Riders on the Storm

By John Haymaker

It’s early morning, cold and raining. Palmer is lost and confused. He drives along a two-lane road meandering through rocky outcrops, pine forests, steep inclines and intermittent fog. It’s spooky. GPS is worthless here. He checks the rear view to see if he’s being followed. He catches a glimpse of himself and darts his eyes away afraid of who he’s become: he is the killer on the run. He tries to focus, but his emotions are jarred, his thoughts come too fast, like a toad squirming inside his head. Every beat of the wipers reminds him of the hammer he wielded, the blunt force he delivered. He switches the wipers off to clear his head. Rain pelts the windshield until he can barely see. He doesn’t know where he is anymore.

Palmer speeds up – as if going faster might reveal his whereabouts. He tries to read overhead signs through the fog and windshield splatter. He wants news and fidgets with the radio dial, but finds only CW and static. His steering is unsteady. He needs to settle down and tightens his grip on the wheel. There’s an exit ramp up ahead. He crosses two lanes of traffic to reach it – just in time. A passing motorist blares its horn at him, like a foghorn that grows louder until Palmer turns down the clover leaf. He switches the wipers on again and the steady beat of his hammer returns, rhythmic, relentless.

He merges onto the interstate, two lanes each direction. The weather is better. He can almost make out the overhead signs but misses the one he needs, sees it as he drives by – the yellow exit-only for Tacoma. He wanted to turn there and head toward Canada. Instead, he’s now headed south toward Portland. But he can’t waste any more time – he has to cross the state line. Maybe he can double back later, drive east and back up through Idaho. The rain eases up a little and fog lifts.

He speeds ahead until he spots what might be Washington Highway Patrol parked on the shoulder. The patrolman doesn’t seem to notice him as he passes. Palmer shrugs, maybe there’s no APB yet. Worst case scenario, if he does get stopped – he can make a run for it: the forest undergrowth is dense. Cops would never catch him out there.

Radio news breaks in, revealing new details at every beat of the wipers: there’s been a murder – a kidnapping – a manhunt underway – Neal Palmer wanted for questioning – considered armed and dangerous. Palmer closes his eyes and sinks in his seat, reminded again of the hammer he wielded, the blunt force he delivered. He hadn’t meant any of it. He just wanted to see his kid. The ex wouldn’t allow it. Palmer wants to find a side road, turn off, stop and settle himself down. But he presses forward, watching the wipers’ relentless sweep across the windshield.

He passes two hitchhikers, young men in their twenties toting large aluminum frame backpacks. Gadgets, canteens, and trinkets dangle from the sides clipped to straps. One man has a beard. Both wear jeans, one in a yellow rain slicker, his buddy in a clear plastic poncho over a grungy t-shirt. Palmer down shifts and brakes, stopping a couple of car lengths ahead of them. He watches in the rear view as they approach and switches the radio off. He mutters to himself, Come on dumb shits. He inhales off his cigarette. If police are looking for a lone man driving, three men in the car might throw them off, he thinks. The bearded hitchhiker runs alongside, practically dragging his backpack. He leans toward the partly open window and asks, “How far you going?”

“LA. I’m pressed for time. If you want a ride, get in.”

“We’re a little wet, if that’s okay.”

“That’s fine. Just get in.”

His buddy jogs up still harnessed to the backpack. “Hey. Thanks for stopping,” he says. “I thought we’d be stuck here.” The bearded man helps him get one arm strap off, and the other wrangles his shoulders free and lifts it off with one hand. “Hey, thanks again for stopping. I was getting worried.”

“Yeah, you said that. Just come on – get the backpacks in.” Palmer repeatedly checks the mirrors. It’s a tight fit, but the two manage to stuff both packs in the back seat. The bearded man gets in front and pats his hair dry with his palm. His buddy squeezes in back and wipes away water dripping off his nose. They bring along a distinct odor: campfire smoke, jerky and sweat. The car seems cramped now, suddenly claustrophobic.

The rain picks up strong again and Palmer over accelerates pulling back on the roadway. The asphalt is slick and the tires spin as he nearly collides with an oncoming car. The bearded hitchhiker throws up his hands, Wow! Palmer is oblivious to his mistake and asks, “Where you headed?”

“Cannon beach.”

“On this road?”

“Eighty miles ahead,” the bearded man says. “You’ll see a sign.”

“You watch for it and let me know.” The hitchhikers introduce themselves, but Palmer takes in nothing of it. “You been camping?” he asks aimlessly.

“Yeah, around Pacific Northwest mostly,” the bearded man says, but he senses Palmer is too agitated for conversation. Palmer leans forward and adjusts the rear view repeatedly. The backpacks are blocking his view so he looks out the side view constantly – like every second. Then he punches the cigarette lighter. “Mind if I smoke?” he asks as he puts stick in his mouth. He only half listens as the men’s answers.

“I don’t mind. You mind?” the bearded man turns around to ask his buddy in back who shakes his head. “Hey, we’ve got a joint rolled up if you like,” the bearded man says. “It might help you relax.”

Palmer shrugs. “Sure. Whatever,” he says, but he continues to smoke his cigarette. They light the joint and pass it around until Palmer gets confused and passes them his cigarette and hangs on to the joint. The bearded man waves a hand at his buddy to let it go. The smoke gets a bit thick and the windows fog up. Palmer lowers the front windows, and wind whips straps on the backpacks furiously. The buddy in back tries to rearrange the bags to lessen the disturbance. A canteen drops to the car floor during the shuffle and an uncontrollable squall breaks out.

“You have a baby in here?” The buddy in back re-positions the backpack to get a better look – and sees fidgeting arms and legs kick in fits and starts from beneath newspaper Palmer laid on top of the infant.

Palmer offers a flimsy explanation. “Yeah, my son. My ex had me come pick him up – visiting privileges, you know.” The baby wails uncontrollably as the two men exchange glances. Palmer checks the rear view. A police car tails him from a distance. Palmer is spooked, the men uncomfortable as hell – they’ve noticed the tail too. They’re getting a funky vibe off the Palmer now.

“You know, you probably should stop and feed your son or something,” the bearded man says.

“Yeah,” his buddy says. “You can probably just drop us off here.” He taps the bearded man on the shoulder, “This is our stop, right?” They try to act like everything’s cool.

“A while ago you couldn’t thank me enough for picking you up. I don’t have time for any nonsense right now.”

Then police lights appear in the side mirror and a siren more unsettling than the baby’s squall descends. The front grille of the police cruiser comes within inches of Palmer’s back bumper. Both men turn to look out the rear window. “You must have been speeding or something,” the buddy says.

“I’m sure it’s nothing. I’ll pull over and take care of it.” But he doesn’t pull over – he speeds up. Then multiple police cars swarm behind them, lights flashing and sirens wailing out of sync and out of key with the baby’s screams. The bearded hitchhiker grabs a hold of the steering wheel. “Dude! You need to let us out. Stop the car,” he says. Palmer bats his hand away and speeds up, his driving increasingly erratic.

The buddy in back rolls his eyes, as if to say, Maybe getting this guy high wasn’t such a good idea. The bearded man pulls a handgun from his jeans waist, points it inches from Palmer’s head and grabs a hold of the steering wheel again. “Pull the fuck over and stop,” he says. Palmer doesn’t comply. The man tugs at the wheel until the car swerves and veers toward the shoulder, knocking the man off balance – the gun fires through the roof. Police cars following them back off a safe distance.

Palmer slams on the brakes and grapples the gun away from the bearded man, who has clearly lost his nerve now. “Don’t try dumb shit like that again,” Palmer snarls, pointing the gun pointblank at each of the hitchhikers briefly just before he accelerates fishtailing back onto the road.

Seconds later he’s forced to hit the brakes – hard and the occupants all lurch forward. The car sits idling in the middle of the road. Palmer stares – a half mile ahead there’s a road block. Palmer’s penned in front and back by a barricade of police cruisers, flashing lights and sharpshooters. He turns off the wipers and lets the drizzle obscure any clear view inside the car. The hitchhikers stare straight ahead, petrified. Yet the buddy in back dares, chameleon-like, to unzip pockets, dig their stash out of the backpacks, and spill baggies of pot on the car floor.

Over a loudspeaker, police issue orders, All occupants of the car exit the vehicle, hands in the air. The bearded man clicks his door handle and waits, waits for Palmer’s reaction. Palmer offers a slight gesture with the gun muzzle for the men to exit. The bearded man steps out first and nods to his buddy in the backseat, who slowly makes his exit. Palmer rests the gun on his thigh and raises his hands, sits motionless a few seconds before lowering them – like he’s certain police won’t endanger the infant and shoot into the car. Palmer fingers the gun a moment as he looks in the rear view at himself and nods, assured of something.

Step out of the car. Put your hands up, echos over the loudspeaker.

Palmer reaches with his other hand back between seats, fetches the baby by an arm and pulls the squalling infant up over the seat back into his lap. He holds his son there against his chest. Then Palmer flicks the door handle and nudges the door open with one foot in fits and starts – as a diversion while he wedges the pistol into the back of his pants waist.

Step out of the car Put your hands up, echos again.

Palmer steps out raising one hand overhead while holding the baby against his chest – a human shield. At that instant, a volley of verbal commands follow, Set the baby down. Get both hands in the air. Nobody needs to get hurt here.

Palmer looks for an out, but the edge of the forest seems far away – certainly too far to run. So he steps back slowly, holding his infant shield, and edges around the front of his car and toward the forest, then smiling reaches behind his back and draws the gun and points it toward the hitchhikers aiming steadily at the bearded man. Palmer is firmly in control of the situation, but an officer approaches holding both hands in full view proving he has no weapon. “C’mon son, nobody needs to get hurt here,” he says. “Give me the gun.”

Palmer steadies his aim at the bearded man as he sets the infant down on a rock ledge near the forest line. The officer halts his approach. Palmer then grasps the gun with both hands and backs into the woods, aiming steadily. Pine branches slap around his waist, his shoulders. He moves ever faster backward, weaving himself into the forest. Just before he turns, the officer swoops in to rescue the infant as a line of officers approach the woods, shotguns leveled. Then Palmer runs, runs through the underbrush, runs until he’s lost in the thicket of tangled vines, lost thrashing through bramble – running until he stumbles and falls over a downed stump and a single shot rings out from deep, deep in the forest.

# # #

(Bio: John Haymaker’s recent stories and queer nonfiction appear in various online journals including Hawaii Pacific Review, Across the Margin, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Yard: Crime Blog and Bull & Cross. Chinese to English translations appear anthologized in Chinese Literature (Beijing) and Pig Iron Press (Youngstown) and online at Bewildering Stories. John writes from the SF Bay Area.)
You can find John at his website HERE.
John has also previously published with The Yard: Crime Blog, and his work can be found HERE.

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