Turnback creeK

winner of the

2006 Clay Reynolds Novella Prize

Read Excerpt 2

The previous evening suddenly seemed like it hadn’t happened, or was off in the future, as if he’d imagined tying his boat to a stump, hiking up the hill. Standing, he surveyed the area, then walked to the front deck of his boat and gently lifted the trolling motor by the cord and slid it into the water. Even though Cole felt no breeze, the water rippled and lapped gently against the fiberglass hull. Using the trolling motor, he guided the boat toward the thresher on the bank and thought maybe this would be a better night for fishing than spying.

When he coasted within four feet of the stump, he eased the trolling motor out of the water and into its cradle, then knelt on the deck and placed his palm against the stump so the bow wouldn’t crash into the bank. He tied off and headed up the slope.

Shining the flashlight on the ground, he picked his way through brambles and chokeberry bushes, limbs scratching across his cheeks and ears. He tried to protect his eyes with his forearm, each clumsy footfall sounding like a gunshot in the solid silence. He tried to step more deftly, but there seemed no quiet route for size twelve boots.
From the edge of the thicket he could see the house, and the backhoe loader. He switched his flashlight off and slid it into his pocket. The backhoe loader sat motionless as a praying mantis. Now what? he thought. Just stand here till something happens? In that moment, he wasn’t sure what he’d been hoping for. Certainly he wanted to see the girl again, but why? What had he planned to do? He hadn’t thought it out that far and felt foolish. He was just about to pull his flashlight out and start back down the hill when someone blinded him with a light.

“I don’t know what you’re up to, mister, but you better freeze where you stand.”

Cole hesitated, raising his left forearm to shield his eyes from the glare. He recalled Margie saying that Hannah Pelton kept to herself, that she had a son, and that her land wasn’t for sale. This voice was definitely a woman’s.

“Who are you?” she asked.

Cole heard the unmistakable click of a hammer being drawn back. The woman eased her arm out, the barrel pointed at him, glistening in the beam from her flashlight.

“I meant no harm. I was just…” Cole said, his mind reeling with ridiculous lies, none of which reached his lips. The bones in his legs fell weak and he thought he might collapse. It had been a long time since his courage had been tested. Not since the barroom brawls in Louisiana, since the drunken fistfights after driving a bulldozer all day under a scorching Texas sun. Somewhere along the way it had wilted. Yet in all that time no one had ever stuck a gun in his face, at least not anyone with enough cause and right to shoot him.

“You come up here to take a crap on my land?” the woman said, her voice sounding more youthful.

Cole was thankful for the excuse, but hesitated to take advantage of it. How would she feel about him defecating on her property? Violated? Disgusted? Would that anger her enough to shoot him? Maybe she was crazy. “No ma’am. I…” The sentence died. He couldn’t think of one good reason to be up in those woods, at least one that wouldn’t get him shot. “Must have had a weak spot in my line,” he finally said toward the bright light. “My crank bait snapped right off on the cast. Landed somewhere up here.”

Although he had no idea where the lie came from, it sounded credible, at least to his ears. That very thing had happened on several occasions. He pointed toward the weeds, as if that’s where his lure might have landed. She swung her flashlight at the weeds, then back in his eyes before he could get a look at her.

“You weren’t even fishing,” she said. “From where I sat, you just pulled right up and tied off, like you had a purpose.”

If she shot him, how would he explain it to the doctors? Or Elsie? Or Lily? And that’s if he lived. What if she kept shooting him? He’d never been shot before, not even in the Korean War.

“Ms. Pelton?” he said. “Hannah Pelton?”

The words hung in the silence between him and the bright light.

“How do you know my name?” the woman asked.

“A feller told me you had some land for sale, said you owned a few hundred acres up and down Turnback Creek.”

“Folks say all kinds of crap that ain’t true. Just like you’re doing now.”

“Look, ma’am, I’m very sorry. I’ll just be on my way. I’ll never bother you again.”

He turned and started walking down the hill toward his boat, trying to hold his calm, stepping lightly so as not to upset the rocks or dirt, as if any disturbance could set her off, cause her to start shooting.

Thirty feet from his boat, a sharp, loud clap to the back of his head sent him to his knees. Colors thundered through his skull, red, then black, then white, small explosions. At first he thought he’d been shot, except he hadn’t heard the pop of a round. The pain focused tightly, racing deep inside his head, spreading across his scalp, down his arms. He dug his fingers into his hair and brought them out bloodied. He spun around on the ground, trying to get his bearings, bracing himself for another blow. The woman shined the light on the rocks in front of him, on the drops of blood.

“You okay, mister?”

There was no compassion in her voice. Cole nodded, pushing to his feet, trembling. He wiped his bloody fingers on his jeans. The pain thumped at his head with the cadence of a heartbeat.

“I meant to catch you in the back of your jacket with that rock, mister. Didn’t mean to draw blood.”

He was angry now, and frightened, the gun barrel dazzling in her flashlight beam.

“I figured out what you were doing up here,” she said. “You wanted to get another look at me naked. Ain’t that right?”

It was the girl. Cole wasn’t sure if the truth would get him out of this, but lying hadn’t worked. He explained how he’d been fishing the previous night when he’d heard a sound coming from the woods, that he’d gone up to explore, see if someone needed help. He told her it was too dark to really see anything except the backhoe loader bouncing across the field. Too far to see who was driving.

“You and the truth seem to be strangers to each other,” she said. “You saw me naked, at least my chest.” She swept the light back and forth across his face as if she were trying to erase his features with the beam of light. “It’s only fair I see you.”

Cole took a step back. He wasn’t about to take his clothes off. She could just shoot him, or hit him with rocks till he was dead.

“Not your pants, mister. Just your shirt. Lord knows I don’t care nothing about what you got in your jeans.”

He spun away from her, loping down the hill toward his boat, stopping when he heard the crack of her gun. It sounded as if the night sky had blown apart, the bullet ripping into the ground two feet to his right. Was she a good shot or a bad one? he wondered, looking where the round had buried in the earth. He heard her walk up behind him, a small avalanche of dirt and stones marking her approach.

“Take it off.”

Cole unbuttoned his shirt, then slid it off and held it at his side.

“Now the undershirt.”

He removed his undershirt and stood with his back to her. What would Corinne think? Never had he felt so humiliated.

“Turn around.”

He eased around slowly, facing her, then the light.

“All your chest hairs are white. Like little duck feathers.”

Cole was embarrassed, not so much by his nakedness, but by the youth and exuberance in her voice, as if growing old had been some kind of failure on his part.

The girl stepped closer. “Can I touch it?”