A widow on the run meets the charismatic and puzzling Dex Lockard.
My husband died six months ago.
I’d been on the road for six months.
Just like that, I abandoned my life. Like he was the only thing tying me to it.
In the wake of his wake, I jumped ship.
Quit my job. Cashed out my savings.
Abandoned my cats.
I left everything.
New year, new me.
I drove aimlessly at first. Wandered from city to city. Stayed in the car or in shitty motels. Ate cheaply from grocery stores. Stashed my cash. Nothing was right, so nothing felt wrong, either. I just kept moving.
I changed the plates on my car when my family started looking for me. I didn’t want to go back. Not ever. Not to my mother. Not to my husband’s family. I wasn’t me anymore. I didn’t want to ever be me again.
I don’t know how I ended up in Nebraska. I wasn’t going anywhere. Wasn’t staying. I just… landed there. In between not being one place and not being somewhere else. My poor car needed an oil change and a tune-up, so I stopped at a bar and asked if they knew a good mechanic. They did.
That’s how I found myself at the Bullseye, a rundown little roadhouse in the middle of nowhere, Nebraska. While one of the regulars checked over my car, I sat at the bar and tried not to look too miserable. “Can I get you anything?” the bartender asked me. She was older than I was, maybe in her late 40s. Rough around the edges but she seemed nice enough.
“Water’s fine,” I said.
“Tap or bottled?”
I found myself blushing, thinking of the ten dollar bill folded in my back pocket. It was all I had left for the day, especially if the car needed anything more than standard repair work. It was a warm enough fall evening that I figured I could probably camp out somewhere; I’d taken all the quilts and blankets with me when I left. “Just tap, if that’s okay.”
She measured me with her eyes for a moment, then smiled and nodded. “Got somewhere to stay tonight?” she asked as she set the glass of water in front of me.
“Always have somewhere to stay,” I replied. I’m a shitty liar on the best of days and I hadn’t had a good day in a long time.
“Somewhere that doesn’t involve sleeping in the back of your car?”
I sipped at the water and met her eyes, challenging. “Why do you ask?”
She leaned across the bar and rest her elbows on the counter, watching me. “Are you in trouble?”
“If I am, it’s mine.”
She sighed and shook her head. “I’m Lara Archer. This is my bar. My husband, Ace, comes through from time to time. Otherwise, this place is mine. If you need somewhere to stay, there are rooms upstairs where you can stay tonight. No charge.” She pushed back from me and raised one eyebrow. “Unless you intend to be stubborn and prickly. Then I’ll make you buy a bottle of water first.”
“You take in strays a lot?” I asked and she smiled.
“Don’t knock them,” she replied. “One of them is fixing your car.” Lara poured herself a glass of water and leaned on the bar across from me. “Got a name?”
“Not one I’m real attached to anymore.”
She studied me for a moment, then snorted, “Fine, miss alley cat. I’ll call you Alley.” She turned away and walked down the bar to wait on someone else, leaving me to stare into my glass of water.
Alley. I chuckled to myself. Good as anything, I suppose.
Being someone else made it easier to let go. I had nothing to prompt memories of my husband now except a few small things I kept stashed in the car. Nothing ambushed me much anymore, like the pawprints of long-gone cats hidden behind boxes in the basement. Sometimes, the car itself ambushed me by being something we had owned together.
So I stayed at the Bullseye. I became acquainted with the rest of the crew. Lara and her husband, Ace, an over-road trucker who spent more time in his truck than he did with his family. Their daughter, Betsy. Hamish, the scruffy hobo of a man who rented one of the rooms upstairs. The rotating cast of characters who frequented the bar, all scarred and dusty and full of their own stories. Sometime in late February, a pale woman with a Scandinavian accent arrived and took up residence in another of the rooms without so much as a word exchanged with Lara. “Lilja,” Lara said to me as the woman vanished up the stairs. “She came with the building.” She just smiled when I looked quizzical.
The first day I saw a woman at the bar doing a tarot reading, it didn’t make much of an impression. She came frequently enough that I eventually learned her name--Mariah--and learned that her tarot readings were always right. Uncannily so. I overheard conversations about wolves and camping. Hamish in particular did a brisk trade in silver, both melted into ingots and still cast in jewelry and table settings. The strangeness of the underground trade at the Bullseye didn't even start to sink in until early March when I started up a Warren Zevon song on the jukebox that I happened to like.
“Shit, Lara,” a man near the door snarled. “I thought you had that damn song taken out.”
“Fuck you, too, Dex,” she replied coolly, but she moved quickly to disable the jukebox. “Not a good choice,” she murmured to me as she returned to the bar. I raised an eyebrow and watched her as she slid a beer across to the new arrival. He was familiar: I thought I’d seen him around once or twice before. He smiled and shook hands with a few of the regulars before settling with the beer. “That man,” Lara sighed as she stopped next to my end of the bar again, “is Dex Lockard. He and his brother, John are the best at what they do and generally what they do is piss people off.” I looked again and she added in an undertone, “Don’t give him that look, either. Bastard’s bad news AND he’s still married, if only marginally.”
I raised an eyebrow at her and snorted. “What look? You brought him up.” But I couldn’t help but give him another look. Since she had brought him up. He was tall, with an interesting, intense face, salt-and-pepper hair and dark blue-grey eyes. He looked like he hadn’t shaved in about two weeks and didn’t mind the extra scruffy coverage to hide behind. Dressed in a leather jacket over a flannel and worn jeans, he looked like he could have wandered out of any bar in the Midwest. I sipped at my water and tucked my chin, trying not to stare. Now that she’d brought him to my attention, Lara’s warning seemed even more frustrating. He was older than me but not by a lot; I guessed him in his late 30s, maybe early 40s at the oldest.
I was still learning who this new person was, what she liked. Alley the alley cat. It’s how Lara always introduced me now and I was still getting used to it. But I answered if someone called it out. If I felt like it. If it suited me.
I do what suits me.
I shook my head free of my own internal cobwebs and returned to studying the bar. I’d taken to drawing the various regulars in a sketchbook, doing doodles of things they talked about on napkins. I drew a lot now. It seemed to calm me, soothe something I couldn’t explain. I flipped over to a new page, tucking the previous drawing of Betsy and her mop under the book. New awareness required new sketches. So I doodled. I sketched. I drew.
Something started to fall into place as I did. My eyes bounced up from the page, then down almost as fast. I hadn’t drawn like this since high school. Like I couldn’t stop and the shapes and shades just flowed off the pencil. I was just the vessel. The art made itself.
“Who ya drawing now?” Betsy put her chin on my shoulder and I jumped a little. I hadn’t heard her come up. I liked the fourteen-year-old: scrappy, as full of verbal punch as her mother but without the calm reservation Lara had developed. She practically lived at the bar when she wasn’t at school and even then, she skipped classes to hang out where her mother couldn’t see her sometimes. I tilted the sketchbook so she could see without speaking. I didn’t talk as much as before anymore. It felt kind of nice. “Dex, huh? He an’ Mom don’t get along.”
“I noticed,” I murmured and smiled.
“It’s good,” she said.
“You should show him,” she grinned, her dimples showing. She gave me a little elbow in the back and I rolled my eyes.
“I don’t think so.” I reclaimed my sketchbook and added a little more crosshatching on his bearded jawline.
“Mom said she’s thinking about buying some of your sketches,” Betsy whispered. “Maybe get ‘em framed and put up around the bar.”
I smiled and shook my head. “Your mom’s very sweet. If she’s worried about my finances, she should just hire me to wait tables or bar.”
Betsy gave me a pouty expression and leaned on my shoulder again. “I think she just likes your drawings.”
“That would be new.”
“Besides. That’s why she’s got Lilja.”
I flipped back to the drawing I’d done earlier of her so she could see. Betsy squealed in delight and hugged me, making me grin. It was the real reason I drew her so frequently: she gave the best hugs. It made me miss the kids I’d known back home sometimes, but Betsy-hugs helped to ease that.
As Betsy danced back to work, I glanced up to resume working on my drawing and discovered that her squeal had drawn my subject’s attention. Meeting his eyes was like staring into an overcast sky just before it started to rain, dark grey-blue and stormy. His eyebrows gathered and lifted and a small smile curled his lips as he considered me. I felt my face flush and I ducked my head again, hoping to avoid further eye contact. I sensed more than saw movement as he slid down the bar toward me. So much for keeping a low profile.
“I think I’ve seen you here before, haven’t I?” Dex Lockard settled on the bar stool two seats down from me. I appreciated the distance: it allowed me to keep using the next stool as a rest for my feet while I propped the sketchbook on my knees. It also kept a complete stranger from sharing my air too closely. I just nodded without looking up, keeping my eyes focused on my sketch. “I’m Dex Lockard.”
“Lara calls me Alley.”
A long pause spun out between us and I could tell he was waiting for additional information, like maybe what I called me or what my last name was. When I didn’t fill in the empty space, he shifted on the barstool and I heard him sip his beer. “It’s nice to meet you, Alley.” I didn’t answer, choosing to start another sketch of him in a clear area of the page, this time studying his hand and how he held his beer. He didn’t move away or attempt to interrupt me.
I guess I forgot about him as anything but a model for a while because when he did speak again, it startled me. “You’re good.” I let my eyes flick back up to his face, then down to the page without speaking. How did any man have the right to those eyes and that smile? He seemed to genuinely mean the compliment, though, and I peeked up to look at him again. “I would actually recognize that as my hand.” He splayed his right hand out on the bar top and lifted his beer mug with the left. When he didn’t move his hand, I obliged by starting a second hand study at a different angle. “You’ve got good foreshortening. I could never get the hang of that on hands. Everything ended up stubby or too long. My little brother’s the real artist in the family.”
Curious in spite of myself, I looked up to examine his face. “You draw?”
“A little.” He gave me a half-smile, then pulled a worn, leather-bound journal out of his jacket. He opened it and riffled through the pages until he’d found something, a drawing of a small child, maybe six years old, asleep with one hand pressed over her mouth like she was sucking her thumb. “Don’t have a camera, so I still draw a little.”
“It’s good,” I said softly, accepting the book to examine the ink drawing. “You… you’re good.” I tilted the page and saw that he’d used a pencil first, then inked it in ballpoint pen later.
“Not that good,” he chuckled self-consciously, then added, “My daughter, Caroline. She and Betsy are friends when they see each other.”
“They grow up fast.” I winced internally as I handed the journal back to him. I could feel the old me still in there, wanting to talk cheerfully to this complete stranger about the kids I’d known, the stories I knew. To just talk and talk without having a plan to escape again. I locked her down again and pulled my own sketchbook back into my lap. I traced the edge of the second hand study with my pencil, then lightly smudged the shadow with the tip of my thumb.
“Yeah.” He shifted on his stool and leaned a little toward me. I could tell he was trying to figure out why I’d shut down again, but part of my brain was shorting out over the scent of leather and slightly spicy aftershave. “You have kids?” I shook my head, trying to keep the look of disgust off my face. I was good with teens, not little kids and even thinking about having them plucked at the edges of my memory, of four years of talking about our cats as our children, of that one year of insanity when we talked about trying. I could feel the blood draining from my face and I pushed hard at the memories, forcing them back into their little box.
“Is this bastard bothering you, Miss Kitty?”
For the first time, I really wanted to kiss Hollis. I looked up from my sketchbook and my drowning circle of thoughts to smile at him, an expression he obviously wasn’t expecting because his swagger slipped into a sheepish grin in reply. He was a hacker in his early twenties. He had taken up residence as a stray a few weeks before I had arrived, taking the room between Hamish’s and my own. “He don’ mean no harm, Hollis,” I said, pulling out my best Virginian accent. I hadn’t lived on the border of the South for ten years for nothing. I met his eyes and quirked an eyebrow at him. He kissed me on the cheek, faking a level of familiarity we hadn’t completely reached but which would throw anyone on the outside off guard.
Lockard looked from Hollis to me again and raised his eyebrows slowly. “Hollis,” he said in a low voice. The journal was gone, spirited away back into his jacket. I hadn’t even seen him move it. “Good to see you.”
“I’d say the same if you weren’t mackin’ on my girl.” Hollis put an arm around me and I glanced up into his face to give him a mild glare. His confident bluster slipped back into that goofy grin for a second and he let me go. “Miss Kitty’s a friend.”
Lockard studied my face for a moment, then murmured softly, “I’m sorry if I was pushing too hard, Alley. I’ll back off if you want me to.” Lockard smiled at me and I could feel myself starting to blush again; it had been a long time since any man had wanted to talk to me the way he seemed to want to and even when I was getting hit on, they tended toward the ignorant, the truly elderly, and the mentally handicapped. Dex Lockard didn’t strike me as any of the above. “I know a lot of the regulars and I’m used to getting to know new people.”
“Whether they want you to or not,” Lara put in from across the bar. “From what I heard just now, she was practically talking your ear off.” She gave Lockard a raised eyebrow and a half-smirk. “Careful, Dex, or we’ll get jealous.”
Lockard’s eyes flicked from Lara’s expression to the way Hollis--bless that boy’s good heart--had shifted to block me from the other man’s line of sight. I deliberately retreated back into my sketchbook, drawing my knees up again as I curled over the pages. I heard him sigh gustily. “Well, I know when I'm being run off," he said with a wistful smile. He collected his beer and began to slide down the bar, but not before leaning around Hollis to say in a kind voice, “It really was nice to meet you, Alley. I hope I’ll see you around.”
My mouth felt dry and I reached for my glass of water without looking at him. At least, not until I thought he was far enough away to risk it without being noticed. He had settled himself in at the other end of the bar and was talking to Mariah, the tarot reader. Hollis and Lara exchanged a look, then both turned to me. “I thought I told you to leave him alone,” Lara whispered to me, steel in her voice.
“No.” I gave her a small smile. “You just said he was bad news. And married. And brought him up in the first place. I wouldn’t have noticed him at all but for you.” I raised my eyebrows at her emphatically and she rolled her eyes.
“Well,” she sighed, “I’m telling you now. Stay away from him. I like you, Alley, and that family destroys everything they touch.” Someone hailed her and Lara caught Hollis’s eye. “Keep an eye on her, will you?”
“Two eyes,” Hollis replied solemnly. “All the time. Yes, ma’am.”
“Suck up,” I snorted. He grinned at me.
“You think I won’t? Watch me. Watch me watch you like a hawk, Miss Kitty.” I rolled my eyes, earning me a hard stare, but when I turned back to my sketchbook, Hollis perched on the stool beside me, still staring at the side of my head.
“I’m just doin’ what the boss lady said.”
I turned to meet his eyes and glared. “Don’t.”
Hollis opened his palms towards me and backed off with a little smile. “At least let me buy you a drink.”
I gave him a hard stare for a moment, then quirked one eyebrow up. “You’re old enough to drink?”
He gasped in outrage and clutched his chest. “You wound me, madam! Of course, I am.” He slapped three states’ worth of driver’s licenses on the bar, all with fake names and the same picture of Hollis’s face. “See?” I studied the fake IDs—all his own handiwork—and just smirked for a moment until he swept them away and back into his pocket.
“Hollis,” I sighed and set the sketchbook aside to look at him directly. “If you show me your real driver’s license. With your real name. AND middle name, I will let you buy me a drink.” I wagged a finger at him. “None of this middle initial bullshit either.”
Hollis stared at me blankly for a few seconds, then I saw his fingers pop up as he rapidly did some calculations. “I think that’s officially the most words you’ve ever said to me in a row!” I glared.
“Feeling generous. It’s fading.”
He grinned at me and held up the index fingers on both hands. “Wait right here. I’ll…” he wagged one finger thoughtfully. “I’ll be right back.” He vanished through the emergency exit, which was also the closest exit to the external stairs that wrapped around the building and to the second floor of rooms. I chuckled, shaking my head.
“He doesn’t have one, does he?” I asked Lara as she wiped the counter nearby.
“Not that I know of.”
I drank a little more water, then glanced down at the sketchbook. The moment for drawing had passed, so I closed the book and leaned on the counter with a sigh. “Why does that not surprise me?”
“Have you met Hollis?” Lara smiled at me, “He’s got a good heart, though. That counts for something.”
“For a lot,” I agreed.
“Do you want something?” She reached under the bar and I closed my eyes with a smile. Lara knew what I liked. It was an oddity for a somewhat backwater taphouse, but in the six months since I’d arrived, she’d taken to keeping a bottle of red wine under the bar. It wasn’t always a very good red wine, but anything was better than beer.
“Let me see.” I flipped open the sketchbook to the drawing I’d done of Betsy earlier and Lara looked it over, flipped back and forth through the pages on either side. She paused to examine the studies I’d done of Dex and she gave me that warning glare again. I shrugged with an unconcerned smirk. He was a good model and it never hurt to look. After a second, she tapped the drawing of Betsy. “Can you do this only a little larger?” She blocked the scene with her fingers, suggesting a composition with Betsy’s hands on the broom handle slightly offset from center. I considered, then nodded. She knew I could recreate the image because I had done it before. I flipped to a new page and started roughing out the composition.
“Opening you a tab,” Lara said softly as she set a half-full highball glass of wine by my hand. I smiled my thanks and kept working.
I sipped at the wine while I drew. Hollis didn’t come back, but he knew as well as I did that he had no way to fill my request. Occasionally, I heard familiar voices drift to me: Lara talking to a regular, Betsy laughing. I was surprised to note that Dex Lockard’s rumbling voice registered on my background radar now. I frowned to myself when I realized it and worked harder to tune him out. As I finished the requested drawing, I rubbed the back of my neck slowly with one hand and straightened up. I hadn’t realized I’d been half-slumped over the sketch, but I could feel the bad position now and knew I’d regret it later. I finished the last bit of wine in the glass, then raised it to catch Lara’s eye.
“You’re a wonder,” she murmured approvingly as I removed the page and slid it over to her. “Another?” She tipped the bottle toward me.
“I’ll take one of those.” Lara and I both turned to give the newcomer our best flat stares and he backed up a step, hands raised. Isaac Porter, a regular who had been buzzing around the edges of my consciousness since my arrival, gave me a sheepish grin. “Or not.” But the new drawing was on the counter and Lara couldn’t sweep it away fast enough to avoid his seeing it. “Damn.” Isaac reached and caught the edge of the page to pull it closer. “You’re really good!”
“And she’s mine,” Lara retorted and the sketch vanished from under his fingers. “My patron, my customer. My artist.”
I lifted my eyebrows and smiled at her from under hooded eyelids. “Technically, I think you’re my patron. If we’re going that route.” Lara raised an eyebrow at me, but grinned and refilled my glass from the bottle. I sipped, then held it over the sketchbook. “What do I owe you?”
While Lara was considering, Isaac said, “Do you think I could pick up the tab on this one?”
“Nope,” Lara said without looking at him.
“C’mon, Lara, I just want to ask her to draw something. If she’s buying drinks with art, seems like a fair trade to me. I give you money, you give her another glass, she gives me art. Everybody wins.”
“Your money’s not worth her art.”
I ducked my head, suddenly feeling very small. I hugged my sketchbook to my chest and took another sip of wine, watching them argue. I looked down into the deep red swirls of the glass and wondered if this was how it felt to be an alcoholic: drinking and trading bits of your soul for another glass. Listening to a friend fight for those bits of your soul, just to keep them in the family. “I think I’m good,” I finally said. I put the unfinished glass on the bar, smiled at Lara and pushed away from the counter. “Good night.”
“I…” Lara sighed and nodded. “Good night, Alley. Sleep well.” As I turned away, I saw that Dex Lockard was standing nearby, watching me with those worried, stunningly blue eyes. I was surprised to see Hamish standing at his elbow with a tense expression on his face. I hadn't talked to Hamish at all, nor he to me. If anything, he was more enigmatic than I was if that was possible. Seeing him clearly backing up Lockard made me wonder even more about the tall man Lara had warned me away from.
I met his eyes and Dex inclined his head, just a little. I swallowed hard. Part of me wanted to come back, to tell him that I had enjoyed meeting him. Part of me wanted to tell him that something about him made me want to talk again. Part of me wanted to tell him I would gladly draw him again, that I wondered what it would feel like for him to hold me, kiss me. I gripped my sketchbook and turned away, leaving all of those parts unsaid.