By Jeff Burt

When I looked at the palm-sized traveling clock across the room panting the seconds like a hot retriever, I noticed it was ten after 3 a.m., untangled myself from the sticky sheets, went out the door of the rented house over to the corral and petted the abandoned palomino. The horse stood like a sleepy guard. Since it felt cool on the straw by the side of the fence, I gathered a blanket used under the saddle and spread it on the straw. I folded my arms under my head and looked at the debris flying under the yard light, the oak leaves turned by the wind to expose the silvery undersides like an old burlesque dancer raising her skirt.

            The quail woke me at dawn, wik-wikking as they threaded in and out of the brush by the barn, black goblets bobbing. The sun was rising through a scrim of dust, looking closer to a shade of tan than yellow, and gave an eerie sepia tone to the earth and side of the house. The dirt felt cool to my feet as I trotted to the house.          

            When I showered, the water stung the back of my neck and the back of my arms. I looked in the mirror and saw one large pink arc marking my left forehead down my cheek, in the shape of scimitar or the first vestige of a new moon come to savage my face. I turned to look at my back. I had a crisscross collection of red welts from touching the straw, almost like the top layer to a piecrust, and knew I would need an antihistamine to survive, so dressed up and drove to the mini-mart.

            I looked for calamine. Nothing. I grabbed the Benadryl and swallowed a couple of tablets dry and headed to a Quik Stop.

            When the young clerk spotted my arms with razor-like cuts on the back extending now over to the forearm, she withdrew her hand from my credit card and stood back.

            “You a cutter, or you got that contagious strep or staph infection that eats your skin?” she asked, her face contorted as if I were the walking Bubonic Plague. “Do you have cash?”

             “Cash is worse than a credit card,” I said. “The cotton carries disease. The tens have meth in the fibers, the twenties have cocaine. That’s why you feel high all day when you work here.”

            She took the card, swiped it, and handed it back. “Sorry, I get paranoid. All of us clerks do. It’s not contagious, though, right,” she whispered.

            “No,” I whispered back, “it’s an allergy to straw, like hay fever.”

            She smiled, said whew in a large voiceless pantomime. “I get that, too. I itch all over,” she said, rolling her eyes. “My skin rages.”

            As I was leaving, I looked back and watched her lean, take out a twenty and shake it over the counter, then sniff a ten.


Jeff Burt lives in Santa Cruz County, California. He lives on a two-lane road wide enough for one car. He has published fiction in Per Contra, Clare Literary Journal, Amarillo Bay, and Consequence Magazine.

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