This story is by Katy Ruth Camp and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
Sam’s jerky, drunken steering whipped Annie. Her right hand was up against the passenger door of his rusty old truck, pushing and pulling to steady herself. The AC was broken again, so every able window in the truck was rolled down and a wind tunnel was violently ripping through her long, auburn hair.
She turned to Sam and smiled, but not because she was particularly happy. Annie hadn’t felt anything behind a smile in a long, long time.
“Baby girl, how ‘bout we get us a drink here soon?” he yelled, his drawl rising above the last verse of “Ramblin’ Man” as it competed against him through the radio. The North Carolina sun was beaming behind his face, casting light everywhere but the darkness that was his profile.
His callused hands were making window-wash movements on the steering wheel as the pair of wanderers wove through the mountain. Baby girl was reminded of her father and the way he would dance with her when she was a careful little girl, Daddy’s hands passing across his face like rainbows.
“Play George Strait, Daddy!” Annie would scream in delight as he turned the volume up on the portable cassette tape player. “It’s a love without out end, Amen,” he would sing sweetly in the living room of their motherless home, a 22-year-old Carolina boy left to raise a Carolina girl who was still losing her baby teeth. He would spin her, twirl her, pick her up with her little legs dangling and tiny hand gripping his large, leathered one.
Twenty miles but many worlds away from there, Sam’s car lurched from the grass back onto the road and Annie’s stomach flipped. She closed her eyes and just imagined the truck was her Daddy, spinning her in one direction then another. It was just Daddy, that was all.
Sam’s worn baseball cap was turned backwards, keeping his stringy black hair from thrashing his eyes. Those eyes were getting smaller by the hour as he wrestled the last sip of cheap whiskey into his raw mouth. He tossed the empty glass bottle into the woods creeping from below the car’s mountain-edged path.
Other than fear and car sickness, Annie felt nothing. It’s mighty hard to feel anything when your first love – the only man who ever really loved you – is killed. It was two years ago and two years since Annie became numb. Feelings didn’t happen. They were too much, and yet nothing at all.
Annie still didn’t even know Sam’s last name, even though they had spent a month of nights together – never cared enough to ask. All she really knew about him was that he was a good drinking partner and his bed was about ten years and a hundred women too old.
“Here we go! Yes ma’am. Just in time,” Sam said, as they pulled away from the paved road and the tires crunched across a graveled parking lot in front of a long, squat building covered in white paneling. Its windows were decorated with neon beer signs and above the door was a two-by-four with “Judy’s Bar” dusted in black lettering across it. Judy’s Bar looked like a once-promised strip mall that gave up hope once Judy’s cheap dreams were realized. No need to grow from there.
Annie wondered how she would get off that mountain alive if Sam kept drinking in that bar. But when he reached behind the steering wheel and pulled the lever to P, she was thankful to have a respite from his driving.
Annie glanced toward the back of the truck bed and watched the truck’s exhaust and the gravel’s airy blood billow into a rolling cloud.
“You just gonna stare at nothing or you gonna get out of my truck?” Sam asked, drunk and irritated. Before she could answer, he slammed his door shut and his cowboy boots hurriedly kicked the gravel on their way to the bar entrance.
The mild buzz of of guitar strings escaped the bar as he opened the heavy entry into his saving grace, but she couldn’t stop thinking about hers. Daddy always saved her.
But Annie didn’t need saving anymore. What would it be from? Saving a heart requires there being a heart to save in the first place, and Annie lost hers when the bullet pierced his.
She bent over to peel her small, fake-leather purse from the floorboard and pushed the hard-nosed door open with as much force as she could summon.
Whop! The stubborn door cried as it hit the vehicle to her right. A small yelp escaped Annie’s wind-chapped lips when she faced the old, dark green Jeep Wrangler, its doors taken off and its top let down. Daddy drove one just like it for years and he would take Annie on long rides through the mountains in it, much the same and nothing at all like the one that was just paused.
She checked to see if there was a mark, but it was as if it never happened.
Good. That’s the way she liked her new world – as if nothing ever happened.
Annie slammed the truck’s door shut, pushed her sandals across the rocks and pulled open the door to Judy’s Bar. The smell of whiskey, cigarettes and stale beer hit her her she was met with one long bar counter perched a just a few feet away. Two men in torn t-shirts and worn faces were trading turns on a pool table in the back.
Through the sudden darkness, Annie saw Sam standing near the end of the bar, shifting restlessly in his stance. An older woman, presumably Judy, was standing behind the bar in front of him, wiping a beer mug clean. Her teased, platinum blonde hair and illegible tattoos crawling in and out of her black tank top reminded Annie of the biker ladies who used to drive by her middle-of-nowhere middle school.
Annie felt as though she was the center of attention, though not in a good way. Judy’s vampires shielded their eyes from the sudden sunlight and, once the door was shut behind her and darkness was returned, they looked at her as if she didn’t belong. Annie was 25 but her red hair, freckles and petite frame disguised her for at least eight years younger.
Seated at the middle of the bar was a man with a pint of dark beer resting in front of him. Unlike the others, he didn’t turn around.
Annie moved toward Sam and pulled out the stool to his left.
“What can I get you, honey?” Judy asked.
Annie glanced at the pint of beer the plaid-clad man to her left was now swirling in his left hand and she was reminded again of her father, how he would swirl every drink he ever had before taking a sip. The beginnings of his silver-white ponytail were shielded by his black cowboy hat, which also cast a dark shadow over his face and eyes. His hands, though, with their wrinkles and veins, were out in the open and suggested he was probably knocking on Heaven’s door.
“I’ll take whatever beer he’s havin’,” Annie said, nodding her head to the left toward the stranger.
“He got whiskey, sweetie,” Judy said, nodding toward Sam.
“Oh, no, I meant – OK, whiskey’s fine,” Annie said, not finding worth in providing clarification.
“You got it,” Judy whispered, her brows furrowed as she looked at Annie like the girl was an odd little thing. Judy put the clean glass down beside the other empty beer mugs and turned her back to Annie, pulling a half-empty bottle of Johnnie Walker off of the top shelf.
“You got any coins, baby girl?” Sam asked Annie as he draped his left arm across her shoulders. She pulled her purse off the bar, dug through the bottom and filled his right palm with four quarters and two dimes.
“Yep,” Sam said, as he planted a fast and hard kiss on baby girl’s head. He turned and walked toward the jukebox hiding behind the pool table with its faded felt and faded players. The two players said something to Sam, but Annie couldn’t make out their words. She did feel the tension behind them, though, and her safety came to mind once again.
“That your boyfriend?”
Annie jolted her head around to face the old man sitting beside her.
“Not really,” Annie said, as Judy put the brown liquid in front her.
“Well, good,” he said, swirling his beer before taking a small sip and putting the pint glass back on the bar.
Annie took a sip of her own drink and closed her eyes as the burning liquid traced her tongue and throat.
Annie opened her eyes and turned back to the stranger. The stranger was still looking at Annie. She noticed a tattoo creeping across his chest and collarbone, mostly hidden by the hastily-buttoned plaid.
“What’s your tattoo?” Annie asked.
“Ah, it’s just an ol’ bird,” he said.
“My Daddy used to have a tattoo on his chest, too. It was an eagle,” Annie said.
“Is that right? Well, if he were here, I bet he would tell you to get out of this place, away from that guy, and go home,” he said, as he smiled, swirled and sipped. “Bein’ alone ain’t always gotta be so bad. We just hafta learn to adjust and not be so damned scared. You’ll find your way, you know? You just gotta try.”
He took his last sip and put the empty glass back on the bar.
Annie stared at him in silence, blindsided by unsolicited life lessons from a stranger. He stood up, tipped his hat to her and put his right hand to his chest where his tattoo was marked. He didn’t pay for his beer but no one seemed to notice.
“What the hell!” Annie heard, and turned to see Sam’s face inches away from one of his new billiards acquaintances’ bearded chin. The other man reached behind his back, the metal of a gun catching the light of the beer sign in the window.
Annie’s heart raced as she grabbed for her purse and saw a bar napkin next to her drink, dark ink peeking through from the opposite side. She flipped it over and read the words, in her father’s handwriting:
It’s a love without end, Annie Beth. Go. You got this.
Annie jumped off of the barstool, grabbed her purse, ran to the entrance and pushed the heavy door open. The sunshine was still beating down on the gravel parking lot but there was no green Jeep, no gravel dust, no sign, really, that someone had just driven away.
Annie clutched her chest with her hand, her heart racing. She felt tears welling up in her eyes. She hadn’t cried in two years. She hadn’t felt her heart beat in two years. But, in that moment, the hot tears running down her face and a deafening thump-thump, thump-thump were in control.
The wind picked up and pushed through her hair, and this time it felt as if someone’s hands were brushing through the strands. Love. It felt like love.
Her trance was broken by the sound of a gunshot coming from inside Judy’s bar and Annie ran out into the road, under the canopy of trees.
After only a few seconds of running, she saw a gas station a hundred or so feet away with a bus parked out front. United Eagle Transit, it read in bold font across the side of the bus.
Annie ran through the bus’ opened doors and was met with an older woman sitting in the driver’s seat.
“Can I take you home, sweetheart?” she asked, with a warm smile.
“Yes ma’am. I’d like that very much.” Annie answered, as she took a seat in the back of the empty bus and smiled.
This time, she smiled.