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Footprints

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I stood beside Mom in a dried-up sandstone basin in Black Mesa State Park and waited for her to tell me the bad news.

"This is where it all happened, Sarah." She pointed at a set of footprints in the rock where two dinosaurs had walked.

"Sixty million years ago." She checked her watch, making sure she had the time exactly right.

"Passed through Black Mesa Park doing the best they could to survive, just like you and me, kiddo. Did pretty good until an asteroid smacked the world and blew everything to kingdom come."

"I heard it on National Public Radio," she said. "One of them hour long documentaries that make you feel smart and depressed."

According to Mom, life and death struggles were all the same whether it was dinosaurs having them or people.

"The big monster chased the small one, see." She walked over to the point where the tracks went different directions. "And then, right here, the big one changed his mind."

"Maybe the ground was too soft to hold him way back then."

"Or maybe he decided to have mercy on that little one—let him live another day." Mom crossed her arms and sighed, satisfied with her explanation.

"Anyway, that big one made a choice, the way big ones always do."

Mom told me the same story every time she was about to make a choice that would turn our lives upside down. She, walked her monsters through the park first so I'd be ready.

"Jimmy Harjo asked me to move in with him. I told him I would think about it."

The fact that we were here meant she'd thought about it long enough. Mom didn't know much about dinosaurs but she knew even less about men. Hers were all big and dangerous. Most of them drank whiskey and beat her. Some of them smoked dope and beat her. Some of them just beat her. My dad was the best of the sorry lot. He'd stayed around long enough to have his name written on my birth certificate.

"In permanent ink," Mom said. "That's as dependable as men get. He gave you your last name and let me pick the first."

The combination added up to Sarah Bible. Friends and relatives called me Little Holy Word when they wanted to be funny. They called me Little Word for short.

"Maybe the big one wasn't chasing the small one." I walked to where my mother stood and took her hand. "Maybe the big one was the mother and the small one was her little girl."

My mother stood in silence for a few seconds considering the possibility.

"Could be, Little Word. But really, it don't change a thing."


The only home I ever knew was a rickety old house trailer that had been moved too many times. Jimmy Harjo and two of his convict friends towed our house to a lonely spot in Cimarron County where my mother's new boyfriend could cook methamphetamine without attracting the attention of the law.

Things were pretty good at first. Jimmy cooked his dope in his own doublewide, and most of the time he liked to stay close to his work. His trailer smelled like a cat box that needed changing, but it didn't seem to bother Jimmy Harjo or any of his customers, who came and went at all hours of the night.

I don't know what Jimmy wanted with Mom. He slept in our house in the beginning, but after a couple of weeks he pretty much gave up sleeping. He ate with us when he remembered, but he mostly lived off of Mountain Dew and Hershey bars. He didn't like Mom to touch him. He said her touch burned his skin. He said the heat from her body made his scabs itch, and Jimmy Harjo had scabs over most of his body—anywhere his dirty fingernails would reach.

"It's the dope, Little Word," Mom told me. "When Jimmy's on the dope he's got no use for a woman."

That wasn't exactly true. Jimmy Harjo had a son, a ten-year-old boy, just two years younger than me. Mom took care of him, in her own fashion, when she wasn't running errands for his dad.


"My name is Jimmy Jr.," the little boy told me, "But people call me Little J."

Little Word and Little J. Two little people on our own in the loneliest place in the Oklahoma panhandle. We were best friends because there wasn't anybody else.

Little J told me that he had been with his dad ever since his mom had, "Gone to live on Venus."

Jimmy Harjo was always sending people off to Venus. Customers who couldn't pay, suppliers who charged too much for chemicals, old prison cellmates looking for favors. If Jimmy Harjo didn't like you it was off to Venus on a one-way ticket. Little J's dad was a regular interplanetary travel agent.

Jimmy Harjo never was easy to be around, but the meth made him worse by the day.

"I like the way it makes me feel," he told Mom when she asked him. But he didn't say it like a happy man. Meth made Jimmy Harjo angry and suspicious. Sometimes it made him dangerous.

When he was too dangerous to be around, Little J and I would go to our secret hiding place. It was no more than a crack in the dry lifeless ground, ten feet long and four feet wide, hidden by a small rise in the rocky ground. It had sandstone walls riddled with holes that were perfect for the small hands and bare feet of children. Little J and I used the holes like a natural ladder. In another year, maybe two, I would be too big to use them.

We walked on rocks and hardpan so we didn't leave a trail Jimmy Harjo could follow whenever he lost his temper and decided, "Somebody needs a whuppin'."

Anybody would do when he got like that.

"I'm mad as Hell." He'd stand beside his smelly doublewide holding a length of rubber hose in one hand and making the other one into a fist.

"Come on and take your medicine." He'd mix up threats with curse words he learned in prison, shout at us until his throat got raw or until another thought took hold in his meth-soaked brain. Then he'd drop the hose and relax his fist into a dirty hand and go back inside his trailer to add chemicals to his cooking pot or fiddle with the gas stove that kept it hot.

I never thought there was anything I could do to make things different. Not until one morning when I woke up and Little J wasn't there.

"Jimmy came for his boy last night," mom told me. "Took him someplace special."

"Where is that?"

"Let's see." Mom rolled her eyes up and to the left, looking for the memory like it was hidden under her eyelids. She tapped her front teeth with her longest lacquered fingernail.

"Slut claws." That's what Jimmy Harjo called Mom's painted nails. After sixteen taps with her longest slut claw she knew where Little J was.

"Venus!" she said. "Jimmy took his boy to live in Venus." She thought that might be a suburb of Guymon.


The only weapon I could use was Jimmy Harjo's anger; there was plenty of that to go around. I waited until the sun had set, and the full moon rose high into the cloudless sky. Venus hovered over the southwestern horizon as bright as an airplane getting ready to land in the desert.

I stood in front of Jimmy Harjo's doublewide and shouted, "Murderer."

"I used my mother's cell phone and called the cops!"

Jimmy knew Mom didn't have a cell phone, and we were too far from cell towers even if she did. He'd know I lied if he thought about it, but his anger started rolling downhill and in a few seconds, it was spinning too fast for him to remember anything.

He threw the storm door of his trailer open so hard the glass shattered. He carried a chrome-plated revolver in one hand. The barrel was pointed at the ground, but it would come up as soon as he figured out who he wanted to shoot.

"Come here and take your medicine!" He fired two wild shots, one into the desert and one into the sky, then tucked the gun into his pants and took off after me at a dead run.

Meth turned Jimmy Harjo into a regular track star. He almost caught me before I shook off enough fear to get my legs moving. Way too fast. Way too close for comfort, but when his fingers brushed across my shoulder blades, I moved faster.

He fell behind a few paces when he wasted his breath cursing me, but caught up as soon as he understood I wasn't going to stop.

I ran to the crevice Little J and I had used as a hiding place. The small hill that hid it was silver in the light of the full moon, but the drop off looked like an ordinary shadow.

Ten of my steps before I reached the crevice, only eight methamphetamine-steps for Jimmy Harjo. I had to jump to the far side without changing stride so he wouldn't figure out what I was doing before it was too late.

The heel of my right foot landed on the edge and I pushed off with all the force I had left. As I landed on the far side of the crevice, I heard Jimmy gasp. Like a hiccup, like a little boy that's swallowed his soda pop too fast. A skidding sound followed, then a shout.

"Help me Little Word!" The fingers of both Jimmy Harjo's hands were hooked over the lip of the crevice. His dirty nails looked like slut claws in the moonlight.

"Will you let me and my mother go?" I stepped up to the edge of our hiding place, not really sure what came next. "If I get help, will you let us go?"

When I looked into Jimmy Harjo's eyes, I knew the answer to my question. He slid one hand from the edge of the crevice and reached for the pistol tucked into his belt. Fast, like he'd been practicing his quick draw just in case something like this happened. Jimmy Harjo fired a single shot before he struck the rocky bottom.

"Missed me by a mile." I shouted loud enough so my words would carry all the way to Venus. No answer from the bottom of the crevice. It was too dark to see all the way to the bottom, and I didn't want to anyway.

I walked back the way I'd come, careful not to step on the two sets of footprints in the desert sand, pretending the whole thing happened sixty million years ago.

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