Inciting rant here.papersky
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Also, happy Shakespeare's Birthday (Observed).THE WATCHER IN THE CORNERS
by Sarah Monette
Lilah Collier was washing the windows the first time the sheriff showed up.
It was April 9, 1930, a beautiful sunny Saturday in Hyperion, Mississippi, and Lilah was taking advantage of the weather. She had been the Starks' housekeeper for four months, ever since she and her husband Butch came into town, and since Butch drank more of his paycheck than he brought home, she was hanging onto this job like grim death, even if she didn't much like Cranmer Stark or
his pale, nervous wife Sidonia. So she cooked for their fancy dinner parties and kept their house spotless, and if Mrs. Stark didn't want the help talking to her little boy, then all right the help would keep her goddamned mouth shut. She felt sorry for Jonathan, a pale, silent child who always did as he was told, but not sorry enough to risk her job.
She was in the guest bedroom when the doorbell rang, and came panting down the stairs, only to pull up short when she recognized a lawman's silhouette against the frosted glass. She wiped the sweat off her face, made a futile attempt at smoothing down her hair, braced herself for whatever disaster Butch had caused this time. Opened the door.
And the sheriff, a stocky, tired man with watchful blue eyes, said, "Mrs. Collier, I hate to trouble you, but is Jonathan in the house?"
"Jonathan? No, sir, he's out with his mama."
"You seen him today?"
"No, sir. Mrs. Stark, she left me a note. They was gone when I got here. What's the matter?"
"Mrs. Collier, may I come in?"
She stood aside, her heart banging against her ribs, and when he hesitated in the front hall, led him back to the kitchen.
He sat down when she did, sighed, and said, "Mrs. Collier, it seems like Jonathan Stark has gone missing."
"Straight out of the middle of Humphreys Park, from what his mama says. Now, we got men searching, but we're also trying to figure out what might make him run off. If he did
run off. So, when did you see him last?"
Lilah told the sheriff what she knew. She'd given Jonathan his dinner early the night before, since his parents were having company: tomato soup and a cheese sandwich in his room. An hour and a half later, when there was enough of a lull in the dinner preparations, she'd gone up to get the tray. He'd been sitting upright in bed with the lamp on. She'd said good night to him, and he'd said good night back, being a polite child, and she'd gone out, and that had been that. No, she hadn't seen him at all on Saturday. Saturdays were her half days, and she hadn't come in until noon, when Mrs. Stark and Jonathan had already left.
"You sure of that, Mrs. Collier?"
"Sure of which?"
"That you didn't see him today."
"I done told you twice, they were already gone when I got here."
"And what were you doing this morning?"
"My own cleaning. Do I need an alibi, sheriff?"
"Not 'cause I suspect you, Mrs. Collier, just so as I don't have to start."
"My husband was home. We left the house together--matter of fact, he drove me here."
"Anybody else see you?"
"I was washing windows, so you might ask the neighbors. And Maddie Hopper can probably tell you I arrived when I said I did."
"She already has."
"Said you didn't suspect me, sheriff."
He put his pencil down and rubbed his eyes. He looked like a man who didn't get enough sleep. "So far, Mrs. Collier, there ain't nothing to suspect nobody of. But little boys don't just vanish into thin air, and they don't have that generous variety of enemies that adults might do. We're asking these questions of any adult that knows Jonathan Stark, for the pure and simple reason that we ain't got nowhere else to start."
"His daddy's a powerful man," Lilah observed.
"Don't I know it. And, yes, I think it's a kidnapping, and, yes, I think we're gonna be hearing from somebody here in another hour or so saying what it is they want. But it bugs the shit out of me, begging your pardon, that they could grab him in broad daylight in the middle of Humphreys Park and not have nobody the wiser. So I'm covering all my bases." He looked her squarely in the eyes then. "Do you know anything that might help us?"
"Damned if I know. Like anything that might explain where he went or why somebody took him or anything
"I don't know nothing to explain that, sheriff. I'd tell you if I did."
"I hope you would, Mrs. Collier. I sincerely do. Thank you for your time."
He left her sitting there in her clean kitchen, gooseflesh crawling up and down her back.
No communications from kidnappers were received, not in the next hour, not in the next two weeks. No one was found who seemed to have any motive for harming Jonathan Stark; even his father's enemies were equipped one and all with unassailable alibis. No one was found who had seen him after his mother's last sighting of him at 12:30 p.m. in Humphreys Park. The park, which was not large, was searched with a fine-toothed comb, and the pond was dragged. No evidence of Jonathan Stark was discovered, although a remarkable assortment of other things came to light. As far as anybody could tell, Jonathan Stark had
vanished into thin air.
Sidonia Stark took to her bed; Cranmer Stark took to drink. Lilah Collier took to cleaning the Stark house with a passion that surprised her. She had instructions to do nothing to Jonathan Stark's room--not even to dust--and she obeyed, but the rest of the house became antiseptically spotless.
She began to have the feeling, alone on the first floor of the Stark house, that she was being watched. She told herself she was being stupid and high-strung (her father's phrase for such airs was "being missish," and it was a good way to get a casual clout across the back of the head), but every day she talked herself out of it, and the next day by noon the feeling would be back again. Something watching, something small and white. She'd find herself glancing around, as if she could catch it in a corner, but she never saw anything, never anything that wasn't the curtains or a lace doily or her own dust rag left on a side-table. She sometimes got a feeling, towards dark, that there was something cloudy in her peripheral vision--sometimes on the left, sometimes on the right--but it was never something she was sure of. "Missish," she grumbled to herself, and was glad to leave the house for the dubious security of Butch's car.
And then, in the middle of June, the sheriff showed up again. Cranmer Stark had driven Sidonia to Memphis to consult a nerve-specialist; taking advantage of their absence--and desperate for something to keep herself occupied against the watchfulness filling the house--Lilah was washing the curtains, and she had to rinse soap suds off her hands before she could answer the door.
"Mrs. Collier," the sheriff said.
Lilah only realized after she'd done it that she'd glanced at the height of the sun in the sky, only realized it as she was thinking, We got another two hours before it really gets bad. "Sheriff Patterson," she said, controlling the impulse to weep with gratitude at the sight of another human face, the sound of another human voice. "They ai--Mr. and Mrs. Stark aren't home."
"I know that. I don't want to talk to them. May I come in?"
Oh, thank God, Lilah thought. Even being arrested for murder would be better than being alone in the Stark house any longer. "Come on back to the kitchen. You want some coffee?"
"You're a good woman, Mrs. Collier. I'd love some."
So Lilah made coffee, and the sheriff sat at the kitchen table, looking at the clean counters and the sultanas on the windowsill.
"What can I do for you, sheriff?" Lilah said when she'd given him the coffee and sat down herself.
"I ain't suspecting you, Mrs. Collier," he said, "but I want to ask you again about April eighth."
"You can ask, sheriff, but I can't give you no new answers."
"I just want to hear it again." He sipped the coffee. His eyebrows went up appreciatively, and he said, "I do wish you'd give lessons to my wife. Now. April eighth."
"There was a dinner party."
"High society folks," Lilah said and shrugged. "Three married couples, and a couple men on their own, and Mrs. Stark's cousin Renee from Oxford, and the lady who owns the gravel pit."
"Miss Baldwin, then. So what happened?"
"I did dinner. Or-derves and soup and salad and beef burgundy and a chocolate mousse. The party seemed pretty happy. Nobody fighting or nothing."
"When'd you leave?"
Lilah thought back. "Everybody was gone by ten, and I was doing the washing up--I can't abide to leave it overnight--when Mr. Stark comes in and says, 'You had a long day, Lilah. Why don't I run you home?'"
"Did he? Had he ever done that before?"
"Done it since?"
"Could you tell me about what time that was?"
"'Levenish, I'd guess. I'd got all the big stuff done, and I was just as happy not to have to walk. So I said, 'Them plates'll keep,' and he drove me home. Sheriff, what is it you're after?"
"Now, just bear with me. Tell me again when the last time you saw Jonathan Stark was?"
"I took up his dinner at five, I guess. His mama was in with him, showing him her pretty dress and letting him smell her perfume. So I put the tray on that big deal table they got in his room and went back down. Then, I guess it was six-thirty or so, I'd got the soup simmering and the beef in the oven, and the mousse to chill in the ice-box, and there wasn't nothing more I could do for another fifteen minutes at least, so I went back up for the tray."
"And he was there."
"Yes, sir. And alive. He was sitting up in bed and hanging on to that ratty toy bunny that drove Mr. Stark so wild."
"Did he say anything?"
"His mama was on him pretty sharp about not talking to me or Mr. Wilmot who comes about the lawns and such. He did say good night, but I think that was it."
"Are you sure?"
"Why? I mean ..."
"Excepting his mama, you seem to be the last person who saw or
spoke to Jonathan Stark. And, forgive me for saying it--and please don't repeat it--we ain't getting no manner of help out of his mama at all."
"She's a pretty nervous lady."
"She says she can't remember nothing about the Saturday morning. Not what he was wearing, not what they said to each other--and I can't
believe that a boy and his mama could walk to Humphreys Park without a single word being passed between them."
"D'you think she's lying?"
"I don't know. Like you say, she's a nervous lady. But she ain't helping. And, Mrs. Collier, I got to say, I don't think this is
"You think he's dead." Lilah's hands were ice-cold, and she was thinking of that feeling in the house, that feeling of being watched that got worse as the day darkened.
he's dead. Did he say anything to you? Anything at all, even if it don't seem important." He held a hand up. "I know if it'd seemed important, you would've told me at the time. But anything
"God, sheriff, let me think." Lilah forced her mind off the emptiness of the house and back to that Friday night. "I was in a hurry, and I wasn't paying much heed to Mr. Jonathan. Sometimes kids say things, you know, and you answer 'em, but you ain't rightly listening?"
"Yeah," the sheriff said heavily. "I know."
"I could smack myself for it now. But we both knew he wasn't supposed to talk to me, and he was a quiet little boy anyways. Never said much at all."
"I'm trying. Lemme think. I came in and said, 'You done, Mr. Jonathan?' And he said, 'Yes, Mrs. Collier.' The tray was on the table where I'd left it. He was in bed, with his rabbit."
"What was he wearing?"
"His pajamas, I think. Blue striped." She shut her eyes, to remember better. "I went over to pick up the tray ... and he did
say something. Christ Jesus, I can hear his voice in my mind, but I can't remember the words."
"Was it about the party? About his parents?"
"It was about his mama looking so pretty," Lilah said and opened her eyes. "That's what he said. He said, 'My mama's the prettiest lady in town.'"
She took a deep breath. "I said, 'Yes, Mr. Jonathan,' because, well, I wasn't giving her no competition. And he said, 'Do you think Daddy thinks so?' And I said, 'I'm sure he does, Mr. Jonathan.' And then I said good night and he said good night, and I went out the door. I'm sorry, sheriff. That don't help you much."
The sheriff said, "And you never saw him again?"
"No, sir, like I said. Saturdays I don't come in 'til noon, and they were already gone."
"Would Mrs. Stark have gotten the boy his lunch?"
"Lunch?" Lilah said blankly.
"You do the cooking, don't you, Mrs. Collier?"
"Well, yes, sir. 'Cept Saturday morning, but I think Mr. Stark mostly takes 'em out to the Magnolia Tree."
"Magnolia Tree," the sheriff said, making a note. "And for Saturday lunch?"
"Well, I do that. Baked eggs at one o'clock, regular as clockwork. That's how Mr. Stark is."
"Did they go out to the Magnolia Tree on the ninth?"
"I don't know, sheriff."
"Where was Mr. Stark that Saturday? Do you know?"
Lilah could feel her eyes widening, and her mouth was dry as cotton. "I don't know, sheriff. Cross my heart and hope to die, I don't got no idea."
"Thank you, Mrs. Collier. I got one other question, and you can say no, and that's just fine."
"What is it?"
"I'd like to see Jonathan's room. I don't got a warrant, and you're within your rights to refuse."
"This ain't my house. I can't tell you what you can and can't do. But ain't it illegal for you to go wandering around without Mr. Stark says it's okay?"
"Mr. Stark says he don't want his wife bothered, and he says since Jonathan was kidnapped out of Humphreys Park, there ain't no point in me mucking up his boy's room. Mr. Stark ain't gonna say it's okay until sometime after Hell freezes over. But I'd dearly like to look."
Although raised to distrust and dislike the police, Lilah Collier had been alone or almost alone in that house for over two months, and she was quick enough to see where the trend of the sheriff's questions was leading. She said, "Okay, but if he finds out, I was at the grocery store and you just walked in."
"That's fine, Mrs. Collier. You don't have to come with me."
"I think we might both be happier if I did. This way, sheriff."
They climbed the stairs together. The sheriff said, "Mrs. Collier, are you the only help the Starks have?"
"Me and Mr. Wilmot, who comes on Tuesdays to do the lawns
and the flowerbeds. Why?"
"No reason." But he was looking around uneasily. "There ain't nobody else home?"
"No, sir." And she couldn't help asking, "Do you feel it, too? Like you're being watched?"
The look he gave her was answer enough.
"It gets worse toward evening," she said, almost babbling with relief. "And it's been terrible
today, I think 'cause there's nobody else home. I ain't dared ask Mrs. Stark if she feels it, and ... and I ain't dared ask Mr. Stark neither." They were at Jonathan's door, and she stopped with her hand on the knob.
"Has the house always been like this?" the sheriff asked. "'Cause you're right. I can feel it."
"Just since ... since after he disappeared."
Lilah opened the door.
It was the first time she'd been in the room since the eighth of April. Dust was everywhere, and the room smelled musty and unpleasant. There was a tang to the air, so faint that Lilah almost thought it was her imagination, the smell of something rotting. The sensation of being watched was heavy and cold, like water deep enough to drown in. Lilah and the sheriff both glanced over their shoulders, and neither advanced so much as a step into the room.
"Did the boy always leave his room this neat?" the sheriff asked.
Lilah looked around carefully, looked twice at the bed. "He was tidy-minded, for a child so young. But he couldn't manage the sheets like that. He'd do his best, but the bed was always rumpled a little, even if it was just that you could see where his knees had been when he was getting the top straight."
The sheriff grunted. His eyes traveled around the room again. He said, "Mrs. Collier, you mentioned a toy rabbit. I don't see it."
"Ain't it on the bed? That's where he kept it." But she looked for herself, and the dingy, ragged bunny was nowhere to be seen.
"He wouldn't have taken it with him?"
She shook her head. "That bunny drove Mr. Stark wild. He couldn't stand it that a son of his would be carrying it around. Jonathan wasn't allowed to take it out of his bedroom, and he did what his daddy said. Always."
"Could it've fallen off the bed?"
They looked at each other. Lilah saw her own feelings mirrored in his face; he didn't want to go into that room either. She supposed it should have made her feel better--less missish--to know that a middle-aged sheriff had the creeping, crawling horrors the same way she did, but it didn't. It made her feel ten times worse.
Finally, she said, her tongue dry and dusty in her mouth, "I'll look."
She walked into the room slowly, her heart thudding wretchedly in her chest. The sheriff stood in the doorway. Step by step, she walked around the bed, to the side not visible from the door. "Nothing," she croaked.
"Jesus," the sheriff said and armed sweat off his forehead. "Mrs. Collier, I hate to say it, but will you check under the bed?"
"I think you oughta swear me in as a deputy first," she said, and they both yelped with laughter. Then Lilah, knowing she would have had to even if the sheriff had said nothing, slowly bent and lifted the counterpane. She straightened up again in a hurry, all but gasping for breath. "Nothing," she said. "Just dust. It ain't here."
"Christ on a crutch," the sheriff said. "You come on out of there, Mrs. Collier. I ain't doing no more without I got a warrant."
"Yes, sir," Lilah said and left the room, gratefully and fast.
They went back down to the kitchen. The sheriff said abruptly, "How old are you?"
"Sixteen," Lilah said. She was past the point where she could lie to Sheriff Patterson. He'd felt the wrongness in Jonathan's room.
"Christ. I ain't leaving you here by yourself. This house ain't no place to be alone in. You write a note--tell 'em you took sick or something. I'll drive you home."
"And it ain't so far off the truth, neither," Lilah said, finding the pad of paper she used for shopping lists. "Sheriff, what do you reckon happened? What's the matter
with this house?"
"That's a question for a preacher," the sheriff said. "But you want the honest truth, I reckon Jonathan Stark never left this house, and I further reckon he was dead a long time before Saturday noon."
"Me, too," she said, shivering.
Lilah left her note ("SORRY MRS. STARK. FEELIN BAD. GONE HOME. COME IN ALL DAY SATERDAY. L COLLIER"), and climbed into the front seat of the sheriff's car. "Never thought I'd be glad to be riding in one of these," she said, and he laughed.
"Where'm I taking you?"
Suddenly, Lilah could bear the thought of her own empty house no better than she could bear the Starks'. "Take me up to the pit office, if you'd be so kind. I'll just meet my husband."
"You're sure?" he said, giving her a sideways look.
"I can talk to Emmajean 'til he's done."
"Okay," the sheriff said, and she knew he understood.
He didn't leave her at the gate, as she'd expected, but drove up to let her out directly opposite the office door. She stopped halfway out of the car and said, "Sheriff, you got somebody you can go talk to or something? Or you can come in and Emmajean'll give you coffee. Ain't as good as mine."
He smiled. "Thanks, Mrs. Collier, but I got to go down to the station and figure out how I'm going to persuade any judge in this county to give me a warrant to take a look at Cranmer Stark's house. There's plenty of people around, though, don't you worry."
"All right. Thanks, Sheriff."
, Mrs. Collier. You been a world of help." She got out, closed the door. He drove away. Lilah went in to talk to Emmajean, although later she could not remember one word Emmajean had said. She kept hearing Jonathan Stark, the words she hadn't heeded at the time, but that now wouldn't leave her alone. My mama's the prettiest lady in town. Do you think my daddy thinks so?
Butch's shift ended at six; Emmajean had passed the word that Butch Collier's wife was waiting for him, but it was six-thirty when Butch came sauntering into the office like he owned the world. "What's happening, Lil?"
Lilah hated it when Butch called her "Lil," just as she hated the way he would make her wait for him, purely because he could. Today, she didn't care, almost nauseated with gratitude only from knowing that she wouldn't have to be alone all night.
"Nothing much, Butch," she said. "Let's go home."
"Sure thing. Stay pretty, Emmajean."
"You, too, Butch," Emmajean said sweetly. Lilah bit the inside of her lower lip hard, and did not laugh. Butch almost never noticed jokes at his expense unless someone laughed at them.
In the car, heading out the gravel drive, Lilah made her mistake. When Butch asked, "What's the matter, Lil? Why'd you leave work?" she didn't answer, I came over funny, or even, There was nobody home and I got spooked. She told him the truth.
She told him because it was killing her to keep it all pent inside, not thinking about its effect on him. She had forgotten Butch's desire to see himself as a hero, a character out of the pulp magazines he read in the same habitual, thoughtless way he cracked his knuckles. He said, "Lilah! Are you serious?"
"What d'you mean?" she said, belatedly wary.
"Do you really think Mr. Stark killed his little boy and buried him in the cellar?"
"'Course not," Lilah said. "Don't be silly." But, of course, it was what she thought, she and Sheriff Patterson both, and she couldn't entirely keep that out of her voice.
"They ain't back yet, are they? You said they was going to Memphis today."
"Butch, what are you thinking?"
He swung the Model-T in a wide, looping turn. "You got a key, don't you? We can go look!"
"Sheriff Patterson'll be grateful. Maybe he'll make me a deputy or something."
"Butch, we can't break into their house!"
"We ain't. You forgot your purse. And if the basement door ain't latched right, that ain't our
But Butch was more pig-headed than a pig, and Lilah knew from experience that no argument of hers would make him change his mind. She could only hope, noticing uneasily that the last of the sun was disappearing below the horizon, that the atmosphere of the house would do the job. And she hoped it would do it quickly.
Butch, however, noticed nothing spooky about the house at all. Lilah felt it the instant she opened the back door, moving out at them like a wall of ice; Butch walked in like it was his own house. "Nice things," he said, then looked back. But he was looking for Lilah, not for the watcher in the corners. "You coming?"
She wanted to say no. No, Butch, thanks, think I'll wait in the car. But she knew if he figured out she was too scared to come in, she would never hear the end of it, and Butch would never again pay the slightest attention to anything she said. And that would last a lot longer than the ten minutes it would take for Butch to look at the cellar and get bored. "Coming," she said, amazed at how clear and normal her voice sounded. She walked into the house.
The cellar door was in the back hall, under the stairs, a place (Lilah now realized) that she had been avoiding, completely unconsciously, for weeks. The house was full of twilight around them, and the thing in Lilah's peripheral vision was more than a cloud. When she turned her head, it wasn't entirely gone, although that might just have been the shadows.
"Butch," she said, and now her voice was trembling. "I really don't think this is a good idea."
"Don't be such a scaredy-cat. This the door?"
Before she could say yes, no, or maybe, he'd opened it. That smell of rotting that she had noticed in Jonathan's room was here as well, and, though still faint, it was distinctly stronger.
's down there," Butch said with satisfaction. "They got lights?"
"Yeah, there's a bulb," Lilah said, "but, Butch, don't--"
Butch found the cord, yanked it. For Lilah, the light made everything worse. It was harder than the dark, uglier, and anything it showed her would be true beyond any possible hope of redemption. Butch, oblivious, started down the stairs. It was the last thing in the world she wanted to do, but Lilah moved into the doorway to watch his progress.
"It sure does stink," Butch called up. "I think he's really down here, Lilah. I ain't kidding."
Oh, I believe you, Butch, she thought. That cloudy thing that she couldn't quite see was down at the foot of the stairs now. She said, "Butch, come on up and we'll call Sheriff Patterson. I don't think he needs a warrant if we call him in."
"Just wait a minute, Lilah. It'll be better if I can find him first."
"Come on, Butch." Without wanting to, she started down the stairs, as slowly as she had walked across the floor in Jonathan's room. She did not love Butch Collier--didn't even like him much--but she knew her duty toward him, and her duty right now said she had to get him out of the cellar before something horrible happened. "Let's just go call the sheriff, huh?"
"My Christ, Lilah, what're you scared of? The boogeyman?"
"'Course not," Lilah said. Butch and that cloudy shape, small and white, were converging on the same patch of floor. "But I don't think it's safe. The Starks come back and find us in their cellar ... we
might disappear next, Butch. I ain't kidding."
Butch knelt, putting his face on a level with that small, white, cloudy presence; Lilah reached the bottom of the stairs and froze there. She told herself she was being silly, that Jonathan Stark had been a meek, mild, sweet-tempered little boy, and that even if his spirit was vengeful, those who had not killed him should have nothing to fear. But she'd lived with that watcher for over two months, felt it in every room, felt its strength increase from hour to hour as the day waned. Whatever her rational mind said, she was afraid. She clutched the bannister, licked her lips, said, "Butch--?"
Butch said, "Holy Christ, he's right here!" She saw the dirt swept aside by his broad, grimy hand, saw, unmistakably, the shapes of small fingers being uncovered.
Then, several things happened at once; Lilah was never able, no matter how carefully she thought them through, to put the pieces together in order. She knew that the front door slammed open; she knew that Butch, looking up, seemed finally to see the small, white watcher. She did not know what he saw--she never, first to last, saw the watcher's face--but she saw Butch's face change, saw his death before he could have fully known it was on him.
Butch Collier screamed.
Lilah, watching helplessly, sagged sideways off the stairs, ending up on her knees, still clutching the bannister as if it could save her. She heard footsteps along the hall, heard Cranmer Stark say, "Go upstairs
, Sidonia! I'll deal with it." Then he appeared in the doorway.
"What the hell is going on here?
" he demanded, in a roar like that of a beast, set his foot on the first step, and started down.
At the same moment that Lilah realized the white, watching presence was no longer beside Butch, she saw it, as clearly as she ever did, on the cellar stairs just below Cranmer Stark. Its back was to her, but she saw its child shape, saw the tilt of its head. It was looking at Cranmer Stark.
She didn't think he saw it fully. He saw something
; he shouted wordlessly, tried (she thought) to dodge it, and pitched headfirst down the stairs. She was close enough to hear the crack when his neck broke.
Lilah, who only realized later that she was screaming, flung herself up the basement stairs, slammed and bolted the door behind her, and half-scrambled, half-fell into the kitchen to call Sheriff Patterson.#
When they unearthed Jonathan Stark's body, they found his toy bunny clutched under one arm.#
Lilah was in Sheriff Patterson's car again. He'd taken her statement, tried to talk to the hysterically weeping Sidonia Stark, got his deputies started on the basement. Then he'd come back to the kitchen and said, "Mrs. Collier, would you care to come with me?"
"Am I under arrest?" she asked when he opened the door for her.
"Nope." He got in the car, started it, said, "I believe you. I busted up enough fights with Butch Collier somewhere near the middle to know what he was like. And I was in that house today. I believe it happened just like you said." He turned left at the end of the Starks' street, away from the middle of town. "But, and I hate to say this, there's a bunch of folks in Hyperion who ain't gonna see it like I do. They're gonna see one woman and two men in a cellar, and only the woman comes out, and they're gonna say, we don't know nothing about who put that little boy down there, but we know what two men end up dead over when there's a woman in the room. They're gonna like it better than the truth. Now, those folks can't make me arrest you, but I can't keep them from lynching you, neither. You understand?"
"Oh, yeah," said Lilah. "I hear you, sheriff."
"So I was thinking--I got your testimony, and I think when Sidonia calms down some, she maybe is gonna tell us the truth. And the man who needed prosecuting is dead, besides. So if you was to just ... vanish, people could think what they liked and nobody'd get hurt. And I can't believe you'll be sorry to see the last of this town."
"I'll be grateful," Lilah said. "I mean, it's a nice town and all, but ..."
"I know," he said as they passed the city limits sign. "You'd always be thinking about whether you had to go past the Stark house on your way home."
They drove in silence for a long time. He said at last, "Near as I can make Sidonia out, Cranmer was carrying on with Miss Baldwin. She says she knew it and didn't care, and whether that's true or not, I don't know. But the way I figure it, the little boy got out of bed and saw something he shouldn't've--or said something he shouldn't've, maybe--and his daddy ..."
"Made him be quiet," Lilah said. "That's about all I ever heard the man say to the little boy. 'Be quiet.'"
"He might not've meant to," the sheriff offered after a cold moment.
"Maybe. But he still must've meant to hurt him."
"So," said the sheriff. "I hear you, Mrs. Collier. And the rest of it, he planned out like a snake. Buried the little boy in the basement, worked up that lie for his wife to tell, bullied her into telling it--I can tell you one thing, Sidonia was scared clean out of her mind by her husband. And it was a good lie. There wasn't nothing we could check, nothing to say it wasn't true. They didn't go to the Magnolia Tree--I got that nailed down this afternoon--but that ain't a crime, just like it ain't a crime for a woman to use her own kitchen or a man to go in and work on a Saturday morning. That's where he was. In his office, and the secretary he dragged in with him to testify to his whereabouts. He had it all worked out."
"Yeah." Lilah thought of Cranmer Stark on the cellar stairs, thought of the thing he maybe hadn't seen--but maybe had. She said, "If I was you, I'd tell Mrs. Stark to sell that house. Or burn it, maybe. If it was mine, I'd burn it."
"Me, too. Sidonia claimed she hadn't noticed anything funny ... but she was looking over her shoulder the whole time. I was, too."
"I don't think it can hurt people 'cept in the cellar, and maybe only after dark. I mean, it had two months to get me or Mrs. Stark--or Mr. Stark--and it didn't." She shivered. "But it wanted to."
"I never saw the boy but twice. Was he ... was he a mean little boy?"
"No. That's the worst thing. He wasn't mean at all." She gulped, feeling her eyes start to prickle with tears. "He just wanted his daddy to love him. And his daddy didn't love him, and his mama didn't love him, and I didn't love him, neither. Didn't nobody love him, and maybe that's enough to make anybody mad." She got a handkerchief out of her purse and cried. Sheriff Patterson drove and didn't say anything.
Finally, calm again, Lilah said, "Where're you taking me, sheriff? You planning to drive all night?"
"It's another fifteen minutes to the state line. That should give you as much head start as you need on any trouble I can't box up."
"Well," Lilah said with a sigh, "Arkansas can't be any worse'n Mississippi."
The state line was marked by a sign so weather-beaten that only the letters "ARKA" were legible. Sheriff Patterson pulled over. He said abruptly, "What do you think killed Butch? Do you think it was just fright?"
"I dunno," Lilah said. "I told you, he hadn't seen it, and he didn't feel it. I mean, you felt it--not right away maybe, but you felt it."
"Yeah," said the sheriff. "I felt it all right."
"Butch didn't. He didn't feel it at all until he looked up from ... from the body. And if I got to guess, I think it was like it was too sudden. Like, my brothers knew a boy who died of jumping in a lake, because it was so cold and he went in all at once, and his heart just stopped. I think it was like that."
"You don't think ... you don't think the little boy could have done it?"
"No," Lilah said.
"That's good," said the sheriff. "That's good to hear."
Lilah got out of the car, slung her purse on her shoulder. She started toward Arkansas, then suddenly turned and ran back to the car. The sheriff looked up at her.
"Burn the house," Lilah said. "Do it yourself. Do it tonight."
Sheriff Patterson looked at her a moment, silently; they both knew what had killed Butch Collier, and it hadn't been fright. Butch had seen the watcher's face.
The sheriff touched the brim of his hat, said, "Ma'am, you're a smart woman." He shifted into first, pulled the car in a long, slow loop just shy of the Arkansas state line, and started back for Hyperion.
Lilah watched until his tail-lights were no more than dim red sparks in the distance. Then she turned, squared her shoulders, and--sixteen years old and six hours a widow--walked out of Mississippi forever.
Copyright 2007 Sarah Monette