The sun burned through the windshield, and Merri thought of her sunglasses, forgotten on her dashboard. The wind from the opened windows tossed her hair and slapped her face like thin whips. The truck flew down the old two-lane road stretching from Athens to Sweetwater, riveted with holes and faded to the color of Merri’s oldest denim jeans. Those falling barns and gracious southern homes painted white with wrapped porches sat on the side of the road, their empty windows watching like old folks outside on the rockers at nursing homes.
The truck blew by. This road was so damn lonely, she thought, like some strange, southern version of Edward Hopper paintings, the starkness and stillness. Merri remembered many midnights flying down this spooky road at the same racing speeds, nineteen and fresh from some party in Athens, hoping some bastard cop hadn’t parked along some concealed side road with his radar out the window. The years when you were invincible, cops were bad, and death seemed impossible. Now it waited at the end of the trip, with cops speeding to that shadowy, scary place everybody else turns away from.
Dwayne reached into his glove compartment and pulled out some tobacco. Not a muscle in his body moved, except those to drive the truck. Just chewing, chewing, chewing then spitting into an empty Coke bottle, screwing the cap back on every time, opening it two minutes later. His eyes looked straight ahead.
As they passed the sign for Sweetwater fifteen miles, Dwayne slammed the steering wheel. “Fuck!”
“What? What’s wrong?”
He didn’t answer; he just shook his head, the tendons in his neck taut, like the strings of a fiddle. Merri reached out to touch him on the shoulder, and all his muscles contracted under her tentative fingers. She could feel the electricity driving those muscles, that strange, animalistic fear that surged at encroaching danger. It jolted through her, a low primitive burn, and her own body echoed it so fiercely she had to pull her hand away or be turned to ashes.
“Dwayne, talk to me for crissakes!”
“Dwayne . . .”
“I said not now!”
His voice carried command in it, and she responded to its authority instinctively. That was his cop voice, she thought. He’s using his cop voice on me.
Dwayne pulled off the highway, and the truck rumbled down the backroads. The road had been worn down hard and waved like a washboard. The truck bounced and the small round brown rocks pelleted the sides. She could see Gram’s house over the fields, framed by arching oak trees. It looked so safe suddenly, but that was an illusion, a powerful one, as pretty as a mirage. But an illusion nonetheless.
Merri swallowed. She could feel the house, feel Dwayne. These strange senses overcoming her. The house was waving like a hot road, and her heart felt heavy. She clutched the door handle, wanting to call out to Dwayne to stop here. But she didn’t. She watched the old house with the rusting metal Adirondacks on the porch pass, and she could almost hear some strange whisper, like the house knew everything.
They turned the corner onto a county road with white sand and a barbwire fence. A dark blue Lincoln had pulled over on the side of the road by a metal fence opening to a pasture. A black man with a large head and heavy jaw stepped out of the car and waved them down.
Dwayne stopped the truck with an abrupt lurch and shot out, not even closing the door behind him . Merri watched the man put his hand around Dwayne’s neck. The two spoke, Dewayne’s head down, nodding at the other man’s words. The conversation muted to a low, rumbling whisper as it passed through the hot stagnant air to Merri’s rolled down window.
Her fingers went to her pentacle, only it wasn’t a nervous gesture this time. It was a tangible prayer, a please-please-not-what-it-seems desperate prayer. From her fingers to the universe, bypassing words, bypassing conscious thought even.
Dwayne opened the gate, and waved at Merri to pull the truck forward. She switched to the driver’s seat, her hands shaking as she tried to adjust the seat. She remembered to press the clutch in when switching gears and through sheer luck got the truck into first gear with no grinding or lurching. It moved like a slow bulky cow over the washed out ditch and into the field.
Dwayne closed the gate and got in beside her. She started to switch back with him, but he waved her forward, and she responded once again to his authority. He was all cop then, his eyes straight ahead, but she’d registered a tremble in his hands, the slightest tremor. She cast a glance his way, and wasn’t surprised to see nothing wavering about him at all anymore. He was a walled city. A citadel.
Merri drove down the ruts cut into the cotton field past a cluster of pines trees to a series of sandy indentations sunk into the earth. The landscape looked very much like the terrain of UFO landings in movies. Only something out of place, something not right, not natural. She squinted into the sun, then gasped, her foot instinctively hitting the brake. The truck lurched, choked, slammed to a stop
In the beautiful white sand, she saw something inert, a lump of something human tossed like a discarded doll into the dirt. Blue jean shorts with lace fringe, a pink shirt and the long thin shiny legs of a girl. Princess sneakers. Dried dark blood seeped around a braid.
Merri reached for Dwayne’s hand. ““Oh Dwayne, no no no.”
He squeezed her fingers hard and fast, then pulled free from her grasp. But she’d registered it anyway, the tremor, the chill.
“You go on home now,” he said and stepped out of the car. He turned back then, as she thought for a wild brief moment he was going to speak to her, reach for her, tell her it would be okay, that he’d take care of it, and Lord and Lady help her, she would have believed him. She’d have done whatever he said to make that so.
But he didn’t meet her eyes. He just retrieved his phone and turned to leave.
“I said, go home.”
She shook her head. “I can’t. I can’t leave you.”
“Terrell’s here, now you go on home.”
His jaw tightened. “I’m not being polite here. You have to go.”
Merri felt hot tears build in her eyes. “Who is she?”
“Go home!” he shouted.
Merri turned the ignition and pulled the truck out of the field. She couldn’t see to drive, she was shaking all over, cold and hot at the same time, like a rising fever. The braid with blood, the braid with blood, the braid with blood. The image circled in her head — it was all she could see. Dizzy and sick, not just to her stomach but all the way to her middle, she took the only road to refuge she could imagine.
She pulled the car into Gram’s driveway. The oak tree lines up on either side like sentinels, and in her broken beaten imagination, they seemed to make way for her.
She barely remembered getting out of Dwayne’s truck, but there she was suddenly, on trembling legs that felt alien beneath her, standing on Gram’s porch. She didn’t try the door. She knew the house was all locked up, and she didn’t have a key.
So she sat in one of the old Adirondacks, drew her knees up to her chin and rocked. She remembered playing on this porch over a decade ago, she and Dwayne and the other cousins, the sing-songs tag games they played in the warm, damp evening air — “There ain’t no bogeymen out tonight, Grandpa shot them all last night!” And then collapsing in laughter against a background of fireflies and a darkness so soft and natural and complete it was like being tucked in.
She stayed there a long time, watched the road as more police cars came, their sirens blaring, taking the road at that burning midnight pace. She was nineteen again, and it was midnight again, and she was thinking how late it was, speeding against the lateness, as if she could overcome it. She thought she could, then, she thought she could flat outrun time and anything else. But she never could, and they couldn’t either, no matter how like lightning they took those turns. They were too late.
Across the street, the metal screen door to a trailer continually opened and closed, whapping the frame. The trailer’s inhabitants, a young blonde mother with two toddlers, came in and out of the house. The mother would hold the youngest on her hip and walk past two parked pickup trucks to the end of her gravel drive, shade her eyes and try to look over the fields while talking on a cell phone wedged between her mouth and her shoulder. Merri could feel Sweetwater stirring around her. She could mentally see the news “there is a bunch of cops up at the limesinks” spreading like the red infected area in a CDC infectious disease animated graphic.
Four hours later the last light of dusk was coming down over the fields, silhouetting the neighbor’s trailer. The blue sedan drove slowly down the road, its lights on. She could see Dewayne next to the Reverend Terrell. Their faces were hard and somber, like pall bearers.
She didn’t expect the car to turn down the driveway. She didn’t expect Dwayne to get out, and then, after one final conversation with the Reverend, to come up the steps and come to stand in front of her. She expected none of this, and so he didn’t seem real to her, which was calming. She was easier with ghosts and shadows than the real things she’d seen.
But then he spoke, and he was the realest thing she could imagine.
“I come to get you,” he said.
She looked up at him and unfolded her legs to the dusty floor. “You knew I was here before you ever saw me on this porch.”
It was a statement. He nodded.
Her voice was so calm. “You know lots of things, don’t you, Dwayne? You always have.”
He nodded again. “Come on home, Merri. Let’s go back home.”