A Hard Thing, But True, fiction by Amanda Bales

Bras cov­ered the back of the car. They draped over the seats and wrapped over the seat belts and hung from the door han­dles and car­pet­ed the floor, as if a band of horny teenagers had tak­en the Buick for an orgy joy ride. But these were not the bras of teenagers. They were thick-strapped and stur­dy and made of plain white cot­ton, the kinds of bras bought in packs and tossed into a gro­cery cart.

With these bras, George knew there were also french fries and chee­rios and smears of jam and peanut but­ter. Some nights his dreams filled with roach­es gnaw­ing at the stains, and then the seats, and then work­ing their way toward him until he sat on the road, the Buick gone save the steer­ing wheel in his hands. With­in the dream this filled him with pan­ic, but when he awoke, he would close his eyes and pre­tend to con­tin­ue the dream, so that an eigh­teen wheel­er screeched its jake brake, but could not stop in time.

In all oth­er ways the car was immac­u­late. George kept the front vac­u­umed and dust­ed. He changed the oil, and rotat­ed the tires, and made his mechan­ic per­form a tune-up every five thou­sand miles, though the mechan­ic assured him this was not nec­es­sary and usu­al­ly did no more than blow-out a fil­ter and bill him for the full labor. This was how George lived, and there was no one in his life to demand he do oth­er­wise.

Just as there was no one to tell him this trip was a bad idea, to warn him that truth rarely brings under­stand­ing. He’d tak­en a week off from his job as an Assis­tant Prin­ci­pal at Lake Dal­las Mid­dle School, and was now dri­ving nar­row, unmarked high­ways through East­ern Okla­homa with a map rest­ing on the pas­sen­ger seat and an I-Pod twice through an Eagles playlist.

George slowed as he passed a mileage sign. He checked the near­est name against the piece of paper crin­kled and damp in his hand. PANOLA. PA-no-LA? pa-NO-la? PAN-ola? His wife had nev­er spo­ken the name, not once in their life togeth­er. It was always just ‘back home,’ or ‘where I’m from.’ And even that was a rare occa­sion.

A speed lim­it warn­ing arrived, then a sign wel­com­ing him to town and list­ing the state cham­pi­onship years of var­i­ous high school sports. A few hous­es appeared, squat and sid­ing plat­ed. Plas­tic flower con­tain­ers hung from front porch hooks. Tele­vi­sions flick­ered behind mini blinds. George rolled past dark­ened storefronts—a phar­ma­cy, a din­er, a dol­lar gen­er­al. He could not tell if these places were closed for the night or for for­ev­er.

At the edge of any­thing that could be called town, George paused at a flash­ing yel­low stop­light and cir­cled back. No hotel. No sign for one since McAl­is­ter. Maybe there was one far­ther east. The gas sta­tion was open. George would use the restroom, ask the clerk for advice.

A hand­ful of flat bed diesel trucks sat rum­bling near the entrance. Inside, George nod­ded at the group of men gath­ered around the cash reg­is­ter. Each wore jeans and work boots and long-sleeved shirts. Two had goa­tees. One had a giant, unruly beard. Hard men. Mas­cu­line men. The kind of man his father had been. The men qui­et­ed as George made his way to the toi­let. He could feel their eyes on him and his skin grew hot, the way it did in fac­ul­ty meet­ings when the Prin­ci­pal made a joke at his expense.

George need­ed to go, but would not be able to do so with those men hulk­ing out­side. He flushed so they would not guess his prob­lem, then splashed his face and dried it with a paper tow­el. He used the mir­ror to adjust his pos­ture. This was some­thing Lau­ren had taught him. The appear­ance of con­fi­dence, of belong­ing, could get a per­son through.

In the store, George grabbed a Dr. Pep­per and a Her­shey Bar. He placed the items onto the counter, asked if the cashier could point him toward the near­est hotel. The cashier lift­ed a pen from a cof­fee mug and poked at the can­dy bar as if it were mag­got-rid­den.

A hotel, huh?” the cashier asked.

Lau­ren had sound­ed like this man when she was angry, or after too many glass­es of wine. She had maybe known this man, had entire twangy con­ver­sa­tions with him.

Been dri­ving all day,” George said. “Could use twen­ty winks.” He cringed at his own attempt at folksi­ness. At least the men from before had left. At least there was just this one man to wit­ness his embar­rass­ment.

The cashier tapped the pen against the Her­shey Bar. “Sweet tooth?” he asked.

George pat­ted his stom­ach and laughed a lit­tle. “Unfor­tu­nate­ly,” he said, but he could tell the cashier did not buy his attempt at casu­al self-def­er­ence. George opened his wal­let to pay, hoped this might speed the exchange along.

I bet you do,” said the man, and he plucked the wal­let and raised it into the air. “I just bet George here likes ‘em real sweet,” he said, and George turned to find the men from ear­li­er gath­ered into a tight semi-cir­cle behind him. George lift­ed his hands.

Take what­ev­er you want,” he said. “I’ll leave right now. I won’t even call the cops.”

One of the men stepped for­ward and crowd­ed George until his back was pressed against the counter.

That what you do?” he asked. “Take what­ev­er you want?” He turned back to his friends, ges­tured to George with a half-cir­cle of his arm. “I think our friend here thinks he can take what­ev­er he wants,” he said, then he grabbed George’s shoul­ders and twist­ed him to the ground and stomped a work boot onto George’s chest.

Where is she?” he asked. George grasped at the man’s boot, but could not budge it. His legs flailed on the tile floor. “WHERE IS SHE?” the man repeat­ed and stood hard­er on George’s chest.

Can’t do this here,” some­one said.

Fine,” said the man stand­ing on George. “Let’s go.” Then George knew only the swirled rub­ber tread of the man’s work boot before it smashed into his skull.

 

George thought that he was blind, that the blow from the man’s boot had sev­ered his ocu­lar nerves. This hap­pened to a Cowboy’s run­ning back, and he’d put togeth­er a les­son for his Biol­o­gy class, had hoped to steer a few minds away from the sport of foot­ball with its head injuries and man­ic depres­sions and hair-trig­ger rage. Back when he was a teacher and thought he always would be. Before he ever had designs on an admin­is­tra­tive pay­check. Before he met Lau­ren.

As his eyes adjust­ed, George real­ized the dark was night, and he won­dered if it was the same night or anoth­er one, since he had no idea how long he’d been uncon­scious. His fin­ger­tips tin­gled. He tried to move and found his wrists zip-tied, his ankles the same. The plas­tic cut into his flesh. He tried to stand, but could only bring him­self to his knees.

Hel­lo?” he asked. He said the word a few more times, then changed the word to ‘help,’ which he yelled as best he could through his throb­bing head until he real­ized that if they had not gagged him, there was no one to hear.

And no one to look for him. Not until next week. And even then, the School Board would be con­tact­ed before the police.

George called out again, though this time he did so to gauge the size of the room, the mate­ri­als around him. It seemed he was in a house, though there was also a dank, rot­ting smell that remind­ed him of being in the woods with his father, one of the dozen times George had let a buck sniff through a clear­ing unharmed. There was some­thing acrid in the air as well, strong enough to burn his nose through the clot­ted blood.

George fid­dled with the zip ties, but knew it was point­less. About once a year an old­er male stu­dent would steal the custodian’s zip ties and lash a younger male stu­dent to the bleach­ers, or the flag pole, or the girls’ lock­er room door. It would take a sharp knife to free him.

Maybe there was some­thing near­by. Some piece of bro­ken met­al or glass. George low­ered his elbows to the floor, began a slow, awk­ward crawl in search of any­thing that might cut through the thick plas­tic.

 

When light began to rise, his knees and elbows were bloody, though he had not trav­elled far. He had been right about the place. It was a house, or had been one some­time before. Cab­i­nets were warped and split. Parts of the floor were sunken. Piles of rat shit stood inch­es deep near old couch­es. A place no one came to or went from. The kind of place a body might rot away in for years before a gold­en retriev­er laid a femur on the porch steps of a near­by home.

A truck engine approached. George tried to com­pose him­self. He attend­ed sem­i­nars every year on con­flict man­age­ment and group aggres­sion, spent weeks after­ward read­ing stud­ies and look­ing at videos on the inter­net.

The only peo­ple inter­est­ed in study­ing vio­lence are the ones who’ve nev­er lived it,” Lau­ren would say when he would try to dis­cuss some fas­ci­nat­ing new the­o­ry or exper­i­ment, then she would take her glass of wine and her Ambi­en and leave him to it.

Dis­in­hi­bi­tion. This was the biggest hur­dle. These men had lost their indi­vid­u­al­i­ty, their self-aware­ness, their self-eval­u­a­tion appre­hen­sion. But there was always one group mem­ber who had not yet suc­cumbed. There was always a Doubter.

Of course, The Doubter would be dif­fi­cult to spot. Once a dynam­ic formed, the speech and appear­ance, even the phys­i­cal ges­tures of the group mem­bers mir­rored each oth­er. George would need to observe their actions close­ly, employ the process of elim­i­na­tion.

The eas­i­est per­son to name would be the Leader. They were the first to act, to speak, and the oth­ers fol­lowed in kind. They led because they held an unwa­ver­ing belief in the group’s actions. George had always under­stood the pos­si­bil­i­ty of fail­ure. This is why he would always be the Assis­tant Prin­ci­pal. And why part of him under­stood what Lau­ren had done. Was he angry? The anger he felt would not cease or sim­mer. But did he under­stand? Yes. Some part of it, at least, he under­stood.

Truck doors shut and boots clomped toward him. George sat-up as straight as pos­si­ble and faced the men as they entered. The men walked toward George in uni­son and formed the famil­iar semi-cir­cle around him. One held a bra. One held his phone. One held a short piece of rebar. They began to speak.

How many, George?”

How long?”

Fuck­ing sicko.”

Fuck­ing perve.”

Five phone num­bers? Not even a Mom or Dad?”

George did not speak. What could he have said? ‘I stopped call­ing the friends who stopped answer­ing. I stopped answer­ing the ones who called. My father died years ago. My moth­er of grief. Demen­tia, they said. Genet­ic. Noth­ing to do with foot­ball.

The men wait­ed in silence for a few moments, then Rebar Man lift­ed his weapon. George closed his eyes.

When the blow did not come, George saw that Bra Man held Rebar Man’s arm. There was a small strug­gle, but Rebar Man low­ered the weapon. Bra Man pat­ted Rebar Man’s shoul­der, then moved past him to squat in front of George. This man. This man was The Doubter. George made eye-con­tact, did his best to be as human as pos­si­ble.

Look,” said The Doubter. “We just want to know if she’s okay. Can you tell us that? Can you tell us if she’s okay?”

George knew the man did not speak of Lau­ren or Annabelle, but his words were the same as those of the police offi­cers who had yelled cof­fee breath into his face while wav­ing pho­tographs of his wife and daugh­ter. One pho­to in par­tic­u­lar. Christ­mas. Lau­ren in a soft, gold dress. Her hair sleek and loose around her shoul­ders. Annabelle in dark green vel­vet. A gold bow around her chub­by waist. They smiled. At the cam­era. At him through the cam­era. George moaned.

It was an ani­mal sound. It was a mis­take.

What’s that?” asked The Doubter. He leaned toward George.

George cleared his head of Christ­mas and smiles. He took a breath. “I don’t know what you’re talk­ing about,” he said. He made his voice steady. I am a human, this voice insist­ed. I use lan­guage. I’m a man. A man just like you.

The men behind The Doubter grum­bled and shuf­fled. The Doubter glanced over his shoul­der, then turned back to George and placed his hands on George’s shoul­ders the way George had seen fathers embrace their sons on the first day of a new school.

Look, George. We just want our girl back. We just want Chris­tine. Just tell us where Chris­tine is and we’ll give you a three day start out­ta here. Three days and you could be in Mex­i­co.”

George won­dered if Chris­tine was his daugh­ter, or Rebar’s daugh­ter, or if she belonged to one of the men who had not spo­ken. Was she a lit­tle girl? A teenag­er? A tod­dler? George opened his mouth. The Doubter leaned clos­er.

I. Don’t know. What. You’re talk­ing about,” he said. He thought the rep­e­ti­tion of these words would make them strong, would let The Doubter hear their integri­ty, but The Doubter’s eyes dark­ened and he stepped back and nod­ded at Rebar Man. George knew too late that Bra Man was the Leader. Rebar, with his impulse to rage, could nev­er lead a group of men. Rebar swung his arm. George did not pass-out this time, though he wished many times that he could.

 

When the men fin­ished, they left the room. As the pain loos­ened its hold on his brain, George assem­bled the sto­ry thus far.

There was a girl, Chris­tine, and she was miss­ing, and these men were look­ing for her, had been look­ing for her last night, had gath­ered at the gas sta­tion to form a plan when in walked a stranger, a stranger with bras cov­er­ing the back­seat of his car.

The men were just out­side the door. George could hear their voic­es and the occa­sion­al cough and spit. A phone rang. Some­one spoke. George could not hear the exchange, but there was noth­ing in the man’s voice to sug­gest that any­thing had changed. The girl was still miss­ing. George was still to blame.

He con­sid­ered going along with it, pre­tend­ing to be the one who could show them Chris­tine. This would buy him time, would get him out of the house. But what then? And what if she was found beat­en? Or dead?

He could try to escape. But even if he man­aged to free his hands and feet, he would not sur­vive more than a day on his own. These were men who could track a wound­ed ani­mal.

He could not bluff and he could not run, which meant he would have to rea­son. He had cho­sen the wrong man, made the wrong man The Doubter. But one of them deserved this title. One would lis­ten long enough to stay the hands of his friends. George propped him­self against the rough pine wall. He would begin with why he had come here. This would link them, make him part of their group, define him as an insid­er.

Lau­ren and Annabelle Sloan,’ he would say. There would be a pause, and George would say the names again. ‘Lau­ren and Annabelle Sloan. My wife. My daugh­ter.’

This should be enough. The sto­ry had made nation­al news. Lauren’s name was now a con­gres­sion­al bill. And once George could see that the men rec­og­nized these names, he would tell them that the woman on TV was one of their own, a holler girl who moved to the city and carved her nose and flat­tened her accent and snared her­self a man she thought was on his way up in the world because he was the son of a famous foot­ball play­er and she thought that meant mate­r­i­al com­fort enough to cush­ion the vio­la­tions of her first nine­teen years.

You must have known her,’ he would say. ‘A town like this. A father like that.’

Maybe if he began his sto­ry at that point, maybe this would help them see that he was not the evil stranger they thought him to be, or at least con­vince them he deserved a chance to explain.

And George would explain, if they would let him. He would explain that the only way to get his daugh­ter into the car for day­care was to let her fon­dle a bra on the dri­ve, that the doc­tors said she had done this while nurs­ing, that it was an attach­ment thing, and that she would grow out of it, and that there was no harm in indulging her for a lit­tle while. They had used Lauren’s bras in the begin­ning, but it got to the point that they bought the cheap­est ones they could find, and all those bras just accu­mu­lat­ed back there, because they didn’t have any oth­er pur­pose, and even­tu­al­ly, no one even noticed them. To their fam­i­ly, this was where the bras belonged.

And then George would tell them what he had not told any­one, because there was no one to tell. He would tell them that he had thrown away make-up and hair gel and soaps and sham­poos and baby food. Had donat­ed coats and shoes and most of the fur­ni­ture. Had packed away pho­to albums and books. But every time he took a trash bag to the car and lift­ed one of those bras from the back­seat, he wound-up on his knees in the dri­ve­way.

I stopped try­ing after awhile,’ George would say. ‘After awhile, a per­son stops try­ing.’

There would be silence, then Rebar Man would pull a large knife from his belt and slice through the zip ties on George’s wrists. The men would apol­o­gize. George would tell them that there were no hard feel­ings.

Were my own daugh­ter alive,’ he would say, ‘I’d want men just like you look­ing out for her.’

Lau­ren Sloan,” George said aloud through his bust­ed lips and swollen jaw. “Annabelle Sloan. My wife. My daugh­ter.” Yes, thought George. These would be the words that would free him.

But the men did not enter the room. A woman appeared. A woman wear­ing a sweater over a long cot­ton dress. Her hair was loose and a breeze blew it wild around her head as she paused in the door­way. George smelled some­thing sweet as she approached. Not strong enough to be per­fume. Soap maybe. Or deter­gent. It seemed she could not belong to the men who had put him here.

The woman knelt before him. George winced when she lift­ed her hands and the woman made a shush­ing noise before lay­ing her palms against his bro­ken face.

George? It’s George, isn’t it?” she asked.

George nod­ded. The woman began to stroke George’s brow and cheeks; she made tsk­ing nois­es over his injuries.

It’s okay,” she said. “It’s going to be okay. Just help me, George. Please. Please help me.”

George had said these same words to his neigh­bors, to the cops. This woman. Chris­tine was this woman’s girl. George knew the scratched-out, jan­g­ly nerves, the sense that noth­ing in the world was sol­id, of falling and nev­er touch­ing bot­tom. They were alike, she and him. There was no one who under­stood this woman bet­ter in that moment than he did.

Which is how George knew she would lis­ten. She might make him repeat the sto­ry sev­er­al times, might look for cracks in the cause and effect, but she would lis­ten, and she would know it was the truth. There was no way to shake his sto­ry apart. George had tried. God, how he had tried.

And so George told the woman about Lau­ren and Annabelle and what had hap­pened and why he had come here. When he fin­ished, there were tears in her eyes and she stroked his hair.

No won­der,” said the woman. “It’s no won­der at all.” George began to cry then, and the woman sang non­sense words in her rough, low voice. When George qui­et­ed, the woman lift­ed his face.

Bet­ter now?” she asked.

George nod­ded.

Good,” she said and placed her thumbs on either side of his bro­ken nose. “You under­stand, George. Your Annabelle. My Chris­tine. It’s a hard thing, but it’s true. When it comes to your child, you’ll do any­thing, sac­ri­fice who­ev­er.” George nod­ded. Had it meant sav­ing his daugh­ter, he would have placed every kid at Lake Dal­las Mid­dle School on a bus and set them on the bot­tom of that lake.

So, George? George, I am tru­ly sor­ry about Lau­ren and Annabelle. And I under­stand, trust me I under­stand how some­thing like this can boil-up a part of your­self you thought gone for­ev­er, a part you thought Jesus had washed away years ago.” She pressed her thumbs hard against the frac­tured bones of George’s face. George gasped.

Where’s my Chris­tine?” she asked.

Lau­ren Sloan,” George stam­mered. “Annabelle Sloan.” But the pres­sure on his nose did not relent.

Chris­tine, George. I need you to tell me about Chris­tine.” George writhed, but could not break her grip.

Lau­ren Sloan,” George said loud­er. “Annabelle Sloan.” The woman pressed hard­er.

Come on, George,” she said. “Come on, now.”

And then some­how, with­out think­ing the words, George said, “I’m sor­ry.”

The woman lift­ed her thumbs and asked him to repeat what he had said.

George fell to his side pant­i­ng. Again, he tried to speak their names, but again the words that emerged were, “I’m sor­ry.”

The woman stood. George tried to call-out to her, but could only repeat ‘I’m sor­ry’ over and over again.

The woman backed away from him. George reached for her, want­ed to ball her hair into his fists, jam it into his mouth, dam those words.

George watched the woman lift the rebar near the door. Her eyes. He knew the pan­ic there, the dis­be­lief, the rage.

I’m sor­ry,” he said.

The woman gave a wild, ter­ri­fied scream and began to beat him. George drew his arms as best he could over his head. A blow snapped his rib. The rib pierced his lung. Had George found the words to save him—the note Lau­ren left, his father’s name, the col­or of a two year old child ten hours sub­merged in lake water—had George found these words, he would not have had the air to speak them.

balesAman­da Bales received her MFA from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alas­ka, Fair­banks. Her work has appeared in The Nashville Review, Paint­ed Bride Quar­ter­ly, South­ern Human­i­ties Review, and else­where. She lives in cen­tral Mis­souri.

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