Deadline, by Matt Perron

Cheryl followed the subway steps onto Smith Street, and scanned the intersection for the creep that had followed her home last night. But with nothing to go on but a puffy black jacket, and a hat and scarf hiding the face, she didn’t recognize him among the pedestrians shuffling through the cold. Perhaps she’d imagined his intent. Stress was said to cause all manner of strange maladies.

Her BlackBerry rang; it was her editor, whom she’d left only forty-five minutes before. “Got a problem,” he said.

He always had a problem. “What’s wrong?”

“Spellings of the name don’t match. We’ve got deadline in thirty; can you call him?”

She’d like to strangle this guy. Since an argument they’d had over one of her pieces, he’d been assigning her stories from the bottom of the barrel, and then nitpicking them like she was breaking Watergate. She wondered if the misspelling even existed. “Give me ten minutes to get home,” she said. “My notes are there.”

“We’re waiting,” he ended the call.

Cold air snaked up the bottom of her coat and wrapped around her legs. She glanced at her surroundings again; still no sign of him. Maybe he’d found someone else to stalk; after all, she was no raving beauty.

A broad-shouldered guy in an overcoat walked around her, and she followed, close enough to hear his shoes scratch granite. He led her up Warren to the end of the block, where he turned the wrong way on Court. She paused, and then followed a pair of chatting women until they reached Baltic and a root-twisted sidewalk darkened by low overhanging branches. She stood on the corner for a time, waiting for someone else to turn. No one did, so she had to start down the block alone. Shadows menaced her with what they could contain until finally she began to jog. As she approached her stoop, she felt an awkward combination of embarrassment and relief, and slowed to a walk. She chuckled at herself, just another scared hayseed in the big city.

An arm hit her throat. The elbow curled beneath her jaw and cut her air. A point pressed into her back. “This is a gun,” the guttural voice moistened her ear. “Make a sound and I’ll use it.”

Desperate to breathe, she nodded.

“We’re getting into this Buick. Open the passenger door and climb over to the driver’s seat.” He released her throat. “Now move.”

Her tongue swelled in her mouth, her legs felt limp, and her heart beat too fast for her to think clearly. She thought of rape, then imagined blood sprayed against the side of the battered sedan. Better to follow orders. The door opened with a heavy squeak, and she crawled over the torn seat. “Do you want money?” she asked as she sank her feet into the well below the steering wheel. “There’s money in my purse.”

“Shut up.” He leaned toward her. She scrunched her eyes shut and jammed her legs together. The key slid into the ignition, and the passenger door thudded shut. “You’re going to drive,” he said, maintaining his eerily calm tone.

There was something familiar about the creepy lack of inflection. She opened her eyes and looked at him again. Was it Dashawn? Under the scarf and heavy coat, it could be. Her BlackBerry buzzed.

He pressed the gun under her ribs. “Hand it over.”

She reached into her bag and gave it to him.

He jabbed the stop button with his thumb and put it in his coat pocket. “Take a right on Court.”

She checked the rearview mirror and eased the car out onto the street. Loose steering and a mushy pedal allowed the car to roll true, despite her shaking hands and feet.

He jammed the gun under his armpit, pulled a can of beer up from the floor, and yanked the tab.

“What are you going to do to me?”

He removed his hat and the scarf. Tight curls extended an inch from his head, except where the jagged scar cut across above his left ear. The healed wound had been the first thing she’d noticed three weeks ago when she walked into his mother’s fourth-floor walk-up in Clinton Hill to meet him. No sooner had she found room on the couch amid the myriad of potted plants crowding the apartment than he started talking as though he’d never stop. He couldn’t remember the explosion that ended his tour. Park-side barbecues reminded him of burning bodies. There was no point in staying sober just to price broomsticks or stack boxes. Like now there’d been no trace of emotion in his voice or on his face, but tears had welled in his mother’s eyes as she’d looked back from preparing coffee across the room.

He picked up a lighter from the compartment between the seats and lit a cigarette.

“Is this because of the story?” She slowed to a stop, checked the traffic, and carefully turned right onto Court Street.

He sipped beer and kept looking out the window.

She tried again. “You followed me home yesterday, didn’t you?”

“Wasn’t hard. Just waited outside the paper.”

They passed the burrito place that delivered her dinners and then the movie theater where she’d learned to attend weekend matinees alone. A horn blared, close by. He flinched, spilling beer down the front of his jacket. In a flash, his fist hit the dashboard, cracking the plastic. Sparks leaped from the crushed butt.

Cheryl flinched and her knees slammed the steering wheel.

“Fuck!” He grabbed his fist and crouched over his hands.

Cheryl rubbed her throbbing kneecaps with one hand, drove with the other, and fought back tears. “What’re you going to do to me?”

He tucked the gun somewhere under his jacket, suddenly calm again. “Turn left on Third,” he said.

She clicked on the blinker and tried to keep her voice from quaking. “Where are we going?”

“Left on Bond, then a quick right.”

The headlights washed over the painted-gray bricks of one of the squat, windowless buildings pinching the start of the block. A few cars had been parked tight to the curbs of sidewalks glittering with broken bottles. She drove past a graffiti-smeared sheet-metal fence until the pavement ended and cobblestones rattled the shocks. A “Dead End” sign nailed to a guardrail separated the road from the Gowanus Canal. She stopped and put the gearshift into park. Across the brackish water, a rocky hill led up to the hollow-eyed stare of a crumbling factory.

“Turn off the lights,” he said.

One mid-block streetlight prevented them from being plunged into total darkness. She glanced at the door handle. It’d take almost no time to open it and start running, but it’d take even less time to draw the gun and pull the trigger. She’d read the stories about the violent unpredictability of broken soldiers, and didn’t want to take the risk, yet.

“Lots of guys I served with told me they couldn’t wait to spend time in the woods when they got home,” he said. “Me, I come here. This is my forest.” He retrieved two cans from the floor and handed her one.

She was afraid to offend him, so popped the tab and sipped. Heat vents had warmed the beer and it tasted flat. “It is quiet,” she said. For what seemed a long time, they drank and stared at the dark windshield, pinholed by the dim light of the mirror reflecting the empty street. Perhaps a cruiser would pass and see the car parked away from the curb, perhaps not.

“Dashawn?”

“Yeah.”

“If you wanted to talk again, you could’ve just called the paper.”

He lit another cigarette. Smoke hit the windshield and spread. “I remember what you said about being a small-town girl, just three stoplights in the whole place, and there you were, interviewing me. You were thinking I’m a messed-up motherfucker and it’s the government’s fault, and you were going to let everybody know, like I was your ticket to 60 Minutes or something. Then I read that shit you actually wrote.”

She’d interviewed two returning soldiers. The other had arrived home to Long Island healthy after a relatively soft tour and was running for selectman. “Look,” she said. “I really wanted to go with your story. But my editor nixed it. It’s an election year, so he figured there’d be more interest in the guy running for office.”

Dashawn chuckled and shook his head, as if he couldn’t believe how stupid she thought he was.

“I’m serious,” she said. “I fought him over that. You should see what he’s got me covering since. Not that any of that gives you the right to kidnap me.”

He didn’t reply.

Had she made a mistake? Maybe naming his behavior would make him desperate. She fought back a groan.

“Did I tell you what happened to that embedded reporter over there?” he finally said.

“No.” That sounded like a threat. She pressed her legs together and sneaked a glance at the door handle.

“Guy shouldn’t have been there in the first place.” He finished his beer, threw it with the other empties on the floor, and pulled up another one. “No questions? Last time, you’d have been all over that.”

“Last time, you didn’t have a gun.”

“Oh, this?” He raised the gun and pointed at his head.

“Jesus, don’t.”

He pulled the trigger. Click. “Never keep it loaded. Too fucking dangerous.” He dropped it on the floor among the beers and the empties.

Cheryl remembered leaving his apartment after the interview. Mom had led her to the door and laid a hand gently on her arm as she opened it. “He hasn’t talked that much about what happened over there since he’s been home,” she’d said. They’d looked back at him sitting on the couch, staring down between his feet. He didn’t look much different now, staring across the canal.

“Why are we here, Dashawn? Is there something you want to tell me?”

“Thought there was, but now it seems stupid and pointless.” He lapsed back into dead-eyed stupor.

After a time, she began to suspect he’d forgotten her. Twice she lifted a hand toward the door handle, but each time she glanced back at the cracked dash and remembered his flinch at the horn. Bullets or no bullets, there was no telling what a sudden movement could provoke. But what choice did she have, other than leaving it up to him? Maybe she should just open the door, no sudden movements, just open it slowly and see if he cared. She raised a hand and inched it toward the handle.

No response.

Her fingers curled around the plastic lever, and the door opened with a dull pop.

An arm lashed across her throat and pinned her to the seat. “Sit tight.”

“Wanted some air,” she whispered. “Too much smoke.”

He pulled the door closed, and turned on the ignition for just long enough to lower the window a few inches.

Her BlackBerry buzzed. The innocent noise seemed to confuse him for a moment, and then he reached into his jacket.

“That’s my boss,” Cheryl said. “Could lose my job if I don’t answer that.”

He looked at her for a moment, considering. Then handed her the phone. “Stay cool.”

Should she scream for help? No, it’d never arrive in time, and she was getting the idea that perhaps she didn’t need it. No sooner had she answered than her editor’s tinny anger poured through the earpiece. “Where the hell have you been? Why didn’t you answer?”

“Just found my notebook,” she said. “What was the first spelling?”

He told her.

“That’s it.”

He screamed at her some more about deadlines and responsibilities and hung up.

Dashawn grabbed another beer from the well and held it out to her.

“I’d rather not.”

“No. You need it.”

“Why?”

“Guy sounded like a goddamn drill sergeant.”

“If you expect me to drive again, I really shouldn’t drink that.”

He paused.

“I’m kind of a lightweight.” She held her breath.

He returned her beer to the floor and lit another cigarette. “I don’t know what the hell I was thinking, bringing you here,” he said. “But why should this be any different from any other goddamn thing?”

“Have you done things like this before?”

He took a long drag, seemed to think about it. “Not exactly.”

“I take it you never contacted the VA hospital?”

He shook his head. “That place is all the way out the other side of Bay Ridge.”

“We’re sitting in your car. It’s not like you’d have to take the train.”

“This isn’t my car.”

“Don’t tell me you—”

“It’s my uncle’s.” He sipped his beer, flicked ash onto the floor. “Anyhow, I don’t want any more contact with the Army.”

“What about your mother? She must be a nervous wreck.”

“She deserves better. Then again, so do I.” He twisted the tab off his can and flicked it down among the empties. “Know why I enlisted in the first place?”

“No.”

“Had a cousin growing up, a few years older than I was. Got shot smoking a loosey in front of a bodega on Myrtle. Fifteen years old. We’d been to that place to buy candy hundreds of times. To this day, nobody knows who shot him or why. Army was supposed to get me away from all that.”

“Sorry about your cousin.”

He nodded dismissively. “Are you going to tell the police about our little adventure tonight?”

Cheryl paused for a moment; it hadn’t sounded like a threat. “Do you want me to?” she said.

“No,” he chuckled. “Imagine that, almost had to think about it.” He pointed at the keys still dangling in the ignition. “Might as well head home.” He finished his beer, dropped the butt into the hole, and opened another.

She put the car in reverse, shuddered it back over the cobblestones, and made a three-point turn.

He faced the sidewalk, evidently satisfied to pass the ride in silence.

As Cheryl drove, she wondered what exactly was weighing on his mind. Whatever it was, it had to be far heavier than the pecking order at a city tabloid. And no doubt it would surely haunt him as much tomorrow as it did today. She parked in front of the hydrant by her building, and addressed the back of his head.

“I’m getting out.”

“Okay.”

“Are you going to get some help?”

He reached into his shirt pocket for his cigarettes, tapped one from the box, and faced her. “Good night, Cheryl.”

She imagined walking up the subway steps tomorrow, searching the sidewalk for him again, and opened the door just enough to rest one foot on the street. “For your own good, I really think I should tell someone about this,” she said.

He reached down to the floor for yet another beer. “I suppose one of your neighbors could’ve seen me grab you through a window,” he said. “But if so, there’d be a hell of a commotion going on right now, and I don’t see one. Anyhow, you’re unharmed. I’d just deny it.”

“What about your mother?”

“Can’t imagine you wanting to do that to her.”

“Then what do you want me to do? It must be something, because abducting me just to drink beers by the Gowanus Canal makes no sense.”

He guffawed, but a racking cough quickly overwhelmed the laughter. When the spell passed, he wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his jacket and cleared his throat. “Since when do things have to make sense?” He got out of the car, walked around the hood, and opened her door the rest of the way. “Good-bye, Cheryl,” he said. “You won’t see me again.”

Just before she reached the stoop, she glanced over her shoulder. A lighter flashed behind the steering wheel and then the interior fell dark. She imagined smoke spreading against the windshield. Smoke she could still smell on her coat and in her hair. She stared into the glaring black of the rear window, gently rubbing her throat and thinking of the story he’d helped her to write. Even if the editor hadn’t nixed it, she doubted it would’ve done him any good. The taillights glowed red. A puff of exhaust burst from the tailpipe, and the Buick lurched into the street.

***

Matt Perron lives with his wife in Brooklyn. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Cadillac Cicatrix, Compass Rose, Crack The Spine, Blue Lake Review, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Gemini Magazine, Sanskrit, The Dos Passos Review, RiverSedge, Verdad, and G.W. Review. He also won the Table 4 Writers contest in 2014 for his story, “Rent Control.”

Matt Perron

Matt Perron

Comments

  1. I’d love to reconnect with Matt, if anyone can direct me – we went to U of AZ together.

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