1.6: "The Errand"

Written by Carl Coetzee

Edited/Narrated by Zak Zaidi

Scored by Carl Coetzee

 transcript (Scroll down): 

"The Errand" by Carl Coetzee

The sun bore down heavy on us as we walked down the front steps of my house and loaded our things into the old 1972 Bonneville parked in my driveway. The car was a thing of beauty -- my friend Steven had bought the car used from his neighbor and spent the better part of a year restoring it by hand -- and it was already getting looks from the neighbors. I pretended not to notice as I walked around the back of the vehicle, dragging a heavy, well-worn suitcase with me. Before I could open the trunk, though, I heard a voice from beside me.

“Rear’s full,” said Steven, placing his hand firmly down on the back of the car. “Your luggage’ll have to go in the backseat.”

“Oh, ok.” I replied. “You sure it won’t be too cramped back there?”

“Should be fine. You can just squeeze yourself in. Unless, of course, Emily’s changed her mind about coming along.”

“She hasn’t. Trust me.”

My eyes darted down at the pavement. Before Steven could say anything else, I picked up my bag and moved it into the back seat of the car. I sat down next to it, closing the door gently behind me.

I waited as Steven went back up the front steps, stopping to talk to his girlfriend as he got the last of the luggage and checked that all the doors and windows were locked. I couldn’t make out what either of them were saying, but it was clear Laura wasn’t very happy about how long it was taking us to leave. It made sense -- I’d known her since college, and she’d never been the type to waste time. I also wanted to get going badly; with each passing second, the backseat of the car grew warmer, more stuffy. And, though I couldn’t place it, something in one of the bags was starting to smell strange.

As I settled in, the passenger’s-side door opened in front of me. Suddenly, the car was flooded with the smell of perfume.

“Hey, Harry. How’ve you been?”

“Hey, Laura. Not bad. You?”

“Doing well. Just want to get going, is all.” She threw a look towards Steven, who’d gotten distracted by something on his phone. Rolling her eyes, she reached over towards the driver’s seat and gave him a couple of impatient honks. Startled, Steven threw up the hand sign for give me a second before looking back down. Laura scoffed and settled into her seat.

“Hey, by the way, I was sorry to hear about Emily. Hope you’re doing alright.”

“Oh.” My eyes darted to a nearby corner. “No, I’m fine. Just a little fight, that’s all. It’ll be alright. Thanks for asking, though.”

“Still, though, I would've loved to have had her here.”

“Yeah,” I sighed, “me too. Thanks for this, though. It’ll help to get away for a bit. Get some sun.”

“Trust me, thank you. We needed an excuse to get out of the house as well.”

 

We sat in awkward silence as we waited for Steven to get back to the car. In the front seat, Laura kept looking down at her watch, her patience running thin, pausing occasionally to put on more perfume or flash her boyfriend the occasional evil eye. Finally, Steven emerged from the house, locked the door, and made his way into the driver’s seat.

“We were supposed to leave an hour ago,” Laura saidI , annoyance dripping from her voice. “We still have three state lines to get across before we reach the shore.”

“Mmm-hmmm.” Steven brushed her off, looking down again.

“No, I mean it.” Suddenly, she lowered her voice. ‘I mean, you of all people should understand why we need to --”

“Laura. Look at this.” John showed her something on his phone. Her face fell, understanding something. Then, they started whispered furiously among themselves. What do they want right now? I thought they knew. We don’t have time for this. Something had gone odd.

“Hey, is everything alright up there?” My question seemed to shock both of them.

“Oh, uh…. Everything’s great. Everything’s fine.” said Steven, awkwardly. “I, uh…”

Laura cut him off. “No, something unexpected just came up.” She paused. “We should be fine, it’s just… we have one last thing to do before we leave town. For work. You okay with that?”

“Hey, if you gotta work, you gotta work.”

“Great. Shouldn’t be too long.” said Steven, starting the car. “Sooner we do this, sooner we can be on our way.”

What weren’t they telling me? I tried not to think about it and settled into my seat as the car started forward down the road towards the city.

 

It took us a half hour to get into the city. Once we arrived, we turned down a winding side road and squeezed the car into a tight parking spot along the curb. Killing the engine, Steve and Laura got out from the front seat and walked briskly across the street into a small, empty cafe tucked between two larger apartment buildings. As they reached the entrance, they stopped to mutter a few things between the two of them. Laura still looked worried about something, but before she could say much, Steven threw open the doors and stormed inside.

Back in the car, I double-checked my bags to make sure I’d packed everything. The trip had been on very short notice -- Steven basically just called me up and told me to stop packing -- but hey, I had the vacation days. Plus, I needed some time off. Things… hadn’t been good lately.

I looked back at the cafe to see how the others were doing. They’d all moved into a back room. Rest of the place was near-empty, save for a frail old man reading a newspaper on the bench outside. I swear, in all the years I’d lived in this town, I’d barely seen this cafe even quarter-full. It always struck me as fishy, you know. Even today, mid-afternoon on a weekend in this gorgeous weather, when even the struggling restaurants were making back the lion’s share of rent, this joint was dead-quiet. Just a single customer. And come to think of it, I’m pretty sure that guy was the owner.

I mean, you gotta wonder how these kinds of places survived. Rent in the city wasn’t cheap. Better shops, much better than this, went under all the time. And yet places like this, places that couldn’t get foot traffic on a good day, had managed to scrape by for as long as I’d been here. Made me suspicious. Ain’t a lot of ways in this world you can get money without having customers. And most of ‘em aren’t pretty.

Here I go again, I thought, making something out of nothing. I always did it. I mean, in this world, you can’t trust anything, least of all the people in it. People, they steal, they swindle, they deceive, they lie.

But I… well, maybe I can go too far. Cause recently, I’d also seen how it can hurt just as much to distrust the right person as it can to trust the wrong one. Sometimes even more.

And either way you see it, I think to myself, it's the reason that I’m alone in this car.

 

I checked my watch. It’s been nearly an hour. If I’d known it would be this long, I’d have asked Steve not to park in the sun. The car was almost a sauna. Oh, and that smell was back. I mean, what was that? Did we hit something on the road? I covered my nose with my sleeve.

A few minutes later, Steven and Laura walked out the back room into the street. But this time, something was different. Laura was practically storming out, and Steven was in tow trying desperately to say something into her ear. She wasn’t listening, and quickly walked back across the road before getting back into the car and slamming the door behind her. As Steven followed her back inside, I began to make out some of what they were saying.

“Everything’s going to be fine, OK? They just want to have another meeting. It won’t hurt to just hear them out," Steven said. 

“Are you hearing me? No one ‘just has a meeting’ with those guys. We need to go.”

“What, so we’re just going to run from our problems? You know what’ll happen if-”

“You know why we need to go. Every second we waste just driving around, carefree-”

“Laura, you need to calm down.”

“This was your mistake, anyway. You know that? Your mistake. Don’t tell me to calm down. We need to get out of here right now.”

“Laura. It’s a few more hours. I don’t like it either, but… it’ll be fine. Look me in the eyes. It’ll be fine. Ok?”

“What’ll be okay?” I asked, suddenly. Both of their heads immediately swiveled around towards me. They looked like deer in headlights.

“Uh… nothing you need to worry about. We might just have to stick around a couple more hours before we leave. Sorry. Business emergency.”

“No, no problem at all. I’m fine. If something’s wrong with you guys, though...”

“Thanks, but there’s not much to do, anyway. We just have to wait a bit.”

 

Eventually, the car got too hot to ignore, so Steven rolled the windows down and started driving, aimlessly, around the city. I rested my head on the door and looked out towards the street, letting my thoughts wander. In the front seat, though, you could cut the tension with a knife. Whatever had gone down in that meeting, it hadn’t been good.

I looked behind us. Come to think of it, was that the same blue sedan that was behind us five minutes ago? I started watching more closely. Something was fishy -- it seemed like every turn Steven made, the sedan made as well. Every so often, it’d make a sudden turn and disappear behind some buildings, but it always seemed to catch up with us after a few minutes. It was clear. We were being followed.

The front seat had also seemingly noticed this. Though they didn’t say anything, I noticed Laura looking back every few seconds, tugging on Steve’s right arm to signal when to turn. Steven kept looking in the rearview mirror, at one point catching my eye before we both immediately looked away. Together, the sedan and the Bonneville wove through the city streets, Steven growing increasingly impatient at his failure to shake our silent stalker. But as we both came up at a red light, Laura seemingly lost patience and tugged, hard, at Steven’s arm. Suddenly, our car sped forward into the intersection, cutting the red light and leaving the sedan trapped by the opposite flow of traffic. Quickly, Steven made a few more turns to shake him for good, and the car breathed a sigh of relief.

 

A few hours later, we arrived at the second meeting. As the sun began to set, Steven pulled the car into the parking lot of an empty laundromat. Quietly, we pulled into a parking spot and Steven shut off the engine. He seemed worried. Without saying anything, Laura opened her door and got out of the car.

Turning towards me, Steven tried to lighten the mood. “We shouldn’t be too long.” He smirked. “Hey, ‘If we’re not out in fifteen minutes, leave without us’, haha.”

He chuckled. Almost immediately, Laura shot him a dirty look, and he looked down in silence before they both started across the parking lot. From the rearview mirror, I could see a few men, all dressed in suits, meet them at the front door before they all went inside. Well, all of them except for one, who stayed by the entrance and started watching the parking lot. I slouched in my seat, hoping he didn’t see me. Soon, the other men disappeared into the dimly-lit, grimy back rooms of the building.

I tried to stop myself, my thoughts started racing. What was this place? Who were these people? Laura had seemed awfully worried about taking the meeting. I guess I’d chalked it up to not wanting extra hassle, but… no, she seemed more… scared than that. I never really knew what Steven and Laura did for work. They didn’t talk about it much. All I knew is it kept them busy and gave ‘em a decent living. Whenever I’d imagined it, I’d pictured… I dunno, something in an office. Paperwork. Supervisors. Clients. Red staplers. But I guess all kinds of jobs pay well. What kind of laundromat needs a doorman, anyway?

I took a breath. Relax, I thought. You’re working on this, remember? You take something perfectly innocent, something GOOD, and you overthink it. Half an hour later, it’s some big conspiracy. This isn’t who we are. Not anymore. We can’t do this again. Not after Emily. I bit my lip. The memory was too fresh. I’d been trying to push it off, but… 

No, that wasn’t overthinking. I mean, I never found out, but… There was something there. I had good reason, good reason to be suspicious of her. I mean, I remember how things were. I’d been so convinced. Right up until I confronted her. But, well… when I saw the look on her face… 

It was a hell of a wakeup call, I’ll tell you that. But by that point, it didn’t matter.

God, what is that smell? Now that Laura and her perfume had left, it had come creeping back again. It grew thicker by the second. Ugh, we’d definitely run something over, or left some food out, or something. I reached over into the front seat and turned on the radio. Good thing Steven had left the keys in the ignition for me. Maybe if I found a good distraction, I wouldn’t drive myself crazy. The others would be out before I knew it.

In the rearview window, I saw the man by the door glare across the parking lot at me as he barked something into his cell phone.

Slowly, the sun disappeared over the buildings. The shadows of the city loomed over the car as the minutes slipped by. My thoughts began to take hold of me. I’m not crazy, right? This feels weird? No, come on, just be patient with them. Meetings take time. Just take some deep breaths. But still… this doesn’t feel right. That guy keeps looking at me. No, wait, that’s almost the definition of being paranoid. But I’m not paranoid if he’s actually looking at me. Right? Steven and Laura were definitely keeping something from me earlier. Sounded like something was wrong. What if they were in trouble? That would mean I’m in trouble. Right? Were they bringing me into their trouble? These people didn’t seem safe. That guy keeps looking at me. Who holds a meeting at 6 PM at a laundromat, anyway? Drug dealers? No, calm down, this isn’t Breaking Bad. Everything’s fine. Everything’s fine.

It was too dark to see, but across the street, I could’ve sworn I saw the same blue sedan drive by. My heart plunged into my stomach. I closed my eyes, focusing on my breathing. Everything’s fine, everything’s fine, in, out, in, out…

Nearly an hour and a half since they left, I saw movement in the doorway of the laundromat. Slowly, I reached into the front seat and adjusted the mirror to see what was going on. It wasn’t Steven or Laura. An older man, wearing a faded, tattered suit jacket, walked up to the door. Something was on his face. It was on the suit, as well. I was too far to see what it was, but it caught the light for a brief second. A flash of something red and shiny. He paused for a moment to talk to the man at the door. Pointed at me. And they both turned towards the Bonneville. Instantly, I dropped to the floor, hoping they wouldn’t see me. After a few seconds, I got up. They were both walking towards the car. The doorman smiled at me -- an eerie, toothy grin -- as they walked closer and closer.

Everything’s fine, I told myself, Everything’s fine… Breathe...

Screw it. I knew what this was. I leapt into the front seat and turned the ignition.

 

I watched the two men disappear in the rearview mirror. They won’t be far behind, I thought. If they wanted to chase me, I needed to put as much distance between us as I could. The car squealed in protest as I made a sharp turn off of the main road and onto the highway. And the smell from the backseat was getting worse.

But the men from the laundromat were the least of my worries. As I sped down the highway towards home, I saw the blue sedan slowly growing in my side-view mirror. Same driver from before. The same twisted glare. I quickly sped up and tried to lose him on an off-ramp, but when I went to check my mirrors, he was still there. Crap. I couldn’t go home now. I’d lead them all right to me. Not knowing what to do, I sped up again, trying to lose him in the night.

The smell was getting worse, attacking me from behind in thick, nauseating waves. I clenched my teeth, trying not to gag.

I kept on driving, speeding on and off a maze of ramps and highways. The blue sedan stayed in pursuit. After some time, I knew I’d have to try something risky. Slowly, I began to merge towards the left lane, lifting my foot ever-so-slightly off the gas pedal and letting the car de-accelerate until the blue sedan was right behind me. Keeping a close eye on the other car, I kept that distance, waiting… waiting…

Suddenly, as we were about to pass another ramp, I slammed the brakes and turned sharply off the highway. The blue sedan swerved out of the way, and I watched it disappear down the wrong road as I sped up the off-ramp. I let out a laugh of relief. Victory.

But it was only a few moments later that I realized which exit I’d pulled off at. Oh no. As I pulled up to the toll booth, I became extremely aware of how I looked; hair ragged, clothes tattered, speeding down the highway in a car that wasn’t mine, packed to the brim with luggage, trying to cross state lines. Oh, and that smell that poured from the car in noxious buckets as I opened the window to talk to the attendant. If I’d had some other people with me, I thought, I’d look less suspicious. Here, I look like I’m… trying to run from something. Oh god. Was I a cover? Why were Steven and Laura so desperate to get away? Were they running from something too? Why was I really here?

The attendant, they were looking at me funny. Why were they looking at me funny? I must’ve looked so guilty. God, I must’ve. Kept asking me questions. I looked like a wreck, slapping on this phony smile as I tried to make small talk. That smell. The smell must’ve pushed things over the edge, though. What else could that smell have been? The first time I noticed it, I thought we’d hit an animal. But no, it couldn’t have been. It couldn’t have.

As I sped off, I saw the attendant snap a picture of the car with their cell phone before grabbing the landline and making a call. Worse, I wasted too much time in that booth. The blue sedan had made a reappearance in my rearview mirror, and it was gaining. I stepped on the gas. Were those… sirens?

With each passing moment, I went farther from home, farther into the enrapturing darkness of the night, the only light coming from the streetlamps above the interstate and the headlights of the blue sedan behind me. Even as I turned off the interstate, twisting and turning down unfamiliar stretches of neverending highway, I couldn’t shake him. Oh, god.

The smell from the backseat kept getting worse. I opened up the window, trying to air out the car. Oh, no. The wind sounded like helicopters, flying overhead. The sirens were getting louder. Nearer. If the blue sedan didn’t get me, they certainly would. I didn’t even know where I was, let alone where I was going. Even though I still had plenty of room to run away, I felt the sinking feeling that I had already been trapped.

I was far away now, up in the mountains. The roads were dark. Empty. Winding. Covered under layers and layers of trees. No streetlights, either -- you couldn’t see anything around these turns. It was dangerous, but it might be my last chance.

In a final, desperate attempt, I sped down the road, putting distance between me and the blue sedan. Then, after I drove around a particularly dark bend, I took a sharp turn down an unmarked gravel road and killed my headlights. A few minutes later, I saw another set of headlights turn around the same bend, missing the turn and speeding on down the other road. I sat there for a few moments, gathering my senses. I’d finally lost him.

The smell. I had to find that smell. Slowly, I turned off the car and climbed into the back seat, shuffling through the luggage. I began to sort through every suitcase, every bag. Clothing. Food. Electronics. It all checked out. And then it occurred to me. It wasn’t coming from the back seat. It was coming from somewhere else, the only place in the car Steven hadn’t let me into. The trunk.

I looked out the back window, towards the rear of the car. Just in time to see a pair of headlights speeding towards me from behind. I braced myself as the blue sedan cra-

---

 

The Bonneville landed in the bushes, a few feet from the side of the road. The back window had been shattered in the crash, and the trunk had been knocked wide open. The smell was worse now, spilling through the shattered glass in stomach-churning waves. From behind me, I could hear a pair of footsteps walk over from the wreckage of the blue sedan, a sharp thwap-thwap-thwap. The footsteps walked right up behind the car, stopping at the rear as whoever was there looked to see what was in the trunk. I closed my eyes, expecting the worst. Threats. Shouting. Gunfire. Instead, I heard something much softer. At first, it was just heavy breathing, but breathing turned into hiccups. Hiccups turned to sobs. The man was weeping. Over what, I could only guess.

After a few moments, the man shut the trunk, gathering himself. Hiding on the floor of the backseat, covered by luggage and debris, I shuddered. This was it for me. Once he found me, it was over. I heard footsteps step back from the trunk, walking, slowly, around the side of the smashed car.

 Right as he laid his hand on the door handle, though, I heard him stop. Quickly, he turned away from the car, walking backwards before running, lightly, into the woods. A miracle, I thought. He didn’t see me, under all this. He thinks I ran. I might have a chance. I let out a long sigh of relief.

But it only took a few seconds to realize that the truth was far less fortunate. As soon as his footsteps faded, I heard something else -- wailing sirens, barking dogs. The whoosh of helicopters coming in from above. Lights flashing through the trees. Growing louder. Brighter. Closer.

I laid my head on the seat as I waited for them to find me. And, for the first time in weeks, my thoughts didn’t wander. In fact, I didn’t think about anything at all. Instead, closing my eyes tight, I started to feel -- sand beneath my toes, the salty ocean breeze on my face. Gulls squawked in the distance. Waves lapped gently at my ankles.  The sun beat down on my shoulders.

For one short moment, I forgot everything. A smile spread across my face. This was just what I’d needed after all.

© 2020, Carl Coetzee