Aiden McCall was twelve years old the one time he heard I love you. Even then he didn’t so much hear the words as read them on his father’s lips. His mother folded a hamper of whites on the arm of the couch. He sat across from her in a recliner that was permanently locked flat and watched a fuzzy episode of Ren and Stimpy he’d seen a thousand times before. The satellite card was dead, and, even before his father quit paying the bill, the mountains blocked most channels from reaching Little Canada. Every afternoon when Aiden came home from school he watched that VHS tape of the same five episodes over and over. He knew the whole thing by heart.
Aiden was miming the words from the television when his father opened the screen door. The man stood bare-chested on the threshold with a short-nosed revolver clenched in his fist by his side. Aiden’s mother turned to face her husband, rolled a pair of socks in on themselves, but didn’t say a word. His father raised the pistol and blew the top of her head off when he pulled the trigger. There was a flash of light and blood, a short-lived smell of bourbon before the room reeked of burnt gunpowder like Black Cat firecrackers.
His father stared at him with a look in his eyes like he blamed him and him alone for the way life turned sour. Aiden had his fingers jammed in his ears, but it was too late to guard against the gun’s report. His skull hummed. “I love you,” the boy saw his father say just before he shoved that wheel gun into the back of his own throat until he gagged, the metal clanking against his teeth as he pulled his second shot.
Aiden lay in his mother’s blood on the floor piecing pictures in the popcorn ceiling together like connect-the-dots. The blood was sticky on his back. There was even a sound to it when the law finally came and the deputy peeled him off the floor. His father’s eyes still held that same look and there was no chance it would ever change. He would blame his son for eternity, and Aiden would never forget.
He woke sweaty from the same dream every night those first few weeks in the group home. It was a dream that would haunt him the rest of his life. His eyes would pop open and he’d come up gasping for air as if he were about to drown. He’d scan the room for anything familiar and find nothing at all.
The dream was a replaying of the earliest memory the boy knew of this world. He stood on wobbly legs in the kitchen doorway with food smeared sticky across his stomach. He might’ve been three years old, and he watched his father strangle his mother against the edge of the kitchen counter. Aiden remembered how her bare feet slipped and slid against crusty linoleum that rolled like birch bark at the edges, how her upper body flailed, then, seized when her spine could bend no further. She gurgled for breath, while his father screamed something about potatoes. He held Aiden’s face to the red glow of the stove eye when the child wouldn’t stop crying, and threw him where his mother lay sprawled on the floor when that didn’t work. Mother and child kept still after that. But that memory wasn’t what shook him from dream.
What scared him was what he knew in that dream. He seemed to have some unquestionable understanding, something seemingly divine, that insured in time he would become his father. There are things passed down that escape reflections in mirrors, traits that paint the inside. Those were the things that he understood, and those were the things that he feared. What he heard before he shuddered awake each night were the words of God Almighty, the Lord God saying, “In the end, blood always tells.”
In the group home, the children shared beds. Aiden shared his with a boy who mumbled facts about baseball in his sleep. The boy memorized career stats from the backs of mildewed trading cards, his collection rubberbanded together like a wad of money that he hid beneath his pillow each night. Whenever something went wrong, the kid would ramble random factoids like how many RBIs Jose Canseco had with the Oakland A’s in 1990, or what Andre Dawson’s nickname was in the Chicago Cubs clubhouse, an answer the kid would repeat over and over like some sort of crazed mantra: Awesome Dawson, Awesome Dawson, Awesome Dawson. But what Aiden hated most was that the kid wet the bed. Aiden couldn’t even remember the boy’s name, but every night he woke up sticky with the boy’s piss and he hated him for it.
He hadn’t counted days, but he’d been there around a month when he stole another boy’s clothes, a boy with the same lanky build but a bit older. Aiden would have packed his own had he not outgrown them. His joints ached and by summer he figured the growth spurt would stretch him to a spindly marionette. He stuffed his bookbag with what he took, raided the kitchen for canned goods, and weighed the bag down with as much as he thought could be carried without drawing suspicion. When he rode the school bus that morning with the rest of the orphans, he was one of them. But when afternoon came and they loaded their bus, Aiden climbed aboard another, one he knew went into Caney Fork. Theirs was not a home to where he would return.
He rode to the last stop on Sugar Creek and climbed off with a brother and sister who gazed at him in silent confusion as he walked further up the road. “Where you going, kid?” the boy hollered after him. Aiden stopped and stared at their scrunched faces. It was mid-spring and the pollen and gnats floated in the yellow glow between them. He offered no answer. He just turned and headed on.
Further, the pavement crumbled into packed gravel that cut a dusty logging road through the mountains along a stream that narrowed the higher it rose. The road was rough as a cob with rivulets from spring rain having rutted it into a continual washboard that ran a crescent-shaped route seven miles south from Caney Fork back to Little Canada.
Aiden knew the road frontward and backward. He followed a small branch of water east from Sugar Creek to a hunting camp where bad fathers gathered during open season on deer and bear to drink their memories into extinction. They’d empty bottles then turn the glass to target practice, slur their words as they bickered about who was the better shot, none of them ever killing a goddamn thing but brain cells. His father would drag him there. Then when the booze dried up and the old man couldn’t stand, he’d ask his son to drive them home.
The camp was empty now. A crude shack slapdashed together from barn wood and tin stood in a saddle of land, with another four just like it scattering a shantytown across the hillside. Aiden stood on a rusted iron pot to reach the place where the key was hidden along a shallow sill above the door.
Inside, sunlight diffused through smeared windows to make barely visible two cots against the back wall, a card table centering the room, and four mismatched chairs strewn in no particular order at all. Pots and pans hung on nails around a flattop wood stove. By the doorway, outside light shone onto a mischief of mummified field mice that lay gnarled with tiny, yellow-toothed smiles atop rotted food scraps and litter in the bottom of a dull silver trashcan. The cabin smelled like wet paper, but more importantly it smelled like something familiar. He thought he could stay there a while.
Those first few weeks, spring made it easy to scrounge meals from the mountains: ramps and wild potatoes, speckled trout and branch lettuce. He even found hickory chickens, wild mushrooms that had bloomed from the black soil along rotten logs overnight after a late afternoon rain poured the valley full of fog. But soon spring was gone and the petals of trilliums wilted, melted back into the earth as if they’d never existed at all. Before long, the days grew hot and the mountains were swallowed in green.
Sugar Creek Gap.
Aiden was crouched in a small grove of black balsam that stood at Sugar Creek Gap where the road peaked out as high as it climbed. Down the other side, switchbacks snaked down the mountain to Charleys Creek, and just a mile or two from there is where he’d grown up. The stand of balsam had always seemed unnatural where it grew. Folks in Little Canada had always told stories about that place, about the strange mounds of earth that swelled beneath gnarled roots. They said there were bodies buried there, and maybe there were. Aiden squatted with his elbows braced on his knees and drew patterns in the dirt with a stick. He never even saw Thad Broom walk up.
“You know I kind of wondered if this is where you might’ve run off to.”
Aiden looked up at the redheaded boy. He stood with no shirt on in the middle of the road, mud caked about his chest and face, a pair of jeans that were too big for him cinched into a wad around his waist with a length of nylon rope. Aiden didn’t speak.
“There’s a lot of folks looking for you.”
Aiden looked up with squinted eyes to where the sun reflected white off the boy’s pale body. “The law?” he asked.
“Hell.” Thad huffed and shook his head. “The law, churches, everybody.”
Aiden flicked his eyes to the ground beneath him where he’d scribbled his signature in shoddy cursive. He rubbed his name out with the toe of his boot and looked back to where Thad stood. “You going to tell them where I’m at?”
“Why hell no. What do you think I am? Some goddamned rat?” Thad walked over and collapsed Indian style into the dirt.
He was the only friend Aiden McCall had ever had. They were the same age and both lived on Charleys Creek, had always ridden the same school bus and been in the same class. While most kids their age shaded their eyes with snap-back Atlanta Braves caps, fielded grounders, and shagged fly-balls, Aiden and Thad stole soft packs of Pall Malls from behind the counter of Ken’s Grocery while the old man who owned the place slathered mayo on chuckwagons neither boy could pay for.
Thad leaned back and pulled a pack of smokes from his pocket. He slipped a coffin nail into his lips and struck a match from a book he kept fitted in the cellophane. He pinched the cigarette between his fingers, drew smoke into his mouth, and puffed his cheeks out before he inhaled. He tried to blow smoke rings but it was just little clouds sputtering out like ellipses. He took another quick drag and passed it.
Aiden hadn’t had a cigarette in months and that first taste was as if he’d never had one at all. He held in his first drag until he was lightheaded, then blew the smoke into the balsams above. “What you doing back in here anyhow?” Aiden asked.
“Been camping at Bee Rock. Trying to stay in touch with my heritage.”
“Why hell yes. You know I’m half Cherokee, don’t you? My daddy was full blooded. Hell, he was chief over there on the rez for a little while.”
“You’re full of shit.”
“Like hell I am.”
The boys sat there passing cigarettes back and forth, neither saying anything of great importance. It was the happiest Aiden had been in a long time. After a while, Thad asked where Aiden had been living and Aiden told him about the camp.
“You know you could come live with me don’t you?” Thad asked with a cigarette jumping about his mouth as he spoke.
“I don’t think your mom would go for that.”
“I don’t live with her anymore.”
“What do you mean you don’t live there?”
“I mean you know that trailer that was down there below the house, at the bottom of the drive?”
“Well that old cocksucker my mama’s married to cleaned it out and moved me in down there. Said he didn’t want to look at me no more and I told him I wouldn’t piss down his throat if his guts was on fire.”
“And your mom just let him?”
“She ain’t say a word.” Thad stared off to where Sugar Creek Gap opened a view to mountains shaded grayish blue by distance and haze. He lowered his brow as if he were thinking long and hard about something that he couldn’t quite figure out. After a while his face relaxed. “It ain’t that bad. Really it ain’t.” He glanced at Aiden with a slight grin. “I can do anything I want down there. I’ve got a whole shoebox of titty magazines.”
Aiden shook his head and spit between his knees into the dirt.
“Hell, check this out.” Thad leaned to one side and pulled his billfold from his back pocket. He tore the velcro to get inside, picked a folded magazine page that looked to be the only thing the wallet held, and opened the crinkled centerfold on the ground between them. “You know what I’d say to her if I ever got the chance? You know what I’d say, Aid?”
“I’d look her right square in them baby blues and I’d ask her if there was any tread left on them tires, or if it’d be like throwing a hotdog down a hallway? That’s what I’d ask her.”
Both of them snickered and ogled at the dark-haired vixen who bit the tip of her finger, her back arched and breasts up, with her other hand disappearing to some place between her legs that neither boy knew a thing about aside from lies and pictures. Thad said pussy tasted like cherry pie and Aiden told Thad that girls could get pregnant if they swallowed. That’s how the conversation went for most of the afternoon, just boys being boys.
By the end of it, Aiden took Thad up on his offer and as the heat followed the sun toward evening, he felt about as happy as he’d ever felt in his good-for-nothing life. There were lightning bugs playing Marco Polo back and forth across the field grass, and by the time the boys made it back to the hunting camp to gather Aiden’s belongings, night was almost upon them. They slept on the ground, each with his hands interlocked under the crown of his head for a pillow. Through a scant opening in the canopy above them they watched stars move on to some place else, and woke the next morning curled in the leaf litter and ferns like a pair of stray dogs. Their bodies shimmered with dew and they shivered to reclaim what warmth had escaped them. Thad gathered wood and Aiden built a fire. The world would never again seem so open.
(The Weight Of This World is tentatively scheduled for release in 2017 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Check the website, www.david-joy.com, periodically for updates on the novel.)