By: Rob Bowman
The SUV had an ugly blue-and-white smear down the side where it had scraped against the police cruiser. The tires were worn thin on the edges and began to slowly leak just after they edged the police cruiser over into the gulch, whereupon it rolled over and ground to a halt. The officer, who had undone his seatbelt to try and more effectively remove his sidearm to shoot the men whose vehicle matched the description of the bank robbery across town, the men who had shot a security guard twice, once in the foot and once in the back, was trapped in the crumpled folds of the car. The officer, Soto, had fallen out of his seat when the car flipped, had been crushed there between the ceiling and the steering wheel, had been on his way back to the station house for a shower and a stretch of three days off, during which he was helping plan his daughter’s quinceañera. There was a father–daughter dance to be rehearsed.
The side of the SUV was dented and crushed in so far that Andy had found he couldn’t open the door when they eventually stopped and he had to awkwardly wiggle out the other side.
“Shouldn’t have shot that guard,” Tom said.
“We needed to shake them up.”
“I don’t mean the foot. I mean when we was leaving, the shot in the back.”
“Aw, hell,” Andy said. “He was calling in. You saw his hand on his radio,” Andy spat out the window. They had rolled them both down to hide the crumbled edges where they had been broken, pushed the gritty little geometric bits of glass out onto the road.
“Hand on his radio? There was already gunfire. Cops were called already. And you don’t think any of those tellers know how to use a phone? You don’t think that manager could still do it with a busted-in face?”
The manager’s eye socket was destroyed by the butt of a pistol, bruises were at that moment raising around his throat where he was briefly strangled, bent backward over the counter, looking out with his one remaining good eye at Sarah, one of the newer hires, a gun against her head, the same gun that had just punched a ragged hole through Albert’s foot. The man already had bad feet, his gout had made standing during his duty nearly impossible. But Albert, a proud man who insisted nothing needed to be adjusted for him, had scorned the chair they had given him. And now these two had put a hole straight through Albert’s comfort-fit shoe while he wore it. They had smashed in the manager’s face, were choking the life out of him on the counter while they put that gun against Sarah’s temple and the manager, David, could see her heartbeat in her other temple, her eye makeup running in dark trickles down her face, not quite parallel streams, tainted and black.
A rule of bank security is don’t let them behind the counter but they had already shot Albert in the foot, had him standing there like a flamingo on one leg, with a gun to his head, said if that door didn’t open, a bullet was going through the old man’s brain. David let them in. They raided the drawers, filled their backpacks. David opened the gate to the small vault. This wasn’t a major branch, just a satellite thing in the parking lot of a strip mall. Four teller windows, one guard with bad feet, and a small vault without safety deposit boxes, just reserve cash for large traffic days. One man cleaned out the drawers while the other kept his gun against Sarah.
They filled their backpacks and were leaving, sirens audible in the distance (they had hit the panic button, of course) when one of them shot Albert through the back as he lay on the ground. His air wheezed out of him. Then they were gone, tires squealing down 42nd. The tellers went to him and placed hands on his chest and back, trying to hold the old man’s life in.
Tom and Andy drove straight onto the highway, following the speed limit and driving as responsibly as they could when Officer Soto saw them and pulled alongside, lights flashing. Officer Soto in the ditch, Albert wheezing his last, Sarah wiping her face, feeling the lump on the side of her head from the pressure of the gun, David trying to explain to the police his understanding of what happened, gauze wrapped around his head, keeping his eye in place until a specialist could try and fail to save it.
“We need to get out of here. You really fucked this all up. Killing that guard. Fuck.” Tom was furious but trying to hide it. Robbery is one thing and murder is another. They would both carry full charges. Maybe make it to the border. Sneak into Canada; lay low. Do they have extradition there? Isn’t that in movies? Is that just Mexico? Mexico is two thousand miles away. Canada is maybe twenty? No question which sounds better.
Andy looked coolly at Tom. What difference did it really make? If they get caught it’s bad for them. What is really the difference between twenty years and thirty when it comes to prison? With one of them you are an old man with no chance of anything when you get out and with the other you are an even older man with no chance of anything when you get out. And both carry a major if one gets out.
“Whatever. We just need to take care of us. Nothing really changed. You weren’t going to work Monday and neither was I,” Andy said.
The call came in that a dead moose was half in the stream. It had died violently, maybe. Lots of gore; entrails and viscera splayed off into the water and undulated with the current. But that may have been after death, scavengers picking at the belly, getting at the most vulnerable places, or it could have burst in the sun, bloat and rot, uncontrolled, reckless. Usually the more vicious scavengers leave their mark, dung and vomit when they have gorged themselves beyond capacity. Then eating more.
Mickey had seen plenty of dead animals as a forest ranger and usually left the animals where they lay but an animal in the water causes serious problems downstream. Accordingly, she always kept a shovel and some bags in the back of her truck. But a fully grown bull moose? She would need to get some heavy equipment up there, somehow. Or just post notice, maybe. May have been a bear, maybe. Usually they aren’t so aggressive as to take on a moose. The moose seem gentle, look like sweet, kind of dopey things, awkward and strange, like some kind of faulty design but they are actually fifteen hundred pounds of anger edged with antlers and hooves and can do real damage and the bears stay wary of them. Hmm, Mickey thought. A bear this aggressive will have to be accounted for. Then again, the moose may have already taken care of things. Broken the bear’s jaw. The bear would starve.
Mickey parked in the space marked RANGER PARKING, unlocked the door and went to her desk, typing the notices and sending emails regarding the moose. She hit print, multiple copies. She would have to hang these around, particularly the campgrounds, the hiking trails, and the spots where no one was supposed to hike or camp but always did; it wouldn’t do to just have it on the bulletin board outside of the station. Mickey loved the job. Loved the peace of it, the feeling of custodianship over the world even if it was just giving tours, talking to families, even explaining that the name tag said Mikayla but her friends called her Mickey and anyone who wants to learn about the forest is a new friend. Hokey but she liked it. They always smiled and then said it out loud. “Mickey,” they’d chorus, as though it was the magic word. An open sesame for the forest. But lately she had started to hate the quiet. It was what brought her to the job at first but now she spent uncomfortable amounts of her income on audiobooks and satellite reception for the sake of a little noise. Mickey turned on the television. On bad days only stations that played soap operas and daytime talk came in. The clouds somehow choking out all of the interesting stuff. It was a bad day.
A woman on the show was lamenting a broken heart given by a man with an eye patch.
“Well, you screwed yourself when you screwed him, didn’t ya?” Mickey pushed an errant lock of hair out of her eyes. It mostly was pulled back but growing back out a short haircut meant assorted strands kept wiggling their way out. She pursed her lips and blew it out of her face. Between the printer and the television and the hard puffs of breath, she hardly heard the door open.
They were sweating but trying to seem calm. Thirties, maybe, hard to say, deep lines in their faces, bad color. She didn’t know but they were coming down from one panic-adrenaline surge and ramping up into another. They had bags under their eyes. They smelled bad. One had a couple of spots of blood up near his hairline. Sweat stains blooming under their arms. They each wore a backpack that looked heavy, zippers straining.
Both were holding guns.
“We need your truck.”
Mickey quickly rolled it all through her brain. She had been out inspecting the moose and left the radio in the truck after having dropped it into creeks, canyons, various piles of shit through the years. There was probably an alert to be on the lookout. Probably described them in some vaguely exciting way but seeing them now it was clear that they were just two people who weren’t good or bright or decent doing bad, stupid, terrible things.
“You can take it.” Mickey threw the keys at the taller of the two, who caught them with a snatch out of the air.
“And you’re coming with us.”
Mickey blinked hard and wished rangers carried guns on them at all times. Her rifles were locked in the storage closet. They were each designed to solve a very specific problem—one of them was for small nuisances, birds who were dive-bombing picnickers, another was for medium problems, like a rabid raccoon. Then there were the two monsters, an elephant gun for extreme needs, and a hypodermic gun. Any of them would have been tremendously helpful.
Mickey thought. If she went back to get them, they would never let her go by herself and if they saw them, they would take the guns for themselves. And no situation seemed to improve by adding in more guns. So she decided to let them stay where they were.
Andy was driving and Tom was in the back seat with Mickey, who had tried to tell them that staying on the trails would be the best thing but they insisted off-road would be better.
“That will be harder for them to track,” Andy said.
“What? That doesn’t make any sense at all. There’s new ruts in the grass then. And the trees are going to block you over and over again. You’ll probably kill the truck in a couple of miles,” Mickey said.
“Shut up. I know what I’m doing. I’m sure you have other rangers out here. Tourists and families and bullshit. They’ll see us.”
This was undoubtedly true and Mickey had hoped to get them noticed in precisely this way but worried that if a family saw them before someone else the family would be hurt. And she didn’t want that. Even so, the advice she gave them was accurate and she didn’t say anything as they bounced and jounced and jostled down through the forest, lifting up and slamming down over and over. It had once been a good truck but was now just another worn-out government vehicle. She also didn’t say anything when the entire drivetrain dropped out of the truck only a couple of miles later.
The two men took turns lying under the truck while the other watched her, trying in vain to push the shattered truck back together. She still had her flashlight with her, a long-handled thing loaded with enough D batteries to make it heavy. But that was it. Even her animal mace was back in the office. She was riding highs and crashing through lows as adrenaline rushed through her, faded, rushed up again. It was making her teeth hurt. She realized she had been clenching and unclenching her jaw over and over the entire time.
Andy and Tom were panting, covered in grease and dirt. Andy stomp kicked the side of the truck and left a dent.
“Shit. Truck is goddamn shot. Piece of shit.”
“You drove like an asshole, Andy. How far is it now?”
“You’re asking me? How would I know? Hey, Mikayla, how far is it to the border?” Tom used the name on her name tag. Mickey had not gone into her now-we-are-friends routine with them.
“From here?” Mickey thought for a moment. Probably at least 150 miles. Almost impossible on foot. Angry bears. Cold nights. No water. No food. Impossible. But she couldn’t tell them that. It would infuriate them. And they’d want to go back to the road for a new car, and who knew what that would lead to?
“Maybe ten miles,” Mickey said. “Not too far. Walkable.”
“Ten miles?” Tom looked uncertain. He was thinking about the weight of that backpack. Ten miles would be tough. And what about when they actually got to the border, what then? It’s not as though there would be someone waiting for them there.
“You’d be walking across no matter what. None of our roads go through. Couldn’t, of course. Border crossings and all of that. You know.” Mickey tried to look helpful.
“Ten miles? Shit. Can’t handle ten miles?” Andy grinned at Tom.
“Maybe ten miles. Probably closer to five.” Mickey nodded as she spoke.
“Then start walking. Lead the way.”
Mickey tried hard to visualize exactly they were and to strike up a fast pace, not quite a run, but quick. She was certain these two, Andy in particular, couldn’t bear to be outpaced by a woman and wouldn’t tell her to slow down.
Tom marched behind her and Andy kept scrambling ahead and then falling back. He would realize how far back he was and then jog back up, keeping just a few steps ahead of her. He was hacking up phlegm and coughing, spitting up chunks of snot. He sounded like a toothless old man, full of dust and rot. They both had their guns shoved into the waist of their pants. Every so often Andy would take his in hand and walk that way. Then he would tire of the extra weight in his hand and put it back.
“How far is it now?” Andy was breathing hard and trying not to show it. They hadn’t gone far but were going steadily uphill, over rocks, fallen trees.
“We have only gone a couple miles. But it isn’t far. We just need to keep going.” Mickey still needed to come up with some kind of plan. They would catch on that they had more ground to cover and it felt less and less likely that someone else would just stumble upon them. And even then, it might be worse.
Mickey wanted to get her hands on one of those guns.
“We need to rest. No good walking tired and rolling an ankle,” Tom said. He sat down on a nearby stone, pulled off his backpack and set it in front of him, between his legs. He moved the guns from the front of his pants, to the back. They all sat down.
“I’ll be right back,” Mickey stood up and began to walk toward Tom, then turned to go behind him.
Andy was up on his feet instantly, gun up. “What are you doing?”
“I need to pee.”
Andy considered this for a moment. “Fine. But just behind that tree. If I see you go farther than that, I’m coming after you. Get me?”
Mickey nodded and walked over to the tree he had pointed to. She noisily unbuckled and quietly rebuckled her belt. She would bend here, wait for Andy to look away, and then run up onto Tom, grab the gun. But if Andy still had his, and he was clearly the more dangerous of the two, what then? Mickey bit her lip in thought. She would have to grab Tom’s gun and then, in one move, stand and shoot Andy.
Jesus. Am I ready to shoot a person? Probably best to just not think about it.
Mickey felt weirdly optimistic. She felt fresh and alert, excited in a way that she didn’t know what to make of. Another wave of adrenaline was coursing through her; every cell was screaming. Her eyes had dilated into saucers.
She looked around the tree. The men hadn’t moved. They both sat, spent. Tom wasn’t far away—fifteen feet? Mickey crouched and thought. A few long strides if she was running. Or a lot of small, quiet ones if she tried to sneak up. She ran.
She bounded across the distance and was reaching out to grab the pistol out of the back of Tom’s pants when Andy yelped and fired his gun into the tree just next to her head. A splash of splinters shot out.
“Don’t you fucking move,” Andy was staring her straight in the eyes.
“What was that?” Tom looked as startled as Mickey, more so.
“She was going to take your gun. We look like a couple of assholes to you? A couple of idiots? I’m not an idiot. Did you hear me?” Andy moved toward Mickey, who was standing as still as possible, save for her shivering. Andy grabbed Mickey by her hair and pulled her forward. “I should kill you right now.”
“You can’t kill her. She knows the way out and we don’t,” Tom said.
“Horseshit, we just use the sun. North, right?” Andy looked up to figure out what direction was which.
“Except it isn’t just north. You want to find yourself on the edge of a huge lake? Or do you want to be just a few hundred yards from a road so you can cross over and then hitchhike in?” Mickey realized she needed to make herself valuable fast.
Andy nodded and smiled. He had a perfect, gleaming smile. Mickey thought of all of those movies with ugly, gray-toothed, snaggled grins on bad guys. In real life they could look like anything at all. There were simply bad guys everywhere.
“So, we will have two new rules,” Andy said.
“What?” Tom said.
“Procedures. First, you will walk in front, Mikayla.” Andy spat the name, as though it actually tasted bad. “Second, we need to make absolutely certain that we avoid this problem in the future.” Andy switched his hand from Mickey’s hair to her right wrist.
“You going to hold hands all the way there?” Tom said.
“Hold your gun on her. Listen,” Andy said to Mickey. “This is going to hurt. But not nearly as much as what we will do after another problem.”
Andy grabbed Mickey’s right index finger and pulled back on it until the joint snapped.
Mickey screamed a short burst and then began gasping.
“I suppose one could use their middle finger for a trigger, right?” Andy asked Mickey and then snapped that one, too.
Mickey looked at Tom. She thought for sure he would be playing good cop here, looking out for her but she looked into his eyes and saw an absolute cold. Tom watched her yelp, waited for her to catch her breath and then flatly spoke to Andy.
“She could be left-handed.”
And then Andy, methodically and without hesitation, broke the two fingers on Mickey’s left hand as she squirmed and gulped and gasped.
“Okay. Let’s get going, campers,” Tom said.
Mickey knew that she was going to be killed. She had lied in saying where the border was. They were smart enough to avoid the roads. No one probably even knew yet that she was in trouble. And her hands were now useless. Every small bounce hurt, she was walking with each hand tucked under the other arm to try and keep them from moving but it was hurting her balance. She fell and tried to catch herself at one point and found she had wrenched back and twisted her broken fingers in the process. It all seemed pretty well doomed.
“Hey, Mikayla. We need water. Isn’t there some spring water or some shit around here?” Tom could feel the grit of the forest on his tongue. His steps were dragging. He could have shot Andy for putting them in this. And now a hike with no supplies at all? They should have ransacked the ranger station. Goddamn Andy, Tom thought. And now they were going to have to kill this woman. She knows their names, knows where they are going. Tom didn’t like the guard’s being killed but it had narrowed all future options for them and he wasn’t going to prison. But first they had to get through this goddamn, fucking forest.
“What?” Mickey was in her head. She was trying to slowly lead them east, hoping to hit a campground and then make a run for it but she knew this was a bad plan. In fact, she had slowly made them gently u-turn back toward the ranger station. They were about a mile from it right then.
“Water. Water? To drink. We’re dying out here.”
Mickey thought. She did know where a stream was.
“Yeah. I know where a stream is. We have to cut over a little.”
“Is it far?” Andy was still suspicious of her. “How out of the way is it?”
“It’s not far and not very out of the way. Will add maybe a mile, all told. Not much.”
She began to lead them toward the stream.
The stream ran clear and cool. The men drank deeply, laughing, washed their hands and faces, slurped and dribbled. Tom brought handful after handful to his face while Andy gave up on the cupped hand technique and knelt down to drink like a horse.
“That helps. That’s good.” Tom lay back, rubbed his dripping hands over his face again.
“Good God. I feel like a new man,” Andy said. “Hot shit.”
“Andy, I swear to God, the next time we do a job we need to stop by the store first. So goddamned hungry now,” Tom said.
“Drink up. You’ll feel better. Ten miles? Hell. We can do that in no time. We will find us a nice steak restaurant and eat like kings. Find us some girls.”
“We already have one. What do you say? You think you want to join us?” They both looked over at Mickey.
While they were feeling transformed by the water, she hadn’t drunk a drop, instead soaking her swollen hands in the water. It was better than nothing, but even so gentle a roll as this small stream was knocking her fingers around terribly. Mickey looked around her. In truth, they were still just a couple of miles from the ranger station. She had made them zigzag endlessly. A straight line back would be pretty easy for her but almost impossible for them. And, she hoped, that their day was about to get a lot worse. But how long would that take? She figured she would stay with them until she saw a sign, a clue of some kind. Or until they began to act on their uglier notions. And then she would run for it.
“We really need to keep going if you want to make it there anytime soon. It gets cold at night. And the animals are more active.”
“Why do you care so much about us making it?”
“When are you going to let me go?”
“When we get to the border.”
“Well, there you have it.”
They kept walking, Mickey leading them through more and more loops and jags.
“Let’s stop here.” Tom was sweating heavily. He looked pale. At the very least, they weren’t used to this terrain. Andy looked at her again. He had made sure to walk immediately behind her. She could feel his eyes all over her and a knot was growing in her stomach. What she wouldn’t give for the animal mace at that moment.
“How close are we now?” Andy was edgy, torn between his basest instincts and cruelest machinations. He wanted something to happen. It might not matter what.
“Close. A couple miles. You guys could make it the rest of the way yourselves. Just let me go now. Just go straight ahead. You’ll cross in no time and then should hit a road just a mile past that. Turn left and you will be in a town. No problem.” Mickey hoped panic wasn’t in her voice. She hoped it sounded natural and true and not like desperate bullshit. She had been going over everything in her mind. Why would they let her go? She knew their names, knew where they were going, knew what they looked like. They had almost certainly already been on the news. Everyone knew who they were but not where they were. And these were guys who learned crime from the movies. Even their small talk was all clichés and chest puffery.
Tom kept dabbing at his brow with his sleeve. The sweat was coming thicker. He was groaning. Andy was slowing but still moving along at the same pace he had for most of the afternoon. Mickey decided it was now. She had to run. Make it back to the station. Get the mace. Get the gun. Get the radio and her phone. Get to the road. Get away.
Andy looked at her and grinned. They had both been keeping their guns in the waist of their pants at first but then traded off who kept their gun out and who put it in their backpack. The guns had started to dig into their skin, were catching stray back or belly hairs and causing little yelps when they were pulled out. Tom’s gun was in his belt. Andy’s was in his backpack.
Mickey walked up to Andy, tried hard to smile though it felt more like a grimace. She started to raise one arm as though, in a step or two, she would pull him close. He watched her hand rising and then she kicked him square in the crotch. He howled and crumpled as she turned and ran, sprinting down the rocks. Andy pulled his backpack off, opened it, and fumbled for his gun, coughing, gagging, and then firing into the trees Mickey had just run through.
Tom saw everything and was beginning to clutch at his gun when an overwhelming pain gripped him in his gut. Vomit swirled in the back of his throat and he felt his bowels loosen. He gripped the gun and tried to aim but couldn’t keep himself from vomiting. He collapsed and lay on the ground, shamed and shocked, his pants fouled and reeking, bile in his nostrils.
Andy caught his breath and ran after Mickey.
“Bitch! Get back here! I’ll kill you! I’ll goddamned kill you!”
Mickey was going in a nearly straight line, scrabbling down the rocks, frantic to get back. She knew where she was going, and she knew the terrain, but Andy was fast. She could hear him closing the gap. This wasn’t going to work. She looked around for a place to hide. Nothing decent. She pushed back behind a tree and tried to slow her breathing. The station was still a mile away. She lay back against the trunk of the tree and wished she had the use of her hands.
He was pushing down the trail. Still shouting and yelping, crashing through the bushes. She tried to time it until he was right beside her. She turned from behind the tree, swinging her elbow with all of her weight behind it. She wanted to catch him in the eye or mouth, knock out his teeth, pop out one of his eyes. She barely caught his ear. He spun, yelped, tripped on a tree root and fell. Mickey fell on top of him and put her left forearm into his throat, punched her right elbow down into his eye once, twice, a third time before he pulled her up and back by her hair. She tried to grab at his face, claw out his eyes, but her fingers wouldn’t work.
Andy threw Mickey onto her back. She tried to crab away, scooting on the heels of her hands as Andy stood and pulled up the gun, coughing and blinking and trying to focus his eyes. One of them wouldn’t focus at all, a field of red streaks. He closed his left eye and Mickey came back into focus.
“Well, that’s that.” Andy fixed his aim onto Mickey. And then his stomach gave out. He bent in half and bile shot from his nose and mouth.
Andy wasn’t keeping up. Mickey couldn’t hear him after just a hundred feet or so of running, but she continued at a sprint. She could see it, the peeling cream paint of the ranger station. Still no other cars there. No one knew.
She found her way into the station, grabbed the phone, and unlocked the gun cabinet, holding the key against her ring finger and thumb. She dropped the keys twice and only managed to get the door open on the third attempt. She propped the biggest rifle across her desk, aiming straight at the door as she waited. Mickey picked at a roll of masking tape in her desk with her thumbnail and managed to loop the tape around her broken fingers, then lodged her ring finger into the trigger loop. Mickey knocked the phone receiver off of the cradle, dialed the police with her pinky, and turned on the hands-free function, told them where she was, what had happened. She kept one eye on the door but wasn’t worried.
Mickey’s eyes drifted over to the printer in the corner. It was whirring and humming, impatiently beeping every few minutes. It had run out of paper after printing only half of the notices. After the police came and swept the area, she would still need to post all of them everywhere to make sure people knew.
Clear Doesn’t Mean Clean
Tainted Water Kills
Do NOT Drink
Rob Bowman teaches high school English and has written for architecture magazines, film- review magazines, literary journals, and various public relations positions. He co-hosts the film and pop culture podcast Reel Disagreement. He moved to the Coachella Valley from Denver with his wife and two sons. He is working on his second novel, Inheritance.