Using the shortcut Mr. Jamison had shown me, I returned the following night. The trip took a little over five minutes, compared to the twenty or so going by way of the road. As the crow flies, our homes were closer than I had realized.
When I tapped on the back door, Ira called for me to come in. I entered the murky kitchen whose only source of illumination came from a bright shaft of light falling across the adjoining living room floor. “Back here!” he hollered.
I followed his voice and the source of the light.
He wasn’t on the sofa as he had been last night, but in a room to the right—his bedroom. This room, like the rest of the house, was dirty and unkempt. I supposed men must not know how to clean house, that or didn’t care. But it could have been even worse, and I wouldn’t have batted an eye. I would have waded into a pigsty to see Ira.
Propped up on a mound of lumpy pillows and covered to the waist by a dingy, threadbare sheet, he lay on the bed. Suspended on a black wire, a light bulb dangled from the ceiling, lighting the glossy magazine that lay open on his lap.
“Where’s your daddy?” I asked, sitting down on the edge beside him.
“Ain’t much telling,” he answered. “He got his check today, so more than likely he’s hightailed it over to Haley’s.”
“Haley’s ain’t a who, it’s a what. It’s a beer joint up the highway a piece where dumbasses go to waste their money.”
“Like your daddy?”
“Yeah, you know—winos and Indians and whatnots.”
“When will he be back?”
“When he gets his money drunk up.”
“But he said he’d take care of you.”
“His kind of taking care of I can do without.” Ira smiled. “Don’t worry about me, little girl, I can take care of myself. Been doing it for a long time now.”
“But to just up and leave when you’re so sick . . .”
“I’ll say this for the old sonofabitch—he stayed till I could get around a little better. And he made sure there was enough for me to eat in the house before he lit out.” He shook his head, looking puzzled. “You know, Pa surprises me sometimes. Like his reaction to you. I’d have sworn he’d be pissed to high heaven if he knew about you and me. He’s always hated your daddy and grandma something fierce, and I figured he’d feel the same about any Walker. But I think he likes you.”
“’Whatever trouble’s between them, I’m sure he realizes I’ve nothing to do with it. He seems like a reasonable man.”
“He’s not a reasonable man, Chloe. Trust me.”
I grinned. “Am I so awful that no one could possibly like me?”
“Come here and I’ll show you who likes you.” He pulled me on top of him.
“Stop it.” I giggled. “You’re still sick. You’re not strong enough for that.” I rolled off him to the other side of the bed.
He followed. “Says who?”
I pushed away his searching hands. “I do. Now stop it.” My gaze fell on the crumpled magazine squashed between us, the one that had been on his lap when I come in. I picked it up. “What’s this?”
“Just something to pass the time.”
An almost-naked woman graced the wrinkled cover. I opened it and flipped through the pages, my mouth falling open. If I hadn’t been staring at the proof, I wouldn’t have believed in a million years that women would pose for pictures like these, smiling at the camera, legs spread wide for all the world to see.
Ira laughed. “Close your mouth before a bug flies in, Chloe.”
“What . . . where did you get this?” I continued thumbing through.
I couldn’t tear my eyes away. “Why would you even want to look at the nasty thing?”
“Ain’t it obvious?” He chuckled again. “Anyway, you can learn a lot from reading stuff that’s in them.”
My eyes still glued to the magazine, I asked, “From something like this? What?”
Ira snatched it from my hand and tossed it to the floor. “I’ve done showed you some of the things I’ve learned. Want me to show you some more?” A wicked smile on his face, he pressed me back upon the bed.
“Good Lord, you’re half dead and still want to do it.” I pushed him away.
He rolled onto his back and stared at the water-spotted ceiling. “I’d have to be in my grave before I’d quit wanting you. I’ll always want you, forever and ever. I’ll never stop.” He reached over and found my hand.
Ira improved rapidly, and it wasn’t long before we were doing more than just talking each night in his bed.
When we made love for the first time following his illness, he pulled me on top, my knees straddling his hips, and told me I would have to do the work, that he was still too weak. I followed his whispered instructions, wanting him inside me so bad, wanting the sweet release I knew he would bring, that I would have done anything he asked.
About two weeks after his departure, Mr. Jamison returned, putting an end to Ira’s and my nightly romps in his bed. For the most part, Ira had recovered from his bout with the flu, and had resumed his job at Amos Burk’s gas station.
I wished I could say the same for Granny. She had rallied following her migraine attack, but it had taken its toll. She didn’t seem to be concerned about the state of her health, though, still refusing to see a doctor. But I had decided that if she worsened, I would call the doctor whether she wanted me to or not.
With Mr. Jamison home, and Ira back at work, most nights we met at the bridge once again. Only now, when he walked me home, we parted at my bedroom window, then he followed the dry branch to his house.
On his nights off, I went to his home, and if his father wasn’t there, we made love on his bed instead of the creek bank. But no matter the place, we were always eager to be together, conversation taking a back seat until we had returned from the wild oblivion we found in each other’s arms.
Mr. Jamison always seemed pleased to see me, which continued to surprise Ira. “He seems like a different man anymore,” he said as were eating bologna sandwiches in his bed after making love. “He still drinks, but he ain’t near as mean as he used to be.” He grinned at me. “I reckon I’d better start keeping an eye on the old sonofabitch. Maybe he’s falling in love with you too.”
I didn’t think he had anything to worry about on that score. The only looks Mr. Jamison cast my way were filled with gleeful amusement, not lust. “He doesn’t love me,” I said. “The very idea is ridiculous.”
“Maybe so, but you watch him just the same. I don’t trust him as far as I can throw him.”
“Is he all the kin you have? I know your mama passed when you were little, but what about grandparents?”
“Pa’s folks are dead. Both died on some reservation out west before I was born.”
“What about your mama’s folks? Are they still alive?” I popped the last bite of sandwich into my mouth.
Ira stopped chewing, shot me a puzzled look. “You don’t know?”
I took a sip from the bottle of Coke we were sharing. “Know what?”
His laugh was short and bitter. “Sure I see dear old Grandpa. You can’t live around here and not see Reverend Jones every once in a while.”
“He’s your grandpa—the preacher?”
“I reckon technically speaking he is. But when Ma ran off and married an Indian, her loving daddy disowned her—and that included me too when I came along.”
His mother had been the Reverend Jones’ daughter? The same last names—why hadn’t I realized, put two and two together? “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Like I said, I figured you knew, Chloe. Hell, I thought the whole world knew.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say, anything that would ease the hurt and anger I saw on his face. So I did the only thing I could, rose to my knees, wrapped my arms around him, and cradled his head to my chest.
August arrived. The lush green woods and fields turned dry and brown in the sweltering summer heat. Rain showers were few and far between. Eddy Creek slowed to a trickle where it ran over the shoal beneath the bridge. During the long, scorching afternoons nothing stirred, man nor bird nor beast. Insects quieted. Sun-blistered vegetables rotted in Granny’s garden. Her flowers wilted, the buds shriveling up and dying before blooming.
She spent the better part of the day rocking in front of the cold fireplace. Her once bright blue eyes were lackluster, cloudy, focused on something only she could see. She didn’t seem to be sick anymore. She seemed . . . broken.
I think what Daddy had tried to do to me had crushed her.
Other than the weekly checks in the mailbox, we’d had no further contact with him since that awful night. I still felt sick whenever I thought about it. I hoped he never came back; I never wanted to see him again.
I had wasted years praying for my daddy’s love, but he had never seen past Mama. When he had finally noticed me, all I had been to him was a substitute for her.
Ira’s love was all that kept me going. It gave me the strength to get through the days spent caring for Granny, each one seeing her mind slip farther and farther away. And I didn’t know how to bring her back.
At night, held secure in his arms, Ira told me his plans for our future. And for a while, I could forget about Granny, forget about Daddy, and dream with him.
“In a few months, we’ll leave,” he said. “I’ll have enough money saved by then to get us away and tide us over until I can get a good job. Since you ain’t eighteen yet, we’ll go so far that nobody can ever find us. To a big city—maybe New York or Los Angeles. Places like that nobody cares that I’m half-Indian. Not like here.”
“And we’ll get married, have six kids, and live happily ever after,” I added.
But things don’t always work out like you plan, and dreams don’t always come true. Sometimes fate throws in a monkey wrench.
Once again my period was late. I kept putting off telling Ira, waiting until I was three weeks overdue before I said anything.
“Do you think you’re really pregnant and not just late again?” he asked, dragging his fingers through his hair as he paced back and forth in front of me on the creek bank. “We ain’t never done it without using rubbers since then.”
“I know we haven’t.” My eyes followed his steps. “But I know they don’t always work.” I paused. “I’m so sorry, Ira. I know you don’t want any babies. . . ”
“Don’t apologize, Chloe, you didn’t make it all by yourself. But it’s possible that you could just be late again—right?”
“I suppose . . .”
He stopped in front of me. “Okay, we’ll wait a couple more weeks. If your period ain’t started by then, we’ll take off.”
“But I can’t just up and leave Granny,” I said. “She’s not herself anymore.”
“Have somebody from church stay with her when we leave. Tell them you got to go to town or something. When you don’t come back, they’ll call your daddy. I imagine he’ll see to it she’s taken care of.”
“I don’t know . . .”
“Look, it might not even come to that. Maybe you ain’t pregnant and she’ll get better before we go. No use worrying about it till we have to.”
He pulled me into his arms. I snuggled close. The warm, south wind sighed through the moonlit treetops. Off in the distance, an owl’s lonely hoot twined through the night. Granny had told me the hoot of an owl foretold that a death was near. Was I being warned?
I held tight to Ira, willing the thought from my mind.
In a couple of weeks, the school bus would once again start making its appointed rounds. But this year, I wouldn’t be on it.
The time for my period had come and gone a week ago for the second time. I was going to have a baby. Ira’s baby. No longer was there any doubt.
Ira and I were going to leave Saturday morning. I had already called Mrs. Higgins, and she had said that she would be happy to stay with Granny while I drove into Madison to do my school shopping. (Out of necessity, I’d had to learn to drive Granny’s old truck.) But instead of going to Madison, I would go to Ira’s house. From there we’d drive to Tulsa, abandon the truck, and buy bus tickets to New York or Los Angeles—Ira hadn’t yet decided which one.
I hated to leave Granny but felt I had no choice. I knew if I stayed, when my pregnancy became obvious, that would be the end for Ira and me.
Ira had convinced me there was no alternative. We had to run away.
Friday night after tucking Granny in bed, I gathered what clothing I wanted to take with me, and stuffed them in a brown paper bag. I crawled out the bedroom window and ran to where Ira was waiting for me at the edge of the woods.
He took the sack and dropped a quick kiss on my lips. “Let’s go pack your stuff with mine.”
“O—okay,” I said, my nerves wound so tight I could barely force out the word.
Far to the southwest lightening flashed briefly, bringing a faint glow to the sky, followed by a distant rumble of thunder. The air hung stagnant and humid, ripe for a storm.
Ira took my hand, and we walked the short distance up the dry branch to his house.
“Has your daddy come back yet?” I asked as we came in the back door into the dark kitchen.
“Naw, he won’t be back for at least a couple more days. Ain’t had time to drink up his check.” We passed through the unlit front room to his bedroom, where the light was on.
“That’ll give us a little time before anyone knows you’re gone,” I said. “With your daddy not here, nobody’ll know we left together.”
“Yeah, I won’t be missed till Monday when I don’t show up at the gas station. I don’t reckon it’ll take long, though, for folks to put two and two together. But by the time they do, we’ll be long gone.”
“I’d like to call Granny as soon as I can and let her know I’m all right. I hate to worry her.”
“We’ll talk about that later when we’re outta here.” Ira handed me the sack containing my clothes, then pulled a battered old suitcase from underneath his bed, and snapped it open. “Put your stuff in here.”
I got on my knees beside him and dumped the bag inside, not bothering to fold anything, then shut the suitcase and shoved it back under the bed.
I started trembling.
Ira settled his hands on my shoulders. “It’s gonna be okay, Chloe. We’ll be okay.”
I looked up into his dark eyes. “You promise?”
“Yeah, I promise. I’ll always take care of you, little girl.”
I twisted toward him, wound my arms around his neck. “I love you, Ira.” I kissed where the pulse beat at the base of his throat.
He sucked in a harsh breath and crushed me to him, one hand tangling in my hair, pressing my lips harder against his neck. “I love you too, more than anything. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have you.”
“You’ll never have to find out.” Loving the salty taste of his skin, I blazed a trail up his neck.
He cupped my chin and turned my face up, his fierce gaze meeting mine. “Don’t ever leave me.”
My eyes misted over. “How could I ever leave you when I’d be leaving a part of myself?”
Slowly, his mouth descended, his eyes locked on mine, joining our souls. As our lips met, they fluttered closed.
The kiss gradually deepened, going from tender to erotic. Ira’s tongue lightly traced my lips, then plunged into my open mouth. I groaned aloud my pleasure as he thrust it in and out, mimicking what was to come.
I broke the kiss and pulled back. My fingers curled around his hardness. “I want you to love me, Ira. Now.”
He rose, pulling me up with him, and hands shaking, stripped me bare. I crawled into his bed and lay on my back, watching him yank off his clothes. “Hurry,” I said, holding out my arms.
Lightning flashed outside the bedroom window. Thunder rolled.
He pulled the light chain, plunging the room into a darkness lit only by the approaching storm, and joined me on the bed.
He tugged my hair out of its loose ponytail and ran his fingers through it, snarling in the frizzy curls. He wrapped it around his hands, held tight while he kissed me. Greedy for more, I reached down between our bodies and clasped him, guiding him to me. “Please . . . now . . .” I whispered against his mouth.
And he was inside me, filling my body, my hungry heart, my soul. Together, we tumbled into the abyss.
“Chloe . . . I love you, Chloe . . .”
Slowly, our breathing returned to normal. Ira rolled to his side, taking me with him. A tangle of sweat-slick arms and legs, we clung to each other as if there were no tomorrow.
Light flooded the room.
“Well, now don’t this beat all.”
My eyes flew open. Ira’s father stood in the center of the room beneath the light, leaning on his crutches, a smirk on his face. “Just how long has this been going on?”
Ira pulled the rumpled covers over my naked body and got out of bed. Never taking his eyes off his father, he picked up his jeans and slipped them on. “That’s none of your fucking business,” he answered, doing up the buttons. “Get outta here.”
“Oh, I think it is my business,” Mr. Jamison said. “I wanna know just how long you been fucking your sister.”
To be continued . . .