By Sara Francesca Taylor
When the news of the first death breaks I’m in Matthew’s, buying chicken necks so my little sister Renee and I can go crabbing. There isn’t much in the way of food in the house, but we found $2.63 in change, and decided free crabs would get us the most food for that money. Usually we use bacon rinds for bait, but we’ve eaten those already.
I’m squatting down looking at the boxes of cupcakes on a bottom shelf when a woman steps over me to get to the register; Matthew’s is so small you can throw a rock from the front door and hit the grimy meat counter at the back. She’s a big fat woman, with more of an equator than a waist; she steps heavy and all of her trembles when she does, and for a moment I’m worried she’s going to fall and squish me. She dumps a dozen cans of pork and beans on the belt and pulls out her food stamp card, then digs down the front of her stretched-out red shirt to find cash for a pack of menthols. “Hear what happened to Cabel Bloxom?” she asks the cashier. The cashier hasn’t.
“They found him waist-deep in the mud in Muttonhunk Creek, had his face shot to pieces and all swole up with being in the water. His girlfriend had to identify him by the tattoo on his back.” The cashier’s eyebrows jump up, and her eyes get big. I keep rummaging among the cupcakes. The cashier can see me, but they’ll probably keep talking anyway; being almost thirteen doesn’t get me noticed any more than being almost twelve did. My necks are starting to drip through their newspaper onto my leg. “They know what did it?” the cashier asks as she collects up the limp bills and unlocks the glass-front tobacco case.
“Police say it was a slug-loaded shotgun. They couldn’t find no cartridges, though.”
“That’s a lot of help, everyone around here has one of those,” the cashier answers, and she’s right. We’ve even got one, sitting next to the .22 by the porch door, in case deer turn up in the yard.
“And that ain’t even the half of it.” The lady leans in close, but her whisper is almost as loud as her talking voice. “They done cut his thang clean off!” The cashier makes a face at this, and bags the cans of pork and beans. The woman waddles off, and I straighten up from the cupcakes and plop my soggy packet on the belt.
“You hear that, Chloe?” she asks me as she runs them through and dumps them in a reused plastic grocery bag from the Food Lion up the highway. Matthew’s is the closest food store to home, and the cheapest, so all the cashiers know my name, even though I’m kinda fuzzy on all theirs.
“Couldn’t help but hear it,” I answer.
“Sorry son of a bitch deserved it, though. Probably someone’s daddy or husband decided that enough was enough.” I nod in agreement and count out my pennies and dimes, then take the plastic bag from her.
I walk my bike down the road a bit before pulling the packet of chocolate cupcakes out of the leg of my shorts. They taste like sawdust, and the frosting’s like vanilla lard, but it’s better than nothing. There are two in the packet, and I put the second one in my pocket for Renee and start biking the three miles home.
Our house rises out of the potato fields like a turtle on the sand, just a little brown hump showing over a clump of evergreens. Some years they plant corn, and some years they plant soybeans, but mostly it’s potatoes. They stretch out silvery green off to the left of the road, and the brambles and woods stretch thick and dark off to the right, and the nobbley white oyster shell road stretches out in front of me most of the way home, making my bike jump and judder and kick up dust. Mosquitoes swarm around me in the stillness, leaving quarter-sized welts. I’m gritty all over by the time I reach the end of the oyster shells and have to walk my bike over the grass, around the thick clump of evergreens and mulberry trees, and over to the screened-in downstairs porch. Our cat Mickle wanders out of the bushes and rubs against my legs as I drag the bike through one of the big holes in the screening, and I scratch him a bit before going inside.
It’s a little house, our house, one room downstairs and two rooms upstairs and a porch for each, and according to the phone company and the electric company and the taxman it doesn’t exist. I heard Daddy talking about it one night with his friends, how it used to be a boat shed but the farmer turned it into an office and then let us rent it when Mama got knocked up with me.
Renee’s in our bedroom on the ground floor, and I throw her the cupcake before wiping off my face and legs with a wet rag. She crumbles it into little bites and eats it a chunk at a time while following me to the upstairs porch, where I grab the .22 and the box of rounds; it’s easier to handle than the shotgun, and the ammo is cheaper.
“Thought we were going crabbing when you got back,” she says, her voice muffled and front teeth black with cupcake. The ripped screen door slams behind her.
“We are,” I say, and put the box of rounds down on the porch rail. “Just let me do some target shooting a bit.” I line up five rounds between my fingers like Daddy does, and slot them into the magazine; they make a silvery sound as they slide down.
“What’s going on?” she asks, and hauls herself up to sit on the porch railing. I’ve told her not to, it’s too easy to tip off backwards and fall, but she won’t listen. She doesn’t like sitting on the one splintered bench we’ve got, and aside from that and the rain bucket the porch is empty. There aren’t any mosquitoes up here, and we catch a good breeze. Behind her, the marsh stretches silver and gray and bright lime green, perfectly flat, out to the gold smudge of barrier islands and white smudge of breakers at the horizon. Off to her right is more marsh, a turtleback dirt road down to our tiny dock on the nearest creek, then woods beyond it.
“Guess who got himself shot?” I answer her question with a question, and chamber a round.
“Cabel Bloxom.” The lawn is a big, raw square of marsh grass, soggy and soft in places, hacked short and littered with junk. I sight on the pink Kleenex box down near the far left corner, then change my mind and set my foot up on the lower railing, so I can brace an elbow on it.
“You’re kidding,” she says. I let a long breath out, and squeeze the trigger. Little clumps of dirt jump up. High and left. The hot cartridge pops out and rolls across the porch to my right, then falls through the splintery floorboards and hits the downstairs porch with a little ping.
“Nope. Someone shot his whole face off. Get down from there, the cartridges are going to burn you.” I decide not to tell her the part about his bits. Squeeze. High and left, but closer.
“But he lives just down the road,” she says, and hops off the railing to sit on the old wooden bench behind me, out of the way.
“I know it. Whatcha think I’m doing this for?” This time the box flips. The next three aren’t centered, but they hit.
I take the gun with us down to the dock, unloaded, with some shells in a plastic case in my pocket. If I can’t get it loaded in time I can probably beat someone’s head in with it; the bitch is heavy.
The tide’s running fast and clear, and we can see crabs underwater, walking sideways along the bank. Usually we drop a chicken neck on a string under the dock, but if we’re fast we can net some of the walking ones, too. The hardest part is getting them to let go of the neck. It’s like they don’t realize they’ve been caught, all they think about is getting the food to their mouths. They’re pretty; chalky white with smudges of bright blue like someone’s brushed them with lady’s eye shadow, but they pinch like a bitch. Sometimes we net up two at once, a male as broad as the length of my hand holding tight fast to the back of a tiny little female. I always pull them apart and throw the females back.
No one comes to bother us, and we fill an old detergent bucket full of crabs. They’re mostly just under keeping size, but we aren’t having any of the deputies over for dinner or anything. On the way back we root around under the light brown crust of topsoil in the field next to the house and pull up handfuls of egg-sized potatoes. You dig from the sides of the hills, so the plant stays standing up; it makes it look like there’re still potatoes there. Daddy says it keeps the farmer from getting down about having nothing left to harvest at the end of the year.
Daddy’s home when we get back, and I sneak the .22 back to its place next to the door, and the rounds into the top drawer of the kitchen dresser. He thinks I’m too young to hold it, let alone shoot, but Mama showed me how when I was five. He’s brought a package of discount chicken with him, but we put that away for later and make the crabs instead. I don’t eat chicken, if I can help it. We’ve got three plants out here, and seeing the trucks stacked with cages full of birds to be slaughtered, all huddled up, half-plucked and sick looking, just turns your stomach.
We found a pullet that had gotten away, once, and kept it as a pet til it became a hen. Its chest grew so big then that it tipped over on its front and couldn’t walk, just flapped around in the dust in the front yard. Mama said it was ‘cause of what they fed it at the farm, and wrung its neck to put it out of its misery. We buried it in the back yard; the stone’s still there.
Daddy’s in a brooding mood, so we crack our crabs quietly and suck out the meat without hardly making a sound, then rinse off the dishes in the buckets on the upstairs porch and skibble down to our bedroom. He can find out about Cabel Bloxom on his own.
Renee spreads out on the floor on her tummy with a library book. The floor is cement, painted green so it’s slick, and it bleeds cold like an ice cube all summer long. I settle on our bed instead, with a pencil and some sheets of paper I got from the library with printing only on one side. There are crickets in our room sometimes, and I don’t like having the space under the bed looking at me, with the fluff from the box spring hanging down like Spanish moss. Even with the crickets, downstairs is best – Daddy’s room is upstairs, and once we’ve gone to bed he won’t come looking for us. We can hear him walking back and forth upstairs, and the cupboard opening and closing, and the radio humming, just a little.
The light coming through the paper blinds turns blue-purple, and I get bored of drawing. Renee is falling asleep on her book, so I make her go pee before I pull our black plastic tape player and the little yellow flashlight out of the bottom drawer and let her choose a cassette. Mama bought some of them for us, from library book sales, but our favorite one is the Twelve Dancing Princesses, and that one we have to keep checking out. Renee likes to whisper along with the story, but I punch her in the arm until she stops. Daddy is still walking around upstairs, but slowly now. When the tape is over I make Renee go pee again – she’s nine but she still wets the bed and I hate waking up in a soggy bed – and then we go to sleep.
It’s gotta be midnight when Renee starts shaking me.
“Do you think Cabel Bloxom is watching us?”
“What the hell, Renee?” I’m awake now. The moon is slanting through the rips in the paper blinds, bright white and cold looking in stripes across our bed. She’s up on one elbow and looking down on me, her hair falling in kinky ropes across her face.
“Like Mama said Grandma was watching us, when she died.”
“That’s the most creepy-ass thing you’ve ever thought of,” I say. “And anyway, he can’t watch us because he’s in hell.”
“Are you sure of it?” she asks.
“I’m sure of it.” I roll over, and she’s quiet. The moon drifts behind a cloud, and our room goes black. I’m almost asleep when I hear her again.
“Chloe? Am I going to hell because I’m glad he’s dead?” Her voice is quavery, and I turn back over and try to stroke her face in the dark, like Mom used to. I miss and poke her in the eye.
“Why’re you glad?” I ask.
“He showed me a cat he shot once,” she whispers, and I feel a heat rise up in my belly. “It was a little stripy one. And after that I just wished and wished someone would shoot him like he shot that poor cat.” She starts crying now, mostly for the cat, but it doesn’t last long. I don’t say anything. Even thinking about him makes me want to hit things.
“Well, you wishing didn’t get him shot,” I say. “His own meanness got him shot.” She snuggles up to me.
“Who do you think did it?” she asks.
“Someone’s daddy or husband, I reckon.”
“How come?” she asks. I’m not really sure how to answer this one. The moon rolls out again, slowly, and reflects in fat bands off the big round thrift store mirror hanging over our dresser.
“You know how the deer have harems, and if a buck comes after another buck’s doe, they fight?” I ask her. “Like that.”
“Are you glad he’s dead?” she asks, and I know she’s thinking of what happened in the woods last year. Now I’m thinking about it, too.
“Yeah, I’m glad,” I say. “Now shut up and go back to sleep.” She flips over and wiggles her back against my chest, but now I can’t sleep. I can’t stop thinking about Cabel Bloxom.
I heard him talking before I could see them. We’d hid off in one of the little clearings there are so many of in the woods on the edge of the marsh, and Renee’d wandered off and made me come looking for her. I got as quiet as I could creeping up.
His no-color hair was sticking out the holes in a John Deere hat, and the back of his tee shirt was smeared with black car grease. He had his back to me, and was down on his knees so to be face level with her. One hand was on the back of her neck, the other was just a shape creeping up underneath the front of her dress, like a snake under a blanket. She looked like she was swallowing a scream.
I didn’t feel my feet touch down when I ran at him, too fast for them to hear. I hit him with all my weight and bit as deep as I could at the side of his neck; it was fleshy and my teeth went in. He jerked back with a shout and sent Renee flying.
“Run!” I screamed, but she was already tearing off towards the house.
He flipped me over his shoulder and I hit the ground hard on my back, all my air gone. His hand was on my throat, pressing in, and all I could see was sparks. He started railing then, called me a wild animal and other things and hitting with his good hand. In my head he’d been just an overgrown boy, with a beard like he’d forgot to wipe the egg off his face after breakfast. But then I’d realized that while I’d been growing, he’d been growing too, and had gotten full and solid like a man. That scared me.
My knee went up on its own when he leaned over me, and his body went rigid. I kneed again, harder, and this time a thin little scream came out. He bucked, and I rolled away and got up, dizzy with trying to breathe again. He gagged, then threw up on the pine needles.
“You bitch,” he spat, “I’ll get you, and your pretty little sister, and there’s nothing no one’s going to do about it.”
That’s why I’m glad he’s dead.
As soon as sunlight starts shining in through our window, bam, I’m awake. Renee’s all spread out like a starfish the way she does, and I’m balled up at the foot of the bed with one leg hanging off. The window faces north, so it’s real early, and I lay there thinking of nothing until I hear Daddy walking around upstairs. His footsteps move back and forth slowly, but I can tell by the way the pan hits the camp stove that he’s in a good mood today, and for a moment I think I might go up and sit with him for a bit. Instead I wait for the front door to shut and the crunch of his tires on the oyster shells before I go upstairs. There’s a chicken breast on a plate for us next to the camp stove, still steaming, but I wrap it in waxed paper and put it in the cupboard. Don’t think me and Daddy have said more than ten words to each other since Mama.
I wake Renee up and feed her potatoes from yesterday night, then make her wash herself: it’s library day. She’s sleepy and quiet, and when finally I ask if she just wants to be left home alone she says yes. I don’t like leaving her more than I have to, but it’s miles to the library and I’m not about to drag her against her will.
There are deer in the potato field when I set out, walking because I don’t have a bike lock and someone would steal it if I left it without one. They’re not more than a stone’s throw away, and for a moment I consider going back in and shooting one; they’re damn tasty. But I can’t field dress it myself even though I know how, and we don’t have a freezer, so I have to let them be. It’s a breezy day. Skylarks are dipping over my head, and the sky is the kind of curved blue that seems to go on into forever.
Raspberries hang dark and heavy in the underbrush, and I stop every now and then to shake down a handful and squish them between my tongue and the roof of my mouth so I can swallow them without chewing, until I take the turn off onto the pavement and the woods are replaced by juicy green cornstalks. It’s four miles and a bit to the library, and I’m not in much of a hurry over it.
Cicada hum rises around me, and I get lost in the picture playing behind my eyes. That’s why I don’t see the other kids til the rock hits me in the side of the head.
“Listen when I talk to you!” John-Michael threw it; Gabby and Russ are behind him, cinnamon-colored because it’s summer, but just as ugly as they were the last day of school.
“I’ll listen when you talk something other than shit,” I say, and Gabby and Russ get big-eyed: their mamas are going to hear about that. Big deal, everyone sixth grade and under knows I’ve got a dirty mouth.
“Whatcha bring your ugly face around here for?” He picks up another rock, but I dodge this one.
“It’s a public street, dumbass. I can walk it if I want.” I could fight him, but then I’d have to fight Russ too, probably, and then Gabby would bring someone’s mama, and she’d talk to Daddy, or the police, or both, and it would all go to hell.
“People walk on the street,” he shouts. “Get back in the ditch with the other stray dogs.”
“If I’m a dog then you’re a pig, shit-for-brains,” I shout back. “Your Mama must have fucked a prizewinning boar to squeeze you out.” That stops him for a moment, and I start running, but the backpack weighs me down. Another rock hits me square in the back of the head, and I stumble down for a moment.
“Shut your mouth!” John-Michael is screaming now, and I know his freckled face is all red. “You’re nothing but trash, you should have been run out years ago!” I hear the pop of his sneakers on the road as he runs for me, and I stagger up. He’s fast; he gets a handful of my hair and yanks, spinning me around. His other fist is cocked back. Behind it I see Gabby and Russ hovering in mid-run; they’re enjoying this more than Saturday morning cartoons. My knee jerks up reflexively, and John-Michael folds up with a scream just like Cabel Bloxom did. I don’t wait to watch him throw up, like I know he’s going to, I just run like hell.
They don’t follow me, but I don’t slow down til the road curves me out of sight. My stomach is all giddy butterflies now, and I stop with my hands on my knees to get my breath back. Lovely. There’s no way Daddy’s not going to hear about this now.
The library is clammy and cold; goosebumps rise up on my skin while I drop our books in the slot in the desk. The librarian smiles at me, and suddenly I notice how dirty my feet are, how my knees are all grass-stained and my shirt has butter down the front from dinner a few nights ago, how my hair is all tangled up, and I’m embarrassed. It’s never til I’m standing in front of a stranger that I notice how awful I look, like when I’m alone I go a little blind.
No one’s in the children’s section, so I sit there for a few hours, enjoying the cold and flipping through picture books, since no one is watching. I still like them, more for the pictures now than the stories, but it’s embarrassing if Renee isn’t here. Then I fill my backpack up again with enough to last us a week and go out to the front desk.
“I bet you’re glad school’s out?” It’s a new librarian, and she scans the books slowly.
“Kinda. It’s really boring now though,” I answer.
“It’s a good thing you’re reading all these books instead of watching TV. Your brain would melt out your ears like molasses.”
“I like books better anyway.” I don’t mention we don’t have a TV because we don’t have electricity; the librarians still act like we’re normal. She scans out the rest of my books and helps me stack them in the backpack, then I hang around a bit by the magazines before leaving the air conditioning behind.
Now there’s nothing really to look forward to; the walk home is always longer. There’s a cornfield across the road from the library, with a stretch of wood beyond it and the main highway beyond that. The stalks are dead still, and the road is empty. I could keep going down that road and be in the center of Accomac in ten minutes, but all they’ve got there is the courthouse and the sheriff’s office, some shops, a diner and a café, and even though there’s real sidewalk all shaded with bright pink crepe myrtles I don’t have any money or any reason to be there. The breeze has died, and the air is full of greenhead flies and massive mosquitoes. I eat the potatoes I brought in my pocket sitting on the curb in front of the library, but my stomach still feels empty.
Mama took us to the Library every Tuesday. There were sandwiches afterwards, and a thermos of iced tea. We built a nest of pillows and blankets in our room when we got home, then curled up in it and read our books all afternoon, until Renee fell asleep. Then we’d tuck her up in our bed, and Mama and I would sit on her bed and she would read me the books I liked that Renee wasn’t old enough for and let me braid her hair. It was really long, past her pockets, and so kinky it held my braids on its own.
A new breeze picks up, and suddenly I’m drowning in stomach-turning stench. One of the plants, Purdue or Tyson or I don’t know, is across the highway from town, behind the cornfield and the dark band of trees, and when the wind’s right the whole town gets hit square in the face with that smell. It smells just a little bit like chicken soup, and a whole lot like dog food, with the inside of a molding chicken coop mixed in.
In the time when Mama still took us to the library Daddy brought us a cockerel as a pet, just a day old and the yellow of a hi-lighter. It rode home in his pocket. Renee named him Suet, and after we fed him he slept like an old man on a park bench, his beak resting on his fat belly. He got to be a pretty good guard rooster, attacking the dogs that would come after Mickle, cutting at them with his spurs and generally making life unpleasant. Mickle was just a kitten and smart enough to not pick any fights, and they got along pretty good until a fox got Suet. There was blood and feathers all across the yard, and Renee just cried and cried for days. When she finally stopped crying, we asked Daddy to bring us home another cockerel. By then he’d stopped working at the hatchery and had gone on to work at a processing plant, and he’d started smoking his little glass pipe on his days off so his skin was all clay-ey and he smelled like cat pee. He was in a bad mood when we asked, so he told us how they get all the new-hatched chicks out on a table, and check them to see what sex they are, then all the cheeping cockerels get pushed into a grinder, alive, and get chopped all to pieces. Renee stood looking at him for a moment, then opened her mouth and just screamed and screamed until he smacked her. He and Mama got into a fight about that, later, and he smacked her too.
John-Michael and the others aren’t anywhere I can see when I pass by their houses, and that makes my stomach flip-flop. For a moment I think they might be hiding nearby, waiting to shoot me with BB guns or something, but it looks like they’ve gone inside. I walk by quicker than usual, and don’t slow down until I turn off the pavement onto the oyster shells. There’s a skinny brown dog standing on the road, sniffing at the broken shells, and his head snaps up when my feet make that first crunch. He trots out to the roadway and takes a sniff at me. I shy away. I don’t like dogs. One of them bit me when I was a baby. I trot along by the ditch on the side with the woods, he trots along by the ditch on the side with the field, and I watch out of the corner of my eye. My gut goes like a big chunk of ice, like it does when I’m scared.
After a while of us eyeing each other he cuts into the cornfield, and I can relax again. It’s past noon and the air is heavy and damp, like a wool blanket pulled out of a dryer halfway through and pulled over your head. It’s like breathing pea soup. I look for raspberries again, but the mosquitoes are out now, and I can’t stay in the bushes for long. Rabbits watch me from the path, their noses twitching as they nibble, waiting until I’m feet away before lippeting out of range. Mama called the tiny ones ‘bunnylettes.’
Mickle darts out of the brambles and across my path, gunning for a little rabbit. It sprints into the corn, and he drops and licks himself, pretending that that’s all he really meant to do. I nudge him with my sandal, and he flops over to show me his belly, then trots along butting his head against my ankle every few steps. He’s an old cat now, with arthritis in his hips, so he doesn’t catch much by chasing any more.
There’s a frantic rustle in the corn stalks, and the dog that followed me bursts from between them. Mickle freezes, paws spread out on the ground, and the dog leaps at him. My cat screams, and I jump on the dog, pulling him away from Mickle. We wrestle, and his front legs flail and scratch at me and his back ones coil up and shove me away and I snap my neck back to keep my face away from his wild, waving mouth. Library books scatter everywhere, and I smell sour and green and fear and hear us both snarling, too angry to be scared any more. We roll in the dirt and shells until I get him around the shoulders and get his ear in my teeth, and bite down hard. He slows his bucking then, and I roll us to the ditch and fling him at the corn. He scrambles to his feet and lopes back at me, but I’ve got my backpack off now, still half-full of books, and I catch him square in the chest with it. I scream at him, a long, deep, wordless roar. When he gets up this time I come at him, and he turns tail and springs into the corn.
Our library books are dusty on the ground and dented at the corners, but not torn at all, and I wipe them off as I pick them up. Mickle is waiting for me a few yards on, curled up and licking at a torn place near his tail. I bundle him up like a baby and carry him the rest of the way home. I can feel the places on my legs and butt that are bruised from rolling on the oyster shell. The scratches on my arms have started swelling.
Renee makes a fuss over both of us, but I don’t tell her that there’s a dog gunning for our cat. While she feeds him the chicken breast Daddy left for us, I take the .22 out again and practice hitting the tissue box. It has a heavy, solid, comfortable feel to it.
I hear Daddy moving around upstairs when I wake up, and remember that it’s Thursday, and he’s going to be home all day. I go up to get us breakfast anyway.
Pink light crisscrosses the kitchen floor; there’s a grapefruit sun rising out of the marsh. Up here is all big windows, so you can see out to the barrier islands. Daddy’s sitting on the old wooden bench outside with his back against the window, swirling a glass and watching the sun. He might go out later today, but it’s not something I can bank on.
There isn’t much upstairs: a grey couch that feels like a potato sack faces the view out over the marsh, and behind it against the wall is the kitchen dresser, next to the door to Daddy’s little room. The table is square and from Goodwill, and it stays pushed up against the half-sized wall that keeps you from falling into the stairwell. All our chairs are from Goodwill too, and they wiggle when you sit on them. The red camp stove is sitting out on the pressboard counter from yesterday.
Daddy got our icebox from a junk shop; it’s the kind that you have to put a big chunk of ice in every few days, and mostly he remembers to get it. There’s a dented package of chicken breasts in the front, which he probably brought home last night, and I think about Suet a second. Back behind it there’s a dozen eggs, less two, and one of the big discount packages of bacon ends. He forgets about food for days sometimes, and this is more than we’ve had around at once in a while. I boil six of the eggs on the camp stove, then fry up a handful of the bacon ends, one eye on the shadow Daddy casts across the floor. It shifts and rolls as I dump the bacon ends into a pile of paper towels, and the door creaks open as I wipe the pan into the trashcan. I keep my head down and keep rubbing at the bacon crust. He comes over, twitches the towels open; I can hear the piece of bacon crunch in his teeth.
“You and Renee going somewhere?” he asks. “Just down the creek,” I say.
“Catch some crabs for dinner,” he says. “Lord knows I can’t make y’all eat chicken any more.”
I don’t say anything.
Renee is awake when I come downstairs, dressing Mickle in the old doll clothes we’ve gotten from yard sales. He bolts for the door as soon as I come in, trailing lace, and I undress him before turning him out into the yard. We pack up our food, a blanket, and a few books in my backpack, then I have to go back upstairs because I forgot to get us water.
While I’m filling our bottle from the big jug that Daddy gets once a week I hear tires. Daddy’s sitting at the kitchen table, staring into a mug of black coffee, but this makes him get up and go downstairs. It’s Stevo. He pinches my cheeks sometimes, and usually has Werthers in his pockets, but his black and missing-tooth grin makes me nervous in my stomach. I can hear them talking, in that bouncy, happy way they have, and in a few minutes they’ll come up and play a hand of cards and share a pipe. I wait as long as I can, then go back downstairs. They’re standing in the little square space between the front door, our bedroom door, and the stairs, and when I stop on the bottom step Stevo grins at me and runs his hand over my hair.
He smells like cat pee even worse than Daddy, and his skin is red like raw meat or poison ivy rash. He’s skinny too, skinnier even than the models in the magazines at the library, almost as skinny as the African kids in National Geographic. He’s alone this time, but I know that after the sun gets higher more cars will probably show up, lots of women and some men and teenagers, all of them with the same scarred up skin and greased up hair and smelling worse than he does. We want to be gone before they get here.
“How’s life treating you, Chloe?” Stevo asks, and shuffles in his pocket.
“It stinks, thanks.” All he has is a peppermint, but I take it and smile at him.
“I could take care of that for a little while, Sugar,” he says, then looks up at Daddy. “Ain’t she about old enough to join us? Sweet little face like that, she could tweak as much as she wanted free.”
Daddy looks down at me. I stare at the front of Stevo’s pants so I don’t have to look at his face. “When she grows some tits, maybe,” Daddy says. Stevo runs his hand over my hair again as I scoot between them and go back into our room. Renee is sitting criss-cross applesauce on our bed, and we climb out the window so we don’t have to go past them.
It’s quiet down in the woods, except for the rising song of whippoorwills and the mournful sound of wood doves, like a wolf that’s lost its mama. We go to the same clearing we usually do; I lay down with a book once we’ve spread out our blanket, and Renee starts collecting up snail shells to decorate mudcakes with. It’s too hot to move.
As the sun heads down it starts to rain, the light pattery kind that gets you soaked even though there isn’t much to it, and I bundle up our books. It’s too early to go back still, but after huddling together under a bush for about half an hour the patter turns to a downpour, and we decide we have to.
Daddy’s car is still there by the side of the house when we get back. There aren’t any others, but we can see the fresh ruts in the grass from where they came in; there are a lot this time. We crawl back through the window and sit on the bed for a second, dripping and watching the rain. There are fast, light footsteps upstairs, and I can hear the drone of the radio. We dry off and change, then curl up on the bed, not talking, not thinking, waiting for the dark to come.
I’m sitting up watching the raindrops run down the window when I see the long black car in and out through the evergreen trees as it rolls slowly down our driveway, Gabby and John-Michael’s mother peering over the big steering wheel. I huddle deeper, then consider hiding under the bed. There’s a knock on the door, and a chair scrapes upstairs. Renee looks at me, but I didn’t tell her why I have a big purple lump on the side of my head, so she doesn’t understand what’s going on. We listen as the front door opens, and the woman starts talking, but I can’t catch all of what she says. She sounds angry. I slip off the bed and creep over to the door, slip it open just a crack so I can see.
She’s standing in the doorway, with the rain pouring down behind her. Daddy can barely get a word in, but when he does it’s mostly about how I’ve never been a problem before, always got on with her kids before, he’ll talk to me and straighten things out. Her voice is calming down some when I see her eyes lock on to Daddy’s hand. It’s his little glass pipe; he’s turning it over and over in his hand like he does sometimes without really noticing. Her eyes go back up to his face a moment, and her mouth sets in a thin line. He’s still talking, too quick, but suddenly he notices the look on her face and his voice dies away.
“It appears you have the situation in hand,” she says quickly, and she sounds like an angry librarian. His hand has clenched around the little pipe, and he moves it back behind him, but it’s too late for that. “Thank you for your time.” She turns, and I slide the door closed and back away slowly.
The front door slams, and I hear her engine turning over.
Our door pops open and slams against the wall, and I spring away from the bed. In the dark we’re just two shapes, about the same size, and he goes for Renee, still curled up on the bed. I dart around him and up the stairs, scared giggles rising up in me like bubbles in a bottle of soda. Renee shrieks, “Daddy, it’s me!” and his footsteps follow me up the stairs. He catches me by the back of the shirt halfway up, and throws me up into the kitchen.
“What the fuck, Chloe!” He’s screaming now. I tuck and roll. “What the fuck, getting in a fight so some uptight bitch will show up and call the cops?” He smacks at me. I curl up tighter. “You know what they’ll do with you if I get put away?” Smack. Renee’s followed us up: I can see her behind him, shaking like a leaf. I want to tell her to get her ass back downstairs and hide under the bed like she’s supposed to, but I can’t. “You think it’ll be better, in a foster home with sixty other kids beating your ass every day?” Smack. “I got news for you princess!” I scrabble out of reach, but he smacks at me again and I fall against the kitchen dresser. Renee screams, high and shrill, and I look up as she jumps on his back.
Mama said to take care of her.
He claws her off and holds her by one matchstick wrist, half off the ground. “And you stay out of this!” he roars in her face. That’s more than she can handle, and she pees herself there on the kitchen floor. I’m all curled up useless against the dresser, my head’s spinning and I don’t know what to do. She belongs safe down under our bed when I’m getting it. I’m the bad one. He’s smacking at her now, and she’s making noises like a dying rabbit.
I try to yank myself up by the top drawer handle, but the drawer shrieks out and splits open on the floor next to me. The hunting things are in the top dresser drawer. All of them: the rounds for the .22 and the .270, the gun oil, and the skinning knife. I scrabble for the scattered rounds but find the skinning knife, its black leather sheath smooth under my groping fingers. He has my little sister.
I fling myself at his back, and bounce off. He’s got his hands around Renee’s throat, trying to make her stop screaming the way he used to try and make Mama stop screaming. She’s gone like a wet rag. I run again, and shoulder him between the legs. He falls down on his knees, bellowing at me, but he drops Renee to grab at my hair. He punches me this time, and I reach up.
It’s just like cutting a deer, only bristlier. My face is all wet, and my arms. Renee isn’t moving, but she’s curled herself into a ball, so I know she’s alive. He doesn’t gurgle long. The rain pours.
Blue and red lights flash through our window, and there’s a pounding on our door. A man’s voice shouts, I can’t tell what it says. More pounding. Then it splinters down. A gun comes up the stairs, with a woman in uniform behind it. She sees me, she sees the blood, she shouts things to other people, and someone pulls me up. Someone else leans over Renee, but I let them. The woman pulls the knife out of my hand.
“Honey, honey, look at me. Where’s your Mama?” she asks me, then shouts over her shoulder, “Someone get a light!”
“In the back yard.” She stares at me for a second. “He didn’t know I saw him do it.” Now she gets it.
People are running through my house, barking words at each other, looking at things. Looking at me. Looking at Daddy. He’s not moving, all blood, face down. Just like Cabel Bloxom was, after I shot him.
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