For the third time that night, Tammy Wynette sang about standing by your man.
I hate this song. I looked over toward the jukebox. Craig slumped on the floor, his chapped lips mouthing soundlessly along with Tammy. He was currently nursing his way through his second brown bag. I could practically smell the cheap booze. Craig. Mean as a snake. But at least he pays his tab.
As I poured myself another cup of coffee, I surveyed my nearly empty diner. Other than Craig, the only other patron was Officer Winnie Graves, sitting at the counter beside me. He was reading the newspaper and slowly working his way through his late dinner. Double cheeseburger, with bacon and green chili. Of course, grilled to perfection by yours truly. The rest of the place was business as usual. Lights that sometimes flickered. I can blame the decades old electric system for that. Red tables and booths that could use a fresh coat of paint or a new patch of elastic covering. The place smelled like burnt food and butter. Gotta’ love it. I bought this diner when I turned thirty years old. Been working as a short order cook for so long, I figured I’d pull the pin and make it my career. Lot of pressure in the world to find a career. To be a success in the world, you needed a direction in the universe and a steady paycheck. To be respectable.
Not that this area was respectable. Just on the border of Texas. New Mexico. The land of enchantment. My diner was an oasis for railroad men and truckers on their way to Amarillo or Albuquerque, depending on what they were hauling. Craig was one such animal. 9:30 on a Wednesday night. And stinking up my place with Tammy’s warbling.
“How’s the burger Winnie?”
The officer barely looked up from his paper. On the back, headlines spoke of the local drought, some murderer in Clovis getting caught, as well as the local libraries’ canned food drive. Must be riveting stuff.
“Burnt on the outside, pink in the middle. Just how I like it.”
“Glad to see your pretty smile.”
“Keep it in your pants, Warren.”
I chuckled and stirred some sugar into my coffee. Back by the booths, the jukebox beeped. Tammy carried the place out on a long, unsteady note. Craig stirred from his stupor, reaching into his filthy Levi’s for another quarter. His work boots squeaked raucously across my floor.
“Don’t even think about it, Craig.” I took a sip of my coffee. It was old and boiling. Kinda like you old-timer. “I think we should give Ms. Wynette a rest. Maybe Merle or Hank want to take the stage for a while.”
Craig chuckled. The sound was hateful. “You got a problem with lady singers, Warren?”
“After the third time I do.”
Craig sneered. “Fine. I’m out of quarters anyway.” He stood up. Craig was a giant of a man. He ran his hand over his greasy hair, slicking it down over his pink scalp. “I gotta take a piss.” He stumbled away, glaring at Winnie as he walked. Once he was gone, Winnie grunted.
“That guy is a prick.”
I laughed. “Only when he’s drinking.”
Winnie turned a page, straightening the bundle of pages with a practiced snap of his wrist. I turned my attention to the windows, hoping to see some headlights coming down the road. Outside, the night wore on. The desert stretched out, the darkness thick. I could make out Winnie’s cruiser, and both Craig and my pick-up trucks. Not much else. Some silhouettes of cacti and bushes poking stubbornly from the dirt. I could hear the wind howling. I felt tired. I’m ready for a beer and some sleep. Red sand whipped at the windows. Scraping. A storm. Maybe. And-
The door slammed open, the bell smashing into the wall, the standard ring choked flat. A man stood before me, his chest heaving. I took him in all at once. Grey boots. An orange jumpsuit covered in blood. Coated in sand. A handcuff dangling from one slender wrist. A prisoner. Holy hell.
“Lock the doors. Seal the windows.” He choked in on his own words. “She’s coming.”
The man spun on the front door, locking it violently. His movements were jerky, filled with panic. He limped over to the nearest table, dragging it toward the door. Winnie was already up, the newspaper set aside. One wrinkled hand reached for his gun. Winnie cleared his throat.
“You okay, son?”
Our newcomer turned on Winnie, slamming himself into the blocked door. The old wood crackled under his weight. His eyes were bloodshot. Flesh blood rolled from a fat split in his lip.
“Not okay! She’s coming! We need to find shelter!”
Outside, a sandstorm had started. A big one. It blew against the windows, rattling them in their frames. Sandstorms weren’t abnormal. They might even border on common. But this–
Winnie was talking again. “Deep breath now. My name is Officer Winnie. You look like you’ve been in an accident or something. Can you explain what happened?”
The man looked at Winnie. Then at me.
“An accident. A girl. The girl. She attacked the car. She killed him!” He gestured wildly. The handcuff jingled.
“Wait a sec.” Craig stood behind Winnie, one finger pointed at the newcomer. “Ain’t you Jonny Earl Carson?” The wind was howling. The power flashed. Once. Twice. The jukebox beeped both times, the sound loud in the silence that stretched between us. The newcomer stood, hands out, eyes darting. Jonny Earl Carson. The name was familiar.
“You that fruit that killed that little girl! Snatched her from the street!”
Winnie look over his shoulder at Craig, suddenly worried. That’s where I know this guy from. He’s the murderer from Clovis. The storm raged. So much sand. The vehicles were no longer visible. Jonny bared his teeth.
“Please. We need to hide. That’s why she’s after me. She’s in the storm!” He pointed one skeletal finger toward the window.
“What the hell are you going on about!? Shoot this guy, Winnie!”
Winnie hesitated, the gun half-up.
The power went out.
All along the ceiling, my emergency lights kicked on. The room took on a yellowish glow. In it, everyone looked ill. Shadows loomed.
“No one is getting shot, Craig. Now, Mr. Carson. I need you to put your hands up. I assume you escaped police custody. Please lie on the ground and put your hands behind your head.” Behind him, Craig’s face was red.
“Don’t arrest him! Put a bullet in his skull! He deserves more than that for killing that little girl!”
Jonny ignored them both. He’d turned his attention to the front windows, his bulbous head pointed outward toward the raging sandstorm.
I saw it too. A little girl.
It’s impossible. She’d be blown away. She stood before the window, wearing a small dress. Floral patterns dotted it. Hair in pigtails. She couldn’t have been older that six or seven.
“I’m sorry…I’m so sorry. No more.” Jonny groaned.
“Winnie…” My voice sounded weak. I suddenly felt my age. I felt 55. Every year had been hooked into my weary bones. That little girl shouldn’t be able to withstand that wind. Her pigtails didn’t blow. The dress didn’t billow. The little girl grinned. Blood rolled between her teeth. Over her lips. Everyone was staring now.
The voice invaded my head. Rattled against my skull. “Bring him to me.”
Jonny howled. The wind howled with him. Craig looked around wildly. “He’s mine.” The voice was young and feminine. It was cruel.
Winnie lowered his gun. “Who’s talking!? Who’s doing that?”
“It’s her. She wants him.”
Jonny slid to the floor, his hands clamped over his ears. He spoke quickly, his words sloppy with his Texas drawl.
“No one saw me. When the sandstorm started, I had my chance.” As Jonny spoke, images flashed in my brain. Each came with dozens of sharp stabs into my eyes. Flashbulbs. Glaring. They carved into my flesh.
An image from a child’s view. Of Jonny. Drifting through the sands like a phantasm.
“Everyone had gone inside. They’d forgotten about her. And she was so beautiful…”
Reaching out. The sand was burning her eyes. Gritting against her teeth. And this man… He seems like a nice man.
“I-I-I thought no one would know. So… I grabbed her.”
Blood rolled from the girl’s eyes. She laid one doll sized palm on the window. Cracks spider-webbed across the surface rapidly. Sand flurried into the room.
“Bring him to me. Or you all die. The marshal refused to hand him over. So I took him.”
Craig turned his eyes toward Winnie. The officer’s gun had vanished back into his holster. They both looked to me. Between us, over the howls of the wind, thoughts and consequences devoured the air. Passed between us. Right and wrong. True or false. Winnie, who’d worn his badge for over twenty years, looked down on Jonny.
We can’t be considering… My brain hurt. The glass continued to crack. I was choking on sand now. Shadows moved behind the girl. Hell roared in her eyes.
The girl turned her eyes to me. “He deserves everything we have for him.”
I walked around the counter. We reached for him.
He didn’t even fight.
Logan Noble is an author that focuses of the strange and macabre. He spends his days hiding from the sun and tax collectors with his lovely wife Elizabeth. He has been published in several anthologies, including ‘Spooklights’ by Muzzleland Press, ‘The Haunted Traveler Vol. 2’ by Weasel Press, and collections from Horrified Press. You can read more from him at his website logannoble.wordpress.com.