1950s, Central Florida
The slap was hard and almost knocked him to his knees. They wobbled for a split second, but he managed to regain his stance and glared hard at his father.
“Your mother said you missed the bus and had to hitchhike home.”
He tasted blood in his mouth where the slap had caused him to bite the inside of his cheek. He knew his next comment would bring another blow. He braced himself.
“Ida is not my mother.”
Another hard one, this time to the side of his head, which caused a ringing in his ear. This was nothing. He’d endured worse. He didn’t know why it bothered his father so much when he said this. Ida herself was the first to remind him that she wasn’t his mother.
“Don’t fuck with me, boy. Where were you?”
“It’s the last day of school. Some of us had to stay after to help the teachers clean out their classrooms.” This was a lie. He’d gotten in a fight that day. He’d snapped when a snooty rich kid made fun of him.
The kid was new and had only been enrolled for the last two weeks before school let out for the summer. He was too new to have been warned. The new kid had asked him in the boy’s room if he picked his clothes out of the garbage can that morning. He’d left the idiot dazed and bloody on the bathroom floor, then calmly washed his hands and went back to his classroom. He’d looked at the big clock over the blackboard. Less than fifteen minutes until summer started. Hopefully, his dad wouldn’t work him to death and he’d be able to keep an eye out for her. For Ruthie.
He’d been on the loaded school bus, ready to pull away, when the driver reached over and opened the door. The substitute principal stood at the front of the bus and quietly perused the group of kids. When he saw who he was looking for, he pointed and indicated with his finger. Follow.
Damn. He’d almost made it out of there.
They never discussed the alleged crime as they made their way back into the school and to the principal’s office. He simply bent over the desk and endured the paddling. It wasn’t so bad and didn’t even compare to the beatings he’d received from his father. Beatings that had left permanent scars on his back and other parts of his body. He may have been young, but he knew this fucker, a temporary replacement for the school’s regular principal who was out recovering from surgery, was enjoying this way too much. Would probably lock his office door and jerk off after sending him to find his own way home. Fucking pervert. The world was foul.
So, he’d hitchhiked and ended up walking the last seven miles to get home and now stood there, facing the wrath of his father. His stepmother stood off to the side leaning back against the kitchen counter, her arms crossed and a smug look on her face. A hot, stale breeze floated in from the window above the kitchen sink.
His stepmother. Ida. He’d hated her for as long as he could remember. He had no memory of his real mother. He was told she’d died in this house giving birth to him. It wasn’t really a house so much as a shack in the middle of nowhere. A two-bedroom hovel situated on several acres surrounded by orange groves as far as the eye could see. His father was a skilled carpenter by trade, but for reasons that made no sense to his son, he preferred this destitute existence. He could have made a decent living, could’ve lived in a home not so far from the modern world—as modern as you could get in the fifties. He chose instead to live in a dilapidated old house that had been passed down for generations. He never once used his carpentry skills to make it into a real home. He’d slap some tar on the roof if it leaked or replace a busted pipe, but other than some hodgepodge repairs, he never lifted a finger. It was crumbling around them.
Maybe it was because his father considered himself the king of his castle and he could hold reign over his unworthy subjects. Maybe the brutality he unleashed here made him feel an iota of power that he didn’t feel in the real world. Maybe knowing that he could provide a nice and safe environment, but purposely chose not to, was part of the psychotic seed that had been implanted in his personality. He wasn’t just a bad man. He was worse than that. He prided himself too much on withholding any good he could do for his family.
That made him pure evil in his son’s eyes.
Before she’d married, Ida had worked as a maid for a wealthy family in West Palm Beach. His father had met up with a couple of other laborers to make the long drive down to a mansion situated on the beach to spend a few days doing carpentry work and repairs. He returned with his three comrades and a glowing Ida, who had finally, finally snagged herself a man. She had become tired of being someone’s maid, and when a hardworking, widowed family man came along and showed a hint of interest, she jumped. Unfortunately for her, she jumped too quickly and without hesitation. She hadn’t realized then that she was jumping from the frying pan right into a fire that was even worse. Overnight, she went from being a lonely, overworked maid to a lonely, overworked, and abused housewife.
No, he had no good memories of Ida. Maybe she’d started out trying to do her best. To make their shack a home, to be a mother to her new husband’s young son. But if she had started out that way, he had no recollection of it. Maybe she wasn’t always the horrible person he knew. Maybe his father made her that way. It didn’t matter. He hated her no matter what. He hated her because he knew what she was doing to her own daughter. His half-sister, Ruthie.
Ruthie was a sweet and trusting child who’d captured his heart since the day she was born. She was a happy little girl who was always smiling in spite of the mistreatment her mother inflicted. He spent every second that he wasn’t at school or working caring for his little sister. He adored her and did everything he could to protect her from his parents, especially Ida. He made sure she ate when she was sent to bed without supper. He made sure she was bathed. He couldn’t do it every day, but he did it as often as he could manage. He erased evidence of her bathroom accidents, making sure to wash out her clothes in the creek and let them dry before returning them to her dresser. He wiped away her tears and kissed her boo-boos.
Unfortunately, there were too many even for him to kiss away.
Every night she’d say, “Brother, tell me a story. Tell me a happy story where things don’t hurt and everybody is nice.”
He would pull her close in the bed they’d shared ever since she was a baby and, ignoring the stench of their unwashed bodies, he would make up happy stories to tell her. Anything to make her forget, just for a little while. They would watch the stars from their bedroom window and sometimes he‘d even use them in his stories.
“See the brightest star, Ruthie?” he’d tell her as they gazed out their window. “That’s you. You’re the brightest, most beautiful star in the sky.”
“Where are you, Brother? Are you there, too?” she asked him once.
“I’ll always be the one that’s closest to you.”
He didn’t know if the stories he made up were happy ones. He didn’t know what happiness was himself, so how could he tell a four-year old? But he tried.
Once in a while, after he was certain his father and Ida were asleep, he’d go to the back screen door and let Razor in to sleep with them, too. Razor was a big black Rottweiler that had wandered up to their house one day and never left. His father refused to let the dog stay and insisted he didn’t need another mouth to feed, that he’d shoot the dog if it didn’t leave on its own. The dog was smart. Sensing the father’s animosity, it would come around only at night and wait for the handout left for him on the far side of the barn. His father finally relented; he decided maybe the dog wasn’t so bad after all when his barking woke them up one night to warn them that a wild animal was trying to get into the chicken coop. The hen’s squawking never reached their sleeping ears, but the stray dog’s barking and pawing at their back door did. His father let Razor stay, but he had to be kept outside.
Now, the beating done for the day, his father stared at him for a few seconds. Finally, he said, “Get your fucking chores started. Don’t come back in until they’re all finished. You don’t get done before supper and you don’t eat.”
The boy didn’t need to glance at his stepmother to know she would purposely serve a very early supper that day. He headed out the back screen door and let it slam behind him.
“C’mon, Razor,” he said as he headed for the ramshackle barn.
It was dark outside when he finally finished his chores. He found some food he’d stashed in the barn and silently ate, sharing half with his dog. After washing up in the rain barrel, he headed into the house and crawled into bed with Ruthie, pulling her close. She moaned.
“Brother is here, Ruthie. Do you want a story?” He was exhausted, but couldn’t fall asleep thinking he would let her down without a story.
“My stomach hurts,” she whispered.
“Do you need me to take you to the bathroom?” he whispered back.
“No. It’s not that kind of hurt.”
“What kind of hurt is it? Are you hungry? “Mommy stepped on it.”
He stiffened, then squeezed his eyes shut. He was glad she didn’t want a happy story tonight because the only one he could think of was one where he strangled Ida with his bare hands.
The next day, he was walking back from the groves carrying the three squirrels he’d killed with his slingshot. Ida could make a decent stew out of these. He’d watched Ruthie that morning at the table as she slowly ate her breakfast. She seemed okay, and he’d left to hunt before she finished. He shouldered the squirrels and imagined the look on Ruthie’s face when she saw what he’d caught.
That’s when he heard it. A shotgun blast coming from the direction of the house.
He’d heard the shotgun before, when his father caught rare sight of a deer or other animal that was either a predator or something that would end up on their dinner table. But his gut told him this was different.
He broke into a full run, then came upon a scene that brought him up short. He tensed as his mind started to grasp what had happened.
There, right beside the clothesline. His father holding the shotgun. Ida cradling a bleeding arm. Razor on his side and lying in a puddle of blood.
And Ruthie, on the ground and flat on her back, her arms at her sides. Ruthie.
He broke into another run.
“Your fucking dog was attacking your sister, and when Ida tried to stop him, he went after her, too,” his father said coldly, a finger still resting on the trigger. “I had to kill him.”
Razor attacked Ruthie and then Ida for trying to stop him? Impossible. Razor would never hurt Ruthie.
Ida held her arm up for him to see. She didn’t have to. He had already seen it and there was no doubt it was a bite from Razor. More like a mauling. Like he’d grabbed on and was wrestling with her.
He dropped his dead squirrels and knelt at Ruthie’s side. And then he knew for certain the concocted story wasn’t true. His sister was lying on her back, her eyes closed. Soft blonde curls framed her face. She looked more peaceful and beautiful than he had ever seen her. A tiny smile curved her sweet, innocent mouth.
Of course she was smiling. She had just escaped from hell.
He knew she was dead. He also saw nothing on her body that indicated Razor had attacked her.
They were lying. But he’d already known that.
He couldn’t stop himself. The words were out of his mouth before he could think.
“Doesn’t look like Razor attacked Ruthie. No bites or anything. Just Ida’s bruises.”
The blow was hard, but not unexpected.
“Get the shovel,” his father ordered. “Pick a place way out past the house and bury your sister. Don’t care what you do with your dog. You can drag its lousy ass out to the groves if you want and give the vultures some supper.” Scooping up the three squirrels that had been dropped, he grabbed his wife by the uninjured arm. “You ain’t hurt so bad you can’t make supper.”
As he headed back to the house with Ida and the dead squirrels, he yelled over his shoulder, “And when you’re done you get your sorry ass back here and put out the rat poison like you were supposed to do yesterday.”
He stared after them as they made their way back to the house and tried to imagine a world without Ruthie.
A world without light.
Two weeks later, he was sitting in the passenger seat of a strange man’s car. The man had introduced himself when he picked up the young hitchhiker, and he didn’t seem bothered by the fact that the boy just stared at him and refused to say anything. The boy now turned to gaze out the car window as he reflected on what he’d done.
He’d buried his sister like his father had told him to, taken his shirt off and covered her body with it before retrieving a shovel and heading way out on their property where he dug one large grave.
Leaving the shovel at the gravesite, he’d headed back to the house. He went into the barn and retrieved the rat poison, shoved it down into his pants.
He’d gone into the house, noticed that Ida had cleaned up and was working on their squirrel stew. He could tell by her movements she was in a lot of pain. Razor had done a decent job of tearing up her arm. She probably needed to go to the hospital, but his father would never take her, nor would he allow her the use of their one vehicle. It wasn’t at the house anyway. He must’ve gone somewhere.
It was obvious what had happened. Ida had been giving Ruthie another beating and Razor had stopped her. Unfortunately, Razor hadn’t stopped her in time.
The boy had no way of knowing that Ruthie had been slowly dying of internal injuries sustained from her mother’s brutal beatings, culminating in the final stomp to her tiny stomach the day before. He was certain Ida had always inflicted her brutality on Ruthie inside the house, where Razor wasn’t allowed. That day must’ve been different. She was probably dragging a crying Ruthie out to the yard to help her with some chore and started whaling on her when the little girl wouldn’t, or most likely couldn’t, do as she was told. There was no doubt Razor had been trying to defend Ruthie by grabbing Ida by the right arm. Ida was right-handed.
Leaning back from her spot at the stove, Ida looked out the back window and spied the little girl’s body in the yard. She gave her stepson a level look. “You’re not finished. What are you doing in here?”
Her voice was steady and without emotion. She could’ve been asking him if he’d fed the chickens or painted the fence. It revolted him to think that this was how she thought of her daughter’s burial: a chore. She was more of a monster than his own father. She had given birth to Ruthie. She had shared the same body with her only child for nine months. He didn’t know anything about mothering, but even he could see how there could be, should be, a special bond between a mother and her child.
Without looking at her he answered. “Hole’s dug. Came back in for something to wrap her in. Was gonna take my bed sheet.”
They’d always shared a bed and it had only ever known one sheet. He would use it to wrap Ruthie’s tiny body.
He didn’t know what caused Ida to say the next thing. She countered with an offer that surprised him but also provided him with an opportunity.
“I have something you can use. Got it as a going away gift from where I used to work.”
She took the big spoon she had been stirring with, tapped the side of the pot and laid it down. Cradling her sore arm against her chest, she headed back toward the bedroom she shared with her husband. He knew her arm was hurting, knew it would take a few minutes to dig out whatever it was that she was going to get. He could hear her clumsily rustling around for something.
He seized the chance to retrieve the poison from his pants and dump the entire contents of the container in the stew. He hastily stirred it, grateful that it seemed to quickly dissolve, and returned the spoon back to its place. He was standing by the back door when she returned with a blue piece of fabric draped over her good arm. He realized that it was a bathrobe of some type. It was thin and he didn’t need to be educated to know that it was high-quality and expensive. Going away gift my ass, he frowned. She stole this. She held it out to him while avoiding his penetrating green eyes. They’d always unnerved her, at least that’s what he’d heard her tell his father, and for a split second she seemed to hesitate, to waver.
She must have regained her bravado and, without waiting for him to take the robe, snapped, “Wrap her in this.” She tossed it at him and headed back over to the stove to stir her stew.
At the freshly dug grave, he gently cloaked Ruthie’s little body in his own shirt. “Brother is always with you, Ruthie,” he said quietly. He then wrapped Razor in Ida’s expensive bathrobe and snorted to himself as it occurred to him that even his dog was too good for Ida’s supposed going away gift. He gently laid his little sister in the very deep hole and placed Razor next to her.
“You were a good boy, Razor. You did the right thing trying to protect her. Now you can always protect her.”
He knew he wasn’t going to mark her grave for anyone to know where she was. Only him. He knew nobody would be looking anyway. It wasn’t like she was going to be missed. Like him, she hadn’t been born in a hospital. He doubted she even had a birth certificate. He wasn’t sure if he had one himself, though he guessed there was one somewhere, since he’d been enrolled in school. Do you need a birth certificate to go to school, he wondered? He didn’t know.
He stood over his sister’s grave and stared at the freshly compacted earth. It was missing something. He wandered off and soon came back with an oversized rock. The stone was heavy, massive really, and he had exerted an enormous amount of energy to carry it to her gravesite. He dropped it with a thud. He had chosen it because of its size and unique shape. He would remember it.
Falling to his knees, he began to weep. He never remembered crying even once in his life. Not even as a child, enduring horrific abuse that was tantamount to torture. He couldn’t comment on why his father hated him. He couldn’t figure why his stepmother hated Ruthie. He didn’t want to think about them, anyway. After he was finished, he’d never think of them again.
A low wail that didn’t sound human began to build, a cry that came straight from the pit of his empty stomach and found its way up his chest, through his throat and out his mouth, taking his soul and any semblance of light with it. The light that had been Ruthie.
He wasn’t sure how long he’d knelt sobbing at Ruthie and Razor’s grave. His eyes stung and he had a combination of dry and wet snot all over his bare arms as he tried to swipe away the grief. His sore back eventually brought him out of his mourning, the pulse of the sun reminding him of the lashes his father had inflicted a few nights earlier. He was physically and mentally exhausted, but his job wasn’t finished yet.
He was worn out, but somehow he gathered the strength he needed and headed out further to an even more remote location.
He had one more grave to dig.
He would bury them together, not for the same reason that he buried Ruthie and Razor together: to offer protection and comfort to one another. No, he dug one mass grave because they deserved to be dumped like garbage.
And that was exactly what he was going to do.
“Kid? Kid, you need anything or have to use the bathroom?”
He’d fallen asleep and jumped when he was touched. It took him a split second to remember where he was. A car, now parked. The man who’d picked him up was looking at him, waiting.
The man nodded out the window. “I’m getting gas. You need to use the john or something?”
“Where are we?”
“Fort Lauderdale. Getting some gas and heading to Miami.”
He nodded his head, starting to sit up. He was sore. The last few days had taken a toll on him physically and he was feeling it.
“Yeah, I gotta go.”
He went around the side of the little gas station and let himself into the restroom. It smelled like crap but was surprisingly clean. His mind wandered as he relieved himself, memories rolling over him.
He’d returned to the house that night to find his father and Ida sitting at the dinner table eating stew. He reached up on the shelf and took down an old jelly jar, using the kitchen tap to fill it up. Leaning back against the counter, he drank his water as he watched them eat their dinner. Nobody bothered to offer him any. That was okay. He would’ve refused it anyway.
“Tastes like shit! How the fuck can you mess up squirrel stew?” When Ida didn’t answer, his father backhanded her across the face.
Taking his glass of water, he’d gone to his bedroom and shut the door behind him. He laid down on the bed that he’d shared with Ruthie, hugged the only pillow close to his chest, and fell immediately into a dead sleep.
He was awakened that night to the sound of violent vomiting and retching. The next couple of days were a blur as he tried to pretend to help his extremely sick parents. Keeping buckets by their bedside, bringing them liquids to drink. Liquids he had continued lacing with more poison from the barn. He remembered the instant his father realized what was happening. He was trying to get out of his bed, insisting that his young son take him and his wife to the hospital. The boy wasn’t old enough to have a license, but he knew how to drive. He’d let his son drive their beat-up old station wagon to haul things around the property.
“You’re gonna drive us to the hospital, boy,” he said, voice laced with pain.
“No, I’m not.” He just looked at them, a small smile on his lips. “I’m going to watch you both die a slow and painful death. I’m kind of glad you never bought us a TV. This will definitely be much more entertaining.”
Bloodshot and pain-filled brown eyes met hard green ones as realization dawned. His father glanced around his bedroom and noticed his shotgun was not in the corner. It was gone. Even if it had been there, he wouldn’t have had the strength to get up and get it.
His father fell back onto the bed and turned to look at his wife. She was curled up with her arms wrapped around her knees, which were pulled up to her chest. She had heard the conversation and opened her eyes long enough to say to her husband, “We both deserve this.”
His father rolled onto his back and looked at his son, who stood at the foot of the bed, arms crossed, green eyes cold and staring.
“Shoulda known you were the devil’s seed.” Without waiting for the boy to comment, he added, “I loved your momma and thought I did the right thing by marrying her when she was pregnant by another man. Shoulda known you were evil when you killed your own mother, you no good piece of shit.”
Finally, an answer. Although it didn’t matter now. The man who’d raised him wasn’t his father. The man who’d raised him resented him for taking his mother’s life in childbirth. Another man’s bastard had killed the woman he loved and he was going to make that child pay. Had been making that child pay ever since.
In a way, he could kind of understand that. He almost allowed a stab of conscience in, telling him he should take them to the hospital. Maybe it wasn’t too late.
But then he remembered Ruthie. There was no excuse for what had happened to Ruthie. No excuse at all.
He stared coldly at the man he’d thought was his father. “I’m just sorry I didn’t do this before you let her kill Ruthie.”
Then he went to the kitchen and made himself something to eat.
After they were dead, he loaded them both in the back of the family car and drove them out to the second grave. He dumped their bodies with as much care as he’d show a pile of old chicken bones and flung the dirt back in. He hurled the shovel in the back of the station wagon and drove back to the house.
He wanted to draw as little attention to the shack as possible. He would not burn it down, but he would give careful thought as to what it should look like if a family just up and left, taking only things they could load in their one car. He went to work, packing up what few pictures they had, their personal papers and clothes. He sneered when he saw a picture of his father as a boy. He looked like a miserable piece of shit even back then. He tossed it in with the other things. He never came across a single picture of himself or his mother.
He carelessly threw everything he could into the old car, barely leaving room for himself to fit into the driver’s seat. He went into his bedroom and retrieved the brown bag that held the few things he’d set aside to take with him. It contained some clothes, along with thirty dollars and twenty-six cents that he’d scavenged from his father’s wallet and Ida’s money cup, which he’d found hidden behind some dishes in the kitchen. He reached into his pocket, retrieving something he hadn’t known existed until he’d started cleaning out their personal items. It was a picture of Ruthie and Razor. It had obviously been taken at their house, but he didn’t know when or by whom. He never found existence of a camera when he was going through their belongings. He had no way of knowing where the picture came from and he didn’t have time to ponder it.
He looked at it again. Ruthie was sitting down in the grass and looking up and smiling. She was leaning against Razor, who had himself wrapped around her like a cocoon. Her knees were pulled up to her chest and she had her arms wrapped tightly around them. Her blonde curls were shorter then. The two of them looked happy. Like they had been romping in the tall grass and had taken a break to pose. He knew neither Ida nor his father had taken the picture. If that had been the case, he was certain his baby sister wouldn’t have been smiling. He carefully returned it to his back pocket and continued his cleanup.
Hours later he stood in the middle of the little house, surveying it. He wasn’t certain, but he was pretty confident he’d loaded up the important stuff. It was the fourth of the month. The electric and water bills wouldn’t need to get paid again until the thirtieth. School was out, so he wouldn’t be missed until September. And even then, he was doubtful anybody would care. His father wasn’t regularly employed, so he wouldn’t be missed, either. They had no phone to worry about.
Yes, it looked like the family that lived here decided to move with their most personal possessions. The small amount of mail they got could stack up for months in their little slot at the post office. Nobody would notice. And by the time they did, it wouldn’t matter. He’d be long gone.
He headed out to the chicken coop to set them free when he noticed laundry on the clothesline. He would grab those clothes and toss them in the car before leaving. After retrieving his brown bag and canteen, he carefully drove the family’s car to the nearest, deepest canal he knew. It was off the beaten path and he didn’t have to pass any houses or civilization to get there. It would be a long, hot walk to hitch a ride somewhere, but he only had a brown bag to carry and his canteen, which he’d filled with water.
Now, in the gas station restroom, he splashed cold water on his face and dried off. He reached into his back pocket before leaving the restroom and took out the picture of Ruthie and Razor. He would never hold her again. He would never hear her voice asking for a story. He would never wrap his arms around Razor’s neck and nuzzle his short fur. He swiped away the tears that had started forming in his eyes and returned the picture to his back pocket.
He’d taken a vow that day at Ruthie’s grave. No more crying. Ever.
He was starting to get hungry and decided to go back to the car to get some money. He would see what the gas station had in the way of food. Hopefully, they had some candy bars and soda pop. He’d tasted soda only once and was looking forward to the sugary drink.
He made his way around the side of the gas station and stopped dead in his tracks. The car he had been riding in was gone. He blinked to see if his eyes were playing tricks on him. They weren’t. That son-of-a-bitch drove off with his brown bag that contained his few items of clothing and all of his money. He had left his canteen on the front seat. Even that was gone.
The world was rotten and so was everybody in it.