Dust chokes the woods, stirred up to mix with heat and diesel fumes by the bulldozers working on a home site across the unpaved street, and Jim watches from the leafy shadows inside the barbed-wire boundary to his ever-shrinking triangle of land. Three men stand and talk in what will be a driveway while the big Cats growl around them. The street is barely above sea-level, in a flood zone, and they are building up a space for a new house.
He strips off a maple twig and chews the end ragged, feeling the thirty acres stretching behind him, brushy dry sweet-smelling woods that hide the square cinder block house he shares with his wife and daughter.
The edge of the road is loose sand piled up almost to the wire. Every time the street is graded it edges another foot or two onto his property. Let them come, Jim thinks. Let them get tangled up in the wire and ruin their machines. He picks up a bottle cap from near his foot and pictures barbed wire lashing and twisting in the tracks. He scowls and flings the cap out into the washboarded road.
Not far behind him, his daughter Annie crouches barefoot and silent in the rosemary bushes, watching her father. She is fifteen and probably gay, and anywhere else it would be more than probably. But this is Starkey, Georgia, and the Ku Klux Klan still holds its rallies down Second Street, and the churches hand out their pamphlets on the dangers of the New Age movement. In Starkey, if you are anything but white heterosexual Baptist, you keep it to yourself.
Sometimes Annie dreams of a woman's hands on her, and her own hands on a woman's body, and the dreams always make her sad. Sometimes when she wakes up she goes and finds something solid to hold onto, a tree usually, and presses herself against it tight with the bark imprinting the pale insides of her arms.
Linda, Jim's common-law wife and Annie's common-law stepmother, is usually the one to follow Jim around on his trapping days, but sheís at work. He does this about once a month, near the full moon, but today he's riled up about the dozers and the new house going to be right across the road, and he isn't waiting for the moon. This morning, Annie knew it was a trapping day when she got up for school and saw him in the garage sharpening a machete. Rope and wire were coiled on the floor near his feet, and he was singing softly, the soft scraping of the sharpener providing an uneven rhythm. When Annie walked in and the door squeaked, he flung the machete. He jerked his hand back halfway through the motion when he saw it was her, but not soon enough to stop it. She jumped out of the way, but it was already flying past her. It landed point-down in the laundry basket on top of the dryer. How many times I tell you never sneak up on me like that? His voice seemed to snag on something. She didnít answer, just looked at the machete sticking up out of the basket and imagined throwing it back at him. The blade would hit him across the forehead. Dark blood would cover his face.
Now Jim gets up, stretches, tosses the chewed twig away. He carries a packbasket like a fur trapper's, weighed down with rope, pulleys, the machete, a fold-up shovel, a bundle of locust stakes sharpened at both ends. Jim has been doing these runs for years, a circuit around his property, stringing wire across the old right-of-way -now just a dirtbike trail- that runs through it, digging pits and pounding in his stakes at the bottom and covering them with thin sun-rotted plastic and leaves. Every month when he comes back, the pits are uncovered, the ropes cut.
Six years ago, Linda followed Jim on one of his trips into the woods and found Annie uncovering his pit traps. Linda took over for Annie after that, told her to stay out of the woods. Now Annie knows she's out of practice. Sheís not used to having to think like he does.
Annie's mother left them so long ago Annie doesn't remember what she looked like, and her dad burned all the pictures in the middle of the driveway. Sometimes she thinks of those pictures burning, but the face on them is always a blank. No expression, and then the photo melts and blackens, curling in on itself. Sometimes she thinks she remembers brown eyes like her own, but thatís all and sheís not even sure of that. Her mother died not long after she left; there was a letter asking her dad to go up to Maryland and identify the body. He never went.
Her dad stalks back into the woods, ducking under and pushing through whipping branches. Annie follows him, stepping on the pine needles and bare patches, staying out of the dry leaves. Twigs catch at her hair and she pushes it back out of her face. One of these days sheíll just chop it all off. She hasnít yet because it would make her look gay, and life is bad enough without that. Still, sometimes Annie wants to just walk into the house, coming home from school where she belongs to no club or team or group of friends and never stays longer than it takes to get her books after the bell, just come in when her dad and Linda are there and say, "Hey, Dad. Hey, Linda. I think Iím a lesbian. How was your day?" Her imagination wonít go any further; wonít tell her what they would do or say next, and thatís why she hasnít said it yet.
Her dad has strung a thin line across the trail, as high as the throat of an average-sized dirtbike rider. Annie waits until he has gone into the woods on the other side and pries her knife open and saws through the line. It snaps back slightly before dropping. She rolls up the line and leaves it at the foot of a tree.
The next trap is Jimís favorite kind; he likes hard, sweaty work. It makes him feel like heís accomplishing something; first digging the pit and setting it up, then hauling the dirt out with a wheelbarrow to blend with the sand on the edge of the road. But the pit is already dug this time around, and the stakes at the bottom are still there from last month. The black mulch plastic that should be stretched over the top and covered with sand and leaves and staked down at the corners is rolled up and thrown aside. Jim carefully stretches a new plastic sheet over the pit and takes spikes out of his basket, pounds them through the plastic into the soft ground with the flat of his fold-up shovel. He wads up the old, shredded plastic and puts it in his basket. He claws handfuls of sand out of the ground and dusts it across the stretched cover until it pools together like rainwater in the low places. He scoops up armloads of leaves and throws them into the air, watches them flutter down to settle over the plastic and sand. He adds a few small, light branches. He stops and backs up to look at it from a distance. He flings one more handful of leaves onto a bare spot and moves on.
Annie waits a while for him to get out of sight and hearing. Her knife makes a soft ripping sound through the plastic and she watches the sheet fall into the hole and hang like a curtain against one wall of the pit, the leaves and sand sliding down to settle around the spikes.
Three traps later, her dad leaves the woods and crosses the ditch into the street, and Annie knows heís done for the day, hopefully done for the rest of the month. She cuts back through the woods to get to the house before he does.
Jim walks home by the road, packbasket still on his back, rope hanging out, for anybody to see. He doesn't care. It's not illegal to walk down the street carrying a basket of rope and plastic. The man running the small dozer stops it near the street and slides down from the cage to get a beer from the cooler in the ditch. He waves at Jim, ice water running down his forearm. "Hey," he yells. "Can I ask you something?"
Jim shrugs, shifting the weight on his back. He's feeling safe now that his traps are up, even though he's outside their shielding perimeter. "What the fuck," he says. "Hand me a beer."
"It really flood a lot here or are these folks being paranoid, asking us to build seven foot off where the ground ought to be?" The man dips into the Styrofoam cooler again and comes out to the edge of the road to hand the can to Jim. He's a few inches shorter than Jim is and has dark skin, but his eyes are blue and look out-of-place. Jim guesses him to be half white and half something else.
"I'd worry more about fire," Jim says. The land around them is all flat scrub just waiting for a lightning strike to burn it down. Jim keeps the ground around his house clear; no trees, no brush, no grass. Without shade the house soaks up heat and feels like a brick oven, even with the air conditioner running. When Linda complains about the heat he always tells her the same thing: You'll be a lot hotter burning up in the fire. Some nights he dreams his wife and daughter are trapped in a circle of flame away from him. He thinks of the fire, and hopes the new neighbors plant lots of trees around their house. Sand pines, like big green torches.
"You live a ways back, don't you? Can't even see a house from here," the dozer man says.
"I like it that way," Jim says. "Don't want people come messing around on my property."
The dozer man nods. "Lot of idiot hunters out there shooting anything that moves."
"Not just them," Jim says.
"Bradley McKean." The man puts his hand out, and Jim shakes it and says his name and says good to meet you.
"Hope you donít mind me asking, what you got in the backpack?" Bradley McKean says.
Jim throws the can down in the road. "Stuff that'll make anybody comes on my land wish they hadn't."
"Huh. Got something growin down there."
"I'm not growing anything."
Bradley McKean grins. "Well. I might want to buy some of what you're not growing."
Jim gets up and crosses the road back to his land.
"Christ. I didnít know it was a big deal," Bradley McKean hollers after him. Jim waits, and hears him add, quieter, "Fucking weirdo." Jim goes back into the woods. On the way, he glances off to the side at the pit trap. The plastic is sliced through.
Starkey is a small, flat, bleached-out looking town. The old buildings are tall and wooden, peeling white and yellow and pink, but the new ones are one-story block, hurricane-proof except for their big windows. Between them, live-oaks and kudzu grow in humped green walls. A rotting, swampy smell lays over the trees like invisible fog, coming from the paper mill out by the river, where Jim works two days a week.
Linda comes out of the grocery store hugging paper bags full of cold things against her side. The parking lot is hot and dusty after the sterile air-conditioned store, and a warm breeze whirls the dust between long rows of cars, over the oil-rainbowed asphalt. Litter-filled retention ponds lay along three sides of the pavement. Linda crosses the lot to her beat-up red van at the end of the row, raising a hand against the glare of the afternoon sun. In the distance, looming up over the bunched trees, she can see part of the paper mill and part of the arched bridge over the river.
The engine turns over a few times before it starts, but Linda isnít worried; itís been slow to start since they bought the van three years ago, no worse now than it was then. She takes Main Street down past the courthouse to where it turns into an unpaved road, then turns onto her street. Itís only a mile from the center of town to their house, but they live outside the city limits. The van shudders over the packed-sand ridges; the loose papers and tire gauge hop on the dashboard. The vibrating steering wheel makes the skin on the backs of her hands feel like itís trying to crawl away. She doesnít know why itís called a street. Where she comes from, streets are paved.
Almost every tree along Jimís property line has a no-trespassing sign nailed to it, a line of yellow and black and orange plastic squares, some of the old ones spray-painted over with hearts and names and phone numbers. Linda stops at the end of the driveway, gets out with the key to unlock the gate and swing it open. She takes the van through, is tempted to leave the gate not only unlocked, but open. Last time she did that, a couple of Jehovahs came to the house. Jim met them at the door with a shotgun. She and Jim watched them jump into their car and take off back the way they came. They laughed so hard they leaned on each other for balance, and the gun got twisted sideways. Linda looked down into the round mouth of the barrel and stopped laughing.
She closes the gate and locks it, looping the chain only once instead of the twice Jim does, and gets back in the van and drives slowly down the half-mile-long rutted driveway. If the road doesnít shake the van apart, the driveway will. A long time ago, somebody filled in the potholes with bricks, and now the rest of the driveway is worn down so the old holes are now brick mounds.
Annie emerges from behind a mimosa tree, looking around before stepping into the driveway, and Linda stops the van and tells her to jump in. "Trapping day?"
"Yeah. I already got them." Annie plucks a fern-like leaf out of her hair and lays it on the dashboard.
"Early, this month. What is it now, first quarter?"
"Yesterday was. Heís freaked about that house going up."
"Heíll get used to it," Linda says.
Annie is staring intently out the window, so Linda canít see her face. "Why do you stay with him?"
Linda watches the road while she tries to find a good answer to that. "Heís family. Youíre both family," she says.
"Youíre not even married."
"Doesn't matter." They are coming into the clearing, with the solid gray shape of the house in the middle of a circle of bare ground. Linda parks in the soft sand at the bottom of the driveway, the engine ticking, still settling from the jarring roads. Annie grabs the groceries from the back.
"I tell you what happened to Joni?" Linda says. "Her and Sandra broke up." Joni is a lesbian Linda works with. Linda talks about her a lot, to Annie and sometimes to Jim, watching their reactions. She makes it clear, especially to Annie, that she doesnít mind that Joni is gay.
"That sucks," Annie says.
Last night Jim said, "Maybe now sheíll find herself a man."
Annie lets them in, turning the doorknob with her elbow, her hands full of groceries.
Linda picks up a week-old sales paper and looks through it for good coupons, while Annie turns on the TV and channel-surfs through the four stations that come in.
Jim opens the door and stands there for a moment brushing sand from his jeans. "You two must really be in love with danger," he says. He runs a hand through his hair, getting rid of the sand, then ducks inside. He's not unusually tall; the doorway is just unusually low, and as always he silently curses the idiot who put it in. "I swear you'd both be dead and rotting, somebody wasn't here to watch out for you." He half-slams the door behind him and looks at them like they are strangers.
"You fixed them," Annie says.
"Don't talk to me," Jim says. "I don't want to see your face. Try to keep us all safe and you go and fuck it up every time. Ought to just let them have you."
"Nobody to protect us from," Annie says. It's the same thing she's been saying for years. She hates him for those traps. Thinking he has the right to kill somebody just for daring to walk on his property.
"You don't know shit about a person's rights," Jim says. "Man got a right to keep people off his land."
"Nobody going to take your land," Linda says, still looking at the paper. "Hell, nobodyíd want it."
"I swore I'd protect you. I donít break my word. You know that, you know I donít break my word."
"I don't need your protection," Linda says. "I need you to get a job."
"I have a job," Jim says.
"Two days a week," Linda says. If he worked full time, he wouldn't have time to set those damned traps in the woods. He wouldn't have time to spy on the construction site across the road or put up barriers and wires and throw nails in the dirtbike trail. "One of these days some little kid's gonna step in one of your holes," she says. "Is that worth your privacy?"
"Shouldn't be on my land then."
"You donít even do anything with it," Annie says.
"Told you not to talk to me," Jim says. "Ought to just leave you two, see how you do without me."
Annie glares at him for a second, says, "God, I wish you would," and goes outside. She looks around at the bare yard for a second and then walks into the brush to unset the traps. All the traps she unset this afternoon, heís fixed, but carelessly. The plastic coverings arenít completely covered, the knots in the rope across the old right-of-way easy to spot. She takes them all down and then follows the dirtbike trail back towards the house.
Shuffling through wiregrass and vines poking up through the packed sand, she thinks of time passing, and it feels like nothing will change. Itís three years until sheís legal but she canít see that far ahead, just a long stretch of sameness like a flat curveless road - Jim and Linda and Annie, loving each other in a way thatís more hate than love. Telling them might change things, but she knows she will never be brave enough to get past that silent moment just before pushing the words out of her mouth. Linda, she thinks of saying. Linda, okay if I talk to you about something? And then not being able to say it. Saying, Oh, nothing. And going back to the woods angry at herself for being afraid of Linda.
From the trail, she can see just a corner of the roof and half her bedroom window, and for a second she thinks of being there and somebody passing by this close without her being able to see them and understands her dad not wanting people coming through here. A small clearing is off to the other side and she remembers playing there as a little kid, but not what she did there. Where the trail comes closest to the house, she cuts through the brush. Poison ivy grows on all the trees. Her dad and Linda are yelling at each other. Their voices filter through the branches like dust. People would be able to hear them from the right-of-way. She waits at the edge of the woods, picking sandspurs off her shoelaces, until theyíve stopped fighting, to go inside.
In the night, Annie wakes up suddenly from a dream of a faceless woman with a soft voice and brown eyes, and remembers years ago when she found a sinkhole in the woods. There were no shovel marks; it was natural, almost perfectly round. She remembers now, walking past that same clearing yesterday on the dirtbike trail, and not seeing the hole. She's missed one of his traps this time, maybe the first time ever. He must have set it when he went back to set the others. Or itís been there all this time and Lindaís missed it too.
Come morning she finds Linda in case there are more traps Jim has started making since last time she followed him, and they go into the woods together. The air is bright and warm and clear and the land has the sweet, dusty smell that it always has, but the weather is holding down some of the paper-mill stink today. They push through trees and briars out to the dirtbike trail and then follow it down toward the road, looking for the clearing where the sinkhole should be. Flocks of crows erupt from scrub pines, making Annie think of winter, of dead brown leaves and frost and spitting sleet. Winter comes late and ends early here, but it's still winter.
From the trail, Annie sees that the covering of the sinkhole has already fallen in, and a buzzing fear starts in her head even though Linda, beside her, says, "See, nothing to worry about. Deer must of unset it already." Linda is looking toward the hole with her teeth set hard together and she starts walking faster. Annie trails behind, hanging back now.
There is a man in the bottom with a stake through his belly and blood crusted around the wood point sticking out. Flies buzz around, landing on the dried blood. One hand is cupped around the stake. The manís eyes are open, and flies are clustered around them and a black line of blood running from his open mouth down the side of his face. Linda turns around to stop Annie from coming closer, but Annie is already beside her, staring down at the dead man.
Linda studies the dead man for a moment longer, then says, "Get me a rope."
Annie takes off to get a line sheís left tied to one of the trees yesterday. Linda stays there, looking at the dead man. It takes her a little while to recognize him as the one who ran the small dozer at the construction site across the road. Annie comes back with a long piece of clothesline, and after a lot of discussion and a few failed tries they use a branch to hook the rope and pull the ends to the other side and work it under the body. The rope is doubled on the one side and half is under the dead manís legs and half is under his neck, and Linda takes the ends on one side and Annie takes the middle section and they pull the body up, with it first sliding one way and then the other. Finally itís even with the top and Linda moves over to Annieís side and they haul the body up onto the edge. The spike comes up with him, sticking out in the front and back. Neither of them will touch it to pull it out. They stand for a few minutes catching their breath and not talking. The dead man stares blankly up at the sky between them, and the flies begin to come back after being disturbed.
"Come on," Linda says finally. She points to a clump of small live-oaks covered with poison ivy and ripshins. They carry the body with the ropes and move it into place with branches Annie cuts. When they back away to look, they canít see the body but there is a skid trail where they dragged him through the leaves. They kick the leaves and sand around and scatter it like Jim does over his traps.
"You gonna tell him?" Annie says.
"I donít know."
"Why not? He did it. He should at least have to know about it."
Linda shakes her head. She can feel the dead man watching her through the brush. She kicks some more leaves over the drag path, then goes back to where the body is hidden, reaches in and closes the dead manís eyes, trying not to gag as she touches the cold, fly-bitten skin.
Annie stands back and watches her now. "Itís not right," she says.
Linda tries to explain while she gets down in the bottom of the pit and pulls up the blood-smeared stakes, picks up the crusted plastic. The blood doesnít bother her now that sheís touched the body. "Thatís what we have families for," she says. "Anybodyíll stick by you when itís right."
They build a fire in the middle of the right-of-way and burn the stakes and the plastic. Then Linda comes back with the rope and throws it on, too. It has their fingerprints on it. She smooths over the holes where the stakes were set.
When they get back to the house, Annie runs into the bathroom and peels off her clothes and turns the shower on hot. She scrubs every inch of her skin until it hurts, wishing she could reach into her brain and scrub away the image of the dead face staring up at her through a scattering of flies. She washes her hands until the callouses peel away. When sheís getting dressed, Linda yells at her to hurry up, and her dad says, "Hey, sheís finally acting like a girl." Annie glares at the door like she could see him through it. But when she comes out and sees them sitting together in the living room, she knows she wonít tell him about the dead man, because Linda has asked her not to.
Two days later, Tropical Storm Bart comes to southeast Georgia and stays. For days the wind and rain tear at the land, pulling trees down, peeling roofs off. In the river, the water rises. North of Starkey, where a dam diverts water for a power plant that was never built, the water creeps over the banks, consuming a few feet at a time, eating away at the land. Even after the wind has died it rains, and every day the water comes up more, rising faster until it has spread out almost to a potato farm north of Starkey. That night, three people from the potato farm paddle out to the dam with fertilizer and illegal fireworks.
The dam doesnít break right away, but by morning there are cracks, and by afternoon the cracks are bigger. Just as the sun is going down a big chunk of the middle breaks away, and the water pours down through the hole, taking more of the dam down with it with every minute.
It flows down into Starkey, down through Jimís land, although it doesnít quite reach the house. The bare dirt around the house is slightly higher than the rest of the property, a small island in the woods. In Starkey, litter and broken branches and lawn flamingoes float down the street on top of two feet of water.
The water keeps coming. It turns the dirtbike trail into a creek, flowing down to the street and down to Starkey. It rises to the edge of the right-of-way, fills the sinkhole where Bradley McKean died, then fills the clearing around the sinkhole. Slowly it edges toward the brush where Bradley McKeanís body is being picked clean by crows and mice. There is enough left to float when the water rises around it, lifting first the head free of the branches, then the arms, then the legs. The dead man seems to be waking up, stirring, stretching, then stiffly getting to his feet. The storm has beaten down some of the brush, and when the water is high enough, Bradley McKeanís body slides out over the trunk of a fallen tree and is carried down the dirtbike trail to the street. The rain has died to a thin gray drizzle. It drips onto the flowing water and onto the corpse being borne down into Starkey flat on the surface.
The rain stops altogether. The scattered clouds separate, revealing patches of bare sky. In the intermittent moonlight, Jim walks the edge of the island his yard has become, walking around the perimeter as the water moves in, slower every hour until it begins to draw back, revealing a thin but growing ring of mud. When the ring is two feet wide, he goes inside to sleep.
The water has gone down a few feet from its peak by morning, when the sun comes out warm and Starkey, Georgia, is weighed down by steam, and Bradley McKean's body bobs gently against the rail of the courthouse steps, held in place by the handles of a baby stroller and the wooden stake through his belly. Strips of pale flesh and hair cling to the crow-picked skull, and the eyes are gone, and the woman who finds it in the gray light of morning is not sure at first what it is. When she reaches out to touch it she realizes suddenly and jerks her hand back, then turns around and vomits into the water on the other side of her little boat. She smells it now, over the smell of sewage and the paper mill, and she paddles away as fast as she can without looking back. She calls the police when she gets to land, but by the time they get to the body six or seven boats are already hovering in a rough crescent around the steps. A boy and a girl in a rubber raft are picking up floating pecans and flinging them at the corpse. The pecans, still in their hulls, splash around the body but none hit. The police in their borrowed powerboat chase the spectators away, threatening to ram a canoe when the people inside it show no intention of moving.
Two days later, when the water is mostly gone, Linda comes home from work early. Jim is cleaning the guns in the garage. He works without looking at her, even when she greets him. It feels like a trapping day.
"I guess you heard?" He knows, of course he knows. Itís been on the news all day. Itís all anyone talked about at work. Everyone knows about the body on the courthouse steps. "You finally killed somebody," she says.
"Cops were here," Jim says.
Linda closes her eyes and leans against the wall.
"Said they wanted to walk around. Wouldnít tell me what they were looking for."
"No. Did you let them?"
"Didnít have a warrant."
"They will next time," Linda says.
Jim checks the sights on the revolver, aims it at the window. He sets it down and picks up the rifle. Linda watches him. She hears Annieís bus stopping at the end of the long driveway, hears it move on away. Jim tinkers with the rifle scope. Then he takes it off.
Annie swings into the garage with a hand on the doorframe. Linda, still watching Jimís hands, sees them shoot out toward the rifle, pick it up. She reaches out to stop Annie.
But Annie is out of her reach, stalking toward Jim. "Youfucker. I hate you."
And Jim is already turning around, the gun already lifting and leveling, Annie already stopping, frozen with balled fists in the middle of the garage. The gun is pointed at her chest.
Jim lowers the gun. He lays it down on the workbench and stands there, staring out the window.
"Annie, come here," Linda says.
Annie backs toward her, eyes still fixed on Jimís back. When she reaches the doorway, Linda takes her arm and pulls her outside. Annie is shaking, but her expression is as still and blank as the concrete wall.
Annie stares at the doorway, jaw locked shut, until Linda steps in front of her. "Iím alright." Annie slants her eyes down away from Lindaís.
"Good," Linda says. She listens for Jim. She hears him shuffling around in the garage. She waits.
"Come in here," he says.
"Fuck you," Annie says.
"You shouldnít be afraid of me," he says.
"Iím not," Annie says.
"I didnít know it was you."
"You never do," Annie says. Sheís talking fast now, and ignoring Linda. "Do you know itís me now? You canít see me. I could be somebody else. I could kill you. Shouldnít you shoot me first?"
Linda sees: no, itís not fear that Annieís trying to hide. Itís pure, cold rage. She knows, then, that some day one of them will kill the other, and it might not be Jim who lives. She grabs Annie by the arm and steers her away from the garage. "You have the worst timing, girl."
Annie waits just around the corner; Linda can hear her breathing. "We got to think about this," Linda says to Jim.
"Think, hell. I know what I got to do," Jim says.
"Iím leaving," Linda says. "Annieís coming with me. You can stay or not, I donít care."
She waits a little while for Jim to answer. The only sounds are of the guns being put back together.
"You hear me? I said weíre going."
Dull, rhythmic thuds: Jim hitting something, over and over and over. Then he says, "Wait until dark."
Everybody knows the red van belongs to Linda, but it doesnít look red at night, just some unknown dark color; it could be brown or orange or red or gray. "Alright."
She waits through some more thuds. Then Jim says, "Fuck. Yeah, alright. Yeah, Iíll come."
Itís after midnight when Linda flips the light switch on. "Get up, hon. Weíre leaving."
Annie blinks at the light, lets the meaning of the words come to her, and then stands up.
"You have fifteen minutes."
"Where we going?"
Linda shakes her head. "Hurry."
"This isnít going to work."
"Shut up," Linda says. "Get dressed."
Annie gets dressed and packs without much thought. She doesnít know what she might need. She hears her dadís voice in the kitchen, asking Linda for the .270 shells.
"Donít make it worse, Jim." Lindaís voice is tight and too high. "Annie! Letís go!"
Annie zips up her school bag, now containing clothes and toothbrush and a flashlight instead of algebra and Spanish books. Her pockets are jammed full as well; a few bills, her knife, a cigarette lighter - things that she canít see any immediate use for, but that are probably required for running from the law. As an afterthought, she grabs her Walkman from under the bed. Itís good for drowning out arguments.
The rain has started again, cold and wakening, when they close the house door for the last time. Annie follows Linda and Jim to the van and doesnít ask again where theyíre going. It occurs to her that they probably donít know.
"Whatís the time?" her dad says when they reach the main road.
"Almost two," Annie says. "Why?"
He doesnít answer. As he drives he keeps glancing at Linda, then away.
At their first gas stop, Jim goes inside, jogging through the rain, to pay and get a pack of cigarettes. Annie is asleep in the back, head on her arm against the window, headphones lopsided but still buzzing. Linda watches through rain-streaked windows at the lights of the 7-11: Jim walking inside, ducking through the door out of habit, passing the cashier, and going to a rack. He isn't looking at the van. Linda slides over to the driver's side. She presses one hand against the damp window, waving goodbye to his back, and takes her own key out of her purse. The van is out of sight by the time Jim turns around.
The tires whine on the pavement and the road runs straight and flat. Annie yawns and removes the headphones and leans over the back of the front seat to look out the windshield, notes the empty seat where Jim should be. "Where are we?"
"Alabama," Linda says. She slows down and moves onto the shoulder, where they bounce to a stop. "You drive awhile. Iím about half-dead."
Annie moves up front and Linda slides over against the other door and Annie looks for passing cars and then pulls out onto the road. Out of the corner of her eye, she can see Linda looking straight ahead for something that isnít there. "Anything interesting happen while I was asleep?"
"I left him at a gas station," Linda says. "Heíll be alright." She cranks the window down a notch and then back up. "Heís probably still there," she says. She rolls the window down again, staring at the passing roadbank. "You want to go back, we can."
Annie watches the road.
Through the Gulf states they take turns driving and sleeping. They keep a full two-gallon can of gas in the back; the van gets terrible mileage, and they don't want to get stuck somewhere between towns. Out the window, the land changes slowly, getting higher, then lower, then higher again. It passes in the lines of close-up roadbanks at seventy miles an hour. At night the whole world is a semicircle lit up by low-beams.
Annie is the one driving when they cross the Texas line and the sunset bleeds orange across the sky. At the next intersection she turns south, mostly because driving into the sunset hurts her eyes. She doesn't even know the name of the road, or whether it's a name or a number or both, and she knows it doesnít matter.
Annie sticks close to the speed limit, even at night when there aren't many cars on the road. Last thing they need is for a cop to pull her over, find out she doesn't have a license. She rolls the window down all the way and feels the warm air ruffling outside. There is cold coffee in a Styrofoam cup on the bench seat beside her. She keeps the radio on, but all the stations for the past three states must share one thirty-minute tape between them, because even the rock and country stations play the same songs. She sings along sometimes, leaning toward the window and letting the wind steal the sound from her mouth.
At the next stop a girl is kicking a motorcycle at the edge of the parking lot. Annie watches her for a while. The girl tries to start the bike, and then when it doesnít start she backs up and kicks it a few more times, then tries to start it again. When the vanís tank is full and paid for, Annie walks over to the girl and asks whatís wrong.
"If I knew, Iíd fix it," the girl says. She is taller than Annie and older, maybe twenty or so. She has freckles. Her eyes are the color of grass in the winter, green and tan mixed. Annie asks her where sheís going; maybe theyíre going the same way, she says.
The girl says south, down around Meadville, and Annie doesnít know where that is but says she does, and they load the motorcycle into the van without waking Linda, and move out onto the road. Annie watches her out the edge of her eyes, half the road, half the girl, who sits still, relaxed-looking in a car with two strangers, unaware that Annie is having one of the craziest thoughts sheís ever had: what if she just reached over and put her hand down on the girlís leg? She imagines feeling warm flesh through faded jeans. She tightens her hand on the gearshift to give it something to do. The road ahead is straight and dark with loose dirt and leaves blown across it.
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