Forgotten Bones by Vivian Barz
“I really don’t understand the appeal, do you?” Derek Ritzeman yammered on from the driver’s seat. He did not wait for his girlfriend to answer before he continued, just as she hadn’t expected him to. Derek always became rhetorical when he was in a snit. “I mean, we’ve got to deal with noise and pollution and crackheads and tourists, but at least if we get lost in Frisco, some banjo-playing brother-daddy isn’t going to go all Deliverance on us in a backwoods shed.”
“Uh-huh.” Derek could have been talking about the moon for all Danica knew. He’d been going at it for a good ten minutes, and she’d ceased listening after about two.
Danica, unlike her ill-tempered travel companion, was not in a snit. She gazed over at Derek, hips swiveling against the heated leather seat, and something inside her stirred. She was feeling rather randy, hoping for a little action.
If he’d only shut the hell up.
“I must’ve taken a wrong turn,” Derek said. “Where, I don’t know, since half these damn roads don’t have signs. How do they even give directions out here?” He cleared his throat, grunted. “Okay, what y’all cowpokes are gonna wanna do is turn right at the fork in the road by that big old barn with the missin’ door. Turn left when you see the rusty trailer with the bullet holes—the one for cookin’ meth, not murderin’ hitchhikers. If you hit the junkyard with the feral dogs, you done gone too far.” Derek barked out a laugh and smirked at Danica, impressed with his hick impersonation as much as he was with himself.
Danica, not so much. Derek’s incessant yapping was dulling the buzz she’d worked so hard to achieve. Plus, she had that burning itch that required scratching. She tugged at the expensive haircut he loved to brag so much about—yeah, guys, $200, but come on —and tickled her fingers up the back of his skull. He placed a hand over hers and moved it downward with a kneading motion, so that she would take the hint and massage his neck.
She said, “Hey, babe, maybe you should pull over for a min—”
“I honestly have no idea where we are.” He provided her with a scowl, followed up with an irritated sigh. “Do you?”
Danica let out a sigh of her own as she pulled her hand away. “Nope,” she said, the dashed line in the middle of the road going squiggly as she shook her head.
“Here, I’ll stop at that Starbucks up at the corner and ask for directions.”
Danica hiccupped, and the tide of fullness went out inside her belly, leaving behind a fizzy whitewash of midrange chardonnay. Man, she was drunkety-drunk-drunk, realizing now just how little food she’d eaten but just how much wine she’d tossed back. A whole bottle? Two? But she hadn’t been hungry earlier, because who the hell has people over for dinner at six p.m.? On a Friday night?
Oh, that’s right—boring married people with kids, that’s who.
And thank God she wasn’t one of them.
Danica squinted. “Wha’ Starbucks?”
“Exactly.” Derek snorted. “I know I should’ve asked for better directions before we left, but I literally would have burst into flames if we’d stayed there even a millisecond longer. It’s like they were trying to hold us hostage. You know it’s almost ten? Greg said there’d be an actual ‘town’ area in Perrick with shops and gas stations and whatever to stop and ask for directions in case we got lost, but I haven’t seen anything, have you?”
“Gah! I really wish you hadn’t forgotten your phone back at the loft.”
“And I reallllllly wish you hadn’t let yourrrrrr battery die.” Danica dipped her head forward lazily, her hair falling over her face. They hit a pothole, and she brought it back up with a sharp jerk.
Derek looked away from the road just long enough to eyeball his swaying passenger. “Jesus, Dani, exactly how many glasses of wine did you have?”
“Jus’ ’nuff to make Shelly and Greg interesting.”
Derek chortled. “I know, right? I seriously thought I was going to stab my eyes out with a fork if Greg showed me one more photo of that goddamn creepy kid of theirs with brownie smeared all over his face like he’d been left alone with the litter box—does that kid have a head shaped like an artichoke or what? And when did it become socially acceptable for parents to wave around photos of their brats gorging themselves like that? I mean, is it supposed to be any less disgusting because their heads are smaller? We’ve sunk so low as a society, Dani! People used to get together to discuss freakin’ Plato, but now this is the standard, kids with noodles and shit on their faces?”
When was the last time you discussed Plato, my dear scholar? Danica thought and then bit back a smile.
The rant continued. “Brownie mashed in that artichoke head’s hair! How nauseating. What if I did that?”
She shrugged. “Dunno.” Blah . . . blah . . . blah . . .
“You know what? I think I will do that,” Derek said, slapping a hand down hard on the steering wheel. “Next time I tear into a fat, bloody tenderloin, I’m going to text a photo to Greg before I wipe my mouth, and I’m going to do it while he’s trying to enjoy his dinner. See how he likes it. It’s like, ‘Until I tell you otherwise, how about you just assume that I don’t want to see repulsive photos of your kid shoveling food into his piehole.’” He shook his head. “Can you believe those two used to be swingers?”
Danica straightened in her seat as much as a person three sheets to the wind is capable of straightening. It was more of a slanty slouch. “Seriously? No!”
“Yep. This was before they had their suburban lobotomies. Long before Artichoke Head,” he said, relishing the opportunity to impart a little gossip about his occasional business associate. “They used to do a ton of blow—I’m talking a few grams over the course of a couple hours, noses bleeding all over the place—and then go to this sex club down in the city. Greg liked to watch Shelly get it on with other . . . um, what do you think you’re doing?”
“What does it look like I’m doing?” Danica purred, fondling the zipper on Derek’s slacks.
Derek extracted his girlfriend’s hand from his lap. It was on his crotch again before he had a chance to put his own back on the steering wheel, as if her arm were spring loaded. “Babe, stop . I need to concentrate.”
“Multitask.” Danica was using both hands now, and she was being about as gentle as a ravenous river grizzly pawing for salmon.
“You’re actually hurting me,” he said. “Now stop! You’re going to make us crash.”
“I’ll be gentle.”
“Jesus! You almost took my dick off!”
“It’s mine ! Mine!”
Derek yelped as the Beemer veered into the opposite lane. Luckily, it was late (or what must be late for people living out in the sticks), so he was able to right them quickly and without any complaint from other motorists. He was the only motorist.
Never one to be easily thwarted, Danica unbuckled her seat belt and launched across the center console, burying her face in his lap. Derek could sense her nipping at his skin in a way that was far too close for comfort—teeth and blowjob are never two words any man wishes to hear in the same breath—and smell her boozy snuffles wafting up. She burrowed her head down deeper between his thighs, and he squirmed against the unyielding leather seat to put distance between his scared, shrinking penis and her vacuuming mouth.
“Gimme,” she demanded, pulling at the waistband of his boxers. She managed to force one side halfway down his hips, her drooly mouth making the thin cotton fabric unpleasantly moist. She smacked her lips and pouted up at him drunkenly, an expression she probably thought was seductive.
It wasn’t. Derek did not like the wicked gleam in her eyes. Not one bit.
The SUV swerved far right this time, kicking up gravel as they careened dangerously close to the guardrail. Derek’s eyes automatically flickered to the rearview mirror—funny how a person’s first instinct is to check the rearview mirror after fucking up driving, as if California Highway Patrol only catches drivers fucking up from the rear—and he thought, If there’s a cop back there, the only way he won’t stop me is if he’s blind, lazy, asleep, or just plain dead. I ought to pull myself over now and save him the trouble of turning on the lights.
Danica brayed uncontrollably, her grip like a vise. “Come on, baby, release the hound! Release the hound!”
Derek groped around near Danica’s breasts, a gesture she misinterpreted as a sexual advance. She moaned, tugging him roughly through the hole of his boxer shorts. The car bucked, made an ugly grinding sound underneath the hood. “I can’t shift! Move!”
Derek shoved Danica off. Hard . She was angry, but he imagined she’d be a lot angrier if he’d let them crash. Slowly, he let out his breath, which had gotten stuck near the pulse thudding high in his throat. Jesus, that was a close one. He’d missed that guardrail by a gnat’s ass. “Look, I’m sor—”
“God, you’re so boring! Why don’t you go screw Swinger Shelly, then, if I don’t do it for you? Greg’ll watch!”
“Okay, Drunkie, go have another bottle of wine. It really is so classy you get this drunk. And you’re welcome for not killing us.”
“You love this stupid car more than me!”
Derek ignored his girlfriend as she started to bawl, though he thought, Yeah, right now I kind of do .
“I don’t . . .” Danica hiccupped, belched, patted her chest. “I don’t . . . feel so . . . good.”
“Hey, you’d better not—oh shit !”
Derek wrenched the wheel hard to the left. He did it forcefully enough that he tweaked his bum shoulder painfully out of its socket so that it bulged under his shirt at a grotesquely inhuman angle.
Now, he was forced to sit helplessly as his treasured Beemer fishtailed across the opposite lane, down a slight embankment, through a wobbly barbed wire fence, and straight into a telephone pole, where they came to a windshield-shattering halt. It was a jolt so abrupt that it bounced Danica, rag doll–like, against the dashboard, up to the roof, and then back down to her seat. Derek became aware of her vomit splashing down on the expensive leather and across his right arm, hot, smelling sour but at the same time sweet and grapey. He understood that she might be injured, that he should reach down, unhook his seat belt, and check her over. He could hear the hideous swan song of his dying $80,000 vehicle—the first new car he’d ever bought outright—the whoosh of the airbags, the pops and squeals of the crumpled engine, the hiss of the tires as they deflated.
But Derek was not thinking about any of these things.
He was thinking about the little boy he’d just run over.
No words escaped his lips, but inside his head he was screaming. Oh dear God, please tell me that did not just happen! Even if I’m not drunk, even if it’s dark, even if Danica is to blame for distracting me, and even if that kid had no business standing in the middle of the road—where are his goddamn parents?— I was the one driving. I have just murdered a child, and I am probably going to go to prison for it. Life over.
Derek hugged the steering wheel and joined his passenger in vomiting.
Danica finished before he did. The surge of adrenaline that had coursed through her during the crash had sobered her enormously, almost as if she’d never been drunk at all. She sprang from the car, ran around to Derek’s crumpled-gum-wrapper door, and yanked it with superhuman strength, stunned when it gave without too much fight. “Derek! You okay?”
“You’re outside.” Derek gaped up at her with wide, uncomprehending eyes. “We’re in a field.”
“Oh my God, you’re bleeding! Have you been hurt? Answer me!” Blinded by panic, Danica scrambled up to the side of the deserted road, waving her arms. “Somebody help us!”
She ran back to the car.
Derek’s eyes were fixed on the telephone pole opposite the smashed windshield. It was splintered jaggedly, tilted almost ninety degrees. If it looked that bad, what must be the state of the . . .
“I hit a kid.”
Danica’s head snapped back. “What? When?”
“Before we crashed.”
Danica tugged off her cardigan and pressed it to Derek’s face, staunching the steady stream of blood that oozed from a gash that started at his hairline and ended just below his eyebrow. “Shhhh. Derek, it’s okay.”
Derek swatted her away. “It’s not okay! Did you hear me? I hit a little boy! Stop messing with me, and go check on him!”
Danica shook her head slowly. “No, honey, there was no boy.”
“What are you talking about—do you think I drove us into a telephone pole for no good reason?” He was shouting, his face all eyes. “You were drunk and all over the place, so you didn’t—”
“Drunk but not blind! Look, your head is gushing ,” she said, thrusting the soaked cardigan at him. “You’ve been hurt bad. I think you’re imagining things. If somebody doesn’t drive by soon, I’m going to cross the field to that farmhouse over there.”
Derek got out of the car. Either Danica was under a severe spell of denial, or his vision had failed him horribly. “No. I saw him,” he said with firm conviction. “I swear he looked right at me before . . . before I went over him. He was just so small . He came out of nowhere!” He put his face in his hands and started to sob. “And I killed him. I k-killed that l-little boy! ”
Danica placed a hand on his shoulder. “I don’t think you should be walking around.”
“I’m fine!” Derek snapped, which even he knew was untrue. He wasn’t going to die, but he’d be surprised if he didn’t have a concussion.
Danica took his hand. Having been Derek’s girlfriend for over two years, she realized that things would move along faster in the long run if she spared a few moments to placate him. Whatever she needed to do to get him to a hospital sooner. “Okay, how about we go look for him together?”
“It’s dark as hell out here!”
“We’ve got a flashlight in the back, remember?” She pointed up. “And look, a full moon.”
“Okay. Grab the flashlight.”
Derek and Danica walked for a quarter of a mile in each direction. They searched not only the road but also the fields on either side of it. There was no sign of a child, or even signs that one had been there recently: no footprints, no backpack, no toys, no candy wrappers. The only residue they saw of any human was the crumpled beer can they found by the side of the road, and even Derek had to agree that few little boys would go creeping out alone into the darkness just to sneak a few illicit swigs of Budweiser.
Danica said, “Think about it: Why would a kid be out in the middle of nowhere on his own at this time of night?”
Derek had been asking himself the same thing during their search. “I don’t know. Maybe he was running away from home?”
“But you said he was small, right? Like a kindergartner? So how far do you think a kid that small could actually run? Remember what it was like at that age—two blocks felt like two hundred miles. Honestly, given how late it is and also how cold, I just don’t think a kid could’ve been out here.” To drive her point home, Danica went over and under the car with the flashlight. “See. Don’t you think there’d be blood or, I don’t know, a clump of hair or something stuck in the grille if you’d hit a kid?”
“I guess,” Derek admitted.
“And did you actually feel a bump before we drove off the road? Because I know I didn’t.”
Had he felt a bump? Now he wasn’t quite so sure. So what, then? Had he driven them off the road over nothing?
“It’s crazy dark out here, and you’re tired. We were lost, and . . .” Danica raised her hands and turned her palms toward him. “And okay, I was being a little obnoxious, so you were distracted dealing with me. My guess is that maybe you saw a deer or something at the edge of the field, and your eyes played a trick on you. That can happen sometimes when you’re tired, you know. I used to imagine seeing lots of things scurrying across the I-5 when I’d drive up late at night from LA.” Danica felt it unnecessary to point out that, despite her exhaustion, she’d never smashed her car into a telephone pole.
“You think?” It was plausible, he supposed. A lot more plausible than a kid being out there on his own.
“Yes ,” Danica said, optimistic that she might finally be getting through. “And Greg had been shoving photos of his kid in your face all night. Maybe you fell asleep, even if for only a second, and then you woke back up and saw—what did you call him?—Artichoke Head in the road.”
“I think you’re right,” he agreed at last. “That will be our official story, then, okay? That I fell asleep?” More than anything, Derek wanted this to be true. And given all the evidence, he had to believe that it was true.
Still, he couldn’t help thinking about how Artichoke Head was an ugly little twerp, yet the kid he’d seen was cute, with little blue overalls that matched his big blue eyes.