A million dancing sparkles of moonlit water caught Ben’s peripheral vision. The river refused to be ignored. An unrelenting pull of shared history had long ago lodged between his ears.
The speedometer climbed to sixty-five miles per hour as he tried to outrun his past.
At sight of the Bramley home Ben’s foot punished the brake pedal. Four Michelins grabbed the pavement, and left the vehicle askew in the road.
The combined odor of burnt rubber and brake pads overtook his nostrils.
“Definitely hell. I smell the brimstone.”
Less-than eager to move, he sat parked.
“What’s the deal God? Years I screamed at you. Off by myself, in the woods, my voice echoing back at me. Masturbatory prayer. No answers. Nothing resolved.
“I deserved better. So did Pop and Granny, the poster-couple for Christianity. Church every Sunday, pay their tithe, and publicly give you the credit for each breath they draw.
“Ignoring my suffering is one thing. Ignoring Pop and Granny proves that you suck at being the supreme deity. Not that you care about the opinion of one un-born-again Baptist. And why am I bothering to talk to you when I’m not even convinced you exist?
“Ancient habit, I suppose, with the shock of seeing the family farm, and scared to set foot outside this SUV.
“So it’s been what, twenty years since you’ve heard from me? High school, maybe earlier, when I officially gave up on you fixing my life? Anyway, I survived, without a shred of help from you.”
A head weighted with enormity dipped to his sternum.
“I couldn’t make sense of your works-in-mysterious-ways plan. And through the critical lens of family tragedy I came to see that everyday life didn’t comply with what they taught in Sunday school. Sermons either.”
As if in answer, the night air carried the distant rat-a-tat-tat of a fully loaded truck’s Jake Brake, as it eased down the steep grade at the west end of Valley Road.
“Maybe I think too much. Went off to college, and got my mind turned with all that worldly knowledge. But we both know you lost me long before I got out of Abundance. And we both know the reasons. Fourteen years of freedom interrupted by one phone call, and, like a porch dog, I come running. Back here where the people are so far up your ass, no way the light of reason can penetrate. All part of the phantom umbilical cord that tethers me to this patch of planet. And any minute now, when Pop or Granny see my hi-beams, it’s sayonara to my carefully crafted little world.
“Speaking of which, there’s a shadow in Pop and Granny’s living-room window. What’s behind curtain number one? Well, Ben, if I had to guess, that small silhouette belongs to Lily Bramley.
“I hate myself for still trying to be the good boy, all that do-the-right-thing crap they shoveled in Sunday school class. And for my long shot at redemption I’ve gotten myself into a scenario which cannot have an upside.
“Hate to vent and run, Almighty One, but I better pull in the driveway. She’s already out on the front porch. Nice talking at you. Hope it proved as useful for you as it was for me. Let’s try to get together more often.
“Here goes everything!”
“Ben, is that you?” She yelled with the volume of a contestant at the state hog-calling contest.
“Yes, ma’am,” he hollered from the driver seat.
His reluctant right foot eased back from the brake, but it could not be convinced to apply gasoline to the predicament. Tires inched forward almost imperceptibly as the vehicle idled its way into the driveway of his youth—the homeland that had scarred him to the bone.
Before he got out, Ben’s green eyes performed a hair inspection in the rearview mirror, his curls the same orangey red as the clay found on the farm. Not the same as the lighter-colored clay on top of the ground, but the color when a shovel brought a solid wedge of soil to the surface, sticky enough to stay affixed to the tool, then pried off by a boyhood Ben, who found it ideal for creating clay animal shapes to dry in the sun.
Unable to passably arrange the unruly locks, he concluded, “She’ll say I need a haircut, and she’ll be right.”
Lily Bramley had been “Granny” since Ben started forming words. Her abiding interest in his welfare included his personal appearance. Following the telephone call demanding his return to Abundance, Ben’s first act had been to take scissors to a lumberjack beard and the longest of his belligerent curls.
He shifted his gaze to the right. No light shone at his dad’s house. There was no sign of life. Yet still came the creak of hinges, the unmistakable sound of a screen door snapping shut, followed by a small shadow framed against the starry horizon racing across the front yard, running out of sight down River Road. Ben blinked, and tried to rub the familiar clip from his eyes.
“It’s started already.”
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