Sarah Olson ~ The End of Every Step

Sinking streaks of orange burned the tips of the hills and threw black shadows across the prairie as I veered my smoking Ford down the off ramp. There wasn’t a city in a hundred miles.

“I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it. I just can’t fuckin’ believe it. I can’t BELIEVE I got caught out this way.” I haven’t been caught outside on a night like this since that time.

The memory was still knife sharp: slipping on slick, cold leaves, my face crumpled in tears, a howl of stupefied misery erupting from my throat as I fled, naked in the grey dawn woods.

“No.” I said. “I’m not thinking about… It never happened.”

And here I am, the sunset seconds away.

“I am SO stupid stupid stupid.”

The wire fence edging the freeway drew close to the off ramp, and the grey wooden posts slowed down beside me. I steered for the gas station, even though the whole structure slumped like a tired old dog. It was the only option.

Maybe I can go to the bathroom and the clerk will forget I’m in there. I can hide all night, safe.

Revolting: spending the night in a stinking, rotting gas station bathroom.

But better in there than out here.

The dumpy white building grew in my wind shield. The concrete lot was cracked and sprouting weeds and the roof sagged. Sure as shit water would pool up there when it rained, and they desperately needed a paint job, but it looked like there was a service station to one side. The service station will be closed at this hour, but if I can spend the night hiding in the bathroom then tomorrow they’ll fix my car and…

“I guess the Tooth Fairy will pay for it,” I said to the smoke pouring out of the hood of my old car. I had just enough money to get to Texas, and not much else.

What am I gonna do? I rolled up to the gas station pump and turned off the car. The engine noise cut off and I listened to a whistling hiss. Oooh, it’s not smoke. It’s steam. Maybe I’m out of radiator fluid and it just overheated? Maybe I can refill the radiator and then be on my way. There’s GOT to be a motel soon. There’ll be something.

The wind pushed against the driver’s side door as I shoved it open and stepped out. The Great Plains rolled away from me in all directions, and the Dixie Chicks song Wide Open Spaces popped into my head. Appropriate.

Hurry. I leaned inside, popped the hood, and ran around the front of the car, my favorite cheer-me-up-heels clicking on the concrete. Steam hissed out at me as I lifted the hood. Yep. It was the radiator. I could get a towel out of the trunk so I don’t burn my fingers when I open the cap.

“But for what?” I stared at it. “I can’t do ANYTHING.” I couldn’t pour cold water in there. It’d crack the radiator. I’d have to let it cool off first.

Red fingers of sunset smeared the sky where the sun had been. Too late. Why hadn’t I stopped at that town an hour ago? Even if I could magically get it running again right now, it’d be full dark before I ever came across another motel. I couldn’t risk it.

It’ll have to be the bathroom. I looked over at the building.

Closed.

Horror shivered down my legs.

It’s over. Just one thing after another, and now it’s over. The last few months had been one door slamming in my face after another. I loved my job, and I was devastated when the company went bankrupt. I took a part time job cleaning bathrooms. I sent out hundreds of resumes. Hundreds. I fell further and further behind on the rent. I sold DVD’s and books. I sold furniture. I sold my computer and switched to using the apartment’s office to send out my resumes. I sold my cell phone. Then one day I got the notice: evicted. I stared at it. I sank down on the floor and lay it on the carpet in front of me. Evicted. Success is very busy, very loud, but failure: failure is quiet.

I packed up everything I had, and all the time, behind it all, I’d felt this pressure, this sense that the life I’d always known–no prize, but it was my own–was ending. And here it is at last.

There was one other hope, across the potholed street. It too had once been a gas station. There was a curb like a scar where the old pumps must have been. The pavilion in front was stained red by neon lights, and a fevered neon sign spelled out “Bar” in leaning letters. Light oozed out of the parking lot, seeped across the road, and bled into dying glow of the sunset. There was a sign next to the door. “Open.”

I grasped at my last straw. I flung down the hood, opened the driver’s side door and grabbed my purse. I didn’t even lock the door as I slapped it shut. Take it. It doesn’t matter anymore anyway. I left my old, steaming, rusting Ford Crown Victoria with the hole in the hood and three leaks parked in front of the pump and strode away.

“Don’t be so melodramatic, self,” I said. “It’s one night.”

I can buy a drink, and near closing I’ll hide in the bathroom. Tomorrow I’ll fill up my radiator with water and then I’m on my way again–on my way somewhere.

But my gut told me I was lying; something about tonight was different. The feeling was so strong I could almost hear it whispering to me. It brought me back to the moment when I’d seen the bankruptcy forms peeking out from under a stack of papers on my boss’s desk. And again, it was the same whisper I’d sensed when I sat with my eviction notice spread out on the carpet before me. I cocked my head like a dog to catch the sound of a familiar voice, but it was gone.

The thin, dry rotted door scudded across the plywood floor as I pressed it open. A slit of red spread into a triangle and then a rectangle of light on the floor of the dim room. Cigar and old cigarette smoke rolled out at me. Old hillbilly twang strummed on the radio. I took a step inside.

To my left was an old, waist high convenience store counter with magazine racks on the front sporting dog eared copies of Hustler and Barely Legal. Charming. A string of white Christmas lights cast a weak white glow on the woman with straw blonde hair who sat on the stool behind the counter reading a copy of Maxim. She was maybe 50. Her huge boobs pushed out against her ratty, brown tank top. She didn’t even look up at me. On the walls behind crouched dusty bottles of liquor on greying, sagging 1×4 pine shelves.

My gaze swept the room. The plywood floor was grimy with dust and cigarette burns. Small tables ringed with empty folding camp chairs were sprinkled around the room. Black upholstered booths that had seen better days lined the walls. A man and woman sat in a booth in a dark corner. Their eyes were locked on each other as I shoved the door closed behind me. The man took a long pull on a cigar that glowed and lit up his stubbed face before he and his date disappeared in the darkness. Neon Coors and Budweiser signs glowed like moons.

My eyes slid to a stop on a man a few years older than me. He was tall, with a build that spoke of years of hard work. He was tall and broad and sure and still. He stood by a pool table looking at me. A warning bell sounded in my head. Danger, danger. But at the same time the fantasy of his warm lips pushing into me was hot and quick, and then it was gone and I felt alone and scared in the middle of nowhere, all over again.

His dark hair was mushed down, and I bet somewhere around here a cowboy hat must be sitting on a chair or a table. He looked like he’d been working on the farm before he came in to shoot some pool and have a beer. I wanted to shove him against the wall and wrap my legs around him. At the same time I wished I could get the Hell out of here.

Suddenly I was bone-weary. I realized we’d been staring at each other for maybe 30 seconds, way too long to just stand there and stare. In for a penny in for a pound. Without a word or a smile I strode over to him, bold as brass. He took a step back and waved his hand toward the empty booth behind him. I slid into the seat beside his cowboy hat. The black table was marred with carvings. Next to the wall sat a tea-light candle with no container, just the candle, in a pool of melted wax from the candles that had come before. He leaned his pool cue against the booth and sat across from me. Without taking his eyes off me, he yelled out, “Addy, two Jack n’ Cokes, please.”

What the heck am I doing? It popped into my head, out of nowhere the way inspiration does sometimes, that I was outmatched, somehow. This man was way too knowing for me.

Brave it out. I stuck out my hand across the table and said “Tala.” I waited for him to repeat it back to me in a questioning tone, maybe cock his head to one side in confusion. I’d say, “Yes, Tala, T-A-L-A. Tala.” I’d said it so many times I almost started to say it now, without prompting.

But he only gave my hand a firm shake and said, “Rand.”

I fought the urge to say it back to him. Rand? Not Randy or Randall? But I didn’t say it. He’d heard me, I’d heard him. Move on.

Two short glasses thumped down on the table in front of us, and I glanced up at Big Boobs. Her eyes slid over me, and then sharpened, as though I startled her in some way.

“Addy, this is Tala,” said Rand, very slowly.

“Oh,” she said, coming out of a daze. “Tala. Yes. So nice t’meet you.”

“You, too,” I said.

Addy bobbed her head and headed back to her magazine.

Rand threw his head back and tipped his JD down his through in one swallow. He sighed, set his glass down, and said, “Well?”

I took a sip of my drink. Aaah. So cold. The Jack Daniels slid down my throat and started the relaxing-me process, and I sighed with the pleasure of it.

“Uhhhh, huh?” I said, sensibly. “What?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “Tell me about it. There’s always an ‘it’ to tell.”

I raised my eyebrows. I would not land in some bar and unload to some man. Nope.

“There’s no ‘it.’ Just a drink. Don’t mind me.”

“I don’t mind you,” he said. His eyes drilled into me, and I had no idea how much he was reading into me. I had the uncomfortable feeling again of being outmatched. I’m being silly, I told myself. But it didn’t feel that way.

The Coors sign on the wall behind me tinted his face blue. The light slid over his straight lips, bumped across his square chin, and left his neck in shadow. The top two buttons of his plaid work shirt were undone, and the white undershirt glowed like a beacon in the blue light. I imagined slipping tips of my fingers under the elastic and feeling the soft spot at the nape of his neck. Then I snapped my eyes back to his face, afraid of what he might read in my glance.

He didn’t say anything, but the corners of his slips slipped up a notch.

“What about you?” I blurted out. My words felt too loud in my ears. I tried for a normal tone and said, “Tell me about it.”

Still, he only smiled at me in that quiet way. I would not let his silence make me babble. I took another sip of my drink. I wasn’t in a hurry.

“Welp,” he said in a decisive way, “I spent most of my life here.” He grinned at me for the first time. His teeth were white and even. “Here in town, not here in the bar.”

“This is a town?”

He raised his eyebrows.

“So, you got done working on the farm for the day and came in to shoot some pool and have a beer?”

He flashed a smile, and his teeth shone in the blue light. I thought for a moment that they seemed just a shade too sharp. I must have imagined it, though. His smile changed his whole face, and I felt so much more relaxed. Or was that the Jack Daniels talking?

He flashed that smile again and said, “Are you laughing at me?”

Milk. It does a body good. “No, I’m not, really, I think it’s…” Sexy. Hot-as-Hell. “Cool.”

He paused. “My dad raises cows, and I still help out on his farm a bit. Plus, I grow hay and wheat.”

“So you’ve lived here all your life?”

“Nope,” he said. “Spent some time outside Chicago. I was an estimator for a General Contractor out there.”

“Oh!” I said, brightening. “I work for a GC!” I stopped. “Well, I did. I was just doing small remodel jobs, but I was hoping to work my way up. And, well. There are supposed to be more jobs in Texas right now, so…”

“I liked working in the building trade,” Rand said. “There’s something about. . . making stuff happen. Knowing at least something in the world is different because I was here.”

“Yeah,” I said. That had always been important to me: knowing that something will exist because of me. I was here.

“But, you know, there’s something satisfying about keeping things the same, too. It’s not like, out here, people are trying to buy up land to build condos or something. But, still. I keep the land productive. I keep the farm going. I’m leaving something for the future. I was here.”

His eyes slid around the bar and he smiled a faraway smile. “Most everyone who lives here has been here for generations,” he continued. “And before we were here, these same families immigrated here together. Addy,” he nodded at the bar tender who had put down her magazine and was busy wiping down the cracked white countertop, “I went to school with her son James. Bill and Susan,” he nodded at the couple in the back of the bar, “they buy my hay for their cows. Their son died. Hunting accident.” He fell silent.

I followed his gaze around the room. What must it be like to have the same families around you, generation after generation? Comforting? Claustrophobic? This must be a place where you could really trust your neighbors. Or a place where you could get a good strong hate going, year after year.

“So, Talaaaaa. . .” He dipped his chin and looked up at me.

I wasn’t going to tell this stranger my last name. It’s not even really my last name, anyway, I thought. I was surprised at how bitter the thought tasted. It wasn’t exactly breaking news. “I’m from Round Rock,” I said. “My parents were…” My throat tightened. I wasn’t expecting to go all emotional about such old news, but here in this place I felt the roots of family all around me. But it’s someone else’s family, I reminded myself. The thought ached, made me feel adrift. I wished I could belong somewhere like Rand did, like Big Boobs and Cigar Man. “I don’t know who they were.” It was right below the surface, a wound that wouldn’t heal: the longing for family, for a gentle, understanding Mother and Father. Would they have made my fucked up freakishness OK with touch or a word? Would they have said, “You’re like us?”

Slipping and smacking my check on the wet forest floor. Pain everywhere, swallowing me, inside me.

I am NOT thinking about that.

“They were killed in Round Rock. Run over on the sidewalk. But they didn’t have any ID. New in town, or passing through or something. No one knew who they were. I ended up in foster care.”

He had the most beautiful pale blue eyes.

“It doesn’t matter. It was a long time ago,” I finished. I could not remember my parents at all. I only knew my first name was Tala. Child Protective Services gave me the last name Doe. I hated it. It was a badge of not belonging, the last name they give to unidentified dead bodies.

Mrs. Robertson hadn’t been my first foster parent, but she was the first one I remembered. Then the Gormans, who had horses. Then it was Mrs. Snyder for two years. I’d been thirteen when she kicked me out.

Creeping into the window of my shared bedroom, naked except for leaves and dirt…

After the thing had happened, I was freaked out, and I was too weird for Mrs. Snyder, I guess, and she eventually got rid of me. I was smarter with the Espinosa’s. It took them longer to figure out I would rather have my toenails ripped out than be out in the full moon light. They were sure if I spoke with a counselor enough times, they’d figure out what was wrong. Then they threatened to force me. The next day I ran away.

It was a long and depressing story.

“So, something pulled you here, to New Bisclavret?”

“Bisclavret?”

“Yeah, the town.”

“Oh, pulled me here. That’s a weird way to put it, but I guess it’s accurate.” I thought of the whispers when I’d been changing my tire. “Well, I was driving south for the winter.”

“You migrate?”

“Yeah, well this guy I used to know in High School has a construction company down in South Texas and I thought maybe… But it’s a long drive. I was trying for Lubbock today and hopefully I’d get there tomorrow. And then my car overheated, and I saw the exit for this place and it just felt..” Right, I thought. “Do you believe in a sixth sense?” I asked.

“Wow, that’s a change in topic.”

“It’s just.” What the hell. What do I care if he thinks I’m crazy? I’ll never see him again, anyway. “When I lost my job, I had the strongest feeling, like someone was telling me, ‘this part is done.’ It was the strongest feeling, like… Like they were saying it’s time to move on to what’s real. Do you think that’s crazy? I’m probably crazy.”

“I don’t know, are you crazy?”

“I don’t know.” Cold leaves stuck to my face, dirt in my hands and feet.

Stop thinking about that! It never happened. “I think a lot of weird stuff has happened to me.” Ain’t that the truth.

“Dudn’t make you crazy,” he said. “You know what they say: whatever doesn’t kill you…”

“Leaves you scarred for life,” I finished.

“Not where I was going.” The candle light lit up his hands where they lay on the table. “I think you know,” he said, “and I know I know,” he smiled, “that there’s some weird shit out there.”

You’re not kidding, I thought. Someone opened the door and I shrank into my seat; but I was safe way back here. The night couldn’t get me.

“And maybe, there’s some weird shit here, too.”

A shiver ran up my spine. I didn’t like the intense, personal way he looked at me. His eyes slid down my face, down my neck, over my chest, as far down as he could see. I shifted uncomfortably.

The record player was between songs, and I realized how quiet the room was. I glanced at the bar and realized that Addy Big Boobs was gone. Cigar man and date were gone. We’re alone. The room seemed darker than ever before. Where was everyone? It felt like the night was creeping into the room, reaching out for me. My breathing was quick, I was almost panting for breath.

The next song came on. “Dance with me,” he said.

I didn’t answer. My nerves were screaming at me, something here was very wrong. I remembered that when I’d first laid eyes on him, my first thought was danger, danger, danger. And then I’d overruled myself. What was I thinking! Always trust your gut instinct.

“What, are you afraid someone will see?” His teeth clicked together, and his bared teeth look more like a sneer than a smile.

I felt trapped in the black booth, and suddenly I wanted out of it. I stood, but I took a step away from him. There’s no one here but us.

He took two steps forward and I flinched as his arms went around me. But that was all he did, just wrap his arms gently around me as the music strummed. In old, old style country twang, the woman on the radio sang, “the tears rolled down her rosy cheeks, the blood flowed down her back.”

We swayed back and forth in slow, shuffling circles. He wasn’t pressing against me, he was only gently hugging me, but I still felt like something was going to happen, and I racked my brain to be ready. What could I do? He was such a huge man, I bet I could only get in one or two good hits before he took me down. Where was that damned bar tender? Why didn’t she come back in? Where was everyone?

His voice was a low rumble. “The people here are like family. Some leave, but they always find their way back again, somehow. It’s a kind of magic. Like birds migrating thousands of miles across the world to a place they have never been, because they feel a pull, a voice inside, that takes them home.”

Home. The word had such magic for me. I’d felt rootless and alone my whole life, and never more alone than I felt right now.

“Your family aren’t necessarily your relatives. It’s the people that love you, that know who you are and accept you, and they’d know you even if you’d been gone half a lifetime.”

I was just realizing how close we were getting to the front door when it banged open and I jumped out of Rand’s arms and threw up my hands to shield myself.

But it was too late.

The light from the full moon glowed on my arms, stroked my hair, silvered my face. Every thought was driven from my head.

Suddenly I knew that had always known this night would come, had always known this night was waiting for me. Somewhere in front of every step I had ever taken, somewhere in the dim future, this night had always been waiting for me. The moonshine was silver against my skin, but it was no longer my skin.

I was changing. I could feel the churning in my stomach, like I was going to throw up, but I couldn’t. And it was spreading, spreading everywhere.

In the doorway stood a wolf with amber eyes.

Rand’s eyes had gone big and round and amber. His face was stretching, changing, barely human.

Just like mine.

“Welcome home, Tala Collins,” he said.

It was happening. It was true, and I wasn’t a freak. I was home.

 

Sarah Olson has spent 10 years in the sustainability industry in Austin, Texas. She is a longtime supporter of the Whole Planet Foundation and an avid river goer. She loves to sit in front of a campfire and wonder what else is out there… in the dark.

dm81

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