Fiction by Bethany Browning
The school nurse suggested I might have clinical depression, so naturally the first thing Momma did was take me to see her psychic .
“It’s a demon,” Miss Charlene said, too bluntly for my taste.
“It lives in the upper right-hand corner of your bedroom,” She sucked a deep drag on her Newport. “Chicken feet. Big nose. It’s draining your happiness like straw in a Slurpee. Slurp. Slurp. Slurp.” She waggled her fingers at me.
“Looks like Strega Nona?” I asked in all seriousness. “With a straw?”
“You’re thinkin’ of Baba Yaga, baby,” Momma said. She tut-tutted. “Never should’ve let that Moldovan exchange student sit you that one time.”
“I don’t think so,” I said. I knew what was depleting my life force and it wasn’t no forest witch. It was a slit-eyed redneck boy named Road Rash what was giving me a case of the Mondays and I wanted him dead.
I knew better than to say that out loud. But then that backwoods mystic took a deep breath and stubbed out her lung dart. She took both my hands in hers, looked uncomfortably deep into my eyes and said, “Little girl, you’re fixin’ to be famous.”
Here’s what I knew about famous. My uncle had it once and died on account of it. My daddy wanted it now and he was willing to kill for it. And my momma said Daddy’d never get it on account of his weak chin and soft teeth.
Uncle Stoney was famous because he had a pit bull named Sluggo what could shimmy up a loblolly pine to fetch a flour cloth bag full of deer jerky. When he wasn’t taking Sluggo round to all the state fairs and whatnot, he was on TV. Local. Regional. National. For about three years he and that pittie was everywhere. Johnny Carson had him and the dog on his Hollywood show three times, and I got to stay up late to watch it. Sluggo and him even went to Japan, where Uncle Stoney learned that the people who live there eat raw fish with sticks.
“You mean fish sticks?” I asked.
“Naw,” Stoney said. “They call ‘em chopsticks. Craziest thing you ever saw.”
Then my Momma called him a Philistine and asked her how to spell it so I could look it up in the dictionary. She was right. Stoney, for all his glitter and glamour, was a full-blown Philistine.
But my point of all this is that my daddy’s brother was right famous until his wife found out he was cheating with a woman who had a cat that could meow the theme song to Dallas. She slipped a crawdad  into his soup so his gullet would swell shut on account of his shellfish allergy. My beloved Uncle Stoney bloated up like a dead toad left on a hot road and dropped dead in front of the Frigidaire.
I wanted nothing to do with fame if that’s what it brung a person. But my Daddy was another story.
How he planned to do that, I’ll tell you in a minute. I got to lay a bit of track here first, so you understand where this story’s going.
I was opposite. I’d had quite enough of folks looking at me and my general direction thanks to that knuckle-dragging pig fucker named Road Rash I mentioned before. What I wanted was to be left alone. For good. So when that clairvoyant looked at me with her dead eyes and said fame was coming for me, I was scared as if she’d told me a skunk ape laid eggs in my babydoll buggy. The demon didn’t even register. I’d battled things worse than demons when my daddy was drinking.
It wasn’t no picnic, Daddy rolling home at daybreak, yelling and screaming over me and Momma when all we wanted to do was to eat our Jimmy Deans in peace. He’d gotten physical a few times—including that day he’d thought it’d be hilarious to toss two bowling balls onto the trampoline with me —and I limped into school worse for wear more mornings than I could count. Most kids stopped looking me in the eye, but Road Rash was on me like a shark that’d sniffed blood in the water. It makes sense now that I look back on it. All shit balls roll downhill and when you’re under five feet, weigh seventy-five pounds and show up with a smashed face and cracked teeth in fifth grade, guess what. You ain’t even left basecamp, baby.
Road Rash started with calling me Taterface and all that kind of nonsense. Flicking spitballs into my hair. Sticking his foot out into the aisle to trip over when I walked to the pencil sharpener. Sneezing my nickname. Knocking my books off my desk. Nothing too clever, on account of he wasn’t capable of nothing that required imagination. He stuck to the greatest hits. The problem was that all the other kids piled on, too, and I was the unwilling center of their hostile attention every single day.
Depressed? You bet. After an entire school year of this, and getting whiplash from turning my other cheek, felt like I’d been eaten by a bear and shit off a cliff.
In the middle of all this stupidity Daddy discovered Jesus, quit drinking, and commenced to building an ark in the backyard.
“What’s an ark?” I asked.
He launched into the most insane story I’d ever heard. God and floods and animals two by two.
“You believe that, Daddy?”
He said he did. And I said he’ll believe anything, then.
“You wait, baby girl,” he said. “I’ll build this boat here for Jesus and then he will bless us with fame and fortune. People’ll pay to see it.”
I shuddered. Seemed to me that hundreds of animals crammed on a boat was a recipe for disaster. “Jesus don’t need no boat,” I reminded him. “Folks say he walked on water.”
Then he said, “You’re too young to understand.” I disagreed, but I wasn’t in no mood to explain to a grown man that you can’t float all them creatures on a boat together. The gators alone would treat his good-ship-godly-pop like an all-you-can-eat buffet and that was before he’d even figure out where in all of South Cackalackey he was going to find two tigers willing to share a cubby hole the size of a milk crate.
He got back to hammering, and I jumped on my rusty old bike. I’d heard there was demolition derby at the fairground and I was not trying to miss that.
There was no need for me to hurry. These derbies lasted all day long. But I was feeling wild and free, going as fast as I could, wind whooshing past my ears, taking my hands off the handlebars to feel like I was soaring through the clouds. I was reaching my arms toward the metal beams that crossed the Black Creek Bridge at the entryway to the fairgrounds, when my flared hems got hanked up in my bike chain and I was hurled ass over teakettle onto the asphalt.
After I pried the pebbles out of the heels of my hands, and checked for traffic coming either way, I dragged myself—bike clamped on to me like a pitbull gripping a sack of beef jerky—to the side of the street, where that drooling meat bag full of stupid, Road Rash, was waiting on his own bike.
“Good one,” he guffawed. “You’re supposed to roll your pants up, dumbass.”
I sensed that no help for me was coming from that direction, so I worked on unraveling this puzzle myself. It wasn’t like it hadn’t happened before. I wiggled loose, stood up and blew my bangs out of my face.
Road Rash glowered at me.
“You got something you want to say to me?” I asked. “Or are there not enough people around? No one to humiliate me in front of?”
He dismounted and dropped his bike to the ground. He had a look on his face I didn’t recognize, cold, distant. Normally when he came after me his eyes twinkled.
I backed up.
He grabbed my bike in his grimy, freckled mitts. He hoisted it over his head like a trophy as he marched onto the bridge and tossed it over the side. He didn’t even wait for the splash before getting on his own bike and pedaling across the bridge toward the demolition derby.
I looked over the edge at where she’d gone in. I’d jumped off this bridge before and I could maybe do it again. But right at the opening edge of summer some kid I didn’t know had jumped—just like we all do—and had gotten murdered by a swarm of water moccasins. They attack in groups and are deadly. I waved bye to my bike and got on with it.
My pickle was thoroughly dilled by the time I walked all the way home. But there wasn’t no time to rant and fuss like I wanted to—there was a TV crew at my house. And my daddy, getting interviewed by Leezay Quattlebaum of the Noontime News Team.
I stood there watching the whole thing and learned that if you hold your mouth open long enough, you will catch a fly. I spit it out, and my mouth dropped open again as I watched them wrap it up and pack everything into their van.
My daddy was about to bust out of his britches he was so proud. I’d never seen that expression on his face before, and believe me, it was off-putting.
“Leezay says the story’ll air at noon,” he said, still grinning like he won a bet. “Tell Momma to make some pimento cheese sandwiches and we’ll watch your Daddy get famous over lunch.”
I did as I was told because I always did as I was told. Momma looked like she would die of embarrassment, but I’d seen that look before, so I knew what to do about it and that was keep my cake hole shut.
Until Leezay started her report, we three sat mutely, the only sound the mushy-moist chewing sounds of pimento cheese on white bread . Then, disaster.
You think you know how ridiculous something it is until it’s beamed into your living room at noon on a Saturday and a gaggle of hairsprayed, white-toothed know-it-alls make fun of it. Leezay had no interest in making Daddy famous for his building skills or his devotion to the Lord. He was the daily local moron, a laughingstock. And his ark? I’d only seen it from one angle. They showed the whole thing and I swear it looked like something a kindergartner slapped together with her tools for tiny tots.
“We have to move,” Momma said, collecting our plates and throwing them in the trash.
Daddy stewed. I thought at one point I could smell his brain boiling.
“I think you should keep going,” I told him. “Would Noah quit just because some haircut called him ‘arking mad’ on some second-rate Saturday infotainment show?”
He sucked his teeth. His face turned red. I knew this look, too. And I knew best to get the hell out of there.
Later that afternoon, after Daddy’d tied a few on, he stumbled through my bedroom door. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I could smell him from where I was sitting and I was on guard. Anything could happen now. And it had. And it probably would again.
“I need your bike,” he said. “I’m out and your momma threw the keys into the backyard.”
I hesitated to tell him what had happened that morning. He stood there, looking at me, waiting.
“Where’d you put it,” he said, stepping toward me in a way that signaled he wasn’t playing.
“It’s in Black Creek,” I said. “Under the bridge.”
I told him everything. How I tried to get to the demolition derby. The bike chain. Road Rash.
“Let’s go get it,” He rubbed his hands together like he’d just hatched a plan for a jewel heist. I reminded him about the water moccasins. And gators.
“Then let’s go get Road Rash,” he said.
I jumped up. “Yes, sir,” I said, thinking about all the fun I was about to have when my drunk daddy unleashed on that human-shaped turd burger. “But you’re gonna let me drive .”
Before we got to the bridge, I pulled Daddy’s truck over to prove to him there wasn’t no way I’d be able to pull it outta there. He seemed satisfied, and jumped in the back of the truck.
“You don’t want to ride up here with me? It’s only a few more yards.”
He shook his head no.
“All right then.”
I maneuvered the truck into the parking lot. I could hear the sounds of the cars crashing, the announcer’s high-pitched southern yawp and the crowd screaming. I loved it and wished I could stay. But daddy got eyes on Road Rash right quick. He was eating a blue sno cone that’d turned his lips corpse blue.
The crowd parted as my daddy marched toward Road Rash, whose eyes were as wide as I’d seen them, which ain’t saying much.
Daddy smacked that sno cone outta his hands and before anyone else could say boo, he’d wrangled Road Rash into a half-nelson and dragged him back to the truck, where he tossed him onto the flatbed. He climbed in behind him and banged twice on the tailgate .
I didn’t know what the plan was, but so far, I was having the time of my life. He banged twice again when we got to the bridge. I screeched to a halt because it was fun. Daddy looked pretty badass dropping out of the back, holding Road Rash in a vise-like grip, and dragging him to the guardrails.
“You throw my girl’s bike in there?” Daddy had him pretty tight, but Road Rash continued to wriggle like a worm. He didn’t answer.
A small crowd had gathered, probably followed from the derby seeing as the parking lot was right there. But no one stepped in to help. Says a lot about Road Rash, if you ask me.
I was having a high time, but then I started thinking about how Road Rash was going to take this out on me. And how when Daddy got riled up like this, sometimes he turned on me. By that time, I was having less fun.
“Daddy, put him down,” I said, halfheartedly. There was a part of me that still wanted to see how far this could go. I’m only human.
“Put him down? You want me to put him down? All right, baby girl. You get your wish.” He tossed Road Rash, screaming, right over the edge like he was a sack full of unwanted puppies.
I knew he could swim, but there was stuff in there that could kill him quick if Daddy’d picked the wrong moment to make a grand gesture. Road Rash splashed around in the current; I waited for the dreaded water moccasins to tear him to pieces, or for a gator to drag him under.
But just like most of my life, nothing happened, and everything turned out fine. I still didn’t get my bike, though.
“We better go now,” I said, and we both jumped in the truck and sped out of there like we was Bo and Luke Duke.
We didn’t mention none of this to Momma. She’d find out something soon enough. Anyway, she was pretty dead set on moving after the shame Leezay Quattlebaum had leveled on this family.
Daddy disappeared into his drinking. Momma hid from him and refused to come out. And I was in my room, pacing. None of this was going to end well.
And what Daddy done might be funny to me. But it wasn’t going to be funny to Road Rash. He was going to escalate, and I was terrified.
“Demon,” I said, knowing how ridiculous this sounded. “If you’re here, help me out. I don’t want to deal with none of this alone.”
And y’all aren’t going to believe this, but the demon talked back .
I felt pretty good the next day, all things considered. Daddy was already outside making a racket on his boat, and Momma had just sat down with the paper. It was like nothing had happened at all and I was pleased as punch to play along. It’s what we did.
She looked up and asked me if I knew a Charles St. John.
I said, no ma’am I do not know a person by that name and why should I? She told me he was my age and that he’d gone missing after his house burned down. “Folks are calling him an arsonist and saying he run off.”
“Let me see that,” I said. And there he was, slack-jawed and squinty-faced, staring at me from the front page of the Burryville Bugle. Road Rash.
“Never seen him in my life,” I said, sitting down.
“That’s odd,” Momma said, her finger tracing through the article to find something. “Says here he’s in your class.” She passed the paper toward me. I refused to pick it up.
“Trouble remembering people, places and things is a symptom of depression. Maybe you should take me to a doctor, not a witch.”
Momma started to defend herself, something about Miss Charlene and health insurance, when Daddy stuck his head in through the screen door. “Y’all seen my buzzsaw?”
“I’ll help you look for it,” I said, grateful to be freed from Momma’s rant on how doctors don’t know nothing.
Daddy was in a snit about his missing tools. Buzzsaw. Blowtorch. Flashlight. I didn’t want to bring up the fact that he’d been drinking, but my mouth was working faster than my brain again.
“Maybe this is God’s way of punishing you for taking up the liquor again,” I said, and before he could take a swat at me, the cops pulled into the driveway with their lights on.
Daddy took a more measured approach. His experiences with the police had not been positive. He assumed a defiant position. He spit.
The fuzz kept their distance, too. I think they weren’t quite sure what to make of the giant contraption that looked not remotely nautical and wanted to stay back.
“We’d like to ask you some questions,” the one with the big belly shouted.
“Go right ahead,” Daddy said, not moving.
“Witnesses said they watched you toss a boy named Charles St. John off the Black Creek bridge the other day ago.”
“Was that his name? We was playing,” Daddy said. “You know how kids like to jump off.”
The one with the big belly looked at the one with the long sideburns. Then back at Daddy.
“That’s not how the witnesses said it went,” he called back.
“That boy swam to the bank and crawled out. That’s the last I saw of him.”
“Someone says they saw your truck near his house the night it burned down.”
“Not possible, officers,” Daddy said, confident like he’d just won a trivia game. “I was too drunk to drive. You can ask my wife.”
The officers looked at me. Did they think I was his wife? I nodded just in case.
Sideburns checked his notes. “We need to circle back,” he said. “Y’all enjoy your day, now. And watch the beers. We may need to come back and ask some questions.”
They got in their car and drove off. I ran into the bathroom to pee. I don’t know what I would have done had they thought to ask me something. I would of spilled it all.
“Gator!” Momma yelled up to my room. “This is not a drill. Gator shot at the lake.”
I bolted downstairs and the three of us jumped into the truck, me in the middle, and sped to the boat launch at the mouth of the man-made lake that Black Creek dumped into. Gator Day was my town’s Christmas, and you never knew when it was gonna happen. You had to be ready.
Gators out of the water were always so much bigger than you thought they’d be. Even the young uns are the size of a Harley Davidson and the older ones are big as canoes.
I get reminded of this every Gator Day when some show-off kills one and drags it on shore. I think it’s stupid, personally, to preen like a peacock over shooting something that can’t shoot back, but I’m not the one in charge. At any rate, every time one of these rednecks blasts a ditch lizard in the brain, they hoist it up on a meat hook and slice it open from its throat to its tail. And every time, a whole bunch of mysteries get solved.
Golf balls, dog and cat collars, beach towels, laundry, small tools, children’s toys—anything that looks tasty and unprotected is going to find its way into a gator’s gullet. Every pet owner whose Fluffy or Fido went MIA comes to Gator Day and, likely as not, they find their fur baby’s collar. It’s closure, in a way.
I guess Road Rash looked tasty too. When they slit this one open, his slimy body slid out and slumped into a heap onto the pavement like that gator’d given birth to it.
And even though technically the gator was not part of the plan, I knew I could make it work.
The crowd gasped, just like in a movie. Everyone knew exactly who it was. He’d only been digesting for about forty-eight hours, so, other than the fact that he was sawed to pieces, he looked like himself. His eyes were a little livelier, though, I noted.
“Looks like that kid yee’d his last haw,” I said, like I was new in town.
Chaos ensued. Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-deputy showed up. An ambulance arrived. Road Rash’s parents had been notified and they came to ID the body, even though it was obvious. You could see that red hair from space. The real news team rolled up, too. Not that hack Leezay Quattlebaum. We got Bryce McGentry himself.
Nobody was paying much attention to the other treasures the gator’s flayed tummy revealed. I thought it would be helpful to point them out.
“Hey, Daddy,” I said. “Ain’t this one of your buzzsaw blades?”
I could tell it was by the look on his face. And so could everyone else.
“And this?” I continued. “This looks a lot like your blowtorch.”
“Sir, were you missing these items?” Sideburns was all of a sudden interested.
“He sure was, weren’t you Daddy?” I emphasized Daddy so they didn’t still think I, a fifth grader, was married to a beer-swilling, ark-building child abuser.
I moved away from the crowd and as far from the cameras as I could get without returning home. I didn’t like the lights, nor the questions. I didn’t want fame. Not for this. Not for nothing.
But Daddy did. And if this don’t explain what a bona fide psychopath my daddy is, then you ain’t never gonna get it: He liked the idea that all these people thought he set a kid’s house on fire, chopped him into pieces with God’s own buzzsaw, and fed him to a gator the size of a crop duster. He even grinned while they was cuffing him. And the next day, his name was in everyone’s mouth. Local. Regional. National. Just like Sluggo. Daddy got what he wanted. After all he put me through, I did that fucker a favor.
Miss Charlene was in the crowd, too, and I could feel her eyes burning through me. She pointed at me and stamped her cigarette out with her Reebok. My mind raced. I was afraid the jig was up.
She sauntered up alongside me, casual as all get-out.
“Good girl,” she whispered. And no one heard it but me.
 It ain’t like you’re thinking with velvet drapes and a crystal ball. This sorceress worked out of her double-wide at the Scape Ore Swamp trailer park, where she also cut men’s hair in her kitchen.
 He did not eat the crawdad with a stick.
 This is as bad as it sounds. After the first one hit my face, it broke my nose and two teeth. Then, the other one double bounced me right into that gardenia bush my momma watered with pickle juice. I know you’re thinking this must be the incident that got him sober, but it wasn’t and that’s a whole other story for a whole other day.
 Ain’t had one since. Never will again.
 In Podunk towns like mine it was perfectly normal for kids whose feet reached the pedals to drive their drunk daddies around, so relax your sphincter, please.
 This is the universal sign for “Gun it, girl.”
 He was full of ideas, but he spoke in a telepathic language I can’t spell so you’re going to have to trust me.
Bethany Browning once stood knee-deep in swamp mud for six hours waiting for the Lizard Man of Lee County to appear. Oh, the things she learned! Unfortunately, she has vowed to never write about this experience. Her fiction has been published in Stories We Tell After Midnight Volume 3, Angel Rust, Filth Literary Magazine, Esoterica, Mudroom and Sunlight Press. You can follow her on Twitter @buzzwordsocial.