Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Side Trail Story
Phoebe stood at the edge of the highway, looking left, then right. It was just past dawn. Nothing up yet but a pack of coyotes, trotting loose limbed on the other side of a barbed wire fence, nose to ground on a hunt. One glanced at Phoebe, turned away and followed the others along a dusty ravine.
A few strips of paper captured in the fence fluttered in the breeze. Phoebe sighed and straightened the backpack on her shoulders, turning west towards El Paso. In the distance, an eighteen wheeler rumbled over the ridge, heading east. She thought of crossing the road, sticking out her thumb. Instead, she walked on as the truck passed, cyclones of dust in its wake. Broken glass and slivers of tumbleweed peppered the bottom of her shoes, crunching under each step.
She adjusted the backpack again, pain rippling across her back and ribs. The light wind sanded her bloody face with grit, reminded her of what happened last night. Phoebe glanced behind, hoped he wasn't coming over the rise.
An empty paper cup hissed by in a gust, startling a crow in the ditch by the side of the road. Stooping, she picked it up. There was a smudge of lipstick on the rim, residue of coffee lining the bottom. Phoebe examined it, tossed it aside. It looked like a cup from the Straight Arrow.
The Straight Arrow was the only bar in Devil River, a joint hollowed out and filled with lost souls, termites eating through their own lives, hunched over the counter. Their beers sweated, leaving stains on the table tops. Stains that Phoebe wiped off every night before she locked the door and walked down the empty streets to the broken down trailer behind the gas station.
Last night, Phoebe walked through her rusted front door, closed it softly, flipped on the kitchen light.
Paul seldom waited up for her, his back a camel's hump under the dirty blankets, the aroma of stale breath and day old dreams drifting through the trailer. Phoebe followed the debris from the kitchen to the bedroom.
Paul surprised her when he sat up, eyes red and bleary, hair upright on his head like a rooster.
"Hey." He rolled over, took a cigarette from the nightstand, lit it, blew out a wad of smoke.
"Hey to you too," Phoebe said. She unzipped first one boot, then the other, let them fall on the floor.
"Got any hooch?" he asked.
"Nope. Just some cigs." Bending down, she reached into a backpack and brought out three packs taken from the stock room of the Straight Arrow.
"Come here," Paul said, drawing back the blanket, staring at her like a snake at a rabbit.
Phoebe flopped on the foot of the bed, crawled up towards the pillow, the sound of her jeans etching a weary song along the sheets.
Without warning, Paul reached out, struck her solid in the chin, yanked her hair back, knuckled her ribs until she screamed in pain.
"I know what you did tonight," he hissed. "Jack saw you behind the Arrow kissing some Indian."
Phoebe struggled to get away from him, heels pounding the mattress, tears and snot running down her face.
He drew back one more time and clipped her jaw, then flopped down on the bed with a grunt. "I can't believe you cheated on me, after all I did for you! Get out, you bitch. And never come back."
Whimpering, Phoebe slid off the bed, grabbed her boots, backpack, his old jacket laying on the floor, and stumbled out the door before he changed his mind and came after her.
She ran a few yards down the road, took a breath, threw on his jacket. Something jingled in the pocket. Paul's truck keys. "Damn," she muttered. Wincing in pain, she made her way towards the trailer.
The lights were out. Paul must have gone back to sleep. Phoebe crept up to his truck, opened the door, and slid the keys on to the floor mat. Beneath the seat she saw the glint of a revolver. His insurance, he called it.
Paul dealt drugs to the people on the reservation. He met them on a dirt road near the highway. "They line up like idiots" he laughed once. "This beats hell out of dealing in Vegas. I'm gonna be rich, Baby."
Phoebe reached into the glove compartment. A stack of money had been tossed behind a road map. She touched it, then drew back. Paul would hurt her. No mistake about that. Or send somebody else to do it. It was better to be stone broke and get out of here than have a few bucks and a price on her head.
She felt a jab of anger. Phoebe worked hard all week and shared the money with Paul every pay day. She plucked several hundred dollars from the bundle and stuffed it in her jeans. A measure of her worth, she thought.
Instead of taking the road back to town, Phoebe cut through the desert over to the main highway two miles away. The sun came up over a notch in the hills, bright as a yolk, turning her stomach. She retched on the side of the road, then stood there, deciding which way to go.
Paul was right. She was with a man last night. His name was Dean. So good looking it hurt sometimes just to look at him. Eyes so dark they didn't seem to have pupils. Arms littered with tattoos, crisscrossing his forearm like a serpent. He had wandered in to the Straight Arrow over a year ago. Kept to himself. Nursed a few beers, ordered a burger, then ambled out, boots clicking on the worn wood floor. He came into the bar alone most nights, face solemn and brooding, stared down into his glass as if reading tea leaves.
When she served him, he always smiled and thanked her, left a good tip. He wasn't one for small talk and Phoebe about gave up on him being friendly until one night he asked her if she had ever felt free.
"What do you mean?" she smiled. "This is America. We're all free."
"You think so?" he asked. "Strong words out here on the Reservation."
"Sure." Phoebe shrugged. "I'm free."
Dean ran his fingers across the sweating glass, tapped them on the table top.
"See that guy across the room? The tall one in the red flannel shirt?"
Phoebe nodded. "That's Bryan Goodfeather. He works at the casino off the interstate."
"I know. So do I."
"You do?" she asked. He didn't look the part. Too rough and silent to be catering to the crowds.
"Yeah, I sing a song or two most nights. Bryan's my boss. He's also my brother."
"Well, hey that's cool," Phoebe said, then turned away, walked towards the bar, when he whispered her name. She glanced back at him.
"Come hear me some night, if you're free, that is," he grinned.
Phoebe and her friend Carla went to the casino one evening when she was off work and Paul was in Dallas. Towards the back of the casino they heard guitar playing. Dean sat on a tall stool, his fingers tracing each string, each note. He saw Phoebe, gave a nod, then broke into a sad Dylan song. It was surprising how good he was. He had that catch in his voice that sounded a little like heartache, and she noticed the crowd leaning forward, listening to every note.
After his set, he ambled over to the table, pulled up a chair, a beer bottle dangling from his fingers.
"You were great," Phoebe said. "I like the songs you choose, too. "
Dean nodded, dark eyes peering into hers. He had a broken nail on his forefinger. She longed to reach out, put it in her mouth, suck out the sadness. There was a whisper of a smile on his face. He tipped his head back, bolted the beer, spun the empty bottle on the table between them.
"You're better than this," she gestured, taking in the smoke filled room, the drunks, slot machines chiming in the background.
Dean shrugged. "So are you." He reached out, traced her wrist with his finger, slow circles that sent shivers down her spine. Leaning back in the chair he drummed his hands on the table, then stood and walked back up on the stage. Started the set with "Fire and Rain". The song tugged at Phoebe. "It's time to go, Carla," she said, rising from the table, the song trailing behind them.
After that, Phoebe went to the casino whenever she had the chance, and Dean showed up more often at the Straight Arrow. Sometimes she lingered after the show, sat with Dean while he unwound from the evening. They talked about their lives, their dreams.
"What do you want to do with your music?" Phoebe asked one night.
He hunched over the table as though hiding from himself. Glancing at Phoebe, he pushed the glass away, wiped his hands on his jeans.
"I know I'm not good enough to make it big anywhere," he said, "but I like making music and I see it as a way out of here. Maybe do small time gigs around the country, then find a place I might settle down, find a decent job or even go to school."
Phoebe nodded. "Yeah, me too. I always dreamed of going back East, maybe Boston or someplace. See what those big universities look like."
He set his beer down, peered at her. "Why don't you, then?"
Phoebe shrugged, nervous. It wasn't her nature to dream big. She didn't dream at all. Thinking too hard about what you might want was a sure way to break your concentration and send your hopes spinning.
Several weeks later, Dean ambled into the Straight Arrow, jet-black hair in a pony tail low on his neck, wearing a flannel shirt so soft that Phoebe wanted to make a nest in it. He took a table at the back of the bar. Phoebe wandered over, set down a cloudy glass of water, stood before him, hands in her apron pocket. "What can I get you, Dean?" she smiled.
He nodded, looking up at her with such longing that her heart dropped into her feet.
"Meet me out back," he said, then rose and walked out.
Phoebe hesitated. "I'll be back," she shouted over to Jack, tossing her apron up on the bar. Jack nodded, twirled a towel in a glass, watched her leave.
Outside, the stars dotted the night sky, a last flicker of sunset over the hills. The back of the Straight Arrow reeked of old beer and piss. Dean was leaning against the wall, a cigarette cupped in his hand. Phoebe walked up, peered into his face. He stepped on the cigarette, leaned towards her.
"This is my best song," he said, reaching for her, drawing her in. He pulled her against him, nuzzled her neck, fingers laced around her waist. His lips tasted like hope when he kissed her. Shivering despite the Texas heat, she touched his cheek, his jaw, traced her heart against his chest and leaned into him. His hands traveled up her skirt, rough calluses against her thighs.
"No," she whispered.
"Why not? I thought you were free."
"Not like this. I want it to mean something. At least for one of us."
Dean nodded, dropped his hands, straightened her skirt. He cupped her chin in his palm, ran his thumb along her jaw. Brushed her blond hair back from her face.
"It means something to me, Phoebe. You know it does." He hesitated a moment, breathed out hard. Reached for another cigarette, his hands shaking. "I came to tell you I'm leaving tonight. Got a gig in El Paso at another casino. Pays better. More people. An opportunity."
"Oh. I see." Phoebe looked down at the ground littered with cigarette butts. Off in the distance, a dog barked.
"Come with me, Phoebe." Dean said. "Paul's no good for you. He's dangerous. You need to break away. I can't promise you much, but whatever it is, it has to be better than this." He looked around, shook his head. "I care about you. I hope you know that. We can go slow, take our time. No pressure. Whatever you want."
Phoebe was startled. She didn't expect this. She had feelings for him, but it was complicated. She hesitated. "I don't know what to say."
Phoebe gazed towards the hills, saw stars speckling a lonesome sky. This place had become familiar. She knew people in town, had a routine, even if living here wasn't what she wanted. Sweat trickled between her breasts. The back door to the bar slammed. They stepped apart.
"Give it some thought. I'll be at the Golden Wings Casino in El Paso." He slipped a piece of paper with his phone number on it in her palm, held her hand between his.
Dean kissed the top of her head, then walked away.
She felt a jab of panic. "Wait."
He stopped, turned around, a slice of moonlight tracing his cheek.
"I'll think about it." Phoebe felt her heart skip a beat. Then she smiled at Dean, put on a brave face. "This is a big chance for you, and you deserve it. I'm happy for you. Good luck."
Nodding, he walked back around the tavern. His car started up, drove away. Taking a deep breath, Phoebe walked into the Straight Arrow, tied the apron around her waist, touched the paper with his phone number stuffed deep in her pocket.
On the highway the next morning, Phoebe stopped and reached into the backpack for a bottle of water. She took a swig, swirled it around her battered mouth. A tooth came loose. She poked at it with her tongue, spit into the road with another bloody sip, poured the rest over her hands and rubbed her face.
The sun had been up for three hours now. Phoebe trudged along the shoulder. Several cars slowed down, but she scowled and they sped up.
She had no family. Her mother gone from cancer for many years, her father a face in a photograph. All she had of her dad were his light brown eyes. When Mom died, there was no reason to stay in the small town in Nevada where she was raised. Phoebe thought she'd try her luck in Vegas. Learned how to wait tables. The money was good, and if she ignored the lewd comments and sneaky fingers, she could afford a small apartment a few miles from the strip and take care of herself.
But loneliness crept into her life, a constant reminder that if she fell, there would be no soft landing. Paul came along on a vulnerable night. The anniversary of her mom's death.
He was charming. Talked to her right away, made her laugh. Asked her out every weekend, and like a barnacle she found that she was clinging to him, though she was cautious by nature. Loneliness got in the way of common sense. She second guessed herself right into his arms. She was nervous around Paul lately. He had a temper, and ran with all the wrong people. Last night was the first time he'd hit her, but he came close several times before.
It was a loser's life. They drifted out of Vegas and into Devil River. That's when Paul started dealing drugs instead of looking for a real job. They landed in that beat up shit hole of a trailer, the sun beating down all day, the night sky filled with stars that reminded Phoebe of sequins, so out of place with the smell of diesel from the gas station down the street. Every day, Paul slept until late afternoon. He woke up right about the time she left for the Straight Arrow.
Phoebe wanted a family. A real home. Somebody to love her. She wasn't getting any younger, yet Devil River trapped her in its red rock arms, holding fast while she suffocated. This wasn't what she wanted. But with little money and no family, it was worrisome to strike out on her own. Time and again she thought about leaving, but it seemed like the next day dawned, then the next, until the calendar on the wall was nothing more than a tease.
She thought about Paul. She cared for him once. They had fallen into a stagnant relationship in Devil River. There was no future with him after last night. Sadness crept in. When had she given up on them? Her chest felt tight. The world seemed so big, so lonesome.
Phoebe heard an engine growl behind her. Turning, she saw a big hauler bearing down, and on impulse stuck out her thumb. The truck slowed, then rattled off on to the shoulder. Phoebe trotted up to the driver's window.
A large woman sat behind the wheel, looking down. She had a round face, wiry grey hair, and wore big black sunglasses that reflected Phoebe's image back to her, a tiny version of herself.
"Where you headed?" asked the woman.
"I'm not going that far, but can give you a lift for a while."
Nodding, Phoebe walked around to the passenger side, climbed into the truck, tossed the backpack on the floor between her feet.
"My name's Mel," the woman said. "Short for Melvina."
With a grinding of gears and spitting of gravel, the truck rambled back on to the highway. Mel popped a look over at Phoebe and sighed.
"Were you married to him?"
"The asshole who knocked you around."
"Well, that shows some sense. Guy doesn't deserve you." Mel grunted, shifting gears.
Phoebe nodded and gazed out the window, watched the reservation blur by. Familiar homes and hills appeared different through a traveler's eye. Everything looked dusty and torn. Even the cattle in the distance seemed sad, their tails brushing at flies in a sorrowful cadence.
They drove through a Texas cloudburst, leaving dusty thumbprints from the sky on the windshield like tiny cat's paws. The inside of the windows fogged up, and Mel turned on the air conditioning. Phoebe drew into herself, shivering. She still wore the black skirt and white blouse from the bar, Paul's old jacket wrapped around her, sleeves dangling past her wrists. Flecks of blood dotted the shirt.
Mel talked about her home town. How she had a little dog, Biscuit, waiting for her at the end of the trip. She was once married, but the guy was a drunk and one day she decided that she would rather run up and down the interstate than spend even one more day with the likes of him. She talked about her sister, Ruth, and the restaurant Ruth and her husband owned back home. How they always looked for good help. Waitresses and such. She peered at Phoebe.
"You know, what that guy did to you shows a lack of respect and cruelty." Mel said. "And if you let shit like that happen, what does it say for your own self respect?"
Phoebe folded down into herself, head poking out like a turtle. She stared straight ahead through the windshield, knees up to her chest.
Mel shifted gears and pulled off the highway, stopped in an empty lot across from a Mc Donald's. Pulled a twenty out of her wallet and handed it to Phoebe.
"Would you mind running across here and getting us some lunch? Grab me a couple of cheeseburgers and a Coke. Get whatever you want."
Phoebe nodded and stepped out of the truck, wandered across in the desert heat. The aroma of burgers made her stomach rumble. Inside, she was blasted with cool air, heard the steady thrum of the machines, voices.
She walked into the restroom, ran a broken comb through her hair, rinsed her sore mouth out with water cupped from the sink. Dabbed at her face with a piece of toilet paper, and stared at her own sad image in the mirror.
Fetching the food, she ambled back across the road to Mel, climbed up into the cab. The two ate in companionable silence.
"Thank you, Mel," Phoebe said.
Mel stretched her legs out, burped. "You're welcome. My pleasure." She looked at Phoebe out of the corner of her eye. "So, what will you do now?"
Phoebe picked at some lint on her shirt, rubbed at a flake of blood. "I think I'm heading for El Paso."
"Yeah?" Mel asked. "What do you plan to do there?"
Silence as Phoebe squirmed in her seat. She shrugged.
"Oh," said Mel. "So it's like that, huh?" She reached over, took more French fries. "Look, it's none of my damned business, and I'm sorry I asked. It's just that I wish you well and I worry you're vulnerable right now, you know?"
Phoebe nodded, stared out the window at the hills in the distance.
Mel started the engine, pulled off the lot and back on to the road. She leaned over and turned on the radio, a country station with a tune about love and betrayal. They rode in silence.
Phoebe clutched the backpack between her feet and let herself fall asleep to the rocking of the truck out on the highway.
When she woke up, Mel was pulling off into a large truck stop.
"This is where I turn around and head home once I make my delivery tomorrow when they open." she said. "I know a lot of the truckers here. We come and go all the time on the same route, and I know the good guys and the not so good guys. We'll get out and stretch our legs. I'll ask around about a ride to El Paso. Let's meet at the truck in an hour."
Mel headed behind the huge diner where trucks parked overnight. Phoebe walked around, stretched her legs, played with the loose tooth. The smell of diesel was everywhere, engines rumbling like far off thunder. She walked into the mini-mart by the gas pumps, bought red vines, Cheetos and two cokes. Borrowed the bathroom key and wandered into the ladies room. Took a wet paper towel and ran it under her arms, around her neck, touched the bruise blooming on her chin.
She was back at the truck when Mel showed up a while later.
"Hey, I got you a ride," she said. "See that green eighteen-wheeler over there? The driver's Mark Berg. He's an older guy, about ready to retire from the road. I've known him for years. Good guy. Said he'll take you all the way into El Paso. Leaves in the morning. Head on over to his truck at first light. You're welcome to bunk here in my rig tonight."
Phoebe thanked her, touched her hand. "Mel, you've been so nice. I won't bother you tonight. I'll just hang out in the all-night diner rather than put you out. I appreciate everything you've done for me."
Mel nodded. "Just remember, nobody is ever alone, no matter how empty the highway is." She handed Phoebe a piece of paper with her phone number on it. "Call anytime."
She gave Mel a hug, walked over to the diner and found an empty booth.
The night was weary. People wandered in and out at all hours. Each time the door opened, a blast of heat followed them in. The diner was thick with the aroma of grease, coffee, cheap perfume. An old jukebox in the corner played country tunes. A song that Dean sang at the casino flowed through the restaurant.
Phoebe closed her eyes, pictured his black hair, the crook of a smile at the corner of his mouth, his soft shirt. She imagined them dancing in a dimly lit honky-tonk, his arms wrapped around her, leaning into each other like toppling buildings. Later, she might track the tattoo that started at his shoulder and wound around his arm down to his index finger with her lips. She wondered if he'd kiss her belly and dust her thighs with his long hair, murmuring words she hoped didn't catch in his throat.
The song ended. Phoebe blinked, peered around the diner at the travelers. They looked pale and tired under the florescent lights. Out on the highway, traffic was picking up. The sky was tinged a soft pink off to the east, morning coming on.
Four truckers sat at the counter, nursing their coffee, hunched over their plates. Phoebe sighed. She didn't even know what kind of cereal Dean liked.
She thought about her father. It had been Phoebe's dream to go to college, make something of herself. Show up at her dad's door if she ever found him, say she did okay after all. He could have been any of the men at the counter. She'd never recognize him.
In a booth in a corner, a couple argued, setting their coffee cups down hard, faces drawn and angry.
Phoebe touched the gold wedding band she wore around her neck, her mother's ring, the only thing she had left of any value after settling her mom's estate. She ran her finger through the band. It didn't fit.
The couple left the diner, climbed into an old Chevy, drove over to the gas pumps. The waitress picked up their plates, wiped the table, ready for someone else to take their place.
Phoebe gazed out the window, saw her reflection. The night echoed with heartache. She was tired of washing up on the rocks of someone else's dreams. Tired of feeling like she didn't belong anywhere, to anyone. Her ribs ached. Her mouth hurt. The cold remains in her coffee cup tasted bitter as she set it down and stood up.
She left the diner and walked over to the rigs parked in back. It was already hot, dust devils forming in the gray dawn prairie across the highway. Standing on tiptoe, she knocked on the cab, then stepped back.
Mel rolled down the window. "Hey there. Come to say goodbye this morning?"
Phoebe peered up at her. "If it's all the same to you, I'm thinking I may want to head east after all. Wondering if I can hitch a ride."
"Well, hell yes," Mel grinned. "I could use the company. Climb on in. Just have to drop my load, weigh in, then we can take off."
Phoebe breathed out hard, as though she'd been drowning and morning fetched her out of the water, pumped her dry, set her on solid ground. She walked around to her side of the truck.
It was late afternoon when Mel drove back through Devil River. It had only been two days, but the town looked different. In the distance, Phoebe saw the trailer, Paul's truck parked right where it was the other night. The Straight Arrow hadn't opened yet for business. In the light of day, it looked stark and dirty. A feral cat edged its way to the front door, haunches thin and meager. In the middle of town, an ancient pickup truck full of Native kids in the back made its way across the four way stop, going so slow that Mel cursed under her breath, nursed the brakes a little.
Craning her neck, Phoebe looked behind her, a silent goodbye to Devil River, watching it fade into a broken promise. She turned forward, looking out at the highway as it rose up on its way to her future, a river of hope leading somewhere that she hadn't yet imagined.