PodCastle 651: At First Glance
Rated R for strong language.
At First Glance
By Shannon Peavey
On a narrow highway in western Texas, an old Ford pickup hurtles through a curve at eighty-five miles per hour. It slips a little on bald tires, but recovers and swings out to the straightaway, accelerating.
Two girls sit in the cab — one in the driver’s seat, one behind her in the back. The driver chews her lip until it bleeds. Her younger sister has a pair of dark glasses pushed up onto her forehead and her face pressed up to the glass until her nose squashes flat like a bulldog’s. She’s careful not to look up at her sister.
Somewhere behind them, there are posters with their names and faces, policemen canvassing neighborhoods. But they are miles, miles away.
“What the hell’s with all these armadillos,” Brynn says. “I mean, look at this road. It’s a goddamned slaughterhouse.”
Sam glances back in the rearview mirror. Just a quick look, and then back to the road. The air stings her split lip. “Get your greasy face off my windows.”
“You think they’d learn,” Brynn says, without peeling her face from the glass. “Isn’t there some sort of instinct? Species memory?”
“Their mamas didn’t teach ‘em right.”
“Maybe they think you’re gonna stop for them. Maybe they think you’re a merciful lady.”
“Nobody thinks that,” Sam says, and eases off the gas.
They don’t see any live armadillos for the rest of the drive. Only dead ones, splayed carelessly along the fog line. Sam’s mercy isn’t tested.
When they stop for gas, Brynn stays in the truck and drops her sunglasses back over her eyes. She stares at her knees and imagines the scene — the long-haul truckers in their cabs, maybe a family with kids on a road trip, harried mother telling them to be quiet while she fills up the car. Though really she can’t see a thing. The lenses of her glasses are smoked and neatly coated with black paint.
Sam gasses up and then heads inside to buy corn nuts and Mountain Dew. She watches the cashier carefully as he rings her up, carefully enough that he stops smiling and ducks his head to hide his eyes behind the brim of his cap.
Too late to save you, honey, Sam thinks with something like pity — but all she says is thanks, and she takes the green bottles and the corn nuts back out to the truck and knocks on the window before she gets in.
“Cashier was cute enough,” she says as she does up her seatbelt. In the backseat, Brynn uncaps her Mountain Dew with a carbonated wheeze. “One of those sensitive artist types. Married, though.”
“Never stopped you from looking,” Brynn says, and she laughs. It’s an ugly sound.
Sam starts the truck and they pull out into the evening dim. A whisper of a breeze blows grit across the windshield.
They drive until it’s full dark, and then stop in some little shithole town with a motel right by the highway. Sam goes and gets the key, begs a lower rate off some girl wearing too much makeup and a bunch of jewelry in shiny red plastic. Even her shoes are red. Sam sees them because she kicks her feet under the desk like a child.
Their room is on the second floor at the corner. Sam goes there first and gets it unlocked and then heads into the bathroom and stares at herself in the mirror while Brynn gets herself settled in.
She doesn’t look so good. Sallow-skinned, red-eyed. Bit nails and hair tied up with a broken rubber band.
“Gotta find some place to hole up,” she tells her reflection, looking herself squarely in the eyes across the bathroom sink.
When she comes out, Brynn is already lying flat out on one of the beds with her boots still on her feet. Her black glasses folded neatly and resting on the Gideon Bible.
“These ugly-ass bumpy ceilings,” Brynn says.
“Popcorn ceilings. Yeah.”
“I just keep trying to find pictures in them. You know? Like clouds, or like somebody wrote some code in there.”
“It’d be a stupid fuckin’ code.” Sam had a house, once — renovated it herself. She’s scraped her share of popcorn off ceilings. It never came away clean.
“Maybe something like the DaVinci Code. Some shit about Jesus.”
“I saw that movie,” Sam says. “It was all right.”
Brynn snorts and closes her eyes. Sam finds the remote in the bedside table and flicks on the TV. She surfs channels until she finds a rerun of Jaws, and then settles back to watch a mechanical shark eat the shit out of some swimmers.
“I love this one,” she says. “That shark. What a predator.”
Brynn twitches on the bed, but doesn’t open her eyes.
“You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” Sam says.
“I’m going out for a smoke.” Brynn swings up to a sit and her boots hit the thin carpet with a clop.
“Watch yourself,” Sam says. “And take your glasses.”
“I’ll be careful.”
“Yeah,” Sam says, and turns back to the TV.
That shark — what a predator. Just death in the water.
Brynn sucks smoke deep into her lungs and holds it there, looking fixedly across the highway. There’s a cow pasture on the other side, fenced in with barbed wire. A pair of tan cows watch her with placid faces.
It’s okay, though. It doesn’t affect animals. They’ve tested it. So she keeps her glasses in her pocket. She doesn’t like to wear them more than she has to — doesn’t like to make herself blind.
Sometimes she thinks she might like to have a dog. Someone she could really talk to, face to face. But they moved around too much; it wouldn’t be fair to the dog. Sam says she wouldn’t mind having a dog in her truck. But Sam says a lot of things that aren’t really true.
“You got a light?”
It’s a woman’s voice, off to her right. Brynn fumbles in her pocket for her lighter, then holds it out to the side and flicks the spark wheel without ever glancing her way.
The woman shifts around and takes a puff of her cigarette and her shoes make scuffing noises on the pavement. Red shoes with little peep-toes. Brynn can look at those; shoes are safe.
“You sure seem interested in those cows,” the woman says. She has a good voice. A little raspy around the edges.
“They’re nice cows.”
“They reek.” She blows out a breath and her plume of smoke mixes with Brynn’s.
“Not their fault,” Brynn says.
For a while they stand there quietly, side by side, and smoke. Brynn’s cigarette burns down to the filter and she drops it on the pavement and grinds it out with her toe.
“What are you doing out here?” the woman says. “Just passing through?”
Brynn ignores that and quirks her head to get a better look at the animals across the street. One of them has dropped away to find better grazing. The other still stands there, quiet alongside the barbed wire.
She says, “Do you think cows think about their futures?”
The woman laughs and then her laugh dies away and still Brynn says nothing more. The woman shifts uneasily. “No,” she says. “I mean, they’re cows.”
“Yeah,” Brynn says, her voice light. “It’s probably for the best. What do they have to look forward to?”
She sees the woman move out of the corner of her eye and she flinches away. Her hand, snaking out toward Brynn’s arm. Her fingers graze the edge of Brynn’s sleeve.
“Hey,” the woman says. “Look at me while I’m talking to you, okay? It’s only polite.”
Brynn swallows. The woman’s cigarette is still burning and the smoke slides up her nose, into her eyes. It’s a better brand than the one Brynn smokes, or maybe she’s just better at savoring the taste.
“Come on,” the woman says. Her pretty voice, low and inviting. Her red shoes shifting on the pavement.
“You should go,” Brynn says.
“Don’t tell me what to do,” the woman says, and then Brynn just can’t stop herself anymore. She turns around and looks.
She’s the most beautiful girl Brynn’s ever seen.
Sam wakes up in the middle of the night with the feeling that something’s gone wrong. She rolls over and checks the digital clock on the bedside table. Two-thirty. She looks for the lump of her sister in the other bed. But she’s not there.
“Fuck,” Sam says, and she tears out of bed.
She doesn’t bother to get dressed, just slams her feet into her boots and heads out the door with the room key curled in her fist. The night is cool and dry and sucks the breath right out of her.
“Brynn,” she says, trying to keep her voice low but carrying. “Where are you?”
She walks the parking lot in circles, pausing in the patches of harsh light cast by the motel’s neon sign or the caustic orange glow of a streetlamp. The truck still sits where she’d parked it, cold and motionless. Brynn wouldn’t have gone far. Not by herself.
She stops when she passes a low ditch by the edge of the parking lot. She can’t see well, but someone is breathing roughly down there. Their breath catching like they’re trying not to sob.
“Brynn, it’s me.” She steps over the curb and skids down on her heels into the bottom of the ditch. It’s dry all the way through, and sandy. No rain for weeks.
Brynn is only a vague shape in the darkness, crouched over something that lies limp and broken in the bottom of the ditch. She shifts to the side and her foot comes down on a piece of red plastic jewelry and it cracks under her weight.
“Oh, shit,” Sam says, and she kneels down and runs her hand over the dead girl’s cheek. The girl is cool under her hand and her makeup smears across the tips of Sam’s fingers.
“I didn’t want to hurt her,” Brynn says, her voice tight and strained. She’s pressed against the side of the ditch, cowering like an animal. Her face turned down to the dirt and the darkness.
“I know you didn’t. It’s okay.”
“I just wanted to see her face. She had such a nice voice.”
Red lipstick is spread across the corner of the girl’s face, down to her chin. She looks like she’s swallowed a mouthful of blood.
“It doesn’t matter,” Sam says. “This doesn’t change anything.”
“I can’t stop it. Someone needs to stop me.”
“That’s a lie,” Sam says fiercely. “You’re not doing nothing wrong. It’s just the way you are. Nobody expects a shark not to kill. It’s just following its instincts.”
Brynn says nothing. Sam gets up and holds out a hand to her sister, trusting that she’ll keep her eyes averted. After a moment, Brynn takes it and Sam pulls her up.
Sam kicks out, jars the dead girl’s ankle with a booted foot. “It’s not like anyone’ll miss her, anyway. Look at these red shoes. Nobody but a dumb whore’s gonna wear red shoes.”
“Yeah,” Brynn says. “Right.”
“Okay,” Sam says. There’s a numb feeling in her gut, but it’s easy to ignore. “Let’s go take care of it, then.”
Sam drives the truck over close to the ditch so they won’t have to walk so far carrying her. In case there are security cameras or something like that. She takes the girl by the shoulders and Brynn takes her ankles and they put her in the truckbed and wrap her in a tarp.
“Don’t suppose you know a quiet place around this town,” Sam says.
Brynn shakes her head, and Sam nods. Best they can hope for is to buy themselves a little time.
“Get in the truck, then,” she says, and they get in and the old thing starts up without a hitch. She leaves the truck running while she grabs their bags from the motel room and leaves the key on the bedside table.
There are still traces of the dead girl’s makeup crammed under her fingernails.
She gets in the truck and puts it in drive. Doesn’t think about where they’re headed next. Sometimes it’s all driving in circles, anyway — going places they’ve already been and trying to be new people there. It never works that way, of course. No matter how hard they scrape at it, nothing ever comes off clean.
So they just run.
Whenever they hear a siren, whenever they see a sudden flash of light — Sam says, down, and they duck behind a wall or turn their faces away from the windows. They change the plates on the truck again, just in case. Sam chops her hair short, though she looks even more criminal with that wild bristle haloing her face.
“This is too much,” Brynn says. “I can’t do it anymore.”
“Fine,” Sam says, and shrugs. She forces her voice to be light. “We’ll just let them find us. Not like we can’t deal with them when they get here.”
Brynn flinches. She’s thought about it. She’s wondered how long it would take her to look one of the cops in the eye. Not very long, she thinks.
“No,” she says. “You’re right. We’ll keep going.”
“So get back in the truck.”
Sam turns them back to the road. The truck jolts in a pothole and her teeth click together. They’re taking the back roads, now, trying to stay under the radar.
“We’re gonna run out of places to go,” Brynn says.
“Fuck that. Then we’ll stand and fight them.”
Brynn says nothing.
There’s a tickle of unease in Sam’s gut, but she says, “There’s nobody who could beat us. You know that.”
“I know it.”
“So don’t be such a chickenshit.”
“Get off my case,” Brynn says sharply. “It’s not important now. Nobody’s found us.”
“Not yet,” Sam says.
The worst part is that Brynn can’t really argue with her. Doesn’t really want to. Because if Sam left her, where would she be?
Can’t drive — might accidentally see other drivers through their windshields, or pedestrians by the side of the road. She might make it in some halfway house, never taking her dark glasses off. If they had some pity to spare for a blind girl. She’s mostly helpless, mostly useless — save for that one talent.
“I’ll probably look at you one day,” she says.
“You won’t,” Sam says. “I’ll gouge your eyes out first.”
“Okay.” It makes her feel oddly better.
Brynn hasn’t seen her sister in years — not since the start of this whole thing. But she can put together something of a picture from all the bits and pieces, the occasional glances. Sam has big feet, and her boots are worn. Underrun at the heels. She has long, thin fingers and she bites her nails. But her face — that’s three years out of date.
They drive on. At midday, they stop at a deserted rest area and Sam slaps some ripped-up jerky and American cheese between slices of bread and wraps them in foil and puts them on the engine block to heat up while they drive. “Everything looks better with hot food in your stomach,” she says, and pats the truck’s hood affectionately.
Forty minutes later, the sandwiches taste delicious.
“Pull over there,” Brynn says, wiping her fingers on her jacket.
“I said, pull over. That driveway there.”
“The one that says World’s Biggest Battlefield in Miniature?”
Sam slants a look back in the rearview mirror. “Looks like a tourist trap.”
Brynn shrugs. “I want to see it.”
Sam tips her head to the side. The sign for the World’s Biggest Battlefield in Miniature gets bigger and bigger as they draw close, and at the last minute she rips the truck off the road, down the cutoff to the tourist trap. “Don’t say I never did nothin’ for you.”
The place is almost deserted. Two other cars in the parking lot and a little house with an old man who takes money and stamps hands. They won’t ask him, but that man can talk for hours about what made him start this place. He says it’s an abiding love for history, but really, after his young son died, the old man just didn’t know what to do with all of his action figures.
Brynn follows mutely behind her sister, eyes flicking behind her glasses, catching little bits of scenery around the edges. She holds her hand out to be stamped and out of the corner of her eye she traces the pattern of brown and yellow twining up her bootlaces.
“She slow?” the old man says.
“Nah, she’s just shy,” Sam says, and though her voice is easy there’s a warning in it.
The old man hears it, and says nothing more.
Outside, Brynn hooks her elbows over the split-rail fence keeping them from the exhibit and takes her glasses off to look at it. It’s okay, because the place is mostly deserted. Sam stands a pace back, shifting her weight from foot to foot.
“This thing is fuckin’ huge,” she says.
“Wonder how long it took to make it.”
Little green army men crawl all over sand hillocks and sheets of AstroTurf. Impossible to tell what battle they’re reenacting. Maybe something in Vietnam, from all the plastic jungle trees scattered around. The tableau stretches nearly the length of a football field. Plastic men pointing guns at each other. Some of them lie dead, their limbs chewed off or just quietly still, staring up at the sky.
“Seems pretty goddamn pointless, to me,” Sam says.
“Waste of time,” Brynn agrees.
They stand there for a while more, looking out over the carnage.
A crunch of gravel in the parking lot announces the arrival of another car. Sam glances over her shoulder and then freezes. “It’s a cop.”
Something settles in Brynn’s stomach, something heavy like inevitability. She flicks her glasses back over her eyes but isn’t sure it’ll make much difference. “How many?”
“Just one, I think.”
“No lights. No siren.”
“No,” Sam says. She nudges Brynn with her elbow and they edge around the fence to the far side of the exhibit. Hands-in-pockets casual.
The cop gets out of her car. She’s rake-thin, a little past middle age. She vanishes into the little house to give the old man his money. While she’s gone, Sam and Brynn scurry off toward the truck. Trying not to look like they are running from the law.
The door opens. The cop steps back out.
They freeze along the fence and duck their heads, like they’re absorbed in the exhibit. The army men in front of them appear to be capturing a town made out of Popsicle sticks.
“You know, I see this place all the time when I’m driving, and I’ve never stopped before,” she says back through the open door.
The old man says something back to her, but they can’t hear it.
“What should we do?” Brynn’s hands are white knuckled on the fence. “What if she knows our faces?”
“Cool it,” Sam says, under her breath. “She’s off duty. She’s not searching for us.”
But in truth, she wouldn’t mind if the woman confronted them. She’s not nervous. Just a stir of anticipation. After all, it’s only natural. They shouldn’t have to hide what Brynn is.
The cop steps up to the fence. She scans the battlefield and lets out a low whistle through her teeth. “What a production,” she says.
“What should I do?” Little splinters of wood start to flake off under Brynn’s hands.
“Keep your fuckin’ head down.” Sam keeps an eye on the woman as she starts to circle around the fence, coming their way. She nods hello to an elderly couple sitting on a bench in a splash of meager shade.
Brynn swallows. Her face is bone white, her glasses utterly dark.
The cop stops a few feet in front of them, eying a pair of green men scaling a plastic palm tree.
“Hell of a setup, isn’t it, girls?”
Her voice is friendly. It takes Sam a moment to realize that she’s talking to them.
“Yes ma’am,” she says.
“Get vicious winds through here. I wonder if they’re glued down.”
“Not sure,” Sam says. There’s a tiny quaver in her fingers, so she clenches them. “I’d imagine they are.”
“Have to be.” The cop nods, and Sam can see that the skin of her throat is paper-thin. Riding loose over the column of her spine. She almost thinks she can see the thready pound of the woman’s pulse.
Sam says nothing and turns her face back to the exhibit. Hoping that she’ll move on, that the conversation is done.
But it’s not. “So, what brings two young ladies such as yourselves to a place like this? You don’t seem the type.”
“I’m very interested in history,” Sam says. She inches her hand across the wood until it collides with Brynn’s. Just a light bump. Saying, be ready.
“That’s great,” the cop says. “My family’s full of veterans. My brother went to Vietnam. I’m glad to see some young people still respect that contribution.”
“Try to,” Sam says, and she gives a smile full of teeth.
The elderly couple have gotten up and gone away. The contrail of their dust still fading in the parking lot. It’s just the sisters and the cop, now.
Sam’s hand clenches in Brynn’s sleeve. Brynn listens to the woman’s voice as she talks, wondering what her face looks like. She has a dry voice, but it’s kind. Brynn could kill her in an instant.
Sam is getting tense. Brynn can feel it in the grip Sam has on her cuff, hear it in the scrape of her feet on the ground. The cop doesn’t know. She doesn’t know anything.
So Brynn says, “We’d better get back on the road. Aren’t we supposed to meet Frank soon?”
Sam jerks a little bit. She lets go of Brynn’s sleeve. “Right,” she says.
The cop smiles at them and looks back to the battlefield. “You two have a nice evening.”
“You too, ma’am.”
“You too,” Brynn echoes.
They shuffle past her, both of them watching the dirt. As they go, the cop’s hand darts out and closes on Brynn’s wrist — she didn’t see it coming; she almost screams out loud. But all the cop says is, “It’s quite the sight. I wish you could see it for yourself.” Her voice is so kind.
“Thank you, ma’am,” Brynn says, and her face is trying to make some expression but she doesn’t know which one, so she stops it. Just shuts everything down.
They stay silent until they have the truck in drive, pulling out onto the backcountry road with the sign proclaiming the World’s Biggest Battlefield in Miniature. Then Sam starts laughing, a helpless spasm of it, and after a moment Brynn joins in. They laugh without stopping. Sam curled over the steering wheel like it’s the only thing holding her upright. Brynn bent over her knees, her knuckles dug so deep into her eye sockets she sees stars.
“Jesus,” Sam says, once her laughter’s died away. “What a close shave.”
“Way too close.”
“Good thinking, little sister,” Sam says, and she slaps the wheel for emphasis. “Really good.”
There’s quiet in the truck for mile after mile. The landscape rips by dull and the same — wastes of prairie tallgrass and stunted mesquite. Neat rows of cotton. The occasional clapboard house, shutters drawn tight so it’s hard to tell if anyone lives there at all.
The truck rounds a bend. Brynn says, “Were you gonna have me kill that lady?”
Sam doesn’t answer right away. She straightens out and squints into the low glow of the setting sun. “Would you have done it?”
“Yes,” Brynn says.
Sam’s mouth works. She rolls down the window and spits. “Well, you didn’t,” she says. “And look at us now. We’re doing okay, right?”
“Yeah. Just fine.”
They drive on. Brynn watches the side mirror, sure that she’s going to see flashing lights and cop cars coming up behind them. She doesn’t, though. Only dry road and the blur of cars passing in the opposite direction, beetle-bright in the glare.
So she stares at herself in the mirror and meets her own gaze steadily. After a while, the slant of the sun grows low enough that it strikes off the mirror like a lance, right into her eyes — it burns, makes her squint, makes her eyes water. But she won’t close her eyes and she won’t look away.
“There’s another fucking armadillo,” Sam says, a twist in her voice.
Brynn keeps watching her own face in the mirror, her mind moving slow. Dumb with the light and the thoughts of what’s happened. She’s remembering that girl, and how she moved her feet on the pavement. The calm faces of the cows in the pasture. She’s wondering whether she or her sister will be first to know what it feels like to die.
About the Author
Shannon Peavey is a writer and horse trainer from Seattle, Washington. She’s a graduate of the Clarion West workshop, and her stories have also appeared in places such as Apex, Lightspeed, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Find her online at shannonpeavey.com, or on Twitter @shannonpv.