The ‘78 Chevy pickup came down the road in a plume of dust. When it jolted to a halt, the dirt caught up and wrapped around it before settling like a fog. The night was bright under the gibbous moon.
“Stay in the truck,” he barked. He whipped the keys from the ignition and shoved them into the pit of his right pocket.
“Daddy, no!” she cried. She was sobbing and her face glistened, cheeks and chin streaming and dripping. He spat and turned around.
“Shut up! Stay in the truck.” He slammed the door shut. She clutched the cheek that he had struck and stroked her wounds, new and old, trembling as he slammed the door. She brought her legs up to her chest and put her face in her knees and pleaded under her breath.
He strode deliberately up the walk beneath the giant elm trees whose leaves were unsure of themselves in the night. Hot winds bore down on them and rattled the branches to the repetitive and interlocking sound of witchcraft music. In an instant, he was on the porch and pounding on the door. He held the gun out of view of the peephole and heard someone’s footsteps approach.
“Who is it?” said an older woman whose voice he recognized. She must’ve wondered why one would pound so hard on a door at this time of night. And she must’ve had second thoughts about coming to the door at all.
“This is Don Garner, Stephanie’s father. ‘Like to speak with you and the Mr. and your son too, I s’pose.” He was not very calm in his voice but it was convincing enough.
“Who’s at the door?” called the Mr.
“It’s Don Garner,” said the Mrs.
“It’s Matt’s girlfriend’s father,” she said. Don thought he heard the Mr.’s voice coming from the kitchen or the dining room. Don waited, hoping that the Mr. might come to the door.
“What does he want?” asked the Mr.
“Says he wants to talk.”
Don heard a chair scoot across the floor, followed by boot steps. The steps stopped. The Mr. opened the door without reserve and found the barrel of Don’s 12-gauge pointing at his face. The Mr. held his hands up and didn’t speak.
“Don’t y’all worry. Ain’t out for no blood. Just wanted to talk.” Don moved into the house, “Close the door,” he told the Mrs. and she did, “Sit on that there couch,” he motioned at it. The two sat on the couch and the Mr. put an arm around his wife to comfort her.
“It’s goin to be alright,” he whispered to her.
They were sitting in a small living room on an overdesigned loveseat, and the whole room was overdesigned to match. A paleness of color with details of floral patterns like devouring weeds, and pillows so studded and threaded they scratched the face. A vase in the corner with a plant in it and a vase on a stand that was empty. The oak coffee table standing delicately on four spindled legs. A quiet fireplace collected dust. Don’s mobile home didn’t have a fireplace. It didn’t have a stove.
“Smells like a mighty fine roast beef,” said Don. He sat in an armchair opposite with the gun across his lap, “Y’all have a nice supper?”
They did not respond. The Mrs. sat quivering and the Mr.’s pride began to muster and his posture straightened and he thought enough huffing and puffing might be enough to save them.
“Well,” Don smiled, crossing a boot over his knee, “it sure does smell delicious anyway. I bet you’re a fine, fine cook Mrs. Benet. And I reckon this here living room—“
“What is it you want to talk about?” Mr. Benet said.
Don turned his head. He nodded slowly. “Your son.”
“Don’t you hurt him!” said Mrs. Benet with a squeak.
The Mr. held her firmly and said, “Our boy hasn’t done nothing.”
“You’re wrong about that. You may think you’re high and mighty and that I don’t know left from right, but I seen what’s goin on.”
“Have you lost your mind? If you—”
“Shut up,” Don retorted, sitting up and pointing the gun at him now. Mr. Benet glared and Don said, “Just look at you: tryin to prove somethin. I’ll tell you now: ain’t nothing goin to be proved tonight, not by me, not by you, not by anybody. Ain’t nobody goin to be impressed by what we got to show. You think that brave-man charade impresses your wife? She’s still about to shit her pants. She don’t feel none the safer with your being here,” Don spat onto the carpet, “You got yourself a sense of humor, Benet. But if you knew how things would turn out, I wonder how smug you’d be then. Right now you’re bettin on the fact that I ain’t gunna use this here shotgun. That’s what’s keepin up that attitude of yours, ain’t it? Reckon this shotgun is all for show, Hm?”
They were quiet and Don relaxed his grip on the gun and lowered his voice. “That boy of yours, he’s an awful fool if I ever seen one. Last three weeks my daughter done come home lookin like roadkill and I ‘spose he thought I was too damn stupid to notice.”
“So what,” said Mr. Benet, “You aim to teach my boy a lesson? You thought it necessary to come down here with a shotgun to scare him into leaving your daughter alone? It’s clear he oughtn’t have gotten involved with her at all. I knew she come from the wrong side the tracks. Seventeen and wearing shorts that leave none to the imagination.”
“No Benet,” Don’s knuckles were white and his voice shook, “I know exactly where I done come from and I know exactly where I’m goin to be. Ain’t fixin to rough him up. Ain’t fixin to teach no lesson. It’s too late for him. Like I said, this here shotgun ain’t for show. Once he walks through that there door I’m taking him up someplace quiet, him and me, and he ain’t comin back no more,” he looked Mr. Benet in the eye, “I swear I’ll die before I see him walk this earth in daylight.”
They did not respond. Don leaned back and looked at the picture frames on the stand by his chair. He took one into his hands with his shotgun across his lap and his elbows on the arms of the chair. He mused at it.
“Charming family picture…” he said. It showed Matt and his parents smiling for some reason. Was the kid smiling when he forced himself on Kayleigh outside Dolly’s Diner, where she worked? Did Kayleigh scream for help? Did she fight back, or did she lay motionless on the ground beside the dumpster? What a stupid toothy grin—what a stupid Sunday getup with a pink tie and messed up hair. Don chucked the picture over his shoulder and the picture frame crashed in the dining room. Mrs. Benet twitched and Mr. Benet’s face turned red.
“Where’s the boy?” said Don, “Ain’t leaving without him.”
“He ain’t here,” answered Mr. Benet.
“Where is he?”
“Well,” said Don, “I’ll find him, one way or nuther.”
“I’m not goin to sit and watch you take him,” said Mr. Benet.
Don shook his head, “Your choice. You could either sit and watch or get yourself shot up. Y’all can make the choice. Now, it don’t make no difference to me how long it takes him to get back here. What’s done been done and needs payin for. But I figure we oughta take a look upstairs, meantime.” The Benets held their breath, watching him walk to the base of the stairs. There he stopped, pumped the shotgun and stood wavering.
“Don’t you do this,” said Mr. Benet, “Please. Take that gun and walk away. We won’t call the police or nothing; just leave us be and we won’t say a word. No matter how mad you are, it don’t justify a killing. If you do this the law will find you and that’s no good for you or your family. I know your daughter is a nice girl and she needs you. We don’t got nothing against you. Leave us be is all we ask.”
Don turned to them and saw a white cross hanging over the fireplace, resting with absurd resolution in a clutter of antique-store contraptions and orchid wallpaper. He frowned.
Then Mr. Benet stood with his hands at his side and said: “Let’s talk about it in the kitchen.”
Matthew Benet drove the knife into Don Garner’s back. Don hit the boy with a quick and forceful elbow, sending him to the ground with a loud crash of furniture. A wild fire from the shotgun went off. Don swiveled and tried to grasp the knife but could not reach; it remained lodged in his back. Mr. Benet tackled Don and they fought with a dull and labored knocking and Mrs. Benet stood entranced, knowing full well how the tussle would end. Don freed himself with a heavy kick and turned the shotgun, pumped it, and pulled the trigger. That was the end of Mr. Benet.
Mrs. Benet shrieked and stooped to touch her husband, thinking it was all over. Then Don released another spray of buckshot. A red mist erupted and a piece of brain launched across the living room and bounced onto the carpet by the coffee table.
He surveyed the bloody mess, the father unrecognizable beneath the body of Mrs. Benet. Apparently, the boy had been hit by the wild fire and was soaking in a pool of blood, but Don shot him again for good measure. He tried to remove the knife again to no avail.
Emerging from the house, he staggered along the path to the old truck. The passenger door swung in the wind and strained the hinge. Don walked around the front of the truck to shut it and came back to sit in the driver’s seat. There was a pair of pliers on the floor that he used to grip the knife. He pulled and twisted, tearing up the shoulder muscle, but the knife refused to budge. He paused and cursed before prying at it again. With some effort he managed to lever the knife from his back, tossing the dripping artifact out the window. He fumbled through the shells in his pocket for the keys. Sweat and humidity caused his hands to stick to the wheel and shifter as he drove the truck back up the dusty road. The vibrating elm trees receded in the rearview.
The night was so bright that it didn’t matter that one of the headlights was out. He drove moderately for ten minutes or so and brought the truck to a halt. Don sat for a moment, staring blankly into the empty road. Kayleigh’s mom was rolling in her grave. He could say something to her soul, but would she listen? He could say he was trying real hard. Precious Kayleigh. He turned the truck around and drove back to the house.
He stepped out and called to his daughter and he was not surprised that only the griping crickets returned the gesture.
He hunted for hours, following the tractor trails by the corn fields and wandering into the woods where a creek ran innocently and the air was still. When the sun was close the trail had gone cold.
Then he saw his daughter bolt away from the bank. Don dashed across the creek and jumbled up the bank. She was sprinting with a limp left leg through the clearing toward the dense corn.
“Kayleigh!” he shouted, running after her. She looked over her shoulder and he ran harder. She was fast. He slowed down, stopped, and bent over to catch his breath. Kayleigh looked over her shoulder again, lost her footing, and crashed quietly to the ground.
Don walked up to her. Her eyes roamed the morning sky in slow arcs and her chest ballooned with each inhalation. Don sat on the ground next to her.
“You okay?” he said. Kayleigh crossed arms over her face and cried. Last week she was dolled up for a date with her hair curled, turquoise flannel, a pair of boots the cost of one month’s rent, and a smile she couldn’t suppress. He told her she was the prettiest thing he’d ever seen.
His hand shook. Oh, what he wouldn’t do to that boy. The no good, high and mighty, spoiled-ass piece of shit. Don re-imagined pumping the 12-gauge, taking aim at the kid’s head, and saying This is what you get, you son of a bitch.