Gretchen was unaware when she locked the door of the hair salon she managed that a terrorist of the worst kind roared murderously down the interstate, not ten miles away, toward the farm she rented with her mother. The late afternoon sun would be casting long shadows across the backyard where her six-year-old daughter would be playing, perhaps gathering the eggs from the hen house. No, Gretchen did not know that today was the day of her nightmares, the imaginary day she never talked about to anyone.
But, the certainty of this day’s reality had hounded Gretchen from the moment she had slipped away from him, taking their daughter and leaving no clue of their whereabouts. It had become so much a part of her psyche that it blanketed her heart in a dread too familiar now. She had become accustomed to it; it was as natural to her as breathing.
Odd, she thought, how a person could settle into uneasy comfort, but that is the only way she could describe it. Catching herself, more often lately, about to let her guard down, thinking maybe she had overblown his evil potential, she actually contemplated the possibility that her fear truly was irrational paranoia. After all, it had been over two years, and not a sign of him. And Texas was a long way from Virginia. Still, in moments of absolute awareness, she knew what no one else, except her mother, knew—Derek’s hell-bent obsession for revenge, the extent of the sadistic, relentless, narcissistic resolve capable of destroying her.
Gretchen’s husband wanted the most precious part of her life. He wanted it because it was his, and she had it. He knew the loss of Leesy would crush her—hopefully even kill her, if didn’t do the job himself. He wanted to strangle her. He could feel the bones in her neck crunching in his hands. Would be easy as wringing a chicken’s neck. He punched the gas pedal so hard against the floor of the Dodge Ram that the bottom of his snakeskin booted foot burned. The monster truck gobbled up the gap between it and the little blue Nissan in front of it. Derek snarled his lips into a twisted grin, squinting behind dark glasses into the glaring sun, and pressed closer to the bumper in front of him, bullying his way faster toward Oakland.
Gretchen stopped at Brookshire’s to pick up something from the Deli before heading home. It was Saturday and her mother would be going out for the evening with her new friend. Gretchen smiled thinking how excited her mother, widowed over ten years ago, was about the new man in her life. He was quite a gentleman, a mystery writer who had actually made a name for himself, boasting several literary awards.
Gretchen chuckled at the contrast between Rayford Russell and her mother. He was diminutive, fastidiously dressed, almost prissy, even sported one of those fancy carved canes with an articulate silver handle. More for looks than support, Gretchen presumed, for Rayford appeared agile on his feet. He quietly displayed gentility, from head to toe, even wore an ascot and a gray flannel hat. Christine, robust and gregarious, a good head taller than him even when he wore his hat, had no fashion sense and could not have cared less, but she energized any space she occupied and people were drawn to her vivacity.
“How’s Christine?” Doris, the deli clerk asked as she weighed the fried fish filets Gretchen had ordered. “Haven’t seen her this week.”
“No, she’s busy with the canning and freezing, everything’s ready at once, it seems,” Gretchen said, smiling at her mother’s poker partner.
“Hear she’s got herself a boyfriend!” Doris bagged the fish. “You need anything else, Gretch?”
“Yes, she does. And give me a pound of the coleslaw, and the beans, too. Leesy and me’ll be by ourselves tonight, and I’m too tired to cook!” Gretchen slapped the top of the counter with her right hand for emphasis. “Mama’s got a date!” Both women laughed. “I need to hurry on home; she’ll want to leave soon as I get there.”
“Rayford doesn’t drive, does he?”
“Nope. But wouldn’t matter if he did, Mama wouldn’t let him. She won’t ride with nobody!”
“She’ll have to bring him with her to the poker party next week, so the rest of us can meet him!”
“You don’t know him? Why, I thought he was famous around here!”
“Well, we all know his name, but he’s never been very social, just stays out there on his plantation.” Doris rolled her eyes, “drinking mint julep tea, and making up his stories, or so I hear. He’s got that nephew they say who drives him anywhere he needs to go.”
“Now, that’d be the life!” Gretchen gathered up the food. “I gotta run, Doris.” “Bye.”
By the time Gretchen pulled into her driveway twenty minutes later, the sun was sinking behind the giant oaks that bordered the back yard. She had not intended to keep the shop open so late but she had three walk-ins at the last minute, and she certainly could use the money. She received a small percentage on the salon’s net receipts each month on top of her salary. Leesy raced across the porch, happy to see her mother.
“Here, take this.” Gretchen handed the small deli bag to her daughter, “and I’ll get the Cokes.”
“Fish!” Leesy said, peeking inside the bag. “I’m hungry.” She skipped along side her mother. “We got ten eggs today!”
“We did? What’re we gonna do with all those eggs?”
“Mamaw said she’s gonna boil ‘em and devil ‘em and put ‘em in one of those big glass jars like they got at the café.”
The two entered the farmhouse through the front door, and neither of them had noticed the barely audible idling of the Dodge Ram engine from behind the massive clump of cedar trees about three hundred yards from the barn.
Christine met them in the kitchen on her way out, purse in hand. She wore a dress for a change, her blue one with the wine and yellow rose pattern that Gretchen thought made her look younger than her forty-eight years. Gretchen was pleased to see her wearing something other than the usual striped overalls.
“Whoa, look at you, Mama! All dressed up, even painted your toenails!”
“And smelling good too,” Leesy added, grabbing her grandmother’s dress and sniffing it.
“Just a little of your mama’s White Shoulders, that’s all, and you two don’t wait up for me, we’re going to Tyler to eat and to a movie.”
“You drive carefully, Mama, and have fun.”
“We will.” Christine leaned down to kiss Gretchen’s cheek. “Be sure you lock up behind me.” Mother and daughter’s eyes locked knowingly.
“Bye, Lisa Lee,” Christine said, mussing Leesy’s inherited mop of red hair. Christine always called her only grandchild by her full name. The two looked more alike everyday. Gretchen had taken after her father who was dead from cancer before he turned forty. Her dark skin, ebony eyes, and straight black hair were a striking contrast to her mother and daughter’s freckled, emerald-eyed fairness. And she was as different in personality as the two of them as well.
Gretchen depended on her mother’s rugged Irish strength, relied on her fearless support and undaunted perseverance. She never wanted to be away from her mother again. The tall, well-built Christine no doubt had direct genetic ties to some early fiery-headed female Celtic warrior, and Gretchen sensed the same powerful force in Leesy. She pitied any man who would attempt to impose his will upon her. Gretchen laughed aloud.
“What’s so funny?”
“Oh, you and your Mamaw, how much alike you two are. And that boyfriend! I sure hope he can handle her!”
Derek waited for nightfall. Lucky for him his timing had been perfect. A few minutes later and Gretchen would have met him on the road. And the house sitting so far back off the road served him well, too. He lit a cigarette and swigged another drink from the silver flask he kept in the glove compartment. He kept his magnum there too, but tonight it lay beside him on the seat. He didn’t expect to use it, not really, but wanted her think to he would. Unless of course she forced him, then, well, anything could happen. He was ready for that.
She had no right taking his daughter from him, his own flesh and blood. Surely she wasn’t so stupid she thought he’d allow that. That she could just walk off like that. That kid was his, belonged to him. He couldn’t wait to see the surprised fear in Gretchen’s eyes, the horror he would see there when he held the gun to the child’s head. Oh, he had missed his wife’s terrified black eyes looking up at him when he raised his hand to her, he didn’t even have to strike her to keep her in line. The woman scared easier than any other he’d known so far, and he needed that. The way she cowered like a pathetic animal, whimpering and letting him do with her what he wanted, aroused him just thinking about it.
He killed the engine and opened the door quietly, easing his muscular frame from the truck. He crouched low and moved toward the barn. Inside, he had a better view through a opening at the end facing the house. How the little bitch had found the nerve to run away surprised him initially. He had not figured her for that. Immediately, after the shock of finding the house empty, both her and the kid gone, he realized that she’d had an accomplice. She couldn’t have done it alone for she didn’t have enough sense on her own.
Christine the Great was the culprit, the party responsible for all his agitation the last two years. That fact had dawned on him right away. After all the precautions he’d taken to keep the interfering woman from knowing where they lived, she had somehow found them. Or Gretchen had found the guts to contact her.
But he had them now. He snickered, watching his mother-in-law back her Ford pickup out of the driveway, onto the road. And it had not been easy finding her, he would give that, but not even the crafty Christine could outsmart him. No woman could. Christine had actually led him to them. Although thoroughly investigated, Gretchen had failed to surface, but several thousand dollars to a couple of expert detectives finally traced Christine Harris to Texas through real estate records regarding the sale of property in Kansas he hadn’t even been aware she owned.. But now, finally, he had them now. All the same, Derek was relieved to see Christine leaving.
He watched through the opening and waited for darkness. He would leave his truck there and walk the two to three hundred yards to the house. He wanted to catch them unaware. He had a good view of the kitchen, and could see them sitting at the table by the window. The two of them, so helpless, alone. God, he couldn’t wait for darkness, they were too close. He could sneak through the bushes, at least to the back yard. He wanted closer. Turning, he caught a scent, something familiar. Gretchen’s perfume.
A glimpse of Christine in motion, arms raised above her head, pitchfork in hand, hair fanning out around her head, her face a sculpture of rage was the last thing Derek ever saw. She plunged the long steel tines through his throat, pinning him to the ground. He died almost instantly, his head practically severed, his jugular gushing. She moved away to avoid the bloody stream, and waited until it stopped.
She felt for a pulse she knew she wouldn’t fine. With some effort, she removed the pitchfork from the body. Grabbing Derek by the heels of both boots, she dragged him to the truck. With all the strength she could muster, she heaved his body into the driver’s seat of the truck Finding a bag of lime in the feed room, she opened it and poured the contents carefully where the body had fallen, where the ground had been soaked with the blood.
Moonlight poured through the opening at the end of the barn, so she worked with plenty of light. When the lime bag was empty, the white powder strewn over every particle of blood-soaked, she scattered hay around on the floor, swishing it around over the area, removing all signs of the recent activity there. As she worked, she thought about the way things had unfolded after she had become aware of his presence.
She had heard the truck drive onto the property. From the open bathroom window where she had been getting dressed, she had seen the glare of the setting sun as it glanced off the windshield when he pulled his truck behind the cedar trees. Instinctively, she knew it was Derek. She was ready for him, had been waiting for this, had known this inevitable day would come. Adrenalin had pumped through her like a drug as she punched a number into her cell phone.
“Hi, Rayf,” she said, trying to keep the tension from her voice. “I’m sorry to have to cancel out on you at the last minute, darlin’, but something’s come up.” She had waited for Rayford’s response. “I’ll explain later,” she said. Her voice remained remarkably calm, considering the way her heart pounded. “Yes,” she had said, “tomorrow night.” Again, he responded. “Okay, see you then.”
Leaving the house, she had driven down the dirt road apiece and pulled her truck into a side road leading to the orchard where it could not be seen from the house, or the road. Then under the cover of the hedgerow of thick muscadine vines, she made her way to Derek. Unseen, she crouched, and waited until he entered the barn.
The barn had not been used for animals recently, it was more of a storage area for cow feed, and farm implements, including the tractor, and hay for the few head of cattle Christine had acquired. The farm needed a new barn. The decision to exercise her option to buy the farm had been made the instant she became aware of Derek’s presence, although the notion had only now clarified itself inside her head. She would start the process on Monday.
Christine felt a wonderful blend of freedom and joy pouring through her body, washing away all the fear that had been apart of every waking hour for years. It was a sensation she hadn’t experienced since the day she had learned the truth about Gretchen’s marriage, and of the dreadful, life-threatening hold the man had over her daughter and only grandchild. He had robbed them for too long. overshadowing their lives with his menacing, omniscient threat, forcing them to live in an unnatural secrecy , which ruled them even in his absence. Only Lisa Lee had been spared for her memories had mercifully faded. Tonight, retribution had been paid. Christine felt she had re-birthed her only child, felt reborn herself. Life is good again, she thought. No child of mine will suffer Derek Dirksen again.
Energized, she now must dispose of the Dodge Ram. Quietly. Unseen. Efficiently. Quickly. Lisa Lee and Gretchen would never know. Not specifically. Luckily, the massive truck had been parked on an incline, so she simply put it into neutral. Pushing all her weight into it, steering it backwards as she leaned into it, she directed it straight to the ideal destination.
An old ravine of mysterious origin, boarded over years ago by the owner to prevent the animals from falling into it, was the perfect solution for the problem of disposing of the evidence of Derek’s fateful visit. Near the ravine, she stopped the truck, and began the work of pulling away entangled brush and vines covering the boards. Finally, with a crow bar, she pulled at the planks. The rotting old wood came away easily.
With one final push, the truck and Derek, along with the deadly pitchfork,
plunged head first, its tailgate following, into the gaping black cavern. She heard the vehicle hit the bottom, held her breath for a minute, hoping the sound hadn’t reached Gretchen and Lisa Lee. Realizing the television would be on, she relaxed and considered all the dirt necessary to fill that hole. She would call for delivery first thing Monday morning. Next week would be extremely busy. She carefully replaced all the boards, planning to re-nail them come daylight.
Monday morning, four weeks later, Christine and Gretchen sat on the back porch swing having their morning coffee. Leesy still slept, for the sun had barely risen. It was Gretchen’s favorite time of the day, and she loved sharing it with her mother. A rooster crowed in the henhouse, and far away a dog barked. Bird sounds came from the trees, and the steady roar of the cement truck came from the other side of the old barn.
“I’ll put the deed in the safety deposit box tomorrow,” Gretchen said, stifling a yawn.
“And I think you should make an appointment with Larry Drake, too,” Christine answered.
“You need to legally change your name, and Lisa Lee’s, to Harris. That needs to be done. She starts school soon.”
“But, Derek’ll have to be notified, I can’t just—
“They’ll make an effort, but he won’t respond.”
The voices of the concrete workers could be heard intermittently in the distance as they poured the slab for the new storage building. Gretchen sipped her coffee, and peered inquisitively over the rim of her blue coffee mug into her mother’s eyes, questioning Christine in silence.
“I’m so relieved to get that ravine covered,” Christine replied, “I spent a fortune just on the dirt to fill it! I’ve been worried the livestock might fall in there, the old boards were so rotten.”
She smiled slowly at Gretchen, her green eyes bright, as her face softened in tenderness. “It’s over. We’re safe. Trust me.” She patted Gretchen’s slender dark hand with her own calloused freckled one. “More coffee?”
The two women looked at each other for a long time, and in the unvoiced exchange, Gretchen understood that Derek no longer posed a threat, that her nightmare had ended. She also understood that details were unnecessary. Finally she spoke.
“I’ll just drop by Larry’s office tomorrow.” She handed her cup to her mother. “Ask him to start the ball rolling.” They had been going by Harris for so long, it was only a technicality anyway. Everyone they knew, including the lawyer she would see, had assumed that Christine had given birth to Leesy out of wedlock. No one asked, and she never told them otherwise, but now she would have to explain.
“Life is good again, Gretch.” Christine said reassuringly, as though she had heard her daughter’s thoughts. She went into the kitchen for more coffee.
Gretchen swung back and forth and waited, trying to adjust to a new, more peaceful frame of mind. It would take time, and she knew that old fears never really die. Like old soldiers, maybe they would gradually fade away.
“And it’s just the right spot for the new building, being so close to the barn and all,” Christine continued, as she handed Gretchen a fresh steaming cup. “For one thing, it’ll make an excellent tack room. Lisa Lee needs a pony.”
Anita Stubbs ©2007