On July 4th, Luzifer-Verlag published the German translation of Rag Men. I’m happy to report that the book is doing very well. It broke onto the Amazon bestselling horror list one week after being published, and has so far been ranked as high as #64. Hopefully it will continue to climb. I cannot express enough gratitude to the people who made this happen. Gary at Severed Press, Steffen at Luzifer-Verlag, Michael Schubert, Andreas Schiffmann, and of course everyone who has purchased the book, I have mad love for you all.
When I was a teenager, I used to enjoy hitch-hiking around my home state of Washington. It was good exercise, I met lots of interesting people, and it was an effective way for my ghost-pale ass to maintain a decent tan. Mostly I did it because I didn’t own a car, and didn’t have many friends whose parents would allow them to throw caution to the wind and drive me to some party halfway across the state. I knew hitch-hiking was dangerous. A decade or so earlier, Beverly Mae Johnson and Patricia Weidner had been found in an abandoned shack near the resort town of Chelan with their throats slashed after being picked up on the same highway along which I frequently walked with my trusty thumb pointed to the sky. Even less time had passed since my friend Cynthia was stabbed nearly to death while hitching in the same area. But I wasn’t too afraid. A 180-something-pound running back and amateur boxer who’d only lost two fights out of twenty-seven, I figured I could take pretty good care of myself.
One Independence Day afternoon, my friend Evan and I caught a ride from Waterville (where, at the time, I went to high school with future superstar quarterback Drew Bledsoe) to Chelan, which was thirty-six miles away, to partake in the epic Fourth-of-July festivities for which the lakeside community was famous (and notorious). After an amazing fireworks display and several hours of striking out with drunken, bikini-clad college girls, Evan and I decided to ditch Chelan and head to a friend’s house party in East Wenatchee, about forty miles away. We walked two or three miles before finally getting picked up by a van full of Mexican orchard workers who couldn’t speak a word of English. We rode in the back with Juan, Pedro, Luis, Carlos, an ice cooler overflowing with 40-ounce bottles of shitty beer, and enough secondhand marijuana smoke to get God high. It was awesome.
We were feeling pretty loopy by the time they dropped us off at the outskirts of East Wenatchee. Traffic was still flowing well, despite the late hour, so Evan and I popped our thumbs up again in hopes that someone would take us even closer to our destination. It would have taken us another hour to walk to our friend’s party, and if we hadn’t been so tired already, if we hadn’t been in such a hurry to get where we were going so we could just relax and enjoy ourselves, if we had only gone ahead and walked that last little bit of distance…then what happened next wouldn’t have happened, and I wouldn’t have found myself bleeding and broken and lying on a wooden bench near a payphone wishing the ambulance would hurry up and get there before the people who had done what had been done to me came back and finished what they started.
It was a red pickup truck with three men in the cab. They passed us and stopped a little way up the road and sat there as we approached. Evan had a bad feeling right off the bat. He suggested we tell them thanks but no thanks, but he couldn’t give me a logical reason why, and without one, I was determined to accept a ride if these guys were offering. I was a lot more trusting back then. That would change forever before the night was over. Two of them got out as we reached the truck. Stocky, young guys in blue jeans and tight tee shirts. One had sandy brown hair, curly, parted on the left. The other wore a neatly trimmed cut, deep brown with bangs just above his eyebrows. The two men looked us up and down. “Where you guys goin’?”
I told them.
The curly-haired dude asked the other: “What do you think, Brian?”
Brian nodded. “Hop in.”
Evan and I loaded ourselves into the bed of the truck. Curly drove and Brian rode shotgun. Between them sat a guy with hair so blonde it was nearly white. Whitey never looked back at us even once. I didn’t see his face until the truck stopped at the wooded park fifteen minutes later. During the drive, Evan kept telling me he had a bad feeling. I kept ignoring him. When we stopped at a traffic light, Evan suggested we get out right there. I told him to relax. A few blocks later, Evan’s paranoia got the better of him, and he shouted at the driver to stop and let us out. The men in the cab responded by increasing the truck’s speed and throwing a half-empty can of beer at him. When they sped through the next red light, I finally realized something was up. I began to consider the different possible scenarios that might occur in the next few minutes.
One: They were trying to scare us. Nothing more.
Two: Perhaps they were thinking it would be funny to take us out into the middle of nowhere and drop us off and make us walk back into town. No big deal. We would miss the party. There would be other parties.
Three: They wanted to fight. They were taking us somewhere where no one would see them kick our asses. They were in for a surprise. Evan wasn’t a fighter, but I was a good one. I thought I could probably take all three of them by myself if I had to. Cocky bastard I was.
Four: They were taking us somewhere where others were waiting to help kick our asses. In that case, Evan and I were probably going to get our asses kicked. So be it. I could handle an ass-kicking. I had before. No big deal. I looked around the truck bed for anything I might use as a weapon. I wasn’t planning to make things easy for them. There was nothing but a broom handle and the beer can they’d thrown at Evan.
Five: They were taking us to a dark, wooded area where no one would witness our murders.
Actually, the fifth scenario never occurred to me. If it had, I would have been far more prepared than I was when the truck finally came to a stop.
“They’re getting out,” Evan said as he stood up in the back of the truck.
Then the blow came. I didn’t see it coming. There was an explosion of light, then blackness, and the next moment I was heading face-first toward the asphalt below. I didn’t feel the impact of my face colliding with the street because it knocked me out cold. I was awakened by the pain of being kicked repeatedly in the head. I fought back and somehow managed to get to my feet. Whitey’s face flashed. Curly’s. I grabbed the broom handle from the back of the truck and smashed Whitey across the teeth with it. There was a spray of blood. Both Whitey and Curly stopped pummeling me. The world was spinning. My legs were rubber. I was blinded by my own blood. I decided to run. I didn’t make it far. There was nowhere to run anyway. There was only seclusion and darkness. Rushing footsteps behind me. It was Curly. I could handle Curly. “You’re dead,” I told him.
He hesitated. Backed off.
“No, you’re dead.” It was Brian, charging me like a pit bull from the darkness.
Brian grasped the broom handle and pried it from my grip. He struck me with it, snapped it in two. I noticed the sharp end of the broken handle and thought, He’s going to stab me with it! And he did. He aimed for my neck, but I dodged right, and the broken broom handle plunged deep into my left shoulder. The pain was fierce.
“Kill that motherfucker!” Whitey calls from somewhere.
A sucker punch from Curly, who had managed to flank me. I staggered and spat blood. Brian thrust the sharp end of the broom handle at my throat. I parried it. Again. Again. More punches. A hard kick to my testicles. I could feel the blackness closing in again. I couldn’t breathe.
“Kill him, Brian!” The voice sounded far away, even though Whitey was right there now, punching me.
Brian tried again to stab me in the throat, but I fought him. I fought him with everything I had. He thrust the sharp end of the handle against my rib cage, and it broke again, so he tossed it aside. The three of them continued to strike me with foot and fist. I struck back. Curly fell to the ground, got back up.
“Why are you guys doing this?” I asked. No answer. They just kept beating my face and body.
My legs gave out. I fell to my knees, but kept fighting. “Why are you doing this?”
And then one of them kicked me in the throat, and I collapsed, breathless onto the asphalt. And that was it. The fight left me. I covered my battered face with my hands and waited for it all to be over. They kicked and stomped. I felt my ribs break. I gasped for air that wouldn’t come. Consciousness faded.
A voice (I didn’t know which). Far away. “Is he dead?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“You check him.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I think he’s dead.”
“Let’s get the fuck out of here. Run over him with the truck to make sure.”
“Okay. Yeah. Let’s go.”
The sound of car doors. The engine revving. I opened my eyes to see headlights racing toward me. Bright. Menacing. Monstrous.
From somewhere deep inside of me, fueled purely by the desire to live, if only for a few minutes longer, came a surge of strength that lifted me off the blood-soaked asphalt and carried me out of the path of the headlights as fast as my wobbly legs could move. When the truck came after me, its tires throwing chunks of earth and grass, I ran further into the woods, into the darkest shadows of the trees. And when I could run no more, I stopped and waited for Whitey and Curly and Brian to get out of the truck and sever that last fine thread to which I clung with all that was left of me.
But then they were gone.
And before I had a chance to rejoice in the fact that I was still alive, I thought of Evan. I looked for him, called his name, but he was nowhere to be found.
They had taken him. Oh God.
I walked. Dizzy and nauseated and spitting blood, I walked along the winding road that led from the wooded area to a street that was semi-busy with traffic. I waved my arms above my head, hoping someone would stop and help me. No one did. I must have looked like a victim in a horror movie. You know, the one who stands alongside the road, bloody, flailing, suckering you into pulling over and getting out of your vehicle, only to be stabbed/gutted/shot/bludgeoned/beheaded by a pursuing serial killer? Yeah, I can’t say I blame anyone for not wanting to get involved. Cell phones weren’t yet a thing back then, unless you happened to have one of those big, blocky monstrosities in your Ferrari, so even the simple act of calling the police wasn’t an option for the passersby.
So I walked. Limped. Staggered until I came to a supermarket that looked like it was still open. I headed for the front entrance, when I heard someone call out, “Are you okay?”
It was Evan. Good ol’ Evan. He hadn’t been kidnapped after all. Turns out he had leaped from the bad guys’ truck and bolted like lightning the moment the doors had opened. Good for him.
As I lay down on a wooden bench near the front entrance of the store and waited for an ambulance, the fear hit me. I shivered with it. I couldn’t help envisioning that red pickup truck pulling up in the parking lot, it’s occupants leaping out to finish the job they’d begun. I had never felt so vulnerable.
“I started to go back,” Evan said, “but I heard you ask them, ‘Why are you doing this?’ The desperation in your voice scared the hell out of me.”
I thought about that for a long time –about twenty years, in fact. I had been desperate to know why those three guys chose to do what they did to me that night. At the time, I felt like if I knew their reason, then I might somehow convince them they were wrong. I thought I could perhaps talk them out of doing what they were doing. I needed a reason. Without one, the situation seemed all the more hopeless and terrifying. That people willfully injure and murder other people without reason is a scary thing to consider. It’s damaging to the false sense of security we get from believing we have more control over our own lives than we actually do. People have told me –bombarded me with the idea– over the years that everything happens for a reason. Well, that certainly isn’t true of my world. What happened on that hot summer night long ago served no purpose whatsoever. It didn’t change my life in any way. It didn’t even prevent me from going right back to hitch-hiking a few months later. If I learned anything from it, it’s that if someone is going to kill me, having them explain to me why probably isn’t going to make me feel better. Then again, maybe the reason is so obvious that I’m overlooking it. Maybe if Brian or Curly or Whitey had decided to tell me why they were attempting to violently end my life on a dark road in East Wenatchee, Washington, the reason would have been: So you will have another story to tell.