Well, I debated whether or not I should post this short story. It's not pararomance. But then I thought, what the hell? It's just a blogpost. And probably more interesting than reading one of my rants! Next, I debated how to post it. My limit on this was 4K...it is precisely 3,997 words. I considered breaking it up into two posts, but that didn't really seem fair to leave a short story hangin' like that. So I'm posting the entire thing. Just a warning - a few explicit words sprinkled in.
Thanks for stopping by to read! And please don't hesitate to leave a comment.
“Dale, tell me something. What’s a God-fearin’ man like yourself doin’ out this late?” Sheila asks, leaning over the bar. Hard to believe she was Prom Queen in high school, looking down at me with a missing eyetooth.
“Last one.” She echoes, pointing a finger at me then turns to the small fridge below the bar. She pauses and shakes her head. “Danielle must be workin’ late tonight. I can’t believe she hasn’t called up here lookin’ for you yet.”
“A date.” I grit my teeth and take a swig of beer. It’d taken loads of self control not to put up a fight when she told me she’d be going out with some boy from school. “Girl is eighteen years old with the stubborn will of her mother.”
“Well, who’s the lucky boy?”
“Don’t care.” I run my tongue over my teeth and frown. “One date don’t make him her boyfriend.”
Sheila belts out a throaty laugh and I cringe. Must’ve breathed in years of bar smoke to sound that hoarse. Her rasp forces me to cough.
“Only took one date for you and I, remember?”
Her words take me back to high school and for a moment I’m sitting in the back of my pop’s Bonneville, scrambling to get her bra unlatched. Our first and only date. I scowl at the thought. She saunters away with a wily grin and a wink.
One last guzzle and I push the bottle back toward the edge of the bar. Sheila nods at me while I drop bills on the counter and head for the door.
A tired, blue Chevy pick-up parked behind the building awaits me while I fumble with my keys in the darkness. John Remy’s Dodge flickers as he makes his way to the front of the bar, locking his door with one of those keyless contraptions. It takes a moment for her to kick up, but when she does, the old Chevy roars to life, sounding strong as ever. They don’t make them like that anymore.
A few stop signs and some back roads and I’m home, pulling into the long dirt driveway. Danielle’s car is parked on the approach where she left it before Romeo picked her up. His real name is Troy, a detail I won’t care about until I have to.
The house is dark, cold and empty. I toss the keys on the counter and head for the living room. Settling into my recliner, I wait for her to get home. “Nothin’,” I say, flicking through the few channels we have. Sleep tugs at my eyelids and I glance at the clock; it’s after 11pm. Danielle promised she’d be home somewhere around 10:00 if I let her out on a school night. Although disobeying orders is clearly a trait she could have gotten from me, it isn’t her style.
The news report is irritating background noise to the worry brewing inside of me. I close my eyes and try not to think about it; she probably just lost track of time having fun. How could I deny her a night out when she hardly socialized? The girl needed to get back to herself after having lost her mom a few years back.
I think about her mom sometimes. Jenna Randall, prettiest girl in school; should have been Prom Queen over Sheila Benson. Danielle was only nine years old when doc Breece gave her mom one year to live. ‘Bout when I began spending more time up at the bar than home, refusing to accept that life with Jenna was about to get complicated. The memories lull me into a state of light dreaming.
A blinding glare of headlights crawls up the drive and wakes me. Knots in my stomach tighten and ease. I’m not sure if it’s anger or relief that’s consumed me more. I peek out of the window; two shadows sit embracing each other inside the vehicle. “Gotta be kiddin’ me.” I grumble and roll my eyes.
I’d left the house lights off intentionally, hoping to catch her sneaking in. Not that I’d chew her out for being late; just need to make it clear I don’t approve. The doorknob clicks and the sound of sniffles carry through the dark room. I call out in a whisper, “Dani?” She responds with a gasp. Sobs erupt. I abruptly turn the light on. My breath hitches.
Her beautiful angel’s face, streaked with tears and smeared mascara, is bruised like a red plum.
Without a word, I race back toward the door, opening it in time to catch the fading headlights disappear onto the road. I grab my coat and keys, ready to chase after the little prick. Danielle’s soft voice calls out to me.
“Daddy, it wasn’t him,” she says. “It wasn’t him.” Her eyes divert to the floor where she slumps, pulling her knees into her chest. She’s got bruises on her arm and a cut across her cheek.
“Who was it?! Who did this to you?!” I shout with a fury I didn’t know was in me. She says nothing, only tucks her head into her knees, rocking as she weeps and chokes on snot gathered in her nose.
My heart pounds inside my chest. A tugging sensation draws me to her, and I fall just short of where she sits; my useless arms outstretched. I don’t know what to do. Agonized wails fill my ears and suddenly I can’t breathe. I’m 24 years old again, cradling a screaming baby that I can’t seem to quiet. Tears collect in my eyes and with no warning I grab her into my arms. Her body stiffens for a moment then she lays her head on my shoulder and cries out. Her suffering rakes through me like a jagged knife. She’s trembling, so I carry her to the couch and cover her with an afghan. I whisper in her ear,“Please Dani, tell me who did this to you.”
She snivels and chokes. “Charlie Hatchett.” Her face is buried in my shoulder while I try to grasp what she’s said.
The name sends jolts of lightning up my spine. I’d graduated from high school with Charlie years ago when everyone knew he wouldn’t amount to much in life. A loser of the worst kind. His father was the meanest bastard in all the county, and the whole town knew that Charlie was his favorite punching bag. Back then, no one interfered with family, just let him keep beating the hell out of his son. Charlie was quiet; not much for fighting back.
I kiss the top of her head and squeeze her tightly. Rage courses through my veins and burns like acid. “How? What happened?” I’m certain the question will unleash another wave of tears.
She whimpers, pushing me away and curls into herself. “No. I can’t.” She shakes her head. “I can’t.”
I don’t force her to talk. A hurricane of confusion swirls in my head while I sit next to her, stroking her hair behind her ear. A half hour passes in silence while I stare at scattered patches of purple forming on her skin. Fury clouds my senses. Kill.
Her trembling stops; she’s fallen asleep. Careful not to wake her, I slip off the couch and stalk to the kitchen. I swipe the keys off the counter. The Chevy’s tires skid against the gravel as I head out. I stop at the party store for a 6-pack. Ed Price hands me change; his eyes fixed on me. “Take her easy, Dale,” he says. Back in the truck, I polish off an entire bottle in the parking lot then take off again.
I drive roads that are as familiar to me as they are suddenly foreign. The beer tastes good, cooling my dry throat that, like most alcoholics, never seems quenched. I punch the roof then take another swig. “Motherfucker!”
Good thing about small towns, cops don’t patrol the back roads much.
I head in the only direction I know I’ll find someone up this hour. I’d driven this familiar route so many times after Jenna’s funeral; seems natural that I’d turn right at the second stop sign toward Rip Jenner’s. He’s an old buddy from high school, a year older than me and a good friend to talk to sometimes.
At a stone’s throw from Gratus road, headlights approach from behind, tailing the back of my truck and flicker. Cop? I pull off to the side of the road, keeping my eye on the rearview mirror. Troy’s shiny, red pick-up truck slows to a stop behind mine. I wait for him to walk up. He doesn’t.
I climb out. With my hands in my coat pocket, I stroll up to the driver’s side of the truck. Troy doesn’t bother to look at me. Bloody strands of his blond hair are plastered to his forehead. His left eye festers with cuts and bruises. An opened wound, in need of stitches, extends from the corner of his lip to his ear, like the slice of a knife. Hard to look at.
“I knew you’d go out. Danielle told me that you drink sometimes,” he says while his eyes shift back and forth. “I wanted to come inside with her. But she swore you’d think I did this. She thought you might try to kill me.”
Yep. “What happened at Hatchett’s?” There’s nothing friendly about my tone.
Troy is silent. He loosens his grip on the steering wheel and stares through the windshield. “There’s a place….in the woods. Like, the trees ‘been cut out just for the view. The harvest moon seems so close you could touch it,” he says, glancing upward. He winces. “I had no idea it belonged to Hatchett’s.”
My pulse races while I study the cut on his face.
“We were….just hanging out. You know, talking. And he came out of the woods, carrying a rifle. He forced us to get out of the truck. I told him I was sorry; I didn’t realize we were trespassin’. He didn’t say anything, just led us to his house.” Troy takes a breath.
“He started hitting me with the butt of his gun. I blacked out; I don’t know how long, but I woke up in his basement with my hands tied behind my back. I carry a pocketknife, so I cut myself loose and snuck up the stairs.”
He glances away and when I am able to see his face again, I’m certain he’s got tears in his eyes. Do I want to know what happens next? Every bit has to do with my Dani. A blast of frigid air steals my breath. He continues. “I heard Danielle screamin’, cryin’, beggin’ for him to stop. Had her tied to his bed.” Troy grits his teeth. My stomach sinks; bile rises to my throat. “He wasn’t expecting me. I pushed him off of her and just hit ‘im. Over and over I hit him until my fist hurt. I finally knocked him cold, cut Danielle loose and we ran back to my truck.”
I imagine a football hero like Troy ain’t accustomed to crying in front of another man, so I turn away while he collects himself. I swallow a harsh gulp and clear my throat.
“I’m…so….sorry, Mr. Garrett,” he says.
“Go home boy. You did good.”
I walk back to my truck; the pain threatening to ruin me. Another beer helps to smother the images now burned in my mind. I chug it, letting the numbing buzz clean the slate and I continue toward Rip’s.
The light in the pole barn is still on. Bow season starts first thing in the morning and Rip has no intentions of missing it. Two other trucks are parked in the drive, belonging to Caleb Knox and Jeremy Heinz; childhood buddies and big time hunters. I’m not much for bow season, so I know my visit will come as a surprise.
I approach the door, carrying the last beer of my six pack. Caleb’s voice rattles on about the Big Buck Contest; an event that happens every year for the biggest buck in the county. No one won last year, though lots of big deer were shot. Tradition is, once the winner is determined, all the other hunters throw down their tags. It’s not a condition of the game, just a gesture of respect to let everyone know the hunt is over. Rip ain’t stupid enough to give up one of his tags.
I walk through the door and conversation stops.
“What gives, Hoss? Decide to become a man?” I don’t respond to Caleb’s comment; he don’t mean anything by it.
My unopened beer swings from my hand; the first thing Rip notices…I don’t plan to stay longer than one. I’m not sure if it’s the rage that clings to my face, or maybe I look like I’ve arrived without purpose that tips him off. Rip knows I’m not here for a social call.
“Ain’t you boys got families to get home to? Go on now, git,” he says in a surly tone.
“I’m not goin’ anywhere until you tell me we’re partnerin’ up for the hunt,” Caleb argues.
“I told ya before, I ain’t givin’ up my tag; go find your own big buck.”
A feisty scowl colors Caleb’s face red, but is no match for the confidence that Rip always carries while he’s waiting for a fight. “I’ll see you first thing.”
Jeremy pats me on the shoulder as he passes toward the door. “Good to see you, Hoss.” I nod and tell him to say hi to his wife, a cousin of mine.
Both men leave. It’s just me and Rip, sitting on folding chairs. Flames crackle in the wood stove. How do I begin?
Rip asks the burning question. “How’s Danielle?”
It’s not unusual, he asks every time I see him, having treated her like a niece all these years he’d raised three boys. But the sound of her name is a bullet through my heart. I force air through my nose, desperate to keep from breaking down in front of him. Pressure fizzes when I twist the cap off my beer. Rip watches me take a hefty gulp.
“Went on a date tonight. Chief Duckett’s boy.” My tone is flat. “Got caught trespassin’.” I pause for a moment, clearing my throat that has begun to dry again. I take another sip. “Hatchett’s place.”
A serious expression creeps across Rip’s face and furrows his brow. I continue on before he asks any questions. “Hatchett beat Troy pretty good. Give em’ a scar ‘longside his cheek. And uh…Danielle.” Dani. I shake my head and try to breathe evenly. My cheeks burn and I know tears are itching to follow. It doesn’t take much for Rip to catch on.
Aside from the crackle of the embers, it’s quiet. Rip snorts, then spits. His bulging lip is filled with a dip of chewing tobacco. “So what are you going to do about it, Hoss?”
“I ‘spose I need to get with Chief Duckett; get this bastard out of our town.”
Rip sneers and sits upright in his chair. He folds his arms, looking me square in the eye. “You know Duckett can’t do nothin’ about this. Kids were trespassin’ and lucky Hatchett didn’t shoot ‘em on the spot. Same thing happened to Tanner’s girl; she still ain’t been found.” His words stick with me for a moment, remembering the 14 year-old who’d gone missing. The whole town searched the woods, including Rip himself, and found nothing. “Nope.” He shakes his head. “Only one way to justice in these woods, Hoss, and she don’t waste time bein’ merciful.”
I know what he’s saying to me, but the words jumble in my head. I take a sip of beer to straighten them out, with the buzz of alcohol swimming through my veins. “I ain’t never shot a man before.”
Rip grins. “No different than shootin’ game.” A muscle in his jaw ticks. “Still got that thirty-aught six?”
“In the truck.” I stare down at my last swill of beer. Only one way to justice. No different than shootin’ game. Rip’s making sense to me; maybe I’ve had too much to drink. I look up at him. “Got any Wild Turkey?”
He tosses me a half fifth of bourbon. “Good luck tomorrow,” I say to him, walking toward the door.
“Same to you.”
The warmth of the alcohol keeps the chill off. I’m perched 250 yards across the field from Hatchett’s. Through the window, he sits in his recliner, eating a clump of meat. Like a vulture. The years haven’t changed him a bit; still a scrawny, pathetic-looking bastard that I could have finished off after Troy’s beating. Quiet and patient, I wait, letting the liquor do the convincing.
I pull back the sleeve of my coat, revealing an iron cross on my right forearm; a tattoo I’d gotten while Jenna’s cancer was in remission. By the time she’d relapsed, I wished I could cut it right out of my skin. Since then, I’ve made good with God for Danielle’s sake. Dani. On my other forearm is Danielle’s name, etched in English letters. With a light sweep of my fingers, I’m reminded why I am lying on the cold, pebbly ground; tall grass around me, peeking through a gap in the foliage with my sights set.
As if on cue, Charlie moves from the living room, up the staircase. I peer through the scope of my gun, watching for the perfect moment, waiting for the perfect shot. His cool composure tells me he’s thought nothing of the events from earlier. Fucker. Psychopaths seem to have a knack for dismissing the memories that haunt their victims for a lifetime. A blinding haze of wrath consumes me. His indistinct figure is momentarily protected by the obscure glass of the bathroom. Though I could kill him from this vantage point, there is a growing need to see his bewildered reaction when the bullet shatters his bones.
Dani. How close she’d come to this place, not knowing that death loomed in the shadows. My hands tremble and I grip the stock. The warmth of my buzz dissipates with the October frost. He appears in a bedroom window. I take a deep breath and steady my finger on the trigger.
I shield the sunlight with my hand and open the front door to Chief Duckett, who stares back at me with bleak eyes. Sleep had eventually come for me the night before, though not so much on my own terms, but with a little help from the remaining third of bourbon.
“Mornin’ Dale.” His voice is ragged. “I’m gonna need to take you up town with me. Got some questions to ask you.” I nod. No point hiding what’s obvious: I killed a man in cold blood.
“Just need to tell Danielle I’m leaving.”
Chief nods and waits for me outside. A sense of sadness overwhelms me as I walk toward Danielle’s bedroom. I carried her there when I got home last night; grateful the smell of beer and bourbon hadn’t been so pungent to wake her. I don’t want to leave her in such a state.
Curled up in a ball, she’s wrapped in warm blankets and I enter the room. Her long golden locks catch rays of sun. So peaceful. I glance at a picture of her mother on the nightstand. Is her expression pride or disappointment in me? Danielle startles when I touch her arm and she sits up in bed. I’m guessing she wonders why I’m home and probably thinks I’ve come to grill her for more answers, but I don’t say a word. Instead, I grab her hand, noticing the softness of her skin through my calloused fingertips. What do I say to her? Had she been given a choice, what would she have decided?
“I have to leave,” I say. She nods, likely thinking I mean for work. “I’m going to call nana and see if you can stay with her for a bit.”
Pretty blue eyes, wide with bewilderment, stare back at me. “What? Why? Where are you going?” She straightens herself in bed. I open my mouth to speak; my words falter.
“I uh….” I look away from her. “I’m in a little trouble.” Her tearing eyes fill me with regret. This is the price for what I’ve done.
“What kind of trouble?” Her question beckons my own tears and I’m grateful when comprehension suddenly hits her. She leaps across the bed, embracing me tightly and sniffles. I let go of the breath I’d been holding. She doesn’t hate me. I hold her in my arms, wishing the world was a different place; that I had been a different father and known the feelings I’m suddenly smothered with. Forgiveness. Love. Salvation.
“He ain’t going to hurt you again, baby.” My voice breaks at the end. I gaze at the picture of Jenna. Her smile reaches out to me.
Danielle walks me to the door, forcing Chief Duckett to look away, gasping at the sight of her. She hugs me one more time and tells me she loves me. I follow Chief to the car. We arrive at the station and I don’t bother lying to him. He’d gotten the story from his boy the night before and was the first to discover chunks of Charlie’s skull scattered all over the bedroom floor. Instead, I detail everything up until the end.
The entire town is at my court proceeding. I can’t read the faces around me. Will I be spit on when I walk through those doors or offered glimpses of sympathy? The verdict is read: first degree murder reduced to voluntary manslaughter, meaning I get thirteen years in prison. Will they burn slow or fly by as the last thirteen have? The bailiff glances up a few times while shackling me. His lips form a hard line. Danielle smiles from the crowd. She knew I wouldn’t miraculously walk out of here with freedom’s grace. I bow my head and try not to look at her too much.
An object lands at my feet. I focus on it. A lump forms in my throat. It’s a tag with Rip Jenner’s name. He stands among others and within minutes, dozens of tags litter the courtroom floor. The room is silent. I look around to see stoic faces, all telling me the same thing: the hunt is over. I give a sharp nod without saying a word.
Danielle smiles through tears, leaning her head on my mother-in-law. Her bruises have begun to heal. I smile back at her.
An old timer in prison once asked me if I’d do it again. My daughter is 31 years old now. I wasn’t there to watch her graduate from high school; never got to see her accept a college degree with honors; I missed the nervous giggles, arm in arm, walking her down the aisle and watching her receive the first kiss from her husband, Troy.
But of all these pieces of broken life, this I know for certain: I kept the promise I made to her dying mother; the same one I made to Danielle the first time I held her as a new father. Although I’m not a perfect man, I will always love and protect her.
I step out into the sunlight, a free man. Danielle hobbles over to me with a bulging belly leading the way. Her smile is radiant and seems genuinely happy while she stretches her arms for a hug. I kiss her cheek, then reach down and touch her belly.
“I was hoping he would wait for you,” she says, placing her hand on mine. “It hasn’t been easy begging him to hold off for grandpa.”
“Grandpa.” I smirk.