West By God
Reporter Adelaide Stephenson has a bad habit of not giving up on stories. When two white men are accused of lynching a black teenager in the all black town of Targrady, West Virginia, she's given a simple assignment: Go down and write a quick piece on the obviously guilty men.
But when she gets there, she finds everything is not as it seems in Targrady, and soon she's embroiled in a conspiracy that reaches deep into the heart of the town itself. Coupled with her newly discovered pregnancy, Adelaide has her work cut out for her in this thrilling mystery from author Tyler Bell.
Read a free sample chapter below.
4 — Country Roads
A general sense of unease crawled in Adelaide’s chest. She kept thinking of the creature from Alien squirming around inside her, sucking nutrients out of the meat inside her ribcage. She’d left Loretta in a daze, and even her mother was now on board for her to see a doctor. Like with Bill, she had compromised on scheduling something when she got back from Targrady Wednesday.
The green West Virginia hills whipped past her as she headed eastbound out of Charleston on Interstate 64. The road wound and rose and fell through roads carved into the living rock of the hillsides. Runoff from the rainstorm a few days back still seeped in streams from cracks in the cliff face. She traveled parallel with the Kanawha River, catching the occasional glimpse of a coal barge floating its way down the state’s major artery to some coalfield or back upriver to be offloaded and shipped out of state.
She left the Kanawha River at Chelyan and I-64 in Dawes, where she split off onto Cabin Creek Road. Roads like Cabin Creek were one of her favorite things about her native state. They led deep into the heart of the country, away from the lights and bustle of the city. Everyone in West Virginia called themselves Mountaineers, but this is where you actually found them. In the trailers and single-floor ranches and tucked-away big family homes hidden behind the rolling green waves of the trees, just beyond the pale of civilization.
Adelaide had gone to college even further south than this in Athens, West Virginia. Concord, a tiny school by any measure, sat just a bit north of the border with Virginia. She hadn’t grown up in the deep mountains, but she’d come to understand them and the people that lived there. There was no broad brush that could describe the tens of thousands tucked by the tens, dozens, and hundreds into those little towns dotting the West Virginia hills, but generally they met respect with respect and preferred privacy and autonomy to the interferences modern convenience brought with it.
Adelaide stopped in Gun Cotton, a dying industrial town sitting at the fork of Cabin Creek Road and Legree Road, which led to Targrady. She didn’t know if Targrady had any sort of gas station and she didn’t want to get down there and run out of fuel. Gun Cotton’s single gas station had a Sunoco awning with three of the four lights over the pumps casting orange light down onto the cracked pavement.
The station itself was a squat cinderblock building the size of a doublewide trailer. Dull red neon over the glass and steel double doors blinked out “COLBY’S” letter by letter and then altogether. She could make out yellow bottles of Pennzoil 5W30 beside racks of windshield wipers and bottles of what looked like starter fluid through the windows beneath a Budweiser ad with a model dressed in what passed for risqué in 1986. Shelves of rolling, smoking, chewing and dipping tobacco lined the wall behind the counter but she didn’t see a clerk. She didn’t plan on going inside and when she saw the pumps accepted credit, she sighed in relief.
Adelaide got out of the car and started pumping her gas. A line of burnt-orange coal cars stretched out as far as she could see on the railway beside the road. In the distance, she could see the spidery white arms of coal conveyers hanging over the street. As she watched, the train cars clanged and crept forward slowly on the track to set up for the next load.
A sign welcoming visitors to Gun Cotton sat high on the hill over the gas station. Only one of the white sodium lights still worked, casting light on the face of a smiling middle-aged white man in a construction helmet. The sign read “Welcome to: GUN COTTON, W. Va.! ARMING AMERICA’S ARMS!” There was still enough daylight to see somebody had spray painted some symbol on the left side of the sign.
It looked like a minimalist eye or sunset bisected by a single broad line. The bisecting line and the ball in the middle of it, which Adelaide figured to be an iris or the sun, were black. The curving line over the ball and the flat horizontal line beneath it were both red. The words “SEEK” and “THE BLIND HORIZON” were sprayed in uneven block lettering beneath the symbol.
Adelaide figured it was probably some local band, but it was plenty creepy. She’d also suddenly become aware of how dark it was getting. The sun set earlier when there were mountains in the way. She turned to see how full the tank had gotten and saw a young boy on a bike had sneaked up on her while she was looking at the billboard.
“Hi!” He said, smiling. Adelaide yelped and nearly fell back on her ass. She let go of the pump handle to steady herself and it snapped off with a metallic click. The boy chuckled and Adelaide righted herself. He was a mixed kid of maybe 11 or 12 with a head of loosely curled hair so blond it looked almost white and big green-grey eyes. One of his front teeth was missing. “Did I scare you?”
“Yes, you scared the …” Adelaide caught herself from cursing in front of the kid. “The … jeepers out of me.” The kid was sitting on a brown BMX bike. Flecks of mud covered the bike, his tattered blue Converse sneakers and the frayed white ends of his cutoff jean shorts. He wore a faded tank top shirt with the X-ray of a hand printed on it and the words “I BELIEVE” printed beneath that. “What’s your deal, kid?”
“My name’s Vincent Colby and I’m the scariest boy in Gun Cotton,” he said matter-of-factly. He even puffed his chest up a bit. “When I grow up I’m going to be the next Dan Simmons. He writes scary stories about worms that pop out of the ground and eat people.” He leaned forward over his handlebars on “eat” and made claw shapes with his hands.
“Oh, really?” Adelaide said, squeezing the pump handle. “I know a kid you’d get along with. He wants to be the next Stephen King.” The kid leaned back and made a farting noise with his lips.
“Stephen King isn’t that great,” he said. “My mom said he used to drink Listerine.”
“Oh,” Adelaide said. “So, you said your name is Colby? Is this your dad’s gas station?” The kid made the same farting noise.
“This is my Mom’s place,” he said. “My dad is a no-good-piece-of-shit who lives with some painted lady in Vegas.” He said all of that in the same matter-of-fact tone. “Anyway, I tell people that stop here scary stories and if they ain’t scared they get their money back. Mom said I’m like a bard, but bards sing so I’m just like … a storyteller I guess. Anyway, five bucks lady.” He held out his hand. “I promise I’ll give it back if you aren’t scared.”
The tank reached its limit and hit the interrupter in the pump handle. It gave another metallic snap and closed. Adelaide looked at it in the side of her car and then back at the kid. She sighed and fished four dollar bills and enough change to make a dollar out of her purse and handed it to him. He counted it expertly and started.
“Once upon a time there were ghosts in West Virginia,” he said, raising his hands in front of his face. “Most of them were okay, they were ghosts of trees and animals and winds that got too cold, things like that. But there were these other ghosts that wanted to be bad, but they didn’t know how. The Devil whispered to them all the time and they liked how he talked, but they couldn’t understand what he was saying.
“Anyway, these ghosts just sort of hung out and the Indians didn’t pay them any mind and things were okay, until the white people brought slaves to the hills. The ghosts sat and watched and learned all the evil they could, and they tried to be bad, but they just didn’t have the knack for it. Plus they didn’t have hands.
“Well, along comes this family whose name everybody has long forgotten. That is, all but one of them, a woman named Angie Friday. Angie was meaner than anybody. She’d break up families at auction and trade ladies’ babies for like, fancy hats and all that, and she’d do worse things when the moon got full. People said she could talk to the Devil and the hill ghosts and animals.
“So one day, all Angie Friday’s slaves say they had enough, and they killed her and all her people. All the slaves were happy then, because they weren’t being hurt anymore, though they did feel bad about what they had to do to get free. But the story isn’t over.
“People say Angie Friday’s soul was too evil for hell. She walked down to the boney gates and told the Devil to open up and he said no, cause he was scared of her. So, Angie Friday walked up into the hills and spoke with the ghosts and made a Deal with them and then gobbled them all up.
“All of Angie Friday’s freed slaves decided to have a party when the moon was full to celebrate their freedom. They put up a maypole, which is like a stick with ribbons on it people used to dance around, and made a bonfire and had a big feast. But Angie Friday found them out in her fields and because of the ghosts she had Power now and the fire got out of control and burned all the slaves and their families to cinders.”
Adelaide’s skin had gone cold. Her throat felt suddenly scratchy. She thought of silver-dollar eyes and ash-mask faces. The sound of metal rain. The kid’s story was too eerie. She desperately needed a drink of water.
“So Angie Friday had her vengeance, but the story doesn’t end there either,” Vincent continued. “She left her old home and went up into the hills in search of more mischief. See, she had all them ghosts inside her and once they had a taste, they got hungry. Shortly after that, people started seeing this tall lady walking through the woods in nice clothes.
“They had all sorts of names for her. They called her Molly Longmouth, Tall Jennie, the Ash Tree, but most of all they called her the Witchum Woman. She went around stealing family members people thought they didn’t want around anymore, like old folks and babies and bad kids. They say she’d make cows dry up and crops go bad sometimes, cause she’d eat their ghosts if she got hungry, so people started giving her things to eat ahead of time. And now, she still wanders the roads, and if she sees you out alone at night, she’ll … get you!”
Just as the boy said that, a loud, unearthly scream split the deepening night behind Adelaide. She screamed herself and fell against the side of her car, eyes wide. She heard the girl laughing as soon as she saw her, a female carbon copy of Vincent that could only be his sister. Maybe even his twin.
She slid past Adelaide on her own pink and black BMX bike. She had her own pair of mud-splattered blue Converse sneakers and wore short pink jean shorts and a black, spaghetti-strap Misfits shirt. Her curly hair was even lighter than Vincent’s and caked to the back of her skull with mud. They had the same grey-green eyes, but the girl had all of her teeth. Adelaide thought she might have a heart attack.
“This is my sister, Valerie,” Vincent said. He’d started pedaling and they circled Adelaide’s car in opposite directions like a couple of mocha-colored sharks.
“And I’m the scariest girl in Gun Cotton,” Valerie said, still laughing.
“We scared you silly lady, so we’re keeping the five bucks,” Vincent said.
“Yeah, thanks lady,” Valerie said. They took off down the street without another word. Adelaide saw them high-five each other and then they were gone past the curve of the distant rumbling coal cars.
The sun set before Adelaide passed through Legree, several miles down the road from Gun Cotton. The fading sunlight couldn’t pierce through the hills and trees and she navigated by yellow headlamp light. The sun still lit the sky overhead though, it’s last rays sprinting through the ozone and splitting lengthwise until only the dusky reds and oranges covered the sky in waves, giving way to night in a fading corona of deep lavender. She forced herself to keep her eyes on the road.
Country dark had depth to it, dimensionality. Adelaide thought of her headlights as etching away the dark that covered the road in front of her, not illuminating it. She passed the shapes of houses and the occasional bobbing head of a deer walking alongside the road. Those she passed slowly and carefully, not wanting to test the thin windshield glass against a quarter-ton of hoof and antler.
Adelaide had seen first hand the kind of damage a deer did when an automobile hit one. Loretta had struck a deer driving Adelaide home from her sixth-grade creative writing contest. The big front end of Loretta’s new Dodge Durango (Chipotle Red! Big side mirrors!) absorbed most of the impact, but the buck had rolled up and over the hood. Both of its antlers snapped off during the impact and its bleeding head smashed through the glass just feet from Adelaide’s face.
Loretta had stopped the car gently on the side of the road and hauled the twitching deer carcass off the hood of her new SUV with bare hands. They’d left the corpse on the side of the road and left a message with the city manager’s office with a rough location of the body. Loretta hadn’t been shaken a bit by the incident, but young Adelaide dreamt of the deer’s split and rolling eye for months afterward.
The town of Legree was a bucket of white light in the hills at night. She saw it far before she reached it, the city’s natural illumination painted a fuzzy white disk on the darkening clouds overhead. She’d never been to Legree before, but she knew there wasn’t much to it from the maps she’d read before the trip. It really wasn’t more than a frontage road that split off the eponymous country highway.
Bill had a passing familiarity with the area because of his own company’s dealings in the area. He’d told Adelaide that it’d been founded shortly after speculators had discovered a wealthy coal vein under the nearby hills in the later 1800s. Hundreds flocked there for a boom and were sorely disappointed when the vein proved to be just the tail end of a much larger stake owned by the Ishtar-Grady company to the south. The Ishtar-Grady Mine Company, colloquially shortened to Targrady, had set up shop south of Legree in the black-run town of Bellview. Bellview prospered and people eventually took to calling it Targrady as well.
Adelaide slowed as she passed the broken asphalt turnoff that lead onto Legree’s Main Street. She hadn’t seen a soul on the road, except deer, since she’d left Gun Cotton. There wasn’t anybody out on the streets in Targrady except in front of the town’s lone, two-story municipal building. Flash strobes and video camera lights illuminated the red brick façade of the building. A group of maybe ten men and women were waving poster board signs beneath the unlit “LEGREE CITY HALL AND POLICE STATION” sign.
Adelaide slowed further and squinted at the scene through the gaps in the roadside buildings, trying to make out what the signs said. The trip had tired her out and she felt the siren song of a freshly made bed in her hotel room, but she felt that itch at the back of her skull. There was a story here, and dollars to donuts it was directly connected with the hearing tomorrow. She drove another mile up the road and pulled a right-hand U-turn onto Main Street.
Six news vans and maybe three times as many reporters had gathered around the group in front of the municipal building. Now closer, Adelaide saw there were only about eight of them, mostly men and nearly all sporting beards and deliberately blue-collar looking clothing. One of them didn’t fit that description at all though.
He stood in front of the little crowd, smiling broadly in a powder-blue seersucker suit. His white dress-shirt was joined tightly at his neck and bound by a red leather bolo tie with an oval bronze fastener emblazoned with a stylized Roman eagle, which Adelaide recognized as a Reichsadler. He gestured with every statement and every gesture was accompanied by fierce nodding and sign waving from the people behind him. Adelaide realized she knew what he was saying without actually hearing him. Still, she got out of the car.
“Travesty, my friends, is a word that lacks the subtle power necessary to describe the utter miscarriage of justice being perpetrated — at this very moment — by Sheriff Linwood and the mob of violent, uneducated thugs he sent to this quiet town to harass and, moreover, violate the civil rights of this innocent Christian woman here and her son and cousin,” the man said. “The word Scapegoat, I believe, describes this matter fairly. The word Corruption, I believe, describes this matter accurately. And the word Lie, I believe, is more than enough to describe the charges against these boys.”
Adelaide had already pulled her notepad out of her bag and started rapidly jotting down notes in shorthand. She had started cursing herself internally for packing her unloaded camera in her bag in the trunk of the car. She’d already missed the memo on this bizarre gathering and she couldn’t risk missing anymore of it taking the time to put her camera together. She sighed with relief when she saw Corrigan’s head bobbing over the throng of cameramen in front of the guy in the seersucker suit.
“These charges are farcical at best, libelous at their worst, and propagated on the prejudiced idea that rural white men with blue-collar backgrounds and high school educations are naturally bigoted,” the man continued. “The idea that Misters Daniels and Collard drove ten miles in the dark to murder a boy they’d never met before is, in my honest opinion, the biggest pile of bull pucky I’ve ever had the misfortune of standing downwind of.” That last line managed to elicit a low chuckle from the crowd behind the man and even some of the reporters.
“This woman,” he continued, putting a hand on the shoulder of a scrawny, tired-eyed woman in front of him, “has suffered harassment one might find unthinkable of good, Christian Americans, though undoubtedly that’s what those people believe themselves to be.” Puffy red flesh rimmed the woman’s eyes. Adelaide could tell she’d been crying so long she literally didn’t have tears left. In a flash, she recognized the woman from the picture in her email, Kinsey Collard.
“I am going to read you some of the words these … defenders of freedom, these so-called Americans who profess themselves as tolerant and believe their tolerance is so valuable they would harangue an innocent woman for hours on her phone, through her mail, and even on her computer,” the man continued. He pulled a notecard from the breast pocket of his suit. “I warn you these words aren’t fit for polite and proper conversation, much less publication, but I will read them nonetheless.”
Adelaide had managed to sidle up beside Corrigan in the press scrum. She nudged him with her elbow and he looked down, recognized her, and smiled. He mouthed the words “good stuff” and winked, then turned back to his camera. In front of them, the man in the suit cleared his throat and began to read.
“Here, an anonymous man, a grown man old enough for a job, children, and responsibilities of his own, writes, ‘I hope they hang you too, you racist cunt,’” the man said, reading off the notecard. Kinsey Collard buried her face in her hands and turned to a man in the crowd, who wrapped his arms around her. “Here another man, and believe-you-me I use that term lightly, calls Miss Collard a ‘Nazi whore’ and says his grandfather did his best to bury all ‘her kind’ in Normandy.
“Well, you know what I say to that? Perhaps that man should talk to his grandfather and ask about the Constitution that man fought for, alongside all those other brave men at Omaha and Utah. Those men who fought … and died … at Sword and Gold and Juno Beach. You ask those men and they’ll tell you today… that they fought for the right to free speech, the right to a life free of unlawful searches and seizures by the government and, most of all, a trial. A trial by a jury … of … their … peers.”
“Hey,” Adelaide whispered up to Corrigan. “Did I miss anything?” He bent over without taking his eyes off the man and shook his head.
“No,” he said. “I just got here too. I think most everybody did. He probably set this up knowing everybody would be driving past Legree for the hearing tomorrow around this time. Some of the press who got to Targrady earlier today apparently got tipoffs about this throughout the day. That was more than enough to set up the lights and then I guess everything else just fell into place.”
“Who is this guy?” Adelaide asked.
“Peter Roundtree,” Corrigan said. Adelaide recognized the name at once. Pastor Peter Roundtree frequently made the rounds through Appalachia, particularly around elections. He usually billed himself as a sort of counter-force to black political preachers like Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson and had a sizeable backwoods following, from what Adelaide had heard. It surprised her that she’d never seen him in person before.
“Mister Roundtree,” said a white woman wearing a crisp navy pantsuit and holding a microphone with a white box reading 13 WLTW over the handgrip. Pearl earrings peeked out between the black strands of her immaculate hairdo. “Jenny Fox, Channel 13 News.” She positioned herself close enough to Roundtree to move the microphone beneath his chin. Her cameraman, a grossly overweight black man, shifted to the right to get a better shot.
“I prefer Pastor Roundtree,” he replied with a warm smile. “But please continue Miss Fox.”
“Pastor Roundtree, you have an outspoken connection with several organizations labeled as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center,” Fox started. Her lead in didn’t seem to faze Roundtree at all. “Some might consider your presence here tasteless, as well as potentially not in the best interests of the defendants.” Fox seemed to have expected the line to land like a gunshot, but Roundtree brushed it off with a chuckle.
“Ms. Fox, this may come as a surprise to you, but I don’t much concern myself with the … tastes … of men who make baseless accusations against innocent men, nor the communities which errantly elected them into a position of power,” Roundtree said. “I am a Christian man, as so try to conduct myself in a way I believe would make God and Jesus Christ our Redeemer proud of me.” Several of the men behind him uttered “Amen” at that last line.
“I am here tonight, because a daughter of Christ, Ms. Collard here, reached out for a helping hand,” Roundtree said. “This woman is afraid to sleep in her own home. She’s afraid her kin will go to prison for a crime they didn’t commit, simply because they are guilty of being white and poor. And, yes, I freely admit I associate with organizations the liberal Southern Poverty Law Center poo-poos on occasion.
“In fact, members of one of those organizations, the White Christian Sons of West Virginia, are here with me tonight,” he continued. Several of the men behind him nodded sternly. Adelaide saw Fox’s cameraman swallow and glance around the crowd around him. She was suddenly and painfully aware that he was the only black man in the crowd. “You and the rest of the liberal media may not like that, and I only have to say that I do not care one lick what you might think. We’re here to help this woman in her time of need. I guess one might say it’s unfortunate in this world that sometimes only Samaritans are willing to pick up those laying wounded beside the road. Any other questions?”
The event went along like that for another ten minutes. Photographers snapped away while reporters asked Roundtree why he was in Legree and how he came to be there. He told them he’d been personally invited by the town’s mayor, who turned out to be one of the bearded men behind Roundtree. He wore a simple blue button-up shirt and khaki slacks. The man beside him held a sign reading “NO COLLARD JUSTICE” and Adelaide couldn’t help wondering whether it was racist or just poorly written.
Adelaide managed to get the last question of the night to Roundtree. She asked him how long he’d be in Legree and he responded, “As long as I’m needed,” before waving one last time to the crowd and getting into casket-black BMW down the street from the municipal building. One of the bearded men jogged ahead of him and held the rear passenger door open, then got into the driver seat. Adelaide saw the license plate read ‘CLASP’ as the car pulled away from the curb and drove off down the street.
The reporter’s cars and the broadcast trucks formed a sort of discolored funerary procession that Adelaide found herself in the lead of as they pulled into Targrady shortly before 10 p.m. The circus they’d all met in Legree hadn’t made its way to Targrady as of yet and the town slept dark and listless in the trees around them. Adelaide pulled into the first empty spot in Targrady’s only hotel and got out and stretched her legs. She watched the rest of the vehicles, a collection of beat-up sedans and brightly colored broadcast trucks, fill in the slots between the sun-faded lines to the right of her.
A metal sign reading simply “Hotel Targrady” in chipped white and brown paint sat at the top of a two-story metal pole at the far end of the lot. A red neon “NO VACANCY” sign had been switched on beneath the sign. A few of the cars and vans in the procession drove past the hotel and deeper into the sleeping towns. Adelaide guessed they’d arranged to board with some locals or maybe just find an abandoned parking lot to sleep in.
The journalists with rooms at the hotel formed a weary line leading down the cement sidewalk that bordered the parking lot to the hotel’s office. The lucky few who’d already checked in earlier that day trudged to their rooms or up the concrete stairs that led to the second floor. The entire motel had literally 12 rooms, all with doors and single windows facing the parking lot. Only 11 of those were for rent. The twelfth room was the manager’s office, which sat at the far end of the parking lot and had a little “MANAGER” sign hanging from chains over the door.
Adelaide got into line behind a mustachioed cameraman chatting up the same woman, Fox, who’d thrown the first questions out to Roundtree at the meeting earlier that night. He wasn’t Fox’s cameraman, who was four spaces ahead in line smoking cigarettes with a group of tire-looking men. Adelaide recognized one of them as the Channel 3 anchor with the sorry toupee Bill always mocked whenever the man was onscreen. The guy chatting up Fox held up his camera.
“It’s the new digital Canon,” he said. He had a husky, nasally voice that made every sentence sound like a choking cough. Adelaide eavesdropped on their conversation as the line dwindled toward the manager’s office. Fox nodded along with a polite but vacant smile as the guy rattled off technical information about the camera and what lenses it could fit. He told her he was freelancing out of Morgantown for the Times and for CNN.
“I write some and I shoot some,” he said, trying and utterly failing to sound nonchalant. “I have a custom hookup that lets me send via my satellite phone. It’s all pretty advanced. You know, I usually freelance for WaPo and the Philly Inquirer. You’d be pretty amazed how much news I get out of West Virginia.”
“I bet you like to say you get around,” Fox said with a coy smile. Laser whitened teeth flashed between her flawless red lips. The line knocked the guy off-balance and his face flushed scarlet. He tried to mumble something and started coughing instead. He bent over slightly and Fox’s face changed, as though a mask had slipped slightly ajar. Her eyes went cold and wholly indifferent, then turned to Adelaide and warmed instantly.
“Adelaide Stephenson,” Fox said, raising a finger to chest height and leaning slightly to the side. Fox’s sudden recognition knocked Adelaide as off balance as the tawdry line she’d given the fat cameraman. She cleared her throat and blinked.
“Yes? Yes, um, hello,” Adelaide said. She put her hand out and Fox took it, then stepped closer until they were just a foot apart. Adelaide noticed that move had the dual effect of putting Fox’s back to the fat cameraman and moving her significantly out of his range. He had regained his composure for the most part. Red still colored his face and he had tears in his eyes.
“Have we met?” Adelaide asked.
“Not personally, no,” Fox said. The woman’s smile was magnetic and Adelaide felt her own mouth turning up at the corners. “But I follow your work at the Indi-Star closely.” She leaned in conspiratorially and added, “We wouldn’t have public safety reporting if it weren’t for you.” She winked, a single expertly practiced pump of her right eyelid. Adelaide almost blushed herself. Instead she laughed.
“I’d always suspected,” she replied, and they both laughed. The fat cameraman stood in the growing gap between the end of the line ahead of him and where Adelaide and Fox stood talking. He tried to look busy fiddling with his camera, occasionally throwing glances Fox’s way. Then he gave up and turned to the group of smoking men. He produced a cigarette and joined them in conversation.
“Is he gone?” Fox whispered. Adelaide nodded and Fox looked visibly relieved. She looked over her shoulder and then turned to catch up with the line, though not too closely. She turned back to Adelaide. “You know, I do mean what I said. You’re good. A digger. I’d kill for some of that in our newsroom.”
“Thanks, but you’re not so bad yourself,” Adelaide replied. A polite lie. Adelaide only ever watched Channel 13 at work, and then only because Grip had tuned the television on the wall permanently to Channel 13 to watch Stealers games. Fox cocked up an eyebrow at Adelaide.
“You don’t have to bullshit me,” she said, pulling a pack of cigarettes from her purse. She pulled a nail loose and lit it with a battered old Zippo lighter. Adelaide saw a hand-etched Eagle, Globe, and Anchor on the side of the lighter. Fox flicked the wheel with her aquamarine blue thumbnail and took a drag. She caught Adelaide looking at the engraving.
“My dad’s,” she said, then recited: “First Battalion, Ninth Marines. The Walking Dead. He was a real hardass. Gave me this when I went to college. God only knows why.” She held out the pack. “Want one?”
In fact, Adelaide was dying for a cigarette. She thought of sitting dumbstruck in Loretta’s kitchen and then guiltily remembered the cigarette in the stall of the men’s bathroom. The sudden thought of a mutant, macrocephalic baby squalling blindly on a bloody blanket entered her mind. She nearly puked.
“No,” Adelaide said. “No thanks.” Fox gave her a concerned look.
“No problem,” she said, sticking the pack back in her purse. “Are you feeling okay?”
“I just found out I’m pregnant,” Adelaide blurted out, her eyes wide. She felt on the verge of crying. Fox’s eyes widened too and she blinked a couple times.
“Just … now? When?” Fox asked.
“Earlier today, before the drive down,” Adelaide said. She sniffed and knew the tears were on the way. She felt the first hot little teardrop roll down her cheek. “Oh my god, you’re the first person I’ve told.”
Fox didn’t say another word. She dropped the nearly whole cigarette on the ground, crushed it beneath the toe of her pumps, and walked to the front of the line. Adelaide watched her go, stunned. She felt suddenly and incredibly alone. She turned toward the front of the line and curled up against the brick wall dividing the rooms beside her. She started crying in earnest.
“Hey,” Fox said. Adelaide turned to her just as the woman wrapped her arm around Adelaide’s elbow. “Come on, let’s go.” Adelaide followed her away from the wall, chin tucked to her chest. She kept her eyes partially open to keep from falling and watched her tears make tiny dark splotches on the pavement beneath her. Fox led her up the stairs in the middle of the complex and then into a room opposite the parking lot.
“This is you,” Fox said, holding the door open. Adelaide thanked her and then sat on the edge of the bed and pushed her face into her hands. Fox shut the door behind her and flicked the light switch. Ugly yellow light flooded the room from two wall sconces set on either side of the headboard. She set her handbag on the dusty nightstand, pushing the brown plastic phone to the side, and then sat on the bed beside Adelaide.
“You didn’t have to do this,” Adelaide said between stifling sobs. Fox gave a reassuring chuckle and pulled a tiny notepad and a chewed-up Bic pen from her purse.
“Of course I did,” she said. She scribbled something on the notepad and then ripped off the sheet. The motion reminded Adelaide of a doctor writing a scrip. Take two of these and call me in the morning. Fox pressed the paper into Adelaide’s hand. “This is my cell and my room number. Call me if you need anything, alright?”
“Us girls gotta stick together, huh?” Adelaide said. Her face had gone puffy from crying and she wasn’t wearing much in the way of makeup. She wondered how she must look sitting side-by-side with the Aphroditic bombshell that was Jenny Fox, Channel 13 News. Their eyes met and Fox leaned back on her left hand and smiled.
“Don’t you know it,” she said. She dropped the pen and notepad back in her purse. “I’ll stay here longer if you need me to, otherwise I’m going to go check into my own room.” Adelaide shook her head and then made as if to say something. Fox headed her off at the pass, holding up one slickly manicured nail between them. “Don’t worry about it, and don’t worry about paying me back. Pay it forward, if anything. Maybe buy me a drink sometime.” She winked and Adelaide smiled.
“I’ll wager that guy with the camera would be pretty jealous of me, huh?” She said. Her voice felt raspy and sounded it too. Swallowing hurt. She needed to drink water. Fox let out a single, sharp burst of laughter.
“Old “Mickey-D’s” McMurphy?” She asked. “That old dog’s tried to tree me more than once. He’s got heart, I’ll give him that.” They both laughed and Fox stood and shouldered her purse. “Look, call me if you need to talk or whatever, okay? It’s no big deal.” Adelaide nodded without saying anything and they stayed there for a second, just looking at each other. Fox had the poise of a dancer, and the fierce sort of beauty only intelligent people could possess, but her face was open and warm and possessed of a concern that was anything but condescending.
Adelaide decided she liked Jenny Fox.
They said their goodbyes and Fox shut the door behind her. She’d left Adelaide’s room key on the nightstand. Adelaide stood and locked the deadbolt. She’d get her things out of the car in the morning. She sat back down on the bed and slid the phone toward the front of the nightstand. She just stared at it.
Black plastic numbers stared back at her from the keypad. She tucked Fox’s number under one of the phone’s rubber feet and then picked up the brown plastic receiver. No sound. A handwritten note laminated to the back of the handset with scotch tape read, “Press LINE 1 and dial 9 to call out.” She did as the note commanded and the dull roar of a dial tone leaked into the room.
She looked at Fox’s number on the table and a host of other phone numbers passed through her head. Loretta’s. Bill’s. Her doctor’s. Even Grip’s number. Calling any of them would give her the excuse she needed to get out of this Podunk and back home. If anything, she knew she needed to call Bill. She needed to tell him he was going to be a father.
A cold chill passed up her spine.
Was he going to be a father? Anything could happen in nine months, and there was always the chance that Loretta was wrong.
Adelaide shook her head. She knew she was pregnant the second Loretta said so. She felt like she’d even known herself for a while now, and had been loathe to admit it. Loathe. She didn’t want to be pregnant. Sure, she had more than a hand in getting herself there, but it wasn’t just supposed to happen.
Wasn’t just supposed to happen. She felt so stupid. What would Bill think? Would he blame her for it? She’d skipped her gynecologist appointment a few months back and when her birth control had run out she’d … just let it. Now she was fucking pregnant.
Adelaide burst into tears. She fumbled for the nearby pillow and buried her face in it and screamed. The hotel room stayed quiet. Shadows of men passed by her window on their way to their own rooms. She watched them pass with bleary eyes.
She thought about sneaking off to a clinic to get an abortion. She could go after the end of this assignment, just tell Bill she needed a few extra days to work and then find a place upstate. Only Loretta would know, and Fox, and whether they cared or not was their own business, not hers.
The thought of not being pregnant scared her for some reason far more than the thought of having a child.
My child, Adelaide thought. My baby.
She suddenly knew that was true. A Truth bigger than any she’d ever written. A doubtless fact, etched indelibly into the tome of her life.
Adelaide Stephenson: Journalist. Writer. Mother.
She cried harder, but the rhythm of her tears had changed. They fell hot and wide down her cheeks, cutting neat streams through the dust of the day. She felt cleansed.
Adelaide scrunched the floppy hotel pillow into a ball and squeezed it hard against her stomach. The pressure hurt, but not terribly. She rested her head on the lump she’d made and cried herself empty.
Eventually, she went to sleep.
She never called anybody.