He wrestled with the tarp in the seclusion of his garage. Beneath it laid an eerie likeness that sent shivers down his spine. Stan Kilmer traced the lines of the hood with his finger. Dual black racing stripes still meant business; as if 383 cubic inches didn’t have a voice of its own. The ’69, canary-yellow Road Runner was pristine and every detail transformed him back to September of 1989.
Since then a strict adherence to isolation had provided no answers and like a rattlesnake in a glass jar, his mind began to vilify things not inherently evil. After two decades on the run he remained convinced of only one thing; no one can effectively change his future without first reconciling his past.
As the car idled in the driveway he went back to lock the garage. Not that anything of value remained there, but such a road trip as this had no itinerary. He had intended on leaving while the world still slept, but Mrs. Stuckey was an early riser. She appeared startled as she stood on her lawn, perhaps surprised by the appearance of a recluse. Stan had built no rapport in the neighborhood and felt no obligation to make a positive first impression. Her posture indicated a lack of appreciation for the choppy sound of a mild cam. He held steady on the brake and pressed the accelerator until the rear tires broke loose. An exaggerated wave and smile from him only intensified her displeasure, but white smoke from the tires soon formed a wall between the two.
Like a shot the car raced to end of the cul-de-sac. As the tach crowded five grand and slid around the corner Stan surprised himself by how quickly he found second gear. With a slight chirp of the tires and without a sliver of remorse he leaned hard on the accelerator heading towards open road.
Cars from this era were born to gobble up pavement in quarter mile meals, but much like a sprinter who fades in an endurance race, the handling and comfort could only be described as substandard. Stan wanted to feel the road beneath him, enduring every bump that he had banned from his narrow world.
The rural scenery had changed dramatically but as he approached, subtleties of the landscape fed his internal compass. An empty and crumbling foundation was all that remained of Todd’s home. Stan might have driven right past if not for the tree. A mighty oak still stood guard at the back of the lot and had resisted the corrosive nature of time.
Stan turned his head skyward, staring past the limbs to the tree-house perched above. He tested the wooden ladder with a shake. Several inches in height and an undisclosed amount in weight were certain to have skewed the equation, but Stan had never been adept at calculating odds—not then and not now. Yet he hadn’t driven twenty-two hundred miles to back out on a technicality.
The breeze whistled through the stand of pines just as he remembered. Amidst their lonesome song he found his best friend’s voice taunting him. Even then Stan feared heights, but with the lashing of a drill sergeant and the unquestionable smoothness of James Dean, Todd’s voice would prevail as he stared down at him.
“I didn’t know they piled shit that high! Put on your big-girl pants, Staaanley. I’ve got the September issue of Playboy up here and the Van Breeschooten twins can’t wait forever. If you ain’t up to it just say so. I’m man enough to send ‘em both away smiling!”
Todd was always the confident one, seemingly in control of all things. At sixteen years of age, neither of them could fathom a circumstance where his firm belief in self could ever fail—but it would, and Stan still hated he was there to see it.
He reached the final rung and stepped in; his eyes immediately darted to the corner where Todd invariably sat. Long and lanky with a stolen pack of Lucky Strikes, lifted from his old man, setting within arms reach. Un-inhaled smoke burst from his mouth in puffs as he spoke.
“So what’s the plan, Stan?”
Words so crystal clear and the laughter of teens trailed off into nothingness. Only painful silence filled the void. Like an unwanted squatter, only a shadow occupied Todd’s space, but even it seemed uncomfortable there, nervously moving with the breeze. Out of the emptiness came a voice.
“I knew you’d come back, but what took so long?”
The familiarity of the tone could not be denied, but only a dark shadow hovered in the corner.
“You always did let other’s expectations rule you. What? If you talk to me people will think you’re crazy? Earth to Stan; there ain’t nobody here! Didn’t you come to talk me anyhow?”
After a small hesitation he dismissed the voice to imagination and fell to his knees. Stan searched the floorboards until he found the one containing no nails and retrieved the contents hidden beneath. He wanted to move, but could only stare at the corner.
“Look, Stan, this ain’t some creepy Friday the 13th thing. Come on, grab our stuff and let’s go for a ride.”
Stan shook his head from side to side in short jerky motions, “I don’t—I don’t think that’s a good idea?”
“Yeah, you’re right. Actually it’s a great friekin’ idea. Now come on, let’s go.”
As he walked back to the car Stan continued to glance over his shoulder, but he saw nothing. After settling into the driver’s seat, a sheepish voice slid past his lips, “Are you still here, Todd?”
Several moments passed and there came no response, suddenly Stan felt foolish.
“Will you look at that? After twenty years, Karin Van Breeschooten still can’t get enough of me—but really, can you blame her?”
Stan glanced at the passenger seat where a thin film of dust covered the September, 1989 issue of Playboy. He recalled how Todd had justified getting first choice. Todd assumed the bulk of the risk while the storeowner had his back turned. Although identical in every nuance, he chose Karin, and as a mere accessory to larceny, Stan’s reward was Mirjam. Even in crime they were as inseparable as the twins themselves.
“Fire this thing up, man! I bet balls to the wall she does all of a 140.”
Stan brushed aside the comment about the car’s ability, but did start the engine. As they traveled the back roads Todd eagerly tried to reconnect to a past that Stan couldn’t seem to shake. Stan’s hands, white knuckled at ten and two on the steering wheel, began to shake uncontrollably.
“Come on Stanley, this ain’t daddy’s model ‘T’. Kick it in the ass!”
Todd’s needling produced results, but not what he anticipated. Stan let off the accelerator completely and crept around the curve before a string of venomous words exploded, “All you can talk about is the good times we had.” Pointing out the driver’s side window a distraught Stan continued, “Take a look at this fucking, nasty ravine over here! Does it look familiar to you at all?”
Stan rubbed his hand through his hair and down the back of his neck, massaging as he went.
“You really don’t remember any of it, do you, Todd?”
Stan shook his head and giggled nervously, “Well, what you can’t remember has haunted me every day since. Saturday night September 23rd, 1989. You, me, a fifth of Jack Daniel’s, and a car that looks exactly like this one. Around midnight, all of us set out on these gravel roads with something to prove and our asses on fire. AC/DC was blasting on the radio and I’m certain we were already driving too fast, but when you said ‘kick it in the ass’, I didn’t hesitate. I remember seeing 105 as we crested that rise, but at that precise moment I also remembered the curve and what lay on the other side of it. With brakes locked and gravel flying I fought the steering wheel with all I had. The instant remorse that suddenly consumed me wasn’t even close to being enough to save us. Gravity sucked us over the edge and the car rolled so many times I lost count. Only two things crossed my mind on our downward spiral. I hoped that somehow my parents wouldn’t know we were drinking and I prayed for my own death, so that I would never have to face you.”
With tears racing down his cheeks, Stan looked to the passenger side, “Do you remember now, Todd, and more importantly can you ever forgive me?”
Stan heard what sounded like the clearing of a throat.
“I remembered it all; I just hoped the years had allowed you to forget. You always thought of me as stronger, but you only saw the front put on by a teenager; I knew the truth.
As I lay dying, crushed beneath the weight of the car, you summoned great courage by trying to lift from me. You don’t think I remember the grotesque sound of your biceps ripping from the bone as you struggled against things greater than yourself. Not once did you cry out in pain. Even as the heat from the flames grew, the comfort of your hands beneath my head made my last breaths easier. As the blackness closed in upon me I felt peace; knowing that wherever I was headed I would never find a truer friend.
I’ve enjoyed our visit, Stan. My only regret is that you have suffered so long, worrying about my thoughts of you in my last moments. May your conscience also be at peace. Rest well knowing that even as a boy, you were always the better man.”