GENRE: Literary Thriller
After the Sheriff of small-town Balmer accuses him of killing his adoptive father, James flees. He comes back sixteen years later as a different man, insinuating himself into Balmer society to get revenge. But like most plans, he can't account for the unexpected. This is the opening.
Sixteen years ago I left Balmer, Alabama as a black boy. I return today as a white man.
Not a stick of the town has changed. Not even the weight in the air, the hot, dusty wind, or the mottled blue sky overhead that threatens equally distasteful sunlight or thunderstorms.
I approach on foot from the outskirts, and a well of trembling—what, I don't know exactly, fear? rage?-- fills me at the very sight of it. I expected something else. I don't really know what I expected, but after the calm of the years past, coming back here with a purpose feels . . .different.
A sharpness pierces me as McPherson's General Store, the first building on the left, looms up out of the dusty morning shadows. Sixteen years ago a boy stood there, next to the bottom step. The other boys surrounding him called him a freak, along with other names I won't repeat in dignified company. They didn't understand a black boy. They understood a black boy covered in white patches even less.
The memories of that day bubble up inside me, causing the trembling to intensify as I walk down Main Street, looking for any hints of change in the buildings or people. But I already know there are none. Main Street is still, like the mindsets of its residents, from another, older time. The general store still hunches over all the other buildings, the upper level sign propped up by lathed porch rails below, giving the building the look of a giant snarled mouth. Fading red letters on a square of white-painted wood in the window advertise separate colored and white bathrooms.
The sheriff's now-old-and-rusty '78 Buick Regal is still parked out in front of the bar—a low, long building full of shadows across the street from the general store—where it appears to have not moved since I left. Old Man Rogers still sits in his rocker, muttering to himself, an empty beer can in his right hand as he sways back and forth. His rocker hasn't moved, either. It's still on the porch of the Chamber of Commerce, a tiny hut at the far end of Main Street, huddled in the middle of a fork in the dirt road.
When I left, he was actually Middle-Aged Rogers, but his face has grizzled and sunk, and there is a stiffness to his rocking that shows the creaking in his bones.
The Chamber of Commerce always seemed a bit pointless to me. No tourists come to Balmer. If they did, they'd be shocked at the real world so gritty under their feet here. At the blood-soaked dirt they walked on. And those who wouldn't be shocked would probably move here. Like attracts like, after all.
There are three old-fashioned and hand-painted wooden signs advertising a notary public, real estate agent, and lawyer on an abandoned and weary two-story building up the street from the general store.