Ticks by Natalie Sypolt

"Would anybody miss you?” the man called out his truck window.  The white pickup was sitting by the little bridge, just sitting there idling, probably waiting for one of the big giant ones hauling equipment to the well site to come. She’d seen them do that before. Hazel walked Hester and Dim—her aging Bassett Hounds—this way nearly every day. There had always been little traffic on the unlined road, and lots of good places for the dogs to sniff, but since they’d started drilling the natural gas well, there’d been more and more strange trucks, some with beds so long that they couldn’t easily make it around the turns, so the turns had been altered. They made new dirt roads to cut the turns short. It was ugly, and no one cared about doing it in a way that wouldn’t leave such permanent scars. They only cared about getting it done quick.

At first Hazel wasn’t sure she’d heard correctly, or that the man had said anything at all. Reflexively, she turned her head to look at him. She was just past the window and on the other side of the road, but she could clearly see his face, skinny and stubbled, shiny sunglasses that reflected the light. He looked like nobody. 

“Well?” he said again, not quite as loud since he’d got her attention. He was staring a hole in her, and she felt naked in her short gym shorts and t-shirt. “Would they?”

There was another man in the truck, and she could see him laughing and shaking his head, but he was staring at her too. Same mirrored sunglasses. She’d never felt unsafe walking alone; she’d never felt like a vulnerable single woman, though maybe she should have. Wasn’t her dad always asking her about locking her doors? Hadn’t Sam given her that little black gun and shown her how to load it and even set up pop cans in the backyard for her to shoot? 

Most of these oil and gas guys had come in from Texas or Oklahoma. They weren’t the boys she’d known all her life.  Sure, those guys could be dangerous too—she knew that anyone had the potential to be dangerous on any given day—but these men were different and new. And they weren’t from here. They came and went; no one knew their names.

“Living all the way out here alone, you need something,” Sam’d said when she’d put up a fight about the gun. He’d looked so serious, and so sweet with that worried crease in his forehead. What he meant but hadn’t said was that he couldn’t be there all the time and he wanted to protect her. So she took the gun and kept it in the top drawer of her dresser and kept the little box of shells in a different drawer just in case.

The dogs started barking, first Hester and then Dim, and they both were pulling at their leashes, trying to get to the truck.  They snapped her back into motion and she started moving again, tugging the dogs along as best she could. 

“Come on Hester, Dim,” she said, practically dragging them behind her. “Come on. Please.” 

She heard the men laughing, and the first one turned and said something to the other, loud enough that she was also supposed to hear, but over the deep bark of the hounds, she only heard pieces that sounded like “eat up” and “that one” and “ummm”.

She kept pulling the dogs farther away from the truck and from her home. To go back now would mean to go past the men again. 

“They were just being stupid,” she kept telling herself. Stupid men, probably thinking they were complimenting her, or just goofing around. They probably didn’t mean a thing by it. She’d had men yell out car windows at her before—hadn’t all women? She’d never felt particularly pretty or desirable. Always a little fatter than she should be, hair a curly mess, usually wearing comfortable and relatively conservative clothes. Maybe even once or twice when she was in college, some boy whistling or hooting out the window at her had made her feel a little better about herself. But that had always been in public, with her moving and the car moving, not here, so close to her home, and in the middle of nowhere. 

Why hadn’t she brought her phone? Didn’t she know to always bring her phone? The gym shorts even had that weird inside pocket for just that reason. Even if she’d had the phone, though, who would she call and what would she say? If she called Sam at work, he’d come, but then what? If the men were still there, he would confront them. She could see what that would look like, and she couldn’t put him in a position to make things bad and complicated. And she couldn’t call the police and tell them, “Please help, some of the oil and gas men talked to me,” so the phone wouldn’t have been much good anyway.  

She wasn’t sure what to do.  She wanted to go back into her little house, lock the doors, put the dogs on the bed and curl up with them until Sam came. It was Monday night, so he’d be there around six, bumping his pickup truck into her driveway. He’d stay with her for an hour, maybe two, before heading back to his place in Crystal Holler. 

Hazel’s arms were hurting from hauling the dogs, still barking and trying to pull back to the truck. The Bassett Hounds were sweet and loveable, but also very hard-headed and single-minded. Once they saw something they wanted, they rarely forgot it.  Hazel got her foot behind Hester and kicked her a little, not hard, but enough to get her attention. Hester was skittish—especially around feet, as though she’d been kicked and abused in another life. The little tap to the butt worked. Hester tucked her tail between her legs and stopped barking, though she continued to look longingly back at the truck. Once Hester had stopped, Dim—always the follower—did too and finally started walking next to Hazel again. 

The road had a bend, and once she was around it, Hazel knew that the men in the truck couldn’t see her anymore. Her legs burned from walking too quickly, and she pulled the dogs, who weren’t so much being bad now, but just slow in their plodding, short-legged way. 

Finally around the bend, Hazel was able to get off the road and into the thick roadside bramble.  She went back into the trees, just enough that she thought she might not be seen from the road. The dogs were excited by the new territory and started sniffing around. Dim immediately got his leash tangled around two little saplings and a green briar. He looked up at her helplessly with his big droopy eyes until she untangled him. 

The adrenaline had caught up with her. Her hands were shaking and she felt sick in her stomach. She sat down on the ground and put her head in her hands, though that didn’t last for long since each wrist had a dog leash looped around it and as the dogs became interested in a new smell and pulled, her hand was tugged away from her face. Eventually, it was all just too silly, and she felt dumb for reacting like a startled chicken. The men were probably still laughing about how fast they’d made that chubby girl walk. 

When Hester came up to Hazel, curious as to why she was on the ground, Hazel rubbed the dog’s ears and managed a smile. 

“Well,” she said to Hester. “What do we do now?” Hester looked at her, panting, smiling in that doggy way. Dim came over and rooted under her arm until it was wrapped around him. “Some great protectors you two are,” she said.

Bugs were crawling up into her shorts, she was sure of it, and dirt and dried leaves were sticking to her sweaty legs. She didn’t know how long she could stay there, but walking back past the truck made her stomach flip and she knew she wasn’t brave enough for that. 

She didn’t know how long she’d been sitting there. Long enough for Dim to lose interest in new surroundings and flop over onto his side. Hester perked her ears up and Dim stirred from his nap, both hearing something that Hazel did not. At first she was afraid that it was the men in the truck, and her heart started to beat faster. She rose up into a crouch, ready to run if she had to, but then she heard the low, deep rumble and knew that it wasn’t the men, but one of the giant tractor trailer trucks bumping and squeaking up the road.

The dogs both loved and feared the trucks that had been going past the house for about a month, hauling giant dozers and beams and other equipment that Hazel couldn’t name. It all looked mysterious and foreign, too big to make sense of. The trucks took up nearly the entire road and if a car were to meet them, the car would have to go up into someone’s yard or even back up, slowly, until they got to a wide spot or a driveway to dart into. Hazel had complained, everyone who lived on Back Mountain Road had complained, but no one listened. Just two weeks ago, a sophomore at the high school had been killed when one of the giant trucks crossed over the center line out on the main road and easily crushed the little Ford Focus she was driving to her after school job at the Dairy Queen.  

            They’d killed the neighbor’s dog and someone else’s chickens that liked to peck out in the middle of the road and had gotten used to people slowing down for them. No one let their kids ride their bikes anymore.

The dogs wanted to bark and pull, but Hazel grabbed both by the collars and held them tight to her. They all three watched as the lumbering giant came into view. The cab was white with some letters on the side—not a local company—and the trailer was so long that it seemed it would never pass. It was hauling one of those wide metal boxes, like a trailer, that they probably used for some sort of storage. She’d seen them go by before. She’d known even before she saw the truck that it was full, because when they weren’t hauling a load—after they’d dropped something off or on the way to pick something up—they flew, driving faster on the curvy little road than anyone living there did in their cars or pickups. They’d killed the neighbor’s dog and someone else’s chickens that liked to peck out in the middle of the road and had gotten used to people slowing down for them. No one let their kids ride their bikes anymore. Most people kept them in the house, afraid of what might happen if they turned their heads for just a minute and the kid got too close when one of those trucks came barreling through.

These were the things they knew now.  This is how their lives had changed.

Hazel waited for a little while until she could no longer hear the tractor-trailer bumping along. Then she took the dogs and cautiously left the tree line. Back around the bend, as she’d hoped, the pickup was gone. It had been waiting to guide the big rig in, and now neither was in sight. 

“Okay guys,” Hazel said and started towards home. The dogs always had pep in their step on the way back. “The home stretch” her granddad had called it, as in “They’re in the homestretch now.” 

Finally back home, Hazel took the leashes off the dogs and calmly filled up their bowls with cold water from the refrigerator pitcher. She was determined not to freak out, to act silly and block all the doors with locks and furniture. She was determined not to think about the gun in her drawer.  

The dogs drank and drank. They weren’t used to being out that long, or walking that fast. She knew that as soon as they were done, they’d both pass out and not move again for hours. 

She still felt bugs crawling all over her, and knew that dirt clung to the backs of her legs. She took a long shower, a coolish one though usually she liked the water steaming hot.  She didn’t lock the bathroom door, and tried not to jump when she heard a pattering of nails coming in.  It was just Hester, who liked to stick her head around the shower curtain when Hazel showered, and catch water drops on her long tongue.

When Sam came, Hester was sitting on the top porch step, a tall glass of iced tea sweating next to her. Both dogs trotted to the gate when they heard his truck stop, and waited for him to come in and rub their bellies. They loved him, and she did too, but she refused to pant and offer up her belly like a lonesome puppy, even though she might have wanted to.

“Hey,” he said, and she raised her chin in greeting. He looked tired, his jeans and work shirt dirty, his skin brown from the sun. She knew when he took the shirt off, his skin underneath would be so white it nearly glowed, except for the scars that patchworked around his back. They were mottled shades of pink and white, ugly and beautiful. 

They used to meet out at the Dew Drop Inn, and still did sometimes, but more and more Sam would come here, to her little house.

He dropped down on the step next to her, the dogs pushing around him. 

“Hey,” he said again and reached for her, his rough hand along her jaw, into her hair, pulling her face towards him for a kiss. His lips felt hot and dry; a sob rose up in her throat. 

She pushed him away a little and took a drink from her iced tea.

“You okay?” Sam asked, that worry wrinkle forming between his eyes. 

“I’m okay,” Hazel said. Sam’s hand was still in her hair, holding on to the back of her neck. “You okay?”

“Are you mad about something?” 

Yes, she wanted to say, but she didn’t know about what or how to put a name to why. She didn’t want to tell him about the men on the road.  But she did. She wanted to tell him and have him get angry for her, fly off the handle, and threaten to kill some son of a bitch. But she couldn’t say, so she swallowed it all down again and forced a smile. 

“Just a long day,” she said. His fingers were in her hair, massaging her scalp, and she willed it to feel nice, like love. Sam leaned forward to kiss her again, then stopped, that worry crease forming.  “What?” she asked.

“I feel something here,” he said. His fingers had stopped moving in her hair and seemed to be holding fast to one spot. “Let me look.” 

Hazel turned so that the back of her head was towards Sam.  She could feel him parting her hair, moving it around and searching for the thing his fingers had felt. 

“There it is,” he said. 

“What? What is it?” She tried to turn then, as though she could somehow see the back of her own head. He held her shoulder with one hand and turned her back around.

“Hold still. You got a tick in there.”

Hazel felt the panic raising in her chest, again, an unreasonable emotion, but she wanted to scream, to tell Sam to both get it out and to not touch it.  It must have fallen into her hair earlier when she was hiding, like a baby, in the woods. 

“Oh, God,” she managed. 

“He ain’t in there too far. I think I can get him with my fingers.”

“No!” She shouted and almost pulled away, but Sam had his hand still in her hair and held her tight. 

“It’s okay. I’ve done it before. Remember, I took that one out of Dim’s ear?”

“I am not a dog!” she screamed, feeling on the edge of hysteria. She thought she could feel it now, that nasty little bastard under her skin, inside her, eating her blood for its dinner. 

She felt the edges of Sam’s fingernails against her scalp, and before she could say anything or move, he gave a hard yank.  

“Ouch!” she screamed, and finally pulled herself away. She jumped up and turned to see Sam holding the tiny, tiny little tick between his index finger and thumb. He’d taken a few strands of her hair with the tick, and Hazel could see those dangling around his hand. She couldn’t help but think about being scalped.

“I think I got ‘im all,” he said, staring closely at the black dot.

“You shouldn’t have done that! You’re never supposed to do that!” Hazel screamed and hit him on the arm. Sam looked at her, confused, and then squashed the tick against the porch banister with his thumb, smearing a little just to make sure it was dead. There was just a tiny bit of blood on the banister, bright red against the white paint. 

“Shit, Hazel. I said I got it. I got its head out.” Sam wasn’t used to her acting so crazy. She was the tough girl. The easy one. Her legs felt weak and she started to sway. Sam moved quick and steadied her. “I’m sorry,” he said, helping her sit back down on the step.  She could hear the panic now in his voice, the tightness that she always listened for and tried to smooth away. “I am sorry.”

He pulled her against his chest, her face into the scratching fabric of his work shirt. The smell of him, dirty and greasy and sweaty and something under that—something clean like soap.  He kissed her ear and that unlocked something in Hazel. She could not hold back anymore. The sobs came heavy and ugly and loud. 

Sam held her, rocked her, and smoothed her hair.  Shhhed her like a baby. The poor dumb bastard thinking, “All this? Over a tick?”

Hester and Dim did not understand loud voices and crying, and though Sam pushed them away once or twice, Hester finally managed to get between Sam and Hazel, and shove her cold wet nose again Hazel’s. Hazel couldn’t help but laugh, seeing the dog’s face so close, and realized Hester was practically on Sam’s lap. 

“It’s okay, girl,” Hazel said and put her arm around Hester’s neck. “I’m okay.”

“I’m sorry this turned out to be a bust,” Hazel said, standing again on the edge of the porch an hour or so later, telling Sam goodbye. “I wasted it.”

“Bullshit,” Sam said. “I wanted to see you and I saw you. Hell, I even got to de-tick you. How many guys can say that?” He grinned and rubbed his thumb along her cheek bone. “Hazel, you know I wish—,” he started, but she stopped him. Wishes weren’t for guys like Sam with a wife and a little blonde haired daughter at home. Wishes didn’t do anybody any good.

“You better go,” she said. She pulled his hand to her mouth and quickly kissed the palm. She then remembered the blood from the tick on his thumb and dropped it. “I’ll see you in a couple days, right?”

“Probably Thursday. Or Wednesday if we get rained out. Weather man says maybe.” 

            The fact that it was a hot day and Sam had been mowing the grass without his shirt on probably made the oil and gas men in their pressed jeans and cowboy boots even more nervous. You don’t know what to expect from a big man covered in scars holding a shotgun in a West Virginia holler.

The dogs started barking and barreled off the porch towards the gate, just as the big truck, now empty, came bumping up the road. The dogs barked and bounced against the gate until the truck got right in front of the house, and then both dogs ran back to hide behind Sam and Hazel’s legs.  Next came the white truck, which was not going fast like the semi. Sam and Hazel both watched it come, and when it got in front of her house, it nearly stopped. Not quite, but slow enough to make Hazel’s breath catch. The man in the passenger’s seat wearing mirrored sunglasses had his arm out the window and raised his hand to speak. Sam raised his too, because that’s what you did. It was reflex, but his eyes were narrowed, and he watched the men as they watched Hazel’s house. When they got beyond Sam’s truck, they accelerated, and soon all that was left was the dust from their tires.

“You know them?” Sam asked, still looking after the white truck. Hazel wondered if the look on his face now was the same one he’d gotten in Afghanistan when he’d seen a suspicious looking person go by. He was trained to watch, because lives depended on it.

“Nah,” she said. “They’re just some oil and gas guys, I guess. You know they’re up and down this road all the time now.” 

“Damn shame,” he said. When the oil and gas people had come down into Crystal Holler looking to buy mineral rights from Sam’s daddy, he told them no, and when they wouldn’t take no for an answer, Sam had quietly gone inside and brought out the shotgun. The fact that it was a hot day and Sam had been mowing the grass without his shirt on probably made the oil and gas men in their pressed jeans and cowboy boots even more nervous. You don’t know what to expect from a big man covered in scars holding a shotgun in a West Virginia holler.

“They’ll be gone pretty soon,” Hazel said, “and all that will be left is the mess.”

The question the man in the mirrored sunglasses asked her kept repeating in her mind that night as she got ready for bed. She laid out her clothes for the next morning and let the dogs out to do their business before they were shut in for the night. 

People might miss her, but who and for how long? How long could she have stayed hidden in the roadside tree line before anyone thought to come and look for her? 

If she were gone, Sam would miss her. He loved her in a way that helped him breathe through each day, that helped him remember to be kind and go to his job and not drink too much at the Golden Egg. He would miss her if she were gone, but for how long? How long would it take for him to find someone else, or to look back at his wife, and realize how much less complicated his life was with Hazel gone?

The gun was still in her top drawer, nestled in among some winter sweaters.  She thought about taking it out, feeling the weight of it in her hand. 

Her head still tingled where the tick had been, and she put her finger there. There was a little bump, which would probably turn into a scab. Sam was certain he got the head out, but told her she might want to go to the doctor just to be sure, just to make herself feel better. Her meltdown had rattled him. 

It’s just the start, she thought. It’s just the beginning of something. “What?” was the question. And when? Maybe she could hear the crunch of strange tires in her driveway right now. She only had herself. How ready was she going to be?

Natalie Sypolt is the author of The Sound of Holding Your Breath, published in 2018 by West Virginia University Press. Her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review Online, Willow Springs, Glimmer Train, Appalachian Heritage, and Superstition Review, among other journals. Her story “Lettuce” was included in the anthology Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods: Fiction and Poetry from West Virginia. Natalie is also the winner of the Glimmer Train New Writers award, the Betty Gabehart Prize, and the West Virginia Fiction award. She is an editor for the Anthology of Appalachian Writers from Shepherd University and works each summer as the High School Workshop Coordinator for the West Virginia Writers Workshop. (Read a review of Natalie's collection of stories in Still: The Journal.)

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