Tag-A-Long, fiction by Misty Marie Rae Skaggs

My fuzzy, ear­li­est mem­o­ries unfold in a sprawl­ing house on a hill. A house sit­u­at­ed at the peak of a ridge, over­look­ing a bright green holler we filled with corn and toma­toes and beans and a straw­ber­ry patch I loved to get lost in. We lived off a grav­el road, off the main road, on a dirt road, off the grid. We lived nes­tled safe­ly inside our her­itage, inside a house with character…gumption, that my fam­i­ly built from the base­ment up long before I was born. I've seen pic­tures of Mom­my lay­ing foun­da­tions. A broad shoul­dered, big-bust­ed fif­teen year old in cut-offs and pig tails, ban­dana tied tight across her fore­head. She's pre­served — sweaty and sort of tint­ed sepia and frozen in time with her mus­cles strain­ing against the weight of a fat, con­crete block. Two tow-head­ed lit­tle girls with gap toothed grins bounce around her legs.

The lay­out of the place seems a lit­tle fun­ny look­ing back. Our rooms weren't stacked one on top of anoth­er. We weren't sep­a­rat­ed by stairs and sto­ries, by floors and ceil­ings and doors. Instead, skin­ny hall­ways wan­dered off from the kitchen and liv­ing room. Lazy, car­pet­ed paths mean­dered back to the bed­rooms and the bath­room and the brand new garage that always smelled of pine nee­dles and grease.

On Fri­day nights, the sprawl­ing liv­ing room was filled with a fine mist of Aquanet Extra Super Hold. The kind of no non­sense hair spray that could take your breath away if you were unlucky enough to stum­ble through a fresh, pun­gent cloud of it. That was the smell of brand new fem­i­nin­i­ty being pushed to its lim­its. The cute lit­tle girls from the snap shot that stuck with me, were almost all growed up. Wield­ing two giant, shiny, pur­ple cans, they worked simul­ta­ne­ous­ly — shak­ing and squirt­ing, clink­ing and hiss­ing, gos­sip­ing and gig­gling. They ate up ozone and lift­ed lay­er after lay­er of soft blonde hair, eight­ies style. It left a strange­ly sweet, chem­i­cal scent hang­ing in the air to mix and dance with the smoke from Mamaw’s Win­ston cig­a­rettes and the strains of a Bad Com­pa­ny record blast­ing down the hall. It tast­ed like rub­bing alco­hol on my tongue if I opened my mouth too wide as I laughed loud­ly. Around the same time the sun slid down behind the ridge, my aunts start­ed get­ting ready for high school dances or rur­al route par­ties that unfold­ed in some barn or trail­er down the road a lit­tle ways.

Papaw would set­tle into his spot at the end of the couch, lean­ing on the frayed, plaid arm, half watch­ing the local news and half watch­ing my aunts priss­ing and preen­ing. If Mamaw wouldn’t let them out the front door, they’d wig­gle through the tiny bath­room win­dow eager for Fri­day night free­dom. In spite of the fact that the win­dow was an even tighter fit than the acid wash jeans the girls loved to squeeze into. I was the look-out, perched in a wob­bly way on the toi­let seat star­ing up and out on tip­toe through the rec­tan­gle of evening air just above my head. I nev­er told, not once. And they promised one day they’d take me with them out into the night way past my bed­time.

Twen­ty years lat­er, the phone rang. At two in the morn­ing. And it was that shrill, wor­ried kind of ring I can nev­er sleep through, no mat­ter how drunk I am.

“Hel­lo?” I mum­bled.

“Get dressed. We’re comin’ to get you.” Shelly snapped.

And I thought I heard angry, female voic­es in the back­ground, ris­ing and falling fran­ti­cal­ly. Stab­bing at each oth­er in the wee hours. I heard my aunt Sta­cy scream­ing words that hadn’t slipped past her lips since she found Jesus —

“That sor­ry sonuvabitch! He thinks he can hide from me? Well I’ve got news for him, this whole coun­ty ain’t that fuck­ing big…”

And the line clicked.

And sud­den­ly I was scoot­ing out of bed and slid­ing into my jeans, lean­ing over to knot my beat-up sneak­ers tight with my head still spin­ning at a hun­dred proof. I rec­og­nized that tone of voice, had heard it from her before. She meant busi­ness.

The girls must’ve flown over Stark Ridge, pick­ing up speed down straight stretch­es on Christy Creek. By the time I was snub­bing out my first cig­a­rette butt on the stoop they were squeal­ing through the red light on Bridge Street and slam­ming to a stop in front of me. Fif­teen min­utes flat.

“You ready?” Shelly asked, whip­ping the sil­ver car door open.

“What’re we doin’ guys?” I mum­bled, already shuf­fling towards them with an uneasy feel­ing in the pit of my stom­ach.

Shelly and Sta­cy had been in bed by mid­night for the last decade. They were respon­si­ble, respect­ed women now. Women who brought some of the best dish­es to church potlucks and doled out sound advice to fel­low mem­bers of the con­gre­ga­tion and the com­mu­ni­ty at large. My aunts were the beau­ti­ful, blunt, hill­bil­ly ver­sions of sub­ur­ban soc­cer moms. With a venge­ful, Bap­tist, God on their side. But I still remem­bered the days when they were big­ger than me, strad­dling my chub­by wrig­gling form in the front yard, apply­ing Char­lie hors­es and Injun burns lib­er­al­ly until they extract­ed the secret or promise they expect­ed. I remem­bered before.

“You’re dri­ving. We’re rid­ing. Are you going or what?” Shelly was already squeez­ing into the back­seat of her Toy­ota Cam­ry.

I was slid­ing behind the wheel.

It was nev­er real­ly a ques­tion.

Sta­cy hadn’t spo­ken a word. The only move­ment from the pas­sen­ger seat was the insis­tent bounce of her right knee. It was a steady, auto­mat­ic jerk force­ful enough to jig­gle the whole car in an anx­ious shiv­er. I inched out of the park­ing lot of my apart­ment build­ing and turned onto US 60.

“You know where Blue Stone’s at?” Shelly asked.

Click­ing the turn sig­nal down, I nod­ded and fum­bled in the floor­board look­ing for the lighter my trem­bling hands couldn’t quite hold onto. But instead of a light, my fin­gers found about a foot of cool, lead pipe crammed between the seats. Sta­cy smacked my hand away and I was six years old again. Slouch­ing guilti­ly and hunch­ing my shoul­ders, I cracked my win­dow open wider, ready for the sticky air to hit my face. My sweat smelled like cheap vod­ka and all I could think was, I need a drink. Or those last two val­i­um stashed in the bot­tom of the Band-Aid box at the back of my med­i­cine cab­i­net. We crept through every aisle in every trail­er park in the out that wind­ing road. Crunch­ing up and down grav­el aisle after aisle, we were look­ing for some­one we loved.

When I was six years old, Sta­cy was twen­ty one. She was a brand new moth­er and a wife of five years at that point. I can’t imag­ine. Here I am, inch­ing up on thir­ty and bare­ly able to take care of myself, an under­grad with an alco­holic gene and a bro­ken heart in a one bed­room apart­ment next to the water treat­ment plant. When I was twen­ty one, I was busy dis­cov­er­ing booze and loud, punk rock bands at hole in the wall bars halfway across the coun­try. Sta­cy was work­ing full time and com­ing home to care for a two year old girl with her Daddy’s big, brown eyes and a typ­i­cal only child atti­tude. Twen­ty years lat­er, that adorable lit­tle girl, the one who would lip sync to Dol­ly Par­ton and strut her stuff on the cof­fee table, is the rea­son we were out that night. She’s the rea­son Sta­cy was twitch­ing and Shelly was pok­ing me from the back­seat, sig­nal­ing for me to slow down every time we passed a lit­tle red sports car with big, gaudy rims.

He hit her, she said. Her frat boy boyfriend, her first seri­ous boyfriend, the one with the loud mouth and even loud­er cologne. He choked her and beat her and threat­ened her life and she had man­aged to hide it from all of us. I think that’s the part we couldn’t under­stand, the part that real­ly pissed us off. How could we not see it? A fam­i­ly as close as ours. A sad­ness in her eyes or a trem­ble in her voice that meant so much in hind­sight. For months he had moved among us unde­tect­ed, bull­shit­ting about the Giants at fam­i­ly birth­day din­ners and bring­ing Mamaw flow­ers. I think I knew the moment I got into the car we were out late look­ing for revenge. We were tak­ing advan­tage of the few hours when my aunts could slip away from their lives and their selves and their sleep­ing hus­bands and chil­dren. Our search was damn near exhaust­ed when we hap­pened across what we’d been look­ing for.

Sta­cy spot­ted the souped up car he loved to spend the rent mon­ey on in the park­ing lot of a pop­u­lar restau­rant. I could feel my pulse in the palms of my hands as I gripped the steer­ing wheel, eas­ing up behind the unsus­pect­ing cou­ple. My teenage cousin pulled out of his arms and looked back and for a split sec­ond, I saw her face cap­tured in the head­lights. She was ter­ri­fied, eyes wide and swollen from cry­ing. But I couldn’t real­ly tell if she was afraid of him or of us.

“Leave it run­ning,” Sta­cy said, open­ing the door and step­ping out.

Shelly slid across the back­seat to fol­low her as she stormed toward the hot, red, car.

Sud­den­ly, I felt dis­con­nect­ed. Mov­ing with­out thought, oper­at­ing on auto pilot I leaned for­ward, grab­bing the pipe and drop­ping it in the driver’s seat as I got out. The car door became a flim­sy shield posi­tioned between myself and what was about to unfold ten feet in front of me.

Shelly was always the tallest of the females in our fam­i­ly. And she was bean pole skin­ny since birth, all arms and legs and long neck. But those arms were decep­tive­ly strong for her slight frame. They were mus­cled up from years of lift­ing and pulling and stitch­ing count­less bales of heavy den­im at the sewing fac­to­ry. Her work­outs sprang from sweaty sum­mers yank­ing ten­der tobac­co plants from their unsus­pect­ing beds and heft­ing ten pound, blonde haired, blue eyed babies along with her every­where she went. Once she wrapped those arms around Kelly’s waist, I knew there’d be no escape.

“Get the hell out of that car!” Shelly com­mand­ed.

And I watched, in slow motion. Her arm reach­ing out and then com­ing back, grasp­ing his striped shirt col­lar tight. Even the back of his head looked scared and sur­prised some­how as she snatched him out of his pre­cious auto­mo­bile and deposit­ed him on his ass on the con­crete. Scram­bling to his feet, he opened his mouth —

“You crazy bitch!”

Sta­cy stood stock still in front of him, her fists clenched into rocks and plant­ed on her hips. I nev­er saw his face that night. He didn’t dare to look away from her, a woman pos­sessed and bathed in lamp light and head lights and raw, unedit­ed anger.

“Now son,” she began. I could tell she had been prac­tic­ing this par­tic­u­lar speech in her head as we were dri­ving around the curves across Blue Stone. “You know you’ve got a whip­pin’ comin’.”

“Bull­shit!” he protest­ed, mov­ing clos­er to her with his chest puffed out.

“You can either stand here and take it like a man or I can tell my sis­ter to get that .45 out of the back floor­board,” she offered the ulti­ma­tum sim­ply.

He stepped back and dropped his head and Sta­cy cocked her arm at an awk­ward angle. She issued a hard right hand to the side of his face, to a sen­si­tive spot right above his ear, and he dropped to his knees.

And then she fell on him — both fists fly­ing through the thick July air with pur­pose. She con­nect­ed again and again, his head and neck and shoul­ders. The sin­gle dia­mond of her engage­ment ring snagged pieces of his scalp. Dark droplets of his blood splat­tered and drib­bled down over the car’s pearl­ized paint job. The red didn’t match. All I could hear were the sounds Stacy’s grunts of exer­tion and the hol­low, dead crack of his skull when she hit him. And hit him. And hit him. 

Misty Marie Rae Skag­gs, 30, is a two-time col­lege drop-out who cur­rent­ly resides on her Mamaw's couch in a trail­er at the end of a grav­el road in East­ern Ken­tucky. Her work has been pub­lished here on fried​chick​e​nand​cof​fee​.com as well as in print jour­nals such as New Madrid, Pine Moun­tain Sand & Grav­el, Lime­stone and Inscape. On June 9th, she will be read­ing her poems on the radio as part of the Seed­time on the Cum­ber­land Fes­ti­val. When she isn't bak­ing straw­ber­ry pies and tend­ing the back­yard toma­to gar­den, she spends her time read­ing and writ­ing damned near obses­sive­ly in the back porch "office" space she is cur­rent­ly shar­ing with ten kit­tens.

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