>Dewayne’s neck ached and a heated flush covered his body. He could just catch the edge of a sick, putrid feeling–death nearby. But it wasn’t clear yet, just hazy blobs in his head he tried to arrange. He hated this part–knowing but unable to act. Vulnerable. Like inside the fun house at the fair, waiting for the scary barker fellow to pull the lever and the floor to start moving.
Three days ago, he had been combing the Bethel community, looking in every field and drainage pond for a seven year old girl, and then Meema goes and says Aunt Voila was killed.
Now Meema sat in her glider amid her collection of Virgin Marys, her head back, sucking long breaths, and saying silent prayers. Like years ago, when Joe Bridges went missing. There was signs with Joe’s face posted at the pharmacy and beauty parlors downtown but one no knew anything. One summer morning, the sheriff came out to Meema’s as Dewayne sat watching Scooby Doo in his pajamas. The sheriff had a yearbook opened to a black and white picture of Joe in shorts and a Panthers jersey. Joe’s long, skinny arms stretched to the Basketball rim for the hook. Meema told Dewayne to start praying. Then she, Dewayne, and the sheriff got into Grandpa’s big Oldsmobile with the green velvet seats and drove out to the abandoned black school on Old Thurman Highway. A spring had flooded the school’s basement with murky water and there was Joe’s bloated back and long arms floating amid the trash.
Dewayne and Meema didn’t say nothing, neither did the sheriff. Words didn’t make no sense.
Dewayne pulled the keys to grandpa’s tractor from the rows of keys hanging on Meema’s refrigerator and went out back to the barn. The grass cutter was already hitched up, so DeWayne turned the ignition and the old engine sputtered to life. The tractor vibrated fiercely under his body, humming so loud he couldn’t hear his thoughts. He drove it in straight lines, curving around the pecans trees, his head turned to watch the cutter blaze neat trails in the grass.
Coming up the road was his Cousin Della’s silver LS, a cloud of dust in its wake like a tail of a comet. Della wasn’t driving ‘cause she drove slow down the dirt roads, fearful one small rock would mar the paint job. Merri must be back in town. She slowed just enough to take the turn by the mailbox, then flew down the long drive. She didn’t wave or look at him; her eyes straight ahead, intent on some thought in her head. Guess that’s what them college professors do–see only the split infinitive and miss the entire essay.
He turned off the tractor and stepped down. Dirt dusted his skin. He removed his UGA hat and shook off the sweat.
She opened the car door and looked at him from over the car roof. Dark sunglasses concealed her eyes.
He waved, hearing his own sigh. Merri was one hard chick to deal with.
“Hey there, Merri. Thought you were back in Boston?”
She smiled–a fast, sassy city smile. “Mom said I needed to come back.”
“Ain’t you teachin’ up there?”
“In three months.”
Then they didn’t say nothing. Dewayne could see the sliver chain of the necklace Merri was hiding under her shirt. A pentacle like them mysterious Goth types. He had seen it slip out of her blouse at the funeral parlor last week.
“Listen, I hoped we could talk,” she said, taking her sunglass off. Her blue eyes squinted in the sun.
“You can always talk to me.”
“Somehow I think you say that to everyone.” He started to reply, but he wasn’t fast enough. She flicked her hand in a quick, dismissive wave. Inside the car, he could see a large thermos of coffee in the driver’s cup holder.
“Does Aunt Edna really believe someone killed Gram?”
He wasn’t about to explain nothing, especially to some skeptic professor type–pentacle or not. “Now, you know how Meema is. She gets idears in her head. Don’t you worry about it.”
She gave him a hard, accessing look. Dewayne went blank inside. He refused to give her what she was seeking.
She started again with a different tack. A soft smile lifted the edges of her lips–like she was still from the south. It looked uncomfortable on her face. “Maybe we could drive to Athens and get something to eat tonight?”
“Yeah, that’d be nice,” Dewayne said. He wished he could say no. But Merri was blood, even if she was a pain in the ass. Merri, her mother, and that whole side of the family always thought Meema weren’t right, ‘cept for Voila.
“Hey, I brought a potato casserole for Aunt Edna.”
“Well dang Merri, thanks for thinking us. I didn’t know you cooked? I bet you’re one of them fancy-type cooks.” I bet you don’t where your kitchen is.
“Oh, mom made it.” She laughed all breezy-like.