Red Georgia clay turned into gravel of a familiar road as it crunched under the tires of my beat-up Ford pickup. The night air was speckled with stars blanketing the rolling hills of my family’s damned homestead. I never thought I’d come back here. As I off the gas and gently pressed the brake in, my vehicle came to rest just about a mile away from their double-wide trailer. I started to feel the panic settle into my chest again. I knew that leaving her had been the wrong move, but I’d had no other options. Fucking chicken-shit.
Slamming my palms onto the steering wheel, I let out a load, broken scream. My skin burned from the scratches and bites, my eyes burned from the tears, and my throat burned from the pleading. All I wanted was to turn around. Run back. Turn back time. Explain. Love her. The sight of rage on her face was enough to keep me put—staring down the life I never wanted to return to, like a damn loaded gun pressed right down the throat of my sanity. She hated me, and I’d known it right when I saw that journal gripped in her beautiful fingers. I’d crushed her with all the words I’d been too scared to let leave those pages. How else was she supposed to freaking act? This was for the best. Being out of Margret McManus’s life for good was something that needed to happen. Not for my sake, but for hers. I’d destroyed her. The one person I truly loved and who truly loved me back… Her pain was completely my fault.
There are only so many lines a guy could cross without tempting fate, and I wasn’t the kind of man to play with that kind of fire. Mags was Randy’s and I was gonna have to deal with that in my own way. Here goes nothing. It’s time to pull this trigger.
The last mile down the road was the hardest. Memories flashed of the torture, beatings, name calling, drug binges. I fucking hate this place. I pulled up next to my stepdad’s and brother’s trucks, turned off the engine, and hopped out. It was like ripping off a damn bandage that was twenty years old and the wound was still not healed, oozing and festering with years of hate soiling the edges.
I could hear Mom’s screeching and cackling from the front porch and the distinct sound of a shotgun cocking. “It’s Walker,” I called through the shut door. “Chet, put the freaking gun away. If you shoot me, so help me God, I will kill you.”
The trailer door swung open to reveal my fat, graying, toothless mother, who smelled like she had forgotten to bathe again—this time, for weeks. I was just glad to see that the lights were still on. Tears filled her eyes as her face twisted into a semi-smile. I knew that was the best she could do. Her faded pink shirt had the hugest ever-loving pit stains, and damn her for going in for a hug. As I hesitated, I could hear my punk-ass little brother, fresh out of the pen, hissing his awful laugh in the background. After holding in my breath, scared the weeklong stench of sweat and body odor emanating from my deadbeat mother was going to make me pass out, I walked into the double-wide’s poor excuse for a living room.
The same faded green carpet lay limp and patchy on the creaking floor, trapped under the old red-blue plaid couch Dad got at Goodwill a few weeks before he’d decided enough was enough. My heart ached for the ten-year-old me, crying in that very spot for him to come back. Mags has no idea how much we are alike, how much our baggage matches.
Chet, my miserable, old, shit-for-brains stepfather shoved off from leaning against the entertainment center and made his way over to attempt a handshake. He was so loaded that he missed my hand, jabbing me right in the ribs. His eyes were slits as he slurred, “What the fuck do you want?”
“Nice to see you too, Chet. Thought I’d come home to visit and check on the station. That’s all.” I rubbed the back of my neck, knowing they could smell the bullshit on my breath. “It’s been a while since I made sure everything was all right up this way.”
My cell buzzed in my pocket. Digging it out, I saw Buck’s goofy-ass grin light up on my screen. I ignored it and turned the damn thing off. There was no way I was ready to face that music yet. Looking around at the six eyes glaring at me, I knew that this was not my smartest of moves.
“So how the hell have y’all been?”
Silas’s bloodshot eyes and sweating brow told way too much about the amount of meth pumping through my little brother’s system. He hawked his load of dip out from his lower lip and took a swig of his beer, sneering at me. “Big-time war hero forgets about his roots then stumbles back up the mountain on a whim. Somethin’ ain’t sittin’ right with that, brother, so why don’t you enlighten us as to why you really came on home?”
There was something about my slimeball for a brother that irked me, just like the rest of the people in the room. So I turned on the heels of my boots and made my way for the door. He was right; this shit didn’t add up in my head either. Unfortunately, my wide mother took up the entire doorway. She had her feet planted firmly and her arms crossed over her chest.
“Walker Cameron Eastman, you go sit on the couch next to your daddy and have a visit with yer momma. Don’t mind Silas. He just missed you is all and has a funny way of showin’ it.” She glared at her youngest with laser beams that would kill, given the chance.
My eyes narrowed and my jawline hardened as I spoke through gritted, grinding teeth. “That man ain’t my father just as much as y’all ain’t my family. Blood don’t mean shit when it all hits the fan.” I stood toe-to-toe with the densest person on the planet. I knew she couldn’t understand why I hated her—and the rest of them, for that matter—but I had figured it out a long time ago. She enjoyed getting under my skin. And damn her for being so fucking good at it.
“Go wash up. Supper will be done in a minute. At least have a meal with us.”
I let my head hang as I walked into the back hallway to escape into the bathroom, like I had done countless times in my youth. Being with the scum of my past was awful, but nothing would compare to the feeling of hurting Mags again. I knew that this was my fate and all I deserved for everything I’d put my North through.
As I made my way back into the living room, the sound of Chet’s snoring rang out over the Bulldogs’ announcers blaring through the television speakers. I slumped down in a chair at the dining table, staring blankly as little blurring purple and red dots jetted across the screen.
“Man, y’all need a new TV.”
Silas snickered from the chair next to me as he shoved up. He made his way into the kitchen and dove in the fridge to get another Bud. He raised an eyebrow, asking if I wanted one.
“Yup. I’m here. Might as well.”