a + b = c
In Theory, Anyway
The last present Daddy gave me was a gun.
Not a minute after I unwrapped the used .22, he took me out back to shoot rusted targets lined on the woodpile. After missing the first shot, I hit every can. Even though misery clouded his eyes then, Daddy beamed and set up more so I could do it again. And I did, the cans falling to the snow-covered ground with every blast of the gun. Ain’t you a natural, Free?
That was my eleventh birthday, almost seven years ago, but the memory of my father’s words gave me confidence, especially now. They played in my mind as I peered into the scope, not moving. This shot had to count; we couldn’t spare the ammo for a second one. A natural, a natural, a natural…
“Shoot him, Sissy.”
“Quiet,” I whispered. We lay prone atop a bed of rotting vegetation, probably covered with ticks I’d have to pick off both of us at home.
His neck stayed in my sights, the shotgun barrel propped on a fallen hickory branch, my cheek against the cold stock.
Stop shaking, dammit!
I prayed for luck and pulled the trigger. Boom! Heavy wings flapped, kicking up dirt as gobbling echoed through the morning fog.
“You got him!” My brother ran to our kill, the rest of the flock escaping into the thicket.
I grinned when he tried to lift the gobbler by its legs, and looped the shotgun strap on my shoulder. “You doubting me, Little?”
“Never,” he said, the early chill turning his breath to smoke. He attempted to pick up the bird again, failing. It probably weighed more than he did.
“Good thing.” I stood and brushed off my jeans before collecting our supper from Little’s struggling hands. “C’mon. We’ll get Daddy to cook him up while we’re gone.”
“Can we shoot another one tomorrow?”
“Sorry, buddy. This here’s probably the last hunt. Not much ammo left.”
“Oh.” He hurried after me as I led us out of the woods. “Can we have potatoes, too?”
I loved how he spoke. He didn’t have the sharp twang like Daddy and me. Little’s clean voice brought Needles, California, to Poplar Branch, West Virginia—America’s dirty secret. At least that’s how I saw our hiding spot in Middle of Nowhere, Appalachia.
I pointed to some rocks before he tripped over them. “Hey, remember the ginseng around here? That root we told you about?” At his nod, I continued, “Well, Daddy got himself a nice haul last night. If all goes the way I expect, food won’t be a concern for a while.”
His footfalls were loud, sounding more like a full-grown man than a skinny five-year-old boy. “Will we get our lights on, too?”
“No electric here. Already told you.”
A pause. “When are we going to stop camping, Sissy?”
“Soon.” I guided Little down the steep ravine toward the road.
Camping. What Daddy and I had told him four months ago when we arrived at the shack we lived in now. Every time he asked when we’d be going home, I’d tell him the same thing.
The only lie that fell from my lips and hit his ears.
Once we made it to the narrow road, Little pulled out the blue calculator I bought him before we left California. As he typed, the burn scar running along his left palm by his thumb flashed, and I had to hide my wince behind a smile.
“Okay, what’s six thousand two hundred and twenty-seven times one hundred and forty-two?” he asked, concentrating on the calculator with his brow scrunched.
I thought for a minute as we shuffled along the road, moving aside when a line of fracking trucks rumbled past. “You make it too easy. Eight hundred eighty-four thousand, two hundred thirty-four.”
He squealed, skipping a few steps ahead. “That’s right! That’s right!”
“Of course it is.” I laughed as he tapped more numbers, giving another problem I answered just as fast. My passion had amounted to nothing except a fun trick to amuse Little, but I’d be a human calculator if it made him happy. I’d be anything.
“All right, enough for now.” I pulled his hood up when a gust of wind blew it down. “You know what? As soon as I get the sang cashed in, I’m taking you out for pizza.”
“Can we have soda, too?” he asked, stuffing his calculator back into his coat pocket.
Soda, not pop, and something we never wasted money on. But there were always exceptions. “Pizza wouldn’t taste good without it.”
A smile lit up his face.
I lived for his smile. I swear I’d die for it, too.
He clasped my hand. “You’re my favorite.”
“Right back at you.”
He said that instead of “I love you.” I had no idea why he said it, but I enjoyed being his favorite. He was mine too, after all.
“Now, we—” I glanced up as we neared our house, and the warmth his happiness gave disappeared when a newer pickup truck pulled into the driveway behind our beat-up Buick.
“What, Sissy? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” I crouched in front of Little when we reached the yard and tweaked his nose as the truck’s engine revved beside us. “Go on in and wash up with the pot of water on the stove. Careful not to get burned, you hear?”
His blue eyes finally left the shiny red truck and met mine. “Who are they?”
“Nobody you need to worry about.” I stood on legs begging to give. “Get to it. And save some water for me. I don’t feel like going to the well again this morning.”
“Should I get Dad?”
I shook my head. “Let me see what they want first.”
“Are you sure?”
“Okay.” He eyed the truck once more and ran to the porch, jumping over piles of scrap metal and old toys.
I hated that he couldn’t lock himself inside. Dry rot had claimed this place probably before I was born, and a good kick had enough power to send the door—and the walls—flying into the living room.
After Little made it inside, I dropped the bird away from any garbage and shrugged the shotgun strap off my shoulder. Took a deep breath. Then went to the truck.
They won’t know it’s not loaded, Free. Don’t panic.
Tinted windows hid the occupant, but that wouldn’t intimidate me—on the outside. Inside, vomit begged to splatter the door panel. I tapped the window with the tip of my gun, and when it rolled down, I aimed at the bulbous nose of an older man. “Can I help you with something?”
He smirked, showing off a nice set of dentures. “Well, I hope so. You know who I am?”
“Can’t say I do.” I inched the barrel closer until it almost touched the man’s face.
“Put your gun down, girl. I just want to talk to you.”
“I’ll keep it where it is if you don’t mind. What do you want?”
He turned away long enough to grab something from his passenger seat. “You recognize this?” He tossed a floppy gray hat out his window, the thing landing at my feet.
I refused to give it my attention. “No. Why?” Please leave, please leave, please leave…
The man’s watery eyes turned to stone. “You tell your daddy if he wants to steal from me, he better be ready to pay the price.” He shifted into reverse. “You make sure to give him the message, let him know you and I had a conversation.”
He backed out, his fancy truck not bothered by the ruts in the driveway. When he disappeared down the road, I sank to my knees.
What the hell had he gone and done this time?
I stuffed the hat in my back pocket and stayed there, my eyes shut against the gray and fog and cold, wet filth seeping through my jeans.
My mind went to work:
Eight hundred ninety-two divided by sixty-eight…
Minus two hundred point forty-three…
One hundred twenty-seven point fifty-one.
I opened my eyes and stared at our shack—a home that wasn’t any kind of home. If Daddy had done something to jeopardize—
The ginseng. Goddamn ginseng.
The turkey went in one hand, shotgun in the other. Every step toward the porch ignited my anger, making it hard to see past it. But Little wouldn’t witness the rage. He’d been through enough without me losing it in front of him.
“Who was it?” The door hadn’t closed before Little tugged on my wrist. His face, naturally pale and full of freckles, whitened more, making his orange hair appear fluorescent. My little carrot. He had belonged to me since the day his mama gave birth to him.
“Someone Daddy knows.” I set the gun down on the way to my knees. “Don’t go outside for a while without Daddy or me, okay?”
“Why?” His eyes were older than they had a right to be.
“Just listen to me.” I cupped his cheek. “You know I’d do anything for you, right?”
“I’d do anything for you, too, even hurt bad guys.”
“I don’t need you to hurt bad guys. I need you to get ready.” I stood, clenching the turkey until its leg bones dug into my skin and added, “Remember, Little, wherever you go, I’m right behind you. No matter what.” My promise to him.
“And I’ll hold out my hand so you never get lost.” His promise to me.
“I’m counting on it. Now, you go on and get dressed. Check yourself for ticks. I’m letting Daddy know we’re leaving soon.”
“What should I wear?”
“Your black pants and my gray sweatshirt.”
“But those pants have holes in them.”
All three pairs of pants he owned had holes. “Only in the knee. Hurry, can’t be late.”
As soon as our bedroom door shut, I stormed through the living room, furnished with three old lawn chairs arranged near the wood stove and a couch with no discernible color, to the bedroom beyond it. No need to knock. He slept sounder than a corpse.
I stared at him, sprawled out on the stained mattress. His shaggy beard and filthy clothes made him look vulnerable. Even the grime caked under his fingernails, evidence of his digging, hit me in the heart. But dammit!
He knew better.
The turkey landed square on his chest, feathers and blood flying above him.
“Hey!” Daddy shot up, and the bird fell to the floor as he swiped at his chest. “What the hell you doing, baby?”
I pulled his hat from my back pocket and flung it at him, saying nothing.
I didn’t need to.
“Damn.” He reached for it and sat on the edge of the bed. “He come here?”
“Who is he?” I wouldn’t crack. I wouldn’t.
“Duffy Sloan. Owns a stretch of land up a piece.” Daddy met my scowl, his brown eyes, so much like mine, full of contrition. “Byron works for the guy on and off, told me about a few honey holes.”
“Why you listen to that jackass is beyond me.” I sat next to him, the squeaky springs protesting the extra weight. “And why the hell you leave your hat there?”
“Heard dogs and got spooked. The thing flew off on the way out the woods.”
I shook my head. “This Sloan guy probably has trail cams all over the place, and… Byron, Daddy? He’d turn in his own kid for ten dollars.”
“Byron let us stay here, didn’t he? And what choice do we got? Your check barely covers food.” He took my hand and squeezed. “If I could find a good hole, a patch that would give enough sang…”
He used to have a great job in the mines near Bluefield, an hour from here and where we used to live. But he gave it up to start over in California two weeks after my eleventh birthday. Exactly thirteen days after Mama died. He couldn’t risk it, though, going back to his old boss to gain real employment. Not now.
So, ginseng—Daddy’s answer for money.
“You can’t be stealing. If he goes to the cops…”
“He ain’t going to no cops. These boys handle their own up here.” He held our joined hands against his heart. “What should we do? Use them smarts God gave you and help me out.”
“Would he let you slide if you gave back the sang?”
He chuckled and said, “Not likely.”
“Can he prove it was you without the hat?”
“I didn’t see no trail cams, Free. I’m thinking all he’s got is Byron’s word.”
“Which isn’t worth a thing around here.”
I took a minute to think, but the answer was obvious. Sometimes the line between right and wrong became so thin it disappeared.
“I’ll take it into Dillinger’s before work. Get rid of it,” I said, finding him grinning. “You think you dug a pound?”
“A tad under, maybe.”
That would give us a good amount of cash, and I’d risk this Duffy fellow’s threat for it. Once. “Don’t do it again.”
Little ran into the room, his smile on full volume. “Guess what, Dad? Sissy’s taking me to eat pizza and soda!”
“That’s great, little man.” Daddy released my hand and caught Little in his arms, kissing the top of his head. “What would we do without our Freedom?” He sighed and said to me, “We gotta stay here for a while longer.”
I nodded, rubbing Little’s back. “Wish we could go back to Needles.”
Silence. Then: “You know we can’t.”
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