The following started as a Flash Fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig's blog. However...flash isn't really a good fit for me (and I'm not bloody enough for terribleminds), so this ended up more the draft of an idea than a story in itself. You can find the image that inspired this piece here. I'm hoping this will return in a longer form later. Cheers.
It’s a sweatshirt and leggings day and I’m advertising my college, even if I think I might be over a line in this little town. It’s not like we have a stake in Texas football and I wanted to be comfortable for the just over three hours I’d be spending on the freeway. I had to line up a summer job, so I was heading to my parent’s house near the coast. I’d sold my books back last semester for cash—gas money, I promised myself before I left campus—but I was hungry and needed to be out of the car that owned all my non-study hours.
I spent last semester selling dresses at a half-dead mall to cover insurance and gas and the blue-moon night out. Shit, we’re all broke after the holidays. Not Tammy—her family’s got a huge house in The Woodlands, that golf and jogging bubble just north of Houston—but the other three of us, two suitemates and my former high school frenemy who ended up sharing the end of the hall in Brannen House on the tiny campus of Clearspring College in the lovely vicinity of the Texas Hill Country.
The book cash had gone into my wallet and come out again for the “best-in-county” burger joint on the edge of this tourist drag. I was thinking about Tammy when I left the burger place. We thought she’d barely made it out alive, but Tammy was plotting to make it to the subdivision just two back from where her parents and younger siblings lived, where the “real money” lived. The antique store on the corner seemed like the kind of place she and her future husband would poke around on a bed-and-breakfast weekend in the quaint Texas hinterland. I opened the door as I imagined them ignoring each other among these leftovers.
The half-idol caught my sleeve as I browsed and when I grabbed for it, thinking of all the cash I did not have for breakage, I realized it was sturdier than I thought. It was a metal piece, a conglomeration of screws and scraps welded to resemble a squat figure holding something, maybe a guitar? It was creepy if you searched for eyes in the grease and dust where the face should be, but I liked it. And it was ten dollars. Ten dollars that I currently had in my wallet, in a single bill. So there, real money.
The older woman at the register set the figure down on the glass counter with a heavy thump. “Don’t remember where we got this,” she said, then nodded. “Part of that haul a couple years ago, girl brought in half her daddy’s shop and all these dishes. Villenueva’s Body Shop, see the sign there? Grew up seeing it hanging on that old brick building they tore down when they were building that new gas station.” She shook her head. “Bit of a late Christmas present?”
I nodded. There’s no explanation for ten dollars that has to vacate your wallet on a grey afternoon hours away from your childhood bedroom and having to explain to your parents’ friends yet again where Clearspring College is and why you picked it. The figure was too heavy for a sack, so I just carried it out to the car in the crook of my elbow. There must be iron in it for such a small thing to weigh so much.
Once I was back in the car, I couldn’t wait to get back on the freeway. I shuddered before I’d even shut the door. Fortunately, there was enough gas to get home without further delay. I put the statuette in the passenger seat, balanced between a sack of clothes and a novel I had to read that weekend.
It wasn’t until I was back on the freeway that it made sense. Buying that figure was like buying the shadow of the trees on the street where you grew up, back when it was new and precious. Who could sell that?
Then I saw the building out of the corner of my eye. A flash of bricks hidden in the oak and Chinese tallow by the roadside. I caught another glimpse reflected in a cattle pond fenced in on the pastureland to my right. Villenueva’s Body Shop. I smelled hot metal and oil. I turned up the a/c, but the smell grew stronger.
When I glanced up, I saw it my rearview mirror, neon sign gleaming in taillight red and headlight yellow. A hum shivered through the car and I wondered how long the faceless figure sat in the old building, who welded it, where the scavenged pieces had come from. Maybe the woman who sold it hadn’t been in the heart of the business, hadn’t seen the idle idol, hadn’t brushed it every evening before closing. I swiped my fingertips across an edge. The hum increased.
The ghostly building was closer to the freeway as fences gave way to grass and business districts, every single one marred by the façade of a decaying Villenueva’s Body Shop. Dark bricks crumbled away from McDonald’s play areas, smeared across insurance offices, and scraped against old buildings whose signs I couldn’t read. It was scraping the caliche driveways and cutting through the shoulder grass when I slammed my brakes and it was in front of me.
Cars swerved around me and I jerked toward the shoulder. I could almost see the building panting in front of me. I rolled down the window. Brick memories crouch beside the car and then climb in. They’re not mine, except that I bought them. I don’t wonder why they were sold. Instead, I put on an old CD, the one with mix of Grease and ZZTop, the one that hides my memories of high school and the reason I was holed up at Clearspring. It’s easier to be haunted by someone else’s past. I gave the figure another pat and then we headed home.