First Instinct

by: Leigh D. Muller

Ramira, Mississippi, 1977

The air under the porch smelled of mildew and rotting leaves, an odor that made Luke uneasy. Skittish, he crouched in the shadows. A drop of cold water fell from a pipe and seeped through his hair down to his scalp. He switched on his flashlight, wobbled on his club foot. Mold ran up the cement block foundation in fuzzy black stripes. Paw prints dimpled the dirt. He panned the flashlight through a hole in the foundation wall. Something in the blackness of that opening made him want to turn tail and run, like the dogs did every time his father came home. “I don’t know, Mud,” he said.

The shaggy-haired boy hunched beside him was big for his age, dark eyed and reckless. Mud’s lip curled, “What are you, a girl?” Grabbing the wall on either side of the hole, he shimmied into the darkness. His sneakers flashed then vanished like pennies dropped in a well.

Wind pushed through the woods to the isolated cottage, slapping branches, rattling windows. Luke looked up. The floorboards looked different from underneath, the wooden planks rough cut and raw. Rusty nails, the kind they gave you shots for, stuck out here and there. Luke swiped his nose. This was crazy.

He dropped to his hands and knees. Leaves scratched his palms, an icy dampness soaked through his jeans. He’d woken up early and noticed right off the air didn’t smell right. All day long the cicadas sounded louder than usual, nervous. And every time his father, Barlow, looked at him, the hairs on Luke’s arms had stood on end. He’d slunk through the morning like one of the dogs — head down, moving slow, moving quiet — until his father left for town. He shouldn’t be back for a couple of hours, but still . . . Shaking his head, Luke crawled in. His club foot dragged behind him, leaving a snail track in the dirt.

Under the house was dark and cool, the flashlight flickering and mostly useless. Luke hurried after Mud and tried not to think about what he was putting his hands into. He pawed leaves and sticks, grit and slime, crunchy things he hoped were beetle shells or dried crickets and not the huge cockroaches that flew in his face when he turned on the kitchen light at night.

The darkness grew thicker, the smell of dog pungent. Up ahead, a shadow moved. Luke whispered, “That you, Mud?”

He heard a sharp, metal bang followed by a moan. Luke pulled out his light, caught Mud rubbing his head and glaring at the pipes snaked overhead.

“Careful,” Luke said. “You’ll wake up Suzannah.”

“How’s a noise gonna wake up your deaf sister?”

“She can still feel the floor shake.” Luke crawled over to him.

Mud rolled his eyes. Waving his flashlight around he said, “Now see, this is what I was talking about. We got some head room here and the dirt’s real soft. A little bit of digging and we’ll have ourselves a hideaway.”

Luke studied the dog-shaped slumps in the dirt next to the brick chimney. A hiding place. He hadn’t thought of that.

“We could bring in our comics,” Mud said, “Get us some food and water . . .” Mud swung his arms as he talked, flared his fingers. It made Luke queasy just to look at him. Get Mud going and he was a regular carnival, all moving parts and bright ideas spinning so fast they blurred. Mud’s ideas looked pretty enough, but anybody who got caught up in one had better hold on tight and watch out for the ground.

Luke grabbed Mud’s arm. “Can we tell Suzannah?”

Mud stopped still, his eyes suddenly serious. “In an emergency.”

One side of Luke’s mouth lifted in a crooked smile.

Mud plopped down and sprawled out his legs. “First thing we gotta do is haul us in something to sit on. This ground’s colder than a . . .” His head jerked toward the front of the house. Heavy boots tramped up the front steps. The screen door banged shut.

Luke’s heart hit his ribs.

“What’s your pa doing back so early?” Mud whispered.

Luke shook his head.

Barlow’s angry voice thundered through the floor. “Suzannah! Where are you, girl?” Heavy feet pounded across the boards, almost at a run into Suzannah’s room. “Get out of that bed.”

Something fell with a crash overhead. Luke heard the tinkle of broken shards and a muffled sound, girl-like.

“Look at you,” Barlow spat. “Sixteen years old. Shouldn’t be thinking about anything more than your chores and your Bible. But I’ve been watching and listening, Suzie, watching and listening. And I don’t like what I seen.”

Luke stared up at the boards, a familiar swelling in his throat.

“What’s he so mad about?” Mud whispered.

Luke punched him in the shoulder to hush him up.

Glass crunched. Something bumped and slid across the floor. Luke’s eyes skimmed over the pipes, following the noise. Pa, dragging Suzannah.

“I went to town for some oil,” Barlow said, huffing as he pulled. “Hardly put a foot on the sidewalk before here comes Glennie Hascal, all bright-eyed. Said she’d seen you holding hands with that Wilson boy.” Suzannah landed with a thud above Luke’s head. “And, Gal, things started to make sense.”

Luke’s insides shrank. He’d heard his father mad plenty of times before and it was always bad. He got the kind of mad that could swallow you whole.

“You been puking for weeks,” Barlow fumed. “I guess I know what that means.” His leather boots slapped the floor, a few steps away, then back. “How could you, how could Mary, how could both BOTH of you . . .”

The pacing stopped.

“Well this time,” Barlow snarled, “THIS time, by God, somebody’s gonna get what’s coming to ‘em.”

Suzannah screamed with her shriveled throat, a sound like a cornered animal.

A slap rang through the floorboards.

Mud grabbed Luke’s shirt. “We gotta help her!”

“No,” Luke whispered. “It’ll just make him madder.”

Overhead they heard another Slap! It hung, ringing in the air, until the next Slap! Luke squeezed his eyes shut but he couldn’t shut out the sound. Slap! He grabbed the back of his neck, pinched his arms against his ears, the nubby flannel rough against his skin, but it was no good. Even with his eyes closed he could see it, see it like they were right there in front of him. Slap! Tears filled his eyes, clogged his throat. Slap! He shoved his knuckles between his teeth and bit. Slap!

Mud shook Luke’s arm. His face was pale, his eyes wild.

Luke reached over and snapped off Mud’s flashlight.

Mud fumbled, clicked it back on.

Luke snatched it and twisted. Everything went black as the batteries thudded into the dirt. “You want him to find us too?” Luke hissed.

The sudden darkness crowded Luke’s face. What they said about blind people was true. He couldn’t see his own hand but his hearing was all the stronger for it and the next hit caught him sharp on the ear. The next smacked so close he wasn’t under the floor anymore he was up at Suzannah’s side, and by the third — inside her skin, and surrounded by his father’s meanness. He jerked with each hit.

The beating stopped all of a sudden. Luke heard his father plodding away, Suzannah weeping on the floor above, crying in her peculiar way.

Mud shifted beside him. “If he leaves her now,” he whispered, “it’ll be okay. We’ll go help her. She’ll be all right.”

They jumped at a tumbling clatter overhead, heavy things bouncing across the wooden floor. Luke’s eyes widened. He’d stacked the firewood next to the stove this morning.

Barlow’s boots tapped slowly across the floor toward Suzannah. Something in the calmness of his step, and his quiet, low-strummed voice, sent a chill through Luke. “Oh, Suzie,” Barlow said, “my little Suzie.”

The footsteps stopped. Suzannah’s crying petered into silence. In the dead quiet that hovered, Suzannah snuffled.


The floor over Luke’s head shuddered. Dust and dirt rained down on him. Frantically, he brushed the dirt from his eyes. “He’s beatin’ her with the firewood!”

Luke snapped on his light. In their scramble to get out, his knee hit a rock. Mud plowed ahead, choking Luke on his dust, splashing grit in his eyes. Half blind, Luke crawled through the opening in the foundation and clambered toward the hole the dogs had busted in the porch’s lattice skirt. His head pushed clear but his shirt caught, snatching him back. Whipping and thrashing, he ripped free and stumbled to his feet.

Mud stood on the back porch staring in through the window. Luke hobbled up the steps and squatted beneath the sill next to a busted radiator. He wiped his nose on his sleeve. “How bad is she?” he whispered.

Mud didn’t answer.

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