Today, it is our honor to publish an original story by the esteemed Ron Rash in our Featured Fiction section, in which we publish work by established authors. In “Last Bridge Burned,” a man is closing up his gas station late at night when a woman in need of help knocks on the door. This story dives into the best and worst sides of human nature, and is a dose of good medicine for these times.
“A muddy heart, that’s what his second wife Teresa told him once. She’d actually said moody, Carlyle realized later, but muddy seemed right and the last eight years had been an attempt to settle that sediment inside him.”
When the woman knocked on the locked glass door a few minutes after midnight, Carlyle was startled because no car or truck lights had swept across the storefront. He’d taken the .38 from its place behind the counter. He did not go to the door but sidled to the window behind the register. The woman was barefoot and a scrape above her left eye seeped blood, her right forearm scraped and bleeding also. Though it was October, she wore only frayed jeans and an oversized black t-shirt. The clothes looked slept in. One day you’ll learn trouble finds a man easy enough without you inviting it in. Carlyle was sixteen when his exasperated father told him that. By the time he’d finally followed the advice, Carlyle had lost three jobs and two wives. This woman at the door had trouble written all over her. He searched the shadows near the exit ramp for accomplices. The woman knocked again, softly, and Carlyle stepped around the counter, the .38 tucked in the back of his jeans. He stepped in front of the door and pointed at the “Closed” sign.
The outside lights and gas pumps were turned off, the register emptied, but Carlyle still needed to sweep. He kept the gun tucked in his jeans and picked up the broom, worked his way around the shelves and did not look up. In the ten or so minutes it took, there were no more knocks on the door. He set the broom back in the closet. All that was left to do was turn off the radio and inside light. Then, as he did every night after closing, Carlyle could sit in the dark on the store’s back porch before going home. He’d smoke a cigarette and watch headlights pass below on the interstate. After a day of dealing with people, their soft yellow glow soothed him, as did the sound of the vehicles themselves, a sound like approaching rain.
But now, as the words of the song on the radio reminded him, he had glanced at the door and seen that the woman was still there.
On a late-night east of Nashville
My last bridge burned, my money gone
The kindness of a stranger
Showed me a way to go on.
That night when he’d gone to the door and pointed again at the “Closed” sign, she did not raise a middle finger or curse him, as even regular customers often did when he pointed to the sign. The woman wasn’t even looking at him, chin down and arms clutched to her chest. She looked abandoned, like the dogs that appeared from time to time, dropped off by city folks who’d tired of them. Cats too were abandoned, but they always seemed to find a way to survive, but the dogs stayed close to the exit ramp. They simply waited.
“What do you want?” he’d asked after unlocking the door.
“I don’t know,” the woman finally answered.
Her long hair was stringy and disheveled, the eyes red-veined and glassy. Drunk or drugged, Carlyle knew. She reeked of cigarette smoke, amid it a whiff of perfume. Younger than he’d thought too, thirty at most, but a hard-lived thirty. She was shivering.
“You don’t know?” he asked.
“I was with some people, in a car and they pushed me out of the car,” she said, raising her eyes.
“Why’d they do that?”
“I think we were having some kind of argument,” she said, looking toward the exit ramp. “What state am I in?”
A damn sorry one, Carlyle thought, then told her North Carolina.