a + b = c
In Theory, Anyway
The last present Daddy gave me was a gun.
Not a minute after I unwrapped the used .22, he took me out back to shoot rusted targets lined on the woodpile. After missing the first shot, I hit every can. Even though misery clouded his eyes then, Daddy beamed and set up more so I could do it again. And I did, the cans falling to the snow-covered ground with every blast of the gun. Ain’t you a natural, Free?
That was my eleventh birthday, almost seven years ago, but the memory of my father’s words gave me confidence, especially now. They played in my mind as I peered into the scope, not moving. This shot had to count; we couldn’t spare the ammo for a second one. A natural, a natural, a natural…
“Shoot him, Sissy.”
“Quiet,” I whispered. We lay prone atop a bed of rotting vegetation, probably covered with ticks I’d have to pick off both of us at home.
His neck stayed in my sights, the shotgun barrel propped on a fallen hickory branch, my cheek against the cold stock.
Stop shaking, dammit!
I prayed for luck and pulled the trigger. Boom! Heavy wings flapped, kicking up dirt as gobbling echoed through the morning fog.
“You got him!” My brother ran to our kill, the rest of the flock escaping into the thicket.
I grinned when he tried to lift the gobbler by its legs, and looped the shotgun strap on my shoulder. “You doubting me, Little?”
“Never,” he said, the early chill turning his breath to smoke. He attempted to pick up the bird again, failing. It probably weighed more than he did.
“Good thing.” I stood and brushed off my jeans before collecting our supper from Little’s struggling hands. “C’mon. We’ll get Daddy to cook him up while we’re gone.”
“Can we shoot another one tomorrow?”
“Sorry, buddy. This here’s probably the last hunt. Not much ammo left.”
“Oh.” He hurried after me as I led us out of the woods. “Can we have potatoes, too?”
I loved how he spoke. He didn’t have the sharp twang like Daddy and me. Little’s clean voice brought Needles, California, to Poplar Branch, West Virginia—America’s dirty secret. At least that’s how I saw our hiding spot in Middle of Nowhere, Appalachia.
I pointed to some rocks before he tripped over them. “Hey, remember the ginseng around here? That root we told you about?” At his nod, I continued, “Well, Daddy got himself a nice haul last night. If all goes the way I expect, food won’t be a concern for a while.”
His footfalls were loud, sounding more like a full-grown man than a skinny five-year-old boy. “Will we get our lights on, too?”
“No electric here. Already told you.”
A pause. “When are we going to stop camping, Sissy?”
“Soon.” I guided Little down the steep ravine toward the road.
Camping. What Daddy and I had told him four months ago when we arrived at the shack we lived in now. Every time he asked when we’d be going home, I’d tell him the same thing.
The only lie that fell from my lips and hit his ears.
Once we made it to the narrow road, Little pulled out the blue calculator I bought him before we left California. As he typed, the burn scar running along his left palm by his thumb flashed, and I had to hide my wince behind a smile.
“Okay, what’s six thousand two hundred and twenty-seven times one hundred and forty-two?” he asked, concentrating on the calculator with his brow scrunched.
I thought for a minute as we shuffled along the road, moving aside when a line of fracking trucks rumbled past. “You make it too easy. Eight hundred eighty-four thousand, two hundred thirty-four.”
He squealed, skipping a few steps ahead. “That’s right! That’s right!”
“Of course it is.” I laughed as he tapped more numbers, giving another problem I answered just as fast. My passion had amounted to nothing except a fun trick to amuse Little, but I’d be a human calculator if it made him happy. I’d be anything.
“All right, enough for now.” I pulled his hood up when a gust of wind blew it down. “You know what? As soon as I get the sang cashed in, I’m taking you out for pizza.”
“Can we have soda, too?” he asked, stuffing his calculator back into his coat pocket.
Soda, not pop, and something we never wasted money on. But there were always exceptions. “Pizza wouldn’t taste good without it.”
A smile lit up his face.
I lived for his smile. I swear I’d die for it, too.
He clasped my hand. “You’re my favorite.”
“Right back at you.”
He said that instead of “I love you.” I had no idea why he said it, but I enjoyed being his favorite. He was mine too, after all.
“Now, we—” I glanced up as we neared our house, and the warmth his happiness gave disappeared when a newer pickup truck pulled into the driveway behind our beat-up Buick.
“What, Sissy? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” I crouched in front of Little when we reached the yard and tweaked his nose as the truck’s engine revved beside us. “Go on in and wash up with the pot of water on the stove. Careful not to get burned, you hear?”
His blue eyes finally left the shiny red truck and met mine. “Who are they?”
“Nobody you need to worry about.” I stood on legs begging to give. “Get to it. And save some water for me. I don’t feel like going to the well again this morning.”
“Should I get Dad?”
I shook my head. “Let me see what they want first.”
“Are you sure?”
“Okay.” He eyed the truck once more and ran to the porch, jumping over piles of scrap metal and old toys.
I hated that he couldn’t lock himself inside. Dry rot had claimed this place probably before I was born, and a good kick had enough power to send the door—and the walls—flying into the living room.
After Little made it inside, I dropped the bird away from any garbage and shrugged the shotgun strap off my shoulder. Took a deep breath. Then went to the truck.
They won’t know it’s not loaded, Free. Don’t panic.
Tinted windows hid the occupant, but that wouldn’t intimidate me—on the outside. Inside, vomit begged to splatter the door panel. I tapped the window with the tip of my gun, and when it rolled down, I aimed at the bulbous nose of an older man. “Can I help you with something?”
He smirked, showing off a nice set of dentures. “Well, I hope so. You know who I am?”
“Can’t say I do.” I inched the barrel closer until it almost touched the man’s face.
“Put your gun down, girl. I just want to talk to you.”
“I’ll keep it where it is if you don’t mind. What do you want?”
He turned away long enough to grab something from his passenger seat. “You recognize this?” He tossed a floppy gray hat out his window, the thing landing at my feet.
I refused to give it my attention. “No. Why?” Please leave, please leave, please leave…
The man’s watery eyes turned to stone. “You tell your daddy if he wants to steal from me, he better be ready to pay the price.” He shifted into reverse. “You make sure to give him the message, let him know you and I had a conversation.”
He backed out, his fancy truck not bothered by the ruts in the driveway. When he disappeared down the road, I sank to my knees.
What the hell had he gone and done this time?
I stuffed the hat in my back pocket and stayed there, my eyes shut against the gray and fog and cold, wet filth seeping through my jeans.
My mind went to work:
Eight hundred ninety-two divided by sixty-eight…
Minus two hundred point forty-three…
One hundred twenty-seven point fifty-one.
I opened my eyes and stared at our shack—a home that wasn’t any kind of home. If Daddy had done something to jeopardize—
The ginseng. Goddamn ginseng.
The turkey went in one hand, shotgun in the other. Every step toward the porch ignited my anger, making it hard to see past it. But Little wouldn’t witness the rage. He’d been through enough without me losing it in front of him.
“Who was it?” The door hadn’t closed before Little tugged on my wrist. His face, naturally pale and full of freckles, whitened more, making his orange hair appear fluorescent. My little carrot. He had belonged to me since the day his mama gave birth to him.
“Someone Daddy knows.” I set the gun down on the way to my knees. “Don’t go outside for a while without Daddy or me, okay?”
“Why?” His eyes were older than they had a right to be.
“Just listen to me.” I cupped his cheek. “You know I’d do anything for you, right?”
“I’d do anything for you, too, even hurt bad guys.”
“I don’t need you to hurt bad guys. I need you to get ready.” I stood, clenching the turkey until its leg bones dug into my skin and added, “Remember, Little, wherever you go, I’m right behind you. No matter what.” My promise to him.
“And I’ll hold out my hand so you never get lost.” His promise to me.
“I’m counting on it. Now, you go on and get dressed. Check yourself for ticks. I’m letting Daddy know we’re leaving soon.”
“What should I wear?”
“Your black pants and my gray sweatshirt.”
“But those pants have holes in them.”
All three pairs of pants he owned had holes. “Only in the knee. Hurry, can’t be late.”
As soon as our bedroom door shut, I stormed through the living room, furnished with three old lawn chairs arranged near the wood stove and a couch with no discernible color, to the bedroom beyond it. No need to knock. He slept sounder than a corpse.
I stared at him, sprawled out on the stained mattress. His shaggy beard and filthy clothes made him look vulnerable. Even the grime caked under his fingernails, evidence of his digging, hit me in the heart. But dammit!
He knew better.
The turkey landed square on his chest, feathers and blood flying above him.
“Hey!” Daddy shot up, and the bird fell to the floor as he swiped at his chest. “What the hell you doing, baby?”
I pulled his hat from my back pocket and flung it at him, saying nothing.
I didn’t need to.
“Damn.” He reached for it and sat on the edge of the bed. “He come here?”
“Who is he?” I wouldn’t crack. I wouldn’t.
“Duffy Sloan. Owns a stretch of land up a piece.” Daddy met my scowl, his brown eyes, so much like mine, full of contrition. “Byron works for the guy on and off, told me about a few honey holes.”
“Why you listen to that jackass is beyond me.” I sat next to him, the squeaky springs protesting the extra weight. “And why the hell you leave your hat there?”
“Heard dogs and got spooked. The thing flew off on the way out the woods.”
I shook my head. “This Sloan guy probably has trail cams all over the place, and… Byron, Daddy? He’d turn in his own kid for ten dollars.”
“Byron let us stay here, didn’t he? And what choice do we got? Your check barely covers food.” He took my hand and squeezed. “If I could find a good hole, a patch that would give enough sang…”
He used to have a great job in the mines near Bluefield, an hour from here and where we used to live. But he gave it up to start over in California two weeks after my eleventh birthday. Exactly thirteen days after Mama died. He couldn’t risk it, though, going back to his old boss to gain real employment. Not now.
So, ginseng—Daddy’s answer for money.
“You can’t be stealing. If he goes to the cops…”
“He ain’t going to no cops. These boys handle their own up here.” He held our joined hands against his heart. “What should we do? Use them smarts God gave you and help me out.”
“Would he let you slide if you gave back the sang?”
He chuckled and said, “Not likely.”
“Can he prove it was you without the hat?”
“I didn’t see no trail cams, Free. I’m thinking all he’s got is Byron’s word.”
“Which isn’t worth a thing around here.”
I took a minute to think, but the answer was obvious. Sometimes the line between right and wrong became so thin it disappeared.
“I’ll take it into Dillinger’s before work. Get rid of it,” I said, finding him grinning. “You think you dug a pound?”
“A tad under, maybe.”
That would give us a good amount of cash, and I’d risk this Duffy fellow’s threat for it. Once. “Don’t do it again.”
Little ran into the room, his smile on full volume. “Guess what, Dad? Sissy’s taking me to eat pizza and soda!”
“That’s great, little man.” Daddy released my hand and caught Little in his arms, kissing the top of his head. “What would we do without our Freedom?” He sighed and said to me, “We gotta stay here for a while longer.”
I nodded, rubbing Little’s back. “Wish we could go back to Needles.”
Silence. Then: “You know we can’t.”
Think + Feel = Attract
Our blue 1986 Buick Regal, with rust eating at the back passenger door and torn beige interior, was our most prized possession. It substituted as our house for a while in California after Daddy lost his job. It got us back to West Virginia without a hitch, too.
Thankfully, it never broke down. Daddy said it was a gift from God. I chalked it up to luck and Daddy’s wherewithal to have new tires put on before everything went to hell.
God forgot us a long time ago.
I checked the rearview mirror as I started the engine. “You know this car’s going nowhere until you buckle that belt.”
Little wrinkled his nose and reached for the stained strap. “The seatbelt smells.”
“Well, that’s what happens when you get old.” I backed out, trying to avoid the bigger ruts in the driveway. “Are you going to scrunch your face up when old age makes me stinky?”
“You’re only seventeen.”
I hit the road and shifted into drive. “I won’t be seventeen forever. Someday you’ll be changing my diapers like I changed yours.”
Nose wrinkle. “Gross.”
“Gross?” I reached behind to tickle him. “How about I tickle you until you pee your pants. That’d be gross.”
“Stop! Stop!” he said, giggling and squirming away from me.
I laughed and returned my hand to the wheel with a glance at the plastic bag on the passenger seat. Selling the ginseng sort of made me feel like a drug dealer, but the risk was worth it.
Daddy came up with dreams like sang digging all the time. One sang season, Free. Just one, and we’ll be millionaires.
Yes, Daddy was a dreamer, something I loved about him, and most of his dreams worked out better than this one. His dream of escaping Mama’s ghost moved us out of West Virginia to a fresh start in the desert heat of Needles, California. We were happy there for the most part. Happier when Daddy met Laura. Then Little came along, and happy turned into heaven.
But Laura started drinking. Postpartum depression, her doctor had called it. She called it a mistake, her Landry Allen Paine Jr. mistake. Alcohol didn’t erase him the way she’d hoped.
Anyway, at least one part of my father’s dream turned out right. We’ll find ourselves a place where those bastards can’t track us. They ain’t never tearing my family apart, Freedom. I promise you that.
They hadn’t found us. Not yet. We were still hidden. Still together.
I shook my head. Don’t think about it. “What is it?”
“There’s that boy again.”
Little didn’t need to tell me where to look; the boy who lived a mile down the road always caught my attention. Sometimes he’d be carrying a bucket of coal and coming out of the woods across the road. Sometimes I’d find him sitting in front of his house in an old lawn chair, writing in a notebook. His light brown hair needed cut, and he was skinny and too tall, but there was something about him.
Today, he ambled along the road, reading from one of those notebooks he always carried and not paying attention to us as we drove past. Those times when he did glance up and smile made my day brighter, I hated to admit.
Little tapped the back of my seat with his foot. “Should we see if he needs a ride?” Same question he asked every time.
My same answer: “Not today.”
We turned at the stop sign in Davy near Mim’s.
I grew up thinking Mim Alcott and Mama were sisters. They laughed the same, had the same long brown hair, and would finish each other’s sentences. When Mama got sick, Mim stayed by her side in the hospital—and fought with Daddy for the place next to Mama’s bed after the doctors said there was nothing left to do.
Mim was the only person I told about what happened in California. I didn’t trust anyone else, not that we had any kin around here to trust. Except for Byron Mumford, Mama’s younger brother. The house we lived in? Mama grew up in that dump. When Daddy went to Byron to ask for help, my uncle called Mama a traitor because she let some city boy whisk her away to Bluefield, where she became “highfalutin’.”
But kin’s kin, Byron had said. And kin always stick together.
If Mama was watching over us, I bet she cried. She never wanted her daughter to live in the holler. And now we hid there.
We parked behind Mim’s car—on cinder blocks and un-drivable. Her someday project, she called it. When Mim didn’t have to wait tables at Abel’s Diner down the street, she’d watch Little for me. The five hours I worked in a shift, she said he stayed inside reading books or drawing pictures. Sleep too. As rundown as her house was, at least she had comfy beds, running water, and heat. Four-star accommodations.
Mim’s three boys, close to Little’s age, ran to our doors, laughing and yelling for us to get out. I asked Mim once who their daddy was. All she told me: “No one worth wasting breath on.”
“All right, Little,” I said, cutting the engine. “Hop out.”
“They’re loud,” Little said, half annoyed, half nervous.
“They’re boys. They’re supposed to be loud.”
“I’m not loud.”
“Because you’re an alien from outer space.”
“Are too.” I winked at him and opened my door. “Let’s go.”
I high-fived the trio I nicknamed Huey, Dewey, and Louie. They laughed, and the oldest recited their names back to me like he always did: “No, Free! I’m Scotty, this is Albert, and he’s Jaimie.”
Little refused to say anything, as usual.
“Hey, y’all.” Mim greeted us at the door and bent to kiss Little’s cheek as her boys played behind us. “You two go on in. I’m gonna get these wild things working on their chores.”
Saturday mornings here were loud and perfect. Her kids fought, laughed—chores somewhere between half-assed and finished. A Saturday morning as a Saturday morning should be.
“Thanks, Mim.” I hugged her. “Really. Thank you.”
“Ain’t no need to thank me.” She patted my back before heading down the porch steps. “There’s a couple donuts left on the table if y’all are hungry.”
As soon as she said the words, Little ran into the house, heading straight for the kitchen. I ran behind him.
We were always hungry.
After we ate, Little rested on the couch, lost in another book Mim had borrowed from the library, while Mim and I sat at the kitchen table as her boys “cleaned” around us. The cacophonous symphony three rowdy boys performed didn’t hinder her ability to have a conversation in the least.
“He should be in school,” Mim said, lighting another cigarette. “A boy reading like that at his age? Why, he could be a scientist, lawyer…whatever he wants.”
“Not possible right now.” I picked at leftover crumbs on my napkin, savoring specks of cake and sugar melting on my tongue.
Mim took another hit, polite enough to tilt her head when she blew out the smoke. “You should be in school, too.”
“That’s not happening, either.”
I hadn’t been in school since May, when I was a different person—a junior in AP classes with the dream of going to MIT to study mathematical economics. I was definitely on track until life blew up. Now I worked in a grocery store with no plans beyond making enough money to put food in our stomachs.
Mim kept smoking her off-brand cigarette and thankfully changed the subject. “You ain’t showering?”
I zipped my flannel to hide the mud stain on my T-shirt. “Not today.”
Another hit. More smoke blown over my head. “Why not?”
She had a knack for seeing things. Why her three boys never acted like other kids around here. Mim had rules, and her boys followed them as if they were scripture. Rule number one: tell the truth, even if it hurt.
Truth: “I have to go to Dillinger’s before work.”
“Landry digging again, is he? He actually find something this time?”
“He did.” A sugar crumb melted on my finger before it reached my tongue.
“Some honey hole Byron told him about.”
Mim tapped out her smoke in a dirty plastic ashtray. “Byron? Dumb.” A pause. “Where, Free?”
I concentrated on the napkin, crinkling it. Ripping it to pieces. Five hundred forty divided by six point five… “A farm, I think.”
“Duffy something or other.”
…eighty-three point zero eight.
“Oh, sweet Jesus!” She covered my hands, stopping my napkin destruction. “He ain’t a man to cross.”
“No big deal. When he came over this mor—”
“He came to your house?”
She clenched my hands tighter, her knuckles whitening. “Listen to me, Free. You listening?”
My scalp tingled and my lips went numb. I opened my mouth. Closed it. Another nod.
“You tell your never-thinking daddy—”
“He ain’t stupid, Mim.”
“You tell him to find his money elsewhere,” she said as if I hadn’t interrupted. “I don’t care who he steals from, just… not from Duffy.”
I turned to Little. He wasn’t hungry or cold, and he wasn’t wondering why we couldn’t go home, this moment as complete and perfect as Saturday mornings.
A memory, the one I could never seem to forget, flashed in my mind while watching him. The day Laura left for good. Left after Daddy threw her to the ground when we caught her burning Little’s hand on the stove while yelling, “Mistake! Mistake!” I could still hear his skin sizzling as he screamed for Daddy to help him.
No, I wouldn’t let anyone hurt him again. And I’d never, ever do anything that’d take him away from me. Daddy wouldn’t either. Our escape from California proved that.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll tell him.”
Two hundred forty-six dollars was all Dillinger gave.
Not a fair price, but a boost that would help fill the gaps my paycheck couldn’t cover. I pressed on my coat pocket—comforted by the folded bills despite the real threat of Duffy Sloan—as I pulled into Gifford’s Grocery. Mim and Mama worked for Mr. Gifford when they were my age, which was why I got the job. The pay wasn’t much, five dollars an hour under the table, but it was still money, and Mr. Gifford was nice, always letting me take outdated food home on Saturdays.
I parked where I usually did, at the back of the lot, and got out—stopping short of going inside. Through the spotty window, displaying sale posters and store hours, I saw my neighbor. Mr. Gifford spoke to him next to a pallet stacked with canned food.
Sweat moistened my underarms. Why didn’t I shower? Of all days to skip it.
Another feel of the bills in my pocket.
You can do this, Free. Own your smelly armpits.
I opened the door and went straight to the register.
Always smiling, always courteous, and always using my full name, my boss came over with the boy. “You remember me telling you I hired a new member to our team?”
Up close, the boy wasn’t as cute as I’d painted him in my mind. His nose slanted to the left, obviously broken once or twice, and he slouched as if his shoulders weren’t strong enough to support his long arms. But his eyes were oceans surrounded by tired circles.
Say something to him, idiot!
“Okay, well…” Mr. Gifford ushered him closer. “Cole Anderson, meet Freedom Paine.”
“N-nice to meet you.” I stuck out my hand, hoping my palm wasn’t too sweaty.
He clasped it, his palm thankfully as damp as mine, and let go after a couple seconds. He then lifted an eyebrow like those guys in movies. One deep arch, high over his right eye. “I know you. I mean, not know you, but know who you are, anyway.” His voice dipped, the tone not soulful or profound. Average. Perfectly average.
I wiped my hand on my pants. “I-I don’t think so.”
“No, yeah, I do.” His face reddened. “You’re staying in Mumford’s old place. I see you sometimes.”
He noticed me?
That shouldn’t have mattered, especially after Mim’s warning about Duffy, but it did.
“Well, all right,” Mr. Gifford said. “Now that we’re acquainted, let’s get to work.” He gestured to the storeroom. “Stock what I showed you, Cole. Get going on those pallets in the back after.”
“Yes, sir,” Cole said to Mr. Gifford, who was already walking into his office. He then faced me and grinned, showing off a crooked eyetooth. “Nice meeting you, ah, Freedom? Is that your real name?”
I nodded. “F-Free.”
“Free…” His twang surprisingly made my name sound better. Maybe it was the way he pronounced his words, as if he were careful to say everything the right way. “I like it.” He turned toward the aisle, saving me from making a bigger fool of myself.
CxHy + O2 —> CO2 + H2O
Balancing Combustible Reactions
I stood next to Cole in the storeroom, shame blossoming under my skin.
That dark, ugly feeling didn’t care about the food Cole and I waited for. No, it attacked me because I forgot. Forgot Duffy’s threat. Forgot Little and Daddy. Forgot because a boy with ocean eyes sneaked glances at me for five hours—as I had done at him.
“I don’t have much today, but what I got’s yours to split.” Mr. Gifford gestured to a small mound of bread, a few boxes, some dented cans, and one bag of cookies piled on an empty stack of pallets.
Those cookies were Little’s, and I’d fight the object of my recent thoughts to get them. They’d be an apology for the crime my brother would never know I had committed today.
“Thank you, sir,” I said, my voice thin.
“Yeah, thank you.” Cole stepped closer to the food. “Are you sure? We can take this stuff?”
“Absolutely.” Mr. Gifford winked my way. “Y’all are doing me a favor. Saves money on the trash bill.”
He’d given the same silly excuse to me when I stood in Cole’s shoes four months ago. Not a lick of it was true, but I hadn’t argued. Did I say he was nice? Mr. Gifford was more than nice.
Cole lifted a can of peaches. “I…”
Don’t feel sorry for him. Don’t look at his face.
“Nothing needs said, son. Take what you want.” Mr. Gifford waddled to the front, adjusting his suspenders as he began talking to the second-shift people, kids from high school whom I never spoke to.
First thing I grabbed were the cookies. Chocolate chip, Little’s favorite. Cole didn’t argue or complain; his attention remained on the peaches.
I plucked some bags from a box next to me and handed him a couple. “Here.”
He lifted his head, his eyes floating in unshed tears.
The urge to hug him and tell him everything would be all right, give him some kind of promise and keep it, overwhelmed me.
“Does he always do this?” Cole tucked the can into a bag, not moving to take more.
“Every Saturday morning shift.” Which was why I always begged to work them. I took his bag and filled it for him, adding the cookies. Two hundred forty-six dollars would buy Little fresh ones. I packed food in a few more, handing them over.
“You sure?” he asked, accepting the bags.
“No big deal.” I gathered the leftover food into a couple more of my own, not nearly as weighted down as what I gave him. “I have a few bucks this week to buy more.”
His stomach let loose a deep growl, and his cheeks flamed when he pressed against it. “Ah, thanks.”
I nodded and pretended not to hear his stomach as I finished filling my bags. It was nothing to be embarrassed about, anyway. I’d been there. I was always there—as if the stomach discovered food was a certainty and begged to have it sooner.
Cole hefted the bags over his shoulders and smiled at me. “Heavy. Gonna be a long trip home.”
Nope. Five miles wasn’t too long of a hike. “I’d give you a ride, but…um, I got some things to do.”
If he would’ve said something ignorant, I’d have been relieved. Easier to erase a jerk from the mind.
But he kept smiling.
“No problem.” He shook his bags. “It’s worth it.” His crooked tooth made his smile nicer.
Shame, shame, shame.
“I’ll see you around?” he asked me. He then tipped his chin at a newer employee as she hung her coat. She said hello to him without a word to me on her way back to the front.
“Sure, whatever,” I said when he gave me back his attention.
“When do you work next?”
“Hmm, I don’t work till Tuesday night. You here then?”
“You don’t talk much, do you?”
If I could stop sweating… “I talk.”
“Doesn’t sound like it.” From the fold-out table we used for breaks, he collected his notebook and stuffed it into one of the bags. “I best get going, but…nice putting a name to your face, Freedom Paine.”
I almost gave in and offered a ride but closed my mouth. The last thing I needed were the complications that came from being kind.
When I handed Little the secondhand-store bag after he buckled his seatbelt, I expected happy bounces. Not tears. He examined the pants I bought him as if they held secrets, his fingers tracing each worn-out stitch, each crease.
“Little?” I adjusted the rearview mirror. “You okay?”
“Are you sure?”
I stepped on the gas after the crossing bar lifted, and the Buick lumbered over the railroad tracks. “You don’t look okay.”
“Because,” he said, his voice as small as his body. The voice he used when trying to be brave through tears. “Thank you for the jeans, Sissy.”
The road blurred, my eyes stinging. “You never have to thank me. It’s my job to take care of you.”
“I want to take care of you, too.”
“You do, Little.”
“I can’t buy you pants without holes in them.”
“You can when you’re older.”
“Enough, all right?” I cranked the radio to hide the frailty in my voice. The pants were a better penance than stale cookies. “We’re not sad tonight. We’re eating turkey, and then you’re reading me the book you’ve been lost in all day.”
I peered in the mirror long enough to see him switch his attention to the book Mim let him bring home for the night. “But I’ve already read half of it.”
“Well, you’ll have to tell me what I missed.”
“Okay, but you might get scared.”
“You’ll protect me.” I spared him one more look.
He hugged the book and his pants to his chest, a soft smile on his lips.
Simple things. What I wouldn’t give to have a life full of them.
As we headed up the steep, narrow road toward home, we listened to music and ignored the dilapidated houses that sometimes sat next to nicer ones and people milling around in their garbage-filled yards. Not everything up here was ugly; there was beauty too. Leaves capped poplar, hickory, and beech trees in every peak and valley, creating a color splash only a fall in West Virginia produced. Most of the hollers were breathtaking, and the people living in them decent folks. God just overlooked Poplar Branch.
One old church covered in chipped paint a couple miles from our house still captured Little’s interest without fail. Not so much the church, but the sign in front of it: “Sinners Wanted.”
“I don’t like that sign, Sissy,” he commented every time we drove by.
“I know.” I ran out of explanations months ago after he first noticed the blocky red letters painted on plywood.
We rounded the corner near Cole’s trailer in time to see him climbing his steps. My cheeks warmed as I slowed down, and flared when the Buick’s motor caught his attention.
“He waved at us, Sissy!”
He waved. Nothing more. The gesture shouldn’t have given me the impulse to stop and apologize for not offering a ride home.
What is it about you?
We pulled into our driveway to smoke curling from the chimney, thanks to the stove pumping out warmth we usually anticipated. And when I opened my door, the smell of turkey from the pit behind the house made my mouth water. The only damper on an otherwise perfect afternoon? The rusted truck parked in my spot.
Little got out and tucked his hand in mine. “Is that another mean man?”
“No, just a stupid one.” I squeezed his hand. “Take those bags in and get ready for supper.”
He did as I asked and ran into the house. Sometimes he listened without a bunch of follow-up questions.
I made fists at my sides, digging my nails into my palms, as I trudged around back. Daddy sat on an old tire, staring into the flames while the turkey roasted on the spit. Next to him, Byron stood with a steaming leg to his mouth, devouring our supper in the disgusting way he did everything. I didn’t like the jackass when I was a kid and still couldn’t stand him.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I snatched the leg from his bony fingers and tossed it into the fire. I’d rather let the flames enjoy it than him.
Byron raised his fist. “You—”
Daddy jumped to his feet. “Now don’t be hitting my girl. Ain’t no call for it.”
“Maybe you should teach her respect, then.” Byron lowered his hand. “Taking food right from my mouth…”
“It’s not yours,” I said.
“It ain’t mine? I thought we was kin.”
The man didn’t resemble Mama except for being short and thin. His front teeth were missing, along with most of his mud-brown hair, and his pupils were so dilated I couldn’t tell what color his irises were. Black, I decided. A solid sheet of black and nothingness.
“What’re you here for?” I turned to Daddy. “And why you letting him stay after what he done?”
“I…” Daddy started.
“Y’all got it wrong, Free.” Byron raked a dirty hand through his hair, his anger replaced with a sincerity I could see through from a hundred miles away. “Why would I rat? I had a stake in it, too.”
My hand instinctively went to my pocket, the wad lessened by six dollars for Little’s pants. “What do you mean?”
“I told him where to dig, and Landry here agreed to give me a cut of the earnings.”
I wanted to rip off his weathered cheeks and toss them into the fire with the sizzling turkey leg. “You’re getting nothing. Tell him he ain’t getting a cent of it, Daddy.”
My father stroked his beard, not saying anything.
“Daddy?” Shock made my voice airy. “Tell him.”
“I can’t.” He avoided eye contact, even after I moved to block his view of the fire. “I gave my word.”
“No.” I shook my head. “I’m not giving that rat a thing.”
“I got kids, too, girl.” Byron spoke as if his tongue were too thick, his teeth trapping his S’s. “You ain’t the only one who gots to eat.”
I glared from my father’s regret-filled face to Byron’s irritated one. “You want paid for ratting him out?”
“I ain’t ratted no one out!” He gestured to Daddy. “This dip-wit done left his hat there, and I think Duffy set up a trail cam.”
Liar. Liar, liar, liar!
“How’d Duffy know where to look if you didn’t tell him?”
Byron kicked at another tire, his attention on the rusted rim. “How the hell should I know? And it’s your own daddy’s fault! I told him to go legit, sell for Duffy.”
“Sell for him?”
“Pills and shit. More money in that than digging around in the man’s dirt for a bunch of wild roots.”
No way in hell. “He’s not a drug dealer,” I said through clenched teeth.
“And because of it, he done got himself in trouble.”
I stepped forward. He wasn’t big; I could take him. “Because you—”
Daddy held me back. “I owe it. Give him half of what you got.”
“Half?” I struggled in his hold without any luck. “No. Absolutely not.”
“You heard him. Half.” Byron held a hand in my face when I opened my mouth. “You do me wrong, and I’ll kick your asses out of this house.” He narrowed his eyes. “Maybe call the law. I’m smart enough to know y’all are hiding something.”
Daddy’s fingers squeezed my upper arms, and I felt his beard scratch against my ear. “Give him the damn money,” he whispered.
No, choices didn’t exist for us anymore.
I cleared my throat. “All I got is two hundred.”
“No way!” Byron spat on the tire, a string of brown chaw juice landing with a splat against the rubber. He pointed to Daddy. “You said you dug almost a pound. Has to be worth twice that.”
“Well, I got gypped,” I said. “Dillinger didn’t ask no questions, and I didn’t complain when he gave me a price.”
Byron considered me with his sunken black eyes. Then, “Christ on a crutch. Dillinger’s nothing but a cheapskate.”
“At least he took it.”
“Give it here, then. Hundred bucks.”
I shrugged from Daddy’s relaxed hold. “I left it in the glove box.”
“Why you leave so much money in the car? It ain’t safe ’round here.”
“Apparently it’s not safe anywhere,” I mumbled as I shoved past him.
When I reached the car, I jumped in and hunkered down before pulling the wad from my pocket. Two hundred forty. I bit my lip to stifle a sob. Little wouldn’t be getting his pizza.
After counting out Byron’s share, I locked the extra forty in the glove box for real and went back to the fire. Forty dollars was two weeks of food if I spent it right.
“Here.” I dropped five twenties at his feet. “Take it and go.”
Byron collected the bills from the mud, calling me everything but my name. Watching him squat without pride gave me some pleasure. Some.
“If my boys were as disrespectful, Landry, I’d take a switch to their asses.”
“If your boys had the chance,” I answered, “they’d do the same to you, you pill-head!”
Byron took a swing—and Daddy yanked me backward, away from Byron’s fist.
“You’re nothing but a rude little she-devil!” Byron stuck the money in his front pocket and stalked to his truck, yelling behind his shoulder, “Your daddy won’t always be around! You best remember that.”
As his truck grumbled from the driveway, I turned and gave my father all the rage I could muster. “Half?”
He stared into the fire. “I should have told you.”
“You think?” I snatched up the pot sitting on a rock next to the flames. “Everything you do… All the stuff you do…” I pulled meat from the turkey carcass as I yelled, taking the other leg for Little.
“Free, listen. I—”
“No.” I stood. “I’m done listening to you.”
I left him there, staring into the fire, to eat supper with Little. Maybe he’d find answers in the flames. Or maybe some common sense.
Mystery Girl Has a Name
I finally knew her name.
For months, I’d wondered about the girl who drove the shitty Buick and the boy she always had with her. Wondered why the hell they’d squat at that sonofabitch Byron’s old place. A few of my summer notebooks had headlines about my mystery girl with questions underneath I wasn’t brave enough to ask. And the first time we meet, she fills bags of food and gives them to me? Takes cookies from her own and puts them in mine?
Charitable, and not at all what I imagined her to be. Her family stayed to themselves, never once acknowledging me, or anyone else as far as I knew. But as much as this new development intrigued me, I was never so happy to see the tan siding of my trailer. My sore shoulders seriously wanted to release my arms.
Our place sat in the middle of a small plot that appeared hollowed out with a spoon. Rocks, rocks, and more rocks, with a cliff for a back yard. Dad had to lift the trailer a few years back when flooding got bad. It now balanced on cement slabs, with cinderblock stairs leading to the front door. It wasn’t worth a thing, but it was home, and it had electric and indoor plumbing, a luxury as far as I was concerned.
As I took the first step, I heard Free’s car. The loud-ass grumble was hard to miss now that I’d heard it a bunch. I turned and waved.
Odd, but I felt a bond with her after she filled those bags, like we shared the same secret. Her knowing I needed the food should have embarrassed me. Not with her—the pretty girl with whiskey-colored eyes and one-word answers—because she obviously needed it too.
Whatever. Probably just wishful thinking.
I opened the door to the grainy sounds of a cartoon on TV and Mama bickering with Hannah. The living room always had a layer of oily dust coating everything and smelled like sulfur thanks to how we rigged the coal stove. The exhaust pipe hung out the front window, anchored with chicken wire. Not exactly safe, since not all the fumes escaped outside, but like Mama’s complaining, the smell and crud were familiar enough to ignore.
“What you got there, Colie?” Mama stopped griping at my sister long enough to acknowledge me. “What’s in them pokes?”
“Hold on a minute. I need to put them down before my arms fall off.” I trudged to the kitchen, plopping the bags on top of old papers, dirty plates, and Mama’s ashtrays. When I found the cookies, I went to the old television balanced atop a TV tray and sat cross-legged in front of it next to Kaycee. “Look what I got.”
My niece turned to me. “Cookies?”
“Yes, indeed. All for you.” I lifted the package in the air when she reached for it. “Only if I get to have one.”
She giggled as she struggled to reach the package. “Gimme, Colie!”
“Not until you promise to share with your uncle. Or are you the Cookie Monster?”
“I promise, I promise!”
“Are you suuurrrreee?”
She crawled into my lap with another giggle and rested her head against my chest. Kaycee was the spitting image of Hannah when she was younger, with light brown hair, big blue eyes—and innocence. Mama used to show us our baby pictures and always commented on how pretty Hannah was. Always “was.” Never “is.”
“You’re a silly,” Kaycee said, reaching up to tap my cheek.
“You’re a sillier.” I patted her cheek in return before opening the package and handing her one.
“Hey!” A boot hit my back. “I said, what you got there?”
I turned to Mama glowering and Hannah smiling. They looked alike. Not in the sense they had the same hair color or face shape, but by the way the pills had eaten at their skin. They reminded me of apple people—those faces made from dried apples, wrinkly and thin. Neither had their teeth, the drugs stealing Mama’s forever ago and Hannah’s before she turned twenty. Both were young, and both appeared close to sixty.
“Damn, Mama! Why’re you hitting me?” I rubbed my lower back, my aching shoulders complaining.
“Tell me what them pokes are.”
I tried hard not to roll my eyes. The bags were clear plastic, easy to see what was in them. “Food.”
“You know, stuff you eat.” I set Kaycee on the threadbare carpet before going back to the kitchen to put things away.
Hannah came over and rifled through the bags. She’d kicked her pill habit when she found out she was pregnant with Kaycee at seventeen. She only fell off the wagon once, a year ago. But she hopped right back on it again, and I was proud of her. A shame her teeth had to pay for past mistakes. “Where’d you get money to buy all this? It must’ve cost at least fifty bucks.”
“It didn’t cost anything,” I said.
She snapped her head toward Mama then back to me, and whispered as if the FBI tapped our trailer, “You steal it from somewhere?”
“It was free.” Free…Dang. I couldn’t say the word without thinking of her.
“You best not be stealing from nobody, boy. I already got one son in the jailhouse, along with a husband.”
“I’m not stealing, Mama. Mr. Gifford gave it to me.”
She reached for her cigarette case on the coffee table. “That how he plans to pay you? With food?”
“Would it be so bad if he did? At least we’d get to eat.” We only had a full fridge the first week of the month. The rest of the foodies were usually gone right after the one shopping trip. Mama sold them for her “medicine.”
She lit up and sucked until her thin lips disappeared. Her eyes watered as she blew out gray smoke. After another drag, she said, “You think I enjoy watching you kids go hungry? I try my hardest.”
I hated dealing with her when she cried, especially when she was high. Her tears made me madder. “You could always stop buying your pills.”
Silence. Like the silence in a funeral home at the beginning of viewing hours.
Then, “We’re running out of coal.”
She never argued when I veered the conversation in this direction. The direction of her failure and her kids having to suffer for it. My words were all the punches I had against her and this trailer and the empty fridge and so many other things. But I wasn’t a total douche. I always stopped attacking before she hit the mat.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
“Hear there’s fixing to be a mean storm come Monday. Best get it before.” Mama tapped out her cigarette, the sharp clang of ashtray hitting the table telling me how hard my punches were. “I’m turning in. My back’s been aching something fierce.”
She acted like a suffering doe, one that needed put out of its misery.
“Cole,” Hannah whispered as Mama stumbled down the hall. “Why do you got to make her feel bad?”
I shoved groceries into the cupboard with a little too much force. “She deserves it.”
“No, she’s sick. Maybe give her a break sometimes.”
“I’m only giving her what she gives me, Han.”
“Yeah.” Hannah pulled at her hair, breaking off the frayed ends, and avoided eye contact.
“What is it?”
I ignored the desire to stomp my foot. “What, Hannah?”
She finally looked up. “Shad came by today. Dropped off some pills.”
I swear the can I held dented as I squeezed. “How’d she pay for it?” I already knew the answer—we had zero cash.
“You know how, Colie.” Hannah studied her daughter, who acted innocent and happy and perfectly oblivious. “Daddy’ll make sure Shad answers for it.”
“He’ll make sure Mama answers for it, too.” Her actions would get her hit and worse. People talk, and I guaranteed they were talking about Mama and Shad’s payment plan.
“Nothing to worry about now, I guess. Daddy won’t see the light of day without bars in front of it for a few more years.”
“Did you at least get Kaycee out while that prick was here?”
“Uh-huh. Took her to your spot and let her play in the leaves.” She smiled. “She left you some flowers.”
“Sweet of her.” I glanced at my niece. So innocent. “Make sure Kaycee doesn’t eat all those cookies. She’ll get sick.”
Hannah planted her hands on her hips and pursed her lips, as thin and sunken around the gums as Mama’s. “I know how to take care of her.”
“Really?” I pointed to the sippy cup next to Kaycee with Mountain Dew in it. “That’s not good for her to drink.”
“Ain’t nothing else in the fridge.”
“Buy milk instead.”
“Pop’s cheaper, Colie.”
I dug into my scalp, frustrated. “I know it.”
“Besides, we was brought up on the same stuff, and we turned out fine.”
“You honestly think we’re fine?”
“As fine as anyone can be up here.”
Without even thinking about it, I reached into my back pocket for my notepad, the one I’d had since my tenth birthday:
Join the Circus
“How’re you escaping now?”
“Circus. Wouldn’t be much of a change.” I put my notepad away and nabbed a box of cereal from the stash I’d brought home. My supper for the night. “Hey, I got some homework and things to do. Make sure y’all eat, one of those cans of soup or something.”
She giggled like her daughter, the sound too young for her puckered face. “Mama’s baby telling me what to do…”
“Somebody has to.”
“You going to church tomorrow?”
Mrs. Anvil, the resident do-gooder in the holler, picked us up for church every Sunday. She also took Mama to the Wal-Mart in Bluefield first of the month and brought our mail to us from the post office in Davy. Good woman, but her kindness wouldn’t change our predicament.
“’Course.” I hugged her. “See y’all bright and early.”
A half hour later, I sat on my mattress with my back against the wall, jotting down details from the day.
My room, the one I used to share with my brother Richie, was the nicest in our dump. I kept it neat even though my mattress soaked up moisture from the subfloor when it rained. Dad had to tear out most of the floors after the floods, but he put new plywood down. My stuff was stacked on crates, and my clothes were folded in a dresser Mama bought at a yard sale. Richie’s mattress butted up to the wall on the other side, all his things piled neatly on top of it. I could be poor all day long, but I refused to be disgusting.
First Day of Work
- Gifford (Santa Claus of McDowell County)
- Free food!!!!!!!!!!!
- Save for apartment
- Create a savings plan
- GET APARTMENT
- Met Mystery Girl
I smiled for the first time since I got home. Free deserved a headline all her own.
I peered up from my notes to stare at the wall. Not just any wall, with its paper-thin paneling, but the wall, with pictures of the new prison on 52 and mugshots of Dad and Richie. I pinned an old mugshot of Mama above them.
The wall was why I studied and turned in my homework. Why I took Intro to Journalism in the ninth grade and was now the co-editor of the high school paper. Why I never touched Mama’s pills or drank the homemade moonshine she had stashed underneath the kitchen sink. Anything to stay on track for graduation and not end up like my dickhead brother or my waste of a father.
Not so hard. At least, I told myself that when Kaycee cried because she was hungry and pressed on her stomach to help the pain, and when money got so tight the need struck to ask Duffy Sloan for a job selling heroin, which my dad and Richie had done for him. They sat in jail because they refused to snitch on the bastard. Smart of them.
I reached on my dresser for an older notebook and cracked it open. Three months’ worth of headlines and questions and theories about my mystery girl littered every page. Guess I used her as an obsession to keep me on the right path, too.
And now she had a name.
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