Fiction · 03/06/2019

You Owe Me

We heard a story at the start of seventh grade, one we’d heard a hundred times before, that took place in the early 1980s, the year Krull came out, a movie we’d only seen on basic cable, the good parts spliced out. Telling the story was a rite of passage meant to scare us into submission, a neighborhood myth meant to curtail nighttime bouts of bravery, sneak-outs to girls’ houses, any manner of adolescent deviances.

The story goes like this:

The boy named Jules and the girl named Kitty meet at the steep-banked crick behind our middle school on the last warm day of September. It’s a Saturday.

They’d met there all summer, first in June by coincidence. Jules, a close-cropped blonde boy, a Lutheran pastor’s son, was pulling apart crawdads he’d fished out of the shallow water with his hands, discarding the wriggling legs and yellow guts on the muddy banks behind him. He wiped his hands along his shorts and saw across the bank a girl named Kitty, daughter of a fiery Methodist preacher, staring blankly at him. The girl — fourteen to his twelve-and-a-half — stood with a long cigarette hanging from her lips, a menthol she’d swiped from the purse of a woman in her congregation.

Kitty, long-curled auburn hair hanging to her shoulders, poofed up from the humidity, pulled out a cheap blue gas station lighter and lit and inhaled and inhaled again and tried to blow a smoke ring but couldn’t. She let out defeated, puttered grey worms of smoke.

“They call this Snake Creek,” she said.

(Every time we hear the story, the first line spoken, that first bit of dialogue, is always slightly off, different in some way, but it’s always, for reasons we’re not sure of, spoken in a deep-fried southern drawl.)

“But there isn’t any snakes,” Jules said. “Just crawdads.”

“Not for much longer the way you’re going at them.”

(And here, the storyteller laughs — you have to, like it’s built into the narrative, a piece of coding hardwired, a signal to whoever’s speaking to stop, tilt their head back, and guffaw wildly.)

The boy, shy and sheepish, sat back and made a nest in the tall revenna and silver grass.

“My cousin Rachel taught me a game,” he said.

“What kind.” She was wary of boys and their games. This much she knew already.

“It’s called jinx.”

She snorted. “That’s not a game. It’s just something you say. Like if we said ‘Good-bye’ at the same time, I’d say ‘Jinx, you owe me a Coke!’ and then you have to buy me a Coke.” She inhaled and coughed wildly and then crossed her arms around her tiny waist like she was Bette Davis or some such. “And I keep track of all the Cokes boys owe me.”

He said “Snake Creek” under his breath and got up to leave and so she did too. At the top of the hill, she yelled out, “Jinx!” and Jules looked back at her. Kitty was pointing to the steep banks where they were, same spot on opposite sides. She smiled and he left, skinny shoulders shunted.

The next week at the same time Jules came back to the crick with a can of Coke he’d bought with change from 7-Eleven and half-buried it in the silt to keep it cold. When Kitty showed up, he dug it out and gave it to her and she smiled and said to him, “I think we should do everything at the same time when we’re together.”

“Yes,” he said.

“I think we’re intertwined. Cosmically, I mean.”

He said, “Yes.”

She told him about how her daddy, sad still about her mom leaving the two of them behind years ago, drained a six-pack of Stroh’s every Friday night and cried out in the black-soiled garden, hands shoved deep into the bitter-warm soil.

“Jinx,” he said.

He told her about how his dad still spanks him hard when he speaks out of turn or doesn’t act manly enough or asks questions about the Holy Spirit and why it’s okay to believe in that but not the ghosts the kids in your class told you live in your house because it’s an old farmhouse and the farmer killed his family with a shotgun and then himself.

“Jinx,” she said.

She told him how her daddy leaves her alone for days at a time and comes back Sunday mornings early, right as the sun is rising. That she shouldn’t tell anyone. That he comes home cut up and bruised. That he tells his congregation it was the devil himself he scrapped with on the road.

“Jinx,” he said.

He told her how his mom, sunken these days, barely comes out of her sewing room. She quilts and knits stacks of shirts and dresses and pajama pants promised to no one and doesn’t answer when Jules calls. That his dad sneaks around with a woman from church with big hair and lots of rouge, a widow. That his dad threatened him once when he caught him. Said he’d hurt him bad if he told.

“Jinx,” she said.

She said, “I wish he was dead.”

“Jinx.”

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Here though, in September, he’s wearing orange-brown corduroys and a puffy vest, and she’s in too-big jeans and a baggy striped sweatshirt.

In his hands is a brown paper bag, just like they talked about.

She says, “I read one time that we’re all space stuff.”

“Stuff,” he repeats.

“Particles. Pieces of things. We’re all made up of the same stuff.”

He smiles weakly, almost not at all. But she likes it, she knows it.

(We pause here in the story for dramatic effect — every time. Can you feel it?)

“Remember what we said last week,” she says. “Do you remember?”

He searches in his mind, roots around.

The sky is slated over, a slight chill. It’s a Saturday, and they can hear T-ball and slow-pitch softball games in the nearby park, echoes of some other lives.

He says, They pick up snakes and drink poison without being hurt.

“Jinx,” she says.

She says, I have given you authority so that you can walk on snakes and scorpions and overcome all the power of the enemy and that nothing will hurt you.

“Jinx,” he says.

She kicks off her strawberry red Keds and wades through the crick, parting the water with little steps. Next to Jules, Kitty towers. She puts her arm around him and takes a menthol cigarette from her pocket. She has a bruise under her right eye he knows not to ask about. His ribs hurt, sore to even breathe, but he won’t say a word.

She lights it and inhales and hands it to him. They both cough, cheeks pinkening.

Jinx.

He looks up at the clouds and thinks one of them resembles the tiny mahogany coffin his little brother was buried in. The way it looked lowered into the earth in that tiny, narrow grave.

Jinx.

She tosses the cigarette into the water, and it lands with a hiss. She grabs the paper bag from him and opens the top slowly and peers inside and sees two Eastern massasaugas coiled together, patterns like dozens of eyes looking up, tails rattling now, poised. “One for me, one for you,” she says.

“Nothing will hurt you,” he says.

Jinx.

(We know better, we do, but no matter how many times we hear it, we hope the ending might be different somehow, that strife and love might coexist.)

And on the count of three they reach their hands in and disrupt the snakes and volley them back forth, agitate them until the snakes strike, sink their fangs deep into their fleshy thumb-pads and wrists. It hurts so bad, like nothing they’ve felt before, thunder in their palms like the Word of God himself, but they hold their hands in, stare at the creek, then one another, then the sky parting now yellow and hazy.

Kitty’s the first to jerk her hand away. They stagger backwards and fall down along the clay. The snakes slither out of the bag and away. The creek water, the whooshing into the nearby culvert, booms wildly and blackens like coal there under the road. The clay beneath them is cold and hard. Kitty’s tongue is swollen and she can’t speak anymore and Jules’s eyes roll back and his lids shut tight and he can’t see, can’t see a thing, but there they are together and it will be days before anyone finds them and weeks before anyone can make sense of it and months and years until all that’s left of them in the ground is bones and ash and tattered cloth scraps imperceptible from one another.

And jinx.

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Robert James Russell is the author of the novellas Mesilla (Dock Street Press) and Sea of Trees (Winter Goose Publishing), and the chapbook Don’t Ask Me to Spell It Out (WhiskeyPaper Press). He is a founding editor of the literary journals Midwestern Gothic and CHEAP POP. You can find him online at robertjamesrussell.com and on Twitter at @robhollywood.