THE STEP OFF

By Michael Hansen

There were no other cars on the road with the Coupe de Ville, and they were making good time. That was fine with Esteban -- he wanted nothing more than to get this over with. He pressed his sneaker-clad foot down harder on the gas pedal and snuck a glance over at his big brother Jose, lounging in the shotgun seat. The big car was up to seventy five mph now, but Jose seemed not to notice. He kept staring straight ahead into the night, that lady-killing profile of his expressionless as he listened to the oldies playing on the radio. Jose was always on Esteban's ass about something. If he had noticed the change in speed, he would have said something like "Keep it under the speed limit, Esteban," or more likely, "Keep it under the limit, pendejo." Pendejo: stupid. Then Bear's laugh would have come from the back seat, that scary booming chuckle bubbling up from way down in his barrel chest like water from a deep well. Esteban turned red just thinking about it. This was the first time Esteban had ever taken anyone for a "ride" before, and he was terrified he'd do something to embarrass himself. He always got nervous, even on lesser jobs than this, and Jose always made him drive. No free tickets in this business, he always said, not even for familia.

Thinking of rides, despite his best efforts Esteban's thoughts turned to their two unwilling passengers, lying on the floor in the back seat. Two punks, wrapped up in chains like metal cocoons, stacked on top of each other with a bed spread concealing the whole mess. Bear sitting back there with them, both his size fifteen feet planted firmly on them to keep them from squirming too much. He knew Bear was loving this shit, but it gave Esteban the willies; he'd never been involved in the killing side of the business before. He wondered what was going through their heads as they lay back there in the dark, mouths taped shut, unable to move, unable to fight or to run away from their fate. Were they gazing into each other's eyes in mute terror over their duct-taped mouths? Were they agonizing about the foolish decisions that had brought them here, to the end of the line? Esteban jerked his mind away from that train of thought. If the punks hadn't wanted to end up like this, they shouldn't have ripped off Jose. Anybody with any sense knew better than to rip off his big brother, either his money or his drugs.

They were coming up on a river now, with a tall steel girder bridge spanning it. The tires' whine took on hollow overtones as the Coupe de Ville started across. Jose said quietly, "Stop here."

Esteban darted his eyes over to his brother in surprise, but obeyed automatically, stopping right in the middle and killing the headlights. Jose opened his door and climbed out gracefully, stepping up to the bridge railing to look over and down. He nodded and rubbed his hands as he turned back toward the car. "Here. We'll do it here."

Esteban licked his lips. He couldn't believe it. "Jose, man, this is right out in the open. I don't know, man." He felt like he could hear Bear's lips spreading into a feral grin in the darkness behind him, and the back of his neck crawled.

Jose bent over to stare flatly across the front seat at Esteban through the open passenger window. "C'mon out here with me, hermano."

Esteban immediately obeyed and trotted around the car to stand in front of his older brother. "Look around," Jose said. Esteban peered up and down the highway. The asphalt ribbon of road spooled away in both directions, glowing dull gray under the moonlight and disappearing into the pine-crowded mountains behind and ahead of them. "No traffic, no towns - this is the true middle-of-nowhere, es verdad? We're all alone out here." Jose reached out and gently grasped the back of Esteban's neck. He steered Esteban to the railing and stood next to him, both of them staring down into the abyss.

Esteban trembled, hypnotized by the long drop. The river sighed past far below, its swirls and ripples sparkling coldly under the moon, but Esteban couldn't admire the view - he was terrified of heights. And Jose knew it.

"We're all on a bridge between life and death, bro, all the time. And this is where those two punks in the car step off. We'll do 'em here." Esteban looked over at Jose as he listened raptly to his brother's speech, as he'd listened to so many of his speeches before. Jose's eyes glowed as he stared off into the distance, and he stroked the back of his little brother's neck. He always got like this when he talked about killing, all dreamy and mystic. For Esteban, the whole idea just made him feel cold -- he shivered when his brother finally released his neck. They both turned around to face the Coupe de Ville.

"Let's do it," Jose called out.

Bear pushed the front seat forward and clambered awkwardly out to tower by the car like a pile of stone, his square brown face an impassive mask in the watery moonlight.

"Bring 'em out," Jose ordered. Bear bent over and pulled off the spread, wadding it up and tossing it onto the back seat. Then he reached in with both huge hands and grabbed the guy on top by his bound ankles. The binding chains clanked and chinked together in a skirling whir as Bear dragged him out by his feet across his friend's body. When the punk's head reached the doorway, it dropped the foot or more to the pavement and slammed into the asphalt with a hollow thud that made Esteban wince. The punk gave out with a grunt muffled by the duct tape across his mouth. Esteban watched the guy's eyes blinking dazedly as Bear dragged him toward the railing. Esteban couldn't decide if the guy was groggy from the long drive in chains, the blow to the head or both. Maybe it was better the dude stayed a little out of it, Esteban thought.

"Get the other one, Esteban," Jose snapped suddenly, breaking into Esteban's thoughts. "What's the hold up?" Esteban turned away to escape his brother's scowl and he found himself bending over without thinking, reaching with both hands into the dimness of the back seat to take up his burden. As he hooked his hands into the slack chains around the guy's ankles, the guy stirred and Esteban froze for a second. Then he started pulling and the guy tensed right up, his body bouncing and snagging woodenly as Esteban dragged him with difficulty across the floor to the door.

Something made Esteban stop, grab the guy's head and lower it gently to the pavement; he just couldn't bear to hear that thud again. He flicked a guilty glance up at his brother and Bear, but they were both hovering over the other punk by the railing, muttering to each other as they studied the guy like he was some side show exhibit.

Esteban looked back down at his punk's head, still cradled protectively in his hands. The guy was young and Asian, maybe Chinese, with black hair swept back into a braided pony tail - he was just a kid like himself, even younger than Esteban's seventeen years. For the first time they made eye contact, and Esteban immediately wished they hadn't. All the life inside the young Asian seemed to pour out of his wide brown eyes in an overwhelming flow, pleading with Esteban, sending him a silent message like he was trying to reach right through into Esteban's mind, Esteban's soul. Esteban remembered his Granmama talking about the evil eye when he was a little kid, and he wrenched his gaze away with his heart pounding in his chest like the bass speakers at a loud party. He grabbed the guy by the shoulders and dragged him the rest of the way to the railing, keeping his head off the pavement at least.

Esteban stopped pulling when his back bumped against the rail and gratefully set the guy down next to his bound partner. Esteban stood shoulder to shoulder with Jose and Bear, looking down at the pair as they lay side by side. The light was better here, and Esteban could see that the other punk was a white guy with a blond crewcut, still blinking stupidly. Perhaps bouncing his head on the road had knocked something loose. The Asian kid seemed all too conscious of his predicament - his face was covered with a glistening sheen of sweat, and Esteban could dimly see the whites of his eyes as the Asian stared up in terror at an indifferent heaven.

"So you maricons figured you'd take me off?" Jose asked the two, grinning. His hands fumbled at his crotch and without warning he started pissing on them. Esteban's mouth hung open in surprise as Jose swept his hips from side to side, the pungent stream of his urine arcing out powerfully to splash up and down the lengths of their chained bodies and across their faces. The Asian kid grunted and shut his eyes tightly as he jerked his head to the side in a futile effort to escape the burning fluid's humiliating touch, but to no avail. It spilled across his cheeks and up his nostrils, prompting a desperate round of sneezing. He was still sneezing it out of his nose when Jose finally stopped pissing, tucked his verga back inside his fly and zipped up. "You like that putos? You're gonna love this." He nodded to Bear.

Bear squatted next to the blond punk and looked up at Esteban with an expectant smile. "Time to lose your cherry, 'Steban," he rumbled, good-natured enough now that someone was going to die. Esteban swallowed and squatted opposite him. He grabbed two handfuls of chain like Bear did, and with a heave the two stood up, the chains on the blond clanking as they dragged him to lean upright against the concrete railing between them. The blonde guy's face was only inches from his, and Esteban could see his eyes rolling back in his head, his eyelids fluttering. He was lucky, Esteban thought - he didn't even know he was here.

"Ready?" Bear asked, his eyes twinkling. Esteban nodded. Bear squatted by the blonde's ankles, keeping one hand on the chains around the guy's waist to hold him upright. Esteban hurriedly followed suit. Then, at Bear's nodded signal, they both stood upright, heaving the punk's ankles overhead as he flipped end-for-end over the rail and off into space.

Esteban turned immediately away, he couldn't watch -- but Bear peered over the edge intently watching for the entire endless time it took until the guy hit the river below with a distant booming splash. Then Bear moved over next to the Asian and leaned over him so their faces were close together. "Your turn, mamon," Bear crooned to the kid in a bass sing-song. Then a high pitched giggle leaked from him as if beyond his control, a falsetto titter that Esteban would have expected to hear coming from a girl instead of a huge man like Bear. It made Esteban's skin crawl as he walked to stand on the other side of the last would-be rip-off.

He knew the drill now, he didn't have to think, didn't want to. Esteban squatted when Bear did, carefully not looking at their victim's face. The guy had tensed up in terror -- he felt stiff as a board as they grabbed him and stood, heaving him to an upright position between them against the rail.

That's when the guy went nuts.

He started screaming hoarsely, again and again, something Esteban couldn't understand past the duct tape gag, and he swung his head frantically from side to side hard enough that his ponytail whipped up and across Bear's face, prompting Bear to growl in outrage. The Asian shimmied inside his chain prison, the links clinking and slithering together as he thrashed and gyrated like a panicked escape artist in a stunt gone bad. Esteban and Bear struggled to keep hold of him, but Esteban lost his grip on the slippery chain and the Asian slammed down onto his side on the pavement. The Asian stopped screaming, stunned by the impact.

Jose sneered at Esteban pityingly. "Damn, ese! You're blowing it!"

Esteban couldn't look at him or Bear. "It's different, man," he said sullenly. "This guy's all awake and shit. It's not like with the other guy."

Jose shook his head and shrugged. "Awake, out cold, so what? Don't wuss out on me, hermano."

Esteban didn't say anything more as he squatted next to the Asian kid again. He glanced at the guy's face once more, hoping that hitting the road like that had knocked him out. No such luck: the moonlight made the Asian kid's face look like a round mask carved from ivory, and his almond eyes were open and filled with tears as he stared pleadingly back. Angry at himself for looking again, Esteban glanced quickly away.

Bear took his position and they hoisted the Asian kid up to the rail once more. He didn't fight this time. Instead he shook in fear like a wet dog, a bone-deep trembling that Esteban could feel through his hands where he held him upright on the edge of this final, fatal drop off. It was if all the life inside this guy, soon to be snuffed out and grow cold in the dark waters below, as if all that life were shivering out of him like leaking electricity. Was he the only one here that could feel it? Esteban wondered. For the first time Esteban could see beyond business and family obligation to what was actually going on here. There was some horrible energy at work on this bridge that made whatever this kid had done, whatever petty rip-off he and his dead crime partner had tried to inflict on Jose, seem like nothing. And Esteban was right in the middle of it, here and now. But he didn't know how to stop it, he couldn't see how to escape this deed. He stooped like a robot next to Bear, trapped by the process, a prisoner of circumstance.

A prisoner of his brother, he realized for the first time in his life. The insight hit him like a club, and he froze there for a moment, stooping at the feet of the man he was about to help murder. "Lift, Esteban, goddamit!" Bear hissed at him furiously. Obeying without thinking, as he had obeyed his whole life, Esteban stood with Bear and heaved up on the Asian kid's feet, regretting his action the instant he made it. No! he screamed silently, wishing he could take it back, wishing he could undo it. Despite his fear of heights he watched as the chain bound figure toppled end over end through the air in seeming slow motion. The moonlight beamed directly onto the figure's face for an instant. To Esteban's horror he saw, not the Asian kid's round features, but his own face peering back at him, as if they had switched places and he were the one spinning off into outer darkness. Then the body hit the river and was gone.

Esteban thrust himself frantically away from the rail. He felt light headed, as if he were about to faint. Almost he wanted to laugh, but he was afraid he would never stop. He went to church regularly, and he wondered now, if he went to confession and told the priest of this night's work, how many Hail Mary's he would be given, how many acts of contrition? What act of atonement could remove the stain he had just willingly put on his own soul? He was afraid there was none. He felt as if he was damned, damned beyond redemption.

"Get your ass in gear, Esteban!" he heard Jose yell from behind him. Esteban whirled to face him. Bear was already in the back seat of the Coupe de Ville, and Jose stood impatient by the open passenger door.

Esteban studied his big brother as if seeing him for the first time. His big brother, all the family he had left in the world. His big brother, who had taken care of him since they were both little. He'd always loved his big brother Jose.

But now something had curdled in Esteban's heart. Coldly studying his brother like a bug he was about to crush, Esteban admitted to himself just how much fear had come to be mixed in with that love. How much hatred.

This drug business had changed Jose, had made his brother something Esteban didn't even recognize anymore, something dark and evil, that delighted in pain and death. Esteban had to ask himself, if he stepped far enough out of line, would Jose wrap him in chains and drive him up to the river? He was afraid he already knew the answer.

He slowly walked around the Coupe de Ville to the driver's side, his mind racing. His brother had led his immortal soul into damnation tonight. He could never forgive Jose for that. As he opened the door, Esteban realized with a thrill that his brother could die just as easily as the Asian kid and the other punk had. It would be simple. After all, his brother himself had taught Esteban to kill.

"You getting in or what?" his brother rasped from the darkness inside the car.

Esteban smiled for the first time that evening as he slid into the driver's seat, his mind turning like a wheel as he began planning. There was going to be hell to pay for this night's work.


Copyright 2000 Michael Hansen