by Jennifer Vanderheyden
Everything changed the day I ran over the body. I wasn’t texting, talking on the phone or even listening to music. I was thinking. The Cartesian/Sartrean form of existential thinking. Ever since my therapist had asked me to find my authentic self I was obsessed by the task … probably ruminating about it was the exact opposite of what I should be doing, but I had just realized that the bare truth of the cogito was possibly what I somehow needed to get to … the tabula rasa of my being … the blank slate for me to begin again at 45 years old. My wife of 17 years had recently left me, prompting my visits to the therapist. So I was searching my soul when the accident happened.
I had just enough time to see the hearse spin around, the back door fly open and the body bag fall out on the highway. I instinctively knew that if I swerved too much I would lose control as well, so I was able to turn the wheels so that I only ran over the end of the bag, hoping and praying that it was the feet. Fortunately it wasn’t one of those misty cloudy days in Seattle or the car might have skidded out of control. It came to a stop off the side of the road, just short of the jack-knifed semi that evidently had begun the chain of events. The body bag had also come to a stop near the semi, fortunately out of the way of the slowing traffic in the other lane. I remember thinking that something about a body bag with no gurney seemed strange, but what did I know about mortuary protocol?
I didn’t seem to be injured, and I doubted my 1999 black Beamer sedan was otherwise damaged since the corpse was my only collision. I felt stunned and dizzy, but the sound of a stuck horn jolted me into action. I called 911 as I got out of the car to check on the other two drivers. The boyish driver of the semi was climbing out of his cab as well, shocked and slightly trembling but seemingly OK with the exception of a bloody nose. The driver was semi-conscious, an enormous knot beginning to form on his forehead. As we approached he moved away from the airbag just enough for the horn to stop blaring.
“What do we do?” I asked as I hung up with 911. “The squad and cops are on their way. Should we move him?”
“Dude, let’s just try to keep him awake and talking,” the truck driver said, as he took out a cigarette with unsteady hands and then thought better of it. He reached in and turned off the ignition. “Don’t look like there’s any danger of a fire, so we’d better not move ’im in case he’s got internal injuries. You stay here and I’ll put down some flares. And go to the other side of the car away from traffic unless you wanna end up in a body bag too!”
That was unnecessary, I thought, as I went around to the other side and leaned in.
“Hey buddy … what’s your name? Everything’s gonna be all right. Help is on the way.”
“What … the hell … happened?” As he attempted to open his swelling eyes, he moved his head toward my voice.
“Looks like a semi jack-knifed, you must have swerved to keep from hitting it and then you started spinning around. But don’t worry … everyone else is OK. It’s just me and the truck driver.”
“And the body?” he grunted as he tried to reach for the door.
“Look, I don’t mean to be crass since this is your profession and all, but I would think that’s the least of your worries since he/she is already dead. Which is it?”
“My fuckin head feels like it’s going to explode … I need water … which is what?”
“A he or a she….and I shouldn’t give you any water until the squad gets here.” My doctorate was in philosophy but I knew enough to not give him fluids in case he needed an emergency surgery. I leaned in a little closer to determine the size of his pupils through his squinting swollen eyes.
“Help me get outta here so I can check on the body.” I wondered how that was going to work since he could barely see, but I knew it was good he was remaining conscious.
“Look … just calm down … they will be here soon to get you out of here the right way. I don’t want to make you any worse. You stay with the truck driver and I’ll go check on the body if it’ll ease your mind, but just what am I supposed to check?” I didn’t have the heart to tell him I had run over a part of the body bag … still not sure yet which end. “Is there anyone I can call from the funeral home so they can come and get it?” I looked around to see if I could see the name somewhere. “My name’s Frederick … Fred for short … what’s yours?” I saw his eyes were closing again so I tried to keep him awake with my questions.
“OK, Calvin, I’ll make sure everything’s all right.”
I went back to where the body had fallen, hidden by the semi, and knelt down near the end of the bag that had the tread marks. My eyes were drawn, though, to the other end, where there were two holes. Strange, I thought, they didn’t look like they had been ripped in the accident, but why else would there be holes in a body bag? Ventilation came to mind but I didn’t really want to go there.
Fortunately for me, the bag had fallen with the front facing up: the zipper ran straight down the middle, and the two holes were at what appeared to be the top of the bag. Good news, I thought. Chances are I did indeed run over the bottom of the corpse, but I didn’t want to unzip the entire bag just to check the feet. I could just feel them. Make sure they were still attached and let the professionals do the rest. Nobody would see them anyway other than the mortician.
I checked to make sure no one was watching, took a deep breath and felt around the bottom end of the bag. I touched what seemed like toes and began to make my way up the calf. The leg jerked. What the hell? I moved my hand away like I had touched a hot piece of charcoal and sat down on the pavement. It could have been a muscular reflex. Or I had actually hit my head during the accident and I was hallucinating or something. I felt like vomiting. Without thinking, I stood back up, lifted the body and gently placed it in the back seat of my car. It was limp but not rigid, which confirmed that he/she was still alive. I guessed it was a she because although it was all I could do to lift her, I suspected it would have been impossible for me to lift a dead-weight man.
I climbed in the car, quickly unzipped the top of the bag, and saw a young woman with short, spiked blond hair that looked as if it had not been washed or combed in quite a long time. The jewelry had evidently been removed from all of the piercings on her ears. Her yellowing left eye appeared to have been bruised from an older incident. A long, thin scar just below her ear traveled down her neck. Eyes closed, she was breathing softly but steadily through her open mouth, showing no obvious evidence of trauma from the accident. I knew time was of the essence so I zipped up the bag, reassured that the holes were allowing enough air to sustain her. Careful to not block them, I placed my jacket over the body bag to conceal it as much as possible. What the hell am I doing? I should just put her back in the hearse and be on my way. No … for once I’m not going to think this through … I’m going to follow my gut instinct. I closed the back door of the hearse and went around to the front to check on Calvin and the semi driver. The police and EMT’s were just arriving to start their assessment and I explained who I was. They wanted to check me out but I refused because I knew I was OK and I was impatient to get back to my car before Calvin mentioned the body. I walked up to the patrolman.
“Excuse me, Sir … can I fill out the accident report now? I’m a professor at the UW and I need to get to my class.” That wasn’t entirely true … I had no class since I was on sabbatical to work on my latest book: K(c)ant Beat Sade: Moral Imperative and Philosophy in the Boudoir.
“That’s fine…if you’re sure you don’t need the medics to check you out. What do you teach?”
“I’m OK. Just a little shocked by the whole thing. I teach philosophy. Are the other drivers all right?
“The other two seem to be OK … probably nothing too serious. Tow trucks are on their way, so you should be all set after we finish the report. Philosophy, huh? More power to you … I took one philosophy class in college and sorry, but that was enough. Let’s get you on your way so you don’t disappoint those students!” I gave a feeble smile and shook my head slightly like I always did … most people say exactly the same thing when I tell them what I teach. Usually better not to mention it but in this case I was hoping it was my ticket to get out of there before I lost my nerve.
After I gave my statement the patrolman returned to his car to finish writing his report, the other cop was preoccupied with directing the traffic in order to allow me to pull out, and I was easily on my way. What the hell was I thinking? Where am I going? I can’t go back to my place until I get this thing figured out. No, wait … I need cash and clothes and now’s the time to get them before anyone follows my trail and before the girl wakes up. I took the next exit off of I-5 and headed toward my place in Ballard as rapidly as I could without attracting attention. I live on a quiet street facing Puget Sound, and since it was the middle of the day one neighbor would be at work and the elderly couple just beside me would be taking their daily afternoon nap. The driveway angled down toward the rear of the house, and I drove directly into the garage and closed the door. The garage was actually under the main upper floor and the windows of the garage door were very small so there was little chance anyone could see in. Besides, all of my neighbors were accustomed to my coming and going because of my hectic teaching schedule and they left me alone unless there was an emergency. Except the elderly couple, who considered me a surrogate son and wanted to chat every time I was out mowing the yard. But they were so naively unaware of anything other than their meticulously manicured lawn and their advice to me on landscaping and where to find another wife. Although they annoyed me at times, I tolerated them because they served as good studies of human nature and they were kind at heart.
I unzipped the top of the body bag to see if the girl was still sleeping, or whatever drugged state she was in. Her eyes flinched a bit at the sound of the zipper and the suddenness of the filtered light coming through the small windows but otherwise she gave no signs of waking up. What the hell did they give her? And what if she needs to go to the bathroom? How long has she been like that? Of course I had no way of knowing at the moment so I decided I’d better quickly pack what I needed and get back on the road.
I took the stairs two at a time and rushed into the bedroom to get a few changes of clothes, underwear, socks and toiletries. In the back of my closet there was a hidden door that, as far as I knew, my soon to be ex-wife did not know existed. I quickly opened it and within a few seconds I unlocked the combination of a hidden small safe. I had begun to suspect my wife’s infidelity a couple of years ago, and fortunately I had the presence of mind to start putting away some cash…$10,000 to be exact. Rachel was a plastic surgeon and had plenty of money, but still I wanted access to some immediate, private cash. I had not really thought about why, but now I mused that it had all been leading to this moment. I stashed the money in my duffel bag and looked around to see what else I might need. My computer was already in the car along with my iPAD, which had a sufficient number of books on the Kindle. Nonetheless I grabbed a few that I couldn’t live without (Neitzche, Kant, Sade, Sartre, and Michel Onfray, this fairly recent French philosopher whose works I had just started reading).
I tossed my stuff in the trunk as quietly as I could so as not to awaken Thalia (as I had decided to call her). I quietly slid in the car and was just about to turn the key when I was jerked back by something tight around my neck. Oh shit….I had left my exercise band on the backseat floor.
“Who the fuck are you, and where is Calvin?” a groggy voice whispered in my ear. “What happened to the hearse? Why are my fucking throbbing toes swollen to twice their size, and why do I hurt all over?”
As I instinctively brought my hands up to try to loosen the band, I felt the cool blade of a knife against the flesh of my arm.
“Don’t move or I swear I’ll either choke or stab you to death.” Damn. I should have looked a little more closely in the body bag. Didn’t really think she would have a weapon.
Somehow she had the strength to tighten the band and I realized she had hooked each end to the seatbelt attachments at the bottom side of each seat. She could make it constrict by pulling on either side or hooking it tighter.
“Look,” I said, “ I’m not trying to hurt you. My name’s Fred…. we were all in a car accident and I unintentionally ran over your toes when the body bag fell out of the car. Calvin was hurt, and he insisted on checking on the body and I said I would do it. When I saw you weren’t dead I decided to put you in my back seat…just a gut reaction. I just thought there must have been a reason you had been drugged or something. For all I knew I was saving your life. But they’ll surely look for us once they realize what happened and this is the first place they’ll come. Just trust me and let me get us outta here.” She was loosening the band as I talked, which I took as a good sign.
“And just where the fuck do you think we’re going?”
“My buddy has a cottage in the Cascade mountains north of Seattle toward Bellingham. He already told me I could use it if I wanted to get away.”
“Did you call him yet? Tell anyone?”
“No, I was going to give him a call on the way.”
“Ok. Mr. Genius. I’m going to trust you for the moment because right now I don’t have too many choices. But you have to do what I say. Throw your fucking phone on the garage floor right now and let’s get movin!”
“But I need my…..” the last word was cut off by the band constricting my throat and I knew she meant business.
“Throw out the phone, I’m gonna remove the band and crouch down so the neighbors don’t see anything, and you’re gonna drive this fucking car. You keep your phone and they’ll track us all the way to the cottage.”
I threw out the phone, started the car, and we were on our way. I decided to avoid I-5 as much as possible but it wasn’t easy since my GPS was an app on my phone. What have I gotten myself into? This is more than a diversion or procrastination because I was having trouble concentrating on my research. This is where impulse will get me! I glanced in my rearview mirror and it looked like Thalia was dosing off again. Surprising, but maybe it was still the effects of the drugs. I could stop at a rest area now that we were out of Seattle and just drop her off. It wasn’t too cold yet so she would survive until someone found her. Just turn around, go home, and if the police called I could say that she must have climbed in the back of the car at the scene of the accident while I was talking to the officer. Say she had choked me and brandished a knife and directed me to go to my house for money and then drive her to the Canadian border. That she passed out again in my car from her injuries and I left her at the rest area. Hell, I could even dump her and call them right away… if I had a phone…they would surely believe my story over hers. I glanced at my neck in the mirror to see if I had signs of being choked when the sound of a ringing phone shocked me.
Thalia answered and was talking as quietly as she could but I could still make out a few words. “Yeah, some fucking idiot.” “didn’t ask him yet.” “I’ll call you when we get there.” “OK. You too.”
“So you make me throw out my phone and you had one all along. Who’s the fucking idiot now?”
“Look, Fred: my head and feet are killing me. I’m cold and hungry. I don’t know who you are and I’m not sure what’s gonna happen to me. Or you, for that matter. Don’t worry about the phone. It’s untraceable. How much longer?”
“Maybe 20 minutes. Look, I’m sorry about your condition but haven’t you even thought about thanking me? Maybe I saved your life. It’s about time you tell me who you are and why you were playing dead…or were you forced to do that? Was Calvin abducting you?”
“Oh my God…did you just hear anything I said? I don’t feel like talking about it right now. I could ask you the same thing. Why would anyone take a body from a hearse and drive off with it?”
“Because for the first time in my life I did something without analyzing the hell out of it. And it just seemed like fate, especially once I saw I had accidentally run over your toes. Don’t you see: you’re my muse. I was thinking about the cogito of Descartes, about the meaning of my life and then I ran over your toes. I thought you were dead and you weren’t…just like me, metaphorically speaking. It’s not I think; therefore I am…it’s more real than that…more visceral. I feel; therefore I exist. I move; therefore I exist….I…”
“WOULD YOU JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP, OR “I EXIST” WILL NO LONGER BE A PART OF YOUR VOCABULARY!!!!!!!”
Thalia must have dozed off after her outburst because during the rest of the drive the only sounds were her light snoring and the steady but accelerated rhythm of my heartbeat pounding in my ears. After a good deal of trial and error I finally located my friend’s cottage, which was at the end of a winding one-lane road. I had only spent a long weekend there a few years back, but I was hoping the extra key was still hidden in the same place. I pulled the car behind the cabin and glanced at the back seat to see if Thalia was still sleeping, which she was. She reminded me of my niece back in Philly: required by circumstances to put on a tough armor for the world, yet inwardly just a petrified girl. Someone Thalia’s age should be going to Greek parties at school and staying up all night in the dorm talking about life’s perplexities, not spewing out curse words at some total stranger. For all of her tough talk I suspected she was just as confused and anxious as I was. I touched her lightly on the shoulder and then held down her arm as she instinctively grabbed for her knife, which I immediately realized I should have confiscated before I woke her up.
“It’s OK…I just wanted to let you know we’re at the cottage. I’m going to look for the key. Wait here.” I grabbed the small snow shovel I keep in the trunk for my occasional ski trips and walked up the short incline a few yards behind the house to a clothesline. Buried next to one of the posts was indeed the container holding the extra key.
I helped Thalia out of the car and guided her to the back entrance of the cottage, whose screened porch ran its entire length. She allowed me to carry her up the few steps. The covered wicker furniture reeked of a musty unkempt smell. We entered the kitchen, which, although small, had enough room for a 1950’s chrome table with periwinkle blue vinyl chairs, on which she plopped down, steadying herself by leaning against the table. “I guess I’m weaker than I thought,” she said.
“Do you want some coffee or hot tea? My buddy Stan usually keeps the place stocked. Some soup maybe?” I saw that she was beginning to shiver and went in the living room to get an afghan. For the first time I looked closer at what she was wearing: a lightweight pale green dress with flip-flops … strange for late fall but fortunate for her, I guessed, since her feet and toes were so swollen.
“Look, let’s find you some warm clothes, heat up a can of soup, then we can both get some rest. Stan usually brings his girlfriends up here and someone must have left something you can wear.” I saw that she was still clutching her knife handle as she looked up at me and forced a menacing look.
“I’m going to call you Thalia since you haven’t told me your real name … so Thalia, I swear to you that I mean you no harm. I’m not a rapist or criminal…I’m a college professor who happens to also be going through a rough time right now. That’s what I was trying to explain to you earlier.” I saw her dark brown eyes get bigger.
“Don’t worry…I’m not going there again…we’re both too tired. I’m still not sure why I took you but I did, so now we both have to deal with it. Why don’t we come up with a plan in the morning…but you have to promise you won’t try to leave. This is a small mountain town in the middle of nowhere and you’ll stick out like a rose in the middle of a desert.”
“Oh my God, Fred, you just never know what’s going to come out of your mouth … it is Fred, isn’t it? I promise to not leave if you promise to stop talking. Soup sounds good … just show me where I can find the clothes and a bathroom.”
Just my luck to have a bitch for a muse. I helped her through the main living space, which crossed the entire front of the cabin, then around to the right where the two bedrooms were located with a Jack & Jill bathroom in between. I saw some women’s clothes in one of the closets, told her to take that bedroom, and went back to the small kitchen to heat up the soup.
Several minutes later Thalia limped into the kitchen and I got another chair for her to prop up her feet. I searched the freezer for some frozen peas, which I wrapped in a thin kitchen towel and placed on her feet. She must have showered because her hair was wet, and she was wearing a pair of sweats and a dark sweater, and for a minute I thought of my wife, Rachel, who usually dresses in the same type of clothes. A couple of weeks before she left, she came up to me one Saturday and asked how I liked her new sweater. “It’s very becoming,” I had answered, although it looked like every other sweater she owned, “really looks nice on you.”
“It’s not new,” she had practically screamed, “ You never SEE me. I could wear the same clothes for days and you would barely notice. I spend $150 on my hair and you say nothing. Just what was it that even attracted you to me?”
“Come on, Rachel … you know I didn’t fall in love with you for your clothes or your hair. Nothing as superficial as that. I fell in love with who you are.”
“That’s even more ridiculous coming from a philosopher, Frederick. You don’t have any idea who I am. You fell in love with your own fiction of who you wanted me to be.” I couldn’t give her an answer, even though at that moment I felt she was giving me some kind of test that would determine whether she stayed or not. Evidently I failed miserably.
Thalia took a couple of sips of her chicken noodle soup and said wistfully, “ My Mom always made this for me when I was sick. Thanks.” She held the bowl with both hands and brought it up to her nose, closing her eyes briefly as she savored the aroma.
I decided to push for more information. “Does your mother know you’re all right? Do we need to call your family or did you already do that?”
She slammed the bowl down on the table and looked up at me like a frightened runaway. “Look, Fred, don’t ask anymore questions. I’m going to level with you because of the circumstances but I will only tell you what you need to know and you have to promise to keep this confidential. I’m in the witness protection program, and Calvin was supposed to take me across the Canadian border so I could have a new identity. Since he’s still in the hospital, he’s sending another agent for me tomorrow … that’s who I was talking to on the phone.” She took a drink of water and picked at what polish was left on her half purple nails. I noticed she had some scars on her arms and when she saw me look she covered them with the afghan.
“Fred, you got yourself involved in some serious shit… and I have no idea if the bad guys are on our trail. They could even have caused the accident for all I know. But you’re the one who decided to get messed up in all this…you can imagine why I didn’t trust you because I thought you were kidnapping me to kill me. You might still, but my gut tells me that no one could keep up this act of the nerdy college professor. So I’m not your fucking muse…I may very well be your grim reaper, or whatever you call it!”
“Witness protection? What for? Does that mean you can never talk to your family again? So they think you’re dead? What drug did Calvin give you?” I had a thousand questions but I figured I’d better stop there.
“Fred, if you remember, the first thing I just said to you was don’t ask any questions. If you need to know anything else I will tell you.” She took another sip of the soup and wiped away what looked to be a few tears. “I just want to go back to sleep …. the only thing I need from you is something for the throbbing pain in my toes.”
Still in shock from her revelation, I went to the bathroom to look for some ibuprofen and gather my thoughts. I had finally done something impulsive, and this is where it got me! I needed a plan ASAP. I didn’t want to imagine what Thalia had done to get herself into a witness protection program, but if she was telling the truth, the next 24 hours were the most crucial. With luck, no one had followed us and the agent would be here tomorrow and I could get my life back. On the other hand, if anyone had followed us, we were screwed. I figured my best plan was to find some sort of weapon and keep an all night vigil. Surely Stan kept a hunting rifle or some other type of protection hidden somewhere in the cabin.
I heard Thalia call my name. I turned to see her shuffling toward me.
“Are you looking for poison or something? My feet are killing me!”
I gave her the ibuprofen and helped her in the room. She turned around and looked at me: “My God , your face is white! I don’t know what else to say. Maybe you saved my life, maybe not. Now all we can do is wait. Just don’t do anything stupid. If you hear something, wake me up first. My guy will call me when he’s close to the cabin. Night, Fred.” I heard the door lock behind me.
There was an old unlocked garage behind the cabin, so I moved the car in it and got my bags. I had noticed some wild mint growing in a neglected herb garden, so I picked a few leaves, took a bottle of rum I had stashed in my bag and looked around the kitchen for some carbonated water. No lime, but this would suffice. Rachel often made fun of me for drinking mojitos, but I always told her it was better than the absinthe that some of my philosopher buddies drank. I sat down on the back porch and looked up at the stars, taking a deep breath of the cool, fresh mountain air. The gravity of what I had done finally hit me. Not such a bad place to die, I thought. If this doesn’t give me some insight about the meaning of existence I don’t know what will. Like Roquentin, the protagonist in Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist novel Nausea, I had a sick feeling in my stomach, but it wasn’t from staring at the roots of a tree. It was from looking at the vastness of the universe and the knowledge that whether I lived or died didn’t really matter. Sure, my friends and family would be sad, and maybe a few colleagues and students, but they would clean out my house and my office, keep a few mementos, and life would persist. My books and articles? Just a bunch of academic requirements to help me get tenure. Maybe all of this was my therapist’s fault for asking me to find my authentic self. But now, feeling alone and genuinely scared, I had the overwhelming urge to call Rachel.
I kept sentinel all night, seated on the living room chair facing the front door with the old rifle I had found in the bedroom closet lying across my lap. Dozing sporadically, I heard only the sounds of the wind and the night owls, with the anxious beating of my heart providing a back beat. When the first rays of light appeared behind the dingy white shades, I stepped outside on the front porch to watch the sunrise over the valley. I could just barely make out the veiled Cascades in the distance, and I took a deep breath of the misty, thick air to clear my mind and settle my nerves. If I could believe Thalia, the new FBI agent would soon arrive to take her to Canada and I could return to my research and writing. Even Sade should be a comforting and welcome task given the forbidding scenarios my mind was creating should the “bad guys” show up at our door. I resolved to never again complain about conducting research. Perhaps some strong coffee would fortify my wavering anxiety, so I went back in the cabin and headed for the kitchen.
Thalia stood in front of the olive green countertop, fumbling with the coffee machine, and I cleared my throat to give her an indication I was around. She jumped a bit anyway, then a wave of relief visibly calmed her when she saw me at the threshold.
“I didn’t mean to startle you … how did you sleep?” I caught a reflection of myself in the door of the microwave: I had not yet combed my wavy, unruly hair nor shaved in days. It’s a wonder she hadn’t screamed. I felt in my pocket for a rubber band so I could at least gather my hair in a short ponytail.
“OK, except for the nightmares, which included one where I was being buried alive….and I was shivering a lot…what about you?”
“I dozed on and off but tried to keep watch from the front room. Any news from the FBI agent?” I motioned for her to sit down as I worked on the coffee. I noticed that her feet were somewhat less swollen.
“Not this morning, but I would think he should be here any minute. They had to fly in a special agent.”
Of course I had no direct knowledge of how the FBI or witness protection system functioned, but I did have difficulty believing that it was taking so long to send a replacement. I chose to not push the issue since I knew it would only anger Thalia, and so far she seemed more comfortable with me this morning …. at least she was no longer cursing! I handed her a cup of black coffee and offered her some pop tarts for lack of anything better. I loaded them in the toaster and sat down at the table opposite Thalia, glancing at her without overtly staring. The bruise on her left eye was less apparent, but the scar on her neck was puffy and reddish, indicating to me that it was fairly recent.
“If you don’t mind my asking, how did you get the black eye and the cut on your neck? Looks as if you were lucky to survive.”
“ I do mind your asking, and it’s really none of your fucking business, Fred!”
Here we go, I thought … I should have at least waited until she ate something…a little blood sugar spike to maybe calm her down. “ I’m sorry … I know you said no questions, but I can’t help but wonder.” I put the pop tarts on a plate for Thalia and was just loading another set in the toaster for me when I heard a noise on the front porch. I made a sign to Thalia to stay put, grabbed the gun and cautiously rounded the corner toward the front door, rifle drawn and ready. I came face to face with Rachel and Stan, who seemed to be just as shocked as I was. They dropped everything and threw their hands up in the air.
“Fred, don’t do it!” Rachel started shaking and crying at the same time. “Let’s all sit down and talk this through….we’re all professionals here.” Stan looked back and forth between me and Rachel and opened his mouth to speak.
“Shut up!” I yelled. “Everybody just shut up!” Thoughts were bursting through my head like fireworks: Why were they here? Did the police come to them, looking for me? Or was it the bad guys and they could be right behind them? Was this a set up? I had not told Stan I was coming to his cabin, but maybe they questioned all of my friends and put two and two together. But why would Rachel think I was going to shoot them? Oh … my … God … the truth exploded in my head like the grand finale on the Fourth of July. I had the good sense to put down the rifle because I no longer trusted myself. I sat down in the chair and stared at them in disbelief.
“This is the other man? You’ve been cheating on me with one of my closest friends?” I saw Rachel’s eyes turn toward the kitchen, where Thalia was leaning against the door.
“And you’re retaliating with this underage girl? Fred, what in God’s name are you thinking?”
For a brief moment I was somewhat flattered that Rachel thought I was having sex with someone half my age. I had neglected my physical conditioning in the last few years, but I would describe myself as stocky, not pudgy. My pre-Rachel girlfriend had first been attracted by my piercing dark brown eyes….she had even written a sappy poem about them, pointing out that my right eyebrow was higher than the left, which added to the mystique of the intellectual…how had she put it? … something like sexy ambivalent piercing eyes. And I did still have all my hair, unlike Stan, who was entirely bald, yet had grown a full beard and moustache as if to compensate. I was still trying to process what Rachel could possibly see in him when Thalia interrupted my self-indulgent emotional sidebar. In what seemed like one continuous movement she swooped through the middle of the three of us, grabbed the rifle, glanced out the front door, then turned toward us and pointed it in our general direction. She was still wearing what I now realized were Rachel’s clothes.
“Would someone tell me what the fuck is going on here?” she asked.
“This is my wife, Rachel, and Stan, the owner of the cabin … evidently they decided to come up here for a lovers’ tryst … remember, Thalia, you wouldn’t let me call him to tell him I was headed up to his cabin. Stan, why did you invite me? Some kind of sadistic pleasure if I happened to see evidence of Rachel being here? What a coward … you couldn’t just tell me straight up that you were having an affair with my wife?”
“Soon to be ex-wife,” Rachel interjected, “and we were going to tell you … we were just waiting for the right time…waiting for you to stabilize emotionally.”
“Don’t use your medical jargon with me, Rachel … you were probably waiting for the divorce to be final so I wouldn’t renege on the settlement.”
“Think whatever you want, Fred…would you just please tell your lover to stop pointing the gun at us? Can’t the four of us just calmly talk about all this? Oh my God, why is she wearing my clothes? Or did you even notice?”
Thalia ignored Rachel and turned toward me: “Nice decision on the divorce, Fred, and nice work on making this mess even worse. The way I see it is we can either explain what’s going on or make them leave. But I’m not so sure I trust them.”
I noticed little beads of sweat forming on Thalia’s forehead, and she seemed even paler than yesterday. I was just about to ask if she was OK when we heard a forceful knock on the front door. Against the small window at the top of the door we saw a gold badge with the initials FBI. Thalia moved toward the door and looked out the window.
“Wait!” I whispered. “How do we know this is the real thing?”
“When I talked to him yesterday on the phone he told me exactly what he looked like and what he would be wearing. Unless someone tapped the phone, which I doubt, this is him.” Stilling holding the rifle, she opened the door.
He was much younger than I had anticipated, maybe 29 at the most, and his light brown hair was longer on the top and short on the sides, reminiscent of James Dean. His left eyebrow was pierced, and he wore a faded pair of jeans, white t-shirt, and black leather vest. He wore what appeared to be fine leather gloves, and held a revolver in his right hand. Thalia must have recognized the skepticism in my face because she quickly said:
“Look, Fred, it has to be believable that he would be with me if we are to pass the border. The dead body thing didn’t work out so well so we are trying another approach … I’m already in disguise compared to what I looked like before.”
I thought about asking Rachel to examine Thalia to verify that she had undergone plastic surgery, but then I saw Rachel’s eyes open wide in fear. She looked at Stan, then me, and said with a shaky voice:
“Dead body??? FBI?? Would someone please tell me what’s going on?” Stan started to put his arms around her but she pushed him away.
“Well, I could use a little update myself because I thought there was only one other person here in addition to this young lady,” said the FBI agent as he motioned toward Thalia.
“I can explain,” I said, “but could you just stop pointing guns at us?” Thalia pointed the rifle at the floor and sat down in a chair near the front door. The FBI guy also lowered his revolver somewhat but remained standing, facing us all. I began to recount the events of yesterday leading up to this moment, punctuated by the nervous hiccups that always overcame me when I was overly anxious.
When I finished telling my story there was a heavy silence in the room, punctuated by my interminable hiccups. I had left out the part about Thalia being my muse, choosing to embellish the possibility that I thought I might be saving her life. I glanced her way to see her reaction, but her eyes were closed. Rachel was staring at me, still shaking her head as she had been doing the whole time I talked. Suddenly Stan jumped up, faced us all and said angrily:
“Listen: this is MY cabin, that’s MY rifle, and I didn’t ask for any of this.” He turned toward Thalia and the FBI agent: “I want you out of here right now, and I want you to guarantee that no one has followed you. Surely you have other agents around here guarding the area who can verify that. Then I want everyone to leave, including you, Fred!” He looked at Rachel. “Of course, that doesn’t include you, Babe.” That one word made me want to run over to him and choke it out of his mouth forever.
The FBI agent saved me from it: he put the gun against the middle of Stan’s forehead and said: “And whose gun is this, Stan? And whose badge? You can’t tell me what to do, and I have the power to have this ménage à toi go down anyway I want. I can see the headlines: lover’s triangle ends with double homicide and suicide. How does that sound? You’re lucky I feel sorry for Fred ‘cause you’ve been doing his wife behind his back!”
It sounded to me like he said “toi” (“you”) instead of “trois,” (“three”) which could’ve been some sort of Freudian slip or just plain ignorance, and I wanted to comment on the possibilities and the double entendres but I thought it best to hold my tongue at the moment, especially since this was taking an unexpected turn. Stan looked as if he were going to wet his pants or worse, and though I must admit I was scared too, I nonetheless enjoyed seeing Stan suffer. Thalia stood up suddenly and rushed over to the FBI agent, but just as she reached him she fell to the floor in an apparent faint. He bent down to her and said:
“Baby girl, are you ok? Say something, Ali!”
Rachel, Stan and I stood there in disbelief and confusion, then I shouted: “I knew it! You’re no FBI agent … you’re her boyfriend, and probably the reason she’s in the witness protection program. Did you have this planned all along? Did you cause the accident with the hearse?” Wrong move on my part … now the gun was aimed toward me.
“YOU! Shut the fuck up!
Rachel moved gingerly toward Thalia/Ali… “Look … let’s all calm down! I’m a doctor … let me look at her.”
With that, Rachel’s physician persona took over. Forgetting any potential danger, she examined the unconscious Thalia and asked us to lift her onto the couch. As Thalia started to regain consciousness she began to struggle a bit, and Rachel calmed her down with her soothing and reassuring voice.
“You’re going to be OK, Ali. The wound on your neck is infected, some of your toes might be broken, you have a fever and you’re probably dehydrated. I have some antibiotics with me so we’ll start with that and plenty of fluids, but you need to rest before you go anywhere.” Rachel gave the fake FBI guy a scolding look. “So what is your name?”
“He’s not going to tell you,” I interjected, “Let’s just call him James since he looks so much like James Dean, rebel and all.” James gave me another menacing look, quickly picked up the rifle that had fallen on the floor, and sat down on the chair next to the couch.
“So she’s gonna be OK?” He said to Rachel.
“Most likely. She needs to rest and she can’t do that with us hovering over her. Why don’t we all go sit in the kitchen…we can see both Ali and the front door from there, and I haven’t had anything to eat this morning. In fact, we have groceries in the car.” She looked at James. “Can Stan go to the car and get them?”
“I don’t want Stan outta my sight. Fred, you go get the groceries.”
I couldn’t help giving Stan a smug look, and he took a seat as far away from James as he could. Rachel gave Thalia the meds, put more ice on her feet and got her settled on the couch. James took both guns and stood by the door to monitor my trip to the garage. As I reached the car and opened the trunk I hesitated for a second…well, more like a minute… as I felt the urge to jump in and drive away. I didn’t wholly entertain the thought because I knew I’d never really act on it, but somehow it felt exhilarating and liberating at the same time. I’ve never liked guns, and I needed time away from the drama inside. Time to let Rachel and Stan’s betrayal sink in. How could I have been so oblivious? I know I can become lost in my research, but how could I not have seen what was happening behind my back? Was this the reason I felt compelled to take the body? Was the universe hitting me over the head with a forced dose of revelation?
“Fred! What the fuck are you doing?” James startled me out of my reverie. I slammed the trunk shut and hurried up the front steps and into the cabin.
While we made some breakfast and more coffee James relaxed somewhat, putting his revolver in its internal holster but keeping the rifle next to his chair at the kitchen table. We all ate in silence, and when we finished I said to James:
“Look, James; I don’t know what crimes you’ve committed and I don’t need to know. You seem to really care about Ali, and I’ve no reason to judge you, other than the fact that you scare the shit out of me with the guns and all. But what’s going to happen now, and what are we supposed to do?
James sipped on his coffee and shrugged his shoulders. “Look, man, all I know is that I have to get Ali and myself outta here ASAP. You’re right about the FBI … it won’t take them long to come here.”
“Yeah… I left my phone on the floor of my garage, which they’ve surely found by now, but if they’re tracing Rachel’s whereabouts they know she’s here … probably Stan too, and they’ll be on their way to question her. I’m surprised they haven’t called already or shown up at the door. Maybe they won’t suspect I’m here with her but if they ask I don’t want her to lie and get caught up in this anymore than she already is.”
“Oh my God!” Rachel said, “I left my phone in my purse and haven’t checked it with everything going on. I put it on vibrate since I’m not on call.” She ran in the living room and returned with it in her hand. Sure enough, an “investigator” had called a half hour ago to ask her if she’d seen or talked to me recently, saying it was urgent that she return his call.
James glanced in the living room to see if Ali was still sleeping, then paced around the small kitchen. “I really don’t give a crap what you do…I’m inclined to help out Fred here because Ali seems to like him. I could just as soon kill all three of you but the FBI will still be on my trail, and I’m thinking that leaving you alive might hurt you more in the long run.”
Rachel simply declared: “I’m going to call the FBI and say that I haven’t heard from Fred, and that Stan and I are here alone,” We all listened while she made the call. “They’re heading up here to question us.” Rachel moved toward the living room with Stan behind her.
James gestured to them and said to me, “So what are you going to do about them?”
“What do you mean?” I said.
“You’re just going to take it. Your buddy messes with your wife behind your back and you let it go. That’s not how it would go down in my world.”
“Well, I’m not going to shoot him if that’s what you mean.”
“Whatever. Do what you want, but you see how far I’d go to save my woman.”
As if on cue Ali slipped into the kitchen and sat down on James’ lap, her arms around his neck. She looked more rested and less pale, and she was still wrapped in the afghan.
He took her face in his hand and looked at her intensely: “We’ve gotta get outta here, Ali. Grab what you need … your meds and water … as fast as you can.”
“Are the FBI here? How long was I asleep? What about all of them?” She gestured toward me.
James gently stood her up and said: “The FBI are on their way. You only slept for about an hour. We’re leaving everyone else here. A professor and a doctor ought to be able to come up with a plan to save their asses … I wouldn’t put much faith in Stan.”
Thalia still looked confused and startled…must have been the infection…but she began to move as James rushed into the living room. I reached out to touch her arm.
“Thalia…….Ali,” I said, “I just wanna say good bye and give you something. I know I pissed you off you with my talking and all, but that’s just me.” I went to my backpack to get some money, then handed her a thousand dollars.
“You don’t need to do this, Fred.”
“I know, but I want to. Take it before I change my mind. I really hope things work out.”
“For you too, Fred. I’m sorry I was rough with you, but you just might be the most annoying person I’ve ever met! Just try to stop analyzing the fuck out of everything. And thanks.” With that, she went to get her things.
Maybe she is my muse, I thought. I’ve been reading these complex philosophers most of my life, but maybe what they say in the end is uncomplicated. Maybe we all want some sort of Hegelian dialectic that results in a nice resolution that brings us one step closer to the meaning of existence, but what if the dialectic never resolves, and that is the simple truth? After all, I think; therefore I exist is pure and uncomplicated.
James and Thalia rushed into the kitchen, followed by Rachel and Stan.
“Can you at least leave my rifle?” Stan asked. “Take the ammunition, but give me back the rifle!”
James’ answer was to knock Stan to the floor with the butt of the rifle.
* * *
Evidently James was prepared for anything because before he and Thalia left he forced Rachel, Stan and me to sit on the kitchen chairs, then tied us up and duct taped our hands to the chairs. He left our mouths un-taped…I figure partly out of spite and partly to help us figure out our story for the FBI. So there we sat, Rachel and Stan on either side of me. The blood from Stan’s head wound was dripping slightly on my sleeve. I couldn’t help but think of Sartre’s play No Exit: we are truly capable of creating our own Hell. I just hoped this was not a weird trick of fate and that we would indeed reclaim our freedom. It actually felt good to be tied up to Rachel, but not so much with Stan, which made me think of Sade and my book project. Rachel brought me out of my meditation on sadism and Hell:
“Ok, here’s a possibility: Fred, you’ll tell them that after the accident when you were moving the body from the pavement back to the hearse, Ali pulled a gun on you and forced you to put her in the car. She made you take her somewhere in the mountains and you thought of Stan’s cabin, secretly hoping you’d be traced there. You’ll say that you heard her talking to someone on the phone but didn’t know who. That she was injured and told you she was waiting for someone to pick her up. That Stan and I just happened to show up at the cabin, and then James, impersonating the FBI.”
“That’s a bunch of BS!” Stan turned his head toward us, which caused even more blood to drip on me. “We’re talking about the FBI here….you don’t think they’ll be all over this ? And what about your phone on your garage floor, Fred? And why should we lie? Isn’t that aiding and abetting criminals?”
“Stan,” Rachel said, “ If we tell the truth, Fred might be in serious trouble. After all, he could be charged with kidnapping Ali.” She glanced toward me. “And I do feel some responsibility for his breakdown.”
“What breakdown?” I tried to jump up from my chair and almost tipped us all over. “Who said I had a breakdown? Don’t flatter yourself. I’ll admit that taking a body from a hearse appears to be a bit odd, but I’ll explain it to the FBI and take the consequences. I’ll tell the truth. I can handle it.” I knew this would hit Rachel where it hurts because A Few Good Men was one of her favorite movies, and we had watched it several times together. I thought I saw her eyes well up but she quickly looked away.
“Look,” I continued, “Stan’s right. This thing all started with me thinking I had to find my authentic self, and it would be hypocritical of me to lie. Thalia really did pull a knife on me. I’ll tell the truth. At least we can agree on one thing: none of us saw what car James was driving or where they were going, so personally I hope they have a good chance to start over.”
“The motherfucker knocked me down with my own rifle, and you turn into some sappy romantic who wants a fairy tale ending. Go fuck yourself, Fred!” I turned to stare at Stan as I thought about my retort, but when I saw his bloody head I decided to be silent.
We all just sat there for awhile, listening to the creaking of the cottage and what sounded like an occasional squirrel running across the roof. Somehow it seemed odd to me that they were scurrying around, oblivious to anything other than storing their food. I envied them. After some time Stan began snoring, and I whispered to Rachel:
“Not that I care, but is he supposed to be sleeping like that? He probably has a concussion.”
“It’s OK if he sleeps a bit given the circumstances. He has high blood pressure so this will help him to calm down.”
I saw that her cheeks were tear-stained and I wished I could wipe them away. I thought about trying to lick them as a gesture of reconciliation but thought better of it. “Rachel,” I whispered, “do you remember when I used to call you Annie, Roquentin’s former lover in Sartre’s book Nausea? How we used to talk about her “perfect moments” and how it was possible for our perfect moments to compensate for the daily drudgery and repetition of existence? Don’t you believe we can find them again?
“Fred, you started ruining the perfect moments. And it all started with the baby … you know it did.”
“Rachel, please … don’t go there.”
“Don’t you see, Fred? Maybe you took that girl because you needed to rescue someone. You couldn’t save our baby, but you never wanted to talk about it. I wanted to try again, but you wouldn’t even come near me … what was I supposed to do?
“Look, Rachel, I did start seeing a therapist. That’s huge for me.”
“Yes, Fred, but it was after I told you I was leaving. A bit too late, don’t you think?”
“But why Stan, Rachel? Do you hate me that much? Why my best friend, of all people? Surely there were some fellow doctors who would have been willing to supply whatever you thought you weren’t getting from me! Couldn’t you have had just a little empathy? For what we had in the beginning? And Stan was my best man, for God’s sake!” Speaking of whom, Stan’s body, which was slumped against me, began to jerk just a bit, which caused more blood from his head to drip on me.
“Calm down, Fred,” Rachel whispered, “You know how these things work: you started staying at the university later and later, telling me that you had student conferences, or that you couldn’t concentrate at home and needed the solace and inspiration of your campus office. Stan stopped by to see you and we started talking a lot since you were never there. He understood my devastation about the baby and my frustration with you. He said you just needed some time to deal with it on your own terms first. We didn’t mean for the affair to happen … it just evolved. We didn’t set out to hurt you.”
“Jesus, Rachel! I don’t know if I can ever get my head around this. Or if I could ever forgive you…yet with all that’s happened, even all that could still happen … who knows if the bad guys will come looking for James & Thalia before the FBI get here … I’m not sure I’m ready to give up on us, although you seem like you already did.” Just then we heard the sounds of the front door breaking in.
“Damn it!” Stan yelled. “Fred, you owe me a rifle and a front door and whatever other damage they do!”
“Right, Stan,” I said, “and you owe me a wife!”
Turns out the FBI was more interested in finding Thalia and James than charging me with a crime. The spectacle of us tied to the chair with Stan’s dripping wound helped convince them that we were all victims. I did indeed stretch the truth and they believed that Thalia threatened me with a weapon and forced me to drive her north to wait for James (they still didn’t tell us their real names). The two were involved in heroin trafficking, which explains the scars on Thalia’s arms. The FBI had put her through rehab and were indeed planning to take her across the border to Canada. Now they seemed to think it would not be long before they would find them because she would likely relapse soon.
I may not have found my authentic self, but at least I am on its path. I still believe the universe meant for me to take the body, which in turn resulted in the tabula rasa of my life as I thought I knew it. The cogito is just a beginning, and the fear of losing everything has made me really question what it is I want. I’m still working on the book about Kant and Sade, but I’m thinking of changing the title to The Marquis de Sade: if you K(c)ant Beat Him, Join Him! … not, however, in the sense of becoming a sadistic sexual pervert! Sade wrote most of his works imprisoned during the French Revolution, listening to the sounds of the guillotine. I suffered my own reign of terror, and I survived it a changed man who at least tries to understand other people’s emotional states, rather than analyzing them intellectually. To really understand someone, let alone oneself, merely thinking is not enough … empathy is the key.
Rachel and I are not reunited for certain, but she agreed to stop seeing Stan and not sign the divorce papers yet if I agreed to continue therapy. My therapist says that Rachel and I are not yet ready for couple’s counseling until we each confront our separate issues. We’re making progress, which for now is enough. I’m working on being compassionate toward myself for the moment. And on being mindful, especially when I’m driving.
As for Thalia and James, I really hope they can make a life together without the drugs and violence, although I can only imagine how difficult that must be. But I’m hopeful, especially after I received an unexpected package the other day in my mailbox at the university: a copy of Descartes’s Discours de la Méthode, with the following inscription:
I think that I am
With the one who knows
And to think it all began
With some very crushed toes.
Keep it simple,
Jennifer Vanderheyden grew up in southern Ohio, and earned a PhD in French Literature from the University of Washington in Seattle. She lives in Wisconsin and teaches French at Marquette University. She has published a critical study on the works of eighteenth century French writer and philosopher Denis Diderot, as well as piece of flash fiction in Robert Vaughan’s Flash Fiction Fridays (Dolls, Vol. 1, 2011)