Roy was looking down at his double-wide from the limbs of an oak tree, seeking to trim the dead branches that threatened the idyll of the house. It was something he’d been meaning to do, and now that he’d been laid off he had the time. His hair was stuck with burrs from the tree, and he realized, as he squirmed through the limbs, that he could see in his son’s bedroom window. He could make out some of his stuff — an old typewriter, a Casablanca poster — through the blinds. He could see next to his son’s bed where he’d put together a particleboard bookshelf. He’d expected Jamie to put out his schoolbooks. But Jamie hadn’t even unpacked his boxes; his wife, Janice, had just told him to let it go. If he bent down, he could make out the framed NYU acceptance letter on the wall.
What he’d thought of as Jamie’s indifference to going to college actually confirmed what he’d suspected all along; Jamie was devastated. Roy, who never went to college but had worked since he was twelve, told him he would be fine taking a semester off. Jamie said, Fine. He did so in the honorable way of a man who’d come to the end of his strength. College, especially NYU, was still expensive for an Appalachian no matter how big a scholarship looked on paper. Roy could overlook a little entitlement; it was Jamie’s attitude that bothered him. Jamie gave the impression that he’d done him irreparable harm.
Now, looking again, he saw Jamie enter the room. He looked down, suddenly ashamed. He shimmied down the oak, his feet overcompensating for purchase, then he heard his dogs’ sudden barking and was startled out of his concentration — they were across the yard behind a fence, snapping at his brother, who was emerging from a plat of trees in the corner of the property.
In a week, a truck-driving job came open at the candle factory. To not go to the factory, the only place in town that was hiring, would’ve never occurred to Roy, so he went the next morning. Other unemployed coal miners from the area waited in a line. Roy waited with them. Their worlds moved in a stream and that stream would always pull them to the same places. None of them spoke. Roy looked up to see the line of them in a reflection. Hard living was starting to touch their faces.
A group walked out and Roy’s line moved forward: the men had become one group, one mind. When they got inside, a woman with a clipboard asked Roy and the rest if they had a Commercial Drivers License. Roy didn’t, so she pointed to a table beside a stack of boxes and told those without CDLs that they could fill out applications there. All the guys ignored this except Roy.
The rest of the guys without CDLs looked at the table then they looked at the guys with CDLs, most of who were scribbling on applications against the walls. Some of the guys without CDLs left right then. They started talking about how bad the job market was. The country didn’t make anything anymore.
Roy hunched over the table and filled out the application and turned it in, waiting to see what the hiring manager would say, but he didn’t say anything. He might’ve been unwilling to give in and leave. Or he could’ve been afraid to move. He stood against the wall and thought of the other guys: with jobs and without, with CDLs and without.
“Find your calling?”
Roy looked up. He saw his brother, Dave, hunkered down nearby. Dave was a stout man, five-foot-nine with a potbelly. He was a big talker and Roy never cared much for him.
“You figure out what you’re gonna do instead?”
“Hell, we ain’t gonna find nothin better,” Dave said.
When the coal mine went belly-up, Roy was among the first who didn’t know what to do. He’d gone into the mines as soon as he was old enough. He walked into the Strickland Energy human resources office, as well dressed as possible, to apply for a job. He presented himself to the manager and said he wanted to work there more than anything and minutes later the manager handed him over to a foreman who, though providing him a pair of coal-dusted pants, set about destroying his best clothes. Over the next twenty years, he got married and built his family. By then it was “The Nineties” and he lived a decadent lifestyle. He bought a 1997 Ford Expedition with a 4.6 modular V8, a double-wide trailer with plenty of rooms, and a 40” Mitsubishi TV. Friday nights were spent going out with the family. He’d mined coal for so long that he no longer philosophized about it. He didn’t invite guilt into the conversation. He was good at what he did, and he was paid very well.
Dave’s head moved as if he were admitting something. “You wanna make some extra money?”
“What you got in mind?”
Roy looked at him. Osie was their older sister. She had permanent brain damage from a heat stroke at twelve. After that, she had seizures. She couldn’t talk straight or do anything. Roy figured it had something to do with their mother canning tomatoes on the hot day that Osie had had a fever. No one in the family gave a fuck about her. They only gave a fuck about the money she’d saved from her disability checks, and Roy knew that firsthand, having been one of those who wanted the money.
“This place has been crackin for years,” Dave said, “and you, with no way to stop it, no way to spackle it back up, wish you was that boy who stopped the dam with his finger. But here, there’s too many holes, not enough fingers. She’s got money down there in the woods. We can carve it up, fifty-fifty.”
“I’d of not thought she had that much.”
Dave just grinned at him, the kind of grin that told Roy he didn’t know very much. “Before you say yes or no, think about how ten thousand dollars, maybe more, would pad your wallet. Think about what that money could do for Jamie’s college.”
Roy felt there was a look of recognition that he knew there were things that weighed heavy on him, that the potential existed of sides of him that he might never come to know.
He went by the post office on the way home. He had the mortgage in two weeks. He had utilities, car payments, insurance and no savings. Although this mattered less than he suspected, as he’d lose his health insurance in eight months and would no longer be able to afford his wife’s medicine much less tuition and house payments. He maxed out their credit cards to finance the utilities then went to First Community Bank.
Roy liked First Community. He had a few investors who believed in his credentials, one of which was Donny Bowling. He’d put up no resistance when Roy moved the family into the double-wide ten years ago.
But the news there wasn’t so good. Though he’d already netted a substantial payout for Jamie’s tuition by refinancing twice, he still expected Donny to juggle something. But the way the appraisal affected the monthly, put him upside down on his mortgage. Donny, not then or now, rushed to approve the applications of laid-off miners.
Roy drove home and couldn’t help thinking about that money Dave was talking about. He thought about how he worked himself to death in the mines and couldn’t even get enough ahead to afford the house payment. He wondered where the fair was in that when there were men living and dying for them.
Of course, he couldn’t pay the mortgage if there was no house to pay for, so that evening he found himself back up in the oak tree, this time with a hand saw and a ladder, inching out to see how far the strength of the branches extended. He’d purchased metal spikes from Lowe’s to screw into the sides of the ladder to keep it from slipping in the grass. He tipped the ladder against the tree and fixed the harness to it by wrapping the strap around the trunk, tightening it so that it was snug.
He told himself he was going to prune back the branches near the power lines. But now he tipped back the leader branches and peeked into his son’s room. He was sitting at his desk, chatting on Facebook. He was what Roy would call “backward” — all the usual clichés for describing Appalachian people might’ve fit him but none would’ve been fully adequate. Roy found him mysterious. And he hated to admit it, but he’d started to resent him. Not in a way he could explain, really. He knew it was wrong for a father to hold something against his son, so he never mentioned it.
Jamie once asked him if he felt guilty about never leaving West Virginia. He asked it as if he already knew the answer; he was at the age where he was eager to go off to see the world and to prove to it he wasn’t the hillbilly he’d long been accused of being. Once, he’d told Roy the only reason people lived in West Virginia was to drive a big truck and carry a gun. A few were lucky enough to move on, seeking education then a career. The rest joined a branch of the military then came right back, which he always thought was a convenient excuse. Roy knew there was truth to that, and they did have one common bond: they both thought there was something precarious about home. But Roy knew there would be no use searching, no use having a home to guide him, if there wasn’t something worth holding onto in the end.
He took another look in the window and Jamie was gone. He went back to pruning. By the time he finished, the sun was beginning to set and the sky was filled with stars. He used to know all the constellations, but now he knew only one: Orion the Hunter. Roy looked up at him for a while. He was always there, wherever Roy went. He never changed, never moved at all.
By the next morning, he was for certain he would hunt for the money. When he said as much to Dave, Dave smiled as if something were wrong with him and this wrongness were invisible to the world.
Come eleven o’clock the next night, Roy and Dave were walking to their mother’s house at the top of the hill, where Osie still lived. They didn’t walk down the driveway because they figured she’d hear them. Instead they followed the pine trees nailed with homemade No Trespassing boards and up the hill past Osie’s rabbit coops.
If his life depended on it, Roy couldn’t tell you how he ended up back at the homeplace to extort his disabled sister. But it was his fault, the lost job. He needed to do something to get enough ahead. To give Jamie the education he wanted. One act to make his future a secure and normal place again. They went up on the back porch, which was loaded up with whatnots: baby dolls hanging from fishing wire, banjos, a rain barrel.
Roy’s heart was beating fast. “What if she goes to the cops?” he asked. That was a new thought for him because somehow he figured once they had the money they’d be home free.
“Hell, she ain’t gonna do nothin,” Dave said.
“You ain’t worried about it?”
Even in the dark, he could see a bulge on Dave’s hip, under his windbreaker. His kept his hand very close to it. “Man, fuck you,” he said. “This is the last favor I do for you.”
Roy didn’t remember following Dave into the house. He could hear Osie in the next room, the chink of utensils on a plate. It was dark and he couldn’t find a light. He stepped in, his boot hitting something, which threw him like an off-balance clown, flourishing so that he crashed the dining table. The bedroom door slammed shut andhe knew Osie was running.
Dave chased her, caught the tail of her shirt and tackled her to the ground. Roy heard her terrified screaming. She scratched at Dave’s face, bit his arm. She screamed and shimmied away. Dave pulled a revolver out of his waistband and narrowed his eyes and looked at Osie without blinking. He aimed it at her and pulled the trigger. The muzzle flashed and Osie’s leg buckled. She bounced off the back door and fell forward. Dave lowered the gun and looked at Roy, unbelieving.
“What the fuck did you just do?” Roy said. He had a metal taste of blood in his mouth and a loud buzz in his ears. He got up cursing and raised the shade. Fishing wire hung from a naked bulb, which he pulled to illuminate the room. The sink was full of rotten produce. The counter and stove were a foot deep in torn cereal and Chef Boyardee boxes. He looked down to see he had slipped in a melted stick of butter.
Osie’s eyes half-opened and she tried to lift herself up on her elbows. The carpet was spattered with blood.
“Hey, hey,” Roy said, “you with me?”
He grabbed her under the arms and lifted her back on the couch. Her head lolled forward like a broken baby doll’s, then turned up till she looked at him. Not having spoken to her for so long had him at a loss. She was skinny, almost skeletal. Her hair barely covered her scalp. Roy smelled garlic and calamine lotion and something else. The something else wasn’t a good smell. She coughed then held her hands over her mouth and a dark wetness dripped from her fingers.
“Jesus,” Roy said. “What the fuck did you do?”
“I was just tryin to freak you out,” Dave said. “I didn’t think it was loaded. I thought it might make you think twice.”
“I have thought twice! I’ve thought more than twice. You fucking shot her!”
Osie’s eyes began to fade.
“Shit,” Roy said. He ran to the kitchen, grabbed the phone and dialed 911, smudging blood on the wall.
Dave pointed the gun at him, a tactic as transparent as it was superfluous.
Roy’s face tightened. He replaced the receiver. Dave stared at him, cast in the image of a monster that kills travelers who pass through its land. “Wouldn’t be one to shoot you, but you better listen,” he said, which told Roy that’s exactly what he was considering. “Fact is, we’re kind of committed. The faster we get the money the better. Better for us, better for her.”
Roy didn’t say anything, didn’t want to tell him he might be right. That was the part that scared him the most. “You’re a puppy dog, you know that. Real sweet, but dumb as shit.”
“Quit your bitchin,” Dave said. “Get her up.”
Roy looked over at Osie and made eye contact before she passed out. He shook her. After a moment she came to. Her body was quivering like a freshly broken bone.
“It’s gonna be okay,” he told her. He imagined what this would be like later. Sitting there alone with Dave in a jail cell, a pathetic scene he wanted no part of.
Dave knelt before her with the gun resting atop his other knee. “You’ll moren likely find your way outta this. Just do what we say and show us where the money is. Lil detour’s all.”
They started into the woods toward a place called Aunt Jessie Dunk’s. Roy led the way with Osie’s weight braced across his shoulders. Dave was twenty yards behind, the barrel of the gun trained on them. They went down the logging road until they reached the valley where the creek ran, surrounded by a laurel thicket. Their route was there, and Roy followed it. He closed his eyes and pictured Jamie, younger, holding tightly to his hand as they walked. He looked up at the stars. The Milky Way arched high overhead, Orion at its center lifting his shield.
“Always thought Orion was a lot smarter than us.”
Osie looked at him. “What?”
“Well,” he said, “just look at him. He sticks to it, year after year. Never changes. Always knows exactly where he is. Where he’s going.” He paused. “I’m sorry this happened. It wasn’t right. I was just scared.”
Osie just stared at him, and her eyes were black and filled with hate or something else that made them burn. After a moment he turned back toward the path and walked on.
They came out of the woods into a pasture. The horizon met the ground in a damp corduroy. Cow paths and foundations divided the parcels of land into squares. Some house or half-standing arrangement of concrete and tin was visible beneath the trees in the southeast corner, two stories with a basement, and within the foundation, the front door was burned from a fire. The place was half-demolished with windows long ago smashed, some part of the roof collapsed. The yard was covered with tufts of grass, strewn with trash, rusty beer cans and used condoms.
“In there?” Roy asked.
“Yeah,” Osie said.
Dave looked past Roy into the house and looked around inside, then bent close to him and whispered.
“If she tries anything…”
Roy stared at him. Dave ushered them up the front steps, the gun poised in his hand. Roy pried a board from the doorway and ducked inside with Osie. The house was so quiet the darkness hummed. It was full of old furniture, empty cupboards, dirty dishes in the sink. In the middle of the ceiling was a circle of torn plaster and wires where a ceiling fan once was.
Walking aimlessly in the dark, Roy got lost a while. He stopped and looked at the family photos on a fireplace mantle, imagining something amazing, a picnic, or a vacation, or him, laughing together with his own family.
In the corner of the room was a hole in the floor. A thick rope was tied to one of the rafters above, and it hung down a few feet above the ground in the basement.
“This it?” Dave asked. “I can’t see. It’s too dark.” His voice cracked and Roy thought he sounded like a little kid.
Osie was quiet.
Dave yelled, “Is this it,” as he fired a shot into the air. The crack of the gun startled Roy and Osie started keening, a loud wail that mixed with the buzzing in his ears.
He raised his head, looked at Dave, and said, “What the fuck’re you doing? You’re nuts. Do you know this is fucking nuts?” He looked back at Osie. “We’re gonna get outta this. Do what he says, all right? Understand? Do you get it, Osie?”
“Climb down there, Roy,” Dave said. “It’d be easier if I stayed up here with this retard.”
Roy looked at the hole in the floor and tried to imagine himself as someone else, somewhere else. He tried to imagine being somewhere other than that dirty house in that dirty state.
The rope was rough, so he wrapped his hands inside his sleeves and wrenched it around then shimmied down into the basement. He slipped halfway and his feet hit an uneven bottom, driving his knees upward so that he bit his tongue and cursed. He opened his eyes to the dark room. He could see nothing at all. He stood there until his eyes adjusted. There were abandoned bottles and empty crates, old tackle. A twin bed and a woman’s dresser. The dresser was littered with empty vials, syringes, and other drug paraphernalia. He smelled the stench of bodily fluids and saw the discarded condoms at the bedside.
He ripped the side of the bed’s mattress longways, with chunks of foam spilling out, and knelt next to it with the money in front of him, the way he’d dreamed of seeing it: coiled in tight, green rolls, collected for years in Mason jars.
“Lord Almighty,” he said, and, up above, Dave stepped to the side so he could get a good look too.
“How much you reckon’s there?”
“Hundred thousand at least,” Roy said.
He was gathering as many jars as he could when he heard a rush of wind and felt a darkness pressing in on him like an unwelcome weight. To the side, almost lost, was a second room. Roy squinted when he entered and saw the shackle dug into the wall, cuffs still attached. Two sets of large, two small. And screws, three maybe four inches in diameter.
“Jesus,” Roy said.
Next to that were blind-eyed pups suckling their mother’s teats. Roy stroked the mother’s head. He thought about watching TV with his family, the dry routine of their evenings, a time for putting back together all the parts of you that’d been broken during the day. He wanted to get that comfort back. He wanted to fast forward past the bad and get the good back.
A gunshot punctured the silence, followed by a sound of meat and wetness hitting the upstairs floor.
Something about the way his blood ran icy told him things had taken a turn. He quickly tied the jars of money in his t-shirt and slung them over his shoulder. Panic mounted at the back of his throat. He told himself he wasn’t afraid. What could anyone take from him? What could anyone take that he hadn’t already given up? He climbed the rope through the hole.
Upstairs, Osie was crumpled on the floor, dead. Skull fragments fizzled into dust in the air before her. Dave stood there. He wiped his mouth then looked to Roy in the dim light.
“What happened?” Roy said. “What’d you do?”
“Shut up,” Dave said. “Shut up!” He was looking at Roy with delirious eyes, like he was looking right through him. “What do we do now? What are we gonna do?”
Roy nearly said something but bit his tongue. He tried not to retch. Not with the blood, the dirt and the bullet. The memory of all the things he did. He looked to the body. He said nothing and tossed a Mason jar at Dave, who barely caught it in the near dark. He stepped past him and walked out. Outside, he breathed the fresh air. He wandered around in the woods before heading home. He wondered, when nothing felt like home, where he was supposed to go. He wondered what he was supposed to do.
When he got home, Roy went to Jamie’s room. He opened the door to find Jamie awake in bed, his laptop on his legs. Roy wanted to walk away, but he kept standing there, like if he stayed there long enough, time would stand still, and that did it, because he started to cry quietly.
Jamie hugged him. Their embrace was awkward, as if their arms weren’t meant to express such feelings. Roy thought it wasn’t fair for Jamie to comfort him. Fathers comfort, children receive. He pulled from his son’s arms, initially backing away, and then, without words, sank into his embrace.
BIO: Joe is a writer living and working in West Virginia.