Rita takes the baby, still screaming, from the tub of water, lays him on his back on the floor between her legs, kneads his stomach, fit to burst, with her fingers. Beside them, shards of soap, homemade suppositories. His face the color of cranberries, tonsils raging, he stiffens, bucks when she tries lifting his legs. She is forced to pry him open like a frozen chicken, and even then, the soap does no good, brings neither of them relief.
“Stand away from the windows,” she tells the girls, but won’t let them leave the room. They want to watch The Wonderful World of Disney, but Rita has lit the front room only as much as she has to. “Rock your babies,” she says. “They’re sleepy.”
“Mine has a bellyache,” the younger one says, asking for a piece of soap, going to work on the doll when Rita says it’s okay, anything to keep quiet. Jesse, the eldest, does not offer to take up her doll. She pulls her sister to the floor covered in Cheerios, bribes her with toy bottles of orange juice. She turns the bottle up to the doll’s mouth, watches the fluid inside disappear. “Not orange juice,” the littler one says. “Castor oil.” Her brother’s cries do not faze her like they do her mother.
The baby, five weeks old, lays down hard on his scream, though now his throat tightens in a hushed blue choke that scares Rita more than the locked bowels, more than the Justice boys outside.
Arjay is still gone with Kenny, but the Duster’s in the yard, and that’s what draws them, firing their shots now and again at the bag of dog food leaning next to the house or at the tulip-shaped retreads Arjay cut up to hem in the peonies.
They leave the car alone, useless to her as the soap. Useless as Arjay, gone again as always, sometimes three and four days. This time, he takes Kenny and Jimbo and a stick of dynamite Kenny swiped from Litwar. Kenny is half senseless, especially when he’s drinking and that’s always. He tells Arjay they’re going to finish this thing tonight, but lot of good that does Rita now with them outside, the one Justice boy Arjay took a pool stick to at Lucy’s making turkey calls. Leon. Rita got a good look at him at Easter, up at the park, when they came driving by slow and pulled their van over by the slides where they could watch the kids.
Leon’s dull eyes had followed the kids running across the grass, jostling pink and green baskets too big for some. He’d singled out Rita’s girls tripping in the hems of their long dresses, the littler one squatting down in a frustrated heap, crying. He knew Rita saw him watching, knew Arjay was watching, too. He’d stuck a gray, leathered arm scabbed over with newly needled tattoos out the window of the van and pointed out Jesse and Sis to his kin with him there inside the van.
Arjay had glared at Leon and turned back to Kenny and Jimbo and the rest, all fisted up in a huddle, drawing hard on their cigarettes, issuing silent death threats over their shoulders.
Leon had got a good look at Rita, too, she was sure, wearing polyester pants and sitting on top a picnic table smoking a Kool. When she saw Leon, she’d scraped the fire off the end of it against the cement table and laid the butt down for later. Half in shadow, his arm draping the side of the van, Leon had smiled, rubbed his hand on the door panel like it might have been Rita’s ass and let go a lunatic laugh out the opened black window of the van to where she sat, crossing her arms, hunching forward. The wind had been chapping the kids’ cheeks and fingers all morning, but she’d left them alone. Leon leaned out the window, into the full sun, made a peace sign, then laid his fingers over his mouth and tongued the V that represented Rita.
She gave him the finger, and then Leon laid down on the horn that issued forth a tinny version of reveille and the kids stopped searching for the lucky egg and looked, panic-stricken, toward the van at the edge of the woods. Leon gunned the engine and balled tire marks over the pavement. “We’re watching!” he called out, and the panel doors swung open wide now to show their number. Rita knew it wasn’t even half of them, but still it must’ve been six, seven maybe.
Harley, the youngest, had stood behind Leon’s seat, his bare, muscled arms fixed overhead, braced against the van’s ceiling to keep from being thrown. His jaw was set and showed the same worry Rita felt. After a minute or two of being taunted by the other men inside the van, he was coaxed into throwing glass bottles against the road as they’d been doing, but Rita sensed that Harley had values prevailing over the bonds of kinship. He shared the hollowed face of his relatives, the same sharp nose, same deep-set eyes. But the flesh on his back was clean, like his dark, shaggy hair and the whites of his eyes.
Arjay and Kenny and Jimbo and the others had gone back to their vehicles and stood like sentinels around the perimeter of the park. Leon stopped the van suddenly in front of Rita and swung an arm out the window, his filthy fingers grazing her blouse. She jerked away, but still they were close enough now to pull her into the opened door of the van if they’d wanted. Rita’s eyes searched for Harley, but he’d been slung deeper into the group toward the rear of the vehicle. The others stood in his place, each of them with their eyes locked on Rita’s body, some gesturing blowjobs or fondling themselves to put the fear in her. They knew better than to do anything though. There were more guns in that park than at Appomattox.
Inside the house now, Rita almost wishes they’d come in and see for themselves that Arjay’s not there. But not really.
The baby has squalled himself into a stupor. He has Arjay’s light hair, broad forehead. Rita imagines it full grown, under a carbide light like the one her daddy wore. She can still smell it, still see the buckets of water he carried with him.
Arjay’s own wet-cell battery and hardhat hang permanently on a peg by the door with his miner’s belt. She’d nearly cried when she washed up his dinner bucket and put it away.
Wildcat strikes have shut down the mines, and this time, Arjay told Rita, he hopes they stick it to the coal bosses good. Carter can order them back in under Taft-Hartley all he wants, he says, but he’ll not scab work. Not even if their food stamps are taken. Not even if he’s left hunting scrap iron for the rest of his born days.
That’s what started things with the Justice boys. Arjay and Jimbo had been driving up and down hollers looking for pieces of scrap iron to sell to Luther Linny over in Mile Branch. Arjay said they drove deep into Mingo County, found themselves in nameless backwoods. Drove clear up the top of a mountain. Was about dark by the time they found anything worth salvaging, an old engine block they threw into the trunk and counted as the day’s last.
Arjay says he backed the Duster up onto the bank and turned around. They hadn’t seen house lights before then, but all of a sudden, a truck drew up front of them and about twenty big hosses jumped down off its fenders and started cussing Arjay and Jimbo. One took a crowbar and ripped the chrome off the Duster and then smacked Arjay down across the head with his fist. Then the one that hit him walked around and pried the trunk open, said, “This don’t belong to you” and rolled the scrap iron down into the branch where it could keep on rusting.
When Kenny heard what happened, he said, “Let’s go kill them son-of-a-bitches,” and handed Arjay a stick of dynamite he took off the job. They’d been standing around outside Lucy’s, a tavern Kenny laid up at most of the time. Arjay stood listening to Jimbo retell how the nameless elder Justice had cold-cocked him.
“Yeah,” Arjay said, “but you get one of them pussies alone.”
Leon had pulled into the gravel lot then and walked brazenly into the bar, figuring, they guessed, no one had balls enough to fuck around with any of their clan, lest they wanted hell itself unleashed. Arjay had followed Leon inside and shoved him into a bank of empty stools lining the bar.
“Who the hell!” Leon yelled, grabbing a pool stick. Kenny and Jimbo dragged Leon back toward the pool tables, away from the other drunks, then walked back and sat at the bar and watched the beating Arjay gave Leon with the pool stick he’d taken from him.
When Arjay was satisfied Leon wasn’t getting up again, they lit out of the bar, swaggering. Outside, Kenny reached through the window of the Roadrunner and pulled the dynamite out of the glove box, handed it to Arjay. “Let’s go kill them son-of-a-bitches,” he said.
Arjay turned the explosive over in his hand and nodded.
“Awright,” Kenny said, and the three of them hopped in the car and took off.
But for all Rita knows, Arjay and Kenny and Jimbo could be dead, floating somewhere along Tug River. In a few days, they might wash up like those do who meet up with the Justices.
Right now all she really cares about is working the knots out of her infant son’s belly. He writhes and screams a white-hot holler and Rita sees the face of her younger brother, dying in a jungle in some place called Lang Vei and realizes there is no getting out of this struggle but by death. The baby sweats and bays low now like something wild from that jungle or from this one, like maybe a mountain screamer. But he quits moving, just like Arminta’s baby had, and Rita knows her son has little fight left in him. She grabs him up quick.
“What’s wrong, Mommy?” her eldest daughter asks with an aged little face.
Rita surveys the room, finds the keys to the Duster hanging on the nail by the door. “Nothing, Baby,” she says. “Everything’s awright.” But as she cradles the burning hot infant in her arms, Rita tries to remember when she heard the last shot fired at the porch and can’t. “We’re taking Brother to the clinic.” She hopes a doctor will still see her, now that the medical card is gone, but she has to try. “Stay close to me,” she tells the girls. “When I open the door, y’all climb in the backseat from this side. Okay? This side closest the house.”
“You know how to drive, Mommy?” the littler one asks. “I never seen you drive before. Where’s Daddy?”
“Don’t be scared,” the eldest says, taking her sister by the hand. “Mommy’s a good driver. We go driving all the time. Don’t we, Mommy?”
“That’s right, angel. Now you girls stay behind Mommy and keep quiet as mouses.”
“I can keep quieter than a baby mouse this little,” says the youngest, measuring a size almost imperceptible with her tiny fingers.
Rita considers turning off all the lights, but decides against it, thinking it better not to do anything that might signal the Justice boys. The baby is quiet now, but she is not grateful and half hopes that when the wind hits him, he’ll come screaming back to life. Only the girls wince, though, when the wind lifts the tails of their nightgowns.
“Okay, hurry, hurry, hurry,” whispers Rita, holding open the car door. Then she scooches across the front seat and lays the baby beside her. Holding a hand to his hard belly, she fumbles with the keys, but the car won’t crank. It hops forward, though, and now she is sure the Justice boys are watching.
They’d probably seen her all along. Rita imagines one poking another in the ribs when she came creeping outside with the kids. “Lookey, lookey,” he probably said, digging an old clump of chew from his jowls and packing in new. She hears another birdcall, turkey or duck or some such, and thinks it sounds like Leon maybe.
The clinic is in Welch, thirty miles away, but if she can get through the gears, Rita knows she can steer that car all night if she has to. It is the pedals that bother her. Arjay said to use only one foot for the brake and the gas, but she can’t work the clutch to keep the car idling.
“Jesse, climb up here and keep a hand on Brother for Mommy.”
“I want to,” the younger one whines.
“Awright,” Rita says. “He can ride between you, but don’t be poking him, Sis. He don’t feel good.”
“I know, Mommy. That’s why we’re going to the doctor.”
“That’s right. Now don’t hold his belly too tight. Just keep him from falling in the floor.” Rita looks at her eldest and then out the back windshield into the dark. She tries again to crank the car, talks herself through it once and then somehow they lurch forward.
Behind her a set of headlights come on and she realizes hers are not. “Shit,” she says, twisting knobs until she finds them. She grips the steering wheel with both hands and glances too often in the rearview mirror.
But let them follow her if they want. They only mean to scare her. She spoke to Harley once, at the produce stand, when his mother had died. “Real sorry about your mommy,” she had offered.
“Thank you, lady,” he’d said, and Rita had wondered if anyone had ever called her lady before.
No, she thinks.
Harley won’t let the others do anything to her, if he can help it.
But he is the youngest, and Leon has a score to settle.
“Sing ‘The Stars at Night,’ Mommy,” the youngest girl says from the backseat.
Rita steps on the clutch and grinds the last gear. The curves scare her, so she touches the brake and the car chugs. Downshift she hears Arjay telling her. The car begins to stall, but she pushes the clutch and brings it back to life at a speed she can handle, though the sudden jerking makes the younger girl shriek. “E-e-e-e! Are we wrecking, Mommy?”
“No, Sis,” the eldest says. “Mommy’s only playing. Right, Mommy?”
Rita’s voice is thin as she begins to sing. “The stars at night.”
The littler girl belts out, “Are big and bright!”
Then Jesse. “Deep in the heart of Texas.”
“Around the trail!”
“Deep in the heart of Texas.”
In the dark, Rita can’t spot a single star for the heavy swag of tree branches that flank the road as it winds itself around the mountain. The night air is nippy, but she leaves a window down for the baby when what the baby really needs, she knows, is more than a breath of fresh air. Maybe she leaves it down for herself, to cool her face, flushed with heat and worry. The baby hasn’t stirred at all, and she doesn’t ask if he is all right, just begs God again that he will be.
Behind her, the Justice boys keep a watchful distance, and in Rita’s mind they are biding time until she turns the car over the hillside of her own doing. The roads are bad to break off at the edges where coal trucks have softened the asphalt, so she keeps an eye out for potholes that will stall the car and scare the kids and then do in her nerves altogether. The window is fogged from the inside with old cigarette smoke, and the more she wipes at it with her sleeve, the more blurry things outside become. If an animal leaps out, she has already decided she will run it over. Anything to keep from stalling.
“Blow the horn loud, Mommy, when we get to the underpass,” Sis says.
“You don’t have to honk at night,” Jesse says. “You can see the headlights coming.”
“I don’t care. Will you honk anyway, Mommy? Ple-e-ease?”
“Okay,” Rita says. “Now, sit back.”
When the road finally straightens out a spell, it comes down along the Tug. Even tinged with mud, and even in the shadows of night, water sparkles now and again like flecks of fool’s gold across the wide gulch that is the river’s bed. How many fools are down there Rita does not know, but she guesses that Arjay and Kenny and Jimbo with their dynamite might be. Even if they had already called the other Justice boys out and held the dynamite overhead and said, “Let this be the end of it here and now,” that doesn’t do Rita an ounce of good. Four or maybe five men are in the vehicle behind her, she is sure, and even with Harley among them, she has the clearest notion that she and her babies are soon to become a message to Arjay and Kenny that nobody fucks with the Justice boys.
On the straightaway, Leon guns his engine as if he intends to ram Rita in the ass-end. Then he swerves into the passing lane and edges up alongside the Duster. He leans across the seat and two other men and waves fiercely for her to pull over.
Rita trains her eyes on the road, only half-glancing at him, and when she does, she sees Harley lean up from the backseat to tell him something. She seizes the chance to outrun Leon while he’s distracted. If he reaches the underpass before she does, there is no getting by.
She will get by, though, she tells herself. She will.
Still, she begins making plans of how like a feral bitch she will fight. She supposes it might only make them laugh, that they might hurt one of her kids. So help me God, she swears in her head, and then briefly ponders whether it might not instead be better to play up to them. She will do anything to save her babies. Whatever it takes.
She checks the rearview and suddenly cannot find them. She looks beside her. Nothing. They’re in her blind spot, but gaining on her. She imagines what Leon will do if he has the chance. She sees his tattooed arms reaching for her, tearing at her clothes; and turning onto the bridge that spans the river, she plunges the Duster into the ditch running alongside the mountain.
Jesse bolts up, looks through the back window. “Hurry, Mommy. They’re coming!”
“Who’s coming?” Sis wants to know, and she begins to cry so loud Rita thinks surely it will startle the baby and bring him screaming back to them now. But it doesn’t. He lays as quiet as before, though now even Jesse begins to whimper, “Hurry, Mommy, hurry!”
Rita stomps hard on the clutch and cranks, and when the engine fires, she lets off the pedal quick. But the car is stuck hard and the engine stalls again. “Lock the doors!” she tells Jesse, hurrying, herself, to roll up the window. “Hold onto Brother, girls.”
Behind them, six men step out of the van and walk in front of the headlights, then march forward issuing catcalls and whistles.
Rita holds down the clutch and cranks, but the engine turns over again and again without firing. She can hear Arjay giving her instructions, but she can’t tell what he is saying. She closes her eyes and concentrates.
There is a tap on the window and Jesse screams and jerks Rita’s shoulders. Her eyes fly open and she is face to gray face with Leon, pressing against the glass beside her. His eye is busted up, the eyelid turned back, everything bloody and blackened. “You need a jump start, little woman,” he says. “Harley, bring over the cables and van.” Men circle the Duster and Harley hesitates, moves instead to a window where Rita can see him. Leon moves between him and the Duster.
“Get the jumper cables.”
Rita’s heart hammers inside her brain when Harley leaves. “Please,” she says. “My baby is so sick, Leon. Please, just let us go to the clinic.”
“Nobody stopping you,” Leon says, grinning sideways at the other Justice boys. “Looks like you’re stalled. Want me to give you a lift? I’ll give you a good lift. Now roll down the window.”
Harley cranks the van and it backfires. The men startle, then laugh loudly. Rita is disappointed it’s not the sound of a bullet barreling toward Leon, some unlikely rescue attempt come lately by Arjay and Kenny.
“Get out of the car,” Leon says.
He pounds on the window and the rest of the men circle the car, knocking on the glass, scaring the kids. The Duster is set to rocking, and Jesse holds onto her brother and sister to keep them from being hurt. Rita tries to think, but there’s nothing she can do.
Harley pulls the van around in front of the Duster and pops the hood. Leon tells Rita to pop hers, too. She’s afraid. What if he does something else to the car? If she waits a while, the flooded engine might correct itself. “It’s okay,” Harley says. “I swear.”
Leon watches. She releases the hood. She has no choice.
“I hate you,” Jesse tells Leon through the window. He smacks the glass and she jumps back. The baby is still quiet, but Sis screams unremittingly. She climbs over the front seat and Rita holds her, stroking her head. “It’s awright, baby,” Rita says, kissing her, trying to steady her own heart, to keep her voice even for the girls. She begins to sing. “The stars at night, are big and bright. Deep in the heart of Texas.”
Standing frozen on the hump in the backseat floorboard, Jesse sings, too, through tears she doesn’t remember allowing. “Coyotes wail around the trail. Deep in the heart of Texas.”
Then there is another sound, a horn. “Someone’s honking, Mommy,” Sis says, pulling up from Rita’s lap to look for the car coming through the underpass.
She’s right. Across the river, a car is coming through the underpass. The men step away from the Duster and Rita tries the ignition again, but the battery is too weak. If she lays down on the horn now, it might finish it off completely. She waits for the headlights of the approaching vehicle to near. When they do, Leon steps into the highway and flags the car around. It is an old man. He slows the car, looking around at the group surrounding the Duster, lowers his window and asks if there’s anything he can do. It is dark inside both cars, Rita realizes, reaching overhead to turn on the interior light inside the Duster, hoping he will see them and realize the danger they’re in. She can’t see if the old man is alone or hear what he is saying, but she is certain Leon will scare him away somehow. There may not be another car come through the underpass for hours. Then what’ll she do? There’s no way she can get the Duster started again. This is it, her only chance. She has to try to save the baby if she can.
She scrambles to gather up her son from the backseat. She wraps him tightly in his blanket.
“Lock the door behind me and don’t open it for nothing,” she tells Jesse. Jesse’s face flushes red, her pale eyes are wild with fear. “You’re Mommy’s brave girl. Love you.” She kisses both girls, then opens the door and makes a break for the old man’s car. Leon is explaining that his wife has slid off into the ditch and that he and his brothers are there to pull her out.
“Much obliged, though,” he is saying when Rita comes running up behind him with the baby.
“Help!” she screams. “Help me!” She reaches the window and by now, Leon has threatened the old man to move out. The car rolls forward and Rita runs with all her strength, begging the old man to stop. “My baby!” she says. “Take my baby!”
The old man glances in his side mirror and sees her coming at him with the bundle in her arms and slows to a crawl. Leon runs alongside and strikes a fist on the car’s trunk. “Move along!” he shouts.
But Rita reaches the open window in time and pushes the baby through to the old man. “He’s sick. Get help. I have two little gir—” Leon reaches inside to grab the old man or maybe the baby, but the old man lays down on the accelerator and the car is gone.
Now Rita is left standing alone in the road with Leon and the others. Jesse is watching from the Duster as one of the men, the scariest one, grabs her mother and forces her to the blacktop. She wants to cry out for Rita, but before Sis sees what’s happening, Jesse pulls her to the floor of the car and begins singing again. “The stars at night/ Are big and bright/ Deep in the heart of Texas.”
Outside, Harley approaches Leon. “She ain’t to blame,” he says. “Let’s get out of here.” But there is no reasoning with Leon. Rita has scratched his injured eye, and now he is good and pissed. Someone has pulled the van around and shined its headlights on her. She is already naked from the waist down but does not bother covering herself. She holds her arms out in defense.
“You think I give a flying fuck about blame?” Leon says. He unbuckles his belt, draws it slowly through the loops of his dark cotton pants, and wraps it twice around his right hand. “She ain’t to blame for being so pretty either. I don’t blame her for that.”
Harley steps toward his brother. “Her youngin’s are watching, Leon. For God’s sake at least turn off the lights.” Leon spins around and strikes Harley with the belt.
“Mother-fuck!” Harley yells.
“Step away!” Leon orders and two other men sidle up next to Harley and take him by the arms, muscle him back into the van. Leon turns around and strikes Rita with the belt now. She hops and twists to avoid the lashes, but there is nowhere to go. The belt snaps hard on her bare flesh. Each blow is met with a yowl and a welt, but she spits at him anyway. She will fight him to the death, she has already decided. He cuffs her square in the face with his fist.
Jesse cups her hands around her face in the car window so she can see outside. She catches her breathe and turns her head with the first strike, sings hysterically to the top of her lungs. Rita’s shrieks come every now and then between rests in the song, and Sis lifts her head to find her mother. But the light inside the car is still on, and the child can see only her own reflection in the windows. Still, she waits for the sound again, the sound of Rita’s voice, even as Jesse sings louder and hands her a baby doll. “The stars at night! Are BIG and BRIGHT! DEEP IN THE HEART OF TEXAS!” Louder and louder Jesse sings. Scary loud. Bossy loud. “Play with your doll! Play with your doll!” Jesse screams at her. “Play with your doll!” She pulls her sister’s arm, shoves the doll at her, then climbs down in the floorboard to search for the magic bottle of orange juice. It must have rolled up under the seat, but Jesse cannot find it. It has disappeared, the magic bottle of orange juice. Disappeared itself. Altogether vanished. Maybe it never was there. But it must be. It was. Jesse knows it was. It was right there. A minute ago, it was there in the backseat. She flops over the rubber floor mat, caked with mud and wrinkled up around the hump in the floorboard from their hiding down there from Leon like Rita had told them to do. She slides her hand up under the seat, pushes her whole arm under, and feels something. Something hard, something cold. She has her hand on it, pulls it out. It is Arjay’s Colt. Jesse has never seen it before, but she knows her daddy has guns. It looks real, like the ones on T.V. It is heavy in her small hands, and so cold, cold like ice almost. Her sister recoils at the sight of the gun. Her shiny, blinking eyes widen. They are in trouble. Big trouble. She wants her mommy and daddy. She wants her brother.
Leon hits Rita again with his fist. He beats her until she falls to the road, balls up to protect her face. He yanks her by the hair, pulls her to her feet, rips her blouse. “Yes,” she says. “Let’s go somewhere, Leon. Away from here. Me and you.”
Leon presses his mouth to hers. She gags on his tongue and he jerks free of her. She reaches for him frantically, kisses him again. Her eyes look toward the Duster. She sees Harley. He is moving toward the car. Thank God, she thinks. He will rap softly on the window until the girls open the door. He will sneak them back to the van and take them out of there. She can see the girls clearly inside the car.
Leon forces her back to the pavement, pries apart her legs with his knee, unzips. She doesn’t fight him; she weeps but clings hard to his wiry body, hopes Harley will be faster than his brother. She can no longer see him. She closes her eyes, waits to hear the welcome sound of an engine firing up.
When Harley reaches the Duster, he holds a finger to his lips, says “Shhh.” But the girls cannot see him, so he tries the door handle, and when she hears it rattle, Jessie turns with the Colt in her hands. She sees a man. He is a bad man. She raises the gun and there is a noise. A loud noise. A bang. The car window shatters. Sis screams. The man is gone.
Leon jerks at the sound of gunfire, pulls away from Rita. She clutches for him to stay, but he is up and running with the others toward the Duster. “No!” she screams, begging him not to go, scrambling after him. Leon lags behind his kin, righting his pants and belt. He yells Harley’s name. Rita watches Leon fall to his knees beside the Duster. She hears him cry out in anguish. Hears them all curse and cry. “Oh, Jesus,” they wail. “That fucking kid!”
The dome light inside the car flickers. It looks like a star. It is big and bright.
Until she was about ten years old, Sheryl Monks lived with her family in McDowell County, WV, the poorest county in the nation, at least at one point in time. All her writing comes from there. Anything that matters anyway.
Sheryl's stories have earned recognition and awards, including a Northwest NC Regional Artist's Project Grant, the Reynolds Price Short Fiction Award, and finalist recognition in literary contests sponsored by Backwards City Review and VERB: An Audioquarterly. Work has appeared or is forthcoming in RE:AL — Regarding Arts and Letters, Backwards City Review, Southern Gothic, Surreal South, and other publications. She is currently writing a novel set in Beartown, WV.