Fall 2013, Volume 15

Fiction by Eric Shonkwiler

Excerpt from the novel, Above All Men


It rained three times, each a full day. The rain washed the dust into a slurry of mud that ran into the creeks and melted the piles in the fields. The trees budded and the grass livened, weeds flourished with the smaller plants and sprang up all along the roadsides. Helene started work on the garden, enlarging it to take advantage and when the land had dried David and O H hoed out the weeds and planted soybeans over a span of weeks and the three of them waited for the first green of their work. Pacing the road going into town David saw the ivy winding and milkweed and the red buds on the tree branches. He walked the trails he’d used for the tractors and took his horse down other roads to the fields of other farmers and talked with them a while. Coming home from riding one evening and the sunlight was just golden on the land around him. Samuel was walking far ahead and David called for him but he didn’t turn. When he got home he found Helene in the living room reading.

Hey, father.

Hey. Sam come through here?

I haven’t seen him. What’s wrong?

Nothing. I just saw him walking ahead of me. David came into the room and sat on a footstool to take off his boots. He heaved a sigh, content. Rain’s takin’ real well.

Helene closed the book and smiled. Oh yeah?


Hopefully it sticks around.

Yeah. I’ma go wash my hands. He carried his boots to the door and walked to the kitchen. He washed his hands and rubbed them over his face and he saw the silhouette of a tree move, Samuel’s shoulder. The sun was orange sinking toward the southwest. He dried with a rag from the stove. Hey, you want me to make dinner tonight?

There was a shuffling from the living room. Knock yourself out.

He started rifling through the cupboards. He set a pot of water to boil and found a box of spaghetti. He got a jar of tomatoes from the pantry and he sorted through the spices they had and tried to make sauce. There was a knock at the door and David went into the hall. He glanced at Helene in passing. You may regret lettin’ me cook after all.

I’m not surprised by that.

He grinned and opened the door. O H stood there with a hand in his pocket.

Hey. Mel in there by chance?

David shook his head. Huh uh.

O H pinched up the side of his mouth. She knows to be back before dinner.

He peeked into the living room. You seen Melanie lately, mother?

This morning.

David turned back around. Sam’s readin’ behind the house. We could ask him.

Nah, that’s alright. She’s probably just late comin’ in.

I’ll send her down the line if she drops by.

Appreciate it. O H put up his hand.

He shut the door. The phone started ringing. Well dang. He was on the phone for seconds before he hung up and ran to the door. Helene looked up at him as he was halfway out.

What’s the matter?

Get Sam inside. He was out and bounding off the porch and running to O H’s shack. He knocked once and opened the door and stuck his head in. O H was sitting at the little table eating, Delia on the other side with her back to the door. Hey Ornery, come on.

O H wiped his lips and rose, bumping the table across the dirt floor. What for?

Come on. He nodded back slightly. Delia looked at him and he let his eyes flick to hers and away.
What’s the deal, boys club?

David said nothing. O H rounded the table and David cleared from the door and once it was shut he began to run. He heard O H behind him and David slung himself up into the truck and struggled to start it. The front end shook. O H climbed in.

What’s goin’ on, man?

Christ. David tried the key again. Delia had come out of the shack and she was coming toward them when the engine caught and they backed out into the road. O H was staring at him but David just shifted the truck into gear and sped down the road. It fishtailed briefly and David brought it back and dust floated in the rearview. The new flora streaked by and the dark red dirt and O H was yelling at him until finally David looked at him on the straightaway. Somebody shot Mel. Rich Spangler called, said he saw her layin’ under a tree on Storm Creek Road. Heard the shots.

O H rocked back. His head tilted like he was agreeing with something. They came into town and drove north at the square. Past Spangler’s property, taking the side road. O H hadn’t moved. His hands were on his knees and he was staring at the visor in front of him. The woods came tight to the road and the vegetation was lush along the ditches.

He said she was by the creek.

The guardrails and culvert came into view. He stopped the truck in front of the rails and O H sprang out and started running along the berm. David scanned the trees for sign of clothes or blood and then O H jumped the ditch and screamed and stooped at the base of a tree with Melanie in his arms, her head lolled and eyes closed. She wore a purple blouse that was soaked through with blood up to her shoulders. David came and knelt beside them and he felt at her neck and her skin was cool and she had no pulse, no flutter of a pulse. O H lifted her to his chest and he stood with her legs and arms long and waving. Her feet reached past his knees and a thin-soled shoe caught against his leg and her foot twisted as he stepped forward. When David stood to follow his strength was sapped and he stuck a hand out to catch himself.

O H.

He didn’t turn.

We have to keep her here. The sheriff might find something. He was still walking, clutching her body to him. They became smaller and the land slowly darker. David found himself walking to the truck, O H’s shadow down the road. The sun seemed farther down than it ought. He started the truck and turned it around and pulled alongside him. The sight of her limp in his arms. He could not see himself stop the truck and help pull her into the cab but moments later she was seated in the middle leaning against O H and he was driving into town. They passed Spangler, running the way they’d come, and David saw him slow and stop in the mirror. The sun was blotted by the stores at the square as they turned toward the house. A block on Delia came riding David’s horse bareback, both wild. He slowed the truck and she jerked the horse around and followed them. Helene was standing at the edge of the yard and she raised her hands to her mouth as the truck passed and stopped in the drive. He put it in park and O H opened the door and slid her out and carried her across the yard toward the shack. Delia jumped off the bay and stopped him and they fell to the ground together where the fence used to lie. Delia began to wail. Standing in the window upstairs was Samuel. David got out of the truck and leaned against the door for a moment after shutting it, and when he came toward the house Samuel vanished. The last of the light leeched into the west. It was cold very suddenly and Helene rose from where the three were huddled around the body and she came up to David.

Rich called back.

He lifted his head slightly.

Should I get the sheriff to come out here? I need to get them a blanket. They won’t move.

When he spoke to her she was already inside. Then she was back and walking toward them on the lawn. He climbed the porch steps and when he opened the door he saw the dried blood on his fingers and the web of his thumb, flaking. His vision warped like he’d pushed on a wide pane of glass. Samuel’s door held fast. He pushed and it budged and he threw his shoulder against the door and the chair scudded along the carpet. He slipped in. Samuel was sitting on his bed facing away and his head was down. David went around the end of the bed and sat beside him. He pulled Samuel close and stroked his hair and Samuel pushed himself against David’s chest. He felt the boy shudder in his arms and felt his ribs and spine and his shoulder blades. A deep shame spread and seemed to dim the room. He rubbed Samuel’s arm and took hold of his shoulders and held him tight. Helene was in the doorway waiting and he knew the sheriff had come. He eased and dropped his arms and Samuel sat up. David stood and she held him briefly and their cheeks met and were damp.

The sheriff is here.


There are deputies out looking.

Okay. He’d been staring at the floor. She took his hands and he glanced up at her. She let go and he went downstairs and out into the yard. The sheriff and a deputy were standing with O H. Helene was gone. David came toward them and stood by. A lamp was lit in the shack and he could see Delia move about through the open doorway. The blanket Helene had brought lay tangled by O H’s feet.

Come inside.

The sheriff motioned for David and O H to go on and he followed them up the porch steps. David told them to sit at the kitchen table and began to make coffee. The sheriff took off his hat and set it upside down on the table. He leaned forward and ran a hand over his head. Is there anybody you can think of that’d have reason to do this? Anybody thinks of you as an enemy?

O H shook his head. Less you count someone who don’t like black folk. He looked aside, out the window. His face was blank but for a moment when it contorted, and then it passed.

If someone’s threatened you at all, that counts. Did someone?

No. We got stares coming into town but it wadn’t anything but people wonderin’ where the hell we come from. And that was a while ago.

Okay. Would she of kept anything from you, if she’d seen somethin’, or if someone’d come at her?

You’d know if someone came at her. You’d of had to arrest her.

The sheriff gave a thin smile and wrote something down. David took two mugs from the cupboard and set them on the counter.

How many people you got out lookin’?

The sheriff flipped a page in his notes. Everybody.

O H brought his thumb and finger together across his lips. He turned his head aside again. Could you raise up a posse or somethin’?

I will at first light.

The coffee was done. David poured the mugs full and set them on the table. They steamed and neither of the men touched them. They were silent. David remembered the deputy outside and he poured a third cup and brought it out. The phone rang when he came in and he spoke to his mother briefly. Back in the kitchen the pot of spaghetti still stood on the range, the water boiled away.

O H stood. I’m gonna go be with my wife. We done?

Sure. The sheriff stood and his head tilted slightly. I’m real sorry, Mr. Reckard. I’m gonna do everything I can.

O H looked at him. Alright. Alright. He left.

The sheriff rubbed his eyes. He took up his hat. I’m goin’ back to the scene.

David followed him to the door. Helene was at the top of the stairs. He walked out onto the porch with the sheriff and as they watched a pair of headlights cut through the dark in the field and the coroner’s car came around the bend. It parked in front of the shack and the coroner got out and spoke to the deputy. The sheriff put his hands on the porch railing.

I’ve never had anything like this. Five holes in that girl. The sheriff shook his head. Never in thirty-three years. He breathed deep. But I imagine you’ve seen worse.

It’s different.

How’s that?

I’ve never seen hell and home at the same time.


This excerpt appeared as an early draft, in Verdad, volume 8. We are pleased to present it now, in its finished form.


BIO: Eric Shonkwiler's writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, Fiddleblack, [PANK] Magazine, and Midwestern Gothic. He was born and raised in Ohio, received his MFA from The University of California Riverside, and has lived and worked in every contiguous United States time zone. Above All Men (MG Press, February 25, 2014) is his first novel.

Above All Men by Eric Shonkwiler
"Years from now, America is slowly collapsing. Crops are drying up and oil is running out. People flee cities for the countryside, worsening the drought and opening the land to crime. Amid this decay and strife, war veteran David Parrish fights to keep his family and farm together. However, the murder of a local child opens old wounds, forcing him to confront his own nature on a hunt through dust storms and crumbling towns for the killer."

Advance Praise:
“Shonkwiler takes the world on his own terms, and wrestles it to the ground.” –Tom Lutz, Editor-in-Chief, The Los Angeles Review of Books;
“Shonkwiler has taken an iconic landscape and filtered it through near-collapse and fear, then through loyalty and love.” –Susan Straight, National Book Award finalist;
“Sparse and poetic, the words within these pages are as sharp as a corn knife.” –Frank Bill, Author of Donnybrook and Crimes in Southern Indiana;
“A rare, stark and beautiful achievement.” –Paula Bomer, Author of Nine Months