I miss my hometown. I miss those serene nights under the stars. Those late nights spent at the diner. The lazy Saturday afternoons out on the river. But above all, I missed all of Stanwyck’s friendly faces.
True, maybe I just missed my memories with mama and daddy. And my friends. After all, what was so special about Stanwyck anyway? It was just your average small All-American town. Nothing more, nothing less. But there was something special about it. It was pretty. It was peaceful. But most of all, Stanwyck felt safe.
I don’t feel safe anymore. I left home when I was eighteen and looking back on it, I really fucked up. University in Atlanta seemed like a great idea at the time. Atlanta was a vibrant big city full of life and excitement! The exact opposite of where I’d grown up. And it turns out, Atlanta was also the exact opposite of what I was comfortable with. So yeah, college didn’t go well. I partied a lot. I made friends with people who’d never bother speaking to me again even if I had ended up graduating with them. I got used to drinking every night, I neglected my studies. And I spent more time focused on writing poetry than actually studying it. By the time I was twenty, I was done. No more good grades, no more athletic scholarship. I was too embarrassed to go back home… and well, you can mark that decision as another mistake in the life of Ashley.
So here I am now. Still making my way through the big cities. Still doing some soul-searching at the tender old age of twenty-five. I still write poetry… I even had some luck getting published here and there. But fuck, it’s hard to make a living at it. For now, I had to do odd jobs to pay the rent. I figured maybe all these shitty experiences will be good for the writing. Maybe it will help me become the next Maya Angelou. Then again, even in our P.C. culture, I still felt like being a black female got me shunned by mainstream publishers. Then again, consider me a cynic.
My latest shit job was driving a taxi for The Fisher Cab Company. Yeah, it sucked. I’d only been here a few hours and I was already regretting this latest bright decision.
My first night and they had me on the graveyard shift. The route was ugly. The streets filthy. Even my uniform was bland and like a relic from a 1950s movie. I’m talking a uniform complete with a cabbie cap and a gross yellow jacket. A mustard-colored abomination of a jacket with Fisher spelled across it in a nightclub font. Yeah, I know. They made us wear uniforms. Fucking slave masters.
I was assigned to an area on the west side of town. A.K.A. the poor side. Where taxis were the only option for these credit-fucked losers.
Steam swarmed the streets making me feel like I’d descended into some urban Hell. My cab was like the boat in Apocalypse Now! This really was a journey into the heart of darkness. I’d counted seeing at least three muggings and possibly two “sleeping” corpses already. A couple of patrol cars that seemed forever parked outside a rundown coffee shop. A convenience store that looked abandoned save for its permanent open sign and its fatass cashier who was apparently on a permanent smoke break.
Hell, I’d even passed my old job. These slummy apartments where I’d worked maintenance a week earlier. Burl Heights. I’d worked the graveyard shift there as well, of course. And no, I wasn’t fired. I fucking quit. You try cleaning shit off the walls (in the female bathrooms, no less!) or hunting down the nests of roaches lurking in every corner. I couldn’t make it through one shift.
And the Fisher Cab Company kept me out here on the west side. I could only leave if it was for the customer’s route. They had me stationed in shitville.
I’d started at ten and now here it was one A.M. I hadn’t had many customers. The ones I’d had had were unsavory to say the least. Druggies, prostitutes (female, male, and trans. And yes, all of them hit on me), the smelliest motherfucker ever. I’m honestly surprised these bitches could even afford the ride. I mean yeah, they all paid with cash. But it was pretty clear they were Uber rejects.
Around one-thirty, I got hailed down by a young couple out by this shithole bar called The Outskirts. I’d call it a dive, but that’d be too generous. Shithole was more accurate.
The couple couldn’t have been over eighteen. Maybe they were runaways. I guess I should’ve asked for their I.D.s to be responsible, but on this job, who fucking cared? Especially on this shift and in this Goddamn city.
The couple hopped into the backseat. They were smiling and seemed carefree. A cute Hispanic girl and her even-hotter black boyfriend. They probably could’ve been models if they weren’t such obvious losers. One look at their baggy clothing and unkempt hair told me that. Hell, the Hispanic girl even had her hair dyed hot pink… that should tell you all you needed to know.
That’s not to mention how skinny they were. They were like a couple of plastic skeletons that’d broken out of a science lab. And they couldn’t stop smiling and laughing.
I remember being happy at eighteen, but their happiness was so obnoxious it made me sick. How could anyone be happy in this town?
As she kept up an incessant giggle, the girl looked over at me. “83 Tomberlin Street,” she said in a polite command.
She actually sounded nice. I remember thinking maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on them after all. Even though I’d never had a serious boyfriend, I suppose those two were the epitome of lovebirds. But I wouldn’t know. I didn’t write love poems. I was more Emily Dickinson than Lord Byron.
“Sure thing,” I told her. And with that, I pulled out into the night. I noticed no one was standing outside The Outskirts as I drove off. Not even the straggler smokers. Must be a quiet night, I remembered thinking.
My eyes scurried over to the car clock. 1:35. This was gonna be the longest six hours of my life. I knew I wouldn’t make it.
Through the silence, I kept hearing the couple behind me laughing and yakking it up. They even shared a sloppy kiss. Gross.
Eager to overpower the sickening PDA, I turned on the radio. A local hits station greeted my ears. Demi Lovato. I guess I could do worse. It was better than hearing that pink-haired girl say “I love you, baby!” on fucking repeat.
Like a Demi Lovato fan club president, the Hispanic girl oohed in delight as she leaned forward. “Oh, leave it there!” she yelled.
Laughing with delight, her boyfriend wrapped his arm around her. “Our song!” he cackled.
I cringed. Another bad decision, Ashley. I moved my hand away from the radio. “That’s fine,” I stated unenthusiastically. I waited in dread for the inevitable.
And then Demi’s hook-laden chorus blasted through the car. And with it, so did the pink-haired girl’s voice. And the bitch couldn’t sing for shit…
Jesus Christ, I thought. My helpless gaze stared out the windshield. I was still a few miles from Tomberlin Street. With my luck, I’d hit every Goddamn light.
The overexcited girl kept hitting her boyfriend’s arm. “I sound just like her, boo!”
“Yeah, babe,” he replied. As if he were sharing a joke, the young man flashed me a smile. “You sound just like Demi…” He gave me a wink.
I smirked. He was pretty cute. Even as a skeleton with a flat ass and fucked-up hair.
“Aww,” the Latina cooed to her lover. She leaned in and gave him a kiss on the cheek.
The boyfriend chuckled. He pulled her in closer and gave her a kiss that went on for a few uncomfortable seconds.
Waiting for the embrace to end, I kept glancing at the rearview mirror. Jesus, they were even feeling on one another. No matter how slimy it looked, this was still a cab, assholes, I thought. Not a Goddamn Motel 6. I knew the radio’s hypnotic club music wasn’t helping.
As soon as they pulled back and got ready for another smooch, I broke through the amateur porn session. “Did y’all just get done partying?” I said awkwardly. I felt like an old lady trying to relate to teenagers.
Seeming to pick up on my discomfort, the couple laughed.
“Yeah,” the girl told me. Her and her boyfriend exchanged sly looks. “But it was kinda quiet.”
“Yeah, pretty lame,” the young man added.
I stopped at a red light. “Oh, okay. It looked pretty quiet.” An awkward moment passed by between us. I looked out the window and made direct eye contact with a none-too-subtle prostitute. She gave me a toothless smile. I was glad the light changed before she could solicit me for what was probably a most horrifying experience.
Slouching in the backseat, the boyfriend motioned toward my jacket. “So what’s with the suit, man?”
His girlfriend snorted with laughter.
The boyfriend joined in on the obnoxious laughter. I couldn’t tell if they were just drunk or total assholes… who the Hell knows…
“You look like you work for the circus or something,” the boyfriend said.
Annoyed, I kept my eyes on the road. Almost there, I realized. The radio’s never-ending synth beats reverberated through my skull.
“I don’t see no name tag either,” the girl commented.
They both grinned at each other like mischievous children.
“She don’t look too happy about it,” the guy said in an epic fail of a whisper.
“The company makes me wear it,” I finally said.
The couple looked at me, surprised by my strong tone. An I-don’t-give-a-shit tone of jaded anger. A.K.A. the story of my life.
My stern gaze glanced at the pair through the rearview mirror. “It had a name tag, but I ain’t wearing it.” I passed through a yellow light. Fuck it. “Not out here in this dump.”
“I don’t blame you,” the girl said.
Grinning, the young man wrapped his arm around his squeeze. “Yeah, you know it gets a little dangerous out here.”
I felt his cold eyes look toward me. They were pretty eyes… but deceitful. I noticed they could go from a twinkling cuteness to a calculating focus quite fast.
“Especially at night,” the boyfriend said. Even his voice had shifted from jovial goofiness to a cool, confident tone. For that matter, so had his entire demeanor.
With a snide sneer, the girl faced me. “Yeah, how can you even do this shit?” She was too trashy to be a valley girl, but I’ll be damned if she didn’t sound like one.
“Well, it beat my last job,” I retorted.
From the corner of my eye, I saw the boyfriend slide his hand into his pocket. Not a move out of compulsion or nervousness. I could sense his deliberate discreetness.
He looked up at the rearview mirror, our eye contact brief yet intense.
“Where was that?” the girl asked me.
Doing my best to stay calm, I pulled over toward the sidewalk. Right at 83 Tomberlin Street. I’d pulled over in front of Burl Heights. My old stomping grounds looked like a haunted castle this late at night. Four stories of shit. Most of the lights were off in all the apartments, and the nearest street light was about twenty feet away. All the darkness made this spot resemble a lost alleyway.
I turned and faced the couple. “Right here,” was my cool answer.
The girl laughed and looked toward the apartments. “No shit!”
I noticed the boyfriend still kept his hand in his pocket. He was holding something. And those cold eyes never left me.
I looked right at him. The intense club music was a soundtrack for the eerie staredown.
His girlfriend faced me, excited. “That’s where we live!”
“Crazy,” I muttered.
“What’d you do at Burl?”
Cracking a weary smile, I took off my cap. “I was just a janitor.”
The girl gave me the sympathetic look an aristocrat would give a peasant. More of a look of pity than anything. “Oh…”
“Yeah, nothing special” I said. With nonchalant detachment, I tossed the cap onto the passenger’s seat. I’d rather have tossed it in the trash. “I quit after a few hours.”
“I don’t blame you.”
Right before I could look at her boyfriend, all the club music was interrupted by a shrill breaking news alert.
Nervous, I looked toward the radio.
A reporter’s voice echoed toward me. His words clean and precise. His tone fueled by panic. “We interrupt this music for some shocking breaking news! The local bar The Outskirts has just been robbed leaving three dead and ten others wounded!”
The puzzle pieces all made sense to me now. The random couple. The empty bar. This fucking town. Horrified, I confronted the couple.
Their harsh glares stared back at me. Like I was face-to-face with Bonnie and Clyde themselves.
“The robbery was believed to be done by an unidentified couple between the ages of eighteen and twenty years old,” the reporter continued. “They are still armed and very dangerous.”
I didn’t know what to do. And it looked like the couple didn’t either. It was just us and the reporter’s frantic voice. The tension more awkward than frightening.
The girl glared at her boyfriend. “Just fucking shoot her!”
At her command, he started to retrieve his firearm.
The only problem was I was quicker. Faster. Deadlier. I reached into my own jacket pocket, and within seconds, pulled out a switchblade and flicked it.
One frenetic swing ran across the handsome man’s throat. He didn’t even get the chance to aim.
I heard his girlfriend scream in bloody horror. And then the gun hit the floorboard in a sudden thud.
Grasping at the fatal slice, the young man convulsed against his seat. Blood shot out like an out-of-control sprinkler.
I followed his dying gaze. All the way to where several red spots lurked in the far right corner of the cab, behind the passenger’s seat. That blood had been so Goddamn hard to scrub out. Blood’s like roaches, you know. You can’t get rid of all of it.
Weeping, the pink-haired girl ran her hands all over her boyfriend’s arms and chest. As if her touch could save from him from his inevitable, painful death. “No! Oh God!” she cried.
I pulled the switchblade back, ready for more. Blood slid all down the long blade.
The girl turned and faced me. Just in time to see my switchblade head straight toward her face.
But she was a fighter.
A hard kick to the chest sent me back against the steering wheel.
I saw the girl grab her small pistol from her shoe. Panicking, she opened the door and hauled ass out of my cab.
“Come here, bitch!” I yelled after her. Clenching my switchblade, I flung open the door on the driver’s side and went out into the night. I flew out the car faster than Dracula.
I saw the girl make her way toward the cab’s trunk. Then the sight of it shooting straight up shocked her into stumbling back. Thank God these keys had trunk openers built into them.
The loud bitch needed to be silenced. Her cries echoed all through the neighborhood like the fucking club music.
As I grabbed the girl, I didn’t see Burl Heights’s porch light cut on behind me. I was too preoccupied.
The girlfriend tried to aim at me. She was quicker and stronger than she looked, much tougher than her dead boyfriend. I held the pistol away and sank my blade deep into her chest.
Coughing up blood, she staggered into my arms. Her blood drenched all onto the mustard jacket. Of course, I didn’t give a shit. At least, the jacket had some character now.
Her weak grip dropped the pistol.
The girl looked into my eyes. Into my smirk. I snatched the blade back out and stuck it straight into her temple. A cruel lobotomy.
Her blood shot out in a juicy spurt. Then her head tilted back, her eyes still staring at me. My smile still staring at her.
And then as I held the switchblade handle, I threw the pink-haired bitch into the trunk. The switchblade popped out like a champagne cork. Blood oozed off my weapon in constant drips along the harsh pavement.
I may be a poet, but I could be a hard bitch. I didn’t earn that athletic scholarship for nothing.
My latest victim’s body collided onto another lump back there in the trunk. I heard a muffled groan.
Holding the blade, I leaned up over the open trunk and peered inside.
Under the weight of the girl’s dead body was an older man. He was stocky and in his mid-forties. He’d been tough to bring down. I’d only managed to jab him a few times in the chest before throwing him into the trunk. And believe me, it took all my strength. I sweated more doing that than killing off these two punks.
Scattered all around him were cleaning supplies. Bleach, rags, etc. Some of my tools of the trade. What I’d used to clean the cab throughout the night. For every single passenger. The smelly guy, the prostitutes. I’d killed them all. Just this fucking girl was the first one to get close enough to fuck up my uniform…
In the trunk, the man’s terrified eyes looked on at me. His skin was pale. His undershirt drenched in blood. I don’t know how he’d even survived this long… I hadn’t heard him the whole night. Ever since I took the job from him.
“No, please,” he mustered out in a weak gasp. “Please, don’t kill me…”
He squirmed beneath the dead girl. But he wasn’t getting out. Not with wounds that deep.
Near a huge slash on his shoulder was a small piece of cheap plastic. A mustard-colored name tag spelled out his name in the Fisher Cab Company’s hideous nightclub font: JIMMY.
“Please,” he begged me. Desperate to escape, he kept trying to push off the girl’s body. Her corpse was a boulder of flesh. “Don’t kill me…”
I never said a word. I’d talked enough to his boring ass earlier. Right before I overtook his position as the Fisher Cab Company’s west side taxi driver.
Jimmy’s eyes went wide with fright as I leaned in closer like a wolf. His trembling fear quashed his voice.
I jammed the switchblade straight into his throat.
Redness spurted out like I’d struck oil. Instead of a scream, all Jimmy could do was release a gurgle of immense pain and overflowing blood. I could see life leaving his eyes.
Gritting my teeth, I twisted the weapon all around, digging a bloody hole into the center of his neck. Like an amateur surgery performed by Dr. Ashley. I could’ve tied a string around the gory hole if I’d wanted to. The switchblade went in so deep.
When I was done, I staggered back. The trunk had turned into an operating table. The switchblade my scalpel. Blood overflowed all inside the trunk. Grinning, I stood back and admired my work.
Big drops kept dripping off my blade, pitter pattering to the ugly road. My jacket was now completely covered in redness. The jacket ketchup-colored rather than mustard.
“There she is!” a horrified voice echoed toward me.
Startled, I turned toward Burl Heights. The building’s front door was wide open, and I recognized the screaming man instantly. The man standing under the porch light. His face was conquered by fear, his mustache and bald head unmistakable to me. He was my former boss. Since when did this lazy fucker ever work graveyard shift?
I watched him turn and holler back toward the inside of the lobby. “The crazy bitch is back!”
Like a lit Christmas tree, I noticed Burl Heights’s windows light up in quick succession. One by one.
“It’s the bitch that killed that family in eleven! It’s fucking her!” I heard my asshole ex-boss yell. “She killed Tom!”
In a panicking crescendo, commotion built up inside the apartment building. I knew then it was time to run.
I scooped up the girl’s small pistol and hauled ass down the street. All through this hideous district. I passed the homeless. The druggies. The pimps and prostitutes. The male and female prostitutes even kept calling me over. I guess they didn’t care I was wearing a bloody jacket. I guess it was normal to look a hot mess while holding guns and switchblades out on the west side.
I cringed each time a dim neon sight lit me up like a prison spotlight… but I don’t know why. I heard my feet splash through a dirty puddle. I ran as fast as I could. After awhile, each abandoned building started looking the same. As did each dirty face.
I left everything behind. Burl Heights. The Fisher Cab Company. Jimmy. The couple. Everything. It was bad enough finding a job as a black female poet. But one who was a killer? What would my parents think?
Sirens blared off in the distance. I knew they were coming for me. I needed a place to hide. And then I saw it! A sanctuary amidst this sea of nothingness. The shithole convenience store.
Now pushing past three A.M. on a Wednesday night, I knew no one except the fatass clerk would be there. And I was right. And holy fuck, he wasn’t even on a smoke break! The man was inside.
Creeping through the parking lot, I noticed a city bus parked out behind the store. The stray lights showed passengers inside. Almost all of them were asleep, and none of them saw me in my ketchup jacket.
At the entrance, I ripped off my jacket and stashed it into a garbage can. I always looked nice in a tank top anyway.
I shoved the switchblade and pistol in my pants pockets. Then I went inside.
The store’s door chime dinged. I stopped and surveyed the landscape. Amidst the shelves of unhealthy sweets, I saw no one. No one was at the fridges either. Or the beer cave. The coast was clear.
“Hi there,” a polite voice said to me.
I turned and saw the fat clerk struggling to stay balanced on a stool, his back turned to me. He was busy straightening out all the cigarette cartons. Looked like an inventory check. I’d done that gas station shit before. Trust me, it sucked.
I noticed a cab commercial playing on a small T.V. Oh, the irony.
“Hey,” I said to the clerk in a dry monotone.
He didn’t say anything back. And I didn’t care. I made my way toward the bathrooms. As I maneuvered on the sticky floor, I gave a glance back at the clerk. He still hadn’t seen me.
The women’s bathroom was about as bland as the rest of the store. At least, it was clean. I saw a woman’s shoes in one of the stalls. She kept talking to herself, bitching and moaning. She was on the graveyard shift too, I figured.
I stepped up to the sink and got to work scrubbing off all the blood on my arms and hands. Not an easy task. Especially with shitty gas station soap. It took so long I felt like I was scrubbing my skin off. Redness dripped all into the clean sink. I had a few scratches where the pink-haired bitch had gotten me too. Fucking cunt.
Behind me, the stall door burst open and out emerged a middle-aged woman. Maybe she was older… either way she looked rough. Like she’d lived a lifetime in forty-five years. Or, in my cynical opinion, suffered a lifetime in those forty-five years.
She surprised me with a beaming smile. “Hi, there,” she said.
“Hey,” I muttered.
Out the corner of my eye, I saw the woman step up to the sink next to mine.
Nervous, I scrubbed harder, getting those last few red remnants off my flesh.
I now saw she had a blue uniform on. But she wasn’t no cop. Prestigious font was on her sleeve: Gosling City Buses.
The bus outside, I realized. She’s the driver. The only other possible customer who’d stop by in this shithole this late at night.
“Ooh, boy, it’s been a rough one,” she exclaimed as she washed her hands. She grinned at me. “Those motherfuckers been bugging me all night.”
“Oh, I bet,” I said. I turned off the sink and snagged a paper towel.
The woman looked back at her reflection. “Yes, sir.” She fixed her hair and took her time like she was waiting on a date. Obviously, she just stalling before she had to make her way back to that dreaded job. “I had to throw five of them off tonight already! Five of those assholes!”
“That sucks.” My eyes darted over toward the open stall. They were so spacious and wide on the inside.
“Whoo!” the woman exclaimed.
I then looked over at the bathroom door. It had one of those turn locks on the inside. Perfect.
The bus driver turned off the sink and gave me a smile. “Good luck out there, sweetie. I’ll give you a lift if you need it.” Ready to face the music, she started to walk past me.
“I may have to take you up on that,” I commented. I saw her reach for the door handle.
And then I made my move. In a split second, I’d hurled the driver back toward the stall.
She let out a weak yell as she tumbled against the stall door. The impact of the door against the back of her head kept her from being too loud. Perfect.
I locked the bathroom door in one cold turn.
The woman glared at me, her weary charm replaced by ferocious outrage. “What the fuck is this! What are you-”
I cut her off by squeezing her throat in my bare hands. A chokehold for the ages.
She was too caught off-guard to fight back. Her hands flailed about in a weak manner. Her gasps for breath grew weaker and weaker by the second. I had more strength and at least twenty years on her.
Holding her in that tight and fatal grip, I forced us into the stall. The contained space served as the driver’s crypt. I could feel her growing weaker in my grasp. Weaker with life. Weaker with spirit.
Her eyes bulged out. And they never left my cold stare.
Saving the best for last, I enforced my grip even tighter.
The woman’s gasping ended suddenly. I’d shut her up for good.
Like the drop of a curtain, I heard the stall door bang behind us.
Smiling, I sat the bus driver’s corpse down on the toilet. Like she was taking an eternal shit. And her uniform was just fine. Unlike Jimmy, I didn’t have the time or privacy to demand this lady to strip down. And I didn’t wanna taint the clothes with blood. I’d killed her the hard way. But the clean way.
A few minutes later, I stepped out the bathroom. The bus uniform fit me perfect. I was the fresh hire for the Gosling City Buses.
I was calm like always. No sweat, no worries. All the adrenaline from the kill was gone.
Ready to go, I walked up to the front doors. Fatass clerk still had his back to me. Still at work on those Goddamn cigs.
The T.V. now played a local newscast.
Making my way to the door, I glanced over at the news. I expected to see more coverage of The Outskirts, but instead the reports of a local killer stopped me dead in my tracks. Anxious nerves rushed into me.
On screen, a police sketch stared back at me. She looked a lot like me. Black female, mid-20s. Only I was prettier.
“The killer the police have dubbed The Job Hunter has claimed more lives today as authorities have just discovered a dead cab driver along with several dead customers,” a reporter’s grim voice stated.
The cops were getting closer, I realized. Everyone was.
In a nervous tic, my sweaty hands reached into my pockets. I felt the girlfriend’s revolver in my grasp.
On screen, the reporter’s voice continued taunting me. “It’s believed The Job Hunter impersonated the driver before dispatching several of their victims. This comes just a week after this same killer murdered a family after impersonating a janitor at the Burl Heights apartment complex.”
I stole a last look at the clerk. He was still turned away from me. He was quiet. I don’t think he’d seen me. I hoped he hadn’t at least.
And then I left. The goofy chime went off and I heard the door shut behind me. I was back outside. Back in Shitville.
I put my hands in my pockets and gazed around at the ugly surroundings. Needless to say, no one was around. And I knew no one wouldn’t be dropping by until six A.M. or so. The fatass clerk had no idea he’d be trapped with a dead body for a few more hours.
In my mind, I wondered just how far this bus could get before sunrise. Maybe I could cross the state line. Maybe I could even go back to Stanwyck?
I made my way behind the store. Out toward the bus. A dim street light shined off its silver paint. The bold brand name greeted my vision: Gosling City Buses. All by itself, the bus resembled a spaceship ready for take off.
Through the windows, I saw the many faces inside. Almost all of them were asleep save for the stray tweaker or two. None of them noticed me getting closer to the bus. And I doubt they’d notice or even care they had a new driver.
They were all so clueless. They didn’t know who I was. They couldn’t see me gripping the pistol in my pocket. They didn’t know The Job Hunter had just landed her most audacious job yet. And fuck, the bus had a lot of room. I was inheriting a lot of customers.