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Dark places, p.29

Dark Places, page 29

 

Dark Places
 



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  Patty rested her head on the cool desktop. Krissi Day. Like he was going to marry little Krissi Cates. Ben and Krissi Day. Is that what he thought? Did that make what he did to her seem OK? Did he picture himself bringing that little girl home for dinner, letting Mom meet his girlfriend? And Heather. That was the name of the Hinkel girl who was at the Cates’s. Were the rest of these names even more girls he’d hurt?

  Patty’s head was heavy, she willed herself not to move. She would just keep her head right here, on the desk, until someone told her what to do. She was good at this, she sometimes sat for hours without leaving a chair, her head bobbing like a nursing-home inmate, thinking about her childhood, when her parents had their list of chores for her, and told her when to go to bed and when to get up and what to do during the day, and no one ever asked her to decide things. But as she was staring at the rumpled sheets on Ben’s bed, with the airplane pattern, and remembering him asking for new sheets—plain sheets—about a year ago, she notice a wadded plastic bag jutting out from underneath the bed frame.

  She got down on her hands and knees, pulled out an old plastic shopping bag. It had a weight to it, swung out like a pendulum. She peered in and saw only clothing, and then she realized she was looking at girly patterns: flowers and hearts, mushrooms and rainbows. She dumped them out in a pile on the floor, afraid even as she was doing it that that those Polaroids she feared would tumble out with them. But it was just clothes: underwear, undershirts, bloomers. They were all different sizes, from Krissi’s age to toddler. They were used. As in, they had been worn by little girls. Just like the detective had said. Patty put them back in the bag.

  Her son. Her son. He would go to prison. The farm would be gone, Ben would be in jail, and the girls … She realized, as she too often did, that she didn’t know how to function properly. Ben needed a good lawyer, and she didn’t know how to do that.

  She walked into the living room, thinking about a trial and how she couldn’t bear it. She scattered the girls back to their bedroom in a fierce voice, them staring back at her with open mouths, hurt and scared, and she thought about how she made things even worse for Ben, a single mother who was incompetent, overwhelmed, how much worse it made him look, and she put some kindling and newspapers in the fireplace, and just a few logs on top, and she set fire to the clothes. A pair of underpants with daisies on them was just catching at the waistband when the phone rang.

  IT WAS LEN the Lender. She started to make her excuses, explain that there was too much going on to talk about the foreclosure. There was a problem with her son—

  “That’s why I phoned,” he interrupted. “I heard about Ben. I hadn’t been going to phone. Before. But. I think I can help. I don’t know if you’ll want it. But I have an option.”

  “An option for Ben?”

  “A way to help Ben. With legal costs. What you’re facing, you’re going to need a bundle.”

  “I thought we were out of options,” Patty said.

  “Not entirely.”

  LEN WOULDN’T COME out to the farm, he wouldn’t meet her in town. He got all clandestine on her, insisting she drive out to the Rural Route 5 picnic station and park. They haggled and bickered, Len finally breathing a big huff into the phone that made her lips twist. “If you want some help, come out there, now. Don’t bring no one else. Don’t tell no one. I’m doing this because I think I can trust you, Patty, and I like you. I really want to help you.” A pause came on, so deep Patty looked at the phone receiver, and whispered Len? into the phone, already thinking he was gone, that she was about to hang up.

  “Patty, I really don’t know how to help you but this. I think, well, you’ll see. I’m praying for you.”

  She turned back to the fireplace, sifted through the flames, saw only half the clothes were burned. No logs left, so she hurried into the garage, grabbed her dad’s old axe with its heavy head and razor-sharp blade—back when they made tools right—and chopped up a bundle of wood, carried it all back in.

  She was feeding it to the fire when she felt Michelle’s swaying presence at her side. “Mom!”

  “What, Michelle.”

  She looked up and Michelle was in her nightgown pointing at the fire. “You were about to throw the axe in with the wood.” Michelle smiled. “Scatterbrain.” There was the axe laid across Patty’s arms like kindling. Michelle took it from her, holding the blade away from her, as she’d been taught, and set it beside the door.

  She watched Michelle walk hesitantly back to her room, as if she were picking through grass, and Patty followed in her daughter’s footsteps. The girls were all piled on the floor, murmuring to their dolls. There was that joke people told, that they loved their children most when they were sleeping, hah-hah, and Patty felt a small stab. She really did like them best when they were sleeping, not asking any questions, not needing food or amusement, and she liked them second best when they were like this: tired, calm, disinterested in their mother. She put Michelle in charge and left them there, too worn out to do anything but take direction from Len the Lender.

  Don’t hope for too much, she told herself. Don’t hope.

  It was a half-hour drive through bright snow, the flakes turning to stars in her headlights. It was a “good snow,” as Patty’s mom, the winter lover, would say, and Patty thought how the girls would be playing in it all day tomorrow and then thought: Would they? What happens tomorrow? Where will Ben be?

  Where is Ben?

  She pulled up to the abandoned picnic area, the shelter a big slab of concrete and metal built in the ’70s with communal tables and a roof that was angled like some failed attempt at origami. Two swingsets sat beneath four inches of snow, their old black-rubber seats not swaying at all, as Patty thought they should. There was a breeze, why were they so still?

  Len’s car wasn’t there. In fact, no car was there, and she started to fidget with the zipper of her coat, running a fingernail on each metal tooth so it made a clicking noise. What might happen: She would go up to the picnic bench and find Len had left her an envelope with a stack of money, a gentlemanly gesture she would repay. Or maybe Len had organized a bunch of folks who felt pity on her, and they were about to arrive and Wonderful Life her with cash handouts, Patty realizing everyone did love her after all.

  A rap came on her window, bright pink knuckles and a man’s thick torso. It wasn’t Len. She rolled her window partway down and peered out, ready for him to tell her to move along, lady. It was that kind of rap.

  “Come on,” he said instead. He didn’t lean down, she still couldn’t see his face. “Come on, we’ll talk up on the benches.”

  She shut off the car, and pulled herself out, the man already walking up ahead, bundled under a thick ranch coat and a Stetson. She was wearing a wool hat that had never fit right, her ears always popped out, so she was already rubbing at the tips when she reached the man.

  He seemed nice, was what she thought. She needed him to be nice. He had dark eyes and a handlebar mustache, the tips drooping off his chin. He was probably forty, looked like he might come from around here. He looked nice, she thought again. They settled down on the picnic benches, pretending they weren’t covered in snow. Maybe he was a lawyer? she thought. A lawyer Len had talked into representing Ben. But then why would they be meeting out—

  “Hear you got yourself some trouble,” he said in a rumbly voice that matched his eyes. Patty just nodded.

  “About to foreclose on your farm, and your boy’s about to be arrested.”

  “The police just want to talk to him about an incident that—”

  “Your son is about to be arrested, and I know what for. In this next year, you will need money to fend off your creditors, so you can keep your children at home—in their own goddam home—and you will need money for a lawyer for your son, because you do not want your son to go to prison labeled a child molester.”

  “Of course not but Ben—”

  “No, I mean: You do not want your son to go to prison labeled a child mo
lester. There is nothing worse you can be in prison than a child molester. I seen it. What they do to those men, a nightmare. So you need a very good lawyer, which costs a lot of money. You need one right now, not weeks from now, not days from now. Right now. These things get out of control fast.”

  Patty nodded, waiting. The man’s speech reminded her of being with a car salesman: you had to do it now, and this model and at this price. She always lost these conversations, always took what the salesman insisted she take.

  The man pressed his Stetson down, breathed out like a bull.

  “Now I myself was once a farmer, and my daddy before me and his daddy before him. Eight hundred acres, cattle, corn, wheat, outside Robnett, Missouri. Fair amount, like your operation.”

  “We never had eight hundred acres.”

  “But you had a family farm, you had your goddam land. It’s your goddam land. We been swindled, farmers. They say ‘plant fencepost to fencepost!’ and we goddam well did. Buy more land—they say— cause they ain’t making more of it! Then whoops, sorry, we gave you some bad advice. We’ll just take your farm, this place been in your family for generations, we’ll just take this, no hard feelings. You’re the jackass believed us, not really our fault.”

  Patty had heard this before, thought it before. It was a raw deal. Let’s get back to my son. She leaned on one haunch and shivered, tried to seem patient.

  “Now I’m no businessman, I’m no accountant, I’m no politician. But I can help, if you’re interested.”

  “Yes, yes I’d like that,” she said. “Please.”

  And in her head she told herself, Don’t hope, don’t hope for too much.

  Libby Day

  NOW

  Idrove back home through sickly forests. Somewhere down one of those long stringy roads was a landfill. I never saw the dump itself, but I drove through a good twenty miles of float-away trash. To my right and left, the ground flickered with a thousand plastic grocery bags, fluttering and hovering just above the grass. Looking like the ghosts of little things.

  Rain started splattering, then got thicker, freezing. Everything outside my car looked warped. Whenever I saw a lonely place—a dimple in the landscape, a copse of whiskery trees—I pictured Diondra buried beneath, a collection of unclaimed bones and bits of plastic: a watch, the sole of a shoe, maybe the red dangly earrings she wore in the yearbook photo.

  Who gives a tinker’s damn about Diondra? I thought, Diane’s phrases again popping into my head. Who cares if Ben killed her, because he killed your family, and it all ends there anyway.

  I’d wanted so badly for Runner to give something up, make me believe he did it. But seeing him only reminded me how impossible it was that he killed them all, how dumb he was. Dumb, it was a word you used as a kid, but it was the best way to describe Runner. Wily and dumb at the same time. Magda and the Kill Club would be disappointed, although I’d be happy to give them his address if they wanted to continue the conversation. Me, I hoped he’d die soon.

  I passed a thick, flat brown-earth field, a teenage boy leaning against a fence in the rain, in the dark, sulky or bored, staring out at the highway. My brain returned to Ben. Diondra and Ben. Pregnant. Everything else Ben told me about that night felt right, believable, but the lie, the insistent lie about Diondra. That seemed like something to worry about.

  I sped home, feeling contaminated. I went straight to the shower and scrubbed myself, Silkwood-style with a hard nail brush, my skin looking like I’d been attacked by a pack of cats when I was done. I got into bed still feeling infected, fussed around in the sheets for an hour, then got up and showered again. Around 2 a.m., I fell into a sweaty, heavy sleep filled with leering old men I thought were my father until I got close enough to see their faces melt. More potent nightmares followed: Michelle was cooking pancakes, and grasshoppers were floating in the batter, their twig legs snapping off as Michelle stirred. They got cooked into the pancakes, and my mom made us eat them anyway, good protein, crunch, crackle. Then we all started dying— choking, slobbering, eyes floating back in our heads—because the grasshoppers were poisoned. I swallowed one of the big insects and felt it fight its way back up my throat, its sticky body surfacing in my mouth, squirting my tongue with tobacco, pushing its head against my teeth to escape.

  The morning dawned an unimpressive gray. I showered again— my skin still feeling suspicious—and then drove to the downtown public library, a white pillared building that used to be a bank. I sat next to a pungent man with a matted beard and a stained army jacket, the guy I always end up next to in public places, and finally got on the Internet. I found the massive, sad Missing Persons database and entered her name.

  The screen made its churning, thinking sound and I sweated while hoping a No Data screen would come up. No such luck. The photo was different from the yearbook but not too: Diondra with the mousse-hard curls and the cresting bangs, charcoal eyeliner and pink lipgloss. She was smiling just the tiniest bit, pouting her lips out.

  DIONDRA SUE WERTZNER

  BORN: OCTOBER 28, 1967

  REPORTED MISSING: JANUARY 21, 1985

  BEN WAS WAITING for me again, this time with his arms crossed, leaned back in the chair, belligerent. He’d given me the silent treatment a week before granting my request to see him. Now he shook his head at me when I sat down.

  It threw me off.

  “You know, Libby, I’ve been thinking since we talked last,” he finally said. “I’ve been thinking I don’t need this, this pain. I mean, I’m already in here, I don’t really need my little sister to show up, believe in me, don’t believe in me. Ask me weird questions, put me on the guard after goddam twenty-four years. I don’t need the tension. So if you’re coming here, trying to ‘get to the bottom of things,’” he made angry air quotes, “you know, go somewhere else. Because I just don’t need it.”

  “I found Runner.”

  He didn’t stand up, he stayed solid in his chair. Then he gave a sigh, a might-as-well sigh.

  “Wow, Libby, you missed your calling as a detective. What’d Runner have to say? He still in Oklahoma?”

  I felt an inappropriate twitch of a smile. “He’s at a Superfund dump on the edge of Lidgerwood, got turned out from the group home.”

  Ben grinned at that. “He’s living in a toxic waste dump. Ha.”

  “He says Diondra Wertzner was your girlfriend, that you got her pregnant. That she was pregnant and you two were together, the night of the murders.”

  Ben put a hand over his face, his fingers splayed. I could see his eyes blink through them. He talked with his face still covered, and I couldn’t hear what he said. He tried twice, me asking each time what he was saying, and on the third try he pulled his head up, chewing on the inside of his cheek, and leaned in.

  “I said, what the fuck is your obsession with Diondra? You got a goddam bee in your bonnet about this, and you know what’s going to happen, you’re going to fuck all this up. You had a chance to believe in me, to do the right thing and finally believe in your brother. Who you know. Don’t say you don’t because that’s a lie. I mean, don’t you get it, Libby? It’s the last chance for us. The world can believe I’m guilty, believe I’m innocent, we both know I’m not going anywhere. There’s no DNA going to release me—there’s no goddam house anymore. So. I’m not getting out. So. The only person I care, to say they know I couldn’t have murdered my family, is you.”

  “You can’t blame me for wondering whether—”

  “Of course I can. Of course I can. I can blame you for not believing in me. Now, I can forgive you for your lie, for getting confused, as a kid. I can forgive that. But goddamit, Libby, what about now? You’re what, thirty-some years old, and still believe your own blood could do something like that?”

  “Oh I totally believe my own blood could do that,” I said, my anger surging up, bumping against my ribs. “I totally believe our blood is bad. I feel it in me. I’ve beaten the shit out of people, Ben. Me. I’ve busted in doors and windows and …
I’ve killed things. Half the time I look down, my hands are in fists.”

  “You believe we’re that bad?”

  “I do.”

  “Even with Mom’s blood?”

  “Even with.”

  “Well, I’m sad for you, little girl.”

  “Where is Diondra?”

  “Let it go, Libby.”

  “What’d you do with the baby?”

  I felt queasy, fevered. If the baby had lived, it’d be (he’d be, she’d be), what, twenty-four years old. The baby wasn’t a baby anymore. I tried to picture an adult, but my brain kept bouncing back an image of a blanket-swaddled infant. But hell, I could barely picture me as an adult. My next birthday I’ll be thirty-two, my mom’s age when she was killed. She’d seemed so grown up. More grown up than I’d ever be.

  So if it was alive, the baby was twenty-four. I had one of my awful visions. A might-have-been vision. Us, if everyone had lived, at home in Kinnakee. There’s Michelle in the living room, still fiddling with her oversized glasses, bossing around a bundle of kids who roll their eyes at her but do what they’re told. Debby, chubby and chattery with a big, blond farmer-husband and a special room in her own farmhouse for crafts, packed with sewing ribbons and quilting patches and glue guns. My mom, ripe-fifties and sunbaggy, her hair mostly white, still bickering pleasantly with Diane. And into the room comes Ben’s kid, a daughter, a redhead, a girl in her twenties, thin and assured, bangly bracelets on delicate wrists, a college graduate who doesn’t take any of us seriously. A Day girl.

  I choked on my own spit, started coughing, my windpipe shut down. The visitor two booths down from me leaned out to look and then, deciding I wasn’t going to die, went back to her son.

  “What happened that night, Ben? I need to know. I just need to know.”

  “Libby, you can’t win this game. I tell you I’m innocent, that means you’re guilty, you ruined my life. I tell you I’m guilty … I don’t think that makes you feel much better, does it?”

 
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