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By David Oppegaard
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2009 David Oppegaard
All rights reserved.
They left the city. They passed beyond the ripening cornfields and lush green plains and entered the desert. Anna moaned in her sleep as Tyler drove, pushing the car past eighty as he absorbed Nevada's landscape. He hadn't seen another car for thirty, forty minutes. Early June, and the countryside was nothing but a pale sea of sagebrush beneath an unbelievably bright sun. No mule deer, no cottontails, no frolicking antelope. The nature textbooks made it seem like the Great Basin Desert was a wonderland of biological diversity, with this hidden natural world beneath it, but that was like saying outer space was packed with matter because it contained microscopic specks of stardust. Right now, as far as Tyler Mayfield could see, he and his wife might have been the last two living creatures on earth.
They crested a hill. Red sunlight flared in the rearview mirror, filling the entire car with light. Half blinded, Tyler adjusted the mirror until it angled down. Dark, almond-shaped eyes stared back at him, cold and unblinking. Tyler swore and slammed on the brakes, twisting the steering wheel hard left. The Volvo spun around three times, almost flipping, before it squealed to a shuddering halt in the middle of the highway. Tyler unbuckled his seatbelt and scrambled around.
The backseat was empty.
"What the hell, Tyler?"
Anna was awake now, her blue eyes open and darting, her long, tan legs jammed into the floor. Even when she was freaked out, Tyler had to admit she still had that beauty queen glow.
"I thought I saw something."
"In the backseat. I thought something was back there."
Ann exhaled. "Fuck, Tyler."
"Whatever. Just keep driving. We can't stop in the middle of the highway."
Tyler slapped his cheeks and gripped the steering wheel at ten and two o'clock. He took his foot off the brake and accelerated until they regained speed. He shivered, remembering the dark eyes, and slapped his cheek again. Anna dug into her purse, pulled out a tube of lip gloss, and opened her visor's. "You're going crazy from all the driving, Ty. You need to chill." Anna folded up the visor. "Hey. You see that blob up ahead?"
Tyler blinked, trying to focus. "I think so. Against those mountains?"
"Yeah. I bet it's a town."
"Sure it is. Civilization."
They drove another minute and turned off the highway onto a paved county road. After all the miles of red sand and malformed scrub, the town of Wormwood wavered in front of them. Tyler drove slowly, trying to take all the disappointment in.
Wormwood sat beneath a north-south mountain chain, two miles back from the highway. They passed a boxy, windowless casino on the edge of town. The road hooked right and revealed two gas stations, a U-Haul office, and several trailer homes before officially becoming Main Street. Here, aluminum-sided bungalows crowded out the trailer homes. Sun-scorched lawns displayed faded patio furniture, blown fireworks, and slick plastic wading pools slowly melting in the heat. Downtown was a grocery store, a Mexican restaurant, a diner, a bar, and an old man sitting in front of the post office, fanning himself with a large-print TV Guide. They turned left off Main Street, went five blocks, and turned right onto a street that ended in a gray, two-story house surrounded by a high picket fence.
Tyler turned the car off and listened to his wife's steady breathing. The Volvo's hot engine ticked, and in a moment the cooling fan whirred on. Tyler unbuckled his seatbelt. He rubbed his temples and the miles of interstate blurred through his mind, meshing into one flat expanse of rolling land and blue sky, with some rounded mountains in the far distance. Wormwood's closest neighboring town, Silverton, was sixty-seven miles behind them.
A woman in mirrored brown sunglasses emerged from the gray house and stood on her front steps, smoking a cigarette as she watched the car. Her hair was silver and short, but Tyler still recognized the woman from the faded pictures he'd been shown. He stepped out of the car. "Aunt Bernice?"
The woman came to the fence's gate. She was sixty and had a thick, sturdy frame much like his mother's.
"Call me Bernie. You Tyler?"
"Hell's bells. Your mother was right. You could be Uncle Frank, thirty years ago. It's good to finally meet you, Ty. That your wife?"
Tyler looked over his shoulder. Anna was standing behind him, shading her face with a magazine.
"Sure is. Anna, meet my aunt, Bernie Turner."
"Howdy. Aren't you a pretty little thing."
"Thank you," Anna said. "I like your sunglasses."
Bernie smiled and unlatched the gate. "Why don't you two come inside? I'll whip up some hard lemonade and you can cool off."
Tyler bit his lip as his wife glanced down the street. He knew what she was thinking, but what could he do about it? He wasn't God. He hadn't created central Nevada. The wind came up and rolled a tumbleweed toward them, as if on cue. "A drink sounds really good, actually," Anna said. "Thank you." Aunt Bernie held the gate and closed it behind them. She led them across a stony yard littered with potted cacti and dry, whitewashed birdbaths. "Folks," Bernie said, kicking a rock out of their path, "welcome to Wormwood."CHAPTER 2
Cold air enfolded Anna Mayfield as soon as she stepped in the house, causing her to halt inside the front hall and thank the sweet lord for air-conditioning. After two days of driving through Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, and a chunk of Nevada in the summertime, any place cool and dark was fine with her. She could already feel her skin beginning to cool, her tank top peeling away from her back and stomach. Now maybe if she could just stand here quietly for a few minutes, not talking to anyone, she'd start to feel a little more human again. Get that smile back —
The door creaked open behind her. Heat rushed inside, raising the hall's temperature a good twenty degrees.
"What are you looking at?"
"Shut the door, Tyler."
He let the handle go and the door slammed shut. Anna went on into the living room. Tyler's aunt, who moved faster than you'd expect from an old high school lunch lady, had already crossed the room and stood watching them enter, her hands clasped in front of her. "Well, this is it, everyone. Casa de Turner."
Anna smiled. Here was the living room time forgot. Sunlight shone through the room's bay window and its gauzy white curtains, revealing an assortment of pea-green, seventies style furniture that was arranged in the traditional armchair-sofa-armchair formation around a long Formica coffee table. Yellow and lime gingham wallpaper. Dense white shag carpeting. Across the room a hulking thirty-five-inch TV sat on a brown stand, facing the furniture and as unavoidable as a black hole. On top of the TV was a framed photo of Star Trek's Leonard Nemoy.
Tyler followed her into the living room and stood blinking. Anna took a second to examine her husband of six years as if he were part of the room, maybe a chaise longue, or a coatrack. They'd started dating in college, both of them English majors with no idea what they wanted to do for a living, and they'd gotten married right out of school. At six foot one, Tyler was a good three inches taller than Anna, a fact she had always appreciated since it allowed her to wear high heels when the situation called for it, and his skin was a creamy brown she envied. On the other hand, Tyler also had gangly arms, narrow shoulders, and squinted too much. He would have made a good assistant to a mad scientist.
Tyler picked up the photo on top of the TV. "Cool. Spock."
"Don't paw that," Bernie said. "It's autographed."
Tyler set the picture down and stepped back. Bernie smiled.
"No mind. Let me go see about that lemonade."
Bernie disappeared as they sat down on the sofa. Anna rubbed her temples as her husband kicked off his sandals and wiggled his dirty toes. She should have made him put on socks at the last gas station. That would have cut down on the disgusting factor.
"Pretty sweet house, huh? I told you it'd be big enough for all three of us."
"Maybe we should go back, Ty."
"What? To Lincoln?"
"Sure. We could get temp jobs. It wouldn't be so bad."
Anna set a hand on her husband's bare knee. She let her fingers slip under his shorts and tease the fine hairs along his thigh. "You know, Ty, it was nice your aunt got you a job out here, but there's got to be better places to teach high school English. I mean, did you see the same town I saw out there?"
Tyler shifted away from her touch. "I like small towns."
"Since forever. And she didn't get me the job. She just noticed an opening and told my mother about it. My résumé is what got me the job. Five years of substitute teaching should be good for something."
Anna slid farther down the couch. She was still trying to think of a stronger argument when the biggest dog she'd ever seen padded into the room and sniffed the air. Flat-out enormous, the dog was a cross between a golden retriever and a sheepdog, with shaggy, cream-colored fur that matched the carpeting. When the mutt trotted over to them, Anna's first instinct was to jump on the couch and ward him off with a pillow. Tyler smiled and scratched the dog behind his ears.
"Why hello, poochy. Do you live here, too?"
The dog grinned and showed his tongue.
"Ty, watch your hand."
"He's friendly," Tyler said, in that ridiculous cooing voice he always used with animals. "He just wants a good scratch."
Something clattered in the kitchen. The dog turned and rumbled off. The house smelled like dusty potpourri and, yeah, a little like dog. It reminded Anna of her grandmother's house, and that wasn't exactly the sort of place where you'd expect to find a young married couple, especially a former Miss Nebraska still capable of fitting into her high school blue jeans if she sucked it up a little.
"It's just for a year," Tyler said. "One year without rent and we'll have some money saved up."
"I think I smell denture cream."
"No, you don't."
"Well, I smell something. Something funky."
Tyler leaned into her and sniffed her hair. She could feel his hot breath on her neck and couldn't decide whether she was annoyed or turned on. It was always so damn close with him.
"You smell good."
"That's from the corn chips, Tyler. What you're smelling is nasty corn chip perfume."
Tyler took a deeper whiff and sighed. Anna pushed him away and ran a hand through her greasy, road-trip hair. She felt disgusting. She could almost feel all the sugar and saturated fats from the last two days clogging her pores and settling on her hips. She'd need to get more facial cleanser somewhere. Did they even carry facial cleanser in Wormwood? Or how about makeup in general? Maybe the women around these parts settled for lard mixed with food coloring.
Bernie returned to the living room with three clinking glasses of hard lemonade, the dog at her heels. She set the glasses on the coffee table in a patch of sunlight and the drinks glowed yellow. Tyler took his glass with both hands and held it against his face. Bernie sat down in a recliner and kicked up the footrest. The dog turned around three times, yawned, and sank beside Bernie's recliner in a curled mound.
"You meet Roscoe?"
Anna and Tyler nodded as they drank their hard lemonade.
"I found him when he was just a pup. He was sniffing around the Dumpsters behind the high school, looking for scraps. Don't even know what kind of dog he is, really. Saint Bernard, maybe."
Anna felt her stomach warm.
"I'm sorry, I forgot to ask if you two even drink alcohol. I like to mix my lemonade with vodka."
Anna swallowed the lemonade. "Oh yeah, Bernie, we drink. We definitely drink."
"That's good," Bernie said. "I figure drinking's the most popular pastime in Wormwood. Everyone around here likes to throw back a few."
Anna smacked her lips. "Why not, right? I'm sure people around here aren't too busy going to the opera."
"No. I don't know too many opera fans from town. Do you folks like opera?"
"Hell no," Tyler said. "Who likes opera?"
"Opera fans," Anna said. "The cultured elite."
Bernie drained her glass. "You know what I like?" she said, smiling as she reclined in her chair. "Science fiction."
Anna frowned. "Science fiction?"
"Like Star Trek. You ever watch reruns of Star Trek?"
"Sure," Tyler said. "Sometimes."
"Everybody thinks Captain Kirk is such a sexy beefcake, but I like Spock. He's always so calm and thoughtful. Even when the ship's going to hell around him and aliens are attacking, he stays cool. I like that. I work in the school cafeteria, you know. You think we can get all flustered when we have three hundred mouths to feed? No way in hell. The little monsters would eat us alive and spit out the bones."
Bernie threw her head back and laughed. Anna finished her drink and set it on the table. The vodka was making her sleepy.
"Actually, I'm more of a Star Wars fan."
"Star Wars? No, thank you. There's your opera for you, right there. Your soap opera in space." Bernie stubbed out her cigarette and stood up. "You two look ready to slump over. Let me show you the guest room. We're partial to afternoon naps around here."CHAPTER 3
A lamp crashed. Anna opened one eye. Tyler had gotten out of bed and tripped over the lamp cord as he unpacked his suitcase. The man was like Helen Keller in a china shop. "Sorry, sorry," he whispered, setting the lamp upright. Anna closed her eye. She felt like she was still in the car, speeding down the highway at eighty miles an hour. Maybe this was all one bad car dream. Maybe they hadn't even arrived in Worm-wood yet, or perhaps Wormwood wasn't really their destination. Maybe she'd wake up in San Francisco, covered in Ghirardelli chocolate and gay men.
Oh god. She hated the fake whisper. Tyler wasn't concerned about waking her up. He was trying to wake her up. Why even bother to whisper?
Anna groaned and rolled over.
"I'm going to go for a walk. Scout around town."
"Do you need anything?"
"Okay. I might be gone a few hours."
Anna pulled the blanket over her head. Tyler left the bedroom and tromped downstairs. Could you hear everything in this house? Anna pushed the blanket off and sat up in bed. The shades were drawn. She dipped a hand into her suitcase and pulled out a magazine. It was too dark to read the blocks of text, but she could make out the models well enough. Anna studied each picture carefully, weighing the pros and cons of each woman's figure and the way she presented herself to the camera. She held the magazine up to her nose and inhaled its gluey, perfumed scent. She could still remember every exciting minute of the Miss Nebraska circuit. Only eighteen, she'd juggled the demands of the pageant with the demands of her senior year at prep school. She'd been exhilarated by the challenge, the whole marathon quality of it all. Giving interviews, creating a winning platform, fund-raising, smashing through every local event. And the Miss Nebraska Scholarship Pageant itself, three dizzying nights in the Performing Arts Center of North Platte High School. She'd been grilled, scrutinized, and combed over as closely as an astronaut in training, smiling as she ran circles around the other contestants, dealing with the ingratiatingly kind girls and the downright bitchy ones with the same ease and natural grace. She'd performed and been judged in turn, and in the end she'd won that sash.
Life had been so much more clear-cut back then.
So much simpler.
Anna tossed the magazine onto the floor. She lay back and fell asleep, snoring lightly into her feather pillow.
The heat enveloped Tyler as he stepped outside. It was dusk now, but it wasn't getting any cooler. He was glad Anna had decided to stay at the house. It felt good to walk alone after the long road trip and the sluggish afternoon nap. The homes he passed were silent, their shades drawn, their rocky yards empty of children. The entire town might have been asleep, united in a deep love of siestas. It wasn't hard to imagine a series of quiet days ahead, each one slightly more muffled. No doubt children walked alone safely to school in Wormwood, and older folks still left their cars unlocked. If Nebraska was relatively quiet and unpopulated, Wormwood was one step away from thick-bearded, mountain hermit status.
Tyler turned off his aunt's street and headed south, toward downtown. Wormwood was laid out like a grid. Streets intersected at right angles. Nothing meandered or curved. A block before Main Street, Tyler stopped at a scraggly patch of shrubs and picnic tables that must have been the town park. He sat at the nearest table and watched the sun set behind the mountains. They'd come so far after only two days of driving. He thought about Cody and wondered how he'd manage to find him now.
Excerpted from Wormwood, Nevada by David Oppegaard. Copyright © 2009 David Oppegaard. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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