by Nils Gilbertson
The trucker dropped him off at the edge of the property, where pavement turned to dirt and the roads lost their names. He thanked the trucker and started down the path through the darkness. He didn’t mind walking. It was early and quiet—quieter than he could remember it ever being. Like a different planet, his earthbound troubles temporarily muted. His mind blessed with a flicker of unfamiliar peace.
By the time he reached the barn, night had turned to early morn and sun shone through bare trees, their branches like petrified veins against the cornflower sky. The barn was still dark, so he waited until the sun was high enough to light the structure through the slits in the dilapidated panels. When it did, he located the chest peeking from the shadows and fished a key from the pocket of his jeans. He winced as he knelt beside the chest, fitted the key to the rusted lock, and turned it until the box creaked open. The flask inside was near full and he took a pull of the warm, metallic liquor. He shuddered as it burned his throat and brought bumps to his arms, reacquainting with a long-forgotten lust. He took one more drink, screwed the top shut, and fished out a Bic and dust-covered pack of Marlboros. He smoked a stale cigaret as he removed the top compartment of the chest and examined the Remington 870 beneath. Next to the shotgun were boxes of shells ranging from birdshot to one-ounce slugs, and a loaded snub-nosed revolver.
As the rising sun cast bars of light through the abandoned barn, he placed the items back in the chest, except for the lighter and cigarets, which he pocketed. He smoked and pondered the world outside of the barn—freedom and all its implications. He considered the layers of freedom and how many he’d peeled back and how many more he’d need to until he saw what all the fuss was about. He smoked until he felt his pulse in his fingers—until the inside of the decrepit barn felt akin to Jonah’s three days and nights inside the belly of the whale. He stayed until he was discarded by conscience—vomited back into the unfamiliar world he’d once called home. The sun was high now, and he kept on down the nameless dirt road.
* * *
She was frying eggs when his knock rattled the front door of the old farmhouse. Her stare told the boy and girl at the kitchen table to stay where they were as she went to open it. When she saw him—a near stranger whom she recognized only by his jeans, T-shirt, and ball cap—scruff, as though he hadn’t had a proper shave since the judge laid down his sentence—she couldn’t help but ponder how much easier he could have made things if he’d wanted. If he hadn’t been who he was. She laughed herself awake from the illusion that any man she’d ever loved could make things easier. Examining him, she saw that his eye was bruised, fading from dark purple to yellow, but still looked tender to the touch.
“They let you out already?”
“Uh-huh. Good to see you, Mama.”
She looked back to the boy and girl in the kitchen, who hadn’t moved from their chairs.
“Suppose you plan to stay here?”
He shrugged. “Ain’t have much plans. For a few days is all.”
She brushed away a hair with a trembling hand. “How ’bout we start with breakfast.”
She returned to the stove in the kitchen, where eggs sizzled in pork fat. After she’d dished up breakfast, sacrificing her own, she turned to see the man she’d once called “son” staring at the others from the doorway.
She placed her hand on the narrow shoulder of the young girl and kicked the chair where the boy sat. “Bobby, Jessa, your older brother’s here to visit. You remember him?” She felt desperation in her voice. The man in the doorway and the boy at the table stared as though searching for themselves in each other. No one spoke until the man walked to the sizzling stove and saved the remaining eggs from burning. He sat down and ate as she tried to summon the right words, as though there were words specially crafted for such a moment.
As she circled the table, she caught the man eying the young girl.
“Hi there, little Jessa,” he said. “I’m your older brother. Half-brother, I guess.” He gave her his best smile.
The young girl turned away.
“She still ain’t talking?”
No one spoke.
“Mama?” the boy asked.
“Can I have some apple juice?”
The man chuckled and wiped yolk from his whiskers. “How old’re you now, Bobby? Twelve?”
“Language,” the woman snapped, on instinct. She felt foolish as she poured the juice for Bobby and placed it on the table.
“Sorry,” the man said. He turned back to Bobby as the boy slurped his juice. “You’re a good boy for watching after Mama the last few years.” He paused. “You know, I loved apple juice too when I was a boy. ’Bout the only thing I drank. Ain’t that right, Mama?”
She nodded and almost smiled. “Morning, noon, and night.”
“I remember,” the man said, meeting the boy’s eyes, “one day, I got sick of it. Like that.” He snapped and the little girl jumped in her seat. “Couldn’t stand it. Hated it ever since. Too much will turn a sweet thing sour, I guess. Too much sweet and you’ll swear off sweet altogether.”
The boy kept drinking. “I love it,” he said.
The man grinned. “Bet you do.”
“I got to get the kids to the bus stop for school,” the woman interrupted.
“Sure,” the man said, finishing the last of his eggs before rising and starting towards the sink. “I’ll clean up.”
“You don’t have to—” She felt his cold, firm grip on her arm.
“I’ll clean up.”
* * *
He was smoking on the porch, polluting the clear-skyed morning with each exhale when he saw her rust-brown Ford Ranger rumbling down the road, clouds of dirt in her wake. He thought of the chaplain’s words. The yearning to alter the past is the siren song of the Devil. We must not dwell on what we can never change. All there is to do is confess, repent, and become better men. It wasn’t that he disagreed. Hell, those words felt mighty righteous when delivered in the chaplain’s soothing voice. But out here—out being in the world—the message was lost. Out here, there was no escaping the hollow feeling bred by the inescapable truth that some wrongs could never be righted. Some consequences would linger like poisonous smoke. Even when unseen, still there. Still causing hurt.
She slammed the truck door and he saw in her the mother he’d known, not the stranger in the kitchen. Hopping on one leg, she wrestled her left shoe from her foot and hurled it at him.
“The hell you think you’re doing showing up here unannounced? Can’t even make a phone call?”
“Sorry, Mama. Wanted to get away from there fast as I could, is all.”
“And come here to screw up everything I’ve worked hard to make a little better for Bobby and Jessa?”
“It’s nothing like that.” He stomped out the cigaret and eased himself up from the step. “I don’t mean no trouble.”
He watched the tears well in her eyes and, for the first time he could remember, she didn’t fight them. She let them be as they were—pooling into plump drops before running down her cheeks.
“You know what the truth is?” she said. “The truth is, I’m doing the best I can, and the best I can is a hell of a lot easier without you here—or your daddy or Bobby and Jessa’s daddy.”
The man chewed a scab of dead skin from his lip and spat it towards her bare foot. “You picked our daddies, Mama. Don’t put that on me. And don’t put it on Bobby and Jessa for the second fella you sunk your claws in.”
She wiped her cheek. “I failed you, and I’m sorry. Same as you failed me.” She sidestepped him to retrieve her shoe but, before she could, he picked it up and handed it to her. She snatched it and said, “You can stay for a few days while you figure out what you’re doing next. But I don’t want no trouble following you here.”
“I’ll be gone before sunrise.”
* * *
Supper that night was silent except for the clink of silverware and, despite his mother’s scolding, Bobby slurping his juice. After dinner, the children did their chores and she fetched blankets to make up the living- room couch. The man sat without saying or doing much of anything. She watched as he glanced at the doors and windows, as though waiting for someone to appear. But with night came a familiar weariness that outweighed her lingering suspicions, and after putting Jessa to bed, she went to sleep.
The man couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t even lie down. Sitting on the couch until the small hours, he watched the window, doing his best to reconcile the blessings and curses of freedom. Somehow the curses inside the cell seemed so small, so contained, compared to the cosmic darkness of the unobstructed night sky. He thought of the evil on the inside and knew, out here, there was only more of it, unrestrained by stone walls and cold metal bars. The chaplain’s words rang hollow as he considered that, regardless of repentance, there were debts that existed outside those walls that were not repaid by his sentence. He knew, as his mother sensed, they would come.
He went to the porch and smoked the stale cigarets. As the contents of the pack dwindled, he heard the screen door creak open behind him. He didn’t turn. When he heard nothing but breathing and the groan of the old porch he said, “Come and sit, Bobby.”
The boy took the seat next to him. It was quiet until he asked, “Why’d they put you in jail?”
“Wasn’t in jail. Was in prison.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Never mind that.”
“What’d you do?”
The lighter sparked but wouldn’t catch a flame and the man cursed it. “Stole some money.”
Bobby nodded. The man went on trying to get the lighter started.
“Why’d you steal it?”
The man put the lighter and smokes away. “I wanted something badly. Needed it.”
“Don’t worry ’bout what it was.”
The boy shrugged, got up, and went inside. The man exhaled, wishing it was cold enough to mimic smoke. The boy returned a few minutes later with a cup in hand.
“What you got there?”
The man chuckled. “Oughta put some whiskey in that.”
“I never had whiskey, only beer.”
“Yeah. Mama’s a real deep sleeper so sometimes on weekends I’ll sneak out on my bike and meet some of my friends. My buddy Ned always swipes some beers from his old man.”
“As good as that apple juice of yours?”
The boy took a small sip, as though ashamed. “It’s different. I like how the juice tastes but I like how beer makes you feel sort of funny, like in a good way.” He took another sip. “Want some?”
“Nah, ain’t you remember what I said earlier? Haven’t drank it since I was your age.”
The boy put the cup down between them. They watched the night for a while, until the boy asked, “You glad to be out of jail—prison?”
The man kept on staring at the night. “It’s funny how we can get used to things, Bobby. After a stint in Hell, even Heaven looks sort of suspect.”
“It’s still Heaven, though.”
The man chuckled. “Bad example. There ain’t no Heaven here. Not with what I—” He stopped and turned to examine the boy. “I hate to put this on you, Bobby, but I need your help. I need your help in a big way.”
“Sure. I’ll help best I can.”
“You say Mama still sleeps like a log?”
“You know where she keeps the car keys?”
Copyright © 2024 Apple Juice by Nils Gilbertson