Pop culture has proven to the public that every superhero has his one weakness, that thing that can bring him to his knees. Little green Martians are susceptible to ray guns. The cat will always go after the canary. Vampires can be felled by garlic and wooden stakes. And Grady Parker…well, he has Evie Allen.
For his whole adult life, Evie Allen has hated Grady Parker’s guts. And all the rest of him too, truth be told. But after a night out featuring a Mason jar full of Junior Adams’ grandpappy’s moonshine, a little cow tipping (which is much harder and more dangerous than it sounds), and some snuggling in the back seat of a Jeep, Grady Parker finds himself stuck in Evie’s company. And he’s never been happier. Evie, on the other hand, is not the least bit happy to be stuck with Grady. She has turned hating him into an art form, and when she’s forced to spend time with him, she immediately remembers why she learned to hate him in the first place.
One night of law-breaking leads to them doing penance together at Lake Fisher, at the behest of an old man who may or may not have their best interests at heart. Being forced to work at Lake Fisher is something Evie can deal with. But being forced to spend time with Grady? She’s pretty sure that won’t work out. Or will it?
Sunday morning is usually a time for confessions. But while many people find themselves on a church pew singing about His glory, I find myself naked in Markie Allen’s azalea bushes. How am I sure I’m naked? Because Ms. Markie herself tells me.
“You’re naked,” she says as she nudges my foot. I crack one eye open and look up at her. She stares down at me, her white hair limned by the sun like she’s wearing a halo.
I lift my head and look south. “Well, I’ll be damned… I am naked.” I start to nod my head, but that hurts like a son of a bitch so I stop that nonsense real quick.
“And you ain’t got no clothes on, neither,” she says unnecessarily. She leans forward, getting closer to me, her brown eyes squinting. “That’s a nice tattoo you got right there beside your junk.”
I reach down and cover said junk with my palm. “Now, Ms. Markie,” I say to her, “you know it’s not nice to talk about a man’s junk in public.”
“Well, I reckon if a man is indecent enough to wave his junk about in public, I can be indecent enough to talk about it.” Ms. Markie unties her apron from around her hips and passes it to me. “Cover all that up. The neighbors are looking out their windows. Nosy bastards.”
Ms. Markie tilts her head and stares at me. She has a way of getting to the truth, and she typically does it quickly. Just one glance from her, when her eyes narrow at you, and you want to bare your soul about why you’ve bared your ass.
I rush to explain. “It’s not what you think.”
She holds up a hand to shush me. “You got no idea what I think.”
I imagine I’m probably thinking damn near the same thing she is. I’m thinking that I’m an idiot. “Yes, ma’am,” I say instead. I stand up, with Ms. Markie’s wadded up apron over my man parts. She glances down once and rolls her eyes, so I shake it out and tie it around my waist.
“Now, you feel like telling me how you ended up in my azalea bushes?” she asks. She motions for me to follow her.
I scratch my head. I cautiously pick my way across her driveway on my bare feet, but something is poking at my tender, bare left foot. I stop and lift it so I can look at the bottom, and I tug a huge thorn from the sole of my foot. I gingerly place my foot back on the ground and test it by putting my weight on it. “I don’t rightly know, Ms. Markie.” I’m pretty sure my nakedness had something to do with a Mason jar full of moonshine—and my poor, misguided, aching heart.
She turns to face me as she swings open the screen door, holding it wide with her body. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
I scratch my head again. “I remember Junior Adams passing me a jar of moonshine. I remember it burned like fire going down.” I stop and think. “I don’t remember much after that.”
“Junior Adams’s grandpappy makes some strong shine,” she allows. “I got some in the cabinet. You know, for when I get down with the cough.”
“Mm-hmm,” I hum. Everybody in Macon Hills knows Ms. Markie tips back some ’shine, and she doesn’t require a sore throat or cough to give her a reason. But it’s her lie; she can tell it any way she wants.
“So, Junior gave you some ’shine. Then what happened?” She opens a kitchen cabinet and takes out a bottle of pain relievers, and if I didn’t feel like I might hurl my guts up any second, I might have to kiss her. Instead, I take the tablets when she presses them into my hand, and I turn around to the sink, turn on the faucet, and stick my face under the water, getting a mouthful of water from the running stream, washing the pills down.
There are two problems with turning around and drinking from Ms. Markie’s sink. Firstly, Ms. Markie is a fan of people using glasses to drink from. And secondly, Ms. Markie now has a perfect view of my backside. And as my backside is currently still naked, it stings like a son of a gun when she whacks me with her fly swatter.
I jump and spin around. “What did you do that for?” I say, rubbing the offended area. “That hurt!”
“Use a glass,” she says.
She sits down at the kitchen table. She kicks a chair out across from her and tosses a folded piece of newspaper into it. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t want me to read it, so I sit my naked ass down on it. I tug the ends of the apron lower, knowing Ms. Markie had seen me in all my glory just moments ago but still wanting to maintain the shred of dignity I have left. Oh, hell, who am I kidding? My dignity up and left me lying in the azalea bushes.
“I should probably go put some clothes on, Ms. Markie,” I say.
“Probably should,” she responds as she looks over the edge of her reading glasses at me, and then glances back down at the crossword puzzle she’s working. “Give me a six-letter word for ridiculous.”
I search the recesses of my brain and spit out a word. “Absurd.”
Ms. Markie smiles at me. “Thank you. Been looking for that one all week.”
When I was here earlier this week cutting Ms. Markie’s grass, she’d been looking for a different one.
“Finished that puzzle already,” she says.
“Stop reading my mind,” I mutter. I reach for a biscuit. There’s a heaping plate of them in the center of Ms. Markie’s kitchen table. She slaps my hand. I jerk my offended fingers back.
“Don’t touch my biscuits until you’ve washed your hands. I know where they’ve been.” She glares at me again over her glasses.
“Where have they been?” I wish someone would tell me because I still have no idea how I ended up in Ms. Markie’s azalea bushes.
“They’ve been all over my granddaughter,” she snaps, and she takes her glasses off so she can glare cleanly at me.
I choke into my fist. “What?” I sputter when I can finally breathe. Everybody knows that Ms. Markie’s granddaughter, Evie, is in town. She arrived two days ago. “Evie’s here,” I whisper.
And suddenly, the whole night floods back to me in one great big rush.
I reach down and run my fingertips over the sore spot on the front side of my hip. “I was with Evie all night.”
Ms. Markie grins at me. “Yep.”
“I was with your granddaughter.”
“Yep.” She grins so big I fear her teeth will fall out. The last time that happened, they skidded under the fridge and I had to move the whole damn kitchen around to get them back.
“I got matching tattoos with Evie.”
“What?” The whispered word comes from the doorway. I look up and find Evie standing there. Her dark hair is a twisted mess, like she’s been riding in my Jeep with the top off.
“You rode in my Jeep with the top off,” I tell her.
“What?” she whispers again. She clears her throat. “I have never ridden in a Jeep in my life. And I surely wouldn’t have gotten in one with someone like you.” Her gaze drags from my naked chest to my naked thighs, her cheeks growing rosy. “Why are you wearing Grandma’s apron?” She covers her eyes. “Oh, God! And nothing else!”
I scratch my head again. “I’m still trying to figure that out.”
Ms. Markie lumbers to her feet. “Here’s the gist of it, kids.” She points at me. “You went out with Junior Adams and his lovely wife last night, and they got you stinking drunk on Junior’s grandpappy’s moonshine. Then you happened to run into Evie at the bar, where she stopped because she had a flat tire. You helped her change it, and then she took a few sips of the moonshine, and apparently the girl can’t hold her liquor because she suddenly decided you looked real handsome. You all piled into your Jeep. Don’t worry—Junior drove.”
“Junior drove my Jeep?” I ask.
“He wasn’t drinking. And that, my boy, is the least of your problems,” she replies.
“Okay.” I scrub a hand down my face.
“The two of you”—wagging a finger to indicate Evie and me—“got all snuggly in the backseat and you thought it might be fun if you both got matching tattoos. Junior and Barbara-Claire tried to talk you out of it, but you wouldn’t listen. I always did love that Junior. Originally, you two wanted to find a chapel so you could tie the knot, but you need a license to get married in this state, so you decided to do something else just as permanent.” She points toward my junk. “You got matching tattoos.” Then she reaches back and peels the edge of Evie’s sweat pants down her belly.
Evie’s eyes grow big as saucers when she sees her tattoo. I cover my mouth and try to hold back my snort, but it’s damn near impossible. Because written right there on Evie Allen’s hip are the words I belong to Grady Parker.
“Yours is just as bad,” Ms. Markie says to me.
I stand up and pull the apron down a little. And sure enough, written right there on my hip are the words I belong to Evie Allen.
“Whoa,” I breathe.
I look up at Evie. She stares at me. Then she says, “Aww hell naw,” and she walks in the other direction as fast as her bare feet will carry her.
“So how did I end up in the bushes?” I ask as I wash my hands at Ms. Markie’s sink.
“I think that was an attack of conscience.”
She waves a hand toward the apron. “Do you think you could put on some clothes now? I’ve seen your bare bottom a few hundred times since you were a baby, but I’ve about had my fill of it today.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I say. “Can I have a biscuit, first?” She picks up the plate and holds it out to me. I take one off the top, and then another since I have two hands and there’s a whole plate of biscuits. Not to even mention that Ms. Markie makes the best biscuits in Macon Hills. I snatch one more and then I ask, “Do you know where my clothes are?”
I’m careful not to let crumbs spew out of my mouth, because it would be a travesty to waste even a small piece of Ms. Markie’s biscuits.
She jerks a thumb toward where Evie went. I walk in that direction. I take my time, because I suddenly feel like I’m walking toward my execution.
If there’s one thing I know to be true, it’s that Evie Allen hates my guts.
She always has, and I’m pretty sure that whatever happened last night hasn’t changed her opinion of me.
I stand outside Evie’s bedroom door, trying to collect myself enough that I can knock and call out to her without forgetting my own name. Evie always has had a way of making me forget who I am.
I knock on the door and she opens it up so fast that I nearly fall into the room. I brace myself on the doorjamb with my hands and stare at her. “What do you want?” she asks. Then she points her finger in my face, almost bumping my nose with it, and says, “If you call me Clifford, even one time, I’m going to kick you square in the nuts. You’ll never father a child in your entire life, Grady Parker, if I have anything to do with it.”
I cover my package with my palm and take a step back. I had almost forgotten to use my favorite name for her. I’ve called her Clifford since forever, since we were young. She had gotten a big red stuffed dog for her birthday, mainly because she loved the books, and she carried that Clifford dog around with her everywhere she went.
“You don’t have to be quite so vicious,” I tell her.
“You don’t have to be quite so obnoxious,” she replies. She covers her nose with her hand. “And you stink. You smell like moonshine and…” She leans toward me and sniffs, her nose scrunching up. “Is that cow shit?”
I sniff hard, pointing my nose down toward my chest. “I do not smell like cow shit,” I say. I do smell quite vile, but I can’t quite tell what that smell is either. I smell so bad I’m offending myself. I lean toward her. “Whatever it is, you smell like it too,” I inform her.
She jerks like I just slapped her. “You take that back, Grady Parker.”
“Make me, Clifford.”
She sucks in a quick breath, and then she lifts her foot to make good on her promise. I block her foot with my hand. “I hate you so much,” she says. She says it like “the flowers smell nice” or “the yard needs mowing.” She says it like something she has said so many times that it no longer comes out as an insult. It’s just there.
“The feeling is mutual,” I assure her.
“Why are you even here?”
“Ms. Markie said you might have my clothes.” I look around her room, but I don’t see them.
“I have no idea where your clothes are.”
Suddenly, a fireman’s-style knock from the front door jerks us both out of glaring at one another.
“What’s that?” she asks, trying to lean out so she can look around me.
She shoves me to the side so she can walk out of the bedroom door.
“Oh, shut it,” she says. She walks toward the kitchen, where Ms. Markie is standing with Little Robbie Gentry, who is holding an official-looking piece of paper in his hand. He’s wearing his state trooper’s uniform and the biggest smile I’ve ever seen him wear.
“Robbie,” I say, as he tips his head in my direction.
He looks down at the apron, which is still my only clothing, and his eyebrows shoot up. “Grady,” he replies.
“What are you doing here, Robbie?” Evie asks.
Robbie scratches his head. “I’m here to pick you two up,” he says, refusing to look at either one of us.
I hitch my hip against the counter. “Why?”
“Well, it appears as though somebody drove out to Mr. Jacobson’s place at Lake Fisher last night, and whoever it was vandalized the big old building that sits next to the road.”
“The one that gets tagged by graffiti all the time?”
“Yes, that’s the one.”
“What’s that got to do with us?” Evie asks. She looks at me like she’s waiting for me to give her some great big revelation.
Robbie scratches his head again. “Well, the last time Mr. Jacobson’s building got tagged, him and Jake decided to put up some surveillance cameras in case somebody had the audacity to do it again.”
“That’s actually a really good idea,” I say. Kids were always tagging that building. It had become a rite of passage to put your initials—at the very least—on the side of it. In great big letters easily seen from the road. Then Jake had to go and cover it all up the next day with fresh paint.
“Well, you’ll never believe who his cameras caught last night.”
I watch as Evie goes and pours herself a glass of sweet tea. I would ask her for one, but she’d probably sooner pour it over my head as look at me.
“Who got caught on camera?” I ask, although I pretty much already know.
Robbie grins. “You two,” he says, then he snorts out a laugh.
Evie lets her glass thud onto the countertop. “That’s not funny,” she says, as her cheeks turn as red as her hair.
“No, ma’am, it’s not,” Robbie says. He tries to look like he doesn’t think this is funny at all, but he does a shit job at it. “It’s tragic. Mr. Jacobson wants to press charges this time.”
I press my hand against my chest. “Against us?”
“Yep.” Little Robbie is all-out grinning now.
“But we didn’t…” We really didn’t do anything that bad. Everybody tags that building. I see Evie look down at her hands, which are streaked with red and black paint. On the back of my left hand, I have a similar mark. “Oh, fuck,” I say. Guilt is painted all over me.
Ms. Markie picks up her fly swatter and slaps my naked shoulder with it. “Watch your language,” she warns. She shakes that fly swatter while she glares at me.
“Yes, ma’am,” I say quietly, as I rub the sting out of my arm. “Sorry,” I add for good measure.
“I have to take you both in,” Robbie says.
“In where?” Evie asks. She looks from Robbie to me and back.
“To the station,” he says. He stands up a little taller and tries to look intimidating, but no matter the uniform, or the gun he’s resting his hand on, he will always be Little Robbie Gentry when I look at him. “So, let’s go.” He motions toward the door.
“You have got to be kidding,” Evie says, disbelief all over her face.
“Wish I was,” he replies with a sigh.
With a huff, Evie walks past him toward the door. She points her finger at me. “I’m going to kill you.”
“Did you hear that?” I ask Robbie. “She just threatened my life.”
“I didn’t hear a thing,” Robbie replies. He winks at Evie. “Sorry about this, Evie,” he says quietly. “Proper procedure and all that.”
“It’s not your fault, Robbie,” she says. She glares at me. “It’s his.”
I follow them to the car. I still have no idea where my clothes are, so Robbie has me get in wearing the apron. “This is undignified,” I complain.
Robbie grins. “It rather is,” he agrees.
He pushes my head down as he puts me in the car. I settle in the back seat, and Evie glares at me from her side. “If you so much as touch me—” She stops and lets the words hang there in the air.
“Clifford,” I say, “I wouldn’t touch you if you were the last woman on earth.”
“I hate you.” She sits there next to me, seething. I can almost see the steam coming from her ears. “I hope they lock you up and throw away the key.”
“I’d rather be locked up in a cell for the rest of my life than be stuck here with you,” I grumble and adjust the apron demurely around my thighs. When she catches me doing that, she rolls her eyes.
“I hate you so much,” she says as she stares out the window on her side.
I am well aware of how much she hates me. She has informed me of that very fact every time she has been in my presence for the past twenty-five years. And the fact that we now have matching tattoos does nothing whatsoever to change her feelings.