The Javalina Cantina had still not quite hit fever pitch when Matt pushed through the door and walked out into the heat that shimmered up from the asphalt parking lot. He wasn’t sure which was worse: the stale, dead air inside the bar or the stifling heat outside. While midnight was only minutes away, the asphalt still held a store of heat from the day that it released consistently throughout the night. The high humidity of the summer rainy season kept the air thick and cloying, making him feel almost as if he were trying to breathe through a wet towel over his face. There was no getting around the fact that July in Lake Havasu, Arizona, was just plain ugly.
Not that his customers cared. Owner of a water sports shop, Matt Stone did a brisk business this time of year with Sea-Doo and Waverunner rentals, bathing suit sales and all other things wet and fun. While older folks, “snow birds,” flew north for the summer back to Michigan or Washington, the younger generation more than made up for the lack by invading Lake Havasu with plenty of money and beer coolers in hand. As long as California did not slide off into the ocean, Matt couldn’t help but make money.
“Hey,” Simon called, bursting through the door behind him. “You’re not going, are you?” Simon Alvarez was one of Matt’s employees, shorter and stockier and full of energy. Simon spent a good part of his workday checking out the tourists on the personal watercraft, making sure they could function out in the water without killing themselves or losing the craft. His hours in the Arizona sun just turned his normally brown skin even darker. He and Matt occasionally ended a night at the bar, decompressing from the business of the day.
“I haven’t decided yet,” Matt said. He’d stepped outside to clear his head of the smoke, the noise, the smells, but heading home was sounding more appealing as the moments went by. He was a little tired of all the commotion inside.
“It’s still early,” Simon said. “Come on back in and have another beer.” Simon’s words were only slightly slurred; he was obviously not quite parboiled yet.
“Tomorrow’s Saturday,” Matt reminded him. “We open at seven. I’d like to get a little sleep before then.”
“Seven?” Simon groaned. “Oh, shit, this is Friday, isn’t it? Damn.”
“You go back in if you want, but I will see you at seven,” Matt suggested heavily, his ice blue eyes as cool as shadowed snow.
Simon mulled over his choices. Younger than Matt by several years, he was not that far removed from the college crowd they served; finally the lure of one more beer won out. “I’ll be there,” he said. “But in the meantime ...” Smiling crookedly, he disappeared back into the depths of the bar.
Matt just shook his head. He felt old. At thirty he was no senior citizen, but sometimes the demands on his life weighed him down. The store, his mother, Carrie … How did he end up being Mr. Responsible? He used to be more like Simon, more willing to close down a bar than walk away from one. He glanced back at the cantina, hearing the music and laughter inside. Truth be told, he didn’t even want to go back in, so it wasn’t as if he were denying himself. Tonight he just felt … tired.
Sighing, he walked to his car and lowered his tall, lean frame into the sleek sedan’s front seat. Turning the key, he remembered when the low, throaty rumble of the V-8 soothed him like nothing else. Not tonight. He pulled out of the deserted parking lot and headed for the London Bridge and home.
The London Bridge, he decided as he drove up the approach, had to be the ultimate in kitsch. Leave it to an American to bring the storied stone bridge from England and plop it down over a spit of river in the southwest desert. Before that, Lake Havasu City was nothing but a trailer park beside the Colorado River; now it was known everywhere because it had THE BRIDGE. The aged span sported Union Jacks and ornate lamp posts at intervals, objects more at home with bone-chilling fog than the hot desert air that bleached out the colors and faded the metal. It was the ultimate incongruity—
Suddenly a dark form, blacker than the night sky and human-shaped, appeared directly in front of his car. He had no time to jam on the brakes or swerve, although he did both, but before the car could respond he had barreled directly over or through the thing standing in the road. Immediately hauling the sedan over to the side of the road, he set the brake and popped the car into neutral. Without even checking for traffic, he scrambled from the car and ran back to see what he had hit. He just prayed to God it wasn’t dead.
Heart pounding, he searched the dark roadway. It was empty. No trace of anything wet on the pavement that might have been blood, not even a stain. Even his frantic braking had not left a mark. He glanced further down the road to see if a truck or a bus had preceded him, perhaps belching exhaust or smoke, but there were no other moving vehicles anywhere. He considered a low-hanging cloud but knew no cloud ever looked like that, black and almost solid. He scanned the lanes in both directions, searched the sidewalks on both sides. Nothing. He even glanced over the sides of the bridge, noting that the ripples in the water below reflected only the normal flow of the river, nothing like what he would expect if something had fallen or jumped from the bridge. There was no evidence that there had been anything there at all.
Breathing deeply, still shaking, he shook his head as if to clear it. He wasn’t that loaded. He hadn’t even finished his second beer. How could he have imagined something so real? He hadn’t been nodding off; he wasn’t sleepy before and certainly was not now. There was no reason for him to see something that wasn’t there. He looked again westward down the roadway toward the island; nothing there at all, not even a leaf moved in the heavy air. It just didn’t make any sense.
He walked uneasily back to the car and examined it. The front was unmarred and shiny, as clean as the day he washed it last week. There were no dents, no bits of fur or fabric caught in the grille. He remembered the fleeting sense of the dark shape coming at the windshield but when he examined it, there were no scratches, no marks. There was nothing to indicate he had encountered anything at all.
“This is nuts,” he said to himself. Wiping his face with a still shaking hand, he pushed the shock of thick black hair off his forehead. His reaction, the way he felt, was completely at odds with the fact that there was nothing there. Obviously there was no reason to stay, no reason to search anymore, yet he felt leaving would be irresponsible somehow. He had an uneasy sense of incompletion, yet … what was there for him to do?
“There’s nothing here,” he said out loud. His own voice ringing in the emptiness of the night irritated him. “Screw it,” he said finally and got back into the car. Checking his mirrors, looking around in all directions, he slid the gearshift into first and pulled slowly away from the curb. Gaining speed gradually, he continued to monitor his rear view mirror as he drove on across the bridge.
He saw nothing else all the rest of the way home.
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