My job was to walk the perimeter of Professor Dembowski’s property late every evening and spray down a foot-wide swath of bluish-green foam to contain It when he let It out to feed at night. As far as jobs went, this was an easy one, taking little of my time. And it paid well. A lot more than cashiering at Walmart or waiting tables.
I had no idea what “It” was and didn’t care. All that concerned me was the crisp, hundred-dollar bills the professor counted out onto my palm every Friday after I returned the emptied sprayer to the shed in back of his sprawling, log home in the country.
“Thank you, Tessa,” he invariably said in that funny accent I couldn’t quite place. “You are such a good girl.”
We engaged in a bit of small talk, then I was on my way.
Seated on his motorized scooter at the bottom of a wooden ramp leading up to the head-high back porch, he watched me walk away. I always turned and gave him a little wave when I reached the side of the house, then picked my way along an overgrown rock path that meandered through wild grasses, weeds, and trees, to my dusty, red Thunderbird parked out front.
That was the way it had always gone, and that was the way it went this evening.
After pulling off my muddy boots and wet socks and pitching them in the trunk, I slid behind the wheel and twisted the key. The engine whined but didn’t catch. I turned it off, waited a bit, tried again, got the same result. And again. “Start, you ole sumbitch…” I muttered, falling back into the hill-country dialect that was always on the tip of my tongue, stuck there like glue, just waiting for an unguarded moment to slip out.
Mama’s pride-and-joy that she had given me to make the long trip north finally caught, sputtered, then came to life with an oily roar. Guess hearing Daddy’s words coming out of my mouth scared it like they had everyone else back home. Even me. Until I had gotten bigger and tougher and could take the beatings, both verbal and physical, without making a sound.
I steered the Thunderbird around the circle drive, then along a lengthy straightaway before the concrete gave way to packed dirt. I took a sharp left, following a set of tracks plowing through knee-high grass. A few hundred yards more and the road ended at the highway. I stopped, glanced into the rearview mirror at the encroaching darkness. Nothing but trees and vines and brush. No sign at all that a million-dollar-plus house lurked behind the gnarled thicket. Why, even his mailbox was a rusty, listing thing.
And not for the first time, I wondered: why the camouflage?
But it was just a passing thought. The thousands of dollars growing in my bank account earmarked for a decent car rested in the forefront of my mind. Soon, there would be enough. And after the car, I would be able to send money home to Mama. I just had to come up with a way to keep it out of Daddy’s hands.
I flipped on the headlights, rolled through the strip of aquamarine foam, and pulled onto the highway. Continue reading