No Sense Lying When We’re All Dying | H. L. Nelson

 

no-lying-when-were-all-dying-003

 

 

 

 

Mama huffed as she dragged the dusty, rusted deep freeze over our trailer door’s metal threshold. The cold air blew in, sending shivers up my arms. Mama thunked the thing unceremoniously down in front of the funky ’80s mirror in the foyer. It’s not really a foyer because it’s part of the kitchen, but Mama calls it a foyer, anyway. She wants us Cartwrights to be fancier than we are.

“Why you bringing in a freezer, Miriam? Not cold enough for you?” Uncle Cordus crinkled down a corner of his Campers Digest magazine to peer suspiciously at his hoarder sister.

“Now Cord, don’t give me a hard time. This here’s a special freezer.” Mama brushed back her frosted-tip bouffant and the fat wings hanging from her arms jiggled like dog food out of the can. She flashed her pearlies at us, half a front tooth chipped off, the jagged bottom edge full of black cavity like charred toast crust. She pulled the front door closed.

Uncle Cord grumbled, rolled his filmy eyes, and returned to his magazine.

Mama dusted off the front of her fuchsia chiffon blouse, straightening herself up as best as she could. No matter what she does, though, she always looks unkempt. I don’t consider that mean, just honest. “No lying when we’re all dying,” Daddy used to say. Before he died.

“Sarina, can you get me some sweet tea?” Mama finished the request with, “Thanks, baby” before I could nod yes or no.

I reluctantly put down my book of ghost stories and inched up from the wilted floral couch, another of Mama’s finds. This one came off the curb in front of Tax ‘n’ Tea, the short-lived tax preparer and bubble tea shop downtown.

I dragged my feet toward the kitchen, around the boxes and piles of Mama’s things. She always said she’d be selling it all on Ebay or Craigslist, as soon as she could get to the library to use their computer. She said she had a plan. I knew better.

Squeezing by the damn deep freeze taking up so much room, I huffed into the kitchen, thinking how I wished I could just tell Mama, “No,” loud and firm. But I couldn’t even manage a whisper. When I opened my mouth and tried to talk at Daddy’s wake, nothing came out, and hadn’t since. Dr. Brubecker had no idea what’d happened to my voice, ruled it “psychosomatic” and said it’d probably come back someday.

Most days, I sat in my room and gazed out my small, grimy window to where the backyard ended and the choked pine forest began. Before my dog Buster died, I’d write notes and hold them up for him to see. He’d cock his head to the side, his funny ears raised, and I swear he understood what the notes said. I wrote down everything I couldn’t show anyone about Daddy being gone, how I missed his big laugh, how he’d jerk the steering wheel left and right until I squealed when it was just me and him in his truck, how he’d sing “Sari in the sky with diamonds” instead of “Lucy…” He was always smiling like he had the best job in the world, the best life with us.

I eyeballed the duct-taped holes in the kitchen walls that I could poke a finger through, the saggy ceiling still damp with winter rains, the peeling linoleum that held dirt hostage in its deep creases. In the bathroom, our molded plastic tub was stained with minerals from the well water and mildew was spreading in the seams between the tub and wall. The cardboard-brown subfloor still smelled like old cat pee, even though we’d long since ripped the carpet up. The cats squirted everywhere before we set them feral in the forest because we couldn’t afford litter or food. I hoped to God that Mama’s plan set us loose, too. I’d rather live in the woods with the cats.

Filling up her scratched glass with sweet tea, I returned the faded pitcher to our dim, mostly empty fridge. My stomach growled like a nervous hound, so I opened the meat, vegetable, and fruit drawers in turn, only finding a pack of rancid ham, a shriveled carrot, and half a black-spotted onion. I tried to stop thinking about heaps of food replacing the heaps of things everywhere, and me with a huge fork shoveling it all in my mouth, unhinged like a snake’s.

“Thank you, plum puddin’,” Mama said when I handed her the tea. Of course, she had to call me food. She took a long swig of the drink, some of it spilling down her big jowls and onto her blouse. It spread and set like an old blood stain that’d been washed but wouldn’t come out. Putting the glass down, in one motion she wiped her mouth and slapped her hands on her pear hips. Then she waltzed around the deep freeze, sucking on her large front teeth like she does when she’s wondering what to do about something. That’s the sound she made when Buster was so sick, a few months after Daddy died. I don’t much like it because it reminded me of what happened.

Buster had eaten Mama’s amaryllis plant and puked and crapped at the same time. We took him outside and he fell down and laid, twitching, until Mama went to get Daddy’s gun. She tried to make me do it, but I told her to go to hell and turned away. I heard her make that awful teeth and tongue sound, then the gun’s crack shortly after. She wiped tears from her eyes and told me, “There was nothing else we could do.” I went inside and let her bury Buster by herself.

I hated Mama for buying that damn poisonous plant. And I hated that gun, though I’d gone shooting with Daddy before and was a natural.

Half a pass around the deep freeze and Mama stopped. “Sarina, what do you think? Does it just look like an old freezer to you?” She fastened her I-Really-Need-Someone-to-Tell-Me-What-to-Do-Now look on me. It’s like she knew Daddy would be gone someday so she birthed me as a backup to fix her problems.

“It’s just a damn deep freeze,” Uncle Cord said from behind his magazine, then he promptly dropped it on his face and fell asleep. His snores ruffled the magazine pages, a tent flap in wind.

I shrugged my shoulders and bent down. It did just look like an old freezer, about the size of Granny’s maple sideboard. It said Philco on the front and its wide clasp handle was pitted with rust. Mama answered my lifted eyebrow with, “I got it at Thrifty Nickel. Ol’ Shephard bought it off some other geezer who said it’s special, that only certain people can open it. And if you get inside, it’ll give you three wishes.” She guffawed and grabbed a bag of Corn Nuts from the coffee table, shoving a few in her mouth, then talking over her smacking, “I tried like hell to get it open, but couldn’t.”

I was annoyed, thinking of Mama’s desperation, how far she would go to do what she wanted. But, supposedly magic things made me curious, so I reached for the handle. As I touched it, I felt that tingle I used to get when we’d sing down the summer highway to my cousins’, the windows open and wind blowing warm in my face. Or after stumbling sleep-eyed into the living room at Christmas, my presents shining under the tree.

The door creaked open. It had some solid weight to it, so I had to push hard until its hinges caught and held it upright.

“You got it open!” A Corn Nut flew out of Mama’s mouth and landed on the lid. She stared from me to the freezer, mouth open. I wiped the Corn Nut off and peeked inside. It was pristine, as if it had just come off a manufacturing line.

“I wonder if you can fit in there?” Mama poked me a little, so I scrabbled over and in.

The interior was just big enough for me. It felt comfortable: cool and shimmery like the aboveground pool we used to have.

I closed my eyes and found myself in our backyard. Steaks were grilling and the early summer sun soaked into my skin through the warm pool water. Buster snuffled in the grass at the edge of the yard. Daddy was inside asking Mama to find the long tongs. I smiled, hearing his voice again. There was the small buzz of bees and other bugs around the wildflowers that Daddy refused to mow.

And another sound. I squinched my eyes, trying hard to hear it. Almost like someone chanting, though I couldn’t quite hear what was being said.

Faraway words were carried by the breeze. I could hear it now, whispering.

What it said was: “What three things do you most want?”

It was as if someone had poured concrete over me–I couldn’t move at all, couldn’t break apart my stuck eyelids, and somehow I knew I had to give the wind an answer if I wanted to free myself. But I couldn’t talk! How was I going to answer? I did the best I could: I thought of food, huge piles of food replacing Mama’s stacks of crap. Then Buster, with his soft fur and silly ears. And finally Daddy. Him most of all.

My muscles relaxed then and my eyes stopped battling with me. I stared at the cold white interior of the freezer, then scooted out quickly.

“What is it, Pumpkin? Your eyes look like they’re about to pop out and roll away.”

I shrugged, trying to play it off, but Mama knew something had happened and wouldn’t let up until I got the stationery and wrote out, Something in there asked me what three things I want. I can have them if I say them.

Mama shook her head fast, making her double chin wobble back and forth. “Dear Lord, please tell us if this freezer is a message from you or the Devil’s conduit. Give us a sign. In your name I pray, amen.”

We waited for several minutes, both of us holding our breath. I’m not all religious like Mama, but I guess you never know.

The usual tick of the Salvation Army grandfather clock and the steady drip of the broken bathroom faucet was all that answered, and we both breathed out at the same time.

Mama laughed. “I’m sure it’s fine, right? What do you think, Sugar Pie?” Of course, there she went again, asking me so she wouldn’t be responsible, calling me food, too.

I shrugged a little.

She looked troubled. “So, no opinion on the thing?”

I shrugged until my shoulders almost reached my ears, went back to the couch, and picked up my book, pretending to ignore her. Looking exasperated for a minute, she tutted to herself, peering out the gritty living room window and fingering the cross on its filigree chain around her girthy neck. Then she startled herself out of her own thoughts and traipsed off to the kitchen.

“I’ll try to scrounge up some dinner for us,” she called back over her shoulder. My stomach growled just thinking about it. But I knew she wouldn’t find any food in there.

Over the next few days, Mama took to making me open the deep freeze, then she’d sit in it for hours. She had to turn it on its side and her meaty legs both stuck out, but somehow she squished her body in. She said it made her feel rested and happy, but she looked more and more frizzled around the edges, hairs crazily springing out of the teased and sprayed poof on her head, flecks of mascara under her eyes, stains and wrinkles on the same few blouses she was re-wearing. Despite passing out from exhaustion for a couple of hours every afternoon, she was always half-dead by evening. She grumbled to herself and glared at us suspiciously.

One morning, I even found Uncle Cord trying to get in there. He couldn’t fit and when he heard me come into the living room, he backed out quickly, stammering, “Y-you know I just want a few things. That’s all.” I knew he’d always wanted a camper, so he could travel.

The two of them began fighting about whose turn it was to be in the thing. I secretly made plans to get rid of it. Maybe I could drag it down to the creek and sink it, but that was half a mile. Or I could bash it with Daddy’s sledgehammer.

The day I decided to do something about the freezer, when I heard Mama and Uncle Cord go to bed, I snuck out of my room dressed in black jeans and a dark green T-shirt. I didn’t have any black tees.

I tiptoed to the freezer. It looked scary in the deepening dark of the living room, like a hunched animal with big shoulders. I steeled myself, reminding my scaredy-cat brain it was just a pile of metal. I tried to lift it up. It was stuck fast.

Readjusting my grip, I tried again. Not even a small movement.

The lamp by the recliner switched on. By its dull light I saw Mama in the chair, looking as if she might eat me, her upper lip curled as if she smelled something gross. Half of her face was in shadow and the lit part was a crazy clown’s. Her hair was a tangled rat’s nest, and several days’ worth of makeup plastered her face like layers of old house paint.

“What are you doing, Sarina Ann?”

I shook my head and tried to look innocent. But Mama was having none of it. She hefted out of the recliner and stomped over to me, then grabbed me by the arm. She yelled in my face, “Sarina Ann, you were trying to steal my freezer, weren’t you? Answer me!”

I shook my head again fast and tried not to cry.

“I do everything for you, and this is how you repay me. You are going to get in this freezer and wish for all of my things to sell, do you hear me?” She jerked me down and forced me into the freezer. I started crying. It was terrifying: a solid, airless tomb. It felt like the ghostly-white walls were closing in, like they might squash me flat as a bug. But I couldn’t get out because Mama was blocking the door with her bulk, her large shadow menacing.

“Say it, Sarina. Now.”

Something in me slammed shut like a freezer door. I wanted everything back the way it was before this damn freezer.

Willing my vocal cords to form words, I let out a few croaks.

Then my voice burst out clear, “I hate you, you fat hog! I want all these horrible piles of things to be food, because you’re starving me. I want Buster back. And I want Daddy back, too. He would never treat me this way!”

Mama stumbled away, her hand clutching her chest. I couldn’t tell if she was more upset that I’d finally talked, that I’d said what I said, or that I’d used all three wishes. She drooped into the recliner and stared at the floor.

Then she looked over at me and all I saw was an indecisive, middle-aged widow.

I felt bad about what I’d said.

“Sweet Sarina baby, are you ok? What have I done?” She covered her face with her thick hands and ugly cried. Crawling out of the freezer, I went to her, wrapped my arms around her shoulders, and waited.

She hugged me back, and when she recovered, she said we’d be getting rid of the freezer that next day.

I puffed out a sigh of relief. She finally grew a pair.

After helping her to her room, I went to my own. I put on my too-short pj bottoms and looked at my arm in the mirror. I resolved to wear long sleeves the next day so Mama wouldn’t see the bruises.

*

The next morning, I woke to Uncle Cord yelling from the living room. Something smelled. The sun hadn’t yet cleared the horizon, but there was no need for light when I barreled in. What had replaced Mama’s piles of crud seemed to be shimmering: huge stacks of prepared food, nearly to the ceiling. The largest imaginable church potluck was happening right in our living room. Dozens of stacked casseroles, meatloaves, fried chicken legs, small pools in-between of gravy and unidentifiable sauces. And one entire stack of desserts, topped with mounds of somehow-not-runny ice cream and jiggling Jell-O. I had no idea how it all didn’t fall over. Some sort of food magic.

Uncle Cord was sticking his finger in a pile of mashed potatoes then sniffing it when Mama hustled in in pink hair rollers, tying the belt of her threadbare bathrobe. She crossed herself and tilted her head back to see to the top of the nearest pile, her slack mouth forgotten, rendered speechless for the first time in her life.

“It smells ok.” Uncle Cord shrugged.

Mama look skeptical. “Sarina, what do you think?”

They both turned to me, and I knew they would do whatever I wanted, no matter what it was. For once, I didn’t feel like the responsibility was being shifted to me by default. It was more like I was a trusted adult, known to have a cool head and make good decisions. I thought, It’s about time.

“I think it’s breakfast,” I said, plucking a perfectly fried piece of bacon (almost burnt, just like I like it) out of the pile and grinning at them as I crunched.

Uncle Cord looked at me in amazement about my new voice, so calm and self-assured.

*

While we plated the breakfast foods then chowed down, there was merriment around the kitchen table—Mama talking about getting a job at the laundromat and Uncle Cord about finally saving up for a deluxe camper.

I had hoped Mama wouldn’t be upset about her things being gone, but she didn’t seem to mind. I guessed the allure of weeks of cooked food settled her. Even though we knew a lot of it would go to waste, we were grateful to have what we had. After using every Tupperware set to fill the fridge, we settled in for the afternoon, tummies full, and played card games.

It was looking to be the best day since Daddy had passed.

During a round of Old Maid where Uncle Cord was kicking both of our behinds, there came a frenzy of barking from the backyard.

Then I recognized the bark.

I raced outside and there he was in the chilly yard, chasing his tail around and around like a young dog would. I couldn’t believe it.

Laughing, I yelled, “Buster! Come here, boy!” He stopped chasing his tail and cocked his ears at me, his tongue lolling out past his dog smile, then galloped to me. He jumped up and licked me almost to death, wagging his tail so hard I thought it might fall off. I hugged him and teared with happiness.

Mama came out and stood on the porch, watching me with Buster. She squinted into the trees and a weird look clouded her face. I watched her turn a few shades of pale in the weakening afternoon light. I couldn’t look. She finally said, near-hoarse, “Seth? Is that you?”

We should have known, what with the food and Buster. But I didn’t actually think that last wish would take.

Deciding to be resolute, no matter what, I turned and looked.

He strolled out of the dark stand of trees. He was in the same clothes we’d buried him in. I’m not sure why I expected him to be in different clothes.

Mama put her sausage fingers to her mouth and just said, “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.”

Daddy stopped in the middle of the yard and beamed at us. I couldn’t see his eyes, but I knew his crows’ feet were crinkling at the corners, and this made me unexplainably happy.

Daddy said, “Well hey, everybody. We havin’ a cookout, or what?”

Uncle Cord asked Daddy questions at the table before and during dinner, while Mama and I watched them from the safety and familiarity of the kitchen counters, busying ourselves with chicken casserole and buttered green beans. The same as what Southern women normally do, which is fly into action cooking up a storm when someone dies.

Except Daddy went from dead to alive.

Mama didn’t say a word, but excused herself to the bathroom for a few minutes before helping me finish up. Her eyes were red-rimmed when she returned, and she wouldn’t take her eyes off Daddy.

Buster lounged under my chair. He’d drank two whole bowls of water and would need to go outside soon, but I just wanted him inside with me then.

“So you don’t remember anything from the last year? Obama again? Hurricane Sandy? Supposed End of Days?” Uncle Cord asked.

Daddy sat back in his kitchen chair and put his arm on the back of Mama’s chair. “Nope, Cord. I sure don’t. It seems like we were just celebrating the 2011 holidays. Did I hit my head on something? Was I in the hospital?” Then he started picking at a hangnail, unfazed.

Mama, Uncle Cord, and I all glanced at each other.

Uncle Cord spoke first, “Yeah, you could say that.”

*

The evening passed without incident, all of us studying Daddy and Buster, and, for the most part, they seemed their old selves. Daddy was more relaxed, as if being dead for over a year had helped him unwind. Like a vacation from life.

By bedtime, things were back to normal. Well, except for the ton of food in the living room, but we figured we’d take care of that the next day. Daddy didn’t ask about the food, but instead talked about tinkering with his car parts in the shed. No one had the heart to tell him that Mama’d sold them.

It seemed everyone was feeling less nervous, more hopeful. At dawn, we’d clean up and begin again.

It was about time things went our way.

*

The stench woke me. It was so bad I almost barfed on my own chest. I grabbed a T-shirt and wrapped it over my nose. Still smelled, but not so much. Buster teetered his head back and forth like a bobble head and blew air out of his nose.

My voice was muffled behind the shirt, “I know, boy, it’s gross. Let’s go find out what it is.”

“Man alive!” Uncle Cord shouted, waving his hands in front of his face as he shuffled in the living room. Mama followed, holding her nose. She looked green, like she’d let loose any minute.

The food stunk as if it’d been in the living room for weeks. White, black, and dark green mold coated everything. A red velvet cake was caved in with white fuzz like a weird furry frosting. The gravy, Jell-O, ice cream, and other sauces had all run together into sickly-looking streams of a stomach-churning brown-gray color that was what I imagined dead skin looked like.

“Where’s Daddy?” I gasped through the thin cotton.

“He’s still asleep, Dumplin’. What’re we gonna do with all this?” Mama whined, her voice nasally due to nose pinching.

Daddy never slept in. That’s how I knew for sure he wasn’t quite himself. It was too good to be true. I dammed up the threatening-to-spill waterworks as I tried to figure out what to do. I remembered something Daddy once said after getting laid off, “Us Cartwrights know a thing or two about hard times. When we have hard times, we make ourselves hard, and just get on through ‘em.”

I calmed myself down with a few deep breaths, got myself steady. I told Mama and Uncle Cord that I’d get shovels out of the shed and we’d bury the food in the backyard. Then, we’d scrub everything. They both nodded yes. My confidence surged.

*

All morning and afternoon, we dug a few deep holes. Once they were dug, we used wheelbarrows to get the food outside. Some of it wriggled with maggots and Mama yarfed a few times into grocery sacks she’d stuffed in the waistband of her jeans. But she kept going.

I was real proud of her.

After all the disgusting food was gone, we hefted the deep freeze. This time, it came right up off the floor, felt about as light as a coffee table, and we easily got it outside and into one of the holes. We covered it over and trudged inside to scrub the living room with bleach. All the windows were open and a strong crossbreeze cleared most of the smell out. The house felt less like a depressing jail than it had in over a year, all clean and clutter-free. Everyone’s spirits were lifted after we’d each showered and Daddy finally woke up, cracking jokes in his usual way and grabbing Mama around the waist, dancing her around the kitchen. I hadn’t seen that woman so happy in a long time.

Then I found Buster’s ear by his food bowl.

Enough time has passed that I don’t bawl anymore when I think about what happened that night. But it’s still real hard. I tell myself I did what needed doing.

Mostly, I believe it.

My hands trembling, I followed a trail of claws and fur to the space under my bed, where Buster wheezed. He was having a hard time breathing.

I was horrified. I cried and called to him, “Here, boy. Come here, boy.”

Finally, he crawled out and laid his head on my lap. What looked like really bad mange covered his body. As I stroked his head, fur came off in tufts. I stifled a scream when I rubbed behind his remaining ear and the whole thing plopped into my palm. I threw it across the room and it hit my wall with a soft thump before rolling to the floor, where it laid on my carpet like a small creature. Buster started whining and wouldn’t stop no matter how much I kissed him, fur sticking to my lips.

Mama shrieked from the kitchen.

Putting down Buster’s head as gently and quickly as I could, I leapt up and sprinted toward my family.

In the kitchen, Mama leaned far back against the counter, her arms propped behind her as if she meant to heave herself up. She was fixed in place from fright. Following her line of sight, I saw why.

At the table sat Uncle Cord and Daddy as they always had, except Uncle Cord was stone silent and one of Daddy’s arms and one of his legs were on the floor along with a large peel of shredded skin. I could tell he was in a lot of pain, though he wasn’t making a sound. He had the same look on his face that he had when his appendix burst as they were wheeling him in to surgery—only way worse, his mouth stretched open in a silent scream.

I couldn’t look at him anymore, so I turned away.

Managing to get out the words, “Out. Side. Now,” I wasn’t understanding why he wanted to go outside in his state, but Uncle Cord and I shouldered Daddy to the back door anyway. We opened it, and what felt like a polar blast roared in. I didn’t have my coat on, but I didn’t care. Out the back door and down the steps we went, Daddy hopping on his one remaining leg.

It was full dark and the frigid wind buffeted our bodies. I didn’t want Daddy to know I was crying, so I didn’t sniffle or whimper. He was in a whole lot more pain than I was, nearly passing out every time a blast of wind whipped us. With all my might, I helped hold him up as we made our way through the yard.

Daddy finally leaned against a stack of old crates in the shed as the winter gales outside continued their angry beat against the walls. It was chilly in the shed, but I was sweating. With his one good arm Daddy petted Buster, who Uncle Cord had carried in. Then Uncle Cord had left to the house because Daddy told him to.

There wasn’t much remaining of Daddy and Buster, and it was hard for me to look at them. Buster’s tail and three remaining legs had fallen off as Uncle Cord brought him from the house. The little fur and skin left on Buster was peeling as if he was a potato, and his muscle had started to chunk off like hunks of salmon in the dirt. The bones underneath were stark in the gloom. Keening piteously, he tried to raise his head to look at me. I didn’t know how to help him.

Daddy’s last leg had unattached while he was sitting there. He turned what was left of his face toward me, a few pieces of skin hanging off in strips, the muscle underneath a marbled steak of bright red shot through with white.

I wished he hadn’t turned my way.

When he opened his teeth and talked, it was so the worst, like having a conversation with Death.

“In. the. closet. Get. it.” Each word sent anguish through him, though they were no more than whispers, and he doubled over. When he recovered, he gazed at me like he was trying to light me on fire.

I cast my eyes down and shook my head. I knew it. I knew when he asked us to bring him to the shed what he wanted. Hot tears coursed down my cheeks and I swiped them away. I knew what he wanted, but I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t. It wasn’t fair.

But I also knew Daddy was stubborn as hell when he made up his mind. I took in a few ragged breaths and met his gaze.

“Now. Sari.” He groaned, and his meat-face twisted. He had no skin anymore to show me his suffering, only muscle spasms.

Then he moved his head like he wanted me to come over. I reluctantly came in closer and bent down.

With great difficulty, he croaked, “Do. It. Sarin-” Right then, his tongue flew out of his mouth as if propelled by some force and hit me on the cheek, and dropped in the dirt like a slimy dog turd. I screamed and Daddy grunted and pawed at his mouth. Buster wailed.

I jerked away and hurtled myself toward the trailer.

Inside, I breathed hard, my heart pummeling my chest like a boxing bag. The trailer was a tilt-a-whirl. I broke out in a cold sweat. I leaned my forehead against the entry mirror, forcing my lungs full and empty until my body calmed.

Pushing away from my mirror face, I noticed Mama and Uncle Cord standing in the living room, looking nervous and scared. Mama was wringing her hands and Uncle Cord had his own in his pockets and was rocking back and forth on his heels.

“Are you ok, Biscuit?” Mama murmured, wetness crashing in her eyes like tiny seas threatening to submerge the geography of her face.

“Yes. I’ll be ok.” I told Mama not to go in the shed and she nodded, her pink helpless-piglet cheeks wiggling at me.

I headed straight for the closet and found the case in the far back, behind smaller shoes Mama said she’d fit back in once she lost the extra weight. I had to push through some of Daddy’s shirts. I caught a faint whiff of his aftershave and had to steady myself against the back wall so I didn’t fall over.

Reminding myself that Daddy and Buster needed my help, I opened the oiled leather lid of the case. I stared at the metal, its silver gleam and swirling scrollwork around the stock. It stared back at me.

This had been my Granddaddy’s shotgun, then my Daddy’s, and now I was claiming it. I was a girl, but I was more man than any Cartwright left alive.

I picked up the gun.

It was lighter than I remembered. Loading two shells in the chamber and clicking it closed, I turned on my heel and headed for the back door.

Standing on the porch, gun in hand, I surveyed our yard and steadied my resolve, bracing against the squall trying to blow me back inside where it was warm. A corner of the deep freeze jutted out of the ground and leered at me. I had willed my voice to return, but I’d brought these terrible things on my family.

There was no going back.

I envisioned me, Mama, and Uncle Cord in a new backyard, a yard with a large garden full of beans, corn, cantaloupe. Me and Mama tending to them. Uncle Cord buffing his shiny new camper.

And no goddamn haunted deep freeze.

These things would come to pass.

Willing the soft, weak spot in me to harden, I straightened myself up, swung the shotgun, and felt its solid smack across the flat of my forearm. Felt its cold pierce my heart.

I strode down the porch steps, fighting against nature’s din to do what was necessary.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

H. L. Nelson is founding editor of Cease, Cows. Her publications include Nightmare, The Big Click, [PANK], and others. Her story “A Creature Comes Home” was chosen by Kevin Brockmeier for The Masters Review Volume IV anthology. The dark fiction anthology she co-edited, Choose Wisely: 35 Women Up to No Good (Upper Rubber Boot Books), is available now. It includes stories by Joyce Carol Oates, Aimee Bender, Rachel Swirsky, and other badass women. H. L. lives in Dallas (and detests country music and football) with her musician husband, two whirlwind boys, and Scruffy the corgi pup. Check out her site: hlnelson.com

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