Cal looked at Caston, looked at the bleary eyes blazing from his bloated face, looked at the ripped sundress he was holding in his stained, bloody hand, and knew what he had to do, knew it down deep. He was going to have to move. Just like he’d moved two years ago.
Seventh grade was only a week away, and summer sat heavy on the Tennessee hills. For Cal, Little Pete, and Bobby, the days began with the rising sun, petered off during the brutal afternoon heat, and then made a head-long sprint into the musky evenings of mid-August. Returning from their swimming hole, the boys (make that Little Pete) had decided to take the shortcut through farmer Travers’ cow pasture.
“You know we’re like to get shot doin’ this,” Bobby spat at Little Pete as he shinnied over the split rail fence bordering the south end of the pasture. Hopping down, he watched Little Pete leverage his bulk carefully over the top before tumbling into the grass. He landed on his butt with a woomp.
“Dagnabit!” He hopped up rooting behind him for the briar stuck to the back of his patched britches.
“Serves ya right for making us come this way.” Bobby was nervously scanning the field for any sign of Travers. “Ya know he promised to show us what a butt-full o’ buckshot feels like if he ever catches us cuttin’ through here again.”
“Aw, stuff it, Bobby. You worry more’n my ma, and with your short legs, I figure you’d be grateful for any kind of shortcut.” He’d managed to locate and extract the offending briar while Cal climbed over to join them. “Cal don’t seem to mind. You mind, Cal?”
“See? If it’s good enough for Cal, it’s good enough for me.”
Bobby spat again. “Whatever. Still don’ wanna get shot.”
“Maybe if you’d shut up we wouldn’t have to worry about getting shot. You make more racket than our retarded rooster. I swear I’m agonna kill that bird next time it goes off in the middle of the night.”
They trudged on in silence until they crested the low hill in the center of the pasture. Ahead they could just make out the the north fence and the road running away behind it.
Little Pete mopped his forehead then jammed the stained bandana into his back pocket. “See, I told you this wasn’t no big deal. Easy as pie, and we done cut more’n half a mile off—“
“Shut up.” Cal half-turned, squinting against the fading sunlight.
“He said ‘shut up,’ idiot.” Bobby smacked Little Pete upside the back of his head. It was a testament to the seriousness with which the boys listened to Cal that Little Pete didn’t immediately deck Bobby. Both of them froze, imitating Cal, eyes scanning the fields.
Cal was already moving, and Bobby and Little Pete wasted no time wondering what it was they were running from. Two hundred yards from the fence they figured it out.
“When’d he get dogs?” Little Pete hollered.
Bobby wasn’t wasting any breath answering; he was trying to keep up with Cal. The baying of the two mongrel dogs gave him reserves of speed he never imagined.
“We gonna make it—“ He turned to look back at Little Pete and was just in time to see the bigger boy go down in a tumble, hollering and holding his leg. The dogs were closing fast. They were big, no-nonsense mutts, the kind that’ll eat cans of dog food without bothering to wait for someone to get the opener, the kind of dogs the bad guys always have chained up in movies. They were close enough now that Bobby could make out bloodstains on the big tan dog’s muzzle, close enough he could see the second one’s missing ear and scarred face.
“Cal!” Bobby screamed as he skittered to a stop, turning toward Little Pete.
Cal was moving back toward Little Pete, but he wasn’t really running. Bobby would later try to explain to himself exactly what he’d seen, but it always seemed so jumbled that he would just give up, falling back on the story that the dogs must’ve been farther away than he thought. He knew that wasn’t it though. He’d seen Cal move.
The two dogs had split, one headed for Bobby, the other for Little Pete who was now up and hobbling like Satan himself had taken a break from floating on the lake of fire and popped in to join the chase. He didn’t have a chance. Bobby was twenty yards from the fence; Little Pete was still another thirty yards back. Another couple seconds and Bobby was at the fence, hauling his skinny body up just as the smaller mutt’s jaws clicked shut below his feet. Sobbing, he turned, ready to see Cal and Little Pete being torn to shreds, and that’s when the other two boys materialized out of thin air and knocked him off his perch. They landed in a tangle of arms and legs and rolled down the hill while the dogs bayed and threw themselves into the fence.
“G-g-g-good l-l-ord, l-l-look at ’em,” Little Pete stuttered. He was pale as a sheet and shaking like a career drunk white-knuckling his way through rehab. The dogs gave a few last parting words and then skulked off.
“Wha— Wha— How?” Bobby shook his head looking first at Little Pete then at Cal. He thought he saw something different in Cal’s eyes. Little Pete seemed to have lost all power of speech and simply stared at his pants; he’d pissed himself.
Cal brushed his hand through his blonde hair. He felt something, knew something had just happened. Something adults wouldn’t call normal, something adults wouldn’t understand, something that would make them ask lots of questions. One moment he had been at the fence, felt the wooden slats rough under his hands, and the next minute he had moved toward Little Pete. He had meant to run, but something else had happened.
“I don’t know, Bobby.” He studied his hands, dug a splinter out of his palm, and then looked at them again. “I knew I had to get to him … and I just … I made it happen.”
Little Pete and Bobby looked at each other. They’d rarely heard Cal string four words together, much less two sentences. Bobby flopped onto his back flummoxed while Little Pete sniffled back tears.
“We don’t talk about this, okay?” Cal looked at them both solemnly.
Little Pete, liberated by this sworn secrecy, burst into tears. Bobby didn’t know what was crazier, seeing how Cal had moved or watching his big friend bawl like a baby.
And they hadn’t talked about it since that day. It was a wordless pact sworn on the weight of their friendship, and Cal was glad for that. He’d always known he was different, but that day was the first time he’d experienced his (gift) ability. When he was on his own, he had tried to move again, and several times he’d managed it, but it still felt awkward like trying to write with your off-hand. But he was getting better.
He kept practicing.
Cal walked Missy home from the June dance. Each summer, the kids threw a dance party to celebrate the beginning of the summer. Ahead lay lazy days on the river, afternoons of hiking barefoot through the rippling forests, and evenings spent lying under the trees sneaking kisses and watching the fireflies flirt with the cool night wind.
They held hands as they walked in the dark, the road a dim ribbon flowing through the trees, shoulders bumping comfortably. Cal had sprung up in his fourteenth summer and was now a good head taller than Missy. She had begun to fill out in her own way, a way which Cal had become increasingly aware of, and as they neared her front yard, he bent and kissed her cheek.
She smiled up at him, “Cal—“
The sound of a shotgun chambering a round cut her off. The front porch light flicked on revealing her step-father leaning against the doorway holding a jug of moonshine. A pair of frayed jeans held up by an old length of rope supported his sweating gut. He scratched the ratty hair on his bare chest and spit between his stained yellow teeth. The shotgun barrel wandered loosely in Cal’s direction.
“Shut up, and git in here.” He stared at her and licked his lips, smiling the kind of sick smile you see in those cartoon funny houses with warped mirrors.
Cal held her hand, but she pulled free, telling him it was okay with a look that said it wasn’t. She suddenly seemed smaller, much smaller. He watched her mount the steps, watched her step-father set down his moonshine, grab her face, and turn it up into the light.
“Lookin’ awful pretty tonight, aint’ we, sweetie.”
She twisted her face away and pushed past him into the house. He let her go for a second before grabbing her arm and yanking her back. She yelped.
Cal was on the bottom step before Caston got his shotgun back up. “Ah, ah, ah … where does the lil’ boy think he’s goin’?” The smell of moonshine rolled off of him in waves. “You think you gonna get some of this?” With a jerk, he backhanded Missy, and she crumpled to the floor with a bruised moan.
“Ain’t no one getting’ nothing here, except for me.” He giggled. “And you can jus’ stand there and watch.”
Reaching down he yanked her up by her hair while Missy shrieked, yanked her up and then ripped the sundress off her body like a butcher stripping paper from a fresh piece of meat. Missy moaned, cowering, trying to cover her small breasts with her hands. And that’s when Cal saw the burns.
Cigarette burns. Cigarette burns all over her back from the nape of her neck down to the top of her panties.
Everything inside him went cold.
He had to move. But the thought was gone because he was already moving. The pocket knife his grandfather had given to him on his sixth birthday was out and moving like quicksilver, the razor-honed blade slicing the tendons in Caston’s wrist, and before the shotgun hit the ground, the follow-through slice caught the man’s jugular and a wet fountain turned the world red. Caston coughed, gagged, staggered off the door post and fell on the porch. He managed to get to his hands and knees, and, impossibly, reached out toward Missy again when Call hit him with the butt of the shotgun. He collapsed like a wet sandbag. Cal hit him again. And again. He kept hitting him until there was nothing left but shards of teeth mixed with hair and strawberry jelly.
Cal breathed deeply, evenly through clenched teeth while brain matter and blood dripped off the butt of the shotgun. Finally, he looked up at Missy. She stared at him wide-eyed, blood from her broken nose splattered across her chin and bare chest. He dropped the shotgun and stood. She only hesitated a moment before throwing her arms around him. He held her, feeling her naked body against him, feeling the burns littered across her back, turning her away from the pulpy mess and settling down against the front steps, all the while wanting to kill Caston again.
She sobbed in his arms while he cradled her. Gently, he draped her dress over her and she snuggled against him.
“What are we going to do?”
He looked into the night sky. Orion held court overhead in the blackness. Tracking across the ebony desert he found the North Star. He felt a lot older than fourteen.
“It’s gonna be okay.”
And sitting there, with the musk of blood in the air, and his arms around her, she knew it would.
*Author’s note: This story is a follow up to “The Swimming Hole.” you can check it out here.