Round Two submission for the NYC Midnight Short Story Contest
Character: A bus driver
Ajay Bell decided to saunter over to the three men huddled over a map spread on the hood of their red Chevy Suburban, unaware that for the rest of his days, he’d regret this as the worst decision of his life.
It wasn’t that he longed to talk to the men with their ball caps and tattoos, but he was keen to put some distance between himself and the passenger who he thought of as ‘the barnacle’, otherwise known as Lorrie.
Ajay nodded towards the men. “Those guys look lost. I’ll just see if I can help. You stay here by the bus and when the others come out of the restaurant, tell them I’ll be back in a minute.”
Ajay raised his eyebrows when one of the men balled up the map and tossed it aside. A blue-green snake tattoo slithered out from under his khaki t-shirt as his bicep flexed in the angry throw.
Ajay grinned. “Hiya. Can I help you find some place?”
Two of the men seemed struck dumb by Ajay’s question, but the map-thrower frowned. “You know your way around here?”
Ajay thumbed back to the tour bus. “I’m the driver. I know every nook and tree around here.”
Snake man nodded to his two pals. One opened the back door of the car and before Ajay understood what was happening, he was shoved into the back by Snake man. The one who had opened the door pulled a pistol out from the back of his jeans and slid in as Ajay frantically searched for the door handle to escape.
Ajay froze when he saw the gun.
“Don’t think about moving or shouting. You’re coming with us.”
Ajay’s mouth dropped open. And then, with a shriek, Lorrie was shoved into the car as well, the gunman sandwiched between them.
Snake man slammed the door and jumped into the passenger side while the third man belted around to the driver side and gunned the engine to tear out of the lot.
Ajay wondered if any of his passengers had seen them. Probably not.
Lorrie sobbed. “What do you want with us? My family doesn’t have money for ransom. Oh God, oh God, please don’t hurt me.”
Snake man turned and drawled. “Shut the hell up. I didn’t want you. If you had stayed out of it, you wouldn’t be here, but you pushed your way in by squawking. Just shut up and you’ll be fine. If you bug me, I’ll leave you at the first lonely place, with a bullet in your brain.”
Lorrie gulped and bit her lip.
Ajay stared and licked his lips. “Why me?”
Snake man, the obvious leader, turned again. “We’re lost. Our GPS doesn’t work and none of us reads a map.” He smirked. “Think of us as your new tourists. Guide us.”
Ajay glanced at Lorrie and tried to give her a reassuring look, before asking. “Where do you want to go?”
The left arm that rested along the back of the seats had a large tattoo of a Confederate flag. “Great Slave Lake.”
Ajay frowned. “That’s a long way from here in Maple Creek. It’s probably eighteen hours or so.”
“You got somewhere else you’d rather be? What’s your name anyway?”
Ajay blinked. “Ajay. I’m just saying it’s far, in case you didn’t know.”
The driver looked in the mirror at Ajay. “Is that like A and J or is it a Pakkie name?”
Ajay stiffened. Haven’t heard that slur in years. “It’s all one word and my parents were born in Canada.”
Snake man nodded. “Now you know where we’re headed, tell Tyler the way.”
“Take the SK-21 to the AB-14. Follow the signs for Edmonton. Look, it’s straight-forward. You don’t need me, and you definitely don’t need Lorrie.”
Snake man didn’t turn. “Robbie, remind Ajay who has the gun here.”
Robbie lifted the gun and pressed it against Ajay’s temple. “Just give directions. Keep all other opinions to yourself. People like you don’t have any right to opinions.”
Lorrie whimpered. Ajay closed his eyes and swallowed, feeling his gorge rise. Don’t throw up. Don’t throw up. Ajay knew he wasn’t a brave man. His wife laughed at him for all his fears. Thunderstorms. Big dogs. Watching his five-year-old son cycle without training wheels.He felt tears burning. I’ll never see Katie and Michael again.
Ajay swallowed again. “What’s in Great Slave Lake?”
Robbie, waved the gun, and laughed. “What’s normally in a lake? Right, Snake?”
Ajay frowned. Jeez, the guy’s name is actually snake.
Robbie subsided when Snake turned to glare. “Water. You have it and we want it.”
Ajay forgot the gun for a moment. “You want our water? I don’t understand.”
Tyler snorted. “Of course, you don’t.”
Snake nodded. “We’ve got droughts. Every year it gets worse. I had a vision that we needed to come and stake a claim for the water.”
Lorrie squinted at Ajay, as if to question if she had heard right.
Ajay’s palms were clammy, and he wiped them on his uniform pants. “You want to take our water?”
Snake shrugged. “It’s the tenth largest lake in the world, and it’ll be our water soon.”
Ajay gritted his teeth. Nutters. These guys are nutters. And they want our water. No sir. Not happening.
Hours passed, and Lorrie moaned she needed to stop. In the village of Consort, Snake told Tyler to pull in at a gas station. Robbie escorted her to the ladies while Tyler filled the car and then moved it around the corner of the building, out of sight.
Snake stood too close to him while they waited for the others, and Ajay flinched away, his arms pimpled with raised hair. Ajay smelled his own fear. A sour, sweaty stink.
Robbie and Lorrie were almost back when she made a break for it. She swivelled and ran. She didn’t stand a chance and within steps Robbie had her and dragged her to the car. Just before he shoved her inside, he swung the pistol backhanded against her face. Her scream was muffled when he pushed her in, face buried against the seat.
Ajay grabbed Robbie by the shoulders. “Don’t hurt her!”
Snake pulled Ajay off Robbie and pinned his arms as Robbie punched. Ajay felt a rib crack. Felt his nose crumble and tasted blood in his mouth. Felt the warmth of the blood stream from his nose down his chin to drip on his light blue shirt.
Snake released Ajay. “OK Robbie, enough. Now Ajay. Do you still need a piss, or have you wet yourself?”
Ajay stood heaving gusts of air until Snake put his arm around Ajay’s shoulder. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
When they returned, Snake pushed Ajay to the driver’s side. “You’re driving, but remember, the sooner we get to where we want to be, the sooner you’re done.”
Ajay slid into the driver’s seat and saw Lorrie’s face in the rear-view. Swollen eyes; left one purpling. Deep gash on her cheek. They won’t let us go. Her and me, we’re worth nothing to these guys.
Ajay drove through the afternoon, thinking. Despite the pounding head, nose clogged with dried blood and pain in his ribs, he tried to plan. He skirted Edmonton without seeing a chance to attract the attention of police. In the back-seat Lorrie and Tyler slept. Robbie, his hand curled around the gun kept watch. Snake looked at the road signs as they passed, satisfied that they continued in the right direction.
Ajay spoke quietly. “What’s the plan, Snake? When we get there? We’ve seen your faces.”
Snake shrugged. “You’re leverage if we need it, but the world will know our faces, so I don’t care about that. We’ll be heroes. We’ll stake a claim near the mouth of the lake and declare it for America.”
Ajay shook his head. “This isn’t the gold-rush, man. You can’t just come into Canada and stake a claim. We’re neighbors. That’s not how things work.”
Snake laughed. “And who’s going to stop us? The likes of you?”
Hour after hour passed and then they saw a sign “Slave Lake, 20 Km”
Snake sat up. “I thought you said it was eighteen hours. Hey, guys wake up! We’re here.”
Ajay furrowed his brow; stayed silent. This is Slave Lake, not Great Slave Lake. They approached a picnic area. “Can we stop here for a piss?”
Snake was jubilant. “Sure, if there are no other cars, stop.”
Ajay stopped, and he and Robbie went to the outhouse. They let Lorrie go alone this time. She had learned her lesson. Ajay sidled up to Lorrie when the other three huddled together making plans.
Ajay spoke quietly. “They think we’ve arrived.”
Her voice was dull. “They’ll find out soon enough. They’re going to kill us, aren’t they?”
“Snake says no, but I don’t believe him. I have a plan.”
She looked at him. “Tell me.”
“We’ll be going along the side of the lake soon. It’s a dangerous spot. The road almost overhangs the water. When we get there, I’m going to slow right down and then you and I are both going to jump from the car. It’ll keep going right into the lake. Do you think you can do that? Can you open the door and jump? It may be our only chance.”
She closed her eyes. “Oh my God. I don’t know.” She exhaled. “Yes, OK. How will I know?”
“I’ll look at you in the mirror and I’ll say: ‘It’s not far now.’”
Snake turned to them. “Get in. Let’s go.”
Ajay slid behind the wheel. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that Lorrie insisted she sit at the window instead of the middle because she felt car sick. She didn’t put her seatbelt on, but no one noticed.
Snake peered out the window as they drove.
Ajay glanced at Snake. “I know a good place for you, right by the water that would give you good control over lake access.” Ajay’s heart throbbed in his throat, knowing his words were nonsense.
“OK, take us there.”
They turned on to Route 88. Ajay rested his right arm across his lap, ready. His heart pounded. Up ahead the road made a left sweep. This is it.
In the mirror, he drilled Lorrie with his gaze. Earlier, he wanted rid of this barnacle. Now he prayed that she would be alright. “It’s not far now.”
He pressed the brake. Slowed, slowed some more as if searching. Only a rusted guardrail separated deep blue lake from the road.
He clicked the release for his seatbelt and as the car beeped in protest for the open belt, he shouted “now!”
Ajay threw open his door and flung himself out, straightening the steering wheel as he went, to send the car on a trajectory straight into the lake. He rolled on the gravel verge, his ribs and shoulder flaring in agony. He heard the screech of metal on metal as the heavy suburban went through the guardrail.
Ajay stopped rolling and crouched. “Lorrie?”
He spared a second to watch the vehicle sink. He shouted again. “Lorrie?”
There! He saw her body on the highway. He hobbled to her, calling her name. She sat up, pushed herself into a crouch and then stood. “I’m alright.”
They hugged and stood, trembling in the roadway. They walked back to the edge of the lake. The vehicle was gone, sunk deep into the water leaving a flat, still surface.
Ajay rested his hands on his knees, exhausted. It’s over.
Lorrie stepped back, eyes wide, hands over her mouth. She moaned “No.”
Ajay straightened. Saw the water shiver as something from the depth surfaced. A head broke the water.
The otter flipped on its back and grinned at the audience.
It was half an hour before a logging truck came along and called for help. The driver patted Ajay’s shoulder. “You’re one brave guy, buddy.”