Aphelia and Leigh, fiction by Kyle Hemmings

We were lis­ten­ing to Doo­dles Weaver crack jokes on Rudy Vallee’s radio show when it hap­pened. We were catch­ing dust from the open car win­dows, the dry wind from the Black Mesa. Maybe if Aphe­lia hadn’t dri­ven her father’s rick­ety box-of-met­al-on-wheels so hard, so reck­less, the one she stole, along with his police revolver, it wouldn’t have bro­ken down. Maybe if she didn’t hold up the pim­ple-faced kid shakin' in his knick­ers at the gro­cery store back in Reynes for a bag of god-darn bread­sticks, we wouldn’t be stuck in the mid­dle of Cimar­ron Coun­ty. The throb of nowhere. The black heart of every­where.

And what the hell do I know about cars, clutch parts, seal or some­thing bear­ings? I ain’t a boy. Who­ev­er designed this motor­car is a man with a well-greased heart and a pair of tin hands that leaves his wife long­ing for flesh and flow­ers. I know a man didn’t design a woman. She came from dust.

“Fid­dle­sticks,” says Aphe­lia, kick­ing some stones off the dirt road. Under her cloche hat her green eyes are the same ones that sting me at night. They belong to a beau­ti­ful feline liv­ing at the bot­tom of a well that is me. Every law-abidin’ girl has with­in her a secret feline squat­ter.

Aphe­lia is twen­ty-five. She once worked as a punch press oper­a­tor before the plant closed. I’m sev­en­teen, used to sling hash part time with my moth­er. The din­er is where I met Aphe­lia, one morn­ing, wear­ing a large flop­py hat, a dis­tract­ed glow to her face, grease smudges on her flower-print dress. She said she had been help­ing her father fix the car and asked me if I knew any­thing about repair­ing one. I said I'm not a boy and we both got gid­dy.

She had been talk­ing about steal­ing a bag of bread­sticks for days. Half this coun­try is wait­ing in soup lines and the oth­er half is dig­ging ditch­es in the rain. And Aphe­lia and me are rich on bread sticks and queer sun­sets. But I don’t think this is about the bread­sticks, or about how I feel, or what I want. It’s more about the dis­tance from here to the New Mex­i­co bor­der, or from here to Col­orado, and how I’ll nev­er come back to Okla­homa. In some strange town, I’ll find anoth­er earth moth­er with salt-lick wounds, a queen of rain whose flesh, whose breasts, the Black Mesa wind can­not erode. I will call my new earth moth­er, Aphe­lia.

“Hey, Leigh,” says Aphe­lia, turn­ing, wear­ing one of her love-is-free smiles, “you wan­na play Flip the Frog?” It’s some­thing she always says before we fall into each other's pond and believe our shud­der­ing reflec­tions. Aphe­lia says that I make love like a Bol­she­vik. I’m not sure what she means. Do Bol­she­viks shud­der? Do they call each oth­er in the heat of lovemaking–my crazy sweet-grass strum­pet?

In the dis­tance, I can make out the ser­pen­tine roads that appear, van­ish behind hills, the wail of police sirens that will soon blot my thoughts. The cars are tiny mis­shapen dots grow­ing larg­er.

I ask her the same ques­tion that I asked back in Reynes. “How many bul­lets you got in that gun?” I didn’t like the answer I got in Reynes.

“I already told you, dar­lin'. Just one.”

“Well, that's just swell. You real­ly plan ahead, don’t you?”

She takes two small steps towards me. It feels like she’s at the oth­er side of the world.

“Like I said, the one is for me. I know where I’m goin’. But you’re gonna run. Run until you can’t run no more. If they catch you, lie about your age and tell them you’re fif­teen. Make like you're mindless–a wit­less girl who could only make a liv­ing cap­ping may­on­naise jars. Tell them I took you as hostage. Tell them you didn’t know noth­in’."

If she had one more bul­let, I’d fol­low her off the edge of the Black Mesa. But all I have to offer is a dust­bowl of girl­ish brown-eyed love.

Slow­ly, I walk up to her. She’s smil­ing and I’m drown­ing. I kiss her, our tongues swirling, the dance of two water snakes in love with the other’s slith­er. She gen­tly push­es me away.

The sirens blare loud­er. Clos­er.

“Some­day you’ll get back on the main road. You’ll have a hus­band who’ll stand by you, work six­teen hours a day. You’ll have chil­dren who’ll obey, do chores for you. And when they grow big­ger, when they grow way­ward, tempt­ed by some­thing they can’t define, you’ll see me in their eyes. There's no future for us, hon­ey.”

I reach to grab the gun tucked in her pleat­ed skirt. She wres­tles my hand away, has a grip like a man's. Her eyes are wild, her voice, firm, edgy. We are both breathless–the pos­ses­sor and the pos­sessed.

“I’ll stall ‘em, put the gun to my head. They’ll nego­ti­ate. It’ll give you enough time. When you hear the sound, it means I love you a thou­sand times.”

“No,” I say, shak­ing my head of sun­shine ringlets.

"They’re not takin’ me alive. No cal­lused fin­gers in my pond and the dirt from this dry coun­try."

I study my own fin­gers. So small. Fat twitch­ing worms.

“Here,” she says, “take one of these. You‘ll need the ener­gy.” She holds out the bag of bread­sticks. I imag­ine how one will crack, like those tiny smiles in top soil, ones I will fall through. I close my eyes and hear the shot in the dis­tance. I’ll nev­er make New Mex­i­co. I’ll drop from exhaus­tion and wake up with a dif­fer­ent name. But the sound. The sound will stay with me for years, a reminder that I wa
s once strand­ed in the heart of Black Mesa coun­try.

“Take one,” she says, "don't be shy."

One for you. And one for me.

Kyle Hem­mings lives and works in New Jer­sey, where he skate­boards, falls, and some­times doesn't get up. He has work pubbed in Why Van­dal­ism, Zygote in My Cof­fee, Up the Stair­case, and others.

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