Photo credit: Ulf Andersen
Author’s note: This is a short chapter that doesn’t appear in the novel. In this excerpt, it’s summer, 1983, and 19-year-old Rusty is a recent high school graduate, a foster kid who has been adopted by the Tillman family. The scene occurs about a week before his adopted mother and father are going to be killed — along with his aunt and uncle — in a massacre that he will be blamed for. He’ll go to prison for the crime, and will spend nearly 30 years in prison before being exonerated.
But he doesn’t know that yet.
÷ ÷ ÷
Rusty’s working for 7-Up, driving that truck, filling all the pop machines of the county with the delicious uncola everyone craves. Fuh! Yes, he likes it. He pulls into a little gas station out on the edge of town, hops out of the cab and goes around back to grab a crate from the truck’s trailer. He likes the way the bottles tinkle when he picks them up, the sound of ice cubes in a cartoon; he likes the way the weight feels on his arms, the way his biceps tighten against the rolled-up sleeves of his work shirt; he likes opening the door of the dispenser refrigerator with his key, likes plugging bottles into the empty slots and collecting the coins from the change box. He doesn’t steal that much — just a quarter or two from every machine, not enough that anyone will notice.
He goes into the gas station to get his paper signed and what do you know? At the cash register is that born-again girl from high school. Becky Barngrover! Fuh — back in the day, Becky made it her mission to come out to preach to the loadies who gathered near the high school cafeteria dumpsters; they’d all be out there standing around smoking cigarettes and weed, and here would come Becky, passing out pamphlets and witnessing to them about how Christ died for their sins and they could be washed clean and find peace if they only accepted Him into their hearts.
She was kind of hot, in Rusty’s opinion. Sweet face, pretty shoulder-length auburn hair, you could tell she used a curling iron to put a flip in it so it framed her little face just so. Big green eyes. Fuh! Nice womanly shape to her body, big tits, wide hips, not hard to picture her on her back.
“Hey, Becky,” he says.
“Oh,” she says. “Rusty. Hi.”
He grins. Runs his tongue along the inside bottom of his lip. The skin on the inside of your lip is just exactly the same as the inside of a pussy, they say.
“I didn’t know you worked here,” he says.
“Well,” she says. “I do.”
He clears his throat. Fuh! “Yeah. So. I’m the 7-Up guy now.”
“Okay,” she says.
÷ ÷ ÷
Back in junior year of high school they’d had this one conversation where she’d been trying to convince him that playing Dungeons and Dragons was satanic. It was spring, and they sat on the ground with their backs against the brick wall of the school, and there were tiny baby strawberries growing in the grass and he picked one and ate it. She did too.
She told him he shouldn’t play D&D because it was “occult training.” A recruitment tool for the satanic cults, she said, and he’d smiled and touched his pinkie against her pinkie, looking at her sidelong.
“Ha ha,” he said. “I’m in a cult already. We do witchcraft in the graveyard on Sunday morning, while you all are in church.”
She looked at him ruefully, and moved her pinkie away from where his was touching her. But not that far. “It’s not funny,” she said, and looked at him with her big eyes. “I don’t want you to go to Hell.”
He leaned back against the brick wall and lit a cigarette. “So,” he said. “You think there are, like, demons wandering around? With horns and fangs and flames for eyes? And you can just use magic to call them up? For real?”
“No,” she said. “They don’t look like that. They look just like people.”
“Hm,” he said. “It’s more interesting the other way.”
÷ ÷ ÷
People were gullible. Rusty knew that. Back when he was in the foster home Rusty knew this kid who thought kittens were hatched out of eggs. He was probably 12 or 13 and that’s what he believed — he had seen them being born with his own eyes, he said, in kindergarten, when they had gone on a field trip to a farm.
“Those were chickens,” Rusty told him, but the kid shook his head no.
“They didn’t have feathers,” he said. “They had fur. Real fluffy yellow fur.”
÷ ÷ ÷
He thought of that kid as Becky Barngrover talked of Satan. He wished he’d been nicer to the boy, if he’d wanted he could have been the kid’s protector and that would have been cool, but instead he’d joined with all the others in making the boy’s life a living hell. Ah well.
And now here he is, 19 years old, jobbing for 7-Up, and Becky’s 19, too, working at the gas station. Come to think of it, the kitten-egg kid is probably 19 too, if he’s still alive.
“I need you to sign this,” he says to Becky, and hands her the inventory papers. “And also, can I get a pack of Marlboro Reds?”
She puts pen to paper, and then turns and grabs his cigarettes from the rack behind her. No acknowledgement. She probably doesn’t even remember that day behind the school, the tiny wild strawberries that tasted like grass, how it seemed, when she talked about Jesus, that she might kiss you, how he’d had some fantasies about that and more. She's never had impure thoughts about him, he reckons.
Still, his neck prickles for a moment. That feeling when a memory grabs you and you stop short and you wonder if it was real or not, if anyone remembers what you remember or if it’s only something you conjured.
He puts five stolen quarters on the counter, takes his pack of cigarettes. Does not let his pinkie brush hers.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the acclaimed author of Among the Missing
, which was a finalist for the National Book Award; You Remind Me of Me
, which was named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle
, and Entertainment Weekly
, among other publications; Await Your Reply
, which was a New York Times
Notable Book and appeared on more than a dozen best-of-the-year lists; Stay Awake
; and Ill Will
. Chaon has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award in Fiction, and he was the recipient of the 2006 Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio, and teaches at Oberlin College, where he is the Pauline M. Delaney Professor of Creative Writing.