FICTION May 3, 2024


You're born, and there's your life. Your parents live somewhere. You're stuck in the same place, in that town, those schools, those churches. Everything is forced on you—for a while, anyway. If you're smart you get to understand, maybe before anything bad happens to you, how much of life is simply luck. That place you're in could be lucky; it could be something else.

We lived next door to the Fletchers. I probably never would have met Clayton Fletcher or his family in a bigger city. We wouldn't have lived so close to people like them. Both his folks had gone to college. His dad was a cop, his mom was a nurse. They had everything I thought I would ever want, like a piano and books and money and stability and respect—all of which were in short supply in our house. They seemed super lucky.

Though truth be told, my family brought some bad things on themselves. My mom paid my uncle to fix our car since he said he'd do it cheap. He did. So when the axle broke and the car flipped and she got hurt, that wasn't exactly, or entirely, bad luck. For the Fletchers, though, everything bad that happened truly seemed like terrible breaks from the get-go. When Clayton and I were about nine, his older brother died for no good reason at all. Some weird allergic reaction to something in a field we'd all run through a million times. He wasn't doing anything wrong or stupid. He was just playing baseball.

My family went to his funeral. The whole town did. Millford used to be that kind of place. I watched his parents and thought how calm they were. My dad would have been mad. He would have screamed and yelled and maybe punched someone. I don't know what my mom would have done. Just broken down, I think, just sobbing. But Clayton's mom, standing there in her black dress, held her face calm. It astonished me. She suddenly seemed incredibly beautiful to me, like an angel. That's the day I fell in love with her like boys can do. Not with a person, exactly, but with some idea of a person. Who they think might be kind back to them.

Like all boys do, we pushed the edges a little more every day. Clayton's dad was a safety freak, maybe because of his job, probably because of his dead son. Be safe, he told us. Again and again, be safe. His mom never said anything like that. She just smiled and made us feel taken care of.

I made sure to go pick Clayton up just to see her or, if I was really fortunate, be close enough to smell her clean perfume. My parents never noticed if I was home or not. She always smiled at me and asked how I was doing. Clayton used to tell me he wished we could trade families since he was tired of his folks standing on top of him. I wished the same thing for one-hundred-percent opposite reasons.

Anyway, as we got older, our little gang of six or seven just kept trying bigger things. Lighting firecrackers and running, then throwing firecrackers. Sometimes they exploded in our hands and left them numb. Roman candle wars, lobbing phosphorous balls at each other. We found these enormous Styrofoam blocks and dragged them to the river. We made it across. We walked barefoot through the thick woods on the opposite bank. We never got bit by snakes, we screwed around with knives and hatchets but never even lost a finger or toe, we never drowned. We got confident for no reason other than we just hadn't run out of luck yet.

So we kept pushing. Stealing cigarettes, leaning into abandoned wells to watch big rocks hit the bottom, sneaking under the fences at the shuttered factory just because, just to see what was behind them, even though most of our fathers could have told us. Leaving things on the railroad tracks for the trains to crush: pennies, lightbulbs, a Matchbox car. When the engineers saw us and blew their horns, we flipped them off, safe, knowing they weren’t going to stop a whole damn train to yell at some kids. Sometimes we liberated a dad's twenty-two, shooting out fragments of the windows in abandoned houses, shooting tree trunks, blowing scrawny crabapples off their limbs, shooting whatever.

Then driving, jammed into a single car, too many of us, too fast, too loud. Then drinking, then some pot. Then the pills arrived, for hardly any money, and they were better than anything else. You can probably see where this is going. We couldn't. I didn’t, anyway.

So it was a summer night when Monty loaded us all in his dad's truck, three of them inside the cab and me, Clayton, and Marvin in the bed—Marvin bringing his new gun, Monty the pills, Clayton giving us cover by telling his dad we'd be at the bowling alley in the next town over. We rattled across the bridge, and Jase took us up an old dirt two-track into the woods way back past the ruined brick factory.

We made a fire. We drank everything we had, smoked everything we had, ground up the pills and used them all. Marvin was taking random shots at random things with his enormous pistol. Old bricks shattered like in a movie. Watching that never got boring. He kept going until it got too dark to see. Our night dissolved then. We got bored and tired. We left the coals burning, left the spent shells, left scraps of paper, left the bottles.

No matter what Jase did, no matter what he took, he was always a steady driver, so he took the wheel. He rolled us back down towards the river. The town lights glinted across the water. Clayton sat between Marvin and me, looking up through the tall trees at the narrow passage of sky over the road. I zoned out and drifted through dreamlike thoughts.

Then Clayton said, “Holy shit, man, don't do that.”

I had to lean around to see. Marvin stared down the barrel of the gun. “It's a huge tunnel in there,” he said. “Fucking gigantic. Like you could fall into it.”

“Seriously, man,” I said. I knew he was high. “Marvin,” I said, louder, “seriously.”

“It's fine, Danny,” he said. “Don’t worry so much.” He smiled and leaned his forehead against the barrel. “Everything's okay, right?”

“No,” Clayton said, and he started to reach for the gun, to pull it away, maybe, and at the exact same moment, the front tires bounced over the asphalt edge, onto the real road. We'd been listening to shots all night long, but that time it sounded different, unexpected, surprisingly loud, and it blew Marvin's face through his head and on through the back windshield all the way into the cab.

Even Jase couldn't stay steady through that. The truck swerved hard, the tires maybe caught on some pothole or the berm, and then it flipped.

I floated up out of the bed. I had time enough to realize I was going to die, or maybe was already dead, floating like I was, like actual angels had caught me, but instead, I got tossed into some thick evergreens, which literally caught and slid me to the ground. I lay there, smelling pine sap. Everything seemed perfectly clear. I listened to a ticking sound, a slowing down ticking sound, which must have been one of the tires coming to a stop.

When it stopped, I snapped out of it, or back into it, and stood. The truck lay on its side. It was hard to see anything clearly. I could hear Clayton crying, and someone else screaming, and then headlights arrived and showed everything. Monty's arm was bent between his elbow and his wrist, and he was holding it up in his other hand. Jase had crawled up out the driver's window and was leaning against the truck. I couldn't see where Marvin had ended up, but I knew there was no way he was still alive.

And Clayton…Clayton was somehow behind me, so all I could see was his silhouette, at first, until he got close and half turned. He was holding his hands over his mouth, and still, the blood ran out from under his palms.

I said something to him, I don't know what exactly, maybe just his name, and he pulled his hands away and turned into the lights and nearly all his teeth were gone, and I was so sick I nearly fell over. He put his hands back up. And I swear, I swear now, I remember the sound of those teeth breaking, even though I know that's impossible, there's no way I could have heard that over the noise of everything else.

You might suppose the worst thing that night was Marvin blowing his head off, or Monty's broken arm, or Clayton's toothless mouth. Any of those things would have been terrible enough. But that wasn't the worst. The worst was Clayton's mom.

It was her. She was the one who'd driven upon this. Not his dad, like you might expect. Her. Walking towards us, through the lights of her own car.

She didn't look beautiful anymore. The way she was straining, screaming, all I could see in the harsh glare of the headlights were her tendons and muscles and the bones of her face. The old soft glow that surrounded her was gone. I couldn't understand what she was saying, or even if she was saying any words at all. I stood there beside her, looking where she looked, at Clayton. I didn't see it coming. But she stopped screaming and slapped me, hard, so hard that side of my lips went numb.

And whatever love I had felt for her was gone, vanished, just like that. Not from the slap, truly, not from the slap. I never wanted to see her again. I wanted to be as far from them, from Clayton, as far from her, from all that ugliness, as far from that town as I could possibly be.

First, though, I watched the ambulance arrive, then Mr. Fletcher, then another ambulance from the next town, and a deputy. I sat in the thin grass beneath the trees, and no one noticed me. I sat there with my cheek on fire from her slap, my ears still ringing, still blinded by the headlights, wondering how on God's green earth I had been tossed onto those soft trees.

The Fletchers took Clayton away. The ambulances took everyone else. The deputy helped the wrecker flip the truck over and drag it onto a flatbed. They all left until it was just me, and the sound of the crickets got incredibly loud. My friends were gone. Even Mrs. Fletcher had deserted me or, worse, killed something inside of me. I was all alone. I’d used up all my luck, I thought, simply surviving. So that was it. From that point forward, everything was on me, and the first and last and only thing for me to do was to walk myself home and get ready to leave.

Jeff was born in Nebraska, grew up in the Carolinas, and went to school in Minnesota, where he now lives with his wife and two children. His short fiction has appeared in Kenyon Review, december magazineLouisville Review, and Southern Humanities Review. In addition to querying his first novel, he serves as a reader for the Raleigh Review.
Social Media: @jeffmclaughlinwrites (Insta/Threads)