Tom held the steering wheel with one hand, while his arm rested out the window of the boxy, old pickup truck with "Tree Pros Landscaping" painted on the side. He had no idea how Cal had gotten the truck, only that he must have stolen it either from a garage or from someone at gunpoint — where he now found himself. He had been driving for hours, and Cal rode shotgun, keeping the gun on his lap, always in his grip, not giving Tom even the slightest chance to make a move for it.

"I don't think you actually want to kill me," said Tom as he looked into the horizon. They had been on dirt roads for miles, and the one they were on stretched far out into the distance. The corn fields of Iowa were the most monotonous landscape in all of America, and Tom had almost dozed off several times within the last half hour.

"Maybe not kill, but I have no problem with severely injuring you. Honestly, you don't really have anything to be afraid of so long as you don't deviate. At any rate, you don't want to test me. My hostility toward you is cerebral, not visceral. Everything has been a series of calculated decisions on my part, so don't doubt that I will do whatever it takes to keep you under control, even if it means killing you. I've already thought of everything."

"You're just lucky you have that thing, otherwise I would throw your crippled ass out the fucking door."

"No need. You'll have your chance shortly," Cal said, looking around in all directions as they drove. There wasn't another vehicle in sight, and they hadn't seen one pass for an hour. "Stop. Right here. Now."

Tom stopped the car and it came to a skidding halt, leaving long tracks in the dirt road and a cloud of dust all around them. Cal pulled the keys from the ignition and pointed the gun at Tom's chest.

"Get out."

Tom complied, and stood out in the middle of the road while Cal hobbled out of the passenger door. Whatever had happened to his knee must have been pretty bad, judging by his wincing at every step.

"I'm a patient man, Tom. Most of all, I'm a man of my word. I can hardly say the same for you. This is it. I want you out of my life, for good. I could easily shoot you now and be done with it, and while that would achieve my goal, it would just make other things even more complicated. So now, instead of dragging your corpse into those rows of corn behind you, I'm giving you a chance, one last gesture of kindness — that you don't deserve. This is it. I want you out of my life. I want you out of Leyna's life. I don't ever want to see your fucking face again."

Cal drew a coin from his pocket and threw it to Tom, who caught it. A regular old quarter. Tom looked up, confused, and Cal dangled the keys to the truck from his left hand with a grin.

"You call it in the air. If you win the toss, I'll give you the keys, and you can drive wherever the hell you want to go, but not back to Bainbridge. The truck won't be recognized as stolen for at least a week, but if I see you again, there won't be any bargaining or second chances. That's the end of it. If I win the toss, I leave your lying ass out here for the next schmuck who happens to drive by. If you're lucky, someone will find their way out here in the next couple weeks. See, either way, you get to leave with your skin still intact. That's my gift to you."

"Why would you do that? You could just leave me here anyway. You have the gun, and the keys. Why not just drive away twenty-five cents poorer than when you hustled me into the truck?"

"First of all, if you go back to Bainbridge, you are walking to your death. Don't doubt it for a second. The mechanisms have already been put into place, and you will be killed even if I never move an inch from the spot I'm standing now. The second reason I'm giving you this last chance is because I'm a man of my word, Tom. I'm a man of integrity, and this is my demonstration of it. This is something that you simply don't understand. You've been an asshole your whole life, you've spit on the underdog, drowned the helpless, and you feel no remorse or regret for it. You're a worthless piece of shit by every human standard. I would rather take my own chances out here alone with my dignity rather than see your face for even one more minute, and yet...I still believe that your life has some shred of value. Not value to me, but maybe in general, to someone else, or maybe only in the future. I'm not like you. I will never be like you."

"What if I don't decide? What if I say fuck your deal?"

"Then it's a stalemate, and eventually you will make a move at me, and I will shoot you like the fucking dog you are. There are only two things that I can justify killing you for, one is Leyna and her safety, which is why I'm doing this to begin with; and the other is my own. I refuse to be taken down by a rat like you. In the scheme of things, my worth to Leyna and the rest of society is infinitely more. To let you kill me would be a bigger crime by any logic. Now call it and flip the coin."

"I think you're fucked up, and all that college shit has done a fine job of turning you into a whiny bitch, which doesn't really help your chances with Leyna."

"Talk like that doesn't really help your chances of leaving this road alive. Flip the coin."

"Heads." Tom took a breath and flipped the coin, spinning above them with a ring, it fell down onto the dusty road.

"Tough luck," Cal said. "Don't say I never gave you a chance." He opened the driver's side door and put the keys in the ignition. He started the truck and looked back at Tom.

Tom glared at him, clenching his fist. "You say I'm not a man of my word. This time, I'll make you an actual promise instead of the warped shit you've made up in your head. The next time I see you, I'm going to pound your face in. One way or another, whatever obstacle or fortress you hide yourself in, I will find a way to get through it, and leave a mark on you that will remind you of me every time you look in the mirror. You have my word."

Cal smiled back at him. "Think hard about that while you're out here. If you were stupid enough to do that, it would be the end of you. This is it, Tom — your last warning. Stay the fuck out of my life, and leave Leyna alone." He mashed the pedal to the floor, sending dirt everywhere. As he charged down the road, Tom watched through the cloud of dust, and saw him toss something out the window to the edge of the road. By the time he made his way to it, Cal was a mile into the distance. It was the gun, and when he looked closer, he saw that it was empty. Nothing in the magazine. The whole time, through hours of driving, the damned thing never held a single bullet. It was one final slap in the face before leaving him out here for the coyotes. Useless to him now, he threw it back onto the ground.


He had been walking for an hour, and finally as he was making his way around a bend, he saw someone. It was far sooner than he had expected to encounter anyone driving out here, and for good reason. As he approached, he saw Cal, pounding at the dash, swearing, trying to get the truck's engine to turn over. He could tell from the sound that it wasn't out of gas. It had broken down, and probably only made it a few more miles after it went out of sight. Cal was no mechanic, unfortunately for him. When he saw Tom in rear view mirror, he panicked, rolled up the windows, and locked the door.

Tom walked up to the driver's side window, glaring an evil grin, and began kicking at the door, leaving a large dent. Cal was terrified. Knowing he could not outrun him with his injured knee, he rummaged around under the seats, looking for anything he could use as a weapon to defend himself.

"Don't worry, Cal. I'm not a man of my word!" He continued to kick the door. "Open up, and we'll have a drink. We can chat awhile." He looked around for a rock, or anything to break the window with, but saw nothing close.

Cal, still panicking inside and fumbling with the seat, saw Tom climb into the back of the truck and pull an old gas can from the bed.

"What the hell are you doing? You're fucking insane!"

"I'm being a man of my word, Cal!" He pulled the stopper, laughing, turned the can upside-down, and emptied it over the bed of the truck. He jumped down and tore off his shirt, then soaked it with the fuel. Standing back, he pulled a lighter from his pocket and lit the shirt as he held it. Cal unlocked the door and tried to open it, but the dent Tom had kicked into it had jammed it shut. As he tried to force it with his shoulder, Tom threw the ignited shirt, and the bed of the truck went up with a wind of fire that knocked him back onto the dirt road. As he held his hand out to shield his face from the heat, he saw Cal scrambling to the passenger door, and fall out face first onto the ground. He crawled out, coughing from the fumes and heat, trying to make his way into the rows of corn, stumbling like an injured animal hiding from its stalker.

Tom took his time, walking slowly, watching Cal's pathetic attempt to crawl away.

"You crazy fuck. I let you live. I should have just had you killed and been done with it." Cal shouted over the sound of the truck burning. He could see black smoke streaming above the corn stalks as he collapsed onto the ground.

"You're right," Tom said. "I am a crazy fuck, and you should have killed me, but you couldn't. At one point, you might have been able to stomach it, but not today. The world has made you soft, Cal, but it hasn't made me soft. It's made me harder. You've had it too easy; all those years in college, and now it's time for you to actually learn something about the real world, about real people. No books, no bullshit philosophy. It's just me — and this lesson is tailored exclusively to you."

Tom stood over Cal's broken body, and clenching his fist, he conjured up the most satisfying way to break it more. The truck let out a loud explosion, but Cal never heard the sound.

Photograph by marykbaird via Morguefile license