Deputy Hadley: Doc, wait! I don’t think we should go back up there ‘til we know more.
Dr. Ambrel: Yet you keep telling me about these colorful people, wetting my appetite to meet them. We can’t discover much from Austin, after all. I admit, David, I was reluctant to go, for a time – but now I may be too curious to stay away.
Deputy Hadley: I can change that. It’s highly possible that Thomas Hewitt killed your uncle. I found a man who worked for him, the last employee besides Hewitt. I think before we go anywhere near Fuller, you need to hear what this man has to say.
“You said I should ask you again … what I can do?” Amarie watched her mother closely as they took down the washing, heaping it into a pair of wicker baskets.
“Best advice I can give is to keep makin’ friends with your uncles. Seein’ to the washin’ will certainly help with Monty – it was his chore for years and he hates it.”
“What ‘bout Tommy?”
“If he sees you with the family, accepted, a part o’ us, it’ll help with calmin’ him down, too.”
“Child, I wanna encourage you, but I gotta know: after all you heard, why’re you so eager to see him?”
Amarie grasped that it was a serious question, deserving a serious answer. She thought about it, and tried to pour the fears and fantasies into words. “Never had a real family before, not folks who cared ‘bout me, or were nice to me. Y’all have been like a dream, takin’ me in like you did. Hearin’ ‘bout Tommy’s schoolin’, though – I think we’d be a lot alike; they never left me in peace, neither.”
“How far did you get, in your lessons?”
“Oh, I didn’t go no more after sixth grade, ma’am. My father, that is, my foster father, wanted me home helpin’ out.”
“He wasn’t nice to you? Did he ever do things you didn’t like, touchin’ you and such?”
Amarie looked down at her feet. “Yes, ma’am, he did. That’s why … why I wanna make Tommy like me. If I had a brother, he’d protect me, wouldn’t he? Isn’t that what brothers do?”
“It is indeed, child.”
The morning was nice, but it was early. In a few hours, the mid-August heat would begin to bake the ground under their feet.
Amarie was quiet until she came across a large and worn work shirt, permanently stained with brown flecks and smears, and bearing several tears in the front. It was far too big to fit the old men.
“This is his,” she muttered.
Momma Hewitt gave her a long look. “Now and then, I manage to get him outta somethin’ and into somethin’ else. Mostly, we let him be.”
“Henrietta said he was … a little slow, but Uncle Hoyt told me that he … wasn’t retarded. Is he?”
“No, we don’t believe so, though his illness didn’t help much, no more than those bastards at the school. He understands us – he just don’t talk. I done told you he’s more like a little boy than a man. That’s what your uncle means when he says Tommy’s ‘misunderstood’. The best way to deal with him is to remember that he grasps things like a child would and often gets ‘em mixed up.”
“He must be a big child.”
“Stands six foot five and weighs ‘bout 300 pounds,” Momma Hewitt announced with pride. “He has a hard time with some things, but he’s stronger than an ox. You’re what – five foot six? You’d ‘bout come up to his chest.”
Amarie slipped her finger through one of the tears in the front of the shirt. On closer inspection, it looked like a knife slice. “What did this?”
“Oh, he probly cut himself. He helps me with some o’ the kitchen chores and sometimes gets movin’ a bit fast with a blade.”
As she held out the shirt to display the stunning amount of cuts in it, they stared at each other in silence for a moment, but when Momma Hewitt spoke again, she changed the subject.
“Tell me ‘bout the men who snatched you. We never talked ‘bout what happened.”
Amarie wouldn’t have thought the story could be told so easily, but she trusted this woman, and once she started, the words rushed out – if not painlessly, then at least without fear.
They carried the baskets into the dining room to fold the clothes, neither woman paying attention to Monty reading an old newspaper in the living room, or to Sheriff Hoyt when he returned from a drive. The screen door slammed, and his boots stomped into the house, but he didn’t appear or call out to them.
“It ain’t just men, there are women in the gang, too,” she continued. “One o’ ‘em is the worst. She’s the leader’s woman, but she was gone for a couple o’ months when they first grabbed me, so Frankie claimed me at first. Then Kelli came back and she was mad ‘bout me takin’ her place. She made Frankie give me up to the others who didn’t have a girl. There were three o’ ‘em.”
“Oh, child, I am sorry. Y’know they’ll pay for it all if they come ‘round here.”
“Uncle Hoyt said that too.” She smiled slightly, and then sighed. “Kelli still hated me; I guess she was afraid Frankie might could like me better. So she used to get all three o’ the men to be hard on me and hurt me. She told ‘em it was a contest, to see who was really good at it. Every one o’ ‘em wanted to please her, so they did their best. Frankie tried to stop it, he was always pretty nice to me, but she just got worse after that.”
“Were the first two in that bunch that was hurtin’ you?”
Amarie nodded. “The other one was a man named Tony, but I hate Kelli more than any o’ ‘em.”
“So the leader was nice? You liked what he did?”
“Yes, ma’am,” she whispered, bowing her head.
“No call to be ashamed, child. Just don’t tell your uncle ‘bout that part, or tell him you miss it. He’ll just offer to oblige you.”
“I’m not afraid o’ him now like I was at first. He can be nice, too.”
“Thank you, honey,” Uncle Hoyt said, entering the room with a bright smile on his face. “You’re too kind. I can even return the favor – spotted a couple more o’ your biker types in town just now, and one o’ ‘em was a woman. Did this Kelli have brown hair in a braid?”
Surprised, Amarie nodded.
“Well, then, I’ll just go collect ‘em for you.”
“Amazin’ what you learn when you listen in doorways,” Momma Hewitt chided him.
“Ain’t it though? I just came home for more shells, but even so. Wish me luck, honey.”
“Good luck, Uncle Hoyt.” When he left them, Amarie clutched the shirt she’d been folding in her fists. “Do you think he’d lemme see her if he gets her?”
“Child, he’d probly let you kick her, if you asked him.” With a raised eyebrow, she took the shirt from her before her grip could wrinkle it and finished folding it.
“Could I have it?”
She blushed. “Tommy’s shirt.” Her blush deepened under her mother’s steely gaze, but she didn’t waver.
With a sigh, it was handed over. “Don’t start a collection, mind. The boy only has so many clothes.”
Amarie started to grin, but then jumped in fright at the sound of a metallic sliding crash inside the house. “What was that?”
Momma Hewitt moved to block the doorway. “Stay right here, Amarie.”
Out on the porch, Uncle Hoyt yelled out, “Hurry up, rot you, we ain’t got the whole damn day! You make me miss this one and I’ll tan your hide!”
She darted to the window that would give her a view of the patrol car. Uncle Hoyt was walking to the driver’s door, shotgun in hand. Then Amarie saw a massive shape leave the gloom of the porch and walk into the sunlight. His back was to her, but there was only one person he could be.
He wore pants, a work shirt, and a butcher’s apron, with heavy boots. His hair was unusually thick, longer at the back, and badly tangled. The clothes were rough, dirty, stained red and brown, but his thick arms were heavily muscled between the short sleeves and a pair of leather wrappings that covered his forearms.
Amarie gasped, crushing the shirt to her chest again, as Thomas Hewitt lifted a long-bladed heavy chainsaw in his large hands, showing it to his uncle.
“You brought your little buddy – good. Get over to Crawford Mill quick and don’t lay one fuckin’ finger on the woman – she’s mine.”
Luda Mae sent Amarie up to her room to get her safely out of the way before the men returned. Checking on her after an hour, she found her standing at the window, the shirt still crumpled in her hands.
“Amarie, I need to speak with you ‘bout your Uncle Hoyt.” The girl turned to face her, tears running down her cheeks. Well, she looks angry more than anythin’ else – good. “Come and sit with me,” she invited, patting the bed beside her as she sat down.
“Can I help when they come home?” She sat slowly, her palms smoothing the wrinkled shirt over her lap.
“Maybe, if he asks you. Your uncle probly ain’t gonna treat this woman nicely if he brings her here, mind; after all you been through, you may wanna steer clear.”
The expression the child turned to her surprised her, but not as much as her words. The room felt abruptly warmer as the sweet and charming thing confessed the hatred in her heart.
“Will he do to her what she told ‘em to do to me? I saw that in his eyes when I first came here, that he was the sort, like they were, to wanna do that.” She took a breath, and added, “I want him to, Momma. I want him to hurt her like that. She used to watch ‘em do it to me, too. I dunno if I could do that – watch it – but I want her to hurt. If I ask him, do you think he would?”
Moments passed in silence before Luda Mae could think of a response. Fear that she might not say the right things, or lead the girl in the safest course, stuck her tongue to the roof of her mouth. The balance was precarious – but if she managed it right, the threat her brother represented to Amarie would be gone, and then the family might have real peace.
Swallowing hard, she touched the girl’s shoulder gently and murmured in her ear. “I think so, yes. He always takes care o’ us and does his best to please us, but you lemme call you downstairs, y’hear? Don’t leave this room ‘til then.”
“Yes, ma’am, I’ll listen for you.”
“When I call you, you ask your uncle for what you want, but be quick, child – he may have his hands full.”
~ ~ ~
Luda Mae praised her son as he hauled the mangled corpse of a male in leather and denim through the basement door. The metal slammed shut in his wake, and then the piercing screams and howls of rage of the woman shattered the quiet of their home.
Charlie yanked her in by her long, dark braid, the muzzle of his revolver bruising her neck and back as she fought him.
“Damn it, keep it down!” Monty yelled from another room. He wheeled in, flushed with irritation, but the sight of the struggle in the foyer rendered him speechless.
“Lookie here, Momma,” Charlie announced, gleeful over his prize. “Don’t bother settin’ an extra place for dinner, though – we got other plans, don’t we, honey?”
The woman screamed again and spit curses at them all, until the revolver came down across the back of her skull. She fell to the wooden floor like a dead pig and quiet reigned again.
Before he could stoop down to pick her up, Luda Mae glanced up the staircase and called Amarie’s name. Charlie gave her a questioning look, but didn’t comment.
“She’s gotta favor to ask; I think you’ll like it.”
Watching the exchange as the girl came downstairs and spoke to her uncle, Luda Mae couldn’t stop the smile that spread over her face. Charlie’s grin was predatory and delighted at once, and in that moment, she knew her brother had finally accepted his niece, without reservations.
“You got it, little darlin’.” He reached down to grab his captive’s shoulders and grunted. “Hell, you’re strong, honey, help me get this bitch up those stairs, there’s a good girl.”
“Yes, sir.” Amarie came down, hugged him, and then picked up the unconscious woman’s booted feet.
Together, they struggled to take the prize up to his bedroom, but Luda Mae didn’t follow, or ask if the girl intended to witness her favor being carried out. For the first time, she didn’t worry about her being alone in Charlie’s company, either.
The pleased smile still warm on her face, she went outside to the herb garden to pick some bay leaves to go in the stew pot. Dinner would be kept hot on the stove until Charlie was ready to eat, and if Amarie didn’t come down to help prepare the meal, that was fine. Some things were more important than chores.
Thomas continued to work as his uncle paced before the table, speaking about the woman, the one he had taken upstairs. His pleasure was obvious, but a lot of the words weren’t clear.
If he asked a question that wasn’t understood, Thomas would tilt his head at him, to ask for a better explanation – but unless he ordered him to stop, the cleaver continued to rise and fall.
“That mighta been as good as it gets, Tommy, damn. Got her trussed up and all, too, so she ain’t goin’ nowhere. Now you remember what I done told you? You can wait ‘til Amarie’s in bed if you want, but I expect you to come see me later tonight. Don’t pay your momma no mind, neither, if she fusses at you. Got it?”
Thomas nodded slowly, the cleaver pausing after it hacked into another bone. In the ensuing silence, he returned to the work, the rhythmic sharp thuds loud.
“Fuck me runnin’, I’m startin’ to like that little gal, too,” his uncle continued, his fist rapping against the wheel of the bone grinder near the head of the table. “She asked me to hurt that bitch, right down to fuckin’ her bloody. Damn. Course, she didn’t say it quite that way, but it’s what she meant, you could see that. Tommy, quit that a minute and listen up.”
He stopped instantly, mid-swing. Waiting with eyes downcast, he was half afraid his uncle would be angry that he’d watched the girl, ever since she got here. His breath came shorter under the mask as the silence grew.
“No call to look so whipped, boy, you did good this mornin’. Listen close, though. Your momma’s likely right ‘bout Amarie; hell, how often is she wrong? I know you been shadowin’ her already and I ain’t tellin’ you to quit it, but I want you to give her a fair chance. She actually seems to like you – for all you ain’t even met yet. She’s got your shirt stuffed under her pillow, anyhow, if that gets your blood pumpin’ at all.”
Thomas tilted his head at him slightly, confused. He was wearing his shirt.
“Aw, never mind, one thing at a time. I know you got no idea what the hell I mean. You just be sure you come upstairs to me tonight and we’ll see what we cain’t teach you.”
Nodding hesitantly, he began to relax only when his uncle smiled at him again.
“Okay, well, you don’t have to worry none ‘bout your supper, Momma will bring you some. Try to eat this time, boy – you never touched your dinner all day, and that stew was good. I know your sister’s put you off your feed right now, but if you don’t eat, you’ll be sick, soon ‘nuff.” He headed off into the back for a minute. “You don’t need water just now, so I’m gonna cut it off for a bit. I’ll turn it back on shortly, so don’t you fool with it.”
When he left, Thomas stared down at the meat he was butchering for a long time, trying to understand all that his uncle had said.
Shaking his head, he put the cleaver down and went to the far corner to tear off long pieces from the wide paper roll mounted there. He used his knife to cut sections of twine, and brought the supplies back to the meat, where he began methodically wrapping some of the larger chunks.
His mother came down the stairs with a steaming plate as he was dropping the brown paper bundles into the long, rusty freezer box. He straightened and turned to acknowledge her, wincing at her smile.
She’s just like he was. They want the girl.
Memories crowded into his mind, peppered with voices that mocked and tormented him. The sharp cuts of stones biting into his back were abruptly real and he slumped down against the metal freezer, covering his head with his hands as the box lid slammed shut.
“Tommy?” She laid the plate on the lid and bent to touch his shoulder. “What is it, what’s wrong?” When he didn’t respond or move, his mother sat down on the freezer, moving the plate aside. “Is it Amarie? Oh, my, how can I make you understand? She’s no threat to you. I want her to help us care for you, Tommy, and she wants to. Now I know I cain’t explain things, you’ll just have to find out for yourself, but I wish you’d try. Will you? Try for me?”
He wanted her to be pleased with him and dreaded her anger, her disappointment – but how could she ask for this? Whatever they did to them upstairs, down here there was just one end. Only when the girl was on the work table, opened and red, could he look at her without fear.
Then, she cain’t hurt.
His mother stood and went to the stairs, shaking her head. She was sad, disappointed. Without looking back, she murmured, “Eat what I brought you, Tommy. Don’t let it get cold.”
Thomas groaned and struggled to stand. Everything was a wash of confusion, but he couldn’t make her sad. He stretched out a hand to touch the hem of her dress as she climbed the stairs. Would she notice?
His head bowed, only to be lifted by her hand under his jaw a moment later. Her smile was warm again as she bent to reach him. Staring up at her through the face he wore, he took a deep, trembling breath and nodded to her once, slowly.
“Thank you, Tommy,” she whispered, her fingers stroking his leather-clad cheek gently. “You’re such a good, sweet boy. Momma loves you – never you fear ‘bout that.”
Silence returned and he was alone, standing stiffly for several breaths after she left. When he could move, he climbed the stairs impulsively and peered through the lens in the door.
The hall was empty at first, and then his mother and the girl could be seen going from the dining room to the kitchen, carrying dishes. Once, the girl paused, looking his way. Did she know about the lens? Did she know he watched?
She was small, delicate, and pretty – just like all of the others. Suppressing a shudder, he turned away and stomped back down the stairs, splashing through the water on the floor. Ignoring the plate, he returned to the work table.
The cleaver waited there, beside the knife his uncle had given him, the one with the blade that sprung at a touch. Both were red.
His fingers grasped the handle of the knife, his wrist angling it back toward his chest. The point entered clothing and flesh without pausing before the hand turned, drawing the edge shallowly down toward the floor.
Erupting under the teat, the pain chased the fear in a path to his waist, where the thick cowhide belt stopped it. Blood dripped down his leg and over his fingers as he forced his breathing to slow.
Dropping the knife on the table, he put his apron back on before he picked up the cleaver, lifted it, and brought it down on the meat. Another bone shattered, more blood sprayed, but the pain was what mattered. With each strike, it bloomed, and as long as it lasted, he would feel alive, for just a little while.
~ ~ ~
The work was done, or he would never have heard the noise. Picking up the chainsaw, Thomas moved swiftly to the back of the basement, past the furnace room that housed his bed, and down one of the tunnel-like corridors that led to the storm cellar doors. He climbed the smaller wooden ladder steps carefully, unsure if they’d still take his weight.
Neither locked nor bolted, the doors moved slightly as the evening wind outside rose. Thomas pushed at one of them a little, lifting it enough to peer out. Startling at seeing the girl just outside, he froze – but she hadn’t seen him.
She stood awkwardly on one leg, her other foot lifted as she rubbed the toes there. Had she kicked the wooden frame?
Putting her foot down again, she limped a few paces before walking normally. In her hands, she held a towel and a roll of cloth that could be clothes. He could hear her after she left his line of sight; she seemed to be heading for the waterhole.
Located at a bend in the dusty creek bed a short distance away, the natural pool might be the only place that still held water this late in the summer. As the girl continued on toward it, the noise she made drifted away.
His mother’s words haunted him as he hesitated, making him moan softly in distress. Protect her. Others will take her. Try – try – try…
Suppressing a low growl, he opened the storm doors and crept up into the wind. The chainsaw was quiet and still, but the weight of it was a comfort in his hand.