Zachary Kellian

Zachary Kellian is a 5th-generation Appalachian-American who has published numerous short stories and is finishing up his first novel. He is also the co-founder and editor of a literary journal He writes stories that examine the isolation of poverty and its impact on the human spirit and he is forever indebted to the strong matriarchs of his family who have made his success possible. His website is Follow him on instagram/twitter: @zackellian for pictures of literary history, used bookstores, and his dog.

A Hollow Place Between Mountains

Zachary Kellian

Winter 2020

Around here people mind their own business. Even the cicadas continue to drone on, oblivious to the screams coming from the trailer at the far end of the park. It is like this every night. A man paces in the green-tinged light of the mercury-vapor lamps. A woman cowers just inside her trailer. The man’s hostile energy builds, his movements twitch and jerk, he demands to see his children.

Someone will hear, the woman thinks. Someone will decide that tonight they’ve had enough. Help will come. She thinks these things, but she knows they are just a fantasy. Among the coal-rich hills and valleys so deep they swallow the sun, people keep to themselves.

She will wait out another night, huddled below her windowsill, kitchen knife in hand, hoping the lock will hold.

It is almost dawn by the time he leaves. She can hear the crunch of gravel as his truck drives away. Her joints make the same sound as she rises up from the crouch she’d held for hours. Her muscles burn from the arrested action.

The kids will be waking up soon, if they slept at all. They never speak of their father and never mention the many nights a boogeyman stalks outside, but she knows they know. Kids are perceptive. She had perceived far more than her parents thought she did. She also knew enough to pretend like she didn’t. Her kids were the same. Pretending not to know just seems easier.

She puts on a pot of coffee and stares out at the park and the other double-wides that must hide their own secrets. When had it all gone wrong and why hadn’t she acted sooner? How did a man, whose barrel chest carried such a passionate heart, turn so quickly into something monstrous? When had her school-girl blushes turned into bruises? When had the mountains’ embrace become a stranglehold?

“You want to take your sister to the lot to play today?” She asks her oldest, a boy, age four. He shrugs. One can only feign interest in building castles out of parking lot gravel for so long.

“What about you, little lady?” Her daughter cannot speak, but her eyes look up at her mother with sadness. How can she care about any day when she has to worry about nightfall?

Three thousand more dollars. That will get them out of here. She will work a double today.

Night has fallen and the morose lighting of the park once again casts its sick-green shadow. The diesel engine of a truck idles outside her trailer.

“Annie May” he calls out, using the same name her father had always used. It makes her feel weak, infantilized. “You’ve no right. No right to keep me from my kids.” She can hear the dense thud as he punctuates the sentence with a fist to his chest. He is calm so far, but his agitated pacing quickens.

She wishes she had gotten the kids out of the house. Each night it escalates. He knows they’re in the trailer, she’s sure of that. Like some hunger-stricken black bear come down from the mountains, his senses are primal. Maybe if they weren’t here she could talk to him. Maybe they could chat like they used to, her head cradled in the crook of his shoulder, his heart beating against her temple. Maybe then he would even listen.

Another fantasy, but she allows herself to think it.

“Annie May.” A gentle, deceptive wrap at the door she is braced against. “Just come out so’s we can talk. I ain’t gonna hurt ya.”

He was going to hurt her. It was in his voice.

“I know you can hear me. This door ain’t nothing but cork. You can hear me through it. And you know I can bust through it in a storm if I had a mind to.” She listens to his labored breathing just on the other side.

A loud crack against her back. She is rocked forward and the wind escapes her lungs. Another boot kick lands against the door and it lurches forward on its flimsy hinges. Dust particles, shaken loose from the ceiling, cover her hair.

“My kids,” he screams. “My goddamn blood. You’ve no right!”

Another kick and the door will give way, but for some reason, he stops.

She holds her breath. A spotlight sweeps through the slats of her blinds. She hears a car coast to a stop.

She peels back a piece of the plastic blind and chances a look. Her heart sinks. A police cruiser is outside, and her ex is bent over, elbows on the cruiser’s open window, chatting as casual as he would with his bartender.

The two men converse. Her ex pats the cruiser as it, driven by one of his uncles or perhaps a cousin, speeds away to continue its nightly rounds. He returns to the trailer, his voice a menaced hush through the busted particleboard door.

“I’ll be back tomorrow for my kids.”

But he isn’t through. She knows this and keeps still.

From his truck he bellows, “Do you hear me? Tomorrow I’ll have my kids or so help me, I’ll burn you alive. I’ll burn that trailer down with the three of you in it!”

She waits for a long while after he is gone before she gets up to check on the children. The built-in ironing board has fallen out from its nook with all the pounding and it blocks the bedroom door. She lifts it, cracks the door, and sees, in the slice of amber light, her boy lying there with his eyes wide open. She kisses him on the check and hears herself promise it won’t happen again. She had no idea what she will do, but she believes a promise is a promise.

The kids are dropped off with the only neighbor who will take them. One night, the neighbor warned, just this one night. They didn’t want any trouble.

Annie waits outside her trailer. The hills surrounding the valley are closing in on her. She can feel their weight. As a kid she had loved the mountains, felt embraced by them. They protected her from all the dangers outside. Now she sees that they have trapped her here. They have shielded her from seeing something better on the horizon. She would be their victim no longer.

It is past two in the morning when his truck rolls in. She is ready for him. Before he even has the chance to knock or yell, she opens the door and invites him inside.

“Glad you finally got some sense.” He says as he steps into the small kitchen of the trailer. “They in the bedroom?” The stench of whiskey is carried along with the plume of cigarette smoke he expels in her face.

“Yes,” she says. “Don’t blow your smoke on them.” She takes the lit cigarette from his lips.

He lets her and sneers. He wipes a calloused palm across her face. She remembers when his touch had felt warm, like a kiss. Now his hands seem more like animal paws, chunks of meat made for violence.

“I’m going to take ‘em to my truck. And then you and I will have words.” He walks into bedroom at the far end of the trailer. His senses are dulled by his own booze-stink. He is oblivious to the wavering fumes of gasoline all around them.

She slams the ironing board down, blocking the bedroom door. The lit cigarette falls to the floor of the trailer. Little peaks of flame flicker in a pool of gas. Fire rushes toward the bedroom like a river. Cries of anger and pain. No one listens. Around here people mind their own business.