Carry Me Back

Michael gave up all pretense of liking his stepdaughter, Devon, when she came home from the University of Virginia and, on the drive to visit his parents for Thanksgiving, started pointing out all the places where she thought hate crimes had occurred. It was a long trip across the bottom of the state, six hours from the outskirts of Norfolk, where they lived, to Covington, in the western hills. Tiny brick ramblers with rusted windows and scalloped metal awnings. Boarded-up, whitewashed houses with screen doors half off their hinges and weeds choking the porches. Weathered wooden shacks—Devon was sure these had once been slave quarters. Any place at all with a lopsided, hand-painted sign, for peaches, peanuts, or, most unfortunately for Michael, guns.

He had been married to Devon’s mother, Elizabeth, for two years, and they had been together long before that, though they had kept their relationship hidden for months. She hates her father, Michael would say. Don’t you think she’d be glad to have me around? Elizabeth would stare hard out the window. Michael would watch the light catch her face, every muscle contorted. He stayed up nights guessing at what she was trying not to say.

“Honey, you’re going to miss the exit,” Elizabeth said, placing her hand on his forearm as he drove. He blinked his eyes to rouse himself. He hadn’t slept well. Elizabeth stroked his hair. She did not ask what he was thinking. God, he loved this woman.

He smiled and tried to relax. “If my dad’s already poured the rum when we get there—”

“Hate crime!” Devon cried from the back seat, smacking her hand against the window as they passed an abandoned gas station and general store.

“Can’t you just see it? You know they dragged a black boy behind that store and beat the shit out of him.”

“Watch your mouth!” It was not uncommon for Elizabeth to snap at her daughter like this, as if language were the problem.

“For Christ’s sake, Mom. Don’t you think the fucking racism is worse than my profanity?”

Michael tightened his grip on the steering wheel and tried to muffle his sigh.

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