Jody dropped the tailgate on her K5 Blazer and hoisted herself up to enjoy her Slim Jim and Red Bull in the Gas’N’Go parking lot. “Breakfast of champions,” she muttered, but mostly because she didn’t feel bad about it. She’d earned it. Besides, it was too damn hot to be doing coffee and donuts. It was only 9 and pushing ninety degrees already. In November. Earthquake weather, if you believed that sort of shit. Jody didn’t.
“Hi, hi, Jody.”
It was Ted shambling through the parking lot, looking rougher than usual, gaunt and clammy, his nose and lips all red and chapped to hell. You’d never guess by looking at him that he was only a couple of years out of high school.
“Hey, Ted. You’re up early this morning.”
He gave a high-pitched wheezy imitation of a laugh. “Oh yeah, I guess. Hey, what are you doing?”
“Right now, I’m just having my breakfast. What’s it look like to you, Ted? You high?”
“Oh yeah, I guess.”
Jody shook her head. Ted had been a nice kid when they’d been in school. They’d even dated for a while and gone to formal together their sophomore year. Now Ted was just another Georgebrook casualty.
“Listen here,” Ted said. “There’s a big party tonight down by the lake, at Spider Camp. Gonna be a bonfire. Everyone is gonna be there. Come.”
It wasn’t so much an invitation as a command. Not exactly the way to win Jody over. Still, Ted was a good guy. Lost, maybe, but not a bad person, and she didn’t have the heart to reject him flat out.
“I’ll think about it. But do me a favor, Ted, will ya? Take it easy down there. Pace yourself.”
Ted stared back at her blankly. “Come,” he said again, and then the Gas’N’Go door jingled as someone else walked out, and it was as if Jody no longer existed. Ted shuffled toward the man. “Hey, hey,” he said. “There’s a big party tonight.”
Jody had seen enough. She hopped down from the tailgate and walked to the driver side, safely out of sight from Ted. Poor fool, she thought as she fired up the Blazer. She guzzled down the last of her Red Bull and slapped her cheeks to make sure she was fully awake, then gunned it out of the parking lot onto Main Street, headed for home to put in a few hours on her psych term paper before crashing out.
“The Pride of the Mountains,” read the engraving on the stone archway out front of the Town Hall. Jody rolled her eyes as she cruised past it and all the other historic buildings lining Main Street. Georgebrook might have been the pride of gold country back in the 1850s, but these days it wasn’t the pride of anything. Apart from the architecture in old town Georgebrook, there was nothing here that interested her anymore. She couldn’t wait to get out. One more semester at the JC and working nights at the animal hospital, and she was gone.
Once clear of old town, she laid into the throttle and sped past Georgebrook School, where she’d attended grades K through 8, and then Georgebrook High right alongside it. A mile beyond, she slowed as she turned onto Oxbow Spring Road, and then she was in the thick of the evergreen forest. Evergreen was another misnomer these days. More than half the ponderosa pines had succumbed to drought and bark beetles and stood brown and brittle, ready to go up like a tinder box at the slightest provocation.
The dead trees made Jody think of Oxbow Lake, itself withered away over the last several years of drought to finally reveal its forgotten secret. She considered driving out there again, but then she thought of what Ted told her, about there being a party out that way tonight. She remembered, too, how disappointing her last visit to the lakebed had been.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The dead trees made Jody think of Oxbow Lake, itself withered away over the last several years of drought to finally reveal its forgotten secret.[/pullquote]
“Nope, going home, gonna knock out a few pages on my paper, and going to sleep.” She wasn’t even self-conscious about talking to herself out loud anymore. She’d grown accustomed to talking to the dogs and cats at the pet hospital as the only night attendant, and it had just sort of carried over into her daily life.
“It’s time to go out and pee, Jack boy.”
“Looks like that bandage is leaking, Dobie. We best change it out.”
“I’m right here, Ms. Mittens, washing my hands. I hear you.”
“Why is my mother texting me at two in the morning about praying for me? What doesn’t she understand about the word ‘no?’”
“The u-joint on the K5 has been clanking pretty loud the last week or two. I best swap it out this weekend. Won’t do myself any good if the axle busts loose.”
“Gonna knock out a few pages on my paper, and go to sleep.”
It was like she was narrating her own life. Once she said something out loud, it became reality. That was certainly the case now—she was going home and straight to her room, hopefully without having to speak to her mother. Even so, the thought of the dried lake made her slow down as she came to the turn-off for it. She peered out the passenger window down the dusty tract between the trees, and was surprised to see two figures standing there, no more than twenty yards away. They waved their arms when they saw her.
Jody pulled to the shoulder and braked hesitantly, figuring it was meth-heads, but these guys weren’t the local flavor. The older guy—middle-aged, graying, with the start of a gut—was wearing a pink polo shirt, khaki cargo shorts, and some serious-looking hiking boots. He even had trekking poles. The other guy was a skinny Asian dude in just a t-shirt, jeans, and Converse sneakers. He had a big DSLR camera hanging from his neck. The two of them couldn’t have been more out of place in Georgebrook if they’d tried. Jody rolled down the passenger window as the Asian guy trotted toward her.
“Hey, thanks,” he said. “You think you could give us a ride back into town? Our car is stuck and phones aren’t working. Can’t get ahold of Triple A.”
Jody regarded the two of them. No way she could leave them out here to fend for themselves. Most of the other locals would probably help them if they happened to pass by, but not all of them, and not many passed by at this time of day. So it looked like no sleep for a while…
This is just one of the stories in the anthology Redneck Eldritch, coming this month from Cold Fusion Media!