At a quarter past six Slade realized he’d not make it to Marilyn’s Pub ‘n Sub in time for his meet-up with Jackson Saunders. He knew Saunders was a stickler for punctuality, but he still hoped to find him parked in the lot behind Marilyn’s near the twin olive-green dumpsters when he arrived. It was their usual meeting place. The day had been a combination of blowing mist and drizzle, and though it had stopped an hour earlier the road was still shiny with moisture. Slade raised a hand to his mouth searching for a nail to chew. He found nothing beyond the quick. He tried the other hand and got the same result. He’d run out of meth on Wednesday. It was now Friday and he feared if he didn’t find a new supply soon he’d gnaw the ends of his fingers off.
He finally made it to Marilyn’s but there was no sign of Saunders. He parked anyway. Turning the radio on and scanning the AM band he found only one station within range, some rich fuck complaining about socialism. The FM band didn’t fare much better.
He waited nearly half an hour frantically watching the highway, desperate for Saunders to pull in and offer up a quarter ounce that he was hoping would calm the noise in his head. He was about to call it quits when he saw the burgundy Chrysler that belonged to Saunders’ girlfriend turn into the lot and park beside him. She waved him over. Once the door was closed and they were alone she started to say something but stopped. She was a frail girl with a reedy voice. Her skin was almost too white and her black hair greasy and smelling of acetone. Slade could tell from the redness around her eyes she had been crying. Thinking she had come to deliver the meth, he reached for his wallet.
“No!” she said. “Put that away! They might be following me!”
“What the hell, Kay! Who might be following you?” Slade said, wiping at the smudgy windshield so he could get a clear view of the highway. He watched a logging truck pass and then nothing.
“Jack said he was supposed to meet you here and needed a ride,” she said. “When I went by his house the sheriff had him handcuffed stuffing him in a cruiser.” She could barely sit still, twisting in her seat and making little jerky motions with her arms.
“Oh, shit.” Slade felt his stomach churning and his heart thumping against his rib cage.
“I don’t know what to do, Slade. Fuck. I didn’t want to come here but I didn’t want to go home, either.” Kay kept reaching for the mirror and readjusting it like she expected a SWAT team to swoop out of the woods and haul her off. “The DEA was there, too, in their blacked-out Navigators or whatever it is they drive.”
“This is serious, Kay. I heard they were operating in Elliot County trying to shut down the labs and the pill pushers over there. That whole county’s like a drive-thru binge barn anyway so it didn’t surprise me. But I never thought they’d work their way over here.”
“Well, I can promise you they’re here, Slade. Because that sure wasn’t a bunch of tourists I saw who stopped to watch some hillbilly get busted.”
They sat a while longer discussing their options. Kay decided to go to a friend’s house for a few days. All Slade knew was that he had to find some meth and find it quick. And since it was too risky around Wayland he figured his only other option was to track down his cousin in Rock Camp and see if he could hook him up.
Slade had stayed in touch with his cousin Louis by talking to him occasionally over the phone. Louis was five years older than Slade and had connections in every hollow and backwoods hideout within forty miles of Rock Camp. He was born smack in the middle of town one blustery summer afternoon when his mother swung by the post office to drop off a package and dropped Louis along with it. Louis was proud of the fact that he had lived his entire life having never ventured more than one county over from the one he was born in. He often bragged that if he didn’t die in Rock Camp or one of the surrounding townships, it would be because somebody had kidnapped him and carried him far away, shooting him, strangling him, or simply burying him in a hole when nobody stepped forward with the ransom they demanded.
It wasn’t until midnight that Louis finally answered Slade’s phone call. He’d been down in one of the hollows drinking with some friends but left early when Jimmy Cotton convinced the others to ride into Ironton with him and find a drunk to roll.
“Listen,” Slade said when he had Louis on the other end. “I was thinking of heading up that way tomorrow and…”
“What?” Louis cut in. “You ain’t been to Rock Camp since you left. You in some kind of trouble?”
“No. I just thought while I was there you might know somebody could tie me into some crank.”
“It’s been kind of hot up here with the law and all, Cuz. Most people I know are laying low, afraid to do much. But I suppose I can take care of you. I’ve got some other business to attend to so why don’t you come by, say about six o’clock. I’ll have what you need. Sound all right?”
“I’ll be there,” Slade said.
Slade polished off a plate of country ham, eggs, grits and toast at Papa Joe’s Café the next morning thinking that his newfound appetite was the only good thing to come from running out of drugs. He’d usually grab a sandwich or a quick bowl of soup somewhere, the needs of his stomach an afterthought more than anything else. He filled his Durango with gas at the BP station next door, stashed four twenty ounce Red Bulls in the cooler he’d brought, and hit the road for the two hour drive to Ohio.
Arriving on the outskirts of Rock Camp a little after two o’clock and with plenty of time to kill before he was supposed to meet Louis, Slade thought he might visit the ridge he remembered as a kid. He had lived a quarter mile below the ridge line in a place that was more shack than house. It was all his parents could afford living as they did from paycheck to paycheck. But they were gone now, dead before their time.
The blackberries were at their juiciest in late August and the horse weed vibrant and high, nearly choking the path that ascended from the old homestead. The climb was rough but Slade kept at it, managing the last few yards by using his boots to push aside the weeds. He made his way to an outcrop of rock and positioned himself well back from the edge. His greatest fear of late was acting on impulse, a sudden thought that might flash across his mind and cause him to react without any concern for the outcome.
“I’m not one to go killing myself,” he said. “So don’t even think about it.”
This had become his refrain whenever the noise in his head kicked in and overrode nearly every good thought that came his way. It started after he got himself hooked on crank while driving a coal truck. First came pills. But when he discovered crystal meth was cheaper and easier to get, he switched over. The high was good at first, the feeling that he was invincible, that he could do anything he wanted and do it better than anyone else. But the noise turned everything upside down. It didn’t matter to Slade, though. The only two things he cared about now were getting high and getting laid.
Slade balanced himself with one leg wedged into a knee-high crag of granite. He pulled a cigarette from his shirt pocket and lit it, flicking the spent match toward the ravine. The valley at the base of the ridge looked to Slade like it always had when he viewed it from this angle. He imagined it as a ribbon of green that had fallen from the sky. There was hardly a straight section to it, just a series of bends and curves bordered by Sugar Creek on one side and a sheer wall of rock on the side where he now stood. What was once a county road with no offshoots was now peppered with driveways. Though they were mostly ruts worn into the clay soil they still provided access to the mobile homes set at odd angles along the creek.
The only structure Slade recognized was the single-pump gas station and country store at the valley’s northern end. He was surprised by its longevity, how it had weathered the years and managed to stay in business. He remembered how the store once served as a gathering place for what he called the riff-raff of a welfare state. His father had been too proud to accept a handout in any form, even in the worst times, and he had taught Slade that if a man was having trouble making it in this world it was because he wasn’t trying hard enough. Bad luck and misfortune were not excuses.
In the years following, and mostly on weekends after darkness collapsed like a mining disaster over the valley, the store became a hangout for local teenagers. Slade despised this new breed of teenager almost as much as the riff-raff. They could not be trusted. Like animals the worst of them would shoot a man for no good reason. Slade thought he was lucky to have escaped this place. He swore he would never return, not for any reason on earth. But his life had changed since then, changed in ways he’d never imagined.
A blast of wind from below fanned the goat’s beard at Slade's feet. As he looked over the bluff expecting another gust he saw a foreign made car, a Honda maybe, and then a Ford pickup with a dog bounding in the bed as if it was trying to swallow every bit of wind that looped around the side panels, bisecting the valley. The traffic’s movement relaxed Slade and he felt the noise in his head fading away. What Slade called noise most often came in the form of voices cajoling him, insulting him, or making demands that he struggled to resist though he was not always successful. But this time it was mostly a high pitched whine, and as it wound to nothing more than an annoying hum Slade began to feel at peace.
Then, “I’ll be Goddamned!” Startled, Slade dropped his cigarette.
Thinking it was the noise starting in again he tried to cover his ears to get some relief. But his arms refused to abide.
“Is that you, Slade? Jeremy Goddamned Slade?”
Realizing the voice was not in his head but somewhere behind him, Slade turned to see a man dressed in camouflage pushing his way through a stand of sapling pines. He carried a shotgun slung over his shoulder. And though a gray-flecked beard covered most of the man’s mouth, Slade noticed a picket of yellowed teeth that he took to be evidence of a smile.
“Goddamn it is you! What’s it been, ten years, fifteen tops?”
“Don’t know,” Slade croaked, stepping off the rocks. “Maybe.”
The man stopped several yards short of Slade. He spat a brown stream into the dirt and squinched his eyes, waiting for acknowledgment that here stood an old friend. When none came, the man lowered the shotgun to his side.
“You don’t remember me, do you?” he said. “Damned if that ain’t the shits. Listen here, we went to school together, me and you!”
Something about the man looked vaguely familiar but Slade couldn’t see enough through the beard to put a name to him.
“Stanton Galloway, dammit! You helped me steal Bobby Turner’s Pontiac the night I had a date with that gal over in Willow Wood and no way to get there.”
Slade recalled that night. How Galloway had phoned, pleaded with him for a ride because he’d heard how a date with this girl was a sure bet to get laid.
“Okay. Yeah. Yeah, I got it. You promised if I took you to see her and you got some I could watch.”
“Too damn bad your car wouldn’t start,” Galloway said. “You missed one hell of a show.”
They’d concocted a plan that had Slade babysitting Turner, making sure he stayed liquored up while Galloway pinched his car and kept his date in Willow Wood. The plan was solid. Turner was an easy drunk. Drinking was a hobby of his, and if he didn’t have to pay for the whiskey then so much the better. But when Turner came to the next morning and saw his car gone he grabbed a greasy towel off the floor and tried to smother Slade, still passed out and snoring in an old broken recliner. Faulting Slade made no sense but then nothing Turner did made sense.
“You near got me killed!” Slade said.
“Hell, we can laugh about it now. How was I to know I’d get a flat and him not have a spare in that big-ass trunk? The good old days! Eh, Slade?”
Before leaving, Galloway said he had a girl he wanted Slade to meet and plenty of good shit to smoke if he cared for that sort of thing.
An hour later Slade was sitting in his Durango at Galloway’s with the windows closed and the A/C and engine running to ward off the afternoon heat. He had parked in a bare spot of yard just off the gravel drive where Galloway’s mother had died. Crazy with grief, she drank a pint of bleach after her husband was struck dead by a cottonmouth while giving praise to Jesus. Galloway found her sprawled beneath a barren apple tree, a clump of red clay in one fist and her chin pink with the foam that had gurgled out of her as she lay praying for the end to come. The past began to come back to Slade. He remembered thinking the same fate awaited Galloway. And though it had yet to happen, the overall desperate look of Galloway’s place meant it was still a possibility.
Slade reached for the A/C knob and lowered the temperature a couple degrees. He leaned back and again heard the noise stirring in his head but was too exhausted from hiking the ridge to fight it off.
“You are a dumb shit!” said a voice that sounded to Slade like a taunt from some fat grade-schooler. “Big high-and-mighty Slade!” it continued. “Never coming back to Rock Camp? Look around! Tell us where you are now!”
A knot of voices broke loose demanding an answer.
“Fuck you!” Slade said.
The ruckus shifted to laughter and Slade thought of the time in fourth grade when, doing chin-ups on the monkey bars, a sixth-grade girl and several of her friends cornered him once he hit the ground.
“I want to see your dick,” the sixth-grader said. “We all want to see it.” Two of the girls giggled, their eyes fixed on Slade’s crotch. The Conroy brothers had stripped him naked a week earlier. They buried his clothes and forced him to jump into Sugar Creek if he wanted them back. Word got around. Kids called him Snake, Mr. Billy Club. And now here were a bunch of older girls demanding to see it for themselves. Slade’s cheeks had suddenly felt flush, his skin burned. Reluctantly, he undid his belt and zipper. But when he put his hand down his underwear and grabbed his dick he pissed himself. By then Galloway and a few other kids had joined the girls and they all stood laughing at him. Slade wanted to kill them, every single one of them. Instead, he skipped school for a week. He hid in cornfields and barns grown over in woodbine and pictured himself dynamiting the school and everyone in it. From there he’d work his way through Rock Camp going house to house, shooting and stabbing until the entire town was littered with bodies. “That’ll show the sick bastards,” he’d sobbed. “Teach them to laugh at me.”
A muffled roar roused Slade and he checked his side-view mirror to see Galloway slicing up the drive on a Kawasaki four-wheeler. A girl rode behind him, her chest tight against Galloway’s back and her arms locked around his waist. They circled once and came again at Slade through a cluster of stumps in the side yard. As it came out of the stump field the Kawasaki caught a dip. When it hit the upslope the front wheels lifted off the ground and the sudden change of direction pitched Galloway forward with the girl piggybacked on top of him. For a second Slade thought all three of them—Galloway, the girl, and the Kawasaki they were fighting to stay astride—were going to roll like a barrel into the front quarter-panel of his Durango. But at the last second Galloway slammed himself against the seat and twisted the handlebars hard left. Gravel pinged off Slade’s SUV and gray dust corkscrewed over the hood.
“Hell yeah,” the girl whooped. She threw her arms around Galloway’s neck and pulled his head back so she could bite his ear. The Kawasaki slid to a stop beneath a streetlight Galloway had snatched, its pole hammered sideways by a rockslide along State Route 217 north of town. He had wired a motion detector to it and bolted it to the side of his house for security, the first line of defense should any of his customers come looking to rip him off. Galloway hopped from the Kawasaki and tossed a gritty hand in Slade’s direction, motioning him over.
“This here’s June and that’s Slade,” Galloway said as Slade followed them through the door. “June lives one holler the other side of that ridge you climbed today.”
“June, huh,” Slade said.
“That’s right,” June countered. “The names April and May were already spoke for by the time Momma had me.”
“Yeah, but they done run off,” Galloway said. “Fucked ever thing there was to fuck in Rock Camp and decided to branch out, expand their territory.”
“You oughtn’t talk about them like that,” June said.
“It’s true, ain’t it? Hell, I put it to both of them gals waiting on you to come of age.” Galloway laughed. He smacked June’s ass then watched her wiggle over to the couch and settle into the cushions.
Slade had known girls like June, girls with little more to do in such a ratty town than latch onto some man for sex and whatever else he might provide. He despised these girls almost as much as he had the new breed of teenagers. But he fancied June. She was still magazine cute with a tight body that bordered on skinny. And he liked the way her sassy hair was the color of cornstalks in late November, and how it hung just below her ears, capping her cheekbones and making her face glow like an invitation to a night of fevered wildness.
The laughter in Slade’s head had quieted and he figured whoever the voices belonged to were as dumbstruck as he was by the girl’s presence.
“Unless you’re a goddamned statue sit the hell down,” Galloway barked before leaving through the back door.
Slade chose a brown leather chair in a corner near the hallway. The armrests were grimed over and foam padding had squeezed through the cracked headrest and greened with mildew. It was either that or plant himself next to June. As much as he preferred June, though, Slade didn’t want to risk pissing Galloway off. No need for trouble if he could avoid it.
The inside of Galloway’s house was worse than Slade had imagined looking at it from the outside. The walls were a mix of colors a maniac might paint just before blowing his brains out in a spray of gore. The ceiling was dark gray, while the walls were various shades of brown, orange, and a sort of yellowing white. The windows had been mostly covered over with plastic sheeting, though a few of the corners still peeled away providing Galloway a clear view of his yard. Judging from the array of guns scattered about the room Slade figured Galloway lived in a constant state of paranoia. He counted four, a deer rifle propped in the corner, a Colt Python 357Magnum on the TV stand, and a 9 millimeter Beretta and another handgun he couldn’t identify resting on top of a blue plastic milk crate wedged between a kerosene heater and a sagging bookcase.
Galloway came back with a silver, crinkled-up lunch pail that he plunked on the bookcase.
“Get your ass up and get us some beer,” he said to June. “I’ve got to put the four-wheeler in the shed.”
Slade watched June pry herself off the couch and crunch her way over the peanut husks and hunting magazines toward the kitchen. A minute later she was back with two Stroh’s. She set Galloway’s on the floor next to the couch then crunched over to Slade. She drew Slade’s beer to her chest and rolled it across her T‑shirted breasts wiping sweat from the bottle.
“That ought to make it taste better,” she grinned.
Slade grinned back at her. He accepted the beer while looking at the outline of her nipples through her Cuddle Buddy T‑shirt, then admired the way her hips flared tight against her Wrangler cut-offs. Noticing how the dim light shimmered against her tanned legs he tried to imagine her riding naked beside him in the Durango.
“I know something else that would make it taste even better.” At first Slade thought the words had come from one of the voices in his head. When he realized they were his own words he tried to backtrack but he was too slow.
“Why don’t you come by my place later?” June said. “We can go somewhere private, out 141 maybe. Looks like enough room in that truck of yours for us to be all kinds of nasty.”
“What about Galloway?”
“Galloway is Galloway. He ain’t my boyfriend if that’s what you’re thinking. He keeps me high and I keep him from getting too horny.” June circled behind the leather chair so she could keep an eye on the front door. She ran her hands inside Slade’s shirt, felt the warmth rising from his chest and the hair coarse between her fingers.
“You won’t be sorry,” she said leaning in, her teeth nibbling gently at Slade’s ear. “I promise you that.”
Slade wasn’t sure he could trust June. For all he knew Galloway planned to marry her. It could be she was the kind of girl who saw men as rungs on a ladder and him one rung above Galloway. Maybe she figured Galloway to be headed for jail and she needed to establish a new foothold, one with more stability than what Galloway had to offer.
“Why me?” Slade asked, trying to coax June’s hands from under his shirt.
“Darling,” June whispered. “You might have vanished from Rock Camp all those years ago but your reputation lives on.”
She pulled her hands from inside Slade’s shirt and shook her ass all the way to the couch. She eased into the cushions then blew a kiss across the filthy room. Slade tipped his beer back, felt the alcohol chilling his throat. A minute later Galloway beat his way through the front door.
“Goddamn heat,” he said searching the room for his beer. “I hate the fucking snow but I’ll be damned if this heat hasn’t about killed me.” Galloway spotted the beer, parted his dirty lips and polished it off in one long gulp. He tossed the bottle on a wad of newspapers and pawed his way over June, settling in next to her.
Slade watched the honey-colored bottle roll from the newspapers and spin a little dance on the hardwood. He thought of the old Galloway, the one in high school who would have flung the bottle as if it was molten glass instead of simply tossing it aside. The old Galloway was quick to anger and just as quick to kick somebody’s ass for sport because rage seemed to be the primary element embedded in his DNA. Slade was thinking of the guns and trying to determine how much of the old Galloway still resided in the haggard figure seated across from him when June said, “Let’s get fucked up. Maybe that’ll cool you off.”
“That’ll just get me hotter than I am now and then you’ll have to cool me off. But what the hell, maybe Slade here wants to watch. I owe him one.” Galloway laughed and shot a look at Slade.
June disappeared down the hallway. She came back carrying a cigar box bearing the name MONTECRISTO FLOR FINA. She flipped the lid open and removed a glass pipe filled with a crystal-like powder. Angling the flame from a Zippo lighter under the blackened bowl, she inhaled and held it in while passing the pipe to Galloway.
Slade watched Galloway steady the lighter and clamp his mouth around the pipe stem, the end of his thumb calloused from the heat of smoking this shit a dozen times a day. Galloway sucked until the smoke was gone. He swallowed a cough and jiggled the pipe toward Slade.
“Hurry up, dumb shit! Take it!” The fat grade-schooler again. Slade decided the kid must’ve been elected spokesman of the day. He thought it was funny. Not only was he an addict but apparently the kid was an addict as well.
Slade extended a shaky hand and took the pipe from Galloway, careful not to drop it. The first hit left him feeling like somebody had uncorked a bottle of champagne in his head, the bubbles an electric current charging through his brain cells. He fired a second quick hit and passed the pipe to June. The three of them took turns until the pipe was empty, then refilled it twice more. Each bowl produced a high several magnitudes greater than the one before it. When they were done June put the pipe away and slid the cigar box under the edge of the couch.
“Holy hell,” Slade said after a few minutes, his face almost as white as the powder he’d just smoked. He glanced at June and saw that she was rubbing her legs as if stroking the silky fur of a house cat. Galloway had sunk into the couch, his head rolled to one side and his eyes as blank as a retard’s.
June noticed Slade looking at Galloway.
“I’d think he died if I didn’t know better,” she said. “But you never know. He might die yet with all the Oxy he ate today and now the meth.”
June continued caressing her legs while she talked. Slade thought he could hear her purring too, trying to entice him to her end of the couch.
He wasn’t sure what to do next but he was sure he couldn’t just sit there and do nothing. He knew Louis would be waiting for him at six but there was plenty of time for that. He could wash his truck, or sweep the peanut husks and magazines off Galloway’s worm-riddled floor. He thought he might even repaint the walls while he was at it if only he could find a brush and a bucket of paint.
June palmed a vein of sweat from her cheek and studied Slade, amused at the way he sat fidgeting in his chair. It was like watching someone whose clothes were shrinking by the second, the way Slade kept pulling at the sleeves of his shirt and clasping and unclasping his belt buckle. She figured he probably wasn’t accustomed to meth as pure and powerful as what he’d just smoked. She muzzled a laugh when he reached for his leather boots and retied the laces several times each before he was satisfied with his efforts.
“How you feeling?” June asked, the frayed edges of her cut-offs inching upward, her fingers drawing little circles on the sweet spots of her thighs.
Something from outside caused the front door to rattle against its frame. The plastic on an adjacent window fluttered then went limp. It seemed the only thing that hadn’t moved was Galloway, slumped like a corpse since June had stashed the pipe.
“I don’t know,” Slade answered. “I either feel like a million dollars or like my head’s going to explode any minute.”
“Hand me that lunch box,” June said pointing to the bookcase.
Slade vaulted from the chair as if a copperhead had fallen in his lap. He retrieved the box, passing it to June and then watching while she unlatched the lid. She lifted a brown medicine bottle from inside, twisted the cap open and passed two red and blue capsules to him.
“Here,” she said. “Take these. It’ll knock the edge off.”
Slade carried the capsules into the kitchen and washed them down with a Stroh’s. When he came back he saw that June’s hands had moved from her legs to her breasts. She squeezed at a nipple with one hand while her other hand caressed the tan skin beneath her shirt. Her eyes were closed and Slade stood mesmerized like what he was seeing wasn’t real.
“Don’t you think it’s time to teach that sick bastard a lesson?” The fat grade-schooler asked, a reference Slade realized was meant for Galloway. It was Galloway who had led the other kids in laughter that day on the playground, then got everyone chanting bed wetter pants pisser until a teacher came over and ordered everyone to class. Slade felt the humiliation punch him in the gut. This was a problem he should have taken care of long before now but the timing was just never right. He glimpsed the Magnum on the TV stand but dismissed that option as too drastic. There must be a better way, he thought, something that wouldn’t land him in prison.
He looked at Galloway, noted his shallow breath, his milky eyes and the way he lay burrowed in the couch like one of his customers had just cold-cocked him with a single blow to the head. When he turned back to June her T‑shirt was draped around her neck, her breasts fully exposed. Slade knew then the lesson he wanted to teach Galloway. He crossed the room, stopping next to June just as she slipped a hand down the front of her cut-offs. He watched the circular motions her hand made beneath the fabric and heard low moans rising from somewhere deep inside her. When he looked at her face he saw that she was looking back at him, her movements inviting him closer, her eyes as clear and green as the ribbon of land bordering Sugar
Allen Hope’s fiction and poetry have appeared or is forthcoming in Apropos Literary Journal, Eclectica Magazine, Ghost Town, Sleet Magazine, Snow Monkey, and elsewhere. He is a graduate of Sonoma State University and previously worked as a producer and scriptwriter for Project Censored's radio documentary series, For The Record, which aired on National Public Radio. A former winner of the Genevieve Mott Memorial Literary Scholarship, he currently lives in Gallipolis, Ohio with his wife and two daughters.