We always leave Grandma’s house late at night, after the Braves game ends or midnight hits, whichever comes first. We pull down her driveway as she stands on the front porch, a waving silhouette. The only light emanates from the tails of lightning bugs. During the summertime, Daddy rips off their tails and gives them to me and Anna. If we catch enough, we can make a glowing ring of gold around our finger. I lean my forehead against the window and wait to pass the cemetery at the end of the road to give myself the shivers. I was once like you, you will soon be like me, is etched on a headstone by the back fence. Corroding under the night sky. It’s Daddy’s favorite, but it makes me queasy.
“What do you think? Should we do the drop-in on Donna and Mick?” Daddy says to the car of us. He’s smiling at me and Anna in the rearview mirror, trying to make out our small faces in the moonlight.
“Yes!” we scream in unison while Mama rolls her eyes. Daddy treats me and Anna like his personal comedy club audience, and we never disappoint. We know he only wants to visit Aunt Donna and Uncle Mick so we can laugh about them on the way home.
“They live on the other side of the mountain, Ed,” Mama says, annoyed.
But we know this means she’s agreed. If she wanted Daddy to turn toward our house in Atlanta, she would have made sure she spoke up before we passed the McDonald’s, the crossroads between our house and Aunt Donna’s. We’ve won. Anna and I smile at each other in solidarity of our midnight adventure. Daddy turns up “Ring of Fire” and laughs to himself. He loves to do the drop-in on folks.
I like the drop-in because you never know what state you’ll find people in. It’s a good way to see how folks really are. I imagine finding them in their pajamas with a movie playing on TV, disheveled and half-asleep. “Ah ha!” I’d say. “This is what you do when no one’s watching!” Really, I know I’ll stand behind Mama’s leg while she explains that we were just in the neighborhood.
Mountain air gushes through the open windows, fresh and relentless. It whips my hair into my eyes and leaves a sticky feeling on my cheeks, like they’ve been brushed with tree sap. It’s not long before Anna’s asleep next to me, and I’m alone on our journey. The drive grows longer and darker, and the houses turn into trees on either side of us. I start to regret following along with Daddy’s joke as my ears pop with mountain elevation. I know we’re getting close when the cicadas begin to scream.
“Should I turn off the headlights?” Daddy asks, waking up Anna and Mama. Daddy likes to turn the headlights off on the mountain. Give us all a thrill as he flies along the familiar curves.
“No, Ed,” Mama says.
“Yes!” Anna and I squeal. Mostly me. She’s barely awake and cuddling her worn bear to her chest. I know Daddy only turns the headlights off on special occasions. He just wants a rise out of us, as Mama says. Pretty soon we’re pulling onto a gravel road. Our tires climb over thick tree roots, and I worry they might pop, leaving us stranded at Aunt Donna’s. As we pull to a stop, my chest feels tight like before any surprise.
Aunt Donna and Uncle Mick’s house hides under a smoldering fog as our headlights try to cut through its veil. I wouldn’t recognize their house either way. I’ve only been here a few times since Donna and Mick don’t like company, as Mama says. That’s what makes Daddy’s joke extra funny. I love his jokes. I lie awake at night staring at my Zima Beer nightlight and worrying that there won’t be any humor in Heaven. Daddy’s kind of humor, that makes your ribs ache from laughing too hard. Usually when he’s on one of his kicks before bed, even Mama laughs, and she doesn’t like mean humor.
“Anna, get out and see if anyone’s home,” Daddy says.
Anna, thrilled with the task, dives barefoot into the night. We watch her traverse the yard carefully, tiptoeing over spiked gumballs and broken tree limbs. With the car off, nature grows around us. Owls speak, questioning our presence. Daddy sees an opportunity with my little sister out of the car, and twists around to face me.
“You know what happened in that house, don’t you?” he says. The full moon looms behind him, shifting him out of focus.
“Ed,” Mama warns.
“Mick’s old man died right in there on their bed, few years back. He was a mean son of a bitch, always beating Mick as a boy. Hit his mama, too. I’ll tell ya. She won’t tell ya,” he motions toward Mama, “but I’ll tell ya.” Mama doesn’t like to speak ill of the dead. Daddy waits for my reaction, but I just stare, wide-eyed.
“Anyway, as he was dying, he started screaming and thrashing about the bed. ‘Get away from me! Get away from me!’ he was screaming. He screamed so loud, Donna and Mick came running in, and they saw Mick’s daddy pulling at his hair and face. It looked like he was trying to yank off his own skin. ‘It burns! It burns!’ he was yelling. Clawing bloody streaks into his arms." Daddy jerks in his seat and then goes limp, imitating Mick’s father.
Daddy’s silent for a moment before opening his eyes to look at me.
“The devil had come for him.” he says.
I stare at the dark house and picture black figures swarming the dying man, stealing his soul. Chill bumps fill my arms and neck. I stop breathing, waiting for Mama to interject and berate Daddy for his lies. But she just shakes her head and looks down, as if praying over the three of us. The air chills around me and the dead man’s screams echo through my mind, traveling silently through miles and miles of mountain road. Desolate and damned. I don’t want to do the drop-in anymore. Anna’s still waiting on the dark porch, losing confidence, and glancing back at Daddy.
“Get in here honey, they ain’t home I guess,” Daddy yells out the car window. Just then the porch light comes on, illuminating Anna like an angel. Daddy opens his door, signaling me and Mama to get out of the car. We crunch across autumn leaves to the porch steps. My feet feel too loud beneath me. We’re all facing the closed door, waiting to hear the lock turn.
“What’re y’all doin’?”
We jump at the booming voice behind us. Anna lets out a little squeal. We turn to see Uncle Mick distorted in the darkness. A cigarette hangs between his lips, pooling smoke above his haggard frame and mixing with the smell of the forest. He looks so much older than my parents, bone thin with sparse tufts of hair, lingering and grey.
“We don’t like city folk out here, and you show up on our property!” His words run together, and I strain to hear him. He smiles at Daddy, signaling his joke.
“Where’s Donna?” Mama asks after her sister, opening the front door to head inside on her own. Mama worries about Aunt Donna, especially around the holidays when she doesn’t make it to Christmas again because “Mick isn’t feeling well” or “the roads look bad.” Mama says that Uncle Mick stifled Aunt Donna’s growth like cigarette smoke. Yellowing her nails and creasing her skin. They met when she was only thirteen and married right before he shipped off to Vietnam. When he was gone, Aunt Donna took under Mama’s wing to keep warm. Sometimes, I think Mama misses her there.
The front door opens to the smell of stale smoke. It engulfs me, staining my lungs. Anna and I make a face at each other, and I feel the urge to grab her small hand adorned with rings of fake sapphire. The front room of the house is layered in thick carpet, dark gold and stained. TV trays are set up in front of a corduroy couch. Chicken livers bathe in gravy, mostly demolished on old dinner plates. I feel Uncle Mick’s hand on my shoulder as he steps in the front door behind us.
“Guess what I have out back?” he says to Anna, bending down and scooping her up under the armpits.
“What?” Anna asks, startled.
“How about we go see?” I picture a box of kittens or a bicycle that Uncle Mick is looking to give away.
“I want to see,” I say in a small voice, feeling jealous of my doll-like little sister.
Daddy gives a nod to Uncle Mick as he carries Anna out the back door and onto the porch. I trail behind, free of Uncle Mick’s sweaty arms. The patio table is covered in fallen leaves, cigarette butts, and newspaper, all soggy from the evening rain.
A large turkey is gated off in the corner of the porch, Uncle Mick’s prisoner. Anna and I look at each other, giggling with our mouths open. Shocked at the sight of him.
“Uncle Mick!” I say, smiling at the turkey. “How did you catch him?”
“He’s no match for me,” Uncle Mick says, walking over to stroke the turkey's red head. The bird is fat and beautiful with a bluish face. With his feathers splayed out behind him, he looks royal. I feel the urge to run inside and whine to Daddy that I want to move to the country. I see visions of myself taming turkeys and jaunting with them through the brush.
“Where’s Donna?” Mama asks again, stepping out onto the porch. The prisoner shifts away from Uncle Mick’s touch and shoots wild glances into the woods.
“Should be in there,” Uncle Mick says. “You check the bathroom floor?” Darkness clouds Uncle Mick’s face as worry seeps into Mama’s. She hurries inside.
“You girls ever gone hunting?” Uncle Mick asks. I turn to look for Daddy. He’s inside smoking a cigarette and admiring a shelf of Uncle Mick’s guns.
“Daddy!” I call.
“No,” Anna says.
“That’s a damn shame. Hunting is some of the most fun there is.” He sets Anna down and walks to the corner of the porch.
“What’re you doing?” I manage. I don’t know how to turn my thoughts into words significant enough to freeze a moment. I want to leave. I wish the lightning bugs were stationary, golden portals to our house.
“Just showin’ y’all what your daddy should’ve,” Uncle Mick says. He’s come back with a shotgun. He cocks it and aims at the turkey’s broad frame. Anna seems to think he’s joking, her blue eyes clear of tears. I want to guard them with my hand, but I can’t move.
“Daddy!” I manage as Uncle Mick fires the gun. The shot echoes through the trees. The turkey’s scream sounds human.
My ears are ringing. Anna’s crying now, shaking at my side. I grab her hand, squishing the rings together. We’re both glued to the porch, like when we wake up from a nightmare, too scared to leave our beds and have to holler for Mama and Daddy to find us in the darkness. Groping along the walls.
Uncle Mick lays his gun at my pink boots and walks to the turkey’s side. For a split moment, I think he is going to try to save it.
“I only nicked its neck!” he says. He presses his hand to the wound. Blood gargles out of the hole and pools under his fingers, caking beneath his nails. The turkey tries to flap its wings, his feathers twitch as he cries.
“He’s not dead!” Uncle Mick says. “Look!”
My little sister and I stare at the broken bird. Its black eyes lock onto mine, glistening with something like tears.
“Watch, watch, watch!” Uncle Mick says. His eyes are wild. “Watch him leave our world.”
The focus fades from the turkey’s eyes like a train slowing to a stop.
Anna’s mouth hangs open in a silent cry, frozen under the eyes of the stars. They sympathize with her in a way that I can’t. The turkey is among them, his soul going where Uncle Mick’s father’s couldn’t.
He flies there. I close my eyes, reassuring myself. He flies there.
I don’t know how long I stood with Uncle Mick and Anna on the back porch under the broken spell of waking up. None of us knew how to return. Daddy runs outside after a while, and grabs both of our hands. Mama is wiping her eyes behind him. I look inside the glass door and see Aunt Donna lying on the couch in a stained robe.
“Passed out drunk,” Uncle Mick mumbles towards her.
“How long was she on that bathroom floor, Mick?” Mama is shaking. “How long was she on that damn bathroom floor?”
“What day is it?” Uncle Mick smirks. I’m not sure I like mean humor anymore.
“Let’s go, Ava,” Daddy says, touching Mama’s shoulder.
We’re back in the car quicker than heat lightning, flying down the gravel road. But I don’t hear the crunch of the tires or the whistle of the wind. Johnny Cash is silent in the CD deck. I wait for Daddy to make a joke, but he doesn’t speak. We stop at every yellow light on the main road, and when we get to the descent of the mountain, I almost ask Daddy to turn off the headlights.
I don’t want to see us spin into the darkness.