April 17, 1968.
First they lined us all up and made us get on our knees with our hands behind our heads.
Momma asked if she could keep her hands out in front to pray and the big man said no, so she put her hands behind her head too and she tried not to look over at us, but I was looking at her real hard when the little man fired the gun at her. Then I closed my eyes tight and I heard two more bangs and I fell over after the third one.
They shot Momma right in the head, and that’s where they shot Daddy and my brother, too. When the little man aimed at me he must’ve looked away because it just hit the side of my cheek and ripped it open. I wanted to holler, but instead I fell down like Momma did and tried my best not to move.
The big man came over and took Momma’s necklace that Daddy gave her last Christmas. He used his shotgun to lift up her skirt, then put it back down.
The little man walked over to Daddy and took off his shirt and his wristwatch. They didn’t come near me or my brother, which was good because I was pretending to be as dead as the rest of them, and I’m no good at pretending. I should have waited real long after they left before I got up, but my cheek was smarting something fierce and I figured they might come back.
I walk over to Momma to check that she was really dead and she really was dead. I didn’t have to check Daddy or my brother ’cause I could tell.
They’d taken us to the woods, but not far from the road where they’d found us. By the time I got up, the little man and big man had walked back out there to our car where the thin man was waiting. Then the three of them started going through our stuff and I turned away.
I was crying and I was going to start running as hard as I could when this funny-looking kid grabs my arm.
“You be quiet now,” the kid says. “Lemme get a look at you.”
He brings out a handkerchief and licks it and starts dabbing at my face with it and it smarts. While he’s doing that I look into his eyes to try to see if he’s friendly. I can’t tell right away. His eyes are green and they stand out from the rest of his face. His cheekbones are real big and they’re up high like Frank Sinatra’s, except he doesn’t look much like Frank Sinatra otherwise. His hair is a rusty color and his skin is dusty and yellow. He looks strong but a little too thin for his age. He reminds me of a stray dog that followed me home (back when I still went to school). Momma said it was a pitbull and Daddy said it had worms, and neither one of them wanted it in the house.
The boy has got overalls on and no shirt underneath, and he concentrates real hard when he’s batting at you with his handkerchief. You can tell right away he don’t touch girls much, not because he’s rough but because he’s way too careful like I’m gonna break apart in his hands.
I don’t break and he gets done batting at me. He looks out at the road and I can tell he’s scared, and that makes me think that maybe he’s friendly.
“You stay quiet,” he says. “Come this way.”
I turn to follow him and I watch my step to stay quiet like he told me. He ain’t as quiet as me. He steps on sticks and they crack under him but he doesn’t pay it much mind.
He looks down at Momma when we pass by her and his face looks cold, and I start to wonder again if he’s friendly, and I start making plans for what I could do if he ain’t friendly. I notice he’s carrying an old rifle in his big dusty hands and I wonder if he’d had it out the whole time. He uses it like a walking stick or a machete, pushing back the branches of the prickly bushes or putting it against the ground when he needs some extra help climbing. A few times he puts the barrel-end right into the ground and I wonder if the gun even shoots anymore.
We walk through the woods for a long time before he talks again.
It feels like hours but that’s mostly cause my cheek is smarting bad. I wipe it with my sleeve and there’s a lot of blood. A few bugs start following me and landing on my cheek and I have to shoo them away, which bothers me worse than the smarting or the blood.
“Where are we going?” I finally ask, and he turns to me and I think he’s gonna shush me like Daddy would. Instead he just gives me a look like you’re still here? We’re deeper in the woods now, and in this light, his eyes seem more hazel than green. They still look odd. They’re deep in his head and they dart around like flies caught in a mason jar.
“I ain’t decided yet.”
“Then who are you, then?”
“That ain’t a name. What’s your name?”
A bug lands on his face and he screws up his nose a bit to get it off. When he scrunches his nose, he looks even more like that old dog with the worms.
“A lot of power in a name,” he says. “Don’t think I’m telling you mine ‘til I know yours.”
“I’m Julie,” I say. I’m lying, because what Somebody said about names seemed true enough to me and I don’t have a lot of cards left to hold onto.
“How old are you?”
“11,” I lie. I’m actually 12 and a half, almost 13, but I figure if he thinks I’m still a little girl he might be nicer to me.
“Ain’t safe on these roads, ‘specially if you got a car. What were you all doing out here?”
“We was going somewhere else,” I tell him. “Mighty good reason to be on the road, I’d say.”
That shuts Somebody up, which makes me uneasy because I want him talking. We keep moving, and I keep feeling uneasy, so I try to get on his nerves the way I can with my brother.
“You ask a lot of questions,” I say. “You fancy yourself an Ark Linkletter or something?”
“Art,” he says and he smiles big and I see that his teeth are a little too small. “Not Ark.”
“Well, you’re neither one of ‘em.”
He smiles more but he doesn’t say nothing else, so I don’t press him. The ground is dry but the air is humid, and I have to breathe hard to keep up with Somebody’s pace. Pretty soon, we get to the edge of the woods and there’s a big open field out in front of us. He starts walking into it, so I do too.
“You decide where we’re going?” I ask. I try not to let him hear that I’m nervous but I’m bad at pretending.
“I got an idea,” he says, and I can tell he’s not keen on saying much else. My forehead’s sweaty and my hair falls down in front of my eyes, so I push it back up. I notice he’s looking at me so I try to keep him talking.
“Did you know those men?”
“I don’t know their names,” he says. “I wish I did. But they’s always out here.”
He looks at his gun and his Adam’s apple moves like he’s swallowing air, then he looks back at me.
“They did my folks like they did yours, ‘cept they didn’t try to shoot me. If they did, I would’ve…”
His voice is uneven and I feel like I just heard something come off-kilter inside him. Something that was loose and wobbly to begin with. But when he talks again, he’s back together and sounds like he did before.
“Well, I probably would’ve died, if I’m honest. He only missed you because he’s weak. He didn’t want to look you in the eyes when he did it. He hasn’t been with the other two for long.”
All of what he says goes in one ear and out the other, because I’m starting to feel like my head is on fire, and I’m most thankful that we’ve stopped moving so I can catch my breath. I decide I don’t care too much about the three men and why they did what they did, provided I can get away from them and stay away.
“So where are we going?” I say.
“Middle of this field,” Somebody says, and I get uneasy at the way he says it. He starts walking again and I follow him.
We get to the middle of the field and he turns toward me and he points the gun at me, except now he’s holding it like a real gun and not like a walking stick or a machete.
“What did you say your name was?” he says.
“Julie,” I say again.
“Julie,” he says, “You got anything of value on you?”
“No,” I says, and my heart is beating so hard I can feel it in my head.
“That’s a shame,” he says. He lowers the gun a little. “You gotta learn, Julie, that there ain’t nice people in this world.”
“You seem nice,” I say, and I mean it to be sarcastic, and he takes it that way and laughs.
“There ain’t nice people, and Jesus don’t protect you when things go wrong.”
“Okay,” I say. I don’t know what else to say. I don’t really care about Jesus.
“You believe in kindness, Julie? After what you seen today?”
“I don’t give it much thought.” I say, and it’s the truth.
He tips the barrel of the gun up towards the sky.
“You start thinking on it,” he says, and he keeps walking into the field. I don’t know what else to do so I follow him.
We come to an old two-story house.
These days all houses are old, but this one’s real old. It looks like something I saw in a Vincent Price film. There’s a rickety porch and all the windows are broken. Some scraps of blue paint are hanging onto the wood and part of the roof has caved in.
When we’re close, Somebody tells me to get down on the ground, and I do, and so does he. We lay there for a few minutes and he just stares at it. Then he gets up and he opens the door and we walk inside.
The house has big, high ceilings and there’s a chain where a chandelier used to hang. I know that ‘cause there’s some broken glass on the floor, and the metal part of the chandelier is sitting up against a big staircase with three or four missing stairs.
We’re standing in what Momma would call a living room, but it don’t seem like much of a place for living. A big blue chair sits in one corner but it has orange stains on it and I don’t want to sit on it.
There’s a little bookshelf with no books. There’s a little fireplace with no fire. There’s a coffee table, and plenty of open cans of food laying all around it. I wonder if there’s more food somewhere, cause I’m starting to get hungry in spite of myself, but Somebody speaks up before I could ask.
“We ain’t got girl clothes,” he says, “and you can’t wear none of mine.”
His eyes are darting around again. He looks at me, and I don’t feel any kindness coming from him.
“It looks like you ain’t even wearing none of yours,” I say, on account of how he’s got no shirt under his overalls. He either doesn’t get the joke or he doesn’t think it’s funny. I think about that old dog that followed me home, and I think to myself that I got it wrong in the first place — I’m more like that old dog than he is, and I’m just hoping he doesn’t send me away.
“The sink works. Wash your face and don’t leave any blood in the sink. Be quick because we don’t got too much time. They’ll be back soon.”
I feel like I’m cold all of the sudden and I think about asking who’s gonna be back soon, but I already know and it don’t make much sense to ask dumb questions. So I go to the sink and I wash my face like he said to, and I walk back to the not-so-much-a-living room.
“Turn around,” he says. I do.
“Turn back around,” he says. I do, and the bookshelf is gone, and instead there’s a little narrow place big enough for a person to fit through.
“My poppa built it,” he says, and he seems proud.
“It’s nice,” I lie.
He gestures for me to get in, so I do. I always read books about secret passageways hidden in bookshelves, but this isn’t like the ones I read about. Some plaster gets in my hair as I crawl in, and the floor is concrete which hurts my knees. Halfway through, my skirt catches on a nail and tears a little and I curse, and I hear Somebody laugh from behind me.
The passage opens up after a few twists and turns and I can finally stand up.
It’s pitch black, but Somebody has a kerosene lamp that he lights up, and it gives off enough light to get by on. I look around. We’re in a room that almost isn’t a room — there’s a sleeping bag and a few adventure books on the floor, and not much else. A lightbulb is hanging from the ceiling, which confuses me because Daddy said that houses in the country don’t have electric. In any case, the lightbulb doesn’t seem to work, because Somebody doesn’t even fiddle with it.
“We’re behind the staircase,” he says. I nod as if that means something to me.
He looks at me hard and I get uncomfortable. His eyes aren’t darting around as much, and they seem bright and green again.
“Julie,” he says, like he’s trying his lips out for the first time. “It’s a good name.”
“Thank you,” I say. My voice sounds unsteady.
“You remember what I told you,” he says, real soft. “There ain’t nice people in this world, and Jesus don’t protect you.”
“I don’t care about Jesus,” I say. My Momma would have hit me for saying that, ‘cept she’s dead, and I mean it.
He doesn’t look away from me and I feel worried. I’ve read about the things men do to women and little girls. Ravishment, my books called it.
I look at his face and decide that Somebody isn’t a man. He’s older than me and I’m practically a woman, but he just doesn’t look grown, even though he acts like he is. That doesn’t give me much comfort. One time, I read in the newspaper about some boys who did something bad and it made me cry. I don’t remember what they did, but I remember that I asked Daddy about it and he told me that boys can be the worst parts of men at times. I expect that’s especially the case when they’re playing like they’re already men when they ain’t.
When I talk again, I talk slow and try to sound strong.
“So, you ain’t nice. You’re gonna hurt me, then?”
He just looks at me for a second, and it occurs to me that he likes that he can make me uncomfortable.
“No,” he says, finally. “But that don’t make me nice.”
I didn’t like that, so I decided to let him have it.
“You try anything, you won’t like what happens,” I say. My voice is shaking a little. “You lay a finger on me, I’ll —”
He put his hand over my mouth and I thought for a second that I should bite him, but then I hear other voices from the other side of the wall.
And suddenly, ravishment seems not so bad in the grand scheme of things, because I knew for certain that the three men were in this house with us, and that Somebody expected to do something to them, then probably something to me afterwards. He was playing like a grown-up, and he was good enough at pretending that I’d followed him back to this house and gone along with it. I felt foolish.
“We’re gonna murder ‘em,” Somebody whispered. His face was close to mine, and his breath was hot and made my skin itch. “You hate ‘em as much as I do, I know that. You’re gonna get their attention, and I’m gonna come up behind them and blow off their heads.”
He mimed like he was shooting them, but his hand was shaking and his eyes were buzzing around again. I just nodded. I didn’t want to talk because I thought Somebody was whispering too loud and I was scared that they was gonna hear us.
I took a long look at Somebody’s gun. I don’t know guns much, but I watched Bonanza way back when the TVs were still playing shows, and I’d never seen a gun like that one. It seemed too thin to put a big hole in someone, and even when you’ve got a proper people-killing gun, they don’t always do the job. I was living proof of that.
So I decide I’m gonna run, first chance I get, and try to find somewhere else to lay low. Probably I’ll die in the woods or the fat man will catch me, but I aim to try.
We wait there for at least an hour and listen to the three men carrying on.
They must have been drinking because they were laughing loud, and after a while they sounded like they were fighting, and I know from reading books that laughing and fighting go along with drinking. I’m keen to let them go on drinking and fighting and laughing, but Somebody gets antsy and he starts motioning to me to go through the secret passageway.
“Let’s wait for them to go to sleep,” I whisper at him, and he looks at me like I’m the school dunce.
“They each sleep in a different room,” he says, “and they lock their doors, ‘cause they don’t trust one another.” He shakes his head and grinds his teeth together and his temples pop out like boiled eggs. “It has to be now, while they’re in the kitchen. That’s where the booze is. That’s where they’ll stay.”
I try to think of another good reason to let them keep drinking and carrying on, but Somebody’s face gets real hard and his big cheekbones turn to steel. His face seems longer and meaner, and he juts at me with the barrel of the gun, and I know he’s playing serious.
I start crawling through the passage and I hear him behind me. He put out the kerosene lamp and it’s pitch black. Even though it makes no sense in the dark, I’m worried about him trying to see up my skirt, so I move slower than before.
I get to the end of the passage and it’s a hard wall ‘cause the bookcase is back in place. I crouch up in a ball and I feel Somebody’s hand on my shoulder. He leans in and whispers at me.
“Feel for a latch on the upper left side.”
I find the latch and work with it for a minute. It finally opens up and I push against the plaster and the secret passageway is open. I crawl out, but Somebody doesn’t crawl after me right away.
I look back at him as I stand up. My skirt had bunched up a little and he’s looking at my legs. That makes me mad, so I kick at the bookshelf and it slams him in the face. That’s dumb of me, because it makes a big noise, and the men in the kitchen shout curse words.
I hear them moving, but I’m already flying towards the front door as fast as I can.
I let myself look back and I see that the secret passageway is opening up again.
The men had left the front door open and I run out it and then I run to the right. I figure I’ll take a wide route back towards the woods and lay down in the tall grass if they get too close.
But I’m not as fast as I think, and the three men are out of the house right away. I lay down in the grass, not 100 feet from the house, my stomach tumbling and tumbling. I try to make myself small.
They don’t see me, but they know I’m close. The little man has a rifle and he shoots into the grass. The shot is nowhere near me, and I don’t jump or holler, which is what I expect he was hoping I’d do.
“Who’s out here?” he yells. His voice is bigger than it should be, but he sounds nervous.
The thin man walks out to the left of the little man and starts looking at the grass.
“Don’t fire again,” the thin man says. “Waste of ammunition.”
“It was the little girl,” the fat man says. “The girl from today. I saw her skirt when she ran out. White and blue.”
“Do you think,” the little man starts to say, but then Somebody runs right up to him and shoots him in the head.
The gun isn’t as loud as the little man’s gun, but it does the job. The little man falls to the ground and his arm moves in and out like he’s trying to make a snow angel. His mouth opens and shuts slowly, and at some point he dies, but I don’t see that because I’m watching what happens next.
Somebody is screaming. His voice is high and thin and it cuts through the air. It probably buys him a few seconds, because it confuses the fat man. Somebody already shot his gun, so he dives down towards the little man’s gun and grabs it and fires at the fat man, once, twice. The fat man falls down and his body doesn’t move at all. Then Somebody aims towards the thin man, but the thin man shoots him first, right in the stomach.
The thin man looks down at Somebody. I’m close enough to see the expression on the thin man’s face, except he doesn’t really have much of an expression. He just looks at Somebody, who’s thrashing around and holding his guts in place. The two of them look at each other, and Somebody’s mouth is moving like the little man’s mouth was moving, except different, because Somebody is trying to say something. It doesn’t matter because the thin man puts his shoe on Somebody’s mouth and presses his head to the side. He presses down until Somebody stops moving.
The thin man wipes his shoe off on the porch and looks out towards the grass, straight at where I’m hiding. I try to push myself deep into the grass, and I grip the cool dirt with my fingers and I breathe as slow as I can and try to pretend that I’m just part of the land. But I’m no good at pretending.
“We killed your family today,” the thin man says. He doesn’t say it like it’s a question and he doesn’t say it like he’s proud of it.
The wind whips up for a second and dies down. I say nothing. I still don’t think he knows where I am, and I decide that if I’m going to die, at least I’m going to make him look for me.
“Killing isn’t what you think it is,” he continues. “It’s not good or bad. If it were, I expect that God would get involved, in one way or another.”
He looks out slightly to my right, now, and I know he doesn’t see me.
“If you’re going to survive out there, you’re going to have to get used to the facts of it,” he says. “And you’d better get started right away.”
He looks to the left and the right a bit more, then sits down on the porch. He rubs his chin.
“Why don’t you come out and tell me your name,” he says. I don’t say anything. “Mine’s Jim.” He motions at the fat man. “This was Mike.” At the little man. “This was Rick.”
I feel a horsefly bite my leg, but I just stay where I am and stay quiet.
The thin man keeps looking out at the grass for a while. I expect him to keep talking, but he doesn’t. After a long time, he goes inside the house and closes the door. I can hear him turn the lock and I wonder whether he’s worried that I’ll try to get in there and kill him.
I wait for as long as I can. Eventually, I start to fall asleep, and that’s when I decide to move. I push up onto my hands and knees and crawl backwards for a while, then I stand up and turn around and start running. I run for a while and then I walk until I find a road, and I pick a direction and start following it.
The sun comes up and I hear the scattered cries of a few birds. My legs are aching and I want to sleep, but I realize that I haven’t been up to see a sunrise in a long time. Not since my brother was real little, which was when we all got up early, me and Daddy and Momma. I don’t think that I’ve heard the birds since then, and the birds near our house didn’t sound like these birds.
I keep walking until I see a small house with a scarecrow outside. There’s a big NO TRESPASSING sign and windchimes on the front porch.
I walk up to it and knock on the door, and I hear someone rustling around inside. I move my hair out of my face.
“Who is it?” a man shouts.
“My name is Mary,” I shout back. “What’s yours?”
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