The thirty-aught-six dangled loose as a length of rope from the boy’s arm while he high-stepped through the weed-choked yard. He gripped the rifle by its forestock, and as he went it tilted like a lever, ground and sky alike passing between its sights. Occasionally the aim of its barrel crossed paths with his face.
Once he reached the battered truck, he slung the gun into the bed, then cranked the ignition and waited for the diesel to heat. How it wasn’t already boiling on a day so hot as this, he didn’t know. The boy wasn’t quite old enough for a license, but he’d been driving the truck—running errands, mostly—since the mill thresher had mangled his father’s legs. The engine caught and he backed down the washed out drive, spraying gravel into the ditch. On the main road, he turned toward Winn Dixie, where he’d fixed to meet Leroy and Russ.
Stealing the rifle was the boy’s way of making things right, at least for a little while. His father had explained the gun’s lineage—how it passed from grandfather to grandson, its ownership skipping every other generation. Course, you can still use it any time you see fit, his father had said. As if that were just as good. The boy didn’t see why he should miss out on account of his position in the family tree. He had also begun to question the authority of a man who lay in a recliner all day, collecting checks from the mailbox. And besides, everyone said sister Jodi’s baby was a clinic visit away from a Downs diagnosis. That child would never handle a gun.
Leroy and Russ were the boy’s buddies—or something close. If the boy wanted to pawn the rifle to buy some oxy and a visit for the three of them to the woman in that red house on the mountain, who was there to stop him?
He pulled into the Winn Dixie parking lot, where floodlights sparked like chain lightning down the rows of empty parking spaces. It was only just getting dark. Russ, his head freshly shaved, leaned against a wall near the sliding doors. On a bench beside him sat Leroy, hands dangling between his knees. He was eyeing something on the ground and squashed it with the toe of his boot. As the boy parked the truck in the fire lane, its headlights illuminated them so fully that when he cut the engine they seemed to shrink into themselves.
“What’s up, motherfuckers,” said the boy as he clambered from the cab. He briefly glanced to see was anyone around to hear. That was a candyass thing to do. “The fuck happened to your hair?” he asked.
Russ fingered his skull like he was trying to remember. “Shaved it,” he said. He pulled a hawkbill from the washpocket of his jeans and scratched a spot behind his ear.
“Check this shit out,” said the boy.
When he lifted the rifle from the truckbed, Leroy’s otherwise blank eyes gleamed. “Let’s see,” he said, reaching out both hands.
“It’s my gun.”
“Don’t be a pussy.”
The boy handed it over.
Leroy pulled the stock to his shoulder, aiming the barrel into the night. “Where’d you get this?”
“Never mind that.”
“What you think, Russ?”
Russ frowned at the knife, thumbing the pearl in its handle. “What’s he going to do with it?”
“Figured I might take it to that 24-hour pawn,” said the boy. “Ought to be worth enough to buy some oxy and visit that woman on the mountain, you two included.”
Leroy ran a finger down the barrel, blued by age. “Russ’s got oxy.”
“Oxy for me?” asked the boy.
“I said he’s got them. Besides, it’d be a shame to lose a gun like this.”
“I spare no expense for my buddies.”
When Russ shook his head, the boy wiped away his stupid grin. Leroy passed back the rifle. “They ain’t no need. People respect folks with guns. Especially women. They can be persuaded into certain acts.”
The boy didn’t know what to say. “How about them oxy?”
Russ folded away the knife. “Wait until we’re in the truck.”
“We ain’t taking your car?”
“My car ain’t here.”
“Well, where is it?”
“I need to see about that.”
The three of them slid onto the bench seat of the truck, Leroy in the middle straddling the gearshaft. The air conditioner didn’t work, but the boy turned on the fan anyway, so at least there was some air. Russ rationed out the little red pills, and the boy cupped one in his palm. He reached a quarter from the dash and used its grooved edge to scrape off the time-release coating, then swallowed the pill without water. He would’ve offered the quarter, but the other boys chewed theirs.
The engine whined as the truck climbed the mountain, never higher than second gear. Leroy punched scan on the radio and either forgot about it or couldn’t find anything he liked. Every few seconds it skipped another station. They came to the pawnshop and kept driving.
The boy glanced at his reflection in the rearview. After checking it once he couldn’t stop looking. Hair was coming in around his chin—not much, but enough to notice when the light struck at the right angle. He stretched out his neck and asked for another pill.
“You ain’t never been to a whore before, have you?” Leroy said.
“Sure I have.”
“Pop another of them, your pecker’ll go into hibernation.”
“You don’t fucking know. And anyhow, you said you had enough for all of us. I can’t hardly feel a thing.”
Russ dug into his pocket, and Leroy shut up.
The boy chewed this one and nearly gagged. He worried a little about what Leroy had said, but before long he slipped into that state of warmth where things seemed to go on without him.
“You know where you’re going?” Leroy asked.
“Thought I did.”
“You just missed the turn.”
The boy hit the brakes, a little jerky.
“Keep going,” Leroy said. “Park up here behind that brush.”
The boy noticed Russ grinning. Maybe he’d remembered something from earlier.
With the oxy settled in, it took the boy a second to ease out of the truck. Leroy had already scooped the rifle from the bed.
“Give me that,” said the boy.
“Sure you’re okay to carry it?”
“I ain’t walking in front of him,” Leroy said to Russ.
“I’d likely not as well.”
On uneven ground the three trudged through the woods. The boy paid no mind to briars, numb from the pills and the thrill of what was coming. He wanted to whisper something as the one-room house came into view, but he didn’t know what to say.
Leroy stepped onto the porch and knocked three times. Nothing happened, but he didn’t knock again. Finally the door cracked, revealing a woman with frazzled hair and a pigmented cheek, violet like a bruise. She assessed the three of them.
“I don’t do kids,” she said, and started to close the door.
Leroy stuck his boot in the jamb. “Tonight you do, and you do them for free. Show her the gun.”
The boy held up the rifle like he might offer it to her, had Leroy not stood between them. Suddenly, Russ lowered his shoulder into the door, knocking the woman to the floor. She moved for a dresser, but Leroy took her by the ankles.
“Check them drawers, Russ.”
After tossing out some panties, Russ withdrew a revolver. He released the cylinder and emptied all six rounds into his pocket. The woman started thrashing on the floor, and she’d nearly gotten free when Leroy kicked her in the ribs.
“Now that’s enough,” Leroy said. “We’re not asking you to do nothing out of the ordinary. We’ll just take care of our business and be on our way.”
Only now did the boy step into the house.
“Close that door,” Leroy said. He straddled the woman and crouched down, but again she jerked away. “You need to sit still, else my pal there’s gonna use what he brought.”
The boy clicked the safety off the rifle, and the woman looked like she might laugh. “That boy ain’t going to shoot me.”
Russ dropped to a knee. He dug out his hawkbill and showed her the blade.
“Now then,” Leroy said, scooping the woman under her arms and pulling her onto the bed. She didn’t make another sound.
At first, the boy looked everywhere but the bed. But once he started watching what Leroy did to her, he couldn’t look away. He felt himself getting hard. A sound in the corner got the boy’s attention. Russ had his thing in his hand. He was turned around, watching over his shoulder.
When Leroy finished inside her, the woman went limp. “You next?” he asked Russ, fixing his pants.
“I go last,” Russ said from the corner.
Leroy turned to the boy and held out his hands for the gun. “You’re up.”
The boy crossed the room to the bed. He leaned to whisper in the woman’s ear. “If you’d rather, you can use your mouth.”
After a deep breath, she sat up on her haunches and unbuckled the boy’s belt. With just her hands on him, he knew he wouldn’t last long. He decided to let her know when it was time.
When he felt his insides coil up like a spring, he patted her cheek. She backed away from him, but in what felt like a reflex he grabbed the back of her neck and came in her hair.
Instantly he felt sick to his stomach. No sooner had he fixed his pants than was Russ on top of her, saying how he was going to split her in two. The boy moved toward the door. He took up the rifle and mumbled he’d wait in the truck, but Leroy didn’t acknowledge it.
Crashing through the woods, the boy could still hear Russ in the hut asking, Do you like that? Getting pounded from behind? And as he approached the truck he grew afraid that it wasn’t Russ at all, but rather his voice, the thoughts his own.
The truck’s speed fluctuated as the boy drove down the mountain. Some curves he took at sixty and some he took at twenty. They all felt the same. He just wanted to get home.
He was nearly to the foot of the mountain when the radiator hose blew. Because of the steam he couldn’t even pop the hood. “Goddamnit,” he said. For the first time, the curse felt natural on his tongue.
Home was within walking distance, but clouds blocked the stars. Backlit by the moon, they looked smoky and foreign. The boy fumbled around to the truckbed and found the cool stock of the rifle. He started down the road like a blind man, using the barrel tip to feel out the asphalt before him. Its scrape echoed loud and ugly.
He hadn’t gone fifty yards before he decided to turn back. With each step, he felt certain he would bump into something. Creatures rustled in the woods, seemingly from every direction. Every so often he lost his balance. He’d stop and lean against the gun—reorient himself as best he could, then continue.
After what seemed a long time, his hand met a cold panel of the truck. The dome light came on as he opened the cab door. The boy wondered who could see him—a little light on the face of the mountain—on this pitch-dark night. Not his father from the living room recliner. Not sister Jodi waiting tables at the diner. Not the baby swaddled in its crib. But they were still out there—there was a whole world waiting to see him, to learn what he’d done.
The boy lay crosswise along the bench seat, cradling the gun in his lap. He wrapped his legs around the stock—thin, like the quilt he slept with, folded between his knees. With his thumb, he plugged the end of the barrel. How useless. A bullet would shred right through it, he knew—that single ounce of lead would blow his thumb to bits and keep going to pierce a hole in the roof, if only he pulled the trigger.
When he brought his thumb away it was oily, and the dark smudge put him in mind of the woman, the bruise on her cheek. He closed his eyes, but he could still see her face—how it looked when she first stopped struggling against Leroy, like all the blood had left it.
The dome light gave off a faint buzz, and the boy could sense its glow through his eyelids. He knew that the woman’s face would stay there when the cab turned dark—it would stay with him always—and he wondered how long he had before the light went.