Turnback creeK

winner of the

2006 Clay Reynolds Novella Prize

Read Excerpt 1

The reflection of the moon shattered when Cole’s lure hit the water. He stared at the rings radiating out, at the moon slowly repairing itself on the black surface. Cole hated fishing on nights like this—when the bass weren’t biting, the stillness so complete it seemed the world had stopped breathing—but night was the only time he had for himself.

Even the unexplainable breeze that always spread a faint ripple across the surface of Turnback Creek was oddly absent. Cole had just cocked his wrist to cast again when he heard a noise deep in the woods, a rumbling mechanical sound like a generator firing, a deep popping followed by a dull continuous thudding. He imagined one of those big Hollywood wind machines, the kind he’d seen on the MGM Studio tour out in California years ago, except that those fans weren’t nearly as noisy as this contraption. This sound brought to mind a bulldozer, but he quickly ruled that out—no one would be crazy enough to drive a bulldozer in the dead of night. Not in the woods.

Using his trolling motor, Cole pointed his bass boat toward the commotion. Halfway across the cove, the noise stopped. Instinctively, he drew his foot from the pedal, as if to match the sudden silence, the boat drifting soundlessly through the darkness. He swept his gaze across the woods along the bank, the trees and foliage forming a black jagged wall. His eyes burned from lack of sleep and his back was sore from lifting Elsie. When the rumbling sprang to life again, he laid his fishing rod down and turned the boat toward the bank.

Tying off on a stump, he switched on his flashlight and headed up the rocky slope, his knees suddenly achy and stiff as he started the climb. Nearing the top, he stopped to catch his breath, then checked his watch. Almost two. He preferred to be off the lake by four, catch a few hours’ sleep before Elsie woke. If he turned back now, he’d probably tally six hours. But the sound was too curious to ignore, even though it was foolhardy exploring the woods at night armed with only a flashlight.

The underbrush grew thicker as he picked his way up the steep bank, the mechanical thrumming louder, closer. It was definitely some kind of earth moving equipment, he was sure of that now. He could hear the diesel engine grinding, and detected the faint smell of oil-fouled smoke. He knew that odor, had been around it all his life. He’d operated heavy equipment for over sixty years, driving a tractor as a young boy in Texas, then spending the rest of his adult life following government work to Louisiana, Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, California, scraping out valleys to build dams, stripping trees from hillsides, gouging out highways and tunnels, pulling down white collar money from the seat of a bulldozer, the sun turning his neck to jerky. There was no doubt the noise was some kind of earthmover.

When he reached the crest of the hill, he noticed a clearing through the cedars, moonlight coloring the open field a dusky blue. He switched off the flashlight and saw a backhoe loader trundling across ruts and bumps, bouncing stiffly on its hard suspension. Why would someone drive a piece of equipment like that, especially at night? Backhoe loaders were for digging, not joy riding. He recalled his dream of submerged bulldozers. In 1966 he helped move the Noble Church Cemetery in Louisiana, driving a bulldozer on the Toledo Bend Dam Project. He’d unearthed caskets dating back to the late 1800s, according to the records. A few years later, when the lake project was nearing completion, heavy spring rains flooded Toledo Bend faster than the Sabine River System officials expected. A few bulldozers were lost and still sat rusting at the bottom of the lake. Cole saw them in his dreams, the machines rumbling and belching blue smoke in the murky depths, the buckets scooping out empty caskets, no one at the controls.

Unlike his dream, someone was at the controls of this machine. When the loader turned toward him, he took a step back, deeper into the shadows. He wanted no trouble. When the machine rattled within forty feet of his hiding place, he spotted the driver perched up on the seat, but had a hard time trusting his eyes. Behind the wheel sat a skinny girl no more than thirteen or fourteen, with short black hair, and naked as a field mouse.

His breath caught. He couldn’t turn away, couldn’t stop looking at the child. Within twenty yards of the trees, the girl made a hard left and nearly flipped the rig, laughing like a lunatic. Cole couldn’t hear her over the growl of the diesel, just saw her teeth flash white in the moonlight, her breasts jouncing between her skinny outstretched arms.

Before long, she parked the loader near the house on the hill, then climbed down and crossed the yard, her skin glowing like a projected image on a movie screen. She stopped at a lawn chair piled with clothing and began to dress. When she finished, she lit a cigarette and sat down, folding her knees to her chest, staring in Cole’s direction. It was disconcerting, yet he was certain it was impossible for her to see him in the thicket. Nevertheless, he eased back, placing his shoe down softly, careful not to snap a twig. He was just about to squat down when she stood and started walking toward him.