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May 31, 2019 Fiction

Too Long, Too Late

Justin Mundhenk

Too Long, Too Late photo

I was in between runs that fall, and the cold came on slow and uncertain. Leaves lingered too long. Two weeks before Halloween, a man escaped from the county jail. On WSAZ, a reporter shoved a mic in the sheriff’s face outside the station. 

“We study all available routes,” he said. “We know why, but not how or where.” 

Cathy pointed a cigarette at the TV and laughed out smoke. She was taking another break from quitting. “That man is a lost man,” she said. 

“Which one?” I asked. 

“Does it matter?” 

  Then a shovel went missing from the barn, two cans of kerosene, a shepherd’s hook. I slept with a .410 wedged between my side of the headboard and the nightstand. 

Cathy told me I’d wake up a few seconds too late. 

 

When I wasn’t on the road, I ate lunch at the diner just to watch Cathy polish the cutlery. Sometimes she put a spoon or fork in her purse. 

“You can never be too careful,” she’d say.

If a song came on the radio she didn’t like, she changed the station, setting off the manager in the back. 

“That shit drives me crazy,” she said, dropping a butter knife into her purse. She came up holding a cigarette.   

I kept her company as she smoked out back, each drag longer than the last. A dog barked at a stray cat hiding between the dumpsters and the fence. Further off, an ambulance cried down the highway.

“I’m so damn tired of this place,” she said. 

I asked her to come with me on my next run.    

“You can drive as fast as flying,” I said. “And the sky is big enough for you to breathe.”  

“What would I do? I can’t sit in a truck all day.” 

“No,” I said. 

“What about my mom?” she said. 

“Yes,” I said. 

 

The night before I left it rained so hard I couldn’t sleep. Something moved under the trailer, and even in the dark I knew the leaves had finally fallen off by the wind rushing them around. 

Two days later I called from a payphone outside a truck stop in Cheyenne. The wind blew snow tornadoes across the parking lot as I toed a broken beer bottle with my shoe. 

“They found him hiding with family in Huntington,” Cathy said. “In a basement.” 

I could tell the time difference by the eleven o’clock news in the background, the clear cough that wasn’t hers. A bottle whispered open. 

“How’s your mother?” I asked. 

“Good,” she said. “Fine. She says hello.”  

 

They opened the gates on the interstate the next morning, and I came down the pass into Laramie thinking it looked like a TV dinner taken from the back of a freezer. We were like that for years, asking questions that weren’t questions because we knew all the answers. I kept going until she was far away from me, knowing all along I’d have to come back. 

image: Aaron Burch


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