LABOR DAY WEEKEND, I was following a line of seven cars coming from Tuba City, all hugging fenders, climbing a hill. It’s dark out here, so I don’t blame them — probably darker than they’ve ever seen. On the reservation roads, you can be right next to a town and never see it because of a mesa in between. And the starlight just doesn’t add up. The earth stays black. That’s how it is all across the Nation, but everything seemed darker in my home district now that I was back. Three months running familiar roads, arresting guys I grew up with. Watching them get consumed by the place. Not that that’s unique to Dineh. Our homes eat most of us, eventually.
I’d been following the cars for a couple miles when one of them wagged across the paint. I waited to see if he’d do it again. The van in front of me slowed, so I passed, got up closer. The drunk wavered again. He was only doing about forty miles an hour. I turned on the overheads and hit the spotlight, and the driver waved. I keyed the mike and was about to give dispatch the plate, when I recognized the line of tattoos running along the man’s forearm. He slowed and eased the car onto the dirt shoulder, and I pulled in behind him. I waited on the cars to pass by, the brakelights winking out car by car over the hill. I checked the rearview mirror and killed the overheads. Dust settled in the light between the bumpers. I stepped out of the cruiser and walked up to the other car, arm resting on my gunbelt.
The driver rolled his window down and swung in the seat to face me. Hey, brother. He grinned.
Were you just screwing with me, or are you really drunk?
Little of both.
Where’d you get the car?
He gestured, hand palm-up. Borrowing it from a friend of mine.
Uh huh. I sighed and stepped back. Go on.
You don’t wanna search my trunk or anything?
There a reason to, Frank?
The smile on his face faded, and it seemed to go somewhat bitter. Give us something to talk about. He turned back and put the car in gear.
The tires kicked up dirt, leaving me in the light with the skeins of dust rising and pulling back toward the cruiser.
For the last couple hours of my shift, I sat at 59 and 160 watching the sky over the rocks go milky pink. The sun came up and filled my eyes with the fields of red dust and the cliffs. For about ten minutes, everything was gold and red and long panes of shadow so that the world through the windshield looked more like stained glass than something real. Turning the cruiser around, I got the feeling of my father, the thought of him and the day he died. It stayed with me going to the office and when I got in my pickup. I thought about him frequently, and more lately.
It was seven years ago. I was watering the horses we kept for riding tours, waiting on him to turn up in the truck I drive now. The air had the same feel to it, cool but getting warmer. It was turning fall then, instead of mid-spring, and the sky had that same shot-through-with-light look. When he never showed, I took a horse out of town. Frank worked at the Anasazi Motel at the time, a rundown place tarted up in blue paint like it would pass for turquoise. It was on the way out, and he was there watering a juniper by the road. He waved me over, asked me what I was doing. I told him, and he hauled himself up on the horse. The trailer was a few hundred yards from the road. The slope of the land hid it. Riding down, we saw it emerge, tires on the roof first and then all of it, the trailer surrounded by sheets of tin like armor, one tree twisted above scrub brush — You wouldn’t call it a yard. Frank got down and went to the door while I tied up the horse. When he opened the door, everybody says Dad’s spirit got in him, and that’s why he’s the way he is today. When things settled, after the funeral, he started bootlegging. I left.
I made a habit of going to the Blue Coffee Pot nearly every morning after my shift since starting on with the tribal police. It helps to wind down someplace where you can talk and where things are clean and open. The windows are big there. Walking in, I picked up a paper and sat at a booth. Outside, an older tourist couple ambled to the door. Sophie came around and slapped her notepad in front of me.
Your usual, Officer Holmes?
It wouldn’t be otherwise, now would it?
She cocked her head. Something up your ass? She winced when the overhead bell rang at the door.
No, I said. Long night.
Well, it’s over now.
I watched her go to the tourists. It was just her working. I flipped through the local news and folded up the paper to look out the window. Across the street, a couple dogs roved around the doors of the grocery, moved on down the abandoned strip. Sophie came out with my eggs. She went around the counter and sat across from me.
So, what’s the matter?
Pulled your old boyfriend over last night.
I nodded. I cut through half of an egg and folded it onto itself with my fork. He was acting drunk. I don’t know if he was or not.
When did he get a car?
Didn’t. Said he borrowed it.
She frowned and turned away, looking at the tourists.
I ate most of my eggs and polished off the plate with a piece of bread. If he’s still running liquor, I need to know. I don’t mind turning my head to drinking every now and then, but that’s the line.
She said nothing.
We know there’s booze at the Squaw Dances. You’re out to ’em all the time. We’ve run stings on every liquor store in the area, but it’s still coming in.
Well. She looked me in the eye and her face got hot. Either you keep doing it the hard way, or you put Frankie in jail. She stood and bent close. You don’t know what he’s done for the land since you’ve been gone. She walked off to the tourists, and I heard her ask if they needed anything.
I finished my breakfast and put a five down on the counter. Heading home, I passed all the trailers and houses, the shacks and concrete buildings of town. The hotels were bigger than anything else, and newer, and even they were old. Behind them, the red rocks; under us, the red dust.
I bought our house. The parents’ place. I figured if I was coming back I may as well go back all the way. Lock myself in. A couple years ago, I’d gone to the academy and did well, got a job in Flagstaff. When my uncle called and said the house had gone up for sale, I felt like I imagine Frank did when Dad got in him. And I just knew I’d come back here.
They’d met at an Enemy Way. Mom, half-white and from the coast, out here to get in touch with everything. Dad was one of the few to make it back from Vietnam. The ceremony was to cleanse him and the couple other vets of the evil they’d seen, of the ghosts of the enemy. It wasn’t long before they realized it didn’t work.
I was pulling my gunbelt off before I got in the door, and I tossed it on the couch. Even though I’d blown my savings buying the house to keep myself there, I’d started looking for ways out just before I got the transfer. Résumés and applications all over the kitchen counter, the answering machine unblinking. On my way to the shower, I passed the parents’ old bedroom, now an office I never used. When I’d cleaned off the night, I went to bed and tried to sleep. Staring at the ceiling or covering my eyes with my arm, listening to myself breathe. Soon I’d have to open the trunk on Frank. Arrest him, and be done with it. Liquor wasn’t the only problem on the reservation.
There were no reports on Frank’s car in the logs. I’d only half-expected one. It was Thursday night, and there would be nothing to do but bust people for speeding or stop a domestic. Tomorrow, there would be a dance, and Frank would deliver a carload of alcohol and then probably ditch the car. Or drive off with it somewhere.
It was a shame I was better with horses; otherwise, he’d have had my job and I’d have his, and maybe the whole thing would be different. But I talked to horses pretty good like Dad used to, so Frank just did whatever work he could, sometimes helping Mom, sometimes just picking up bottles from the highway. Once we were out of the house, it was me that saw Dad all the time, saw him go through his moods like he was in sync with the moon or the seasons — that’s how regular they were. They got worse, always, but they were predictable worse. Frank wanted to get a medicine man for him, and back then, I wasn’t much for the spiritual stuff. I’m still not. Mom never really got it as anything medicinal. It was just culture to her. The last few years they were together, she wanted to get off the reservation, go back to the coast. A year before he died, he went off on one of his episodes, and Mom left before he came back.
Finally, there was about a week where he was mute. He’d been getting thin for some time, and one day, I found him slumped against a horse’s neck, about to slide off. The doctor said there were tumors all through his throat. We fought with the VA for a while about getting him treated, but he didn’t want to have to go so far away, and eventually, he just gave up. The doctors had only given him a few months to live, but I guess neither Frank or me could imagine Dad dying. Otherwise, I think he would have known not to go in the door.
I broke up a domestic just after 1:00. One too many nights coming home drunk, and the guy’s wife went after him. Neither was hurt, but there was a bunch of shit broke in the house. I let it go. The rest of the night coasted and about 4:00, I hit the wall and had to stop in for coffee at the 7–11. Wendell was the night clerk. We went to school together until he dropped out our junior year. He’d been a decent basketball player years ago, but he’d had a bout with drugs like most of the class did, and that was that. When I came in, Wendell looked up from a clipboard and lifted his pen at me. I got my cup of coffee and a pack of orange cupcakes and put them on the counter.
I saw your brother not too long ago.
He was lookin’ pretty bad. Wendell came around and went behind the counter.
Just bad. Depressed.
Drunk? When was it you saw him?
Wendell picked up the cupcakes and scanned them. There’s worse things. I know it’s your job and all. He spun the price readout for me to see.
I pulled out my wallet and handed him the money. I’ll see you around.
Hey, he said as my hand met the door. He’s in trouble.
What is this — Everybody knows my brother better than me all of a sudden? Sophie just said this morning he’s ‘doing shit for the rez.’
Just watch out for him.
You don’t want to tell me? I dropped my hand. Would this have anything to do with the dance tonight?
He said nothing, and I left the store. The town was lit in pieces by a few streetlights and the signs of hotels, the main intersection. I stood there for a spell like Frank would come by, like he didn’t keep away from me, and like I didn’t turn my head whenever he was around.
I thought about skipping breakfast after my shift. I drove slow from the office to think, and turned in to The Pot. Inside, Sophie glanced out and went into the kitchen. I was alone with the paper until she brought out my breakfast.
You in better spirits today?
Don’t sound it.
Yeah, well. I pulled the plate closer and took a bite. I looked out the window at the clouds coming in, then back at Sophie. What would you do if you were me?
About Frank. About this whole business.
I wouldn’t want to be you for that one, Charlie. She breathed deep and sighed. I don’t know what to tell you. If I was you, I’d be just as clueless. But being me? Sophie stopped, cocked her head slightly to look at the ceiling. What law was here first?
Oh, hell. Don’t get started.
You asked me, so shut up.
I don’t wanna hear about this Red Power bull.
She stepped back a pace behind the counter and appraised me. I never figured you for someone who’d hate themself. I guess I was wrong.
I stared down at my plate. I ate. A shiver went through me. She stood there for a bit, then went off. I finished eating and sat there, staring out.
Wendell says Frank’s in trouble. You know anything about that?
She called, No. But I’ll say this, Charlie. It doesn’t matter what you think about what he does. He’s your brother, and he’s all you’ve got left.
My jaw ground slowly. I slipped off the stool and put some money down. The bell rang for the door as I walked out, and I got in the pickup and drove. Frank lived at the eastern edge of town, where the houses thinned out. I went out that way and slowed at his dwelling, a single-story, busted-concrete place. It wasn’t even a house, just a building. I pulled into the drive, the truck skidding in the dirt. The car wasn’t there, and pulling ahead a little further, I saw it wasn’t in the back, either. He wouldn’t answer if he were home, but I got out anyway and knocked at the door. After a minute, I tried the door and it opened.
Hey, Frank? I stepped inside.
The place smelled like bodies, metal, and a cloud of drugged urine. The floor was bare concrete down a hall, and in a couple rooms, the carpet had been peeled back and the padding left behind. There was no furniture. A couple bedrolls, a pillow, a cooler that was open and full of water. A closet door stood ajar in one of the rooms, and when I got near it, the hair on my neck stood up and I knew I wouldn’t like what I saw. I left, got in the truck, and drove home. Waiting for me was a letter saying to report to Quantico.
At 11:30, my alarm went off. I dressed and went in the kitchen to brew a pot of coffee, buckling my gunbelt. The light over the room flickered before it shone across the countertop and drawers and on into the dining room where the whiskey and letter sat. I pulled the coffeemaker from against the wall and opened one of the cabinets to find no coffee. I shut the light off and went out to the truck, drove to the 7–11. Checking my watch again on the way in the door, I nodded to Wendell, then filled up a cup of coffee and capped it and brought it to the counter.
What’s goin’ on? I said.
Oh, not much, Wendell replied, and rang me up. He looked out the postered windows to the night.
Comin’ on or gettin’ off?
Gettin’ off early tonight.
I handed him a dollar. For anything special?
He raised an eyebrow and handed me a nickel. Mhm. If only you weren’t working.
I put the nickel in the take-a-penny jar. If only. I raised the cup and left.
If I was quick enough, I could get in my cruiser and be back in time to see where he went. I drove to the station, checked in, and drove back into town. The 7–11 parking lot had a couple cars in it now, and I went on past, watching to see if Wendell was inside. I stopped the cruiser a little ways down the road and looked in my mirrors, saw someone tall come outside and get in a car. It pulled out of the lot, and I turned around, following as far back as I could. I just needed to know which way to head. I’d see the fire.
He drove south, and I followed him for about twenty minutes, keeping back so I could just see the taillights. In the distance, a glow was rising up from the horizon, faint, banking off the cliffs. I let him go and waited, checked the time. It was early yet. I could find a sideroad to wait on or could head back toward town, maybe write a few tickets. Instead, I just pulled off the side of the highway and turned the lights off, waited. I wished I smoked. There was a little wind, and you could hear it whistle around the car, catch on the lightbar. I started to feel sick all at once, waiting on Frank to come so I could do I didn’t even know what. Before I left, before Dad died, I’d be going to this dance. Pockets full of change to buy the girls away. Frank and Soph would be there. We’d dance and listen to the pot drums. Eat dinner with the family the day after.
A car sped by, and the brakelights went up as soon as they got ahead of me. I let them go, put the description away in my head: gold Sebring. When it was long past, I turned the lights back on and U-turned in the road, headed toward town.
I pulled over a vanful of tourists heading for a hotel in town. They were going to Monument Valley in the morning. I told them to go to the Anasazi and let them off with a warning. Enough time had passed, and I headed south. The sick feeling rose in my throat and tightened there as the glow of the fire got close, and then I was on it and the rocks opened so I could see everyone: the cars back off the road, the cut fence, the fire, the people around, Sophie and several others. There was a clutch of three men I didn’t know on the near side of the fire, and it happened so fast. The taillights of the Sebring were on the right, and as I stopped the cruiser, I saw one of them held a pistol. I put the spotlight on them and jumped out, pulling my gun. I couldn’t even see who held the pistol, if I knew him, if they were Dineh.
Drop it! I crossed the cruiser, gun up.
Frank was standing by the stolen car, in front of the Sebring. There was a bottle on the ground before the fire, and one broken and gleaming. The man holding the gun was white, had a scar cutting through his short-cropped hair. For a second, everything moved like syrup and then the moment was over, and the man fired at me and he and the others on his side tore for their car. I shot back twice. I keyed the mike on my shoulder and called in the scene to dispatch as the car sped off around the fire, sending everyone running and diving. I was headed toward them when I saw Frank slam his car door just as the Sebring sheared off the mirror, and there was a flash from the window when it passed.
Is everyone all right? I held my hand out to the people coming to their feet and holstered my gun.
Frank’s car started up, and I turned to look and to see which way the Sebring went. Nobody said anything, and I ran toward Frank, rapping on the body of the car as he brought it around and sped off. There was a bullethole in the driver-side window. I stood there for a few seconds, watching the dust ghost on toward the road, and then ran for my cruiser.
He had a good headstart. Dispatch was hounding me for an update, and I didn’t know what to tell them, so I only said I was after the Sebring and the three in it. The road was straight and sloped down for a time, and I could see his headlights far ahead. Soon it would run behind a cliff, and it would take me more than a minute to catch sight again. Dispatch called and cut out, crackled. Nothing. It was just the cruiser and the wind, the lights flashing around and calling up nothing but dirt at the roadside as I drove by. The road began to turn, and I rounded the rock face and saw Frank’s taillights a half-mile ahead, lit hard, and the Sebring spun around, half off the road. As I came on them, the car reversed, turned, and lit out south, out of my district. I pulled in behind Frank and he lifted his arm to wave. I got out of the cruiser and walked to his door. The glass was shot full of cracks. He rolled the window down partway and the glass fell in on him.
Hey, brother. He was bleeding from the neck. Was I speeding?
I leaned down. What the hell are you doing?
Pushing my luck, I guess. He looked around himself and shrugged. He moved to get out of the car and I backed up, held the door open as he stood and tottered against it. He put his hand to his neck and looked at the blood. No getting out of this one, is there?
I don’t know.
Frank touched his neck again, head craned slightly, smiling. I rammed their car, he said. Ended up wrecking mine, not theirs. Well, he laughed, I stole this’n from them. So it all worked out.
I’ve got a kit in the cruiser. I took Frank’s arm and started to lead him.
It ain’t that deep. I’m okay.
I stopped, stared at him. Look. I’m not going to arrest you.
He smiled. The lights from the cruiser flashed in his eyes. Whole mess of beer in the car.
Frank walked to the back of the car and sat on the trunk, resting his feet on the bumper. With the spotlight still on, he was lit like day, and the blood that had run down his neck and arm was bright red.
I’ll have backup soon.
He studied the black field to the side of the road. What’re you gonna do with me?
I never called you in.
He looked down, his blood dripping into the dust. It’s tiring, walking with his ghost, y’know? I did the best I could with it. As good as I could.
I wanted to cross the air between us, grab his shoulder. I didn’t. I’m sorry it was you.
I’m glad it was. He looked up and smiled, half-smirked. You got away for a bit, at least.
I came back.
I looked down the road. I thought I heard sirens. To walk with you, I guess.
Funny way of walking.
Yeah. Well. Your line ain’t exactly straight. I thumbed to the road behind me. They’re coming. What do you want to do?
That’s not up to me.
I grimaced and turned away again. You got a gun?
I leaned into the cruiser and cut the lights, switching the interiors on. He took a nine-millimeter from the car’s console and handed it over. He watched as I propped myself over the side of his trunk, squinting for a moment. Two rounds through the windshield, and the dashcam burst. I gave the gun back to him.
He took the gun, looking at our hands. Lines of dark, dry blood over the ink of his tattoos. We measured each other, and then he started walking north, moving into the ditch and hopping the fencewire as I watched. As he faded into the dark among the juniper and sage, I could see the first cruiser coming around the rocks.
The 2015 Luminaire Award for Best Prose
FIRST PLACE WINNER
We are pleased to announce the first place winner for The 2015 Luminaire Award for Best Prose, honoring the independent press’ best short stories and hybrid prose works of the year. The winner is selected by an external panel that judges all pieces blindly and selects the full list of finalists. Alternating Current does not determine the final outcome for the judging; the external judges’ decisions are final. The first place winner receives a printed certificate, an honorarium, publication on Alternating Current’s award page, publication on The Coil, printed publication in the Luminaire Award print anthology with the selection indicated, two complimentary copies of the journal, and our virtual medallion created by the lovely folks at Hardly Square, for personal and professional use on the author’s websites, blogs, and book covers.