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Dark places, p.25

Dark Places, page 25

 

Dark Places
 



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  Even when Collins did his greasy lead-up—this is very disturbing, Mrs. Day, I want you to prepare yourself-—Patty had figured, maybe a gun. Ben loved guns, always had, it was like his airplane phase and his cement-truck phase, except this one just kept going. It was something they did together—had done together—hunting, shooting. Maybe he brought one to school just to show it off. The Colt Peacemaker. His favorite. He was not supposed to go into the cabinet without her permission, but if he had, they’d deal with it. So let it be a gun.

  Collins had cleared his throat then, and said, in a voice that made them lean in, “We found some … remains … in your son’s locker. Organs. At first we thought they might be part of a baby, but it seems they’re animal. Female reproductive parts in a plastic container, from maybe a dog or a cat. You missing a dog or a cat?”

  Patty was still woozy from the revelation they actually thought Ben might have part of a baby in his locker. That they thought he was so disturbed that infanticide was actually their first guess. It was right then, staring down at a scattering of pastel donut sprinkles, that she decided her son was going to prison. If that’s how twisted they believed her son to be, he had no chance.

  “No, we’re not missing any pets.”

  “Our family is hunters. Farmers,” Diane said. “We’re around animals, dressing animals all the time. It’s not so strange that he might have something from them.”

  “Really, do you keep parts of dead animals in your home?” For the first time Collins looked straight at Diane, a hard stare he cut off after just a few seconds.

  “Is there a law against it?” Diane barked back.

  “One of the rituals that Devil worshipers engage in is the sacrifice of animals, Mrs. Day,” Collins said. “I’m sure you heard about them cattle axed up over near Lawrence. We think that and the involvement with the little girls all ties together.”

  Patty’s face was cold. It was done, it was all done. “What do you want me to do?” she asked.

  “I’ll follow you to your place, so we can talk to your son, OK?” Collins said, turning paternal on that last note, his voice going high, almost flitting into babytalk. Patty could feel Diane’s hands clench next to her.

  “He’s not at home. We’ve been trying to find him.”

  “We absolutely need to talk to your son, Mrs. Day. Where do you think we can find him?”

  “We don’t know where he is,” Diane interrupted. “We’re in the same boat as you.”

  “Are you going to arrest him?” Patty asked.

  “We can’t do anything until we talk to him, and the sooner we do, the sooner we’ll get this cleared up.”

  “That’s not an answer,” Diane said.

  “Only one I got, ma’am.”

  “That means yes,” Diane said, and for the first time she lowered her eyes.

  Collins stood up and walked over toward Libby during the last exchange, now he was kneeling down next to her, giving her a Hi sweetie.

  Diane grabbed his arm. “No. Leave her alone.”

  Collins frowned down on her. “I’m just trying to help. Don’t you want to know if Libby is OK?”

  “We know Libby is OK.”

  “Why don’t you let her tell me that. Or we could have Child Services—”

  “Screw off,” Diane said, getting in front of him. Patty sat in her place, willing herself to disconnect. She heard Diane and Collins snapping behind her, but she just sat and watched the woman behind the counter make another pot of coffee, trying to focus all her interest on the coffee. It worked for just a second before Diane was pulling Patty and Libby, her mouth grimy with donut, out of the restaurant.

  PATTY FELT LIKE crying some more on the way home, but wanted to wait until Diane was gone. Diane made Patty drive, said it would be good for her to focus. The whole way home, Diane had to tell her which gears to switch to, she was so distracted. Why don’t you try third, P? I think we need to go down to 2, now. Libby sat in the backseat, saying nothing, bundling herself up, knees to chin.

  “Is something bad going to happen?” Libby finally asked.

  “No, honey.”

  “It seems like something bad’s going to happen.”

  Patty had another panic-flash then: what the hell was wrong with her, taking a seven-year-old into this kind of situation. Her mother would not have done this. Then again, her mother wouldn’t have raised Ben the way Patty had—slipshod and fingers-crossed— so it wouldn’t have been an issue.

  Right now, she had an almost obsessive need to get home, nest up, feel safe. The plan was, Patty would wait for Ben to get back—he had to be back soon, now—and Diane would go out and assess the gossip. Who knew what, whose side people were taking, and who in God’s name Ben was hanging around with.

  They rattled up to the house and saw Patty’s Cavalier and another car, some bucket-seated sportscar that looked about ten years old, spattered with mud.

  “Who’s that?” Diane asked.

  “No idea.” She said it tragically. Already Patty knew whoever it was, it would be depressing news.

  They opened the front door and felt the heat roll out. The thermostat had to be past eighty. The first thing they saw was an open box of microwave cocoa, the kind with fake marshmallows, on the dining room table, a trail of the cocoa mix leading to the kitchen. Then Patty heard that wheezy laugh and knew. Runner was sitting on the floor, sipping hot chocolate with her daughters leaning on him. Some nature show was on the TV, the girls squealing and grabbing his arms as an alligator boomed out of the water and snapped something with horns.

  He looked up lazily, as if she were a delivery person. “Heya, Patty, long time, no seeya.”

  “We got some family stuff going on,” Diane injected. “You should go on home.”

  During those stretchy weeks that Runner had returned to stay with them, he and Diane had scrapped several times—her bellowing and him blowing her off. You’re not the husband, Diane. He’d go to the garage, get drunk, throw an old baseball against the wall for hours. Diane was not going to be the one to get Runner to go home.

  “It’s OK, D. You go on. Call me in an hour or so, let me know what’s going on, OK?”

  Diane glared at Runner, grumbled something into her chest and stalked out, the door shutting firmly behind her.

  Michelle said “Jeez! What’s with her?” and made a funny face for her dad, the little traitor. Her brown hair was wild from static where Runner had done his Indian rub. Runner had always been weird with the kids, roughly affectionate, but not in a grown-up way. He liked to pinch and flick them to get their attention. They’d be watching TV, and he’d suddenly lean across and get a good snap on their skin. Whichever of the girls he’d just stung would look over at him in a teary, outraged pout, and he’d laugh and go, “Whaaaat?” or “I’s just saying hi. Hi!” And when he went with them anywhere, he trailed a few steps behind instead of walking beside them, eyes sideways on them. It always reminded her of an old coyote, trotting at the heels of its prey, just teasing for a few miles before it attacked.

  “Daddy made us macaroni,” Debby said. “He’s going to stay for dinner.”

  “You know you aren’t supposed to let anyone in the house while I’m away,” Patty said, wiping up the powder with a rag that already smelled.

  Michelle rolled her eyes, leaned into Runner’s shoulder. “Jeez, Mom, it’s Daaaaad.”

  It would have been easier if Runner was just dead. He had so little interaction with his children, was of so little help to them, that if he’d pass on, things would only improve. As it was, he lived on in the vast Out There Somewhere, occasionally swooping in with ideas and schemes and orders that the kids tended to follow. Because Dad said so.

  She’d love to tell off Runner right now. Tell him about his son and the disturbing collection in his locker. The idea of Ben cutting and holding on to animal parts made her throat close. The Cates girl and her friends, that was a misunderstanding that may or may not end well. The assortment of body parts
she couldn’t think of an excuse for, and she was good at thinking up excuses. She didn’t worry about what Collins said, that Ben may have molested his sisters. She had examined that thought on the ride home, turned it over, peered in its mouth and inspected its teeth, been excruciatingly thorough. And there was not a doubt in her: Ben would never do that.

  But she knew her son did have a taste for hurt. There was that moment with the mice: that robotic shovel pounding, his mouth pulled away from his teeth, his face trickling sweat. He’d gotten some pleasure from that, she knew. He roughhoused with his sisters, hard. Sometimes giggles turned into screams and she’d come round the corner and see him holding Michelle’s arm behind her back, just slowly, slowly pulling up. Or grabbing hold of Debby’s arm, vise-like, for an Indian rub and what starts as a joke gets more and more frantic, him rubbing until he draws speckles of blood, his teeth grinding. She could see him getting that same look Runner got when he was around the kids: jacked up and tense.

  “Dad needs to leave.”

  “Geez, Patty, not even a hi before you toss me out? Come on, let’s talk, I got a business proposition for you.”

  “I’m in no position to make a business deal, Runner,” she said. “I’m broke.”

  “You’re never as broke as you say,” he said with a leer, and twisted his baseball cap backward on stringy hair. He’d meant it to sound jokey, but it came out menacing, as if she’d better not be broke if she knew what was good for her.

  He dumped the girls off him and walked over to her, standing too close as always, beer sweat sticking his longjohn shirt to his chest.

  “Didn’t you just sell the tiller, Patty? Vern Evelee told me you just sold the tiller.”

  “And all that money’s gone, Runner. It’s always gone as quick as I get it.” She tried to pretend to sort through mail. He stayed right on top of her.

  “I need you to help me. I just need enough cash to get to Texas.”

  Of course Runner would want to go where it was warm for the winter, traveling child-free like a gypsy from season to season as he did, an insult to her and her farm and her attachment to this single place on the ground. He picked up work and spent the money on stupid things: golf clubs because he pictured himself golfing someday, a stereo system he’d never hook up. Now he was planning to hightail it to Texas. She and Diane had driven to the Gulf when Patty was in high school. The only time Patty’d been anywhere. It was the saltiness in the air that stuck with her, the way you could suck on a strand of hair and make your mouth start watering. Somehow Runner would find some cash, and he’d spend the rest of winter in some honkytonk alongside the ocean, sipping a beer while his son went to jail. She couldn’t afford a lawyer for Ben. She kept thinking that.

  “Well, I can’t help you, Runner. I’m sorry.”

  She tried to aim him toward the door, and instead he pushed her farther into the kitchen, his stale-sweet breath making her turn her head away.

  “Come on, Patty, why you going to make me beg? I’m in a real jam here. It’s life or death stuff. I got to get the hell out of Dodge. You know I wouldn’t be asking otherwise. Like, I might be killed tonight if I can’t scrape up some money. Just give me $800.”

  The figure actually made her laugh. Did the guy really think that was her pocket change? Could he not look around and see how poor they were, the kids in shirtsleeves in the middle of winter, the kitchen freezer stacked with piles of cheap meat, each one marked with a long-gone year? That’s what they were: a home past the expiration date.

  “I don’t have anything, Runner.”

  He looked at her with fixed eyes, his arm leaning across the doorway so she couldn’t leave.

  “You got jewelry, right? You got the ring I gave you.”

  “Runner, please, Ben’s in trouble, bad trouble, I got a lot of bad stuff going on right now. Just come back another time, OK?”

  “What the hell has Ben done?”

  “There’s been some trouble at school, some trouble in town, it’s bad, I think he might need a lawyer, so I need any money I have for him and …”

  “So you do have money.”

  “Runner, I don’t.”

  “Give me the ring at least.”

  “I don’t have it.”

  The girls were pretending to watch TV, but their rising voices made Michelle, nosy Michelle, turn her head and openly stare at them.

  “Give me the ring, Patty.” He held out his hand like she might actually be wearing it, that chintzy fake-gold engagement ring that she knew was embarrassing, flimsy, even at seventeen. He’d given it to her three months after he proposed. It took him three months to get off his ass, go down to a five-and-dime, and buy the little bit of tinsel he gave her while on his third beer. I love you forever, baby, he’d said. She knew immediately then that he’d leave, that he was not a man to depend on, that he wasn’t even a man she liked very much. And still she’d gotten pregnant three more times, because he didn’t like to wear condoms and it was too much trouble to nag.

  “Runner, do you not remember that ring? That ring is not going to get you any money. It cost about ten dollars.”

  “Now you’re going to be a bitch about the ring? Now?”

  “Believe me if it had been worth anything, I’d have pawned it already.”

  They stood facing each other, Runner breathing like an angry donkey, his hands shaking. He put them on her arms, then removed them with exaggerated effort. Even his mustache was shaking.

  “You are really going to be sorry about this, Patty.”

  “I already am, Runner. Been sorry a long time.”

  He turned, and his jacket brushed a cocoa packet on to the floor, scattering more brown powder at his feet. “Bye girls, your mom’s … a BITCH!” He kicked one of the tall kitchen chairs over and it cart-wheeled into the living room. They all froze like forest creatures, as Runner paced in tight circles, Patty wondering if she should make a run for a rifle, or grab a kitchen knife, all the while, mind-pleading that he just leave.

  “Thanks for FUCKING NOTHING!” he tramped to the front door, swung the door open so hard it cracked the wall behind it and bounced back. He kicked it open again, grabbed it, banged it into the wall, his head bowed low against it, all his strength slamming it again and again.

  Then he left, his car screeching down away from the house, and Patty fetched the shotgun, loaded it, and set it atop the mantelpiece with a scattering of shells. Just in case.

  Libby Day

  NOW

  Krissi ended up sleeping on my couch. I’d walked her to the door and realized she wasn’t OK to drive, she was slip-slopping in her shoes, a web of mascara down one cheek. As she swayed out onto my porch, she turned around suddenly and asked about her mother, if I knew where her mother was or how to find her, and it was then that I pulled Krissi back inside, made her a Velveeta sandwich, parked her on the sofa, and wrapped a blanket over her. As she rolled into sleep, setting the last quarter of the sandwich carefully on the floor beside her, three of my lotion bottles fell out of her jacket. Once she passed out I tucked them back in.

  She was gone when I woke up, the blanket folded with a note scrawled on the back of an envelope: Thanks. Sorry.

  So Lou Cates didn’t kill my family, if Krissi was to be believed. I believed her. On that count at least.

  I decided to drive down to see Runner, ignore the two messages from Lyle and the zero messages from Diane. Drive down to see Runner, get some answers. I didn’t think he had anything to do with the murders, whatever his girlfriend might say, but I wondered if he knew something, with his debts and his drinking and his gutter-friends. If he knew something or heard something, or if maybe his debts had triggered some horrible vengeance. Maybe I could believe in Ben again, which is what I wanted to do. I knew now why I’d never gone to visit him. It was too tempting, too easy to ignore the prison walls, and just see my brother, hear the Ben-specific cadence of his voice, that downward slope at the end of every sentence, like it might be the last thing he
was ever going to say. Just seeing him, I remembered things, nice things, or not even nice. Just regular things. I could get a whiff of home. Way back when everyone was alive. Man, I wanted that.

  I stopped at the 7-Eleven on the way out of town, bought a map and some cheese-flavored crackers that I discovered were diet when I bit into them. I ate them anyway, heading south, the orange powder floating through the car. I should have stopped for a meal on the way to Oklahoma. The air on the highway was thick with tempting smell-pockets: french fries, fast-food fish, fried chicken. But I was in an unnatural panic, worried for no good reason I would miss Runner if I stopped, and so I ate the diet crackers and a mealy apple I’d found on the corner of my kitchen counter.

  Why was the note, that dirty note that wasn’t addressed to Ben, mixed up in a box of Michelle’s stuff? If Michelle had found out Ben had a girlfriend, she’d have lorded it over him, all the more if he tried to keep it a secret. Ben hated Michelle. Ben had tolerated me, had dismissed Debby, but he’d hated Michelle actively. I remembered him pulling her out of his room by an arm, her whole body almost sideways, Michelle up on tiptoes, moving with him to keep from being dragged. He tossed her out and she fell against the wall, and he told her if she ever came in his room again, he’d kill her. His teeth flared whenever he talked to her. He screamed at her for always being underfoot—she’d hover outside his door day and night, listening. Michelle always knew everyone’s secrets, she never had a conversation that didn’t have an angle. I remembered that more vividly since discovering her bizarre notes. If you don’t have money, gossip isn’t bad leverage. Even inside one’s own family.

  “Ben talks to himself a lot,” Michelle announced at breakfast one morning, and Ben reached across the table, knocking her plate into her lap, and grabbed her by the shirt collar.

  “Leave me the fuck alone,” he screamed. And then my mom calmed him down, got him to go back to his room, lectured us, as always. Later we found bits of egg that had catapulted up onto the plastic chandelier over the table, the chandelier that looked like it came from a pizza parlor.

 
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