It wasn’t until later that Ramona realized how neatly it all fit together. Like pieces of a die-cut puzzle, everything simply fit into place in that purely seamless and smooth sort of way that fate managed when it wanted something to happen. Or it wanted people to suffer.
Chazz was too drunk to drive by the time they hit Highway 8, only no one was saying so because although he was a real mellow, easy sort of cat when he was sober, when he was drunk, he was mean as skunk piss and if you didn’t want
Ramona knew all about that.
“You missed the turn-off,” Creep pointed out, getting nervous because he had to cover the morning shift at Donut Den back in the city and five a.m. came real early once you passed the midnight hour.
“I’m taking a shortcut,” Chazz told him, an edge to his voice cutting beneath his words like a razor. “So fuck off.”
Lex giggled in the backseat and Soo-Lee did, too, because if Lex thought it was funny, then surely it was.
Ramona reserved judgment. She was having trouble finding the humor in a situation where the drunken idiot behind the wheel didn’t have the good sense to hand over his keys or admit he was lost.
“This’ll cut twenty minutes off the drive,” Chazz explained, taking the next right and almost putting the van in the ditch as the road curved sharply down a low hill. The rain was coming down in sheets and the pavement was greasy like it had been oiled with cooking spray.
“You never mentioned a shortcut,” Ramona said.
“I just thought of it.”
“But you’ve taken it before?”
“Of course I have.”
Which was bullshit of course, Ramona knew. Chazz’s sense of direction was seriously challenged when he was sober let alone after ten beers and half-a-dozen Jager Bombs. He had no idea where he was going and with all that alcohol in his system, he couldn’t have pissed in a straight line let alone walked one. Any moment now, some hotshot sheriff’s deputy was going to come screaming out of the williwags with both flashers going and siren screaming.
She lit a cigarette and mainly because she knew it would annoy Chazz, who was virulently anti-smoking inside his van. She could feel him tensing behind the wheel, but he didn’t say anything. He didn’t dare because once he did, she was going to start riding him about the shortcut and exposing his inadequacies behind the wheel.
“My old man’s gonna kill me if I lose another job,” Creep said.
“You won’t lose your job,” Lex assured him. “The corporate gods of Donut Den will spare you because of your sheer wizardry with custard and powdered sugar.”
“Piss off,” Creep said.
Ramona sighed. Why Creep bothered opening his mouth at all was a mystery. Every time he did, Chazz got irritable and Lex got smart-assed. It was strictly a lose-lose situation.
Chazz was leaning forward now, trying to see through the windshield as the rain fell harder and the wipers pumped back and forth almost manically.
“Can’t see shit,” he said.
In the back, Danielle said, “We were in this storm once and it was really bad and the next day my sister and I went looking around. The water was really deep and we saw this rat float by. And we were both like,
Ramona had to bite down on her lip because Danielle was such an incurable, inveterate airhead. She could almost hear everyone rolling their eyes.
“Well, if we see any, we’ll let you know,” Lex said.
Ramona was leaning forward, too. She squinted her eyes as the van came down a hill and into a wooded valley. A green Day-Glo road sign passed in the murk. “Stokes,” she said. “We’re coming into some place called Stokes.” She turned to Chazz. “What sort of place is it? You must have visited it the last time you took this shortcut.”
Chazz gritted his teeth. “I don’t know. There’s lots of little fucking towns out here.”
She was getting worried about a little more than Chazz’s denial or inebriation by that point, because the twisting road leading down into the valley had an easy two inches of rain covering it and it seemed to be getting deeper. Chazz brought them across a bridge that spanned a swollen river, cut down another curving hill, and the town opened up before them.
Things happened in rapid succession then.
They came in way too fast. It seemed like one moment the town was not even there and the next it opened like a flower, spreading its petals and engulfing them. Chazz hit the brakes and the van skidded on the greasy pavement. It went to the left, then to the right as he fought the wheel and worked the brake pedal.
About the time it seemed like maybe he was going to get it under control, a shape stepped out in front.
Ramona only saw it for a split second: a vague, man-like shape with raised arms.
Then the van hit it.
They were only doing about thirty miles an hour. Under ordinary circumstances, it was hardly a deadly speed, but certainly enough to break bones and cause concussions and all manner of nasty injuries. Purely from the sound of the impact—something that made Danielle scream like a little girl—Ramona was certain it was going to be ugly.
And particularly when they rolled right over what they had hit with both sets of tires.
In the back of his mind, he supposed he was waiting for one of them to disagree with him, but nobody was saying a thing. That made it worse. That made him practically want to scream.
But he hadn’t.
Hell, something in him just
Because he would be going to court.
Drunk driving. Manslaughter. It meant doing time. If he only got five years, he’d be lucky. Five years in a goddamn state hole filled with animals that would all want something from him, if it wasn’t his ass, it would be money.
“Maybe you should just drive away before someone comes,” Creep said.
Which was exactly the sort of dumbass thing you expected Creep to say… but it was exactly what Chazz was thinking. Drive off, pretend it didn’t happen. He was actually considering it. As dangerous and reckless as it was, it made a certain amount of sense.
He looked out through the windshield.
Stokes was dead. He didn’t see so much as a single light on. Apparently, they were all sleeping. Nobody had been roused and that was a good thing. If he just drove off now, who’d be the wiser?
“There’s no other way,” he said.
The van had died when it skidded to a halt. He turned it over and the starter whined, but it did not catch. He tried it again and that’s when Ramona grabbed his hand. “What the hell are you doing?” she asked him.
God, he could feel her dark eyes boring into him.
“I’m saving my ass,” he told her, trying to turn over the van again. “I’m trying to save
“We’re not going anywhere,” she said.
He knocked her hand aside. “Oh yes, we are.”
She just stared at him. “You’re going to leave the scene of an accident? Aren’t you in enough trouble as it is?”
“Shut up,” he said.
“You might want to listen to her,” Soo-Lee said. “If you leave the scene of an accident—”
“Zip it,” Chazz told her.
Lex sighed. “He won’t listen to reason. It’s like trying to get a monkey to stop eating its own shit.”
“Oh God,” Danielle moaned.
“All of you shut the fuck up!” Chazz told them.
“Please, Chazz,” Ramona said. “Please, just listen for once, okay? Don’t make matters worse.”
“Shut up, Ramona. I won’t tell you again.”
“You won’t have to,” she said, opening her door and stepping out.
“FUCK ARE YOU DOING, YOU STUPID BITCH?”
“Here we go,” Creep said.
Chazz beat his fists against the dashboard. “GET THE FUCK BACK IN HERE OR YOU’RE STAYING BEHIND!”
Ramona didn’t bother justifying that with a reply, she just slammed her door shut.
Chazz unrolled his window. “Ramona! Get back in here! We have to go.”
“I’m not going.”
“Get in here or I’ll leave you behind! I swear to God I will!”
“Then go,” she said. “And when the cops arrive, I’ll give them your name and address and the license of your van. Go ahead, Chazz, run from your fucking mistakes like you always do. Just see how far you get.”...