Daddy’s Blues by Kelly Ward

art by Josh Newton

The creek was cold and hungry, the rapid sucking at Billie’s toes as he waded in the water.

            Minnows darted in every direction across the black slate rock of the creek bed. The water was muddied from last night’s storm, the silt trickling past his ankles to collect in muck further down the creek. Tadpoles flickered through the shallows, and a baby crawdad scurried backwards beneath the sandstone along the creek’s edge. Billie watched the cloud of mud slowly feather out from the rock wall like a deep sigh in the crawdad’s wake.

            A screen door slammed shut over the creek bank, echoing, and Billie turned his head at the sound. Ellie was shouting for him from their trailer on the other side of the bank.

            “Billie! I got your gown ironed! Where are you? Do you wanna be late for your own graduation?”

            Billie waded out of the creek and sat in the soft grass where his socks and shoes were. His high school graduation was in one hour, and there he was, in a creek.

            He tugged his socks onto his wrinkly feet as Ellie hollered and searched for him, but  paused when he realized both of his feet were blue.

            The creek hiccupped around the slate rock. Billie stared at his feet. There was no mistaking the bruised tone of his toes, the bridges of his feet, and both of his ankles. The creek water had been cold, but nowhere near cold enough to do this. Billie probed the stained skin, but felt no difference in texture. The closer he looked, he realized the wiry veins on top of his feet were darker, almost black, a spider web of elderberry blood pulsing beneath his skin.

            He wiggled his toes again, expecting to feel numbness or pain, but didn’t. He scrubbed at the flesh on his ankles with his socks, trying to rub off the blue color, but his socks stayed white. He knew what this blue was. He just didn’t know when it had started.

            Above him, the leaves of the poplars rustled together in a quick breeze. It almost smelled like cigarette smoke was floating out of the forest of kudzu across the creek. Ellie called for him.     Billie shoved his feet into his socks and sneakers and left the creek bank.

#

            His time on the graduation stage lasted ten seconds. Ten seconds was walking across stage to generic applause, shaking clammy hands, eyes roving to the next student in line, a pat on the back to move on from the spotlight—hurry—and it was over and he was walking off the stage with a high school diploma that had his name spelled wrong on it.

            “Billy” Walker and Billie Walker just weren’t the same person.

#

            That night, Billie went to the graduation party at the quarry. He sat by the lake water in a circle with Carlisle, Hiram, and some other kids he knew but wasn’t friends with, passing a joint around until it was nothing but a skinny roach. Billie held an opened bottle of Bud Light in both of his hands but didn’t drink from it as he watched the water, and the condensation from the bottle drooled down his fingers, dripping onto the knees of his jeans.

            A small bon fire crackled from the circle. The fire crunched away on bits of plywood and pallets. Billie listened to the fuzzy sounds, his mind like cotton tugged apart, as the moonlight glistened mercury on the lake. Hiram offered Billie a cigarette and he declined.

            What his friends didn’t know was that although Billie didn’t smoke, he kept a half-pack of red Marlboro 72’s stuffed under his pillow on his bed, the plastic soft and crinkled from years of toying and care. The sweet smell of the old tobacco was sometimes the only thing that calmed him down when he woke up from a bad dream.

            Carlisle elbowed Billie then and said, “Watch this!” and picked up a big chunk of sandstone rock and hurled it into the lake. The rock plunked into the water and splashed some girls lounging by the shore. They screamed and laughed and threw handfuls of pebbles at Carlisle as the lake swallowed the sandstone.

            “Dude, you’ve barely touched your drink,” said Hiram.

            Billie handed him the full beer.

            He left the quarry and the warmth of the fire and the voices of the people he would probably never hear again just as bottle rockets sizzled into the night sky, screaming.

#

            A mile down the road from the quarry, Billie pulled his daddy’s Chevy truck over to the side of the road and lifted up his pant leg. The blue had spread up his leg, to his knees. It hadn’t even been a full day.

            An night owl watched as the boy clawed at his blue legs until they bled red.

#

            Every light was on inside the trailer when Billie got home. The front door was wide open. His mom’s Impala was parked crookedly in the front yard, the tire tracks biting deep into the earth where she’d cut the car through the overgrown flowerbed of day lilies and cone flowers.

            Billie took the porch steps three at a time and entered the trailer.

            He could hear Ellie’s bawling from their small bathroom at the end of the single-wide trailer, just beside their bedroom. One of the kitchen table chairs was jammed under the rattling door knob, and Ellie beat on the door from the other side.

            Billie surged down the hallway to their shared bathroom and started to knock the chair loose from the door when he realized a shadow leaned across him. He looked up and saw his mom standing in the doorway of their room, gripping his Little League baseball bat he always kept in the closet, her eyes so dilated they were pitch, cast iron skillets sitting in her eye sockets.

            “What the fuck is going on?” asked Billie. Ellie continued to beat on the bathroom door and bawl. “Are you high? Mom, have you lost your goddamn mind?”

            “It’s safer for her in there, baby,” said his mom. Her eyes lifted to the ceiling, down to the floor, to the corners of the hallway where the cobwebs lived and the shadows were darker. “I seen a demon on the roof when I got here. I knew it was after Ellie—it was calling her name. Ellie’s safer in the bathroom, baby. Cain’t you hear it, Billie?”

            “Give me the bat, Mom. There’s no demon. You’re high.”

            His mom turned from him and returned to his room. She mumbled to herself, and Billie watched her jump onto his bed and swing his ball bat at the ceiling, over and over, the thump of the bat against the popcorn ceiling like a heart beating so hard it could stop at any moment. Flakes of white rained down from the ceiling, dusting the open sores on her face like powdered sugar. She kept whispering to the ceiling, spittle flying from her lips as she beat a hole to the roof and Pink Panther insulation caved in, drooping thickly into her hair.

            She screamed and swatted at the insulation, the bat clattering out of her hands, and Billie dove for her, grabbing her by the waist and wrestling her off of his bed.

            She hit him with her fists, her elbows, her knees. She raked her long, yellowed nails down his arms and chips of red nail polish flaked off onto the fresh welts. She hollered from the deepest part of her throat, and Billie pinned her to the floor as she squirmed like a dying maggot and he shouted, “That’s enough, Geneva.”

            His mom went still beneath him, and Billie’s chest heaved.

            She whispered from the floor, her voice tangled in the threads of her hair sticking to her wet lips.

            “Cain’t you stop, Mom?” Billie felt his hands shaking as he held her shoulders down to the floor. “Why are you like this? Did you even know I graduated high school today?”

            “It had blue eyes like your daddy—that devil on the roof. Your daddy’s eyes, Billie. I seen it myself. Go look if you don’t believe me.”

            “Stop it, Mom.”

            “Your daddy always said ‘Geneva’ sounded like diamonds and gold. Ain’t that the prettiest thing you ever heard, Billie?”

            Billie pushed himself off of her, sitting back on the floor and covering his face in his hands. As his mom sobbed on the floor, he slid his hands over his ears and squeezed his eyes so tight the dark began to turn to color.

#

            Together, they helped their mom back to her bedroom. Billie carried her, and Ellie led the way, clearing things out of the floor so he could walk straight. She must have been at it with the bat through the whole house before he’d made it back. Every picture frame in the hall was knocked down, large holes were punctured through the particle board walls, and all the couch cushions and pillows in the living room were strewn across the floor like missing teeth. Ellie tried to pick things up as she went, and Billie knew the mess was eating at her.

            Billie lay his mom down on her bed and Ellie tucked her in with an old quilt. He tried  not to look at the track marks dotted between her fingers and along her bare ankles. While Ellie got her fixed up for the night, Billie went through all her drawers and found her pill bottles stashed between socks and underwear. He found small baggies of white powder, little pouches of crystal dope that looked like Pop Rocks. A yellowed syringe with its orange cap still on was rolled up in a thong. He flushed everything he could find down the toilet and left his mom in her dark bedroom for the night.

            “You hungry?” he asked, as Ellie sat at the kitchen table and sniffled.

            She shook her head, but Billie went to the freezer and pulled out a Red Baron cheese pizza anyway.

            “It ain’t Little Caesar’s, but it’s still good,” he said.

            Ellie started to cry. Twelve year olds weren’t supposed to cry the way that Ellie cried. Twelve year olds weren’t supposed to cook and iron and do the laundry and help organize the bills each month at the kitchen table. Twelve year olds weren’t supposed to be locked into bathrooms by their mothers out of fear of demons prowling on tin trailer rooftops.

            Billie sat down at the table beside her and pulled her scrawny body into his lap, folding her close against him with his arms holding her shut together. She was too big to hold, her knees and elbows jutting into him, but Billie’s arms were bigger, always bigger, and he held her anyway. She bawled into his shirt. A dandelion puff was still tangled in her loose, knotted hair from where she’d been playing outside before their mom got home.

            Billie’s diploma was on the kitchen table beside him. An orange Nehi lay on its side on the scratched table and pop soaked the right half of his certificate.

            “You won’t leave me, will you?” asked Ellie. “Don’t leave me here with Mom. I can go with you if you move out. I don’t blame you if you leave. Just please don’t leave me here alone, Billie.”

            “Hush. I ain’t leaving. I won’t ever leave if I can help it.”

            “That’s what Daddy always said.”

            “Quit your crying, El. Come on. Let’s go outside.”

            Ellie pulled her face out of his chest. Snot stuck to her cheeks and chin. He wiped her face with his t-shirt like he used to when they were younger.

            He led her outside. Night song filled the dark holler: bullfrogs croaked from the creek and ground crickets hummed from the earth. A whippoorwill sang from the woods, and the scent of honeysuckle was sweet and lush in the air, growing in vines up a locust tree by the driveway.

            They went to the creek behind the trailer and Billie started to kick his shoes off before he remembered his legs were blue, so he stepped into the water with his sneakers on. He lay down on the slate rock of the shallow creek bed and let the cold water run over him, soaking into his clothes and chilling his skin.

            “Lie down in the creek, Ellie. You can hear the heartbeat of the mountains this way.”

            Ellie got into the creek and lay beside him, the shock of the cold water wearing off as she settled into the slick rock bed. Her breath came out in one big shudder, and she found his hand on the slate.

            “Wow,” she said, listening.

            The sound of mountain water rushed past their ears.

#

            Billie woke up to a frog staring him in the face in the dark. He sat up in the creek and saw the moon hanging high in the sky. His wet clothes sucked on his skin, and the night breeze chilled every exposed part of him. Ellie was asleep in the creek beside him, snoring softly.

            For a moment, he sat there in the creek water and stared into the woods that hugged the holler. Choked out by crawling kudzu and Virginia creeper, it was almost impossible to see past the first line of trees. He watched the shadows for a time before he turned around to stare at the roof of the trailer. In the dark, shadows were lazier, figures uncoiling and drifting with the slant of moonlight. The shadows almost looked like a person crawling across the tin roof, searching for a way inside the trailer.

            Billie tore his eyes away from the dark. He nudged Ellie awake, and after several tries, she finally stirred. She mumbled under her breath, eyelids heavy. Billie led her back into the trailer where she changed into warm pajamas and crawled into bed. Billie showered, the hot water scalding his sore arms and burning his skin pink, but it did nothing for the blue skin of his legs. He traced the river of dark veins going down his thighs, into that soft, hidden flesh behind his knees.

            When he left the bathroom, he saw that a lamp was on in his mom’s bedroom. He shut his bedroom door to keep Ellie safe before going to his mom’s room.

            As soon as he stepped into her room, the acrid scent of his mom’s Eagle 20’s cigarettes tickled his nose. She always smoked the cheapest she could get her hands on. Water ran from the bathtub in her adjacent bathroom, and Billie stepped inside, steam enveloping him.

            “Mom?” he asked, but there was no response, so he walked on in and saw his mom sitting in the bathtub, the steaming water up to the tips of her bare breasts. Her clothes were in a pile by the toilet.

            She smoked a cigarette as she leaned back against the dirty tile wall, her wet, thin hair slicked back from her angled face. Her mascara rimmed her bloodshot eyes and dripped down her ruddy cheeks as she stared at the wall.

            Billie sat down on the closed toilet and watched his mom.

            “Like what you see?” she finally asked, smoke trailing out of her nose. “I bet you ain’t seen a woman like this before. You still a virgin, Billie?”

            Billie didn’t answer her. He was too busy counting the pockmarked sores all over her body, dotting her chest and arms and throat. She had as many sores as Ellie had freckles on her face, only these sores weren’t kisses from the sun.

            “Want a smoke? I can share.”

            “I don’t smoke.”

            “You’re missing out, hon. Smoking is almost just as good as sex. Your daddy sure smoked enough when you were young.”

            “Don’t talk about him,” said Billie, and his mom laughed, sliding deeper into the bathtub. The dirty water trembled around her.

            “Be a good son and wash your momma’s hair while you’re in here,” she said, shutting her eyes.

            Billie minded, leaning over the bathtub from his seat on the closed toilet. His mom had one bottle of shampoo and conditioner combined which was supposed to smell like cucumbers but didn’t. He lathered her head, his fingers probing her skull and combing through her thin hair. The ashes from the end of her cigarette crumbled into the bath water.

            “Don’t you ever scare Ellie again like you did tonight,” he said, rinsing the suds out of her hair. “I’ll take you to court. Get them to put Ellie in my custody. I won’t let you ever see her again.”

            The bath water ran over her head and long strands of her hair came loose in Billie’s fingers like cat’s cradle waiting to be played.

            “What’s stopping you, Billie?” she asked. “Do you really want to be Ellie’s daddy that bad, hon? Don’t you want to leave her behind and live your own sorry life somewhere away from here? You graduated today. What’s keeping you here? You really want to be like your daddy? Go on and leave, just like he did. See if Ellie cries for you. She’s used to us leaving her.”

            Billie rinsed out the last of the shampoo and turned the faucet off. His mom grabbed him by the wrist, and she clasped his hand over her breast in the water and said, “You want to be your daddy, huh? Your daddy used to touch me like this, you know.”

            She started at his zipper and Billie jerked away from her, knocking her cigarettes and Bic lighter off the edge of the bathtub. She laughed at him, sinking deeper into the bath water, until her cigarette puffed out in the water.

            “I wish I could feel sorry for you,” said Billie.

            “Me, too, baby.”

#

            He didn’t sleep. He sat against the locked door of his bedroom with his baseball bat over his knees and watched the curtains ruffle from the cracked window. He watched Ellie roll over in her sleep. A whippoorwill called out from the back yard, a song in the dark you hear without thinking. A shadow danced by the window outside in the darkness, and when the tree branches scratched the windowpane it sounded like sobbing.

#

            One of Billie’s favorite things to do when he was younger was unlacing his daddy’s steel-toe boots when he got home from work each night. His daddy worked at a steel factory in the next county over. He would sit in his recliner after he got home and Billie and Ellie would race to untie his boots the fastest. Billie could still smell the old, warm leather of those boot ties, and feel the dirty texture of the laces in his small fingers.

            When the boots were off, Billie and Ellie would see who could yank off their daddy’s tube socks first, and the anticipation of yanking on the toes of the tall socks always sent one of them tumbling backwards into the wall of the trailer, and their daddy would laugh until he cried. There was nothing like the sound of his daddy’s laughter in their home. It was rich and full and a living thing on its own, like a speckled hickory tree growing from the thin carpet of the trailer, its limbs unfurling to each cranny of the home. It was a sound that made you feel warm, hugged, remembered. Billie only wished he could laugh like his daddy.

#

            He used to wake up at dawn each morning just in time for his daddy to eat breakfast before leaving for work. His mom always fixed his daddy a plate of fried eggs, fried baloney, and two pieces of toast. She would dab at his daddy’s mouth with the corner of her dish towel after kissing him and they would both share a smile Billie pretended not to see. Billie, bleary-eyed from sleep, would crawl into his daddy’s lap and help sop up the egg yolk with his toast, swirling the bread around on the plate until nothing was left, and his daddy would tuck him back into bed and kiss him on the cheek, the feel of his rough stubble a comfort which would send him off to dreams.

#

            It happened sometime after his mom’s car accident, which kept her home all day from work with tiny pills for company, whispering to her to always take more. His mom and daddy stopped eating dinner together. The refrigerator emptied of eggs and baloney, replaced with cans of Budweiser and frozen, TV dinners. His daddy started working double shifts and his mom started going out for more than just pills. At night Billie would hold Ellie in his lap in their shut closet as their parents screamed and shouted. Some nights Billie would catch them hugging each other in the living room and crying. Other nights they told one another they wished the other was dead. Small, powerful words a child always remembers.

            The best place to drown out the sounds was in the creek. Billie and Ellie would sit by the little rapids, the rush of water pure in their ears, and sometimes they would crawl into the wall of kudzu on the other side of the creek and pretend that they were the only ones left in the holler, holding hands like vines never ending.

#

            One day while mowing, his daddy found a needle in a long neck Ale-8 bottle under the front porch. Billie knew the needle belonged to his mom, had seen her put it there weeks before and had kept the secret to himself. Sometimes he would watch from the creek as his mom crawled on her hands and knees under the porch to shake the needle out of the bottle to use again. When his daddy found it, he threw the bottle into the creek and left in the Chevy, leaving the overgrown yard only half mowed.

            Billie couldn’t sleep that night knowing that needle was in the creek. It was a dirty, ugly thing that would hurt the water. He went out with a flashlight and looked for the Ale-8 bottle. He spent hours into the cool night wading in the water, searching, a lone whippoorwill in the trees his only company, but the bottle was gone, gobbled up by the creek current. He eventually gave up and went inside to sleep.

#

            After his daddy was fired from the steel factory, Billie noticed he started wearing long sleeves every day, regardless of the temperature outside. Sweat would drip down his daddy’s face and neck, but even when he worked in the backyard cutting wood or whittling sticks he wouldn’t hike his sleeves up.

            While his daddy changed one morning in his room, Billie watched him from outside, standing on a stack of plastic milk crates and peering through the window, and he saw that his daddy’s arms and chest were dark blue, the color of bruises that never heal.

            Billie and Ellie ate Beanie-Weenies that night in the living room with their daddy, watching cable TV, and Billie stole glances at his daddy’s blue wrists when his sleeves hitched up as he reached for the remote. His daddy didn’t talk much, left his dinner untouched. He fell asleep on the couch and Billie tucked him in with an afghan and watched his daddy’s closed eyes travel beneath his violet eyelids, as if he were looking for something in his dreams.

#

            He watched his daddy turn blue that spring and summer. Billie turned fifteen that year. Ellie was nine.

            The blue spread down his daddy’s legs and up his neck, his skin kissed by a blue that was an unforgiving lover. His daddy didn’t have a job, didn’t have friends. His mom was always gone, staying at other trailers in other hollers where her dope was exchanged and made. Billie and Ellie got by on their daddy’s disability checks and food stamps. Billie would drive Ellie out to town and buy groceries at IGA with their EBT card while their daddy wandered off into the woods behind the trailer for days at a time. Billie and Ellie mailed out the bills each month and saved every penny in a mason jar powdered with cornmeal on the bottom for good luck like their mamaw taught them. When their mom took to stealing from the jar, Billie kept their money buried behind the burn pit in the back yard.

            Although things were tight, Billie always made sure to use some of their money to buy his daddy cigarettes, even though he wasn’t old enough and had to ask strangers at the gas station to buy them for him, because he knew how much his daddy loved to smoke, and he believed everyone needed one thing to love in their lives.

            Their daddy only came into the house when their mom was gone on one of her runs. He was always outside in his long flannel shirts and blue jeans, whittling sticks into little people or trees, smoking. When the blue reached his ears, he wore a black boggan on his head day and night, his dark hair growing down his back in matted knots, his beard hiding the blue on his chin and cheeks. When his gums began to purple against his white dentures, he stopped speaking.

            “Something’s wrong with Daddy,” Ellie would whisper into the dark each night they slept. Billie couldn’t come up with anything to say. He wanted to say We ain’t supposed to live like this, Ellie, but he couldn’t.

#

            His daddy was blue as a haint, Mamaw would say.

            Mamaw knew things—could tell when leaves were blown back on the trees that it would rain soon, how stump water could make warts go away, or how you were supposed to place an ax under a woman’s bed when she was giving birth to “cut” the labor pains to pieces—things that were passed on to her from her own mountain kin and had faded to time over the years. Billie had grown up hearing her yarns and watching her magic. One night while breaking half-runners with her on her front porch, he tested the waters for his daddy.

            “Do you believe in haints, Mamaw?” he asked. “Have you ever seen one?”

            “Haints ain’t like ghosts, Billie,” she said. “You don’t question if a haint’s real or not. They’re always around, living up in these hills, just like me and your cousins. They go about their business, and we go about our’n.”

            “But what makes a haint different from a ghost?”

            “A ghost is a spirit from someone who’s passed on from this world. A haint is something made from folks who’s still alive. They ain’t passed on to nowhere, and God cain’t help them. Haints are pitiful, lonely creatures who roam the land and mountains forever, trying to make their sadness go away. That’s why they’re always blue, on account of them being so ate up with sad. When someone is full of hurt and their body can’t take it no more, Billie, that person gives up their life and becomes a haint, thinking that’ll make the pain go away.

            “When you see a haint, Billie, you let it be. You cain’t feel sorry for it and try to help it. If you do, the haint will follow you till the end of your days, or till its sadness rubs off on you and you eventually become one, too.”

            Billie broke his beans and didn’t bring up haints again.

#

            Their daddy’s sobbing was the only sound they heard from him that last spring and summer, and it haunted the trailer, the creek, the holler. It followed Billie to school, in the halls between class, the sobs echoing from his locker from a carved wooden owl he’d found one day on the front porch, a small thing his daddy had made. The cries rode with him on the back of his bicycle when he was out riding with Hiram and Carlisle, the baseball card clipped to his back-wheel heaving with moans in Billie’s ear. When Billie slept at night with two pillows pressed over his ears he could hear the sobs, and when he dreamed, the mournful sounds were there, painting his dreamscapes with a dark, bleeding blue.

            His daddy was turning into a haint. Billie knew that. There was so much blue and hurt inside of his daddy all of the pain had punched through to the outside of his skin, just like a dog ate up with worms.

            On the nights when his daddy stayed in the woods and sobbed to himself in the dark, Billie would sit in the back yard with Ellie and watch the last of the summer sun sink behind the mountains. The moment the cool shadow descended over the valley he would hear the rising gale of night crickets start their soft music for the twilit holler. Only when the crickets played together at night for those first few moments of breathless awakening could Billie no longer hear his daddy’s sadness.

#

            It was at the end of that summer when his daddy went away. The cicadas cried Billie awake that muggy morning, where milky fog grazed on the trailers and pickups of the holler. Billie couldn’t see a thing outside except for the bones of the trees. He went to the kitchen and poured himself a glass of milk and saw his daddy’s pack of Marlboro cigarettes on the kitchen table.

            Billie drank his milk, picked up the pack of cigarettes, and breathed in the sweet, earthy smell. Outside, he could hear his daddy crying, a soft sound lost in the fog. Billie stepped out on the front porch and stared into the mist, where he saw his daddy outlined through the fog’s breath, standing by the mailbox, his face and eyes dark with indigo as his blue hands stayed slack at his sides.

            “Daddy,” hollered Billie, waving the Marlboros in the air. “You forgot these.”

            His daddy mumbled to himself, his dark lips lost in his dirty beard. Billie watched as he turned from him and walked into the road, mumbling, the mist blending him away.

            A hard knob swelled in Billie’s throat. He ran down the porch steps, barefoot, racing across the dew-slick grass and snake spit. The mist ate everything. Billie ran down the foggy gravel road in his bare feet, shouting, “Daddy, don’t go. I don’t care if you’re a haint. I can help you, Daddy. Just let me help you.”

            His daddy never came back, gone into the blue-pearl morning, and the sobs gave themselves to the fog, dissolving with the dawn.

#

            The baseball bat clattered against the floor and Billie jerked awake to sunlight streaming through the window, painting his room with gold. Ellie was sitting up in her bed, staring at him with sleep crusted in the corners of her eyes.

            “Did you sleep on the floor all night?” she asked.

            Billie shrugged. He listened to the quiet of the house—his mom must have already left for the day.

            Ellie wiggled out of her bed and sat down on the floor in front of him.

            “I had a dream we was twins,” she whispered to him. “But we weren’t normal. We was stuck together at the hands. We didn’t have fingers, either. Just arms, stuck together where our wrists are, and our arms made a big circle. Wouldn’t it be weird to share your blood with someone else like that?”

            Billie flicked her on the nose and changed the subject by asking, “Want to go to the quarry for a picnic today?”

            “Really?” Ellie’s eyes popped wide as she grinned. “I’ll pack us a lunch. Oh—we can go swimming, too, so I better pack my swimsuit. I washed your swimming trunks last week and left them folded in your drawer if you need them.”

            Billie tousled her hair until it was a haystack. Before he let Ellie out of the room, he carried his baseball bat with him to the living room and looked through the blinds to the driveway. His mom’s Impala was missing from the front yard. A breath loosed from his lungs as he watched the morning sun trickle into the holler.

#

            Later that day, Billie loaded up a cooler with baloney sandwiches, Ale-8’s, and Grippo chips and they got into their daddy’s Chevy and drove to the quarry with the windows rolled down and Johnny Cash blaring from the speakers. They spent the afternoon on the pebbled shore by the lake, skipping rocks, telling funny stories. Ellie went swimming in the water, and Billie watched her from the shore, keeping his blue legs out of sight in his jeans. He made a small fire when it was nighttime and Ellie fell asleep on her beach towel beside him.

            Billie watched the black lake. The mountains hugging the quarry were pitch, and Billie knew there wasn’t a human soul in those hills tonight. The hills at night belonged to the haints, according to Mamaw. He had a feeling his daddy was out there, wandering aimlessly, crying to the poplars and cedars, whittling knife passing between his hands as he left small wooden totems behind him in the dead leaves, walking the hills forever, alone.

            Crickets chirped and echoed in the ravine, and a frog jumped off the dock, splashing loudly in the water. Billie wondered if the creek of their holler eventually joined the lake water, too—a shared blood, just like his and Ellie’s arms had been connected in her dream. Maybe the longneck Ale-8 with the needle had washed all the way here, sinking to the bottom of the lake.

            The shape of the crescent moon rippled like a shut eye in the water. Billie pulled out his daddy’s pack of Marlboro 72’s, unfinished for three years, and drew out one of the short cigarettes, rolling it in his fingers. He lit the end of it in their campfire and puffed on it. The taste was bitter, not sweet at all like it smelled. He held the smoke in his lungs until he choked on a cough, and when he looked down into the surface of the water, he saw himself, the image still and pale, his blue eyes just like his daddy’s in the drifting smoke. A sound cracked loose in the back of his throat and his shoulders shook as the noise escaped him.

            Ellie stirred beside him at the sound, her nose twitching at the familiar smell of cigarette smoke. She sighed in her sleep and smiled. Billie scrubbed his eyes. He smoked the whole cigarette and flicked it into the water with his blue-tipped fingers.            

The ripples of the black lake carried his reflection away, to the dark and waiting hills.


Kelly Ward grew up on a hill in rural Kentucky, where she spent her youth dreaming up fantastical and unsettling stories in the woods behind her home. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Eastern Kentucky University, and is a recent graduate of the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop. Her work is inspired by the dark foothills of Appalachia, or as she would call it: Home. She currently lives with her two cats in her hometown in eastern Kentucky, where she once wrote an op-ed about a UFO sighting that was so convincing, it was published in a local newspaper.

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