1995, Target Practice
When news of the murder 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 a dollar and sixty-three cents 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 small and the shelves are crowded in; when Mama brought us with her to get food Renee and me would have contests to see who could get from the front door to the grimy meat counter at the back in the fewest hops—I could do it in seven. She’s a big fat woman, with more of an equator than a waist; she steps heavy, all of her trembling as 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 gets out her food stamps, then digs down the front of her stretched-out red shirt and pulls a wrinkled ten-dollar bill out of her bra to pay 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 thirteen doesn’t get me noticed any more than being twelve did. My necks are starting to drip blood and chicken ooze through their newspaper onto my leg.
“They know who done it?” the cashier asks as she picks up the limp bill and unlocks the glass-front tobacco case.
“Not yet. Police say they used 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 show 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!”
“Guess he won’t be needing it anymore.” The cashier’s face is lit up like Christmas as she bags the cans of pork and beans; not much happens worth talking about on the Shore. The woman waddles out with her cans, and I straighten up from the cupcakes and plop my soggy packet on the belt.
“You hear that, Chloe?” the cashier 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; it sits next to a taco van where the gravel turnoff makes a T with Route 13, halfway between the village of Parksley and the causeway to Chincoteague Island. It’s also the cheapest food store I can get to, 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 graveled road a bit before pulling the packet of chocolate cupcakes out of the leg of my shorts. They taste sawdusty, 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. It’s not a bad ride, if you avoid the dogs. Close to Matthew’s there are single-story houses and trailers up on cinderblocks with cracked windows and mossy roofs—the sheds behind them could be toolsheds or could be meth labs, you can’t tell until one blows up—but after the houses peter out the road curves through cornfields and you don’t have to worry so much about seeing people. The road goes out to a creek, if you keep following it, and a dock and a cement slip for boats, but I turn off when I get to the farmhouse, the big place with the columns on the front where our landlords, the Lumsdens, live. Kids at school say the Lumsdens do black magic, call down hurricanes or dry up the sky or make it rain chickens, which I don’t believe, but I don’t like to hang around near their house one way or another. Lilly Lumsden is two grades ahead of me in school, and she’s nice, but her older sister Sally already looks like a witch— sometimes I run into her on the dock or out in the woods, staring at the sky like she’s listening to something only she can hear.
I stop and think for a moment about eating the second cupcake; Renee can’t miss what she didn’t know was coming to her, and I’m hungry. But I put my feet back on the pedals and keep going, down the oyster-shell road that meets the gravel road opposite the farmhouse, cuts through the potato field, and runs along the edge of the woods down to the little dock on a calm side creek too shallow for boating where the Lumsdens sink their crab pots.
Our house rises out of the heat haze like a turtle on the sand, just a little brown hump showing over a clump of evergreens and a few acres of potatoes. Some years they plant corn, and some years they plant soybeans, but mostly this field gets done in potatoes. They stretch out dusty green off to the left of the shell road, and the brambles and woods stretch thick and dark off to the right, and the knobbly white oyster-shell 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 shells and have to get off and wheel my bike over the grass, around the 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 onto the porch through one of the big holes in the screening, and I scratch him a bit before going inside the house.
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. Renee’s in the bedroom we share on the ground floor, and I throw her the cupcake. She crumbles it into little bites and eats it a chunk at a time while following me up the stairs. The dust is thick on my skin, and makes smears of mud on the dishrag that I use to wipe it off. She stays two steps behind while I dig in the kitchen dresser for the box of rounds and reach the .22 down from over the window—it’s easier to handle than the shotgun, and the ammo is cheaper—and wanders after me out onto the upstairs porch.
“Thought we was going crabbing when you got back,” she says, her voice gummy 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’m feeling nervous.” I line up five rounds like Daddy does, flat base against my thumb and tip against my pointer finger, pinched in a row, 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 would be so easy to tip off backward 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 ain’t any mosquitoes up here, and we catch a good breeze. Behind her, the marsh stretches silver and gray and bright lime green, veined with creeks that reflect the blue of the sky, out to the gold smudge of barrier islands and white smudge of breakers at the horizon. Off to her right is more marsh, the turtleback road down to the dock, with bits of roof or window from the trailers on the other side of the creek, the ones I’d passed on the ride home, flashing between the leaves if you really looked hard.
“Guess who got his self 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 a pink Kleenex box down near the far left corner, then set my foot up on the lower railing, so I can brace an elbow on my raised knee.
“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 to my right, arcs inches above Renee’s knees, then lands and rolls before falling through the splintery floorboards and hitting 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 missing bits. Squeeze. High and left, but closer.
“But if he’s dead, what have we got to worry about?” She hops off the railing to sit on the bench behind me and be out of the way, her heels on the edge of the seat and knees tented up to keep her bare legs away from the splinters.
“There’s always someone to worry about. Anyone that knows that we’re out here alone, for starters.” This time the box flips. The next two aren’t centered, but they hit.
The Shore is flat as a fried egg; on a clear day from our upstairs porch it feels like you can see into tomorrow, and usually you can just about see the dark smear that is Chincoteague Island off to the northeast. We are one of three islands, off the coast of Virginia and just south of Maryland, trailing out into the Atlantic Ocean like someone’s dripped paint. We take the force out of the hurricanes, grow so much food that a lot of it rots on the vine because there’s too much to pick or eat, but people say that the government doesn’t ever remember we’re here, that we get left off when they draw the maps. Accomack Island, the big one, is closest to the mainland, has edges laced with barrier islands that change shape and size with each passing storm, a highway up the middle with bridges to the mainland on the south and north ends, and little villages all the way up its length, and that’s the island we live on. Then comes Chincoteague Island, off the northeast coast of Accomack. It’s much smaller and squarish, not quite a town but bigger than a village, where most of the people with money, people that weren’t born here but came across from the mainland, have summer homes; in the winter it’s just as empty as anywhere else. Assateague Island is the farthest east, where there used to be a village but where no one lives anymore since it became a national park. It’s long and thin and has the sandy beach that you can swim from, and the wild ponies. All three of the islands together is the Shore.
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 chunk of raw flesh, bacon rind or 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 bait. 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 ladies’ eye shadow—but they pinch like a motherfucker. Sometimes we net up two at once, a male as broad as the length of my hand holding tight 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 with 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 potatoes the size of eggs. 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 Lumsdens from getting downhearted about having nothing left to harvest at the end of the year.
Daddy’s home when we get there, and I sneak the .22 back to its place over the window, 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—he doesn’t often remember to get food—but we put that away for later and cook 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, some of them dead already with their heads dangling through the bars, just turns your stomach. Daddy works in one of the plants now, on the killing floor. Way before that he and Mama worked construction, fixing up old houses to be sold, but she got kicked off because she was pregnant, and then he got kicked off because no one was buying houses anymore, and he could only do the heavy labor, didn’t know electrical work like Mama did. He hates the plant, the killing floors more than anything else, but it’s the only work around.
We found a pullet that had gotten away, once, and kept it as a pet till it became a hen. Its chest grew so big 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 backyard with the other dead things, mostly birds and rabbits; 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 with printing on one side I got from the library. There are sprickets 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 sprickets, downstairs is best—Daddy’s room is upstairs next to the kitchen, and once we’ve gone to bed he won’t come looking for us. We can hear him walking back and forth up there, and the cupboard opening and closing, and the radio humming.
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 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 slower 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 soggy sheets—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 Aunt Ollie 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 would have done. 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, but it doesn’t last long.
“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.”
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 been hiding 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 find her. He’d found her first.
His no-color hair was sticking out the holes in a John Deere hat, and his T-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 toward the house.
He flipped me over his shoulder and I hit the ground hard on my back, my air gone. His hand was on my throat, pressing in, and all I could see was sparks. He started shouting then, calling me a wild animal and other things and hitting with his free 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. Just because I’d known him since I was a baby didn’t mean he wasn’t dangerous.
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. “You psycho bitch. You’d better watch your back.”
I wanted to tell him to fuck himself, that my daddy would snap him in half, that I’d tell his mama on him and then we’d see. But it wasn’t that way anymore, we weren’t kids fighting over popsicles and sand toys. So I left him, ran after Renee with my breath raw and sick in the stomach, and after that when we hid in the woods I was always looking over my shoulder, feeling eyes that weren’t there.
That’s why I’m glad he’s dead.
* * * *
The sunlight wakes me up, but it feels like I never fell asleep. 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 car 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.
Anyone that knows enough to wonder where she’s gone thinks she ran off to Atlantic City, to Norfolk, to anywhere that’s not here. Not that there’s many people who care; her mom broke ties with her family before she was born, and her sister, our Aunt Ollie, died of cancer when I was nine. Daddy doesn’t talk to his family anymore, though sometimes when he’s really drunk he talks about how much he misses his twin brother; I don’t know if I believe that he has a twin brother, I don’t want there to be two of him.
I wake Renee up and feed her potatoes from yesterday night, then make her wash herself. Our library books are due back today, but 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. There are no more raspberries once I turn off onto the gravel road, and I skip along fast until I come to Matthew’s, where I have to turn again and follow the highway—two lanes each way, divided by grass. Locals drive carefully because there’s no sidewalk so people and animals walk on the sandy edge. I can tell who’s just passing through on the way to the beaches at Chincoteague and Assateague Islands by the way they roar down the road and swerve just enough to make me jump into the ditch.
There are more farmers’ fields and stretches of woods along the highway, with here and there big houses with driveways of their own, set back from the road a bit, where the richer people live, and even though I don’t belong here I feel safer than I do on the walk to Matthew’s. Everyone’s inside, enjoying their air conditioning. There are turnoffs now and again, graveled tracks back to the marshes or real roads with more houses down them, and I take the ones I know are shortcuts, to get away from the highway for a bit. 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 till 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, caramel-colored because it’s summer, but just as ugly as they were on the last day of school.
“I’ll listen when you talk something other than shit,” I say, and Gabby and Russ get big-eyed. They’d gone after me the whole winter; I’d wanted to fight back, but Daddy had said that if he got called into school because of me he’d kill me dead and bury me in the backyard, so I’d taken it all lying down. Now, with no teachers around, I don’t feel like being so accommodating.
“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 can fight him, but then I’ll have to fight Russ too, probably, and then Gabby will bring someone’s mama, and she’ll talk to Daddy, or the police, or both, and it will 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 toward the highway, but the backpack weighs me down. Another rock hits me square in the back of the head, and I stumble onto my hands and knees.
“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. My knee jerks up reflexively, and John-Michael folds up with a scream. 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 till I find the highway again. My stomach is all giddy butterflies now, and I stop with my hands on my knees to get my breath back. There’s no way Daddy’s not going to hear about this.
* * * *
The library is clammy and cold; goose bumps rise up on my skin while I drop our books in the return slot. The librarian smiles at me, and 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 till 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. I still like them, more for the pictures now than the stories, but it’s embarrassing if Renee isn’t here. When my head starts feeling muzzy from too much up-close seeing I fill my arms with enough to last us a week and go out to the front desk.
“I bet you’re glad school’s out?” It’s one of the newer librarians, and she moves slow, stacking the books square before scanning my library card and checking for fines. It isn’t really my library card—it has Mama’s signature and name on the back, Ellie Fitzgerald Gordy, almost rubbed off now—but the librarians who know she’s my mom don’t mind, and the rest think that it’s my card.
“Kinda. Summer gets boring sometimes,” I answer. My grades are awful, but I don’t mind going to the Combined School out on Chincoteague. The bus driver likes me and we get free lunch.
“It’s a good thing you’re reading all these books instead of watching TV. Your brain would melt out your ears like molasses.” She checks Twelve Dancing Princesses in, then scans my card and checks it back out to me. “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 helps me stack my books 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 Parksley in seven minutes, but all they’ve got there is the courthouse and the sheriff’s office and the jail and even though there’s real sidewalk that looks too clean to walk on, all shaded with bright pink crepe myrtles, I don’t have 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, 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 afterward, 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 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. Our hair is like that too, mine and Renee’s, long and curly, though Renee is salt and I’m cinnamon: she has white-blond hair and white-blond skin, like Daddy’s, and silver-blue eyes, like Mama’s. I’m darker than Mama, hair and eyes and everything. She told me that she’d explain why that was, when I was older. We read about pea plants and Punnett squares in science last year, so I know that blue eyes and blue eyes can’t make brown eyes, but I still want to know where my brown eyes came from. Now that I’m older she’s not here to explain.
A new breeze picks up, and I’m drowning in stomachturning stench. One of the plants, Perdue 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 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 claylike 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.
* * * *
I keep to the shoulder of the highway instead of taking the shortcut that goes past John-Michael’s house, and even though he and the others aren’t anywhere I can see, my stomach still does flip-flops. I walk by quicker than usual, and don’t slow down until I turn off the pavement onto the gravel by Matthew’s. There’s a skinny brown dog sniffing at the smear of roadkill down the center, and his head snaps up when my feet make that first crunch. He trots over and takes a sniff at me. I shy away. I don’t like dogs. I’ve been bit too many times. I trot along by the ditch on one side, he trots along by the ditch on the other side, 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 we get past the little houses he cuts into the cornfield, and I can relax again. It’s late afternoon and the air is heavy and damp, like a wet wool blanket put over your head on a hot day. 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 going lippety lippety 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 a grown cat now, a bit lazy and slack in the belly, and he does most of his real hunting at night. I sometimes find the smears of blood and tufts of feathers or fur that he leaves, and make sure Renee doesn’t see them. There’s a frantic rustle in the cornstalks, 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 anymore. 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. 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 shells. 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 going for our cat. While she feeds Mickle the chicken breast Daddy left, I take the .22 out again and practice hitting the tissue box. It has a heavy, solid, comfortable feel to it.
I listen all the rest of the day, and until I fall asleep, for tires on the oyster shells, but other than Daddy’s, none come. I want to think that John-Michael’s mother isn’t coming, won’t tell Daddy what I did, but I know he’s going to find out. If she didn’t come today then it only means that she’ll come tomorrow.
In the morning I don’t hear Daddy moving around upstairs when I wake up, and it takes a bit before I remember that it’s Thursday, and he’s going to be home all day. I go up to get us food 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 gray 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 still 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.
“Out in the woods, maybe down to the creek,” I say.
“If you go, catch some crabs for dinner,” he says.
I don’t say anything.
Renee is awake when I come downstairs, dressing Mickle in doll clothes. 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 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 strawberry candies in his pockets, but his tar-tooth grin makes me nervous in my stomach. Stevo’s brother cooks and he deals, but Daddy gets it from them cheap because they’ve been friends for a long time. 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 have 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 starving 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, Bo? 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 crisscross applesauce on our bed, and we climb out the window so we don’t have to go past them.
We go to the same clearing we usually do, in the woods between the oyster-shell road and the creek; 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 home still, but after we’ve huddled 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. Everyone else has left already, but we can see the fresh ruts in the grass from where their cars were. 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 watching the raindrops chase each other 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 show her the 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 onto Daddy’s hand. It’s his little glass pipe; he’s turning it over and over in his fingers 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 then he notices the look on her face and his voice dies away.
“It appears you have the situation under control,” she says.
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 close the bedroom door without a sound and back away slowly.
The front door bangs shut, and I hear her engine turning over.
“Chloe!” Our door pops open and cracks against the wall, and I spring away from the bed. In the dark he goes for Renee. 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 into the kitchen.
“What the fuck, Chloe!” I tuck and roll. “What the fuck, starting a fight so some uptight bitch will show up and call the cops?” He swings at me. I curl up tighter. “You know what they’ll do with you if I get put away?” Renee’s followed us up: I can see her behind him, kneading the front of her shirt between her hands and all crumpled in on herself. I want to tell her to get 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 to get out of reach, but he swings 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 chicken-bone 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, wanting so bad to jump back up but my head and the scared in my stomach is weighing me down, and I don’t know what to do. He’s smacking at her now, and she’s making noises like a dying rabbit.
I try to yank myself up, but the dresser-drawer shrieks out and splits open on the floor next to me. The hunting things roll everywhere; I scrabble for the scattered rounds but find the skinning knife, its black leather sheath smooth under my groping fingers.
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 loose and boneless, and I feel sick like a stomach full of vinegar as I wonder if he’s killed her. I kick at his knees, stomp his bare toes under my heels, ram my elbow up into his belly with all my weight behind it, anything to make him let go. He stumbles when I get him in the gut, 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. Meat resists a blade in its own way, drags at it like an undertow drags at your feet. The look on his face says he doesn’t feel what I’ve done, and I’m scared what he’ll do when he realizes. I can feel his fingers bruising, smell his breath under the sour of his skin, but I can’t hear past the sound of water in my ears. His words are bubbling out the slit in his throat, hissing red foam, but the artery matches the beat of his heart. My face is all wet, and my arms. He drops me. Renee isn’t moving, but she’s curled herself into a ball, so I know she’s alive. I try to pull myself over to her, but I can’t move anymore. He slumps forward across my legs and hips, and now I can hear a sound like dry wind and water on stone. Then it stops. The rain comes down.
It’s later, but I don’t know how much later, that headlights flash through our window as they come down the road to our house, bright enough that I can see gasps of things I don’t want to see. There’s a pounding on our door. Everything smells like copper. A man’s voice shouts, I can’t tell what it says. More pounding. The door splinters down. A gun comes up the stairs, with a woman in uniform behind it. She sees me, she sees the blood, she shouts behind her for someone to get a light, and pulls me out from under him. Someone else leans over Renee, but I let them.
“Honey, honey, look at me. What happened?” she asks me.
“Where’s your mama?”
“In the backyard,” I tell her. She stares at me for a second. “He doesn’t know I saw him do 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, facedown. Just like Cabel Bloxom was, after I shot him.
From THE SHORE. Used with permission of the publisher, Hogarth, a division of Penguin Random House USA. Copyright © 2014 by Sara Taylor.