The sun was warm as I made my slow, painful way up the stairs. Impatient people nudged past me, though most made sure not to actually jostle the white cast covering my right leg from hip to toe. It took an eternity—well, okay, it took about five minutes, but it felt like an eternity—before I was on the main floor, standing in line with hundreds of other hopefuls, though what they and I were hoping for were two completely different things.
At least, I hoped harpy wives and battering brothers-in-law were not the norm. I tapped my sleeve as I shuffled forward another step, then two, touching the fabric hiding the weird, ever-changing mark that had brought me this far—that had given me hope.
And that was what I was chasing, wasn’t I? That was what was keeping me going. Hope. Less than two years married to Lisa, with Vinnie a constant threat, had ground all the hope right out of me. I was who I was, and they were who they were, and they were going to do what they wanted and I was not, and that was all there was to it. But then this thing appeared on my arm. I couldn’t explain where it had come from, I couldn’t explain what it did, or how, but I’ll be damned if the thing hadn’t wakened something in me: the hope for something better. Something better for me, without someone there to take it away.
I’d been running on that hope since finding the tattoo, and acting on it had gotten me where I was today: beaten up, broken, thrown down two flights of stairs, slapped around in my hospital room and under the threat of more pain and suffering once I recovered. I was in more fear than I’d experienced in a long time, and all thanks to the feeling of hope engendered in me by this crazy bit of magic ink.
I was holding on to that feeling for all I was worth.
My cell phone rang as the line moved again, and I fished it out of my pocket. It took a while. The broken leg may have gotten some attention on the stairs, but it was only the most visible of my injuries: I was head to toe bruises, and my left arm should have been in a sling, though that would have made it impossible for me to use my crutches. My head longed for simple headaches again, and my face looked like I’d called Mike Tyson a sissy and then not run fast enough. Twisting to retrieve the phone made all my aches and pains start asking what the hell I thought I was doing.
The phone stopped ringing as I fished, then started again. I kept up in line and managed to free the thing from my pocket, holding it up to see the caller ID just as it stopped ringing the second time.
He called back in less than three seconds.
“Where the fuck are you, you sneaky fuck?”
Vinnie sounded furious, and I prayed this would work.
“Who is this?”
I stepped to the head of the line.
“You fucking know who this is, don’t play stupid you fucking weasel. We went to the hospital and they said you checked out or whatever. This morning. Now where the fuck are you, you shitty little holdout fuck?”
“Wait a minute.” I shuffled forward again as the window in front of me became available. “Is this Lisa?”
The other end of the line exploded in a bout of incoherent curses worthy of an R-rated Tasmanian Devil.
“Hang on a second, honey,” I said into the phone. Then, rather than covering the mouthpiece I simply held it a little to the side and addressed the bored-looking man on the other side of the glass.
“Are there any horses in the next race named Blue, or Blue-something? Maybe Something-blue?”
“There’s Cerulean at thirty-to-one, if you’re feeling lucky. That’s about as close as it gets. Place a bet or move on, please.”
I slipped the twenty I’d gotten from the ATM downstairs through the little pass-through in the window and he slid back my ticket.
“Three minutes to post. Good luck. Next!”
I shuffled aside and put the phone to my ear.
“Are you at the goddamned track?”
I winced. It really was Lisa this time. Apparently Vinnie was too apoplectic to drive and say “fuck” at the same time.
“Oh,” I said. “Vinnie. I’m sorry, I was talking to Lisa.”
“This is Lisa, you asshole. Are you at the track again?”
“Listen, Vinnie, I’d love to talk, but I have a race to watch. Got some money on this one, you know? It’s hard to hold the phone and use the crutches at the same time, so I’ll have to let you go.”
Lisa’s shrill shout made the phone shiver. “You’re at the track, making bets, after me and Vinnie both told you not to? You’re—”
My heart was in my throat and my stomach was doing flips, but I felt a smile on my face as I said “Yeah, Vinnie, I have to go. Almost post time. Do me a favor and tell your bitch of a sister I’ll see her at home whenever I get there, all right? Thanks, buddy.”
That should do it, I thought, closing the phone and setting it to vibrate. It started buzzing before I’d even stowed it in my pocket. I ignored it and set my crutches in motion, slowly swinging my way to where I could watch the race.
The sun was warm, but the breeze was cool off the open track as Cerulean took advantage of a collision between the first and second place runners to make a move and have, apparently, the race of her life.
I barely felt any of it.
With that mingling of symbols on my arm at the hospital, all I could think was to get Vinnie to the track. Vinnie. The track. That was it. No plan, no nothing, just getting him there and hoping my tattoo knew what was best. It was a plan without a plan: very zen.
I hated it.
Now Vinnie and Lisa were on their way here, and they had sounded murderously angry. The crowd about me cheered and booed as I made my silent way back to collect my winnings. I thrust the bills into a pocket uncounted and turned back to the stairs. My stomach roiled, but my mind was blank: it was the only way I could keep the fear at bay. I made my slow, painful way back down to street level, but rather than heading to the platform where I could catch the train, I crutched my way toward the public parking lot.
I moved along the curb, looking out at the sea of cars and buses that made up the front lot at the track. There was a lot to see, a lot of space to cover, but I knew what Vinnie’s car looked like, and I had some rough notion he might distinguish himself from the crowd. Both Vinnie and his sister were not what I tended to think of as “sane,” and I had given them both an awful lot to be angry about.
My God, I thought, I hope this works.
Then I remembered that I didn’t even know what “this” was, that I was trusting entirely in whatever was behind the mark on my arm, trusting that it knew what it was talking about—and that I was interpreting it correctly.
That thought nearly made me sick right there on the sidewalk, but I managed to keep my breakfast down, along with my panic, and hobbled along, watching for Vinnie’s car.
I didn’t have long to wait.
The Mustang, a shiny red and white streak in the sunlight, roared into the far side of the parking lot. The huge lot was marked out like a set of city streets, with lanes, yield signs and stop signs, but Vinnie ignored them all. He wheeled across lanes and ignored all signs, engine revving high, tires squealing. I could tell he was taking random turns, searching, but with no idea where I actually was.
Instinct told me to run and hide, but my brain told me to believe in the plan. I gave my brain the finger and turned back toward the stairs—but it was too late. The instant Vinnie saw me was obvious: the tires screamed like tortured souls as he spun the car in my direction and roared straight toward me.
The few pedestrians in the lot ducked out of the way as the Mustang tore across the asphalt, the 335 horses under the hood turning the car into a red rocket. Cross traffic stopped, no one contesting Vinnie’s right-of-way, whether he had a stop sign or not. I glanced about and saw that luck was favoring the enraged at this moment: there was not a cop to be seen to witness what was happening.
That’s when I realized, with a shock, that Vinnie intended to run me down.
I looked about for somewhere to go, perhaps a parked car to hide behind, like other people I had seen, but there was nothing. I turned, looking for a place to run, but just that motion nearly overbalanced me, and I remembered the cast and crutches. People were scattering away from me, recognizing the target of the Mustang-driver’s ire.
My eyes shot back to the oncoming car, close enough now that I clearly made out Vinnie’s red face, twisted with anger as his huge form hunched over the wheel. Beside him I saw nothing of Lisa but her eyes, huge and dark and furious, glaring at me through the lightly tinted glass.
His form, her eyes; nothing in either gave any indication of anything approaching mercy, but seemed fully focused on running me down in the gutter in front of the local racetrack in broad daylight.
I stood tall, but could not help closing my eyes in anticipation of the hit. That’s how I missed what happened entirely.
I was later told exactly what happened. Witnesses spoke of Vinnie’s frightening concentration, refusing to look either left or right even when approaching cross-traffic.
Other witnesses mentioned a little old woman sitting in the front of the shuttle bus trafficking tourists in from a local hotel. Edith MacGregor had never been to the track in her life, but had a voucher from the hotel, and was extremely excited. She had pestered the driver, one Roland Henries, the entire ride, asking how odds worked, how one figures them, and how to judge a good horse, a good jockey, and track conditions. Henries could not be reached for comment, but other passengers were of the opinion Henries was speeding a bit, trying to get Mrs. MacGregor off his bus as quickly as possible.
They were just approaching the racetrack when Edith pushed her racing form in front of Roland’s face in order to ask him about a particular race.
He never saw the Mustang coming.
The shuttle bus hit the speeding car broadside, sending it careering away from me and head-on into the cement base for the stair rail up to the betting windows. I had never been allowed inside Vinnie’s car, so I can’t say whether or not it had seat belts, but I do know airbags didn’t come standard back in 1968.
When I got to the Mustang, hobbling through the crowd that had gathered just as soon as the danger had past and there was blood on the ground, I saw Vinnie had been trapped in the car. The motor, apparently tired of sitting under the hood and doing all the work, had tried to come into the front seat to ride in style, pushing the steering wheel back to pin Vinnie to his seat, then pushed him partially through it, forcing him to adopt a shape never intended by God . . . unless God had wanted Vinnie to look like a beer can, crushed by a drunken giant’s fist.
Lisa had been thrown from the car, pinwheeling through the air like a doll flung by an angry child, impacting (I’d say “landing,” but folks said she was still traveling horizontally when she hit) at about the midpoint on the stairs. She had landed feet up, head down, and though she appeared almost perfect from above (if a little widened), looking from the side revealed that the edge of each stair she lay upon had cut deep into her body, like an apple tossed onto a bed of nails.
One of the steps ran across, and into, the back of her head.
Though her blood flowed down the stairs a short distance in a way I thought she might have found aesthetically pleasing, Lisa’s wide-open eyes were still locked in that intense, furious glare I’d seen through the windshield.
Trust Lisa to move into the afterlife looking royally pissed off.
I didn’t think it would do her any good.
That thought sparked an odd, chuffing laugh, a chuckle that became a choke as the scent of blood reached my nose and the reality of what had happened settled into my brain. I retched, then turned away from Lisa to vomit copiously, spasms wracking my battered body with such pain I nearly passed out again. Hands reached from the crowd to help me to a sitting position on the stairs, which is where the police and EMTs found me about three minutes later.
During that interim I did apologize to the man who’d been standing behind me when I was sick, but, honestly, with that pattern on his Hawaiian shirt no one would have even noticed what I’d done to it.
Well, if not for the smell.
“Nice ink,” said the EMT, strapping the blood-pressure cuff to my arm.
“Thanks,” I said, just before his partner stuck a thermometer under my tongue, then shone his penlight in my eyes. The cuff tightened, loosened, then came off with a riiiip of Velcro.
“What the hell?”
“What?” said the thermometer-wielding EMT, then leaned to look where his partner was pointing.
“There was a tattoo there. I saw it. Hey, mister, you had a tattoo right here, didn’t you?”
They dug out a mirror and showed me the back of my right arm. The clear, clean, unblemished skin on the back of my right biceps.
“Yeah,” I said. “I did.”
Then I buried my face in my hands. Looking at the ground through my fingers, I saw a pair of cop shoes step in front of me.
“Sir,” said the officer in what was probably his best formal tone. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but both the passenger and driver of the car are dead.”
“I know,” I said, without raising my head.
“I am sorry, sir,” he said.
I kept my face buried in my hands, unwilling to let him see my wide, joyous smile.
Rob Smales is the author of Dead of Winter, winner of the Superior Achievement in Dark Fiction Award from Firbolg Publishing’s Gothic Library in 2014. His short stories have been published in two dozen anthologies and magazines. Most recently, his story “A Night at the Show” received an honorable mention on Ellen Datlow’s list of the Best Horror of 2014, and was also nominated as best short story by the eLiterary Festival of Words.
His latest work, a story collection titled Echoes of Darkness, was released in early 2016 from Books & Boos Press.
For more about Rob, including links to his published works, upcoming events, and a series of very short—but free—stories, please visit him at www.RobSmales.com.