Kory hears the door slam behind her, and loses a shoe in her haste to get to the truck, always unlocked when his .30-30 isn’t in the gun-rack. She flips down the sun visor, the keys drop in her lap, and she can hear Joe grunting his way down the driveway, cursing his tender bare feet on the sharp gravel. She thinks, for such a tough guy, he ought to have tougher soles.
Turning the key in the ignition, smoothly negotiating clutch and gas and ball-shifter, she hears him yell something, feels the patter of small stones against the rear window and truck bed. The Ford careens backward, fishtails slightly, and then she’s out the long driveway, past the barn. Free. On her way. She can feel the side of her head, hot and pulsing, where Joe hit her. After she had broken the flashlight against his hard skull. Michael would protect her, the nagging feelings tells her, but she was so unused to the idea that it just floored her to think of it.
She lights a cigarette from Joe’s pack of cigarettes and considers her options. Mom’s is out, as it’s the first place he will go when he wangles a borrowed car. Patricia’s is out too, as that’s the second place he’ll go. She needs to drive a little farther than he will guess, so she heads to her boyfriend’s place, Coryland, past the Noble farm, right, then she can hit the logging road halfway up and cross over behind the big field and onto Judson Hill Road. It’s only 8 ‘o’ clock, so she won’t be noticed.
Joe would never expect her at Michael’s, she thinks, as Michael is skinny and asthmatic, a yoga geek and a flatlander, someone whose ass Joe could kick with a minimum of effort, as opposed to her mother or Patricia, neither of whom Joe could safely hit or threaten. At the quick of something now, she gathers herself with a small shrug. She wonders blindly at all the choices in front of her, and chooses one. What anybody else would do. And Joe doesn’t know who Michael is, only that she has a BOYFRIEND, and so he won’t suspect, she hopes. Pushes buttons on the radio until she find some old country, soothing plaintive sounds that mean nothing to the situation, what she’s in for now. Her face shifts from throb to ache. Michael will hit back. He has to in order to be the man she thinks he is, skinny, but twisted muscle about the abdomen, scarred additionally by some childhood trauma. She didn’t know if he could help, but the drive will tell. She’s tempted just to keep on trying. Granny always told her that things looked greener on the other side and all those seasoned sayings, but the tumult in her gut tells her otherwise.
She hears the truck’s cell phone buzz, picks it up without thinking. “Don’t think this is the end of it, K.” She hangs up without answering, takes the curve by the Campbell place too fast, slides off the road and into the ditch, thumps her head against the driver’s side window, but not hard enough for the airbags to deploy. She’s dazed, but nothing seems to be damaged, so she starts the truck again and pulls out. She can see kids on their front porch lighting their pumpkins or something, the place is a blaze of yellow light, and one of them points toward her, and another one goes inside.
Kory knows she needs to get on the logging road, so she guns it. Near the hedgerow now and within a mile of Michael’s place, she runs the truck into a copse of poplar scrub, snapping saplings and scraping brush all along the sides. She cuts the engine and lights. It’s a ten minute walk now to Michael’s place, and even if Joe thinks to drive by, he won’t see the truck, and will continue on roaming the hills and checking with every friend she’s ever had, every family member she’s ever mentioned. Or maybe he’s found out who Michael is already.
If she knows Joe, he’ll report her as missing, and within an hour the VFD and the local Boy Scouts will be looking, and she won’t stand a chance of getting away. She sees them canvassing the hill in their lines ten feet apart, poking with their sticks through the oats, traveling down the neat rows of corn near the field she’s left the truck in. Her breath comes more quickly now as she realizes the gravity of what she’s done wrong: left her husband, not hit back, run away to the person least able to help.
Michael’s house is dark except for the light in the bedroom, where he keeps the PC. He works as a programmer of some kind, where they have fucked in their awkward way, where she has found some measure of herself and her self-respect in the last few years with Joe.
Michael meets her at the door in his boxers, his skinny chicken legs dark with hair, looking puzzled. She holds him and hugs him hard and imagines he must smell her fear-sweat.
“It’s Joe. He knows about us. But not that it’s you, I mean.”
“Jesus, K.” Michael steps away from her, hugs himself across the biceps as if he’s cold.
“He’ll never come here. Really.” Kory wants to believe it.
Michael shuts the door, picks up an aluminum baseball bat from his living room closet, sits on the couch with it, twisting the handle in his hands. In the cool night air Kory hears the sound of an engine, not far away, smoothly running through the gears on a straight stretch, and she trembles.
Joe steps back into the house, cursing his feet, but steps from his safe room. He spins the dial quickly and grabs the first pistol in the small rack, a .45 Kimber he bought with his last Army paycheck a year or so back. The grip is a little greasy; he hasn't put more than a hundred rounds through it. He inserts a clip and stuffs the gun into his pants behind the belt. She knows not to hit up any relatives. No friends. That Patricia slut, maybe. Fuck this. Find the truck. Find her. He closes the door behind him, hops the fence and heads to the neighbors.
“Jimmy. Need to borrow your truck,” Joe says. Jimmy sighs from under his wife's car, slides out the dolly and sits upright.
“Brother, you need to settle down before you do stupid shit.” Jimmy is solid with Joe, always has been. He looks worried now.
“Settle my ass. Kory tried to coldcock me and then took off in my fucking truck. I'm done.”
Jimmy sighs and puts down the wrench. “You been done forty times with this chick. I’m sure she appreciates the fact that you always come back, but I’m a little tired of running interference for you.”
“I didn’t ask you.” Joe drills his hands deep into his pockets. “You don’t know how she is, fucking changing her mind every other day. She don’t know what she wants. And no sex? I mean, what the fuck?”
“You will ask me again,” Jimmy says, sighing.
“Bullshit. You been through this forty times with me? Let’s see how a guy’s best friend ought to do for him. You ought to be with me forty-one and forty-two and forty fucking ever.” Joe tries to light a cigarette but drops it as soon as it ignites.
“Get the divorce already.” Jimmy hands Joe the keys and rolls back under his wife’s car. “Just don’t kill her.”
The dark horizon beckons Michael. Fucking hell. Every truck could be Joe or Joe and his friends or the cops or fucking whoever. He plucks at the back of his head, already soaked with fear-sweat. Kory rubs his back but it seems to be having the opposite effect of what she intends.
“He’ll probably go to Jimmy’s or somewhere and drink it off.” Kory massages his shoulders hard. He feels her small tense breasts against his back, heaving slightly in time with her heart, he imagines. She’s come to him in a lacy pair of panties and an oversize shirt that serves as a nightdress. Kory is a woman who never leaves without her red lipstick and a whitened face and neck. He squeezes the handle of the bat.
“He’s going to find you here.” Michael cracks his fingers each a tiny shot in the quiet. “Tell me again why the fuck you came here?”
“Where else could I go?” Kory begins to cry great heaving snotty snobs. “I hit him. He’s not going to stop until he finds me. You’re the one who’s supposed to protect me now.”
“Oh fine.” Michael’s hand goes to the back of his head again, and Kory can see he’s not up for any of this.
“Ok. Fuck you. I fucked you, you fucked me, it was supposed to not be complicated.” Kory wipes her nose on her shirt. “Do you have a gun at least?”
“You’re kidding, right?” Michael stares at her then drops his gaze, slowly shaking his head.
“What kind of a guy lives here and doesn’t have a gun?” Kory says. She is slowly composing herself. Michael can see the machinery begin again behind her eyes.
“I’ve got a .22. For the raccoons.” Michael says. “I don’t even know if it’s loaded. It’s by the kitchen door.
“Jesus Christmas,” Kory says. In the kitchen a single-shot .22 is by the door along with the broom and mop, six rounds in an ashtray by the sink. She throws the bolt and catapults a tiny shell across the kitchen. Searching furiously, she finds the round under the refrigerator coil among the dust bunnies and spilled food. She joins Michael by the front door. “He’s borrowed a truck by now,” she thinks out loud.
Her cell phone rings. Kory is simply nodding at whatever Jimmy is saying. Her eyes are tearing again, and she holds the phone under her ear and on her shoulder and cocks the .22, as soon as Jimmy hangs up.
“He’s coming now,” Kory says. “Jimmy says we have maybe ten minutes.”
Michael throws the bat down. “Fuck this and fuck you,” he yells. Walks in the kitchen. “Where the fuck are my car keys?”
“How should I know where you put your fucking keys?” Kory adjusts her butt on the easy chair so that Michael can’t see she’s sitting on the keys.
It’s coming to her, the plan that will make it all right, All right. Granny had told her not to suffer the man who wouldn’t commit. Along with the man that would cheat or beat. Granny said watch the man put on his shoes. If he put on the left one first, you all right. And cackled. Kory had a trifecta. Commit, cheat, beat. Just two different men. Neither of who could bring her off the way she wanted, let alone be what she needed
“You worthless sack of shit.” Kory points the .22 at Michael and before she can think the report of the gun brings her back. The heavy thump. Michael’s sprouted a third blue eye, all of them open now and wondering why she had done it. A thin line of blood breaks from his third eye.
She leaves Michael lay there and goes out the side door into the garage for the lawnmower gasoline. She douses the living room and the kitchen before running out. She loves that sharp smell. Tosses the match, watches the flames rise. Loads the .22. Watches the propane tank get hotter.
Joe pulls up beside her with the roar of Jimmy’s truck, much more powerful than his own. “Jesus, Kory. What did you do? Are there people in there?”
Joe runs to the porch and door to see if he can get in. When he can’t he pulls the Kimber from his pants and points it at her. “He’s in there? Your boyfriend? Jesus” All the realizations gather in his face at once. The Kimber drops to his side. Kory shoots him in the shoulder. He drops the gun. She reloads and shoots him in the throat-apple. Both hands go to his neck.
“You will miss me when I burn,” he gargles, as the propane tank explodes into a halo of flame. She shoots Joe again and again, chambering each shell gently and firmly to the point where she can’t tell what’s him and what’s howl.
She’s waiting in the truck, watching the fire department and ambulances in her rear view. Kicks the truck into reverse and rides it all the way down the road with her lights off. Her first thought was a new ride. She knew a guy who knew a guy. She knew a lot of guys, when it came down to it. Punched the radio buttons again. George Fucking Jones. She let the Possum’s drawl guide her all the way to the state line. George Jones, yes. That man could fucking sing.