Click here to download a pdf version for printing: The God of the Hollow
Little Creek was a hollow in the neck of the world covered by a wide arc of privation and swollen with the lush curves of hills, mountains, and valleys. Summers sweltered like fever-slicked sheets and winters were hunkered down and bitten to the nub. Falls were rust-colored and divine while Springs were hung with drowsy, warm curtains of water that wavered in soft breezes and rippled the air. It was a place that had married hunger to hardship and a feral and fearless independence had sprung up from the union.
There was nothing in Tommy’s life that hadn’t been mostly used up before it fell his way. He’d never known the feel of shirts or shoes that fit right or underwear and socks without holes. He’d never seen a home that wasn’t clutched of possessions going back generations; kept for keeping’s sake and not for sentiment or value.
He’d never known a home that didn’t ring with the acrid smoke of charred tires, burnt down for the metal in their rims. He’d never even seen a yard that wasn’t littered with the ruined pieces of people’s lives, empty cans, dirty diapers, and such, stretching across the ground in a stream of consciousness that had no beginning or end.
So when his oldest brother, Sean, came rumbling up to their trailer in a shining Mustang it was the first time that Tommy really knew the desperation of their lives.
Sean was ‘The One Who Got Out’. He was the first one in their family to not only graduate high school but to go to university, thanks to a football scholarship. He was a graceful bull on the field even if he stumbled a bit in the classroom.
His scholarship had afforded him enough to sweep up that little beauty of a car. It wasn’t brand new, almost ten years old in fact. But it shined like it was and no one dared tell it otherwise. The sun glinted off its torch red paint and pierced the eyes with a pain that was sweet. Tommy felt his hunger for the car bring water to his mouth. That red was like candy and that rumble was like gravy.
Sean stepped out in his very clean and very new clothes and looked unreal against the backdrop of his old life. He nodded when he saw Tommy.
Tommy forgot to be manly and ran at Sean for a fierce grip of brotherly affection.
“Wow, wow! Look at that ride!”
“Yeah, she ain’t bad.”
“Will you take me in it?”
“Yeah, all right. Hold on. I’m just gonna stick my head in and talk a bit. Then we can go for a drive.”
Though Sean strode tall into the trailer its darkness burdened even him and without knowing it his shoulders and head drooped a touch.
He was greeted with a mixture of anticipation, pride, resentment, and jealousy. ‘The One Who Got Out’. The one who thought he was better. The one who was better and had the temerity to live like it.
All the while, as Sean talked, he whirled his key ring about his left finger. Around and around. A nervous tic.
Tommy followed the crescent motion of silver with his eyes, wiping at his mouth every now and then.
Their stepfather, Duke, bellowed out drunkenly for Sean from a back room. Sean gave surrender-weighted sigh and pushed up from his seat, absently setting down his keys on the Formica-topped table, and went to see what Duke wanted.
Tommy couldn’t believe his luck. He watched as the hallway gloom consumed his older brother then shot his eyes around the room. No one was paying any attention to him or to the keys.
With a whisper touch and a held breath he palmed them, deftly tucking them into the side of his shoe where they wouldn’t jangle or accidently fall out of a pocket hole. Without saying a word he tipped out into black smoke sunshine.
He ran past that beautiful mustang down to the creek, rending his way through thick brush to more open ground, small oases between taller, older trees. He skipped and sauntered to a slight depression in the ground that passed for a cave. He was the only one that knew it and it was all his. No one else’s.
It was here that Tommy sequestered his treasures. His great-grandfather’s glass eye. His sister’s Hello Kitty barrettes. His mother’s faux pearl-handled brush. Joey’s remote controlled monster truck. Lena’s doll’s underwear, smudged and grubby and perplexingly exciting. And a candle set in a glass cylinder with Jesus painted on it.
Tommy cast about until he found his uncle’s favorite zippo and lit one end of a dried husk of grass. When its flame was secure he lowered it to the candle and watched as Jesus was suddenly lit from within and felt giddy.
He shook his wrist to hush the flame and then absently tossed it aside. He found a good stout stick and rammed it into the soft dirt, wiggling it a bit to drive it in deeper. The top end held a perfect sized knot that he cautiously, reverently slid the key ring on and then with a tremor scooted back, wary to see if it would hold. It did.
The globe of light from the candle played across the silver and shone like the moon and Tommy licked his lips in happiness. Then he stood up and with great deliberation urinated on the key ring.
Sean would hotwire his car and get home all right. He’d even get a new set of keys somehow, Tommy was sure. But Tommy also knew, no matter how far Sean got, whenever he came home he would always be the same size. And now Sean would know it too. Because that’s what this place did to people. No matter how far they got, if they ever came back, they were always the same. Always.