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The Man from Willow Rock

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Three men driving through the American Southwest hear a radio broadcast about an escaped mental patient. Then they pick up a hitchhiker.

Thriller / Horror
Age Rating:

Chapter 1

“Only folks without sin, far as I can see it, are dead babies,” Louis mused from the backseat of the behemoth four-door Cadillac de Ville. He played with the ripped upholstery above his head, teal against all better judgment. Some of the lining inside crumbled and fell onto his black rodeo shirt.

“I don’t know why you have to be so rude about it. Really I don’t.” Robert adjusted his thick-frame glasses in the front passenger seat. From his sensible crew cut down to his short-sleeved, white dress shirt, he could have easily been mistaken for a NASA control room operator.

“We have a long way to go and the AC in this heap isn’t worth a damn!” Steven thumped the dashboard beyond the steering wheel in his grip, hoping to inspire the cooling unit inside. When no air came, he rolled down the window instead. A furnace blast of stale desert heat invaded the car, but at least it stirred the air. Beads of sweat dripped from Steven’s strong jaw onto his gray undershirt, already soaked through.

Outside, a stifling cloud cover had killed the stars and crushed the hot air low to the ground. The American Southwest was full of strange, stubborn deserts that refused to cool off at night.

“All I’m saying,” Louis drawled, “is there’s no point in concerning yourself about it. Virtue is all perspective, so why put any stock in how another fella thinks you should act. Unless they’re the bossman . . . or your old lady, of course.”

“Can we please listen to something other than his nonsense?” Robert whined. “Next we’re gonna hear about the virtues of Nixon.”

Louis sat forward. “We’ll look back on this time in disgrace. This country should’ve supported its President.”

“The man wasn’t who he said he was! He resigned in shame!”

“You’d better watch your lip, Robert, before I bust it open.”

“Ford’s only been in two weeks and already he’s getting us back on track.”

“Ford is a weak-willed hillbilly that—”

“ENOUGH.” Steven squeezed his eyes shut and the car drifted momentarily into the other lane. Not that it mattered. They hadn’t passed another vehicle for over an hour. “I’m putting the radio on and the next one who talks is walking. Christ almighty.” He scrolled the tuner until the hollow tone of a public radio news reporter crawled out of the static.

“...Dooley escaped from Willow Rock Psychiatric Hospital after beating two attendants to death with a blunt object. Dooley’s involvement is also suspected in the murder of an elderly man at a liquor store near the asylum. Anyone coming in contact with—

“I swear, these days news reports are just murder reports. Doesn’t anything good happen in this world anymore?” Steven cranked the knob until he located an old Mexican standard playing on the only other station they could pick up.

“That’s what I was trying to get at,” Louis said from behind Steven. “This Dooley fellow probably had good reason to bash those brains in. All in how you look at it.” Sweat thick with pomade oozed from his slicked back scalp until he smeared it back into place.

Robert made sure he looked indignant, and Steven kept his eyes on the road ahead, both refusing to engage Louis. He was constantly testing both of them, willing to argue over things as stupid as what board game was best or how to ration toothpaste most effectively. It could be exhausting. Maddening.

On the road ahead, the de Ville’s weak headlights reflected on something metal.

“There’s a car there,” Steven said.

He slowed to a stop just behind what turned out to be an olive green pickup, half on the road. An erect hood signaled probable engine trouble.

The three men stared in silence.

Robert spoke, his voice weak with fear. “Is it . . . empty?”

Steven squinted, looking for any movement. A slow drift of orange dust kicked up by their approach settled like rusty rain onto the frame of the truck.

“Can we please keep going?” Louis’ bored voice came from the backseat.

Robert spun around. “Someone might need our help.”

“Then why don’t you go and ask, Robert?”

Robert’s energy evaporated as he looked again at the derelict truck and slunk deeper into the passenger’s seat.

Steven shook his head. “Christ, I’ll do it. You two are completely worthless sometimes.” He popped open the door and stood on legs mildly-atrophied from the long drive.

“Hey.” Louis offered a chrome flashlight through the back window. “Don’t say I never did nothin’ for ya.”

Steven clicked on the flashlight and it strobed, either battery or bulb nearing the end of its life.

The amber beam moved with Steven’s eyes along the side of the truck, into the empty bed, and across the industrial topography of the idle engine. Steven put his hand to the block then pulled it back in surprise.

“Engine’s hot,” he announced as he climbed quickly back into the Cadillac.

“Out here it’d be weirder if it was cold,” Louis said.

“The rest of the car wasn’t as hot,” Steven shot back. He threw the de Ville into drive and they sped off. “Someone was driving and just left it there. I don’t know where they think they’ll get out here on foot.”

“Hey, hey, listen,” Robert trilled. “Willow Rock’s not too far from here.”

Steven gripped the steering wheel tighter and ignored the bubbling fear. “Don’t start in with one of your ghost stories, Robert. We haven’t passed anyone for over an hour.”

“Meaning whoever was driving that truck . . . should be up ahead,” Louis said. “This drive just got a damn sight more interesting.”

They drove on, each man straining his eyes on the small swatch of lit pavement scrolling in front of the car. The soft Mexican instrumental played on and lulled them into a false peace.

A man in the road.

Steven swerved and jammed on the brakes.

The brown-jacketed man they’d narrowly avoided hitting leapt onto the sandy shoulder of the roadway and was swallowed by darkness.

“What are you doing, Steven? Keep driving!” Robert said in a hushed shout.

“Hold on a tick,” Louis put his hand on Steven’s shoulder. “If this is that fella they’re lookin’ for, I imagine there’s some kinda reward.”

“The reward is a pipe to your skull,” Robert hissed.

“Even with your yellow belly, we still got him outnumbered three to one,” Louis said. “Plus I’m the one that’s gonna be sharin’ the backseat, so my vote counts and yours don’t.”

“Please keep driving,” Robert begged Steven.

Steven wiped the sweat from his eyes as the stranger approached. “Louis is right,” he said quickly, “we could do with some cash. Just stay alert. We’ll be alright.”

Robert yelped as a hand knocked on his window.

“Roll it down,” Steven said.

Robert shook his head, eyes squeezed shut.

“For heaven’s sake.” Steven leaned over and cranked the window down.

“Didn’t mean to cause a fuss. I didn’t realize how far in the road I was.” The long-haired hitcher leaned on the door. He was probably young, but a grizzly beard and sunken eyes added several years to his appearance. “I didn’t think anyone else was out here.” Colorful strands of beads swayed gently on his soft jacket, something a Navajo might’ve worn on the same spot a hundred and fifty years earlier. The man looked to be a holdover from only the last decade though, bearing the patient tone and uncut hair of a stubborn hippie.

“S’alright. We’re just passing through ourselves. Hop in back if ya like,” Steven offered.

“Wow, just like that? Don’t have to tell me twice.” The stranger hopped into the backseat, his beads clicking gently on the teal seat. “Talk about a sight for sore eyes.”

Steven started to drive, ignoring Robert’s dirty look.

“Not to uh, push my luck, but you mind if I have one of these beers?” the stranger asked.

“Help yourself,” Steven said.

“Are you kiddin’ me?” Louis said under his breath as the stranger twisted open a bottle and offered it to Steven.

“No thanks, I don’t drink anymore.” Steven waved it off, trying to focus on the road ahead.

The stranger held the beer out a moment longer. “Really?”

“So he doesn’t drink, is that a problem?” Louis’ tone was tight, getting aggressive. Steven knew that tone well.

“Louis,” Steven said calmly.

“My name’s Warren,” the stranger said. Then he downed the entire bottle of beer in a few gulps, finishing with a loud burp.

“Why didn’t you stay with your truck?” Steven asked.

Warren opened another beer. “Well, truth be told, I’m avoiding the law at the moment. Didn’t want to get rolled by some curious highway patrol. The plan was to huff it and jump into the brush if I saw anything coming. Guess I was kinda dozin’ off when you almost ran me down.”

Robert tapped Steven’s leg and raised his eyebrows.

“Uh . . . what kind of trouble you in, Warren?” Steven asked.

“Ah, nothin’ special. Public nuisance here and there I guess you could call it.” Warren finished his second beer and dropped it to the floor then settled deeper into the Caddie’s seat.

“Here and there being Willow Rock?” Louis said without warning. Steven’s eyes flashed to the rear view mirror.

Warren didn’t respond.

“Answer the god damn question!” Steven shouted, startling even himself.

“Well hey now buddy, I did answer your god damn question! I was just tryin’ to plant the seeds of conversation, but you want to ride things out mute that’s suits me just fine. Tired as the dickens anyway . . .” Warren folded his arms and leaned deeper into his corner of the backseat, eyes closing behind matted strands of hair.

A silence thickened in the car until Warren began to softly snore.

Louis leaned forward and whispered. “I told ya, didn’t I? We got him. We got him dead to rights.”

“I don’t see how inviting a g.d. murderer into our car is a good thing. Where’s our insurance?” Robert said.

“Don’t you two start arguing,” Steven interrupted. “We’re in it now. I think we can all agree on that. Now how do we go about the hog tie?”

“Here’s your insurance, Robert.” Louis produced a switchblade and clicked it open.

“What the hell are you gonna do with that?” Robert asked.

“Try not to piss yourself and I’ll tell you,” Louis said. “It’s gonna go down like this. Robert you’re gonna grab the extension cord at your feet. When you’re ready, I’ll whop him one in the head and you help me tie him up. Steven holds the knife in case things go South. Capeesh?”

“I don’t think we should do this,” Robert whined.

Steven wiped the relentless sweat from his face. “Well,” he started slowly, “Louis is right on this one. He’s already in the car. Time to finish what we started.”

“That’s what I’m talkin’ about. Seventy-two ounce T-bones on me when we collect the reward.” Louis clapped his hand on each man’s shoulder. Robert’s was trembling, his face locked on the side mirror.

“He’s awake,” Robert yelled.

“Now!” Louis screamed.

Steven heard a scuffle as the men began to fight.

“Steve! Help!” Louis wailed from behind.

With his free hand Steven struck out in Warren’s direction with the knife. He felt warm blood on his hand and heard a cry of pain. He stabbed, again and again, until the steering wheel slipped out of his control and the Cadillac plowed into heavy sand.

Carol Anne Jr., age six, sipped loudly through the straw in her Pepsi can. From behind her thick eyeglasses and the station wagon’s dusty windshield, she watched her mother approach a white Cadillac someone had driven off the road. The top of the backseat upholstery was teal. Carol Anne Jr. hated teal.

Carol Anne Sr. peeked through the glare on the Cadillac’s driver’s side window. She leaned closer and cupped her hands on the glass.

Carol Anne Jr. stopped slurping her soda as her mother shrieked and fell onto the pavement, scrambling back into the station wagon on her hands and knees. Carol Anne Sr. buckled her seat belt, grabbed the steering wheel, and began to cry uncontrollably. Neither Jr., nor Sr., heard the bulletin that played softly on the now-forgotten radio.

“…the Sun Devils gave up two runs late in the ninth in a four-three loss to the Wildcats. More now on our top story of escaped mental patient Steven Dooley. Dooley escaped Willow Rock Psychiatric Hospital yesterday, killing two guards and a local man whose vehicle was subsequently stolen. Police are urging citizens to be on the lookout for a white four-door Cadillac De Ville. Anyone seeing the vehicle should notify authorities immediately and make no attempt to approach Dooley.”

“Just like that poor man in Yuma all those years ago,” Robert moaned. “Your plans always get us into trouble, Louis.”

“I had him pinned down just fine if you woulda tied him up like I asked. Once again Stevie’s gotta come to the rescue for everyone.”

“I don’t know if I can live with this,” Robert said.

Louis put his arm around Robert and spoke softly. “I told ya before, it’s all a matter of perspective. We know we did what we had to do. Other folks won’t understand that, so we don’t even bother trying to explain. Since it’s gonna do us no good, I say we forget about the whole thing altogether. Whadda ya say, Steven?”

Steven smiled. “I say we get those seventy-two ouncers you were talkin’ about.”

The three men cheered up, forgiving one another for the incident as the sun cast a single shadow behind.

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