Authors: Lori Roy
ALSO BY LORI ROY
Until She Comes Home
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Copyright © 2015 by Lori Roy
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Let me die in his footsteps / Lori Roy.—First edition.
pages ; cm
1. Family secrets—Fiction. 2. Families—Kentucky—Fiction. 3. Kentucky—Social life and customs—20th century—Fiction. I. Title.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
FOR MY PARENTS,
JEANETTE AND NORM
ANNIE HOLLERAN HEARS
him before she sees him. Even over the drone of the cicadas, she knows it’s Ryce Fulkerson, and he’s pedaling this way. That’s his bike, all right, creaking and whining. He’ll have turned off the main road and will be standing straight up as he uses all his weight, bobbing side to side, to pump those pedals and force that bike up and over the hill. In a few moments, he’ll reach the top where the ground levels out, and that front tire of his will be wobbling and groaning and drawing a crooked line in the soft, dry dirt.
They’re singing in the trees again today, those cicadas. A week ago, they clawed their way out of the ground, seventeen years’ worth of them, and now their skins hang from the oaks, hardened husks with tiny claws and tiny, round heads. One critter called out to another and then another until their pulsing songs made Annie press both hands over her ears, tuck her head between her knees, and cry out for them to stop. Stop it now. All these many days, there’s been something in the air, a spark, a crackle, something that’s felt a terrible lot like trouble coming, and it’s been much like the weight of those cicadas, thousands upon thousands of them crying out to one another.
Annie has known all morning Ryce would be coming. It’s why she’s been sitting on this step and waiting on him for near an hour. She oftentimes knows a thing is coming before it has come. It’s part of the curse—or blessing, if Grandma is to be believed—of having the know-how.
They both have the know-how, Annie and Aunt Juna. That’s what Grandma calls it. The know-how. It floats just above the lavender bushes, trickles from the moss hanging in the oaks, drifts like a fallen leaf down the Lone Fork River, just waiting for someone like Annie or Aunt Juna to scoop it or snatch it or pluck it from the air. The two of them share the know-how because Aunt Juna is Annie’s real mother. Grandma has it too. She says there’s no evil in the know-how, though some are frightened of a thing they know little about. It’s my gift to you, Grandma is all the time saying, but that’s not true. The know-how passes from mother to daughter. Everyone knows that. Annie also has Aunt Juna’s black eyes. Not dark brown or almost black. But
, through and through. Folks believe that’s where the evil lives. In the eyes. It’s Annie’s fear, has been all her life, that evil passes from mother to daughter too.
Most days the know-how is like a whisper or a sigh, but with the approach of Annie’s half birthday—her day of ascension, they call it—the know-how has swelled, and this something in the air has made Annie startle for no reason, hold her breath when she thought she’d heard something she ought not have heard. All her years, fifteen and a half of them when she celebrates her day of ascension tomorrow, Annie Holleran has lived with the fear of turning out like her Aunt Juna. All her years, Annie has lived with the fear that Aunt Juna will one day come home.
Pushing herself off the bottom step and not bothering to smooth her skirt or straighten her blouse, Annie walks into the middle of the drive, kicking up dust with her bare feet. With every step, her middle caves and her shoulders slouch, Annie’s favored posture since she sprouted last summer. That’s what Mama called it . . . sprouting. And ever since, Mama has been telling Annie to stand straight and show some pride, as if being taller than most every other girl should be a prideful thing.
In addition to nagging about improper posture, Mama will be after Annie with soap and a rag by lunchtime, and she’ll remind Annie no more going barefoot once a girl has ascended.
“Thought you’d be working today,” Annie says as Ryce’s bike slows to a stop. She crosses her arms and hugs herself, another way to shrink an inch or two.
Ryce kicks out his right leg and lets his bike tip until he’s carrying his weight on that one foot. He’s wearing dark trousers, one leg rolled up to his shin so it doesn’t catch in his chain, double-knotted leather boots, and a white undershirt covered in the same dark smudges that mar his forearms, hands, and face.
“Lunch break,” Ryce says. He’s holding on to his handlebar with one hand. In the other, he holds a crumpled white kerchief. “All the fellows get one.”
This is the summer Ryce will buy himself a truck. He said the same last summer, but his daddy put all the money Ryce earned setting tobacco and picking worms in the bank and said college was but a few years away and it damn sure didn’t pay for itself.
“You come here expecting I’d feed you?” As has happened so often in the past days and weeks, the nasty words pop out before Annie can stop them. She crosses her arms. In addition to shaving another inch off her frame, this is also a fine way of hiding her chest so Ryce won’t notice it’s not one bit bigger than the last time he saw her. No matter what he says, Annie catches Ryce sometimes staring.
“Didn’t come expecting no food,” Ryce says, studying that crumpled kerchief like it’s something important. “Come to see if you was going tonight.”
“Might. Might not.”
“What does that mean? ‘Might. Might not.’”
“Might not want to.”
“You ought want to go,” Ryce says.
The sun has lightened his hair a shade or two, and now it’s the exact same color as his pale-brown eyes. Sometimes, Annie catches herself staring too.
“Says who?” Annie asks.
“Every girl, that’s who,” Ryce says, tugging on the edges of that kerchief. He’s got something wrapped up inside, and because of the way he’s using only his fingertips, it must be some kind of treasure to him.
When, several days ago, Annie first noticed the spark in the air, Grandma had smoothed the tangles in Annie’s ordinary yellow hair, given her a squirt of lavender-scented lotion to rub into her hands and elbows, and said not to worry. That spark was not a sign of trouble-to-come. No, indeed. That spark signaled the arrival of the lavender.
Annie is almost of age, midway between fifteen and sixteen, and so is finally coming into her own. She’s ascending into womanhood, though she prefers to think she’s ascending into adulthood. “Womanhood” makes her think of the wide-bottomed women who sit in church, tissues always in hand to wipe clean the noses of whatever children crawl across their laps. “Adulthood” sounds not so confining as “womanhood.”
All kinds of yearning come with a girl’s ascension—so says Grandma—beautiful, glorious yearning that will twist up a girl’s insides, wring them this way and that. Seeing as she has the know-how, Annie will feel things now she’s never before felt. She’ll feel things the ordinary girls will not. The arrival of the lavender is only one of them. Acres of it grow around Grandma’s house, acres and acres, and the sweet smell has been gathering since last year’s crop was cut. There is coming, Grandma said, a single moment when those flowers, rows and rows, mounds and mounds, will explode into full bloom. Yearning, Grandma had said. You’ll soon know much about yearning.
Ryce is right about one thing: All the girls in Hayden County look forward to midnight of the day halfway between their fifteenth and sixteenth birthdays. They buy special nightgowns and new cotton robes. They stay up late to curl their hair and dab on a coat of pink lipstick, and as midnight approaches, these girls of Hayden County sneak out of their houses, travel to the nearest well, usually the well at the Fulkersons’ place, and peek down into it in hopes of seeing the reflection of their intended. They huddle around the well, the girl who will that very night ascend and her best friends or closest relations, while their mamas and daddies stand at a distance, smoking a cigar or sipping whiskey from a coffee cup. The mamas will call out, because it’s the mamas who worry most about who their girls will marry, “Who you see down there?” The girls will giggle, squint into the darkness, wave their flashlights in one another’s eyes, and call out the name of a favorite boy.
“Could ride up here after supper, if you want,” Ryce says. “After everyone’s in bed. Your bike working? We could ride down together.”
“Why would I want that, Ryce Fulkerson?”
Ryce’s daddy is the sheriff, and before that, his granddaddy was sheriff, and hand to God, his grandma too, which makes Ryce think he’ll be sheriff one day. It makes Ryce think he’s more of a man than he really is.
“Just offering,” he says. “Thought you might not want to make the trip alone.”
For the past ten years, most every girl has made her way to the Fulkersons’ on her day of ascension. Mrs. Fulkerson makes a big show of keeping up the well at their place. In the spring, she plants marigolds around it, and in the winter, she makes Ryce shovel a path through the snow. Sheriff Fulkerson has even been known to pace nearby as a girl looks into the well, one hand resting on the handgun hanging at his waist because a person never knows what might happen when the spirits are being conjured. Even though it’s dark, he’ll wear his hat and march back and forth because nothing is more important than the virtue of the young women of Hayden County. Then he’ll share a sip of whiskey with the dads and uncles and whoever else may have come to bear witness. Grandma says they never had such pageantry in her day and doesn’t much appreciate the sheriff making light of tradition. Daddy says there isn’t a thing wrong with a bit of pageantry or a good shot of whiskey.
“Not such a long trip if I go to the Baines’ place,” Annie says, nodding up toward the tobacco barn at the top of the rise behind her house. “There’s a perfectly fine well right up there. Still got water in it, so I hear.”
Everyone knows there’s only one thing beyond the Hollerans’ place, and that’s the Baines’ place. Everyone also knows Hollerans don’t go near Baines. Aunt Juna was the start of all the hatred between the families, and even though she’s been gone a good many years, the hatred has stayed put.
Juna Crowley is a legend. She’s the one the girls sing about as their jump ropes slap hot concrete. Over and over the girls of Hayden County chant . . . Eyes like coal, she’ll lead you astray . . . How many Baines will die this day? And the ropes swing around and around until their fibers turn frayed and prickly to the touch. Last summer, Dorothy Howard visited her grandma in Topeka, Kansas, and she said even those girls all the way up there were singing about Juna Crowley. One Baine, two Baines, one hundred and four Baines, those Topeka girls chanted. And if they’re chanting in Topeka, they must be chanting all over the country.
Course, there were, are, only seven Baine brothers. No telling how many are still alive. Aunt Juna killed only one of them. Some twenty years ago, she saw to it Joseph Carl hanged by his neck until dead, and all these many years later, Browerton is still the town known for—known
for—being the town to last hang a man in plain sight for all to see.
Just last month, Arleen Kellerman caught three of her grandsons, who were visiting from Atlanta, Georgia, as they were about to kick the box out from under the neighbor boy. The rope was strung up over the pole that holds one end of her clothesline, the other end anchored to the side of her house. Every one of those boys got whipped. The one dressed up as Aunt Juna got the worst of it.
“Your daddy ain’t going to let you go to the Baines’ place,” Ryce says, smiling in a way that lets Annie know she’s a damn fool for saying such a thing. “Your mama ain’t going to allow that either.”
“What makes you think I care what my daddy says? Or my mama?”
“Don’t think you should go to the Baines’ place, that’s all.”
Still holding on to that kerchief, Ryce rolls his bike backward a few feet until he can see around the side of the house. He’ll be wondering if a person can see the Baine place from here, but he won’t be able to. He won’t see it unless he runs up the hill behind the house and past Grandpa’s tobacco barn. From there, he would see the rock fence that separates the two places, and he’d also see the well. And he might see old Cora Baine, the only Baine left, sitting in her rocker, a shotgun cradled in her lap.
It’s only been a week since school let out and Annie last saw Ryce, but already he looks different, bigger, taller, thicker somehow. The neck of his undershirt is stretched from him having used it as a kerchief all morning. He’ll have been tugging it up over his mouth, even chewing on it until it droops and frays. It’s a nasty habit, and his mama will get on him for it when he goes home for supper. And while the neck of that undershirt sags, the rest of it is all the sudden too small. It pulls across his chest and looks to be cutting him under the arms. His jawline has squared off some since school ended, and his nose has sprawled, no longer has the ball on the end that the women of town were all the time tweaking. Or maybe it’s his overgrown hair. Hanging down past his ears, it slims him out in the face, and his skin is darker for having been out in the sun all day every day for a week. Damn it all, Annie looks just the same.
The spark that has nagged at Annie all these days has been like the ache in her legs that Mama calls growing pains or the stings that speckle Annie’s calves when she gets into a patch of nettles. It’s made her irritable, disagreeable, most especially with Ryce Fulkerson. When Annie told Grandma that her yearning felt nothing like a yearning should feel and that she didn’t much like it, Grandma smiled, even laughed. She laughed harder still when Annie said she most certainly did not yearn for Ryce Fulkerson because he was a gosh-darn fool, when what she really wanted to say was that he was a Goddamn fool, but Annie knew better than to curse in front of Grandma. This made Grandma throw her head back and laugh right out loud.
Annie would have stomped away from anyone else who laughed that way, but not Grandma. Grandma’s laugh made Annie want to cry because the yearning and the coming of the lavender and the feeling that something was lurking and not wanting to turn evil like Aunt Juna had stuffed her full and there was no room left. Grandma knew this and stopped her laughing, stroked one hand over Annie’s cheek, and said this is exactly how a yearning should feel.
“I suppose I’ll be going where I please and if I please,” Annie says, and this time she feels the nastiness coming but can’t stop herself from spitting it out. “One thing’s for certain. I damn sure won’t be seeing you down in that well.”