It came on all at once, while Nolan was driving down a dark New Jersey highway toward the woods. A feeling that wasn’t quite guilt, but adjacent to guilt. Doctors might refer to it as shock. Or maybe shock was the numbness that came before the feeling. And if that was true, maybe this feeling was the connective tissue between shock and guilt.
At first, it was just a job. Go to the place, do the thing, don’t ask questions. And Nolan always did his job well. He never stopped to think about what he was doing, he just moved on to the next task. But now, as he sped down the highway, the thought hit him like a deer with a death wish:
I’m a murderer.
The bosses called it “Popping your cherry.” Nolan was no stranger to violence. He’d tuned up plenty of guys, mostly for not paying what they owed, but this was the first time he’d been asked to pull the trigger on somebody. It was a prerequisite for moving up in the business, so he always knew he would have to do it someday. He wasn’t told why the poor bastard had to go, and he didn’t ask. In the business, you’re taught that nobody gets involved without accepting the risks. In other words, everyone in the business deserves to die, and when it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go. The same went for Nolan, but some folks are lucky, and some ain't, and so far Nolan had always been lucky.
A lucky murderer.
It wasn’t guilt, and it wasn’t quite remorse either. It was a kind of nausea, mixed with a sense of vertigo. It was that sinking feeling you get on a flight right before the plane takes off, and to top it off you drank too much the night before and your stomach has become some kind of lab experiment. He considered pulling over to vomit, but instead he took a deep breath and held it down. A car on the side of the highway draws attention, and he couldn’t risk drawing attention. Not with a dead body in the trunk.
He already felt too exposed. Every set of headlights in the opposite lane was a pair of accusing eyes, illuminating his transgression for the world to see. He watched each pair fade away in his rearview mirror, turning from white to red as they passed, as if coming near him had stripped them of their virtue. He was certain they all knew what he’d done, and that sooner or later one of them would turn around and run him down.
What scared him the most was not the sensation. The nausea and paranoia were bearable, for the moment. It was the thought that they might not be temporary. That his stomach would never settle. That the eyes would always be on him. The emotions he felt regarding his previous crimes had been appropriately fleeting. Bruises could heal, property could be replaced. A pinch for vandalism or selling contraband was a right of passage in the business. But murder was permanent. The man in his trunk would never heal. A pinch for this would be for life. And that’s if he remained lucky.
Just as Nolan was beginning to get ahold of himself, the backside of his car gave a sudden lurch. All of the hair on the back of his neck stood up, and his heart began pounding like a prisoner trying to escape. The car swerved a bit, but he corrected quickly, and focused his attention on the rearview mirror, watching for signs of movement from the trunk.
He can’t still be alive. That’s impossible.
Nolan had met the doomed man in a secluded, private lot under the pretense of doing some kind of a deal. He led the man to his car, opened the plastic-lined trunk, and shot him twice point blank in the heart before he could connect the dots. As all the muscles in the man’s body went limp, Nolan pushed his torso toward the trunk, heaved the feet in after it, and closed the hatch unceremoniously. That was how easy it was to end a man’s life. That is, assuming Nolan’s aim was true.
It suddenly occurred to him that he’d never shot a man in the heart before. Could I have missed? He told himself it was just a bump in the road, but he wasn’t convinced. The lurch had definitely come from the back of the car. He would have felt a bump at the front and the back. He held his breath and waited for the movement to reoccur. If the man was alive, surely he would continue struggling. After about thirty seconds, he heaved a sigh, and pushed it from his mind.
About thirty miles out of town, he turned off the highway down a wooded dirt path. He drove for at least another twenty minutes, until the highway was no longer visible behind him and he was certain he was far from prying eyes, and turned off the road, driving between the trees. They began getting denser the longer he drove, giving him the feeling of walls closing in around him. He drove until there was no more room for his car, and shifted into park.
He stepped out of the car, walked around to the trunk, and stood still for several seconds, watching for signs of movement. Images flooded his mind of the man springing out of the trunk the moment it opened and sinking his teeth into Nolan’s neck like a vampire. But the car remained perfectly still. With a deep breath, he inserted the key into the lock, and opened the hatch slowly. What he saw was not a vampire, but it caused him to fall backward in fright nonetheless.
Nolan clearly recalled that the body had landed facedown in the trunk. But when the hatch opened, its head was turned upward, eyes wide open, looking directly at Nolan. Its mouth was closed...but not just closed, pursed. Its expression was not one of terror or shock. It looked stern. Accusatory, like the lights on the highway. Now Nolan sat on the ground, bathed in red taillights, pulse racing, waiting for the angry corpse to crawl out of the vehicle and pass judgment upon him. But nothing happened.
You’re just imagining things. Get ahold of yourself.
He couldn’t see into the trunk from where he lay to confirm that he had imagined what he saw, and it took all of the courage he could muster to stand up and peer inside the trunk. When he finally did so, the body was face down just as he’d remembered, head turned slightly toward the front of the car. It was slack jawed and dazed, the one eye that was visible completely expressionless. He wiped cold sweat from his brow, and reached for the shovel that was tucked underneath the body’s legs.
Why did I put the shovel in before the body? He groaned as he struggled to wrench it loose. After three good tugs, it came free, followed closely by a leg, which hooked itself over the rim of the trunk. Nolan startled backward again but this time didn’t fall. He thought about tucking the limb back into the trunk, but his stomach gave a sudden twist. He didn’t want to touch the body until he absolutely had to. He stared at the car for another few moments, part of him still suspicious of the corpse, then turned around and began digging a grave.
As he drove the spade into the dirt, he heard a gentle rumbling. At first he thought another car had found him, and the jig was up. Then he recognized the sound: Thunder, in the distance. A storm was coming. He had to hurry. If he was lucky (and so far, he always was), it would hold out just long enough for him to finish.
After a few minutes of digging, his muscles started to ache and the cold sweat became a hot one. Amid the scooping and flinging of dirt, Nolan thought, but could not be certain, that he heard a gentle eek! eek! sound. He stopped and looked back at the car, which remained perfectly still. He resumed shoveling and tried to tell himself it was a bird, but he couldn’t deny, it had sounded an awful lot like the gentle creaking of a car frame. He increased his pace slightly, and a few minutes later, he heard the sound again. This time he spun around on a dime, as if to shout “Aha!” But again, he saw nothing. He studied the leg hanging over the edge of the trunk, trying to decide if it had shifted its position. He couldn’t be certain it had, but he couldn’t be certain it hadn't, either. He stood frozen, not wanting to turn his back on the body again, until a loud crack of thunder snapped him out of his trance.
He began digging at double speed. His muscles screamed but he didn’t care. He told himself he needed to finish before the rain started, but in truth, he was genuinely frightened, and could not wait to get the body in the ground. After what must have been an hour but felt like a lifetime, the hole looked about the right size. He threw the spade onto the newly formed dirt pile and grabbed the body by the feet as fast as he could. He avoided looking at its face. If its expression had changed again, Nolan decided he’d rather not know. In a few more minutes, it wouldn’t matter. It was considerably harder to pull the body out of the trunk than it was to push it in, but once it came free of the vehicle, it slid gracefully into the hole. Thankful for that small victory, he quickly removed the bloody liner from the trunk, and draped it over the body. At almost the exact moment the plastic landed in the hole, Nolan heard the faint pitter-patter of rain droplets, followed by another loud crack of thunder. His luck was running out.
He grabbed the spade and frantically commenced filling in the hole. He filled it in less than half the time it had taken to dig it, and when he was done his back was on fire. By then the rain had picked up, and the last few scoops were pure mud. He hurled the filthy spade into the trunk, slammed the hatch down, and stood there hunched over the band end of his sedan, heaving and barely able to hold himself up, for several seconds, until he collapsed to the ground and finally vomited. He wasn’t certain if it was anxiety, fear, or physical exertion, maybe all of the above, but it felt good. The deed was finally done, and if hurling all over the grave of the man he whacked meant he could leave the site with a calm stomach, then it seemed like the right thing to do. He wiped his chin with his hand, replacing vomit with mud. The rain did a better cleaning job as he reached for the car and pulled himself back to his feet. Still weak from the digging, but feeling lighter and calmer, he made his way to the driver’s seat and got in.
The rain was coming down full force now, with thunder and lightning at quick, regular intervals. He flipped on the wiper blades, shifted into drive, and spun a circle around the tree to his right, until his headlines were shining on his previous tire tracks. He had his final lucky thought as he followed the trail he came in on: The storm would wash it away.
The car rocked slightly, causing a brief moment of panic, but Nolan quickly squashed it. It was just the uneven ground, made worse by the rain. He took a calming breath but couldn’t settle down fully. The relief from his vomiting episode proved to be short-lived. He needed to get out of these woods and back to the highway fast, before the dirt road became undriveable. It didn’t take him long to reach the road, but he couldn’t remember how long he’d driven after turning off the highway, and visibility was terrible. He squinted and tried to spot the intersection during the bright lightning flashes, but couldn’t see more than a few yards through the rain.
He wasn’t aware that he was speeding until the car lurched again, nearly causing him to lose control. He swerved violently side to side, kicking up mud onto the windshield, which was abruptly smudged by the wiper blades. He managed to correct before he completely peeled out, and told himself he needed to slow down, but instead he sped up. Panic was taking over his motor functions. He needed to get out of the woods as soon as possible.
When the car teetered a third time, Nolan was steeled against it and stayed his course. His eyes trained on the rearview mirror, watching for movement from the trunk. It had definitely come from the rear of the car, just like before, but that was impossible. The man had been dead the moment he fell into the trunk, and now he was dead and buried. The only explanation was that Nolan was going crazy. When his eyes returned to the road, they seemed to confirm that fact. Standing there was a man, covered in mud from head to toe, grinning at the oncoming vehicle. Nolan cried out and instinctively swerved, losing control of the car entirely.
The last few moments of Nolan’s life were a flash of crunching metal and shattering glass, followed by a brief unconsciousness, and a hazy re-entry. As he came to, he was aware enough to notice that a branch from the tree he had hit had completely penetrated his right shoulder, and that his legs were crushed, but he couldn’t feel any pain. All the windows in the car were gone, and some bits of glass had embedded themselves in his cheeks, but the rain coming through was soothing. He looked to his left, and though his vision was blurry, he could see the dead man looming over him, bloated and mud-stained, smiling, watching his murderer die with pleasure. He couldn’t be certain if it was real, but in a few more minutes, it wouldn’t matter. As he sat there, waiting to drift away for good, he couldn’t help but wonder how many other guys in the business promptly drove themselves into a tree after popping their cherry. This led him directly to his dying thought:
Some folks are lucky, and some ain't.