• 2015 Luminaire Award for Best Prose •

Winners & Finalists 2015

Winners & Finalists for 2015 Luminaire Award for Best Prose

First Place: “Chindi” by Eric Shonkwiler
Second Place: “A Hindershot of Calion” by Schuler Benson
Third Place: “Inheritance” by Stephanie Liden
Fourth Place: “An American Seeker” by Kevin Catalano
Fifth Place: “The Poor Man’s Guide to an Affordable, Painless Suicide” by Schuler Benson
Sixth Place: “The Photographer” by Andrei Guruianu
Seventh Place: “Any Similarities between the Characters in this Purely Fictional Story and Actual Individuals Are Purely Coincidental” by Phill Arensberg
Eighth Place: “Ole Hazel” by Schuler Benson
Ninth Place: “It Won’t Always Be Like This” by Seth Clabough
Tenth Place: “Tatau” by Jennifer Leeper
Eleventh Place: “Mama Was a Breeder, and I Was Born a Son of a Bitch” by Schuler Benson
Twelfth Place: “Frequencies Between” by Eric Shonkwiler

2015 Luminaire Award Prose Judges

Gabriel Barrio graduated New Mexico State University in literature in 2015. He has been published in Tlaa Literary Journal and has worked for NMSU’s student-run newspaper, The Roundup, as well as been a contributing writer to NMSU’s alternative press publication, The Groundup. He is a member of the university poetry collective, Soul Verse, and he organizes a monthly poetry event in Las Cruces that supports regional literary arts in the Southwestern United States. Gabriel writes for EDM Nations, Macro Records Music Label, Fightweek, The Truant, and Desert Heat, and is an avid reader and a connoisseur of all things literary.


Lori Hettler founded The Next Best Book Club (TNBBC) in 2007. An advocate for the small press and self publishing communities, she has been featured in both The LA Times and The NY Times. Portions of her reviews have been quoted for a number of books (most notably in the press release for Graywolf Press’ I Curse the River of Time, Red Hen Press’ Spring 2013 catalog for David Maine’s An Age of Madness, and in Heather Fowler’s Elegantly Naked in my Sexy Mental Illness). Formerly the Marketing Director for Chicago Center of Literature and Photography (CCLaP), Lori now takes on freelance work under TNBBC Publicity. When she’s not curled up on the couch with a good book, you can find her on Twitter, TNBBC’s Blog, Goodreads, and Facebook talking about it.


Steph Post is the author of the novels Lightwood and A Tree Born Crooked. She is a recipient of the Patricia Cornwell Scholarship for Creative Writing from Davidson College and the Vereen Bell Writing Award. Her fiction has appeared in the anthology Stephen King’s Contemporary Classics and many other literary outlets. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and was a finalist for The Big Moose Prize. She lives in St. Petersburg, Florida.


Denis Sheehan lives in Boston, Massachusetts, and has been the editor/publisher of Askew Reviews zine for about 15 years … and counting. His writing has appeared in Chiron Review, Gonzo Parenting, Gloom Cupboard, Astoria, Jersey Beat, In Between Altered States, AVN Magazine, and others, aside from his mother’s fridge. He is the author of A Nobody’s Nothings, The Longsberry Letters, and Track Wreckard 1-14, with more books on the way. Find him at boneprint.com.


Melanie Wozniak is Co-Creator of and a blogger for the animated analysis blog, Animated Meta, and serves as a literary intern for Louise Fury of The Bent Agency.

2015 First Place Winner: “Chindi” by Eric Shonkwiler

Chindi

Labor Day weekend, I was following a line of seven cars coming from Tuba City, all hugging fenders, climbing a hill. It’s dark out here, so I don’t blame them—probably darker than they’ve ever seen. On the reservation roads, you can be right next to a town and never see it because of a mesa in between. And the starlight just doesn’t add up. The earth stays black. That’s how it is all across the Nation, but everything seemed darker in my home district now that I was back. Three months running familiar roads, arresting guys I grew up with. Watching them get consumed by the place. Not that that’s unique to Dineh. Our homes eat most of us, eventually.

I’d been following the cars for a couple miles when one of them wagged across the paint. I waited to see if he’d do it again. The van in front of me slowed, so I passed, got up closer. The drunk wa-vered again. He was only doing about forty miles an hour. I turned on the overheads and hit the spotlight, and the driver waved. I keyed the mike and was about to give dispatch the plate, when I recognized the line of tattoos running along the man’s forearm. He slowed and eased the car onto the dirt shoulder, and I pulled in behind him. I waited on the cars to pass by, the brakelights winking out car by car over the hill. I checked the rearview mirror and killed the overheads. Dust settled in the light between the bumpers. I stepped out of the cruiser and walked up to the other car, arm resting on my gunbelt.

The driver rolled his window down and swung in the seat to face me. Hey, brother. He grinned.

Were you just screwing with me, or are you really drunk?

Little of both.

Where’d you get the car?

He gestured, hand palm-up. Borrowing it from a friend of mine.

Uh huh. I sighed and stepped back. Go on.

You don’t wanna search my trunk or anything?

There a reason to, Frank?

The smile on his face faded, and it seemed to go somewhat bitter. Give us something to talk about. He turned back and put the car in gear.

The tires kicked up dirt, leaving me in the light with the skeins of dust rising and pulling back toward the cruiser.

For the last couple hours of my shift, I sat at 59 and 160 watching the sky over the rocks go milky pink. The sun came up and filled my eyes with the fields of red dust and the cliffs. For about ten minutes, everything was gold and red and long panes of shadow so that the world through the windshield looked more like stained glass than something real. Turning the cruiser around, I got the feeling of my father, the thought of him and the day he died. It stayed with me going to the office and when I got in my pickup. I thought about him frequently, and more lately.

It was seven years ago. I was watering the horses we kept for riding tours, waiting on him to turn up in the truck I drive now. The air had the same feel to it, cool but getting warmer. It was turning fall then, instead of mid-spring, and the sky had that same shot-through-with-light look. When he never showed, I took a horse out of town. Frank worked at the Anasazi Motel at the time, a rundown place tarted up in blue paint like it would pass for turquoise. It was on the way out, and he was there watering a juniper by the road. He waved me over, asked me what I was doing. I told him, and he hauled himself up on the horse. The trailer was a few hundred yards from the road. The slope of the land hid it. Riding down, we saw it emerge, tires on the roof first and then all of it, the trailer surrounded by sheets of tin like armor, one tree twisted above scrub brush—You wouldn’t call it a yard. Frank got down and went to the door while I tied up the horse. When he opened the door, everybody says Dad’s spirit got in him, and that’s why he’s the way he is today. When things settled, after the funeral, he started bootlegging. I left.

I made a habit of going to the Blue Coffee Pot nearly every morning after my shift since starting on with the tribal police. It helps to wind down someplace where you can talk and where things are clean and open. The windows are big there. Walking in, I picked up a paper and sat at a booth. Outside, an older tourist couple ambled to the door. Sophie came around and slapped her notepad in front of me.

Your usual, Officer Holmes?

It wouldn’t be otherwise, now would it?

She cocked her head. Something up your ass? She winced when the overhead bell rang at the door.

No, I said. Long night.

Well, it’s over now.

I watched her go to the tourists. It was just her working. I flipped through the local news and folded up the paper to look out the window. Across the street, a couple dogs roved around the doors of the grocery, moved on down the abandoned strip. Sophie came out with my eggs. She went around the counter and sat across from me.

So, what’s the matter?

Pulled your old boyfriend over last night.

Driving?

I nodded. I cut through half of an egg and folded it onto itself with my fork. He was acting drunk. I don’t know if he was or not.

When did he get a car?

Didn’t. Said he borrowed it.

She frowned and turned away, looking at the tourists.

I ate most of my eggs and polished off the plate with a piece of bread. If he’s still running liquor, I need to know. I don’t mind turning my head to drinking every now and then, but that’s the line.

She said nothing.

We know there’s booze at the Squaw Dances. You’re out to ’em all the time. We’ve run stings on every liquor store in the area, but it’s still coming in.

Well. She looked me in the eye and her face got hot. Either you keep doing it the hard way, or you put Frankie in jail. She stood and bent close. You don’t know what he’s done for the land since you’ve been gone. She walked off to the tourists, and I heard her ask if they needed anything.

I finished my breakfast and put a five down on the counter. Heading home, I passed all the trailers and houses, the shacks and concrete buildings of town. The hotels were bigger than anything else, and newer, and even they were old. Behind them, the red rocks; under us, the red dust.

I bought our house. The parents’ place. I figured if I was coming back I may as well go back all the way. Lock myself in. A couple years ago, I’d gone to the academy and did well, got a job in Flagstaff. When my uncle called and said the house had gone up for sale, I felt like I imagine Frank did when Dad got in him. And I just knew I’d come back here.

They’d met at an Enemy Way. Mom, half-white and from the coast, out here to get in touch with everything. Dad was one of the few to make it back from Vietnam. The ceremony was to cleanse him and the couple other vets of the evil they’d seen, of the ghosts of the enemy. It wasn’t long before they realized it didn’t work.

I was pulling my gunbelt off before I got in the door, and I tossed it on the couch. Even though I’d blown my savings buying the house to keep myself there, I’d started looking for ways out just before I got the transfer. Résumés and applications all over the kitchen counter, the answering machine unblinking. On my way to the shower, I passed the parents’ old bedroom, now an office I never used. When I’d cleaned off the night, I went to bed and tried to sleep. Staring at the ceiling or covering my eyes with my arm, listening to myself breathe. Soon I’d have to open the trunk on Frank. Arrest him, and be done with it. Liquor wasn’t the only problem on the reservation.

There were no reports on Frank’s car in the logs. I’d only half-expected one. It was Thursday night, and there would be nothing to do but bust people for speeding or stop a domestic. Tomorrow, there would be a dance, and Frank would deliver a carload of alcohol and then probably ditch the car. Or drive off with it some-where.

It was a shame I was better with horses; otherwise, he’d have had my job and I’d have his, and maybe the whole thing would be different. But I talked to horses pretty good like Dad used to, so Frank just did whatever work he could, sometimes helping Mom, sometimes just picking up bottles from the highway. Once we were out of the house, it was me that saw Dad all the time, saw him go through his moods like he was in sync with the moon or the seasons—that’s how regular they were. They got worse, always, but they were predictable worse. Frank wanted to get a medicine man for him, and back then, I wasn’t much for the spiritual stuff. I’m still not. Mom never really got it as anything medicinal. It was just culture to her. The last few years they were together, she wanted to get off the reservation, go back to the coast. A year before he died, he went off on one of his episodes, and Mom left before he came back.

Finally, there was about a week where he was mute. He’d been getting thin for some time, and one day, I found him slumped against a horse’s neck, about to slide off. The doctor said there were tumors all through his throat. We fought with the VA for a while about getting him treated, but he didn’t want to have to go so far away, and eventually, he just gave up. The doctors had only given him a few months to live, but I guess neither Frank or me could imagine Dad dying. Otherwise, I think he would have known not to go in the door.

I broke up a domestic just after 1:00. One too many nights coming home drunk, and the guy’s wife went after him. Neither was hurt, but there was a bunch of shit broke in the house. I let it go. The rest of the night coasted and about 4:00, I hit the wall and had to stop in for coffee at the 7-11. Wendell was the night clerk. We went to school together until he dropped out our junior year. He’d been a decent basketball player years ago, but he’d had a bout with drugs like most of the class did, and that was that. When I came in, Wendell looked up from a clipboard and lifted his pen at me. I got my cup of coffee and a pack of orange cupcakes and put them on the counter.

I saw your brother not too long ago.

Yeah?

He was lookin’ pretty bad. Wendell came around and went behind the counter.

Bad how?

Just bad. Depressed.

Drunk? When was it you saw him?

Wendell picked up the cupcakes and scanned them. There’s worse things. I know it’s your job and all. He spun the price readout for me to see.

I pulled out my wallet and handed him the money. I’ll see you around.

Hey, he said as my hand met the door. He’s in trouble.

What is this—Everybody knows my brother better than me all of a sudden? Sophie just said this morning he’s ‘doing shit for the rez.’

Just watch out for him.

You don’t want to tell me? I dropped my hand. Would this have anything to do with the dance tonight?

He said nothing, and I left the store. The town was lit in pieces by a few streetlights and the signs of hotels, the main intersection. I stood there for a spell like Frank would come by, like he didn’t keep away from me, and like I didn’t turn my head whenever he was around.

I thought about skipping breakfast after my shift. I drove slow from the office to think, and turned in to The Pot. Inside, Sophie glanced out and went into the kitchen. I was alone with the paper until she brought out my breakfast.

You in better spirits today?

I guess.

Don’t sound it.

Yeah, well. I pulled the plate closer and took a bite. I looked out the window at the clouds coming in, then back at Sophie. What would you do if you were me?

About what?

About Frank. About this whole business.

I wouldn’t want to be you for that one, Charlie. She breathed deep and sighed. I don’t know what to tell you. If I was you, I’d be just as clueless. But being me? Sophie stopped, cocked her head slightly to look at the ceiling. What law was here first?

Oh, hell. Don’t get started.

You asked me, so shut up.

I don’t wanna hear about this Red Power bull.

She stepped back a pace behind the counter and appraised me. I never figured you for someone who’d hate themself. I guess I was wrong.

I stared down at my plate. I ate. A shiver went through me. She stood there for a bit, then went off. I finished eating and sat there, staring out.

Wendell says Frank’s in trouble. You know anything about that?

She called, No. But I’ll say this, Charlie. It doesn’t matter what you think about what he does. He’s your brother, and he’s all you’ve got left.

My jaw ground slowly. I slipped off the stool and put some money down. The bell rang for the door as I walked out, and I got in the pickup and drove. Frank lived at the eastern edge of town, where the houses thinned out. I went out that way and slowed at his dwelling, a single-story, busted-concrete place. It wasn’t even a house, just a building. I pulled into the drive, the truck skidding in the dirt. The car wasn’t there, and pulling ahead a little further, I saw it wasn’t in the back, either. He wouldn’t answer if he were home, but I got out anyway and knocked at the door. After a minute, I tried the door and it opened.

Hey, Frank? I stepped inside.

The place smelled like bodies, metal, and a cloud of drugged urine. The floor was bare concrete down a hall, and in a couple rooms, the carpet had been peeled back and the padding left behind. There was no furniture. A couple bedrolls, a pillow, a cooler that was open and full of water. A closet door stood ajar in one of the rooms, and when I got near it, the hair on my neck stood up and I knew I wouldn’t like what I saw. I left, got in the truck, and drove home. Waiting for me was a letter saying to report to Quantico.

At 11:30, my alarm went off. I dressed and went in the kitchen to brew a pot of coffee, buckling my gunbelt. The light over the room flickered before it shone across the countertop and drawers and on into the dining room where the whiskey and letter sat. I pulled the coffeemaker from against the wall and opened one of the cabinets to find no coffee. I shut the light off and went out to the truck, drove to the 7-11. Checking my watch again on the way in the door, I nodded to Wendell, then filled up a cup of coffee and capped it and brought it to the counter.

What’s goin’ on? I said.

Oh, not much, Wendell replied, and rang me up. He looked out the postered windows to the night.

Comin’ on or gettin’ off?

Gettin’ off early tonight.

I handed him a dollar. For anything special?

He raised an eyebrow and handed me a nickel. Mhm. If only you weren’t working.

I put the nickel in the take-a-penny jar. If only. I raised the cup and left.

If I was quick enough, I could get in my cruiser and be back in time to see where he went. I drove to the station, checked in, and drove back into town. The 7-11 parking lot had a couple cars in it now, and I went on past, watching to see if Wendell was inside. I stopped the cruiser a little ways down the road and looked in my mirrors, saw someone tall come outside and get in a car. It pulled out of the lot, and I turned around, following as far back as I could. I just needed to know which way to head. I’d see the fire.

He drove south, and I followed him for about twenty minutes, keeping back so I could just see the taillights. In the distance, a glow was rising up from the horizon, faint, banking off the cliffs. I let him go and waited, checked the time. It was early yet. I could find a sideroad to wait on or could head back toward town, maybe write a few tickets. Instead, I just pulled off the side of the highway and turned the lights off, waited. I wished I smoked. There was a little wind, and you could hear it whistle around the car, catch on the lightbar. I started to feel sick all at once, waiting on Frank to come so I could do I didn’t even know what. Before I left, before Dad died, I’d be going to this dance. Pockets full of change to buy the girls away. Frank and Soph would be there. We’d dance and listen to the pot drums. Eat dinner with the family the day after.

A car sped by, and the brakelights went up as soon as they got ahead of me. I let them go, put the description away in my head: gold Sebring. When it was long past, I turned the lights back on and U-turned in the road, headed toward town.

I pulled over a vanful of tourists heading for a hotel in town. They were going to Monument Valley in the morning. I told them to go to the Anasazi and let them off with a warning. Enough time had passed, and I headed south. The sick feeling rose in my throat and tightened there as the glow of the fire got close, and then I was on it and the rocks opened so I could see everyone: the cars back off the road, the cut fence, the fire, the people around, Sophie and several others. There was a clutch of three men I didn’t know on the near side of the fire, and it happened so fast. The taillights of the Sebring were on the right, and as I stopped the cruiser, I saw one of them held a pistol. I put the spotlight on them and jumped out, pulling my gun. I couldn’t even see who held the pistol, if I knew him, if they were Dineh.

Drop it! I crossed the cruiser, gun up.

Frank was standing by the stolen car, in front of the Sebring. There was a bottle on the ground before the fire, and one broken and gleaming. The man holding the gun was white, had a scar cutting through his short-cropped hair. For a second, everything moved like syrup and then the moment was over, and the man fired at me and he and the others on his side tore for their car. I shot back twice. I keyed the mike on my shoulder and called in the scene to dispatch as the car sped off around the fire, sending everyone running and diving. I was headed toward them when I saw Frank slam his car door just as the Sebring sheared off the mirror, and there was a flash from the window when it passed. Is everyone all right? I held my hand out to the people coming to their feet and holstered my gun.

Frank’s car started up, and I turned to look and to see which way the Sebring went. Nobody said anything, and I ran toward Frank, rapping on the body of the car as he brought it around and sped off. There was a bullethole in the driver-side window. I stood there for a few seconds, watching the dust ghost on toward the road, and then ran for my cruiser.

He had a good headstart. Dispatch was hounding me for an update, and I didn’t know what to tell them, so I only said I was after the Sebring and the three in it. The road was straight and sloped down for a time, and I could see his headlights far ahead. Soon it would run behind a cliff, and it would take me more than a minute to catch sight again. Dispatch called and cut out, crackled. Nothing. It was just the cruiser and the wind, the lights flashing around and calling up nothing but dirt at the roadside as I drove by. The road began to turn, and I rounded the rock face and saw Frank’s taillights a half-mile ahead, lit hard, and the Sebring spun around, half off the road. As I came on them, the car reversed, turned, and lit out south, out of my district. I pulled in behind Frank and he lifted his arm to wave. I got out of the cruiser and walked to his door. The glass was shot full of cracks. He rolled the window down partway and the glass fell in on him.

Hey, brother. He was bleeding from the neck. Was I speeding?

I leaned down. What the hell are you doing?

Pushing my luck, I guess. He looked around himself and shrugged. He moved to get out of the car and I backed up, held the door open as he stood and tottered against it. He put his hand to his neck and looked at the blood. No getting out of this one, is there?

I don’t know.

Frank touched his neck again, head craned slightly, smiling. I rammed their car, he said. Ended up wrecking mine, not theirs. Well, he laughed, I stole this’n from them. So it all worked out.

I’ve got a kit in the cruiser. I took Frank’s arm and started to lead him.

It ain’t that deep. I’m okay.

I stopped, stared at him. Look. I’m not going to arrest you.

He smiled. The lights from the cruiser flashed in his eyes. Whole mess of beer in the car.

I know.

Frank walked to the back of the car and sat on the trunk, resting his feet on the bumper. With the spotlight still on, he was lit like day, and the blood that had run down his neck and arm was bright red.

I’ll have backup soon.

He studied the black field to the side of the road. What’re you gonna do with me?

I never called you in.

He looked down, his blood dripping into the dust. It’s tiring, walking with his ghost, y’know? I did the best I could with it. As good as I could.

I wanted to cross the air between us, grab his shoulder. I didn’t. I’m sorry it was you.

I’m glad it was. He looked up and smiled, half-smirked. You got away for a bit, at least.

I came back.

Why?

I looked down the road. I thought I heard sirens. To walk with you, I guess.

Funny way of walking.

Yeah. Well. Your line ain’t exactly straight. I thumbed to the road behind me. They’re coming. What do you want to do?

That’s not up to me.

I grimaced and turned away again. You got a gun?

Yeah.

Get it.

I leaned into the cruiser and cut the lights, switching the interiors on. He took a nine-millimeter from the car’s console and handed it over. He watched as I propped myself over the side of his trunk, squinting for a moment. Two rounds through the windshield, and the dashcam burst. I gave the gun back to him.

Start movin’.

He took the gun, looking at our hands. Lines of dark, dry blood over the ink of his tattoos. We measured each other, and then he started walking north, moving into the ditch and hopping the fencewire as I watched. As he faded into the dark among the juniper and sage, I could see the first cruiser coming around the rocks.




Eric Shonkwiler has had writing appear in Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, Fiddleblack, [PANK] Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, and elsewhere. He was born and raised in Ohio, received his MFA from University of California Riverside as a Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellow, was selected as a New River Gorge Winter Writer-in-Residence in West Virginia, and has lived and worked in every contiguous U.S. time zone. His debut novel, Above All Men (MG Press, 2014), won the Coil Book Award for Best Book in the Independent Press, was chosen as a Midwest Connections Pick by the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association, and was included as a Best Book of the Year selection on multiple lists, including The Next Best Book Club’s and Chicago Book Review’s. His second novel, 8th Street Power & Light, was released by MG Press in October 2016. He is the winner of the Luminaire Award for Best Prose, was a finalist in the Best Small Fictions Prize and Pen 2 Paper Fiction Prize, and has formerly served as Regional Editor for LARB, a reader for [PANK], and Editor-in-Chief and Fiction Editor for Crate Magazine. Find him at ericshonkwiler.com and at @eshonkwiler on Twitter.

2015 Second Place Winner: “A Hindershot of Calion” by Schuler Benson

A Hindershot of Calion

April pollen draped the landscape like a chalky yellow gown, and the stuff was nickel-thick on the windshield of Dennis Shackleford’s Oldsmobile. The car crept a slow roll over the last twenty or so feet of gravel leading up to the makeshift police barricade of two cars and a sawhorse in front of Crabapple Bait & Tackle. Sheriff Heidenreich sauntered around the hood of his tired Monterey, approaching the Oldsmobile and shaking his head. Denny thought the sheriff walked like a movie cowboy taught him how.

“Hello, Karl,” Denny said, as he climbed out of his car and extended his hand. He ducked a wasp that buzzed by to rejoin one of the huge nests settled in the trees around Crabapple, hanging fat like upturned gourds of pine straw and parcel paper. The woods around Calion had a reputation for being choked with red wasps in spring and summer. They were out in full force.

“Denny,” Heidenreich said. “Sorry to drag you out like this, but it’s the damnedest thing I’ve had to deal with in a while, and, with it bein’ the weekend, I wasn’t sure who else I might give a holler.”

“It’s fine, friend,” Denny said, still shaking hands. “How’re May and Margot?”

“Good. They’re good,” Heidenreich said. “Jane?”

“Jane’s fine; the girls are fine. Karl, what can I do for you?”

“Yeah, ’course, just a …” Heidenreich patted down the pockets of his uniform, tapped the butt of his pistol, and then jutted both hands into his back pockets. “Winslow!”

“Uhyessir!” piped a red-faced, chubby deputy, as he trotted to Denny and Heidenreich from behind another patrol car.

“You got that note from earlier?” Heidenreich asked.

“Yessir.” Winslow produced a sweaty, wrinkled piece of paper from his breast pocket. He handed it to Heidenreich, who handed it to Denny.

“Karl,” Denny started, thumbing the corner of the folded note with his left hand, “I’m gonna do whatever I can for you here, but before I read this, I’d like to hear from you what, uh … what we’ve got goin’ on here.”

“Arrite,” Heidenreich said, lighting an unfiltered cigarette, prompting Denny to do the same. “You know ole Hank Hindershot from out ’round Calion?”

“I may.” Denny crossed his arms and clenched and unclenched his jaw, a process that’d helped him think since flying choppers in Korea. “Heard of the family, of course.”

“Well—and I tell ya, Denny, this is just the damnedest thing — but Hank Hindershot is in that bait shop, and he’s got some kind of damn bomb he’s rigged up, and he says if the bank foreclosure on his timber stretch south of the river ain’t reversed, he’s gonna blow the damn thing up.”

Denny pulled hard on his cigarette and looked the sheriff up and down. “Karl, are you feedin’ me a line?”

Heidenreich chuckled. “That’s the same thing I said when I got here. Winslow? What’d I say when I got here?”

“Sir?”

“What’d I say to ya when I got here?! Tell Mr. Shackleford!”

“Sir, he asked me if I was feedin’ him a line,” Winslow said to Denny.

“See?” Heidenreich said.

Denny replied, “Uh huh,” then shook his head and spun the yellow note, still unopened in his hand. “Karl, why am I here?”

“Hell, I told you — I don’t even know what direction to take this in! All ’emm Hindershot fellas got somethin’ wrong with ’em, so I don’t wanna take it too serious. But, on the other hand, if he’s got a damn real bomb in there, we have us a problem!”

“If he blows up a bait shop?”

“Denny, he ain’t alone in there. He says he got him some hostages.”

“Who? How many?”

“Two. One’s Kenny Foley, owns the place. The other’s, uh …” Heidenreich looked at his feet. “He says the other’s Byrd Barton.”

“Bullshit.” Denny slid the note into his pocket and removed a small Swiss Army penknife.

“Yeah,” Heidenreich said. “He says he’s got the mayor.”

*****


Denny thought for a time, turning scenarios over in his head. Clench. Unclench. As he watched wasps dance along a nest hanging from one of the smaller pines across the road’s drainage ditch, he clicked the file blade from his penknife and slid it along the underside of his fingernail whites. “Alright, Karl,” he said, “who else’ve you called?”

“Just you.”

“Okay. Well, who do you have that deals with explosives?”

“We have a, uh, a technician from the academy over in Camden. Not green like Winslow, but, still, he’s just a trainee. He’s waitin’ for us to holler on the radio if we think we need ’im.”

“You very well may. Go ahead and have him come on down.”

Heidenreich nodded to Winslow, who ran in awkward strides to the radio in his cruiser.

Denny asked, “Have you called the FBI?”

“The FBI?”

“The FBI.”

“Denny … it’s Sunday.”

“It is.”

“Well, Denny, you can’t call the FBI on a Sunday.”

“Mr. Shackleford,” Winslow stage-whispered from his car, “I wouldn’t wanna guess for certain as to whether or not the FBI’s even open on Sundays.”

“Denny,” Heidenreich said, “we got a drunk in there who’s prob’ly blowin’ smoke, lookin’ for attention, and hopped up on God knows what else. I called you down here because I figger you can just tell ’im to come on out, and he’ll listen since you’re a lawyer and people know you. Now, I trust you, and I known your brother thirty years. You tell me to take it serious, I will. But this ain’t the kinda thing I’m best at, this tryin’ to talk a man down. I know when to admit my faults, and this is one of ’em. You get ’em outta there.”

“You say he’s on something else? You know it?” Denny asked.

“Well, ’course, I can’t say for certain, but I know all them fellas smoke marijuana ’round the lake.”

“And we don’t smoke it in Muskogee,” Winslow added sternly.

“Forget it,” Denny said, closing his knife and returning it to his pocket. “Alright, you’re giving me the go-ahead to talk to this man, then? Realizing that if things go wrong, there’s a possibility of a bad outcome?”

“Denny, just talk ’im down,” Heidenreich said. “I don’t wanna be sittin’ across from you in a courtroom no more’n you want me tryin’ to put you there.”

“Okay, partner.” As Denny walked back to his car, he ran a finger down the length of the Oldsmobile’s sleek, midnight frame, crisscrossing chrome trim to form a single, pollenless snake of clean paint. Opening the back door and reaching inside, he called over his shoulder to the sheriff, “I see now why you asked me to bring this.”

Denny pulled a three-foot-long, cream-white ceramic megaphone, with WILDCATS monogrammed down one side in purple cursive letters, and Carol down the other. The polished metal lip at its base gleamed in the sun like still water, and it smelled like lilacs. In the distance, he could see the lake glimmering through the sturdy pines surrounding the shop. Nubby rocks and dust ground beneath the soles of his cracked weekend loafers, as he paced back up to Heidenreich’s cruiser. Apart from Denny’s car and the sheriff’s, the other vehicles were Deputy Winslow’s patrol car, Kenny Foley’s primer-gray Scout, and two pickups Denny didn’t recognize. Heidenreich was fidgeting with his cruiser’s rearview when Denny got back.

“Alright,” Denny said, “let’s pull one of the cars around to the side so we can talk to him through the window.”

“Nossir,” Winslow said. “Note said we can’t come no closer.”

“Then we’ll be talking to a blank wall. Do you think he thought of that? Did you think of that?”

“I don’t reckon.”

“Alright, alright. So we talk to the wall. Now, which Hindershot is this? The streaker or the one who fights chickens?”

“Which one’s the streaker?” Heidenreich asked.

“Might be the one who was gon’ dam up the Ouachita on account of him havin’ heard two rivers was better’n one,” Winslow said.

“Good Lord,” Denny sighed. He straightened his back and raised the megaphone to his mouth. “Hello in there! Hank Hindershot!”

There was no response. Heidenreich hooked his thumbs around his belt buckle. Winslow covered his left nostril with a finger, then blew out of the other until his face went mayhaw pink.

“Hank Hindershot!”

No answer. Denny shrugged. From the east side of the shop, the men heard the hitches and scrapes of a window screen being popped from its frame.

“Hello! Sumbitch!” came a shrill voice, country as cornbread.

“Am I speaking with Mr. Hindershot?” Denny spoke into Carol’s echoic megaphone.

“Yeah, I’m him.” The words were wet and garbled, like he was talking to Denny through a mouth full of rock salt. “Who’re you?”

“Hank, my name’s Dennis Shackleford. I’m a friend of Sheriff Heidenreich, and he’s asked me to step in and talk to you about your demands.”

“Shackleford?”

“Yessir.”

“Like them lawyer Shacklefords from El Dorado?”

“That’s right, I am. And I can be your lawyer after this, if you need me to.”

Winslow whispered to the sheriff, “Ain’t that a, uh, ‘conflicted interest’?”

“Deputy,” Heidenreich growled, “shut the hell up.”

“Hell, I might could use me a lawyer,” Hindershot shouted. “’Em boys out there tell you why I’m here?”

“They did. If I can lend a hand, I will, Hank.”

“Yeah, we’ll see ’bout that.”

“I hear you got the mayor and Kenny Foley in there.”

“Hunnert percent!”

Heidenreich and Winslow exchanged glances like two mutts hearing sirens.

Denny replied, “I’m gonna need to talk to ’em and be sure everything’s okay.”

“You gon’ do what I say you’re gon’ do! All uh y’all son of a bitches!”

“We are,” Denny said. “We certainly are. But the law’s out here, Hank. They gotta know you’re not sittin’ in there with a couple dead fellas propped up in the meat locker.”

For a moment, there was no response. Denny could hear muffled exchanges coming from inside the shop.

“Dennis Shackleford?” a new voice entered the colloquy.

“Yes, I’m Dennis Shackleford.”

“Denny, Kenny Foley. I’m in here; Barton’s in here. We’re arrite.”

“Mayor?” Denny shouted. “Can we hear from you?”

“Doubt it,” Foley called. “Byrd been in here on my shine since two hours ’fore all this done started. He’s on my floor in a heap.”

“Bullshit,” Heidenreich said to Denny. “That don’t cut it.”

“Sounds odd,” Denny said into the megaphone, nodding at the sheriff. “You say he’s passed out drunk?”

“I do say that, as that is the damn case,” Foley said.

“Kenny, that sounds … odd— ”

“Mr. Shackleford,” Foley interrupted, “have you met the mayor?”

Denny and Heidenreich thought for a moment, and both lit on the idea that Foley’s claim wasn’t that odd at all.

“Alright, Kenny, we’ll buy it,” Denny said.

“Now, lemme te—ruuuagh meyeaeeah!” Foley screeched.

“Y’all alright in there?”

Foley yelled, “Sumbitch kicked me!”

“Tell ’im!” Hindershot said.

“Tell us what?” Denny asked.

“He wants y’all to know what we got in here, that he’s serious. It’s a bomb, I think, y’all. I think it’s a real bomb,” Foley said.

“Ain’t bullshittin’!” Hindershot shouted.

“Alright, okay. It’s all gonna be okay,” Denny said. “Now, Hank, I need you to understand something. This is a Sunday, and there’s only so much we can do. We wanna help you. Hell, I wanna help you. I do. But there’s just no way we can get loan officers and whoever the hell else to open up the bank and the vaults, then come down here with some paperwork in the middle of the day on a Sunday.”

“That don’t confront me none! You got a problem!”

“Hank, do you know anything about me?”

“Do what, now?”

“When I tell someone I’ll do something, I do it. I have friends. I have colleagues. I’ve worked with people who can tell you I’m telling the truth. I want to help you, but you’ve got to gimme some room to breathe here.”

Hindershot didn’t respond.

“Hank?”

Silence.

“I don’t like that I can’t see you, Hank. Can I come to the window?”

“Keep yer distance!”

“Alright, alright. We’re just lookin’ at a blank wall out here, Hank.”

“And I’m to take blame for how the Good Lord put this sumbitch shop up?”

“Well,” Denny said slowly, “no, I, uh … I s’pose Mr. Foley’s to blame.”

“All uh y’all can go get fucked, cain’tcha!” Foley screamed. “I was gon’ shut down early today!”

*****


From a few hundred feet down the road, Denny and the officers heard that radio-static gargle of tires on loose gravel as the bomb man from Camden arrived.

“Who’s all else out there?” Hindershot yelled.

“Another officer,” Denny said. “Don’t panic, Hank. We just have somebody we need to talk to, and he may wanna ask you some things.”

“Who’s askin’ me? You don’t ask me nothin’! I tell you!”

“Just sit tight, Hank. We’re gonna handle this bidness.”

From the plain, black Ford sedan that joined the growing fleet outside Crabapple Bait & Tackle, a young man with a crew cut and a thick neck approached Denny and Heidenreich. Winslow made another awkward run from his cruiser to rejoin the group.

“Sheriff Heidenreich,” the crew cut said, “I’m Don Marx. Hear you got a bomb.”

“We may,” Heidenreich said. They shook sweaty hands.

“Who’s this?” Marx asked, nodding at Denny.

Denny extended his hand. “Dennis Shackleford.”

“Denny’s a lawyer down in town,” Heidenreich supplied. “He’s helpin’ us talk to the fella inside.”

“Has the fella said anything about the explosive?” Marx said.

“No,” Denny said, “besides us knowing he’s got one.”

“Can I talk to him?”

“You can try. He’s been fairly receptive so far. A little spry, but … you know.”

“Are we, uh,” Marx said with a fake cough, “are we communicating with the bomb-making hostage taker with a, uh, cheerleader megaphone?”

“Go Cats,” Winslow said.

“Arrite,” Heidenreich snorted. “You ever done anything like this before?”

“Done plenty in the class,” Marx replied. “Did some unofficial work in ’Nam.”

“I see,” the sheriff said. He looked at Denny, troubled. “Do what you need to do.”

“Sir,” Marx said, gesturing to Denny, “may I?”

“Sure, sure,” Denny said, handing Carol’s megaphone to the officer.

Marx pulled a small notebook from his back pocket, and, holding the megaphone between his knees, flipped to a marked page in the middle. He cleared his throat and looked at Heidenreich, who gave Marx a nod. Denny couldn’t figure out if it was for confidence or approval. Marx raised the megaphone.

“Hello, suspect!” Marx began to stammer like a student athlete reading words from an acceptance speech. “My name. Is. Officer. Marx. And I am here to help you reverse — resolve your issue.”

“Son, what the hell is this?” Heidenreich said, batting the megaphone away from Marx’s face.

“Sir, this is what’s in the manual.”

“The manual, you say?”

“Maybe you better let me keep on with him,” Denny offered.

Heidenreich grabbed the megaphone from Marx and handed it to Denny.

“Look, we need to know what he’s got in there. That’s all,” Marx said.

Denny raised the megaphone. “Hank?”

“What kinda shit show y’all got goin’ on out there?” Hindershot called.

“Hank, this fella wants to know about your bomb. Can you get Kenny to tell him about it? Just so he knows what we called him here for?”

“Ain’t bluffin’, I tell ya!”

“I know, Hank, I know. We gotta let this fella know, too.”

After a few awkward seconds, Foley called out again: “Whatchall wanna know?”

Marx jerked the megaphone away from Denny, catching Denny’s finger in the metal handle bolted to the side.

“God dammit,” Denny hissed through his teeth. “Son, you don’t have to snatch it.”

“Sorry, sir,” Marx said to Denny, then into the megaphone, eyes fixed like a sniper scope on his little black notebook, “Sir! What. Does. The dee-vice look like?”

“Do what, now?” Foley called.

“The dee-vice! Can you dee-scribe it to me?”

“Well, it’d appear to be four paint cans filled with perforatin’ charges, and they all held together with what looks like the fan belt off a damn Chevy.”

“Um,” Marx said. He looked to Denny and to the sheriff, then flipped frantically through the manual. “A, uh. A what charge?”

“I say, ‘a perforatin’ charge’!”

“Uhhhuh,” Marx brayed. “Sir! Can you tell me the technical name for the explosive?”

“The what, now?”

Marx threw his right hand up and sent the manual sailing into the woods. “The textbook name of the explosive!”

“Y’all goldbrickin’ around out there?”

Marx lowered the megaphone. “I’m not familiar with a device like that,” he said to Heidenreich. “He says ‘percolatin’ charges’? Um. I can’t say I know exactly, what uh. It’s just that I—”

“Well, ain’t that about boar-tit worthless,” Heidenreich said. “Son, step back. Go get in that car and stay there in case I holler atcha again. Don’t come back over here. Lord. Worthless.”

Marx handed the megaphone back to Denny, whose left middle finger was already swelling. Marx walked back to his car, shoulders slung low under shame, in a far less officious capacity than the one that first brought him from the car.

“On our own,” Denny said.

Heidenreich chirped and produced a flask from his hip pocket. He took a hard pull, then handed it to Denny, who followed suit. The two lit up more cigarettes.

“Hank,” Denny said, smoke pluming from the mouth of his daughter’s megaphone.

Hindershot called back, “What now?”

“How’s the mayor?”

“Still flat on his backside like a ole lush!”

“We’re gonna have to take a second to think about this. We gotta get a plan together. Something real. Something that’ll work. But I’m tellin’ you, Hank, I have got to talk to you face to face. I don’t know how else to make this happen to everybody’s satisfaction.”

Hindershot mumbled something inside the building, and Denny thought he heard Foley talk back. The two voices bickered for several minutes, as Denny and Heidenreich burned down smokes in rapid succession.

“Arrite, now,” Hindershot finally called. “You come up to this winda, but you stand on that side of the wall, hear? Don’t be stickin’ your damn noggin in here, or I’ll blow this whole spot to Kingdom Come, and you gon’ take that same ride we do! Do not try to get in here! Sumbitch!”

“Alright, Hank,” Denny said. “That’s A-okay. I’m gonna set the megaphone down, and I’m gonna come up. Here I come, Hank.”

*****


As Denny approached the bait shop, he felt a keen unease. Somewhere in the building in front of him, some home-cooked bomb sat waiting, and all that separated him from the blast was the warped, rickety wood of Foley’s shop walls. The gravel beneath his loafers gave way to thick grass, and with each step, a puff of sooty pollen breathed up from his footprints. When he reached the corner of the shop, he noticed on the ground what Hindershot must’ve had to break through in order to get the window screen loose: a broken piece of plywood, whitewashed, with TAKE A CHILD FISHIN scrawled in black paint. He got a few steps closer and announced himself.

“Hank?”

“Yeah, I’m here.” Something was different about Hindershot’s voice. He was hoarse from all the yelling, but he seemed softer at the same time.

“Alright, Hank, this is what I’d like to do.”

“You got my ear, counselor, but all this is wearin’ me ’bout old-denim thin. You better say somethin’ good.”

“I hope to, Hank. Listen to me. Banks don’t just change their minds on foreclosures. If you owe ’em for the land you’re on, you’re gonna have to pay that money, and there’s just no way they’re gonna reverse it otherwise. Now, this is what I’ll do for you, Hank. You stop this; you let the sheriff and his man in there, and I will talk to the bank president. Not a loan man, but the president. I’ll see if he’ll reconsider, and I will cosign on a loan with you in order to get another chance on this. Now, I’m not gonna pay your mortgage for you. Not one cent. I will stake my credit on it, and my credit is excellent, but that’s as far as I can go. I got a family, too. Hank. How’s that sound?” Denny could hear Hindershot breathing around the corner.

“Don’t need your lawyer money, and I don’t want your credit,” he said.

Denny edged as close to the building as he could, then peeked around the corner to look at the window from the side. Hindershot was close. Denny could see two sets of tan, rough fingers gripping the outer edge of the windowsill.

Denny leaned back to sound further away. “Hank, this is a hell of a deal. More than you’re gonna be able to get on your own, and more than even the sheriff was willing to give you before I came down here. Don’t throw this back at me. Let me help you, and let’s end this.”

“It ain’t about the damn money!”

Denny watched blood flee Hindershot’s fingers as they tightened on the splintered, wooden sill. An opportunity arose, and Denny took it. He leaped from around the house and grabbed the two hands, shifting his weight backward and giving all he had to pulling Hindershot from the window. As Denny tumbled, his six-foot frame gained momentum, but it wasn’t enough. Hindershot’s wrists slipped free like wet soap, and his hands jerked back like Denny was a hot iron. Denny scrambled to get up and around the side of the shop, but when he reached his knees, his vision was framed by the barrel of a revolver.

“Easy,” Denny stuttered. “Easy now.”

Out of dusty shadows leaned a face Denny didn’t expect: tanned, oily skin taut with tension and fear and anger, punctuated by wide eyes, blue as a Confirmation Bible.

“Get your sorry ass back to them cars,” Hindershot said. “We’re done with this. You get me somebody else. Somebody with juice. I have the mayor in here, man! You screwloose?! On your feet! Get the hell outta here!”

Denny stood, arms raised high, and walked slowly back toward the barricade where Heidenreich and Winslow waited, guns drawn.

“Well, Denny, what was that?” Heidenreich asked.

“I thought there was a chance. I took it.”

“You almost got damn shot.”

“I know. I know. But this changes things.”

“Sure as hell, it does! Can’t tell ’im nothin’ now!”

“No, that’s not what … Look here,” Denny said. “That’s not Hank Hindershot.”

*****


“Do what, now?” Heidenreich said.

“That is not Hank Hindershot in there,” Denny said. “It’s just some kid!”

“Like, a truant kid?” Winslow asked.

Heidenreich put his hands on his greasy forehead and began massaging his hairline.

“Karl,” Denny said. “Karl! Listen, I couldn’t be sure ’til now, but I have met Hank Hindershot before. Him and Hal, and I think Harmon, too. It was years ago, at a livestock auction. That in there — that ain’t Hindershot. Looks like Hank a little. I think … Does he have kids?” “Hell, I suppose he does, yeah. Yeah! Hard to keep ’em straight, but I know Hal’s got at least three.”

Winslow added, “Sheriff, we’ve picked up Hal’s oldest at Hill’s, hustlin’ billiards a number of times.”

“Jesus,” Heidenreich said. “Well, what does this change?”

“He said it wasn’t about money,” Denny said.

“Whussat?”

“Money. The kid said that this wasn’t about money.”

“The bank thing?”

“Yeah. Listen, I think maybe we can wrap this up a different way now, but this is still a delicate situation.”

Denny glanced back to see Marx sitting on the hood of the sedan. Marx noticed Denny looking and shrugged, raising his hands. Denny waved him off and looked at Heidenreich and Winslow.

“One more thing to remember,” Denny said, “is he’s got a pistol in there, Karl.”

“Did you see Barton?”

“No, I didn’t see anything but a barrel in my face and a kid pointing it.”

“I s’pose if he’d shot nobody, we’d’ve heard it,” Winslow said.

“I suppose,” Denny said, glaring at the deputy, “but somethin’s not adding up here. If money’s not the problem—and that’s just one of the Hindershot kids in there—I just don’t see why we’re all here. What’s he care about his daddy’s land? Or his uncle’s, or whoever’s it is?”

“Mr. Shackleford,” Winslow said, “you say he ain’t that old. How old?”

“Couldn’t be more than eighteen,” Denny said. “I’d be surprised if he was outta high school. Hell, he looks like my oldest’s boyfriend.”

“Huh,” said Winslow.

Heidenreich asked, “What’s on your mind, Deputy?”

“Well, just him bein’ a kid. Reminds me of bein’ a kid out here, and uh, I think maybe I got a idea ’bout how we can flush ’em all outta there.”

“Well, Mr. Winslow, we’re all ears,” Denny said.

“Uh huh,” Winslow replied. “Y’all think ’at bomb fella’s got any kinda, say … bomb-protection clothes or some such various ’n’ sundry items?”

*****


Denny and Heidenreich sat inside the sheriff’s patrol car and watched through the windshield as Winslow emerged from behind Marx’s sedan. The deputy was decked head to foot in Camden Academy’s police-issued bomb-protection gear, which Denny recognized as a ball-catcher’s mask and pads. Winslow carried a gaff pole he’d pulled from the back of Foley’s truck, and on the end of it hung the biggest wasp nest Denny had ever seen. Even with Winslow as far off and moving as slow as he was, through the patrol car’s cracked windows, Denny and Heidenreich could hear the buzzing growing louder. Winslow neared the edge of the building where Denny first spoke to the kid. The deputy, still looking toward the shop, put his left fist next to his head, and raised two fingers, signaling to Denny and Heidenreich to take their positions. The two quietly exited the car, leaving their doors open, and crept up the foot-worn path to the opposite side of the bait shop, approaching the front entrance. They knelt by the driver’s side back wheel of Foley’s truck and waited. On the opposite corner, Winslow slowly reared back his gaff pole, and in one quick, smooth arc, flung the nest through the window and into the bait shop.

“Red Baron! Red Baron!” Winslow yelled, his voice wavering up and down like an air-raid siren.

The reaction was instant.

From inside the shop, Foley screamed first: “Myeeaaaap! Sumbitch, sweet Holy Jesus!”

Foley came barreling through the front door, his round gut bouncing beneath his shirt like he was carrying a piglet in an apron. Behind him, waving a pistol, ran a skinny kid, a few inches shorter than Denny, and behind the kid, a frantic swarm of red leaders. As Foley and Hindershot looped around the hood of the truck, Heidenreich popped to his feet and grabbed the kid by the back of the shirt collar, jerking the boy down to the dirt. Denny heard the whoosh of air leaving lungs, and the kid lay on his back squirming and breathless. Heidenreich pulled his own revolver.

Winslow came trotting around the far side of the bait shop, still dressed as a minor leaguer, with his drawn sidearm in one hand and a plume-spewing smoke grenade in his other. He tossed the fogger into the bait shop and stood clear of the door, counting aloud, “One Mississippi, two Mississippi …”

“Lemme up, dammit!” the kid screamed at Heidenreich. “I got a allergy!”

“And I got a pistol!” the sheriff said. He put one foot on the kid’s chest and leaned.

“Pull me back; I got a allergy! I got a allergy!”

“Karl!” Denny said. “Grab his ankles!”

Denny grabbed the kid’s wrists, kicking Hindershot’s unhanded revolver back toward the front of the shop. Heidenreich took up the boy’s lower end, and they followed Winslow—who’d stopped counting at “Twenty Mississippi”—back into Crabapple Bait & Tackle.

“Y’all crazy son of a bitches!” Foley yelled from back near Marx’s sedan. “A flurry uh sumbitch wasts in my shop! Y’all son of a bitches, ever’one!”

*****


“He just a-sawin’ logs,” Winslow said, as he knelt by Mayor Barton, who remained comfortably passed out on a pile of lifejackets near the shop’s front counter. On the counter, by a tan cashbox and a display of slick, black lures, sat a square piece of plywood to which were bolted four full-sized paint cans, lashed together with a rubber fan belt. From the tops of each can trailed thick fuses that met in the middle in a single fat braid. Denny and the sheriff stood over the kid, who lay whimpering and cursing as he leaned against a shelf of cricket buckets.

“I am Hank Hindershot,” he spat. “I’m the third.”

“Well that figgers,” Heidenreich said.

“Son,” Denny said, “what the hell have you done here?”

“Look, damn y’all, it ain’t my fault my deddy and his deddy and all ’em sumbitches is drunks and worthless! That stretch is my stretch, and that timber is mine. I got money to pay what’s owed to the bank man! Done worked since I was thirteen, knowed it was comin’ someday. Didn’t think it’d be now, but it come! I go see them fellas at the bank two weeks ago, and they bound and determined to not take my money. Hell, I tried to pay ’em! All I wanna do is keep what’s mine! We already got three acres laid rot out there on account a’cuz my deddy got in the bottle and let it all go! I just wanna harvest my timber and keep what’s mine!”

“A Hindershot that don’t get a fair shake,” Heidenreich joked. “Lo and behold. Somebody hold me up.”

“Piss on you!” Hindershot yelled, shooting spittle.

“Alright!” Denny shouted, patting Heidenreich on the shoulder, pacifying him. Denny turned and walked to the counter. He pulled his knife from the pocket of his trousers and used the wedge to pop the top from one of Hindershot’s paint cans. He looked inside, shook his head, and replaced the lid.

“It’s just paint,” he announced, as Hindershot frowned, furrowing his brow and curling his hands into trembling fists, and Heidenreich scoffed. “Son,” Denny said to the pouting kid, “do you really have the money the bank needs?”

“Every red cent.”

“Mm. Karl.” Denny looked to the sheriff. “What charges does Hindershot the Younger, here, face?”

“Sweet Jesus, Denny, we’re ’bout where I toldja we were when ya got here.” Heidenreich swung open the cylinder of Hindershot’s recovered revolver. “Ain’t no bullets in this pistol. If it ain’t nothin’ but paint in them cans, and ain’t nobody here hurt, and Foley ain’t gon’ press charges for the damages to his place—”

“I should press some damn charges on all uh y’all son of a bitches!” Foley heaved breathlessly from the front door.

“Well, hell, Kenny, why don’t you just do that?” Heidenreich said. “Tell ya what, I’ll help ya. We can g’on ’head file a insurance claim for the damage while we’re at it. And after they come fix the shop up, why not send ’em back to that shed about thirty foot past the tree line out there? See if they can’t work on it some, too.”

“Do what, now?”

“Well, Kenny, that shed that I know about that you think I don’t know about.”

“Now, wait just a damn minute, Sheriff,” Foley whimpered. “As I look around, it occurs to me ain’t too much broke anyway that didn’t need fixin’ as is.” He moped like a sullen runt as he grabbed a small, red toolbox from a shelf and headed for the front door. “Godamighty.”

“As I say, if Foley don’t press charges,” the sheriff continued, “there ain’t too much gon’ happen.”

“What about the mayor?” Winslow said.

“Hell, we can prob’ly stick ’im in his bed at home, and he won’t never even know he was here.”

“Alright, Hank,” Denny said. “This is what we’re gonna do. You’re not your old man. I can respect that. Like I told you earlier, I’ve had my share of dealing with the bank in town. Tomorrow morning, I’m gonna go down there, and I’m gonna talk to the people I know about your situation. We’re gonna have them take that money and give you back your land. You’re gonna go with Sheriff Heidenreich after this, and you’re gonna spend the night in lock-up, and there’s not a single thing anybody’s gonna do about that. But you’ll be arraigned in court tomorrow or Tuesday, and when that happens, I’ll be there to represent you.”

“I can’t pay nothin’,” Hindershot said. “All I got’s gotta go to the bank.”

“Oh, you’re gonna pay,” Denny said. “You’re gonna pay with that paint right there, because I got a whole back side of my house we just added on to, and I’ve been waitin’ for a deal just like this one. If it takes you a year of workin’ weekends around workin’ your timber, you will paint every stick and then some.”

Heidenreich lifted Hindershot from the ground, pulling the boy’s wrists behind his back and cuffing them.

“Mr. Shackleford,” the kid said, “I ain’t my deddy.”

“I’m countin’ on that, son.”

The sheriff walked him out and into the back of the patrol car. Denny walked over to the counter and wrapped the paint cans, still attached to plywood, in a burlap cloth that lay beneath the board. As he lifted the parcel, Mayor Byrd Barton stirred.

“I would appear to find myself upon a damn floor,” Barton slurred groggily.

“Evenin’, Mayor,” Denny said.

“Dennis Shackleford?”

“Yessir, Mr. Mayor.”

“Why, hello, Dennis. Anything bitin’ on the water today?”

“More’n you can shake a stick at.” Denny walked out of Foley’s shop, back to the trunk of his Oldsmobile.

*****


“Karl,” Denny said, shaking hands with the sheriff.

“Denny. Hell of a day, my friend.”

Winslow exchanged baseball equipment and pleasantries with the Camden cadet as Foley huffed at the side of his shop, hammering his TAKE A CHILD FISHIN sign over the broken window.

“One to tell the kids about,” Denny said.

“Hell, Denny, I ain’t gonna tell nobody about this.”

“Me, either,” Denny laughed.

“Tell Jane and the girls we say hello, and gimme a holler if there’s anything you need. I’m sure I’ll be seein’ you in court for this one.” Heidenreich pointed his thumb at Hindershot, who sulked in the back of the sheriff’s car. “Careful, Denny. Another ne’er-do-well Hindershot from Calion.”

“Anyone ever bail you out, Karl? Give you another shot,” Denny said, slowly adding, “Sheriff?”

Heidenreich grinned and looked at the ground, nodding. “Better say hello to Marshall for me, too.”

“My best to May and Margot,” Denny added, as Heidenreich started up his patrol car. Through the window, Denny could make out Hindershot mouthing, Thank you.

“It is a beautiful evening,” Mayor Barton said, when he finally staggered from the front of Crabapple Bait & Tackle. “Foley! I seem to’ve left my billfold at the house, so I’m gonna have to getcha for the bottle and the crickets on Tuesday.”

“Son of a bitches,” Foley muttered. “Son of a bitches, all uh y’all. Ever’one.”

*****


Jane picked up after the third ring.

“Hey, honey,” Denny said.

“Hey, Den. Gonna be a late one?”

“No, ma’am. I’m just about wrapped up at the office. Headed home shortly. Just wanted to give a holler.”

“Okay. The girls are home. Everything turn out alright today?”

“I s’pose. Thinkin’ of the girls. I’m grateful.”

“Oh, are you?” Jane chuckled.

“Yes, ma’am.” He smiled. “I don’t think I’ve got a tolerance for young men. They’re just … crazy.”

“Come on home, Den.”

“Yes, ma’am. Be that way soon. One quick stop to make first.”

Denny placed the receiver back in its cradle and walked out of the offices he shared with Marshall on the third floor of the building downtown. He took the front exit out to his Oldsmobile and headed a few blocks away to the new building on Church Street. Aside from some of the interior trim, plumbing, and a bit of electrical work, the new firm was nearly done. He pulled into the red-brick-partitioned private parking area they’d set aside to the east of the building, got out of his car, and unlocked the side door that would eventually lead straight to the private offices. He followed the hallway to the partners’ lounge and winked at Marshall’s seven-foot marlin they’d mounted as a centerpiece. No furniture yet, but the marlin was in place. Denny passed through the nearly completed bathroom to a small doorway leading down a set of stairs into the basement they’d built, about which neither Marshall, Norwood, nor Denny told anyone. Leaving all the doors open, he returned to his car, opened the trunk, and removed his heavy, burlapped parcel. Making his way through the darkness, Denny tiptoed carefully through halls and doorways, down the stairs, into the small basement, to the far back corner, directly beneath the office that would be his. He placed the parcel in the corner and turned to go, feeling his way along walls, up stairs, past the marlin, and back out to the car, lighting a cigarette as he climbed in.

Driving home, Denny slid his hand into his pocket, removing Hindershot’s wrinkled note. He took two hard pulls on his smoke, then put the note to the tip. Denny thought of youth while the paper caught fire. He thought of the future. He thought of his wife, his three daughters, and Hank Hindershot III. He thought of the four paint cans packed to the rims with dynamite in the basement of his new law firm. Denny extended his hand from the car window and let wind take the note. He saw it flicker in the rearview as it hung like a feather in his wake, still burning. Denny thought and drove. Clench, unclench. On into the night.




Schuler Benson’s fiction and poetry have appeared in The Idle Class, Kudzu Review, The Pinch, Little Fiction, Hobart, and elsewhere. He has been nominated for a Best of the Net Award, a Million Writers Award, and three Pushcart Prizes, and he placed second in The Fallen Sky Review’s 2013 Speculative Fiction Launch Contest. He completed his undergraduate studies at University of Arkansas and received his MA from Coastal Carolina University. The Poor Man’s Guide to an Affordable, Painless Suicide is his first book. You can find him on Twitter at @schulerbenson.

2015 Third Place Winner: “Inheritance” by Stephanie Liden

Inheritance

A cluster of meadowlarks covers the snowy highway in front of my father’s 1962 Ford Falcon. The birds flee the road just as I pass them by. I watch as the flock expands apart, and in the rearview, the larks regroup to pick at a frozen raccoon carcass. After I pass a small patch of pine trees, the wind forces the car to the center of the road, and I quickly correct. I wonder why these meadowlarks stick around, why they endure like they do. I shift on the white leather seat. I am in my father’s spot—the driver’s seat—seeing our rural prairie homeland from his point of view. My friend, Sasha, is by my side. We handed in our two-weeks’ notice at the gas station together. Today was our last day. Before we left, she stole our favorite postcard of a Malibu sunset, a lighter, and a pack of cigarettes. She put the card on the passenger visor, a glossy reminder of where we will go—palm trees and pink skies. I gassed up the Falcon, and here we are, on the way to pick up my father from treatment—one last thing before we leave.

“I love this car,” Sasha says, twisting the radio’s ivory knob, turning up the volume.

I thumb the smooth leather steering wheel cover and see my dad, a dirty rag in his back pocket, leaning over the open hood, up to his elbows in engine. The smell of turtle wax and glycerin. I twist the ivory knob back down.

“I’m warning you,” I say. “My father’s crazy.”

She blows an egg-shaped pink bubble, and it pops. “I have a crazy uncle. He lives in the desert, in a hut made from glass soda bottles.” “Bullshit.”

“It’s true. The bottles absorb heat in the day and keep him warm all night.” Sasha pulls a pack of Marlboro Reds from her purse and peels the cellophane.

“My dad would kill me if he knew we were smoking in here.”

She lights it with a gas-station Bic.

“He’s worked on this car ever since I can remember,” I say.

“Fuck him,” she says.

For a quick moment, I feel like I should defend him, but it passes. Sasha knows my father hasn’t been well for a while, but that’s it. I want to tell her the truth. That I remember the first moment I noticed something wasn’t right. I came into my room to find my father installing locks on the windows. His eyes wild, he said, “We need to take every precaution, kiddo.” I laughed it off at the time. The last time I saw my father, I came home from work to the red and blue cop lights flashing against the Falcon’s frosted windows. I could see the lights from the highway.

The officer said my father had been drinking when he threatened my grandmother with a steak knife, but we all knew it was more than booze. When he was admitted to treatment, my grandmother went to a nursing home, and I stayed alone on the farm. The farm where my father and I grew up, a rambler with a wraparound porch, surrounded by pines. One Quonset, one barn. My grandfather made my father a tire swing, and it hangs by the porch to this day, the ground beneath it worn away from years of our dragging feet. But the place never really felt like home. The stoic silence filled every room, and the walls are white and empty. None of my memories of that place are in color.

A gust of cold winter wind seeps into the car through the cracked window, and I tuck loose strands of hair behind my ear. I crank the handle on the door, and the window squeaks closed.

“Your hair is pretty. You should let it down,” Sasha says, tugging softly at my braid. Her touch is gentle, affectionate.

A truck passes us slowly. The woman in the passenger seat looks at me for a moment, and then speaks to the man driving. The look on her face is subtle, but I have seen it before. Once when my grandmother and her friends gossiped over coffee. The sheriff’s wife left him for another woman, and the whole town knew.

“Oughta be ashamed,” my grandmother said.

I tense, and Sasha stops touching my hair. I want to tell her not to quit, but I don’t. I am ashamed of that.

“Beautiful Arapaho hair,” Sasha says. The only physical part of me that comes from my mother’s Native American background. My father and grandmother insisted I never cut my hair.

“Keep it long or they’ll think you’re a boy,” my grandmother said.

“Keep it long; you look like your mother,” my father said.

The winter wind forces the car to shake even more as we pass miles of barren fields, empty brown and white space as far as the eye can see. I turn up the heat, and the windows begin to cloud. There’s an abandoned house in a clump of trees ahead. A small, single-story farmhouse, the white paint chipped away. The roof sags under the weight of snow. In the yard, there is a sign with faded letters that spell: “Velkommen.” Relics of another time, from uprooted Norwegian farmers.

“What a shithole,” Sasha says as we pass.

“Yeah.” It needs new shingles and some paint, for sure. As we drive by, I wonder if this place was ever a home.

I pull the Falcon into the hospital parking lot and find a place close to the sliding door entrance. I watch Sasha apply dark, black eyeliner in the rearview mirror.

“I can tell you’re a little nervous,” she says. “Let me help you.”

She slides close to me. She smells like cigarettes and bubblegum. She tells me to close my eyes, and I do. I think for a moment how my father hates when I wear makeup. He would tell me that naturally beautiful women don’t need it and that my mother never did. But I don’t look like her, and I don’t care what he thinks anymore. I feel Sasha’s soft fingertips on my cheek and then the sharp end of the pencil against my closed lid.

“There,” she says. “You look good.”

“War paint,” I joke.

We walk through the sliding doors, and my father is waiting by the nurses station, his army-green duffel in hand. I ask Sasha to stay by the door. My father smiles when he sees me, like he hasn’t seen a familiar face in a while, like a dog being picked up from the vet. He wears navy blue sweats, a dark gray sweatshirt, and heavy work boots. He still has a thick gray and brown beard, but a new thinning crew cut. He fidgets with a plastic bracelet that has his name and contact information for the hospital.

“Thanks for picking me up,” he says, and we shake hands for what feels like a long time. His skin is soft, and he smells sanitized. I search his face for signs that he might lash out, cry, yell, any indication of emotion, but there is nothing. He looks away, fidgets with his bracelet.

“Want me to get the nurse to cut that off for you?”

“Naw, I’ll keep it on for a little while.” He notices Sasha standing by the sliding door. She smiles, but her arms are crossed, and she leans on one hip. “I thought we would have some time alone on the drive, kiddo.” He looks at his shoes.

“We need to get going,” I say. “Getting dark.” When we get to the door, I introduce him to Sasha, and they exchange quick hellos. She looks him up and down, her eyes like a spotlight. He leads the way out of the hospital entrance. The name “Miller” is screen-printed across his duffel, but the letters are so faded now that you can barely make them out.

When we get to the car, he pats the trunk gently and runs his fingers along the subtle grooves. “There she is,” he says. “I’m driving.”

“You can’t drive,” I say and help my father pack his duffel into the trunk. “You need to take it easy.”

I open the trunk, and he puts his bag on top of the spare tire. He brushes the lip of the trunk’s hood with his hands. It’s rusting. Cars like this weren’t made for harsh winters. When I was younger, before we painted the exterior candy apple, we sanded all of the rust away together. He would say, “A little tough love, and she’ll be good as new.” But now the rust is taking over the body again, slowly but surely.

“I’ll ride bitch,” Sasha says.

She gets in and slides across the white vinyl seat to the middle. I start the car and crank the heat to “high.” My father slides in the passenger side and leans his head against the window. I start the car and pull out of the hospital parking lot.

“I’ve missed you,” he says softly.

I can’t tell if he is talking to me or to the Falcon. Sasha sits with her legs spread over the center console, one leg touching mine, the other close to my father’s. After a couple minutes of silence, I punch the buttons on the radio and watch the dial spring back and forth through static. I land on an oldies song and leave it. My father hums along softly.

“Your grandpa used to play this all the time,” he says.

“I like your car, Mr. Miller,” Sasha says. She talks to him like the orderlies talk to my grandmother at the nursing home. Like he’s a child. “It was your grandfather’s pride and joy,” my father says to me. “When I’m gone, it will go to you.” He wipes his forehead and turns the ivory heat dial to ‘off.’

“When did you lose him?” Sasha asks.

“A long time ago, before you were born, kiddo.”

“Sorry to hear that. How did he die?”

I can tell she isn’t used to people ignoring her, and she isn’t about to let my father deprive her of a real story. My father moves close to the window slowly, his head turned away from us.

“He started the Falcon in the garage,” he says, “and didn’t open the garage door.”

I glance at my father. I can tell he’s uncomfortable because his knee shakes, and he begins to crack his knuckles. Sasha is pushing him. She wants to see if he is breakable. Part of me wants to know, too. But the way he tugs at his plastic bracelet and leans against the fogging window glass tells me it hurts.

“He wasn’t well,” I say and pinch her thigh.

“Jesus,” Sasha says.

Just then, we pass through more meadowlarks. One nearly hits the windshield. I swerve a little. Sasha screams.

“Damn birds all over the highway,” my father says. “Don’t they have the sense to head south?”

The birds disappear in a cloud of snow behind the Falcon. The endless snow-covered fields are going gray as the sun falls.

“I can hardly get a word out of your daughter about her mother, Mr. Miller,” Sasha says. “Where did you two meet?”

I can feel my father shuffle in his seat.

“I met her at a bar somewhere near here,” he says. “She was the bartender, and I was—”

“The pool tournament champ,” I say.

“Did you know the minute you saw her?” Sasha asks. “Sappy romance novel and all that?”

I glance at him, wanting desperately to see his reaction. My father nods once and softly runs his fingernail across the window, small shards of frost falling into his lap.

“Did people treat you poorly because you were different?”

“Sasha,” I say, my voice louder than I intend.

“People say what they want,” my father says. “Didn’t affect me.”

He speaks clearly now, and I can feel him looking at me. My grandmother used to say leaving was in my mother’s DNA, that all Arapaho people are born with natural wanderlust given to them through ancestors who followed herds around the prairie. My mother left when I was three. I have a picture of her in my mind, but nothing else. She has a strong chin, dark flowing hair, almond eyes. My father always said she was wild from the beginning — stealing, raising hell in the Falcon. I used to tell myself she was kidnapped by cowboys. I glance at my reflection in the rearview mirror and don’t see the beautiful Arapaho woman from my imagination. I see my father’s pale skin.

“I’m tired,” my father mumbles and tells me to wake him when we get to a good place to eat.

Sasha moves close to me. “He seems harmless to me,” she whispers.

Massive dark clouds gather, stretching across the prairie, casting the fields, like moors, in shadow. We drive in silence as the wind picks up and yesterday’s snowfall starts to blow, covering the countryside in a thin, white veil.

“Are you going to miss this?” Sasha asks.

I can feel her play with my hair again. She starts slowly, waiting to see if I will stop her. I let her this time; my father is asleep on the other side of the car. I picture us together on the beach in California. The sun sets just like it does on the Malibu postcard she stole. We share a towel under a palm tree. There are people like us, happy and sharing towels, building castles. The sand is warm beneath our bodies, and the air is moist. I feel lightheaded, scared and excited like I did when I finally said out loud, “I need to get out of here,” and Sasha hugged me for the first time and said, “Fuck it, let’s go,” and I felt her soft body against mine, her hair sticking to the sweat on my neck. I would have told her I loved her right there, but the storefront bell above the door dinged, and the moment passed.

I would trade these dark clouds for green mountains and these fields for golden beaches any day. I shake my head, and we drive in peace for a while until I see a sign with the symbol for food and gas.

“Let’s stop at that diner,” I say. I need air, and it seems like as good of a place as any to tell my father I am leaving. I don’t know how he will react to the idea of living on his own. Perhaps in public, he won’t make a scene.

We drive past a church sign that reads, “Prayer is the Best Wireless Connection.” Sasha snorts and says, “Amen.”

The diner’s parking lot is empty except for a couple of semis and a church van. My father shifts in his seat and lifts his head.

“World-famous Sour Cream and Raisin Pie,” he reads on the diner window.

We cruise past a hand-painted mural of Santa serving pie and find a parking spot close to the door. My father urges us not to slam the doors when we get out. We walk through a wooden archway covered with dusty plastic ivy. Shelves with antique teacups and Norman Rockwell tin paintings cover the soft gray-and-white-checkered walls. Sasha chooses an empty booth by a window with a white plastic tablecloth. It is close to a bar-style counter, and in a revolving case at the end, there are three pies glistening in the fluorescent light. A sign above the window is written in loopy black calligraphy. It reads: “Home is where the heart is.” The paint is cracked. She slides in first, and I sit next to her. Our legs touch. Her naked arms are warm against mine.

My father sits across from us. “Is that a tattoo?” he asks Sasha.

Sasha tugs at the neck of her shirt and reveals a small shamrock. “My first,” she says. “I’m 100 percent Irish.”

A cherubic waitress approaches our booth. She wears the cliché diner staff uniform—polka-dotted dress, black and white saddle shoes. She has a pin on her apron with a picture of two overweight pugs that reads: “Pugs and Kisses.”

“What can I get for you?” she asks. We order three cheeseburgers and Cokes. The waitress puts her pen behind one ear and leaves.

“What does your father do?” my father asks Sasha. He avoids looking at her directly for too long, like she’s the sun. But at least he isn’t ignoring her anymore.

“My dad’s an engineer,” she says. “He develops technology that they use in space. My grandfather was an engineer, too.”

This is a lie, but I let her tell it. I try to imagine being her. Beautiful, outspoken.

“Fixing’s in your blood,” my father says. He taps his fingers on the windowsill for a moment, then studies the caulking.

“Isn’t that great, Dad?” I ask.

He doesn’t respond. He has bags under his eyes, and his mouth hangs open slightly.

“What are you doing?” I ask, nudging him under the table.

“Nothing, kiddo.” He snaps out of his daze.

“Is it the meds?” Sasha asks.

He blushes and shrugs. I wonder if he will be okay on his own. I try not to think about it.

“I’m going to the bathroom,” I say. I look over my shoulder. My father runs his thumb along the window’s seal again.

“I’ll come with you,” Sasha says. We pass a table packed with kids who appear to be on a youth group trip. They are blowing straw wrappers at one another and laughing.

“What time is it?” I ask Sasha when we enter the ladies’ room. There are three stalls, one without a door, and a window, open a crack.

“I don’t know, getting late. Your father seems okay. I know a guy who was on meds for a while and—”

“Your uncle?”

“Hey. That was true.”

“My father’s schizophrenic,” I say, “and so was my grandfather.” And one day, it could be me. I search Sasha’s face for any sign of fear. This is her out. “Do you still want to leave with me?” I ask.

Sasha takes cigarettes out of her purse and taps the pack gently. I look out the window. The snow has started to fall and the wind forces snowy pines to shift. I pull the window closed and lock it. And then check the lock.

“Hey,” Sasha says and moves close to me. I feel her hand against my back. “You’ll be fine.”

Her hand is warm. Goosebumps creep up my neck. She hugs me, and I feel her chest against mine. Every place she touches tingles. After a minute, she pulls away and slides two cigarettes between her lips and lights them. After the ends burn and glow red, she hands me one. I watch her take another drag, and then she applies more lipstick in the mirror. I mimic her movement. For a moment, I don’t see my reflection anymore. I am a beautiful Arapaho woman with flowing dark hair and skin like rich soil.

“Relax,” she says, pursing her lips. “Your makeup is running.” She licks her thumb and wipes my cheek with her wet finger. She kisses me; her lip ring is cool against my skin. I can almost hear the ocean waves rolling in and out, and I can smell the sea-salt air.

Just then, the bathroom door swings open. I pull away from Sasha. The “Pugs and Kisses” waitress stands in the doorway, her apron stained with ketchup. I tuck my unkempt hair behind my ears.

“Can we help you?” Sasha asks. She takes a long drag of her cigarette. The waitress’ eyes narrow. She shakes her head, but says nothing and backs out the way she came.

“We should go,” I say.

My face is hot. Sasha throws her cigarette out the window. We pass the front counter, and I notice the waitress talking to the cook in a hushed voice, watching us as we head back to the booth. The food is at the table, and my father is almost done with his burger. I slide in close to Sasha.

“Where you been?” he asks. “Food’s getting cold.” Before I can reply, the waitress approaches our booth. “Hey,” my father tells her, “can we get a slice of that world-famous sour cream and raisin pie?” My dad seems in better spirits.

“We’re out,” the waitress says, scratching her taut brown bun with her pencil.

“You mean that case over there on the counter is full of nothing?”

The waitress shifts her weight to one hip and avoids my father’s eyes. “Look, sir, we don’t want any trouble,” she says. I can see the cook. He listens in the kitchen door, his burly arms crossed. “We got a van of church kids over there. We think you should all head out.” The waitress looks at Sasha and me.

My shoulders ache. Sasha looks at her lap, quiet now. The muscles around my father’s mouth tremble.

“Let’s just go,” I say, inching toward the edge of the booth.

“You got a problem?” My father throws his napkin on his plate of uneaten fries.

The waitress backs up a little and says, “I’ll call the sheriff. We have the right to refuse service to anyone.” The waitress shuffles back to the kitchen for the phone; the cook follows.

“Dad,” I start to say. But he gets up from the booth.

“We’re leaving,” he says, “but before we do, we’re taking a pie for the road.” My father heads to the counter, and takes a pie from the revolving case. For a moment, I see blue and red flashing lights. We need to leave. I pull Sasha toward the door, keys in hand. My father follows.

We slam our doors, and I drive away, gripping the steering wheel. We drive in silence, no questions from Sasha, no music, nothing.

“That’s just like these small town ignoramuses to have a problem with the mentally ill,” my father finally says. “Must have seen my bracelet.” He tugs hard at the plastic. It snaps in two.

I take a long breath. “Dumb hicks,” I say.

“That was incredible, Mr. Miller,” Sasha says, a small tremble in her voice.

I glance over to see him smile. I think he feels like a hero for the first time in a while. I can feel myself growing calmer. The more road between that place and us, the better. Sasha and my father share the sour cream and raisin pie, eating it like children, scooping it up with their fingers. I’m not hungry.

After twenty or so miles, Sasha, content and full of pie, falls asleep on my shoulder. The complete pitch darkness of the prairie reminds me of waiting to see my father when he got home late from work. When he worked construction in the winter, when farming was slow, he didn’t get home until after my grandmother put me to bed. When the prairie winds rapped at the windows of our farmhouse. I pressed my face against the frosted window, waiting to see the Falcon’s lights at the end of our driveway.

My father whispers from the passenger seat, “I’m sorry I’m all you’ve got.”

I look over. I can barely see his face in dark, but something in his voice tells me he’s sincere. “It’s okay.”

“I want you to know I’m sorry for disappearing on you. Doing things like this with you, well, reminds me of being with your mother.”

I pull my dark hair to one side. “You should know why we got kicked out of there,” I say. “It’s because the waitress saw Sasha and me together—”

“When we get home, things will go back to the way they were,” my father says.

I imagine going back to the farmhouse. The grandfather clocks, the rock-bedded garage, the tire swing by the woodpile. The overgrown hay fields, the sunflowers hanging low. The thought of going back there makes me feel drained, bloodless. I think this is the moment. I should tell him now that I’m not coming home.

But the snowflakes fall and melt almost as soon as they hit the windshield, and I don’t say a word. I’ll leave in the morning. He’ll figure it out. He’ll find my clothes and my suitcase gone. Imagining my father finding my hollow closet and empty bed isn’t what makes me shudder. It’s that I’m able to go so easily. Like cutting my long, dark braided hair with one snip.

I brush my lips against Sasha’s forehead, while she rests on my shoulder. I look over at my father; he’s asleep now and snoring. His head rests on the white vinyl seat. I try to make out the image of the paradise postcard. It hangs from the visor a foot from my father’s face. Cruising through the darkness of the prairie, with the dim light of the Falcon’s radio, I can see a palm tree and maybe some sand, but just barely.




Stephanie Liden was born and raised in Northern Minnesota. She received her B.A. in journalism and recently her M.A. in English from the University of North Dakota, where she completed her thesis-style portfolio, entitled “Americanization and Assimilation,” in which she presents a critique of popular immigration narratives in American Literature. She contributed as a reader for North Dakota Quarterly and the student-run literary magazine, Floodwall. Liden is currently living in a small Minnesota farming community and continues to write.

Luminaire Award Medallion Designers

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Transparency for 2015 Luminaire Award for Best Prose

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