2016 Fiction Contest Judge's Choice ~ Monic Ductan
It is the year after I’ve finished high school, and mama can’t afford pay-per-view boxing matches on her own, so she invites her co-workers from the hatchery plant to watch the fights with her and chip in to pay for them. When she does this, they make such a commotion over the fights that I can’t sleep.
One night I get up and go stand in the living room doorway. The room is lit by only the TV screen and orange light from the kerosene heater. Kerosene fumes burn my eyes. Cold air brushes places my flannel nightgown doesn’t cover—ankles, shins, and knees.
On the TV screen, the boxers move together for one moment. They hug each other, bare chest to bare chest. One man has his arms around the other man’s waist, akin to a lovers’ embrace. The man in the blue trunks cocks his head closer to his opponent’s. Their bodies are slick with sweat, skins so damp and shiny they seem to have been rubbed down with body oil.
Mama’s fingers dig into the plaid upholstery of her recliner. Not much ever excites my mama, but when she does get excited she holds her breath. I listen to her labored pants, want to poke her in the ribs and tell her to breathe.
A woman and two men sit on the couch. I recognize only one of them—Tim Reading, who was several years ahead of me in school when he dropped out. Tim sits calmly, chin angled down, shoulders and forehead pointed squarely at the TV. I look at his face, really study it—the high cheekbones and the wide, round nose. He has delicate lips. The light of the heater shows burn scars on the back of his neck. The story goes that Tim’s mama was hopped up on drugs one night when she spilled a pan of hot cooking oil on him.
A bell dings. The fighters withdraw from each other and shuffle into their corners. Trainers spurt water over the fighters and knead their massive shoulders.
My daddy walks through the living room carrying a basket of laundry. He looks at the screen, frowns and shakes his head. “I wish y’all wouldn’t watch that,” Daddy says. “It’s inhumane.”
“No one makes them do it, sugar,” Mama says, not taking her eyes off the screen. “They’re fighters. It’s what they do.”
Daddy, his upper lip curled, looks around at the wadded up napkins, beer bottles, and half-eaten platters of fried fish and hushpuppies on the coffee table and the floor. He puts the laundry basket down and begins to gather trash. “Gimme a hand, Macy,” Daddy says to me.
I pick up three beer bottles sitting on the floor near my feet, scoop up some lipstick-stained napkins from the table and follow Daddy into the kitchen. We discard the mess in the trash bin and then head back into the living room.
A bell dings on TV, signaling the boxers out of their corners. The man in the red trunks goes at the other guy. I admire his aggressiveness and physical strength. He backs the other man into a corner, beats the daylights out of him. The man in blue falls to the canvas.
Tim stands, casts a long shadow against the wall. He claps hands with the woman on the couch and eagerly accepts bills from the man to his left.
I catch Tim’s eye and smile. He smiles back.
I go to the football game on Friday night. There isn’t much else to do here in town. At halftime, I leave the stadium, walk across the school parking lot to smoke a cigarette. The moon is very bright. Trumpets and trombones call out from the football field.
I put the cigarette butt in a trash bin. As I’m heading back to the field, I see Tim walking on the other side of the parking lot. He turns right onto Curry Creek Road. My friend Rachel is my ride tonight, otherwise I’d offer him a ride. Where is he headed? I follow him down toward Curry Creek Bridge. The cicadas remind me of the low hum of voices from the football crowd. Tim moves through the tall grass, sending quiet brushing sounds across the field. Curiosity stops me from calling out to him. Better to see where he goes. I follow, pausing after every few steps to keep a good distance between us. The thigh-high grass leaves a clear path behind him as he moves farther from the road through a cluster of cedar trees.
Finally we come to the spot where the old McClure place used to be. Their house was condemned years ago. Nothing remains there but an old tool shed that stands in what used to be the McClure’s side yard. Weeds dominate the space. I close my eyes a second, not wanting to imagine the snakes and field rats that could be roaming the grass.
Tim opens the door to the shed and looks over his shoulder and right at me, or does he? It’s dark out and I’m standing behind a tree, partially hidden. He stares in my direction for several seconds, and I know I’ve been found out.
“Saw you walking and wondered what you were up to. You staying here?”
Tim doesn’t answer. Instead, he swings the book bag off his shoulder and lowers it to the ground.
I shiver and say, “It’s cold out here,” even though it isn’t very cold. “Can I come in?”
Rather than answer me, he opens the shed’s door. I follow him inside. The shed is so dark I can’t see my feet. Tim rustles around on my left. A light switches on and then another. Flashlights. He sets them upright on the table by the handles so that the beams light the ceiling. Something scurries to my right. A spider. I hold my hand over my mouth. Spiders make me feel puke-y.
“Why ain’t you in college?” he asks.
The question is unexpected. I keep watching the spider, hoping it will change direction and burrow under a shovel it has ambled past. Tim follows my line of sight, spots the spider and steps on it. He moves his sneaker back and forth, grinding its body into the earth.
“I woulda gone if I was you,” he says. “You could probably get a good job in an office someday, or somewhere like that.”
I say, “How long have you been staying here?”
There is an air mattress in the middle of the floor. He sets his book bag down on top of it and doesn’t answer me. I take off my jacket and lay it down on the mattress.
“Don’t make yourself at home, girl. I don’t like company out here.”
I sit on the mattress, stare up at him.
“Quit playing, Macy.” He grabs my arm as if to pull me to my feet, but I dig my shoes into the ground and pull him toward me. He could easily snatch me up, but doesn’t. Instead, he flops down beside me on the mattress.
“I was sorry to hear about your mama,” I tell him.
Tim’s mama died last year. People said it was an overdose.
“Don’t you have any folks to stay with?” I ask.
“Got a cousin that works with your mama at the poultry, that’s how I heard about the pay-per-view party. I stay with my cousin most nights.”
“What about your folks in Spartanburg?”
“What you know about Spartanburg?” he asks.
“Heard you went up there to stay with family after you left high school.”
Tim stares at me a long time. My left knee is against his right one. I shift my body a little closer to his. He puts his mouth down by my ear, says, “What are you doing out here with me?”
The hardness of his face—the slashing cheekbones and strong nose—are softened by his lips. Those lips are pliant, almost too feminine for the rest of him. I run my pinky finger along his top lip’s upper ridge.
When Tim kisses my cheek, I close my eyes, feel the cold air and Tim’s cold fingertips on the inside of my thigh. I resist him, but only a little. I like the feel of his lips and hands, but I don’t like where we are. My fear of the spider comes back. It’s amplified by ten when I hear a scraping sound on the tin roof. I draw in my breath so fast that I start to cough. Tim says, “It’s just squirrels on the roof.” His cold fingers dig underneath my bra, find my breasts and squeeze a little too hard.
Aaron, my last boyfriend, was much more gentle than Tim. He held my head on his lap, stroked my hair, and told me I was beautiful. I rolled my eyes when he said it. I don’t like to be bullshitted. My looks are average, and boys only say otherwise when they are looking to get laid.
Something snakes its way across my ankle. I flinch. Tim leans down toward my feet and scoops something up. He flops down on his back, a green lizard in his hand. “This guy does that some nights. He likes to play around.” Tim turns his head to me. His smile disappears as soon as he sees my face. He drops the lizard on the floor, and it scurries out of sight behind a cardboard box.
I try to let my expression soften, but I feel puke-y again. “How can you live like this?” The words sound unintentionally disdainful.
“Look, girl, I’m always gonna live like this, or something like it. The question is, why is you out here with me?” Tim asks. He sits up and pushes his face closer to mine.
Energy radiates off his body and into mine. I know right then I’ll keep coming back. Despite the spiders, lizards and squirrels, staying away isn’t an option. Being with him in the woods is better than hanging with Rachel these days, especially since she’s just had a baby and is all the time complaining about her baby’s daddy. Being with Tim is also better than sitting alone in my room and thinking about my life, how I’m nineteen years old and should have at least some plans for the future. But when I think of the future I see only a black, empty space.
“I like being here,” I say, but the mood is ruined.
There’s a hole in the ceiling. His angry face sits beside the moon.
“Are you sleeping here tonight?” I ask.
He doesn’t answer. My denim jacket lies underneath his leg. He picks it up and tosses it toward the door.
I stand and put on the jacket before stepping out into the field. As I run through the grass and back toward Curry Creek Road, a memory passes through my mind. Back when I was about eight years old, I lost the fifty-five cents Mama gave me for extra milk money. As I searched through my book bag on the school bus, Tim plopped down on the seat beside me.
“What are you hunting for?” he asked.
“My milk money. I lost it somewhere.”
Tim reached into his pocket and held his hand out toward me. “Here,” he said. His palm was pointed down and his fingers were curled into a loose fist. He dropped several quarters into my palm.
“You giving me this?” I asked him.
“Yeah,” he said. “You can have it.”
I go out to Tim’s place again on Saturday, but he isn’t there. On Sunday, just before dusk, I smell smoke as soon as I reach the grove of cedar trees leading up to the tool shed.
There’s a small campfire going. Tim takes a long-handled cooking fork and rakes a package wrapped in tin foil onto a plate. He opens the package, sniffs its contents.
“Whatcha got?” I ask.
He whips his head around to look at me.
“Scared?” I tease him.
He shrugs it off. “Not as scared as you. You scared of lizards, squirrels, maybe even your own shadow.”
“And what are you scared of?” I ask.
“Dying,” he says without any hesitation. He’s sitting in front of the fire, looking up at me.
“You probably won’t die for a long time,” I tell him.
“Maybe, maybe not.”
I sit beside him and he starts to eat the roasted chicken.
“Want to know what I’m scared of?” I ask.
He chews another bite of chicken, says, “I already know. You too obvious. You scared of failing. Scared to make friends better than me.”
I roll my eyes at him.
He stops chewing with his hand halfway to his mouth. “You’re just as good as those college kids,” he says. “Better than most of ‘em.”
“I know that,” I say.
“No you don’t.”
There are all types of intelligences. I wish Tim could see that being able to read people is a talent in itself, one that cannot be taught in a book. Tim is intuitive. But would he even know what that word means if I were to say it? I can’t even explain it to him, not without gushing and embarrassing myself.
“. . . I’m calling to report that Tim Reading is out in front of my store,” he says into the phone. He pauses for a moment and listens. “I made a police report last time and y’all didn’t do nothin’ about it. Just get a cop out here.”
About a week later, I’m scanning the labels on cans of sweet corn at work when I notice Mr. Klein, my boss, staring at something outside the store window.
“Oh God,” he mutters. “Here comes that Reading boy.” Mr. Klein glances at me with his brow drawn before turning back to the window. “That boy’s nothing but trouble. Last time he was in here he stole everything he could get his hands on.”
I hear shouting outside, and I go over to the window, which is framed by icicles. For the past several days ice has covered everything—trees, roadway, pavement.
Out in the parking lot, Tim talks to a man in a blue sweatshirt. For a second I can’t remember why the man looks so familiar, but then I recall his face from the night of the boxing match. He sat next to Tim that night; he was the one who lost the bet.
The man wears no coat or hat. His face is bright red, and I can’t tell if it’s from the cold or because he is shouting at Tim. “Don’t you ever—” the man says, but his words are drowned out by a semi on the highway.
Tim waves the man away and starts toward the store, but the man grabs Tim’s elbow and presses his face into Tim’s, his body upright, as if bracing for an attack. If they were animals, this would be the part where they bare their teeth.
Mr. Klein goes over to the counter, picks up the phone and dials a number.
“Hey, this is Jim Klein. I’m calling to report that Tim Reading is out in front of my store,” he says into the phone. He pauses for a moment and listens. “I made a police report last time and y’all didn’t do nothin’ about it. Just get a cop out here.” He hangs up the phone and joins me at the window.
Tim shoves the man down onto the icy pavement.
Mr. Klein moves over to the door and yanks it open. He goes out and stands with his hands on his hips. “You can’t come in here. I’ve already called the law. Just get on back where you come from.” Mr. Klein looks at the man who is getting slowly to his feet. “Both of y’all. I don’t want trouble.”
But the man isn’t listening or doesn’t care. He walks up behind Tim and grabs him in a chokehold. I start to push past Mr. Klein in my hurry to get to Tim, but Mr. Klein grabs me and pulls me back inside the store. He slams the door shut and latches the two deadbolts.
I follow Mr. Klein back to the window. Tim and the man wrestle on the ground. Tim climbs on top of him. I can’t help but think that it looks like one partner mounting another in the bedroom. I half-expect to see Tim unzip his fly, but of course he doesn’t. Instead, he draws back and punches the man square in the face. Before the man recovers, Tim punches him again. Blood spurts up into the air and lands on Tim’s shoulder and on the pavement. Again and again I hear the sound of Tim’s fist connecting with the man’s face. It’s like a sick beat to an enticing song. As sick as it makes me feel, I am intrigued by it. I cannot look away. I am mesmerized, even aroused, by watching a man try to kill another man.
My mind shifts to Tim’s steady, forceful kisses. I feel the rhythm of them against my lips.
“Where’re the damned cops?” Mr. Klein mutters. He dials numbers on the phone again.
“Yeah,” he says, “Y’all better get down here. Tim’s done jumped on Rodney Kilgore. He’s beating the tar out of him. He’s gon’ kill him if y’all don’t...”
We hear the police sirens, and he hangs up the phone again.
I look to the left and the right, hoping to see a deputy’s car, but they aren’t here yet. I wonder how far away the sirens are as Tim climbs off of the bloody man. There is a moment when Tim stands there, looking over his shoulder, no doubt looking for the police car. He doesn’t move, and for a moment I see him struggling with a choice. Act or do nothing? Move forward or stand still?
Tim runs across the railroad tracks and into the woods behind the haystacks.
Two police cars pull up to the gas pumps. An ambulance arrives, lights flashing. Two medics jump out. They lean over Kilgore’s body as a deputy comes to talk with Mr. Klein. The deputy says his name is Lighthouse, but I know this already because I went to school with his daughter, Sybil Lighthouse. She has the same features—white-blond hair and impossibly white skin.
Mr. Klein explains what happened, how Tim pushed Kilgore and Kilgore tackled him.
“Did you see which way he went when he ran outta here?” Lighthouse asks.
“Down through the haystacks,” Mr. Klein says as I point in the opposite direction near the church.
“You think he went that way?” the officer asks me as he jerks his thumb over his shoulder.
“No,” Mr. Klein says. “I saw him run over by the haystacks. Remember, Macy?”
“That’s not what I saw,” I say, pointing toward the church again. “While you were over there on the phone, he circled around and went back toward the church,” I lie.
Officer Lighthouse looks back at Mr. Klein.
Mr. Klein shrugs. “She was in front of the window longer than I was. If she says it’s so, then I reckon it is.”
Lighthouse’s police radio is clipped to his shoulder. He pushes a button on it and gives the dispatcher the info about Tim and the Baptist church. Then, he scribbles something on a pad.
After Lighthouse finishes with me, Mr. Klein says, “You can go on home now, Macy.”
I walk to the stockroom to get my coat and purse. Out in the parking lot, I see that the ambulance has pulled out of the lot, but a small crowd of onlookers is still gathered by the gas pumps. As I crawl into my Chevy truck, Lighthouse comes up to me. He’s watching me, and his eyebrows are drawn together.
A few years ago Lighthouse was out directing traffic one day when my friend Rachel and I drove up to him. Lighthouse held up his hand for Rachel to stop the car, but Rachel ignored him and kept moving. Lighthouse blew his whistle and came hollering up the street.
Rachel was smoking a black and mild, which she had no business doing since we were only sixteen. Lighthouse screamed and hollered with such authority that it scared Rachel. She slammed on brakes. Lighthouse came storming up toward the driver’s side window. She panicked and put the lit cigar in the glovebox.
Lighthouse, face red, screamed, “I’ve seen y’all every morning speeding through town. When I’m out there in the street directing traffic, you stop!”
Rachel looked at me, eyes wide. She started to tear up. I smelled the cigar burning. We waited for him to give us a ticket, but he only glared at us. Finally, after standing there fuming for a full minute, he patted the car door roughly and told us to get the hell outta there.
As Lighthouse stands staring at me in Klein’s parking lot, I wonder if he is remembering that day he yelled at Rachel and me. He knocks on the window, and I roll it down. He props himself up against the car, resting his elbows on the window ledge, blue veins visible through white skin.
“You know, Macy, my girl Sybil is at Clemson now. Thought you got a scholarship to somewhere?”
“Wofford,” I tell him.
“That’s a good school.” He jerks his head back toward Klein’s store. “But you decided to stay and work here instead?”
I’m more than sick of people telling me what I should be doing with my life.
“You and Tim are pretty good friends, aren’t you?” he asks.
“Not really, sir.”
“But you used to be?”
“His family knows my family, if that’s what you mean. But until recently I haven’t seen him around.”
“That’s ‘cause he was locked up until recently. Was breaking into houses up in Spartanburg,” he says.
My heart kicks up against my ribs, like a basketball thrown against a brick wall.
“I know you’re a good kid, Macy. Stay away from that boy. If you see him, you call me.” He reaches into his pocket and hands me a card with his name and the number to the sheriff’s department on it.
Lighthouse stands back, and I maneuver my truck around the crowd. It’s cold and the heater is busted, but I leave my window down anyway and let cold air in.
When I get to Curry Creek Bridge, I pull off the road and stop at the top of the embankment. For a moment, I sit there with the truck idling. I want to go looking for Tim in the shed, but I’m afraid to. What if Lighthouse finds me with Tim? Tim, the felon. Tim, the guy who’s broken into houses. For a second I can’t imagine Tim doing that, but then the image of him on top of Kilgore comes back to me. Yes, Tim probably would steal. Hadn’t Mr. Klein told me what sort of person he was?
Maybe I can talk Tim into turning himself in. I open the door and get out of the truck. The grassy field isn’t so scary in daylight. Before long, Tim’s shed appears among the trees. At the window, I cup my hands around my eyes and peek inside. I can’t see much of anything. I pause for a long moment to listen for movement.
When I get home, Mama is on our front porch.
“You all right?” She looks me up and down as though she expects to see a bullet hole.
I take my boots off and go into the kitchen. I sit by the window that looks out to our backyard.
Mama comes into the house and points to the blanket on the sofa.
“Did you know about that?” she asks me.
“Know about what?”
She grabs the blanket and brings it over to me. It is old and worn and blue with a seam loose on one corner.
“They found this in the camper,” she says. She gestures to the little motor home in back of our house. “They think Tim’s been squatting out there some nights. Tammy Randall saw him going in there. Did you know anything about it, Macy?”
“Of course not,” I say. “You’re the one who had him over here for your boxing party. If he’s been in our camper, it’s ‘cause you did that.” I turn from her and look out the window toward the woods.
Mama grabs my wrist and forces me around to look at her. “Do you know where he’s run off to?” Mama asks me. “He’s already got a warrant on him, Macy. If Kilgore dies, they’ll bump it up to manslaughter. The cops explained it to me that way. If you know where he is, you better tell me,” she says.
I look at the blanket slung over her shoulder.
“Answer me, girl,” Mama says.
“No, I don’t know anything about the blanket.”
She shakes her head, and I can tell she doesn’t believe me.
The next morning when I climb out of the shower, I hear Mama and Daddy talking in the kitchen.
“They got him last night,” Daddy is saying. “I always did know that boy was something sour. His mama never could make him go to school. He was always off somewhere, racing four-wheelers, wild as the devil.”
A rivulet of water runs down the side of my face and drips onto the terry cloth towel. The sound of a newspaper folding comes from the kitchen, and I imagine Daddy reading the paper while he sips coffee. I slip on shorts and a tank top and go into the kitchen, hoping there’s a story about Tim that I can read.
I nod good morning. Daddy starts another long-winded speech about how rotten he thinks Tim is. Mama nods her head in agreement. I roll my eyes when I think she isn’t looking.
“What you rolling your eyes at, Miss Lady?” Mama asks.
“I hate how everyone thinks they know everything in hindsight. If you really knew he was so violent, you wouldn’t have invited him over here,” I say.
I lean over Mama to read The Spartanburg Herald-Journal. The story confirms what Daddy said, that Tim was apprehended the night before.
“Excuse you, ma’am,” Mama says.
My wet hair has dripped onto her shirt sleeve. She snatches the paper up and snaps it shut.
“That boy always was wild,” Daddy says again.
“He wasn’t all bad. He—” I start, but then I stop when I notice Mama watching me. “He is all bad,” Daddy says. “He beat the stuffing out of Kilgore. They’re saying Kilgore’ll be out of work for weeks. He’s got a family that depends on him.”
“Kilgore’s kids are crazy about him. Tim ain’t got nobody,” Mama says, looking pointedly at me.
“Everybody’s got somebody,” I say.
I get a raise from Mr. Klein, enough money to rent a tiny apartment on Webster across from a laundry. The heat is busted those first few nights, and the train rumbles by every hour. My apartment is down the block from where Rachel lives with her baby, who is now preschool age. Time has flown by. When I think of high school, it seems a whole lifetime has passed.
One night I walk down to visit Rachel. Nearly all the little houses have Christmas trees lit up in the windows and green and red wreaths on the front doors.
A man walks toward me. He wears a grey sweatshirt with the hood pulled over his head. He breaks his stride, looks sidelong at me and crosses the street.
“Tim?” I say. He doesn’t turn around, so I say it again, louder this time.
Tim walks faster, putting more and more distance between us.
I think about that day on the school bus when we were just kids, how he said, “You can have it.” I think about his smooth skin, how it wasn’t scarred yet. I remember the way his fingers brushed my palm when he slipped the coins to me.
Monic Ductan has studied fiction at Georgia College, the Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and University of Southern Mississippi. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, including Shenandoah, Water~Stone Review, Cold Mountain Review, Tahoma Literary Review and So to Speak. Monic is the winner of Blue Lyra Review’s 2015 Short-ish Poetry Prize, the 2016 Garth Avant Fiction Award, and a second place creative writing award for her personal essay at the 2016 Southern Writers/Southern Writing Conference.