Burning Desire, By Gavin Keenan
Driving without headlights and the volume of the police radio turned low, Deputy Peter Benoit drifted along the moonlit road. Never one to seek the company of others, he preferred the isolation of working midnights patrolling the lonely landscape of failed farms and shuttered mills below the Quebec border.
But Peter knew he was in trouble. Four days without sleep, abandoned by his wife and children, his uniform messy and hair unwashed, he was feeling the dizzying pull that signaled another slide into that frightening place. Others were beginning to notice too, and Peter was afraid that someone would report him to his boss, Sheriff Grandmaison. At shift change, the evening deputy seemed worried. “Holy shit, Benoit,” he exclaimed. “You look awful. Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” Peter muttered, and hurried out to the safety of the waiting patrol car. He squirmed in the seat, his tee-shirt damp beneath the Kevlar body armor. He kept the window down and the heater off, oblivious to the early December cold of the North Country. His uniform jacket and fur hat lay on the cruiser floor, and the full moon reflected the image of his five point badge onto the windshield, floating upward like a rising star.
He drove north along the State Road. Passing a barren cornfield, he removed a plastic statue of Jesus from his duty bag and secured it to the dashboard. The bobbing plastic figure comforted Peter, and he believed in its spiritual power. With one arm missing, this Jesus had a lopsided appearance which Peter had reasoned a fitting metaphor for his life. The plastic Jesus had once belonged to Peter’s grandmother. She had been devastated that day thirty years ago when it had gone missing from her old Buick.
“What sort of degenerate would steal the image of the Son of God?” she cried.
When Peter’s mother accused him of taking it and demanded its return, Peter lied and told her that he had lost it in the woods behind his grandfather’s barn. In a violent rage, his crimson-faced mother screamed that he was a dirty, fat, little thief, and called on God to rid her of such a child. She pushed him into the bathroom of their trailer and punished him with her curling iron. Later, when his father stumbled home from the tavern, she berated him as a failure and shrieked how his son had shamed her. The old man then ripped Peter’s blistered flesh with heavy strokes from an old ammo belt, his whiskey breath damming Peter to a certain hell.
Softly singing, “I don’t care if it rains or freezes, as long as I have my plastic Jesus,” Peter slowed the cruiser as he came to the abandoned shoe factory. He flipped on the spotlight and scanned the shattered windows on the first floor. Inside, he saw his long-dead father bent over a sole cutting machine; a Lucky Strike dangling from his lips, his grey hair a nest of leather shavings spit out by the angry cutting blades. These same blades had taken Rene Benoit’s fingers one by one, until he was left holding his whiskey glass between the stumps of his pinky and thumb.
“Hello, Pa-Pa,” Peter chuckled. “Don’t you think you should have quit while you could still pick your nose?”
Over the police radio, Rene’ replied, “How could I? I had to work hard to put food on our table. Don’t you remember, Petu?” Peter smiled at the dashboard Jesus. “No, Papa. You wanted more money for your booze and whores.” “You ungrateful little shit,” the radio squawked.
Peter pulled back onto the roadway. Rounding a sharp curve, he crossed a rusted steel bridge spanning a frozen riverbed. The bridge was icy, causing the cruiser to fishtail. Startled, Peter gripped the wheel and tried to concentrate on the slippery road. He knew that he should call in and request that a sand truck come out, but there were several voices in his head clamoring for his attention and making him confused and anxious.
When these voices first came to bedevil him three years earlier, his wife insisted that he go see Doctor Goodreau. Peter recalled sitting in the old doctor’s office and trembling as he revealed how the voices frightened him.
“Peter,” the kindly man had said, “You might be suffering from the same mental condition that plagued your Aunt Lucille.”
Looking out the office window at the blazing autumn foliage, Peter recalled how two decades before, his aunt had moved away to Trois-Rivi’eres. At the time, his mother had told him that Lucille had received a vocation and entered a convent there. Only after his mother died did Peter learn from a cousin that Lucille had been confined to an asylum for all those years.
“I can’t go away to a nut house,” Peter gasped.
“No, no Peter. That’s not going to happen. I’m going to prescribe some medication for you, and I want you to take a few weeks off until the voices go away.”
Sobbing quietly, Peter asked, “What will I tell the Sheriff?”
“Let me take care of that. Art Grandmaison and I are old friends, so I don’t think you have to worry.”
“Do you really think the pills will help me?”
“Yes I do. And Peter, I think that you should leave your gun with me. Okay?”
Composing himself, Peter withdrew the heavy pistol from its sleek black holster and placed it on the mahogany desk. “All right, Uncle Roland. I’ll do what you say.”
After a few weeks the voices softened and Peter returned to work no one the wiser. But the pills upset his stomach, so Peter began to skip a dose on alternate days, and finally gave them up altogether. Now when the voices came, he simply concentrated on the verse of a song or line of a poem he had memorized as a kid.
“Jesus loves me that I know, because the Bible tells me so,” Peter whispered as he steered the cruiser into the Junction Market parking lot.
He stopped at the fuel island and focused on the glowing amber zeros blinking at him from the gas pumps. “Just about sums it up,” he sighed.
Peter stepped into the bitter air and walked toward the storefront. Peering through the plate-glass into the darkened store, he saw a man watching from inside. The man resembled his father; a thin, craggy face shadowed with gray stubble, red plaid hunting jacket and worn John Deere ball cap. The man raised a pint of Four Roses and took a long pull, and then sneering at Peter, smashed the bottle against the window. Peter reeled back and struggled to pull his pistol to defend himself. Fumbling with the weapon, he heard his father’s hysterical laughter mocking him.
“Still afraid of the old man, eh’ Petu?
As the image of his father faded away, Peter jammed the gun deep into his holster. Shaking violently in the midnight cold, he stumbled back to the cruiser and cried, “Jesus, help me.” Collapsing into the front seat, he ripped the plastic Jesus from the dash and began to pray, gulping huge drafts of frigid air as he massaged his icon.
Peter didn’t hear the roar of the speeding truck until it streaked past the market lot. Startled, he turned and recognized Jody Stanton’s Dodge Ram 4X4. He knew by the rapidly fading tail lights that Jody was doing at least eighty miles per hour. Peter harbored an intense dislike for Jody. They had crossed paths many times and Jody had always been taunting and disrespectful. But tonight, Peter had no energy for another confrontation. All he wished for was sleep – long, dreamless sleep.
Shifting the cruiser into drive, Peter headed south on the State Road back toward the old shoe factory. He first saw the glow from the crest of the hill. He guessed it was on the other side of the steel bridge. Like a moth attracted to light, he drove toward the growing flames. Crossing the bridge, he pulled into the shoe factory yard and saw Jody’s overturned truck being consumed by fire.
Peter forced his weight out of the cruiser and walked toward the flaming wreck. Shielding his eyes from the intense heat, he sidestepped to the opposite side of the truck away from the smoke. Peering into the cab, he saw the image of his father once again, struggling against the jammed truck door.
Peter stood motionless as he heard his father scream, “Petu, save me!”
As Peter backed away from the blistering flames, his father cried again, “Petu, you can’t leave me to burn alive!” Gripping the plastic Jesus firmly in his left hand, Peter declared, “Judgment Day has arrived, said the Lord.” Peter felt the cold touch of the pistol in his right hand. It slid easily from the holster this time, its ebony barrel gleaming in the fires glow as he aimed toward the truck cab. He heard the sharp cracks and felt his hand jerk as he squeezed the trigger again and again until the action locked back.
Peter relaxed his grip and let the spent pistol fall to the ground. As he did, he felt the weight of shame lift from his shoulders and rise with the smoke from the burning truck. He walked back to the cruiser and whistled a simple tune as he watched the fire grow and ignite the old factory.
Peter returned the plastic Jesus to its sanctuary on the dashboard and grinned at his luminous reflection in the windshield. With the flames rushing wildly through the tinder-dry factory, he sat back and breathed a deep sigh of relief as he reached for the police radio. Contented that the tormenting voices had been silenced forever, he took the mike into his hand and whispered, “Thank you, Jesus.”
Burning Desire first appeared in “Felons, Flames & Ambulance Rides” Published by Oak Tree Press 2013.