What Jeannie Needs
The day Jeannie Jameson met Thomas McGrady threatened storms all afternoon. Jeannie walked home from her job at the Sister Sally snack cake factory beneath a darkly clouded, rumbling sky, holding her umbrella at the ready. Despite the threat of rain, she took the longer path that wound along the river instead of walking through town. The town council had constructed the Blue River Trail in the hopes that citizens would pursue outdoor activities like hiking and biking locally instead of driving out to the big state parks. A few joggers and dog walkers used it, but the line of abandoned Nikolai Vodka bottles, Keystone Ice cans, and hypodermic needles pointed to the trail’s main users.
Jeannie’s imagination was good enough that she could wipe the trash from her mind and pretend that the thin line of trees and weeds separating the trail from industrial complexes was a full forest, that the river’s muddy, green water was clear and blue, and that she was Snow White strolling through the woods. The pigeons, starlings, and sparrows picking at the trash became her helpful companions. Upon their arrival at the woodland shed in which they dwelled, the birds would help Jeannie wash the dishes from the day before, make dinner, and tidy the rest of the house before her father—maybe—came home. The sheriff was always on call, and kept his own hours.
Thunder cracked in the distance. Jeannie pulled the Velcro strap off her umbrella, then flexed her fingers, working out the ache from her day at the factory. She’d been working there for three months now, ever since she graduated high school. She thought her body would adjust, but every day she came home with aches in her feet, legs, and back from standing still in front of the production line that brought baked vanilla cupcakes stuffed with vanilla icing down the conveyor belt for her inspection. She had to work quickly, checking each cupcake to make sure it met company standards. Good cupcakes went back on the belt, bad ones got dumped into a large bin behind her. The repetitive motion of lifting and turning the cupcakes left a constant, low-level cramp in both hands.
The birds had fallen silent, and the wind slammed tree branches into each other. Jeannie had paused to watch the trees flail helplessly when a boy in muddy jeans startled her into dropping her umbrella.
“Hi,” the boy said. He was sitting on a fallen log by the river bank. He took a bite out of a red apple. His brown skin stood out against his white t-shirt, smudged with dirt. Jeannie could hear the crunch of the apple between his teeth. He held another apple out to her, eyebrows raised in a question.
Jeannie bent to retrieve her umbrella. “Excuse me.”
The boy laughed. He stood and crossed the distance between them. “I’m Thomas McGrady. You’re Jeannie Jameson.”
He held out his hand, and Jeannie took it without thinking. It felt rough and firm. The scent of apples was on his breath.
“How’d you know my name?” Jeannie took a step back, but the wind pushed against her forward, as if it wanted her to stay close to Thomas McGrady.
“Jeannie, you’re the sheriff’s daughter. Everyone knows who you are. He’s said himself on public television that he’ll shoot any boy or man who comes near you without his permission.” Thomas took another bite of his apple. “And I don’t think he’s kidding.”
Jeannie narrowed her eyes and tightened her grip on her umbrella. The trees thrashed. “No,” she said, “I imagine my father isn’t kidding. I don’t think he’d know a joke if it bit him in the butt.” She glanced at the roiling sky, then back at Thomas. “You came near me. Think you’re going to get shot?”
Thomas grinned, and took a step closer to Jeannie. “If there’s any shooting, I’ll be the one doing it.”
Something thrilled deep within Jeannie. This boy was flirting with her, and it was entirely different from when the factory foreman flatly complimented her appearance or tried to get her to laugh at a stupid joke. Thomas McGrady was openly defying her father. The few times she dared to disobey her father he beat her so badly she’d had to stay home from school for a week while her bruises faded and her cuts healed. She carried her fear of him locked in a chest of resentment and fury. Meeting someone who wasn’t afraid of the sheriff made her feel a little braver, a little more dangerous. Jeannie grinned back at Thomas, and before she could process what was happening, he was kissing her, his lips warm against her own, the taste of a fresh, crisp apple traveling across her tongue.
He broke away slowly. “Do you wanna get out of here?”
Jeannie drew a half circle in the gravel, trying to hold back feelings and thoughts that were coming at her too quickly to understand. “What do you mean?”
“Things are a little exposed here.” Thomas grinned.
She stared at him. “I think I know what you’re asking me, but I don’t even know you.”
“Okay,” Thomas said. “What if I meet you here tomorrow after your shift? I’ll walk you home. We can talk.”
“I don’t even know you,” Jeannie whispered.
Thomas kissed her again. It was a slow, measured kiss. He took his time, lingered. When he stepped back, he said, “You do now. Tomorrow. It’s a date, right?” then turned and walked down the path, waving as he left.
Jeannie stood there a moment longer before making her own way home, waiting for the rain that never came.
* * *
Jeannie spent that night sitting on the couch, staring at her long-dead mother’s Bible, focused on Thomas’s final words and kiss before he’d left her standing alone in that impotent storm.
The Jamesons lived on the outskirts of a mobile home park on the outskirts of town. It still bore Anita Jameson’s soft touches: pastel curtains that matched the beige carpets and accented the ivory walls hung with family portraits and landscapes painted by students at the local community college. Neither Jeannie nor her father had been to church since Anita Jameson’s funeral twelve years ago, but Anita’s Bible, her name stamped in gold leaf on the cover, still sat on the end table by the couch, unopened and untouched.
Jeannie thought she should have been thinking more about the first kiss, because it was her first-ever kiss, and it had come out of nowhere, from a boy she didn’t know. But that one, she thought, was only an introduction. The whole meeting made her want to curl up inside herself, but expand outwards at the same time. She could still feel the echoes of it, tingling all through her mouth, loosening the lid on that box of fears deep within.
But that didn’t mean she knew him, did it? She didn’t know where he lived, or what he did for a living, or even how old he was. Did any of it matter? Was that all she was, Jeannie Jameson the Sister Sally Snack Cake Factory Worker? Of course not. She spent her day there, that’s all. Her mind kept going back to the way his lips felt on her lips, the way he tasted of apples. Something so familiar, the tartness of apples, she’d never thought about it before. She went into the kitchen to see if the refrigerator was hiding any apples.
* * *
After another hand- and back-numbing day at the factory spent trying to ignore the foreman’s lingering glances, Jeannie found Thomas waiting in the same place. He held out an apple out to her, and this time she took it. She thought of Snow White taking the poisoned apple from the evil queen, but decided to be bold. Its meat was yellow-white under shiny red skin, and it tasted like Thomas.
“Where do you get these?” she asked, her mouth still full. “It’s not anywhere close to apple time.”
Thomas laughed. “They’re good, aren’t they? My family grows them in our orchard. This kind, Heavenly Red, stores incredibly well all winter. We have a small orchard down the river a ways.”
Without explicitly agreeing to, they started walking in the direction of Jeannie’s house. Clouds still hung low in the sky, but the wind had died in the night, leaving behind felled branches and a mess of chip wrappers and Styrofoam cups scattered along the trail.
“What brings you up here?” Jeannie asked. She was aware of the distance between their bodies, but unsure if she wanted to close it, or if she wanted Thomas to close it, or if she wanted it to remain open.
Thomas looked at her and grinned. “You.”
Jeannie felt herself blush. The blush more than Thomas’s cheesy pickup line embarrassed her, deepening her blush. She retaliated by giving Thomas a light shove. “I’m serious!”
The grin stayed on his face. “We sell produce and preserves and things like that in town a few times a week.”
A small group of pigeons pecking at an ant-infested piece of bread clucked at their approach and fluttered away.
“Why have I never seen you before?” Jeannie asked.
Thomas cocked an eyebrow at her. “You’ve bought things from us, at the summer farmer’s market.”
Jeannie’s eyes went wide. “No way! I would have recognized you.”
“Sure. Seventh Day Orchard. You buy our peach berry jam all the time.”
Jeannie stopped all together. She put a hand on her mouth. “That’s your orchard?” She loved that peach berry jam, especially over cream cheese on bagels. But she didn’t remember Thomas from the little stand at the farmer’s market held on the fairgrounds at the edge of town. How could she forget the way that grin made her feel off-balance, like she might topple over if she stopped focusing on standing?
Thomas laughed again. “Yes. You buy from my mother. I always do the heavy lifting. We never met face to face before yesterday.”
A spark of irritation flared in Jeannie’s stomach, but then she was laughing too. “You…” She didn’t know what to say, so she made to chase him down. He sensed it and started running a second before she did. Jeannie ran track in high school, though, and her muscles remembered how to sprint. She reveled in the physical sensation of her muscles lengthening and contracting, especially when she caught Thomas a minute later. She grabbed his shirt and pulled, and their legs got tangled up together, and they both went down.
“What are you going to do with me now that you caught me?” Thomas asked, his breath heavy.
“I hadn’t thought that far ahead.” Jeannie took a secret delight in the fact that she didn’t sound winded.
Thomas wrapped a hand around the back of her neck and pulled her into a kiss. “I think this is always appropriate.”
The sound of heavy footsteps and hard breathing down the trail made Jeannie jump up. “Not when there are other people around, maybe.”
Two joggers in fluorescent yellow jackets huffed past.
The almost discovery sent her heart beating faster than the short sprint had. “I should walk the rest of the way home myself,” Jeannie said. “In case my father’s there.”
Thomas narrowed his eyes. “Okay. I’ll meet you at the same place tomorrow.” He pulled Jeannie in close. “I’ll meet you at the same place every day.”
Jeannie looked up at him. He only had a few inches on her, but it wasn’t his physical height that made her feel so much shorter. “All right. I’ll see you tomorrow.” She decided to be bold, for the second time that day, and reached up to kiss him, thinking that now she was the one who must taste like apples.
* * *
The sheriff had not come home for three days. Not since Jeannie met Thomas. Jeannie was glad when her father did not appear those several days, at least at first. Little by little, she grew nervous, wondering when he might be home. His long absence wasn’t entirely unusual. The bad weather had continued, culminating in a terrifying thunder storm the night before. The power had gone out for several hours. There were sure to be accidents, and the sheriff had only five deputies. Or, a big case could have broken. When something like that happened, he often worked around the clock for days.
Anita Jameson had kept a clean house, and Jeannie had learned early that dirt had no place past the welcome mat outside the front door. While Jeannie’s father had no tolerance for dirt in his household, he also had no tolerance for cleaning, so the work fell to Jeannie. Since she’d met Thomas, she hadn’t touched so much as a dish rag. She couldn’t bring herself to. The thought of it made her stomach writhe. Three days’ worth of dishes lay spread out on the counter. Dust collected on the picture frames and window ledges. If her father came home and saw this he would—
The grumbling roar of an approaching motorcycle shook Jeannie from her thoughts. She hoped it would pass by, but it grew louder and then the sound changed to an idle before it cut off with a choking pop. Jeannie counted her heartbeats until the door opened. She heard the thud of heavy work boots hitting the floor and then the soft padding of stocking feet on the carpet. Her father’s big frame appeared in the entryway.
“Jeannie,” he said.
Jeannie didn’t move.
“I won’t be here long. Big drug bust downtown. Thirty good-for-nothings rounded up. Fifty million dollars’ worth of heroin. You believe it?” He moved toward the kitchen. “What’s there to eat?”
Jeannie still didn’t move. She felt as though the fibers of the couch had grown into her skin. “Ravioli. In the fridge,” she said.
Two more strides and he’d be in the kitchen. She held her breath without meaning to.
“Girl.” The word came out soft, almost a question. “Get in here.”
Jeannie moved. She reached the kitchen before he finished speaking.
“Get my dinner, and tell me what you’ve been doing for the past three days while I’ve been working nonstop for your bread and butter.” He sat down at the table, and stared hard at Jeannie. She wondered if that was the same stare he used on criminals, or if he had some harder look she’d never seen. She doubted it.
Jeannie looked away from him. Her fingers trembled as she opened the refrigerator and pulled out the blue Tupperware container of ravioli. She tightened her grip on the container to steady her hand, and thought of Thomas’s lips on her lips, and the endless line of vanilla cupcakes coming toward her on the line, and her mother’s Bible on the table. Jeannie decided to tell a lie.
“I’ve been sick, Daddy.” She moved over to the microwave, keeping her gaze on the Tupperware. “It was real bad for a day or two, and I just got behind on the housework.”
“Did you miss any time at the factory?”
“No, I made it to work.” Jeannie punched in two minutes on the microwave and watched the container rotate behind the glass.
“Good.” Her father paused. The hum of the microwave filled the small kitchen. “You feeling better?”
Jeannie was about to say yes when another brilliant idea came to her. “I mean, I’m all right, I guess, but I had a long day and all and…”
The sheriff grunted. “I don’t need to be getting sick right now. You better get to bed, save your strength for work.”
Jeannie nodded, and left the kitchen without a word, her heart flapping at her successful treachery.
* * *
Jeannie’s light mood from deceiving her father continued throughout the next day, despite her cramping hands and aching feet, despite the foreman’s usual attempts to flirt with her. She had more patience for the poor man now that she had her meeting with Thomas to look forward to every day. She would humor him.
It was one of the town’s best known secrets that Joseph Belinsky was well connected politically and good friends with the sheriff. Because of that, and because he had begun his courtship attempts the day Jeannie was hired at the factory—the day after she graduated high school—, Jeannie suspected her father’s hand in the whole affair. She didn’t doubt his interest—the way he looked her up and down when he thought she wasn’t looking was real enough—but she wondered why her father had chosen a factory worker nearing thirty for his eighteen-year-old daughter. She supposed she was just another political favor her father was doling out to his friends, nothing more. The thought of it brought the taste of vomit to her mouth.
When Joseph made his rounds, he hung around Jeannie.
“You look good today,” Joseph said.
“Thanks.” Jeannie didn’t know what else to say. She didn’t want to encourage him, but she didn’t want to be openly hostile, either. She would have to pay for every mean thing she said.
“You know, I’ve been thinking,” he leaned against the wall behind Jeannie while she inspected cupcake after cupcake, “and factory work really doesn’t suit you. Look. If you did it this way—” He stepped up and held Jeannie’s wrist at a slightly different angle as she picked up a cupcake. Jeannie resisted the urge to wrench her hands away from his grip.
Joseph was not ugly or repulsive, but Jeannie didn’t like his strength. Everything about Joseph was strong. His facial features, especially his jaw and square nose, his barrel chest and muscular arms, his wide stance and large feet. Even his fingers were thick with sinew. His voice carried across half the factory without amplification. His physical strength carried over into his personality and character, which made him a good boss. He made sure things got done on time, though the workers occasionally accused him of being too harsh. Jeannie thought this was what made him get along with her father so well.
“See?” he said, letting go of her wrists a little too slowly. “You’d increase your productivity that way, but I bet you find this kind of thing boring. I have some connections, you know, I might be able to help you find something else…”
“It’s all right here.” She wanted to ask him what kind of work, exactly, he thought she should do, but she didn’t. “I’ll try to do it the way you showed me.”
Joseph’s face brightened a little. “I can show you again…?”
“I think I got it,” Jeannie said, a little sharply.
Joseph nodded. “You’re a fast learner. That’s what I like about you. Well, one thing I like about you.” He winked, and disappeared down the line.
Jeannie sighed when he was gone, and thought about how different his touch felt from Thomas’s. Neither man was gentle, but Thomas didn’t seem like he had any interest in overpowering. He was rough and wild, yes, but in a way Jeannie found exciting. Maybe Joseph was too ordered.
Jeannie ended her shift feeling irritated and off balance. The day had started cloudy, a continuation of the week’s storms, but the clouds had moved on, wiping the sky clean. The sun shone yellow-white against an intensely blue sky. Jeannie had survived another day at work, had fended off another one of Joseph’s advances. She set off down the trail, her mood rising.
When she saw Thomas waiting for her just off the trail, she felt like she imagined Snow White felt at the end of the movie, when she had her prince and true love, and her happy ending. She felt invincible then. Thomas took her hand without a word and led her to a boulder on the river bank. It was screened from the trail by a copse of yellowed pine trees.
Thomas leaned in to kiss Jeannie, and the look of earnestness on his face transformed into hunger. Jeannie watched him, fascinated. She felt like she was watching this happen to someone else, like she was detached from her body. The first kiss was hesitant, searching. His lips rested on hers, and he opened his eyes, a question forming in the dark spaces between his brown irises. He wanted permission to explore what no one had explored before, not even Jeannie herself. Her breath grew quick and shallow in her lungs.
Jeannie had imagined this moment over and over again, had wanted it, looked forward to it, and now felt herself shrinking away from it. She reminded herself that no one could see them. She reached back for the feeling of invincibility and found it, grounded herself in her body again. She closed her eyes and kissed Thomas back. Her body switched on like the production line at work.
Thomas pulled back for a moment, and Jeannie worried that he was going to stop kissing her, but instead he repositioned himself so that he could wrap one arm around her waist and leave his other hand free to rest at the nape of her neck. Jeannie liked the way his hand felt on her neck, so she moved her own to the same place on his. Thomas kissed her eagerly now, and Jeannie could feel her body speeding up. Thomas’s other hand was on her waist now, his tongue inside her mouth, and Jeannie wanted more. She gripped the back of his neck with more force, pulling him into her.
The sound of a twig snapping on the other side of the yellow pines made Jeannie freeze. She forgot about wanting and needing and production line bodies and could think only of time and her father and whether or not he would be at home, wondering where she was. Thomas kept trying to kiss her, then stopped, confused at her sudden distraction. Jeannie fumbled for her cell phone in her bag. The lock screen display showed the time as 6:37 p.m. She had three missed calls, and had three voice mails. All from her father.
“I have to go home.” She dropped her phone back in her purse. She would think of some lie to tell her father on the way. It had worked once.
Thomas pulled Jeannie back to him. She struggled against his grip, but he held her firmly. “Don’t panic. It’s okay.”
Jeannie stopped struggling. She looked into Thomas’s eyes. “My dad is going to find out about us if I don’t go home right now, and if I don’t come up with a really great story about why I’m so late.”
Thomas met her gaze. “So there’s an us?”
Jeannie was too flustered to respond.
He pulled her in for one more deep kiss.
When he let her go, she said, “I won’t be able to see you for a while.”
Thomas shook his head. “Not acceptable. Do you want to get out of this shithole?”
She studied his face, looking for any hint of a joke. She found none. “Yes.”
“Then meet me tonight, at the pier. Get whatever cash you have and only bring what you need. As little as possible. We won’t have much space. We can buy what we need when we find a place to settle down.”
Jeannie drew a deep breath. “Tonight.”
“Ten o’clock. At the pier.” Thomas squeezed Jeannie’s hands.
She nodded. “I’ll be there.”
Thomas kissed her one last time. Jeannie let her hands slide out from his, and jogged down the trail toward her father’s waiting ire.
* * *
It felt as though someone had draped a blanket of silence over the trailer when Jeannie entered. She tried to take her shoes off quietly, but her shaking hands fumbled them and she wound up tripping over herself and banging into the wall in addition to dropping a shoe onto the floor with a thump. She cursed under her breath, hoping that her father would believe the lie she’d invented on the walk home. Her lungs still burned with the effort of jogging—she had been a sprinter, not a distance runner—but she controlled her breathing lest he think anything was other than it should be.
The silence was so thick, so deafening, she didn’t hear him approach.
“Jeannie.” His anger showed on his red face. He gripped a can of beer in his right hand. She could smell it on his breath as he huffed his rage. “Where the hell you think you been all evening.”
The lie Jeannie had thought out seemed so implausible now, so silly, so impossible, she almost said nothing. But nothing would mean a beating sure as the sun would rise, and she hoped—always, she hoped—to avoid those, so she straightened her spine and opened her mouth to lift the blanket of silence.
“Sorry Daddy.” She clenched her hands together. “You— You know the foreman, down at the factory, Joe? Well, after my shift ended, he asked me if I might want to go out for coffee sometime, and we got to talking…” Jeannie paused. She kept her gaze leveled at the linoleum and imagined Thomas as she spoke of Joe. “Time just got away from us, I guess. I didn’t even look at my phone until I was practically home.” Jeannie glanced up far enough to see that her father’s grip on his Budweiser can had relaxed. She continued while she had his attention, before he could start in on her. “Do you think it would be okay, you know, to get coffee with Joe sometime? He’s a really nice guy. You know him, don’t you?”
Jeannie heard her father gulp his beer. “I do.”
“So can I? Get coffee with him sometime, I mean?” She squeezed her hands together.
“Just because I know a guy doesn’t mean I want him seeing my daughter. Especially when she’s being irresponsible and staying out late.” Another gulp. “Go to your room. I don’t want to see you come out until the morning.”
Jeannie risked looking up at her father’s face. “Daddy, I…”
He scowled and crushed the empty beer can between his hands. “If this boy’s got you acting crazy, I don’t want you seeing him! Now get your ass in that room before I beat it!”
Jeannie ducked her head and rushed past her father to her bedroom. He chucked the empty beer can after her and muttered something about emotional, irrational women. She pushed the door shut behind her and let out a long breath. That had not gone exactly as she’d planned, but it could have gone a lot worse. Perhaps this was best. If he assumed she’d be in her room all night, maybe she could sneak out the window to meet Thomas without him knowing, and then she’d never have to worry about getting beer cans thrown at her again. Yes. Jeannie’s disappointment turned to elation in her stomach, and traveled up her chest and then through the rest of her body until she prickled with excitement and anticipation all over. This could work. It could really work. She could get away from this disaster of a household and disaster of a father, and make a life for herself with someone who wasn’t awful.
Deciding what to bring was easy. She packed a few pairs of clothes, a photo of her mother and herself as a baby that she kept on her nightstand, all the money she had saved up ($467, cash), her high school diploma, and the three-piece set of diamond jewelry she’d inherited from her mother. Jeannie didn’t have any special attachment to the jewelry, but it was worth something, and they might need the money. She certainly couldn’t imagine herself wearing it. Her father had insisted she wear it to her high school graduation, the earrings, tennis bracelet, and matching pendant, and Jeannie had felt utterly ridiculous in her black graduation gown and glinting diamonds. She felt much more comfortable in her jeans and flannel shirts.
Everything fit into Jeannie’s old high school backpack. She wrapped the photo of herself and her mother in one of her shirts and packed it between her clothes. She hid the jewelry in a pencil case with the money and put it in a hidden pocket meant for a wallet. Jeannie would be keeping her wallet in her pocket, clipped to her jeans with a carabiner like she normally did. She set the backpack next to her bed. She would leave her phone, so she set it to factory reset and laid it on the nightstand. Her father paid for it every month, and he was the sheriff, after all. He could use it to track her. Besides, who would she call? She didn’t have any friends. Her father was too controlling, and people were too afraid of him.
Her bedroom looked like the rest of the house, and not like hers at all. The paintings on the walls were landscapes painted by art students from local schools, like the ones in the living room. The only exception was a piece Jeannie had done of her family in an art class in elementary school. It was typical child art, but her mother had it framed and hung it over Jeannie’s bed. Like the rest of the art, Jeannie was so used to seeing it there that she never noticed it. It was visual background noise. She took a close look at all the paintings, thinking that she should feel nostalgia or even fondness for them, but she felt nothing. She could hardly remember painting the one of the three of them together.
Jeannie paced. And paced. The more she watched the clock, the slower time seemed to move. Finally, at 8:28, she couldn’t stand it anymore. It would take her awhile to walk to the pier, anyway. She decided to move. She held her breath and listened to the house. The blanket of silence had descended once more. Her window slid open without a sound, but her screen was not removable. She took her Leatherman tool from its place on her belt and selected a small knife. She sliced along the edges of the screen as quietly as she could. It still made a zipping sound, but she doubted her father could hear it from beyond the closed bedroom door. She slipped her backpack through the hole in the screen, then put herself through, legs first. She pulled the window shut almost all the way behind her, and slipped into the night.
* * *
A heavy gibbous moon lit Jeannie’s walk to the pier. She hunched her shoulders and kept her hands shoved in her jeans pockets, and no one bothered her. No ships sat in the docks tonight, but Jeannie wasn’t surprised. Fewer and fewer companies shipped their goods out via the river, especially with more places moving their factories overseas. Tonight everything seemed quiet and still, except for the river pushing up against the docks with little sloshes. Jeannie picked a lamppost on the sidewalk at the edge of the docks and leaned up against it, thinking that Thomas would be able to find her easily in its dim yellow-orange glow.
Jeannie tried not to check her watch. Instead she paid attention to the night sounds, sounds she’d never noticed before. Somewhere in the distance an owl hooted in steady intervals, and crickets sang all around her. She could hear the hum of electricity feeding the street light, and the whooshing of cars passing on nearby streets.
The distant rumble of a motorcycle cut through the other noises, growing louder. Jeannie’s heart quickened. She listened closer, but it didn’t sound like her father’s Harley Davidson. It wasn’t loud enough, and the engine didn’t pop and grumble, it only growled. The sound drowned out the hooting owl and the electricity’s hum as the motorcyclist drove closer to the pier. Jeannie held her breath, anxiety clutching at her throat. Too many people knew who she was. She moved out of the light, hoping the night would hide her. The bike appeared around a corner, and then the sound of the engine changed to a lower pitch as the rider decelerated. Jeannie turned toward the river and looked at the ground to hide her face.
The sound of another motorcycle roared out of the night. Jeannie recognized it instantly as a Harley Davidson. Fear clenched her jaw. Somehow, her father knew. She stood up and turned around in time to hear a gunshot and see the first rider lose control, his bike tipping over and spinning away from him. The rider slid across the pavement and came to rest against the same street light under which Jeannie had been waiting, his clothing torn into ribbons trailing away from his body. Jeannie gasped. It was Thomas, lying still, too still, in the dim orange glow.
Then her father swung his Harley around next to her. He would have knocked her over had he not grabbed her arm. “Get on the bike, Jeannie,” he yelled over the engine’s roar.
“No!” Jeannie screamed back. She tried to run toward Thomas, but her father’s grip on her arm was too strong.
“That son of a bitch just tried to rape you, and wouldn’t listen to a direct order to stand down.” The sheriff waived his Glock service pistol in Thomas’s direction. “Now get on the bike.”
Jeannie looked back at Thomas, and understanding sloshed over her in little waves, like the river beating against the dock. She saw the blood now, seeping slowly around Thomas’s still form. She saw the hole in his chest, illuminated by the street light. She wanted to scream at her father, to beat him with her fists, but she saw, too, the look in his eyes and understood that he’d known all along about her lies. She knew no one would protest her father’s story, even though none of the evidence agreed with it. So she got on the bike, and they peeled away from the pier, the engine noise drowning out Jeannie’s raging thoughts.
* * *
Back at home, Jeannie thought maybe she should cry, but she felt too hollowed and raw, like some giant yellow backhoe had scooped out her guts.
“I told you no girl of mine’s going whoring with some nobody nigger from downriver,” her father yelled at her between furious gulps of beer.
She’d never been able to look at his face when he drank like this—and he only drank like this at home, to protect the town’s pristine image of him as the noble, self-sacrificing sheriff. But Jeannie had always known better. When he poured beer after beer down his throat, his skin turned red and his brow contracted, bits of spittle formed at one corner of his thin lips, his nose seemed to grow longer, his chin more pronounced. Instead of facing that monster image of him, she looked at the gold sheriff’s badge pinned to one of the gray-green uniforms he almost never removed.
He downed another can and kept yelling at her. “If you could just do what I say, I wouldn’t have had to kill the no-good bastard, Jeannie, and you know it’s true, so quit crying.”
Never mind that she wasn’t crying. Never mind that she had done what he said all her life, and it had never been enough. Never mind that he was a drunk and a liar and didn’t deserve to eat dirt.
Something inside Jeannie cracked. She felt heat rise up from her stomach. She looked at the red smudge that was her reflection in the polished five-sided badge emblazoned with the town logo and her father’s name—her name, too—and she thought that her face must be growing as red and angry as his.
That’s when she’d decided she’d had enough. That’s when she reached over and pulled his Glock 9mm from the holster.
* * *
Jeannie stood staring at her father’s body on the floor for a long time. It wasn’t that she was shocked at what she had done, or surprised at how much he had bled, or sickened by the gore. She wanted to remember what he looked like this way, helpless, limp, the color drained from his face. She held on to the gun, feeling its unfamiliar weight in her hands, pulling at arm muscles already tired from the repetitive motion of examining snack cakes on the factory line. She wanted to remember what her father looked like, and what the gun felt like in her hands, so that when he attacked her in her nightmares, in one of his powerful rages, she could call up this image to banish him.
When her arms shook from the effort of holding the gun upright, she finally lowered it, and pulled her gaze away from the thing that had been her father. She walked into the kitchen, and placed the gun on the counter. She pulled on the purple dish washing gloves she had used every day to clean her father’s plates, silverware, and glasses, then took her time removing all traces of her fingerprints with bleach, the way her father had described to her once.
The cops would figure out her father had been killed with his own gun eventually, but she saw no reason to give them a head start, so she took her father’s right hand and wrapped it around the pistol grip a few times. She placed his index finger on the trigger, and then put it back in the holster.
Jeannie took one long last look at the body, then said to it, “I found a way to beat you in the end, you bastard, even if it makes me a monster.”
As she was leaving the house, she passed her mother’s Bible on the coffee table by the couch. A spray of blood marred the cover, partially obscuring Anita’s name. Jeannie took a tissue from the box next to the Bible and wiped the blood away. She thought about taking the Bible with her, but it was heavy, and she didn’t have much space. The book belonged more to the house than to her, anyway. She rested her hand on the cover.
“Mom, I hope you can forgive me. I love you.”
Then she left for the pier, not bothering to lock the door behind her.
* * *
No one had found Thomas’s body by the time Jeannie returned to it. With some difficulty, she propped him upright against the street light and straightened what remained of his leather jacket. The movement caused fresh blood to seep from his mouth and chest wound. It was apple red. She wiped the dirt and blood off his face with her sleeve. She walked over to the motorcycle wreck and checked the bike for damage. Other than an ugly scrape along the left side, nothing important seemed to be broken. She looked through the saddlebags, needing to know what Thomas had planned to take into their new life together. A few changes of clothes, a Colt revolver, a map of the United States with a few towns out West circled in yellow highlighter, and an envelope full of money. Jeannie took the money, the map, and the gun, and left the clothes except for a large sweatshirt with the Seventh Day Orchard logo. When that was done, she went back to his body and sat down.
For a long time, Jeannie sat there holding Thomas’s hand. She listened to the waves sloshing against the dock, and the hum of the street light, and the crunch of tires on broken asphalt in the distance. His hand was cold, but she didn’t mind. She enjoyed the feeling of his calloused palm against hers. She closed her eyes and tried to memorize its contours with her fingers, so that she could recall them at any time.
When the threat of tears seemed too great, Jeannie placed both Thomas’s hands in his lap and kissed him one last time. She ran a hand down his cheek, then walked back to what had been his bike. She wondered which of her father’s deputies would find his body, how long it would take. She wondered if they would connect the two murders, if they’d make up some story about Thomas breaking in to the Jameson’s trailer and shooting the sheriff in cold blood, and them catching him down by the pier. She doubted any of the deputies would suspect her, at least at first. It wouldn’t cross their minds that the meek sheriff’s daughter could have gotten caught up with someone with dark skin. Or that anyone with dark skin could be innocent.
She wondered again if her mother would ever be able to forgive her for what she’d done. It didn’t matter a whole lot now, she guessed. She swung a leg over the saddle and started the engine.
Kelly Lynn Thomas reads, writes, and sometimes sews in Pittsburgh, PA. Her creative work has appeared in Sou’wester, Thin Air Magazine, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and others, and was a finalist in the December 2015 Glimmer Train Fiction Open. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University, is hopelessly obsessed with Star Wars, and can always be found with a large mug of tea. She also runs the very small Wild Age Press and blogs for The Rumpus. Read more at kellylynnthomas.com.