Last week, I launched a short story contest here on my blog as part of a major national promotion. To recap: this is not a call for submissions; I’m serializing a short story in anticipation of my upcoming release of a short collection.

Here’s how it works: read it and send in comments, suggestions, and/or corrections. The best, most helpful one will be the winner. The prize: not only will I send the winner a free copy of the e-book of the story collection itself, but also a free PDF of the novel of their choice! That’s Brothers’ Hand, Jana, or Miles of Files!

The working title for this one is Rides from Strangers, and I’m posting it in three parts. Last week was part I, and here’s part II:

“Lucky guess, man. The hair, you know. You look like a soldier. So, how long were you over there?”

“Too long. Two years, six months and eight days.”

“But who’s counting, eh?” We both laugh, but I still feel jumpy.

“Yeah,” I say. “‘The pay in the army, they say it’s mighty fine. They give you fifty dollars, and take back forty-nine.’”

“That’s a good one.” He slouches down in the seat more, smiling.

“What about you? What do you do?”

He glances out the window. “Me? I’m a buyer, man.” He shrugs the way rich people do when they don’t want to talk about money.

“A buyer, eh? Of what?”

“The ultimate product,” he says, and flashes the amigo grin again. “The ultimate product. So, you like the car?”

Since he’s changing the subject, I don’t feel too comfortable pressing the point. I resolve to forget it for now. “Yeah, it’s amazing. What kind of engine did you say?”

“I dropped a five-o-two crate engine in here,” he says. “Had to customize a bit to do it, you know? All sorts of fabrications. But what the Hell.”

I nod, saying nothing.

“You believe in Hell, amigo?”

Sweat beads up on my forehead. I decide to change the subject a little myself. “Yeah, I just came from there,” I say, and glance over.

He gets the drift, and laughs. “Just came from there. That’s good, man. That’s really good.” He slides down in the seat a little more, getting comfortable. He closes his eyes and I wipe the sweat off my brow.

“We’re only about four miles from Amarillo now,” I say.

“Mm-hm.”

“Nice day for a drive.”

He mumbles something about it being a great car, and I hear it, but I’m suddenly preoccupied by my surroundings. This stretch of highway is pretty bare but I always recognize certain landmarks, in order, from having driven it so often. We’ve just passed one, a big old boulder, and I realize something is drastically wrong with the landscape: not just the absence of the state lottery billboard I see every time I pass this way, but the absence of the building just beyond it, an office complex they built fifteen or twenty years ago. I slow down.

“What the…? Something’s wrong, man. What the Hell’s going on?”

“Hm?” He opens an eye, fixes the stare on me, like a lizard squinting.

“The whole—there’s a building gone from here. It’s just gone!” I pull over and park.

“Yeah, that urban renewal can be a bitch. Well, easy come, easy go, eh?” He grins lazily, closes the eye.

“No, man, you don’t understand: the building’s gone, the parking lot … it’s like it was never here.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

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