THE FOG S NUCK IN over the wooded road, but Chuck didn’t care. He could bike this route blindfolded, and anyway the fog might lift at any time.
“I can’t see,” his brother yelled from behind. “Wait for me. I’m scared.”
Chuck didn’t look back. Instead, he slid his Spiderman mask off and kept his gaze inside the triangular shaft of light spilling from his handlebars. He held his breath—the smell was sickening, like the egg he found cracked open behind Ruth’s stove.
“The fog stinks, Chucky,” came the reedy voice. “What’s that smell?” Silence followed—except for the swish of two sets of spindly tires squeaking over pavement and the flutter and flap of cheap plastic costumes.
Chuck reached inside the pumpkin-shaped vessel dangling from a handlebar and extracted a purple jawbreaker roughly the size of a golf ball. With the aid of his front teeth, he slipped it from its wrapper. The tartness made him wince; then came sweetness that almost made him swoon out loud.
Out of the fog came another holler. “I’m scared, Chucky. I can’t see.”
“Pedal faster, dummy,” Chuck shouted, purple spittle drenching his chin. “There ain’t going to be no candy left if we don’t hurry.”
“I’m scared, Chucky,” his brother piped from behind. Way behind.
That distant whimper and the thought of missing out on even one morsel of candy put fury into Chuck’s peddling. He glanced over his shoulder and saw the faint blue outline of Huckleberry Hound flicker out of sight.
The soundless night descended on him like ink spilling from a leaky pen. Branches, mostly bare, strangled the road. An owl, which sounded to be close by, let out one hoo-ah-hoo. Then came another lone hoot, this one more mournful. Something black whooshed through his pool of light; the fog quivered against his cheeks. He felt his spine stiffen and the hairs on his neck stand up. It’s just an old owl. Don’t be a wuss like your dumb brother.
His eyes and throat burning, Chuck pushed on into the darkness—the whole time listening for the flap of his brother’s dime-store costume. Nothing. The night was weirdly still and quiet.
Chuck thought of his mother Ruth’s stupid-faced delight in the presence of her youngest son draped in Huckleberry Hound’s likeness. “I could eat you up, Danny boy,” she’d cooed as the boys mounted their bicycles two hours earlier.
Now—his eyes pinched closed against the fog—Chuck coasted, squeezing his nostrils with two fingers.
“Danny, where are you?” he yelled out, feeling the soupy air fill his lungs.
He opened his eyes and looped back around, the light on his bike producing an arc of glistening, damp haze. Up ahead, a bicycle—a Schwinn Hornet like his, minus the headlight—lay in the grass just off the pavement. Next to it, the mouth of a plastic pumpkin spilled chocolate bars, bubble gum, and Jolly Ranchers. Chuck jumped off his bike and let it fall over the candy-strewn ground.
“Where are you, Danny?” After a moment—the fog getting denser, fouler—he tried again. “Where are you, Danny!”
Turning in blind circles, he called out again. And again.
On the ground in the cone-shaped glare of his headlight, he spied Danny’s Huckleberry Hound mask frozen in its insidious grin. Chuck’s heart stood still. His breathing slowed and then stopped altogether. After a moment, he exhaled, and with the air in his lungs came tears that puddled on his lower lashes and ran like cold creeks down his wind-stiffened face. He picked up the mask and stood motionless. Rage churned in his belly. He hated his brother with his red sniffling nose and perpetually Jell-O-stained lips.
Fingers hooked through the hollowed eyes of the mask, the fog condensing around him, Chuck pictured his mother dabbing medicine on his brother’s elbows and knees (medicine that turned the blood to dark yellow) before she would slash at Chuck’s backside with a belt. All because that little shit fell off his bike.
“Come on out, Danny boy,” Chuck shouted into the fog. “I’m not getting blamed for this.”
He picked up his bike and walked into the brush, using the headlight to illume his path.
“Come on out, Danny!” He retched on the rancid air. “I’m not getting whipped for this.”
Branches poked him, and with each poke his voice went out into the woods. “Where are you?” Another poke. “This ain’t funny.”
With his right hand, he ripped his Spiderman chest open and stepped out of the encasement, leaving it lying like a snakeskin on sticks, leaves, and dirt.
He sucked one more intake of air before he shouted as loudly as he could, “I’m going to kill you, Danny.”
Into the forest he crept, the only sounds coming from his sneakered footfall. Oddly, not even the riverbanks made a noise—the stillness of night usually brought the faint plunks and splashes of the river’s eroding edges. On that night, there were no sounds. No sights. Only the fog hushing the woods with secrets.
Until that morning, I’d only known one dead person—a ninety-one-year-old named Mr. Bean—but I only barely knew him. Bean lived alone, playing the game of solitaire in between naps. At age eight, I assumed everybody died at ninety-one or thereabouts. I never even considered the death of a six-year-old. I suppose no one should. It was the summer of 1987—I was sixteen—when they found the body on a bed of foliage with bite marks in the bloated flesh.
By rights, this story belongs to Bernie, although Danny holds a piece of it. But mostly it’s for Boots. Even though my memory is chipped away with age, there is no one else who can fill in the shadowy gaps and tell the truth. A truth so big I don’t know where to keep it, so it’s stuffed way down inside me where it stirs with all the lies. Not that the truth is a bright shiny thing. At any rate, it might finally set us, all of us, free.
Slippery Elm Next Exit
EVEN THOUGH I don’t know the single instant it all went wrong, the precise moment our gooses got cooked, I always come back to the day we moved to Slippery Elm. There are days when someone’s future is written. For us, the day that inked up our lives with a big ugly X was December 21, 1986, a Sunday—that day of the week that always makes me weirdly sad if not downright morose. I guess it’s not out of the ordinary that I was feeling marginally crappy at that ungodly hour. Yet it’s fair to assume that my father, Chuck, had more to do with my humorless state. It was nine days before I turned sixteen, and I had never left the city limits of Troy, New York, until that Sunday when Chuck ruined our lives.
There were subtle clues of exhaustion in his expression as he piled boxes into the rear of his 1977 Dodge Warlock. His grimace and long frosty sighs told me he was hard at work. As if attempting to crack one of my miserable algebra equations, he studied his cardboard heap. Judging from the symphony of grunts, I half expected him to drop dead. But in a sudden burst of energy, he crammed the last box into place and stretched a sheet of plastic and three bungee cords over his mound.
At just after eight o’clock in the morning, he snapped his fingers at Boots who was crouched on the ground, preoccupied with the fang-like icicles dripping from the tailpipe, a pensive look on her six-year-old face.
“Let’s get a move on, girls,” he said, fingers fiercely snapping.
Five minutes later, with the back of my legs pressed against a cooler of Dr. Pepper and leftover chicken wings, I watched our red clapboard house shrink to the size of a garden shed, a dollhouse, a speck, and then nothing.
For a good twenty miles, Chuck swigged from a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon and pulled conversation out of thin air, mostly about how his mother Ruth recently had a tumor snipped off her lung but was nowhere near to dying yet.
“By the grace of God, your grandmother is as hearty as an ox,” said Chuck. “Yes sirree, girls, she is a strong old gal.”
“It sounds like a goddamn miracle,” I said.
“Watch your goddamn mouth,” said Chuck, taking a lighter to the end of his Winston.
Due to the combination of smoke and the truck’s always-present sour smell, I cracked the passenger window and grabbed my nose for dramatic effect.
“Why are we going to live there if she’s hearty as an ox?” I watched my breath cloud the glass.
“She can’t live by herself no more,” he said.
“We’ve been over this. She fell and hit her head on the toilet. She can’t live alone.”
“She still would have fallen even if she didn’t live alone.”
“Don’t give me any shit. She fell. We’re moving. End of story.” He blew a curlicue of smoke and proceeded to squish the butt into the ashtray.
We drove in smoky silence after that. When the buildings of Troy faded into the long reach of the interstate, Chuck flicked on the radio and fiddled with the dial until spits of static slid into country western music.
Noon found us parked at a rest area eating cold chicken and wiping our mouths with grease-soaked paper towels. We only stopped along the road once more after that, for Chuck to pump gas while Boots and I took turns using the bathroom on the back side of the gas station.
Back on the road, Boots—curled in a fetal position, her feet stuffed into electric-blue Moon Boots—squirmed in the gap between Chuck and me. On the radio, some country western lady sang about her hardships, while all the important things I wanted to say just crashed around in my head. I punched off the radio and kept my eyes straight ahead. Not that there was much to see—only the flat, endless highway cutting through the state of New York and down into Pennsylvania.
We might have known our future was being made that day, but we pretended not to notice. I believed, at least at fifteen, that clairvoyants were full of crap. But on that morning, I sensed doom like a dog senses an impending earthquake.
A Moon Boot jabbed my hipbone. “Boots, take off those dumb boots. They’re too big for you.”
“They’re Mom’s boots,” she said. “I’m keeping them on.”
“We don’t have a mother.”
“Cut it out, Frank,” said Chuck. Then, as if it were a natural segue, “I should invent a plate with a hole in the middle so I can carry my beer and my dinner plate in the same hand. Huh, what do you think?” He made a ta-da motion, both hands raised up off the steering wheel.
I didn’t respond—just gave him a look.
My father was a slumped, weak-jawed man with chewed bloody cuticles and a body that looked older than its thirty-four years. His hair stood straight up in ratty cowlicks and crept backward on his forehead like a dying lawn.
“Huh, what do you think?” He nudged me, trying to goad me into a response. “A dinner plate with a hole in the middle? It’s got to have a little rim on the thing so the food don’t fall through the hole, but it’s a good idea, ain’t it?”
“I don’t really care about this stuff you come up with.”
“I’m going to get one of them plates patented.” He flushed a pinkish shade as the enthusiasm oozed out of him. “I bet I could make a pretty penny with them beer plates.”
“It sucks,” I said.
“You won’t think it sucks when it makes us millions.”
“No, not the plate. I’m talking about moving to Slippery Elm. Why do we have to uproot our lives so Ruth doesn’t hit her head on the toilet?”
“She’s my mother, and she’s old.”
“She’s not that old.”
“She’s late fifty-something. That’s old in Slippery Elm.”
“This fucking sucks.”
“Hey,” he snapped, “someday you girls might have to watch after me and your mother.”
“I don’t have a mother.”
“She split,” said Boots. “She’s in Clearwater, Florida.”
“The sunshine state,” said Chuck and Boots in sing-songy unison. “It’s good for the demons,” continued Boots.
“We’ve all got demons, kiddos.” Chuck scratched his armpit. “Some worse than others, but we’ve all got demons.”
For the next few minutes, I listened to the slip of tires over icy cement pulling us closer to the town of Slippery Elm where Ruth Coolidge, who I barely remembered, waited for us. I kept my gaze on the road and flipped back in my memory stash to find some glimpse of my grandmother Ruth, but she was blurry. She spent one Christmas with us when I was six. All I remember of her visit, other than her incessant coughing, was the part where my mother squawked that it was none of Ruth’s goddamn business how many frozen margaritas she drank in one night. Plus, my memory stubbornly insisted that Ruth resembled Mr. Roper on Three’s Company.
Ruth had that tumor hacked off her lung, and she’d been a widow for over twenty years. This was all I knew about her, mostly because Chuck had nothing—not one little thing—to say about his childhood. He clenched his jaw and the color went out of him whenever I tried to get him to tell stories of when he was a boy. I didn’t persist.
“Does she know we’re coming today?” I asked.
“You betcha,” he said, all forced and cheery. “She’s been counting the days till she gets to see you kids. She can hardly wait to get her hands on you.”
Hearing this made me uneasy. “Why?”
In response, Chuck fixed me with a pained grin. Even at his most chipper he was incapable of concealing his worries.
Cattle farms complete with silos and rusty tractors swished past. I eyed the munching cows dotting the pastures. With chops full of grass, one cow stood alone along the wire fence. Her aloneness, away from the rest of the herd, looked wrong somehow.
Chuck kept making annoying sucking noises on his Winstons. I kept rolling the window down to let in clean air and then winding it up when the chill laid goose bumps on my skin. I dug around in my backpack and pulled out my ratty copy of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. I’d already read it once, but that was before I realized S.E. was a girl.
By late afternoon, I was getting carsick from reading. In an attempt to calm my stomach, I plucked my Walkman from my backpack and clamped on the headphones. Listening to the whine of Bruce Springsteen’s harmonica, I watched the spine of the road stretch into the fading daylight. Night was closing in and Bruce was singing “Thunder Road” when we finally crossed over into Washington County.
The dread that was nestling down in me morphed into full-fledged fear when I saw beyond the whoosh of windshield wipers a sign that read, Slippery Elm NEXT EXIT.
By now Clarence Clemons was wailing on his sax—a sound both forlorn and carefree. My forehead pressed on the glass, I watched fat snowflakes slam against it and dribble into each other to form a single slow drip. Along the sloping descent into Slippery Elm, I noted two shoddy billboards: GOD BLESS AMERICA and AN ALL- AMERICAN CITY.
When we entered the town, a traffic sign told us to slow down to twenty miles per hour. Chuck ignored it altogether. A craggy-faced woman aggressively puffing on a cigarette threw up her arms and mouthed, “Slow down, asshole.”
We pulled up to the first stoplight just as the neon FoodLand sign above the town grocery went dark. West of the village, along the river, the sun disappeared behind seven blast furnaces looming above bare trees.
Beautifully written - the…
Beautifully written - the prose is tight, with some great imagery. You build up the suspense remarkable well.
Suspense is Building
You've done a great job of setting the stage for events yet to come and discoveries yet to be made.