This is the latest chapter of an ongoing serialized novel that I’m working on and posting up here in rough draft form. To read other chapters, CLICK HERE.
I pulled my truck off to the side of the dirt road as soon as I saw the lights of the trailer up ahead. It looked to be about a quarter mile away yet, but my big old Bessie made enough noise that if Jeff was paying any kind of attention he already knew we were there. Willis got out of the passenger side and made some kind of gesture to me like he expected me to wait in the car.
I hate to disappoint people, really I do. Except it seems like my whole life has been one long string of disappointments to somebody. I disappointed my daddy by not being a boy he could teach to play baseball. I disappointed my mama by not being the normal little lady she wanted to raise and marry off. I disappointed more than a few boys in high school by keeping my knees together a lot longer than they hoped, and now I was about to disappoint Sheriff Willis Dunleavy, because there was no way on God’s green earth I was staying in that truck.
I opened the driver’s door and got out, leaving the door hanging open behind me. The dome light in old Bessie burned out about seven or eight years ago, and I never bothered replacing it. I left the keys in the ignition in case we needed to get out of there quick, and besides, the number of grand theft auto cases in the woods of Union County are about even with the number of votes George Wallace got in Harlem when he ran for President.
“Get back in the truck,” Willis hissed at me. “I am not taking a civilian into what might an active hostage scene.”
“Then you should have thought about that before you let the civilian use her truck to drive you to the scene. I’m going up there. Jeff and I have always had a good relationship. I might be able to help the situation.”
He glared at me, and I could see the wheels turning behind his blue eyes. I know he was weighing his chances of getting me to do what he wanted, and after a few seconds he came to the right decision – his chances were slim and none. And Slim just left town. I relaxed a little bit when I saw that acceptance come over him, because the last thing I wanted to do was waste time and energy arguing with Willis in the middle of the woods while Jeff was a couple hundred yards away maybe hurting Jenny’s mama.
“Come on, but stay behind me,” he grumbled, starting back toward the house.
I nodded, and reached back inside the truck for the double-barrel 12-gauge behind the seat. I was willing to go into the house, but I wasn’t going in there without a little backup of my own. Just because I wasn’t the son Daddy hoped for didn’t mean he wasn’t willing to teach me how to hunt, fish, and shoot. That old gun hadn’t been fired in months, but I took it out to behind Karen Montgomery’s house a couple times a year and shot up some tin cans to make sure I still knew which end to point toward the target. I cracked the gun open to make sure it was loaded, then slung it over my shoulder and caught up to Willis.
“I thought you told me you kept the shells in the glove compartment,” he said, his voice low.
“I keep the extra shells in the glove box,” I said. “Out here in the country we’ve got a name for an unloaded shotgun.”
He snorted a little laugh, then sobered as we stepped into the clearing around the trailed. It was a single-wide that had seen better days. And better decades. It started life as white with a wide blue stripe around it, but most of that was replaced with rust. The underpinning, if there’s ever been any, was long gone, and what passed for steps was just a half dozen cinderblocks with nothing resembling a handrail. A couple of the windows were gone, and yellow lamp light shone from what I assumed was the living room. I saw a figure moving inside, waving his arms and pacing, and from where we were it looked enough like Jeff for me to decide we were in the right place.
Jenny appeared at my elbow, rising up out of the ground with Sheriff Johnny at her side. “Dad’s okay. He doesn’t have a concussion, so they’re sending him home. Is she in there?”
“We don’t know yet,” I whispered. Willis’ head whipped around at my voice, and I pointed to where Jenny stood, invisible to him. He nodded, then put his finger to his lips. I nodded, and fell silent.
Jenny walked up to the trailer, then through the door. It always strikes me funny, how long it takes for the dead to shake their hold on habits from life. She didn’t need to go through the door, she could have walked through any wall just as easily, but the habit of years had her use the door, even if she was passing through it. I made a mental note to myself to ask Johnny about that when we finished up here. Of course, he was less than half a year dead himself, so he probably still had quite a few hangups from his time walking the earth.
Willis started forward, and I put a hand on his shoulder. I leaned down close to his ear, so there was no chance of my words traveling, and said, “Jenny’s inside. She can tell us what’s going on in there.”
“I hope her mother is still alive,” Willis said.
“Me too,” I agreed. “The poor child doesn’t need to see that.”
Jenny returned seconds later, a worried look on her face. “She’s alive. He hasn’t hurt her, but he’s got her tied to a chair. The place is all made up with candles and flowers, like he’s trying to make it romantic. He keeps yelling at her, telling her how she ruined his life at the prom, how he couldn’t help it when Shelly and me said that to him about going out with him, how he’s sorry, but she’s got to see how much he loves her. He’s crazy. Y’all have got to get in there.”
I kept my face next to Willis’ and relayed everything just as it came out of Jenny’s mouth. He nodded, then turned to me. “He’s devolving. We don’t have much time. If we don’t get in there in the next couple of minutes, he’s going to kill her. I’ll go in the front door, you go around to the back. If he draws on me, shoot him.”
“Give me thirty seconds to get back there. It’s dark as the bottom of a well out here,” I said. I took a deep breath, steadied my nerves, and peeled off to the right to creep around the trailer as best I could. I felt like I stepped on every branch and dry leaf in the county walking that fifty yards, and froze in my tracks three times waiting on Jeff to shoot me from a window, but I made it to the back door and up the rickety cinderblocks. The knob turned under my hand and I pulled the door open, sticking my head in a foot or so above floor level. I looked down the fake wood-paneled hallway toward the living room and saw Karen Miller’s back to me. She was tied to a ladder back wooden chair, the kind found in countless dining room sets all across the south.
I didn’t see Jeff at first, but he came into my view a second later, pacing and shaking his head. He was muttering something I couldn’t hear, but to be honest, all my attention was on the pistol in his hand. It was a boxy black thing that I guessed was his department-issued gun, and it looked like a handful of deadly in the light of the small lamp on the end table. Jeff’s head whipped around, and he trained his gun off to his left toward something I couldn’t see, then I heard Willis’ voice cut through the night like the crack of a whip.
“Drop the gun, son. This has to end right now.”
The second Willis spoke, I pulled the back door wide open and stepped up into the hallway. The top step wobbled as my weight shifted, and it threw me off balance. I stumbled forward and crashed into the wall. Jeff spun in my direction and fired his gun, missing my head by inches. The bullet dug into the wall behind me, and I dove onto my belly. My shotgun hit the brown shag carpet and tumbled away from me, leaving me unarmed and sprawled on my face less than twenty feet away from a murderer that I still remembered as a cherubic little boy in my Sunday School class.
I heard another shot boom through the enclosed trailer, and Jeff whirled around, firing his gun three times. There was a crash from somewhere in the living room that I couldn’t see, then Jeff was back in my line of sight, standing right in front of Karen Miller with his gun aimed at her face.
He looked down the hall at me, and as I got to my feet and picked up my shotgun, he got a confused look on his face. “Ms. Carter? What are you doing here?”
“I’m here to end this, Jeff. You need to let Mrs. Miller go and put the gun down,” I said, walking down the hall toward him.
He pointed the pistol at me, but I saw his hand shaking even as far away as I was. I didn’t stop. “You’re not going to shoot me, Jeff. You always liked me in Sunday School, and I always liked you. Now put that gun away and let’s talk about this.”
“I can’t talk about nothing no more, Ms. Carter. I done killed the sheriff, and I killed them two girls, and now I’m going to kill this bitch here. Then I’m going to shoot myself and go to Hell for all eternity where I belong.” Tears ran down his face, and rage mixed with terror at what he had done.
“Jeff, this isn’t you,” I said. “Tell me what happened. We can work it out. We can get you help. You—“
“There’s no help for this bastard!” Karen Miller screamed from the chair. She’d been so quiet to this point I thought he had her gagged, but evidently not. “Don’t you lie to him. You tell him the truth. That he needs to just blow his damn brains out and rot in hell until the end of time for what he did to my baby girl.”
“Mrs. Miller, that isn’t helping,” I said, trying to keep my voice calm while wanting to smack her upside the head with the butt of my shotgun. I looked over at Jenny, who shrugged as if to say “what can I do?”
I stepped into the living room and leaned the shotgun against the wall. “There, Jeff. See? I put my gun down. Now I’m not going to hurt you, and I know you don’t want to hurt me. So let’s talk about this, and see what we can figure out.” I looked past the distraught deputy, sweat stains soaking the armpits and neck of his uniform shirt, his normally neat brown hair disheveled, and tears streaking his cheeks.
Willis lay slumped against the far wall of the trailer, half on the threadbare carpet by the door, half on the worn linoleum of the kitchenette area. His gun was loose in his grip and his eyes were closed. I couldn’t see enough to tell if he was breathing, and the dark shirt he wore hid any signs of blood, but he didn’t even move an eyelid at my voice.
“I told you, there’s no helping me now, Ms. Carter,” Jeff wailed. “It’s just like high school, only worse! I should have never trusted her then, and I should have never spoke to her kid now. These damn women have ruined my life, and now I’m going to kill the last one, and be done with it. I’m real sorry, but since you’re here, I’m going to have to kill you, too.”
He raised the pistol to aim it at my face, and this time his hand was rock steady.