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://​jef​fcrook​.blogspot​.com and http://​www​.face​book​.com/​p​e​o​p​l​e​/​J​e​f​f​-​C​r​o​o​k​/​1​4​0​8​9​5​2​341.

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