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Authors: Danny Johnson

The Last Road Home

BOOK: The Last Road Home
5.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
KENSINGTON BOOKS are published by
Kensington Publishing Corp.
119 West 40th Street
New York, NY 10018
Copyright © 2016 by Danny Johnson
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the Publisher, excepting brief quotes used in reviews.
Kensington and the K logo Reg. U.S. Pat. & TM Off.
eISBN-13: 978-1-4967-0250-0
eISBN-10: 1-4967-0250-6
First Kensington Electronic Edition: August 2016
ISBN: 978-1-4967-0249-4
ISBN-10: 1-4967-0249-2
This novel is dedicated to the person most responsible
for its creation and the person
who will never be able to read it:
My Warrior Brother, James V. “Dot” Dorsey,
KIA 05 Feb 1969,
final homecoming at Arlington National Cemetery,
20 May 2015. RIP
On January 1, 1863, Congress enacted President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. One hundred years later, it was still the law of the land, but in the South it was more theory than reality.
aybe it wasn't true. “Come on, Junebug, it's all right, don't be afraid.” Grandma took my hand. Inside the house, a late-afternoon shadow stretched like a long rectangular arm across the living room carpet. The Coke bottle Daddy used for an ashtray was stuffed with cigarette butts and sat on the coffee table. Momma's rocking chair waited for her; I pushed on the painted wooden arm to hear it squeak.
Two applejacks left over from Friday sat in a plate on the kitchen stove; this time of day the house should smell like fresh-made sweet tea and supper cooking. I looked on the back porch, but nobody was there either. In the bathroom, I touched the last pencil line where Momma marked my height every year on my birthday. In their bedroom, I lay on the pillow to smell her. My head knew they were gone, but my eight-year-old heart didn't yet.
Grandma sat beside me, tears rolling down her face; she'd cried a lot in the last two days. “Let's go find what you want to carry home.”
In my room, I got the cigar box from my closet while Grandma packed clothes in paper bags. When her arms were loaded, she stood at the door. “Ready to go?”
“In a minute.” I went back to Momma and Daddy's room, looked in her jewelry box and found the silver gum wrapper necklace I'd made for her in school. “Okay.” I stopped at the bottom of our steps and picked one of the red roses Momma had planted in the spring.
* * *
The next afternoon I sat under a tent in the graveyard, staring at blankets of flowers that covered the tops of two caskets. They smelled like Momma's rose. The preacher patted my head. “It was God's Will,” he said. “They'll be waiting for you in heaven.”
I blinked back angry tears. “Tell me why God would want to kill my momma and daddy?”
“Shhhh.” Grandma squeezed my shoulders.
After the funeral, Granddaddy took me to talk under his woodshed. He sat on a stump used for splitting kindling, and I sat beside him on an upside-down peach basket. He laid his big hand on my shoulder. “Junebug, sometimes things just are, nobody to blame or no way to make sense of it. All a man can do is put one foot in front of the other and keep going. Do you understand?”
What was I supposed to understand? One day you're alive and the next you're dead? I went into the house and the bedroom where I slept when I stayed with them on the farm, the one that would now be mine forever. I pulled the cigar box from underneath the bed. Inside it were baseball cards I'd saved, a picture of Momma holding me when I was a baby, the silver dollar Granddaddy gave me last year for my seventh birthday, and the collar I'd taken off Grady's neck.
Daddy killed Grady on my birthday. We had gone to Grandma's for supper and I'd just blown out the six candles on my coconut birthday cake when we heard Granddaddy's dog start howling like something was killing him. By the time we ran outside, the taillights of a truck were rounding the curve of the road. Grady lay at the edge of the ditch, whining. Granddaddy knelt beside him. “Back's broke.” He gently rubbed Grady's head.
“Be right back,” Daddy said. He walked to the car and came back holding his big black pistol. “Y'all back up.” He bent over and stuck the barrel close to Grady's head.
I yanked on Granddaddy's pants leg. “What's he going to do?”
He squatted beside me. “Junebug, when an animal is hurt bad like that you can't fix it, so it's better to put it out of its pain. Can you understand?” He laid his big hand against my head. “You don't need to watch.”
Instead of turning away, I took off running and fell into the ditch with Grady, covering him with my body, pushing the gun away. “I'll help you, Grady.” I lay with my eyes level with Grady, tears trailing across the bridge of my nose. “I'll fix you, don't you worry.” Grady's soft brown eyes watched me, and then he reached to lick my face.
“Get out of the way, Junebug. Go in the house with your momma.” Daddy grabbed me by the back of my shirt, pulled me up, and half-shoved, half-threw me back toward where Granddaddy stood. “Keep him out of the way.”
“Easy, Roy, you ain't got to be so rough.” Granddaddy reached down and picked me up.
“Then take him in the house with the women.”
My crying had turned to hiccup sobs. “You leave Grady alone! I can take care of him.”
Grady whined loud again. Then came the thunderous boom of Daddy's pistol, and Grady made the most awful screaming crying sound I'd ever heard. Then silence.
Granddaddy cussed at him. “Dammit, you could have waited 'til I got the boy in the house.”
“Won't hurt him, he needs to understand life ain't always easy.”
I hooked Momma's necklace inside Grady's collar, closed the box, and put it back under the bed.
* * *
“Come here a minute, Junebug.” Grandma waved me to her. It was a hot August morning three weeks after my parents' funeral. The hard-packed sand on the dirt path in front of Mr. Wilson's barn was cool on my bare feet. We had come to help the neighbors harvest tobacco.
“Junebug, this is Fancy and her twin brother, Lightning. They live on Mr. and Mrs. Wilson's farm.”
The girl was a lighter black than her brother. Her hair was bobby-pinned in little curls, and the boy's was cut right down to the skin. They both watched the ground. “Fancy, would you and your brother mind showing Junebug around and playing together while we work?”
The girl didn't look up. “Yes'um.” Her brother didn't say anything. We waited in silence until the grown-ups headed to the fields, leaving us alone. Fancy stared at me, and she didn't look happy. She crooked her finger. They led me down a dirt path to the edge of the woods where a bucket of rocks sat alongside a line of tin cans on a log. The three of us stood apart, getting the measure of each other. I wiped sweat off my upper lip with the back of my finger.
Fancy stepped close, put her face up to mine, and balanced her hands on her hips. “How old are you?” She was bony thin, had a big head, and her upper teeth bowed out. The expression on her face was
I ain't scared
. I thought she might punch me if I didn't answer.
“Eight.” I wiped again.
She thumbed back at Lightning. “Us too. Where'd you get a name like that?” Her brother watched.
“Momma give it to me.”
“Where's your momma at?”
I studied the ground, shying away from her demanding tone. “Dead.”
“Sure don't talk much. Ain't off in the head are you? How'd she die?”
“Car wreck.”
“Your daddy too?” She moved even closer. If they jumped me, I'd have to try and outrun them.
“Yep.” I closed the toes of my bare foot over a rock and tried to pick it up.
Fancy glanced at her brother, like she was asking a question. He shrugged. When she turned back around, her look was different. Her arm came up. I leaned sideways. But instead of punching me, Fancy grabbed my hand. “It'll be all right, Junebug.”
Lightning walked over to the bucket and picked out a rock. He sent it flying at the cans and hit one. “Try it,” Fancy said, and handed me a rock. I threw and missed everything.
We spent the next few hours trying to hit cans. Lightning showed me how to curve a rock, and Fancy was actually better at it than either of us.
* * *
After breakfast on Tuesday morning the following week, Granddaddy said, “Come on, Junebug, I need to smoke the barn.” We stacked some kindling and an ax into a wheelbarrow.
“What do you mean ‘smoke' the barn?”
“The Wilsons are coming to help us put in tobacco tomorrow, and the snakes need to be run out before we can hang it.” Granddaddy was a big man, arms like posts, and a heavy belly. He was fair-faced with a leathery, sunburned neck, and was never without his wide-brimmed felt hat. At the barn he laid dry pine slabs in the firebox, struck a match to them, then cut down a couple of oak shoots. When the fire was burning good, he added the green leaves and sapling wood. Smoke began to fill the inside of the barn, some leaking from between the logs where the chink mud had come loose.
“How you going to catch the snakes?”
“Ain't. Snakes won't bother you unless you bother them.” He started around the side of the barn, looking up to see how much smoke was coming out of the roof. I squatted in front of the fire and tossed in a handful of leaves.
I heard a yell and saw Granddaddy running around, cussing and slapping at his hat. A long black snake flew through the air. He chased and stomped at the snake, but it took off under some leaves.
“What happened?”
“Durn thing fell off the top of the barn square on my head.”
I couldn't help laughing at him. “Didn't bother you, did he?”
He got red-faced. “Watch the fire, I need to go to the outhouse for a minute.”
I told Grandma the snake story at dinner. She laughed so hard she got tears, and came over to hug my neck. Since the funeral, I'd heard her and Granddaddy whispering a lot at night when they thought I was asleep, and I caught her crying several times. My daddy was their son. I'd stayed with them a lot since the time I was a baby, so it wasn't hard to get used to living with them. It was good to see some happiness slip out from behind her blue eyes.
After dinner Granddaddy and me went back to the barn and used garden hoes to clean away poison ivy that had grown too close to the open shelter. I didn't really know what poison ivy was, but I chopped at anything I thought might need it. A few yards from the barn, I noticed a place the grass was worn down, like a path. “That a deer track?”
He came over to have a look. “Used to be a horse trail a long time ago, way back before anybody had cars or trucks.” He pointed through the woods. “Comes out at the Wilson place.”
The next morning after the grown-ups headed to the tobacco field, I showed Fancy and Lightning the path, thinking it might be an important contribution to the new friendship. “Granddaddy said it goes all the way to where y'all live.” We followed the trail until the woods ended, and discovered it came out at a clover field behind the Wilson farm.
“I never knew this was here,” said Lightning. Halfway along the trail, several trees had been cut, leaving good-sized stumps. Immediately, we agreed it was probably where Indians used to camp.
We sat across from each other. “How come you got a name like Junebug?” Fancy asked.
“It was the month I was born. My Christian name is Raeford Earl Hurley. Where'd y'all get the name Fancy and Lightning?”
Fancy stood up, put her hands behind her back, and started pacing like a preacher in a pulpit. “Well, I'll tell you about it. You see”—she imitated a deep voice—“there was this big storm that come over the land the night him and me was born.” Fancy waved at the sky with both hands, eyes wide and fearful. “Thunder boomed like shotguns, and the wind howled like witches on Halloween.” She pointed at Lightning. “He came first, then me. Daddy named him because of the awful lightning that caused three fires in the community.” Her tone changed to sweet and cheerful. “But Momma said she always liked the name Fancy so it's what I got.” She went back to the fierce look, dropping her voice low again. “Now, that's the way it was told to me.” Fancy gripped her hands behind and went back to pacing, like she was considering. “But . . . after all these years of thinking . . .” She paused again. Lightning and I leaned forward, waiting to see what she was going to say. “I really think Daddy named Lightning Lightning because he knew what a big pain in the ass he'd always be.” She ran in a circle pointing at Lightning, cackling.
“Very funny,” said Lightning. “Keep it up and you're going to sure enough get struck by Lightning.”
I had to hold my stomach from laughing so hard.
The stumps became our secret place.
* * *
Tobacco season had ended and school was set to begin in another couple of weeks. Fancy, Lightning, and me sat shooting the breeze. Lightning got to his feet and walked back and forth, like he was irritated. “I'm gone have enough money to do the bossing one of these days. The two of you will be working for me then.” He marched around with a swelled chest. “Git in that kitchen and make me some food!” He waved his arm at Fancy like he might smack her.
“Try bossing me and I'll hit you in the head with a hammer when you go to sleep.”
Lightning faked another swing, then went back to circle-walking. “I need to get some money before I go back to school, can't get no girlfriend if you ain't carrying no change. I want to go to the store just one time and reach in my pocket to find something other than a hole.”
We sat thinking for a bit. “I went with Granddaddy to Markham's store the other day and he took back some empty Coke bottles. He got two cents apiece for them. Y'all got any bottles?”
Lightning stopped. “Heck, yeah. They's laying all over Mr. Wilson's barn shelter. We could take 'em and sell 'em. And I bet we could go around to other farms and ask if we could look; folks might be glad to get rid of 'em. That's a good idea, Junebug.” He started counting on his fingers. “If we was to get a thousand bottles at two cents each, what would that come to?”
“Twenty dollars,” Fancy said quickly. “How we going to carry that many bottles?”
Lightning smacked her on the head. “Feed sacks, stupid.”
Fancy leaped to her feet. “Just touch me again!”
“Y'all quit fussing,” I scolded.
Lightning was excited. “Meet here tomorrow early and everybody bring a sack. We'll visit every farm around 'til we fill 'em.”
BOOK: The Last Road Home
5.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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