By Billy Middleton

So you’re broken down on the side of the road. It’s two in the morning, and the man whose door you just knocked on tells you it’s too late for you to be knocking on doors. You tell him you work the night shift at the paper mill and you’re having car trouble. He squints at you, but steps aside to let you in.

He’s wearing a faded pair of boxer shorts and a torn blue tee shirt. He’s watching an infomercial on NBC. You know this because the little peacock is in the corner. The trailer he lives in is a wreck. There’s dried dog shit in the corner next to the television. The dog that produced it lies on the couch, a Pomeranian with matted fur. It watches you nervously, its chin resting on its paws.

You make a phone call, and when you hang up the man asks if you got hold of anybody. You tell him your sister is coming to get you. He asks where she lives and you tell him Vicksburg. He says that’s a good forty-five minutes away. Then he grabs a pack of Marlboros from the table, sticks one in his mouth, and lights up. The Pomeranian looks at the man with concern, as if it understands the risk of cancer.

“You got to be careful out here,” the man says. “There’s coyotes in them woods.”

Only he pronounces it kye-oats.

“There’s rattlesnakes, too,” he adds. “Plus my next door neighbor, a few months ago, got chopped up with an axe. They never caught whoever did it.”

You can’t tell if he’s screwing with you or not.

“Well, you better go wait out by the car for your sister,” he says.

He stands up. He’s much taller than you. You wonder if he knows how to swing an axe. He walks around the glass coffee table and puts a hand on your shoulder. You’re sure he’s going to do something awful to you, but instead he guides you to the door. He holds it open for you. On the wooden steps, muddy kittens frolic around a food bowl. He shoves them off with a toe and tells them to shoo.

Be careful out there,” he says, and then he closes the door.

Somewhere in the woods, a kye-oat howls at the moon.