Her temper was like a lit cigarette. Buck had already seen her burn hot and mean before crumbling and fizzling out. She made a phone call at the payphone just outside the gas station and slammed the phone down into the cradle. She lifted the receiver and slammed it down two times, three times, and by the fourth time he saw her arm wilt and sag to her side. Defeated, she leaned against the gray plastic of the phone booth. The woman looked up. It was early morning, just over an hour shy of sunrise.
Buck was looking for some flesh to house him, to hold onto his loneliness for a little while. He had been watching her for the past thirteen minutes from the cab of his rig. Idly, he picked at his teeth with his thumb nail. His mind was just about made up.
This was his third day driving through Nevada. The desert was always fussing. At night, the insects whined and the creatures stirred. It gave him the creeps. There wasn’t much out here. Just cacti and brush and wrinkled heat vibrating above the pavement. Sometimes he saw a truck stop or a gas station, like the one he was at now, and he would stop, relieved to find something real.
Driving was one of the things Buck knew best. But it was the damn scenery that yoked his throat and made his breath tight.
There was mischief here. Buck saw it most in the red dirt that crusted around his boots like scabs. That deep sand always followed his feet and coated his cab with rusty brown. He hated it, like the grime was some left over evidence of a crime he didn’t commit.
Buck glanced at her, his hand resting on door handle. She looked his way and their eyes snagged. Buck felt it then, this palpable loneliness, like the vibrating thrum of cicada wings clapping against his spine. He stepped out of his rig. The slam of his door echoed and disappeared somewhere into the empty morning. He walked across the gravel parking lot to where she was standing. He tipped his baseball cap to her and smiled quick as he approached.
She traced his outline in the dark with her pinky finger. “Hey,” she said.
“Hey,” he said.
“You passin’ through?”
“Thought I might stick around for a while.”
She shrugged and pulled pack of smokes from her red leather purse. She offered him one and he declined.
They talked for a while. He introduced himself. Her name was Amelia. They kept their voices low like they were keeping a secret. All around them, the muted light from the rising sun stretched, slowly shifting the inky black shadows up and away from the horizon. Daytime was coming soon. Buck idly twisted some of her long blonde hair between his finger and thumb as they talked, her voice hitting his ear like the sound of crumpled paper.
Her dress was a slip of cheap satin and lace. If Buck strained his eyes he could see her nipples. Buck didn’t mind looking and she didn’t seem to care.
She had on this pair of cowgirl boots, though, and Buck just couldn’t make sense of them. They seemed too big for her feet. They were cherry red and sky blue and had swirls of glittering stones that studded the sides.
Amelia asked about his hat. As she did, she flicked the brim and let her finger trail down the bridge of his nose as she pulled her arm back down to her side. He caught her smell in his nose: a little sweat, a little smoke, and something like cinnamon. She asked about his rig. He smiled.
“So listen,” she said after a while. “My car broke down a ways back. I left some important shit in there and I’ll need it if we’re gonna be familiar.”
“Familiar?” He was amused.
She rolled her eyes before taking a long drag from her cigarette. “You know what the fuck it means.”
Buck studied her through the smoke. Her face was sallow, but cute. “Is it far?” “Nah, I walked.” She gestured to her feet.
Those red boots. He nodded. “Sure. Let’s walk.”
They started west on the highway, leaving the small brick gas station behind them. The road was empty this time of morning. Buck looked around. Gradually, the desert colors inverted around them. The reds and oranges of the coarse sands were outlined with the black ink of night. The sky, typically such a deep blue in the evening, sopped up the warm pinks and reds that belonged to the ground. It was like the world was upside down.
Buck looked again at Amelia’s boots. The cheap plastic rhinestones caught and swallowed the early morning light, only to spit it back up. Boots like that couldn’t help but make noise. Crunch, crunch, crunch. It drowned out the rest of the desert noise he couldn’t stand.
Buck tried to keep the small talk going. She was all nods and one word answers. After evading his questions, she grabbed at his hand and then let go once he laced his fingers into hers. Buck couldn’t decide if her aloofness was sexy or annoying. It had been about ten minutes since they started walking. He wondered if he should feed her some shit excuse about hitting the road and cutting his losses now.
“You don’t like talking about yourself much, do you Amelia?”
“Ain’t much to say,” she replied.
“I’m just trying to get to know you.”
“Yeah, I know.”
He sighed and turned his eyes forward, away from Amelia. He was tired. The sun was just about up, but there were still shadows to conceal and hide the desert from him. His eyes grabbed onto the outline of a foreign shape a ways off. As they approached it, he realized it was a deer carcass, partly decayed and partly picked at by other critters. Its legs were fractured and splayed beneath it. Buck stared hard at the carcass, squinting his eyes against the new light on the horizon.
He had hit plenty of deer with his rig and he had seen just about every kind of animal limp and dead on the side of the highway. Usually he caught the rotten flesh in glimpses, but now his pace was slow. He had time to look, really look, at the slack of its broken jaw and the bloodied crust of its fur and the rot of its bones. He studied the bend of its back and the deep red slick of its exposed innards. He looked away, then looked up. The monoliths on the horizon loomed over the dead animal. They seemed reverent, like headstones or weeping priests.
They passed the deer. Amelia laughed. It was a little laugh that came out like a scuff on pavement.
She lit another cigarette. A trail of smoke followed her through an otherwise clear morning. Buck was impatient. “Are we close?”
“Close.” Amelia’s voice came out like a wheeze.
He knew there was nothing waiting for them. Maybe he always knew it. He stopped. “We should head back. We can get in my rig and I’ll take you to your car.”
Amelia rolled her shoulders back and tilted her head from side to side. She gave her head a light shake.
“No.” She dropped the remains of her second cigarette to the ground. It hissed as she crushed it into the dirt.
Buck tensed, pulling his broad knuckles into fists at his side. He didn’t like hurting people, but he wasn’t stupid. Something went sour inside him. She avoided just about every question he flung at her and he was cross. She kept laughing, too, like there was some joke in the air he didn’t understand. He grabbed her arm and pulled hard. “You best tell me what’s going on.”
She turned away and struggled against him. He watched her breasts bounce and pull against her dress as she moved.
“Enough!” She yelled.
He held her arm tighter. “Tell me what’s going on!”
She turned towards him, indignant, nose turned in the air like she smelled something bad.
She stopped abruptly and jerked her arm away from his fist.
“What’d you bring me out here for?” He asked. “You fucking tell me right now. What’s going on?”
The strap of her purse coiled around her shoulder like a snake. Her eyes darted all around, but she wasn’t nervous. It was like she was waiting for permission. Her gaze finally settled on his and he felt that same strum, the same pluck of loneliness and sorrow he felt when he had caught her eye before.
“What the fuck is your problem?” He shouted.
She tipped her head to the side. She laughed, that same small laugh that she had for the dead deer. “It’s been a long night, Buck.”
He didn’t have much time for anything after that. It was all jaws and teeth like cactus quills. They both shouted, but all he could hear was that noise, that awful desert noise. The insect chatter felt like scrapes on his ears. Some critter yipped, he couldn’t tell what. Rocks crumbled, the desert shifting away from itself at the break of day. And then there was this breath in his ear, like a wheeze, grumbling loud and mean and above the rest of it.
Buck strained to see the face before him but there was no face. There was only carcass, deer carcass, the same broken jaw and the noiseless cry he had seen before. He felt his legs splay out beneath him. A struggle. He tried to fight it off, but there was no fight left. He closed his eyes and saw red boots and dirt. Blood, blood. Buck felt gone.
The sun was almost up. All the shadows of the night disappeared like ghosts. Critters mulled around, their noises changing with daybreak. The landscape responded in kind, the light allowing the scenery to take a different form. Those sleeping spires were no longer beasts, nor men, nor headstones, lingering on the horizon’s seam. They were instead rocks, a crown, resting on the mantle of the rising sun.