Justice Boys, by Sheryl Monks

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.”

Coy­otes wail.”

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 a
nd 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.

No.”

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 fl
oor 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.

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