BY PATRICIA BRADLEY
(used with permission)
Shirley traced her finger over her mother’s image in the photo, then shoved the picture into the backpack with her other possessions. Every night, she promised herself she’d leave as soon as her father parked himself in front of All in the Family and fell asleep. A band squeezed her lungs, making it impossible to breathe.
You do it tonight.
She clenched her jaw. It wasn’t that she wanted to stay. But what if he came after her and found her? Or what if the law found her? She was only fifteen, and they would drag her back to him.
After all, they’d bought her father’s story that her mom had fallen down the basement steps as she’d carried a basket of clothes to the washer. If the sheriff suspected her father had pushed his wife, he’d kept it to himself. No one wanted to get on the bad side of Big Al in their small community, not even the law.
She flinched as the back screen slapped against the doorframe. “Shir-lee! Shirley Irene, I’m hungry. Get supper on the table.”
Shirley shoved the backpack under her bed and hurried to the
kitchen, stopping at the doorway to take a deep breath. “Evening,” she mumbled.
He ignored her and turned on the television. The actor Ronald Reagan filled the screen in one of his election ads, and he snapped the set off.
“Washington’s never going to stop spending our money,” her father muttered, then he turned and laid his John Deere cap on the red Formica table.
Shirley wanted to snatch the dirty thing off the table her mother had been so proud to get from a neighbor after she updated her kitchen. She sidestepped past him to the avocado-green refrigerator to take out a package of pork chops. The sour odor of beer and sweat made her want to gag.
“Where were you this afternoon?”
She averted her eyes. “The teacher asked me to stay and help with cleaning up.”
“Look at me when I ask you a question.”
Shirley pulled her gaze past the beer gut hanging over his belt to his ruddy face and dead brown eyes.
“That’s better. You aren’t worth anything to me helping somebody else. I needed you to help load logs. Next time you tell her you have other jobs to do.”
“Yes, sir,” she said, rubbing her thumbs over the calluses on her fingers. He worked her like a mule.
“Now get supper on the table.”
Shirley grabbed an apron and tied it around her waist. At the sink, she scrubbed her hands with the pumice soap until they were almost raw. Green sink, green stove, green refrigerator. She hated green. Her heart leaped into her throat as her gaze settled on the straight razor on the counter and then traveled to the leather strap hanging on the wall. She’d forgotten to sharpen his razor. That meant another beating if she didn’t get it done before morning.
Or maybe not. She wouldn’t be here by then. She would be gone.
With her spirits lighter, she lit the fire under the pot of beans and set a skillet on another burner and fried the pork chops, not even minding when the grease popped out, burning her arm. In twenty minutes, she had supper on the table and held her breath as he tasted the food.
“Girl, can’t you do anything right? You got the beans too salty.” He shoved away from the table and stood.
Her heart plummeted. But this time she wasn’t going to take it. “You’re not going to beat me again.”
“I wouldn’t have to if you didn’t mess up all the time.” He yanked the leather strap from the wall and marched toward her. “Any fifteen-year-old should be able to cook a simple meal without ruining it.”
“I won’t do it again.” She backed up against the sink.
“This is to make sure you don’t.”
She screamed as the strap came down and barely turned in time to protect her face as the strap stung her back.
“I told you not to scream. Now you’ve gone and done it, and I have to correct you again. Turn around and face me.”
“No!” The straight razor lay on the counter waiting for her to sharpen it. She grabbed it.
“You always say that.” His fingers closed on her shoulder, and he yanked her back.
She came around swinging the knife at his throat. Blood spurted from his neck.
He grabbed his throat and staggered back. “What have you done, girl? Call an ambulance!”
With every heartbeat came more blood.
“No.” He’d beat her for sure if he lived. Shirley sucked in air. “You shouldn’t have made me do it.”
“Girl, I’m sorry.” His breath came shorter. “I won’t do it again. Now call that ambulance.”
She pressed her fingers against her mouth. He couldn’t die here. The law might not believe her. “I’ll drive you to the hospital.”
“You . . . better . . . hope I don’ . . . die.” His voice grew weaker. “Haunt you . . . never get away from me.”
Can he do that? No. When you’re dead, you’re dead.
He grasped her wrist. “Help me!”
Blood dripped onto her hair as she half supported and half dragged him through the door. “You’ve got to help me,” she said through gritted teeth. Shirley didn’t know if he heard her or not. Then he got his feet under him, barely lightening her load. “Good,” she said with a grunt.
For once she was glad of the man’s work he’d forced her to do. They stumbled once in the pitch dark of the moonless night but finally made it to the old pickup. Once she had him inside the cab, he leaned against the door, and Shirley drove toward town. They’d just reached the tavern he’d just come from when death rattled in his chest.
A quarter of a mile past the tavern, she pulled over on the shoulder of the road and stopped. The dim light of the dashboard revealed his chest no longer rose and fell as his breathing became shallower. When he took his last breath, she rested her head against the back of the seat. He was beyond hurting her ever again.
This wasn’t her fault.
“You shouldn’t have made me do it,” she said softly.
She couldn’t leave him here like this, though.
Shirley angled the pickup toward the deep ravine on the side of the road. Then she pulled his body into the driver’s seat.
After wiping the steering wheel clean, she put the truck in neutral. Then she climbed out of the pickup. Slowly, it inched toward the ravine, picking up speed until it shot down the steep grade. Shirley ran like the hound of the Pit was after her.
The explosion happened just as she got past the tavern. She looked over her shoulder as a ball of fire rose from the trees.
For the first time in her life, she drew a free breath.
Click to read Chapter 1, Part 1, coming tomorrow on the Lone Star Book Blog Tours 8/16 stop!