Four-Letter Words

By Kurt MacPhearson

People construct their lives around experiences: major events recorded as mental movies. And who better to reveal a few dark secrets than a convicted murderer? Just today, I spent a good couple hours thinking on the hows and whys, where I think this all started, whether it was worth wasting my time. But you said this would be good for me, Dr. Carter. Catharsis. Put my mind to rest. Yeah, right. Too much knocking around up there for mere words to quell. But since I'm spending the rest of my life doing time, I might as well give it a try.

They made me a ward of the state of North Carolina at the age of seven because my mother preferred booze to her only child. They told me I could go back with her when she got better. But those confused days bouncing around the system quickly blurred into months and, before I knew it, I spent my tenth birthday nursing a back full of bruises from the eight older boys on the farm where I'd ended up. Needless to say, farm life was hell. And the foster parents running the joint were no better than the hooks walking these spiritless galleries.

But at least I had Emma.

One fifteen-year-old girl could do little against eight incorrigible male fosterlings, but she offered stolen snacks and sisterly comfort without coddling me like a toddler with a self-inflicted booboo. And it felt good to know I had someone to talk to, even if I didn't have anything to say.

One summer night, Emma crept into the third-floor alcove that served as my room and told me to dress as she stuffed some of my clothes into her backpack. Then she took my hand and led me from the house. I was too groggy to understand what was happening. No other kids mustered before the barn doors. No false dawn lit the horizon. Just the yellow glare of sodium lights atop the house's low gables. But with my hand in Emma's, I didn't care.

She led me across the road and then down a two-track that divided the fields. She talked, but I didn't hear much, not with my head craned up and a ten-year-old's penchant for wonderment switched on high.

Twinkle, twinkle. A gazillion stars.

I was busy making shapes, connecting the brightest stars into designs, not thinking that it had already been done long before. A racecar. A turtle. An aircraft carrier complete with a scrambling squadron of Jets. Dragon's eyes loomed directly overhead, ringed in red: its wings stretched along the horizon as if preparing to swoop down and carry me off to an enchanted land.

We stopped under a tree a mile from the farmhouse. I wanted to concentrate on the stars, honor them with names, but with Emma jerking her head at every little noise, her heavy breathing, and sweaty palm, I soon became distracted.

"What's going on?" ,

Emma stood on her toes, eyes penetrating the distant black. "We're leaving, silly."


Before she could answer, leaves rustled and twigs snapped from across the two-track. Emma nearly dislocated my shoulder as she turned to the figure rising out of the ditch. She squawked, let go of my hand, then ran with her arms outstretched. Kisses followed an embrace. Not interested in tongue wrestling, I looked back to the stars.

The dragon had soared off. I've since spent countless hours over the years searching for that fire-breathing, world-devouring creature, but it was as if it existed for a single purpose, and once that purpose had passed, it disappeared forever.

"Come on," Emma said, taking my hand. "We ain't going back."

Those words didn't mean much at the moment. Even though the dragon had disappeared, I still had the stars, and I was lost in their vastness. But I do vaguely remember traipsing through a tobacco field until we came upon a rusty Charger concealed in the weeds alongside a stretch of country road.

Emma opened the passenger-side door. "Get in."

Milk crates full of junk cluttered the tattered back seat. A sea of empty beer bottles littered the floor. Tentatively, I eased into the stale, yeasty confines. After Emma settled into the passenger seat, the man behind the wheel keyed the ignition. The engine shook and sputtered, as if the Devil had a choke-hold on the engine and wouldn't let go until someone took the Lord's name in vain.

"Jesus Christ!" It lurched to life.

"This is RJ," Emma said, once we got on the road. "He worked on the farm last summer. We're going to live with him."

RJ spewed a cloud of cigarette smoke. "Just don't cause us any problems and we'll all be real good friends."

RJ didn't look like the fatherly type. But even at ten, I knew there were few purely good things in life. I'd already learned that to have some good -- that is, to live without the farm and all that came with it -- I'd have to accept a little bad. And the terms RJ set seemed out to be a hell of a lot better than the ones the social worker pronounced when she took me away from my mother.

Not that she'd been much of a mother.

A few hours after that ride to a new life started, RJ wheeled into the packing lot of a roadside motel. I didn't mind being assigned the floor, nor the fact that Emma and RJ began kissing beneath the covers as soon as the lights went

But I couldn't sleep.

I'd seen the stars.

Realizing that those mysterious points of light had been hanging over my head with such grandeur every night of my life made me feel cheated. I swore to myself that I'd make it my life's mission to learn all there was to know about them. And as I lay there, my mind attempted to catalog each and every one of the diamonds that speckled across the firmament. But somewhere during the egregious task, sleep took me.

Emma woke me the next morning. "Get up, sleepy head." She wore a huge smile. "RJ went out for breakfast. Let's be ready by the time he gets back."

"Where are we going?"

"Wherever he decides, I guess." She folded up a towel and stuffed it into her backpack. "And wherever that is, it'll be our home. Big sister and little brother. With RJ."

We were taking the scenic route to Canada, but RJ said that we just might shoot down to Mexico. He said that the ancient Mexicans built pyramids like the Egyptians. That's where I wanted to go: to Mexico with the pyramids, from the top of which I could again gaze at the stars. Emma said she didn't care where we went, as long as we were together.

We had just finished lunch outside a small town in southern Illinois when RJ's car refused to start. He sat behind the wheel, face twisted in stubbled rictus. He wrenched the key forward time and time again but only got a slow, grinding whir. Finally, RJ popped the hood, then came around to stick his head in the Dodge's greasy gullet. Emma climbed behind the wheel and awaited his command to "turn it over." After the twelfth attempt, RJ ripped open the door.

"Get the fuck out!"

Emma sheepishly obeyed. She met me at the curb and took hold of my hand.

"Follow me." RJ marched us back into the diner and then thrust a dozen quarters at Emma. "Make some calls and find a room. A cheap one. I don't know how long we'll be here."

We watched him stalk out of the diner and across the parking lot to his car.

"Everything's going to be just fine," said Emma.

She found us a room in town, one of those five-story roach-infested pay-by-the-week dumps. I'm sure it was the best she could find for the money, and since RJ hadn't prepared for the kid, the reason we didn't have much money was me.

But can you really be prepared for anything? When are we ever prepared for life?

There's that word again.

What does it really mean?

I'm going to look it up.

A condition! A condition that determines if something is living or not. No wonder so many people take it for granted. How many million idiots would you guess are lying in front of a TV at any given moment, letting the commercial breaks tick the day away? If television transmissions suddenly evaporated, think of the spike in suicides.

All because life is just a condition.

Sad to hear that, really, because I know better. I've been sentenced to it.