christine christine
 
 
TALLULAH FALLS: EXCERPT

Tallulah Falls The rain had been coming down for hours, yet every flash of lightning still made Tallulah jump. She was tired of jumping. She was tired. She'd been walking since morning in the chunky-heeled boots she'd brought instead of her Nikes, because the boots were adorable and the Nikes weren't, there wasn't room in her duffel for both, and besides, how could she have possibly foreseen she'd end up here? Wherever here was. A name for here was not on Tallulah's list of known facts.

What was on the list: She was soaked. Starving. Broke. Her feet hurt, and no matter how far she'd walked today, it wasn't nearly far enough.

At least the starving part was about to be fixed, as much as ninety-three cents could fix a hunger twenty-four hours old, give or take. Tallulah had forgotten her watch back in Oregon, so the time was also a guess. But it had already been full dark when she'd first glimpsed the truck stop sign, moon-sized and dim through the rain. Promising food. Coffee. Shelter. Since then, it seemed she'd spent half the night chasing it. Scrambling down muddy banks, tripping her way through ditches. Her elbow still ached where she'd hit it against an unseen post, but now, finally, the sign loomed, glaring yellow, practically overhead. The only thing remaining between her and it was the highway underpass.

Tallulah Gorge In the small light spilling from the roadway above, Tallulah could see a little way inside. Walls of curved, corrugated metal, potholes half-filled with water. The underpass looked like the inside of a throat and smelled worse.

Lightning lit the air, an instant's strobe, blinding her. Tallulah began to count: one.... Thunder cracked and boomed, rattling her heart inside her chest as though it was a penny in a can. She didn't wait for her vision to clear before leaping into the shelter of the underpass.

The afterimage of the lightning oozed in front of her, a greeny-orange glow. From the highway overhead came the slice of car tires over wet asphalt: whoosh and gone, headed the way she had come. Nothing back there except a lot of empty road, staring cattle and the motel room where she'd woken up this morning to find herself alone. Derek had disappeared, and with him not only her ride to Florida, but also her life's savings of three hundred fifty-four dollars and her brand-new black leather jacket.

Tallulah slid her feet forward uncertainly. Two steps lengthened into five. Eight. Now she could make out a pocked yellow sheen glimmering on the open road beyond the underpass: the reflection of the truck stop sign on wet asphalt. A few more steps, and she'd be sipping glorious coffee. If she mixed in enough creamers, maybe it would be almost like a meal. Tallulah focused on the yellow shimmer, shifted the duffel strap high onto her shoulder, and swung into a trot.

Immediately her toe caught on something. She lurched forward, windmilling her arms, and almost caught her balance but the duffel helicoptered off her arm and then she was falling. She landed hard, wrists-first, onto the asphalt. In the next instant she was on her feet and scuttling backwards, recoiling against the dank metal wall.

It had groaned. Whatever she'd tripped over had groaned. And it had been solid-soft. No crinkling of plastic, no clang of metal. A body. A psychopath. A knife slicing toward her unseen. The air, sodden from the August storm, lay black and heavy as a hood over her face. Tallulah tried to stifle her gasping. She couldn't.

Run, she thought. Now.

Her muscles refused to move.

On her right, a rumble sounded. The rumble grew to a roar and in the glare of headlights the underpass sprang into sudden day: green-and-rust walls, black graffiti and, within kicking distance of Tallulah's left foot, the body of a dog.

By the red burn of the car's taillights, Tallulah spotted her duffle. She lunged for it. Another moment and blackness swallowed her again but she didn't care because it was only a dog, a dead dog, not a monster creeping to slit her throat. Once she was safe in Florida, in the bright sunshine, this would be just another story to tell Maeve. Maeve would probably think it was funny, once she got over being sad about the dog.

Another rumbling. A semi this time, so overwhelmingly loud that Tallulah shrank against the wall again and covered her ears. The underpass flared into light once more.

The dog had raised its head. It was staring at her, its eyes glowing phosphorous green.

Tallulah bolted. She stopped only when she'd reached the open road, the rain gushing down as though it had missed her, finding new paths down her face and neck and arms. Her legs shook so badly she had to bend over, hands braced on her thighs, to keep them from collapsing.

Just a dog. Just a dog. Still it took a long time for her breath to stop bucking, and her heart, and for the quaking in her muscles to subside. When she did finally raise her head, she saw towering above her, in yellow neon: SAM'S. Food-Coffee-Phones. A reader board beneath scrolled the price of gas, alternating with the message: God Bless America.

A short scramble up a muddy slope, and Tallulah was in the parking lot. Perhaps twenty feet away, on the other side of a plate glass window, an old man seated in a booth raised a hamburger to his mouth.

Tallulah had last eaten the night before, and then only half a slice of pepperoni pizza. She'd pulled listlessly at the cheese, waiting for Derek to notice she didn't have an appetite. Waiting for him to apologize for taking the wrong exit, for getting them lost in this godforsaken cow country. But Derek had ignored her through two cheeseburgers, a basket of fries, and two beers. Silent the entire time: Derek the wounded. She'd ordered beer, too, but the waitress had taken one look at her face and said, in that Tennessee drawl that sounded so kind until you deciphered the words, Nice try, honey. Come back in a few years.

This morning, setting out on foot from the motel, Tallulah had thought she was hungry. By late afternoon, after seven hours of walking and only three miles of rides, she figured she knew what it was to starve. Now, swaying in the rain, her guts felt endless and echoing, her muscles puddly as mush.

Forget coffee. Fries, crisp-hot and salty, burning her tongue. That's what she needed.

She was halfway across the parking lot when Maeve's swift-water voice floated through her head: Not dead.

It'll be dead soon, Tallulah thought. Tallulah didn't know a lot about dogs, but even she could see that.

I wonder how long it's been lying there.

I don't know, Tallulah thought back. Anyway, it's not like I can do anything about it.

You could go get it. You could get it help. Maeve's voice, soft, not pushing. Maeve never pushed. Maeve believed in self-determination. It was one of the reasons she and Tallulah were best friends.

"No," Tallulah said. No dogs. No detours. Maeve was expecting her in Orlando tomorrow. Instead, Tallulah was slogging around Tennessee with no money and no plan, with the notebooks Maeve desperately needed squashed in a duffel bag under three T-shirts, two cropped tanks, a bunch of cotton floral panties, one lycra thong, her second-best jeans, and huaraches bought on sale before Tallulah left Oregon, because every time Tallulah imagined Florida she imagined everyone wearing huaraches.

Florida. At this moment, Tallulah should have been eating hush puppies in South Carolina, with Orlando one easy day's drive away.

That morning, waking up alone in the motel room, she'd thought maybe Derek was getting a cup of coffee. Maybe a paper. She'd showered and dressed. Walked outside. The Honda Civic was gone. Still, she'd waited. She waited until checkout time and when she went back in the room to gather her stuff she discovered her leather jacket was missing. That and all the cash in her wallet.

So maybe asking a guy she'd gone out with one time to drive her from Oregon to Florida hadn't been the smartest idea. But what else could she have done? Even the cheapest airfare would have taken more money than she had. Whereas Derek had a car and no job and he hated Portland. Plus, he still liked her.

It had been a good plan. It should have worked.

The arguments started before they even got to the Oregon border. They argued over which routes to take. They argued about who got to eat which snacks (Tallulah adamant that if she paid for it, it was hers; Derek, citing driver privilege, favored a more flexible approach). They argued about Derek smoking in the car, a right he held sacred, no matter how many times Tallulah explained that, having just managed to quit herself, him puffing away next to her for hours every day was driving her crazy.

Loudest of all, they argued over the sleeping arrangements. Derek took for granted that sharing a motel room included sharing the bed. Tallulah—having realized, by the end of the first day, that she couldn't stand Derek Hubner—insisted that one of them was sleeping on the floor, and it wasn't going to be her.

Getting lost in Tennessee was just the final straw.

Still, maybe she shouldn't have yelled in his face that he was a moron who couldn't even read a map. At least, not in the McDonald's. Most of the kids in line had snickered. Worse, so had the women.

Because after that, Derek had gone all broody and sulky. Instead of doubling back toward the interstate he'd driven for miles in the opposite direction, the roads getting smaller, four-lane, then two, not answering when Tallulah told him to stop, to turn around, to PLEASE ask somebody for directions, until they came across the tiny motel and attached diner and the tavern across the road. By then it was so late she agreed to stop for the night but only if he promised to stop being such a jerk and he said, Fine, just shut up for two seconds and pay for the room, will you? Je-sus.

After dinner Derek had gone to the tavern, where Tallulah couldn't follow. Hours later, she'd woken up to jostlings in the bed, beery breath in her face and a hand massaging her hip. "Come on, baby, be a doll," she remembered Derek saying, just before his hand slipped and her knee jacknifed up in surprise. She remembered an explosive oof, the bed sinking down and springing up and a thud on the floor. She'd propped herself on her elbows, squinting into the dark, and whispered, "Derek? Are you OK?" His only response had been a low groan. She distinctly remembered thinking, as she flopped back down and rolled over: Serves him right, the creep.

Trudging up the road in the rain, lost, soaking wet, and robbed blind, Tallulah still thought it served him right. In fact, if there was any justice at all, Derek would drive his stinky little Honda Civic off a cliff into a river, where alligators would tear him into tiny, unrecognizable pieces. Were there alligators in Tennessee? Tallulah didn't know. She decided there were, if only because she found the notion so soothing.

And yet she couldn't escape the feeling that if she were Maeve, none of this would have happened. If she were Maeve, she'd be in Florida already, feet up on a balcony railing, sipping a margarita.

If she were Maeve, she'd do something about that dog.

But she wasn't Maeve. She was Tallulah, and Tallulah was starving.

Tallulah sidled forward between a Bronco and a GMC Jimmy. The old man peered through the plate-glass window, frowning, his burger suspended in both hands. He must have seen some movement, some shadow, but he hadn't spotted her yet.

I wonder if it's in a lot of pain.

Tallulah stopped.

I wonder how long it'll lie there before it dies.

Look, Tallulah thought. I'm doing the best....

Never mind, Maeve said, and sighed. I'm sure you're doing the best you can.

"Dammit," Tallulah said. The old man took another bite of burger. He had to bite twice. Probably getting the pickle. He batted a napkin at his mouth as he chewed. Tallulah watched until he nabbed the mustard spot in the crease of his lips and then, as if there was nothing more to wait for, she turned around.

It was worse going into the blackness a second time. Even knowing the dog was there, even knowing it was just a dog, when she felt her boot nudge into its side she gasped and started backwards. Then, her hand pressed over her heart—in the dark, alone, its battering against her fingers was a tiny comfort—Tallulah took a deep breath and knelt down.

Now she could smell it: a stink of wet dog and dogshit and diesel.

What if it bites me?

This time, no answer came. But she hadn't come this far only to back down now. She forced her hand forward. Almost immediately she touched it: gritty wet fur clinging to the sides of her fingers. She prodded it once, ready to jerk away, half-expecting teeth to clamp into her wrist. But the dog didn't move. The flesh under the fur was cold. It felt like a wet sack of flour with bones.

She was too late. At least she could tell Maeve she'd tried. Goodbye, doggie. Hope you like doggie heaven.

The dog's ribs sprang up under her palm. Tallulah yelped and jolted backward, falling hard on her butt. From the blackness came a faint sigh of breath.

Goddammit all to hell.

She fumbled badly, picking it up. The dog hadn't seemed so big in the headlights but she'd get an arm under one part and another would slip. It didn't struggle—it didn't move at all—but once it moaned, a deep hollow sound that seemed to scrape along her insides. Finally, she worked one arm under its chest and another under its belly. Her shoulders and thighs burned with strain. The dog's head hung over her right arm, bobbing with each step, alternating in awkward rhythm with the duffel banging against her hip.

In the parking lot, Tallulah laid the dog down under the nearest lamppost. In the orange, rain-shimmery light it looked crumpled, like the jellyfish she and her older sister Terri used to find thrown up on the beach. She didn't know what kind it was—she'd never had a dog of her own—but it reminded her of a neighbor's mutt back in Portland. Some kind of retriever. Like that one, this dog was black, where its fur wasn't caked with mud. A glossy smear trembled along its side. Tallulah touched a finger to the smear, held the finger up to the light. Blood. The dog's breath came now in ratcheting gasps.

Tallulah stood up. Across the parking lot, an older couple stood next to their pickup truck. They were staring at her. Tallulah began walking towards them.

"Excuse me," she called.

The woman popped into the truck like a mouse into its hole, but the man stood where he was. The shadow of a baseball cap obscured his eyes, but his mouth seemed kind. The woman leaned across the front seat and rolled down the driver's side window. Under the cab light, her hair glowed an unnatural tangerine.

"Henry," she said. "Get in." The man ignored her.

"Hi," Tallulah said.

The man nodded. "Evening," he said, his tone noncommittal.

"I found a hurt dog." Tallulah pointed to where the dog lay under the light. The man looked, but said nothing.

"Henry, get in the car," the woman said.

"He needs help. I couldn't just leave him to die," said Tallulah.

Henry looked her over. His lips thinned a little. Tallulah glanced at the woman and blinked, startled by the mixture of disgust and outrage on the woman's face. She realized, for the first time, how she must look: hair plastered flat to her head, mud and blood all over her hands and probably her face. Her Army surplus jacket didn't look like much on the best of days, but now it had dirt and dog hair and blood all over it, too. Well, there wasn't anything she could do about that now. She flicked the bangs off her forehead and lifted her chin.

"Where'd you find it?" he asked.

"Henry!" his wife hissed.

"Down there," Tallulah said. She jerked her head toward the underpass.

"Well," he murmured.

The wife leaned again across the truck's front seat and pointed a finger at Tallulah. "We have laws against panhandlers in this county, missy," she said.

"It's all right," Henry said to her. To Tallulah, he said, "It's out of our way some, but there's a vet a little ways up the road. I guess we can run you up there right quick."

"Great," Tallulah said. "That's great." She trotted back to lamppost and, afraid Henry would change his mind, bundled the dog up so fast that by the time she got it to the truck its whole hind end had slipped under her arm, leaving her gripping it across the chest, like a child clutching an oversized doll.

Henry had lowered the tailgate and spread a tarp across the truck bed. He helped her lift the dog onto it. Tallulah noticed he peered at the dog closely, appearing satisfied only after it took another gasping breath. It did look just about dead. She hoped the vet could do something for it. She stepped back from the truck and wiped her palms on her jeans. "Thanks a lot," she said. "I really appreciate this."

"Now you hold on," Henry said. "I said we'd take you up to the vet's. You and the dog."

"No, I'm not...see, it's not my dog."

Henry's mouth hardened. "Well it ain't our dog neither and if you were thinking of dumping this mess on us then you get him out of my truck right now. We ain't got the money to fool with a dog what's not even ours."

The passenger side window began jerking down, shul-shul-shul.

"But I have to get to Florida," Tallulah said. "My best friend's in trouble, she needs me, but I got robbed and I don't even know where I am, I can't..." and then she broke off because if she kept talking she was going to burst into tears in front of this man and his horrible wife and after all she'd been through today she couldn't stand that, she just wouldn't be able to stand it.

"Henry!" the wife snapped. Henry reached into the truck bed and grabbed the dog by the front legs.

"No!" Tallulah said. "I'll go! OK? I'll go." She clambered up next to the dog. Henry muttered something but he slammed the tailgate shut and got into the truck. Tallulah listened to his wife bitching him out through the closed cab window until the truck accelerated onto the road. Then the wind drowned out everything. She huddled with her back against the cab, where the wind and rain were a little less.

The truck pulled off the highway onto an anonymous road. Tallulah sat up but she could see nothing beyond the black shapes of trees and brush on either side. She considered jumping, but Henry was hauling ass; she'd break a leg, if not her neck. After the fourth turn she lost track of the lefts and the rights and there was no way she'd get back to the truck stop now.

"Thanks a lot," Tallulah said to the dog. She nudged it with her foot. It didn't move. She said, "You bastard, you better not be dead. Hey! You hear me?"

There were buildings on this road, scattered here and there on either side, illuminated by lights in their parking lots or on their walls. Rock quarry headquarters. Machine shop. Roofing company. The truck slowed and swung into a gravel lot in front of a sprawling brick building. Henry got out, dropped the tailgate, pulled the dog off the tarp and laid it on the ground. Tallulah clambered down. Her clothes had soaked through within a minute of the thunderstorm starting and that had been hours ago. Despite the lingering heat of the day, her arms and legs had become chilled as stone, and shaking-tired.

"How do I get back to the highway?" Tallulah asked.

Henry clanged the tailgate shut. "Doc Poteet'll tell you," he said. When he opened the truck door Tallulah glimpsed the back of his wife's head, livid in tangerine; then the door slammed, the cab light winked out. The tires threw gravel up as they spun away.

© Christine Fletcher



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