excerpt from a forthcoming novel
Marie could see the fire up ahead through the trees. She could see sparks pull away from the flame and swirl up into the dark. It made her stomach tighten. She could see a hand shoot up, a shadow backlit by the flame, and she heard someone call out, long and slow, heeeee yeooow! It was a yell full of the joy of being drunk on a Saturday night.
Marie, her brother Shane, and their teacher Ms. Anglin got out of the car. Marie wiped her hands on her jeans. They got the cooler and the guitar out of the trunk and started down the old logging road. They had to go around the wet mud pit in the middle of the road, had to walk up into the woods a little bit, over rocks they couldn’t see for dead leaves, and then back down onto the wide path, until the shadows they’d been watching became people and they could feel the bonfire heat on their own faces.
How many of these parties had Marie been to? She stopped counting that summer. At home in Bethel, she and Shane would never be invited to a place like this at the end of an old logging road, not with people like the Owenses. Shane didn’t care, he was just putting in time with Ms. Anglin until he started college. Ms. Anglin wanted to go because they were her people, the Owenses. Nobody knew her down in Crawford County except the Owenses, and they were too busy getting messed up to worry about who she brought to their parties.
Shane and Marie set the cooler down in the usual place and the usual guy, one of the Owens cousins, took out three beers the second it hit the ground, before Marie could take her seat on it. Marie’s job was just to be there. Keep her parents from thinking Shane was into anything wild. Keep her mouth shut about him and Ms. Anglin. Over the course of the summer she had watched the Owenses, listened to them talk and to their music about sin city and the gold plated door that won’t keep out the Lord’s burning rain. She wanted to talk with them about camping and going four-wheeling and staying up all night. Someday she would do that, she would just go over and sit right there among them and talk with them, instead of sitting over on the cooler, watching.
They hadn’t been there more than fifteen minutes when Marie caught a flash of movement from across the fire. Shane in his white T-shirt that made him look like a peacock among all the gray and brown clothes of the Owenses. Ms. Anglin in her black silky kimono top. They were fighting again. Ms. Anglin pushed Shane’s shoulder, then closed in on him and wouldn’t let him move. Marie couldn’t hear the words but she knew the gist, same as all their other fights that summer. Shane was going to leave her and go to college and never look back. It was less like a fight, more like a sad clown who won’t let her audience leave. Shane usually let her vent until she was ready to pass out.
Ms. Anglin was right up in his face this time though, her finger an inch from his nose. Shane looked at her for a minute then down at her finger. He moved his head back so he could get a better look at it. Then he opened his mouth and lunged. He bit down on her finger and her back arched so very slightly at the pain, then she stood silent and motionless and there they were in a weird frozen pose, connected tooth to finger. Marie couldn’t help but think about finding the two of them in the darkroom of the high school, connected then too, but at different parts of their bodies. Then the frozen picture moved and Ms. Anglin screamed and all hell broke loose around them. One of Ms. Anglin’s girl cousins saw what happened and swatted Shane away, he opened his mouth and let the finger go. Ms. Anglin brought her hurt hand to her chest, cradled it with the other hand. She cussed Shane. Then she looked down at it. “It’s bleeding!” she screamed.
Everybody at the party looked at the two of them. The Owens brothers circled around, and Marie went and stood in the circle too. “What the hell?” one of the brothers asked, the one named Keith.
“You punk!” Ms. Anglin said. “You stupid punk! Come here!” Ms. Anglin slapped Shane hard across the face. Then she hugged him. “I’m sorry,” Ms. Anglin said. And then she said, “Why did you do that?” She repeated those two things over and over, like a chant, “I’m sorry! Why did you do that?” People stood around them stiff-legged, not really sure if the fight was over.
“Shoot, Jilly, there’s not even a mark on there,” Keith said, leaning over her hand that was now around Shane’s neck. The brothers moved away from the two of them, Ms. Anglin still with her arms around Shane and saying something in his ear, Shane’s arms down by his sides, him looking straight ahead.
After the fight, Shane disappeared into the woods above the fire, left with one of the Owens boys to get high. As soon as Shane was out of sight, Ms. Anglin put a camp chair beside Marie and sat down. She showed Marie her finger. “So what’s going on with him?” she asked after she got some ice out of the cooler and held it on her finger. Marie shrugged. “Does he have a girlfriend?”
“I thought you were his girlfriend,” Marie said.
“I’ve seen him talking to that Miller girl.” There was something about Ms. Anglin that made Marie feel sorry for her, something about the way she always needed to be reassured. “I know he likes that Miller girl,” Ms. Anglin said. “Oh God, I love him.”
Marie looked down at her hands in her lap, down at the ground, looked at anything except her journalism teacher.
“I’m only six years older than him. That’s nothing. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a drip in the bucket.” She was a drip, Marie thought. Ms. Anglin took a long drink and looked at Marie. “What do you think? You think I’m too old, don’t you?” she asked, but wouldn’t let Marie answer. “Shit, I’m not old,” she said, and sat back in her chair. “I’m not old.” After a few minutes she said, “I love him. That’s all. I just love him. He almost took my finger off.” She held it out for Marie to inspect again but Marie didn’t even pretend to look at it this time. “You been in love. You know.”
Marie shook her head. She had to bring up Lance. “Nope,” Marie said.
Ms. Anglin got up then, threw the ice down she’d been holding to her finger. “It’s crazy, man. It’s crazy.” She staggered around the fire to some of her cousins.
Marie saw Shane come down the hill and mix back into the party, which had shot to life after the finger bite, people had unloosed. Boys lost their shirts in the still-hot early August night, and girls took the ponytail holders off their wrists to put their hair up to get it off their necks. One girl fell off a hay bale. She was just sitting there and then she wasn’t, she’d slumped all the way down to the ground. People gathered around her to make sure she was okay and then moved back to give her some air. Somewhere up in the darkness, above the log road in the woods a voice yelled out Heeelll yeeeah! A couple of the Owens cousins did karate on each other on the other side of the fire.
Marie was glad he told her the secret. People did that,
told her secrets, she didn’t know why.
Shane came over and got a beer from the cooler, took a gulp. He made a sour face, held up the can and blew out. “Hot as piss,” he said, then took another gulp anyway. “She can’t even get beer cold.”
Ms. Anglin stood across the fire from them, beside a big rock with Keith and his sister Nikki. Ms. Anglin hadn’t noticed Shane was back or she would have been sitting right there between the two of them.
“I can’t wait to be out of here,” Shane said, his eyes still on Ms. Anglin. He’d leave for Lexington the next day, college move-in day.
“What about Ms. Anglin?” Marie asked him.
“Hell,” he said and shook his head. He took another drink of the warm beer. “Sorority girls. That’s what I’m . . .” He made a clicking noise with his mouth and winked.
One of the Owens cousins karate kicked another one into the fire. He rolled out of the flame and onto the ground, smoke coming off of him, but nobody got excited. He stood up, dusted himself off, started sparring again.
“She thinks you’re messing with that cheerleader,” Marie said, then smiled.
Shane gave her his serious look, his older brother look, like she shouldn’t talk like that. All his gestures were exaggerated and slow because he was so high. “It doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t matter. Listen,” he said, leaning over toward Marie so he could talk low. “I’m not coming back this fall. I’ll be gone all spring when the season starts.” Marie nodded. “It’s over. Shhh,” he pointed at Ms. Anglin, then put his finger up to his mouth. “Shhh. Don’t tell her.” He and Ms. Anglin had been having sex since Shane was a sophomore, the first year she taught at their high school.
Marie was glad he told her the secret. People did that, told her secrets, she didn’t know why.
“You’re going to have to take care of yourself, okay?” he said. He leaned over onto her with his shoulder. “Okay?” he said. He leaned over onto her again, a little harder this time, needing some response from her.
She nodded. “I will.”
“You know if it gets weird you can call me.” She nodded again. There were a lot of things Marie and Shane didn’t talk about, including their parents, but they both knew what he meant.
“Just, you know,” he said.
“Yeah,” she said.
When they left the party, it was almost light. They drove back down the gravel road onto a blacktop road then north on Highway 25. They passed the little white houses and tan trailers of Crawford County. The few houses were bunched up together along the road, probably a grandma in the older small white house, aunts and uncles and cousins in the newer houses and trailers clustered around it.
Then they drove through the deserted town of Crawford, town with the same name as the county like the settlers were too tired from the trip through the mountains to come up with another one. The town looked like it had died a long time ago, boarded up buildings mostly, except a pool hall with an open door and a mattress in the doorway. A pharmacy and some lawyer offices locked up tight with bars over plate-glass windows.
They didn’t stop at the Denny’s by the interstate for breakfast that morning like they had before. Ms. Anglin woke up for a second, leaned over and put her head on Shane’s shoulder as he drove, said “I sure am going to miss you tadpole,” and fell asleep. Shane sped up to 70 on the straight part of the old highway.
When they reached Ms. Anglin’s house, Shane and Marie lugged her gear from the trunk and dropped it on her front porch.
“See you,” Shane said to Ms. Anglin and gave a goodbye salute.
Marie stayed on the porch steps for a minute. Ms. Anglin shook her head, told Marie to call her. Shane honked the horn. Marie jumped off the steps and ran through the yard to his car and they drove on home to Bethel.
Carrie Mullins is a fiction writer whose work has been published in Chicago Quarterly Review, Appalachian Heritage, Kudzu, and in the anthology Appalachia Now: Short Stories of Contemporary Appalachia (Bottom Dog Press, 2015). She is an eighth-generation resident of Rockcastle County, Kentucky. In 2015, she was awarded a Kentucky Foundation for Women Artist Enrichment Grant to travel to Croatia to research her next novel. Her debut novel, Night Garden, will be published by Old Cove Press in March, 2016.