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Authors: Tawni O'Dell

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BOOK: Back Roads
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“That’s telling him, Harley,” he hooted.

I envied him.


The house was dark when I got home. No one had thought to leave the porch light on for me, but I didn’t care. I remembered once getting into an argument with my mom about her not leaving the light on for my dad on the nights he stayed out drinking. I told her a man driving up to his own house at night deserved to see a light burning no matter what he had done. She said if the man had done something that needed forgiving, a burning porch light was the last thing he wanted to see.

At the time I disagreed with her, but now I understood what she meant. He didn’t want to be reminded he had dependents.

Elvis came flying out of the woods at the sound of my truck door slamming shut. He ran up, put his paws on my chest, and
sniffed me all over. Sometimes I brought him scraps from the meat case. He gave up and followed me to the house, hovering for a second in the doorway as if he still expected one of Dad’s boots to catch him in the chest, then he came inside. Mom’s sheers on the front window were getting snagged and ripped around the bottom from him jumping on them.

Misty was asleep on the couch with a TV show flickering across her face. An empty Mountain Dew can and an open bag of barbecued chips were spilled on the floor. I went and got a beer out of the fridge and collapsed on the end of the couch near her feet and tried to watch some TV, but I got bored.

I took Skip’s letter out of my dad’s coat pocket, opened it again, and searched out the part where he said he’d been laid by two different girls since he’d been at school. I believed him. That was only a girl a year, and he did okay with girls. He wasn’t a virgin when he went away. He had a girlfriend for a while during our junior year. She was a friend of Brandy Crowe’s, the girl I almost made it with.

Brandy was married already. I had seen her wedding picture in the Laurel Falls
a month before. A Valentine’s Day wedding. She and her husband probably lay in bed at night after a successful screw and made fun of me: the only guy in America who didn’t know how to use a rubber correctly. I didn’t care. He was from Penns Ridge, and they were all a bunch of grass-chewing rednecks over there.

The night I messed up with Brandy, I went and slept at the old mining office. I couldn’t stand the thought of going back to my basement bed unchanged when I had seriously believed I was going to return physically and spiritually altered. I stretched out right on top of the broken glass and rusted bolts and didn’t feel any of it. The humiliation had made me numb.

I woke up once in the middle of the night to the smell of rotting wood and bologna and yellow mustard but I must have imagined the sandwich part. A huge white moon shone through the
ragged tears in the roof and covered me in this eerie silver glow and made me think about my mom reading from her Bible at Christmas about the angel Gabriel showing up at the Virgin Mary’s house and explaining how the Holy Ghost was going to come upon her and the power of the Highest was going to overshadow her and then she would be pregnant with Christ.

Each year when Mom read that to me, I pictured a serenely beautiful naked girl bathed in the same kind of silver, her eyes big and scared but her lips smiling; God crawling all over her but she thinks it’s moonlight.

The moonlight was what drove me back home that night. I didn’t want God on me. Even by accident.

I folded Skip’s letter and put it back in my pocket, then closed my eyes and allowed myself one quick fantasy about horny college chicks before finishing my beer and going out back to make sure the garbage can lid was locked against the raccoons.

Waking a hibernating bear was easier than waking Misty. I didn’t even bother trying and scooped her up like a bride and carried her to her bed.

I laid her down and her arm wearing the cat collar slid off and dangled. I picked up her hand and placed it on her chest. She still had bread and mustard caked beneath her fingernails.

Her side of the room had changed a lot the past year. She had packed away most of her stuffed animals and all of her Barbie dolls. A Spice Girls poster had replaced the one of galloping horses, and her dresser top was littered with nail polish and lipsticks now instead of toy ponies with pink and purple hair.

A framed photo of her and Dad sat on the nightstand between her bed and Jody’s. The two of them were smiling next to a wide-eyed, gutted buck lying tangle-legged across the hood of the Dodge. It was Misty’s first clean kill. She had turned the picture completely around to face her side.

I noticed a folded scrap of paper tucked behind it. I picked it up and recognized Jody’s painstaking boxy letters.


I smiled and turned it over to see if she had written anything else. It sounded like a controversy involving her dinosaurs. I looked over at her and all I could see was the golden top of her head poking out from a mountain of her stuffed ones.

Her latest paper umbrella had been added to the Dixie cup where she kept all her other ones. She kept all the fortunes too, flattened and smoothed out and tucked neatly into an envelope marked FORJUNS.

She had been about three the first time I brought her a fortune cookie. Yee’s had just opened up and Skip and I went and checked it out on the way home from school. Mom showed Jody how the cookie worked. She cracked it open and let Jody pull out the slip of paper. Jody asked Mom what it said and Mom winked at me and said, “It says Barney loves you.”

Jody was way into Barney back then.

The look on Jody’s face killed me. She totally believed in the cookie’s power. Mom and I had swapped smiles. Hers was full of a selfless, satisfied joy. Dad was there too, but he was watching TV.

I had never seen Dad smile sincerely the way Mom did. Happiness to him was just another violent emotion as far as I could tell, something he turned into backslapping and arm-punching and used for an excuse to get drunk and destructive.

As a kid it seemed to me it was the same for all men, and I worried that maybe men could only feel anger and every other emotion had to grow out of it. When I asked Mom about it, she said I was probably right. Sometimes Mom’s honesty got in the way of her parenting skills.

I folded the note and put it back.

I switched off Jody’s Noah’s ark lamp that had once been mine then Amber’s then Misty’s. Most of the pastel colors had flaked off Noah and the animals, leaving them faceless and ghostly.

I waited for my eyes to adjust to the dark. A weak spill of
moonlight slowly seeped into the room. Enough to make Misty’s wrist sparkle; everything else stayed black.

I left and headed down the hall, passing Mom and Dad’s room on the right. No one had been inside it since the day Dad’s sister, Diane, had come over to strip the bed and pack up his clothes and personal effects. That’s what she called them: effects. She taught third grade and thought she knew everything.

I cracked the door sometimes and looked inside at the glaring flesh-pink mattress that used to feel so soft to me, and the framed poster of a Lake Erie honeymoon beach that used to look so exotic to me, and the empty ballerina-shaped bottle of a perfume called Moonwind that used to sound so beautiful to me. Now I knew it was all crap. It was like visiting Dad’s grave.

Down in my own room, I undressed and checked the pilot light on the heater—it was giving me trouble lately—and got into bed. Elvis circled the rug a couple times and lay down with a sigh. The last thing I remembered was staring at the vague grayness of my unlit bulb against the pure black of the basement, and the next thing I remembered was the sound of Amber and her date on the couch.

At first it was just random body shifting and muffled voices. I looked at my clock: 2:35

I sat up and swung my feet onto the floor. I heard a moan. I heard a giggle. Then a rhythmic furniture thumping started up.

I didn’t know how long I sat there on my bed with my ears strained and my fists clenched before I accepted the incredible fact of what they were doing. It must have been awhile because when I opened my fists I had dug bloody little crescents into the palms of my hands with my chewed-off nails.

Amber knew she wasn’t allowed to bring it in the house.

I got up and slipped back into my jeans, threw Dad’s coat on, and went to get the .44 magnum Ruger Uncle Mike had given me. The sheriff’s department did take all of Dad’s guns, but
Uncle Mike felt I needed at least one. I never knew when a rabid skunk might happen by.

The shells were in my drawer with the Victoria’s Secret catalog.

I snuck quietly up the stairs. My plan was to go out the back door and shoot up his truck like Bonnie and Clyde’s getaway car, but I had forgotten that the kitchen looked right into the living room and right at the end of the couch.

I saw him above her. He wasn’t even looking at her. He had his head back and his eyes closed. All I could see of Amber were her naked legs wrapped around his bare ass.

I stopped and aimed the gun at his head.

It would have been so easy. It should have been so easy, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t easy to shoot someone no matter how much you hated him or hated what he did. No matter how angry you were or how much you hurt inside. It wasn’t easy. How had she done it?

I turned away and walked across the kitchen, banging into a chair on the way, no longer caring if they heard me. I slammed out the back door, took a stand in the front yard, and started pumping shots into the air.

I had decided not to shoot his truck because then he couldn’t get the hell away from me which was my main goal by then. I wasn’t crazy, I told myself, feeling a little relieved. Crazy people didn’t think ahead.

Amber’s date came lurching out of the house trying to get his pants up. It struck me that he wasn’t a very bright boy or he would have been running away from the gunfire, not toward it.

Amber came out behind him in panties and her tiny sweater.

“You said he was a sound sleeper,” her date screamed at her.

“Stop it, Harley!” she screamed at me. “You son of a bitch! You prick!”

Her date grabbed her by the arm and shook her. “What are you doing?” he cried.

“You fucker! I hate you!” she kept screaming.

“Don’t you have any parents?” I asked the boy as I stopped to reload.

“Huh?” he said.

“I hate you!” Amber shrieked at me.

“Shut up!” he yelled at her.

“Do you know what time it is?” I said.

My voice sounded amazingly calm and sane, but I didn’t feel that way. My insides were heaving and my hands had started shaking again. I was glad I didn’t have to aim at anything.

“It’s a school night,” I explained to him.

“He’s fucking nuts,” the boy said, fumbling with the zipper on his jeans.

“You don’t have to go,” Amber told him.

He gave her a crazy laugh. “Yeah, right,” he cried.

I noticed Misty and Jody standing in the doorway behind Amber. I didn’t care if they saw me ready to shoot someone, but I didn’t want them seeing Amber half-naked and thinking about what she’d been doing.

“Get out of here,” I said to the boy, and started walking back to the house.

He darted me a frantic look and bolted for his truck.

“Go back to bed,” I told the girls as I pushed past them.

A dozen questions sprang to their lips, but I silenced them all with a look.

“You fucker,” Amber was still screaming at me.

I walked into the living room and leaned my gun in a corner, then got down low to the floor and started pushing the couch toward the front door with my shoulder.

“Keep it out of my house,” I grunted at her.

“Harley, what are you doing?” Misty asked me.

“Go to bed.”

“It’s not your fucking house,” Amber screamed.

“Harley, what are you doing?” Misty tried again.

“Get out of my way.”

I propped open the front door. Getting the couch turned on its side so I could angle it out the door was difficult by myself but I managed.

“What are you doing?” Now Amber wanted to know.

“Were you using something?” I asked her.


“I didn’t see a rubber hanging off his dick or did he have time to take it off?”

“Fuck you, Harley.”

“You get pregnant and you’re on your own.”

“I’m already on my own, you fucker!”

She threw herself at me and started hitting my back. I got rid of her with a good shove and finished dragging the couch down the front steps into the yard.

I couldn’t remember if I had filled the extra gas can at the end of last summer. Dad was always on me about that. He hated starting up the tractor for the summer’s first mow and running out of gas.

I went and opened the shed door. A blacksnake as long as my leg slid slowly from one side to the other. He didn’t even have the energy to coil up once he stopped. He had been fooled into waking up too early like the worms and Bud’s rabid skunk. Now he was freezing to death. Taking the hoe and lopping his head off might have been a more humane end for him, but if he lived he’d keep the rats out of the garage and the moles from tearing up the yard.

I left him alone and got the gas can. I gave it a shake. There was enough to douse the couch.

I went to the kitchen for a box of matches.

Amber was gone when I got back out front. Misty and Jody were on the steps. Misty started to ask me again what I was doing but fell silent when a ball of yellow flames roared up from the cushions. The blood drained from her face, making her freckles
stand out against her skin as dark as coffee grounds. She flashed me a furious look and ran inside with angry tears spilling from her eyes. I didn’t know why. It was a shitty couch.

Suddenly, my whole body ached. Probably from moving the couch on my own. Dad had needed Uncle Mike and Aunt Diane’s husband, Jim, to help him carry it in after Grandma died and he inherited it.

I took a seat on the grass and watched it burn. Jody walked over and stood on the other side of the flames, her little body in one of my old white T-shirts wavering in the heat ripples like a ghost.

BOOK: Back Roads
5.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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