Troy is a single father, traveling with his 13-year-old daughter, Ellie, through Tennessee.
When they stop in a restaurant, Troy becomes alarmed as two rough-looking men begin paying his daughter unwelcome attention.
Troy is soon to discover that the two men harbor a horrible secret…a secret with implications for himself, Ellie, and other lives as well.
Troy noticed that the two men standing in the adjacent line of the crowded restaurant were eying his thirteen-year-old daughter, Ellie. The men were both in their mid-thirties, probably only a few years older than Troy. But unlike Troy, they were big, hard men, dressed like painters or roofers. Both had full beards. One was blond, and the other had black hair.
Their interest in Ellie was more than simply casual, and they were making little effort to be discreet, let alone secretive. Troy met their stares and neither of them turned away, as grown men would ordinarily do when caught in such an act of impropriety. On the contrary, they were laughing and ribbing each other while they looked at Ellie.
Troy and Ellie were waiting in line in the Julep’s BBQ, just north of Knoxville, Tennessee, during the evening rush hour. This was one of Troy’s last dinners with his daughter, at least for the summer, and he didn’t want it to be spoiled by two random perverts. And there was also the very real possibility that these two men would turn out to be a significant problem, rather than a passing annoyance.
She’s only thirteen, Troy thought. What kind of men look at a thirteen-year-old girl that way?
Nevertheless, he turned his attention back to his daughter.
“Do you know what you want?” he asked her. He was somewhat relieved to see that Ellie seemed not to have noticed the men’s attention.
“When we stopped here in June, you had the pulled pork, I think.”
Ellie nodded, after giving the question the full attention that it deserved. “I’ll have the pulled pork again.”
Julep’s was one of those establishments where you place your order at the counter, fast-food style. It was hot and crowded at this hour of the evening. The last week of August in eastern Tennessee.
Troy was an outsider in this part of the world, even though he had made numerous trips this way since Ellie’s mother had remarried and relocated from Ohio to Florida. Knoxville was one of the logical stopping places along the long southerly trek down I-75, and of course on the way back north.
“Will you eat here on the way back from Florida?” Ellie asked. They were the next ones in line.
“No,” Troy said. “Julep’s is our restaurant. I’ll stop at Wendy’s or Hardee’s or Chipotle, but not Julep’s.”
Ellie smiled. “Maybe I can come back with you. Mom doesn’t really need me.”
She said this in a light-hearted manner. They both knew that Kylie loved Ellie. But Kylie loved her daughter in her own way, at a different intensity. Different people had different ways of loving, of expressing their love. This was a matter that Troy and Ellie had discussed at some length over the summer.
“We can just go down to Gainesville and I can come home with you, then,” Ellie pressed. “I’ll pop in and say hi to Mom—and to Joe, I guess.”
Troy put his arm around his daughter’s shoulder. She hadn’t yet acquired that don’t-acknowledge-me-in-public attitude that teenage girls so often adopt toward their parents between the onset of puberty and the end of high school. It gratified Troy when Ellie said things like that, and he was more than a little glad to see that she still loathed Joe, Kylie’s “new” husband of three years—even if Joe wasn’t, on balance, such a bad guy.
“I wish you could,” Troy said. “But we both know how it has to be.”
Troy glanced over at the adjacent line. The two men were still there, still looking at his daughter. They were just out of earshot, given the buzz of the busy restaurant. But there was no doubt about what they were doing, whom they were looking at.
Troy stepped around Ellie and placed himself between his daughter and the leering men. Don’t give them anything to look at, he thought.
Troy wished he were the sort of man who could simply walk over to the men and tell them to look elsewhere, and be confident that his words would carry the necessary weight. But there were two of them; and the truth was that either one of them would be more than a match for Troy. He wasn’t that sort of a guy, but he would protect his daughter however he could.
He turned back to Ellie and noticed that her cheeks were reddened. She looked up at him knowingly. So she had noticed the two men.
Troy was also suddenly aware of what Ellie was wearing: shorts and a halter top. It was summer, after all; and they were on a long drive through the South. Moreover, Troy still saw Ellie as the little girl she had been just a few years ago, eating cereal in front of the television in her pajamas on Saturday morning, her smile showing the gap of a missing baby tooth.
Wanting to freeze time in place, he hadn’t fully acknowledged the changes that had taken place. Had he not made that mistake, he thought, he could have made sure that his daughter dressed more modestly. Then she wouldn’t have drawn the attention of these two perverted men in their thirties.
So he had failed to protect her twice: first, preemptively, and now, that these two men were actively making her uncomfortable.
Troy took a deep breath, and put his shoulders back, as if trying to expand his five-foot, nine inches to a brawny six-four. Ridiculous, and probably transparent, even to Ellie.
“Don’t worry about those two,” Troy said. There was no need to specify which two he was talking about. “I’m here.”
Ellie nodded and looked up at the lighted menu board behind the counter. The young woman at the cash register nodded for them to place their order, and they stepped forward together. Troy felt more inadequate than he had in a long time, probably since Ellie’s mother had first left him.
Five minutes later they had their food and had taken a seat out on the dining room floor. They both ordered the pulled pork.
Troy noticed, as they departed from the counter, trays in hand, that the two men were still waiting in line.
The tables at Julep’s were varnished wood, covered with checkered red-and-white vinyl tablecloths. Julep’s was decorated in a faux country motif: The walls were rough-hewn, bare plank boards. There was a restored gasoline pump from the 1930s in one corner of the dining room. In another corner was a life-size wooden cigar-store Indian. The planks of the walls were adorned with vintage photographs from the early twentieth century. There were old signs for bygone brands: Walter’s Beer and Gem soap flakes. Ben-Bay cigars.
“Are you looking forward to school starting?” Troy asked Ellie as they sat down. He now realized that he had involuntarily avoided this question all summer, even though it was something that a father ought to inquire about. This was because the start of the school year meant the end of the summer, and the summer was theirs.
Ellie shrugged. “I guess so.”
Ellie was going to be in the eighth grade this year. She was growing up so fast. To Troy, the news of her impending arrival in the world seemed like just yesterday. Troy had been a college student, two years away from graduation, when his girlfriend Kylie had told him that she was pregnant.
There was no question about marrying Kylie then, even though he and Kylie had been dating for a little less than a year, and she seemed ambivalent about the entire situation. The pregnancy had not made her less ambivalent. Maybe we should consider our options, Kylie had said. But Troy had talked her into it.
He now reflected that when you had to talk a young woman into marrying you, that was probably a warning sign. Didn’t women always leap with joy at marriage proposals in the movies?
For the better part of ten years they had made a go of it, amid numerous disappointments and recriminations. Then four years ago, the inevitable had happened.
Kylie had wasted no time remarrying, starting a new life, while Troy’s own life was stalled: He had no romantic prospects to speak of, and he was stuck in the same dead-end job that he had held at the time of the divorce: He was an assistant manager at an electronics shop—or more properly, a video game store, as that was all the establishment really sold anymore. And he had once planned to be an engineer.
But Troy had no regrets about getting Kylie pregnant, even though common sense told him that he should feel otherwise. He couldn’t feel otherwise—sitting across the table from his daughter.
“The eighth grade is an important year,” he told her. “This time next year, you’ll be a high school student.”
She was about to reply when they were interrupted by a boisterous male voice, audible even above the buzz of the dinnertime crowd.
“Whataya think, Dennis? Where should we sit?”
Troy knew without turning around that the words had been spoken by one of the two men who had been leering at Ellie in the line at the counter.
“There’s a good spot!” the other one replied.
Troy didn’t know if they were speaking at an excessive volume to make sure he and Ellie heard them, or if unnecessary volume was simply an aspect of the way these two men moved through the world. Either answer was possible. The men—one of whom Troy now knew was named Dennis (though he could not have said which one)—noisily took a seat at a table behind Ellie, a significant distance to one side of them.
Troy was grateful for the crowd, and the relative scarcity of seats. He had no doubt that these two would have claimed the table directly beside them, had it not already been claimed by another group of diners.
Ellie shifted uncomfortably in her seat. He should be doing more to make her feel comfortable, to reassure her, to behave in a protective manner.
The two of them had had a good summer together, a summer of reconnecting. It had been a little awkward at first, as it often was when she came to visit after an extended period in Florida with Kylie and her husband, Joe. In another day they would be in Gainesville. He didn’t want their fleeting time together to be ruined by two Podunk buffoons from Tennessee.
At that moment he blamed a little bit of everyone. He blamed Kylie for taking so little time to remarry, and for “marrying up” to an older man who made more money than Troy was ever likely to earn. He blamed the judge who had signed off on the revised custody arrangement, the one that placed his daughter in Florida for much of the year. He blamed the lawyers who were involved on both sides.
But most of all Troy blamed himself: He had let Kylie get away when he should have done something—anything—to keep her (if he had ever really had her in the first place, that was). He had not fought long enough and hard enough when Kylie had first announced her plan to take his daughter out of Ohio due to Joe’s transfer.
And now Troy was failing to protect his daughter in an obviously uncomfortable situation. Maybe he should say something. Yes, he decided, if the two men said anything more, he would say something—even if that meant fighting them both in the parking lot, and getting beaten half to death.
“I wish I didn’t have to go to high school in Florida,” Ellie said. “I wish I could live with you instead.”
Ellie had expressed this sentiment several times over the course of the summer, and Troy never got tired of hearing it. But the custody agreement was the custody agreement. It was fair—at least according to the way the law measured things—and Troy knew that he had no chance of successfully fighting it.
To make matters worse, Kylie’s new husband had turned out to be a reasonably decent guy—and what many women in their thirties would call “a good catch”. Joe was ten years older than Troy and Kylie. He was nevertheless more athletic than Troy. Tall, fit, and tan, Joe was an avid tennis player.
When Joe’s high-paying finance job had necessitated the move to Florida, the three of them—Joe, Kylie, and Troy—had had to go back to court. Joe, consummately gallant and reasonable, had offered to kick in an annual stipend to defray the travel expenses that Troy would incur going to and from Florida. Troy had refused, not wanting to take any of Joe’s money. Not a single cent.
There was no abuse on Joe’s end, either physical or emotional. Not even a hint of it. Troy had subtly probed in that direction, and found nothing. Ellie had made no intimations of late-night visits to her bedroom, or of angry slaps. Based on what Ellie had told him, Joe kept his tone studiously neutral, allowing Kylie to be the face of discipline on the rare occasions when it was necessary.
So there would be no change in the custody agreement—at least not anytime soon.
“I wish you could go to high school in Ohio, too,” Troy said. “But well, I suppose your mother has rights, too. And the court said that her rights mean you live with her for most of the year. Also, she loves you, too.”
“Mmm,” Ellie replied. “Yeah, I guess so.”
There was a loud, unmistakable whistle from one of the men. Troy looked up and Ellie turned around. It was the blond one who had made the wolf-whistle. He winked obscenely at Ellie.
The men were both laughing now. A few of the other patrons briefly noticed, then turned away. Either the entire context of the situation wasn’t clear to them, or they didn’t want to get involved.
Troy met the men’s stares and shook his head. Come on, now, he was trying to say with the gesture. You’re adult men; she’s an adolescent girl. This isn’t right.
The men returned Troy’s look, directly and without any fear or restraint whatsoever. These two weren’t going to be shamed. They weren’t going to back down.
Troy glanced across the table at Ellie. He saw her embarrassment, of course; but he was also acutely aware of the way his features mingled with Kylie’s in the child that the two of them had made. He realized now that because of Ellie, some part of him would always love Kylie, despite everything that had happened.
Troy started to stand up, knowing that he would be hopelessly over his head. But he couldn’t let this go. If he couldn’t defend his daughter against these two men, then what use was he as a father? He had let Ellie down in so many ways already.
The men leaned back and smiled expectantly when they saw Troy begin to rise. Come on over, their smiles seemed to say. This should be fun.
“Dad, no.” He felt Ellie’s hand on his. “Sit down, Dad.”
“I can’t let them carry on like that with you,” he said.
“It’s okay,” Ellie said—though it couldn’t be okay. “It’s just talk. This isn’t the first time. There are guys like that at school, you know. And besides, you can’t fight them both.”
“I can try,” Troy replied. “What I can’t do is let them carry on like that.”
“Dad, please: sit down. You can’t fight them both.”
End of excerpt