Keep The Devil Close

When the old Ford finally gave out, the elderly preacher slowly eased it over onto the roadside. He'd been driving tight-lipped, his eyes locked onto the far horizon ahead, his hands gripping the steering wheel with the same force of will he used when laying on hands to drive out illness from one of his congregation back home. A few miles from San Angelo, Texas where they'd stopped in for lunch, the car had suddenly begun to grumble and groan. It stuttered and threatened to quit with unsettling loss of speed, then picked up where it left off and drove normally for a while before it made good on the threat.

His wife stared straight ahead with her hands folded tightly in her lap and her lower lip tucked up nearly under her nose. She tsked, gave a long sigh, resettled her lips into a mere grimace and turned to give him one of those silent looks that was part acknowledging glare and part demand for action.

The small child in the back stood up on the seat and looked curiously at her grandma and grandpa in the rear view mirror. She had half a bottle of orange Ne Hi in her hand and it sloshed and fizzed softly against the glass. The still, hot air settled down on them like a blanket. He glanced at the child in the mirror and smiled briefly before he grabbed his hat off of the seat beside him and stepped out of the car into the blazing sunlight.

He propped open the hood, relieved that his wife and grand daughter could no longer see his face and peered down at the engine. He knew almost nothing of engines and their ways. He sighed and wiped the sweat off of his forehead with the back of his hand.

He closed his eyes and prayed aloud, "Lord, if it be your will, send us assistance so that we may be on our way." Before he had a chance to mutter, "Amen," he heard the familiar chuckle from behind his left shoulder.

"How long has it been since he answered you?" asked the sardonic voice he knew so well. He finished the prayer with a firm, "Amen," and ignored the figure that stood behind him, mimicking his pose and also peering into the engine.

Sweat ran down the preacher's face from beneath his hat, dripping off the edge of his set jaw. The engine looked like a black painting of hell to him, the arms and legs of demons and suffering souls entwined on torture racks, bound, impaled, charred and writhing in the suffocating heat.

"What have you done to it?" he asked the figure without looking back.

"Why is it always my fault when something goes wrong?" came the rhetorical reply.

"Will?" his wife called out impatiently from the front seat.

He walked around her side of the car and looked in at her through the open window. Her light cotton dress was dark with sweat under her arms and spreading out from beneath her bosom. Her white hair was lying in limp, wet waves against her scalp. The coral red lipstick she wouldn't be caught dead without was feathering up into the wrinkles above her lip like bleeding cracks. He smiled at her reassuringly. She did not smile back.

He looked up the road in the direction they had been driving. The sun was high, it was just past one. He knew the next town on the map was Ozona, but he didn't know how far away it was. He felt like San Angelo was closer.

"I'm going to walk back and get help. Just stay in the car. Everything will be fine," he said. His wife nodded her head, but said nothing.

The child leaned out of the backseat window, looking up at him sideways, her light blue eyes screwed up against the blinding sun. He stepped over to her and put his hand on top of her small head, pale cornsilk hair doing nothing to protect the glowing pink scalp. Her head felt like a sun warmed peach from a roadside fruit stand.

"Stay out of the sun, baby girl. Mind Grammy and stay still," he told her, pushing her head back inside gently.

She flopped down against the seat, scowled up at him as only a four year old could and said, "I'm not a baby."

"I'll be back soon," he said and began to walk down the road.

He didn't look back at the car, where he knew the child would be watching through the rear window. He didn't look over his shoulder where he could hear the footsteps behind him. The land ran as far as he could see in irregular patches of scrub brush, low disorienting hills and loose rock. The road ahead disappeared into shimmering waves of light. He walked at a steady pace. It seemed like he was going nowhere.

After a while, he began to recite the lord's prayer under his breath, as much to block out the sound of the footsteps as anything else. The figure behind him began to whistle, maddeningly. Within a moment, he recognized the hymn, There's An Old, Old Road... He laughed despite himself and shook his head.

"That's right, Brother. Keep your sense of humor," the voice behind him said. "Nothing to worry about. I've got it all under control."

He stopped walking. "I didn't ask for your help. The lord will provide," he said, his eyes fixing on the farthest point he could see at the road's end.

"The lord will look the other way while carrion birds pick your bones. I take care of business," the voice said.

A tiny car hovered above the road in the heat waves like a magic trick, still far away but driving toward him. He began walking again, a smile coming to his lips. He hummed along with his whistling companion until the car got close enough for him to flag it down.

A big gaudy black Packard pulled over and a fancy young redhead wearing sunglasses looked out at him. "Sir, are you in some kind of trouble?" she asked, pushing her sunglasses down on her nose and assessing him with concerned grey eyes. He took hold of the side of her car to steady himself, his vision beginning to swim and sparkle.

"Car broke down, my wife and grand daughter are waiting up the road there," he pointed off weakly as everything started to spin and his knees gave way.

He heard the young woman exclaim, "Oh, my!" as she opened the door, got out and took a firm hold of his arm. She opened the back door and guided him to the seat. "You just sit right down there, I've got some water in a canteen, just a minute."

He sat back against the seat fighting nausea while she retrieved the canteen and handed it over to him.

"Just take a little sip," she cautioned. "Oh, my, it's a good thing I came along. You look fit to have a sun stroke."

He squinted at her, rolling the metallic tasting warm water around on his tongue and smiling faintly at her youthful candor.

She made sure he was all tucked in, shut the door and started the car up again. "Just take it easy," she said, pulling back onto the road. "We'll get your wife and grand daughter, and you can all come back with me. My husband and I run a little motel just a few miles up the road. We'll get you all cooled off and then see about your car."

He closed his eyes and ignored his companion's satisfied chuckle in the seat beside him. Despite what he had told his wife, he knew that things were not going to be fine.