Somehow, he lives. Fifty-six years after the explosion, what should have been the end of his story. The fight has all run out of him and his mind is gone, each step slow and hitching up the long gravel drive from motor home to house, a plastic gallon jug in hand, clear liquid sloshing inside. Leather boots laced tight over a pair of threadbare chinos. The old crescent ax dangles from his belt, its moon-shaped blade honed sharp again, though he can barely lift it, let alone swing it. Up the board steps, onto the farmhouse porch, where the door has long been nailed shut with old planks from the barn. With the tip of the ax, he struggles each board loose. When at last the heavy door swings inward, the house almost seems to give out a sigh. A moldy death rattle.
Inside, Redfern stops at the rotary phone on the hall table, hooks out 9–1–1 with a gnarled finger. To the dispatcher, he says, “It’s the goddamn Hindenburg out at Redfern Hill. Whole place is going up. Best send a truck.” He doesn’t wait for an answer, just drops the receiver in the cradle and walks to the map room at the end of the foyer, where he works his way into the junk, years upon years of garbage and forgotten things, the crinkled, rolled maps he once drew. Above his old oak desk, the twin crosscut saws bare their rusted teeth. A long time ago, they felled the trees that framed this house. He stands in the center of the room and takes it in, one last time. No sentiment, just weariness. He will not be sorry to see it burn.
He looks down at the jug in his trembling hand. No gloves today. No gloves ever again. The scars and the mottled, waxlike fingers are a remembrance of the one brave act he ever committed. Today, please God, he will be brave again. He will not fail. He thumbs the plastic cap from the jug, and the oily, piney smell of turpentine fills the room.
Beneath the floorboards, in the darkness of the root cellar, a faint, sickly light begins to stir.
He upturns the jug of turpentine over his head, the liquid spilling over his thin white pate, his ears, washing into his eyes. He cries out, his throat a rusty hinge, and fumbles a single kitchen match from his shirt pocket and, with clumsy fingers, strikes it on his thumbnail.
Below him, the light brightens, glitters like the sea, shot through with sun.
Nigh a century you’ve been here, old friend, old enemy, old god upon your throne of dirt and blood. Your voice, the wind in the pines to me. Are you weak from all these lean years of hunger, ill fed on possums and rats, snakes and toads? Will you beg me now, when you speak my name? Oh, if I had more time, I’d starve you right out of the goddamned earth—
The match flares between Redfern’s fingers, as out of the heaps of old furniture and twisted-up paper and columns of musty books, it rises, a dark blur coalescing into blue gingham and brown curls, those eyes like glowing sapphires, smell of pine and loam. It speaks: “Papa.”
A voice that breaks loose a lifetime of guilt and shame, like shards of glass in his chest.
“Have you come to hurt me, Papa?”
“You are not my child!” he cries, but still, the match flame wavers, as Redfern’s legs begin to tremble.
Creak of wood as the thing before him soughs and sighs, reaches out with a small, pale hand.
The match gutters.
The hand wavers just beyond his grizzled cheek and he feels the warmth of it.
A hungry heat.
He drops to his knees and in an instant its hands are no longer hands, its face something slick and wet. It’s unraveling, reknitting itself, little brown shoots that creep and grow, thin as monofilament. Licking tenderly at what few patches of his old man’s skin aren’t wet with turpentine, searching for a chink, a weak spot. Its blue eyes fusing into one, as Redfern opens his mouth to curse it, one last time, but suddenly, he has no air, no breath with which to scream, because his throat is full of plunging, eager tongues.
He fumbles at the ax, works it free of his belt, but it only clatters to the floor, one more piece of him gone, now, here in this room, where all charts and fortunes have led. Choking, he’s choking, he cannot breathe, he—
A light flares, blue and big as the sea. Filling the room as Redfern’s skull explodes with the sound of crashing waves and the high-pitched scream of gulls, and time becomes a collapsing star, a folded map. A tide washing in, washing out. He convulses. Feels a snarling in his chest cavity, searching out the seat of his regret—
(it was not supposed to end this way it was always going to end this way)
—where shoots with nodes, nodes with tendrils, tendrils with teeth that chew and chew and chew expand, bloom, and there is darkness now, at the edges of his sight. He closes his eyes, seeks out a memory. A girl of sixteen wearing an old cotton shirt and jeans, traipsing after him in a man’s boots through dense woods and wire grass to that dark and rotten place that is the source of all his family’s suffering. She is his granddaughter, sad and lonely and strong, and his final thought is her name.
Its teeth find the center of him.
From hell’s heart, to his own: no great distance, in the end.
Nellie Gardner stiffens in the lawyer’s plush chair and thinks: Condescending prick.
Meadows rears back a behind a massive cherry desk, hands clasped at the base of his neck. He wears a gold watch and a short-sleeved pink polo and a pair of pleated khakis. Boat shoes, no socks. He smiles at her from a round, red face, knowing the answer to his question, which only makes his having asked it all the more infuriating.
“No,” she says, plucking at a torn thread on the knee of her jeans. “My husband won’t be joining us.”
“Just you and the boy then.”
In the waiting room, through the open door, Max—mop of brown hair, big hazel eyes, red Batman T-shirt—sits by a picture window, a Reader’s Digest from the coffee table open in his lap: “I Survived a Great White Shark Attack.” Behind him, through the window, the town square is empty and the sun falls in golden sheets over the courthouse steps.
Nellie crosses her leg over her knee. “Just us,” she says. Picking at the rubber heel of her high-top sneaker—
Wade, always in her head.
She moves her hand to her lap, anchors it to the other. Doesn’t even think about it.
“How old is your son?”
“That’s just the best age, isn’t it?” The lawyer reaches a framed picture from his desk, hands it to her. “I’ve got two.”
Nellie pretends to be interested: Meadows in full camouflage with a scoped hunting rifle, hunkered in a pickup bed over a big buck, two boys seated on the tailgate, round apple cheeks thumb-smeared with blood, the deer’s head sprung between them.
The lawyer’s eyes, like two black ticks, crawl over her. He sees a girl—women are always girls to men like Meadows, Nellie thinks—long limbed and hollow eyed, peroxided hair going dark at the roots. Sleeve of a denim jacket riding up to flash the beginnings of a long white scar above her left wrist. She hands the picture back, smiling.
“One thousand thirty-three acres,” he says. “Be a chunk of change if you were to sell.” He rummages in a drawer for a Starlight mint. Doesn’t offer her one. The peppermint clicks and clacks in his mouth. “To be frank, Mrs. Gardner, the house needs work. Your grandfather hadn’t lived in it for over twenty years.”
“He was still on the property, though?”
“That’s right. The Winnebago. Conditions there, well, they weren’t much better.”
“It so happens”—Meadows tears a piece of paper from a pad on his desk—“there is a highly motivated party who would like to make you an offer, whether you plan to sell or not.” He scratches out some numbers in pencil on a paper, then passes the note to her.
Nellie stares at it, poker-faced. She counts the zeros twice. Calmly, she pushes the offer away and speaks slowly, carefully, keeping the tremor from her voice: “I know it’s strange, Mr. Meadows, but for some reason, my grandfather wanted me to have Redfern Hill. I don’t think—”
“Have you considered property taxes? Won’t be cheap, that much acreage. There’s also the issue of land management. Forests like that require a certain vigilance to maintain their value. As for the house itself, the wiring’s ancient. I know the coal furnace was replaced with butane about thirty years back, but I can’t speak to the plumbing. And there is no air-conditioning, not even a window unit. Summer in Georgia? Just the money you’ll have to sink into the place to make it livable, you’ll burn through the cash he left you”—Meadows snaps his fingers—“like that.”
Max looks up over the Reader’s Digest.
“Fifty thousand dollars may seem like a fortune, but it really isn’t.”
Nellie swallows, face flushing red.
“Even your grandfather was scraping by, Mrs. Gardner. Living on peanut butter and saltine crackers. What you didn’t inherit, he sold off piecemeal, five, ten acres here, twenty acres there.”
“To your highly motivated party?”
Meadows smiles thinly, and the smile does not reach his eyes. He breathes deeply, folds his hands together over his blotter. “Corporations, mostly. I don’t know how much you know, but Mr. Redfern was not … well, a popular man here in Empire. Historically. I don’t mean to be indelicate, but a lot of bad blood got spilled early in his career, between landowners like your grandfather and certain folks around here who, let’s just say, didn’t think the terms of their agreements were fair.”
Meadows takes up his pen. He crosses out the old offer, writes a new one in its place. This time, he doesn’t bother to pass the paper back, just holds it up so she can read it. “That’s more than fair, ma’am. That’s generous.”
She drops her leg from her knee and sits forward in her chair. “You have keys for me.”
Meadows moves the peppermint around in his mouth, breathes heavily for a space of ten, fifteen seconds.
She waits him out.
He smacks the slip of paper with his middle finger. Crumples it, throws it in the trash. From a desk drawer he passes her a brown manila envelope, REDFERN KEYS printed in black Sharpie across the seal.
“There are no copies?”
He smiles thinly, cracks his mint between his molars. Ignores the question. “Should be the house, RV, plus a gate or two on the property. The main gate, you have to jiggle it a little bit.”
In the waiting room, Max tosses his Reader’s Digest back onto a pile.
Meadows’s high-backed executive chair creaks as he pushes out of it. “Sorry I can’t drive out with you.” He glances at his watch. “Truth be told, I’m late for supper. But I went out this morning, made sure everything was switched on.”
I bet you did, Nellie thinks. Had a nice long look around, too, didn’t you? On behalf of your interested party. She offers her hand. “Thank you, Mr. Meadows. We’ll manage.”
The lawyer makes no secret of taking in, one last time, the scar that begins crosswise at Nellie’s bangled wrist.
He shakes her hand limply. “Welcome home, Mrs. Gardner.”
* * *
The Ranger rattles past a nail salon, a consignment store, a barber’s pole, still and dark. A shuttered movie theater, on its side a sun-faded mural, the town’s history mapped on cracked brick. A lumber mill with a huge whirling saw. So many pine trees. A family is picnicking on the banks, and Max twists in his seat: the father is stern faced and his hands are fists, his belt undone; the mother sits slump shouldered in a dowdy dress. On the blanket before her, like a beetle on its back, a diapered baby, screaming. The mother stares off, across the river, at the whirling blades of the saw.
“‘Mrs. Gardner,’” Nellie says.
They pass an Amoco with broken windows and Nellie points and says she used to buy cigarettes there, after school.
“How old were you?” Max asks.
“Not old enough.”
A cluster of mobile homes drifts past, backyard clotheslines still as death. A boy in a weed-split parking lot bounces a red, white, and blue basketball. Rusting cotton trailers snagged with rotten cotton. Wrecks in driveways, pink and green asbestos siding, little tin awnings. A stand of concrete-block apartments where a woman in a housecoat sits on her porch, shelling peas into a bowl.
Soon, they pass out of Empire into a patchwork of farmland and pine thickets, a world made molten by the dipping sun.
Max wilts into his seat, thinking of home back in South Carolina, how it is not home anymore. He thinks of his stuff in the pickup’s bed, as much as they were able to carry: a suitcase full of clothes, a laundry basket wrapped in a black trash bag and filled with G.I. Joe and Star Wars toys, a plastic Batmobile, a collection of Little Golden Books. Lord of the Rings paperbacks and a dozen cheap movie novelizations he’s read three times over. In a cardboard box, the lid taped with silver duct tape, a stack of spiral-bound Meads dotted with stickers from movies and cartoons. A sketchbook and pencil box. A Swiss Army knife. A Panasonic VCR trailing cables and half a dozen TK 120 tapes labeled in his own small, adult hand. The Karate Kid. Gremlins. Jaws.
All Nellie brought was a duffel bag, stuffed with whatever underwear and jeans and T-shirts she’d managed to grab from her bedroom chest. Before she woke him. Before she took him.
I was kidnapped, Max thinks.
But that’s silly. A mom can’t kidnap her own kid.
Copyright © 2022 by Andy Davidson