Jordan Farmer


Jordan Farmer is originally from Logan, West Virginia, and is currently a Ph.D. student studying creative writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. His fiction has been a finalist of both the Sycamore Review Wabash Fiction Prize and Cutbank’s Montana Prize in Fiction and has appeared or is forth coming in the Southwest Review, Southern Humanities Review, Appalachian Heritage, Pembroke Magazine, Kestrel, and others. He is currently finishing a novel set in a juvenile detention center and a collection of stories.



When I arrived, Edmund was already out on the front porch haloed in the light coming through his screen door, smoke billowing up from his beard as he puffed his pipe. I parked the Mercury beside the gate and waited while he descended the steps on his cane. For a moment, I thought he might trip in the yard where the grass had grown high. I hadn’t been over to mow it in a few weeks, and the leaves had collected in deep piles. The gold and crimson shriveled by several nights of frost that froze them off their branches. Edmund stumbled around them, his body swaying as if the ground shifted under his feet.

The scent of cherry tobacco filled the car as he climbed inside. From the dark half-moons under his eyes, I guessed he might have managed an hour of sleep.

“What did Sally say?” he asked as I drove out of the hollow, the mountains opening wide and the curving road leading to better asphalt, a straighter route as we approached the dark ribbon of the interstate.

“Just that they called family in.”

“What if they don’t let us see him?” he said. There was a sort of wide panic in his eyes I could make out even in the minimal glow from the dash lights. His hand rubbed his lower thigh, traveled down to scratch at the place where I supposed he ended and the prosthesis began. I wasn’t sure how exactly it worked. I’d been driving Edmund to his appointments at the VA hospital in Charleston, but he never let me inside the exam rooms. He’d become protective of his new stump, refusing to allow anyone to even see him in shorts, so I found myself wondering what the fake limb looked like, if whatever polymer they constructed it from attempted to have the same bulge of calf muscle, maybe even the dark mat of hair the IED must have incinerated.

“They’ll let us inside,” I said.

Edmund took a pill bottle from his jeans and shook a capsule into his palm. He dry swallowed it and rolled the window down to feel the night air.

“They better,” he said.


Warren sat cranked forward in the hospital bed, the sheet falling away to reveal the distended dome of his stomach. His arms had gone thin, the veins moving to the surface like worms unearthing to escape rain. His breath smelled like wet leaves and the whites of his eyes had turned a color not known to nature. Warren barely noticed us when we entered, but Sally was on me before we cleared the door, her arms around my waist as she laid her head against my shoulder. I held her at arm’s length to take a look at her. She’d applied a bit of lipstick, tried to fix her mascara no matter how much she knew she’d just cry it away.

“I think he was ready a time or two,” she said.

Edmund stood over the bed. Warren’s eyes opened and he tried a smile, but it looked wrong on his face, his teeth more bared like an animal too wounded to be touched.

“I’m glad to see you,” Edmund said.

“I’ll give you a moment,” Sally said. She kissed Warren’s cheek and the lipstick smeared supplied his only color. The beeping of monitors filled the room’s silence.

“What can we do?” Edmund asked.

Warren’s dry tongue stuck to the bottom of his mouth. He swallowed hard.

“I’d burn in Hell for one last drink,” he said.

A brief anger flowered in me, a moment where I wanted to point to the machines attached to him and rant, but Edmund took my hand.

“We’ll be back,” he said and led me from the room.

In the hall, Edmund chewed the end of his pipe while passing nurses gave him nervous glances. I hoped none would stop and tell him he couldn’t smoke inside.

“Your house?” he asked.

“Not a drop.”

“Ok.” He nodded as if he were convincing only himself. “Let’s go.”


As boys, the three of us were always close. Edmund lived next door to me in one of the former coal company houses where his father had been born during the days when his grandfather still worked for scrip instead of currency. Edmund’s father, a second generation coal miner, bought the house from the company and never lived in another home until he died. Warren came to Lynch County at three when his father moved to West Virginia from Harlan County, Kentucky, deciding that rather than stand the picket line he would just mine coal elsewhere. I guess he felt comfortable with a boss’ boot on the back of his neck. My father was the only man I knew who wasn’t a miner. He avoided underground by working as a clerk at the Mt. Gay Market where he bagged old ladies’ groceries and stuck price tags on cans.

No one in our camp had money. Most evenings my father brought home food near its expiration date to cook that night, discount lettuce with browned leafs and hard bread. The cabbage was the worst. He claimed it didn’t matter as long as we stewed it, but I could always taste the wilt. My one luxury came at Christmas when every year my father put away a bit each week to buy me something special. As a boy, I had no idea the amount of sacrifice involved in this. I’m sure I would have felt guilty if I’d put enough thought into the cost of each gift. One year I received a model train set, the next a pair of leather cowboy boots with gold threaded patterns stitched up the leg.

“Maybe you didn’t get anything this year,” Dad would say. “Money has been tight.”

I got this answer so many times I steeled myself for disappointment. The mines were cutting down, and that meant fewer groceries for my father to bag. It wouldn’t be impossible for me to go without. Plenty of other kids I knew did and not just for toys. Most showed up to school in their older brother’s patched slacks with the long hem folded into a makeshift cuff, or in shoes so beaten they looked as if they have survived brutal marches during combat campaigns. So when Christmas morning came without a present under the tree, I stifled my tears and climbed out of bed.

My father waited for me in the living room. He sat on the couch, his lap covered by an old quilt. I stepped in ready for a speech, apologies and embarrassment about how bad work had been. I tried to make myself hide the disappointment, but as I came closer I could see a smile creeping across his face.

“I know I’ve been telling you I didn’t have anything for you this year, but I didn’t want to let the secret slip. It was too special.”

From underneath the quilt on his lap, he produced a bow carved out of some dark wood and a leather quiver full of matching arrows. When he handed it to me, I felt the warmth trapped in the grain, the curved wood sanded down until it fit my grip perfectly. I drew the string back until the coarse braid brushed against my cheek.

“It ain’t a toy,” he said. “Men used to kill each other with these things. Don’t shoot it anywhere near anything living. Best to set up a target on the hillside. Arrows travel further than you’d think.”

“I will,” I said.

“Promise me,” he said.

I promised and he let me take it next door to show Edmund and Warren. I found them in Edmund’s yard, huddled in the melting snow and shade created by the shed where Edmund’s father kept his carpentry tools. He built cabinets and hanging swings for rich women from town, but the work was never steady. I think it was mostly something to do on the days he wasn’t underground.

The shed was only large enough to fill with some rough lumber and a few saws, but he had electricity wired to the building. Edmund had lifted the keys to the padlocked door and ran a severed extension cord outside. He and Warren huddled over a frozen bull frog, the exposed copper wire from the cord inches away from the amphibian’s still chest. Edmund stuck the live wire to the frog and its legs gave a few strong kicks until black burns charred its chest and Edmund cut the wattage. The frog continued to convulse while Warren shook his head.

“Told you,” he said.

“Doctors can do it,” Edmund said.

I wouldn’t realize it until Edmund and I were much older, not fully until his National Guard troop got news about their deployment and he showed up at my house to tie one on, crying and telling me being sent to Iraq at forty-five was a death sentence, but Edmund was beautiful as a boy. His cheeks sharp and his hair coiled in curls most girls envied. There was a softness about him the rest of us didn’t possess. Warren was nothing like that. Even prepubescent, his voice came harsh, his glares reminiscent of feral cats.

They turned to see me with the bow and the frog was forgotten. I let Edmund hold my new weapon. He gave it a dry fire, the string thrashing the air.

“Bad ass,” he said.

“Really great,” Warren said. I could read some jealousy in his eyes and it brought out some type of satisfied cruelty in me. Warren’s clothes deteriorated as the seasons stretched on. He ate a lot of dinners with me or Edmund and always finished, never complaining on the same dishes of too much pinto beans and cornbread. Even if he was a friend, it pleased me to see someone worse off than myself. Sometimes I just needed the reminder that it could be worse.

“I need a target,” I said. “You help me with that and I’ll let you learn to shoot with me.”

“Just shoot it at the hillside,” Edmund said. He pointed towards the end of the yard where the ground sloped and a small creek separated us from the mountainside. “Stick it in a tree.”

“Break your arrows,” Warren said. “We need something softer.”

We stood passing the bow back and forth, looking down the shaft of each arrow as if our eyes could imagine the damage they might inflict. Warren hunkered down over the dead frog and poked at its soft belly with the blunt field tip.

“I can get us something,” he said. “But I get to take the first shot.”

It felt like a victory over me, but I knew it was necessary. If my father caught me shooting the bow somewhere unsafe, he’d carry it to the railroad tracks and leave it for a coal train to roll over.

“Deal,” I said.

The next day I was sitting on the front porch when Warren arrived dragging a wagon filled with several large Styrofoam cubes. The front of each one had a three ring bull’s-eye painted on it, the center ring a dark red. He parked the wagon outside our rusted chain link fence and spread his arms wide in presentation.

“Where’d you get that?” I asked. I knew he had no money, but I didn’t much care. This meant a chance to finally shoot.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Let’s set it up on the creek bank.”

We hauled the wagon behind the house to the sloping bank of Cow Creek and began to unload the target, stacking each cube until they covered a wide enough area to accommodate any poor aim.

“Should we get Edmund?” I asked.

“Nope. I wanna take my shot.” Warren stepped through the weeds and over the hillside until he reached the bank of the small stream. We were around twenty yards away from the target. Warren nocked an arrow, drew the bow with three fingers the way we’d seen archers do in movies with castles. The arrow flew too fast for me to track it with my eyes, but it found the center of the target, the red fletching on the end barely emerging from the bull’s-eye.

“Where’d you learn to shoot like that?” I asked.

Warren ran his hands over another arrow before he nocked it.

“My daddy had one like this,” he said. “He taught me.”

“Go get it,” I said.

“Can’t,” he said. He let another arrow fly and it buried deep in the foam beside his first.

“Why not?” I asked. “What happened to it?”

He didn’t answer, but I learned years later they pawned it.


Cheap Charlie’s Carry Out sat in the hard curve on Switzer Street, situated beside a parking lot where the old K-Mart burned down six years ago. The locals had taken to setting up stalls on the lot, small yard sale tents where a man could buy anything from antique furniture, shotguns and pistols, even moonshine with a trusted recommendation. The vendors who’d been there longest left their tents and canopies up year round, sometimes the merchandise sitting inside unguarded on the pretext of trust or notorious reputation. The place looked like a sort of frontier trading post where unwashed pioneers would negotiate with pelts and fresh flake. I thought it suited Lynch better than any real store could have, and made the Pizza Hut, which set in the lowest part of the curve and took on water with every hard rain, seem out of place.

Cheap Charlie’s definitely fit in. The rough lumber of the exterior, the wooden front door that stood in place of the usual convenience store glass, even the drive through window that had once simply been a normal pane that Charlie knocked out one evening on inspiration, felt more like a saloon in an unsettled town than a grocer's. I read the closed sign hanging in Charlie’s window and closed my eyes.

Edmund parked the car around back of Charlie’s and we sat with the engine idling, contemplating what we were about to do. Nerves had my legs trembling, but I knew I’d go through with it. I owed Warren at lot more than a last drink. Besides, Charlie was the type who might understand even if we had to break a window. I promised myself it would be all right, that I wouldn’t even take anything I couldn’t lay money on the counter for, but I tried one last attempt to convince Edmund we had better options.

“Let’s drive on,” I said. “We can buy somewhere off the interstate. Just explain it to the boy at the counter. Slip him some extra.”

“We ain’t got that kinda time,” Edmund said.

I looked at the absent way his fingers drummed the synthetic material of his shin. I thought about the other men in the cab during that attacked convoy, wondered how many of them sacrificed pieces of themselves and how many died without even understanding what happened. A momentary flash, then the sudden eternity of non-existence, of short life shifting into a constant nothingness I couldn’t fathom. I imagined Edmund bleeding into the sand, lying with his leg missing and waiting on that change.

“What’s it gonna be like?” I asked.

Edmund shrugged. “Can’t say.”

“I just thought . . .”

“It won’t be anything like what I saw. In a hospital with Sally...”

I tried to think of that as a comfort, but I couldn’t manage to close my eyes and not see the machines and tubes inside Warren as invaders.

“He got cameras?” I pointed towards Charlie’s.

“It really matter?” Edmund said. He climbed out and began hobbling toward the back entrance. He bent and plucked up a small rock, busted a pane from the back door, and reached inside. I stood scanning the empty lot, the only movement the abandoned vendors’ tents billowing in the lazy wind.

Edmund led the way through the back aisles stocked with chips and beef jerky toward the coolers and bottles on the far side of the sales floor. I’d never been inside a store after hours and found myself surprised by the long shadows even without the florescent lights overhead, the way each foot step echoed. Edmund opened the cooler and the seal hissed as the trapped cold air touched his body. He held up a case of Heineken, turning it in his hands.

“Just get some Miller,” I said.

He pulled a few tall boy cans from the rack and shoved them into his pockets. I walked about the aisles, looking over the glass bottles of bourbon and gin, the foreign names of delicacies I’d never tasted.

“Grab some Turkey,” Edmund called.

I stopped in front of the high shelf, my fingers tracing the label on a bottle of Irish aged twenty years. I reminded myself only what I could afford to pay back and picked up a plastic pint of whiskey. It hid easily inside my coat pocket and I figured it would be better than sneaking up to the eighth floor with a fifth bulging like I had a chicken under my coat. I took the beer from Edmund so he could concentrate on walking and we moved towards the exit. Then I remembered my promise and ran to leave a twenty dollar bill on the counter.


I found the target gone first thing in the morning, the daylight so new it wasn’t even worthy to shoot in. I stood looking at the flat and dead patch of grass, the imprint left in its absence the only sign our target had ever existed. I didn’t feel much, maybe a little relieved not to be seen struggling to make progress while Edmund seemed to improve his shooting every day and Warren was already a God. Mostly, I felt afraid to tell Warren. The target hadn’t meant anything to me, but it was an obsession with him, the only thing he talked about and the reason he came over first thing every morning.

I didn’t hear Warren crossing the yard. He was never quiet, his boots always heavy on the frozen blades and snapping twigs as he trudged along, but I was so fixated on the emptiness in front of me I must have been in a daze.

“What the fuck?” he said. He paced in the hollow place where the target had been.

“Just came outside and found it gone,” I said.

He sat down on the grass and I could hear something inside him tightening, his shoulders sagging as he began to weep. Despite how close the three of us were, we’d never cried in front of one another. At that age, I couldn’t even contemplate something worse than crying in front of another boy, but Warren didn’t seem capable of keeping it in. He let it come, knees tucked into his chest and arms wrapped tight around his long legs.

“Goddamn,” he said. He whipped his eyes with his coat sleeve and snorted deep. “Awful lot to carry out even if it doesn’t weigh much. They’d have to haul it.” He turned to me. “Which of them Bradshaw boys could have a truck?”

Bradshaw was on the other side of the mountain, a couple miles down creek and twice as poor as our part of Lynch County. I’d only driven through once or twice with my father, but Bradshaw boys carried an almost mythic amount of rumor. Bobby Blankenship said that the only Bradshaw boy he ever met carried a pig sticker knife in his belt and had homemade tattoos, patterns cut into the ham of his arm, the wounds rubbed with ink from a broken pen until the scars were dyed blue. I didn’t want any trouble with Bradshaw boys.

“It’s gone, Warren,” I said. “Don’t matter who has it.”

Warren shook his head. “Go get Edmund and meet me at the tracks.”

The tracks were the last sign of civilization before the roads ended. Anything further along turned to game trails or outlaw paths cut through the hills by marijuana farmers and hill folks.

“Shit, Warren,” I said.

“I’ll get him then,” he said. “Meet me at the tracks.”

He walked off before I could protest, and I knew that with or without me, he was going to claim something that had never really been his. I hoped that Edmund might be able to talk some sense into him. I had no desire to go start a war with Bradshaw boys, no wish to watch Warren ambushing kids from the brush, putting arrows into children poorer than us, but I knew that I would follow.


I parked the Mercury illegally in the Doctor’s Parking. The small section of the hospital’s had spaces placed right up against the bald rock face of the mountain. The stone looked perpetually wet, as if constantly sweating, and small tin signs had been fixed in front of each space that read DANGER: FALLING ROCKS. I wondered if any doctor ever came outside to find their Mercedes with a boulder through the roof.

Edmund took an old fleece jacket from the backseat, shrugged his shoulders inside, and began to fill the pockets with cans of High Life. He raised his arms to expose the sides of the coat. “Can you see them?” he asked.

It was at least one size too small on him, the pockets bulging from the weight of smuggled beer, but I knew it wouldn’t help to tell him that. We’d gone too far to alter the plan.

“Looks good,” I said. “Let’s go.”

We walked in through the ER entrance, passed the admissions desk where a man stood with his mangled hand wrapped in a bloody t-shirt, yelling at a nurse who just gave him a steady nod. The waiting room chairs were filled with tired women holding kids hacking a croup cough. Men sat with jackets stuffed behind their heads for pillows. Three unattended boys, smeared with gift shop chocolate, ran circles after one another, receiving disapproving looks from the old women.

“What do you suppose the penalty is for something like this?” Edmund asked.

“None like earlier,” I said.

We rode the elevator up with a group of nightshift nurses who rested against one another. They made me wonder what it was like to enter a stranger’s room and have to steel yourself against the fact they may have passed.

The eighth floor was a living pulse, the combination of all the staff moving and the hushed sound of patients trying to survive. The false smell of bleach tried to fool us into believing everything was sterile, but I could sense the sickness under it, the recently mopped blood or vomit. Edmund looked uneasy, his stride slower and his body leaning hard on his cane.

When we rounded the corner to Warren’s room, Sally was standing in the hall. Her hands covered her mouth and her back pressed against the wall as her two sisters tried to wrap her into an embrace. A gaggle of nurses stood nearby, and further down the hall I could see the preacher coming from the First Baptist Church, his blazer rumpled and some of his shirt buttons missed from hurried dressing at the late hour. His Bible was tucked under his arm.

Edmund stopped. His eyes seemed to be pleading, his fingers drumming the fabricated leg again as if enough touching could end the farce of flesh. I took another look towards Sally and watched the priest unsheathe his Bible. His finger slipped inside the pages to find the right passage.

“Let’s go,” Edmund said. “Now ain’t the time.”

We rode the elevator down beside a boy with his arm in a sling. He wore a death metal t-shirt, a busty Valkyrie brandishing her sword next to a throne of skulls. The boy kept eyeing Edmund, so he pulled a beer from his pocket and handed it to the boy.

“Keep it quiet, son,” Edmund said and we started towards the parking lot. The automatic doors opened wide as if in greeting. Out in the lot, a few men slept in their pick-ups, more comfortable in a Ford than a hospital chair. At the ambulance park a few paramedics laughed and smoked cigarettes. Edmund struggled to sit on a nearby bench, so I got a hand under his armpit, helped him down before taking the space beside him. I took the whiskey out of my coat pocket, swallowed a long snort and passed it.

He drummed on his leg again, and before I knew it his hands were reaching up inside his trousers, trying to unlatch whatever kept the prosthesis attached. He struggled for a moment and then pulled the fake limb from the cuff of his pants and set it on the bench between us as he rolled up his pant leg to expose the nub. The doctor’s cut looked fairly level with his knee, but the scar tissue was too fresh, the skin too much a patchwork of swollen raw purple to know just how much of him was lost. The end of his leg looked like something that might be growing, the red bud of a flower near bloom or a head of cabbage about to sprout open, and even though it had no business not continuing on into a real leg, somehow in the low lamp light of the parking lot it seemed a proper part of him, as much an organic thing in dismemberment as it had been when he’d still had a muscular calf.

“I couldn’t take that itch any longer,” he said.


When we reached the other side of the mountain, I was drenched in sweat that stung my eyes and my muscles ached from the hike. Edmund looked ready to drop, but Warren didn’t have any of our fatigue. He stalked ahead, my bow ready with a nocked arrow, the quiver hanging by his hip. A Daisy air rifle, something Edmund’s father used to kill squirrels in season, was strapped across Edmund’s back by a piece of twine. He said he brought it for protection.

We came down the hill towards the valley and stopped to look at the row of squat houses that made up Bradshaw. Small buildings with dirt yards and the remnants of tiny gardens overtaken by weeds. Wooden stakes stuck out of the ground in a row, pieces of cloth tied around them to hold the dead tomato vines. They looked like grave markers for infants buried on a forgotten trail. Chickens scrapped the dirt and wash hung heavy on slack lines. All the signs of life, but I saw no one outside on porches, no boys out to create mischief.

“This is stupid,” Edmund said. “Let’s go back.”

But Warren was already sliding downhill, moving quietly towards the camp. I looked to Edmund to see if he was serious about turning back, but I knew he would follow with me. Warren led our party forward, hunkered low through the high weeds as we approached the dirt road. Two vehicles sat by the road, a pickup and a dented Camaro with its backseat full of parts not yet replaced. We took cover behind the truck, and Warren moved to the end of the tailgate to watch the houses. He looked into the truck bed and turned back to us holding small bits of Styrofoam. Edmund took it from him, rubbing it between his fingers until the particles began to disintegrate. Warren stepped out into the road, moving around toward the back of the houses, chickens scattering as he crossed the yard. I tried to follow by hiding myself behind the stained sheets and other garments hung to dry. Behind the house, I could hear the voices of the Bradshaw boys, laughter that made my stomach clench.

There were five of them, three old and large enough to develop their first dusting of new beard. The other two were younger and recognizable as brothers from the same heavy brow and dark hair. The brothers stood looking pleased to be involved while the older boys leaned on a tree beside our target and spun stories to one another. The largest of the group gave wild gestures with his hands that brought more laughs.

“Too many,” I said to Edmund. I was already in retreat, stepping back into the shelter of the sheets and skirts, but I saw Warren was on one knee and ready to draw. I wanted to shout out to him, but knew the Bradshaw boys would grab us before we could hit the hill. I watched him draw the arrow back and consider the shot for a moment, his cheeks puffing as he breathed before his release. The arrow would fly true, and at such a distance, I knew at least one boy would die before anyone could stop him.

Behind me, Edmund began to head back up the mountain. I felt rooted in place. Something in me needed to watch it happen, to see the arrow strike something more substantial than our target. For a moment it seemed inevitable, then he slowly let the string go slack and snuck back towards me.

We were back along the hillside, near the overgrown game trail before any of us spoke again.

“I thought you were going to do it,” Edmund said. “I thought you were gonna drill one of the poor bastards.”

Warren stepped forward and fired an arrow down the path into the rear tire of the pick-up. He nocked another as the air hissed out and shot the front tire. He screamed and nocked another arrow.

“Holy shit,” Edmund said.

The Bradshaw boys began shouting from the backyard, the group coming around the side of the house and through the hanging wash. Warren dropped my bow and we ran up the mountainside, the arrows jostling in Warren’s quiver, the sound of the boys close behind us and tearing through the thicket. We were moving hard, losing the trail as we crashed through the foliage, the path farther behind us and the only thing recognizable the sound of the boys chasing us. I remember wondering how we’d find home, if it might not be better to just crouch behind the tall ferns and oaks and hope the group passed me by, but I kept running. At the time, it felt as if I was running for my life, moving swift to avoid getting my guts stomped out, but now I know we were simply hurrying towards the inevitable. All of us rushing into a future where limbs would be lost in desert wars, a liver pickled by breakfast beer and, eventually, each of us severed from one another by the slow erosion of time.