Authors: Kealan Patrick Burke
Thirty Miles South Of Dry County
© 2012 by Kealan Patrick Burke
Cover Artwork © 2012 by Daniele Serra
All Rights Reserved.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
P.O. Box 338
North Webster, IN 46555
Fine musician; no finer friend
There ain’t a whole lot I can tell you that I expect you’re gonna believe, son. But I guess it’s just your poor luck that you happen to say howdy and set yourself down here where my old friend used to sit and where nobody but me sits no more. Even worse luck that you answered me when I asked where you was goin’, ‘cause if you’d said anyplace else, I’d have let you hop in that nice-lookin’ Dodge of yours and be on your way.
I know what you’re thinkin’ too, case you think I don’t. You see, I been around some, so while I might look to you like nothin’ but an old fart keepin’ watch like there’s somethin’ to see in this dusty nowhere thirty miles south of Dry County, and wearin’ away the paint on a bench that’s been here about as long as I have, all that watchin’ means I’ve seen some things, the kinds of things you’re gonna see for yourself unless you have a change of heart.
Now I don’t need to know your name. Won’t change the way I tell the story, or alter any the fact that it needs tellin’, so you can keep that to yourself. Guess you don’t need to know mine either, but I’ll tell you anyway. I’m Warrick Tanner. They call me—or used to anyway—Tan. That I’m brown and creased like ol’ faded leather is just a coincidence.
You’re sittin’ where Dick used to sit, and I mention him not cause he was a friend, and a good one, for a long time, but because he’s an important part of this story, so pay attention and quit slappin’ the dust from your pants like it’s gonna make a lick of fuckin’ difference.
* * *
For nigh-on ten years Dick and me passed our days here outside Sven’s Liquor & Gas, commentin’ on everythin’ from the weather to the mighty balls-up whatever president we had at the time had made of the country, to the continuin’ effects of gravity on Janice Farrier’s once mighty tits.
Dick and me argued some, as people are like to do, but we never got tired of each other’s company. I figure that’s ‘cause we didn’t talk all the time. Talkin’ when there ain’t nothin’ to say is askin’ for trouble. That way, when we did talk, it meant somethin’. Weren’t always profound—we was a couple of ancient geezers, not philosophers—but it were always interestin’. Couldn’t figure a math problem between the two of us, but we could read people like it were a lost art and we had us the key to the gallery. We could tell a liar from the twist of his lips, or a cop from the way he chewed his gum, or tell a thief by the way his shoes was tied. Weren’t nothin’ special or magical about it neither. It’s just what happens when you spend as much time as we did watchin’ folk. Got real good at it too. You might even say we got a little
For instance, one time, the high school coach Al Dennis pulled up in his Bronco. Same time of day as always. Just after school let out and Al were done borin’ the rest of the staff with cruel jokes about the kids he were supposed to be mentorin’. Now Al liked to talk, usually the same kind of shit all men past their prime and desperately tryin’ to hide it like to talk about: sports, guns, women. He liked to eyeball our girl Janice like she were a prize deer and his pecker were the rifle. Even asked her out a few times, but Janice, though she got flaws aplenty, weren’t fool enough to get caught up with a married man, ‘specially one that looked like a walrus in sweatpants.
That day though, Al weren’t talkin’. He eased out of the Bronco like a spaceman settin’ foot on Mars for the first time. The kind of look a man gets when he finds out he’s got cancer and three months to live. He walked up here, though walked ain’t quite the right word for it, his fat face whiter than fresh snow. He didn’t even nod at us, eyes like a carp’s starin’ straight ahead as he made his way into Sven’s. And as the bell over the door rang, Dick turned to me and said: “Reckon he came home just early enough today to find his wife getting Dutch-Boy plugged by that florist from Saddleback.”
“Yep,” said I. “I give him a day.”
He didn’t even make it a day.
That night, the police found Cynthia Dennis beaten to death on her livin’ room floor, and Al lyin’ a few feet away under a busted rotatin’ fan, a rope cinched ‘round his neck. They said if the rope’d broke loose a few minutes earlier than it did, Al might’ve lived. But I think we all knew that weren’t the case. Al seemed determined. (About as determined as we was not to tell the cops we’d seen Al comin’ out of Sven’s earlier with that rope as well as the bottle of Jim Beam he used to kill his wife. Wouldn’t have changed nothin’ and no one ever asked.)
And that’s how it went over the years. We’d read people, then wait and see, like some kind of weird lottery, if we’d picked the right numbers. More often than not we did.
That’s why we’re sittin’ here now, son, you and me.
See, I read you the minute you pulled up. You got secrets. Hell, everybody does, and there ain’t nothing wrong with that. At least, there wouldn’t be, if you was thinkin’ of headin’ anywhere else.
* * *
Close as we were to Milestone, we heard a lot of things about the town, and it weren’t always easy to tell the truth from the tall tales. We saw a lot of traffic at Sven’s, and everyone had a story. Most of the stuff I picked up come second- or third-hand, and that were because most people who went into Milestone, didn’t come back out. Folks tended to get lost in there, or die, or get redirected somehow. It weren’t no place for the weak, ‘cause it thrived on frailty, they said. Ain’t no place for secrets ‘cause word had it, it would turn ‘em against you. They said it were a town full of sinners who couldn’t seem to figure a good way out that wouldn’t end up costin’ ‘em more in the long run.
Now I can see from that smirk that you think I’m full of bullshit. That’s fine. Like I said, I can’t blame you. But maybe by the time I’m done you’ll think different.
Anyways, Milestone were our haunted house, our Bad Place, and fear were the reason we preferred to stay away from it, the reason we watched from the safety of our porches when it burned, or turned up the radio at night so we didn’t have to listen to the ugly sounds it made. It were the reason we sometimes sat strangers down and made ‘em listen to our stories—so they didn’t end up gettin’ burned, or added to those awful sounds. It became a ritual.
I moved here from South Carolina in 2001, just after those Middle Eastern pricks used our own airplanes against us. Six months later, I met Dick, and he sat me down and told me a story. I thought it were a joke, and told him so. Or if not a joke, some wild tale meant to rattle the bones of the easily fooled. What else were I supposed to think when some guy I’d never met kept me sittin’ so long my ass ached, just to tell me some wild yarns about a cursed town, and about how there were some kind of peculiar law that governed the place, which really weren’t no law at all. How anythin’ could happen, and usually did. Thought he were havin’ me on, same as you do now.
But over the years I heard the stories again and again and again. Heard the fear in the voices that told ‘em, and said farewell to many travelers who didn’t want to hear me talk and was never seen again. Heard about the Great Freeze of ‘91, which happened durin’ the hottest August on record.
So you can understand a man makin’ himself a solemn promise to stay the hell out of that town, a promise that didn’t seem to require much effort considerin’ there weren’t nothin’ I wanted or needed there.
But I learned that bein’ close to Milestone were sometimes just as bad as bein’ there, and if it turned its mind to you, it could find a way to drag you in. If you remember nothin’ else I say here today, remember that. We’ll come back to it when I’m done.
* * *
His real name were Richard Waits, but he didn’t care for that. Before Sven christened him “Old Dick,” it were always just “Waits,” which he didn’t seem to mind none, but most of the time I called him nothin’ at all. If he showed up, he were there, and there weren’t no need to hail him. I just said: “Mornin’” and he nodded, took his seat beside me on the bench and we was at ease with the day and each other.
Our days was simple. The best ones always is.
We’d sit on this faded bench of bowin’ slats and chipped wrought iron handles Sven picked up at a yard sale one Sunday, and we’d share what I’d guess you’d call companionable silence while we did some mental yard-saleing of our own. We was protected from the searin’ heat of the sun by this red-and-white striped awnin’ here that everybody knew wouldn’t have existed if we hadn’t bitched about the lack of one. Looked a damn sight better in those days, of course.
Usually we was in place before Sven’s battered old Volkswagen coughed its way up the small dusty hill to the store, and we’d watch him struggle with the parkin’ brake until he were sure the car weren’t gonna trundle back down onto the road and over the embankment into the Red Mullet River. Don’t know how many times we told him to get that brake fixed, but he seemed to take some small measure of personal satisfaction from ignorin’ common sense, ‘specially when it come from us.
So anyhow, one day—this were, I think, the summer after Al Dennis used his wife as a piñata—we was sittin’ right here, shootin’ the breeze, or maybe just listenin’ to it, and up come Sven in his splutterin’ shitheap, tryin’ for the millionth time to coax it up that hill with promises of a lube job. And just like always, it stalled, wheezed, then rumbled back to life before hackin’ out a cloud of black smoke that smelled like oil burnin’, and grumbled its way up here to the parkin’ lot. Sven got out with a trademark smarmy grin on that silver-haired, block-shaped Scandinavian head of his, and he nodded in our direction before settin’ about openin’ up the store.
In the days when Route 66 was the most popular way through these parts, Sven’s liquor store had thrived. Now, he were lucky to get a half-dozen customers a day, and most of the time that were either folks from Dry County hunting down a drink, or tourists. But Sven ran the store without ever missin’ a day, and we figured he did it to keep from goin’ batshit crazy from boredom. He’d never married, see, so I suppose that crumblin’ old store were everythin’ to him. Weren’t like he were turnin’ a profit. Hell, how he managed to keep it from goin’ under while payin’ wages to an employee he didn’t need, were anybody’s guess. Like the rest of us, it were probably because he were sweet on ol’ Janice.
“Might want to trade in that old rustbucket sometime soon,” Old Dick said with a toothy smile. “Sounds like a two-bit whore with emphysema.”
Sven replied without lookin’ up from his set of keys, which were large enough to confuse a prison guard. “You ride what you can get around here. Least that’s what your wife told me back when you still had one.”
Old Dick nudged me with his elbow, his long face creased by a toothy grin. We watched as Sven finally located the key, slid it home and opened the small main door of the store.
I had my mouth open to say somethin’ when Sven’s cry cut me off.
!” There were a girly, hysterical pitch to his voice that got me and Old Dick up off the bench faster than we’d ever managed in all our years of sittin’ there. Hackles up, unsure what’d got the usually unflappable Swede flapped, we hurried over and followed him in. The shades was drawn down over the windows and it were dark inside, so we couldn’t see anythin’ wrong, and couldn’t figure out how Sven could either, but I guess if you own a place you’re more in tune with how it should be than most.
The one thing we did notice was the smell.
“Bad salad,” Old Dick said. “And booze.” With a grimace, he waved a hand before his face. “