by Preston Taylor Stone
The thunder had rolled the evening into night: syncopations the dog growled at, but the rain never came. So it wasn’t without reason that I paused, wondering whether the bangs on the door were real.
“Open the goddamn door.”
I unlatched and opened the door and my sister shoved her way into my studio apartment, tracking mud on the white tiles and the gray patterned rug beyond it. She did lose herself on occasion, her panics frequent after the local court dropped the charges on the man who hit her in the parking lot of the Publix with his car. She was, as the prosecutor argued, “an overly hysterical woman with a history of drug abuse and paranoia. Who could believe she would tell the truth now if she hadn’t told the truth enough to keep her children?”
The old dog met her with sniffs and a waggy tail. She ruffled his fur as she sat down on the couch, her muddy shoes still on.
“He’s over there,” she said. “Watching me like a fuckin’ sniper.”
“Who’s over where?” I said.
“I swear to god, do you read your email?”
“Yes,” I said, a lie.
“The man from the church, the one who gave out the candies—prolly fuckin’ laced. He’s moved into the trailer across the way from me and his blinds never close. He don’t even make a show of being a stalker.”
“Don’t you think you’re being a little—”
“Fuck you. I’m not paranoid and I took a picture to prove it.”
She took out her phone, different from the one I had seen her with just a week before; though, I should say: she hadn’t keep phones for very long, not because she was paranoid about the number getting taken, but because she dropped them. Out windows, in toilets, on sidewalks, in the garbage disposal, in food or beers. She dropped them a lot.
The photo she brought up is of an older man walking into the trailer across the way from her own and what appeared to be a small bedroom window without blinds.
“I don’t see how—” I started, but she shushed me and flipped to the next photo.
The second and third photos she flipped to were more concerning: one of the man with a rifle while he sat in an older lawn chair the likes of which had probably not been sold since the late 90s, and one of what appeared to be the man watching the camera from the window. I didn’t think it was cause for as much alarm as she did at the time.
“Maybe,” I said, “he’s watching you because he can see you’re watching him. The gun’s a gun. People have guns, especially down here. They show ’em off.”
“But showing it off after you know I’m watching?”
“Why don’t you speak with him about it if you’re worried for the kids’ safety?”
“I just got them back from the state,” she said. I could tell she had thought through the scenario. “You think I wanna go argue with some armed fucker from the church who all but kicked me out so he can go on and tell everybody I’m what they always thought I was?”
Then, dog sat at her feet and licked some of the mud from the tip of her socks closest her knee. Another percussive episode of thunder made him growl so she shewed him from her feet. She had always been afraid of big dogs, even as when she was her daughter’s age. I thought more about the man, remembering as my sister had pointed out that he’d given out candy when we were small kids, stopping only because he had contracted diabetes and gave up sweets altogether, according to Nana. The pockets of his pleated khakis seemed so deep when we were that age. In the photos, though, the man seemed unbecomingly small. His petiteness was swallowed by the khakis, yes, but their length was too short for his leg and his tall white tube socks more than peaked out from the bottom of both shins. He was frail looking, too, like he’d had to take pains in order to lift the rifle.
“I don’t think you ought to worry,” I said. “That will just trigger some of your worse behaviors. And besides, he’s got a limp now, doesn’t he? Lost his leg from the knee down to diabetes, Nana said.”
My sister wasn’t satisfied by this answer. Almost offended, it seemed, at me dismissing her fears. She was paranoid, at times, the only remaining effect of her addiction. But she had come to my apartment for support and she trusted my loyalty to her wouldn’t be in question as it had been by almost everyone else in our family after she lost custody of the kids.
“Let’s go,” I said.
When we drove up to the trailer of the old man, I could feel her tense up. The man wasn’t in the yard, but the old chair was. It must have rained on that part of town because the sand and the little grass that the man had in his yard was wet. The sand snared when we stepped out of the truck and the tall weeds made a slap against my boots, leaving wettened imprints along the sides.
“I ought to go check on the kids across the way,” my sister said. “You know E. can’t be alone with her brother for more than a hour without wanting to strangle him.”
She’d already started walking to her place.
“No,” I said, and waved her over to where I was standing in front of the truck, which pointed at the man’s front door. “We’ll settle this together. You’re the one who’s scared, anyway, so you can confront him.”
She waited, thinking about it, probably offended I used scared, but I’d chosen the word specially. She was paranoid, and she knew it, but the one way I knew I’d get her was if I called her scared. She’d have jump off an ATV if someone told her she was too scared to do it. She turned around and walked to where I was. I tapped my knuckles on the vinyl door of the man’s trailer. No answer.
“Hello?” I said. “Sir? Excuse me.”
Still no answer. I looked around to see if his car was anywhere. I hadn’t noticed it driving up.
“Maybe he isn’t here,” I said to my sister. “Where’s his car anyway?”
“Don’t got a car,” she said. “Nana said he ain’t been able to drive for last couple years and ain’t got no family left to take him anywhere. And besides that, he’s always here. Never goddamn leaves.”
We hadn’t noticed the kids come from my sister’s place until they’d gotten to my truck.
“Uncle!” E. said. The little one tried but he could only muster out “Untull.”
“Get the hell back in the house,” my sister said to them both. She was scared. “I told you don’t come ‘round this man’s property. He’s got a gun, dammit.”
E. hugged me tight, ignoring her mother. Weird how they grow. She was almost taller than I was even though she was just ten years old. She screamed when she let go of me.
“He does got a gun, don’t he?” the old man said. He’d walked from around the side, and his arms held the shotgun, pointed at us. He cocked it.
“Woah,” I said, stepping in front of my sister while the kids hid behind her. “C’mon now, why you got that pointed at us for?” I said, making my accent thicker to appeal to him.
“You know it’s illegal for somebody walk on a man’s property without permission in the state of Florida?” he said. “And if I feel threatened I could damn well shoot somebody who’s on my land.”
“Sir,” I said, begging. “Please, you don’t wanna do this.”
I walked slowly toward him, something I knew of either intuitively or because of the films I’d seen. I had no plan of how I’d get him to put the gun down. With it cocked, I couldn’t very well grab it, since a slight nod of his finger on the trigger would see my hand or worse blown off. Shotguns are the flamethrowers of guns, the unskilled shooter’s choice: they dole out imprecise and unforgiving destruction. That close to us, he could have shot an arm off or blown my head to kingdom come.
“I think, actually, I do wanna do this,” he said. “Bitch’s been watchin’ me for all hours of the day and night. Wouldn’t take the warning when I got my gun out. Now strangers’ on my land asking for clemency.”
“You don’t remember us?” I said. “St. Peter’s UMC. Mary Louise Helms is our grandmother.”
For the first time, he let the gun down a bit, opening the eye he’d closed to make as good a shot as he could.
“You Patrick’s kids,” he said. “Or the other one’s?”
Uncle Pat had been a reputable member of the church for going on thirty years. He led bible studies, communions, youth camping trips, missionaries, and Sunday school classes. My mother, though, had always worked full time at the hospital. The last thing she wanted was an endless sermon at the quietest church in town on her one day off. No one in the family blamed her; she got us there every Sunday and Wednesday as kids. But the church members made side comments to all of us about her. “She can bring them but not stay,” they’d said. Or “We sure do miss her. Hope she can make it,” with just the right amount of judgement in the tone of voice that you knew that it was a commendation, not an invitation. In the split moment he’d asked which of Nana’s children we belonged to, I figured he’d surely wanted me to say Uncle Pat.
“You hear me, boy?” he said.
He put his face back against the shotgun, closed the one eye, and aimed again for me. My sister hit me on the shoulder and whispered something I couldn’t make out. She was telling me to lie, I was sure.
“Patrick,” I said. “It’s Patrick.”
E. stepped from behind her mother. “Great Uncle Patrick?” she said.
“Liars!” the old man said and he took the shot at E.
My sister screamed and covered her body with hers. I lunged at the old man and he cocked the gun again, but I pushed the barrel up before he could fire. The bullet broke through the makeshift patio cover that jutted from the camper’s side, protecting the chair from rain. The force of my pushing, with the firing of the gun, pushed the man down. I took the shotgun from his hands and knocked him out with the stock.
“Call 9-1-1,” I said to my sister. She was screaming, still on of E.’s body. The little one was crying now, too, but likely because he saw his mother doing it. He was too young to know death. I said it again: “Call 9-1-1!” She took out her phone and dialed. When they answered, she struggled to tell them what had happened. I could tell the operator was unable to understand her because she had to repeat herself several times.
“Give me the phone,” I said and took it. “Hello, yes. There’s been a child shot at Maury’s Mobile Manor, Jacksonville, FL. Yes. Thank you.”
I took off my button-down shirt and pushed my way to E.’s body. She was bleeding from where her chest met her neck. “Move,” I said and shoved my sister. “We gotta control the bleeding. That’s what they said.” My sister grabbed the little one and held him close while they both cried. Their screams were stomach-turning, and I don’t know to this day how no one heard enough to come see what had happened. Not a soul living in the mobile park made their way over to where we were.
The old man groaned and when my sister noticed, she grabbed my shoulder and screamed louder.
“Hold this,” I said to her, putting her hand on top of my bloodied shirt. “Press down!”
I grabbed the shotgun from the ground and beat the man where his hand was rubbing his head. I cursed him to hell and beat the shit out of him. His old body cracked like hot oil under my boots and his skull popped and flattened as I beat his face with the butt of the gun. When I was tired and the anger expensed, I realized what I’d done. My sister had stopped crying and started comforting E. with words like “Come on, baby, stay with me. Stay with momma.”
“C.” I said, calling her. She ignored me, stroking her daughter’s face and continuing the mantras of comfort. “C.!”
She turned to me finally. “Tell them the man ran off with the gun.”
“What?” she said through tears. “Why?”
“Just do it!” I said.
She looked frightened by my yelling at her but she nodded.
I took the old man’s body and chucked it into the bed of the truck. When I went back for the gun, I realized the man’s blood had painted the grass under it. I panicked. Looked around. I threw the gun into the bed of the truck and ran over to E. and my sister.
“C. we gotta move her over there,” I said. “They need to think that’s her blood.”
E.’s body had fallen on wet sand and barely stained it despite all the blood she’d lost. We picked up my niece carefully, C. keeping the pressure on the wound. The flash of the police and ambulance lights was in view now. We were roughly midway into the mobile park but I hoped there’d be an exit at the back. We sat E. down where I had bashed the man’s skull in. I ran to where she had fallen and kicked around the wet dirt so it was of no focus for the police. I hopped into the truck, cranked it, and rolled down the window.
“Don’t forget,” I said. “He ran away with the gun.”
C. nodded. I backed the truck quickly—I could hear the body and the gun toss around the bed of the truck when I changed gears and sped off toward the back of the mobile park. By this point, I could see people coming out their homes. They had begun walking toward the sirens alongside the dirt road. I slowed to appear unsuspicious, but they still watched me closely as I passed them.
At the back of the mobile park, there was no exit. The dirt road ended at a final mobile home that was grown over with vines. The vinyl was so colored by a rusty orange mold that it had to have been years since it was abandoned. The trailer had become a part of the forest around it, the yard busheled by tall weeds and dense, wet grass. When I got out the truck, I looked around to confirm the property’s abandonment, peered around the truck and up the road to see if any of the neighbors wandered their way behind me. No one.
I opened the truck bed and pulled the body from the back. It fell to the ground like several cinder blocks, making a thumping sound. I dragged the body to the front door of the abandoned trailer. I said a silent prayer and tried the door. It was unlocked. I pushed the door in, moved the vines from out the doorway, and yanked the body into the living room of the home. The automatic headlights of my truck flipped off and the whole place was swallowed by darkness. I shut the door and got my phone out for the flashlight. I used it to look around the house, which while it was dirty did not smell of anything but dust and still air.
I checked the closets for shovels since I hadn’t seen a shed in the yard. Nothing. The closest I found was a large ladle in the kitchen drawer. I saw a long bread knife with serrations in the drawer and abandoned the burial idea. I looked in the living room for a fireplace and found one below a dusty wooden mantle. I opened the smoke shaft, and used my cigarette lighter to start a fire with my undershirt and what remaining wood there was alongside the fireplace.
When I took the knife toward the old man’s body, the barbarism I had committed and would continue finally occurred to me. It began to rain outside, hard. Thunder shook the trailer and I winced when the man’s skin and muscle squeeched from the knife. As the rain got stronger, though, crackling on the top of the trailer, I wasn’t able to hear any more sounds from the body under the knife. However, I quickly realized that the knife wasn’t nearly sharp enough for the man’s bones, even with their frailty. Besides that, it would have taken too long to chop the man’s body up and burn each piece in the small fireplace.
So, I decided after a moment that I would fold the man’s body into a ball. I tucked his body into a pillowcase from the bedroom and waited for the fire to get hot enough to burn a full body. My sister’s paranoia was not unfounded. The man was crazy, I told myself. Reiterating this phrase stopped my own paranoia. I’d killed someone. I wasn’t trained to kill a man. I’d never joined the military like my father or uncle Pat. I wasn’t a surgeon or a nurse. I had never seen the amount of blood that had collected under the man’s head when I had squashed it with the gun. I had never gone to the dressing place with my father after we’d hunted and killed a deer because I didn’t want to see them slice into the animal’s flesh and rip the muscles away from the bones the way my friends had told me they did. Yes, he’d shot my niece and self-defense is an argument that can hold up for some things, but not when you beat a man so much you collapse his skull. The man was crazy. My sister’s paranoia was not unfounded. The man was crazy. He shot my niece.
I went searching for lighter fluid or something flammable to help the body burn. The fireplace would never get hot enough to burn the body. I found something better: lye. I wasn’t a soldier, a doctor, a nurse, or an undertaker, but I had paid attention in high school chemistry. Lye and water can melt flesh, disintegrate it into a bubbly body stew, and empty every nutrient from every bone so they are brittle enough to powderize under small amounts of pressure. Heat expedites the process.
I got the largest pot I could find in the kitchen of the abandoned trailer and filled it with water from the case of water bottles I kept in the backseat of my truck. When I got back inside the trailer, I put the pot on the fire, and dragged the pillowcase with the man’s folded-up body inside it to the bathroom. I emptied out his body into the tub and wrapped the bloodied pillowcase around my head to cover my nose and mouth, so I didn’t inhale the fumes. I scattered the entire bin of powder lye over the body. When the water was warm enough, I poured it over the body. It wasn’t enough water so I did this several times: filled up the pot with water, warmed the pot, and poured it over the lyed body in the tub. Eventually, the fumes and smell of the bubbling flesh were so much I had to close my eyes and avoid breathing when I entered the bathroom.
When the water from my case ran out, I put out the fire and got in my truck to call my sister and meet her at the hospital. I didn’t have service, so I drove up the road until I could find a place where I had bars. I finally got to my sister’s place and my phone connected to the WiFi. My phone dinged with two voicemails and ten missed calls from my sister and my mother. I parked the car at my sister’s trailer and called her. No answer. I called my mom.
“Hey, baby,” she said. Her voice was calmer than I expected it to be, given the circumstances. Hearing her made my voice crack, my emotions finally hitting me.
“Which hospital y’all at?” I said, sniffling through tears.
“Memorial.” She spoke to someone else, thanking them. “Baby, you should get here soon.”
I put the truck in gear and drove toward the entrance of the mobile park.
“How is she? Is she okay?”
“E. didn’t make it, honey.”
The lump in my throat grew as hard as rock, my mouth dried, and my vision blurred, submerging in tears.
“I gotta go, baby,” my mom said. “They’re calling us in. Come quick.”
She hung up.
The next day, I bought the abandoned trailer and moved into it. I cleaned up the yard and cleared off the vines and painted the vinyl bright white. The old man’s liquid remains filled up the tub, too thick to go down the drain. So, I bought five-gallon gasoline jugs, filled them with water, and diluted the liquid remains of the tub every few hours until only the bones were left. When the electricity was reconnected to the trailer, I boiled the bones in lye and water until they were brittle enough to be crushed. I flushed the crushings down the toilet.
The funeral was at the church and they buried E. next to my grandfather. It was sunny and so humid that everyone sweat through their clothes and the women fanned their faces with the programs. My sister cried, of course, sitting in a chair facing the preacher and the casket. My mother held my nephew in her lap and rubbed my sister’s back while they both cried, as well. My father sat next to my mother listening to the preacher, a stoic and hardened look I couldn’t tell from one of boredom behind his dark sunglasses. His face didn’t appear to bear any tears.
While the preacher gave a final prayer and everyone bowed their heads, I stared at the casket. I thought about how I didn’t regret killing the old man. I would never speak of it with my sister and to this day she has never mentioned it to me. My nephew, God willing, won’t remember. I thought about E. and my nephew going to church with my mother and father while they had custody of the children, when my sister was in rehab last time. E. loved to sing hymns and was fascinated by the sound of the organ. When she’d asked me once if I believed in God, I lied and told her no. I wished I hadn’t lied.
Preston Taylor Stone is an English PhD student at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, FL, where his research centers on diaspora studies, contemporary literature, and formalism. He is the Chief Editor of KAIROS Literary Magazine.