Radio Free Heartland
by Corey Mallonee
When the car was just a distant cloud of dust above the corn fields I turned to Smoke and told him, “You ought to know I shot someone.”
“We all do things we regret,” he said, without looking up from the circle he was drawing in the dirt. His radio sat in the middle of the circle, tuned to nothing, just a hiss of static. It was made of something he called Bakelite, which I guess is a fancy kind of old plastic. It was brown like it was supposed to look like wood.
“I didn’t say I regret it,” I said.
Smoke nodded and stood up straight, tossing the stick aside and looking up at the scraps of cloud unspooling across the sky. “He deserve it?”
“I ain’t God,” I said, “and I ain’t a judge. But I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t have a reason.”
I may have no regrets but I’d be lying if I told you I don’t run through things sometimes to see how they could’ve turned out different that night. I’d be lying, too, if I said I didn’t sometimes wonder how my ma’s doing now I’m gone. But what I did that night’s how I got to Smoke, and Smoke’s how I got to the city.
The city’s where I met you, so believe me when I say I don’t regret a thing.
The night I shot Ted I got one of my feelings. He was out late and Ma was stomping around the house, rattling pots and pans and laying hand to me any time I got near, and the feeling settled over me like how sometimes you can feel your skin’s dirty.
As long as I can remember I been getting feelings. I got a choice and I’ll just know which one’s the right one, or other times I’ll get a feeling something bad’s coming. Like for example the time Steve Holbrook’s car went into the ravine, I called up Jenny that day before because I got a feeling, and even though I was madder at her than I’d ever been at anybody I had to tell her something was on the way even if I couldn’t say what.
When Jenny picked up the phone, I said, “Please don’t hang up.” And she didn’t say anything but she stayed on the line. But now that I had her on I didn’t know what to say.
“My dad says there’s something wrong with people like you,” she said after a little while. Each word pricking like a tiny knife. “He says you’re all gonna burn in hell.”
And I said, “You believe that?”
She was quiet a minute. “I don’t know.” And after another throbbing silence, she said, “I’m sorry, Tessa. It just slipped out when I was talking to Allison.”
I wanted to laugh and cry and scream all at the same time but instead I told her not to go do whatever it was she was going to do. But of course when I told her it was on account of a feeling I had she didn’t believe me. She thought I was mad at her or jealous or trying to get back at her, and she finally hung up and I flopped back on my bed and rolled onto my side and stared at the wall, numb.
I stayed awake all night feeling sick and scared, and then the next morning we heard in school Steve had run off the road and Jenny and Ish Goldberg were in the car with him and Ish was in the hospital and Jenny and Steve were dead.
So when I got a feeling about Ted I knew to pay attention. I listened as Ma stumbled around the kitchen and then eventually I heard the bath running and I knew she’d lock herself in there for an hour at least. I tiptoed out and pulled the shotgun down from up top the cabinet. I made sure both barrels were loaded and I went into my room and I just lay there. At first I kept the gun hidden under the bed but once I heard the bath drain out and Ma turn in I took it out and I sat there cross-legged atop the sheets and waited for Ted to come home.
“This is probably obvious,” Smoke said, “but don’t step outside the circle.”
He’d found the right station on his radio and the static was replaced by eerie silence. The clouds were turning grey-black and smoky, swirling in from all around just a little bit too fast. I took a step closer to the middle of the circle.
The radio squealed. Smoke frowned and started messing with the dials again. Then he picked it up and held it in his hand like he was feeling how heavy it was. He set it back down and sat there thinking for a minute. The sky and everything went still.
Smoke frowned some more and chewed his lip and after a few moments of thinking he nodded to himself. “I’m gonna miss this one,” he muttered, and then he knelt down over the radio and crooked the fingers of his right hand and he plunged them into the side of his head like his skin and skull weren’t there.
There was a gross wet sound and when he pulled his hand out he was holding something black and thick and shiny like tar. And for a moment I caught a flash of something in my head: a woman, black hair falling across her eyes. A wide, giddy smile. Pulling me — pulling Smoke? — by the hand through a midnight garden strung with colored lights, past hummingbirds feeding at night-blooming flowers and leaving glowing trails in the air behind them. The woman looking at me the way I always imagined Jenny looking at me.
Your face, of course, only I didn’t know it yet.
The image faded and Smoke poured the black stuff out of his hand and into the back of the radio with a hiss like water hitting a hot pan. He sat blinking and shaking his head for a minute, and then he tuned the radio again and there wasn’t any static and the clouds started swirling again, and the corn stalks rustled in the wind.
My Ma knew Ted from back when they were in high school. He used to be good at baseball, good enough to play on scholarship till he busted his knee and came back home and went to work selling cars. Everyone said he was real nice, and after my daddy left he kind of swooped in real quick and swept Ma off her feet, as she liked to say. It didn’t hurt he was well off.
I never told anyone but Jenny what I was afraid of. We were staying after school painting and I was doing this huge abstract thing and just throwing paint at a canvas because I could never make things look the way I wanted. She was working on a landscape and it was really good, windswept prairie dotted with little trees and bison in the distance, the sky purple and orange over a jagged mountain range. We were the only people in the art room.
“I’m scared of him,” I said into the silence. I didn’t have to say who. That was one thing I liked about Jenny, she understood things you didn’t want to say out loud. Most things, anyway.
“He walked in on me in the bathroom last night and pretended it was an accident,” I said. “And you remember how I told you he was looking at me when I was dancing at the wedding.”
I could see she was gripping the brush hard. “You ever need to,” she said, “you can sleep over with me.”
I threw some more paint onto my canvas without really looking at it and I tried not to let on how my heart was racing.
After I shot Ted I took his pickup and drove it to the truck stop on the edge of town. I left it there and caught a ride with a trucker named Norma who drove me through the night and dropped me at a rest stop off Route 70. She had postcards of kittens plastered all around the cab and she told me stories about growing up on the Omaha reservation and following David Bowie around on tour when she was my age. When I got out at the stop she said “good luck,” and I think she meant it.
I saw Smoke right away inside. He was leaning against a wall beside a few old arcade games and a claw machine full of stuffed animals. He was watching everyone but in a way that seemed kind of wondering, like the whole thing, sweaty travelers and grumpy kids and fast-food workers, was something new and strange he’d never seen before.
I went right up to him and asked, “Where you headed?”
He looked at me like the way sometimes Jenny used to look at her little brothers, and he laughed, and said, “You probably aren’t looking to go where I am.”
“Anywhere’s fine with me,” I said. “A city would be nice but it don’t matter which one.” I always wanted to live in a city. The bright lights and the buildings like a wall protecting you. The way you can wake up every day and decide to be someone new, or nobody at all. “I can pay for gas but you better know up front I ain’t doing nothing else with you.”
He had a short Afro and a scraggle of beard tufting from his cheeks and chin, and he rubbed his thumb on it and looked me over. I tried my best not to look scared.
“Don’t worry, you aren’t my type, kid.” He bit his bottom lip, showing crooked white teeth, and then he nodded to himself. “I’ll do you one better, though. I’ll take you to a city and you can have a place to stay a while. Not my place, a— call her a friend. She’ll let you stay there and she won’t give you any trouble.”
“What city?” Jenny always went on about going to LA or New York. She was always cutting out magazine stories about movie stars and singers, and she talked about going and trying to be an actress even though she’d never even acted in a school play.
“Thought that didn’t matter,” he said.
I thought about that for a second and then shook my head. I figured maybe I’d get lucky and make it down to Austin, but he wasn’t wrong. “It doesn’t.”
You learn a lot about a gun, standing watch with it. You feel it in your hands, the metal growing warm, the polished wood of the stock. You run your finger across the trigger guard and the hammer and the safety and you make for damn sure the safety’s off. You check and recheck to see it’s loaded even though you know it is. You feel the balance and you practice raising it up, aiming at the door where you know he’ll stumble in. You hold it like your grandpa taught you when you were little, when he took you shooting in the empty fields behind his trailer, and you listen to the clock tick out in the hall and you watch the numbers on your nightstand cycle up and through, one hour to the next. You make plans on where you’ll go because you remember how Mrs. Walsh got twenty years for stabbing her husband through the temple with a meat fork even though everyone had seen her bruises, and you don’t even have bruises, just a feeling. And your heart jumps with the engine of every passing car, waiting for the one that’ll slow, turn into the driveway, cut out, cool down, the door clicking open and slamming shut, the shambling footsteps, the front door banging, the creak of more footsteps, and the pause outside your door.
And somewhere in there you drift off to sleep and when you wake up there he is in your open doorway, watching you.
Ted was just a stocky shadow, his shoulders sloped and heaving. He took an unsteady step into the room and then stopped as I fumbled to get the shotgun up. The barrel glinted in the light that slashed in from outside.
“You shouldn’t point that thing at people,” he said. He didn’t sound too drunk but I knew him. I knew what he was doing in my doorway and I knew he’d keep coming back until I put a stop to it my own self. And sure as I’d ever been of anything I knew I wasn’t going to let him lay a hand on me.
Ted took another step toward me. “You even know how to use that?”
“Yes,” I said, “I know how.” And I squeezed the trigger.
Smoke had a shoebox full of old cassette tapes and he let me pick the music. He had all kinds of stuff in there, The Beatles and Slick Rick, Springsteen, Creedence, Public Enemy, Johnny Cash.
“You know,” I said as I rifled through the box, “there’s these new things called mp3s. Ever hear of them? Really seem like they’re gonna catch on.”
Smoke laughed. He drove with one arm out the window, fingertips feeling the wind. “I’m strictly analog,” he said. “Go ahead and pick something.”
I didn’t want to put on Creedence cause Ted liked them so I picked Public Enemy because I thought, that’s what I am now.
It felt kind of good, being a fugitive. It was new and different and exciting, and it sort of fit me, I thought. I’d never wanted to be one of the queer kids, the kids who knew who they were and liked who they liked and didn’t try to hide it. Or like Sammy Moore who made gay jokes because he thought people would stop calling him a fag if he played along. Me, I just wanted to blend in, to be friends with Jenny and Steve and Ish, and I wanted to go to football games and prom and study groups and parties, and that was enough for me, until it wasn’t.
Smoke stopped in a little town out in the middle of the prairie, farmland in every direction, flat like the wind had smoothed everything over. It wasn’t really even a town or anything, just a few buildings, a couple houses and a gas station with pumps that had little black-and-white cards to show the prices. Smoke spent a few minutes inside while I walked around on the cracked asphalt to stretch my legs.
He came back with a couple Cokes and some cheese sandwiches wrapped in plastic. A minute later, a skinny white guy in stained coveralls came outside. He fumbled the keys when Smoke tossed them his way and laughed at himself as he bent to pick them up.
“Lonnie’ll drive us the rest of the way,” Smoke said.
“Where’re we going? Tulsa?” I’d lost track of where we were but we’d been heading south and I thought we might be in Oklahoma by now. Wherever we were it was further from home than I’d ever been.
Smoke exchanged a knowing look with Lonnie. Lonnie had a big, wide smile that was mostly gaps. “Not Tulsa,” Smoke said.
Lonnie dropped us out in the middle of nowhere, on a dirt road with fields of brown stubble on either side. He drove off in Smoke’s car and that was when I told Smoke I shot a man.
There was this one time before Ted asked her to marry him when Ma had a scare at the doctor. Her vision got all swimmy in one eye and they found something on her optic nerve, and she had some tests but it was going to take a few days to hear back whether it was cancer or not. And I remember coming home from school to her crying, and that night she and Ted sat on the couch and I sat on the floor with my back against her legs. Ted ordered a pizza and made popcorn and we watched TV together and pretended everything was fine.
Even then I knew Ted was bad news but he cared about her, that was real enough to see. And for a little while it felt good, even though I was scared she might be dying, like we could be a family the way I always wanted me and my Ma and my daddy to be. Like a comfortable fiction we could wrap around ourselves to ward off what was coming.
It turned out the growth was benign and they didn’t even have to remove it. And soon enough Ted was back talking about how the gays and the feminists were turning our nation into a nation of pussies, and he was eyeing me up and down, and whatever flicker of family I’d seen in him was gone. I guess Ma held onto it, though, because they got married two months later.
“It’ll be here soon,” Smoke said.
The sky was filled in every direction with storm clouds like ink dropped into water, swirling around and us in the middle of it. My ears popped and all the hairs on my arms and neck stood on end.
“Jesus,” I said, “We got to find shelter someplace.”
The cornfields rippled in the wind like the surface of a lake. The fields ran flat into the distance until they hit a line of scraggly trees but there wasn’t any sign of shelter to speak of. All the while the sky was darkening and swirling and it felt like any minute now a smoky funnel cloud would stretch out like a tentacle and rip us away from the earth.
Smoke shook his head and kept fiddling with his radio, listening and making little adjustments every time the static crackled. “You’re safe with me,” he said. “I promise.”
The wind was ripping grit into the air. I reached up to brush my hair out of my eyes and then I realized I didn’t need to because it wasn’t actually blowing. It was dead calm on the patch of dirt road where Smoke and I were standing, and the air was clear, even.
Smoke said, “You know the Fujita Scale, right?”
“I saw Twister just like everybody else.”
“F5,” he said, getting to his feet and throwing his head back to look straight up at the spiraling supercell overhead. And then, quoting: “Strong frame houses leveled off foundations and swept away. Automobile-sized missiles fly through the air in excess of a hundred meters. High-rise buildings have significant structural deformation.” He turned to me and grinned and his voice dropped like he was letting me in on a secret. “Incredible phenomena will occur.”
Turns out shooting old beer cans in a field behind your grandpa’s trailer isn’t anything like turning a gun on a real live person. The gun jumped in my hands when I fired and I dropped it and fell back onto the bed. Ted cried out and I heard a thump and then nothing else.
The muzzle flash left a white blob floating in my eyes but after a minute I made out that Ted was lying against the far wall. I got up and turned on the light just as ma’s doorway burst open and she came stumbling out into the hallway.
Ted was sitting up with his back against the wall and he was breathing fast and shallow. There was a red stain spreading slowly across his shirt by his left hip. It looked like some of the buckshot had caught him in the side, but most of it missed and made a little constellation of holes in the wall beside him.
“What the hell,” he croaked. “You shot me.” His eyes darted to ma. “She shot me.”
Ma looked down at Ted and crossed her arms over her chest, breathing hard and playing with her wedding ring, taking it between her right thumb and middle finger and twisting it around and around. When she spoke, her lips barely moved, and it took me a second to realize she was talking to me. “He come into your room?”
“You know he did,” I said.
She didn’t change expression except her cheek twitched. Ted’s eyes were wide and white, his face real pale like all the color was draining down and leaking out the wound in his side.
“I got cash in my purse,” she said. “Take it and get out of here.” Her hands went still for a minute and then she started twisting her ring again. “I’ll drive him to the hospital. I expect the sheriff’ll come here after that. You got a couple hours, most likely. I ain’t gonna hold them back.”
I got my stuff together quick and took half the cash out of her purse along with the keys to Ted’s truck from where he’d dropped them on the kitchen counter. I got her coat for her while she was helping him out to her old sedan and laying him across the back seat. She took it from me without saying thanks and then we stood a minute, just looking at each other, and emotions sliding across her face like clouds across the sky.
“That wasn’t a very good shot,” she said.
“No. It wasn’t.”
“Thought your grandpa taught you better than that,” she said.
“He taught me fine,” I said.
She reached out and touched my shoulder with her fingertips. I thought she was going to do more but then she dropped her arm. Her eyes were wet.
“He’s not a bad man,” she said. “He’s not perfect but he’s not a monster.”
“I hope you’re right,” I said. And that was the last we spoke to each other.
Me and my ma, we drove to Denver once when I was little. And I remember seeing it across the plains, this distant city lighting up the sky, and it, God, it almost made me cry it was so beautiful.
The city I saw when the dust from Smoke’s twister cleared was a million times more breathtaking than Denver or probably any city in the world. It was all piled skyline and floating lights, swooping bridges and in the center of it all a great tower the color of the moon arcing up into the solemn velvet sky.
“We’re here,” Smoke said, picking up his radio and putting it in his bag, putting his arm around my shoulder and leading me forward out of the circle, scuffing a gap in the line with his shoe. “At the City,” he said. “The only city,” he continued, as we went down a set of stone steps that led to a twisting black canal. “The city that dreams itself.”
We rode a gondola among the lights and the buildings. There was a man made of bronze in the back who wheezed to life and started poling us along when Smoke dropped a few coins into a slot in his back. The bronze man had a speaker where his mouth should be and he started playing old jazz as the boat slid forward.
Up ahead, the glowing tower filled the sky, so high you couldn’t see the top. Its reflection lit the water. And as I looked I could feel, more than I ever had before, the secret part of me. The me that was me, like how when you peel off a sweaty set of clothes and take a hot shower and come out clean and smelling good, and I thought, I can be anything here, and then, I can be me.
I wished Jenny could be here to see this with me. When she used to talk about moving to New York or LA I always went along with it. Of course I knew she’d never go either place but I liked when she talked about it because then I got to tell her how beautiful she was without letting on I wanted her more than I’d ever wanted any actress.
I wasn’t thinking about how it all went wrong with her, about the night I finally broke down and told her how I felt about her even though I knew—not feeling-knew, just knew-knew—it wasn’t going to turn out the way I wanted. I wasn’t thinking about how I couldn’t bring myself to go to her funeral because I was afraid the whispers would follow me even there, the way they had at school ever since she let slip to Allison what happened and Allison told all our friends.
What I was thinking about was the night last summer when we drove out all of us, me and Jenny and Steve and Ish and a bunch of their friends, out into the fields outside of town and made a bonfire. Someone had brought a lemonade jug of something and when they passed it around the circle I only pretended to drink but Jenny, she wasn’t pretending. And we were talking and laughing and the night was warm and hazy and then suddenly, I don’t know what brought it on, Steve and Ish and the other boys were chanting for me and Jenny to make out, and I remember feeling my stomach drop because for a second I thought, oh god, they know.
But I held the panic down and I tried to laugh it off but they just got louder. And Jenny just got this wicked grin, her eyes glittering and bright in the firelight and the shadows dancing on her face, and she leaned in and kissed me right on the lips. The boys all started hooting and then she pulled me close, and I froze because I didn’t know in that moment if this was something real, some hidden part of her emerging like a butterfly from its cocoon. And then joy washed everything away and I was kissing her back. And I could feel her body against mine, her bare leg against my own, and her hand sliding up the leg of my shorts and along the top of my thigh like a secret no one knew but me, and me wishing more than anything we were alone. And oh, they were going to know how much I wanted this, Jenny was going to know, and in the moment I didn’t care, because it felt real, it had to be real, how could it not be real. And I could try and convince myself later it was nothing, no, it was just Jenny being Jenny, Jenny being tipsy, Jenny playing to an audience, it wasn’t anything I did or anything to do with me. But that didn’t stop me wondering and it didn’t stop things taking root and growing until I couldn’t stand it anymore, and I had to know the answer even if it wasn’t the one I wanted.
I tried not to gawk as Smoke led me through the streets, because one thing my daddy taught me before he ran off was it’s not polite to stare. But you know what the City’s like, the first time, and I couldn’t help it as I stumbled past creatures whose names you’d teach me later, when we’d sit at a cafe table in the shadow of your building’s ribs, drinking dreamstuff from little stone cups. The owlmen, the sexless Esha with their gauze wraps and yellow eyes, the Murmurs who’re just a shimmer in the air. The creatures in the Tower whose dreams sustain the city—
But of course I don’t need to tell you all that.
When I finally saw you I forgot everything else for a moment, every impossible thing I’d seen since I met Smoke. And I hoped more than I ever hoped for anything this wouldn’t turn out to be a dream, because I felt something blooming inside me, something real warm and radiant, just like the time Jenny kissed me out there in the field by the fire. Because you were the face I’d seen in Smoke’s memory, and you were the most beautiful person I ever seen, as beautiful as the city.
You were glaring at Smoke like you were trying to burn him up by looking at him. “The hell are you doing here, Smoke.”
“I picked up a stray,” Smoke said. It didn’t seem to bother him the way you were looking at him. “She needs a place to stay.” He patted me on the shoulder. “She’s your kind of girl. Shot her stepdad and lit out on her own.”
“I don’t need to hear her life story.” I couldn’t be sure, but I thought I saw you fighting a smile. “She can stay. You can leave.”
“Good to see you too,” he said, and he was grinning wide but I noticed he had his hand in his bag, and I was sure it was resting on his radio. I wondered about what you meant to him and what that might mean for me.
But there was plenty of time to figure that out. Plenty of time for everything.
“Be seeing you, Tessa,” he said, and you watched him as he left and then turned to me and held out your hand to shake.
“Tessa. Tessa Blackwood.”
“What are you so happy about?”
“Oh, nothing,” I said, and I tried not to smile but I couldn’t help myself. My mouth just kept twitching up at the corners. “Everything. I don’t know. I got a good feeling about you, that’s all.”
About the Author
Corey Mallonee is from Maine and lives in upstate New York.
About the Narrator
Karen Bovenmyer earned an MFA in Creative Writing: Popular Fiction from the University of Southern Maine. She teaches and mentors students at Iowa State University and Western Technical College. She is the 2016 recipient of the Horror Writers Association Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Scholarship. Her poems, short stories and novellas appear in more than 40 publications and her first novel, SWIFT FOR THE SUN, debuted from Dreamspinner Press in 2017.