I recently penned a short story for an anthology, titled and themed, “The End of the Road.” The goal was to create whatever those words evoked in the more than dozen authors participating. There was no word count guidance, no set formula, no topic or style, only those five simple words.
One overcast morning a few weeks ago, I tried my hand at my second-ever short story – a complete departure from my first one, Soul Balm, which was a Pynchon/Chuck P/Hunter S. surrealistic romp I still rather like, even a year later.
I have no idea where the hell this came from. It’s unlike anything else I’ve written, and was a complete “pantsing” experience, where I just sat down and started putting words on paper, or in this case, on-screen.
What follows is the final revision of my story for the End of the Road anthology, titled, Clay. The finished product surprised me. I hope it does you, as well, in a good way. Whenever the anthology comes out, I’ll post a link to it – there are any number of talented indies who may not be familiar to you, and this is a good cross-sectional representation of some of them, worthy of the time it takes to read their diverse work.
Curtis spit onto the red dirt as he watched the horizon for tell-tale dust clouds, allowing his eyes to wander to where he’d left his mark with saliva, the moisture already being sucked into the thirsty ground, hungry and demanding as it had always been, for as long as he’d been alive on it. It was a dirt that coated everything, became a part of a man, stained his fingernails and gritted between his teeth until at some point a body didn’t know where the dirt stopped and the person began. Dirt that was unforgiving, as were the denizens of this arid badland.
His father had raised him to understand that he was of the dirt, and would return to it, and that his time walking on it was temporary, stolen from a cosmos that would allow him just enough to learn the harsh lessons it taught before it reclaimed him, just as it had taken everyone before him, and would take all who came after.
A scorching wind blew across the plain as he squinted at the point where the sky became the earth, wavy and distorted from the never-ending heat that was his constant companion. They were coming. He knew it as surely as he knew the sound of his own breathing. It wasn’t a matter of if.
Footsteps shuffled behind him, and a tentative voice, small in the vast expanse, tugged at his sanity.
“You need to eat.”
“Been eating all my life. Missing a few bites won’t hurt me much.”
“I brought you some water.”
“Thanks. I told you to get going, and take the boy with you. What are you still doing here?”
“I…I don’t want to go.”
“Plenty of folks don’t want to do what they have to.” Curtis sighed, watched the wet patch drying like a magic trick, right before his eyes. “It wasn’t a suggestion, Meg. You need to leave. Now. Pack up, and head south, to your sister’s place. It’ll be safe there. Go out the back way, by the well.”
“Time for talking’s done.”
“You don’t have to do this. Come with us.”
“Never been much good at turning tail, Meg,” he said, running a calloused hand over the two day growth that darkened his chin. “Go on. While there’s still time.”
He felt fingers on his shoulders, as light as a butterfly flitting across his sun-bleached shirt, and then he heard her turn, felt her leaving as though something had sucked his soul out of him. But he didn’t look back. He couldn’t allow himself to. There were some things that made a man softer, better even, but those things had no place out here.
When he’d first seen them, riding in too-tall trucks, arrogant exhausts matching their drunken whooping as they barreled past him, he’d been mending the fences so the dogs wouldn’t get out and cause trouble, or worse yet, get hit by the occasional rancher tearing down the nameless rutted dirt trail that led south, into a desert that offered nothing but suffering. His property stretched as far as he could see in both directions, and the road ran alongside it, tracing its boundary with mechanical precision. It had been there as long as he’d been alive, and as long as his father before him, and his father before that. The road. As permanent as anything in his world, as immutable and unchanging as the plain itself.
A corroding rust-colored iron gate, padlocked on the exterior, sat sentry over the cow catcher rails he’d helped install twenty-five years ago, as a teenage boy full of strapping energy and furtive dreams. The war had taken both out of him, and when he’d returned, he’d come back a man, hard, too much in this world, come back to his home to bury the father who’d raised him when his mother had passed to her reward.
Funny, that, he mused, wiping perspiration from his brow with his sleeve – that dying could be called a reward. He absently wondered who had come up with that sleight of hand, that euphemism, having seen death in its many forms on the battlefield, fighting an enemy for reasons nobody could logically articulate, an enemy that he’d been told he needed to kill in order to save. War for peace. War to protect against imaginary threats; better to be safe than sorry later. Everyone sure they were going to their reward, even as unspeakable violence robbed them of their humanity.
No atheists in foxholes, his master sergeant had been fond of saying before an insurgent round sent him back to Iowa in a bag.
But he’d never been in a foxhole. Firefights, ambushes, having to wipe brains and blood and bone off his face after his squad mates had earned their rewards – he was more than passing familiar with that. But not foxholes. Those were for older, nobler fights, where right and wrong were better defined, clearer, more absolute, or at least they were to those who wrote the history books. Not like his war. Not like the things he’d seen, the memories visiting him on bad nights, bringing the sweats, the shaking, the nagging coil of fear he’d wake up with, soaked, eyes darting around the darkened room trying to place himself, find something tangible to reassure him that his visions were only phantoms from a past now left behind.
A scratch in his throat reminded him that there was water waiting for him.
His eyes narrowed as he took another look, stoic as he clutched his old-fashioned Winchester lever-action rifle, then shifted and glanced over his shoulder.
A half-gallon jug waited, sweating in the middle of the drive.
His reward. Or at least a respite from the sun’s unrelenting blaze. Which was close enough right now.
He moved to the container and drank from it, then stopped himself after five greedy swallows. A man had to know his limitations. Wouldn’t do to allow himself to start thinking about more pleasant things – water, food, love, hope…that would just distract him from what he was there for, what he was going to do.
The second truck had slowed, its brake lights broken, and then reversed, the whine of the tranny as clear as a locomotive hurtling down a mountain track as it approached his position by the gate, flanked by his two dogs, Bart and Tag, brothers from a litter where the others didn’t make it. Survivors. Like him.
The driver’s window had rolled down and a red face had leered out at Curtis, music blaring from inside the cab, the kind that sounded like wild animals banging on a log and screaming their fury at the night sky – angry music for an angry world.
“Hey. What you got there, boy?”
The punk’s drawl was thick as syrup, the taunt in the last syllable as obvious and old as the ranch. Older, really, and an anachronism these days, or so one would have thought.
“Mending a fence,” Curtis had said, his tone neutral, looking up from his position as his dogs growled their sense of impending menace.
“You work for the folks got this property, boy?”
Chortles of laughter emanated from the truck.
“Well look here. We got ourselves a high tone, don’t we? Must be awful smart to have a big piece like this – but not so smart you can get yourself someone to fix your fences, huh, boy?”
Curtis put down the bail of wire he was holding and stared at the drunk, waiting for the situation to either escalate or sputter to a close. He doubted the driver was courageous enough to tackle him. Rather, he and his companions were drunk and bored and looking for trouble, but not the kind Curtis could bring.
The driver caught the look in Curtis’s eye – unflinching, impassive – and hesitated, the taunts from his two friends insufficient fuel for the fire he’d need to take Curtis on.
“What are you staring at, boy?” the driver sneered, as if by speaking he could muster strength.
“Nothing.” Curtis spit, gaze never leaving the driver’s even as he leaned slightly to the side. “I’m staring at nothing.”
Curtis’ inflection gave the driver pause, the few simple words rendering judgment he hadn’t expected. What had seemed like some fun suddenly wasn’t. The game had somehow changed, and even though there were three of them against one, something about Curtis’s demeanor served as a warning more clear than the rattle on a snake’s tail.
They stared at each other, Curtis taking the driver’s measure and finding it wanting, inadequate to the task at hand, and a moment passed between them that seemed to last an eternity – a moment where the driver looked into the abyss, and it more than returned the favor.
“Well fuck you, man. Too damned stupid to get outta the sun. What am I wasting my time for, anyway? This is bullshit,” the driver said, first to Curtis, then his friends, before he tromped on the gas, the big motor’s throaty roar trailing the truck as it sped to catch up with its twin.
Curtis had returned to work that day, patching the spot Bart favored when sneaking out at night, always the instigator, dragging the more obedient Tag with him on his adventures. No further sign of the trucks disturbed his self-imposed duties, and he’d continued with his task until the deepening dusk declared time out.
The following morning the swelter had hit earlier than usual. He’d known it was going to be bad before he’d stepped out onto his porch, the modest home a quarter mile from the road, a senile grove of trees providing meager shade in this, one of the hottest months.
The fence posts were flattened, tire tracks an unmistakable signature. His heart sank when he saw the forms of his two dogs, already bloating, a cloud of black flies swarming over their bodies a dozen yards from the gate.
The dirt got hard the deeper you dug. Three feet down, it turned to clay, unexpectedly, packed densely by gravity and some long-forgotten sea.
That night he’d found the truck at one of the bars near the county line, a place where the no accounts could fight and drink and tell lies, laughing about their exploits. He’d promised Meg he wouldn’t fight, and he’d meant it – one of the conditions she’d put forth for marrying him after a whirlwind courtship during a period where his anger would bubble up, seeking an outlet, a safety valve for his soul, and he’d prove how tough he was with the rednecks that always seemed in plentiful supply. She’d put a stop to that, and the rage had receded, banished in favor of something gentler.
No, he wouldn’t fight. He wouldn’t smash the driver’s face into the bar, grinding his nose into the scarred wood, slamming it against the century old mahogany again and again, or break the ribs of the driver’s friend and the jaw of his second. Only in his mind would he do that.
He’d poured gasoline on the truck, the smell strong in the night air, the din of inebriated laughter and honky-tonk music from the roadhouse masking any sound, and lit a piece of rag stuck into a whiskey bottle, the bright orange fireball when the tank ignited visible in his rearview mirror as he rounded the bend and returned home.
Yes, they’d be coming.
He was sure of that.
Coming to a place with no number, no sign to mark it but an old gate, crooked on its concrete posts, installed in better days.
And he’d be waiting.
At the end of the road.