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Big Wheel

(Here's a story from my Clarion days, back when I was trying to find my own voice and emulate the 1990s masters of horror like Stephen King,Clive Barker and John Shirley. I don't know how well I succeeded, but I still think it's a nasty, gory take on revenge that would've made a neat 'Tales from the Crypt' episode. Enjoy!)

Light from the full moon of the spring equinox cut lazily thru the cool night air, illuminating the sharp grey edges of the multi-storied buildings known as Johnson Heights. Built with good intentions during the youthful exuberance of the 1960s as an answer to low-cost urban housing, the Heights were now a twenty-first century canker sore, gaunt serving stations for pimps, pushers, and the unfortunate few whose only other choice for shelter was the naked streets of Detroit.

The myriad of social problems that stemmed from societal choices that made Johnson Heights a lightning rod for politicians of both sides were not on the mind of the occupant in the black Tahoe which cruised down the deserted streets, headlights shining bright amid the squalor. The driver of the car, Raymond Miles Stylsong, had much more primitive instincts guiding his alcohol-soaked brain. His quest was to find a cheap hooker, get laid, then get even more drunk than he already was. Nice, easy, and simple.

With a large meaty hand, he brushed back his dyed black hair and peered intently out the windshield, scowling. He had suffered a humiliating sexual defeat earlier that evening at a going away party for one of his law firm's senior partners ('bout time that senile bastard left). After Ray had offered the firms' new junior partner, a shapely 25-year-old brunette, help in moving up the legal ladder if he could move into her pants, she had informed him of three things: number one, she was happily engaged; number two, she had no interest in dating a man 25-years older than her; three, and most importantly, if he ever propositioned her again, she would, at minimum, file a sexual harassment suit.

The world's gone to hell since the MeToo movement. Ray promised himself that in the following weeks, he'd make her life very unpleasant.

Thoughts of revenge were lost in the haze of lust when he sighted a solitary woman walking a half a block ahead of him. Her slight form cast an elongated pencil-thin shadow onto the street, highlighted from a lone sodium street lamp which hissed like a wounded snake in the surrounding darkness. Looks like the night won't be a total waste.

Ray pushed on the accelerator and the large SUV jumped at his command.He was already fantasizing what she would feel like when a young black child, a boy eight or nine years old pedaling a Big Wheel tricycle, rode directly in front of him.

Ray had a split-second to react, an instant of time to try and swerve out of the way, to slam on the brakes.

He did neither.

The child stared dumbly into the glaring headlights like a transfixed animal, eyes wide with terror, mouth open in a paralyzed scream before he and the tricycle disappeared under the Tahoe. There was a muffled thump, followed by a sickening wet sound, as if Ray had run over a large bag of rotten apples.

And then the SUV continued smoothly on its way, reality re-forming as fast as it had disappeared.

In a daze, Ray slowed and looked for the woman, but saw no one. He tried to convince himself that if he stopped and got out, he would discover that he only glazed the child, that if he went back he would find the boy lying bruised on the sidewalk but otherwise unhurt.

Ray knew it was false hope talking. Like his old man had always told him, hope in one hand and shit in the other and see which fills up first. He knew if he went back he would find the child crushed,bloody.

Dead.

They'll crucify you for this accident, a shrill, tiny voice in his head called out. It wasn't your fault; the boy shouldn't have been out so late, and where in the hell were his parents? But the media will frame it as a rich white man carelessly running over a poor black child. You'll end up doing life in the joint, and wouldn't that just be a bitch?

Ray did not stop. He did not turn around to check on the boy. Instead,he drove out of the projects, toward the gleaming steel and glass apartments reaching high in the sky in the suburbs of Detroit which he called home.

Once on the highway, he pulled a pack of smokes out of the SUV's center console. I know I said I was quitting this month, but I deserve one or two after a shitty night like this one has turned into. Ray smoked the cigarette down to the end, then flicked the still-burning butt out the window, starting to feel some ease. Only if the woman go this license plate number could he be positively identified. She might be able to give a half-decent description of the Tahoe, but there were many others like it in the city. And that was if she decided to talk to the police, which probably wouldn't happen anyway.

When he was two miles away from his condo, Ray realized he hadn't yet checked for damages to the vehicle. He supposed he could wait until home, but his neighbors were nosy as hell; the last thing he wanted to do was to explain to them a bent fender or busted grill. So he pulled into the side parking lot of a 24-hour gas station and convenience store. Shutting off the Tahoe, he opened the door, walked casually to the front, and immediately threw up.

Twice.

Covering at least a third of the shiny chromium bumper was blood, a bright crimson slick with small clumps of grey and black scattered throughout it like a mixture of thick salt and pepper. Ray crawled back into the safety of Tahoe,

(how could a child have so much blood in them?) rolled up the window, and quickly drove to the nearest self car wash,where he spent 20 minutes and ten dollars washing very clean the silent testimony of his nocturnal foray.

Slowly driving home, Ray prayed to whatever god cared to listen that he wouldn't be stopped by some over-zealous rookie cop.

He wasn't.

Ray nurse an incredibly painful hangover the net day. He anxiously scanned Facebook, Twitter, and the local TV news for any reports about the accident; only one station on the eleven p.m. broadcast ran a story.Ray was in the kitchen fixing two soft-boiled eggs when the anchor woman the set caught his attention: "...and so police tonight still have no clues to the hit and run accident at the Johnson Heights housing project last night which left a nine-year-old boy dead. Although they have questioned nearby residents, police say there have been no leads..."

Ray ginned. So that stupid bitch didn't talk to the cops. Just what I figured. He sat down at the table to eat his late night snack. It was all going to be a-okay.

Monday morning found Ray back to his usual ill-tempered self. Forgetting to set his alarm forced him to forgo breakfast and instead settle for a burnt piece of toast and too-strong coffee. Fighting rush-hour traffic,he was ten minutes late to pick up his rider, Harold Baisberg, who was impatiently pacing his front patio as Ray pulled up to the four bedroom house. He pushed on the horn twice, not so much as to alert Harold but to annoy the neighbors. His co-worker trotted out to the Tahoe, his stringy blond hair and dark grey suit flopping about on his thin frame.

He opened the door and got in, jamming his briefcase halfway under the seat. "Man, I thought you weren't gonna make it."

"Just the usual Monday morning traffic bullshit."

"Yeah, I know what you mean. That was one hell of a party Saturday night, wasn't it?"

The one thing Ray did not want was to bring back the memory of the evening scenes. "It was okay."

"I was a little worried about you when you left; you seemed quite in the tank."

"Save your worries. You're not talking to some eighteen-year-old punk who doesn't know the sweet science of driving when intoxicated."

"That may be so, but I seen that little reminder on your bumper which goes to prove even scientists sometimes screw up."

In the back of Ray's mind he could feel it, a tiny point of fear that was just waiting for a catalyst to mushroom into a huge ball of panic.

"What are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about that dried blood on your bumper. You hit a dog? A deer?"

Ray slammed on the brakes and pulled up against the curb.

"Damn, what are you trying to do?" Harold yelped.

"Sorry," Ray mumbled. "Guess I forgot about hitting that poor dog."

"No big deal. "Harold shrugged. "Didn't know you were such an animal lover. Look, just stop at a car wash on the way home and get it cleaned."

"Yeah. I'll do that."

"I'm sure it'll come off in a heartbeat."

Ray left the office at 11:00 A.M., complaining of terrible stomach cramps. Actually he wasn't lying all that much, as he lost his breakfast while washing his car again, and suffered dry heaves the rest of the way home.

By the time he pulled into his driveway , he had almost convinced himself that he was just too drunk Saturday night to have done a decent cleaning job, that he just had missed a few spots. Yet in the shadowed corners of his mind, the memories of the night were perfectly in focus,as bright as a midday desert sun. Memories which told him the SUV was clean, the blood was gone.

Ray tried very hard to ignore those truths.

He spent a listless day in his home, watching TV, pacing incessantly,chain-smoking two packs of cigarettes. At midnight, he took a quick shower then lay down, trying to lose himself in the thick warm folds of his king-sized bed.

Ray forced himself to breath deeply and evenly, trying to still his mind, trying to get rid of the doubts whispering just beyond his reach.He listened to the sounds of the city as it lived and breathed outside,sounds of a distant lover's quarrel, sounds of traffic moving on the streets like mechanical lemmings searching for a cliff to dive off.

Thin, ethereal fingers of sleep began to coalesce in his consciousness Ray listened to the sounds of his own heart moving at a slow steady pace. It was a comforting sound; like a muted watch or a far-away drum,like someone pedaling a bike on grass...no, not a bike, more like a-

"Fuck!" His heart pounding in his chest as adrenalin spiked. The sound he had heard wasn't his heart-it was that of a someone riding a bike-ora Big Wheel-in the hallway outside his room.

The sound grew louder. Ray lay petrified on his bed, dark childhood fears of unseen shapes and sounds now ablaze in manic life. He could feel the vibrations (thump thump thump) as the thing moved at a faster pace to and fro across the floor. Ray forced himself out of bed,slammed open the bedroom door.

The hallway was empty.

With trembling hands he methodically turned on every light in his abode.Ray did not sleep for the rest for the rest of the night.

At eight o'clock the next morning he called in sick to work.

At ten o'clock he finally fell asleep, still with all the lights on.

At nine in the evening he poured himself a scotch and water, his eyes heavy like lead weights, trying to understand what was happening, trying to exorcise from his consciousness the demons which were tormenting him.

A frantic buzzing noise erupted in the living room. Ray spilled his drink and cowered into the corner of the kitchen. He frantically looked around, fear melting into rage when he realized it was only a fly in a frantic, suicidal dance inside a lampshade. He went over, waiting until the insect had exhausted itself and landed on the couch, then brought his hand down, feeling the body turn to pulp beneath his hairy fist.

It brought him comfort, a warm feeling, to finally be in control again. Ray Stylsong was in control of his own life, still able to call shots in the world. So he had accidentally killed (no not killed it was an accident and who in the hell is gonna miss one little ghettodweller) the child Saturday night; that was no reason to drive himself insane.

For the first times in days, Ray smiled. He would survive this,would pull it together again and continue the climb to the top. He went back to the kitchen to make another drink when a gurgling noise from the kitchen sink attracted his attention. Ray walked over and peered down,the noise like a long slumbering giant trying to clear its throat.Cheap-ass Chinese-made garbage disposal; something must be stuck down there.

He bent down to retrieve some drain cleaner from the cupboard under the sink when his world exploded in a crimson storm.

A thick torrent of blood erupted from the sink like a modern day Vesuvius. It reached the high ceiling in an almost solid column, casting a violent red rain throughout the kitchen. Ray screamed, scrambled back,feet slipping on the floor awash in blood, his body drenched. With a desperate lunge, he open the door to the garage to flee the utter madness now enveloping him.

He ran to the Tahoe, almost took out the garage door driving out. He drove like a man possessed into the dark streets, trying to ignore the early spring snow squall which covered the roads in a blanket of white,trying to ignore everything. Ray pushed the SUV faster, ignoring the patches of ice which covering the concrete in a muted glare.

He didn't care where he was going, only knowing that he had to flee from the nightmares which were trying to steal his soul. The windshield began to fog up from his rapid breathing so he turned the defroster on full.

The glass continued to fog up, the fan of the defroster sputtering on and off. (Fucking piece of expensive American-made junk). Ray pounded on the leather dashboard. The blower whirred and coughed before a small, dark, oblong object popped from the defroster vents onto the SUV's center console.

What the hell now? With a shaking hand, Ray picked the thing up; it was warm, covered with an opaque wet film that shimmered in the green digital lights of the dashboard.

Almost mesmerized by the object, he pulled over in a run-down neighborhood he had made his way to. Through the fog of terror which still clouded his mind, he had a thin sense of recognition of the object, rolling it between his fingers a second before he realized what it was.

Ray screamed, dropped the solitary piece of intestine on the floor as more guts spewed forth from the dash and the bottom heat ducts. Rich,redolent odors of blood and shit filled the interior of the Tahoe as the viscera continued to pile up on the floor, on the seats, in Roy's lap.He frantically tried to flee the SUV but the door was locked tight no matter what he did to open it.

Ray had passed over the edge of sanity, past he final moment when the brain still functions in a logical manner. To survive, to command the body away from this nightmarish hell was his only goal, no matter what it took. Ray pounded on the driver's side window, blows that busted open his knuckles until they gleaned clear and white under torn shards of bloody skin. He raged against the glass until it cracked, then exploded out. Ray reached outside the door, prayed to whatever gods were still listening to him, and pulled on the handle.

The door opened.

Freezing air burned his lungs as Ray ran blindly down the street,billows of snow swirling in tight eddies around him. He slipped and fell every few feet but felt no pain, felt nothing, only the need to flee afar away as his legs could carry him.

Just when he felt his heart would explode from exertion, Ray spied a set of headlights coming toward him. He stepped into the middle of the street and waved his arms and hands, hoping that whoever was driving would stop and take him far away, would rescue him from the phantasm he was trapped in.

The car continued coming, now speeding up. What the hell are they going faster for? Don't they know that in this weather that-

Ray's last three-seconds on earth were stretched out for an eternity of insanity. The vehicle roaring down upon him was his own Tahoe, its bright headlights outlining his body. And in the last instant before he went totally mad, before the last vestiges of sanity slipped away in an explosion of madness, Ray saw the driver, the terrible apparition which hailed from just beyond the veil of reality.

It was the child, the small black boy but shaped in a body from the dank depths of hell. Hands gripping the steering wheel were enormous, scaly,with long, jagged fingernails like the fangs of a giant snake. The thing's black, soulless eyes were jagged bullet holes cut into misshapen skull which held a wide open mouth, a toothless maw shaped in very wicked grin.

The SUV's bumper cleanly caught Ray on his right hip, sending him flying feet onto the sidewalk. His skull was fractured, his pelvis shattered, and he was dead of a massive heart attack before his injuries killed him.

* * *

"Looks like another hit and run."

The tall, African-American Detroit female police officer pulled her jacket collar up tight against the cold. "Uh huh. Say, wasn't there another one around here a few days ago?"

Her partner, older and shorter, nodded his freckled, bald head. "Yeah,two blocks over on Monroe Street across from Johnson Heights." Walking over to Ray's Tahoe, which sat parked on the side of the road, the officer pointed at the driver's side window. "So what do you think this guy was on?"

His partner steeped gingerly around the thick shards of glass. "What makes you think he was high?"

"Look at the impact marks on the edge of the window. Our deceased friend obviously busted out the glass from the inside before he got out and wash it."

"Who knows why people do the shit they do? I mean, here's a guy driving a prime Tahoe at high speed by the looks of the skid marks, in the middle of a snowstorm, with a Big Wheel sitting in the passenger's seat,before he punches out his driver-side window and takes a stroll down the middle of a dark road."

"Maybe he was taking the Big Wheel to some kid?"

"Maybe. Or maybe he just was another goofed-out old white guy."

Her partner frowned. "I'm an old white guy."

The woman laughed. "Yeah, but you're my partner. That's make you an okay old white guy."

"Thanks. That makes me feel better. I think." He started walking back to their police cruiser. "I'm going to call this in. It's too damn cold to be standing around all night."

"Sounds good to me." She looked down at the mangled form of Ray, shook her head. "Fella, I wish you could tell me just what you were thinking about tonight. I bet it would be one hell of a story."