Read an Excerpt
The black Cadillac convertible churned down the dirt road, whipping whirls of dust behind it. The car, low-slung and fast, disappeared behind a stand of dark pines, leaving the landscape unexplainably barren. In a pasture beside the road an old mule grazed on grass burned dry by a merciless sun. From the shadow of a leaning barn came the low of a cow. The car sped by them, almost a vision, leaving only the settling dust and the taste of scorched dirt.
Behind the wheel, Marlena Bramlett pushed dark sunglasses higher on a perfect nose. A white scarf protected her hair, except for her bangs, which bobbed in hair-sprayed curls on her forehead. The red-and-white striped shirt she wore hugged her breasts; darts emphasized her narrow waist. She drove as if her profile were the masthead on a ship.
Beside Marlena, standing in the middle of the seat, a six-year-old girl faced the wind. Brown pigtails, tipped with white bows, fluttered wildly behind the child.
“I see him!” Suzanna pointed up the road, her childish voice rising in excitement. “He’s there. He’s waiting for us.”
“Sit down,” Marlena told her daughter. “You act like a heathen.”
“Will he have olives? The ones with the red things inside?” Suzanna bounced up and down on the seat.
“I don’t know.” Marlena passed the back of her hand over her forehead, smoothing the blond curls that, only half an hour before, had been pinned to lie just so.
“Big Johnny lives on a red dirt road, and he tastes like chocolate,” Suzanna said.
“He gives you chocolate,”Marlena corrected. “And he thinks you’re very smart. But that’s our secret, remember? If you tell anyone, I mean anyone, you can never come with me again.” The car fell into shadow as it entered a thick grove of pines. The road narrowed, and sand grabbed at the wheels.
“I won’t tell.” Suzanna glanced at her mother, hurt. “I’d never tell on you.”
Marlena slowed the car, finally stopping. She pulled her daughter to her side. “I know you won’t tell. You’re the one who loves me best.” She kissed Suzanna’s cheek, then quickly brushed the fine dust from her daughter’s skin. “If I didn’t trust you, I wouldn’t bring you. Now let’s make sure we look good.” She turned the rearview mirror so she could check her ruby lipstick.
“Does Big Johnny really think I’m smart?” Suzanna twisted both pigtails in front of her chest. “He says I’m pretty, like you.”
“Does he really?” Marlena’s attention focused on the man half-hidden in the shadow of the car. She drove slowly abreast of the two-toned Chevy and stopped. The man sitting behind the wheel was tall, his black hair Bryllcremed back, white shirt unbuttoned at the collar. The ringless hand on the window was long and tanned, the nails neat. One finger thumped a rhythm.
“You’re late,” he said.
“I couldn’t get away. Lucas brought someone home for lunch.”
Suzanna felt the tension between the two adults. Big Johnny was angry. He looked hot, inside and out. His olive skin was slick with heat, his black eyes burning. If Johnny acted ugly to her mother, Marlena would be upset for days.
“I can count to a hundred,” Suzanna said.
“I’m sorry we’re late,” Marlena said. “I came as quickly as I could.”
“We brought some iced tea,” Suzanna said. Big Johnny loved iced tea. She held up the heavy gallon jar, lemons floating on top and ice rattling against the glass. “I’ve got glasses, too. And Mama dug worms for me.” At last she had Big Johnny’s attention.
“You brought worms?” His voice strained in an effort to be jolly. “Worms for Susie-Belle-Ring-o-ling.” Big Johnny got out of the car, his white teeth showing in a false smile. In his hand he carried a leather satchel. He went around to the passenger door and got in. Suzanna stood on the seat between the two adults, feeling suddenly trapped. Marlena put the car in gear and slowly drove away.
“I’ve missed you,” Marlena said, her hands on the wheel and her gaze on the dirt road that wound ahead of them through the pine forests. “Where’ve you been?”
“Up to Mendenhall and Magee, Collins and Hattiesburg. I had to take Lew’s route when he came down with the fever. I would have called, but I can’t.” His voice was bitter. “Your husband might answer the phone.”
Marlena glanced at him, and Suzanna saw the pleading in her eyes. “I’m sorry. That’s just the way things are.”
“I’m tired of the way things are.” Big Johnny stared straight ahead, his voice low.
Suzanna leaned against the seat. She could feel the hot leather, now dust-coated. She didn’t like it when her mother and Big Johnny were angry. She liked it when they laughed and teased each other, then her mother’s blue eyes sparked and she was beautiful and alive. When they were angry, the fun left her mother and only the hard, cold shell of her body was there.
“Mama said we could go fishing today,” Suzanna said. Usually Big Johnny liked it when they went fishing.
“I don’t have time.” Big Johnny’s voice was punishing.
“Please, Johnny.” Marlena turned to him. “I made an excuse to stay out for three hours. It’s hard for me to find that much time away.”
“I feel like I’m renting you. Watch the road,” he snapped.
“Don’t say things like that.”
“That’s the reality. I feel cheap.” Johnny pulled a cigarette from his pocket and lit it, the air from the moving car pushing the smoke behind them. His laugh was harsh. “Isn’t that the best? I feel cheap. I want more, Marlena.”
There was a long silence that made Suzanna furious. She hated Big Johnny and she hated her father. They were stupid jackasses. She’d learned that word at school, and she was proud of it.
Finally, Marlena spoke. “I don’t have more to give right now, Johnny. If you’d like, I can take you back to your car.”
Suzanna watched the corner of her mother’s mouth, the tiny tuck in the lips and flesh. Her chin was trembling and in a moment her mother would be crying. In a flash of fury, Suzanna turned on the man beside her. “I hate you!” She drew back her foot and kicked, catching the man in the ribs. He made a strange sound and leaned forward.
“Suzanna!” Marlena slammed on the brakes and put the car into a skid. The Cadillac turned sideways, wheels making the sound of tearing as they slewed through the sand.
“Goddamn it!” Johnny leaned across the seat and grabbed the wheel. He gave it a vicious jerk. The car swung heavy and fast, then righted itself and stopped in the center of the road. “You could have killed us all!” His arm was around Suzanna’s legs, holding her as she braced her hands against the top of the windshield. “She would have been thrown out of the car if I hadn’t caught her.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Marlena’s head dipped to the steering wheel. “I don’t know why I’m alive,” she said. “I want to die.”
“Mama!” Suzanna struggled free of the man’s grip. “Mama, it’s okay. Don’t cry.” She hugged her mother’s shoulder and felt hatred again for the man beside her. She glared at him. “Fix it,” she demanded.
Johnny got out of the car and moved around to the driver’s side. Marlena slid over and leaned her face into Suzanna.
The car started smoothly and Johnny kept driving. He didn’t turn around. He didn’t say anything. He put one arm on the door and drove, the wind drying the sweat on his forehead.
Suzanna saw the shaded timber trail ahead even before Johnny slowed to turn. This was her favorite place to fish. The two-track road, wallowed out in mud holes, wound to the river. It was a slow, brown river with deep places darkened by rotting leaves and the trunks of trees caught in a swirl of currents and forever doomed to remain there. The day was hot enough to wade in the shallows, if her mother would let her. She couldn’t swim. No one had time to teach her.
After the car stopped, Suzanna got the fishing pole from the backseat and the worms in a can from the floorboard. She hated threading the worm on the hook, but Big Johnny had taught her how to do it, and he would mock her if she acted squeamish. She took the cane pole and the can of worms to the bank of the river.
“What was the Indian tribe that lived on this river?” Johnny asked her as he lifted his satchel from the floorboard.
“The Chickasawhay Indians. They were Choctaws,” Suzanna answered, unable to hide the thrill of being right. Every time they met, Big Johnny taught her something new, and then the next time he would quiz her on it. She always knew the answer, and she liked the way he smiled when she was right. “Mama, can I wade?”
Marlena walked to the edge of the river. About four feet from the bank a sandbar beckoned just below the surface of the lazy water. “No further than the sandbar,” she said. “And wear the life jacket.”
Suzanna’s jaw locked into place. “I hate that thing. It stinks. I can’t hold the fishing pole good. I won’t---”
“Then sit on the bank.” Johnny’s voice bit into her complaint.
She was stunned. Big Johnny never talked to her that way. That was how her father spoke to her. “I want to go home,” she said. She threw her pole to the ground. “I want to go home now.”
“Baby, you can wade to the sandbar,” Marlena said. She flashed a look at Johnny.
“I’m not wearing the life jacket.” Suzanna dared them to defy her.
“Okay, but don’t go any further than the sandbar.” Marlena got the jar of tea and a blanket. Johnny picked up the picnic basket that was covered with a cloth on the floorboard of the backseat. “We’re going to set up the picnic. We’ll eat after you catch three fish. Remember, call out to us before you come, okay?”
Suzanna nodded. She liked for them to leave so she could be alone. She sat on the bank of the river and removed her Keds. They were brand new, the white rubber around the soles still pristine. She’d gotten them at Marcel’s, the only clothing store in Drexel. The shoes had been a special present from her mother, something to wear for the rest of the summer.
She heard Johnny’s deep laughter and the sound of her mother’s squeal. They weren’t angry anymore. She turned back to the water. She was going to catch a mess of bream, but first she had to bait the hook.
She got a worm from the can, gripping the writhing creature tightly. Johnny had told her to cut the worms in half with a piece of broken glass, but she didn’t want to do that. She hooked the night crawler three times and threw the line into a dark pool by the bank. The red and white cork floated under a hanging branch where a huge fish swirled, hungry, in the dark water. Squinting her eyes against the glare on the water, she waited.
A copse of thick briars, dogwoods, privet, and huckleberry bushes hid her mother from view, but she could hear Marlena’s low laugh, the soft sound of pleasure she made. Suzanna knew to stay away. Big Johnny wouldn’t give her the treats he’d brought in his satchel if she disturbed them. Once, she’d asked her mother what they were doing. “I have a terrible pain, right here,” her mother had said, taking her hand and putting it between her breasts. “Sometimes, Johnny can touch that spot and make it better.”
Since that time, Susanna had worried that her mother would die. It was a fact that Marlena sometimes had trouble breathing in the woods. Susanna had heard her, more than once, heaving for air and making sharp noises in her throat as if a bone was stuck.
Suzanna’s cork bobbed in the water and she jerked it, pulling up a five-inch bream. The silvery fish arched and bucked as it dangled from the hook. A tiny drop of blood oozed down the silver scales of its head, fluttering in the moving gills.
Johnny had taught her to put the fish on the ground and to step on it with her shoe so that the sharp dorsal fins couldn’t prick her hand. Instead, though, she grasped the fish between her thumb and forefinger and worked the hook out of its mouth. There was a torn place below the bony structure of the lip. The fish opened and closed its mouth, gasping, losing the fight to live in the oxygen-rich air. She drew back her arm and threw the fish to the middle of the river. She’d lost her desire to catch dinner.
Putting her pole on the ground, she eased through the dead oak and sycamore leaves, finally dropping to her knees to crawl up to the huckleberry bushes. She’d promised never to do this. Had promised to keep all of this a secret from everyone, especially her father. Now her mother and Big Johnny were quiet. There was the sound of a long sigh, an exhale of contentment. She knelt at the base of the bushes and worked her hand into the dense foliage. When she pulled the lower branches aside, she saw her mother leaning against a tree trunk. Big Johnny’s head was dark against the pale white of her mother’s stomach and thighs. Her large breasts tipped toward his face, and as Suzanna watched, Big Johnny took one nipple in his mouth. Her mother tilted her head back, exposing the long, white throat that she covered each night with a milky lotion.
“My God, that feels good,” Marlena said.
“Let me show you what feels better,” Johnny said, his voice strangely full. He sat up and pulled her farther down the blue picnic cloth.
Big Johnny’s head came up, coyote eyes narrowed as he scanned the undergrowth. “Where’s that kid?” he asked. He rose to his knees. He still wore his pants but was shirtless. “If she’s not at the riverbank fishing, I’m going to give her the spanking she’s needed for the last five years.”
Suzanna backed out of the shrub and ran to the riverbank. She snatched up her baitless hook and threw it into the water, the splash of the cork sounding just as a limb crackled behind her.
Big Johnny didn’t say anything. She felt him standing behind her on the bank, towering over her. Suzanna kept her gaze focused on the water, thinking how the submerged sandbar was exactly the shape of her mother’s rounded hip.
Behind her another stick crackled. There was a grunt and the sound of someone crashing down the bank. She started to turn, intending to confront Big Johnny and tell him that she wanted none of the candy or bribes in his black satchel. She was going to tell her father about the fishing trips, and then Big Johnny would never dare to threaten her with a spanking again. Defiant, she turned, one pigtail brushing across her chest. She opened her mouth to speak.
A hand covered her mouth, the grip so hard it felt as if her jaw would pop out of place. Another hand grabbed her hair and snatched her off the ground. The cry that was smothered in her throat was part rage and part fear. She struggled against the cloth sack that was thrust over her head, and when she choked and sneezed at the flour that invaded her eyes and nose and mouth, she heard laughter.
“She’s a little hellcat,” a man said. She didn’t recognize the voice.
“Shut up and bring her.” Another man she didn’t know spoke. Where was Big Johnny? Where was her mother?
And then she was lifted, her back pressed to the man’s chest, his arm around her, squeezing too tightly. She started to scream, to cry out for her mother, but the cry was choked back in her throat by the cruel fingers of the man who held her. She flailed her arms and legs, finally jamming her heel as hard as she could into the man’s crotch. He doubled over in pain, but his grip didn’t loosen.
“You little bitch,” he ground into her ear.
The other man laughed. “Shut her up,” he said. “We don’t want the brat to spoil our surprise.”
Copyright © 2006 by Carolyn Haines