about the author

Ben Shields is an MFA graduate and landscaper in New Orleans. His work is forthcoming in Fiction Southeast.

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Kitten in the Highway

Ben Shields

There’s a kitten in the highway screaming at a grain truck that will press its fur into the hot asphalt seconds from now. Llewellyn’s in the ditch in front of his house and ten years old. He could reach through the vervain growing in the rocky strip where the road crumbles into dirt and almost touch the animal. His stepmother, there to care for him, stands in front of their tatty and small concrete house adjacent to yard litter and three barking dogs, waving a cigarette in the air yelling, get it, get it, smoke passing through her crooked teeth, because animal lives are important.

Something burns behind the house—his dad setting fire to the cut wheat fields. He hauls ass on a four-wheeler, soot in his hair, dragging a burning tire through the short, brown stalks. He has thousands of acres to scorch, and when he’s done he’ll find another mindless job to clear his lonely, clouded head.

The horses in the barn down the turnrow from the house scare Llewellyn. In an electric wheelchair, diabetic and legless Mr. Charles told Lew not to worry about the animals. Charles scooted through the pasture’s bumps and shit, saying, Ay-ee, and the horses came to him and nuzzled his neck. Llewellyn stood on the chair’s wheelie bars, hanging on and hunkering down with horses nipping his shirt sleeves, but he was laughing.

His real mom was sweet. The day she passed he ate a dripping pear and she said, over the sink, Babe, and touched his head. Llewellyn is cautious with overripe fruit.

When Llewellyn turns twelve, he will be in a phase—a trick his dad said he did. He will steal chrome valve stem caps from parked trucks between ball games he plays with a borrowed bat and glove. He will keep the silver pieces wrapped in a handkerchief in a drawer for no real reason, a pattern sinking roots.

Mr. Charles told him the chair would go twenty-five on the open road—not a man alive can run that fast, damn thing’s got a seat belt. Mr. Charles couldn’t pick Lew up and put him on a horse, and Lew’s daddy was never around to help. Mr. Charles dragged himself to the shade of a box elder tree and told Lew how to strap into the chair, how to turn it up to full power and ease his way around to get used to it, and to calm down now, you won’t fall out, keep your eyes open, you’ll get used to it, baby, once you get on that road you’re a bird, there’s nothing to drag you down.

The hum of the semi’s tires covers up any other noise. The kitten is looking to Llewellyn for an answer. It’s too small to fend for itself. Its mother dropped it in the road when she saw the truck. There is nothing in Llewellyn that can watch that thing die so close to him. The truck blasts its horn. Somebody could save it.

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