|Apr/May 2015 Fiction|
Photograph by Rus Bowden
June 12, 2014
"Wrote you a song while I was away," Billy said. "Sang it every day. Helped keep me sane, you know pass the time and shit... oops, there I go again, cussin' in front of you kids." He lifted a large hand off the pickup's steering wheel to point two fingers, now the barrel of a gun, accusingly at the culprit, his mouth. "You better watch yourself this weekend. Got that?" He froze in contemplation, probably reliving a moment of pain or a moment of triumph, before placing his hand back onto the peeling black tread. When he shook his head, his huge frame rocked the entire cab. "And that's that," he whispered. "That's the final word, man."
Angel could see all this, a performance, in her periphery. She was sitting in the center of Billy's rusted-red Ford, her six-year-old brother Jacob plastered to the door on her right. Jacob was focused on the open window, at a moving picture framed by the sill, the composition endless Iowa cornfields standing tall and flying by. Filled with armies of stalks, the scene was coated in a yellowing haze, stirred up dust from the half-dirt road. Her brother suddenly stuck his little arm outside and held it parallel to the road, making it fly.
"Two years," Billy said. "Won't get that back."
Angel saw him turn the tread, as if the truck were a bike and he was revving the engine. No matter how hard he twisted the grip, or how many times, the pickup kept its same steady pace, headed from Cedar Falls to Boone.
"If you two kids want," Billy said, "I can bring my gui-tar over to Patty's and sing it for ya. Do you want to hear that song I wrote?"
"Yes, sir," Angel said, and she poked Jacob, indicating time for backup. "Yes, sir," he repeated, although it was hard to hear his high thin voice over the howling wind—both windows were gaping open—so Angel shouted, "Jacob just agreed. That's what he said. We both want to hear it."
Last night, their mom called a "family meeting," Angel and Jacob huddled together on her Strawberry Shortcake bedspread, next to the window that haunted her dreams. Jeannie-Lee pulled back auburn hair, hid it under a red bandana. "Do you remember Billy?" she asked, as if he were an old friend. "He visited us once when we were in the Park Square Apartments. God, how could you remember? Jacob wasn't even four."
"Yes," Angel whispered.
"No." Jacob shook his head. He lifted held hands. "I don't remember. I don't."
Angel watched her mom clutch the bedspread, their bare feet, and exposed bony knees. She's grasping at everything, holding on to everything.
"He visited... well he and his brothers stopped by that time we went to Patty's. At Christmas. Do you remember Patty, Jacob? Big woman. Loud. Gray hair."
"Yes." Jacob kicked his feet up in celebration. "I remember."
"Billy gave you that Voltron thingy," Jeannie-Lee told him, and Jacob squealed, "Five cats in one!" Angel knew why her mom had brought up the action figure: Jacob played it with Rick, her boyfriend. Angel once overheard Jeannie-Lee tell Aunt Henrietta it was "the best revenge." "Billy wants to see you." Jeannie-Lee kept acting like her hair was in her face, as if it weren't tied back, pulling invisible strands off her lips. "So I set up a sleep over. You're going to spend the weekend at Patty's. Two nights—two bedtimes, Jacob—then you'll be right back home."
Ever since Angel could remember, her mom got terse and tense, shut down conversation whenever anyone brought up Billy. His name, in their household, was taboo. Why is she suddenly acting like he isn't dangerous?
Because she felt betrayed, she said, "You're lying. We're never coming home again." Angel was convinced her ass was grass for "talking back," but something strange happened. Jeannie-Lee started to cry. Not like Grandma Patty. She didn't fling her arms around and insist on getting a hundred hugs. Tears just slid down her cheeks. No noise. Angel could tell her mom was trying to stop herself, take it all back, and change the past. "I'm sorry," Angel said, and she, too, began to cry.
When Jacob asked, "What's happening?" Jeannie-Lee grabbed her daughter's chin gently yet firmly, and insisted, "You look after him," head-gesturing toward Jacob. Angel nodded. She knew the drill. "You're your mother's daughter," Jeannie-Lee whispered in her ear. "He can't hurt you."
They'd been driving for over an hour and a half now. Billy had been late to pick them up—Angel insisted on waiting at the door, not pacing, standing still, not talking, only feeling—and now her bladder was ready to burst. No matter how bad it got, this urge, she would resist. At eight she was strong-willed. With herself, Angel could be merciless. Her hands futzed involuntarily with the pockets of her strapless "butterfly" dress. That morning, she'd changed out of overalls—and green short shorts, and her current favorite, the jumpsuit with shoulder pads—because, as she told her mom, she had to "look right." When Billy nudged his muscular body closer to hers, she wished she'd stuck with the overalls.
"All righty then." Billy's smile grew until his deep-set eyes almost disappeared. "I'll bring the whole band. My brother Greg—you remember Greg, tall, thin as a rail—and Pat Lee, our bass. We'll have a shindig. That's exactly what we need, to get reacquainted. Yes, siree bob, it's gonna be a moonshine night tonight."
Angel wasn't sure what a "moonshine night" was. In situations like this, she relied more on perception than comprehension. She was always aware, for example, when her mom needed levity—How do you make a Kleenex dance? Put a little boogey in it—and when laughter would inspire a fingernail grip to the forearm, that wicked row of half-moons, a temporary reminder of failure indented in her flesh. Right now she could tell Billy expected her to display some kind of solidarity, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't make herself. Instead, she chanced a lingering dreamer's glance at Jacob, who, elegant in his small-bodied awkwardness, was still fixated on the world outside. He was lost in imagination; his mouth lolled, tongue poking out between parted lips. In her head, Angel heard Grandpa Marshall tell him, "Don't let the cows get out," and she felt a surge of jealousy. It wasn't fair, this ability to abandon reality. She, too, wanted an escape. When she closed her eyes, all she saw were horrors, ghosts.
"Thing is," Billy continued, "I don't write too much. Ain't my thing." He rolled the window up, then changed his mind and vigorously turned the knob in the other direction, finally resting a naked elbow on the flat pane. "It's hard, man. A real pain in the... butt." Angel found Billy's voice to be both aggressive and soothing. Steely. Composed. "That's the thing what kills me 'bout makin' music, them damn lyrics. Can't never find the right words. Truth is I ain't too smart." Billy glanced at Angel, a dog at the table begging for scraps, and she offered him a tight-lipped gremlin grin. "But this song," he told them, "was som'n differ'nt. Came to me like it was sent by God. And it's perfect, too, man. Sums everything up. The past two years. What I been through." He rubbed his large Germanic nose, and sucked audibly on his teeth. "I bet you guys are smart, though, ain't ya? Like your mama?"
"Yes, sir," Angel said. "We're smart." She'd been taught that this wasn't something about which someone should be embarrassed—intelligence required work. It was a practice. Every night the three of them sat at the round cherry-wood table they'd inherited from Great-Grandma Washington and read out of workbooks like "I'm Going To Be A Doctor" and "When I'm A Lawyer." No one can tell you what you can and cannot be, their mother would say. Jeannie-Lee was statuesque, handsome, and still pretty. She had a rare, long-limbed beauty. No matter what anyone says, she'd insist, you decide for yourself. Only you.
"Your mama was the smartest woman I ever met," Billy told them. "Smarter'n all the boys. Smarter'n me, that's for sure." When he spoke about their mom, his voice changed. It sounded more believable and sad. "I lucked out when she chose me for her beau. We was just kids, ya know—15 years old. Didn't know shit from Shinola." As he made a right turn, Billy inhaled audibly. "I fucked it... sorry, man"—he exhaled—"I messed things up. Never forgive myself for that." He looked down, speaking to the crotch of his tight Lee jeans. "Truth is," Billy confessed, "I've messed up a lot of stuff in my life. Done some things I ain't too proud of. Did your mama tell you 'bout why I was sent away?"
"About what?" Jacob howled into the wind, his response warped, like he was speaking into a fan—'aBouTwhat'—so, "Yes, sir," Angel covered for him, "we understand," and Billy seemed content to drop the subject.
Angel knew her little brother wasn't listening. Here's what he was really doing: watching for deer. Or cows. A cat? His new thing was pretending life was Wild Kingdom. Jacob's paisley cowboy shirt had ridden up, exposing ribs, and Angel yanked on the hem. When he didn't flinch, she was compelled to kiss his left shoulder, on the collar. As soon as her lips touched the papery fabric, Jacob grunted ever so slightly, which made her happy. She was doing her job; everything was fine.
Concerning Billy, Angel understood he'd been in prison for a long time and their lives had moved on. No more hiding. Is he back now? What does he want? To escape these thoughts, she followed Jacob's eerily patient gaze. She wanted to see what he saw, to know what he knew. She expected allure, but all that was out there were more cornfields. The golden crowns had reached a mid-Summer height, just starting to rise above her head. They were perfectly uniform—so many stalks and all the same. If she and Jacob were on the dairy farm in Waverly with their cousins Lauren and Mitchell, they'd play hide and seek. She'd disappear in an army of still green soldiers. Olly olly oxen free. That's where she was, hiding in her head, when she sensed Billy's stare burning the side of her face.
"I need to know the truth, darlin'," he said, gripping Angel's left arm in what appeared at first be a loving gesture but soon hurt. "Don't lie to me." He shook her once, and twisted the skin when he let go. "Do you know who I am?"
Angel gritted her teeth and kicked the dash. When she was angry, her nostrils flared. "I know who you are," she told him. You're—"
She was going to say: Billy.
"I'm you're daddy," he announced, his gruff lullaby voice snuffing out her own, and this more than everything else made Angel angry. Billy, speaking on her behalf.
Her red Converse had left a clear print on the plastic dash. Emboldened by aggravation, Angel turned, for the first time, to fully take in Billy's buzz-cut and high, tanned forehead. He was handsome, powerful, strange and familiar at once. She stared him down as his gaze rotated back and forth between her and the road. Billy's neck was a sprinkler—tick, tick, tick, stall, tick, tick, tick, stall. When his calf-brown eyes splashed her for a third time, she offered up a princess smile, fully rehearsed. Sometimes honey works better than vinegar, pumpkin. She dipped her head to the side and eyelash batted.
"Aw, hell." Billy sounded relieved. "'Course you know who I am."
Angel was good at pretending, a fact that disturbed her. She looked at that footprint and wondered how long it would last, when it would be wiped away. For a moment, she truly hated herself.
"Thing is..." Billy said, "Daddy did som'n not so good. He's got what's called an addiction. Sometimes, he can't control himself. Ain't his fault. Ain't nobody's fault. That's why you haven't seen him for a while."
"It's okay," Angel told him.
"No," he said, "it's not okay; not a-tall. Parole officer says, 'Past is the past, Billy. You did your time and now you start over.' And you know what, darlin', I thought 'bout you every single day. Sang that damn song."
Outside, they'd entered Boone, the town where Angel and Jacob were born, the place where Grandma and Grandpa Marshall lived with their dogs Patches and Spook. The Ford was barreling down Story Street. Angel spied the sign, just after they'd passed the abandoned Kate Shelly railroad bridge, which looked like a flat roller coaster, tracks stretching straight over a valley, all the structure built underneath.
"Why Kate Shelly?" she'd once asked Grandpa Marshall who worked for the railroad.
"Kate Shelly was a teenage girl," he said. "One night there was a terrible storm and the bridge was out. She carried a lantern and stood on the tracks, stopped a train from plummeting to the depths. That gal was a hero. Saved a lot of people."
Angel was wondering if Billy knew the story of Kate Shelly when she realized he was sweating like crazy. It was summer, but not too hot, cool in the cab. What's he on? How had she missed this important detail? His black Harley T-shirt featured an eagle soaring above a bike and, beak-cracked, shrieking at the sky; it was glassy-eyed and angry. The shirt announced Billy was a biker, which meant, among other things, loud and rude and mean. It stretched on his bulging chest to the point of bursting—Billy was muscular like Uncle Chip, farmer big.
"I'm back for good," Billy said. "Ain't goin' nowhere." His voice was strained, which scared Angel. When he got emotional, she was never sure what would come next: apologies or rage. And she didn't know which she preferred. "Y'all know you're the most precious things in my life, right? Two best things I ever done."
"Jacob," Billy barked, out of nowhere. "Did you hear me? I was talkin' to ya, son." This was the moment for which Angel had been waiting, verification that Billy was the same person he'd always been. No mater how many times he claimed to have "changed," he would always be the "bad man." The cab became unbearably tense, and Angel, who lived in a state of anticipation, took control. Her goal was to protect her brother, and she used reality to her advantage.
"That was loud!" she declared, lifting and dropping her shoulders in an adult-produced shrug with child-like delivery. She widened her eyes to depict "surprise."
"You're right," Billy said. He shook his head fervently, acting like his mouth had been possessed and he was exercising the demon. "Boy howdy. Sorry, buddy. Daddy's just a little nervous is all. Sometimes he talks too loud, don't he?"
In response, little blond-haired Jacob imitated his sister's gleeful expression—a consummate mimic—the difference being he was sincere. "That was super loud!" He smiled so that his dimple became pronounced, and Angel was relieved. When Jacob was "on," no one could resist his charms. Her brother was what adults called "precious," with that hint of a lisp and his oddly accurate perception. People fawned over Jacob; they preferred him to Angel, and deservedly so. He was nicer than his sister. A better person. "That was so loud you scared me," Jacob told Billy. "You scared me, you scared me," he repeated as he bobbled his head back and forth.
"Jesus Christ," Billy said. "You're too much."
Billy laughed in three hard bursts. The voices in his head were apparently gone, and Angel hoped he'd keep it together for the rest of the weekend.
"It's okay," Jacob exonerated Billy, as was his custom. "Sometimes people talk too loud," he explained matter-of-factly. "Some people do!"
"Well, shit," Billy said. "Looky here. Home again, home again jiggity jig."
Billy parked in front of Patty's boxy white house, and Angel remembered the pink peony bushes and yellowing yard, at the center of which now sat a Care Bear kiddie pool filled to the brim. The wind blew, and water spilled over the lip.
"Patty's been dying to see you two," Billy said. "'I love them goddamn kids to death,'" he mimicked his mother's gravely voice. "Said you visited while I was away."
"Grandma Rose brought us," Angel stated before she could stop herself, the implicating detail being that their mother hadn't approved the action. Grandma Rose made them promise not to say anything. As Billy yanked the keys out of the ignition, all his features pinched toward the center of his face. Angel knew he was about to give her the fifth degree, so she found an escape hatch: "Jacob can't open the door by himself," she said. "He needs your help."
"What? Okay," Billy mumbled. He stared too long, and she went through the routine: act like nothing's wrong, pretend you don't understand, be a kid. As Billy leapt from the cab, Patty burst out of the front door, the screen whip-smacking the house.
She bellowed, "My babies are heeeeeere!"
Angel no longer had to pee. Her guts wound into a knot, so she knew she'd have diarrhea later. "Crap," she said—a word allowed at Patty's, not at home—and Jacob looked at her, clearly worried. For a moment, she'd forgotten her job.
"Why did you say 'crap'?" he asked.
Imitating her mother, Angel grabbed his chin, gently but firmly, and said, "It's okay, bud. I wrinkled my dress, that's all. I'm a dummy," she added.
Jacob insisted, "You're not a dummy! Everyone does stuff like that."
"Jakey!" Patty cried as she swung open the passenger-side door. "Come to Patty, you little shit. Oh, my God, heaven to Betsy. Angel, you're bee-u-ti-ful!"
Angel had to push Jacob out of the truck. After jumping down to join him, she was swept up in Patty's thick, rubbery arms. Patty was fat in a strange way; her skin jiggled. Grandma Rose was fat, too, but her body was dense. When Grandma Rose hugged you, it didn't feel like you were being sucked into a block of Jell-O.
"It's just like I told you, Mama." Billy was standing back near the pool, surveying the scene. "I'm getting' my shit together."
"How you doin', little Jakey Bakey?" Patty asked Jacob.
Visibly perplexed, he said, "I didn't bring my suit." Both Billy and Patty seemed confused—by not following the script, Jacob was ruining their reunion.
Angel told her brother, "You can use your underwear," and explained to the adults, "He saw the pool. Sometimes he worries about stuff. Mom says he's 'a worrier.'"
Patty burst into a melodramatic cackle, which devolved into a hacking fit. "You are too much, Jakey Bakey," she said through a mouthful of phlegm.
"Grandpa says I'm 'too much,' but Grandma says I'm 'squirrelly' and sometimes she tells me I'm a 'pill' and it all means the same thing!"
"Good God," Patty asided to Billy, "just listen to your son." She yanked on the sides of a green and white polka-dotted muumuu, which did nothing to shift the shapeless sack, and told Jacob, "You're a gift from God is what you are." When the wind picked up, Angel was reminded that Patty, with her straw-like hair and gnarly teeth, smelled like an ashtray. The woman smoked nonstop—in fact, she lit up as they moved up the walkway—and her voice, as a result, was as rough as her stubble.
Before she stepped inside, Angel caught Billy sizing her up. She returned his gaze, and he gave her an adult smile, a man smile. There was something dark swimming across his face, a bottom feeder lurking in his eyes.
"You look like your mama," he said. "She's the love of my life. Always will be."
Angel wanted to tell him her mom had a boyfriend. Rick owned a cockatiel named Spock and studied computer sciences in Ames. He was going to marry her mom, and then Billy would have to go away forever. Instead, "Thank you," she politely replied.
Once inside, the first thing Angel noticed was "the piles." Disheveled random clothes, Corduroy pants, and a pink crop top that asked Where's the Beef? Boxes regurgitated purple boas and stacks of photographs. The living room was filled from floor to ceiling, except for two narrow walking paths. One led to the burnt-orange couch and lime rocker, the other to a dining room and hidden kitchen.
There were no pictures on the walls, just one large Victorian-framed mirror, which hung on a visible wire. Placed at the center of the mess was an ovular coffee table, situated kitty-corner to a black and white TV. The bedroom door to Angel's right was shut, which meant it was unusable. Where does Patty sleep? Angel imagined her grandma passed out in the kiddy pool, wearing a soaked muumuu, her head resting on a floaty, water displaced every time she breathed.
The place reeked like Patty herself, of stale cigarettes and something mealy. While Billy lifted Jacob onto a sunken orange cushion, Patty dragged her granddaughter along the dining-room path to a glass case that housed her pride and joy, a collection of ceramic figurines known as "Patty's Angels." There were hundreds of them. Mother angels. Baby angels. Doctor angels. Patient angels. There was even a German Setter angel, hiding his golden bone in a fluffy cloud. Except for the dog, all the dolls had adult bodies and childlike faces.
"You remember, baby girl!" Patty said expectantly.
From the other room, Jacob pulled a Jacob: "Angel hates angels."
"What you talkin' 'bout, boy?" Billy said accusingly.
"Nonsense, Jakey Bakey," Patty cried. "It's our thing."
Angel was sure Jacob looked confused, because he was. This was a private joke in the little duplex they called The White House. Every Christmas, Grandma Rose gave the kids new ornaments. Over the years, Angel had accrued a myriad of divine angels. She'd confessed to her mom she thought they were creepy—with forced grins and pill-like teeth, faces impersonating joy—and Jeannie-Le agreed. Just like that, it became a tradition. They hung the angels on the back of the tree, and sarcastically quipped, all season long, about how good they looked.
"Jacob's kidding," Angel protested, telling her brother to mind his manners while affirming to the adults that the whole ordeal had been a charade. "I love them, Grandma. They're bee-u-ti-full," she sold her story, and Patty gasped blissfully, which turned into a wheeze, then developed, as she trudged past Angel to the kitchen, into one of her coughing fits.
When the heaving ceased, a disembodied voice proclaimed, "I got to check on dinner. Damn oven's been actin' up. Can't trust it to cook nothin' right. Y'all relax."
Angel guessed dinner was the "mealy" smell, when she felt a hand on her shoulder. She reflexively pulled away from the grip and whipped around to see Billy.
"Did I spook ya," he said with a flat voice. It wasn't a question. He seemed thoroughly pleased with himself.
"No," she told him, then, "Yes," she confessed.
When he crossed his arms in front of his chest, his biceps doubled in size. His sweat-gleaning skin had taken on a grayish tone; his eyes housed a hungry curiosity. He wanted to touch her, she could tell. How far will he go? After a few menacing moments, Billy announced he "had some shit to take care of" and was "heading out."
He said, "Make sure and save me some grub, Mama."
"Your kids is home," Patty whisper-yelled, appearing just long enough to pull him into the kitchen. "What the hell is wrong with you? Are you dumb—"
"Ain't nothing wrong with me, Mama."
"—or are you stupid?"
"I just need—"
"NO!" She'd forgotten to whisper. "Leave that shit alone. All you NEED to do is spend time with them kids. You wanna fuck this up again?"
Someone slapped a hand against a hard surface and there was a long silence.
Angel envisioned Patty and Billy circling each other as she removed the dog angel and retreated to join her brother on the couch. Jacob was visibly shaken. Angel, however, was oddly soothed by the forgotten pretense. Albeit uncomfortable, this was, at least, familiar. "Look," she said to her brother, show-and-telling a white cherubic snout and wings sprouting out of bony shoulders. Jacob reached for the dog and retracted his arm, while Angel contemplated what to do with it. She could smash it against the clay ashtray. That would make her brother laugh, but she'd definitely get busted. She decided to set it on the table, next to a bowl of plastic fruit. She made sure his sagging right ear touched one in a bunch of round purple grapes. "It's my birthday," she said with a slow-witted tone, "I just love grapes," and Jacob jack-o-lantern grinned in gratitude.
In the kitchen, Billy said, "Got to take care of shit so I can relax." His voice was feral, quiet but threatening, and Angel shuddered. "Don't you lie neither, woman—you need some bad as me, so shut your goddamn pie hole!"
Angel expected Patty to bellow. Scream. Issue a list of threats.
"Just come back," she said desperately. "Please." She sounded winded. Spent. "Mama understands. We need to ease into this is all. But please tell me you'll come back tonight, Billy-boy. Them kids need to see their daddy."
"Fine," he agreed. "Damnit," he added, "I done lost my temper."
"You lost your shit is what happened," Patty cackled, like it had all been a joke.
"I just need..."
"Mama will take care of everythin'," she assured him. "Now get going, so I can take out this meatloaf 'fore it burns."
When Billy crept back into the living room, Angel and Jacob sat up schoolroom-straight, because there was nothing to pretend to be doing. After theatrically positioning himself on the other side of the coffee table, Billy stretched his arms in an open-faced hug, and buried his fists in ratty cushions, one on the side of either child's head. He stared as sweat dripped off his square jaw and toned shoulders. Angel decided he looked like the eagle on his shirt. His eyes were glassy, distant. As he opened his mouth, "You're not staying," she said, clearly upset, which surprised everyone, most especially her, and Billy's hard expression melted.
"I'm stayin', darlin'," he told her. "Course I'm stayin'." When his eyes cleared, Angel caught a glimpse of the young man underneath—he was 24, someone lost and searching. "Goin' out to get my gui-tar is all. So I can sing you that song. Be back soon. Ain't goin' nowhere." Billy plastered dry lips on the side of her head, before heading toward the door. As an afterthought, he stopped to blow Jacob a kiss. "You two kids have any idea how much your daddy loves ya?"
As soon as he was outside, Patty appeared. She was already unsteady on her feet, looking egg-like with her arms crossed in front of her muumuu. A green and white mop-headed toy, Angel thought. She wanted to push her grandmother over and see if she rose—Weebles wobble, but they don't fall down.
"Guess what Grandma's got for you?" Patty's voice was slow. Intentional. She furrowed her brow like it was difficult to focus, revealed a stack of pictures vice-gripped in her clammy hands, and made them rain down on the coffee table. "Woo-hoo," she said. "Som'n to look at while I finish up dinner. I knew... know you ain't seen your daddy in a while." When she reached for a pack of Old Golds, her hand knocked into the ashtray, which spilled a pile of ashes onto the glass. "That's important... this time. You need to know who your daddy is," she insisted, and retreated to the kitchen without cleaning up her mess.
Angel collected the pictures with both hands before Jacob could see them. He started to complain, but she hushed him.
There it was.
Patty's sister had snapped the picture on that Christmas just over two years ago. In it, Billy had one arm slung around his brother Greg—tall, thin as a rail. Angel and Jacob were huddled on knees in front of Patty, who leaned on them as if they were a podium. Standing a full foot away, a lean, stylish woman was wearing olive slacks and a tweed blazer with severe shoulder pads. Her auburn hair spilled down to a slim waist. Where her face should have been was a black hole, inked-out; her identity was a void. Angel squinted to identify a single feature, a cheek, an ear, when Jacob asked: "Why can't I see it? I want—"
"Shut your goddamn pie-hole," Angel snapped, and he did.
For a moment, she thought she might faint as anger swelled inside her. It ballooned until there was no room left for air. After looking at her brother, whose expression was pained but stern—he was prepared to accept her fury—Angel knocked the ceramic figurine off the table, and it cracked quietly, the pieces lost to "the piles." Jacob gasped, and Angel pocketed the picture, making sure to give her brother the death stare, a promise of pain if he uttered a word.
"Look at these." She handed him a truce in the form of photographs.
The kids perused snapshots for 30 minutes. They took a toilet break—the bathroom hidden behind Patty's bedroom—hand-in-hand, as if they were in a department store. Angel turned her back when Jacob asked for "privacy." On Pac-Man TV trays, they ate meatloaf, after which Patty set up camp in-between her grandchildren and they watched a made-for-TV movie about a single mom getting beat up by her developmentally disabled child. The woman claimed that her daughter had "gorilla strength." Patty laughed. She cried. She coughed. Every once in a while, she'd grab both kids in a double bear hug. The whole time, Angel thought about what her grandma had said: "You need to know who your daddy is."
This is everything Angel knew about Billy:
1) He'd gone to prison for doing something terrible. Much worse than Aunt Michelle who'd stolen money from that 80-year-old woman she was supposed to be nursing but was really robbing. Worse than cousin Jeb, who'd broken all the windows at the farm after Uncle Chip told everyone in Waverly he was a "shit worker." Billy had hurt someone. Badly. Angel had garnered this information three days ago when she snuck downstairs after bedtime. Through wooden railings, she saw Henrietta's bony fingers latch around Jeannie-Lee's wrist. Her great-aunt said, "You can't let them go with that man. He was charged with terrorism, for God's sake. Do you know what he did? Tortured a deputy sheriff. Tied the poor man up with duct tape, put a football helmet on his head, and beat him with a hammer. One swing for every bong hit. He's perverse." Jeannie-Lee yanked her arm free from Henrietta's grip, her elbow knocking into the spider plant. She was composed and broken at the same time. Her response: "What am I supposed to do? Disappear again? The courts decided he was rehabilitated. Monster or no, the son of a bitch has rights, and I can't fight the law. Not this time. I'm tired of running. I'm just tired."
2) Before prison, Billy used to come looking for them at Cottage Grove Trailer Park. The game their mother made up was called "Tornado Drill." It involved hiding both kids behind heavy winter jackets in the closet. The hard part was keeping Jacob quiet. This was Angel's job. It was necessary, so they wouldn't be kidnapped, which meant, in her mom's words, "Taken away from me forever."
3) Although she'd never seen his face, Angel was sure Billy was the arm in her recurring nightmare, the one that broke through the window to grab her legs. The glass shattered silently so her mom couldn't hear it; somehow she knew he made this happen. As the arm yanked her toward an abyss that was darker than dark, she tried to call out but couldn't make a sound.
Patty fell asleep in the middle of the movie. She started snoring, which shook the couch, so Angel and Jacob moved, bodies intertwined, to the lime rocker. A late-night Vampire saga had begun, and Angel was wondering why the heroine was so dumb, when the front door suddenly cracked open. SMACK. Her throat closed as Billy charged into the room. His body was taught with violence. Jittery. She leaned back and gripped her brother's hand, clutching the wicker chair, but managed to keep her fear quiet inside her body.
"You yell like a fuckin' girl." Billy took a southpaw pull from a bottle of Jack, knocked over a box of hangars, and spilled his whiskey, waking a discombobulated Patty who raised both hands like a shield.
"What in tarnation?"
Jacob's lips trembled, but Angel knew he wouldn't cry. Not in a situation that required they both be present. She could count on her brother. When he rubbed his eyes, however, his pointer finger went for his nose—habit—and started digging.
"Don't pick your fuckin' nose." Billy took another long swig. "It's disgustin'."
The man was in a different state—he was high and drunk. I got what's called an addiction. Angel wondered if she should chide or defend her brother, when Patty slurred: "You go home... now, Billy. On home."
She attempted to stand, but fell on her butt and the couch groaned, while Billy held up his downturned right fist.
"I know what you want, Mama," he teased, his words accented by a sly wink. Patty's head was shaking "no," when the rest of her body shot up, stabilized by temptation. Billy motioned toward the kitchen, and told her, "I'm takin' off with my kids."
"There's time," she insisted, trying to wag a finger, instead shaking her whole hand. "You have a place here... Jesus Billy, there ain't no—"
"Shut the hell up, woman. You ain't makin' no sense." Billy downed the last of the Jack and flung the bottle. He snatched her Jell-O wrist with his left hand and pulled her in a close hold as if they were preparing to dance. "Here's what's gonna happen, Mama. I'll slip you some ice, and you disappear. Understand?" When he offered her his cupped right hand, Patty snagged the hidden contents. "I need to take my kids out for a drive," he explained, "have a little talk. Get ourselves reacquainted." Billy glared, and his mother lifted both arms as if in a trance and slunk dreamily toward the kitchen.
"Don't be... along," she said, her words contorted, her voice wrung-out.
Billy stood, gargoyle still, in front of Angel and Jacob.
The moment he looked at the door, Angel took her brother's hand and encouraged him to stand. Billy made them move around his fixed body—a hint of what was to come—but Angel forced past without a trace of cower. She would not show fear. He couldn't have that. He wasn't going to get any piece of her.
Outside, the wind had died. It was quiet. The pool sat still, the water calm. A hum from the running Ford was the only sound on the block. Without instruction, Angel directed Jacob toward the truck. She'd committed Billy's words to memory. They were going for a drive, to get reacquainted. After opening the rusted door, she climbed onto the seat and hauled her little brother up behind—Jacob even managed to close it by himself. When Billy joined them from the driver's side, his energy was dark. He took up all the space in the cab, sucking loudly on his teeth. After prying a red lighter out of his jeans pocket, he lit a Marlboro and smoked it with the windows rolled up. He grunted to himself, answering a question that had been posed in his mind, before stepping on the gas. The tires screeched, and dirt billowed behind them. Angel was looking through the rear-view mirror as he continued to accelerate. When he finally cracked his window, air shrieked through the hole, hurting her ears. Billy responded by disposing of the cigarette butt. Angel saw the cherry hit the truck bed and fly, still lit, into the night. She wondered where it went and where they were going.
Less than five minutes later, Angel knew their destination.
The Kate Shelly Bridge was one of the tallest double-track bridges in the country and the only thing for which Boone was known. Billy slammed on the brakes in front of the woods that bisected the bridge, and Jacob flew off the seat. No one spoke. They were parked beneath low-hanging branches that scratched at the hood. Everyone got out.
Together, they climbed a small hill to the tracks and turned left to follow straight iron lines, a metal mouth that seemed to go on forever. This was the Boone Railroad. There were no railings. Billy led the charge without looking back, and Angel and Jacob hesitated. They knew crossing was forbidden—Grandma Rose had told them that every year some "stupid teenagers" would think it was a hoot to cross the bridge and ended up dead, their bodies broken in the valley below.
"But we're not supposed to," Jacob said.
"We can," Angel assured him, "if we're with an adult." He didn't seem convinced, and so "I'll stay behind you," she promised forcefully. When she took his hand and encouraged him to walk, Angel tried not to think about crushed skulls and mangled limbs. She stepped onto the bridge, pushing Jacob like a shopping cart, allowing him to cruise and, every once in a while, issuing a gentle nudge. On the other side, she saw parallel world, dark woods that were almost symmetrical to the spot in which she now found herself.
Twenty feet in, "I don't want—" Jacob began.
"Look at the tracks," she insisted. When he tried to turn around, she wouldn't allow it. "Stay near the center," she mothered him. "It's a special occasion."
Angel tried to follow her own advice and focus on repetitive metal beams, which didn't seem as daunting as open space. In front of them, Billy waded as if in water, dragging each leg with noticeable force. He was fighting an unknown gravity. They moved like this, in a single-file line.
When she wasn't pushing her brother, Angel rubbed the picture hidden in her pocket. Kate Shelly, she silently chanted, Kate Shelly, Kate Shelly. Below them was a valley filled with full oak and elm trees and wildflowers—milkweed and bluebells—and short grassy hills that dropped off in spots. Gouged out. Above them, the sky was saturated with stars. Even without a visible moon, it was glorious.
At the center of the bridge, Billy turned out toward the valley and stepped to the lip of the track. When he raised his arms hallelujah-high, it looked as though he was about to swan dive. For a moment, Angel considered pushing him or making a run for it, but she knew tricks like that only worked in movies. This was real.
After they passed Billy, Angel grabbed Jacob's shoulder—"Look at me," she said, "it's a picnic"—and they sat down, cross-legged, in the middle of the tracks. Billy didn't acknowledge them. His large hands dropped to his sides, lifeless.
"I love your mama." His voice sounded drawn like his body, which was now crouched forward, hands on knees, his head slowly shaking.
Kate Shelly had gone down in Iowa history as a hero, but to Angel she was something different, a ghost. She'd always imagined that the girl died on these tracks, in that very storm, and now haunted the bridge, an angry specter looking for revenge. It was her home, and the mangled teenagers to whom Grandma referred were her victims. Angel planned to whisper "Kate Shelly" to Jacob, when Billy moved away from the edge. Without a sound, he was standing right behind them.
"I love your mama," he said. "That ain't never gonna change." Angel felt his breath, and then his hand on her shoulder. She pulled Jacob—who was also being gripped—closer, nuzzling his head under her arm, as Billy's fingers curled into her skin, digging like they wanted to break through. "Thing is, she don't love me back."
You're your mother's daughter. He can't hurt you.
Angel imagined Kate Shelly. The girl was 15, smaller than Jeannie-Lee, but auburn-haired and long-limbed just the same. She wore a white lace dress as if she'd just come from a dance. The dress, which clung at the top to her thin waist, fanned out at the bottom whenever she twirled, highlighting the pale skin on her arms and legs. Kate Shelly, like the picture, was faceless.
"Can't live without her," Billy said. "Don't want to. And that there's the problem." His fingernails gauged wicked little half-moons into Angel's skin as the tension from his weight pushed them all three forward, closer to the lip of the bridge. Angel looked around and saw a blackness that went on forever; they were being pushed into the void. She released Jacob's head and shifted her body so that she was in front of him, a barrier. If anyone were to go over the edge, it would be her. She would fall like Kate Shelly—a necessary sacrifice—save her brother, and then get her revenge. She thrust against the track, digging in with her Converse, "Stop," Angel was about to scream, and she realized he already had. Billy wasn't pushing at all. He was desperately hugging them and crying.
"If I can't have her, no one can," he sobbed. "That's what I decided. Two years. It ain't fuckin' fair." There was snot hanging in a thick string form his sharp nose and spit frothing out of his mouth. "You need to help me get her back," he begged. "It hurts. Please," he cried, "it ain't fuckin' fair."
When Angel stood up, Billy wiped his nose and mouth with the limp back of his hand. Jacob was curled up in a ball next to the second rail, and Angel pulled him to the center. "It's a game," she whispered, and Jacob went along with it, although his eyes betrayed the truth—he would always remember this moment; he would never let it go. She then walked over to Billy, lifted up his sagging head, and held it gently but firmly in cupped hands.
He stared at her, his face tear-streaked, and asked, "How can I get her back?" He didn't see Kate Shelly standing on the rusted metal tracks behind him, her hair a chestnut net that spilled over pale shoulder, teasing her long legs, one at a time, over the edge. "Would she have me?" Billy asked. "What do I have to do?"
"Take her hand." Angel looked past him. "Take her hand and jump."