The reception to this reading at Mysticon last weekend was great, so I guess I’ll keep on scribbling on it. Y’all know we love comments, right? And remember, this is strictly first-draft stuff, so there will probably be spelling errors and plenty of proof that I don’t really know where the commas go.
I wasn’t too surprised to see Sheriff Johnny sitting in my living room when I walked in with Jenny in tow. The girl stopped, though, and when I sat down in my favorite chair, I noticed that she was still standing in the open french door frame between my dining room and den.
“Well, come on in, sweetie. He ain’t gonna arrest you. Not now, anyhow.” I smiled at her to let her know I was only joking, and waved her into the room.
She came into the room and sat on the couch. I’ve never understood how ghosts can sit on furniture, but they can’t turn a doorknob or handle other objects. Most of ‘em can’t, anyway. But for some reason, they can all sit on a chair or couch just like they still walked around breathing.
“Now, honey, let’s start with what Sheriff Johnny here likes to call the real police work.” I nodded to Johnny, and he smiled at me. He looked like he was only half paying attention to what we were talking about, but I knew he was listening a lot more to what me and that child said than he was listening to another In the Heat of the Night rerun. I mean, I like Carroll O’Conner as much as the next woman, but back to back episodes five days a week is a little much. But Sheriff Johnny has got hooked on it since he showed up at my door the morning after his funeral, all mute and confused and lost.
Some ghosts can talk, some can’t. I’ve never known what makes one of them able to communicate over another one, and it ain’t like I’ve been dead to ask anybody. But Sheriff Johnny was one of them that couldn’t speak, so he had to resort to bad sign language and gestures to get his point across. The two of us spent many an afternoon in recent months watching YouTube videos on sign language, and we got to a place where we could communicate with one another pretty good.
I reached over to the antique chest of drawers I got out of Miss Ellen Ferguson’s house when she passed, and I dug around in the top drawer until I found an ink pen and a little yellow notepad. I leaned forward to Jenny and asked, “Now who do you think would want to hurt you, sweetheart?”
“I can’t think of nobody, ma’am. And I mean it, too. Carla Combs was mad at me for getting Homecoming Queen, but she got over it when she beat me for class President. Matt Ridinger was mad at me for being named Salutatorian, but then his scholarship to Duke came through and he stopped caring about stuff around here. So I can’t think of anybody that would want to kill me.”
I looked over at Johnny, who wiggled his fingers in the air for a few seconds. I nodded, and turned back to Jenny. “What about any of the other girls on the cheerleading squad? I asked. “Did any of the girls on the bottom of the pyramid want to be on the top? Or vice versa, or whatever girls get made at each other about nowadays.”
She thought for a moment, then shook her head. “No, nothing like that. I was captain of the squad, but I didn’t make up any of the routines or decide anything about who got featured or anything like that. And I was on the bottom of the pyramid, because I had strong enough legs to hold up some of those little heifers.” The corner of one lip turned up a little sneer, and that was the thing I’d been waiting for – the hint of mean girl to come out.
It took me back, and not to somewhere I liked going. I went right back to seventh grade gym class and playing dodge ball. All the teams were picked except me and little Mikey Miller, who had braces on both legs and a lisp. Karen Taylor and Laura Anne Mays were arguing over who got “the gimp,” and who got stuck with “Crazy Gracie,” as I was called until my junior year of high school.
But Jenny’s sneer was gone as soon as it came over her, and she looked up at me. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I hate to call them names, that’s what Miss Hope called us all. We were her little heifers, and she was our Mama Moo-Cow. I think she got picked on in school because she was a big girl.” Well, I’ll be. Maybe this child really was as nice as she was acting. That was going to make it even harder to figure out who wanted to kill her.
Sheriff Johnny caught my eye, and I turned to see him wiggling his fingers to beat the band. “Slow down, Johnny. You know I ain’t watched them videos as many times as you have.” It was true, too. Sometimes I left the sign language videos running on a loop so Johnny could practice while I went to church, or the grocery store, or just out to piddle around in my garden. He’d gotten downright good at that stuff, and when he got excited, like he was now, sometimes he was too much for me to keep up with.
He stopped, then started again. I watched his wispy hands closely, glad he wasn’t too pale today for me to see all the details. Sometimes Johnny would get wispy in the middle of the day, only to grow sharper and more distinct as night fell.
I turned back to Jenny. “Sheriff Johnny was wondering if there was anybody that had a disagreement with your parents? Anybody that they argued with a bunch?”
“No, ma’am,” the girl said. “I mean, they got in little squabbles with Todd Ferguson about stuff at the church, and Mama didn’t shop at the Farmer’s Market no more since she caught that Riley girl putting her thumb on the scale when she was weighing her cucumbers, but nothing to come to no fights, or nothing like that. Daddy didn’t even owe nobody money, except the bank. And they ain’t usually the ones to go around pushing people down steps, are they?”
‘No, honey, I reckon they ain’t. Bankers are usually more sneaky than that.” Johnny was wiggling his fingers at me again, but I turned my head and ignored him. He hates that. Makes him madder than a frog on a frying pan to be ignored, but sometimes I had to use it like a mute button. Johnny had a bad habit of forgetting that he wasn’t Sheriff mo more. On account of being dead and all.
I stood up and walked to the kitchen. “You want something to drink, honey? I got sweet tea, and ice water. Oh, shoot, I’m sorry.” Sometimes I forget they ain’t ever gonna drink nothing again, especially the ones that can talk. I fixed myself some sweet tea in an old Tupperware tumbler and walked back into the den.
“I’m sorry about that, honey,” I said.
“It’s okay,” the girl said. “I ain’t quite used to it myself, yet. Being dead, I mean.” She got a pensive look on her face. “Do you know…why I’m still here? Does this mean I can’t go to Heaven?” She looked like she was going to cry, the poor thing. I knew better, cause ghosts can’t cry, but it’s still a good idea to keep the supernatural visitors on as even a keel as you can manage, emotionally speaking. When a ghost loses control of their emotions, things have a bad habit of flying around the room, and I had some nice Depression Glass piece in my china cabinet that I didn’t want to see get broken.
“I don’t know why you’re here, honey, but I’ve got an idea,” I said. “It seems like the people who don’t move on are either scared of what they’re going to find when they pass from this world, or there’s something unfinished keeping them here. Sheriff Johnny hangs around this old town because he ain’t convinced that the new Sheriff can take care of his people, so he tries to keep an eye on things. Miss Leila Dover doesn’t think her husband JR can take care of himself without her, not realizing that he took care of himself and her the last five years when her Alzheimer’s got so bad. And you got murdered, only nobody knows it, so ain’t nobody looking for your killer. So you want justice. I reckon when y’all get your outstanding issues resolved, so to speak, y’all will all move on to the land of harp music and fluffy clouds.”
“Are you sure?” The child looked scared to death, which I reckon was not a real good turn of phrase for her anymore.
“I ain’t sure of much, sweetie. If there’s anything I’ve learned in my fifty-seven years on this earth, it’s that we don’t know half of what we think we know, and we understand less than half of that. But I know this – if you were a good person, then you’ll end up Heaven. It don’t matter if you toilet papered an old lady’s house on Halloween, or skipped Sunday School more times than you went. It matters how you acted towards others, and whether or not you are really sorry for any harm you might have caused. I am not your preacher, and I am not here to cast judgement. But if I had to guess, I would think that once we figure out who pushed you down them stairs, you can move on to the next world and see anybody that’s waiting for you on the other side.”
“Like my Granny?” She said, smiling.
I remembered that child’s grandmother the second she said it. Vera Prustley was a foot-washing Baptist, as we called them. She was as devout a woman as any I’d ever known. Didn’t truck with playing cards or music on Sunday, but wasn’t rude about her religion, either. I didn’t know her too well, but she always had a friendly nod for me when we would pass in the grocery store, even when I was on the outs with my own church family. She had passed about six years ago, right about the time this child would have been in middle school. That’s about the time when children really start to understand death and grieving, so her Granny’s death was something she would have carried with her.
“Yes, darling,” I replied. “I think your Granny is almost certainly waiting to see you again. So let’s try to figure out where to go from here so you can go see Miss Vera again, and your killer can go straight to jail.”
Sheriff Johnny waved his arms so wildly I turned back to him. “Yes, Johnny?”
He wiggled his fingers at me, and I gave him a little smile. “I agree, Sheriff,” I said.
I turned back to Jenny. “Sheriff Johnny says your killer don’t need to go to jail, we need to send his sorry behind right to Hell.”