As we head into September, I’m struck by how quickly this year has flown by. I have a radio interview in two days and a book fair next month, and I’m sure there will be much more happening as I go full bore with marketing campaigns for Miles of Files, Jana, and Brothers’ Hand. So rather than write about writing, or advertise upcoming events, I’m starting a short story contest on this blog.

This is not a call for submissions; instead, I’m going to telegraph my upcoming release of a short story collection by doing something they used to do in the old days – serializing the first one! This is how it’s going to work: I’ll post it and ask all of you wonderful readers for 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.

And with that said, here it comes. The working title for this one is Rides from Strangers, and it will be posted in three parts.

So I’m walking down State Road seventy-six about ten miles west of Amarillo. There’s just a couple of houses off the highway, at the tail end of the little cul-de-sac they built about nine years ago, and I know it’ll eventually be a subdivision with a bunch of little cookie cutter brick houses. That’ll expand until it’s just one big suburb. Just like every place else.

I’m home from the latest Gulf war, finally, and I’m thinking, you know, it’s strange: this road hasn’t really changed in thirty years. Not much on it then, not much on it now. Like it always was, really, except for those two houses down on the end there, like I said.

Part of me is glad to be home. But after what I’ve been through, part of me wants to get away, to go somewhere no one knows me and just think about things. Think about what it was like here thirty years ago. Or what it was like before that, before I was even born.

I’m just taking a walk, getting my daily half hour of contemplation. And out of nowhere comes this great looking car: it’s a ’42 Studebaker, beautiful as a prom night virgin in a white dress. Brand new whitewalls, a vintage paint job, baby blue, and chrome you’d have to pay just to see at a local car show. The guy driving it is about my age, thirty-five or thirty-six: a Mexican guy, which doesn’t surprise me, but something about the way he slows down and looks at me gets my stomach all funny. In sort of a good way, even though I’m not queer or anything. He looks familiar, but I know I’ve never met him.

“Hey, amigo. How you doing?”

“That’s some ride you got there, pardner. You live down here?”

“Yeah, the house on the left. You wanna drive ‘er?”

“Me? Oh, no, I —”

“Chure, take ‘er for a spin. Come on.” I laugh nervously, and he jumps over to the passenger side; slides, actually, the big bench seat like a church pew wrapped in vinyl. “Come on, man, I’m not going to bite you.” He holds his hands up.

“No, really….” But he can see how much I want to, and he knows he doesn’t have to twist my arm.

“Ay, caramba. Hop on in, buddy.” He sees me caving, and waves me in. I get into the car.

“Original engine?”

“Huh? Naw, man, it’s a five-o-two crate engine. About eight years old. Sweet.”

The radio is playing Ella Fitzgerald. “That a tape deck hidden somewhere?”

“No, that’s the radio, man.” I put my foot on the accelerator and it feels like what I’d expect a race car to feel like. Incredible power.

“I’m Ray, by the way.”

“Jose. Jose Rodriguez.” He grins, and his eyes are friendly, but the smile looks false. The sky seems to have darkened since I closed the car door.

“Good to meet ya, Jose. Did you say that’s the radio?”

“Yeah.”

“Must be community radio, then. I’ve never heard stuff like this around here. It’s all country, Top 40. Maybe some rock or R&B. Nothing like this.”

He leans back. “Yeah, it’s really nice.” The song ends, and Sinatra comes on next. Singing about Nancy, his daughter.

“Holy cow,” I say. “That’s local? What station is that?” The radio is original, so all I see is an AM band.

“I don’t know. Just a local station, I guess. So, you from around here?”

“Yeah, I grew up about five miles thataway.” I point east. “About five miles from Amarillo.”

“Let’s go that way.”

“Well, I don’t want to burn up too much of your gas.”

“Naw, that’s all right, man. I got a day off every once in a while. You just get back from the Gulf, eh?”

My stomach goes icy. “I don’t remember mentioning that.” I look calmly across the plain, but my hands tighten on the wheel.

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