The walk home that evening was dismal.
The sky mirrored my mood, clouds gathering mass and growing into tall ships that sailed across the sun, blocking it out. The air smelled of rain, but even with the promise of getting wet, I couldn’t get myself to hurry.
I couldn’t stop thinking about her and how her voice had changed. Beyond everything that I’d seen in the passing days, everything I’d heard, what had happened in the barn with her was the worst. Mostly because it was the first time a person had been affected by whatever force was afflicting our small corner of the world. And partially because holding her hand and talking with her in private had been ruined.
I kicked a rock and it hopped down the road before me. The obscene thing she said kept replaying in my mind. It hadn’t been her doing that. It had been something speaking through her. The thought froze me to my core. I had to tell someone, someone other than Jones. An adult that would believe me.
It was apparent that he would be the only one that could help. He had seen something chasing me, was aware of the change in my mood. Even if his only reaction was to have me committed to the asylum down in Arbor, he would still be more vigilant of the things I’d mentioned. Maybe if they kept occurring then everyone would believe me.
With a newfound glimmer of hope, I began trotting home. The rain started to fall when I was halfway up the drive, but what I saw when I entered our yard was the thing that dampened my spirits the most. My father’s truck was gone. He must be out on a call. Something whispered in my mind of timing always being the worst when you needed something and I really had to agree. Maybe I could prime my mother for the talk we were about to have. I didn’t feel as comfortable telling her as I did my father, but I could at least reassure her that I was lucid and calm before spilling the events of the last days.
I steeled myself for the looks that she would give me when I started speaking. One son in the ground, the other crazy as a loon.
Up the porch stairs and into the house away from the rain. The house was quiet and dark. Darker than it should’ve been. My mother always had several lights burning as soon as she started to make supper and it was well into the time she was typically in the kitchen, clattering away with pots and pans. The silence was unnerving and it was only then that I realized I was no longer moving forward into the dark kitchen.
“Momma?” My voice died as soon as it left my lips. A scratching sound came from somewhere deeper in the house. I moved forward, swallowing a solid lump of fear. The kitchen was empty, dank light filtering in through the window over the sink. The stove was cold, no fire in its belly.
A quiet shushing of fabric came from the next room near the hall. I didn’t want to see what was waiting for me, didn’t want to know even though I sensed it would be something terrible. But if I learned anything from those long dark days of the depression it was that you had to keep moving forward because there was really no other place to go.
I stepped into the next room and stopped.
My mother sat on the floor beside the hall. A splash of dishwater light fell on her thighs and shone on the carving knife in her hand. Her face was partially hidden in shadow but I could make out her expression and it was one of pure anguish. Tears ran in heavy tracks down her cheeks and her mouth was drawn wide in a silent sob.
“Momma, what are you doing?”
“Danny told me it was my fault. I heard him today in his room. He said it was my fault he died.” She punctuated her speech by a choked groan and brought the knife blade beneath her neck.
“He told me to do it. He’s still telling me. It’s the only way.” She pressed the knife against the soft skin of her throat.
“No, please, listen to me. I saw him too, but it wasn’t him, Momma, it wasn’t him. It’s something else looking like Danny. Danny’s in heaven, Momma, he’s safe and in heaven.” I knelt down, getting more on her level as a wash of dizziness rolled over me.
“He said heaven was a lie. He said he was alone in the dark and it was my fault. This is the only way.”
Movement outside the window snapped my head around even though I was loathe to look away from her.
The turkey buzzard spread its wings, balancing itself in the top of its tree. It stared at the house.
Before I could form another conscious thought, I was moving. Up and away from my mother, heading for the door. My hand gripped cold steel and without breaking stride I pushed through the screen door out into the storm.
The bird’s head was focused on the house, the window where it could see my mother, but its eyes shifted to me as I whipped up my father’s twelve gauge and pulled both triggers.
The blast of the double barrel shoved me back, punching my shoulder hard. The bird had tried to lift off the branch at the last second but there was no escaping the wave of lead that ripped through the sodden air.
The buzzard tore nearly in half.
Dark, ragged feathers flew in a puff of blood and started to drift down like black rain behind the plummeting body that slapped the wet ground with a thump.
I stood watching it for movement but there wasn’t even a twitch. My feet carried me back to the house on their own accord, stomach roiling at the thought of what I’d find. I had no idea if I’d been fast enough to break the spell the bird had over my mother.
Through the entry and the kitchen, hurrying now even if I was to see the worst sight I’d ever witnessed in my short life.
My mother still sat on the floor where I’d left her, head hanging low over her chest. The knife was on the floor beside her.
And its blade was free of blood.
She raised her head and looked at me with haunted eyes. “Lane?”
I don’t remember dropping the shotgun or hugging her. But then she was clutching me as if she were about to fall and crying, saying she was sorry again and again. I held her while the sound of my father’s truck rattled into the yard and the storm continued to roll over our little house.