Closer Than They Appear by Gemma Clarke
Along the barren plains of North Dakota, a deserted highway stretched its leaden limb into a bloodshot sky.
By its side, in the dust, an electric blue sports car lay motionless. The Porsche Panamera was fresh from the production lines in Leipzig; state-of-the-art engineering waylaid by the simplicity of an empty gas tank. Still buckled into the driver’s seat, Shayna Ray Judge was bent double, her smooth forehead pressing into the speckled leather steering wheel. She groaned as she sat up and stared at the vast expanse of nothingness extending beyond the windscreen.
The fuel gags frowned at less than zero. A thin sheen of peach-colored makeup marked the wheel where Shayna’s head had been. She slammed her palm down on it. “Stupid Shayna. Stupid, stupid, stupid.”
She caught sight of her own scowling face in the rear-view mirror and leaned in, smoothing out the frown lines with her finger, noting the plumpness and elasticity that Doctor Stanton had expertly injected back into the skin.
She smiled and commanded herself, “Shay, keep calm. You got this.”
Shayna Ray Judge was all about personal pep talks. It was the main focus of Chapter Three of her New York Times bestseller Sober As Judge: The Clean-Living Diet. [As she had outlined on Page 47: “I am all about personal pep talks. Never mind if folks think you look crazy when you’re sitting alone talking to yourself. What matters is how you deal with certain situations and temptations. As a great ex-friend of mine used to say: You do YOU!”]
She reached over to the passenger seat and retrieved her purse, a cavernous sack of mottled crocodile skin. She rifled through clusters of crumpled receipts, half-congealed lip glosses and a small, stuffed teddy bear clutching a tiny felt heart inscribed with the words I Love You. Beneath the rubble, her cell phone. She pulled it out and stared at its screen; a blank square of sickly greige where her screensaver should have been. [Page 63: “Try using an inspirational quote as your cell phone screensaver. It will help reaffirm your goals.”]
“Fuck!” She threw the phone back into the crocodile’s zippered mouth. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
Lately Shayna had been falling foul of life’s practicalities, cutting corners, forgetting the simplest details. It had been a stressful time since the season three finale had aired.
She unbuckled her seatbelt and stretched her neck slowly, one side and then the other. She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel and searched around the car for some kind of solution. A quarter of a cold Frappuccino Light, a pack of Root Beer Float-flavor gum, seven-dollars-fifty-eight-cents in loose change. She reached over to the back seat and retrieved an old copy of US Weekly. Across the cover, neon letters yelled out “Bad Beach Bodies.” Shayna had kept it, even though it contained a terrible photo of her, smothered in streaky fake tan, dimpled skin spilling over a skimpy white bikini, because it proved beyond doubt that she’d made the celebrity grade. She was right up there between the crinkly thighs of Goldie Hawn and the protruding beer gut of Alec Baldwin. She had arrived.
A sudden thud at the back of the car made her jump. She peered into the rear view mirror: nothing but road and sky. She checked her side mirror: the Porsche’s shiny blue siding glistened against the asphalt. Objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear. It sounded to her like a great name for a book, or – better yet – a movie, starring Shayna Ray Judge.
She caught a glimpse of a snake slithering along the tarmac. Shayna’s breath quickened, her stomach tightened. She shuddered as forked tongue made contact with dry gravel. She didn’t care much for animals on the whole, but she had a special level of hatred for snakes. She sank lower into the driver’s seat and locked the doors.
A lone cricket frantically trilled as darkness descended, waking Shayna from a doze. Chill air seeped in as the temperature plummeted. She yanked the sleeves of her cashmere sweater down and pulled the neck hole up to rest over her chin. [Page 12: “Natural materials are best if you want to keep your skin soft. I heart cashmere most of all.”]
“Shayna,” she said in a firm voice. “You are strong. You are brave. You will get through this.”
Her voice cracked as she repeated the last line. She gulped down the dregs of the Frappuccino and began to sing the first track from her upcoming solo album, Me: “I can only be me. Who else am I supposed to be? Some day you will see…”
By the time she’d sung her way through the first four songs, night had fallen. The moon, as thin as a fingernail clipping, was a lone sliver of light in the blackness. Wherever Shayna looked, she could only see herself reflected back in the glass. Her teeth began to chatter. She pressed her palms together and blew warm breath into the crack between her thumbs.
“Please God,” she whispered. “Please, save me. I’ll do anything. I’ll change, I promise.”
The air felt heavy, dragging Shayna down into its depths.
She came to as a tiny white light shone over the horizon. Shayna blinked her eyes open and tried to focus as it travelled towards her. She willed her limbs into action, grabbed her crocodile purse and leant with all her might into the car door as she flung it open. The icy air caught in her chest.
She gripped her sweater tight to her neck and waved a sluggish arm as the car approached. “Stop. Please. Stop. Please.”
A beat-up pickup truck creaked to a halt beside her, one headlight on full and one on half-beam, winking at her.
“Thank you,” she gasped. “Thank you.”
She stumbled towards the passenger door and yanked at the handle. It refused to open. She pulled again, but the truck remained motionless and impenetrable.
“Please,” she whispered. “Please let me in.”
A slow thunk. The lock clicked open.
Shayna clambered inside, slamming the door behind her. Her black Manolos sank into a layer of trash, disappearing under empty oil cartons, mounds of paper, plastic yogurt tubs.
“Sorry ‘bout the mess.” A gruff voice from the driver’s side.
She squeezed her purse to her chest and squinted through the dimness. A weather-beaten man sat sturdy in the driver’s seat; thick, calloused hands gripping the steering wheel, a long strip of greasy white hair tied in a ponytail under a decades-old trucker’s cap. The air was thick with the stench of engine oil.
Shayna shivered. “No problem. I ran out of gas.”
“I was gonna say. Don’t look like you got engine problems.”
She forced a smile. “No, sir.”
His lips unfurled to reveal thick teeth, amber-tinged at the gums. “As long as it looks pretty, right? Don’t matter if the thing don’t run.”
“Well, that’s not--”
“Do I know you from somewhere? You look awful familiar.”
Shayna shook her head. “Where’s the nearest gas station, sir?”
“Ooh, it’s a ways off.”
“Could you take me there, please?”
“I live ‘bout five miles from here. I got some barrels in my garage -- I buy ‘em when gas prices are low, or as low as they’re ever gonna get these days.”
“I think the gas station would be better, if you don’t mind.”
“Sweetie, you’re safe with me.” His big teeth glistened in the gloom. “I won’t bite.”
The truck lurched as he shifted into gear. Shayna stared at her Porsche as they passed it; keeping her eyes on its electric blue carcass until it disappeared into the night.
“There’s a jacket on the back seat if you’re cold.”
Shayna peered around. Two empty spray cans lay on the floor beside a large rock. On the back seat a thick, rough jacket that she pulled onto her lap. It stank of stale tobacco and unwashed flesh. In other circumstances she would have retched, but staying warm overpowered her every other impulse.
“So, what you doing drivin’ out here all alone at night?”
Shayna kept her eyes on the dark road ahead. “It wasn’t night when I set out.”
“Where’d you set out from?”
He snorted. “Yeah? You got a fella out there? A fancy man?”
“No, I do not.”
“So there’s a vacancy?” He let out a high-pitched cackle. “I’m just teasin’, honey.”
She stared at the dust particles hovering in the headlight beam.
“They call me Duck,” he rasped. “Name’s Donald, of course, but I go by Duck.”
She paused. “Shayna.”
“Pretty name for a pretty lady.”
She shifted around under the jacket. The more she moved, the more offensive its smell became.
Duck swung a sharp left onto a dirt path off the highway. The path was narrow with foliage encroaching on either side. Tendrils of branch scratched along the station wagon’s bodywork as they jostled forward. Duck started to whistle a solemn, sad tune. Shayna clenched her jaw and shrank into the jacket.
The path opened up to reveal a rickety wooden shack in the middle of a clearing. Pinned to the porch a hand-painted sign read, ‘No Tresspassen.’
Shayna closed her eyes and thought of her Upper East Side penthouse: the radiant heat, the sunken tub, the Egyptian cotton bed sheets. It was waiting for her, just a couple of plane rides away.
A vicious barking jolted her back.
“Hope you don’t mind dogs.” Duck chuckled.
She thought of Chi-Chi, of the way her little nubby tail wagged excitedly when the dog walker showed up.
“I’m not a huge fan,” she said.
A heavy paw thumped at Shayna’s window. She flinched. Sharp teeth snarled from behind the glass, drool hanging from black Rottweiler gums.
“Don’t mind Lucy. She’s a good ol’ hound.”
Shayna tried to swallow but her mouth was too dry. “Can you please just grab the gas so we can go?”
“Come inside for a second, freshen up while I go get it.”
“I’d rather not.”
Duck stroked his stubble. “You wanna stay out here in the cold? Fine by me.”
She shivered at the thought. [Page 80: “Don’t let fear rule you. Always work through it and do what’s right for you.”] She straightened up. “Get your dog to stop growling at me first.”
Duck nodded and stepped out of the car. The Rottweiler bounded over to him and slobbered over his hands.
“See. She don’t mean no harm.”
Shayna didn’t budge.
“I’ll keep hold of her,” he called out.
With Duck’s giant jacket still bundled around her, she started toward the house. Duck held Lucy by the collar as she let out a low growl, eyeing Shayna suspiciously, ready to pounce. Two loud barks rang out.
Duck took a chastising tone. “Lucy! Be nice now.”
Shayna clambered up the crumbling wooden steps and let herself inside, slamming the door shut behind her. Trinkets and trash cluttered every surface, old pizza boxes, crusted newspapers, a stack of blank CDs. Amid the debris on the side table, Shayna saw a ceramic angel with half her wing missing, laying on her side, praying to be rescued.
She stepped into the kitchen area, padding gently over the ruddy laminate that curled up at the edges. On the yellowed fridge door, a magnet of Mount Rushmore held up an old photo: a youthful Duck kneeling in a cornfield with his arms draped over a young plaid-shirted woman and a golden retriever.
“My wife,” Duck said, appearing behind Shayna.
“In the picture,” he said, edging forwards. “Didn’t mean to startle ya.”
“Oh. Right. Is she here?”
Duck didn’t move. “She’s dead.”
Shayna looked away, noticing the long silhouette of a shotgun propped against the back door. She tried to sound sympathetic but she half-swallowed her words. “I’m sorry.”
He stood still, staring at her, fingers twitching at his side. “Ido know who you are,” he said suddenly, a strange tone in his voice.
He cocked his head to one side and smiled. “I know exactly who you are.”
Shayna’s toes curled up. “Can you just get me the gas, please?”
“You’re the girl from the reality show. The one with the rich wives who have them fancy dinner parties. Yeah, that’s you ain’t it?”
“I really have to be going, if you don’t mind.”
He let out another cackle. “Well, I’ll be. It’s my lucky day.”
Outside, Lucy burrowed and scratched at the front door. Shayna leant back on the sink, her hands resting on a layer of thin, watery slime.
“I’m not waiting around any longer,” she said, raising her voice.
“I got a bona fide celebrity in my kitchen.”
“Let’s just get the gas and get the fuck back to my car.”
Duck grinned, baring his sallow tombstone teeth. “That’s right, you got a potty mouth. I saw the one where you had that fight. You were really mean to that lady with the short hair, what was her name?”
Shayna stared at Duck, feeling a wave of revulsion as she honed in on his red, flaking skin. “Carlee.”
“That’s right!” Duck clapped his hands. “Carlee. Ooh, that was some fight. You ‘bout as mean as a mule with an earache.”
She felt a familiar lurch in her belly, bilious and hot. [Page 93: “Don’t listen to what others say about you, especially if it’s negative. Only God can judge us.”]
Duck blustered on. “Man, I felt sorry for that little lady. Real sweet, real pretty lady, Carlee. How’s she doin’?”
Shayna cleared her throat. “She was not as sweet as she came across.”
“Yeah, but you ‘bout clawed her face clean off with those nails! No wonder everybody hates you.” He lifted his cap and wiped his brow.
Shayna glared at him. “She started it.”
“It’s not funny.”
But Duck only chuckled louder. “I’m sorry to say it,” he said, catching his breath. “But you are one crazy b-i-t-c-h.”
Her lip curled in contempt. “Shut up.” Everything she said only seemed to make him laugh more. “I mean it, shut the fuck up right now.”
Duck’s protruding belly shook. “Ooh, this is like a live action replay. Wait till I tell the guys at The Pit ‘bout this. They’re never gon’ believe it.”
“No,” Shayna said. “They’re not.”
She leapt towards the back door and snatched the shotgun, pointing its barrel straight at Duck, sending him into rapid convulsions of laughter.
“You’re gonna kill me?” he hooted. “Now I’ve seen everything.”
“You’d better apologise for calling me a bitch, bitch.”
“Oh honey, you’re cracking me up!”
Shayna pumped the barrel. “Chapter one, page one: Don’t fuck with Shayna Ray Judge.”
With a tight squeeze of the trigger, she blasted a hole through Duck’s chest. He teetered and fell backwards, his face frozen in a half-smile of horror and hilarity. On the other side of the door Lucy’s scratching grew frantic, she yowled and panted as she pawed away. Shayna raised the barrel again and blasted through the wood. The scratching stopped with a thud.
She wiped the shotgun down with the sleeve of Duck’s jacket and returned it to where it had stood. Her body felt warm again, so she let the jacket fall at her feet.
Blood pooled underneath Duck’s back and spread across the floor, seeping into a stack of old pizza boxes. She glared down at his corpse.
“Carlee’s the bitch. Not me.”
She reached across the side table, picked up the half-winged angel and dropped it into her purse. Out on the porch she stepped over Lucy’s lifeless body and made her way across the long grass to the garage.
Shayna emerged minutes later, triumphant, clutching a red cannister full of syphoned gas. She climbed back in Duck’s truck and put her foot down on the accelerator, powering through the undergrowth until it spat her back onto the main road. She pressed on through the dark.
Out on the deserted highway, a shimmer of electric blue reappeared in Duck’s dim headlight like an old friend: her car, her co-conspirator, waiting quietly in the shadows.
Braced against the cold, Shayna filled its tank up halfway, enough to see her to the warmth and comforts of an airport hotel. She popped the tiny trunk. Inside, Carlee’s lifeless limbs were trussed and contorted into the small space. Shayna reached inside and pulled Carlee out, dragging her chic little corpse across the tarmac.
The cab of Duck’s truck was, at least, a little roomier. Shayna lifted Carlee onto the dusty seat and slammed the door. She poured the remaining gas from the canister all over the pickup. In her purse, amid the debris, Shayna retrieved a matchbox marked Gramercy Tavern.
As the flames took hold, she gazed at the landscape beyond. The plains were beautiful and wild by the firelight. Her spray-tanned skin warmed as she watched.
By the time she climbed back inside her Porsche, the sun was peeking over the horizon. It was still so cold in the car that she could see her breath. She turned the ignition and flicked the switch on the under seat heater.
Behind her, the fire had almost died away. The embers of Duck’s truck lay discarded in the dust like charred chicken bones.
Shayna glanced down at her purse. The half-winged angel peered out, calm and serene, praying for her.
She pulled away, the smouldering wreckage sinking out of view. Alone on the dawning plains, she flicked the in-car light on and checked her reflection. Somewhere along the way, two eyelash extensions had been lost. Shayna resolved to make a spa appointment as soon as she could charge her phone. [Page 93: “No matter what gets in your way, always set aside some ‘me’ time.”]
© Gemma Clarke 2103
Gemma Clarke has written for The Guardian, The Observer, The Times, the Daily Telegraph and McSweeney’s. She moved to New York in 2010 after meeting her future husband outside a pub in her home city of London. She is a skilled procrastinator who, when she isn’t alphabetizing her sock drawer, writes fiction and screenplay.
Closer Than They Appear was read by Kristen Calgaro for the Murder & Mayhem Show on 2nd October 2013