BILLY JOE didn’t move as he realized that being here was a huge mistake. He blanched and was relieved no one could see him. The chirping of birds and singing of cicadas had faded, replaced with a chorus of crickets emanating from the tall trees. Spanish moss hung from the branches, and the only light came from a bonfire that did little to pierce the blackness. The night was hot and sultry, but cold fear left Billy Joe with ice water running through his veins, wishing to hell he’d stayed home and kept his curiosity in check.
He turned and slowly made his way back down the old trail, hoping like hell he didn’t step on anything. He made it about halfway to his car before his stomach rebelled, and he leaned over, losing his dinner in the undergrowth by the side of the trail.
He did his best to make as little sound as possible, wiped his lips, and continued on to the road. He stumbled to his old black Escape and got inside, started the engine, and pulled out, waiting for some distance to turn his lights on, hoping he was far enough away to not draw anyone’s notice.
“Jesus Christ,” Billy Joe breathed under his breath, gripping the wheel until his knuckles turned white, pressing the accelerator damn near to the floor in a desperate need to get the hell out of there. More than anything, he wished he could unsee what he’d witnessed. The reverend always said things happened for a reason. Billy Joe wondered if the long-winded old gasbag wasn’t right about something for once, but he’d be damned if he could see the reason behind something like this.
Billy Joe’s hands trembled, and he pulled off to the side of the road, breathing deeply, willing the shuddering in his hands and legs to subside. Damn it all, he wasn’t going to do this again. He shook his hands rapidly and took calming breaths, pushing away what he’d seen. Billy Joe knew he had to seem as normal and relaxed as possible when he got back home. Feeling a little better, he got back onto the road, heading toward the city.
A plan—he needed a plan, Billy Joe realized as he reached the outskirts of town. He turned into a Walmart parking lot and hurried inside. Reaching an ATM, he used his card to take out as much cash as it would allow and stuffed it into his wallet. He grabbed a cart and decided now was a good time to do some shopping. Originally he’d thought that bringing a few things home might provide a cover for where he’d been, but as the image of his new future solidified, Billy Joe knew what he needed to do.
After trips up one aisle and down the next, he had the cart pretty full. Lastly, he added a couple of bags of chips and the Cheetos his mother adored to the top of the cart and headed for the checkout. He shifted his weight from foot to foot as he paid for everything, then pushed the cart out the door and to his car. He loaded everything into the back, out of sight, except for a single bag with the snacks, and drove home.
“Hi, Mama,” Billy Joe said quietly as he stepped inside through the screen door. He set his bag on the table and hugged her the way he usually did, feeling very little. The scales had fallen from his eyes and he saw things more clearly. “How is Tyler? Thank you for watching him for me.” He pulled out the chair and sat down, his balance going a little wonky.
“Were you drinking with those good-for-nothing friends of yours?” she scolded in a tone only mothers seem to have mastered—that weird mix of anger at the behavior and acceptance that boys will be boys.
“I stopped and had a beer at the Road House.” That place was always so crowded that, on any given night, anyone could be there and no one was going to remember shit. “Only one, and then I got some snacks and came home. I needed a chance to breathe a little bit.” Billy Joe pulled out the bag of snacks as a silent peace offering, at least to the tiny niggle of his conscience. He’d just lied to his mother, something he rarely did.
“It’s all right. Tyler and I had a quiet evening, and he went to bed a couple hours ago. He’s such an angel.” She poured herself a mug of coffee and sat back down. She opened the bag of cheesy snacks and ate them one at a time. He knew from experience that she’d finish the entire bag if she allowed herself. But she closed the bag and put it away after a few minutes, the packaging rustling as Billy Joe left the room.
He quietly crept down the hall to Tyler’s tiny room and peeked inside at his sleeping son. The space was little more than a closet that held Tyler’s crib and small dresser. Billy Joe went inside and closed the door behind him. He stood next to the crib, watching Tyler sleep as a tear ran down his cheek, followed by another. He wiped them away, knowing they couldn’t be seen, no matter what.
Tyler was the light of his life—an accident that had resulted in the greatest happiness and pride so far in his young life. Carol Ann had been the mistake. Getting involved with her had been hell. She’d said she was on the pill, but she’d lied or done something wrong. She got pregnant and had asked Billy Joe to take her out of state to a clinic so she could take care of it. When he’d refused, she threatened him, saying her father would come after him unless he agreed to marry her. At least he’d been smarter than that. He was not going to get trapped in a marriage with a girl who was involved with two other guys. In the end she had the baby, and he requested a paternity test. By some miracle, he was Tyler’s father and agreed to raise him. Carol Ann was happy enough to sign whatever he wanted and walk away.
Tyler had blue eyes and light hair, gifts from his mother, and an easy disposition, from Billy Joe, according to his mother. Tyler sniffled and turned over, pulling at the blankets that Billy Joe had straightened. He settled down again immediately.
Billy Joe’s plan solidified as he stood next to the crib, watching. He went to the window, looked out, and then glanced around the room. A clothes basket sat next to the dresser, with Tyler’s folded laundry.
Billy Joe leaned over the side of the crib, kissed Tyler’s hair gently, and picked up the basket. He opened the door, listened, and heard his mother still in the kitchen. Quietly, he went to his room, closed the door, and turned on the lights. He set the basket on the bed and hurried to the window. His father wasn’t home yet. Billy Joe had to get busy.
He pulled open the closet door and shifted the junk of twenty-three years collected in the same place. “There has to be that old….” He smiled when he found the duffel bag and backpack he’d used when he’d gone camping in high school, in the back of the closet under a pile of old shoes. Billy Joe dusted them off and, as carefully as he could, emptied the contents of the laundry basket into the duffel. He gathered some of Tyler’s books and stuffed toys, adding them to the bag, along with more clothes he had in one of his drawers because Tyler’s little dresser was too small to hold everything. With the duffel full, he zipped it closed and stuffed it under the bed, out of sight.
Billy Joe cracked the door open. The flicker of the television lit the walls, the muffled volume on low, and he realized his mother was in the living room.
He closed the door and searched for something else to hold stuff. Getting down on his hands and knees, he checked under the bed, hoping for a box. An old suitcase caught his eye, and he tugged it out. It was small, with Chewbacca on it, and Billy Joe remembered using it when he was a kid. It must have been there for years, shoved back near the wall behind the leg of the bed. He filled it with more of Tyler’s things and slid it back under the bed.
That part done, he needed something else. Maybe plastic garbage bags? He wished he’d thought to buy some at Walmart.
Billy Joe left his room, checking that everything looked normal. He grabbed the basket, took it back to the laundry area, and placed it with the others before joining his mother, who was slouched in the old recliner that no longer reclined.
“Where’s Dad?” he asked as innocently as he dared.
“He went to a meeting.” She popped a single Cheeto into her mouth, then licked the cheese off her fingers. “You shouldn’t bring me these. I’ll just eat them all.” Her sigh filled the room. She got up, closed the bag once again, and put it in the kitchen cupboard with a soft bang. She returned and sat in the chair. She was getting older, her dark auburn hair now streaked with gray. She had been beautiful when she was younger, and vestiges of that beauty were still there. She took reasonable care of herself, in most ways.
“Did he say what he was doing?” Billy Joe pressed.
She shook her head, already turning her attention to one of the Real Housewives shows, with their manufactured, petty dramas. “He said there was someone they needed to teach a lesson.” She didn’t look at him until a commercial came on. “People like that need to learn their place, and it ain’t around decent folks.” The sharp snap in her voice told him all he needed to know. His mother was well aware of what was going on. “Now, let me watch my show.” The ice in her tea tinkled as she lifted it to her lips.
Billy Joe sat with her a few minutes, knowing she wasn’t going to be moving for a while. Then he got up and went down the hall to his parents’ room. Billy Joe knew his mother kept a suitcase under the bed, and he dropped down, found it on her side, and pulled it out. He quietly returned to his room.
After closing the door, he opened the suitcase on the bed and began tossing in clothes from his dresser. He filled the backpack, added the important papers he kept in his top drawer, and then turned to the suitcase. Once it was bulging, he slid both it and the backpack under the bed.
“Daddy,” Tyler cried, and Billy Joe glanced back to make sure the room appeared normal before going to Tyler’s room. Light briefly shone in the window and then faded. Billy Joe lifted Tyler into his arms, cradling him as he looked out the window in time to see his father’s bulky silhouette lumber up the walk. “Is Grampy home?”
“I think so.” Billy Joe grabbed the changing pad off the top of the dresser and got Tyler’s diaper off, cleaned him up, and put him back in his pajamas. He wrapped up the wet diaper and placed it in a plastic bag to take out with him, then picked Tyler up again. “Go on back to sleep now.”
“Is Grampy gonna yell?” Tyler hugged him tightly.
Billy Joe slowly rocked on his feet to lull Tyler back to sleep. “No yelling.” He hoped. His father didn’t talk; he barked and growled. “Just go back to sleep. I’m here, and it’s nice and quiet.”
The door opened and his father peered in. Billy Joe pretended not to notice and continued rocking Tyler, humming until he fell back to sleep and his father closed the door behind him. Billy Joe put Tyler in his crib and covered him with a light blanket in the air-conditioned room. He spied the diaper bag and filled it with additional clothes and supplies, stuffing the thing to the gills. He quietly left, intending to go back to his room.
“Boy,” his father growled.
“Clyde, Tyler is asleep,” his mother hushed gently.
His father flashed her a look of annoyance and turned to lead him out to the back screened-in porch. Billy Joe’s blood ran colder with each step. “I need you to go to the construction office and open up in the morning. Just stay there and answer the phones until I come in.” He glared, the stench of stale sweat and God knew what else rolling off him, along with high testosterone fueled by adrenaline. “I have some things I need to dispose of first thing.”
Billy Joe nodded. “Sure. I can do that. But I have to go to work at noon.” He tried to keep his voice light and carefree. He had to push what he’d seen out of his head, or standing this close to his father would make him sick.
His father pointed a finger at him menacingly. “Just do what I tell you and stay until I get back. If anyone asks, I’m at a job site. Left in the morning, and I’m expected back any time. You hear me, boy?” He curled his upper lip. “If anyone presses you, call me.” He turned away and stomped back into the house.
Billy Joe followed. He went straight through to his room, closed the door, and lay on the bed. If the past replayed, his father would stay up for a while to calm down, and then his parents would go to bed. Thankfully they were both pretty heavy sleepers. He just needed to wait until they were asleep.
Billy Joe didn’t dare move or draw attention to himself. He turned out his light and stared up at the ceiling. He had plenty of time to think on how much he hated his life here. His father was a bastard and a bully. His mother was kind enough but went along with his father. Hell, the two of them shared one mind on a lot of things. Billy Joe could take all that—they were his family, after all—but he didn’t want Tyler growing up the way he had. He should have more than what they had here.
Tyler’s wariness of his grampy truly sucked. But Billy Joe knew exactly how that felt. He had been taught to fear and obey the man from a young age. His father was only replicating the situation with his grandson. Tyler deserved better than that, and it was now up to Billy Joe to make sure his son had that chance. Getting the hell out of here was the only way it would happen. He’d known that for a while. Billy Joe began to shake as he remembered what he’d seen. Getting them both away wasn’t a choice any longer.
Billy Joe listened as his parents headed to their room. All he needed to do was wait until they were asleep. He closed his eyes for a moment, then pulled the pillow up around his head as a rhythmic squeak from the next room reached his ears. God, that was the last thing he wanted to hear. He did not want to think of his parents going at it. They grew quiet quickly, and Billy Joe hoped to hell they fell to sleep fast as well.
Billy Joe dozed off and woke with a start. He got up and opened his bedroom door. The house was silent. He closed the door and opened his window. The heat and humidity rampaged into the room, but he ignored it. As silently as he could, he pulled the duffel bag and backpack out from under the bed and tossed them out the window. The small suitcase fit as well, and he pushed that out, watching as it landed in the grass. Billy Joe closed the window again, the air-conditioning working to banish the unseasonal heat.
He opened the door again and set the large suitcase just outside, then walked to Tyler’s room as softly as he could so the damn floor didn’t creak. He figured he was only going to get one chance at this. Once inside, he closed the door and gathered the two cases of diapers from under the changing table and tossed them out Tyler’s window. Next he carefully lifted Tyler into his arms. Tyler fussed for a second and then fell to sleep on his shoulder. Billy Joe grabbed the diaper bag and slung it over his other shoulder. Then he left the room and returned to his, wishing he’d brought the suitcase with him. He retrieved it and carefully, step by step, headed for the front door.
He fiddled with the screen door. The damn thing stuck, and he had to work it open carefully to avoid the screech the fucking thing usually made.
Somehow, luck was with him, or maybe it was the humidity smoothing the way, but he made it outside and closed the screen most of the way before hurrying over the weedy lawn to his car. He opened the back door and got Tyler into his car seat, then wrestled the suitcase and diaper bag onto the driver’s side of the back seat. He tiptoed over the yard and returned with the duffel and backpack. After he stowed the duffel in the trunk and the pack in the back seat, the second suitcase and diapers went in next. Billy Joe felt like a thief in the night, but he had to get the hell out of here, and the farther he could get before he was found out, the better.
The car was stuffed by the time he got in. Their house was at the top of a small rise, so Billy Joe put the car in neutral and rolled it forward onto the street. He let it pick up speed and started it once he was two houses away. The engine on the old thing came to life, and he sped away into the night.
BILLY JOE stopped at an ATM and withdrew more cash. If it wasn’t the middle of the night, he’d have gone into a bank to take out what he had, but this was going to have to do for now. Hitting the highway, he headed north. Jackson disappeared in the rearview mirror, and he kept driving, the miles to Memphis ticking down. As he approached the city, he found a hotel and got Tyler out of the car. He needed to sleep, and Tyler needed to eat and play.
They napped in the hotel room, played a bit, and then once Tyler settled down for the night again, Billy Joe checked out and continued driving. All he was interested in was putting as much distance between him and Jackson as he could.
AT A rest area, while Tyler napped in his seat, Billy Joe stood outside the car. He found the Jackson police tip line number, breathed deeply to calm his racing heart, and made a call. The man who answered sounded impatient. Billy Joe tried to explain what he’d seen, but his words were jumbled and tripped over one another, and his nerves returned in force. He felt like a fool. He didn’t sound coherent, even to himself. And when the officer asked if he’d been drinking, Billy Joe disconnected and leaned against the car, hanging his head. At least he’d tried.
It took a few minutes before he felt able to drive again, and then he got back in the car.
Billy Joe kept his phone off. He was sure his mother and father would try to call, and his phone was on their account, so they could track him if he turned it on. He smashed it to bits outside of Nashville and tossed the pieces in the trash, then bought a pay-as-you-go phone at Walmart.
Billy Joe figured the best direction to head was north and east, so he crossed the rest of Tennessee to Knoxville and then went north.
“Daddy, I’n hungry,” Tyler said from the back seat.
“Okay, buddy. We’ll get some dinner and then find a hotel where we can sleep.” Billy Joe had been up for many more hours than he should have been and was bone-weary. A good night’s sleep would do wonders. So after stopping at McDonalds for nuggets for Tyler, he found a budget hotel and an ATM for more cash.
He spotted a branch of his bank, so the next morning he went inside and emptied his checking account, in cash. The bank teller probably thought he was crazy, but Billy Joe didn’t care. He brought the cash to the car and took off again.
Tyler was getting restless and fussy, which wasn’t surprising since he’d been mostly in the car for two days. Billy Joe made sure to stop at roadside parks so Tyler could run and wear himself out. When he got another hotel, they had dinner and he played with Tyler, finally starting to relax. He was many hundreds of miles from home. While Tyler relaxed, Billy Joe collected all the cash he’d gotten together, placed it in one of the plastic grocery bags, and then slid it in one of the pockets of the suitcase and zipped it closed.
He fed Tyler a snack and then got him ready for bed. Lying there with Tyler in his arms, Billy Joe fell to sleep.
THE FARTHER they went, the looser Billy Joe’s grip on the steering wheel got. For now he had plenty of money, and he hoped he’d be able to get a job somewhere and start a new life for Tyler. They continued north, the landscape growing bleaker and much less green. They passed through northern Virginia and then parts of West Virginia and Maryland, and then encountered snow. The temperature had dropped, but the car was warm. Billy Joe knew he was going to have to find a place to get some warmer clothes.
As they passed into Pennsylvania, the snow began coming down faster. The day was growing to an end, the light fading fast. He checked the map at a rest area and intended to make it to Harrisburg before stopping. It was maybe an hour away, and he knew he’d be able to find a place to stay. Tyler was hungry, so Billy Joe passed him a few crackers and a bottle with a little juice inside, and kept going.
The snow grew thicker, reminding Billy Joe of how unfamiliar he was with driving on roads like this. At home, the few times it had snowed, everyone just stayed inside until the sun melted it away again and then went on with their business. This snow didn’t seem like it was going to behave that way.
He saw the sign for Shippensburg and got off the highway, traveling very slowly. He drove into a business area and pulled into the Walmart parking lot. Billy Joe wrapped Tyler in a blanket and carried him into the store, where he found the section for winter wear and bought them each a warm coat. Then he got them something to eat, and they returned to the car. He made it back to the freeway, intending to continue the last little bit for the night, but the car lurched and then cut out.
Billy Joe coasted to the side of the road and pulled to a stop as all the lights inside the car went dark. The wipers stopped and snow built up on the windshield and back window, the cold creeping in as the heater ceased blowing.
“I’n cold,” Tyler said after a few minutes.
“I know, honey.” He got the blanket and put it over him, trying to figure out what to do. He needed to get help and had his phone, but who did he call? Billy Joe was well away from anyone he might know, which was good and bad. He didn’t want to call the auto club in case his parents could trace him. He was just about to give up and call anyway when headlights appeared behind him, coming to a stop.