Narrative Magazine's Friday Feature: Skip Horack's 'Borderlands'
Narrative Magazine: In Skip Horack's startling short story "Borderlands," seventeen-year-old Wes goes bird hunting, stumbles on the bound, mutilated body of a female classmate, and moments later sees the killer lurking nearby. Wes shoots the man and flees. From this nightmarish beginning flows a story about the young man's efforts to come to terms with the shock, grief, and guilt that threaten to alienate him from his friends and family. A rising star among younger fiction writers, Horack is the author of a prize-winning story collection The Southern Cross.
HIS SETTER FOUND her in a cold canebrake, half buried in the loam, her mouth sealed with duct tape. Wes saw that it was her, Sara Champagne. Three fingers had been cut from her right hand, two from her left. She was naked to the waist, and a thin red tear ran from the base of her throat and then down across her belly.
Wes whistled soft for Sally. She bumped the steaming corpse with her nose, then gave a sad whine before coming to heel. The breeze died and a hawk screamed; something moved in the thicket. Through a break in the switch cane Wes saw a lank man in beaded buckskins rise and begin to move away. At fifteen yards the pale stranger turned and flashed a guilty smile. Wes fired both barrels of his twenty-gauge, then ran for the levee with Sally clipping at his heels.
"LOOK," SAID COMEAUX. "Duck cop."
Wes sat in his uncle's city police cruiser, and together they watched a line of parish deputies come fishtailing down the gravel road that ran alongside the levee. Trailing behind them all was a game warden in a green Dodge Ram.
Comeaux tapped at the steering wheel while the deputies parked and piled out. "So," he said to Wes, "just one more time. That man came at you, right?"
"Don't say nothing else. Understand?"
"Hell of a Sunday morning." Comeaux sighed and then opened his door. "Let's go."
His uncle knew most of the parish deputies and had a good ten years on even the oldest of them. They gathered around as the game warden produced a map of the batture, that stretch of land that ran between the levee and the Atchafalaya. Wes showed the spot as best he could, and then a deputy handed him a cheerleader-on-one-knee photograph, a pretty girl smiling. Wes flinched. "I already told y'all that it was Sara Champagne," he said. "I knew her."
Before long the sheriff himself arrived in a red Z-71. The tall man was still in his church clothes, and they waited as he swapped his loafers for a pair of rubber knee-boots that he kept in his diamond-plated truck box. He nodded at Comeaux. "Hey, Pistol Pete."
"Hey," said Comeaux.
The sheriff shook Comeaux's hand and was introduced to Wes. The deputies all stepped aside as the sheriff looked him over. "How old are you, son?"
"You in school?"
"Yessir. I'm a senior at Livonia."
"You're a big kid. You played football?"
The sheriff pointed at Comeaux. "Did you know he was my center back in high school?"
"Tell him, Petey."
"It's true," said Comeaux.
The sheriff studied Wes. "You should have played ball."
"Alright." Wes saw Comeaux narrow his eyes, his way of telling him not to be a smartass.
"Yessir," Wes added. "A lot of people say that."
"I bet." The sheriff tucked the cuffs of his gray dress pants down into his LaCrosses, then rose up again. "So you were bird hunting?"
"Using what? Eights? Nines?"
"Sometimes we jump rabbits down there."
The game warden laughed. "You're gonna ruin that bird dog," he said. "Make a beagle out of him."
"He's a meat dog," said Wes. "He gets it."
The sheriff sliced his hand through the air, and they quieted. "How far away was he?"
Wes pointed over at Sally, asleep in the sun. "Maybe me to her."
"And what are your chokes in that side-by-side?"
"Improved, then modified."
"Where'd you aim?"
"I don't really remember," said Wes. "I might not of aimed."
The sheriff let his head roll back as he thought all that over. "Okay," he said finally. "Stay put for now."
A call was sent out, and soon backup came steadily pouring in along the gravel road that led from the highway. More parish deputies and more game wardens, city cops like Comeaux from Livonia and Fordoche, Morganza and Krotz Springs. State troopers, even. Wes watched them load riot shotguns and AR-15s, then space themselves out along the levee for as far as he could see. One man every fifty yards or so. The sheriff stood atop his truck box and shouted orders. He hollered down to Comeaux, said that boats were already patrolling the river in case their killer went a-swimming.
They waited over an hour for the dog team from the state penitentiary to arrive, then turned the Angola bloodhounds loose next to a van one of the game wardens found parked near the railroad tracks. Men fanned out into the batture, and later Wes listened as the sheriff shared a cigarette with Comeaux. "We came across him laid out in the cane," said the sheriff. "Face so full of birdshot it looks like God cursed him."
"Oh yeah," said the sheriff. "A couple of pellets clipped his jugular. You should see the fucking blood, Petey."
Wes saw a young deputy standing alone atop the levee. He had puked down the front of his uniform and was cleaning himself off with a towel. Wes stared at him until it clicked. He remembered that same man circling their house holding divorce papers last summer, his father screaming that he'd never open the door.
Comeaux took a long drag, then whispered to the sheriff through his fingers. "Find a gun?" he asked.
The sheriff shook his head. "Just the biggest knife you ever saw. Chef knife. Sharp as a gar's tooth." He smiled. "Don't worry. The boy did right."
The sheriff ambled off, and Comeaux looked over at Wes. "You okay with all this?" he asked.
"I guess so," said Wes. "I'm not in any trouble?"
"Hell no. You're a hero."
Wes waited for his uncle to laugh, but he didn't. "Do me a favor, nonc?"
"Don't tell my mother about none of this, okay? I'll tell her myself. I'll tell her when I'm ready."
SHE RANG HIM at dusk. She'd do that when she knew his father wasn't home to answer. Wes was short with her and didn't mention finding Sara, killing a man. She paused, regrouped, asked if he'd been studying for his exams. He told her that school had let out for Christmas, that she'd know that if she hadn't left.
His mother went quiet, and Wes slipped the heavy phone into its cradle. He stayed in the kitchen waiting for her to call back, but she didn't and so after a while he stepped outside to watch the day fade.
Sally bounced around her kennel like a dancing bear, whining for another hunt. Wes ignored her and wandered to the back of the lot. He looked out over the neighbor's pasture. A herd of Brahma-crossed swamp cows lazed in the darkening ryegrass, and in a far corner an oil well older than Wes kept at its seesaw rhythm, sucking on that muddy field like a great steel mosquito.
WHAT MEDIA CAME looking were blocked by Comeaux. He told them that the boy was gone, had off and moved away. In the end they kept his name out of the papers on account of his age, but no secrets last in Livonia. Wes lay low for a few days then, Wednesday morning, ducked into Penny's for coffee and toast. He saw that the poster of Sara had been taken off the back of the cash register. The missing girl had been found.
A stir in the diner: nods, sad smiles, and winks. Wes turned to leave and there was Celia Trahan, strawberry lips asking if he planned on making the wake. Wes glanced down at his worn jeans, his flannel shirt. "We'll see," he said.
Celia caught his meaning. "You have some nice clothes, don't you?"
"Great." She bit down on her bottom lip. "Maybe you could ride with me, okay?"
Wes hesitated, then brushed his shaggy hair out of his eyes. "Sure," he said.
"You live right there off the highway, don't you?"
"By the tire yard?"
"By the tire yard."
"Good. I'll pick you up at five o'clock."
Celia kissed his cheek, and he felt his ears go red. She backed away, then a pool of girls absorbed her like a bead of mercury. As they went bubbling out the door, some asshole in a booth clapped. He was an out-of-town trucker, didn't know the score. An old waitress hushed him and said you be quiet, them poor kids just lost one of they friends.
LAKE CITY: The Gateway to Florida. A dog-eared postcard addressed to him by way of Comeaux. No return address, but Wes already had that memorized, saw it on the papers that the deputy had finally managed to serve on his father. Wes flipped the postcard over. Thinking of you. Things are crazy now, but you'll understand one day. Have a wonderful and blessed Christmas. Love, Mom.
SALLY WENT TO barking as Wes pulled on his father's only suit. He heard a knock, then the front door opening. Wes cursed. "I'll be right there," he said. "Just give me one second." He ran a wet comb through his hair, stepped out of the bathroom with a tie slung across his shoulder.
Celia was waiting for him in the living room. Her black dress was printed with white orchids. "You living here by yourself?" she asked.
"Half the time. Daddy works fourteens offshore."
"I'm sorry about your momma."
"Thanks." A stray drop of water escaped from Wes's damp hair and ran down across his face. He wiped it away with his hand.
Celia grinned at him. "Think I could have a beer?"
"Yeah, sure. There's some in the icebox."
"Right. Sorry." Wes led her into the kitchen and winced at the dishes piled high in the sink. He opened two High Lifes with the front of his clean shirt and handed her one.
"What was it like?" asked Celia.
"Finding Sara, shooting that fucker?"
Wes shrugged and tried to wiggle his toes inside his father's black shoes, a size too small. "I can't really say."
Celia frowned but told him that she understood. She tilted her beer toward him. "To Sara," she said.
"Sara." Their bottles clicked, and they both took a long pull.
Celia set her beer on the kitchen table and lifted the tie from his shoulder. She placed it around her own neck. "Come closer," she ordered. He shuffled to her and she grabbed hold of his lapels, began to struggle with the top button of his dress shirt. "Damn, big guy, when was the last time you wore this?"
"I ain't never wore it."
"Well, you're too big for it," she said. "You'll just have to wear it open, without a tie."
"Absolutely," she told him. "That's what all the celebrities are doing now anyways."
THE SMELL, THAT biology-lab smell, it stunned Wes like a slap. He stepped back, and Celia caught him by the elbow. She led him to the coffin as teenagers whispered. A boy named Chris he'd hated his whole life stepped forward to touch Wes on the arm, tell him good job.
Sara's dress was crushed velvet, ink black with lace frills. A broad white ribbon had been tied across her waist, and makeup cracked at the corners of her mouth. Wes studied her: the lipstick different, the bangs wrong. Her hands disappeared into a spray of roses resting on her lap. He remembered missing fingers and shivered like a rabbit when Celia squeezed his own sweaty hand.
WES SAT ON the curb outside Gene's Hardware watching feral cats battle over trash. They screamed like devils, and so he bounced an old battery off the dumpster to quiet them. He'd taken off the black shoes and his thin socks, was massaging his swollen feet when Comeaux's cruiser finally pulled up. His uncle leaned out the open window. "Well," he said. "You coming?"
Wes stuffed his socks into one of the shoes and picked his way barefoot to the cruiser. "Sorry, nonc. I didn't have anyone else to call."
"No problem," said Comeaux. "Hop in."
Wes folded himself into the passenger seat of the Crown Vic. "Thanks," he said.
"Sure." Comeaux made a wide turn in the parking lot, and they headed back toward Livonia with the sunset off their left shoulders. "It's nothing to be ashamed of," he said.
"I ain't ashamed."
"Looks to me like you've been beating yourself up a little. Maybe I'm wrong."
"I'm just mad I ever agreed to go in the first place."
"Celia Trahan is a pretty girl."
"Yes, she is." Wes leaned his head against the cool window. "They both were."
"True enough." Comeaux punched the cigarette lighter. "And so where's she now?"
"Still inside, I guess."
Comeaux grunted and followed the highway along the bayou. A woodcock flew low over the road, leaving the shore thicket to night-hunt earthworms in open fields. Wes lost it in the horizon, then turned and caught Comeaux watching him.
"Your momma called me today," said Comeaux. "She wants to talk to you."
"Got a funny way of showing it."
"She had to leave. You know that."
"No, I don't."
His uncle told him to settle down and listen. "My own momma married two very different men," he said. "The first one--my daddy--he was nice, maybe even a little weak." Comeaux glanced over at Wes. "He died when I was about your age."
"And then came Paw Paw."
"That's right," said Comeaux. "The second one--Sidney, your grandfather--he was a mean motherfucker."
"Yeah," said Wes. "I remember that about him."
"Well, your daddy takes after Sidney in a whole lot of ways that I'm not so sure he can help." Comeaux shook his head. "I didn't do a very good job looking after Bones when he was a kid."
Wes shrugged in the fading light and kept quiet until they pulled into his gravel driveway. "Thanks for the ride," he said.
"He still on the rig?"
"Till Sunday. Christmas."
Comeaux spit into an empty Coke can. "Just think about calling her. All I ask."
"Yessir." Wes grabbed the black shoes and turned to his uncle. "You mind feeding Sally for a couple days?"
"Where you going?"
"The houseboat, maybe."
"Go get your mind right. I'll take care of her."
Wes opened the door of the cruiser and hesitated. "You killed, right? Back when you were in the army?"
The police scanner squawked, and the cherry of Comeaux's Winston went bright in the final moments of dusk. "Yeah," he said, "a few." He stared at Wes for a long while before exhaling. "None of them deserved dying like that son of a bitch you shot. Remember that, okay?"
Wes stood in the front yard by the satellite dish. He watched Comeaux back out onto the highway, then head for town. Twilight gave way to a cold, dark night as he lingered. Sally howled from her kennel at a far-off siren, and from up high came the faint racket of snow geese, invisible flocks beating their way south just ahead of a front.
HE AWOKE ON the couch with her standing over him. The white orchids on her dress were floating like tiny ghosts in the dim room. Wes reached for her, pulled her onto his nest of quilts until she was lying alongside him. A soft thump, then another, shoes dropping to the floor. She was on top of him now, her dress gathered thigh high as she moved over his body. Wes slid his hand along the inside of her leg, and she gave a surprised giggle. She kissed him lightly, smoothed his hair before rolling away.
"Slow down there, tiger."
"Sorry." His voice caught in his throat, and she smiled. She began stroking his stomach beneath the quilt.
"I looked all over for you," she said
"I called my uncle for a ride. I should have told you that I was leaving."
She leaned back against him, her head resting on his shoulder. "So what happened?"
"It just got to me, being that close to her again. I felt like I couldn't breathe." Outside, he heard the double clutch of a rig leaving town. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry."
He covered her with the quilt and she nestled closer, one leg draped over his own. In a moment they were both asleep, and at dawn she was gone, save a napkin note she'd clipped to the waistband of his boxers with a bobby pin. Midnight curfew, had to run. Call me, Love C.
WES HAD BEEN just one night alone at the houseboat on False River before he phoned her. He asked that she miss the funeral and come see him instead. Celia hesitated but then agreed, and after an hour he went outside to wait for her.
His houseboat was the sixth in a line of ten counting from the southwest end of the oxbow lake. Wes sat on the dock and stared out across the water at the opposite shore. Three hundred years ago the Mississippi had changed course for good, left this twenty-two-mile meander cut off and landlocked. A false river. They called the big fist of land between the lake and the river the Island, but it wasn't really, not anymore. There was a honk, and Wes looked away. Celia's yellow Mustang was turning off the highway.
She was wearing old blue jeans and an LSU sweatshirt. He gave her a spare jacket that had belonged to his mother, and they took his johnboat to the South Flats. At the edge of Bayou Jarreau he showed her how to throw the cast net for shiners, and together they baited a little twenty-hook trotline that he ran between two prop-scarred cypress knees. Later Celia told him to relax while she fixed lunch, and he said, thanks, I need to run and get gas for the outboard anyway.
The gas station was on the Island. Wes drove east to circle around to the backside of the crescent lake, and on the way he passed a ripe patch of sugarcane, just burned and ready to cut. A battered harvester mowed the standing cane down by the row, and a tractor drawing a high-sided trailer kept time, collecting the blur of billet that dropped from the elevator.
Wes pulled his pickup onto the side of the road not far from where a half dozen black kids had gathered, sucking sugar stalks and waiting. The boys ignored him and the harvester doubled back, began to mow the last of the rows. They fanned out along the highway armed with clubs and pellet guns and broken asphalt. Behind the harvester a hundred egrets worked the cut field, chicken-scratching the stubble for field mice and lizards.
As the fifth row fell, they came. Rabbits--cottontails and swampers both--exploded from the blackened cane, darting across the highway for the shelter of a new green field. The boys went serious and clubbed what they could as the smallest child moved among them, dispatching the wounded rabbits with six pumps on his rusty Benjamin and a point-blank head shot.
They worked under the orders of an older boy. Shirtless in the crisp air, he swung a three-foot length of rebar like a bush hook, sending rabbits tumbling with pendulum-smooth strokes. Great clouds of ash, cold and gray, swirled like dust devils across the highway. In the distance Wes could see coal smoke from Big Cajun II collecting in the oily winter sky. He cranked up the Ford and went on his way, following Island Road.
WHEN HE RETURNED to the houseboat, Celia told him that she had changed her mind, that she wanted to go to the funeral after all. "And I want you to come with me," she said. "I want us to go together."
They were sitting across from each other at the kitchen table. She'd made a plate of ham sandwiches on white bread, but neither of them was feeling hungry. "I don't think so," said Wes.
"Because of what happened at the wake?"
"If things get weird again, just tell me. I'll help see you through it."
"Things will get weird."
"Then talk to me about it. I can't help unless you open up some." Celia stood and circled around the table until she was standing behind him. Her belt buckle pressed against his skull, and he pushed back against it. She put her hands on his shoulders and rubbed them. "Please come with me," she said. "I have to go."
"Why can't you just stay here with me?"
"She was my friend, Wes. She was your friend too."
"She barely knew me." He leaned forward, and Celia's hands fell from his shoulders. "You barely knew me."
"That's not true."
"Fine. We were best friends, you and me and Sara."
Wes heard Celia step away from him. He turned and saw that she was just standing there watching him with glassy eyes. Wes said nothing, and it was not until she drove off crying that he finally became hungry. He ate all of her sandwiches, then spent the rest of the night drinking Old Crow neat, broke down crying himself after he found an old pack of his mother's menthols, lost between sofa cushions.
ON CHRISTMAS EVE, Comeaux came. The screen door of the houseboat slammed, and Wes jerked awake. "Christ, nonc. You scared the shit out of me."
"Santa's here," said Comeaux.
"You look like hell. Solve your problems?"
Wes shook his stunned head. "No."
Comeaux went into the kitchen and Wes lay on the couch, listening as his uncle banged around. He rubbed at his eyes, then called out. "So what are you doing here?"
"Your little girl flagged me down this morning. She's worried about you, said you were acting funny yesterday."
Wes sat up. "Oh."
"She's sweet," said Comeaux. "You be nice to her."
Wes rocked forward onto his feet. "What time is it, anyway?"
Comeaux poured coffee into big styrofoam cups, and they took the johnboat on a slow idle across the lake, back into the stand of flooded timber where the trotline was set. The caught catfish were rolling in the daylight, and the line trembled like a guitar string. "Well, alright," said Comeaux.
His uncle kept the hooks clear of the boat while Wes collected three nice channel cats. He slipped them one at a time into a five-gallon bucket, and Comeaux pointed at all the clean hooks. "If you'd have made it out here at dawn you'd have three times that."
"I know," said Wes. He yanked on the pull cord, and on the fourth try the outboard sputtered and then started.
They tied the johnboat off at the dock, and Wes climbed out. He went into the houseboat to grab a fillet knife, and when he returned Comeaux was standing over the white bucket of catfish. His uncle took the knife from him. "I'll do it," he said. "Nurse your hangover."
Wes said thanks and sat down on his heels. "I need to tell you something."
"What's that?" Comeaux tapped a Winston loose from a crumpled soft pack and lit it off a paper book of matches. He looked over at Wes. "Go on," he said.
"That man never came at me or nothing. He just smiled, and I was so scared I shot him."
Comeaux lifted an eel-slick catfish by the mouth, then pushed its bottom lip through the timber tie that Wes's father had nailed into a piling long ago. "I understand," said Comeaux. "In the war I saw things, did things, that I never thought I'd shake."
"That's kinda how I feel about this," said Wes. "Like I ain't never been so scared."
Comeaux's head bounced, and with the knife he made two shallow cuts on either side of the catfish's dorsal fin. "You know, I spent a few months in Korea between tours."
"Right on their DMZ. Most beautiful place you ever saw. An Eden, really. We'd go on these bullshit keep-sharp patrols and see all kinds of deer, moon bears. We'd even cut tiger tracks."
"No shit. Ain't but about two miles wide, but it was like you were on another planet. They say it's still that way." Comeaux plier-peeled great strips of gray skin from the impaled catfish.
"There's peace to be found in this world, Wes. You just have to look."
The channel cat hung naked on the nail, gills still working steadily as Comeaux began to cut out the fillets. Wes watched it suffer and bleed. "I guess," he said.
WES PARKED AT the levee and walked down into the frosted batture. A mourner's path had formed over the past week, snaking its way around the blowdowns and snags left by Katrina and then Rita. Wes followed fresh tracks through the thicket to the spot where he had found her. The switch cane was trampled flat and littered with cigarette butts. Someone had nailed a tragedy wreath to the side of a sycamore, and flowers were piled high around the base of the tree. Up above, evergreen clouds of mistletoe floated in bare branches.
He knelt opposite the memorial and tried to forget the shattered girl, remember Sara as he had known her. Trade tape-bound lips for beautiful smiles, heal her torn skin. He stayed as long as that took, and when he quit the moonlit clearing he could almost hear her laughing on a Friday night tailgate, a wine cooler pinned between her golden knees. She's teasing Wes, calling him Elvis for his sideburns, swinging her feet as she sips on her bottle and a warm Southern breeze pulls at her hair.
WES WAS LATE for Mass and so he stood behind the last pew, searching for Celia. The congregation passed candles as they began to sing "Silent Night," and finally he spotted her near the front with her family. She turned to kindle her mother's candle and frowned when she saw him, showed him her back as the lights went dim in the Immaculate Heart of Mary. On a table near the altar sat a picture of Sara. Someone handed Wes a candle of his own, and he sang as best he could. The priest locked eyes with him, and Wes looked away.
He caught up with her in the midnight parking lot, peeling her away from her family before they all piled into a shiny sedan. She was wearing a red plaid skirt and a white sweater. Her lipstick was darker than usual, the color of oxblood leather. "Can we talk?" he asked.
Celia cocked her head, half closed her green eyes. "What do you want?"
"I'm sorry about yesterday," he said.
"Well, yeah, I guess."
Celia slapped him on his arm. "Have a great Christmas." She turned and began walking to her car, her family.
"Wait." Wes grabbed her hand, and she let herself be spun around. "There's something else," he told her. "I'm leaving for a while, probably won't be back until school starts."
Celia softened. "Are you crying?"
"You are." She put her hand against his jaw. "Where are you going?" she asked. "Tell me."
"Florida. To see my mom."
"Yeah." Wes kicked at a pebble, and it went skittering across the parking lot. "And you could come with me, you know."
Celia laughed. "You see the big man sitting in that car?" Wes looked over and saw that Mr. Trahan had his head craned back and was watching them. Her father tapped twice on the horn as if he'd been listening in. Celia laughed again. "Daddy's kinda expecting me for Christmas," she said.
"He'd catch us before we hit Biloxi."
"I know you can't. I just wanted to say it."
"And I'm glad that you did." Celia leaned in and hugged him. A horn blared; she drew back. "I'm sorry too," she said.
"I've been thinking. Praying."
Celia nodded. "You weren't all wrong. I wasn't doing the things I was doing for the right reasons."
Wes tried then to kiss her on her painted lips, but she put a hand flat against his chest and stopped him. "So what does that mean?" he asked.
"It means that I want to be your friend," said Celia. "But for real this time." She held out her hand and crinkled her nose. "Friends?"
WES LEFT AT daybreak with Sally spread out next to him on the bench seat. The traffic eased as Christmas settled in, and he made good time. This was his first trip outside of Louisiana since before the storms. He shook his head at the destruction in Mississippi, casino billboard after casino billboard corkscrewed and twisted.
Somewhere in the pine tree wilderness between Pensacola and Tallahassee, Wes crossed the broad Apalachicola and entered a new time zone. He pulled onto the shoulder of the interstate for a piss, was unzipping his jeans when Sally bolted out the open door before he could collar her. A minivan blew by, missing the setter by a yard as she disappeared into the thin stretch of pinewoods separating the east and west lanes of I-10. Wes hollered, but Sally wasn't listening. He sprinted after her.
This was new country for them both--pine forest, cool and quiet. Sally was quartering for scent when Wes caught up to her, damn near tackled her. They fell in a heap at the base of a gnarled Torreya, that biblical gopher wood.
Wes lay back on the carpet of pine needles, holding Sally close as she licked at his face. From either side of the forest came the occasional whine of cars cruising the interstate, tires humming on asphalt. He relaxed and listened, not to the cars, but to the stillness between the cars. He could smell the river, thick and clean, and in the treetops a nuthatch flittered back and forth, afraid to cross that open road, afraid to leave the harmony of the softwoods.
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