Riding in the Truck With Satan
by Jordan Marie McCaw
Artemis pulled up to the salon forty-five minutes after her first appointment.
“Shit,” she said for the fifth time that morning.
“Mom, I don’t wanna go to your work!”
Artemis twisted in her seat to face her son in the back. “You shut the hell up,” she hissed. “You’re the reason why I’m late, you little shit.”
“But I don’t wanna––”
“I don’t care what you do or don’t wanna do.” A tendril of red-dyed hair fell over her right eye. A strand coiled under her eyelid as she tried to blink it away with her false lashes. “Now you listen to me.” With a hand that had lime-green painted claws, she swiped the hair out of her eye. “You’re goin with me to work today, and you’re goin to behave yourself.”
“But I don’t wanna miss school.”
She let her long legs out of the car. “Yeah, well, that’s what you get for makin me late.”
The car door slammed with an unsatisfactory whap. Instead of waiting for him to get out of the car, she headed into the salon.
“Artemis, is everything okay?”
“Fine, Gene. Fine.”
Quietly, Gene said, “You still have a curler in your hair.”
She reached behind her head and felt a curler tangled within her rat’s nest. Fingering it out with both hands, she said, “Can you make sure Vince gets out of the car for me, please?”
Gene looked out at the car like Artemis was joking. When she realized she wasn’t, she asked, “Why isn’t he at school? Is he sick?”
Christina, filing her nails, swiveled in her chair. “Oh, I can’t get sick. My sister’s comin tomorrow and I can’t get sick. Nuh-uh.”
Artemis threw the curler and a few strands of hair on her counter. “Vince isn’t sick,” she assured. “Where’s my chips?” She searched through her drawers and found a half-eaten bag of potato chips. “Amanda, did my first appointment show?”
An obese woman painting another’s nails answered, “Yeah, she waited around for about fifteen minutes, then left. Wasn’t too happy, either.”
“No shit, she wasn’t.”
That was a new client, and new clients were as good as gold to her ever since Gerry skipped town.
“She tried calling,” Amanda said, breathing in the fumes of the red polish, sweating even though it was sixty-five degrees in here.
Artemis plopped in her chair. “I wasn’t home.”
The bell clanged as the door opened. Vince held a firetruck and three green army men to his chest and had his backpack slung over one shoulder. There were fresh tears in his eyes, his cheeks flushed.
Artemis felt pity, love, and anger looking at him. “Stop mopin around,” she said, arms crossed. “I’ll take you to school after lunch.”
His bottom lip quivered as he sat down at one of the cushioned chairs in the waiting area. The girls patted him on the arm, gave him tissues, and made him hot chocolate.
Artemis didn’t know what she was going to do if she didn’t build up her clientele soon. She resisted the urge to call her first appointment to apologize and reschedule, telling herself she wasn’t that desperate yet.
Vince pulled out a math book and worked on unfinished homework. Christina sat next to him, still filing her nails.
“What’s that you got there? Math?”
She could barely hear him. “What are you on now?”
She made her eyes big. “That’s too much for me. I never liked fractions. How are you liking school?”
He sniffed. She noticed a few wrong answers but didn’t correct him.
“Not so bad,” he said. “I’m the biggest kid in my class.”
“I bet you are.” She glanced at Artemis and saw her glaring their way. As she wrapped her second appointment’s frizzy hair in foil, eating a chip in between, guilt crept into her stomach, irritating her ulcer.
Vince was also glaring, but at his math homework. Artemis knew who he was mad at, why he was glaring. She also knew that he could snap Christina in half if he was mad enough.
He went on glaring at this homework, even after Christina left. Artemis felt his anger change once he closed his math book and picked up his firetruck. His anger scared her in its unpredictability. Watching him in the mirror, highlighting this woman’s frizzy hair two shades lighter than she asked, satisfying her hunger, fear overtook her guilt.
“I left my wife for this?” Gerry asked, a joint hanging from his lips. “This?”
“What’s wrong with her?”
The baby burped, then went on crying. There wasn’t a moment when she wasn’t wailing, but that wasn’t what bothered him.
“That’s exactly it.” His chest hovered over his knees as he leaned forward. “Her.”
His girlfriend Sandy bounced up and down trying to calm the baby. “You’re mad because she’s a girl?”
He took one more drag on the joint and got up. “I gotta go.”
Sandy rolled her eyes.
“What kind of weed is that, anyway? Tastes like grass from the backyard.”
“Got it from my cousin.”
He put on a random pair of pants from the floor. “I wouldn’t trust your cousin. That stuff’s crap.”
“Don’t badmouth my family.”
His shirt was missing. He rifled through the pile of clothes on the ground and only came up with a sweatshirt. The baby cried enough to make him crazy.
“Can’t you shut her up?”
“I think she’s hungry.”
“Are you hungry?”
She rolled her eyes again. His wife Artemis ate constantly. He was attracted to Sandy’s thin, long body, but he found himself missing hands full of his wife’s fat in his hands. Not once had he seen Sandy eat, leading him to believe that she wasn’t naturally thin, but anorexic.
“Get a haircut while you’re out,” she said over the baby’s crying.
He hadn’t even shaved since he showed up here three months ago. A hair cut and shave were Artemis’s job. It was something he could always count on.
“When I get back, you better have that fixed.”
“I can’t make her a boy, Gerry.”
“I mean the crying. And eat something, please.”
Five blocks away he could still hear the baby’s crying. It rang in his ears. He couldn’t believe he had a daughter. A daughter? The Shardens seldom produced girls. It was a mark of weakness in the man. Gerry thought about Vince: the one son he had produced, and he was his own breed of stupid. Nevertheless, he missed his only son.
Five minutes later he pulled into a parking lot of a bowling alley where a shiny blue truck was parked crookedly in one of the spots, emitting a blue cloud from the tail.
Gerry parked two spots away and got out. As he approached, the driver’s window rolled down an inch.
The growl of the voice sent a shiver up Gerry’s spine. He walked around the front of the truck.
“No, not on that side,” the deep voice called. “This side. I’ll scoot over.”
Brow furrowed, that shiver still licking his vertebrae, he got in the driver’s side.
“Holy hell it’s hot in here. You know it’s September, right?”
“Air conditioning’s busted.”
Gerry didn’t look directly at the voice on the passenger side. In his peripheral vision, he made out a dark man (dark as in charcoal black). It could be a black jacket and pants––he couldn’t tell for sure––but when an arm pointed in the direction he wanted him to drive, he saw red hairs jumping out of the dark skin.
Swallowing his fear, he moved the truck onto the street.
Artemis stopped the car in front of the school. Vince’s hands had been balled up into fists the whole ride over, flattening one of his army men into an unrecognizable piece of green plastic. She took a chance and ran her long nails through his bushy hair. He quaked under her touch.
“Are you going to be good today?”
He didn’t answer. Didn’t breathe.
“Huh, Vinny? Are you going––”
“Dad’s in trouble.”
She retraced her hand. “Vince, we haven’t seen him in months. How can you––”
“He’s in trouble for what he did. For leaving us.”
“You’re damn right he’s in trouble for leavin us, and if he thinks he can wheedle his way back into our lives so easily, he’s got another thing comin.”
Tension built up in the idling car. For a second she thought Vince was making the car move with his shaking. She asked, “Has he tried talking to you, Vinny? Vinny…?”
Tears built up in his eyes; his bottom lip quivered. He looked like a five-year-old. Artemis ran her lime-green fingernails through his hair again.
“Don’t touch me!”
He smacked her hand away so hard, it struck the window behind her. A violent throb started in the tips of her fingers and ended at her wrist. She stifled a gasp, cradling her hand. This was the second time he hit her today. A fresh purple flower of a bruise was tattooed to her backside when he pushed her to the ground. At first the pain scared her, then, gradually, rage took over.
“You little shit,” she said.
“You hurt me.” Her labored breathing and his snorting fogged up the windows. “I think you broke my hand, you little shit.”
“Something bad is gonna happen to dad.”
“Who gives a shit about your dad?”
The way he idolized Gerry was sickening. She wanted to smack him but her hand hurt worse than it did ten seconds ago. The pain kept rising. She would have to cancel her next appointment. A tear streaked down her cheek, though not from the pain.
Vince looked at her, appearing more his age than ever before. “We have to help dad,” he said.
Artemis gaped. “You’re a lot stupider than the doctors say if you think we’re going to help him.”
He leaned toward her, an inch from her face, exhaling, “Something bad is gonna happen to him, mom. We have to help him.”
“I don’t even know where he is! You broke my hand, Vincent Scott. Do you not care bout me at all?”
He backed away, donning the infantile persona. “I care about you.”
“Yeah, whatever.” She leaned back on the headrest. “I don’t know what to do with you anymore.” Putting her good hand on her head, she said, “Just get out of the car.”
“What about dad?”
“Vincent, I do not know where he is.”
She started. “Has he been talking to you?”
His bottom lip quivered––a sign he was retracting into himself.
“Tell me the truth, Vince.” She poked him in the chest with her good hand. “Don’t play stupid with me now. Answer me. Has he been tryin to talk to you?”
A tear trailing his cheek, he shook his head.
“I’m not lying! I haven’t talked to dad since he left!”
“Then how do you know he’s in trouble?”
It was an equivocation. Though Vince hand’t talked to his father on the phone or in person since he left, they had been communicating telepathically. That was the best explanation for it. Of course, Artemis would never buy that. Vince’s father didn’t even buy it. Gerry thought he had been talking to God.
Now, however, driving this random man’s truck, he heard his son’s voice ask:
How am I supposed to make mom believe me?
He had been praying this whole time, praying this car ride wouldn’t end in his own violent death, praying to see his son’s face again. And then…
I don’t know what to tell mom. Where are you?
“Hang a left,” the dark man ordered. “No, a left.”
“You mean right?”
A moment of silence, then: “Oh, yeah. Hang a right.”
Gerry obeyed, driving farther and farther out of city limits. Farther away from civilization. He asked once where they were going, but the man didn’t answer. His son called for him again.
Is that really you, Vinny?
Dad, where are you?
“Take a left up there on Sutton Road.”
“Want to tell me where we’re goin now?” he asked nervously, a tremor in his voice.
“You’re going to do a job for me.” It sounded like he had a mouthful of rocks.
Gerry’s hands were cold on the steering wheel in spite of every other part of his body sweating in this hot box. “What kind of job?”
The man didn’t answer.
Gerry didn’t know his name. He didn’t even know if this was a man. Three days ago he received a letter that had scrawled in terrible handwriting a time and place to be. Gerry would normally ignore such an anonymous letter, except also written on it was, “If you want to see your family again, be there.”
Although it wasn’t explicit on which family, Gerry knew it meant Artemis and Vince. The two people he cared about the most in this world––he was just now realizing that.
Suddenly the man said, “You’re going to atone for your sins.”
Vinny, he screamed in his head, you have to do whatever it takes to convince your mom. Lie if you have to.
Vince opened his little chocolate eyes. “Dad’s been calling me when you’re at work.”
“Stop lying, you little shit.”
Artemis hit the steering wheel and instantly regretted it. Her wrist swelled to twice its size. “Where is he? Where is that son of a bitch?”
Vince shut his eyes, asking his father. Meanwhile, impatience overcame Artemis. She yanked him by the collar of his shirt.
“Spit it out already.”
“I think he’s outside of town. To that hiking trail we went to when I was eight, remember?”
Of course she remembered that beautiful day seven years ago, when they were still a happy family. She was surprised Vince remembered. He could hardly remember where he kept his socks in the top drawer of his dresser.
Her heart raced at the thought of seeing Gerry again. She asked, “What the hell is he doing there?”
“I don’t know, but he needs help, mom.”
Her son may be stupider than a six-year-old, but in the few moments when he acted his age, she learned not to take them for granted.
She pulled away from the school, cradling her wrist against her stomach. Now she wished she wore blue eye shadow instead of purple; a navy shirt instead of lavender; red heels instead of orange flats. Gerry preferred blue on her, saying it reminded him of the ocean. It calmed him––she calmed him.
“Tell me what we’re doing here again.”
The man ordered Gerry to park the truck next to a police car, and ever since then they had been walking on the rocky trail, Gerry in front. He felt the dark man’s eyes on him, burning two holes into his back.
“Actually,” Gerry said, “can you tell me who you are already? A name? Even a nickname. Where are you from––”
“You can call me Satan.”
He smirked, regretting it immediately. The man wasn’t laughing, and he bet he wasn’t smiling, either. He commented, “That’s an odd nickname.”
The man didn’t reply.
“Where are you from, uh…where are you from?”
“Not around here.”
“We’re almost there. No more questions.”
Are you guys close, Vinny? Please tell me you’re close.
Mom wants to know which trail you’re on.
The west trail! No, not the west trail. Which trail was it? How many were there? He stuck with his gut and repeated, I think it’s the west trail.
They walked through a break in the trees. There were two men waiting for them: one with his hands cuffed behind his back and another in a policeman’s uniform.
Gerry stopped walking. “What’s going on here?”
Searing fingers pressed into the back of his neck. “You’re going to pay for what you’ve done now.” The burning fingers pushed him forward.
“But I haven’t done anything illegal.” He resisted. “Okay, I have some pot in my car, but that’s it, I swear.” The man in handcuffs was crying. “All right!” Gerry exclaimed. “I did cocaine once, but just once.”
“That’s not what you’re answering to, Gerry,” the man––Satan––said behind him.
There was a pit where the two men stood. Gerry’s bladder threatened to give way. He had never been this afraid in his life.
Vinny, where are you?
“Meet Terry,” Satan said. The cuffed man sniveled at the sound of his voice. He continued, “Terry is a sinner like you. A murderer.”
“I asked for forgiveness,” Terry said through a mouthful of snot.
Satan replied, “Yeah, but you asked for it from the wrong God. Unfortunately for you, Allah is the wrong one.”
Gerry looked to the policeman, who didn’t say a word. He had his hands on his small hips, biting his mustache, some of his lunch still caught in it.
“Then what’s he doing here?” Anxiety rose steadily up Gerry’s throat as a scream. His knees shook.
“This is Officer Hardy. Terry murdered Hardy’s wife after he fornicated with her. He’s here for the show.”
“What show? What am I doing here?”
“You’re an adulterer, Gerry. You’re a sinner unwilling to repent.”
“I don’t understand.”
Terry’s crying was driving him mad. Satan placed a black hand on his shoulder, crushing it. “You’re going to kill Terry.”
We’re on the trail. Mom is complaining about her feet.
“You see that grave? That’s Terry’s grave.”
Terry whimpered and shut his eyes.
“Why do I have to kill him?”
“Because you won’t repent, Gerry. Because you’re a already sinner.”
“But if I kill him, that makes me a murderer.”
The silence was too easy, comical even. Gerry was getting closer to fainting with every passing second. The fear froze him. He noticed Terry’s hands were blistered and muddy. There was a shovel next to the pit. Five yards to the left was loose soil.
Who did Terry just bury?
Gerry wasn’t too afraid to realize that he stood on a clear patch of dirt.
“Who’s going to kill me?” he asked out loud.
Satan squeezing his shoulder, he answered, “They’re on their way.”
Artemis stopped five times in the first ten minutes of walking. “These are the worst shoes for hiking,” she whined. Five minutes later she kicked off her flats.
Vince wheezed and sweated, but he refused to stop. We’re almost to the top, he assured his father.
Eventually the trees shrunk and they could see the tops of them if they looked back. As soon as Vince saw the clearing, he knew they made it.
“I gotta take a break.”
“No, mom, we’re almost there!”
She wiped sweat from her forehead. “Just let me sit for a minute. Maybe five.”
He tugged her arm. “No, mom, come on! Just one more minute and we’ll be there.”
“Need…Need to sit…for a minute. Maybe…Maybe two.”
Accepting that she would not get up, he stuck his hands under arms and picked her up. She protested, swearing and spitting. He ignored her, finally making it to the top.
Artemis stopped struggling. Vince straightened up, seeing his pale and shaking father.
The man with charcoal skin and orange hair faced them. “You’re early,” he said again, arms crossed.
Artemis’s heart skipped a beat at the sight of him and Gerry. She said, “Who the hell are you?”
“I’m the one who’s making sure no sin goes unpunished.”
Gerry had an axe in his hands. Terry’s toes reached over the pit. Both men were crying.
Artemis’s eyes rolled to the back her head, her knees buckled, and she fell face first into the dirt.
Satan snorted. Rage ebbed in the back of Vincent’s head.
“Dad, put down the axe.”
“He can’t until he finishes his job,” Satan said. A smile curled up his face, wider than humanly possible. “You’re a special boy, aren’t you, Vincent? A little stupid, but special.”
“I’m not stupid.” It was the first time he said that. After all the times people degraded his below average intelligence, reprimanded him for being slow, he finally stood up for himself. He said to Satan:
Gerry detected unease creeping onto Satan’s menacing face. He lowered the axe.
“Don’t you drop that,” Satan growled at him without looking.
For the first time Officer Hardy spoke, “Is this happening or not?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Satan waved him off. “We’re just thrown a little off schedule.” He looked to Gerry. “Do it now.”
“I can’t just kill a man.”
“Yes, you can.”
Against Gerry’s will, his arms raised, his fingers involuntarily tightening around the axe. “No,” he grimaced.
Vince yelled, “Stop!”
Artemis stirred in the dirt.
Satan put up a hand. “Can you please shut up until this is over? You’ll get your turn.”
“What do you mean he’ll get his turn?”
“After you’re done murdering Terry, Vincent will murder you. I like to call it the circle of death.”
“But he didn’t do anything!”
“Yeah, but imagine getting one of God’s chosen to kill. What a plot twist, am I right?”
“You can’t make him––” The axe rose over his head. He yelped and struggled to lower it. He had no control over his body anymore.
“You little shit…”
Vince turned to see Artemis lift her head. Now she had a broken nose to go along with her broken hand. As soon as he looked into her eyes, he knew she was royally pissed off. He took a step away from her, closer to Satan.
“Don’t move. Stay where you are,” he commanded.
Vince felt a strong force wind around him like a rope.
Thick drops of sweat dripped from Gerry’s chin. Satan was completely enraptured with the glistening axe. If he made Gerry’s arms go back any farther, they’d pop out of their sockets.
“Get ready to die, Terry.”
He closed his eyes, his chest heaving in great sobs.
Officer Hardy went on sucking his mustache.
Artemis charged Satan. She didn’t know what was happening, but she knew that he was the one orchestrating everything. The wind was knocked out of him and he fell to the ground with an umph!
The invisible rope vanished from Vince for a split second. He yelled at his father, “Get him, dad! Do it now!”
“I can’t move!”
Vince wrestled for the axe but Gerry’s fingers wouldn’t loosen. He pulled away from his son, but Vince pried his fingers off one by one, until the glistening axe was now his.
Artemis rolled off Satan. His skin gave her second degree burns. Blood from her nose fell on him and sizzled.
Vince wasted no time in bringing the axe down on Satan, wedging the sharp blade between his ribs. Fire ascended from the incision.
Terry ran back to the trail. Officer Hardy drew his gun and fired, hitting him in the right shoulder. Artemis and Gerry looked that way while Vince brought the axe down a second time, severing Satan’s large intestine.
Officer Hardy’s second shot entered through Terry’s right cheek and exited through the left side of his jaw. He gurgled on his own blood. One more shot between the eyes and he was dead. Afterward, Officer Hardy holstered his gun and left down the trial.
Vince rolled Satan’s body into the pit, a trail of flames following him. Gerry offered Artemis his sweatshirt while Vince cut off Satan’s head.
“You look like shit,” she said, combing a hand through Gerry’s unkempt hair.
His parents stared into the pit, clutching each other. Out of breath, Vince dropped the axe and turned to his parents. Reading their terrified expressions, he said, “I’m not stupid.”
Gerry gulped, helping his son out of the pit. “No, you’re not stupid, Vinny. You’re not stupid.”
Vince looked at his mom. “You’re not stupid,” she said, “but you are a little shit for lettin me fall on my face.”
Unable to contain himself, Vince laughed, and his parents laughed with him. After filling in the hole, they walked back down the trail together, Gerry and Artemis holding hands, Vince smiling behind them.
“We should call the police or someone, right?” Artemis asked.
Gerry squeezed her hand and looked back at Vince. “What do you think, Vinny?”
He didn’t answer for awhile. In his left hand he held his mother’s orange flats. “I don’t think there’s anything else to do.”
“But what about that other guy the police officer shot?” Artemis brought up. “What about him?”
At that moment Terry’s body was disintegrating to a pile of dust. The only evidence of his existence was the steam that rose from his ashes. Vince noticed small tendrils of smoke wafting upward as they left. He said, “Maybe we should call the fire department.”
Gerry nodded. “The fire department it is.”
They laughed again, though nothing funny was said. They were happy for this brief moment. For this one day. And from that day forth, no one called Vince stupid anymore. That was, no one dared call him stupid, as if that was the moral of this entire experience.