The town hadn’t seemed so far off when we were driving, but walking was a lot slower and I realized I might have misjudged the distance. As long as I kept to the roadside ditch, I must have been on the right track.
But it was taking forever. And my feet were starting to blister in my worn-out shoes.
At length, I came across a very long pebble driveway branching off my side of the road. There was a pretty metal mailbox at the end, so I went to see if there was a family name or address on it.
As I got closer, I realized the box had a huge dent in one side, like someone had taken a baseball bat to it. I squinted in the dark at the name.
Lots of dirty insults had been graffitied around it in Sharpie. I frowned. Whoever the Grangerfords were, they seemed to have lots of enemies.
But I needed directions, so I set off down the driveway. Maybe they would tell me how far the town was.
It led through a thinly wooded area to a big plantation-style house. It was surrounded by neatly trimmed hedges and white rosebushes on big trellises. There were blue shutters next to all the windows, and the front door was the same hue. One light was on in the foyer, it seemed. It looked so pretty and clean in the darkness.
The motion-sensor porch light flicked on when I stepped up to the door. I hesitated for a bit before pressing the doorbell.
Immediately, I heard dogs running towards the door, barking loudly. I took a step away in surprise. Lights turned on all throughout the house. After less than a minute, I heard a voice.
“Down boy, Carter! Hey, Clint! Quiet, now! Away from the door, Kennie, old girl, shoo, all of you!” The dogs settled. A man looked out from behind the curtain of the window. He held a small microphone to his mouth.
“Who are you, kid?” His voice came out of a little speaker next to the doorbell.
I blinked, wowed by the fancy technology. “Dylan Jackson,” I said, fake name sliding easily off my tongue.
“Jackson, huh? What’re you doing out here this late at night?”
“Oh, well, you see, my friend and I were driving home after visiting my cousins, the Jacksons, up by the Tennessee border, but as he was driving along, he accidentally hit a possum. Sam – that’s his name, Sam Fields – he’s got a soft spot for all the cute, fuzzy woodland creatures, and he was so upset he drove us off the road. I was just looking for a town we passed as we were traveling through-”
“You a liberal, or a conservative?”
I stopped, thrown off guard. “Am I… what?”
I saw the silhouettes of several more people that had gathered behind the man with the mic. He spoke again. “Are your parents democrats, or republicans?”
I had no idea what my father was. He seemed to generally hate everything about the government. “I, uh, I dunno, I was really just wondering if you could tell me how far town is…”
The microphone picked up a woman’s voice from behind the man. “Oh, let him in,” I heard her say. “Nonpartisan is just fine for him, he’s only a boy. As long as he doesn’t like Trump.”
I jumped at that tidbit. “You mean that jerk? Nah, I’m not a fan.”
“See, Bill? He’ll fit right in.”
Microphone man – Bill Grangerford, I assumed – spoke directly to me. “What’d you say your name was?”
“Is there anyone out there with you?” he asked. “Where’s your possum friend?”
“He’s still out with the car on the side of the road. I came by myself.”
Bill turned off his microphone and started making hand motions to the others behind him. He shooed the dogs away one final time. Someone handed him something long and dark, but it moved too fast for me to see.
After some more of this, he picked back up. “Now, Dylan, do you know the Shepherdsons?”
“Shepherdsons?” I asked. “No, I don’t, sorry.”
He humphed. “Well, we’ll just see. You good, boys?” he asked the others. “Good. Alright, Dylan, we’re gonna open this door and you walk in nice and slow. No funny business, got that?”
I nodded. He put away the mic. I heard at least three deadbolts unlock before the blue door cracked open. I slowly poked my head through.
And I was staring down the barrel of an automatic rifle.
My eyes widened, but I kept still. Three men – Bill, and two others in their twenties – stood at the ready, each one pointing their firearms at me. There were a couple young women in the hall behind them, as well. They all had dark hair and eyes.
“Alright, you can come in, now,” said the nearest young man, lowering his gun and adjusting his glasses. He wore a gray beanie over his black curls and had on skinny, cuffed sweatpants and Converse sneakers. He turned to the girls. “He’s not a Shepherdson. None of them are blonde. Or would be caught dead in a blue shirt, those GOP fanatics.”
“You right,” drawled the elder of the two girls in a bored fashion. She sighed. “Lame. I thought we’d see some late-night action.”
The other men lowered their guns as well. Bill Grangerford said good-naturedly, “You’ll get your action, Charlotte. Just keep checking their… whatchamacallits, their…”
“That’s the one. Make sure to tell us if they pick a fight. You know where we’ll be.” The other two men laughed at that, and Charlotte shrugged and set back off down the hallway.
“Come on in, kid,” said the young man with the glasses, clapping a hand on my shoulder. “We’ll get you something to eat. Also, just so you know, if you’ve got any friends outside now, they’ll be shot if we catch ‘em.”
“Oh,” I said.
The younger girl swatted his arm. “Leave him alone.” She took my hand and led me down the hall, away from the firearms. “That’s Thomas. Ignore him. He talks big, but he doesn’t actually like blood.”
I nodded, bewildered.
“Sophia,” called Charlotte from the kitchen, “quit chatting and help me feed him. Where’s that blueberry pie?”
“It should be in the fridge, behind last night’s leftovers,” she responded, dropping me off under the archway into their huge, gourmet kitchen. Granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, tile backsplash, touch-activated sinks… it was high end.
The entire family eventually congregated around the barstools at the island and settled in for a midnight snack. The pie was found, sliced, and served to everyone. They were mostly focused on each other and didn’t pay me much heed, even though I was a guest. I was frankly just fine quietly sitting on the end and observing them.
Bill was the Grangerford patriarch. He must have been in his late fifties. He was the only older adult awake, but from their fast-paced conversations it seemed that a Mrs. Grangerford, his wife, must have still been asleep upstairs.
Thomas was the cheerful hipster with the beanie and glasses. He and his brother Bill Jr. (they all just called him Junior) were the oldest kids, in their mid-twenties. Charlotte was next. She seemed to be the most media-savvy, scrolling through Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter on her phone as she talked. Sophia had just graduated high school and looked to be the lone introvert in a family of flashy personalities.
“What’re you guys doin’ up?” I turned to see another Grangerford, a brawny boy close to my age, coming down the stairs. He wore a T-shirt with a popular Nike catchphrase written across in blue block letters. “Where’re the Sheps?” he yawned.
“False alarm,” Charlotte said with disinterest. “It was just this kid.” She paused to make a face and take a selfie for her Snapchat streaks.
He looked at me. “Oh. Hey.”
I went to introduce myself, but promptly drew a blank on my fake name. Crap. I just forced a smile and nodded.
“Dylan, this is Brian. Brian, Dylan,” said Thomas, jabbing his fork at me. “Anyway, you’d have been too late if it really was those disciples of national disaster. You gotta stay up to date with this stuff, little man.”
“I’d have beat ‘em up,” insisted the boy. “Those republican scrubs would have gotten rekt so hard.”
“Only if you’d have woken up in time, or you’d be the scrub getting rekt.” Thomas popped a piece of pie into his mouth.
Brian noticed. “Hey! You’re eating the pie without me?” he exclaimed.
“Snooze, you lose,” the young man grinned.
“So, Dylan,” asked Sophia, taking my finished plate away and putting it next to the sink, “Why did you say you were out here?”
Jim! I cringed, having forgotten my friend. “My friend’s crashed on the side of the road a couple miles up that way,” I explained. “I was looking for town, and a Jiffy-Lube or something. Car won’t start. We ran over a squirrel and ran into a ditch.”
“Thought you said it was a possum,” piped Charlotte, not looking up.
I swallowed. “Sorry, yeah. Possum. They’re all the same, really, possums, squirrels, rabbits, y’know…”
Mr. Grangerford nodded. “Of course. I’ll drive out and bring back a tow truck for your friend. You can both stay the night in our spare room if you’d like.”
“Oh, wow, thanks,” I said.
“Anytime,” he said, rising and going for his keys. “Any fellow Trump-hater is a friend of ours. You’re safe from the Shepherdsons with us.”
“True dat,” said Charlotte.
Sophia sighed quietly.