Bad Games - By Jeff Menapace


Early autumn, 2008

Patrick was fairly certain the white Pontiac was following them. Nothing to be too alarmed about on a country road with few detours, but still, he had that feeling.

When the Pontiac passed his silver Highlander at the first sign of a dotted lane, Patrick looked left. The driver looked back—longer than necessary.


And yet, a few miles later, it was the same white Pontiac that made Patrick stop for gas. Had the car not been parked next to one of the pumps at the battered station, Patrick would have driven past without even tapping the breaks. The place looked barren.

Will there be a confrontation with this guy if I stop?

Nah. There were no horns honked. No middle fingers given. Not even a tough-guy scowl during the long glance. The man simply passed him on a country road—and Patrick had been driving slowly. Alone, his right foot was usually a lead boot on the accelerator, but with his family in the car, Patrick was an old man behind the wheel. Besides, they needed gas. Who knew when they’d come upon another station out here?

He turned in and took the only other pump in front of the Pontiac. The metal tank was a beaten rectangle. It offered two grades: REGUL R and PR MIUM—vowels, Patrick mused, apparently being the preferred meal of the elements around here. He chose PR MIUM and began filling the Highlander.

And that was when he first met the man with the white Pontiac.

“A Penn State man huh?”

Patrick looked over his shoulder. The man sat smiling on the hood of his car, the pump’s black hose winding out of the Pontiac’s tank like a stubborn snake latched to a meal beyond its means. The man had apparently flipped the metal latch beneath the handle to keep the pump running hands-free. Patrick fingered the latch on his own handle, wondering why he hadn’t thought to do the same himself. He carried on squeezing anyway.

“Excuse me?” Patrick said.

“Your license plate,” the man pointed.

The Pennsylvania plates on the Highlander read that the owner was an alumnus of Penn State. Patrick often forgot he had them. “Oh,” he finally said with an even smile. “Yeah—class of ’92. You go there?”

The man pushed off his hood and stood upright. Patrick guessed him at just under six feet with a slender but sturdy build. His pallid complexion was in contrast to the charcoal eyes that were fixed beneath a full head of black, messy hair—the result of little sleep and no comb, or perhaps the latest fashion trend. Likely, a mussed, unkempt look was the latest style; Patrick wouldn’t have had a clue. At thirty-eight and with a family, he was admittedly as up to date on fashion trends as he was on who Paris Hilton was currently dating.

“Sure did—class of ’98,” the man said. “I guess that would put about six years between us, yeah? No chance of ever crossing paths.”

Patrick gave a nod and added, “Well with the size of Penn State, we could have graduated the same year and still never met.”

The man laughed. “Very true.”

Yes—his initial assumption had been correct; there was no confrontation here. Quite the opposite, in fact. Yet it still didn’t deter Patrick from willing the inevitable click from either of their pumps to come sooner than later. Small talk was a hemorrhoid to him.

Patrick looked through the rear-side window of his SUV and made eye contact with his wife, Amy. She gave a quick flick of the head towards the stranger, the curious frown on her face asking who and what. Patrick replied with a subtle roll of his eyes. Amy returned a sympathetic roll of her own, blew him a kiss, and then turned her attention back to their two children in the backseat.

“So do you still visit from time to time?” the man asked.

Patrick shook his head. “Not really. I used to try and make a football game every once in a while, but with a family now, it’s kind of tough.”

The man pecked forward and looked through the rear window of the Highlander. Amy could be seen leaning over the front seat, entertaining the two kids. She looked up and caught the man’s eye. He stared back, holding his gaze.

If it were a game of chicken, Amy would have lost. She was first to look away, quickly bringing her head back down towards the children as if caught staring at something taboo.

Seconds later, she glanced up again. The man’s eyes hadn’t shifted; he was