Dead End / Part Two

Dead End / Part Two

- PART TWO - 

“What the hell was that?” Teddy muttered under his breath as they stalked back through the woods toward the house. He led the way, shining the flashlight back and forth in wide swaths, not bothering to make sure Joe and Otey kept up.

Joe didn’t have an answer to give. The deer, the toys, and Otey sitting there without a care in the world. It was all too weird. Her brain was still trying to process it while focusing on keeping Otey upright as they fled over roots and branches.

“I mean, Jesus! What the hell was that, Josie?” He stopped abruptly as they crossed the tree line back into the yard, and she crashed into him.

“It was nothing,” she growled in warning, dragging Otey past him.

“Are you kidding me?!”

“Let’s talk about it later,” she called back to him as she climbed the steps to the porch and gently pushed Otey through the front door. Teddy was still standing at the tree line, staring motionless into the woods. A moment later he spun to face her, eyes flashing in the porch light, and stabbed his finger into the darkness behind him.

“Your brother is crazy,” he stated matter-of-factly.

“Teddy...” Joe sighed, not wanting to get into it. She needed to go in and see to Otey, make sure he was ok. She didn’t have the time or energy for this tonight.

“No, I mean it, Josie. That shit is not normal. Where’d he get all those dolls anyway?” He crossed the yard in large, quick strides, came up onto the porch and got right in her face.

“I don’t know, Teddy,” she said slowly, trying to summon patience. “Maybe they were already there.”

“Yeah? Maybe it’s the Island of Misfit Toys? A toy factory’s dumping ground for last year’s models?” His voice dripped with sarcasm.

“I’m going to bed,” she said flatly, and turned to go into the house.

His hand shot out and held the door shut before she could get it open.

“We’re not done here,” he said, in what she guessed was his official cop voice.

“Unless you’re planning on arresting Otey for possession of old, unwanted dolls, we are absolutely done here,” she bit back, staring him hard in the eyes.

He held the door through a long moment of eye contact, then released it in defeat. Joe ripped open the screen door and let it slam in his face behind her. The heavy wooden front door followed, and she threw the lock for what might have been the first time ever. She leaned back against the solid surface in relief as the quiet sank in around her. The screen door screeched open again and Teddy pounded on the door.

“Josie! This isn’t over!”

Joe bit her tongue from yelling back. Let him wear himself out, she thought. She closed her eyes against the noise, taking deep breaths to calm her nerves. Sure enough, a few minutes later the banging stopped and she heard Teddy’s car start. His headlights flashed through the living room window as the cop car roared down the drive.

When his car was no longer visible, she let herself take a deep breath and sank to the floor. Otey had already switched the TV back on and was at his usual vision-robbing closeness. Where did he get all those toys? And what was he doing out there with them, all arranged in neat little rows? She stared at the back of his head, dying to know what was going on beneath the perpetual silence.

Except… He had spoken. He’d said her name.

She could still hear his thin, scratchy voice echo in her head.

“Otey,” she called. He turned his head a fraction of an inch, but his attention remained with the cartoon rabbit talking with a carrot in his mouth. “Otey, turn that off and come here a minute.”

* * *

It was a long night. Otey came to the table and sat across from her, where she’d questioned him for more than an hour. Why had he run off? Where did those toys come from? If he said her name then, why wouldn’t he talk to her now? But he simply sat and stared back at her with a blank expression on his face. Sometimes, she wondered how much he understood of what she was saying. She was beginning to question whether she had imagined his voice calling her name in the woods.

When she’d asked every question she could think of at least five times a piece without any response, she’d given up and sent him off to bed. He’d stood up the moment she’d released him, trotting off to his room without a backward glance. By the time she checked on him ten minutes later, he was sleeping peacefully. She envied him. Every time she closed her eyes, those lifeless doll eyes stared back at her. How was she supposed to sleep?

Around sunrise, Joe accepted the fact that she would not be sleeping, no matter how much her body screamed for rest. Checking on Otey to make sure he was still asleep, she grabbed her wallet and headed out the front door.

The breeze flowing in the open windows of the truck was refreshing and helped clear her mind as she cruised into town. She could chalk up the strangeness of the night before to coincidence. The woods had always been dark and creepy and, given her history with Teddy, she had every right to be on edge. The stuffed animals, with their lidless eyes…maybe they didn’t require an explanation.

Teddy did, though. She knew he wasn’t likely to let it go. His words from the night before still echoed in her mind. This isn’t over Josie...

She pulled into the diner’s empty lot fifteen minutes before it would technically open, certain Sadie would already be there. Joe rounded the building and knocked hard on the back door. Weird Sixties music leaked through the door from where it was blasting inside, and it brought with it heavy nostalgia. Joe used to roll her eyes at Sadie bopping around to overly upbeat tunes from a bygone age, but the oldies had grown on her. It was comforting now.

The door popped open, and Joe jumped back in surprise. Sadie stuck her head out and beamed. “Well, come on in, sugar! Thought you forgot about me.”

Instantly, Joe remembered she was supposed to come by last night. Just another grain of guilt to add to the growing mountain inside her. “I’m so sorry. I completely forgot. There was… a lot going on yesterday.”

She followed Sadie to the kitchen, and an apron landed on her face. “Get the coffee going to make up for it,” she chirped. “Everything okay? Otey?”

“Yeah. Fine,” Joe lied as she tied the apron around her waist. There had been a time in her life where she would have told Sadie everything. But now, too many years had passed. Too much had happened.

“Good. We’re short a waitress today. Think you can hang around for a bit?”

In the past, it wouldn’t have been a question. But now images of Otey at home all alone made her hesitate. Logic told her he would be fine, that he’d stayed at home alone hundreds of times before, but after last night?

“I shouldn’t stay long. Otey’s there. He’ll need breakfast,” she said, though they both knew he could feed himself just fine.

Sadie raised an eyebrow, but shrugged. “Bring him here. I’ll make him his favorite… eggs a la Otey. And there’s a TV upstairs.”

A sudden thought struck Joe. Then she asked nonchalantly, “Is my old room still up there?”

“Nah, I took it down,” Sadie replied.

“Funny. You know what I mean.”

“Course, baby girl. All your Nirvana posters and everything. Just how you left it,” Sadie winked.

Joe ignored her old friend as hope kindled inside her. Without taking the apron off, Joe was out the front door with a quick “be back soon!” She flew down the road to her house, dissecting the plan as it formed in her head. Otey didn’t have to go to her aunt’s house, or follow her back to New York. He could live with Sadie. All she needed to do was convince Sadie to take him on. Find the right angle. Maybe she could even pay his rent? Sadie would give her a good deal. A smile tugged on the edges of Joe’s lips. For the first time since she’d arrived back in her hometown, she saw a way back out.

A shiny red convertible was parked in her spot in front of the house. Her orderly plans fell apart at the sight. Her eyes flicked to the porch where a tall woman waited in a business suit that strained against her full figure. The woman waved at her, and a sinking feeling replaced the high-flying hope of the moment before. Anyone dressed this nice in Garfield’s Crossing couldn’t mean good things for Joe. She climbed out of the truck warily.

“Can I help you?”

The old woman gasped dramatically “Josie May! Look at how you’ve grown!” She stepped off the porch and picked her way through the yard, struggling as her stilettos sunk into the patchy grass. “It’s Della Thomas, Marydella’s mother?”

“Oh, of course.” Joe gave a tight smile and took her hand in a brief shake. “I’m sorry, I forgot we were meeting today.”

Della shook her head, and Joe noticed how little her brunette waves moved. Did she use an entire can of hairspray this morning? “No, it’s my fault. I’m early. I tried to call a bit ago, but there was no answer, so I thought I’d just pop over and see if you were up yet.”

Presumptuous, Joe thought. She was pretty sure this woman wouldn’t “pop over” before 8 a.m. on a more promising client. “Well, come on in for a moment, but I have to run out in a few minutes. I’m helping out at Sadie’s this morning.”

“Sure, sure. This won’t take long.”

Della followed Joe into the house, her beady eyes examining every nook and cranny. Joe bristled as she felt the judgment rolling off the woman. “I know it’s not in the best shape, but it’s got good bones.”

She couldn’t believe she was defending a house she hadn’t lived in for years, but how dare this woman judge her and her family? Joe had literally pulled this woman into her own decrepit house after she had passed out on the porch from “too much fun,” as she’d always explain it the next morning.

“Sure, sure,” Della said again in a too-chipper voice. “A new coat of paint will do wonders. If you don’t mind, I’ll take a quick look around?” She didn’t wait for a response before pulling out a notepad and pen and heading into the living room.

Joe glared at her back for a moment, then pushed past her to Otey’s room. He was awake at least, sitting up in bed and hugging his pillow.

“Morning. Want to go for breakfast? Sadie says she’ll make your favorite, special.” Otey’s face lit up. “Cool. Take a quick shower and meet me in the kitchen when you’re ready. I gotta help out at the diner this morning, so we need to get moving.”

Della spent ten minutes assessing the house and scribbling notes on her pad while Joe stewed in the kitchen. In the end, all she said was that she’d send over some tips for getting it ready to list. She was pulling out of the drive when Otey arrived in the kitchen, hair still sopping wet but dressed and smelling clean.

“Let’s go.”

* * *

Once they reached the diner, the morning passed in a rush. It was busier than Joe remembered, though she figured many of their regulars were older now, and retired. They could come in for breakfast on a weekday. Otey had inhaled his breakfast like he hadn’t been fed in days before bolting upstairs without an invitation. Joe raised an eyebrow at Sadie in surprise. She shrugged in response.

“He’s spent a lot of time here since you left. I think he missed you, so he liked being in your old haunts,” she explained.

“Who brought him?” She couldn’t picture her mother taking Otey to the diner like a normal family.

“Jesse Skinner, usually. He’d drop him off on the way to work. Think he was trying to ease the burden on your mom toward the end.”

It was nearly impossible to imagine Skinner cared one bit about her mom or Otey. But maybe she’d underestimated him. Anyway, it didn’t matter, the important thing was that Otey already spent time here. Maybe this wouldn’t be as hard a favor to ask for as she’d expected. But she still didn’t know how to bring it up.

“Sadie…” she began, but was interrupted when a customer hollered for more coffee. Sadie gave her a meaningful look, and Joe picked up the pot of coffee reluctantly.

She was pouring the coffee when she glanced down and Butchie sat holding the coffee cup. She nearly jumped out of her skin, sending the coffee everywhere, including his lap. He leapt to his feet with a shout, knocking Joe further off balance.

“Hey! Klutz. Look what you did!” Jimmie, Butchie’s older brother, shouted. Butchie had always been a near twin to Jimmie, and for a moment, she could have sworn it was a ghost sitting in front of her. He was busy frantically scrubbing napkins on his shirt and hadn’t seen who she was. She tried to back away while muttering apologies before he could look up, but Sadie rushed over with a rag and blocked her in.

“I am so sorry about that, Jimmie! Here, let me help.” She offered him the rag.

He looked up then, first at Sadie, then at Joe. His scowl transformed into a sneer. “Well, look who came back to town. Teddy said you were home. I thought he must be lying. Even you wouldn’t be that stupid. But here you are.”

Joe wanted to dissolve into the floor, but forced herself to scowl back at him. Before she could respond, though, Sadie jumped in.

“Jimmie, I won’t have you talking to my employees that way. Go get yourself cleaned up. Finish your breakfast.” Sadie grabbed Joe by the arm and pulled her away. His hateful stare remained locked with hers, but he didn’t say another word.

Sadie pushed Joe through the door to the kitchen, and grabbed the coffee pot that was somehow still in her hand, setting it on the counter. She pulled another rag from her apron pocket and threw it at Joe.

“What the hell was that?” Sadie snapped.

“Sorry,” Joe said. “I… I didn’t expect to see him,” which was partly true. She hadn’t considered what it would be like to run into the McMillon’s genes all over town.

“It’s a small town, Joe. You’re going to see people from your past.” Sadie’s voice was still annoyed, but softer now.

“You’re right. It just caught me off-guard. Look, I can go if you want.” Joe began to untie the apron, but Sadie reached a hand out and stopped her.

“I’m still short-staffed. Just keep it together, alright? In fact, why don’t you stay behind the counter and I’ll take care of the floor.” She went to push the door open, then paused. Her face turned tender when she looked back at Joe. “It’s only a few days, right? Then you never have to see those fools again.”

Joe nodded, and Sadie patted her on the cheek before leaving her alone. She took a deep breath as she secured the knot at her waist. Sadie was right; she just needed to keep it together. Of course, she also needed to find a way to broach the subject of Otey staying here and that wasn’t going to be any easier if she continued to tick off Sadie. Jimmie had always been a jerk, no reason to let him get under her skin now.

She returned to the counter just as Marydella breezed through the front door, stopping at several of the tables to say hello to the regulars as she made her way to the back. They all smiled when they saw her, and many stared after her as she walked away. When she finally saw Joe behind the counter, taking a customer’s bill to the register, she put her hand to her mouth in mock surprise before breaking out in a grin.

“I should’ve known Sadie would put you back to work already,” she teased.

“Yeah, she said she was down a waitress today.”

“Pssh, please. There is no one else. Oh, sure, Oscar does the cooking and Lainey does the dishes, but on weekdays it’s just Sadie until I come in before the lunch rush.” Marydella pushed her way through the door to the back, leaving Joe with her mouth hanging slightly open.

Sadie had lied to her. It didn’t make any sense that she was handling this many people alone all morning. Marydella had to be mistaken. The customer waiting for Joe to finish ringing up the bill cleared her throat, and Joe returned her attention to the register. She counted out the change as Marydella joined her at the counter, tying on her own apron.

“I’ve been telling her to hire someone else to do the mornings. It’s too much for one person. But she’s come up with all sorts of excuses.” Marydella waggled her eyebrows and hip bumped Joe from in front of the register, “Maybe she’s secretly been waiting for you to come back.”

“It’s just a visit,” Joe said firmly.

“Mmhmm, I know; but you best be careful, or she won’t let you leave.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Not after this morning’s performance.” She gave Marydella a brief recap, and took comfort in the giggles her imitation of Jimmie elicited. Replaying his words again, she paused. “Hey, what do you think he meant? That I was stupid to come back here?”

A flash of something crossed Marydella’s face, but she turned away with a shrug. “Oh, who knows. He’s not the friendliest guy. Probably trying to say anything to get a rise out of you.”

“Yeah, everyone knows you can’t be tried twice for the same crime anyway.” a young girl at the counter interjected. She had a yellow spiral bound notebook in front of her covered in the idle scribbles of highschool daydreaming, next to the cup of coffee Joe had freshened moments before.

“Excuse me?” It came out a bit harsher than she’d intended.

The girl’s cheeks reddened. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop. But… well, we’ve been talking about your case in my journalism class. How the death of Butch McMillon had been designated a domestic dispute, and how you’d pled self-defense. The whole thing is really interesting. We’re having a class debate over it. But of course, in the real world, you’re off the hook, right?”

Joe stared at her in utter horror. The expression on her face must have perfectly captured her emotions because the girl’s wide eyes dropped as she rushed to pack up her notebook.

“S-sorry,” she stammered. “I gotta go.” She slid a wadded twenty across the counter and fled. Joe gaped at her empty stool.

Marydella was quiet as she reached for the bill and opened the register.

It felt like it took several minutes for the world to come back into focus. Joe turn on her. “What the hell was that kid talking about?!” she demanded in a lethal whisper.

Marydella would not meet her eye. “It’s only been a few years, Josie. There were… well, a lot of unexplainable things about that night. Stuff like that, it doesn’t happen often in Garfield’s Crossing. You can’t have expected it to have blown over already.”

“It’s been half a decade,” Joe argued.

Marydella shrugged. “Well, there hasn’t been a murder involving one of the Founding Families since then.” The words pierced Joe like a knife. Marydella’s eyes, widened and locked with Joe’s. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.”

Joe turned on her heel and stalked off. It didn’t matter what she had meant. The way Teddy had been treating her, the looks she’d gotten from customers here, and then there was Jimmie’s reaction. They weren’t just old hostility from when she was a less-than-loved member of the town before. These people looked at her and saw a murderer.

She tore the apron off and threw it on the ground in the back room then stormed out the backdoor, toward her truck. Sadie caught up with her as she reached it.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“Home. I’m done. This whole goddamn town can go to Hell!” Joe shot back without turning around.

“Oh really? Does that include me?”

She jammed the key in the lock and twisted it without indication she had heard. Sadie continued, “Does it include your brother?”

Joe’s hand trembled on the door handle. Otey still needed her. If she left now, without another word, what would happen to him? Would Sadie keep him anyway? A tiny voice in the back of her head said: This is not the way to fix things.  Go back inside. Ask Sadie for help. Earn it the right way.  Deep down, Joe realized now that Otey was just fine without her. Skinner had apparently cared enough to take care of him without her. So had Sadie. They would do it again, even if she left. She wasn’t tied to this place, and she owed them nothing. She pulled the door open, climbed into the truck, and drove away without a backwards glance.

* * *

    Joe had decided it was time to go before she reached the house. She threw the few belongings she’d unpacked back into her suitcase, hauled it to the truck and tossed it inside without a second thought. As soon as she was on the highway, though, everything seemed so much less dire. Back at the house, she stood in the front yard, leaning against the truck and staring at the front door, unable to convince herself to go back in. She could leave. What difference would it make? Otey had people here who could take care of him. He wouldn’t be alone. For almost thirty minutes, she went back and forth with these thoughts before finally climbing back into the truck. This time, she made it an hour down the highway before pulling over for gas. As she pulled up to the pump, reality hit. What would she do with the truck? The papers she needed to sign were still in her bag, unopened and unread. Ultimately, after what happened at the diner, running only made her seem guilty.

    That kid had been wrong: she wasn’t safe. There had never been a trial. If there had, Joe would certainly have gone to  prison for murder. The only reason she’d walked free was the Sheriff’s decision to believe her, and his impressive defense of her to Butchie’s parents. She still didn’t know how he’d managed it, but they’d seen enough to convince them she was innocent.

Judging from Jimmie’s hostility this morning, the rest of the family may not be as easily  convinced.

Teddy had mentioned something about wanting justice. He had access to the file. Joe would bet all her money that Teddy was gathering evidence of his own, and if he found what he needed, leaving Garfield’s Crossing would not be enough to save her.

She had to go back, and she had to find evidence of her own. There had to be something, some mark on the walls or the floor that could explain what had truly happened that night. It had been self-defense. But Butchie had been a victim, not an attacker. They’d both been victims. Teddy was right; it was time for some justice.

Clenching her teeth, she stomped on the breaks and pulled over. She didn’t know how long she sat there arguing the points but eventually she came to a decision.

Joe turned the truck around.

Back in Garfield’s Crossing, she parked in front of yet another house she’d never wanted to lay eyes on again. It looked so much smaller than she remembered. And brown. Had it always been brown? In her memory, it was a sunny yellow paradise. Twice the size of her mother’s house, and full of the love she’d never received as a child. Happy memories, destroyed in one terrible night.

Her fingers fidgeted with the lens cap on her camera. She’d have to go inside, but there were some big obstacles to cross to get there. One: she had no idea who lived there or owned the house now. Two: she didn’t have her key anymore.

The sun was already setting. Figuring she could at least take photos of the outside, she rolled down the passenger’s window and leaned across the cab. Through the lens of her camera, the house grew even more distorted. She pulled her face away, checked the lens. It wasn’t a wide angle. The distortion made no sense. She adjusted the focus, using the screen as a guide. It looked fine there. She put her eye back to the viewfinder, and gasped.

The house was pulsing, the sides bulging out and back in.

She recoiled, dropping the camera onto the passenger seat and forcefully rubbed her eyes. They ached with exhaustion, but when she opened them again, the house was sitting there. Motionless. Normal.

“Good God, Josie. Get a grip,” she muttered. She glanced at the camera, then turned the keys in the ignition. Maybe a little music would make her feel better. A country station was the first thing to come in. Not her taste, but good enough. All she needed was noise.

A deep breath, then she reached again for the camera. She only needed a few quick shots. She lifted it to her face, pointed toward the house,

And screamed.

Blood oozed through the windows and doors, and seeped through every crack in the front facade. The ground was soaked with it. The sides of the house throbbed like a pulsing heart. She could feel its movement in her own chest, a deep reverberating sound making the car around her tremble. And with each beat, waves of blood surged forward. Suddenly, she was not the only one screaming. A man’s voice, broken with fear, joined hers. She tried to release the camera, but her fingers were frozen in place. The screams grew louder, her own and the man’s, and the pulsing heart kept pace. The blood would drown the world. She could almost feel it sticking to her shoes. And then she was inside the house, and blood was up to her ankles.

“Please! Josie, please!”

Butchie’s voiced trembled with pain and fear. He was on the ground, rolling in the blood as his wild eyes latched onto hers.

“Help me!”

She felt the cold metal of the gun in her hands, felt her fingers close on the trigger.

BANG.

The camera fell from Joe’s hands. A small boy ran across the road in front of her, chasing a basketball. He waved at her after retrieving it, and she thought she heard him yell “Sorry” before he took off back across the street to his own driveway.

Her hands were shaking, and her heart racing a mile a minute. She willed herself to breathe. In. Out. In Out.

She couldn’t bring herself to look at the house again instead she shifted the truck into drive, and checked the mirrors before pulling out.

There was a silver Cadillac parked behind her and it wasn’t empty. She wondered how long they’d been there, if they had heard her scream. Not that it mattered. She switched her headlights on and pulled onto  the road, turning the music up as loud as she could. Thinking it might help her nerves, she tried to sing along. It didn’t work, so she stopped.

A few turns later, she glanced in the mirror again. Was that the same silver car behind her? She shook her head. Even if it was, there was only one way into downtown and this was it. No big deal. It didn’t mean anything.

The main drag came into view, and she checked her rearview expecting to see the car pull off into one of the many establishments. It didn’t. She turned the volume louder and pressed the gas a little harder. An upbeat Brad Paisley song blared through the speaker, and Joe tried to focus on the words. As he drawled on about water, she sped over the Crimson River and tried thinking about memories of fishing there years ago. In the dark, the black water only reminded her of more blood. She shivered and flipped off the radio, her eyes darting to the mirror again. Were those definitely the same headlights?

Soon, they would be out of Garfield’s Crossing completely. There was only one more street to go before there would be no other explanation. As the turn neared, she considered speeding up and driving straight on to the highway. If this guy followed her, she could lose him there. But the highway was a long drive on a rural road with no one to help her. This old truck couldn’t outrun a Caddie, even a dated one. Should have stayed in town. Panic settled in her chest, and at the last minute she hit the brakes as hard as she dared and veered onto the old dirt road. She gripped the wheel hard as the truck straightened and picked up speed again, dust flying up in a cloud in the rearview.

The silver car turned behind her.

Pushing the pedal all the way to the floor, she forced the truck to go faster than it had ever gone before. An engine roared behind her and she saw the car easily keeping pace. As it began to creep up alongside her, she thought her heart might explode through her chest. The figure in the driver’s seat was just coming into view, and she realized he was waving at her, telling her to pull over. Twisting in her seat, she strained to get a better look when she felt the truck slip off the road.  She kicked for the brakes, turning her attention back to the front in time to see a telephone pole crumple the hood in slow motion before the world went black.

 

TO BE CONTINUED

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