fiction by Beth Meko
Keeping the girl was just something that happened over time. They checked the paper, scanned the news for some clue about her. Surely someone would be looking—a grandparent, a relative. Deb took the half hour trip to the public library in Clayton one Saturday and logged onto the missing children’s website, looking painstakingly through the grainy photographs. No kids anywhere near the girl’s age and description.
A new company logo showed up on the sides of the bright green train cars, but there seemed to be the same people, gazing slack mouthed out the windows, taking pictures. If he was close enough he could hear the announcer blaring on, although he couldn’t hear what was being said. He wondered if they were talking about the rugged country folk who made their homes up where there was no cell phone service, no Internet, mountain lions rumored to still slink through the woods. He didn’t like them marveling about how they made do with so little.
Breeze was a watchful and quiet girl, but it turned out she had a will that surged strong. “Should have named her Monsoon,” Fire said the first time the child exploded into a fit.
Deb had a pain in her side that she would downplay, but when Fire came home from the road one night she was shuddering and limping when she tried to walk. He made her go to the doctor. Might be some woman thing, he thought, brought on by Deb getting up in years. But it was pancreatic cancer, and it took her quick. By the time she was diagnosed it had spread to her liver and her lungs. Her belly swelled up big like she had a baby in there, and it would have been like Deb to make a crack about Abraham and Sarah, but she didn’t even have the energy to do that. She died two months later in the hospital, yellow and shrunken, delirious with pain meds.
After Deb died Fire was lost. He missed her like a burn in his chest. There were so many things she had taken care of, like the shopping and the dishes and the daily care of Breeze. He had no idea what Breeze needed and where to get it for her. And Breeze just got wilder and quieter without Deb around, without the daily structure and warm energy she had provided. By now Breeze was a girl of twelve, the first hints of woman starting to show around the edges of her face and her sleek little girl form. She started wandering farther and longer.
Fire had no choice but to leave Breeze at home by herself when he had the rig out. He left her snacks and cereal, fresh milk, deer meat that he thawed from the freezer before he left for the road. Fire decided if this was the way they were meant to live out their lives, this was what they would make do with. More and more often, though, he would come home and she wouldn’t be there.
The scenic trains stopped running three years after Deb died; Fire heard down at the general store in Clayton that the excursion company had gone bankrupt. Now there were just some short-line haulers that meandered through every few nights. The sound of them as they passed in the dark brought a deep sadness to him; he wasn’t sure why.
Chet was a black spot in Fire’s side vision. A dark thing in his consciousness he couldn’t get past. He was sure that man would try and touch Breeze when his head was turned. And innocent as she was, maybe she’d lie down in the bed of his truck with him, doing whatever he wanted her to do. Breeze was what—fifteen? He calculated backward from the train derailment until he decided that was about right. He wondered if Deb had ever talked to Breeze about sex.
He decided he would give it a try of his own. He saw his opportunity when he was frying up a batch of deer meat one evening, fan going full speed in the window, Breeze idly playing with a deck of cards at the table. “Don’t let him take you nowhere in that truck. One minute you’re playing kissy-face and the next he’s got your shirt off. Deb ever talk to you about that?”
Breeze was sitting with her leg crooked up as she always did. She looked at him for a long minute, blond hair grazing her knee, then covered her face and burst into laughter. She wouldn’t say anything to him, just ran to the bathroom where he could hear her peeing and laughing. When she opened the door back up she didn’t come back into the kitchen, but into her bedroom. Later he heard her slipping out the screen door.
Fire went into the bedroom and laid down, watching the setting sun play patterns on the wall as it grew dark. He just didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know what he was going to do with a teenage girl, let alone one like Breeze. It had seemed so much simpler when she had been a little girl in her onesie. Now she was even old enough to get pregnant. The thought left him cold. Why hadn’t he thought ahead to this? He missed Deb with such intensity that it felt like a physical ache right in the middle of him.
Here he was, set for a run down to Florida in two days. Maybe he’d take Breeze in the cab with him, he thought. Then he imagined her running off at every truck stop and motel. You just couldn’t keep the girl. For a moment he thought that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Solve a lot of problems. But he imagined her on the streets in some strange place, confused, thirsty, hungry. Breeze was his daughter, by any important measure. His responsibility.
The next night Fire pulled into the parking lot of the little bar down around the bend near Clayton. It’d been years since he’d been there and now it had a different name—Full Circle Pub, with a little crude emblem like a lasso on the sign. The parking lot was full of trucks with out of state plates. The only bar for miles, so of course it was where the gas rig men hung out. He spotted the cherry-red pickup truck right away, over by the side of the building, and he pulled in and waited near it. The blinds in the side window had a big tear in them and through it, Fire could see men moving around with cues in their hands, could hear the crack of the pool balls. Shouts rung out. He knew inside it smelled like cigarettes and dried beer.
When he came home five days later Breeze was still gone. He checked the icebox and saw nothing had been touched. It was afternoon when he got there and he sat on the porch, smoking cigarettes and breathing the heavy scent of the black locust in bloom beside the house, waiting for it to get dark, watching the lightning bugs start to pulse in the twilight.
Beth Meko is originally from north central West Virginia and currently lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, where she is a grant writer and university lecturer. Her short fiction has appeared in the 2021 Anthology of Appalachian Writers, Longleaf Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Wilderness House Literary Review.