Dead End / Part Three
- PART THREE -
November 23, 2005
The cool autumn breeze ruffled her hair as Josie took Butchie’s hand and stepped tentatively out of the car. Her fingers itched to reach up and remove the blindfold that covered her eyes, but she simply squeezed his hand tighter and chose to trust him. He wanted it to be a surprise, and he was the best person Josie had ever known. He’d given up everything for her. She could give him this.
He led her gently up a slight incline on a hard surface, and she focused on what little light she could see through the red fabric. A few steps later, he turned her around and removed the scarf tied loosely around her head. She blinked away the sudden brightness to find Butchie watching her with a nervous smile. Starting to look around, she was stopped abruptly when he grabbed her other hand and sank down on one knee.
“Josie May,” he began with a trembling voice.
“Oh my God, what are you doing?”
His hesitant smile broke into a grin at the familiar words, a question she asked him at least once a week when he had his latest greatest idea for what Josie lovingly called another stupid stunt.
“I’ve had this new stunt in mind for a while now, and I know you like to tell me I never think things through, but I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life. We belong together. Will you marry me?”
Time stood still, and Josie thought back to every time she’d ever sworn she wouldn’t be stupid enough to marry, tying herself to a man who would surely hurt her, leave her. But Butchie wasn’t any man. He was perfect. He was hers. And she’d known for a long time now that he would be the one person who would truly take care of her.
Time resumed, and she knelt down to match Butchie. His eyes searched hers for an answer before she threw her arms around his neck and shouted “Yes!”
Laughing boisterously, he pulled her up and swung her around in a wild circle before stopping to kiss her deeply. The world was perfect in that moment.
When they finally broke apart, Josie looked around them. “What was the point of the blindfold, though? Where are–”
She broke off midsentence as her eyes landed on the house behind her. It was a small yellow two-story house with a neatly manicured yard, and a bright red bow tied around the front door.
“Welcome home, Josie,” Butchie whispered in her ear as he wrapped his arms around her waist.
“What did you do?” She asked suspiciously. “How could you afford this?”
Everyone knew the McMillons were one of the wealthiest families in Garfield’s Crossing, but it was just as well known how they felt about their middle son’s association with her, a low-class trollop from the wrong family, wrong part of town, wrong everything. They would never have helped him buy a house if they knew what he’d intended to do with it.
“I got a really good price,” he shrugged. “There’s some new development going on a few streets over, and the owners seemed pretty desperate to get out of the area. I talked them down to 50,000 below what they were asking.” The note of pride in his voice was too adorable to resist.
She shook her head with a sigh. “You’re an idiot, Butchie McMillon.”
“So…you love it.”
She just kissed him in response. They stood there, locked in each other’s arms and deeply in love, for an eternity as the sun slowly set behind them.
* * *
Joe’s eyelids fluttered open. Too bright. Closed. Too dark. Squinting, a happy medium. The stark lights of the hospital cast a bleached glare over the scene. The sounds around her were disorienting, a far cry from the southern twang of that Paisley song she’d last heard. Beeping, a strange humming sound, everything too rhythmic to be natural or comforting. A deep voice close to her forced her eyes open in surprise again, and this time she kept them wide to get past the blinding whiteness of it all. Focus. See. Sheriff Abernathy Jackson stood only feet away, conversing in low tones to a nurse. “Crash” and “concussion” were all she could make out from the girl’s hushed voice. Joe’s hand lifted to examine the pounding ache emanating from her forehead. A large lump and the unmistakable threads of stitches told her all she needed to know about the injury. But what about the crash? It was blurry now. She remembered the panicky feeling but couldn't place it with its source.
Slow down, she commanded herself. Analyze it like a story. What makes sense? Her eyes darted back to the Sheriff. He’ll want a story.
She’d been in her car. No, not my car. The truck. It’d been dark, and the music was loud. Why? She never listened to music at home in New York. Mostly just NPR, or silence. Silence could be nice. But sometimes, when it got late or the weather was just the right kind of brisk, the ghosts from her past would come out to play and music helped keep them sedated. So that could explain the panicked feeling she could easily recall even now. What about earlier? Think back. She’d left Otey at Hot Wheels. The guilt of such a selfish action shot back into her system. It wasn’t fair to him, or to Sadie. Mentally kicking herself for letting her emotions get the better of her yet again, she dug her nails into her palms as a reminder to make it up to them later. But why did you leave? She didn’t really need these interviewer questions anymore. The memories were flooding back in order. The house. The car. The crash.
Someone had tried to kill her.
“Josie,” the Sheriff’s deep voice snapped her out of her thoughts. He pulled up the chair from the corner of the room and sat close to the bed. "How are you feeling?”
His voice was kind, but she could hear the pity beneath it.
“Great. Really great.”
“Good to see your sarcasm is still intact. Want to tell me what happened last night?”
“I’m not really sure,” she hedged. The details were still too murky, and she knew better than to give a less than accurate account to a cop. Better to stay silent.
“Well, let me tell you what I know so far.” He leaned back in the chair casually, like he was about to tell a story. “You were driving far too fast on a dark road, swerving erratically, before you went off the side and into a ditch. The truck flipped, and you were found unconscious and bleeding from a head wound. You have a concussion, by the way.”
“I figured as much. The nurses haven’t let me sleep for more than ten seconds at a time.”
“They’re just doing their job.”
“Ok.” A question nagged at her mind as she tried to piece together his words with her memories. “Who told you what happened?”
“What do you mean,” he asked casually.
She knew he understood her point, but she played along. “Who told you I was driving fast and swerving? Who saw the accident?”
There’d been another car. A man had been following her, she remembered now. And she had a feeling she knew who it was. But an accusation without evidence would get her nowhere.
“No one needed to tell me. I saw the tracks and your truck. It was pretty clear what happened.”
Classic avoidances. She’d spoken with enough cops in her reporting to know when and why they used half-truths like this. So he wasn’t going to tell her. She could find out on her own. It wasn’t a big town, and she knew exactly where to start her search. She just didn’t know if she wanted the answers. It’d be easier to just finish her business and leave town.
“You want to tell me what you were doing loitering outside Teddy McMillon’s house yesterday evening?”
Now this caught her by surprise. “What do you mean?”
“You were seen taking pictures of Officer McMillon’s property by several neighbors. They clearly identified you.” He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “Josie, why would you go back there? You know how that looks?”
Her mind was still reeling with this new information. Teddy owned her old house. The one Butchie had bought for her. The one where… How could he want anything to do with that place?
When she didn’t answer him, Abernathy sighed and stood up. “You need to make an official statement, in case charges are brought against you.”
“Against me? He was the one who ran me off the road!” The words were out of her mouth before she could think twice. Immediately, she regretted them. The sheriff narrowed his eyes at her.
“What do you mean? Who ran you off the road?”
No, she couldn’t do this. Not without proof. It’d be his word against hers, and with the concussion, she was at a strong disadvantage. It wasn’t worth it.
“I mean, there was another car. I don’t know who it was, but I was only trying to get out of its way.” She paused, then added,” they seemed to be in a hurry.”
Abernathy raised an eyebrow at her but didn’t ask any more questions. “You should come by the station later when you’re more rested.”
“Sure. In what car,” she grumbled. She’d bet that truck wouldn’t be any use to her for the remainder of her visit. She’d have to find a rental, but the closest place was more than a half hour drive.
He shrugged. “I can send someone by to pick you up. Just give me a call.” He set a business card on the bedside table, as if she didn’t already have his number. With a nod to her, he returned the chair and left without a word.
Some of the tension eased from Joe’s shoulders as she leaned back down in the bed. This was too much. Teddy had practically threatened her that night in the woods, and she would swear it was his face in that car last night. Now he owns her old house? She shivered under the thin hospital sheet. All of this was more than she’d bargained for on this trip. She needed to get out of this hospital, and then out of this town for good. She had to convince Sadie to take in Otey, but first and foremost she needed a ride home.
As if reading her mind, the nurse reappeared at that moment with a chart in her hand.
“Looks like you’ve been cleared to leave, sweetie. All I need’s your signature,” she chirped, holding out the clipboard and pen to Josie.
Joe signed quickly before pushing the papers back. “Can I borrow a phone? I need to call a cab and it appears my phone didn’t make it out of the truck.”
“No need,” the nurse sang back at her. “You have a friend waiting for you in the lobby.”
Joe’s heart skipped a beat at the word “friend.” Instantly she pictured Teddy down there, waiting for her with his gun drawn. But she was being ridiculous. Even if all of her suspicions about him were true, he’d never attack her in public.
She limped slowly from the bed and made her way to the elevator, her sore muscles groaning with every step. Seems like she’d done more damage to herself than a concussion, but at least they weren’t keeping her here. As the elevator doors opened, she was relieved to find Sadie leaning against the front counter, shamelessly flirting with a young male receptionist.
“There’s my girl,” she shouted when she saw Joe. “I’ve been worried sick. Come on, let’s get you home.” She looped her arm through Joe’s in an effort to help her walk, then threw a broad grin back at the guy behind the counter. “See you later, sugar!”
“He’s a child,” Joe chastised her. “He can’t even be out of high school yet.”
“For your information, young lady, he graduated last spring. And there’s no age restriction on being friendly,” she replied innocently.
“Someone’s in a mood. And here I thought you’d be grateful to have a ride home.”
Joe winced. “I am. Sorry. Thank you so much for coming. And for watching Otey?”
She’d left him at the diner yesterday without a thought as to how he’d get home. It wasn’t fair to expect that Sadie would have the time to watch him all day.
Sadie squeezed Joe’s arm gently. “It’s no problem, sugar. He’s an angel.” They’d reached the car, but Sadie held on to Joe’s arm and stopped. “Are you doin’ okay? I know this is a lot of pressure on you, and losing family is hard. Even if you didn’t want them to be family,” she added quickly to prevent Joe’s inevitable argument.
“I’m fine,” she lied. “I just need to get things wrapped up so I can go back home.” She waited for Sadie to say this was her home, but she didn’t. Instead, she gave Joe a sad smile before letting her go and getting into driver’s seat.
Joe slid into the passenger side carefully as Sadie started the engine.
“Ok, little girl. Let’s get you home.”
* * *
Sadie was reluctant to leave her at home alone, but the diner needed her more than Joe did. In fact, for once she relished the quiet of the house. No weird hospital sounds, no small-town gossip, no cartoons.
Joe stood back up from where she’d collapsed at the kitchen table and stalked into the living room. Otey was not in his usual spot. Sadie had said she’d brought him home before she even went to the hospital. The peaceful silence turned ominous as Otey’s bedroom and their mother’s came up empty.
Throwing the front door open again, Joe crossed the porch in two strides and was halfway to the woods before she lost her nerve. The trees swayed eerily in the wind, and dark clouds off to the west threatened to bring rain with them before too long. But it wasn’t the rain that stopped her in her tracks. The memory of the other night, the deer, the strange stuffed animal display, kept her feet rooted to the ground a safe distance from the tree line.
There was no evidence Otey would even be in there again. It wasn’t worth it.
But if he wasn’t in the house, where else would he have gone? The nagging voice in the back of her head urged her to stop being stupid. It was daylight now. There was no reason to be afraid of the woods when she could see everything clearly.
The throbbing in her head swelled as she struggled to make a decision. Then a crunching of leaves and soft laughter saved her the trouble. Otey’s flopping hair caught her eye as he skipped toward the edge of the woods playfully. It was like a vision from a dream or a distant memory. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen him so happy.
Relief flooded through her as she ran toward him. He hadn’t seen her yet, and she was about to call his name when he turned around and took off in the other direction. Straight into a man’s arms.
Joe’s stomach dropped. She slowed her pace and ducked behind a tree, her heart racing. There was no man in their lives that could mean anything good. Debating on whether it was worth it to run back and try to find that old rifle her dad had left behind, she peered out from behind the tree to get a better look.
Otey was back to frolicking around in circles, and they were both headed her direction. But she still couldn’t make out the man’s features. Trying to get a better look, she stepped out from behind the tree.
She froze, the offending branch still stuck up at strange angles from beneath her boot. The man had also stopped, his eyes searching the woods as a possessive hand wrapped around Otey’s thin arm.
Fury boiled in Joe’s blood at the sight of this man touching her brother, and she threw aside all caution as she grabbed the branch from the ground and ran at the man. For a second, he appeared ready to turn and run. But then his whole body relaxed and he let out a deep laugh.
It brought Joe up short.
“Josie May, you near scared us to death!” Jesse Skinner was bent double, wheezing through his amusement.
Joe’s eyes narrowed. “What are you doing out here, Skinner?”
It took a moment for him to catch his breath, but eventually he straightened up and said in a mocking voice, “Oh, dark and evil things, I reckon.” He leaned down and picked up a black trash bag from the ground, then put an arm around Otey’s shoulders. “But don’t worry, we were just leavin’.”
The way he touched Otey, softly, lovingly, made Joe’s skin crawl. Knocking his arm away, she dragged Otey roughly behind her before turning a hateful glare back on Skinner.
“I don’t know what you’re up to,” she began, her voice a barely audible hiss, “or what games you’re playing, but stay away from my brother.”
For a split second, he looked surprised. Then he burst into another fit of laughter. “Girl, you don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.” He sneered at her condescendingly. “You been gone a long time. And now you think just because you came back, you’re some kinda savior. But he don’t need saving.”
Heat burned in her cheeks. “I’ll decide what he needs.” She grabbed a confused Otey’s hand and pulled him through the woods after her, holding tight even as he fought to get free from her grasp. He began whimpering like a trapped animal, but this was for his own good. So she hardened her grasp and picked up their pace.
They hadn’t gotten five feet out of the woods before Otey started howling. She stopped and turned to shush him, and Skinner was on her instantly. He shoved her to the ground, hard. Black spots obscured her vision and her head gave a vicious throb, but she forced herself back to her feet.
Skinner was snarling at her, Otey held firmly behind him. “If you knew what was good for ya, you’d stay down. I don’t wanna hurt you, Josie May, but I’ll protect my own. Hear me, girl?”
Using all of the energy she had in her, Joe swung back and punched Skinner squarely in the jaw.
“He’s not yours, you sick bastard. And you’ll never lay your hands on him again.” She pulled back, ready to throw another punch if needed, but Skinner caught her fist easily.
He was breathing heavy, but his eyes calmed as he held her back. “I’m not gonna fight you. But you’re not takin’ my son away to some goddamned city.”
Joe’s arm dropped. “Your— your what?”
His brows furrowed. “My son. Otey is my son.”
Joe pulled back, still eying him warily. Otey’s concerned face peeked out from over his shoulder, and she saw it then. All the similarities in their features. The same watery blue eyes, the same sharp cheekbones, the same wiry frame.
“Shit. You didn’t know?” He stepped back, rubbing his face anxiously. “I thought your mom… Why’d you think I was always lookin’ out for you kids?”
“When?” Joe scoffed in disbelief. “Tell me when you think you ever looked out for us? For Otey?”
“Hey, I called the cops whenever things got bad, didn’t I?” Skinner shook the trash bag angrily, and a small stuffed bear fell out from a hole in the bottom. Otey immediately seized upon it, holding it gently up to his chest. “I gave Otey a place to escape when it was too dangerous to be in that house.”
All of those toys. They’d been gifts? From Skinner? Otey’s father. Joe had never wasted any time trying to figure out which of her mom’s many lovers had been Otey’s father, and she’d assumed her mother herself wouldn’t even have the answer. But Skinner? They’d never dated, barely even interacted. Then again, with her mother, anything was possible.
Joe had no idea what to say. She didn’t trust him, and she’d be damned if she was going to leave a creep like Jesse Skinner as her brother’s caretaker. Whether his claim was true or not, she’d seen enough of what men could do to an innocent child like Otey.
Tires rumbling down the road broke the tension as a beautiful Lexus pulled slowly into the drive. The tinted window on the passenger side rolled down, and a big brown head of hair popped out.
“Josie May Adams. We heard you were back in town.”
* * *
What had been a bizarre and stressful day had now crossed into the surreal. William and Gwendolyn McMillon sat across from her at a stained linoleum kitchen table in her mother’s house. Joe imagined it was likely the first time either of them had even been to this part of town. From the pinched expressions they wore as they inspected their surroundings, she gathered that they weren’t too impressed. Fair enough, she admitted.
“So, Josie,” Mrs. McMillon said cheerfully. “Tell us all about your exciting new life in New York.”
“Oh, um. I’m afraid there’s not much to tell. I work most of the time, and I travel a lot for my job.” She motioned to the newspaper on the counter. “I’m a journalist now.”
“That sounds lovely,” Mrs. McMillon sang. “William’s been to New York several times for his job as well. Myself, I’ve only been once. I didn’t care for it.” She leaned in, holding a hand up to block her lips from her husband as she loudly whispered, “Too busy for my taste.”
Joe resisted rolling her eyes. Why was that such a secret? But she fell easily back into her role as the polite Southern girl with these people. It’d been trained into her, even if it hadn’t ever won their approval.
“So how are things with you,” she asked in return. “How’s the family?”
“Oh, you are too sweet to ask,” Mrs. McMillon said in a sugary voice. “Well, Jimmie is married now and made us grandparents. The girls are just the most beautiful angels you’ve ever seen. Teddy’s graduated, and he’s a police officer now! Can you believe it? We are so proud of him.”
Her gushing seemed perfectly normal, but Joe noticed a flicker crossed Mr. McMillon’s face at the mention of Teddy. She kept her eyes on him as she said, “Yes, I’ve seen Teddy a few times already since coming home. He’s certainly grown up.”
Mr. McMillon’s eyes definitely dropped to the floor this time. Mrs. McMillon cast an anxious glance from Joe to her husband before turning a bright grin on Joe.
“Yes, he sure has. In fact, he’s the reason for our visit today.” Joe’s attention turned fully back to Mrs. McMillon now, and her speech sped up. “He told us you were back in town for only a few days, and we wanted to catch you in person. You see, we still have many of your belongings from when you…” She cast her eyes down demurely. “Well, from before you moved away. We’ve been wanting to get in touch with you but weren’t sure how to reach you up there in New York. And, well, you know how it is. Life gets so busy. So when we heard you were in town, we thought this would be the perfect opportunity.”
“Oh,” Joe said lamely. She hadn’t given any thought to the things she’d left in that house. She didn’t want any of it, honestly. “I’m so sorry. I should have thought of that. But I don’t really need any of those things back now. Would it be too much trouble to have them given to Goodwill? I could send some movers by to pick it up.”
Mr. McMillon cleared his throat. Without looking directly at her, he said, “It’s all still in the house. Where you left it. It’s up to you what you do with it.” He stood up then and slid a small silver key onto the table.
“I’m sorry. I thought Teddy owned the house now?” Joe asked, confused. Her eyes moved from Mr. McMillon, who was already heading for the door, to Mrs. McMillon still seated across from her, hovering uncertainly on the edge of her seat.
“He does,” she agreed timidly. “But he doesn’t live there. He uses it as… well, as a sort of office.” There was an edge in her voice that immediately told Joe she was lying. Or at least not telling the whole truth. “But our names are on the deed as well, and you can visit tonight while Teddy is at work to get any belongings you might wish to keep.”
Mr. McMillon opened the front door. “That’s enough. Let’s go.”
Mrs. McMillon jumped up as if her husband’s word was an irresistible command. But she paused at the door, glancing back at Joe once they were alone. “There’s a safe in the basement. The combination is Butchie’s birthdate. There’s money in there. From his life insurance policy. It rightfully belongs to you. After all, you were legally his wife and his beneficiary.”
Mr. McMillon’s voice called out from the car, and she hurried out the door without another word. Joe sat at the table for several long moments after, staring in stunned silence at the spot where Mrs. McMillon had said the words that solved all of her problems.
* * *
Joe spent an hour tidying the house, trying to clear her head while the TV blasted in the background. She’d gotten Otey inside and placated, though he still clutched that pathetic stuffed bear tight in his fist. She let him turn the volume up as loud as he wanted. As she cleaned, a plan was forming. It was fragile still but, if what Mrs. McMillon said was true, Joe could be on a red-eye tonight.
Butchie left her some money. How could those rich bastards have never called her and told her this? She knew they hated her, but she’d been broke and near starving for months before she’d found a steady job in New York. Her blood boiled at the thought of how much that money could have changed things.
But perhaps it was for the best. Now, that money had a purpose. It could be just what she needed to persuade Sadie to take in Otey. She wouldn’t have to ask for a favor or leave an I.O.U. with the woman who had already given her so much. She could pay. It would be fair. After everything that had happened yesterday and this morning, she knew Sadie would say yes. But now it wasn’t charity; it was a business transaction.
There was one major roadblock, though. One she didn’t know if she could solve. The money was in that house. Teddy’s house. She had exactly zero interest in going back there, and after last night she couldn’t fathom going inside. To the basement.
Of course it would be in the basement.
Even if she could get herself to walk through the front door and down the stairs, it was still trespassing. It didn’t matter that the McMillons technically owned the house as well. If Teddy found out she’d been in his house, she had no doubt he’d find a way to charge her for it. Her memory of him pulling his gun on her in the woods was all too fresh in her mind, and after trying to run her off the road? She doubted he was completely stable. She wasn’t in a hurry to have another encounter with him.
She thought through every other possibility: going back to Mrs. McMillon and asking her to get the money, asking Sadie or Marydella to go in for her, even going to Sheriff Jackson and explaining everything. But while Mrs. McMillon had seemed willing to provide her with more information than her husband, she doubted the woman’s generosity would go much further. With everything she was already asking of Sadie, she couldn’t lay one more problem at her feet. And the Sheriff… well, she had no interest in owing him any more than she did already. Besides, he might ask Teddy about the money, and somehow she doubted Teddy would be willing to simply hand it over to her.
No, she’d have to go in herself. Teddy’s mother had said he would be working tonight. It was her best chance. It was almost noon now, so she had a few hours to get the rest of her things in order. Clean the house so it’s ready to sell. Thanks to her frenetic energy over the last hour or so, that was nearly done. Pack Otey’s things and take him to Sadie. That would be the hard conversation, especially since she wouldn’t have the money in hand yet. But she was not about to leave her little brother at home with the creep next door watching. Besides, she would have the money in hand less than an hour later. Then she’d be done with this town, and all of this drama, for good.
It was far from a done deal yet, but she couldn’t help the smile that tugged at her lips as she booked a flight home.
The oppressive sun beat down on them at four o’clock when a sweaty and exhausted Joe loaded Otey into the dingy cab out front. Skinner stared them down from his porch steps but thankfully didn’t say a word. The ride to Sadie’s felt longer than it should as the driver kept trying to make small talk, eying Joe in the mirror suspiciously. He probably recognized her, even though she had no idea who he was.
It didn’t matter. Once they reached Sadie’s, she tossed some cash through the window to him and turned to face part two of the plan.
Otey had left the house without a fuss and now was silently watching Joe’s every move as she hauled a giant black garbage bag full of his clothes and few belongings out of the trunk. Her own bags were still at the house. She’d have to go back and get them later. Another delay, but she couldn’t have managed Otey’s things and hers all by herself.
The parking lot was getting busy even though it was still a bit early for dinner, so Joe decided to avoid the front and go straight to the back. She didn’t need a bunch of nosy hicks seeing this display and making their own story to go with it.
“Well, look at you! What’d you bring me?” Sadie’s eyebrows raised at the giant bag. “I hope that’s not a dead body.”
Joe rolled her eyes. “Hilarious. It’s just some things I needed out of the house. Can I keep it here?”
Sadie shrugged. “I don’t see why not. Come on in.” She stepped back, holding the door wide and keeping an exaggerated distance from the bag.
Without asking, Joe lugged it up the stairs to Sadie’s residence, Otey following obediently behind her. The tight space was exactly as she remembered it. Warm, glowing lamps were covered with pink cloths to make the whole room feel like something from a dream. The ragged, olive green sofa that had once been a magnificent statement piece, the small round pedestal table with mismatched chairs, and a beaded curtain in place of the door that led to Sadie’s own room. It was the coziest place Joe could ever imagine, even if it wasn’t her style. It was Sadie’s, and that was even better.
Sadie joined them a moment later, closing the door to the stairway behind her and plopping down on the sofa.
“So to what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?”
Joe’s skin began to itch. She hated asking for favors. It was something she tried hard never to do. Anxiously, she rubbed the back of her neck and stared down at the floor as she tried to find the words to start.
The TV clicked on in another room. Joe’s old room, up a few more stairs and past another door. Otey really did know his way around.
“Josie, come sit. Whatever you have to say to me, it can’t be all that dramatic.” Sadie patted the spot next to her curled up feet on the couch.
Stupidly feeling like a scared 16-year-old all over again, Joe did as she was told and took up her old spot on the sofa. Still, she couldn’t bring herself to meet Sadie’s eyes.
“I need a favor,” she began quietly.
“You need me to watch Otey,” Sadie said matter-of-factly.
Joe’s head snapped up to see the woman’s cat-like grin. “Yes.”
Sadie waved a hand dismissively. “It’s no problem. He can stay as long as you need.”
A wave of relief rushed over Joe. Then Sadie’s words repeated in her head. Uneasily, Joe clarified, “It would actually be more of a… a permanent stay.”
Sadie didn’t respond right away. Her gaze shifted to Joe’s old bedroom door.
“And I can pay. I have some money. I can pay his rent on the room, and an allowance for food. If he needs any medical things, I can send money down—“
Sadie held up her hand to stop Joe. “It’s fine. He can stay.” Then, out of nowhere, she let out a lyrical laugh. “It’s not like he’s much trouble, is he?”
Joe shook her head in disbelief before launching herself at Sadie, hugging her tight. “You have no idea how much I appreciate this.”
Sadie gave her a squeeze. “I do, actually. But you have to promise me one thing, little girl.”
Joe sat back, watching her expectantly. “What?”
“You have to promise to come back and visit.” Before Joe could respond, Sadie continued forcefully, “I know how much you want to be done with this town and all these people, and I get it. I do. But he’s your family. I’m family. And you need that. We all do.”
Joe nodded. She didn’t necessarily agree. Family had never gotten her anything but trouble and pain. But it was a small price to pay for the gigantic weight Sadie was taking off her shoulders.
The tension that had clung to Joe since she’d arrived back in Garfield’s Crossing miraculously dissipated as she relaxed on the sofa, listening to Sadie retell all the gossip she’d heard that day. Once back in this space, it was hard to leave. It would have been so easy to stay on that couch, chatting with Sadie and watching old movies like they used to do on Friday nights. But this was only part two of the plan. So, reluctantly, after a carefree half hour, Joe stood and stretched.
“I’ll be back within an hour or two with the money.”
Sadie tossed her a set of keys. “Get a scratch on that car, and you’ll owe me more than you can make in a lifetime.”
Joe smiled, used to the threats about hurting Sadie’s baby. “Don’t I know it.”
* * *
The sun was finally making its way down below the treeline when she arrived in her old neighborhood. All of the good feelings she’d built up at Sadie’s had vanished as soon as she turned onto these too familiar streets. Her anxiety was already at full blast when she stopped in front of the house. As she put the car into park, she kept her eyes trained straight ahead on the deserted pavement. She couldn’t bring herself to look at the house. Not yet.
One deep breath. Two.
“Get it together, Joe,” she muttered under her breath. “In and out.”
She cut the ignition and opened the door in one swift motion, still keeping her eyes on the ground at her feet. She could be in an out in five minutes, and on her way home in an hour. This didn’t need to be hard.
Her feet carried her up the driveway and to the screen door. She hadn’t thought to ask about a key for that one. Hell, she couldn’t even swear it had a lock. It shrieked as she yanked it open and let it slam behind her, and somehow the familiar sound was comforting. Butchie had hated it. He’d sworn he’d replace the whole thing one day. It always made Joe smile, the way such a little thing could get him all riled up. She’d tease him about being so high maintenance. He always wanted this place to be perfect. But to her, it already was.
Joe fumbled in her pocket for the front door key, shooting a wary glance over her shoulder to make sure no one was watching. Relax, she scolded herself. You have permission to be here. Sort of.
The key clicked in the latch. She shoved the heavy door open just wide enough to slip inside and close it behind her. After a moment’s thought, she snapped the lock shut behind her.
The house was dark and quiet, the large picture windows in the dining room casting a blue glow through the kitchen to her left. She didn’t need to look at the kitchen. Eyes front. The basement door stared her down, waiting for her to grab the knob. She took another deep breath and pulled it open.
Basements creeped a lot of people out, she knew, but this one was particularly frightening. Whoever had designed it hadn’t been thinking. The light switch was at the bottom of the long flight of stairs. It’s like the house was hoping you’d trip and fall to your death. When she’d lived here, they’d always left the light on for that very reason. Apparently, Teddy didn’t mind the dark.
Joe felt for the railing, gripping it hard as she slowly crept down the stairs one at a time. Her heartbeat accelerated with every step, and each small noise had her frozen in place until she could identify the source. The air was thick with humidity and mildew, making breathing an unpleasant task.
She counted her steps as she went. There were thirteen total. This she knew all too well, from her many trips down these stairs to do laundry. She was on step twelve when she realized she’d left the door at the top open. Probably not the best idea. If Teddy came home early, he’d immediately notice the wide-open basement door. But there was no chance in hell she was going back now. She’d just have to be quick.
Coming to the bottom at last, she reached for the string that hung from the bare bulb at the foot of the stairs. Her hand swept through the air. The string was no longer there. Her heart was ready to beat out of her chest as the darkness threatened to close in on her, and she was half ready to run back up the stairs and come back with a flashlight. Cursing, she leaned against the support post in defeat. Something jabbed into her spine. Sure she’d impaled herself on a rusty nail and would die in this god-forsaken pit, she reached back to assess the damage. But it wasn’t sharp. It was smooth plastic.
In disbelief, she flipped the switch. Of all the repairs to make, Teddy had replaced the string with an actual switch? Joe almost laughed out loud. Giddy, she turned to scan the basement for the safe and any humor died instantly.
Her own shining eyes gazed back at her. Pictures. The entire back wall of the basement was covered with them. So many pictures. Of her. Of Butchie. Of them together in high school, their small courthouse ceremony, at the diner. Newspaper clippings about the murder. About Butchie’s death, and Joe’s arrest. Even one about Joe’s mother dying. This had been updated recently. The air pulsed around her as she fell into the web. She stepped closer, sucked in by the narrative it told. Her love story, twisted into something horrific and deadly. Her fingers reached up to brush the photo of Butchie after their senior year homecoming game, his face screwed up in laughter and surrounded by the rest of the team. When tears threatened to spill over, she forced herself to look away, to the next item. A photocopy of plane tickets. From just days ago. Her hand dropped in shock.
A small metallic noise had her on full alert, and a moment later she heard the unmistakable sound of the front door opening. She launched herself across the space at the light switch, but she knew it was no use. Teddy’s loud footsteps were already on the stairs as she scrambled around in the dark to find some place to hide.
The light flicked on again to reveal Teddy in full uniform, gun cocked and eyes alert.
Joe tried to shrink back into the shadows. There was no right move in this situation. If she revealed herself now, he might shoot her out of surprise. If she waited until he found her, which he most certainly would if he tried even a little bit, that would look worse.
“Josie May. I know that’s you. I saw your car.”
Shit. She should have parked further away. Why hadn’t she thought of that?
“Come out so we can talk.” If he meant that to sound less than threatening, he was failing. But then he lowered his gun and raised an open palm as if in surrender. “I don’t want to hurt you. I only want some answers.”
Her eyes shot to the board where he’d been tracking her every move. She bet he did want answers, but she didn’t have any for him. At least, none he’d like. Still, she wasn’t going to last long crouching behind the old icebox. Slowly, with her hands in the air, she stood up.
“Hi, Teddy,” she said lamely.
He turned in surprise but thankfully didn’t lift his gun again. Seeing she was unarmed, he returned it to the holster at his side.
“Adding breaking and entering to our record tonight?” he said.
“No. Your parents gave me a key. They asked me to come pick up some of my things while I’m in town.” As proof, she slowly and deliberately withdrew the key and held it out to him.
He snatched it from her hand, barely glancing at it as he shoved it into his pocket. “So what is it you want to collect?”
Unable to stop herself, Joe’s eyes latched onto the now obvious safe stashed above the dryer. She should have gone straight for it when she got here. She could have been halfway back to Sadie’s with the money by now.
Teddy’s gaze followed hers, and he nodded knowingly. “You came for my brother’s money.” His eyes narrowed menacingly. “That figures.”
“My money,” she corrected, tugging at the collar on her shirt. The temperature already felt like it’d risen ten degrees since she’d come down here. “He left it to me.”
“I imagine he would have done differently if he’d known you would kill him for it,” Teddy shot back.
Heat flooded her cheeks, “you don’t know what you’re talking about, Teddy McMillon.”
Teddy raised an eyebrow in response, then turned to examine his own psychotic board of information. “Don’t I? I’ve been watching you, studying everything you’ve ever done. I know you, Josie May. I know exactly what you’re capable of. And I know you murdered my brother.”
His hand reached up and snatched a full page of a newspaper from the wall. Behind it, a large black-and-white photo emerged into view. Joe’s eyes widened as she recognized the scene. The black and white kitchen floor tiles. The blood seeping across the floor. Butchie’s red and green plaid shirt, somehow barely speckled with blood. But she couldn’t look any further. Her eyes snapped shut. She didn’t need to see the rest. She didn’t need to see it to know his face would be missing. The blood spray that had coated the back of the kitchen island. The clear tracks through the pools of blood left by her fingers as she’d tried to put Butchie’s head back together. To fix what she’d broken. Or the gun, that would be laid right where her feet had been moments before this photo was taken.
It was the same picture that haunted her dreams.
She felt her knees hit the cold cement floor, her hands gripping her eyes, pulling at her eyelids. She heard sobbing and recognized her own voice. But was it happening now? Or then? The air changed around her, tightening and threatening to strangle her. And then she heard it.
Every muscle froze. The beating heart of the house pulsed alongside her own. That’s insane, some scrap of logic left in her brain reminded her. Houses don’t have heartbeats.
The pressure in the room surged, making breathing nearly impossible. Her hands dropped from her eyes. Teddy was standing above her, fury blazing in his eyes. But he didn’t know. She could get him to leave here. She didn’t have to explain the horrors this house could inflict. He didn’t have to understand. He just had to agree to leave.
Desperately, Joe grabbed at his hands and tried to pull herself up. Taken aback, Teddy stepped backward, pulling away and reaching for his gun.
He doesn’t know what that sound means, Joe reminded herself.
“We have to leave,” she gasped at him. “Now.”
He shook his head, bemused. “What’s wrong with you?” he demanded, suspicion laced through his words.
The noise grew louder. It was starting. The walls swelled inward, threatening to crush anything in their path. With each beat, they closed in more. How could Teddy not see this? The wall behind him was nearly at his back with each beat, and soon it would push him right on top of her. But that wasn’t the worst of it. This was only the beginning. Any moment now, the blood would come, and they wouldn’t make it out alive. They would drown in it.
With only the thought of escape driving her, Joe scrambled across the floor to the stairs and began to climb on all fours. He would follow her. He had to. But even if he didn’t, she refused to die down in that basement.
“Josie May, I order you to stop where you are!”
She made it to the top of the stairs before Teddy caught up to her. His hand gripped the back of her shirt as he hauled her to her feet and spun her around to face him.
“What the hell has gotten into you?” he shouted into her face as he shook her violently.
Joe tried to pull away, to reach the front door behind her, but he shoved her hard into the kitchen.
“You’re not going anywhere, and this act of yours is going to stop now.” Teddy raised the gun again and flicked it toward the kitchen table. “Take a seat.”
But Joe’s eyes were not on him or his weapon. The seams of the house were leaking, trickles of dark red running down the walls like rain.
Teddy noticed her gaze and dared a hesitant glance over his shoulder, but quickly snapped back to eye her warily.
“What are you looking at?” he demanded.
Joe tore her eyes away from the ever-increasing drizzle to stare at him incredulously. “You really don’t see it?” she asked in a hushed whisper.
“See what?” Teddy said in pure exasperation. “What is going on?!”
But how could she explain? If he couldn’t see the blood, if he didn’t hear the house’s ominous heartbeat, there weren’t even words to explain such insanity. Butchie had seen it. He’d known, even before she did. And it had driven him to madness. His pleading voice as he begged her to make it all stop, to end it before the house killed him, echoed through the room he’d been unable to escape.
Joe blinked, and there he was. Butchie was kneeling by the counter, sobbing hysterically. “Please, Josie. Do it. I can’t get out. It won’t let me.” She could feel the cold metal of the gun in her hands, how her fingers had shaken as she raised it to his head. She’d argued, she’d pleaded. But in the end, she knew the truth. The house had claimed Butchie, and it wouldn’t allow him to leave alive. Now it had come back for her.
The echo of the gunshot resounded through the kitchen, and Joe screamed as she fell to her knees. She covered her ears and shut her eyes, allowing her own sobs to drown out the sound around her.
As if from a great distance, she could hear Teddy yelling at her, threatening her and yelling into his radio. But only one sound captured her attention.
It was coming from inside her now. The house had invaded every part of her. This must be what Butchie had felt, she thought. And then it came to her. The same thing Butchie had realized. There was one way out. Only one way out. Opening her eyes, she saw Teddy only a foot from her, still yelling into his radio. The gun was still pointed at her, casually threatening. She reached for it, her fingers barely brushing its surface when Teddy’s eyes widened in surprise.
* * *
Teddy McMillon sat in the basement of his brother’s house and tried not to stare at the small red stain on the floor, nor at the larger corresponding stain on the ceiling where the mess had leaked down from the kitchen. The station had responded quickly after receiving his neighbors’ calls about the gunshot. He didn’t remember when the guys had shown up, but his partner told him that they had found him sitting at the table, just looking quietly over the body of Josie May Adams.
He recounted the situation as best as he could remember it. When they brought him outside to take him down to the station, he felt the eyes of the neighbors bearing down on him. Sheriff Jackson had been tough on him even though he was questioning one of his own.
Teddy’s story never changed. No matter how many times he told it, but Sheriff Jackson knew the history he had with Josie May Adams. Ultimately the decision was made to put Teddy on paid leave pending the conclusion of the investigation.
He had gone out into town for groceries a couple of days later and no one spoke to him. He felt accusation in their stares and when he turned to meet them, people turned away. One day, after a lonely meal at a local restaurant we walked downtown and bumped into Sadie. The bounce in her stride was gone and her bright, warm eyes saw him, they looked cold and fierce. He tried to speak and she immediately cut him off.
“Don’t! Just don’t, Teddy,” she barked. “Don’t speak to me. Don’t look at me. And whatever you do, do not ever come in my establishment again. If you do, I’ll put rat poison in your coffee, or maybe put ground-up glass in your grits. Whatever you order is gonna have a little something special in it. That’s a promise.”
Before he could answer, Sadie marched away, leaving him all alone on the streets of Garfield’s Crossing.
After the force had finished with his brother’s house, he returned to clean it up. Once that was done, he would put it on the market and never set foot there again.
Sitting on the stairs down to the basement, he barely recognized the place. His pictures were gone. Seized as evidence. There was nothing left of the case he had tried to build except a small stain on the floor where her blood had seeped through the kitchen floor. The exposed kitchen floorboards were rimmed with dried blood.
He spent hours just sitting. Trying to figure out what had happened. Recounting the scene in his head over and over again. He sat and sat and stared at the stain, until finally stoked by frustration, found a bucket, filled it with soapy water, and with an old rag, began to scrub furiously at the floor.
Bearing down furiously on the cement floor, he pushed the rag against the stain, scrubbing till his knuckles burned and ached. His heart thudded in his ears.
He thrust the rag into the water and rang it out. When he turned back to the stain on the floor it seemed wider, redder.
He continued to scrub, and the throbbing in his ears grew louder.
Teddy stopped scrubbing. He was in good shape. Maybe it was stress. The skin on his neck prickled.
A glimmer of something caught Teddy’s eyes and they drifted from the floor to the ceiling. Fresh drops of blood were beading then pattering onto the floor. As the sound of a heartbeat pressed in on his ears, Teddy McMillion looked around in horror as the walls themselves began to bleed.