I’m not a great fan of violence or horror and, perversely, it was this reluctance that caused me to set myself the task of writing a short story that did not shy away from darker themes. I’ve tried to capture rising tension, claustrophobia and the feeling of loss of control in How the Pure Heart Sounds.
See what you think. (Warning: contains strong language)
How the Pure Heart Sounds
“My mum’ll be wondering where I’ve got to – she worries herself sick when I’m late.” Cameron bites his lower lip but his eyes remain glued to the snaking white line in the middle of the road.
“Who gives a shit? You’re a big boy.” Joe’s voice is hard, unyielding. The heater is on full blast, the cab full of a suffocating mix of cigarette smoke and overheated air. Cameron looks at the smeared side window where condensation has made a series of irregular vertical stripes, like prison bars, which perforate the night view.
“Where are we going?” he asks.
There is a pause and then the response, “You’ll see.”
Cameron doesn’t like the sound of that much. They are heading out towards the motorway. How he wishes he’d never agreed to help Joe out on the plastering job that morning. If he’d been less strapped for cash he would have said no, but the money had seemed worth having to put up with Joe for a day. Joe had even tried to engineer a way to go back on the amount he’d offered. Arguing about this was what had made Joe take his eyes off the road. That’s what had led them to be heading out of town now.
The windscreen wipers drum out an odd beat as they traverse the glass, the rubber catching midway and scraping on the return movement. It reminds Cameron of biology class at school. One time the teacher played a recording of the sound the heart makes deep inside a person – “Lub-dub, lub-dub.”
The wipers make the sound a heart might produce if there were something wrong with it. “Rub-a-dub-dub, rub-a-dub-dub.” In the feverish miasma of the van cabin his head finds words to follow the sound: “Three men in a tub, three men in a tub…”
Joe finishes his cigarette, pulls another from a pack in his breast pocket, lights up and grips the steering wheel so that his knuckles are tipped with white, like ice on mountain ridges. The heat, the smoke, and the movement of the car are making Cameron feel as if he wants to throw up.
Cameron wonders if he might be suffering from shock. “Can you slow down a bit, Joe?” he asks, “I’m not feeling so good.”
“Fuck off,” says Joe.
Only an hour earlier they had been finishing up at the job. It was getting dark and Joe had said he didn’t have enough time to take Cameron back home, but would drop him off in town. Joe had been drinking beer off and on all day and Cameron wasn’t sure about being in the van with him in any case – after all, it was drink that had earned him his nickname: Angry Joe.
It was during the journey home on a quiet road that Joe had tried to go back on their deal. “I’m going to have to ask you to settle for thirty quid Cammy, the bastard’s let me down on what we agreed. I can barely afford to give you that.”
Cameron wasn’t buying it. “I heard him say he was giving you a hundred and twenty quid. I heard him clear as if he was right in front of me.”
“He was giving me some money he owed me for another job. I only got seventy for this one.” Joe’s grip tightened on the wheel. “You’re not calling me a liar are you?”
Cameron said, “I’m not saying that, but I am saying you got one hundred and twenty quid in your hand today, Joe, and forty pounds of that should be mine.”
“What the fuck kind of conversation is this anyway?” Joe slammed his hand on the steering wheel. “I’m telling you you’re getting thirty quid and that’s the end of it. Who the hell do you think you are?”
“I’m only saying…”
Joe wrenched his head around to look at Cameron. His face was red and contorted with rage. “You’re fucking lucky to be getting anything you ungrateful little…”
At that moment the headlights caught an object directly in their path and both of them jerked their gaze forward. They felt the impact before the crunching sound reverberated through the cab. This was followed fast by the noise of Joe’s foot hitting the brake like he was trying to impale it into the ground. The beer can that had been between Joe’s knees slammed into the steering column and fell onto the floor. Cameron jerked his head back and to the side where it smacked into the seat belt mounting. Tyres screamed on wet road and the van seemed to be going sideways for a few seconds before it came to a halt. The smell of beer was everywhere. The engine had stalled and all Cameron could hear was the blend of his own heartbeat and the thrum of the wipers. His fingers found the side of his head where there was a warm wet patch.
“What the fuck was that?” Joe shouted. Both of them sat there for a moment and then Joe slowly opened his door. He seemed reluctant to investigate. The beam of the headlamps pointed uselessly onto to the grass verge. Cameron got out and looked around. The road was dark and quiet. In a second or two, he saw something.
At first he thought they had run down a big black dog, but he could see as he approached the shape that no dog could be that big. They’d hit a person. The man was lying awkwardly in the middle of the wet road, one leg bending the way that legs ought not to bend.
Cameron’s stomach threatened to heave. “Joe,” he shouted, “Over here.” His voice was taut and thin. His head throbbed. He could not see movement or hear breathing. He knew he ought to feel for a pulse, but he was not able to bring himself to touch the man. He seemed to be dead and he had never seen a dead person before, never mind touched one.
Joe came over, looked at the man and said, “Fuck.” He kneeled down close and grabbed what seemed to be the shoulders. Cameron’s eyes were adjusting to the dark and he could see the outline of the man’s head. Joe shook the shoulders gently at first and then more vigorously.
“Hey mate, you okay? Come on, wake up.” He shook the shoulders again.
Cameron looked at the man’s oddly placed leg and saw something white through a tear in the trousers. He looked away quickly.
“Come on mate, don’t muck around,” Joe’s voice had had a whining, cajoling, almost pleading quality. “Wake up.” He lowered himself so close to the man’s face that for a moment it looked like they were kissing tenderly.
Joe stood upright and made a whimpering sound. He hugged his arms all the way round his trunk and then took two or three hesitant steps. He unwound his arms and raised them in a wide arc, placing them behind his head. Looking up into the weeping sky he let out a deep moan. The sound sent a tingle up Cameron’s back.
Joe stood frozen for a minute or two looking down directly at the body, which was folded in a curve towards him. Without warning he pulled his right leg back and swung a heavy boot hard into the man’s torso. He shouted, “Get up, you bastard… get up.” He repeated the kick and then in a frenzy landed blow after blow with his work boots. The noise sickened Cameron as much as the mechanical violence and before he knew where he was he had jumped up and pulled Joe back.
“Stop it, stop it… please stop.” Cameron felt his eyes sting and heard his voice breaking.
Joe didn’t try to land any more kicks, but he turned round to Cameron and said, “This is your fault. If you hadn’t pissed me off this wouldn’t have happened.” He pushed Cameron hard and walked back to the van.
Cameron bent down towards his knees and placed his palms there to anchor himself. He wanted to be sick but there was nothing in his stomach. He felt blood trickling past his ear and down towards his neck. The sensation reminded him of the times his dad had…
The van doors flew open with sudden force. Joe was clearing a space a space. He came back over to Cameron. “Give me a hand, we’ll put him in the back of the van.” Cameron looked at him in astonishment.
“Shouldn’t we call an ambulance?”
“Fat lot of fucking good an ambulance will do now. Just give me a hand to get him in the van.”
Joe rolled the man onto his back. The broken leg did not roll quite in time with the body, following a split second later, as if by afterthought. Joe put his arms behind the shoulders and worked them down under the armpits. Cameron didn’t want to touch that funny leg, but he put his arms under the knees and lifted. The limb moved to an odd angle, but his grip held. The legs were strangely warm in the cold rain.
He lifted with Joe and although the body crumpled in the middle they managed to clear the ground and get to the van where they swung twice and let go. The body smacked onto the metal floor beside Joe’s tools and lay at a slant. It might have been a roll of carpet. Joe forced it back so that the doors would close. Unsure of what he should do next, Cameron stood rigid trying to make sense of it all. He could hear his pulse in his ears. He felt dizzy from the blow to his head.
“Get in the fucking van,” said Angry Joe.
Now Cameron wants to bolt but there’s no way out. There’s a man’s body inches behind his seat and although he doesn’t want to acknowledge it, he knows what Joe intends. By and by they turn off the motorway onto a slip road, which leads onto to a small country road. There is no other traffic. “What are you going to do?” asks Cameron.
There was a pause while Joe lights another cigarette. “There is no ‘you,’” says Joe slowly blowing smoke down his nostrils, “There is only ‘us.’ We’re going to bury this bastard and then we’re going to say no more about it. He shouldn’t have been walking on unlit roads.”
“Shouldn’t we report it?”
“Are you out of your head?” Joe’s voice is like a piston, just like his father’s. “I’ve had a couple of cans today and with my record, they’ll throw the book at us. I’m not spending any more time inside. There’s no help for this guy now, so it makes no difference.”
Cameron moves uneasily. “What about his family?”
“Surely if we tell the police what happened…”
“I told you to shut up.”
Cameron watches the wiper blades scour the windscreen. The broken-heart sound seems to mock him.
In a short time the fields on either side of the roads give way to woods and they pull off the road into a lane. A few hundred yards on is a gate blocking the way. Joe beckons for Cameron to get out and open it. The drizzle has turned to heavy rain that pummels his hair. The metal gate is rusty and creaks painfully as he hauls it wide open. They pull up at a clearing about quarter of a mile further on.
Joe produces a spade from the back of the van. They take turns at digging. It takes a while to make to make the hole big enough for the body despite the fact that the ground is soft and peaty. Even after half an hour it is only a few feet deep.
Cameron’s hair is plastered to his face. A mixture of warm sweat and chilled rain runs down his spine. The bottom of the pit begins to fill with icy water and when it is his turn to dig it runs over the top of his work boots sending dirt down to his toes. Joe takes over. The spade is not bevelled enough to bail the water out and it feels like they are constructing a gruesome bath.
“That’ll have to do,” says Joe finally, climbing out. He stabs the shovel into the soil by the ragged edge of the hole.
They move the van as close to the grave as the rocky terrain will allow, leaving the engine running and the headlights on. The wiper blades spray water off to the side in syncopated beats. The hole they have dug looks like a black maw, waiting to feast. Together they pull the body out of the van and roll it to the edge. Cameron thinks his heart is going to burst out through his ribcage; it sounds loud in his ears and with every beat his head pounds. Joe uses his boot to push the body into the hole and when it hits the bottom there is a splash. But not just a splash: a splash and a groan.
“Did you hear that?” shouts Cameron. “Did you hear that Joe? He’s still alive!”
“I heard nothing,” says Joe. He picks up the spade and starts to shovel dirt.
“Joe, he’s alive!”
Cameron grabs Joe’s shoulders, trying to stop him. In response Joe jerks his left elbow back sharply into Cameron’s stomach and Cameron collapses like a rag doll, banging his head on the ground. He is badly winded and shocked. Blood trickles again from his head wound. The whole scene seems blurred and distant, like a dream. He shakes his head to clear it and panicked, he scrambles backwards on his heels and palms like a scuttling crab. His backside collides with something hard that stops him. Sitting up, he twists around. Behind him there is a rock about the size of a melon.
He rolls it onto its edge and lifts it up, cradling it in his lap for a second, like a baby. He strokes its smooth, cold surface while his strained heart slows. He feels calm now; his fear is gone and he knows what he has to do.
As he gets up he raises the rock above his head and approaches Joe who is bent forward, panting and shovelling soil like a machine. He’s just like my old man, thinks Cameron. In the headlamps Joe’s breath looks like exhaust vapour. Cameron holds the stone high for a moment as if it were an offering to the angry sky and then he brings it down hard on the back of Joe’s shaved, smooth head. As the two surfaces meet there is a deep crunch, and hot blood sprays freely across Joe’s back and Cameron’s face. Angry Joe crumples and falls forward into the grave like he is diving into a dark pond.
Cameron caresses the sticky boulder and puts it down by his feet. His eyes are bright and his tongue tastes salt and metal. He shuffles backwards to the van and settles down between the headlamps with his backbone to the bumper. Rocking gently, he raises his stained hands above his head. The bright rain falls from the sky like a baptismal blessing while the engine murmurs and the wipers repeat their mantra over and over again.
DJMac © 2013