Last Flight of the Cougar

He closes the passenger door of his silver Dodge Charger, and for a moment I’m alone. I look over my shoulder, see him walking around the back of the car, and I spot something. A filthy blanket covers the back seat, but there’s a gun sticking out.

Just the back of it—the stock, I think it’s called. It looks like it’s probably a big gun, maybe a rifle or shotgun. If I bolt now, I can still make it across the dark parking lot. If I—

The driver’s side door opens and he gets in, making the car rock. He’s got his face in his phone, texting. He looks at me out of the corner of his eye.

“Seat belt, bitch. Safety first.” Then he laughs.

I put my seat belt on and a moment later he puts his phone away and turns the car on. I nearly jump as rap starts blaring.

The lyrics are vile and the music loud and frightening. I can’t tell who’s on, but my son would have known. He…

I draw my lips tight and take a quick couple breaths, calming myself. Dave doesn’t notice, leaning back in his seat, eyes on the road.

My son likes—used to like—this kind of music. He could have told me who was playing, told me all about the band’s history. He… I wish I hadn’t yelled at him all the time. Maybe if I cared more about rap…

I shake my head. This isn’t the time for remembering. Dave’s driving me somewhere private.

He lights a cigarette, offers me one.

“No,” I say, smiling politely. He didn’t hear me, still holding the pack. “No thanks!”

Dave shrugs, smokes.

Smoking while driving isn’t safe—that’s what they say, why I gave it up. But he’s not wearing a seat belt either. I can’t help myself, I scowl. He’s a hypocrite. He’s abrasive and crude and an ape. It’s a shame he’s so handsome—

I look out my window at the passing storefronts and try to picture my husband. I can’t.

All right. I have to be honest with myself. Dave is handsome, but so what? That doesn’t change anything. Lots of attractive people are horrible. And if I picked him up—is that what I did? is that the right expression?—this easily, then I guess I must still have it myself.

“Fuck!” Dave says, and the car swerves. I clutch my purse to my chest, stare out at the passing traffic. Some truck just ahead of us weaves left and right, driving twice as fast as anyone else.

“God fucking cunt!” Dave says. He steers us back into our lane but he drops his cigarette. “Fucking Jesus.”

His eyes dart from the road to the car’s floor, and he wipes ash from his shirt. “Fucking hell. Fucking—hey, Val, would you fucking move and pick that up?”

I pale, but I obey. I reach down—my face on his thigh—and reach for his cigarette. His clothes smell fresh, just laundered. I feel a sharp, hot pain on my finger. I grab the cigarette and hand it to him.

“Jesus,” he says, shakes his head. He draws, exhales, turns down the music.

“Thanks,” he says, his eyes looking forward. “Fucking cunts. Sorry about that, Val. Some people drive like goddamn assholes. Bunch of young fucking spics.”

“It’s okay,” I say after a moment. I sit back into my seat and pull my purse close.

“Yeah,” he says. “Except it isn’t. Those assholes are an accident waiting to happen. Probably drunk or high or something. Fuck.”

We don’t talk after that. He slows down near a motel and my heart starts fluttering, but then he turns down a side street and keeps driving. A few minutes later we’re in a residential neighbourhood. I missed the street name—not that I know this city anyway—but it looks pretty run down.

The houses look like those cookie-cutter ones the military uses, with overgrown lawns, peeling paint, and broken screen doors. Most of them are dark, but we pass one with a bunch of flood lights. There’s music playing loud enough to hear in the car, and there are people out on the lawn with those plastic red cups. I see a few girls dressed too skimpily for the weather, and some men with hoodies. I can’t tell if they’re dancing or fighting. Is this what a crack house looks like? I don’t know. Dave probably does.

He turns down an alley and drives up behind one of the houses, parking by a shed that looks like it’s about to fall over.

He ashes his cigarette and leaves the car. I do too.

His car looks out of place on the gravel. It’s clean and shiny, where the tiny back yard is overgrown with weeds. The house doesn’t look any better. It’s two floors, with one boarded up window and dents in the wall. Did someone hit it with a baseball bat? I can’t tell.

“Come on,” he says, fidgeting with his keys and moving to the back door. He opens it and I follow him in, climbing three mismatched and uneven wooden steps.

He flicks a light on and we enter a tiny kitchen. Its linoleum floor is vomit yellow with brown roses, and there are filthy dishes on a cracked counter-top. The fridge is an ugly green, and there’s nothing on it. Guess Dave doesn’t have any kids.

Thank God.

His back’s to me, and he’s hanging up his leather jacket. I feel my pulse quicken.

Now or never.

I reach into my purse, my fingers wrap around the revolver, and—

I’m looking at Dave’s shoes. Leather, scuffed. My tongue hurts. Did I bite it? I see him lean down and pick up my purse. He lets it drop as soon as he has my gun.

Now my jaw hurts too—the whole left side of my face, in fact. I touch it and I’m surprised how sensitive my cheek is.

“Jesus fucking shit,” Dave says, giving each word a sentence. I look up at him and I see him examining the revolver. He looks down at me.

“Seriously,” he says. “Jesus fucking shit. This thing’s a beast, Val. A goddamn cannon.”

He must have punched me—that’s why I’m on the floor. I feel my eyes tearing up. I sob.

“Were you going to shoot me with this?” he asks.

I’m crying. I wail.

“Holy fuck,” he says. “Calm down, you crazy bitch.”

I’m blubbering. I want to tell him, to tell him I know, and that he’s going to pay for his crimes, but all my words run together with the wailing. I try to get to my feet.

“Careful,” he says. His tone is no longer nice.

I get up, my fists are in the air. “You killed my son!” I say. I lurch forward. I—I don’t know. I want to hit him, to strangle him. I never get the chance.

I feel something heavy hit me in the chest—his hand—and I fall backwards against the wall of the kitchen. I want to charge him again, but now the Ruger is in my face.

“Don’t,” he says.

I let out a wail and my whole body shakes. I feel tears streak down my cheeks.

“This fucking thing is loaded, isn’t it?” he says. His eyes are cool, he barely blinks.

“You killed him!” I manage between sobs. I don’t know what to do with my arms. I bury my face in my hands and wipe my tears away.

“Jerry, right?” Dave says. I look up at my son’s name. “You look like him.”

“Bastard!” I say. I lunge at him again—I don’t care if he fires, not anymore—and his eyes grow wide. My fist hits something, maybe his face, but then I feel something hard and cold strike me in the side.

I’m on the floor again, in the hallway. I’m sobbing. But he hasn’t shot me. I want to get up again, but I don’t have the strength. I look up at him.

Dave’s face is expressionless. He’s still holding my Ruger, but it’s at his side. I can see his chest heaving.

“What are you going to do?” I blubber. “Kill me too?”

He doesn’t react.

“Or are you going to rape me first?”

Dave sneers. He turns and walks down the hall to a dark room. I can just see him digging around something, maybe a dresser. He comes back, crouches in front of me.

“I didn’t kill your son,” he says, calm.

“Lying shit!”

“Look at me. Look at me, Val!”

I look.

He’s holding something in his other hand. Flat, black. A wallet. He opens it up. I can see a card with his photo on it, and the gold-and-blue shield of the NYPD.

“My name’s not Dave. I’m Sam Backner. I’m a cop.”

My shoulders shake. I wipe my tears away and read the card. It says Sam Backner.

He sighs, sits down on the industrial carpet.

“You’re a cop?” I manage.

He nods. “I didn’t kill your son, Val.”