Jeff Bakkensen, Strangers

No one ever came to the motel without being seen a long way off. From one side was all flat with nothing growing more than thigh high, from the other more of the same until the mountains with the canyon carrying the road that used to be the interstate. By the time the shimmering dot became a green sedan that steamed and disgorged two full-grown men into the afternoon still, Nephi and Sam were already waiting on the pavement in front of the main office.

“Looks like you’re overheating,” said Nephi.

The men’s undershirts were soaked through. They wore tennis shoes and matching blue work pants. The taller man had a perfectly round bald head, the shorter, a crew cut.

“This one says it’s the radiator.” Taller pointed to shorter. “We haven’t seen a gas station in who knows how long.”

Nephi gave Sam a key and sent him to get antifreeze, the blue bottle, from one of the empty guestrooms that lay in a row to one side of the main office. They all watched him disappear through the doorway. When he was gone, the shorter man turned back to the car and, wrapping the bottom of his shirt around his hand, popped the hood. He stepped back and waved steam out of his face.

“See I told you we’d find some help out here if we just kept looking,” said his partner. “I’m Ray. This is Donny. Something tells me you don’t get many guests.”

“We don’t actually rent the rooms,” said Nephi.

No one said anything else until Sam came back with the antifreeze and some rags, and handed them to Nephi, who handed them to Ray, who passed them on to Donny. Donny flapped the rags over the engine and turned back to face the boys.

“Gotta let it cool first,” he said.

“Speaking of, don’t suppose y’all would have some water? Or maybe pop?” asked Ray.

Sam went into the main office and came back with two plastic cups of water.

“Now when the car gets overheated,” said Ray, “Donny here tells me that you gotta run the heater to try to move the hot air out of that engine. So we’ve been running that thing with the windows down for the last twenty miles or so. Nearly heated me to death.”

He plucked at his shirt with two fingers and held it away from his chest. He sipped his water and made a show of looking around. The parking lot was empty and the pavement cracked. Some of the rooms had tape across the windows. On the roof above the office doorway stood an over-sized fiberglass chieftain with his hand raised in greeting and the words Smilin’ Injun splashed across his headdress. A camper was parked in the grass at the far edge of the parking lot.

“Y’all don’t got real Injuns, do you?”

Sam smiled.

“We’ll be out of your hair soon as the engine cools down and Donny can see what needs to be done. He’s a real whiz with cars. Me, I don’t know a darn thing. By the way, where are your folks? Y’all aren’t out here alone, are you?”

Nephi said, “It’s just our dad, but he’s away on business. He should be back any day now.”

Ray whistled and looked to Donny, who shrugged as if to say, that’s life, partner.

“We have a two-way radio if you need to call for help,” said Nephi.

“No, no. Not necessary. We’ll just let Donny work his magic.”

They couldn’t all stand around and watch the car cool, so Nephi and Sam left the men and walked around to the vegetable garden out back. As they turned the corner of the motel, Nephi’s hand went down to the giant key ring that hung from his belt. He turned back and locked the office doors.

“We always lock the doors,” said Nephi. “Keep the animals out.”

“Can’t be too careful,” said Ray.

The garden was about a half-acre laid in uneven rows of beans, peas, onions, and squash. Along one side was a chainlink fence trellised with tomatoes. Nephi got two plastic shopping bags from a shed at the back of the office and gave one to Sam. They started in on opposite sides of a row of snap peas.

“You remember what we say about strangers?” said Nephi. “I was thirsty and you gave me drink.”

Sam nodded.

“But no more than that, right? Don’t let them inside or go anywhere alone with them. If something doesn’t feel right, call for me right away. Treat them well and they’ll be on their way.”

They got to the end of the row and swung around to the next one, then started back the other way.

“You don’t think Dad might have sent them? To keep an eye on us or something?”

Nephi gave him a look over the peas. “They don’t know Dad and they don’t know us.”

They were starting on the third row when Ray came around the corner of the motel and went into the shed. He came out with a hoe, holding the blade at eye level. The boys stopped picking.

“Do you need something?” asked Nephi.

“Look at this here!” said Ray, sweeping the hoe back and forth to indicate the garden, “going green and off the grid, am I right?” He winked. “Donny said he’s looking for some epoxy if you have any. Says there’s a hole in the radiator bottom.”

Nephi stepped over a row of peas to circle Ray at the edge of the garden, “Just a minute.”

He took Sam’s bag and led Sam and Ray around to the front, leaving them in front of the office while he went into one of the rooms. Sam looked to Ray leaning on the hoe and realized he was already breaking the rules. He backed a few feet down the walkway to put some air between them.

Ray watched him go. “Regular Hole-in-the-Wall you got out here. Not much to do except shoot the shit. You know what that means?”

“No sir.”

“It’s just a mean way of saying chat. You ever play twenty questions?”

Sam shook his head.

“I ask a question, and you give me an answer. Has to be truthful, though, that’s the rules. And I get twenty of them.”

Sam said okay.

“Alright,” said Ray. “First question: What’s the point of a motel if y’all don’t rent rooms?”

Sam shrugged. “We just live here. We used to live in the camper.”

“That camper there?” He pointed to the van at the edge of the lot.

“Is that another question?”

Ray smiled. “Withdrawn. So it’s just the two of you. Dad’s away on business. And your mom, is she in a place where she can come visit from, or-”

Sam shook his head.

“Hmm.” Ray stabbed at the pavement with the hoe handle. “That’s tough. My momma raised me. Dad skipped out when I was born. But yours is coming back any day now?”

“Yessir.”

“And he’s really coming back? Drive up at any minute?”

“What do you mean?” asked Sam.

“Silly question I guess.”

Ray cleared his throat and the throat clearing turned into a coughing fit that doubled him over. When it was done, he spat a speckled hunk onto the pavement and spread it around with his shoe.

“You don’t have any more?” asked Sam.

Ray looked around until his eyes settled on the Smilin’ Injun.

“You ever talk to that old chief?”

Sam shook his head and said no and blushed all at once.

“Thought so.”

Nephi came back down the walkway with a bolt-action hunting rifle slung over his shoulder. He set a can of sealant on the ground a few feet from the car.

“Hey there pilgrim,” said Ray. “What’s the gun for?”

“It’ll start getting dark soon. We have coyotes sometimes, snakes. Have to be careful.”

“Nephi shot a deer this spring,” said Sam. “Good eating.”

Donny came around from the far side of the car and picked up the can.

“This’ll do,” he said. “Supposed to sit overnight though.” He looked up and saw Nephi. “What’s with the gun?”

“He doesn’t want the snakes to get us,” said Ray. “Overnight, huh?”

“Supposed to.”

“Even with this heat? You’d think the dry-”

“If you want it to hold,” said Donny, “it’s supposed to sit overnight. I dunno what else you want me to say.”

Sam and Nephi listened to chatter on the radio while they made succotash with ham and bread, which the four of them ate under the overhang in front of the office. They were short one folding chair; Nephi stood, the rifle still on his shoulder. Ray could hardly eat he spent so much time giving praise.

“I never knew a boy could cook before.”

“We grew it, too,” said Sam.

“You don’t say?”

“Just not the corn or the bread. And not the ham.”

“Well I love it,” said Ray. “Regular Swiss Family Robinson.”

The boys looked at each other. Nephi shrugged.

“Where are you trying to go?” asked Sam.

Ray smiled. “Your brother’s all business and you’re the curious one, is that right?” He put down his fork. “Well I can tell you, but you boys gotta keep it secret. Guessing y’all don’t have a television or anything like that?”

Nephi shook his head.

“Cell phone? Computer?”

“We’re not allowed,” said Sam.

“That’s too bad,” said Ray. “Because the thing is, the two of us are baseball scouts. We’re supposed to be up tomorrow to see this kid pitch over at UNM.”

He gave Donny a long look.

“We like to watch all the games we can,” said Donny, watching himself move peas around his plate. “Too bad about no television.”

“But this kid,” said Ray. “Oh boy can he pitch. Your dad ever take you to the games over there?”

“No,” said Nephi.

“You wouldn’t know him then. Name’s Wagner. Got a killer fastball. Killer changeup too.”

“One of our top prospects,” said Donny.

Nephi nodded towards the car. “Your plates say Missouri. Did you drive all the way out here?”

Ray snorted and reached for his water.

“In fact we did. St. Louis Cardinals.” He turned to Sam. “You look like you’ve got an arm on you. Ever play?”

Sam shook his head.

“Ever seen a baseball?” asked Donny, looking up. “You ever been out there at all?” He pointed with his thumb towards the darkness growing behind him.

“Out where?” asked Nephi. “Off the motel?”

Donny nodded.

“Of course we have. We’re not idiots. And you’re not baseball scouts.”

He began to walk around the circle gathering plates.

“Now hold on,” said Donny, and reached after him.

Ray put a hand on Donny’s shoulder. Nephi took the plates inside.

“The young man’s got a right to be skeptical. We’re strangers after all. Sam, do you believe us? Are we baseball scouts?”

Sam shrugged.

“Okay. And that’s fine. But I’ll tell you what, alright? Cards on the table. Honest, Injun, hope to die.” His eyebrows inched up his forehead. “We’re baseball scouts.”

Sam and Nephi did the dishes in the main office. While Nephi put away the folding chairs, Sam took bedding from one of the empty rooms and left it in the doorway to the camper. He was just turning to walk back across the parking lot when the door opened and Ray stepped out. He coughed, cleared his throat, and spat.

“Hey Sam,” he said. “I was thinking. You’d know to tell someone, right, if you ever needed help?”

“We have the radio,” said Sam.

“Right, right. But you could tell a friend, too. You know what I mean?”

“Okay.”

“Never think you can’t.” Ray thrust out his left hand like he was holding a bow, drew back the string with his right hand, and let an arrow fly in a high arc towards the main office. He winked. “Sleep tight young brave.”

“Goodnight,” said Sam.

He crossed the parking lot and followed Nephi into their room. After they’d locked the door, said their prayers, and turned off the light, Nephi kneeled on Sam’s bed and watched the parking lot. From over his shoulder, Sam could just make out the camper, a dull grey against the deeper dark behind it.

“You don’t think they’re baseball scouts?” asked Sam.

“Not a chance.”

“Then what are they?”

“What’s the opposite of a baseball scout?”

Nephi stood and walked over to his own bed.

“Hey, where’s the radio?”

He turned on the lights. The radio wasn’t on the nightstand. It wasn’t in the bathroom. Nephi got down on his hands to look beneath the beds and then pulled back his sheets and threw his pillow onto the floor.

“You had it at dinner,” said Sam.

Nephi looked out the window. “Wait here.”

He took the rifle and went outside. Sam watched him go back and forth over the payment, go into the office and come back.

“I think they took it.”

“It wasn’t in the office?”

Nephi shook his head.

He took another lap around the room, turned out the light and sat down on his bed.

“Shit!” he said and sulked silently in the darkness.

Sam’s bed was beneath the window, and lying down, he could see the Smilin’ Injun through the space between the blinds. The truth was that sometimes, just as Sam was falling asleep, the Injun did speak. The Injun told him all about what things were like before the white men came. He had crazy powers like night vision and everlasting life. He could also talk to animals and enter people’s dreams, and sometimes he brought messages from Sam’s dad, and from his mom, too.

Tonight the Injun told him that he didn’t need to worry about the radio. The men hadn’t come to the motel by accident. They were messengers, and they had a very important message just for him.

But why don’t you just tell me what it is? asked Sam.

He didn’t actually say this out loud. To speak with the Injun you put words in your head and closed your eyes real tight and then kind of pushed the words out, and the Injun could hear them.

I wish, said the Injun, but that’s way above my pay grade.

The Injun didn’t make any noise when he spoke, either. You just emptied your head and breathed in, and the words would come to you. Sam asked the Injun once whether he ever spoke to Nephi, and the Injun said he’d tried, but Nephi was always too busy to listen.

Sam must have fallen asleep, because sometime later he woke to hear someone fumbling with the door. He sat up in bed, leaned against the window. Through the blinds he could see the outline of a figure hunched over in the entryway.
He looked over towards where Nephi’s bed was hidden in the darkness.

“Nephi? Are you awake?”

More fumbling as something scraped against the lock.

“Hello?”

The lock clicked and the door inched open. The lights flicked on. It was Nephi, holding a finger over his lips for quiet.

“Still can’t find it,” he said.

He leaned his rifle against the wall, turned off the lights, and settled himself back into bed. Sam closed his eyes, but whenever he was about to fall asleep he got a feeling like he was slipping down a hole beneath his bed. Down, down, with the dust and worms on either side, and then he’d land back in his bed with his whole body tensed. Towards dawn, he woke to find Nephi already dressed, leaning over him, two fingers spreading a gap in the blinds.

“Come on,” he said.

Sam threw on shorts and a t-shirt and followed him outside. He stopped in the doorway. The car was gone, and Ray was lying on the pavement, hands folded under his chest like he was trying to unbutton his shirt. Nephi walked up slowly and nudged him with his foot. Then he crouched and put a finger on his neck. He looked up at Sam and shook his head, reached down and touched Ray’s face, and Sam realized he was closing his eyes. Nephi walked back to the doorway and took Sam by the hand and led him on a wide arc around Ray and then across the lot to the camper. He circled the camper and looked through each of the windows before going inside. Sam waited, watching Ray until Nephi came back out.

“The radio’s gone,” said Nephi. “He must have driven off while we were sleeping.”

“He’s dead?”

Nephi shrugged. “We’ll have to bury him, you know.”

Sam kept his eyes on Ray as he backed up and sat on the camper steps. He was like a regular person, only with the shimmer gone. Nephi circled the camper again and came back to the parking lot. Then he walked out into the field beyond the lot, beating through the bushes with his rifle.

Sam closed his eyes and pushed out his thoughts. What happened? he asked. I thought you said he was going to tell me something.

I know I know, said the Injun. I took my eyes off the ball. But he was old and under a lot of stress. He’s had a very busy week.

What do you mean? asked Sam.

It’s complicated, said the Injun. You know nothing lasts forever, right?
Nothing?

Well I guess forever lasts forever. But that’s like it’s own thing, you know? Like saying red is reddish.

Isn’t there anything you can do?

Let me see. The Injun grunted and strained like he was lifting something heavy and from across the parking lot, Sam heard a cough. He opened his eyes to see Ray pushing himself up into an Indian style sit. Ray stretched his neck and spat. He scanned the lot until his eyes locked on Sam.

“Hey there!” he said, and waved with both hands. “Any idea where I parked my car?”

Sam raised his finger to his lips for quiet.

“Rusty-ass green thing,” said Ray. “Guy named Donny might have it?”

Sam heard Nephi call his name. He stood and took a few steps towards Ray, lowering his voice. “Donny’s gone. He drove away.”

“Typical Donny,” said Ray. He rested his head on his fist. “Which way did he go?”

Nephi was coming back out of the bushes, his rifle raised up and ready to shoot. Sam pointed in the opposite direction, towards the mountains.

“You sure?” asked Ray.

Sam nodded.

“Much obliged.”

Ray stood and took off at a jog towards the highway. Nephi tracked him through the rifle sight, then lowered the rifle and watched him go. He turned to Sam.

“He just stood up,” said Sam. “I dunno.”

They climbed to the top of the camper, Nephi going first and pulling Sam up after him. They watched Ray pass through the low brush that lay around the hotel off-ramp and then keep going down the highway. A ways down the road, a shining dot became a truck that slowed for Ray, then stopped to let him in. The boys lay down on the camper roof and watched while the truck came closer and finally went past. And as it passed, they could make out a face inside the cab, eyes wide and one hand raised in greeting.

Author: Jeff Bakkensen lives in Boston. Recent work has appeared in A-Minor Magazine, Oblong Magazine, Smokelong Quarterly, and The Antigonish Review.

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