Raley pulled open the rusty screen door, its hinges squealing.
"Hey! You in here?"
"Ain't I usually?"
A curl of faded red paint flaked off when the wood frame slapped
closed behind Raley as he stepped into the one-room cabin. It
smelled of fried pork and the mouse-gnawed Army blanket on the cot
in the corner.
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dimness and find
the old man. He was sitting at a three-legged table, hunched over a
cup of coffee like a dog guarding a hard-won bone, staring into the
snowy screen of a black-and-white television. Ghostly images
flickered in and out. There was no audio except for a static
The old man snorted a welcome through his sheaves of nasal hair.
"He'p yourself." He nodded toward the enamel coffeepot on the
stove. "Can't recommend the cream. It curdled overnight."
Raley stepped over the three hounds lying motionless on the
floor and went to the refrigerator that was jammed between an
antique pie safe, which served as a pantry, and a drafting table,
which served no purpose whatsoever except to collect dust and
further reduce the floor space in the crowded cabin.
The handle on the fridge door had broken off, probably decades
ago, but if you pressed your fingers just right into the soft
rubber sealant in the crack, you could pry it open. "I brought you
some catfish." Raley set the newspaper bundle on one of the rusty
wire shelves, then quickly shut the door against the mingled odors
of cream gone bad and general spoilage.
"You're welcome." The coffee probably had been boiled several
times and would be the consistency of molasses. Without cream to
dilute it, Raley thought it better to pass.
He glanced at the silent TV. "You need to adjust your rabbit
"Ain't the rabbit ears. I turned off the sound."
The old man replied with one of his customary harrumphs that
said he couldn't be bothered to answer. A self-proclaimed recluse,
he had lived in voluntary exile ever since "the war," although
which war had never been specified. He had as little as possible to
do with other Homo sapiens.
Shortly after Raley had moved into the vicinity, the two had
come upon each other in the woods. Raley was staring down into the
beady eyes of a dead opossum when the old man came crashing through
the underbrush and said, "Don't even think about it."
"About taking my possum."
Touching the bloated, flyblown, limp body with the pink,
hairless tail and horrible stench was the last thing Raley intended
to do. He raised his hands in surrender and stood aside so the
barefoot old man in stained overalls could retrieve his kill from
the metal jaws of the small trap.
"Way you been stampin' 'round out here, it's a wonder to me it
ain't you caught in this trap 'stead of the possum," he
Raley wasn't aware that anyone lived within miles of the cabin
he'd recently purchased. He'd rather not have had a neighbor of any
kind, but especially one who kept track of his comings and
As the old man stood up, his knees protested in loud pops and
snaps, which caused him to grimace and mutter a string of curses.
With the carcass dangling from his hand, the old man looked Raley
over, from his baseball cap and bearded face to the toes of his
hiking boots. Inspection complete, the old man spat tobacco juice
into the dirt to express his opinion of what he saw. "Man's got a
right to walk in the woods," he said. "Just don't go messin' with
"It would help me to know where they are."
The old man's cracked lips spread into a wide grin, revealing
tobacco-stained stubs that once were teeth. "Wouldn't it though?"
Still chuckling, he turned away. "You'll find 'em, I'm bettin'."
Raley could hear his laughter long after he disappeared into the
Over the ensuing months, they'd accidentally bumped into each
other in the woods several times. At least to Raley these were
chance meetings. He reasoned the old man made himself visible when
he wanted to and didn't when he was disinclined to give his new
neighbor even a grunt of a greeting.
One hot afternoon, they met in the doorway of the general store
in the nearest town. Raley was coming in, the old man going out.
They nodded to each other. Later, when Raley left with several
sacks of groceries, he noticed the old man sitting in a chair on
the shaded porch of the store, fanning himself with his straw hat.
Acting on impulse, Raley peeled a cold can of beer from the plastic
webbing and tossed it to the old man, who, revealing excellent
reflexes, caught it in one hand.
Raley stowed his groceries in the bed of his pickup and climbed
into the cab. The old man regarded him with patent suspicion as he
put the truck in reverse and backed away, but Raley noticed that
he'd popped the top on the beer.
The following morning there was hard knocking on Raley's door.
This being a first, he approached the door cautiously. The old man
was there, holding a chipped ceramic bowl containing a heap of some
raw animal flesh that Raley couldn't identify. He feared it was
carrion that even the trio of hounds had rejected.
"In exchange for the beer. I don't like bein' beholden to
Raley took the bowl thrust at him. "Thanks." His visitor turned
and walked down the steps. Raley called after him, "What's your
"Who wants to know?"
The old man hesitated, then grumbled, "Delno Pickens."
From that morning, they developed a quasi friendship founded on
loneliness and a shared reluctance for interaction with other
The sum-total value of Delno's possessions wouldn't be a hundred
dollars. He was always dragging home something he'd salvaged from
God knew where, items he had no practical use for. His cabin was
situated on stilts to prevent it from flooding when the Combahee
overflowed its banks. Junk had been stuffed into the crawl space
beneath the structure, as though to provide a more solid
foundation. The area surrounding the cabin was also littered with
junk that was never utilized so far as Raley could tell. Collecting
it seemed more important to Delno than the articles themselves.
He drove a truck that Raley called Frankenstein because it was
made of parts Delno had assembled himself, held together with
baling wire and duct tape. It was a miracle to Raley that he ever
got the contraption started, but as Delno said, "It ain't pretty,
but it gets me anywhere I want to go."
He would eat anything. Anything. Anything he could
knock from a tree, trap, or pull out of the river. But whatever he
had, once their friendship had been established, he was always
willing to share it.
Surprisingly, he was very well read and conversant on subjects
which, to look at him, one wouldn't have expected him to have even
a passing knowledge of. Raley came to suspect that his hillbilly
accent and vocabulary were affected. Like the squalor he lived in,
they were protests against a former life.
But whatever that former life had entailed remained Delno's
secret. He never mentioned a hometown, his childhood or parents, an
occupation, children, or wife. Beyond his hounds, he talked to no
one except Raley. Intimate relationships were limited to a stack of
old nudie magazines with well-thumbed pages, which he kept on the
floor beneath his cot.
Raley shared nothing personal with Delno, either. Not for the
first two years of their acquaintanceship. And then one evening at
sunset, Delno showed up at Raley's cabin, bringing with him two
Mason jars filled with a murky liquid that he'd fermented
"Haven't seen you in over a week. Where you been?"
Raley didn't want company, but Delno elbowed his way inside
anyway. "Thought you might be needin' a swig or two." Giving Raley
one of his scornful once-overs, he added, "Lookin' at you, I'd say
my hunch was right. You appear to be in bad shape. Could smell you
as I was coming up the steps."
"You're a fine one to criticize someone else's appearance and
"Who'd you call?"
"That blabbermouth that runs the cash register at the store? The
one with her hair piled up high, wears long, dangly earrings? Told
me you come in there last week, got a handful of change, and fed it
into the pay phone outside. Said you talked a few minutes, then
hung up, looking like you was ready to kill somebody. Got in your
truck and took outta there without even paying for your
He uncapped one of the jars and passed it to Raley, who sniffed
the contents, then shook his head and passed it back. "So, I'm
askin'," Delno continued after taking a hefty swallow from the jar,
"who'd you call?"
It was dawn before Raley stopped talking. By then, Delno had
drained both jars. Raley was simply drained -- emotionally,
mentally, physically. It had been a painful but therapeutic
catharsis. He had lanced a dozen wounds.
With nothing more to say and no breath left to say it, Raley
looked over at the old man, who had listened for hours without
making a single comment. The expression on the creased, leathery
face was one of profound sadness. His eyes were naked and unguarded
for the first time since Raley had known him, and Raley knew he was
looking straight into the soul of a man who'd experienced
indescribable heartache. It seemed Delno Pickens had collected all
the misery and injustice in the world and packed it into that one
Then he sighed, and in one of the rare times they'd ever made
physical contact, reached across the space separating them and
patted Raley on the knee. "Go wash your armpits before the stink of
you makes me puke up all that good liquor. I'll cook you some
They never again referred to anything Raley had told him that
night. It was as though the long night had never happened. But
Raley never forgot the bleakness with which Delno had looked at him
that morning. And this morning when he raised his head from staring
into his coffee mug and looked up at Raley, he was wearing that
same expression of despair.
"What's the matter?" Raley's heart hitched, automatically
thinking disaster. A 747 loaded with passengers crashing
into a mountainside. A presidential assassination. A terrorist
attack on the scale of 9/11.
"Don't go and do somethin' crazy, now, okay?" Delno said.
Muttering dire predictions about "nothin' good comin' outta
this," Delno hitched his chin toward the TV.
Raley went over to the vintage set and turned the volume knob,
then fiddled with the rabbit-ear antenna in the hope of getting a
The video remained erratic and the audio was scratchy, but
within moments he had a clear understanding of what had happened
and why Delno had dreaded telling him:
Jay Burgess was dead.
Excerpted from SMOKE SCREEN © Copyright 2011 by Sandra
Brown. Reprinted with permission by Simon & Schuster. All