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Dark places, p.21

Dark Places, page 21

 

Dark Places
 



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  “Like that,” Krissi concluded, bored or angry, and tossed the doll aside. The young man—a therapist, a social worker, someone who wore Shetland sweaters with plaid shirts underneath, someone who went to college—picked the doll back up and tried to get Krissi’s attention.

  “Krissi, let’s …” he said, holding the boy doll carefully off one knee, the doll’s penis drooping toward the floor.

  “Who is that?” Krissi said, pointing at Patty.

  Patty strode across the room, ignoring all the parents, who began standing, wavering like strummed wires.

  “Krissi?” she said, crouching down on the floor. “My name is Patty, I’m Ben Day’s mom.”

  Krissi’s eyes widened, her lips quivered, and she scooted away from Patty. There was a second of silence, like a slow-motion crash, where she and Patty stared at each other. Then Krissi tilted her head back and yelled: “I don’t want her here!” Her voice echoed off the skylight. “I don’t want her here! You said! You said I wouldn’t have to!”

  She threw herself on the floor and began ripping at her hair. The brunette girl ran over and wrapped herself over Krissi, wailing, “I don’t feel safe!”

  Patty stood up, spinning around the room, saw parents with frightened, revolted faces, saw Diane hustling Libby behind her, toward the door.

  “We’ve heard about you,” Krissi Cates’s mother said, her sweet, drained face twisted into a ball. She motioned back to Maggie Hinkel, Patty’s old classmate, who blushed at Patty. “You’ve got four kids at home,” she continued, her voice tight, her eyes wet. “You can’t afford a one of them. Their daddy’s a drunk. You’re on welfare. You leave your little girls alone with that … jackal. You let your son prey on girls. Jesus Christ, you’ve let your son do this! God knows what happens out there!”

  The Putch girl stood and screamed then, tears rolling past the bright stars on her cheeks. She joined the pack in the middle, where the young man was murmuring soothing words, trying to maintain eye contact with them. “I don’t want them here!” Krissi yelled again.

  “Where’s Ben, Patty?” Maggie Hinkel said, her spade-faced daughter sitting beside her, expressionless. “The police really need to talk to Ben. I hope you’re not hiding him.”

  “Me? I’ve been trying to find him. I’m trying to straighten this out. Please.” Please help me, please forgive me, please stop screaming.

  Maggie Hinkel’s daughter remained quiet, then tugged at her mother’s sleeve. “Mom, I want to leave.” The other girls continued to howl, watching each other. Patty stood, looking down at Krissi and the therapist, who was still cradling the naked doll-boy that was supposed to be Ben. Her stomach seized, flushed her throat with acid.

  “I think you should leave,” snapped Mrs. Cates, picking up her daughter like a toddler, the girl’s legs dangling almost to the floor, Mrs. Cates wobbling with the weight.

  The young therapist stood up, inserting himself between Patty and Mrs. Cates. He almost put a hand on Patty, then moved it to Mrs. Cates instead. Diane was calling from the door, calling Patty’s name, or Patty wouldn’t have known to move. She was waiting for them to close in on her, scratch her eyes out.

  “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Patty was yelling into the room, frantic and dizzy. “It’s a mistake, I’m so sorry.”

  Then Lou Cates was in front of her, grabbing her by the arm, as if he hadn’t just invited her in, and walking her toward the door, the keening of four girls behind her. Mothers and dads were everywhere, grown-ups taking care of their children, and Patty felt stupid. Not foolish, not embarrassed. Unforgivably stupid. She could hear the parents cooing things to their daughters: good girl, it’s ok-it’s ok, she’s leaving now, you’re safe, we’ll make this all better, hush, hush, baby.

  Just before Lou Cates propelled her from the room, Patty turned around to see Krissi Cates in her mother’s arms, her blond hair over one eye. The girl looked at her and said simply, “Ben is going to hell.”

  Libby Day

  NOW

  I’d been commissioned to find Runner, but all my feverish, ambitious action of the past week was slopped on the floor next to my bed, like a soiled nightgown. I couldn’t get up, even when I heard the kids make their sleepy duckwalk past my house. I pictured them in big rubber rainboots, clomping along, leaving rounded footprints in the March muck, and I still couldn’t move.

  I’d woken up from a miserable dream, the kind you keep telling yourself doesn’t mean anything, shouldn’t bother you because it’s just a dream, just a dream. It started back at the farm, but it wasn’t the farm really, it was far too bright, too tidy to be the farm, but it was and in the distance, against an orange horizon, Runner was galloping toward the farm, hooting like an Old West cowboy. As he got closer—down our hill, through the gate—I saw that his gallop was actually a rickety, bumpalong motion because his horse had wheels. Its top half was flesh, but the bottom was metal, spindly, like a hospital gurney. The horse whinnied at me in panic, its muscled neck trying to separate from the metal below. Runner leapt down, the creature rolling away, one wheel busted, an irritating grocery cart of an animal. It came to a stop near a tree stump, its eyes going white, still struggling to pull itself apart.

  “Don’t worry about that.” Runner grinned at the horse. “I paid for it.”

  “You got a bad deal,” I said.

  Runner’s jaw tightened and he stood too close to me.

  “Your mom says it’s fine,” he muttered.

  That’s right! I thought, My mom is alive. The idea felt solid, like a pebble in my pocket. My mom was alive, and how foolish I’d been, all these years thinking otherwise.

  “You’d better fix your hand first,” Runner said, pointing at my stumped ring finger. “I brought you these. Hope you like them better than the horse.” He held up a flimsy velvet bag, the kind used for Scrabble, and shook it.

  “Oh, I love the horse,” I said, batting away my ill will. The horse had torn its hindquarters from the metal and was bleeding a meaty red oil onto the ground.

  From his bag, Runner poured eight or nine fingers. Every time I picked one that looked like mine, I realized it was a pinky finger, a man’s finger, a finger of the wrong color or size.

  Runner was pursing his lips at me. “Just take one, OK? It’s not a big deal.”

  I picked one that was vaguely similar to my lost one, and Runner sewed it to my hand, the ripped horse screaming now behind us, a woman’s scream, terrified and angry. Runner threw a shovel at it, and it broke in two, pulsing on the ground, unable to move.

  “There,” Runner said with a lip smack. “Good as new.”

  Between my two girlish fingers, a bulbous big toe squatted, tied on with lazy, thick stitches, and suddenly Runner’s girlfriend Peggy was there and said, “Honey, her momma’s not here, remember? We killed her.”

  And Runner smacked his head like a man who’d forgotten to bring home milk and said, “That’s right. That’s right. I got all them girls, except Libby.” We three stood blinking at each other, the air turning nasty. Then Runner went back to the horse, and picked up the shovel, which had become an axe.

  I flung myself awake, one arm cracking my bedside lamp to the floor. It was barely dawn when I turned and watched the glowing lamp on its side, wondered if the lightbulb would burn a hole in the carpet. Now it was morning and still I couldn’t move.

  But the light was on in Ben’s room. My first real thought: that night the light was on in Ben’s room and someone was talking. I wanted to stop thinking about it but I always came back to it. Why would a crazed killer go into Ben’s room, close the door, turn on the light and chat?

  The light was on in Ben’s room. Forget the other stuff: a vengeful Lou Cates, a debt-crazed Runner, a pack of goons who wanted to teach Runner a lesson by murdering his family. Forget the bellowing voice I heard, which—fine, I guess—may not have been Ben’s. But he wasn’t home when we went to bed, and when I woke up the light was on. I remember a flush of relief because Ben was home
because his light was on and the fight was over between him and my mom at least for today because the light was on and he was talking behind the door, maybe on his new phone, or to himself, but the light was on.

  And who was Diondra?

  I prepared to get out of bed, tossing the covers aside, the sheets dank-smelling, gray from my body. I wondered how long it had been since I’d changed them. And then I wondered how often you were supposed to change them. These were the kinds of things you didn’t learn. I changed the bedclothes after sex, now, finally, and that I only learned a few years ago from a movie on TV: Glenn Close, some thriller, and she’s just had sex and is changing the sheets and I can’t remember the rest, because all I was thinking was: Oh, I guess people change sheets after they have sex. It made sense, but I’d never thought of it. I was raised feral, and I mostly stayed that way.

  I got out of bed, finally returning the lamp to my bedtable, and walked roundabout to the living room, sneaking up on the answering machine, not letting it know I cared if it had a message. I might as well have whistled, my feet kicking out ahead of me—nothing unusual here, just out for a walk. No Diane. Four days and no Diane.

  Well, no problem, I had other family.

  BEN WAS WAITING for me this time when I came, sliding into view before I was prepared. He sat rigid in the seat behind glass, his eyes unfocused, a jumpsuited mannequin. I wanted to tell him not to do that to me, it gave me the creeps, but I didn’t say anything because why would he give me the creeps unless I still didn’t entirely believe he was innocent.

  Which I didn’t, I guess.

  I sat down, the chair still humid from someone else, the warmth of the plastic feeling grossly intimate in this place. I mushed my buttocks back and forth, making it mine, trying not to look repulsed, but when I picked up the phone it was still sweaty from the previous user, and whatever look I gave made Ben frown.

  “You OK?” he asked, and I nodded once. Yes, sure, absolutely fine.

  “So, you came back,” he said. He fixed on a smile now. Cautious, the way Ben always was. At a family party, on the last day of school, he looked the same, a kid who lived permanently in the library— waiting to be shushed.

  “I came back.”

  He had a nice face, not handsome but nice, the face of a good guy. Catching me assessing him, his eyes darted to his hands. They were big now, bigger than his small frame, piano hands even though we never played piano. They were scarred, nothing impressive, dark pink confetti strips of nips and cuts. He caught me looking, held one hand up, pointed a finger at one deep gash: “Polo accident.”

  I laughed because I could tell he was already regretting the joke.

  “Nah, actually you know what this is?” Ben said. “This is from that bull, Yellow 5, remember that little bastard?”

  We had only a small operation, but we still never named our cattle, that was not a good idea, even as a kid I had no interest in getting attached to Bossy or Hank or Sweet Belle because they’d be sent to slaughter as soon as they were big enough. Sixteen months, that rang out in my head. Once they were a year old, you started tiptoeing around them, you started looking at them sideways with disgust and embarrassment like a guest in your home who just farted. So instead we color-tagged them during calving each year, matching cows with their calves: Green 1, Red 3, Blue 2, sliding out from their mothers, onto the dirt floor of the barn, those feet kicking right away, always trying to get a purchase in the slop. People think of cattle as docile, dumb, but calves? They’re kitty-curious, playful, and for that reason I was never allowed in the lot with them, just eyed them through the slats, but I remember Ben, his rubber boots on, trying to sneak, moving slow and deliberate as an astronaut, and then he got near and he might as well have been trying to grab fish. I remember Yellow 5, at least the name, the famous bull calf who’d refused to be castrated— poor Ben and my mom, day after day trying to get ahold of Yellow 5 so they could slit his sack and cut off his nuts, and each day coming to the dinner table as failures, Yellow 5 having outplayed them. It was a joke to be told over a ground round the first night, everyone talking to the steak, pretending it was Yellow 5: You’ll be sorry, Yellow 5. By the second night it was cause for chagrined laughter, and by the fifth it was grim mouths and silence, a reminder to both Ben and my mom that they weren’t good enough: weak, small, slow, lacking.

  I’d have never thought of Yellow 5 again without Ben reminding me. I wanted to tell him to make a list of things to recall, memories I couldn’t pluck out of my brain on my own.

  “What happened? He bit you?”

  “Nah, nothing that dramatic, he pushed me into the fence right when I thought I’d gotten ahold of him, just haunched me to one side, and I fell full on, jammed the back of my hand right onto a nail. It was on a rail Mom had already asked me to fix, a good five times. So, you know, my fault.”

  I was trying to think of what to say—something clever, commiserative, I still had no grip on what reactions Ben wanted—and Ben interrupted. “No, screw that, it was goddam Yellow 5’s fault.” He broke into a quick smile, then let his shoulders slump down again. “I remember Debby, she dressed it all up, my cut, put a Band-Aid on it and then put one of her stickers, those shiny stickers with like hearts or whatever, on top of it.”

  “She loved stickers,” I said.

  “She put ’em everywhere, that’s for sure.”

  I took a breath, debated flitting over to some other harmless subject, the weather or something, then didn’t.

  “Hey, Ben, can I ask you a question?”

  He went shark-eyed, tight, and I saw the convict again, a guy used to being on the receiving end, taking question after question and getting attitude when he asked his own. I realized what a decadence it was, to refuse to answer a question. No thanks, don’t want to talk about that and the worst you get is someone thinks you’re rude.

  “You know that night?”

  He widened his eyes. Of course he knew the night.

  “I remember, I may have been confused, about exactly what happened …”

  He was leaning forward now, his arms stiff, huddled over the phone like it was a late-night emergency call.

  “But, one thing I do remember, like stake-my-life-on-it remember … your light was on. In your bedroom. I saw it under the crack in the door. And there was talking. In the room.”

  I trailed off, hoping he’d save me. He let me float, that freefall few seconds when your feet go loose on ice and you have just enough time to think, Oh. I am going to fall.

  “That’s a new one,” he finally said.

  “What’s that?”

  “A new question. I didn’t think there’d be new questions anymore. Congratulations.” I caught us both sitting in the same posture, one palm on the edge of the table like we were about to push back from a meal of leftovers. Runner’s posture, I remember it from the last time I saw him, me twenty-five or twenty-six, and him wanting money, asking all flirty and sweet at first—do you think maybe you can help your old man out, Libbydear?—and me telling him no, straight off, a bat cracking a line drive, shocking, humbling. Well, why not? he’d snapped, and his shoulders shot back, his arms flipped up, hands on my table, me thinking: why’d I let him sit down, already calculating the time I’d waste getting him back up.

  “I snuck out that night,” Ben said. “I came home, me and mom got in another fight.”

  “About Krissi Cates?”

  He started at that, then let it slide over him.

  “About Krissi Cates. But she believed me, she was completely on my side, that was the great thing about Mom, even when she was pissed as hell at you, she was on your side, you knew that. In your bones. She believed me. But she was angry, and just, scared. I’d kept her waiting for, I don’t know, sixteen hours with no word—I didn’t even know what was going on, you know, no cell phones back then, you’d go a whole day and not talk, not like today. I hear.”

  “So, but—”

  “Right, we just got in a fight, I don’t
even remember if it was exactly Krissi Cates or that’s where it started and went from there, I wish to God I could remember, but anyway, she kinda grounds me, sends me to my room, and I go there and after an hour I’m pissed off again, and I leave the house, leave the radio on and the lights on so if she peeks out she thinks I’m still there. I mean, you know the way she slept, wasn’t like she was going to walk all the way to my room to look in on me. Once she was asleep, she was pretty much asleep.”

  Ben made it sound like an unbelievable journey, those thirty-some steps, but it was true, my mom was useless once she was asleep. She barely even moved. I remember holding tense vigils over her body, convincing myself she was dead, staring til my eyes watered, trying to make out breathing, trying to get even a moan. Nudge her, and she’d flop back into the same position. We all had stories of encountering her on coincidental overlapping visits to the bathroom in the night—turn the corner to find her peeing on the toilet, robe between her legs, looking through us like we were made of glass. I just don’t know about the sorghum she’d say, or That seed come in yet? And then she’d shuffle past us back to her room.

 
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