“Red-Eye Cicada,” Ellis Purdie
Susie sat outside of the Dirt Cheap store, the left side of her rear end pressed into a narrow ledge of white brick where the wall and shop window met. On the other side of the glass, pairs of blue jeans were lumped together in stacks, behind neon cutouts that read “Old Navy Fire Sale,” the words in Sharpie with lots of exclamation points. Dennis crossed the store and slung his apron into the back office, stopped at a series of switches and flicked them down. The ceiling lights went out a couple of rows at a time and the storefront went black, mirroring the parking lot—the old blood-red Ford Bronco the sole car on the ragged asphalt. Susie had trouble imagining that she would not show up for work tomorrow, that anybody as good as Dennis would be beside her the next day, the wind from the road blowing through the Bronco, Vicksburg, Mississippi, behind her for good. She was done. In Montana, she would be more of a whole person, away from the aisles of bad paperbacks in no order, the one-armed Barbie dolls, and the clothes strewn across dirty tile that raked dead flies from the shelving when she picked them up.
Dennis came out and locked the doors, gave them a pull. Susie stood and followed him to the truck, his black boots scraping the pavement. He wore black jeans, a black t-shirt with the sleeves cut off, was lean and fair-skinned. His black hair was cut in a long mohawk that was flat and layered like a raven’s wings. He opened the driver’s side and got in, leaned over and kissed Susie on the mouth. “If we head to the little league fields now, we can make it before closing,” he said. The engine rumbled to a start and he put the truck in drive, left the parking space.
“Are we about to practice our hitting?” Susie said. “I haven’t played softball since grade school.” She wished she hadn’t said the part about elementary. She was twenty-five, and thinking back on childhood all the time made no sense. She’d done that as long as she could remember, but Dennis helped her live in the now, to be her ideal person.
Dennis laughed. “Maybe,” he said. “I’m more interested in the hot dogs. There are always hot dogs.”
Since they’d met six months ago, Dennis had proven he could make anything work. He seemed almost invincible, as if the world could not hurt him, in spite of all the bad things in it. He didn’t seem to notice these traits in himself, didn’t allow them to make him arrogant or prideful. Dennis was kind and charming and reminded her of Jesus more than any preacher she’d seen in a pulpit on all those Sunday mornings. He made her feel safe, less timid.
They turned out of the parking lot and Susie took another look at the strip mall. The lot was darker now without the light from Dirt Cheap, bathed in shadows and the faint glow of the nearby streetlights. The transmission shifted, the tires humming beneath her feet. Dennis kept his eyes on the road, and Susie waited for him to speak. After a while the businesses dropped away and the roadside became wooded. Susie stared at a big yellow moon behind the black jagged limbs.
The headlights of the Bronco washed over the trash littering the side of the road, a red straw sticking out of a Styrofoam cup buried in the pine straw and leaves. Vicksburg was dirty. She needed to see the seasons change in Montana. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes.
The truck slowed, pulled forward and settled back with the brakes, the jolt waking her. Dennis got out and Susie watched him through the cracked windshield, the glass beaded with water. In the distance, low clouds blinked with sheet lightning and when Susie opened the door the air was wet and smelled of rain. She swung her feet out onto the ground and shut the door behind her. “You, wait up!” she said. She rounded the front of the truck, her left foot sinking into a hole full of cold water that took her to the ground. Before she could push herself up with her own hands, she felt Dennis’s come around below her chest and lift. He smelled of engine oil and his knuckles were torn, from working on the Bronco. Susie stood and Dennis knocked the grass from her jeans and shirt, his hand passing over her right breast. He’d never touched her there before and part of her hoped he’d meant to.
In the dark surrounding the baseball field, the soft yellow flecks of lightning bugs flickered like stars. “You know why fireflies glow, don’t you?” she said, feeling comfortable talking. She could talk if the subject were insects. She had an entomology degree, and the topic gave her authority.
“Why?” he said.
“The ones you see in the air are males, and the females wait in the grass and give off a flash there. Then they mate. What we’re seeing is one side of a conversation.” She’d presented papers on Lampyridae, and had been in contact with a professor at the University of Montana for a long time, before she decided she didn’t want to go to school anymore, at least not for a while.
He stuck his leg behind hers, tripped her and guided her into the grass. He kissed her on the mouth hard, the damp earth soaking into her back. There was a bulge in his pants and she pushed against his chest. “People might see us,” she said. Dennis nodded, got to his feet and pulled her up.
A dark green chain-link fence surrounded the ball field, and she traced the triangular mesh at the fence’s top with her finger. She paused and let her arm drape over the fence. “I really don’t feel like getting kicked out of here,” she said. “People hate being bothered at closing time. You know that.”
Dennis laughed. “I don’t see any ‘Closed’ sign,” he said, his voice calm and deep, cutting through the humid air.
Across the field, halide lamps beamed from large, grey, metal poles—moths spiraling, tapping the glass. A few ball players and coaches gathered bats and equipment bags, loaded gear into trunks and truck beds.
“No one’s kicking us out,” he said, leading Susie by the elbow away from the fence. “Let’s see if anyone’s at the concession stand.”
They approached a blue stand with a steel rolling window halfway closed at the front. Inside, a light was on and a man and woman packed food and drinks into two open coolers. The woman leaned up from the soft drinks in front of her, looked over her shoulder. Her eyes went from Susie to Dennis. “Closed,” she said, turning back to her work. A can of Coke splashed into the ice.
Dennis rested his palms against the countertop, leaned his head into the window. “You guys can’t eat all those leftover hot dogs,” he said, pointing. A row of plump hot dogs lay in open tin foil on the counter, grill marks burned into their tops.
“We can just go,” Susie said, knowing Dennis wouldn’t budge. She liked how stubborn he was, but didn’t think she could be that way. She was tired of being afraid.
“Dale, do you want to help me here?” the woman said.
Susie stepped out of view from the window and stood with her back against the wall of the stand. She thought of a rainbow trout darting beneath tobacco-gold water in Montana. She whipped back around and pushed the window all the way to the top—a rattle like a toy machine gun—and pressed in beside Dennis. “Dale,” she said. “You’ve got a chance to feed the hungry.” Her forehead went hot. She started sweating and fixed her eyes on Dale’s feet.
They stared at her. Dale’s mouth was open, his eyes narrowed. He was a tall man, probably in his fifties, with short brown hair and a long face. He looked over at Linda. “Well, hell, they may have a point,” he said. “I don’t want to eat all of these hot dogs.”
Linda lifted an arm and let it fall. “Fine, let them in,” she said. “Let’s let all the vagrants in.”
Susie followed Dennis to the back of the building where a blue door was propped open with a cinder block. Dale introduced himself, smiled, and said, “They’re only free if you each take two.” He grabbed the cinder block by the top rung and pulled the door to.
Dennis nodded, shaking Dale’s hand. “I’m Dennis,” he said, motioning to Susie with his thumb. “And this beautiful girl is Susie, and two hot dogs would be great.”
Susie took Dale’s hand. “We appreciate the hot dogs on such short notice.”
Peanut shells littered the dirty floor, cracked beneath their feet as they moved. Dale went to the other side of the room, rolled the window back down to where it had been. “What are you two doing at the ball fields this late?”
A sliding door freezer that held ice cream sandwiches and drumsticks was parked next to the wall. Susie hoisted herself on top of it, scooting her bottom away from the edge. “Counting on the kindness of others,” she said, staring at her blurred reflection in the chrome siding of the refrigerator next to her. She adjusted the black oval clip in her blonde hair, pursed her mouth to even out her red lipstick.
“Glad I could help,” Dale said, taking four of the hot dogs off the table. “There’s not enough kindness in the world. Too much awful, not near enough good.”
Susie’s eyes widened. “Yeah,” she said. “Exactly.” In the distance cars passed the ballpark on the highway. A pair of white headlights and red taillights disappeared behind the thicket next to the road.
“Son, does your mother know you have that haircut?” Dale said.
Dennis looked up at the ceiling. “Uh, I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know how she would. I haven’t been home in a while.”
“Well, you best stay gone,” Dale said. “She’s not going to like that. Where’s home?”
“I don’t know. I was born in Logan, West Virginia,” Dennis said. “Dad moved around a lot though, always working in the coal mines. But I guess you might say that’s home, West Virginia.”
“Small world. My family’s from West Virginia,” Dale said. “Let me tell you about Brad—”
Linda turned to him. “Nuh uh,” she said. “Don’t get started on Brad.”
“Who’s Brad?” Susie said.
Linda looked at Susie. “Honey, you don’t want to hear it.”
“I’ll bet they do,” Dale said. He looked at both of them, his tone of voice saying, Well, don’t you?
“Yeah, go on, tell us,” Susie said, making room for Dennis on the freezer.
Dale handed two hot dogs to each of them, then brought over a package of buns and a silver basket of ketchup and mustard packets. “All I meant to say was, my brother Brad, he got stuck out in coal country. I see a young fellow like you here, from West Virginia, and I wonder how you didn’t go to the mines straight out of high school.”
Dennis shrugged and laughed. “I got in a truck instead.”
Dale nodded, leaned back on the counter. “That’s a good thing,” he said. “Brad’s always felt like he was trapped, like he could have done something else. But what do you do in this economy when you have two kids and a wife and the mines are the only thing taking care of you?”
Linda waved a hand. “Oh, Brad won’t ever be happy,” she said. “You make a plan, stick with it, and count your blessings.”
Dennis squeezed ketchup onto his bun. “Did Brad almost die?” he said.
Dale looked up and frowned, crossed his arms and rested his chin on his palm. “He did,” he said. “He closed the garage and ran a gardening hose from the tailpipe to his window. If I hadn’t stopped by—.” He shook his head. “You get the picture. You must be from up around those parts.”
Dennis brought out the truth in people. Susie had never seen him have small talk. She bit into her hot dog, leaned into him.
“Dad never tried to kill himself,” Dennis said. “But he lost a lot of friends, to suicide, accidents. I guess some blessings you make on your own, or you suffer. That’s why we’re going to Montana.”
Susie felt warm again, nervous. She dressed her hot dogs. “Sorry about your brother,” she said without looking up. “He’s all right, huh?” She wanted to get the subject off of them and onto something else. Susie had never been comfortable with Dennis’s plan, forcing their blessings in her mind: dealing pot, saving money, and cutting out for Montana after they’d made enough. She hadn’t grown up around anyone who broke laws. She’d published academic papers on bioluminescence in Discover magazine, won awards at conferences and avoided trouble. Linda was making a lot of sense.
“He’s all right,” Dale said. “He’s fine. There’s just nothing in his rearview mirror he’s proud of.”
Susie eased down off the freezer, a hot dog in each hand. “We should probably go, huh?”
Dennis nodded. “Thanks for the hot dogs, Dale. Linda.” He got down and backed into the door, holding it for Susie. “Could we get a couple of Cokes, too?”
Dale fished out two Cokes from a cooler, the cans dripping with bits of ice gliding down the aluminum. “You got a third hand?” he said.
“Right there in the arm pit,” Dennis said, catching the cans between his bicep and ribs. “You’re the best.”
They followed a concrete walkway past a couple of silver water fountains and a playground to a set of bleachers in front of the one field still lit. The two of them stepped up into the bleachers, stopped about midway from the top and sat down. Dennis popped the tabs on the Cokes and handed one to Susie. She took a deep breath, relieved that she didn’t have to talk to Dale and Linda about Dennis dealing. All of that was over. They could hang out, have fun. She looked over at Dennis and wondered what things would have been like if he had not shown up.
Susie had not seen it coming when Eric—her stepfather, but the only father she’d ever known—had lost a job opportunity at a university in Montana due to budget cuts. He’d been teaching economics at the small college not far from Vicksburg, and he’d applied in Montana for a change of scenery, a better salary and a better program.
Susie had moved back home after earning her entomology degree, found a job at Dirt Cheap, and waited to follow Eric to Montana, to be close to the two-inch cicada—the Tibecen dealbeatus, she’d told Dennis. She wanted to form a thesis on it before she went to graduate school, whenever that was.
When the university cut the position, Eric was forced to stay put. Susie had felt trapped in Vicksburg. She’d gotten the job to save money, and after a time had purchased a Greyhound bus ticket and packed her things. But when the day came for her to board the bus, she could not do it, afraid to leave Mississippi. Then she met Dennis.
Susie took another bite of her hot dog and set it next to her. She stared at the light pollution in the distance from the casinos on the river, neon splashing against the low clouds. The colors were pretty, but they were pretty because Dennis was next to her. She bumped shoulders with him, rested her head on him before turning back to her food.
About fifty yards away a pair of yellow headlights swept into the parking lot. A red Jeep edged in beside Dennis’s truck. The Jeep belonged to Russell Nicholas, Dennis’s supplier.
“Oh,” Susie said. “We didn’t get any for Russell.”
“It’ll just take a second,” Dennis said.
Russell lived in a doublewide back in the woods off of the highway. He claimed to be part American Indian, his long hair black with a sheen like tar, his skin and eyes dark. His arms were grooved with muscle and usually grey from mixing mortar—his day job as a bricklayer’s apprentice. At night he stayed on the boats working for the gaming commission. Being a policeman, he had access to a lot of drugs, and when he picked them up, he sold them.
Susie followed Dennis down the bleachers, the steel rumbling with their weight.
Russell leaned against the fence, shook a cigarette to his mouth from a crumpled soft pack and put a light to it, waving the flame as he drew. A folded manila envelope stuck out from the back pocket of his jeans.
Dennis took out a wad of money from his back pocket, offered it to Russell.
Russell held the cigarette between his lips, took the money and flipped through it, stuffed part of it into the pocket of his thin grey t-shirt. He handed the rest to Dennis. His eyebrows rose and fell. “You made this mighty quick,” he said, taking the cigarette in his fingers and blowing a jet of smoke. “You sure you’ve been selling to people you trust?”
“It’s my ass and not yours if I’m not, right?” Dennis said.
Russell shrugged. “I suppose,” he said. “I’d tell you to be careful, but it looks like you’re about done with this trade, huh?”
“I’d like to think so,” Dennis said. “For good. So if you’d hand me the rest of my cut and let me get out of here I’d appreciate it.”
“Well,” Russell said, taking a drag. “I guess ole girl’s got to get to Montana.” He pointed the glowing cigarette at Susie and ashed it, cinders fluttering from the end.
“Thank you, Russell,” Susie said. “Your sincerity and concern propels us on.”
Russell lifted his chin and grinned. “She talks,” he said. “You put a dick in that mouth of hers yet?”
“Russ, don’t start,” Dennis said.
“I’m not the one who was bitching about not getting laid,” Russell said.
Susie looked at Dennis. Dennis stared at her, shook his head. “He’s full of shit, don’t listen to him.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” Russell said. “I’m fucking with you, sweetheart.” He reached behind his back and tossed the envelope at Dennis.
Dennis caught the package, looked at it a moment and opened it. “What’s this?”
“Sell that and you’re done.”
Susie stepped in front of Dennis. “That’s not what he agreed to.”
“Y’all are cuter than hell, you know that?” Russell said. “Do it and you’re done.”
“Why?” Dennis said.
“For giving you temporary employment,” Russell said. He tossed the cigarette to the ground and rubbed it in with his foot. “I don’t often let my employees go so soon.”
Susie kept her eyes on Russell. He softened in her vision and she looked up at the sky and blinked her eyes clear again.
“I’ll get it done,” Dennis said. He stuffed the envelope in the back of his jeans. “I know you won’t play Indian giver.”
Russell spit through his teeth. He reached out and took Dennis by the shirt collar and flung him against the fence. Dennis slid down until he was sitting, his collarbone showing where the fabric had ripped. Russell crouched beside him, put a hand around his throat and pressed in, the tendons in his fingers rising. “Don’t be a racist prick,” he said. “Just drive on out to Youngton Road and get rid of that dope for me.” He gave Dennis an address, smacked him a couple of times on the face. “You got me, brother? I’m sorry I had to do that.” He pulled Dennis back to his feet. He got into the Jeep, turned the engine over and rolled down the window. “You all be safe on the road.”
They walked out of the light of the field, into the shadows of a row of dogwood trees that stood in the center of the pathway, and Susie noticed fast motion along one of the trees.
Dennis put a hand on Susie’s shoulder, leaned toward the tree and squinted. “Is that a hummingbird?” he said.
The thing hovered over the blooms, dove in and rose and moved to another. Susie clasped her hands together around the bloom in front of her, felt the flap of wings against her palms. “No,” she said. “It’s a Nessus Sphinx, a moth, Amphion floridensis.” She parted her thumbs and the moth sat still, black and small as a toy fighter jet, a yellow line across its back. It wheeled out of her hands and back into the blossoms.
They stopped at a Stuckey’s gas station and Dennis got out, opened the gas tank and stuck the nozzle inside. He held the rip in his t-shirt together with his hand. “I’m going to buy a new shirt,” he said to Susie from the open door. “You want anything?”
“Just to go home,” Susie said, thinking it was the wrong thing to say. She was supposed to be leaving this home, making a new home with him that she wouldn’t regret.
He nodded, shut door, and walked toward the entrance.
Two men came up from around the side of the building, one carrying a duffle bag and the other gripping a slip of paper. Susie made eye contact with the one leading and he lifted his chin at her and waved, walked past the gas tanks and up to the truck, leaving his friend behind. He held up his hand and moved his index finger in a circle. “Roll down,” he mouthed.
Susie rolled the glass down a couple of inches.
“You don’t know anyone that can lend me four dollars, do you?”
“What do you need?” Susie said. A split in his lip was black with dried blood, pores dark with dirt and sweat. His head was shaved and the blonde facial hair around his mouth was thin.
“I just need a pack of Newports,” he said. “That’s all.” One of his front teeth looked dead, a shade of black that started at the gum line and seemed to be working its way down.
“I can buy you a pack of Newports,” she said. She clipped free of her seatbelt and got out. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Lewis,” he said. He held up the piece of paper. “Let me tell you about this in a minute.”
“It’s good to meet you, Lewis,” Susie said. “I’ll go in here and get you some cigarettes.” She walked ahead of him, heard his footsteps behind her. She looked to see if anyone else was standing close by, rubbed the back of her neck with her palm. It’s all right, Susie. He’s a person just like you. He just needs some smokes. She went up to the red counter and asked a woman in a red vest if she could have a hard pack of Newport 100s. She hated buying cigarettes, always felt judged, like the cashier looked at her thinking she was going to get cancer. “They’re not for me,” she whispered, practicing in the case the woman turned around and said, “Sweetie, you are too cute to be smoking.”
She looked around. Lewis opened one of the glass doors where the beer was. He curled his fingers into the rings of a six-pack of Coors Light and came up the aisle, the door thudding closed behind him. He put the beer on the counter and walked up to a spinning hat rack, picked up the bill of a hat and looked under it. Dennis came out of the bathroom, wearing a new black t-shirt with a howling wolf and a dream catcher on the front.
“You getting the beer, too?” the cashier said. She flicked her eyes over at Lewis, tightened her lips.
“Yes, ma’am,” Susie said.
“Just need to see your I.D.” the clerk said.
“Oh, yes ma’am,” Susie said. She dug into her front pocket and took out her I.D., slid it across the counter.
The woman studied the license and nodded, punched a few keys on the register. “Thirteen-twenty,” she said.
Susie gave the woman her debit card and Dennis came up behind her, put his head on her shoulder. “What’s all this?” he said. He tapped the top of a beer can with his finger.
“This is for Lewis,” she said, putting in her pin number.
Susie tilted her head in the direction of the hat rack.
Dennis pulled at his black hair and went to the rack. He stuck out his hand. “You’re Lewis?”
“Lewis, yeah,” he said, giving Dennis’s hand a shake and moving to the other side of the rack.
“Anything else we can do for you, Lewis?” Dennis said. “You hungry or anything?’
The cashier bagged the beer and cigarettes and pushed them to Susie. She leaned in close. “Tell him to share,” she said, winking.
“Thanks,” Susie said. “I will.” Dennis was on his way out the door, Lewis in front of him. She went out and eased in beside Dennis, all of them standing beside the case of Blue Rhino propane tanks. Lewis introduced his friend, Robert, who wore blue jeans and frayed worn-out leather dress shoes, a brown and white striped polo shirt and glasses. His hair glistened wet.
“You see this here?” Lewis showed the paper to Dennis. “This is from the police station. It’s a report. My buddy and I here got into a fight last night that we did not start, and everything I had was stolen from me. I’ve got no wallet, nothing. We’re stranded here. I asked a man coming out a church for help and he gave me a dollar. It was insulting.”
Dennis nodded. “I got you, man.” He stuck his hand into his back pocket and brought a couple of twenties up. “Will this help you get up the road at all?”
“Man, I really wish you’d just take us over to a motel by the Civil War museum. Just come with us, get us in. So you know I’m not buying drugs with your money.”
Susie waited for Dennis to offer the twenties again and tell them that he was sorry he couldn’t do it.
“Yeah, I understand,” Dennis said. “I can take you over there, but I can only pay for a night.”
“That’s fine,” Lewis said. “We just need to get cleaned up and get to a phone we can use.”
“You guys don’t mind sitting in the cargo space, do you?” Dennis said. “There’s not a lot of room.”
“We’ll squeeze in,” Robert said. “We’ll be fine.”
They piled into the Bronco and Dennis started the engine. He cut the beams on and lit up the woods in front of them. Susie stared at the narrow shadows of the thin trees, the thorns that climbed their trunks. The road was dark and the nearest streetlamp seemed far off. The tires scraped against the broken pavement and they were on the road.
“So,” Susie said. “Where you guys from?”
“We’re from the coast,” Lewis said. “I was born around these parts, though. You know that drive-in not far from here? The Wheel? The one they closed?”
“Yeah,” Susie said. “Eric used to take me there.” Eric. She wished he were there, that she were in the car next to him instead of these three. But she didn’t want to feel that way, not about Dennis. She was just tired, needed to sleep.
“I used to run a projector up in that place,” Lewis said. A vehicle’s headlights passed across the inside of the Bronco. Lewis’s cheekbones made shadows down his gaunt face. “I bet I watched every Western that came through there.”
“Back when Westerns were good,” Robert said.
“That’s right,” Lewis said. “I saw so many I don’t remember their names.”
“That’s something,” Susie said. “Did you get free candy?” Her voice sounded far away, not like herself, a tone she recognized whenever she wanted to keep a conversation going, when she couldn’t handle quiet. Lights from houses far back in the woods shone through the trees. Robert had to be drunk. His voice sent the smoky smell of whiskey to the front seat.
“You know anybody might be able to get me a pair of pants?” Lewis said.
“There’s a Walmart out this way,” Dennis said. “I’ve got to drop this girl here off, but after that we can go out there.”
She reached over and pinched his thigh, glaring at him. He glanced at her, looked back at the road and shook his head. “Shh,” he said. He didn’t listen to her about these sorts of things. He never had. He drove with people he didn’t know all the time, and when Susie complained he said, “People have done the same for me. I never hurt anyone.”
“We appreciate it,” Robert said. “You guys are saints. I don’t know what we would have done if you two hadn’t shown up.”
“You’re welcome,” Dennis said. “I may be in your town sometime and need some help.”
“We’ll get your address when you drop us off, send what we owe back to you,” Lewis said.
“I’m not sure what my address will be coming up soon. Just consider this one on me.”
Susie put her head back on the seat while they spoke, watching the roadside pull by in her window. “Pull the fucking car over,” she said.
Dennis watched the road through the windshield, rumpled his eyebrows and shook his head.
Susie sat up. “I said pull the damn car over.”
Dennis pressed down on the gas pedal.
Susie cracked her door and let in the road sounds, the ground blurring by behind her. “Now or I’m going to fucking jump,” she said.
Susie kicked the door open as far as it would go and the wind split and roared against the door. She slung her seatbelt to the side.
“Okay, goddammit,” Dennis said. He eased down on the brake pedal—the gears growling as they had every time they’d slowed or made a stop in the truck. She felt complete for a second, but it left her, and she got out and stood at the passenger door as Dennis came around to her side.
“Are you out of your mind?” she said.
“These guys are creeps. They’ve gone from wanting cigarettes to a hotel room. Are you blind?”
“Calm down,” Dennis said.
“No, you open your eyes,” she said. “You can feed and take care of whoever you want, but this is not what I signed up for. You can’t go around picking up every person we see all the way to Montana. That’s Russian Roulette.”
“Can we just get back in the truck?”
Susie rolled her eyes and got back in the car, slammed her door shut.
“At least we know how you feel now,” Lewis said. “We didn’t mean to intrude, honey.”
His fingers passed through Susie’s hair and she jerked forward and faced him.
“Hey, cut it out,” Robert said, raising a hand to Lewis.
“Shut the fuck up,” Lewis said. “It’s your drunk ass got us into this mess.”
“Enough,” Dennis said, putting the gear in drive. “Let’s get you guys to a room, take it easy.” He pulled back out onto the road.
When they reached the house, Susie got out before Dennis came to a complete stop.
Dennis rolled down the window. “Hey,” he said.
Susie looked over her shoulder.
“I’ll be by tomorrow morning,” he said. “Or did you want to sleep in?”
“Whatever happens,” she said. She went up the walk to the front door. Dennis pointed the truck back into the street and drove on. She unlocked the door and went in, the hallway dark against the TV and the lamp on in the living room.
Eric was sitting back in the recliner, and looked over at Susie when she came in. “Hey, girl,” he said. He kept the TV on the Turner Classic Movies channel, and stayed glued whenever there was a movie with Cary Grant or Katharine Hepburn. When anyone got the Hepburns confused he loved to say, “How do you mix that up? One can act, the other can’t.” His tan Justin boots stood next to the chair, and he wore a plaid shirt and blue jeans. His brown hair was shiny and combed and the skin above his beard and on his neck was clean like he’d just shaved.
She sat on the arm of the couch next to him. “Hey,” she said. “Mom around?”
“She’s out. Cats are out of cans.”
Eric, sitting there in front of the TV, seemed warm and safe, predictable in a good way. “The movie any good tonight?” she said.
He frowned and shrugged. “I haven’t been paying any attention. I don’t recognize that actor though,” he said, pointing at the screen with the remote. “I bet he thought this would be his big break.” He laughed, pressed the power button and turned the picture off. He leaned into the left side of the chair. “You headed out tomorrow?”
Susie slid down into the couch, lay facing the ceiling. “That was the plan. If everything comes through.”
“As in if he gets rid of all that bud?”
Susie laughed, looked at Eric. “Yeah, pushes the product.”
He cupped his chin in his hand, a long crease forming below his right eye. He looked tired. “I don’t mind you going to Montana. You know I wanted you there. I wanted to be there. Your mother wanted to go. Shit just hit the fan like it does sometimes. I still think you’re too smart for this. Which reminds me.” He got up from the chair and went into the kitchen, came back with an envelope and handed it to Susie. “That came in the mail today.”
The return address was to Clyde Wellington, Ph.D., a professor of entomology she’d been in contact with a few months ago, about doing a joint study on the banana cockroach. She lay the envelope on the coffee table. “Dennis is a good guy, Pop,” she said. “We’ll be fine. He takes care of me.”
“Since when is this about you being taken care of? Because if that’s the case you have every reason to keep your ass right here.”
She nodded. “I get that,” she said. “He’s just different. He’s alive and good to people, not shy like I am.”
“I don’t know. He looks a little wiry to me, Suze. He’d have gotten his ass stomped by me and my buddies when I was young, just for the way he looks.”
“Look, can we just go to Sonic?” she said. “This might be easier with a cranberry limeade.”
He laughed and leaned up from the chair, rested his elbows on his knees. “We can do that,” he said. He reached over and grabbed his boots, slid them on.
They made their way to the kitchen, and Eric took his keys off the hook, put his finger through the key ring and swung them. The keys clinked into his palm. “Slushees away,” he said.
Susie laughed. “You’re goofy as hell,” she said. “But I think it’s why I’m glad you’re here, and not the other guy.”
Eric opened the door to the garage, where Susie’s mother, Maggie, was locking her car, a grocery bag in her hand. “Your bio dad?” Eric said.
Maggie was tall pretty blonde with a sharp nose and glasses, still in her khaki pants and black dress shirt from work. “How’d we get on the subject of him?” she said.
“I was just telling Eric how much I liked him,” Susie said.
“Your birth father?” Maggie said.
“No,” Susie said. “Eric.”
“Oh,” Maggie said. “Where you guys going?”
“Sonic,” Eric said, opening the door to his Honda. “You want to come?”
All three of them got in the car, Susie sitting in the back seat. Her parents were blue in the warm glow of the dash, and she was thankful they were there, but she didn’t want to be. She’d felt safe with Dennis at one time, and wondered if that had been lost.
Eric turned the air on low, turned the volume up on the radio so that the music was just audible. “You sleep with that boy, yet?” he said.
Susie sat up between the two of them. “What kind of damn business is it of yours?”
Maggie took off her glasses, cleaned them with her shirt. “I have to say, these are both good questions.”
“Well, he’s dealing dope for her,” Eric said.
“For the record he’s been a gentleman. We have not had sex,” Susie said. For the first time Susie thought about being with Dennis in Montana, if all those miles away would make things different, make her unable to push him off, since she’d be so far from home. He could disappear, and he’d never dealt with any consequences.
“Not yet,” Eric said.
“No,” Susie said. “I guess not yet. Or maybe never, look I don’t know.”
Maggie turned around to Susie, her face shadowed in the dark car. “It’s all right. Even if you mess up,” she said. “Sometimes the best things come from painful places.” She reached back and rubbed her daughter’s leg, let her hand sit there a minute. A chill moved up Susie’s back.
Up ahead, the Sonic was lit up and cars and trucks were slanted into parking spots.
Eric parked and rolled down the window. “You know what you want?”
“Cranberry limeade,” Susie said. “With extra ice.”
Eric pressed the button and gave the teller his order and when his total came on the screen he swiped his card. “Where to after this?” he said.
“You don’t want to go back home?”
“Not if it’s your last night in town.”
“You know that lake over by Youngton Road?” Susie said. “We could ride out there.”
“The one with the public fishing pier, I know it,” Eric said.
“We used to ride out that way on Sunday afternoons,” Maggie said. “When you could actually see the cars coming around those narrow roads.”
“Come on,” Susie said. “It’s been a while.” It was possible Dennis would be out that way. If she didn’t see him there, she could rest knowing he was fine and had finished the deal, gotten rid of Lewis and Robert.
Eric rummaged through the change in his drink holder. “We can if you want,” he said. “Sure.”
A cute girl in her Sonic uniform came up to their window, three Styrofoam cups on the red tray she carried. She handed them over and Eric tipped her and passed out the drinks. Susie took the top off her drink and tilted the crushed ice into her mouth. It was sweet, just sour enough with lime, and crunched so cold against her teeth it hurt.
Eric took a pull of his milkshake. “You always did like that ice,” he said. “When you were teething your mama kept Sonic ice on your gums.”
“Let’s go to Youngton,” Susie said.
The roads tapered as they neared the water, the turns getting sharper and most of the light coming from the car. They passed a wide pasture with hay bales and a house in the distance, the moon glinting off its roof. Moss hung from the trees, long and scraggly, and when they rounded a corner a hooded scarecrow with legs made of croaker sack hung in a patch of corn, a pole sticking up behind its head.
“Jesus,” Susie said.
“I told you you didn’t want to come out here,” Eric said.
“Just get to the lake,” Maggie said. “It’ll be nice out there.”
“I’m going as fast as I can,” Eric said. “I don’t want to come over one of these hills and get smashed by an oncoming car.”
They passed another house with a tree in the yard that had shards of colored glass dangling by strings from the branches, catching light as they swayed. They drove on and a few miles away behind the tree line they could see the light from the businesses on the other side of town, where the Walmart that Dennis had stopped at would be. Further up the road their headlights passed over two figures, one waving his hands. Lewis and Robert.
“Looks like these two broke down,” Eric said.
Susie grabbed Eric’s arm. “Don’t stop,” she said. But they had to stop, what if they’d done something to Dennis? “No—pull over.”
Eric eased down on the brake.
“Sugar, what is it?” Maggie said.
“It’s just—I know these guys.” Her throat went dry. She felt her heart hammering her chest. “They may have done something to Dennis.”
Eric rolled down the window and Lewis approached. “Thank you, sir,” Lewis said. “We are broke down about five miles out—”
“Save it,” Eric said. He produced a Smith and Wesson from the floorboard and aimed. “Where’s the kid?”
Lewis backed up. “Whoa, partner,” he said. “I—.” Robert clambered up a ditch into the trees, slid on the dead leaves and reached out for a tree branch, missed and fell. He started to crawl.
“Answer me,” Eric said. He stuck his arm further out the window.
“He’s a ways ahead,” Lewis said, pointing. “He’s all right. Look we—you gone let him go?” He motioned at Robert.
Eric kept his eyes on Lewis, kept the gun steady. “We’ll get him later,” he said. “Right now we’re going to take care of you. Maggie, call the police and tell them where I am. You two drive until you see the boy.”
Maggie searched her purse and took out her cell phone and dialed.
“Go on and drive, Susie.” Eric closed the door behind him.
Susie gave the car some gas and drove ahead. After about three miles, the back end of a truck appeared in the headlights, crooked in the ditch to the right of the road. The paint was chipped and red and the vehicle belonged to Dennis. As they neared she could see the back of his pale arm jutting out from the front of the bumper, his thumb in the air. He was shirtless.
“That’s your boy isn’t it?” Maggie said.
Susie weaved to the right off the road, punched the emergency lights and they both got out. The air was damp and cool and Susie felt like someone else was talking when she spoke. “Dennis?” she said.
He opened the eye not covered by his left hand. “Baby,” he said. “You made it.” Smeared blood streaked the left side of his face, and he held his black t-shirt over his left eye.
Susie took his wrist and peeled the shirt away from his face. Blood pooled in a cut above his eyebrow and arced into his eye. Like a red-eye cicada. She guided the shirt back to his face.
“That’s going to need to stitches,” Maggie said. “Come on and get in the car.”
Dennis stood up and Susie held onto his arm and led him to the car, closed him in. She got in beside him. Maggie got in the driver’s side and called the ER. The emergency lights clicked in the dashboard.
“They took all the money,” Dennis said. “All the weed.”
Susie knew Dennis would cut out as soon as the hospital let him go. He had her number and he knew where she lived, but he wouldn’t come back. He’d leave to avoid Russell. If she ever made it to Montana, it wouldn’t be with him. She closed her eyes and leaned into her door. She thought of the red-eye cicada, of the amber husks they left behind, how pretty they were when they took to the air.