Dr. Ambrel: Often, you can’t tell – the face of madness is secretive, blank. Some of the most disturbed subjects can appear entirely sane. Then again, sometimes psychosis can be worn on a person’s sleeve.
Deputy Hadley: You talkin’ ‘bout Thomas Hewitt, Doc? Craziest motherfucker I ever saw, I know that.
Dr. Ambrel: I wouldn’t want to make an assessment like that without seeing the younger Hewitt for myself, but if your local tales are to be believed, possibly, yes. However, I was referring to the fact that your quarry might not be the same young woman she once was, even if she appears to be. Six months of ill-treatment can create an immense change.
Sweat burning her eyes, Amarie stumbled into an exhausted jog when she spotted the gas station and store in the distance, but she didn’t call out, or head for the front doors. If anyone still lived in this dead town, they wouldn’t be able to help her and if they tried, they might die.
Like the others…
She ran around the side of the building and started to search for anything that could be used as a weapon.
They’ll hunt the store for me first. Is anyone in there?
She came to a window and started to peer in, but gasped when a face scowled back at her through the ancient, dirty glass, less than five inches from her nose.
“What you want, girl?” It was an old woman, stout and gray-haired.
Amarie didn’t answer. Her eyes darted around wildly before settling on a long, narrow object to her left, leaning against the building.
Is it metal?
When she looked up again, the woman’s face was gone. Listening closely, she could hear her inside yelling at someone, her words commanding. Then a sharp smacking noise was followed by silence.
She was talkin’ on a phone. Callin’ the police on me? Maybe they’d last longer than farmers – long ‘nuff for me to get away.
Moving hurriedly to the object, she grinned fiercely as she picked it up. The crowbar was rusty, but it would work just fine.
She carried it with her across the low bump of a hill and lay down in the dry ditch beyond it. Nestling into the long grass, she watched the sliver of road she could see between the store and its outbuildings and waited.
Where am I? Still in Texas… The sign over the store said, ‘Cele Community Center: General Merchandise’, but it looks pretty run down. Still, the woman called someone. “C’mon, you bastards,” she whispered toward the road. “It’s your turn to shit yourselves.”
Amarie was soon rewarded with the rumbling sound of a pair of motorcycles. They cruised up and stopped out of sight in front of the store. Moments later, she heard them enter the building.
Luda Mae Hewitt turned, expecting the heavy steps to be the arrival of her son, Thomas. Her eyes widened as the metal nose of a heavy .45 caliber weapon was tapped against a lens of her glasses.
“Hold it real still, Granny,” a tall man said, his voice a hiss of menace. “We’re lookin’ for a little girl lost – if you got her and give her up, we won’t hurt you.”
“If you don’t,” his shorter companion added, “we won’t hurt you – we’ll just kill you.”
Tommy’ll be here, she thought, and visibly relaxed. “I saw a girl skulkin’ ‘round my back door not a minute ago. If she’s yours, you’d best catch her quick. I don’t want her ‘round here, stealin’ or makin’ trouble.”
“Yeah, cuz you got so much to steal, right?” the tall man said with a snicker. “You ain’t even worth havin’ a go with.”
The other man walked quickly past them, heading toward the back. “Watch her, Jim. I’ll check out her story.”
Jim sniffed. “Hurry up, Rock. This bitch reeks.”
Rock disappeared behind them, and Luda Mae stared stonily at Jim. “If she’s run off, she might could head down the road – best be quick if she does. Somebody would pick up a pretty little blonde like that in a minute.”
Jim fidgeted, worried about her suggestion. He didn’t look like the thinking type, but he obviously thought the girl could hitch a ride easily. What he didn’t know, was how seldom anyone came this way these days.
Glass broke behind them, followed by a gentle tinkling sound and a solid thud. Too quiet for Tommy – did the fool get his girl?
“Shit – okay, move it, Granny – you first. Let’s go see what’s up.”
As they came through the back door, Luda Mae saw a distorted shadow in the remaining windowpanes. Falling sharply to her knees in her flower-print dress, she managed to duck the blow that struck Jim, laying him out flat on his back beside his friend. The handgun went flying, but didn’t fire, striking the gravel to the left of the door.
Hissing with pain, Luda Mae looked up and saw the blonde, her fists gripping an old rusty crowbar. The savage expression on her face melted into fear a moment later and she dropped the heavy tool to come to her aid.
“You okay? I’m sorry – but I had to…” She was stronger than she looked; helping her up with minimal effort, the muscles and tendons showed starkly in her slender bare arms.
“I’ll live, child. Now who the hell are you and who are they?”
“I’m no one to worry ‘bout and they’re nothin’ but meat to be wasted.” She spit on the shorter one, Rock. A pool of blood was growing under his caved-in skull.
“No such thing ‘round these parts, my dear.” Smiling, she leaned down and plucked up the gun that Jim was feebly groping for. “Seems you made a poor job o’ the second one.”
To her amazement, the blonde retrieved her crowbar and with a wild light in her blue eyes, shoved the sharp end of it down and into an eye socket of their attacker. She punched it straight through the brain. The corpse twitched and convulsed, and then lay still.
Their eyes met over the gun Luda Mae held casually in her fingers, the barrel pointing down.
“Well, I think you just earned yourself a warmer welcome than most. Come inside.”
“But – the bodies – we gotta hide ‘em or somethin’!”
Luda Mae stared off across the dusty landscape, smiling again as she caught sight of a large shape lumbering closer. With a wave of her free hand, she signaled for him to hide, and the shape disappeared behind a grove of trees.
“Don’t fuss ‘bout that – I’ll get someone to take care o’ it for us.”
“The police? Is that who you called? I saw one o’ their cars drivin’ ‘round earlier, but I cain’t deal with ‘em, I –”
“Not the police, child. Only law ‘round here these days is my brother the sheriff, and he won’t bother you. I won’t let anyone bother you, you’ll see.”
~ ~ ~
She was quieter now, sipping a warm soda and watching as Luda Mae found some sandals for her cut and bruised feet amidst what was left of the store’s merchandise.
“There now, they’ll fit.”
The girl startled at a scraping noise out back, but Luda Mae stopped her from going to investigate. Folding a dusty but clean cotton dress over her arm, she took the pretty thing’s hand and led her to a sink in the small kitchen. A raised finger halted her protests as she began to wash her young charge’s face and arms.
“I done told you not to fuss, child. That’ll be my son Tommy takin’ care o’ your problem. Now he’s real shy, so you shouldn’t bother him, anyhow. Let’s just get you cleaned up and changed – you’re quite a mess. You can meet the family later.”
Luda Mae didn’t question her decision, or even stop to think how her family or friends might react. The only one she sometimes had words with was her brother Charlie, or Sheriff Hoyt, as he insisted they call him, and she knew she could handle him on this matter. The others would do what she said once she convinced her brother. The girl had saved her life, helped her up, and looked at her like a lost chick looks at her mother. It was enough. Henrietta had gotten the last new pet, so Momma Hewitt would claim this one.
As for Tommy, we’ll worry ‘bout that when we get there. He’ll hide himself away if we let him, poor boy, and maybe that’s for the best for now. Let this child get used to us and maybe she won’t be afraid o’ him. If she’s cruel to my boy – well, there’s always the soup pot.
Helping her out of her bloody dress, Luda Mae clicked her tongue at the sight of the bruises and cuts all over the girl’s body. The absence of underclothes wasn’t necessary to tell the story, either, but she didn’t ask questions; it wasn’t time for that.
Watching as the poor thing smoothed the new dress down over the slender curves of a body far tougher than it appeared to be, a budding admiration began to grow in her sharp old heart.
“How’s it look?” the girl asked, her voice shy.
“You’re beautiful in that dress, child – a picture.” Retrieving her cigarettes and Zippo lighter, she lit a smoke as she considered all angles of the problems this girl could represent. “Now tell me this, is there someone out lookin’ for you, beyond that motorcycle filth – or do you gotta family you wanna go home to?”
“I – I dunno if they’re lookin’, but I don’t wanna go back to ‘em. Those men, they weren’t nice, but neither was my family.”
“Oh, child, I’m sorry. Family oughta be good to you. There should be no one you can trust or turn to, or count on, than your family.”
“You got that?”
“I do, and if you want, you can too. I never had me a little girl before. So, do you think you’re ready to come home and meet my family?”
“Yes, ma’am, I’d like that.”
“Well, then – what should I call you? Cain’t introduce you proper without a name.”
“Oh, a pretty one. You gotta last name, child?”
Her answering smile was slow and secretive. “You can be Amarie Hewitt, then. My name is Luda Mae, but people call me Momma Hewitt, or just Momma. I gotta son, Thomas, he’s older than you. Only other young ones ‘round are my cousin Wilma’s daughter, Henrietta, and her son, Jedidiah, he’s no more than four. Now your new Uncle Charlie can be bad-tempered unless you call him Sheriff Hoyt. Old Monty, he’s our uncle, he’s just bad-tempered anyhow, but I’ll see to it they’re good to you, don’t you worry none.”
Thomas Brown Hewitt grunted under the weight of both men. One was draped over his shoulder, held steady by the hand that still clutched the chainsaw. The other, with the leather jacket bunched in his fist, was hauled along roughly, the legs dragging behind him.
He didn’t know why his mother hadn’t told him to kill the girl. Would she do it herself?
The walk home was hard and hot under the blistering sun. Sweat ran into the fresh cuts on his face, chest, and arms, but the stinging pain was welcome. It was proof that he was alive.