Let Me Out Here: Stories by Emily W. Pease (Hub City Press, 2019).
If the cover image of Emily W. Pease’s new short story collection—a stone-faced little girl staring squarely at the camera, legs planted on a desolate gravel road, grasping a snake’s torso one-handed as its tail creeps up the hemline of her dress—doesn’t grab your attention, the urgency of its title surely will: Let Me Out Here. The winner of the C. Michael Curtis Short Story Book Prize and published by Hub City Press, the stories in this collection fulfill their title’s promise, taking the reader on a winding, sinewy road trip through the American South and making pit stops along the way. These stories, ranging greatly in length and point of view, though rarely in tone, often begin mid-action, lending to an overall feeling in this collection that works to great effect, not uncommon to anyone who has ever fallen asleep during a car trip and startled awake, alert and disoriented at the same time: Where are we? Despite being dropped off in different states (North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia) and decades (from the era of communal dorm telephones to our present-day mobile devices), these stories are all stops on the same journey, allowing us a peek—and sometimes a long, hard stare—into the conflicted, unpredictable lives of the souls we meet along the way.
Though the stories in Let Me Out Here aren’t linked, the first two give us an idea of what so many of Pease’s characters have in common: trapped in the consequences of one big mistake, they are on the precipice of making another. In “Submission,” a young boy follows his family on a dangerous attempt to cure his sister’s ailing baby in what they believe will be a healing waterfall. They are outcasts, as so many of these characters are, dragging a cheap stroller over slippery and steep terrain, arriving at the falls in time for their mother to speak in tongues while the baby struggles painfully to breathe. Though the son is aware of their strangeness, he allows himself a mix of pride and shame in their nonconformity: “To be a Cooper you had to be a certain kind of brave. Brave enough to be shunned and to shun in return. Brave enough to be in this world but not of this world.” After the trip takes a tragic turn, the boy feels the true weight of his family’s stubbornness, their so-called braveness. Shocked into “this world” at last, he heads “toward the highway, where I’d take my chances.”
In “Fall,” a thirty-year-old woman becomes a child again, hiding out in her parents’ home after a shamefully irresponsible evening at a veterinarian’s office. To avoid confronting their circumstances, she and her parents focus their attention on a splintered, threatening tree in their front yard. Though her self-pity clouds her ability to feel empathy for her father, whose recovery from an agonizing back injury has stalled, she is able to relate to the indigent family next door, responsible for the menacing tree. “How was it that life worked this way,” she thinks, “that one person’s tragedy could intersect with another’s, unbeknownst to both…” Ultimately, her own tragedy intersects not with theirs, but her father’s, when she shares her club drugs with him and a merry neighborhood walk turns fateful as they lie under the splitting tree. Both of these stories end outdoors, on or near the street, a common refrain in Pease’s work: these lives are difficult, but they aren’t dead-ends—not with the opportunity for escape just a hitched ride away.