Broken Lines: LO

The cowboy is tired and a bit cranky.

“Whaaat?” asks the spaceman in disbelief. “No, it’s cool! Like a mascot!”

They sit in the rear booth of the Stop-N-Go Diner just off of Route 28. Two cups of coffee rest on the table, surrounded by breakfast debris. Above the din of ordering, smalltalk, and determined mastication rises the tinny sound of that accursed “Life Is A Highway” song. It leaks out of the diner’s table jukeboxes, thirty-odd speakers radiating unspeakable brain damage. The cowboy—normally more than willing to maintain a low profile in public—considers pulling out one of his revolvers so he can start pegging the quarter-only machines like it’s a goddamned carnival game. Instead, he opts to jab at the “LO” volume button on their booth’s juke for the tenth time, hoping against hope that this will somehow elicit a lower “LO.”

The little spaceman fidgets on his side of the booth, feet dangling over the edge of the seat, kicking along to some broken rhythm in his head. Next to him, a fiberglass clown head the size of a large beach ball sits quietly, its mouth smiling around a much-abused speaker grille. The clown head has seen better days: wind-scoured, sun-faded, graffitied. The ClownyBurger down the highway will open in another forty-five minutes. The morning crew will call the police shortly thereafter.

“We can glue it to the roof of the truck!” the spaceman continues. “C’mon, Cowboy! It’ll look awesommmmmme!” He points a gloved finger at the RENT: America! truck parked outside their booth window. “I think I’ve got…” He ponders the control panel on the front of his spacesuit. “…some…” He runs his hand across the small keypad. “…adhesivvvve…” He tries to recall the correct numerical shortcut. Spaceman has yet to admit to Cowboy that he has no idea how most of the functions on his suit work. “Yeah yeah yeah!” he declares. “Watch the salt shaker. I’ve totally got this structural adhesive bonding agent stuff. Space Agency grade stuff.” The cowboy drops his face into his hands as the spaceman points his pinky finger at the salt shaker. He punches a few numbers into the control panel, there is a momentary hum of electric discharge, and every jukebox in the diner gets louder.

“Awww, come on!” Cowboy cries, pounding his fist on the tabletop. Spoons jump.

The spaceman examines the small outlet tube mounted on the pinky of his glove. “Musta hit the wrong button.”

“Oh, musta,” the cowboy moans into his palms.

“Pardon me, gentlemen.” An Indian accent. Cowboy peeks through his fingers and spies a well-dressed man standing next to their table. Tweed suit. Bow tie. Fez. “Is that your rental lorry out there?”

“Yeah!” says the spaceman.


“Well, technically, no,” the spaceman admits. “It’s a rental.”

“No,” Cowboy reiterates. Then to the stranger: “No. Uh, our truck is parked around back. Moving Unlimited.” He gestures to the truck outside their window. “That there’s a RENT: America! truck. The little fella’s confused.” Cowboy slaps the little man’s glass dome. The spaceman, not quite comprehending the deceit, eyes the truck suspiciously. “What’s this about, mister…?”

“My name is Mister Manwani. I’m with The Brotherhood.” He leans in close and speaks quietly. “We’ve had reports of a vampire in the area. We’re hot on the trail.” He is already walking away. “Nothing to worry about, of course. Leave it to us.” He continues talking as he moves back towards the door. “I think I’ll take a quick look at that unattended vehicle. Bit suspicious, I think. Thank you, gentlemen. Good day.” Polite. Dismissive. He opens the door and a bell rings. He’s gone.

“Well, balls,” Cowboy growls, pulling a crumpled ball of dollar bills out of his pocket and slapping them on the table. He stands up and unholsters one of his big revolvers. “C’mon,” he grunts at Spaceman, followed by a pre-emptive “…and leave the clown head here.”


The jukeboxes play the opening notes to “We Built This City” at the new, higher volume and no one in the diner seems to mind. Cowboy checks the chambers of the gun as he stomps down the aisle. Loaded. He whirls around abruptly at the door, the spaceman almost tripping over him. “What is wrong with you people?” he accuses the room as he waves the gun over his head. A few people look up, amused. “Balls,” he growls again, already giving up on the half-formed speech in his head. He has other things to attend to. To the spaceman: “C’mon. Stick close. There’s probably more of ‘em out there staking the place out.”

“Ha. Staking. Good one. I get it.”

“Shut your face-hole.”

The cowboy gives a final condemning glare to the room full of chewers and swallowers. Everything he sees is coated with a greasy film of Starship. “Ungoddamnbelievable,” he mutters. Raising his gun to his cheek, he kicks the door open and bolts out into the parking lot. The spaceman sticks close.

★ This story is not a part of Broken Lines
★ Read more short fiction