Lit/South Awards 2022 Fiction Competition – Second Place
Breath in the Body
Raeanne Williams always swore she’d never turn out like her mama. When she snorted her first line of crystal. When she took her first punch from a man. When the public health nurse put that scrawny, screaming baby in her arms. Even when the social worker took the baby away. She swore it, every time.
Sex sells but not as well as grease, at least not in Wheatley, Georgia. Every Thursday afternoon white-collars, blue-collars, and no-collars alike crowded into Leena’s Home Cooking for the weekly special of chicken-fried steak and gravy. Raeanne always wondered exactly what manner of “steak” she was serving up, but for $5.95 including two sides, she didn’t figure the customers cared—with enough gravy and a smile she could sell chicken-fried roadkill.
The money was good and the customers were nice enough, or at least quiet enough, except for the passel of truckers that showed up every Thursday around 2:30. The five of them traveled like a pack of mangy dogs: loud, rude, and smelling like the inside of a sweaty old boot. They’d start trouble just for the sake of starting it. She knew their names but thought of them collectively as the “Shitkicking Assholes” for convenience.
As she delivered five specials to their table in the corner booth, Al Mayfield, the Shitkicker-in-Charge, groped at Raeanne’s ass.
“Hoo-wee, girl! Rae-Rae, come sit on my lap and let me butter your biscuit.” He moaned and thrusted like he was humping the edge of the table.
Raeanne turned out of his grasp and gritted her teeth. Al’s younger brother, Chuck, was as close to a mob boss as their small town had ever seen—crime and violence ran in the Mayfield family like buck teeth ran in others. She plastered a smile on her face and tried to ignore the other men’s leers.
“You just see to your own biscuit and I’ll see to mine.” Mercifully, she heard the call of “Order up!” from the kitchen.
As she collected her next round of specials from the service window, Raeanne saw Lenny the busboy from the corner of her eye. He was carrying an empty dishpan toward the table next to Al and his lackeys, his damaged left leg lagging behind, the toe of his shoe turned inward as always. Raeanne worried about Lenny. The world was quick to cut the weak from the herd.
“Hey, Hopalong,” called one of the Lesser Shitkickers. “Hey, Lizard—I’m talking to you.”
Lenny kept on clearing dirty dishes, even when the men started pelting him with wadded-up napkins. His only protest was to murmur “Name’s Lazzard, not Lizard,” to no one in particular.
Raeanne felt her blood rise and strode back to the table without delivering her next order. She turned her body to block Lenny from their view and spoke in a voice so forcefully cheerful she almost didn’t recognize it.
“So how’s business these days, boys?” Al groped her ass again, hard, but Raeanne stood it long enough for Lenny to retreat to the kitchen.
“Not bad, a’tall, Rae-Rae,” Al answered before wiping a blob of congealed gravy from the three-day growth on his chin. “Why don’t you come by my truck tonight instead of playing Mother Teresa to that bunch of nasty whores working the lot?”
“Like I said, Al. You see to your biscuit and I’ll see to mine,” she answered flatly and slapped the check on the table.
Raeanne steered her old Chevette into an empty space toward the back of the lot at Luther’s Full Service Truck Stop, just off I-20. She could barely see through the fog of exhaust billowing from idling semis into the frigid Georgia night. Cold nights were the worst, even worse than the rain—the temperature made her girls more desperate than ever.
She flipped down the visor mirror and stared at her face in the dim light. The lines around her eyes were even deeper, the circles darker from more worry and less sleep.
Raeanne didn’t mind the damage of forty-three hard years; what bothered her was the growing resemblance to her mother, at least as best as she could remember. She slapped the visor up and pressed the car horn—two long blasts followed by three short honks, her code to let the girls know she was there.
It wasn’t long before a petite young woman wearing ripped jeans and too-big heels tottered toward the Chevette. Peanut was always the first to find her.
“Miss Raeanne! I thought you might not come tonight.” The girl squealed and wrapped her arms around Raeanne.
Raeanne held her for a long time, gently rubbing Peanut’s back as she did. The girl was even more birdlike than the last time Raeanne saw her; she could feel the bumps of her spine through the thin coat.
“You know I’m here every night I can be. Let me get a good look at you, honey.” Raeanne held the girl at arm’s length, one hand on either side of the tattered Georgia Bulldogs toboggan pulled down over her stringy blonde hair. She must have been such a pretty little thing, once. “You help me set up and you can have first pick—anything you want.” Peanut squealed again and clapped her bare hands together.
Raeanne popped the hatchback on the car and started unloading her stash: a battered card table, blankets from Goodwill, rolls of condoms from the free clinic. She brought hot coffee and sandwiches for the hungry, and orange juice and day-old doughnuts for the ones who were coming down hard. A pouch tied around her waist held a half dozen clean hypodermic needles courtesy of a sympathetic pharmacist.
In the near distance, under the yellow-tinged glow of the sulfur lights illuminating the lot from high above, Raeanne saw four or five women approach. When they reached the Chevette, she noticed two she didn’t recognize.
The two newbies lurked a few yards away, smoking and watching. The taller of them finally approached Raeanne and eyed her suspiciously.
“So, what’s the deal here, lady?” Raeanne couldn’t place her accent, but she definitely wasn’t local. “You one of those freaky bitches trying to drug us up and sell us to some dickhead pimp?”
Peanut looked up from the doughnut she was devouring. “Naw, you got it all wrong. Miss Raeanne’s cool, she’s our friend.” Powdered sugar puffed from her mouth and swirled in the air like sweet-smelling snow.
Raeanne smiled weakly at the young woman. “No, honey. I’m just here to help you make it through the night a little easier. You’re welcome to anything you need.”
“A do-gooder, huh? You some kinda nun, gonna pray all over us? Deliver us from sinning and sucking dick?” the young woman snorted.
Raeanne laughed. “Me? Girl, I did a whole lifetime wortha sinning before you were even born.” She touched her lightly on the arm and offered a sandwich. “I’ve been where you are.”
The young woman shook her head, sharply. “I don’t take charity from nobody, lady. Not even an old whore.”
Raeanne nodded. “You willing to tell me your name, at least?”
Raeanne reached into her back pocket and pulled out a flyer with MISSING: HAVE YOU SEEN THIS PERSON? emblazoned above a blurry color photo of a barely grown woman with curly, dark hair framing a delicate face.
“Kayla, you seen this girl around?”
She took the flyer and studied the photo for a minute. “Yeah, but not for a long time. I think I saw her with Chuck Mayfield a while back.” Kayla handed the flyer back to Raeanne. “Man, that dude’s a psycho.”
Raeanne’s pulse quickened. Mayfield had a long history of getting or keeping women hooked on smack and turning them out to pay the debt. Some of them weren’t even women yet.
She offered the sandwich again and Kayla snatched it from her hand and tore through the wax paper. “Kinda looks likes you, except for the hair,” she said around a mouthful of ham and cheese. “She your girl?”
“She used to be.”
Most of the girls had come and gone by shortly after midnight, off to make whatever version of a living they could. Raeanne had started repacking the car when she saw a familiar figure approaching through the clouds of exhaust.
“Monica? Damn, woman, where you been?”
The two women embraced for a long while. Raeanne was the first to speak after they parted.
“I was worried as fuck about you! Did you get my texts?”
Monica grinned and shook her head, her pink wig shimmering in the light. “Nah, I’m fine. I was working the convention tourists down in Atlanta, just got back to town yesterday.” Monica leaned against the door of the Chevette and lit a Marlboro Red. “It beat the hell out of running this piece-of-shit truck stop, I’ll tell you that.”
She handed the cigarette to Raeanne, who took a long, deep drag. Of all the vices she’d left behind at that rehab clinic in Macon, smoking was the one Raeanne missed most. “You don’t have to stay, you know. There’s a bed at Hope House with your name on it, no charge or anything. They just got some big grant from the state.”
She had known Monica since they weren’t much more than kids, long before that judge ordered Raeanne to either treatment or jail seven years ago, and she went cussing and spitting into her new life. It hurt her heart every time she drove off the lot knowing Monica was still there.
Monica half-laughed at the offer. “We’ve done this dance a million times, girl, and I ain’t let you lead once.” She eyed her friend steadily.
“This is my life—you know it and I know it.”
“Well, you know I’m gonna keep trying. You staying safe?”
“Yes, Auntie Rae, I’m staying safe. Got a clean blood test two weeks ago.”
Raeanne took a last drag on the Marlboro before handing it back. “Good to know. I brought you some of those glow-in-the-dark rubbers you like so much, though why you want to light ’em up I’ll never know.”
Monica clapped her on the back and snorted. “I want to see what’s comin’ at me!” The two women laughed until they were breathless and then stood shoulder-to-shoulder, watching the trucks come and go.
“You heard from Destiny lately?” Monica asked, ever watchful, never taking her eyes off the lot.
Raeanne rubbed at the back of her neck—the sound of her daughter’s name always brought a dull ache with it. “No, not for months. I’ve been plastering those flyers all over town. I even went to the cops back in November, but they practically threw me out of the place.”
“Yeah,” Monica agreed. “The five-o never gonna give a shit about a missing junkie hooker.”
“It’s just about killed me, Mo. What if I never find her? Tonight one of the new girls told me she’d seen her with Chuck Mayfield. What if she’s already—”
Monica turned and clapped her hand over Raeanne’s mouth before she could say the word. “Uh-uh, don’t you go there.” She moved her hand to Raeanne’s cheek. “What it is you’re always telling me? What do you always say?”
Raeanne’s voice trembled when she answered. “As long as there’s breath in the body, there’s hope.”
Late March brought another busy chicken-fried Thursday at Leena’s. The downtown square was so crowded when Raeanne arrived for her shift she had to park three blocks away on Lincoln Avenue.
The afternoon passed quickly and easily; the Shitkickers were gloriously absent for the first time in years. Near twilight, Lenny slipped up beside her at the counter where she was refilling the salt and pepper shakers.
“Um, Miss Raeanne, ma’am?”
“Hey, hon. Whatcha need?”
“Well,” he spoke softly, “there’s a lady out back wants to talk to you.”
“A lady? Did she say what she wanted?”
“No, ma’am, but I think you ought to go see to it. She looks to be in a bad way.”
“Alright, if you say so, Len.” She screwed the top on the last shaker and wiped her hands on a dishtowel.
The screen door slammed behind her as Raeanne stepped out onto the slab of cracked concrete behind the diner but saw no one.
“Hello?” She heard a stirring amongst the stacks of empty food cartons stacked against the cinder block wall. “Is somebody there?”
The voice that answered was so weak and small she almost didn’t hear it. “It’s me, Mama.”
Raeanne whirled toward the sound. “Destiny, baby, is that you?”
She scrambled over the cartons, flinging cardboard left and right. Her breath caught and tears sprang to her eyes. Her daughter was sitting on a box of rotting cantaloupes, a halo of gnats humming around her head.
“Jesus Christ!” Raeanne crouched next to Destiny and pulled her close. “Baby, where have you been? What happened to you?” She rocked her and kissed the top of her head. Destiny only tolerated her mother’s embrace for a moment before pulling away to stand.
“I heard you were looking for me, so here I am.” Her dirty t-shirt and jeans billowed around her painfully thin frame in the evening breeze.
“What? How … I’ve been looking for you forever.” Raeanne felt her heart break when her daughter stood in the dwindling sunlight and she saw the open sores and old bruises ringing her face and arms.
“Monica, that’s how. That bitch tracked me like a bloodhound, said she wouldn’t leave me be until I came to see you.”
Raeanne should have known.
“How did you get here?” She scanned the alley running behind the restaurant but saw no one. “Never mind, I don’t care. I don’t care. Let me get my purse and we’ll go home.”
“No, Mama.” Destiny jerked her head in both directions and back toward the alley, searching. When she turned back, there was more than just addiction and defiance in her eyes, something more like fear. “I can’t come home with you.”
“Honey, why not?”
Destiny looked back at the alley again and shook her head.
“Who are you looking for? Come on with me.” Raeanne stood and started toward the screened door.
“Mama, don’t! Please!” Destiny’s legs crumpled beneath her. She covered her face with her hands and began to sob. Raeanne crouched and rubbed her trembling back until she could speak again.
“I fucked up. I fucked everything up so bad, Mama.”
“Destiny, just tell me what happened,” she said softly. She’d seen the girl wild, angry, and strung-out, but she’d never seen her terrified.
Raeanne’s heart pounded in her ears and her hands began to shake. Not him, any man but that one.
“What in God’s name are you doing with Chuck Mayfield? Please, please tell me you’re not mixed up with him.” She grabbed her daughter’s shoulders with both hands. Destiny didn’t pull away.
“How much are you into him for?”
Destiny shrugged and tears spilled onto her cheeks. “I don’t know … every time I ask him he says it’s more and more. Last week he said ten grand, but Mama, he makes me fix even when I don’t want to and says he’s putting it on my tab.”
Ten grand may as well have been ten million—Destiny wouldn’t live long enough to pay off a fraction of it.
“Does he know you’re here?”
“I don’t know, maybe? He knew you were looking for me … Monica had been spreading the word all over. He’s been watching me all the time. I couldn’t go nowhere he didn’t say so.”
“Honey, how did you get away from him?”
Destiny ducked her head so her mother couldn’t see her eyes.
“Yesterday I heard him talking to Russ, that big redneck who’s his muscle?”
“Yeah, I’ve heard of him.”
Destiny wiped her nose with the back of her hand and raised her eyes. “Chuck told him to carry me to Lucky’s down on the river for a big party tonight.”
“Oh, God, no!”
“Mama, I can’t go to Lucky’s, I just can’t.” Destiny’s voice was low and ragged.
Raeanne had heard the rumors about Lucky’s for years, stories of drugs, gambling, and dog fights. Mayfield paid off most of the cops to stay away; the others were free to take their fill. Worse still were the rumblings about Chuck offering girls to the highest bidder.
Most were never seen again.
Destiny wiped at her eyes with the hem of her shirt. “So, last night after Chuck passed out I hid in the bathroom and chipped at the window sill with an old kitchen knife until I got it open. Then I just ran.”
“Jesus, that was hours and hours ago! He could be here already.” Raeanne scanned the alley for any sign of Mayfield. He was dumber than dirt, but even he would figure it out eventually. She took Destiny by the arm and led her through the screen door into a small bathroom just inside the kitchen.
“I’ll be right back.”
Destiny grasped at her mother’s arms. “Mama, please don’t leave me.”
Raeanne put a hand on either side of Destiny’s face. “We’ll fix all this, baby. I promise we will. You’ve just got to be brave and trust me.”
The absurdity of asking for the trust of a daughter who’d spent nearly all of her childhood in the care of reluctant, distant relatives, just as she had, was not lost on Raeanne.
She pulled her purse from a locker next to the kitchen freezer and was rummaging for her keys when she heard a sound out back. She pushed the screen door open and listened closer to the low rumbling, like a car passing slowly along the back alley, but saw nothing in the gathering darkness. Her hands shook slightly as she latched the screen and turned the deadbolt on the kitchen door.
“Mama, are you there?” Destiny called softly from inside the bathroom.
“Just a minute, baby.” Raeanne struggled to keep her voice even. “You lock that door until I get back, hear?”
She pushed through the swinging doors into the empty dining room and put her purse on the counter. Even Lenny and “Leena,” who was really an ex-Marine named Burt, had already gone home. Raeanne extinguished the neon OPEN sign with a quick pull of the cord and half-ran back into the kitchen. She knocked sharply on the bathroom door, and it opened slowly from within.
Destiny was crouched against the wall just inside the door with her legs pulled to her chest. Raeanne pulled a handful of paper towels from the dispenser and wet them.
“Is he here, Mama?” Destiny asked as her mother began to wipe her face; she was trembling. Raeanne wasn’t sure if was fear, withdrawal, or both.
“No, but we’ve got to hurry. Listen to me close, now.”
Raeanne stooped down next to her daughter and spoke quickly but firmly. “When we get up from here, we’re walking straight through and out the front door.” Destiny’s eyes widened so big they took up nearly half her face.
“I know it’s scary, but we’ve got to do it. When we get out the door we’re gonna cross the street and go right on Lincoln Avenue. My Chevette is parked up by the edge of the woods. I’ll be with you, all the way.”
“But somebody will see us!”
“No, they won’t. It’s Thursday—every place in town besides this one closed at four.”
Destiny was shaking her head violently. “I can’t, Mama. He’ll kill us both if he finds us.”
Raeanne shook her and raised her voice. “Yes, you can. This is the only way. We’ve got to go, baby, I’ll figure out where later.” Destiny reached for her mother, for the first time in her life. Raeanne hugged her quickly and kissed her forehead before pulling them both up from the floor.
She heard a rattling sound just outside the back door. “It’s time,” she said and frog-marched Destiny through the dining room. Destiny’s footsteps slowed as they approached the front door; Raeanne practically had to carry her the last few feet.
She eased the door open. “Now, you do just like I told you, baby, and everything will be okay.” She kissed her daughter on the forehead one more time and pulled her through the door.
They crossed the street and turned onto Lincoln, walking quickly but not fast enough to attract attention if anyone should pass by, though the street was deserted.
“Holy shit!” Raeanne stopped. “I forgot my purse. The car keys are in it. I’ve got to go back.” Destiny’s eyes widened again.
“It’s okay, baby, you go on to the car. The doors are open. Get in and hide under the blankets in the back.”
“No, Mama!” Destiny clutched at the sleeves of her mother’s blouse. She was shaking again.
“Destiny Marie, you do like I tell you!” She turned her daughter by the shoulders, pushed her gently in the opposite direction. “Now go—I’ll be right behind you.”
Raeanne watched as Destiny started down the sidewalk before jogging across the street and back into Leena’s. Now finally out of Destiny’s sight, she wiped the tears she’d been holding back and grabbed her purse from the counter.
Just as she crossed the threshold and stepped onto the sidewalk, Raeanne heard two deafening blasts from the kitchen.
“Destiny! Where the FUCK are you, bitch!”
Chuck Mayfield. He’d blown through the back door. Raeanne ran blindly onto Lincoln, searching for sight of her daughter. Destiny was about a block ahead, almost to the car.
“You motherfucking cunts better get back here!” Mayfield slammed through the front door and into the street.
Raeanne glanced back, still running. He was carrying a shotgun in his right hand. Destiny was almost to the car, but Raeanne would never get there in time to start it before Mayfield caught up to them.
“Destiny!” she screamed. “Run to the woods!” Destiny looked back at her mother but kept moving. Raeanne heard Mayfield slow to a stop.
“NOW, baby!” Destiny broke into a sprint and bore left into the trees.
Raeanne made it another twenty feet or so before her ears filled with the unmistakable sound of shells being racked into the chamber of the shotgun.
He couldn’t hit them both.
She stopped running.
Fiction judge Ron Rash writes: A woman’s attempt to break a generational cycle of poverty, drugs, and violence is vividly realized in this story. The dialogue is particularly impressive.