Our town is like a bad dream. Awful things happen, more often than you’d believe. In the last ten years alone there have been ten murders. The folk round here are not the welcoming kind you anticipate from tales of small-town America; everyone is suspicious of their neighbor. I guess in this post 9/11 world that can be somewhat expected, but here? Where the crops still grow and there’s not a Starbucks in sight? We don’t even have a traffic light, only a four way stop in the middle of Main Street. It’s just the way of the world I suppose.
There’s an interstate that runs by, though it’s no more than a speck on the horizon, only visible at night as dozens of pin pricks of light. We had a crash recently, a large semi-truck flipped in the central reservation, you could see the fire for miles around. People got together that night, though not for long. You could see it in their eyes, the longing to be part of something larger, a community. But as the blaze waned, so did the sense of camaraderie that dissipated as quickly as it crept up.
I’m sitting with Marybelle, she no longer lives in La Tierra, and I don’t think she’d mind if she never set foot in it again. She’s seen things I wouldn’t wish on anybody. Her grey eyes vacant and lost as she stares over my shoulder, through the fields and into the distance. She’s agreed to answer my questions and she knew the toll it would take on her. I wonder if she only agreed so she’d have some company from a soul she knew when she was younger, when she was innocent, before the town took it from her.
I always wrote in a notepad, a laptop feels so impersonal, like a wall that divides two people. My hand hovers over the paper, the pen shakes gently. She sees this and offers me a smile, there’s no happiness behind it, though it’s the only comfort she can give me.
When did you first find out about what your father did?
Do you mean the murders or the other thing?
Can we start with the murders?
Marybelle winces and shuffles in her seat.
I guess it was around five years ago now, when I was fifteen. I was watching TV with my brother, Roy and my sister Leigh. Roy didn’t like to eat vegetables, and my Mom was out, so I’d prepared him macaroni and cheese. He wasn’t looking at the screen, so I led them out of the den and into the kitchen. He had a temper on him, just like pops. I shut the door behind him and watched.
What did you see?
It was some security footage of a man the police wanted to talk to. It was all black and white and really blurry. But I’d know my pops anywhere. It was how he walked. His leg was lame from a hunting accident. Uncle Rick shot him in the hip when they were only kids. Daddy used to say the bullet was still in there. He showed me the scar on many occasions, sometimes I think he was prouder of that than he was of me.
It was so strange, seeing him again. I don’t know if I was scared or shocked.
What was he doing?
Marybelle’s eyes well up. For the first time I see some emotion. I think it’s sadness, but it could be nostalgia.
I’m sorry. On the TV I saw him walk across the gas station forecourt, you know the one, by the Dollar General?
Even though he’s in the distance and small, it’s the limp. He walked to the door, and as he swung it open, he looked straight into the camera. The channel froze on this frame, zooming in so you could see his beard, and his hair parted to the side. It was as if he was looking straight at me. I remember screaming, “Daddy?”
Roy heard this and started banging on the door. I slid to the floor, crying all over again.
Then they showed him running out. They said the dark grey marks on the ground were blood stains, that the man had killed someone. There was a number to call on the bottom of the screen, a local number. When Daddy was no longer on the TV I opened the door. Roy burst in, real angry. He saw me crying and asked if pops was home. I told him no. He ran up to his room.
Roy missed him so much. He didn’t know what happened. One day he was here and the next he wasn’t.
What was so strange about seeing your father that day?
Marybelle laughs at the absurdity of the question.
We buried him the summer before. I remember that, vividly. I also remember when Mom shot him. But, seeing him on the TV wasn’t a surprise.
Can you tell me about the day he was killed?
She sighs and wipes the tears that have gathered.
Daddy had been out in the woods all day. He said he was going hunting with Roy. I don’t think mom believed him. His gun was on the porch and his buckshot was still pilled on the table in the kitchen. When he stumbled in, it was late, around 9:30. Mom shouted at him, asking where Roy was. Daddy was covered in dirt and he smelled. He looked like he had fallen over in the ravine down by the river. Mom said he’d been drinking again. This made pops angry and he hit her around the face with the back of his hand.
I ran over to mom and hugged her.
“Don’t hit her!” I screamed at him.
I don’t think he expected that. He staggered backwards.
“Where’s my brother?” I demanded.
His lips quivered. I’d never seen him like that before. He seemed lost.
“Something happened to him Sugarbelle. I’m so sorry.”
He slumped into his chair and cried.
“I tried to save him.”
Mom got up and I ran over to daddy. I didn’t like seeing him like that, you know? I was so scared. Parents aren’t supposed to cry.
“Marybelle, move,” mom said to me.
She had daddy’s gun pointed right at him.
“No momma!” I shouted.
“He killed my boy.”
“It wasn’t me,” daddy said.
He didn’t try and stop mom. She grabbed my wrist, pulling me to my feet.
“I’m sorry,” was all she said.
Daddy let out one big sigh and I watched as his brains exploded out of the back of his head. Mom kept the chair, had it cleaned. I still remember, weeks later, picking out small pieces of bone from down the sides. I kept them.
She sniffs and looks up and to the right, thinking.
Silly, I know. They are probably still in that house, in a box somewhere.
What about Roy?
Yeah. Mom called the police. I don’t know what she told them. All I know is she didn’t spend a day in jail. Daddy had a reputation. Small town America, they look after their own.
Mom and I were in the kitchen. She didn’t say a word to the officer that arrived. I think she was in shock. She didn’t say a word when Roy walked in asking where his pops was. He didn’t know he was in the body bag being carried out in front of him.
I was glad to see him. I thought I never would again. But all I could think about was how dirty he was. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he’d been knee deep in the ground. If he was though, he didn’t remember. He could only recall running back to the house, shouting for his pops. Something awoke in me in that moment.
Marybelle hunches forward, as if the weight of the memories are weighing down heavily on her shoulders.
We can stop if you want?
No, I’m fine.
Daddy was buried later in the month. There were plenty of people that attended the funeral. It wasn’t open casket, naturally. Roy and Leigh were at a friend’s house. My mom told them we needed to do something important. Roy wasn’t stupid though, he asked if it was about his pops. Mom smiled at him and said how much she loved him.
It rained that day. It was unusual. The middle of summer and the heavens opened. I remember forcing myself to cry, like it was something I was supposed to do. I missed him, I really did. I found it odd that his friends held candles and threw them into the grave as the coffin was lowered.
What happened after you saw your dad on the TV?
I phoned mom, she was at work. I told her what I saw. She didn’t believe me. I knew it was him.
So, I called that number off the TV. Officer Greeley answered. He recognized me. My parents had been friends with him for the longest time. I knew his daughter, Sally.
“I know the person who done that murder,” I said.
I was slightly aghast when he said that.
“The gas station one. Is there more?”
He asked if I could come down to the station. I said I couldn’t, I was looking after my brother and sister. I told him I would once my mom was home from work. He asked if I needed picking up. I said it was okay.
When mom got home, she didn’t want me to go. She said I was stupid to think it was daddy. I went anyway. She shouted after me to come back inside. I ran.
I’d never been to the police station before, I’d seen it plenty of times. I always wondered what went on there. My mom said that’s where all the bad people go. I wondered if that made me bad for going in there. I guessed it did, because I went anyway.
The first thing that hit me was how bright it was. The nice woman behind the reception desk asked me what I was doing there. I said I came to meet Officer Greeley. She asked me to wait, so I did. I sat in those chairs that hang from the wall. There was a Guns and Ammo magazine on the table next to me, as well as an issue of Muscle Car. It’s funny the little things you remember. My legs were so short, they dangled in the air. I kicked them back and forth until Officer Greeley stuck his head out of his office.
The grin he gave me made me smile back. It was nice to see a man do that. After pops died, I didn’t have much contact with men, except in school, and the teachers didn’t feel like that, you know what I mean?
He sat me down on the other side of this big wooden desk. He had one of those old computer screens, the ones that are the size of a big box.
“You know I know your daddy’s dead?” he asked.
I didn’t feel upset. The way he said it was so calm and soothing.
“Yes,” I replied, “but it was him.”
“What makes you think that?”
“It was the way he walked. You must remember?”
That seemed to interest him. He put a video tape into a VCR and watched. He cocked his head to one side and nodded knowingly. I don’t know why, but this made me smile. He pressed the stop button and ejected the cassette.
He looked concerned.
“Would you mind taking a look at a couple more?”
I nodded and moved my seat around to his side of the desk. He proceeded to show me two more videos. One was of a man in an office, going through some paperwork. What appeared to be a pair of legs poked out from underneath a desk. The other, a man running across an open field to a barn. Officer Greeley stopped the footage as the smoke began to rise from the wooden building. Even though the footage was very grainy, it was him.
“Yeah, that’s him, you can see his limp.”
Officer Greeley was no longer smiling. He was concentrated, thinking.
“I didn’t see these on the news.”
He took a moment to reply, like he was in a daze or something.
“Oh no, they weren’t shown, yet. The gas station was the best footage, so we went with that.”
“So you know they are all the same person?”
He didn’t answer me.
“It’s my pops. I swear it.”
Did you father have a twin or a brother?
No. He was an only child. We had some photos of him and his parents in our house. He looked so much like Roy when he was younger.
You said that you didn’t think he was dead. Why did you think that?
Marybelle exhales sharply.
When I was eight, I woke up in the forest. I was trapped. I tried to move my arms but they wouldn’t. I remember the smell of mulch, musty and damp. I was choking on the dirt that I inhaled. I panicked, that type of panic where your stomach turns to knots and your arms burn. I heard muffled voices and thought I was going to die. The voices began to shout, and I felt the mud around me move. I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to cough. My lungs were on fire. Stars swam in my vision, and my head grew wooly. A sense of serenity washed over me. All that anxiety disappeared. The light I saw I mistook for that tunnel they say you see when you die. I was ready. Though it wasn’t a tunnel, it was a flashlight.
“Sugarbelle, you’re okay now,” Daddy said, pulling me out of the ground.
He bent me over and clapped me on the back. I heaved, sending black bile to the forest floor. I took in a breath so deep and so sweet, I panted for what seemed like minutes.
“Do you know who you are?” Daddy said, kneeling in front of me.
“I’m Marybelle,” I said.
I could see relief on his face. Men stood behind him, they held candles in their hands, the holders ornate and fancy. Mr Jackson was there, his eyes all red and puffy. I couldn’t for the life of me recall how I ended up there, but I had seen him, earlier in the day. I’d been at his house, with his daughter Kate. She’d gone to piano practice, and I was waiting for pops to pick me up. I felt nausea swell, like my mind was protecting me from the memory. I heaved up another stream of black fluid.
My body tingled as he hugged me and said, “I’m never going to let that happen to you again, I promise.”
That wasn’t the first time he’d said that, it was the fourth. I cannot remember much about those first three times, I was so young. I only remember the ice cream piled tall in a big glass bowl. I was so excited to see it; my eyes must have been like saucers. I got an upset tummy every one of those times.
Daddy led me out of the forest with my hand in his. I looked back to see the rest of the men stay behind. A large fire burned brightly, illuminating the trees. They threw their candles into the blaze. I remember the smell of roasting meat drifting past. I asked Daddy if I could have some chicken. He gripped my hand tighter.
Mr Jackson was found the next day hanging upside down from the stop sign on Main Street, naked. His eyes were gouged out, and his hands cut off.
Marybelle’s eyes are now full of passion, her lips drawn tight.
When Roy disappeared and I saw him standing confused and covered in dirt, I recalled when I was like that. Standing in the shower, it took forever for the mud to wash away. Even then, a ghost of it remained, my skin tinged a sour grey.
I observe her now. She sees me do this. Her pallid complexion is dull and unnatural.
I slipped out that night and headed for the forest. I didn’t know what I was looking for, though something drew me there, a calling you might say. It was cold but the moon shone brightly and penetrated through the canopy of trees, sending spiderlike shadows over the forest floor. I hadn’t been here that often. Pops never took me hunting, said I was too pretty to hold a gun, a pretty girl is a dangerous enough weapon.
I followed the main track that led into the depths of the woods. I stopped when I saw smoke, the grey mist bellowing out from between the trees. I pushed myself through the branches, feeling them snag my clothing and scratch at my face. I coughed as the sooty clouds filled my lungs, an odor of burnt meat clung in my nose.
The pyre was still smoldering when I arrived, a small mound in the dirt, dribbles of what appeared to be wax oozed out. Next to it was a ditch, a carving into the wet mulch that lined the ground. Haphazard mounds of earth were piled up next to it. A circle of white powder traced the hole, the side closest to me disturbed by what looked like foot prints. It felt so familiar.
Scraps of paper burned in the embers of the fire. I approached and picked one out, blowing on the singed ends, only for it to reignite. I slapped my hand on it to put it out. I grabbed the other pages, but they were too blackened by the fire to read.
A few weeks later Roy had one of those hacking coughs. Mom was at work again, so I was looking after him. He said something was irritating his throat. I had him open his mouth wide and peered in. There was something white lodged behind his tongue.
“Let me get it,” I said, gently putting my fingers into his mouth.
I squeezed my eyes shut, his tongue licked my hand, and he wretched. I was able to grab it and pull it out. It was paper, damp and slimy. Roy fell to the floor.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
The color drained from his skin.
“I’m fine,” he replied, his hands out in front of him as he steadied himself.
I unfurled the paper. On it was written – be a good boy. It was daddy’s handwriting.
“I don’t feel so hot,” Roy said, his arms trembling.
His hands turned black and crumbled to dirt, causing him to lurch forward, his head hitting the hardwood floor. In seconds his body had decayed into the same mulch that lined the forest.
“Roy?” I said, I don’t know why. I knew he was gone.
I sat in the room staring at what remained of him for an hour. I didn’t cry, I was in shock. His bedroom smelled musty and damp. I wondered what mom would have said if she knew what happened. I did all I could. I put as much of the dirt into a box as I could carry and poured it over mom’s rose bushes. I repeated this until he was no longer in the bedroom, and lay in the yard near our pet dog, Shorty, and cat, Muffin.
Mom didn’t question me when saw the stains in Roy’s bedroom. I tried to clean up, but the dirt had gotten into the groves between the floorboards. I told her he’d ran away. I don’t think she believed me. I think she knew.
Marybelle leans back in her chair. Her gaze returns to the fields. It was a lot to take in. I want to believe her, though it makes little sense to me. I try and bring the conversation back to the question at hand.
That doesn’t answer why you didn’t think your father was dead.
A day before the murders, I found that box. The one with my daddy’s bones. I missed him so much. I missed Roy too. I wanted to see pops again. I wanted him to hug me and tell me everything was okay. I had this urge. It’s hard to explain. You know when you can’t think of a word, but then that’s all you can think of? It was like that, but deep, deep down in my soul. I wanted an answer to a question I couldn’t pose.
The moon was large that night. It hung low over the interstate. I left the house and walked in the forest. It felt right, does that make sense?
I found the place that had the burning pyre. That was gone now, you’d never know it was there. I raked at the ground with my bare hands. The earth came away easily. Something had awoken in me, like I’d done it before. It was easy to make the hole big enough, the ground was so soft.
I refilled some of the ditch with mud and pressed it together, molding it into an impression. It didn’t take long. It was about the right height. It was hard to make something look human when all you have is the moon for light. I was happy. I took out some of the bone fragments and pushed them into what would have been the head of the figure. I took out my notebook and thought about what I’d write. All I had for guidance was what I found in Roy.
I rolled it up and put it in what would have been the mouth. Then I loosely filled the makeshift grave with leaves and mulch. I took out the table salt I had taken from home and tried to sprinkle it around. That would have taken forever, so I removed the cap and carefully emptied it in a circle.
I struck a match and lit the single candle I had. Then I was stuck.
I had no idea what I was doing. I’d never seen someone do this. I had no ritual to follow, no instructions. You know what I did?
I shake my head.
I got down on my god damn knees and prayed. To what God, I have no idea. But I did. I did with all my heart, pleading with who’d ever listen.
She raises her hands up in exasperation.
Nothing happened. But the next day, you know….
She trailed off.
Are you saying you raised your dad, like a golem?
What the hell is a golem?
I want to believe you. Can you tell me what happened to your sister?
Marybelle sighs again.
I needed to know.
That she wasn’t a golem?
Whatever you call it. I needed to know. She was watching cartoons. I didn’t mean for it to happen that way. I thought about asking her first. But I was too anxious. I’d just got back from the police station after seeing my father on those videos. I walked through the front door, straight into the living room and shoved my hand right down her throat. I didn’t feel anything at first, but then I did. So I pulled, but it wouldn’t come free, so I carried on pulling. I should have stopped when she cried out, but her screams were muted by my arm, I didn’t hear them, they didn’t register.
It was like I was possessed or something. I kept pulling. I ignored the blood. I wanted to get that thing out of her. Mom grabbed me by the neck and hauled me across the room. She was shouting, I have no idea what she said. I watched Leigh cough up blood. It soaked into the carpet something good. In my hand was no paper, only a piece of flesh. I’m not sure what part of her it was.
Obviously, you know she died, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. I don’t want to talk about her anymore.
Hearing her say this in her own words didn’t allow me to empathize. I had hoped it would. I really did. She was such a good friend to me when I was a child. Though the person who sits opposite me was no more than a monster.
The official record states your brother did run away. Is there any way you can prove to me that he didn’t?
She appears angry. Her eyes are wide. Gone are the feelings of kinship I felt when I arrived.
Can I borrow your pen?
I peer around the room, not sure I should do this, but I really want proof. I slide the pen over to her inconspicuously.
She stares at me when she picks it up, and in the same motion thrusts it into her arm. The people on the surrounding tables turn to look.
“Look, no blood. No blood at all.”
The pen has penetrated directly through her wrist, and pokes out the other side. My mouth is wide open, I don’t know what to say. She opens her mouth, too.
“Look,” she demands, and I do.
In the back of her throat I can see something white, it appears to be paper. Before I can confirm this, the prison guards grab her.
Marybelle, what did you write on the paper?
She struggles against the hands that grab her.
You sure you want to know?
She chuckles, although she’s not happy.
Make me whole again.
Is he still out there?
She doesn’t have time to answer this and I’m ushered out.
I return to my hotel in a trance. I don’t feel hungry at all, so go straight to my room. I have no idea what I’d do with the interview. My publishers wouldn’t use it and I couldn’t blame them.
In the bathroom I stare at the mirror, and whether it’s anxiety or morbid curiosity I open my mouth wide and check. I look for something at the back of my throat. I’m relieved when I don’t see anything, though the angle isn’t great.
In the main room, I find the complimentary sewing kit. I take out the needle. I hesitate at first. I knew it was silly. I prick the end of my forefinger. I wince. A trickle of blood seeps out.
I’m relieved and look at my notebook. If she’s telling the truth, there’s untold power in that paper. How many of the town folk knew about this? My wife’s ashes are on the mantle in my apartment. I miss her so much. Could I?