Authors: Laurence MacNaughton
Tags: #FIC022000 FICTION / Mystery & Detective / General;FIC031000 FICTION / Thrillers / General
Ash’s eyes snapped open, and for a moment his memories felt like broken shards of pottery, each piece matching up against the sharp edge of another, reassembling until they reached a jagged gap where nothing was left to fill the space.
His dog, Moolah, licked his face. His cold nose and rough tongue jolted Ash back to his senses. The dog let out a worried whine.
“I’m okay, buddy,” Ash whispered. He placed unsteady hands against the dirty concrete floor and pushed himself upright. Grit and fragments of dried grass clung to his cheek. He blinked around at the inside of a cluttered wooden shed, full of the smells of dust and old metal. Stripes of sunlight blazed in through the gaps between the wallboards, falling on cobwebbed tools and an old red car layered in dust.
He brushed at his cold cheek, wiping away the dirt. He didn’t recognize any of this.
In fact, he had no idea how he’d gotten here.
Moolah turned around with soulful eyes and whined. Ash rubbed his short tan fur, calming him.
He swallowed the dust in his throat and took stock of himself. He wore his usual white T-shirt and jeans, what his brother called his James Dean look. With brand-new black cowboy boots, expensive ones that didn’t even have creases on the toes yet. Nice, but unfamiliar. Ash couldn’t recall ever seeing them before.
His brother would know what happened. Ash pulled his phone out of his pocket. No signal.
According to the display, it was just after four in the afternoon, but the date was wrong. The last day he remembered was two weeks ago.
“Two weeks?” he said out loud, drawing a sharp look from his dog.
Ash closed his eyes and dug his palms into his temples, as if the pressure could dislodge something useful. The last thing he remembered was the leathery old face of a señora, streaked with tears as she sat in the shade of an old pickup with four flat tires. That was how it had all started.
“It is the
,” she had told him, pronouncing it in Spanish:
. The man she had paid with her life savings to smuggle her husband and grown son across the border. But instead, she’d gotten a phone call: another ten thousand dollars, if she wanted to see them alive.
She’d repeated his words, her voice flattened by a lifetime of broken promises. She could only get five thousand.
With half the money, the coyote had told her, she’d have to choose which one would live. Her husband, or her son?
Ash remembered the dawn creeping over the rooftops of the Arizona town, the edge of light touching him with its searing heat. It hadn’t reached the señora yet, sitting in her chair in the bluish shade of the truck, its shadow the last remnant of the night.
He’d looked from her eyes, pools of darkness without hope, into his brother’s. Mauricio had stood in the dawn light beside him, shivering in his new polo shirt and khaki shorts, hugging himself. “Ash, don’t—”
“We have to do this.” Ash knew it deep down, at a cellular level. It was part of who he was.
“Hey, I want to. But this coyote—he’s bad news,” Mauricio had whispered. “Seriously. He’s connected.”
It hit Ash then, the exact way to crack this. The scheme they needed to pull. Like rooting through a toolbox and finding the perfect wrench to take something apart. He felt a grin spread across his face. He couldn’t help it.
He clapped a hand on Mauricio’s shoulder. “Guess you’re going to have to go buy a lottery ticket, then.” Ash had watched the volatile mix of resignation and eagerness play out across Mauricio’s face.
“The lottery scam?” Mauricio had groaned. “Again?”
It made Ash want to laugh.
And then what happened? After that? Everything was a blank.
Ash’s memory felt grainy, like film overexposed into washed-out whiteness. Trying to think was like jabbing a needle into his temples.
He opened his eyes. Moolah sat at his feet, body tense, ears flat. Watching him.
“It’s okay, buddy.” Ash patted him. “You know where Mauricio is? Where’s Mauricio?”
Moolah just put his head down on his paws.
Ash took a deep breath of the dry air. With a groan, he stood up. A little too fast. Everything tilted around him. He leaned on the fender of the old red car. The painted metal felt cool and smooth beneath his fingers. Solid. As the rush faded, he stepped back, leaving clean hand prints in the dust. Beneath, the car was fire-engine red. Huge and angular, too, built sometime in the sixties. Chrome trimmed every surface, even the black vinyl roof. Thick letters stretched across the fender: G-A-L-A-X-I-E 5-0-0. The sheen of dust covered everything except for a few recent hand prints on opposite ends of the car: the trunk lid and the front edge of the hood.
Ash came around the front of the Galaxie and gingerly lifted its hood, hearing the musical jangle of old steel springs. Underneath, aside from the haze of tan dust, the engine looked like it had come straight from the factory. A massive round blue air cleaner dominated the top of the engine. It had a rippled red sticker printed with the number 390 in thick black type. The top of the battery had been recently cleaned off, the clamps scrubbed so that the metal shone. Someone had been about to restart this car.
Ash closed the hood as quietly as he could. It clicked.
A gust of wind shuddered through the shed. The roof creaked. Dust sifted down to the concrete floor. A black spider the size of his palm skittered past the pointed toe of his boot, then vanished beneath the Galaxie. Moolah sprang to his feet and barked.
Ash jumped. “Moolah! Shush!”
The dog whined.
Ash bent down and petted him. “Good boy.” He dug in his pocket for a treat, but his fingers closed around a strange angular shape. He pulled it out. A pair of tarnished brass keys ringed to a cracked brown leather fob.
He turned the heavy keys over in his hand. They had the same emblem as the Galaxie’s chrome hood ornament, a wide regal crest. But the car obviously hadn’t been driven for years.
Why would he have its keys? He surveyed the car from its sharp nose to its long tail and then shrugged.
He pocketed the keys and scratched absently at the back of his hand, only then realizing that something felt wrong. He held his hand out in front of him. A mottled red rash covered his knuckles, angry skin and tiny raised bumps.
Poison ivy, maybe. He stared at it, glanced at the car and stared at his knuckles again. Too many questions. Time to go get some answers.
He found the treat pouch and pulled it out, fed one to Moolah, and patted him. “Moolah, stay.” He straightened up and headed for the door.
The dog trotted alongside him, trembling with nervous energy.
Ash sighed. He led Moolah back to the middle of the shed. “Stay.”
The dog looked at the door then back at him, ready to go.
Ash made a gun shape with his finger and thumb, and aimed it at the dog. “Moolah!”
The dog froze, expectant.
Ash dropped his thumb. "Bang!"
Moolah flopped over onto his back, sticking his legs in the air. His tongue lolled out.
Ash smiled. He left Moolah there and cracked open one side of the double doors, letting in a blaze of sunlight. The shed was set beside a sandy driveway that ran down a tan grassy slope. Ash pushed the door open and stepped out into the fresh air. Mountains spread out in the distance, one ridge after another of spring green and rocks, capped with white, each peak turning bluer in the distance. He recognized the terrain immediately.
The last place he ever wanted to come back to.
Uphill, the long driveway led to a rotting two-story house that stopped him cold. Once, it had been the preacher’s house. Now, half its shingles were gone and the porch roof bowed so deeply that one more winter snow could do it in.
Two cars sat parked out front. A green Dodge pickup riddled with rust spots, and an immaculate black Trans Am from decades past. Even from here, he could see the massive gold bird splashed across its hood. It looked just a little bit like a screaming chicken.
Where was his car? And where was Mauricio? He held up his phone again. Still no signal.
He shook his head. Well,
seemed to be home, even if it obviously wasn’t the preacher. Maybe they had a phone, a land line. He trudged uphill toward the house.
The closer he got, the worse the place looked. The curtains were drawn behind broken windows. Siding had fallen off, exposing black sections of wall. Weeds had grown up through the porch boards. The place gave him a bad feeling.
He hesitated in the middle of the driveway. Dark memories of this house hovered around him, just out of sight.
But that was all long gone, he told himself. The past was dead and buried.
He forced himself to march the rest of the way up the driveway. The porch steps creaked under his feet and threatened to give way. He leaned on the corner post to keep his balance, and the wooden beam shifted beneath his weight. The sagging roof let out a groan.
Ash carefully eased his hand off the post and picked his way up the steps. The new boots clunked on the wooden porch. He peeked in the windows, but the grimy curtains and the dirt-spotted glass hid everything.
After a moment’s hesitation, he rapped his knuckles on the front door. He waited, glancing up at the rotted underside of the porch roof. Cobwebs swaddled the rafters.
Inside the house, heavy footsteps pounded. The door gaped open and a compact Latino guy boiled out of it, pointing a shotgun at Ash.
Ash stumbled back, but there was nowhere to hide. He put his hands up.
The guy raised the shotgun to his shoulder, looking mean, breathing hard. He wore a leather vest over a thin torso covered in spider web tattoos. The ink stretched the length of his arms, zigzags of webbing that wrapped around him like scars. He sported a bumpy red rash across half of his face, just like the one on Ash’s hand.
the guy shouted over his shoulder. “Salvador! Ramiro!”
“Okay, take it easy,” Ash said. “I’m not selling anything.”
The guy just kept aiming the shotgun, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “So you come back, eh?”
Ash thought. But he didn’t have time to figure it out. Pounding footsteps approached. Two more men with more spider web tattoos crowded out through the doorway, arguing in Spanish.