Violent Devotions

By Gwen Mullins

Two weeks ago, over a dinner of fried chicken, purple-hull peas, and buttered corn, Red McClendon’s family talked about the girl, Vera Martin, who disappeared one night after she left the Shop-Rite on Sand Mountain. Red’s son Jackson worked part-time as a bagboy at that same store, but he claimed he couldn’t remember if he’d been at work the night the girl went missing.

Red saw the girl’s picture on the news, a curvy young woman with thick, dark hair that hung in braided ropes down her back, her skin smooth and tan as river stone. Something about the way she tilted her head in the news photo- graph reminded him of Rosie, his own daughter. Red did not think too much about Vera Martin’s disappearance at first. He, like most of the folks he knew, assumed she would turn up in one of the trailers pocked with scattershot at the foot of the mountain, strung out on meth, or maybe in a Marietta hotel room with a man old enough to be her father, or her teacher. Red’s own sister ran off with three different boys before she even finished high school.

“Jean Anne always came back, after her money ran out or when she got tired of eating frozen burritos from the Chevron,” Red said.

Red’s wife Loretta pursed her lips, busied herself with grinding pepper over her dinner. She always got quiet when Red brought up the less savory aspects of his past.

“But Vera Martin was a nice girl, from a good family,” Rosie said.

Red blinked as he absorbed the implied insult to his sister, his parents. True, Red’s father was a casual drunk, dead now ten years, his mother a fallen debutante who sucked fentanyl lollipops to ease her supposed migraines. His sister Jean Anne still meandered around the edges of Red’s life, calling only when she needed money.

“I’m sorry, Daddy. I didn’t mean, you know.” Rosie picked crust from her chicken and piled it on the side of her plate. She liked to eat the chicken meat first, the breading after.

Red’s boy Jackson chewed steadily, his meal half-finished even though the rest of the family had barely started eating. Jackson snorted, “Everybody knows Vera Martin’s a whore.”

“She is not. She’s a cheerleader,” Rosie said.

“Exactly.” Butter and corn milk dripped down Jackson’s chin. “Besides, it sounds like she doesn’t want to be found. Bitch like that, she could be halfway to the border with her Mexican boyfriend by now, riding in the back of one of those spic trucks.”

“That’s enough of that, Jackson McClendon,” Red said.

Jackson shrugged, wiped his mouth on a paper towel, and bit into a chicken leg, the salted crust shattering against his strong white teeth.

The kitchen light flickered as the air conditioner clicked on, and Loretta made the old joke, “We know you’re there, Papaw Duncan,” that she always made when the lights dimmed in the house that once belonged to her grandfather. They spoke of other things, and Red felt safe and proud, with his family all around the sturdy kitchen table, the linoleum floor gleaming and the smell of good food in the air.

Red told himself it began only a couple years ago, when Jackson was 16 and Rosie had just turned 14, and their brindle mutt Butterscotch went missing. Butterscotch was a loyal dog, one who yelped and ran in circles each afternoon when Rosie stepped off the school bus. When Loretta cooked, Butterscotch curled behind her in the kitchen, waiting for a scrap of biscuit dough or one of the liver-flavored dog treats Loretta kept in a green ceramic canister next to the flour and corn meal.

In the evenings, Butterscotch tagged along with Red during his after-dinner walks. Sometimes, Red and Butterscotch ambled along the lonely county road until they reached the old Stooksbury farm a mile up the way. Other times, Red preferred to stroll among the trees and meadows of his own property, looking for signs of groundhogs and coyotes while the whippoorwills called to each other in the twilight. Everyone loved Butterscotch’s easy company except Jackson, who claimed the dog’s hide made him sneeze. If she came too near Jackson, he would stomp his foot on the ground and she would skitter away, her stub of a tail clamped tight against her backside.

“What if the coyotes got Butterscotch?” Loretta asked.

Rosie stood on the front porch, calling Butterscotch’s name and shaking the canister of treats.

Loretta continued, “Or she got into some poison? Lydia’s dog almost died after he lapped up spilled antifreeze in their driveway.”

“She’s probably just chasing squirrels in the woods,” Red said.

But the next day, when Butterscotch still had not returned, Red knew something more serious was keeping her away. Butterscotch never disappeared for more than an hour, and she never failed to show up for her nightly bowl of kib- ble. While Jackson slept in and Loretta fretted over her coffee, Red and Rosie set off to find the dog, tramping through the acreage behind the house, calling her name. Red carried his shotgun broken open in his arms as he always did when walking through the woods, ever since one of his cousins was mauled by a bear up near Fontana Dam. The shells in his pocket clanged next to a plastic baggie of dog treats.

A sound like a baby whimpering filtered through the trees. Red said, “You wait here.”

“But, Daddy . . . ”

Red swallowed, made sure his voice would come out steady before he turned to his daughter. “It could be nothing. But wounded animals are unpredictable, and I don’t want you getting hurt.” In truth, Red was afraid of what he would find. He wanted to protect Rosie from seeing her dog with its flesh shredded from tangling with a raccoon or its leg broken in a trap set by a hunter who had no respect for property lines. Rosie pleaded with her big dark eyes, but she stayed behind while Red forged ahead through the underbrush.

When Red saw Butterscotch tied to a pine tree, he wished he had not allowed Rosie to come with him at all. Butterscotch’s gums were caked with blood from chewing at the rope. Her hindquarters drooped away from her body and rested in her own excrement. My poor Butterscotch, he thought. Who would do this to my sweet dog? Red flipped open his pocketknife and sawed at the rope that bound her to the tree. Up close, he could smell Butterscotch’s damp fur, could see the unnatural dip in the middle of her spine. Her tail and back legs lay against the ground as if they had no relation to the rest of her body.

“Daddy, is it her? Is it Butterscotch?” Rosie called.

Red considered lying, telling her it was a rabbit with a chewed-up back leg that had not quite escaped a fox, but before he could make up his mind the dog tried to pull herself up with her front paws, yelped, and fell back to the ground. Rosie came running, calling out for Butterscotch.

She fell to her knees beside Red, her hands held toward the dog, her voice shaking. “Who did this? Who could have done such an awful thing?”

The dog shuddered, whimpered again. Red had no words of comfort for his daughter, no way to explain such cruelty. He had seen something like this a few months prior, when he came across a maimed kitten behind his utility shed. A few months before that, he found the bloodied wings of a sparrow under the bushes along the driveway. His heart clutched and stuttered around the possibilities of who, when, why, just as it had then. Both times, he had written the wounded animals off as the work of coyotes or owls, though he knew such predators were unlikely to abandon their fallen prey quite so readily.

He pushed other possibilities as far from his mind as he could.

“I don’t know, honey. I can’t understand a person who would do something like this.” Red stood, reached into his pocket for shells, loaded the gun.

“Daddy, no! She’ll be okay. We just need to get her to Dr. Murrah. She’ll fix Butterscotch right up. Please don’t hurt her.” Rosie pulled at his arm until Red dropped one of the shells among the pine needles at his feet.

“Rosie, stop it. Listen to me. Butterscotch is hurting. This is the kind of thing she won’t get better from. We have to do the right thing, the merciful thing.”

“Daddy, please,” she whispered through the fist she pressed against her lips. Red hesitated, his eyes sweeping over his sobbing daughter and his wounded dog. “Rosie, honey, you need to move back a ways. You need to be strong, for Butterscotch’s sake.”

Rosie stumbled back toward the wooded path, her shoulders heaving. Red knelt beside Butterscotch. She opened her eyes, licked his hand. “I’m sorry, girl. You were a good dog.”

He wondered if Loretta and Jackson heard the report of the shotgun from the house.

Red pushed back through the underbrush to his daughter, prepared to com- fort her, to still her sobs even while his own heart quaked with grief and loss. His family never allowed pets when he was growing up, and he was surprised how much he had come to rely on Butterscotch’s unconditional affection. Rosie stood straight by a gnarled hemlock, her eyes rimmed red but clear, her hands balled into fists by her side.

“He did this,” she said.

Now, two long years later, Red remembered the dread he felt when he said, “Who?”

“You know,” she said. “I know you can see it, even if Mom doesn’t.”

“Who, Rosie?” Red did not want to speak the words.

“You know.” Rosie lifted her trembling chin.

Red handed her the shotgun, slipped off his canvas work coat, and walked back to drape the jacket over the dog.

Later that day, Red and Rosie returned with a tarp and a shovel to bury Butterscotch in a shady spot not far away from the tree where they had found her. They marked her grave with a heart-shaped stone, planted iris bulbs in the loose dirt so that they would bloom in the spring. Red told Loretta the coyotes got the dog real bad, so he was forced to end her suffering. Butterscotch’s canister of dog treats still sat on the kitchen counter, but they never got another dog, not even when Loretta’s friend Heather offered them first pick from her coonhound’s litter the following spring.

Even when Jackson was a little boy, Red and Loretta argued over how to raise him, when to discipline, what was normal, what was not. The day ten-year- old Jackson slammed a length of firewood against his little sister’s head be- cause she misplaced one of his Matchbox cars, Red grabbed Jackson by the arm and dragged him to his room. Jackson howled and kicked the bedroom door while blood dripped into little Rosie’s eyes and onto the carpet. If Loretta had not been a quick-thinking nurse with a supply of butterfly closures and medi- cal-grade superglue, Rosie might have needed stitches.

After Rosie was patched up and Jackson was permitted to leave his room, the boy made a show of bringing cups of milk to his sister while she lay on the couch watching cartoons. When Jackson leaned over Rosie to adjust her pillow, he whispered something that made her shake her head and push away from him. Red could convince neither Jackson nor Rosie to tell him what he said.

What did Red know about raising a good boy, a good man? It was a miracle he himself had not turned out like his own father. As the children grew, Red doted on Rosie, the baby, while Loretta ran point on raising their son. The coldness in Jackson’s eyes always chilled Red, but he blamed himself for not being able to love his son as much as he should have.

When he was a boy, Red’s uncles took him on hunting trips, picking up some of the slack left by his own father. Red remembered these hunts for the closeness they forged between men and boys in the woods, a closeness that tied him to his family and the land but that no one ever spoke of in living rooms or around kitchen tables. When Jackson was twelve, Red took him on a hunting trip with his old Uncle Frank and some of his McClendon cousins.

“It’s okay if you don’t want to pull the trigger,” Red told Jackson. “It’s hard, especially the first time.”

Red explained that deer were overpopulating the area, and as long as they processed the meat they were doing right by them, helping the remaining deer to survive. This rationale was the same provided to Red by his Uncle Frank when Red was a boy, and it helped him get through his first hunt. Even though tears had filled Red’s eyes when he looked through the scope into the liquid-black eyes of a young buck for the first time, he aimed true, squeezed the trigger. Jackson nodded grimly as Red talked, stayed silent as they waited in the blind in the woods during the last days of the season. But Jackson did not hesitate or cry when the doe was in his sights, had actually smiled just before he squeezed the trigger. When Red showed Jackson how to field-dress the deer, blood streaking his face and arms, Jackson laughed at the sucking, ripping sound of the hide pulling away from sinew and muscle, whistled with unsolemn delight when the steaming, glistening slop of intestines spilled from the deer’s warm carcass. Uncle Frank and the cousins looked sidelong at Jackson, their lips tight, the lonesome cold closeness of men in the woods fractured by Jackson’s mirth.

Red and Loretta hoped Jackson would outgrow his fits of rage, the way he barked and snarled when he did not get his way, like the time he hurled his pet hamster Lolly against the wall after Loretta insisted he clean out the animal’s stinking cage. When Rosie received too much attention, Jackson would slip behind her, whisper something only she could hear until she shook her head and her eyes grew wide with terror. Once, Red thought he heard Jackson whisper, “You smell like a dog’s cunt,” but both kids refused to divulge what Jackson said. Red found that he could not repeat what he thought he heard, so again he let the matter drop.

By the time Jackson was a teenager, it seemed he had matured, calmed down. He projected a steady, unnerving calm that even his teachers commented on. “Such a serious young man,” Ms. Fitzsimmons said, rubbing her hands together and avoiding Red and Loretta’s eyes during the annual parent-teacher conference. “Always so . . . watchful.”

Red hoped that his boy was good, but he did not believe it in his heart. Something tingled at the back of his throat when he observed his handsome blond son, like a nagging sickness he could never quite shake.

The Wednesday before Loretta was scheduled to go out of town for a ladies’ weekend in Gatlinburg, Red came home to a house redolent with braised meat and pine-scented cleaner. Loretta had put a chuck roast in the crockpot that morning, then she spent her day off from the hospital reorganizing the pantry and cleaning the bathrooms. Growing up, Red rarely came home to the smells of cooking, the sparkle of a freshly mopped floor, and he loved Loretta for being, among other things, so different from his own mother, for helping create a home that did not resemble the McClendon house of his youth.

As Red hung his jacket on a peg behind the front door, Loretta announced that hikers had found Vera Martin in a lonely stretch of woods forty miles from the grocery store parking lot where she went missing. One of Loretta’s friends was dating one of the hikers, and she had poured out the lurid details during book club the night before.

“They won’t report everything on the news, especially since Vera is a minor, but what Tracie told us, well, it’s just horrible.” Loretta placed the roast sur- rounded by carrots and potatoes in the center of the table.

Red frowned at the note of casual glee in his wife’s voice at having the inside scoop on such a public occurrence. Loretta was a good woman, but he never cared for the way she relished gossip. That part of her reminded him of the way people whispered about his own family, their eyes bright with information about his father’s stumbling fistfight at the local bar, his sister’s spiral downward from drill team captain to oily-haired delinquent.

Rosie tapped at her phone. Jackson wandered in from his bedroom, his hair tousled from a late afternoon nap. Neither appeared to have heard the news about Vera Martin.

“Rosie, grab that bowl of gravy from the stovetop, will you?” Loretta asked.

Red took stock of his family, his home. The meat steamed on the table and Loretta was wearing that blue top he liked. Rosie had just gotten her driver’s license but still made sure she was home for dinner every night, and with any luck Jackson would be going away to college or perhaps the police academy in the fall. Red thought of his own family suppers, sad affairs that involved heating frozen dinners and eating in front of the TV. Sometimes he made fried bologna sandwiches for himself and Jean Anne while his mother rested and his father poured himself glass after glass of Jim Beam.

He wondered how Vera Martin’s parents were managing after finding their daughter. So many lost days of hoping, of searching. “Could they tell how she died?” he asked.

At this, Rosie looked up from her phone and Jackson swiveled his head to- ward his father. “Who died?” Uncharacteristic interest piqued Jackson’s voice. “Oh, that’s just it.” Loretta’s voice dropped an octave, grew breathy. “Vera

Martin’s alive, but only barely.” A creeping dread filled Red’s belly, and the smell of the roast which made his mouth water when he opened the door now made him feel like gagging. That girl, alive, but in the middle of the woods too far from where other people might be? He drank from his glass of tea, swished the liquid around in his mouth. Rosie must have made the tea, because it was too heavily sugared for his liking. “Was she—” Red paused, picked up his fork, put it back down. “What I mean is, did anyone do anything to her?” Red pushed the image of his whimpering dog and the squashed kitten out of his mind. He avoided his daughter’s gaze.

Everyone at the table except Loretta had gone still, as if they were all holding their breath. No, Red thought. Nothing like that would have happened to Vera Martin, a good girl from a nice family.

When Loretta responded, her voice was normal again, somber. “Nobody raped her or cut her up, if that’s what you mean. She was tied to a tree, out where the Park Service marked off the area for plant regeneration or invasive beetles or something. It’s only luck the hikers found her, since no one is supposed to go out that way.”

“Bats,” Rosie said. Red could feel his daughter’s eyes on him as he jiggled his fork.

“Bats?” Loretta asked.

“We talked about them in Ecology Club. There are bat caves up near Nickajack, and they’re trying to stop the spread of some sort of white fungus. Once one bat gets infected, they can spread their sickness to the whole colony.” Red stopped playing with his silverware. The curling, dark hair that always slipped out of Rosie’s ponytail framed her face, and her neck grew splotched the way it did when she was upset. Or scared. “Remember?” she said. “I told you guys about it last month.”

“Okay, well, bats then,” Loretta said. Red could tell she wanted to get on with her story, tell them the parts that would not be released to the news stations.

Jackson helped himself to the roast, and they all followed suit. Red forced his hands to work, pick up the bowl of green beans, scoop some onto a plate rimmed with goldenrod flowers that Loretta’s grandmother had passed on to them when they married. Rosie drummed her heel against the floor until the table shook and Loretta said, “Goodness, Rosie, sit still.”

Red spooned gravy over his meat, drank more of the saccharine tea. He risked a glance at Jackson, but the boy simply ate, forking roast into his mouth, sopping gravy with a slice of white bread. Red recalled the story of Old Green Eyes, the urban legend about a Union soldier’s ghost who crept up and carried off kids who went parking near the tower in Battlefield Park. It could be anyone, he thought. Some loony from the back side of the mountain who roamed the woods, even the woods behind Red’s house, hurting living things and tying up that girl.

“Could be anyone,” he said, before he realized he was speaking out loud.

“Exactly.” Loretta poured more tea into Red’s glass. “Tracie said when they found her someone had cut off her hair—she had these two long braids—and nailed them to the tree where she was tied.

“Jesus, that poor girl.” Rosie held her body still, but her voice shook.

“There was another thing, something they definitely won’t talk about on the news,” Loretta said. “She was wearing all her clothes, but her sweater was sticky and covered in leaves and pine needles.”

“Was it pine sap or something?” Rosie asked.

Red’s heart ached for his daughter’s innocence, and he wanted to tell Loretta to shut up, stop talking, that discussing Vera Martin’s barely alive state was hardly appropriate dinner table conversation. Gravy coagulated around the beef and carrots on his plate.

“No, honey, it was—” Loretta caught herself, flushed a deep plum. “It was, you know, stuff that comes from a man.”

Rosie tilted her head to one side before understanding bloomed in her eyes.

She dropped her hands to her lap. “I thought you said nobody raped her?” “No, it looks like, they just, you know . . .”

“Loretta, I think that’s enough. There’s a reason they wouldn’t talk about that on the news. It’s not—” Red paused, struggling to find the right word. “It’s not decent.”

“I told you she was a whore,” Jackson said.

His son’s quiet calm, the casual way he spoke about the girl while he chewed his beef, turned Red’s blood cold. The sweetness of the tea coated his teeth, clogged his throat. Loretta stared at her son. Rosie pressed a fist to her lips.

“Son, no,” Red said. His voice cracked.

Rosie slid her plate away, snatched up her phone, stomped away from the table. Jackson mopped the last of the food from his dish with a slice of bread, stacked his plate and utensils in the dishwasher.

“Thanks for dinner, Mom. I was starving.” Jackson grinned, looked sidelong at his parents. “I’ve had such an appetite lately.”

Whatever other news Loretta possessed about Vera Martin she kept to herself for the remainder of the evening. Red poured himself a tumbler of whiskey to wash the taste of sugar and gravy from his mouth. He drained the glass, poured himself another. He rarely drank, and the whiskey gave him a pleasantly detached feeling that allowed him to get through the hours until bedtime.

The whiskey wore off around three in the morning. Red tossed and turned in half-dreams, his stomach roiling. Disfigured birds, maimed animals, the way the color drained from Rosie’s face when Jackson whispered something only she could hear, that girl tied up in the woods. He willed himself fully awake, sat up in bed. Moonlight streamed in through a gap in the curtains and streaked across the bedspread.

Loretta stirred, murmured, “Can’t sleep?”

“I should know better than to drink. It never did sit right with me.”

“There’s more.”

Red rubbed his face, his temples. He stood to look out the window, his back to his wife. The floor was cold against his bare feet. “More what?”

“About that girl, Vera. More that I didn’t say at the table.”

The woods lay still and quiet behind the house. Red loved this land, the way the colors changed in the trees, the smell of earth and pine. After he and Loretta married, he bought the house, along with twenty acres of wooded hills and dormant fields, from her father for an honest price. Ezra, a tough old brimstone preacher with eyes like flint, extracted a promise that if anything ever happened, a divorce or a parting of ways, Red would return the land to Loretta, to the Duncan family. Dirt was like blood, the old man said. It binds you, from one generation to the next.

“Tell me the rest,” Red said.

Loretta took a deep breath. “She stayed alive because whoever took her left the gallon of milk she’d bought at the Shop-Rite in her lap. It was going sour but it was half-drunk. And there were dog biscuits, a pile of them, next to her, like she was some kind of animal. Tracie’s boyfriend Gene thinks that’s why his dog ran over to her.”

Red barely made it to the bathroom before he threw up. Whiskey and tea, half-digested meat, flecks of carrot and potato. He retched until nothing more came out, then spit, rinsed his mouth with water. When he returned to bed, Loretta was sitting up, her arms wrapped around her knees.

“You okay?”

“Yeah. Probably just my ulcer. It acts up sometimes.” Red felt drained, washed out.

“What if the man who did that to Vera Martin is still out there?” Loretta’s hand moved to her throat. “What if something like that happened to Rosie? Gene told Tracie that the girl could hardly talk, that her eyes were all crazy and empty and she curled up in a ball when they cut her loose. He said she couldn’t even tell them who did those things to her.”

Red knew then what must be done. He had known, deep in his marrow, the way things could end, though he fought against the knowledge of what his boy was, what the boy might become, ever since he came upon his son giggling in the woods at a vixen, her vulpine nose sleek and bloody, screaming as she tried to gnaw her mangled leg free from the jagged steel trap that Red had relegated to the back of the shed but neglected to throw away.

“Nothing’s going to happen to Rosie. She’s a good girl. We’re a nice family.”

Loretta lay down, and Red nestled beside her. He rubbed her back until she fell asleep. He prayed for himself, for Vera Martin, for his boy. Prayers for healing, understanding, forgiveness. I’ll wait until Loretta’s in Gatlinburg, he thought. He would get Jackson into some kind of treatment, a program to help boys work through the darkness in their hearts. Surely there was some sort of medicine that could help, some kind of therapy. He would get better. Everyone could heal, could beat back whatever demons lurked inside, with proper treatment.

In the cold light of the morning, Red questioned his own pre-dawn revelations. Whoever hurt Vera Martin really could have been anyone—a hitchhiking vagrant, a passing trucker, an angry ex-boyfriend. Some years prior, the whole town was on high alert after two men pried open a window in Moccasin Bend’s psych ward and disappeared into the surrounding forest. The men were only found when one of them tried to choke a female clerk who refused to sell them a case of Miller High Life unless they presented identification. The police found ropes, two bags of beef jerky, and a video camera in the cave where the men had been hiding.

Thursday passed in a dream, even when Red watched the news reporter standing in front of the site where Vera Martin had been found. No evidence, no clues, but police were investigating. The Martin family requested privacy while their silent daughter recovered. Loretta did not mention the girl’s name again.

Friday morning after Jackson and Rosie left for school, Loretta insisted she would stay behind, that she did not need to go to out of town given all that was going on.

“You’ve been planning this trip for weeks. I’ll take care of things here,” Red said.

“Make sure Rosie doesn’t go out alone, not until they catch whoever took that Martin girl,” Loretta said.

Red clenched his jaw, nodded. “I’ll keep an eye on her. You don’t have to worry about us.”

Red helped Loretta carry her things to her car—a heavy suitcase, a casserole, a pan of brownies, and three bottles of wine for a single weekend trip. Red called in to work, told them he was sick, which was true enough. He certainly felt ill while he searched his son’s bedroom. He checked closet shelves, under the bed, between the mattress and box springs. Red watched enough crime shows to know he should check other places, too—in air vents, the back of Jackson’s dresser, the undersides of drawers, between pages of books, in jacket pockets. He found only crumbled tissues in Jackson’s trash can and a long dark hair stuck to one of Jackson’s plaid flannels. The hair could be Rosie’s, Red thought, caught on the rough material when Loretta tumbled their clothes all together in the wash. He returned to the kitchen, heated his tepid coffee in the microwave. On impulse, he opened the dusty green canister that held Butterscotch’s dog treats.

The canister was empty.

I’m being paranoid, Red told himself. Worried over nothing. Loretta probably threw those dog biscuits out months ago. But there was still that itch at the back of his throat, that dull acid in his belly. I’ll just talk to him, see what he was doing the night the girl went missing. Maybe he didn’t even work at the Shop- Rite that night. Maybe he was out with friends, at a basketball game or a movie. Maybe he was on a date. Red tried to recall who Jackson’s friends were, but it had been years since another kid had come to the house. Jackson talked about girls like he knew them, but he never brought one home. Red realized how little attention he paid to his son’s life, even though he knew all his daughter’s best friends, suspected which boys she had crushes on.

Red walked his land, his hands shoved in his pockets against the cold and his shotgun slung across his back, thinking about how to approach his son, what to do if Jackson laughed in his cool way and stared back at him with his flat eyes. When Red reached Butterscotch’s grave, the iris blossoms were long gone, the leaves brown and folded over. Could he go to the police with a clipping of his son’s hair, ask them to match it against the stickiness on the girl’s shirt? Red imagined collecting Jackson’s hair in a plastic bag, tucking it in his jacket, standing with his hat in his hands at the front desk of the small police station that covered Sand Mountain, and saying . . . what, exactly? Maybe he could call Eliza, the first female sheriff in the tri-county, and explain the situation. He took Eliza to a homecoming dance one year, kissed her once or twice before he met Loretta. He remembered Eliza as a patient girl with coal-dark eyes who missed nothing, but she had long since married and divorced, raised a daughter of her own, a girl about the age of Vera Martin. No, that was no good. What if there were no match? Everyone at the station would know what Red suspected of his own son, blood of his blood. Eliza and the others would whisper about his family just like they had when Red was young. Worse, what if there were a match and Eliza arrested Jackson, put him in cuffs and drove him away? Jackson was 18, an adult. Red knew what happened to good-looking young men, especially sex offenders, in prison. The whole thing would break Loretta’s heart. She would never forgive him for turning their son in, for trusting Eliza with information he could not share with his own wife.

No, he thought. There must be another way. He’d worked so hard to have a good family, a respectable wife and a responsible daughter. As for Jackson, well, all he had was suspicion and doubt and that feeling at the back of his throat.

When the kids came home from school, Red suggested they go out for dinner to the Italian-Greek diner on the ridge. Maybe he could work the conversation around to where they’d all been the night Vera Martin left the Shop-Rite with a gallon of milk.

“I’m sorry, Daddy. I told Brandy I’d come over and watch movies with her,” Rosie said. “Okay if I take your truck?”

Red nodded. “Call me when you get there, and before you leave to come home.”

“Your little friend Brandy’s really filling out,” Jackson said.

Rosie glared at her brother, balled her hands at her sides. “You stay away from us.”

Jackson slunk toward his room. He did not respond to Red’s offer of dinner, and Red was relieved he would not have to sit in a booth at a restaurant, trying to make small talk with his taciturn son while his heart raged against all he needed to understand, would never understand, about his boy’s life. Within minutes, the sound of a video game, some sort of war game played online with a headset, blared from Jackson’s room.

Red made himself a cheese and mayonnaise sandwich, pulled three baby dills from a jar, ate alone at the table. He always forgot how much Loretta filled out a room with her chatter and bustling, how empty the house felt when she was gone, even if the kids were around. When she called to tell him that they were settling in and the cabin boasted a wonderful view of the mountains, he forced cheer into his voice.

“Rosie’s at Brandy’s house, Jackson’s playing that game in his room, so I’m just having a sandwich. I may work on that cedar chest I’ve been meaning to finish this weekend,” he said. Women laughed in the background. Loretta giggled and said she had to go, that she’d call back sometime later, but her cell service was spotty.

Red carried the second half of the sandwich to his shed, stared at the two-by- fours and his miter saw, shuffled his feet in the sawdust. He picked up the plans for the chest, put them back down. Tomorrow, he thought. I’ll work it all out tomorrow. He finished his sandwich in the shed and sat awhile in the cool dusk before he went back to the house. The video game still sounded from Jackson’s room. Red stayed up until Rosie returned home, then he turned out the lights, locked the door. Jackson’s war game droned on.

Red woke before dawn to the sound of irregular thumping. He thought perhaps they were in the midst of a hailstorm before he realized the sounds were coming from inside his own house. It was as if he felt rather than heard the reverberations that jerked him upright in his empty bed after a night of fitful sleep. He was not accustomed to sleeping in the big bed without Loretta’s solid warmth at his side.

When Red bolted from his bedroom in the thinning darkness, his pulse buzzing in his ears, both Rosie and Jackson’s doors were open. He got Rosie, he got my baby girl, Red thought. He ran to his daughter’s room—empty, the covers thrown back, clothes piled on the floor. A clattering noise from across the hall, and then he was embracing Rosie, her hair wild, her face damp.

“Did he hurt you? What was that noise?”

Rosie leaned against him, and Red held tight to her. She felt like she was melting, collapsing. “Rosie?”

“I can’t live with him, Daddy. I’ve got to get out of here.”

Rosie was folding, slipping. He lowered her to the ground, knelt next to her. “What happened?”

“He said that he’d like to do things to Brandy. He seemed so serious, like he really would. He said such terrible things, about what he’d do, and he held me down and I couldn’t get up and, Daddy, I thought he was going to do things to me, too, so I kicked him and chased him out of my room, and, I just can’t, Daddy, not anymore, I can’t stand him.” She sobbed, her head against her knees. Something like grief, but cleaner, washed through Red when he straightened. “Why don’t you get out of here for the day? Go into town with your girlfriends or something to get your mind off things? I’ll handle your brother.”

In Jackson’s room, books were strewn across the floor. One of the thrown books had left a hole in the drywall. Jackson, leaning against his headboard, looked up through his eyelashes and grinned at his father.

“She’s lying,” Jackson said.

The cool quiet of early morning reminded Red of the times he went hunting with his uncles and cousins, of the solidarity of quiet, serious men in the forest. He wished he had been able to share that sense of wonder with his own son, with his own father.

Late Saturday evening, Red smoothed his hand over the woodgrain of the finished chest, shut the hinged lid, and left his shed. The sun dropped behind the mountains and the sky turned the color of placenta, of port wine left in a glass overnight, of swollen hematoma. The color of blood, that’s what it was. Blood in the skies, blood thrumming hot through his veins.

Red felt like he had been awake for days. His shoulders ached from wood-working, his back threatened to seize up, and the sawdust that clung to his unshaven jaw was streaked with dried sweat. If I were a better man, Red told himself, I could’ve yanked my son free, could’ve found some merciful way to set him on the right path before he infected us all. Could’ve put an end to things sooner, at least.

He found Jackson in his bedroom, his headset on and scenes of war splayed across the screen. “Son, let’s take a walk,” he said. Red rubbed his hand across his jaw. Jackson grumbled, but he dropped the controller and tossed his headset on the bed. On their way out, Red grabbed his shotgun, as was his habit.

Gwen Mullins’ work has appeared in The Bitter Southerner, African American Review, Green Mountains Review, The New Guard, descant, and PANK, among other publications. Mullins was the winter 2020-2021 Writer in Residence at the Kerouac Project, and she works as a writing consultant at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is working on her second novel as well as a short story collection.

Originally appeared in NOR 29.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s