Cassie has surefire ears, especially on weekends. Cassie, hearing Chapin eat his supper in the other room. Cassie, cutting off a pair of Levi’s to wear as shorts, hears her daddy’s snorts and slurps from underneath the door. She wants him to shut up.
“Cut me up the rest of that watermelon,” he calls out. Cassie had fixed a plate for herself. It sits untouched on her nightstand. Pink water collects on the Styrofoam.
He garbles something else. She doesn’t answer, clutches the scissors in her fingers, makes careful snips across the denim.
“Cassie?” Then: “GODDAMNIT!” Something clatters to the floor.
Cassie slips the jeans on. Snug. Close on her hips. She hears Chapin’s jawbone popping, the slug-slug of him swallowing Mountain Dew. His get-up juice. Always something in his mouth, always his tongue working.
Damn her, he thinks. Chapin, in the kitchen. Chapin, hunched over his breakfast, wanting watermelon. He swaggers up. Forks sausage into his mouth. Meat juice thick on his tongue. Oily. At half chew, he throws his head back and drinks. Then, tightness. His windpipe shuts. His tongue clenches. Something caught. Held fast. He’s gasping, bent over in shock. Where. Breath desperate, Is. Fists his stomach, That. Doubled over, crawling to the phone, Girl.
A fork bangs against a plate in the other room. Coughing. More coughing. Cassie tenses, listens. Now wheezing. A chair scrapes across the tiled floor. A soft whistling sound. Bone collides with something solid. A dish shatters. She peers out her barely cracked door.
Chapin is shirtless, in his boxers, and he’s slouched over—rib bones shuddering as he thrusts the back of the chair into his stomach. He might be gripping his throat with his other hand. She steps on the beige carpet of the hallway, then back to the pink floor of her room. She holds her hand in front of her eyes, blocking him from her sight. Half of the melon stares at her from the table, like a skinned face.
Cassie tugs at her shorts, turns around, slides her window up. One leg is on the grass before her daddy’s chokes subside—his hand slackening against his windpipe and four red fingerprints blooming on his neck.
Three girls walk on the gravel shoulder of Highway 72, headed towards Huntsville. The tallest girl is Cassie, and she salivates on watermelon seeds and kicks a rock with the edge of her flip-flop.
“So you gonna tell us or not?” the shortest girl asks.
“Tell you what, Mary Beth?” Cassie says, straight-faced and blinking. Mary Beth wonders if she’s biting the insides of her cheeks, trying not to smile. All day Cassie has been like this, back and forth, a coherent lunatic, an icy hot, a sour candy—making her dangerous and unpredictable, making her Cassie at her finest.
“This secret you say you’ve got,” the third girl says. Lou ties up her black hair with a rubber band and wipes the sweat from her neck.
Cassie thinks of her secret. She flicks a seed, and it skips twice on the grass before rolling out of sight.
“It’s big,” she says firmly.
“Jimmy Weston big?” asks Lou. She wishes she had more than just the senior quarterback’s picture in her back pocket.
“You’d like to know,” Cassie says, and picks up a piece of newspaper
to fan herself.
Mary Beth makes gagging noises.
To their left, cotton blooms from brown, wiry stems. To their right, cows dot the fields—miles and miles of grass and trees. One time Cassie tried to count all of the blades of grass in her yard, starting with the patch near the worm-riddled vine tomatoes. This was before she grew eyeballs in the back of her head; this was when she was forced to stop abruptly, mid-count, on piece 1,637 when her daddy stuck his knee into her spine.
Mary Beth bends down, and her blond hair falls in front of her face as she slides on her flip-flop.
“Keep up,” Lou says. “Move that fat ass of yours.”
Dripping wet, Mary Beth is five foot two, eighty-eight pounds.
Tires drone on the highway and Mary Beth scoots the girls closer to the edge, thinking of the kid on the four-wheeler who was killed last month, his mangled body found in a ditch two hours later, the wheels on the four-speed still turning.
The car, an El Camino with dangling tags, honks as it passes. Cassie doesn’t even turn a cheek to look at it, like she’s used to it, like she’s some phoenix rising up out of the exhaust.
“William’s a pervert,” Lou says. She knots up the back of her T-shirt. “Pressing his face to the window like that.”
The driver of the Camino, William Sod, graduated high school a couple years back. Cassie had seen him before—the time Chapin made her walk to the Power Service Shop to bring him his Skoal. William had been sitting on a picnic table in the sun, his shirt off and pus oozing from a gash in his arm. That lazy bastard, Chapin said when he came out to grab the dip from Cassie. That son of a bitch. According to Chapin, William thought he had Tennessee Valley Authority in his pocket since he flipped a Cat at work and it had nearly severed his arm. Thinks he can get money off ’em, he said, and soon finally admitted what was really bothering him, Lucky good for nothing. Since Cassie made it her life’s goal to like anyone her daddy didn’t, she had given William her best smile when she walked past him that day.
“You on your break?” she asked. William’s eyes had taken a minute to pop open before he licked his lips and wiped the dried saliva from the corners of his mouth, his teeth positioned at colliding angles.
“About whenever I want,” he said. He scratched furiously at his blond hair and grinned. “I guess I’m a free man,” he said. He showed her the bruise where his leg and arm had been pinned underneath the machine. Damaged tissue didn’t interest her, but money did, and she made sure to swing her hips, steady and sharp, when she walked out of the gate.
“Watch my power walk,” Lou says. “Learned it from Denise Austin. Burns twice as much calories.”
“I know better ways to burn calories,” Cassie says.
The girls are two miles from the parking lot of the county high school, the lot with the east corner covered in shards of broken glass. The same parking lot with the five-foot ditch that Cassie landed the pick-up in last week, knocking out a headlight and denting the passenger side. When the wheels lodged in the ditch, her forehead had slammed against the windshield—shattering it. The ditch she stared at with blood running past her eye was actually a construction zone. The high school was laying new pipes because shower drains in the athletic house were mushrooming up black liquid. Jimmy Weston and the rest of the football team had smeared it underneath their eyes on game day. A policeman drove Cassie and the Dodge back to her house, and all Chapin had said to her in front of the cop was, Where you been?
Cassie’s house is actually a double-wide trailer with an added side garage, ten miles of red soil and grass away. Lou lives in a trailer three water pumps over and shares a room with her sixteen-year-old brother Andre. It has a cubical divider, decorated with Mardi Gras beads, for her to change behind.
The girls veer around what looks like a dead lab mix, its dried entrails spread on the gravel. Cassie bends over it for a moment, resting her hands on her knees. “Looks like Sal’s dog,” she says, and nudges its ear with her toe. She thinks of Mary Beth’s cat, recently dead, found hung in the garage. Strangled by the chains of the garage door. It left claw marks an inch deep on the ceiling.
“Think it died on impact?” Cassie asks.
Mary Beth sighs. “We should bury it.”
“Or burn it and give its ashes to Sal, like trade it for beer,” Lou says.
Cassie keeps walking. “Doesn’t Andre keep some gasoline in y’all’s garage, Lou?” Lou’s garage is a covered carport where Andre keeps his motorcycle and his wave runner, both purchased on credit.
“What for?” Lou tosses Cassie a lighter and a squished pack of cigarettes from her pocket and Cassie thinks of her mother. How she always looked all Hollywood with a Virginia Slim in the middle of her lips, large dark sunglasses, breezy waist, her scrubs always loose around her middle and the small of her back. Her mom hadn’t been one of those gangly women with curved shoulders—she was tall but always stood straight up, yet still managed to look fragile, breakable, as if she were hastily pinned together at the joints, which accounted for her loose flowing arms and legs when she walked. And when Cassie’s mom walked out things got worse. For the first twelve years of Cassie’s life, her mother was there—present. Then one day she was gone. Absent from sight. Cassie and Chapin were left alone in a house on the edge of a shallow lake that killed fish by the dozen. The lake that felt like bathwater around her ankles, the lake that brought the fish floating to the surface on hot days. A breeding ground for mosquitoes and snakes, for disaster.
“You remember that kid that got sixteen thousand dollars last year, when the power line hit his truck?” Cassie asks.
“He nearly got himself killed,” Mary Beth says.
Cassie pulls out a cigarette for herself, then holds out the pack. “You want?”
Lou shakes her head. If Andre happens down the road in his black Thunderbird, he’ll rail on her for smoking. Andre was being scouted by the Florida Marlins for his pitching. He was going places. Every day he pitched into a batting cage in the back of Lou’s yard. The ball, thwoop thwoop, all day against the netting. When Lou and Cassie were younger, Andre and his friend Worm would make them pick up their baseballs. Cassie didn’t mind that so much, but Andre’s friend, Worm, she did mind. Once when she spent the night with Lou, Andre had been thwoop thwooping in the backyard with Lou fielding for him, and Worm had bounced onto Andre’s mattress. “Come in here, Cassie,” he said. “Get yourself in here.” He started unzipping his pants, laughing, as Cassie stood in the doorway and watched. “Want to see something you’ve never seen before?” But Cassie had seen it before, in her mother’s textbooks. She yawned, trying to be nonchalant. “No big thing,” she said. Worm hadn’t spoken to her again and never would. He was found dead a year later, strung up by a tie in his closet with his pants down.
“Where’d you get those?” Mary Beth asks. “The cigs?”
Lou got the cigarettes the same place Cassie got the six-pack of Miller High Life the night her daddy’s favorite truck landed in a ditch. Sal’s General Store. Sal was a towering woman who liked the genuine look of Cassie’s wide smile and perfectly straight teeth.
Lou pulls the cigarette from Cassie’s fingers and takes a drag. Her mouth leaves a wet line around the paper. Lou’s got a tongue on her, that’s what the county boys claim. “It smells like cow shit out here,” Lou says.
It smells like shit, it smells like the paper mill, it smells like Reynolds Metal Company, five miles south.
“Marry me,” Cassie says, and exhales smoke in tiny white rings.
Mary Beth stares at the blue sky reverently for a moment, then slaps a mosquito on her leg. It splatters blood on her fingers.
“What’d your dad do to you the other day?” Lou asks. “You know, the truck.”
“Took off his belt.” Cassie pulls her cutoffs down below her hips, flaunts a red welt. She shrugs. “Nothing I ain’t seen before.”
Mary Beth scratches her neck and laughs nervously. It’s the same laugh she uses when Lou’s older brother tells snake-in-the-grass dirty jokes and she doesn’t understand, but doesn’t want to ask. It sounds like the laugh that Lou uses when Ms. Snipes tells her to define photosynthesis on the blackboard. Cassie doesn’t have a nervous laugh, because she rarely laughs at all. She’s all grin. When she smiles, her green eyes stretch even wider—the whites of her eyes matching the white of her teeth. Teeth that could bite and pull, limbs that could wrap and squeeze.
“Y’all really shouldn’t be smoking,” Mary Beth says. “It kills.”
Cassie inhales and the ember of the cigarette flicks red and eats away the paper. “I don’t want to get old anyway.” She turns to Lou. “Shoot me if I get old.”
“Cocked and ready,” Lou says. She makes a gun with her fingers and points at Cassie. “On your knees.”
“Aren’t you used to that?” Cassie asks. They laugh and Mary Beth joins in. They veer toward one of the deserted produce stands that line the highway—the shed with the shingled awning—all hips and legs, white forearms blocking the sun, the soles of their flipflops clicking against the hot pavement, gum smacking against their tongues.
Cassie knocks her hip bone against the shredding white paint of the door. She squints as it swings open. Her eyes adjust to the plaid polyester couch in the center of the floor, an alternative to stadium bleachers for teenage hip-thrusting. Cassie’s shifty; she paces the room, making sure the corners are empty. Ever since Tyler Thorne’s meaty python escaped and ended up two miles down the road in the shed with a dead raccoon clutched in its scales, Cassie always makes sure the corners are clear.
“Hard to breathe in here,” Mary Beth says, coughing and waving her hand in front of her face to knock the dust particles away. She sits on the edge of the couch’s armrest.
Lou opens a rusted refrigerator door. The cord is curled like a snake on the floor, unplugged. She tosses Cassie a Southpaw.
“We’re going to be late for Judgment Day,” Mary Beth says.
“Fuck it.” Cassie is looking at her shook up beer and speaking to Mary Beth. She runs her nail along the rim of the can. “How old was your mom when she had you, Mary Beth?”
Mary Beth bites her lip. “Seventeen, I guess.”
“So in two years . . .” Lou says and balloons her arms out around her stomach.
“Keep your legs closed, then,” Cassie says.
“Yeah,” Lou says. “Someone’s got to get out of here.” She smoothes Mary Beth’s hair with blue painted fingernails. “And you’re the one with the money.”
“You want to be Mary Beth Richards of Town Creek for Forever and All Eternity?” Cassie asks. “Do you?” Mary Beth’s eyes are so wide that Cassie sees the creep of red veins over white.
A moment later Cassie and Lou are walking out the door, hips swinging, and Mary Beth with her pink feather purse hustles to keep up. The door slams shut on her heel.
The sun burns over the tips of the trees. Headlights of a car out line the three girls in a white gold shimmer. Andre tears across the highway straight towards them. Andre, who throws a fast curve and drives even faster. He slams on the brakes a foot away from Cassie’s leg.
“You could’ve killed us!” Lou shrieks.
Andre rolls down his window and grins, his right arm draped over the wheel, his left hand clicking his cell phone shut. “You ladies need a lift?” He tosses his wavy hair to the side and whistles at himself in the mirror.
“Shotgun.” Cassie opens the passenger door. “I’ve got the longest legs.”
Cassie thinks of her father with a foreign object lodged in his throat. Things that are dangerous when present. In this case, foreign bodies. Things that are dangerous when absent. In this case, oxygen.
Cassie has to remember to breathe, just like she had to remember to breathe before—when her mother had left, disappeared, blinked out of existence—when absence had weighed so heavily on her ribcage she felt she was being crushed, she felt she couldn’t breathe, she felt her tonsils burning, she felt everything an effort. This is Cassie thinking about the breath: the slight move of her nostrils, the rise and fall of her chest, the tickle of air through her lungs, the inhale, the exhale, and so on and so forth. She gets burnt out.
The tires hum on the highway until Andre swings into the next clearing, a paved parking lot for one of the looming Baptist Churches, what Cassie calls Six Flags Over Jesus. It has an electronic billboard with red letters that shoot across the screen: INVITE JESUS INTO YOUR HEART AND HE WILL SAVE YOU. The next stream reads: OR BURN IN HELL.
Cassie, on account of her reputation for lying and her affinity for foul language, has already been informed that she’s most certainly going to hell. She keeps a tally on how many people pocket-bible her. Lou is also going to hell, but because she’s Catholic. And Mary Beth’s soul is in jeopardy, because she hangs out with people who haven’t been saved. Actually, Cassie and Lou are saving Mary Beth by coming to church with her. She’s grounded for being in the truck with Cassie when she ran it into the ditch. Every time Mary Beth participates in what Lou calls “the active missionary position” by bringing her friends to church, she can subtract one day of grounding.
The parking lot is packed. Cassie gets out of the car and then sticks her head back through the window, her shirt hanging past her faint cleavage line. She looks at Andre. “Sure you’re not going? Strength in numbers,” she says.
He laughs and peels away, honking.
The senior valedictorian pastes on a smile and tears them each a ticket stub when they walk through the double doors. “Donation?” she asks. Cassie ignores her, remembering how she caught the girl writing CASSIE SHAW HAS CRABS on the bathroom wall.
The pastor stands in front of a microphone, a movie screen to the left of his head. “Imagine you’re driving in a car . . .” says Pastor Don. Pastor Don’s predecessor was fired for having sex with the church choir director on the keyboard. The adulterers were caught in the heat of the moment, the moment, and they hadn’t remembered to unplug the microphone.
“I’m feeling touched already,” Lou says to Cassie. She gasps and pretends to shake with fervor until Mary Beth pins down her forearm.
“And the devil has tempted you to drive under the influence.” A car flashes on the screen as the words from Pastor Don’s mouth vibrate in the speakers. “You step on the accelerator and . . .” Pastor Don pauses with his face twisted in a grimace as the car dramatically careens out of control. “BAM!” Pastor Don thumps the podium. The crowd flinches in their seats. Sal, the large lady seated in front of the girls, snorts.
“You’re dead . . .” The screen goes black. The lights dim. “Just like that,” Pastor Don says in a hushed voice. He lowers his head. A door opens and Ms. Snipes, in a flowing white dress, enters through puffs of smoke from a hidden fog machine. She beckons as gracefully as her flabby arms can beckon. Seats creak as they stand and follow in pairs down a dark corridor. The inside of the church had been constructed into a maze. Black plastic bags are stapled to the makeshift walls, and a sign dangling from the ceiling reads: YOUR JUDGMENT.
The hallway opens into another room and Pastor Don appears wearing a long white robe. A tape recorder crackles out the instrumental version of Desperado. “What have you done in your life?” Pastor Don’s voice crescendos. He looks across the room, pausing for dramatic effect. “You. Are. Being. Judged.” His pointer finger moves and jabs. “Who has a ticket?”
The crowd lifts their tickets.
“Do you have a ticket? God, oh . . .” Pastor Don can hardly continue—he’s spilling emotion like the high school plumbing. “God will ask. And his angels will call out your name.”
A teenager with fake blood splattered on his T-shirt kneels before Pastor Don. “What have you done with your life?”
“He ain’t done me,” Cassie whispers to herself.
“Have you rejected earthly temptations of the flesh? Have you obeyed your father?” Pastor Don pauses, drops his head into his hands. “You have not done any of these things.”
Four boys wearing red body suits bolt through a door and race at the kid. He screams and convulses. They grab his shoulders and pull him away to a door marked Hell.
The tip of Lou’s tongue sticks out as she scribbles on the back of a purple donation pamphlet and passes it to Cassie:
This blows. Just like you.
Cassie passes the note to Mary Beth who just looks confused.
“Who has a ticket?” the pastor yells. “Who has a ticket?” With every word he beats the pulpit with his fist. “A ticket!” He narrows his eyes at Ms. Snipes. Her cue. She throws a cardboard sign into the air: WE HAVE A TICKET. The crowd is baffled because Ms. Snipes seems to be looking at all of them and none of them at once.
After a slight pause, half the audience says, “We have a ticket!”
Pastor Don smacks his palm against the pulpit. “Then where will you go?”
Ms. Snipes holds up another sign. HEAVEN.
“To Heaven!” says the crowd in unison. They’ve caught on, they’re excited. Pastor Don’s excited too, he’s jumping up and down, his tie smacking rhythmically against the microphone.
“Amen!” Sal wails.
The group is led down another passageway lined in white plastic bags and globs of glitter. Ms. Snipes swivels around and her red hair frizzes with static electricity. “It’s real nice to see you here, hon,” she says. Cassie can’t tell if the woman is talking to her or someone else on account of her lazy eye. “Are you getting saved tonight?”
“Sure am,” Cassie says and grabs Lou’s wrist, pulling her toward a door marked EXIT.
“Hey!” Mary Beth hisses at them. She’s flowing toward Heaven with the rest of the crowd.
The girls laugh as the warm dark air in the parking lot rushes their faces. They don’t see the man with sideburns and a Braves hat leaning against the wall, but William Sod sees them—shimmering in the sunset, their thin T-shirts ablaze in the light. Celestial.
“You sure came out of there in a hurry,” he says from his post against the building.
Lou grabs Cassie’s hand and then releases it. “What are you doing out here?” Lou asks.
“Didn’t mean to scare you,” he says, folding his arms and leaning back.
“You just surprised us is all,” Cassie says.
“Like what you heard in there?” He takes a step forward. Lamplight falls on his face, his eyelashes are whitewashed in the glow.
“Some parts were funny,” Cassie says. “But it’s like country music.”
“Yeah?” He takes another step forward. Change jingles in his pocket.
“I can only take so much at one time,” she says.
William opens his mouth wide, his lips pulling back from his crooked teeth to bare a half-inch of bleeding gums. He clutches his rib cage as it lifts and drops. A harsh sound grates like an engine turning over deep in his gut, and Cassie realizes that he’s laughing.
“So,” he says, his body starting to settle. “You need a ride or something?” His eyes match the plaque on his teeth. They travel from Cassie’s face, to the flat of her stomach, to the stretch of her thighs, and then to the pavement.
“No way,” Lou says. William shrugs and ducks into his car.
Mary Beth throws open the church door, panting. “There y’all are,” she says. “Come back in.”
Cassie looks between the hard brick of the church and the reverse lights of the Camino and shakes her head. “I’m about burnt out.”
Lou thrusts out her hand to grab the back of Cassie’s shirt but the brown car door is already open and one flamingo leg is already folded in the passenger seat. Cassie cranes her neck out the window. “Meet you at the shed?”
Mary Beth stammers and scratches her neck.
“The shed!” Cassie calls out the window. The car drives away, and it’s just the two of them, Mary Beth and Lou, left staring at each other until Andre’s headlights crawl across their bodies.
“Where’s Cassie?” He looks surprised that he asked and slumps back into his seat.
Lou gazes at the highway. “She got a lift.”
“We need to go get her,” Mary Beth says, jerking open the car door. Lou and Andre look in the direction of Cassie’s house. “Now, now, now,” she yells until finally they move.
The subject of presence and absence makes breathing difficult for Cassie. She thinks how dangerous it is for particular people to be absent, and how much more dangerous still in the presence of others. Cassie stares in the rearview mirror until the mortar between the bricks of the church diminishes and Lou and Mary Beth are just specks of dirt. She turns and William Sod is life-size in the seat next to her. He doesn’t speak, just runs his tongue along the uneven pavement of his teeth. Cassie forces herself to breathe. She rolls down the window, thinks of how sounds are picked up and hyphenated, or lost to the wind. She thinks of how words are heavier in the heat and how ideas collect in her head like mosquito larvae in stagnant water. With her head pitched back against the seat, Cassie hears words slugging out from underneath door cracks, from behind brick walls, through house lumber, into aluminum car frames.
You’re on your own. The tires of the Camino skim over the asphalt and Cassie sinks into the swirl of voices and the seat. Dark as the spaces between the trees. The trees are a blur in the window and Help me! Will you help me? Red dirt hills like giant ant mounds sculpt the side of the highway and Cassie lets the wind lift her hair and Hellfire, what have you done? The car slows and William lights a joint. You just keep struggling, girl, and it’ll keep hurting. Bugs smack the windshield and William flicks on his wipers Did you see her skirt? He’s out of fluid and the guts smear over the glass. Shouldn’t have come in looking like that. A semi passes going the opposite direction and the entire car rocks. Loose. They pass a gas station, a bank and One slip-up and you’re done. The bank sign reads 92 DEGREES. KEEP YOUR MONEY CRISP INSIDE. Cassie blinks. She don’t come from good people. They pass a McDonald’s. Her mom left her poor daddy by himself. She’s just like her. The smell of fried food wafts into the air. What’s that mean, cum? Come? William flicks on his headlights. It all catches up quick. They pass the fire station, the library. Easy to get inside. A cleaners. CHRIST KEEPS YOU CLEAN ON THE INSIDE, WE KEEP YOU CLEAN ON THE OUTSIDE. He told me to pray a lot. To start by talking. So I talked to the ceiling first. Farmer’s Insurance windows glint in the sun. She don’t know any better. A one-story law firm and she scratches a mosquito bite. I’ll show you how to come when you’re called. A dentist’s office. A man dead, a man down, cause what man ain’t low. Sal’s General Store, closed up. I like it when a girl’s aggressive. The funeral parlor, open. What the fuck is she doing? The parking lot of the high school. Only God knows. The football field. The word is the breath. Bleachers where popcorn kernels and pickle halves are blackened by ants. A man burned to nothing. Empty fields. Empty. Good things come to those who wait. Cassie looks at the bridge of William’s nose, how it’s bent a little to the left. She thrusts her lower lip out and sighs, her bangs lift on her forehead. Just don’t get caught. It’s over. William’s lips are open and moving. Quit. Quiet. Stop breathing. It’s between you and your God. O god o god o god.
“You’re Chapin Shaw’s daughter.” William says it like he needs to spit.
“What if I am?” Cassie opens a pack of Marlboro lights and slings two out.
William shakes his head, pulls a toothpick from behind his ear. Gnaws it until it splinters. “I quit nicotine,” he says. “Bad for you.” His eyes are in the rearview mirror, his eyes are looking at the splattered juice and wings on his windshield, his eyes watching his hands tap the steering wheel, his eyes anywhere but on Cassie.
“Look, I’m not a…creep or something.” A drop of saliva lands on the horn and William wipes his lips with the back of his hand. The vents blast sweet-smelling lukewarm air, and Cassie sighs.
She trails her fingertip across the dust in the dashboard. “You look it.” She’s sinking, sinking into the seat cushion, she can feel the sweat slick on her thighs, the bits of garbage—cracker pieces, sunflower seeds—poking into her skin. “But I didn’t take you for one.” Her elbow touches his on the console.
“Your daddy’d be awful heated if he knew you was with me,” William says.
Cassie studies William’s profile. Bleached blond hair pokes out from under his cap like straw. There’s a rash on the back of his neck and she peels off his hat.
“I tried to dye it.” He takes the hat back.
“Chapin said you were an ideas man, always scheming.”
“Did he?” William’s eyes travel to the rearview mirror: empty. “That don’t sound like your daddy.”
“Well, he didn’t say that exactly,” Cassie says. “He might have said you were full of shit.”
“Where you going anyway?”
Cassie leans close to him, eager, knowing he smells the peppermint on her breath, knowing he smells the spearmint scent of her freshly glossed lips. She thinks suddenly that it might be possible, that maybe the idea that has nested in her head like a snake egg all day, all her life, is possible after all. That somehow events have come together, have been orchestrated by someone, by her, and that this is just a small piece. “Now that depends on you.” She stares at William until he lets himself look at her—look at this sixteen, thirteen, or God how young is this girl?—and she grins as wide as she can.
The shed, the produce stand, the refuge for young lovers, is backed up by an abandoned school bus. This is not the same school bus where a girl last year repeatedly performed oral sex for a line of track players until she had to get her stomach pumped, but this is the thing that Mary Beth and Lou think of every time they see the bus: one after the other after the other. Mary Beth thinks that the bus is a dangerous thing, with its concealing leather seats, its narrow aisles, that girl alone, pressed against a small glass window in the back, muscled track boys blocking her in—one after the other after the other—and she wonders if the brown Camino that enclosed Cassie was more or less dangerous than the school bus.
When Andre pulls up to the shed, the Camino is parked beside the bus. Inside, Cassie’s sitting on the plaid couch—what Lou calls the Baby Factory. Sweat droplets decorate Cassie’s arms, her hair is loose around her shoulders, her bangs matted to her temples.
“Jesus!” Mary Beth says, only it’s not out of blasphemy, it’s out of recognition. A man with long flowing hair and sideburns leans against the wall next to Cassie.
“Don’t be stupid,” Lou says. “It’s the Sod.”
Andre grabs a broken bottle. He sticks the end close to William’s face. “What’s he doing here, Cass?”
“Hey, watch yourself, man,” William says, flinching.
“He’s helping me,” Cassie says.
Andre steps closer. “What can he help you with that I can’t?”
Cassie levels her eyes and gives him a long stare.
Andre imagines the Sod sitting in the Camino outside Cassie’s window at night, the same bedroom window Andre has watched from the road so many nights, headlights off, waiting for her to stick her long legs out the window, waiting for her to straddle the frame before hopping to the ground, waiting for her to ease the window down with her long flexing arms, waiting for her to tiptoe across the grass to where his car idled on the side of the street, in a dark pocket of gravel between orange lamps. Always, they were quiet, hushed even when she got to his car. Always she was breathless. As if her daddy wasn’t thirty yards away, sleeping in her house, as though he were sitting on the hood, as though he was crouched in the backseat or curled in the trunk, as though he was standing beside the windshield, looking in, watching her.
“Chapin’s dead,” Cassie says.
They stare at her. Then Lou laughs. “You wish,” she says. “Right?”
Cassie’s voice is smoother than Pastor Don’s, like she’s an orator reborn. She sets them spinning; she reels them back in. She tells them about Chapin in the kitchen, with watermelon seeds and pink juice coating the countertops, the tables, the floor. The bone-colored linoleum, the low ceiling. Chapin, slumped beneath the table. Biscuit flakes soaking in juice and dotting his collar. A hotdog jutting from his mouth. Watermelon juice gelled like droplets of candle wax. The smell sweet like incense.
They picture Cassie watching her daddy choke. Cassie motionless, impassive as a statue.
“So do I need to go on about this forever, or will you help me?” Cassie asks, looking at no one. The shine on Cassie’s face not quite like sweat, but something more, it could be an invisible presence has descended over her, it could be the gleam of the Holy Ghost, it could be something else entirely.
“Are you fucking crazy?” Andre says. “You want to burn down your place?” He feels himself spiraling away, he pictures himself pitching on a mound—his cleat twisting in the dirt, his arm slinging forward, shoulders rotating, hips rotating, driving out and around for the follow-through. He blinks and finds himself backing out the door.
“It’s my ticket out,” Cassie says. “Thirty thousand dollars insurance.”
William picks at his teeth and nods at Andre’s retreat. “He gonna tell?”
Cassie shakes her head. “It’ll be like water under the bridge.”
Lou follows her brother out the door, thinks of holy water, how she wants to bathe in it, and keeps going. Mary Beth thinks of chlorine in public swimming pools and stops. Remembers what Cassie looked like in a swimsuit: all Barbie legs and joints. Five foot ten inches of skin and thin bones to get hung up on. Oh, this? Cassie would say. It’s nothing. She’d point to a bruise. Poison ivy. Spider bite. Open her mouth again: Horseback accident. Shaving. Mary Beth wonders what Chapin’s warning sign was, like a diamond backed insect, a purple pregnancy kit, a tornado siren. His white-toothed smile? She thinks of the few times they had seen Cassie’s daddy from her porch, when he cut across the field on his mare. Sometimes they thought he waved. Actually, and what deep down they all suspected, he was only blocking the blunt of the sun with his hand.
“Well,” Mary Beth says. The windows are inked by the night. “No use in standing here.”
William hugs the turns to Cassie’s house like it’s NASCAR and Mary Beth clutches the backseat. The porch of the farmhouse is lit up and Cassie watches the reflection of the lights on the pond, trying not to get dizzy. The road winds around in a circle; they pass trailers and lanterns placed in wide intervals along the gravel road. They spot Cassie’s driveway—two ruts of mud where tires have grazed the lawn time and time again.
Cassie leads them past scraps of paper, garbage, crumpled cardboard cylinders, burnt fuses, spent matchsticks, red, white, and blue scraps of exploded firecrackers. Mary Beth reads part of a label: KEEP AWAY FROM CHILDR—
“Awful lot of fireworks lying around,” William says.
“That could be dangerous,” Mary Beth says. She remembers Cassie’s sermon again: the pink of the watermelon, the clear gasoline, the blue of the match, the house going up in flames. She follows Cassie and William behind the trailer, where trees curve around the expanse of the paper-fluttered lawn. A red grill in the corner, top open like a jaw.
Cassie’s hand settles on the doorknob when Mary Beth looks in the window and screams. The knob twists underneath Cassie’s hand and the door swings open to Chapin—his arms spread across the frame, his bare stomach hung over his blue jeans. He steps forward.
Cassie stumbles back to the grass.
“What’s that fucker doing here?” he asks, but William’s already bolting to his car.
Chapin spits. “They were going to stick a needle in my windpipe.” He presses a thick finger to his neck and then points it at his daughter. “Where you been?”
Cassie doubles over, gasping. A pain in her lungs, a block in her airway, she can’t breathe. Spots float in front of her eyes like camera flashes, like spinning police lights. The last thing she thinks of is the one family picture her mother had insisted on, how the photographer had triangled them in a corner, how her father’s hand was positioned on her waist, how she couldn’t shrug it away because her mother’s hand was squeezing her neck, how she couldn’t squirm out because the lens was bearing down, how her father said be still and her mother said smile, and the flash was quick and painless.
Tara Goedjen is a PhD candidate at the University of Wollongong in Australia, where she teaches creative writing. Her fiction has recently appeared in Fairy Tale Review, New England Review, AGNI, and the Australian Overland, and is forthcoming in Kenyon Review Online. She has a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Alabama, and is currently at work on a novel. (updated 2007)