It’s been two years since Jenna’s ex-boyfriend left her alone in East Texas heartbroken. Now he’s back in town and she wants to payback. One night, she stumbles upon a bloodthirsty Camaro that may be the key to carrying out her revenge.
for Joe Lansdale
Of course they shouldn’t have been doing it.
That was half the fun.
Victor boosted Jenna over the tall, solid fence—like she hadn’t grown up scrambling over half the fences in East Texas herself?—then climbed it himself, set down with both boots at once like this junkyard was theirs. For tonight, at least.
Jenna took his hand and they ran down the main aisle to the fourth row on the right. Just like they’d scouted that afternoon, the Camaro was right there where it should have been.
Its tires were long rotted off, most of its glass gone, and there’d been a few generations of birds roosting in the passenger seat, but all Victor and Jenna cared about was that perfect, unbent hood.
“Only for you, right?” Jenna said for the hundredth time, fluffing her hair up, blinking her eyes fast to be sure her eyeliner was still thick enough.
“Never share you, girl,” Victor said, planting a kiss on her lips, and backed off, pulled his mom’s 35mm out.
Jenna told herself this was good, this was all right, he was shipping out next week, he needed something to remember her by.
“And remember, I’m me, not her, right?” she said, a waver in her voice she hadn’t meant to do.
“Always and forever, babe,” Victor assured her, and, like that, she hiked herself up onto the Camaro’s hood. The powdery rust was griming up the ass of her jean shorts, she knew, and probably painting the backs of her thighs, too—definitely her palms, already—but her boots were the same color. Like her mom had always told her, you’ve got to look for the silver lining, girl. If you squint, then the world can look a whole lot better than it does with your eyes all the way open.
That was pretty much Jenna’s whole life.
And, no, she knew she didn’t have a smile that knocked them dead like Caroline Williams’s—Stretch from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2—and, sure, okay, so her skin was probably about ten shades darker than Stretch’s ever would be, even after a week in the Bahamas, but she had those same forever legs, anyway. Close enough for Nacogdoches, anyway. And these jean shorts were frames for her legs, according to Victor.
As for Caroline Williams, she was the reason for this daring junkyard break-in: last summer, the horror magazine Victor drove down to Houston to get once a month had run an interview with her, and the photo spread part of it had been shot right here in town. Everybody knew it. The crew had just been a photographer and a kid who must have been that photographer’s assistant, but everybody knew where they’d grabbed breakfast with Stretch—what Victor insisted on calling her—where they’d stayed the night before, and, most importantly, where the shoot had taken place: the junkyard.
Because, fifteen years later, all the sets and props and whatever from Chainsaw 2 were gone, a backdrop of old rusted cars would havehad had to stand in for the movie. Specifically, this Camaro, with Caroline Williams stretched across the hood, flashing that smile that the interviewer said was the main thing responsible for the world’s population not getting out of control yet—“Meaning it slays,” Victor had explained to Jenna, because how could a girl ever figure out anything obvious herself.
Goddamn right it slayed, though.
Jenna was more than a little jealous.
And now, for his six months out on the water, what Victor wanted more than anything in the world, it was his girlfriend—soon to be fiancée, Jenna had her fingers crossed for—posed on that hood just like Stretch, right down to those jeans shorts.
Snap, snap, snap.
Jenna tried to smile with her eyes and her mouth and her heart as wide as she could, as wide as she ever had, as wide as Caroline Williams, even, and then the next morning they dropped the film off at the drugstore, and then six days later, after the proposal that made Jenna’s mom hug her neck, whisper into her neck that she was happy for her, Victor was in international waters.
Sitting in the same bedroom she’d already spent twenty-two years in—just six months more, now—Jenna crossed her legs on the bed and held her hand palm-up in her lap, and studied the small ridge of white scar tissue on the heel of her hand, where a burr in that Camaro’s hood had snagged her skin.
But don’t think about the bad things, girl.
She flipped her hand over, gazed instead at the engagement ring, so perfect on her finger. Three months later, after Victor’s last letter, she drove down to Houston and sold it at a pawn shop for seventy-five dollars.
The guy behind the counter asked if she was single now, then, and did a thing with his eyebrows that made Jenna’s skin physically crawl, she was pretty sure.
She took the cash and walked out.
The first thing she had to do, she knew, was spend the hell out of that money.
Wine coolers took some of it, the tip at the diner back in town took twenty more—Jenna had so much she could tell the sophomore girl who brought her her coffee, but she didn’t want to ruin things for her—and the last thirty-five went for a sledgehammer.
Ten minutes after midnight, she plopped down in the junkyard again, and picked up the sledgehammer that had taken her four tries to finally sling all the way over the fence.
She wasn’t just going to wail on that Camaro’s hood, she was going to jail for it, she didn’t care anymore.
Come sunrise, they were going to have to tackle her to get her to stop, and then they’d better get those cuffs on her fast, because she was going to be trying to slip away, pick that sledgehammer up one more time, come at that rusted-out memory like a fucking Valkyrie. One with rabies.
But then she just stood there, the heavy head of that sledgehammer by her right boot, the handle easy in her hand.
The Camaro was gone.
Two years later, at a bonfire party out at the old drive-in, she found it.
She was living in a trailer with her good buds Cray-Cray and Took by then, since her parents had sold the house, put their savings into a camper, and lit out to see America. Jenna was half-suspicious that they didn’t really care about seeing America, they just couldn’t think of any other way to get their grown daughter to move out, but screw it, right?
“I mean, they’re not your real parents anyway, are they?” Took had said early on, when they were still decorating the trailer, making it not look so thirdhand.
“They’re real,” Jenna told her, her clipped tone shutting Took right the hell up.
What she meant by real was that they were the only ones she’d ever known, her bio-parents having died in a wreck before she was even one. She did still have one snapshot of them—her mom had insisted she’d want it someday—but other than that, all she had was a mix of their blood, she figured.
And her real parents packing up and heading out on the road had probably been good for her, she had to admit. Otherwise she might still be sulking in her girlhood bedroom.
Instead of working the parts counter at the Chevy house, yeah.
But there were still bonfire parties on summer nights, anyway.
At least until she recognized a certain shape easing his way into the firelight.
She’d heard he was back, that he was using his experience on his series of offshore rigs to bag girl after girl, but seeing him in the flesh was a whole other thing.
His linebacker shoulders were even bigger from guiding all that chain, his hair was shorter because he couldn’t risk it getting caught in the chain, his skin was leathery from the sun and the salt and the overtime, and there was a harsh scar coming down across the right side of his face from a single steel thread whipping out from a snapped cable, the equipment that cable was attached to sinking down thousands and thousands of feet—and almost taking him with it. It was a good story, but the story on top of that was that the oil company had written him a pretty check as well, and let him hire on again. It was like he’d hit the lottery: steady work, money in the bank, that cool scar, and a near-death experience. Add them all together and there were going to be little Victors in every bassinet in town, come spring.
Good for him, Jenna told herself, and turned neatly away, hating how hot her eyes already were, and hating even more how her back straightened when she knew he had seen her through the crowd.
She slid through the bodies, snagged a beer by its long neck, and made a beeline for the darkness. Just to breathe. Just to look up at the faded old screen, half its huge white tiles missing, the other half peeling at the corners.
Every few feet there were the old speaker posts, and the ground under her feet wasn’t gravel anymore—it had been too many years—but it still had the old up-and-down contours meant to aim each car up to the movie.
Jenna cracked the beer open, slammed as much of it as she could, enough that she had to lean over, let some foam back out between her boots.
Surprising herself, then, she reared back and slung the half-full bottle at one of the speaker posts, the bottle shattering hard enough that some of it came back at her.
She jerked her hand up to protect her eyes and caught a piece of glass in the heel of her hand. She held it up into the moonlight to see what she’d done now, and—yep: bleeding.
Like it mattered.
The party hadn’t even dialed its volume down from the glass breaking, meaning either nobody cared or she was too far away for anyone to have heard. Meaning? She laughed: anything could happen out here now, couldn’t it? With nobody watching?
It could, she told herself, and walked out farther to test it, riding the humps up and down, and . . . that was when she saw it.
She felt her mouth open, her face go slack.
She looked behind her to see if this was a joke the world was playing on her or what.
It had to be, didn’t it?
Jenna didn’t walk right up to the car but looped around, giving herself the chance to be wrong. There were more 1979 Camaros in the world than just that one, she knew.
But this was it.
It was still sitting on its turbine wheels, no rubber, and it was still a rust bucket, but there was no denying that this was the same Camaro from the junkyard. Jenna didn’t just know cars, she knew—from work—Chevrolets in particular.
She gulped the spit in her mouth down, eased in, and touched the driver’s side fender, telling herself there was no chance the metal was going to be hot, or, if it was, that was just the day’s heat, collected there—not an engine.
Her hand came away powdery with rust like she knew it would, and it stung the new cut in her palm.
She drew it to her mouth to suck the poison spit it back out.
“What are you doing here?” she asked the car.
It just sat there.
But, in the moonlight, she could see where her hand had touched that fender.
There was a neat handprint there.
Jenna looked from her palm to that fender, shaking her head no: this car couldn’t be here. It shouldn’t be here.
Except here it was, for sure and for certain.
She leaned back in, studied it closer.
Under the rust she’d touched, there was that distinctive midnight blue that so many of these Z/28s had been painted with.
Which is not how rust works.
And on the right side of that handprint was the smear of blood from Jenna’s cut.
Until it wasn’t.
The next morning before work, Cray-Cray kept stealing glances in the mirror at Jenna.
“I know, okay?” Jenna finally said, about Victor being at the bonfire last night, and Cray-Cray evidently knew better than to say anything about how thick Jenna was laying down her eyeliner.
Her lie about needing the Subaru Brat they shared was enough to get Jenna dropping Cray-Cray off at the salon, with a promise to be there to pick her up right when the Chevy house closed.
Jenna wasn’t going to work, though.
When she should have been clocking in, she was back at the drive-in, the Subaru idling like a lawnmower behind her because turning it off wasn’t always the best idea.
She had a towel with her this time. Everywhere she rubbed at the rust, there was metallic blue underneath.
“What the hell?” she kept saying.
As for how the car had shown up here, she had even less idea. It hadn’t rolled on its bare rims, that was for sure—there were no gouges in front of or behind it. And if anybody’d towed it here for whatever batshit reason, they surely would have sat those soft turbine wheels up on cinderblocks or wood, at least.
Except . . . Jenna shook her head, because this absolutely didn’t track.
The rear wheel had tatters of rubber around it now?
Behind her, the Subaru coughed, died.
Jenna squatted by that passenger side rear wheel, touched the rubber gingerly.
It was warm, and—shit! It was a radial. One of those steel strands had gouged into the tip of her index finger.
Instead of sucking that blood up herself, though . . .
Jenna hesitantly touched the pad of her finger to the bare steel of that rear wheel, painting it, and an instant later, she whole-body flinched—that rear wheel had drained all the blood from her hand, it felt like, so that she had to rip her finger away. And for a bare instant, she hadn’t quite been able to.
She held her hand to her body, massaged it warm again, and a wave of dizziness passed through her. Either from her world changing or from blood loss, she guessed. Maybe both.
Back in the Subaru, not ready yet to push-start it across this baking-hot parking lot, thanks, Jenna opened the cigar box she kept her special shit in, that she’d dug up hours before sunrise. There was a blue ribbon she’d won in sixth grade. A photo of her in the newspaper climbing out of the mud pit from a tug of war. The wrist-elastic part of a homecoming corsage. And—this was the first she’d been in this box since forever—the ring box Victor had proposed to her with.
She opened it, snapped it shut like little jaws. The better to eat him with.
Way at the bottom, like she remembered, was that snapshot of her bio-parents. Whoever’d taken it was practically leaning in the open window of their car, so her bio-dad, behind the wheel, was having to lean back. Her bio-mom was leaning forward to be beside him, and, yeah, okay, yeah, Mom, it was one of those perfect-magical photos. His surfer-blond hair was shaggy and kind of naturally feathered, and her black-black hair was arrow-straight, long enough to be caressing the gear shift, and both of them were still wearing whatever that day’s odd job had been: chaff and grass, woodchips and dust.
Jenna stood carefully with the box, made her way over to the Camaro, and reached that photo in, held it up until all the edges lined up, even the now-empty yoke of a six-pack, still hanging on the passenger-side window crank. Which had to be brittle now, after all these years. It had to be gone, really.
The problem with all this, of course, was that her parents had died in a wreck. And, even before this Camaro started coming back, its body had been fairly straight.
Jenna left that velvety ring box open on the dash of the Camaro like an offering, pushed the Subaru to life one more time, and called her Uncle Stu’s house in California, where her parents were currently parking their camper.
Her mom started crying the moment Jenna asked about her bio-parents. She was so glad Jenna was finally looking into them—it wasn’t their fault they hadn’t been there for her.
Jenna’s main question was, “A wreck?”
Wrong. Her dad had told her her bio-parents had died in a car, and “wreck” was the only thing that made sense to ten-year-old Jenna, who didn’t really need every sticky detail.
The real story was that the floorboard of that Camaro had been rusted through, and Jenna’s mom and dad were at the drive-in right before Thanksgiving, had been idling that small block to keep the heater warm. Factor in one leaky exhaust and some rolled up windows, and before they knew it, the inside of the car was roiling with carbon monoxide and they were asleep, never to wake up. Easy as that.
“Their first date since . . . since you were born,” Jenna’s mom added at the end.
Jenna closed her eyes, kept them closed, her mom’s voice from California consoling but also far, far too loud for right now.
She picked up Cray-Cray at the salon almost on time, but stopped a cool quarter mile back from their trailer.
“What?” Cray-Cray said, already redoing her makeup in the vanity mirror, for whatever this night was going to hold.
Jenna chucked her chin out before them. At the silver and blue short-bed pickup nosed up to the trailer—Dallas Cowboy colors.
It was the truck Victor had left behind with his parents when he shipped out.
“Oh no,” Cray-Cray said. “Took.”
Took and Victor, at the trailer.
“I’ll just—” Jenna said, but Cray-Cray didn’t need to hear the rest: she was already stepping out her side, striding across to the trailer, her long legs eating up the distance.
On the way, she filched a piece of chrome trim up from the tall grass by the butane tank.
Without looking back—not needing to—she casually hung that jagged aluminum out to the side, dragged it from Victor’s taillight all the way up to his headlight, waving the trim up and down.
Jenna blinked her feelings away, reversed down the dirt road, and drove emptier and lonelier roads for the next three hours, until dusk sifted down around her and the Subaru.
She was back at the old drive-in again.
Instead of approaching the Camaro, even though she could now see new glass glinting in the waning moon—new glass? from where?—she positioned the Subaru so its headlights were stabbing past the two uprights of the old marquee sign.
It was long since empty, had layers and layers of spray-painted G + R–kind of stuff—Glenda plus Robert, from four years ago, when Robert got Glenda pregnant the first time—but what Jenna was interested in was down in the grass. Under the grass.
The letters that used to be up on that sign. They’d shrunk or something in the sun, across all the years, and who knew how many storms had whipped them out of place, scattered them down here.
It took almost until midnight, but Jenna pieced them into T E X C H SA 2—“Texas Chainsaw 2,” which she guessed was all there was room for, “Massacre” being a long enough word it would probably just cause wrecks out on the highway if drivers tried to read it over their beers.
The Subaru was long dead, and the battery was weak enough already that the headlights were yellow and thready, meaning Jenna was going to be walking back to the gas station.
But that was later.
For now, she stacked all the letters into a pile and set a rock on top of them, she wasn’t sure why. And then she sat back in the grass, looked up to the drive-in screen, and down to the only car waiting for the movie to start.
Which is when the Camaro’s dome light glowed on.
Three days later, Jenna woke in the grimy break room at work.
She looked up at blurry versions of Kip and Dale and, from the front desk, Sheila. Jenna guessed she’d been called in to be legally sure no one felt Jenna up while she’d been conked.
“You passed out,” Kip told her, pretty needlessly.
He was holding a paper cup of water across to her.
Jenna took it and drank, buying time to come up with the right excuse.
The truth was that she’d been spending her nights out at the old drive-in, and cutting herself in new places, because the Camaro needed blood. Specifically, her blood, she was pretty sure. She hadn’t tried feeding it a stray dog or a roadkill rabbit, but she didn’t think she had the nerve for that, really.
All she could cut was herself.
Last night she’d bitten her tongue then leaned over the engine, drained blood down into the open radiator, and she’d passed out then, too, but when she’d come back around she’d been sitting against the side of the car, by the passenger side rear tire. As if someone had positioned her like that, so she didn’t have to endure the indignity of lying open-mouthed—red-mouthed—in the darkness all alone.
It’s the kind of thing a parent might have done for a child, right?
One they didn’t live long enough to care for, before.
“Sick,” she said to Kip and Dale and Sheila, and stumbled for the ladies’ room. Kip and Dale made room for her but, a polite few moments after crashing into the first stall loudly enough that the slap of that metal door could be heard all the way down the hall, Sheila eased in. Probably sent by Kip, Jenna knew. Because he couldn’t come in himself.
“Pregnant?” Sheila asked, all sister-like, her eyes batting to beat the band.
Jenna shook her head no, flushed before Sheila could clock the no-vomit situation.
“That time of the month?” Sheila said, then.
Jenna shook her head no again, though she was pretty sure she could have stopped at that if she really wanted—iron deficiency, something like that.
“Just sick,” she said again, and Sheila studied her a moment longer, then for some reason washed her hands, dried them, and walked back out, the high heels the show floor demanded clicking on the tile floor.
Kip wasn’t thrilled about giving Jenna the rest of the day off, especially after her showing up late two times already this week, but he said he couldn’t have her falling down and conking her head in the workplace, either.
He peeled a ten out of his wallet, told her to get a burger at the drugstore, the double-meat. That it looked like she needed it, cool?
Jenna folded the bill into the front pocket of her blue work slacks and slumped out. For once, the Subaru started.
And she did eat a burger and fries at the counter of the drugstore. Thank you, Kip.
She had to keep her strength up.
Walking through the sun back to the Subaru, though, her nose spontaneously started spurting blood, like all the valves and chambers inside her were going spongy.
Working on automatic, Jenna scrounged a cup up from the side of the building and leaned her face down to it, to save every last drop.
She was down to the last little bit when Took sat down beside her, her sunglasses the big bug-eyed kind, like she was a movie star.
“Hey,” she said, not even asking about the cup, the blood.
They’d known each other since third grade, didn’t need to ask those kinds of questions.
“You don’t have to apologize,” Jenna said, trying to wipe her face clean now. “He’s . . . he’s him, yeah? I fell for it too.”
Took nodded, kept nodding. It was like she was dialed into her own personal radio station in her head.
“What?” Jenna finally said.
Took looked away, down the street, and that was when Jenna caught her left eye behind those sunglasses.
It was swollen shut, pounded black and blue.
What happened to him, out there on the water? Had he always had this kind of bullshit in him?
Took’s lips were doing that curling-in over and over thing. She was trying to hold it in.
Jenna took her hand, held it tight.
“Don’t worry,” she said to Took.
“What?” Took said.
“Just wait,” Jenna told her.
Along with the last letter Victor sent back had been that photograph of Jenna across the rusted hood of the Camaro, her boots crossed on one side, her head cocked up on her hand at the other side, just like Caroline Williams. Just like Stretch.
It was creased in the middle with a white line, which Jenna guessed was from carrying it in a pocket, and on the back, in ink that was supposed to last forever, was “V/J” in a neatly drawn heart.
Jenna didn’t keep it in her cigar box, but she did still have it.
Now she knew why.
Ever since his return, and his many-many conquests all around town, Victor had been carefully avoiding her. Just because he didn’t want a scene, Jenna knew.
The big brave roughneck, yeah.
But now she had a secret weapon, didn’t she?
The Camaro was back to cherry, had come together well enough that, except for those turbine rims that she guessed her dad must have liked enough to trade out the stock jobs, it might as well have just come off the assembly line in Detroit.
Too, she realized in a dim way that she’d dialed back from “bio-mom” and “bio-dad” to just Mom and Dad, some of the time, in the privacy of her head. She’d felt guilty for it at first, like this was some big betrayal of her real parents, but . . . it was because the people in that old snapshot were who she needed now, right?
Her real parents had raised her right and given her every chance, but now, in this violent fairy tale she’d stumbled into, her first parents were coming back to protect her.
That was the best way she had to explain what was happening.
They’d died in that Camaro at the drive-in just from bad luck, not from an absence of love or duty to their new baby girl, and that was supposed to have been the end of the story. Except that hit of bad luck got balanced out by the good luck of Jenna bleeding onto the hood of that very same car, and bringing that night back to life, sort of.
Sure, it had cost a lot more blood to get the car back to good, but everything good’s got a steep price, doesn’t it?
And no, Jenna hadn’t actually gotten close enough to speak to them yet.
But, from about ten slots away, and now that the Camaro was whole and hale again, she could sometimes, when the moonlight was just right, just see their outlines in there.
They were still waiting for the second feature to glow onto the screen.
They didn’t need to know how their Camaro had gotten back to the drive-in, so neither did Jenna.
It was enough that they were back.
It couldn’t just be random, she knew. From the night she cut her hand on that burr on the hood, Victor telling her to cross her feet like this, not like that, her mom and dad had known how he was going to play her. With their ghost eyes, they could probably even see that the ring in his pocket wasn’t even real diamond, just seventy-five dollars of gold.
Not that it would have mattered back then. It’s the fact of the ring that makes the world turn, not what the ring’s worth.
That was yesterday’s fairy tale, though.
This, at the old drive-in, was today’s.
And Took having caught the back of Victor’s big hand, probably from when she started getting what Victor would have called “clingy,” just confirmed that what Jenna was doing was what she was supposed to be doing.
The plan was to get Victor out to the old drive-in at night.
After that, things would take care of themselves: He’d see that cherry Camaro and he’d have to drift over to inspect it closer. Anybody would. What’s a car like this doing all the way out here, where the sun can fade that pretty paint? Somebody didn’t just leave it, did they?
He’d run his hand along those smooth lines, his mouth practically salivating, and when he got to the passenger-side front window, it would crank down slow, causing him to back up, hands held high and away like he means no harm, here. He was just looking, man.
“It’s all right, it’s all right,” Jenna’s mom would say in her easy voice, and then tilt her head over to the driver’s seat, where Jenna’s dad would be leaning across to look up and out.
“We used to come here!” Jenna’s dad would say, and Victor would nod, look up to the screen like imagining when movies used to play there, and when he came back to the Camaro, it would be empty again.
“What the—?” he’d say, jacking all his old football senses up, his weight on the balls of his feet now so he could explode any which way.
Except, when he turned, Jenna’s mom and dad would already be standing there, wouldn’t they?
Standing there and shaking their heads, grinning grins that you don’t really ever want grinned at you.
At which point it would be too late for poor old Victor—they’d rip him limb from limb, and then pack him into the trunk, probably, each hug Jenna once, and, without words, she’d understand that they couldn’t stay, that this was really it for them, they’d only come back to protect their baby girl like they always meant to.
Jenna would watch those taillights kiss each other bye, and then the Camaro would be gone, maybe to show up again in the fourth row to the right at the junkyard. Just, now, in that trunk that would never be opened again, that would only be eventually crushed, there would be some certain remains, from someone who remained no more, thank you.
To be one hundred percent certain this would work, though, Jenna went to the pawn shop up in Longview—she didn’t want to get mired down in Houston traffic—and walked out with one of those TV/VCR jobs that plug into a cigarette lighter.
Next she had Cray-Cray jam that old photo of her under Victor’s windshield wiper, and made her promise not to key his paint again.
“Do I want to know?” Cray-Cray asked.
Jenna didn’t answer, just bit her top lip in.
She’d eaten three drugstore burgers already that day, to try to get some blood back.
On the back of the photo now, which Cray-Cray, being who she was, would surely read, was “drive-in, midnight.”
Jenna was there by ten, the Subaru tucked back behind the screen.
She thought it would be more dramatic, or a better vantage point, to stand up on the catwalk under the screen, the one everybody spray-painted their names from, but she didn’t want Victor to pass the Camaro by, think she wanted him to climb up there too.
She had shimmied up the marquee sign, though, put what letters she could back, and in the right order, with the right spaces left between them.
Everything had to be just right, she figured. As right as she could get it.
She’d even called California to talk to her mom, but her parents’ camper was already booking it for Oregon.
It was probably for the best.
Her adopted mom might not have recognized the girl she raised.
For the first hour and a half of her wait, Jenna drifted from speaker pole to speaker pole, pushing off for the next one and the next one until she’d touched them all, for luck.
There was still a big char-spot where all the bonfires usually were, and there were bottles and cans all around, and over by the roofless projection booth somebody’d dumped an old fireworks stand, it looked like.
The moon was bright again, the sky clear.
Jenna wondered if the Subaru would start or not, and then decided that it didn’t matter. Or, no—it was better if it didn’t. She didn’t need that to work. She needed the other thing to work.
And it would.
If it didn’t, then Victor was just going to leave a line of Jennas and Tooks behind him, wasn’t he? A whole line of women, all looking out one eye. Or worse.
A cool scar, a good story, and a steady paycheck doesn’t give you the right to do that. It shouldn’t, anyway.
Jenna had been so proud of him when he hired on, though, that was the thing. It hadn’t been her idea—you have to be careful about giving somebody an idea that can get them killed—but instead of hanging around and taking whatever life gave him, her guy was taking a chance, he was going out for more.
She guessed he must have found it, too, somewhere out there. Or maybe in Galveston or New Orleans, when he found that stepping down out of a helicopter made the girls notice you in a different way.
It would have been better if he never proposed, wouldn’t it have? Maybe Jenna goes to cosmetology school with Cray-Cray, then, and rents a chair at the salon, doesn’t have to spend her life calling farther and farther away dealerships to see if they’ve got this fuel line, that brake kit.
It’s not really that, though.
If he’d come back the same, if he hadn’t lied to her, if he’d been who he said he was, then . . . then it could have been him and her against the world, right? They wouldn’t have had to give up bonfire parties, they could have still lived with Took and Cray-Cray, or some of his buds, they could have both worked at the Chevy house, but—they would be doing all this together, like they meant to, like Jenna had pinned so much of her heart on.
Then, eventually, at the end of so many years, they buy a camper, set out to see America, right?
Just, now, instead: this. Bleeding into a magical car for too many nights, gambling on ghosts, and hoping nobody asks too many questions.
When Victor’s square halogens dialed down to orange parking lights for his slow turn off the highway, the weak dome light in the Camaro flicked on and then, slower, off. Like the filament was still hot, yeah. But also like someone’s hand had cupped it, was hiding it.
Jenna had to breathe deep to keep her lungs from fluttering away.
It was happening.
Keeping the Camaro between her and Victor’s truck, approaching in jagged lines so as to dodge the speaker poles, she scurried up to the Camaro, only looked in at the last moment, to be sure she wasn’t about to reach across her mom.
The car was . . . not exactly empty, she could tell.
But she could reach in, plug the little television into the cigarette lighter, then reach around onto the hood, hit the play button under the screen.
Ideally, she’d figure some way to project The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 onto the old screen, but, even if she could figure how to do that, it would only draw eyes from the highway.
So, an eleven-inch little TV positioned on an old winter jacket right in front of the windshield would have to do.
It was all about recreating that night, right?
The night they’d died, probably in this exact same slot.
Victor’s parking lights dimmed down and he killed the engine, coasted in, his tires crunching through the dirt into the old gravel, the dry grass hissing against his undercarriage.
Jenna was sitting with her back to the rear fender, now. The plan had been to run away, hide, let this happen now that she’d set everything up so perfectly, but she hadn’t counted on how close she was cutting it.
Leatherface’s chainsaw ripped up out of the TV’s tiny speaker.
“Jen?” Victor called, probably standing on his running board.
Because—yeah—of course he had to assume she was in the Camaro, didn’t he? Girl calls him out here, then the only car has to be her.
He can probably even see someone moving behind the glass, Jenna told herself. Or, tried to pray true.
He stepped down, shut his door heavily behind him.
Jenna stared up into the sky.
The back of her throat was acid with hope. With justice.
“Um, hey?” Victor said then, stepping closer, close enough that Jenna knew if she looked under the car, she’d see the toes of the worn-through work boots he was still wearing, even though you don’t need composite toes poking through to pick up girls.
But he might hear her shifting around.
She held both hands over her mouth instead.
Victor knocked once on the driver’s side window and then stepped back, it sounded like.
Victor’s boots took another couple of steps, then, and the movie stopped, or paused.
“Hello?” he said, and then Jenna heard the delicious sound of the door on the other side either being hauled open, or, from the inside, kicked open.
It was starting.
The car creaked either with new weight or with less weight.
Jenna closed her eyes in celebration, and then—
The engine tried to turn over?
“What?” she said.
They—they weren’t supposed to leave for Heaven yet.
And of course the engine wouldn’t start: She hadn’t bled into the gas tank yet. There was no reason to, and she didn’t have enough blood left anyway.
She stood, leaned around to look in from the passenger side, and flinched a bit from Victor slinging that power cord for the little TV out so he could roll the passenger side window up, really relish this car’s interior.
He never saw her, either, was too busy touching everything at once, trying out the blinkers, the headlights. Running through the gears, adjusting the stereo dials over click by delicate click—getting only static, of course.
“No,” Jenna said, scanning all around for her mom, her dad.
Where were they?
And then Victor found the “Trunk Compartment Lid Release Button Switch,” OEM 92224594—Jenna knew all the part numbers, all the proper names.
Victor opened the trunk, then the hood as much as it would, and then was fiddling with the radio again.
The whole car was a toy, to him. A gift.
He wasn’t even recognizing it from the junkyard either, she guessed. Or from the photo of her and the car that he’d said he’d spend long hours staring into, and thinking about.
But—really? That he was more concerned with the dial on the stereo than what was under the hood told her all she needed to know about him. All anybody needed to know.
“Where are you? Where are you?” she mumbled as loud as she dared, to her parents.
Had she done something wrong? She had really seen them sitting in the front seats, hadn’t she? That hadn’t just been wishful thinking, had it?
And even if it was, then . . . how to explain her blood bringing the car back to cherry?
She shook her head no: nothing could explain that.
Nothing except exactly what she thought should be happening—her real and true parents coming back to stomp the living shit out of the guy who’d wronged her, who’d sent her life one way when it was supposed to have gone the other way, the better way, the fairy-tale way.
But he was sitting there turning the dial this way then that way, and her real parents were . . . they were right where they’d always been, weren’t they?
Jenna ground her teeth and balled her hands into fists, wishing she’d had a backup plan, that she’d—she didn’t know—that she’d rigged the whole drive-in screen to fall down on top of him, smush him like the bug he was. That would be pretty great. Or if she’d dug some pit and lined it with spikes, stretched some camo netting over it. Or even just left a vanilla Dr. Pepper, his favorite, in the Camaro’s cupholder, cold enough that he couldn’t taste the strychnine in it. Or a hundred other things.
What she’d really done, though, she could tell now, was give him a cherry Camaro, hadn’t she?
One coursing with her own lifeblood.
“Not likely,” said, and stood against the car—who cared if he felt the springs shifting with her, who cared if he was about to see her crossing in the rearview mirror.
Where she was going was his little Dallas Cowboys short-bed, where she knew he’d left the keys, as his truck was too distinctive for anybody in Nacogdoches to steal.
She didn’t want to steal it, though.
What she wanted to do was pull the brights on, drop it into low, and jam that grill guard right into the side of this pretty Camaro, and keep her foot in it until the projection booth or the fireworks stand stopped her.
Halfway around the car, though, the open trunk hiding her from the rearview mirror, she stopped, had to look twice to be sure she was seeing what she was seeing, what she guessed she could have seen if she’d had that whole camera roll with her parents in it, instead of just one random snapshot: the reason they were each covered in chaff and dust.
They’d been cutting wood for the winter.
With a chainsaw.
Jenna sucked air in, reached down to touch this bad little thing with all due reverence.
Then she used that same hand to hold it down while she pulled on the starter rope.
It just sputtered, and right then, like covering that sputter, the Camaro’s speakers came on loud. CCR, blaring.
Victor turned it down fast.
“Hey, Jen, that you?” he said, adjusting the rearview mirror. “Can you believe this?”
Yes, she could: Her parents were saving her. In the only way they could.
Because she’d been through this before for many nights, she knew just what to do, too: she spun the chainsaw’s little gas cap off, bit her lower lip deeper than she ever had, and spit long and red into the heart of this Stihl, then spun the cap back on.
She was pretty sure two-strokes like this called for high octane, 89 or better, but she didn’t think her blood would be hot enough get the job done.
In the tight confines of the trunk, she ripped that little engine alive.
And of course she was wearing those same jean shorts, and it didn’t even matter that she wasn’t blonde like Caroline Williams—in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Stretch had been brunette anyway, and, mixing Jenna’s real dad’s surfer locks with her real mom’s Indian and Mexican hair, brunette was just how Jenna’d come out.
It didn’t matter that Victor had unplugged that little TV.
Now the movie was starting.
Instead of hauling the chainsaw out and chasing him with it—if he could keep thousands of pounds of equipment from pulling him to the bottom of the ocean, he could probably bat these spinning teeth away—she angled it forward, chewed a ragged hole in the rear seat, connecting the trunk’s air with the air Victor was breathing.
And then she shut that trunk hard, left the chainsaw running in there, and stepped back and to the side, to see through the driver’s window.
Victor was turning every which way in the seat, trying to get away from the carbon monoxide. He was trying the door handle again and again, but, unlike every girl in town, it wasn’t submitting to him.
The window crank came off in his hand.
Jenna stepped back, clicked the headlights of his truck on, so she could watch him writhe in that front seat, claw at the window, finally try to crash through it with his elbow, then with the cranks themselves.
It was made of Jenna’s blood, though. And her parents’ love.
It would never break.
Victor’s struggles got slower and slower, until he was pleading with her, and then convulsing, these whole-body dry heaves, his eyes spilling tears, his face wet.
Jenna just crossed her arms, shrugged, and never looked away.
When he finally died—it took at least ten delicious minutes—his face was right up to the glass, framed by his hands, his fingers open and pleading.
Jenna turned the headlights of his truck off, wiped her prints off the door and steering wheel and keys, and then, collecting the little television, she saw that, under the junk coat it had been resting on, the hood was back to rust.
And it was spreading.
Walking away, that TV on her hip, she heard the Camaro settle down onto bare rims again.
She snugged the TV into the passenger seat of the Subaru, seatbelted it in for good measure, and—of course—she was going to have to push-start it again.
It didn’t matter, though. She’d push it all the way to town, if need be.
She rolled it out from under the screen, tried to get as much speed as she could to climb that first-row hump, then she hauled the wheel to the right, to ride the smooth bottom of that aisle. Except the ground tilted up going this way, shit.
She leaned into it, screaming with the effort, not wanting to lose any ground, and then, unaccountably, the car surged forward, almost out from under her hands.
Jenna jogged to keep up, happened to look through the car, and there was her dad at the other door, leaning into this.
Jenna opened her mouth to say something, anything, but there were no words.
And—and at the trunk, leaning into it, her long hair nearly dragging on the ground but her strained face smiling, was Jenna’s mom.
Jenna pushed harder with them, faster, and when the time was right she jumped down into the driver’s seat, popped the clutch, and—
Her life started.
She grabbed second gear, steered into it.
“Men, Women, and Chainsaws” copyright © 2023 by Stephen Graham Jones
Art copyright © 2023 by Johnny Dombrowski