Fiction by Ronnie K. Stephens
Billy and I climbed up onto one of the many large hay bales dottin’ the west pasture. The tight swirl of golden grass looked somethin’ like a fat slice of pumpkin roll in the risin’ sun. It was plenty wide for the two of us to stretch our legs out and scan the fields. Barbed-wire fences marked the property lines on all sides.
I snapped off a piece of the hay and began to chew it. Rays of orange and pink bounced off the mornin’ dew that still glazed each bale. Hay always smells the best at dawn, when it’s just a little damp and startin’ to warm up. It’s an odd smell, hard to describe. Kind of like the smell of molasses and barley. The only real way to understand is to taste it. For me, it tastes like home.
“Sun’s almost up,” Billy said, breakin’ the silence.
“Gonna be a hot one.”
“Reckon Uncle Amos’ll let us go down to the lake this afternoon?”
“Well, we ain’t got but one or two loads this mornin’. Let’s git to it and see if we cain’t finish early.”
“Race ya to the barn,” Billy hollered, jumpin’ from the bale and landin’ with a thud.
“Nah,” I replied, but Billy was already runnin’ hard as he could. I took off after him, careful to avoid the cow patties scattered like mines. Nothin’s worse than startin’ off yer work day with that sour mash all over yer jeans. I caught up to Billy just as we reached the barn. It was a big, bright red barn with a Texas flag painted on the loft door. From the road the flag looked real, seemed almost to ripple in the wind.
I always gave Amos a hard time for paintin’ the damn thing red. “Are we makin’ sure the folks drivin’ by know we’re true country?” I used to ask. Not that anybody wondered. In the front lawn were piles of cow skulls and old saw blades. Amos painted western scenes and sold ’em either to the ones holdin’ on to their roots or to the city folk that got lost and happened by.
“Whaddaya make of ’im?” Billy asked, pointin’ to the boar Jack had given to us a few weeks ago. Jack had caught him diggin’ up roots in the garden, but he didn’t have a pen free to keep him in. Jack lived just up the road and came by most every day to chat with Amos and feed the pig.
“I make some ham and bacon for breakfast, ribs for dinner, and pot roast for supper. Why? Whadda you make of him?”
“Billy? Jimmy?” another voice called. “You two down there?”
“Yessir, Uncle Amos,” I replied.
“Well, git on up here and help me with these bales.”
“Yessir,” Billy said, as we each took hold of a wooden ladder and climbed up. “How many loads we got today?”
“Two gotta be hauled down to Rebecca’s place, and Jack said he could use a few bales.”
“If we git done early can we knock off and head to the lake for a night?” I asked, takin’ hold of a bale and tossin’ it to the pile below. The bales we delivered were much smaller than the ones in the pasture. Each was about three feet long, a foot and a half or so tall, and two feet wide. Two thick, metal wires were wrapped around each bale near the middle. They only weighed about fifty pounds, but the wire had a funny way of cuttin’ deeper and deeper into my hands as I worked.
“That sounds all right,” Amos replied.
It took about an hour to toss the bales down from the loft and git ’em situated on the trailer. By the time Billy and I crawled on top of the stack, my palms were red and too stiff to straighten. Amos hollered for us to hold on and started up the drive to Rebecca’s. She was snappin’ peas and green beans when we pulled up.
“Hi, boys,” she said with a smile. “Got my hay, I see.”
“Yes, ma’am. Well, the first load, anyhow. Where ya want it?” Billy replied.
“Oh, just put it in the barn out past the pond, like usual.”
The dirt path to the barn was rough, and we had to stop a few times to fetch a bale that bounced off. Amos backed the trailer up to the gapin’ door, and we hopped off. It was an old, makeshift barn. The sides and roof were nothin’ but corrugated tin. A tunnel split the barn in two with a few stalls on one side and a pile o’ feed on the other.
“Jus’ stack ’em nice next to them bags o’ feed, boys,” Amos told us.
Unloadin’ always went much faster, and we managed to empty the trailer in about twenty minutes. We drove back through the pasture to the road.
“You boys want some tea or anything before you get that other load?” Rebecca asked.
“Thank ya, ma’am, but we’d just as soon git it done. Maybe after the next load,” I replied.
“I’m going to hold you to it, Jimmy.”
“All right. Be back in a little while.”
Amos pulled onto the road and drove back down to our place. Once parked, we set to work with the next load. Exhaustion had us draggin’, but it got done pretty quick.
After unloadin’ the trailer a second time, Rebecca stayed true to her word. She ushered us into the house, where she’d set out some iced tea and a few slices of pie.
“Rebecca, you didn’t ha — ” Amos started.
“I didn’t,” Rebecca interrupted. “Kelly did.”
“Is Kelly back?” I asked.
“Now, wait a minute. We’re goin’ to the lake tonight. Don’t you go gettin’ any ideas,” Billy cut in.
“Yes, Jimmy, she’s back,” Rebecca answered, smilin’. “She ought to be here a while, though, so you just go on out with Billy tonight.”
“You tell her I’ll be by to see her come Sunday, all right?”
Kelly was Rebecca’s daughter. She was the prettiest girl in these parts and the first to leave for college. She was about five-foot-seven with long legs and plenty of tone. Her face was bright and her green eyes piercin’ against the pale skin. Auburn hair usually hung from a loose ponytail, and she was always in an old pair of cut-off jeans. She was no stranger to work, either. You could always find her fetchin’ eggs in the chicken coop or pickin’ vegetables in the garden. ’Course that was before she left. I hadn’t seen her in almost a year.
“Jimmy!” Billy shouted.
“Oh, sorry, must have zoned out,” I said, as I noticed Billy and Amos standin’ at the door.
I could hear the phone ringin’ as we walked out onto the porch and toward the truck. Rebecca shouted somethin’ and ran after us.
“What? What’s wrong?”
“It’s Jack!” she said, wavin’ the phone at Amos. “It’s the pig! He got loose! He’s in the chicken coop!”
Billy and I ran to the truck, loosened the hitch, backed the trailer a few feet from the truck, and hopped into the bed. Amos jumped into the cab and hit the engine. We tore out, gravel flyin’, and swerved onto the road. Billy slid open the back window and reached in. He came up with two shotguns.
“Make sure them things is loaded,” Amos hollered.
“Yessir. We got it. So much for campin’ tonight,” Billy said, lookin’ at me.
“Hell, we can go campin’ any night. We’re havin’ some ribs tonight!”
Billy threw one of the guns to me and cocked the other. I checked to see if mine was loaded and cocked it. Within minutes, we were barrelin’ down our own gravel driveway toward the barn. Over the sound of rocks crunchin’, we could hear chickens squawkin’. Jack was runnin’ back from the house, gun in hand.
“Son of a bitch chewed through the damn chicken wire and went straight for the coop!” he yelled to us. Amos turned and screeched to a halt just in front of the coop. Billy and I raised the shotguns and searched for clean shots.
“Hit ’im in the head, boys. Dontcha go ruinin’ that meat!” Amos ordered.
“Damn chickens are in the way!”
“Shoot ’em. Better to kill a few than let that bastard kill ’em all!”
I fired. The bullet made a sickenin’ thud as it stuck near the boar’s ear. Billy fired a shot that stuck in its snout. Neither bullet slowed the damn thing, so we each took aim again. My second shot hit ’im in the jaw. I could hear bone crack over the ringin’ in my ears. It apparently pissed the pig off ’cause he turned toward the truck and lowered his head. Billy fired. A hole exploded between the boar’s eyes. He swayed a bit. I fired another shot. This one made a similar hole an inch or so from Billy’s.
“What the hell is this pig made of? Got an iron fuckin’ skull!” I hollered.
“Hang on a minute. Look at ’im. He’s goin’. Watch it. Look at ’im stumble! Wooo doggie!” Jack yelled, as the pig hit the ground. He was covered in dirt, blood, and feathers.
Amos took a rock and threw it at the pig. It hit the belly and bounced off. “He’s dead. Billy, gimme yer knife,” Amos said. We hopped from the truck and walked into the coop. Through the dust, we could see the carnage. The boar had managed to open up five or six chickens. The rest were in a frenzy, cacklin’ and flappin’ around the tiny room. Billy handed the buck knife to Amos. He flipped it open and stuck it into the pig’s belly. The skin was tough. It sounded like a burlap sack bein’ torn open as Amos dragged the blade the length of the stomach. Insides poured onto the dirt. “Jimmy, git a shovel. Clean this mess up. Jack, help me with this thing. We’ll hang ’im up in the shop. I got a hook over there.”
I ran to grab a shovel and five-gallon bucket, while Jack and Amos carried the carcass to the shop, tied his hind legs together, and hung ’im up. It didn’t take long to get the guts and dead chickens scooped up. Billy ran a hose into the coop and sprayed the bloody dirt down. I looked over to see the carcass already skinned. They were hangin’ more hooks from the rafters to hold the meat as they cut it up.
“Reckon we oughta git a bonfire started and invite Rebecca over?” I asked Amos.
“You mean Rebecca and Kelly?” he replied, laughin’.
“Well, ain’t no reason to leave her out, I guess. Sure, I’ll invite her, too.” All three laughed. “All right, now. Cut it out. Bet she got a man in the city, anyhow.”
“Ain’t no city boy gonna keep ahold o’ that girl, and you know it.”
“Hope not,” I said, grinnin’. “I’ll git a pile built and then run out to Rebecca’s.”
Amos tossed me the keys, and I headed for the truck. We always kept scrap wood near the trash pit, so I drove through the field and pulled up. Once the bed was full, I headed toward the house. A cone of charred wood marked the spot of our last bonfire. I positioned the wood around it, then hopped back into the truck and drove to Rebecca’s.
“Jimmy! Did you get it? Did you kill it?” Rebecca shouted as I pulled up.
“Yes, ma’am. Got into the coop, but it didn’t get too many chickens ’fore we took it down.”
“We’re cookin’ up the ribs tonight. Gonna git a bonfire goin’ after dark. Sure love it if you and Kelly’d join us.”
“Well that sounds nice. Why don’t you run in and see what Kelly thinks?”
“Yes, ma’am.” I walked toward the house. My palms went to sweatin’ in a hurry, and my heart was poundin’ clear through my chest. I knocked on the door.
“Come in,” a sweet voice called. It was Southern, sure, but Rebecca and Kelly had a finer way’a speakin’ than most folks. Educated-like. Clean. I opened the door to see Kelly hangin’ a picture in the livin’ room.
“He — hey, Kelly.”
“Jimmy!” she squealed, turnin’ and runnin’ toward me. She threw her arms around me in a monster bear hug. Lord, I hope she didn’t feel my heart thumpin’. “How have you been?”
“Doin’ all right, I reckon.”
That’s when I noticed her belly.
“What is it, Jimmy?” she asked.
“Are — are you pregnant?”
Her eyes went wide. I could almost hear the wind get sucked out of her. Her smile deflated, and she fixed her stare on the floor. “Is it that noticeable?”
“Well, no. I mean, just a little bit’a belly, but I ain’t never seen ya not toned up.”
Kelly sighed. “Let’s not talk about that right now. Tell me what you’ve been up to.”
“Kelly, you cain’t expect me to sit here and act like you ain’t pregnant. Look at yer belly!”
“Jimmy — ”
“Who is he? You two gettin’ hitched? Come on, gimme the details!” I could see water wellin’ up in her eyes. I walked to her and put my arms back around her. “Kelly? What’s wrong? You always wanted kids. You oughta be excited! How long you and this boy been together?”
“Jimmy, I’m not with the father. I haven’t been with anyone since I left.”
“Well, how in the hell you git knocked up, then?”
“All right, all right. I came over to invite you and Rebecca to a bonfire tonight. We’re smokin’ some ribs and such for supper.”
“That sounds great,” Kelly replied, wipin’ a tear from her eye.
“You know Amos and the boys are gonna wanna know what happened, too.”
“Tell you what,” I said, liftin’ her chin to meet my gaze, “I’ll talk to ’em. Tell ’em not to ask ya any questions just yet.”
“My pleasure. Cain’t stand to see you hurtin’ like this.” I kissed her forehead. “I’ll see ya tonight.”
“Okay,” she said, tryin’ to smile.
I walked out of the house and headed for the truck again. My mind was racin’ ’bout a mile a minute. Didn’t even hear Rebecca callin’ after me ’til I was already in the cab.
“You all right?”
“I guess. You know what happened to Kelly?”
“Yes,” she said, droppin’ her gaze in similar fashion.
“You’ll have to let her tell you, Jimmy. We’ll see you tonight, okay?”
“Yes ma’am. Come hungry.” I fired up the engine and pulled back onto the road.
Once home, I got cleaned up and set to shuckin’ some corn for the grill. Amos went to Jack’s place to help Jack load up the big smoker and get the ribs goin’. I started butterin’ the ears of corn and wrappin’ ’em in foil ’bout the time Amos and Jack got back with the smoker.
“What’d ya need that thing for?” I yelled, peerin’ through the screen door.
“B’th’time Billy filled ours with wood t’weren’t no room for meat,” Amos answered. “Rebecca bringin’ some o’ them rolls she makes so good?”
“Didn’t ask, but I ain’t never seen her show up without ’em.”
Once all the corn was wrapped up, I set ’em aside and got to peelin’ taters. Billy was supposed to help, but he always had a funny way o’ disappearin’ when it came time to cook. He sure turned up quick when it was time to eat, though. I cut the taters into strips and piled ’em up to fry a little later. With all the prep done, my mind went back to Kelly. For the life o’ me I just couldn’t figure out what was goin’ on. I didn’t have too much time to wonder, though, ’cause Rebecca and Kelly showed up about thirty minutes later.
“Knock, knock,” Rebecca called from the front room.
“Come on in,” I replied, walkin’ out of the kitchen. “Amos is gettin’ cleaned up. Not sure where Billy run off to.”
“Oh, I’m sure we’ll find him when the fire gets started.”
“Haha. I don’t doubt it.”
“I brought some rolls to go with supper.”
“Thought you might. Amos’ll be mighty happy. Looks like the sun is startin’ to set. Ribs oughta be done in about an hour. I’ll go get the bonfire lit.”
“I’ll come with you,” Kelly said, followin’ me out the back. “Jimmy, I want to talk to you before things get going.”
“All right,” I said, sprayin’ the pile with gasoline and tossin’ a match into the middle. Flames were lickin’ up almost immediately. “You wanna take a walk?”
“Sure.” She followed me through the gate and into the pasture. We didn’t talk much while we walked. Wasn’t none o’ that uncomfortable stuff, just quiet. I headed for one of the bigger bales. “I forgot how beautiful the sunsets are out here.”
“That ain’t somethin’ ya oughta forget. Gotta hold on to that sorta thing,” I said, helpin’ her up on the bale and climbin’ up myself. “Betcha ain’t seen them stars in a long time, either.”
“Can’t say that I have. It’s been far too long, actually.”
“So what’d ya wanna talk about?”
“This,” Kelly said, rubbin’ her belly.
She paused for a long time.
“Kelly, you wasn’t raped, was ya?”
“Oh, no, nothing like that.”
“Well, what happened?”
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you earlier. I guess I’m just ashamed.”
Kelly sighed. “About two months ago, I was out with some friends, and I met a guy,” she said, starin’ into the sky.
“Thought you said you ain’t had no guys?”
“I haven’t. At least, I haven’t had any relationships.”
“You sayin’ you went home with that guy?”
“Kelly, that don’t sound like somethin’ you’d do.”
“What’s his name?”
“John, I think.”
“To tell you the truth, I don’t remember much about that night.”
“Have you talked to him since?”
“So he don’t know about this?” I asked, moving my hand to her belly.
“Well, hell, Kelly, whatcha gonna do?”
“I don’t know. I mean, I know I’m keeping it, but I’m not real sure how I’m going to support it. My dad’s going to kill me when he finds out.”
“When’s he due back?”
“About two weeks. I just know he’s going to tell me to get out. He can’t have a pregnant daughter with no husband. Not around here.”
“What about yer mom?”
“There’s not much she can do.”
“Where will you go?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t figured that out yet.”
I sat there for a long time searchin’ for some kinda solution. “Marry me,” I finally said.
“Are you crazy?”
“Maybe. But I know I love you. Always have.”
“Jimmy, we’ve never even kissed. Never dated. Never — ”
I leaned in and kissed her. “Now we’ve kissed. Got a bonfire goin’. How ’bout a first date?”
“Jimmy — ”
“Kelly, you know me as good as anybody, and I know you. I ain’t got much, but I’ll do ya good and help ya through this.”
“Come on. Let’s get that date started. You can decide about the gettin’ hitched later.” We hopped down from the bale and headed back, hand in hand.
“What should I tell the boys when they ask about my belly?”
“Ah, shoot, I forgot to talk to ’em. Hmm. Tell ’em yer pregnant, but ya don’t wanna talk about it.”
“And who do I say the father is?”
“I was away for a bit a couple months ago. Tell ’em it’s me.”
“God, you really are nuts.”
“I ain’t never been accused o’ havin’ much sense,” I said, grinnin’.
B’th’ time Kelly and I found our way back to the bonfire, the sun’d dang near disappeared behind the barn. This, and a little help from Rebecca, helped Kelly play off the bit o’ belly the boys noticed as a little extra meat on account o’ no chores in the city. “Now, Amos, I know she’s put on a little weight, but that isn’t any way for a gentleman to talk to a lady,” Rebecca said. Boy, you oughta seen Amos’ face, turned red as that silly-ass barn in a hurry.
Supper was fit for a cowboy king; ’specially them ribs. Amos cooked ’em just right; pink enough in the middle and so tender you could pull ’em plumb off the bone. After we all had our fill, Jack fetched his guitar and played old country songs for a while. Billy and I took turns spinnin’ Kelly ’round the fire while Amos and Rebecca talked. ’Bout the time the flames were startin’ to die down, Kelly motioned me to take a walk down toward the hen house.
“I had a good time tonight,” she said, once we were a bit from the others.
“Ain’t much better’n a night like this.”
“You’re right about that.”
“See there. First kiss was good, first date was good. Whatcha got to worry ’bout?” I joked.
“Jimmy — ”
“Now, listen. I know ya think I’m nuts, and maybe I am, but ain’t nothin’ in life for certain. Ya just gotta run with it. I know that much.”
“Do you realize what you’re asking me?”
“’Course I realize. I wanted you my whole life, Kelly, and when ya left, I went half insane. You been my best friend since I can remember. Ain’t that what marryin’ is about? Gettin’ to wake up with yer best friend every mornin’ and fall asleep with’er every night?”
“So what are you so worried about? Gotta seize the moment. ‘Carpa Dayum’ and all that jazz.”
Kelly chuckled. “What would my father say?”
“He’ll probably chase me ’round town for a few hours, but he’ll tucker out and slow down. Then, we can talk some sense into ’im.”
“Who’s going to talk sense into us?”
“I made it this far without it. I reckon I can make it a little farther.”
“You really want to marry me?”
“Yes, ma’am.” I knelt down to pick up a few pieces o’ straw and started weavin’ ’em together. Billy and I passed a lotta days twistin’ hay ’round everythin’ we could get our hands on. I figured this’un oughta make a nice little ring. “Kelly Parker, will you marry me?”
“Why the hell not,” she said with a smile. We walked through the gate and down toward the lake.
“Look at them stars,” I said. “They don’t shine like that for city folk.”
“No, they sure don’t.”
A coyote howled in the distance. Shortly after, another answered. Then another. Pretty soon the whole pack of ’em was jabberin’ up a storm. I cocked my head back and let out the best howl I could muster. ’Course Kelly followed with a much better one. She was always like that. Better’n me, I mean. I knew it. Her daddy knew it. Everybody knew it but her.
The 2014 Luminaire Award for Best Prose
We are pleased to announce this story as a finalist for the 2014 Luminaire Award for Best Prose, honoring the independent press’ best short stories and hybrid prose works of the year. The winners are selected by an external panel that judges all pieces blindly and selects the full list of 12 finalists from hundreds of entries. Alternating Current does not determine the final outcome for the judging; the external judges’ decisions are final.
Ronnie K. Stephens writes poems on his refrigerator every morning. He wrangles teenagers for a living and sometimes convinces them to turn their poems into new pennies after school. The word victim is constantly challenged in his writing. The only math he knows is balance. If it’s not equal, it’s not finished. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Rattle, Paper Darts, Weave Magazine, DASH, and PANK, among others.
This story was originally published on Go Read Your Lunch on 6/10/13.