The town of Salamander is not named after the animal, but its founder, a man named Salamander Freedom.
Whatever ambitious future Salamander envisioned for his town, however, has long been abandoned.
In the summer, the sun hangs high, like some forlorn guardian angel of the town. Sunlight mingles with dust, scattering long, swirling, heavy shadows. Most people know the dry anger of the sun better than their own neighbors. The sky taunts the town, a jeering shade of never-ending blue as flat as the desert itself. Clouds are scarce, and rain is few and far between.
All buildings in Salamander are made of tired, uncertain timber. Some houses sport parched, splintery columns and winding, rickety, staircases, illusions of splendor. Nobody knows where the wood came from; there isn’t a tree for miles around. Every now and then, the town will sigh, a long, exhausted, complaint, perhaps against its own existence.
Day and night, heat oozes through crevices and corners, coating the town in inescapable stickiness. Residents loiter aimlessly, made drowsy by three-digit temperatures.
Once, the people of Salamander prided themselves for being “resilient,” but it’s no secret that resiliency doesn’t make the sun shine any less brighter.
Occasionally, a battered truck will drive by Salamander, pairs of eyes following the rare traveler until out of sight. Some hope they can hitch a ride out of town. Some have given up.
On one July day, when even the sun has tired of itself and the line between the land and the sky has started to shimmer, a stranger stops, engine sputtering, at the only bar in Salamander.
He drives an ancient Ford pickup, long past its heyday, shrouded in nearly as much dust as the town itself. Its once vibrant teal color may have told tales of youth and recklessness at one point, though in recent times the shade has come to resemble that of peeling wallpaper.
The stranger enters the bar. In a way, he resembles his truck. He walks with quiet dignity, a strange sight in Salamander. Wrinkles line his face, byproducts of old age and hard labor. His hands are gnarled and knobby, like the trunk of an oak, and his expression is solemn, like a priest.
Though it’s only eleven in the morning, the regulars have already occupied their usual spaces. Lazy, golden, sunshine streams in through stained glass windows, bathing the bar in pools of mottled light. Up above, a fan whirls desperately, forever fighting a losing battle against the heat. Somewhere in the distance, a radio softly blares a mix of country music and static. Tired, droopy faces stare into empty cans of Miller Lite, though today, they have reason to look up. It’s not every day a stranger stumbles into Salamander.
The owner of the bar, a stout, balding man, eyes the intruder with suspicion. He’s owned the only bar in Salamander for fifteen years. He’s served the same people the same drinks in the same places and would very much like to keep it that way.
Unperturbed, the stranger takes a seat at the counter, turning several heads.
The owner is the first to break the silence.
“Who you?” he grunts.
The stranger looks the owner in his steely blue eyes.
“Just passin’ by. Ain’t tryin’ to cause no trouble.”
The stranger’s voice is low and gravelly and carries the slightest hint of a southern drawl. Satisfied with his answer, the owner nods.
“Do you want sum’n?”
The stranger is given his drink and the owner retreats, ready for the intruder to be on his way.
Out of the corner of his eye, the visitor spots a worn poker table in a far corner of the bar, dusty with misuse. A stray ray of light illuminates the space, a jarring moment of beauty against the decrepit table.
To his dismay, the bar owner sees the stranger eyeing the table, a relic of a past life.
Once, a lifetime ago, the owner made thousands of dollars at the hands of poker chips and pairs of aces. He had a gaudy nickname too, one he was proud of, a simple phrase he would flaunt endlessly like a trophy.
The whole town knows his name, though he hasn’t touched a deck of cards in nearly a decade.
For the second time, the stranger looks the owner in the eye, though this time, he holds an empty pint glass. The owner clears his throat, an awkward motion. The stranger speaks.
“Tell you what. Let me play you in poker. One round. If you win, I’ll get out of your hair, but if I win, you owe me another drink.”
The owner laughs, a cynical, hoarse bark.
“I’ll get you another drink. On the house. Jus’ don’t talk with me no more.”
The stranger remains unfazed.
“Well, you could do that but if you win you don’t have to give me a drink and I’ll leave so ain’t it better for you?”
Begrudgingly, the owner accepts the challenge. He’d rather not play, but he’d also rather not look like a coward in front of his town.
It’ll be a chance to give ‘em a taste of who he once was, he thinks. A homecoming, of sorts.
By now, a small group of regulars have gathered around the stranger, thirsting for any hint of adventure. With whispers, they place bets on how long it’ll take the stranger to surrender. They look to the owner with anticipation, ready to watch him defend their town.
One of the regulars volunteers as dealer, and the game begins.
Save for the soft mechanical whir of the overhead fan, the bar is silent.
The men are dealt two cards each. Though the cards are worn, their edges scuffed and yellowed, they carry an air of familiarity. Five cards are placed in the center, daring the two men to act. Both men are given chips, round, colorful, circles of smooth plastic. The owner hasn’t realized how much he’s missed the subtle feeling of cards at his side.
The stranger bets, and the owner raises, confident in his hand. The stranger calls, and three cards in the center of the table are upturned.
Almost habitually, as if second nature, the owner parses through his choices. Meanwhile, the stranger, whose expression is serene as a Tibetan monk, sits in silence, observing.
The betting continues until the fourth card is turned, then the fifth. Self-assured, the owner continues to raise the stranger’s bet each time. Then, both players reveal their hands.
Combined with the cards in the middle, the owner reveals a full house, two sevens and three jacks. Solid. It’s the fourth best hand in the game. The onlookers nod in approval, ready for the stranger’s imminent defeat.
Unblinking, the stranger watches, then flips over his own cards.
It’s a royal flush, the best hand in the game. A 10, Jack, Queen, King, and an Ace.
The owner can only watch, mouth agape. He tries to speak, a single utterance of protest, but the words just won’t come out. The regulars gawk from afar, eyes wide with half shock, half wonder. They came for a show, and they got one.
The stranger stands up, and walks out of the bar, as silently as he entered. Behind him, the door croaks in defeat, the stranger’s only form of farewell. Maybe he forgot about the drink the owner owes him, or maybe he already found what he was looking for.
In the distance, an engine sputters to life, and the stranger is still a stranger, a teal blue blur streaking across an empty road. Ever-present, the blazing sun swallows the stranger, and for the first time, the owner is left questioning where he went wrong.
A pang of emotion strikes his chest. Perhaps nostalgia, perhaps sadness. He recalls a time when he was the one racing across barren deserts, searching for excitement, ensnared by the promise of success in a sun-baked slice of nowhere, only to be relegated to a tidbit of local lore.
The regulars return to their usual spots, muttering under their breaths about how the town ain’t the same no more. They glance at the owner, shaking their heads, shameful.
Everything is back to normal in Salamander.
Evelyn is a freshman in high school from Illinois. When she isn’t staring at an empty Google doc, she enjoys watching copious amounts of Netflix, fawning over her cat, and occasionally playing the piano. This is her first time being published. (: