copyright © 2012 Lloyd R. Prentice
all rights reserved


Fact is, Carmichael hates his job.

Can't say why. But it's been coming on.

Pay's good. One thing about Stanley— takes good care of the help. Just don't cross him.

How else could a guy like Carmichael afford a baby like this Lexus LS? Carmichael sinks into the smooth throb of open road; opens his hands to better enjoy the silken feel of the wheel.

Carmichael loves driving. Loves these early hours. Not many cars on the road. Feels he could drive forever.

He loves the flicker of images in his headlights; dancing red taillights; approaching pin-points growing ever brighter, diverging, then vanishing in the on-coming lanes.

Who are these people? Why are they on the road? Bars long closed. Shift workers? Night people? Hospital? Cops?

These are the real people, he thinks— the people who keep the machinery running while the civilians sleep.

But what about me, he thinks. What am I doing here? Who wonders about me?

Carmichael wonders what his old man thought on the long stretches of night highway.

Carmichael sees his dad high up in his cab. His dad drove big rigs across country for Ferris Freight Lines. Gone two weeks at a time. Come home so whacked all he can do is sit on the Barcalounger, drink Rolling Rock. Stare at the tube.

Carmichael remembers the days of yearning, waiting for his dad. What would his dad bring him from the exotic, far away places along the routes he drove— Denver, Moline? But his dad never brought a thing. Just a sweaty hug and “Hey, bub.”

Carmichael's dad was paid by the mile. Enough miles and the family could just make ends meet. But more often his dad spent hours, days, sitting in a terminal along some interstate in the middle of nowhere waiting for a load.

Carmichael hums to himself.

Carmichael's dad always said, “Got a ten spot, bub— Never spend more than nine.”

“Smart, smart—” Carmichael whispers. “Never gave you much credit, old man—”

Carmichael's mother designed, cut, and stitched custom wedding gowns in the family's cramped back porch. Never charged enough. Sometimes she switched in extra fine materials out of her own pocket. This Carmichael heard from a teary neighbor during his mother's wake.

During his teens, Carmichael was car crazy. Souped-up hot cars all he could think about. Driving far and fast. Getting away.

But when Carmichael reached legal age, his dad refused to take him down to motor vehicles.

”Seen too many stupid teeny boppers smeared across two lanes,” he'd said.

So Carmichael had left home. Lied about his age. Joined the Army.

He loved the Army— more than the Army loved him. Gave him something to measure himself against.

Basic was nothing. The rest a blur. He pushed the limits at every chance. But he was good. Never gave it a thought. He was a loner and not much for rules and that rubbed the fatass time servers the wrong way. But he was good so the long-stare combat vets saw something in him— put up with him— kept pushing him.

One bird colonel said, “You weren't such a hot-shot, Corporal, I'd have you out of this man's Army in a heartbeat. But I'm recommending you for ranger school instead. They know how to turn know-it-all nitwits into war fighting machines.”

Next thing, Carmichael found himself leading a long range reconnaissance patrol in 'Stan. Killed a bunch of Taliban. No big thing. Why else had Uncle fronted his ticket?

He remembers mostly the sand. Sand in his eyes. Sand in his nostrils and sand between his teeth. Sand in his ears and gritty sand in the crack of his ass. This wasn't the beach sand he knew at home. This was ancient sand that knew how to wear a man down, bury him.

And he remembers the flies. Small little buggers with bite of fire. And the screaming camel spiders, big as your hand, could jump four feet in the air.

Carmichael remembers one dead Taliban— just a kid. Face smeared with blood, covered with flies. Carmichael felt bad about that.

So what's going on, son, Carmichael wonders. What's with the job? Who else would hire a guy like you?

Carmichael doesn't mind the rough stuff. There are limits in this life. Pukes got to learn that.

Fact, he takes pride in the job— deliver maximum pain short of incapacitation. Takes skill, discipline. Where to hit. How hard.

“Incapacitate one of my marks,” Stanley says, “And I'll kill you myself.

“We've got big bucks invested in these crumb bums.”

Carmichael takes the off-ramp. High halogens illuminate the first three blocks. But nothing open. Except the Dunkin' Donuts.

Orange and brown. A light in the night.

“Morning to you honey,” Sharlee says. “The usual?”

“Yeah, the usual,” Carmichael says. “And one more of those chocolate glazed.”

Carmichael sits, stares at the second chocolate glazed.

“What's this, son?” he thinks. Now he'll have to run extra miles— do a few hundred extra bench presses.

Carmichael watches Sharlee serve the few predawn customers. Same with everybody. Always bright, open, friendly. Where does that come from?

Carmichael feels like there's a thick pane of glass between him and people like Sharlee. Like they know something. Like they're going somewhere.

Jesus, Carmichael thinks, there must be a better way to make a living.

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The Gospel of Ashes

by Lloyd R. Prentice

Available June 1, 2012