Fighting against his tackler’s weight, Braz gripped the football tighter and gained the rock-marked end zone. He fell into dandelions and clover. Victory. For Darren’s team.
The usual yelling and horseplay faded and players loped down the south slope toward home, but where was Darren? Braz found him cross-legged on the grass, staring at the Blue Ridge Mountains. Peaks grew dark as the glow of sunset behind them changed from pink to rose. Cool gusts began to dry Braz’s sweat. Mountainside wind turbines spun peacefully, and a hawk glided toward the valley. Night insects started their humming. Past ready for their mama’s venison steaks and fried potatoes, he yelled, “Darren, let’s go!”
Darren hugged his knees and twisted to stare at him so hard, Braz felt like his older brother was trying to memorize every tiny detail about him.
“Don’t you like it up here, Braz?” Darren’s black curls shifted in the breeze. His smile made vertical lines in his stubbled cheeks. Braz touched his own face, its hair not as dark as his brother’s yet.
“Yeah, it’s nice up here.” Braz wanted to add he was going home anyway for supper, but hesitated. Darren’s rich new wife was coming for him soon, and he’d spend the rest of his days in the wastelands down east, raising children and doing whatever this woman told him to do. Maybe his brother just wanted to enjoy his life the way it was now for a little longer.
Darren had been mostly silent about what was coming, saying a few things like, “It’ll be nice to see the ocean.” His easygoing acceptance comforted their mother and younger brother and sisters, but sometimes Darren’s face slipped out of its easy smile.
Braz said quickly, “You can come home and visit us anytime. Mama said you could-”
“Huh?” The breeze died down. Darren stood up then, brushed off his pants and motioned for them to go.
The old asphalt road into their settlement was a mosaic of cracks with foot-high weeds shooting through in the untrammeled places. Trees thinned and houses appeared, lights and noises confined indoors at supper hour. Braz’s stomach growled in the silence. They were almost home.
“Hey, pet-man! How many more days of freedom you got?” Lothar shouted. He and two others stood in the near darkness ahead. Braz was ready to dive into the jerk and beat the crap out of him.
“Let’s go on home,” Darren said calmly. He whispered, “He’s just mad because they lost again.”
Braz yelled anyway at the hulking taunter, “Go to hell, you son of a bitch!”
Lothar moved to block their path and smirked. “Darren’s the bitch.” He and the other boys laughed.
Braz stepped forward and felt Darren’s arm push against his chest, holding him back. Somewhere inside him, he knew better than to bring up the taboo subject of sperm, but he said coldly, “And you’re worthless inside and out.”
“You little shit!” Lothar lunged for him, and Braz’s spine hit the pavement. He was tired and hungry, but he did some damage before the other boys pulled them apart.
Lothar wiped blood from his lip and said the only thing Braz knew could get to Darren. “Aylina Whirley told me to call on her soon as you left.”
Darren paused for a beat in the act of helping Braz to his feet, but he said nothing. He shoved Braz ahead, ignoring the panting Lothar, who yelled a few things after them, making Braz feel some relief the loser had never seen a picture of the ugly older woman Darren would spend the rest of his life with.
“Lothar was lying about Aylina,” Braz said.
“I know he was.”
Braz couldn’t stop a vision of Aylina’s dimples, her slender hips, and he felt a cool shiver of guilt. She had been so nice to him lately, he just knew she would want to be more than friends after Darren left.
Braz watched Darren and his younger sisters and brother take their plates to the sink, but he didn’t want to move. Mama had let them eat all they wanted tonight, and he was stuffed. He sank into the cane-bottom chair and took in the warmth of the kitchen, no longer drafty or plagued with leaks. Aromas of roast venison and potatoes, stewed okra and tomatoes, along with the sweet smell of blueberry cobbler, all lingered in the softly lit room. He listened to the low clatter of crockery, the soothing voices of Mama and Bery and Jessie and Dal. He considered requesting blueberry pie instead of a cake for his seventeenth birthday in a few weeks.
“Braz, get in here and play!” Darren called from the front room, as the plunking twang of his banjo commenced.
They’d borrowed an old guitar from the Hatleys, who would want it back after Darren left, so he should use it while he could. Both instruments would be gone soon.
He and Darren played about every song they knew, keeping the younger ones up way past bedtime, teaching them funny lyrics and horsing around. They even made their mother laugh. Towards the end, Darren let him play his banjo.
With the new roof collectors and repairs to their storage tank, a rushed shower was a thing of the past. Braz relaxed in the steaming warm spray. Afterward, he dried himself on brand new towels and climbed between fresh, cool sheets. Their younger brother, Dal, slept soundly on a pallet between his and Darren’s beds. Despite a few bruises and soreness from fighting with Lothar, Braz reveled in the peacefulness of being completely worn out and content. He delayed turning off the lamp, wanting to stay awake and prolong the feeling. Darren rustled his bedclothes as he shifted position a few times and Braz figured he was still awake.
“Hey, Darren?” he whispered. “You’re coming home for Easter, right?” They’d mentioned this before, but he thought they could make some definite plans, maybe borrow the Hatleys’ guitar again.
His older brother was silent for so long, Braz wondered if he’d been mistaken about him being awake. Finally Darren said, “I want to give you my banjo, li’l bro. I don’t think I’ll be needing it.”
“I’ll be so rich I can get ten more. Guitars, too. You go on and take my old one, ok?”
Braz laughed and later dreamed about guitars and banjos and Aylina Whirley.
Two days later, Braz stood alone in their pine paneled bedroom, glancing at Darren’s banjo and wondering how to tell his brother good-bye. White morning light bathed him through the frost-crusted window. He pulled on a gray sweatshirt over his jeans and thought about digging a pair of socks out of the drawer. Mama had sent the younger kids off to tutoring earlier than usual. Darren had been taking the early shift for chores, so Braz had a little time before he’d have to begin work. He sighed knowing he’d be the one doing the early chores after today. They were all supposed to have said their farewells to Darren last night so this morning wouldn’t be a bunch of them blabbing and hugging in front of a stranger.
His mother’s quick steps down the hall interrupted his thoughts.
“Go see what’s keeping Darren.” Her brown hair was secured tightly away from her face, and the lines in her forehead deepened.
It dawned on him how late in the morning it was; he’d been too caught up in his thoughts to notice it.
He was out the kitchen door and jogging to the community farm, every step thinking he’d meet his older brother sauntering back from tending the hogs and milk cows.
Stopping in front of the huge open barn doors, Braz rested his hands on his knees as Mahst rounded the building.
“Where’s Darren?” Braz asked between huffing breaths.
“Darren? We gave him today off.”
“Sort of a goodbye gift, and hey, Joe has some of his bathtub beer for him, too-”
Braz forgot he had on sandals with no socks and ran as fast as he could up to Olin’s Meadow where they played football. He stumbled a few times climbing the slope. Gaining the ridge, he saw no one anywhere, and ran all the way through the meadow, the tall grass, and beyond the rocks and pines to the blustery overlook. Shivering and panting, he was calmed by the cloudless sky and newly greening mountains all around. But God might as well have reached in his chest, grabbed his heart and thrown it down in the gorge when he saw what was strewn on the furthest boulder. Darren’s new shoes, button up shirt, and jeans. He made himself step up and look over the edge, but it was hard to tell what was below except for trees. The time-stopping stillness ended as a hawk neared. Then another joined it, circling something below. No … not hawks, buzzards.
Braz moved back away from the cliff edge and knelt beside the abandoned garments. No one could survive a fall from these heights to the rocky, forested terrain a thousand feet below, and his sensible older brother wouldn’t have wanted to ruin good clothes.
Braz was done with crying by the time he got home. Mahst and the others had been business-like, arranging a search party, saying what they could to comfort him. He declined Mahst’s offer to accompany him home to tell his mother, and he’d spare the younger kids the news until lunchtime.
A white, egg-shaped car perched in their front yard. So, Darren’s wife-to-be was here. Well, she’d be leaving soon. He walked straight onto the porch, into the front room, dropping Darren’s clothes on the pine floor and reaching for his mama.
He didn’t even remember what he said to her, but her slender body shook with sobs in his arms for a long time, oblivious to the seated stranger staring at them both from across the room.
“What’s going on here?” The stranger spoke up.
Braz helped his mother into the easy chair, then looked at their visitor. She resembled a defensive tackle dressed in pale green jacket and slacks with a halo of reddish blonde hair around a square face. Yes, this was the woman in the photos sent to Darren, although she’d been smiling in the pictures. In a voice which matched her bulk, she asked, “Are you Darren?”
“No.” A new pain hit him being reminded how much he looked like Darren. “I’m his brother. He’s … there’s been an accident … .”
The woman stood, and her gray eyes were level with his. She extended a thick hand and introduced herself as Shel Purvis, offering to help him make his mama hot tea. In the silent living room when the tea was gone, she made no move to leave.
“I’d like my credits repayed now,” Shel Purvis said harshly, sunlight making her wild hair glow like a frizzy halo.
His mother asked Braz to go to his room, like he was still a child with a father and older brother who would handle the family problems. He felt a burn begin deep inside and shook his head no. There was no way they could repay the huge heap of credits Shel Purvis had transferred to his desperate family.
His mother mumbled excuses and pleas for more time, and Braz fought to keep his voice steady as he interrupted her humiliation, “My brother is dead, ma’am. Dead. Killed himself because of you! We don’t owe you a red cent!”
“Braz!” His mother gasped.
The woman laughed, actually laughed. “I know your tricks. All your Mountain people tricks. We have a legal contract, and you can’t weasel out of it.”
“Tricks?” His voice broke. What was she talking about?
“You and your mother have put on quite the little performance, but I don’t for one minute believe your brother is dead. I’m not interested in seeing any bodies, either. I’ll bet that’s all rigged, part of the scam.”
“Huh?” Braz could barely speak.
“Boy, you’re good.” Shel Purvis shook her head, keeping her squinted eyes on him.
“You are bad mistaken,” his mother whispered, standing and reaching for the wall to steady herself.
“Say whatever you will,” the woman’s voice shrilled. “I’m not leaving without my full investment. All of it. Try to break the contract and your family’ll be ruined when I’m through.” She plopped down on the worn, brown sofa. “Haven’t got around to replacing the living room furniture yet, I see.”
At that moment, Braz knew he was capable of murder. His breaths came heavier and he clenched his fists. A memory surfaced of his brother talking about how this down east woman didn’t want just sperm, she wanted a real family. His mind raced with possibilities, but they all dead-ended at an intolerable idea. He looked at his trembling mother and thought of Dal and his sisters, Jessie and Bery laughing to nonsense songs he and Darren had made up, playing and singing together. An image hit him of his brother’s dead body sprawled below the overlook. His throat began to close.
His mother spoke in a high thin tone. “Ms. Purvis, our family does not back out of promises. I can sell the house-”
Both women flinched and turned to him.
“Where would you and the family live then?” Numb with grief and holding back anger that had nowhere to go, Braz knew what he had to do. Catching his mother’s hazel eyes, he tried to sound calm as he said to the hateful stranger, “I passed all the med-tests, same as Darren. Did nearly as well on the book and numbers tests, too-”
“Are you plumb crazy?” His mother shouted. He went to hold her as she collapsed into heaving sobs for the second time that day.
Shel said loudly over the crying, “Okay, yeah, I’ll take this one.”
Shel’s egg car raced east away from the beloved mountains that Braz once thought he’d never leave. They passed through tree-covered foothills, old pot-holed highways, and long stretches of barren land which eventually gave way to swamps and brown lakes. Braz tried not to think about his sisters’ faces and Dal’s wiry little body clinging to him until his mother finally coaxed the boy into her own arms. On an area of high ground beside a massive inland sea, a city came into view. In the late afternoon glare, glass-walled buildings reflected orange sunlight as Shel drove them past the main part of town to a gravel driveway beside what he supposed was her house.
“Here we are, home in Greenville.” These were her first words of the trip except to ask him if he minded the music she played. He’d lied and said no.
Braz marveled at the irony of the town’s name. Nothing was green. The air outside the car made him cough and almost gag.
“Most of the time we’re upwind of the worst of it.” Shel looked apologetic. “It’s better indoors.”
He stared at her modest one-story dwelling as he collected his bags and banjo case.
“So, you were expecting the Taj Mahal?” She took his duffel.
“Beg your pardon?” The structure was smooth and shiny, a soft pink in color. “I seen a few pictures of colored houses like this.”
“Paint. It’s called paint.”
His first impression of the inside of her house was twofold. One, that it was no bigger, maybe smaller than his family’s home. Two, a softness that didn’t fit this woman at all. Large upholstered sofa and chairs, lots of pillows, rose-colored carpet, cream walls. Homey touches like framed photos on shelves.
She showed him down a short hall to a bedroom she called the guest room. The furnishings were simpler here, double bed mattress and box springs on a metal frame, four-drawer chest, and bedside table with brass lamp. It had its own small bathroom right next door. Later, Shel fed him a pizza pie with ten different things on it and offered him a beer. The pale gold drink didn’t have much of a kick to it.
Afterward he wondered, was she planning to come into his bedroom and ask for a command performance? How in the world would he manage it? His chest ached when he thought about how this awful woman caused his brother’s suicide and had ruined his own life. Steeling himself for whatever she’d ask him to do and hoping he could comply, he stayed awake after his shower, sitting on the cushiony bed. She soon knocked and looked in with her red-blonde wispy hair flying away from her pudgy face. All she said was, “I want us to get to know each other better before the festivities. Hope you’ll like it here, Braz.”
A week later, Braz sat on a metal bench clamped to a dirty gray boat. He hunched against the cold lake breeze and stayed out of everyone’s way. Shel held electronic control pads for the diving bots and sprinted from front to rear on the MOPS boat. She’d told him it meant Microbes Offering Permanent Solutions. Shel followed barked orders of her crew boss, Steve, a man as big as she was.
Sometimes the crew had to suit up in filmy, transparent garb and drop underwater themselves to take care of things the robots couldn’t handle. Once they found the remains of a home which had over a hundred partly filled paint cans plus containers of gasoline and thinners in its basement. That was nothing compared to the submerged factories and warehouses they found stocked with chems which were once used all the time making everyday stuff the flatlanders liked. Places like “dry cleaners.” The poisonous, water-killers they found were gotten rid of, encased in films or things called “tights” if the bacteria couldn’t dispense with them. Occasionally, mystery liquids or items in unmarked containers were brought to the surface for aerobic disposal if they could do it without disturbing the water.
“Hey kid!” Pete yelled. He was a thin, energetic man with black beard and ponytail who worked on the boat doing the same things Shel did. “Coffee break!”
Braz had been joining Pete and Shel and a few of the others below deck for talk and companionship, although he didn’t much like the acrid coffee. Pete bent toward him and furrowed his dark brows whenever Braz spoke, often asking him to repeat something. Braz had to concentrate, too, to understand their speech, but they were all patient with him. He learned Pete played keyboards, so they would talk about music.
“Man, I want to hear that banjo!” Pete laughed.
Braz nodded but wondered if he would ever play it again. He’d picked up the instrument a few times, but it didn’t sound the same here. Something seemed wrong with it, the humidity, or maybe the sea level atmosphere.
Some days, Shel and her boss, Steve, worked through the breaks, so Braz was left in the company of her coworkers. It was in this way he learned that she was well-liked and respected. “Not sure the boss would let me have my spouse on board,” Pete had said. Braz found out Shel was twenty-nine and not rich, which he had already figured out.
The first day that Shel allowed him to stay home alone, he stepped out into her front yard and knelt to touch the crusty brown ground cover, like dried kudzu. The few trees were winter bare, no hint of spring growth appearing. Through the heaviest mists he’d ever seen shone a pale, round disc which looked more like the moon than the sun.
One late afternoon when Shel was home from work, he stood in the yard, realizing he’d gotten used to the smell. He studied Shel’s car, a sleek oval vehicle which he and Darren would have loved to drive and tinker with, although most of their experience was with much older cars. His brother had helped Aylina’s uncle fix trucks sometimes. These thoughts led to an uncontrollable crying spell. He should never have allowed himself to think about Darren … or Aylina. God had sure punished him for wanting to move in on her once Darren had gone. He felt Shel’s arm gently around him, guiding him back into the house, saying, “I’m about to decide you weren’t in on the scam.” The only thing that kept him from attacking her like a wild animal was the hope that if she was right about a scam existing, it meant Darren might be alive.
One evening, after over a week of wondering who was pictured in the framed photos in Shel’s house, Braz asked Shel about the most curious ones. “Why are these little girls inside the same dress?”
She’d been standing in the kitchen, munching on something like artificial popcorn after coming in from work. He often caught her gazing at him in a way that pulled her square face into a softer, longing look. This was how she watched him now.
He asked, “Are they stuck together or something?”
“Well, they were … for nearly four years, then I had them surgically separated.”
Braz noticed how many pictures were of the two little girls, a few of them individually, looking very frail. “Who are they?”
“My daughters, Jenna and Cara.” She stopped eating, and touched the heel of her hand to her forehead, as if warding something off. “They both died a year ago.”
“You already had two children?”
“Yeah, but it didn’t work out too well.” She sighed, but showed no anger with him for asking about them, or not offering his sympathies. After that, she talked about the girls, telling him how sweet and loving Jenna always was, what a “pistol” Cara had been. “It was nice after they were separated, and I could treat Cara more firmly, give her consequences, you know, without punishing Jenna, too.”
“We never had no babies die in our family, just my daddy.” As soon as he said it, he thought of Darren, but didn’t say anything else.
“Yeah, I read about his tumor. I’m sorry.” It would have been in the information Darren had to send her. Braz wondered how sorry she really was. His daddy’s death six years ago was the main reason his family was so poor.
“Hey, come on in the kitchen, let’s eat supper.”
He got up the nerve shortly after that to ask Shel where the library was and if he could go there and send messages to his family sometimes.
“Library? Oh, yeah, I guess it’s ok.” She showed him into her bedroom and sat him down at a cluttered desk. Lo and behold, she had com pads here at her home. He keyed in a few sentences to his mother to let her know he was all right and was learning a lot of new things, and Shel’s house was very comfortable. He told her Shel gave him a few credits every week, and he could send them to her if the family needed them. There was sure nothing he wanted to use them for here.
Bery answered him the next day, and he wondered if Shel read the message before telling him to come see it. He decided he didn’t give a damn if she had.
Mama was so glad to hear from you, she screamed when I came in from the library with your note all printed out. We are hoping you’re telling the truth about being treated all right. From what Mama said about that Purvis woman, I couldn’t help but worry you might be in all kinds of trouble. Maybe like chained in a basement or kept in a cage while she fattens you up to eat you. You know, like the witch in the fairy tales. But you know what an imagination I have. The service for Darren was nice, and we are doing the best we can without him or you.
Brazzie, Mama said for you to keep your credits, save them up. She didn’t want me to tell you this, but she started crying when I read about you offering them.
We are able to get along ok with what we have. Mahst has promised us some beef and pork next fall, since we won’t have anyone to hunt deer, and lots of other neighbors have brought food and stuff.
Here’s another thing I’m not supposed to tell you: Dal refuses to sleep in your old bedroom by himself. Jessie and I kicked him out of our room, but Mama is letting him sleep with her, she says just for a little while. He hollers bloody murder when she tries to take him to tutoring, so she’s let him go with her to the farm and help with chores there and at home. He is getting right spoiled.
I miss Darren, but I kind of don’t understand him, too. He didn’t pay any mind to what was going to happen after he was gone.
We miss you a whole lot.
Please write soon.
Braz knew his eleven-year-old sister didn’t understand the pressure Darren had felt knowing what was expected of him. In his next message, he asked Bery about Aylina, and learned she was staying with her uncle in Asheville for a while.
When Braz’s mother sent him a regular mail package with a crocheted afghan, Shel found out about his seventeenth birthday. She scratched her usual weekend treasure hunts. She and Peter and a few of her other coworkers often returned to underwater places they had discovered which might yield valuable objects, like a rich woman’s jewelry box. She piled food and drink in the car and drove Braz to the ocean, some miles east beyond the huge lake which he at first thought was an inland sea. Under an overcast sky, they passed swamps and muddy lakes studded with dead trees, and he wondered if the shore would be an ugly place.
Eventually, the wetlands ended and gray clouds parted and thinned. A warm sun shone on mountainous peanut-colored sand dunes rising in a solid row. Once parked and walking past the dunes, Braz caught his breath at roaring waves and green rolling water that went on forever. Later, Shel coaxed him into stepping barefoot on the cool sand, sticking his toes in the swirling, foamy tide. It didn’t feel as cold as he’d thought it would.
It turned out to be a day of firsts. After they got home and cleaned up, Shel came into his bedroom and undressed. She told him what to do, and he was relieved to discover he could do it. He was surprised by her flower-petal skin and her sweet breath, and found that pleasing her wasn’t as bad as he’d thought it would be.
“Hey, Braz!” Shel called. He left his bedroom to greet her as she bustled in from work one afternoon. “Peter wants to hear you play the banjo, so I told him to come over for dinner. Hope that’s all right with you.”
He knew Shel thought playing the banjo was one of the things he did every day while she was gone. Plus, she thought he was continuing his schooling. She had given him his own com pad so he could sign up for classes, which he did not do. He wasted most of the day on games after finishing the few house and yard chores requested of him, and hadn’t touched the banjo since the first week of his arrival here, four months ago.
“I’ll need to practice up some.”
“Really? Well, sure, go ahead.”
In his bedroom, he lifted the instrument from the gray carpet. He’d taken it out of the case from the first night so he could look at it every day. Sitting with it on the bed, he felt the comforting, familiar weight on his lap. Taking his shirttail, he gently wiped away dust from the calfskin head, the frets and the silver strings. As he turned it over to clean the open back, he noticed the stretched, round skin looked warped. What was this? He touched it and realized it was white paper, a round piece stuck to the back of the head. Peeling it away, he found a folded sheet behind it. His heart skipped when he opened it and recognized two lines of Darren’s blocky print-writing. Fluid script filled out the rest of the page.
“Dear Braz, When tomorrow comes, I will be gone, but not the way you think. Aylina is making me write some words in my ugly hand so you will know this is really from me.”
He devoured the letter, nearly yelling with ecstasy.
“Hello Braz, Aylina here. Darren is pretty sure you’ll find this soon; we hope so, anyway. So here’s the story in his own words:
“I’m not dead, Brazzie. I guess the cow remains I pitched in the gorge are picked clean by now. Did anyone find them? The most important thing is that I want you and Mama and the family to know I’m all right. Aylina and I are headed to a place we’ll keep secret, but we’ve made good plans, so don’t ever worry about us. (I am really sorry for the pain this will cause Mama and you all, but I can’t risk including anyone else in on the secret.)
I hope all of you are well and happy, and maybe I will get to see you again someday.
Where was Darren? Braz could think about nothing else.
Shel’s living room warmed in the glow of lamplight and easy talk from Shel, Pete, and his wife, Nan. Braz huddled over his banjo ignoring the pain to his softened fingers. He had no trouble understanding the flatlands speech now, but the subjects remained foreign. Parts of the conversation made it through to him, enough to know they discussed politics, books, news from half-way round the world, and offworld. He hadn’t registered to vote yet despite Shel nagging him about it.
“Man, can you play!” Pete laughed and tried to keep up with him on a shiny acoustic guitar.
Shel interspersed dewy, adoring gazes at Braz with comments to Nan, a thin woman hidden by cosmetics and jewelry. The women spoke about what Shel would do for childbirth after she got pregnant.
“Steve’s letting me have one of the ship’s medbots at home for the delivery, and I’m hiring two body techs, plus equipment-”
“Two?” Nan interrupted. “It’s so expensive!”
Shel’s voice changed. “I don’t want anything to go wrong.”
“Oh, honey, don’t mind me. What do I know? I’ll never have to deal with it.” She gave her husband a sad look.
Pete was talking about places to hear good music. A few in Charlotte and Raleigh, but most of the action was in New Myrtle Beach. He grinned, “I know people who can actually make a living there playing tunes.” He slapped his guitar and turned to the women, his ponytail flying around. “Shel, have you taken the boy across town to Cosmic yet?”
“We’re mostly homebodies in the evenings.”
“Aw, hell. He’d love that.” Pete spoke animatedly about the homegrown bands here, and Braz tried to listen. Touching his banjo, he thought about Darren, how much he had loved music. “Hey, plug in, kid!”
“I asked would you like to go see some of those bands sometime?”
Everyone was watching him. He nodded.
“You could ride with me if Shel didn’t want to go, or even drive yourself.”
“By himself? He can’t work the car.” Shel declared.
“Yes, I can.”
“I meant I’m not sure you’re ready to take it anywhere alone.”
Pete sighed. “Good God, Shel, give the guy a break. He’s not running off, for chrissakes.”
Shel had let him drive the car to the food store with her after she got home from work, but never alone.
Nan fidgeted as the conversation died. “Well, I’m taking a smokes break. Anybody want to join me?” She hopped up from the sofa.
He’d grown tobacco, but didn’t smoke it much. “Yeah, I’ll join you,” Braz said. He knew what Shel thought about tobacco.
Shel gave him a horrified look and stood up to block him. He slipped around her and saw she was frowning but not going to stop him. It gave him a tiny thrill.
Leaning against the side of the house, sucking in the hot burn of the cigarette, Braz closed his eyes and tried to forget where he was.
“So, how’s it going, big guy? Shel’s crazy about you, I guess you already know that.”
Nan didn’t seem to notice he was ignoring her.
She flicked an ash. It floated to the black ground. “Listen, she has men who like her. She didn’t have to buy a husband. She’s just bound and determined to have babies. It killed Steve, you know, her boss? He’s had a thing for her forever-”
Nan’s chatter bounced off him as he gave in to the tobacco high.
Nan’s arm slashed down causing him to start. She dropped her finished cigarette and stomped it. She pressed her leathery face close to his. “You think your life was so perfect before? You had the pristine land and mountains? You people wanted that all to yourselves, didn’t give a hoot about the rest of us! We’re stuck with the facts of life down here, and we’re doing everything we can to dig out from under. Give us a little credit, damn it.”
He wondered if she had been trying to flirt and was mad he didn’t respond.
Over the weekend, he worked on Shel, pleasing her, buttering her up. She ran a strict household and often caught him off guard, fussed at him about something, let him know who was boss, sometimes scaring him with talk about what she could do to his family. Yet Sunday night, she stopped in the middle of shaking clothes as she drew them from the cleaner.
“All right, one day next week you can take me to work at the boat dock and keep the car for the day.”
Shel slammed the cylinder hatch. “I suppose.” Her face darkened as she added, “But do not be late picking me up!”
He barely slept that night rolling over plans in his mind. Where would Darren be? Not Asheville, too close to home. But he felt his brother would not have wanted to cross the country or escape to a mega-city like New York. So, Charlotte? Raleigh? Maybe, but Pete had said musicians could earn a living in New Myrtle Beach, so that would be the first place he’d look. Doubt hit him when he remembered Darren was with Aylina. Maybe she wanted to go far away? He’d consider that if he struck out in the closer places. How long would it take to get there? He’d never even seen New Myrtle Beach on a map. But he’d find it, and be careful to return well before 6:00 to pick up Shel from work.
Braz ran his hand over the egg car’s glistening white roof while he waited in the front yard. Shel hurried out of the house.
Did he seem too eager? “Just checking out the cell template.”
She chuckled. “Fascinated by those bio-tronic full spectrum solar absorbers, hm?”
It was hard to fool Shel.
When he dropped her off at the misty dock, her gray eyes held his for a long moment as she said, “Don’t be late.”
Braz drove southeast on the highway he had quickly figured would take him to New Myrtle Beach. If there were a shorter way, he didn’t have time to discover it. His mistake soon became clear. This was no straight shot. He checked the time and his gut ached. Why hadn’t he waited a few days? Researched and laid better plans from Shel’s house? A vision of Shel’s angry face made him begin to feel like the battered land. He’d been destroyed by her, the way human habitation at the coast had been wiped out. Were people once happy here? Living their comfortable lives thinking they’d never have to leave?
Finally, dwellings and bigger buildings cropped up in his view. His stomach rumbled, but he’d already figured he couldn’t take any time to eat. He turned into in an empty church parking lot beside a busy street and read the liquid white letters moving within the church’s holo sign: “Welcome to New Myrtle Beach Baptist Church.” Braz shot out of the lot for the main part of town.
Fresh salt wind whipped his hair as he stood on a wide lane within sight of the dunes. Stores and nightclubs of strange materials, bamboo or adobe-looking, lined the street. None were over two stories tall, and he wondered if they were built in a hurry and not meant to last. Although hidden by the dunes, the ocean roared and made its violent presence known. In the glaring sun, he stared at every street musician, but none was Darren. He stepped into the chill of a club, ducking under a writhing holo sign picturing flaming guitars.
With sore feet and complaining stomach after countless inquiries, Braz stared at a pink bench and finally sat, allowing himself a few minutes break. No one had claimed to recognize the old photo Braz had brought. One nice fellow had helped him check com listings, but Braz knew before they started looking it wouldn’t amount to anything. Neither Darren nor Aylina would be using their real names. One man with two gold rings in his ear had sort of skipped a beat when he saw Braz, blinked and squinted at him, but had denied knowing Darren.
What else could he do? He’d been to all the clubs the people here had told him would be worth checking. Surely there were others. He’d just have to find them. He tensed as he noticed the time, 3:30 PM. It would take him at least an hour and a half to get back to Greenville, so that left barely an hour more to search.
Dizziness struck him as he stood. He pulled the small bottle of newly bought water from his baggy pants pocket and drank the last of it. Maybe he should eat something, but that would take all his remaining funds. He’d thought to bring credits, but had to use nearly all of them on water, even more costly here than in Greenville.
He remained still as the dizziness passed. Maybe Darren just wasn’t in New Myrtle Beach. Leaving right now, he could be home in plenty of time to chauffeur Shel home from work and keep on her good side. The next city search would be planned better, too. But he had a nagging feeling he wasn’t done here yet. His feet throbbed as he headed toward the pier club where he’d seen the gold-earringed man.
Storm Sounds, housed in a weathered warehouse building, sat atop a long faux wood pier over the dunes. Laughing people in skimpy summer clothes strolled the pier’s wide planks in merciless sun. After climbing dozens of steps, Braz entered a main dance hall and was blinded in the shuttered gloom. As his vision returned, he glanced around to see a few men at the bar, couples at tables, but no man with gold earrings.
“Darren! You’re early, kid. And where’s the strings?” A chirping woman’s voice came from behind the bar.
Braz’s heart raced. The snug-shirted speaker wiped counter tiles and stared at him. He approached her, almost trembling.
“You know Darren?” He whispered.
Her kohl-blackened eyes looked him up and down. “Yeah, and you’re not him. Sorry kid.” She turned to go, and he grabbed her clingy blouse across the bar.
“Hold on a minute. Please! Darren’s my brother, I need to find him.”
She shoved his hand off her, and looked at him hard. “He’ll be here later to work, but I don’t know where he lives or anything.”
He couldn’t wait that long! “My last name’s Cole, but he could be using another name. Do you know what it is?”
She rolled her eyes. “No idea. These kids come and go like driftwood on the tide.” A customer at the far end of the bar yelled, “Gail!” and the woman strutted off.
She turned with an exasperated look.
“Where’s the owner of this place? The manager? Somebody who’d know Darren?”
She nodded toward the back, an unmarked door.
He wasn’t surprised to find the gold-earringed man within, working a hand-pad at his piled-high desk. It would be a waste of time to ask him why he’d lied, so Braz just said, “All I want to do is see my brother I thought was dead. He don’t need to be protected from me.”
The guy looked away, out his big window over the ocean. He threw up his hands. “His secrets aren’t my business, the cocky bastard.” He mumbled a curse, adding, “Thinks he owns the universe because his jak percs.” Then he told Braz where Darren lived.
Braz left the pier on foot. Hot sand flew up and settled in his shoes as he ran south on the beach. Metalloy bars and steps of the next walkway over the dunes reflected the sun. Squinting, he saw a jungle of metal forming multiple walkways from the city. People in swimsuits glided toward the shore and were lowered to the sand. They came from colorful towering structures set farther inland than the narrow avenues directly behind the dunes. Breathing heavier, he ascended a walkway and followed it to the street name he’d been given, not far from the looming dunes. The streets here seemed calmer, more settled. The city’s signature crape myrtles had been planted along the avenues, their vivid maroon blooms shedding onto the sidewalk.
At 4:10 PM he found the address he sought. A one-story building of grayed wood angled back from a sandy lot. Braz banged on the door of the last apartment. The world spun, the door opened, and he fell into Darren’s warm arms.
He came to on a soft sofa with his feet hanging over the far armrest. The bamboo-walled room held a bed on one side and grimy kitchen in the opposite corner smelling of old bacon.
“Here, buddy.” Darren helped him to a sitting position and handed him a glass of water. He looked heavier and his dark beard was trimmed.
“Jesus, this is awful.” The flat liquid tasted laced with baking soda.
“Sorry, we can’t afford the bottled stuff. It’s safe, go ahead, take it.” Darren’s earnest look seemed out of place. He should have been grinning, slapping Braz on the back. Braz set the half-full glass on the floor and pushed himself off the couch. He reached for his brother and hugged him close, drinking in his scent, ignoring Darren’s hesitation.
“I just found your letter three days ago! I thought you were dead!” He wanted to say more, but his voice gave out on him.
“Shit. Braz, oh, shit.” Darren lowered him back on the sofa and sat beside him while he sobbed. “Braz, I … I heard … I mean, Aylina can still get news. I know about what happened with you and that old woman I was committed to.” Darren looked purely miserable. “I’m so sorry, Brazzie.”
When Braz could speak, he answered Darren’s questions about how he’d found him and asked about Aylina, hoping wherever she was, she’d stay away long enough for him to be alone with Darren a while longer.
“She’s at work on a fishing trawler. Usually gets in before I have to leave for my job.”
Picturing her on a boat reminded Braz of Shel, and he checked the time. His heart skipped. It was almost 5:00 PM.
Braz’s throat began to tighten, and he was afraid he’d start crying again. He managed to ask, “How’s your life here?”
“It ain’t bad, li’l bro. It ain’t bad.” Darren spoke about the band he was in, how he played old songs and had learned new music, too. “I work most nights, sleep all day. They don’t pay much, but I make some extra selling bodily fluids.” He grinned.
Braz wanted to be happy for Darren, but he was having a hard time feeling anything.
Darren suddenly asked, “Hey, are you sure that Purvis woman don’t know where you are?”
“No! And I have to get back before 6:00. I can’t stay much longer.”
“Yes you can.” Darren gritted his teeth. “Why don’t you just stay here with us? She’ll never find you.”
The door opened and Aylina strode in, brown and sweaty, her hair scraped back into a clasp. She saw Braz and froze.
A fish odor intruded on the stale cooking smells, helping him forget any appetite. He mumbled a greeting to this thin young girl whom he barely recognized.
“Braz?” She looked to Darren, then at him. Her mouth trembled and she stepped back. Darren moved quickly to her and Braz couldn’t hear all he was whispering, but she calmed down.
Braz interrupted, “Aylina, what’s the matter with you? What are you afraid of?” At another time, when he was well-rested and fed, he’d never have blurted that out. She was sniffing, nodding in answer to something Darren said, then went to the cold cab pulling out a vacuum box and poured three beers.
Darren brought one to the sofa for him, and he drained it. His brother, always the calm one said, “She’s a little jumpy. Her job’s illegal. Wild fishing outside the farms.”
“What in the hell has that got to do with anything?” Braz heard his voice rising, and he didn’t care.
Aylina stiffened for a moment in her chair beside the sofa, her hands clutching her glass. Then she giggled, the way girls do when they’re uncomfortable and nervous and don’t mean it at all.
“What do you think, Aylina? That I’m here to haul Darren back to Shel Purvis?” Another awful thing to say, but he couldn’t stop himself.
Darren spoke in his low voice. “Come on, Brazzie, take it easy.”
Braz shoved Darren’s arm off his shoulder. Aylina giggled again, and he was reminded that she’d done a lot of giggling before, too, at home in the mountains. How had he ever been entranced by her?
“Brazzie, what about living here with us? Huh? We could-”
“I can’t stay here! Shel can trace her car. She’d find me, she’d find both of us.”
“Not if we wreck the car. We could even buy a dead body to put in it-”
Braz knew Shel. She’d never let it go, and she was too smart for tricks. And look how the first time Darren fooled her had backfired. He shouted, “Even if she could never find us, no telling what Shel would do to our family! She could take Dal to Greenville and hold onto him until he’s old enough for what she needs a man for!”
Darren and Aylina looked at him like he was crazy.
Braz recalled their sister’s letter telling him how frightened Dal was after losing him and Darren. “Dal’s so afraid now he won’t let Mama out of his sight. Hell, Shel could take Bery or Jessie, too, make them work for her like slaves or something.”
Darren was shaking his head, like how in the world could that ever happen. “Hey, li’l bro, just sit back down and we’ll talk this through-”
Braz wondered if Darren had a clue about the destruction he’d left in his wake. All his brother seemed to care about was moving forward with his new life. When Darren took hold of his arms to make him sit, he yelled, “No!” His fist slammed into Darren’s gut, Aylina screamed, and he was rolling on the gritty floor trying to beat the shit out of his beloved older brother.
He awoke on cold concrete, alone in the dark. He didn’t look at the time, just raced out of the apartment to the moonlit beach and back to the pier club. Every minute meant he would be later still, but he had to do one last thing.
The floor trembled to the beat of the music as Darren played with four others onstage. No banjos or fiddles, it was all crowd-pleasing hooks, guitar melodies riddled with drums. A few dozen couples danced. He pushed through. Darren missed a measure when he saw him.
Braz lifted a hand in goodbye and stared at his brother’s tan, dazed face making a mental image to hold on to. Finally, he headed out. Darren stopped in mid-song and caught up with him at the door, his grip firm, but not overpowering. Darren’s touch pressed against his heart.
“Hey, Braz, wait-”
“I ain’t telling anybody about you. Just go on back to your music.”
In the club’s throbbing spot-lights Darren took on a relieved and happy sheen. He fit perfectly in New Myrtle Beach, a place relocated and risen anew after massive storms and encroaching ocean. Darren had remade himself the same way this city had.
“Come back, any time, li’l bro.” He seemed to mean it.
In night’s full dark Braz raced by the Greenville docks, brightly lit but deserted. The smell of this place already shrouded him. At Shel’s house, dim sun bulbs glowed in the yard, and yellow light spilled from the front windows. As he trudged toward the steps, sore and stiff from the fistfight and his long ride, the door swung open. Shel stood above him with hands on hips, her stout frame blocking the light. Someone appeared behind her. Steve, her boss, the man who had a thing for her.
Braz stopped a few feet from the bottom of the steps, and although she had never hit him, he steeled himself for blows in addition to her barking screech. Shit, Steve might light into him, too. Did he even have the spirit to defend himself? He tried to push away his constant fear of Shel taking things out on his family.
She ran down the steps and lifted him from the ground in a bear hug. “Thank the universe!”
Steve gave him an evil look, murmured something to her, touched her shoulder, and left.
Shel was subdued after that, and although she never asked him where he went, she seemed to know things were different now. No more nagging him about taking classes or voting. She spent most evenings out, but came home at bedtime to sleep with Braz. A month later, she sat him down asked him if he wanted to move back to the mountains.
“What do you mean? For good?”
The house’s cool air currents fluffed her red hair. “Yeah, for good.”
His heart about rocketed out of his chest.
“So, what do you say?” She said.
“Does this mean you’re pregnant?”
She blinked. She’d never lied to him, but he got the feeling she was not planning to tell him the truth.
“Braz, you and I are so mismatched. I was crazy to think we could be a couple. I’m … I’m sorry for everything. I just need to let you go.” She wouldn’t meet his eyes.
She had to be expecting, and he figured the baby would have a step-father with Steve, but something pulled at him. An image hit him of his own father, taken away from him too soon, and thoughts of Dal and his mother and sisters, what they’d been through.
“So, you’re pregnant. You got what you wanted, huh?”
“I won’t abandon any child of mine. I want to be able to see him. Or her. And not just once in a while, either.”
Her gray eyes stared at him as though he’d sprouted horns. “You really mean that, don’t you?”
“I got it, Daddy Braz!” Lana caught the soft throw, jumping and giggling. Olin Meadow breezes tangled her fine curls as Braz ran to lift her high over his head and twirl her in the sunlight.
“I love you, sweet thing!”
“I love you, too, Daddy Braz!”
Her child’s words and laughs flowed into his empty places. And when they were filled enough, someday he would take her to New Myrtle Beach to meet her Uncle Darren and hear him play.