By the Interstate
The evening news comes on with a story about an unidentified body found by the interstate. They go to a reporter out in the field.
“Let’s say a prayer for the body,” Mom beckons. She places my hand in my sister’s scarred palm, and we bow our heads.
“Oh, Lord! Help this body be identified and laid to rest. Give peace to the family, and guide the missing soul. Amen.”
“Amen,” we repeat.
“Did Daddy put the body there?” Charlotte asks.
My mother laughs with her mouth but not her eyes. Her eyes don’t seem to emote at all anymore. They cry, but even then, the tears just drip like wax from a stoic candle. But a candle needs fire to drip, and my mother drips for the fire that scarred my sister’s palm.
“No, sweetheart. It’s like I told you: Daddy works on a farm in southern Georgia. He’s as far from the body as the body’s own soul.”
“You thought he was far away that night, too,” I remind her.
The wax drips onto a twitching lip. The reporter promises more at eleven, and I think the hand poking out of the body bag is a nice shade of blue. Or maybe it’s just the little shreds of blue fabric jutting out from his fingernails.
“You kids hungry? Let’s make a French toast casserole.” She dons an apron and slides a big canister of cinnamon front and center.
“I’ll get the eggs,” I volunteer. I squeeze my body through the hole in the screen door and let my sweaty, bare feet dry off in the cool grass.
It’s over a hundred degrees today. If Charlotte didn’t have asthma, we might be able to sleep in the heat, but our sticky cots and inverted blanket forts do little to shade the moon burning through the curtain-less shared bedroom.
Even the hens—blessed as they are to have shaded nests in the coop—took to the fresh-pecked layer of dirt on the ground until the sun yawned the other way.
Our fattest hen, Benjamina, flaps at my arrival. I retrieve her egg and those of her neighbors, Goose, Buttermilk, and Cinnamon. With the amount of sun we’ve had, it’s no shock they’ve all been laying nearly every day.
Except old Estelle—not a single egg all year. I just lie to my mother when she asks who’s no longer laying. I don’t want to eat her.
The newest member of the group, Saffron, pecks at my hand as I try to grab her egg.
“Quit it, Saffron. You know the drill.” She puffs up and pecks again, knocking the egg from my palm.
No surprise—the egg breaks. I watch the gold yolk spread into the crevices of the dirt floor. And I wonder: is this how the blood spilled from the body beside the interstate? Did it ooze, thick and slow, to the roots of the grass?
“Thanks a lot, Saffron, you little shit.” She flaps and resumes her position on the nest, and from the upturn of her beak, I suspect she took offense.
My sister serenades me back inside and delivers the eggs to our whisking mother.
She stops whisking at the sight of them. “We could really use at least five. Is this it?”
“Yeah, I know. Saffron pecked one right out of my hand. She’d make a great mom.”
“I think you’re right.” She runs the eggs under the faucet and cracks them into the mixing bowl. “Hey, Charlotte and I were talking about playing cards tonight. Care to join?”
The answer is no, but I feel too guilty to decline. Our father loved playing cards. “Sure.”
He used to carry a pack with him everywhere. His fingers—thick and gray from whatever labor job afforded his whiskey that week—flipped through them like a tiny photobook. Whenever he got angry at us, he’d start shuffling the cards on the nearest surface. My ears could pick up the sound from a mile away.
Charlotte brings her stool to the counter beneath our mother and dips her hands into the Crisco. She races her greased palms around the inside of the baking dish, making car noises. I notice but don’t mention the flecks of spittle joining the Crisco in the dish.
Mother hands her the stale slices from a loaf. “Here, practice dealing.” Charlotte tosses the pieces along the bottom of the dish one at a time. I add the egg mixture, Mom adds a shot of bourbon, and in it goes.
I feel restless, and Mother can tell. She relieves her wallet of a silver dollar and drops it in my hand. “Anna, why don’t you get us some pralines for dessert?” It’s not really a question.
The coin is heavy in my pocket, so I flip it up in the air on my walk. My stiff fingers are saturated with the same blue veins of the unidentified body. I can’t put them out of my mind.
Why would anyone leave a body by the interstate? It’s such a high-traffic area, and someone would surely find it. The killer must be pretty cocky to leave his evidence out in the open like that.
My father would be dumb enough. The first time he went to prison, he punched a guard square in the face on the first night in front of a hundred witnesses and God himself.
But Mother always said he got his way because of charisma. Charisma, she said, is worth more than the truth. But truth, she said, would get him sent to prison a second time when he set our house on fire. I’ve stopped listening to her when she says these things. Lies, I think, overshadow intent.
The heat begins to settle into the ground for the night, the sun running patchwork blazes between the crowning trees. Looking at the trees, I come back to the body: why did the killer not conceal the dead under a hundred thousand leaves in the middle of nowhere?
A friendly truck horn knocks the thought from my head and the coin from my hands.
“Hello, Miss Anna. Need a ride somewhere?”
Mother’s new beau, Felix, motions to his passenger seat, smiling placidly.
“No, thanks, Felix.” I shift my foot over the dropped dollar. “Just heading to Bertreau’s for some pralines if I can find the coin you knocked from my hand.”
“Here’s a better one.” He winks and hands me a five-dollar bill with smatters of unknown substances presumably from his body shop. “Your momma at home?”
“Good. You oughta get back, too. Don’t need any more bodies by the side of the road today.” He winks again like we’ve just created an inside joke, though I’m not sure what’s funny.
I pull the bill to straighten it out. “I will. Are you coming over tonight?”
“Afraid not.” He adjusts his rearview mirror, and we both look at the overflow of junk in his truck bed obscuring the field of vision. “Just got back from some work outta town, and I’m beat.”
“Okay. Rest up.”
“Have a good night, Miss Anna. Give your momma a kiss for me.” A wink, a whoop, and a wave are eclipsed by the wheezing cloud from his exhaust and the wind whipping through a ripped royal blue tarp. Some mechanic. But at least he’s good to our mother. She always says he would die for her.
I retrieve the coin from the bottom of my shoe, and the sun loosens its grip. I pause to readjust my thoughts: or maybe it was that he would kill for her. Either way, Felix is a welcome addition to our lives.
Bertreau’s used to have all sorts of treats—pralines, pies, caramels, toffees. Now with Lisette Bertreau long gone, Mr. Bertreau can’t be bothered to live up to his wife’s legacy. The pralines, however, survived. The back wall hosts a photograph of her famous recipe card for the pralines, and it reads: If you ever stop serving these, I’ll haunt you. If someone were to ask what I want to be when I get older, I’d say Lisette Bertreau.
I point to the pralines and sink my teeth into a sour cherry when he turns his back. My mouth contorts to the fruit’s signature shape. I use my hand to catch the drool and quickly lap up the precious juice between my fingers. Felix’s money will cover the cherries.
I don’t run into anyone on my walk back home, but I find myself checking over my shoulder every few seconds. I half expect to see that blue body chasing after me. It must be haunting me. Not the spirit of the dead person. The body itself. A faceless, gray-blue mass of failed organs and empty veins cooing in my ear every few steps. Nothing sinister, but my hair is standing straight up.
I manage to eat the entire bag of cherries by the time I get back. The dark juice pools in my cuticles as if I’d dug my nails into an open wound.
“That you, Anna?”
“Who else would it be, Mom?” I put the bag of pralines on the counter.
She shrugs. There’s a drip of egg yolk on her clavicle that she’ll never notice. “Could be Felix. I haven’t heard from him in a few.” The note of concern was only perceptible by those closest to my mother. Small. Hidden. But with a texture just out of place.
“Actually, I saw him on the way to Bertreau’s. He said he wouldn’t be coming over tonight,” I say.
She looks up from her recipe book, and I can see that there will be follow-up questions. “Did he say why?”
“Just said he was tired from being out of town.”
She furrows her brows. “Did he say where?”
A tiny “hmm” doesn’t quite escape my mother’s newly pursed lips. I want to pull it out of her mouth for her.
Charlotte zooms into the room, pretending to steer a car with a plate. We stop to watch her entertain herself for a few lazy ticks of the kitchen timer.
“Want some fruit for the casserole?” I ask. We’re both still staring at Charlotte.
“Sure. We ran out of strawberries this morning, so you can dig into the plums now.”
The crisper drawer erupts with bruised plums when I open it. I chase down the four rolling toward the door and give them a quick shower.
My dull knife gnaws through the overripe flesh of the first fruit as it bleeds out onto the counter.
Brows still scrunched, my mother crosses to the phone on the farthest wall of the room and dials a number in a familiar formation. Felix.
I lick the sticky juice on the outside of my hand.
“C’mon, Felix… pick up the phone,” she says with more patience than she has.
The second plum’s texture is just as unfortunate. I try a serrated knife. But the skin just tugs away from the fruit and clings to the knife. I feel sort of like a taxidermist.
“Felix, please call me when you get this. We should talk about our last conversation. Mmbye.”
There’s that word. The farewell that always sounds so strange to me. Dismissive, yet somehow delicious. Mmbye.
I vaguely consider what their latest conversation would have been about. The vagueness grows to genuine curiosity.
The third plum is slightly underripe, but I slice it anyway in hopes that the tartness of it will balance out the mushy sweetness of the first two.
When I get into the fourth plum, I stop slicing.
She doesn’t look at me. “That’s the third time I’ve tried him now.”
“What could possibly be keeping him?”
“And why didn’t he tell me he was going out of town?”
She finally acknowledges me. “Okay, what? What is it?”
I take a step back from the counter as an invitation to her. She swivels, takes my place at the counter, and looks at the dissected plum on the cutting board.
There, burrowed deep between the mushy masses of overgrown plum, is a creamy larva I unknowingly gutted with the fruit.
The tail wriggles with my mother’s twitching lip. “Sawflies. Shit.”
She nods and sighs. “Don’t count on many good plums this season.”
I change the subject. “What’d you talk to Felix about recently?”
As usual, my mother shifts with the discomfort of the truth. “Your father,” she says quietly.
I stare at the parasite writhing in pain. My mind returns to the body, only momentarily put off by the disgusting distraction. I wonder if that person endured a lot of pain waiting for death. I wonder how long they waited for death. I wonder these things briefly, then return to my initial task. But I do pause to end the larva’s suffering first, thinking about my father as I do so.
The oven timer whines just as I finish arranging the cut plums on a serving dish. My mother opens the oven with her bare feet because her arms are busy making fresh whipped cream with imitation vanilla. She always tells us fresh whipped cream is the only stuff worth having. But I know that’s not the reason. Taste aside, the heavy cream is a full fifty cents cheaper than the tub of whipped cream resting beside flash-frozen vegetables at the supermarket.
“She’s ready,” my mother announces. “Can you grab her?”
I plop the baking dish on a lacey wool doily in the center of the table beside the plums. The main attraction is joined by a bowl of hastily whipped cream, a small tub of margarine with a mismatched lid, and a decanter of tang masquerading as orange juice.
“Breakfast for dinner, then,” I say to no one in particular.
“The most important meal of the day. Both times,” my mother jokes.
My sister comes bouncing around the corner, still gripping a plate in the style of a steering wheel. The plate finds its way to her placemat with a thunk that makes us grateful for its plastic body.
I take my seat beside her. Mother sits at the head of the table. The television gurgles in the background as we join hands in prayer.
“Oh, Lord. We thank you for these blessings. For this food, for our health, and for our continued safety. Amen.”
It was an odd prayer for my mother. Safety was not a word she liked to use ever since our father tried to kill us. Safety was not a reality we experienced without sacrificing something else. Safety was never any more than a prayer.
Our forks scrape along mismatched plates to get every last bit of the cream and margarine. The casserole is good, albeit made of eggs from overheating chickens. I refuse the plums; my taste for them disappeared with the image of the sawfly and the thought of my father.
The sound of the doorbell forces me upright. My mother licks the whipped cream from her fingertips, shrugs at us, and heads toward the door. I strain my neck to see the outline of two dark figures in hats with wide brims. Not Felix.
She opens the door to find two tall men in police uniforms. One is wearing a glinting silver sheriff’s badge I can just make out from my position at the table.
“Mrs. LeBas?” the sheriff asks.
My mother hesitates. I can only imagine her unease hearing the last name she unwillingly took from my father. “Yes?”
The men remove their hats and press them gently over their chests. My own chest gives a leap, and I follow it to the door. “I’m Sheriff Olinde, and this is Officer Morel.” The other man gives a nod.
“We have some very bad news to share with you.” The pause is quick, but it tastes heavier as I breathe in the hot air. “I’m afraid we found Martin LeBas’ body along Interstate 10 this morning. We’re so sorry for your loss.”
I had never heard anyone say my father’s full name out loud before. It sounded smooth. Sweet, even.
“Are you sure it was him?” my mother asks with more excitement than she should. The officers will think it’s a standard question, but I know what’s she’s really trying to ask: is he really, finally dead?
They nod in eerie unison. “Yes, ma’am.”
“How’d he die?” my mother asks, almost in a whisper.
“Unfortunately, we don’t know yet. But we suspect that it could be a homicide.”
“Homicide?” I ask with an eye to my mother. She rests a hand on my shoulder as if to say I’ll explain later.
“Is there anyone we can contact for you?” Officer Morel steps in to ask. His single line feels very rehearsed.
My mother’s twitchy head-shake allows him to step back again. “No,” she whispers.
“Obviously, you’ll want some time to process this shocking news, but we will need to talk to you about Mr. LeBas down at the station within the next few days. When you’re ready…” The front officer slides a card over to my mother. “Please give me a call.”
“Thank you,” she replies in her own rehearsed way.
“Take care, Ms. LeBas.”
Business card in hand, my mother slowly shuts the door.
“Oh, wait—” A hand catches the door before it snaps shut. “I almost forgot. This was on your porch.” Sheriff Olinde offers her a small brown package decorated only with her name.
He returns the hat to his balding scalp. “Evening, ma’am.” He’s already walking down the driveway as he says it.
She finally manages to close the door, and we both gaze down at the package.
The tape peels away with the slightest touch, and two things fall onto the floor at different rates: first a small box, then a piece of ripped paper.
I pick up the paper, frown at the barely legible fragment, and pass it to my mother.
She reads it. “For you, cherie mwen.”
I pick up the box and give it to her, suddenly afraid of what could be inside. With a flick of her thumb, she breaks the seal of the box and turns it on one side to release its contents into her trembling hands: a single deck of over-handled playing cards.
Our eyes meet with a mix of confusion and fear. My mother thumbs through the cards in a trance, and my ears burn at the unwelcome sound.
Begging to find a different noise, my ears pick up the voice sifting through the television in the background only to find something just as upsetting: “…Authorities say the body has been identified…” I sink back into my chair at the table.
Charlotte shifts her torso in the chair to face the television. “Let’s say another prayer for the body,” she calls. Her fingers lace together with a momentary shifting so as not to irritate her scar.
My mother joins us at the table, biting her bottom lip. She whispers yet again: “Not this time, Charlotte. Not this time.”
She slides the deck of cards to me across the table, scratches the tear from her twitching cheek, and finds my eyes. “Deal.”
Jamie Witherby is an Ohio-bred, Chicago-based short fiction writer with a taste for uncomfortable topics. Her work has appeared in The Write Launch, Burnt Pine Magazine, Underwood Press, and Kaaterskill Literary Basin. When she’s not cranking out creepy stories about children with the help of her bi-weekly writing workshop, you can find her cooking with too much garlic, watching every horror movie ever made, or whispering sweet nothings to her potted plants.