Sam pressed the accelerator into the floorboards, trying not to stand in his panic. He risked a glance at Kristen and suppressed a sob.
“She’s fine, man. Just drive!” Ben barked, holding her head and pressing the towel into her throat. Maybe a towel wasn’t the best choice, but they had to use something, didn’t they?
“God damn it!” yelled Sam. “Just God damn everything.” Angry tears rolled down his cheeks even as he concentrated on the road, almost never looking at the speedometer that blared 90mph like an accusation. “We killed her! We did!” Every word accentuated by a fist to the steering wheel.
“She’s fine, man. Just shut up. Shut up and drive.” Ben too, was crying—had never stopped, really. The only thing he’d seen in the last twenty minutes was the gun he held, the bullet he fired, and her toppling to the floor. That he had no choice, that it was the only chance to save her, was little consolation with her bleeding to death in his lap.
“That fucking asshole,” whispered Sam through clenched teeth. Tears he could allow, but he wouldn’t cry; not yet. “I’m glad he’s dead.” Then, like the two were somehow related, “Two miles.”
Ben nodded. The intruder was dead, of that neither friend could doubt. The man’s brains littered their front room like gruesome confetti. It wasn’t Ben’s gun, but he fired it anyway. His father would understand, that the lessons at the range and all those hunting trips were not meant to teach him how to kill, but to cherish life and its rare beauty. He felt sick.
They told him to leave. They pleaded for it, begged him to just go away and never return. “Fuck you!” That was how he thanked their reluctance. “Fuck you guys! I ain’t goin' back to jail. I’ll cut this bitch if you even think of calling the cops.” As if he hadn’t already severed the line to the house; as if any help would come. He edged toward the door, ready to drop the limp bundle he held, ready to escape the spooked men before they could make trouble.
“Take it easy, man,” muttered Sam. “We won’t call anyone. Just let Kristen go.” His voice flirted with outright panic, and it strained every nerve to speak at all, but Sam was certain the intruder would kill Kristen without a second thought if he felt forced. “Please, man?”
The man narrowed his eyes. Was he considering it? Would he just leave and could they forget this ever happened, counting their blessings that nobody was hurt?
“Put her down, man!” shouted Ben from the rear of the room. Normally the deepest sleeper among the three, he finally roused from all the yelling. Sam started to worry, then; Ben could get jumpy.
The burglar’s eyes widened and he turned toward Ben’s voice. “What?” He squinted past Sam to the dim shape holding out its arm, maybe brandishing a weapon; a gun.
“Put my sister down! I’ll shoot you, man. . .” roared Ben, voice cracking with panic. “Nobody threatens us! I’ll kill you!” His whole body was shuddering, but the range wasn’t great. Ben wouldn’t miss.
“Go to he—” spat the intruder before the report of the gun interrupted his retort.
No hole appeared in his forehead, but the bullet definitely struck him. Kristen slumped to the ground as his arm relaxed, and he made a long choking sound as he toppled backward. Somehow, Ben managed to shoot the man in the mouth.
Ben clung to the old Magnum, finger still white on the trigger, pulling with all the strength in his hand. Still he aimed at the former target, as if he hadn’t yet processed the scene. Sam stared between his friend and Kristen, wondering who might awaken first. He stumbled a few feet toward the dead man, seeing the telltale flecks of bone and grayish red smears of brain on the wall, and the coffee table, and the door.
Finally, Sam shook off the horror before him and rushed to Kristen’s prone body. He shook her slightly and worried that she felt so limp, so dead.
Sam leaned closer, placing his ear against her nose. She was breathing, but barely. From that angle, it was impossible to miss the thin red swath across the left side of her throat that spilled away her life; the path of the bullet, perhaps?
“Ben!” Sam yelled. “Ben! Get the car! Oh God! C’mon Kristen. . . .” He scrambled for something to press into her throat, hoping to stem the tide, that it wasn’t too late.
The gun slid from Ben’s fingers while he stared at the spectacle. The man, dead; his sister bleeding to death. His fault. His fault. Sam’s shout startled him into action, and all extraneous thoughts were driven away until only two remained: get the car; save Kristen.
Ben ran to the garage.
Sam looked up as a tall doctor carrying a clipboard approached the alcove where he and Ben fidgeted anxiously for news.
“Are you two the men who brought in Kristen Tarrow?” he asked.
“Yeah.” Sam nodded. “Is she ok?” Ben just stared at the doctor, through him.
“I’m sorry but,” he began, noticing the quiet man—the one named Ben—braced as if slapped. “I’m sorry, but she simply lost too much blood. We did all we could, but she didn’t make it.”
Ben’s head dropped toward his knees and he began to sob. His hands clawed fitfully at his hair, seeking some outlet; his forearms hid him from the world.
The doctor tentatively placed a hand on his shoulder. “Son, under the circumstances, there’s nothing you could have done. That you made it here at all was a small miracle.” He considered for a moment. “If it helps, she never woke up, never felt any pain. Probably unconscious since she collapsed. . . or before.”
Ben twisted away from the doctor’s hand and lurched to his feet. “It’s my fault!” he shouted before turning and stalking out of the waiting room without looking back.
“Ben!” called Sam. Ben wouldn’t stop, he knew.
An uneasy moment passed before the doctor broke the silence. “I’ve, uh, taken the liberty of calling the police so you two can file a report. You say a man broke into your friend’s apartment?”
Sam nodded. “Ben shot him. We think. . . he thinks the bullet hit his sister first.”
“No,” said the doctor. “Her throat had plainly been cut by a knife, probably after the rape. Most likely she was unconscious from blood loss before he took her hostage. My guess is that he wanted to bluff long enough to escape.” He blew out a long breath and shook his head. “There really is nothing your friend could have done.”
Rape? The intruder cut her throat? Oh no.
“Jesus. Ben!” Sam stood and quickly bolted from the room, wishing inwardly for the miracle they’d already been denied. Ben’s sister had just died and Ben thought it was his own fault. Oh no.
The car wasn’t in the parking lot when Sam arrived, breathing hard from the sudden exertion. A couple of clear tire tracks and the faint smell of burned rubber were the only traces of Ben’s car. Not knowing what else to do, Sam ran off in the direction indicated by the tracks. Maybe Ben just went home?
Sam had only been running down the road for a couple minutes when he saw the smoke. His heart sank at the implications. What did you do, Ben? He ran harder.
When he finally reached the wreck, he saw clearly Ben could never have survived. Ben didn’t merely aim for the tree, but ensured the driver’s side would take the brunt of the impact. The left half of the car had compressed drastically, so the front end of the car made a 45-degree angle with the body.
Sam sank to his knees in the road, watching the wreck burn. Idiot! Ben, you idiot!
Sam crouched near the gravestone and read the inscription.
Loved by many, missed by all.
“Sorry kid. . .” he whispered. It had been seven months, but it was the first time he’d visited her grave since the funeral. Who could have imagined all of the lives affected by a burglary gone wrong? He closed his eyes and mulled everything for a moment.
A hand brushed his shoulder and he looked back at his companion. “Mmmh,” said Ben. The man, impossibly, survived the crash dedicated to his death. His jaw would remain wired shut for a few more weeks, and he could be bound to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, but Sam was granted his wish; Kristen’s death wouldn’t become a double tragedy.
Sam’s thoughtful look melted into a sad smile. “C’mon Ben,” he said with a grunt, standing. “We’ll come back. Maybe you can say a few words then.” He grasped the handles of the wheelchair and turned it around, back toward the van they’d rented for the occasion.
“Mmhmm!” Ben agreed. I owe her, he thought to himself. Her voice is all that kept me alive after I hit the tree—telling me it wasn’t my fault. He directed a final glance at his guardian angel and nodded toward the van.
Time to go.