You Remember the Pin Mill

Selected for the O. Henry Prize Stories, 2014

For Robert Long

You are driving west across the state, at the insistence of the Commonwealth’s Department of Corrections, when you remember the pin mill.

Just a shape when you first saw it, through the windshield of the Goddamn Rambler: a vague but jagged blackness looming in the gray ahead. You turned to warn your mother, but in the predawn light you glimpsed the contours of her face and turned back, only then you saw Whatever It Was rising up and clawing with skeletal appendages at the pearlescent sky.

But then you realized: Whatever It Was wasn’t rising; the Goddamn Rambler was coming down a long, steep hill. So maybe Whatever It Was was sleeping and nothing would happen if you went by quietly. Only the Goddamn Rambler would not go quietly. The Goddamn Rambler coughed and sputtered, though you whispered, Shh, shh, shh. Then the Goddamn Rambler backfired, and you saw Whatever It Was turn.

But then you realized: it wasn’t turning; the road was, curving away. Maybe far enough away that Whatever It Was couldn’t hurt her, even if it did awake.

You remember when you learned its name: after a cough-and-sputter climb and a big door opening wide; after an old man with glinting glasses and a gray mustache, in bare feet and a bathrobe, helped her up a flight of winding, waxed wood stairs; after he came back down in blue suit pants and shiny slippers and said he was pleased to meet you and you didn’t need to call him sir, plain Grandpa would do fine; after he led you to a kitchen with two stoves in it and sat you down in what he said had been your Grandmother Godrester’s favorite chair, and put on a bib apron with magenta flowers on it and said he was going to fix you a real country breakfast.

Then he was doing something in the black stove with MAJESTIC in silver letters on the door, and you were rocking, back-and-forth, back-and-forth, until you smelled smoke and heard a scream and leaped up and shouted, “Who’s that? Who’s that?” But he said, “Rest easy. Pay no mind. That’s just the whistle at the pin mill,” and his voice was calm and patient, so you tried, only you still heard it in your head and the chair went back-forth, back-forth.

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