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David Wiltse

Into The Fire

After setting fire to Harold Kershaw, Aural decided it was wise to leave town, the better part of a display of independence being the surviving of it. Harold was a vindictive man when he had a score to settle, not to say just plain stone mean when he was in a good mood. Aural decided to scoot on out of Asheville while the score still read plus one in her favor.

She caught the bus to Richmond, paying full price for the ticket-she had taken the prudent measure of emptying Harold's wallet into her pockets before adding it to the conflagration-but got off in Statesville and hitched her way to Elkin. In Elkin she boarded a bus to Galax, Virginia.

Harold was certain to come after her. Aural was afraid of being caught, but she didn't think that Harold had a real chance of actually catching her since sleuthing was not at all in his line of work. In the first place, Harold would be required to ask strangers for information. In her experience, Harold didn't talk all that much or all that well. Certainly not to her. What he excelled at was grunting and opening beer bottles with his teeth-the advent of screw-on caps had done nothing to discourage this propensity-and, when the mood was on him, chewing glass.

He was also good at pissing contests, or so he claimed.

Aural had been forced to witness only a few and declined further invitations to watch. It was one of those pastimes like golf, she figured: fun for the participants, maybe, but of less than nominal interest to spectators. But Harold was so proud of his urinating skills that he contrived to demonstrate them without the excuse of a contest.

His favorite display was to stand in the back of his pickup as it raced through a neighboring village such as Swannanoa and Pee for the entire length of the main street. Aural liked those stunts better than the contests-at least she got to drive.

Once or twice-towards the end of her relationship with Harold-she had tried to bounce him out of the truck bed, but he had surprisingly good balance for a man who was drunk enough to piss his way through town. She had succeeded only in making him wet himself which was hardly lethal.

The one time made him mad and the other time made him laugh.

After spending the night in Galax, Aural engaged the motel owner in an elaborate conversation she knew he was going to remember in the morning as-it did from a pretty Young thing such as herself. Even then, Aural had taken the precaution of leaving her blouse about half unbuttoned to insure she got the man's attention. She let it drop that she was heading for Kentucky, where she had kin. No sooner had she left that dump than she took the first ride for West Virginia she could flag down where she didn't know a soul.

That was enough covering to throw off Harold. Someone who knew what he was doing could prob ably find her, but Harold didn't and he was too dumb to think of hiring a detective. He certainly Wasn't going to go to the police. She knew that setting him alight was Probably against the law in some circles, but to-Harold it would seem more like a breach of faith. A matter to be dealt with personally. His dealings with law had always been on the wrong end of it, and he would not turn to them for help now.

Hitching a ride was no problem not for a woman who looked like Aural. At twenty-eight she looked more like eighteen. She had the type of face that bespoke perpetual innocence with the land Of virginal glow that belied her experience, which, she thought was beginning to tote up had the kind of lithe beauty men liked, a fawn. Aurala had a hand on one denim-clad hip, the other thrust jauntily outwards in a model's pose her whole form seemed to be saying, 'Go ahead and try.' It was only when the cars and pickups ground to a halt and the drivers got a closer look at the face as pure as a girl's in her white Confirmation dress that confusion set in. Aural played on the confusion for as long as the driv took.

She was not particularly worried about the alleged dangers of hitchhiking. She was an expert at manipulating men, especially men of a certain brutish stripe-which, her experience, included most of them-and if she couldn't keep them in control with her wits, there was always the utill knife secure inside the top of her boot secured by a strip of Velcro. The knife was her idea, a sort of primordial legacy from a long line of McKessons who had never been without a weapon. Aural had had a blade with her since she was ten. The Velcro strip was a refinement she got from Jarrell Robeaux, a Cajun of intemperate inclinations whom she had spent a few months with in Bi loxi. It was the only thing worth keeping that she got from him if you didn't count the little scar just behind her righ ear where he had clipped her with his metallic Stanley Powerlock tape measure.

On route 52 in Welch, West Virginia, Aural caught a ride with a fat man who didn't want to talk but kept his eye turned on her the whole ride as if he had just seen something on television about the dangers of picking up hitchhikers. It didn't take her long to realize that he wasn't being paranoid, he was simply ogling, and with that knowledge Aural relaxed-she was more than comfortable being ogled, she had been ogled by the best of the for years-and took advantage of the silence to reflect on her latest adventure.

It was Harold's boots that had been the death of the relationship, she mused. He had taken to slinging, them at her as a matter of course, almost absently, the way he might pick up a stick and keep tossing it for a dog to retrieve. The insouciance of the gesture bothered Aural.

She didn't particularly mind if her mate slung something her way now and then-she'd never had one who didn't-but it seemed to her the throw ought to at least be done out of anger. She could understand anger, she had hurled the odd object at Harold, too, not always in.self-defense. One time, she remembered, she had flung a soup pot at him; it wasn't exactly full of hot soup at the time, but it wasn't precisely empty, either.

Harold had done nothing particularly egregious to deserve it, as far as Aural could remember. She had simply looked over at him where he sat at the kitchen table, his features blurry with hangover, his belly swelling over his belt with the beginnings of a paunch, his hair sticking out from his head at all angles like he'd been sitting in front of a fan while applying moosse. He was picking his back teeth with his finger and coughing as if about to throw up. He was unwashed, unclean, and generally unsavory, and Aural had had the penetrating insight that her standards had fallen to an unacceptable level. Also, it was hot as hell and so humid they might have been underwater. They were fixing to eat soup because it was all that was in the house and so Aural had let fly with the pot, hoping, perhaps, that it might lead to Harold's self-improvement.

So it was not exactly the fact that he tossed his boots at her so much that towards the end he had taken to slinging them at her head. Her face was her fortune, her mother had always told her, and Aural believed it although she had yet to see a penny from it. Rather than have her fortune damaged by size eleven Dan Perkins, Aural _had taken her incendiary leave.

Harold was the sixth man she had lived with in the last eight years, each one worse than the other, as far as she could tell. The embarrassing part was that no one had forced her to associate with any of them. Aural never lacked for options when it came to the male population.

She had chosen the selection of roughnecks and shit kickers all on her own. It was enough to make her wonder if she actually liked being cuffed and sworn at and kicked around. Not that she didn't usually give as good as she got. Aural would never consider herself abused. She was free to leave at any time, and eventually she always did.

It was more the question of why she was always lying down with swine, as her father would have put it. He used to have a quote he would offer in that line, but then he had a quote for every line of disappointing behavior Aural could come up with. She couldn't remember most of them.

Could it be, she wondered as they pulled into a burg called Bald Nob and the fat man made signs of making his move after all, could it be that she actually liked men who were mean and stupid and no earthly good for her'? Now that was just plain sad.

When the fat man reached for her thigh she caught his I he screamed. He manhanded her and she bent his fingers back until the side of the finger touched his wrist. He used the good hand to swerve to road and slow down just enough for Aural to hop out on the dusty road from the vehicle. She was left standing on the far side of Bald Nob, looking back towards a tent they had passed just moments ago when the fat man Overreached himself. it looked to Aural like a fine place to spend a day.

Nimble as a goat, lithe as green willow, his body not much longer than the coil of rope strapped to his pack,

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