This was Drear’s Bluff. Nothing bad happened here. People didn’t disappear.
College was supposed to be an escape for Emily Skinner. But after failing out of school, she’s left with no choice but to return to her small Arkansas hometown, a place run on gossip and good Christian values.
She’s not alone. Emily’s former best friend—and childhood crush—Jody Monroe is back with a baby. Emily can’t resist the opportunity to reconnect, despite the uncomfortable way things ended between them and her mom’s disapproval of their friendship. When Emily stumbles upon a meth lab on Jody’s property, she realizes just how far they’ve both fallen.
Emily intends to keep her distance from Jody, but when she’s kicked out of her house with no money and nowhere to go, a paying job as Jody’s live-in babysitter is hard to pass up. As they grow closer, Emily glimpses a future for the first time since coming home. She dismisses her worries; after all, Jody is a single mom. The meth lab is a means to an end. And besides, for Emily, Jody is the real drug.
But when Jody’s business partner goes missing, and the lies begin to pile up, Emily will learn just how far Jody is willing to go to save her own skin—and how much Emily herself has risked for the love of someone who may never truly love her back.
From behind, the woman standing with a guy next to the Love’s Truck Stop air pump looked like any other woman: long hair, too skinny, big purse, big sunglasses. But when the woman turned and smiled, Emily’s chest tightened and her insides tingled in a forgotten but familiar way. Rumors of Jody’s return had come as whispers around town, but until now Emily had lacked proof.
A warm breeze blew petroleum fumes and cigarette smoke into her face while she sought further confirmation of who she’d seen. Gas spilled onto her hand. Startled, she released the trigger on the pump and swiped her hand across her jeans. She sheltered her eyes from the sun to scan the parking lot. But the woman and the guy were gone.
Back on the highway, Emily tried to keep her mind as empty and barren as the farmland that rolled by. When that didn’t work, she turned up the radio and hit scan, unable to settle on the station offerings from the nearest town—country or Christian or the same four pop songs on repeat interspersed with commercials for pawn shops and car lots. Midway through the miles she punched the radio off and tried to tell herself that her new fast food job and her time at home were temporary, though she’d been back a month already. She hadn’t meant to apply for the job. She’d talked to the woman at the temp agency like her mom had suggested. The woman had responded the way Emily had expected: sorry, but they didn’t have anything for someone with her lack of professional experience. Best try fast food, the woman had said. The woman’s coworker had lifted her eyes, and Emily had detected smugness in her smile. Angry and wallowing in self-pity, she had asked for and filled out a job application during her value meal lunch at a restaurant she’d spotted on the way home. She hadn’t expected the manager to offer her a job—on the same day that she applied, after a rushed interview whose only purpose seemed to be to ensure she wasn’t a criminal. She had accepted. There was no choice.
Soon, though, she lied to the empty passenger seat, she’d get a call for a job she really wanted or some other professional job she didn’t really care for, but at least it would be a real job, something that could make a dent in student loan and credit card accounts that sat on the brink of default and whose balances kept her up at night. That sounded good until the CDs and candle holders and assorted junk drawer contents in the last moving box she couldn’t bring herself to remove from her car rattled in the back seat. If she took that last moving box inside her parents’ house, she feared she’d never leave Drear’s Bluff.
The dream of next week dissolved into the hot, stale air that surrounded her. She had sold her couch, her bed, her pots and pans. There was no need for those things now. Where she was headed, the cast iron skillet had been seasoned before she was born.
Her mom would cook the beans, potatoes, and cornbread the way her own mother had taught her. Dad would recite the Lord’s Prayer because it required no thought. And Emily would stare at her plate of food and let it go cold while pondering the headset and the cash register and the brown and blue uniform in her back seat, whose fibers still held its last tenant’s stench of fryer grease and body odor—items for a life she had not expected to return to when she left for college, for a job that would not have been offered to her at all had she not removed the name of the state university from her resume—though two years hardly called for its inclusion.
Two years in, after failing to meet the grade requirements to keep her partial scholarship and other financial aid, she’d quit. Six months after quitting, she’d gotten a call from her mom asking why they had received a student loan bill in the mail when she wasn’t supposed to graduate for at least two more years. Now, here she was. Back with debt for a degree she hadn’t earned.
As the road came into sight—the one that led to her childhood home, and her parents, and their accompanying disappointment in her—she drove past it, beyond the mile markers, in a direction she had not driven in years, led on by a thought formed in the parking lot of the truck stop with no idea what she would find once she got there.
Drear’s Bluff ’s main drag looked like every other small town. There were the necessities: a post office, a floral shop for homecomings and Valentine’s Days and birthdays and graduations, and the feed store. Here, the men were men and women were women. Roles were handed out and passed down like the matriarchs’ afghan quilts, biscuit recipes, and stories.
She slowed the car when she came to the Quik-a-Way gas station-slash-everything mart and roadside diner. Every Sunday for as long as the Quik-a-Way had been around, the old men sat at the counter, sipped their hot coffee, and waited for their wives to finish gossiping. They never tired of talk about the good old days, when the farms were theirs alone, no corporate middlemen to answer to, no undue rules and regulations. All the farmers, including Emily’s dad, would pull on their green John Deere hats and disappear behind storms of dirt that trailed their tractors. They prided themselves on eating their Cream of Wheat and tightening their belts and working hard like everyone in Drear’s Bluff had been taught. Folks liked to slap their knees and joke that there were only two classes of people in Drear’s Bluff: poor and dirt-poor. The poor weren’t really poor. They just liked to say they were. The dirt-poor were still dirt-poor but they liked to think they weren’t. And most of the working fields, the ones that paid for supper, were good and gone.
Out of habit, she spied the parking lot for familiar vehicles. She didn’t recognize any of them. These cars belonged to the current crop of seniors and juniors who were there to grab a burger or a Mountain Dew before they headed off to evening shifts at restaurants and stores in towns bigger than Drear’s Bluff. They didn’t know now, but in a year or two these kids might appreciate the simplicity and comfort of having somewhere to go every day that required no input, no guilt. You went to school. You ate lunch. You went home.
Once she left the highway and the outskirts of Drear’s Bluff behind, the smooth asphalt shifted to a rumble. She cursed the potholes in the dirt road, unearthed by thunderstorms and hardened into craters that destroyed tires. The branches hung low and thick with dust kicked up from what little traffic barreled down the deadend red clay road. The dust drifted into the car, coating the dashboard and causing her to sneeze. The soaring grain silos of Johnston’s farm came into view. Along with their farm, they kept a stable of horses that they sometimes rode in the Old Fort Days Rodeo Parade. The horses dotted the horizon. As she’d done as a child, Emily adjusted her gaze so that the sky and grass looked connected by the barbed wire fence with a Frankenstein stitch, so that a horse looked like it’d been caught on the metal thorn. She navigated her car farther into the deep recesses of woods, past roads without markers and faded No Hunting signs riddled with buckshot, past the entrance to Lee Creek, where countless teenagers had indulged in their first drink, smoke, kiss, and heartbreak.
Two pale, skinny, and shirtless teenage boys walked along the side, near a dry ditch. One of the boys held a shotgun. The other, a red plastic gas can. Their ATV had probably run out of gas while they were out in the woods shooting songbirds for sport. Emily slowed the car when she passed them. She lifted an index finger off the steering wheel for a one-finger wave. Two sets of dead eyes stared back at her, like the boys had been beat on a few too many times. They returned the gesture and disappeared in the car’s cloud of dust.
Her nerves pricked as she drew closer to that familiar plot of land. She came to the end of the road and paused at the faded black mailbox and the metal farm gate that stood wide open. Knots that had begun to cramp her gut told her to turn around, best to let some things lie, but a stronger current of curiosity and what ifs overtook her and she made the turn. Trees in desperate need of a trim scraped the sides of the car until she came to the clearing. Her heart drummed at the sight of the trees, the dirt drive that snaked up the hill, the chicken house, the uncut grass—all recognizable but unfamiliar.
She would have put the car in reverse and driven ten miles back to the highway, beyond the high school and the Quik-a-Way, back home, back from the past, shaking her head at the notions that had occupied her mind since she left the truck stop—but there was a witness. She leaned against the long metal panes of the chicken house and let a cigarette burn down in one hand while she gnawed on a fingernail of the other like it was sugar cane. Jody Monroe.
Adrenaline thrummed through Emily. She swallowed hard, tried to ease her mouth for speech. The rumors were true.
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