I’M ON FIRE
James R. Tuck
I ain’t afraid of Lowell Fulson.
I know he’s a big motherfucker, got fists on him like cinderblocks. Hell, I’ve seen him pick up whole hogs and hang ’em to butcher. Damn things must weigh a quarter ton, but he picks ’em up like they’re nothin’. He’ll butcher five, six of ’em in a row, using the same wide-blade knife that starts razor-sharp but by the end is edgy and dull as cardboard.
Doesn’t slow him down.
Most folks are scared of Lowell.
But he’s got the heart of farmer.
It’s soft and yielding and even though it lets him butcher a hog six ways to Sunday, he ain’t got no hate in it.
I ain’t scared of him at all.
Lowell wasn’t home when I went to his place.
But that ain’t why I went over there.
* * *
The frame of the door flakes when I knock, white paint coming off in long, thin rectangles. I can smell the rust of the screen in the door and it makes my teeth hurt.
It smells like blood.
A fly buzzes my face, zipping across my cheek like a stray bullet. I’m just about to knock again when she comes to the door.
She stands on the other side of the door, wearing a blue gingham dress she got three summers worth of growing ago.
It ain’t much longer than a shirt now.
She might be wearing shorts underneath, but it’s mid-August, sweaty and humid and she might not be. I can’t tell.
Barefoot, she barely hits the center of my chest. Her hair’s up, pinned on top of her head, long strands hanging down, stuck to her skin with a fine layer of perspiration. She looks at me sullen-eyed, lids half shut.
I keep my voice low. “Hey, little girl, is your daddy home?”
She doesn’t answer for a long minute. I don’t fidget as she looks at me under those long, black lashes and shaggy bangs. “He’s gone to market with the new slaughter.”
I know this.
She knows I know it too, but she doesn’t call me on it. She’s playing the same game I am, the same game I’ve played with girls all across this Holler.
Cat and mouse.
I wonder which one she thinks she is.
My hand slides down, brushes the handle of the screen door. “I ran into him at Shautey’s General last week. He told me to come by and pick up a book.” Lowell is always trying to get folks to read, as if anybody wants to stick their nose in a book when they could be out livin’. “He must’ve forgot he’d be out of town when he offered.” I open the door and step in.
“Daddy doesn’t tend to forget much.” She stands her ground, doesn’t back up.
This is a new move in the game.
This close I can smell her. Sweet girl sweat in the bloom of womanhood. Eighteen summers and damn near ripe. I breathe deep and it lights my veins like a white gas flashfire deep in the coal mines, coming on sudden and hot and inescapable. It burns me through, drawing my skin tight.
I’m on fire.
I glance around. The house is clean, spotless even. I can still see the presence of Lowell’s wife, Helena’s mother, gone some eight years now. Lowell loved that woman and she still haunts the place, her taste painted across every wall in every room, her ghost stamped on Helena’s features, darker skin and sultry eyes over high Lakota cheekbones. The only part of Lowell to make it’s mark is Helena’s heavy brow and her bramble-thick, honey-blonde hair.
I listen closely. I don’t hear anyone but us in the house.
I look down at her. “Did he go away and leave you all alone?”
“I’m old enough to stay by myself.”
Yes, she is.
I realize she’s looking at me with those witchery eyes and it’s been too long since I said anything.
“What book were you borrowing?”
“Um . . .” I look at the bookshelf across the room. All the books are stacked two and three deep. It’s too far away for me to read any of the words on the spines.
Helena takes a step back, making distance between us, and I see it in her eyes, in the line of her narrow shoulders.
She’s on to me.
Inside my stomach the dark thing I’ve had as long as I’ve had breath curls on itself, stretching like some great cat inside my skin.
My mojo rises.
It’s my bad seed, my other, my id, my compulsion, my demon riding me hard and the devil’s breath stokes the furnace in my guts and I can’t help it, I’ll burn to cinders if I don’t quench myself.
I must’ve moved because she darts back, putting the couch between us.
My blood boils like an overfull kettle.
Helena points at the door. “You need to leave. Get on out of here.” Raising her arm lifts the hem of her skirt.
No shorts, just a long, sleek line of coltish leg.
I knew it.
I walk toward her. Each step the fire builds. It hangs heavy as I clench and unclench my fists.
“Don’t be like that, little Helena. You got no idea the things I can do to you.”
I see it. The switch. I watch a line of defiance settle into her shoulders. The fear is raw on her face but she ain’t gonna run, not Little Helena, not any more.
Dark coffee eyes narrow. “If you touch me, I’ll kill you.”
I laugh and it feels good rolling out of my chest. It’s black and evil, the edge of the darkness inside lapping out over my tongue.
She doesn’t move as I get closer.
My hand clamps on her thin arm. I’m so hot inside it should burn her, raise blisters on her smooth skin, but it doesn’t. I jerk, twisting her to the left.
She doesn’t scream. Doesn’t start crying like the rest. Her eye’s go dark and narrow and her mouth hard with clenched teeth.
“My daddy’ll . . .”
I yank her close.
“Your daddy ain’t here.” She smells . . . intoxicating. Strawberries in her hair and the ozone crackle of fear across her skin.
It makes my eyelids stutter as I draw in a lungful of it.
“You’re a dead man if you do this.” she hisses.
The laughter rolls again.
“You’re wrong little girl. I ain’t never been more alive.”
She fights me all the way to the bedroom.
* * *
I wake up, a freight train running through the middle of my skull.
It’s dark. I reach out for Helena.
She ain’t there.
Just a warm wet spot where she shoulda been. The sheets I’d used to tie her down are wadded up next to me, soaking wet.
Damn little hellcat. Must’ve slipped the knots while I was passed out.
She couldn’t have gone far. I’ll catch her. I’ll make her pay for running off.
She thought she’d had it rough before.
I’ll show her.
I try to sit up.
My head weighs a thousand pounds, pinning me to the sopping sheets. I try to turn, to roll off the mattress, and a lightning sharp jag of blinding agony cuts a six inch valley through the middle of my skull.
What the hell was that?
I reach up, fingers sliding on the slick skin of my forehead, stopping at a thing, a hard thing jutting from above my eyebrows. It’s warm. Thin as cardboard and about as sharp.
I know what it is before I see little Helena standing beside the bed looking down at me.
Lowell Fulson’s butcher knife is sticking out of my head.
My mouth opens. I try to talk, but the thing in my brain that lets me is outta whack, not working, on the fritz, zitz, zzzzz.
Helena’s face is a shadow, hair a honey-toned veil that hides her from my dimming sight. She’s put her dress back on. It hangs loose around her chest, torn in my need.
Her voice is the voice of an angel.
The Angel of Death.
“You should of listened. You should of left me alone.”
Her hands move and light sears my eyeballs. Hard. Like a slap from a two by four. It’s a match, a simple wooden match with a sulfur head and rough stick body. Now I can see the fires of Hell in those dark, witchery eyes.
“I told you, you were a dead man.”
From around me comes the smell, the silky, heady scent of raw gasoline.
Helena turns to the left, then the right, looking around the room. My eyes jitter to where hers go and I realize this is Lowell’s room. The big bed. The pictures of her mama. I didn’t know it was their room when I drug her in here. I didn’t care.
She sighs. The match flame flickers with her breath.
“Daddy’ll be sad, but it’s time he let Mama go anyway.” The match light is an orange kiss on her tanned face. “With the insurance money we’ll get finally get outta Butcher Holler. We’ll move to Culvert City and start a new life.”
She drops the match and walks away.