Barry Hannah Competition–1st place, Jeff Crook

The End of the War

Mother drove our exhausted Toyota out of the shade of the trees, past a swath of sunburned lawn littered with bits of Styrofoam where they had dragged the raft from the shed down to the lake. Out on the raft two girls broiled, bronzed, blonde, too far away to see who they were, the girls too alike to guess. Mother cut the engine and we rolled to a stop behind the house.

Hope leaned out from the side of the porch and waved, smiling, her fingers stained almost black by the shells of purple hull peas. Aunt Ophie burst out of the house, still drying her hands on a dishtowel, down the steps and to the car before Mother had even got out, leaning into the open door to hug Mother and both of them crying already. A mud-spattered little Kawasaki leaning against the wall of the carport reminded me that I’d traded my Yamaha for gas to get here. As if I needed reminding.

The back of the Toyota was stuffed with our things, everything we could load from the house including Mother’s china and my mineral collection. The Singer sewing machine Daddy gave her for Christmas three years ago. Yearbooks and photo albums and video tapes of me as a baby, my CDs and stereo. Mother’s paintings. Suitcases and boxes of clothes and clothes piled up in the back and our good clothes hanging from a pole running across the back seat, everything we could salvage. Eleven hours to drive the three hour drive to get here. I climbed out of the car and stretched and looked at our mess about to burst out the rear windows. It was too hot to unload it all, and Uncle Brown still had to find a place to put our stuff, anyway. I mounted the steps to the porch and sank into the swing next to Hope, who was shelling peas into a black enamel roasting pan. Out on the lake, the two girls lay head to head on the raft. One sat up and turned over, tugging the lemon-yellow bikini bottom from the crack of her painfully perfect ass.

“Where is everybody?” I asked.

“Colly and Pepper are fishing, the girls laying out on the raft,” Hope said. Colly was my age, fourteen, and named Collin, but everybody called him Colly; next oldest were the twins Pepper and Honey, both thirteen. Hope, sitting next to me, was the youngest, twelve years old and elfish as a star. There was also Lily, a daughter by an earlier marriage, twenty-something, living in Oxford where she was a graduate student in Organic Chemistry.

I wanted it to be Dee who had sat up, but my prescription sunglasses were still in the car. Dee was the daughter of Uncle Rocky and Aunt Desdemona; her name was Debra – called Dee for short, tomboyishly sixteen and longing in my dreams. Her younger brother was also fourteen like me, named Rutherford, but everybody called him Red because of the splotches on his face. They lived in a split-level ranch house across a narrow grassy valley from Uncle Brown’s house. A dry creek spanned by a wooden foot bridge at the bottom of the hollow divided their lands. In heavy weather, the creek took on like a trout stream. The boys would put a canoe in at the top and shoot the brief rapids down to the lake.

“Who’s that out there? Honey and Dee?” I asked, shading my eyes with my hand as I stared down at the raft. She dropped a handful of peas into the pan.

“That ain’t Dee. It’s Lily,” Hope said.

“Why aren’t you out there with them?” I asked.

“I got to get these peas shelled,” she said.

I looked at Hope, noticing for the first time how much she had grown since last Christmas. She wore faded cutoff jeans and a white tank top that sagged just so you could see inside the armhole but not far enough to see anything. Not that she had much to see. Her legs jutted out of the frayed bottoms of her shorts and spread carelessly, long toes hooked over the edge of the porch table, knees up, black roasting pan in her lap holding a nest of purple and green pea hulls. She picked up a shell and split it between her thumb and forefinger, stripped the peas out, and dropped them into the pan. The empty shell fell into a grocery bag beneath the angle of her knees.

“That’s Lily?” I asked, trying to distract myself. I wished I had worn my glasses. “I thought it was Dee.”

“Dee and Red don’t come over no more,” Hope said. “We’re at war.”“War?” I turned back, trying desperately to be casual. She tilted her head and looked up at me under the white curls of her bleached-out hair hanging over her green eyes.

“Last Christmas, Red started hanging out with that Cobb Wharton on account of his sisters, Kelly and Helly. They call Helly “Catfish” ‘cause she has hairs on her lip that tickle your dick when she sucks it.”

Good God, I thought, she knows about that?

“They’re fools after them girls. Colly and Pepper, too,” she said.

“That’s why they’re fighting?” I asked, my face hot and tingly, feeling swollen.

“Yep.” A pea landed in my lap. I picked it out of the crease in my jeans, careful not to touch my thing, which was burgeoning. Mother and Aunt Ophie staggered up the steps, leaning together and snuffling, and entered the house without stopping. I was glad because I didn’t want to have to stand up and give out hugs with a hump in my pants big as Calvary.

“What’s Dee got to do with them?” I asked.“She’s bi now, her and Kelly Wharton,” Hope said flatly, her thumb stripping up through another shell. “That Kelly, she’s all the time squeezing Dee’s titties. She even tried to kiss me.”

I shifted in the seat to give myself room to expand. “Did you let her?”

“For a minute,” she answered, shrugging. “It weren’t much. But Dee’s all for it.”

I’d been sorry to leave home, which is a crazy thing to say considering it wasn’t even there anymore, but I wasn’t so sorry now. I thought about that sweet little Kawasaki leaning against the carport, practically calling my name. I needed a good fast ride to clear out my head, but there weren’t no standing up now. I wondered if I would be stuck on the porch until dark.

“Colly and Pepper been hard up for fun since the war started,” Hope said as she stirred the peas in her pot, searching for unshelled pods. Finding none, she rose and walked to the door, her legs too long for her, her shorts riding up and showing some butt cheek and a fringe of shy panty, so that I thought I might die. She leaned into the screen and popped the door open with her elbow, entered the house.

A splash from the lake drew my attention. Lily stood at the edge of the raft, settling her grad student titties into her bikini. Halfway between her and the shore, Honey’s head and heart-shaped butt broke the surface of the water like a pair of turtles, legs kicking the green water. There was no way I was going to wait around for them or I’d never get off the porch. I jumped up and headed for the Kawasaki beside the carport.

Hope leaned against the door, the pan of peas still in her hands. “Where you going?” she asked. I angled away to hide the bulge of my johnson.

“I’m headed down to the Red Bird store,” I said as I jumped down the steps.

“Hold on a minute. I’ll go with you,” she said. She let the door swing back with a wooden slap.

I pulled the bike away from the wall and swung a leg over, dropped onto the saddle, and goosed the gas a couple of times. Then I checked the tank and found her three-quarters full. Hope came down the steps in two fawn-legged strides, her brown feet settled into a pair of worn sandals. She hiked a leg over the seat and slid in behind me, adjusted her hips against my butt, her hands warm against my back. I rose up and came down on the kickstart, the engine whined to life. I popped her into first, spun her around and headed for Flowers Road on just the back wheel, Hope holding on tight behind.

Pepper’s Kawasaki was a little less than what I was used to riding, but it was fast enough and as soon as I reached the road, I wound her out. Hope’s fingers, black from the peas, locked together over my belly, and the faster I went, the tighter she pulled herself against me. I goosed the engine up and leaned heavily into the turns with her flattening herself against my back, chin digging into my shoulder blade. I looked down during the straights and saw her knees beside my thighs. She lifted her feet and let the wind flap her sandals.

Up we climbed into the thicker pine forest on the heights above Flowers Lake: sudden, impossible heights invisible from the highway, coasting up over the top and looking down across the flat silver lake tiger-striped in the sun beyond the trees. The road divided here on the ridge, gravel leading to the levee to the left, behind us the blacktop curling down through the trees. The wind blew cool off the lake in the evening, so all the houses lined the shade along the southern shore. The north shore was dark with trees, a few old vacation houses lying up there in mossy ruins, A-frame cabins tilting into ravines. The swinging bridge hanging above its reflection in Bridge Cove, the long straight mounded up levee grown over with wild rose and honeysuckle, the naked posts and ruins of piers and boat docks across the water poking out from the overgrown banks into the lily pads, and below us, clinging to the hillsides in grassy clearings, the houses where the Flowers overlooked their lake and their own boathouses and docks and sunbathing rafts, lawn chairs and upturned buckets and benches tiny beside the shore marking the best fishing spots, the grey and brick-red roofs of their houses poking up through the green pine canopy like Mayan ruins, and the long black driveways snaking up to touch Flowers Road.

Now we rode down through the pines, going faster and leaning hard into the turns, down through the Texas-looking country, past the cattle, the dazed cows, the steers chewing the air, nosing the sunburned grass. The road was gravel all the times before until this time, all the summers we came to visit, all the Decembers, but now this hissing black asphalt beneath the Kawasaki’s knobby tires. Mother said that before the road was gravel it was dirt, and that the Flowers had cut the road themselves, then paid to have the gravel laid and the grading and regraveling when there was no more gravel to grade.

We clove down through the shimmering brassy late August heat, our speed barely cooling the air, past the lukewarm green cow ponds and the washed out red clay banks, the thickets of withered honeysuckle and fields of looming anthropomorphic kudzu monsters. There was a stand of pecan and hickory trees surrounding a mossy green concrete stair and an old rusted out trash barrel marking the place where some family had lived, bred, scratched the dirt for a few years, then dragged their trailer away to some easier Mississippi. In the ditches beside the road lay fifty years’ accumulation of pitched-out sun-faded beer cans slowly absorbing back into the soil, buried under the inexorable glacial crawl of red mud.

Out of the hills, the last mile to the store was mostly straight going. Hope unlaced her fingers and let her hands slip down until her warm palms rested on my thighs. But she stayed pressed close, her cheek against my back. We reached the store and I slid the bike to a stop beneath the locust tree out front, popping the clutch to kill the engine. “That was fun,” she said into my shoulder.

***

The store was called The Red Bird. An old white man named Elmer Cardinal and his wife Bitsy owned it. Elmer perched atop a stool behind the counter, shirtless in the summer, a smoldering Kool Filter King perpetually dangling from his dangling lower lip. Bitsy made tuna salad in a five-gallon bucket for the truckers stopping there for lunch every day.

Hope dismounted from the Kawasaki and stood beside me while I dismounted and leaned the bike against the locust tree.There were dozens of truckers outside the store, eating their lunch in the shade or ranged along the gallery. We moved through, stepping over legs, the men watching Hope with lust blazing in their hearts, jealousy quickening my blood. We entered the store. “Looks like rain,” Hope said. The southwest sky had darkened considerably, though the sun still baked the dirt beyond the gallery, glanced blindingly off the windshields of the nearest trucks.

“Lord knows we need it,” Bitsy said from behind the counter. “Who’s that with you? By God, it’s that Rakestraw boy. Look how much he’s grown. You’re a foot taller!”

“Two inches,” I said from the candy aisle. Hope had already disappeared down the dark length of the barn-like store. Generations of near-wild cats slept and bred and battled each other under its wooden floor, which creaked like a sailing ship in the rising wind.

The far end of the store glowed from a door left open to let the breeze through, dust sifting though shafts of light. I found Hope there, ass in the air, glass rattling, leaning into an old Coke cooler with the sliding glass doors on top and dull galvanized silver sides inside. She came up holding a milky-brown bottle of Yoohoo, her breath smoky in the chill air.

The door beyond her darkened and she stepped back. Someone stood there, short as a midget until I realized he was standing on the ground outside, the floor of the store even with his hips, pointing a pistol at us. “It’s Red,” Hope said flatly as she unscrewed the top of her YooHoo.

“Y’all get out the way,” he hissed, tugging the desperado bandana from his face. “And shut the fuck up. We’re gonna rob Elmer and Bitsy.” He leaned into the door and looked around.

“You and who?” I asked.

“Me and Cobb, Dee, Kelly and Catfish. Rakestraw? I thought you was Colly. When did you get here?”

Hope titled the bottle of YooHoo up and drank, her cheeks sucking in.

“Y’all ain’t robbing shit,” I said, pulling my eyes away from her. I reached into the cooler and grabbed the first thing on top – a quart bottle of Miller. Red pointed the pistol at me, but it was only a BB pistol, I could see. I flung the bottle at his head. He ducked and the bottle pinged on the dirt outside the door, skittered across the grass. He jumped after it, cussing under his breath, picked it up and cocked back to throw it at me, then stopped. He set it on the ground.

“Throw me another one,” he said, grinning.

Kelly and Helly and Cobb scampered in to collect the bottles as I threw them and Red caught them. Hope watched with her green eyes, quietly sucking on that Yoohoo. I pitched eight quarts out the door, not even stopping to see what they were, before Elmer got curious and edged his fat butt off the stool behind the counter. I grabbed a bottle of Coke and headed for the front. Behind the store, Red and his gang cranked up their motorcycles and tore off, laughing, engines whining up through the gears.

I paid Bitsy for the Coke and then for Hope’s YooHoo. It was worth the dollar to watch her mouth the top of that bottle. She finished it even before we got back to the Kawasaki under the tree. I mounted the bike and she slid on behind me and we took off, Hope clinging tight again, her hard little titties pressed into my back. Up into the hills again and no sign of the others, gone, disappeared and with all that beer, too.

Topping the next hill, we nearly ran smack into Colly and Pepper riding a pair of big yellow-and-blue Husqvarna 450s. I slid to a stop, knobby tires protesting on the asphalt, engine popping, while they turned back and rolled up next to us. “Hey. When’d you get here?” Pepper said. His bike was too big for him; he stood up on his toes just to hold it.

“Me and Red just stole a whole shitload of beer,” I said.

“We’re at war with Red and them,” Colly said.

“Not no more, you ain’t. Let’s go get that some of that beer before they drink it all.” I didn’t give them a chance to argue. I just took off, popping a quick wheelie, Hope hanging on behind. They quickly caught up to me with their bigger bikes, Pepper on one side looking pissed, Colly on the other smiling. “Hell yeah!” he shouted over the whine of our engines. “I’m eatin’ catfish tonight!”

The two of them took off then, Colly riding a wheelie all the way to the next curve, Pepper leaning low over the handlebars of his bike, angry and sullen. The Kawasaki couldn’t keep up with their 450s and after a few minutes, they were gone, the hills hiding the noise of their engines. I slowed, turned my head and shouted into the wind, “Where would they go?”

Hope leaned up, her chin on my shoulder. “Other side of the lake. Take the levee road.” I sped up, but slowed again when I heard her shout something, her chin moving against my shoulder blade.

“What?”

“I said I ain’t kissing no beer breath,” she said, her lips almost touching my ear. I coasted for a few seconds, the engine popping as it wound down, feeling her slide back down and press her cheek against my back, her fingers tightening on my hips. Then I nodded and opened the throttle, the wind slashing my eyes, tach needle inching to the red line as the smell of sun-scorched pines whipped by.

Jeff Crook is the author of four novels and dozens of published short stories. He lives in Olive Branch, MS with his wife, kids and cats. Barry Hannah was Jeff’s first creative writing teacher and is the reason he is a writer today. You can find him at http://jeffcrook.blogspot.com and http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeff-Crook/1408952341.

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