Killer

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Commercial Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A story of racism and class in America - who knows, it might have been yesterday.

Submitted: February 04, 2019

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Submitted: February 04, 2019

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I killed a man. Yes I did. Can't have happened more than an hour ago. He's just lying beside my chair. If I lean forward, peer over the arm, I can see his head; his head and a hand. His hair shines a bit in the light of the lamp. It's dark; dark cause it's wet; wet with his blood. I gave him quite a crack I guess. Can't say I didn't intend to, cause I did. Guess I'm just surprised by my own strength. I never figured it was so easy to open up a man's skull. Rug's messed up. That's another damn thing to pay for. Never get that much of a stain out. Funny how blood looks so black in this light. Like engine oil on the driveway. Wonder what colour it stains. No matter; stain's a stain, I guess. Black or red, it's still a damn stain. Still means a new damn rug. Can't believe how much he bled. It ain't like I took his whole damn head off. Just put a dent in it is all. No less than he deserved anyhow. Pretty sure he's still bleeding. I think sometimes I can see a little trickle running through that thick head of hair of his. Swear sometimes I can see him move too. Damn, that's unnerving, I can say. There I am, relieved as a man can be to see him fall flat on his self-serving face, and the next second I think I can see his damn chest going ten to the dozen, breathing like a damn dog on a hot day. Swear I saw a little thrill of a pulse in his throat too. I sat and watched it, stared at it like I was hypnotised, and the more I stared, the more it moved. Tick, tick, tick, regular as a damn Timex. Expected the damn thing to chime any damn second. Anyhow, it wasn't moving at all. Just my imagination I guess. I screwed up the guts to take a feel at it. Every second my damn hand was down there, I swear I thought he was gonna leap up and bite my damn fingers off. Felt a pulse. Yes I did. That pretty damn scared me too, but then I put my other hand up to my own neck. Ha! Damn! I was happy. What I thought was his heart still beating was nothing but my own, right down there in the tips of my fingers. Never noticed it before. I swear, I never thought my fingers had a pulse. They been up my nose often enough and I never felt it then. Either way, that's the truth of it. My pulse. Must've sat there for ten whole minutes wondering at that fact alone. Made me kinda curious to find out where else I got a pulse. Found one in my foot. Right on top of it. One behind my knee, and on my wrist of course. We all know about that one. Even found one on the inside of my elbow. Figured they was in a hundred places. Hell, long as I can find it in one place, that's enough for me. Don't make no difference how many places you got a damn pulse once you're dead. This man down here don't have no pulse in a hundred places. Guess that makes me one up on him, huh. One up on you, Jack Shit. One up on you. Only thing you got more than me now is a damn great hole in your head.

Now, I could blame my wife for all this. I could blame her for the dead man lying here at my side right now. But I won't blame her, cause it wasn't her fault. Never in a million nights spent under a million stars could it ever be her fault. In fact, I reckon all she wanted was just a few of those million nights under those million stars on the porch of our house, and I couldn't even deliver that little thing. Damn, it wasn't like I had to pay for it either. Stars are free. All you gotta do is wait for a break in the clouds and there they are, night in, night out, just sitting there waiting to be admired by the likes of you and me and anyone else who happens to want to sit there and share them with us.

No. It wasn't her fault. It was mine. Right down the line. All she did was fall in love with me one day, listen while I promised her the earth and then couldn't even deliver a break in the clouds.

Damn, but she was pretty. I guess any man worth half an ounce of salt's gonna say that about his wife, but most fellas tend to forget that. I know I did. The day I met her, the first thing I noticed about her wasn't her eyes or her nose or her chin or her ass, though those were all pretty much as any guy would want them to be, maybe even better than that. No, it wasn't any of those things. It was her shoes. They were the worst, most outta shape shoes I ever saw. I guess once, when they were new, they might've been real pretty, the kind a shoes that made a girl look perfect from the hat on her head to her toes, but now they looked like they'd been standing in horse shit all their lives and had just about got eaten away by the flies that fed upon it. And somehow, they just weren't the right shape for shoes any more. You all know how you put your shoes on, sort of slip your feet through the oval at the top; ain't a pair of shoes in the world any different to that, except maybe them open ones you can wear on the beach, but I guess they ain't strictly shoes. Anyhow, the oval bits that she'd stuck her feet in were sort of ten sizes too big for her. I don't rightly know if she just had extraordinarily small feet or had a liking for extraordinarily large shoes, but even so, this oval bit was more bent out a shape than a bear with a bee up it's ass and every time she took a step she sorta had to drag her feet so's they didn't slip out of the damn shoes. I don't know why I noticed her feet first, maybe I was looking at the ground or something and they just came into my vision. Either way, they damn sure caught my attention.

From her feet I just sorta naturally worked my way up. She had on a red dress that came just below her knees, and it sorta clung on all the way up the rest of her body, like it was afraid that if it let go, it would fall to it's death on the ground; worse still it would land next to those damn shoes. Next thing that really got my eyes though was, yeah, her chest. The glands on that girl stuck out like they were supported by chicken-wire. Nothing coulda stayed that upright without some sort of support. But they did, and I gotta say it took me some long time to tear my eyes away from them. I guess that was just about the most perfect chest I ever saw.

'What the hell you looking at?'

They were the first words she ever said to me. She kinda caught me red-handed, or red-eyed more like. I don't remember feeling any kind of embarrassment, though I guess I shoulda done, but that damn chest just took over my entire life and there was no way on this God's earth that I could do anything but stare at it.

'Looking at your chest,' I replied, quite natural like, cause I was sorta caught in a dream-state and didn't quite realise where the words had come from. Crazy, I know, but that's the truth of it.

'Well, get your eyes off it. Show some respect for the man over there.'

The man over there was Lucifer Jones. We called him Lucy. Now, I know that Lucifer is a strange name for a man, but he was brought up by his grandma and she was one strange kind of lady who used to mess with the darker side of things, if you know what I mean. Nobody knew how old she was. Some reckoned about two hundred, some reckoned more, but one thing people knew for sure was that she was a witch and that nobody messed with her. That's why she called her grandson Lucifer (or maybe cause his ma died giving birth to him) and that's why she knew that nobody would ever laugh at him or his name. Hell, we were scared of that name. We didn't even want to say it, that's why we called him Lucy instead. There was a story that a lawman had once bumped Lucy on the side of the head, just for being a different shade to him and all, and that, once Lucy's grandma found out the name of that lawman, he was as good as dead. Now, I know that there was a lawman called Deputy Stevens. I also know that it was Deputy Stevens who bumped Lucy on the head for no good reason and called him nigger-shit. I also know that within forty-eight hours of Lucy getting that bump on the head, Deputy Stevens was curled up outside the drugstore, his hands clawing at his gut, blood pumping from every orifice on his body, and died before Doc Newton could step out of his surgery door.

I know all this happened. I saw it. Maybe it was just coincidence.

Anyhow, Lucifer was dead. Nothing to do with the bump on his head. Hell, that happened a dog's age ago. No, the reason Lucy was in a coffin and most of the poorer side of town was there to show him respect was cause of the mark on his neck. Now, that mark on his neck hadn't been there when he'd gone to bed Tuesday night. I know, cause I myself had said goodnight to him, but when I saw him Wednesday morning, and when I cut him down from that tree in his backyard and took the rope from around him, there was the mark, burned in, bitten in, just like the marks on his wrists and the bloody stripes across his back. Lucy was the kindest, most gentle man I ever did meet, and someone who didn't even know him, leastwise, not in the way I knew him, not in the way someone from my side of town knew him, had dragged him out of his grandma's house, the sleep still like mud in his eyes, and hung him.

People were pretty mad about it all. If Lucifer had maybe for just half a second lived up to his name, then feelings might not have run so high, but Lucy was gentle and kinda stupid and was about as close to an angel as any man could be. I guess the fact that he had the simple touch helped; them with brains seem to have a greater capacity for cruelty than the average man. Lucy was more interested in the colour of the sun at the end of the day or in how a cricket managed to sing, than in the games people played. Problem is, for some reason, people don't accept simple so easy. For some reason, simple irritates folk, makes them feel threatened, makes them feel like a folk's shortcomings sorta highlight their own insufficiencies. Never made me feel like that; truth is, standing next to Lucy was about the only time I ever felt halfway to having any sorta intelligence, but it sure made a few in town feel bad.

What you gotta understand is that we were much like any other town at that time. We had a good half and a bad half; a rich half and a poor half; a white half and a black half. For some reason those things seemed to attach themselves to each other as surely as the stink of shit attaches itself to a skunk. It ain't the skunk's fault. Just the way things turned out. Anyhow, at the top of the heap you had the rich white folk, like Margaret Gray and her sort, who lived at the high end of town, at the top of the hill. Their houses were big, wood-sided, old affairs, two or three stories high with porches the size of baseball grounds and back yards with the shortest, greenest, sweetest smelling grass you ever saw that always, always, had an apple tree or a pear tree or some sorta fruit tree sat plum in the middle of it. There was always a set of garden furniture too, though it was the kind of furniture the likes of me dreamed of having in the house, never mind left outside for the birds to shit on. They always had drapes at the windows that looked like the well parted and tied-back white hair of an old spinster, and roses round the front door, the scent of which, when one of those hot breezes floated off the river on a summer's day, would drift down that long street and mix with the smell of frying and sweat that hung around our roofs like a poisonous green cloud. Outside, parked in the street or under a special porch at the side of the house, these people had cars. Mrs Gray even had a garage built just so's her car had somewhere to stay. Wouldn't surprise me if she'd had a commode put in there for it too. Some of us reckoned they had cars so's they could take the shortcut through our part of town safer and quicker, without having to risk getting horseshit on their nice white shoes or our smell on their clothes. Me, I thought it was cause they could afford to have cars; that simple and that complicated. Folks like me were still walking or bussing it everywhere, even in such modern times, cause there were things we had to spend our money on that had more to do with our belly than with how we looked to them across the road. I guess the fact is, there's some can afford a vehicle, and there's some can't.

Anyhow, these people for some reason felt that we were best at arm's length. Oh, they'd use us to mend their roofs or clean their cars, get us to mow their lawns (that's how I know about the fruit trees) or to get their shopping when they couldn't be bothered to get off their overburdened rich asses and do it themselves, but I always sensed that while I was cutting their grass, they never trusted me quite long enough to take their eyes completely off me. They'd sit there in the shade out of the midday heat, sip away at their pink gins and pretend to be deep in conversation with each other, but I knew that if I looked up at them, they'd be peering over the rim of their frosted glass following every footstep I took, just in case I veered off to the left toward them, my pecker hanging out of my flies, threatening to shoot them with it if they didn't hand over their purse. Damn, I don't know what the hell they thought of us, I just know that they didn't trust us long enough to look away.

So, when you get one of me, and you twist and turn him like a wet flannel til he comes out like Lucy, well, I guess he was as good an enema as any of them ladies was ever likely to get. You see, with Lucy, what you got was this great big black workhorse who you couldn't help but stare at. He didn't hardly ever speak, he never stopped for a drink no matter how hard the work, he just got on with things, took his fifty cents and went on his way. I guess if you didn't know him, he was a bit of a spook, almost like he didn't have no spirit, and all the white folk on the hill had heard tales of how his mother had died giving birth to him and how his grandma was a witch, so I guess a myth had sorta built up around him.

And myths scare people, don't they. I mean, the reason they are myths is cause people don't understand them, and the more folks don't understand, the more the myth grows. Truth is, I think the only reason people gave him work is cause they were scared of what would happen if they didn't give him work. I guess they figured all their little girls'd be turned into frogs or something. Hell, I don't know.

Anyhow, one day some money went missing. It seems that Lucy had been doing some digging for a real nasty piece of work, a Mrs Eliza Newton, who lived a little down the hill from Margaret Gray. Now, Mrs Newton was never a woman to miss a step on the social ladder. She'd been trying for years to get into old Mrs Gray's place, had got fed up with Mrs Gray's sewage rolling down past her place instead of the other way around, but she'd never managed yet to get one over on the old dear. And I gotta say, Mrs Gray was not a bad woman. I admit, she probably drank a bottle of Chanel every day to make sure her shit don't smell, but she wasn't so bad. It was kinda strange with Mrs Newton, cause her husband was a real decent man. He was a doctor, the doctor, but it didn't matter who he was called to, black, white or green with yellow pimples, he treated every man and woman equal. He would've been happy living in a shack I reckon, he was so unaffected by the world. I often wondered how such an affable man could have ended up with such a case of poison ivy in his front room.

Anyhow, poor old Lucy had been doing the digging at Mrs Newton's place, and she'd been sitting there on her porch with her gin, gossiping away to Mrs Frewitt, her hard slit eyes watching every lumbering step that Lucy made. She'd taken a dislike to him a long time since, and down in the Village (that's what we sometimes called our end of town) we were all surprised that she'd asked him to do anything for her. But, the man needed his fifty cents or whatever, just like we all did, and she wanted to spend as little as possible to get the work done, so off he went. I remember seeing him go. I was sitting out on my porch, which wasn't even big enough for the length of my legs mind, and he just ambled on by, hands in his pockets, in a world of his own, that bottom lip of his stuck out like he was waiting for a bus to park itself right down on it. I don't know what the hell he was thinking, but I remember he stopped, all of a sudden, hands still in his pockets, and looked halfway up in the sky, just like something invisible had stopped him to have a word, and he laughed, full on, not just a chuckle, a real full on belly roll, nodded a little, then the smile sort of dissolved real slow like a sun-washed rainbow and he was on his way again.

Now, the way I heard it, Lucy sweated his way non-stop through the entire day, sun-up to sun-down, without even stopping for a drink or a piss. He'd done the work of three men, closed his palm around the coin that Mrs Newton got her boy to give him, and turned back down that hill towards home without a word.

I wasn't working that day, so when Lucy came back down into the village, I'd barely moved my lazy ass off my porch except for to get a beer, so I saw him coming back, his hand open, his eyes glued upon that hard-earned coin (which would go straight into the tin he and his grandma kept between the Virgin Mary and Jesus), his head shaking and his mouth curved up as he heard something from somewhere deep inside his head. He looked over at me, smiled the biggest smile you ever saw and held the coin up for me to see.

'That sure looks a beauty, Lucy,' I said. 'Bet you worked your ass off earning that little gem.'

'Been digging for Mrs Newton. Ain't hard work, just takes a bit of time and patience is all.'

'What you gonna do with all that money now you got it?' I was only teasing. I knew what he'd say.

‘You know what I'm gonna do with it, Ben. I'm gonna put it in the tin with all my other coins. Grandma says I'll have enough money saved up to go travel the world one day.'

'Where you gonna go, Lucy? You wanna beer?'

Lucy looked at me like I'd just offered him opium or something, took a glance towards his grandma's place, then ambled over and up the steps to the porch. 'Can't drink a whole one. Makes me fall down. Have a poke at yours if you don't mind.'

I pulled my work boots off the only other chair on the porch, dusted it down, made a motion for him to sit and handed over my bottle. He took a long hard swallow, grimaced like he'd drunk poison and handed it straight back.

'So where you gonna go when you got all that money, Lucy?'

Lucy looked down at the dry, white boards beneath our feet. 'No idea. I ain't so sure there is a world outside of here. Grandma says there's places and people out there would make my eyes turn inside out, but I think maybe she's just leading me on.'

I laughed out loud. 'She ain't leading you on. I'm telling you, Lucy, there's a whole damn world out there. I seen it in magazines and on the TV when I’m working up the hill. I tell you, you start walking up the other end of town where them rich folks live, and then you just keep on walking...Man! You could walk and never have to stop. There's a whole round world out there. There's people beneath our feet who right at this moment are upside down. Can you imagine that? People we never met, who never heard of us, who at this moment are going about their business same way we are, but the way the world is, they have light when we got dark, see the sun when we see the moon. Hell, there's probably even a man who looks like you and a man who looks like me, but they live at the other end of town, while the Mrs Newtons of this world live in the village. That's how upside down things are, Lucy.'

'You ever been there, Ben?'

'Hell, no! You know I ain’t never been nowhere but here. Folks like me ain't meant to go to places like that. Like I said, I seen it on the page and on the TV, but that's about as real as it gets. Damn, Lucy, sometimes, when I see those pictures, it's like I've been asleep and when I stop looking it's like waking up. They're about as real as any dream, that's all. You want some more beer?'

Lucy shook his head. 'I gotta go. Grandma'll wonder where I got to. Said I'd come straight home. She figures I'll get into some sorta trouble between there and wherever.'

I drained my beer and tossed the bottle into the house behind me. 'Okay, Lucy, you go on home. Your grandma's right. You go easy, now. You hear?'

'I hear you, Ben.' He looked real thoughtfully at his fifty cents again then held it up to me. 'You want this, Ben? Help you get to somewhere in those pictures you're always dreaming about.'

'Ah, hell, Lucy! That's the kindest thing anyone's ever said to me. But I'll turn your kind offer down. You keep it and save it and one day you may just be able to get outta this town for good and find yourself a better world.'

Lucy took another long hard look at the coin then curled his big paw back around it. 'Okay, Ben. I'll see you later maybe.' He stood up and plodded down the porch steps.

'Yeah, Lucy, later.'

I watched him disappear through the door of his grandma's house then reached down and cracked open another beer.

The houses and shacks that we called home were now just silhouettes as the sun died. I looked up the street. It was on fire as the world ended for another day.

That was Tuesday night.

 

 

I was woken up by the sound of birds. Fighting birds. Sometimes, a bird gets a lizard or something in it's beak, and some other lazy son of a bitch wants to take it from him, so they fight, and when they fight they make enough noise to wake...well, maybe not the dead.

Anyhow, them damn birds woke me, so I got outta bed and soaked my head in a bowl of cold water. Back then, all I had between me and the world was a pane of dirty glass, and I can remember how red everything was. The sun was on it's way up, but it hadn't quite stoked the fire enough to make the world burn; just glow. As the water ran down my neck and across my face and rolled back into the bowl, it was so like blood. Every black-edged ripple bounced off the side, crashed back in on itself, and somewhere in there, a fitting shadow, I caught a picture of me.

And still those damn birds screamed away like someone was pulling their feathers out one by one, so I made up my mind to go outside and find out what the hell all the fuss was about.

I made my way out onto the porch, my feet still bare, just a vest on and my old brown pants, but as soon as I saw the day I swear it caught my breath and stole it away. From the top of the hill, right down into the village, it looked like Hell, like everything was bathed in fire, and down towards Lucy's place I could see the sun as it came up over the horizon like the biggest ball of flame you ever did see.

For a moment it blinded me and sent those little specks chasing across my eyes; you know how it is when you look at something bright, how they scurry across your sight like tiny little bugs. But one little bug wasn't moving, it just hung there in the middle of that inferno, and as it dragged me off my porch, my feet afraid to go through the dust, I grew to realise that it wasn't simply no bug in my eye.

I ran forward, the sounds of those birds in my ears, all screaming and fighting, and they didn't even move when I grabbed at Lucy's feet, they just stayed there and swayed with him, pecking away at his eyes, fighting over them, a whole bunch of crows, hungry, for Lucy's eyes.

I ain't sure what the hell I did. I think I just hugged at Lucy's legs and tried to lift him, to take the weight off his neck, not really thinking that this was gonna do him no good, cause no living man ever let the birds peck at his eyes.

Then something told me to let go, and I released him like I was letting go his soul, my arms out wide, my head turned up to see his face, but it was nothing but a shadow against the furious sun, the tips of the birds wings jumping out all over and stabbing at that ball of flame as they continued to fight over his eyes.

I found his grandma in her bed. They never gave her a chance to waken. They musta just gone in with a club and beat her to death while she slept, probably while they held him, gagged and bound at the door, watching on helpless while they did it. There wasn't much left of her head, just a mess of blood and grey hair, like a run over cat or something.

I grabbed a knife and went back out to the tree, climbed up onto the branch, shimmied along and cut old Lucy down. I felt sick as he hit the ground, the noise his body made, them screaming crows still hanging on. I jumped right down and kicked them all away, but they're big and strong and take some shifting. By the time I'd got rid of them, Lucy barely had a nose.

On his chest was a note, just stuck on with a pin, but the pin was pushed far into his skin. The note said 'NIGGER THIEF'. That was all. Later, when we were cleaning everything up, we found one on his grandma, nailed through her right tit. That said 'NIGGER WITCH'. That was all.

I sat on the ground next to Lucy til the sun came up, held his hand and kept the birds and the flies away. Reuben Coles eventually came by when the sun was yellow and high and shook me up, helped me get some things in order. We didn't say much, just looked at each other.

Wondered when the war would start.

 

The shot rang out just as Lucy was laid to rest. Nobody knew who let that bullet go, nobody but the fool who fired it. I looked up from the graveside into people's eyes, and we nodded at each other, not a nod so's you'd notice, just enough to tell each other we'd heard it and that we knew that Lucy being put into the ground was just the beginning.

A single shot.

It echoed across the hills, across the river and the brown grass, rolled from the top of the street down into the village and came across the land to us like a clap of thunder on a sunny day. As it hit us, it took each and every one of us off our feet, just a tenth of an inch, made our hearts beat that much faster and that much louder in our ears. It made the hairs stand up on the backs of our necks and goose bumps stand out on our skin. It opened our eyes wide and brought tears onto our cheeks.

Just a single shot.

And the moment passed.

Lucy was lowered into his grave. Handfuls of dirt rattled against his box as each of us filed by. And as we shuffled past, lips silently moved, swore vengeance for a backward man and his grandmother witch, inflamed by a distant sound that had travelled maybe a mile across the parched ground, from the other side of town, from a perfect piece of land, with a fruit tree and lush green grass, a porch the size of our dreams, where a woman sat with a cool lemonade, still untouched within a frosted glass, with a singed crimson rose of blood spreading out across her corn-yellow summer dress, her eyes still full of the arrogance that had led to her death on such a beautiful, sunny afternoon.

Her doctor husband would run to her, then fall to his knees and kiss the hand that fell lifeless by her side, and on this sunny day he would beg the Lord to bring her back to life because, for all her faults, she was the finest woman that had ever lived and without her he was nothing at all.

Pretty soon a crowd would gather and pull the crying man away, take his wife away upon a stretcher and then, they too, as they each filed silently by the deep red stain upon the porch, would swear vengeance on behalf of Mrs Eliza Newton, the gunshot that had rattled their windows and shaken the foundations of their lives still ringing in their ears.

A silence fell upon our town. In the days preceding the funeral of Eliza Newton, peoples faces never rose to a smile or fell to a frown. It was as if they were waiting for a hurricane to come and tear the peace apart.

The police moved about with their hands resting on the handles of their guns. They balanced on the invisible line that segregated the top of the hill from the village and, most of the time, their eyes never strayed from our end of town. They travelled about in pairs, instead of alone like they had done for so many years before. They kept the windows of their cars rolled up, preferring instead to sit and sweat upon the leather in the magnified heat of their cars, a rifle ready between them.

They came down into the village at night like the crows who'd pecked out Lucy's eyes, asking questions of every one of us, taking some of us away, to return us with the dawn of the next day, to then retreat to that invisible line that kept two different worlds apart.

Nobody was asked to go and cut grass or look under the hood of anybody's car. Nobody took the shortcut through our side of town. Nobody did us the favour of casting their suspicion upon us through narrowed eyes. Nobody walked out of the shop when we came in.

Nobody came out of their house anymore.

 

Reuben Coles came to see me the night before Eliza Newton's interment. He wasn't alone. He wore a cape of shadows, people who stood with their backs to the dying sun so their faces were no more than holes in the sky. He alone came up onto my porch and sat uninvited next to me, picked out a bottle of beer from the bucket of tepid water at my feet, and drank long and slow until the bottle was drained.

In truth, I had expected him sooner. The days since the Newton woman's murder had been unbearably drawn out, the nights as thick and dangerous as quicksand. On the first night, I and many others had been dragged from our beds and questioned by the police. They hadn't played any games like they normally did. They had omitted the name-calling and the insults about our mothers. They had given me tea and coffee and cigarettes. They had not smiled or grimaced. They had not beaten me. The questions had come thick and fast, about who I knew and how I knew them, about the part they played in my life. They asked me about Lucy and his grandma. They asked me about revenge. They asked me about how I felt when I'd cut Lucy down from that tree. They asked me how I felt about seeing his grandma's head turned inside out. They watched me and listened to me, and underneath their river of polite questions was an undercurrent of violence so strong that I thought I would drown in their words. When they tossed me back onto the street at dawn the next day, I fell to my knees, vomited and fought for breath. Every inch of my body ached as if they had held me down and taken turns to beat me to within a second of death. And yet they hadn't laid a finger on me.

'What do you want, Reuben?'

'I wanna know whose side you're on, Ben.'

'You say that to me? You say that to me after I cut Lucy down from that tree? After I seen his Grandma's brains spilled out over her pillow? You say that to me?'

'You spent the night with the Sheriff and his boys...'

'So did just about everybody in this town who ain't white.'

'You're a young fella, Ben, but you got a good head on your shoulders. People look up to you. People say you coulda been a lawyer or a money man in the city or some such thing...'

'I never had an inclination for such things, Reub. You know that. Besides, a fella like me don't fit in with that kinda life.'

'A fella like you could fit into any kind of life, Ben. Question is, how you gonna fit in here?'

'Maybe I ain't even gonna try, Reub. I like the peaceful life. Folks leave me alone and I leave them alone. That's the way I am. You know that too.'

'They're planting the Newton woman tomorrow. After that, word is everybody's gonna have to fit somewhere. There won't be no fence left to sit on.'

'Well, I'll just wait and see about that, Reub.'

Reuben leaned forward in his chair and looked square at me. I could feel his eyes upon me. A flush ran up my face. 'You been up the road lately, Ben? The streets are empty. The other side of town's locked itself in. The police are sitting in a line across the road from the barber's, their heads turned towards the village. Half a dozen new faces checked into the hotel. You know who they are, Ben? They're the Klan, that's who they are.'

'You know that for certain? How do you know they ain't just ordinary folk here on business?'

'Oh, they're here on business all right.'

'Man, listening to you, anybody'd think you wanted a fight. Listen to me, Reub. They killed Lucy in the worst possible way you can know and they killed an old lady along with him. Then one of us, some damn fool with his brains in his trigger finger, went and shot one of theirs. If I knew who it was I may well have told Sheriff Gaines when me and him was having our cosy little chat the other night, cause that's what he would've deserved. Going and killing an old lady on her porch just cause they killed two of ours don't make it right, don't justify it. There ain't no justice in that.'

'There ain't no justice at all, Ben. You think they'd ever have caught the man who hung Lucy and battered his grandma's head? You think they'd even have tried?'

'That doesn't mean we can do the same.'

'Dammit, Ben! If the Newton woman hadn't put the word about that Lucy had stolen from her, he wouldn't have hung.'

'She didn't hang him!'

'She might as well have done!'

'Did you shoot her Reuben? Did you kill Eliza Newton?'

'No, I did not.'

'I think you did. Damn! I can't think straight here. Did I see you at Lucy's funeral? Did I? Or were you up on that hill, waiting til that old woman was alone and defenceless, about to sit down and drink some lemonade? Tell me, Reub. Were you at the funeral or did you kill her?'

'It wasn't me, dammit!'

'Ah hell! What does it matter if it was you anyway? You're not ashamed to admit it are you? You're not ashamed to admit that you're the one who blew out her heart are you? Cause, don't forget, she's the one who hung Lucy, ain't she? Except she didn't, did she. She was nasty, God forgive me for saying so, but she was. She had a poisonous tongue and a polluted mind, but she didn't hang Lucy. That was a bunch of white boys out to hang another black boy, no more, no less; drunk or sober, young or old, bank managers or pump attendants, it don't matter. She was an excuse, that was all, same way she was an excuse for one of us to go out and kill her. The fact that she was poisonous and had badmouthed Lucy made it easier, I guess. No, I ain't gonna choose sides, Reub. It's over. Everybody's had their eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth...'

'You think that's it? There's six guys from the Klan checked into the hotel. The law just about carried their bags inside for them. Lucy and his Grandma's dead. The Newton woman's dead. And you think that's it? You think you're gonna be able to just sit on your porch and drink beer while the world around you goes crazy? You're gonna get sucked into it like the rest of us. There ain't no such thing as middle ground no more. Just quicksand.'

For the first time since he'd sat down I turned my eyes upon him. I expected to see an angry man, but what I saw was no more than fear, shining out of his eyes like beacons, sweating out of his skin, and out of that fear grew the germ of irrationality that had steered so many men into conflict. I could see there was no way he was gonna be turned, no way I'd be able to get through the barrier he'd put up between himself and common sense. I shoulda felt sorry for him. He had a family, four kids and a wife, so much to lose, and I guess he felt that whichever way he went, he would never win. If he tried to protect his family by keeping quiet, he was as likely to be hung for his submission as the next man; if he made a noise and fought for his cause, he was as likely to be hung for his dissension as the next man. Reuben had nowhere to go and everything to lose. But I could not feel compassion for him or any other of the shadows that stood at the bottom of my steps. All I could see was how useless it had all become. We'd been dealt a hand at birth and it was a losing one. You either tried to live with that, and hopefully, live you did, or you fought against it, and if you fought against it, chances were you'd die, if not in body, then in your soul. Where we came from there wasn't such a thing as a black lawyer or a black MD. There were black lawn cutters and black mechanics and black men who dug deep black holes, and that was the way it was.

That was the way it was. God given and Devil sent.

Truth is, Reuben and the rest of them wanted me to be a lawyer or a money-man or some such goddamned thing, but not for me, not cause I had the brains to do such things, but for them, to show them that tiny speck of light. Their laziness and their lack of appetite and their living on others dreams made me mad, and now they wanted me to fight their war, something I didn't start, something alien to me. They wanted me to start the revolution for them and if, after a few days, I was still alive, hell, they might even join in too.

Well, I wasn't gonna be a part of that. I didn't fight no man's war but my own. Seeing Lucy die the way he did rent my soul. Finding his grandma the way I did broke my heart. Knowing that old Mrs Newton had had her heart blown out of her chest made me despise the world. I didn't wanna be a part of that. I wanted to be left alone, untouched by the dirty hand of change.

Reuben sighed and pushed himself tiredly out of the chair. He looked defeated already. I grabbed his arm and pulled him down so's his face was close to mine. 'Did it feel good, Reub? Seeing her eyes? Seeing her fear? Did it feel good killing that woman?'

He shrugged me off and walked away from me, back into the night. 'I didn't do it, Ben, I tell you. Almost wish I had.' He kicked at the dust and cursed at the sky. The fight had already started inside him, that was the truth. 'Make your mind up, Ben. If you ain't with us, you're against us, and that ain't no place to be with skin the colour yours is.'

'Reub, get the hell away from my home. Go get some sleep. You ain't gonna use me as your cup of courage. If you want to fight, you do it yourself, but I ain't doing it. From where I sit, three innocent people died for no good reason at all. From where you sit, and from where those Klan boys sit, all three of them were guilty as hell, though what they were guilty of is way beyond me. I just can't fathom why you choose to see it that way.'

'Reasons don't matter no more, Ben.'

'Well, they matter to me. There's gotta be a reason for what you do and it's gotta be a good one. You're using those people as an excuse to stir up the old hate in this town, after we've been so long at peace. They live at one end of town and we live at the other. They're rich and we're poor. They're white and we're black. That's life, Reub. That's the way it is, and it don't matter. It don't matter. Can't you see that? In a hundred years it could be the other way around. Who the hell knows? But it sure as hell ain't worth killing and dying for.'

'Say that to your Daddy before you shut your eyes tonight, boy.'

I leapt out of my chair with half a mind to go and fight him for spitting out such words, but I didn't want to do that. I didn't want to fight anybody, least of all my friend. 'Son of a bitch! How can you say that?'

'How can you forget it?'

With that Reuben Coles and the others went away. I'd known Reuben since the day I was born, even though he had a good fifteen years on me. He'd been like a father and a big brother rolled into one and I loved him for it.

If I could have one wish, it would be that he was still alive, but by this time the next day, he would be dead, too.

 

I sat on that porch for what seemed like hours after Reuben left. After all the years that had gone between us, the only vision I had of him was how he'd stood on those steps, his arm outstretched with a long bony finger pointed out at me and the fear in his eyes. But, I'd been sure that the words we'd shared were not to be the last words we'd ever say to each other. I'd been sure that the next day we'd be on my porch sharing a beer and preaching on how the world had become such a bad place, about baseball, about women, white and black and what they hid under their long skirts, beer talk, safe in the knowledge that those six men in the hotel had packed up and gone, that the line of sheriff's men had dissolved back into the routine of daily life and that the mistakes our town had made were now buried, along with the hate and mistrust that their deaths had brought with them. I was certain at that moment that nothing would change.

As I swallowed the last of the beer and made up my mind to get to bed, a voice rose out of the dark. 'Reuben didn't mean it, what he said about your father. You know he didn't mean it.'

I picked up a chair and held it out in front of me. Not much good if a bullet came my way. 'Who the hell is that? Show yourself.'

The girl from the funeral, who'd worn the red dress and oversized shoes, stepped through the wall of black and into the thin light spread by my lamp. I could see it was her. Truth is, she had just about the prettiest, most unforgettable face I'd ever seen. I can't describe her any more than I already have. She was just about perfect looking in every way, with hair that flowed like oil onto her shoulders and poured down to the top of her breasts.

Thankfully she didn't have those damn shoes on her feet, just a plain pair of sandals. In place of the red dress was a simple blue frock that made her just about the prettiest package on God's earth.

'What the hell are you doing here at this time of night, girl? Don't you have a mother that's worrying about you?'

Her eyes narrowed as she looked at me. 'She's dead.'

'I'm sorry, I didn't mean to..'

'Don't matter. I didn't really know her.' She made her way up to the porch and sat herself down on a chair. 'You got any more of that beer?'

'Yeah. How long you been out there?'

'A while.'

I lowered the chair. 'What the hell you playing at? You can't just hide in the shadows watching a man. I might've been up to private things.'

'I didn't figure you for a pervert.'

'I don't mean like that. I mean a man's thoughts are his own. A man's space is his own. You can't be watching him unannounced in the shadows. It ain't decent. Damn. What the hell do you want anyway?'

She sat herself down on the chair and tipped it back til it balanced on it's two back legs against the wall. 'I told you. A beer.'

'A beer?' I went inside and got a couple of beers, popped them open, went back outside and handed her over a bottle. 'There's your beer. You can go now. If you ask me, that's a hell of a lot of trouble to go to just for a drink. Now go on home.'

'I shot Eliza Newton.' She said it like it was the most natural thing in the world. There was nothing in her eyes to say how she felt about it either, almost as if someone had tipped her upside down like a salt cellar and poured away her soul.

I stared at her. 'You? Why?'

'Because she was a mean and venomous old lady who served no purpose to the world but to make it bad for others to live in.'

'That's it? You killed her cause...what? Cause you didn't like her? There's plenty of people in the world I ain't too keen on, one of them being you at this very moment in time, but that doesn't make me wanna go and blow them away.' I bent down until my face was no more than a couple of inches from hers and she looked me straight cold in the eye. 'Do you know what you did?'

'Of course I know what I did. Who the hell do you think you are anyway, mister?' Her voice was as level as a newly tarred road, but I swear I thought I saw the corners of her mouth turn up the smallest amount into an almost-smile. She was kinda spooky at that moment in time. 'It ain't everybody who can have ice in their veins like you, you know. We ain't all comfortable on that hard to reach moral fence you're so happy to sit upon.'

I fell into my chair feeling like a horse had kicked the wind out of me. 'I ain't sitting on no moral fence,' I said quietly. 'I just ain't gonna get involved in someone else's fight is all. I don't see why the hell I have to choose sides when I ain't on anybody's side to start with. Lord Jesus! What the hell did I do so wrong to deserve this?'

'It ain't got nothing to do with deserve. You're being dealt a hand and you're gonna have to play it.'

'I don't have to do a thing! This is not my fight!'

'Yes it is. You don't have any choice. Same way I didn't.'

'How can you have no choice? Who the hell are you anyway?

'It don't matter who I am.'

'The hell it don't! You killed Eliza Newton. This town's about to go up in flames cause of you and you figure it don't matter who you are? You tell me who you are or I'll drag you kicking and screaming by the hair to the Sheriff. You understand? Don't mistake my liking for reason for stupidity.'

Boy, did her eyes burn. I wasn't sure if she was gonna cry or hit me with that bottle of beer, but suddenly her eyes came alive with a defiance like I ain't never seen before or since. I was kinda glad to see it. For a while there I thought she was a damn ghost or some such thing.

'I'm Mary Tyerman. Lucy was my brother.'

There was no way I could hide my surprise on that. 'Your brother? Damn, but you're a woman full of secrets, ain't you. I thought you was just a rumour. Where have you been all these years?’

‘Cross the county. Pittsville.’

I looked at her with more than a little doubt. ‘Why?’

She flushed, her eyes stubbornly angry at having to explain herself to me. ‘My parents got seventy-five dollars for me. The price went down every year older I got. They couldn’t afford to keep me, so they made a profit from me. Didn’t do them much good though, did it now. They still died. Grandma kept in touch and I got to see Lucy once in a blue moon. They were family. I needed them.’

‘Damn, girl! I thought I knew just about everything about that boy and his grandma. How do I know you ain't lying?'

'You don't. You're just gonna have to take my word for it.'

Now, I wouldn't normally take nobody's word for nothing. If the Lord Jesus himself came back down to earth I'd wanna see some ID. But that girl's eyes never left mine. No liar I ever knew could hold another man's gaze for more than a second. A liar's eyes have to wander cause they ain't capable of facing the truth.

'Well, even if that's the truth, and I ain't saying it is, that don't put right what you've done wrong. Eliza Newton held a lot of important cards in this town. She was the doctor's wife. For that alone she deserved respect.'

Now that hit a nerve. That girl jumped right out of her chair like someone had run electricity up through her behind. 'She didn't deserve no respect! She thought the likes of you and me were nothing but dirt under her heel.'

'That don't matter. That's the way things are. You don't kill a person cause of the way things are. Damn it, girl! Don't you see what you've done? Reuben's out there all fired up and ready to die. He's just about the most peaceful man I ever knew and you went and changed all that.'

'Things needed changing, Ben. People have gotta learn that you can't kill a man for the colour of his skin or cause he may or may not have taken a few cents out of someone's purse. The world ain't so black and white as you'd have it. I've been places, seen things, been treated with some deal of respect. You ain't never been nowhere but here, I'll bet. You don't know any different. That don't make you right, just cause you don't know any other way.'

'So what is right? Is murdering an innocent woman right?'

'Ain't none of us innocent, Ben, not from the day we drop out of our mommas. Am I wrong for trying to change things? Am I wrong for getting revenge? Maybe so. Are you wrong for standing by and letting it all go on?'

'I'm trying to keep the peace.'

'You're trying to keep things the same, Ben, and that ain't good enough. That makes you just as guilty as I am. What happens the next time someone takes a piece of rope and puts it round someone's neck? How will you feel, knowing you had the chance to change things? Why are you so afraid of change anyhow?'

'Cause change hurts. The only time people change things, they change it for nobody but themselves. And they usually end up hurting somebody else in the process. Things are best left the way they are, that way everybody knows where they stand and nobody gets hurt.'

'That's just it. The only people who know where they stand is those folks at the top of the hill. The likes of Lucy don't know if they're waking up just so's they can he beaten or hung.'

'You sure as hell ain't talking about me. I do my work and keep my nose clean.'

'What does that make you? Immortal? You think you're untouchable just cause you don't do nothing wrong? What the hell did Lucy do wrong?'

'Word is he stole some money.'

And with those careless words she slapped my face hard enough to send me flying off my chair. She split my cheek, too. If she'd still had that gun, I think she would've shot me.

'You son of a bitch bastard!' she screamed. 'Is that what you think? You think he stole that money?'

'How the hell would I know?'

'And if he had, would he have deserved to die for that?'

I put a handkerchief against my cheek, but it didn't stem the flow of blood no matter how hard I pressed against it. 'No,' I said quietly. 'No, he wouldn't.'

'The fact is that in this town a bunch of men can come into a man's house in the middle of the night and do what the hell they like to him and anyone else under his roof. That's the truth and you know it and you still don't want to change a thing, even though next time it could be you.'

I picked myself up off the floor, straightened my chair and sat back down. My face was numb. 'I don't like change. I don't like fighting. All it does is get innocent people killed. Why don't you just go away and leave me in peace. You've done what you came to do, so now get the hell out of here.'

'What are you so afraid of? What's wrong with change? Can you answer me that?'

'I believe I already have.'

'No you haven't. This is to do with your Daddy ain't it? I heard what Reuben said earlier tonight. You're talking about your Daddy, ain't you?'

'What the hell do you know about my father? Keep your nose out of things that don't concern you.'

'What happened?'

'Get the hell away from me or I swear to God I'll turn you in like I said I would!'

'No you won't. You won't turn me in. If you were gonna do that, you'd've done it by now. You're glad I killed her, only you don't want to admit it, not to Reuben, not to me and least of all to yourself. Tell me. Tell me what happened to your Daddy.'

I could've killed her. It took just one fast step for me to reach her and my hand was on her neck so tight I could feel her trying to swallow. In that one second of anger I could've squeezed until I was sure she'd never draw breath again. Still she didn't take her eyes off me. She just stood there like a rag doll and waited to see what I would do. I don't know how long we stood like that, the silence broken only by the crickets in the long grass that edged the road and the frogs that belched their way through the night on the riverbank. A thousand thoughts went through my head, so fast yet so clear, of how I could kill her and bury her and the world would never know, of the fight that would surely come if I gave in to Reuben and her, of how pretty she was, of how she'd look, purple and bloated and nibbled at by the fish when her body was found after two weeks in the river. Of my father's swollen face and the spit that rolled down his chin and stretched down to the dusty ground, of how he spun and spun, his eyes empty, like a dulled mirror.

I felt my fingers relax. It didn't seem to be a conscious action, it was as if my thoughts had taken on a life of their own, had weighed up the actions and the consequences, had taken each fragmented image as it had flown through my mind and made some sort of sense of them.

Actions and consequences.

That's all I had ever seen, all I ever knew. No more, no less. I had lost my spontaneity beneath a tree at the age of nine, had removed the fun from my life, cause I was afraid.

'Okay,' I said.

I let her go and she fell to the ground, sucking in large, ragged breaths as she went. She slid into the corner of the porch, her legs folded beneath her like some little girl who had, for the first time, discovered fear and wondered what it was and why. I retreated from her and sat upon my chair.

'They hung him too. They didn't hang him for theft or anything like that. They didn't even bother making up an excuse. They just came along one night when we were asleep, dragged him outside, to the same tree where they hung Lucy, and hung him. Not satisfied with that, they made me and my mother watch. About ten years later, Reuben told me what it was all about. It seems that someone, someone of about the same build as my Daddy, someone who walked like my Daddy, someone with the same accent as my Daddy and someone with the same skin color as my Daddy, had made some remarks to one of the young girls who was out about town with her folks. She'd told the Sheriff about this, knowing full well what he'd do. They must've picked our name outta the phone book or something, I don't know, but they decided to use my Daddy as the example. So me and my Momma watched, our arms held behind us, our heads forced upwards, our faces slapped if we closed our eyes, as they put a rope around my Daddy's neck, threw it over a branch and then simply heaved him up into the air. Took six men to lift him and they took turns. When one got tired, another one stepped into his place, while the tired one sat by and watched and had a smoke or something. I don't know how long it took him to die, about ten, maybe fifteen minutes, I guess, I really don't know. Strangling's a pretty slow process, you know. Anyway, when they were sure he was dead, they dropped him to the ground and walked away. Just like that. They just walked away. Nobody made remarks to that young girl again. Nobody made remarks to any young white girl again.'

Mary picked herself up, her hand still rubbing at her sore neck. She came over to me and knelt next to my chair, like we were sitting of an evening next to a fire, like it was a perfect world. 'Who was she, Ben?'

'You know who she was. Eliza Newton. Her mouth almost caused a war then, but Reuben calmed it all down, made peace between the top of the hill and the village. When he told me, I was mad at him for doing such a thing. I wanted to kill her there and then, no matter the years that had passed since then, but he stopped me, made me see sense. Two wrongs don't make a right, he said. All that would happen was that a lot of innocent people would get hurt. Now I'm throwing the same words back at him, but he don't wanna listen. You understand now why I don't want change? Things are best left as they are.'

'You heard what he said. There's Klan guys at the hotel. The Sheriff's men are guarding the road to the top of the hill. That's not to keep the white folk out, it's to keep us in. Don't you see that? You and me, we don't have a choice. There's a fight coming and you've gotta decide what side you wanna be on.'

I looked at her. There was a bruise already coming up on her neck. It looked like a love-bite. Strange. 'You shouldn't've shot her, Mary. You're too pretty to be a killer.'

'And you're too clever to be a fool.'

I think that was when I kissed her. Whether it was the heat of the moment that made me do it, I don't know. That mark on her neck kinda struck me though. Maybe it was my way of saying how sorry I was.

She didn't pull away. She raised herself up on her knees and put her arms around me. 'There ain't nothing I can do to stop this now,' she whispered in my ear.

'I can't be a part of it,' I said.

'I know.'

She held me for a minute more then stood up and went down the steps. I watched her go until the sway of her dress got lost in the dark, listened as the sound of her footsteps in the dust faded into the sounds of the crickets and the frogs.

I went inside and looked at the wound on my cheek. It had stopped bleeding and wasn't so bad as I thought. I put a large plaster over it and then went and lay on my bed.

Only two things passed through my mind that night before I fell asleep. Mary and the trouble yet to come.

 

I slept for maybe three hours, but it felt like I hadn't slept at all. I must've dreamed of everything that had gone through my head that night when I was on the porch with Mary, and as each dream became too much for me to bear, I woke up, relieved to find myself on my own sweat-stained bed, in the comfort of my own familiar darkness. Then the thoughts of what the next day might bring would flood back into my mind and I would force myself into another restless sleep.

I had made up my mind to stay at home with my doors and windows shut the next day, determined not to become involved in whatever happened. If my fear led me into cowardice, then so be it. I wasn't born to die a hero.

As dawn came I began to shake. First my hands trembled, followed by my legs, and by the time the sun had found it's place in the sky, I shook uncontrollably. It was as if the fear that had hidden for so long in my mind had seeped like a slow poison into my veins. It had become something tangible, had flowed out of my spirit and onto my skin, made me sweat and cry and shake so hard I could barely hold a cup in my hand without losing it's contents on the floor. It was as if I had a fever and my body and soul were fighting to keep me alive, as if I had to shake this thing out of me like a disease. It was as if the two halves of my conscience were doing battle within me, like two great armies thundering across the plains towards each other, making the very ground beneath them quake.

I retreated to my bed again. From there I could look out of my window, could gaze at the world over my knees.

I didn't hear the world explode. I saw no red sky like I had on the morning that Lucy had died. All I heard was a string of muffled shots that sounded like they'd been fired from behind a pillow.

It wasn't the shots that were so bad. I'd been expecting them since Mary had stepped down from the porch the night before. It was the silence that followed, the emptiness, the questions it raised. I crawled the length of my bed and went to the window. A ghost of smoke drifted past, carried on the hot river breeze. The smell of gunfire oozed through my walls and hit my nose. I vomited as my stomach knotted and heaved up into my chest.

I waited.

 

I thought he was drunk. For one bizarre second I thought he was drunk. He was staggering like he was, you see. His legs were all over the place and he was pale, his hands at his belly, like he might've just thrown up in the gutter.

Then I saw the blood weeping through his fingers, down his white shirt, shining in the sun. He held out a hand, maybe to me if he saw me through the window, maybe to my door, and it too was red. He lurched up the first two steps onto my porch, then fell, face first. No grace, no last words. Dead.

I stared at him and called out. 'Reub?' A little louder. 'Reub?'

I stuttered like a cripple to the door and slowly let in the light, unable to get my breath, unable to speak, the world glazed by a fog of tears. Reuben Coles lay dead on my porch. It was where he wanted to be, where he had struggled to be. He'd held out hope for me until the last, had come to me for help as he died. If he'd stayed where he was shot and waited for help he may well have survived, it takes quite a while to die if you're just plain gut-shot. But Reuben had made his way down into the village to find me, to give me one last chance to play my part and overcome my fear.

He hadn't come this far to save himself, he had come this far to save me, and I had failed.

And I had failed.

I had watched him from behind a closed door as he danced crazily across the street, had met his eyes with nothing but rejection, and had gone to his aid only when I thought it safe.

All this came to me as I watched the life flow from him onto my porch, roll slowly like lava between the boards and drip onto the dust beneath my house.

'Is this what you wanted?'

I looked up and saw Mary Tyerman standing over me. In her right hand was a pistol and on her arm was a perfect bloody hand print.

I waved my hands over Reuben's body. 'I didn't want this.'

'Well, you got it anyway.' Mary crouched down. She looked at Reuben and ran her fingers through his hair.

'What happened?' I asked.

'One of them Klan boys from the hotel shot him. Me and Reuben and Tom Macy and a few others decided to go uptown, only the Sheriff and his boys were no longer there, just this string of Klan boys stretched out across the road, guns and rifles in their hands, stood there like it was the OK Corral.'

'Who fired first?'

'Does it matter?'

'Who fired first, Mary?'

'They did. Reuben had decided that you were right. He was on his way up the hill to make peace. He was going to see the Sheriff.'

'And he was armed?'

'Yes he was armed! What do you expect?' Mary put her gun down on the porch and sat down next to me. 'He had good intentions, Ben. After I left here last night, he came to see me and told me so. Said he remembered the words you and him shared after your Daddy died, said he would be a hypocrite to go against all he'd said to you that day.'

She pushed herself up and moved to a chair in the shade. I could tell she was searching for words, but I didn't know how to make it easy for her.

'Did anybody else get hurt?' I asked.

'Aaron Tolby took a shot in the chest. I think he's dead, too.'

'I heard more than two shots.'

'I shot one of theirs. I know he's dead. He went down like horse with a broken neck.' She turned to me and gave me that soulless look that I'd seen the night before. 'They're after me now, Ben. They had us holed up in the stables. Aaron sneaked me out back ‘fore they spread his ribs. They set the place on fire, Ben. They knew all those men were in there and they didn't give a damn. I'm pretty sure they saw me get away.'

'Well, then you'd better get yourself away from here.' In the distance I could see the smoke from the barn as the fire began to take a hold. 'Mary, get out of here before they get bored with the fire and come looking for you.'

She picked up the gun and stood up. For the first time I noticed that she was wearing man's clothes; a pair of brown trousers, a white shirt and a brown waistcoat. 'Mary!' I barked. 'Will you go? Will you please get out of here?'

She took a couple of steps forward, then stopped, looked around her a bit, up the street, down the street, across the street, but her feet were nailed to my top step.

'What's the matter with you?'

She turned to me and there were tears in her eyes. 'I don't know what to do, Ben. I don't know where to go.'

'Anywhere but here, dammit!'

She should've cursed me for the coward that I was. Even with Reuben lying dead at my feet and the girl begging me for help, all I could think about was being left alone. If she stayed she was gonna bring me nothing but trouble, and I didn't want that. I didn't want trouble. I didn't want to be afraid. I didn't want to be a hero. I didn't want to die.

If she had cursed me and walked away, I could have stayed on my knees, suitably scolded, branded the coward that I was, but a living coward at that. But instead she just looked at me, nodded her head and walked away, like she had known all along that that was what I would do. She too had offered me a chance and I had failed.

I had failed.

'Wait!' I called. She stopped and turned. 'Come with me,' I said.

I grabbed her hand and we ran behind my house into the cornfield. I heard another shot from town, then another, and I guessed the flames had forced someone's hand.

The field ran parallel to the main street, went up the hill behind all the houses. When I'd been a boy, we'd used this route to steal into the white folks' gardens and take our pick of the fruit. I guess we didn't realise just how dangerous those games were back then.

Short of breath and with tired, shaking legs, we reached our destination. Many times I had been in Margaret Gray's garden, first as thief and then as gardener. Now the circle had turned and I was back as thief.

We ran across her garden and through a door into her house and from there took another door into her garage.

There before us stood her pristine blue flame Ford.

'Get in,' I ordered.

'In that?'

'Yes, in that.'

Mary jumped over the door and sat in the passenger seat. 'You know how to drive this thing?'

'Course I do. I've maintained it long enough.'

'That don't mean you can drive it. Have you ever driven it?

'Sure I have. Onto the drive and back into the garage.'

'That's not very much.'

I slowly opened the garage door and looked about. The street was empty save for a couple of men further down towards the village. Everybody must've been too busy watching the fire. 'Do you have a better idea?'

Mary offered no reply. I got into the car. The keys were in the ignition as they always were. In them days, nobody figured that their car was ripe to be stolen.

Then my heart sank as I heard two clicks as the hammers fell back on a shotgun. 'Where are you going with my car?'

Margaret Gray, looking every inch her seventy-two years, stood in the doorway, the butt of the heavy gun tucked under her arm. Her arms shook with the weight as she struggled to keep it pointed up at me. 'I ask you again. Where are you going with my car?'

'Mrs Gray...'

'Get out of the car.'

We got out of the car and lined up before her, our hands held up by our shoulders. She came forward and stuck the barrel of the gun in my chest. 'What are you doing, Ben?'

'We have to get away. You hear what's going on in town.'

'I hear it.' Very slowly she lowered the gun until it rested on the wall next to her. 'How far do you think you're going to get? The Sheriff has every main road out of here blocked off with his boys. Did you figure you'd plough your way through them?'

'If I had to.'

'Not in my car you're not. I didn't pay you all that money to keep it pristine so's you could go and crash the damn thing or have filled with bullet holes by that fool sheriff.' She considered me carefully, her sharp blue eyes dissecting every line of my face. 'I figured you had more sense than to get involved with something like this, Ben.'

'Me too,' I said.

She studied us some more and shook her head slowly. 'Get in the trunk both of you.'

'In the trunk?'

'I'll drive you to the state line. You can make your way on foot from there. I can't do any more than that.'

Mary leaned against the car and crossed her arms, the suspicion in her eyes as clear and as hard as the defiance I'd seen the night before. 'Why are you doing this?'

Margaret Gray went to the back of the car and opened the trunk. 'Does it matter?'

'No,' said Mary. 'But I'd like to know.'

Mrs Gray picked up a blanket, unfolded it and gave it a shake. 'I don't like what they're doing. It's wrong, plain and simple. Don't misunderstand me, I don't like the fact that someone killed Eliza Newton, but at least that had some strange sense to it. She was a nasty, poisonous, ambitious woman. I know for a fact that she didn't have a cent stolen from her, but she got that poor backward boy hung all the same. I don't know why, I never understood most of her reasoning, she had a sad and twisted mind, but I know that the boy didn't steal a thing, but she had a mind to see him hung and that's what happened. She had no thought for the consequences, never did. She certainly never figured it would get her killed.' She sighed a heavy sigh, as if she was at last removing some great weight from herself. 'It's her husband I feel sorry for. A more decent and honourable man it would be difficult to find. Come on, get in the trunk. I'll cover you up with this blanket.'

Me and Mary both walked over to the trunk and climbed in. The damn thing was bigger than my damn house.

'Who killed Eliza Newton?' she asked all of a sudden. 'Don't worry, I won't tell a soul. I'm just curious.'

'I did.'

She looked at me like I was a skunk that’d just squirted up her best summer dress. 'Well, that's between you and the Lord, Ben.' She turned her gaze upon Mary. 'What's your part in all this, young lady?'

Mary looked at me, surprised that I should have been so quick to shoulder the blame. 'Lucy was my brother,' she said.

'Well, aren't you a girl full of surprises. I thought I knew just about everything about Lucy and his grandma.'

Before she closed the trunk, she looked at me and smiled, as if to say that she knew the truth, that me and her were both too late in this war to call ourselves anything but fools, but at least, maybe, we came good in the end.

 

Margaret Gray was as good as her word. She lied her way through three rows of lawmen, even scolded some of them for wasting her time, and dropped us off at the state line.

She refused to let us thank her, said that it was the very least she could have done. I understood that sentiment well.

We were still wanted by the law. We had committed a federal offence and as such could be chased across any state line they pleased. We were now fighting the law of the land, not just some fiction invented by a group of bigots.

For some time me and Mary went from place to place, always one step ahead of the law. After a couple of years we settled in a town called Blue Oak, a nice place where nobody knew us, where nobody wanted to know us and where, as Mary had once said, we were treated with some deal of respect. We even felt safe enough to marry.

But the law caught up with us again and forced us out of the place where we'd been happy for the longest time.

Not long after, Mary left me. She couldn't take any more. All she ever wanted was a porch where we could sit for a few nights under a million stars, but I couldn't even give her that.

I don't know where she went. I never saw her nor heard of her again.

 

I killed a man. Yes I did. Can't have been more than an hour ago. Some white fella who came to arrest me on a charge of murder. I never murdered nobody, not til now.

I don't know what I'm gonna do. I ain't gonna run, though. I'm tired of running. Besides, there ain't really nowhere left to go, and with Mary gone, I ain't left with nothing but the blame. Still, that's the least I can do, take the blame, I didn't do much else when I was called upon.

I guess I'll just sit and wait and see what turns up. You never know.

You never know.

 


© Copyright 2019 Christopher Bradbury. All rights reserved.

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