Chapter One, by Teresa Frohock
Grandma’s Bible lay unopened on the kitchen table between Jimmy and his granddaddy. The pebbled black cover, worn smooth by her hands, reflected the dull glow of the florescent light that buzzed like an angry hornet. Granddaddy glared at the book like it had been the one to kill her, not him.
He sat in the kitchen chair, rigid as his funeral suit. Jimmy sat across from him, his own suit an ill-fitting dark blue affair that sat rumbled and sad on his gawky teenage frame. He desperately wanted to loosen his tie, but he was afraid to twitch in case granddaddy would see it as a sign of disrespect.
Although every window in the farmhouse was open, the humid night air refused to move. A gypsy moth battered the screen by the chair where grandma used to sit; ivory wings drove the heavy body toward the light it would never reach. Grandma used to say the moths were souls, drawn back to the rooms they once loved best.
Maybe it was the smell of other women’s food that drew grandma’s soul back to the window. Odors from the casseroles on the kitchen counter were eclipsed by the sweat-tinged perfumes worn by the Bell’s Chapel Primitive Baptist ladies’ circle. The ladies had left hours ago, but the scent of Avon Windsong still clotted the yellowed kitchen.
“Women,” granddaddy said. His voice was thunderous in the small room.
Jimmy jerked upright, his heart pounding against his ribs. He feared granddaddy would reach across the table with one farm-scarred hand and snatch Jimmy’s breath like he’d done with grandma. Then he looked into granddaddy’s mild gaze and knew his imagination had gotten the better of him. Granddaddy didn’t go around killing people because he liked it; he did it because it was what God made him to do. Granddaddy eased the suffering.
“Women bring life into the world—men take it out.” Granddaddy’s eyes misted and Jimmy was scared the big man would cry. He didn’t know if he could handle the weight of granddaddy’s grief. “It’s always been that way.” Granddaddy inhaled and flipped the Bible’s cover open so violently the hinge tore. “I won’t be here much longer, son. I want you start watching out for Rady. So you’ll be ready to take over when I’m gone.”
“What?” Jimmy’s voice was a mere squeak compared to granddaddy’s rumble. His toes curled in his stiff Sunday shoes as if his twisted brother Rady could reach through the floor and snatch Jimmy into the cellar with him.
He wasn’t ready to start taking care of Rady. He’d hated these last few weeks when grandma had been so sick—he’d had to feed his brother every night, change his sheets, clean up his sick. He’d missed so many lessons at school, he’d be put back a year if he didn’t work hard and then he’d never get into college. And away from this farm and Rady.
He’d be stuck here for the rest of his life like granddaddy. Working in a mill and farming, tending the dying souls of Butner County. Anger rose to Jimmy’s throat and threatened to choke him. Why couldn’t his brother just die and be done with it? His hate for Rady bled into his fingers and he curled his hands into fists so granddaddy wouldn’t see. “I can’t—”
“You’re almost a man, James.”
James. The spit dried in Jimmy’s mouth. Granddaddy never called him James unless it was serious business.
“We’re family,” granddaddy said. “Family takes care of each other. That’s just the way it is.” Granddaddy flipped through the Bible pages and they whispered in the still night. “Besides, this is hard on Rady too. And you know how it is if his feelings get out of hand.”
“Bad things happen,” Jimmy said; his words a pale echo of grandma’s warnings. He imagined he felt her hand on his shoulder; a gentle squeeze, then she was gone.
Granddaddy nodded. “We gotta keep those bad things off of other people.”
Jimmy’s eyes burned, but he didn’t let his tears slip over his lashes. It wasn’t fair. He didn’t want to give up his dreams of getting off the farm or spend his whole life taking care of Rady and these Butner county rednecks.
The moth thumped against the window, frantic to get to the light.
Somewhere beneath their feet, Rady bumped against the wall.
It just wasn’t fair.