Deputy Hadley: I never knew the patriarch o’ the family. He survived World War II, county records gave me that, along with a few facts on Charlie Hewitt’s time over in Korea. The father died while his son was MIA and the mother put the house and land in Luda Mae’s name. Rumors in the town never made sense after Charlie came home, but everyone agreed on one thing: he came back stronger, meaner, and crazier than he was when he joined up. The mother got sick, didn’t survive the followin’ winter. After that, the younger Hewitts ran the place.
Dr. Ambrel: I thought you said they had an uncle, their father’s brother?
Deputy Hadley: ‘Old Monty’ we called him. That one rarely left that house and he was never an influential figure. No sir, it was Charlie at the wheel, and Luda Mae let him have it, for all I ever heard.
Dr. Ambrel: Is she the biological mother of Thomas? Who is the father?
Deputy Hadley: Sorry, Doc – that’s a secret I guess only they’d know. People say he was born in August o’ 1939, but his family never put no proper paperwork in on him, and no hospital ‘round has a record o’ that birth, that I ever found. If they gave a scrap o’ paper to the school to admit him, I never heard o’ that, neither, but that was the 1940s, and the school burned down back in 1955. If you want my gut, I’d say she found him. Town gossips used to whisper ‘bout that at least, that no one was sure Luda Mae had ever been pregnant. If anyone knew the truth, you wouldn’t find ‘em now; they all scattered when the town went belly up last year.
Dr. Ambrel: I understand that the area is overrun with motorcycle gangs these days. That type moves through rather than makes camp, but I wonder if an empty town could tempt them to take root – for plunder, at least.
Deputy Hadley: That’s what I been sayin’ since I walked into your office, Doc: that town ain’t empty. If they got any sense, cutthroats or not, they won’t stop no longer than it takes to have a piss. As for tryin’ to take anythin’ that belongs to the Hewitt clan, well, Hell might could help ‘em, but God won’t waste His time.
Amarie quickly regretted refusing her Uncle Hoyt’s offer to fetch her home from Henrietta and Wilma’s trailer.
She knew his patrol car couldn’t have driven even half the way into the woods, and hadn’t wanted to make him walk so much to escort her when she could just walk back herself so easily. However, she’d forgotten in her relaxed enjoyment of her new life that she had enemies.
Four of them now blocked her way home. They ain’t seen or heard me yet – but they’re sure to the minute I move, in any direction.
The sun had sunk below the treetops, leaving her in a thick darkness, and no one would be wondering yet where she was.
Maybe I should just stand here ‘til they start to wonder? She was dressed only in a cotton sundress and sandals, but she didn’t feel chilled; the August night was warm. Now would be a perfect time for Tommy to be followin’ me.
Mere feet away, a man named Brand tried to start a fire, but his lighter wouldn’t work. The others, all men she knew well, began to tease him.
“Somebody hand him some rocks,” Will joked. “I heard cavemen can make fire with rocks.”
“Smart cavemen, maybe,” Sly retorted.
Frustrated, Brand swore. “Gimme your lighter, Tom.”
Stretched out on the ground beside his bike, the blonde named Tom opened his eyes. Amarie watched as the leader of the scouting party glared at his younger companion.
“A fire ain’t in our best interest, kid. Lay chilly – we’ll get the drop on the hillbillies at dawn.”
“We shoulda heard from Kelli and Tony by now, Tom. Somethin’ happened.” Sly began to pick his teeth with a twig, pretending he wasn’t afraid, but if something had happened to Kelli, they’d all be in trouble with their leader.
Get ready for that, Amarie thought. She ain’t all she used to be by now.
“I didn’t push my damn bike damn near two miles to wreck our surprise, you moron – not for your yellow-ass fears, and not for nature boy’s fire, neither. Sit your asses down and wait – like I fuckin’ told you. There’s moonlight ‘nuff to see by, you pussies.”
The other three obeyed instantly, keeping their grumbles to themselves – but their fear of Tom, and his obvious sway over them all gave Amarie an idea. It was dangerous, but her uncle had told her over and over that the more insane the plan, the less an opponent was likely to have a response to it quick enough to save them.
As silently as she could, she slipped off her sandals and hung them from her arm by the heel straps. Moving around them until she faced the direction home was in, she almost dared to hope she could abandon her mad scheme and simply slip away. Seconds later, her foot found a branch, and as it turned, it rustled the leaves beneath it.
“What was that?” Tom asked, instantly alert.
Amarie took a deep breath and screamed. The cry, mere feet away, shocked them all. They stood and pinpointed her shadow immediately, their hands reaching for blades and guns.
Before any of them could speak, Amarie faced Tom and screamed, “Tommy! Help me, please!”
“Where’d the little bitch come from?”
“Didn’t hear a damn thing!”
Tom, the only one who hadn’t spoken, grabbed her as she stumbled up to him. “Shut the hell up,” he ordered. “What’s your game?”
“I’m tryin’ to escape, but I think they’re after me. I heard y’all talkin’, recognized your voices… Oh, God, please help me, Tom. They’re comin’!”
“Those … people…” Thinking of how Kelli had done so, she shuddered in disgust. “They got Kelli, and they killed Tony! Rock and Jim, too – I think they had to o’ killed ‘em the day they got me. Please… I wanna go back to Frankie. I have to tell him … ‘bout Kelli…”
“What are we gonna do?” Sly asked. His dirty face had gone pale.
Tom ignored them all. Shaking her slightly, his fingers dug into her upper arms. “You better not be lyin’ to me. Where are they keepin’ Kelli?”
“At that big estate house – she’s upstairs. I ain’t seen her since yesterday, though, they kept me in the basement. I got out through the storm doors. Where’s Frankie?”
“Don’t worry ‘bout Frankie. Brand, Will – watch her. Sly, you’re with me.” Tom passed her to Brand. Looking them over, he added, “Don’t touch her. If Kelli’s dead, Frankie’ll want her.”
Amarie pretended to buckle, and her guards allowed her to drop to her knees. Standing over her, they both watched the other two men slip away into the dark woods toward the house.
A hand on her shoulder made her look up to see Will. The expression on his face told her he was thinking about disobeying orders.
“What do you think, Brand? A quick ride each? She won’t tell. Will you?” A silver blade flashed before her eyes. “If we gotta, we can say you tried to run and we had to cut you. Right? Or, you can play along – nicer for you that way.”
Amarie smiled. She had already seen the night move behind him and knew that her call for help had reached the right ears. “I can play along,” she whispered, but neither man heard her words.
The chainsaw motor split the darkness as the roaring blade descended, severing the arm of the hand that had touched her.
Amarie made no sound as her brother Thomas stepped over her to advance on Brand. Almost too late, she twisted and kicked out at Will’s remaining hand, sending his knife flying into the trees even as Brand’s screams filled her ears.
She turned back in time to see Brand fall, headless, to the ground. Thomas spun around toward the wounded man, and Amarie gasped at the sight of him.
It’s a mask – a leather mask – no… it’s a face!
Shaking her head almost violently, she forced herself to look away and deal with the others. Will had rolled toward her, his hand grasping her ankle. She started to kick at it, but then the giant blade came down and removed it from the arm. Lifting, swinging, it found the man’s shoulder and bit in deep.
Amarie scrambled away, watching in fascination as her brother’s heavy frame leaned into his work, using his shocking strength to help the chainsaw push diagonally into the man’s torso, through bone and spraying meat.
She screamed when the shadows jumped at him, the moonlight over the clearing showing her Tom at his broad back and Sly leaping in on the right. A gun fired, and Amarie screamed again, afraid her brother had been hit, but the bullets cracked into woods beyond him.
Sly was the next to fall, and Amarie wasn’t sure that Thomas even saw him as the blade carved him in half at the waist when he turned. The man behind Sly had been his target, but Tom dodged back, throwing his knife as the behemoth whirled.
“No!” Amarie struggled to stand, horrified to see the blade sink to the hilt in her brother’s back.
His guttural roar of pain made her wince, but the wild swing of the chainsaw drove her backward.
A breath later, she saw Tom turn and run toward her, heading for the four motorcycles. She didn’t dodge when he reached out to shove her down onto her back, but instantly brought her legs up to trip him, shouting in triumph when he hit the ground on his stomach.
Tom grunted when a weight pressed down on his back, pinning him. His hands groped at the boot, until the chainsaw blade came down between his kicking legs. Twitching and writhing in time with the man’s screams, both body and voice would soon be stilled.
Refusing to look away from it, Amarie’s face was splattered with blood as Thomas dragged the roaring blade through her enemy’s crotch and yanked it out through the intestines. When the blade was free, he stopped it, and the night grew quiet again.
Amarie shoved her sandals back onto her feet and rose quickly on shaking limbs to face him. “You’re hurt, Tommy … will you lemme help you?”
The strange mask tilted as he moved his head to look at her. Dark eyes she wished she could see better studied her in silence. Then he leaned down to pick up Sly’s top end, growling as the knife in his back moved.
“Leave ‘em, we can clean ‘em up later. Tommy – lemme see your back.”
Whether he was listening to her request or just avoiding her gaze, he dropped Sly’s arm and turned away from her, standing stiffly with his arms at his sides. Aware of the brutal weapon in his right hand, she approached on his left, but her fingers could barely reach the knife hilt protruding from behind his right shoulder.
“I might be able to pull it if you bent down, but maybe we shouldn’t do that just yet. It’s a long walk home, and you’d lose a lot o’ blood. Can you walk with it where it is? We’ll get Momma to help, and Uncle Hoyt. Okay? You should carry that in your other hand, though.”
He made no outward sign that he either heard or understood, but then he did transfer the heavy chainsaw to his other hand. Encouraged and greatly daring, she moved behind him and tried to clasp his free hand, but he pulled it back from her abruptly and shied away.
“I’m sorry… Well, I’ll just walk with you, then. I’ll tell ‘em all how brave you were, and how you saved me, too.”
~ ~ ~
Moving through the woods and then across one of the back fields, she almost headed into a fenced area on the right side of the house. Thomas stopped her with a hand on her shoulder and shook his head when she looked back at him. When he saw that she understood, he drew his hand back.
“Not safe that way, huh? Okay, you’re the leader.” As soon as the lights of the house could be seen beyond the posts and lines of hanging sheets, she bounced a few paces ahead of him again, excited and impatient. “Momma! Uncle Hoyt! Come quick, Tommy’s hurt!”
Her cry got an immediate response in the form of her uncle appearing from inside the open garage. His shotgun was ready, but when he saw only the pair of them, he leaned it against the wall and came out to meet them.
“Heard all the ruckus, but then it sounded like Tommy had it in hand. What happened, honey?”
“I was walkin’ home in the woods when I heard ‘em – four o’ ‘em. They said they had pushed their motorcycles for two miles to try and surprise someone, probly plannin’ to attack the house. I knew I couldn’t get ‘round ‘em without ‘em hearin’ me, so I pretended I was runnin’ from here, and screamed for Tommy to help. They thought I meant Tom – their leader, so they weren’t lookin’ ‘round when he found us. Then he just started carvin’ ‘em up – but Tom stabbed him, Uncle Hoyt, and I was scared to pull the knife out, what with the walk home bein’ a long one.”
“You did right then, Amarie. C’mon into the kitchen, Tommy, and we’ll fix you up.” As he started to pass by, the sheriff took the chainsaw in both hands. “I’ll take your little buddy, you go on in. Momma won’t want you to leave the thing on her countertops, anyhow.”
Amarie opened the kitchen door for her brother and then followed him in, biting her lip as she saw the wide line of red blood soaking his shirt. It dripped from the edge of the sleeve to run down the back of his arm.
“Oh, lord, what happened?” Momma asked, but she already had all manner of first aid implements spread out on the small kitchen table. “Sit down here, Tommy.”
As he sat at one end of the table, Amarie repeated her story again. Uncle Hoyt had carried the chainsaw behind her and left the kitchen with it. By the time he returned without it, Amarie had finished speaking.
Thomas watched their uncle closely, nervously. Finally, the old man grumbled at him, “I put it on your work table. When you’re patched, you can deal with it, but leave the clean up to me, y’hear? That’s a bad wound you got.”
“Such a shame,” Momma muttered as she took a big pair of metal scissors to her son’s shirt. She had untied the leather butcher’s apron and the loose and haggard tie he wore with the shirt, handing the items to Amarie. “Lay all that over the other chair, child, I may need your help some more yet.”
Nodding as she obeyed, Amarie whispered, “I can bring down the other shirt for him.”
“That’ll be fine, but wait a moment.”
She watched in silence as the scissors worked, baring a broad back that was crisscrossed with scars.
One of the worst of them was almost a match for the new wound, though it looked old. It had to be from another knife, which had struck just inside the left shoulder blade. The ridged pattern of the terrible scar drew her closer.
Luda Mae called her brother over and then spoke to Amarie at her side. “Move back a bit, now. This’ll hurt him and we never know how he’ll take it, or which direction he might could go in.”
Charlie placed his forearm on his nephew’s right shoulder, and one hand on the thick hair on his head. When he nodded to her, Luda Mae gripped the handle of the knife and yanked the two inch blade free.
Thomas roared in pain, surging upward fast. He pulled Charlie off of his feet for a moment, but the whip-crack voice of the Army man controlled him better and faster than any use of force could.
“Sit your arse down, damn it, we’re tryin’ to help you! Don’t you bleed all over Momma’s kitchen, neither, or you’ll make her mad!”
The huge body dropped back into the little chair, making the wood creak. He hung his head and moaned low as they worked, but didn’t offer to fight them anymore.
Amarie watched as their hands moved over the bowed back. Her eyes were fixed again on the old knife wound.
“Go ahead,” Luda Mae whispered. “He won’t hardly notice, now.”
Her slender fingers touched the pale skin around the scar first, and when Thomas didn’t react, they stroked slowly down the length of the ridged and puckered mark. “Someone else hurt him?”
“A damn waste who shouldn’t never got so close,” Charlie answered. “Tommy can be sneaky when he’s thinkin’ straight, but when he lets the red rage take him over, well – you’d barely know the boy had a brain to work with.”
“What’s this?” Her fingers had moved under the mask’s ponytail to trace a mottled line that ran up the side of his neck until it disappeared in the thatch of his real hair. The thick neck and shoulders shuddered at the touch, and she quickly took her hand away.
“Those damn spots – they appear wherever he’s been exposed to the sun for too long, far as I can tell,” Luda Mae responded as she worked. “I guess I need to mend his shirts better. Hush now, and be ready if I need you.”
Cleaning the wound and applying a pressure bandage was easier now that her son was keeping still. She glanced at Amarie only once more before she started covering the inch and a half long gash. The girl had ventured to touch Thomas again, on the old scar that hadn’t healed as well as she hoped this one might.
How concerned she is, she thought, smiling slightly as she began securing the bandage with black electrical tape. She told the truth ‘bout not carin’ how my boy looks, too – at least, the mask hasn’t shocked her too bad. There may be hope yet, at that.
“Ain’t you gonna stitch it up, ma’am?” the girl asked.
“Better to let ‘em heal from the inside out, hon,” her uncle replied. “We’ll change it often, try to make him keep it clean.”
~ ~ ~
The last of four motorcycles found its resting place behind the battered and windowless remains of an old jeep. The weeds were high and almost hid them all.
Luda Mae watched as her brother finished siphoning the gasoline out of the last tank as he had done with the others. He’d add it to the gas tank of the patrol car, but she didn’t intend to stick around for that.
“How did your lessons go?” she asked, trying to sound casual.
Charlie eyed her a moment in silence, spit into the grass, and then smiled. “Fair, I ‘spose, but he’s gotta lot to work on. Why?”
“I can see the wisdom o’ it, I guess. I just hope he understands and don’t get the wrong idea, or the right idea with a twist. Either way, he could end all our efforts quick if anythin’ goes wrong.”
“We’ll keep an eye on him. I’m more concerned ‘bout these hippie bikers. Amarie said her original count didn’t include the women, but even so, that still leaves five o’ those boys out there somewhere, and eight fillies. Ten to one, only the boys’ll come after us, but we cain’t rule out love sweet love – if any o’ ‘em actually give a damn ‘bout their men, that is. Still, a biker bitch is more likely to gut you in your sleep than any other kind, so we should be keepin’ our eyes peeled, Momma.”
“Hopefully they’ll keep comin’ in waves – it gives Tommy plenty o’ time to get their friends in the freezer.”
“How’s that wound comin’?”
“Just fine. I had to order him upstairs for it, but I’m lettin’ Amarie change the bandages. I explained all I could ‘bout his masks, too, though she don’t seem bothered by ‘em a bit.”
“She’s tough,” he said with pride, and turned away from her.
Luda Mae smiled as her brother walked away, the rusty gas can in one strong hand, and the bit of black hose in the other.
She moved slowly on the walk back to the house, enjoying the cooler air of the late morning. Soon enough, it’d be too hot to breathe outdoors.
Amarie greeted her warmly from her seat at the kitchen table. Luda Mae took a chair next to her and observed the mending of her son’s shirt with a judicious eye.
Thomas was still in the room, sitting on the floor with his lower back pressed against the refrigerator, exactly as she’d left him.
He almost didn’t fit in the space between appliance and counter, but seemed determined to be as unnoticed as the rest of the furniture. His forehead was pressed onto his raised knees, his thick arms wrapped around his legs to hide his face – but he had managed to not muss his fresh bandages.
Looking back at Amarie, she found the girl’s eyes on Thomas, too, her fingers motionless.
Trying to see him as the young woman must, Luda Mae studied the heavy muscles of his arms, neck, and back. His stomach was far from the flat rippling planes of those foolish teens that kept running afoul of her brother, but she knew her son’s paunch was tough, too, thick and hard. He’d taken more than one punch or kick there, without a wince.
“You really think my boy is nice?” she asked.
Amarie nodded in a daze. Shaking her head abruptly, she blushed when she met Luda Mae’s eyes and got back to her sewing. “He’s amazin’,” she said, her words quick and quiet. “I keep thinkin’ ‘bout the first time I saw his face – how… majestic and powerful he looked, comin’ outta the trees like one o’ ‘em Bible demons. I dunno how y’all ever thought he’d frighten me. He’s the most stunnin’ person I ever saw.”
“Past experience sometimes colors the mind against new experience,” she answered. “My mother used to tell me that.”
“And now my mother tells me the same,” the girl answered with a shy smile. Glancing back down at the shirt in her hands, she added, “I been singin’ that song o’ yours, ‘bout the mockin’bird. I hope he likes it.”
“I imagine he does, child.”
“He’s still afraid o’ me, even if he does watch me and follow me ‘round. If you hadn’t made him come upstairs, he wouldn’t have.”
Luda Mae studied her in silence for a moment. Maybe it’s time, she thought. She’s earned it. “He’ll trust you when he knows you’re really one o’ us. There’s … a lot … we ain’t yet told you ‘bout our family. We wanted to wait, to see how you adjusted, how things went – but I think you done proven yourself just fine, at least for some secrets.”
“It’s not just Tommy I want to be at ease ‘round me, Momma. I figured you’d explain other things when you were ready.”
“Well, maybe I am, at least for my part of it. We’d been poor before, but everythin’ changed when the town o’ Fuller died…” Luda Mae sighed, remembering better times. “We had a drought in 1968 that lasted into 1969, and that was the beginnin’ o’ the end. Cattle got sick, people that ate ‘em got sick, so they closed the Lee Brothers slaughterhouse down, June 9, 1969, and the town couldn’t survive without it. Tommy worked there, your uncle taught him how, but they let him go; there were hundreds outta work. There weren’t no jobs and people that had tried to stay didn’t. By July that year, it was us and Wilma’s family, close kin to ours; the rest left, or were ‘bout to. We weren’t sure how we were gonna survive, or how we’d eat. Drought killed the crops, couldn’t raise goats no more – we ate the ones we had left, and that was that. Then things finally started to turn ‘round for the better.”
“You got the garden now, two wells here at home, and you run the Cele store, but I never could figure out some things. The electricity works, for one, and the phones.”
“That’s Charlie’s doin’ – Sheriff Hoyt, that is. The generator out back keeps the power on, and he rigged that up. If you never seen one, it’s that noisy metal box on the ground.”
“The store has one, so does Henrietta’s trailer. I heard ‘em, but didn’t know what they were.”
“We try to use things sparingly, mostly; never know when the fuel will run out for the generators, or the patrol car, for one. Daylight serves, and oil for the lamps, got lotsa that. Still, none o’ us ever wanted to leave the home o’ our birth; so we adapted, made do, and sometimes, we just do what we gotta, and that’s it.”
“Uncle Hoyt ain’t drivin’ to the next town for meat, is he?”
They stared at each other for a long time before Luda Mae answered, but when she did, she’d already seen acceptance in the girl’s eyes.
“He ain’t never had to range so far. We don’t get many travelers and most are this motorcycle scum. I used to worry ‘bout it, but Charlie was right – no one’s ever come lookin’ for ‘em, or cared that they were gone.”
“What ‘bout Tommy? He catches ‘em, too, and then…You said that Uncle Hoyt taught him to work at the slaughterhouse, before.” Amarie nodded then, slowly. “I see.”
“It was the only way, child.”
“No, I understand, I do. I was just thinkin’ o’ somethin’ Uncle Hoyt told Tommy after he drove in with those fools from the woods. He slapped him on the back and told him to ‘get to work’, and then he said, ‘meat is meat, and bone is bone’. He laughed ‘bout it, and I had the feelin’ it was somethin’ he says to Tommy often.” Amarie smiled, pleased with herself. “I understand it now.”
“Wilma and Henrietta know, cuz they share in it, but no else can –”
“Momma, don’t worry – it’s fine. No, it’s perfect, and they don’t deserve no better.”
Luda Mae felt a knot in her stomach unravel. She hadn’t even realized that her hands were shaking. Reaching for her cigarettes and gold lighter, she rose. Bending down, she embraced the girl who had truly become her daughter. Unable to speak, she went out through the house to relax on the front porch and smoke.
Behind her, Amarie’s sweet voice rose, singing the verses Luda Mae had once crooned over Thomas when he was a baby. Tears came to her eyes, and for once, she let them fall.
With his eyes closed tightly, the voice took on a life of its own, weaving a nameless comfort. The words were familiar, sparking dim memories of warmth and food, erasing cold, hunger, and pain.
He began to rock his body slightly from side to side, releasing his breath more slowly as the voice calmed him, nearly pulling him into sleep where he sat.
“Hush, little baby, don’t say a word, Momma’s gonna buy you a mockin’bird. If that mockin’bird won’t sing, Momma’s gonna buy you a golden ring…”
Someone touched him, but it was a gentle, familiar touch, one that brought no pain.
“Tommy? I finished your shirt.”
His eyes opened as his body stiffened. Head lifting, he was shocked to see the girl sitting on the floor beside him, close. She moved slowly, her fingers rising to touch his face. Turning it into his shoulder, he tried to hide it against the wall, but the fingers touched him anyway, gently pulling at his chin. Hands fisting, his arms flexed.
Don’t hurt, don’t hurt, they’ll be angry, don’t…
“I won’t hurt you. I just want to see your eyes. Tommy, please look at me. I’ll be good to you, I promise.”
She wasn’t strong enough to make him move, but like his uncle, her voice held power. It was a gentle power, more like Momma, able to urge and soothe.
Try try try. Don’t hurt. A low whine broke from his lips, but he allowed the fingers to turn his head. Expecting her face to twist with loathing and fear, he was startled to see her hesitant smile.
“Oh, they’re lovely, Tommy – so dark, but full o’ feelin’.”
The fingers moved to stroke the cheek of the mask, but his hand lifted and snatched the wrist, holding it away from him.
“Okay, okay, I won’t touch it; I’m sorry, but … you’re hurtin’ me…”
He released her instantly, seeing the flash of white on the skin of the wrist before the marks of his fingers colored in. It’ll bruise and they’ll be angry… Frightened, he almost hid his face again, until his uncle’s confusing lesson intruded in his mind. She wants to ‘play’… What is it, the strange fightin’ touch?
Meeting her gaze reluctantly, his hand lifted slowly. When she didn’t flinch, he did what she had wanted to do to him, brushing his dark fingertips down the side of her face.