Saturday, November 7, 2015

Let it Be

(From A Taking of Ashes.  Setting: 1980s.)

WARNINGS: Language, alcohol abuse, and allusion to sexual abuse.

Rock 'n' Read

Travis passed Joy one of the root beer bottles and one of the packets of jerky, tearing into his own with his teeth.  She thanked him and punched his arm when she caught him tipping the hip flask over his soda.

“Stop that.”

“Right – sorry.”

“Why do you drink, Travis?”

His gray eyes glinted at her from inside the shadows of the car.  The dim glow of the gas station made them the only part of his face with any light at all.

“It hurts less,” he answered at last, hiding the flask in the back seat instead of inside his jacket.

“Than what?”

“Everything else.”

Joy sighed and tried to steer away from the topic, feeling them descending into something she didn’t actually want to talk about.  She snuck off with him to get away from pain, not to burrow headlong into it again.

It didn’t work.  Only a few idle comments later, she could feel his eyes watching her.

“If you can ask a loaded question, Joy Jernigan, so can I,” he started, and she turned on him with a glower.  But she didn’t fight, sinking back in the passenger seat and gnawing at a strip of jerky in unladylike fashion.  So he went on.  “Why do you have to sneak away from him?”

No answer.

“Your brother.”

“I know who you mean.”

“He knows me, you’d think he would trust me,” Travis added, taking a swig of non-alcoholic root beer and pouting at his window.  “Occasional drunkenness aside, I like to think we’re good friends.”

Joy felt a familiar anger crawling up in her, and her fingers tightened around the neck of her bottle.  “You are, but that doesn’t matter.  He doesn’t trust anyone, not even his friends.  You could even say he doesn’t have ‘friends’ – just people who haven’t turned on him yet.”

Travis stuffed his silence with jerky.  He chewed slowly for a long few moments before speaking again.  “Seems I asked the wrong question.”

“No, just the wrong end of it.”

“Why can’t Les trust anyone, then?”

Joy leaned her head back and sighed, studying the roof of the car.  She lifted some fingers and traced them along faded pen marks in the cloth above their heads.

“I told you before I’d only seen my brother cry one time, when he crashed off his first motorcycle,” she said.

“Back in California,” Travis echoed to her, nodding once, “and the shin bone was jutting out of his leg.”

Joy dropped her gaze to the condensation on the soda bottle.  Some tears of condensation had run off onto her hand.  “There was a time before that.  When I was little.”


November, 1974

Joy crawled over the tangled-up comforter of her older brother’s bed and stretched over it like a cat, rolling onto her back.  She hung her head off the edge of the mattress, watching him upside down as he unwrapped the Beatles record he’d gotten earlier in the day.  She always pestered him into taking her to the record store with him, and sometimes, when she picked out albums for him to buy based on their covers, he humored her and bought them.

“This wasn’t too bad of a pick, baby bird,” he teased her, straightening the half-broken needle of the Jernigan family record player.  He passed the record sleeve to her when she reached out her hands for it, grabbing at the air.  She knew who the Beatles were because Les had told her, and because she always recognized them by their hair.  Let it Be, the record sleeve read.

She giggled as the player started to hum music, scratchy here and there from the broken needle, and Les got up from the carpet to grin and dance.  He swayed his hips and motioned for her.

"You gonna dance with me, or be a square?”

A thundering, wooden banging echoed from the front hall of the narrow apartment.  Shuffling and scattering sounds followed as Les grew immediately still, his eyes dark and wide.  Joy rolled onto her stomach and faced the bedroom door.

Their mother burst into the room, wild strands of hair falling into her face.

“Leslie,” she ordered, and Joy twisted her head as far as she could and saw her brother stiffen, his jaw tight.  “Turn off the record and stay in this room with your sister.  Be quiet.  Don’t open the door for anything.”  Her eyes never once touched Joy, glaring straight over her and into her brother’s blanching face.

The strained voice was painful and foreign.  Joy suddenly couldn’t stand to look at their mother, afraid to see unfamiliar words coming from her mouth.

Don’t open this door, Les Jernigan.”

Les knocked the needle from the record.  He motioned Joy over to him more violently than before, coming to the bedside and scooping her off when she found herself unable to move, paralyzed by confusion.  The tone of their mother’s voice burned in her ears.  She buried her face in Les’s shirt as the banging at the apartment door continued, louder and louder until their mother opened it, letting in whatever indescribable creature had come for them.

Where is she, Melody?  Where’s the hell’s that girl?

Les pulled Joy’s limp, wiry body along with him as he came to the door, turning the lock in a swift motion before dropping to the shag carpet with his back to the wood, pulling Joy down with him.  She tried to speak, and he pressed a finger urgently to his lips.  The shouts of hoarse creatures pierced through the door.

My girl’s got nothing to do with you, Cotton Radley.  She never did.

You may be a street whore, but I know a child of mine when I see ‘er.  You ain’t takin’ her from me, you hear?  Where the hell’s that girl?

You’re drunk, Cotton.  My children aren’t here.

A smack and crash resounded together inside the hall, inside the bedroom, inside Joy’s throat as she choked.  Les pulled her tighter into him and tucked his chin to his chest, his lips resting in her hair.  She could feel each of his breaths as they shuddered in and out.

You ain’t takin’ her from me!

Let me go!  Let me go, you son of a bitch!

What’s it matter, if those kids ain’t here?  Huh?  If they ain’t here, you better prove it!

Les clapped a hand over Joy’s mouth as she stretched it open to wail, her ears full of the shrieks that came ringing through the walls.  She had never heard anything make such sounds.  She shook against her brother and squeezed her eyes shut, imagining a bleeding creature being caught and bitten by some bigger creature.  No human thing could make such sounds.  No human mother could make such sounds.

Her brother released her and scrambled up from the floor, tearing the headphones they shared from his nightstand drawer.  He jammed them into the record player, his hands shaking as he straightened the needle and dropped it onto the turntable.  He dropped to the floor again and drew Joy up between his knees, sliding the headphones roughly over her ears and catching her hair in them.  Deafening music filled her and drowned away the shrieks of creatures.  The song’s words were speaking of a mother.

Les’s arms wrapped around her again, enveloping her in a warmth that shook noiselessly.  She could hear nothing but the record, scratchy in places from the needle, and only when she saw a drop appear and melt into her shirt did she look up at her brother.  His face was turned upwards, red and sweating with tears and snot that covered him as he held her and shook.  The music had drowned him out, too.  When she reached to move the headphones so she could hear his shaking, his strong hands moved over hers and pressed the music harder against her ears, until her head ached in his grip.

He gripped her that way until the record had ended.  Then he let go, only for an instant, and only to quiver onto his knees and move the needle, starting the music again.  When it played, he sat back down, drew his sister between his knees, and held her still.  This time, Joy noticed, he held her with only one hand.  He’d pressed the other over his mouth, stifling a sound only he could hear.

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