"Don't be fooled by the novel's apparent simplicity: What emerges from the surface is a tale of extraordinary emotional power, one of longstanding pain set against the pulsating drumbeat of social change."
-Sarah Weinman, NPR.org
For twenty years, Celia Scott has watched her husband, Arthur, hide from the secrets surrounding his sister Eve's death. But when the 1967 Detroit riots frighten him even more than his Kansas past, he convinces Celia to pack up their family and return to the road he grew up on, Bent Road, and the same small town where Eve mysteriously died. And then a local girl disappears, catapulting the family headlong into a dead man's curve. . . .
On Bent Road, a battered red truck cruises ominously along the prairie; a lonely little girl dresses in her dead aunt's clothes; a boy hefts his father's rifle in search of a target; and a mother realizes she no longer knows how to protect her children. It is a place where people learn: Sometimes killing is the kindest way.
Bent Road has been optioned for film in 2012 by Cross Creek Pictures with Mark Mallouk to adapt and Benderspink to produce.
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About the Author
Published by Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England Published by Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
First printing, March 2011
Copyright © 2011 by Lori Roy
All rights reserved
REGISTERED TRADEMARK—MARCA REGISTRADA
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Bent Road/Lori Roy.
1. Country life—Kansas—Fiction. 2. Farm life—Kansas—Fiction.
3. Rural families—Fiction. 4. Girls—Crimes against—Fiction. I. Title.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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To Bill, Andrew, and Savanna
Celia squeezes the steering wheel and squints into the darkness. Her tires bounce across the dirt road and kick up gravel that rains down like hail. Sweat gathers where the flat underbelly of her chin meets her neck. She leans forward but can’t see Arthur’s truck. There is a shuffling in the backseat. If they were still living in Detroit, maybe driving to St. Alban’s for Sunday mass, she would check on Evie and Daniel. But not now. For three days she has driven, slept one night in a motel, all five of the family in one room, another in her own car, and now that the trip is nearly over, Arthur is gone.
“Are we there yet, Mama?” Evie says, her small voice drifting out of the backseat.
Celia presses on the brake. The car rattles beneath her hands. She tightens her grip, clenches her teeth, holds her arms firm.
“No, baby,” she whispers. “Soon.”
“Can you see Daddy and Elaine?” Evie says.
“Not now, honey. Try to sleep. I’ll wake you kids when we get to Grandma’s.”
Outside Celia’s window, quiet fields glow under the moonlight and roll off into the darkness. She knows to call them fields, not pastures. She knows the wheat will have been harvested by now and the fields left bare. On their last night in Detroit, Arthur had lain next to her in bed and whispered about their new life in Kansas. “Fields are best laid flat,” he had said, tracing a line down Celia’s neck. “Wheat will rot in a low spot, scatter if it’s too high.” Then he pulled the satin ribbon tied in a delicate bow at her neckline. “Pastures, those are for grazing. Most any land will do for a good pasture.”
Celia shivers, not sure if it’s because of the memory of his warm breath on the tip of her earlobe or the words that, like her new life, are finally seeping in. In Kansas, Arthur will be the son; she, just the wife.
As the car climbs another hill, the front tires slip and spin in the dry dirt. The back end rides low, packed full of her mother’s antique linens and bone china, the things she wouldn’t let Arthur strap to his truck. She blinks, tries to look beyond the yellow cone that her headlights spray across the road. She’s sure she will see Arthur parked up ahead, waiting for her to catch up. The clouds shift and the night grows brighter. It’s a good sign.
From the backseat, Evie fluffs her favorite pillow, the one that Celia’s mother embroidered with lavender lilacs. Celia inhales her mother’s perfume and blinks away the thought of her grave and Father’s, both left untouched now that Celia is gone. Taking another deep breath, she lets her hands and arms relax. Her knuckles burn as she loosens her grip. She rolls her head from side to side. Driving uphill is easier.
Broken glass, sparkling green and brown shards scattered across Willingham Avenue on a Sunday morning in the spring of 1965, had been the first sign of the move to come. “This is trouble,” Arthur said, dumping the glass into a trash barrel with a tip of his metal dustpan. “Just kids,” Celia said. But soon after the glass, the phone calls began. Negro boys, whose words tilted a different way, calling for Elaine. They used ma’am and sir, but still Arthur said he knew a Negro’s voice. A colored man had no place in the life of one of Arthur Scott’s daughters. Of this, he was damned sure, and after twenty years away, those phone calls must have scared Arthur more than the thought of moving back to Kansas.
Not once, in all their time together, has Arthur taken Celia back to his hometown, never even considered a visit. Here, on Bent Road, he lost his oldest sister, Eve, when he was a teenager. She died, killed in a fashion that Arthur has never been willing to share. He’ll look at Evie sometimes, their youngest daughter, usually when the morning light catches her blue eyes or when her hair is freshly washed and combed, and he’ll smile and say she is the spitting image of his sister. Nothing more, rarely even uses her name—Eve. But now, the closer he gets to home, the faster he drives, as if he is suddenly regretting all those years away.
Under the full moon, Daniel leans forward, hanging his arms over the front seat. Dad’s truck is definitely gone. Ever since sunset, Mama has clenched the steering wheel with both hands, leaned forward with a straight back and struggled to keep Dad’s taillights in sight. But the road ahead has been dark for the last several minutes.
At the top of the hill, Daniel lifts his hind end off his seat and stretches to get the best view. That could be a set of taillights disappearing over the next rise. Mama must see them, too, because she presses on the gas. Once they’ve crested the hill, the wind grabs the station wagon, rocking it from side to side. Daniel lays a hand on Mama’s shoulder. Since he’s not old enough to drive, it’s the best he can do. Before they left Detroit, Dad said he hoped Kansas would make a man of Daniel since Detroit damn sure didn’t. A hand on Mama’s shoulder is part of being a man.
“Mama, look there,” he whispers, sitting back so that he can see out the window on the other side of Evie. For a moment, he sounds like Dad, but then his voice breaks and he is a boy again.
“Is it your father?” Mama leans right and then left, straining to see what lies ahead.
“No,” Daniel says. “Out in the field. Something is out there.”
Mama locks her elbows. “I can’t look right now. What is it?”
“I see it,” Evie says. “Two of them. Three maybe. What are they?”
“There,” Daniels says. “Coming toward us. They’re getting closer.”
Outside the passenger side window, two shadows race toward the car—round, clumsy shadows that bounce and skip over the rolling field. Behind them comes a third. The shadows grow, jumping higher as they near the road. The wind picks up the third and tosses it ahead of the second. They’re several times the size of watermelons and gaining speed as they draw closer.
“What do you see, Daniel?” Mama asks.
“Don’t know, Mama. I don’t know.”
Nearing another shallow valley, Mama eases up on the brakes.
There they are again. As the car begins another climb, the front end riding higher than the back, the shadows return, running along the side of the road, gaining on the car as the hill slows it down. The shadows skip into the moonlight and turn into round bunches of bristle, rolling, tumbling.
“Tumbleweeds,” Evie shouts, rolling down her window. “They’re tumbleweeds.” The wind rushes into the car, drowning out the last of her voice.
“Daniel, do you see your father?” Mama tries to shout but there’s not much left of her voice. It barely carries over the noise of the wind. She leans forward, like she’s willing the car up the hill, willing Dad’s truck to reappear. “Close that window,” she says.
The rush of air slows as Evie cranks her window shut. On her small, chubby hands, tiny dimples pucker over each knuckle. Outside the car, the tumbleweeds are trailing them, gaining on them. It’s almost as if they’re hunting them. Up ahead, near the top of the hill, the road curves.
“Daniel, look. Can you see him?”
“No, Mama. No.”
A tight swirl of dust, rising like smoke in the yellow light, marks the road ahead. Mama drives into the cloud that is probably dirt kicked up by Dad’s truck. The road bends hard to the right and disappears beyond the top of the hill. Mama jams her palms against the steering wheel, leans into the door. The wind slams into the long, broad side of the station wagon.
“Hold tight,” she shouts.
Daniel thinks it’s another tumbleweed at first, coming at them from the other side. A large dark shadow darting across the road in front of the car. But those are arms, heavy and thick, and a rounded back. Two legs take long, clumsy steps.
“Mama,” Daniel shouts. “Look out.”
Mama yanks on the steering wheel, pulling it hard to the right. The car slides toward the dark ditch and stops, throwing Daniel and Evie forward. Outside the front window, the running shadow stumbles, rolls down into the ditch, disappears. The round weeds spin and bounce toward them, tumble over one another and fall into a bristly pile, snagged up by a barbed-wire fence strung between limestone posts.
Slowly unwrapping her fingers from the steering wheel, Mama shifts the car into park. Beneath them, the engine still rattles. Headlights throw cloudy light into the field. The dust settles. Mama exhales one loud breath. Leaning over Evie, Daniel presses his hands to the side window. The road drops off into a deep ditch and rises up again into the bare field that stretches out before them. At the bottom of the dark valley they have just driven out of, a pond reflects the full moon. The shadow is gone.
Evie shoves Daniel aside and takes his place at the window. “Mama, look at all the tumbleweeds,” she says. “Look how many. They’re all stuck together.”
“Did we hit him?” Daniel says. “Did we hit that man?”
Evie looks back at him. “There’s no man, silly,” she says, starting to roll down her window so she can stick her head out. “Those are tumbleweeds.”
“No, don’t.” Daniel slaps her hand away. “Didn’t you see him?”
This isn’t at all what Evie thought Kansas would look like. Mama said it would be flat and covered with yellow wheat. She tosses her arms over the front seat and stands on the floorboard for a better look. At the top of the hill, a fence follows the gentle curve of the road like a giant lazy tail draped across the field. The tumbleweeds, hundreds of them, thousands maybe, snagged up by the barbed wire, look like a monster’s arching spine.
“It’s not a man. It’s a monster,” she says, pointing straight ahead. “See? That’s its back and tail.” Maybe this is why Daddy never wanted to visit Kansas.
“Mama,” Daniel says. “You saw him, too, didn’t you?”
“You two sit,” Mama says. She exhales, wipes a hand over her face and down the front of her dress, not even bothering with a handkerchief. Mama never did that in Detroit. She would have told Evie it was bad manners. “I didn’t hit anything, Daniel. Just took the curve too fast. Everything is fine now. I’m sorry I frightened you, but you shouldn’t shout out like that. Not when I’m driving.”
“But I think we did hit him. The man in the road. I saw him fall.”
Evie shakes her head. “No, it’s tumbleweeds.”
Resting on the steering wheel, Mama stares out the front window. “I’m sure it was just a deer or a coyote maybe,” she says and with her elbow pushes down the lock and motions with her head for Evie to do the same. She turns and smiles. “We’ll ask your father. Whatever it was, it’s gone now.”
“Yeah, Daniel,” Evie says. “There’s no man. Just tumbleweeds.” She throws her arms over the front seat again and rests her chin there. “Look, Mama.”
Near the bottom of the hill, Daddy’s truck sits where the road turns into a long drive. It is weighted down by all of their furniture, wrapped with a tarp and tied off with Daddy’s sisal rope. The truck’s cab lights up when the driver’s side door opens. Daddy steps out, and waddling into the glow of the headlights is Grandma Reesa. Evie has never met Grandma Reesa. Neither has Daniel, because Daddy always said that come hell or high water, he’d never set foot in Kansas again. That was before the Negro boys called Elaine on the telephone.
Mama drops her head one last time and breathes in through her nose and out through her mouth. Keeping both hands on the steering wheel, she lets her head hang between her arms. She looks like she’s saying a prayer.
“Guess we made it,” Evie says.
This is the road, Bent Road, where Daddy grew up.
“Yes,” Mama says. “Looks like we’re home.”
Daniel opens his eyes and there, peeking through the bedroom door, is Mama. Smiling, she presses one finger to her lips, draws her hands together, holds them to her cheek and tilts her head as if to say, “Go back to sleep.” The door closes and Mama whispers with Elaine on the other side. She is probably telling Elaine that things will be fine. Since the day Dad sat at the head of the dinner table and announced that the family was moving to Kansas, Elaine has pouted and Mama has told her things would be fine, just fine.
Waiting until Mama’s voice fades down the hallway, Daniel sits up and shades his eyes with one hand. At the foot of the bed, a statue of the Virgin Mary, wearing a brown shawl over a simple blue gown, stands on a small end table. Her arms reach out, as if toward Daniel, but both hands are missing. The paint has chipped away from her wrists, uncovering the red clay she is molded from. The Virgin Mary is bleeding. On the table near her feet lie her missing hands.
“Hey,” Evie says from her spot next to Daniel where she had been sleeping. “We’re here, aren’t we?” She first smiles at the Virgin Mary but frowns when she notices the missing hands. “This is Grandma Reesa’s house.”
“Guess so,” Daniel says, pushing his hair from his eyes.
Evie pops to her knees and crawls to the head of the bed. “Come see,” she says, leaning so the fan propped in the window doesn’t hit her. “It’s Kansas. All the way, as far as I can see.” She starts jumping, the box springs creaking every time she lands.
“Hush already,” Daniel says, not sure why he cares except that the bleeding statue makes him think Grandma Reesa likes a quiet house.
“There’s cows, Danny,” she says. “Four of them.”
Daniel crawls across the bed until he can see out the second-story window. When he’s kneeling next to Evie, who is standing, they’re almost the same size. She lifts onto her tiptoes and smiles down on Daniel. He rolls his eyes at her but doesn’t say anything. Evie’s being small stopped seeming funny when she was six. Now, at nine years old, she is lucky to be mistaken for a kindergartner. Even though Mama says Evie will grow plenty tall in her own time, Daniel knows she is hoping that people will be smaller in Kansas, that she will be the right size.
Besides seeing four cows, Daniel gets his first glimpse of Kansas in the daylight. He cocks his head, trying to decide if the buildings outside are crooked or if Grandma Reesa’s house tilts. He wonders what Mama will have to say about Grandma’s crooked house. Before they left Detroit, Mama smiled every time Dad mentioned Kansas, but it wasn’t the smile she gave when she was really happy. When she smiled about Kansas, Mama never showed her teeth and she always nodded her head along with the smile, probably thinking the nod would do the trick if the smile didn’t.
Beyond the garage and shed, brown fields outlined by barbed-wire fences stretch to the horizon. Dad says most of the old fence posts are made from hedge tree branches and a few from limestone. He says there will be plenty of fence post driving in Daniel’s future, plenty for sure. That’ll make a man of him. Squinting out the window, Daniel counts the posts that carry the fence up and over the curve in Bent Road where the tumbleweeds were snagged up. The man he saw last night must have run through Grandma Reesa’s pasture and hopped the fence at the hill’s highest point. No sign of him now. Dad said it was probably a deer, but Daniel is sure it was a man—a large man in a big hurry. Dad promised to check the ditches to make sure the man wasn’t lying there dead. Daniel drops his eyes back to Grandma’s driveway where the four cows raise their heads and together walk toward the fence. He hears it before he sees it, a truck driving up Grandma Reesa’s gravel drive.
“Hey,” Evie says, popping off the bed, her bare feet skipping across the wooden floor. “Look at this.”
“Yeah, what is it?” Daniel says, still watching through the window.
A red truck pulls around the side of the house and parks in front of the sagging garage.
“They’re dresses,” Evie says. “Look how many.”
Across the room, Evie holds a blue dress up by its hanger, rotating it so she sees both sides. The dress flutters as the fan sweeps across the room, the tips of its hem dragging on the wooden floor. Frowning, Evie pulls at the frayed ends of a piece of blue trim left unstitched at the collar.
“Stop that,” Daniel says. “You’re getting it dirty. Those are Grandma Reesa’s.”
Evie frowns at the bleeding Virgin Mary. “No they aren’t. Grandma Reesa is too big for these dresses.”
“Well, they belong to somebody.”
“Whoever wore these was small like me,” Evie says, holding up a second dress. “Not big like Grandma Reesa.”
“Just put them back and close that door,” Daniel says as a second truck that is towing a trailer pulls into the drive. “I think Uncle Ray and Aunt Ruth are here. We’d better get downstairs.”
Letting the hug fade, Celia slowly pulls away, feeling that Ruth’s slender arms might never let go. While Arthur is tall and broad enough to fill any doorway, his older sister is petite, almost breakable, and her skin is cool, as if she doesn’t have the strength to warm herself on a hot August afternoon. On the other side of the car, Ruth’s husband, Ray, shakes Arthur’s hand. Reesa stands behind them, watching, nodding.
“Damn good to see you,” Ray says, taking off his hat and slapping it against his thigh. Underneath, his dark hair is matted and sweat sparkles on his forehead. Even from several feet away, he smells of bourbon.
After shaking Arthur’s hand, Ray replaces his hat and bends down to look through the truck’s cab. His cloudy gray eye, the left one, which Celia only remembers when she sees him up close again, wanders off to the side while the eye that is clear and brown stares at Celia. He winks the bad eye.
“Well, if you damn sure aren’t still the prettiest thing I ever seen,” he says, scratching his two-day-old beard. “The good Lord’s done well by you, Arthur.”
Ray’s good eye inches down Celia’s body and settles at her waist. He had looked at her the same way on her wedding day, like her taking one man meant she would take any man.
Celia wrinkles her nose at his sour smell. “So good to see you, Ruth,” she says, reaching for the pie that Ruth holds out to her.
“It’s strawberry.” Ruth straightens the pleats on her tan calico dress. “We had a late season this year. Thought they’d never ripen.”