Bright orange flames lick the glass sides of the fireplace and I wonder who made the fire, him or me? I press my hot, sticky hands over my ears and rock back and forth on the dirty wooden floor.
He took me here, away from any sense of community or family or love. He wanted me for himself and then he didn’t want me anymore. Aftershocks of anger ripple through my body causing me to shiver and shake, despite dripping with sweat.
There’s a crashing sound in the next room and I roll on my side to watch the doorway. We’d left the radio on in the bedroom and I can hear the drawling sound of Dwight Yoakam through the wall.
I’m a thousand miles from nowhere
Time don’t matter to me
‘Cause I’m a thousand miles from nowhere
And there’s no place I want to be
I grab his pistol from the floor and pull myself to a sitting position, scooting until my back rests against the leather couch. I lay the cold black metal across my naked legs and wipe my hands across the wooden floor leaving long, dark smears.
The sunrise beginning outside the bay window feels remarkably tame compared to the sunset I’d photographed with my Nikon last night. I remember him coming up behind me, grabbing my hips, and forcefully pulling me into him.
“Can’t beat the view,” he’d said.
I’d wanted to argue with him, but I couldn’t while staring at the painted clouds, almost a reverse rainbow of arching light with golden-tinged shades of purple and pink. It reminded me of a Monet painting I’d seen as a child with my grandfather in Paris, although I think it was called “Sunrise.”
I’d snapped picture after picture until the sky turned black and the stars winked at me from a thousand points. He’d been kissing my neck and pulling my hips toward him, and I did my best to ignore the way my body reacted to his touch.
“I hate the desert,” I’d said.
He’d pressed himself harder against me and slid his hands around to grab my aching breasts and pinch my nipples. The endless sight of the rolling brown sand in all directions intensified my feeling of anxiety, of feeling abandoned and tiny. I tried to make out the reddish-brown mountains I knew were off in the distance, but the moon had disappeared and I couldn’t find them. He spun me around and kissed me hard, knocking the camera from my hands. I left it in the sand.
A plaintive high-pitch screech sounds from the bedroom, followed by another crash; my stack of books falling off the nightstand. It’s coming for me, the shadow creature, the death bringer, he’s come to drag me to the underworld. I look at the gun wearily and wonder how many bullets are left and if they’d do me any good.
I fold my arms across my naked chest and think about my first-grade classroom, the last place I remember feeling truly safe. It was a warm yellow room with tiny windows high up near the ceiling and a huge green chalkboard. Our teacher, Miss Elle, wrote in swirling cursive handwriting across the board, ”I meant what I said and I said what I meant.” It was a Dr. Seuss quote and it was supposed to encourage honesty, but I’d read it over and over and wondered what it meant to not say what you mean and not mean what you say because that’s what I knew.
It’s what he knew too.
I met him when I’d fallen off my horse riding in the fields behind our farm and broke my ankle. The horse, a young gelding I was training for a rich kid at school, ran back to the farm without me. He came from nowhere and lifted me from the mud as if I weighed no more than a feather. The fairytale knight in jeans and a cowboy hat, and me the broken damsel in muddy distress.
From the start, his words were honey, and I was a mere ant. He used them to patch the holes my parents had punched into me, making me into a patchwork girl he could love and control. Oh, how I wish I’d been a bee and could create my own honey.
“It’s the end of democracy,” he’d told me one morning at a truck stop.
He was eating pancakes, and the fork stopped in mid-air with syrup dripping down in little dark droplets. I couldn’t eat, but I sipped lukewarm black coffee and tried not to let my apathy look like disrespect or disinterest. He hates when I “space out.”
“The statistics don’t lie Jolene. It’s a matter of time before civil war breaks out and then where will you be? We gotta go. You know I’m right and I’ll protect you,” he said. “You trust me, right?”
He’d been trying these lines out on me for weeks, but it wasn’t until I thought I might be pregnant I started to listen. The farm had gone into foreclosure and the few friends I’d managed to hold onto had grown weary of trying to break through the walls he’d placed around me. I felt stuck; an ant trapped in the honey. I agreed to go with him.
“We aren’t running because of cowardice or because we are criminals, but rather as an act of brave defiance,” he said as we loaded his rusted red pickup truck with our few possessions and his stockpile of food, guns, and ammunition. “We refuse to be a part of it. You and I are above such things. We know the truth.”
I felt no such feelings, but I made no comment. I’d felt the words inside me shriveling more and more as we drove; as if I’d left them buried in the old rice field behind the farm. I didn’t like the change in myself, but he’d slip his hand between my legs and I’d stop caring. It didn’t matter. Nothing did.
There’s a rustling in the hallway and I grab the pistol and aim it in front of me with shaking hands. I expect to see a shadow monster slink out of the darkness toward me like liquid death, but instead, it’s an enormous bird. Bright amber eyes, a hooked beak outlined in yellow, and layers of soft, brown feathers meet my eyes as it hops into the room and screeches a short, piercing cry.
We stare at each other for a moment, its head jerking from side to side as if evaluating my threat level or sizing me up as possible prey. I lower the gun and it shakes its head and scuttles across the floor dragging something silver in its huge talons.
It reaches the shut bay window and stares at the early morning sunrise, the golden peak of color on the horizon illuminating the jagged mountains far off in the distance. It screeches again, stretches out its wings, and spins in a circle revealing a patch of dark reddish feathers jutting out below the light brown ones.
It’s a red-tailed hawk, one of the few birds we see in the desert. He liked to tell me hawks are the warriors of truth, a sign we’d made the right decision to leave everything behind and come here. He’d point them out and expect me to share in his revelations or visions. I don’t. I see a scared and smelly old bird.
The bird screeches again and jumps into the air attempting to fly. Its wings are too wide for the small space and it knocks into the walls falling with a pitiful cry into a heap by the fireplace. It clicks its beak, turns its head back and forth, and stares at me. I feel sorry for it, trapped in these walls.
Grabbing the gun, I walk in tiny sideways steps toward the hallway. The hawk jumps onto the rocking chair in the corner and, when the chair moves, tumbles in a heap onto the floor. It seems unharmed, but more frantic. I rush down the hallway and into the darkness of our room.
I pull on a dirty yellow sundress and a pair of black lace underwear from the floor and try not to look at anything of his. I step on tip-toes through broken glass and splinters of wood to grab my Anne of Green Gables book. He’d tried to rip it, to hurt the one thing I’d taken from my childhood home, but I’d flung it toward the wall and out of his reach. I inspect it for damage and find the cover torn, but the pages inside are unharmed. I breathe in the musty smell of old paper and tuck it under my arm.
Slipping on my dusty brown boots, I grab his keys and walk to his ugly red truck. I stare at the logo on the side, the ridiculous painting of an eagle holding an American flag. He spent our first weeks here in white coveralls painting the hideous display of his supposed patriotism, while I scoured and scrubbed the abandoned house and tried to make it look like a home. I’d never felt safe here, despite his constant patrolling and the large green machine gun mounted in the bed of the truck.
To me, his patriotism looks a lot like cowardice and selfishness, running when things got hard instead of helping or being part of some kind of progress or change. I grab a large porous rock and scrape off the paint, scratching out his careful brushstrokes, and erasing his masterpiece from the Earth. When I’m done, covered in sweat, I slip down onto the rocky driveway to catch my breath. My hands and body ache.
The hawk walks out the back door in a sort of hesitant wobble, keeping its bright eyes on me. I point at the truck.
“Looks better doesn’t it?” I say.
The hawk says nothing but takes flight circling around and around me as if inspecting the scene from all angles. I hear other hawks and it swoops toward them, toward the sun fully risen above the mountains casting its golden rays of light upon the desert and me.
There’s a glint of silver by the front door, the hawk’s treasure it dragged through the house sits stuck in the thickly woven doormat. I’m terrified to retrieve it. I imagine him standing there waiting just inside the dark doorway smoking and pacing in his black boots. I think I can hear him in the shadows, and smell his sweat, but I crawl forward through the gravel anyway. Ignoring the pain of tiny pebbles piercing the flesh of my hands and knees, I keep my eyes on the ground. I refuse to look up. I refuse to look for him.
It’s his lighter, a small tarnished silver square with his initials carved into the side. It belonged to his grandfather, a man he admired for his strength and his war medals. A framed black-and-white photo of him sits on the bookshelf in the living room and I’d been struck by how much their jaws, cheekbones, and eyes were unmistakably the same. I wondered what happened to his grandmother.
I flick open the lighter and stare at the bright orange flame, so much like him. A rush of cold wind swirls sand around me stinging my skin and forcing me to close my eyes. I use the doorframe to pull myself to my feet and run toward the truck. He’s right behind me in the sand calling my name. Jolene. Jolene.
Tucking his gun between my legs, I press down the clutch and turn the key in the ignition. The old truck roars to life sputtering and thundering.
“Take me far from here,” I say, patting the dusty dashboard.
Rocks fly and hit the sides of the truck as it rumbles down the long driveway. I stop at the wooden cross marking the turn and roll down my window. I take a final glance behind me, toss the lighter into the sand and turn onto the main road.
Author’s note: I had lots of fun ideas for this week’s prompt, but with all that’s happening in the world my brain would not write playful or silly. I can’t say exactly what sparked this idea, but it may have something to do with a house we pass each day on the drive to my children’s school with a huge green piece of wood covered in strange conspiracy theory rhetoric. As it often does, the story took its own meandering path from there. I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below. Thank you for reading.
Short Story Challenge | Week 8
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story where a wild animal was loose in the house. We had to include the words pregnant, community, logo, statistics, democracy, honesty, criminal, ankle, orange, and comment.
Write With Us
Prompt: A midlife career change
Include: chef, upgrade, monkey, turkey, fashion, team, harden, noon, elevator, baste