The Road Back Noir Flash Fiction By Michael Guillebeau

The Road Back: Noir Flash Fiction By Michael Guillebeau

Michael Guillebeau, author of The Road Back, won the Foreword Reviews Gold Medal for Humor Book of the Year for his book MAD Librarian (Madison Press, 2017). Guillebeau has published five novels and over thirty short stories, including three in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

*****

I always tell myself that I will just slip back into an easy normalcy, but it never happens.

Now I’m coming out of the long dark stretch of a road that people around here call the road to hell, just because the nice normal residents of the twin cities at the ends of the road hate each other. The sun is coming up, giving my town (the good one) ahead a warm Norman Rockwell glow I will soon join. The red lights on the dash glow four-thirty a.m. in the half-light. Time to spare. With the hard thing done, there’s time to relax and celebrate.

The waitress at the truck stop counter gives me one of those little save-me-don’t-hurt-me smiles you sometimes see from women in a service industry. It’s tough living on a dangerous road unprotected and almost alone in the pre-dawn when the crazies float through the last bit of darkness like tortured desperate ghouls. Risking your life for the hope of a dollar tip and praying every night that you can just make it back to your safe home. I give her a friendly, normal-guy smile and the tension flows out of her shoulders.

As I take a stool, we both hold our smiles and try to lock in the other’s good will.

“Let me guess.” She leans across the counter. “Big breakfast for the working man to start his day. Or maybe a little rest at the end.”

I laugh and start to make a joke about how long it’s been since I’ve done an honest day’s work. I catch my wavy reflection in the polished steel behind her, and see the stained blue workman’s coveralls I’d bought from the thrift store for this job tonight.

“No rest for the wicked,” I say.

I laugh and start to make a joke about how long it’s been since I’ve done an honest day’s work.

“No time to be wicked.” She tilts her head. “Unless you make it.”

I raise an eyebrow at her. It’s been a long time since anyone’s flirted with me. She is younger than I am, darker-skinned.

I look in the mirror and remember that I still have on makeup. Forgot how it darkens my skin and fills in some of my wrinkles and makes me look younger. In the mirror, we look like a matched couple, with her smiling at a lie.

I smile, enjoying being a young man for a moment.

“How wicked is pie for breakfast?”

“If that’s as wicked as you get.” She leans close. “What’s your pleasure?”

I raise an eyebrow at her. It’s been a long time since anyone’s flirted with me. She is younger than I am, darker-skinned.

“Apple.”

She straightens up. “Wild man.” She looks at me out of the corner of her eyes. “What do I call you?”

“Josh.” I give her a name from years ago.

“Josh who?”

“Just Josh. Whoever.”

She laughs, slips me the pie and a smile. We enjoy being in the normal world. Until.

Until the bell over the door dings and a shapeless figure walks in and we both tense. He looks like a ragged pile of clothes someone has thrown out, dark hood pulled up, moving loose, someone pushed around by the breeze. I can’t tell if his demons are drugs or just bad luck, but he seems to be here to change things one way or another. I stand up.

He stumbles past me to the waitress to get what he came in here for. “You got anything I can have?”

She smiles. Panhandler, down on his luck.

“I’ve got a couple of donuts I was about to throw out. Coffee. With cream.”

He shakes his head, no, and his whole body shakes with the effort.

“I need…” he pauses, looking for the word. “…money.”

His hand goes into the pocket of his sweatshirt. Something heavy in there dragging this side of the shirt down. I step close and pin his arm to his side. His eyes flash wide open.

“You don’t want to do this,” I say.

But he’s following a script from a half-forgotten TV show. He jerks away, swings at me with his free hand and barely grazes my face.

I reach in and pull his hand, weak as a child’s, out of his pocket and pry the gun away and set it on the counter.

“You don’t want to do this, and you don’t want to be here. Walk out the door and go home.”

He’s shaking like a leaf. The TV show didn’t tell him what to do here.

“I still need money.”

“Jesus,” I say.

I dig into my pocket and peel off a twenty.

“Please, just get as far from here as you can.”

“Thank you, mister.” Backing up, he stares at my face until he spins around and stumbles out the door.

I turn and smile back at the waitress, but she’s staring at my face, too. I look at the mirror and see that half of my face has the makeup wiped away and my real skin showing.

“Shit.”

I run out into the night and get back on the road as fast as I can. When I pulled in here to celebrate, my home city just ahead had the warm promise of a new day. Now that promise has grown into an unquenchable fire. I pray that I haven’t just fucked up. I pray that my mistakes won’t follow me home.

I remember now the lesson I learn and forget every time I do any ugly secret thing. I steel myself for the hard doing and believe that coming back home will be easy. But this part—the road back to normalcy, carrying our secrets—this is the real road to hell.

*****

Mystery Tribune’s free digital archive of crime, thriller, and horror flash fiction is available here. Additionally, premium short fiction published by Mystery Tribune on a quarterly basis is available digitally here.

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