The skeleton of this story is, when we had been marriedless than ten years, my husband’s alcoholic brother died in the southern Colorado desert when drove out onto a ranch road to get some sleep but inadvertently left his car lights on and his batter died. Ill and isolated, vomiting blood, he had no way to reach help. We have no way of knowing how long he suffered before the end came, but he had been sick for months without telling anyone. He was thirty-six.
We did receive a call at 4 am, and his parents were out of the country at the time. They were all the way in Fiji, in point of fact, on a service mission for our church, and would not return for another nine months. My husband did drive his brother’s El Camino home, but to Utah, not Texas, and it wasn’t his brother’s ashes he carried, but his lead-lined coffin filled with his unseemly-to-discuss remains. (His parents didn’t believe in cremation). His sister (now deceased in an untimely car accident) was very pragmatic that way. Why pay someone else to do something you could do yourself?
We did get married very, very young, my husband was forced into a career change due to an economic lurch in the aerospace industry, and we have three sons. Other than that, everything is pure fantasy . . . more or less. I believe more strongly in the ghosts in this story than I do that my husband acting as Rob did ultimately in this story. His actions over the previous thirty-six years prove he reached the same conclusions, but Freemans are a stoic sort. They don’t talk about feelings.Neither is Rob the only embodiment of wishful thinking. I was the polar opposite of sleek and sexy at that age. But, we need to reward Rob at the end, right? And, being starkly truthful at that moment would have crashed through the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. One can only press credulity so far.
This was the third anthology Xchyler published and, still shy on acceptable entries to our contest, we needed a bit of filler, but I couldn’t think what to write. I don’t really “do” ghost stories. I’m not into horror. I don’t like scary movies. But then, Dan’s story came back to me, as it tends to do, even after nearly thirty years. I guess you could say it haunts me, and all of the sudden it had to be written. And, it had to be written from Rob’s point of view. It was probably the most tortuous to write of any that I have submitted to a Xchyler contest, but it proved cathartic, perhaps because of the truths that gurgled up in the process. I guess some demons had to be exorcised.
“Crossroads” isn’t a true story, but it’s full of truth . . . so much that I wouldn’t post this here if I expected any of my connections to read it. But, after three years in print, they still haven’t, so there’s no reason for them to start now. Internet, I think the secret’s safe with us. goes here
An excerpt from Shades and Shadows: A Paranormal Anthology
by Neve Talbot
Rob understood his brother’s love for the road, especially, as then, in the dead of night. Like himself, Nate had never been one for large crowds. On the road, one was utterly alone. The growling 454 V8 of his brother’s cherry 1977 El Camino Classic and the steel-belted radials humming on the blacktop lulled to silence all the demands that sucked the life out of him. They slipped away like the endless blur of the dotted white line that streamed beyond the windshield.
Except, there he was, bringing up the rear of that cross-country cortege, behind his sister Sarah’s Suburban, driven by her ass-of-a-son, Bertie; returning home with Nate’s ashes, hurtling at 75 miles an hour toward the madness: the boss, the job, the mounting bills and overdrawn bank account, the constant chaos of three small children he couldn’t afford. The labyrinth of life with no easy way out.
Toward Annabelle—his own sweet Nan—and that look of dread in her eyes: anguish that assaulted him, and reticence that held him at arm’s length. Pleading for answers to questions she dare not voice, nor even understand.
Rob jerked awake, jolted from a deep, dreamless sleep by something—the baby? He couldn’t remember. Nan had started whining just before ten, which degenerated into a fight, as usual. To avoid another relentless demand to hash it out, he put off going to bed until he was certain she slept.
He turned in very late, and the fog of his fatigue melded to his brain like his kids’ sticky hands to his skin. Scarcely lucid, he ignored his transient bob to the surface of consciousness, and surrendered again to the depths of slumber.
Her voice prevented it, however . . . a low murmur . . . hesitant . . . wary—scraps of sound distorted by the cobwebs of his sleep-deprived brain. He rolled over, pried open his eyes, and forced the numerals of the digital clock into focus. 04:00. Good grief. He had to be up in two hours. Couldn’t she cut him some slack?
He turned toward the wall and faked unconsciousness. He was tired of bending over backward to make her happy, and for what? No matter how he tried, he couldn’t figure out what the devil she wanted.
He recoiled from her touch as she reached out to him. “Rob.” She spoke gently, a catch of tears in her voice. Blast. He couldn’t do this tonight. This morning. She could sleep all day if she wanted, but he had to go to work. He moaned incoherently and pulled the spread up around his shoulders, blocking her out. The light on her nightstand shattered the darkness. He swore beneath his breath and dug in. Not tonight. He’d get his own way for once.
“Rob,” she insisted, jiggling him. “Baby. Wake up.” She prodded him in the back with something hard. Pushed beyond his patience, he hurled a glare over his shoulder at her. She flinched with the force of it but fought to appear unaffected. “Honey, you need to take this.” Was that pity in her eyes? Pity?
Rob looked from her face to his mobile phone in her outstretched hand and back to her face. He felt his stomach drop through the floor. Good news never called at 4 a.m. He watched her blink back her welling tears, but she could not hide the fear and heartbreak. That look he knew only too well.
“This is Rob.”
“Mr. Daniels—” the tinny voice on the other end of the line hesitated. “I’m sorry about the hour.”
Rob flung his legs over the side of the bed, turned on his lamp, pushed the mop of unruly hair back from his face, and hunched over the receiver. He knew Nan couldn’t help reaching out. It was who she was. He felt her drawn to him, then hesitate, repelled by the palpable shield of animosity pulsating around him.
Blazes! He needed some space. He couldn’t breathe.
“Excuse me. Who is this?”
“The sheriff of La Plata County, Mr. Daniels—Durango. Durango, Colorado.”
“How can I help you, Sheriff . . . ?”
“—Gutierrez. Tim Gutierrez. The reason I’m calling you is . . . well . . . your wife tells me you have a brother by the name of Nathan Daniels?”
“The thing is, your name has ICE next to it in the phone we found.”
“What kind of help does Nate need, Sheriff? I’ll do anything I can.”
“That’s just it, Mr. Daniels. If what we found is your brother, he’s beyond anyone’s help now.”
Ahead, Sarah’s Suburban drew up to the flashing red signal at the intersection, the headlamps lighting up the reflective signs at the junction. “In fifty feet, turn right onto Highway 288,” the GPS on his phone instructed.
Rob slowed the El Camino and saw his sister glance over her shoulder to ensure he obediently followed. In the rearview, from the glow of the dash lights, he could see Bertie’s vigilance—his eyes peeled for Rob’s least deviation from protocol. Defy his mother? That would never do.
It had played out the same that entire expedition—Rob tagging along, doing Sarah’s bidding, her perfectly trained terrier properly at heel. They both treated him as if he hadn’t a brain in his head, and maybe he didn’t since he ran her errands and put up with Bertie’s laziness and smug superiority.
And for what? To return home for more of the same. To endure Sarah’s constant criticisms—so she could put him properly in his place. So Bertie could gloat over his failures. All while Nan silently castigated him for not standing up for himself. Why wouldn’t he grow a pair?
She thought he should man up? Rob agreed. For once, he would make his own choices. He wouldn’t be their doormat for the sole purpose of keeping the peace. He had that one golden opportunity to break free without answering to anyone, and he meant to take it. If he didn’t right then, he knew he never would.
Rob flipped on the blinker and turned left.
“Recalculating,” the electronic voice announced with disgust.
Rob picked up the phone to discontinue the navigation, when it blared a Twisted Sister riff. He cursed under his breath but answered it.
“What are you doing?” Sarah demanded without ceremony.
“I got an engine light,” Rob lied. “There’s a gas station a couple of miles up the road.”
“We’ll follow you. Bertie, turn around.” He watched in the rearview as the Suburban made an abrupt U-turn in the middle of the highway. Just like Sarah. The world always bowed to her convenience.
“No. It probably just needs oil or something. You go on. I’ll meet you at the motel in Santa Fe like we planned.”
“We shouldn’t split up. Nathan’s dead because that car—”
“Don’t you lose your deposit if you miss the check-in time? It’s already ten.” Rob smirked at the silence on the line. Remind Sarah how much more her own way cost her, and you won the argument. The Suburban slowed again and pulled over to the side of the road.
“Keep your phone charged and don’t get lost,” she finally ordered. “We have to be at Galveston when the folks’ ship docks.”
“I’m a big boy now, Sissy,” Rob answered caustically. “Long pants and everything.”
A barked command, more grousing from Bertie, and the Suburban squealed through another U-ie, then peeled out down the road. Rob floored the gas. The engine roared, the tires sang on the asphalt, and he watch as the Suburban’s taillights quickly vanished into the night.
Their cramped townhouse sat a single flight of stairs higher than the street. Rob stood at the bottom, with his duffle in one hand, the doorknob in the other. He gazed at his wife who stood at the top, the baby balanced on her hip. By the time he finished his final phone call that morning, spreading the bad but truly unsurprising news, Nan had anticipated both Sarah’s plan and timetable, and had begun managing the unmanageable.
A large cooler sat at his feet, stocked to feed an army: hoagie sandwiches, lettuce and tomatoes packed separately to keep them fresh, carrot and celery sticks he wouldn’t eat, apples and oranges peeled and sliced like she fixed for the boys, granola bars, animal crackers, little bags of corn chips and tiny fruit cups she put in Luke’s lunch box, anything else her trolling through the pantry could produce on the fly.
He’d rather just stop at McDonald’s, but he couldn’t deprive her of her busyness. He couldn’t have stopped her if he tried.
But, there she was, gazing down at him with that look, and he had nothing. “There’s really no need for you to go.”
“I know,” she answered. She lied. He knew she believed he needed her to hold his hand. To wipe his nose and dry his tears when he cried, and cradle his head on her breast while she murmured, ‘He’s in a better place,’ or ‘He’s free now. Free from everything.’
“I’d just be in the way.”
Rob blinked at her and remained silent.
“There’s not room enough for me anyway.” Another lie. Sarah’s Suburban could seat nine comfortably and still have room for the State of Delaware. ‘The last thing your sister wants is me there,’ she left unsaid. ‘The last thing I want is eighteen hours trapped with all fourteen of Bertie Mulligan’s groping hands.’
Nan knew herself the outsider in that family affair and it stung. She grieved for Nate as much as anyone—probably more than most. They would never let her in, though, no matter how often she proved herself worthy of their respect. They all knew Bertie smeared her reputation as payback for her rejection, but they hid behind that holier-than-thou excuse to freeze her out of their little clique.
But, Rob couldn’t give her what she wanted just then. He scarcely held things together as it was. He didn’t have the strength to take on her grief as well. Let Sarah insult her with her distance and spare him the effort.
Just that once, he could put to good use Sarah’s disdain for her sister-in-law, and her demon spawn’s lust for his uncle’s wife. He would take Sarah’s officiousness and Bertie’s hypocrisy over a cloying, self-sacrificing little wifey assaulting him with cow eyes for a thousand miles, needing so desperately for him to need her.
The kids needed her. Let her dote on them. Blast. He thought he would suffocate.
“I’ll go with you, Dad.”
Rob attempted a smile and ruffled Luke’s thatch of straw-colored hair. Seven years old and already trying so hard to be a man. How could he look at him with eyes that understood everything? Or, at least thought they did. “I’ll ride shotgun.”
“No. You need to take care of Mom and your brothers.”
“Matt can watch Charlie.”
“Luke,” Nan instructed at the same moment. “Take Dad’s duffle out to the truck.” The boy squared his shoulders as he hefted the burden, nodded firmly to Rob, and then disappeared out the door, leaving the pair staring silently at one another. Sesame Street nattered in the background.
Rob knew he should fix this—thing—between him and Nan, but he couldn’t get a firm grasp on it. She needed him to apologize, but how could he when he didn’t know what for? “Annabelle—” He couldn’t find the words.
But then, actions always spoke loudest between them. He found it so much easier to speak with his touch. Then, she would answer with her response: the slight quiver of her skin as he grazed his fingers over the softest places, the catch in her breath, the arch of her neck, her dark, hooded eyes surrendering to his assault. Impulses washed over him as, from ten feet away, the friction between them melted in the crackling heat of pheromones that drew his feet to the first step.
The horn from the Suburban shattered the early morning stillness. “Go.” The word caught in her throat and he knew not from grief. He swallowed hard when he met her sultry gaze. She would have given and taken the life affirmation they both needed so desperately just then, even if he had only ten minutes to spare. But he didn’t, and the horn blared.
“I’ll call you when we get there.”
“It’s probably not even him. The sheriff said he had blond hair.”
The words offered Rob no comfort, but rather the reverse. He hadn’t told her everything Gutierrez said. He could never do that to her. The thought of his brother’s dark hair bleached blond by the blistering desert sun had churned in his stomach all morning.
Despite the comfort Nan couldn’t offer him, at least her words dispelled his mood. He wouldn’t have to endure Bertie’s knowing leer. Sarah wouldn’t give him that look—the one that said, ‘you’re nothing but a randy kid who was hot to get into some trashy girl’s pants. Anything that would hold still would have done.’
Rob downshifted, released the clutch, and laid on the gas at the apex of the turn. The El Camino leapt out of its coast and attacked the mountain. Its high-beams split the night as they flashed over stone and through the trees as the road banked around the side of the canyon. The breezy, brisk night purged the stench of vomit, blood, and sweat—the final remnants of his brother’s last hours—from the cabin as it streamed through the open windows. Rob felt renewed, refreshed, clean. He felt free and laughed out loud.
A sharp turn, and the cardboard box holding Nate’s ashes slid across the seat. Rob reached out and grabbed it, then settled it more securely in its place with one hand. “Sarah should have sprung for the urn at the mortuary,” he told it. “Mom would have liked it. Who knows if they’ll ever send that monstrosity Sarah ordered on eBay?”
Another turn. Clutch. Downshift. Gas. Power through the arc. Another purr of the engine as the muscle car responded to Rob’s deft handling. It hugged the curves like a cat winding around its owner’s ankles. Like Nan, when he came up to her from behind and—
He shook his head to break free of the thought. “Remember that road trip we always meant to take?” he said instead. “Remember how you promised to teach me to drive a big rig—between spring and fall semester, after I finished my first year at UT? Remember? Back before I messed up so bad? . . . But, I trashed all that and you . . . you didn’t do so well either, did you, bro?”
Rob downshifted as the grade steepened. The sound of rushing water from a nearby creek, coupled with the night breeze washing through the trees, prevailed over the low growl of the engine. The mountain air, sharp with pine, sweet with aspen, and smooth with sun-warmed stone, rushed over him and eased his agitation.
“I’m sick and tired of ‘someday’ always meaning never,” he complained. “Maybe it’s time we just drive and see where the road takes us. You were the smart one, Nate. You knew enough to leave the baggage behind.”
Gere always called Nate “little brother.” He was five years older. But, no one ever called Bobby that. Gere and Nate just called him ‘the kid’—the kid that came as a surprise nine years after Nate. To Sarah, he was ‘The Embarrassment.’
Bobby and her son Bertie were both ten. Of course, to Sarah, Bertie did everything better. He was smarter, faster, taller, stronger, more coordinated, more . . . everything. Even two months older.
Nate filled his pad above the garage with the cool stuff Mom banned from the house and Dad swore would mean Nate’s ruination. Bobby wished he hadn’t bragged to his best friend, Todd, that he could get it, but, if he didn’t show up, Todd would tell Bertie that Bobby was a coward, then Bertie would go running to Sarah.
And, Sarah never lost an opportunity to tattle on Bobby. She was a full twenty-one years older, but she would tell Dad for certain sure, and then Bobby would really catch it.
So, he pressed himself against the wall inside the apartment door as he hesitated. With one final glance through the glass toward the house, he shoved the stuff up his shirt, took a deep breath, then sprinted down the stairs and away from the fluttering curtains of the kitchen windows.
Bobby headed toward Dad’s workshop beyond the garden, at the back of the lot. Nate always lit up behind it—Gere too, that one time a year ago when they made a rancid sweet sort of smoke from the tiny cigarette, when Gere was home from the Army.
When they caught him watching, Nate snapped at Bobby to get lost, but Gere laughed and sent him to raid the pantry for munchies. Nate got angry. He said Bobby was the smart one. Gere quit laughing.
Nate never had much use for Bobby, but he always stuck up for him. Always.
Bobby ducked around the workshop to where Todd promised to wait for him. “Nothing to it,” he crowed to his friend. He sat next to Todd and pulled the chilly cans from beneath his shirt.
He shouldn’t have been surprised when Bertie stepped through the back gate. He only lived two doors down, and Todd had never been able to keep a secret from him. Bobby tried to love Bertie, but . . . Dad said Bertie was Bobby’s cross to bear.
Bertie was—Bertie. Like grabbing a beer, then spraying the rotten-smelling foam all over them. That was Bertie. Swigging a mouthful—that was Bertie. Choking on his own swagger was Bertie, too.
Bertie tapped the Marlboro on its end like they did in the movies. Then, he flicked the lighter and took a long drag. He looked about to hurl, but if they chickened out, Bertie would never let them live it down.
All of the sudden, a jet of water knocked the cigarette from Bertie’s lips. He jumped to his feet yelling dirty words Bobby had never heard before. Todd looked about to pee his pants.
Bobby forced himself to look up: first the scuffed leather boots, then the faded Levi’s. The choke chain clipped onto a belt loop and tucked into the back pocket that bulged with a wallet. The garden hose in the grease-stained hands and the pressure nozzle shooting water past him.
He looked beyond the frayed denim jacket and oily blue work shirt, into Nate’s stern face. Those fierce eyes peered from beneath a thick hank of black hair and pretended to see nothing but Bertie.
“Cut it out,” Bertie hollered. “I’ll tell—” Bobby wished he could raise one eyebrow like Nate. It shut Bertie up.
Silently, Nate turned off the spigot as Bertie and Todd scampered out the back gate. He smashed the pack of sodden cigarettes in his fist. He dumped both cans of beer out onto the ground, then crushed them and tossed them into Old Lady Mitchell’s aluminum collection over the fence. He cuffed Bobby upside the head. “You’re the smart one, dimwit.”
Bobby thought how Nate’s eyes looked like Dad’s whenever Bobby disappointed him. Bobby scuffed at the dirt and Nate ruffled his hair. They walked through the garden to the house. Nate paused at the bottom of the garage stairs. “Hey, kid,” he shrugged. “Wanna learn some riffs on my guitar?”
The remainder of this story can be read in Shades and Shadows: A Paranormal Anthology (2013) Xchyler Publishing.
. . . each story is brilliantly executed. I loved the Night-Gallery type spookiness paired with intelligent writing and surprising plots. Awesome story telling all the way around.Mae Clair
. . . especial favorites included Scott E. Tarbet’s “Tombstone” (loved the old farmer’s narrative voice), R.M. Ridley’s “Cost of Custody” (a P.I. adventure that had my adrenaline going), and Neve Talbot’s “Crossroads” (which I started out thinking I’d dislike, due to the protagonist’s attitude about his family, but ended up absolutely sucked in).Danielle Shipley
Great characters, great situations and some really interesting outcomes. Overall a lot of fun to read wether you’re in the Halloween spirit or just missing that tingle at the back of your neck!Jeremy G