Saturday, June 30, 2018

Tom Blake, Part 3


Tom Blake

September, 1906


It is hard to concentrate on my dinner tonight.  I didn’t notice until I sat down at the table that my mother has bruises all over her face.  I have been in my room for most of the evening yesterday, trying to get through my school assignments by candlelight, since I ended up staying late at the butcher shop.  I heard some noises from downstairs, but hadn’t paid much mind at the time.

But now I can see that when my father stumbled home from the saloon last night, he had taken out his drunken fury on my mother’s face.  She has a black eye and her upper lip is swollen to twice its usual size.  And when she gets up from the table to fetch more bread, she winces.

I watch my father shoveling the slices of beef into his mouth—the meat that Mr. Sullivan gave me as a supplement to my meager wages.  I hope he chokes on it.  What sort of man lays his dirty meathooks on a woman a full head smaller than he is?  He’s disgusting. When Mary and I are married, I will never lay a finger on her in anger.

Pa glances at me and notices I’m pushing vegetables around my plate rather than eating them.  “Eat your dinner, boy,” he says.  “My work puts food on your plate and I don’t want to see it wasted.”

I glare at him.

Ma must have caught the look in my eyes, because she chirps brightly, “George, speaking of your work, maybe you can bring Tom with you to the shop again soon.”

“Why should I?” Pa snorts.  “He has no interest.  He wants to hack up meat for a living.”

“I’m sure if he gets to see more of what you do,” Ma says, “he’d be more interested.”  She nods at me. “Isn’t that right, Tommy?”

I can’t make myself answer.  Not even for the sake of keeping the peace.  Not anymore.

The truth is that I want my father to get angry.  I want him to stand up and threaten to whup me if I don’t comply with his wishes.  I want to take him on. 

I’m ready.

But my father just sits there, too exhausted from work and the large meal to pick a fight.  “He doesn’t want to go, Meg. And I don’t want him hanging around the shop, grousing about how bored he is.”

Unfortunately, Ma doesn’t know when to give up.  “Surely he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps though!  He just needs some encouragement.”

“His father’s footsteps! Ha!” Pa squints at me with his beady brown eyes.  “Fred Sullivan is as much his father as I am.”

The fork I’d been toying with falls from my hand.  I look up at my mother, whose face has gone white under the dark purple bruises. 

“George, stop it…” Ma murmurs.

“Stop what?” Pa barks.  “The boy’s seventeen years old.  Don’t you think he’s old enough to know the truth?”

I stare at the man who has raised me for the last seventeen years.  My heart is thudding so loud my chest, everyone at the table can certainly hear it. 

“What?” I manage.

“George, please,” Ma whispers, her voice nearly a sob.

He stands from the table, wiping his big hands on his slacks.  “You really think I could have fathered a lousy kid like you?  Think again.”

With those words, the man I’ve been calling my father stormed away from the table, toppling his chair in his wake.  I just stare at the space he recently occupied, trying to make sense of what I just heard.

“Is it true?” I finally ask my mother, a minute after the front door slams to announce George Blake has left for the saloon.

She doesn’t answer right away.  She takes her sweet time, and when she does, her voice is soft and shaky.  “I’m sorry, Tom.  It’s true.”

I turn to look at her, wincing again at the sight of her bruises.  “How could you not tell me?”

“It was for your own good!” She sticks out her chin.  Everything was for you, Tom.  When I found out that I was… expecting, I thought our lives would be over.  But then George came along and he saved us.  He married me before I was showing and he told everyone that you were his own.”  She shakes her head.  “Do you know what it would have been like if I had you out of wedlock?  Do you know what our lives would have been like?”

At least she wouldn’t be married to a man who puts bruises on her face on a regular basis.  I wouldn’t have the scar on my palm from when he scalded me with metal from the fire. 

“Who is my real father?” I ask.

Ma bites her bruised lip.  “He wasn’t from around here.  He was just… passing through.  He was so charming and so… so very handsome.” She closes her eyes for a moment before opening them again.  I can see blood in the white of her right eye.  “You look just like him, Tom.”

It all suddenly makes sense.  My black hair and dark eyes that nobody can explain.  The way George Blake treats me like an intruder in his home.  Even as a child, I never felt anything resembling love for the man.  Deep down, I must have known we were nothing to each other.

“What’s his name?” I ask her.

She continues to chew on her lip. “Stephen.”

“Stephen what?”

My mother averts her eyes.  “He wouldn’t tell me. It was all very secretive. He was staying at the boarding house—he was only there a few months.  Then he was gone.”

“Do you have a photograph of him?”

She shakes her head no.

Stephen.  His name is Stephen. That is all I will ever know about my real father.  That and he looks like me and is charming enough to seduce a teenaged girl to do things that would permanently destroy her reputation.

“I’m going to my room,” I say, nearly choking on the words.

A line appears between Ma’s eyebrows.  “You’ve hardly eaten…”

“I’m not hungry.”

When I get upstairs, I’m glad I barely ate dinner. I feel like throwing up, even though I hardly have any food in my belly.

George Blake is not my father.  Everything I ever knew or believed has been wrong.

 

October, 1906 

Mr. Sullivan and I are walking to a farm in the next town.  They have a steer for sale and Mr. Sullivan has borrowed a horse and wagon to bring it back to the butcher shop after we kill it.  He dumped our equipment into the wagon, including two knives, a 12-gauge shotgun, and a hoist to help get the animal into and out of the wagon, since a grown cow or steer can weigh about a ton.

We’ll do the butchering back at the shop, so all we’ve got to do is kill the animal and get him back with us—not necessarily an easy task.  Mr. Sullivan has a man who usually helps him, and this is the first time he’s asked me to come along.  “I think you’re ready for this, Tom,” he tells me as we lead the horse down the road to the farm.

“Yes, sir,” I say.

It is early morning and quiet on the town’s main road.  Mr. Sullivan says it’s good to do the killing early, before the flies come out.  The sound of horseshoes clicking against the pavement is like gunshots.

“You like working for me, Tom?” Mr. Sullivan asks me.

“Yes, sir,” I say.  After a moment, I add, “Very much so.”

“Good,” he replies.  I thought he might say something more, but he doesn’t.

 Once we get to the farm, Mr. Sullivan haggles with the farmer for a few minutes over the arrangement. The farmer wants to give us a cow—a female that has at least one calf—but I know Mr. Sullivan prefers meat from the male steer, which he says is higher quality.  Finally, they shake hands, and Mr. Sullivan grabs the shotgun, motioning for me to follow him.  The farmer leads us to a pen where a smallish steer is waiting inside.  “I’ll leave you fellows to it,” the farmer tells us.

Mr. Sullivan nudges my shoulder and holds out the shotgun to me.  “You ever shoot a gun, Tom?”

“Yes, sir.” Several years ago, George Blake (I can no longer think of him as my father) took me out back with his rifle, reasoning, A boy’s got to know how to shoot.  We practiced on tin cans until he felt confident I could make a shot.  “But not in a while.”

“So here’s what you do,” Mr. Sullivan says.  “You imagine a line drawn from the base of each ear to the opposite eye.  Where the lines cross—that’s where you aim.”

“Okay.” My legs feel rubbery.  “Where should I stand?”

Mr. Sullivan squints at the steer. “About ten feet away is good.  Maybe take one step back.”

I try to get my nerves under control.  I point the shotgun at the steer, keeping both eyes open the way George taught me.  I wait until my hands stop shaking, then I squeeze the trigger.

It’s a perfect shot.  A silver-dollar-sized hole appears in the animal’s skull, and it drops to the ground almost instantly.  Mr. Sullivan claps me on the back. 

“Good job, Tom!  You’re a natural.

We approach the steer together.  Mr. Sullivan puts one foot against the animal’s forelegs and one against its head, exposing its short neck.  He hands me the knife he’d been carrying.

“You want to make a cut along the base of its neck, maybe ten inches long,” he instructs me.  “First expose the windpipe, but you don’t want to cut through it.”

I do as he instructed me.  Blood oozes from the animal’s neck and my heart quickens.

“Next you want to insert the knife to one side of the windpipe with the back of the blade against the breastbone,” he says. “Press the point of the blade down maybe four or five inches.  That will cut the blood vessels.”

This next cut results in a wave of blood that I hadn’t quite expected. It squirts out, drenching my hands and my clothes, which makes Mr. Sullivan laugh.  But I’m not thinking about the fact that I’ll be walking home in blood-soaked clothing.  All I can think about is the way that pig’s blood made me feel the other day, and how I want this so much more.  I want to bury my face in it and drink until my stomach aches.

And as I watch the blood pour from the animal, I feel that presence behind me.  Someone watching.  Someone who knows exactly what I’m thinking.  And then I hear a voice whisper in my ear:

Drink up, Tom.

“Tom?” Mr. Sullivan’s voice sounds very far away.  “You okay, Tom?”

“Uh huh,” I manage.

“You look pale.”  He edges away from the steer and puts his hand on my shoulder.  “Sit down on the ground.  Puts your head between your legs.”

“I’m okay,” I manage, but I oblige by lowering my bottom to the ground.  I close my eyes, trying not to think about all the blood.  But it is no use—I can still smell it.

After about ten minutes, the flow of blood has stopped and I’m able to think clearly again.  I don’t know what has come over me.  If I had buried my face in that animal’s neck, Mr. Sullivan never would have allowed me in his shop ever again.  I don’t know what’s wrong with me, but I know I’ve got to get it under control before it wrecks my life.

I help Mr. Sullivan hoist the steer up into the wagon for the horse to pull it back to town.  We cover it with a tarp, load our equipment back into the wagon, and then we’re ready to go back to the shop.

I walk quietly next to Mr. Sullivan as we travel back into town, ashamed by my behavior at the farm.  It is only after we are halfway back that he breaks the silence.

“You did good back there, Tom,” he says.

I look away from him. “Not really.”

“Yes, really,” he insists. “That was your first time slaughtering a steer.  Truth be told, I got woozy myself when it was my first time.  But you made a clean shot. You killed the animal fast, and… well, I couldn’t have done it without you.”

I venture a look at Mr. Sullivan, who is grinning at me with his yellowed teeth. He has no idea what I’d really been thinking. “Thank you, sir.”

“Enough of this ‘sir’ nonsense,” he barks at me. “From now on, you call me Fred.”

“Yes, sir,” I say.  “I mean… Fred.”

I can’t imagine calling him Fred. The word feels like glue on my tongue.  But I appreciate what he is trying to do.

“Soon you’ll be done with school, won’t you, Tom?” he asks thoughtfully.

I nod.

“So what if I hired you for full time?” he says.  “I mean, after you graduate.”

I stare at him.  “Full time?”

“I’m always paying people to help me with these animals or having to close up the shop so I can get to market,” he says.  “I need another man on board with me.  And you… I trust you.”  He grins at me again.  “You’ll need money if you’re going to buy a house for that girl you’re so keen on, Mary.”

I didn’t realize that Mr. Sullivan knew about Mary.  He is right—I have saved very little from my time working at the butcher shop.  I turn over all my wages to George.  Sometimes customers tip me though, and that money I save, hiding it under my mattress.

“Are you sure?” I ask, hardly able to believe my luck.

“Of course I’m sure!” he booms.  He winks at me.  “Besides, we do better business when you’re working the front of the store.  In case you hadn’t noticed.”

I frown at him.

He laughs.  Don’t tell me you don’t notice how all the women in town come in just to flirt with you!”

I look at him in surprise, but I do have some idea what he is talking about.  I’m not just off the boat.  I know the way women look at me, although it doesn’t matter.  The only woman I want is Mary.

 

April, 1907

Ma took a train up north three days ago to visit her sister, so it is supposed to be just me and George for about a week until she comes back.  Today’s Sunday, so I go to church with Mary and her family in the morning.  George goes to church when my mother makes him, but when she’s not around, he won’t go. “I don’t believe in that nonsense,” he always says.

I never liked going to church as a child. I found it boring, and I don’t like the itchy suit Ma makes me wear.  I always tried to avoid it, but Ma said I’d go to hell if I didn’t go.  So I went.

I still don’t like going to church.  But lately, I’ve been thinking more and more about hell.  The thoughts I’ve been having when I’m around the freshly killed animals in the butcher shop really scare me.  Mr. Sullivan trusts me now, but I don’t know what he’d think if he knew the blood I siphon from the animals whenever I can, and gulp down quickly before I can be caught.  I know I need to stop doing this.  I must stop.

And that’s why I’m going to church this morning.

Mary walks beside me, behind the rest of the family.  We don’t hold hands because her parents are just ahead of us, but I’m itching to touch her.  She has on a worn pink dress with frayed sleeves that looks like it will unravel if I pulled on a single loose thread.  When she’s my wife, I’ll be sure to buy her enough fabric to make herself two brand new dresses right away.  I’ll work seven days a week at Sullivan’s to pay for it if I have to.

“I loved the essay you read in class on Friday,” Mary says.  Her shoulder brushes against mine just enough to make my heart speed up.

“Thanks,” I say.

“Papa says he thinks they need to ban all liquor,” she adds.  “But I agree with what you said on Friday. This is America and people should be allowed to drink what they want.  And anyway, if people want it badly enough, like you said, they’ll find a way to get it, won’t they?”

“If someone wants something bad enough,” I say, “there’s always a way to get it.”

Mary smiles at me.  “I have to confess I’ve never had a drink before.  Papa doesn’t have any liquor in the house.”

“Me either,” I admit.

“Really?” She looks surprised.  “Your father is… well, he drinks quite a bit, doesn’t he?  He must have loads of it stashed away in your home.”

I shrug.  “I don’t have any interest in trying it.”

That is true.  George keeps many bottles of liquor in the house, stashed in a cabinet in our parlor, but I never touch them. Partially because he would have whupped me with his belt till I bled if ever caught me, but also because I just never had any interest.  There is something else I crave much more strongly.

“Your essay got everyone so steamed up,” Mary says.  She sets her bright green eyes on me.  “You’re such a powerful speaker, Tom.  I’m telling you—you could do great things.  President Thomas Blake.”

Tonight at dinner, Mary’s voice is running through my head as George and I eat together.  We are eating the cold meat and vegetables that Ma has left behind for us, and George keeps his head down, staring at the table, shoveling bites into his mouth without even looking at me.  He already smells like whiskey, and I’m sure that when he finishes his food, he’ll head over to the saloon for the rest of the night.

“We need more meat, boy,” George grumbles as he stuffs the last of it into his mouth.  “You still working for Sullivan?”

“Yes,” I say.  “In fact, he actually… he offered me full time work next year, after I finish school.”

George looks me over with his beady little eyes. “You’ll pay me rent then to live here.”

“Actually,” I say, “I’m thinking I’ll get a place of my own.  With… with Mary Eckley.  She and I will be married.”

He snorts.  “You really going to marry Bill Eckley’s pug-ugly redheaded daughter?  I hope he’s going to pay you to take that one off his hands.”

I stare at him, my cheeks growing hot.

“You’re nothing great yourself, but you can do a hell of a lot better than her,” he goes on.  “Real ugly and too smart.  Worst combination there is.  You got to get one that’s pretty and dumb.  Like your mama.  She’s a real dilly.”

My right hand balls into a fist so tight that it hurts.  He has to see how angry he’s getting me, but he doesn’t care.

“’Course,” George says, “I had to train ol’ Meg.  Even she mouthed off sometimes at first, but now I got her trained real good.  Now she knows what will happen to her if she does something I don’t like.”  He grins at me with his rotted yellow teeth.  “And you know too, don’t you, boy?  Still got that scar on your hand?”

Don’t talk about my mother that way,” I say through my teeth.  “And don’t you ever talk about Mary Eckley that way.”

He bursts into loud laughter like I just said the funniest thing he’d ever hear.  “Get used to it, boy.  You’re going to hear a lot meaner stuff about that girl if you go and marry her.”

I stand up so abruptly that it knocks over my chair, my right fist now raised in the air.  George stands up too, turning to face me head on.  He has at least three inches on me and a good fifty pounds.  But I don’t flinch.  I’m not afraid of him.

“You haven’t had a proper beating in a long time,” he muses.  “Too long, looks like.”

We’ll see.”

His eyes fill with amusement.  “You think you can get the better of me?  You sure think a lot of yourself—just like your old man.  You look like him too.  Spitting image.”

His words weaken my resolve.  “You… you knew my father?”

“Of course!” he barks.  “We all knew Stephen.  Came into town, charmed all the ladies, told them lies to get them to sneak off with him.”  He shakes his head.  “But he liked your mama best because she was the prettiest.  I warned her. Told her he was no good.  Then she came crying to me when he got her in trouble and took off.”

I stare at him, trying to imagine how my mother allowed herself to get in that situation.  Despite what he said about her, my mother is a smart woman.  My father must have really been something.

“It could have been worse though,” he says.  “Stephen did worse things to other girls.  Well, nobody could prove it.  But we all knew.”

My stomach sinks.  “What kinds of things?”

But George doesn’t answer my question.  He’s on a roll.  “Your mama would have been branded a whore if I hadn’t married her.  I saved her.  And what do I get?  She couldn’t seem to have any more children and I’m stuck with you. Her bastard.”

I watch as he undoes the buckle on his belt.  I know what’s coming, what he plans to do.  But I’m too old for that.  He isn’t going to lay a finger on me.  Not one finger on me or my mother ever again.

I grab the knife I’d been using to cut the meat from the table.  I grip it in my right hand so George can see it plainly.  He knows I’m not going to just take a whupping.  Not anymore.

But he just laughs, unperturbed.  “What are you going to do with that, boy?”

I don’t reply.  “You’re never going to hit my mother again.  You hear me?”

“You go and get yourself a shotgun,” he says.  “Then maybe you’d be a match for me.  Maybe.”

Mr. Sullivan taught me how to sharpen knives.  After church today, I sharpened the dull blades on all the knives in our kitchen.  At the time, I was doing it because I had a few extra hours on my hands.  But maybe I knew this moment was coming.

“You think you’re going to cut me, boy?” George raises his eyebrows at me.  “Well, go and do it.”

I lunge with the knife, but George is ready for me.  He makes a grab for my right wrist, but I overpower him easily. I can see the surprise on his face when he realizes that I’m now stronger than he is. I topple an end table and the vase resting on it crashes to the floor as I shove my stepfather backwards.  He is bigger than me and heavier than me, but his efforts to overpower me feel flimsy.  Within seconds, I have restrained him against the wall, the sharp blade of our kitchen knife as his throat.

“Tom,” he gasps.  His face is almost purple and his brown eyes are full of fear.  “What are you doing?”

I let the edge of the knife dig into his throat, just enough that blood oozes out. 

“I’m your father,” he manages.  “Without me, you’d have nothing.  You’d be nothing.”

I close my eyes for a moment, conjuring up the image of my mother’s battered face.  You are nothing, George.”

He stands there, gasping for air.  This is what I have wanted for a very long time—to watch this man squirm.  Now I have him right where I want him.  He knows if he beats my mother, he will have me to deal with.  I can let him go now.

Except then I hear that voice, the one haunting me for almost a year now.  I hear it as loud as ever before, a whisper directly in my ear:

Cut his throat, Tom.

In one moment, I’m letting him go. In the next, my hand is digging the blade into his neck, slitting his throat from ear to ear.  I see a split-second shock on his face before he drops to the ground, gushing blood all over our wooden floorboards.  He makes one last gasp for air and bubbles of blood spurt from his lips.

“Oh my God.” I let the knife clatter to the floor. I cover my mouth, backing away from his body.  “Oh my God…”

“What are you doing?”  The voice I heard before is no longer a whisper.  It is now loud and clear.  “After all this time, you’re just going to let him bleed all over the floor?  You’re wasting it, you know.”

I whirl around, expecting to see the same nothing I’ve been seeing for the last year.  But instead, I see a man.  An ordinary-looking man—handsome, yes, but still very much a man.  He appears in his mid-twenties, and he has a shock of black hair and dark, penetrating eyes that make it hard to see his pupils.  It’s like looking into a mirror ten years in the future.

“Who are you?” I demand to know.

“Never mind that,” the man says irritably.  “Drink the blood now, before you have to lick it off the floorboards or else go back to drinking from a pig.”

My eyes widen.  He knows about the pigs?  “How do you…?” 

Before I can get out the sentence, the man all but shoves me in the direction of George Blake’s body.  “Drink!” he snaps at me.

In the end, he nearly has to hold me down.  He pushes me to my knees and presses his hand against the back of my head until my lips are flush with George’s throat.  I would never have done it on my own, but when I’m inches away, the urge is overpowering.

For the first time, I realize how poor a substitute animal blood is for what I really want.  If pig’s blood makes me feel like I can run, this makes me feel like I can fly. I have never been certain if I believed in God, but drinking this makes me feel like I am God. 

I don’t know how long I drink.  I lose all track of time, my face buried in my stepfather’s neck.  But when the flow ebbs, I finally realize what I’m doing.  The euphoria of drinking fades and I’m left with an increasingly ill feeling.

“I think I’m going to be sick,” I tell the man standing over me.

I retch, but nothing comes out.  He shakes his head at me.  “I know it’s your first time but try not to vomit.  It’s such a waste.”

I manage to sit up on the floor, clutching my head in my hands.  I can’t believe what has just happened.  It feels like some sort of horrible dream.  I did not just kill George Blake.  I did not slit his throat.  I did not just drink the blood gushing from his neck.  In five minutes, I will wake up and all will be well.

Except I don’t seem to be waking up.

I look up at the man standing over me.  I can see now that he is wearing a cloak buttoned around his neck that is as dark as his hair.  He is frowning at me, a crease between his eyebrows.

“Better?” he asks.

I nod weakly. 

The man crouches down beside George’s body.  He places a pale hand on my stepfather’s chest.  “His heart has stopped.”

I clutch my knees with my palms. “Who are you?”

The man smiles at me.  He does not appear evil, in spite of what he just told me to do.  Despite everything, I feel that this is a person I can trust. 

“My name is Charles,” he says.  “You can call me Chas.”

“And why are you in my house?”

Chas smiles wider.  Don’t you see the family resemblance, Tom?”

I stare at him.

“I’m your brother,” he says.

***
 

I’m still trying to wrap my head around the whole thing.  This man who does admittedly look very much like me is in my house and is saying that he’s my brother (well, half-brother) and he’s here to help me make “the transition.”  He’s all business, fetching towels to mop up the blood and saying how much easier this will be than usual, because of the luxury of the indoor water pump we have.

“Of course,” Chas says, “there would be a lot less mess to clean up if you hadn’t let him bleed all over the floor.  I hope you’ll know not to make that mistake again next time.”

“Next time?” I say numbly. 

What does he think?  That I’m going to go around town, slitting everyone’s throats?

Chas tosses me one of Ma’s towels.  “Clean up what you can from the floor.  I’ll get rid of the body.”

I stare at him. “Get rid of the body?  What are you talking about?”

He sighs.  Fine, Tom.  We’ll just leave him here with his throat slit, and you can explain to your sweetheart Mary’s daddy exactly what happened.  How do you think that will go?”

He has a point.

“What are you going to do with the body?” I ask. 

“Let me worry about that.”

Chas heaves George’s body onto his back with surprising strength.  George has to weigh at least two-hundred pounds, but Chas lifts him like he’s lighter than air.  He stands there for a moment, surveying the room.

“Pick up the pieces of the vase too,” he says. “Put it in a paper sack along with the towels you use to clean up. And that bloody shirt you’re wearing. I’ll be back to get rid of it for you.”

“My mother will notice the vase is gone,” I point out.

“Your mother is the least of our problems.”

I watch as Chas trots off through the back door, leaving me with a shattered vase and a pool of blood to clean up.  It’s the last thing I want to do right now—I’m still not entirely sure I won’t be sick—but I have no choice.  I don’t want the sheriff taking me away for murdering George Blake.  Ma needs me.

And the truth is, George deserved to die.

I already know from my time at Sullivan’s that blood is difficult to scrub from wood.  At the butcher shop, a few blood stains on the floor are not a big deal, and in fact are expected.  But it will not do to have any sign that a man died in this room. 

As I perform this mindless task, I think about George.  I know now that I never loved the man, and I might have even hated him. But I hadn’t meant to kill him.  Every time I think about what I have done, my hands start to shake and I have to take a break from scrubbing.  When I held that blade to his neck, I had every intention of letting him go, but then…

What happened after is even more upsetting.  That man, Charles, in my home, ordering me to drink the blood spilling out of George’s neck.  Even worse, I did what he asked.  And while I was drinking, it felt like the most natural thing in the world.  It felt like what I was meant to be doing all along—that up until now, I’d been holding myself back.

But it is wrong.  There is no denying that what I did tonight was deeply and terribly wrong.

There is something deeply and terribly wrong with me.

I stop scrubbing and sit down on the floor.  I thought doing what Chas told me to do was the right thing—I can’t let myself be taken to prison and leave my mother to fend for herself.  Yet… someone who did what I did tonight deserves to be locked up.  I have to face the music.

After all, I hadn’t intended to kill George.  What if I do it again?

What if I hurt my mother?

“You did a good job.” Chas’s voice interrupts my thoughts.  He has entered the house again without my hearing him.  How does he move so silently? “I can’t see the blood at all.  Well done, brother.  You’re a natural.

I look up at his face—God, he looks so much like me.  “I have to turn myself in, Chas.”

Chas’s dark eyes widen.  “You’re crazy as a bedbug, Tom! Why would you do something like that?”

“Because I killed a man!”  I rub my face, probably smearing blood on it, but I don’t care anymore.  “I’m scared I’ll do it again.  I… I should be locked up.”

“Of course you’ll do it again,” Chas snorts.  “That’s your nature.  But you’re not an animal.  You won’t go around killing people at random.  That would be madness!”

“I didn’t want to kill him.”

“Didn’t you?” He raises his eyebrows.  “It looks to me that you did.  It looks to me that he was an evil man who deserved to die.  And that your dear mother will be much better off without him.  At least, she will be unless her only son gets hanged for murder.”

I don’t know what to say.  He does make an excellent point.

“And once you’re gone,” Chas whispers, his eyes growing darker, “your poor, beautiful mother will be left all alone.  Nobody will be around to protect her.  She’ll be at the mercy of whatever dark creatures are lurking around.”

I stare at him. “Are you… threatening me?”

He smiles benignly and his eyes lighten again.  It is then I realize he has a natural charm he can easily turn on and off at will.  “Of course not.  I’m warning you, Tom.  Don’t breathe a word of this to anyone.  Nothing good will come of it.”

He takes the bloody towels from me as well as the pieces of the vase. I pull my blood-stained shirt over my head and hand that to him as well. And then he is gone.  I’m not sure if he’ll ever return.  I hope he won’t, but I know that is unlikely.  He’s been following me around for this long—why would he stop now?

After he leaves, I fill a bucket of water to clean the blood from my hands.  It is the last piece of evidence that I have murdered my stepfather.  As I let the cold water cleanse my palms, I see for the first time that the scar George gave me has completely disappeared.

 To be continued...

Tom Blake, Part 4


April, 1907

I never go to the sheriff’s office to report George missing. I know it has to be done eventually, but with Ma still out of town, the only person who could do it is me. And I’m scared if I look Sheriff Eckley in the eye, I’ll break down and tell him everything.

When I get home from Sullivan’s today, I find Chas sitting on my sofa, waiting for me. There is a glow in the room, even though the oil lamp has not been lit. I stand in front of him, too nervous to move or even speak. I know this man says he’s my brother, but it’s obvious he isn’t here for the sake of brotherly love. I don’t trust him.

“You kept your mouth shut today,” Chas observes. “Good job.”

“Thanks,” I mumble.

He smiles that charming smile. I imagine he is just as skilled as our father at making women fall in love with him. “Sit down, brother. We have much to discuss.”

Chas has a slight accent I can’t identify. Something foreign—maybe European. My father was a traveler, from what I can tell, and I wonder if his travels took him overseas. It occurs to me that Chas might be the one to finally answer my many questions about our father.

I sit on the sofa next to Chas, but not too close. Last night, I sensed something very dark and evil in the man, and I’m afraid of what he is capable of. Then again, it can’t be anything worse than what I did myself last night. I’m beginning to fear I’m just as bad as he is. Or if I’m not right now, I will be someday.

No. I won’t let that happen.

Chas studies me curiously. “How do you feel today?”

“Good.”

He raises his eyebrows. “Just good?”

“Very good,” I amend.

That is an understatement. I feel incredible today. I feel like I can climb the highest tree and jump from there to the next highest tree. At Mr. Sullivan’s shop, I lifted an entire side of beef on my own without so much as grunting. The side of beef can’t have weighed less than five-hundred pounds.

“It gives you incredible strength, doesn’t it?” my brother says.

“What does?”

A smile touches his lips. “Human blood.”

My stomach turns. I don’t want to have this conversation anymore. “Chas…”

“I know it’s a shock, Tom.” He rests a hand on mine, but I yank it away. “I felt exactly the same when I was your age. I went through the same exact thing—I promise you. But the sooner you embrace it, the easier of a time you’ll have.”

I lift my eyes to meet his. “Embrace it?”

“Embrace the cravings you have,” he says. “Recognize that you are powerless to resist. That you must take human life for the sake of your own survival.”

My mouth falls open. “You’re crazy, Chas. I’m not going to kill anyone.”

“You already did,” he reminds me.

“Yes, but…” I lower my head, digging my fingers into my scalp. “I won’t do it again. Ever. That was just… he got me so angry…”

“The longer you go hungry,” he says softly, “the stronger the cravings will become. You’re not dangerous now because you’ve been sated. But if you go a few months without feeding, you’ll kill the first person who looks at you wrong.”

I shake my head weakly. “I won’t.”

Chas leans toward me, his dark eyes flashing. “You think I don’t know what I’m talking about, Tom? I’ve gone through the same thing you’re going through right now. I’ve been there. I’ve lived it for the last fifty years.”

“Fifty…?” I study my brother’s face—he can’t be more than twenty-five.

He grins at my confusion. “It slows the aging process. Another perk.”

I just shake my head. What he is telling me can’t possibly be true. This is the sort of fairy tale used to scare little children.

Don’t tell me you haven’t felt the cravings, brother,” he says. “And believe me, they’ll only grow stronger. Overpowering.”

I sit there, trying to ignore the growing feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach. “What are we?”

“We are human,” Chas says. “Just different from all other humans.”

Are we vampires?” I ask. I read Bram Stoker’s book, Dracula, a few years ago. I found it fascinating, but it was very clearly a work of fiction.

Or so I thought.

“Vampires are not real,” Chas says. “But some of the legends have truth to them. Have you heard of Vlad the Impaler?”

I shake my head no.

“Killed tens of thousands by impalement in the fifteenth century.” He adjusts his dark cloak, which again conceals everything from his white neck to his knees. “He is the man that the legend of Dracula is based on.” He pauses and gives me a meaningful look. “Vlad is our great-grandfather. All the legends of vampires are based on our kind.”

 I lean back against the couch, too shocked to ask any of the questions whirling around my brain. This can’t be. I’m just a butcher’s apprentice. Nothing more.

“We are not magical,” he says in that smooth, reassuring voice. “Just different. Your reflexes and strength will be greatly enhanced when you have fed, but you are still only a human being. You will age slower, but you will age. You will eventually die, just like everyone else.”

I swallow, which is difficult when my throat feels so dry. “Where is our father?”

Chas shrugs. “He comes and goes. I haven’t seen him in about fifteen years. He found me to tell me about you—that I should look out for you. And instruct you—when you were ready. So I’ve been watching you, waiting for you to be ready.”

So my father was thinking about me at some point. He was looking out for me. He didn’t just get my mother in trouble then forget all about me.

“Will I ever meet him?” I ask.

Chas shakes his head. “I don’t know, Tom. I think you will someday, but… not until he’s ready. He has a way of showing up when you need him the most.”

“I see,” I mumble, feeling disappointed by his answer.

Chas narrows his eyes at me. “Listen to me, Tom. The police will likely come by in the next day to question you—your stepfather will almost certainly be missed at his shop by tomorrow. When they speak to you, tell them George Blake went out Sunday night and never came home. Nothing more.”

I nod. “I understand.”

I know by now I must agree to everything Chas asks of me. If I refuse him, he will threaten me. And I believe he has every intention of making good on his threats. If anyone hangs for the death of George Blake, it will be me—I was the one holding the knife. Chas will simply disappear into the night.

Or worse.

Despite everything, I keep thinking about my father. Not George Blake, a man who makes a mockery of the word. I am thinking about my real father. The handsome, charming man who my mother fell in love with all those years ago. Stephen.

I wonder if I’ll ever see him. I want to believe that eventually he’ll show up. Wouldn’t he want to meet his son?

_____

 

The next day, I’m in the back at Sullivan’s when I hear Mr. Sullivan calling out my name. I drop the meat I’m slicing, wipe my hands on my apron, and come out to the front. When I see Sheriff Eckley standing there with his badge plastered on his chest, my heart sinks in my chest, but I keep a smile frozen on my face.

“What do you need, Sheriff?” I ask politely.

The sheriff doesn’t look upset. Maybe he’s just ordering some meat. Except I know he’s not.

“Tom,” he says. “One of your father’s customers came to my office today because he’s been looking to pick up some items he purchased, but the blacksmith shop has been closed for the last two days.”

“Oh,” is all I can come up with.

“So I went and knocked on your door, but nobody answered,” the sheriff continues. He’s studying me with cool green eyes that remind me of Mary’s.

“My mother has gone to visit her sister,” I explain.

“Right, I heard that,” he says, and I wonder who he’s been talking to. He’s trying to be casual, but the sheriff is always a professional. And he’s good at what he does. “But we’re trying to track down your father. Has he been sick? Was he home this morning?”

I hesitate, quickly rehearsing in my head the lies that Chas instructed me to tell. “Actually,” I say, “I haven’t seen him since Sunday night, I don’t think. He went out to the saloon after dinner then came back real late.”

Sheriff Eckley blinks in surprise. “You haven’t seen him in two days then?”

I shrug. “It’s not unusual. He goes to the saloon a lot, especially when my mother is out of town. Sometimes I might not see him for a week.”

I’m startled by how easily the lies roll off my tongue.

To my relief, the sheriff smiles. “Yeah, he’s probably gone on a drinking bash. Or maybe he’s gone off to see your mother without letting you know. When will she be home?”

“She’s due back tomorrow,” I tell him.

He nods. “I’ll check in with you again tomorrow. If he hasn’t turned up by then…”

“I’m sure he will,” I say quickly, of course knowing he won’t.

Sheriff Eckley looks around the shop appraisingly then over at Mr. Sullivan. “I hope you’re not working my future son-in-law too hard,” he says.

“You kidding me, Bill?” Mr. Sullivan laughs. “I have to shove the boy out the door to get him to go home at night. Best employee I’ll ever get.”

I smile gratefully at my boss. Mr. Sullivan is really good to me. Why can’t I have a man like him as a father? If Mr. Sullivan had married my mother, I wouldn’t be standing here, wondering where the hell my brother hid the body of my stepfather, and if I’ll hang for his murder.

_____

 

I meet Ma at the train station today to help carry her trunk back home. George is supposed to meet her, but it’s clear that isn’t going to happen. I’m ready at the station when her train arrives, just in time to see her stepping from the locomotive, her golden hair piled on top of her head, her usually pale face flushed pink from a week away from the miserable man she married.

“Tom!” She throws her arms around me when I walk over to where she is struggling with her trunk. “I didn’t expect to see you here! Where’s your father?”

“He’s been busy,” I lie, “so I thought I would fetch you.”

Ma pulls away to look at me, brushing a piece of lint from my collar. “Honestly, Tom, you get more handsome every week. Mary is a lucky girl.”

I avert my eyes. “Let’s go home.”

I carry Ma’s trunk, while she scolds me for not borrowing our neighbor’s horse and buggy to manage the load. But I can carry a trunk easily. I could have carried it over my head the entire way, but that would have made her suspicious.

It is still daylight when we get back to the house. Ma smiles when she walks in—I haven’t seen her so happy in a long time. It is as if she sensed I’ve gotten rid of her husband. She touches every surface in the parlor, finally collapsing onto the sofa.

“It’s good to be home,” she sighs.

“Was Aunt Helen a bother?” I ask.

“Oh, the usual.” She shakes her head. “Her husband is such a louse. He drinks away half their money!”

Sounds familiar. Of course, Aunt Helen has six children to support and Ma just has me.

Ma is quiet for a moment, her brows knitted together. “Tom?”

“Yes?”

“What happened to my vase?”

My eyes go to the end table that contained the vase that broke when I pushed George against the wall, moments before I cut his throat. I told Chas that Ma would notice its absence, but I hadn’t prepared for the question.

“It broke,” I finally say. “It was my fault. I’m sorry, Ma.”

“Oh, too bad.” She frowns. “It was one of my favorites. What did you do with the pieces?”

“I… I threw them out.”

“Oh, Tom!” She shakes her head. “You should have saved them. I could have brought it to John Pollard at the pottery shop to have it patched back together.”

“Sorry,” I mumble. I can’t very well tell her that the pieces were soaked in her husband’s blood. “Why don’t you relax and I’ll put together dinner for us?”

Ma smiles gratefully. “That would be lovely, Tom. Um, do you… do you know when your father is due to come home?”

I flinch at the way she still refers to him as my father. “No.

I have barely made it to the kitchen when I hear a knock at the front door. I freeze, waiting for my mother to get off the sofa and answer the door. I already know who it will be, even though I desperately hope it is someone else.

Hello, Meg!” It is, as I expected, Sheriff Eckley’s voice. “Welcome back. How was your trip?”

“Very well, thank you,” Ma’s voice says. “But I’m glad to be home.”

“Wonderful,” the sheriff says. “And I’m just wondering if George has turned up yet? Did he come out to see you?”

There’s a long pause. I stand in the kitchen, feeling a sweat break out on my forehead. I have to keep it together. I can’t let Sheriff Eckley see my nervousness.

“Turned up?” Ma finally says.

“Tom didn’t tell you?” He sounds surprised. “Nobody’s seen George since Sunday night. He’s not here, is he?”

I hold my breath as my mother shouts my name. I look down at my hands and see they are shaking. For a moment, I can’t get myself to move. I know the conversation I’m about to have won’t be pleasant, but I can’t avoid it. I had hoped to at least make it through a meal without having to deal with this.

And I hope Chas is right that this will eventually blow over.

“Hi, Tom.” Sheriff Eckley is smiling again when I come into the hallway, but the smile is strained this time. “It looks like your father hasn’t come back yet, has he?”

“No,” I admit.

“Tom,” Ma murmurs, “why didn’t you tell me? I thought…”

“I didn’t want to upset you,” I say. “It’s not like Pa hasn’t disappeared for short times before.”

The sheriff raises his eyebrows. “For four days?”

“Four days?” Ma repeats, her blue eyes turning glassy. “George has been gone for four days?”

“Well, Tom here says he last saw him Sunday night,” Sheriff Eckley says. “Isn’t that right, Tom?”

I nod mutely.

“And you said you thought he was going to the saloon,” he continues, “but the bartender there says he never saw ol’ George turn up on Sunday night. Now, just to be clear, Tom, did you hear your father come home from wherever he went on Sunday night?”

“I… I’m not sure,” I stammer. “I thought I did. But I was in my room, so I could be mistaken.”

Sheriff Eckley nods thoughtfully. “And you were home all night that night?”

“I may have stepped out for a bit,” I say. “I don’t remember.”

He looks over my shoulder. “And you didn’t see any signs of a struggle in the house on Sunday night?”

Ma stares at me, her blue eyes filling with horror. I know what she is thinking about—the broken vase.

“No, sir,” I say quietly.

He raises his eyebrows at my mother. “Do you mind if I take a look around, Meg?”

She shakes her head no. I watch the sheriff mosey into our home, looking around at our furniture that is newer and better made than his own. We are well-off compared with the Eckleys, but it isn’t something that seems to bother them. They are nice people—well-liked by everyone in town. Then again, most people liked George too, except when he was drunk.

I don’t know what the sheriff is looking for, although I nearly fall into a panic when he stands over the exact spot where George bled all over the floor. I see him looking down at the floorboards and I’m terrified he can see the blood. But there is no chance of that. I’ve gone over it twice more since that first night—there is no trace of crimson left.

Still, I breathe a sigh of relief when he lifts his head without examining the floor further.

“By the way, Tom,” Sheriff Eckley says to me, “have you seen Mrs. Perkins recently?”

I frown and shake my head.

The sheriff shrugs but his eyes are staring straight at me. “Since she’s right across the road, I went over there yesterday to ask if she’d seen George the last few days. But she didn’t answer her door. I asked around at the grocer and he said she didn’t show up for her weekly visit on Monday like she usually does.”

A cold, sick feeling washes over me. Widow Perkins is missing?

“So I got someone to open up the door, to make sure she was all right,” he goes on. “And she wasn’t to be found anywhere.”

“Maybe she went to visit a relative?” Ma suggests.

“Maybe,” Sheriff Eckley agrees, although his eyes are trained on my face. “It does sure seem like a lot of folks are disappearing in this neighborhood lately.”

Ma’s lower lip trembles. “What are you saying, Bill? You think something bad happened to my George?”

His eyes stay on my face. “I hope not, Meg.”

Before he leaves, the sheriff takes my mother’s hand and assures her he’ll come by if he hears any news at all. By the time he’s gone, I feel like my legs can barely support me anymore. It is clear as day the sheriff thinks I had something to do with George’s disappearance. And now there’s the matter of Widow Perkins. Where has she gone?

I hope she’s visiting relatives. I pray for that.

After the sheriff is gone, Ma just stands in the foyer, trembling slightly. She turns away from me, refusing to meet my eyes, leaning against the wall for support. She seems so small suddenly. Whenever my mother looked at me in the past, I’d always seen love in her eyes. Now all I see is fear.

“I think,” she manages, “that I’m not very hungry. I think… I’ll go to bed now.”

“Ma,” I begin, but I’m not sure what I will say next. I’m afraid she’ll ask me if I killed George. And if she does, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to lie.

                               

***


Over the last two days, a search party of several men from town has been formed to look for George, as well as for Agnes Perkins. I was not asked to be part of this search party. I don’t know what Chas did with the body, but I fear it’s just a matter of time before it’s discovered. They’re going over the entire town and the adjacent woods with a fine-toothed comb.

My only piece of good fortune is that George has a reputation around the county for being temperamental and impulsive. The gossip I’ve heard most frequently is that he’s taken off with another woman—a whore he met at the saloon. I’m saved by the fact that George is so much larger than me, people find it ludicrous that a skinny seventeen-year-old boy might be able to best him in a fight.

Sometimes I pretend it’s true. I didn’t slit George’s throat in our living room. He took off with a whore named Mollie. And we’re all better off now that he’s gone.

Mrs. Perkins’s disappearance is more troubling to me though. From what I hear, the luggage is all in her closet empty, so it does not appear she’d packed for a journey. Nobody has heard a word from her since Sunday night.

So when Chas shows up behind the smokehouse this afternoon while Mr. Sullivan is minding the shop, I decide I have to get some answers. I need to ease my mind.

“You’re holding up very well, brother,” Chas tells me when he appears like an apparition just after I got the fire started up again and left the smokehouse. He’s wearing that dark cloak again like he always does—I wonder if he ever dresses in a normal shirt and slacks.

“Thank you,” I mumble. I glance at the shop, hoping Mr. Sullivan is occupied up front. It wouldn’t do for him to come back here and discover Chas.

“I saw that sheriff questioning you,” he adds. “You stuck to our story—well done. He’ll be back though.”

I lift my eyes to look at my brother. “Chas, on Sunday night, did you see Mrs. Perkins?”

He frowns. “Mrs. Perkins?”

“The old lady who lives across the road from us.”

“Ah.” Chas nods. “Yes. Don’t worry about her. She’s taken care of.”

My stomach sinks. “Taken care of?”

“She saw everything, Tom.” His eyes darken, turning into pools of blackness. “Everything. I could see the old witch watching from her window. She would have turned you in.” He shrugs. “Also, I was thirsty. You got to drink that night, but I didn’t.”

My mouth feels too dry to speak. I don’t want to believe what I’m hearing. Maybe I’m misunderstanding him.

“What did you do to her?” I croak.

“I told you not to worry,” he says. “They won’t find her body so easily.”

He has murdered Widow Perkins. He killed the nice old lady who’s lived next door to me as long as I can remember. Mrs. Perkins, who makes the best peach pie in town, and calls me over just as it is cooling. He broke into her home, slashed her throat the way I did to George, and drank her blood.

Two people in one night. Who will be next?

Chas reaches out and rests a hand on my shoulder. I flinch and pull away from him. “I didn’t want you to kill her,” I say sharply.

“It wasn’t your decision to make, was it?” An amused smile touches his lips. “Anyway, I did it for you, Tom. Like I said, she would have turned you in. Not me—you.”

Ma said the same thing when she explained why she married George Blake. I did it for you, Tom.

I feel like I’m going to be sick. I lean over and retch, but nothing comes out. I haven’t eaten all day. I have little appetite these days. I even stopped sneaking animal blood when Mr. Sullivan’s back is turned. I’m done with that. Done.

When I straighten up again, Chas is watching me. The look in his dark eyes is something between amusement and disgust. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter what he thinks of me. I just want him gone.

Chas,” I say, “please don’t kill anyone else here.”

He laughs. “What do you think—that I’m going to go on some sort of killing rampage? Do you think so little of me?”

I don’t answer.

“One thing our father taught me,” he says, “is that you never kill more than three people in one location. Three people, then you move on.”

“Please,” I beseech him. I’m ready to get down on my knees. “Just… go.”

My brother looks at me appraisingly. If I’d known a week ago that I’d be standing next to my own flesh and blood brother, I’d have been ecstatic. Now all I can think is I never want to see this man ever again.

“I can’t go, Tom,” he finally says. “Not while you need me.”

_____

 

When we hear a knock on the door just as Ma and I are finishing dinner tonight, I know it isn’t good news. It can’t be. Ma, on the other hand, jumps out of her chair excitedly. “Maybe it’s George!” she chirps.

It isn’t George. Obviously. It’s Sheriff Eckley and his deputy, Clyde Ubend.

My mother’s eyes go wide at the sight of both of them standing at our door. This time Sheriff Eckley isn’t even pretending to smile. The expression on his face is grave.

Hello, Meg,” he says.

“Any news?” Ma asks anxiously, swiping strands of blond hair from her pale face.

The sheriff’s green eyes go straight to me. “We found Agnes Perkins.”

“Oh!” Ma smiles, because she doesn’t know what I know. “That’s great! Where did you find her? Was she traveling?”

“She was buried under the floorboards in her cellar,” Sheriff Eckley says, his eyes boring holes into me. “Her throat was slashed.”

My knees turn to liquid and it takes all my strength to remain upright. Chas hid Mrs. Perkins’s body under the floorboards in her cellar. She’s been lying there rotting for days.

The smile vanishes from my mother’s face. She grabs onto the wall, looking like she might hit the floor. Deputy Ubend, younger than the sheriff by a decade and always the gentleman, gives her a concerned look. “Are you all right, Missus Blake?”

“Yes,” she manages. She glances at our parlor. “I just… if I can sit down…”

Deputy Ubend helps my mother to the sofa. She can’t stop trembling so I go to fetch her a cup of water. Despite how nervous I am, my hands don’t shake as I hold out the glass for her to take. The sheriff keeps his eyes on me the entire time, like he is studying me. I wonder if he came here to arrest me.

“Who could have done such a thing?” Ma murmurs to her cup of water.

“That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” Sheriff Eckley says to her, although he is still looking at me. “Tom, did you see anyone go into Mrs. Perkins’s house at any point on Sunday?”

“No, sir,” I say.

“Did you see her at all on Sunday?”

I shake my head no.

The sheriff sighs. “Meg, I’m going to have to ask you to let us take a look at your cellar.”

Ma’s eyes widen. “You don’t think that… that George might…?”

“I think it’s worth having a look,” he says.

My mother buries her face in her hands. I can’t tell if she is crying or not. “All right. Go ahead.”

Sheriff Eckley’s eyes go back to me. “I’m going to have to ask you both to remain on the premises while we’re checking out the cellar. Depending on what we find, there may be more questions.”

He isn’t fooling anyone. I know if he finds George’s body down there, he is taking me to jail. But I’m certain Chas removed the body from the house.

I’m fairly certain, at least.

Ma opens the door to the cellar and the two men go downstairs, holding an oil lamp they borrowed from our parlor. Ma watches them go down the stairs before turning away. My mother has always been one of the most beautiful women in town, but right now, she looks every bit her age.

“Go upstairs to your room, Tom,” she says.

“Ma…” I protest.

“I said go,” she says in a voice that leaves no room for argument.

I go upstairs, but I have no intention of staying in my room. I want to hear whatever the sheriff has to say when they come out of the cellar. I go to my room, close the door so that my mother will think I’m inside, then quietly creep outside to the top of the staircase. She won’t be able to see me and I’ll be able to hear everything he says. I’m scared to hear it, but I need to know.

It is over half an hour that the sheriff and his deputy spend in our small cellar—I can’t imagine what they could have been doing there for so long. I start to become terrified they really have found the body. But when they come back up, I can tell immediately by the tone of their voices they are empty-handed.

“You keep a clean cellar, Missus Blake,” Deputy Ubend’s voice says. “Nothing out of place down there.”

“Oh,” Ma murmurs.

“Where’s Tom?” It’s Sheriff Eckley’s voice this time.

“I sent him to his room,” Ma says.

“I may have some more questions for him at the station tomorrow,” the sheriff says. “Why don’t you send him over after he comes home from school?”

“Why?”

“Just some routine questions, Meg.” There’s a pause. “By the way, does Tom know that George isn’t… his natural father?”

Yes.” Ma’s voice breaks on the word. “He knows. I… I told him recently. But… what does that have to do with anything?”

“Maybe nothing. Just gathering information.”

Bill.” My mother’s voice lowers so that I have to strain to hear what she is saying. “You… you don’t think that Tom could be responsible for… what happened to Agnes?”

I hold my breath. At least she’s asking him. At least my mother hasn’t already decided on my guilt.

“Not my place to say right now, Meg.”

“Please, Bill. We’ve known each other our whole lives.”

Sheriff Eckley sighs. “Yes. I think it was him. I think Tom killed them both—George and Mrs. Perkins. I think Mrs. Perkins must have seen whatever he did to George through the window and he got rid of her so she wouldn’t turn him in. I can’t think of any other explanation that makes sense.”

I clutch my knees, feeling suddenly dizzy. The sheriff thinks I’m a murderer. If that’s true, it’s just a matter of time before he acts on his suspicions.

“How can you say that, Bill?” Ma cries too loudly before remembering to lower her voice. “You’ve known Tom since he was a baby—you know he’s a good boy. He’s been calling on your Mary for years.”

“Yes,” the sheriff says tightly. And at that moment, I know that the man will never let me near Mary ever again.

“You know Tom wouldn’t do something like that,” Ma says.

“Wouldn’t he?” he retorts. “You remember his father, don’t you, Meg?”

My mother is quiet for a moment. I strain my ears, not wanting to miss her response. “Stephen did nothing wrong,” she finally says.

“You don’t really believe that, do you? Stephen comes into town and charms all the ladies. Then two girls in the span of a month go missing. Poor Edith turned up floating in the lake…”

“It wasn’t Stephen!” Ma snaps.

I hold my breath, waiting to hear what the sheriff would say in response. For what feels like several minutes, there is nothing but silence. Then I hear Sheriff Eckley say, “Like I said, Meg, tell Tom to come on by after school. We just want to ask him some questions. I’m sure the truth will come out, whatever that may be.”

I hear the front door slam and I know the officers are gone. I stay at the top of the stairs for a few minutes, unsure what I should do next. When I finally make my way downstairs, I find my mother at the kitchen table, her face in her hands, sobbing.

“Ma,” I say.

She looks up, her eyes swollen and bloodshot. I wonder if she really believes me to be innocent or if she was just defending me so that the sheriff wouldn’t haul me away.

“Go to bed, Tom,” she says.

But I don’t move. “What was the sheriff talking about?” I say. “About my father?”

Ma’s mouth falls open. She wipes her eyes with a trembling hand. “Nothing. Don’t you worry about it.”

“Please tell me, Ma,” I say.

She shakes her head. “It’s better you don’t know.”

“Tell me, goddamn it!”

Ma blinks a few times at the sharpness of my tone—I have never raised my voice to her before. I watch as she squeezes a soiled handkerchief in her palms and decide I’m not sorry I snapped at her. I’m not going to let this go. I need to hear the truth. I need it now.

“Ma…” I say, more gently this time. “Please.”

She stares up at me. She doesn’t want to tell me. But she can see the look in my eyes.

“Your father…” she begins. “He… he was… very charming. And so handsome. All the girls in town loved him.”

My heart pounds in my chest. Now that she is telling me the story, I’m not sure if I want to hear it anymore. But I know it is too late to go back.

“I used to see him a couple of nights a week, but I knew he took out other girls,” she says. “I didn’t mind. We all knew he was just passing by and it wasn’t anything serious. But then…” She heaves a deep breath. “Rose Noland went missing.”

I close my eyes for a moment, wanting to beg her to stop but at the same time, scared she might not tell me the whole story. I have to know.

“Then a week later, Edith Fisher disappeared too.” Ma dabs at her eyes. “Everyone was whispering about Stephen, but I knew him well and was certain that he couldn’t be responsible. He was so sweet. So gentle.”

I nearly put my hands over my ears to keep from hearing the rest.

“I found out I was carrying his child,” she says. “Obviously, it was not planned. He was very persuasive. He convinced me to do things I never thought I would have done, but… well, that’s in the past. He was so wonderful. I thought I would tell him about you and he might marry me, then everyone would know he was a good man. Except on the night I was to tell him, he… he…”

My heart speeds up. “Ma?”

“He tried to kill me.”
 
My legs feel so weak, I have to grab a chair to keep from collapsing. I sink into it, wondering if I might pass out. I feel dizzy. The man who spawned me is a murderer.

I am the son of a murderer. Killing is in my blood.

“He got me alone in our meeting place in the woods,” she says softly, avoiding my eyes. “I started to tell him about the baby, but before I could, he took a knife to my throat. I could feel it biting into my skin. I knew I had seconds before he finished me off, so I told him. I told him his child was growing inside me.

“He felt my belly and said he would spare me,” she recalls. “For your sake, he would let me live. And then… the next morning, he was gone. Left town—never seen again.” She reaches out to put her hand on mine. “You saved my life, Tom.”

I yank my hand away, not wanting to feel her touch. Or anything.

“A week later, Edith surfaced in the river,” she goes on. “The rope used to tie rocks to her ankles had come undone. But she hadn’t drowned. Her throat had been slit—I knew it was Stephen who had done it, but I never said a word about what he’d done to me because then everyone would know he was the one who had gotten me in trouble. By then, George had already agreed to marry me to save my honor.”

I rub my face with my hands, trying to take in what she just told me. My father wasn’t just a murderer—he killed multiple women. At least two but maybe hundreds. Maybe thousands.

“I was so scared you might turn out like Stephen,” she murmurs. “Especially since… well, you look just like him. I watched you so carefully though, and you were never anything like him. Such a good boy—sweet, considerate, and I know you truly love that Mary girl. You’re not like your father at all.”

I feel like I’m choking. She believes the best of me. She has no idea.

“I remember when you were only five years old,” she murmurs. “You found this sparrow with an injured wing on the front steps. It would have died. You brought it into the house and nursed it back to health. George didn’t want it in the house, so you hid it from him. You took such good care of that little sparrow, Tom. You were so gentle with it. I’ll never forget how sweet you were. I knew then there was no way you could ever…”

I turn my eyes away from hers.

“Tom,” she says softly. She puts her hand on mine again and I don’t pull away this time. “You are not like him. I swear to you.”

“I wish you had told me,” I manage.

“What good would it have done you to know?”

“Maybe I could have…” I struggle to find the right words. Maybe if I had known my true nature, I could have made a conscious decision to be different. When Chas ordered me to cut George’s throat, I could have resisted.

“You’re a good boy, Tom,” she says firmly.

But how can she really believe that? She must know in her heart that George is dead. She must know that Sheriff Eckley is right—no other explanation makes sense besides me killing them both.

_____

 

This morning I go out behind my house before leaving for school in the morning. It is a beautiful day—it rained the night before and there are dew drops on every leaf. It’s the sort of thing I might have appreciated before, but now my mind is focused on only one thing.

“Chas?” I call out.

He’s been watching me for a long time. I’m certain he is somewhere out there now. Why would he disappear now, when everything is finally happening?

I wait for a moment, scanning the bushes. Then I turn and he is suddenly there. He has sworn he is human, but humans don’t just suddenly appear that way, do they? I certainly have no ability to move the way Chas does. But if I continue to kill and drink the way he does, maybe I’ll gain those skills as well.

Maybe I’ll finally get to meet Stephen, my father.

“Hello, brother.” His lips curl into a smile. Even though he is my brother, I’ve grown to hate him over the last week. “How are you doing?”

“They found Mrs. Perkins,” I hiss at him.

He nods. “Yes. It’s unfortunate. I thought I buried her quite well—your police are smarter than they seem.”

“The sheriff thinks I killed her.”

He nods again. “Yes, I realize that. I think it may be time to think about getting out of town, Tom.”

I stare at him. “Getting out of town? But... I thought…”

“You realize they’re going to arrest you, don’t you?” Chas shakes his head at my apparent stupidity. “It will be hard for me to help you once they have you behind bars. Of course, I’m certain I can break you free, but the result will be the same—you’ll have to leave town.”

“I can’t leave my mother,” I mumble.

“She’ll understand,he assures me. “George has left her with money. She is an excellent seamstress. And once you’re gone, she can rent out your bedroom. She’ll be fine—she’s a strong woman.” He smiles. “After all, she survived our father. Few ladies can say the same.”

I wonder how many ladies have survived Chas.

“Go tonight,” he says. “Attend school so they don’t get suspicious, but as soon as dusk falls, you must go.” He gives me a meaningful look. “They’re close to finding George’s body. When that happens, they’ll come for you.”

I want to argue, but I know he is right. I have to leave. There’s no other way.

Tonight I will go.

To be continued....