Friday, August 14, 2009
I’m standing on my brother’s front steps, waiting. The handle of the six-pack of Rolling Rock I stole from home digs hard into my fingers.Another knock. Still nothing, so I try the door, but the handle refuses to turn more than a breath left or right. Locked. Did I beat him today, or he is in the back, headphones on, PlayStation battle raging? Only one way to find out. Leaving the beer on the stoop, I go back down the steps. Ty always parks in the space in back. Turning the corner, I see only dead grass where his truck should be.
I beat him, but he’ll be here.
Since I was ten, Ty and I have met up every Friday like clockwork, which counts for more than a few damns because I’m seventeen now and he’s twenty-six. In elementary school, he’d pick me up on Friday afternoons, take me out for pizza, then leave me at the top of the driveway at home. In middle school, I started walking the two miles from my house to Ty’s place in town. So, despite the fact that I’ve made myself less than scarce all week, if I didn’t show up tonight he’d be worried about his kid sister. He’d come up to the house, looking for me, and that wouldn’t end well for either of us.
The sun is sinking behind gathering rainclouds, but even so sweat prickles under my arms, the afternoon humidity refusing to quit. In front of me, the four back windows of Ty’s house reflect the darkening sky and the maples with their summer-green leaves. The window in the bathroom is open but too small to be useful. I’m only interested in the one in the living room that doesn’t have a screen and never closes those last few inches. Slipping my fingers underneath the sash, I push up. Ty won’t mind me letting myself in. After all, he’s the one who taught me to be resourceful. He’s told me so many times that a person can always find a way, no matter what happens
But the window doesn’t budge. I swear and give it one more try. It starts to slide, but halfway up is as far as I can manage. I wriggle through, then straighten up and redo my ponytail. Even without air conditioning, there’s a welcome coolness in the living room. A fan’s been left on in the corner. The PlayStation screensaver bounces across the television. On the bookshelf, which holds anything but books, the answering machine flashes with unheard messages. I cross the room, skirting around the makeshift coffee table, and head down the narrow hall, past the closet, toward the kitchen.
But I stop as the hallway peters out into the kitchen’s linoleum tiles. Only three chairs sit around the table; the fourth lies on its back. Ty can be so careless sometimes. I right the chair, then unlock the door. Outside there’s nothing but two-story houses lined up on both sides of the street, most looking as if they’re somebody’s abandoned home-improvement project. The beer has almost sweated through the cardboard, and I pick up the pack from underneath, giving the front door a gentle kick to close it behind me.
Cradling the beer under one arm, I open the refrigerator—peanut butter, an unopened package of hot dogs, a loaf of sliced bread, and a stench that stops my breath until I see that behind a two-liter bottle of soda there’s a half-open milk carton. I slide the beer in and pull the milk out. If Ty were here, I would fake-gag, and he’d laugh, saying, “Jo, you’ll never grow up.” Instead, with the taps open, I empty the carton into the sink in silence and watch the milk choke down the drain.
Now what? Thirst moves me be back to the fridge, and I twist open a beer. A stale smell of smoked cigarettes hangs in the air, and five butts stick out of the ash tray on the table. The wind gusts, rattling something loose outside. The green glass of my beer bottle picks up the last of the light sliding in through the window, and I remember one winter when I was seven, sitting at our kitchen table at home, Dad’s voice growing louder, his arms thrown wide, his bottle of Rolling Rock in one hand and the light from the woodstove flashing against it. The fight could have been about anything—Tyler’s lying, his skipping school, his stealing. Dad threw the bottle, and it smashed against the cabinet, a few feet from Tyler, a cascade of green glass spilling over the floor. The way the pieces caught the light, they looked like jewels.
Mom and Dad cut Tyler off seven years ago, kicked him out when he was nineteen. They warned me to stay away from him too—yelled and cursed about it until my ears rang—but that order never had more than a snowball’s chance. Proof: when I was five, our dog got shot in the woods during hunting season and Tyler let me cry in his arms as long as I wanted. He never complained about all the times he was the only babysitter we could afford. In fifth grade, he threatened to take care of the first boy who broke my heart, but then took me to get Creemees instead. He covered for me the first time I got drunk. He taught me to drive. He’s the one who makes a big deal out of my birthday. He knows me better than anyone else ever will, and it doesn’t matter to me how many mistakes he’s made. Put them on a scale with the promises he’s kept, and it’s the promises that sink downward with the weight of truth.
Ten minutes are edging towards twenty. Nerves start swirling in my gut as if I’m about to take a test, but it’s because I know that as soon as Ty comes in he’s going to ask me what the hell I’ve been doing all week, why I’ve stayed away from here and from anywhere I might run into him since last Friday. I’ll stall, try to change the subject, but he’ll see clear through me. I’ll end up staring at the floor as I tell him about my breakup with Eric and why it happened. I cringe. How far can I stretch the parts I’m willing to own up to? How many details can I leave out? Not enough that Ty won’t see me differently. Not enough that he won’t do something about it.
Where is he? The milk carton sits lonely in the sink. I’ve never known Ty not to finish a carton of milk. Crumbs are on the counter. A red lighter stamped with white letters is near the ash tray. I recognize that lighter—“Live Free or Die” wraps around its sides. It belongs to Ricky, Ty’s best friend. They’re stuck together the way I used to stick bits of wood together with Dad’s wood glue in the basement when I was a kid, a bond too strong for me to break. But Ricky and I—there aren’t enough miles in this state, let alone this town, to put between us. Ricky’s the smoker, not Ty. Those are Ricky’s Marlboros in the ash tray.
I check my phone, send Ty a text. Are you coming? I roll the empty bottle between my palms, trying to run through the fight with Eric from beginning to end, to put the actions into words I’ll be able to say; but I can’t even get halfway. The last of the daylight drains from the kitchen. I flip on the lights, dissipating the evening gloom, then go to the sink and rinse out my bottle. Ty and I aren’t clockwork tonight, and I don’t know why, but I don’t mind the relief that’s creeping in with his absence. It means one more day when I don’t have to talk about Eric. About what he said about me, and who told him to say it. But I’ll have to walk home. Ty always gives me a ride to the top of the driveway, and by walking home I’m guaranteed to get one of Mom’s sneers, that why-the-hell-do-you-waste-your-time-on-your-brother look that I can see with my eyes closed.
I leave the bottle next to the milk carton and put the rest of the six-pack in the fridge for Ty. I should close that living room window before I go, or it’ll rain in, and the one in the bathroom too.
As I reach for the handle of the bathroom door, my sneaker presses to the floor with a crunch and a pop. I balance on one leg, holding up my shoe. A little wedge of glass sticks out of the bottom. What the hell? I pull the shard from the sole, then nudge the door open. The bathroom is stuck in the back corner of the house, small and dark, a pile of laundry on the floor, towels draped over hooks. I expect all that. What I don’t expect is the shattered glass face of the medicine cabinet over the sink. There’s nothing left of the mirror but a few sharp triangles still lodged in the frame.
My pulse kicks up. Did Ty hurt himself? Is that why he’s not here? No, there’s no blood anywhere, no sign of a rushed bandage job. Just the pieces of glass across the floor, escaping under the door. I shut the window against the wind and then back away, a sinking sensation gripping me like mud pulling down on a boot. Was it a break-in? But Ty doesn’t have anything worth stealing. I open the medicine cabinet—razor, aspirin, the usual. There’s glass in the sink too, and the dead end of a cigarette, ash mixing in the perpetual ring of water around the drain. One of Ricky’s—“Marlboro” is still visible on the paper.
A door bangs, startling me before I remember the open window in the living room. Old houses, doors everywhere. I close the cabinet and find myself looking at what’s left of the mirror. That sinking feeling pulls harder. Did Ricky let himself in the same way I did, burn through five cigarettes in the kitchen, and work himself up until he broke the mirror? But the reason why slips out of my grasp.
I step over the shards and back to where I started. It takes as many curses to close the living-room window as when I opened it. How long for half-drunk milk to go off? Four, five days? All this week when I was avoiding Ty, was he even here? I get the window most of the way shut. The PlayStation screensaver is still going strong, the answering machine flashing away with its red numbers. Ty wasn’t here to turn off the TV or play the messages.
I swallow the panic that’s rising from my gut and pull out my phone again. Screw texting. I dial Ty’s cell from mine, knowing he’ll pick up because calling means I need him. I try to put words in his mouth, an explanation, a reassurance, his voice as clear in my head as if he were standing next to me. But his cell goes straight to voicemail, and the recording tells me the mailbox is full. Another tug, pulling me further down.
Find a way, no matter what.
I let out one long breath and scroll to Ricky’s name. But as I wait for the connection to go through, all the questions and curses I want to throw at him dry up on my tongue. I can see his face, with his thin lips, the acne scars on his cheeks as if he were still trying to shed his teenage skin. I can almost taste his cigarette breath.
His cell rings once, then goes to voicemail. He knows it’s me calling.
“I know you were in Ty’s house. Do you know where is he? Call me back. Don’t be a son-of-a-bitch.”
The words come out fast, my voice thinner than normal. I sink into the familiar dented cushions of the sofa, but instead of comfort I’m hit with everything I don’t know: why Ty would leave, where he would go if he’s been gone for days, why he wouldn’t tell me, why Ricky came into his house afterward.
In the past, whenever Ty got into trouble, Ricky wasn’t more than spitting distance away. He knows more than I do now, and he’ll make me bargain for the information, tell me that he’ll only talk if I come to see him, his choice of place. And when I get there he’ll start layering up the conditions.
Ricky’s not going to call back. I get to my feet. He won’t make me come to him—it’s my choice. I tell myself I can do what I have to in order to get him talking. Before I leave, I snatch his lighter from the table and slip it into my pocket. Proof that he’s been here.
On the steps the air feels like a storm, heavy and thick with the promise of rain. Ricky’s place is all the way across town, another two-mile walk. Night has already swept in, and the streetlights are buzzing here, just a few blocks from Main. I check my phone again. Still no answer from Ty. For what it’s worth, I push in the lock on the door before my sneakers hit the sidewalk. Home is to my right, the biggest intersection in town to my left. The first uphill, the other down. I go with gravity.
When I take the right on Main, I pick up my pace. The street hugs the Black River. Brick buildings sprout out of the sidewalk, and I walk four blocks with every other storefront empty; then comes the diner—my part-time job that I can’t shake. Streetlights and headlights take turns making my shadow. Half a mile after the storefronts end, the old mill and factory complex looms large in the dark. It stretches along the riverbank like a scar that won’t fade, three stories of brick with iron-framed windows, most of them shattered. Eric said that men died in there, some of them losing legs and arms in the massive equipment and bleeding out on the factory floor. Maybe it’s bullshit, like everything else he told me. Overhead, layers of dark rainclouds are rearranging themselves. The sidewalk ends in gravel, and I’m walking on the shoulder. The mill and the town are gone behind me as if they were never there.
Ricky’s place is on Orchard Lane, which sounds nicer than it looks. The road is uphill, paved but still no sidewalk, and after the couple of miles I’ve walked the incline burns my legs. It’s a few minutes before the trees clear on either side, and when they do, the houses show themselves, some with their outside lights on. Nobody seems to notice me. The last time I came up to Ricky’s was back in July with Ty, and I waited in Ty’s truck while the two of them talked in low voices. It ended in laughter and a slap on the back. Then Ricky caught my eye through the windshield and held my gaze until I looked away.
His low single-story is set back off the road, a chimney sticking out of the middle of the roof. No lights from inside, but his car is parked in the drive. My pulse kicks up again the way it did in Ty’s house, a warning that I make myself ignore. I bee-line through the junk-strewn yard—buckets, tires, an old push mower—toward the white outline of the screen door. I’ve forgotten that I’m sweating, forgotten the burning in my legs. I pound the heel of my fist against the door.
“Ricky, are you there?”
Nothing. My hand closes around the handle, and I tug. Locked. Son-of-a-bitch.
I cup my hands over the screen, will my eyes to make something out through the glass of the door behind it, but there are only shadows inside. Thunder lumbers across the eastern sky, and it won’t be long before the rain follows. Do I just give up? I lean against the wall, feeling now in my shoulder the struggle with Tyler’s window. My gaze lands on Ricky’s car sitting in the driveway. In half a dozen steps I’m there, putting a hand on the hood, cold under my warm palm. I wipe my face with my tee shirt. The air around me is almost too thick to breathe in. Should I wait him out? More thunder, louder this time. I’m looking at four and a half miles home now instead of two. I kick the car’s tire, curse Ricky again, and start retracing my steps.
I’ve walked about a mile before the clouds give in to the rain. The few passing cars ignore me, even though I’m the only one out. I probably look like I’m in trouble or on a mission to cause it, and nobody’s going to stop and check, not in Holbrook, Vermont. If Cora were in town, she’d drop whatever she was doing and come pick me up, take her mom’s car or her mom’s boyfriend’s. Best friends trump dates, that’s what she’d say—because she’d be out with someone, no question. But she spends August with her dad in New Hampshire, some sharp angle of the custody agreement meant to drive a wedge even deeper.
When I approach the mill, the wind picks up and I duck my head. Another set of headlights sweeps by me. I look up as they pass, the tail-lights reflecting red on the wet road. It’s a black pickup like Ty’s. I stop walking.
Brake lights. My anticipation and relief knock against each other as the truck shifts into reverse. It must be Ty, and I can’t decide if I’m going to curse him out or hug him as the truck comes to a stop alongside me. But with it comes the recognition that it’s Dustin Powell’s four-door, not Ty’s. The passenger window is already down.
“Need a lift home?” he asks.
The words I was working up to disappear. I look over my shoulder, hoping again for Ty or even Ricky, but there’s nobody else on the road. The rain is turning to sheets.
“Are you getting in?”
I’m out of options for the second time tonight. “Yeah. Thanks.”
I slide in beside him, and he pulls away from the curb. He’s a lineman on Dad’s power crew. His hard hat sits on the floor at my feet. He went to high school with Ricky and Ty, but they were never friends.
“Not a great night to be walking,” he says.
I suspect it’s his way of asking what I was doing, where I was going. But it’s not his job to look out for me, and I don’t owe him any answers. The glow from the dashboard illuminates the tattoos that climb up his arms and disappear under the sleeves of his tee shirt. He came back from Afghanistan with them—war inscribed in a language I don’t understand. The A/C raises goose bumps on my arms, and I realize how soaked I am. Strands that escaped from my ponytail are dripping into my eyes. I bring one palm to each, wiping the water away.
“You all right?” Dustin asks.
“I’m not crying.”
“I didn’t say you were.”
But he takes his eyes off the road and turns the air conditioner toward the warmer side, giving me a quick once-over in the process.
“I didn’t think I’d be walking.”
“Figured as much.” He changes gears as the truck climbs the hill. “Did you ditch your boyfriend, or was it the other way around?”
He’s just trying to put together the pieces. He doesn’t know if I have a boyfriend, doesn’t know Eric, doesn’t know that I ditched him, though not tonight. None of it matters now anyway, not with Ty gone and no answers from Ricky.
I keep quiet, keep my problems close, but Dustin doesn’t give up on the conversation. “Your dad’s working overtime tonight,” he says.
Does he know that this news is reassuring? Dad and I, we’re like two pieces of kindling ready to go up, and me coming home looking like trouble is as good as a match striking the box. Stealing his beer out of the fridge isn’t the worst thing I’ve done, but I don’t mind waiting a little longer for him to find out about it.
“You sure you’re all right?” Dustin asks.
“I can take care of myself.”
The words come out harder than I intended, even though I’m close to shivering and the concern in his voice sounds genuine. He knocks off with the questions, and I stare out the window.
In minutes we’re at the driveway of my house. The porch light is on, and a silhouette leans against the railing on the side not hit by the rain. Mom. From her profile, you’d think she could have been a movie star: slim, long hair, perfect nose. But in daylight the skin sags under her eyes, and her face is colored by shades and years of nicotine. She watches as Dustin pulls up.
I don’t get out right away, keeping the seatbelt clipped in, gathering my nerve. Dustin kills the engine, followed by the lights. “I’ll walk you in,” he says, and he’s opened the door before I can tell him he doesn’t have to. I swear under my breath, then make myself follow, ducking my head and watching for puddles.
As I climb the steps behind Dustin, Mom taps her packet of cigarettes against the porch railing. Always three taps. She says hello to Dustin as she pulls one out but holds off lighting it. Dustin throws a “ma’am” into his greeting. The army, Afghanistan—I think that’s where he got his ma’ams and sirs because nobody from this town uses them.
Mom’s just gotten home, still wearing her supermarket uniform. There’s a six-pack on the plastic table with two bottles left in it. It’s the one I didn’t take. She stares at my wet clothes.
“He didn’t give you a ride, in this weather?”
“He wasn’t there.”
I can hear the derision that she saves for Ty. My visits to Ty every week are just one more opportunity for her to give me a hard time—her own kind of clockwork—and I wait for her to add a line about how I shouldn’t count on him for anything. But she holds back, glancing at Dustin, and I understand that she wants to put up some kind of pretense that we don’t outright hate each other.
“Lucky Dustin picked you up, then,” she says.
“He saw me in front of Ty’s house.” I get the words out before Dustin has a chance to say anything different.
“She was waiting on the stoop. Least I could do.”
He doesn’t even look at me when he says it, just at Mom, as if covering for me is as natural to him as breathing.
On Friday, seventeen-year-old Jo Britton discovers that her older brother has disappeared from their small Vermont town. By Saturday, she knows where to find him. On Sunday, with the help of unexpected ally Dustin Powell, she’s burning up the pavement all the way to Florida as she retraces her brother’s steps in pursuit of a terrible truth.
Fierce Country is a coming-of-age novel set in 2009, against the lingering shadows of the Great Recession and at the onset of the opioid crisis. The novel spans one week in August, in which Jo grapples with deceit from the brother she’s never given up on, tests how far she can stretch loyalty, and decides how much of herself she’s willing to put on the line before she walks away.
The inspiration for Fierce Country came from two places I know well. I grew up in Vermont, where many small towns were struggling even before the economic crisis and continue to fade in its wake. I attended graduate school in South Florida just as the phenomenon of the pill mill was coming under the sway of law enforcement and regulatory control. I was interested in combining these two places and sets of circumstances, and after doing some research I realized that an overlap existed.
In 2009, when my novel takes place, Florida’s pill mills prescribed ten times more opioid prescription drugs than every other state in the country combined. Cars with license plates from the south to New England filled their parking lots, all representing states with plenty of people going through hard times. In Jo’s town, the economic downturn has left little opportunity to be found among the foreclosed houses and empty storefronts, leading to Tyler’s trips to Florida, where he obtains prescriptions to sell illegally back home. When Jo discovers the truth, she must confront decisions that bring her world into both a sharper and more complicated relief. I hope that readers will connect with Jo in her journey across the country and into adulthood.
Jane Deon received her MFA in 2014 from Florida International University in Miami, Florida. Her short fiction has appeared in Sixfold and Sliver of Stone Magazine. She currently teaches writing to undergraduates in Boston, Massachusetts. Fierce Country is her first novel.