She was laying on the edge of the road with her head a good foot past the white line. At first, Tennessee thought that she must’ve been a large dog; a second later he saw that it was a human body, covered in something.
His reactions just barely saved her. He veered left and banked hard, but not hard enough to throw his car into a spin.
He stopped some hundred feet down the road and left the car idling on the shoulder. It was dusk, and if he hadn’t known it was a body he might’ve mistaken it for a pile of leaves, or a trash bag someone had dumped.
He thought about searching through his back seat for his flashlight, but didn’t. There was still just enough light to see by without one.
Walking down the road he noted how silent this stretch of country was. All that bordered this minor highway were some old brittle fence posts held together by rusted barbwire. The fence was so worn away that he wondered if this land was used for ranching anymore.
When he reached her body it took him a few seconds to tell which way around she was lying. She was curled up naked with a pile of some sort of hair or fabric covering most of her body and half of her face. Leaves and small pieces of bark adorned her hair.
At first, he thought that she must’ve been wearing an old fur coat, the sort that they used to make back in the ’70s which looked more like dog hair than anything else.
He reached down and brushed some of the twigs and leaves off of her face and saw that it was a young girl, no older than nineteen or twenty.
She was attractive, but she didn’t have a perfect face. Her nose was a little too long, her lips a little too mellow, her cheeks too supple. He noticed all of these minor imperfections in just one moment.
There was something around her neck, a black leather string and a piece of metal, engraved with what appeared to be a tree.
When she moved Tennessee jumped back a good foot. He hadn’t even thought to check if she was breathing.
He looked down as she turned herself onto her side and looked up.
“Hola,” she said, and he noticed that her hair was long and dark and straight as could be.
“You alright? Estas Buena?”
“Yeah, sure. Hey, can you give me a lift outta here?”
She said softly as she rose up onto her feet. Whatever had covered her turned out to be no more solid than dust. It fell softly apart into a cloud of fur, leaves and twigs as she got to her feet.
She looked at Tennessee and smiled. It didn’t seem to bother her that she was naked.
He looked away.
“I can get you some clothes — my car’s just right down here.”
He glanced back once to check that she had followed.
“Here’s some pants.” Tennessee handed her a pair of his worn out Wrangler jeans from out of his trunk.
“Oh groovy, boot cut. Didn’t know Wrangler was still in business.”
“Had these four maybe five years. They’ll fit you. Just have to roll the pant legs up a bit.”
Tennessee felt her take the jeans. He then pulled out a t-shirt, white cotton Fruit of the Loom, and held it out to her with his head diverted. He listened to her pull the jeans up, then he felt her take the shirt.
When he was sure she was clothed he looked at her. She stared back, but he couldn’t see her eyes. It had gotten too dark.
“Yeah, fine as can be.”
“What you doing lying on the side of the road? You know I near about took your head off.”
“Can you take me south, along this road?”
“You in trouble?”
“No, not really.”
“‘Not really,'” He repeated.
“So, can I get a ride with you or not?”
Tennessee thought on this for a second. “I’m going as far as Alamogordo tonight, you headed that’a way?”
“That way’s good enough for me.”
He smiled in the darkness. “Well, get in then.”
Tennessee wasted no time getting back on the road. He didn’t want some big eighteen wheeler to come barreling along and knock them into the middle of next week.
“I got a few cans of Pepsi in the back. Got ’em chilled if you want one.”
“No, I’m good.”
“Well, let me know if you change your mind.”
“Will do, partner.”
“By the way, name’s Tennessee.”
She gave the dashboard and the seat beside her a quick look-over.
“Hey, man, you got any tapes?”
“Cassette tapes. To play.”
“No, I sure don’t.”
“You don’t have any tapes?”
“My tape player’s broke. Plays everything at twice the normal speed.”
She opened the glove compartment, which Tennessee was sure was had been locked.
“Hey, close that up.” His voice was agitated.
Inside the glove compartment was a revolver.
“Is that a Colt Peacemaker?”
“You know something about guns?”
“Well, then you ought to know to close that glove compartment back on up.”
She looked at him, then put the gun away.
“So, what you called?”
“Moki, Ahawi, Hexaka.”
Tennessee glanced over at her.
“All those yours, huh?” He waited a few seconds for an answer. “Well, which one you want me to call you by?”
“Since there’s only two of us, we don’t really need designations, do we?”
“Were any of those your real name? Some of them sounded Indian.”
She propped her legs up on the dashboard in front of her.
“You know, I didn’t have to take you anywhere. Could’ve just left you back there. So your might try being a bit friendlier.”
“Well, what’s your real name?”
“Why you need to know?”
“Why don’t you want me to know?”
“No reason to.”
“Other than the fact that you and I are here in this car together, and if I’m gonna talk to you I’d like to know what to call you.”
“You could just say, ‘hey,’ and I’d know you were speaking to me. Names are superfluous in this situation.”
“Maybe, but names make people feel more familiar with one another.”
“Do they? What about when you’re at the bank and the bank clerk uses your name because it’s store policy. They do that to make you feel more like an individual, like the bank really knows you and cares about you, but I don’t like it.”
“Well, I’m not a bank clerk.” Tennessee replied, and he immediately felt like it wasn’t the wittiest thing he could have come back with.
“It used to be that you only told your name to a handful of people who were really close to you. Names used to be very important. They weren’t just designations.”
“Names’ still are important.”
“Do you feel like a Tennessee?”
“Never gave it any thought.”
She leaned back in her seat, and the two drove in silence for a few minutes.
“So, what’s the gun for?”
Tennessee glanced over at the girl. “What do you mean what’s the gun for? What do you think it’s for?”
“So, you believe in guns, huh?”
“I believe in covering my ass.”
“And it takes a gun to do it.”
She looked over at Tennessee and studied him for a moment. He felt a bit uncomfortable knowing that she was quietly looking at him.
“So, what do you do?”
“As little as possible,” he replied.
“What’s as little as possible?”
“More than I’d like to be doing.”
“Your job involve using a gun?”
“You always ask so many questions?”
“I figured we might as well get familiar with one another. We got time to kill.”
Tennessee tried not to smile, but he did.
“What do you do?” He shot her a glance.
“I do a lot of traveling. And eating. And sleeping.”
“I meant job-wise.”
“Don’t really got a job.”
“You just hitching across the country?”
“I hadn’t hitched until now.”
“What were you doing back there with no clothes on? Someone leave you like that? You on any drugs?”
“What’s on this radio?” She spoke more to herself than him as she tried to turn it on.
There was loud static and Tennessee quickly reached across and turned the volume down.
“You ain’t gonna find much out here,” he said.
“There’s got to be something.”
The first station she came across was playing salsa. The girl listened to it for a few seconds then continued to turn the knob.
The next station was a Christian station.
” … and you got to know that the Word is the same today as it was in Paul’s time, as it was in Abraham’s time, as it was in the beginning of time, and it’ll be the same tomorrow and the next day on until the end of time, it doesn’t change, mankind changes, our laws and societies and all that change, but the Word is constant … “
“You gonna keep listening to that?”
The girl looked over at Tennessee and changed the channel until it came back around to the Salsa music. She left it there and began to nod her head and tap her feet to the rhythm of the tuba.
“Think I may have liked the preaching better.”
She smiled and kept right on tapping her feet.
Ten minutes later Tennessee pulled off at a truck stop in Vaughn.
“You hungry?” he asked.
“I’ll buy you a meal.”
“So, you are hungry?”
Tennessee picked out a booth next to one of the front windows.
“Get as much as you’d like.” He watched her look over the menu. “Hell, get the t-bone special if you like.”
“I don’t eat t-bone.”
“Well, get what you like.”
Tennessee began to look over his menu and wonder what the soup of the day would be. The waitress came over and took a longer-than-usual look at the girl. Her name tag read “Nancy.”
“Well, what can I get for you two?”
“Howdy, Nancy.” The girl bounced up and down and smiled like Nancy was an old friend that she hadn’t seen in years.
Nancy didn’t know quite how to take the girl’s enthusiasm.
They both ordered and waited in silence for the food to come out. Tennessee thought about asking her again how she ended up on the side of that road but then thought against it.
In pretty much every booth there was a small jukebox; for a quarter you could play a song or for a dollar you could play five.
The girl flipped though the available music options and stopped at the Rolling Stones greatest hits album.
“Hey, can I have a quarter?” She smiled over at Tennessee, and he was once again struck by how attractive she looked, even in a men’s large white t-shirt that hid any vestige of her womanhood.
He handed her a quarter and she immediately popped it into the jukebox. Ten seconds later “Sympathy for the Devil” started to play.
“Here’s your coffee and your water. You take milk with yours?” The waitress placed his mug in front of him.
“I take milk, but I don’t take that stuff that comes in those little plastic packages.”
“That’s all we got, sir.”
“Then I’ll pass on the milk.”
The waitress left, but not before taking another disapproving look at the girl. She thought about saying something about her bare feet, but then decided not to.
The girl looked at Tennessee suddenly. “Does something about my appearance bother you?”
“What? No. Why would you ask that?”
“You never look at me, and when you do you only do so for a split second.”
“Yes, you do.”
“Well, you don’t want me staring at you do you?”
“I wouldn’t mind, if that’s what you wanted to do.”
“Yes, you would. You don’t want some man like me staring at you.”
“What if I stared at you?”
“Stare all you like. Don’t know why you’d want to, but it wouldn’t bother me none.”
The waitress arrived with the food and put down Tennessee’s and then the girl’s.
Tennessee immediately began to cut into his pork chop. He found his grits to be piping hot but his eggs were cold, so he mixed the two together.
“So, Tennessee, what kind of work you involved in?”
He looked up at her and slowly chewed his bite of egg and toast.
“Well, I’ll make you a deal. I’ll tell you what I do if you tell me what you were doing laying on the side of the road up there.”
The girl was silent for a few seconds. “I was sleeping.”
Tennessee stared at her as he cut off another piece of his pork chop.
“Yeah, now it’s your turn.”
“You think that’s supposed to be an answer? Sleeping?”
“That’s what I was doing.”
“OK, well, why were you sleeping on the road, and what happened to your clothes?”
“I didn’t have any.”
Tennessee took a swig of his coffee.
“Well, damn if that ain’t some sorry shit.” He took another swig. “And it don’t get no better either.”
The girl leaned forward and for the first time Tennessee’s baggy t-shirt revealed the outline of her breasts.
“Do you use that gun in your work?”
“You ain’t answered my question yet.”
“Yes I have. Both of them.”
“How’d you come to be there, a dozen miles from anywhere?”
“With no clothes on?”
She looked away.
Tennessee finished his meal and pushed it to one side. He then proceeded to chug his coffee.
“You hardly touched your plate.”
“I don’t normally eat food like this.”
“Food like what?”
She was silent.
“You don’t know when you gonna get a chance to eat again, so you should try to eat some of what you got in front of you.”
She looked out the window. Tennessee gazed at her and pondered his best course of action. He didn’t know if he could just drive her around, sit her down somewhere else and let her go off on her own.
“Look,” he said slowly. “I’m leaving this restaurant, and leaving you here, unless you tell me who you are and what you were doing out there all by yourself in the state you were in.”
“Leave me here?” She suddenly appeared frightened. “You’re gonna leave me?”
“I said if you don’t … “
“Why would you leave me here? Don’t leave me, not now. I need to make it further south.”
“You in trouble?”
“Are you gonna leave me here?”
She appeared smaller, paler, her hands seem to shake. She looked out the window again. A new moon was out. Everything was dark but the parking lot.
“If you need help then you need to tell me what trouble you’re in, and maybe I can figure something out.”
“We need to get out of here.”
“Well, just let me go pay.”
He went to the till and paid as he kept his eyes on the girl. He had seen people on all types of crazy drugs do all types of crazy things. He’d also seen people who were just plain crazy doing crazy things, and when this girl’s mood shifted he began to wonder was it a drug thing or was she just a little bit off balance mentally.
He looked at her sitting still in her seat and for a moment he felt a great sense of pity — that and a bit of love.
When they got back on the road they barely spoke. She turned on the radio again and found a station that didn’t play salsa or preachers. It played Jimi Hendrix.
“How far south you going?”
“Not sure. All the way maybe.”
“All the way? What, you mean Mexico?”
Tennessee smiled. He was glad to see some of the spunk return to her voice. Her getting scared back in the dinner had troubled something in him.
It didn’t seem to him like she was on drugs or had recently been on drugs, and she didn’t seem crazy either, so he thought there might just be someone after her.
“I can help you, you know?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“I mean, it don’t matter what type of trouble you’re in, the law, an old boyfriend, someone you owe money to, whatever, I can help.”
“Is that what you do, you help people?”
“Not as often as I’d like it to be.”
“See, you’re just as shit at answering questions as I am.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“So, what do you do when you’re not helping people?”
Tennessee glanced over at her and then back at the night road. Everything was still as could be.
“I help people recover things.”
“Such as their property.”
“I thought the police did that.”
Tennessee was quiet for a moment.
“I specialize in things the police don’t recover.”
“Were you in the army?”
Tennessee glanced over at the girl.
“What makes you think I was in the army?”
“You were, weren’t you?”
“Yeah, I was.”
“What do you think of war?”
“I think it don’t pay enough.”
“If it didn’t pay enough there wouldn’t be any war, would there?”
“I suppose you’re right about that. But it didn’t pay me enough.”
“You don’t have any problems with it other than the pay scale?”
Tennessee looked over at the girl then back at the road.
“Well, that and the fact that I didn’t really have any stake in the whole thing.”
“Other than your life.”
“Well, I was pretty sure I wasn’t gonna die or I wouldn’t have been there.”
“So, what about the current job? You got a stake in it?”
“Maybe you should find a different job.”
“What do you know about jobs? You ever worked one?”
“Yeah, I did.”
“What, while you were in college?”
“I never went to college.”
“So, what’d you do?”
“I was a guide.”
“A guide? Like a white water rafting guide?”
“A tour guide?”
The girl was quiet for a few seconds.
“I guided people. Helped them along. Got them to where they needed to be going.”
Tennessee thought this answer over.
“You mean you took people places, or you mean you helped them through tough times?”
“So, you were a social worker or something?”
“No, I was a guide.”
“Sounds like you were a social worker.”
“Social workers don’t help you to find your soul’s purpose. At most they stop you from abusing your children.”
“Your soul’s purpose, huh? Sounds like some of that new age stuff.”
“It’s not new.”
“So why’d you quit?”
“I didn’t really quit.”
“You said earlier that you didn’t have a job.”
“I didn’t quit. It just got to the point where I wasn’t much use anymore.”
“What you mean?”
“Times change. I didn’t keep up.”
Tennessee laughed at this. It wasn’t because what she said was funny. It was because it didn’t make much sense to him.
“Times ain’t changed that much, not in your lifetime. In my lifetime, yeah, but not so much as you’d think.”
The girl didn’t respond. She pushed her seat back, reclined it as far as it would go, and laid back in it.
The two were quiet for some time as the station they were listening to turned to static. The girl leaned forward and turned the knob around three or four times, but the radio couldn’t pick up anything. She turned it off and laid back in her seat.
They passed a sign which warned them of deer crossing, and a few minutes past this sign they came across one for the town of Oscuro, New Mexico, “Population 9.”
A mile past this tiny hamlet, they came across a car accident. Two cars appeared to have collided in the middle of the road. Tennessee slowed down as he approached the wreck.
“What’s happened here?” he whispered to himself.
The girl jerked awake and sat upright. She pulled her seatback forward.
“I think we got a head-on collision,” Tennessee said and glanced over at the girl.
She was staring out the window.
Tennessee stopped the car about forty feet from the accident. He took a few seconds to take it all in.
The first car was turned perpendicular to the road, and all he could make out of the second car was its front bumper and grill which were slightly crumbled. Steam was still rising up from underneath the hood.
“I don’t see nobody.”
“I don’t either.” She said.
Tennessee looked again for any movement or any bodies in the first car, but there was nothing moving and no one visible.
Something about the accident didn’t set right with Tennessee.
“I’ll go take a look.” He said as he reached over and took his Colt Peacemaker from the glove compartment.
He looked at the girl. “Don’t say nothing.”
“I wasn’t going to.”
“And stay in here.”
The girl nodded. She looked very worried, as worried as she had been at the dinner.
Tennessee left his lights on, and when he stepped out of his car he was amazed by the darkness. There was no moon, only starlight.
He waited for his eyes to adjust and placed his Colt loosely in his belt.
He could hear an owl call out and one of the car’s engine steam, but there were no other sounds.
There was no one visible in either car.
Tennessee stepped out from behind his car door and began to walk slowly towards the wreck. The whole thing looked odd to him. Something wasn’t right.
As he neared the accident he got a better view of the second vehicle and saw something he should’ve noticed before he stepped out of his car. Both of the automobiles that he was looking at were the same make and model. They were both black, late-’90s BMWs.
He glanced to his left and noticed that there was a steep ditch on either side of the road.
Tennessee stopped and raised his pistol. “You need to just back your ass up out of this one. You might be good as dead already, but you might get lucky.”
His instincts told him to run, and he always trusted his instincts.
He was half a second away from bolting when he noticed something pass in front of the headlights.
He turned and pointed his pistol into the blinding lights.
In front of his car where four figures, one of which he knew was the girl. She was being held by one of the other figures, the one in the middle.
“Hold your fire, Mr. McClain.” A voice called out. “We ain’t got no business with you.”
“Who’re you?” Tennessee asked as he held his hand up against the light.
“No one in particular. Now if you’d just place your gun on the ground and step back, then we can be on our way, and so can you.”
Tennessee couldn’t tell if they were pointing anything his way, but he figured they were.
He figured he could take out two of them before they shot him, but that’s the best he could do.
Even worse, he didn’t know how many more were out of sight, off to either side or right behind him.
“What you want with that girl?”
“We don’t want her, Mr. McClain, we’re just escorts.”
“Who are these men? You know ’em?” he called to the girl and tried to make out her face.
He could hear her try to respond, but her voice was muffled.
“Hey, let the girl talk.”
“You really ain’t in a position to make any demands, Mr. McClain.”
“Call me Tennessee would you?”
“I really do suggest that you lower your gun and place it on the ground.”
“And what if I don’t feel like it?”
“Then you know what will happen.”
“Yeah, but do you know what will happen?”
Tennessee heard a hammer cock.
“Last chance, lower your gun and place it on the ground.”
“Fine. Alright.” Tennessee made like he was about to give his gun up, and then he took a flying leap towards the ditch to his right.
There was a shotgun blast and he felt some of the shot pelt his rear and his left thigh.
As soon as he landed in the ditch he began running towards the light, trying to stay as low as he could.
There was another shot and Tennessee felt something sting his back.
He leapt forward and landed face up with his gun pointed out in front of him. One of the men was already coming over the edge of the ditch and Tennessee fired and hit him in the face. The man fell forward and landed at Tennessee’s feet.
A second man fired at him, and Tennessee fired back and hit him in the arm. The man retreated. Tennessee got up and backed further away from the glow of his car headlights.
He took a second to feel his hip and thigh. He pulled his hand back and it was wet with blood.
Tennessee kept moving until he was sure he was behind his car, and then he looked up and took a peek. He saw one figure, the one holding the girl.
Tennessee hunkered down.
He heard something fly over head and land beside him. The metal on rock sound was unmistakable.
He picked himself up and bolted out of the ditch. He ran for the back of his car as someone fired a shot. He stopped just short of his vehicle, got down on his stomach and looked under it.
Tennessee could see the shadows of someone’s feet. He fired, heard a man scream and then saw him hit the pavement.
Tennessee shot him two more times; the man stopped screaming.
He got up and stood with his gun aimed at the head of the last man.
“Not bad,” the man said.
“You got anyone left?”
“No, but I got a knife up against this girl’s jugular.”
“That wasn’t no damn grenade was it?”
“No, but it got you out of that ditch, didn’t it?”
“Back away from the girl.”
“You still don’t understand the situation you’re in, do you?”
“I understand enough.”
“If you did, then you’d lower your gun and run like hell back the way you came.”
“I’ve had about enough of your mouth. Let the girl go, or by God I’ll shoot you dead.”
Tennessee fired and hit the man in his face. The man fell backwards.
He took a look around, and rushed forward towards the girl.
“Get out of those headlights.” He said as he pulled her towards him. Just then he noticed the man he had just shot stand up as casual as anything.
Tennessee looked at the man and could see blood leaking out of a hole in his cheek. In the head lights the blood looked black.
“Must’ve just clipped him.” Tennessee thought as he raised his gun and shot the man in the chest. The man jerked slightly, but kept standing. He moved forward as quick as anything and knocked Tennessee’s gun out of his hand and grabbed his throat.
Tennessee tried to wrestle the man’s hand off his throat, but it was like trying to bend a piece of steel.
“I told you that you don’t understand the situation you’re in.”
The man lifted Tennessee off the ground and then dropped him.
Tennessee pulled the bowie knife out of his boot and came back at the man, who deflected his attack and threw him back to the ground.
In the next second the man was on top of Tennessee. He hissed and went for Tennessee’s throat with his teeth. Tennessee grabbed his face, tried to push it back, but it was no use.
Then the man stopped. The girl was on his back pulling at his hair and hitting at his head. The man growled and swiped at the girl.
Tennessee took this opportunity to stick his knife into the side of the man’s neck. The man stood up and howled. The girl was tossed to the ground.
Tennessee picked himself up and watched as the man pulled the knife out of his neck which immediately began to spew blood. The man pressed his other hand against the wound and stared at Tennessee.
He smiled and his teeth glowed like burning white florescent bulbs.
Tennessee looked down to see the first man’s shotgun lying by the edge of the road. It was only ten feet from where he was standing.
Tennessee ran over and picked the shotgun up. He turned around in time to see the man limping towards him. The man was still holding his neck with one hand and brandishing the knife with the other.
Tennessee cocked the shotgun and aimed it.
His first shot took off most of the man’s face. The man continued blindly forward. Tennessee walked closer and fired again. The second shot hit him in the neck. The man paused and then his head flopped to one side. It was held on by a bit of bone and muscle.
Tennessee walked up to him and kicked him over. He proceeded to unload two more shots into the man’s face and began to reload.
“I think he’s dead.” The girl said.
“He sure as shit oughta be.”
“How are you?”
Tennessee could feel his left leg stiffening up on him. He could also feel a sharp pain in his back, and his shirt felt wet and was matted to his skin.
“I’ve seen men on drugs get shot two or three times and not notice, and I’ve seen ’em appear to have superhuman strength, but I sure as hell ain’t ever seen anything like what I just witnessed.”
Tennessee slumped down against the hood of his car. He was getting light headed, and he realized that he must be loosing more blood than he thought.
“I got a first aid kit in the back,” Tennessee said as he got himself seated on the road next to his car. He leaned back against his wheel and took a look around. “If anyone else was hiding they’d a come out long before now.”
“Here,” the girl said and Tennessee looked over to see that the girl had the kit open. She was cutting his jeans open and using a bottle of water to wash the blood away.
“Check my back.”
“How’s it look?”
“Not much better than your leg.”
“See if you can get some of the bleeding stopped. We’re gonna have to backtrack up to Vaughn.”
The girl nodded.
“It’s funny,” she said.
“I was the one that was supposed to be helping you. Showing you the way. Getting you through danger.”
“What’re you talking about?”
“That’s my job. Course you never tried to find me. Didn’t know you were supposed to. Didn’t think you needed a guide. And maybe you were right.”
“I’m having a hard time paying attention to what you’re saying. Can you say it all later?”
“Yeah. How’s that. Is it too tight?”
“No, chaffing’s alright, bleeding to death ain’t.”
“Let’s get you into the car.”
“Open me up some of them pain killers first. Get me out four, no five of ’em.”
She put five of the pills into his hand and then helped lift him up and place him in the passenger seat. She reclined it for him and then got into the driver’s seat.
It took a little doing, but she got the car turned around and headed back for Vaughn.
“We might as well keep going for Santa Rosa,” Tennessee said. “Ain’t nothing in Vaughn.”
“Alright, well you just keep talking to me.”
“I said keep talking.”
“I’m thinking.” Tennessee was quiet for a moment. “So, why don’t you tell me who the hell those men were?”
“I don’t really know ’em. I just know who they work for.”
“And who do they work for?”
“Someone named Mr. Horrorshow.”
“But he works for Mr. Anxiety, and even Mr. Anxiety is just middle management.”
“Mr. Horrorshow and Mr. Anxiety? You got to be joking me, kid.”
“They have other names. But that’s what they go by these days.”
“You run drugs for them? Owe ’em money? Date one of ’em?”
“No, no and no.”
“Why they after you then?”
The girl was quiet.
“I think they think that I can be of service to them.”
Tennessee wanted to laugh. He felt a bit delirious and figured the pain killers must’ve been kicking in.
The girl grabbed one of his hands.
“When I squeeze, you squeeze back, OK?”
“Whatever you say, ma’am.”
Everything was quiet for a long while, but the girl pressed on his hand every minute or so and he pressed back.
“You know, I don’t think it’s really your fault,” he said.
“You were talking about not being able to do your job no more. Well, I think maybe it ain’t your fault.” Tennessee paused. “I mean, nowadays I think most people, especially young people, are so far from the path they were meant to be on, that I don’t know if it’s even possible for anyone to offer ’em any guidance or get ’em back on track.”
The girl squeezed his hand hard and he squeezed back.
They arrived in Santa Rosa an hour later, and the girl didn’t seem to have any trouble finding the hospital. She parked outside the emergency room.
“Don’t tell ’em anything about what happened,” Tennessee instructed; she nodded and went inside.
A few seconds later some orderlies came out with a stretcher and placed Tennessee on it.
“Where’d the girl go?”
“The one who drove me here and told you I was outside bleeding to death.”
“If she ain’t still in the waiting room then I don’t know, sir.”
“You didn’t see some thin Indian looking girl when you came out?”
“She your wife?”
“No, she wasn’t any relation, but she should be here.”
“We can page her after we get you to surgery.”
The doctor on duty this night asked Tennessee some questions about how he managed to get so much gunshot in him.
“Freak hunting accident.”
“Hunting accident, at night?”
“Yep. Makes me think of an old joke. Well, it’s more of a comment a friend of mine made once. He said he didn’t know if hunting was meant to keep the deer population in check or the redneck population. Going by me you might think the latter.”
The doctor forced a smile.
“I’ll be back in a minute.”
The doctor got the head nurse on duty to call the sheriff’s office, and the state highway patrol, to find out if there were any reported shootings or robberies in the area this evening.
One of the sheriff’s deputies called back five minutes later and said that all was quiet in northwestern New Mexico.
The doctor took an hour removing buck shot and debris from Tennessee’s wounds and stitching them back up.
“You know, Mr. uh,” The Doctor glanced down at Tennessee’s ID. “Mr. McClain? I don’t think this was a hunting accident,”
“Well, you think what you want,” Tennessee replied as he pulled his blood encrusted jeans back on. He didn’t bother with his shirt.
He was surprised that he wasn’t already surrounded by policemen. The bodies should have been discovered by now, and no doubt the sheriff would be calling hospitals around the state looking for any survivors.
“We think you should stay over night for observation.”
“If you think I’m gonna stay overnight here then you got another thing coming.”
“Who shot you?”
“If I told you that then you’d take their hunting license away and I don’t want that.”
The doctor sighed and shook his head.
He gave Tennessee some instructions on how to care for the wounds, things Tennessee already knew, and then handed him a prescription for pain killers that he already had.
“Well, thanks for everything, doc.”
Tennessee went to the lobby hoping to see the girl, but she wasn’t there and no one remembered seeing a girl of that description.
Tennessee exited the hospital walked to his car opened the trunk and got out another shirt. He drove to the nearest all-night service station that had a pay phone.
He stood at the phone for a few minutes thinking things over in his head, then popped in a quarter and dialed a number that he had memorized.
“Hey, where the fuck are you, man? You were supposed to be here five hours ago.”
“Yeah, I ran into some trouble.”
“Some trouble. What? Someone follow you?”
“Well, I guess you could say that I ran into someone else’s trouble.”
“Got some lead shot into my back side.”
“They got a lot worse.”
“Anyone trailing you?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“You able to drive?”
“How far away are you?”
“Well, come on as soon as you can. You can hole up here, and we’ll push this thing off a few weeks until you get healed some.”
“Naw, I don’t think I’ll be taking part in this one.”
“You hurt that bad, huh? Well, we got another job coming up.”
“I don’t want that one neither.”
“How long you plan on taking off?”
“A long while.” Tennessee paused. “In fact, I’d say I’m taking just about the rest of my life off.”
“The rest of your life? What are you taking about, man?”
“I’m talking about doing something else.”
There was silence.
“What’s caused this change of mind?”
“I guess I just realized that I ain’t got no stake in this business.”
“No stake? Well, what do you have a stake in?”
“Don’t know for sure. It’s what I aim to find out.”
“Well, you call me when you change your mind.”
“I don’t plan on changing my mind.”
“Well, call me later on, and we’ll talk more then.”
“Goodbye, Tom. Sorry to let you down.”
Tennessee hung up the phone and walked back to his car.
He looked south along the highway in front of the service station.
He got in his car and sat there behind the driver’s wheel, and for the first time in a long time he didn’t know where he was headed.
That night he had a dream about her.
She was running through a field of wild grains, and she looked happy and free. She was sleek and elegant. The sky was bright and sunny, but over behind her there were dark clouds gathering on the horizon.
She kept on running, and found her way into an old, run-down trailer park. It was full of people who looked like they were wearing animal masks.
They had seen the storm cloud and they were all afraid.
He ran after the girl, and followed her into a junk yard full of broken down cars. Inside the cars Tennessee could see dark threatening shapes.
He tried to reach for his gun, to protect her, but he couldn’t find it.
He heard a shot and knew for sure that someone had shot the girl.
He turned to find her, and the dream ended.
Steve Moore currently lives in Carrboro, NC with his wife and daughter. He holds degrees in mathematics and physics, but has spent the last four years working as a researcher in the areas of parapsychology and cognitive science. He spends most of his free time writing short works of speculative fiction and prose. He also manages to knock out the occasional abstract painting or folk song.