You could always go home again, the trouble was getting back out.
Flames lit the surrounding banks of the Chatalaha River, which wound through the mountains in a whitecapped rush. Streams of orange and gold washed over rocks where centuries ago the Indians stoned their elderly in the shallows.
After nearly two years in the can, Shad Jenkins had returned to Moon Run Hollow and hit the first bonfire in the fields he heard about. He figured he'd see everybody there who might be interested, tell his story once and get it over with.
In the twenty-one months he'd been away nothing had changed except that Mags was dead.
He could've been gone for eighteen years, the way his pa had been, and still walked into the roadhouse and seen those gray faces hunched over the pitted bar, their breath making slow ripples in the scratched glasses of whiskey. The men telling the same mediocre stories that circled the place like crows that never set down, going around forever from one hoarse voice to another.
Fathers passed the tired tales to their sons and grandsons the way they bestowed their potbellies, sour-mash stills, and empty wallets. The tin-shack trailers, three acres of rock-cluttered pasture, and their taste for warm, flat beer and moonshine. In a few generations they had gone from being tradition to genetic.
What you really wanted, you could never have. You needed a tragic father to give your life meaning.
Shad broke from the darkness and walked across the clearing until he found the ring of Jeeps, pickups, and 4x4s that had tracked across the field, headlights glowing against the cane. Maybe fifty people in all, about half of them passed out on their feet or jacked on meth and crushed Ritalin.
Jake Hapgood reached into his open cooler and handed Shad a bottle of beer as if they'd seen each other only twenty minutes ago. Jake was one of the very few slick people in Moon Run Hollow. Five-eight in his cowboy boots, wearing a corduroy jacket and tight black jeans, with his dark hair combed into a casually disheveled style, maybe a half inch shy of pompadour. When he smoked he liked to snap the Zippo off his ass, light up, and let the cigarette dangle from his bottom lip, give a half-turn glance over the shoulder to see which girls might be watching. At the moment he was making do with a stalk of grass. It was one of the props that gave him a boyish charm he cultivated to the limit.
Shad checked around. The only woman nearby was Becka Dudlow, the preacher's wife. She was midfifties with angry teeth and perpetually hard nipples that passed harsh judgment on anybody who looked. She was also the main supplier of coke and meth in town, though Shad had never been able to figure out where she imported her stuff from. She'd had a thing for Jake ever since he was in her Bible class.
"If you want something with a little more bite," Jake told him, "Luppy Joe's got a couple jugs of moon making the rounds."
Shad's mouth dried just thinking about the harsh taste of it, a quiver working through his belly. Sometimes you needed it so bad that you had to stay away. "The only liquor I've had for two years was a raisin pruno the cons distilled in their toilets."
"Other guys used to say it was the hardest stuff they'd ever had, flopping around on their bunks and giggling like crazy. Luppy's moon would've taken out most of C-Block in one sitting."
"Jesus Christ," Jake said, giving Shad the long once-over. "You look good. I thought you'd be pale and jittery, but you're more tan than me and I'm outside all afternoon every day. You must've put on at least fifteen pounds too, and it's solid. Works for you." He champed the stalk with his back teeth and it bobbed, twirling this way and that, while Becka Dudlow's eyes followed. "How the hell do you gain weight on institution food? I didn't think prison actually agreed with people."
"But I mean, isn't that the whole point? This is where my tax dollars go? Making you better-looking than me?"
"I didn't mind doing time much," Shad said. "They let me have plenty of books."
"Uh-huh. So all you did was read for two years. Developing your mind."
"More or less." It was the kind of thing that didn't sound true but actually was. Everyone in the hollow would be expecting him to talk about shanking guys in the kidneys, which bubbas tried to pull a train on him. You told them what you could, let them understand as much as they were able, and the rest you kept to yourself for when the right time came.
The world tilted red, then black. He turned toward the back hills, trying to concentrate. A soft dangerous heat began to twine across the back of his neck. Up there in the woods, a vague figure without enough form watched him, luminous broken threads wheeling from its faint pain-filled aura. Somebody up there thinking about him, focusing too deeply.
A soft chortle floated from Jake, the kind of murmur he gave when his lips were pressed to a girl's throat. "I'm surprised the Chamber of Commerce didn't throw you a parade."
"You're near a hero in these parts, you know."
Sure, except that nobody ever visited him, and only Elfie wrote. Three letters, in the beginning, until it got too rough on the both of them.
"If you're gonna kick the snot out of somebody," Jake said, "make certain it's a piece of shit like Zeke Hester. You were right about that. Reverend Dudlow did a nice bit of preaching on your behalf too, gave the rallying cry down by the river, took up the cause. He likes when folks smack hell out of miscreants." Voice dropping to a whisper, but still loud enough for Becka to hear. "Gives him hope that he might beat up his wife one day and they'd praise him in the pulpit for it."
Nothing ever changed, except Mags was dead. Shad had to keep reminding himself, and the rage would surge through him for a moment, get his heart rate up, as he readied himself for what had to come.
"Anyway, don't be shocked if people start clapping you on the back."
It would never happen but Jake made the scene sound almost possible. His brand of sleekness would've gotten him through ten years of prison without a scratch, then killed him half an hour before they let him out.
"My old man told everybody the story, that's why," Shad said, suddenly wanting to speak with his father. "I think he was sort of proud to have a con in the family. Made him feel righteous for a while. He needed that more than anything."
"Have you seen him yet?"
Jake nodded, scanning the crowd, searching for anybody who might get a kick out of seeing Shad again after all this time. A delicate tension hovered between them. Jake wanted to give his condolences but was unsure how to actually get around to it, or how Shad would react.
It was going to be like this with everybody in town, Shad realized.
Jake's gaze landed on Elfie, over there on the other side of the burning stacks of timber, barely visible through the fire, but he said nothing. Shad waited, anticipating a bit more, but maybe he was expecting too much as usual.
"You staying with your pa while you're back?"
"No," Shad said. "Over at Mrs. Rhyerson's boardinghouse."
"Christ, she's still alive?" Jake let out that laugh again, hissy and honeyed. It could get on your nerves after a while if you let it. "I thought she'd be long gone by now. You must be her only boarder. Where's your car?"
"Still got the 'Stang?"
"Yes," Shad told him, knowing what was coming next. "Sat in the garage behind Tub Gattling's used auto parts the whole time I was away, but Tub kept it charged and shined."
"You bought it from him, didn't you? After them other guys died in it, hands on the wheel?"
"Must've made Tub feel like one of his babies had come back to him for warmth and a little tenderness. He loves getting his hands back on the cars he's tuned so fine and let out into the world."
"I suspect you're right."
Jake's stance shifted, his legs set wider apart, shoulders dropping, leaning forward to tell secrets. You learned to look for the subtle body language. "There's still good money to be made in hauling whiskey, if you want to build up a stake to help get you back on your feet. Luppy's always on the lookout for someone who knows the back roads and trails and isn't afraid to jump a crumbling trestle bridge."
Shad took a sip of the thin, watery beer and couldn't figure out why he'd wanted one so badly for the last two years. "I've been out of prison for two days, you looking to send me right back?"
"I know you've mostly kept clear of running moon, but just in case you needed some quick cash. Something to consider. I don't see the 'Stang. Who brought you up here?"
"That's near two miles back to Main Street."
"Needed the exercise."
It was true, in a way. He wanted to become part of the hollow again, even if he hated it.
The lines of Jake's confident face softened again for a second. He searched Shad's eyes and didn't like what he found there. His teeth lost some of their shine and the hip hair sagged. He backed off a couple of feet and tried to let his cool slip over him once more, until he was grinning.
Even so, Shad's stomach tightened, the breeze on his neck wafting by like a girlish hand. You could put some things away and they'd only show up when you were ready to take them out again. Others you had a touch more trouble grabbing hold of and locking down. He'd done okay in the can, but already the hollow was beginning to shake him loose inside.
It didn't take anything much. Just the mounting realization, as he watched them and they watched him, that the embrace of the familiar he'd been hoping for was not coming. He could feel the turning of the world around him, the way a boy does when his voice changes and life draws him across the boundary of manhood. That you're moving from one place to another, and no matter how much you want to go back, you can never return.
Part of Jake's poise was taking things slow, backing off when the mood changed. "Enjoy yourself," he said. "You deserve it. Go catch up."
"Nobody's come over yet."
"Why? I thought I was near a hero in these parts."
Hearing his words flung back at him got Jake grinning again, though he stared at his feet. "Only time anybody's done federal time is 'cause of running moon. You're the first to go away for almost murdering one of their own. Miscreant though Zeke Hester may be. They're afraid of stepping up on you wrong. They're drunk. And excited. They think you're going to kill somebody."
"Do they want me to?"
"I reckon so. It'll break up their day pretty good. But they won't be inviting you over for boysenberry pie for a while." Jake started to drift off. "Still, these people are your friends, don't forget that. Go have yourself some fun, I'll catch up with you later."
A few of them were his friends, and none of them close, but Shad nodded, took another swig, and watched Jake edge in among the others.
He waited for their approach but nobody did. Some of the guys he'd spent most of his life with did little more than cast uncomfortable glances in his direction and tramp off the opposite way. He could understand the discomfort he caused now that he'd become peculiar in a fashion, a curiosity.
Jail was nothing new to them, but a stint upstate was. Maybe they also decided he'd been talking to the feds and spilling the names of moon makers. That he'd been gone for two years and nobody back home had been busted didn't make much of an impression. It gave their lives a little more definition, thinking that the government was coming after them for tax money on homemade liquor. A lot of them still picked up only three channels with the rabbit ears on their television sets.
He could see it in their eager eyes, imagining how he'd been taking it in the ass from his cellmate for the last couple years, or spending all of his time sharpening scrap metal in the tool shop and cutting throats in the shower stalls.
That was all right. You could make peace with anything so long as you had one spot, no matter how small, that nobody could touch.
Shad turned and spotted Elfie Danforth coming at him around the flames, shadows of the others weaving against her. They were spitting moon into the fire because nobody had any more wood or cane to burn. There was nothing better to do so they spewed Luppy's liquor and sort of danced and chased each other around. It wouldn't stop until somebody fell in.
Elfie wasn't quite giving him her usual devastating smile, but at least she wasn't scowling. That familiar, rough tickle started working through his chest. His breathing became ragged and he rubbed his fingertips together, trying to shake off the electrical tingle. These had once been the signs of his affection, and he felt a barely contained sorrow making a grab for his heart.
Sparks scattered, framing her contours as she glided toward him with a calculated thrift of motion. Hips swinging just enough to make him groan. She wore a stylish heavy sweater that didn't conceal any of her natural curves, with her shoulder-length blond hair rising and fanning wildly in the wind.
Her face remained thin and sharp, but in a way that worked. It made you want to run your palms along the angle of her nose, the jut of her chin. Elfie had eyes that weren't entirely fierce but made you think they could easily fill with anger, and you'd do whatever it took to keep that from happening. She squinted when she smiled and really threw everything into it when she laughed, her whole body shuddering, hand on her belly trying to hold it in. She guffawed, low and resonant, none of the silly little-girl snigger that made you wonder if it was all an act, what she might really be after.
They'd made love the night before he'd been arrested. Lying in bed in her trailer out behind her parents' house, listening to the willows swipe at the roof, the metal ringing with a strained note that never let up for a second. Her mama doing the dishes with a fixed regularity, the plates slapping down hard in the sink. Silverware clattering on the porcelain as she took one fork, one spoon, one knife after the other, and rinsed them, dried them, stuck them back in the drawer.
From the Paperback edition.