Chuck King turned his rusty Ford pickup down the gravel drive toward his home, driving about as slow as a teenager could. With any luck, he could pull around the house, sneak inside and be gone again before anyone heard him. The sun, now low in the sky, had robbed the spring air of its warmth. At this hour, his dad should be passed out on the davenport and his stepmom should in the back bedroom, ironing and listening to the radio, or maybe she’d be out checking on the horses, cattle and chickens, or whatever the hell it was she did out there. He inched the truck off the gravel onto the weeds, avoiding the trenches left by the spring rains and the old tractor parts left by his father, hoping to hell his engine wouldn’t cough or backfire and that the dogs were off chasing rabbits. No one in sight, no dogs yet, he stopped the truck on the far side of the shed.
Up and over the side of the porch, avoiding the creaky stairs, he pulled off his boots and slowly opened the screen door, listening for voices. He just needed in his room for two minutes, long enough to grab a clean shirt and his cash, if his father hadn’t found it yet. The kitchen was clear, and the front room, too. He walked down the short hall, but stopped when he heard moaning. Perfect. They were going at it in their room; they’d never hear him.
Chuck breathed deeply and opened the door to his bedroom. Sprawled out on his bed was a kid, maybe six years old, or ten, for all Chuck knew. The kid was asleep, fully dressed in filthy tan pants, a dirty white t-shirt with holes under the arms and muddy shoes, torn and unlaced. The kid’s hair was brown, cut so short that Chuck thought it was a boy, but it might have been a girl. Shit. His money was behind the far corner of his bed, and he would have to lift his mattress to get to it. The moans in the other room turned to screaming; his time was running out. He leaned over the bed as quietly as he could. Bracing his left hand against the wall, he reached over the child to dig under the mattress. The kid stirred, his stepmother shouted yes, yes, and Chuck groped around for his roll of cash just as the kid’s eyes sprang open wide with terror.
“No! No! Don’t hit me. Please don’t hit me!” he yelled.
“Shut up, kid. I ain’t gonna hurt you. This is my room. Shut up!”
“Who are you?” the kid asked.
“Who are you?” Chuck asked back.
The bedroom door flew open and Chuck’s father, Ricky, stood half-naked in the doorway. “Je-sus Christ, Mary and Joseph, Chuck, what the hell are you doin’ to that kid?”
“I ain’t doin’ nothin’. He’s in my room.”
“What’d you do to make it scream like that? It’s just a kid, for Christ’s sake.”
“Nothing. I told you that. I’m just gettin’ my stuff, and I’m outta here.”
“Oh, no you’re not. There’s work to do around here. No more runnin’ off and leavin’ us with all the chores. Unless you’re gonna start bringing food home, someone’s gotta take care of this place and that means you.” His dad swooped a hand through his slimy black hair and pulled his boxers around straight. “I tell you this ever’ goddamned day. You help out, or you get out.”
“It’s no wonder Rosie and Robert left. This place is a shit hole. Why you got this little kid here, anyway? You holdin’ him for ransom?”
“Get outta my house. I never done nothin’ wrong. Ain’t my fault I can’t work, and you know it.” Ricky pulled back his shoulders, his arms hanging loose and ready, his fists clenched.
Chuck dove under the mattress for his money and dropped it into his shirt pocket.
“What’cha got there? What’d you grab so goddamn important?” Ricky asked, blocking the doorway.
“Nothin’. None a your business. Now get outta my way. I don’t need this place.”
“You owe me, son. All the food you eat, this house I pay for…” Ricky, shorter than Chuck but meaner than a bull with his tail on fire, pushed his son back against the far wall. “Gimme that cash.” He grabbed for Chuck’s pocket and ripped it off his shirt. The thick roll of bills bounced across the floor, and the kid dove for it and hid it behind his back. Ricky grabbed the kid with one arm, picking him up off the floor, and reached for the money with his free hand. Then he put the kid down, unrolled the wad, and counted the bills with a smirk on his face.
“Guess that didn’t bother your back,” Chuck said, then spit on the floor at his father’s feet. “Take the damn money, you worthless man. I ain’t never comin’ back here again for you to beat on me or steal my cash.” Chuck grabbed an armful of clothes, a jacket and three paperbacks off the top of his dresser. “You’re dead to me.” He pushed past his father and ran out the back door towards his truck, picking up his boots on the way. Three dogs were gathered in the lawn now, sniffing around an overflowing barrel of garbage and rotten leftovers. “Come on, Jack. Let’s get outta here.” Chuck’s Shepherd-mix pup jumped into the cab and they sped up the gravel drive as fast as a teenager could in a rusty old Ford.
Four hundred dollars. That bastard father of his could keep the money. Was that the price of freedom from the rotten four walls he called home? Then so be it. His pool cue had earned him that money, and there were more fools out there every night to replenish it. Chuck drove into Jackson, up and down the gravel streets, hunched up over the wheel, looking for trouble, waiting for dark. He slowed as he passed Earlene Bell’s house, hoping he’d see her through the picture window. The light was on, but her parents were in the front room reading the newspaper. He drove around the block, noting which houses were dark and who was home. Damn thing about this speck of a town was that everyone knew his truck, everyone knew his business.
Chuck headed west, then north, toward the fold where the fields meet the mountain, then rounded a curve and turned down Spring Gulch Road, a familiar asphalt stretch, three miles long, that led to one solitary ranch at the base of the Teton Mountains. Over a crest, down into a wide valley, passing by acres of hay and thousands of Hereford cattle, the drive never failed to impress anyone and everyone. The roaring Snake River formed the Western edge of the Silver Bar Ranch. Four red barns of various sizes, several corrals with post-and-rail fences—one filled with sleek bay Quarter Horses—and a dorm for the ranch hands all sat off to the right of the main house, a grand 6,000 square foot log cabin. Chuck’s head began to tighten, pound, nearly implode, like it always did when he pulled up here, like he’d die soon if he didn’t get far, far away. But he was too hungry to turn back. The Silver family should be finished with their supper by now, and Chuck could help himself to their leftovers.
Chuck plopped face-first onto Owen Silver’s bed. “Your dad hates me.” The room was nearly as large as Chuck’s entire house, the house where Chuck used to live until a few hours ago. Dormer windows lined the stretch of the back wall, twenty-five feet of glass facing the snow-capped Teton mountains, now barely visible in the evening dusk, just a faint purple outline against a navy sky. Owen sat at a large oak desk with a banker’s lamp trained on his school work.
“Then why d’ya come over all the goddamn time?” Owen asked.
Chuck swirled around and leaned against the headboard. “‘Cuz you’d flunk outta school without me.”
“Get your filthy boots off my bed,” Owen shouted.
“Guess who I saw tonight,” Chuck said. “That new girl, Earlene. She was naked, walking around in front of their big picture window, showin’ me her tities.”
“I’m going back later for more.”
“She’d never let you touch her. She’s waitin’ for me.”
“Go with me then. Let’s see who she’d pick.”
“Yeah, don’t embarrass yourself. Pop says her daddy is a newspaper man from Denver, come here to run the paper, and her mom’s a nurse at the hospital.”
“Don’t matter to me, I just need to show her this and she’s mine.” Chuck grabbed his crotch and laughed.
“Better find a clean shirt or you won’t get close enough to show her anything. I can smell your stink from here.”
Chuck got up and walked to the windows. His blood swirled in his chest, his head filled with hatred. He couldn’t let Owen see the anger in his eyes or the tears that welled up, clouding his vision. He clenched his fists, barely holding himself back from punching through one of the windows with the beautiful view. He knew it was true. He didn’t stand a chance, not compared to Owen. Not if he didn’t get out of Jackson and do something real with his life. How in hell’s name would he get through high school, this year and next, so he could get into college? And how was he going to pay for it when he got there? He turned to his friend. “You want help for the test tomorrow or not?”
* “The Best Liar of All” is an excerpt of a novel by the same name.