|Holcum County, North Carolina, 1975
Zachary Sloan stepped out of the Rayford ABC Package Store and walked to the
bed of his primer-gray Ford pickup. Two eager dogs greeted him. The first,
Sloan's favorite, was an aging black Labrador, now walleyed and graying at the
muzzle; the other was a spotted pup of questionable lineage but unlimited
enthusiasm. The dogs nuzzled the paper package in the old man's right hand.
"Get back, mutt. That's for me." He slipped the bottle into the right pocket
of his khaki hunting coat and took a crumpled sack from under his arm. "This is
for you two no-goods." He tossed a fat pig's knuckle onto the rusty truck bed,
then climbed into the cab. He revved the engine, coaxed the transmission into
reverse, and backed out on to Highway 29. The dogs took two quick steps back as
he accelerated east.
Fifty yards away to his right the tracks of the Norfolk and Southern ran
parallel to the road, the side of the towering embankment silhouetted gray-blue
by the afternoon sun. Sloan watched the telephone poles click by, each one
clipping the hood of his truck with the tip of its shadow. Not far ahead, County
Road 42 descended from the left through a vast, open expanse of fledgling corn
and tobacco. It dipped down to cross Highway 29, then abruptly rose again to
traverse the train tracks fifty yards away. There was no stoplight or sign at
the intersection; none was necessary. Sloan could see vehicles approaching for
miles in all directions—except from the right on County Road 42, where the
Norfolk & Southern shielded the intersection like an ancient fortress wall.
Three miles away, a forty-foot flatbed trailer lumbered cautiously down a
dirt road and passed beneath a brightly painted sign that hung across the exit
to the Good 'N Plenty Orchards.
Strapped to the bed of the open trailer was stack after stack of neat, white
cabinets, each with a kind of oversize box top that overlapped at the edges.
Each cabinet seemed to contain several drawers, expertly dovetailed at the
edges. In the lowest drawer of each cabinet was a long horizontal slot stuffed
tight with a rag and secured with twine. The drawers could not be opened, yet
each cabinet was completely filled ... with 40,000 honeybees.
The dirt road ended with a sudden rise to join the county highway just north
of the town of Rayford. The teamster cautiously eased the left wheel up onto the
roadway. With one great gun of the diesel engine, the right wheel followed. The
flatbed behind him rocked right, then lurched left. The beehives flexed and
shifted uneasily like tottering stacks of cups and saucers. An angry murmur rose
from within the whitewashed columns, then quieted once again as the flatbed
settled onto the level roadway of County Road 42. With each grinding shift of
gears, the diesel sent a plume of blue smoke into the sky, slowly gathering
speed as it headed south toward the tiny town of Rayford.
Sloan spotted the long flatbed with the alabaster cargo approaching from far
away to his left. He eyed the intersection, then the flatbed, then the
intersection again. Their two vehicles seemed to be approaching at equal speeds.
Sloan pushed steadily on the accelerator, and the flatbed accelerated in kind.
"Grits-for-brains," the old man muttered. There was a common understanding in
Rayford that commercial rigs should always yield to the locals—a common
understanding, that is, among locals. Sloan took a different view entirely. His
tariffs and duties had paid for these roads, thank you, and the meandering
locals could get out of the way.
Now Sloan had the accelerator pushed flat against the floor. Behind him, the
dogs stood straight and alert, sensing a force of wind and a whine from the
engine that they had never felt before. The pup stepped nervously to his left,
stopped, then started right again. He began to whimper and pushed his nose into
the side of his more experienced companion. The aging Labrador slowly hung his
head, circled once, and lay down.
High atop the railroad tracks fifty yards to Sloari s right, three bicycles
raced side by side in a dead heat, clattering across the half-buried crossties
of the old Norfolk and Southern railway.
Eight-year-old Andy Guilford suddenly veered to the right, forcing Pete St.
Clair's bike up against the steel railhead.
Pete jerked back on the handlebars and jumped the rail altogether. His back
wheel spun wide and cut a deep arc in the loose gravel ballast.
"You can whine or you can win," Andy shouted back. He swerved left now and
jammed his foot into the rear tire of Jimmy McAllister's rusting red beach
cruiser. The bike lurched violently, almost throwing Jimmy onto his handlebars.
The three bicycles simultaneously crunched to a stop at the crossing of
County Road 42. For a while the three boys said nothing; they stood straddling
their bikes, panting and mopping their foreheads, staring up the road one way
and then down the other.
"We did it!" Jimmy beamed. "We beat her!" "And I beat the both of you," Andy
chided. "Like fun you did!"
Andy glanced to the left. He saw the great white flatbed barreling toward
them, still a good mile away, and an old gray pickup streaking down from the
left. Now he cupped his hand above his eyes and followed County Road 42 to the
right. There was no sign of an automobile as far as the eye could see-no sign
of her automobile. This is the way she would come-this is the way she
came every Saturday afternoon when her father made his weekly drive into
"We beat her, all right," Pete said. "But she's bound to be along any minute.
Better get ready!"
The three boys tossed their bikes aside and scrambled for position. Jimmy
hoisted himself up on top of the big metal signal box beside the tracks. He
steadied himself, then slowly stood aright and spread his arms out wide.
"This is where I'm going to be," he said. "She'll see me before she sees
either one of you!"
Andy stood eyeing the great gleaming crossing signal on the far side of the
"No way!" Jimmy shouted over to him.
"Just watch me," Andy called back. He shinnied up the silver post as far as
the flashing red target lights, then pulled himself up and over. He climbed past
the black-and-yellow Norfolk and Southern sign, up past the great white X formed
by the RAILROAD CROSSING signs, until he straddled the post cap like a skull
"Now who's she gonna see first?" he shouted down. "She'll spot me a
Pete peered up at Andy, then at Jimmy, then Andy again.
"Hey, Pete!" Andy called down. "Maybe you could wave your hankie!"
"Or drop your drawers!" Jimmy joined in. "She's sure to see that!
Pete stood gloomily for a full minute, saying nothing. Then he stepped across
the railroad tracks onto the pavement.
He lay down in the center of the right lane-her lane.
"Are you nuts?" Andy called down. "Get out of the road!"
Pete lay motionless, staring at the sky.
"Pete!" Jimmy shouted. "She'll run right over you!"
"She won’t neither. When the car hits the tracks, it leaves the ground.
She'll fly right over me."
"What if the car slows down this time? What if you're too far from the
Pete said nothing.
"She'll never even see you!" Andy was almost screaming now. "She'll run right
over you and squash you like a bug, and she'll never even know it!"
"She'll know," Pete said under his breath. "She'll know I did it for her."
Andy looked up. Far down County Road 42 he saw a tiny blur coming over the
Inside that tiny blur, seven-year-old Kathryn lay on her back, sandwiched
between the rear window and backseat of her father's crumbling green '57 Chevy
Bel Air. Her left shoulder was wedged tight between the glass and vinyl, and her
nose just cleared the window as it curved up toward the roof above her.
She closed her eyes and felt the warmth of the afternoon sun on her full
body. The wind from the single open window swirled around her and carried the
smell of tobacco from her father's cigarette. She rolled her head to the right
and studied the back of her father's head: the sun-furrowed neck, the leathery
ears that protruded proudly into space, and the thick shock of auburn hair that
always lay carelessly to the left. Last of all, she saw her father's emerald
green eyes in the rearview mirror. They were focused directly on her.
"Know what I think?" he said, grinning. "I think you wish you was a big ol'
whitetail deer, so's you could ride strapped across the hood."
Her heart raced at the thought that somehow it might be possible—to feel the
wind in her hair, to watch the road rushing to meet her instead of always
disappearing into the past.
"Could I, Daddy?" she asked with childish hope.
He laughed. "Your momma would shoot me dead. Why, she'd tan my hide if she
knew I let you ride without a seat belt."
He glanced again in the mirror at Kathryn's body stretched out atop the
backseat beneath the rear window. "You be careful back there, hear?"
He flicked his cigarette out the window and rolled it up, leaving just a
hairline crack at the top.
"Are the tracks coming, Daddy? Are we there yet?"
"Almost! Get ready!"
With a squeal, Kathryn wedged herself even tighter against the glass. She was
in her favorite place on the best of days, and now she was coming to the best
moment of all—when they came to the sudden rise in the road where the Norfolk
& Southern crossed County Road 42. When no train was in sight it was
agreed—it was expected--that her father would accelerate up the rise just
as fast as the aging Chevy could possibly go. As they crossed the tracks and the
road dropped suddenly away beneath them, the hulking sedan would magically lift
from the ground like the pirate ship rising from the Blue Lagoon. Then, for one
eternal moment, Kathryn would float weightless above the seat, above the car,
above even the gigantic town of Rayford itself. It was the longest two seconds
in the universe, an entire world within a world, a glimpse of eternity—and
Kathryn was not about to let her father forget about it.
"Faster, Daddy! Faster!
The signs flashed past like confetti now, and the code of dots and dashes on
the pavement blurred together into yellow and white ribbons streaming out behind
the car. She heard the growling complaint from the aging engine and the rising
pitch of her father's voice.
"Here it comes, sweetheart! Get ready!"
Zachary Sloan glared at the center of the intersection and shot defiant
glances at the great white blur closing fast from the left.
Two hundred yards...
One hundred yards...
Fifty yards from the intersection, Sloan slammed his hand down on the horn in
a final act of anger and defiance and was instantly answered by the shattering
bellow of the diesel's great air horn. Both vehicles went raging, shouting,
screaming into the center of the intersection.
The Ford arrived a split second before the flatbed. The left headlight of the
pickup smashed into the right fender of the diesel just behind the bumper. The
hood sprung open and was instantly ripped away in the wind. The pickup spun
right across the front of the flatbed, heaved onto its side, and continued
through the intersection amid a shower of sparks and the deafening scream of
metal on concrete.
The force of the impact spun the diesel cab fully to the left, jackknifed at
a right angle to the flatbed behind it. The aging retreads of the diesel
skidded, then stretched, then exploded into shards of smoking rubber. The bare
metal wheel rims dug into the pavement, and the cab slammed onto its side with
astounding force. The flatbed trailer, sheared from its shattered cab, lurched
right, then left, then right once again-and then flipped side-over-side down the
middle of County Road 42.
The hives that were not strapped down seemed to float in the air for an
instant before crashing to the roadway below. Those that were bound to the bed
of the trailer were whipped to the pavement as the flatbed began its roll. In
both cases, the hives did not seem to simply break or crush or fall apart; they
literally exploded. Eighty-five hives had lined that trailer, each weighing
almost a hundred pounds. As each hive struck the roadway, the brittle
drawer-like supers separated, then splintered into a thousand pieces, vomiting a
tangle of wood, wire, wax, and honey. At first, the bees seemed to spill out
from the wreckage like pouring gravel. Then, slowly, the million-or-so that
survived the crash began to rise into the sky in a black, boiling, living cloud
Pete sat upright in the center of the road.
All three boys stared wild-eyed, gawking at the carnage spewed out on the
road behind them and the slowly rising cloud above. Almost simultaneously they
remembered—and they turned back again to see the flash of the green Bel Air less
than a quarter of a mile away.
Andy and Jimmy dropped to the roadway and Pete scrambled to his feet. All
three boys stood jumping, shrieking, and waving their arms in frantic, futile
"There they are!" Kathryn's father called to the backseat. "All three of
them, waving their hellos!" He lay on the horn and shoved the accelerator to the
floor. The nose of the sedan tipped upward as they reached the rise. Kathryn
heard the whine of the engine as the wheels spun free of the ground, and she
felt the lug of the tires as they dropped away below the car. Then at last came
the glorious moment when she floated free of the car—or was the car falling away
from her? It didn't matter. To Kathryn, it was the sacred moment when she rose
from the dead and ascended into heaven.
For an instant, only clouds and sky were visible through the windshield of
the airborne sedan. But as the weight of the engine forced the nose of the car
back to earth, a hellish landscape rose into view. In the left lane lay a broken
and twisted flatbed; to the right, the crushed shell of a diesel cab and the
smoldering undercarriage of a gray pickup; straight ahead, a graveyard of
crumpled and shattered white bones. And above it all was a massive, swirling
black cloud of...
"Holy... Hold on, Kath!"
Less than a second later the sedan smashed into the first of the hives. The
tires lost all traction on the sea of honey and insect parts and spun helplessly
to the right. The right fender struck the twisted chassis of the diesel, and the
sedan lurched onto its left side. To Kathryn's astonishment she found herself
standing perfectly erect, still pressed between the rear window and seat, as if
she were suddenly back home standing in front of the storm door, watching the
backyard rushing toward her. Just as suddenly, the car flipped onto its rounded
top, and Kathryn was thrown face-forward against the window glass. Six inches
below her nose she saw a yellow dash streak by, then a dot, then a much longer
dash, and then at last the car came to rest.
For a few moments Kathryn lay perfectly still, unable to move but perfectly
aware of everything around her. Above and to her right she heard the engine
cough and sputter and die. She heard the wheels somewhere above her continue to
spin a full minute longer. She detected the acrid stench of burnt rubber, the
thick, sweet smell of diesel fuel, and-strangely, more than anything else-an
odor like smashed bananas.
She lifted her head a few inches and saw a spatter of blood from her nose on
the glass below her. She watched as tears began to fall straight away from her
eyes, splash, and run down the window to her right. Out of habit, she rolled her
body to the right—but this time she found herself lying on the crumpled ceiling
of the car amid paper cups, floor mats, cigarette butts, and coins. She slowly
turned to look at the back of her father's head, and through a wash of tears saw
his body hanging behind the wheel, suspended by his seat belt. His shoulders
sagged against the ceiling with one arm extending straight out, and his head was
tucked under like the ducks she had seen on the pond behind her house.
But she had never seen her father's neck bent at an angle like that.
She reached out to touch her father's arm, but then she heard a shout from
somewhere outside the passenger side of the car. She turned to the window—all of
the glass was still intact. She looked out to see an old man in a khaki jacket
standing not more than twenty yards away.
Far beyond him, still atop the rise of the railroad tracks, stood the figures
of three helpless boys.
The left side of the man's face was covered with blood, and he stumbled
toward a motionless black form on the ground ahead of him. He dropped to his
knees and buried his face in the dark fur. Beside him, a mottled gray pup paced
anxiously back and forth.
Suddenly the pup started, then spun to its left and snapped at the air. It
jumped again and whirled back to the right. In another moment it was leaping,
whirling, and kicking like the wild horse Kathryn once saw at the state fair in
The man staggered to his feet. He swung at the air around his face with one
hand, then both. He began to duck and weave and flail at the air like a boxer
facing some menacing shadow. Now he began to wave his arms frantically around
him and pulled his jacket up over his head, running a few steps one way, then
For the first time Kathryn looked up into the sky. She saw a great, swirling
black cloud that seemed to be slowly descending around them like a plague, and a
single word screamed out in her mind: FIRE! She saw no flames, but she
remembered what the fireman once told her class: The hottest fire is the one
you can't see. It was like watching hell itself. The man and his dog were
being tortured by flames but were never consumed.
A wave of panic swept over Kathryn. "Daddy! Wake up! We have to get out of
here!" She twisted around and put her feet against the window glass. She
pulled back and with all of her might kicked out against the glass. Nothing.
She kicked again and again as the cloud outside grew thicker and darker and
closer. She began to weep hysterically, but stopped with a gasp. She saw the
man, now barely visible through the whirling cloud, begin to stagger directly
toward her. His face looked swollen and blue with patches of black and gray, and
his hands clutched at his throat. He bent forward, then straightened and threw
his shoulders back and his chest out, as though he were straining to draw each
breath through a long tube. He stumbled forward two steps, then suddenly stopped
and dropped his arms limp at his sides. For a moment he stood perfectly still,
as if somehow at peace with this unexpected fate, and then fell headlong on the
pavement not more than ten feet from Kathryn's window. Kathryn screamed and
scrambled back from the glass. There were no flames, yet the man's body grew
steadily darker—and the black patches seemed to be moving.
Kathryn's eyes were fixed in horror on the blackened figure before her. She
crawled back, back, until she was flattened against the opposite window glass,
her arms frozen down and out to her sides. She felt a tiny tickle on her left
wrist and frantically jerked it away. She turned.
Near the ground, her father's window was still open just a hairline crack.
The crack was lined with the wriggling heads, legs, and wings of a thousand
enraged bees struggling to squeeze through. Behind them, a thousand more pressed
forward. Both windows were completely covered with a shifting, throbbing,
crawling mass of black-and-yellow insects.
Seven-year-old Kathryn took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and screamed.
Shoofly Pie by Tim Downs, copyright 2003.
permission. All rights reserved.