The Boone Series continues (Part Three)

I’m sharing this excerpt from Keeping Secrets, the third book in the Boone Series, to mark the publication of the fifth book. Choosing Family is scheduled for release in May of this year. This is from about midway through the book, and Boone is living in a small house on the grounds of the assisted living facility where he’s working.


Saturday about ten in the morning somebody wakes me up banging on the door. Frankie is up and wagging her tail, so I open the door and Tiny is standing there. 

“Hey, man, how’s it going?” Then I get a look at his face.

“What’s wrong?”

“You still got that shine recipe?”

“Yeah, it’s in the kitchen, in the drawer. Why?”

“Because that’s all you’ve got left, Boone. That and whatever shine we haven’t drunk up yet.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

I’m trying to keep from shouting and not doing such a great job, so I reach out and grab his arm and pull him inside. I slam the door and Frankie jumps back.

Tiny is already on the couch, and he’s filthy. His jeans are torn and dirty and I can smell smoke coming off him like he’s been camping out on one of the lake islands and spent all night sitting by the fire.

“You got any water, man?”

“In the kitchen. You’ll have to get it out of the sink. You going to tell me what happened? You look like shit.”

He goes into the kitchen and drinks three glasses of water standing right there at the sink before he comes back in and plops down on the couch again.

“It didn’t start at the still, I’m pretty sure about that.”

“What didn’t start?”

“The brush fire. You know nobody’s done anything with that land next to ours for who knows how long. Some of it you can’t hardly hack your way through. They’re trying to figure out how it started, but me and the rest of my family have been up there all night, trying to keep it from spreading to our land. The fire burned away that tarp I had on all our stuff and as soon as the firefighters saw the setup they called the sheriff. It’s all burnt up, all the supplies, and the law’s got the coil and the other stuff. They asked me about it and I said I hardly ever come up to that part of the property, and anyway that’s not our land up there, and I’m pretty sure they believed me. Anyway, it’s gone. You better drink what you’ve got left real slow, man. There isn’t going to be any more. Not from that still, anyway.”

I can’t think what to say. 

“What the hell happened to Frankie?” He’s looking at her back leg, and I realize I haven’t talked to him for the last few days.

“Tell you later. It’s all gone?”

He nods.

I just stand there. Gamaliel and my daddy had that still for years and nothing happened to it. I take over and it’s already gone. Maybe Daddy was right about me. Maybe I’m a useless piece of shit after all.

Tiny’s back at the sink. He’s drinking slower now, and sets his glass down after only filling it up the one time.

I start to say, so what do we do now? and don’t because there’s nothing to do. 

Chapter Twenty-One

“I need a drink,” I finally say, looking at the floor.

Tiny starts laughing and pretty soon he’s doubled over on the couch. He finally gets his breath and sits up.

“Hell, yeah, let’s have one. Or two.”

I make two the way Gamaliel would want me to and bring them back into the little living room. Tiny stands up and takes one of the glasses from me and raises it up. “To the old man.”

I raise mine up too, but I don’t say anything because I don’t want to start crying in front of Tiny.

He takes his all in one drink and shakes his head, hard. “Damnation, I forgot how he liked his. I better sit back down.” And he does. I take the glass from him and put it on the floor next to the corner of the couch and sit down beside him. I take a little longer with mine but pretty soon we’re both just sitting there staring at the floor. Nobody says anything for a while and then Tiny says, “I believe one’s going to be enough for me.”

He stands up and says, “I got to go check for hot spots. If that fire gets into our buildings they’d be gone in no time flat.”

“Need some help?”

“Every bit we can get. It’s a big damn mess up there. You sure you don’t need to stay here with Frankie?”

As soon as he says that I remember that Frankie can’t go with us, and I’m about to tell him to go on, that I’d better stay here. Feels like I need to go up there and help, though. Tiny would do it for me in a heartbeat, I know that.

“I’ll get Mark to watch her. Or Betty.”

He nods and heads for the door. “I’ll see you up there. I got to get going.”

After he’s gone I sit and stare at Frankie for a long time, thinking about Daddy. One of the worst beatings I ever got, maybe the worst, was when he came up on me and Curt out in the field where he is now. We weren’t more than ten or so and Curt had brought a box of those big kitchen matches and we were flicking them at each other. We’d set the head of the match on the side of the box and press down hard on the other end with our finger and flip at it with our other hand, middle finger behind the thumb and then pow, as hard as we could, If we hit it just right it would light and fly toward the other guy. Curt was better than me but I was starting to get the hang of it when Daddy showed up. 

Looking back I know he was real scared, but all he showed us was mad. Curt got out of there in a hurry and I got the shit beat out of me. He sent me back to the house and when I turned and looked back at him he was stomping all over the place where me and Curt had been. I didn’t know why he cared so much about it, it wasn’t even his house or barn or anything.

I finally snap out of it and stand up. “C’mon, Frankie, let’s go see Mark,” I say.

When I get to Tiny’s place there are half a dozen trucks parked all over the yard and Mrs. Thompson is walking toward the house from the field. She looks like hell, like she fell off her four by four and it dragged her a ways.

“Everybody’s still up there, Boone,” she points toward where the still used to be. “I think they’re making progress but I sure am glad to see you. It’s pretty damn awful, worst I’ve seen since I was a little girl.”

I start to ask about that but she’s already inside the house. There’s nobody else around, so I head out through the back yard and into the field.

Everything looks the same until I top that first hill. The land drops down a little and then back up toward the wood line, and I can hear men’s voices and see people moving around, in and out of the trees.

There are foot trails through the grass where people have been back and forth from the Thompson place up to the woods, and I follow one of them down and back up toward where the still used to be. A couple of guys look in my direction and then right back down to the ground, moving their heads back and forth. I can’t see what they’re looking at from where I am.

Three of them are leaning up against that big rock that Tiny and I used as a landmark, drinking from a gallon milk jug they are passing back and forth. One of them splashes a little water from it on his face and I hear another one say, “Damn, Mike, if you’re going to pour it out just hand it on over. I’m dry as a bone.”

I come up to them and they nod at me, but don’t offer me a drink. They can tell by how clean I am that I just got here. I stand there for a minute and finally say, “Tiny around anywhere?”

Mike points toward a bunch of guys about thirty feet into the woods. “Think he’s over there.” I nod and head that way.

When I get close Tiny looks over his shoulder and waves me into the group. One of the others looks at me and says, “Where’s your gloves?”

I just stand there.

“You planning to do this bare-handed? That’ll last about a half a minute,” the same guy says, and it sounds just like all those times I been made fun all my life and I’m about ready to shove his gloves right up his ass and head on back to the truck when Tiny says, “You know those gloves you left here when you helped me clean out that shed? I let Gary over there have them but I’ve got another pair you can use,” and he tosses me a pair of gloves that smell like smoke already.

I’m really dragging by the time somebody comes around with a jug of water. This is a lot harder work than I’ve done in a while and pretty damn depressing work on top of that. Somebody working close to me said it was early in the year for this kind of fire, that it usually happens in the fall, but that these woods were so grown up that it wouldn’t take much.

“You know they found a still right over there,” he says, pointing back to the rock. “I bet some damn fool was up here making shine and went off and left the fire going, and now look what we’ve got. Damn fools,” he says again, pulling a black branch aside to look under it for anything still burning.

I almost tell him that we weren’t cooking any mash right now so it couldn’t have been us and catch myself just in time.

Surely Tiny wasn’t up here working without me.

The guy with the water is gone, making the rounds to everybody else, so I get back to work. The group I’m in, four of us altogether, are working around the side of the hill, just across the fence from the Thompson’s land. There are two guys out ahead of me, and the one in front is about thirty yards away when he stops in his tracks and says, “Oh, shit, oh, shit! Somebody call the sheriff, quick!”

He looks back and catches my eye. “Move your ass, kid! I said get somebody over here! It looks like we got a dead guy at the base of that big tree over there!”

It’s like I can’t move for a second, and then I turn and start back toward the rock, looking for Tiny or Mrs. Thompson. I don’t know anybody else up here. By that time the other guy that used to be ahead of me is past me and moving fast, shouting for somebody named Bowden. I don’t have any idea who that is.

I start after him, trying to keep up. There’s so many branches and vines, all grey and black and no leaves, that I keep tripping and a couple of times I almost fall on my face. I don’t get very far before I see him coming back with a big guy, bigger than Tiny even. I have to jump sideways to get out of their way. 

After they go by I turn around and follow behind, and pretty much everybody on the hill is right behind me. We get close to the tree, about twenty feet, and the big guy and three others are standing there in a line with their arms stretched out wide. 

“Keep back, y’all,” one of them is saying, over and over. 

We’re all crowded together in sort of a line facing the three guys guarding the tree. I can see what used to be a person, a man I guess, sitting on the ground leaned against the trunk of the tree. His hand is flopped down on the ground beside him and I can see something right next to it.

It’s a meth pipe. 

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A career working with teenagers on the fringes of society has made me both sensitive to and appreciative of the complexities of character and the struggles, inner and outer, that we all wrestle with in one form or another. My writing emphasizes character development over action, and, as a lifelong Southerner, the rhythms and cadence of the Southeastern United States influence both my spoken and written voice.

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