“I know how hard this must be, coming back to where it all happened, but I believe it’s the only way to put an end to the nightmares,” Max said. “Once you see he’s not here, your subconscious can lay the past to rest once and for all, and you can move on with your life. From what you’ve told me about him, his anger issues and such, I doubt he’s even still alive.”
I nodded absently, my gaze on the woods and fields speeding by outside the car window, while thoughts of another journey taken down this same highway many years ago filled my mind.
“Once you bring your fears out into the open and deal with them, they’ll lose their power over you.” He reached across the console and squeezed my thigh with a smooth, sun-bronzed hand. “You know I just want what’s best for you, Chloe. I want you to be happy.”
I turned to him, forcing a smile. “I know, Max. You’ve been so good to me, a lot more so than I deserve.” Continue reading
“Won’t be much longer now, Chloe.”
Daddy’s voice snapped me to the present. My mind had been far away, back in West Memphis where Mama was buried.
As soon as her funeral had ended that morning—attended only by Daddy, me, and the preacher—Daddy had loaded our suitcases in the car, and we headed west out of the Mississippi River delta country. We were going to live with Grandma.
When I asked why we couldn’t continue living where we were, Daddy had said I needed someone to look out for me when he was on the road. Since I had been taking care of Mama and myself most of my life, I didn’t think I needed someone looking out for me now. But I didn’t say so to Daddy.
He had called his mother before the funeral and told her about Mama. Grandma had said for him to come back home, that she would welcome the company since she was all alone.
I had never met my grandma. When I was younger, I had once asked Mama why we didn’t visit her. Mama had thrown a conniption fit, ranting and raving about what a vicious old bitch Grandma was, and that she hated her.
I never brought it up again.
Mama had no one but Daddy and me to grieve her passing. She was an only child, and her parents had died in a house fire before I was born. Daddy told me she might have died too if she hadn’t been out on a date with him that night.
Now she was gone, and Daddy and I had crossed the state to live with a woman who was a stranger to me, a woman Mama had despised. I wondered if I would hate Grandma too. I wondered what she would think of me. Continue reading
The days following Daddy’s departure passed by uneventfully, one much like the other. I came to know and love Granny as I worked along beside her. She taught me how to do things I’d only read about it books: canning vegetables from the garden, milking a cow, washing clothes on a wringer washer, plus numerous other things I had never done before. It was all hot, hard work, but even so, it was fun. I felt as if l had stepped back into an earlier, simpler time, and was living a grand adventure.
Granny seemed to enjoy being my teacher. Her bright eyes shone with pride at each of my new accomplishments.
Early one morning about a week after my arrival, she announced that we were going berry picking. “I know where there’s a fine patch of blackberries, big as your thumb!” She waved said appendage under my nose.
With both of us carrying a clean, metal bucket, we set off down the road, back toward the highway. We walked in companionable silence along the dusty trail for about a quarter of a mile, until we came to the place where the road forked.
“Does anyone live out that way?” I asked. “Daddy told me some Indians used to live down there. He didn’t like them, and told me to stay away.”
“And with good reason.” She grabbed my arm and wagged her finger in my face. “You listen good, Chloe Walker—them no-account Jamisons ain’t nothin’ but trash, pure and simple. The man stays drunk pret’ near all the time and is meaner’n a snake to boot. Now the boy, he’s a strange one, sorta queer like. He stares at a body like he’d just as soon kill you as look at you. You steer clear of ’em. They ain’t nothin’ but trouble.” She spun on her heels. “Come on, gal. We got berries t’pick and jelly t’make.” Continue reading
The sun rose a bright-orange hot, promising another scorcher. It crept across the cloudless blue sky at a snail’s pace, seeming to mock my urging it to hurry by traveling even slower. More than once Granny had to repeat herself. I couldn’t concentrate. Ira filled my thoughts.
Guilt gnawed at me for not telling Granny about sneaking out last night and meeting Ira, but I remembered what he had said, that if I told, I wouldn’t be allowed to see him. I couldn’t take that chance. I had found a friend and I didn’t want to lose him.
When darkness fell and Granny and I went to bed, I waited for a while to make sure she was sleeping, then dressed again in the cutoffs and pink tank I had worn that day. Remembering Ira’s warning, I slipped on my sneakers before crawling out the window.
I ran most of the way to the old bridge, praying, Please, please, please let him be there.
Bathed in moonlight, I saw him in the place where he had been the night before: leaning up against the railing, gazing out over the water. Only then did I slow to a walk. At the sound of my sneakers hitting the boards, he turned in my direction. Continue reading
He screwed off the gas cap, which was on my side of the truck, and began pumping. A small smile curled his full lips when our eyes met. He was so close, I could have reached out the window and touched him.
Seeing him for the first time in daylight, I was taken aback. I had known he was nice looking, but, dear Lord, nice looking didn’t even begin to cover it: Ira was downright beautiful. He took my breath away.
Greasy blue coveralls fit snugly over broad shoulders and narrow hips. Parted on one side, hair the blue-black color of a raven’s wing fell in clean straight lines to the bottom of his neck. Sweat beaded his copper-hued face. Above high, prominent cheekbones, his dark brown eyes danced with amusement. “Better shut your mouth before something flies in it, little girl,” he murmured.
I closed my mouth with an audible snap. Continue reading
When I got home from school, I told Granny about Bubba Higgins.
“Terrible thing to lose a child,” she said. “A body shouldn’t have t’put their babies in the ground. . . ain’t right. I know how it feels.”
We prepared supper in relative silence, and after sitting down to our meal, ate only a few bites.
The wrinkles on Granny’s face looked as if they had been chiseled deeper, her eyes more faded and less focused. Most likely, her thoughts had traveled to the past, to Daddy’s dead brother.
As for me, my mind had taken a disturbing turn. Ira’s strange smile kept floating to the surface of my thoughts. I recalled how furious he had been on the bus yesterday afternoon, the violence seething in his eyes. And Granny’s words kept echoing in my mind: He stares at a body like he’d just as soon kill you as t’look at you.
Was Ira capable of murder? The Ira I knew, that he allowed only me to see, I didn’t think was. But what about that other Ira who showed a stony, arrogant face to the world? God help me, I didn’t know. I had to see him, had to talk to him. Continue reading
School drew to a close and another hot summer settled in.
Daddy’s visits had dwindled, becoming sporadic and brief, which was just as well since most of the time he arrived drunk, or well on his way there. Granny got mad and they always ended up arguing. I wondered why he even bothered coming here at all.
Ira and I met almost every night at the bridge over Eddy Creek. As he had promised, he didn’t try to take it farther when we kissed and cuddled, seeming content with that.
Neither one of us spoke of Bubba Higgins.
But Ira brought up another subject. “You remember the night we met, how I told you I’d be leaving here in about a year?”
I had forgotten. He had never mentioned it but that one time. “Now I do.” My heart lodged in my throat. “But you’re not going to now—are you?”
“Not right this minute, but yeah, before long I will be.” He rested his forearms on a cross-rail and gazed down at the water below. “I’ve been saving up some money, and before summer’s over, I should have enough to get the hell outta here, maybe go somewhere up north.” Continue reading
The next morning, Granny was still in bed when I got up. Neither one of us had gotten much sleep the night before so I didn’t wake her, thinking she could use the rest.
She always had two cups of coffee before doing anything, so I kindled a fire in the wood cookstove and put on a pot. While it perked, I wrapped ice cubes in a dish towel, making a cold pack for my swollen eye. When the coffee was ready, I poured a cup for myself, adding copious amounts of cream and sugar, sat at the kitchen table, and held the ice pack to my throbbing eye.
Reflecting back on last night’s events, I didn’t know how I could have been so blind for so long. The last few months of Mama’s life, when her depression and drinking had gotten really bad, Daddy had begun to notice to me. In retrospect. I could see it for the ugly thing it had been. At the time, I had only known that my kind but distant daddy had gradually disappeared, and a drunken, repulsive stranger had taken his place. And now that I knew I was going to keep living with Granny and never have to see him again, I felt a small measure of peace.
When Granny failed to put in an appearance by mid-morning, I poked my head in the bedroom door to check on her. Her sunken eyes focused on me, and she motioned me to come closer.
I crossed the room to her bed. Her skin was the color of parchment, the tracing of blue veins stark in contrast. One side of her face seemed . . . loose. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
“What?” I shrieked, struggling to my knees, covers pulled up to my chin. “What did you say?”
“Was it good stuff, boy?” Mr. Jamison’s eyes narrowed. “If she’s half as good in the sack as her mama was, she’s one prime pussy.”
Ira pounced, twisting Mr. Jamison’s shirtfront in his fist. His other hand dove into the front pocket of his jeans, came up in a blur of motion and clicked open a switchblade. He touched the point to his father’s throat. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Now just hold on, there ain’t no need getting excited.” A thin trail of blood trickled down Mr. Jamison’s neck. “Fuck her all you want, hell, it ain’t no skin off my ass—ow!”
Ira pushed a little deeper. The trickle became a stream. “Goddamn you, what are you talking about?” He slammed Mr. Jamison against the wall, the knife blade now resting sideways against his throat. “I want an answer—now.”
“I done told you, boy. She’s your sister. Hell, I don’t—”
“Liar!” Ira roared. Continue reading