Charlie sat trying to ride out a sudden inexplicable and frightening urge to rip holes into his own chest. Flashbulb images flew through his mind. His fingers, slipping between ribs, tearing flesh, pulling open a wet, yawning vacuity, dripping with gore. Face damaged too, jawbone showing through a mass of tendons and muscles. His arms snaking around his head, severing it with a swift twisting motion. . . his heart threatening to pound right out of his chest and onto the living room floor, throat constricting around his breath, screeching, horrible noises deafening him from somewhere inside of his tortured head, eyes darting around rapidly. . . his cloistered room pressed inward on him. Dust motes and lint swirled thickly around his face in the light of the reading lamp causing further breathing difficulties. Standing up, he paused to take stock of the effect of his change in position on his physiology. His heart began to pump faster, but the rest remained disgustingly usual.
He stepped softly to the bathroom, taking care so as not to wake the neighbors who were audibly sleeping on the other side of the thin wall. To his mind, even his soft steps seemed elephantine, reverberating through the floors like a pile-driver.
Icy water, tinged with rust, poured from the faucet and slowly turned clearer. Charlie splashed great handfuls of it up into his face and bent to let the water run into his hair. He whipped his head out of the sink with a splattering of his hair on the low ceiling. Out of breath and blinking away water, he checked his pupilary reflex. No dilation irregularities. When he put a hand over his eye and leaned closer to the mirror, he could see his pupils grow and when he removed the hand, they shrunk to a normal size. What is a normal size? Charlie didn't know, but they seemed to be close enough to what he had grown accustomed to seeing in the mirror over the years.
Six billion of us, he thought as he dried his face and patted at his shirt front. Six fucking billion human beings eating and shitting and puking, farting, picking their noses, fucking and sucking and killing, raping and robbing, dying and being born, wet and screaming, falling from the ripped and jagged hole right down to the hot asphalt to rub elbows and assholes just like so many bacteria jiggling around on a big petri dish. . .
He tip-toed through the kitchen, silently getting a bottle of beer from the refrigerator on the way. Sitting on his bed, he got dressed, intermittently taking pulls at the beer. He got his wallet, keys and two cold ones from the fridge before leaving.
Locking the front door and giving it a shove to make sure, he got into his car and, seat belt securely fastened, pulled away with a beer between his legs and the other one jammed into the garbage piled behind the passenger seat.
He lit a cigarette and drove aimlessly for a while. His eyes scanning the rear view, the side mirror and the parking lots and driveways along side the streets. . . He carefully examined every set of headlights, coming or going, to determine if they might be those of a police cruiser, especially looking out for the telltale parking-lights-only Ford LTDs that could occasionally be spotted sitting in lonely lots at that late hour. These were usually found in twos, facing opposite directions, with their driver-side windows adjacent in case they felt like leaning out and swapping spit with their partners or something.
Charlie inhaled cigarette after cigarette. He sucked the smoke down harshly, feeling his throat burn and redden with every drag, but he didn't care. He couldn't stop envisioning himself as a twisted, bloody pulp and the more he drove, the more automotive the themes of these horrible images became.
At a red light, no other cars in sight, he hopped out with a dirty shirt found on the passenger side floorboard and wiped at the grimy windshield just to make himself feel marginally safer. He got back into the car and waited for the light. It turned and he took a left up onto the elevated expressway.
He noticed that his heart had slowed down markedly and seemed almost to be beating normally. He counted three beers and eight cigarettes. The alcohol? Probably not, it wasn't hardly enough to produce that much of a change. He'd drunk considerably more than that in his time and still felt fairly sober. Maybe the nicotine had played a part. . .No, he figured it was more likely the heavy drags he'd been taking that had primarily affected the change. Deep breathing's how the athletes and kung-fu masters do it, isn't it? He thought it must have been. Sticking his head out the window and into the wind, he inhaled deeply through his nose and exhaled for an eight count before repeating the process a few times.
Back behind the glass, he almost felt better, but the mild light headedness and the ringing ears reminded him that it was to only be a short reprieve. His eyelids drooped, his scalp tingled and he put both hands on the steering wheel while his head buzzed gently back to normal.
His breath caught, his heart fluttered wildly in his chest and his eyes flashed up to the rearview. There were flashing red and blue lights and some very bright white ones all directly behind his car. He nearly slammed on the brakes reflexively and his eyes darted to the speedometer. He was going about five over the posted limit.
His arms tensed, chills ran down his spine. His feet shook uncontrollably, rattling the pedals as he fumbled with the blinker rod and pulled the car over to the side of the road, trying to make every nuance of the maneuver look as normal and as sober as possible.
The cruiser pulled up close behind him and the lights kept flashing.
Charlie's heart pounded and his temples throbbed. He couldn't stop shaking and feared that it might be noticeable from the other car. He tried to take a deep breath, but his lungs were shaking too. He was able to haltingly fill them with air, but became hotly aware of just how much he was shaking upon exhaling it. He threw the beer in the back seat with all the other garbage and it, no-doubt, spilled its last contents over everything. . . it didn't matter. Charlie's mind raced to think of anything in the car that the officer "might not want to see. . ." but he couldn't order his thoughts. A floodlight came on to further brighten the scene and it was trained on the back of Charlie's head.
"Take the keys out of the ignition and drop them out of the window," a stern voice enunciated slowly over a scratchy pee-ay system.
Charlie performed the action in spite of his hands' frustrating refusals to cooperate.
"Open the door from the outside and step out of the vehicle," the stern voice said deliberately.
Charlie fumbled with the door handle and tried to complete the movement in a relaxed manner. He thought he'd pulled it off rather suavely when the voice yelled,
"HURRY UP! GET THE FUCK OUT OF THE CAR!" and he got out, squinting back at the dazzling myriad of lights flashing and whirling around the cruiser. He could hear a police radio squawking fuzzily somewhere within the lights.
"TURN AROUND! NOWWW!" the voice commanded viciously. "Face the other direction! ON YOUR KNEES!" it boomed as Charlie complied shakily. "Get your hands on your head and lay on your belly, NOW!"
Charlie did it.
Minutes passed as the radio squawked, the lights flashed and Charlie laid, shaking and blinking on the shoulder of the expressway. Not a single car went by the entire time.
It was late.
He heard the door of the police car open and heard a boot hit the pavement with a cold THUD that he could feel through the ground below him. He judged the distance to the cop car to be at least twenty feet, so with a normal stride, the officer would arrive in eight more steps. He waited for the second thud, but only the wind over the mechanical sounds of the rotating lights on the roof of the cop car and the squawks of the radio could be heard.
The next step never came as a door suddenly slammed and the cruiser revved alive and sped off, tires squealing, nearly running over Charlie's prone body.
The sirens faded into the distance. . .
He listened for any noises behind him.
Just the rush of blood in his ears and his breath wheezing against the grainy cement.
A car approached and flew by going over seventy. It honked at him as it went by, him still lying there next to an open car, light pouring out of its door, keys in the road.
He sat up and looked around.
The cops were gone. His heart thumped twice, slowly and deeply before returning to a relatively normal rhythm. No one was approaching and he was utterly alone on the expressway, sitting there on the shoulder, at least thirty feet off of the ground. Dusting himself off and finding his keys with a flashlight from the glove-box, he made it home, hungrily smoking the rest of his pack of cigarettes, before the sun rose.