For as far back into his thirteen years as Tommy can remember, Old Man Johnson’s house has terrified him. The blinds rustle without a breeze. Coyote howls echo from the back. The gray paint on the weather-beaten paneling has begun to chip. Time has yellowed the ancient white door, and a rusted brass knocker hangs from the center. On windy nights, boards creak, as if a sudden gust of wind will turn the shell of the house to dust. The trees on both sides never bear leaves and seem to groan from the effort it takes to remain erect. The huge cotton field to the right—the one thing the old man really cares about—is the only sign of life.
The eeriest part about Johnson’s place sways from one of the decaying trees in the front yard. A thick manila rope—tattered, torn, pricks of splinters sticking out on all sides—dangles limply and blows in the breeze. With every swing in the wind, it calls out to its missing piece, the item that must have weighed it down.
* * *
Every time Tommy and his friends get out of school early, they find trouble. Last time, they got caught stealing candy from Dollar General, and today Tyler and Danny are determined to get closer to Johnson’s house than anyone else ever has. Tyler says if they’re lucky, Johnson might be on the porch chain-smoking, and they can ask him for a cigarette.
“This is crazy,” Tommy says. “Can’t we do something else? What about snatching some cigarettes from The Store?”
“That’s lame,” Tyler says and jumps up to grab a branch from one of the maples near the side of the road. The branch breaks off in his hand and Tyler whips it from side to side, slashing it through the air in front of his body. The dry, browning leaves fall like a trail of breadcrumbs. “That gas station’s been picked clean. We’re going to Johnson’s. You can go, or you can be a puss and run home crying to your mommy.”
Tommy’s father always jokes that Johnson must kill little kids and use them for cotton fertilizer because no one else’s stalks ever get that tall. The idea has always unnerved Tommy. And even though he’s told Danny and Tyler the same story multiple times, it doesn’t seem to bother them.
“I just said it was crazy,” Tommy says. “I didn’t say I wouldn’t go.”
His best friends seem to have the mental capacities of five-year-olds; their idea of a good book is a Victoria’s Secret catalog. A balanced meal is candy. And a good time can only happen if boobs, pain, or petty crime is involved. A lot of days, Tommy wonders why he’s become friends with them in the first place, but it isn’t hard to figure out. Living in a farm community, with miles of farmland between most houses, a boy is lucky if there are kids anywhere close to his age, let alone kids who share an interest or two.
Tommy shuffles his feet in order to delay their arrival and stops to examine a dead night crawler, which almost made it to the side of the road before it was run over. From the width of the treads around the worm, the vehicle was a big one, a suburban or farm truck.
“How would you like to have the name ‘Johnson’?” asks Tyler.
“Dude, my aunt married a guy with that name.” Danny picks up a tan rock and throws it side-armed at the yellow ‘Tractor Xing’ sign to his left. The rock pings straight to the ground leaving an indentation in the sign. “I mean, it ain’t so bad. It’s not like it’s hard to say or something.”
Tyler laughs. “And wouldn’t it be great if his first name was Harry? Harry Johnson. I’d pay someone to name their kid that.”
“Or better yet,” Danny says, “what if his name was Dick Johnson? You get it, Dick . . . Johnson?”
“Wow, Numb-nuts,” Tyler says and throws his branch at Danny who dodges it by stepping behind Tommy. “Dick and Johnson mean the same thing. How’d I get stuck with the likes of you two?”
Tommy picks up the stick and pokes at what’s left of the worm, ignoring his friends’ conversation altogether.
Tommy’s love of nature and curiosity for the way things work comes from his father, who is a farmer. While some farmers judge harvest time strictly on when the cotton bolls no longer hold any tint of green and the cotton floats on top like a cumulus cloud, Tommy’s father swears there is something different about the texture of ripe cotton. Today, his father drove to the other side of their field to make sure all of the cotton was ready for harvest. On days like this, his father becomes oblivious to everything except the appearance of a ripening cotton boll and the texture of the cotton it produces.
Tommy shakes his head and sends the night crawler flying with a small flick of his twig. Next to his foot is a stringy piece of cotton. Lost in the road by the cotton trailers on their way to the gin, perfect pieces of white have been left in the dirt, soiled and forgotten.
“Come on, Tommy,” Danny says, waving his arms. “We ain’t ever gonna make it!”
Tommy snaps up his middle finger and glares. Kicking at the next fluff of cotton, he picks up his feet and moves them into a slow jog to catch up to Danny and Tyler. Hopes of getting out of this escapade fade from his mind. If Tommy doesn’t want to inherit the name Mamma’s Boy, he needs to follow through. At least if he has to do it, he will do it right. In a small town like his, image is everything, and one stint can determine the way people look at him for the rest of his years in school. Everyone at school will hear about their adventure, and when they hear the story, he wants to sound tough.
When they reach the hay-colored grass of Johnson’s front yard, Johnson’s not on the porch like they’d hoped. If they got caught, it would be a lot harder to pull off the line that Johnson spoke to them first, and Tommy could picture the look of disappointment on his father’s face. He told Tommy never to go near Johnson’s house.
Tommy looks for a doorbell, but there isn’t one; the brass knocker is the only way to let Johnson know they are there. Down at the bottom of the front door, the paint has begun to chunk off in large sections, leaving the aged wood exposed to the sun. One side of an old, porch swing still hangs from a rusted metal chain in the ceiling. The other side rests on the floor. The swing’s red wood and the heat from the day blur the backdrop of the cotton field, casting it in a pink light. Leafless shrubs surround the deck; some have already shriveled into splinters and shards.
“Knock,” Tyler says, his feet crunching the grass as he shifts from one foot to the other. “You were afraid to come, so you’re the one that’s gotta knock. I bet he’ll give us a cigarette.”
“That’s dumb,” Tommy says, his face turning red. “No one said anything about knocking. And I don’t wanna smoke, so you do it.” This isn’t completely true, but Tommy hopes they won’t call him on it. He points at the door hard, as if jabbing someone’s chest during an argument. “I especially don’t wanna ask HIM for cigarettes!” He shifts his gaze between Tyler and Danny. “The guy’s a creep.”
“Fine. You still gotta prove you ain’t scared though,” Tyler says with a crooked smile. They both know Tyler has won the battle by uttering the challenge. Whatever comes out of Tyler’s mouth next, Tommy has to do. If he backs out after that, the whole eighth grade will know, and he will never live it down. “Ask him if his name’s Harry . . . Harry Johnson.”
“No problem,” Tommy says, and walks the final three strides to the edge of the steps and looks back. “You aren’t seriously gonna stand that far away, are you? Chicken shits.”
They take three short steps and are at equal distance from the stairs.
“Don’t forget,” Tommy says through clenched teeth. “If anything happens, we take off running. We don’t tell NO ONE what we were doin’ cuz my parents would kill me.” Tommy narrows his eyes and stares both of them down. Tyler blows off the glare with a sigh and a wave of the hand. Danny smirks and shoos him toward the door.
Tommy takes a deep breath and turns around. He can do this. The guy can’t be as bad as he seems. That would be too made-for-the-movies.
The stairs loom in front of him. Three steps lead up to the deck. Each termite-eaten stair bows in the middle. Tommy takes them at a run. If he goes over each one quick enough, his foot won’t go through. Now all he has is two short strides to the door. Then he can knock and run back to the safety of the grass before Johnson appears.
When he reaches for the knocker, the door swings open and something seizes his outstretched hand.
Johnson snarls. “What the hell do you want? And whatta ya doing on my land?” His grip tightens, and his eyes smile in recognition. “Sean . . . it’s you.” The way his muddy brown eyes sparkle, Tommy knows Sean is his absent son. The boy is a couple of years older than Tommy, and they’ve never met, but Sean was around his age when his mother took the kid and ran. Everyone in town knows that Johnson spent a year looking for them without even a casual sighting, and returned home to wander his cotton fields, alone.
Johnson’s expression resembles a kid entering a playground. This guy is lonely.
Tommy opens his mouth to speak but freezes in front of the disheveled appearance of the person in front of him. The wrinkly old man stands at the door in only his underwear, a bulge protruding from the peek-hole.
Whatever happened with Johnson’s kid, Tommy doesn’t want to know. And he doesn’t want to be Sean.
“Uh, no, sir. I’m Tommy. . . . From down the road.”
“That’s what I said, boy.” Johnson’s eyes harden and his face takes on a grimace like the old dog Tommy hates at his grandmother’s house. “Tommy. I said Tommy. Open your ears, kid.”
Tommy tries to free his arm, but Johnson’s grip grows tighter. Tommy looks back at Tyler and Danny, eyes wide with fear.
“Come on, Tommy,” Tyler says, backing away with each word. “Let’s get out of here. Sorry to bother you, sir.”
Tommy tries to pull away from the old man’s grip again, but instead Johnson yanks him close. Johnson lets go of Tommy’s wrist and wraps both arms around his shoulders, crossing his hands in front of Tommy’s chest. Johnson smells of dried sweat and cat urine. It makes Tommy want to throw up. It’s so strong, his nostrils burn. Tommy struggles to break free from the embrace, but with each try, Johnson pulls him closer. The old man’s bulge throbs against Tommy’s lower back.
Blood rushes to Tommy’s face and it becomes more difficult to breathe.
“Y’all might just wanna run along now,” Johnson bellows. “Sean’ll be busy a while.”
Two flashes of brown hair bob off into the distance—Danny and Tyler scampering away. Danny stumbles over his feet and bumps into the hanging manila rope, jumping to the right as if it might bite him. The gravel road is empty, and nothing but the ever-diminishing image of his friends stirs the heat waves between his house and Johnson’s porch.
He is alone.
Johnson pulls him the rest of the way through the door, and deadbolts it shut.
Out front, the tattered rope’s side-to-side swing slows into tiny circles; first twisting to the left and then to the right. The rope stalls for a second after uncoiling, and then with a slight jerk, starts all over again.
* * *
When the deadbolt clicks open, Tommy sprints through the doorway jumping over the rotten steps that lead away from Johnson’s house. He gulps in the cool dusk air, savoring the fresh scent flushing out his lungs.
Johnson’s howls echo throughout the house.
Worried he won’t be able to make it home before Johnson catches him, Tommy heads for the edge of the cotton field, ducking and diving through the stalks. The slap of each stalk on his waist and legs is a welcome feeling, compared to the numbness that Johnson’s weight has left on him.
“Sean!” Johnson hollers from the porch, moving toward the edge of the steps. “Come back, boy. We weren’t done havin’ fun.” Johnson grimaces in pain and grabs himself.
Tommy knows he has to stop moving. The stalks only come to chest level, and Johnson will know exactly where he is. He crouches into a ball, making himself as small as possible. The coolness of the soil chills his body. Shivering, he looks toward the porch, but Johnson is no longer there. Through the stalks, he makes out the man hobbling toward the field, wearing only a pair of overalls. A circle of blood grows in the area by his zipper.
Tommy continues to cower in the same spot, again closing his eyes. The rusty taste from his bloody escape mingles with the salt from his tears. The cold, wormy smell of dirt lingers in his nose.
Johnson’s calls go on for a few minutes and slowly begin to creep closer. Leaves crackle under his feet. His uneven gait comes closer. A twig breaks under the weight of his step and a piece of stalk flies off and hits Tommy in the knee. Johnson sucks and pants between hollers.
Tommy holds his breath. He hears a quick rustling of leaves, and then a thud and a crunch, and Johnson is on all fours. “Son of a bitch,” he yells, whimpering in agony. Tommy peeks through his lashes. He covers his head with his hands, almost choking on his need for air. Grunts and moans follow, and the crack of a few stalks under Johnson’s weight signal the recovery to his feet. A soft rustle trails Johnson’s mumblings as his hobbling moves away from Tommy.
When the crunching sound begins to fade, Tommy exhales, laboring as quietly as possible for each sip of air. The front door bangs shut, and Tommy opens his eyes. The sun has begun to set, and the remaining light fades into an array of peaches, oranges, and lemons.
* * *
The first time Tommy’s hands reached the top of the cotton stalk his fingers grazed the sharp brown shell instead. It amazed him that something so delicate could be surrounded by so many sharp edges. Even when he jumped as high as he could, his hands always came up short, as if falling away into the bright blue sky. He looked to see where his sister Abbey had run off to, so maybe she could help him, but she was nowhere to be found, and no matter, with every stick, Tommy became more and more insistent. Finally, after a long effort, Tommy managed the cotton loose.
He showed the soft, wiry cotton to his father, who took the piece, and rubbed it between his fingers and thumb. Tommy could tell by the look on his father’s face that the cotton was ready, and ready early.
His father took him up in his arms and hollered for Abbey, making a dash for the truck, weaving through the stalks. Grey storm clouds were rumbling in, forming a tidal wave of black along the horizon.
The warm air grew cool, and the smell of wet dirt was stronger with every breath as they drove down the road. Tommy’s father began calling to person after person, letting the men working the fields know they would start harvesting as soon as the rain had stopped.
Tommy and Abbey started calling too, sending shouts out the open passenger’s side window. Tommy waved his arms, gesturing with his cotton, before losing his grip, and the cotton flew out the window.
Tommy watched it float in the air, lingering on the breeze before falling to the side of the road.
Abbey leaned across him and cranked up the window forming a shield from the rain that had begun pounding his prize into the dirt. Within seconds, he could no longer tell his boll from the other discarded pieces.
Tommy stared at all the wisps of dirtied cotton left strewn across the road—left in the road by cotton trailers on the way to the gin. Who would want them now?
“Count them,” Abbey said, reaching out with one of her hands to hold his, guiding it along the window. “Counting always makes me feel better.”
* * *
Later when Tommy opens his eyes, the stars shine bright enough that he can see there is no Johnson in sight. To calm himself, he slurps in the night air then breathes it out calmly, slowly numbering the stalks above his head.
He takes one last look around and stretches out his stiff legs before darting between the stalks until he makes it to the edge of the field. Once he hits the packed dirt road, he moves so fast all he can feel are his feet slamming against the ground.
Slinging open the door to his house, he runs to the bathroom in the back of the house and turns on the light.
There, he stares at himself in the mirror, at the trails of tear-streaked dirt that cover his red cheeks. Who would want him now? His parents? Abbey? He grabs his red flannel robe off the hanger on the door and puts it on, hugging it close to his body.
His friends left him. Left him with a dirty old man.
Tommy stumbles to the toilet and throws up.
When he hears the front door slam shut, he tries to straighten up, but before he gets the chance to get off the bathroom floor and away from the toilet, Abbey has already opened the door and shut it behind her.
“Hey Moron, I’m opening my eyes, so if you’re naked, cover up your twig and berries,” she says, covering her eyes with her hand. The yellow glow of the bathroom light glints off her silver nail polish. “That is, if they’re even visible without a magnifying glass. I doubt they are, but whatever, I don’t want to see ‘em. Just let me get my brush without scaring the crap out of me.”
She rustles around in the drawer next to Tommy’s head. Every object scrapes against the bottom of the drawer. Tommy moans.
“Have you been in here the whole time? Mom had me driving around the whole neighborhood. Tyler and Danny got home hours ago.” Abbey looks at him, raising her eyebrows and wrinkling her nose into a question. “Did you get drunk, again? I told you those boys were bad news.”
Tommy nods, but the look on Abbey’s face says she doesn’t believe him, and she inches closer, her nostrils quivering as she smells the air around him. “I don’t smell a lick of alcohol. What’s wrong?”
Tommy tries to give the answer he’s sure she wants to hear, but only a sob comes out, and then the entire story. Through it all, he never lifts his eyes from the toilet water quaking around the brown stain below. He stares into the porcelain bowl with his arms hugging the bottom, his cheek resting on the cool seat, and Abbey crying beside him.
When he finishes, he waits. Surely, this is somehow his fault, and she’ll say so. She has never liked him anyway.
With her thumb and index finger under his chin, she lifts his head off the side of the toilet and forces him to look her in the eyes. She takes a deep breath. Tommy waits for her to tell him she hates him and can never forgive him for being such a screw up.
But that never comes.
She wraps her arms around him, squeezing him hard. He can hear the soft tick of her fake diamond watch—the one she’d been so proud of winning in an art contest at school. The light click bounces off the open bathtub and sends chills up his arms.
“One, two, three . . .”
Alayna Palmer Hanneken earned a M.F.A from Spalding University. One of Alayna’s short stories received Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest 79th Annual Competition. Her work has been shortlisted for The Masters Review and has appeared in The Storyteller. Currently residing in Missouri with her husband and two dogs, Alayna works on Fault Line, a collection of short stories set in a small community at the southern tip of Missouri, a setting in which the land’s wide horizon dominates, where the land is essential to its inhabitants for a living. Characters come face to face with unexpected, life-altering events; they lose what can never be replaced, and they find ways to go on with their lives, sadder, wiser, and more open to compassion and love.