Howie turned his car back towards the desert and soon a long-lingering plume of dust was the only evidence of him that remained in town. As the sun slowly lowered through the sky he reached the first set of rock formations, stones the size of hills, scattered about like some giant had dropped his pebble collection when walking by.
The first three of these monuments had sides that were too curved and too smooth to climb, but the fourth had started to break under the combined strain of erosion and its own weight. It had a large fracture right down the middle, and each half had fallen back in a state of half-collapse. Howie was able to pick out a path through the rubble clear to the top, and within ten minutes he sat on its crown, peering out at the lowering sunset. It would be dark when he climbed back down, but he had had the good sense to bring his flashlight with him.
As Howie sat still the rock face slowly began to unveil its life. Everything that had scuttled for safety at his approach, cautiously peeped back out now that he was still.
First it was the ants. Small, black troops marched onto the fringes of his jeans, investigated the new spectacle, then turned to look for more likely sources of food. Soon after the ants came the geckos. Three of them skittered over the rock face, carelessly lapping up the ants as they ambled by.
“How nice it must be to hunt prey that doesn’t even know to run away,” Howie mused to himself as the gecko nearest him slurped up one ant, and then a moment later the ant’s unconcerned neighbor. As Howie looked around his eyes fell on the tufted tail of a napping bobcat sticking out from behind a sage bush. “Though I guess you make up for it by being the prey when she’s awake.”
As the sun burned red, orange, and finally receded against the march of ink-blue sky, new life came out on the scene. Crickets were chirping from unseen corners and a horde of tiny fruit flies buzzed in a cloud just to the left of Howie. He watched their mass chaos, and was reminded of what he had been told about electrons trembling between random states in a molecule. It seemed to him that these flies never really existed in one place, either, but rather shuddered between multiple existences in rapid discontent.
The bobcat was out strolling now, and after a few geckos had been made into a meal the rest of the lizards made themselves scarce. The cat perched on a rock and silently revolved its head, watching for the telltale signs of small critters poking back out to see if the coast was clear. Howie watched, too, and was pleased to find that he was able to spot some of them the geckos extending their necks out even before the cat did.
It was well into the night now, and all was painted faint blue by the moonlight. It was enough that Howie could still perceive the gist of what went on about him. The geckos were entirely absent now, unable to keep active in the cool, night air, so the bobcat had settled on cleaning itself.
There was an owl hooting on one of the neighboring rock formations, and Howie could hear the occasional skittering of mouse paws in the cracks of the rock beneath him. He wondered what sort of animal world was churning beneath him that very moment, totally invisible but very real. It was a very big world they all shared. Surely too big, Howie thought, to notice the loss of an individual life.
Suddenly the bobcat perked up and leaned its head intently towards a nearby sage bush. Howie followed the predator’s stare, but at first couldn’t make out anything unusual about the shrub. But of course, he did not have the eyes and ears of a bobcat, and so it was another half-minute before he finally perceived the slight rustling at the base of the sage where some creature was burrowing.
Slowly, silently, the bobcat lowered from its perch and advanced on the spot, one single paw-step at a time.
Howie licked his lips and watched as the movement behind the sage suddenly stopped. Whatever was roosted back there had detected that something was amiss. The bush was backed by a rock face, so there could be no escape that way. The bobcat knew this, and did not want to dart around one side of the sage, and thus allow for the prey to slip out from the other. The bobcat wanted its meal to panic and bolt into its waiting paws.
Even the buzz of the insects and the scampering of the mice feet had ceased. All the fauna seemed to sense the precarious balance in the air, and waited either in reverent horror to see what would transpire. And wait they must, for whatever was hiding in the bush proved to be quite patient. Five full minutes passed and neither the hunter nor the prey moved an inch. Finally the bobcat fell to pacing back and forth, crossing in front of the bush in one direction, then turning back the other way, and never straying so far to one side or the other as to leave an avenue open for escape.
Howie had just started guessing how the bobcat might try to flush the creature out when the silence was broken. The creature in the bush had darted to the right, rustling the entire shrub in the process. Like lightning the bobcat pounced, but even as it entangled its paws in the thicket the animal, a large, brown hare, bounded out from the left. It had feinted! Kicked one side and then leaped to the other, and the bobcat had fallen for it!
Now the hare came streaking over the rock, bounding from ridge to ridge. The bobcat was in pursuit, but at much too much of a disadvantage. The hare was taking a straight line to the rocky chasm. It would escape into the underground tunnels and live another day. It would–
Seemingly out of nowhere Howie’s arm snapped out, and he crushed the bounding hare’s body beneath his heavy, metal flashlight. So immobile had Howie been, and so full of the thrill of escape had the hare been, that the bounding creature had entirely unseen Howie as it streaked right past his seat.
Now it twitched on the ground, its back legs still trying to run and escape, pumping futilely in the air as small whimpers came out of its broken chest. The bobcat did not try to claim its meal. It had been so startled by the sudden strike that it had instantly made itself scarce, as indeed had all other life on the rocky ridge.
Howie glanced at his watch, though he already knew that it must be time now. He picked himself up, flicked on the flashlight, and made his way down the rock and over to his car. As soon as the engine started he switched the headlights off. The streets were completely deserted back in the town of Davey’s Fall, and he let his car move at a silent crawl into its perch beneath the west staircase of Bay View Motel.
It was only midnight, and so he had a bit of wait, but that was as intended. Best to silently sit out the last two hours here, and let the world around him settle back to its regular rhythms. That was why he always he succeeded in his line of work. He didn’t try to force things, he didn’t try to push the world. He let it move around him, let it breathe naturally, and then just waited for the moment to be right.
And so he settled back in his idling car, reclined the seat, and popped a sucker into his mouth. It was blueberry, and for a long while he just closed his eyes and sucked on it hard. He liked feeling the juice slide in two streams down either side of his mouth and into his throat. Howie didn’t turn on the radio, but he did quietly hum an old favorite ballad and tapped his fingers in time to the tune. Every half hour he checked his watch to verify that it had, indeed, been a half hour. But each time he already knew. When one has counted out two hours by half-hour increments enough times, one knows.
And so Howie knew it was 2 AM even before glancing at his wrist to confirm the fact. He reached into the back seat and pulled his bag up next to him. Out came the work gloves carefully fitted over his fingers. Then came the gun, and the bullet magazine from a side pocket. He slid them together, made sure one bullet was loaded in the chamber, then placed the weapon on the dash. Next he pulled out his phone, dimmed its brightness, and opened the image he had of one “Reese McCay.”
Howie was ready.
He pocketed the gun on the right side of his jacket, pocketed the phone on the left. He stepped out of the vehicle, but left the door open and the engine running. Silently, but confidently, he stole up the steps of the staircase and moved four doors down. The doorknob spun freely and the door swung in. He stepped into the dark room, trusting his memory of its layout to guide his steps. Silently he shuffled until he was at the foot of the bed.
Howie pulled out the gun and leveled it towards the head of the bed, then he pulled out the phone and held it sideways, also pointing its back towards the head of the bed. A flick of his thumb and the phone’s flashlight switched on, bathing the room in unnatural, white light.
A man flinched against the pillows and squinted, trying to wake up enough to make sense of what was going on. Howie’s eyes darted from the person before him to the picture he had open on his phone. Tall, thin, black man, with a pencil moustache and a tousle of untidy hair. It was him.
“Hey what’s–” Reese started to say when Howie pulled the trigger and an explosion of violence erupted through the space. Reese gasped and Howie pulled the trigger again to make sure that the job was done.
Now he shoved weapon and phone back into his pockets and strode quickly, but deliberately, out of the room. He made down the pathway past one, two, three of the rooms. The light turned in the fourth, and Howie raised his left arm to shove back anyone who emerged…but no one did.
He clattered down the stairs and into his car, shifting it into Drive before he had even shut the door. He didn’t roar off into the night, but he did move with clear intent, peeling off onto the main street and taking the first right towards the highway. In less than two minutes he was nothing more than two pinpricks of taillight, fading out of Davey’s Fall forever.
And here we are at the end of our story. I shared on Monday about how some stories change a character over the course of their plot, and some instead change the audience’s perspective of the character.
This latter approach was the one I intended for the story of Howie Stuggs. The entire tale takes place over a matter of about eight hours, and it isn’t like he is going to have a total life-changing experience in that short window.
But even so, he does seem to change, at least at first. In the opening scenes he is nothing but warm and gregarious, but these moments are following by him lying to a motel clerk and taking out the lock on a private room, thus unveiling a new side of deceit and crime. Then he moves on to a conversation with a mechanic that also starts as pleasant, but gradually becomes uncomfortable and raises some dark questions. Immediately after he is hostile towards a vagrant, and some of the text suggests he even has violent desires towards him. Next he goes out into the middle of nowhere, and while there suddenly, and without being provoked, kills a hare.
Howie now seems like a very different man from how he began, and finally we reach the climax where he returns to the motel and murders a man in cold blood, then drives away to a new town that does not know his crimes. Suddenly his “change” is seen for what it really is: a cycle. Howie comes into a town, puts on a face of warmth and kindness, but then when the time approaches for his dirty deeds he works up the hate necessary to kill. Then he disappears and shows up at his next destination, all smiles and Southern-hospitality once more.
We are now coming to the end of our latest series, and there is only one more story that remains to tell in it. Before I get to that, though, I want to consider the theme that has remained consistent across every entry that we’ve seen.
In the Soldier’s Last Sleep, The Cruelty of King Bal’Tath, Washed Down the River, and Slow and Easy, Then Sudden, I have endeavored to cultivate an ending that transforms the story in its final moments. Each one sows the seeds of their climatic finish throughout, but then blossoms in a way that either feels unanticipated or sudden. I’d like to pause and take a closer look at how exactly a story can be written with an end that is both surprising and satisfying. Come back on Monday to read about that.