Oct/Nov 2020  •   Fiction

The Travelers Walked Through Byways

by Huntley Gibson Paton

Public domain street art

Public domain street art

When the first guy came through the window, Grapenut was ready for him. He had been sleeping—troubled by an irksome dream about an unsolvable inventory problem at his store—but heard the commotion near the front door, looked out the window by his bed, and saw three people under the porch light, seeking a way in. He flinched as if slapped—he had insisted to his friends all along that this or something like this would happen, but now, seeing it, he realized he never really expected it. There was an unwelcome buzz in his head. He got up and grabbed the can of wasp spray off his wife's nightstand. Winnie wouldn't let him buy a gun—a humiliation, since he knew lots of guys who had one—but she had read that wasp spray was good for home defense. It could knock down a nest at 20 feet. So when things started to get out of hand and the nightly news became too much, Grapenut bought a few cans at Home Depot and placed them strategically around the house. That was a couple months ago and seemed an impotent gesture. Now he would have to rely on it. Trembling, he wondered less about the spray than himself. Dressed only in his boxers, he crept downstairs.

Just as he arrived at the landing, which was lit up by a lamp near the living room couch, he saw the screen come out of the window closest to the front door and a young man start to pull himself through it. Grapenut could have sworn he had the whole place locked up, but he must have forgotten one window. The guy was wearing a bandana mask, which seemed to highlight his wide eyes like a beacon, and Grapenut, using no words but making a noise something like a roar, doused the invader right on the bridge of the nose, hitting him with a full stream of the wasp killer from about ten feet.

The intruder howled and fell forward to the floor. The other two guys ran away—Grapenut saw them through the glare of the picture window, their dark clothing melting into the night as soon as they were beyond the reach of the porch light. The trespasser clutched his face, screaming. Somewhere above them, Winnie was calling to him.

Grapenut, amazed at his own quick reflexes and successful defense, tried to bring his mind under control. He looked around the room, its walls and mantle festooned with family photographs. It filled him with fear—and fury—to think a stranger had crawled through the window into their sanctuary. There were six or seven pairs of shoes in the foyer. Grapenut quickly threw on a pair of sandals, kicked the guy in the gut, told him to shut up.

Winnie came downstairs in her T-shirt and underwear. "Oh, my God," she said.

"Go back upstairs," he told her. "Get my phone." She did. Then Grapenut called 911.

During the call, the guy tried to get up, so Grapenut kicked him in the balls pretty hard and unloaded another stream of the wasp killer into his face. "Stay still or else," Grapenut said. "This is a live situation," he told the dispatcher. The guy kept screaming, so Grapenut pulled his mask down and pointed the can at his mouth, which was opened wide like some obscene privy pit—Grapenut thought he could actually smell shit. Callow mustache hairs framed the young man's upper lip, the face pallid and splotched, except for around the eyes, now swollen and angry red. Grapenut thought, meth-eater. "Shut up, or I'll empty this down your throat," he said. He was staggered at his own words. He was shaking all over.

After 30 minutes, the guy was still crying and pleading, but the law hadn't arrived. Winnie was hysterical. He had to banish her upstairs, just so he could think straight. Grapenut called 911 again, then waited another 20 minutes, during which time he had to kick the intruder in the ribs twice and spritz him in the face once more just to control him. Now the guy was throwing up on the rug.

When it was clear the police would not come, Grapenut pulled the guy to his feet and told him to get out and never come back. The interloper sobbed his objection: "I'm blind, I can't see anything!"

"Not my problem," Grapenut told him, and shoved him out the front door. He watched the guy stumble around in the grass, hands out before him, crying and pleading for help. When he merely went in circles a couple times, Grapenut went out and kicked him in the ass and gave him another shove in the right direction. Then he watched the guy disappear up the driveway, wobbling past glinting fireflies and down their street toward the end of the neighborhood, bumping into a mailbox, falling briefly, struggling to his feet. Pretty soon Grapenut could neither hear nor see him.

Lights were on in several neighbors' houses now, but no one was outside. He felt suddenly his near-nakedness, looked down at his fish belly, heaving and sweaty. He went back to the living room and, finding Winnie there waiting for him, comforted her. "It's all right," he said. She was shaking.

After a while, Grapenut grew tired of consoling Winnie and began staring at the vomit on the floor. He was too repulsed to do anything about it. Then his dread and resentment started to build. He realized the friends of the blinded guy could return with more friends and weapons. It seemed to him the situation was now more dangerous than it was when the guy first came through the window.

He grabbed a new can of wasp spray, a baseball bat, and a big kitchen knife, then—still dressed only in his underwear and the sandals—got into his car, which he had backed into the driveway that evening, as every evening. The headlights, like a spear, plunged into the night in front of him, and he expected to see assailants in the beams, or perhaps a team of police officers arriving at last. There was nothing. He threw the car into gear and circled the neighborhood a few times, looking for the others. Theirs was a small subdivision, so it didn't take long. He saw no one. Their area was surrounded by countryside and connected to town by Sisera Road, a two-lane county highway devoid of development. Town was to the west, the interstate to the east.

He idled at the stop sign, trying to think. His next decision could mean life or death—what if they had doubled back and were going for Winnie at this very moment? Somehow, he doubted that, so he went west, slowly, his headlights throwing a white glow onto the asphalt and the tall brush and empty fields along the shoulders. He figured this to be the gang's natural escape route but had no idea what he might do if he found them. About 200 yards later he spotted his wasp-face guy, alone, stumbling down the side of the road, and without reflection Grapenut accelerated, clipping the intruder into the ditch. It was only after the thud that he considered what he had just done.

He stopped and got out to look—the man was whimpering in some tall grass and weeds. Grapenut stood there for a while, his mind racing, unsure, then sure. He went back to the car, took out the carving knife, and returned to the ditch. The intruder was all twisted up but conscious, pleading with him. "Please," he said in a gurgling voice. "No more." Grapenut bent down and put the big knife it into the guy's neck, pensively at first, then forcefully. He did this several times, each time with a growing detachment, as if he were pulling down a shade, a few inches at a time, to block out all he had ever known or was. When he finished, he sat down to catch his breath. Then he went home, pulling into the driveway nose-first, something he never did and disdained. He hated backing out of the driveway. That was how idiots backed over neighborhood pets or small children. But he let it go.

"Oh, my God," Winnie said when she saw him.

"Go to bed," he told her. He cleaned up the vomit, replaced the screen in the window, washed the knife, showered, and burned his underwear and sandals in the firepit on the back deck. Dressed now in jeans and a hoodie, no shoes on his feet, he sat in a folding chair, baseball bat in hand, watching it burn. When the cloth was ash and the rubber soles melted, he considered perhaps these actions were not sufficient; he thought of the car, the dent he had not bothered to check but surely would be there, the blood probably on the seat and the steering wheel. He thought about bleach—wouldn't that be the thing? But he suddenly could not bring himself to care. Very tired now, he leaned back and looked at the sky, stars muddled by haze. When he finally went in, he found Winnie had locked the bedroom door, so he slept on the couch.

In the morning, Winnie came out of the bedroom but cowered from him, moving to a different room every time he came near, as if he had grown claws. Grapenut decided to ignore this and, after a breakfast of dry toast, went outside. He cleaned the inside of the car and hosed off the front of it. The dent was significant, anyone would notice it. Grapenut stood there for a while, thinking. His conclusion, after reflecting on everything that had happened, was to not worry about it. His neighbor Randy came over. "You had trouble here last night," he said, "didn't you?" Grapenut affirmed this but assured Randy, "It's all right. Just some damn kids."

That same day he went to a pawn shop and bought a shotgun and a 9mm handgun, along with a few boxes of ammunition. The background check went quickly. When he drove by the ditch where he stabbed the intruder, he noticed the tall grass hid the body. Grapenut couldn't see it at all. There was, perhaps, some dried blood on the asphalt, but he drove by too quickly to be sure.

This seemed to be the end of things, but a week later, a neighbor lady—divorced and (Grapenut was fairly sure) involved in an affair with Randy, whose wife had become repulsive—was walking her pitbull down that empty road and was overcome by the smell. The police were called, and this time someone came, verified it, and called in a small team.

A few days after that, Grapenut was stapling warning signs onto his trees near the street when Alvin came by in his patrol car, which was showing its age. Grapenut had gone to high school with Alvin. They had been on the track team together. Until recently, they were in the same Rotary.

"Have you been enjoying your vacation?" Grapenut asked him in an unfriendly way.

"Don't yank my dick," Alvin said, sounding beat. "What are you doing?"

"Marking my property," he replied.

"Property," Alvin said as if he was tired of the word. "Well, we all live on top of old bones, don't we?"

"That attitude explains a lot," Grapenut said.

Alvin shifted on his feet, ran a hand over his sweaty, thinning red hair. "You know anything about that stiff we found? That 911 call of yours, good Lord."

"Oh, is 911 still a thing?" Grapenut asked. "You could have fooled me."

"I think you did it," Alvin said.

"I deny that," Grapenut said.

"Fuck," Alvin said. "You can't kill people."

"Go back to your nap," Grapenut told him.


The following spring, long after Winnie had moved to Tulsa to live with their oldest daughter, Grapenut found himself at the grocery store in a foul mood. He was upset because he had been doing a great business in diesel generators lately, down at the store, but the manufacturer's rep had just informed him it would be two months before they could send him any more units. Everything was getting worse. Grapenut didn't care what it said on the news—he could see the shitshow for himself.

He had a six pack, canned goods, and some frozen dinners in his cart and was about to head for the checkout when he came upon an exotic, dark-eyed woman. She was dressed in black yoga pants and a mottled orange top that fit tightly and exposed her midriff. Her long black hair was tied in a ponytail, which flopped over her right shoulder as she rooted around in the dessert freezer. She held a handbasket containing a bottle of wine and some greens. She was fetching, younger than Winnie, and Grapenut was seized by a primal longing, not just to have her, which was part of it, but more so—what was it, exactly?—to protect her. That was it. It occurred to him that his vigilance was an empty thing, with no one to protect except himself. He felt acutely all he had lost, remembered the days of babies and block parties and Winnie's wet legs in the sunshine down at the lake. These memories were inestimable yet unbearable. He pictured instead Yoga Pants as his new wife, which was beguiling and yet somehow a rebuke.

She noticed him looking at her and straightened, gave him a little smile.

"Am I in your way?" she asked pleasantly.

"Not at all," he said. "Daydreaming, I guess."

She laughed, then pointed to his untucked shirt. "You're carrying a gun?" she asked.

"Don't worry, I'm licensed."

"Who isn't?" she said. "These days."

Grapenut sensed she was being flirtatious. Looking at her tight clothing, he risked a sly compliment: "You don't seem to be carrying," he said.

She struck a little pose as if showing off a gown on the red carpet. "Licensed to kill," she said. "What you see is what you get."

Now Grapenut was inflamed. He felt like a child caught in a room that was off-limits and had to look away.

The woman went back to examining the dessert freezer. "They don't have much of anything," she said.

"The best day to come is Wednesday," he said. "But you have to get here early."

"Well, at least I got my wine, and they have my cigarettes, too."

Grapenut was surprised—the woman looked like a fitness freak, not a smoker. Somehow, this made her more enticing. "You're not from around here, are you?" he said pathetically.

"Of course I am," she said. "I've been here forever. You?"

"Long time."

Grapenut's mind suddenly was empty of clever things to say. It had been too long. Here she was, flirting, and he had nothing for her. She smiled, pointed at his midsection again, and said, "Well, be sure of your target. Bye!" She turned, her sneakers making a small squeak on the tile, and she walked away from him, turning at the end of the aisle. Grapenut finished his shopping and went to self-checkout. He hoped to spot the woman again, but she was nowhere to be seen. He went home.

A few days later, on Sunday, he was on a ladder on the side of the house, adjusting one of the security cameras, when he saw out of the corner of his eye someone approaching his front door. He heard a knock. Grapenut climbed down from the ladder, wiped his sweaty hands on his jeans, and cautiously went around the corner, his right arm on his backside where the 9mm was tucked under his belt, unholstered. On the stoop he saw a woman in a very old-fashioned dress. She held the handle of a weathered, brown-leather valise in both hands. It dangled at her knees.

"What do you want?" he said cautiously.

"Oh, good morning, sir!" she said, turning toward him, and it was then he realized it was the dark-eyed woman from the grocery store. Her beautiful black hair was tied up behind her head, which he considered a shame. Her dress was a pretty dark blue that hid her shape, with long sleeves and a hem down nearly to her ankles. An ivory brooch was pinned just below her throat. "Isn't it a beautiful day?" She smiled sweetly. Grapenut thought, those eyes.

She began speaking, but he wasn't registering the words. She gestured with her valise. He kept looking at her eyes.

"Don't you recognize me?" he said finally. His voice sounded boyish and too hopeful. She seemed confused, so he added, "From the grocery store."

"I'm sorry, no," she said. "Forgive me."

This disappointed Grapenut. When he realized she wasn't kidding, the disappointment gave way to annoyance. "What is it that you want?" he said.

"As I said, sir, I have the finest remedies. May I show you?"

"Who does that?" he said. "Door-to-door sales? Really?"

"Oh, it's very popular, very popular indeed."

"Well, I don't want any."

"I see. Your neighbors, perhaps?"

"That house is empty now," Grapenut said, pointing next door. "The one across the way, too. Sorry. You should try selling that shit on the Internet." But he didn't say it mean. He was annoyed, but he didn't mind speaking with her. He didn't want her to leave.

"May I ask your name?" she asked.

"Just call me Grapenut."

She smiled and cocked her head.

"My older brother called me that," he explained. "He liked Sugar Smacks. I liked Grape-Nuts."

She had a quizzical look. "Grape..."

"The cereal."

"Your parents did not give you a Christian name?"

"Grapenut is better than Pervis. What's your name?"

"Ibex," she said.

"Is that a nickname, too?"

"No, Ibex is my name. It's a goat. My parents named me after a wild, long-horned goat. Can you imagine?" She laughed.

"Better than Pervis. You want something to drink?"

She shook her head. "I should be going," she said.

"You should be careful, you know. It's bad around here."

She shrugged. "Oh, I don't worry. People are very kind, really. Besides, times are hard. I have to earn a living."

"Don't you have a husband?"

"I did."


"I did."

The sadness in her voice and her eyes made Grapenut want to take her in his arms. How alike they were. What would she do, if he held her?

"Are all the houses empty except yours?" she asked.

"No, there are still people around. A little hit and miss, but they're here."

"I see. Well, thank you, sir. God bless you."

She started to go, but Grapenut put his hand on her arm. "Show me what you've got," he said. "I didn't mean to be rude."

At this, she smiled and laid the valise down atop a porch table by the door, undid the latches, and opened the lid. Inside was an elaborate system of dividers and trays that kept each product in its place. There were ointments, soap powders, syrups, vitamins, all in glass vials or small metal containers. The labels were clever—old-fashioned lettering and homey, black-and-white illustrations of happy people. Grapenut suddenly saw the genius of the schtick: Get a sales babe, dress her up like someone's dead grandmother, and peddle organic crap to people too afraid to leave their houses. There was nothing he wanted, but he had to admit, it was smart. Then he saw one of the vials contained laudanum.

"Holy shit," he said. "Are you allowed to sell this stuff?"

"Of course," she said, genuinely perplexed. "Who would stop me?"

Grapenut bought the laudanum and threw in a tin of "tooth powder" for good measure. He asked Ibex once more if she would share something to drink with him—he couldn't imagine a better way to spend the morning—but she wouldn't do it. She said her goodbyes. He told her to come back any time. She said she would, which caused him to think of her often, and he watched again and again the footage from the security camera over the front door, how she had appeared like a vision, walking across lawn. But she didn't come back.

He saw Ibex again, in town, not four weeks later. It was noon, and Grapenut was headed for the café on the old town square, feeling the sun pound down on his head. It was ferociously hot now, and he was walking quickly, thinking about iced tea. The café door was right in front of him when he picked up on shouting somewhere down the block. The voice sounded familiar to him, so he decided to investigate, approaching the town's old lotus-bowl fountain, three tiers tall with lions on top, the fountain dry now and partly vandalized besides. The shouting was just on the other side of the fountain, and when he got there, he recognized Ibex instantly. He didn't know whether to laugh or gasp at her getup; she was dressed in another full-length, old-fashioned dress, this one black and plain, save for a broad white collar, partially torn. On her head was a small bonnet looking like it was salvaged from a trash bin. Her back was drenched in sweat, and she was ranting about something, calling out to the deserted street. Absolutely no one was around. What was she doing?

"Hey, Ibex!" he said. "What the hell—are you in a play or something?"

She wheeled on him, her dark eyes fierce, her face flush and contorted.

"Slaughter in the wilderness!" she shrieked. 'Who will not be flayed? Who will be spared?"

This was unattractive to say the least, and Grapenut felt a little flutter of alarm shoot up his neck, not unlike when he first saw the intruders outside his window last year. "Calm down," he said. "You're going to get heat stroke."

She pointed her finger at him accusingly. "Make straight the way of the Lord!" she admonished him.

Grapenut spent a good five minutes trying to reason with her. He tried to touch her, and she slapped his hands away. He begged her to come with him, to get some tea. But there was no talking to her. She just kept yelling ugly prophecies at him.

"Screw you, then," he told her, and left her to broil alone, there on the square. He skipped the café and walked back toward his store, fuming, shaking his head. Everyone has gone batshit crazy, he thought. The country was finished. All someone had to do was blow, and it would all fall.


By early October, Grapenut had fortified his weapons cache considerably. He had a semi-automatic SKS with a 30-round clip and a Winchester 30-30 with a lever action that made a deeply pleasing noise—loud, authoritative clacks going down and up. His handgun collection was augmented by a nice little LCR Ruger .38, perfect to take anywhere, and a SIG Sauer P220 and several magazines of .45 ACP hollow-point rounds. That one was too big to pack—it stayed home. He had added a couple more shotguns and had one in his bedroom, one on a wall rack in the kitchen, and one in the hall closet. He kept everything loaded at all times. He had also developed a fondness for weapons of other types—swords, clubs, knives. About an hour from home, there was a shop he frequented with an impressive array of collectibles. There he had picked up the World War II-era Navy Mark I knife with a five-inch blade, as well as the 10-inch M1 Garand bayonet, which obviously had been used well by some Marine, scabbard included. It was also where he got the old Confederate cavalry sword (also with the original scabbard) and, most intriguingly, the spiked battle club, which was like a stubby baseball bat with iron spikes all around and one on the end. At first, seeing it behind glass, he figured it to be a replica, but upon inspection it was obviously very old. That purchase came dear.

He kept the mallet on the mantle above the fireplace, along with the M1 bayonet, which he propped up for display on small wire easel. The Confederate sword was mounted on the wall just above that. The mantle once had held nothing but family photos, but Grapenut kept only one picture there now. It was of Winnie, the girls, and him at the orphanage in Mexico, the mission trip, years ago. The girls, in sun hats and smiling, had their arms wrapped around him, sweaty T-shirt and all, his limbs sunburned, muscled and covered in dust smears, his face confident, satisfied. For the most part, he had banished every reminder of his old life, handled the framed photos roughly when he packed them away—all the walls were empty now—but this one he wanted to keep on display. Why should he not do so? It was true he had nothing to do with their church or its ridiculous pastor any longer, or the girls, but that wasn't what made the photo important to begin with. Had he not dug the trenches for the orphanage's new water line, put fresh tar down on the roof? It was fair to say he had been the unofficial foreman of those efforts. None of the other men on that trip knew what they were doing, and most of them had no stamina for much more than prayer. Winnie and the girls, and most of the other women, had merely played with the children, read stories to them through a translator. Grapenut had done everything. He had done everything he could. The picture stayed.

It was mid-afternoon on an unusually warm Saturday when Grapenut came in for a beer. He had been checking the trip wires along the property lines, brushing aside the fallen leaves to make sure the connections were good. Though the beastly heat of summer had long passed, he felt surprisingly fatigued. The house didn't offer much relief, since the electricity had been out most of the week, and he was too weary, too disinterested, to mess with the generator. He grabbed a warm can of beer from the darkened refrigerator and drank it in his reclining chair, staring at the picture on the mantle, then out the window, scanning the perimeter. The air seemed heavy. He reclined the chair all the way back, and pretty soon, he dozed off.

Ibex shook him awake gently. The late afternoon sun burned through the window. He was sweaty, disoriented. "What?" he said. Ibex stood over him, her dark eyes relaxed, curious. Her hair was down, lush and free across her shoulders and back, and she wore some kind of smock that looked like scraped animal hides. She was barefoot.

"The door was open," she said matter-of-factly. "I wanted to see you."

At this, she lifted the smock over her head, revealing a perfect nakedness in the orange sunlight. Grapenut gasped. She covered him with her limbs, kissing him, undressing him. Then she straddled him, and Grapenut was so astonished, it was over almost instantly. His chest heaved. "What are you doing here?" he asked.

She said, "We have time. I'm not leaving." Using her mouth, she made him erect again. This time, she had him switch positions with her. She laid back in the chair and brought him on top of her, wrapping her legs tightly around him. Grapenut marveled at her beauty in the fading light. "I want you like this forever," he told her, certain he had never said truer words. He was back in form now, making her writhe. She brought her feet and hands together on his buttocks, pulling him deeper. "Who are you?" he said at last and then came meteorically.

He collapsed next to her, but she wasn't through with him. "I don't think that will work," he said, but she ignored him, running her breasts over his entire body and fondling him greedily. Somehow, she got him to do it again, and then again. He began to worry. His wild arousal, so overwhelming at first, dissipated into something close to alarm. Night fell. She would not listen to reason. She cajoled him until, somehow, he managed to obey her. He was in a stupor. At the last, he was on his back on the floor, and Ibex was pounding him so hard he thought his heart would stop. He begged her to leave him alone, but she continued to rise and fall on him, as if her body was a fist kneading dough. Finally, he came one last time, his seventh, more death rattle than ecstasy, his testicles dry as an old well.

His heart jerked inside of his chest. He was delirious. He was not able to move. "Please, he said. "No more."

"No more," she agreed.

He could barely see her face. Grapenut heard thunder, a storm moving in, and he was afraid. "They're coming for me," he croaked.

"Who is?" she said, calm.

"Hide me, please."

She replied in an unrecognizable language, but the tone was unfriendly.

Timidly, he said, "I'm thirsty."

"I will get you something," she said. She went to the kitchen, a dark silhouette gliding silently across the bare floor, and returned with a glass, which she put to his lips. He lifted his head to drink without thinking. It was milk, and it was spoiled—of course it was spoiled. He rejected it weakly, letting it dribble down the cheeks on both sides of his face. He was too anemic to spit.

"Now sleep," Ibex said softly, and he did, the insides of his eyelids flashing like bombs of phosphenes, pulling him backward through time. He saw himself mirrored in an ancient desert sky, felt the eternity of it, wild and unspeakably cruel.

Ibex took the bayonet from the mantle, removed it from the scabbard, and holding the handle in both hands, pinned Grapenut's head to the floor. Everything was very quiet. She opened the front door and beckoned into the dark. Only then did the others come—all of them, one by one at first, then in groups, unafraid—and passed through as they saw fit.