And I shot out of an airplane, in the friggin’ dark! Of course, I needed a waaay bigger gun, and a few thousand more rounds than your Mom usually did…” Then he would smile- he always smiled when he talked about her, and he would go on with the lesson.

Lesson, after brutal-but-important lesson.

And then, after that final stretch of four, horrible months, when her mother finally passed away, he’d taught her how to grieve. Although there’d been nothing brutal in that particular lesson. It had only been simple…

And of course, he’d taught her how to drive. And thankfully, how to recover from a spin. His worry had saved her again.

Now, however, she was worried. But not about killer locomotives, or random roadgoing assholes doing stupid things, or even about the ever-deepening snow.

Well- actually, she was sort of worried about the snow, wasn’t she? Not about the snow itself, but about what she’d just noticed in it. The BMW’s wipers took another casual sweep of its windshield, giving the sight before her a fresh new, if only momentary, clarity.

The parking lot belonged to the Kittatinny State Canoe Park, a small strip of riverbank which lay just over the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border, on the Jersey side of the Delaware River. And true to its name, the park had several small slips that were just big enough for canoes.

In the summer, the place was a mob scene of tourists and college kids, all of them either barbequing by the riverside or dropping anything that would float, into the river for a lazy ride further downstream.

Now of course, the place was deserted. Except for her. Or at least she’d thought so.

Until a few minutes ago, when she’d first seen.

The BMW had excellent headlights. The high-beams, especially, were fantastic; quartz-halogen “Hella” lamps that threw four big, bright cones of light over a distance that seemed long enough to night-land a small plane on. God knew: the lamps mounted out in the car’s nose even looked like the ones that had been in the left wing of her father’s old Cessna.

Hell, knowing the Germans, she wondered if maybe the lights were aircraft lights. Just re-purposed into headlights, after having been stuck there by some whack-job German engineer who’d decided that Zeez lights vill be zehr gut! Perfect for zee Autobahn! Mein grandmother vill be able to go ein hundert miles per-

She looked down at the car’s speedometer, where “kp/h” had been grudgingly printed beneath “MP/H” for the roughly three people in the U.S. who actually gave a shit how many “kp/h” were in an “MP/H”, then tried again-

-ein hundert-funfzieg kilometers per hour! In full dark, viss no stars! She’ll never out-drive zeez babies!

That had been another piece of driving/life advice from her father, another product of his ever-present worry: never out-drive your headlights. It meant never drive faster than your eyes can see, or than your right foot can react. Implied in that advice, again by his constant fear, was a more intrinsic warning, and another of his greater, greater lessons: don’t get yourself into anything you can’t get yourself out of.

She’d never tried to out-drive the BMW’s headlights. That, of course, would have been stupid. She doubted she could anyway, even if she wanted to; despite how fast the car could go, its lights always seemed to stretch out into forever, seeing everything.

Even, on occasion, seeing things she wished they hadn’t.

Because what they saw now was what worried her. What they saw suddenly made her wonder if perhaps she’d finally out-driven her own headlights.

She’d stopped the BMW roughly halfway down the long, narrow parking lot that ran parallel to the canoe park. She hadn’t parked the car; the lot’s spaces were arrayed perpendicular to its length and would have required her to turn the car into one of them. That, in turn, would require her to turn yet again to leave; a big no-no if she had to leave in a hurry (escape route). To her right was the canoe park itself, and further beyond it, the Delaware river. To her left and above ran route 80, as it followed the Delaware through the Water Gap and into New Jersey.

To her front, obscured by the swirling snow, but still easy to see in the BMW’s oh-so-fantastic headlights, was a set of tire tracks. They ran all the way from the far end of the lot before making a gentle u-turn roughly fifty feet shy of where she now sat. From there they made a simple beeline back to the far entrance, turned right down the service road, and disappeared.

The tracks could have been made by anything: a roving park ranger, or a state patrol, or maybe even just some passing joe-shmo driver who’d pulled off into the park thinking it was a rest area, then realized different and left again.

But she didn’t think so.

The problem with all of those theories was the footprints. Somewhere in the middle of its u-turn, the unknown car had disgorged a passenger. Only one passenger, by the look of it, but the car had let someone out, and that someone had not gotten back in. Nor had they stuck around.

According to the footprints, the person had only made a beeline away from the tire tracks. And according to the spacing of those footprints, that person had either been very big, or at least long-legged.

Or… in a big hurry.

A hurry… she decided. That made the most sense; there are some big people in the world, but not many big enough to have strides that long. Those are Harlem Globetrotter-long.

So, “hurry” it must have been. Of course, a lot of people tend to be in a hurry when they get out of a car that’s just gotten off the highway; most often to go to the restroom. And the canoe park did have a set of restrooms- in fact they stood right along the edge of the parking lot.

But the footprints didn’t lead to the restrooms.

They led instead, right past the restrooms. And from there they continued: over the now snow-covered lawn that lay beside the restrooms, then through the picnic areas, then finally, off toward a darkened ridge where the ground broke downward and out of sight, toward the river.

There the footprints had finally gone beyond the BMW’s field of view, and into near darkness. But she could still see them, still running straight, and still spaced as widely as ever, still driving the word “hurry” across her mind.

So why in the Hell would someone get out of a car in a snowstorm and tear ass through the snow toward nothing but darkness and an ice-cold river? And why would the driver of the car they’d gotten out of allow something like that? Especially at zero-dark-thirty in the morning? And then, to top it off, just leave?

Her mind calculated a refined set of scenarios. Was the runner maybe a rape victim? Or perhaps someone escaping a rape, or some other violence? This otherwise deserted park would be the perfect place for that sort of thing. After all, she herself wasn’t exactly here to use the bathrooms either.

Or maybe the runner had just been a hitchhiker, dropped off by some unknowing good Samaritan. Maybe because the hitchhiker (or even the driver, who knows?) had decided that this was as far as they could go?

As far as they could go… running to the river- the ice-cold river… Another Bruce Springsteen song popped into her head just then, a song about going down to the river, and diving in. It had been such a sad song, she remembered; a song about a man who had little to hope for anymore, and whose only solace was his thoughts of going “down to the river”. She’d always wondered if he was singing about diving into that river one last time, and then never coming back out of-

My God…

A person running from a crime was one thing; that person was trying to save themselves, and probably would. No one had chased whoever-it-was. And this wasn’t exactly the middle of nowhere either. Hell, there was a McDonalds not a mile away. She could even see the restaurant’s golden arches in the BMW’s rearview. They were mounted on an extra-tall pole so that hungry drivers for miles around would know it was there. And the arches would likewise beckon anyone who found themselves running for any well-lit place of safety.

But what if it was a suicide? What if someone was on the riverbank right now, thinking about jumping in? Or already had jumped in? They could already be down there, dying, or about to die. Suddenly she found herself fighting an urge to run off into the snow too.

Then again, she also had to consider the possibility that if there had been some crime committed here, or even attempted here, that the place would soon be crawling with cops; cops who’d be very interested to know who she was and just what she was doing here. If that happened, her “Oh, I’m just waiting for the rest of my carpool to get here, officer” story would not fly.

She needed to make a decision, and quickly. Should she run down to the river too? Or stay here and just wait, footprints-be-damned? Or should she maybe just—to use one of her father’s favorite expressions—”get the fuck out of Dodge”? That last choice would certainly have consequences; it would screw a lot of other things up. Jesus, if only they’d thought- or she’d thought, to plan an alternate meeting point, just in case the original one went to shit, as this one seemed about to.

She looked toward the river. Then at the footprints. Then toward the river again…

Oh Hell, I can’t let someone die like that.

She reached for the door handle-

Just then a set of headlights swung down from the off ramp behind her. She hoped against hope that they would turn right at the service road and head away, but she knew in heart that they wouldn’t.

And they didn’t. The lights instead angled left, toward the park entrance. Toward her.

Shit! Shit, shit!

She debated running off toward the river anyway. Whoever the lights belonged to- they wouldn’t be going anywhere. Hell, a cop would probably run after her- probably try to help her even-once she explained what she’d thought was going on.

And after that she’d just have to hope that her “carpool” story held up. She was dressed the part: nice coat, nice, conservative slacks, hair done up in a nice, neat ponytail. And if the cop happened to be a man, well, the button-down blouse she wore—when she undid the top few buttons—looked “nice” too.

But the approaching vehicle, she could see, was no police car. It wasn’t even a car; the headlights were far too high off of the ground. It was a truck, and probably Stoney’s truck. That stupid, jacked up pickup he’d been bragging about. She watched it slew around in a wide arc as it entered the parking lot, barely muffled exhaust blatting out of its smokestack pipes.

Yes, that had to be him. She’d only met him in person once before, but she could tell; he’d struck her as the kind of kid who’d do something stupid like that. And who’d be stupid enough to do it at a time like this.

He’d probably have that gigantic Swedish guy with him too. Arn. Who looked like he should’ve found fame as a pro wrestler, but instead ended up as the right-hand thug to a very lucky, over privileged little scumbag.

She looked once again at the river. Time was running out, might already have run out. Had whoever-it-was heard the truck? Would they turn toward the sound of it and come running for help? Then what would she do? Stoney would probably shoot whoever-it-was just for the Hell of it, because he was also stupid enough to do something like that at a time like this. She could even hear what he’d say-

“Cain’t have no witnesses!”

Or had the sound of people screwing around in the snow with some hot-rodded truck been the last straw, literally sending whoever-it-was over the edge? In her mind she could see the poor, hapless soul already floating down the river, already stiffening and dying of hypothermia.

Or…

Or, or, or; there are too many damned “or”s, too many possibilities. Too many ways for things to go wrong. She imagined the cops again, rolling up hot on what they would think was a fresh crime scene, only to find… surprise, surprise… her, and now also her motley little, known-criminal crew. If that happened, you could bet your ass the carpool story wouldn’t hold up, “nice” blouse or no. If, that was, Stoney didn’t just open up on the cops first and get them all killed. Her included.

What am I doing here? What do I do? Shit! Shit! Think!

But before she could, the truck pulled up behind her, its rumbling exhaust vibrating even the BMW’s well-insulated interior. Then it cut left and pulled in perpendicular to the car’s rear. Its engine shut down not a second later, before the truck had even came to a full stop, and with no discernible delay, she heard, but couldn’t see, it’s doors open and then slam shut again. It sounded like Stoney was in a hurry.

So this is it- too late to run now. She should have when she’d had the chance, but now that chance was gone. Because she knew that if she tried anything now, especially something like running off into the darkness, Stoney would suspect a double-cross (for good reason; he’d apparently pissed a lot of dangerous people off in his 24 years) and probably shoot her just as easily as he would some stranger/potential witness come running out of the snowy darkness.

Both of the BMW’s rear doors opened simultaneously as both men got in. She felt the car’s suspension sag appreciably under the weight and then readjust itself. That had to be Arn- she looked in the rearview at her new passengers. Yes, there he was, and my God was he big- scary big. Were he to reach forward with one of his meaty hands and put it to her throat-

But even with that vision burning fresh in her mind, she just couldn’t stop thinking of the footprints. She looked out into the snow again and then off into the darkness. The prints had begun to soften and lose their definition under the steady accumulation, but she could still see them.

Stoney’s voice brought her eyes back to the rearview.

“Alright, let’s roll. That is, if this fat German turd can even get out of its own way in this shit. I’m surprised you even made it here. You people don’t have any four-bys for shit like this?”

She tried not to look back out into the snow before answering him. But when she did, her voice still sounded distracted, even to her own ears.

“The car will be fine. It… It has traction control.”

“Traction con-trol? The fuck’s that?”

“It’s uh, complicated…” She looked sideways again out into the snow.

“Still ain’t no four-by.”

“The car will be fine. It’s-” She’d just begun to turn her eyes back to the windshield when… Did she just see something move?

“Well then, sweetcheeks, let’s roll.”

“Yes,” she agreed in a still distant voice, “lets get-” Oh Jesus. Something had moved. A dark shape against the deeper darkness, low on the ridge out by the river. Was someone crawling-

“Well? The fuck are you waiting for? Let’s get-”

SMASH! -the rear window on Stoney’s side of the car exploded inward and bullets began to hammer in through the BMW’s passenger side. She heard the metallic punk!-punk!-punk! noises of them piercing the car’s rear door and the hard thwack! sounds of them hitting their marks Cold air and snow suddenly poured in through the fresh holes they’d left behind.

Stoney started to scream, but then stopped. His voice instead devolved into a wet gurgle. She’d ducked down by then and could no longer see the rearview, but when she looked backward between the seats she could see what had happened; most of Stoney’s throat and lower jaw had been shot away. A fact Stoney didn’t get much time to contemplate, because not a moment later several bullets turned his head into a bloody, caved-in mess. What remained of him slumped sideways, pushed along by the vicious, thudding impacts of even more bullets.

Arn didn’t fare any better. When the first rounds hit he’d tried to bail out from his side of the car. But he hadn’t made it. She couldn’t see exactly what had happened to him, but she could see one of his big legs, splayed awkwardly across the BMW’s floor, twitching (now) mindlessly.

Or maybe it was just twitching under the impacts of the bullets that still tore through the BMW’s back door; in the chaos, she couldn’t be certain. Whoever was doing the shooting seemed to want very much to make sure that both men in the back seat weren’t just killed, but also destroyed. Whoever-it-was seemed to-

And that’s when the thought hit her. It struck with such force that she twitched, in much the same way that Arn’s leg was twitching behind her.

Whoever-it-was…

She thought again about the tire tracks in the snow, and of the footprints that seemed to sprint away from them. Then about the movement, the direction of fire…

Oh God… it makes sense.

She did a brief set of last-second calculations, and reached the same conclusion that an FBI ballistics technician would reach about six hours later.

“Whoever-it-was” had gotten out of a car not long before she’d arrived, and indeed run through the snow and out into the darkness. There, they’d found a good spot on the ridge above the riverbank. A good, hidden spot, with an excellent view of the parking lot, and good coverage of both exits. A perfect spot from which to spring an ambush…

Still ducking down, she floored the BMW. Its engine responded immediately, winding up to redline with a muffled roar.

The car, however, didn’t move. The tires just spun in the snow. A yellow light flashed up in the instrument panel: “TRAC-TRAC-TRAC…”. The car was trying, but in such deep snow, traction was nonexistent… Even with traction con-trol, zero-times-zero still equaled zero.

Realizing what she was trying to do, whoever-it-was shifted their aim to the BMW’s front end, and began to pummel it with as much fire as they’d put on the rear. The front door’s glass also blew inward, and she began to feel snow skirling across her face as the fresh torrent of bullets punched hole after hole through the rest of the car’s front end. She heard a tire blow out. Heard a warning chime start to sound from the car’s dashboard. The still-racing engine began to make a terrible hammering clank-sound. An acrid, oily smoke blew in through the car’s heater vents.

Then the shooting stopped. Only for a moment, and probably just because whoever-it-was needed to change magazines, but it still stopped. Just long enough for her to hear her father’s voice, one last time-

BAM! YOU ARE NOW DEAD!

-and to think of locomotives.

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