When he takes it and holds it firm it explains the dead lands cracked around a pair of eyes remembering whole almanacs unfilled by days of drought and of famine when viridian lingered over sweet potatoes crowning amaranthine but dismissed as semi-precious when morning dew began to gather and the sun as more accomplished lapidary lit even soybeans drooping fat and pendulous with pearls that bragged of their luster through acres and acres of such fecund earth that even the wind humbled itself and sang lullabies to seedlets and slips asleep under the shadows of children beginning their own prayers for food that swelled their tiny bellies and gave reason for their beautiful mother and father to rise before dawn bless us o lord and these thy gifts which we are about to receive
Charlie's blind to what lies beneath the strata. He's holding the man's hand searching the cracks. He has his own hymn.
La ilaha illah Allah
Please the man says. Please.
The man doesn't beg for himself. The man has had a good life. A long life. The man begs for his wife and his children.
The shotgun's single barrel smoothes the man's skin where it's wrinkled to crow's feet. The man becomes a boy again. Watch the boy holding his wife's hand when she was a girl. Look at the boy's lopsided smile as the girl's finger trembles nervous when it's banded for the first time by something other than soil. Her freckles darken with tears yes Sam goddammit yes
La ilaha illah Allah
The bathroom door shudders. The man's hand does not feel coarse anymore. Charlie allows it to fall. The tile is white under the man's head. He can see it through the window the open skull makes. Charlie nudges the man's head with his foot and spits. That was for Cody you goat ****ing piece of s***. The medicine cabinet flinches and creaks open and retches pill bottles into the running sink. That was for Oats you boy raping mother****er. Two spent shells tinkle when he opens the door. The hallway floods.
Charlie wipes his nose on the back of his wrist. He looks at the blood that congeals at his sleeve. The red flannel is too thick for this heat. He leans the shotgun on the wall so he can unbutton the shirt. Water from the bathroom stalks his heels. The shirt grows soggy then sags into the carpet. He picks the shotgun back up. Its stock feels good nestled at his armpit. He crosses the hallway and enters the living room.
There are a pair of couches. One faces the television set. The last one looks out the big windows. The sky is dark and soft. Charlie watches it snow for a good long while. Then he turns around and searches the room. Water from the hallway has found him here. Its long translucent nail points to a small desk with a black rotary phone. He picks the receiver up and holds it with his shoulder and his ear. He dials a number. Patrol base pick up. Patrol base. But there are voices on the line.
Ma'am is there anywhere you can hide?
No please just get here please
Charlie lifts his head. He can hear it in this house too.
Ma'am we have an officer en route. Please stay calm.
Sam's dead he killed Sam please
He lets the receiver go. The long cord spirals on its noose and jolts back up. The voice doesn't make sense anymore. But his eyebrows furrow as he listens. The carpet squelches when he returns to the hallway. He presses his ear against each closed door. All he hears is the ocean. Waves lap at the shoreline. Preserved by a breath, silent and still. Let him go deaf.
Sadie, the voice says again, get under the bed. The voice comes from his left. Charlie tries the knob. It refuses. Again. It refuses. The door is thin wood. It's easy off the hinges when he kicks. The woman's legs are bent beneath her. She holds her head with both of her hands. Her chin juts against her collarbone.
Charlie she screams. Stop it Charlie.
How does she know his name? He doesn't ask the question. The shotgun bucks and it's quiet again. Charlie spits on her. Bitch he says. ****ing lying ****ing bitch. He steps on the door. He steps over the woman. There's a crib against a wall. A rainbow arcs above it. There's a small bed by the window. The sky is dark and soft. Charlie watches it snow a good long while. He studies the faint gray light and the open road that leads to the trees.
La ilaha illah Allah
He feels something push at his boot. A girl rushes from under the bed and runs to the door. She slams headfirst into the doorframe. She slides slow down the wall. Charlie kicks the spent shells out of his way. He walks to the crib and looks down. The infant is quiet. Its eyes are blue just like his. The color is strange. It reaches up to him curling its fingers. The fingers curl and uncurl again and again. Charlie searches his pocket for more shells out of habit. The denim doesn't tinkle.
He pushes the infant's fingers away. The shotgun's stock is almost as big as its body. The infant's neck is segmented like an earthworm. When he pushes it flattens into a fat collar.
You look like me when I was a baby he says.
Charlie looks at the infant's blond hair. It's wispy at the top of its head like a thought of something before it begins. The infant holds the smooth stock in its hands. It smiles at him. He nudges its head by the chin and it giggles. Its laughter has no teeth. He stares at the infant a good long while.
La ilaha illah Allah.
The stock drips into the water that has followed him. Charlie holds the shotgun at its middle and flicks. Blood scatters the water but it remembers its shape. It looks like a finger giving directions. He follows where it points. He's back in the hallway then back in the living room. The finger points to the door. He pulls the handle and the wind carries snow into his face. At his feet there's a package wrapped in brown paper. It's tied together with twine.
He leans the shotgun against the doorframe. He bends to pick the package up and fill his palms with its shape. He turns it in his hands to look for a name or an address. There's a white label at the center of the bottom. Or the top.
Lt. Charles King
C/O Mr. & Mrs. Sam Grace
1922 Oakdale Rd, Rock Hill, South Carolina 29730
The twine tears when he pulls. The paper's easy. The box is simple cardboard sealed at the crossflap with clear tape. Charlie turns around and searches the living room. There is no one here but him and the water. When he sits on the couch the water laps the teeth of his boots. The door is still open. Snow scratches the final length of carpet before the door. He stares at the box a good long while.
Charlie's nail digs at one end of the tape. When it's loose he pulls the strip until the flaps are free. Inside is a photo album and a disassembled pistol and a manila envelope. He takes the envelope first and squeezes the metal latch with his index and thumb. He guides the flap along the latch then digs inside the envelope when it's clear. There are a handful of papers inside.
Dear Lt. King,
I'm so happy to hear you're getting along with the Graces. When we first set you up with them, I felt they were truly the right family to help get you back on your feet. Sam has told us so much about the work you put into the farm and how much you enjoy spending time with their new baby. He even told me you were teaching him French!
I'm sending this package because we cleared out your old locker here in New York and what we found seemed too important to throw away. I hope that what’s here helps lead you back to a better place than where you left them.
Good luck and God bless,
Melissa Dean, Helping Hands
Charlie bunches the paper into a ball. He looks into the hallway. His tongue runs slick along his bottom lip. There's another letter.
It was nice to see you during mom's memorial service. I know you wanted to be here for dad's.
I miss you, man. Come back soon, okay? We can go down to the coast and surf like we used to.
Dear Mr. King,
With heavy hearts, we regret to inform you that Anthony King has
Charlie stands from the couch. A tiny pathetic sound whistles out of his mouth. The water has found the linoleum in the kitchen. Its finger points to the stove. Charlie turns the knob that ignites the burner. He searches the drawers. He searches the sink. All he can find is a spoon. He holds it over the burner. Charlie stares at the flame a good long while.