No Mississippi

No Mississippi

His wife had been only a child, thirteen to be exact, the day she found the baby. She and her family had lived in the country, far enough outside the limits of town that they had had no immediate neighbors to speak of. The family house sat on a ten acre plot alongside the farm-to-market road leading straight into downtown, and aside from the row of pecan trees lining the dirt driveway and a clump of cedar trees bordering the back of the property, the immediate land surrounding them stretched as flat and as far as the eye could see. In the summer, when the Texas sun beat down upon her bare shoulders, Linda and her two sisters ran through the dry grass beyond the front of the house, their mother’s plea to keep an eye out for rattlesnakes somewhere off in the back of their minds.

It had been the first day of school, mid-August. She and her sisters left early for the bus stop, a quarter-mile walk ahead of them. They wore the new dresses their mother had purchased the previous week, she in a pale yellow sundress, a golden bow in her hair, her sisters, ages ten and eleven, in matching red and white patterns. These dresses would be the only new clothes the girls would have all year, so their mother had made them promise that they’d keep them in good condition as long as they could. As they’d made their way past the pecan trees and onto the farm-to-market, the three of them did their best to be mindful of this promise as they stepped carefully along the side of the road. It was in this way they came upon the brown paper sack in the shadows.

Linda saw the baby first, but despite her attempts to keep her sisters from seeing, they’d walked too close not to notice. Both sisters screamed at the sight and immediately turned back toward home, leaving Linda to approach slowly until she stood directly over the baby. She wasn’t frightened, exactly, but instead compelled by her own curiosity to look close enough to see that the baby’s eyes had been bitten shut. Fire ants swarmed over red, blistered skin, and absentmindedly, she reached out to brush as many of them away as possible. She looked up and down the road, but of course, there was no one, no sign of who could’ve done this. Eventually, she picked up the baby and, carefully supporting its head, cradled it—paper sack and all—against her new yellow dress. Ants crawled across her flesh and bit between her fingers and in the crook of her arms.

She began to walk toward home, and as she left footprints in the dust behind her, Linda couldn’t help but imagine herself as a mother one day. She’d love her children more than anything, and she’d do whatever necessary to make sure her children never endured the kind of suffering the baby in her arms had already experienced. Later, once she’d arrived at her mother and father’s house, Linda sat outside, the baby still in her arms. From inside, her sisters cried, but she remained there on the wooden porch, her eyes squinting in the new sunlight. In a moment, Linda’s mother would open the front door, and when she did, she’d stood behind Linda, silently, either in horror or amazement—Linda never knew which—before rushing indoors to phone for an ambulance.

 

Hawkins has been married to Linda twenty years and heard this story four times, but the image he has of her as the paramedics pry the dead baby from her arms haunts him. He’s thought of the bite marks on her neck and arms, of how soiled that yellow dress must’ve been, but above all, he’s wondered what such a thing did to her psychologically, how she changed as a person. He believes he married a strong and compassionate woman, a woman capable of taking on just about anything, a woman who’s also passed along her greatest traits to their daughter. Julie cares for things the same way her mother does. She volunteers when she can, she helps organize fundraisers for those in need, and she does this all outside of school, where she maintains a near-perfect grade point average. She’s bright, determined, and above all, big-hearted just like her mother. In two years, she’ll head off to college, but the kitchen table is already covered with so many scholarship applications and essay prompts that the three of them have begun eating dinner in the living room in front of the television.

This summer after the tornado touched down north of town and destroyed several blocks of a neighborhood, she helped organize a donation drop-off at the school gym and in the process met Chase. For the last three months, they’ve been inseparable. Not even once football practice began, and Chase started taking snaps under center for two-a-days, did their time together diminish. Julie sat in the bleachers every afternoon, waiting dutifully until the end of practice. Hawkins knows this because he, too, sat in the stands watching practice. He’d been let go from work in the spring, so once two-a-days began, he and rest of the unemployeds staked out a spot on the bleachers, anxious to get a look at this year’s team. They’d heard talk that this group of boys might have a shot at State, so Hawkins and the rest of the ’91 State Champs looked on with curiosity to see if their undefeated title season, the only one in school history, could in fact be in jeopardy.

 

Two weeks into the school year, Julie cuts class one afternoon, and Hawkins and Linda get a call from school the following day. Julie admits that she’d been at a friend’s house, painting banners for the first game of the season, a road game that Chase’s team wins the following night. Hawkins and Linda decide not to make a big deal out of it after Julie promises it’ll never happen again, and in order to earn their trust again, she begins coming home right after school. The next week, she invites Chase and a bunch of their friends over for a game of touch football. It’s the one afternoon during the week when Chase doesn’t have afternoon practice, and some of the neighborhood boys wander over in hopes of being invited to play. Julie calls for Hawkins, who’s in the garage, to join them in the front yard. Chase stands beside her, motioning for Hawkins to hurry. He calls Hawkins by his first name, a custom he’s taken to since first dating Julie.

The teams have been decided before Hawkins has a chance to trot onto the yard and tighten his laces. Everyone wants Chase to play quarterback for both teams despite Hawkins still holding most of the school’s passing records, a fact he’s certain no one knows—or cares—about. And given the look on Julie’s face, one of pride knowing her boyfriend is everyone’s first choice, Hawkins knows he’s better off saying nothing. Instead, he joins his team on offense. On their first play, Chase pitches the ball to Julie, who scrambles a few feet before someone downs her. The next play is the same as the first. Julie barely advances before someone gets two hands on her. Hawkins sprints downfield each time only to jog back to the huddle, winded and a little frustrated. He’s been open both times.

But on third down, Chase points to him. “This one’s coming to you, Dale.”

Hawkins spreads out to the edge of the yard, and once the play begins, he bolts toward the invisible line that marks the end of his property that has been designated as the end zone. With the slowest neighbor boy covering him, Hawkins finds himself open, but once Chase zips a spiral in his direction, he realizes that he will not make the catch. He does everything short of extending himself onto the grass, and yet the ball still sails over his head and bounces into the neighboring yard.

“Nice try, Dale,” Chase calls as Hawkins retrieves the ball.

When they break huddle before fourth down, Chase smacks Hawkins on the shoulder. Back when Hawkins played, this meant something like encouragement, but Chase seems to do it only playfully, so rather than run his route, Hawkins stands and watches as Chase again tosses the ball to Julie, who drops it.

Hawkins’ team switches to defense, and Julie calls them together and tells them to play man-to-man, a term Hawkins is surprised his daughter even knows. More surprisingly, she elects herself designated rusher. Six months ago, she couldn’t have cared one bit about football, but now she crouches at the line of scrimmage on the first play. When Chase snaps the ball, she playfully counts down, “One Mississippi, two Mississippi…”

Chase rockets a pass to one of his varsity teammates, who grabs the ball one-handed and advances maybe a yard or two before Hawkins downs him. The play over, everyone returns to their positions, but Chase and Julie have their hands on one another, laughing. Some of their friends call out for them to get a room, but it’s not until Hawkins starts barking for them to hurry it up that the two of them rejoin the game. When the next play begins, Julie again counts down after the snap, her Mississippis cheerier than the last. At five, she rushes Chase, who’s been waiting for this to happen. He ducks to avoid her tag, but rather than make a throw, Chase gives Julie the chance to catch him. Julie pursues him as he jogs circles in the backfield. Her laughter fills the neighborhood, and when Chase finally stops to throw, he sails the ball toward the sideline. Hawkins thinks he can make a play, but as he sprints toward the sidewalk, he watches as the ball lands in the middle of the street. One of the neighborhood boys groans. On the next play, Chase ignores Julie and fires a strike into the end zone.

As the game goes on and Hawkins watches more of Chase play, he has to admit the boy’s talent. He knows the route a receiver will run and can put the ball between his hands from thirty yards away, no sweat. And the way he drops back and slings the ball with ease, Hawkins realizes these are skills that can’t be taught. It all comes so natural, even on the passes aimed for Hawkins, passes which tend to sail a few feet out of his reach. He would like to believe those passes are Chase’s mistakes, but the more they occur, the more Hawkins believes the boy is simply testing him, seeing how far Hawkins will run to catch up. But what the boy doesn’t know, what Hawkins has refused to show, is that Hawkins—for the first time in years—feels the rush again, that enthusiasm to run with full force and purpose.

After another of Julie’s halfhearted rushes, Hawkins calls the defense together and instructs his daughter to drop back on the next play. “Switch with me,” he tells her. She protests, not understanding the situation, but Hawkins won’t go into it now. His blood’s pumping now that the game’s in full swing, and he wipes away the sweat at his forehead before adopting a three-point stance in front of Chase. Someone chuckles, and Hawkins believes it’s Chase as he drops back before snapping the ball. Hawkins’ fingers twitch as he waits for Chase to hike the ball. Once he does, Hawkins strikes. He offers no warnings, no Mississippis, and Chase has no chance to get rid of the ball. Hawkins moves so quickly that he gives himself no room to stop, and instead of downing Chase two-below, he runs right over the boy, knocking him to the ground.

Julie screams. Chase rolls on the grass as Hawkins stands and brushes dirt from his knees. Immediately, Julie is at Chase’s side. “What’d you do to him?” she yells, bending over to examine Chase’s face. Hawkins can see the blood coming from the boy’s nose. Without forethought, Julie balls up the bottom of her shirt to press against his face. She steadies her hand and barks out orders. Someone needs to go inside for a bag of ice. Someone else needs to find a towel. She points at people, directs them where to move. In such a hurried moment, Hawkins can’t help but marvel at the poise his daughter demonstrates or the ease with which she orders people.

Most of the neighborhood boys use the break in the game as an excuse to head home, and a few of Julie’s friends also slip away. Once a towel and ice have been brought to Julie and Chase appears to be fine, the rest of the group thins out until only Hawkins remains. Julie helps Chase to his feet, and Hawkins considers apologizing even if no one’s suggested he’s acted on purpose. He sticks out a hand for Chase to take as a truce on their way indoors, and the boy shakes it, reluctantly.

Later, Chase declines an invitation to stay for dinner and leaves without saying goodbye to Hawkins. Hawkins has the television on in the living room when the front door closes, and behind him, he hears Julie’s bare feet track across the tile and into the kitchen to help Linda, just home from work, with supper. When it’s time to eat, each of them fills a plate and takes their normal spot in front of the television. Julie excuses herself when she’s finished and disappears to her room.

“She thinks the world of him,” Linda says after supper, finishing her half of the cigarette before handing what’s left to Hawkins. In order to cut back on their smoking, they’ve taken to splitting cigarettes. They do their best to rid themselves of the habits in life, but the bad habits are the toughest to shake. They’re standing on the patio with the sun in their eyes, and now that Hawkins holds the cigarette, Linda’s free to talk.

“If she doesn’t think you like him, she won’t bring him around anymore.” She turns so that the sun is to her back. “And if he’s not here, she won’t be either.”

“It was an accident,” he stresses, aware that in doing so he sounds guilty.

“I’m just saying to think about it.” Linda steps past Hawkins and into the house.

He would think about it if there was anything to think about. Hawkins repeats to himself that it was an accident and finds that it’s far easier to convince himself. He sweats in the sunlight until he finishes off the cigarette, the whole time realizing that at some point, he’ll have to apologize to Julie no matter what he feels to be the truth. Once he’s stubbed out the cigarette, he doesn’t follow Linda inside but rather he stands there, allowing the sun to warm his face. A minute passes before he reaches in his pocket for the cigarettes and lighter.

 

The first home game of the season always draws a crowd. An hour before kickoff, people are parking half a mile from the stadium, some of them well into their second hour of tailgating. Inside the stadium, the home side of bleachers fill quickly. At one end, the school band runs through a medley of popular hits before blasting the school song while at the opposite end, students crowd the bottom bleachers closet to the field. Hawkins climbs to his seat halfway up on the 50-yard line with Linda right behind him. He hears his name called out a dozen or so times by people who remember him, and he acknowledges each one of them before taking his seat.

“Too bad none of them can be bothered to offer a job,” Linda says, sitting beside him.

Hawkins nods. His fame extends all of one-hundred yards. What work he’s managed to get the last few months has been mostly construction, temporary stuff that comes as a favor from ex-teammates. He’s good with his hands, but these days and around these parts, that sort of work can come much cheaper if someone’s willing to look the other way, law-wise.

He sees his daughter in the front row of the student section, leaning over the railing and screaming along with the other girls around her. Twenty or so years ago, Linda did the same thing on these very bleachers. She always asked if Hawkins could hear her, and he always lied and said he could. Now he wishes he would’ve told the truth, that out there on the field, he couldn’t hear much of anything, let alone a single girl yelling his name. All these years, he’s never asked Linda what she was screaming. He supposes it doesn’t matter and wonders when Linda realized her shouting was useless and when Julie will come to the same understanding. Looking out onto all of this before him, Hawkins can’t be the only one who finds much of this insignificant.

But the game begins, and Hawkins, like everyone else, is on his feet, anxiously awaiting that first hit, that first collision between bodies that brings with it the sound they all equally lust for and turn away from. The home team starts on defense, and after a couple of failed passes, the opposing quarterback forces a spiral to the middle of the field on third down. The throw sails wide, forcing the receiver to slow and giving the defensive back time to gather speed and lunge. The home crowd revels in the echoing crunch of shoulder pad against shoulder pad and high-five one another as the opposing player limps off the field.

The ex-players in the stands relish those sounds, of bone against bone. They understand the pain in the moment, and they know nothing else can bring such satisfaction. There can be beauty in the brutality, and Hawkins and every one of these ex-players yearn to be back out there. Some hide their longing better than others, but none of these men really want to be sitting here, their asses going numb on these metal seats. They want to be between those white lines, their bodies hurtling against one another with great recklessness. To feel invincible one more time, that’s what they want. Sitting here in the bleachers, there’s not a worse place to be.

At halftime, the home team heads to the locker room with a 14-point lead. In the second half, Chase throws a touchdown on the first play of scrimmage, and after the defense forces a turnover, Chase trots back onto the field and immediately throws another touchdown. Late in the third quarter, the lead swells to 42, and as Chase and the rest of the offense take the field, the crowd stands and applauds. Hawkins stands, too. He hears all the chanting, the whistling. It’s only the boy’s second game, he thinks to himself. By the time the rest of the crowd concludes its ovation, Hawkins has already taken a seat.

They run the ball, trying to kill time, but on third down, Chase drops back and flings a pass toward the sideline to what appears to be a wide-open receiver. But at the last moment, a defender steps in front to snatch the ball. The crowd gasps and looks on as the defender clutches the ball and highsteps down the sideline. He’s maybe thirty yards from a touchdown with only Chase in front of him, and as he makes his move toward the end zone, Chase lowers his left shoulder and drives the defender to the ground. The crowd erupts.

Linda elbows Hawkins and points to their daughter. She’s turned toward the seats behind her and raised her arms in the air, imploring her fellow students. The students roar in response, and Julie turns back to the field, banging her hands against the railing. In this moment, Hawkins hardly recognizes his own daughter, and for the remainder of the game, he can’t turn away from her.

After the game, Julie finds them outside the stadium as they head to their car, her excitement not yet worn off. Everyone’s going to Whataburger, she tells them, and she’ll get a ride home later with a friend. Linda’s firm on a curfew, and when Julie objects, Linda reminds her of the classes she cut. Their daughter knows better than to argue, and she concedes before rushing off to find her friends.

 

At home, after splitting a can of beer and another cigarette, Hawkins leads Linda to their bedroom. Leaving the door open, he takes her to the foot of the bed and removes her clothes. She’s reluctant at first, but he persists, leaning into her until she falls back onto the mattress. He drops beside her and presses against her until she’s turned her back to him. Hawkins maneuvers her in much the same way he did when they were teenagers, huddled closely to one another in the back seat after a game. Then, she’d allowed him total control, but now, she resists before he begins to move his hand down her back and in between her thighs. Hawkins compels her, and only after repeated attempts does she eventually yield, permitting a lone sigh when he’s finished.

Later, headlights flash across the wall and stir Hawkins from sleep. The clock reads 3:19. He’s about to slip out of bed to shut the door when he hears the front door open from the other end of the house. Instead of getting up, he positions himself to get what view of the hallway he can, and he waits for the silhouette to appear just outside the doorway. Footsteps sink slowly into the carpet, one by one, and then the outline of his daughter, disappearing into the bedroom next to his.

 

All over town, a poster with a picture of the football team adorns storefront windows and front doors of restaurants that sponsor the team and host dinners for boosters. The photograph, taken at the end of summer, features Chase seated in the middle of the front row, a football in his hands. He flashes a smile that the whole town can fall in love with. He and the rest of the team, undefeated after four games, give the town something good to think about, something they can all be happy about.

When Hawkins stops in at the hardware store downtown, the two men behind the counter recognize him and immediately start talking football. The men aren’t surprised by the team’s success so far, but they’re not quite ready to jinx the chances of State by sounding too confident. Like everyone else in town, they’re not big city people. They do their best to keep humble, to appreciate what’s been given to them rather than to wish out loud for what may or may not come. Still, it’s hard not pondering the stats the star quarterback’s been putting up and whether he’s got a shot at breaking all of Hawkins’ records.

“You nervous?” the old timer ringing him up asks.

Hawkins grins but shakes his head, says he doesn’t worry about that stuff anymore. There’s a bit of truth in this, but he’d be lying if he said he didn’t care at all. All records will one day be broken, he knows, especially when players like Chase come around. That doesn’t mean he has to like it or look forward to it happening.

The other shopkeeper looks over his glasses at Hawkins. “All right, then, but you can’t tell me you don’t miss those days. Having the whole town in love with you?”

Hawkins nods, willing to admit he enjoyed it.

“Kid’s only a junior, too. Got a chance to win State twice. Might win him a pair of those,” the first shopkeeper says, pointing to the lone championship ring Hawkins wears on his right hand. The shopkeeper shakes his head, chuckling. “Still, must’ve been a helluva lot of fun, huh?”

Hawkins smiles, pays for his things, and then wishes the men a good day. At the door, he sees the blue and white poster taped to the glass. Even with it backwards, facing outdoors, Hawkins can see Chase, right up front. As he goes outside, he rips the poster off the door and stashes it under his arm. Behind him, he can hear the two old-timers call out to him, but he keeps walking to his truck. After climbing in, he tears the poster in half and throws the scraps onto the passenger seat before backing out. Driving away, Hawkins sees in his rearview the two men standing out front of the store, hands at their hips.

 

Homecoming arrives in mid-October, and on the afternoon before the game, Chase stops by the house to give Julie her mum, which falls below her knees and whose colors coordinate with the white dress she’s chosen to wear. Pictures are taken before Chase has to leave for the team’s pre-game meal, and while Linda insists on just one more photo, Hawkins watches all the hoopla outside from the couch in the living room. Through the window, he watches Chase wrap his arm around Julie’s waist, squeezing her tightly. She allows herself to be pulled close, seems to welcome the boy’s touch. Linda snaps another picture, and Hawkins wonders if the shadow of him sitting there will appear later when his wife uploads the photos onto the computer.

The Homecoming game brings the biggest crowd of the season, and in search of their seventh straight win, Chase and the rest of the team play their worst game of the season. Chase’s passes lack zip and sail over their intended targets. The whole team looks sluggish, and at halftime they trail by three. Returning to the field in the second half, the home team looks somewhat energized and eventually pulls out an eight-point victory, but as fans file out of the stadium, many of them look concerned. Even with a dance scheduled in the gymnasium and with more than half the crowd decked out in dresses and shirt and ties, mums and boutonnieres, spirits aren’t exactly high. Hawkins, however, can’t help but feel a little satisfaction, and as he and Linda walk to the car, he catches the eye of former teammates. Their championship rings are one of a kind, and a close game like the one they just watched suggests they may stay that way for at least another year.

Outside the stadium, Julie’s gathered with her friends, and she breaks away long enough to beg for more time on her curfew since the dance will run past midnight. As people pass around them, Linda lowers her voice and reminds Julie of the progress note that arrived earlier in the week. It’s the first note of its kind to be mailed home regarding Julie’s grades, and Linda believes that Julie ought to be home at her normal time tonight. Hawkins, usually quiet on such issues, agrees.

“One o’clock,” Linda says, firmly.

Julie sighs and then stomps away to return to her friends, her nearly translucent dress billowing in the autumn breeze as it catches the glow of the stadium lights. Hawkins watches as she’s swallowed into the swarm of people exiting the stadium, one moment his daughter, the next a ghost.

At home, Hawkins and Linda split a cigarette and the last can of cold beer before going to the bedroom. But Hawkins doesn’t sleep afterwards. He hasn’t the past few weeks. Usually, he lies awake until Julie comes home, but tonight, he waits in the living room where he can see out the front window. Occasionally, he smokes a cigarette on the back porch. He’s given up on only taking half. Each time he sparks a flame, Hawkins intends to inhale the entire thing. His habit returns in full tonight, and by one A.M., he’s nearly emptied the entire pack.

He thinks of high school, of how things had once come easy for him. There’d been an invincibility about him that no one questioned, that no one ever told him would one day come to an end. And then it had, and Friday nights no longer held the magic they once had. He’d been good enough to get a scholarship to a small state school but not good enough to ever make it onto the field. The last thing Hawkins had ever wanted was to return home, to face all the people who’d once put so much stock in him, but then Linda became pregnant. It made sense to go to the one place his name had once had some kind of meaning, and that was where their daughter was born and, for the first time, Linda told him about the baby she’d found.

Hawkins falls asleep at some point only to be awakened soon after by the sound of an engine. He’s slow to get his bearings, but what he sees outside the window is a figure on the front porch, and as Hawkins stands, the figure sprints across the yard and hops into the truck idling in front of the house. The dome light gives Chase away, and after slamming the door shut, he kicks the truck into gear and speeds away. Hawkins sees the last of this after opening the front door. The screeching from the tires echoes through the neighborhood, but Hawkins has already turned his attention to the girl lying on the porch. Julie doesn’t move when he says her name, and Hawkins drops to his knees to be sure that she’s conscious. Taking her into his arms, he can feel her breathing against his body before he moves her indoors. He smells the alcohol at her lips, feels the dampness at the back of her knees. Her eyes remain closed no matter how many time he says her name.

Her dress begins to slide up her thigh as he carries her through the living room, and Hawkins does his best to adjust the fabric. On their way to her bedroom, Julie says something incoherent, and once in her room, she lifts her head up just enough so that her lips brush against the side of his face, seeking a kiss. Hawkins pulls away as he lays Julie on her bed, and only then does she look up and seem to understand what might be happening. There are footsteps in the hallway, and then Hawkins sees Linda in the doorway.

“She’ll need something when she vomits,” Linda says before retrieving the plastic bucket they keep underneath their bathroom sink. She then crawls onto Julie’s bed and stretches out behind her daughter, careful not to disturb her too much. Hawkins watches his wife stroke Julie’s hair, making sure that it stays out of her face.

“Go on to bed,” she tells Hawkins, and although there are other things he could be doing, he gives in and goes to the bedroom to sleep.

 

The next morning, Hawkins awakes to find Linda at the dining room table. She and Julie have already spoken about last night. Still feeling sick, their daughter has gone back to sleep, and Hawkins sits across from his wife and thumbs through the newspaper absentmindedly.

“I wanna kill the prick.” He shoves away the paper, balls his hands into fists. Linda motions for him to keep his voice down. “What’s keeping me from going over to his house right now,” he continues, “and confronting the asshole?”

“That won’t do any good,” she replies. She remains calm. Visibly upset, but calm.

“What’s that supposed to mean? The boy took advantage of our daughter, he—” and here, Hawkins struggles to utter the word he can’t imagine having to say in regard to his own daughter. His wife, though, is shaking her head.

“She says she allowed it.”

“She was drunk, Linda.”

Again, she shakes her head. “Not when she agreed to it, she claims. I asked her a dozen times if not more, Dale, and she wouldn’t change her story.”

“It’s bullshit though. You know he just left her on the porch? You know that, don’t you?”

Linda nods. She taps her fingernails against the wooden surface of the table. “You know, I was looking online. Age of consent in Texas is seventeen. That boy’s only sixteen.”

“So? He’s the one that took advantage of her.”

“But does it matter? Law says that the younger party would be the victim.”

“Not if the older party is—” and again, he can’t bring himself to speak the word he’s imagining. Hawkins stands and begins to pace. “So you’re telling me that even if we were to say anything about this, there’s a chance Julie’d be the one to get in trouble.”

Linda shrugs. “I don’t know. But you have to remember who we’re dealing with. He’s not quite the mayor, but he’s close.” She’s watching Hawkins step back and forth behind his chair, and she asks him to sit. “Dale, please.”

He stops, grips the back of the chair, and glares at her. “I want that kid, Linda. I just want to….”  He lifts his hands up, grasping at air, and balling one hand into a fist, he punches it into the open palm of his other hand.

“Dale, sit down. Please.”

“And you’re okay with this?”

“How could you think I would be?” she says, scolding him.

Hawkins stops pacing, sits back in the chair. He apologizes. He should know her better than that.

 

For dinner, Linda’s made oven fried chicken and potatoes. Julie fixes a small plate and takes it to her room and closes the door. She’s barely emerged from her room all day, and even though Hawkins feels he has a right to sit his daughter down and speak with her about what’s happened, Linda tells him it’s best to give her space right now. “She’ll talk when she’s ready,” she says, handing Hawkins a plate.

They eat at the kitchen counter, the chicken greasy but filling. Hawkins rips the meat off the bone and chews it quickly, greedily. Of what remains—the bones, the marrow—he takes between his fingers and snaps them into small pieces, oddly thrilled by the dull sound that comes from between his two hands. When he’s finished, he wipes his hands clean. Beside him, Linda pokes at her food with a fork. She’s been keeping something to herself, he can tell.

After the dishes are cleaned and put away, they step onto the back porch and Linda lights a cigarette. She begins to talk, but it’s like he’s not even beside her. She talks to hear herself, it seems, and what she talks about is the baby. Hawkins hasn’t heard the story in years, but the details return to him immediately. The yellow dress, the fire ants, the sisters screaming—he’s heard this before, but she keeps talking, and then she’s saying things he’s never heard before.

What she says now for the first time is that while cradling the baby on her way to the house, the baby began to move. In between Linda’s arms, the baby struggled, and she could feel it trying to breath. She had stopped, and now, she looks at Hawkins and says to him that she swore she’d been able to feel the baby’s heart beating.

“Just a little,” she says, bringing the cigarette to her lips.

She knew that once she got the baby home, an ambulance would come and take the baby away in order to try and save it. But if the baby lived, she wondered just what sort of life it would have. It made her angry, thinking of how cruel and unfair the world had already been, of how cruel and unfair the world would continue to be. She exhales and says that for years, she promised herself that one day she’d find the person responsible, even though it was an almost impossible task.

“What I would’ve done,” she says.

And what she did, at thirteen, was what she thought at the time made the most sense. She’d taken her hand and covered the baby’s nose and mouth, and pressing down, Linda waited until she no longer felt there was a life left inside that baby. And then she’d walked the rest of the way home.

She stubs out the cigarette and fumbles for another. “I thought it was the right thing to do, to end the suffering it didn’t deserve.”

Hawkins doesn’t know what to say. He watches her hands light a new cigarette and believes he spots a slight tremor in the fingers. For the first time ever, he feels as though he doesn’t know this person in front of him, but then she’s reaching out toward him, touching his face and asking for a favor.

 

The next Friday, Hawkins travels alone to the game. It’s a forty-five minute drive to Elgin, and upon arriving, he pays for a ticket and chooses to sit on the home side, a visitor surrounded by strangers. When they stand, he stands. When they cheer, he joins in, their voices blending as one to heckle Chase and the rest of the undefeated visitors. Despite the crowd’s best effort, however, Chase triumphs, and Elgin loses by seventeen.

Afterwards, Hawkins waits outside the visitor’s locker room. It’s an old red brick building with a rusted door that squeaks. Hawkins stands back in the shadows. He’s put on a baseball cap and pulled it low in order to cover part of his face, and when one of the student assistants comes out of the locker room lugging a bag of equipment, he has the boy go inside to fetch Chase.

“Tell him it’s his dad,” Hawkins says, and the boy nods. Hawkins stuffs his hands into his pockets and waits. It’s late October weather, and a chilled air has settled now that the sun has set. He exhales and considers what he’s about to do when Chase emerges from the locker room.

“Dale? I thought my dad—”

“Go on and grab your things, son.”

Chase, no longer in uniform or bolstered by pads and knee braces, doesn’t budge.

“Come on now. Get your things. Tell the coaches there’s a family emergency you gotta look after.” He slaps his hands together like coaches do. “Come on now, we’ll get you home. No need to worry. Just wanna talk with you.”

Chase backs away when Hawkins looks the boy directly in the eyes, and thinking he may’ve scared the boy, Hawkins says, calmly, “We’re gonna have to do this sooner or later.”

The boy nods and turns back inside. Enough time passes for Hawkins to contemplate abandoning the plan, but the rusty door screeches open, and Chase appears with his bag slung over his shoulder. He follows Hawkins to his truck and tosses his stuff in the truck bed. Once they’re both inside, Hawkins revs the engine and finds a way out of the parking lot and toward the back roads.

“About the other night,” Chase starts in immediately once they’re on their way out of town, but Hawkins puts a hand up to cut him off.

“Not yet.”

Hawkins heads north, takes the two-lane road that splits farmland and offers an unobstructed view of the night sky. He flips the heater on, and a stream of warm, musty air sputters from the vents and fills the truck. Hawkins cracks his window enough for the stale air to pass and then seals the window shut. The cab warms quickly, and the only smell is that of the outdoors, of dirt and cold farmland.

The wind rattles against the truck’s steel body as Hawkins steps on the accelerator. The further he drives, the more he wonders if he can go through with what he and Linda have discussed. He recalls his daughter from a week ago, hoisted between his arms, struggling to plant a kiss on his cheek. It’s a thought he’d rather not reflect on ever again, and Hawkins does his best to put it out of his mind. He raps his fingers against the steering wheel, his championship ring thumping against the rubber. Seeing its faint golden luster in the dark, Hawkins slips the ring from his finger and hands it over to Chase.

“Try it on.”

The boy hesitates, but Hawkins insists. Chase finally concedes, fitting the ring onto his own finger.

“How’s it feel?”

“Nice,” he says. “Wouldn’t mind winning one of my own.”

They pass through Taylor, and north of the town, Hawkins hangs a left onto 29. In another fifteen minutes, they’ll be back in the city limits. “Reckon you boys got a shot?”

“Sure,” Chase says.

Off to his left, beyond the trees, Hawkins can barely catch sight of the San Gabriel, the silver water reflecting the moonlight. Beyond his headlights, there isn’t another vehicle in sight. Off in the distance, maybe a mile or two north of the highway, sit a few houses, their porch lights barely registering at this time of night. Now’s as good of time as any, Hawkins thinks, glimpsing out over all the darkness that surrounds them, and yet he continues driving. A sign they pass reads that they’re passing through Jonah, an unincorporated area with nothing more than a few homes and an abandoned schoolhouse that sits off from the main road. When the shadow of the one-story building comes into view, Hawkins slows the truck and turns into the gravel parking lot.

“What’s going on, Dale?”

Hawkins brings the truck to a stop. He cuts the light, shuts off the engine, and stuffs the keys in his pocket. Beyond the schoolhouse there’s farmland as far as the eye can see, but now all anyone could see is blackness.

Chase must’ve gotten a feeling about all of this because he starts working on an apology. “I don’t know what Julie said, but believe me—”

“Shut up.” Hawkins stares out the windshield. The wind picks up just enough to send a cloud of dust sweeping over the hood and against the metal frame. Hawkins rolls the driver’s side window down just enough to allow a pocket of air to swirl in the cab. The sound is like that of a distant freight train barreling through the desert.

“Get out of the truck, son.”

“Hell no. This ain’t fair, Dale, and you know it.” Chase reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out a cell phone. Before he can dial a number, Hawkins snatches the phone from the boy’s hand. Stuffing it into his back pocket, Hawkins opens the driver’s side door and steps out.

“Come on. Get out.”

Hawkins walks to the back of the truck and waits for Chase. But the boy won’t budge, and finally, Hawkins walks around to the passenger side door, yanks it open, and pulls the boy out. Chase shakes himself out of Hawkins’ hold, nearly slipping on the gravel, before charging Hawkins. He’s anticipating the boy’s blitz, however, and as Chase nears, Hawkins grabs the boy and pushes him to the ground. Hawkins steadies his footing, fully aware the boy hasn’t given his best shot yet, and sure enough, Chase pops up and comes after Hawkins again. Hawkins doesn’t possess the boy’s strength, but he does have the knowhow to allow the boy to wear himself out. He evades a few of the boy’s charges, absorbs a punch or two, and when Chase pauses to catch his breath, Hawkins attacks. He grabs the boy by the collar of his jacket and drives him backwards against the truck, knocking the wind out of him. Holding Chase against the truck, Hawkins sees the panic in the boy’s eyes, and then there’s a surge he feels, urging him on. Hawkins lifts the boy and thrusts him to the ground, dust kicking up all around as Chase’s body settles on the gravel.

Hawkins breathes, his lungs sucking in air, and he drops to the ground, taking hold of Chase in the process. The boy fights to get free, but Hawkins tightens his grip. He intends to start with the right hand, and once Hawkins secures the boy’s hand, he takes the boy’s thumb in his palm and bends it until the boy screams. Hawkins can feel the cartilage give, the bones snapping in succession, and he feels it again and again with each finger he takes into his hand. The wind howls in his ears, rages over the flat earth around him and drowns away, leaving only the bellowing cries coming from deep inside the boy. When Hawkins finishes the right hand, he takes hold of the left and with a kind of brutality that surprises him, he works his fingers around the thumb and each finger until he can no longer hear anything, and he breaks himself from this spell only when he takes hold of the boy’s left ring finger and feels the championship ring slide off into his own palm.

 

Hours later, the sun not yet having broken the horizon, Hawkins wheels the truck unnoticed through town. The streets are nearly empty, and at home, he pulls into the garage as the rest of the neighborhood continues to sleep. Inside, Linda waits for him, an empty coffee cup in front of her. He can see that she hasn’t slept a wink.

He kisses her on the forehead and then goes to the sink to wash up. There, underneath the stream of hot water, he rubs his thumb over his State championship ring, making sure to wipe away the dirt and dust. A one of a kind artifact, he thinks to himself, taking the hand towel to dry off.

At the table, he sits across from his wife, who holds a hundred questions on her face, but instead of asking any of them, she stands to fix them fresh cups of coffee. When she sits, they look at one another, say nothing, and wait for their daughter to wake. In a little while, Linda will pull a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of her robe and light one for Hawkins and one for herself.

ARTICLEend

About the Author

Brian Seemann’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in REAL, Red Savina Review, and Mojave River Review among other journals and has been anthologized in Home of the Brave: Somewhere in the Sand (Press 53) and The Mix Tape: A Flash Fiction Anthology (Flash Forward Press). His fiction reviews regularly appear in Necessary Fiction. Winner of the William J. Stuckey Memorial Prize for fiction, a Southern Writers Symposium: Emerging Writers Contest Finalist, and an MA and MFA graduate of Wichita State, he currently lives and teaches in Colorado.