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 was stuck in a ramshackle trailer in the middle of the woods in a makeshift fishing camp nobody knew about, with a crazy as a loon deputy turned murderer pointing a pistol at my head. My only living backup was shot and unconscious on the floor across the room, and I, being a genius hostage negotiator who’s seen way too much Law and Order, had disarmed myself. So all I had to save me was my wits and a couple of ghosts.
This was not how I thought I would die, let me just be clear about this. Like everybody, I’ve imagined my own death on more than one occasion. When I was younger, I assumed I would die at home, surrounded by a passel of grand- and great-grandchildren, my descendants all dutifully weeping in the parlor while I passed my last breath in some lavender-scented dignity that in no way involves messing my bed or any other bodily fluids.
As I grew older, and my lack of descendants became more pronounced, I realized that if I was lucky I would be able to shuffle off my mortal coil in a decently appointed rest home somewhere, but if the cost of things continued to do what they inevitably do, I would most likely be relegated to some state-run old folks’ home with last week’s sheets and and yesterday’s Depends.
At no point did I envision myself getting shot in a trailer while trying to save a woman who despised me from a former student who once idolized me while my brand new boyfriend lie perforated on the floor and two dead people watched the whole sideshow unfold like a tawdry hillbilly episode of Murder, She Wrote.
“Jeff,” I switched into my “teacher voice,” and his head snapped up. It was good to see I still had it, at least a little. I managed to hold my voice steady and my expression severe. “This has gotten ridiculous. Put that gun down, untie that woman, and turn yourself in immediately. You are not going to shoot me, and you are not going to hurt anyone else tonight. What Karen and her friends did to you back then was awful, but it did not ruin your life. It ruined your prom, but anything that happened after that night was your responsibility.”
“I couldn’t go back to school!” He wailed. “I couldn’t take them laughing at me in the halls. Every time I saw somebody from school, I knew that was all they were talking about.”
“For a few days, yes,” I agreed. “You were a laughingstock. For a little while. But you know as well as I do that children can’t keep a thought in their head longer than five minutes. You would have had a bad week, maybe two, but by the time school was out it would have all blown over. But you didn’t let it, did you?” I poured it on. I knew the only way I was walking out of that trailer was to get him to move off his plan of killing us all, and this was the only thing I could think of to do that.
“No,” he said, his voice wavering. “You don’t know what it’s like to have everybody whisper about you.”
“I don’t? Boy, have you even lived in this town? Who do you think you’re talking to? Why, the woman in that chair right there wouldn’t even eat my casserole because Reverend Turner convinced her that Satan helped me bake it. Like the devil himself would help me snap green beans,” I said with a laugh.
My voice softened, and I took a step closer. “Jeff, sweetie, I’ve been the one they talk about behind their hands for fifty years, and I’m still here. My front yard has had more toilet paper in the trees than the principal’s house, and I’ve been thrown out of more Bible study groups than the Whore of Babylon. I know exactly what it’s like to have the whole town staring at you, and talk about you, and that’s how I know that it don’t hurt. All you have to do is hold your head up and walk on by. If you don’t acknowledge the fools, they can’t touch you.”
He looked up at me, his eyes full. “But I let them. I let them, and they just kept going, and going. That’s why I didn’t get the sheriff’s job, because I wasn’t strong enough. It’s why I never got married, because I was too weak. Well, I’m not weak now! I’m strong! I’m strong, and everybody’s going to know how strong I am!”
His gun, which had drifted to point toward the ground while I spoke, snapped up and pointed at Karen Miller’s head from less than three feet away. There was nothing I could do, no way I could get there in time. He was going to kill that woman, and all I could do was watch.
But Jenny didn’t. Jenny, sweet, dead Jenny, who helped start all this in motion by picking at Jeff with her stupid little pretty girl teasing, summoned up enough energy somehow to smack his wrist away and send the bullet slamming through the side of the trailer. Jeff looked down at his hand, then looked to where Jenny was standing right in front of him.
She looked more solid than any ghost I’d ever seen, and the way the color ran out of his face, I knew Jeff saw her, too. He staggered back, raising his gun and firing into her face three times. The bullets passed right through her, barely making the girl’s image flicker, and he backed up more until he slammed into the small bar separating the kitchen and living room.
“Jenny?” Karen’s voice was soft, thready, a timid little thing that might escape at any moment.
Jenny turned to her mother, and Jeff did at the same time. He raised his pistol again, but before Jenny could whirl back to strike his hand, another shot rang out, followed by two more. Jeff’s eyes went wide, and his legs went rubbery as he collapsed straight down, blood pouring out onto the carpet.
I looked to Willis, who sat on the floor holding his pistol, smoke wafting from the barrel. “You’re alive!” I said, thrilled and surprised in equal measure.
“This is one of those nights I’m glad I bought new vests for the department when I started. I reckon I’m also glad not everybody decided to wear them.” He nodded to Jeff, who lay on the floor, his eyes open and glassy.
Before my eyes, his spirit peeled up from his body, looked around the room, and shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said. “For everything.” Then he vanished, a small dark hole opening up in the air around him and taking him to wherever he was destined to spend eternity.
“Apology not accepted, asshole,” Jenny replied, and my head whipped over to where she stood by her mother’s chair. A bright white light appeared behind her, and she looked up at me with a wistful smile. “I guess it’s time for me to go, huh?”
“Yes, sweetie, it’s time for you to go,” I said.
“What’s happening?” Jenny’s mother said, her head whipping around.
“There’s a white light opening up right past that wall over there, and Jenny is supposed to go to it. She’s done what she stayed here to do, and now it’s time for her to go.” Karen smiled at my words, but one tear slid down her cheek all the same.
“Time for me, too,” came a gravelly voice from the kitchen as Sheriff Johnny walked through the bar and headed to the light. “I think my town will be in fine hands. But tell that boy to take care of my people, or he won’t like it when I come back to pay him a visit.”
“Will do, Sheriff,” I said with a smile.
Jenny and the sheriff walked into the light, which blossomed to blinding brilliance before fading to just water-stained paneling once more. “They’re gone,” I said. I felt a strange wetness on my own face, and reached up to find tears on my cheeks. I didn’t even know I was crying, and I certainly wasn’t sad, but it was a night full of emotions, that’s for certain.
I helped Willis up off the floor, and we untied Mrs. Miller, then we waited outside for the ambulance and coroner and crime scene unit to arrive. I scrounged up a blanket from behind the seat of my truck to put around Karen, since she was in her pajamas, and then Willis went down to pull my truck up into the yard beside Jeff’s Bronco. We told our story more times than we cared to, leaving out any mention of dead sheriffs or daughters, and the sun was peeking over the horizon before we finally pulled back onto the highway and headed back to my house.
We didn’t speak as we walked in the front door, I just reached back and took his hand. I led Willis through the house to my bedroom, undressed him, and laid beside him, feeling his solid masculinity next to me as I drifted off to sleep. There would be more to come, I was sure, but there was plenty of time for that.