“Honey, have you seen my sweatshirt?”
“My favorite one…from college.” Morgan said as he tossed another undesirable sweatshirt from his closet onto his unmade bed.
“Nope. Probably lost.” Ronni replied as she poked her head into the bedroom as if it was levitating without a body.
“Come here and help me look for it. I know it has to be here somewhere. I can’t go without it.”
Morgan’s faded purple and grayed white Northwestern sweatshirt was part nostalgia, part superstition, and zero part style. He didn’t care though. He had bought it the day his father died. He’s not sure why he’s kept it the last 8 years, but for him, it’s been a way to stay connected to his dad and to remind him, not of his death, but of all the moments he cherished with him-mostly as a kid. All the games of catch that stretched into the night, ending when his mom would call them in, citing her brother who had “once played in the dark and caught a fastball with his teeth,” and the smell of his unmistakable cigars. The sweatshirt itself didn’t smell, but it somehow brought out a sensory memory of them…and him. He wore it every day that semester, even into the early spring when the sun was beginning to get hot. The day he bought the sweatshirt was also the day he met Ronni. She had been in a few of his classes during the fall semester of his sophomore year at school and while they had exchanged pleasant smiles here and there throughout the year, Morgan was incapable of starting a conversation with the opposite sex. She had been sitting at his same table in the library when he got the call about his dad. She saw him run out of the library after he was on the phone in the corner for about 30 seconds, a few tears were coming down his face as he passed by their table and all his stuff (laptop, backpack, books about something he was never going to need again, and the sweatshirt he had just bought that day hanging on the back of the chair). As the second hand ticked away four more hours to two in the morning, Ronni was left as the only one in the now abandoned building. That was until finally Morgan came sulking in, a glazy look on his face, his eyes puffy from weeping. As he approached the table, Ronni looked back and their eyes connected. She stood up slowly and held out his vibrant purple sweatshirt, “You forgot your stuff.”
He pursed his lips together, and offered the remnants of a smile- his eyes still devastated. A moment passed as he looked down at his black converse high-tops.
“Do you want to get some coffee?” His eyes fluttered up at her, grimacing at his suggestion for a caffeine date at 2am.
She paused for a split second, causing a bead of sweat to form on Morgan’s temple, and then smiled coyly.
“I’d love to.”
Ever since that day, he never travels without it. A reminder of the worst…and best day of his life.
Ronni slid into the room still hiding the left side of her body behind the doorway.
“Well, it looks like you’re just gonna have to cancel your trip,” she said.
Morgan finally stood up straight and realized why he couldn’t find the thing that he needed in order to start the long drive to Wyoming. He looked down at his feet, closed the closet door, and smiled while licking his teeth underneath his lips. He glided over to his wife in the doorway and looked up into her guilty eyes. She bit her cheek, making a half-smile scrunch. He held out his hand and she pulled the faded purple (almost brown, now) piece of clothing from behind her back and placed it solemnly back into his grasp.
“Thank you.” Morgan said as he folded the sweatshirt and shoved it into his small duffle bag. Most people would probably need one or two large suitcases for a two-week trip, but he liked to travel light when he was by himself.
“I still don’t understand why you can’t just write here.” Ronni said as she finally stepped into the room completely and walked over to the bed.
“I know.” Morgan sighed, while looking for his keys.” But I can’t explain it any other way. I need nothing to write something.” He stopped, took a breath, and walked over to Ronni still rocking on her heels on the other side of the mattress. He held her by the arms and then moved his hands up to her face. “You…” He said and kissed her, “are way…” (kiss) “too big…” (kiss) “of a distraction.” A final kiss. “I’ll be back soon. I promise.”
“You better.” Ronni whispered, frowning like a six year old.
Morgan turned back and zipped up his bag. Felt all his pockets. “Wallet- check. Phone- check. Keys-ch- Where the hell are my keys?” He turned back to his wife still patting his pockets. She was smiling, her eyes looking up and right, with a hand on her hip and another outstretched, dangling his keychain from a limp finger. Morgan cocked his head and grabbed his day-camp duffle bag.
“I love you.” He said as he took the keys and gave her another kiss on the cheek. “I’m coming back with the next greatest love story!” He shouted as he put a fist in the air on his way out the door.
“EERRKLUNK!” Morgan’s 98’ Nissan Altima had been sputtering for the last 20 miles. He looked at the check engine light flashing up at him and then at the corn fields surrounding the entire road. Morgan and Ronni moved to Boulder, Colorado after they got married. A quiet place, with a relaxed atmosphere- encouraging his writing. He had been driving through the empty prairie of the High Plains for a hundred miles now and still had another 120 uphill to the luxurious 1 bedroom cabin he had rented in the Eastern Rocky Mountains. A small wave of panic washed over his face, thinking about being stranded out here, until he saw a small mailbox in the distance and the top of a roof peaking over the cornstalks. He looked at his phone. The network bar on top had been “Searching…” for the past half an hour. He was in a dead zone. And he had no choice.
Knock, Knock… Knock. He wasn’t sure why he hesitated. Maybe a gut reaction.
There was movement inside the house. Morgan had parked his car in the driveway facing in which he was now regretting, wishing he had backed in instead in case he needed a quick exit. He figured these people don’t get many people knocking on their door, and he figured they did that on purpose. Some more movement behind door window. Just a shadow though. He couldn’t hear anyone inside. He cupped his hands to the window to get a better look inside when he felt something lightly land on the top of his left shoulder.
“And what might you be up to ’round here.”
Startled, Morgan turned quickly and came face to face with a double-barrel shotgun. One barrel staring in each eye.
“Holy shit!” Morgan closed his eyes and instinctively put his hands up. “I was just looking for some directions!” Morgan leaned back from the glaring dark, metal hallways, and saw a small, older man peeking over the top. His hair was white and frazzled, and his beard had been left untouched for years. He wore a faded pair of jeans too high on his waist and a black flannel hanging around off his limber frame. He pulled the gun up by his shoulder and held it with one hand.
“Who are ya?”
“…Ain’t that a girl’s name?”
“Not re-,” Morgan paused not feeling like defending his name today. “Yeah, it kind of is, I guess.”
Morgan was used to it. Too used to it. Years of grade school being “the kid with the girl name.” His Dad picked the name. It was the only thing he ever resented about his father. It got better in high school and college, though. People ran out of childish jokes, and no one really gave a shit in college. Especially in the North-Northeast where people were a bit more … “cultured”, as far as giving your kid a unique name went. When he married Ronni, there were multiple occasions where people would get them mixed up. When applying for a marriage license the attendant called them over as “Mr. Ronni and Morgan Hatteward.” Uncountable sex jokes from his buddies, detailing which one pitches and catches (“Yo, do you guys ever get confused when you’re banging, like who should be riding who?”). The amount of times he had to correct people who assumed from hearing the names who was who- “No actually, I’m Morgan (slight chuckle),”- was too many to remember. Ronni had a similar experience. Girls don’t get it as bad though. People are much more willing to accept a girl with a boy’s name than the other way around. Either way, it was another little thing they shared. And as much as it annoyed them having to explain, or correct, or defend, it brought them closer. Almost like it didn’t matter which one’s name was which- like they were one name- or both names.
“Well Mogan, not much to die-rect to up her’. Where ya headed?”
Morgan stood up a little straighter, feeling the threat of getting his head blow off get a little lighter.
“Uhh just to a -uhh cabin up in Jackson. At the bottom of the mountain there,” Morgan said and cleared his throat. “My car’s engine light came on and I’m not sure if I’m going to make it out there before it dies on me.”
“Hmm,” the old man growled. He looked Morgan up and down. “Well, I probly ain’t much help witha car- arthritis fuck’d me. Letcha use m’phone if ya want. Could make ya some lemonade, too. I make great lemonade.” The old man eyes turned upward, like a child asking his Dad to play catch. The old man took a look inside his house and smiled. Morgan’s neck shivered again and his head coiled back.
“I’m okay. Thank you, though, I really appreciate it.” Morgan tried to lessen the rejection as the man no longer looked frightening. Just old and lonely.
“Well alright.” Seemingly disappointed, the old man stroked his beard and gazed out toward the mountains. “Seems I may know a place ‘bout 10 miles from her’- the Gregory’s barn. Pretty sher the son’s the only’on left. Might be able to help ya out.”
“How’s that?” Morgan asked.
“Kid’za mechanic.” The old man spat a lugie at Morgan’s feet. A little caught on his beard and hung there like a spider web. “…n’fact, he d’best damn mechanic I ever seen.”
Morgan slipped into the front seat, not taking his eyes off the old man, now staring at him from his front porch. The old man put up a hand and smiled at him, his yellow teeth and gaps still visible from Morgan’s view. He began to pull out and felt a chill in the back of his neck. The man was still smiling. He caught a glimmer from one of his teeth. Probably a homemade filling. He didn’t look at the road when he swung his car out of the driveway. What are the odds another car would be on this road passing at this exact time? Worth the risk. Morgan took one last look at the house as he drove away; his eye caught a figure standing in one of the windows, the sunlight behind the house creating a silhouette in the side window. He wondered why they didn’t answer the door, but the thought fluttered away- replaced by the “less-than-official” directions the old man gave him to get to the mechanic.
Stay lef at ta first fork.
As the mountains got closer, trees started to intersperse the cornfields. It was only 4 o clock, but the sun was beginning to fall below the mountain tops, throwing Morgan into the shadows of Jackson Hole Mountain Range.
Lef onta the dirt road befoe the weird lookin’ tree.
He had barely gone a mile down the “dirt road before the weird looking tree” when the valley dropped and he started driving downhill. The trees were springing up more often now. The protection from the valley had been aiding their growth.
The driveway is ‘bout three miles down ther’. S’on yer right.
The Nissan coughed and gagged down the bumpy dirt road. Morgan felt it lurching back almost like a dog being tugged by its collar in a direction it doesn’t want to go. When he finally reached the driveway the empty cornfields were about gone and it was trees surrounding the area. The sun was almost completely behind the mountains now making the sky a reddish-orange hue.
Jus’ drive up and tell’m Bobby sent ya. He alsa makes jerky down ther’ behin’ the barn. S’damn good jerky, y’all should giv’er a shot.
The barn was about a quarter mile down the driveway. The brush had opened up a lot more to reveal a space about the size of a football field with a couple little shacks, what seemed like a smoker (for the jerky), a small home in the right corner of the area, and the barn straight ahead. It was painted dark red and looked almost brownish-purple in the setting sun. Morgan felt another chill in his neck and then a twinge in his stomach. How did he get here? He could smell the burning of the engine, or the transmission, or whatever it was that was wrong with his 98’. He could smell it as he pulled up in front of the barn and when he put in in park, smoke started to ploom out from under the hood.
Morgan stepped out of the car to a slight breeze. The crisp Wyoming breeze associated with the early fall was carrying the stench of rotting meat from behind the barn- perhaps the leftover’s that weren’t smoked yet. He heard footsteps coming out from behind the barn and stiffened up, preparing for who or whatever was going to come walking out.
“How’s it hangin’ partner?” A denim-covered man of 20-something strolled out from behind the barn looking at his hands, wiping something dark off of them- grease, mud, blood, etc. He stood tall, around 6’2” and had a lean but muscular build. Like a swimmer. He finally looked up at Morgan and turned his mouth up into a curious smile.
“Uhh,” Morgan looked around confused. “I’m sorry, do you know me?” He asked stepping around to the front of the hood.
“No, but you must know me. You don’t accidentally find this place.” He chuckled slightly and moved toward Morgan.
“Oh, gotcha. Yeah, uhh Bobby told me where to find you. He said you might be able to help me out. My car- well, my car has seen better days.” Morgan laughed nervously.
“I’ll say,” the man cocked his head and raised an untrimmed eyebrow toward the faded blue car. He looked up at Morgan and held out his hardened, greasy paw. “Thomas Gregory. Call me Tommy.” He smiled down at Morgan. His teeth were surprisingly white and straight. His soft blue eyes made Morgan sleepy. He put the other hand through his greasy black hair and tossed it back like a model- a drug-addicted model…a model. Morgan hesitated for a second, like he did back at Bobby’s house. Everything seemed okay on the surface. The trees were green. The dirt under his feet was brown. Two guys were standing in front of a broken car. But still, something underneath all that- something guttural- was wrong.
“Morgan,” Morgan stuck out his hand and pursed his lips into a smile. Tommy grabbed it tightly and shook slow. He walked back to the barn and opened up the two huge doors one by one until the barn’s mouth gaped like a black hole.
“Well, let’s go cowboy. Throw’er in neutral ’n get’r in here. Let’s getcha back on the road.” Tommy gave Morgan a passing pat on the back and got behind the Nissan. Morgan grabbed the wheel with one hand and they started to push. It went easily. The black hole was sucking it in.
“Morgan…” Tommy trailed off in thought.
“Yeah?” Morgan grunted still pushing.
“…ain’t that a girl’s name?”
Morgan rolled his eyes.
“Welp, this is gonna take some doin’.” Tommy pulled himself out of the dusty hood of the 98’.
“How much doin’?” Morgan was leaning on the side of the barn, pretending he knew the slightest bit about what Tommy was looking at under that hood. Tommy closed the hood and pulled a rag from his back pocket.
“You’re gonna need a coupla new parts. And not the kinda stuff I have jus’ lyin around.” Morgan groaned. “Come on inside,” Tommy continued. “We’ll give my buddy a call. See when he can get the parts in.” Tommy started to his house and gave Morgan a little wave without looking back. Morgan took another look at the house. It was small but looked large next to the little shacks around the property. Its white siding was falling off in some places and the chair on the porch had lost an armrest, but otherwise the house looked nice…banal. As he started catching up to Tommy, his peripheral caught movement in the attic window. Was that a person? The thought dissipated before it reached the inner workings of his brain. A bird, the eyes said and tossed it into the “don’t bother” file.
“So, my buddy said he can get the parts in tomorrow.” Tommy said hanging up the phone and sitting back down at the kitchen table. The kitchen was covered in stale yellow wallpaper.
“Can I use your phone?” Morgan asked. He needed to call his wife.
“Go for it.”
Ring ring…Ring ring…Ring ri-
“Oh hey babe, I didn’t recognize the number. Whose phone are you using?
“Tommy Gregory’s.” Morgan looked back and smiled at Tommy who was playing with the skin peeling off his hands.
“He’s fixing the car. It broke down out here. I’m still a couple of hours from the cabin.”
“Ugh, oh my god. I knew we should have gotten a new car. That thing is garbage.”
“Hey hey hey. I’ve had a lot of memories in that car… we’ve had a lot of memories in that car. ” They both laughed.
“So what are you gonna do?
“Well, the parts are coming in tomorrow so after we get them installed I should be back on the road.” Morgan said optimistically. He’s not sure if he believed it though.
“Okay well let me know when you get there, and be careful. You never know with those country people.”
“Will do. Love you.”
“Love you too.”
“That the Mrs?” Tommy asked chewing on a piece of homemade jerky he had pulled from a baggie in his pantry.
“Yup.” Morgan sat down in a heap.
“You call her Ron?” Tommy was inquisitive.
“Yeah,” Morgan smiled to himself. “Her name’s Ronni. I know, ’what’d you guys switch names or sumtin’?’ You know, there have been a lot of great men named Morgan. Morgan Freeman, Morgan Spurlock, Morgan Tsvangirai…” Morgan took a breath and continued. “And ya know, It’s mainly a guy’s name in Britain anyway, and also, Morgan literally means ’sea chief’. Morgan’s are god damn modern Poseidons for cryin’ out loud.” Morgan stopped, realizing the irrelevance of his rant and the there was a moment of silence. Tommy looked up from his jerky and raised his eyebrows still gnawing on the dried meat.
“Okay….” He said, but meant, “yeesh.”
“Sorry,” Morgan cooled his voice. “I just…I’m a little tired of having to defend my name.”
“No prob-leemo… want some jerky?” Tommy held out a stick of black meat, tints of red streaked through it. Morgan wasn’t really a “jerky-guy.” He felt bad for snapping at Tommy about his name though. He also didn’t want to be rude after Tommy invited him into his house…let him use his phone…is fixing his car. How could he refuse? He grabbed the stiffed slab of dried, whatever it was, cut too thick to bite off in one chomp and grinded off a small piece with his back molars. Woah, he thought. This is pretty good. This is really good, actually. Impressed.
“What kind of meat is this?”
Morgan pursed his lips into an upside down smile and continued to bite and chew small pieces. The two talked surprisingly fluently. The cultural differences seemed to stimulate conversation instead of halting it. They had quite a lot in common, in fact, and for being a country boy, Tommy spoke with an orthodox wit and intelligence. They talked about the land and the outdoors. Morgan loved hiking and climbing, which was partially the reason he goes out there to write, and Tommy lived the outdoors. They talked about Morgan’s job. How he was a copywriter for a large firm in Chicago right after school and then moved to Colorado to pursue writing after he married Ronni. He mainly wrote small things, short stories, TV episodes, anything to pay the bills. But he always had something big in the works- his novel or his screenplay. He had actually written a full screenplay for one of his fraternity brother’s theatre companies out in LA. It didn’t go great. The audience couldn’t understand how to love the protagonist.
“’Sa ballsy trans-ishun, right ther’. Were you scared?” Tommy leaned in curiously.
They talked about women.
“I had a girlfriend once ’pon a time- in the 8th grade…Mary Lorish.” Morgan smiled at Tommy’s innocence. He listened to Tommy describe her, unashamed and undeterred at the thought of expressing feelings in the company of another man. He was still a child. The world hadn’t raised him into an adult yet and Morgan enjoyed that. Made him think about having kids of his own.
“Trust me, wives ain’t all they’re cracked up to be,” Morgan said, imitating Tommy’s country draw. “Ronni drives me nuts. I love her, of course. But there are times I just want to shake her, ya know. ‘Just tell me what you want me to do!’”
“Yeah.” Tommy said looking down and smiling, not completely understanding.
The light shining through the kitchen window finally disappeared completely and Morgan’s internal alarm clock shook him back into reality. He had to manually stop smiling. They had been talking for two hours.
“Hey man,” Morgan stood up and stretched. “I really appreciate what you’re doing for me. Think I can use your phone again? Gotta call a cab to take me to a motel.” Tommy stood up as well and laughed.
“You ain’t gonna find no cab out here,” Tommy walked into the other room and opened up a closet. “..and the neares’ motel ain’t for another 40 miles.” He pulled out a pillow and tossed it to Morgan. “I got plenny o’ room. ’N I’ll get started on that lemon soon as those parts come in.”
Sleeping at a stranger’s house in the middle of nowhere? Had he heard this proposition a few hours ago he would have scoffed at the mere thought. Now, it seemed reasonable- if not, obvious.
Tommy led him to his guest room. Morgan was a little thrown off that he called it his “guest room.” Does he have guests often? The room was normal. Completely normal. Like something out of a Home & Garden magazine. Morgan plopped down on the bed and closed his eyes.
“Welp, I’ll letcha git sitch-ee-waited. I’ll seeya in the mornin’.” Tommy closed the door and Morgan slipped his shoes off. He let his mind relax and he slowly drifted off to sleep.
“Holy shit!” Morgan opened his eyes to Tommy’s face two inches from his own, his white teeth shimmering off the morning sunrise through the window. “Jesus, Tommy you scared me.” Morgan sat up in bed. “What time is it?”
“Time to fix that ‘ol lemon o’ yours, bossman.” Tommy straightened back up from leaning over Morgan’s bed. “Got some breffast and the paper fo’ ya. Ain’t really nothin’ in the paper though. Not much happens ’round here.”
As Morgan entered the kitchen, he walked into a buffet. Eggs, homemade waffles, fruit that looked like it was picked from the vine that morning, and, of course, his famous jerky. A steaming coffee mug that said, When you’re in Wyoming, Wyo go anywhere else? sat on the table next to the morning paper. Morgan sat down, speechless, and looked at the clock- 7:03 a.m.
“Did you do all of this today?” Morgan looked up at Tommy, who had an eager smile on his face.
“Yeah, I’mma early riser and I had gon’ out t’get yer parts so I figured I’d grab some things fer breffast whiles I was out.” Tommy looked at his feet like a bashful child. How could Morgan have been suspicious of this man a few hours ago?
“Wow…Well, I appreciate it, Tommy, but you really didn’t have to do this.”
“Ah, foe-get it. Eat up. Got a lot o’ work today.” Tommy turned his back to Morgan and started pouring himself a cup of coffee. Morgan dug into the eggs and jerky. It was delicious, surprisingly. He picked up the paper and started reading:
President Kennedy goes Hollywood
Rumors have surfaced that the President Kennedy has been having an affair with model Marilyn Monroe for over four months now. The President has gone on record to deny these allegations but…
“Uhh Tommy…this paper is from the 1960’s.” Morgan chuckled and handed him the yellowed, but otherwise pristine newspaper. Tommy looked at it puzzled and instead of throwing it in the garbage, gently placed it in one of the kitchen drawers.
“Hmm that’s odd. Must’ve snagged the wrong one. My bad, lemme getcha today’s paper.”
“Don’t worry about it, Tommy- came out here to get away from everything,” Morgan smiled. “Thanks though.”
They worked on the car all day. Morgan was in charge of carrying parts and finding the right tools for Tommy to use. There were a few times Morgan grabbed the wrong tool and Tommy would bust his ass. Morgan wasn’t exactly a handyman. The only tool set he owned was a small case his parents got him when he went off to Northwestern. Tommy commentated the whole repair but he might as well been speaking a different language to Morgan. The sun was already setting as Tommy pulled himself from under the car.
“Whadda think, Mo? Wanna giv’er a shot?”
“Sure. Just go head and start it?”
Morgan slid into the front seat and pulled the key from his pocket. He took a deep breath and put the key in the ignition. He turned the key and the car sputtered to life. Tommy had fixed it.
“Hey! Look at that. You did it, man!” Morgan jumped out of the car and turned to Tommy who was blowing on his fingertips and wiping them on his shirt.
“Ah ya know. Its no big deal or nothin’...I’m just a genius.” Tommy smiled at Morgan who smiled back. The two shook hands as if they’d been friends for years and walked inside to have a celebratory whiskey. Morgan was a writer. Which means he was an avid drinker. He claimed it helped his creativity. The two sat in the small living room and drank until they both passed out- well, until Morgan passed out. Tommy grabbed a blanket from the closet and laid it over Morgan who was sitting up on the couch, head back, mouth open. He stood there for 10 minutes, looking at Morgan sleep. His eyes turned sad and a frown formed on his face. He placed his hand on Morgan’s pale forehead.
He woke up in the middle of the night twice. Once because he heard Tommy talking to someone- on the phone, assumingly. It seemed like there was some disagreement but Morgan was too groggy to make sense of it or even remember it in the morning.
The second time was because of a bad dream; at least he thought it was a bad dream. He was walking along the rode toward the mountains. He just kept walking- for miles. He passed Bobby’s house and saw him sitting on his porch, shotgun by his side, drinking lemonade, and smiling. His teeth the color of the ripening corn. His eyes looked desperate. For companionship? For help? Morgan didn’t know. He just kept walking. The sun was coming down behind the mountain when he saw Tommy standing on the side of the road. He didn’t look like the man he had met when he was awake this afternoon. This Tommy was slouched, and his eyes were black. His denim overalls were covered in blood, not grease, and he was scowling. A small sliver of teeth behind his scowl showed a dark yellow coating. And then he started running. Not a calm, gentle jog, either. It was more like a manic sprint. Like a rabid dog. Before he knew it, Morgan was running too. Away from Tommy. This Tommy. He looked back, and saw into Tommy’s black eyes. It reminded him of looking down Bobby’s double barrel shotgun. And then he hit something- hard. He flew backward and landed in a heap. It felt like he got hit by a car. There was nothing in front of him though. Morgan got up and tried to start running again. But again he ran into…nothing. Tommy was gaining fast now, his lips looked crusty and his hair was thin and cracked. Morgan got up again and put his hands out in front of him. They touched a wall. A wall he couldn’t see. Like when you try to go outside the barriers of a video game. He banged and banged on the “wall” but there was no use. It was solid and Tommy was almost on top of him. He turned around and put his back against the wall. Tommy was insane now. He was coming full speed. His jaw seemed broken and was jutting to one side. It hung from his skull like a porch swing. Morgan tried to crouch and defend himself but he couldn’t move. Everything was paralyzed. He even tried to scream but nothing came out. Tommy was two big steps away when he opened his mouth, his jaw fell another foot and his teeth became fangs. Morgan looked into Tommy’s eyes again right before he closed his and braced himself.
That’s when he woke up. Sweating and panting. His heart was beating out of his chest. Morgan sat up and caught his breath trying to remember the details of the dream while simultaneously trying to forget them. He eventually laid his head back down and drifted off back to sleep, wary of the possible nightmare waiting for him on the other side of consciousness. He, however, slept dreamless the rest of the night.
The sun seemed to rise earlier for Morgan the next day. It shown in perfectly through the living room window, as if the window was put there as natural alarm clock. Morgan’s eyes tried to adjust to the brightness as he sat up from his slouch and put his hands on his knees. Did Tommy tuck me in last night? It took a minute for his head to start to pound. He looked around the room half expecting to see Tommy slouched on the chair next to him. Nothing but the dust drifting through the sun glares. The trees were quiet outside. The whole world seemed frozen. Morgan got up and made his way to the kitchen. No Tommy. Tommy’s bedroom was empty as well. The bed was so perfect it was hard to believe Tommy had slept there last night. Morgan made his way outside to the porch, the bright sun made him close his eyes and wait out another wave of headaches. As his eyes adjusted, he saw Tommy come into view, wiping his hands on his dirty overalls.
“Hey, look who’s up.” Tommy walked up smiling.
“Boy, that whiskey really did me in.” Morgan rubbed his forehead and grimaced.
“Oh me too. I was out like a light.”
Morgan smiled and looked at Tommy’s greasy hands.
“You working on the car?” Morgan asked.
Tommy raised an eyebrow questioningly and then looked at his hands. “Oh! Yeahhh, just some last minute ’justments,” Tommy said, stuffing his hands into his pockets. Morgan furrowed his eyebrows and glanced behind Tommy at the barn. A strange chill ran up his spine, but he shook it off.
“Mmk,” Morgan said satisfied. “Well… I guess I’ll go grab my stuff and head outta here then. I really appreciate all tha-“
“Wait,” Tommy interrupted. “You’re leaving?…” Tommy looked up at Morgan like a child who’s Dad was leaving on a long business trip. “I thought we were friends.”
“Well, yeah Tommy, we are, but I gotta get going. My cabin is only rented for two weeks. I need to start writing.” Morgan couldn’t shake off the next chill. It lingered on top of his spine.
“Y’all can write here!” Tommy said eagerly.
“Tommy, I appreciate everything you did for me. I really do.” Morgan grabbed his wallet from his back pocket and started flipping through twenty-dollar bills. “Here’s $200. It’s all I have at the moment, but I really need to head out.”
“I don’t want yer money, Mo.” Tommy looked at his feet. “You can’t leave.” Tommy whispered under his breath.
“What?” Morgan leaned in and asked? He felt for Tommy. He half-wanted to stay and hang out too. Tommy didn’t repeat himself. He just kicked at the dirt under his boots. Morgan straightened up and turned to go inside and grab his duffle bag. When he returned to the porch, Tommy was sitting on the rocking chair, picking at the calluses on his hands. Morgan shook his head. The guy obviously had no friends or family. He was lonely. He put his hand on Tommy’s shoulder, “Thank you, Tommy. I mean that. I have to go now.” Tommy didn’t answer and Morgan walked across the lawn to the barn. He hopped in his car, pulled the key from his pocket, and jammed it into the ignition. ERRR CLUNK! He turned the key again. ERRRRRERRRR CLUNK!
“Oh come on God dammit!” Morgan sat back in his seat and remembered Tommy coming out of the barn this morning. A rage came over his face. “Fucker.”
He slammed the car door and began back to the porch.
“Tommy!” Morgan yelled. Tommy just rocked back and forth with his head down. Morgan quickened his pace. “Tommy, what’d you do to my car?” Morgan yelled again as he got closer to the porch.
Still no answer.
Morgan marched up the porch stairs and stood in front of the chair. He bent down to Tommy’s level.
“Tommy… What did you do to my car this morning?”
Tommy didn’t answer at first, but then something slid out of his mouth. “I can’t let you leave,” he whispered under his breath. Morgan stood up, dumbfounded.
“What do you mean you can’t let me leave?” Morgan’s shock began to turn to anger.
“I’m not allowed,” Tommy replied. Morgan’s eyes widened and he bent down to Tommy’s level again.
“Look you little fucker, fix my fucking car so I can get out of here.”
Tommy turned his head up at Morgan. His eyes were black. “I’m sorry, Mo.” Tommy’s hand shot out and grabbed Morgan by the neck. Morgan’s eyes popped out of his head as he grabbed Tommy’s arm trying to pull it away. His grip squeezed the oxygen out of Morgan’s throat and Morgan could feel himself fading. Tommy rose up out of his seat and now Morgan’s feet were barely touching the ground.
“T-T-Tommy,” Morgan squeaked out. “Why are you doing thhh…” Morgan’s vision began to blur, but as he looked behind Tommy into the living room window, he saw a black shadow standing inside, though he couldn’t make out anything else about the figure. His arms fell from Tommy’s arm and went limp. The black shadow grew bigger and bigger until his whole view faded to black.
The smell is what woke Morgan up. A warm, putrid fog that burned his nose and made his eyes water. At first, he thought he couldn’t open his eyes. It took him a second to realize that his eyes were open but the room was just pitch black. He tried to see what was around him but there was no light anywhere. That smell though! It was unbearable. He could feel that he was sitting upright in a chair. Morgan tried to move but he realized hands were tied to the chair’s arms. His feet were also tied to the legs. Struggling was no use. No matter how hard he yanked and pulled and squirmed he was stuck. He couldn’t even stand up with the chair. Must be bolted to the floor, he thought. He screamed until his voice gave out. They went unanswered. He screamed until exhaustion set it. The smell was making him nauseous and he began to vomit on himself. At some point, he passed out again.
A bright light shown through Morgan’s eyelids and he stirred awake.
Morgan recognized Tommy’s soft voice and tried to adjust his eyes to the blinding light.
“Tommy?” Morgan croaked. He opened his eyes to see Tommy bending down in front of him. “Tommy, where am I?”
“You’re in the dryin’ shed.” Tommy said emotionless.
“What?” Morgan pulled his head up to look at Tommy. He had moved over to a table on the far side of the room.
“Sis where I dry out the meat t’make m’jerky.” Tommy said, not turning around.
“Tommy, why are you doing this? What is going on?” Morgan asked desperately.
Tommy walked over to Morgan’s chair, which was indeed bolted to the concrete floor of the shed.
“I can’t letcha leave Mo’gan. I’m sorry. I tried to getcha to wanna stay, but y’all didn’t want to. Y’all were gonna leave. I had no choice.” Tommy’s eyes were sad again.
“Tommy, please. Just let me go. I won’t tell anyone about this. I just want to go home and see my wife.” Morgan pleaded. He started to become aware of his surroundings and began to see the debris around him. Meat everywhere. Piles of it up to the ceiling. Slabs were hanging off a shelf above his head.
“I don’t think she’s gonna want t’see ya, Mo” Tommy said, still turned toward the work table.
Morgan raised his eyebrows and tilted his head in confusion. “She called.” Tommy continued. “I don’t know how she knew my number.” Caller ID, you idiot, Morgan thought.
Morgan stiffened in his chair and took a deep breath. “What did you say to her, Tommy?…Tommy, what did you say to her?” Morgan repeated.
Tommy turned around finally facing Morgan, and displaying what he had been working on. A newly sharpened filet knife hung by his side.
“I told’er y’all weren’t comin’ back. That ya needed some time ’part…” Tommy’s head went to his shoes again. “That ya met som’one new, and were in love.”
Morgan felt the wind leave his body. His face went pale.
“Tommy…” Morgan said looking at the knife in Tommy’s rugged hand.
“Are you going to kill me?” Morgan whispered looking into Tommy’s bright blue eyes.
Tommy paused and walked over to Morgan’s chair.
“I don’t wanna… If ya stay I won’t have’ta. I promise. If you stay, we can be friends ’n talk ’bout girls ’n drink whiskey ‘n go huntin’. It’ll will be fun. I promise.” Tommy said, now at his knees in front of Morgan.
“Tommy, I have to go home. Please let me go. I don’t know why you have to do this.” Morgan voice was tired and hoarse. Tommy brought his face to Morgan’s face. Closer than normal speaking distance. Almost close enough to touch lips. And then he whispered, “’Cause he is making me.”
“Who?” Morgan whispered back. “Who is making you do this?” His voice was desperate.
Tommy stood up and pursed his lips. “Will you stay with me?”
“No, Tommy! I need to go home!”
“This can be yer home.” Tommy’s eager eyes turned upward.
“No it can’t!”
Tommy stiffened and slid the knife into the holder around his waist. He took a deep breath.
“Yer a writer, right Mo?” Tommy said as he walked behind Morgan’s chair.
“…Yeah?” Morgan strained his neck to see what Tommy was doing behind him.
Tommy grabbed a pair of bolt cutters from a hook on the wall and pulled Morgan’s pinky finger back.
“Tommy! What are you doi-“
Before Morgan could finish, Tommy stuck the bolt cutters around his pinky finger and clamped them shut.
Morgan didn’t feel the pain right away. His initial scream came from the sight of his right pinky finger falling to the ground and blood spurting out from his empty knuckle.
The guttural noise that came next was from the pain. Morgan jolted in his chair, jumping and squirming at the pain. Tommy walked over to his workstation and grabbed a blowtorch. He came back and fired it at Morgan’s missing finger and cauterized the wound. That caused another scream from Morgan. Tommy watched as Morgan screamed and howled and lurched back and forth. He watched until Morgan’s head began to slump and his only his chest heaved in and out. The pain was unlike Morgan had ever felt before. He couldn’t imagine losing another finger to this maniac. He clammed his eyes shut and grimaced.
“Okay Tommy…I’ll stay with you,” Morgan breathed.
“Really!?” Tommy got down on his knees in front of Morgan and continued. “Do ya promise? Do ya promise ya won’t try ’n run?” Tommy replied.
Morgan looked up at Tommy with desperation. His face was covered in sweat. A piece a hair fell over his eye.
Morgan sat at the dinner table silently and ate mashed potatoes and jerky. Tommy had wrapped his hand in an antibacterial cloth. He said he didn’t want Morgan to get an “affection”. Tommy looked up from his “taters” and smiled at Morgan.
“Ya know, I’m real glad yer staying with me now. It gits a tad lonely out’ere sometimes,” Tommy swallowed and glanced at Morgan’s injured hand. “Sorry ’bout yer finger by th’way. I knew y’all was gonna be a stubborn one. Ya know, if ya think ‘bout it, y’all really don’t need yer lil’ finger to write anywho.” Tommy pantomimed writing with a pencil and studied his hand.
I type my stories you fucking idiot.
Morgan didn’t bother. He just sat silently, occasionally glancing at the clock. It was 7:48 pm when they finished dinner. The sun had long set. After he put his plate in the sink, he grabbed the whiskey and headed toward the guest room.
“I’m going to black out and go to bed…if that’s okay with you?” Morgan said without turning around.
“Oh sher, no problem partn’r. Have a g’night!” Tommy yelled back. He looked back at his food and giggled to himself. “Sounds like a hoppin’ party.”
Morgan didn’t drink a sip of whiskey that night. In fact, he walked into the bathroom and dumped it all down the drain. He put the empty bottle on the bedside table and lied down on top of the bedspread. He closed his bloodshot eyes and thought of Ronnie. Her smile and her laugh. He thought about his dad and all the stuff he wanted to tell him. Morgan lied there all night, eyes closed but awake. Living in the fantasy behind his eyelids.
Morgan’s heart jumped as he heard his door squeak open. He didn’t flinch. He had taught himself as a kid how to control his breathing and blinking to fake being asleep. He also figured Tommy would check on him at some point in the night, so he wasn’t all that surprised. He didn’t hear any footsteps walk over but a hot breath lightly glanced his face and a darkness fell over his eyes. Morgan’s mind scrambled with questions. What is he doing? Is he going to kill me? Is he going to… do something else? The answer made Morgan’s stomach turn. It came from Tommy voice whispering from the doorway, “Leave’im alone. He’s had a rough day. He’s sad.” Morgan’s heart started beating harder. He could feel it beating in his ears. If Tommy’s over there…then who is standing over me? Morgan tried to steady his body. He could feel it starting to shake. His breathing was audible now. He was almost hyperventilating. He wanted to open his eyes and see who was keeping him here- see who had caused all of this. But something stopped him. He couldn’t bring himself to confront this guy- this thing. He didn’t want to know who- or what- it was. He just wanted to leave this place. Forget it from his memory.
The shadow moved from over Morgan and not soon after, he heard the door squeak shut. He opened his eyes to the darkness of the early morning, the only light coming from the bright moon outside. He squinted at the analog clock next to his bed- 3:55 a.m. He got up slowly, careful not to make much noise, and unzipped his duffle bag. He grabbed his Northwestern sweatshirt, the sweatshirt that had gotten him through everything, and threw it on. He put his wallet, useless cell phone, and Swiss army knife in his pockets and slipped on his running shoes from under the bed.
He was getting out of here.
Morgan crept toward the door and slowly turned the doorknob. Click. Tommy had fallen asleep in the living room. A book on the history of Word War II was sitting on his lap. Tommy couldn’t read above a 3rd grade level but he liked looking at the pictures. Morgan inched the door open, praying it would keep his secret and slid his body into the hallway. His toes barely touched the floor as he made his way passed the living room when his right peripheral caught a shadow in the corner. Morgan froze. His body clenched. He began to turn his head when Tommy stirred again. The Dark History of WWII fell to the floor and landed face up on a chapter about Nazi torture techniques. Morgan’s brain went through all the possible options and quickly decided on “fuck it and sprint.” He took off. Bounding through the living room passed the sleeping Tommy, and out the spring-hinged door, which slammed shut as he jumped off the porch. Morgan ran like Hell itself was behind him. And it very well might have been. He ran passed the black hole, passed his broken, fixed, and re-broken Nissan.
“Mo’gan!” Tommy’s voice cut through the thin Wyoming air. “Come back! Please!”
Morgan stumbled down the gravel driveway. He could feel Tommy sprinting behind him. His footsteps sounded like thunder bouncing off the mountains. They began to sync up to his heartbeat and started getting faster and faster. The end of the driveway through the final valley seemed to get farther and farther away and he could feel his head getting light and his mind drifting. Tommy’s steps were rabid now. Pounding right behind him. Morgan didn’t need to look to know who what was gaining on him. Tommy’s eyes were black holes- sucking in the light around them. His teeth were gnarly and yellow. As he got closer to Morgan’s shadow his jaw drooped. It began to swing with his run. Morgan halfway expected to run into an invisible wall.
“Am I dreaming again?” he hoped. As Morgan was finishing that thought, a 1975 Camaro flew around the final corner and skidded into a 180 stop in front of Morgan.
“Bobby!” Morgan yelped.
Morgan slammed the door shut and the Camaro roared back into gear. Dust and gravel spewed out behind the spinning tires. Morgan’s head was spinning now. The heartbeat in his ears was drowning out whatever Bobby was saying to him and his vision began to blur. The car had just skidded onto the main street when Morgan passed out.
Morgan’s eyes opened to the sunrise gleaming through a faded orange curtain. His nose picked up the smell of fresh sugar cookies.
“Howdy.” Bobby said walking into the living room and chewing on a sugar cookie with his tobacco’d, yellow teeth.
Morgan’s memory caught up as the previous events flooded his brain.
“Bobby!…” Morgan had a million things to say but his mouth didn’t seem be connected to his brain. All he could muster was, “H-H-How?”
Bobby sat down in a rocking chair across the room and finished swallowing his dessert.
“Didn’t see ya drive by. Figured sumptin was wrong.”
Morgan’s brain felt something wrong in Bobby’s response but his excitement brushed it aside.
“Jesus…well. I-I don’t know how to thank you.… I uhh, I’m a little overwhelmed. That guy is a…he cut off my-.” Morgan held up his hand, short a little finger, in lieu of speaking. He looked back up at Bobby and his body clenched. Standing behind Bobby was a black shadow in the doorway. Morgan’s mouth dropped open and tried to form words. Not agai-
“Oh my! You need to properly clean that!” A jolly old woman came waddling out of the kitchen, replacing her shadow in the doorway. She set a plate of cookies, jerky and cup of lemonade on the coffee table. Morgan sighed in relief. Thank god.
“Lemme go get some Neosporin.” She turned back toward the kitchen. “You should eat something though. You look pale.”
Morgan smiled with appreciation and grabbed a piece of jerky. Slugged back some lemonade. Wow that is refreshing. He bit off a piece of familiar tasting jerky and held up the rest to Bobby.
“American Bison huh?”
Bobby chuckled and shook his head. “There ain’t no bison in these parts.”
A bead of sweat formed on Morgan’s temple. His brain was still trying to form complete thoughts.
Bobby was still sitting on the adjacent couch putting a new lip in. He pulled out a hunting knife and cut the top off his empty beer can. Morgan grimaced at the sound- or the knife. He wasn’t sure.
Morgan stood up and wobbled.“Can I use your phone?” he finally said.
“Sure, what’fer?” Bobby let a large brown wad of of spit slide out of his mouth into his homemade spit cup.
What for!? Are you kidding me? I need to call my wife and tell her what happened? Or the police! Somebody! I need to get out of here!
Morgan furrowed his eyebrows, confused at Bobby nonchalantness.
“I need to call the police and let them know what happened.” Bobby looked up at Morgan and cocked his head. “I need to let my wife know that I’m okay.” Morgan finished.
Bobby stood up from his chair as his wife came into the room again, this time carrying medicine and bandages.
“Ok young man, let me see that booboo…” The old woman felt the silence and stopped next to her husband. A tension fell over the room.
“So yer leavin’?” Bobby pursed his lips.
“Well yeah. I mean- I really appreciate what you guys did but I…I have to go home.”
Morgan said desperately. He was going to continue but something stopped him in his tracks. A black mass formed behind the couple. The same black mass he saw at Tommy’s house. The same black shape that had caught his eye in Bobby’s window earlier. He almost collapsed. Everything swirling around his head, all the puzzle pieces he’s gathered fell into place, and he slowly sat back onto the couch.
“Aww you’re leaving?” The old woman’s eyes turned black. Her teeth rotted and hung in her mouth. “I thought we were friends.”