David Byron Queen ~ Mercy

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.”

Where from?”

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.’