Still half-drunk and driving west through the Idaho wilderness, a night creature threw itself in front of Paul’s car. His foot sunk into the brake before he knew what was happening. The car jerked and swerved. He was off the road and in a ditch with his hood a foot away from the base of an ancient cedar—its striated reddish bark like his arm’s pulsing veins.
Paul couldn’t move, breathe. Rain sizzled as it hit the hood of the car, still warm from the late day sun, turning into steam. He got out and checked for damage. None that he could see, though it was dark and difficult to tell. Then he saw two eyes watching him, like the distant lights of a landing plane. A deer. It vaulted away up the hillside. His breath returned.
The car was stuck. Its wheels spun loosely in the mud, failing to gain traction.
He started walking. He’d find a call box, or a passing car, or something or someone to help him get his car out of the ditch. His phone hadn’t had service since Lolo.
He followed the road for about a mile until coming to a lumpy dirt path extending into the forest. In the distance he could see lights, and buildings. It didn’t seem real. Was he dreaming? Hallucinating? Dead? The alcohol had all but left his system and he was fighting off the shakes, the lights rippling at the edge of his sightline like a mirage.
As Paul neared, he began to hear voices, whispers, all angelic and swirling around. Laughter. Music. A hardy woodsmoke aroma. The crunchy suck of boots on wet earth, gravel. The stretch and tow of light against the trees; lifting him to heaven, pulling him back.
It appeared to be a resort. Nothing fancy. A budget kind of place. Thirty or so cabins circling a lodge in the center. He walked up the stairs of the lodge. Inside was a dining room with a bar in the back, walls covered with the skins of animals—mountain lions, elk, black bear—each flattened and stretched across the wall. Their mouths, eyes, wide and astonished, shocked eternal by their ridiculous fate. It was busy. When the hostess announced it would be thirty minutes before anyone could be seated, Paul approached the podium. He glanced down at the reservation book and claimed the first name he saw. “I’m early,” he said, without hesitation.
The hostess looked him over. He knew he looked rough and hungover, wearing the clothes he’d passed out in the night before. She didn’t say anything, and led him to a table tucked away in the back, behind an old player piano banging out a medley of honky tonk tunes.
A waitress came by. Paul ordered a double whiskey and a burger and watched the restaurant on display. The bussers turning two-tops, four-tops, tossing greasy, lip-stick stained silverware into their tubs. The servers working for tips. The runners hurrying out of the kitchen with trays, plates, dome lids—up from which steamed wet balloons of hot, oily air. The scene excited him in its familiarity. Paul bartended in Missoula, and had served for years when he and Liz had lived in Akron, then Cleveland, before moving out west so Liz could pursue a degree in forestry. He wanted to open a place of his own one day. Nothing special. A burger and beer joint. He’d tried. But his credit was wrecked, and he couldn’t get the loan. He often thought if only he had a few thousand to set aside, to let grow. It wouldn’t be enough, but it would be a start.
Then a man approached his table. He was older, larger, dressed in a red and black flannel. Behind him swung a thin, oily ponytail. He sat across from Paul without extending a hand.
“Sure is busy tonight,” he said. Paul watched him blankly. “Always is on the weekend, seeing how it’s the only real place to eat for what, forty, fifty miles? Almost like you might wanna consider calling ahead, you know, if you’re hoping for a seat right away.”
“What are you saying?”
“You got some stones on you, I’ll give you that.”
Paul didn’t know what to do. He’d hoped to have eaten and left before anyone arrived, but the man must have been early.
“I’m sorry,” Paul said, standing. He turned to leave.
The man grunted. “Stay,” he said. “I don’t care.” Paul sat back down and the two of them looked for a while in each other’s direction. “Let me guess,” he said. “You’re the one with that Toyota in the ditch back there, those Montana plates.”
“How’d you—?” Paul removed the tatty, sun-bleached Griz cap he’d been wearing. Ned smirked, self-satisfied. “Yeah, OK, I was driving out to Grangeville.”
“Gonna be hard to get to Grangeville from the bottom of a ditch.”
“What’s your deal?”
“Busting,” he said. With the prong of his fork, he picked at a gap in his teeth. “Though I’d love to know what they got in Grangeville they don’t got in Missoula?”
Paul hesitated. “A dog. A rescue.”
“How should I know?”
“There’s no need for that.”
“Look, I have no idea where it came from. It’s a favor for my wife—well, ex-wife. She called me last night and asked if I could go pick it up. First I’ve heard from her in years.”
“A favor for my ex-wife—carve that on my tombstone, buddy.”
The man heaved into a strained, smoke-shredded laugh and slapped the table with his palm. In the resulting silence, Paul stood again. He explained he needed to be going.
“Come on,” the man said. “You’re here. You ordered. You don’t want to eat with me?”
“Not really, no. This is awkward as hell.”
Ned laughed again. And then so did Paul. He lingered, angling toward the entrance, when he saw a runner coming with their food. The runner dropped the plates. Paul sat once more.
“Guess you’re stuck with me now,” the man said.
As they ate, Paul eased back against his chair. The ruts tense in his forehead smoothed, and at some point disappeared entirely. “So you’re not from around here?” he asked.
“Hell, I don’t think anyone’s from around here,” he said. “I’m up in Wallace. Come down a few times a year to see my brother. He lives southwest, about forty miles or so.”
Paul asked the man if he had a phone he could borrow. He had almost forgotten about his situation—the night creature, the car in the ditch.
“Hm,” the man said. “You know, that could take a while.”
“I don’t mind waiting.”
“And towing will cost you. How about this—I got a winch down at my brother’s place. After we eat we’ll go pick it up and pull out your car.”
“Oh no,” Paul said. “That’s… I can’t.”
“Happy to,” the man said. “Been on the road all day. Could use some company.”
They finished their meal quietly. Paul drank another drink, and then another, and for most of the rest of the meal the man—Ned, as he’d learned—watched him with curious, solemn eyes. As if wanting to say something, but at the same time not wanting to say it either.
Outside, Paul got in Ned’s truck and the two continued down the highway in the dark. The headlights carved a round, golden half-oval on the road in front of them. He’d driven this stretch with Liz once, only a few months before they would separate for good. They’d pulled off at a turnout and spent the afternoon hiking under the gently skittering shadows of hemlock and pine, soaking in the hot springs a mile or so in along the trail. They’d kicked off their jeans and eased sighing into the burbling, steamy water. She’d slid over to him, twisted water out of her hair. He’d held her; her skin against his, soft and rubbery and slick like a seal.
Ned kept talking, but Paul wasn’t paying attention.
The forest whipped by on both sides.
Paul let his head drop back, neck loose and mouth dry. His body ached. His molars were tender and sore from clenching. And there was a burning white diamond in the space between his eyes, that sang to him every now and then like a pinky dragged along the edge of a glass.
Paul woke out front of a modest ranch house in the center of a narrow chainlink lot. The night cold had set in; a layer of frost had frozen several overturned plastic deckchairs into the lawn, all crystalline and glittery in the headlights.
“This it?” Paul asked.
Ned nodded. He looked different. Like he wasn’t the same person Paul had left with. Paul sat up. Ned’s eyes pointed into the steering wheel, his face made sickly by the yellow-green light of the dash. “I need you to do something,”he said. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you earlier.”
Ned switched off the car. “You see, my brother told me years ago he didn’t want to continue like… this. You understand? So I’ve been trying to work up the courage to do it, but I can’t. Every time I get close and tell myself this is the time it’s going to happen, I can’t—”
“What are you talking about?”
“I need you to do it,” Ned said. “Will you do it?”
Paul’s chest tightened, and he tried to steady his shaking hands. “You got a drink in there for me?” he asked, finally.
Inside the place was damp and musty. Not much more than a kitchen, a living room, and a bedroom in the back where Paul could see a man in a medical bed. Several types of ferns and ivies, in various stages of rot, sat beneath the windows and edges of the room in orange pots surrounded by towers of old stacked magazines. A streetlamp filtered hazy light through a sheer, off-yellow curtain above the messy kitchen sink, infusing the dark with a sepia glow.
“He alone here?” Paul asked.
“No, I—” he started, but it was all Paul needed to hear. He knew the rest. Wallace, the visits, the drive—none of it true. Ned’s life was here. “—he’s not alone.”
Ned offered Paul a drink. He agreed and Ned poured him a generous glass of cheap whiskey which Paul took down in quick, nervous gulps. Then they moved into the bedroom. They stood over the man for a while, not saying anything. He was older than Ned, but Paul could see the resemblance—same wide forehead, same flat cheeks. His skin encased him like an ant’s unhatched egg, pale and slimy and vaguely translucent. Within: a skeleton quietly flared.
“That’s it,” he said, pointing to a cord on the back of the ventilator machine.
Paul hesitated, then gripped the cord. It was like nothing. He gave it a tug. It came out readily. No flatline, or anything. Still.
After pulling his car out of the ditch, Ned hugged Paul and said goodbye. He slipped an envelope into his hand. Paul could feel the mass and shape of money inside but handed it back to Ned. “You sure?” he asked. Paul said he was and then walked back to his car.
Paul drove the remaining hour down to Grangeville. The sky was pink and purple, the land flat and wide with the sun still trapped behind the mountains in the distance.
He reached the edge of the neighborhood, saw clusters of rectangular steel-roofed houses, gravel roads, trucks parked in overgrown yards.
He came to the house and tapped his car horn. Soon a woman stepped out in her pajamas, followed by a waggly merle. Small and mottled, between a shepherd and a heeler. She didn’t say anything, just handed Paul the leash and a half-empty bag of dog food and went back inside.
Paul drove back as the sun filled the sky. At one point, he rolled down the window and let the cold air crash against his face. He was sober then, or as sober as he’d been in days. A new pain was piercing the front of his skull; the morning light tightened into his dry, bloodshot eyes.
Paul wound his way up through the mountain pass, easing into the tight, hooked curves, the new altitude like a thumb pressing gently on his sinuses.
He had hours still to go.
The dog slept on the passenger seat. Every so often Paul would pat a spot on the dog’s back to settle him, knead the skin behind his ears. “There boy,” he’d say. “There.” And each time the dog would wake for a moment and look at him, his eyes drowsy and softish blue, before returning to sleep once more, yipping as if trying to wake from a dream.
David Byron Queen grew up in Ohio. His work has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Rumpus, VICE, Hobart, McSweeney’s, Split Lip Magazine, New South, and elsewhere. He has an MFA in Fiction from the University of Montana, where he was a Truman Capote Fellow. Currently he lives in Brooklyn, New York and runs the indie publishing company ‘word west.’