by Libby Faucette
Roy cast a calculating eye at the cloud line on the horizon. It hovered above the distant edge of the field, scowling and hot, the sick dingy yellow of a fading bruise. A stiff breeze had kicked up, hissing through the cotton stalks. The way he figured it, he had just enough time to tie down the canvas on the last of the bales before God opened the flood gates on his head.
October was on them, with its storms that swept in like a freight train.
Roy bent back to his work and quickened his pace, while humming hymns that were stolen and shredded on the evening wind. His hands moved with practiced jerks, flipping canvas, snugging it down, tying their knots with the surety of many seasons.
He looked up once when the screen door slammed and caught a glimpse of his wife. She was coming down the steps, half a field away, her gaze on the lowering sky.
“That storm’s coming up fast,” Cindy called.
Roy nodded. He cinched the last of the heavy cord and smoothed a palm down the sun-warmed side of the bale. Cindy approached, drying her hands with a soft dishcloth made from an old flour sack. The wind whipped at her skirt as she crossed the yard to stand at the edge of the field, each errant gust tugging at her clothes and the tangle of her curly hair.
“Supper’ll be ready in a bit.” She looked his way, caught him watching, and offered him a lovely smile. “I cooked up those chops. Had to, after you kept on about ’em.”
Roy chuckled. “Been craving ’em lately. Don’t know why.”
“Hard work, probably. Where’s John?”
“Took the truck and drove Manny to town.”
“A bit early, ain’t it?”
“Well…” Roy dragged out the word, his lips canted in a lazy grin. “I had a feeling he might want some time before supper to go looking that Parker girl.”
Cindy laughed. “Well, he deserves it.” She draped the dishcloth over her shoulder, then stood there surveying his work, her hands on her hips. “When’s Bill coming out to load these?”
“He said he’d be ’round day after tomorrow.”
She clucked her disgust. “I’d rather have the bales, even if they are an eyesore. Pull ’em up, and all that’s left are bits and pieces lying strewed all over the ground like trash.”
“I’ll rake ’em up, same as I always do.”
“Mm-hmm. And in the meantime, they look plain awful.”
“Could be worse…” Roy trailed off with a glance toward their washboard road. The wind hissed through the skeletal black stalks still standing in the fields, but above the whisper and rattle of dead branches, he could hear a vehicle approaching — their farm truck, from the sound of it. If it was John, however, he swung away from them, taking the drive that looped past the south field — toward the house instead of the barns. They listened without comment as the engine revved and choked off in the dooryard. The wind brought the sound of a slammed door, the rapid tattoo of running feet. The screen door creaked and crashed shut.
Cindy frowned. “Why’s he in such a hurry?”
“With that boy? Ain’t no telling.”
“If it’s got anything to do with that Parker girl, he’s looking for you.”
“Ain’t no boy ever wanted to talk to his mama about a girl.”
Cindy started away. Roy hitched up his pants and followed, keeping his peace for the rest of the walk to where Big Blue, their ’51 pickup, sat ticking and cooling in the yard. Roy stomped up the porch steps after his wife, only pausing at the top to thump the dirt from his boots. Cindy didn’t forbid them in the house, but she would if he tracked dirt across her linoleum.
Before he went in, he cast a last glance at the swollen and glowering sky.
Gonna be a bastard, that one.
Roy entered the supper-scented dimness of the house. It felt close and stuffy after the wind and wide-open fields. A single hall stretched ahead of him to the kitchen’s rectangle of light. Through its doorway, he could see Cindy’s backside rounding her skirt as she bent to peer in the oven. A narrow stair hugged the hall’s right wall, and he could see light up there as well, spilling across the upstairs landing from the direction of Johnny’s room.
Roy grunted and started up the stairs. “John, you up here?” he called, but no one answered. He reached the upstairs hall; his son’s bedroom door stood open there, with light streaming across the floorboards. He leaned inside, one hand resting on the door frame.
John was sitting on the bed. Dear God, Roy thought, he looks like somebody died. His son was as pale as the plaster walls, his freckles standing out in sharp relief. His lips were drawn tight in a single fleshless line, while his hands clasped his knees with white-knuckled ferocity.
“Johnny-boy?” Roy crossed the room, moving quickly now, and sank to a crouch in front of his son. John continued to stare without seeing at the empty wall above his father’s shoulder. Roy clasped John’s face, those pale cheeks damp with sweat. “John? What’s the matter?”
John whispered an unintelligible reply between gritted teeth.
“What?” Roy gripped John’s head and forced it down, dragging that thousand-yard stare from the wall and focusing it on him instead. John shook his head, but when he spoke again it was audible — although he bit off each word as if speaking somehow pained him.
“You wouldn’t believe me,” he whispered. “You really wouldn’t.”
“Wouldn’t believe what, John? Hang on…” Roy released him and returned to the door, which he closed for privacy. God knows his mama didn’t need to see her boy like this. He then squatted in front of John again, this time gripping his hands, clay-slick and clammy.
“What happened in town, son? Did you drop off Manny?”
“I’ve gotta get out of here.”
Without warning, John shook off Roy’s hands and shot to his feet, nearly toppling his father as he shoved past on his way to the corner bureau. He yanked a drawer open and began pulling out clothes, only to toss them on the floor in a heap. Roy rose and caught at his son, ignoring his attempt to wrench free, steadying him until those haunted eyes shifted to meet his own. “Slow down,” he said. “You’re acting like the devil himself is coming after you.”
Roy’s eyes narrowed. What in seven hells…? John had never been given to melodrama, or suffered from what his mother liked to call an excess of imagination. Roy couldn’t remember a single time when he had been called in to check for monsters in the corner, for dream-things hiding in the wardrobe or lurking under the bed. Even as a small child, John had regularly walked to the houses of friends alone — and after dark — without a hint of fear. But now?
Dear God, the boy was terrified.
“You’d best start talking,” Roy said. “If there’s trouble, you tell me, all right?”
“Pop, I gotta –”
“I want to know before you go running off in a fit.”
Thunder muttered in the distance. John took a deep, shuddering breath. Roy relaxed, his grip now the rough caress of a father trying to comfort a son in the only way he knew how.
“I dropped off Manny,” John began, “just like you said. Then I went by Smokey’s. I just wanted a Coke. I swear, Pop — I ain’t had nothin’ harder to drink. Just a Coke –”
“I believe you. Now tell me what happened.”
“It was real busy at Smokey’s. The mill had just changed shifts. And there was this … this woman…” John’s voice cracked. “I don’t want to see nothin’ like that again.”
“The woman at Smokey’s. She was over at the other end. Black lady, with her head shaved closed. She had some kinda … some stuff, right here.” John lifted a shaking hand and swept it over his cheek. “Dark marks. And a funny way of talking. She won’t from around here.” He laughed then, a high and shocking sound like breaking glass. “I reckon not.”
Roy gave the boy a short, brisk shake. “What happened with this woman?”
“She just … grinned at me. From the end of the bar. Acted like she knew me … and was happy to see me, you know? Then she touched me.” A deep, racking shudder went through John’s body. The boy was shaking beneath Roy’s hands like he had the flu. “Touched me, Pop, like she was being friendly, like all she wanted to do was say hello to an old friend, even though I ain’t never seen that woman before, not once! But she touched me and it was like … like the floor just opened up and the world dropped out from under me. I saw blood –”
“What? Whose blood?”
“Mine,” John whispered. It sent a chill up his father’s spine. His voice became oddly melodic, rising and falling in a rush. “And endings. My ending, all endings –”
“Boy, are you … Did somebody give you drugs? Slip ’em in your Coke?”
“Because you’re talking out of your damn head —”
“I’m telling you what I saw!” It was the closest thing to a yell that John’s straining voice could manage, but it shocked Roy just as much. John tried to wrench away again. Tears were starting in his eyes. “She’s coming for me. Coming tonight. I gotta get out of here.”
“Did she threaten you? We’ll call the police –”
John’s reply was horrible, jagged laughter.
“Where you even gonna go?”
“I don’t know. Anywhere. Anywhere she can’t find me.” With a last, violent twist of his shoulders, John finally wrenched free of his father’s hands and went back to pulling out clothes. A canvas bag hung from the nearby bedpost; he yanked it off, went to his knees, and began raking clothes into the bag. Some bizarre and gnawing panic had taken over his brain.
Roy stared at his son. He tried for words and found none. His relentlessly practical, logical side felt that he ought to be arguing, that John had taken a fever in the head and could no longer be counted on. John wasn’t a liar, though — and something had spooked him.
Police or no police, Roy meant to find out what.
“Boy, listen to me.” He crouched down beside his son and gripped his arm. John started and stared at him like a cornered animal; Roy half-expected him to bare his teeth, a thought that somehow unsettled him more than the rest. “Look,” he said quietly. “You can’t just go running off with no idea where you’re going. Pick a place and head there until we sort this out.”
“I don’t know where to go.”
Roy chewed on that. “How about Aunt Bethany’s?”
“In Sutton’s Corner?”
“Yeah, you can stay the night.” Roy’s sister was a vault, and the township was far enough away to put John’s mind at ease while being close enough to get his addled son off the road as soon as possible. Roy knew the boy meant to go whether he got help or not, and Bethany’s was safe. “I’ll give her a call once you’re on the road so she knows you’re coming. You stay there for now.” While I straighten out whatever’s going on. “Can you drive all right?”
“I think so.”
“Yes.” John was docile now. Dazed. Coming down off whatever had been slipped in his Coke by some up-city colored woman having a laugh. Something that caused hallucinations — Roy had read about it in the papers. He drew close again, studying the boy’s eyes, but John’s pupils were normal and some color was coming back into his cheeks. That had to be a good sign. Besides, Bethany was a home health nurse. She would keep an eye on him.
“You finish packing for overnight, okay?”
John nodded, looking terribly lost. Terribly young. “Yeah. Okay.”
Roy left the room and jogged down the stairs, his mind narrowing its focus. Down the hall, into the brightly lit kitchen, he zeroed in on the phone on the wall beside the back door. Cindy was at the stove, popping hot biscuits off a baking sheet and into a towel-lined bowl. She looked up, smiling, but the tension and anger in his face killed that smile in a hurry.
“Roy? What’s wrong?”
“I’ll tell you in a minute. I need to use the phone.”
“Is something wrong with John?”
“In a minute, Cindy.” Roy snatched the phone from its cradle and punched his sister’s number from memory. It only rang twice; she was probably cooking supper, too.
“Bethany? It’s Roy.”
“What’s going on?” Cindy whispered beside him. “Why are you — ?”
“Bethany, I’ve got a small problem.” Roy impatiently waved his wife to silence. “Can John come out to your place tonight? He just needs a place to sleep. He might be a little…” What? Drunk? High? He couldn’t say either with Cindy right beside him. “…shook up.”
“Is he all right?”
“I think so. Long story. I promise I’ll explain as soon as I can.”
“And look, just let him in and put him up. Don’t go asking him questions just yet.”
“Not a peep.”
“Do this for me and I swear I’ll explain everything in the morning.”
Bethany paused, but when she spoke again her voice was sure. “You tell that boy to bring himself on. I’ll have supper waiting for him.”
“Thanks. I’ll be seeing you tomorrow, then.”
“You do that, Roy Griffin.”
He hung up and turned around just as John came pounding down the stairs. The screen door slammed and his footsteps faded across the porch. Cindy turned toward the sound, her eyes wide and confused and frightened, but she didn’t go after him. She glanced from Roy’s face to the kitchen door and back again, worry and unspoken questions twisting her face.
“It’s all right, Cindy, I promise. I’ll explain when I get back.”
“Back? Where are you going?”
“Into town. Keep supper warm for me. I won’t be long.”
He started toward the door, but Cindy followed doggedly.
“What’s going on? Is there something wrong with Johnny?”
“No, the boy’s fine.” A lie, God forgive him, but better than standing in the kitchen arguing all night. “I told you, Cindy, I’ll explain when I get back.”
“Why’s Johnny going to Bethany’s? Roy?”
He shook his head and left the kitchen. Trying to get Cindy to let go of something once she had her teeth in it — particularly when it had to do with her boy — was like trying to get prime steak from a hungry dog. He tromped out the door and into the storm-tossed twilight.
The wind was a rustling and violent ghost, hissing through the cotton stalks and whipping at his clothes. The lowering sky was all the colors of fire. Johnny stood beside the open door of their rust-eaten Ford sedan. He tossed his carry-all into the passenger seat, then slid behind the wheel, the door clunking shut with a flat sound that echoed off the house. Roy hurried to catch him, reaching the car just as Johnny turned the key. The Ford coughed and roared to life.
“Boy.” Roy put his hands on the bottom of the open window. Johnny looked up at him with wide eyes, his face as pale as milk. It hurt Roy’s heart. “Boy, you be careful, all right?”
Johnny nodded, swallowed. “I will.”
“Good. You call your mama when you get to Aunt Bethany’s.”
Roy thumped the door lightly with his palm and backed away. Johnny shoved the Ford in gear without another word. Roy remained where he was long enough to watch the car bump its way down the lane, kicking up fans of sun-dried dust that the wind scattered as she moaned through the cotton. John’s brake lights flared — red points of light in the darkness before the storm — then the Ford turned on the main road and vanished from sight. The rattling roar of its engine rose briefly before fading into the distance.
“Roy?” Cindy called from the porch.
Lord, have mercy. Roy fought back his irritation as best he could. “I’ll explain when I get back,” he said again — and for what felt like the hundredth time. With a wave in her direction — as much to shoo her off as anything else — he turned for the pickup truck.
He was going to find the woman who had spooked his son. Poisoned his son.
And God’s truth, there would be hell to pay.
The roads were empty of all but dust and wind. The first fat drops of rain were falling in hot-metal splatters on the sidewalk by the time Roy reached Smokey’s Bar and Grill.
He pushed through the bar’s front door and joined its hazy shadows. Red light spilled from the Budweiser sign in the window, washing the floor with a ruddy glow.
(I saw blood. Mine.)
Roy pushed the memory away and glanced around. Most of those present were regulars — local farmers holding down the bar with their elbows and the beers cradled in their hands. A few others, half-visible, sat at darkened booths in the corners and along the back wall.
“Evening, Roy,” Shirley called to him from behind the bar. She was Smokey’s wife, a heavyset woman with a curly mound of coal-black hair. “Won’t expecting you tonight.”
“Hey, Shirl. You see my boy in here?”
“Johnny? Yeah, we saw him.” Shirley wiped the counter with a rag, her arm moving in lazy sweeps. “He was here earlier. Left mighty quick, too.” Curiosity flickered in her eyes, but she was too polite, too local, to pry directly. “Everything all right?”
Roy grunted assent. “Got a beer for me?”
Shirley opened the fridge beneath the bar. “How’s the wife?”
She popped the cap with an easy flick of the wrist and set the beer on the bar before him. Roy rolled the bottle between his palms but did not drink.
“You see a strange woman in here today? Black lady. Probably not local.”
“We’re a mile from 95.” Shirley offered a weary grin. “You gotta do better’n that.”
“You’d know her if you saw her.” Roy tried recalling his conversation with John — at least the parts he could safely give to Shirl. “Funny accent.” He hesitated, then ran a rough thumb over his cheek. “Marks or something on her face, maybe. Like scars, or maybe tattoos.”
Shirley’s grin returned and flickered, like a bad light stuttering out. “Yeah, I saw her. She’s over there.” She jerked her head toward the shadowed booths lining the bar’s back wall. “Johnny was talking to her earlier, before he lit out of here. She say something he didn’t like?”
“I can throw her out if she’s causing trouble.”
“Not yet.” Let her make of that what she liked. Roy tipped the bottle in absent thanks and pushed away from the bar. Shirley went back to her lackluster cleaning, although he could feel the weight of her eyes as he walked away toward the dim back stretch of the room.
Most of the booths were empty, but a few held dusty patrons talking and nursing drinks. And in the farthest corner, a solitary shadow lifted its head as Roy drew near.
A neon beer sign had been mounted on the wall at the back of the stranger’s booth; its red light spilled over the table and the woman’s face. Her plump cheeks were marked with strange dark lines and tiny dots. Roy realized he had been right in his guess; they were raised scars, dark against her dusky skin, each one marked with ritual precision. She had large, protuberant eyes that lit up as they fixed on him. A surprisingly warm smile split her face, revealing silver-capped teeth. Roy might have smiled back — out of politeness, if nothing else — but something about that smile felt strangely off. He felt measured by those eyes, measured and found wanting.
Or laughed at, which was worse.
Roy waved his bottle toward the empty half of the booth. “Mind if I sit?”
The woman mimicked his gesture, a wordless invitation. When she spoke, her accent was just as odd as Johnny had claimed — deep South, without question, but singsong and strange.
“You come on and sit, Roy Griffin,” she said softly “I’m glad of de comp’ny.”
Roy was halfway into his seat when her greeting hit home.
“How d’you know my name?”
Her eyes gleamed in the rosy shadows of the bar. “I know you and yours real well.”
“Go on and sit.”
“You been spying on me?” He sat down hard. “On my boy?”
“No. I’m jus’ passing through.” She slid her hands across the table and tented her fingers against the wood. They were long and brown, thin and gnarled as old sticks. She stroked the tabletop, tracing lazy patterns there. “Question is, why you come lookin’ me?”
“My boy. Johnny. He came in here tonight. Said he spoke to you.”
“Oh yes, sweet Johnny.” The woman offered a small, grave nod at odds with the seamed dark humor in her face. “I gave dat boy quite a turn. Didn’t mean to. Mm-mm.”
“What’d you say to him?”
“Me? Didn’t say nothin’.” Her full lips curved in a silver-shine smile. “Your boy surprised me, dat’s all. And all’s I did was shake his hand.” She lifted a pink palm from the table and offered it. When Roy didn’t move, her lips pursed in a playful moue.
“Where’s yo’ manners, Roy? Your mama’d be ‘shamed.”
He eyed her for a moment, brooding over Johnny’s words — she touched me … the world dropped out from under me — then he lifted his hand and clasped the woman’s own. Her hand was surprisingly cold, the bones thin and hard beneath soft flesh.
Then the world flipped on its axis, and Roy’s mind unhinged.
Time rushed past him, catching at his hair, his clothes, dragging him along like sand in a hurricane wind. The bar and his surroundings drew inward, turning dark and smoky with a whispering finality that plucked at his trembling heart. Its shadows spiraled close. The world was a narrow, blood-lit hole with the scarred and smiling woman inside. He heard his heart pounding in his ears, slowing with each labored beat, expanding like some bloated, disease-riddled thing.
Age sat on him like a nightmare. His vision swam, blunted shades shifting, becoming a place he knew as well as he knew his own name. My kitchen, he thought —
(my ending, all endings)
— and it was, with the shimmering shapes of the counters, the rose-patterned wallpaper, imposed on the strange woman’s face. He was sitting at the kitchen table. Years upon years had passed, bringing aching bones, leathered skin, and an agony in his chest. That distant Roy clutched at his heart, his last thoughts of God and forgiveness and who’ll bring the cotton in? Then he lay his head down on the sun-washed table, and still the woman stared, her mad eyes upon him, marking him as surely as the gnarled hand that clasped and damned his own.
“Who are you?” He croaked the question, the plea, from a lifetime away as her face began to shift and change. Flesh turned the color of ash, the roundness of her cheeks sinking in until bones stretched the skin, forming angles and hollows with her bright, terrible eyes gleaming from sunken sockets. A skull grinned back at him, faint and amorphous as a dream but real, a silver-capped death’s head smile with the emptiness of untold eons whispering behind her face. He was looking at eternity, glimpsed through some last, dark door —
“I didn’t mean to scare your boy. He jus’ surprised me.”
“Surprised you…” The words came hard; his breath had drawn brutally short. Not my time, not my time, he knew, but the apotheosis of all endings sat like a weight on his heart.
And not Johnny. Please, God…
“Mm-hmm.” Her cold hand withdrew from his. She lived and breathed with sly, scarred humor, but her other face remained, like an afterimage from staring at a light too long. Or staring into the dark. “I was surprised, y’see, because I won’t expecting him to be here. I’ve gots me a date with him later tonight, in Sutton’s Corner.”
Copyright © Libby Faucette (2017). All rights reserved.