Continued from Page 13 of Windhover LV
Family Business by Michael Coombs 


It was like this on her first visit: quiet, uncomplicated, almost peaceful. Hickory was taking her fishing and she skipped down the dusty road with a child-sized rod in hand. A great bald man with long limbs and a square chin smiled brusquely down at her as he passed. He looked at Hickory and said, “Beautiful little girl, Ol’ Hickory.”

He grinned back and said, “My little killer.”

*

Ol’ Hickory’s house was the shabbiest of them all. It was stout, with a bowed roof and narrow walls cobbled out of two-by-fours. The filthy white work truck lodged in the mud behind it was longer than the house. There had been a window next to the door in years past but it had been boarded up further back than Jaye could remember. It stunk of smoke, much worse than the saloon. Still, it was the castle of the king of Sahgitaw: Hickory Johnson. Grandpa.

She stood still in front of the door, hand instinctively raised to knock. Hickory had always told her to knock before coming inside, even if she’d only been gone a minute. She gulped hard and grazed a few fingers on her holster for reassurance. She took a step back and oriented her shoulder toward the house. Deep breath…

She charged. The door flew open. It wasn’t even set in the frame. Hickory was lying flat on his cot inside, staring at the ceiling. His head twisted toward Jaye when she burst in and his lips parted slowly, revealing a set of jagged yellow teeth pockmarked with holes and copper facsimiles, then stretched outward to form the long devilish grin she knew too well. His hair was gone, save for a ghostly white semicircle that flared out above his ears. A well-worn shotgun rested against his bed, the stock just inches from his right elbow.

“I knew you’d come, girl. I been waiting.” 

She panted a few times before catching her breath. She stared at him dumbly, lips parted, lost for words. He raised a spotted, shriveled hand toward a three-legged stool at the foot of the bed. She plopped down on it without another thought.

She kept her eyes trained on him. What to say? Hello? How have you been? Sorry for leaving? I hate you?

“There’s somebody living in a shack down the road. Never seen ‘em before.”

He let out a single snicker. “That’s Joe,” he answered. He didn’t sit up, instead keeping his head limply twisted to the right, looking at her sideways. His grin stayed fixed on his face. “Rolled in last year. Thinks he’s one of us ‘cause he camps out there.”

She nodded stiffly, not quite looking him in the eye. “Lot’s changed.”

“Looks that way when you been gone as long as you have, girl.”

She shuffled her legs around uncomfortably, crossing and uncrossing them. “I meant to come see you a few months back. Really did. I was passing through.”

He giggled, high-pitched and wheezy like a dying hyena. “Passing through to where? Where you been? What you been doing? It don’t make no sense to me, girl.”

“It’s… just a lot to go through…”

“Two years and not a word! Not even a daggone postcard! Your old man teaches you everything you know and you can’t even break bread with him once in a while?”

“You’re not my old man.” Her voice filled with steel and her eyes met his sharply. He rose his eyebrows a bit. “My old man is dead because of you. I figured out a lot about you, ‘Ol’ Hickory.’ There’s a lot of shit you got into you didn’t even hint at to me. Including the hellpit you sent Daddy into for his last job.”

He shook his head a bit, swinging it jerkily from side to side like an old wooden mannequin with its head on a rusted swivel. She knew what was coming. Denial, sweet talk, good-old-boyisms. She was prepared for all of it.

“You sure did get smart, didn’t you? Sure as hell smarter than your daddy. Not a lick of sense in his head. That’s why he went along with it in the first place.”

She froze. She felt her veins fill with icy, prickling rage. “What does that mean?”

“You know what it means, girl. I gave your daddy about a two-percent chance of living through that mess. It was a suicide mission.”

She rose to her feet.

“And more’n that—” She gripped him by the collar of his greasy flannel and dragged him up to eye level. Her breath hissed out in low, contemptuous seethes.

“You got your own son killed! That was my daddy! And you can’t even have the goddamned sense to say sorry?! You useless old son-of-a—!”

“How did you—WEEHEHEHE! How did—how did you find out? Which of them old—WEEHEE!—old bastards told you?” Booming coughs and guffaws cut into his speech. His face was red and puffy and looked as if it was melting down into his neck. His whole body was shaking. Jaye gripped his shirt tighter.

“I don’t give out names. It’s bad business.”

“Oh, you learned from the—from the best, girl.” He paused and licked his lips. “Your daddy didn’t teach you none of that, sure enough.”

She flinched a bit and blinked hard. She managed to ignore him. “That ain’t all those ‘old bastards’ told me.”

“Oh?”

“You got funds. Inheritance. Laying somewhere in this old cabin. I came to take it away.”

“Take it away? And what you gonna do—do with it? Put it in the bank? WEEHEHEHE!”

“I might! I been trying to go straight and I figured out it suits me pretty well!” She straightened her shoulders and tipped up her chin, glowering down at him. “Going to school. Got a little job at a little store. Me and Mama doing just fine. Not that you ever once thought of her.”

The humor drained from Hickory’s face. His wide grin remained, but now it was leery and intimidating with only traces of joy in it. He licked his lips again. “Oh, sweet girl. You never gonna go straight. Your daddy thought it. My daddy thought it. I thought it once upon a time. Once you get started in our way, you never get out of it. You just stray for a few years. That’s all this is. Straying. And tonight you done come home. Oh, how long I waited, girl.”

Often Jaye stood behind the Quick Mart counter wondering how she would respond if a robber came in. How she would twist his arm behind his back and step on his hand until she heard a crunch. Then she might steal the gun and execute him, Italian-style or Mexican-style. She thought of a thousand different ways it could play out every single shift. The hairs on her arms and legs would stand straight up every time.

“Shut up.”

“Oh, how I waited… for my little killer to come home.” One of his gnarled hands clasped around hers, jittery and clammy. “You’re the one I wanted to leave it all to. Hundred thousand dollars. Enough that you can do whatever you want.”

Jaye’s lips slipped open in surprise. “What?”

“I never wanted it to go to your daddy. Only you. All for you. Whatever you want, Jaye.”

“A hundred thousand… I don’t…”

“I been waiting, girl.” His hand slipped. His narrow hawk-eyes were sharp, cool, and tinged with desperation. “I give you all I have. The truck key’s in my pocket. The money’s under the loose—loose floorboard. And if you want it, there’s one more job in the glovebox.”
“Grandpa—”

“Now do what you done come to do.” His grin was gone, leaving behind only a tense pink line where his lips should have been. “Don’t make me wait no longer. I been lying awake every night. Shaking.”

She glanced at his shotgun and then back at him. “I’ll still hate you. I can’t stop. Hating’s about what I’m best at.”

He smiled toothlessly, his eyes disappearing into crinkles of flesh. “I taught that to you, too. Goodbye, baby girl.”

She dropped him back on the cot, then yanked out her handgun and shot him in the chest.

*

She found money in a duffel bag under the floorboard, just as he’d said. It was caked with dust and rolled into stacks with rubber bands. She couldn’t verify that it was exactly $100,000, but it was too dangerous to sit and count. She had to move fast.

She cranked the truck with the key taken from his pants pocket. It lurched to life slowly, angrily, but it started. She breathed a sigh of relief and settled the duffel bag beneath the passenger seat. He hadn’t told one lie. He’d given her everything she needed.

She opened the glove box. A manila folder tied with a red band and a book of matches sat inside. She took the matches, left the truck running, and dashed out, peeking into the bed. A bright yellow gas canister sat up against the wall. 

Baptism by fire. Hickory had talked about it often when she was a child. Even back then he was an old man, and as she’d found the elderly prone to doing, he was constantly making plans for his death, explaining elements of how he wanted to be honored. The only difference was that he didn’t discuss hymns he wanted sung or pastors he wanted to speak, but rather the nature of the funeral itself: baptism by fire, for all of Sahgitaw. He cited a scripture that she had forgotten long ago. He used a lot of big words he wasn’t normally much for; immersion, transfiguration, restoration, burial. One of them stuck in her mind as she held the canister up and felt its weight. Resurrection.

She glanced towards the saloon a couple thousand feet out and thought she saw the front doors swing open. The blurry form of a body emerged. No time to think. She took the canister and drizzled gas along the foundation of the house, glancing anxiously towards the saloon as she did. The body was getting closer. Features were popping out; a man, a bald man. He was breaking into a sprint.

She struck a match and backed up in the truck’s direction. She looked back out toward the horizon to see the red-faced man, hollering and stomping in her direction. She shook her head.

“Goodbye, Grandpa.” She threw the match and leaped into the truck. A pillar of light filled her rear-view mirror as she peeled out of Sahgitaw.

Two miles down the service road, she pulled off the side to check the folder. It was a job, like a hundred or more she’d done with Hickory as a teenager. Somebody wanted the owner of an oil refinery near Richmond dead. It was simple and clean; they gave a timeframe (before September), a preferred method (remote and untraceable), and a promise of payment ($500,000). A hundred thousand would be enough to go home to Mama and settle down, or to get the supplies and personnel she needed for the job. Hickory had given her a choice. His final ultimatum.

Five hundred thousand could buy a modest house, pay off student loans, and keep her mother in the black until she laid in the grave next to her father. Maybe it could buy a country manor for them to live the good life in. Maybe it could be the start of rebuilding Sahgitaw.

Resurrection. Jaye pulled back on the road, licked her lips, and thought about the way to Richmond.