Covering my mouth to stifle a yawn, I had gazed sleepily at my reflection on the copper surface of the tea kettle. Moving my head made the strange pale blob, with it’s dark alien looking eyes and blurry frame of auburn hair slide from left to right. It was like a crazy funhouse mirror. Good thing Mama was at work, or I would have been in for a scolding, or worse. Whisper Lynn Collins! You overfilled the kettle again, it will take a coon's age to boil, stupid girl. You're only making one cup so ya only need enough water for one cup!
Only it wasn’t Collins any more, was it. I had held up my left hand, trying to get used to the way it looked with the dead woman’s ring on it. I didn’t want to think about poor Mrs Gurley, bless her heart, it would only get me upset all over again. I had no proof that Mama had been involved in her death and even if I had what good would it do? It wasn’t like I was going to turn my own mama into the law.
The ring was too big, it was only a matter of time before it fell off and got lost and then Mama would come down on me fullforce. I had to stop fiddling with it, it was almost as bad picking at a sore. I put my hand into my pocket. What I needed to do was to get on with my chores and not stand around daydreaming, according to the microwave clock I was already running behind.
Picking up a dish rag, I had wandered over to the kitchen table and wiped it down. Mama and Pa had left their empty mugs on the table. Late last night when I went into the kitchen to get a glass of water they had been sitting here talking. Mama had been wearing one of her faded floral nightgowns. Her thick blonde hair, shot through with strands of grey, hung loose around her broad shoulders. In the unforgiving fluorescent light, every line on her tanned skin had stood out in harsh relief. She had glared and snapped at me for startling her. Her eyes had been red rimmed and puffy, she’d sniffed and wiped at her nose with her hand. I’d only ever seen Mama cry once and that had been a few day’s after Billy’s funeral. I had hustled back upstairs, glass of water forgotten.
I took the cups to the sink, washed them out and placed them on the draining board. Thump! I whipped around, but the shadowy hall was empty. What had that nosie been? Had it come from the den? Was someone else at home today? No, they couldn’t be; today was Tuesday.
I kept still, aware of the sounds around me. The soft ticking of the wall clock, the call of happy bids, the faucet dripping rapidly into the sink; like an anxious heartbeat. I reached over and turned it off. Nothing strange, nothing to fuss about. I had shaken my head, grinning at my unease and gone to investigate.
The door to the den was open and from the hall I could see Mama and Pa standing frozen in the dim room with their backs to me; like a creepy pair of shop mannequins.They appeared to be watching out the front window though a gap in the closed drapes. Both of them had been dressed for work, Mama wore her old navy blue button down sweater over her uniform and Pa wore his khaki work shirt and pants.
I had started to speak, to ask them what in the Sam Hill they were at doing home and then I had remembered who I was talking to and I’d clamped my mouth shut. I must have made some sort of sound, it could have been a sigh or a grunt or perhaps a floorboard had squeaked beneath my sneakers because they had both started to turn towards me and that was when the shooting started.
Had they been staring through that crack in the drapes out towards the weedy dirt drive, where Pa’s muddy pickup and Mama's red 1990 Honda Civic were parked; knowing that they were watching death approach? For me standing there in the hall looking into the familiar dusty mess of the den: the room where Pa would sit with his scuffed work boots on the table drinking beer and watching football, the room where Billy and I had watched saturday morning cartoons in our pajamas when were kids; there had been no warning. The dogs, which must have been tied up out back, hadn’t even barked.
The first indicator that something was wrong, terribly wrong, was the sound of gunfire and breaking glass.
Pa’s chest had exploded.
He was standing there, then he was on the floor. Mama had taken a stumbling step backwards. Her brains had splattered the wood paneled wall and she had fallen awkwardly knocking the coffee table over and sending a stack of hunting magazines, some empty bud light cans and an old tin of beans to the floor. Horror and fear descended on me, two hungy carrion birds spearing my heart and my gizzards with their razor sharp beaks.
The gunfire had stopped and now the treacherous hounds were baying furiously. In my mind they had seemed to be saying, ‘Intruders, intruders, how dare you, how dare you!’
I couldn’t remember ducking, but there I was hunkered down on the floor with my hands over my ears.
I had kept my eyes fixed on the mound of crusty shriveled up beans in their thick moldy gravy, trying not to see the dark blood stain rapidly creeping along the worn carpet towards me. You ain’t worth a hill a beans girl, that’s what Mama was always telling me. Now the beans were on the floor and her carcass was too.
I became aware of a squealing sound, like an injured hog, I wondered at the source of the noise, until I realized that it was coming from me.
Looking back I think I was waiting for Mama to tell me what to do, I’d done almost nothing without her say so my whole life and now that she was gone I hadn’t known what to do. I might have stayed there until they stormed in and executed me too, if not for Great-Grand-Pappy’s clock striking, like a magic spell. The boom of the gunshots had caused me to freeze, the chiming of the clock had set me back in motion.
I leapt up and quick as grass through a goose, slid the bolt on the front door home. I raced through the kitchen and locked the back door too. The kettle screamed and screamed. I grabbed Mama’s good fish-gutting knife off the counter and sprinted into the hall. The clock was still sounding.
Hearing the wooden moan of the front porch steps, I quietly opened the door to Billy’s old room. Whoever they were, they were taking their time probably uncertain whether they had hit their mark. Please let this work to my advantage. Exactly who was out there and why had they opened fire on my parents? There was no time think only time to act.
Shutting the door carefully behind me I tiptoed across the room to the window. Much of the light was filtered out by the overgrown thicket of hazel saplings and elm trees growing beside the house. With a whispered prayer I pushed as hard as I could to slide the window up. It didn’t go all the way, but it was enough. Fists pounded the front door as I forced the bug screen out. A gravelly voice I recognized as the sheriff's called out, ‘Open up in there, we don’t want any trouble.’
I slipped out of the window feet first, trying to ignore the rough peeling paint and wood splinters as the backs of my bare legs scraped across the frame. In the secret tunnel from our childhood, long overgrown, branches tore at my clothes and snagged my hair. Crawling on my hands and knees I pushed my way through the vegetation that lie between the house and the tractor shed. Fortunately the crates Billy and I had stacked against the wall, so we could climb through the glassless window, were still there.
I had moved quickly and quietly across the shed, always staying low and close to cover, nothing more than a bobcat’s shadow.
The sound of hollering and barking dogs spurred me on as I sprinted across the back field and into the cover of the woods. Cootie’s Swamp was just ahead and I knew where Pa kept his eeling boat. The dogs wouldn’t be able to track me through the water. At least not according to the movies. Then I had heard Mamas stern voice in my head, ‘ Are ya brainless girl, don't believe everything ya see on TV.’ I stopped and squatted beside a big elm tree letting out a thin yellow stream of pee. Some ran down my leg and into my sock. Slipping my panties off I hastily wiped my leg before tossing them deep into some thorn bushes.
Stumbling in the other direction I crouched again beside a fallen tree. Someone was lumbering through the undergrowth towards me, their breathing loud and laboured. I gripped the fish knife tight. Ready to fight. They stopped, gasping and coughing loudly, only a few feet away. I heard the unmistakable wheeze of an asthma inhaler.
‘Come on lard arse I want to catch her first, that way we can have a little fun before we turn her over. ’ I had known that voice, it was Aiden Felch, the pimple faced peckerwood who always leered at me whenever I went into his family's store, and the big guy that would be his older brother Hollis junor.
I backed away as quickly and quietly as I could, the sound of my heart loud in my ears. When I’d made it some distance away I broke cover and raced towards the swamp, tripping once and skinning both my knees.The ground quickly become soggy, a sure sign that I was nearing the edge of the swamp. Needing to get my bearings. I hunkered down, scanning all around for familiar landmarks, sure I was lost. There was a movement to my left and I had jerked my head in that direction my hand going to my mouth to hold back a scream. Only a bird. I crept forward.
When I caught sight of the boat I wanted to cheer. The swamp had been low that time of year and it was sitting on the mud a ways from the water. I hadn’t wanted to leave myself time to think so I’d muttered several of Pa’s favorite cuss words and lurched into the mud. I sunk in deep, almost up to my knees in the foul black sludge. One of my sneakers got stuck and came off, I didn’t dare take the time to retrieve it. After what felt like an eternity I reached the boat and untied it from the submerged stump. I tried to push it towards the water, struggling to keep my footing in the slippery muck. I pushed with all my might, trying to stay resolved when the boat barely moved.
There was a shout, had Aiden and Hollis found me? I gave the boat several desperate shoves. Finally it slid into the water and I was able climb clumsily on board. I pulled on the oars as hard as I could. Every dozen or so strokes I chanced a quick look around to see if I had been discovered.
I was a good distance out when I glanced back and saw them arrive on the bank. Hollis was bent over, his breathing clearly still giving him trouble. Despite the distance I could hear Aiden hollering and cursing in frustration, although I couldn’t be sure if it was me or his bear of a brother he was yelling at.
Biting my lip till I tasted blood. My back, arms and neck aching with the effort I had forced the boat slowly forward. The next time I had looked back I had seen Aiden kneeling with a rifle pointed at me ready to shoot. This was the end! After I’d lost Billy I’d been so torn up, I’d lain in bed night after night sobbing into my pillow and thinking of the different ways in which I might join him. Now that I faced the reality of death, all I had been able to think was No! I’m not ready yet!
About then everything seemed to slow down. I noticed the way the sunlight glinted off the water, felt the sweat drip down my back and the sting of my skun knees and the scratches criss crossing my skin. I think I opened my mouth to scream, though I don’t know if the sound came out. A shot echoed loud across the water and though the trees sending a flock of startled herons, fluttering white peace flags, into the sky. The silence that followed was so intense that it seemed as if even the cicadas and frogs were holding their breath. It took a while for my overstimulated brain to register that I was concealed by a reedbed.
The quiet was shattered by the noise of dogs yapping and voices arguing. I was vaguely aware that I should keep rowing yet I couldn't seem to summon the energy to make myself move. Seconds, minutes, days, weeks might have gone by as I sat huddled in the boat. My teeth were chattering so hard that I thought I was going to bite off my tongue. I leant over the side of the boat and vomited up the toast I had eaten for breakfast.
Eventually I noticed that the voices and the dogs were gone and the insects and frogs had resumed their racket. Still shaking, I had taken hold of the oars and slowly made my way to Pa’s fishing cabin where I had tied the boat up with trembling hands.
At the rain barrel I had filled the tin cup and gulped down a few mouthfuls of rusty tasting water before limping into the cabin.
I took my muddy dress off and climbed into Pa’s musty sleeping bag. It smelled like tobacco and possum pee. I pulled it over my head as if I were a child hiding from monsters under the covers. It was a little hard to breathe, but that didn’t matter. When I was about six I had spent an hour or so hiding under the covers of Billy’s bed waiting for him to come into his room. Determined to get revenge for the slimey toad he had dropped down my shirt the day before. His startled yelp and the look of surprise on his face had made the difficult wait worthwhile. I’d braced myself for some sort of physical retaliation which was usually what happened when my brother got mad, but to my surprise he had only laughed and said, ‘you got me good Whisper, you got me real good.’
What the hell was going on and why was Aiden trying to kill me? And yet everything that had happened, watching Mama and Pa get gunned down and having to run for my life, none of should have come as a surprise to me. Anyone who thought that the law in this country was just and uncorrupt had been watching too many police dramas on television and not enough Youtube videos.
I must have slept the rest of the afternoon away because when I woke up it was dark out. There was a full moon so at least I could see enough to get the kerosene lamp lit. Although I was still plum tuckered there was no way that I was going to go back to sleep. I felt sure that they were coming to get me, in my mind I could clearly see them paddling their boats through the dark water or slipping through the woods behind the cabin with flashlights and guns. I kept the lamp on until the kerosene ran out, then I sat there in the moonlit room rocking back and forth in the creaking rocking chair, singing softly to myself and fretting.
Was I safe here? I couldn’t recall Pa ever bringing anyone to the cabin besides me Billy and Fen. While Mama never went hunting or fishing. Surely nobody in town even knew the cabin was here. Fen... we had been married such a short time, would I even see him again? Was he safe, had they captured or killed him? Would he think to look for me here, would he lead them here?
When I tired of singing I took to chewing on my hair. Throughout the endless night I held tight to the fish knife, as if I was holding on to hope. I stared out the window and watched the long strands of spanish moss blowing in the wind, like torn grey curtains in an abandoned house. I pictured Mama and Pa out there in the moonlit swamp, pale ghostly figures drifting above the water, floating through the treetops, while the Barred owl's shrieked.
It was all just crazy thinking. Nothing and no one was out there, the truth was I had never been more alone in my life.
I waited... for the dread to end, for death to come and because I needed to know that the sun was still able to rise. When it finally did, I let exhaustion lead me from the nightmare of life into the terror of sleep.
In the wee hours of the morning, the reverend lead his congregation and their hunting hounds straight to the cabin door. They tied my hands behind my back and gagged me. An old potato sack was shoved over my head. James Boulton, who led the choir on sundays, threw me over his meaty shoulder and carried me into the moonlight.
The town’s folk had been working hard piling up the kindling all night. They brought whatever they had lying around, branches from a tree fallen in a storm, broken yard furniture, a stack of rotten crates, a pile of unused fence pickets, that may once have been painted white. Even the rotten sofa on Nella Ray’s front porch got broken up and thrown on the heap. Everyone found something to bring, after all the devil makes use of idle hands.
Bolton flung me high onto the woodpile and I landed hard on my hip. I couldn’t stand with my hands and feet tied, there was no point in even trying. The Reverend did the honours, lighting the fire with the silver engraved lighter his wife had given him for Christmas.
I woke up screaming, sweltering under the musty coverings I’d piled on the night before. For a sleep dazed instant I couldn’t remember where I was or what had happened the previous day and then it all came back. I felt my hope, my sanity, being sucked out of me by the fat slimy leech of fear that had wrapped itself around my heart. It would have been better if they had shot me in the back of the head while I was sleeping, then at least it would all be over and I’d never have known a thing.
It must have been close to noon because the sun was high in the sky. My dress was still a damp muddy ball on the floor where I’d left it. I had been vulnerable enough without being naked as well, so I grabbed the sheet off the cot and ripped into, it fastening it around me like a frat girl going to a toga party.
Opening the little food cupboard I found tins of beans, spaghetti O’s and spam along with ramen noodles and a box of saltines. Right at the back was the prize, a tin of rice pudding. On the second shelf there was instant coffee, sugar and a tin of condensed milk. Enough food for my toga party, now I just needed a keg and some red plastic cups.
I had opened the condensed milk and eaten it with the stale saltines, there was no one to tell me not to. I shoved them in my mouth as quickly as I could with the white sticky syrup dripping down my fingers. When I’d had my fill I lit the little propane stove and made myself a strong cup of coffee. I poured the rest of the hot water into a bucket and used some dish soap and a threadbare wash rag to scrub myself clean. Then had I gone to work on my poor dress, it had been black with white daisies on it, now the once white flowers were mostly grey. When I was done I dragged the rocking chair outside and hung it over the back to dry.
Wanting to keep myself busy I had decided to venture into the woods and set a few rabbit snares. By the time I was done I reckoned it must have been near on four o’clock. My dress was almost dry so I was able to put it back on. I heated up some ramen noodles and sat in the rocking chair and ate them. Ever since I had woken up my upset stomach had been telling me that the danger hadn’t passed, and I had to struggle to get the food down even though I was starving.
Was I touched to be staying here waiting for them to come and find me? I might have a better chance if I took some food and the sleeping bag and camped out in the woods. Or I could sneak back to the house and find out what was going on there, get a hold of one of Pa’s guns perhaps? No, what if whoever had gunned Mama and Pa down was keeping a lookout for me there.
Mama was right I was useless. In no time I’d given myself a thumping headache and was ready to throw up all of the noodles I had eaten. I couldn’t take anymore of this thinking so I decided to take the boat out and set a few Crawfish traps. I paddled the boat a ways from the cabin and pulled up alongside the broad trunk of an ancient Cypress which had fallen into the water. I dropped a trap in beside the tree and lay back on the sleeping bag with my dirty feet up on the edge of the boat. I felt safer here, watching the blue darters flit by.
Soon my head was as empty and blank as a burnt out television set. My body was heavy, as though I was melting into the bottom of the boat. I might have stayed there until my flesh rotted off leaving only a pile of white bones. I went so far into nothingness that even the mosquitoes couldn’t find me.
From towards the woods I heard the crack of a rifle and was jolted back to life. This time I couldn’t run, I stayed low in the boat and waited, I was a rabbit caught in a snare.They were at the cabin. There must have been four or five of them at least, judging from the ruckus they were making. They sure weren't going for the element of surprise. I poked my head up just above the tree, in time to see Hollis Felch ducking low as he entered the cabin. From the noises coming from inside it was clear they were ripping the place apart. A heartbeat later the door burst open. I ducked back down into the boat. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, still it was clear they were not happy that they hadn't found me there. There was a fair bit of cursing and hollering followed by a bunch of pistol shots, Lord only knows what they were shooting at. Then for a moment everything went quiet. Had they gone? I didn’t dare move. I stayed down in the boat soaked in sweat and scratching at my mosquito bites until they bled.
Smoke! They had set the cabin on fire! The air was split by the sound of the tin roof being blown off the cabin as the propane tank exploded. In the distance the boys raised a shout, reveling in their destruction. Bastards! I squeezed my fits into balls. Staying here was no longer an option, the choice had been taken out of my hands, there was a part of me that was just fine with that. I’d walk until I reached the highway and hitch a ride to anywhere that wasn’t here.
I didn’t know why they seemed to want Whisper Lynn Gurley dead, but if that was what they wanted then I would oblige them. I would leave Whisper Lynn behind in the mud and find myself a new life, grow a new thicker skin, so that one fine night I could slid into one of Felch brothers bedroom windows and give the sleeping princes a good night kiss with Mama's fish gutting knife. Someday I’d make the good old boys of Deerland pay.