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The Calm
About the Author: Ken Hueler teaches kung fu in the San Francisco Bay Area. His work has appeared in Weirdbook, Stupefying Stories, Black Petals, and Strangely Funny III. Find out more at: kenhueler.wordpress.com.


Randy’s house was dark and the truck wasn’t under the carport. Evan pulled out his phone, then put it back—if he’d not been invited, what Randy had in mind was shady. He sat drumming on the wheel, sucking air as if a scent might inspire him, and looked to the sun, wide on the hills. He had to do something. Tired as he was, he couldn’t let a crappy day win by just crawling into sleep. He swung back onto the road and turned east—driving into the sun might make him miss someone or something. Maybe he’d end up all the way at Hollings. On a Wednesday night nothing would be going on anywhere smaller.

He started going through possible destinations—Jane’s Room or Lashes, maybe. His mind drifted to daydreams and to speeches to jerks he’d never deliver. Gravel and grass jerked him; he’d drifted into a doze. Disoriented, branches slapping the cab, he spun the wheel back onto the road. He blinked and wiped his face. Things seemed dimmer. The headlights were on, but he didn’t remember flipping them. The first thing to do in Hollings was get coffee. He was spent. While thinking about that, he almost passed her.

She was on the opposite side of the road, pale in the weak headlights and dusk, her fingers loosely twined into the strap of a backpack. She was summer-dressed for her age—lots of leg and midriff. She looked legal. He stopped, reversed.

“Late and dark to be on the road. Where you headed?”

“Not sure. You going to that town, Hollister?”

“Hollings. Was, but I worry about a pretty young thing like you out alone at dark.”

“I just left Hollis. No reason to go back.”

“I could take you opposite, to Tannard. I got something to do there, if you don’t mind me stopping to pick something up.”

She calculated, shrugged.

He turned the truck around and got a closer look at her as she climbed in: Cut-off shorts that had seen better days, a blue half t-shirt with a black and white ibis, and over that an open, multi-pocketed vinyl vest. Her backpack slumped hollow to the mat. She yanked the door shut and belted up. When they started, the wind pulled at her dark hair, which hung to halfway down her shoulder blades. On his side a thin braid of hair ended in a bind of red thread and a white feather, which had been a minor fashion a while back. 

“You hitchhiking with an empty backpack?”

“Nearly. I think what you might find is more interesting than what you already have, don’t you? Anyway, it means I got to think more and pay attention and do stuff to get by. I can’t just wander around as if it were nothing. I like to take more time and pay closer attention. You learn to appreciate things, and find what you need to do to survive. Don’t you think?”

Evan smiled at her. Idiot. “Seems it closes off a lot of avenues. I like knowing where my stuff is, and have food I can lay my hands on. Lets me worry about other things.”

She tapped her necklace—half of one of those split hearts couples bought—against her teeth. “But it traps you. If all your stuff was to get taken, what’d you do? And if not, you’re still stuck, afraid to leave it. I left near everything, and now I can roam as I please. You can’t—you’re tied.” She looked at him. Her face was pale skin and lips and heavy eyeliner with faux-oriental upsweeps. Poser.

“I suppose there’s something to that.” He’d have to keep his tongue with this one, he could see.

He was making better time back, no longer ambling. He passed the turnoff to Randy’s. The hills had absorbed all but a whisper of orange and the truck’s headlights had thickened. “So where are you heading?”

She left her palm under her chin. “Nowhere set. Away.” She leaned back and waved her arm. “Anyhow, you can stumble on stuff you’d never see if you just went from point A to B. Last month we came across this guy who had one of those round metal pools in his backyard he hadn’t used in forever. We filled it with water and poked it full of holes and ran around like kids in a sprinkler.”

Evan turned early and began taking a meandering route home. He didn’t like the idea of this girl knowing how to find his house. No way she could keep track of all the turns and switches in this leveling dark. The blackening trees grew more and more alike.



This story appears in our JUN 2019 Issue
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Reader Discussion

16
Jun
Enjoyed that, Ken. It gripped me all the way through.great atmosphere of developing menace.
By Peter Cooper

17
Jun
Thanx for your work on this story and your willingness to put it out there.
By David Berger


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