Night Owls Texas Noir Short Fiction By William Jensen

Night Owls: Texas Noir Short Fiction By William Jensen

William Jensen, author of Night Owls, has previously published short fiction in The Texas Review, Tinge Magazine, North Dakota Quarterly, and elsewhere. His novel Cities of Men was published in 2017. He is currently editing the upcoming anthology Road Kill: Texas Horror by Texas Writers vol. 7.

*****

We never found my sister. She was last seen in 1985 leaving a friend’s house but didn’t make it home. The police did their best. We offered rewards. Mom and I tried to keep hope alive in our hearts, but after two years of dread and silent prayers, my mother had a mental breakdown and crashed her car into a ditch. She lost her job shortly afterwards.

Forced to sell our house in San Antonio, we drifted from one crummy apartment to another until we found ourselves on the outskirts of Anson, a small town an hour west in the Hill Country. Rent was cheap, and we took on a new life, anonymous but unsafe.

Mom and I tried to keep hope alive in our hearts, but after two years of dread and silent prayers, my mother had a mental breakdown…

For the record, my sister’s name was Hannah. She was twelve when she disappeared. She liked horses, dinosaurs, string cheese, and she was learning to play the clarinet. She had thin blond hair and hazel eyes, which she insisted were cinnamon. I wish I could tell you the last conversation I had with her, but I honestly don’t remember. We were just children. I simplt hope it was something kind and not a sibling squabble. That is all I have left.

Despite everything, my mother believed Hannah would return. I wasn’t as optimistic. I don’t know what happened to my sister, but I am certain it wasn’t good. My mother not only kept Hannah’s clothes, but she bought her new skirts and blouses every August for back to school. By my junior year it had become a sick tradition.

“You shouldn’t do that,” I said. “It’s a waste of money.”

She pulled a pink turtleneck out of a bag and held it for me to see. She smiled and folded it neatly and professionally. Our one-bedroom apartment had just the couch, the television, and the little table in the kitchen, which was now covered in bags from Wal-Mart, Sears, and Montgomery Ward.

“Pink is your sister’s favorite color.”

“When she was twelve,” I said.

“Look at this sweater I got her. Isn’t it cute?”

“Mom, you need to return all of this. We can’t afford this.”

“Your sister will be so happy when she sees us.”

“Mom—”

“Then I can go back to work, and maybe the three of us can move to Austin. Do you think you’ll go to college there? I bet Hannah will want to attend college some place close, stay near us—”

“You need to stop. She’s not coming back, she isn’t.”

My mother froze. She held a pair of socks to her chest. We stared at each other. Her nostrils flared. Her eyes watered.

“You should be ashamed of yourself,” she said.

I don’t think I said anything. A hot sense of disgust rippled through my core. I loved my mother, but some days I hated her, too. Hannah’s disappearance had changed my mother. While she’d once been composed, disciplined, and handsome, now she was a baggy, fearful person I didn’t recognize. Sometimes I pitied my mother. Other times I feared her. And a lot of the time I simply didn’t want to be around her.

I stormed outside, the midday sun scorching the land like bleached bone. I couldn’t stay in that tiny apartment. I couldn’t listen to my mother manically clean and prep for an arrival that would never occur. My mother had become unpredictable. Some nights she stayed up sobbing, sloshing glasses of red wine. Other times she cleaned and cleaned, gnashing her teeth all the while. Occasionally, she yelled profanities into darkness and at no one.

Our apartment was one quarter of a four-plex in a row of four-plexes called Bracewood Grove. These were the homes for derelicts, drunks, and the hard living. Neighbors came and went. Everyone let their dogs, starved and fierce, wander without care. Trash and old mattresses always piled at the curb like filthy altars. The dwellings sat dim and dank with cockroaches in every corner. I found them dead in the sink, the cupboards, and in the dishwasher. The carpets, worn and thin, reeked of piss.

Since we’d moved to Anson, I hadn’t told anyone about my sister. I didn’t want to deal with people’s awkward pauses, not knowing what to say, how to react. I’d learned that many would try to give off an air of sympathy but were, deep down, simply uncomfortable. Telling them never helped the situation any.

Some secrets were worth keeping. I didn’t participate in clubs or sports at school. I worked as a bagger at a grocery store, and I kept a reliable, sturdy schedule of walking to school, sitting through classes, stocking and sacking canned goods and produce, and walking home where I’d wait for Mom to have enough Merlot to make her sleepy until she staggered to bed and I could crash on the couch.

Halfway through my junior year I met Lester Nelson.

He moved into the unit beside ours. He’d worked as a roughneck and a ranch hand most of his life, but now he lived off disability. He never told me what happened, but he walked with a slight limp, which I assumed had something to do with how he got his disability checks. He had shaggy gold hair, a light beard, and a friendly smile. He resembled a surfer more than a cowboy. I figured he was the same age as my mother, which was forty.

Lester spent most of his days sitting outside, smoking tiny cigars while listening to Willie Nelson on the radio. Sometimes he sucked on a half-pint of peach schnapps as the sun went down. Lester became the only person I talked to. He had great stories of the oil fields out west near Andrews and Fort Stockton. He told me about the ranches down south by Kingsville and throughout the Rio Grande Valley. He kept things light. I never told him about Hannah.

At night, while Mom gulped vino as the blue-gray glare of the television washed over her, I’d sit outside with Lester and listen to Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. We could sit and ramble for hours.

“What’s your mama’s deal?” said Lester one evening. “Lady seems like a real homebody. Both of y’all are a couple of night owls.”

“Don’t worry about her,” I said. “Best if you leave her alone.”

“Woah, mommy issues?”

“Stay away from her.”

“Aye, aye,” he said. He drank.

“Promise?”

Lester stared at me for a while. He nodded. He raised his bottle of schnapps to me and took another sip.

“I promise.”

Lester was a good talker, and he could gab or preach about the world without pausing to breathe, but he could listen, too. He’d take me for rides in his pickup after dark and tell me about the rodeo circuit from his youth, the pranks he and the other cowboys pulled. He told me about chasing girls and drinking beer and small-time brawls. We rode through the Hill Country and along the colorless farm roads at night. His voice shouted over the wind like a disc jockey on speed. Some nights we drove to Tonkawa Bluffs, a stretch of limestone cliffs that looked over Lake Lamar.

The surface of the water stretched out black and slick, bleeding into the sky. Moonlight, pale and near blue, reflected off the surface. Lester and I sat on the tailgate passing a pint between us, gazing at stars and the sprawling, inky lake. He’d puff on his tiny cigar and shake his head as if listening and agreeing to everything the night said to him and him alone.

“You know,” he said, “some of the worst battles between the Rangers and the Comanche happened not far from here. A whole lot of killing… all for this.”

I nodded and accepted the bottle of schnapps and sipped. I remembered some of what he said from my state history class in junior high but not much. The night stayed quiet save for the cicadas’ zizzing. The humidity, thick with cedar, sank into your bones, rich and almost sweet.

“Some people believe a bad sorcery happened here,” he said. “I mean a long ass time ago. A time before time. A shaman put a curse into the soil. Made it a land of war… and pain. Do you believe that?”

“No,” I said. “I guess I don’t.”

Lester laughed.

“Hell,” he said. “Me neither.”

I handed the bottle back to him, and he finished it and tossed it high in the air and over the cliff. It flickered for a second like a new star before it fell and vanished. It didn’t make a sound or a crash.

Nights like that became semi-regular. Driving and drinking, drinking and driving. We rolled through town, parked at the Tonkawa Bluffs, or sat on the banks of Apricot Creek, sipping long necks and letting the night roll over us. But one evening Lester knocked on our door and my mother answered before I could get to it. Lester stood with a bottle of wine. He introduced himself, and my mother let him in. He smiled at me. I sat on the couch and didn’t get up.

Lester smiled and limped inside. He always walked as if his right hip had rusted out, frail and brittle.

“I thought I’d be neighborly and bring over some Zinfandel. Is that okay?”

My mother blushed. She accepted the bottle and opened it at the kitchen counter. Lester had a western shirt tucked into his jeans, and he’d combed his blond mane back with mouse. He smelled of tobacco and aftershave. Mom poured two glasses and handed one to Lester. They toasted without speaking. They drank. My mother wore her bathrobe, and she kept tightening the belt. Her hair, curly and brown, was a mess with gray strands creeping out like random, loose remains of a spiderweb.

“Do you want some, Donovan?” my mother said to me as she returned to the couch. The television sat on the floor. She turned it off.

“No,” I said. I enjoyed drinking with Lester, and I normally would have accepted, but I suddenly felt tense and uncomfortable as if about to get into some schoolyard shoving match, and I wanted to stay alert and ready. I didn’t want Lester there, and I worried about what my mother might say or do. She could easily go from jovial to tears or screams. I sat still with my hands on my knees. Lester smelled the wine like a connoisseur. He stood facing us.

“I’ve been meaning to introduce myself for a while,” he said. “I’ve gotten to know your boy here famously, but all these months and I haven’t had the chance to say ‘hello,’ to you, Mrs.  Minter.”

“Ms.,” said my mother. She sipped her wine and smirked. Lester drank, too. I held my breath. I stared at the floor.

“Donovan told me you moved here from San Antonio.”

“Yes,” said my mother. “Among other places. I used to work in the city, but it was just… too big. I’m a small-town girl at heart. I grew up not far from here, in Bandera.”

“Cowboy capital of Texas,” said Lester, “I know it well.”

He chuckled, and I couldn’t hide my snarl. I wasn’t quite sure what was happening, but a nauseousness sludged through me like an oily blob.

“Okay,” I said standing and slapping my hands, “it’s getting late.”

“What do you mean, Donovan? It’s not even nine.”

“Well, I’ve got school in the morning and then a shift at the store. We should all probably get some shut-eye.”

I raised my hands like an embarrassed magician.

“Donovan, you’re being rude.”

“It’s okay, Ms. Minter—”

“Dolores, please, just Dolores.”

“Well… Dolores,” said Lester, “a quality exit is the sign of manners, so I’ll be on my way.”

He gulped the rest of his wine with and looked at me as he handed me his empty glass.

“I apologize,” said Mom. “I don’t know what’s gotten into him. Teenagers, right?”

Mom trailed him toward the door as he left. After he was gone, she went to the counter and refilled her glass.

“Donovan,” she said, “what’s gotten into you? He’s your friend and our neighbor.”

“Go to bed.”

“A gentleman caller with wine, and you were the rudest I’ve ever seen you.”

“Go to bed, Mom. Please just go to bed.”

Mom shuffled to her room as she drank. Her belt came undone and her rob flapped open. She held the bottle by the neck. She shut the door behind her in a thud.

I hated them both.

The next evening, Lester and I rode around in his truck with the windows down to let the warm air, humid and sticky, rush over us. I could barely hear the radio play Waylon Jennings over the wind’s roar. A tiny cooler filled with ice and bottles of Lone Star sat between us. I opened two beers and gave one to Lester. I nursed my drink and didn’t say anything. I looked at the blurs of darkness and live oak as we cruised through Texas wilderness.

“Want to go to Tonkawa Bluffs?” said Lester.

“Not really.”

“So what was up with you yesterday? Afraid your mama might like me?”

“I told you to leave her alone.”

Lester clenched his jaw. I couldn’t see much in front of us except the yellow dashes down the middle of the pavement. We could have been rushing toward anything.

“Shit, Donovan,” he said. “I’m not trying be your new daddy, if that’s what you’re freaking out about.”

“Forget it,” I said. “Just leave her alone. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“Look. I’m sorry if I was a jerk. She’s fragile. She doesn’t need more complications in her life.”

Lester patted the steering wheel with the meat of his palm.

“We should get some pussy,” he said. He spoke more like he was talking to himself than to me. I didn’t reply.

He steered back around and cruised toward downtown where Main Street met the roundabout and the courthouse. Lester slowed so we could see the girls strolling the sidewalk. He muttered and mumbled things like, “Look at that one,” and “Man, she’s killing it” and “God damn, I like ’em young. Kid, you should be cleaning up at your age. Enjoy your youth.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“You guess so? Boy, did your dick fall off or something? What’s with you”

“I don’t know. Sorry.”

“You’re not really present,” said Lester, “not living in the moment. You’re not… here. Like you’re always wondering what’s the God damn meaning of life or some shit.”

“I’ll let you know if I figure it out.”

What I didn’t tell Lester was that my mother had started seeing a psychic. The medium said she was positive Hannah was alive and would return home before the end of summer. She told my mother that we would all be reunited. I was nervous and worried. My mother had never gotten over losing my sister, and now she seemed trapped in a web of false hope and obsessive delusion.

I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to be a good son, a good brother. But in the face of desolation, I froze. I could only stand back and wait for everything to fall apart.

After Lester drove us home, I went into our little apartment, dark and silent as a crypt, and I found Mom asleep in her bed. She clutched one of Hannah’s stuffed toys, a green stegosaurus, close to her chest like a life preserver. I took off my shoes and crawled on top of the covers beside her, listening to her breathe softly into her pillow, inhaling gently, gently exhaling. I stayed still. I tried to speak to her, knowing she wouldn’t hear me, and I whispered, “I should have been better. If I could do it over, I promise I would.”

I wept a little and closed my eyes before drifting off into some nothingness of regret and unknown dreams.

School finished a few weeks later, and summer came with all her heat and vengeance. The sun scalded the land, the air, and the mountain laurels wilted and died. I picked up extra shifts bagging groceries and started a savings account so I would have something to help me in a year when I graduated. It seemed like a reasonable thing to do.

One day in June I came home from work and discovered my mother sober and manic. She’d cleaned the entire apartment. She’d baked cookies—peanut butter—Hannah’s favorite. Artie Shaw records blasted on a new stereo she’d bought that morning. My mother bustled around the kitchen, pulling trays of fresh sweets out of the oven. Everything smelled sugary and creamy. Mom didn’t just think Hannah would return, she expected my sister to arrive that day, within a matter of hours.

I could have done a lot of different things. I could have helped my mom with the baking. I could have smiled and enjoyed the big band music. I could have gone and embraced my mother and joined her for a moment of happiness even if it was an illusion. But I didn’t do that. I snapped at her.

“Hannah’s not coming back, Mom,” I said. “You need to stop this.”

“Stop what? Aren’t you excited? She’ll be here any minute, I know it! And once she’s here, we’ll need to—”

“Mom! She’s gone. She’s dead—”

“No! The cards said she was coming home, and the cards told me—”

“She’s dead, Mom. Some pervert took her, used her, killed her, and tossed her away, she—”

“No!”

“—isn’t going to be found, no one will find her.”

“Why didn’t you walk her home? You were supposed to walk with her! Where were you?”

I grabbed a plate of cookies on the counter and threw it against the wall. Mom screamed again. She collapsed and curled into a ball, her mouth open as if to bawl or wail, but she wept quietly, almost silently, instead.

I stomped outside in a rage. I didn’t know where to go, but I had to leave. It was a hot dusk of roasted cedar and mesquite, and I marched through Bracewood Grove toward town. I felt like a monster. I told myself once I calmed down that I’d apologize and have a long conversation with my mother. A real talk. But until then I needed to be away from her.

I ended up at a burger stand where I snacked on fries and drank Dr. Pepper until I sweated syrup. The night fell slowly and without relief from the heat. The restaurant sat alone on a corner, an island of illuminated glass in western blackness. Everything was empty, quiet, and clean. I’d grown apart from it all, and the world seemed detached and fragmented. Everyone wandered strange highways without curiosity or concern.

Eventually, the cooks shut down the grill, and I had to leave. I walked through the dense heat and along the sides of the farm roads that scarred the landscape. I kept my head down with my hands in my pockets. Lights from the occasional oncoming truck washed over me and vanished. If Hannah was still alive, she’d be about to turn fifteen. I was sure she was dead. I hoped her death had been painless. My mother’s grief pulsated through me. I didn’t want to feel anything.

When I got back to Bracewood Grove, no one was outside. It was dark, and a few dogs, thin and mangy and half wild, wandered along the curb. I yearned to get inside, peel off my clothes, and stand under a cool shower and close my eyes. I was certain my mother was asleep. We could talk in the morning. But as I opened the door, some type of instinct, cold and electric, zinged my nerves. Something was wrong. It was in the air, piercing and hot and cruel. Before my eyes could understand what I saw, my mother hissed at me, “Donovan, quick, close the door!”

A single light came from a lamp knocked to the floor, its shade crooked and bent. The bulb shined upwards in an awkward, unnatural glow. My mother sat on her knees. Her eyes, wide and crazed, stared at me like prey. Stretched out beside her, lay Lester. His head bled onto the carpet. His hands were duct taped behind his back. A silver strip of tape covered his mouth, too.

“Baby,” said my mother, “I got him, I got the bastard.”

She laughed. A thin tear ran down her left cheek. Lester moaned. His eyelids fluttered. I closed the door and leaned against it. I noticed Lester’s blood started to stain the fabric on the floor. He was still alive, but I wasn’t sure how badly he was hurt.

“He’s not going harm anyone ever again,” said Mom. “He took our Hannah, but he won’t take anyone else’s baby. I got him. Didn’t I?”

Lester stirred and made eye contact with me. My mother kept rambling.

“See, he came over, and he said he was looking for you, so I let him in, and I told him about your sister and that was when I realized it, when I put it all together, he won’t tell me where she is, but I knew he—”

“Oh, Mom,” I said, “not again.”

“Aren’t you happy? We got him!”

“He didn’t take Hannah, and neither did the others. Do you want to go to jail? Now we have to move again.”

“I got him,” said Mom. “I hit him with a frying pan just like in a cartoon. But we finally got him.”

I kneeled beside Lester. His eyelids, heavy and slow, fluttered as he tried to look at him. I couldn’t think of anything to say. An apology? An explanation? I had already lost a sister. And despite all the towns, despite all the grief, I couldn’t also lose my mother. We’d have to move again. We’d have to be more careful. I’d be focused and watchful. We would have to drive Lester’s remains to Tonkawa Bluffs and shove his body off into the deep waters of Lake Lamar. Another casualty. Another tally. Another innocent never to be seen again.

I sat on Lester’s chest. I put my hands on his throat. Sweat and blood covered his face. He didn’t understand at first. Then I began to squeeze. It dawned on him what I was doing, and his eyes went wide. He panicked and kicked. He struggled to no avail. I leaned into it. I used all my weight.

My mother cheered. Each time she was sure she’d gotten her man. Each new town she was sure she’d cracked the case and avenged her daughter. By the time we moved to Anson, I had lost count of the times she squealed with joy as she believed she delivered some form of balance or justice. Lester yelled muffled noises and grunts, all wordless bellows. I squeezed tighter, as hard as I could.

“Do it, Donovan! Do it for Hannah!”

“It’s almost over,” I said, but it took several more minutes.

“You’re such a good son,” said my mother. “What did I ever do to deserve such a brilliant son?”

*****

If you’ve enjoyed Night Owls, you can visit our free digital archive of flash fiction here. Additionally, premium short fiction published by Mystery Tribune on a quarterly basis is available digitally here.

For online archive of short fiction (longer pieces) on Mystery Tribune website, you can visit here.

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