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Black Stump Ridge
By John Manning Forrest Hedrick
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 John Manning and Forrest Hedrick
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAmanda Carlyle brushed an errant wave of black hair away from her forehead with a well-manicured hand. She looked through the windshield at the horseshoe shaped alcove of bleached blue facades that stared back at her from three sides. Her hazel eyes darted here and there as she took in the scene around her. Evenly spaced stairways yawned shadowed mouths onto the dusty caliche parking lot. The white, stony-clay surface threw back the late afternoon sun like a mirror. The car's windows magnified it until it overcame the air conditioning despite the heavily tinted glass. Amanda had forgotten just how intense a Central Texas summer could be.
Two small, black-haired Hispanic-looking children played in the scant shade in the far right corner. The boy — at least, he looked like a boy — crouched low, his bare knees just above the dusty gravel. His chubby fingers scrabbled in search of something among the tiny stones. His Spider Man tee shirt sported gray dust like a powdering of confectioner's sugar. The girl wore a lavender Hello Kitty jumper over a faded yellow tee shirt. Both wore torn and faded flip-flop sandals on their tiny feet. Amanda estimated their ages at four and five but which was older she could not guess.
Nettles, dandelions, and tall, thick-stemmed weeds struggled to survive in corners and cracks along the base of the building. Windows, some with sun-bleached curtains, some with slanting and battered blinds, and a few with no covering over the streaked and filthy glass, stared down from the second floor. Small air conditioning units jutted from the lower half of each window. Open carports stood like square cinderblock caves below many of the windows. Condensation dripped onto the cars and trucks parked within the shadowed slots and streaked the white dust that covered most of them. Many of the vehicles shared space with torn and sagging box springs and mattresses. A few of the empty carports held large refrigerators, their dented doors still attached. Amanda glanced back at the children and shuddered. Hopefully, the doors would open easily from the inside should a child climb inside of one. Still, her business did not include whistle blowing for appliance safety.
Amanda glanced down at the hastily scribbled note on the tablet lying on the center console:
Fred Kyle Del Mar Motel 3300 North Capitol Avenue Room 26 Austin
She sighed. According to the ancient, battered sign out front this was the Del Mar Motel. Some motels descended into hourly rate hideaways for hookers and pimps. Some became shooting galleries for addicts and dealers. Still others became resident motels, crash pads for panhandlers, drunks, and families too poor — or too illegal — to afford better. This one looked like it shared all three fates.
Amanda looked at the shadowed openings with their partially hidden stairways leading up to the apartments. Metal numbers eight inches high, some partially covered with chipped and faded paint, hung from the cracked frame on either side of the doorways. Her eyes followed the progression clockwise: seven and eight, nine and ten, eleven and twelve, until she found the pair bracketing the doorway on her right, twenty-five and twenty-six.
Her stomach knotted. The end of two years of searching waited at the top of those stairs. All she had to do was to put the gearshift into Park, turn off the engine, and walk up the steps.
Her hands gripped the steering wheel until they cramped. The engine continued to idle. She blinked. Why was she frozen in place? What Gorgonic force turned her muscles to stone, unable to make the final, simple movements that would end this part of her quest? She took a deep breath, held it, and then let it out slowly, relaxing as the air hissed between her lips. It was only nerves; fear of the unknown. She moved the shift lever into P and shut off the engine. Sweat immediately beaded her temples and the back of her neck beneath her thick hair. She grabbed her purse from the passenger seat and, after taking another deep breath, opened the door and stepped outside.
The fierce afternoon heat gripped her like a scorching fist. Her breath hissed through her tight lips. She inhaled reflexively. Hot air dried her throat as her lungs expanded. She squeezed her eyes shut as she waited for her glasses to compensate for the sun's harsh brightness. After a few seconds she opened her eyes.
Gravel crunched beneath her shoes as she lurched to the waiting stairway. The tiny stones under her leather soles made her stagger like a drunk. Her ankles protested as she struggled not to break one of her three-inch heels. Only four steps away from the car and she already regretted the not-so-sensible pinstriped navy jacket. The cream-colored silk blouse that looked so chic in the mirror back in her motel room now felt like wet plastic wrap clinging to her skin. Her legs grew slick inside her pantyhose. How had she forgotten about that? She stopped and tried to smooth her skirt as she looked upward into the shadowed stairway. Her glasses, darkened by the sunlight, intensified the shadows. Fog covered the lenses. Despite this, she made out the landing above. On either side was a closed door. The person she sought should be behind the door to the right. An old TV game show, Let's Make a Deal, flashed through her mind.
"I'll take door number two, Monty," she grimaced as she resumed her slow voyage. Her shoes rapped hollow echoes on the worn and faded stairs as she finally left the parking lot behind her. The dry wood was scalloped from the up and down march of decades of soles. The curved surfaces beneath her shoes' slick leather made her ascent treacherous.
Amanda stopped before a scratched and battered blue door. She raised her fist, ready to knock, and then hesitated. What was she doing here? What did she really expect to find on the other side of this panel? Answers? Understanding? Closure?
What about rejection? She hadn't seriously considered that possibility until this moment. Suppose he simply ignored her knock? What if he slammed the door in her face without so much as an acknowledgment? Was she ready for that?
Doubt filled her mind. Her hand slowly fell to her side. What right did she have to intrude on this man's life? Although he'd been one of her father's best friends — he was with her father when he died twelve years ago — did that give her any right to be here, in front of this door, ready to bring back that memory?
The stairwell was hot and claustrophobic. A bead of sweat itched as it slid greasily between her breasts and down toward her belly. A single naked bulb burned in the cracked ceiling above her.
She looked down the stairwell. Sunlight reflected back at her. Her car was down there. Freedom was down there. Sanity? Yes, that, too. She could give up the quest. She should give it up. Just walk down the steps, get into the car, and drive away. Just leave this dreary place. Drive straight to the airport, hop on the next plane to anywhere, and get as far away as she could. Let the questions remain unanswered.
Her father's face appeared before her. She saw his smile and the tenderness in his eyes. His laugh, so full of life and joy as they watched Saturday morning cartoons, filled her mind. The smell of his Sunday morning breakfasts welled up from her memory, meals filled with the love he lavished on her, her mother, and her younger brother.
Amanda stepped toward the edge of the landing. She staggered as twelve empty years without her father washed over her. The steps blurred. Tears filled her eyes and trickled down her cheeks.
No, she couldn't leave. She had to see this through. If she left now it would be a complete betrayal of those memories. She needed to know the truth of what happened on that horrible weekend trip to Tennessee. The answers were here, the mere thickness of a door away. Amanda turned. This time — before her doubts could interfere — she knocked on the door and waited for Fate to respond.
Neither Fate nor Mr. Kyle responded.
She stood in the shadows and waited. She counted to ten. Her mind raced. Confusion and doubt threatened to overwhelm her. What if he wasn't home? How long was she prepared to wait? If she had to leave, would she be able to gather her courage to go through all of this again?
She knocked again, this time louder. The silence grew. Despair and frustration slowly rose within her.
Suddenly, she heard faint sounds from the other side of the door — protesting springs, an old man's groan, the shuffling of approaching feet. The peephole in the center of the door darkened and then cleared.
"Whoizzit?" The voice was rough, sleep laden, and querulous. "Whaddaya want? Ain't s'posed to be no one botherin' folks aroun' here."
Amanda's voice caught in her throat. She swallowed. "M-Mister Kyle?"
"Who wants t' know?"
"My name's Amanda. Amanda Carlyle. My father was Johnny Carlyle. You used to be friends."
Silence. Then, "Johnny?"
Just as Amanda thought there would be no more conversation she heard a heavy sigh followed by what sounded like a sob.
"What do you want from me? I done told the cops an' everyone else all I had t' say back then. Why you botherin' me now?"
"I just want to talk to you."
"What if I don't wanna talk to you?"
Amanda hesitated. Rejection once more raised its scaly head. What if he did refuse to talk with her? Was she ready to leave all her questions lying unanswered on the worn doorstep and walk away?
"You were my father's best friend. You were with him when he died." More tears slid down her cheeks. "Please, Mr. Kyle. Won't you talk to me?"
Silence. No words. No scraping or shuffling.
Amanda turned away from the door. A sob burst from her throat. Her shoulders slumped as the weight of her defeat threatened to crush her. She took one slow faltering step, and then another. Her heels rapped a slow and funereal drum beat on the wooden steps.
Halfway down she heard a loud click. The door scraped open above and behind her. She stopped. Her breath caught in her throat. She resisted the urge to turn around.
"You've grown, girl."
"The last time I saw you, you were just a teenager still in high school. You're taller, now. More like your mother."
She slowly turned and looked upward. Fred stood in the doorway, one foot inside the apartment, the other on the landing. He was just as she remembered him: black hair graying at the temples, smiling blue eyes set in a pleasantly rounded face, lips slightly parted with a hint of a smile.
She blinked. The image rippled, disappeared. A stoop-shouldered old man in faded workpants and a white, stain-covered undershirt — a wife beater some called it — replaced the picture. Gray hair cut in a flat top receded from a deeply lined forehead. Creases and furrows crisscrossed a sallow, beard-stubbled face. She expected him to look older — both he and her father were barely forty when her father died and twelve years had passed — but the man on the stoop looked to be at least seventy, maybe older.
"I — I think I've made a mistake," she stammered.
Fred shook his head. "No, child — I mean, Amanda. You're not a child anymore." He chuckled, a mirthless sound, and shook his head. "There's no mistake. I'd know you even if you might not recognize me. Too many trips to the bottom of the bottle for me, I guess. And time. They've all taken their piece o' me. It's me. Fred. Or, what's left of Fred anyhow. As for how much of a friend I might have been to Johnny, well, that's prob'ly open to debate."
She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Thoughts, questions, and memories tumbled through her mind. A maelstrom of emotion threatened to carry her away.
"I've been looking for you for such a long time," she finally blurted.
"Not what you expected am I?"
"It's not that. I mean ..." Her face grew warm.
"I know how I look. What I've become. Just a minute." He ducked inside the room for a moment and then returned. He closed the door behind him. "Let's go down to the bottom of the steps. I don't like to smoke in my room. It's small an' everything ends up smellin' like shi — crap, I mean. Don't know who it would bother. Certainly not the whores. Only things they can smell are crack an' dollar bills."
Amanda turned away and continued down the stairs, the better to hide her amusement. He saw her expression before she turned.
"I might look old an' rickety, but everything still works. I wish it didn't, sometimes, an' most times Rosie and her sisters are enough. Sometimes a man, even one like me, gets lonely. Too lonely."
Amanda felt the heat return to her cheeks.
"Times like that even rented comfort is better than bein' alone," he continued. "I don't expect someone as young as you t'unnerstand. In fact, I hope your life never gets so bad you have to find out."
They reached the bottom of the stairs.
"Mr. Kyle ..." she hesitated, uncertain of what to say or how to say it.
He held up his hand as he sat on the second from the bottom step. "Don't worry 'bout it none, girl. I'm not offended. You gotta have pride to be offended. That's somethin' I can't afford no more. Mine got stripped away a long time ago." Fred tilted a flattened, crumpled pack of cigarettes and shook it gently. He deftly plucked one of the three that appeared and stuck it between his lips. The white cylinder was bent in two places. He gently straightened it. The curves returned though not quite as pronounced. He shrugged, a "what the hell" expression on his face as he flicked the wheel on top of a yellow disposable lighter, stuck the end of the cigarette into the small flame, and inhaled deeply. As he exhaled, he set the nearly empty package and the lighter on the step beside him.
"Looks like it's almost time t'get another pack. Probably a new lighter, too. That one's gettin' low."
He drew deeply on the cigarette, leaned his head back, and exhaled slowly, his eyes closed. "Okay," he said. "You wanted to talk to me. Here I am."
Amanda looked at him as her mind raced. So many thoughts; so many questions. What to ask first? Her mouth opened and closed several times. Finally, she simply said, "Tell me about my father. About that weekend."
Fred took another deep pull on the cigarette and exhaled slowly, his eyes still closed. "Thought it might be somethin' like that. What do you want to know?"
"I want to know how he died. How he really died."
He looked at her, shrugged, and looked away. Something on the far side of the parking lot seemed to hold his attention. He finally looked back at her. "I told the cops it was a hunting accident."
She frowned. "Yes, that's what they told me — told us. If that was true, then why was the coffin closed? What kind of hunting accident would require that?"
Fred said nothing for a long time. He stared into the distance, his cigarette burning between his nicotine stained fingers. His mind returned to that horrible night. How do I tell a man's daughter that her father was torn in half right in front of me — that there was absolutely nothing I could do to stop it? How do I explain the existence of something that shouldn't exist?
When the ember came close to burning his skin he tossed the butt into the parking lot. He sighed and looked at the cement stoop between his feet.
"It's been more than twelve years since that weekend." His voice was a rasping whisper. "I still wake up nights wonderin' if I screamed out loud or just dreamed I did. It's bad enough that I go back there 'most every night. I don't think I could stand to do it during the day for someone else." He shook out another cigarette. His hands trembled as he lit it.
"Ask me something else." He looked up at her. Tears rimmed his eyes. His lower lip quivered. "Ask me anything else. How's your mother? What's Kevin up to these days? I'll bet he's tall like your daddy was. Tell me what you've been doing with your life since I last saw you. Just don't ask me about that weekend."
"That's the only thing I want to hear about. I didn't spend all that money on private detectives and Internet searches just so I could stand here in this god awful Texas heat and do family chitchat."
"How's your mother?" he repeated.
Excerpted from Black Stump Ridge by John Manning Forrest Hedrick Copyright © 2011 by John Manning and Forrest Hedrick. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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