This first appeared in Levee Magazine, Issue 6. The full version appears in my collection, A Flame on the Ocean. Please enjoy this excerpt.
Two nights before Ryder’s coming home day, I walked down the hill to the barn to say goodnight to the animals. My hair was hanging loose over my thin cotton nightgown, the long plain one I wear in the summer when he’s gone. The air was soft and still. The field beyond the barn twinkled with lightning bugs like a scene in a movie. I walked past the barn to the edge of the field, picked out one glowing flash, still and low to the ground. I counted the morse code of brilliance that flared in a pulsing yes to entice a mate. I thought of Ryder as I turned toward the barn, wishing for his hand in mine on the edge of this field, longing to watch the flickering display with him.
I plucked his old plaid shirt from the nail by the barn door. I’d worn it so many times since he’d been gone that it smelled more of me than him. I could not get closer to him than the flannel sleeves around my arms, but I did not mind. His coming home day was so close. As I slipped my arms into the soft, worn sleeves, I heard the faraway crunch of tires on our gravel drive.
I stepped out of the barn, heart pounding deep inside my chest. Ryder was not due home for a couple of days, but he was prone to surprise me occasionally. I was a sight in his shirt, my nightgown hanging like a sack, my scuffed, brown work boots unlaced with smears of red clay mud along the soles. I’d been planning a homecoming that smelled of roasted chicken and apple pie, a dinner softly lit to golden by the sun dropping low behind the trees that marked our property line. To have him home a few days early, I’d take what I could get, whether it was in the barn, in the house, or in a field in the back forty.
The headlights were too low to be Ryder’s aging Silverado. I did not have other family left, or many friends in town, and none would have visited at this hour. I buttoned the plaid shirt over my nightgown and stood with my arms crossed over my chest, tense and coiled. I watched the car creeping along the drive until it stopped in front of the barn. It was a Cadillac, spotted with rust and peeling paint, and missing the driver’s side mirror. I waited for the driver to emerge, but the engine continued to run. The headlights illuminated the land beyond the barn, filling the brilliant sparkling field with a sickly, yellow glow. I paused for a few breaths, wishing I’d stepped inside the barn for the shotgun before the car got this close. If the driver were lost, I’d send them just past town to the gas station that was open until midnight. If the driver was not lost… I did not pause to consider that option. Ryder was not in this car, and no one else had any cause to come out this way.
I could almost feel the smooth wooden stock of the shotgun in my hands. It’s absence was tangible. I stepped toward the Cadillac, feigning confidence I did not feel while imagining the power of the single shell in the shotgun’s chamber. I faced demons unarmed in my own kitchen as a girl. I could do it again as a woman, but I still hoped I could send the driver on their way with a nod toward the gas station.
“Well, if it isn’t Louisa Eaton!” A man’s voice called out from behind the wheel as he cut the engine. I recognized the voice, but I could not immediately place it. I uncoiled slightly, exhaled, took another step toward the car to try to see the driver. He called out again, “Hey there, Lou! It’s been an age.”
My heart sunk as I recognized him, identifying his thick mop of dishwater blond curls as Billy Ricketts. We were in the same grade until he left school before graduation to finish out the year in a boy’s reformatory upstate. He was locked up more than he was home as an adult, and I’d heard his rap sheet included armed robbery and attempted murder. In between stints behind bars, he was either fixing to steal someone’s wife or hanging around The Horseshoe cheating at pool and then picking fights in the parking lot.