Fourmileby Watt Key
A mysterious stranger arrives at a boy's rundown Alabama farm home, just as a dangerous situation is unfolding for the twelve-year-old and his widowed mother.
A mysterious stranger arrives at a boy's rundown Alabama farm home, just as a dangerous situation is unfolding for the twelve-year-old and his widowed mother.
“* Suspenseful and introspective.” Publishers Weekly, starred review
“* Key has crafted another powerful, riveting coming-of-age tale. . . . Foster's first-person voice is richly authentic as he gradually acquires the wisdom that will eventually lead him to a believable though heart-wrenching resolution to some of the crushing conflicts in his life. Confrontations between Dax and Gary are vivid and violent enough to disturb some readers, the violence expertly serving to define yet distinguish their characters. Deeply moving and fast-paced, this life-affirming effort is a worthy addition to the bookshelves of sturdy readers.” Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“* Simultaneously poignant and suspenseful, the story will keep readers on the edge of their seats.” School Library Journal, starred review
“An original and satisfying coming-of-age tale.” The Horn Book
“Written in the tradition of classics such as Old Yeller and Shiloh but with a decidedly contemporary setting and tone, this will appeal to a broad range of readers.” BCCB
Read an Excerpt
By Watt Key
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2012 Albert Watkins Key, Jr.
All rights reserved.
I heard Mother calling, but I didn't answer. I lay in the scattered hay and stared at the afternoon sunbeams angling through the big bay doors of the barn. Against the wall were damp, moldy bales that had been in the same place for over a year. They smelled more of wet dirt and decay than anything fresh-cut. Two sheets of tin had blown off the roof during the winter and the place was rotting. There was too much to do now. Mother and I couldn't keep up.
I rolled over and faced my dog, Joe. He lifted his chin and nosed the chewed-up stick lying in front of him.
"Not right now," I said.
Joe rested his chin on the ground again. He was patient.
"Foster!" Mother called again.
I stood and walked into the sunbeams with Joe following. I stopped just outside and looked across the yard at her. She'd known where I was, but she wouldn't come after me. She didn't like the barn now. She said there was nothing we could do about it.
"Dax's here!" she called. "Come get washed up before dinner!"
I looked over the rail fence at the pasture beyond. The cows had been gone for several months, sold to the farmer behind us. Johnsongrass grew waist-high, looking like something that would be a giant briar patch in another year. Daddy's farm truck and Kubota tractor sat under the shed. The place had grown still and quiet and lifeless. There was nothing we could do about any of it.
* * *
I left Joe waiting at the back door and stepped into the kitchen. Mother was pulling a baked chicken from the oven and I smelled her perfume over the roasted meat. I never knew her to wear perfume until Dax Ganey started coming around. The smell of it made me queasy.
He leaned against the sink, working a can of old Milwaukee beer like it was hinged on his hand, watching her. It seemed he was always leaning on something, skinny and hungry-looking. He wore his blue work pants and white button-down shirt that said RIVIERA UTILITIES on the pocket. He was nearly five years younger than her and wore his hair long in the back, sometimes pulling it into a ponytail. Mother said she'd met him about two months before when he was surveying an underground power line in front of our house. The first time she'd had him over to eat I thought he was as cool and smooth as a movie star. Gradually I came to realize how he really was when Mother wasn't looking. The only thing I liked about Dax was that he worked most evenings during the week. Since Mother worked at the post office during the day, Saturdays and Sundays were about the only time I had to see him.
Dax flicked the last swallow of beer into the sink and dropped the empty into the trash. Then he turned to me and studied me until I looked away. He wouldn't smile unless Mother was watching him.
"How you doin', Foster?" he said.
I started past him. "Fine," I said.
I heard the oven door shut and sensed Mother's eyes on me. "Shake his hand, Foster," she said.
I stopped next to him and held out my hand without looking at him. He had a snake tattoo on the bottom of his wrist. I didn't like shaking his hand. I didn't mind the tattoo, but his fingers were strong like cables and he usually squeezed my knuckles until it hurt, like he wanted to warn me of something.
This time his hand was limp and clammy.
"Look a man in the eyes when you shake his hand, son," he said cheerfully.
I didn't. I pulled away and started to my room.
"What'd I do?" I heard him say.
"You didn't do anything, Dax." Mother sighed.
I went into my room, shut the door, and rubbed my hand. I could still hear them.
"Why's he hang out in the barn?"
"I don't know," she said, like she was tired of thinking about it.
I stood in the middle of the floor, holding a clean shirt, staring at my closet.
"Maybe I'll take him fishin' with me. Might snap him out of it."
I changed shirts and stood before my mirror, still listening, but wishing I wasn't.
"I need to get him off this farm," she said. "Get him in a neighborhood with other kids. We've got to sell this place."
"Where does that leave me, sweetie?" he said smoothly.
"Stop that, Dax."
"You know what. Go in there and watch television and give me time to get this together."
I waited until I heard another beer can snap, then I forced myself into the bathroom to wash my hands.
* * *
I walked into the kitchen and Mother turned from the sink and inspected me.
"I wish you'd put on some clean trousers."
"He didn't change."
She turned back to the sink. I noticed where her apron parted in the back that she had on a dress I'd only seen her wear on Sundays when we used to go to church.
"Okay," I said.
"Thank you for doing that," she replied. "And I'd like it if you'd go sit in the living room with Mr. Ganey and keep him company."
After I put on clean pants I went into the living room and sat in the club chair across from him. He didn't look at me or say anything. He was more interested in a rerun of Walker, Texas Ranger. I took the opportunity to study the side of his face. He reminded me of a goat. A smooth shaved goat. Restless and jumpy with eyes that blinked too much, like whatever went on inside his head was too fast for the face that held it. He shot a look at me and I glanced away.
"You like Chuck Norris?" he asked.
"I don't know," I said.
In my periphery I saw him turn back to the television.
"What do you do out in the barn?" he asked.
Neither of us said anything for a minute.
"What's wrong with that dog of yours?"
"Nothing's wrong with him."
"I about had to kick the crap out of it last time I came over here."
I didn't answer him.
"You need to put him on a rope."
"He never bit anybody."
"He about started on me."
I didn't respond.
"Your momma says you been givin' her trouble."
I stared at my hands.
"Says you been gettin' in fights at school."
I looked at him. I couldn't believe she'd told him about it. He turned to me again and I looked away at the television. Then he was chuckling to himself. "Kid needs to get in a few fights. Get over the fear of it early. You don't wanna grow up and be a pansy-ass, do you?"
I shook my head. I just wanted him to stop talking.
"But let me tell you somethin'," he said.
Mother walked in before he could tell me anything and I let out a breath I didn't know I'd been holding.
"Dinner is served, you two," she said proudly.
I got up quickly and started for the dining room table. I didn't like being alone with him. Dax scared me in a way that I didn't understand. In a way that I'd never felt. Like somebody I'd find standing over my bed at night, closing those fingers around my throat.CHAPTER 2
"Good chicken," Dax said, wiping his mouth with a napkin.
"Thank you," Mother said.
I stared at my peas. I wasn't hungry. I wanted to go back out to the barn.
"I might take some of this home with me," he said.
She smiled at him and I hated him more.
"Mr. Ganey said he might take you fishing, Foster."
I didn't answer.
"Foster?" she said.
I looked at her. I could see him chewing and watching.
"Did you hear me?" she asked.
"What do you think about that?"
"I don't want to go fishing."
"You used to love to fish."
"Daddy loved to fish. I liked to go with him."
I saw she was getting nervous by the way the side of her mouth started to twitch.
"Maybe another time," Dax said.
Mother hesitated, then looked at her plate and lifted another bite.
Dax took a gulp of beer and set the can down again. "You know, if you'd fix this place up a little, it might sell."
Mother looked at him with a pained expression.
"What?" he said. "I'm talkin' about that barn out there and the fence and the crap in the yard. People see that stuff."
"I can't afford all that, Dax."
"Then how you expect to get the kind of money you want for it?"
"The real estate person said we could sell it as is."
"Real estate people are whores for a contract too."
"Dax," she said, glancing at me.
"You don't think he's heard that before? He's almost thirteen years old. He's heard a lot more than that."
"Why don't you help her?" I said to my plate.
He turned to me. "Help her what?"
"Fix the place up. You come over here enough."
"Foster," Mother said.
"You gettin' smart with me, boy?"
I faced him. "You could help her if you wanted. But you don't want to."
"Foster!" Mother snapped, putting her fork down.
Dax wouldn't take his eyes off me and I turned away. "Don't think I ain't man enough in your life to put a belt to your ass," he said.
"Dax, that's enough," Mother said.
I stared at my plate, breathing hard. I wanted to say something, but I didn't know what. She was taking his side. My face was hot with anger and fear and confusion. I pushed back from the table and stood.
"Sit down, Foster," she said.
I turned and headed for the front door. My head was screaming.
"Your momma said to sit down," he called after me.
But I kept on. Out the door and into the driveway until I was standing before his Chevy S10 pickup. I heard Dax pushing his chair back as I knelt and pulled a brick from the flower bed lining.
"Leave him alone, Dax," Mother said.
"Hey!" he shouted after me.
I hurled the brick at his windshield where it made a crunching sound like a foot in wet gravel. The glass spiderwebbed and the brick bounced off and skipped across the hood.
"Son of a—!" I heard him yell. I stood there, shaking, staring at it. Suddenly his hand slammed into the back of my neck and I stiffened against it. I tried to drop to my knees, but he held me there, squeezing so I couldn't move. Joe bolted around the corner of the house, a white blur, growling with rage. Dax shoved me into him and leaped onto the hood of the truck. I fell over Joe's back and both of us went down. The dog squirmed out from under me and leaped at Dax, barking and raking his toenails across the front grille like he wanted to tear him apart.
"Grab him, Foster!" I heard Mother yell from behind.
I got to my knees and crawled to Joe and grabbed him by the collar. I pulled him to me and held tight as he bucked and strained.
Dax was backed against the windshield with his heels on the wipers. "What the hell, Linda!" he shouted.
I struggled with Joe until I was finally able to stand and drag him toward the backyard.
"Foster!" I heard Mother yelling behind me. "Put him up and get back out here!"CHAPTER 3
That night Mother asked me to apologize to Dax. I stayed silent and she sent me to my room. I lay there and listened to them arguing.
"What am I supposed to do about that windshield, Linda?" he said. "That's prob'ly a three-hundred-dollar piece of glass. I got to go to work in that truck!"
"I'll pay for it, Dax."
"Yeah? Where you gonna get three hundred dollars?"
"I'll pay for it," she said again.
"Gonna cost another couple hundred to take the dents out of the hood."
"That's fine," she said. "Whatever it costs."
"Work it out of his ass," he said. "What the hell's wrong with him?"
"Please, Dax," she said.
Neither one of them spoke for a moment.
"I'm gonna kick the stew out of that ugly dog," he finally said. "Then I'm gonna kill him."
"Just sit down, Dax. I'll get a beer for you."
"Shoot the damn thing."
"Let's go outside," she said.
"Let's go to a bar."
"I don't want to go to a bar," she said.
"Fine. I'm goin' by myself. Get my beer."
There was a period of silence before I heard the front door shut. Then more silence. Finally I saw the shadows of her feet pass my bedroom and heard her door close and heard her crying.
* * *
Sunday morning Mother was quieter than usual. I still wasn't sorry for throwing the brick, but I felt miserable that I'd upset her. We ate breakfast with barely a word and then she told me we were going to Dax's house to apologize.
Neither of us had been to his house before. She looked up his address in the phone book and wrote it down and we got into her Honda Accord and set out. It was about a fifteen-minute drive. After several miles of country road we passed through Robertsdale, a small farming community marked by a single caution light. A few miles outside of town we passed a metal fabrication shop with a yard full of new and repaired Dumpsters. Just after that we came to a red clay road with a plywood sign that read GANEY TAXIDERMY.
"What's taxidermy?" I asked.
"Mounting deer heads and things," she said. "He told me he does it on the side."
We traveled the dirt road about a mile between walls of pine plantation until we came to the first break in the trees. There was a five-acre cutout surrounded by a hog wire fence. A small white one-level, vinyl-sided house sat near the back of the lot. Another GANEY TAXIDERMY sign was nailed to a fence post near the road. I didn't see his truck and felt relief wash over me.
"I don't think he's home," I said.
She turned in to the driveway. "He said he has a shop behind the house. He might be back there."
Dread rushed over me again.
The driveway wasn't paved. Nothing more than dirt tracks up to and around the house. We drove through the side yard and saw his truck before a small, unpainted cinder-block building with a steel door and metal roof.
When I got out I noticed how quiet it was. Other than a few crows calling, the pine plantation seemed to absorb everything. The smell of turpentine and stink bugs was heavy in the air.
"Dax!" she called.
There was no answer.
She stepped toward the door and knocked on it. "Dax!" she called again.
I wondered why she didn't just open it, but I wasn't about to encourage her.
Suddenly the door swung in and he was standing there with his goat face, wiping his hands on his jeans. His thighs were smeared with blood. His arms were covered with it up to his elbows. He wore a white V-neck undershirt that was specked with red splotches and flecked with pieces of meat and jelly fat. I saw the shock in Mother's face.
He studied her for a second, then glanced at me and back at her. "Hey," he said.
"Hi," she said. "I hope you don't mind us coming by."
He seemed to think about it. Finally he backed up a few steps. "Come on in," he said.
The room was cluttered with stuffed animals—deer heads, fox squirrels, a bobcat, two coyotes. It was cold and smelled like blood and urine and animal fat. Against the right wall were three white deep-freeze coolers. Above them were shelves stacked with mold inserts of animal body parts. A window unit droned against the rear wall. Beneath it was a large stainless-steel sink and countertop with the carcass of some animal turned inside out and a skinning knife lying across it. The wet cement floor sloped to a drain in the center.
Dax walked to the table and picked up the knife. He put his back to us and began scraping at the hide. "Workin' on a boar for a friend of mine," he said.
Something about the gore of the place and the dead animals was both fascinating and frightening at the same time. I looked at Mother and saw the nervous twitch she got at the side of her mouth.
"Foster has something to tell you," she said.
She looked at me.
"I'm sorry about the brick," I said.
He kept scraping.
"He's going to work it off," she said.
He still didn't face us. "I tell you what, boy," he said, "one of these days you're gonna appreciate what it takes to earn a livin' and buy somethin' like a truck."
I didn't respond. He set the knife down and faced us and leaned against the counter. "You hear me?"
He studied me for a second, then turned back to the animal hide. Mother reached into her pocket and pulled out an envelope and walked over to him. She started to reach around him and set it on the counter, but changed her mind and tucked it into his back pocket. Then she touched his shoulder with her hand. "Let me know if it's not enough," she said.
He kept working. She hesitated for a moment, then pulled her hand away. "I'll call you later," she said.CHAPTER 4
Granddaddy was driving down from Montgomery for lunch. I waited for him with Joe under the pecan tree closest to the house. This tree was bigger and older than the rest, offset like it had never been part of the orchard at all. Daddy once said he thought it had been there since before the land was cleared for farming. Sometimes I liked to imagine it long ago in the midst of a thick forest. I remembered the first time I came to Fourmile when I was six and how small I felt standing under it.
It seemed strange that we were moving down near the Alabama coast to have a farm, but Daddy said it was everything he'd been looking for and the price was too good to pass up. He'd worked and saved ten years for it as a UPS driver in Montgomery. His childhood was spent on a cattle farm in Mississippi and he knew the business. Mother had always been supportive of his dream, but it certainly made it easier that she was already familiar with Baldwin County from having spent a few summers there as a child.
Excerpted from Fourmile by Watt Key. Copyright © 2012 Albert Watkins Key, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
WATT KEY lives in southern Alabama with his family. Fourmile is his third book.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >
This book is amazing. I just finished it and afterwards im always sad it ended. I can connect it with my life and visualize it well. Watt key is an amazing author. I love all his books. I hope he continues to write :)
Outstanding Book. This is a good book for everyone to read from school age to adult. Watt Key is an excellent author.
I jave never read this book i just wanted to write something but im sure this book is amazing if i read it im sure its a good book