I knew Susie since she was about three years old.
Me and Emma had been what you might have called childhood sweethearts (even though it never went past holdin’ hands and a peck on the cheek one evenin’ whilst we were sat on her doorstep), and even when we both went our separate ways in our lives, we stayed firm friends, so naturally, when her younger sister said she was havin’ a baby, I was almost as excited as Emma was. Emma’s sister was called Charlie- truth be told, she was never much to look at when she was growin’ up, but by the time she hit about 22, maybe 23, there wasn’t an eye in town that wasn’t lookin’ her way. I can’t even deny it myself. She fell for a local boy, Lou, and they got married the summer after they first met. Whole town turned out to see it, me included. Both of ‘em beautiful and both of ‘em real happy. And they announced they were havin’ a baby a month or two later, and went and called her Susie. But then I guess life plays some pretty mean hands, cos Lou went out in his car one day to watch the game and never came home. Found him in the wreckage of his car after hittin’ a truck on the highway. Nobody saw Charlie for three weeks straight after that- last thing anyone round here saw of her, she was gettin’ in her car with Susie and drivin’ as far away from town as she could.
Anyway, Emma went out looking for her, for days on end, but she never found her. Then, a couple years later, some lady from the adoption agency turns up on Emma’s doorstep with a three year old kid- a three year old kid named Susie. Turns out, Charlie moved to Albuquerque. She started drinkin’, then she started on the drugs, then… I don’t know. Apparently she used to hit Susie. I don’t know why she did it, but I know it makes me sad.
But, from all that, I think Susie got a good deal- Emma didn’t want a husband and she didn’t wanna birth a kid herself, so Susie was everythin’ she ever wanted without a catch. And she loved her. Oh, she loved that girl. It showed, too- you’d think a person would come away from such a bad start with a lot of screws loose, but Susie was never anythin’ other than the nicest kid I ever met. She grew up smilin’, laughin’ with folk when others were just laughin’ at them, always callin’ me ‘sir’ or ‘Sheriff’, even when I told her to just call me Thomas. She didn’t think there was a person alive that didn’t have some good in them, somewhere, wherever it might be.
I used to see a lot of her, cos Emma would often go away to far flung places to work, so I would sit in with her and look after her whenever I could. I guess in a way she started seein’ the world the way I did- I used to listen to music with her, cook food for her (and when she got older, and so did I, she used to make pie and cake for me, and then for everyone else at the station) watch the television with her, and all those things I’m sure a real Daddy does with his real daughter. But she used to like it best when we went and sat out on the front porch when the sun was just beginnin’ to set, and I’d sit in an old rockin’ chair and she’d sit on the bench next to me and I’d tell her a story, then she’d tell me a story, and so on and so forth. “Tale for a tale”, she would call it. She used to wear my hat (for she loved that hat and seemed to have taxed it years before I was planning to hang it up) and I’d tell her about who we’d arrested that day- and sometimes she’d laugh, sometimes she’d say ‘how awful’ and sometimes she’d say nothin’ at all- and she used to tell me about school or about her dreams, or about Franki Valli and the Four Seasons (I used to call her Franki Valli’s Fifth Season, cos she loved them so damn much, even if they were years old even by my standards) and we’d stay like that till the sun properly went down. One high Summer, Emma was away, and we stayed out on that porch the whole damned night, telling her as many stories as I could recall- when I woke up, Susie was sleepin’ on the bench, the sun was up and I was still sat in that same old chair but with a blanket over me and my hat back on my head.
You could swear on anybody’s grave that life will follow a road and never deviate, and maybe that’ll carry you through till your hair turns grey. Maybe it’ll even carry you through till you die. But if I could line the road it really took with flower petals, then I would. But I can’t. So I won’t.
I imagine it all began when Dale O’Neill and I (that’s Dale O’Neill the younger, course; his Daddy is still quite dead) went to check in on Susie midweek sometime- think it was a Tuesday- whilst Emma was away. Dale was Deputy and he wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed (come to think of it, he wasn’t even the sharpest of the blunt tools neither) but he was a good man and Susie was fond of his company so I often took him with me when I’d go to check up on her. So we went in and Susie was making a blueberry pie in the kitchen (and she really knew how to cook- s’pose cos Emma did too) and me and Dale went and watched the television for a while whilst she cooked. She served it up about a half hour later and it was as good as anythin’ she’d ever made before- she even made custard to go with it too, which Dale seemed to like.
“I dunno if I ever said,” he said, to no-one in particular, “but I like custard. I mean, I really like custard. Hell, I’d go as far to say I love custard. Hot, cold, with puddin’, without puddin’, s’all good to me. Y’know sometimes I ask Momma to make a pan o’ custard, and I just let it sit overnight till its stone cold and I take it to work with me the next day in a plastic tub.”
“Deputy O’Neill,” I said, “you are a strange, strange man.” But Susie seemed to find it pretty funny- Dale used to make her laugh real easy. I don’t think he ever intended to (come to think of it, I don’t think he ever intended to make anybody laugh, they’d just start as soon as he opened his mouth) but she always liked him bein’ there and I guess Dale knew that and liked bein’ wanted around.
“How ‘bout you Susie? You a fan o’ custard?” Dale asked. Susie just looked down at her plate of blueberry pie- which was, incredibly, covered in custard- and started laughin’. Dale started laughin’ a few moments later too, when he finally caught on.
“I like custard,” she said, “but I prefer Jell-o.”
“You gonna have Jell-o on your birthday party or are you too old for that now?” I asked her.
“Well course I’ll have it on my birthday. Jus’ not at the party. I’ll have it at home.” She replied.
“Gotta save face now you’re nearly fifteen, don’t ya?”
“I see… so is it heroin or coke you’d prefer now you’re too old for Jell-o?”
She smiled, and so did I. Then:
“Coke. I already got enough heroin. What with Aunt Emma bein’ the local kingpin n’all.”
“Course, silly me. I’ll have to remember to arrest her for that someday. If I get a moment.”
“Say, Susie,” Dale piped up, “d’ya wanna hear about this feller we picked up by the liquor store earlier today? Well he was runnin’ around town in just his underwear…”
And then, from upstairs, somebody knocked on the ceiling. Three times, distinct as anythin’. We all stopped talkin’ and looked straight up. A couple of seconds of silence passed.
“I didn’t know there was anyone else in the house?” I said.
“There ain’t.” I looked at her, and then at Dale, who seemed just as confused as I was.
“Susie, can you stay down here for me?” I said, and Dale and I reached for our guns. I didn’t think Susie would say a thing, but then:
I turned round real slow.
“I don’t want you to go upstairs, Sheriff. You or Dale. Please. I’m gonna take these dishes back to the sink and then we can go watch TV, if you like, or we can go out for a walk. But please don’t go upstairs. Just don’t.”
It struck me then that I’d watch that girl grow up and I ain’t never seen her look truly, truly afraid before.
The next day, when I was headin’ to check up on Susie, I saw her talkin’ to some young feller outside her house. He was around Susie’s age and he was kinda handsome lookin’, I s’pose. All tousled hair and shirt sleeves, which I suppose cuts it for some people. I came over, and they shelled up.
“Evenin’,” then, to the young feller, “I don’t think we’ve been introduced?”
And he offered his hand and said:
“Hey, Sheriff. My name’s Evan. I’m in Math with Susie. She’s told me a lot about you.”
“That ain’t a sentence that bodes well for a feller.”
Then we all just stood about in an uncomfortable silence for a few moments, till Evan said:
“I ought to go back. I’ll… I’ll see you tomorrow Susie. It was nice meeting you, Sheriff.”
“Jus’ call me Thomas.”
“Okay. Well, goodnight.”
Then Susie went kinda red and said:
“Goodnight, Evan.” And we watched him walk on back down the street.
“He seems polite.”
“He a new friend of yours?”
“Yeah. He’s a friend.”
“Yeah. I’ve had friends like that too. C’mon- let’s go to the hill.” So we took a walk up to the hill overlookin’ town and sat a while under the old tree there and watched the day turn into evenin’.
“So… you had a good day at school?”
“Anything particularly interestin’ happen?”
Neither of us said a thing for about a minute or so.
“So school was good?” She looked back a little confused and scowlin’ a tiny bit, but then she realised I was only messin’ with her, and smiled, just a little.
“I been meanin’ to ask you about last night. ‘bout that noise.”
“Y’know… I been lookin’ after you for a lotta years now. I guess you could say I’ve been tryin’ to be somethin’ of a Daddy to you, even if I ain’t your real one. So I guess a part of me always knew I’d have to have some kinda… talk with you, I s’pose.” I said, gettin’ a little uncomfortable.
“How’d ya mean, Sheriff?”
“Well, I ain’t gonna beat around the bush… but I just wanna say that I ain’t accusin’ you of nothin’ neither. I was young once. I s’pose.”
“What’re you tryin’ to say?”
“I guess I’m tryin’a ask… well, that noise- it weren’t- Susie, were you keepin’ a boy upstairs?”
Susie looked round, kinda horrified. That feeling of being uncomfortable got twice as bad.
“Y’know, I thought, perhaps it might have been that Evan feller knockin’ on the ceilin’ for ya so you’d… y’know… get back upstairs with him an’… well, I s’pose that’s fairly obvious.” I dunno who looked more uncomfortable there, me or her.
“Sheriff, it weren’t a boy,” she stood up, lookin’ kinda angry, “I wasn’t keepin’ a boy upstairs!”
“Alright, a girl then.”
“Or a girl!”
“Okay, okay, I believe ya. Just as long as it weren’t a horse,” I said, “but you get why I had to ask? You know what I’m talkin’ about? The kinda… concerns I might have, that you might be gettin’ into trouble.” Susie looked at me all annoyed and stroppy and then she relented and came and sat back down.
“No, I know. I understand. But it weren’t nobody. There weren’t nobody upstairs.” She started looking off towards the town, quiet and still.
“So who do you reckon was makin’ that noise?” Susie stayed lookin’ out over town, totally silent for a few moments. Then she looked back at me, and said:
“Sheriff… do you believe in God?” I breathed out, kinda struck by the question.
“I dunno,” I said, “I really don’t. When I was growin’ up, it was always taken as a given that a person did, so I guess I just never questioned it. Never thought too much into it, neither, course. Never sat and thought what no God might be, what that might look like, or feel like. But I made Sheriff without God. Met my wife without God. Looked after you without God. So maybe a world without Him is just the same as one with Him. But then again… I don’t know. Sometimes I’ll go about my business and feel like I’m followin’ a thread. Like a big silver thread, runnin’ through every moment I ever known. And maybe it’s God, maybe it’s Karma, maybe it’s just destiny. But I don’t think somethin’ happens just for nothin’ to come of it. So if that’s God, then I guess that means I believe. And if it ain’t, I guess that means I don’t. Does that answer your question?”
“No, but I like hearin’ you talk.”
“S’pose you’re about the only one that does,” I said, and she nudged a tiny bit further away,
“Susie, why’d you ask me if I believe in God?”
“Cos if you believe in God then I figure you believe in the Devil too.”
“I think, given my age, he’s more my problem than yours.”
I ain’t never heard Susie stay quiet so many times in a conversation. I tried to bring her round:
“I feel like there’s somethin’ that ain’t friendly in my house.”
That came as somethin’ of a surprise.
“What do you mean, not friendly?”
“Like there’s somethin’ in my house that don’t want me there. Or that wants me there, but only so it can hurt me.”
“Susie, there ain’t no-one in your house-“
“I didn’t say someone, I said something!”
“What, you ain’t seen nobody there with you in the house?”
“Okay, well, there ain’t no thing in your house neither.”
“But I can feel it. I can feel it watchin’ me when I sleep, when Aunt Emma ain’t there. I can feel it when I walk about the house. It’s like there’s another set of footsteps, always just trailin’ a little bit behind me.” I shifted forward so I was sat right beside her, and looked into her eyes- a little bloodshot, a little teary. A little bit scared.
“You ain’t been sleepin’, have ya?”
“Not proper. Not for the past few days. I just… can’t get that feelin’ to leave me alone.”
“Susie- have you thought about seein’ a Doctor or… I dunno, a therapist?”
“No. No way, Sheriff. I ain’t goin’ to see a Doctor, I ain’t crazy, I swear I ain’t crazy.”
“I’m not sayin’ that you’re crazy, Susie: maybe you need a little help is all. Help seein’ the world the right way again.”
“What if I am seein’ it right, Sheriff?”
“Then I wouldn’t even know where to start.”
That night, I had dreams.
I was runnin’ through some great valley in the night time, some place devoid from stars. Nothin’ but the dim blue of the sky and the solid black of the mountains. And behind me I heard somethin’ runnin’ towards me- it was far away at first but it was gettin’ closer and however fast I ran it never stopped gettin’ closer. I grew too tired to carry and I stopped and stood in the middle of the path, waitin’ for whatever it was that was comin’ my way. I shut my eyes out there in the blackness and I heard its cry. Then it ran right on past.
I couldn’t see a thing but I could hear it runnin’ beyond me, and I could hear the savage beating’ of its footsteps on the ground and its cry echoing through the night.
Then from the same direction, I heard Susie scream.
I got a phone call around two from Susie’s school. Our arrangement weren’t anythin’ official but everyone in town knew I looked after her whenever Emma was out of town, so I guess I was the next best thing to a next of kin. They called and said that Susie had gotten into trouble. She’d had a fight with some boy called Jed and they were gonna suspend her for the comin’ week, and they wanted me to come collect her. I couldn’t quite believe it when I heard it cos Susie didn’t have a violent bone in her body, so when I picked her up, I didn’t quite know what to say. Of course, neither could she, but I could pass it off as bein’ angry. When we got to the station, she sat down in a chair in front of my desk, like she was waitin’ for the scornin’ of her life. Just starin’, head down, hands in her lap, waitin’ for the inevitable.
“Y’know,” I began, “a couple years ago, I pulled over this feller on the highway, about two miles out of town. He was doin’ well over a hundred miles per hour, and on the wrong side of the road too. Pulled him over, he was so high he could barely even speak. Searched the car, and it was filled with so much heroin I almost fainted. So we pulled him in, waited till he sobered up a little, and asked him what in God’s name he was doin’- turns out he was makin’ a break for Mexico. Even if he was goin’ in the wrong direction entirely. Figured if he could drive fast enough, no one could catch up to him. Bit of a break in character when he pulled over for the cops, but still. And, funny thing was, when I was questionin’ him, I coulda sworn I’d seen his face before. So I checked the records, and I was right- used to go to your high school, fell into drugs there, and was caught doin’ some manner of ridiculous stunt about… well, I’d say about once or twice a week. Dumbest son of a bitch I ever encountered, doin’ the dumbest thing I ever witnessed. The point I’m tryin’ to make here is that I’d have expected somethin’ dumb like that off of someone like him, cos… well, cos he’s dumb. But you ain’t dumb, Susie. But what you were doin’ sure as hell was. So are you gonna gimme an explanation as to just what you thought you were doin’?”
“I was kickin’ the shit outta that asshole.”
“That ain’t an explanation. That’s a summary. And, frankly, I ain’t puttin’ up with that tone. Now I either put you in the cells or you show me a little bit of goddamn respect and tell me what I need to know.” Susie looked down at her hands- seemed to me like everythin’ that just happened just hit her. All that posturin’, the violence- that was alien to her, and I knew that it just didn’t sit well in her head.
“Well… I was eatin’ outdoors, me and Bonnie. We were jus’ talkin’ between ourselves, I swear we weren’t makin’ troulble. But then that son-of-a-bitch Jed and his friends came along, and they’re all real assholes so we just didn’t look their way. He started chuckin’ bits of paper at Bonnie, and they found it hilarious, so when I told him to stick his paper up his ass he started shovin’ me. Don’t think he liked it when I shoved back. We was all set to just leave, I swear we was, me and Bonnie were leavin’, and then… he just shouted somethin’ after me. Somethin’ like “skank.” I can’t ever remember now. And I jus’ felt somethin’ break inside me. I ain’t never felt so mad before. So I hit that bastard right in the face. And I did it again, and again, and then they all jus’ started to run.” She was scared, and her eyes were wider and full up with tears more than I’d ever seen them before.
“Susie, this just isn’t you. Why’d you do it?”
“I don’t know.”
“No, I think you do. I just don’t think you wanna say it. So I guess I will- what we spoke about yesterday is gettin’ worse, ain’t it?” Susie just nodded, not lookin’ me in the eyes, but still snifflin’ and weepin’.
“Last night… when I got home, I watched the TV for a while. I hadn’t had that feelin’ like I was bein’ watched all day, and I started to think that… I dunno, maybe that it had gone. But whilst I was watchin’ the TV, I heard somebody run behind me. Like the footprints on the floor, right behind me, clear as anythin’. It ran from one side of the chair to the other, then nothin’.”
“Don’t ya think it could have been your imagination?”
“Well, that’s what I tried to tell myself, but I was so spooked, I just ran up straight to bed. I got that feelin’ again, all the way up the stairs, worse than I ever felt it before. So I got into bed, and just tried to shut it out, but it was so bad. I just wanted to run away, I just wanted to get out of that house. And I sat up, and I was looking’ all around me- and y’know how, when you’re in the dark, you’ll see outlines of things, but it might just be the way the light hits a part of your room and it’s just your eyes makin’ out shapes that ain’t there? Well, I was seein’ ‘em everywhere, and I was too petrified to do anythin’, even if I kept sayin’ they weren’t there. And there was this one right by my bed, on the side closest to the door, and it was really givin’ me a nasty feelin’. So I put my hand on my light, and I was just gonna throw it on and show myself that there was nothin’ there, and just run outta the house and go stay with you an’ your wife. Only, when I put on my light, that trick of the light at the side of my bed… it weren’t no trick. There was somethin’ watchin’ me by my bed.”
I sat forward, and she looked up, so I was lookin’ right into her eyes.
“Did you get a good look at him?”
“It weren’t a man. It was just this shape, this big black shape, on all fours, crouching, lookin’ at me. As soon as I turned the light on, it just ran out of the room. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t move a single inch. I just sat there all night, watchin’ the door. As soon as the mornin’ came, I left the house. Just grabbed some clothes and a school bag and ran out, got changed down a back alley way so no one would see. All day at school, I was hearin’ things behind me, seein’ things outta the corner of my eye. I was so on edge, it was like I couldn’t think a single thought without that comin’ back into my head. And that son-of-a-bitch just got me so worked up I couldn’t keep it in.”
I sat there for a little while, not knowin’ what to say. Susie, however, broke the silence:
“What happens now?” she asked.
“Well… you got the week off. And, for the record, you’re grounded for the duration. Cos things like this… this really ain’t you. I don’t wanna have to see you in here like this again. Because, believe me, if it happens in the street, I am gonna arrest you, and I am gonna charge you. That’s a warnin’, but it’s the only one I’m gonna give.” Susie looked so relieved- still cryin’, but relieved.
“Thank you. Really, thank you.”
“Go on. I’ll check up on you later.”
I got some feller from the town comin’ in early the next mornin’ sayin’ somethin’ peculiar was goin’ on outside Susie’s place and that I was needed. I took Dale with me and when we got there I saw a crowd of people gathered round outside, dotted all over the street, starin’ round themselves, lookin’ startled. I cut my way through them and they began to part for me.
“Anyone care to fill me in on what’s goin’ on here?”
Then I noticed the blood.
There were small pools and smatters of it on the ground, and they lead up to the house. My stomach dropped for a second, till I saw where it came from- there was a dead dog by my feet, a couple yards away at best. Its throat was cut and its mouth was lolling open. And there were more- animals, slaughtered and staged. A coyote, buzzards, more dogs, a cat, a fox, a hawk, a rabbit, the head of a horse. And I noticed they were all in a straight line like stepping stones, leadin’ up to the front porch. I have seen many a queer thing in my time, but I could not summon a single word.
“Where the hell’s Susie?” Someone from crowd piped up:
“We ain’t seen her.” And at that, me and Dale ran into the house.
We found her in the hallway. She was sittin’, cryin’ her eyes out, absolutely petrified. I noticed that she had wet herself. I tried to get her to stand up, but she couldn’t do it.
“Susie… Susie, baby, I need you to stand up. Susie, stand up now, that’s it. I need you to stand up for me.” And as we helped her up, she looked at me like she’d lost her mind and said:
“It’s in my house.”
We took Susie to the hospital, to get her checked over. She weren’t hurt, but she was scared half to death. I asked what had happened once she’d calmed down a little and she said she woke up, found all those bodies outside and damn near had a heart attack from fright. Couldn’t call nobody nor nothin’. She jus’ couldn’t move. I asked her what she meant about it bein’ in her house, but she said she was jus’ ramblin’. Said it didn’t mean nothin’ and that I should drop it. I told her I would call Emma and she damn near shouted my head off tellin’ me not to. And I wish with all my might I had jus’ gone ahead and done it. She said she would stay with Bonnie till she got her head back in order. So all I could really do was see she got there safely. Before she went, I asked if that Evan boy had been givin’ her any trouble, or if he had been actin’ funny, but she said he had hadn’t and he had gone out of town the day before last.
Of course, I still checked at his place. And just as she said, they were out of town.
Susie spent a night at Bonnie’s then went back to her place the followin’ day. I came to check up on her every night. Whenever I saw her, she didn’t wanna talk. She’d just say ‘yep’ whenever I asked if she was okay, then she’d say she wanted to be on her own. But one evenin’, she asked if I would hold her. So I did. And I thought then that maybe it didn’t matter that she weren’t my child and that I weren’t her father, because she had my heart. She had my beatin’ heart.
Couple days after that, I was sat in the station with Dale, readin’ a paper each.
“Sheriff?” Dale asked.
“Is there… anythin’ you need?”
“I reckon I’d be grateful for a coffee-“
“No, I mean… do you need to talk about anythin’?”
“Dale, have you been takin’ substances you shouldn’t? You ain’t never struck me as the kind of feller who asks another feller how he’s feelin’.”
“I’m not. Well, I don’t think I am. I mean, I could be, but I ain’t really paid attention to it before. You just set my mind to wonderin’ is all cos you’ve been looking real far away these last couple days. Like you’d gotten lost somewhere in your head. So I guessed maybe… I dunno… maybe that it was what happened to Susie the other day or… maybe you’d found a lump somewhere? Or somethin’. It can happen to fellers around your age. Read that in a magazine once.”
“Yeah, a lump.” I took a breath, and put down my paper.
“As in… as in a lump?”
“Yeah, a lump. Like… well, like a lump.”
“Dale- I’d say that’s a dumb question but frankly a lump would be the least of my concerns at present.”
“What is the matter then?”
“That’s the least of your concern.” Dale looked away and said sorry.
“I didn’t mean it in that way. I just mean it in the sense that you’re a young feller and you shouldn’t have to live with the weight of an old feller’s troubles on your shoulders. I appreciate it though, Dale, for all my complainin’. You’re a good man.”
“That’s a kind thing for you to- say, Sheriff, is that Susie?” He was looking to the window past me, and I turned round. Soon as I turned, Susie ran into the office. She was nude as the day she was born, completely soaked, shiverin’, huddled up in herself to try and protect some of her dignity. In spite of the water on her face, she was cryin’ her eyes out. I shot up, went to get my coat from the rack, wrappin’ it round her.
“Jesus Christ, Susie, what the hell happened? Dale, go get some spare clothes.” Dale left the room at a run, and I sat Susie down, turnin’ away so she could cover herself up. When she had buttoned up the coat, I turned again, kneeled in front of her.
“Susie? Susie, baby, can you look at me? I need you to look at me, Susie, I need you to talk to me- what happened?” She could barely speak for cryin’ and, as she convulsed and gasped with the tears, I thought, the strength with which we measure the world is in turn measured only by the strength which the world can bring down its fists.
“It’s… it’s… it’s… it’s in my house. I was showerin’. I was showerin’. It’s in my house, Sheriff.”
I told Dale to look after Susie whilst I went out. I saw him bring a fresh shirt and a fresh pair of trousers into the office with him. Then I holstered my .45 and left.
All the lights were off in Susie’s house. I saw wet footprints all along the porch and the hall from where Susie must have run out. I stood in the doorway and drew back the hammer on the revolver and just stood a moment. The lights were still workin’ when I tried them and I made my way into the livin’ room. There was somethin’ in the air, like the house was ready to sigh. I checked the kitchen, the basement- somehow the world blinked once I stepped through the door and there was an absolute nothingness that felt like a presence within itself. Somehow the place was not a place.
Upstairs, I felt a heaviness that I had not felt before- the weight of a sorrow and a terror that felt like it was tryin’ to put its hands on my shoulders and put me on the floor the moment I stepped onto the landin’. I gripped the revolver a little tighter, held it out in front of me when I got near the bathroom- the door was wide open, and the wet footprints were still there. Inside, the shower curtain was all but torn off, hanging on by two or three rings, and there were bottles of shampoo and such all over the floor- but there was nobody there. I looked around the whole house, in every single room, and I didn’t see another soul. I punched at the wall. My knuckle was bleedin’, and there was a dent in the wall and I told myself, Thomas, these things are beyond you. And as I walked downstairs and out of the house I imagined there was something, somewhere in the world that replied, Yes- they are.
Outside, it was a lot colder than I recall. There was a streetlight by Susie’s house and I saw someone standin’ underneath it, lookin’ around ‘emselves. It was Evan. I went over to him but he didn’t seem to really register.
“’scuse me?” He turned round, a little startled.
“You wanna tell me what you’re doin’ here?”
“You are aware that this is Susie’s house?”
“And you are aware that you are currently hangin’ around outside it?”
“Well I’m askin’ you to elaborate on the matter.”
“I’m s’posed to be meetin’ her. I was gonna ask her to come to the cinema with me.”
“She ain’t in. She’s at the station. She’s been attacked.” He looked like he was gonna speak then he kinda stumbled on the words and just opened and closed his mouth a couple times.
“Attacked? What d’ya mean, attacked? How’s she been attacked? Is she alright?”
“Well, she ain’t hurt, if that’s what you mean. She ain’t alright neither. Somebody came into her house and started… started tryin’ to touch her when she was showerin’.
“Oh my God. I… Oh my God.”
“Yeah. Kinda funny findin’ you hangin’ round here after all that jus’ happened, ain’t it?”
“What? No, Sheriff… I… I swear I ain’t…”
“Swear you ain’t what?”
“Anybody… who… who got anythin’ to do with that…”
“Why ain’t you? She’s a pretty girl, she’s young, and you’re an ugly son-of-a-bitch who ain’t got a hope in hell of gettin’ laid with consent.”
“Sheriff, I swear to God I… why would I even be here if I had done it? Why would anyone who’d done that be even hangin’ round?” And I stopped. And I thought.
“Yeah. Maybe that’s jus’ so. But I want you to know somethin’- and if it’d make you feel better to keep it a secret, do it, and if it don’t, tell ever’body in town, cos it really don’t matter to me either way. I just wanna make it clear that if I find you had anythin’ to do with this matter- and I mean anythin’- I will take off my badge and I will hand in my notice and I will come and find you and I will beat you into a coma. I will not hesitate in doin’ that. And when I find out whoever did these things to her I will do the same to them. I will kill for that girl. I will tear down the whole wide world if it means keepin’ her safe. And if I find out you’re a part of it, I will start with you.”
When I got back to the station, Susie was wearin’ an oversized spare uniform that Dale had fished out the back. She was sittin’ in my chair and Dale was sat across from her, holdin’ her hand. She always seemed to prefer that to bein’ held by someone when she was upset. Somethin’ about it gave her distance and closeness at the same time, and I think that made her feel better about herself- as though it was okay in her mind to be upset as long as she tried to be independent about it and made sure any comfortin’ was a mutual effort.
“You okay?” I asked.
“I’m feelin’ a little better.” She said.
“You think you can talk now? ‘cos you do realise that I’m pro’ly gonna have to take a statement?”
“Yeah, I can talk.” So I got a piece of paper and a pen and she started.
“Things have just been gettin’ worse and worse. I’m always bein’ followed. Every time I’m by myself at home it’s there. Somethin’s walkin’ behind me. I ain’t told nobody cos if I tell Aunt Emma she’s gonna think I’m losing my mind and get me to a Doctor, and they’re just gonna tell me that none of its real and I’m gonna wanna believe ‘em but I’ll know that I won’t cos it is real. It is real, Sheriff. And I didn’t wanna tell you cos… cos I dunno. I don’t wanna put you through that. I didn’t want you to think that I’m a coward. I really don’t. At night, it’s even worse. I don’t wanna switch on my light no more cos I know I’ll see it, just runnin’ out of view. But then in the dark I can feel it leanin’ on my bed like it’s on all fours, leanin’ just in front of me. I’m scared to open my eyes and I’m scared to close them. And sometimes when I’m driftin’ off cos I ain’t slept all the night before, it’ll clap it’s hands. Just once. Just enough to let me know it’s still there. It follows me when I leave the house too. When I go walkin’ up on the hill it’s followin’ me. It runs sometimes. Runs all around me in a circle and I can’t move cos it’s like its playin’. I ain’t had a wash in days. So I decided to take a shower and then, when I was showerin’… oh fuck. Fuck. When I was showerin’… it started touchin’ me. It was standin’ behind me and it put its hands on my shoulders. I couldn’t even see its hands. And it had its hands on my back and my stomach and it put a finger on my lip like it was tellin’ me to keep quiet and I just… oh fuck I couldn’t move, I couldn’t speak. Then as soon as it started it stopped and I just ran. I just ran away and came right here.”
She looked up at me and she was still chokin’ back the tears. I am not ashamed to admit that I was doin’ the same. Then after a few moments of just holdin’ her hand I stood and said:
“I ‘m gonna call Emma, explain to her what’s been happenin’ and that I’m gonna take you to come stay with me and Jessica for a couple nights till she gets back. Then we’re all gonna sit down and talk about where we go with this. Talk about whether we go see or a doctor or a priest.”
Susie looked up at me and replied:
“Promise you won’t let ‘em say I’m crazy. If they don’t listen to me, promise me you’ll stick up for me.”
“I ain’t never made a promise that I didn’t keep and I don’t intend to break the habit of a lifetime any time soon. Dale, can you call Jessica for me and tell her I’ll be back early and that I’m bringin’ Susie? Tell her make some mashed potatoes or somethin’, I can’t say I really care. I need to talk with Emma.”
When we got back to mine it was nearin’ midnight. Jessica loved Susie almost as much as I did and when she was her come through the door lookin’ all worn out and weepy, she held her tighter than she ever done before. Susie told her a little of what had happened and Jessica didn’t loosen her grip once.
“It’s okay, sweetie,” she said, “you’re okay. You’re safe now.”
So Jessica went and took Susie into the front room and let her cuddle up to her in front of the TV- maybe it was cos she was one of those people whose very being just exuded care, but whenever Jessica did get the chance to give Susie a hug, Susie never wanted her to let go. So I finished off preparin’ the food and we ate, and talked about the future- talked about jobs, if she had been thinkin’ any more about college. And slowly she came back to life, piece by piece, and for a little while we all forgot the circumstances that brought her to be here.
After dinner Susie wanted to have a shower and I said I’d sit outside the bathroom door with the shotgun if that would make her feel any better- and it did, I think. Maybe that was all just idealistic thinkin’ but she felt safe and that was good enough for me. Jessica gave her some old night clothes and we all sat and watched a movie on TV. It was gettin’ on for one or two in the mornin’ but none of us were tired. We were all still too shook up by what had happened. Jessica said she’d turn in and read in bed for a while, see if she could make herself drift off, so she went off to bed. Neither me nor Susie said anything for a little while, until Susie asked somethin’.
“D’you remember when I was little? When we used to do that Tale for a Tale thing?”
“Yeah, course I do.”
“Why’d we ever stop with that?”
“I really don’t know.” I said and, like the same thought had struck as at the same time, we both stood up and moved for the porch.
It was cold outside and the moon was high- in the distance, the cars of town made a sound like breath. I took a seat on the bench and Susie sat beside me, hat in her hand.
“See you found my hat then?” I said. She nodded as she put it on.
“What story do you wanna hear then?” I continued.
“Will you tell me about how you met Jessica?”
“You’ve heard that story plenty of times.”
“I know. But it’s a good story. It’s nice. I like thinkin’ that there’s good folks still in the world and they have good stories.”
“Okay. Well, I was about 30, goin’ on 31. I was on my day off, sat outside Jeff’s with a coffee and a book- well, it used to be Jeff’s, it’s the jeweller’s now- and there was this lady over the road with an easel and a canvas, just sat in the middle of the sidewalk, sat paintin’, gettin’ in everybody’s way. And I thought ‘hell, that’s peculiar.’ So I finished my drink and put on my hat and crossed the road, and I said to her ‘ma’am, are you aware that you’re blocking up this here sidewalk with all that equipment?’ And she never looked up once, she just said ‘Yeah, I’m perfectly aware’ and carried on painting. So I stopped for a moment and then said ‘well, are you okay to move your stuff out the way?’ And she said ‘nope.’ So I didn’t know what the hell to say to her, and she knew it. Few moments o’ silence passed and she asked if I’d go sit back down outside the diner like where I jus’ was. ‘Why?’ I said. And she took her paintin’ off the canvas and turned it round to show me- it was me, sat outside Jeff’s with my book. Well, I thought that was pretty endearin’ so I asked her why she was paintin’ me of all people and she said ‘cos you’re a handsome man who looks real good in that uniform and call me weak-willed but I like to look at handsome men.’ So I mulled that over for a secon’ or two and said ‘Well, I guess I’ll have to oblige you’ and crossed the road again. Couldn’t stop lookin’ up from the book at her for all the time she was paintin’. Seemed to me that she was beautiful in a way I’d never thought of before, like I knew that there was somethin’ in the world that would leave me without a breath but it took till that moment to see it realised. Took a walk after she’d done the paintin’, walkin’ all over town, till it was gettin’ dark. Ended up holdin’ hands on the hill over-lookin’ town at two in the AM like we were jus’ kids. Put a ring on her finger eight months down the line and I been goin’ to sleep and wakin’ up next to her every night for thirty years. I ain’t done much in particular to deserve that, but it happened all the same, so I reckon the man upstairs was lookin’ in me favourably on that matter.”
“I never told you once when I was growin’ up that you’ve always been my daddy. You’ve always been my daddy and I love you for that.”
“I wish I was your real daddy.”
“You are, Sheriff. You are. You ain’t my blood but if you ain’t my daddy neither then I never had one.”
“Then the man upstairs looked favourably on me twice.”
I got into bed and Jessica was still readin’. I told her it was gettin’ on towards three and she said she didn’t care and went and set the book down. Susie was in the room next door, and we had turned in at the same time, her a few minutes before myself, just to make sure everythin’ was locked up and secure. I climbed into bed and cosied up next to her, and she held me and stroked my head.
“Did you manage to get a hold of Emma?”
“Yeah, I called her at the station.”
“She comin’ down soon?”
“Tomorrow, probably. Late tomorrow I imagine.”
“Doesn’t bare thinkin’ about. What that phone call must have done to her.”
“It’s somethin’ of an occupational hazard in my line of work. Don’t make it feel any less like you’re shootin’ good people in the guts mind.”
“You’re too hard on yourself, Thomas.”
“You’re too easy on me.”
“Did you hurt Susie?”
“I’m assumin’ this is rhetorical.”
“There’s your answer. You didn’t hurt her, you tried to help. Worst thing you are right now is the bearer of bad news.”
“Suppose there’s a truth in that. But I can’t help wonderin’ if there’s something just as rotten in bein’ the person that tells folk about the terrible things bein’ done as bein’ the person doin’ those terrible things in the first place. I wear a badge and it’s supposed to mean somethin’ but when there are things that happen that I cannot do a thing to prevent it don’t. That gives me a nasty feelin’. Especially when it happens to people that I care about a great deal. Always imagined that there was a special place in the course o’ destiny for lawmen. Kinda saw it as though we were pulled along by a different course cos we took a stand, that we were shepherds and the path things were movin’ along went off of what we did. But what am I standin’ against now? I ain’t standin’ against nothin’. Which would be a-okay if it weren’t tied up with Susie but it is so it ain’t okay. It ain’t okay.”
I woke up at 6:30 in the mornin’.
I showered, then I dressed, then I cleaned my teeth and combed my hair. I went downstairs and had a coffee, and read a newspaper. Jessica got up a half hour afterwards, and kissed me on the cheek then went outside to smoke. Around 9:00, I went to check on Susie, see if she was okay, if she wanted anythin’ for breakfast. I knocked once and she didn’t reply, and when I went into her room and found the window open and Susie gone, everythin’ went real quiet and I couldn’t hear a thing except my own heart tryin’ to beat its way out my chest.
I ran downstairs and I phoned the station and got everyone to go lookin’ out in the desert for her.
When I told Jessica she didn’t say a word- she just ran to get the shotgun and went to the stable and mounted up. She took the horse and headed west and told me to search north on foot. Felt to me like my very soul was screamin’ at me sayin’ that I was gonna head out and find somethin’ I did not want to find. That mercy might still remain didn’t even cross my mind. I kept wanderin’ through the dawn, and through the mornin’ light as it pooled in the desert. Seemed to me that God was in the sunlight, like He’d took a moment to watch the sunrise. All things were still.
They found Susie at 11:34. There were officers on the scene and police tape and she was dead on top of a flat rock with people walkin’ around her and lookin’ at her and takin’ photographs. I saw Dale bein’ sick on all fours a little way away. Apparently he’d been on the search and found her ‘bout a quarter of an hour beforehand. I pushed past the other men and looked at her and didn’t do nothin’ cos there was nothin’ could be done. There were bruises all round her neck that looked like hands. Little blood on her chin, and a few stains on her nightdress, which was torn. Wrists bruised like her neck. Her leg was broken too. Eyes wide open and layin’ on her back, lookin’ skywards. I leant down and kinda lost my balance and then I didn’t really know what was happenin’. Started trying to wipe the blood of her chin, looked kinda messy. Don’t really know why. Someone helped me up, sat me down on the ground, kept askin’ me if I was okay. I said
“yes I am, yes I am, yeah” and they put a blanket over my shoulders. Then I just sorta forgot myself.
We buried Susie the following Monday, about noon. Me and Dale were amongst the coffin bearers. The service was real nice. Father Samuels read a couple of passages from the Bible and Evan read a poem he’d written himself which weren’t very good but it was a nice gesture. Watched ‘em lower her into the ground and I imagined that I would go to her grave and speak to her and tell her that I still believed I would go to her soon and that she was in a place better than this one, but I didn’t because there is somethin’ in the act of lyin’ to someone at their graveside that leaves behind a bitter taste in the mouth.
When we left the service, Dale told me that he wanted to retire. He smelt like whiskey and I saw that he hadn’t shaved nor slept for a few days, and lookin’ in his eyes was like lookin’ at my own in the mirror of a mornin’ which was not a pleasant thing to witness. I asked him why, out of courtesy really, but I didn’t wanna challenge him particularly. Figured if he knew his own mind and knew his own circumstances there was little point in puttin’ down my foot. Dale left a week later and he was cryin’ when he left the station, although whether it was over the job or just because all he really did now was cry, I did not know. Some new feller transferred down from Comanche County a couple days later to replace him. He worked hard and he minded his P’s and Q’s and always kept his uniform sharp but talkin’ to him was just a chore. So I started leavin’ my spirit at the door when I went to work and pickin’ it up again when I went home.
“I’m not sure I wanna talk to you, Thomas.” Emma was lookin’ pretty unkempt. She was as old as me but she tried to not show it, and it nearly always worked- she’d kept her shape, her looks, her hair. She was still a beautiful woman even after all these years and the strains they had put upon her.
“I’m not really sure I wanna talk to anyone but I guess we’re gonna have to have this conversation some time or other so it may as well be now. I was passin’ by, ya see.” I said. Emma looked me up and down for a moment and sighed, then invited me in.
We set down in the livin’ room. Couldn’t help but imagine those runnin’ footsteps Susie told me about.
“So what’s the conversation?” I looked around me, at the growin’ layer of dust on the furniture and the photographs of Susie that had not been put up the last time I was in this house.
“There’s a lot o’ things I want to talk about regardin’… well, regardin’…”
“Susie.” I nodded. Emma continued.
“Okay. Talk about ‘em then.”
“I didn’t tell you what happened. What she told me. She knew this was gonna happen to her for days.”
“When you’d gone away a couple weeks back- and I ain’t accusin’ you of anythin’ here, this is just what I know to be truth- she started tellin’ me about somethin’… followin’ her. Somethin’ watchin’ her, like…like she was haunted. Wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t heard it myself, traipsin’ around upstairs. She weren’t sleepin’ cos she said there was somethin’ lookin’ at her, all night. Started fightin’ kids at school. Then things got worse. Said that whatever was givin’ her all this trouble started… I’m sorry… started touchin’ her. When she was in the shower. That’s when I called you. I shoulda told you everythin’ then. Maybe things woulda been different if I had. Just figured it all sounded too much like a joke or some old man gettin’ confused. I figured if she got away from here, she’d be okay. Didn’t think it’d come for her again. And now she’s… she’s gone.”
“She ain’t gone, Thomas, she’s dead. She’s dead. Just say it.”
“Okay… okay, then just tell me why you came to tell me all that if she’s just gone. If tellin’ me that ain’t gonna bring her back, why did you want to tell me? If you needed to get it off your chest, why didn’t you tell Jessica and not me? You knew that I would believe you. If it was any other person in the entire world I woulda called ‘em a liar and said they killed her ‘emselves just to spite ‘em but you knew that I would believe every word you said. I always did and I always will and I do now. So now I have to know that she suffered and I did nothin’ at all to stop it. And neither did you. So just answer me this- just tell me why this happened to my Susie and not to someone else? Just tell me why it happened to her.”
She collapsed into cryin’ and I held her whilst she wept the entire sorrows of the entire world. I wanted to tell her why, but there ain’t a point to lying in times such as these. People start to understand truth and lies when absolutes are laid before them. I wished I could have stood there and told her that there was a plan, somewhere in God’s creation, that these things were a part of. That she is in heaven now and she is golden and shining and one day we will all be golden and shining beside her. That there was a reason.
But I could not tell her those things.
Nor could I tell myself the opposite. I could not answer “why her?” with “why anyone else?”
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
Then I left.
My Father used to take me fishin’ in the lakes up in the North when I was a boy. We would camp out for three days at a time, always by some blue lake that I still don’t think was real. There cannot be water in the world that is so blue. I was only a little boy but I remember that feelin’ that everythin’ around me was livin’ and that I was somehow more alive for being near it. My Father would take me out into the centre of the lake in an old chipped white fishing boat which he had bought very cheap. He was a big man, bearded and thick-set, and he always wore plaid and blue denim when we went out there. I recall he always smelt of whiskey, but never like an alcoholic- his was the smell of evenin’s in the winter. He was a man of few words but what ones he did say were always good and true, and I suppose he didn’t need words because he would always hold me close to him and always give me his time. And one day we were out on the lake and I asked him what he thought happened to us when we’re dying. And he said:
“What, once we’re dead?”
“No, before we’re dead. When you know you’re gonna die. What do people do?” And he thought for a while and then he said:
“Your grand-daddy spoke to me about something like that when I was a boy. I’ll tell you what he said some day. I ain’t gonna tell you it jus’ yet cos it won’t mean a damn thing to you now. Course, it probably won’t mean a damn thing to you then, but one day you’ll understand. Maybe you’ll be an old feller yourself when you do. Jus’ like your daddy is.”
He was dyin’ a few years after that, when I was 17. He had cancer in his lungs which spread to near enough everywhere I could name. I sat by him on his death bed and he brought up what I’d asked him when we went fishin’ and it made me remember the promise he made. He said he thought I was probably old enough to know it, and even if I weren’t, he didn’t really care cos he’d never get another time to do it. And he held my hand in his and said:
“Never is the endin’ of a man’s story worth its beginning. All he can pray is that he knows for what he must be forgiven and that he is in a position to receive it.”
A few months after the funeral, I took a drive and found myself out on a stretch of desert road with which I was not familiar. I parked on the roadside, and walked on up the road for about a half hour, and when I grew tired, I took a seat behind a rock a little way off into the desert. I was lookin’ around me, seein’ if I could see birds, when I noticed a man with a huntin’ rifle about fifty yards or so ahead of me. I don’t think he even knew I was there. He was aimin’ at a herd of Mule deer, out in the grasslands. I watched them both for a little while, waitin’ for the shot, and I saw one of them start to stray away from the herd. It looked around itself for a while, maybe looking for shrubs, maybe just idly wanderin’, but somethin’ startled it and it looked up, and I could swear for just one moment that it looked straight at that feller with the rifle. And I thought that maybe every moment of its life had been leading to the point where it was standing right there- that it was born to walk away from the herd at that moment and stand where it was standing now, that a thread was tying that man and that creature to this very second. But then I thought that maybe that man had woken up this morning and decided to hunt game, and he stood in that spot because it took his fancy. That the deer had left the herd to look for shrubs and it had caught his eye because it was the easiest one to hit. I sat there and I knew that I could ask myself those questions till the day I die and I’d never know which one was right and which one was wrong.
But either way, he shot it.