Not Quite Right

by Michael Gray

Halfway over the Ashby River Bridge, their burgundy pickup started to slide.

This was on the way to school one Monday. Conner Hamblin had his head propped against the passenger window so he could stare out at the bare trees and white fields, then the ice floes once the river came into view.

When the tires first lost traction, his father swore under his breath. They hadn’t been going very fast, but the bridge sloped downhill toward an intersection with Route 17. He dialed the wheel, pumped the brakes. Up ahead, a morning procession of trucks from the Perry Gravel Yard mingled with the commuter crowd.

The pickup’s tail end drifted left of center. Conner’s dad revved the engine, swore again. As the tires chewed at the black ice for a grip, the boy felt the shift of his own body weight against the passenger door.

Then his father said it: “Love you, Conner.”

They hadn’t been getting along since the evening before, but now the man looked right at him a moment, all the tension from earlier seeming to channel over to the task at hand.

A shudder passed through the vehicle as the left fender scraped against the guardrail, followed by the headlight. Glass popped, metal flexed and groaned.

But that was the end of it.

Their truck came to rest about twelve yards from the intersection. They were alone on the bridge, the pickup now perpendicular to the double yellow lines.

After venting a deep-chested sigh, his dad climbed out and stood examining the damage. He stooped over at different angles, shaking his head, pulling his coat collar tight. Back in the driver’s seat, he said it wasn’t that bad.

Still breathing a little fast, the boy thought, but already regaining his reserve.

Conner knew he’d glimpsed something important in his father, a relaxing of sorts in what he probably thought could be his last words to his son. But the moment had passed, the atmosphere constricting back to where it had been.

With one cautious adjustment at a time, his father straightened the pickup and got it back on the road.

“Never do salt these back streets early enough.”

The only other thing he said on the matter, almost to himself.


In that small corner of Kentucky there wasn’t much physical distance between city and country, but the social borders were clearly drawn.

Conner and his parents were country. They rented a house less than three miles outside the city limits, a detail that under normal circumstances would’ve landed Conner in the county school system. For the last four years, though, he’d been attending Prater Independent, a tiny academy that only catered to about three hundred city students per year.

The old red-brick building sat on the summit of a steep rise only two blocks uphill from the nearest county school. Conner’s dad worked for the superintendent’s office and had appealed for the right to bypass Prater’s waitlist for medical reasons.

Conner wasn’t a gifted student. At the time of his transfer, the reasoning had been that a change in approach or atmosphere might bring about positive developments. Prater Independent led the region in academics. Their extracurricular activities emphasized chess and debate teams rather than traditional sports, and the students enjoyed a more relaxed approach to instruction. The teachers there had been very patient so far, understanding, but it didn’t seem to be making much difference.

Conner was repeating fifth grade this year, just as he’d repeated the third. He was a bit older than his classmates, a bit taller and heavier. In gym that fall a boy, Ronnie Fugate, watched him running laps. Loud enough to hear, he said Conner jiggled like a water balloon with bones. And Conner had laughed along with the rest because he loved to run and maybe didn’t understand exactly what Ronnie meant. Always easier to laugh.

Not as fast as the other kids. Not as smart, unless it was math. Teachers would say that in general he was easy company, a good helper, never apt to be bashful or sullen. Just different.

Conner had been called many other things too: thoughtful and cheerful and special and unique. Awkward, maybe. A little off. Harmless.

Not quite right was the most common. His parents never seemed satisfied with it as a diagnosis, but it was enough of an explanation to get by on, and Conner was a boy who needed to be explained. In lowered voices his parents would broach the subject and the newly initiated would soften their guard, sizing the boy up expectantly, but the proof they wanted was in the details and often required even more explanations.

No, he wasn’t retarded.

No, he wasn’t crazy or even mentally ill, really.

(But the way an idea could get inside that boy’s head. Once he tethered himself to a notion there was no derailing him, like when he wore his snow boots all summer long that time, no matter how much his parents scolded or his peers poked fun. If it made sense to Conner, you had to let it play out. There wasn’t much else you could do).

He’d been born over a month premature, started exhibiting very minor signs of developmental delay around his second birthday. He could read, write, converse, comprehend most things. He clothed and cleaned and fed himself without any more prompting than your average thirteen-year-old boy required.

He just wasn’t quite right.


The steep road leading up to Prater Independent was jeweled with salt crystals, though the sun had already done most of the melt work. Conner’s dad was able to get up to the entrance without any more problems. He pulled to the curb and unlocked the doors, but neither of them stirred.

Other vehicles came and parked—children hopped down, waved, moved on, but the burgundy pickup stayed fixed.

Something needed to be said.

Conner unbuckled his seatbelt, balanced his schoolbag on his lap. A brown maple leaf tapped down against the mud-speckled windshield.

“You keep your distance today,” his dad said. “You hear me?”

Not looking at him this time. Sounding edgy. Spent.

“Stay away from Regan. Don’t even say hi, understand?”

Conner leaned over and rested his head on his dad’s shoulder. The man gave a slight tremor in response, like he was holding some emotion at bay. “Alright, that’s enough. Come on. Get inside.”

But the boy didn’t answer or move. Not for another thirty seconds or so.

Only recently had Conner’s behavior raised any real concerns.

Not even two days ago—a cold, cloudy Saturday afternoon—an impatient knocking at the front door had startled the Hamblin household.

Mr. Turley, a distant neighbor, was greeted and ushered into the foyer by Conner’s parents, but the man’s errand was not a pleasant one. Before long he was nearly shouting.

The Turley family owned a house two miles up the mountain, at the head of a small neighborhood. Mr. Turley and his wife lived there with an older son from a former marriage.

And Regan, their daughter.

Regan Turley—the lovely name no longer a secret now that it reverberated through the Hamblins’ rental house on Old Hallow Road. Conner’s parents did their best to appear firm and evenhanded, but barely spoke as Regan’s father raged on.

Evidence! Footprints in the snow leading in and out of the woods behind the Turley residence—boots, size nine. The prints were all over the backyard, stamped outside several of the windows, including Regan’s bedroom, where Conner had obviously lingered. There was even a wide patch of yellow snow beside the backdoor.

Mr. Turley’s voice only grew steadier and more deliberate as the subject of legal action surfaced. “This is not harmless,” the man finally said. “You keep him away from my home. And my daughter.”

With this, he thundered out of the house, leaving the front door open behind him.


Much later in life Conner would come to better understand the concept of euphemism. Not quite right was not wrong. Rather it was the uneasy middle ground that preceded wrong—a state that made others anxious, like watching a scale levering between opposing weights.

Conner had never felt such a tilt in the weights before now. His parents had been astonished at the distance he’d gone on foot, and in that weather! A four mile round trip through the woods to the Turley house. How did he even know where they lived? His mother thought he’d been going down to play in the nearby valley.

Conner hadn’t volunteered anything about the other trips he’d taken up to the Turley house, mostly because it’d never felt wrong before.

Regan Turley was new to Prater Independent this year.

Almost twelve, a country girl fresh from the academy’s waitlist. Caramel eyes, short brown hair. Her legs far too long for her torso, but so beautiful Conner had a difficult time thinking about anything else when she was around.

Her locker stood across the hall from his. She sat beside him in homeroom and smiled a lot in the mornings when so many others still wanted to sleep. Regan already seemed to know a number of their classmates when she arrived last August, but she tended to be less dismissive of Conner than the rest.

It felt like an invitation, so he’d gotten into the habit of talking to her regularly, though maybe sometimes too often. She listened and reacted so readily that he found it hard to know when to stop, even at those times when she clearly became restless and uncomfortable. Then he would apologize profusely. “It’s fine,” she’d say, “But I’m gonna go now.”

She’d retreat and in a day or two he’d talk to her again.

And so it went.

Seeing her greet her friends that Monday, bright and unguarded, Conner almost forgot about all the trouble with her father on Saturday. In fact, he couldn’t wait to tell her all about the truck sliding that morning. It wasn’t until Regan took off her coat and sat at a desk on the other side of the room that the thought occurred to him: she knows I was up there—her father told her.

It was the first time Regan hadn’t acknowledged him.

Conner felt nauseous with regret. She didn’t gesture in his direction and no heads turned to examine him. She didn’t point or wince or laugh—nothing at all.

Regan Turley simply ignored him.


One afternoon last November he’d watched, hidden away at the forest’s edge, as three girls played outside: Regan with her neighbors Jenna and Molly Combs.

A chilled, sunny, windy day. Bare-limbed trees rackled like bones overhead, but the tall pines running along the side of Regan’s house whispered and swayed much more gracefully.

The girls swung from the lowest branches of these trees, all chatters and giggles.

They were trying to muster the courage to see who could climb the highest. None of them made it very far, but Regan froze only a few feet off the ground, paralyzed. Hugging the closest limb, she laughed at her own fear and had a hard time coming down.

Conner was a terrific climber.

His climbing had made his mom nervous so many times, but he was calm and surefooted, always drawn to heights. He almost ran out of hiding to help Regan then, suddenly eager to show her how much better he could do, but the spirit of the girls’ game vanished as soon as Regan touched back down to the yard. Not a moment later the three of them darted off to play elsewhere, out of sight.


This memory occupied Conner’s mind as the school day carried on, steadily incubating into an idea.

His teachers would say that he did seem more distracted than usual. Introspective, maybe. Private.

Nothing that raised any alarms.


Recess for grades four through eight took place in the lot behind the main school building. Many of the older kids collected in nooks along the brick walls to talk. Others played or mingled in the open sunlight, which had warmed the city considerably since morning.

Bordering the far side of the lot was an eight foot chain-link fence, weatherworn and in need of repair. The kids weren’t allowed to touch it, but some liked to gaze out through the links at the surrounding mountain range or throw stones over the top.

Just beyond the fence, a narrow earthen ledge marked the beginning of a slope that measured over two hundred feet down to Setser Valley Road. Almost a sheer drop. There weren’t many rocks or trees on the slope, but an ashy carpet of winter-dried kudzu strangled the landscape from the fence line all the way down to the road.

Conner knew a secret about that fence, so he waited beside the building’s door and said, “Hi, Regan” as soon as she stepped out.

The pretty girl slowed her pace and shook her head. “Hi.”

He trailed after her as she made her way toward a group of girls. “My dad told me not to talk to you anymore,” she said.


Regan stopped and turned. “What did you do?”


“Well he was really mad. Said I need to stay away from that Hamblin boy from now on.”

Conner paused, not sure at first how to begin. “I wanted to tell you something that happened this morning on the bridge.”

Regan looked at the girls standing ten yards away—they hadn’t noticed her yet.

“Can I tell you?”

She sighed. “I guess. Hurry up.”

Conner motioned her to follow and didn’t continue talking until they were standing beside a distant section of the fence.

Once there, he told her about the black ice and the river, the way the truck slid and grated against the guardrail until it came to a stop. He described ice floes and the fractured look on his dad’s face when he said he loved him.

Regan seemed decently interested at that point. “You really got in an accident?”

“Well, when my dad said that, I saw something. It just…it makes so much sense.”

“What’d you see?”

Conner took her hand and said he could show her.

He pulled at a gap in the metal links, which parted like a small curtain. “I think you’re afraid of heights,” he said. “You ever been out there before?”

Regan shook her head.

“Come on. It’s high but you’ll see it yourself. We gotta hurry though.”

Before she could plant her feet or protest, Conner tugged her roughly through the gap and onto the ledge.

When her hair caught momentarily on a sharp link, she cried out.

Conner apologized—he was rushing, feeling too eager—but in an instant Regan had turned frantic, screaming, “Mr. Merrill! Mr. Merrill, help! Stop it!”

Shattering his ears. Jerking until he had to tighten his grip.

Students and teachers sprinted over to see what all the commotion was about. Mr. Merrill and Mrs. Lenox yelled Conner’s name, but he didn’t answer.

They were so near the edge already—if he could just show her. Like the truck sliding toward Route 17 that morning, picking up speed. Even though Conner couldn’t explain it, he’d felt the gravity of the moment, the danger, his father’s expression—affection superseding everything else. It made so much sense!

Hugging Regan close enough now that he was practically carrying her, Conner tried to explain his idea. But she screamed so loud, and with everyone else shouting in the background—

Setser Valley Road was a narrow brown line over two hundred feet below.

He asked Regan if she felt it yet, but she was glaring at the drop off, wide-eyed, not even seeing him anymore.

“Just look at me a second,” Conner said, irritated that the idea wasn’t working. “I love you, Regan.”

He squeezed her a bit harder, trying to force eye contact and aiming to match the tone his father had used.

“I love you.”

Mike Gray received his MFA from Florida Atlantic University in 2012 and currently serves as an English Instructor at Hazard Community and Technical College in Kentucky. His fiction has appeared in The Baltimore Review, Carte Blanche, Fiction Southeast, and others.