Everything is Relative, fiction by Michael Bracken

Use my bed,” Zelda said. “I want to sleep in the wet spot.”

Alexan­dria stared at her younger sis­ter for a moment and then grabbed my hand and led me upstairs to Zelda’s bed­room, where she attend­ed to my needs with the lights off and her eyes closed.

My cousin and I had played doc­tor and gone skin­ny dip­ping togeth­er through­out our child­hood, but noth­ing came of it until after Uncle Mort’s still explod­ed. The fire­ball instant­ly killed him, melt­ed off half my face, and scarred a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of my left side. Back then, my father was serv­ing time for shoot­ing a rev­enuer, and my mama and my Aunt Sara were work­ing twelve-hour overnight shifts at the cot­ton mill. So, after I was released from the hos­pi­tal, they left Alexan­dria to watch her lit­tle sis­ter and care for me. And Alexan­dria did, tak­ing advan­tage of my inca­pac­i­ta­tion to sat­is­fy her curios­i­ty about the sins of the flesh.

After­ward, as we lay in the dark with­out speak­ing, the door­bell rang. A moment lat­er, Zel­da yelled up the stairs. “It’s Goodwin.”

Alexandria’s boyfriend.

Shit,” my cousin mut­tered. Then she yelled back, “Stall him.”

We quick­ly dressed. After I retrieved the pro­phy­lac­tic and its wrap­per, Alexan­dria head­ed down the front stairs and I slipped down the back.

Zel­da was stand­ing by the kitchen door. She asked, “Is it wet?”


She smiled as she opened the door for me.

Out­side, I shoved the pro­phy­lac­tic into the garbage can, care­ful not to make unnec­es­sary noise. Then I climbed into the Ford my father and uncle had mod­i­fied for run­ning ’shine, released the park­ing brake, and rolled down­hill in the dark until I was far enough away from Aunt Sarah’s house to safe­ly turn on the lights, key the igni­tion, and dri­ve home.

* * *

The next after­noon I took Zel­da to town with me to do a lit­tle shop­ping. While peo­ple stared at me—or pre­tend­ed not to stare at me—she pock­et­ed a few items. The first time she did it, near­ly a year after my release from the hos­pi­tal, she took a choco­late bar, and it was half-melt­ed by the time she pulled it from her under­wear and showed me what she’d done. As Zel­da grew old­er, we per­fect­ed our tech­nique and now often left home with a shop­ping list. That day we shopped for eye­lin­er, ear­rings for Zelda’s new­ly pierced ears, and pro­phy­lac­tics for my time with Alexandria.

Goodwin’s sweet on my sis­ter,” Zel­da told me on the way home. “He don’t know about you and her.”

And you’d best not tell him,” I insist­ed. I didn’t know if what I was telling Zel­da was for my own good or for Alexandria’s, but it didn’t mat­ter. That Zel­da knew about us at all was the result of her arriv­ing home unex­pect­ed­ly two years ear­li­er. She caught me limp­ing naked into their bath­room and Alexan­dria sprawled across her bed, and by then Zel­da was old enough to under­stand what that meant.

Zel­da didn’t respond to what I’d told her. Instead, she showed me the ten-pack of pro­phy­lac­tics she’d boost­ed from the drug store and said, “They’re ribbed.”

* * *

My only work expe­ri­ence had been help­ing Uncle Mort with the still, so my job prospects were lim­it­ed when I was final­ly old enough to seek a real job. Martha Kuk­endahl hired me to wash dish­es at the Road­side Inn, but she insist­ed I enter and exit through the restaurant’s kitchen door and that I nev­er show my face in the din­ing room.

Jede­di­ah!” she said when I stepped through the back door a few days after my shop­ping trip with Zel­da. “You’re late.”

I glanced at my watched. “Two minutes.”

Third time this month,” she said. “If you weren’t Gladys Wright’s kid, I would have fired you already, you ugly lit­tle matchstick.”

I held my tongue because I need­ed the job, which I only had because Martha felt she owed my mama for some­thing that hap­pened when they were teenagers, some­thing nei­ther of them ever spoke about. With my father in prison, with my uncle in a grave, and with­out the mon­ey we’d once earned from their still, there just wasn’t enough mon­ey com­ing into the house to pay our bills with­out me work­ing. Besides, Good­win was Martha’s son.

Yes, ma’am,” I said. “I’ll do better.”

The Road­side Inn did good business—a com­bi­na­tion of locals and peo­ple trav­el­ing through—and I scrubbed dish­ware from the moment I arrived until well past clos­ing time, when I helped Isa­iah the Gimp clean the ovens and the stove­tops and pre­pare the kitchen for break­fast the next morning.

I was near worn out by the time I arrived at Aunt Sarah’s house that evening, but Alexan­dria was wait­ing up for me. She took my hand and led me up the stairs to her bed­room, where she sat­is­fied both our needs in near darkness.

How do you do it?” I asked when she fin­ished. “No one else even wants to look at me.”

I close my eyes and remem­ber how hand­some you used to be,” Alexan­dria said. “Those oth­er girls only see you as you are now.”

She didn’t real­ize how much her answer hurt, but I didn’t tell her.

* * *

The fol­low­ing Sat­ur­day, Zel­da and I went to town again. This time the shop­ping list includ­ed fem­i­nine prod­ucts and cold cream and socks to replace the pair I had worn though. I also need­ed to stop at the drug­store to pick up a pre­scrip­tion for my mama. While we were work­ing our way through the Woolworth’s, a cou­ple of girls from school saw us. They lived on the oth­er side of the tracks, where the bankers and the mill own­ers lived, and they made rude com­ments under their breath, just loud enough for us to get the gist of their com­ments with­out hear­ing the actu­al words.

They’re laugh­ing at you,” Zel­da said.

They always do.”

Do you ever think of oth­er girls, Jed?” Zel­da asked. “Girls oth­er than my sister?”

I used to, but who would have me?”

You might be surprised.”

We left Woolworth’s with the three items on our shop­ping list and had to vis­it the drug­store for the last item. After­ward, we drove down to the riv­er, hung our legs over the side of the bridge, and shared a Coke that Zel­da had tak­en while I paid for my mama’s prescription.

Things just ain’t been the same since Daddy’s still blew up,” she said.

We’d nev­er talked about that day, about the explo­sion that had tak­en her father’s life and near­ly tak­en mine, and about how our fam­i­lies had fall­en on hard times with­out the mon­ey that still brought in. “And it ain’t ever going to be the same,” I said. “Some things are bet­ter. Some things ain’t.”

She pon­dered that for a bit.

Dad­dy used to beat mama some­thing awful,” Zel­da said. My dad­dy had been the one who put a stop to it most times, but when he shot that rev­enuer and went to prison, there wasn’t any­body left who could stop what Uncle Mort was doing to Aunt Sarah.

Except God.

Or so we thought.

You got your daddy’s car,” Zel­da said. “You ever think of run­ning ’shine for one of the oth­er stills?”

It’s been six years,” I said. I’d been four­teen and Zel­da had been twelve. Since then, rev­enuers had shut down most of the stills, and the remain­ing few most­ly pro­vid­ed small batch­es for local cus­tomers. “I don’t think there’s enough work for a driver.”

* * *

My mama and my aunt had to fend off the advances of the mill’s super­vi­sors, ugly men who demand­ed per­son­al favors, and they talked bad about the women who dropped to their knees in exchange for day shifts. They talked even worse about the hus­bands who turned a blind eye rather than jeop­ar­dize what was often their household’s only steady income.

It ain’t worth it,” my mama told Aunt Sarah one night in our kitchen. I had stopped just out­side the door to lis­ten, some­thing I did more often than they real­ized. “No mat­ter what that man promised you, it ain’t worth it.”

But I got two daugh­ters,” Aunt Sarah said. “At least your boy can work, bring in some money.”

Wash­ing dish­es,” my mama said. “That ain’t much of a job for a boy.”

But it’s a job, a job he wouldn’t have if it weren’t for what you done for Martha all them years ago,” Aunt Sarah said. “It’s mon­ey ain’t com­ing into my house. We had enough money—more than enough money—before you—”

My mama hushed her. “You wasn’t okay with what Mort done to you, and Jim­my wasn’t around no more to stick up for you,” my mama said. “You be all right, just you wait and see. That Kuk­endahl boy, he’ll do right by Alexan­dria. I’ll see to that.”

I slipped away, not want­i­ng to hear more about Good­win and Alexan­dria. I knew he was sweet on her and that some­day she would stop meet­ing my needs. But I sure­ly didn’t need to lis­ten to my mama and my aunt talk about it.

* * *

Can I watch?” Zel­da asked a few nights later.

We left the light on. Alexan­dria did things she didn’t usu­al­ly do, as if she were per­form­ing for her lit­tle sis­ter, and did it all with­out pro­tec­tion. We fin­ished with her strad­dling me, and after­ward, after Alexan­dria had left the bed and gone into the bath­room, Zel­da crossed the room and let her fin­gers trace the scars on my face, an act more inti­mate than what her old­er sis­ter and I had just done. When she fin­ished, Zel­da left me alone in her bed­room, lis­ten­ing to Alexan­dria show­er, won­der­ing what had just hap­pened. I didn’t have much time to think because I soon heard a pound­ing on the front door, and Zel­da called up the stairs to her sis­ter, telling her she had a guest. I scram­bled out of bed, grabbed my things, and high­tailed it down the back stairs as qui­et­ly as I could.

I found Zel­da wait­ing for me. She said, “You should see the look on your face.”

My face wasn’t all she could see. “Good­win isn’t here, is he?”

My cousin shook her head.

It isn’t fun­ny,” I said. “What do you think’ll hap­pen if he ever finds me here like this?”

He won’t be none too happy.”

I pulled on my clothes. “What do you think will hap­pen to your sister?”

Zel­da shrugged. “She’d have to choose.”

I glared at her for a moment before stomp­ing out of the house, climb­ing into the Ford, and leav­ing my cousins behind.

* * *

A few weeks lat­er, my anger at Zel­da had dimin­ished enough that we took anoth­er shop­ping trip. At the gro­cery store she man­aged to tuck a cou­ple of oranges into her bra, but the peo­ple at the drug­store had cot­toned to our scheme. They watched her clos­er than they watched me, and I had to pay for the box of pro­phy­lac­tics I’d selected.

After­ward, we drove down to the riv­er and hung our legs over the side of the bridge. We threw orange peels into the riv­er far below and watched as the cur­rent sent them spin­ning away. We had almost fin­ished when Zel­da asked, “How come you nev­er do this with Alexandria?”

Do what?”

Zel­da looked at me. “You know, take her places,” she said. “Like this.”

Things ain’t like that with your sis­ter. She don’t want me for that. She’s got Goodwin.”

She just uses you for one thing.” Zel­da stuffed an orange slice in her mouth and bit. Juice drib­bled down her chin.

I ain’t the only one being used,” I said.

Zel­da put her hand on my thigh and looked at me in a way I’d nev­er seen before. Uncom­fort­able, I threw the last of my orange into the riv­er and pushed myself to my feet. “I need to get you home so I can go to work.”

* * *

After leav­ing Zel­da at Aunt Sarah’s house, I con­tin­ued on to mine. I need­ed to change shirts before I went to the restau­rant, and when I came back down­stairs, I heard my mama and her sis­ter talk­ing in the kitchen. They obvi­ous­ly didn’t know I was there, and I lis­tened from out­side the kitchen door.

Your boy ain’t right,” Aunt Sarah said. “He ain’t been right since—”

He wasn’t sup­posed to be there,” my mama said. “He was sup­posed to be in school.”

I had nev­er stopped to won­der how my mama had reached the still so quick­ly after the explo­sion. That she was near­by because she had arranged for it to hap­pen had nev­er crossed my mind. I lis­tened to her explain to Aunt Sarah how she had rigged the still, think­ing it would blow Uncle Mort to king­dom come and nobody would be the wis­er. She was get­ting back at him for what he had done to dad­dy and what he was still doing to his own fam­i­ly. When she found me half toast­ed by the explo­sion, she drove daddy’s Ford hell bent for leather down the moun­tain to the near­est hos­pi­tal, where the doc­tors did their best to patch me up.

I know you done it for me and the girls,” Aust Sarah said, “but it ain’t my fault you blew up your own kid.”

I couldn’t lis­ten to any more. I didn’t want to lis­ten to any more. 

* * *

You’re late again,” Martha Kuk­endahl said when I dragged into her restau­rant an hour lat­er, “and those dish­es ain’t wash­ing themselves.”

I glanced at the over­flow­ing sink. I wasn’t think­ing about work. I was think­ing about what my aunt had said. I said, “No, ma’am, they ain’t.”

Bad enough my boy is sweet on your cousin, I got to have you wash­ing my dish­es.” She crossed her arms and glared at me. “If it weren’t for your mama—”

My mama? What’s my mama ever done for you?”

Martha grabbed my good arm and pulled me into the pantry where she kept all the dry goods. “You mama ain’t nev­er told you what she done?”

She don’t tell me noth­ing,” I said. “She hard­ly ever even looks at me.”

Well, you ain’t noth­ing to look at, let me tell you.”

We stared at each oth­er for a moment while she made up her mind.

Twen­ty-five years ago your mama stole mon­ey from your grand­pap­py and bought me a bus tick­et out of town,” she said. “I come back three years lat­er with a baby, a wed­ding ring, and a sto­ry about a hus­band who died in a mine collapse.”

That made no sense to me. “Why would my mama buy you a bus ticket?”

She didn’t do it for me,” Martha said, “She done it for your Aunt Sarah. She’s always done every­thing for your Aunt Sarah.”

I under­stood that. I’d lost half my face because my mama was pro­tect­ing my Aunt Sarah.

Twen­ty-five years ago your Uncle Mort—he weren’t your uncle then ’cause you wasn’t born yet—put me in a fam­i­ly way. He wouldn’t have noth­ing to do with me after ’cause he was sweet on your Aunt Sarah and I was just a drunk­en one-nighter.”

My mama—?”

She done it to keep your aunt from know­ing what kind of man her hus­band was. Your Aunt Sarah knows what your mama done for me, but she don’t know why your mama done it.”

That means Good­win and Alexan­dria are—”

Too damn close, but I can’t do noth­ing about that,” she said. “Now get your ass out there and wash them dishes.”

* * *

I scrubbed dish­ware until well past clos­ing time. Then I helped Isa­iah the Gimp clean the ovens and the stove­tops and pre­pare the kitchen for break­fast the next morn­ing. When we fin­ished, I drove direct­ly to Aunt Sarah’s house. I want­ed to tell Alexan­dria and Zel­da what I had learned, and I found my cousins sit­ting in the kitchen.

Zel­da took one look at me and shook her head.

We can’t do it no more,” Alexan­dria said as held up her left hand to show me a dime-store engage­ment ring. “Good­win just left. I’m get­ting married.”

Mar­ried?” I asked as I strad­dled a kitchen chair. “Why?”

I’m preg­nant.”

Do you think it’s—?”

Doesn’t mat­ter,” my cousin insist­ed. “Good­win thinks it’s his.”

Before I could say any­thing else, Alexan­dria left the kitchen and then left the house. A moment lat­er, Zel­da said, “I’ll take care of you.”

But you’ve never—”

She smiled. “You’ll be my first,” she said, “and I won’t even close my eyes.”

I had so much to tell her, but maybe right then wasn’t the best time. She took my hand and led me upstairs.

Michael Brack­en (CrimeFic​tion​Writer​.com) is the Edgar and Shamus Award-nom­i­nat­ed author of 1,200-plus short sto­ries pub­lished in The Best Amer­i­can Mys­tery Sto­ries, The Best Mys­tery Sto­ries of the Year, and else­where. He is also the edi­tor of Black Cat Mys­tery Mag­a­zine and sev­er­al antholo­gies, includ­ing Antho­ny Award-nom­i­nat­ed The Eyes of Texas: Pri­vate Eyes from the Pan­han­dle to the Piney Woods. He lives and writes in Texas.




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2 Responses to Everything is Relative, fiction by Michael Bracken

  1. Jim J Wilsky says:

    Great sto­ry telling Michael. Enjoyed that.

  2. Bart Solarczyk says:

    I enjoyed this.

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