Casey travels west, p.1
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       Casey Travels West, p.1

           Barry Burnett
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Casey Travels West
Casey Travels West

  A short fiction by

  Barry Burnett, MD

  o:o:o:o:o

  The Fool Press

  Copyright 2011 Barry Burnett, MD

  ISBN -13: 978-0-9796043-9-3

  Dear Reader,

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously—especially the characters, whose resemblance to anyone, living or dead, is entirely accidental.

  Casey Travels West

  Casey travels west.

  She likes the long flat highway, the sun low and in her eyes, the tar-strip rhythm of concrete rushing under the motorcycle’s front wheel. There are no other vehicles, and Casey can pretend it’s just a lightly traveled day, truckers pulled off at some unseen rest stop, sedans and minivans gone home.

  Lately, cities spook her. Not so much New York, though she can’t remember feeling much of anything back then. Except emptiness––empty streets, an empty apartment, the hollow in her chest. Until she stumbled over this absurd hog parked in the middle of Broadway, a note taped to its teardrop tank, Take me if you please. By nightfall she was over the bridge and perforating New Jersey’s unlit urban silence, following the interstate towards the last glow in the sky. Cleveland and Toledo were the same strange clean-swept stages; it took Detroit to get to her, on a side trip to chase the ghosts up Woodward, Murder City meets recovered cop. She rode the mythic blocks with a riot gun across her back, fair warning but there were no takers; the city finally and successfully abandoned, not a stumbling junkie or smoking Cadillac to be seen.

  After that, even Motown’s dead suburbs gave her the willies, and over the next week she looped well south of Chicago, plus stayed clear of Iowa City and Des Moines. The vacant gas stations that stud the highway are more tolerable, with siphonable fuel and all the junk food that she needs.

  The emptiness fits out here.

  Up ahead, she sees a patch of trees and a shingled farmhouse roof that sing out the right feng shui for tonight. Casey aims for the hummock of fall leaves that blocks the exit ramp, raising a particulate cloud that settles behind her as she halts, motor thrumming, then twists the throttle and turns onto a county road. A quick left at the only mailbox, and her tires are climbing a gravel driveway between untended roses, moving slow towards a door jammed wide with more wind-blown leaves.

  All she needs is a decent place to camp. The wide yard slopes to a creek beside the house, the late October flow so thin that she can roll across––a few slippery stones, a snake of clear dark water, and back up to a wide dry platform of silt from some forgotten springtime flood. As the engine ticks down, a waiting crow cries, a gothic squawk from a high branch in the yellow light. Soon a fire is burning, mostly lumber from the collapsed shed by the creek, and Casey climbs a tree-covered rise to set up her tent. Her stomach rumbles and she returns to peel the lid off yet another savory and delicious can of Dinty Moore Beef Stew before discovering that that’s it, no more mini- packs of sugar donuts, no powdered decaf, nothing. She squints up at the house, all black rooms and gray-blue twilight windows.

  Crap. She likes old farmhouses, likes the water and the firewood, but not to sleep or eat or otherwise hang out in. She already has too many memories of her own. Sighing, Casey fishes out her flashlight, recrosses the stream, and walks up the tangled lawn to push the door full open. Leaves skitter into the hallway, then silence. She listens, then heads straight back for the kitchen. Desiccated dishes in the sink, dried but faintly redolent raccoon turds on the linoleum, and, in a farmhouse cabinet the masked criminals couldn’t reach, an untouched tin of hot chocolate. Even better, half-hidden behind a row of glasses, an amber bottle of Maker’s Mark. In honor of her former husband, whose prior engagement makes it impossible to be here with us tonight: Mark, gone to meet his Makers. She smiles––the first of the day––and stuffs the tin in one cargo pocket and the bottle in the other.

  That’s when she hears the farmer.

  ....

  Or his bed, from the other side of the door beyond the counter. A creak, and then another, a creaking shake that builds into a bed-vibrating crescendo, rattling the glasses before dying down as Casey holds her breath, frozen. Waiting for the chill to pass, for her heart to slow enough to do something constructive. Soon there is silence again, a deep quiet that Casey does not disturb as she puts a hand on her service revolver and moves to the door, easy. The fucking Betterment, she tells herself, the Betterment again.

  Then she’s not telling herself anything, because there’s work to be done and you never know. The brass knob is cold as she turns it, standing to one side, and swings the door away, spread fingers gliding back along the painted wood.

  He looks as harmless as she’d hoped, wretched and old if fever-strong, twisted up on head and heels, a seizing arc against the campfire light that flickers through two the tall windows behind the bed. Loose skin hangs in silhouette from thighs and buttocks, fat already burned away, fingers claw into once-white sheets. Four days into it, she figures; four days and almost done. She turns the flashlight on and finds him staring up the beam at her, twin glints of Norwegian blue from nests of pain and decades.

  Casey sighs and sits on the chair beside the door, waiting.

  ....

  Lying on his side, he croaks out, “Water.”

  She shakes her head. “You’ll choke.” Just like Mark did.

  “Good.” The farmer tries to sit up, then falls back on the pillow she stuffed under him. “I’ll die before they take me.”

  Okay, not like Mark, enthusiastic till the end. “It’s too late, Mister. You caught the cure.” Columbus brought the natives smallpox and then measles, but our benign invaders brought a nicer, kinder virus. Tinkering in their alien workshops until they built one that could rip our faulty human DNA apart and then rewind it, even Better than before.

  “The cure?” A withered hand sweeps the air beside the bed, reaching for a bible lying open on the floor. “My Lord will cure me––in the next life and no other.”

  Casey hands it over and he clutches it; she tugs a blanket to his bony shoulder. “Great. Say hello if you see him.”

  An evil glare and he shrugs the blanket off. His strength is returning with the fever; he’ll seize again within the hour. “I see him all around me...” He hesitates, looking almost canny. “...and I’ll see His face––not those shining monsters, but His face––in the stars.” The farmer levers himself up, this time successfully. “Hand me my robe.”

  “No way.” A shattered hip would heal overnight––he’ll be immortal in a day or so––but she really doesn’t want to haul him off the floor.

  “My robe, my privacy, and my freedom, woman. I will walk once more beneath His firmament.”

  The garment in question is a sour, matted pile beside the chair. Casey gives up and lays it across his bony knees; he stares at her until she goes to wait in the kitchen. A minute passes, and then the rickety thump of a fall against a chest of drawers. Her hand flies back to the brass knob but it turns within her grasp and then he’s pushing her to one side, listing over a four-pronged cane as he stomps his way around her. She tries to light the way but he’s already out the back, gaining speed and stumbling down three wooden steps to recover, reeling, arms extended as he spins beneath an open sky.

  Casey rushes to help; he whips her away with the cane then plants it, solid, in the grass. An unshaven turkey chin tilts up to the stars and he declares, “I see Him gazing down upon me,” one hand on the black rubber handle and the other jammed in a terrycloth pocket. Like a fool, she looks up as well––to be reminded, unnecessarily, of the dotted line of silver spheres a thousand miles above. And then, worse, returns to see the old
man’s free arm pointing at her, holding an antique pistol he must have snagged from that dresser.

  She steps back, impressed despite herself. “Now what?”

  “It is a sin to take thy life.”

  “So...?”

  He’s looking pointedly at the unsnapped nylon holster at her hip. Her right hand has automatically traveled to it.

  “No.”

  “A good clean end is all I ask.”

  “Then let the virus finish,” she says, buying time. “You won’t be dead, but you’ll be clean, cleaner than ever. Your body, your mind, your heart... you’ll be good all over.” As good as Mark? Mark was always good. Until he got Better.

  “You or me.” The farmer’s holding steady, unpersuaded.

  Now her firearm’s out and he likes it, dry lips moving, praying. Casey watches him. What if he got what he wanted? Got to write his own script, got to die, not forced to live forever. Die like his hero Jesus, die
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