I took several napkins out of the dispenser and started patting down my slice of pepperoni pizza. That's when my annoying ass cousin, Dennis, turned and opened his mouth for the billionth time tonight:
"Man, what a fuckin' wuss"
I didn't acknowledge him. It's best to pretend he isn't there.
"Seriously," he continued. "Pizza's supposed to be greasy. Don't fuckin' order it if you're just gonna sop it all up like some goddamn health nut."
As I bit into the slice, I glanced over at Jason. He had his head in his hand, an unopened bottle of Gatorade sweating in front of him. I saw him give Dennis one of those Would-You-Please-Shut-The-Hell-Up looks from the corner of his eye. He then went back to staring at the tabletop.
Like most of my high school on a Friday night, the three of us were hanging out at Sigmund's. After a win, the place can get pretty crowded. You'll see people sitting at all the tables, sipping on Coke, talking about the football game, maybe even humming along to whatever Top 20 song is playing overhead. But, after a loss . . .
"Man, this place blows." Dennis banged his fist on the table. "Come on, ya'll, let's fuckin' bail!"
Again: don't acknowledge him; it's best to pretend he isn't there.
"So," said Jason, glancing up at me, "why did Eric go home again?"
"Why do you think?" I said, throwing my eyes in Dennis's direction.
"Man, that Eric dude's a fuckin' loser. Who goes home at ten o'clock on a Friday night? Seriously." From my peripheral I could see Dennis checking out the place. "They ain't even no hot girls here, ya'll. Well, 'cept for that one chick over there, the one standing by the bubblegum machine. I'd certainly like to put my dick in her." He slapped my arm. "Hey, cuz, you know that ho?"
I shook my head without even looking in the girl's direction. I was all pissed off at my piece of pizza. The stupid cheese kept sliding off, exposing all the tomato sauce. I ended up just picking off the pepperoni and leaving the rest abandoned on my plate. Four dollars wasted.
Unfortunately, Dennis was right about the place, too. It did blow tonight. Everybody was just kinda sitting around, all slumped over, staring off at nothing. Plus Jason, who was pretty much the only football player there, had this negative energy about him that was just depressing the hell out of me.
I was coming dangerously close to slitting my wrists before we finally got out of there. It'd been my week to drive so everybody climbed into my car. Dennis's ass hadn't even touched the backseat before he'd opened his mouth again:
"Where the hell to now, guys?"
I looked at Jason. He looked at me.
It wasn't but eleven o'clock. Sigmund's doesn't close 'til twelve, and me, Eric, and Jason usually stick around for a couple more hours in the parking lot, hanging out with others 'til the cops come by and threaten to lock us up for loitering. Then we either go to my house or over to Eric's and just play video games all night.
But Eric had already went home. After the game he told me he couldn't take another two hours with Dennis. I guess Jason felt the same way, 'cause he just kinda bugged his eyes at me and shook his head.
Of course Dennis chimed in with his own recommendation: "Hey, ya'll, we should go to a fuckin' bar or somethin'! Or, hey, wait! A fuckin' strip club! You think we could get in? I mean, we could at least get far enough to see some tits or something, right? Before they check our IDs and all that shit?"
I pissed on his parade. "Nah, man, I think we're just goin' home. We're both kinda tired."
"Aw, come on! It ain't but . . . eleven-ten. How can you pussy motherfuckers be tired at eleven-ten?"
He kept on whining for the next five minutes, trying to talk us into doing something else. We both ignored the hell outta him, though. My rearview mirror showed him slump down into the backseat.
"At least turn on the goddamn radio or somethin'," he sighed.
I compromised by putting in some AC/DC. Dennis only listens to stuff like Snoop Dogg.
In case it wasn't already obvious, Dennis isn't a usual part of our group. He doesn't go to the same school as me, Eric, and Jason. He's just now a freshman, for cryin' out loud. My mom just kinda agreed to let him stay at our house since his parents are goin' out of town for the weekend.
"Turn that goddamn racket down!" moaned You-Know-Who. "Shit's givin' me a headache."
I turned it down a notch. We were driving through a pretty rural part of town so I started putting on the brake. Just in case some suicidal deer came darting outta the woods or something.
"You know," said Dennis, leaning up between the two front seats, "just because ya'll motherfuckers lost, doesn't mean we gotta go home and shit. Surely to God there's gotta be a party around here somewhere."
I told him to put on his seatbelt, but he acted like he didn't hear me.
"I mean, seriously, ya'll, why get all bummed? It wasn't like ya'll was gonna make the playoffs anyway."
I could see Jason stiffen in his seat.
"Seriously, Dennis, put on your freakin' seatbelt! I almost hit a deer here a couple weeks ago!"
"Fuck off, cuz! I ain't no goddamn five-year-old! And what the hell you gettin' so tense for, Jason? You might as well not even be on the team. Sixth receiver. What a joke."
I think Jason was about to say something, but I cut him off. "Shut the hell up, Dennis! You couldn't even make J.V., let alone varsity. And Jason ain't just a receiver, anyway. He's on special teams!"
Dennis laughed. "Special teams! That's just for all the leftover motherfuckers who couldn't make offense or defense! But yeah, I saw his ass out there, getting pancaked to the ground. Couldn't even make one goddamn tackle!"
Jason snapped. He looked at me and said, "Pull over. Now."
"Jason, man, he's just—"
"I'm about to beat the goddamn shit out of your little fuckin' cousin. Now pull this goddamn car over!"
And then Dennis, never knowing when to shut his mouth: "Bring it on, bitch!"
Next thing I knew, Jason had his seatbelt unbuckled and was halfway in the backseat, pummeling away on Dennis. I started swerving all over the road, yelling at them to stop. Eventually I had to pull over.
Jason was already out of the car before it'd even stopped rolling. He opened the backdoor and grabbed Dennis by the front of his shirt and pulled him out onto the pavement.
If Dennis would've just stayed on the ground, things would've been fine. But no, he kept getting back up and throwing himself into Jason. Obviously one of Dennis's wild punches actually connected, too, 'cause Jason's head rocked backwards. After he'd slung Dennis back onto the ground, he dabbed his lip to see if it was bleeding. Dennis was already getting back to his feet, though. He was gonna keep at it until Jason knocked him out. As Dennis got back to his feet, I started for him.
"That's enough!" I yelled, wrapping my arms around Dennis's waist and yanking him back. When I let him go, he kinda staggered backwards, pinwheeling his arms to try and keep his balance. Next thing I knew, Dennis had dropped out of sight.
"Oh shit!" I said, darting forward. I squinted down the embankment, but it was too dark to see anything. The trees were blocking what little light the moon was giving off.
"D-Dennis? You alright?" No answer. "Yo, Dennis!"
Jason came and stood beside me. We called out to Dennis several more times, but the only response we got was from a stupid bird.
Jason asked if I had a flashlight or something. I shook my head. "I'm going down there, man."
I had to take baby steps down the hill because the leaves and pine needles were sliding all around underneath my feet. Eventually I just let my momentum carry me down, half sliding, half trotting to the bottom. It was dark as hell down there. I could just barely make out Dennis's shape lying on the ground.
"Dennis, man, you okay?" I couldn't tell if his eyes were open or anything, so I tapped him on the cheek to try to get a response. He didn't move. Though at the time I just figured he was knocked out. Unconscious, you know? But then I lost my balance, and when I went to put my hand down to steady myself, I felt some kind of warm, wet goo.
"Dennis!" I was groping all around his head, and I touched something hard and solid. A rock, also warm and wet. The back of Dennis's head was pouring blood.
I tried to do the whole C.S.I thing by jabbing two fingers into his throat. I couldn't feel anything, but I wasn't sure if I was even feeling in the right spot or not. So with my other hand I checked for my own pulse, but my heart was beating so goddamn fast I could've probably felt it in my feet.
I ended up just putting my hand on his chest. Put my ear my against it, too. Nothing.
"Is he okay?" Jason's voice made me jump. I looked up the embankment to see his broad-shouldered silhouette staring down at me.
Several seconds passed. When Jason finally spoke, his voice was high and shaky, "Wh-at?"
"I said he's dead! Fucking dead!"
It wasn't long before Jason was skidding into me.
"He can't be . . . There's no way . . ."
"He's got no pulse."
Jason started pacing back and forth, leaves and twigs crunching beneath his feet. "Oh, damn't, man— What are we gonna do? What are we gonna do?"
He sounded like he wanted to cry, which kinda pissed me off. I mean, it wasn't his cousin that was dead.
"I don't know," I said, still kneeling beside Dennis. "If you'd just left him alone . . ." I said it real low, but I guess Jason heard me because the twigs stopped snapping.
"You're blaming this on me?"
"Well, if you hadn't went and attacked him like a goddamn maniac, he wouldn't be dead, would he?"
"But he wouldn't shut up! He was trying to start something!"
"That's just how Dennis is. You know that."
"Well I'm sorry, okay? We got our asses handed to us tonight. My patience was a little thin."
"So you decided to take your frustration out on my little freshman cousin. Real mature."
Jason wasn't moving. I started to wonder if I was just staring at a tree trunk. Then the dark figure in front of me spoke: "Looked to me like you were the one that pushed him."
"It was an accident!" I shot back. "I was trying to stop you two from fighting!"
The dark figure shrugged its shoulders. "If you say so."
We kept on arguing for at least five minutes, tossing the blame back and forth like we were playing a goddamn game of hot potato. It wasn't until we heard some sound, like, right behind us, that we finally shut up. I still don't know what made it. Probably just a squirrel or something. But whatever it was, it scared the crap out of us.
That's what got me to thinking, like, what if somebody was to drive by right now, you know? There's our car off on the side of the road, engine still running, and here we are down here with a dead body. I mean, would they believe us that it was an accident? Would anybody?
I said to Jason, "We need to get the hell outta here, man."
It took us forever to get Dennis back up that hill. At first Jason just wanted to leave him there. He said the cops would come and get the body. But I wasn't comfortable with that idea. I could just imagine some big ass black bear having Dennis for dinner.
We ended up just having to drag Dennis by his arms because he was so damn heavy. After we finally got him up the hill, we took a short break to try and catch our breath. Then we tried to heave him up into the trunk, which was hard as hell since our muscles were already so freakin' tired. Dennis actually slipped out of my grip at one point and his head thumped off the bumper before banging against the pavement. Once we finally succeeded in getting Dennis in the trunk, we jumped into my car and hauled ass outta there.
I turned off the stereo when "Highway to Hell" started playing, just because it seemed so inappropriate. I kept feeling like I had things crawling on me, too. The hair on my arms was all matted together with sweat. I rolled down the window to let the cool breeze dry my forehead.
I really had no idea where the hell I was going. An image of the hospital flashed through my mind, but I didn't see the point of that. I mean, Dennis was dead. I didn't need a stupid doctor to tell me that. What the hell was I supposed to do, though? Go home? Call 911? Go to the freakin' police station?
Then it hit me. "Involuntary manslaughter! What is that, exactly?"
Jason had been all slumped into the seat, his head propped against the window. At the sound of my voice, he jerked. "What? I-I don't know. I think it's like, when somebody dies or something-- Somebody kills somebody without meaning to. Like in a wreck or something."
Shit. "Is that not exactly what we just did?"
Jason straightened up to where his back wasn't even touching the seat. "No," he said. "What happened to Dennis was an accident."
"A car crash, though! That's an accident! Right? Right?"
"Not the same thing. Dennis tripped."
"But ya'll were fighting! You've got a busted lip! What will that look like?"
Jason dabbed his lip. "You trying to blame this shit on me again?"
"No! I mean, it's just much as my fault as it is yours, right? If I hadn't grabbed him like that he never would've fell. I'm just saying, you know, like, what are other people gonna think? You think they'll believe us?"
Jason flipped his visor down and started examining his lip in the mirror. "They have to."
"But all they have is our word for it! For all they know we could be lying!"
"We'll take a lie-detector test."
"But those things don't even work right half the time!"
My hands were wet with sweat, yet I was still gripping the steering wheel tight enough to make my knuckles white. I could just imagine those same white knuckles gripping the steel bars of a prison cell.
"What's the punishment? You know, for involuntary manslaughter?"
Jason flipped the visor back up with more force than necessary. "I don't know! Just stop talking about it! We're not gonna go to jail! God!"
Right then I felt a really strong urge to slap him across the face. Like, wake the fuck up, man! I didn't, of course, but I didn't shut up, either.
"Innocent people go to jail all the time," I said, trying to sound all calm. "Just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. You see movies where somebody dies— accidentally— just because a fight got out of hand or a prank went wrong, and those people go to jail. I don't think it's fair or anything, but that's the way it is. And I seriously think we're in that exact same situation now."
I figured Jason would remain all silent, sulkin' away with his seat laid back. Either that or call me stupid. So of course it shocked the hell out of me when it sounded like he was actually crying.
"Man, I don't wanna go to ja-il."
I kept my eyes on the road, too afraid to look over and see a tear sliding down his cheek.
"Don't worry," I said. "Everything's gonna work itself out somehow." Of course I didn't believe that for a second, but I'd be kind of a dick to say otherwise. Plus it was seriously freaking me out that Jason was crying. He was supposed to be the tough one, you know? The football player. Hearing him cry like that disappointed me. I felt let down. Scared, even.
Neither of us said anything after that. I just kept chasing the double yellow line, listening to Jason's shaky breathing. The stereo was off. There were no other cars on the road. One minute of driving felt like ten.
In my head I kept seeing the words 'Involuntary Manslaughter.' I even remembered seeing a t-shirt before that said: "You Can't Spell Manslaughter Without Laughter!" I can't believe I ever laughed at something like that.
Suddenly I was drowned in highlights. We were rolling into our hometown. I started sweating again as we were sitting at the stoplight.
I know it seems like a crazy coincidence, but right about that time my gas light flashed. I hadn't even paid attention to the orange needle stabbing the 'E.' Might as well have been a capital 'P' for PANIC.
"Uh, Jason? I think we're, um . . ." My voice dropped a level. "Out of gas."
He sat up and wiped his eyes. "Wh-at?"
I repeated myself. He sniffed real loud and said, "What do you mean 'out of gas?' How the hell can we be out of gas?"
"Well the car was running for freakin' ever back there on the side of the road!" I didn't know if that really mattered, though. I mean, does gas burn even if the car is idle? Why the hell don't they teach this kind of shit in school? Seriously.
I tried to calculate in my head if I had enough gas to get home or not. I probably did, but it'd be pushing it. I certainly wouldn't have enough to get back to the gas station. And I still had to drop Jason off.
"I'm gonna have to stop. I'm sorry."
Luckily there were no other cars at the gas station. Jason got out to pump and I went in to pay. I nearly panicked when I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the glass door— There was blood all over my shirt, my pants, my hands. I wanted to turn around and run, but the door had already made that buzzing sound when I opened it. To keep from looking all suspicious, I stepped inside and quickly went down the first aisle.
There was a bathroom at the back of the store, but there wasn't any stupid soap in the dispenser, nor any paper towels. (Lazy ass employees.) I tried rinsing my hands in the sink, but the reddish tint remained.
Jason couldn't start pumping gas until I paid. With my heart nearly beating out of my chest, I crept up to the counter. The clerk was some fat bitch with a tattoo on her neck. She had her nose buried in a gossip magazine with Britney Spears on the cover. I slapped a twenty dollar bill on the counter, told her that's how much gas I wanted, then got the hell outta there.
I went ahead and got in the car while Jason started pumping gas. Just a few seconds later, a freakin' cop showed up.
At first I thought the clerk had seen the blood after all, but I was pretty sure she'd kept her big ass nose in that magazine the whole time. The cop pulled up on the opposite side of the gas tank as the one we were at. I tried to swallow the spit in my mouth and nearly choked.
The cop got out of his car . . . smiled at Jason . . . and then started talking about the game. I don't know if he recognized Jason or if it was just because Jason had on a Lincoln High t-shirt. All I know is the cop thought he was Vince Lombardi. Dude gave Jason his personal opinion of why we lost the game, defensive adjustments we should've made at halftime, who should be quarterbacking next week— All that ESPN bullshit.
I just stayed in the car, listening to the cop go on and on. I started feeling a little better, and I started breathing a little easier. We'd almost made it outta there, too, but then the cop cried out:
"Wait!— Wait!— Wait! What's this on your bumper? It's not blood, is it?"
Jason froze, his hand on the door handle. "Uhhhhh . . ."
I blurted out the first thing that came to mind: "We hit a deer!"
It's like the cop just then noticed I was there. He walked over to my side of the car, his head tilted to the side. "What were you doing--- driving backwards through a field? Step out of the vehicle, son. I need to see what's in your trunk."
I took a deep breath and did as he said. When he saw the blood all over my clothes, his eyes bulged and his hand went to his gun.
"Whoa— Whoa— Whoa!" I said, throwing my hands up and collapsing back into the driver's seat. "Don't shoot me, please!"
"Pop the trunk and get down on the ground! Now!"
I couldn't believe this was happening. Everything was slow motion, like we were stuck in a fog. I was just sitting there, thinking that I was going to spend the rest of my life in jail, when my hand re-directed itself from the latch that opens the trunk and instead went for the keys in the ignition. I watched my hand grab the keys, turn them— from what seemed like far away I heard my engine stutter alive— and then my other hand went to the gearshift. D for Drive and I was burning rubber.
As I slammed the car door shut, I snuck a glance in the rearview mirror. The cop was running to his car and Jason was just standing there, watching me drive off.
I had two different voices screaming at me in my head— a red light and a green light. One was screaming "What the hell are you doing?!" while the other was screaming, "Go! Go! Go!" I listened to the latter.
I didn't even have time to feel bad about leaving Jason. I just told myself that he'd find a way home somehow. Besides, I was saving his ass from going to jail. He'd be thanking me later.
The wind was roaring like a tornado as I sliced through it at ninety miles an hour, gripping the steering wheel as tight as I could. I tried to sneak a few glances in the rearview mirror to see if the cop was gaining on me or not, but I was too afraid to take my eyes off the road for even a second.
I'd lived here all my life, so I knew the roads pretty good, even in the dark. I started taking back roads toward my house, hoping to put more distance between me and the cop. Eventually I got far enough away from him to where I couldn't even hear his siren. I guess that's when I got a little careless. I was coming up on my driveway, but I was still going way too fast, especially for a gravel road. When I went to turn, I felt the tail-end of the car start wiggling. All I could do was close my eyes and wait for the crash . . .
Only, it never came. I opened my eyes and saw a poster of Jessica Alba instead of my steering wheel. Last night had only been a dream.
I lifted my head up off my slobber-soaked pillow and swung my legs over the bed. When I went to stand up, I got all lightheaded. It felt like my brain was bouncing around inside my head. After taking a few seconds to get reoriented and to wipe all that sandman crap from the corners of my eyes, I decided to go check on Dennis in the guest room.
My back was super stiff so I had to walk all slow. When I got to his room, I knocked on the door three times and called his name. He didn't reply, so I peeked inside, but nobody was in there. His bed was totally made up, too, which was a pretty bad sign. Dennis was the messiest dude I knew. Although I guess it was possible my mom had already made it up for him.
My bladder felt like it was about to burst, so I went into the bathroom to relieve myself. While I was standing there, doing my business, I just kinda naturally rolled my head over to look at myself in the mirror. What I saw made me do a double-take: I had a big red line etched across my forehead. I touched it and immediately winced.
I hurried downstairs without even bothering to flush the toilet (or clean up all the pee on the floor). First I checked in the living room, hoping against hope that I'd see Jason watching TV— but the TV wasn't even on.
"Mornin', hun," said my mom, as I walked into the kitchen. "You want some bacon? I've got a few pieces cooked up already."
"Nah, that's okay. Dennis come down yet?"
"Haven't seen him. Ya'll must've got in late last night." She had a fork in her hand, poking and prodding the slabs of bacon that sizzled in the frying pan. "You want your eggs scrambled or—?" Her sentence broke off as she turned and saw my forehead. A random thought of Harry Potter flashed through my mind. I put my back to her.
If Dennis was really dead, what the hell was I supposed to tell my mom? And my aunt, for Christ's sake? I mean, Dennis had been my responsibility. If he was stuffed in my trunk, that was my fault, too. Wait— my car!
"I'll be outside," I said.
I knew what I'd find as soon as I stepped out there, but still, seeing my mom's car in the driveway like that, all by itself, kinda made me want to throw up. I felt like somebody'd just hauled off and hit me in the gut.
I started walking toward the road. I didn't really want to, but I had to. Last night wouldn't be real until I saw Dennis with my own two eyes.
Before I'd even gotten to the end of my driveway, I could already see a glimpse of my car through the trees. Sure enough, there it was— front end in the ditch, back end in the road.
Since most people sleep in on Saturdays, I figured it was possible nobody had driven by yet. But then as I got a little closer, I could see that the trunk was ajar. What did that mean? Had somebody been by after all? Had they got out and investigated? Or had the trunk just popped open when I crashed?
My hand was trembling as I slipped it underneath the lid of the trunk. I took a long, deep breath before opening it.
What I saw made me gasp and I instantly jumped back. Dennis was in there, alright, but he looked about a million times worse than anything I was expecting. I mean, last night I'd only seen him in the dark— But now, with the sun beating down on him, I could see every horrible detail super clear. His skin looked like a blue-tinted wax and his hair was all matted up with blood and dirt.
That was when I saw it, but I didn't believe it at first. I just figured it was a trick of the light or something. Or maybe a trick of the mind. I mean, it wasn't possible. Dennis was dead. There was just no way I could've seen his hand move. No way.
But then it happened again and I knew I wasn't imagining it. His hand clenched up and his fingers reached out like the legs of a dying spider. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Dennis was alive!
"D-D-D-Duh-Duh-Den-Dennis?" At the sound of my voice, Dennis's eyelids fluttered. Oh my God— I'd never been so excited in my life!
I went to touch him, to maybe brush my hand against his cheek, let him know I was sorry and that everything was going be okay— But, just as my fingertips brushed his skin, Dennis made this gurgling sound. I pulled my hand back and watched the blood bubble up and out of his mouth. He went into some kind of convulsion, and then he got real still. His eyes were still open, too, but I could just see the whites of them— like they were uncooked eggs or something.
Tears were pouring down my cheeks. I squeezed my fists 'til my nails broke through the skin. The pain felt good. I deserved it. Dennis was dead— for real this time— and it was all my fault. Forget about accidentally pushing him down an embankment, I'd just let him bleed to death in my filthy ass trunk. I'd killed him. Voluntarily.
I was still standing there, looking down at him and crying, when the two cop cars came skidding up behind me. They started shouting something about putting my hands on my head and stepping away from the vehicle. But I didn't listen. I was just hoping that they had their guns drawn. Maybe one of 'em would accidentally pull the trigger. Kill me involuntarily.
I'm still wishing one had.