Jeffrey Helton is a recent graduate from Berea College, where he studied English and Philosophy. He currently resides in the Swannanoa Valley of Western North Carolina and spends most of his hours writing. You can follow his blog here.
A Modern Baptism
After my eighth or ninth failed sketch, Joel’s fourwheeler came barreling through the break in the poplars.
As the machine jerked over the swelling earth, alive with milkweed, Joel leaned his head forward, beyond the handlebars, his cotton cowlick fluttering with the June wind. A handsaw grin was cutting right across his face, and I swear I could’ve counted each one of his fillings.
Joel was young and sure that he could survive anything, even the end of the world.
Even across the water, I recognized the neon tucked between his arm and side, a 20-ounce of Mountain Dew. That stuff reenergized him, kept his body fluid, able to adapt to his wildest impulses.
He was of river, and I was of the pond.
The grubby fourwheeler halted yards away, engine purring like a man with sleep apnea. Joel hopped from the black seat, strutted close, and dropped onto a patch of dandelions, crushing them flat. After an exhalation, slow with the weight of adolescence, he tilted the bottle and drained its saccharine poison.
“Jigsaw, don’t you ever wanna have fun?”
Jigsaw. A nickname I had because of my eyes—one colored like blue fire, the other like jade. I was a puzzle with pieces that did not cohere. And although the doctor swore that I was healthy, it was a flaw I’d never outgrow. Almost everyone everywhere tormented me for it. Only Joel liked it.
“Sawyer, you even hear me?”
His voice was a soft rasp, spoiled by a couple years of Marlboros. Puberty would soon wreak even more havoc on his vocal cords.
“Sketching’s fun,” I mumbled.
Without looking at Joel, I chewed at my No. 2 pencil before pressing the graphite against the newest sheet of paper. A sycamore tree had stood at the heart of this pond for as long as I could remember, and I wanted to draw it.
Every summer, no matter how I pleaded, Mama would ship me there, to Jamestown, Tennessee, a scorching place scented of cow dung and bereft of the mountains back home. In Jamestown, the dark cloth of my sleep was decorated with nightmares of my unfamiliar relatives—the twanged staccato laughter, the Skoal streaming like blood from grinning mouths, the judgment of Biblical magnitude.
Calmness found me only when I looked into the cloudy pond. Last summer, whenever dusk fell, I’d run out to kneel by the water, my practiced pen gushing with poetry. This year, I wanted to hone my skills in a different art.
I sketched a few more slender outlines, but nothing could capture the way the tree erupted from the stony water.
Joel placed his palm, cold with condensation, on my sunburned neck. “Come on now, Sawyer.” His words were razors. When he jerked me up by my collar, I thought about how odd it was for such young hands to be so calloused, so geographical. Joel urged me towards the pond, beyond the circular boundary where the grass blades gave way to dark chalky soil.
Islands of it squished against my feet, cool to the touch. The smell of algae wormed through my nostrils.
At the water’s edge, saved from its gravity only by Joel’s strength, I stared at our reflections and saw how different my cousin and I were. He was tan and angular, his clockwork bones clicking month by month towards adulthood. I was a foreign creature, soft and egg shaped.
Not yet hatched.
Such a divide between nine and thirteen.
A twitch of his muscles informed me that Joel was about to drop me. When the pressure of his hands eased, I wobbled then landed, forearms against the soil. Joel walked away, and my freckled reflection, closer than before, beckoned me to dive in—to vanish into myself.
Behind me, the sound of paper slicing through air caught my attention. Joel had snatched up one of my sketches. It made me feel uncomfortable, almost naked, but at least his hands were distracted. So far, Joel had never hurt me outside, where the earth and the sky stretched out like taffy.
Outside, Joel treated me for what I was—a little cousin that he loved with measured irritation.
But when I spent the night at his house, where the drywalls threatened to suffocate, Joel would get mean. Once, I told him a silly joke about NASCAR that insulted his entire outlook on life, and he lodged an old egg inside my mouth until I puked. Whenever we lay on our Mamaw’s pallets, he’d growl curses into my ears and punch me until the skin on my arms looked like a bouquet of coneflowers.
If I was lucky, he’d relent, and we’d discuss superheroes. We wasted hours talking about how Mamaw, a seamstress, could craft us costumes like Batman’s. I often wondered whether the outfits would confer special powers upon us, whether Joel and I really could save the world, but he was always more captivated by the gadgetry and vehicles. Still, our late-night talks forged a tenuous bond between us, a sign that sometimes things could be okay.
“How about we roll these papers up and try to smoke ‘em?”
He pinched the wrinkled corpse of my drawing between his thumb and forefinger, not bothering to look at it. I stood and took a small step in his direction, but he was unfazed. As his mind dawdled towards his next question, his fist smothered the paper into a ball, and my guts crumpled with it. Wet warmth bulleted at the corners of my eyes, but I couldn’t let the dam break.
When Joel decided my sketch was small enough, he plunked it into the pond.
“Why don’t you ever want to do nothing?” His frustration was quieter than before. Sky blue eyes pled with me.
“Well, what are we gonna do?” I sniffled, pretending to offer him a concession, knowing his tenderness was fleeting—to be replaced by torture later that night, if my resistance continued.
Grinning wide, Joel paced back to the fourwheeler. “Come on, Sawyer. Daddy’s off painting some rich lady’s house with one of his friends. We can take the Seville down to Danny’s till suppertime. Danny and them got a new trail by the river.”
“I don’t like Danny,” I whispered. Danny was of some vague relation to me, distant yet avuncular, but I regarded him with the same apprehension I would any stranger. I thought embracing such loose family relations was just a way for people to feel loved without sweating for it. “And I don’t like the river much, either.”
The river sliced through the backwoods, just down a hill of maples. All of the slimy creatures in it tickled your toes until you just wanted to dash off through the brush. The water tugged at you, deceptive and gentle, but if it dragged you down, you’d bust your skull against the moss-smothered rocks.
The pond never compelled you anywhere. It let you be.
“And what if we get hurt?” I had to add something, because I knew Joel loved that river too much to budge. Maybe he’d cave in if I acted terrified. Of course, I wasn’t really acting. Of the millions of places I did not want to die, deep in Danny’s backyard topped the list.
“Daddy’s Seville’s big. It’ll keep us safe. Besides,” he went on, features softening, “once we’re done, we can head back to my house and pull out that VCR.”
Joel knew my weakness and was exploiting it. I knew that, but it didn’t matter. Before I could even stammer an okay, I flung my leg over the shuddering fourwheeler. For a second, I wondered if I could just stay here and watch videotapes by myself later, but I knew Joel’s punishment would be harsh.
Arms wrapped tight around Joel’s stomach, the aroma of his sweat stinging my eyes, we raced for the tree line, towards the dirt road.
Clifford Walden Road had been cleared just over a century before, by my great-great-grandfather of the same name. A mile long and poorly sustained, the family road forked off from Old Sunbright, a lazy skin of asphalt pimpled with anemic convenience stores, where computer technology was tolerated like an out-of-towner—fine for business, bad for bloodlines. Clifford Walden built his namesake a couple thousand acres from his farmhouse, so that this land could be populated by his kin. Even after the second Clifford, my Poppy, took over the farm, very few Waldens escaped that road.
Joel fed the fourwheeler power, and it roared past Mamaw’s trailer. Each bump in the road threatened to force my breakfast back up. I felt a splatter of oatmeal drooling down my throat, acidic O.J. torturing my tonsils.
In our wake, we had summoned up thick columns of dust, and I buried my eyes into Joel’s shoulders until we edged into his driveway, right before Old Sunbright. Nauseated already, I changed from one vehicle to the next.
On the ride back down, the engine of the red Cadillac Seville chugged steadier than the fourwheeler’s, but that was little comfort.
As I shifted my sticky legs against the seat, I craned my head out of the window to eye Poppy’s cows. Black and white ovals lazed behind the barbed fence, which stretched on with its secret electricity. I gulped down the wave of fresh air, which distracted me from the deathly scent of Brut cologne, slithering across the leather seats, filling the cavities of my head.
Joel and I yelped a little when a hen ducked beneath the fence and wandered right onto the road. Joel lifted his foot from the accelerator, but it had a tendency to stick in place, so we just barely avoided crushing the animal. After a few swear words and a kick to the accelerator, Joel was happy enough with the Seville’s performance, and we continued on our way.
In the far distance, I could make out the white farmhouse. Someone (likely a second or third cousin) was tending to a lineup of coffee smudges—horses grazing. I wondered who would inherit this property after Poppy passed, but I remembered that, in a way, Poppy had already died with his wife, Ellyn. These days we rarely saw him. He’d wake at four in the morning, brandish his revolver, and vanish into the black backwoods until the hush of night. As far as anyone could tell, he never ate dinner at home. No one was foolish enough to question him.
One of the wheels sank with a dip in the road, jarring my thoughts.
Back in North Carolina, I never went driving. It wasn’t that the Carolinas lacked Jamestown’s open fields and private dirt roads—or even the apparent apathy of its law enforcement. I never drove because my family lived right off of I-40, and to stick a child behind the steering wheel there would be to invite tragedy. Once, at about midnight, my Uncle Jerry drove me out to the vacant parking lot of Ingles, our local grocery store, where I steered from his lap for a few minutes.
The sky was just a little darker when we reached Danny’s trailer, the final landmark. Yellowed curtains were drawn, and I prayed that Danny had already drugged himself to sleep. Sadie was curling in front of her doghouse, probably to enjoy the shade, but maybe to sleep off a hangover. In the yard, a few discarded cans of Bud Light, white with sunlight, reinforced my fears.
Nobody thought it was funny to give a dog beer but Danny.
Right beyond the confederate-flagged mailbox, I saw something new, something dreadful—a shadowy mouth between two trees, marking the new trail. My eyes met a perplexed glance from Sadie, who rested her vanilla muzzle between outstretched legs.
We breached the gloom.
Joel rasped out a sharp yeehaw, while I flailed and bounced, trying to click my seatbelt into place but unable to.
The convoluted path between the maples was only halfway cleared, and I don’t think Danny’s boys intended for a vehicle of that size to drive down the hill. Our descent was choppy, with the car seesawing over rough mounds of earth. As I thumped my forehead against the windshield, Joel started murmuring, realizing that the car was beyond his control. I cranked my window up, hoping the weak, webbed glass would withstand the brutality of each new moment.
In the chaos of motion, I heard a scream of tree branches as their bones bent and snapped against the windshield.
I let cool leather swallow my shoulder blades, breathed to steady myself, and pretended to be somewhere else. My insides sloshing around, everything was in slow motion, and I became an astronaut, floating into nameless territory. The air outside my shuttle was draped with leaves like stars.
The woods swallowed us down further.
As time crawled, I saw Joel as he was, a child whose thin wrists quaked on a massive steering wheel. I saw individual coils of color in the whirlwind of emerald, oak, and shade just beyond the glass. And I saw the curve of the river just below us, where the earth leveled out
The Seville dove again, as if through gelatin, its belly scraping terrain, howling like a metallic animal.
Then, no slow motion.
No jade constellations.
Flat on my back. Mind misty. Sky bruised purple behind veined branches. Rocks daggered next to my spine.
Water was streaming through my hair, and hot stickiness collected near my temple. Rivulets of red ran down forearms, and the skin shined with glass shards. Something that was supposed to be a scream had settled in my throat, gathering dust.
Somewhere, a faint voice—angelic and twanged.
I heard a roar, and the mist in my head dissipated. I made out the movement of the Seville, passenger window shattered, groaning and spitting mud around the clearing. Behind the windshield, Joel squeezed the wheel, and I wondered if he was trying to kill me. The car slithered through the muck, wild and uncontrollable, about to strike at any second. Only when I saw the horror painted on Joel’s face, as the Seville lurched in my direction, did I realize what was happening.
The accelerator was stuck.
Fear froze me. My lungs were swollen tight, and the incoming grille of the car wore a smile. Joel’s face was contorted with a scream, and then I just refused to focus on the car, settling my eyes on the backdrop of dark maples—the last things I’d ever see
Sweat beaded with blood on my brow. As the whole world darkened, a figure moved within the forest, and I heard the voice again.
Clifford Walden II, chest wide and oaken, stepped from the woods. The buttons of his flannel were mismatched, and bits of twig and leaf clung to its coarse fabric. His starving blue eyes widened, falling on the car. He gave me a glance, shouting words I could not hear, and my heart thundered against my ribs. Poppy’s arm rose, a revolver in hand.
A single shot exploded the Seville’s front left tire. The car squelched, veering to my side.
My small body finally gave out.
I woke at the pond, sliding into my cold reflection. Disoriented, I splashed up towards the sky and leeched the night air into my lungs.
To my surprise, my bones were still intact, although my body ached—my head worst of all. Poppy knelt at the pond’s edge, steel pail in hand, so I waded closer to him and stretched my shoulders back, shivering. He filled the pail with water and let it pour down, sloshing across my chest before pattering into the pond. Blood and mud slipped from me until there were just a few harmless gashes visible here and there.
Once I felt clean, I shimmied up the face of the sycamore, stretching out on its fattest branch. Hair was clumping against my forehead, and I brushed it aside to stare at Poppy. His lips were pink slivers, and he had a thick gray beard—a storm cloud always brewing at his throat.
“Mmm?” he rumbled, toying with a corncob pipe in his pocket.
“Is Joel okay?”
“He’s shaken, but fine. Sleeping at your Mamaw’s. His daddy ain’t back yet.”
I slipped back into the pond. “What about the Seville?” Water splashed against Poppy’s jeans, but he seemed not to mind. Arms extended, I arched my back, allowing the cool water to bear my weight.
A small ember glowed red in Poppy’s pipe, and he exhaled a smoky stream in answer.
“We’re gonna be in big trouble, huh?” I asked him. I wiggled my toes idly in the water, awaiting his verdict.
“Baby, there’s no use in worrying about petty things like that.” He cast his eyes to the pockmarked moon above. “Soon enough, that moon’ll stain red, and then we’re all gonna be in big trouble.”
“Poppy… What do you mean? Red like the Seville?”
Bored with smoking, Poppy patted the pipe against his lined palm, trying to salvage some tobacco dust. “It’s what the pastor’s been saying.”
Brother Clyde Franklin preached at Sunbright Baptist, a corpulent man with eager, bulging brown eyes, like pennies against eggshells.
“New millennium’s just half a year away. Pastor figures man has wasted plenty enough time here, trying to learn to be good.”
I said nothing, but my teeth chattered.
Poppy rose from the pond’s perimeter, undoing the buttons of his flannel. “Some people will wanna run far away. Some will sit real still, hoping to go unseen in those last hours. But the Lord is alive, and there’s just no escaping that, no matter what you choose.” He leaned forward, now in a dirtied vest, and offered his massive jacket down to me. “Ready to go, Sawyer?”
Ready to go?
The world was ending, and I just wanted to float there forever, orbiting the sycamore.