The Last Mile By Tyrell James

Punk Noir Magazine

Wolf, he called himself. Operator, cool customer, the brains, jaded veteran looking for one last big score. The young punk up and comers he dubbed Rat and Skeeter. A private joke they didn’t get and he wouldn’t explain. Seniority entitles you to the cool codename. People are rational, he told them. Mostly. They fear death and hate banks. Wave some guns around and let the working stiffs hand over the boss’s money. A good story for their future grandkids. “Hey sonny-jim, did you know grandpa saw a bank robbery once?”  Who would die for a bank?

Old man. A Gadsden flag type, open carry man in an open carry state, too many cowboy movies to go with his hat. Quick draw, terrible shot. Emptied a mag, hit two bystanders and a lot of air before planting Skeeter in the thigh, in that big artery, as bad as getting shot in the neck. He bled out in minutes. Rat plugged the old timer right in the head. Too late, bullets are flying. People panic. Sprint for the doors. The security guard lets loose. Rat takes one in the shoulder and fires back. More bystanders drop. The sirens were closing in as they peeled out.

Blood is bad for business. Especially these days, one hundred mass shootings deep. You just can’t let a maniac with a gun go. Bad PR. Once the shooting starts you cross the threshold from mere criminal to domestic terrorist. FBI. Helicopters. Drones. Satellites, maybe. Toss the cell phones. Go dark. Get off the highway onto old backroads, up into the mountains, right into a blizzard. Hope the elements that’d scare off state-of-the-art police cruisers and flying robots with x-ray vision don’t kill your rusting old Pontiac. They don’t even make those anymore. You bought it cheap. The plan was to ditch it just outside town. Plans change.

The snow is coming down in thick sheets. Wolf can barely see ahead. Hazy impressions of trees and signs slip by orange-tinted by ancient halogen headlights. Rat is screaming. Clutching his shoulder, jacket wrapped in an ersatz splint. Didn’t pack a first aid kit. Wasn’t part of the plan. “It’s all fucked up. We’re busted. We’re gonna get the chair, man. We’ll fry for this.” Talking distracts him from the pain. He doesn’t know they stopped using the electric chair before he was born. Wolf doesn’t correct him. He needs to focus on the road. One mile at a time. Improvise. New plan. Head East, cross the state line, swing south. Skip the border. They’ll be at the border. Let them. Head for the coast, buy a boat, let out for Cuba. You’ll run out of gas before you get there. We’ll see. Imagine a slack-jawedteen in a 7-11, he’s not glued to the news, he doesn’t care. He shouldn’t, anyway. If he does, well, money talks. Guns too, even louder. Plans change.

He feels it suddenly. That horrible long half-second as your stomach drops into your bowels, when you have just enough time to know how fucked you are. He felt it when he saw that old man reach into his jacket. He feels it again as the old Pontiac shifts under him. The road spins away, a blur, mountainside, trees, road again, guard rail. Rat screams.

A car crash hits like a skipping scratched DVD. One second you’re behind the wheel, the next you’re gasping for breath, blinded by blood, crawling off the ceiling into frigid snow and broken glass. In between those two moments is a broken blur of incoherent noise. He scrambles free of the wreck and lurches to his feet. Adrenaline subsides to conscious intellect. Not very rational, if he’d been more seriously injured he might’ve just paralyzed himself. But he’s fine. At least, for someone who just crawled out of a wrecked car. Time to take stock: Bloody head wound, but superficial. Stray aches, searing cuts, the biting cold, sensations all creeping in as the shock subsides. Bruised and sprained all over, but nothing seems broken.

The car is upended, crushed like a beer can, long impact crater tracing back up a steep hill, to the grey implication of a broken guard rail. The snow falls in thick drifting waves, orange and red in the still-active lights. A long low wail, like a damned soul, muffled by the thick blankets of snow. It’s Rat. Wolf finds him some feet beyond the other side of the wreck, crumpled like a discarded doll. Semi-conscious, but not cognizant. He lets out another pained groan. Wolf needs to think. He looks back up the hill to the road above. A tough climb, even for a man uninjured and unencumbered. Pained by the contortion, he reaches back into the car, fumbling with the glovebox. A roadmap. Barely legible by the car’s headlights.

He makes his best guess at a location. 20 miles or so to the next town, some nothing burgh called Baker Falls. Never heard of it. Can he make 20 miles? Crunch the numbers: Average walking speed 3 miles per hour. Reduce for weather. Two miles per hour? A long trek, but manageable. Figure out what to do when you get there. Hitchhike. Buy a new car. Plan. Improvise. New plan. Keep your head on straight and keep moving. One mile at a time.

“The fuck are you doing?” It was Rat. Strained and groggy, but conscious. Wolf says nothing. He was thinking, hoping, Rat would stay in shock. Oblivious. It’d be easier.

“Wolf?”  Plaintive. “Wolf!?” Wolf thumbs the 9mm at his side, still unused. Merciful perhaps, but it’d leave evidence. He returns to the car. Jacket. Gloves. A couple energy bars, and half a bottle of water. Better thannothing. Rag, old zippo lighter, most importantly: The money, secure in an old burgundy Gold’s Gym bag. Rat calls out to him, over and over, voice slowly rising in pitch. Questions, then threats, then pleas. Pathetic begging. Confronted with the inevitable, the mind refuses. Hold out hope to the last. It’s not irrational. If any sliver of hope persists, you must reach to grasp it. Otherwise, they might both well have just sat on the curb outside that bank and waited for the cops.

Maybe that would’ve been the smart thing. But it’s too late now. One of them lives, or neither of them. Easy math. He spared a last glance for poor Rat, whimpering, voice already giving, pathetically trying to drag himself through the snow, getting nowhere.

He leaves, working his way arduously up the steep, treacherous slope, behind him Rat’s crumpled form, the wrecked car, and a long oily rag lit and hanging from the gas tank. With luck, the charred remains would confuse the authorities and buy him some time, the seemingly endless blizzard concealing his path. 

It comes a bit later than planned. He is already on the road when the muffled to concussive thump hits, a fuzzy orange glow briefly visible, like a candle behind a curtain. A rumble follows, deep and rattling, less heard than felt, climbing up through the rock and asphalt into his bones. He freezes. An avalanche. Stupidly he had not considered the possibility. He should run but stands listening as the rumble grows into a dull roar, then just as suddenly stops. It’s so quiet now he can hear the soft crunch of individual snowflakes hitting the ground. He follows his tracks, already fading, back to the accident where they abruptly disappear. Where there had been road is now a solid wall of ice and snow, speckled with stone and brush debris. He had been a mere couple hundred yards from being buried alive. At least now he knew no one would be coming for him anytime soon. Only one way to go now. The heavy bag over his shoulder, coat pulled tight against the wind, he marches into the grey abyss. Mile 1 of 20. 

Fat cold flakes slap into his face in irregular gusts, melting, mingling with drying blood and dripping into his eyes. He keeps his head low, eyes squinting. All he can see is his feet, slogging through the deepening snow. He doesn’t know much time has passed. Hasn’t had a watch in years. Doesn’t matter. Nothing has really changed since he was comfy and warm in that Pontiac. Keep moving forward. 

One step after another after another. It never seems to get lighter or darker. For a moment he is gripped by a terrible certainty. He’s going nowhere, not actually moving at all, suspended in time and space on some massive, miserable treadmill. He turns to look at his tracks. They stretch off behind him, eternal into the blur. In front of him only virgin snow. He takes some small comfort in this. The whole thing is getting to him. Giving him unreasonable thoughts. He breaths deep of the frigid air, his nose hairs freezing then melting again with his breath. Get your head on straight. He marches on, wondering how long it will take for the blizzard to bury signs of his passing.

It feels like it should be dark by now, but the same dull grey persists. No sign of town, no gas stations or exits or long rural driveways. Though in the thick of the blizzard, perhaps, he could have easily missed them. The adrenaline comedown, followed by long tedium and biting cold was distorting his sense of time. He has the bag slung like a purse so he could pull his arms out of his sleeves and into his coat, wrapped like a crude straight jacket. Even nestled in his armpits he can feel the cold driving into his fingertips like hypodermic needles. He is getting tired. Frostbite might be setting in. The bag is feeling heavier and heavier with each step. The back of his neck, exposed, has become so cold it’s wrapped around to a kind of hot numbness. This makes it all the more striking when he feels the hairs stand on end. He’s being watched.

He turns to face his stalker. At first, he sees nothing except his own tracks, stretching back into the void, already fading in the new snowfall. Yet the feeling persists. He stands and waits, squinting into the shifting haze. A shape resolves. A darker smear grey, the rough height and shape of a man, moving, growing, coming gradually closer. Who could be out here? An avalanche had closed the path behind him. Even if he’d passed unawares some forlorn country house or rickety old gas stop, who would venture out into this weather? Wolf blinks, rubs his eyes, shakes his head. It’s no trick of the eyes. The figure is still there, still moving slowly but inexorably towards him. 

Dread crawls up his half-numb spine, to nestle at the base of his skull, and Wolf is struck at once by a terrible vision. Snap zoom on his pursuer, shambling, all terrible wrong angles, broken, burned, and bloody, a hateful glare boring out of charred sunken sockets. Wolf passively notes a cold weight in his hand, slick with sweat despite the cold. He tries to call out to the shape in the distance, but his voice catches. At once every bit of terror he’s set aside since this whole thing started claws its way up out of his bowels and into his throat. He forces out a yell, an awkward hello, but it’s swept away on the wind. The figure encroaches with the awful certainty of all things. Wolf realizes he’s raised his pistol.

A piercing whizz, like a fly at jet speed, just past his ear, followed by a muffled crack. He reaches instinctively to the side of his head, finding his ear warm and wet. Fresh blood on his hand. A puff of snow somewhere near his feet. Another muffled crack. Then another. That motherfucker. With practiced fluidity, Wolf drops to his knees and takes aim. Another muffled crack, wide, then a return volley, piercingly loud. Three shots in rapid succession, center mass. The figure in the distance crumples. 

Wolf waits, still aiming, arms sore, bursts of hot breath clouding his vision in brief intervals, each moment it clears expecting the figure to re-appear like some horror film bogeyman. But he doesn’t. Whoever. Whatever it was, is done. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he congratulates himself on making such a good shot. He holsters his pistol, returning his hands to the relative warmth of his armpits. He knows he should face his assailant. Confirm the kill. But that vision of the horrible wraith holds him fast. A paralytic terror. Every sane part of him agrees – it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t want to know. Doesn’t need to know. It’s not part of the plan. Just keep moving forward. 

And he does. Colder. Sorer. Number. That old Gold’s Gym bag growing ever heavier with each weary step. Bent and wheezing, the needles in his fingers now rusted jagged knives. Jack Frost’s sadistic acupuncture. Blisters on his feet, forming, popping, reforming. The sky never lightens or darkens, the wind and the snow never cease, nothing marks the time but the growing, crushing pain and fatigue. It forces out all questions of what, how or why, all thoughts except inhale, exhale, one foot, another, head down, keep moving, head down, keep moving, head down, keeping moving, head down, keep-

He made no conscious decision to stop. No despairing or graceful surrender. Like a dilapidated barn, one moment he’s standing and the next sprawled out in the snow. He lies for a moment, numbly somnolent, before the shock of the situation finally draws his conscious mind from hibernation. “Fuck.” He says weakly, to no one in particular, not even himself. Is this it? No. He draws his limbs together and, with the alacrity of an arthritic centenarian, staggers back to his feet. He lumbers a few more steps, then stumbles to a stop again, tilting, barely able to keep his feet, unable to take another step. He squints into the distance, wondering how much further, when his eyes catch a darker smear of grey in the distance. How long had it been there? It didn’t move.

He stared, shambling towards it, knowing now without doubt it stared back. Their eyes finding each other in that uncanny way they do, even through the blizzard’s veil. No rescue, no helpful old farmer, not even the cops here to take him to the comparative comfort of a life in jail. This grim specter was his adversary returned. A specter, a hallucination, the manifestations of a guilty and terrified soul on the verge of oblivion, the reaper himself. It didn’t matter. Death was upon Wolf, and he would refuse it to the last. He pulled his stiff and heavy arm from his coat, clutching the pistol in his numb hand.

He saw, or sensed, his opponent do the same. How long had he been out here? Was it high noon? It’s always high noon somewhere. Eyes bleary, arm unsteady, he draws first and fires. The figure still stands. He fires again, and again, each time missing. Maybe he really is hallucinating. Firing at a tree or a road sign, or nothing at all.

Then he hears it. Three muffled cracks in rapid succession. He staggers, falling to his knees, legs giving out for the final time. He looks down, red roses bloom across his jacket. Only then does he feel it. Searing hot pain rippling out across his chest and stomach. His arms go limp, pistol falling away. He tries to cry out, nothing comes to save the hot taste of pennies spilling over numb lips. He understands now. The pain gives way to numbness. He teeters, falls, and is consumed by the snow. Cold and grey forevermore.

Tyrell James is a writer and spreadsheet jockey living in rural western Canada, with a particular interest in horror and speculative fiction. When not writing he enjoys photography, strategy games, and history.