By Ken Wheaton
Tyler’s shadow stretched before him in the moonlight, landing on his girlfriend’s back.
The first time they’d driven up 285 into the mountains just west of Denver, they’d picked a moonless night and the dark was too much. It pressed, it smothered. Every sound was amplified, every crackling twig a mountain lion. It also required flashlights. So they’d tried a full moon next and found it so bright at this elevation that they didn’t even need headlights.
Now, he didn’t so much as flinch when he heard the brush rustle and the boots on the gravel shoulder behind him. Taylor kept at her work, the spray can hissing out a yellow penis in the middle of Warhawk Road.
The shotgun shell being pumped into the chamber, though, prompted a slight twinge in Tyler’s gut. He slowly raised his hands, fixed his best smile to his face.
“Tay,” he said, calmly.
They hadn’t been caught yet. And even if they were, they figured they’d skate right out of it. The golden couple. Sat next to each other since kindergarten at Lakewood Christian, fated by alphabetical order — Collins and Colfax. Never a blemish on the permanent record. Voted homecoming king and queen, best looking couple, most likely to succeed — and a couple of others that Tyler had already forgotten. Now tied for valedictorian of their graduating class. They had it all and it was perfectly boring.
Taylor didn’t stop. She was lost in her work, biting her bottom lip as she concentrated on finishing the tip.
“Taylor,” he said, a little louder now.
She turned to face him, noticing whoever it was with the gun on them. A flicker of a smile reassured him. Nothing they couldn’t handle. By the time she’d drawn even with him, her eyes were already glistening, priming the pumps should tears be necessary.
When Tyler turned to face whatever passed for a neighborhood watch on Shadow Mountain, he relaxed.
Big guy. Tall and wide, but as threatening as a cow. He wore dirty jeans, a flannel shirt and a stained Carhartt. On the man’s head sat a red ball cap, four blazing white letters stitched across it.
“MAGA,” Tyler said. This was going to be easy.
Confusion crossed the big man’s face. What an oaf.
“Say what now?”
The whole thing must have been disconcerting. After weeks of dicks and balls being tagged across his community, he’d stumbled across the perpetrators. Blonde, blue-eyed, All-American kids dressed like it was date night at Chili’s — which is where they were as far as their parents knew.
“Make America great again,” Tyler said.
The oaf just stared, waiting for clarification.
Tyler pointed to his own head. “The hat? Donald Trump? Sucks he lost, but my dad says –”
“Oh, the hat,” the oaf said, interrupting. He shouldered the shotgun, took off the hat, revealing short-cropped white hair that practically glowed under the full moon. He looked at the hat as if seeing it for the first time.
Then he smiled at Tyler.
“Thing is,” he said, putting it back on his head. “It’s not mine.”
The oaf took a step toward them. Tyler grabbed Taylor’s hand and they stepped back together.
“Sir,” Taylor said, voice wavering.
Finally, Tyler thought. Here it came. The force no man could resist.
“Look, I’m sorry. We’re sorry. See, my boyfriend and me, well we just wanted to do one crazy thing before graduating.”
The oaf took another step forward, kept his eyes on Tyler.
“Saw your car back there, pulled into the trail.” Like he hadn’t even heard Taylor’s words.
“Sir, like I said, we’re so sorry.” She’d let the tears flow now. “It won’t happen again. It was a one-time thing.”
He cut her a look. “Twenty-five so far. And that’s just here on Shadow Mountain.”
His eyes dared her to respond. She didn’t. He looked back at Tyler.“
Thought it was a cop car at first, but then reminded myself what century we’re in. ‘89 Caprice Classic?”
“Yes sir,” Tyler said. “Fixed it up myself. Me and my dad.”
His dad had done no such thing. Couldn’t figure out why his son turned down the offer of a new car.
“No parental controls on those old cars,” the oaf said. “No GPS. No tracking.”
Taylor stopped crying.
The man was directly in front of them now. He smelled of Tide Pods and some sort of tobacco product.
Pointing the gun at Tyler, he ran his free hand over Taylor’s pockets, front and back, top and bottom. She flinched. Then he pointed the gun at her and did the same to Tyler until he found the phone.
“What is this? A Five?”
“Yes, sir,” Tyler said.
“Where’s your real phone?”
Taylor spoke, her voice timid. “In the car.”
The oaf didn’t look at her.
“That right? Went to the trouble of getting a burner, but brought phones with location apps with you anyway?”
“No, sir,” Tyler said. “We left them back with friends.”
The man put the burner into the front pocket of his Carhartt.
“This is going to be the easiest one yet.”
He stepped back and waved the gun toward where they’d parked.
“C’mon,” he said. “Let’s go.
“Boy’s gonna drive,” the oaf said. “Try anything and it’s going to be that much worse for the girl.”
Taylor made a sound Tyler had never heard before.
And yet hope — foolish, delusional, futile — took hold. Maybe they could break away while getting into the car. Maybe the oaf was just trying to scare them straight. Maybe he’d just have them drive down to King Soopers gas station and let them off with a warning.
But no. Somehow they were all in the car, Tyler at the wheel, the oaf holding Taylor at gunpoint in the back.
“What you’re gonna do is drive straight down the trail,” the oaf said.
“Jesus,” Tyler whispered. The stupid fucking luck of it.
“Like I said, you really made it easy.”
They drove a quarter mile down the rutted trail, branches dragging across the fenders like knives on glass, arriving at a clearing that looked like a construction site. Neatly stacked lumber, rolls of wire, cinder blocks, an excavator, a mountain of dirt.
Taylor started blubbering, promising to do anything — anything.
“Nice of you to promise, girl,” the oaf said. “But not much of a bargaining chip offering something I can just take.”
A brief flare of anger. “If you try anything–”
But before Tyler could finish, the oaf thwacked him in the back of the head with the butt of the shotgun. Not very hard, but it was enough to start tears rolling down his face.
The oaf opened the door and climbed out, Taylor in tow.
“Out of the car, hero,” he said, then marched them toward the mountain of dirt.
Behind the dirt were two round holes, which for some reason gleamed in the moonlight. Then Tyler saw the two barrel lids.
Taylor must have pieced it together as well.“Why?” Falling to her knees, whispering almost.
“Why?” The oaf shook his head. “If I made a speech about a horrible childhood or some proclamation about the depravity of modern culture, would it make it any easier for you? Would it change the outcome?”
Taylor said nothing. The oaf placed a hand on her head, tenderly.
“There is no why. Might as well ask two kids why they’re spray painting dicks on mountain roads. It’s just something to do.”
Then silence. For a full minute their own ragged breathing and the door-open chime on the Caprice were the only sounds to be heard. A gust of wind shook the trees surrounding the clearing, breaking them all out of the reverie.
“Boy in first,” the oaf said, sticking the barrel into the small of Tyler’s back.
Tyler did as he was told, eased himself right into the barrel, pissing himself in the process.
And still a glimmer of hope.
Hope while Taylor was dragged kicking and screaming toward her own barrel. Hope while the oaf practically kicked her into the thing, held her down with one foot while he got the lid in place. Hope as she pounded on the barrel, her cries muffled now.
No action, but still hope. Even as he was crouching low so that his own lid could be fitted. Even as he was sealed in a darkness he’d never experienced before.
But how could he not hope? This was just a youthful indiscretion. There were presidents and senators and Supreme Court justices who’d done much worse. Were they going to die in the darkness for spray painting a dick on a road? No. Absolutely not. Not people like them.
And then the sound of the excavator starting up, and the rain of dirt falling on the lid of his barrel, filling in the hole. Then silence.
Bio: Ken Wheaton is a novelist, award-winning journalist, columnist, and editor. Publications include the novels “Duck Duck Gator” (Conifer Press), “The First Annual Grand Prairie Rabbit Festival” (Kensington), “Bacon & Egg Man” (Open Road), and “Sweet as Cane, Salty as Tears” (Open Road). Previously the editor of Advertising Age magazine, he now does content work for a little company called Google. Wheaton was born and raised in Opelousas, Louisiana, spent 20 years in New York, and now lives in Colorado. His website can be found HERE.