The Cornspill Boys

by Amelia Lanier


I was waiting for the fireworks to start up. I heard somebody say as they passed that it would be ten more minutes. I reckoned that it was going to be at least twenty. People around here moved slow. Us mountain folk didn’t care much for the constraints of city folk time. We watch the world as it passes, we don’t pass the world.
I was sitting on the bench outside of the outfitters store, chewing some tobacco that the town dealer Esco had given me. He sold the older boys weed and once I had tried to buy some but he said he had an age limit. ‘Gotta wait ‘till your brain stops growing son. Don’t want to do too much damage that’ll stick around. Otherwise you’ll just end up like me– selling weed to you kids.’
The sky was purple where it met the ridge-lines of the mountains. The cicadas hummed and the heat sat on my shoulders like the smoke in Mamaw’s kitchen when she burned cornbread. People were drinking and it started to show. A man a couple of feet down from where I sat stumbled into the glass window of the bank and set off an alarm. His buddies pulled him down the sidewalk, laughing, the alarm frantic. As he passed he spit something big and green on the ground next to me. I thanked God it was dark enough to blur any details.

I spat out the dip, making my own green mark on the world, and stood up. My lip felt swollen and I sucked on the inside of my mouth as I crossed the street, making my way through the crowds of people moving towards the camp grounds where they set off the fireworks. People were everywhere, sectioned off by lawn chairs and blankets, family by family. From the sky I bet it looked like a messy patchwork quilt where big hands had pulled out some of the stitches and everything was bunched up together like too many sheep in one pen- all drunk and bleating until a person just had to accept the chaos and become a part of it or be trampled.
Him and Taro never left each other’s sight. I reckon they were more brothers than I would ever be to Eli. That dog was vicious. Once I tried to pet Taro and he bit me so hard I cried.Eli wiped the blood on his shirt and told me in a soft voice that you have to introduce yourself to animals before you can touch them. ‘Just like people,’ he said as he scratched Taro’s head, which rested on his knee, his drool making a trail down Eli’s pants.

From then on, whenever I met an animal I’d introduce myself. My friends always made fun of me, but it worked. I could pet anything. Once I even made friends with a copperhead, and even though I narrowly avoided being bitten on the nose, I swear that copperhead and I had some sort of connection. A telepathic communication.

  I caught sight of Eli, lit up by the headlights of a truck nearby, where a family was having a cookout. I was about fifty feet away, carefully navigating various arms and legs when I saw Ella Roberts come around from behind the tree and stop in front of Eli. She stood with her arms crossed under her chest so that her breasts swelled from under her blouse. I had to say she was a good looking woman. I would always watch her when she walked into school, hips swinging like the pendulum on the grandfather clock at church. Her boyfriend, Ronnie, was the head of the Cornspill Boys, and for the most part people stayed out of their way.

 Eli stayed seated where he was and barely even looked at her as she talked. Eli never cared much for girls. He would smile and give them his number when they asked, but he never returned their calls. He told me once that he’d rather be alone in the woods with Taro than out on a date with a girl that doesn’t know a poplar leaf from an oak. I had just nodded and thought he was bat shit crazy. If I had that many girls, I would be the happiest boy alive. I was already a Freshman in highschool and one of the only boys that hadn’t had a girlfriend.
Ella finally gave up after about three minutes and stomped off, her cheeks flushed. I could smell the alcohol left floating in the space where she had been standing.

“She want your number or something?” I asked Eli, keeping a respective distance from Taro, whom I was still on shaky terms with after I’d tried again last night to introduce myself.He’d nearly bitten off my finger this time. Eli had said that I had to stop moving so quick. I had said it was hard when you were partial to all your limbs being attached.
“Yeah.”

“You still didn’t give it to her? I can’t figure why. God, I bet she’s incredible at kissing.”
“You’ve never even kissed a girl.”
“You haven’t either.” 
“At least I know where a chick’s lips are dumbass.” I hit Eli hard on the shoulder and grinned. He grinned back and the first firework lit up his perfect teeth. Taro howled at the echoes that passed back and forth through the valley. The fireworks rolled down the mountains and into the laps of the people below. A couple of drunk kids hollered from two passing trucks racing through town, the exhaust stacks leaving black clouds that stuck to the skin and smelled like horse shit and smoked pork. There were a series of excited gunshots down by the river.  A voice crept around the tree, followed by a big shadow and two little ones.

“Hey tree boy,” Ronnie’s deep drawl, cut in half by a big red firework that crackled like a hot butter. Eli closed his eyes and sighed. Him and Ronnie had been friends as kids but things had changed. When I had asked him about it he just said that people grow apart. I asked him if that’s why dad had gone off and he said that there were different kinds of growing. 
“You seen my girl around?” Two of the Cornspill Boys stood behind Ronnie, Bud Lite cans and dip bulging out of their pockets. One was fat with small hands and ratty hair and the other was short and blonde, his shoes about four sizes too large. I felt a strange pang of sympathy. I looked down at my own boots. They were at least two sizes too big. I told Mamaw when I got them that I needed extra toe room, but it had really been because I had heard in the boys bathroom one day that your foot size was supposed to mean a lot to girls. The pang of sympathy disappeared when I noticed the handgun in his belt.

“Because I can’t find her anywheres and last time I saw her she was talkin’ to you.” The fireworks were coming faster now. The echoes and the dip were making my head hurt.
“I don’t know where she’s at Ronnie. That’s the truth.”

“I don’t believe you tree boy. Why? Because I know she’s got the sweets for you and I think you got something for her.” 

“You’re drunk Ronnie.”

“Shut up! I’m not drunk you good for nothing hippie. I bet you don’t even know the difference between a girl’s ass and a black bear, you’re too damn busy with your head in the compost.” Eli didn’t respond and looked off into the distance somewhere behind Ronnie. He stroked Taro mechanically with his left hand. Another series of fireworks went off and the colors flashed on the faces of the people in the crowds. Some were frozen with upturned profiles, others whispered to each other excitedly and a few were making out behind lawn chairs and under blankets. I stood helplessly between Eli and Ronnie, looking back and forth between them. Eliwas stretched out and appeared almost relaxed, but I could see the twitch in his jawbone that I knew meant he was pissed.

 

“I won’t put up with that attitude boy. Look at me!” Ronnie yelled, his words drowned out by a huge golden firework that dripped ashes like the sparks from the top of a bonfire. One fell near the blond boy’s foot and lit for a moment in the grass before dying. It hadn’t rained in weeks. Eli continued to stroke Taro and kept his gaze somewhere past Ronnie.

“Fine then,” Ronnie pulled out an ancient centerfire revolver and aimed it at Taro.

“What the hell?!” Eli jumped up and raised his hands. A couple of folks nearby looked our way and started to whisper.

“I’ll shoot your dog right here unless you meet me at the firetower in an hour and we can work this out.” His grip on the revolver was tight, but his trigger finger was loose, waiting.

“I’ve got no problem with you Ronnie. Leave it be and keep my dog out of it.” Eli moved in front of Taro so that the revolver was in line with his stomach.

“Well I’ve got a problem with you talking to my girl, so I think it’s only fair to compromise that dog of yours, unless you want to be a man and work this out.” Ronnie lowered the revolver so that it was aimed at the ground. Eli’s face was cold and his jaw was set so hard I thought it might break in half.
“Fine. I’ll be there in an hour.”

“You better be, or that dog will be my new seat cover.” Ronnie aimed the gun at the maple just above Taro and shot right as the finale started. The sky was so thick of the smoke skeletons of old fireworks that it looked like there were huge strands of God’s white hair hanging down. Ronnie grinned and one of the Cornspill Boys behind him said, “Shoo boy, you about made tree boy eat some more bark.” Ronnie laughed and walked off, the Cornspill Boys trailing, stepping on various arms and legs as they went, leaving behind several bruises and cursing mothers. 

The air at the firetower was so clean it felt like the air you breathe when you stand behind a waterfall flowing in a mountain spring and the light breeze was like cool spray through my hair and around the back of my neck. The moon lit up the ridge-lines all around us. From up here,even the mountains looked small. To the East, the peaks flattened out into the Tennessee country. I’d never been that far. To the West I could see the lights lining the one main street of the town nestled in the valley.
 Two of the Cornspill boys’ trucks were already there, parked at such a slant that I figured that if somebody were to lean up against them that they’d just slide right down the mountain.
“You’re staying here.”
“But

“Keep Taro from getting out,” Eli said over his shoulder when he jumped out of the truck. He secured his handgun in the waist of his pants, and began to make his way up the rocks to the bottom of the stairs of the firetower. I could see Ronnie and four of the Cornspill boys, the two from earlier and two other ugly ones, standing on the platform, smoking cigarettes and dipping. They were lit up by the soft light of the moon. Occasionally the glow of a lighter would illuminate an unshaven face, making their eyes look hollow. They whooped when they saw Eli nearing the stairs and one of them tried to spit dip on his head.

“You’re late tree boy,” Ronnie hollered. Another one took a practice shot at Taro in the back of the truck and missed, hitting dirt a couple of feet away. Eli paused halfway up the stairs and swore.
The inside of the truck smelled like wet dog, old dirt and cigarette smoke. There was an empty can of dip on the dash, but besides that the truck was near spotless. There was a toolbox and an old coil of rope behind the passenger seat. The cicadas hummed like a persistent thought,
eventually fading into the back of my mind like an old song that you mouth the words to without even thinking.  The heat made the sweat drip down my neck, soaking my white t-shirt, and making it stick to my skin like a hot pan lid on a countertop.

I rolled the window down farther and I watched as Eli reached the top of the firetower, him on one side and the Cornspill boys on the other. The boys were lined up against the wall,slouched down, with relaxed grins on their faces like they were at the bar downtown buyingdrinks and watching girls. They muttered to one another and chuckled under their breath, eyeing Eli. They took turns spitting over the side of the fire tower and seeing who could get the farthest.Ronnie kept his eye on Eli the whole time, not even moving his gaze when he spit, just lifting thecorner of his lips. He held a can of Bud Lite and took a sip before he packed another lip-full of dip.
Eli stood for a moment and met Ronnie’s gaze. I could tell there was a lot more than just silence between them, they were talking with their eyes, just how my brother talked to animals. I slowly opened the truck door and crept out, telling Taro to stay where he was. He responded with a low growl but continued to lie in the bed of the truck, muscles tense.

I stayed close to the shadows, the small shrubs that grew this high up were wispy andgnarled with limbs that curled around themselves as if they were trying to hide from the wind.Thick roots emerged from the ground like slippery creek stones, waiting to trip up the wearyadventurer. I paused under the stairs, the shadows from the moon slanting sideways between theslats so that the bars of light shone down my body. It looked like I was wearing a prison suit, theblack and white uniform of the damned. I heard Ronnie’s thick drawl above. “Good of you to
come tree-boy.”

“I didn’t have much of a choice Ronnie. You never gave me much choice for as long as I’ve known you. You always get your way and that’s fine. Just leave me out of it and we can leave this in the past.”

 I crept around to the bottom of the stairs. The first step let out a creak and a glob of dip the size of a guinea egg hit the toe of my boot.

 “I left you with a warning two years ago when I caught you kissing Ella behind the school buses. Ever since then I’ve been watching you real close treeboy.” I stopped in my tracks, boot in mid-air. I felt a pang of betrayal in my gut. Eli and I had never been close, but I always felt like I was the one who knew more about my brother than anyone else.

 “That was two years ago Ronnie. Ella and I haven’t spoken since then— until the fireworks tonight.”

 “She wants you back huh? That girl is the only thing in this world that makes my day brighter. She’s better than a good bottle of Jack and my best coon dog. I love that girl more than you love your dog over there, so you’d better stay away from her treeboy or I’ll kill that dog of
yours. We used to be friends, sure, but you can never trust a hippie. I should have known you were the tree-huggin’ kind all along.” One of the Cornspill boys snickered and rolled the word‘hippie’ off of his tongue like it was a curse, something you weren’t supposed to say in front of your English teacher. I looked up and the mud-stained boots of the Cornspill boys were ten feet above me, showing through the cracks between the boards.

 I looked down and could see the mountains stretching out for hundreds of miles around.Johnson City lay to the West, lighting up the horizon like a wildfire. The tiny individual lights glowing like thousands of lightning bugs, winking between the trees, winding through the ridges and then out to the flat country beyond. The cicadas hummed louder and the breeze tossed hair into my eyes.
 “We’ll see about that tree boy.” Ronnie straightened and put his hand on the butt of his centerfire. He drained his can of Bud and crumpled it in his right hand, tossing it over the ledge,landing with a soft tap on leaves. The Cornspill boys spat out the last of their dip and moved behind Ronnie, waiting like coon dogs ready to be set loose on a scent. Eli turned his hands outward and shook his head.

 “I’m not going to fight you Ronnie. I don’t want your girl.” He took a step back andthat’s when I saw the copperhead curled up behind his foot, hidden in shadow. It was small, a teenager, and its triangle head was taught like Ronnie’s trigger finger, ready. I held back a yell
and felt a cold sweat break on my forehead and under my arms.

 Ronnie took a step forward, his hand still on his centerfire. Eli didn’t move, watching Ronnie with the same dead look. For once I wished my brother wasn’t so good hearted, maybe he’d at least be able to throw a punch. Once I saw a kid get beat up under the swings. It was at night and me and my friend Aidan hid in the bushes and watched. A couple of the Cornspill boys had a kid from my class pinned down by the wrists and they were pulling out his arm hairs one by one. The kid was screaming, but I reckoned he wasn’t in much pain until they hit him hard in the nose to make him shut up. They shattered the bone right there, the blood pouring down his front like a flooded creek. The kid was out of school for two weeks, eating applesauce. Ever since I’d practiced my punch every chance I got just so that I’d be ready. 

 I was looking just over the top of the stairs, level with six pairs of boots and one copperhead, which I swear to God was staring straight at me. I shuddered and shrank further down, the wood underneath me rubbed raw and splintered by years of harsh wind. A barn owl hooted somewhere down the ridge-line.

 I saw Ronnie’s body tighten right before he lunged at Eli, fist ready. He caught Eli on the brow. Eli stumbled sideways, his right arm landing inches away from the Copperhead. He hit theplatform hard, his body shaking the floorboards. A layer of dust rose up, swirling around beforesettling back down like mist rising, trailing over a rushing river. Ronnie stood over Eli and grinned, his eyes sunken in shadow. The Cornspill boys whooped and hollered. I watched as thesnake drew back its head. I latched eyes with that snake and with all my power I willed that
copperhead not to bite, just as I had that day in the woods. I knew that snake didn’t care about me though, and it told me with its beady little eyes. It opened its mouth and I stood all the way, jumping up the last few stairs. 

A black blur raced by, almost tripping me, and I grabbed the railing, the world spinning
beneath me, the cicadas humming louder. I thought the devil himself had decided to join us, that or it was the biggest coon I’d ever met in my life. The blur jumped on top of Eli just as the snakelunged forward, digging its fangs into the underside of Taro’s neck. Taro let out a yelp, the snake recoiling back into its corner. Then it jumped a foot into the air, long body waving as the gunshot rumbled down the valley. Ronnie’s centerfire smoked for a moment before he put it back in hisbelt. He walked over and picked up the twitching snake from behind the neck. “Damn thingwasn’t even a foot long.” He threw it over the side of the fire-tower. It waved in the air likelinens drying on a line under a hot sun. It landed next to the Bud Lite can with the sound of
breaking twigs and old leaves. 
 Eli just stared downwards, pale, a trickle of blood from his forehead ran into his eyes. Hestroked Taro softly behind the ears. The Cornspill boys shook their heads and one took outanother can of dip. They moved towards the stairs. Ronnie was the last and he turned back to
face Eli.

 “I’m sorry about your dog treeboy.” He opened his mouth to say something else, butthen shut it again. His face was grim. The only expressions I’d ever seen on Ronnie was angry and gloating. Then he turned and disappeared down the stairs. I could hear the thump of heavy
boots moving down the old boards.

 I turned back to Eli. The white light made him glow, and with Taro in his lap he looked like something out of the Bible, so peaceful and holy. I’d never seen my brother so sad.

 “Ronnie’s right Eli, you shouldn’t let him suffer.” Eli nodded and I saw a tear run out of the corner of his eye, mixing with the blood and making a trail down the side of his face and onto his shirt, leaving little red dots like messy fingerprints. Eli stood up slowly over Taro who was lying on his side, his neck now swollen to the size of a granny-smith. A pool of drool ran out from under his head and his heavy panting made the top of the pool ripple.

 I heard the engines of the trucks of the Cornspill boys start up, eating gravel, and then moving down the mountain, their headlights glinting off the trunks of trees and the spaces in-between. 
 Eli took out his handgun and loaded it. He aimed it at Taro and pulled back the safety.Then he paused. It was quiet. The Cicadas had ceased and all there was to hear was the wind. I smelled woodsmoke from somewhere down below. The gunshot made me jump. The echoes were lost between the leaves of the laurel, caught down in the rapids of the French Broad and swallowed by the trout. 

 It was growing light as we crested Sheep’s mountain, the truck coughing. There was a faint rim of orange on the horizon and the sky was a light grey. The air smelled fresh and was cool, numbing my nose as I blew cigarette smoke out the window. The smoke lingered inside the cab for a moment before it was whipped up by the passing wind, disappearing as soon as it was caught.

 Eli held a cigarette in one hand and drove with the other, his face hard. I could see Taroin the rearview. He was lying just so that from a distance it looked like he was sleeping, except that his eyes were open.

 I looked back towards the road sloping downwards, speeding past as we rounded a curve.Then the road flattened out for a moment and the whole valley stretched out. I could see the town, the street lamps still on. I could see the campgrounds that were now empty. Maybe there’d be some beers left over that I’d pick up in the morning.

  I watched Eli as he took another drag of his cigarette, blowing it out of his nostrils. Thesmoke filled the cab and drifted around our heads. The mist had risen so that it looked like awhite ocean had filled up the spaces in-between the mountains. It was so thick, I reckoned that
when we’d meet it we’d just stay riding right on top of the mist. We’d look down and see all thefields and creeks stretching out and know that up here time doesn’t exist, that we’d just watch as
the world passes.

Author Bio: Amelia Lanier is a Senior at Interlochen Arts Academy. She is a Creative Writing Major and 2015-2016 is her first year at Interlochen. She grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains on the North Carolina and Tennessee border. She has won a Gold Medal, five Silver Keys, and two honorable mentions in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Her favorite genre of writing is realistic fiction and her stories focus heavily on the natural elements. She enjoys walks with her dog on breaks as well as books by Charles Frazier. You will usually find her doing strange things like eating tree bark or climbing up the sides of mountains, as well as generally avoiding the human race.