This is a story about forgiveness–for ourselves and each other. It’s about letting go of what you did and becoming who you are.
In the vast North Carolina Piedmont, the rain won’t come down and the ghosts won’t go up. On the precipice of the American Great Recession, a small farming town fights through a drought season that goes deeper than seed and soil. Maggie wants a baby, but her husband harbors a secret that won’t allow it; Carolina wants safety, but fire takes hold instead; Joe wants it to rain, but the sky yields only ghosts; Billy wants to take care of his family, but dead men don’t get second chances—most of the time.
A Soft and Thunderous Noise
Second Season of Drought, 2008, North Carolina Piedmont
When Billy died, he asked God for a favor. He was dead by the time he asked it, so he knew how rash and ridiculous it was. He didn’t expect God to put breath back into his lungs or reanimate his arms and legs. He just wasn’t ready to go. Too much was a wreck and it didn’t seem right to leave it that way.
The day Billy had died, he’d felt the heart attack coming on since morning, but he hadn’t realized what it was. He’d woken up to frost on the ground too late in the season. It was a bad omen for a worse harvest. Billy had left Carolina sleeping in the old four poster bed that had been in the house since his great-grandmother had lived there and had gone on out to the barn to warm up the tractor. He had just gotten out of sight of the house when the first pain struck him. By the time he was in the back field down behind the tree line he was dead.
When he first realized he’d become ghost, he was a bit surprised. He’s asked God for many a thing—some of them he’d gotten and some not. Billy was fine with that. But he hadn’t really expected such a ridiculous last request to be granted.
He felt an urgency to go back up to the house where Carolina and the kids were surely up for breakfast by now. Thing was, he couldn’t seem to walk away from himself lying there on the ground. He’d fallen off the tractor— he remembered that much of it. His pant leg had gotten caught on something and it had been an ugly fall. He’d been sort of dangling for a second, clutching at his chest. If it hadn’t hurt so bad, it would have been a bit comical. Then he’d wriggled loose and flopped down to the ground. The rest had been pretty typical. Some gasping, some moaning, then he died.
He felt guilty for going out like that. Carolina had married him, twenty years older than she was, thinking he’d take care of her and the kids. He hadn’t done a very good job of it.
It was a bit surreal to look at his own dead body—like seeing someone at a restaurant who looks like he could be you, or a photograph of a great, great uncle whose name no one quite remembers. Billy had more gray hair than he realized and he was a little chubbier around the waist than he’d thought, but all in all he didn’t look bad for fifty. Except that he was dead.
His body lay there for a while before Billy saw Joe’s truck coming in the distance and Billy started waving his ghost arms like a fool. Joe Seldom worked the farm across the street. Good guy—Billy had known the boy forever—the man, now. Joe was back, just over a year, from Iraq and helping out on the family farm that his brother, Paul, was working like the devil to run into the drought ridden ground. The boys’ parents had died in a car accident just about a mile up from the house when the boys were both in their early twenties. Joe had left town soon after and Paul had reluctantly taken over the farm. Joe became something of a mystery, a lost relic, a prodigal so—except that no one was waiting at home with open arms when he came back. Billy admired Joe for not expecting a hero’s welcome. The boy had just slipped back into the world, put on a ball cap, got on a tractor and started working.
Billy tried to call out to Joe when he saw the truck, but he had no voice, so he just kept on waving his hands around. Joe couldn’t seem him. Not then anyway. Joe slammed the truck in park and jumped out, yelling to Billy’s dead body which didn’t respond.
Billy stood back and watched the whole thing with a sort of detachment that had more to do with being in shock than being dead. Joe slid in next to Billy like the man was pulling up to home plate.
“No, no, no,” Joe just kept saying, over and over and shouting Billy’s name.
Turned out, shouting could not in fact, wake the dead. Billy knew it was inappropriate to make jokes, but what else was he supposed to do. Reality hadn’t set in yet. Joe coming up like that did give Billy somebody to latch on to though. It gave him a way back up to the house—a way back to Carolina.
Joe wheeled around looking for what to do. Billy watched the man skid back and forth between his body and the truck. Joe wanted to put him in the truck, but where? There in the seat beside him to fall over while he drove? In the back like a pup found hit in the road? Billy didn’t know what to do either. He just stood there and shrugged his shoulders.
Joe knew Billy was dead. Dead as Joe’s parents had been when he’d dragged them out of the wrecked car and into a nearby field all those years ago. There wasn’t any mistaking a dead body. Billy’s eyes were closed, but still—Joe knew.
Should he take Billy with him or leave the man where he lay? Nothing seemed right. Joe had an old blanket in the bed of the truck that he’d brought to lay out under the chopped wood from a felled tree that he and Billy were supposed to be moving that morning. He spread it out over Billy’s body and tried not to fall apart.
Billy watched the blanket cover him over noticing that he was missing his hat. He reached up and pulled the likeness of his straw hat down off his head, turned it over in his transparent hand and put it back on his head. He hoped someone would find his actual hat and return it to his body.
Billy’s ghost went with Joe back to his truck and rode alongside as Joe tore up the path to the house. Once there, Joe cut the engine and reached for the door handle, but didn’t open the door. Not right away. He knew what news he was about to deliver and the thought of it strangled him like hands around his throat. He pulled in at the air around him, but he couldn’t seem to take any of it in.
Joe could have sworn he heard Billy’s voice in his head. Go on and get it over with.
Joe pulled on the door handle and got out. Once Joe was out of the car, Billy was out too. Both men walked to the back porch and Joe knocked on the door. He hated the way Carolina smiled when she opened it. He hated himself for being there on the porch, getting ready to break her heart. Joe’s mouth was dry and he felt a deep down chill that caused him to shiver. He’d seen death before. Finding himself on familiar ground seemed to make things harder when reason would have begged to differ.
“Joe?” Carolina said, her pretty, dark brown eyes flickering at him with concern.
Joe glanced past her at her three girls where they sat at the kitchen table doing their school work. In that moment Joe had forgotten that Carolina taught the children at home. He hadn’t expected them to be there. He gestured at her to come outside.
Carolina stepped out onto the porch and closed the door behind her.
“Carolina,” Joe said, with sandpaper tongue. “Billy’s had an accident.”
Carolina gasped as if that was the worst of it. Joe didn’t want to string her along thinking that there was someone to call, something to be done.
“He’s died, Carolina,” Joe said, pointing in the direction from which he’d just come. “Out back.”
Joe saw Carolina’s eyes glaze over for a moment. He thought she was going to be alright, but then she teetered back just a bit and he reached out to her. Joe held Carolina for a while and then she pulled herself out of his arms and went back inside. Joe swallowed back the bile rising in his throat and fished his phone out of his pocket. He didn’t know why he hadn’t called Sheriff Buckley already. It just seemed right to tell Carolina first.
Standing there dead on his own back porch, Billy felt as though he was having another heart attack. He knew there was no need of breathing, but he felt lightheaded. What had he done? How had he let himself die on them? Billy went down on one knee and then the other. He looked like a man begging his life back and he supposed he was. He’d asked God to let him stay. He knew that if God’s answer was yes, it would be on His terms. Billy was going to have to get used to it. “Be careful what you wish for,” had never been more apparent.
Sheriff Buckley’s car pulled onto the dirt driveway. Billy watched Joe talking to Buckley, but didn’t need to listen. Joe pointed out toward where Billy’s body was and Buckley shook his head. Buckley rode with the ambulance driver, bumping and bobbing down the farm path, following Joe and Billy in Joe’s pick-up truck. The medics did their job while Joe and Buckley stood watching—not speaking. Billy didn’t watch though. Instead, he looked out across the fields that he’d not be able to tend anymore. He looked down at his old work boots and the dust dry dirt. He looked up toward the sky.
Billy appreciated that after it was over, Joe asked Buckley to drive his pick-up back to house so he could see about getting the tractor back to the barn. Buckley seemed to forego protocol which likely said to leave things as they were, but there wasn’t any call for investigation here. The three vehicles made a quiet parade back up to the house, like people tiptoeing on a creaky floor.
Once Billy’s body was in transit, he and Joe went back up to the house. Joe knocked on the back door again and they waited a while before Carolina came out. Billy winced at the sight of her face—wrecked from crying.
“This all seems too much for them,” Carolina said. “The girls. I suppose my sadness will find me, but right now, I just can’t think of anything but them.”
Billy closed his eyes against his grief and hers. This wasn’t the first time she’d been in a situation like this and that tore Billy up. Those kids, they weren’t Billy’s really, but they felt like his. He loved them like they were his. And they loved him. Billy looked at Joe and knew what he had to do.
Joe would fix all this. Billy had seen Joe with his little niece, Willa. Joe hadn’t just come back and found his place on the farm, he’d taken that little girl into his heart and was already being more of a father than Paul was. Paul was always playing a role, dreaming of the bright lights and the big city. Billy figured if he couldn’t act like a father when he really was one, he didn’t see how Paul thought he had any hope of making it in show business.
“I drove the tractor back up to the barn,” Joe said to Carolina.
“Thank you,” Carolina replied, biting her lip to keep it from quivering.
They all just stood looking at each other for a moment.
“Well,” Joe said. “Is there anything I can do for you, Carolina?”
She looked like she might say something. She bit at her lip again and her breath hitched, but instead she shook her head and went back into the house.
Billy wanted to thank Joe, but he couldn’t speak so he just went inside the house and left Joe out on the porch. Billy went looking for the kids. He found them all huddled up in his and Carolina’s bed. Alabama, the littlest—just in kindergarten, was asleep in her oldest sister, Ginny’s, arms and Georgia, the middle child lay with her back to them. Billy smiled. Georgia was going to be just like her mother. Stubborn and strong willed and resolute not to act like she was hurt—even she was falling apart. Billy wanted most of all to help Carolina with that—that steeliness that made her think she had to do everything on her own—that wall that didn’t let people past. Billy knew the woman behind that wall. Not too many people did.
For a second Billy forgot he was dead. He sat down on the edge of the bed and reached out to touch Ginny’s hair. But he couldn’t. He was just a ghost. Vapor. He was right there beside them and they were forever away.