© Robert N. Jennings
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At first, Ashley didn’t know what to do or say. Her skin tingled and her head swam; maybe she should have passed out. Instead, she turned and asked, “Where’s my fuckin’ house?”
The neighbors, gathered in a crescent around her Ford sedan, looked down. Billy Parker shrugged and kicked at a stone in the road, giving birth to a plume of dirt that coated his sandaled foot red and hung in the air for several moments before settling down. He couldn’t even hold his head up enough to stare at her chest, even though she was wearing a tank top. The Paisley girls, little brunette twins, bit their lips and stood with their hands behind their backs while they rocked back and forth on their bare heels. Nobody would look Ashley in the face.
And nobody answered. So she said it again, her voice rising to a crescendo as she forced the words out. “WHERE’S…MY…FUCKIN’…HOUSE?”
From inside the Ford, Kylie peeped, “Mommy, you said the ‘F’ word!”
Ashley ignored her. Denise Fuller cleared her throat and said, “Well, Ashley, did you pay your lot rent? These kinds of things happen when you get behind…”
“I PAID MY GODDAMNED LOT RENT!” The small crowd flinched. Ashley whirled around to review once more what remained of her home. The wooden front steps rose several feet into a gaping void that ended twelve feet later in the pile of treated lumber that used to be her back deck. Various bits of underpinning and aluminum skirting lay scattered. A set of tire tracks made deep scars in the earth down the center road that ran past the closely packed mobile homes to the paved highway beyond.
For a moment, speech deserted her. Her right hand dropped to her purse and crawled down her keychain to the large white and gray marble affixed to the end. The marble felt cool and hard in her fingers, so hard a hammer couldn’t break it.
A hand tapped her shoulder. She turned to see Brenda Paisley, soggy with compassion, holding out a bulging trash bag. “What’s that?” Ashley asked.
“Kylie’s toys,” Brenda replied.
Harlan Fuller cleared his throat. “We got your stuff, Ashley. They threw your shit out all over creation, but we pitched in and got it together for you. I got your couch and dresser in my shed. Keep it there as long as you need to.”
“Thanks.” Ashley didn’t know what else to say. She took the bag of dolls and stuffed animals from Brenda and set it at her feet. Everybody eyeballed her with these aww-it’ll-be-okay expressions like they expected her to burst into tears at any moment. Which she wasn’t going to do. “Nobody saw nothing?”
“Everybody was working, Ashley,” Denise said.
“If you’re current on your lot rent, you ought to call the sheriff,” Harlan added. “Find out who did this.”
“Oh, I have an idea already,” Ashley muttered. This whole business reeked of Tammy, the stink of her perfume in the air as sharp and unmistakable as rotten meat. For a second she thought she caught a whiff of Barry mixed in there, but only for a second. Barry had all the free will of a Muppet; he couldn’t act on his own any more than Kermit the Frog could talk without somebody’s hand up his butt.
And anyway, it didn’t fit Barry’s style—too ballsy. It fit Tammy’s, though, yes ma’am. And that bitch would pay, Ashley swore before Jesus. They’d make a horror movie out of what Ashley would do to her.
Right after she revealed what she’d done with Ashley’s house.
* * * * * * * * *
Five years ago Ashley and Barry moved out of her mother’s house and into a 1981 Freedom fourteen-by-eighty they had picked up at a government auction and set up in a mobile home park just west of Sarum. Three bedrooms, two baths, siding stained with green mildew, shag carpet jumping with fleas, every square inch reeking of pot smoke. Someone had replaced the window glass in the master bedroom with a duct-taped sheet of cardboard. Not exactly the Ritz, but it gave Ashley her own address. She fell in love on the spot.
Their first few days as homeowners, Barry got enough money from selling the baggie of cocaine he’d found in the hall bathroom toilet tank to not only replace that one busted window, but to re-carpet the entire house. Outside, the mold and mildew disappeared with the blast of a pressure washer, banished to the same place they’d chased the smoke smell from inside. Piece by piece, it became home.
Until that whore came along and jacked it like a pack of bubble gum. Ashley opened fire as soon as he answered. “Put the bitch on the phone!”
“Put her on! I want to talk to her!” Ashley, barefoot in the harvest gold nightmare of her mother’s kitchen, fought to keep her voice from breaking windows. Out in the living room, Mama pretended to watch TV in the dark instead of eavesdrop. In the guest bedroom down the hall, Kylie slept the sleep of a seven-year-old, the solid rest of one who has yet to learn the meaning of the term “slut.” “Funny thing happened today, Barry. I come home from work and my damn house is gone. So I’m thinking, who did this? We didn’t owe no money on it. I’m current on the lot rent. So I’m saying it again: put the bitch on the phone.”
Barry groaned. “You’re being ridiculous,” he said. “There’s no way. You have any idea what kind of work it is towing a trailer? You think a pregnant woman’s gonna do all that?”
“Oh, I don’t think she came and got it herself. I think she got one of your buddies to do it, some dickhead with a rig. Put her on.”
“Why? She too busy packing the china so she can move your little family into my house tomorrow? You put that slut on the phone or I’m coming over there to see her in person!”
“Ashley, don’t. Look, you need to get some help, okay? Don’t hate Tammy for shit you screwed up. You slammed the door in my face. You want to hate somebody, go look in the mirror. I don’t have to be over here, you know.”
Ashley covered her eyes and breathed deeply through her nose, trying to focus on the calm hum of the refrigerator. Her teeth screamed at her clenching jaw to lighten up before they exploded from the pressure. Somewhere deep inside, she felt a panther tugging on the chain that kept her anchored, the silvery steel links going hazy where they stressed and bent. She opened her mouth but snapped it shut just as quickly. Then she said, “I’m gonna go now.”
“And while I got you on the phone, why don’t we talk about that line of bull you fed the child support judge last week…”
She hung up so hard she about broke the receiver. Not a moment passed before he rang her back, and she cut him off without answering. Before it could ring again, she reached behind the phone and flipped off the ringer, then did the same to her cell.
He wanted to talk to somebody tonight, he could talk to the bitch.
Ashley padded into the living room and threw herself on the couch. “Wasn’t enough for that prostitute to take my husband,” She muttered. “Got to take my house, too.”
“She done you a favor, if you ask me.” Mama adjusted herself in the recliner and continued staring at the television while she took another pull on her beer. Its empty siblings on the end table beside her had sanded the edges of her words, made them round. The television’s glow played on her cheeks, dancing from dark to light to dark gray again with the changing tides on the screen. “Trailer park’s no place to raise a little girl. And Barry? Don’t even get me started.”
On TV, a laugh track detonated at some stale joke to remind America to chuckle if they could swing it. Ashley couldn’t. “This ain’t Barry’s doing,” she said. “He don’t know a damn thing about it. It’s that bitch of his.”
“He’s a hateful prick. And you, young lady, you need to watch your language before Kylie hears you and takes it to school.”
Ashley rolled her eyes. She had the jones for a cigarette, but if Kylie smelled it on her she’d raise Cain. When Ashley met the teacher who thought it was a good idea to teach first-graders about lung cancer, she’d shoot him. “Just telling it like it is. Weren’t for her, me and Barry’d still be together.”
Mama’s eyebrows climbed near the dark shores of her hairline.
“What?” Ashley snapped.
“If you say so.”
“If I say so? Whatever! Till the bitch came along, we did fine! Am I not allowed to call somebody out for wrecking my marriage? For stealing my house?”
Mama shrugged. “I just think when this is all over you’re gonna be the only one surprised. You and nobody else. That’s all I got to say.” As if to mark her point, she stuck the bottle in her mouth and sucked down the last of the suds sloshing around inside.
Ashley got up. “To hell with this. I’m going to bed.”
“Fine. But let me tell you something.” Mama set the now empty bottle on the end table with a hollow clank and reached for the reload she’d had on standby since the last commercial break. “Number one, I’m only telling you one more time, watch your language. Say whatever you want in your nasty trailer, in my house you’re gonna talk like a lady. Number two? Those clothes got to go. You’re twenty-four years old, you don’t need to be dressing like some teenage hooker.” She twisted off the cap and the bottle hissed like a miniature fart. “Maybe you don’t care about the example you set for Kylie, but I do.”
Ashley retreated up the hallway. Around an hour later, her jaws unclenched and she fell asleep.
* * * * * *
I don’t have to be over here, you know—Barry’s exact words. Spelled differently: please take me back. I’m a pathetic bastard and I still love you.
Then kick that skank of yours to the curb, Ashley wanted to scream, but of course Barry wouldn’t do that on his own, for the same reason Ashley knew he hadn’t ripped off her house: Barry was a pussy. She knew this like her own name. I don’t like that couch you picked out, Barry, I want this one. Would he put up a fight? No, uh-uh, he’d bob his head up and down and say okay, baby, whatever you want. A week later, ketchup stains would appear out of nowhere on the pristine cushions, ketchup and mustard and barbecue sauce and everything else that a passive-aggressive pussy could possibly spill. She’d call him on it and he’d get this look on his face like what? It was an accident! Jesus!
As if she didn’t already know she’d married a pussy, God tipped her off again at Brian Kellum’s party over in Temple Mount this past Christmas. Brian caught her standing—well, swaying probably said it better—under the mistletoe and decided to help himself to a cup of her holiday cheer. She remembered the way her throat locked up when he slipped her the tongue, how the vodka coursing through her veins froze in the icy current of shock that suddenly overtook her body and made her as still as a deer in the headlights, incapable of movement.
Most of all, though, she remembered Barry’s reaction. Beer bottle in one hand, slice of pizza in the other, he froze for a second and stared, then pivoted on his heels and drifted back into the kitchen. He didn’t throw a fit or make a scene, kick over furniture or tear pictures off the wall. He didn’t call Brian a backstabber or an asshole, go upside his head with the beer bottle, punch his lights out. He did none of the things she wished with every ounce of her soul he’d have done at that moment; instead, he did everything she wished he hadn’t.
In the car on the way home, she tried to explain what had actually happened, but Barry just nodded and held up a hand to stop her. “It’s all good,” he said. “I believe you.”
But he didn’t. He didn’t believe her at all, but would he talk about it? Nope. Tucked his tail between his legs and refused to discuss it. Repeated “it’s all good, I believe you,” like a magic spell. Mama once said a whipped man is a good man, a whipped man keeps his fists in his pockets and his money in the bank. You always wanted a dog, didn’t you, Ashley? Yeah, Ashley had. But the thing about dogs, she could have told Mama, people steal them. A few days after Brian’s little pass, Barry met Tammy at another party and she got him to screw her in the bathroom. Taking the old barbecue-sauce-on-the-new-couch bit to a whole new level, Barry made it a point to “forget” to lock the door, guaranteeing he’d get caught.
Ashley threw his ass out as soon as they got home. Maybe Tammy had come after him first, but…God, man, where’s your sense of proportion?
The day after the theft, the insurance man said they’d pay for Ashley and Kylie to get a hotel room until the home office could cut her a check for a new house, but Ashley would need a police report. So after calling in sick to work and packing Kylie off to school, Ashley drove straight to the sheriff’s department. There, they made her sit in the lobby for twenty minutes, took another ten on basic information collection, then told her they weren’t doing diddly squat.
Ashley sat in the plastic chair, blinking. “What?”
The deputy wore the standard I-Used-To-Be-A-Marine-So-Don’t-Mess-With-Me haircut, but he seemed as nervous as a schoolboy. His eyes only met hers for seconds at a time before flickering back to the clipboard laid on the table before him while he made notes with one unsteady hand. His nametag read Hopewell. “Well, I mean…his name’s on the title, right? Yours and…yours and his?”
Ashley scowled and nodded. Her hand snaked into her purse and found the marble keychain. She scratched at the smooth surface so hard she about broke a nail.
“Then, see, the thing is, Mrs. Nichols…”
“I said you could call me Ashley.”
“Yeah…okay, Ashley, you can’t steal something that’s yours. According to the, uh, title, he’s…he’s got as much a right to it as you do.”
“But it’s mine. I live in it.”
Deputy Hopewell’s jaw curved up toward his face just a little sooner than she would have liked, shaving so many years off his appearance Ashley had to wonder if he’d lied about his age just so he could get that neat leather belt with the gun on it. “And maybe so, Mrs. Nic…Ashley, maybe it is yours. But that’s a civil matter. So, I guess what I’m trying to say is, this…uhh…isn’t stolen property. Not if your husband took it.”
“He didn’t,” Ashley said. Her brow furrowed and she closed her eyes, hunting in her mind for a way to say it. “I don’t think you understand. I never said Barry did it, I never said he hired somebody to do it, and I don’t see why we keep coming back to him. Tammy had one of Barry’s friends tow it, because she’s pregnant, she can’t do it herself and she don’t have a truck. This was her idea.” Ashley folded her arms and fixed Hopewell with a stare, daring him to disagree.
He looked down at his paper and closed his eyes. “Okay…let me make sure I’ve got this down right. A friend of your husband’s hooked up your house and towed it off at…uhh…Tammy’s direction, but your husband himself had nothing to do with it.”
“There’s no chance Mr. Nichols had…had anything to do with this, even though his name’s on the title and he…lives with the alleged perpetrator, who’s…pregnant. And you want us to arrest the girlfriend. Who’s pregnant.”
“Because…this is actually her fault. Even though nobody saw her.”
Hopewell looked up at her and then back down at his paper. He closed his eyes again and shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I...uhh…got no evidence this is stolen property. I’m sorry.”
Ashley sat back in the chair, blown away. “So you’re just gonna let her get away with this?”
“Did you know one of your little buddies once chased Barry three blocks for stealing a CD from Wal-Mart? And now his whore takes a whole house but you guys don’t want to do anything about it? This is a house. Am I the only one that sees the problem here?”
Ashley whipped out her keychain and stood, her hand clutching the cool, hard marble. “You’re probably going to have to arrest me for attempted murder, but that’s all fine by me. You guys won’t help me get my house back, I’ll just have to help myself. Nice meeting you.”
* * * * * *
Deputy Hopewell assured her that the Sheriff’s Department would investigate the theft of her home on the off chance that someone other than Barry had towed it, which made her want to grab the phone and bean his Marine-cut head with it because she never said Barry had towed it and didn’t appreciate people drawing their own conclusions. Then, further proof that Hopewell didn’t understand the first thing about all this, he took a big swallow and asked if he could call her sometime. You know, to get…get dinner or something. Ashley, stifling the urge to scream, said she’d go out with him as soon as she got her house back. She figured this would give him an incentive to get his ass in gear, much more so than screaming.
With Deputy Hopewell more interested in banging her than helping her, and the insurance man refusing to get up off his duff without a police report, Ashley sat in her car and reviewed her options. She hadn’t wanted to do what came next, but the floods had closed all roads but one. She had to go after Tammy herself.
Tammy threatened to call the police when Ashley first showed up, but five minutes later they stood facing each other by Ashley’s car in the parking lot of the New Attitudes Hair Salon. Tammy lit a cigarette and blew a puff of smoke in Ashley’s direction. “Go on. Say what you got to say. I ain’t got time for this shit.”
The bulge in Tammy’s belly put her at about the right size for six months along, meaning she’d have been sixteen when she hoodooed Barry, eight years older, into banging her at that party. She stood with her back and neck straight, like she had something to be proud of. Ashley could have choked her. Instead, she said, “I want to know where my house is.”
“That ain’t no house, it’s a shitty trailer, and no, I don’t know where it is. You done?”
Ashley took a deep breath and steered around the assault charge screaming in her hands. “No. And if you blow one more puff of smoke in my face, I’m gonna take that cigarette and make you eat it. We clear?”
Tammy looked her up and down and gave a derisive half-chuckle. But her next cloud of tobacco smoke went out the corner of her mouth, away from Ashley.
“Now listen. You’re the whore that stole my husband, but we’ll put that aside for now and talk like adults. Okay? No sense lying to me. I know you’re a gold-digging little bitch, and I know you’ve had your eyes on my place for you and your…” Ashley gestured at Tammy’s bulge, “…litter to live in, and I know Barry’s friend Hank’s got a truck plenty big to pull a house. So don’t lie to me.”
“I’m a gold-digging little bitch? Whatever!” Tammy gave that little chuckle again, but her eyes had narrowed to slits in her puffy face. “I got me a place to live. Why would I want your nasty trailer?”
It occurred to Ashley just then that she didn’t know how to interrogate anybody but Barry. She’d kind of figured Tammy would just give it up, unable to resist gloating, revealing herself in her desire to twist the knife; she hadn’t planned for what to do if Tammy refused to come out of the bushes. Ashley tried another tack. “Because you hate me,” she said.
“That’s a pretty safe bet, but I actually don’t give a shit about you.”
A little smile nudged the corners of Ashley’s mouth. “You hate me because Barry wants me back and you know it. And that burns your ass up.”
Tammy’s eyebrows cocked skyward. “Are you for real?”
“Oh, yeah.” Ashley took one step forward. Tammy didn’t move. “You know the only reason you got him is I wouldn’t take him back and he’s got nowhere else to go. He still loves me. And you can’t handle it.”
“You have got to be kidding.”
Ashley pressed on. “If you’re something more than weekend pussy, where’s your ring? Nowhere. You don’t have one and you won’t get one, because he’s hoping I’ll take him back. And maybe I will.”
Tammy finished her cigarette. She threw it on the pavement and ground it to death beneath one sandaled foot, shaking her head. “You are one crazy bitch, Ashley. And I mean every word of that. I feel sorry for that little girl of yours.”
“You know the truth.”
“I know you’re fuckin’ crazy, because if you had even the slightest grip on reality anymore you wouldn’t talk shit like that.” Tammy sighed. “Look, my break’s over. So’s this conversation. Bye.” She turned to go back into the salon.
“Don’t you walk away from me! I’m not done with you yet!”
Tammy whirled around, her eyes wide but her pupils contracted to little black beads. “Yeah, you are. I ain’t got time for this shit. You went and lied to the judge about how much money you make, so now Barry’s got to give you more than half his check in child support. We got a baby coming, Ashley, and since you take the lion’s share of what Barry gets, somebody’s got to earn some money to keep food on the table. So I’m warning you, you get the hell out of here or I’ll have you arrested for trespassing!”
Ashley, hands beginning to tremble, stared at her.
“Go on! Get lost!”
And without another word, flashing Tammy a glare sharp enough to cut meat, Ashley got back in her car and coaxed the motor to life. Getting arrested didn’t scare her—but getting arrested for murder did, and if Ashley hung around that hateful bitch just one more second she’d kill her.
And Ashley couldn’t do that; she hadn’t found her house yet.
* * * * * * * * * *
Deputy Hopewell had left a message on Ashley’s voice mail while she talked to Tammy. He wanted to…uh…take her out to dinner on Friday. If she didn’t already have plans.
Nothing about finding her house.
Ashley got lunch at the Burrito Hut up by the gas station where 467 split north towards Greensboro. She ate in the car, the burrito on her lap and the Coke clenched between her knees. She could have eaten inside, but they had bolero playing on the satellite radio just loudly enough to where customers couldn’t ruin their meals by talking or thinking. And Ashley needed to think.
A red semi bobtailing on 467 slowed at the traffic light and made a turn into the parking lot, the empty space where the cargo trailer should have been following like an unfinished sentence. Ashley watched it absently and sipped her Coke. Ashley could probably just go on home and wait, because if Tammy had plans to move into the house she’d have to come clean to Barry about stealing it sooner or later. And when Tammy did that, Barry would let her know, child support or not, he didn’t appreciate her yanking the roof from over his seven-year-old daughter’s head. Might just make him mad enough to leave her.
The semi pulled to a stop on the other side of the parking lot, taking up a half-dozen spaces. Ashley, lost in thought, watched as the door opened and a pair of boots dropped down onto the first metal step, followed by blue jeans, then a shirt, then a head. Funny; that driver looked just like Barry’s butt-buddy Hank…
Son of a bitch!
Ashley’s heart nearly popped out her throat and splattered on the steering wheel. Hank waddled across the parking lot towards the Burrito Hut with a sense of purpose and direction, arms swinging at his sides, gut swinging at his front. Ashley chucked her food onto the seat beside her and leapt from the car. “Hank Averett!”
Hank whirled around and stood still for a moment, blinking while his pea-sized brain searched his memory for Ashley’s picture. Then, recognizing her, he turned and ran for the restaurant.
Ashley took after him. Her flip-flops made miniature explosions as they slapped against the pavement. “HANK! YOU STOP RIGHT THERE, YOU ASSHOLE!”
Hank hit the side door and pushed on it as hard as he could, frantically trying to access the safety he imagined inside. Then he saw the sticker that said “Pull.” He got the door open and vanished into the restaurant.
Ashley caught the door before it could swing closed. She stood there just inside, chest heaving, heart galloping, and scanned the dining room for her quarry.
A woman surrounded by small children eating at a booth jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “Men’s room,” she said.
“Thanks,” Ashley trotted past the hot sauce and guacamole pumps. She grabbed the handle on the men’s room door and stepped inside.
Grouted ceramic tile covered the floor, probably white once upon a time but now a mottled pastiche of browns and grays. A row of three sinks lined one wall for several feet before giving way to three urinals standing at attention like porcelain soldiers. Across from the urinals, three toilet stalls. In the middle toilet stall, two feet.
“Leave me alone! I’m taking a dump!”
“Bombs away, then,” Ashley said. “But I’ll be waiting out here for you when you’re done. I got a bone to pick with you.”
“Get the fuck out of here! This is a men’s room! Jesus!”
Ashley stepped back out into the dining area. Then she opened her cell phone and dialed.
Deputy Hopewell made it in five minutes. He removed his brown hat as he entered the Burrito Hut and glanced around nervously before spotting Ashley standing guard outside the men’s room door. “In there?”
He took a deep breath and looked over his shoulder as if his supervisor lurked somewhere nearby. “You…uh…know I can get in trouble for this, right?”
“For what? Doing your job?”
“I won’t tell. Come on.”
Ashley slipped through the door first. “Hank, I got somebody here who wants to talk to you.”
“I said leave me alone, I’m trying to take a…”
A current of air brushed Ashley’s skin as Hopewell rushed past her and nailed Hank’s stall with one black-booted foot like the kick of a racehorse. The hat had reappeared on top of his head, while his right hand had suddenly grown a service pistol. The door flew open. “Hands on the wall! Sheriff’s Department!”
Hank let fly a high-pitched, girlish squeal. Hopewell disappeared into the stall.
Ashley flipped the lock on the door and raced to join him. In the stall, Hopewell holstered his weapon and began handcuffing Hank, who stood whining with his pants up, cheek pressed up against the dirty tile wall. “This is bullshit!”
The second handcuff clicked into place. “On your knees!” Hopewell ordered.
Hank grudgingly obeyed. His beer gut nearly pulled him off balance, but the weight of his hair, oo long for a man in his mid-thirties, kept him steady. He knelt before the commode like a penitent at church.
Hopewell looked back at Ashley with eyes as wide as dinner plates. His Adam’s apple bobbed once as his badge moved up and down with each rush of breath. He gestured at Hank. What am I supposed to do now?
Ashley crouched down behind the kneeling man. The air smelled of hair gel mixed with the aroma of the brown thing floating in the toilet bowl and wrinkled her nose. “I want to know what Tammy had you do with my house.”
“I didn’t do shit with your house!”
Ashley looked up at Hopewell, who swallowed again, snatched the back of Hank’s hair and shoved his face over the dirty bowl. “Think hard,” he growled.
Ashley moved closer despite the overpowering stench. “Hank, listen to me. I’m not stupid. Tammy couldn’t haul that house by herself, she’d have needed you and Barry. You especially. Who else has a big truck, Hank?”
Hank recognized the rhetorical question. He looked ready to gag.
“We just want to know where it is,” Ashley continued. “So just tell us, and the deputy won’t dip your face in that big turd right there.”
Hank shut his eyes. “Dixon Forest,” he gasped.
“Where? Where in Dixon Forest?”
Hopewell had lowered Hank’s face toward the bowl, prompting him to raise his chin. For a moment, Ashley thought he’d puke. Instead, his lips curled back around his skull and astonished her by smiling. “Take a right onto Baswell from the Old Sarum Highway,” he said. “Old logging road about a mile on your left. It’s up thataway.”
Ashley looked at Hopewell. “Let’s go,” she said.
* * * * * * *
“I could get in real deep…uhh…trouble for this. What am I going to do if he tells? My sergeant’s gonna have my badge!”
“Oh, why don’t you just unclench?” Ashley said into the phone, forcing a lightness to her tone she didn’t really feel. Her free hand clutched the steering wheel as her car rattled down the Old Sarum Highway at a speed well north of the legal limit. Several lengths behind her, Deputy Hopewell did the same. He wanted her to call him Matt now, since, you know, they…uh…kind of knew each other a little better. “Hank squeals on you? We’ll make something up. I’ll lie for you. Okay?”
“Uhh…thanks. I’d appreciate that.”
“No problem. Look, here’s Baswell. I’ll talk to you up there.” She dropped the cell phone and hung a hard right, as per Hank’s instructions.
The sun hadn’t climbed as high as it would, but it already heated things up plenty. Ashley rode with the windows down to relieve the stifling heat that threatened to melt her inside the car. The warm wind rushing in blew her hair behind her like the tail of a comet and pushed the rivers of sweat from her brow off the side of her head instead of straight down her face. Her stomach tightened with each click of the odometer.
Why was he smiling?
He hadn’t been smiling. It just looked that way, what with Hopewell snatching his hair back like that. Pulled his face all out of shape. Hopewell had been about to dunk his face in the commode with a big old turd—he couldn’t have been smiling.
And where, she wondered, is somebody going to set up a trailer in Dixon Forest? Easy. Anywhere it would fit. Leave it there while your boyfriend’s wife does all her screaming and yelling to the police and the court. Then take it out to a piece of land somewhere and set it up, pay nothing but lot rent while the girl who owns it struggles with an apartment. Sit in the living room and smile at the walls, smile because while in the pit of your soul you know you’re nothing but a consolation prize, you’ve got the man and the house. Let that knowledge warm your cold, shriveled heart.
Just then, her phone rang. She snatched it from the seat, suddenly irritated with Hopewell for calling again, but the curses caught in her throat, stillborn.
She took a deep breath and flipped the clamshell. “I’m busy.”
“Heard you talked to Hank.”
A bolt of surprise made her swerve, prompting a blast of the horn from Hopewell. Outside, the trees rushed by like villagers fleeing a volcano. Ashley steadied the car and kept one eye on the road while she put the other on the woods, searching for the dirt road. She forced her words through an opening in her throat. “What’d you hear?”
He laughed. His breezy calm carried a confidence, a self-possession and a satisfaction that chilled Ashley’s blood. “I heard you and your boyfriend about made him eat turd, for one.”
Her pulse climbed. Why’d Hank call him? “He’s not my boyfriend!”
“It’s okay if he is.” He paused to take a drink. Ashley heard the slurp of drinking and for one crazy instant pictured a Rumrunner or Sex on the Beach, tall and fancy, sweating in his hand as he took in the sun on the deck of a condo in Florida. “I don’t care.”
“Barry, what the fuck is going on here?”
“Well,” there was that slurp again, “I guess you got an idea where the house is.”
Her hand twitched so badly she nearly dropped the phone. The thick carpet of reality had disappeared and she found herself stumbling across a surface as surreal and unfamiliar as the planet Mars. She’d turned straight into an episode of The Twilight Zone. Any minute now, she’d look up in the sky and see two suns, or look in the rearview mirror and see Hopewell’s car had become a hearse. Ashley could barely hear her own voice. “How do you know?”
He ignored the question with another breezy laugh. “Hank sucks at directions. I just want to make sure you find it. You pass the Citgo station yet?”
Her eyes flickered to the right and then returned to the road. She swallowed. “Just passed it.”
“Slow down and look to your left. Should be coming up any minute.”
The trees lining Baswell broke just long enough for a dirt road to split off and go running down into the forest. Ashley braked and executed a one-handed turn. “I found it. How do you know about the house?”
“Let’s worry about that later. Right now I just want to make sure you find it.”
The wheels slipped into deep ruts carved in the dirt, jarring the car but pulling it forward even faster than before, carrying her swiftly toward whatever ambush Barry had in store. In her rearview mirror, Hopewell turned off Baswell and joined her on the logging road in a cloud of dust.
“It ain’t far,” Barry said.
“What’s going on? You have something to do with this?”
“Me? You really think I’d pull a nasty trick like this? I’m surprised, baby, I thought you said I was a pussy.”
He cut her off. “In just a second you’re gonna hit the clearing.”
“Don’t talk. Just drive.”
Her car crested a rise, and a moment later the road opened into a clearing as vast as a dozen of football fields, the earth churned and ruined as if an angry giant had ripped the roots from the soil. Backhoes, bulldozers and assorted piles of junk dotted the landscape like slaves harvesting in a field of nothing. Ashley took her foot off the gas and braked. Hopewell laid on his horn and swerved to avoid rear-ending her, bringing the cruiser to a dusty halt.
“You found it?”
The glee in his voice turned her stomach. The air buzzed with that same signal a girl got from coming home from work and seeing her front door standing wide open, stepping out of the shower while home alone and seeing the closet shut when she knew damned well she’d left it open before going in the bathroom. Something’s wrong. Something’s very wrong.
She wanted to slam the car in reverse and go, but instead she opened the door and got out. Hopewell, following suit, stared at her with bewilderment from behind a pair of sunglasses. “I’m in the clearing,” she said, “but I don’t see anything.”
“Really? Look for the Sarum water tower.”
The barren clearing swirled around her, making her dizzy. She turned circles like a dog chasing its tail, eyes scanning the treeline for the water tower rising in the distance. “Okay.”
“Now turn around. Make a complete one-eighty.”
Ashley turned. And she stopped.
She didn’t recognize it at first; for a moment, her brain couldn’t process something so out of context, so impossible to grasp against the backdrop of where it lay. Understanding danced just outside her skull for one blissful instant before kicking down the door and charging in. Her skin went numb.
There sat her house, crooked on the ground for lack of underpinning, windows shattered, siding melted, burned. She’d noticed the hulk when she rolled into the clearing but hadn’t actually seen it, which made perfect sense, considering the last time she’d laid eyes on it no sooty black tongues reached upward from the windows and no twisted mass of charcoal and plastic lay collapsed inward on itself where the master bedroom and bath had been. Immediately to the right of the bloody socket that should have held her front door, a single word glared at her in red spray-painted block letters standing three feet high.
“Damn hell,” Hopewell breathed. He didn’t stutter at all.
The thick layer of shock insulating her mind didn’t tear until her eyes settled on the last ten feet of the house and the single window that the fire hadn’t blown to pieces. That last length reached for her like a smiling child with half his face a warped mess of scar tissue and pulsing sores, a beautiful eye on the face of a nightmare.
A little sound crawled up through Ashley’s throat and died in her mouth.
The breezy calm vanished from Barry’s voice. “See that?” He cried from the little plastic phone dangling from her right hand. “See that, you fucking bitch? Who’s big and bad now, huh? Who’s a pussy now? Let’s hear you run that mouth of yours now! Let’s hear you run to the judge and tell some more lies!”
Hopewell’s face scrunched up with concern. “Who’s that on the phone?”
Ashley ignored him. Her jaw trembled. She reached instinctively for the marble keychain but couldn’t find it; she must have left it in the car.
“You thought I wanted you back?” He laughed. “Oh, yeah, right! Why would I want you back? You’re a rotten, lying, cheating, nasty bitch that ain’t worth the time of day!”
And then he hung up.
Deep inside her soul, in a place no flashlight could reach, Ashley felt something break.
Hopewell grabbed her arm to steady her. “I’m gonna…gonna get this son of a bitch, okay?”
“How?” Ashley asked. Her voice echoed in the hollow space between her ribs. “You said it yourself. It’s his, too.” It was ours.
“I’ll find something. I got…I got a book of criminal offenses in my car, I’m gonna comb through that sucker till I find something. You just…just chill out, okay? Get back in your car and wait. I’m gonna get him for you!”
Ashley, unable to tear her eyes from her house, didn’t look at him. She stood silently as his footsteps faded behind her and the cruiser’s door creaked open. Funny thing; Barry had been gone for six months already. Six months, two whole seasons—and yet Ashley just now felt that invisible ocean pouring through the hole in her chest and filling her with a dark sense of loss so deep it could have swallowed a fleet of battleships. Funny.
Funny because all it really swallowed was a trailer. A nasty trailer only white trash would buy, stupid white trash with even less common sense than money. Maybe it swallowed Barry, too, but he didn’t count for much. What had she lost? A nasty trailer and an even nastier husband.
Best day of her fucking life.
Ashley stumbled back to her car and cried.
T H E E N D