“It’s gonna be a scorcher today, Tammy Sue,” said Johnny “Two-Wheeling” Cruz. Peering out the dirty pane glass in the kitchen of his family’s 14X70 trailer, pardon me, mobile home, Johnny looks out over the rows of soybeans baking in the sunshine. Tall for his age, Johnny’s black hair is always greasy, his clothes greasier, and his attitude (according to Old Man Parsons,) needs an adjustment. Tammy Sue is the exact opposite of her older brother. At 14, Tammy Sue is short, some would say frumpy, and her round face looks like it was pelted with freckles by a freckle machine which was placed on the apocalyptic setting. Her blond hair is always in pig tails, just as greasy as Johnny’s, and her attitude makes her brother look like an altar boy in comparison.
Everyone calls Johnny by his nickname after a run-in with Old Man Parsons. While flying down the sidewalk on their bikes one day, Johnny and Tammy Sue nearly avoid running over the old timer. Swerving wildly, the duo jump their bikes off the sidewalk, and race across the street before disappearing in the park. “Watch out for that two-wheeling rapscallion and his tramp sister! They dang near plowed into me!” Shaking his fist, Old Man Parsons mutters a curse about the folly of youth, before getting into the van which will cart him to his retirement home.
Laughing manically, Johnny and Tammy Sue speed off on their bikes toward the waterway. As usual, they spend their summer days lounging on the banks of the river, looking for something to get into. His sister spits in the direction of a frog croaking from a little stream, where the biggest crawfish in all of Tish County call home. “Yep, it’s hotter than that time Susie May found out her husband had a thang for teenie boppers.” The frog continues to croak, not at all dissuaded by the phlegm hurled in it’s direction by the young heathen.
Johnny, who at the age of 16, thinks he understands the wonders of womanhood and dating, chuckles ruefully. “Boy, she sure was hot. She about beat her man’s arm clean off with that suitcase she calls a purse! Between her tearing into him on the church steps, he got it good from his wife and Jesus.” Hurling more phlegm at the frog, Tammy Sue runs her fingers through her blond hair. “Don’t forget them teenie boppers! They all alone out there without the affections of an older man.” Enjoying a good laugh at the expense of the unnamed teenie boppers, they continue their trek on the banks of the river. Stopping in the shade of several tall oak trees, Tammy Sue gingerly touches her jaw. Wincing in pain, she stares off in the distance.
“You okay Tammy Sue?” Johnny looks at his sister, his dark eyes show a hint of concern for his younger sibling. “Yeah, ain’t really in the mood to go home.” Nodding his head, Johnny wipes at the sweat dotting his forehead. “Dang this heat. I bet it sure is something to be hotheaded in this heat, you just can’t win for losing. Let’s find us a nice spot out of the sun.” Straddling their bikes, Tammy Sue ponders her brother’s point. “You think that’s why dad is so mean to me?” Johnny shrugs. “I don’t know T.S. He shouldn’t call you names or hit you.” A dirty tear forms in Tammy Sue’s eyes and rolls down her cheek. Wiping her dirty tear with her filthy hand, she sobs. “He yells at me because I look like momma. Like it’s my fault he couldn’t keep her.” Draping his arm protectively over his sister, Johnny nods. “You can’t help it, God made you purty. Just like momma. Daddy’s mad cause that scallywag veteran stole momma from him.” Crossing her arms in defiance, Tammy Sue whips up some vehemence and shouts, “well, he ain’t gotta take it out on me! He oughta find that heathen and tune him up! I ain’t his punching bag!”
“Okay Tammy, calm down sister. I got it.” Tammy Sue punches Johnny in the chest and snarls, “do you got it? Look at my face Johnny! He gets wound up on them spirit things and goes crazy.” Looking at the ground, Johnny shakes his head. “I don’t know what to do Tammy Sue. If we call the po-po, they gonna throw us in an orphanage or state home until they figure out what to do with us. We may not get a chance to stay together if they do that. Maybe those spirit things will hurry up and kill him.” Stomping on an anthill Tammy Sue glares at Johnny, “Unh-huh and until then he can beat on me.” Walking his bicycle down the banks of the waterway, Johnny decides to change the subject.
You want to stop for lunch Tammy Sue?” Tammy Sue points with her left hand and shields her eyes with the right. “Yeah, that’d be alright. What about right there? Where that fence come from? It wasn’t here last time was it?” Squinting in the sunlight, Johnny shrugs. “I don’t know, it don’t matter. We will crawl across it and eat lunch.” Leaning their bikes against the trees, brother and sister walk to the fence. “I’ll hold it up for you T.S. all you gotta do is cross through it.” Crossing her arms, Tammy Sue gets nose to nose with her sibling. “Listen here “Two-Wheeling” Cruz, I don’t need no man to hold no fence for me. I am an enlightened woman, emascapated even.”
Johnny grins and lets the fence down. “You mean emancipated?” Tammy Sue swings at her brother and laughingly he ducks out of the way. “Whatever-pated, shut up, I’ll do it myself.” Firmly, she grabs the post and pulls herself up the barbwire fence. At the top, she turns to Johnny. Taking one hand off the post, she bows at the waist, and the staple snaps out of the post. With a cry of dismay, emancipated, and enlightened Tammy Sue comes crashing to the earth. Johnny, leaning back in the shade, laughs as his sister hits the dirt, hard. Going back to his sandwich, Johnny looks out over the woods. “It sure is quiet….”
Looking back to where his sister had fallen, Johnny realizes she hasn’t moved. “Tammy Sue, you okay? C’mon that ain’t funny. Say something, don’t be stupid.” No sound is heard in the quiet of the woods. “Tammy, say something.” Johnny stands to his feet, peering from the shelter of the shade trees. Easing out of the shade, Johnny starts walking toward her. “This better not be no prank. You know, I don’t like being punked.” Drawing near to his sister’s body, Johnny can see blood on the ground.
“Tammy! Oh God, no! Tammy…” Cradling her body in his arms, Johnny sobs uncontrollably. “Why God? My sister didn’t do nothin’ to you. Why take her, and not take my rotten daddy?” As Johnny’s tears stream down his dirty face, he looks at his sister’s chest. The rise and fall of her breathing sets his fears to the side for the moment. “Oh, thank you God! I have got to find someone to help me get her to the hospital!” Whipping his head one way and then the other, Johnny notices several “No Trespassing” signs around the fenced in area. “Someone has to live around here. Maybe they will help me.” Johnny reaches down and tries to lift Tammy Sue’s unconscious body from the ground, but he struggles to keep her balanced. “She landed on her head, no telling what kind of damage she done to herself now. I don’t need to do any more to it.” Reaching under her arms, Johnny pulls her a piece, but it is slow going. “Maybe I can use my belt to tie her to me. The I can drag her while facing forward.” Johnny drags Tammy Sue next to a tree and leans her against it, reaching back he pulls her toward him. He flips the belt over his head and fastens it around him and Tammy Sue. Walking toward what he hopes is a main road, Johnny watches as the afternoon sun gives way to the dusk of evening.
In the distance, Johnny can make out traffic on the highway. In the crisp night air, the sound of passing cars renew his vigor. As he nears the road, headlights appear at the top of the hill. Unstrapping himself from Tammy Sue, Johnny runs out into the road. Waving his arms like a madman, the driver of the minivan slams on the brakes to avoid hitting him.
“Please help me. My sister is hurt, please take us to the hospital.” Overcome with exhaustion, Johnny falls to his knees. A couple of men get out of the van.
Tammy is loaded into the back of the maroon minivan, and Johnny is put in the second row of seats. The children are raced to the hospital. Upon arrival, Johnny leaps from the van and rushes in to get help. A nurse grabs a gurney and hurries out to the minivan.
“Son, how did this happen?”
“We were playing on the river. Tammy fell off a fence, and she ain’t talked since. Even when she’s in trouble, she runs her mouth. It ain’t like her to be silent.”
Tammy Sue is rushed into the emergency room and Johnny is left alone in the hallway. “I need to call dad. He’ll know what to do.” The phone rings and is answered with a gruff whisper. “What?” Suppressing his frustration, Johnny tries to keep a civil tone. “Tammy had an accident. We’re at the hospital.” Cursing, Johnny’s dad coughs. “What did you idiot kids get into now?” Exasperated, Johnny can’t take the stress any longer. “Listen old man, I dragged her out of the woods. Dang near got ran over trying to get her here. You don’t want us to be your kids any more than we want to be your children. Either get with the program or do what mom did and leave already.” Slamming the phone down, Johnny is overcome with the delight that comes from standing your ground, while being overwhelmed by the horror that he has become a father figure at sixteen.