Roadwork (Early Draft)

When Conner arrived at the gas station, he exited the car with a speed that surprised even him. He took a few quick steps, almost at a run, before turning back towards the car. Under the garish sodium lights of the service station, the little blue sedan looked a sickly greenish gray. It looked squat and malign in its stillness. The little throbbing headache at the base of his skull seemed to diminish with every step and he began to catch his breath.

He took the phone from his pocket and raised it high into the night sky, waving it from side to side like a signal flag. Nothing. The signal meter defied him by remaining empty. Not even a flashing roaming message. Conner scowled at the little phone and thrust it back into his pocket.

He glanced around at the station, two solitary pumps and a closed convenience market. An isolated island of pale yellow light in the dark of the North Carolina forest, the silhouettes of the trees bit sharply into the starry night sky, surrounding him like a ring of teeth. The grating hum of electricity mingled with the crackling of insects from the woods beyond, drifting in the warm summer night air.

Jutting from the side of the shuttered market was a scraped and listing pay phone, its metal stalk visibly bent from some long ago impact. Conner approached it, digging a quarter from his pocket, and gripping the scarred plastic handset. For a moment, nothing happened, and the sense of isolation deepened, like the ground being pulled out from under him, and the panic returned. A series of quick clicks bit into his ear and the dial tone chimed. His fingers felt numb as he dialed.

Even at a few hours past midnight, Reynolds answered on the first ring.

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The Gift

This story is available in the anthology “From Their Cradle to Your Grave” from Cruentus Libri Press on Kindle or Paperback.

Underneath the old stone bridge, in the summer heat, I first met my friend. I’d come to this spot beneath the bridge for as long as I could remember, following the small creek in our backyard down through the farmers’ fields, and behind the roaring freeway. Beneath the bridge, the dirt was still cool, even in the hottest noonday sun. I’d come to the bridge to think, to play, to cry, and to press my pale chubby fingers into the blessed cool soil, digging deep depressions in the damp earth.

The creek trickled by, but my father had told me never to go in the water; it had a thin scum on the top that reflected the light in an odd, shimmering way, like the shell of a beetle. I’d disobeyed him once when I was younger and the rash that boiled up on my legs had scabbed and bled for a week. Now, I was content to sit among the pale and drying reeds, to hold tight to that primal cold in the place where the sun couldn’t reach.

On the day he was first there, the cottonwood trees were shedding their seeds, bright white silken clouds that drifted in the air like snow defying the sun. The air was thick with heat and exhaust from the freeway, buzzing over the rise like an angry hive. He lay stretched out on the other side of the creek, his body half covered by the shadow of the old stone bridge. At first I saw only a pile of ragged clothes, capped with a wide-brimmed and frayed hat, but then I saw the long, bony fingers steepled across his chest, and his calloused and blackened feet.

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Collision

There are moments in your life, in every life, where you can look back at the small nodes of causality, those split second forks in which your course and path are fundamentally altered, sent careening in unanticipated or unforeseen directions. I prided myself, once, in being able to see these moments before they arrived, but the truth is, we hardly recognize we are at a crossroad until it has receded into the distance. You can spin the gears of your mind until they grind smooth, wondering what would happen, if only… If only you had refused the last drink, or took a cab instead… If only you had held your temper and your tongue… If only you had believed her… If only.

When I allow myself to drift down these avenues of doubt, I dream of being able to sleep through the night without waking in screams, without the sweat soaked sheets clinging to my shuddering body. I dream about looking on the deserts of my former home, and smelling the dry, warm earth without gagging and trembling like a lamb. If only.

When I arrived at my nexus, a literal crossroad on Indian Route 8064 in the high desert of Arizona, I had not an inkling that I was on the precipice. The sun was low in the horizon, fat and bloated red through the dusty air, and the heat of the day was only beginning to recede. Ahead of me was the long drive to Flagstaff through the great empty patches of the state. Long, long ago, I had taken to avoiding the highways and began taking the old roads, the crumbling delta of blacktop that go almost unused as they silently crisscross the desert. Each time, I would take a new fork, and allow the desert’s quiet purity envelop me as I traversed an unfamiliar path. It was like meditation, a way to wipe clean the slate of my worries: the rising debt, the disintegrating marriage, my mother’s rapidly metastasizing cancer. It was a place of simplicity and calm, earth and sky and quiet and emptiness. It was my paradise, the great panacea to my doubts and worries.

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Exit

I know this road better than I know myself. I know each of Interstate 85’s 250 odd miles; I know that it takes me an average of 3 hours and 26 minutes to drive west, from Charlotte to Atlanta, and an average of 3 hours and 29 minutes to make the same trip going eastward. I know the price of gas at a dozen stands, and the closing hours of each fast food shack and greasy diner. I know the curves of each low hill and I know each stand of pine and oak trees. I know the stretching dark of the long winter nights and the wet heat of the summer breeze. I know these things well because they are the totality of my existence now.

I know the names of each exit, westward and east. Batesville, Poplar Springs, Spartanburg. They tick through my head as I pass, but the Silver Creek Road exit is never among them. In three years of this endless loop, it has never appeared again. If I ever begin to doubt that it will, then I have nothing left.

The Silver Creek Road exit doesn’t exist on any map, or at least, it no longer does. It may have once, but like the road itself, it has been razed from the earth and from all memory and record. At the beginning, I spent long anxious days poring over old surveying maps and neighborhood planning documents, searching in vain for any sign of the road, or the exit I know I had taken. When there was nothing left in the libraries and city halls to comb through, no meek county official left to interrogate, wide-eyed and frothing, then I began the drive.

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West

September 2nd 1868
Arrived in Cheyenne in the new Wyoming Territory early this morning on the new Union Pacific line. Has been three years since I rode the locomotive. Did not realize it would remind me so strongly of Atlanta. Spent the last day of the journey with the phantom smell of blood and iron in my nostrils, and the bile rising at the back of my throat, but it is over. God willing, I will never have to ride the train again. Cheyenne is new born and mewling like a babe. Immigrants from the east and across the seas teem here, filling the streets with a babel of tongues and the raucous laughter of drunken listless youths. The hound I purchased before leaving tugs at his leash with delight at the sights and sound.

The plot of land is still two days ride across the border and to the Southwest, but true to his word, the man from the bank has hired a guide to take me there. Sent a last letter to my wife and boys with instructions to meet me here in the spring, and have purchased a wagon and the supplies for construction. The guide, a half Indian fellow, I’d wager by appearance, but civilized in tongue, has helped me hire two young men: a Irishman with a sullen chinless face, and a German, watery eyed and stinking of bourbon. Both despicable wretches, but they have agreed to work for a pittance, and both claim to have experience in homesteading.

They may intend to kill me, seeing an easy mark in a naive settler, but I do not fear these drunken children. I’ve seen a generation of these boys spilled open, and I know what they are made of.

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