6.03 / March 2011


listen to this story

The passenger beside him squirmed and fidgeted with the window crank. The passenger kicked his short legs. He cranked the window handle clockwise until it snapped then counterclockwise until it snicked. The pane stammered higher then lower then back again as though it caught within the chassis. When the window lowered the trees around greened light and pale in their summer growth and the truck’s engine and tires hummed through the cabin. The gas fumes followed. They passed a deer splayed roadside with its intestines scattered across the street. The passenger pointed and said, Keep an eye out.

The driver shrugged brushed at the air. He said, Mind your mouth. He placed his right hand on the wheel and sat there steering with his palms and adjusting the wheel with slight sidelong motions. His fingers outstretched like fowl alighting. Then he closed them. He clenched the wheel onehanded. The driver shifted and the clutch clanked into gear and rested in a rough whir. The passenger said, You gonna fix that.

The driver shook his head. He rounded a curve in the road and the left wheels skidded through the roadside gravel and the truck seemed to lighten and hover there mothlike for an instant before the wheels caught and aligned and the truck barreled back onto the asphalt. The driver pedal braked then ratcheted the emergency brake to its terminus. The wheels screamed. He and the passenger rocked forward and the belts slammed taut. They jolted back and their heads knocked the single window. The passenger sat there holding his head as though it were an infant.

The driver stepped out. Smoke pooled from the engine and the wheels. Four tread smears twined on the road. Scorched rubber. Gasoline. Some motor oil sliding from the undercarriage. The driver rested his hand on the bed’s siderail and stood there studying the ground. The trees hissed. He smelled pine through it all. The passenger might have been weeping.

The driver said, Quit it. And the passenger did.

The driver straightened and crouched and launched in the bed. The truck buckled. He knelt in the rust-dark water still spinning in the bed and crabwalked forward. He fumbled through a beaten toolbox fixed to the siding by eyebolt clamps. The passenger followed and rubbed the back of his head. The passenger’s eyes rimmed red and a bruise blued on the right side of his neck.

The passenger said, It hurts.

The driver said, Get used to it.

The driver stood in the bed and levered the toolbox lid low and latched it with one hand. He held in the other a tire iron with its spokes aligned perpendicular. The lowest spoke bent back against the planar orientation of the others as though it were a shattered appendage. The driver handed the tire iron to the passenger and the passenger clasped it limply as he might a rotting thing.

The driver said, Don’t hold it like some faggot.

The passenger looked down then looked up and doublehanded the iron tight. The driver dropped from the siding and wobbled on the gravel and opened his hand palm up to the passenger. The passenger handed the driver the tire iron and wiped his hand on his jeans. The driver held his free hand out above the passenger’s head and it tremored there. He pulled his hand back and turned and then turned back.

The driver said, It’s alright.

The passenger smiled. His teeth were quite white.

The driver said, It’s alright.

The driver heaved the iron skyward by the lug and brought it down on the passenger’s skull. The bone thudded. The passenger stood there still smiling for what might have been a long while. Then he fell. The driver whipped the tire iron twice against the passenger’s nape and once against his skullback and the passenger rolled over and the driver beat his nose until it flattened. The driver stood back and breathed and looked at the passenger and the tire iron and spun the tire iron into the roadside wood. He rolled the passenger down the embankment and left him in a rivulet of water that smelled like oil. He walked up the embankment and stepped in the cabin and turned the engine and drove on. He passed the road and the trees and the hills. The engine sounded rougher than before. He whispered, It’s alright. It’s alright. It’s alright.

James O’Brien is set to graduate from Iowa State University’s MFA in Creative Writing and Environment in Spring 2011. "Travelers" is part of a short story collection for which he is seeking publication. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Fourteen Hills, The Collagist, Stymie, NY Tyrant, J Journal, Criminal Class Review, Denver Syntax, Portland Review, and Pisgah Review. O'Brien can be contacted at jdobrienwrites@gmail.com.
6.03 / March 2011