Deputy Hadley: I wasn’t in the same grade with him, he was ahead o’ me by two years, but most o’ us saw the other kids tormentin’ him at one time or ‘nother. My older brother was one o’ ‘em doin’ it.
Dr. Ambrel: Could I perhaps speak to him? He might be able to tell me a lot.
Deputy Hadley: Nope, sorry, Doc. Daniel died when he was fifteen – in the school fire. Our folks always said he was in the library studyin’, but I knew different. Dan had a girl, and they used to break into the school to fool ‘round. The girl died, too.
Dr. Ambrel: I’m sorry, David.
Deputy Hadley: You couldn’t know, it’s okay. Sheriff Hoyt always suspected Thomas Hewitt set that fire, but he couldn’t prove it.
Dr. Ambrel: Do you think he did it?
Deputy Hadley: Hell, I dunno – probly.
Dr. Ambrel: You never felt a need for revenge, for your brother’s death?
Deputy Hadley: Dan was a jackass. Most o’ the time, he wasn’t any nicer to me than he was to that retarded hulk. After some o’ the shit his girl and him and all o’ their friends used to do to Hewitt, I remember feelin’ amazed that he didn’t burn the place down durin’ the day, to pay ‘em all back.
Dr. Ambrel: You called him ‘retarded’ – was there any proof of his mental capacity?
Deputy Hadley: I doubt it; that was just what we all assumed. My guess was, he never knew how to bathe, and his face was a horror; they said it was a skin disease. Dan said he’d seen him cut himself once, too, and it didn’t even seem to hurt him. The boy was a freak, and the man’s become a homicidal freak. I’m not sure any o’ us cared back then if he had a workin’ brain or not, tell you the truth.
Dr. Ambrel: Yet your personal opinion would be…?
Deputy Hadley: I don’t think he really was retarded. He’d get a look in his eyes sometimes, and you could see he was thinkin’ in there, workin’ shit out, but I ain’t never seen such eyes, before or since. You called ‘em the ‘windows to the soul’ – well, I ain’t convinced he ever had one.
Dr. Ambrel: There could be many explanations for his mental state. Without proper diagnosis and study, we may never know for certain, but perhaps one possibility is that Hewitt might suffer from borderline personality disorder, with a co-morbid manifestation of social phobia. This combination of maladies could certainly create behavior of the sort you describe.
Deputy Hadley: Would it make a man allow himself to be treated like an animal for years, before burnin’ down a school outta the blue, and then hidin’ away in a basement for over a decade, doin’ God knows what?
Dr. Ambrel: Without a doubt.
Amarie forced herself to relax and breathe normally as his fingertips barely brushed her cheek. Uncle Hoyt had told her that holding her breath and tensing her body could be interpreted by his nephew as fear – which would either drive him away or make him hostile. She had tried to explain that she did those things when she was excited too, but he had lectured that Thomas wouldn’t know the difference.
When he dropped his hand, he immediately began to pull away again but since she hadn’t moved, he was trapped between the refrigerator, wall, and counter.
They both flinched when the kitchen door opened on the other side of the refrigerator and their uncle entered, clicking his tongue when he saw them.
“Not the best way to go ‘bout things, honey; you’re the easiest obstacle to move, cornerin’ him like that.”
“I was tryin’ to tell him his shirt’s ready.”
“Coulda done that from the table, couldn’t you?”
“Yes, sir,” she muttered. Rising reluctantly, she returned to the table, eyes downcast.
“Here, lemme help you. Thomas, come over here and sit down.” He pulled out the chair nearest to his nephew.
Amarie took in every inch of him as he struggled up out of the narrow space and moved slowly to obey, his head down. As it had before, the wooden chair creaked when he sat on it. His large hands were fisted on his thighs, his shoulders hunched.
For the first time, looking back at his fists, she realized he was wearing three gold rings on his left hand. Two were on the pinkie, and the other, with a large ruby set in it, adorned the first finger of the hand. That one she recognized–it had belonged to her tormentor Rock.
Dazed, she started to pick up the shirt, but her uncle stopped her. “Cain’t I help put it on him?”
“Sure, honey, but I had an idea after breakfast, and I think you’ll like it.” He picked up a bottle from the counter by the sink. It was glass, and a dark, yellow-brown liquid almost filled it. Unscrewing the black plastic cap, he set both on the table beside Amarie, and then fetched a dry hand towel from the stove.
“What is it?”
“Iodine. Tommy’s gotta bad habit o’ takin’ a blade to himself, and we’ve all but given up tryin’ to make him quit. He’s done it since he was little, and you’d have to sit on the boy ‘round the clock to stop him. As you might imagine, that’s gotten impractical, nowadays. He usually manages to keep it shallow, where it don’t need stitchin’. Since you’re helpin’ with the doctorin’, you can put a bit o’ that on the cuts as they show up.”
Standing where she was and looking at his back, the maze of scars was daunting. “Where on earth do I start?”
“That’s all old, nothin’ we can do ‘bout that – but he’s gotta few short fresh ones on his chest, and looks like a long one there, on the side o’ his belly. Sit up, Thomas, scoot that chair back more, and behave,” he added. “Your sister’s gonna keep those from gettin’ infected, and you’re goin’ to let her.” Glancing back at Amarie, he winked at her. “Have at it.”
She was grateful that he remained to watch soon enough. More than once, she wondered if Thomas might have either bulled his way out of the kitchen or tried to hurt her. She dabbed the liquid over the cuts, leaving them coated with yellow stains on his skin. Without fail, he winced and trembled each time she touched him, and now and then he growled at her, too.
Uncle Hoyt would chastise him if he fidgeted too much or started to rise, and after a while, he seemed to give up, slumping in surrender to what they wanted.
“That’s it,” the old man told him, his tone more soothing. “Might as well let it happen, Tommy; anyway, it’s good for you.” Turning to Amarie, he grinned at her. “Now’s the time if you wanna explore a bit; he’s docile ‘nuff for the moment. Just leave his mask alone, mind.”
She didn’t ask what he meant, or try to pretend it wasn’t what she wanted. Her uncle valued honesty in others, and was good at telling when he wasn’t getting it. She sat on the chair next to her brother, facing him. Taking a deep breath, she let it out again, slowly.
Using a corner of the towel at first to wipe away any excess fluid, she soon allowed her fingers to touch him more than the towel, until it finally dropped to her lap.
Running her hands over his heavy chest, arms, and stomach, and then moving back up to the powerful shoulders, Amarie allowed only her eyes to travel beyond the thick brown cowhide belt he wore. Her fingers wanted to follow her gaze, but she didn’t dare do that under the watchful eyes of the sheriff.
She worked on not holding her breath throughout her explorations, blushing when she felt moisture between her legs. Belatedly, she tried to find something less carnal to think about.
The skin of his body was pale, and not as speckled with dark spots as his arms, neck and hands. She didn’t know if his fingertips were darkened by the same skin condition, or just from the grime of his work.
Beneath her hands, his body trembled, and she started to feel guilty, worrying that they were pushing him too far.
“Maybe that’s ‘nuff, for now – he’s shakin’.”
“I expect you done a good ‘nuff job,” Uncle Hoyt answered, smiling. “Let’s get him into his shirt and set him loose.”
Thomas remained obedient, but the slumped posture of defeat had alchemized into a coiled impatience. The instant they got the shirt on, he began to rise. Uncle Hoyt grabbed Amarie’s shoulders, pulling her back before she could move to fasten the buttons.
“But –” Even as she spoke, her brother was gone, the metal basement door crashing shut.
“Worry ‘bout that later, honey. The trick to makin’ him do somethin’ he don’t wanna do is to know when to stop makin’ him – it keeps the illusion o’ who’s in charge intact ‘round here.”
Amarie faced him, blinking in surprise. “You are.”
“Well, yeah, but you gotta understand our methods o’ dealin’ with Thomas. He’s bigger and stronger than any o’ us, but there’s a lot he cain’t do for himself. He knows that, and he knows we know what’s best for him, and for the family. So he don’t go against what we say, in general. The boy has his limits, though, and it’s best not to stretch ‘em.”
“He always obeys you, and Momma too.”
“Remember, Amarie, you just got here, you ain’t seen it all, not yet. Oh, he’d never hurt me knowingly, but if I pushed him past sense, he wouldn’t know he had ‘til it was too late. That makes it our responsibility, each o’ us, to know how far we can go. I’ll tell you a secret, too: once he cares what you think o’ him, that’s the real way to manage him. Momma gets away with a lot cuz he’s afraid to disappoint her. He’s always worryin’ we’ll abandon him, too – cain’t seem to make him understand we wouldn’t – but it keeps him in line, and that saves everyone a lotta grief.”
“I guess there’s a lot I don’t understand…”
“Aw, don’t sweat it, sweetheart – you’re just a pup. The main thing you need to keep in mind is not to make him feel trapped. Tommy’s gotta big problem with anger, and he acts on it a lot, so don’t provoke him if you can help it. He’s gotta few other problems, too, that the Army called ‘impulse control issues’, when it was me they were dealin’ with. I got him into a few habits to help with that, like pull-ups on the beams down in the basement – that’s how the boy got such a thick upper half. It helps him work off steam, anyhow.”
“So if he barely eats half the time, how did he grow so big?”
Her uncle laughed. “You just ain’t seen him binge yet; he will when he’s at ease. Havin’ you ‘round has him all turned backwards and inside out, but he’ll get used to you, and then you’ll see him put down some chow.”
“Momma keeps sayin’ ‘give it time’, but I wanna be with him more now.”
“Tell you what – just between us, I think we could find a compromise between givin’ it time and pushin’ too much. Turn the tables on him – follow him ‘round, watch him – like he does to you; if Momma catches you, blame me.”
~ ~ ~
The lens in the metal door was still and beyond it, Amarie could hear the chainsaw going. Old Monty was in the den. Through the screen door, she could see her uncle pacing on the porch, in front of Momma Hewitt’s chair.
They’ll want somethin’ for supper brought up soon, won’t they? Not just yet, though.
Unable to fight the temptation any longer, she gripped the edge of the sliding door and shoved it open just enough to let her slip through. Closing it was harder, and she wasn’t sure she could open it again from the inside by herself, but leaving it open would give her away. Her uncle’s permission was one thing, but she didn’t want her mother upset with her.
The stairs were wooden between concrete walls, and the first surprise as she took note of that was that the basement wasn’t utterly dark. A lantern hung just inside the metal door, throwing a weak light a few feet down the stairs. Beneath it, a thick ring of leather was hung on the wall – the collar for a plow horse.
She knew the furnace was down here, and it would give some light, but most of the dim illumination seemed to come from the ceiling.
Looking up, she realized that the flooring boards of the first floor of the house were not flush – there were gaps between most of them. It wasn’t enough to notice from above, but down here, light, sound, and dust filtered through.
She touched the old plow collar, feeling the cracks in the leather, and then went silently down the first flight of steps. They turned at a midway landing, but she didn’t descend the second set of stairs.
Whether it was fear or fascination that stopped her, she sank down to sit on the landing, her sandaled feet on the next step down. Below her, at a distance, she could see Thomas at his work table. It was little more than an old wooden animal crate with slats, turned upside down, but it seemed quite sturdy. His shirt was buttoned, and the stained and worn leather apron was back in place, hiding the heavy, taut chest she had caressed earlier.
Moving her head slightly to see him better as he worked, she had to peer at him through a metal wheel. It was some sort of machine on a separate table at the head of the dark and dripping work table. When the basement was abruptly silent, she quit fidgeting, concerned that he would hear her.
He had stopped the chainsaw and set it aside on another table behind him, next to an antique sewing machine. Grasping a square-bladed butcher’s cleaver, he turned back and began hacking a large carcass into smaller sections. On the floor near his boots, a black bucket brimmed with offal, but the red meat seemed almost ordinary.
It don’t look no different from a side o’ beef.
Thomas finished quartering the meat, wrapped it in separate pieces with brown butcher paper and twine, and dropped the packages into a rusty freezer.
Then he turned away to hoist a large, oddly-shaped object from a hook by the wall. It dripped as he moved to place it on the work table. Yanking at it, he pulled the top section of a leather biker jacket from it and dropped it onto the sewing table, where part of the silver zipper gleamed in the dim light.
Is that – Sly? She watched, entranced, as her brother picked up the cleaver again and removed an arm with one crunching blow.
Far from repulsed, her hatred for her former captors burned in her heart, slowly assuaged by the violence Thomas did to their remains. A growing savage pleasure took over her mind, stronger than the feeling she’d known watching her uncle torment Kelli upstairs.
As it had then, the sensation became physical, too, and her fingers moved to slip under her dress, bunching it in her lap. The flesh hidden there was wet, and she blushed when she touched it, but did not stop the short, quick movements that created shocks of pleasure almost instantly.
Her free hand flew to cover her mouth moments later, but her cry had already been heard. Thomas looked up from his work, pausing as he stared up at her. Embarrassed, she smoothed her dress back down.
She was about to speak, when the metal door slid open. Jumping guiltily, she turned her head, hoping to see Uncle Hoyt.
Standing above her with hands on hips was Momma Hewitt. Amarie stood, backing up one step to the middle landing.
“Momma, I’m sorry, but Uncle Hoyt said I could watch him work…”
Luda Mae took a deep breath, refraining from cursing her brother out loud. “No small surprise,” she muttered. “Tommy, I need somethin’ for supper, and I think your uncles would like a roast. Could you fetch it for me, maybe somethin’ sizable, with one o’ the big bones?”
When he returned from the freezer with the heavy paper package, she gestured him up the stairs with it. He climbed up to them reluctantly.
“Thank you, my boy. Hand that to your sister, please. Since she’s decided to be here, she can help carry.” Watching as he gave it to her, Luda Mae turned away quickly and stood by the open door. “Come along, child, and don’t dawdle – we’ve gotta meal to get on the table.”
~ ~ ~
“Amarie, stop starin’ at the curtains and hand me that servin’ platter.”
She smiled as the girl obeyed, knowing it wasn’t the little roosters on the white curtains that had held her daughter’s interest. Those dreaming young eyes were still seeing her brother downstairs, no matter where she looked.
All through the meal, Amarie barely said a word, appearing to alternate between day dreams and a growing restlessness. No one commented on it, and the girl silently got up to start clearing off the table once they were finished.
After she had collected all the dishes and disappeared from sight, Luda Mae looked from her brother to their uncle and back again. “Well, now she knows, and understands, the worst o’ it. What’s more, she agrees with it, and that makes her family.”
“No one’s arguin’ that anymore, Momma,” Charlie answered. “Tommy’s even gettin’ used to her, bit by bit. The silly thing had him cornered in the kitchen this mornin’, and he didn’t break her to get her outta his way.”
Luda Mae nodded, pleased. “I’m goin’ to tell her the rest o’ it tonight, after I let her bring Tommy his supper.”
“Sounds like a plan to me. Whattaya think, Monty?”
“Don’t care what she knows or dunno – but the help ‘round here is good. Girl knows how to keep a clean house.”
Charlie grinned. “It’s settled, then, Momma.”
Luda Mae rose with another quick nod and went to the kitchen. “Leave that a moment, Amarie, and help me get a plate ready for Thomas. You can come down with me to give it to him, too, if you like.”
The child’s smile was blinding, and she almost dropped the plate she’d been rinsing. “Lemme get the carvin’ knife.”
~ ~ ~
Thomas had immediately taken his supper off to his bed, so he must have been hungry. Luda Mae showed Amarie where he was in the sprawling basement, and told her son that his sister would be back to fetch the plate later. Then she herded the girl back up the stairs so he could eat in peace.
They washed up the remaining dishes together, and then Luda Mae went upstairs with her to talk.
Amarie had the clothing, boots, and jewelry that had belonged to Charlie’s play toy, but she seemed uninterested in keeping them. The boots and clothes were on and under a chair Charlie had brought her, and the jewelry was laid out on the bed. The girl’s fingers toyed with a silver necklace chain as she waited for her mother to speak first.
Luda Mae smiled, pleased with her manners, and sat on the bed. Her daughter sat beside her, near the jewelry. “Your uncles and I want you to know everythin’, child.”
“If you think I need to know, Momma, I’m glad to, but I don’t need it to be happy here.”
“I know – that’s why we wanna tell you all of it, so you can truly be one o’ us.” Reaching out, she took the girl’s hands in hers. “When the slaughterhouse was closed down, and they let Thomas go, they weren’t kind ‘bout it. Oh, my, he was so upset – thinkin’ his only way to help us all had been taken away. He went back there, after the last workers left, and took a sledge hammer to his boss, caved his head in. Sheriff Hoyt, the first one, must o’ dropped by to make sure the place was locked up proper and found the body.”
“The first Sheriff Hoyt?”
“That’s right. My brother took on his name, but that’s yet to come.” Luda Mae took a breath to gather her memories, and then went on. “Sheriff Winston Hoyt, the man who had been the law in Fuller for years, since Thomas was younger, came to the house late that afternoon. He wanted Charlie to come help him with Thomas, told him what my boy had done. Hoyt was goin’ to arrest him for murderin’ that dirty goat o’ a man, or so he claimed. Charlie thought Hoyt might could hurt him, though. He’d never stopped ‘em when others hurt him. Some people think my boy shouldn’t be treated nice just for how he looks, how he is.”
“Did he go with him?”
“He did, in the patrol car, same one your uncle drives now. They came across Thomas walkin’ outta the woods from the slaughterhouse, back up onto the road. They’d driven ‘round, lookin’ for him, Charlie said, and got turned ‘bout before they found him, so Thomas was walkin’ home when they drove up behind him. He had the chainsaw, he’d taken it from the slaughterhouse. God knows why – he didn’t seem to know how to use it. Charlie taught him how later, on a biker type like yours.”
“Maybe from Frankie’s gang?”
“I wouldn’t know, child. This was over a year ago, now. Charlie said the sheriff stopped the car and told him he’d fetch him if he needed his help, but he left his shotgun on the dash. He’d gone out to order Thomas to stop, and then Charlie came out after him, sure the sheriff was just gonna shoot the boy. He took the shotgun, and shot that man in the back o’ the head when he held his gun on Thomas. He was the first o’ many to go into the soup pot, and Charlie started wearin’ both his uniform and his name.”
“And Tommy was safe,” Amarie said, sounding as relieved as if the rescue had been that morning. “You know, I forgot all ‘bout it, but on the way home last night, he steered me away from that bit o’ land past where we hang the washin’. It was a short ways from the house, inside that broken down old fence? What’s in there?”
Luda Mae released the girl’s hands to adjust her glasses, hiding a smile. My sweet boy; he coulda let her plow through there, and didn’t. “It used to be one o’ the old goat pens, and we just let it grow over when the livestock was all gone. I think Tommy must be startin’ to like you, if he kept you outta it. Charlie laced that whole area with old animal traps, and if my boy wanted to, he coulda let you get hurt. We woulda thought it our fault for not warnin’ you off, since his memory ain’t all that perfect.”
Amarie’s fingers fell to toying with the biker woman’s jewelry again, a small pleased smile on her lips.
“Did you wanna keep that stuff?”
“No, ma’am, I don’t think so. It’s – I don’t need the reminders.”
Nodding, Luda Mae stood and headed for the door.
“Momma? Could we take it all to the store tomorrow?”
“Sure we can, if you like.”
“So then … can I go see Tommy again before bed?”
Sighing, torn between wanting to be careful and not wanting to hinder the growing bond between them, she nodded again. “O’ course you can – gotta fetch his supper plate, don’t you? Just be watchful, y’hear? If he starts to get nervous, back away for a bit – that sorta thing. He dunno his own mind half the time, poor thing, and he’s so strong…”
“Momma, if you don’t mind sayin’ … did you birth him?”
“No, I did not; I found him – in the dumpster behind the slaughterhouse. Someone, probly the man he killed, put him there wrapped in butcher paper and closed the lid. His birth mother was likely a worker there, and no idea on the father. I was young then, and times were hard. I went to find scraps to eat, and found my sweet boy.”
Amarie smiled. “Was he tiny?”
“Yes, and he still had his little cord on his belly, screamin’ fit to make Heaven hear him – he’d been born that very day. I took him home straight away and fed him up on goat’s milk. Never loved nothin’ so much so fast in my life. Charlie had to lemme know he thought the boy was ugly – he was born with his face a mess right off – but he warmed to helpin’ raise him soon enough, and we did the best we could with the way he is. He was brighter as a boy … whatever started in on his face seemed to affect his mind, but once Charlie taught him how to work at the slaughterhouse, well – you couldn’t ask for a better worker. He don’t tire easy, and he loves his family.”
Thomas hoisted the woman’s limp body up in his arms before tossing her over one shoulder. His uncle fastened his pants quickly and then led the way out of his room and toward the stairs.
He could hear his mother speaking to the girl nearby, and flinched with shame. She didn’t want him in his uncle’s room, didn’t want him to do things to the woman. He hadn’t, until his uncle had said to kill her. The pleasure of cutting her throat had been stunted; the body his uncle had laid down on had lost too much blood, and was nearly a corpse already. As ordered, he had again watched the act that he was expected to attempt, but it hadn’t seemed any less horrid after she was dead.
Opening doors along the way, his uncle led him back to the basement, and the work table, where this thing should have been taken from the start. He dropped the already stiffening corpse onto the table, and almost had to break it at a few of the joints to make it lie flat as he’d been told. He started to pick up the chainsaw, but a firm hand on his shoulder stopped him.
“Leave that a minute, Tommy, and come look. Now, she’s dead, like you like ‘em, and so y’know she cain’t hurt you. Gimme your hands. Here, now, see? Feel how soft they are?”
He started to wince, but the female’s chest was soft, though cool. His uncle continued to lead him, his hands on his wrists, moving his palms over the body. Then he moved him farther down the table, and released one of his hands.
“Spread the legs, there you go. Now, you remember at the creek bend, when your sister had her own fingers in there? I sure as hell do! It was all I could do to keep quiet. So we know she likes it, right? Pay attention, son. Okay, get your first two fingers in there, and move ‘em ‘round a bit, inside and out, see, there? Just like that. Females love that shit – when they shut up long ‘nuff to let you do it in peace.”
Was it a lie? The woman hadn’t liked it upstairs, but his uncle had known others, many others. Thomas shook his head. It was too much and he didn’t like the cold wet flesh. It had hurt his uncle before, though he hadn’t seemed to care.
“That’s called playin’ with it. I’d bet good money Amarie knows how to play with yours right back, too. This mornin’, when she was touchin’ you, I saw her little peepers drop to your crotch often ‘nuff to prove that. She wouldn’t touch it, I guess cuz I was there, but believe you me, boy, you want her to touch it. All the rest I was doin’ to this bitch, that can come later; you start with this here, and maybe your sister can help you figure out the rest when you’re more in the mood to try it.”
Thomas withdrew his fingers the moment his uncle let go of his wrist, but it hadn’t been as upsetting as what he’d seen upstairs. If he could do this, maybe it would be enough and he wouldn’t have to do the other.
“There you go with that ‘deer in headlights’ look again,” his uncle said with a sigh. “Tommy you do understand why I’m tryin’ to teach you this, don’t you? I thought I explained it good. Your sister is helpin’ us care for you, and I want you to learn this so that she’ll be happy to keep doin’ it. One day, your momma and me, we won’t be here, and she’ll have to take care o’ you all by herself.”
Alarmed, Thomas gripped the old man’s thin arm tightly, moving closer and bending down, trying to lean his head on the sloping shoulder of the uniform shirt.
His uncle sighed again and moved to embrace him, patting his back with his free hand. “I don’t mean we’re gonna leave you, you giant-ass sonovabitch. We ain’t gonna live forever, that’s all. Tommy, now, c’mon, it’ll be fine. Don’t you worry ‘bout a thing, that’s not for a long time.”
Soothed by the touch, he released him only when he was told to. Shaking his head, his uncle moved away to hop over the puddle and onto the foot of the stairs.
“Be a good boy, Tommy, and do what I showed you. Get used to it. Also, if you feel so inclined, have fun with the stiff like I showed you upstairs – it don’t spoil the meat none.”
Thomas looked back down at the still and quiet body on the table, his hands lifting slowly to stroke the chest again. Footsteps sounded behind him, as well as his uncle’s muttering voice, and then the metal door closed. He never heard her approach, until she appeared across the table from him, her shy smile a shock. He yanked his hands up from the body and froze, watching as she moved around to his side.
“I came to get your supper plate, like Momma said,” she whispered. “Uncle Hoyt lemme in; I was at the door when he opened it to leave. I’m sorry if I startled you, but he said I could help with your lessons.”
He twitched when she took his wrist in her hand, as their uncle had done, and lifted his palm to her chest. It was warm, and the cloth of her dress and the flesh showing above it were soft, but the teats at the centers were not still. They grew more prominent, and harder, under his hand as she moved it back and forth over the cloth.
“That’s good, Tommy, that’s real good.”
The girl’s touch hadn’t hurt that morning, and it didn’t hurt now. She ain’t tryin’ to hurt? He moved his fingers then, grasping the soft spheres of flesh, surprised at her moan of pleasure. He said she’d like it. Would she like the rest?
Her grip on his wrist was broken as he brought his hands down, grabbed her pelvic bone on both sides, and lifted her up onto the edge of the table. As he’d seen her do before on the stairs, he pushed the dress up, exposing the same flesh he’d been shown on the corpse. The sight of it was similar, as his uncle had said. The little hairs were a darker gold than her long hair, and as the knees parted slightly, he saw that the folds of skin between the hairs were glistening.
Hesitating only a moment, hoping if he learned these things, his mother and uncle would not leave him, he lifted his fingers and pushed them into the tight, wet opening.
The girl gasped, leaning back over the corpse, her hands gripping it for balance as she spread her legs wider. Tilting his head to watch her, he worked the fingers back and forth, inside the heat of her and out over the slick folds of skin. Her breathing quickened, and she abruptly twitched and cried out.
Flooded with dread, he retreated away from her. I hurt…
She sat up straight immediately and smiled. “Don’t be afraid, Tommy, please, I’m okay – that was nice.” Her hand lifted, beckoning. “C’mere.”
The voice – it was the voice that had sung in the kitchen. He’d thought it was his mother’s voice. He approached warily, craving the soft voice, but afraid of the girl.
“That’s right, that’s good, I won’t hurt you … c’mon,” she urged, the gentle tones luring him closer.
He allowed her to reach up and untie the apron; it was something Momma often did, though she wouldn’t have draped it across the corpse. When the girl began unfastening the buttons of his shirt, he winced, but stayed rooted in front of her as she started to run her hands over his chest. She touched the cuts she had put liquid on, too, and he wondered if she was going to do that again.
“Uncle Hoyt told me that you cut yourself. I used to do that, too, back with my – well, where I came from. You do it to feel, don’t you? When you feel so numb you aren’t even sure if you’re alive? There’s a better way to feel, Tommy, and it makes you come alive like nothin’ else can.” Her fingers reached for his belt, trying to undo it. “I could show you…”
Thomas stiffened, afraid of what she might expect him to do. He grabbed her wrists hard, barely remembering not to crush them in his grip. He had done the thing his uncle had asked him to, but he knew his mother did not want him to do the other thing, which had killed the woman lying behind the girl.
Why’d he tell me to? He says to watch, to protect, don’t hurt, don’t hurt … then why?
He didn’t want to lie on her, crush her, or hurt her. The woman had been as horrified as he had, before she died, though she had hurt his uncle – he’d seen the blood. The urge to pick up the chainsaw flooded through him between one thought and the next.
It’s faster, if they want me to kill, but they say not to hurt. Why say not to hurt, if they want me to kill?
“Tommy, what is it? I didn’t mean to frighten you. If you don’t want me to undo the belt, I won’t, okay? I can show you without that.”
Show – what? How to cut? To prove to her that he knew how very well, he let go of her wrists and leaned around her to pick up the thin-bladed knife, holding the point of it near the swell of her chest.
“Yes, like the blade, but better. Don’t you wanna know a better way?”
The point wavered. She wants to feel … the alive feelin’? She wants…
“Tommy, if you want to do that, I’ll let you – but you gotta be careful, or Momma will be angry. Here, lemme help…”
Her hands came up and cupped his, drawing the blade closer. Under her guidance, she made his knife prick the flesh that rose and fell rapidly, allowing the point to draw a thin red line down to the edge of the cloth.
“There,” she said, moving his hand to angle the blade back at himself. “Now, for you, too.” Again, she guided him, making a matching red line down his chest. “Feel that, Tommy? The pain helps. If you wanna learn the better way, I’ll teach you, but I’m goin’ to go get the plate, now. You can follow me over there, but only if you’ll lemme show you … okay? If not, stay here – you got work to do.”
The girl simply moved his hand out of the way and jumped down from the work table, leaving him there with the impotent blade. As she went, she sang – and it was the voice that drew him after her.
She had picked up the empty plate from the floor, but when she saw him, she sat down on his bed and put the dish back where it had been. Slipping off her sandals beside it, she swung her feet up until she was lying on her side on his bed.
Smiling shyly again, she patted the space beside her. “You followed, Tommy, so now you gotta lemme show you. You promised,” she chided him, before he was aware that he had shrunk back. “I won’t touch your belt – just sit down.”
The hand that still held the small blade fisted around its handle, but he found himself sitting, obeying her soft, lilting voice.
“Remember when Uncle Hoyt asked you to sit so I could doctor you? I didn’t hurt you. I don’t wanna hurt you, Tommy, and I never will. I’m just goin’ to touch you, okay? Stroke you, like before? Uncle Hoyt done told you that you’d like it, didn’t he? He told me, just before he left.”
Her words meant little. Many times, people had said they wouldn’t hurt him, usually right before they did. It was her voice that held him, luring and drugging him. The pain of the cut she’d helped him make was singing, too – telling him that he was alive, that he was human. Sometimes, the edges of the cuts became mouths, and spoke. Hers did that now, and the red mouth on her chest sang.
Thomas twitched when he felt her hand on his thigh. Lost in the voices, he watched it move, holding himself utterly still.
“You’re beautifully made, Tommy. I don’t care what anyone else has said, they’re wrong. The muscles here are thicker than your arms, and strength like that – well, it just ‘bout makes me weak, I can tell you, and this … oh, God, Tommy…”
He winced again when her hand cupped him, but his mind couldn’t focus on what she did yet. She said it was beautiful, made beautiful. It – I… am beautiful? The thought twisted, a lie mired by years of ugly shrieking truth. He knew what others felt about him, that they feared and hated because of his ugliness. The many wounds he’d made in them always sang it, until the saw stopped the voices. Why did she lie?
The desire to strike, fast, sank into his mind – to make her not lie, to make the voices stop, to make her stop. Yet he couldn’t move. The voices had him; her kneading, stroking hand had him, driving out all thought.
He’d never touched himself that way, and no one else had dared to. Long ago, his uncle had taught him how to hold it, but that had been for letting the water come, and you had to open the pants.
Fingers moving rhythmically, the girl made it change, made it swell. Fear gathered. Is she harmin’ it? As she had promised, it didn’t hurt, though he could feel a heat growing there, a craving sensation like hunger. It struck the nerves like the blade did, and burned them. The burnin’ – is pain – but they don’t want me to use the blade.
The knife slipped from lax fingers and struck the floor with a ringing sound. Thomas startled, unaware he’d done it himself. He rose in one lurching motion, tearing away from her hand. Surprised to find himself wavering on his boots, he whirled to see her staring up at him, naked fear on her face. His hands flexed.
She didn’t speak, she sang. The words, though always familiar, had never mattered, had never been understood – but the song pulled him out of violence, lulling him to obey, to be calm, to rest … to sleep.
Comforted by the voice, but afraid of her, he sat away from her, on the edge of the bathtub. She moved slowly, turning onto her back on his bed. Amazed, he realized she meant to sleep there. He watched her eyes close, saw her body relax, but the song continued.
Dazed, his hand touched it – the thing his uncle called many names, and his mother wouldn’t speak of at all. It was still swollen, the tightening pants almost hurting it, but the heat remained, the craving it caused growing stronger.
He withdrew his hand, confused, not knowing how to stop or help it. Slowly, as he watched the girl, he realized that the heat was good, but even as he thought it, it began to fade, the swelling going down.
She said it was like the blade – better than the blade.
A whine on his lips, he got up and sat on the bed beside her again. When he reached for her wrist, grasping it gently this time, the voice fell silent and her eyes opened. He brought her hand back and placed it down, shivering when the fingers stroked him. She rolled to her side again and slid closer to him, her eyes on his.
“Tommy, if you want this, you gotta trust me,” she whispered. “Lemme open your belt. I cain’t show you unless I can hold it – do you understand?” Staring up at him, she nodded slowly. “Uncle Hoyt had you watch him, didn’t he, with Kelli? Did it frighten you?”
He wanted to nod, but fear and craving wouldn’t allow him to respond. His eyes widened as he watched her, his breath coming in shorter gulps.
“I’m sorry if it did. We don’t have to do that, Tommy, if it scares you. You can decide when, okay? I can help you to feel alive this way – and you’ll never need to cut yourself again. Will you give it to me and lemme show you?”
His uncle had said he’d have to do that, to take it out, and he’d said he should trust him. He wanted to trust. Her hand left him as his trembling fingers went to the belt buckle. Opening both buckle and zipper, he freed it, alarmed at the change in it. The skin that usually covered it had peeled away and down, leaving the tip exposed.
Her fingers covered his hand, and then touched it, and the craving heat blossomed in it again, instantly, making him suck in his breath.
“Tommy, can y’hear me? This is goin’ to be odd for you, I think, but you can feel that it’s nice, cain’t you? Oh, how can I explain…You know cattle – this is a weird way to put it, but it’s like milkin’ a cow, okay? I’m goin’ to do that, but it’ll feel good.”
He didn’t understand. Why is she talkin’ ‘bout cattle?
Soon enough, he forgot the words, falling inside the sensations. The heat burned and the craving grew, until his body spurted a strange, warm, milky fluid. It fell over her fingers and his, dotting on his pants over his thigh, where it began to seep into the cloth.
A strangled moan escaped his lips when it happened, the feelings exploding, as his mind struggled to comprehend it. She didn’t lie. Every nerve sparkled, every cut sang, and he knew then that he didn’t need to understand it. She will help? She will stay?
Mesmerized, he watched as she put his fingers in her mouth, as she had her own, moments before. Too stunned to fear that she might bite, might consume, he merely took it in, shivering again at the feel of the tongue that licked his fingers clean of the fluid. When she released them, they felt wet, and chilled.
Thomas tensed, abruptly afraid of her leaving, but she only settled down on her back again, closing her eyes.
“Put it back in and close your pants, Tommy,” she directed, her voice soft. “Then you should get back to work before the meat spoils.”
He leaned in and touched her shoulder, pressing it gently down into the bedding.
“You want me to stay? Don’t worry, I am. Go take care o’ the meat, Tommy. When you’re finished, come back to bed. I’ll have a reward for you then.”
He pressed her shoulder once more before he rose, tucking himself back into his pants carefully. They were still tight, but he just left the opening and belt undone, and the shirt too, and went to fetch his apron.
Stepping over the knife, he didn’t remember that it had fallen. Without disturbing it, or wondering why it was on the floor, he left it behind and returned to the work table. Retying the apron around him, he reached for the chainsaw.
For only a moment, he worried that his uncle might not want him to do this yet. Then the clear instructions he’d just received echoed. The girl – sister – she said to do it.
Without further hesitation, he fired up the machine, reveling in its music. Yet as the whirring, smoking blade descended, and the cooling blood splattered up, the whole act seemed different somehow.
The other way to feel alive – to take life from others – it was a pleasure he had believed unequalled. This body was dead and had become only meat. Carving the meat was a different, quieter pleasure … that of doing a job well, of helping his family. This meat had hurt her when it was alive – his sister. It had caused her great harm. The thought changed the quiet pleasure into the hot and pounding urge to kill.
Thomas roared with the flood of it through charged veins, driving the saw to decimate the corpse savagely. Before he knew it, it was beyond use, destroyed utterly. The table sagged beneath it, pierced too many times by the blade.
It didn’t matter. There’s more wood, it can be repaired. Then he noticed the condition of the meat, and sobered. Turning off the chainsaw, he held it at his side. Ruined … it’s ruined.
He didn’t flinch when his sister touched his arm; he’d heard her approach from behind him the moment the saw was quiet. She looked at the ruined meat, and to his shamed surprise, she smiled.
“Don’t worry ‘bout it, Tommy,” she whispered, her hands sliding up his arm, over the leather bracer, and up to the skin, stroking it. “You can pick the bones and stuff out and make a stew. I’ll even help you.”
Her hands turned him, one of them slipping inside his pants when he faced her. The fingers squeezed there gently, the shock of pleasure almost buckling his knees. Her other hand snaked under his apron to touch his heaving chest, the fingernails pinching the teat a little.
“I promised you a reward, and your bed is too big for just me. We can get back to work in a minute.” She stepped away, the tiny hand leaving his body only to take him by the hand.
Thomas paused a moment, making her tug at his arm. Lifting the chainsaw slightly in his other hand, he showed it to her, tilting his head in a question.
“Bring it along, I don’t mind. Momma said you made that little table for it.”
~ ~ ~
It was dawn before they were finished cleaning the scraps of meat of all other materials, including jagged chunks and splinters of wood from the table, and bits of bone and tooth. To finish up, he used a bucket of water to wash it clean of fluid from the mangled intestines, scooped it all into the center of a sheet of butcher paper, and wrapped it up as best as he could. The freezer was half full when he found a place for the stew meat; Momma would be pleased.
His sister was almost asleep by then, so he swept her up into his arms and carried her to his bed.
Lying at her side on his back after dropping the apron over the edge of the bathtub, his head turned from side to side restlessly. He continued to do so as the sun rose, alternately watching her sleep and staring at the chainsaw, until the blood stopped dripping from it.
He knew his mother and uncle would come looking for her, and felt his stomach clench. They might be angry, might yank her up and make her leave. Then she touched him in her sleep, her hand making a fist against his ribs, and he let out a soft growl.
If she wants it, and if she comes back, he thought, and felt his insides start to loosen again.
There were sounds filtering down from above already – doors closing upstairs, voices calling. He let them melt into each other, hearing only the comforting light breathing of his sister as she slept at his side.
In his mind, her voice still sang, slowly pushing the world away as it sent him to sleep at last.