Possum Kingdom, Tennessee hides itself away from the world, enfolded in the woods, water and mists of the Appalachian mountains like an unspoken secret.
If you could soar over Possum Kingdom with the red-tailed hawks who make it their home, you would see a tiny town surrounded on all sides by wild, unspoiled nature; a jewel in the heart of a rose in full bloom. The wooded slopes of the mountains like the sides of great, green-furred beasts. The sapphire blue and ghost-white froth of Two Fox Creek, spilling down lichen-coated rocks, swirling like clouds, filling the unblinking, blue-green eye that is Virgin Pond. Main Street, dug into the green like a corn furrow, the slow but steady heartbeat of a little town.
Swoop down, now, closer to the Earth, and fly along Main Street. See Tanner’s General Store, where you can get flour, fishing tackle, fresh butter, and chewy, juicy gossip. The Sweet Hereafter Funeral Home with its Old Southern splendor, all creeping vines and columns and acres of front porch. The blue brick schoolhouse. The newly whitewashed Southern Baptist church. Possum Pete’s Café, where you can get the best fried chicken and custard pie in the state.
A lovely little town.
A charming little town.
Although it lies no more than five miles west of State Highway 23, Possum Kingdom appears on no map. When lost tourists stumble into it, they don’t linger. They never stay overnight. They’re pushed away by an overwhelming strangeness that creeps into them like water bleeding through stone cellar walls. They stop, sometimes just past the “Welcome to Possum Kingdom” sign, sometimes in the middle of town, and turn around. Split. Get the Hell out of Dodge. When their minivans and RVs and sport utility vehicles leave Old Possum Kingdom Road and pull back out onto the highway, they feel a sudden relief, as if the air were somehow easier to breathe.
No traveling salesmen stop to show their cosmetics and vacuum cleaners.
Busses don’t even slow down at the turnoff.
Possum Kingdom doesn’t belong to the people who live there. They belong to Possum Kingdom. It guards them jealously, and does its best to steer all others away.
Except for the ones it wants.
Rose and the Skinny Dawg
Rose Heron, seventeen years old, riding in the back of a near-empty Greyhound bus and on the edge of wild panic for the past two hundred miles. Heart pounding. Mouth dry. Rose stood up. Sat down. Stood again. Switched seats, taking her bloated tapestry shoulder bag with her. Tried to sit still, and found herself rocking, rocking.
The driver asked her to sit down a few times, after she got on in Atlanta. He had long since given up, although she saw him glance in the mirror at her and shake his round, bristly head. Another passenger, a woman with the pink nose and moist eyes of a rabbit, turned around to stare. Rose pressed her forehead to the window.
Green, green and green. So beautiful, thought Rose, like a deep-green sea. Spiky treetop waves, high above. Rose wanted to be submerged.
She groaned, drew her legs up against her belly. It was strong again: the chewing pain in her stomach, the physical, twisting fear that drove her to run. It never went away, but sometimes it was bearable. Rose panted, her hands clutching at the strap of the bag. Her lips peeled back from her teeth. If it got much worse, she’d start screaming. Then she’d be put off the bus for sure.
“Please…” whispered Rose, jaws clenched, palms starting to sweat. Eyes wide, she stared out the window, hoping for something to distract her from her terror.
There was something ahead on the side of the road; an old wooden sign, split and grayed with age. There was an animal painted on it; a rat? Gray furry body and a thick pink tail. Faded letters the color of rust:
Possum Kingdom 5 miles
The possum’s tail was pointing at a narrow dirt road leading into the woods.
Rose gasped, dropped her bag.
The pain was gone. Her muscles went limp for a moment, and she nearly fell out of her seat. One hand grabbed the seat in front of her, the other slapped the glass as the wooden sign flashed by.
“Driver! Stop!” Rose called, trying to stand. He didn’t hear her, or ignored her. The pain began to gnaw again.
“Stop!” she yelled, staggering down the aisle. The bus lurched. Rose bumped into the rabbit-woman, who squeaked and clutched her purple plastic handbag. The other two passengers, the old man with the grimy yellow beard and the boy who couldn’t seem to stay awake, were looking at her. The old man’s mouth hung open. The boy rubbed his pointed nose and grinned.
“Driver, stop!” Rose yelled, now right behind him.
“Miss, I can’t—“
“DRIVER, STOP! DRIVER, STOP!”
Rose was screaming, she knew. She could no more stop it than she could freeze the sun.
“Jesus!” from the driver. The hiss of brakes, and the bus swerved to the shoulder. Rose grabbed a luggage rack to keep from falling.
“You got family in Possum Kingdom?” asked the bus driver, his small blue eyes fixed on Rose. She shook her head, not trusting herself to speak.
“You got luggage under the bus?”
Rose blinked. She thought the man looked like a shaved pug dog.
“I said, do you have—“
“Open the door please.” Rose began to shift from foot to foot.
He did, without another word.
Rose Heron jumped from the bus and began to run.
The sound of her own footsteps, her breath loud in her ears. Rose heard the bus idling for a moment, then the rumble and crunch as it pulled away. She didn’t look back.
There was the possum sign. Rose reached up and touched the wood. It was oddly smooth, as if it were made of driftwood. The painted possum, towering over her with a great big toothy grin, was a silly-looking thing. It was looking right down at her, winking one round black eye. With its scaly tail of faded pink, gray fur like ragged grass stubble, dinner-plate ears weird little humanlike hands, it looked more like a cartoon rat than one of the creatures of nature.
Or did possums really look like that up close? Rose realized that she didn’t know. She never saw them in Miami, where she was born and lived all her life. All the ones she’d seen since she left were flattened, gray and red smears on the highway.
Rose stood on her tiptoes, touched the painted possum’s teeth with her forefinger. “You wouldn’t bite me, would you?” The possum had no answer.
She took a deep breath, then another. Looked down at her grubby blue canvas sneakers. Crossed her arms over her belly, marveling. It didn’t hurt. Nothing hurt.
For the first time since she started to run, the fear wasn’t shrieking and yammering in her head. She no longer felt—no, knew—that he was right behind her.
Rose didn’t know why. She didn’t care. It felt too good. Rose grinned, and started down the road.
And as she did, fifty snakes in the Reverend Primus Reylark’s Church of the Holy Blood reared back and rattled their tails
a corpse on the embalming table in the Sweet Hereafter Funeral Home sat bolt upright and scared the hell out of Sam Dunwiddie
a cloud of steam hissed up from the guts of the roadkill raccoon that Joe Reechur had just split open
Miss Reenie Rackham stirred her huge pot of brown, bubbling rabbit stew and wondered what the hell had just floated up from the bottom.
In the back of a rusted-out Chevy Nova on Highway 23, a black she-dog cringed in fear. There was something going on, something far worse than the fearful howls and shrieks coming from the woods. She pressed against the Woman as the car ground to a halt.
The Woman was sobbing, as usual. The Man was screaming, as usual. The dog knew, somehow, that he was screaming about her.
“Please,” said the Woman. “Please don’t.” The dog knew those words. They were the ones the Woman said before the Man hit her. The dog pressed closer still.
She picked out a few words in the Man’s raging torrent of sound. “Out,” he kept screaming. “Throw the little fuck out.” She knew he was talking about her, because, although the Woman occasionally called her Sweetie, her name was You Little Fuck. It was all the Man ever called her.
“No!” screamed the Woman. “No!”
Fast as a rattlesnake, the Man’s fist lashed out and hit the Woman in the face. The salty tang of blood joined the ever-present stench of fear and anger.
The dog yelped and ducked her head. A hot squirt of piss spattered the Nova’s ratty gray seat. “KILL YOU!” the Man roared.
The dog knew what that meant. She fell to the floor of the car, scrabbling around in the fast-food wrappers and spent rubbers and snotty tissues, trying to duck the blows the Man hammered down on her. She knew better than to roll over and show her belly in submission; he’d stomp her, like he did before. She just screamed instead.
The Woman threw open the car door. “GO!” she shrieked. “Go, he’ll kill you!”
The dog whined and licked the Woman’s ankles. The Man crawled halfway over the front seat. He hit the dog so hard that she vomited thin bile, her mind a jagged haze of pain.
She would have died there, under the Man’s fists, if the Woman hadn’t grabbed her and thrown her out of the car.
The dog hit the hard-packed shoulder of the road with a grunt, then scrabbled to her feet.
“Go!” shrieked the woman. Pain, as the Man bounced a beer bottle off of her shoulder. Confusion. The dog whined, shifted from foot to foot.
“Sweetie, please! GO!”
The Woman’s red, snot and tear-streaked face. The Man, wallowing back over the seat, opening the door, death in his eyes. With a miserable howl, the dog turned and ran.
Toward Possum Kingdom.
Rose walked. She moved fast, kicking up dirt, not thinking about much of anything other than how pretty it all was. It was like a tunnel, this road, massive old oak trees rising up on either side to form a canopy overhead, letting the light through in ragged stripes and leopard spots. The woods seemed impossibly dense and dark, although it was late morning. The forest floor was higher than the pounded dirt of the road, like the spongy dead-leaf banks of a flat, brown river.
Rose smiled at a lumpy black boulder, spotted green with moss. “Giant frog! Aaaah!” She paused to stroke the leaves of a riotous fern, busting up from the ground next to the frogstone like a fountain in a formal garden. She opened her mouth and breathed in the rich, moist, wild-smelling air. It tasted like freedom.
This was nice. Yes, this was just fine.
Except it turned out that five miles was a long way to walk, and Rose was hungry, and it was getting really hot. The sun didn’t have a clear shot at her, but it turned the humid air into a sauna. Rose’s thin Cramps T-shirt stuck to her narrow back and sharp ribs. Her hair seemed to be trying to swallow her face, and she pushed back the damp strands over and over again.
Rose grinned, blinking salt from her eyes. She still wasn’t afraid. That was worth a little sweat.
“Possum, possum,” she sang under her breath, striding along. “Awesome possum. Possum blossom…”
Pause. A fork in the road. Rose shifted her weight, first left, then right. Which way to go? She dug a quarter out of her dusty khakis.
“Possum toss-em,” she sang, flipping the quarter in the air.
She dropped it. The quarter bounced off Rose’s right palm, hit her left shoe, and rolled down the road a ways before spiraling down a rathole.
“Well, damn,” she said, peering down the little hard-packed tunnel mouth. She cocked her head, certain she could hear tiny feet scrabbling, happy little squeaks.
“You’re rich! You’re rich! You’re socially secure!” Rose told the rat. That’s when she noticed the three drops of blood on her left shoe.
Rose touched the rust-colored spots. Where did they come from? She didn’t remember. A nosebleed? A cut in the kitchen? Perhaps not blood at all, but tomato juice? Ketchup? Kool-aid?
No, no. Definitely blood. Rose looked at the three dark drops on her left shoe, and went right.
The skinny black dog who thought of herself as You Little Fuck ran madly through the woods, tongue lolling, eyes bulging, tail between her legs. She wanted desperately to run back to the Woman, but she knew, somehow, that the Woman was lost to her forever. Besides, even if she went back, she knew the Man would kill her. The smell of it was all over him. Could she still smell it? Right behind her? She ran faster, whining.
Then, another smell. Rich and meaty, foul with shit, sweet with rot. Ahead of her. The insides of another animal. The smell of ripe, blown-open death made her terribly afraid. It made her terribly hungry. Slavering, trembling, she ran toward it.
Rose had made a mistake. The road became a path. The path grew narrower and narrower still. The oaks and hemlocks and tall, gangly maples closed in on her until there was no path, just a thin strip of dirt cutting through the woods like a part in a wild mane of hair. Rose was slick with sweat; she felt as if she were slipping greasily through the trees that brushed at her shoulders. Her feet hurt. She had the uneasy, ridiculous feeling that she was sliding down a gigantic green gullet, into the steaming belly of the woods.
“Well, son of a bitch,” Rose muttered. “Time to turn around, honey.”
She pushed the lank hair from her face and blinked. She was starting to turn on her blood-stained left foot when she saw something ahead of her through the trees.
A little house. More of a shack, really, the raw boards bent and silvered with age. But the shingled roof was solid, the dirty windowpanes unbroken, the weeds cut back from the base of the walls. Someone lived there.
Rose’s first thought was to go knock on the door, to rest for a little while, maybe get a glass of water.
Her second thought was that Leatherface and the entire cast of Deliverance might be bunking there.
She stood there and stared, her skin damp, her mouth dry, her head pounding with hunger and the heat. She took a step forward, then another.
Rose walked toward the shack, humming “Dueling Banjos.”
The dog crept through the woods, belly low to the ground. She stared through the trees, eyes fixed on the prize. There it was, its overpowering scent driving her nearly mad. Glistening red and gray and yellow and pink, flies buzzing around it in a spotty haze. Dog heaven. Dog nirvana.
A pile of guts.
The stuff on the bottom smelled the strongest; some of it was practically liquid. The stuff on top smelled lush and meaty. Bloody. Chewy.
There was a tiny house, too, with the skins of animals nailed to the walls, but the dog could hardly see it. It faded away, pushed out of existence by her hunger. And by that smell.
The black dog crept forward, drooling.
Oh, dear. Oh, shit. There was something badly wrong here. Rose knew it even before she smelled it. Then smell it she did. The stink got worse and worse as she edged toward the shack. Something very dead.
Turn around, turn around, turn around, chanted her brain in a buzzing monotone. But her feet didn’t seem to listen. Rose’s every sense sharpened to painful clarity as she crept around the side of the building. The snap of a twig under her cat-quiet step, like a gunshot. The green of the trees was too bright. The animal hides nailed to the wall drew her eye like neon. Deer. Possum. Raccoon. Squirrel. Chipmunk. Even little, tiny things; mice or shrews? Stretched out with as much care as the others, and somehow that was just wrong. Who in the hell skinned mice?
Rose reached out with one finger, but stopped short of touching. Ick. Yuck. Nasty. The hides were gross, with their glossy fur and their shriveled edges. But they weren’t the source of that stink. That reek. That stench.
The stench was vile, unbearable, making her mouth water with nausea. Rose pulled her t-shirt up over her nose and mouth. Get out, said her brain, almost conversationally. Run run run run runrunrunrun…
But dammit, she had to see.
Joe Reechur shook the bloody raccoon skin and held it up to admire. It was a fine one, the fur thick and nearly two inches long. Joe looked at the carcass on his skinning table.
“Ya fat bastid,” he muttered, dropping the pelt on the table with a wet plop. Nothing could hold onto its skin like a coon. It took plenty of sweat and sharp knives to coax one out of his hide, that was for sure. This one had been particularly stubborn. Even now, lying there all sticky and bare, it seemed to be grinning at Joe with all those pointy white teeth.
Joe grunted. He jammed his hand into the hollow chest cavity and grabbed the coon by the rib cage.
He froze. There was something outside. He could hear it, snuffling, chewing, gulping.
One side of Joe’s face twitched up in a grin. The pile of guts had worked its magic one more time, luring some critter to his doorstep. A walking hide. A pelt on the paw.
“Better than a French hoor’s per-fume,” whispered Joe. He picked up his rifle with his free hand.
Rose walked, quiet as a ghost, around to the front of the building, and then froze in her tracks.
She just stared.
I have never, she thought calmly, seen anything that repulsive in my whole life.
She stood and watched a scrawny black mutt, no more than a pup judging by her big feet and floppy ears, eat from a pile of animal guts like it was gourmet chow mein.
Or maybe gourmet spaghetti.
Rose gagged as the dog wolfed down something that looked like a small animal’s stomach. The mutt heard her and looked up warily, a loop of intestine dangling from its muzzle.
Before Rose could pull herself together enough to puke, the front door of the shack flew open. A skinny old man, arms bloody to the elbow, hair like wild white feathers, stepped outside. He had a rifle clutched in one bony hand. In the other he held something that looked like a skinless demon from the pits of Hell.
The demon grinned at Rose with white, pointed teeth.
The old man grinned at the dog with broken yellow ones, and raised the rifle.
Rose screamed. The old man’s arm jerked and the gun went off, sending a shower of leaves down onto the dog. The dog whirled and ran like hell, long gone before the last leaf hit the ground. The old man cursed in a rusty-hinge voice and threw the wet, dead thing down like a spiked football.
The man with the bloody hands spun around and glared at Rose. The whites of his eyes were as yellow as his teeth.
Rose’s feet started running long before her brain realized what was going on.
Hot as she was, tired and hungry as she was, Rose didn’t stop running until she reached the fork in the road again. Then she sat down in the dirt, sneezed twice, and started laughing.
Rose and the Nice Old Couple
The walk to Possum Kingdom was endless. Eternal. Rose picked up her feet and put them down like a metronome. Not fast, not slowly. She tried to imagine what Possum Kingdom would be like, smell like, taste like, who she would meet there. But it was hard to keep her mind off her aching feet and pounding head and growling stomach. Was five miles really this far?
Her shoulders sagged in despair when she saw that the road ended in a T-intersection. When she saw the weathered road sign, she nearly danced for joy.
It was one of those old-fashioned dealies; three boards nailed to a central pole. The whole contraption was warped and cracked with age. But the letters had been carved into the boards, and Rose read them easily.
She discovered she had been walking down Old Possum Kingdom Road. That made her smile. The road it intersected with, also dirt, was called Big Jesse’s Walk. The bottom board, bless it, said “Possum Kingdom” and sported a nice, big, clear arrow pointing to the right. Shifting her bag, which seemed to have gained twenty or so pounds since she got off the bus, Rose turned the corner.
She did her damndest not to think about the old man and his Shack of Horrors. Those were just animal guts, of course. That was just animal blood, of course. The thing in his hands was just some poor skinned woods beastie. That’s all. A name popped into her head.
Hot as it was, Rose shivered.
There was a path leading off the main road, to her left. She didn’t even consider taking it.
Almost there, thought Rose. I must be.
And she thought about the dog. Poor thing. It had been so skinny, so desperate. She was glad the old fruitcake hadn’t managed to shoot it. What kind of creep shoots at a dog, anyway?
Rose grimaced, kicked an acorn in the road. Surely the people of Possum Kingdom weren’t all like that, a bunch of trigger-happy redneck psychos. Like in all those movies, where some poor girl stumbles into a little Southern town and immediately gets arrested, raped, sent to women’s prison, and raped some more. Or just plain killed. Or killed and eaten with black-eyed peas and turnip greens.
“Oh Jesus, shut up,” Rose told her wayward brain.
And then she stopped walking.
Although Big Jesse’s Walk continued on, curving into the woods, there was a paved road joining it from the left. A small wooden sign named it as “Main Street.” At the base of the sign was a low obelisk of black stone, almost like a gravestone.
“Welcome to Possum Kingdom,” it said.
After hesitating a moment, Rose walked past it, to take her first look at Possum Kingdom, USA.
Rose had never seen anything like it, outside of old movies, and maybe 1950’s TV shows. Main Street was beautiful. Perfect. Buildings, old but in good repair, lined the street. A little glass-fronted store, a fine old mansion, a café painted a cheerful red, a faded blue baby-Victorian house. There were more, of course, but they were obscured by the towering old oaks and maples that grew along the street, between the businesses. The woods surged up behind the buildings, the Red Sea parted by asphalt, looking as if they would crash in at any moment and reclaim Possum Kingdom as their own. There were no cars visible on the street. No people on the sidewalks. No dogs. No kids.
A little wet shiver ran up the back of Rose’s neck. Her eyes narrowed. “What the hell…?” she muttered. This was not right. This was like some god damn Twilight Zone episode, where everybody in town has been kidnapped by aliens. Or the town is really an alien zoo. Or the hero comes back from a walk in the woods and everybody’s been dead for a hundred years. Just dried-up stick figures, dusty, wasted corpses…
“Oh, bullshit.” Rose wiped her face on the shoulder of her T-shirt, spit on the ground, and started walking down the middle of Main Street.
The mid-June sun was high, yellow as an egg yolk, revealing the heart of Possum Kingdom in crystal detail. Rose could now see that the store had pots of white daisies on either side of its heavy screen door. The mansion was a funeral home. The blue house down the way sported a hanging wooden sign in the shape of a dog which read “Veterinarian.” A cool breeze swept by Rose’s back and set the sign to swinging, just a little.
Almost even with the store; Tanner’s General Store, according to the sign, and Rose stopped to look. She peered in through the big glass window, at jars and bottles and barrels, and an old-fashioned wooden counter.
She smiled with relief. There was someone in there. A plump older woman in a pale yellow dress, short gray hair, smooth mocha skin. She was looking down; maybe reading a book behind the counter? Rose tentatively raised her hand, and waved.
The woman looked up. Her full, pretty mouth opened in what looked like surprise. Then she smiled, and waved back.
There was a roar; muted at first, then suddenly very loud, coming down Big Jesse’s Walk. Rose whipped around in time to see a long black hearse blasting along the dirt road. It was old; shiny as a beetle’s back, glittering chrome and huge, sweeping fins, coach lanterns and white lace curtains.
The hearse pulled a screaming brake-turn and hit the pavement of Main Street, jumping like the strike of a snake. It came down with a crash; the whole hearse shuddered, but didn’t slow down. In fact, the driver gunned it. What the hell was wrong with the driver? Rose couldn’t see him; the glare of the sun turned the windshield into a wall of fire.
The engine snarled, the hearse lunged. It looked pissed off. It looked hungry.
Screaming down the middle of the road.
Straight toward her.
Rose leapt. Like a snapshot, she saw the horrified face of the woman in the General Store. She looked like she was screaming.
Rose hit the sidewalk hard, and rolled. The hearse blasted by, blowing her hair back in its wake. It didn’t even slow down.
The dog. The scrawny black dog, it was the same one, it had to be, and it ran out from the woods and into the path of the hearse. The dog didn’t stop, it was still running, but the hearse was going to hit it anyway, and it was going to be bad, and Rose wanted to shut her eyes but she didn’t have time.
The dog was fast, but not quite fast enough. It would have been pasted all over Main Street if the hearse hadn’t slammed on its brakes; not to avoid hitting the animal, but to pull a squealing left into the driveway of the Sweet Hereafter Funeral Home. Instead of being turned into jelly, the dog was clipped by the hearse’s right rear whitewall tire and thrown into the air. It hit the pavement with a thump and a pitiful yelp, then scrambled to its feet. There it stood, head hanging, looking utterly confused.
Possum Kingdom came alive.
A young man in a white linen suit jumped out of the hearse and slammed the door. A tall old man came boiling out the front doors of the funeral home and started yelling at him. An upper floor window was flung open, and an old woman started screaming at him, too. People came out of the café to stare at the dog and the fight. A tall guy in a white coat came running out of the vet’s office and headed for the dog. The dog seemed to come awake; its head snapped up, its tail went between its legs, it cowered. The man in the white coat knelt, held out his hand. The dog backed up slowly, and then bolted into the woods behind the café.
Someone had Rose by the arms. Someone was helping her to her feet. It was the lady from the store, and a slim, fine-featured old man Rose guessed to be her husband.
Rose realized that the woman was talking to her.
“Oh, honey! Are you all right? That Sam! That Sam Dunwiddie is going to kill somebody one of these days. It was almost you, sugar. And that poor dog! Poor old thing was almost flattened. You should see how many possums Sam hits in that big ol’ hearse. It’s awful. Just awful. Are you okay, honey?”
Her voice was low-pitched and velvety, and the words poured out in a soft, sweet drawl that was pure magnolia and molasses.
“Uh…yeah, I’m fine…” There was a nasty burning on Rose’s right elbow. She touched it, and her hand came away bloody.
“Oh, sugar! You’ve scraped off half your hide! Come inside for a bit, me and Owen will get you fixed right up. Would you like something cool to drink? Are you hungry? You sure are a skinny little thing, sweet pea.”
“Don’t talk the poor girl’s ear plum off, Naomi,” said the old man, and then slipped the woman a little smile that packed all the love in the world. Rose felt a tiny needle pierce her heart. If anyone looked at me like that, just once, she thought, I could lie down and die happy.
“Oh, you,” smiled Naomi, and her love was like the sun.
The man had his wiry arm around Rose’s waist, steering her toward the general store. She was surprised at how shaky her legs felt, and suddenly, her stomach started to flutter like a closet full of moths.
I was almost run over.
I guess I’m just lucky I didn’t pee my pants.
It was cool inside the store. Well, if not, it was at least cooler than it was outside in the sun. A big swamp cooler labored away in the corner, but it was a losing battle.
Tanner’s General Store was a weird collision of old and new. Barrels of dried rice and beans next to a rack of Doritos and Ruffles. Jars of stripy candy sticks by a display of packaged Rice Krispy Treats. Sasparilla and Coke, homemade cookies and beef sticks in plastic.
Rose was desperately grateful for the presence of those sugar and fat-laden mass-produced goodies. They meant that she was still in the present; she hadn’t, in fact, slipped into some kind of time warp. There was no way to tell otherwise, looking at the elderly couple who had saved her.
The old man, who was helping Rose into a heavy wooden chair near the counter, wore slim striped pants, a white short-sleeved cotton shirt, and button-on suspenders. He could have stepped out of the 1920’s. Naomi’s long, flowing, short-sleeved dress could have been made yesterday or seventy years ago.
The man opened a bottled Coke for Rose. She clutched it with both hands, loving the cold. Naomi vanished for a moment and returned with a cool, damp cloth. Instead of handing it to Rose, she began to gently wipe down the girl’s face, tenderly as a mother might. Or, how Rose guessed a mother might, anyway.
“Good God, honey. That was some welcome you got to our town, wasn’t it. Are you all right? You’re not gonna have a sinkin’ spell, are you?”
Rose had no idea what a sinkin’ spell might be, but she didn’t feel in danger of having one. “No, ma’am, I’m fine,” she answered.
“Well, that’s good. What’s your name, darlin’? I’m Naomi Tanner, and this here’s my husband, Owen. We own this little store. It ain’t much, but it’s ours, bless it. We love it so. Can’t you tell?”
Rose nodded, smiling. “Yes, I can, Mrs. Tanner.” She took a long, blissful drink of her Coke. The woman grabbed her other arm in a firm, warm hand and began dabbing at the blood on her elbow with the cloth.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, call me Naomi, child. And you can call that old buzzard Owen. But say it loud, though, or he won’t hear you. He’s as deaf as a gopher with mud in its ears.” She fished a big Band-Aid out from behind the counter and slapped it onto Rose’s elbow.
“From all your talkin’, honey. That many words could burn the ears off a rabbit.” Owen gave her another one of those smiles.
He was a handsome old guy, in a fine-boned, almost delicate way. Sharp cheekbones, bow-shaped lips, strong nose with a little bump on the bridge. Much darker-skinned than his wife, Owen’s deep chocolate skin had a dusty, bluish cast to it that Rose found fascinating.
“You sure you’re all right, little girl? You’re starin’ at me like you seen a ghost.” Owen touched Rose’s forehead, as if checking for fever.
Rose laughed. “I’m sorry. I think I’m still a little stunned. I—my name’s Rose. Rose Heron.”
Naomi smiled. “Why, that’s a lovely name. Where you from, Rose Heron? What on Earth are you doin’ in Possum Kingdom?” Her brow knit. “And what are you doin’ travelin’ around all by yourself, anyway? How old are you, honey?”
“I’m eighteen,” said Rose. In about three months, anyway. “I just graduated high school.” At least that part was true.
“Mm-hm. And why are you out in the big world all by yourself? Where’s your family? You don’t have kinfolks here, do ya?”
Rose was suddenly nervous. She knew Naomi was just being friendly, but it felt like the third degree. And there was no way she was going to tell a complete stranger what she was running from. Rose opened her mouth, and lies spilled out as easily as water, just as they had always done.
“Oh, I’m just taking a trip across the country to, you know, find myself. I didn’t want to start college right away, not when I hadn’t seen much of anything.”
“A free spirit,” Owen smiled. “A young adventurer on the road of life.”
Naomi’s frown deepened. “Well, if you ask me, it just isn’t safe for a young lady to go runnin’ all over heck and half a’ Georgia all by herself. Not in this day and age. What do your mama and daddy think of all this, honey?”
Rose’s teeth ground together, just for a second. “They’re…they’re worried, of course, but I call them all the time. They know I can take care of myself.”
“Mm-hm.” Naomi sounded skeptical.
Rose drank her Coke and pretended to be terribly interested in the stock of the store.
“You’re just passin’ through, then?” Owen asked.
“Well, actually, I’d kind of like to stay in Possum Kingdom for a few days. It looks like a nice little town.” And it’s evidently the only place on Earth that my stomach doesn’t try to turn inside out and eat itself.
Naomi and Owen looked at each other, seemingly very surprised. “That’s okay,” said Rose, “Isn’t it?”
Owen laughed. “Of course it is, Rose. We just don’t get too many visitors here, that’s all. We’re not exactly a hot tourist spot, if you get my meanin’.”
Rose nodded. Disneyland it wasn’t. “Is there a, uh, motel around here or something? Or a bed and breakfast?”
“Nope, not a one,” said Naomi. “But you can stay with us, honey. We’ve got a whole upstairs floor that we just about never use. Old feeble folks like me and Owen don’t do so well with stairs, you know.”
The couple looked about as feeble as college baseball players. And why were they being so nice to her, anyway? Rose bit her lip, thinking.
“You’d even have your own bathroom!” Naomi went on. “The plumbing’s old, but it works just fine. You can have breakfast and dinner with us. We usually have lunch at the café. Hey, sugar, are you hungry? You look hungry to me.”
Rose’s stomach let out a fearsome roar. Owen burst out laughing. Rose blushed, and laughed too.
“I can pay you,” she said. She had eight hundred and sixty-one dollars in her pockets and her big, floppy bag. That would last her a little while, anyway. Maybe she could get a job somewhere in town when it ran out.
“Oh, we’ll talk about that later,” said Naomi.
The screen door banged open, and two girls came into the store. They both looked a little younger than Rose. One was skinny and mousy with short, brown hair. The other, taller girl had long, glossy hair the color of an old penny, pulled back in a high ponytail. She glanced at Rose. There was something weird about her eyes, something different.
“Hello, Nancy. Hello, Robbie Jo,” said Owen with a smile.
“Hi, Mr. Tanner. Hi, Mrs. Tanner,” said the taller girl. She smiled at Rose. “Hey. Who are you?”
“I’m Rose,” she said, still trying to get a good look at the girl’s eyes. “Who are you?”
“I’m Robbie Jo Ridgemont. This here’s Nancy Plum. Wow, we don’t get strangers in town too often. Are you lost?"
“I don’t think so,” said Rose.
Robbie Jo’s copper eyebrow shot up, and her mouth quirked in a little smile. “Oh, geez. You’re the gal Sam just about ran over, aren’t ya. You gonna be all right?”
“I’ll live.” Rose crossed her arms over her stomach, for fear that it would growl again.
Robbie Jo leaned in closer. “You sure are a pretty thing, Rose. Sam wouldn’t a’ tried to flatten you if he’d gotten a good look at you.”
And Rose got a good, clear look at her eyes. They were a deep, fiery russet, almost the same color as her hair. Fringed with long dark lashes. Beautiful. But weird. They almost made Robbie Jo look like one of those dogs, those Weimer-heimers or whatever they were, whose fur was the same color as their eyes.
Rose blinked, then smiled. “Um, thanks. You’re pretty too, Robbie Jo. You have gorgeous eyes. I’ve never seen eyes that color.”
Robbie Jo grinned. “You like ‘em? Most people think they’re a little spooky.”
“Nah,” said Rose, although they were, in fact, very spooky.
Naomi cleared her throat. “Ladies, I hate to break up your little sewin’ circle, but poor ol’ Rose here is just about to starve to death. We need to get her to Pete’s before she just plain keels over.”
Robbie Jo laughed. “Well, we can’t let that happen, can we, Mrs. Tanner. Tell you what, me and Nancy’ll be happy to take you over to the café, Rose. We can have ourselves a chat, get to know each other. You stayin’ in the Kingdom awhile?”
“I think so,” said Rose.
“Well, that’s just fine. When you’re feelin’ better, I’ll be happy show you around. There’s not a lot to see, but it’s all ours!” Robbie Jo tossed her pretty hair and laughed again.
Rose stood up, stretched her back. Nope, nothing broken or even that badly bruised. She turned to Naomi and Owen.
“Thank you both so much. You’ve been so nice to me.”
Naomi patted her hand. “Well, sugar, that’s the way folks in Possum Kingdom are. I hope you won’t let Sam put you off of us.”
“No, I’ll just stay out of the road,” Rose smiled.
“Good girl. When you’re done with your lunch, honey, you come on back here, and we’ll show you the room, okay?”
To her surprise, Robbie Jo linked her slim, cool arm through Rose’s. “I think we’re gonna be great friends, Rose,” she said with a grin. “I just have this feeling about it.”
Rose felt her whole body relax. It was such a luxury, being around such nice, caring, friendly people.
Such normal people.
My name is Robbie Jo Ridgemont, I’m fifteen years old, and I’m lucky enough to know exactly what I am. That’s more than most folks can say at twice my age.
It’s not like anybody up and told me. I had to find out for myself. The signs were all there, I guess. I used to set fires all the time when I was just a little girl. Damn near drove my mama to distraction. I took apart a mouse or two in my time, not to mention all the squirrels I shot. Oh, I know what you’re thinkin’. Ever’body shoots squirrels. Well, not ever’body shoots ‘em in the ass, then nails ‘em to a tree to watch ‘em squirm and bleed. And I’m a little ashamed to admit that I peed my bed from the time I was four until the summer I was ten. I always figured I was different, I reckon. I just didn’t know how different.
But awhile back, the Federal Government sent money to little ol’ Possum Kingdom High School for some great big new computers. (Bless you Bill Clinton, and your wall-eyed pecker too!) All of us backwoods teenage rednecks were introduced to that incredible constellation of ideas called the Internet.
Of course, I had to look up most of the good stuff when the teacher wasn’t around. So I volunteered to work in the library after school. Good ol’ Robbie Jo, always got her nose in a book. That’s what they all said. And nobody thought about it twice.
Now, just imagine how lonely I’d be if I didn’t have the Net. I woulda figured out what I am; I’m not stupid. But I mighta thought I was the only one. Even if I knew better, who would I have had to look up to? Husband poisoners and baby smotherers. Black widows and angels of mercy. Women enslaved by evil men; helpless victims in the clutches of all-powerful masters.
Take Caril Ann Fugate, for instance. You know, Charlie Starkweather’s dumbass babychicky girlfriend. A fourteen-year-old tootsiepop so weak and pitiful that she followed a squirrel-brained, bandy-legged, four-eyed garbageman with a lisp all around the country, helpin’ him shoot eleven people. Girl was so dumb she couldn’t spell “flu.” Really, she got it wrong in the note she left on her parents’ door after Charlie shot ‘em full of holes. Girl was so ignorant she named her black dog “Nig.” Is that who I want to be? Shit, no.
Or the one they said was the first, that alcoholic, drug-addicted, bulldyke whore in Florida. Pickin’ up yahoos and morons at the truck stop, drivin’ ‘em out into the woods and blastin’ ‘em fulla more holes than a buckshot chipmunk. Probably screamin’ at her daddy the whole time. “You’ll never hurt me again! You’ll never hurt me again!” BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!
Forgive me, Aileen honey, but I wanna be a little more than that.
They say knowledge is power. It’s more than that, by God. It’s a weapon. It’s a shotgun to blast your way out. It’s a meathook to climb over the dead-alive mouth-breathin’ motherfuckin’ idiots that life piles in front of you like a damn compost heap. And the Internet? It’s pure, undiluted, eighty-proof knowledge shot directly into your vein through a telephone wire.
It was the Internet that told me about Jane Toppan. Just four years after Jack the Ripper killed a measly five prostitutes in London, A nurse in New Hampshire named Jane confessed to poisonin’ thirty-one people. Turned out her total was closer to a hundred; she was just bein’ modest. Another misguided angel, you think? Puttin’ old folks out of their misery? I’m afraid not. As Miss Jane put it: “This is my ambition: to have killed more people--more helpless people--than any man or woman who has ever lived.” Well, you didn’t quite manage that, Jane, but it was a damn good try.
But she was just a poisoner, right? Women just don’t have it in ‘em to really whack somebody. Well, tell it to Belle Gunness. She dosed, burned, bashed, hacked and dismembered her way through forty-five adults and four kids before she was found out and had to blow town. But you know what? She got away, that Belle. Who knows how many more she got before she died a free woman. Did Ted Bundy manage that? Did that fat ol’ jackass John Wayne Gacy?
Let’s talk sheer numbers. Let’s talk about Countess Elizabeth Bathory. Back in medieval times, life was pretty cheap, but the Countess racked up a total that would impress just about anybody. She killed six hundred and ten peasant girls, torturin’, cuttin’, bitin’, rippin’ and slashin’ ‘em, dancin’ in the rain of their blood like a moonstruck raccoon. If you’ll excuse me sayin’ so, I think that’s a higher score than any of the boys have ever hit (unless you count political leaders, and ever’body knows they have an unfair advantage). Elizabeth made Andrei Chikatilo and Henry Lee Lucas look downright pathetic. Made ‘em look pathetic, hell. They were pathetic. A limp-dick ol’ pervert and a white trash bean-brain with a droopy eyeball, for God’s sake.
But the world’s packed with bean-brains, isn’t it.
People are so ignorant it just makes me sick. How stupid they are, not to realize how dangerous women can be. When we’re bad, we’re not just mean. We’re bone-vicious. You better be afraid of us, you. Watch your back. Watch your front. Watch your food and your water and the brakes on your car.
Or better yet, don’t. Just stay ignorant. It’ll make things so much easier for me. I’ve only got one under my belt, but I’m gonna have more. So many more. And let’s face it, people suck. I’ll be doin’ the world a favor.
I still can’t get over Caril Ann namin’ her dog Nig. I just can’t get my brain around how some folks hate others for the color of their skin, or what church they go to, o ho they like to do sex with. It just doesn’t make sense. You don’t have to hate folks because they look or act diff’rent. Just hate ‘em because they’re people, and people, to quote the Cramps, ain’t no good.
I hate ever’one equally. People are all the same to me.
After all, ever’body on Earth is just as wet and red and juicy as a cherry, on the inside.