HAZARD by Nicholas Rall

Ethel and Edith tried to keep their eyes open, resting in a square of brownish dying grass; an empty lot. There used to be a family who lived there, and I could see the kids play in the driveway from our window, until men with big, yellow machines tore it down and it stayed like that until the girls took me with them. They’d been in the neighborhood for a few hours, walking through about half the state of Florida, staying close to the interstate. Usually they could get a ride but not that night, and it was time to rest.

The area they found themselves in was hidden in the woods next to the interstate; the kind of place you don’t remember, until an image of a dozen houses, smothered, overtaken by weeds, comes to your mind later after a bad day at work, a nightmare maybe, lingering residue from a trip through Florida you took a few years earlier.

They were drawn to his truck, a red Ford Ranger from the 1970’s, which was in perfect condition and probably inherited from a recently dead relative. He hadn’t had enough time to neglect it, to let it rot into one of the other rusty clumps in the neighborhood—at least not on the outside.

Unknown to him, I’m sure, the girls watched as he walked to the curb and climbed into his truck. They thought they might find something useful in his garage or, at least, a shady place to rest. The garage door was busted, unable to lower all the way, leaving about a foot and a half of space open; just enough for the two of them to squeeze underneath.

Below all the tangles of the Earth, that old house might have had a scabby, reddish brown, rusted roof. Maybe it was painted a pale pink, and a tiny, concrete slab of a “porch” was the last thing your feet would touch before you entered through the ripped screen door. I don’t remember.

The girls were disappointed when their eyes adjusted to the light. Only a set of six rusty metal racks lined the walls stacked mostly with empty buckets, car cleaning supplies, some oil, degreaser, and even a few broken garden tools, which had to come from somewhere else; somewhere that could sustain a real garden, not just thick, untamed weeds. The floor was cluttered with pieces of machines, unorganized in damp cardboard boxes—junk and not much else.

Nothing was of much use to them, except a large, navy tarp that was a little dirty but only with dust and leaves. Ethel found it crammed inside a brown bucket, and they’d be able to use it to protect some of their belongings, because it might rain soon. It was just after eight in the morning when they entered the man’s garage; it would rain soon… The tarp was thick, industrial grade, so they figured maybe the man worked in construction or did when he was younger. It certainly was an improvement over their current method of protecting their belongings which was to wrap everything in any plastic bags they could find; sometimes this included trashcan lining from cans inside gas station restrooms.

They sat in the man’s garage to cool off, until the sun finally went down. That summer held a record for years as the hottest in Florida, but even on an average year there was wet heat in the air—the kind usually only produced at dry cleaners, only the pleasant hint of fabric cleaner was absent. Instead, this air smelled like it had expired.

The girls walked all night, and they needed to rest now, for a few hours, until the man came home or until they woke up. They laid on their blanket  in the corner of the garage and vanished beneath the skyline of boxes.

“How long do you think he’ll be gone?” asked Edith, “he’s probably at work, huh?”

“Yeah, he’s probably at work, where do you think he works Edie?” Ethel wondered.

Turning from her side, Edith laid flat, staring up into his garage ceiling.

“Bucket Factory,” she replied, “and he’s in charge of those little plastic pieces that go on the metal handles…”

“Yeah,” Ethel replied. “Yeah I think that’s right.”

I don’t remember a time before the heat … At first, I thought we didn’t have electricity because of how much I’d sweat, even though the man would crack the windows just a bit. I could hear the hum most then, and sometimes they even got into the house—the bugs. He would kill them, so I always protected them and hid them in my cup.

Maybe the house was air conditioned, but he never turned it on. Anyway, there had to be power coming from somewhere because I do remember watching the TV; a small black square placed on top of his dresser. The room had a light green carpet and a big bed. I remember the bed; it had tall white beams on all four corners and was raised enough to where I needed his help to get on to the top of it. The man had a stack of tapes, a dozen or so, but he never brought home new ones. Every once in a while, I’ll remember when I see an actor from one of the tapes on the TV, but I can never recall their names. I think I dreamt them up now and then, but there’s one I’d always look for that was my favorite … A woman, who was a scientist or vet, and her daughter living in Africa adopted a baby gorilla who was being hunted by poachers. When I can’t sleep I think of that movie; a jungle, and the sounds and smell of the jungle help me sleep. Usually at some point in the night, he’d turn off the tape and that’s when I would use the buzzing hum to fall asleep, which was usually more soothing than the movie.

When the girls awoke, light no longer shone in from the gap of the garage. With no way of telling time, they assumed they had slept for at least twelve hours. After gathering their things, they crawled through the black slit they entered. The man’s truck was back; windows rolled down, the cab was not cluttered like his garage—empty with nothing but a few of his crumbs on the floor.

“Looks like it can’t be too late, everyone’s still up. I hear sitcoms coming from that house, so it’s only about seven o’clock,” Ethel observed, standing in the same spot of dead grass she stood in outside of the man’s house hours ago.

“Yeah, I bet he just got off work, just pulled out his dinner from the microwave,” Edith replied as she walked back towards his house to the front door.

“I’ll ask if we can borrow the keys.”

A few weeks after her seventeenth birthday, Ethel had inherited some land that a second cousin of hers was impatiently waiting to hand over, and he had just informed her that that if she did not officially claim the land by the end of the month, he’d trade it to a friend of his for cattle. Part of her was fine was this, as something about living steady in Nebraska made her sick. Edith, born in the same hospital room just six months after Ethel though, figured her best friend  should  be the one to pocket the money from the land. They both liked walking and staying in new places each night, which could only be better with a steady amount of money, so she pushed the two of them through the South.

I heard something that could only be possible in a dream. I have to be dreaming because the man was right beside me, holding me. I felt his chest moving up and down against my back, as his hairy arms wrapped around my stomach … I had never seen anyone else in the house besides the man, but, when the girls walked past the door, I wasn’t scared. I was sure I was asleep. Maybe I should have been scared, but I wasn’t.

A soft buzzing just above my belly began and spread through my body… I knew they’d leave—I wished they’d take me with them. I closed my eyes, focusing on the buzzing outside until Ethel gently rubbed my cheek with her thumb and then lifted a finger to her lips, “Shhh.”

I was small enough then for her to carry easily, my chin sat on Ethel’s shoulders, and with hand over my eye I peeked through as the movie continued on the screen. Edith took the pillow I’d been using and pushed it down onto the man’s face, as the bugs began to hum louder than I’d ever heard before, welcoming me outside into their world.

Ethel, she was the first person I remember who felt real. She was tall, pale, with a thin face and light grey eyes. She and Edith both were frighteningly skinny, with bones showing through that never should.

She sat with me down in the cab of the man’s truck, playing with my hair, which was longer than hers. She pulled her fingers through one greasy, knotted tangle at a time, asking me questions in the same gentle way in which she unraveled my hair, but I had no answers for her, not even a name.

Soon, I heard the front door shut and Edith climbed in the passenger seat, as she vaguely smiled at me, handing me a garbage bag full of a couple of my toys and clothes she could find around the house. I smiled back but her dark, long hair was in her face, covering her eyes. When she wrapped her hair up with a tie she slid off of her wrist, I could see her light blue eyes. Darkness dripped from them, and I was not sure if she was a boy or a girl. I had only seen teenagers in movies.

Ethel drove through the night, as I rested my head against the glass window. I tried to listen to the wind; warm on my face, sneaking through a crack, not uncomfortable but pleasant and calming. We stopped at a gas station for a map. The girls asked me if I’d like to help them find our way. I did. I could not believe the lines and landmarks on the paper turn into real places, and I loved hearing Ethel and Edith talk. I stayed up with them all night just listening and directing a turn when needed, until my eyelids got so heavy they shut down. I woke up to the heavy orange light of the earth and glimpses of cars and trucks of all shapes and sizing speeding past me in every direction.

The truck screeched into the gas station parking lot. Ethel firmly held my hand and led me through the glass, double doors to use the bathroom and find some breakfast. I grabbed a Fruity Pebbles cereal bar, chocolate milk, and some peanuts.

Mesmerized by the blue and grey eyes that seemed to understand everything before them, I could feel their lives overshadowing mine. They didn’t act like the teenagers on the tapes.

The concrete beneath his truck was cracked and dry, laid years ago but never maintained. Every few hours they came across long smooth stretches though.

“Do you think this is a good engine?” asked Edith.

“No … I don’t think so, not really,” Ethel replied with both hands gripped around the leather wheel.

“Yeah,”  agreed Edith. “It sounds weak …” She paused for a minute.

“How many days do you think it took to build this whole truck?”

Ethel replied instantly, “Twelve days for the frame.”

“How long do you think it’s gonna take us to get to  your cousin’s house?” Edith asked, resting her head against the glass.

“About a day, should be there by tomorrow around this time.”

“God I fucking hate him,” Edith groaned.

Ethel smirked. “Maybe he’s not so bad now. We won’t have to stay long.”

I ate on the curb below the pump, while Ethel fed the truck its breakfast. The sun made her hair glow tangerine. She caught me looking and let me know she thought that my hair was pretty and would be even prettier if I let her brush it, but I still did not let her.

The hidden insides of the man’s truck were rotten and started to smell. The wheel began to shake in Ethel’s hands, spreading throughout the entire truck. The stink became suffocating. Ethel pulled onto the side of the road along an endless wooden fence. Soon a thick, black smoke rose from the engine, high above us.

A grey-haired, serious woman hauling a horse trailer pulled up, with six noses peeking through the metal grating. She told Ethel how we could scrap the truck. Ethel drove a few more miles and the truck died next to a field with one cow. On the other side of the field a thousand giant plastic tubes were being stored.

The bugs sounded a lot like the ones from where we came; squally and screechy. Edith and I played tag and hide-and-go-seek in the tubes. Focused, as quiet as possible, trying to hold my breath in the darkness of the thick, black plastic, I turned my head towards the opposite end, to scout the other direction, and Edith appeared out of nowhere. I froze, nearly falling off the edge, which had to be a 30-foot drop, but she grabbed me in time. She knew how bad she’d scared me because she held me for a long time before we climbed down.

That night we stayed in a marigold motel that was long and had one wooden door everyone had to come and go through. The inside looked like one long hallway with a thousand doors on each side, each a different shade of rust.

The owners were an older husband and wife, and did not want to rent out a room to Ethel. They said she was too young, but she insisted she was eighteen and eventually, they believed her.

Now I can only imagine them as people, mostly with faces like mine  but they had such sluggish attitudes and so they seemed to me to be actual slugs. I can actually remember, once the night attendant checked in, the two of them sliding their way down the hall, passing us as we entered our room, squeezing into a hole at the end of the hall, half the size of their thick, slimy bodies.

The motel sat next to a highway where the air was much drier than where we had come from. I could still hear the bugs, louder actually, and I hoped that they were following somehow.

We walked across the parking lot to a dusty green building that had a plastic man, on its roof, with a mustache and chef’s hat holding a pizza, larger than all three of our bodies combined.

While we sat on the bed, the television showed Kentucky commercials. A man screamed “Sale! Sale! Sale!” in front of a thousand cars. I knew he was nervous.

I took a warm bath, and fell asleep in Ethel’s oversized jacket. When she took the jacket off to wrap me in it, it was like she took off her shell and bones protruded out stretching her skin. I slept at the foot of the bed, curled up into a little ball. I had no trouble falling asleep once the air conditioner began to buzz. As the cool air flooded my nostrils and into my head, I dreamt of Ethel, Edith, and myself in the truck, driving through the night. I followed the truck from high above in the sky, flying with thousands of other round little pink bugs, buzzing…

A knock on our door woke me. Edith  didn’t move but Ethel shot up, and, as she saw me looking at the door, she rubbed my head until I fell back asleep.

The next morning, she told us to be very quiet getting ready because a priest had fallen asleep outside our door. She said the owners (the slugs) probably called him because we looked like we needed help. We saw him lying on one of the pillows in the motel lobby. Ethel lifted me over his body into Edith’s arms, and I saw a sliver of his face. His beard was white, thickest at his cheeks, thinning the higher it went. He tried to sleep like I did, in a little ball, but his long body formed a scribble.

With the money left from the truck, Ethel said we could buy bus tickets to Nebraska.

We walked for hours to get to the bus station, but I didn’t care. I loved it. I saw things I didn’t know the world had. I hadn’t known there were so many kinds of cars and so many people. Some people were eating hotdogs outside of a big white church and I ate so many I got a stomach ache. We got some bottles of water and marched on to the Hazard Greyhound Station—nothing was wrong with it, that was just the name of the town, a mining town. Edith said her Dad used to watch a funny show about some boys in Hazard but that it was nothing like what we saw.

Maybe the smoke from the man’s dead truck seeped into the sky and made everything in Hazard tinted by a shadow and much worse than TV.

Edith sat with me while Ethel bought the tickets. At first we were the only people in the station, but soon another bus dropped off a load. Some stayed and waited for another to carry them off, but some were supposed to be in Hazard. Ethel came back and told us our bus to Nebraska arrived at 3:00 a.m.

The girls agreed that they’d rather explore the town than sit in the Greyhound station for 16 hours. I was relieved because I wanted to walk more and I was disappointed to be going on the bus already. Edith was very interested in the mountains. They didn’t look how I’d imagine mountains in real life because they were not as tall as I thought they should be. She wanted to go up into them and explore, but Ethel shook her head at the idea. A small second hand store was across the street, and Ethel motioned us there instead.

I had walked off over to the videotape aisle, looking at all of the covers. The man only had about 12 or so tapes I had watched over and over again, so I never knew anymore existed. I was mesmerized by a cover with a plane crashing into the ocean but lost all interest in the tape when a deep voice echoed from the opposite end of the aisle.

It was the priest who had been asleep at our door earlier. Today, he was serious with determination in his voice. He began to walk towards me, so I ran to Ethel, checking out at the front. “You! Just stop, for just one moment please stop, I need to talk with you…’’ he called to us.

I hadn’t had to say anything, so maybe it was on my face or I was holding her wrist too tight, but she knew something was wrong before she even heard his voice.

“I’ll talk to him, okay? I know him… Don’t worry,” said the cashier, whose name tag read “August.”

“Father, what’s the matter? What’s going on here?” August called down the aisle, “Why are you bothering these kids? I have some leftovers … Father, have you eaten lunch? Go wait in the break room for me, I’ll be in in five.”

August scanned Ethel’s final item, “I think he’s just a little hungry.”

When I saw that priest again, alarms went off in every part of my body, but Ethel knew how to turn them off. She calmly finished checking out, and she led me outside where Edith was sitting outside on the curb smoking a cigarette. Ethel gave her a look, just a slight look, and she joined us, as we quickly walked away from the store back toward the mountains…

“You think he’s even a real priest? asked Edith. “Probably,” Ethel replied. “God’s looking for us maybe, maybe he’s trying to take us straight to heaven.” This made them both laugh for a while, and it made me laugh too.

Ethel asked if I’d like to hold her bags, and she said it was my job because she knew I could keep them safe. She had picked out some clothes for me. I walked between them. They looked like opposite sisters.  Ethel always wore white, light colors, blonde hair, but not yellow; sort of like dead grass. Edith, dyed her hair black, always wearing dark layers of clothes. She always said that was her real hair color, usually with wide open eyes and her tongue out past her chin because she knew I never believed her.

Ethel said, “We should probably go walk in the woods for a while.”

It must have stopped raining right before we got in because climbing up the hill covered us in mud. When we got up to the top, Edith put a little dollop of mud on my nose. I thought she was being mean until she giggled.

I helped Ethel and Edith set up the tarp from the man’s garage. The air beneath the trees smelled clean and safe… Once we were set up and sitting on the tarp, Ethel and Edith started telling me how much fun the bus would be, how the two of them met on the bus when they were just a little older than me, and how they would walk to their stop together. Every morning, Ethel played with my hair again, and I fell asleep to a mix of their memories and the sounds of all sorts of things moving in the woods. Soon I could hear all the other bugs, waiting for me.

Ethel tried her best not to wake me up, but as soon as I heard the man’s voice I clung to her, unable to look behind me. I pretended to be asleep. I knew the man would take me away; I knew the priest would take me back to the heat, to the expired air. I knew I would somehow end up back in the man’s house, even if he was not there. I would be there alone, in the heat, but this time in silence without even the comfort of the bugs … This priest, I was sure, had already convinced the girls that I was much better off in his care, and I became angry at them for becoming so easily convinced. I began to plan my escape into the woods, until I heard … laughter, comfortable laughter. The three of them were already making light of what was a misunderstanding.

The priest, dropping all sense of authority he tried to present earlier, explained that the reason he had been chasing us around Hazard was to beg us not to move there. He said they just could not take anyone in, that there was a waitlist for jobs for people who were born in the town and there was simply nothing for us there.

Ethel explained our issues: on our way home from spending the summer helping our grandmother on her farm in Florida, Ethel’s faithful truck of 3 years, her first truck, had finally “crapped out” on her, most likely due to the strain put on it at the farm.  It was okay because our father had just promised her a new car for her senior year.

My memories of him are mostly from Ethel and Edith keeping them alive. They actually kept in touch with the priest for a few years, giving life updates grounded mostly in truth with the addition of a fictional grandmother in Florida, but he hasn’t written back in about five years. Edith thinks he’s dead but Ethel’s not so sure. Sometimes the idea of taking a family road trip back to Hazard comes up but it just hasn’t worked out yet.

We spent our remaining hours in Hazard under the care of the priest. The inside of his home had a shaggy brown carpet that stretched through all the rooms, bordered by walls, pasted with orange wallpaper with faded brown stripes. In the living room, he had a big box of a TV and a collection of tapes—even more than I had at the man’s house. I injected one into the machine about a lamb who wanted nothing more than to be eaten by God.

I watched the lamb travel the world, trying to prove it’s worth to God, sitting between the girls on the priest’s tan, leather couch. It was well worn. It must have been passed down to him. Everything in his home seemed like it had always been there—maybe God had built it for him? I’ve never gone to church, but the man back in Florida used to pray and read me things from the bible. This priest said he had not held a service in over six years because most of the people in Hazard had shifted their faith from God to something else, though he never explained what. Ethel later told me her mama loved God more than her, which is why she left…

The bus station’s light was almost green; unnatural and flickering. Ethel checked us in, and the station was full tonight with a few dozen people who lined the blue plastic coated benches, some greeted the priest by first name. A few people had already boarded; one man looked like he was a professional bus rider. Soon it was time to leave and the girls asked me to pick a seat, so I led them to the middle of the bus, where its engine hummed the loudest.

As we pulled away, the three of us looked out the window. Outside the station, the priest had gathered a handful of people from off of a bus coming from Arizona, begging them to avoid Hazard as a potential place to settle down.

When we finally arrived in Nebraska, we went straight to meet Ethel’s cousin to claim her land. Sometimes in the beginning, he’d come over for dinner, but they never talked much. They could never click, so they stopped trying to.

They sat at a rotting wooden table in the grass, in the shadow of a less rotted barn—the barn we lived in for a month before we could afford to build a traditional house—signing what needed to be signed.

I was drawn over to the dirt. Inside of a big plot of dirt surrounded by 20-foot-tall mulberry trees, I could hear something moving beneath; a new kind of buzz.

As I began to dig in the earth, each clump was dense with white worms—more worm than dirt. They were beautiful, not the typical limp earthworm, but these were powerful, fat, white worms. I called the girls over, soon, the three of us were in a trance.

The worms circled through the dirt like dolphins.


Nicholas Rall lives in Florida with three cats: Lilo, Lisle, and Tractor.

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

Read Next: I WANTED TO SAY by Michael Harris Cohen