That bucket wont be big enough, I told him.
Ill clean him here. His fingers moved with pride to a thin knife on his belt. It had a stained wooden handle with pale, brushed-metal rivets. The scabbard was black leather that showed white cracks where hed failed to oil it properly. He touched the hilt once and I sensed his eagerness.
All right, then. Good luck.
I took a wide path around him, and he stayed on his bike until I unlocked my car and climbed in. He looked from me to the river and the grin spread as he shrugged off the bucket and swung one narrow leg over the back of the bike. As I pulled onto the road I looked for him in the mirror: a dusty boy in a soft yellow world.
I could almost remember how that felt.
I covered a mile before the sun made its full assault. It was too much for my scorched eyes and I pulled on dark glasses. New York had taught me about hard stone, narrowness, and gray shadow. This was so open. So lush. A word fingered the back of my mind.
So damn verdant.
Somehow, Id forgotten, and that was wrong in more ways than I could count.
I made successive turns, and the roads narrowed. My foot pressed down and I hit the northern edge of my fathers farm doing seventy; I couldnt help it. The land was scarred with emotion. Love and loss and a quiet, corrosive anguish. The entrance rushed past, an open gate and a long drive through rolling green. The needle touched eighty, and everything bad crashed down so that I could barely see the rest of it. The good stuff. The years before it all fell apart.
The Salisbury city limit came up fifteen minutes later and I slowed to a crawl as I pulled on a baseball cap to help hide my face. My fascination with this place was morbid, I knew, but it had been my home and Id loved it, so I drove through town to check it out. It was still historic and rich, still small and Southern, and I wondered if it had the taste of me even now, so many years after it had spit me out.
I drove past the renovated train station and the old mansions stuffed with money, turned my face away from men on familiar benches and women in bright clothes. I stopped at a light, watched lawyers carry large cases up broad stairs, then turned left and lingered in front of the courthouse. I could recall the eyes of every person on the jury, feel the grain of wood at the table where Id sat for three long weeks. If I closed my eyes now, I could feel the crush of bodies on the courthouse steps, the near physical slap of fierce words and bright, flashing teeth.
The words had unleashed a fury.
I took a last look. It was all there, and wrong, and I could not deny the resentment that burned in me. My fingers dug at the wheel, the day tilted, and the anger expanded in my chest until I thought I might choke on it.
I rolled south on Main Street, then west. Five miles out I found the Faithful Motel. In my absence, and unsurprisingly, it had continued its roadside spiral into utter decay. Twenty years ago it did a booming business, but traffic trailed off when the church moms and preachers drove a stake through the triple-X drive-in across the street. Now it was a dump, a long strip of weathered doors with hourly rates, weekly tenants, and migrant workers shoved in four to a room.
I knew the guy whose father ran it: Danny Faith, who had been my friend. Wed grown up together, had some laughs. He was a brawler and a drinker, a part-time pair of hands on the farm when things got busy. Three weeks ago hed called me, the first person to track me down after Id been hounded out of town. I had no idea how hed found me, but it couldnt have been that hard. Danny was a stand-up guy, good in a tight corner, but he was no deep thinker. Hed called me for help, and asked me to come home. Id told him no. Home was lost to me. All of it. Lost.
Excerpted from Down River by John Hart. Copyright © 2007 by John Hart. A Thomas Dunne Book for St. Martin's Minotaur. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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