Dead End / Part One
Joe woke to her head thumping hard against the door of the cab as it pulled to a rough stop. The driver called an obscene number back to her. She rifled through her wallet for some cash, shoving it at him with a mumbled thank-you before kicking open the door and stepping out into the muggy Georgia heat.
It was exactly as bad as she remembered.
The trunk clicked open behind her, and she obligingly retrieved her small wheeled suitcase and the heavy-duty camera pack her boss had insisted she bring with her. This trip was not meant to be an assignment, but that didn’t matter to the shrewd Steve Bortelli. It had only taken one word to have him demanding a story: Appalachia. Ignored for a generation, this middle-of-nowhere region was suddenly the hot issue in the post-2016 world. What do the people of Appalachia want? What do they need? How can Democrats reach them? Why does Trump’s message speak to them?
Joe had a question of her own: Who cares?
She’d left this place for a reason. This would not be a long return visit.
Slamming the trunk lid down, she finally turned to face home-sweet-home. It was falling apart. To be fair, it hadn’t been much better ten years ago. The once blue paint had peeled off the wooden slats in splotchy patches, and what was left had faded into an uneven dull gray. Half the shutters were falling off or missing. There was a plastic bag taped over a missing window pane in the upstairs hall, and the railing on the front porch was so rotted that it might crumple to the ground if you so much as breathed on it.
But the worst part of the whole house was sitting on the porch in that old creaky rocking chair that had been there since God created dirt.
“Well, if it isn’t Josie May, back from the big city.”
“Skinner,” she replied by way of greeting, then heaved her pack up the steps. “Don’t bother getting up.”
“Oh, I won’t,” he assured her, sucking on the cigarette dangling between his fingers.
She kicked the front door open, letting it slam against the wall.
“Otey,” she called out, not really expecting a reply. She didn’t get one, either.
Leaving the pack in the small kitchen, she stepped into the living room and was suddenly transported back in time. Everything was exactly the same as the day she left. The same yellowing wallpaper with the ugly flowers. The same worn, overstuffed furniture. The same smell of stale cigarettes mixed with that lemon cleaning stuff. And there was Otey, huddled in front of the ancient television that was big enough to be a table, face two inches from the screen. Right where he’d been when she had stormed out a decade earlier.
Except it was no longer a boy she was staring at, but a man. He’d grown. Somehow she hadn’t expected that.
“Otey,” she said again. Still no response. She felt that old annoyance creep in. Walking over to him, she waved a hand in front of his face, blocking the colorful cartoons that flashed across the screen. He pushed at her hand, grunting at the interruption but not bothering to look up at her.
She sighed, forcing herself to drop her hand and turn away. “Don’t sit so close to the screen,” she repeated the same words she’d said countless times before. As always, he ignored them.
Striding back into the kitchen, she popped open the fridge and was gratified to find two beers inside. No food, but there had always been beer. She’d need to find a way to the general store later. Here’s hoping that old Ford still runs, she thought as she took a swig and made her way back to the porch.
It was still occupied.
“What do you want,” she grumbled without looking at the old man.
“Now, what kinda way is that to say thank you?”
“What could I possibly have to thank you for?”
He nodded his head toward the living room window. “I been watchin’ over that boy since your ma passed. Three whole days.” He said it as if this was some impressive feat.
Joe shrugged. “He’s a grown man. He doesn’t need to be looked after.”
Skinner made a tsk tsk sound before launching into a coughing fit. “We both know that ain’t true,” he said once he had recovered.
Joe kept her mouth shut. She did know it wasn’t true. Her little brother may be twenty-three now, but he was mentally the same age he’d always been. Five.
She was standing barefoot at the bottom of the stairs, staring at the closed door. The cries had woken her from her sleep every night that week, but she was too afraid to open that door and see what was on the other side. Her nightgown clung to the cold sweat dripping down her small, twelve-year-old frame. The sobbing grew louder, with yelps of pain or fear breaking the monotony. A grunting, one loud cry, then silence. She reached for the doorknob, felt it turn in her hand…
“Ya wanna offer yer guest a drink?” Skinner’s voice sent the ghosts of the past skittering away.
She didn’t respond, but tipped the can back and swallowed the remaining beer. Crumpling the can, she tossed it in his direction. It clunked along the wooden floor until it dropped off the edge into the dead rosebushes. With a few swift steps, she retrieved her suitcase from the dirt patch that served as the driveway. She paused at the door only long enough to give him one last loathing look.
“Get off my property.”
The door slammed shut behind her.
* * *
Joe leaned against the doorframe leading into her mother’s bedroom. It hadn’t changed much. The large bed was neatly made, which might have been a first. But everything else looked about the same. It would make sense for her to sleep in here. It was the largest bed, and Joe had already discovered that her tiny upstairs bedroom had been turned into storage. The bed she had slept in her entire life was buried under piles of boxes and various holiday decorations, all of it coated in a thick layer of dust. She doubted whether anyone had even gone up those stairs in years.
Her suitcase sat on the floor next to her, and she nudged it idly with her foot, watching the little wheels spin around underneath. There was almost an invisible barrier preventing her from entering the room. Like one of those energy force fields out of a second-rate sci fi movie. She could hear the faint sounds of the cartoons Otey was still glued to in the next room, and with a sigh realized she would end up sleeping in there. On the couch. Shit.
She kicked her suitcase back down the hall and closed the door to her mother’s room without another glance. It was too crowded in this house, every corner filled with ghosts Joe would rather forget. Three days, she told herself. Three days to wrap up her mother’s estate, find a place for her brother, then get back on the plane to New York and pretend this whole town didn’t exist. She could manage three days. Even if she didn’t get the story her boss demanded. Hell, she could make something up. She’d lived here long enough to speak the language.
In the living room, Otey was curled into a ball on the floor in front of the TV. His eyes were closed, mouth hanging open slightly in his sleep. A stab of something resembling emotion hit her in the stomach as he transformed back into the little brother she had loved. He’d always been a pretty child. His silky black hair was just long enough to cover his eyes when it flopped down in his face after running into the room. He’d laughed easily as a child. One of the many sounds that still haunted this place, echoing off the walls from a time long gone. She hadn’t heard that laugh in twenty years. Not since the Otey she’d loved became the Otey that existed now: silent, stoic, stunted. He’d stopped speaking completely after the assault. Stopped smiling. Stopped…everything. For days afterward, she’d pleaded with him. When that didn’t work, she’d cried and yelled and smacked him in the face. She’d only been a child herself. She didn’t understand. Even now, she still couldn’t reconcile the facts to possibly understand.
Joe leaned down, brushing long dark strands from his face. His hair was longer than it had been when she’d left, almost down to his shoulders. She wondered if her mother had even noticed. She’d always seemed to forget he was around, too busy running wild with her latest boyfriend. It had been Joe who had always taken care of Otey. He was the only reason she’d stayed as long as she had. But everyone had a breaking point, and when her mother had brought that demon home again to live in the same house as Otey and her, she’d reached hers.
It had been a blowout fight. One for the record books. Bottles smashed against walls, fists colliding with skulls. The cops had come. Skinner had called them, she’d later found out. Claimed he couldn’t sleep with such racket. But everyone knew he wasn’t trying to sleep before three a.m. Just wanted to be part of the drama, like always.
She’d left him here, in this house. Her little brother, practically her own child, in the hands of the devil and the useless woman who had given birth to them. She’d regretted it almost immediately, had even tried to come back for him once, but she’d been met by James and the wrong end of a shotgun. He’d given her ten seconds to get out of the way of the bullet. She hadn’t tried again.
Rubbing her hands roughly against her face, Joe tried to dispel the dark thoughts threatening to drag her down. It had been foolish to think she could stay in this house, but it was too late now to try the motel. Tomorrow, she decided as she sank into the overstuffed loveseat. Her legs hung over the armrest awkwardly, and she knew she’d be sore in the morning. She turned on her side, trying another position. Otey snored softly where he lay, oblivious to her tossing.
Maybe it was all her fault, that he was still this way now. If she hadn’t left, or if she’d taken him with her that night, maybe he could have come back. Or maybe she should have killed that fiend herself the night she’d walked in on him in Otey’s room.
Yeah, that’s exactly what she should have done.
* * *
Joe woke up feeling hungover, despite the fact that she’d only had one beer the night before. It had gone straight to her head, thanks to the complete lack of alcohol in her life lately. There’d been a time in her life when one beer had been breakfast. It was a positive change, she knew, but she still felt the tiniest bit of shame at her new admission to the “lightweight’s club.” Groaning, she peeled herself off the vinyl couch cushions and pinched her stiff neck. Otey was gone, though he likely wasn’t far away. Probably in his room. She flexed her toes in the shag carpet, pinpricks of feeling waking her feet as she tried to convince herself to stand. Her head pounded but she forced herself to her feet anyway.
“Otey,” she called in a hoarse voice.
No response, of course. He’d been basically a mute for years. She stretched luxuriously, feeling her bones pop and crack. Padding her way down the hall, she poked her head into his bedroom. No sign of him. She returned to the living room, listening for a tell-tale sign of life. A tiny clattering from the kitchen was the clue she needed, and sure enough Otey was sitting at the kitchen table, leaning over a bowl of frosted O’s. His spoon was frozen halfway to his mouth and dripping milk onto the table as his eyes were glued on the newspaper. The comics, she realized as she moved closer.
“You’re up early,” she said, ruffling his hair as she picked up the cereal box and poured a bowl for herself. As she ate, she examined the funny cartoon owl on the back of the box. “I haven’t had these in forever. I wonder why they chose an owl. I mean, do they make these from owls? That’d be gross.” She made a face, sticking out her tongue in mock disgust, hoping for at least a smile from her brother. He didn’t even bother to look at her.
Joe sighed. “We gotta go into town today,” she grumbled, all fake playfulness gone. “You want to come?”
Otey shrugged. He surely knew he didn’t have a choice, though even she had to admit it would be easier without him tagging along. They finished breakfast in silence, and Joe spent several minutes rummaging through the cabinets for coffee. What kind of cretins didn’t have coffee on hand at all times? She slammed the last cabinet in defeat.
“Tell me they’ve put in a Starbucks downtown since I left,” she whined. Silence was her answer. “That’s what I figured.”
* * *
The Ford sputtered to life after only four tries, which Joe considered a miracle sent from above. They rumbled into town, with only the roar of the engine and the whistle of the wind through the cracked windows for a soundtrack. First stop would have to be Hot Wheels, the over-the-top diner-style restaurant Joe had worked at for years after leaving her mother’s house. The gleaming mirror-like exterior was impossible to miss, even on the busy main strip of downtown. It was out of place in an otherwise typical mountain town. What had possessed Sadie, the owner, to open such an oddity here was beyond her. But then, Sadie was on the flashy side herself. Since she’d breezed in as a pregnant seventeen year old and put down roots, she had always seemed bigger than a small town like Garfield’s Crossing could hold. She had become as much a part of this place as the Crimson River.
It was this very quality that made her the first stop on Joe’s ambitious list for today.
Get the dirt (and coffee!) from Sadie.
Sell the house.
Find a place for Otey.
It was unrealistic, sure. But a girl could dream.
The little bell attached to the glass door clinked as she pushed into the near-empty diner. Normally, there were customers filling the room. But it was early, and Sadie was most known for her pie. It wasn’t quite pie time yet, so the few eyes that were in the place immediately found Joe. She could almost feel the tension climb as people looked away instantly.
“Josie May! My girl has come home at last!”
Sadie rushed at her, blond curls bouncing along beautifully behind her. Like one of those Baywatch girls running on the beach. Except significantly more clothed, and more than a bit older. Joe was immediately suffocated in a too-tight hug. She patted Sadie awkwardly on the back while subtly trying to pull away.
“It’s actually just Joe now, and I’m only visiting,” she corrected when Sadie let her go.
“Whatever you say, little girl.” She slapped one of the sparkly red bar stools. “Sit down. I’ll get you a coffee.”
“Bless you,” Joe said gratefully, sliding onto the stool as Sadie breezed behind the bar. Otey stood awkwardly behind her, apparently unwilling to commit to a seat.
“So? Tell me everything! How’s the job?”
Joe shrugged. “It’s alright. I’m getting regular assignments now, and they’re sending me out of the city more. I’m hoping to pick up some international stories next year.”
“Mmm. Exotic. I’d tell you to take pictures, but…” Sadie nodded to the camera that hung at Joe’s hip. She laughed at her own joke, and Joe rolled her eyes. Just like the old days.
Sadie pushed a mug of steaming coffee toward Joe and a hot chocolate to Otey, whose eyes widened in awe before gulping it down greedily. Sadie watched him a moment then leaned down on the counter, resting her chin in her hands and staring up at Joe innocently. “How about the men? Found any particularly interesting ones yet?”
“No,” Joe said flatly.
Sadie laughed again, standing up straight as she nodded to another customer walking in the door. “Never hurts to ask! Be right back, sugar.”
While she waited, Joe scrounged a section of newspaper from a nearby table and flipped through the headlines as she sipped her coffee. It wasn’t her paper, but she knew a lot of the names listed by the photos. She paid particular attention to the international articles, and the photos they chose to accompany them. She could do better than that. This year was her year, her turn. She just had to prove it to her boss and, though she hated to admit it, this Appalachia story he so desperately wanted might be the answer. Absently, her hand found her camera and pulled it onto her lap. She flipped it on and started rotating through the images she took that morning around the house. They were boring. Garfield’s Crossing may tout itself as the “Gateway to Appalachia,” but that sure didn’t make it interesting.
“I thought I heard Sadie squealing,” a shy voice said from behind the counter.
Joe’s head snapped up to find a very grown-up Marydella Thomas grinning down at her. “Marydella?! Look at you! You’ve gotten…”
Joe snorted. “I was going to say taller. But yeah!”
Marydella shrugged, an impish grin on her face. “Had to happen eventually, right?”
Joe continued to gape at her.
“God, Josie, take a picture. It’ll last longer,” she sang at her, then stuck her tongue out. “Otey! My favorite customer! Want some pie?” Otey beamed at her. “Coming right up.”
“It’s not even ten,” Joe protested.
“So? It’s got fruit in it. Perfectly healthy breakfast,” Marydella reasoned as she plated a slice and slid it across the counter to Otey. “I was sorry to hear about your mom,” she said in a voice meant only for Joe’s ears.
Joe took a sip of her coffee. “Really? I wasn’t.”
“Josie May,” Marydella said sternly. “You don’t mean that.”
Another sip. “It’s just Joe now, actually.”
Marydella cocked an eyebrow. “Like from Little Women?”
“Sure. Except with an ‘e’ at the end. Like the man’s name. Joe.”
Her nose scrunched up in distaste. “Why?”
Joe raised her camera into view above the counter. “They take you more seriously when they don’t know you’re a woman.”
“I don’t know,” Marydella said skeptically, looking pointedly down at Joe’s chest. “Seems pretty obvious to me, no matter what spelling you use.”
Joe flicked a rogue crumb on the counter at her. “I mean on paper, dummy.”
Marydella giggled as she grabbed a cloth and began to wipe down the counter. Sadie reappeared then, sliding down onto a stool next to Joe’s.
“Listen, sugar. I’d love it if you came by tonight so we can catch up. I’ve been letting Rhett handle the evening shifts now that I’m,” she looked around suspiciously, then leaned closer to Joe and whispered, “getting older.”
Joe gave an exaggerated gasp. Sadie gave her a stern look.
“Don’t you dare tell a soul I said it.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Joe assured her in mock seriousness.
“Good. Now, you need to go see the Sheriff. He asked me to send you his way when you got here. Guess he figured you’d come to me first. But he has some things for you, urgent things about your mom’s estate.”
“Right. ‘Estate’,” Joe said sarcastically.
Sadie gave her a sympathetic look, then patted her knee before standing up again. The woman never stopped moving. “I’ll see you tonight, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Joe confirmed.
Sadie leaned over and gave Otey a kiss on the cheek. “Later, handsome!” She winked at him before turning back to her customers.
Joe pulled a wrinkled $20 from her pocket and slid it across the counter to Marydella, who stared at it as if it were a slimy slug. “Yeah, right. Put that thing away and get out of here.” She whipped the cloth at Joe’s hand affectionately before taking up their dirty dishes and heading toward the kitchen.
Joe smiled after her childhood best friend who had somehow grown into an adult while she was away. Watching her as she leaned over the counter to point to something on the menu, and the old man who didn’t hide the fact that he was staring down her blouse, Joe couldn’t resist pulling out her camera. Steve wanted Appalachia, and she’d give him what she knew.
* * *
The police station was near empty when Joe and Otey arrived. No cars out front, anyway. That might make this easier, she thought. And preferably it would be a quick stop. There were several others to make today. She’d convinced Otey to wait in the car, not wanting to subject him to the tension inherent in the presence of cops. It wasn’t that he hadn’t seen them at the house before, but coming to their turf was a different story, as she personally knew all too well.
The door shut without a sound to announce her arrival, but every officer looked up immediately anyway. Trained to sense a change in the room, she guessed. Her fingernails dug into her sweaty palms. This might be her least favorite place in town. The last time she’d been here… all the blood-- No. She shut down the memory. She would not relive that today.
“Josie May Adams, as I live and breathe. What brings you into the station? Here to turn yourself in?” Mazzy Euler stood up at a desk he’d been leaning over with another cop she didn’t recognize.
“I figured it was time,” she joked back, filling her voice with fake bravado.
He shook a pair of silver cuffs at her. “Well, come on over. Got a cell with your name on it.”
This was getting uncomfortably real. Her eyes dropped to the ground as her nails dug in harder. “The sheriff around,” she asked, changing the subject.
Mazzy nodded his head in the direction of the sheriff’s office. “Go on back.”
Joe nodded her thanks before quickly retreating to the back of the building. The door was open a sliver, but she knocked anyway.
“Come in,” Sheriff Abernathy Jackson’s deep voice summoned her in. “Josie May. Good to see you. Got a call you might be coming by today.”
She nodded, unsure of what to say or do next. He intimidated her, always had. She knew he was fair, and she’d never forget that she owed her freedom and sanity to him, but she also knew he could take it away at a moment’s notice.
“Have a seat,” he said, motioning to the chairs on the opposite side of his desk. She obliged, and he pushed a large orange envelope toward her. “Mr. Galloway dropped this off and asked me to give it to you.”
Her fingers touched it tentatively, but she didn’t take it. “Mr. Galloway?”
“He’s been handling your mother’s papers since her passing. Putting everything together. There’s not much, but death always comes with paperwork.”
“Right,” she replied.
“You’ll need to read through those. There are a few things to sign, as you’re her next of kin. Everything’s labeled, to make it easier.” She didn’t say anything, so he added, “I didn’t look at it. You’ll notice it’s still sealed. Just repeating what he told me.”
She nodded. “Thanks.”
“Sure.” He leaned back in his chair, observing her carefully. “You ok?”
He narrowed his eyes, but the questioning ceased. “Well, you know where to find me if you do.”
She took that as her dismissal and stood up, taking the envelope with her.
“Thank you,” she said again as she walked out the door.
Every cell in her body wanted her to run back to the truck, but she walked as slow and casually as she could all while keeping her sight trained on the exit. She had nearly reached the door when she heard her name, murmured as if a curse. Her eyes darted to her left to find a young man in a police uniform who might have been handsome if he wasn’t glowering at her from across the room. He stalked over, and though his every movement was hostile, she was drawn to him.
“You came back,” he hissed.
He was right in front of her now, and recognition clicked into place, snapping her out of complacency.
“It’s Officer McMillon now.” He stuck out his chest, and she made an effort not to roll her eyes. He’d been a child when she’d seen him last, the annoying but adorable baby brother that constantly imitated Butchie. Her husband. Her dead husband. Right. That explained the hostility, she supposed. She’d left town so quickly after… everything. She hadn’t seen him since before the accident.
“Teddy, we should talk—“
“Oh, we will. Don’t you worry.” It was a threat, she knew. But it was impossible to take him seriously when her last memory of him was running around the living room in footie pajamas.
“Ted, we got a call,” an officer Joe didn’t recognize interrupted. Teddy continued to glare at her defiantly for another moment. “Ted, you hear?”
“Yeah, I’m coming.” Reluctantly, he turned away and stomped off. Joe watched him head to the back as the other officer updated him. He didn’t look back at her before disappearing through the back door.
* * *
The quaint brick home rose up before them, taunting and cruel. Their mother’s sister, Aunt Jenny, had taken one path while their mother had taken another. This was the result: a nice home in a good neighborhood with satellite TV, a yard, and no doubt a fully stocked fridge. Joe expected she should feel envious or even embarrassed for their own severe lack of essentials, but instead she felt angry, defiant. This woman was not better than her or Otey. She wasn’t even better than their mother. She was just luckier.
In all honesty, Joe could barely remember her Aunt Jenny. The last time she saw the woman was probably before Otey was even born. It was the only time she’d been to this house before, but that part she remembered. She remembered being screamed at when a pretty blue vase with delicate white flowers painted on it had begged her to touch it, then crashed to the floor without warning. The pieces went everywhere, and one had cut her tiny hand open. The blood had shocked and scared her, but that fear was quickly replaced by her aunt’s livid red face as she hollered about priceless heirlooms. All Joe had understood was this woman did not like her. The memory had stuck with her.
Today Joe had to play nice. She had to push those deep-seated feelings away. If not for her own sake, then for Otey’s. He needed a good home and, as much as she hated to admit it, he’d want for nothing here. For that, she could put on a smile and do her best impression of a loving niece.
Otey was staring at the ground and fidgeting with his hands. Joe gave his arm a sympathetic squeeze.
“Smile. This is your aunt and uncle. They’ll love you,” she assured him, hoping it wasn’t a lie.
She pushed the doorbell. They could hear it ringing inside. It was a long moment before footsteps sounded on the other side of the door and they heard the lock turn. The door opened to reveal a short, stout man in a denim blue button-down and khaki pants. He was balding, but the hair that was left was still a deep chestnut brown. He didn’t look the least bit familiar and for a second Joe wondered if she had the right house.
“Can I help you,” he asked politely.
“Um, I’m looking for Jenny Adams. Er, I mean, Jenny Lumpkin, I guess,” Joe stumbled.
“You found her. Come on in. I’ll fetch her,” he smiled, pulling the door open wide and waving them in.
They stepped into the cinnamon scented house and waited awkwardly in the foyer as he toddled down the hall out of sight. Joe was nearly certain their whole bottom floor could fit in the living room alone. There was art on every wall, and framed photographs on the mantle and bookshelves. She took a few steps closer to try and identify the people in the pictures, but they were still unfamiliar. None of her mother, it appeared. None of her and Otey either.
There was hostile whispering from down the hall, then the sound of footsteps approaching. The man who Joe supposed was her Uncle Bud reappeared with a pinched expression on his face. He was trailed by a sour-looking woman who was nearly the spitting image of their mother. The only difference was the extra pounds established around Aunt Jenny’s waist.
“What do you want?” Jenny snarled.
“Dear—,” the man cut in with a note of warning in his tone.
Jenny’s only response was an an elaborate show of placing her fists on her wide hips. Joe was trying to calm her own temper and figure out how to begin, but she was saved from the trouble when, without warning, Otey launched himself at Jenny. She was caught completely off-guard, stumbling backward as Otey’s arms wrapped tightly around her neck in an over-enthusiastic hug.
“Otey!” Joe rushed at him, pulling at his arms. Even Uncle Bud attempted to help gently, unsure of how to do so without touching the stranger squeezing his wife. But Otey would not be removed.
“Get off me,” Jenny cried, walloping Otey’s back with her clenched fists.
Like a kicked dog, he shrank back and moved behind Joe in a pathetic attempt to hide. Joe could swear she even heard him whimpering slightly, and it set her blood to boil.
“Get out of my house,” Jenny seethed.
Joe glared right back. “Gladly.” She turned to storm out, pushing against the nagging reminder sounding in her head that she needed this woman’s help. Clearly their aunt had no intention of caring for either of her sister’s children. It was possible she didn’t even recognize them after the years of separation. But with the way she’d just spoke to them and walloped Otey, Joe had no intention of remaining in her house either way.
As she fled down the front walk, Otey on her heels, she could hear the man pleading with his wife.
“They’re family, Jen.”
So they did know. And their feelings on how far the bonds of blood went were now perfectly clear. Joe threw open the passenger door of the truck and launched herself across the bucket seat to the driver side, leaving Otey to climb in after her. Before he’d even shut the door, she was pulling out of the drive. And though she wasn’t proud of it, her middle finger rose to the sky like a reflex she couldn't control as they peeled out of the driveway.
* * *
By the time they arrived back at the house, Joe’s anger had largely worn out. The burn that had fueled her during the drive home was spent, and she was left exhausted and embarrassed. The display she’d put on at her aunt’s house was not who she was. Not anymore. That girl - always driven by emotion instead of intelligent thought - she’d exorcised that demon when she left this place. And now it was all coming back. She blamed this town. She blamed the house and its ghosts. And most of all, she blamed her mother, who had brought this on her by up and dying. Her mother’s final revenge.
She sank into the chair at the worn kitchen table, tossing her keys down with a clatter. She could feel Otey still hovering behind her.
“Go watch TV or something,” she told him. He didn’t hesitate to obey.
The sound of the cartoons clicked on in the next room, and it soothed her somehow. She put her head down, resting it on the cool linoleum. This wasn’t her mother’s fault. It was hers. She lost her temper, and lost the only lead she’d had on a place for Otey. What options did she have left? He couldn’t live alone. And there was no way he was coming to live with her in her studio apartment. She wasn’t there enough of the time anyway. Maybe, if she offered a good enough sum, Sadie would take him in the way she’d taken Joe in years ago. But money was already tight, and Joe knew an entirely different set of responsibilities and obligations came with Otey. She wasn’t sure she could bring herself to even ask.
The phone rang.
Joe pushed herself up and crossed to the outdated landline that still kept the user tied awkwardly to the wall.
“Yeah,” she answered automatically. The manners that had been forced upon her as a child, answering ‘Adams’ household,’ had gone by the wayside long ago as part of her teenage rebellion. It hit her now how immature it was.
“Josie May? This is Della Thomas, Mary’s momma. How are you?” The sweet voice on the other end dripped with concern.
“Just fine, thanks. How are you?” There were her manners.
“Dandy! I’m calling because I heard you might need some help with your momma’s house. You know, I’m a real estate agent now, licensed and everything.”
She hadn’t known. When she’d left, Marydella’s mother had been almost as bad a drunk as her own. They’d bonded over it, in fact. But she was glad their story had turned out better.
“So anyway, I was wondering if you might wanna set up a meeting while you’re in town. We can go over the options, look at what price we might wanna start at…”
“That all sounds great. Sorry, I’m just really exhausted now though. Can we meet tomorrow sometime? I’m trying to get back to New York in a couple days, so I’d love to get this place on the market ASAP.”
“Of course, of course. How’s nine work for you? I can come by before I go into the office and we can talk it all over.”
“That’d be great.”
They said a quick goodbye and Joe hung up the phone feeling slightly more productive than she had before. Getting this house sold was top priority, and she didn’t mind taking a loss on it if it meant finally severing her last tie here. Looking around, she couldn’t imagine it was worth much anyway. But it did come with quite a lot of land, and right next to the dead end and the woods made it prime territory for hunters and other outdoorsy types. They could bulldoze the house for all she cared.
Otey appeared suddenly at the door, watching her intently. His eyes were shining.
“What’s up, O? You feeling ok?”
He continued to stare at her, and she was unnerved by a tear rolling down his cheek. Any expression of emotion from him was a big deal. Despite herself, she rushed over to him ready to begin checking all the vitals. He pushed her arm away as she reached up to put her wrist against his forehead.
“Otey, just let me check—“
He put both hands on her shoulders and shoved her. Out of shock alone, she stumbled several feet. Fear gripped her. He was bigger than her in stature now. If he wanted to, he could do some damage. What if, after all those years of physical abuse, he became the aggressor? It happened. She’d read articles about such things. Instead of trying to move toward him, she took another step back until the counter pressed into her. Without taking her eyes off him, she reached behind her to where she knew the knife block stood and grabbed a handle. She froze, not willing to pull it on her own baby brother.
“Otey, please go back to the living room,” she said slow and calm.
His eyes narrowed to slits and another tear slid down his face. She noticed his body tense and her grip on the knife tightened, ready to pull it. Then he screamed.
It was so loud, so ear-piercing loud, she had to let go off the knife to cover her own ears. And it just kept going, as if he’d saved it up for years. Her eyes remained open as she yelled his name, pleading desperately with him to stop.
Finally, he ran out of breath. They stood there staring silently at each other, Otey gasping for breath. Joe had almost decided to reach out to him again when he took off, throwing chairs out of his way. He was out the door before Joe could process what was happening. By the time she made it to the porch, screaming his name, he was in the woods and out of sight.
* * *
The sun passed over the horizon and Otey still hadn’t reappeared. Joe drummed her fingers aggressively on the table as her eyes flicked back and forth between the window and the phone on the wall. She should call the police. She knew she should. But she also knew how that could look. The last time she had called the cops… well, that had been a night no one in this town had forgotten.
She stood up and opened the front door, stepping out into the cooler than usual night air. The porch and front yard beyond it were silent and still. Only the cicadas sang their summer song. The harsh security lights didn’t reach very far, but there wasn’t much beyond their lot anyway. Skinner’s place to the right, and then a dead end to the left. And the woods beyond. She’d practically lived in those woods as a child, but now they gave her the creeps. Everything in there seemed to shift unnaturally as you walked through. Not that she’d been in there often as an adult. But the few times she’d been forced to go hunting with Butchie and his family had been enough to make her want to steer clear. Even now, in the black of night, strange shadows danced at the edges of her eyes when she gazed past the tree line.
Joe heaved a heavy sigh. She would have to call. She couldn’t go in there by herself and risk Otey coming back to an empty house while she searched. Going back inside, she picked up the phone and dialed. Only one ring, then Samantha’s chipper voice on the other end grated against her ear.
“Yeah, Sam. It’s Joe. I mean, Josie May. Listen, Otey ran off and I was hoping the Sheriff—“
Sam cut her off, explaining that the Sheriff was off for the night but a few others might be available and did she want to be patched through to one of them.
“Yeah. I guess so.” Then a memory of her earlier interaction with Teddy flashed through her mind. “Just not—“
“Teddy McMillon speaking. How can I help?”
Too late. Joe gritted her teeth, debating on whether she should just hang up right then.
“Hello?” Teddy’s voice sounded impatient already, so she sucked in a resigned breath.
“Hey. This is Joe Adams. Sorry to bother you so late, but Otey ran off and hasn’t come home yet. I was hoping someone might be able to come help me look for him.”
“When did he go missing?”
“Only a few hours ago, but it’s getting dark now and I don’t know if he got lost.”
A grunt came from the other end of the line. “Josie, he’s lived in that same house his whole life. He knows his way around. I’m sure he’ll come back when he’s ready.”
Joe could sense his annoyance, as if she were a small child sent to try him. She was torn between accepting defeat and waiting like he said, or shooting back her own retort. Deciding sympathy was the only play that might get her somewhere, she went for the personal approach.
“I know you’re right, Teddy. I just worry for him, like Butchie used to worry after you. It’s an oldest sibling thing, I guess.” Silence on the other end of the line had her chewing her lip nervously. It was a cheap shot, and definitely a risk. She knew Butchie’s death had hit him hard. But it worked like a charm.
“I’ll be there in five.”
The line went dead.
* * *
The lights from Teddy’s car broke through the front window, and Joe was out the door with a flashlight in hand before he could even switch off the engine. The station wasn’t far off, but the ten minutes or so she had waited after they’d hung up had set her nerves humming. She hadn’t been able to tear her eyes from those trees swaying in the wind. The shadows running about were braver now, not keeping to the edges of her vision but brazenly dashing through the darkness while she watched them.
It was the moonlight through the leaves. That’s all.
This place was always overcrowded with deer.
You’re imagining things.
All lies she had told herself, but hadn’t quite believed. And now, she felt certain something, or someone, was in there. She hoped it was Otey. More than that, she hoped it wasn’t anyone else. The hair on her bare arms stood on end, and she told herself it was the chill in the air.
It wasn’t the chill in the air.
“Let’s go,” she muttered as she waited by Teddy’s propped open door. He was digging around for something in the back. For the barest moment, she wondered if he would pull out a gun. Then he withdrew, a giant yellow flashlight in hand.
“Calm yourself,” he told her, slamming the door shut behind him.
“Shh! They’ll hear!” Her eyes darted back to the woods.
He looked her up and down cautiously, brows raised in question. “Who?”
Joe’s eye caught his, and she shook her head casually. An obviously false laugh squeaked out of her. “No one. Sorry. Ready?”
He was still watching her warily, but nodded. She led the way toward the trees, keeping her flashlight down to avoid tripping over roots. When she was a child, barely eight years old, she remembered playing with Otey and Marydella in these woods. They would play cops and robbers, stealing silly things like pinecones and mushrooms then climbing a tree or hiding behind a giant boulder. They’d whisper and stay so very still so the cops couldn’t find them. They would stay there for what felt like hours but was likely only minutes, but the longer they stayed the more they would freak themselves out. Every little noise would set them on edge, sure that the game had become real and the cops actually were about to find them out. It had given her goosebumps.
She ran a hand over her arms, trying to shake off that feeling. She was an adult now. Not a child. No one was after her, and the cop was on her side.
“So what set him off this time?” Teddy’s voice broke the eerie silence.
“Don’t know exactly. He seemed mad, then he ran out the door.” Not entirely a lie.
“You’re gonna have to do better than that, Josie.”
She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. “Am I on trial here?”
“‘Course not. But if I’m out here wandering the woods with you, I feel I’m owed an explanation.”
“You’re a public servant. It’s your job to serve and protect, right?”
“Not when a missing person’s report can’t even be filed yet.” He paused, but she didn’t give in. “I’m doing this as a friend.”
“A friend? Oh. Didn’t seem to friendly earlier today.” She knew she wasn’t being fair, and if he turned and left now she would be alone in the middle of these godforsaken woods. And she wouldn’t even blame him for it, given her snark. But she couldn’t help it.
“Sorry bout that,” he grumbled. “You caught me at a bad moment is all.”
Joe nodded, but she doubted he could see her now that they were this far in and the darkness had deepened to near black. Her grip tightened on the flashlight.
“We went to see my aunt and uncle today,” she offered quietly. “I thought they might take Otey in.”
He grunted. “They said no.”
“They pretty much kicked us out before I could even ask. I think it upset him.” She mentally kicked herself as she relived the ordeal. “I shouldn’t have brought him along.”
“Some people don’t value family like they should.”
“Yeah.” Says the girl who ran out on her mother and brother years ago, she chastised herself.
“Family is everything,” he said firmly. “For example, take my brother.”
Uh-oh. Dangerous ground. “Your brother,” she repeated.
“Yeah. Butchie. You remember him. Your husband.” The hostility was thick in the air stretched between them. Joe took a step further away.
“Of course I remember him, Teddy. You know I do.”
“Sure. Well, the rest of my family say ‘Hey, move on. Let him rest in peace.’ But that’s hard for me, you know?”
The flashlight in her hand shook. This was not a conversation to have in the woods. At night. With a cop, who was almost certainly armed.
“It’s always hard to move on when you lose someone,” she agreed.
“The way I see it, real family would not let it go so easily. Real family would fight to find out exactly what happened. Real family would stop at nothing to get justice.” He stopped, flipping the flashlight right in her face. “Know what I mean, Josie May,” he growled.
Her hand went up to shield her eyes from the light. She stepped backward, catching her heel on something large and unmovable and hit the ground hard. The flashlight flew out of her grip, bouncing a few feet away, but her eyes were still on Teddy who stalked toward her and towered above her. The blood pounded in her ears as he reached down to his waist and pulled out his gun.
“Teddy… what are you—“
A single shot rang out, and her arms shot up to cover her head. She braced herself for the pain or death or whatever lay beyond the end of this world.
Nothing happened for a full minute.
Then she heard crunching leaves and felt Teddy walk past her, then stop.
“Holy shit.” His voice was a whisper, and she dared to look up.
Teddy was standing just behind her now, staring at the massive buck he’d brought down. It had to have been standing only a few feet behind her when she’d tripped. Her hands shook violently as she tried to climb to her feet. As she pushed herself up, though, an unusual object caught her eye. At the very edge of the light sat an ancient, decaying teddy bear. Reaching out, she picked it up gently and its head nearly came off in her hand. It was missing an eye and stuffing was sticking out of a large gash in the body.
She was still marveling at the beat-up toy when she heard her name. The voice was so soft, so timid, she thought it came from the bear and she was obviously hallucinating. But then it came again, and her eyes found the source.
It was more surprising than if the bear had spoken.
Otey was sitting in a pile of leaves on the other side of the dead deer, staring back at her with wide eyes.
She saw his lips move. She heard his voice. And still, she couldn’t believe it.
“Otey,” she gasped in relief. She ran to him, dropping to her knees beside him in the dirt. “Are you okay? I was worried—“ Her voice cut off. “Where’d you get that?”
In his hands was a stuffed bunny, covered in dirt as if it had been buried for years. It’s nose was loose, and one ear had a tear from when she was nine and had tried to pull the toy from Otey’s iron grip. He’d wailed when it tore. Cried for hours over that stupid bunny. Their mother had taken it then, and said neither could have it if they were going to fight over it. Joe had seen her mother throw it in the trash.
“Josie.” This time it was Teddy calling her name, and she tore her eyes from the bunny long enough to follow his stare. At first, she didn’t see what had him so on edge. Then she stood up. He scanned the ground with his flashlight, revealing what had appeared to be simply forest debris littering the ground. The beam of light revealed the truth.
Abandoned stuffed animals of every size and species surrounded them. They were all sitting up so neatly in a semicircle, as if they came here to watch a show. Joe and Teddy were at center-stage, and all eyes were on them.
TO BE CONTINUED
© Novis Opera LLC 2017