The urge hit her the instant the birds’ feet hit the dirt, the burn in her bladder that had become as familiar these last months as her swollen arches and stretched skin. ‘I gotta go,’ Jules whispered. Crouched beside her in the dirt, Rocky wiped sweat from his forehead with his fist. ‘I gotta pee.’
‘It’s just starting,’ Rocky said. He swiped his brow again and gestured toward the circle, where a colorful rooster the other men called Bruiser kicked up a cloud of dust.
The brown bird – Plato, the one Rocky put the last of their money on — didn’t look any different from the chickens Mimi and Pap had kept out back when Jules and Callie were girls; in the last years though, when Pap wasn’t really Pap anymore and the cancer ate Mimi up, there’d been nothing but stray cats wandering the property.
‘Two minutes,’ Rocky said. He looked at Jules with those brown eyes, shiny and open as saucers. ‘You can hold it two minutes, right?’
Her fingers played on the watermelon in her lap, growing more tremendous every second. She nodded. One more mine, then we’ll pack up, head home. Fifty more miles, we’ll settle down for the night. He was always counting on the next thing. ‘His own personal delusion,’ Callie would say. Behind the ramshackle farmhouse, just off the two-lane road, she was pouting in the Skylark. Well, let her be pissed. After the night Rocky’d had playing cards, they needed a win.
In the pit, the birds pecked and lunged, flew at each other with their claws. Bruiser, the bigger one, had swaths of red and blue feathers knitted through his black body; he was some special type of Alabama fighting bird, and everyone was betting on him. But not Rocky.
‘This philosophical one, he’s a ringer,’ Rocky had assured Jules an hour earlier. They were standing behind a CoGo’s where they’d stopped for her to pee. ‘Overheard those two in the cowboy boots talking about it inside. I got a feeling about this one.’ Callie snorted from where she sat on the hood of the car, and Rocky gave her the finger without turning his attention from Jules. ‘Please, baby, please?’ He planted a kiss on Jules’ belly button.
‘Kill him!’ hollered a sunburned kid in hospital scrubs. ‘Kill him!’ He was kneeling in the dirt in front of Jules, neck and ears on fire, his scalp practically pulsing from its own heat. The boy couldn’t have been much older than Callie, not yet out of high school; even so, his green uniform comforted Jules, who hadn’t seen so much as a Rite Aid since they’d left Tuscaloosa two mornings ago.
Feathers and dust and the whoops of men mingled in the air, as the life in Jules’ stomach rearranged itself. Wetness spread through the space between her legs. ‘Shit,’ she said. Across the road, a few haggard trees bent into each other. A roadside squat would be par for the course for this trip, but she didn’t welcome the opportunity to relieve herself before an audience of hooting men, and getting from here to there would probably take the length of the fight and then some. Either way, she’d have to send Callie into the suitcase to fish her out a clean pair of underwear, if there were any left. Their last load of laundry had been nearly a week ago, just across the Tennessee border, after the doctor at the free clinic in Chattanooga promised Jules her contractions weren’t the real thing.
Now here they were, sucking in the stench of chicken shit, overripe soybeans stretching out on either side of them, with no sign of the coal that had lured Rocky from Pennsylvania. Not like it mattered much at this point. He hadn’t applied for a single job in four days. ‘Coal’s dying,’ is all he said yesterday morning when Callie pointed out the sign for the No. 7 mine. He gripped the steering wheel hard till they came to a Texaco where he climbed out and talked low to an attendant with a Crimson Tide cap hiding his eyes. Then fifteen minutes later they pulled into the mostly deserted lot of a joint called The Driftwood, and Rocky emptied every pocket onto the driver’s seat, plucked out the silver and green.
‘We should’ve gone home when Kentucky was a bust,’ Callie said from the back seat once he disappeared inside.
‘We’ll set down somewhere before school starts up, don’t worry,’ Jules said.
‘Fuck school. I’m sick of driving around all summer with this loser.’
Jules thrummed her belly. From the rearview dangled her ’13 tassel; Rocky’d been the picture of excitement the day they graduated. Not because of the ceremony, which he skipped, but because it was his first shift in Emerald No. 1. Now, three years later, Emerald was closed down, just like the mine where Pap loaded coal for thirty-seven years, till he started forgetting his hard hat and ear muffs, asking the foreman when lunch was, over and over again.
‘Go for the throat!’ shouted a man in red cowboy boots. He edged toward the roosters up on tiptoes, like a dancer. The colorful one was limping, and the other one, Plato, leapt on him with a giant ‘squawk!’ Everything went quiet for a moment.
‘Oh shit!’ said Rocky.
‘Oh shit,’ said Jules.
She shifted, the dirt beneath her suddenly wet. ‘Oh shit, oh shit!’ Rocky bounced into the air. ‘I did it, Jules!’ He pointed toward the pit. ‘I did it for my girls!’
That had been her one test: she’d fibbed to Rocky about the baby’s sex. When he shook his head, she turned away so he wouldn’t see her eyes cloud. But then he said, ‘Coulda put money on that. You, Callie. Now this one. Can’t get away from you goofy birds,’ and rubbed her little belly the way he might muss the hair of a kid brother, if he’d had one. And in that moment Jules understood that though their road would be full of potholes, they would ride it together, their little son between them.
Jules heaved herself to her feet. A dozen paces away, Rocky was gesticulating at a small, muscled man with a black bandana knotted around his hair.
‘And I’m telling you I got four hundred coming,’ Rocky said.
‘Rocky, it’s time.’
‘You think I’m stupid?’ said black bandana.
‘The baby’s coming.’
‘I know, babe. Just a minute—’
‘I’m not gonna use certain language on account of your lady,’ black bandana said, ‘but there’s no way you won with that bird straight legit.’
‘What? Like I gave him some fucking chicken potion?’ Rocky moved his hands in loops like a magician.
‘I’m saying you had some kind of insider information is what I’m saying.’
‘For real.’ Jules glided her belly toward Rocky’s frantic fingers. ‘It’s time.’
He stopped choreographing the air and stepped back. ‘Wait. It’s what? That doctor said two more weeks? Just one more minute, baby.’
But Jules knew what she knew. She needed to get off this farm, away from these strange birds and rabid men. By the chicken coop, the sunburned kid was spitting tobacco, counting his money. ‘The hospital,’ Jules said, nearly out of breath when she reached him. ‘Where’s it at?’
‘My water broke. My baby’s coming. Isn’t there a hospital?’
The boy started running. After about thirty feet, he turned around and called, ‘Yeah!’ and came back to her. ‘Yeah, come on, my truck’s right here.’ He helped Jules over the pebbly drive and into the passenger seat of an old pick-up. All the while, behind her, Jules could hear the angry squawk of Rocky and the man in the black bandana.
‘My sister.’ Jules pointed ahead of them, down the road to the Skylark, its door hanging open, Callie’s tan legs sticking out into the grass. ‘I need my sister.’
‘It’s a good forty minutes,’ the kid said, steering the truck off the shoulder. ‘But I’ve done it in thirty.’
Soon the three of them were headed west on Rt. 82 toward St. Mary’s in Pickens. Callie ran through the breathing exercises from the doctor in Tennessee; the kid clutched the wheel with fiery hands, eyes never leaving the road. ‘Where the hell’s Rocky?’ Callie finally asked. She turned right then left, as if she’d just missed him.
Jules reached up to the rearview. Behind them, the weak light of some anonymous headlights poured into the growing dusk. Something in her back gripped and twisted, like a fist, and Jules nodded, just barely, at the mirror. ‘There,’ she said. Then she closed her eyes, pressed her palms into the dash, and braced herself against what was coming.
ASHLEY KUNSA's creative work appears or is forthcoming in more than twenty journals, including Sycamore Review, Los Angeles Review, and Bayou Magazine. She is Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, MT. You can find her online at www.ashleykunsa.com