The interstate made Blue Gem, Colorado a time capsule. It was shadowed by a mountain and shaded further by enormous rustling pines. Abandoned trucks, trailers and boarded houses peppered the two-lane road running through its middle.
The bar was in a former mining shack, a hundred-year-old shanty that leaned toward the mountain, giving it the appearance of a child afraid to leave its mother.
He killed the engine and flicked a cigarette out the window. His hooded eyes flashed in the rear-view mirror.
“Ten years. She won’t even know who I am.” He picked up the notebook paper letter, scanned it one more time.
“…and so I’m leaving. I hope you understand.”
He folded it back and smoothed his hair.
His heart stumbled and started up again and he climbed out of the rusted Toyota.
Inside, air-conditioned darkness cloaked him even more than his changed appearance. Speakers blared and neon beer signs lit the smoky haze.
“What can I get you?” She said.
“Gimme a beer, “ he said.
Two state troopers seated in the corner, eyed him, nodded, drank their Coca-Cola with one eye on the door. He rubbed the scraggle of beard on his chin and smiled at her. His heart was turning over and over in his chest. She set the mug on the bar and moved on to the other end to stack glasses. He knew he could talk all day and she’d never have any idea who he was. He drank the beer quick, gathering courage and set it back down.
“Run this place all by yourself?” he asked, raising his voice above the music.
“Mostly,” she said, and turned away to give the bill to the other table. She looked the same, a little thinner, no wedding band. In the mirror that lined the bar, he could see everything without turning around. The state troopers smiled and flirted with her. A tinge of jealousy fired up inside of him.
After they paid she came back. “Another one?”
He pushed the mug toward her. Under his rolled sleeve she saw the inked scorpion tail curled across his forearm. Her body stiffened. She caught her breath.
She could see him now, past the shadows, the gauntness. The skeleton of a man she’d known for almost forever, since she was a girl in high school, stupid and carefree. The same boy who talked her into staying out long past midnight, stealing beer from the convenience store, smoking pot in her grandmother’s basement. A lopsided smile spread across her face, like someone who’d had an Ace played on their King.
“How’d you find me?” she asked, one eye on the Troopers.
“I’m not on Facebook,” she said, eyes narrowed.
“Enough of your family and friends are,” he smirked. “It wasn’t hard.”
““How long have you been out of prison?” she asked.
“Long enough to track down my million dollars,” he said and raised his beer in a toast to her. “We got a lot of catching up to do,” he said and chugged it.
She stared at him.
He leaned forward, pressed his lips to hers. She smelled of tobacco and lavender, made him think of San Miguel, another mountain, a different time.
“Been dreaming about you,” he said.
“I bet you have,” she said and wiped at the bar top.
He grinned. “You didn’t think moving halfway across the country could keep me from my money, now did you?”
His eyes held hers. Ten years disappeared for a moment, but then her face clouded and she turned away.
He sighed, “You waited all that time for me to get out of prison, so we could live the life we dreamed of, and then a month before I’m out you sent me a letter telling me goodbye, that you couldn’t wait any longer? And then your sister posted a picture on Facebook of you outside this bar. You knew I’d find you.” He stared at her. “Why?”
“Maybe it was time you did some work for a change. Paid the price,” she smiled.
“I been in prison for 10 years,” he said.
“I been in my own prison,” she said. “I finally realized that I was waiting for a man who might never come back.” She whispered the last part.
“Lucille, you had my million dollars. You knew I would come back,” he said.
“Yeah, well, it’s not the same, not like we planned it.” She turned her back on him.
“Where is it?” He smiled, those steel-blue eyes boring straight through to her soul. What she really wanted to do was to throw herself across the bar and smother him with her own body. But she wouldn’t let that happen ever again.
“Back there.” She jerked her head toward the kitchen and raised her eyebrows.
“Well now that the ‘Federales’ have gone, let’s see about that cash,” he said, rubbing his hands together.
She walked toward the front, to lock the door. He stood up, waited.
“Bert stopped by,” she said and turned the dead bolt.
“Bert?” he asked. The music had stopped. There was a ringing in his ears. “When?”
“Yesterday,” she said.
“I thought he was supposed to be in prison for another 6 months,” he said, avoiding her eyes. He lifted his baseball cap and then replaced it on his head.
“Good behavior,” she said.
“Oh,” he said.
She smiled at him. “He wanted his share.”
“You didn’t give it to him?”
“I probably should have,” she said. “But I told him you’d be here soon, that y’all would have to work it out.”
He exhaled, relieved.
“Look, Babe, this is gonna be great. Just you and me, like we always planned,” he said and put an arm around her.
She wrenched free from him.
Her eyes were set hard, like quartz.
She turned the ‘open’ sign around to read, ‘closed’ and led him down a hall, to a wine cellar in the floor.
“You left a million dollars in there?” he said.
“I couldn’t think of a safer place. Here, you’re gonna need this,” she tossed him a flashlight. Her eyes burned like rubies. She stood with her arms crossed.
He lowered himself into the hole and knelt by a safe in the corner.
“What’s the combination?” he called.
“Your birthday,” she said. He opened it and found stacks of hundred dollar bills.
“Maybe it was worth ten years, after all!” he laughed.
The cellar door slammed.
“I was kidding! Dammit, Lucille, stop playing around.” He shone his flashlight up at the ceiling.
“I kinda like the idea of you all locked up,” she called to him.
“Lucille, what the hell?” he yelled. “Are you crazy? Open the door, Lucille!” his voiced boomed, echoed underground.
“What are you gonna do, Lucille, keep me down here in this pit for the rest of my life?”
“Basically,” she said.
“I’m pretty sure you’ll want to get to this cash sooner or later,” he said.’Then what?”
“Maybe we can work something out after you’ve had time to think about your actions,” she said.
“What actions?” he yelled.
“Let’s see, what was her name, Brenda, Brianna, or was it Bree?”
“What are you talking about?” He was banging on the door again.
“Bert told me all about it,” she said.
“I’m gonna shoot it open!” He fired, but it didn’t do it much. He banged on the door harder.
“You see, Bert tried to take all the money, even after I told him we had to wait for you,” she said.
“Really?” he said.
“But, it turns out that you sent him here. Isn’t that right, Sugar?” She leaned against the kitchen wall. “And when he didn’t show up with the money, you came looking for it.”
“No. He was supposed to get you and the money and then we’d meet back up, all three of us.” He shook the door.
“Really? Because Bert said you and he were going to split the money. He said you were going to give him an extra 10% to get rid of me,” she said.
“You know I love you, just open the door. We can work it all out.”
“He offered me an extra 15% to split it up, just me and him,” she said.
“Hey! This isn’t even all the money. There are only a few hundreds down here and newspaper pieces!”
“So you basically just used me, to keep your money safe until you got out of prison…,” she said.
More shots rang out.
“You see, Bert showed me your emails to her. He had your password. You really should’ve changed that, you know? I read all your love letters and your big plans and how that ski instructor is waiting for you up in that fancy ski resort in Colorado. He told me that you were no-good and worthless, that she was ten years younger. Like I used to be before I got all mixed up in this mess. He knew I’d be angry. He knew I’d want revenge. And he was right. What he didn’t realize was that I also had your password and I knew he was coming. I read all about yours and his plans to rob me and leave me for dead.” She shook her head. “But I pretended not to know, just so I could get Burt down in that hole.”
Waving the light around, something caught his eye. He shone the beam on the floor, deeper in the cellar and there was Burt, sprawled on the floor, gagged, but alive.
“I thought you and Burt could meet down there, closer to your stash,” she yelled, with an edge in her voice that was missing before.
“Lucille, please! You’ve lost your mind,” he yelled. “You won’t get away with it.”
“Don’t worry, I’ve already emailed Brittany. You said that you don’t love her anymore, can’t love a woman dependent on seasonal work,” she giggled.
He yelled, “You’re gonna regret this.”
She turned off the lights and closed the hallway door. He shot again.
And with that final pistol shot, a rattling, softer than summer leaves, started in the corner, echoed in the darkness.
He shone the light toward the curious sound.
A ball of snakes, asleep for the winter were startled awake by the noise. Writhing and twisting, the wad of reptiles undid itself, until one by one they slithered toward him, and toward Burt, tied up in the corner, now also awake and bug-eyed at the vermin.
George begged. His pleas echoed through the mountain tunnels, like so many rattlers that’d lost their way.
She stood in the bar and considered his fate and listened to his cries.
And she almost went back.
But she noticed that they didn’t have much affect on her anymore. She set a Folger’s can on the bar and poured in some kerosene. She lit his passport and dropped it inside. The first tendrils of smoke curled toward the ceiling. Once the bar filled with smoke, the alarm would go off and the fire department would come. They’d rescue George and Burt from the wine cellar. But she’d be long gone.
She bolted the door from the outside and flung the battered leather suitcase, full of hundred dollar bills, into the backseat.
It was 12 hours to Nuevo Laredo, if she drove all night.
And so she did.
Just before she crossed the border, she stopped and took a selfie at the International Bridge, messaged it to her sister.
The moon’s eyes seemed to follow her as she steered the rusted Toyota through the Mexican desert toward San Miguel de Allende.
It wouldn’t be long now. Same mountain, different time.