Short story: Yellow Mama by Vanessa Ronan
The book follows the story of Jasper Curtis, a man returning home after ten years in the Huntsville State Penitentiary, and his sister Lizzie. Lizzie does not know who she’s letting into her home: the brother she grew up loving or the monster he became. Jasper says he’s all done with trouble, but in a forgotten prairie town that knows no forgiveness, it does not take long for trouble to arrive at their door…
To celebrate the publication of this brilliantly tense, atmospheric novel, we’ve got a treat for you – a deliciously dark short story from Vanessa Ronan. We promise that once you’ve read it, you’ll be desperate to read more of her writing.
Dark eyes stare back. Darker than he remembers. Maybe it’s the light, but then again, it’s been a while since Caleb held his own gaze. He turns his head slowly, first right. Then left. Hollow cheekbones further concaved by shadow flex slightly as he clinches then relaxes his jaw. His scalp, freshly shaven, reflects the lights above him, shines in the mirrored glass. He wasn’t always so pale.
When Caleb was a boy, one day at school lightning found a path through an underground cable n worked its way to where he sat. Or so they told him, after. All he knew at the time was that it hit his back. Same way his daddy’s boot often found n woke him when his daddy came home stinkin’ of drink. Except this went up Caleb’s spine to the left side of his brain. And scorched it. He could feel it course right through him the whole way, that lightning. More like energy than pain. The migraines started later that day, but his 4th grade teacher, Miss Ashbourne, declared it a miracle he’d “survived a’tall.” Caleb didn’t go to school much after that—reckoned that lightning strike was God’s way of sayin’ “You’re better off playin’ hooky.”
Caleb’s eyes lower. There’d been some shock off that bolt. His orange jumpsuit hangs loosely off his slender frame. There is a spot of gravy near his knee. A tiny brown stain. He brings his hands up to his mouth n licks his fingertips. His handcuffs rattle as he lowers n twists his wrists to rub that gravy spot. But his mouth’s gone dry and his fingers ain’t moist enough to clean.
Did Jesus spill his last supper on hisself?
Caleb’s lips twitch. When he raises his eyes, his reflection smiles at him, but it don’t feel right on his face. Don’t quite look right, neither.
Caleb still gets the migraines. Sometimes real bad. He’d had a migraine that night, too. That night so long ago… Her car had broke down. Far out in Turnpike Swamp where there’d been no one to help her. Except he’d been there. And, no matter what any jury might claim, he had intended to help her. At first, anyway…
The guard un-cuffs Caleb n straps his arms to the chair. Un-cuffs his ankles n straps his legs to the chair. Puts the electrode on his newly shaven calf. Caleb’s breath quickens. He could have chosen lethal injection, but he’d heard about a boy in Arizona gasping two hours after he should have stopped, so when the warden had asked Caleb his preference, Caleb had smiled through his missin’ teeth n said, “I hear Yellow Mama callin’.”
It used to scare Caleb, listenin’ to Yellow Mama sing as she fried his fellow sinners. Those first months that grew. Her currents often flickered the lights. But the last few years Yellow Mama has been quiet, most choosing the Stainless Steel Ride. He wonders if she’ll dim Death Row’s lights tonight.
Holman, The Slaughterhouse, in the Pit of Alabama—home these last long years. “You can’t get any lower than this!” Delmonte had laughed thirteen years ago from across the cell block. Delmonte. Now six years gone.
“What ‘bout Hell?” Caleb’d asked.
Delmonte’d smiled, but his humor’d gone. “You’re there.”
The guard fastens the belts around Caleb’s chest. His groin.
It was her fault really, drivin’ out that way. All alone. What did she expect, gettin’ lost like that?
The guard dips the sponge in the saline. Places it, cool, on Caleb’s head. It’s hard to breathe now. The guard puts the skull cap over the sponge.
Heart racing, Caleb’s eyes close.
His mother is singin’ Amazing Grace as she washes dishes. She smells like honeysuckle. And soap. He’s in daddy’s hunting shed, alligators hung up all around him, n he can’t stop screaming ‘cause he can’t find the way out. His Mama’s pullin’ off now in her muted red sedan as he stands on his daddy’s front porch not understanding why he can’t go too. He’s kissin’ Jozie Ray Jackson on the bleachers after school. He’s out in the boat. It’s night. The moon is full. Insects n bull frogs sound. Then Caleb’s flashlight catches the eye glow of a gator half hid in the reeds. He reaches for his gun. He’s stopped up near Dotham now. Is leaning against his pickup eatin’ fresh peanuts bought on the side of the road.
Caleb’s eyes pop open. He hadn’t seen the little one in her car till after. And, truth be told, he hadn’t known what to do then. But in the end, it n killin’ gators weren’t so different, really. There are things he has seen, done, that Caleb wishes he could un-see. Undo. Are prayers he knows he should have sooner said.
He wonders who now stands behind that glass? Her husband maybe? Or her mother? Or her father? Or his?
He thinks a long moment about who may have come to watch him die.
“Any last words?”
Too many… But his throat’s so dry.
He wants to smash that guard’s nose in. He wants to hurt every soul waitin’ for his death. He wants to take back time. He wants to…
He wants to live.
“Enjoy the lightshow,” Caleb hisses.
The guard nods. Comes forward, blindfold ready. And it’s worse now, it’s so much worse ‘cause Caleb can only hear the muted movements of the guard. The last thing I will see on earth is the inside of this blindfold… He blinks. The fabric feels coarse against his open eyes. He remembers his mother’s voice. Wants to curl into her arms. Wants to tell her, “Don’t leave me here, I’m scared.”
Footsteps retreat. Heel toe. Heel toe. On the tile floor. The door opens. Shuts. Panic rising, Caleb flexes. The guard must have made a mistake! The straps barely bind him! He rises up out of his chair…
And Yellow Mama sings.