(A short story in the Uncertain, TX universe)
“I think they hunt people down there.”
My dinner companion paused, seemingly startled by her own statement. She laughed as she pushed away her glass of champagne, heavy rings and bracelets flashing as her hands nervously fussed with her fine, silver hair. “Whew, too many of these. What am I even saying?”
“You were telling me about that ranch out in the middle of nowhere,” I pressed. “The one where the—”
“I know what I said,” she hissed. Her face shifted into one of benign interest. I imagined she’d experienced many dinner parties and galas with one too many and had the social training to quickly pull things back to center.
“Pardon me.” She delicately tapped the corner of her mouth with the heavy linen napkin the waiter had laid in her lap upon arrival. “I’ve been told I get a little mean when I drink.”
She no longer made eye contact. Before, her eyes had been lit with the fire of knowing a good story with a more-than-willing audience. Now, she fussed with her designer bag hung tastefully on the table with a restaurant-provided hook, then snapped her fingers towards the hostess stand without looking at anything in particular, flitting here and there, like a bird trapped inside.
The waiter materialized at her elbow.
“Bring me the check, please. Thank you, Andre.”
“Oh, don’t leave yet,” I pressed. “You didn’t get to the part about the dining room chairs.”
A faraway look came over her. “Oh, the chairs.” She settled back in her seat, her Hermes scarf artfully draped to hide how her neck had aged. “They were divine, just divine. Each a solid piece of alligator belly, cream, you know. Then just at the edge, it would turn that dark green they get. Fourteen of them, can you believe it? The wife called them her trophies.”
I nudged the glass of champagne in front of her, still half-full. She took a healthy sip; we were on the end of our second bottle.
“Good way to get rid of incriminating evidence,” she murmured, signing the check with a flourish. “I can’t say anything else. If it ever got out… they’d know it was me.”
Andre had her chair, her bag, and the door opened faster than I could finish wiping my mouth to ask who were “they”. She cast me one last look over her shoulder, then slipped out of the restaurant into a waiting Mercedes.
2. Beau Loved His Bike
(a short story in the Uncertain, TX universe)
Beau loved his bike. It had red rubber handles and ten gears and wide black pedals that gripped the soles of his shoes. His mom had saved up from waitressing at Pine Lodge Bar-n-Grill to buy it for his fifth-grade year at school at Karnack Elementary in East Texas. Because of it, he was able to get a job throwing papers, the Marshall Messenger. Money was always tight in their house, and this gave him the chance to contribute.
Beau left his house every day at 4:10 a.m., his messenger bag filled with freshly rolled newspapers and his sneakers tied carefully in a double knot, and biked the two-lane country roads where most mailboxes were grouped together, loblolly pines and hackberry trees towering over them so closely the stars barely shone through.
Beau had a headlight that ran on two D-cell batteries on his bike that picked up the circular reflection decals on the mailboxes, some of the posts littered with old notices, a few fresh “Have You Seen Me?” signs loosely stapled to the wood.
At the end of each morning’s delivery, Beau carefully put his bike in the carport, front wheel facing out so he could race down the drive, ready for a new day. He always saved one paper for his mom, who liked to read the comics, laugh at the horoscopes and tsk over the obituaries with her morning coffee.
There were a few old timers who preferred Beau to put their papers on their front steps, but they tipped a quarter every week for the courtesy. He passed a few loggers most mornings, but they always announced their turning onto the main road with a gentle horn tap and a hand thrown out in greeting, the chicken lights on their rigs lighting up Beau’s grin as he worked his thin legs on the pedals.
It was quiet, dark, and he felt like a grownup out in the world before it woke, the forest close and comforting. He brought folks the news, and it felt important.
A white sedan sometimes passed him, pulling into a turnout to wait, engine idling and rumbling as the taillights picked up the dust. Beau glanced at the driver as he passed, a man with light brown hair and a scar across his cheek that curled silver under a thick mustache. He always watched Beau pass, but never waved, not like the loggers did. No answering grin to match a friendly wave that wasn’t offered.
The thing about living in a small town in the middle of nowhere was that everybody pretty much knew everybody else. Beau saw the same three loggers on rotation every morning. He sometimes had a shared word with Ms. Lavonda if she couldn’t sleep and had been up with a cup of coffee while waiting for her paper. He did everything he could not to make a ruckus at Dale Fortenberry’s house, because according to Beau’s mom, he worked nights at the mill and needed the sleep.
Beau didn’t know anything about the man with the white sedan. He’d never seen him, never heard anyone talk about a man with a scar like that, didn’t even see anything in the papers. After the third time the man watched him bike past in the small hours of the night, Beau started scanning the paper he left for his mother every morning after his ride. Nothing interesting aside from another girl who went missing.
“Have you seen me?” appeared in large print above the fold, next to a picture of a pretty girl from a few grades ahead of Beau’s class.
He never asked his mom about the man, either.
One morning just after Beau had set off at his usual 4:10 a.m., the white sedan pulled off the road and slowly circled around behind him as he rode. The headlights in the dark lit the world in front of Beau’s bike in odd shadows, lengthening the trees, telescoping the vista into a black hole that would swallow him up.
The car picked up speed and then suddenly, cut off its headlights, plunging the road and the woods around Beau into almost complete darkness. The battery-powered lamp hung between Beau’s handlebars, the light he’d been so proud of, didn’t seem enough in comparison. It created the smallest circle of visibility, weak and yellow. Anything could be lurking outside its narrowed, frail diameter.
Beau stood on the wide pedals, toes gripping his socks inside his shoes as he pedaled as hard as he’d ever done, the yellow guideline at the edge of the blacktop racing past his tires, urging him on. The hair his arms stood on end, and he biked even faster, breath starting to come in heavy pants. The car engine rumbled seemingly at his back wheel, a little nudge to remind him it was there.
A white road decal, bent at the top told him where he was. Just two-tenths of a mile, and he could turn into Lavonda Moore’s driveway. She always paid on time and tipped every week and called him “sugar” when she thanked him and she might be up, she might not have slept in, and she would be waiting for her paper with a smile and a kind word, if he just pedaled harder.
The white sedan sped up and around him, a squeal of engine as it leaped ahead on the road, then cut hard to the right and stopped. In a scree of gravel spray, Beau braked backwards, hard, barely keeping the bike upright, face turned away from the cloud of dust. The sedan’s door opened.
The woods were quiet all around, and not a creature startled or made a sound in the dark, in the stillness, the tall trees towering over them.
The next morning’s paper was delivered several hours late, the foreman at the paper having to drive an unfamiliar route at the last minute. He was too busy to notice the new picture of a young grade-school boy above the fold, just to the right of “Have you seen me?”