SCARED FOR THIS WORLD
* * *
The clay ground had stained the bottoms of our feet orange. Jody and I lived in homes built on the sides of steep hills, adjacent to the river, and topsoil was in short supply. Clay was everywhere and nobody living on southwest, Virginia’s North Fork River Road was into pottery—kind of a waste of a lot of clay if you think about it. The north fork of the Holston River was raging, as we’d had nothing but hard rain for three straight days. The late August night was noisy with crickets and flopping large-mouth bass in the river and either fighting or fucking feral cats by the water’s edge; the cats screamed like women. A half moon gave Jody and me just enough light to see what we were doing. Jody, who was sixteen and a month older than me, unscrewed the lid on a JIF peanut butter jar.
“Here,” Jody said. She handed me the peanut butter. “Give me the knife.”
“I’ll do it.”
“No, Casey. He bit me. I’ll do it.” Jody grabbed the hunting knife from my hand. “He bit me for the last time.”
What could I do? She was right after all. Jasper, her daddy’s German short-haired birddog, did bite her—not me. Besides, Jody was just as capable as me, just as strong, probably stronger. She was all-state in cross-country. She made straight A’s. I studied hard and managed C’s. She took Latin. I failed Spanish. I was in awe of her.
“Just be careful,” I said. Jody rolled her eyes.
I pushed open the rusty sixteen foot farm gate behind Jody’s house, beyond which was a narrow, muddy path bordered by crowded cedar trees. The path twisted and turned and after a half-mile finally ended in the center of a soaring patch of old hemlock trees. Jody and I routinely made out on the trees’ dry bed of needles. I felt a little weird about the progression of our relationship, as I’d bathed with Jody as an infant and ran naked through sprinklers with her as a toddler, but the weirdness was consistently overwhelmed by my extreme horniness and downright infatuation with my lifelong friend. Jody was skinny and her green eyes were large and almond shaped. She would be beautiful. She was tall for a girl, almost five-nine, a little taller than me. Our houses were less than a half-mile apart. We were motherless. My mother fell off the local swinging bridge when I was three. She slipped between the wooden slats and bashed her head in on the sharp rocks jutting from the river below. Jody’s mother left Jody and Herschel, Jody’s father, when Jody was five. Jody told me many times that she didn’t blame her mother, Lorna, for leaving. Lorna moved to Gatlinburg and married Jimbo, a Baptist preacher. Jody sometimes visited her mom and her other family in the summer and she had fun going to church and listening to her step-dad scream from the pulpit and she’d ride the rides at Silver Dollar City and Magic World and play Hillbilly Putt-Putt. But after a week it was back to southwest, Virginia and North Fork River Road and clay and me. When I asked her why she didn’t just move in with her mother and Jimbo and her half-brother and half-sister, Jody said matter-of-factly: “Can’t happen. Herschel would kill me.”
I knew she was right.
Jody’s left arm was bandaged from elbow to wrist. She’d been feeding Jasper two nights earlier when he latched onto her arm, shaking his head as if he were trying to break a ground hog’s neck. Jasper averaged biting Jody about once per year. He should have died long ago as he came down with Parvo before he was three-months-old, and Parvo usually leaves puppies weak with bloody diarrhea and dead within days. But Herschel used a needle-less syringe to shoot orange Jell-O down Jasper’s throat to keep him hydrated and alive. Jasper survived but was left with a mush brain. Herschel bragged to anyone who’d listen to him. I saved him. I saved him. I got me a canine Lazarus.
Herschel didn’t work. He didn’t hunt. I’m not sure why he even bought Jasper. Herschel was on disability for a supposedly bad back. He was short and squatty and fat and had stupid short arms. He looked like a half-human T-Rex dinosaur. His teeth were pointy nubs. He chewed Certs all the time, but his breath still smelled of spoiled milk. Jasper was half pit-bull. His jaws were square and heavy. He wagged his tail when he tried to bite you. His eyes were tiny and black and blank. He was dumb and crazy, a sorry combination in both dogs and people. I often forgot where Jasper started and Herschel began. In my mind, they were conjoined twins.
Earlier, Jody and I were hanging out in my bedroom, and I couldn’t help but notice the bruises all over her legs. She was wearing her Patrick Henry High School cross-country shorts. The backs of her thighs were purple and green. Her upper arms, too, were bruised. We were listening to R.E.M.’s new Green album in my bedroom. I asked her, pointing at her legs, “Jasper or Herschel?” Michael Stipe’s lyrics ricocheted off my bedroom’s dark paneling. Sometimes I feel like I can’t even sing, I’m very scared for this world, I’m very scared for me…
Jody collapsed onto the floor of my bedroom, sobbing. I collapsed next to her. I rubbed her back underneath her shirt. I felt her bra strap. My dad, Tanner, knocked on my bedroom door. “What’s going on?” he said.
I left Jody crying. I cracked open my bedroom door. I mouthed to Dad, “Herschel.”
Dad shook his head. He worked nights at Bristol Compressors. “Well, I’ve got to go work. If you need me, call,” he said. He looked at Jody and whispered. “You tell her she’s welcome to sleep in your room.”
I nodded. My dad worked eighty-hour weeks as a maintenance supervisor. He never recovered from losing my mother. He worked all the time, so he wouldn’t have to think about what he didn’t have. When he wasn’t working he fished for nothing in particular in the river and drank Absolute Vodka. Over the years, he’d beat the living shit out of Herschel several times, always for hurting Jody, who my dad regarded as a daughter. My father was a large man, much bigger than Herschel, and he had reserves of anger that lingered just below the surface. After my Dad beat up Herschel the last time, he told me, breathing hard, “I can’t beat any goodness into him—I’ve tried.”
I rubbed Jody’s back until she stopped crying. She sat up; her expression was suddenly bright and hopeful. “Let’s kill him,” she said, and I wasn’t sure who she was talking about, Herschel or Jasper. I didn’t ask her. Either one or both was fine by me.
The hemlock needles felt good beneath my bare feet. The trees were so dense that no matter how hard it rained, the ground was usually dry.
“Jody,” I said. “Stop. Is Herschel…” I let my voice dissolve like a jet plane’s vapor trail. I wanted desperately to know: Is he fucking you, feeling you up, groping your breasts? What? What’s he doing? I wanted to know exactly so I didn’t have to wonder. Or was he just beating you? The word “just” dangled in red letters in my head, and I felt like a piece of crap.
“Don’t, Casey!” Jody said. Her face collapsed. She dropped the knife onto the ground.
“I’ll kill him. After we kill Jasper, I’ll kill him. He’s a worthless—”
Jody picked the knife up, held it with both hands. “I know what he is!”
I betrayed her in some vital way by asking her to paint me a picture of her hell. Asking her what Herschel did to her was like asking a person dying of cancer to slice open his or her leg and expose the rotting bone. But I had to know. I felt jealous. I thought of Herschel as a rival more than Jody’s father. I was ashamed of feeling anything but sorrow and anger for Jody, my friend. I was scared of losing her. I wanted her. I didn’t want anybody else to touch her the way I touched her. I felt like I owned her and I knew that I shouldn’t feel that way, that my feelings were all wrong, but I couldn’t help myself. She was mine, and though I hurt her I would never want to hurt her. I thought I loved her. I was addicted to who and what I was when I was with her. Without question, she had me, all of me, every molecule. I gladly gave myself to her. I wanted the same from her. I expected it. I knew I wanted the impossible, way more than she was capable of giving, but that’s what love is, right? First love anyway—possessing the impossible, however briefly, then watching it slip away. If what I had to give was enough, I wouldn’t have been so afraid, but I knew I wasn’t enough.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m an idiot.” I pulled Jody down onto the needles. She smelled of lavender shampoo and Carmex lip balm. I inhaled her. I was instantly hard. It didn’t take much.
She nestled next to me. “I’m sorry, too.”
“You’re not the one who should be sorry. I just, I can’t help thinking about him hurting you and it makes me crazy.”
“He’s been pinching me. It’s his new game,” Jody said. “He pinches me and laughs. I don’t think he realizes what he’s doing—or maybe he does. He thinks it’s so funny. He holds me down and pinches me and laughs so hard he pisses himself. He holds me down.”
“But, but does he—”
“No!” Jody said. “God, Casey…”
I didn’t believe her but was thankful for her response. Yes, there’s a cliff that we’re preparing to drive over but what an illusion it is. The road is really there, you see. Believe me. So I believed her, and I was so unbelievably thankful for her lie.
“I’m sorry, I’m—I’m sorry.” I draped an arm over her shoulder, touched her right breast. I felt relieved that Herschel was only pinching her and not molesting her. I suspected her father of doing inappropriate things with her and what was I doing? I was feeling her up. I didn’t understand how touch-deprived I was.
I should have stopped, but I didn’t, couldn’t. I wanted to reclaim her. But reclaim her from what? From whom? Herschel? Yes. The world at large? My erosion? Hers?
“Casey, don’t. Not now,” Jody said.
I rubbed her nipple. I ground my pelvis into her ass. I pushed my hand underneath her T-shirt, beneath her bra. I stroked her nipple. I heard Jasper’s logging chain rattle. He was a couple of hundred yards away.
I pushed my shorts down, rolled on top of her, kissed her, stuck my tongue in her mouth. I felt her body give up, collapse. She knew I couldn’t, wouldn’t stop. She slid her hands down my back, cupped my bare ass. She kissed my neck, sucked my bottom lip. I kissed her neck, underneath her chin, slide a hand into her shorts, felt her panties. She opened up her legs. I didn’t really know what the hell I was doing. I felt her hand grasp me, milk me. I came in seconds, felt the muscles in my ass contract violently. I came and came, on her shorts, in the hemlock needles. In less than a minute we’d gone from walking to me coming. I stroked Jody through her panties. She put a hand over my hand. She helped me stroke her. As usual, she led me. Her mouth formed an O and her body hardened and she was frozen and then she relaxed, and I was glad that I had done something good for her, and I hoped that she died for a second or two just as I had, because dying for a few seconds was so incredibly beautiful. I pulled my hand from her shorts. We both stood up. I grabbed a handful of needles and wiped my come from Jody’s shorts. She laughed. I was ashamed of my need.
“Can we go now?” she said.
“If you still want to.”
“I still want to.”
So, still half hard, I followed her. I glanced at my digital wristwatch. It was almost
eleven p.m. and normally Jody would have had to be home by ten-thirty, but Herschel was watching pay-per-view boxing at Cowboy’s, a local sports bar, and he wouldn’t be home until around midnight. He liked to shoot pinball and watch the TV at Cowboy’s, though none of the other regulars particularly liked him.
Jasper must have heard Jody and me talking because he started barking. He barked and barked and barked and barked and barked. He could bark for hours on end. He was secured by a logging chain that was wrapped around the base of one of the hemlocks. His doghouse was a hollowed out and lidless oil drum. As soon as he saw us, he leaped into the air; his lips were curled back revealing yellow teeth. The logging chain snapped him into submission and he was frozen in midair, tongue hanging out of the side of his mouth. Jasper collapsed onto the ground. Wheezing, struggling for breath, he looked at us, wagged his tail, and growled. Crazy bastard. I held up a middle finger. “Hey fucker,” I said.
Jasper smelled the peanut butter and strained against his logging chain. Strings of drool hung from his mouth. His numerous piles of shit stank. Gnats and fruit flies filled the air. I held my breath and tossed the peanut butter jar on the ground. He stuck his nose inside the jar and made desperate grunting, slurping sounds. I eased over to him. He shot me a look, growled. He wagged his tail wildly.
“That’s good stuff, isn’t it, Jasper?” I said. I motioned Jody to approach Jasper from the other direction. I snapped my fingers in front of his face to keep his attention. Look at me. Look at me.
“You fucker,” I said, sing-songing my words as if Jasper were a baby, and I was trying to lull him to sleep. “You’re a dumb fucker, yes you are, yes you are.”
Jody was behind Jasper’s oil drum/ dog house. Her face was drained of color. She shook her head no. Her shoulders collapsed. She looked at me, shook her head, no, no, no. I backpedaled away from Jasper, motioned Jody over to me. Jasper’s entire muzzle was inside the jar of peanut butter. He sucked and licked and was crazy for the peanut butter.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“I can’t do it. Let’s go home. Herschel’ll be home soon.”
Jody always called Herschel Herschel instead of Dad. She said he liked it that way. He said that he thought of himself as more of a buddy than a father.
“No!” I said. Jasper barked a muffled bark from inside the peanut butter jar. “I’m doing it. You go back to the house. I’ll be there in a few minutes. I’m doing it. I’m doing it.”
Jody handed me the knife. She didn’t have a choice. Not really. I was going to kill Jasper and that was it. Just like I had to get off a few minutes earlier, she knew I was a run away train. She walked away from me. I felt sorry for her. The male sex caused her great distress, and I knew I was part of the equation that distressed her. I wondered if that in any way made me better than Jasper and Herschel, that I knew I hurt her, whereas they were innately terrible and oblivious, if not evil.
I made sure Jody was out of sight before I turned to Jasper. I may not have been as big as my father, but I had just as much anger acting as my undertow. I gripped the knife, held if behind my back, parallel to my spine. I walked toward Jasper. I smiled. I was non-threatening. I whistled. Ho-hum. Jasper perked his ears. I kneeled beside him. I watched his tongue lick the bottom of the jar. Jasper had a long-assed tongue.
“You’re a fucking anteater,” I said. “You act like a retarded dog, but you’re really an anteater. You’re pretending to be a dog, aren’t you?”
He looked at me and seemed to smile, though I knew that wasn’t possible. He wagged his tail a hundred miles an hour. His mush brain must’ve been drenched with sugar from the peanut butter. Before Jasper knew what happened, before I’d consciously decided to act, I whisked the blade through the air to underneath Jasper’s neck. I pulled the blade hard through hair and muscle and hit bone. I tripped over my feet getting away, out of Jasper’s range. The dog looked at me with a curious, cocked-head. Blood gushed from his neck. Comically, the peanut butter jar was still stuck on his muzzle. He shook his head as if stung by a wasp. His vocal cords slashed, Jasper was only able to wheeze. He shook his head and blood flew in sheets across the ground, covering his shit piles and my bare feet. I thought of a roman candle. His blood smelled like wet rust. I tasted metal. He pawed at the peanut butter jar, forced it off his face. He wagged his tail and ran back and forth shaking his head.
“There you go, Jasper,” I said. “Wag your goddamned tail.”
And he did. Jasper wagged his tail.
I grabbed a handful of needles and wiped off the knife. Jasper plopped down in his oil-drum doghouse. I wiped his blood off my feet. I thought about standing around for a few more minutes so I could see Jasper evaporate into whatever hell would have him, but I wanted to get back to Jody, tell her it was over, act like a big-shot. Besides, I was starting to feel a little sorry for Jasper, and I hated myself for my weakness. Tears spilled down my cheeks. My nose ran. I was a little boy; that’s what I was. Why couldn’t I ever be what I wanted to be? In the distance, I heard a car approaching, a knocking motor. Herschel was home early.
I tucked the knife in the back of my shorts. I’d tried to clean myself up as best I could. Herschel had been home for a couple of minutes when I walked around the back of the house. He spotted me. He wasn’t surprised to see me. Wherever Jody was, I was nearby, no matter the time of day or night. “Help me, boy,” he said, waving me over.
Herschel was trying to lift a large cardboard box out of the back of his El Camino. “I’m going to bust a gut here in a minute.”
I grabbed the other side of the box. “Easy,” Herschel said, smiling at me. “This is for Sassy Britches.”
Herschel had called Jody Sassy for as long as I could remember.
“What is it?”
“Sassy’s going to love this!”
“What is it?” I repeated. Herschel was very excited. His T-shirt was drenched with sweat.
“A thirty-gallon fish tank. You think you can get a few crawfish from the river to put in it till we can get some goldfish? I got a light for it and everything. It comes with a filter to keep it clean.”
“Where’d you get it?” I asked.
“Pick up your end, Casey,” Herschel said, as usual not paying attention to anything that was being said to him. He snorted really loudly, cleared his throat, spat on the ground. “Let’s get it in the house.”
I walked backwards toward the front door. “Hey, Herschel, uh, where’d you get it?”
“Sassy says she wants to be a marine biologist. She can put some fish in here and look at them all night long if that’s what she wants.”
“You get it at Wal-Mart?” I asked.
I rested my end of the box on one knee while I opened the front door. Jody shot me a what the hell is going on look as Herschel and I entered the living room.
“Cowboy’s,” Herschel said. “Little doll that works behind the counter. I got it off her. Said it was just taking up space, that she’d never even had much of anything in it. Said that her boyfriend had a corn snake in it once but he’s at Red Onion for selling crystal-meth and she let the snake go. Said I could take it if I’d get it so I got it.”
“Herschel, I thought you were watching boxing at Cowboy’s,” Jody said. Her hair was wet. She had obviously just gotten out of the shower.
“I did it,” I mouthed to Jody. I gave her the ok sign.
“Keep going,” Herschel said. “Let’s take it on back to Sassy’s bedroom.”
The tank was heavy, and I was losing my grip. Jody saw that I was having trouble so she helped me. The three of made our way awkwardly down the hallway and into Jody’s bedroom.
“Sassy to the rescue!” Herschel said. He winked at Jody.
“What’re you doing out so late, anyway, Casey Harley?” Herschel said. “Huh? You wasn’t thinking of getting in Sassy’s britches while I was gone, now was you?”
“Herschel!” Jody said.
“C’mon,” I said.
“Jerking your chain, jerking your chain, hells bells,” Herschel said. “Sassy, clear some of that shit off your chest-of-drawers.”
Jody picked up her portable CD player and set it on her bed. Herschel and I lowered the box to the pink carpeted floor.
“Move them books,” Herschel said. Droplets of his sweat fell from the tip of his nose. “I’m about give out.”
Herschel and I pulled the tank out of the box and set it on the dresser.
“I got rocks to put in there, too,” Herschel said. “Blue rocks and a little scuba man that swims up and down.”
We looked at the empty tank.
“The price was good: zero.” Herschel laughed. He bent over at his waist and his face turned red. He laughed and laughed. Then he coughed, tried to catch his breath. The hunting knife was cold against my butt.
“Thanks,” Jody said.
“That all you can say?” Herschel said. He cleared his throat, worked up a gob of phlegm, swallowed. He imitated her. “Thanks.”
“Thank you,” Jody said. “Really.”
Herschel gave Jody a hard look. He appeared disappointed that she didn’t act more excited. “I’ve got to go to the head.” He looked at me. “I know all about you, more’n you think.” He yawned. “You going to get some crawfish for Sassy’s tank tomorrow?”
Herschel pinched at his crotch.
“Sure.” I wanted to look at the floor, but I kept my eyes centered between Herschel’s eyes.
Herschel kissed Jody on top of her head. He left Jody’s bedroom and called out to me, as he walked down the hallway and ducked into the bathroom, “You know the rule, Casey. G‘night, boy. Thanks for helping.”
“No problem,” I said. The rule was I had to be gone by midnight. When school started I had to be gone by eleven.
Herschel changed his tone. “Sassy, don’t you be trying to scuba dive in that tank, girl. I don’t think you’d fit.” Herschel laughed at himself.
Jody smirked, half-chuckled, and I was sure Herschel was happy that Jody was happy.
“Thank you, Herschel,” Jody said. “It’s great.”
I listened for the bathroom door to close. “He’s gone,” I said. I noticed that I had blood caked underneath my toenails.
“You’re nasty,” Jody said, dragging her eyes up and down my body. I crossed my arms self-consciously.
“He’s gone,” I repeated. “I did it.”
Jody sighed. She sat down on her bed, turned on her CD player.
“He’s gone,” I said again, and I felt stupid for saying the same damned thing over and over. I was immediately aware that Jody was the one who was gone; it was just a matter of time. She was above and beyond this bedroom with its water-stained ceilings, her nut-case of a father, her house practically built on stilts, me. She was above me and she knew it and I knew it and we’d be together until she went off to college and that would be the end of me but the beginning of her. She’d escape and how could I blame her? She should escape. She deserved much more than what she had. I had the urge hit her for leaving me, something she wouldn’t do for another two years, but she’d do it, she’d leave, and then where would I be? What was the source of her strength?
“Good,” Jody said. “Thank you.”
I knew how crazy-bastard Herschel felt minutes earlier. I wanted to shake the shit out of Jody. Is that all you’ve got to say? Huh? I killed the fucking dog and all you can say is thanks? Goddamnit. Goddamnit.
“I don’t want details,” Jody said. “I don’t want to think about it.”
I heard the toilet flush, the bathroom door open. “Tick-tock, Casey Harley. Tick-tock,” Herschel called out. He would plop down in her recliner and watch TV for hours. He slept in his recliner.
Jody looked at me. “I’m tired.”
“I know you are.” She wasn’t giving me what I wanted.
“I’ll help you with your fish tank tomorrow. I can’t believe shit for brains wants you to put crawfish in it. What a freak,” I said.
I killed a tiny part of Jody with my comments. I wanted to hurt her. I wanted her to realize what a savior I was for her. Jody winced. I punched her in the gut and didn’t even have to lay hands on her. What a piece of shit I was.
“He did give me something,” Jody said. She touched the side of the fish tank as if it were a piece of fine crystal.
I touched her bruised legs. “That’s what he gives you.” Then I added, “I know what I’d like to give him.”
I walked out of her bedroom. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said, staring at my dirty feet.
She sighed and said, “Okay, Casey.”
I snapped her bra as I walked past her. I wanted her to laugh.
“Stop it, Casey!” Jody said. “Grow up.”
“I was just kidding,” I said. “God Almighty.”
I mumbled, “Fucking bitch,” as I walked out of her house and into a beautiful late night.
* * *
I shucked out of my clothes as soon as I got inside my front door. Slot Machine, Dad’s and my calico cat whose right front leg was severed by a bear trap, hissed at me for disturbing her sleep. The cat liked to sleep behind the front door. Dumb cat. I flipped her in the nose and she ran through her cat-door in the basement door. Did everything and everybody and every animal hate me? I took my clothes, wadded them into a tight ball and crammed the bloody mess into the trashcan underneath the kitchen sink. I was a criminal returning from a crime scene. I cleaned the hunting knife off in the kitchen sink, walked to my bedroom, tossed the knife underneath my bed, contemplated lying on the bed and jerking off but, instead, I walked into the bathroom, and turned on the shower. It’d take a minute for the water to heat up. I closed the bathroom door so the steam couldn’t escape. I spread a towel on the linoleum floor covered with Slot-Machine’s hair and lay down. I’d rest for a minute or two before jumping in the shower.
* * *
Our water heater sucked. The water never got hot just really warm for maybe ten minutes before turning cold. I didn’t care. Fuck it. I lay purple-lipped in the shower, a wadded up towel my pillow. The bathroom was ink black but I swear to God the water seemed to glow a phosphorescent green and red, and even though Jasper was deader than Friday afternoon I could by-God hear him barking and barking and barking and his logging chain rattling, and even though Dad was at work doing whatever the hell he did at work I could smell his Absolute Vodka, and even though Jody was asleep I could smell her, too. She smelled a certain way particular to her—cedar wood, Fruit Stripes gum, rose water, I don’t know, I can’t exactly spell it out. I smelled everything in that cold shower and what kind of escape was that? No escape. And that’s all I wanted: an escape, however brief. I shoved my balled fists into my eyes and saw exploding colors and what a sorry sort of entertainment that was.
After an hour, I turned off the shower, dried off, threw on a pair of shorts, didn’t bother with a shirt or shoes. I grabbed my nice and clean knife and headed out the door.
The night was just as I left it.
I entered Jody’s house through the back door. Herschel never locked the doors. Once inside, I glanced in the den and saw Herschel’s bald head protruding over the back of his recliner. His short arms dangled like malformed wings over the recliner’s arm-rests. I felt someone tap me on the shoulder, and I almost screamed. I turned around and Jody motioned for me to follow her. We walked down the hallway and into her bedroom. Jody pushed the door closed.
“What are you doing?” she said, rubbing her eyes. “Casey?”
Jody was a heavy sleeper. She was three-quarters asleep.
I sat down on the edge of her bed which was warm from her body. I pulled the knife from my shorts and set it on Jody’s bedside table.
“What are you doing, Casey?” Jody touched the side of my face. Women have no idea about the power of their touch.
I lay back in Jody’s bed and rested my wet head on her pillow. Jody settled in beside me.
“I’ll leave before Herschel wakes up,” I said. “I’ll help you with your fish tank tomorrow. I’ll leave before Herschel gets up. I probably won’t even sleep. I’ll just stay here with you, all right?”
“What’s going on?”
“I’m tired of you getting hurt all the time.” I should have said I was tired of me getting hurt all the time, but how could I say then when she was suffering and surviving more than I could possibly know?
Jody answered by scooting closer to me, her butt pressed against my pelvis. We’d slept together hundreds of times, her house, my house, by the river. My relationship with Jody only became a problem for Herschel when he started to figure out that Jody and I were becoming something else and we were doing it together. But I was maxed out. At sixteen I was spent. I was all I’d ever be. I didn’t think I’d last too long before I slipped between the slats of the swinging bridge just like my mom. But Jody, she would be a lot of different people, lover, wife, mother, who knows what? And I wouldn’t Be much longer. Not without her. I had rickety bridges to not cross. Herschel wouldn’t have to worry about me too much longer. But I’d take what I could while I could.
“Go back to sleep,” I said.
“Thanks for doing you know what,” Jody said before falling away and into herself. She felt so warm.
The room was quiet save for the gentle undulation of Jody’s white ceiling fan. Early in the morning, I’d leave before the sun was up, before Herschel was awake and before my father would arrive home from his shift at Bristol Compressors. Maybe I’d sleep for a few hours on the couch in front of the TV with Slot-Machine purring on my stomach. But I’d reappear in Jody’s bedroom in the early afternoon after Herschel had gone to Cowboy’s, and I’d help her with her fish tank and we’d put the blue rocks on the bottom of the tank and the little scuba man could swim up and down and we’d leave the tank empty except for the rocks and the scuba man because I was not, no way, going to put river crawfish in the tank. It’d look better empty than with fucking crawfish in it. Jody would ask me at some point if I’d really crept into her house and slept in her bed late last night or if she’d been dreaming. I could imagine her asking me, her brow crinkled, and I’d tell her that no, I didn’t sleep with her and yes, she must’ve been dreaming. I’d also tell her that Jasper was a dream, that after she left me alone with him in the woods he disappeared before I could get my knife into his throat. I’d snap my fingers and tell her he was gone, that he was nothing. I’d tell her that he never existed at all.
Chris Duncan lives Abingdon, Virginia with his wife, Stephanie and daughter, Hannah. He has an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte, North Carolina. He teaches composition at Virginia Highlands Community College. Previous publishing credits include The Best of Carve Magazine, Lichen Literary Journal, Ink Pot Literary Journal and The Dead Mule School of Southern Writing.