Riptide
by Marion Smith

Chapter 1

[p.1]So many lives inside me.

I’m here now, finally, on the back floor of his car in a half-lit underground garage, waiting. Waiting on the floor, for another life.

This filthy carpet smells of stale french fries. I’m looking at a crumpled Happy Meal box and a half-full baby bottle inches from my face. I can’t smell its sour milk. I’d throw up. The back of the gray plastic seat is scuffed and split from little legs swinging, little feet in dirty tennis shoes. Fat little toddler’s legs.

He’ll get in this car even if he sees me. He won’t know what else to do. His beat-up brown Toyota. Like the one Katherine drove when they were married.

I’ve rehearsed this moment in my mind so many times there’s no reality in it now. A film I’m watching. Consequences all on hold. Like Raskolnikov? In Dostoyevsky. Maybe. Except the young man kills the old woman. Will it be like Raskolnikov for me? It doesn’t matter. There’s no room for both of us anymore.

No room for my legs in this cramped car. Ten after four. Maybe fifteen minutes more. At most. Unless something goes wrong.

Varicose-veined legs. Why not, after five kids? I’m sixty-three. After these last wasted seven years, do I look it? How would I know? Maybe there’ll be a front page photo to tell me.

[p.2]How amazing that Duncan is helping me do this. Probably the most unselfish thing he’s ever done for me. He must be dying waiting. No pun intended. They should be in Ontario now. He said he’d try to be conspicuous renting a car, make a fuss about what model or something, anything to be noticed, remembered. Maybe reconfirm the tickets to Salt Lake asking for a seat change or a special meal. while Jeanne hides in the women’s room. She’ll keep her cool. I wish she were with me.

Duncan said he wouldn’t let me do it alone when I finally convinced him imagination is everything. This has to happen how I’ve imagined. I quoted my scientists to him—Copernicus imagining the planets from the sun’s perspective, Newton seeing the apple and moon held by the same force, Einstein insisting imagination is worth more than knowledge. Why on earth am I thinking of them now? Because it’s true. I’ve imagined every detail so many times the idea is more real than this moment. God, how can I be here?

Duncan made me practice with this pistol a hundred times. We went to the cabin where people are always trap shooting or chain sawing. Noisy background. I hated it every time. The deafening sound and recoil. I’ve always hated guns, hated his hiding one on the high shelf where the kids couldn’t reach. Hated them when I was fourteen at summer camp and we had to choose between rifle practice and fencing. I chose fencing. What a joke. En garde! I hated the NRA. Like they were Nazis or something. Pretty funny now. I got so I could hit the target he nailed on the pine tree.

Four o’clock. No one has moved a car since I’ve been here. I’m sweating. It’s sick in here with only a crack of air. I’m lucky they didn’t register guns forty-five years ago when Duncan got his. A “war surplus 9-millimeter Llama automatic” he calls it. [p.3]Forty-five years ago. In Idaho. He wanted me to learn to use it then when he was out of town so much. I told him I’d rather someone just raped or killed me. Unless they were going to get one of the kids. I still can’t imagine using this thing in self-defense. But I may have to. Maybe he’ll knock it out of my hands. That scares me most. He’s big, huge. But sitting behind him we’ve gone through this so many times, practiced it over and over. If it jams, that’s it. And still Duncan’s helping me. I never knew he could love me this much.

An engine. They’re coming out. Far away.

Utah state employees like Clint go home early. Duncan used to put in twelve- and fourteen-hour days. I always told him he should quit and take a government job.

Someone’s coming. God, I can’t stand it.

Don’t breathe. Don’t look. Don’t move.

They’re gone.

It has to be soon, I can’t last much longer. A fly’s buzzing near me. Searching out that wadded-up diaper. Spontaneous generation. Reincarnation from a fly speck. Maybe a bee will sting me and I’ll shoot this thing all wrong.

The plastic gloves are tight and sweaty. Wish I could take them off. Only the safety catch to move: It’s good that Duncan cocked it for me.

First, Duncan said we should hire a professional. But this is mine, I told him. Mine alone. Besides, professionals will blackmail you. Duncan said, “Yeah, but at least you’re alive to be blackmailed!” He said it won’t look like suicide because there won’t be powder burns on his hand. No way around it. A person who shoots himself in the head wouldn’t pull the trigger twice so I can’t make his hand do it. I said I didn’t care. There are plenty of people besides us who’d like him dead. But I do care. It would be horrible to have a trial. TV. Prison.

[p.4]He’s here.

He’s here and I’m not ready. He’ll hear my heart.

He’s unlocking his car, not noticing how Chris got me in.

I can feel his body through the door. I can’t believe it. He’s behind the wheel, starting the car.

Automatic. Slow. Careful. On automatic. Quietly onto the seat before he turns back.

“Clint, it’s me. Don’t stop. Use your mirror. Back out of here. It’s a gun aimed at the back of your head: I’ll use it if I have to. Duncan’s taught me. Drive out of here like you always do and turn left on Fourth North.” .

A startled sucking of air.

“Are you crazy? What d’you think you’re doing?”

“Don’t turn around. Drive. I’m deadly serious. I have a proposition to make about your kids. I didn’t think you’d talk to me unless I made you. Get in the turning lane.”

My hands shake. I rest the gun on the back of his seat. My voice sounds calm. In control. Like somebody else’s. A recording. He’s only half-turned his head. I see the knuckles on one hand against the steering wheel. White. With little hairs. The blood gone. His neck muscles are tensed, bulging; he’s breathing hard. He’s in the left-hand lane.

“If you think you’re shooting me… You could never do it.”

His voice is tight and high. His big bass voice.

“Drive. We’ll talk. It’s Shawn. He’s having a hard time. He wants to see you.”

“I’ve always wanted to see my kids. It’s Katherine—and you—who won’t let me. You’ve flipped. You won’t get away with this shit.… She’s never even sent me the school pictures. You don’t care anything about my new kids. You’re crazy!”

He starts to swerve into the right lane but quickly straightens. He’s going too fast.

[p.5]“Just drive. We’ll talk when the traffic thins out. Get over in the lane for Cheyenne. Turn up Parley’s Canyon, then we’ll pull over and talk.”

“I could stop any time and there’s nothing you could do. I don’t have to take any more of this crap. I know you and Duncan made Jeanne and Jasmine file that law suit. You cooked the whole thing up and told Jeanne what to say. I’m going to stop and dump you—”

A tinge of hysteria in his voice.

“Try me, Clint. Just try me.”

We take the curve toward Parley’s Canyon in silence. He’s in the right-hand lane.

My hands have stopped shaking.

I picture Lady MacBeth washing hers over a stainless steel washbowl.

Through the smudges on the window I can see the green of the canyon. All that rain in May. How can I be seeing trees? I want to roll down the window and feel the wind .

I try to see if people in other cars are looking at us. I can’t tell.

“What’s wrong with Shawn?”

“He’s angry—at everyone. Dr. Monroe thinks he needs to see you.”

“He’s probably mad at his mother. Why can’t she call me? Why do you always control everything?”

His fury fills the car. Explodes the air.

Automatic. Stay on automatic. The Llama is automatic.

“See that dirt turnoff about a block ahead? The sign that says Quarry Exit? Turn off there.”

“I don’t need to take a turnoff. We can pull over on the side.”

Duncan has told me exactly what to do. If he doesn’t take [p.6]the turnoff, I’m supposed to pop the safety near his ear, then go to Lamb’s Canyon exit.

“Cars aren’t supposed to stop on the side. Take the turnoff.”

I hadn’t planned to, but I touch the pistol lightly for a second on his neck when I say this. He jerks, and turns the car quickly.

Duncan and I have been on this turnoff a dozen times at this exact time of day. It turns left onto an overpass across the freeway, then goes a block or so through some trees to a dead end and a gate to an abandoned gravel quarry. We don’t think anybody ever comes here. Unless kids at night. We can’t be seen from the freeway. I’m supposed to wait for a semi- to roar under the underpass, but there’s no way I can tell when one’s coming without rolling down the window. There’s a solid stream of traffic this time of day, and it’s so hot everyone’s windows are up. I just have to gamble.

He starts to brake when he sees the bridge.

“Cross over. We’ll park on the other side.”

He brakes harder, almost to a stop. I knew he would.

I click the safety off. Right by his ear.

I can hardly believe I did it right. Just like we practiced. Just like I imagined.

He drives slowly across the bridge. The gun is pressing against his ear. It’s part of me now, an extension of my hand. I’m not afraid. Totally calm. Everything in slow motion: sweat running down his neck, my finger on the trigger. The fly lights on my left hand resting on the back of his seat. The freeway noise is a steady hum.

Breathe. Slowly. Just like you’ve practiced.

He’s stopping. He shifts into reverse.

“I’m turning around.”

The explosion deafens me. A hundred times louder than [p.7]target practice. Why isn’t the car rolling backwards? I raise my arm to fire another shot.

His only sound? A startled “Ahhhh!” Like a baby’s surprise at falling down. I smell something burning.

Dark red everywhere, everywhere. Just like Duncan said. I try not to look at him. I see brains and bits of flesh, blood, skin. I’ve ruined the car. He’s fallen against the door, his right shoulder slumped forward partly hiding his head. His arm is jerking grotesquely. With my left arm, I lift my purse from the car floor, pull out a cloth, wrap it around my bloody right hand and arm. Blood and flesh sticking to my shirt. My left arm carries my right from the front seat onto my lap. I pick up my purse and get out another cloth. I open the left side door and step out. Through the doorway I wipe the blood from the front seat where my hand rested, then shut the door and look carefully through the window inside.

“No blood inside the car except what spatters naturally,” Duncan said. I walk carefully on the dirt road stepping only on the gravel, around to the front right side door. There’s nothing. No feeling. No panic. Automatic. A movie. Don’t step on any weeds or bare dirt. I open the passenger door with my left hand. The glove on that hand has no blood on it. I kneel on the seat, shift into park, turn the key off. His right hand is lying backwards on the seat. Is it twitching? I turn his hand over and curl his fingers around the handle and trigger of the pistol. His fingers bend easily. Like a doll’s. I push at the arm until the hand dangles off the front seat. The pistol falls to the floor. Very carefully. Don’t hurry. I wipe off the front seat and close the front door. Wipe the outside of the door too. Carefully around the car until I can sit down on the gravel.

All of this is unreal. What have I forgotten? What if Chris [p.8]doesn’t come? What if I have to walk out of here? I’m going to throw up. I can’t. I swallow it back.

I’m crouching again, my arms hugging my pointed knees, my head resting on them, as I rock and rock, back and forth, to the lullaby of passing cars.