Story by Liam Slade / Originally Posted Sept 28, 2023
Dustin sat with his elbows on the bar, shoulders hunched, staring down into his drink, a glass of warm-looking golden whiskey. In its liquid surface he caught a shimmering, shadowy glimpse of his reflection: a haggard, worn down man before his years. It would be all he could do to summon the strength to lift the drink.
He took a deep sigh and looked up. Now he saw his reflection in the barback mirror. He rubbed a hand down his tired face. Not so bad as all that: twenty-eight, vital, strong… alive. Why then, did he look and feel so haunted?
He held the drink to his lips and sipped slowly, the sour, rich liquor stinging his lips and tongue. He noticed a rustling in the seat beside him.
“You know,” said a woman’s voice, “You don’t need to keep the drink around for company.”
Dustin looked up over his shoulder, regarding his new companion with a weary glance under his brow. She was, undeniably, beautiful – for this place, a little road house outside a small town in Minnesota. Deep brown almond eyes, silky chestnut hair, full red lips. She was dressed in an off-the-shoulder red top that displayed beautiful breasts, and a tight short skirt on an appealingly fit, slim figure. She leaned her elbow on the bar, craning her neck to meet his eyeline.
“Huh?” Dustin slowly, laboriously, raised an eyebrow at his unrequested companion.
“I mean, you have permission to down your drink,” her musical voice said, her lips resolving in a dangerous and warm smile. “And to order us another.”
He slouched back, facing back toward his drink and tucking his chin into his chest. He let out another sigh. “I’m not much of a drinker,” he said in a low rumble, “Or a talker.”
“That’s fine,” she said, sitting up straight and flecking her hair back behind her shoulders. “People gab too much these days anyway when there’s other things they could be doing.”
Dustin looked the woman over again, his eyes narrowed.
“I’m not lookin’ to spend,” he huffed.
She snorted a laugh. “I guess I had that coming. Luckily for you, I’m the one woman in the world who isn’t offended by that insinuation. Sex work is work, but it’s not my work.” She flagged down the brkeep and had him pour the same drink as Dustin’s.
Dustin sneered. How could he tell this woman to buzz off already? Every attempt he was making to signify that she should leave was being rebuffed, and yet he was still a man, and his body simply wouldn’t let him tell her directly to leave. He was hoping that she should simply understand that she should.
He angled himself toward her, relenting. “All right, so what then?”
“A girl just wants some company,” she shrugged.
“You could do a lot better,” Dustin groused.
“In the grand scheme of things, maybe,” she said, a hint of laughter and a hint of sadness in her voice. “But men like you are like candy to me.”
“And what kind of man do you think I am?”
“Sad, for a start.”
“Uh huh,” Dustin nodded.
“But not sad in a dangerous way. Not sad like you’re drinking to get loose and violent. I can’t stand those guys. Those guys would never spend all night staring into their glass. They’d down it in one and immediately ask for another. You’re not here to get wasted.”
“No ma’am,” Dustin nodded, rubbing his coarse, stubbly chin.
“That means something. That’s the kind of man I can’t help but want to unwrap. You’re not from around here.”
“I am, actually.”
“Oh?” she tilted her head, “I’ve never seen you in this place, and this is just about the only place to go.”
“That’s true,” Dustin nodded. “I’m not here often.”
“So where are you?”
“On the road,” Dustin said. “I’m a trucker.”
“Ah,” her lips widened, “Isn’t that the backbone of the economy?”
“Some would say,” Dustin said, “Most of the year I’m on the highway, but today I’m back here, where I was born and raised. You’re the one who’s not from here.”
“How do you know that?”
“It’s a small town, we would have known each other growing up.”
“I’m a little younger than you.”
“Not that much,” Dustin said. He held his glass to his lips and tilted a sip in. Suddenly he felt like a drink.
The woman was caught off guard. Her eyes flecked away for just an instant, combined with a clearing of her throat. “You’re right. I came here a few years ago to be with my husband, but I’m not with him anymore.”
“But you’re still here.”
“I’m still here.”
“So am I,” Dustin said. He raised his glass. She raised hers. They clinked and shared a sip.
“So am I gonna find out what you’re so down about?”
“Maybe it’s just being in this place,” Dustin said. “Brings back a lot of memories.”
“I’ll bet,” she nodded appreciatively. “Not always good ones?”
“More bad than good,” he said, getting that faraway look again. “But there is something. Maybe you’ll find out about it after a few drinks.” What the hell, he thought: she had gotten inside his walls. Not an easy trick.
The evening wore on. More drinks were shared, and the two outsiders got to know one another. Her name was Kim. She had been split from her husband for over a year, the paperwork just recently signed. She worked two jobs in the service industry to make ends meet and didn’t quite have the heart to leave town yet even though there was nothing tying her here.
“I was gonna be a nurse,” she said as he escorted her to her apartment door, “I can hear my mom’s voice from back home talking about my wasted potential.”
Dazed, she planted a kiss on his lips: hungry, wet, forceful. He accepted it but remained still.
“I could tell you about potential,” Dustin said when they parted, as she opened the door and beckoned him in.
“Oh yeah? What were you gonna be?” Kim asked as she found the light. She flopped down on the couch in a ready and willing position, but he remained standing, a distance between them.
“No idea,” he said. “Probably this. It isn’t my potential I wasted. It was someone else’s.”
Kim propped herself up. Her head was suddenly clearer. “What was her name?”
Dustin looked off into the middle distance. He could see his dark reflection in a window across the room, the void of a barely-lit town below as a backdrop.
“Crystal,” he said.
Crystal Marie Sharpe was the most beloved girl at Lincoln High. She was on student council, she was captain of the swim team and tennis team, ran a tutoring clinic, organized fundraisers for various charities and worked at the animal shelter, among other extracurriculars. She was smart, funny, popular, beautiful – with golden blonde hair a sky blues eyes – and humble. Anyone who ever spent fifteen minutes with her fell in hopelessly love, and came away feeling like they had been the only two people in a room.
It must have been something of a prison. She was like a precious porcelain doll everyone had the instinct to protect for fear of losing or damaging in any way. It must have frustrated her. The pressure must have drove her crazy. That was the only explanation for why she was in that place at that time on that night.
It was toward the end of the school year. A party in Brett Lavin’s cousin’s basement. This house was on the edge of town past the woods and the ravine. This was not the crowd that would normally socialize with a Crystal Sharpe. This was loud music, toxic booze, pills, smoky hallways, pissing in the sink and throwing up everywhere else. This was not the place you would expect to find the vice chair of student council on a Saturday night.
This was Dustin’s crowd: the dead-end kids, the no-hopers, those who lived for today without a care for tomorrow. They didn’t worry about their college applications. Those who survived to adulthood figured they would crawl out of their drunken hazes one day and realize they were stuck for life in some menial job and a failing relationship just like their parents and there was nothing they could do about it so they drank and danced and they did drugs today.
What drove Crystal there? Who did she come with? How did she even know the party was happening? Nobody was sure, and in the weeks to come nobody said anything. The full story would never be known. Some of the girls initiated her with shots, and suddenly they were all equals.
However she got there, she was of her own free will: drinking and dancing and carousing with the seediest, sleaziest slackers of the school. How long had she wanted to do this, to cut loose and cast off the shackles of her reputation? That secret would die with her, but for the moment she seemed to revel in it. Dustin remembered the glee on her face as she swigged from a bottle of rum someone had handed her. To everyone’s surprise, she was as much at home here as she was on the tennis court or the debate team.
She fell into Dustin’s arms. They began to kiss. Never in his wildest dreams did he think a girl like that would let her lips go anywhere near his, but he wasn’t about to say no. Sorting through his feelings about the matter for years afterward, he thought, it probably could have been anyone as long as they were dirty, directionless and available. There was nothing special about him on that night.
A few hours of heavy petting later, the party was shut down and Crystal needed a way home. The only ride was in the back of Brett’s car, with Chad riding shotgun. Dustin was in the back with her.
He was an impulsive teenage boy who had tasted some of her forbidden honey and wanted more, needed more, would stop at nothing to get more. If she wanted to say no, she didn’t seem to have the language for it. She wasn’t from this world, the one where these things happened. Perhaps she didn’t enthusiastically permit him to continue but to a boy like that in such a time and place, a lack of resistance is permission. He continued to touch her, kiss her, to breathe deeply into her as she laid back and let it happen. To him, there was a joy in corrupting her and taking as much advantage as possible, a once in a lifetime opportunity to spoil her pristine youth. When he thinks back on it now, he notices in his memories the signs he should have stopped: her slouching back in the car, her hands pressing against his chest almost trying to say stop. What was going on in her mind in those moment, nobody will ever know.
How much further would it have gone? Dustin likes to think, in his later years, it would have stopped before becoming a serious problem. It was just a bit of fun, he thought. There wasn’t a lot of room to move, to make anyone do anything they didn’t truly let themselves do, to apply force. Added to that, Brett was driving like a madman around winding roads down the ravine on a dark night in early spring when the snow and ice hadn’t quite melted, the car swerving and jostling wildly. But the kisses had weighed on his mind ever since. The caresses had. The knowledge that he should have left her alone. The guilt.
It didn’t matter now did it.
“We fell off the side of the road,” Dustin told Kim in a heavy, choked-up voice. “Down a steep incline, rolling ass-over-teakettle… until we hit a tree near the bottom.”
Now he was sitting on the couch with her. He was on the far side from her, looking away, barely speaking above a whisper.
“I separated my shoulder. Chad broke his leg. Bretty got some scratches and a bump on the head, maybe a concussion, I don’t know. And Crystal died instantly.”
He exhaled a bitter chuckle. “Of course she did.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” was all Kim could say, leaning forward to close the distance between them.
“Sure it was,” Dustin shrugged. “I put her in the car, I…” he couldn’t even put a name to his crimes. It had been years since he spoke about them aloud and now, the words were simply not there.
“Whole damn town was at the funeral,” he went on. “That’s how I knew you weren’t from here. Because you’d remember. If you were in high school, if you were eleven, if you were old enough to talk, you’d know. Everybody knew, and everybody knew I was in that car with her, me and Brett and Chad. We were public enemy #1 from then on. The town thought that girl belonged to them, and we took her away.”
“That’s not fair,” Kim said sympathetically. “These things happen. You can’t punish yourself forever.”
“Of course I can,” Dustin said, slouching back again. “Me, and Chad, and Brett, we’ll never be able to forget. Never. Not for a second, not for the rest of our lives.”
“That can’t be true,” she said sympathetically. “With time and work, maybe you can let go of…”
“Chad,” Dustin interrupted, a lump in his throat, “He was on the football team. Big bruiser, big guy. Just a total refrigerator of a man at 17. But after the accident, after the funeral, he started slimming down. Nobody understood it. His skin got soft. His body got thin, lithe, like a swimmer’s. Like… Crystal’s.”
Dustin turned to look at Kim. Her eyebrows were furrowed, trying to understand what Dustin was saying.
“And Brett, heh,” Dusting snorted again, “Ugliest mug you’ve ever seen. Cauliflower ears from fighting as a kid, bumpy jaw, bad nose, caveman forehead… suddenly his face started to smooth out. All the rough edges disappeared, one by one, until he was… damn, he was pretty, okay? Thin nose, pretty lips, beautiful eyes… went from brown to sky blue overnight. And his hair turned white blonde and silky. It grew fast, and he cut it, and it grew long again. So whenever he looks in the mirror, he sees a reminder of her. Not quite her spitting image, but close enough. Her face on his, mocking him.”
“Dustin…” Kim gasped.
“And me,” he cleared his throat. He stood up and faced her. “Well, I told you what I was doing. Where my hands were. She never said ‘no’ so I kept going as far as I wanted. But I should have known. I should have stopped.”
Tears were streaming down his face as his voice cracked. He placed his hands on his belt buckle.
“Dustin…” she said again.
He unzipped his jeans and pushed down his underwear. There amidst a preponderance of thick tawny hair was a complete absence of a male sex. Kim observed a delicate slit she recognized to be a woman’s, looking very much out of place between the legs of this rough-hewn trucker.
“I can never forget, Kim,” he sobbed, regarding his misbegotten pubis. “I can never move past it. She won’t let me. One night, one mistake, and it will live with me forever.”
“I don’t know what to say…” Kim gasped.
“It was ten years ago tonight,” he sniffed. “I was in that bar marking ten years of living with this, every day, never forgetting how or why it came to be, the price I pay… the punishment I deserve.”
Kim stood and placed her hand on his shoulder.
“Maybe,” she said, her voice now heavy. She let her gaze find his and held it. “Maybe you did, once. But I know you’ve changed. I know you’re not that boy anymore.”
He wrapped his arms around her, and she around him. He buried his face in the crook of her neck and she felt hot tears meet her flesh.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” she said quietly into his ears.
She kissed him gently on the cheek. Surprised at first, he moved his face to let his lips meet hers. This time the kiss was soft and sensitive. They pressed together warmly and perfectly.
And then her hands settled at his waist.
And she let her fingers caress him.
“Let me,” she said.
A moment passed before he nodded and they fell together.
Copyright 2023 Liam Slade, all rights reserved. To be reprinted only with permission of the author. The preceding was a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any persons or situations living or dead is unintentional and coincidental.