He closes his eyes between a wave of burning discomfort, the heavy patter of rain on the roof providing a welcome distraction.
It had started to rain that night, too.
12:04 a.m. One hell of a shift. Just over fourteen hours and the last few made more arduous with light-trapping, saturated roads causing all sorts of trickery on tired eyes. He grabs the eyedrops from the glove box and squeezes the solution into his left eye, using the rear-view mirror for guidance.
A thud on the metal hood of the car startles him. “Caw!”
The bird is enormous. “Caw!” it screams again.
“Feathery fuck! Scared the living daylights out of me!” he yells back, slamming his fist against the windshield. “Piss off.”
The crow scratches its claws against the bonnet and merges into the blackness with a defiant cry.
“Fucking bird,” he mumbles. “Fucking day.” So many impolite customers, and not one goddamn tip.
Blinking away the residual moisture, he falls back into the headrest with a groan.
Can’t even enjoy his fried chicken, chest all knotted up, and bubbles of acid erupting at the back of his throat. He winds down the window halfway and swallows some comforting night air, but the lingering burn prompts him to pop another antacid in his mouth and angrily crunch down.
This place is his sanctuary, his escape, but its relentless onslaught won’t let him enjoy it tonight. It’s getting worse, no doubt. Fourteen hours in the same seat is taking its toll on the rest of his aching body, too. He stretches his tingling fingers against the rim of the steering wheel as a series of harsh crackles interrupt the song on the radio. Another gust wraps around the car, increasing the tempo of the swing that moans on rusty hinges in the center of the nearby park. Quickly winding up the window, he lets out a shudder, maintaining his gaze on the playground until another trail of lava begins working its way up his oesophagus. Fucking reflux. He rides it out, taking a deep breath and closing his eyes. He tries to reimagine the sounds and the smells of that pre-rain summer evening, but the show’s off today—no let-up from the goddamn acid party in his stomach.
Crunching down on another tablet, he dips his chubby hand into the bucket again and lifts the last colorless piece to his mouth. Fuck sake! There isn’t even any chicken in this one, just air surrounded by fat. He swallows it anyway, wiping his greasy fingers across a mound of fabric-covered gut and popping in another two antacids.
Thoughts turning to a beer and the comfort of soft sheets, he collects the substantial wrappers and soda cans from the passenger seat, almost half-filling the bucket. Bracing himself for the blast of cold, he swings open the car door, grimacing against the ever-increasing tightness in his chest as he hobbles across to the wheelie bin to dump the rubbish. He takes another look towards the moaning swing. “Storm’s brewing, kid,” he mutters. An icy wind cuts through him, creating urgency to get back to the relative warmth of the car.
Another shudder rattles down his spine as he eyes the silhouette of the hat through the car window, acid fizzing at the back of his slightly ajar mouth. Cold rain running down his back, he arches his neck to try and get a better view of the asshole in the back seat who just stepped into his taxi. As if the night couldn’t get any worse.
“I’m off duty,” he mutters into darkness.
More than a little peeved, Tony opens the rear door and leans in to observe the smartly dressed man, blue pin-striped suit, impossibly white teeth exposed in the broadest smile. He also notices the perfectly manicured fingers holding the cane and the notes crudely stuffed into the suit jacket pocket. His first thought is pimp, but the ones he’s used to driving around are a million miles away from the well-dressed man sitting in the back of his cab.
“I’m sorry, mate; I’ve finished. I’m going home.”
“Yes, you are. But this won’t take long.” The man reaches towards his pocket and brings out a handful of hundred-dollar bills. “More when you get there.”
He studies the man’s clear blue eyes, and even though some of the notes are stained with what he guesses to be blood, he already knows he’s going to give the guy his ride. Countless drug runs, contract work for the shadiest people in town, and here sits the cleanest cut person he’s seen all night offering him a stack of cash. It won’t be the first time he’s accepted tainted notes, and likely not the last.
“Where are you heading?” Tony asks.
“Drive for now. I’ll tell you when we get there.”
“Tell me when we get there,” Tony grumbles quietly under his breath as he steps back into the driver’s seat. “Direction, at least?”
“South, away from the city.”
Tony starts the engine, alternating his glance between the mirror and the glistening road. They drive in silence for a while.
“I knew I’d find you here,” the man eventually mutters matter-of-factly.
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve seen you here before. Day, night, in between”
Tony nervously shuffles in his seat. “You been out on the town? I mean, all dressed up and that.”
“You have to make an effort. I mean, one can’t just drive around town eating fried chicken all night, can one?”
Tony eyes him in the mirror but refuses to bite. “Not carried you before, have I?”
“No. Never more than once.”
Tony exhales slowly, another wave of acid terminating in his throat, bringing a feeling of further constriction with it. The prickling in his fingers is getting worse, and once again, he presses them against the wheel until they’re almost white.
Goddamn creatures of the night.
“What’s your business in town?” Tony asks, keen to break the silence that is inexplicably making his skin crawl. He’s had all sorts in the back of his cab, but there’s something about this one.
“I’m here for pleasure,” the man replies.
Tony eyes the passenger bringing a lit cigar to his lips, but he swears he never heard the ignition of a lighter or the strike of a match. He thinks about saying something, but the man’s paying good money, so he lets it pass. Something tells him he needs to stay on the right side of this one.
“When did you quit, Tony?”
“What? Oh, how did you—”
“Yeah, okay. Just under two years ago.”
“That’s a lot of chickens.”
“Rough night out there,” Tony says, switching to autopilot as he deals with the fire rushing through his body.
The man lifts his arm, tilting his gold watch but paying it no heed. “I don’t think we have enough time for small talk, Tony.”
Tony grabs the half-empty packet of antacids and fingers three urgently into his mouth. Hairs standing on the back of his neck, he can sense an oppressive heaviness in the air, just like before a big storm hits, but instead of filling him with excitement like it did that day, his body is beginning to cramp with ominous dread.
Glancing at the rear-view mirror, he finds the man’s smile again, now appearing more sinister than warm. It strikes him too; the guy’s suit and hat are as dry as a bone. His heart issues a warning, increasing in pace, and he feels a tightening too.
“May I ask what that is for,” the man says, nodding. “I’m referring to the cross that hangs so crudely from the mirror next to the action figure.”
“It was my mother’s. She gave it to me when she died.”
“Helps with tips, I guess; if people think you are a man of God.”
“I am a man of God. I’ve not missed Sunday church for months. Made a promise to Mum.”
Another wave of burning pain rushes through him, worse than the last, unaccompanied by sourness this time. He grips the edge of the seat, pushing his fingers deep into the fabric and biting down hard on his lip. Finally, it passes, leaving a residual ache that spans his entire body.
“Take another tablet if you like, but it won’t help, Tony. What made you look for him?”
“How far is it?”
“Not far now. What made you look? For God.” The man’s hand comes to rest on his shoulder, sending a searing heat down his left side. Crystal blue eyes in the mirror pierce through the otherwise darkness like a set of hypnotic headlights. He doesn’t know the man from Adam, but there’s a strange compulsion to—
“Forgiveness,” he utters, tearing his gaze back to the blur, a bead of sweat rolling down his right cheek. Something squeezes at his insides.
“Ah, yes—the get out of jail free card. And what may I ask, has He supposedly forgiven you for?”
“Many things, I guess.” It’s getting harder to get air. “But I’m a changed man now.” His heart thumps hard against his tender chest. “Made a promise to my mother on her death bed.” Bright lights begin to blur into one.
“The one you drove her to?”
An explosion of pain in his chest prevents any form of rebuttal as Tony leans into the wheel and lets out a cry of agony. It’s in his arms and legs now, even his neck, no longer a dull throb, but intense, and heading towards a violent crescendo as though some horrific poison is working its way urgently through every part of him.
“You’re having a heart attack, Tony. Your arteries are a mess.”
“Don’t try and talk, Tony. We’re nearly there now.”
“Wh—where?” he rasps, steering blindly into the sea of bright lights.
The burning sensation intensifies further as the bony fingers wrap tighter around Tony’s shoulder and as his passenger leans towards him. Once again, Tony finds himself hypnotised by the impossibly blue eyes. Metal scrapes and twists and glass splinters as Tony’s head propels into the airbag. He hears the sound of his nose snap, but there is no accompanying pain. All he can feel is the intense heat of his passenger’s hand impossibly still coiled around his shoulder.
Suddenly, he’s whipped out of the vehicle, a confused spectator to the carnage on the road, and to his lifeless body that sits awkwardly behind the steering wheel. The crow, now resting on the crunched bonnet, gives out a final cry.
“Been waiting five years to collect, Tony. I had you down for six, but they made the buckets even bigger.”
As he’s dragged through dark puddles that go undisturbed, he claws desperately at the ground, but he’s no longer of this world, and he knows it. “I’m a man of God, though,” he mutters at the now distant lights.
The hand on his shoulder is now a claw, thick black nails curling into his flesh.
“If you truly did seek repentance, why did you continue to visit the park? Why did you have that little boy’s toy dangling from the mirror? And why, when watching the swing moving in the breeze, did you play the scene in your head over and over again?”
“I’m a man of God.”
“Those poor parents. No closure”
“—man of God.”
“If you truly did repent, you would have gone to the police.”
“Blessed is the one whose—”
“Just like your mother told you when she found out.”
“—if you do not forgive—”
“Sent her to an early grave, didn’t it? No longer able to live with the guilt of covering for you.”
“Boosted my numbers, though.”
Tony’s skin begins to prickle, the heat returning but no longer internal.
“Forgive me, Father—”
“Too late, Tony.”
“Where are we going?”
“Home. The fire’s on.”