The firm grasp of poverty and the ongoing cycle of violence provide the backdrop for Barbed Wire Heart, Tess Sharpe’s harrowing story of the love-hate relationship between a young woman and her widower father in a rural, meth-fueled community. A critical success in hardback (with a film version in development from Margot Robbie’s company) it’s out next week in paperback from Grand Central Publishing, and we’ve got an excerpt from its opening chapter. Warning: it’s a grabber.
FROM CHAPTER ONE
I’m eight years old the first time I watch my daddy kill a man.
I’m not supposed to see. But those first few weeks after Momma died, whenever Uncle Jake isn’t around, I’m just running wild.
I spend a lot of time in the woods, playing up in the deer blinds or seeing how high I can get in the trees on my own steam. Sometimes I cry over missing Momma. Sometimes I can’t help it.
I try not to do it around Daddy, though.
I like the woods. They’re loud and quiet at the same time, the soundtrack and lullaby of my life for as long as I can remember. When I climb the big oaks, pulling myself up with all my might, reaching and jumping and swinging my body along branch and bark like a squirrel, I have to pay attention or I might slip and fall. When I climb, I don’t have to think about Momma being gone. Or about how all Daddy does now is storm around in a whiskey cloud, cleaning his guns and muttering about Springfields and blood.
Momma’s been dead for three and a half weeks, and already the skin on my palms is worn rough from climbing. My knees are scabbed over from the time I fell out of the tall redwood near the creek. My fingers are stained with blackberry juice, and my arms get scratched from the thorns. My pockets bulge with the treasures I find in the forest—things she would’ve liked: blue jay feathers and smooth rocks perfect for skipping, a cracked acorn that looks like a face.
I stash my gifts from the forest in one of the deer blinds. Uncle Jake promised he’d take me back to Momma’s grave even though Daddy glared at him when he said it. I want to bring her my presents, because Uncle Jake says she’s in heaven looking down on us.
Sometimes I stare up at the sky and try to imagine it. Try to see her.
But there’s nothing but branches and stars.
Daddy doesn’t notice how much I’m gone, warm in the forest’s hold. He’s got other things on his mind.
That night, after I watched the sunset, looking for a trace of Momma in the night sky, I’m still perched in the oak near the edge of the garden, the one that has a good straight branch for sitting. It’s getting late and I should go inside, but I hear the sound of truck tires crunching on the gravel road that leads through the woods to our house. I tuck my feet up and out of sight before the headlights of Daddy’s Chevy round the curve and flood the garden.
With my bare feet pressing up against the trunk for balance, I stretch myself belly down on the limb. I wrap my arms around it in a hug and crane my neck to get a better view.
If he’s drunk again, I don’t want him to see me, because I look like her. It makes him sad. Sometimes it makes him angry, but he tries to hide it.
Instead of pulling up next to the house like normal, he drives right under the tree, toward the rough road leading to the barn, parking right in front of the doors. The light on the barn flips on, the sensor detecting the movement.
I watch from a distance as he cuts the headlights and gets out. Daddy’s not stumble-down drunk, but it’s too far to see if he’s covered in his own sick like last week. I’m about to swing down from the tree, but instead of heading toward the house, he walks over to the passenger side of the truck and pulls the door open.
I squint in the darkness. He’s almost completely hidden by shadows as he drags something big out of the cab. He yanks the barn door open and the light shifts, just for a second. A beam illuminates the doorway, and I catch a glimpse of a man’s feet being dragged across the barn floor before the door slams shut.
My breath comes quick and fast, so hard my belly’s scraping against the rough bark. My fingers tighten on the branch as my heart hammers and the world spins. I want to dig inside the oak like the woodpeckers and squirrels do. I want to burrow and hide.
I try to tell myself my eyes are playing tricks on me.
But deep down, I know better.
A few minutes later—it seems like forever, my breath and the chirp of the crickets echoing in my ears—the outside barn light snaps off, and darkness creeps through the trees, spreading across the property.
I should climb down and run into my room and shut the door and pull my quilts over my head. I should pretend I never saw those feet being dragged across the ground.
I don’t, though.
Instead I climb down the tree and head toward the barn.
I could say I regret the choice, looking back, but that’s just foolishness.
I had to learn somehow. What he was. What I would be.
This was how for me.
Excerpted from “Barbed Wire Heart” by Tess Sharpe. Copyright © 2018 by Tess Sharpe and reprinted with permission from Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.