Autumnal Equinox 2003
ICKIE WAS FIVE WHEN the swing knocked him down. The rusty steel seat lacerated his cheek, creating a river of blood and screams. His mother ran outside to find him pressing the left side of his face to his skull, trying desperately to make it stick.
Wyatt knew these things, but still Dickie wanted to recite them, to tell his story one more time. Not just that story, but all his stories-- the stories that painted his short life. Tell them for one last time. Wyatt sighed, then quickly hoped Dickie had been unable to hear it over his own litany.
"They sewed everything back together. I suppose they did an excellent job. I suppose I should be thankful. But... how can I be?"
Wyatt shifted his gaze out over the dark desert horizon sweeping by outside the driver's side window. He knew what came next.
"I mean, look at me, Wyatt. Look at me."
Wyatt knew that the only way to get over this particularly difficult part of the journey was to let Dickie speak his piece. Better now, better when his mind was still relaxed, focused on the job at hand. He shifted his gaze to Dickie.
"What do you see, Wyatt?"
He glanced quickly toward the road ahead, then back to Dickie. "I see a four-inch scar that crosses your brow, bending at your left eyebrow."
Dickie turned his gaze forward.
"What do you see, Dickie?"
Dickie leaned against the passenger door, pressed his cheek against the glass, and remained silent for a few moments. Finally, he glanced at Wyatt. "I could stay here forever. The middle of the Texas wasteland in the middle of the night-- nothing stirring, nothing about. All is well in nowhere."
Wyatt switched on the radio and began punching buttons. There was only dead air at the first four frequencies he tried. The fifth was paydirt. Wyatt quickly raised the radio's volume, one ear on Dickie's monotone.
As Dickie talked again about the time the rabbit bit him, about the time he slept with Eileen Rogers, about the time he broke his finger, Wyatt listened mostly to the Bob Dylan song that his new favorite station was playing-- that, and the thrum of tires on pavement. Their destination was still some six hundred miles away.
AS WYATT MOTORED HIS father's '65 Mustang past a sign warning them that the exit for Killwater was dead ahead, Wyatt slowed the car. "You know what I need?" He looked at Dickie.
Dickie returned the look, his face barely visible in the yellow light cast by the instrument panel.
"I need a beer. Maybe three. You up for it?"
Dickie nodded. "Sure, what the fuck."
As the exit ramp loomed, Wyatt further slowed the proud Ford and swung carefully onto the downhill grade. He had to be careful not to drink too much-- his father adored this car, the first brand new car he'd ever owned, and if Wyatt put so much as a scratch on it, he was in some deep shit.
Killwater turned out to be not much more than a gas stop for travelers with more important destinations, but Wyatt managed to find a dingy bar called The Watering Hole. He parked the Mustang at the foot of a short flight of stairs that led to the bar's main entrance. There were no other cars in sight. Wyatt felt comfortable that no one would ding the doors on his father's precious machine while he wondered if someone forgot to turn off the "Open" lamp shining brightly in a small window.
Dickie had climbed from the car and shut the door. "Damn, these fuckers better be open."
The wooden entrance door swung back with a squeaky protest and a short fat shadow stepped onto the porch and leaned on the railing, pissing over the edge.
"This place open?" Wyatt was smiling when he said it, fully aware that the man on the porch had no idea that there was company present.
The shadow staggered back, likely busy with storing things as cleanly as possible. "Sorry, didn't know there was anyone out here. Bathroom's clogged up-- Arnie ain't got it unplugged just yet."
Dickie took a few steps toward the stoop. "So, they serving in there?"
The short man stepped down the three stairs to ground level. "Sure we are. Sorry, I'm the owner. Eddie Wharton." He offered a hand.
Wyatt regarded it for a moment. "Yeah. We just want some beers."
Eddie smiled a wide-toothed grin that gleamed in the moonlight. "Sure, follow me." He turned and led them into the bar.
Wyatt stopped inside the doorway and took a look around. "We started to think that this town didn't have a bar."
"You find a town in Texas that ain't got a bar, you ain't in no town. What can I get ya?"
Eddie now stood behind the bar, sweat winding slowly across his pudgy face.
"Two Lone Stars."
Eddie reached into a cooler and produced two brown bottles. Popping them open, he set them on chipboard coasters that bore faded Falstaff logos. "That'll be a dollar."
Wyatt ponied up a bill and grabbed his beer, taking a long swallow.
Dickie ran a finger along the side of his bottle, gathering condensation. He wiped the finger across his brow. "How much farther, you figure?"
"Oh, probably four or five hours. You gonna make it that long?"
"Should. I'm feeling okay. Sides, I've never seen the ocean. I figure everybody should see it at least once."
Wyatt grinned. "I'll drink to that."And he did.
Bartender Eddie, polishing glasses behind the bar, spoke. "The gulf is about five hours, if that's where you're headed. I go fishing down there once a year. Little town called Freeport, just south of Galveston."
"Yeah, that's about where we're headed. I figure we'll know for sure once we get there. My friend here, Dickie, he wants to see it before he dies."
Dickie gave Wyatt an unreadable look.
Eddie put down the glass he'd been working on and leaned on the bar. "Sorry to hear that. Mind if I ask what's got you?"
Dickie took a cool swallow of his own beer. "The doctors don't really have a clear idea of just what the fuck it is. They say it's something like cancer, but they've never seen it before. They say it's mainly attacking my central nervous system, and my spinal cord." He pulled on his beer again, kept pulling till there was nothing left to pull, then set the empty bottle on the bar. "Hear them tell it, I could go at any time."
Eddie looked at him somberly, then grabbed the empty off the bar. "Another? It's on me."
"Sure. Appreciate it."
Eddie tossed the empty and grabbed a fresh one from the cooler. He flipped the top off and set it before Dickie.
Dickie noticed his stare. "I got hit by a swing when I was a little kid."
"It's no big deal, really. The thing swung down and tried to scalp me, but it missed-- only a few inches, yeah, but I've still got everything I had going in." Dickie looked down at the bar's plexiglass surface, at the small bits of printed memorabilia gathered beneath. There were Polaroids of bartenders and customers, huddled in some tight corner of the bar. There were trading cards representing baseball and football. There were stained napkins bearing empty words scrawled in fading ink, inevitably signed by some low-budget film star. His eyes locked on a table napkin bearing what appeared to be some sort of chemical formula. He reached to touch the plastic lingering above the napkin. "What's this?"
Eddie shifted to peer at the spot indicated. "I dunno." He settled back into his prior relaxed stance, leaning on the bar disinterestedly, rag in hand. "Some guy came in here one night. Said he was some kinda scientist, that he'd just discovered some great thing." Eddie glanced quickly at the momento under the bar's surface. "It was supposed to be some sort of cure for cancer, or something like that. 'Something that could bring the dying back from the edge of death,' I think that's what he said. Anyway, that's what he drew as he talked about it. Reckon that's the formula or something."
Dickie glanced at Wyatt, who only shrugged. "When did this happen?"
Eddie looked at Wyatt's beer. "Oh, I dunno. Maybe two years ago, maybe just last year. You learn not to take those things seriously. Way I figure it, God is gonna get us all, whether we like it or not, so why worry about how, or when, or why. It's what some folks call a given."
Dickie considered this for a moment, then reached for his jacket pocket. He was suddenly enveloped in a wave of nauseating pain and hitched over, his face nearly smeared across the surface of the bar. Just as Wyatt rose and began to speak, Dickie retreated from the fit and caught his breath. "It's cool, man." He touched Wyatt's outstretched hand, caressed it briefly. "I'm good. But thanks."
Dickie straightened himself on the stool, smoothed his clothes, reclaimed some small amount of dignity. He grabbed his beer and took a harmful swig. He sat for a moment, his eyes locked on some fever dream, and then he settled his gaze on Eddie before letting out a gigantic belch. The act seemed to renew him, to purify him in some small measure, for he regained some amount of composure.
He reached again to his pocket, and this time the hand's journey was completed. From the pocket, he withdrew a fist, closed tightly on some almost tiny object. His fist hovered over the bar for but a moment before he twisted his wrist and slowly spread his fingers, producing the result of this particular and singular act of magic and lies.
In his palm lay a small and shiny skull, likely that of a mouse or a baby squirrel. Wyatt had seen it many times, and he watched, now disinterested, as Dickie set it carefully upon the plexiglass that comprised the bar's surface. Dickie smiled wide, then looked at the bartender expectantly.
When Eddie remained silent, maybe horrified, Dickie's face found a grin. "It's a skull." Dickie poked a finger at it, made it perform a crude pirouhette, then picked it up to examine it once again. "This is what we're reduced to. Just a set of bones..." He picked the skull up, brandishing it between two delicate fingertips. "Sometimes, not even that. Sometimes there's only one little bit left. Ironic, isn't it? The skull survives the longest." He hurled the tiny bone mass against the wall, where it shattered into infinitesimal fragments.
"The goddamn memories. They can't stand to lose."
Eddie looked at the wall where the skull had struck, perhaps wondering after the mess Dickie had just created, then he gave Dickie an odd look. "Where did you get that?"
Dickie grunted. "Oh, I collect 'em. Been fascinated with skulls ever since I caught a glimpse of my own." He pointed at the scar on his forehead. "The swing." He took a long draught of beer. "Even got a human skull. Wyatt and I found it on some government land out near Las Cruces."
Eddie, leaning on the bar, seemed unimpressed. Dickie played his trump card. "You know the best way to clean a skull? Hell, any bone, for that matter."
Eddie looked at him, one eyebrow arched in curiosity.
"Set it on an anthill and leave it for a few days. You come back, that thing will be picked clean."
Eddie frowned. "That's disgusting."
"Nah, Eddie, disgusting is dying at twenty-three."
The bartender nodded solemnly.
Dickie perked up suddenly, trying to break the somber mood. "Hey, Wyatt, you need another beer?" Wyatt nodded, and Dickie ordered another round. "And no more of the freebie shit, Eddie. Ain't gonna need money where I'm going."
BACK ON THE HIGHWAY, Wyatt glanced over at Dickie to confirm that he was still sleeping soundly, still alive. Wyatt had stopped at three beers, but had encouraged Dickie through another six-pack. It had the intended effect of putting him right to sleep once they resumed their trip.
As he chased the night in his father's car, Wyatt thought about the conversation back at the bar, the napkin under the plexiglass. Eddie had told them that the scientist had departed for Las Cruces after spending a few hours nursing beers and admiring a few of the local women. By Wyatt's reckoning, the scientist would have visited the Las Cruces compound only a few months before he and Dickie went treasure hunting on the grounds late one drunken night. Dickie had gone off on a bent, really, suddenly determined that all government research facilities must assuredly have human skulls lying about. He'd finally managed to convince Wyatt after plying him with tequila, and off they went, flying haphazardly down deserted pavement and unpaved desert. By some weird chance, Dickie had somehow been exactly right. They were no more than fifty feet inside the compound's rusty chain link fence when Wyatt tripped over something protruding from the sand and scrub. Dickie bent to examine it, then pulled it from the ground, laughing wildly. Wyatt remembered thinking that the cranium seemed to glow dully in the darkness, that it still seemed somehow alive, and then he had rolled over and vomited a tidy sum of liquor onto the parched New Mexico wilderness.
As Wyatt tried to put these things together in his head, to discern a truth that he knew was hidden in those memories, he heard Dickie gurgle in his sleep. Wyatt glanced at him, and watched as Dickie expelled a massive amount of air, then lay still.
"Dickie?" Wyatt glanced to the road ahead, saw nothing that needed his immediate attention. "Dickie? Hey, Dickie." He grabbed Dickie's shoulder and shook it, perceiving a disturbing looseness, a weird relaxation, before Dickie pitched headfirst into the cramped floorboard.
"Oh, shit, oh shit." Wyatt pulled the Mustang onto the shoulder and took the car out of gear. He threw open the driver's-side door and observed Dickie in the weak, yellow overhead light. It was apparent that he was dead, but Wyatt checked his pulse just to be sure. "Fuck me."
Tears began to wind down his cheeks as Wyatt stepped out of the car and screamed at the sky, at the night, at all and nothing. "Fuck me!"
Grief compelled him into the desert, and the night, quiet, forgiving, embraced him, bade him to lie down in that gentle darkness, shushed him to sleep.
THE SUN TICKLED THE horizon, and the resulting laughter, the cries of those birds first awakened, calling kin to the hunt for prey, served to startle Wyatt, to bring him awake. He cleared his throat and wiped spittle from his mouth using his sleeve. Rubbing his eyes, he tried to regain a sense of place in that early morning nowhere.
He sat up and curled his knees against his chest, crossing his arms over them, and stared out into the blue-gray dawn.
For a moment, all he felt was a gentle but insistent pressure on the back of his neck, then his shoulder muscle was ripped out and he fell aside in a sort of defensive posture. As the wound in his shoulder began to scream in anger inside his head, Wyatt looked up to his attacker and found Dickie, looking very ripe and also nasty.
Wyatt began to scrabble back across the small dune, no easy feat in sand that had not met with rain in too long. Dickie, clearly dead and none the wiser for it, seemed confused by this turn of events, and wagged his head from side to side as he emitted a warbling sound that was far too animalistic for Wyatt's liking.
Wyatt quickly found his feet, shoulder screaming at him in ever-growing degrees, and he ran in the direction that he thought himself most likely to find the car-- his father's car. The father that would likely punch him if there was a scratch anywhere on the vehicle, the father that would torment him for weeks if the floorboards were at all muddied, the father that might simply kill him just for the hell of it. Wyatt ran faster.
As he topped a dune and spied the car, he gave a glance over his shoulder, searching for signs of Dickie. He spotted him ambling along some forty yards behind, apparently unable to shamble any faster. Wyatt ran down to the car and threw himself behind the wheel. The driver's side door had been open for an interminable amount of time, and he prayed that the dome light hadn't killed the battery. The engine roared immediately to life, and Wyatt rested his head on the steering wheel for just a moment. "Thank God. Oh, thank God."
With some minor difficulty and some major pain, Wyatt managed to grab the armrest of the door, to pull it closed. He looked out the passenger side window and saw Dickie wrestling with his newly gone balance in a barely controlled tumble down the dune. Reaching across his body with his left hand, his good arm, Wyatt threw the Mustang into gear and sped away, content to leave whatever had become of Dickie to the desert, and the coyotes.
Oh, yes, coyotes. C'mon coyotes.
After a few miles were between Wyatt and the thing that used to be his best friend, the thing that had nearly removed his arm, the adrenaline rush fell away. He began to feel the true pain of the damage to his shoulder, and he pulled to the side of the road to consider the situation.
He flipped on the dome light and tried his best to assess his injuries by craning his neck, but his body screamed in protest at the effort. Quickly, he grabbed the rearview mirror with his left hand and adjusted the angle to properly reflect the wound. "Oh, fuck, oh fuck."
His shirt was drenched with blood, and the massive wound revealed to him parts he'd wished to never see-- seeing those sorts of things always meant that you were fucked. He had no idea how close the nearest hospital was, and he was certain that he didn't even know which direction he might best drive in.
He was quickly losing consciousness, though he battled to keep a clear head. As he looked again at his ruined shoulder, at the massive amounts of blood produced by the wound, he knew that his father was going to skin him alive when he got a look at the mess.
The thought was his last.
Outside a small Texas town called Killwater, amidst a large field of corn coming to harvest, a bloodbath was about to occur. The story would go largely unreported, for the victims were migrants, mostly illegal, and the survivors were loathe to discuss it, fearful for their situations. A dead man found a crop among the corn, and he feasted. And so began the end.
© 2003 Gary W. Conner, all rights reserved
Autumnal Equinox 2003 Issue, Updated September 21, 2003
BLOOD ROSE is Copyright © M. W. Worthen.
"The Honesty of Scars"