A man knows what he knows. Call it gut. Instinct or what have you. First thing I think when I see him coming up the lane: He ain’t no count. Could tell by his walk. Number two, he’s ran hisself outta gas. His shifting gait says he never learnt it’s as easy to drive off the top of the tank as the bottom. Ours is the only house on a ten-mile stretch—this old road invites our guests. Let’s hope this stranger is all July has to offer.
“Borrow some gasoline,” the man says.
Add thief to lazy, else why you ask to borrow what you got no plans to return?
“Where you stopped,” I ask.
He looks across the yard, taking his time to answer. Watching Emma carry a bucket to the sheep pen. She ain’t but 14, all legs and long dark curls.
“Daddy,” she calls. “I’m gonna feed the spring lambs.” The stranger watches her direction too long.
“The bridge,” he says.
“It’s out,” I say.
“Came on through,” he says. Eyes bright, unblinking. A timber rattler peering outta the coil.
“Local traffic only,” I say.
He don’t reply, just watches when Emma heads back to the barn, and I shoulder out his view.
“I got a gas can in the truck bed with enough to get you to town.”
He looks at me for a slow moment and rubs his chin with one hand. Homemade tattoos decorate his fingers. Him getting on his way is worth more to me than a few dollars in fuel.
“All right,” he says. He glances around and follows me to the truck.
This old road is a ghost. Two small plot cemeteries fenced like a crooked grin hold horse thieves that ran the stagecoach road and travellers that met death before destination. Bandits shot for robbing a man blind. Shot for doing the things men do in the dark.
As we drive, I think of Emma at home. Nothing but trust and screen door between her and every misfit the road coughs up. “Later, Daddy,” she called out as we left, but I just waved, not wanting to draw attention. Last year, she wanted a German shepherd pup. I should have said yes.
Coming up on the bridge, he’s watching me. Cutting his eyes. I keep mine steady but notice the scars on his knotty forearms. He’s fought more than one man over who knows what.
“If it’s fuel-injected, we may need to prime it.” This close I see he’s built strong. Maybe stronger than me.
“She’ll run,” he says, “hard to hold down, more’s the pleasure driving her.”
He wipes both hands on his thighs. I’ll never reach the pistol under the seat if he’s carrying.
“You from around here,” I ask.
“Nope,” he answers.
“Just passing through,” I ask.
“Never sure,” he says.
His car is a dirty blue Chevy Impala missing front plates. After I empty the gas can, the car starts as easy as if he’d just shut it off. I think about traps and how they spring. I turn to speak, and he guns the engine back the direction he came mouthing something through the window. I don’t regret his taillights, but my stomach stays hollow. I’m half way home before his words connect. Later, Daddy. Him repeating the words Emma called out as we left. I floor the gas pedal, swallowing down panic and asphalt.
Notes from Guest Reader Christen Aragoni
This story sets up a tension between the narrator’s paranoia and reality—we can’t tell at first whether the sense of danger is justified or if the narrator is unfairly judging the ominous stranger. The voice and mood pull us in, and by the end we’re spooked.