First Place: First Round Entry, 2019 NYCMIDNIGHT Flash Fiction Contest
Genre: Historical Fiction | Prompts: Bunkhouse, Razor
When Nate is set on dyin’, an unwelcome stranger might just give him a reason to live.
“Use a bowline, Nate. It don’t slip.”
That’s what my brother Joseph told me. I didn’t listen, and now Joseph’s dead.
The knot slipped and the water took him under for good.
I ain’t‘ gettin’ it wrong again. This double bowline around the roof beam ain’t gonna go nowhere when I tighten the noose around my neck and step off the stool.
The whiskey slides down my throat like hot butter. Everything’s spinnin’ and my tongue is thick in my mouth, but it don’t matter.
I’m alone in this bunkhouse tonight, so I gotta do this now. I drop my whiskey bottle, and the clink of it hittin’ the floor rings in my ears. By habit, I pat my holster to make sure my Colt Patterson revolver’s right where it should be.
Though I reckon I won’t be needin’ it where I’m goin’.
My eyes are closed, one last prayer, when the door squeaks. Both eyelids snap open to see a lady in the doorway.
She goes wide-eyed. “Whatchu tryin’ to do to yourself?” She shakes her head. “Lord, have mercy.”
Once my vision clears, I stop and study her. Her ripped dress falls off her shoulders and her bosom spills out of her corset. Might be the liquor, but she’s a pretty little number. She’s got skin like coffee and midnight hair tumbling over her shoulders.
Before, I would’ve done anything to watch those curls splay out on a pillow as those full lips cried out in pleasure. But not now. “Lady, I was here first,” I slur. “Please go.”
Her tone turns desperate. “But I ain’t got nowhere else to go. I’ll freeze.”
“I don’t care.”
“But I do.” Her face crumples. “If I go home, I won’t see tomorrow.”
I blink to clear the fog. I always would’ve done anything to save someone. Especially someone like her. But that’s when I cared.
The carin’ stopped when I lost Joseph downstream. Should’ve been patient and kept on riding ‘til we hit a high point. Now he’s gone, and he was the only family I got. My jaw clenches. “You gotta git.” I nod to the open door.
“No.” She shuts it. “Neither of us are dyin’. Not tonight.”
“I’ll shoot you.” I point my pistol at her. “I ain’t got nothin’ to lose.”
She marches up to me and puts her hand over the gun. “You ain’t that kind of man. I can tell.”
She’s right, and I hate her for it. When the smell of lilacs hits my nose, something inside me stirs.
I blow out a breath. “If you stay, I’ll have my way with you.” I don’t really want that, but I’m hopin’ the threat will get her to leave.
Without battin’ an eye, she unhooks her corset, lettin’ it fall to the floor along with her dress. Purple petals scatter from a pocket.
My eyes go wide, and I can’t help but react to her body, naked and stunning, but covered in bruises.
“You think I care?” she mutters. “He rapes me every chance he gits.”
When I get back to my senses, I turn away from her. “Put your clothes back on.”
After she’s dressed again, she asks, “So, what happened?”
“None of your damn business.” I hold my chin high, trying to salvage what’s left of my dignity.
Even when she scowls, she’s pretty. “Life’s still worth livin’, you know.”
I stare her down when I snarl, “You don’t know nothin’ about my life.”
“No, but I know plenty ‘bout mine.” She returns the stare, her dark eyes slicin’ through me. “He didn’t care when he ripped us from our mama’s arms. He didn’t care when my sister died havin’ his baby.” Her lips form a hard line. “He ain’t killed me yet, and until he does, I’m gonna keep fightin’.”
Her words gut me like a fisherman’s knife on a fresh catch. She could probably use a drink.
Dammit all to hell. I let out a long sigh before I slip the noose off my neck. After stepping off the stool, I grab the half-empty bottle off the floor. My voice is hoarse when I ask, “You want a swig?”
“No. I don’t want nothin’ from you.” Her words are harsh, but her voice is sweet, like a Sunday song.
Needin’ to prove her wrong, I say, “No? I bet you’re hungry.”
I nod, satisfied, then take out my stash of beans and bring an iron pot to the wood stove. When the beans are done, I scoop them into clay bowls.
We eat in silence, but it’s a peaceful one. Maybe it's because we're both used to bein' alone, or maybe it's because we're no strangers to sufferin', but we’re comfortable together.
After she takes my empty bowl, she trails a finger over my thick beard. “I wonder what you look like underneath all this?”
I ain’t shaved since Joseph died. I close my eyes, a wave of somethin’ new washing through me. It stops my breathin’ and mists my eyes, warm and bittersweet.
I suck in a ragged breath before heading over to the cot to grab my pack. My hands shake as I walk back to her. “Would you like to see…” I trail off, my voice cracking. Pulling out a razor and handing it to her, I whisper, “Do me the honor. Please.”
She nods, a spark flaring in her dark eyes like a shootin’ star on a moonless night.
When she strokes the razor over my skin, her touch is gentle but firm. She knows just the right way, probably spent years doin’ it for him. The smell of lilacs fills the air around me, and I’m glad I ain’t dead. At least not for tonight.
* * *
A heartfelt thanks to Katina Ferguson, Shelby Van Pelt, and Mel Todd for being all around amazing help and providing late night support.