D.M. Armstrong

Contest Winner - 3rd Place

D. M. Armstrong is the fiction editor of Witness Magazine and recipient of the Black Mountain Institute fellowship at UNLV, where he’s a PhD candidate in Fiction. Most recently his stories have received Honorable Mention in the Cincinnati Review Schiff Prize and been finalists for the Arts & Letters Journal Prize, the Red Hen Press Short Fiction Award, and the Rick DeMarinis Short Story Prize. He lives in Las Vegas with his wife, Melinda, and their dog, Prynne.

Take Care

She said she was going anywhere.

I told her that was a long way from here, which was nowhere.

She didn’t laugh.

I’d found her shivering near the highway, crouched against the wide, rust-addled post of the truckstop sign, the sign’s heavy yellow letters hollowing out a nimbus in the night sky overhead: A&K Aero-Stop, Heat and Electrical Hook-up, Shower and Eats. I’d been turning over the miles for six days, criss-crossing the country in long, jagged sojourns of sleepless hours, downing coffee and Red Bulls, yellow-bees, a few dud reds a waitress sold me—I’d even foil-burned a dull shard of meth, which tweaked me for two days and tore out my guts the whole time—in hopes of losing whatever it was was chasing me.

She was nineteen if a day, a white girl with dreads, wearing a homemade sleeveless top and a corduroy skirt. She slid into my car silently and without looking me in the eye. Then we were off again, down the hueless highway somewhere in the middle flat dark of Ohio in my old Lincoln Continental with broken number-locks on the doors and a flaking skin of topcoat dull on the hood under moonlight. The car was an easy ride, a boat-swell bounce to the air-shocks, and we were fifteen miles away from that truckstop doing eighty, the radio low with some sad song I couldn’t place from my college days, when she finally spoke again.

“I’m Trese,” she said.


“Trese. One syllable.”


“Sex?” she said.

“I don’t need that. It’s not an exchange.” I didn’t want it to sound like a rejection and tried to make her feel pretty by gesturing to her bare shoulder, her face. “I just don’t.”

“I’m not making any value judgments,” she said. “It’s expected sometimes. I understand.” She crossed her arms and stared into the window, her face making a green reflection in the glass, lit up by the glow from the radio numbers.

“Where are you headed?” she said. She didn’t look at me, just stared out into the dry black fields rushing by. “You asked me. So where are you going?”

“Anywhere,” I said. I tapped a rimshot on the steering wheel.


“Usually hitchhikers are just happy for a ride.”

“You make me nervous. I ask questions.”

“I make you nervous?”

“Going to see family?” she said.

“Going away from family, then back maybe, would be closer to it.”

“You look respectable, is all I mean. Middle-age. Haircut. Maybe you need a shower. But you look like you belong somewhere.”

“I’m a domesticated dog, is what you mean.”

“Just not like a trucker. Not a traveler.”

I was wearing khaki pants, but only because my jeans had been stained. I’d bought the button-up shirt at Sears in Billings, Montana. I’d never been to a more depressing place than the Sears in Billings, Montana.

“And yet I make you nervous,” I said.

“You give off a creep vibe.”

“Bit abrupt for somebody I could leave in the middle of a cow pasture.”

“Cow pastures I can handle,” she said. “Cow pastures are a piece of cake. It’s people that get you. It’s why I ask up front. A guy either wants it or he doesn’t. If he wants it, we get it over with or make a deal. It’s civil. The one thing I can’t take is a guy getting creepy, you know?”

“And I’m already that guy.”

“The guys who say no, those are normally the creepy ones. They go, I’m married. They show a ring. Then they lay a hand on your thigh. Inch up there with a pinky finger. God, if you want to fuck, just fuck, right? I’m not high and mighty. I won’t tattle.”

“You seem to have a lot of experience.”

She tightened her arms under her breasts. She had two piercings in her left ear, one in the lobe and one in the cartilage, and a small silver chain connected them.

“I’m going to Raleigh,” I said.

“Fuck North Carolina.” She’d gone sour. I’d given off some vibe, sent little waves of nausea, little roaches of unease, scurrying up her legs and spine.

“I’m terrible at hiding things,” I said. “I’ve been driving for days. Just driving. This discomfort you feel. You’re right to feel it. You’re not right about the why. But you’re right.”

“If I ask you to stop, you better stop,” she said.

“But you’re not asking me to stop.”

She pulled at the seatbelt like a pair of too-tight pants, pressed on the old motorized seat and it reclined with a groan. She rolled half on her side away from me. “Don’t even try to touch me,” she said. “You had your chance.”

We drove in the murky, sweet quiet, maybe five minutes or an hour. Time was losing its consistency. I couldn’t tell when I’d slept last. The days and evenings had overlapped slowly, like breaking waves rolling and being sucked under themselves.

I drove and I waited until I heard her snoring lightly. It reminded me of a little kid. Then I started talking as quietly as I could.

“I should practice this,” I said. “Read it to somebody.” I felt for the piece of paper I’d shoved into my pocket a hundred times, took it out, and laid it across the wheel. The words, written in pencil, were indiscernible in the dark, but I could feel them sitting there, testing the air in front of me with their weight, lifting off the page and gathering physical shape.

I imagined what was to come, the lectern, the respectable expressions of all those sad faces, the bend at the edges of their lips, the brows smartly sober or upright in what remained of their bewilderment. I imagined the strange formality of them having to take their seats, as if they were at any other gathering, a lecture or a string quartet recital, and then the preacher would speak and read and lead them in the singing and gently extend his arm to me because I’d said I’d do it. I wanted to get it right.

I would say what a shock it was. I would want to tell them the details about Jessica and I going to Key West for a week. I’d want them to know that Anna would have been twenty-one in the fall. She was home alone. I’d want them to know that world has no meaning, that Anna had fallen, hit her head on the tiled, bottom step of the staircase and died. That maybe if someone finds you there, lying like that, in time, you are taken to a hospital and the swelling in your brain is released in a touch-and-go procedure by neurological surgeons, but you don’t die. You certainly don’t do that. I’d want people to know that you should never give up your children. Never leave them for a week to go to Key West. I’d want those people staring up at me to know it was all my fault because, while I know you can’t always be there, I could have been.

Except these aren’t the words on the page. Some of the words are like this, but they aren’t clear. They’re jumbled scraps of memory jotted down outside of Raleigh, then in Mississippi and in Dallas before I turned north for Colorado and Wyoming and the vastness of everything, and the wide horizon turned the world to a sun-soaked blur until I turned back east, toward North Carolina, where our home with its multi-toned brick facade sits on a street where elms have been planted in the grass-green median, and there are women there who bury the tulip bulbs in the winter so that they bloom in the spring, and then there is Jessica, and she’s in the kitchen and there is nothing to say but this. Our child is gone. Our everything is lost.

The autopsy and inquest have delayed the funeral, and if I drive straight through I’ll be back in time. My phone went dead a long while back, but I called from a rest stop with a calling card and heard my brother Tom’s voice, and Tom didn’t make me speak, just said they were going ahead with the plans and he hoped I’d be there. He said, Take care of yourself.

And now the words are written in front of me on the steering wheel, and even though I can’t see them, I know them.

“A box turtle in the leaves,” I say. This I wrote in the upper left-hand corner, and it’s the shakiest. I rested the paper on my thigh while driving.

“The cost of her trumpet.

“The shallow end.

“A surprise in the dryer.


Because all of them are fragments. Little lost leaves of memory touching down to earth, and I’m scooping them up and trying to give them weight, trying to find a way of putting them into the formal structures that will mean something to others.

“Prom hairstyles.

“Math is a girl’s best friend.”

Prompts. While driving I had tried, in a moment of exhaustion, to write that one down, about the time I’d seen her so happy about the math scores for the AP test, and a few days ago in the car, trying to put it to paper I was still holding my coffee, and I turned the cup over like an idiot, forgetting it was even in my hand, and dumping it all over my lap. And that was in Montana, and that was the one about math.

I’m reading them out loud, and I’m not seeing them on the page because I know they’re there.

“Crickets for the science fair.


“Our car accident.

“The misspelled banner.

“Teething. Fever.”

And it all feels too light.

“Did you say something?” Trese is awake, and again I don’t know how long it’s been.

“I was reading,” I say. I put the paper away some time ago, tucked it back into my pocket.

“Seems dangerous.”

“No more dangerous than most things.”

“Where are we?”

“We just crossed over into West Virginia.”

“Oh. So what’s that over there?” She points at some lights in the distance. A few blips scattered across a black dip in the land. We climb a grade in the highway and the lights take shape as a series of buildings cast against a low grayness in the sky.

“I think it’s Charleston.”

“What time is it?”

I turn off the radio and it reverts to a clock.


“You mind dropping me somewhere?”

“Where?” I say.


“That old bit.”

“I can’t help it,” she says. “I’m a free spirit.”

“You’re in a better mood.”

“You didn’t try anything.”

“That’s it?”

She looks out the window and again folds her arms, but she’s lost the tightwire tension in her neck.

“You know that feeling?” she says. “As an adult you get it less and less because it’s you who’s responsible.”

“What feeling?”

“Like when you go to sleep, and when you wake up, you’re someplace else. You’ve rested and made progress all at the same time.”

“This is a good thing?”

“It’s good. Maybe it’s one reason I like this.”

She doesn’t say what “this” is, not exactly, just keeps staring and points at a McDonald’s after we turn down the off-ramp, and I let her out in the parking lot after handing her a twenty and telling her to eat breakfast.

“To start your day right,” she says. “Healthy living.”

And I nod and pull away, onto the highway, and then I’m driving through the mountains. The shapeless sun is in the sky, and the morning has no edges. I pull out the paper and write “Trese.” And now I’m headed for a patch of morning fog that’s rolling out of the trees and settling thick and blank and white across the lanes.

In this story I was contemplating what happens when the purpose of a journey is to get from Point A to Point A. Sometimes the motivation for such trips is solely to create distance between us and our day-to-day lives, including life’s sometimes tragic circumstances. I think this is a good metaphor often for why we read, not to reach the place, but to re-adjust our way of seeing our world when we return to it.