Highway to Hell
THE FUN BEGINS . . .
You’re in a five-by-five cell that smells like piss and disease.
Been in this cage for fifty-eight months. Only light is the dim bulb in the hallway beyond the bars. The cell is sparse: stained mattress, rusted sink, and a toilet you unclog with your hands.
You were a soldier.
No—to call you a soldier, that would be an insult to decent men who fight for concepts like honor and “the right thing”—men who fight because they believe. To call you a butcher, a killer, a dealer of pain, a breaker of faces, a general bad man—that would just be skimming the surface.
You were the youngest on the ground in Desert Storm. Lied about your age to join. Killed nine men in a war where almost no Americans died. Sliced off a man’s ear. That’s when you got the feel for it—the metallic taste of sprayed blood on your tongue and a thirst that wouldn’t leave.
Came back to the US in ’92. Tried to fit back in. “Normal.” Married your high school sweetheart.
She was far from sweet.
Can’t blame her. She didn’t love the drinking. The fists through the walls. The steel-toed boots shattering the TV, ruining Thanksgiving because the Lions lost again. So she left, and that was just fine.
’Ninety-five you reenlisted, recruited to black-bag missions.
Twenty-eighth birthday, you were in a brothel in Turkey, taking a ball-peen hammer to a man’s eye socket, when you turned to the TV and saw the towers fall.
It all got bigger then. More jobs. More killing. Your life was a splatter-work painting—blood here, agony and execution there. Death on a grand scale.
Seven years of that, in deserts and caves and towns so hot the sweat poured off you until it felt like some second, liquid skin. Seven years, until your stomach was so hollow the only time you felt anything was when you were fighting or drinking.
The military cut you loose in ’08 when they found you drunk, racing a Humvee through an Iraqi minefield on a bet.
You made it to the other side of the minefield, safe and sound, but they shipped you back to the other side of the world, battered and broken.
Two years bumming around the States: New York to Detroit to Alabama to who-knows-it’s-all-a-blur-at-the-bottom-of-a-bottle.
Then 2010, back in Afghanistan behind a big rig, doing the Kabul–Jalalabad run. Most dangerous drive in the world.
You forgot about the feel of your hands on a man’s neck—replaced it with the feel of your hands on the wheel of an armored transport.
That’s when you found your true love: driving.
You felt like Mad Max, the Road Warrior—that big ending. Always loved that movie. You watched it with your old man and he gave you your own six-pack of Iron City. You finished your beers just before the grand finale, when Max steers the rig through the wasteland. You were nine years old.
But they cut you loose. Someone frowned upon a 1.2 BAC while driving through the Korengal.
Back to the States again. Had some money saved up. Bought yourself a gift—your dream car.
A ’67 El Camino.
You were thirty-eight years old.
That’s what normal guys do, right? Workaday fellas? They have midlife crises and they buy dream cars.
But racing through Baltimore one neon dreary night, you
said fuck it, and you drove that mother head-on into a brick wall, just to see what would happen.
Six broken teeth happened.
Shattered cheekbone, nose broken in three places, arm dislocated, five broken ribs, one punctured lung—that happened, too.
But the impact. The pain.
Goddamn. It got your heart kicking like a bronco with a shock rod up its ass.
You checked yourself out of the hospital, went straight to the impound, got the El Camino back, and started repairing it and fitting it up for the New Mexico Demolition Derby.
You took the racing name “Jimmy El Camino.” You drove all the circuits. Most days the demolition derby, other days off-road races. You rarely lost, and you’d rarely felt better.
But your past caught up with you.
That’s what pasts do.
You came home drunker than usual—blacked out on your feet. You were celebrating your fortieth birthday, first with a hired girl, who you scared away, then alone, with your ol’ buddy Johnnie Walker.
The spooks came in the night, needle in the neck, your legs turning to rubber, knees giving out, collapsing, and then you waking up in this cell.
This cell, where you’ve been for one thousand seven hundred and forty-three days.
A door opens at the end of the hall. A triangle of light. Keys rattle. Footsteps. Two voices.
You squint. Two men at the bars.
“John Casey, stand up.”
“The name’s Jimmy El Camino,” you say. Your voice is a croak. Haven’t spoken a word aloud in who knows how long.
“Hands behind the back, against the bars.”
Usually they come twice a day, slide you food and water through the bean slot—always while you’re asleep. This is new. You go with it—rise and turn around, stepping back, placing your hands against the horizontal opening. Cold handcuffs hug your wrists and clink shut.
“You get much news down here?” they ask.
“What do you think?”
“So you don’t know, then?”
“Know about what?”
“Oh, I know hell. I know hell real well.”
“Not like this. Real hell. Bad shit. Came to earth a while back. Man wants to talk to you about it.”
You turn that one over in your head for a moment before saying, “Cool.”
They let you shower and shave. You see yourself, fully, for the first time in almost five years. Muscles still there. Muscle tone, lean and cut, could pass for thirty-five. Your face, the bloodshot eyes, the heavy lids, the bags beneath them, the scars—a stranger might ballpark you at sixty.
You don’t like looking so vintage, so you leave most of the beard, still thick, to cover up some of that sad countenance.
The same two soldiers—one tall and thin, one boxy and angular—come to retrieve you. Thin One leads you through a mostly dark, mostly cement complex. Place smells like decay. Down two halls, a flight of stairs, and into a dim room. Boxy refers to it as a briefing room, but it looks more like the back hall of a VFW. One TV, empty cups of coffee, a flag on the wall, plastic folding chairs.
A man in uniform stands behind a desk.
Thin One and Boxy push you down into a chair, so you’re facing the uniform.
“Uncuff him,” the man in uniform says. You squint, still having trouble with the light. Name on his uniform reads Eigle.
Thin One and Boxy hesitate.
“Uncuff him,” Eigle repeats.
Boxy does as he’s ordered. You place your hands on your thighs and wait for them to get out the butter knife and start spreading on the bullshit.
Eigle looks you over. He’s medium height, bony, pale as powder. Needly eyes gaze down a sloping, angular nose. His hair is white and thin, his gray mustache is stained with coffee. He steps forward, sticks out a rough hand. “Major Eigle.”
You reach out. Shake it.
Eigle starts, “John Casey, I’ve been—”
“Jimmy El Camino,” you say.
“Call me Jimmy El Camino.”
He shrugs, tired. “Sure. Jimmy. You’ve been underground a long time. Any idea what’s been going on up here? Out there?”
You don’t respond.
Eigle takes a leaning half seat on a flimsy wooden folding table—the type you sat at as a kid at the weekly Methodist fish fry. The table sinks in the middle and creaks as Eigle reaches for the remote from the table and points it at the TV. He hits a button. Hits it again. Looks at the remote, frustrated, bangs it twice against his palm, takes out the batteries, eyes them like they might provide some clue, slips them back in, then points it at the TV and clicks again.
The TV flashes on. Flashes on to terror, disaster, mass hysteria. It’s a prerecorded video, telling the story of what’s happened since you were gone.
You’ve seen what chemical weapons do to people, but you’ve never seen anything like this.
Zombies, like the horror comics you read in grade school. Humans, consuming the flesh of other, still-breathing humans.
You see New York City, smoking. You see rotting cannibals, stumbling through the streets.
• Los Angeles burns
• London falls
• President to speak
• President’s speech delayed
• President unaccounted for
Fox News headlines:
• Is this the Rapture?
• An angry God takes revenge
Images, clips: soldiers dying, tanks overrun, police turning their service pistols on themselves while monsters tear flesh from bone and chase it down with a blood cocktail.
In fast-forward, you watch the country crumble and the world fall.
Eigle clicks the remote again and the TV flashes off.
“It happened soon after you went into the cell. You didn’t see the world devolving, changing. Didn’t see society break. I realize this will take you some time to process, but—”
“I got it.”
“You got it?”
“Zombies. Zombie apocalypse. Society in ruins. Probably a few cities still fighting. Roving bands of cannibals, marauders, highwaymen. That about it?”
“So what—you want me to save the world or something?”
Major Eigle’s lip curls into what, strictly speaking, could be considered a smile. “Something like that. I have a mission for you.”
“Because you’re a killer and you’re a driver.”
“No tap dancing. The whole deal. Lay it out.”
“Not yet, Jimmy.”
“I need you to prove yourself,” Eigle continues. “Prove you didn’t lose your mind down there in that hole. Prove your reflexes haven’t withered away to nothing.”
“In the Death Derby.”
“Sounds fun,” you say. “What is it?”
“What it sounds like. You interested?”
“It get me out of the cage?”
“Then I suppose I’m interested.”
Eigle nods. “Okay, then. Follow me.”
Zombies? Death races? You should be shocked, scared, surprised—but you’ve seen so much hell, you’re more curious than anything.
But there’s one thing you don’t like: taking orders from assholes. Especially the assholes who kept you locked in a cage. Even the small orders, like “Follow me.”
You can sense the two guards behind you—Thin One and Boxy. Nine feet and some inches separating you from Eigle. The TV remote. You could grab it, crack it—a quick shiv. Have it to Eigle’s neck, use him as a shield before Thin One and Boxy have time to realize just how useless they are . . .
Do you want to follow Eigle and discover what exactly the Death Derby is? If so, click here
If you hate taking orders and you’d rather take prisoners, click here