The Funeral of Isabella Bernard
“I’m sorry for your loss, Mr. Bernard.”
A woman’s voice rings through John’s head, yet he does not look at the speaker. He stares instead at the casket in front of him being lowered on a strapped pulley into the ground six feet down until it lays beneath their feet. He does not respond to the woman, instead he tosses a handful of soil into the grave and backs away to wait for the funeral ceremony to begin.
He looks to his left to see who spoke to him, recognizing the stranger as the new Bible study teacher: young Miss Thatcher, the replacement of Mrs. Williams who “took a holiday” weeks ago and has not yet returned. Miss Thatcher only appeared around town within the past week or so, to get acquainted, he supposes. The new teacher feels vibrant with an optimistic glean in her ocean-blue eyes. She stands facing the open grave; her back kept straight in a corseted, dark gray dress tied about her frame, and a black wide-brimmed hat embellished with dark flowers and lace atop her petite, triangular face and yellow-blond hair. He thinks her to be overdressed for the occasion considering corsets are a dying fashion, and her hat is useless because the sun does not shine on this day.
No, the day on which this atypical circumstance commences brought typical spring weather: on-and-off rain with an overcast sky of gray rolling clouds, leaving the mud wet and the air sticky. Not quite the right kind of day to wear a summer sun hat.
With as much politeness as he could muster towards a stranger, he responds, “Yes, thank you. Isabella was our eldest.”
When he catches her eye, she smiles politely. He supposes her condolences are benign; they haven’t formally met other than a glance at the grocer or a passing on the street while John commuted to work. His job as the town’s only medical doctor requires him to get to know everyone’s business, and hers requires to be there—at the funeral hosted by the local community church.
Built at the founding of the town, the church’s structure was erected in 1811 made of gray stone and brick. The church itself has tall, thin arching windows and a steeple to match a subtle Victorian style. And they stand behind the church in is it’s graveyard. Once an empty field, it is now filled with headstones of the dying population of Blackrock, Texas. So far it holds an expanse of three generations of families, from great grandfathers to children born at the turn of the twentieth century.
It is not a large group of people who joined the funeral; outside of John, his wife—Jane—and their two younger boys, they were joined by the obligatory church group, Jane’s widowed sister, Laura, and a few folks of the town who have required John’s assistance within the past years and swore to be “there for him” if ever he need them. Sure enough, they appeared uninvited to his daughter’s funeral.
Leading the ceremony is the church pastor, Francis Connelly. A short man of stature with a stocky build, Connelly is not an intimidating man by sight, but by ear instead. His unlikely voice, ever so deep and powerful, booms through the graveyard, amplified by headstones and silence. He stands in a plain black suit with his arms folded in front of him, tucking a bible in his hands. He begins.
“Good afternoon, friends… family,” he starts, eyes connecting with each and every person that stands around the grave with their solemn, wet faces as he continues, “Our sister, our niece, our daughter, Isabella has gone to her rest in the peace of Christ. May the Lord now welcome her to the table of His children in heaven. With faith and hope in eternal life, let us assist her with our prayers. Let us pray to the Lord also for ourselves. May we who mourn be reunited one day with Isabella; together may we meet Christ Jesus when he who is our life appears in glory.”
Every word that spews from Connelly’s mouth just feels like polished shit. Isabella deserves better than fabricated eulogies given by church-going folk with facades and feigned sadness. One day they raise their pitchforks and torches, and then the next they wish to meet her in heaven.
She would hate this, John thinks. The committals, the eulogies, the poems. The sad, sad faces that look at the casket, wipe their tears, and then look at the ground in front of their feet, staring blankly at the blades of grass—counting them, perhaps, as one would count sheep—as the pastor drones on about eternal life and picnicking with God. It was hard not to imagine, really, what it would be like to picnic with the Lord, sitting by his side in a white flowing gown, hair down, and shoving a ham and cheese sandwich down your throat and toasting with red wine. In that image, John sees the teenage Isabella with her blond locks spilled about her, leaning back onto vibrant green grass as she looks up to God, who she knows for certain does not exist, and laughs with him.
“O Lord,” Connelly continues, “because God has chosen to call our sister Isabella from this life to Himself, we commit her body to the earth, for we are dust and unto dust we shall return.”
Ashes to ashes. The Great Giver of Life takes what he pleases, doesn’t he? John scoffs at the thought. He didn’t mean to. It came up out of him like a cough would, unsuppressed and untethered to etiquette and delicacy of the environment. It cost him a couple glances from others around the grave, and one smirk from Miss Thatcher, but he otherwise does not care what these people may think of him or his daughter. The idea that these folk’s opinions mattered was lost on him the very day they threw their stones without patience or understanding; the very same day they decided to shove their noses to the sky and turn their backs on him and Isabella. John shakes his head, pushing away the venomous thoughts that crept into his mind. They’re simple, John, remember that. They’ll cast their stones ever which way their shepherd demands.
“God of holiness and power, accept our prayers on behalf of your servant Isabella; do not count her deeds against her, for in her heart she desired to do your will. As her faith united her to your people on Earth, so may your mercy join her to the angels in heaven. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
A surge of “amen” spreads through the crowd as Pastor Connelly ends his prayer. One of the “amens” stood out, loud and tearful, and John looks across the grave, locking eyes with Jane who gave her golden honey-brown eyes to their daughter. Jane is wearing a plain black dress with buttons up the front and a long black veil sewn into a bowler. The veil does nothing to hide her furrowed brows, and accentuates her forlorn look so that one would assume she was in grief over the loss of their daughter, but John knows better. She’s angry with him and with the Lord. She’s angry at Pastor Connelly for never being able to truly cure their daughter of her sickness. John does not blame her for being angry, but he does blame her for everything else.
At Jane’s side, stands his two boys, Josiah and Silas. They both took after their mother with golden eyes and fawn-brown hair. Freckles speckle their cheeks and foreheads, running down their neck and arms. She had them dressed in black tweed suits and newsboy caps and black dress shoes. Seeing them like such little gentlemen pulls at John. He misses them so much. They look so tall now, being seven and ten. He almost doesn’t recognize them since his last memory they were toddlers yet, running naked through the house. He wonders what they like. Do they play sports at school? Or are they artists like their mother? These are things you should know about your children. Christ, John, what else have you missed. God, they grow up so fast. He wants to go over to them, to hug them and bring them back home. Everything he didn’t get to do the first several years of their lives because he was so caught up in everything else.
John looks back to Jane, but then she looks away from him, tears in her eyes. She takes the hands of their two boys and pulls them away from the grave, walking off as the burial of Isabella is concluded.
The gathering begins to clear, people departing in groups to seek out others around the graveyard and perhaps to sneak back into the church to indulge in the lunch reception the church offered. John looks to Miss Thatcher who continues to stand next to him, and returns a soft politeness, “Thank you for your help with the funeral arrangements. I was told you put together the bouquets.”
Miss Thatcher smiled, a pinkness rising to her cheeks, “Oh, you’re very welcome. I saw her portrait and thought the golden mums would look lovely next to it. She was an awfully beautiful girl. I’m so sorry she passed so young.”
“Yes, we all are,” John says, looking away for a moment to let a darkness pass over his face—one he felt and knew he was not going to be able to stop—before he looks back to her with a modest smile.
“Despite today,” he decides it’s best to change the subject, “are you enjoying your time in town?”
Miss Thatcher smiles and nods, “Oh, yes, very much so. Everyone has been so nice and helpful.”
“That’s good to hear. It’s one of the benefits of small towns. I heard you were transferred here from Charleston? Why the change?”
“Well, it’s a long story, but I have family here that took me in. I used to work as a bible study teacher there, and so I just transferred. The children have been lovely; much kinder than the city children.”
What an odd tale, John thinks. She’s so young and bright, he can’t imagine she truly comes from a city so far away. Other than her fashion, she fit into town quite well—already making friends and impressions on the folk from what he’s heard. She seems a little too nice for it all.
“Do you have children?” John asks, a devilish curiosity peeking.
She blushes, “Oh, goodness, no. That would be improper because I am not married.”
John nods, “Right. I suppose you don’t know what it’s like to lose a child then. You not being married and all.”
Her smile falters and she blinks at him. She gives a little shake of her head and a flustered wave of her hand, “I offer my condolences for your loss, Mr. Bernard. God bless you.” She takes her leave then, gathering her skirts in a hand to maneuver around the wet ground that sopped mud all over her shiny little boots. A sheep and their shepherd, after all.
Her place at his left side is replaced by a looming man in his early 60s whose power is just as mighty as the roundness of his stomach, Mayor Harold Raymond Parker of their little Blackrock. He stands as the latest of a long line of elected officials under the Parker name, and quite the largest, with a squinting face and balding gray hair that slumps around his temples.
“How’s the family, John? Holding up?” His voice rolls through the air, thick and heavy, loud enough for the remaining group to hear his concern in the Bernard family’s wellbeing.
“They're well, Harold,” John says, “Jane and the boys are staying with her sister in Dixon until we can get things in order.” Like the cleaning of Isabella’s room and the rumors about her death.
Harold claps John’s shoulder. “I understand. Good on her for continuing her womanly duties despite this. She’s a strong one. You seem to be doing alright there, too. But, John, I want you to take some time off. Use it to grieve and get your family…uh,” he shrugs his shoulders and rolls his hand around on his wrist, searching for the right word until he lands on “situated.”
Situated. The word hung between them like the elephant in the room, like the baggage John knows is there but refuses to acknowledge.
Harold nods, realizing the end of the conversation and then sets his hand on John’s shoulder again, giving it a squeeze, “I am sorry for your loss, but I hear that Jane is with child! Life goes on, it seems.”
“It does,” John says, then the mayor gives one last smile at John and turns to leave. John wonders how much Harold knows. He wonders how much Miss Thatcher knows that she wasn’t letting on. She has been in the town for over a week. Her job as the community bible study teacher requires her to talk to many people as John’s own job does. News gets around. Rumors spread like sickness. He wonders what contagion spread this time.
Everything starts to feel suddenly overwhelming. The questions hang in his head like a weighted blanket of snow, heavy and wet with ice. The look on Miss Thatcher’s face—she was trying too hard to be polite, tip-toeing around the real questions she wanted to ask him.
How did Isabella die, John? The whole town wants to know. In fact, I heard that—
Life goes on.
John’s chest tightens, burns like acid, leaving a sour bile taste on his breath. He wants to scream at everybody that still buzzes in the graveyard like flies. Eyes of the dead watch him by the grave, waiting for him to do something spontaneous in his solidarity now that no one was talking to him, offering their condolences. Would John sob at Isabella’s graveside now that no one was watching? He does not cry. How stoic. How strong. How strong, indeed? He isn’t going to give them the satisfaction of tears.
He was the last to see Isabella alive, I bet—
“I know you’d rather I didn’t offer condolences,” a voice speaks behind him, thick with a tired drawl. “And so I won’t.”
“Hey, Joseph,” John says.
Joseph Jenkins, a man John has known since childhood, stands next to him now. He does not look at John, nor does John look at him, but together they stare at the freshly covered grave of John’s daughter. And in that moment of silence, while they stand together as people who understand each other’s pain, the clouds part momentarily, opening an opportunity for forgiveness and childhood memories.
“Thank you,” John says, “For letting us bury her next to Tommy’s grave.”
Joseph shrugs, a weightless movement it seems now that seven years have passed since he lost his boy, “He would have wanted it, too.”
Considering all things, John isn’t sure that was true, but he’s not going to voice these thoughts. He wouldn't voice the doubts to anyone except Isabella herself who knew Tommy much more thoroughly than anyone else in town.
“They were good friends,” John says instead, keeping the conversation light and meaningless. Joseph nods. Neither of them were men of many words, and John doubts that anything more would come of the conversation, but he does admit that he is happy Joseph is there. After so many years of their friendship idling in the open, he felt an unusual bond between them now at the loss of both of their children. It sickens him, certainly, but he’s glad to share this bond with no one other than Joseph. A pang of regret strikes him when he looks over to Joseph and sees a contentedness on his face—or a complacency? How long had it been since he really talked to Joseph? Has he been losing people this whole time, he thinks, without even realizing it?
“Do you remember,” Joseph says, breaking John’s thoughts, “the stuff we would get up to when we were kids?”
Oh, boy, did he. John chuckles, “The nonsense we did.”
“Our children were no better than us, were they? The late nights, the antics, and the backtalk! Poor Mrs. Williams! It’s no wonder she didn’t just toss them onto the street every Sunday.”
“Just like she did to us?” John laughs. “That same day is when we went off into the woods…”
“And went to the lake.”
Joseph smiles, glancing over at John for the first time that day. It’s the first smile John has seen on his face in a long time. It falls, momentarily replaced by a devious smirk filled with memory. He says, “Death Island,” letting the weight of those words press into John’s chest.
“You almost died that night,” John says. “When we jumped into the water.”
“I still refuse to swim in lakes. God, I don’t even know how I let you talk me into going out there. But all I really remember is the three of us swimming out there, and then we camped on the island. What were we playing? Pirates?”
John laughs then, remembering parts of that day with a little nudge. “Yes,” he says, “Pirates. I had made a map with Petey, and we went searching for buried treasure. As if any real pirates would have wound up in the middle of Texas.”
They laugh together for a while, remembering as if they were boys again running around on the island with their stick swords and their bags full of snacks, fake pirate maps, and a pair of Petey’s dad’s binoculars snatched from the old man’s study from back home. The island itself wasn’t anything impressive—just a small stretch of dead and dying trees in the middle of Lake Redwater—but when they were kids, it was everything. It was freedom and promise of adventure, just a climb over the hills and then a hike to the lake, and then a swim to the most dangerous, snake-infested, tide-fearing, pirate cove the boys had ever seen.
But then, John stops laughing. He remembers the maps, vaguely playing, and then he remembers it getting dark—so, so dark—and he got scared. He remembers the feeling more than anything of that night. He remembers a weight in his chest, and then a crawling sensation down his neck. It was a suffocating feeling, like when he dove below the water and counted while holding his breath. He wanted to outlast both Joseph and Petey so bad. It would prove to them that he was better, that he was fit to be their leader. But he got to forty-four seconds, then shot up out of the water, coughing, scared and lightheaded. Dizzy and disoriented. It was the same feeling from that night, but he doesn’t remember what caused it. Something happened and then they ran. But what were they running from?
“Wolves,” Joseph says, answering the very question John had.
“Do you remember what happened to Petey?” John asks, looking at Joseph.
Joseph squints, hard against the sunlight. “That’s odd. I… don’t quite recall.”
Odd indeed. He doesn’t understand the feeling, but something began to itch within him, an irritation burrowing under his skin. Something is wrong about that night. Why can’t he remember? John shakes his head in frustration. He can’t shake the feeling that something isn’t right about it or about anything, actually. The day feels off, and not just because he is at a funeral, no. Something is wrong.
“What do I do, Joseph?” John says aloud, eyes fixated on the freshly filled grave at his feet. It didn’t feel right knowing that Isabella is laying in front of him below the earth. He buries his head in his hands for the first time that day. He tried so hard to hold himself together, but the weight of it all began to push him down deeper and deeper until he feels that he, too, should be six feet down with his daughter. Nothing makes sense, and he was so tired—too tired to think about it all now and what he needs to do. Isabella’s death wasn’t natural, no matter what the coroner said. He’s dissected bodies and done autopsies. He knows what a natural death looks like, and that wasn’t it.
But pieces to solve this are missing. People are still missing. But this isn’t the time to delve into decades long cold cases that the sheriff decided weren’t worrisome enough to dig into.
Joseph nods, “Best thing to do right now is rest. It’s been a long two weeks. And I will tell you that it doesn’t get easier. Every day I think about Tommy and what I could have done different to make sure he got home safe. But it still happened the way it did, and thinking on it like I’ve been just don’t help nobody. Isabella’s death was not your fault, and you’ll feel better once you accept that. So, you go home. You tell Mr. Parker to call in some other city doctor for a few weeks, and you rest. And John?”
They look at each other.
“Please call me if you need anything.”
Tommy Jenkins Went to Hell - Part 1
John stands at the front door of his wooded cottage. Joseph’s words from earlier that day gnaw at the back of his mind. Isabella’s death was not your fault. But how can Joseph be so sure of it? He wasn’t there when she died. Hell, John only arrived on scene to cradle her in his arms for her last breath. And he was only there by accident. Does the blame not fall on him for being an absent parent? Does it not fall on him for not recognizing the strange circumstances that befell his daughter—circumstances that she was never able to free herself of? John thinks Joseph is wrong. While he may not have struck the blow that took her life, his lack of action to help her meant that her death, yes, was very much his fault. Isabella deserved so much more than he gave her, and now she’s gone and he has nothing but guilt and the house he raised her in.
And being home did not help the guilt that sat heavy in his heart. He has to remember that the house is just a house, and the land that was passed down from his great-grandfather when they settled in the area is just land. The original house was made of logs and nails, but over the generations it became an architectural conglomerate of logs, bricks, and stone as the family expanded and more children were born into the Bernard name.
Now, as time goes on, it is only occupied by John and his immediate family. The elders passed and his siblings and cousins moved on to other towns and cities as they tried to break the generational curse that was rumored to linger on the land from the spilled blood of Caddo natives. John was the only one foolish enough to stay, passing the name of Redwater off as the color of the natural land instead of giving into the tales of the battles long fought between the natives and the white men.
The expanded cottage sits on 140-acres of land, half covered in uncorrupted woods, while the rest was transformed into crop and livestock farmland, enough to sustain his family and for Jane to sell around town for a small profit.
John places his hand on the front door handle, feeling the sun-heated iron under his palm. He lingers there for a moment, eyes fixed on the fist-sized pockmark that serves as a reminder of the day he lost his daughter to the Devil.
Seven years ago, John sat across from Him in the form of eight-year-old Isabella; and he was lost for words. He could only stare at her, brows furrowed, elbows propped on the dining table, and fingers laced in front of his mouth. He watched as Isabella squirmed under his scrutinizing gaze. Her thin, pale fingers played nervously with the hem of her yellow Sunday dress. She refused to make eye contact with him, finding the brown slats of the log walls much more interesting.
John wholly appreciated that Mrs. Williams was discreet about the situation. What he did not appreciate was that she pounded the front door so hard that she left those pockmarks in the aging wood that he shall notice until the day he dies. She said she had found Isabella at the edge of the woods near the church, saw dark mud and leaves against the bright dress, and dragged the girl home before anyone saw them. John apologized for the inconvenience of it all, and Mrs. Williams scoffed at him, only saying that she hoped he could beat the devil out of her. Mrs. Williams was an elderly woman, wise in her years, and tough, but mostly forgiving of first mistakes. She believed in hard work and learning, but did not stand for repeated offenders and those unwilling to “make room for Jesus in their hearts.”
But that had been the first signs of any trouble within the confines of Isabella’s mind. Before that day, she was kind and courageous. She was headstrong, certainly, but always acted with the best intentions and other people at the center of her care and attention. That’s why John knew that when he confronted her about her and Tommy’s adventures in the woods that day, that the responses spewing from her lips were not formulated by Isabella.
The warmth of the handle begins to burn under his palm. He just needs to open the door. He hasn’t been home in the past two weeks—since Isabella passed in his arms—and he can only imagine the science experiments growing within the pantry of vegetables and fruit and leftover bread, but he can’t avoid the house any longer. The Donahues were nice enough to let him stay, but he felt the tension growing as he lounged on their living room sofa and ate at their small dining table cramped between them and their four children.
John sucks in his breath and pushes the door inward. The mid-afternoon light floods in behind him, illuminating the main living area of the cottage. The main room is a large rectangle, with a bench and a hat rack off to the right, a sofa pushed against the far wall, and miscellaneous décor that the Bernards have accumulated over the decades. It lived up to it’s cottage name with organic oak furniture, an array of books covering a plethora of subjects (both fiction and non-fiction), and homemade crafts like pottery, whittled figures, and wood-burned frames hosting Bernard artistry. While John does not live up to the Bernard name, giving his life to science and reality, Jane blossomed when she married into the name twenty-five years ago.
At that time, John’s parents still lived in the house, before they decided to move an hour away to Dixon to be closer to John’s ill sister, Joanna. His grandparents had already passed two years before his parents moved, and once they were gone, the house was left to him and Jane to use and tend to and to fill with a family of their own. They were unsuccessful for nine years. And in that time, Jane used her creative gifts to paint and tailor and harvest the land. John used that time to work.
And when Isabella was born in 1894, John continued to work.
But between his house-calls and faraway medical conferences, he found time to build, too. Isabella’s room was the first door on the left down the hall from the main living area. The bed frame, the vanity, the dresser—all of it was John’s handiwork. He was proud of it down every last crooked nail or screw. The boys also had rooms of their own down that hallway. Silas’s room was adjacent to Isabella’s, because he was the second eldest, and then Josiah’s next to his. There was one last room at the end that John and Jane always wanted to fill with another little Bernard, but Josiah seemed to be the last blessing. Or he was until Jane confessed to a surprise pregnancy just six months back.
At that time, John was ecstatic. He was thrilled to hear the pitter-patter of little feet running around the cottage again.
But now, he stands at the closed door to the empty room and realizes that the house was never going to be graced with little feet of a Bernard ever again. In fact, it’ll only have echoes of the ones that were there before. He opens the door to the room. It sits empty, as it always had, but with a thick layer of dust on the floorboards. He decides that this was going to be the best place to sort Isabella’s things. One-by-one he was going to sort her stuff into this room in piles—things to throw away, things to donate, and things to keep.
In order to do that, he would have to actually go into her room. He doesn’t want to. He stands there in front of it, places his hand on the knob, and just stares at the upside-down cross etched into the wood. He remembers the day Jane found it and she screamed. So, so loud that John heard it from down the path as he was on his way home. So much had already happened between the day the Devil “possessed” Isabella and the day she etched the cross into the door. However, in all honesty, the cross never bothered John.
John is not a Christian. Not like Jane is. He’s a man of science and pessimistic reality where things can be proved and experimented. He’s never cared for religion or spiritual philosophy, though, he admits that over the past several years, his orthodox belief in science has been tried over and over again; and the many attempts that these otherworldly forces have made to crack at his rigid foundation has slowly began to be successful.
Over the years, they have caused him nightmares and doubts and hallucinations of blue fire and deep, guttural voices echoing on the wind. In the past, he has been able to push these to the side of mind tricks played on him by his own irrational fear and the religious trauma that had been inflicted on him since he was a boy. But now, they mock him again. He hears a noise. Nothing threatening—no—but unsettling. It’s his own voice, floating into the front living room from the kitchen. John moves from Isabella’s door and goes closer to the voice, to hear it clearer. When he enters the kitchen, he sees the ghostly silhouettes of himself and Isabella at the dining table. Across the way is the phantom of himself, unable to process what Mrs. Williams had told him earlier that day, and he was unable to accept the state of his daughter as she sat direct from him.
It was Spring of 1901. Her hands were in her lap, tangling her fingers in the hem of her dress that was caked in mud and debris. Her shoes were also covered in mud, leaving a trail of thick, wet foot prints from the door to the kitchen table. The yellow bow in her hair was crooked and entangled with twigs. She looked as if she had been in a war in the woods.
John’s voice echoed, “Isabella, what mess have you made?”
She had looked up to him then, her doll-like eyes wide and, if he had not known any better, terrified. She was not actually terrified in that moment—not of John, anyway, and not of the consequences of her action—but of something else John was not privy to at that time. Looking back, he can see now that her eyes gave away a secret. If he had known that day what she did, would he have acted differently? Would he have done more to protect her? The Lord talks about forgiveness, and that he finds that he is quick to, but would he have truly forgiven her so quickly if he had known the depth at which she opened her heart to the darkness she found that day?
“What did you do to your dress?” John asked.
Her eyes went wild for a moment, appearing to be a fright (although he realizes now that it was excitement rising from her). Her hands wrung at the dirty hem.
“It was Tommy’s idea,” she said quick.
“The woods. I’m sorry, papa. We went to Marwos—we didn’t get far…” She slouched in the chair. Her dress rode up around her shoulders, gaping at the neckline. Her chin touched her white-laced collarbone, and she looked up at John with her doe-like eyes. She knew she wasn’t allowed in the woods, let alone Marwos. It was private property. It was dangerous. There were coyotes and poison ivy. There was a sickness that hid in the trees that John has felt in his bones since he was a child. Until much later in his adult life, he had never stepped more than a couple feet underneath the canopy of the white pines that dominated their town, surrounding their cottage, and lining the main roads that led in and out of the countryside. Rumors of native curses or not, something spread within the woods in Blackrock, and even worse, the looming aged pines of the Marwos property seemed to be the source of John’s irrational anxieties.
“I don’t care whose idea it was,” He said firmly, “just… where did Tommy go? Did Mrs. Williams bring him home, too?”
She shook her head.
“I don’t know what that means.”
“Isabella, where is Tommy?”
“He went home sick.”
John forced a disappointed sigh. It wasn’t like her to be difficult. Strange and silly, certainly, but not secretive.
“I’m going to have a word with Thomas’s father. We’re going to head over there to make sure he got home safe, and you are going to apologize to Mr. Jenkins for encouraging this behavior. This is not going to happen again, do you understand?”
She stared at the table, her fingers no longer fidgety. A frown sat on her face.
“Isabella, do you understand me?”
“It was only a goat.”
John cocked his head, flustered, “Wh—excuse me?”
“My dress. It’s goat’s blood.”
He saw it then, in the lamplight from the five-point chandelier above the table. The light casted an amber hue to the room, but upon closer examination he could see that the stains he had mistaken for mud were not quite the right consistency. Or maybe not the right color. The waters of Blackrock tended to have a reddish-brown tint due to the natural clay deposits that sat at the edges and bottoms of the rivers and lakes, but the thought of those stains against the bright yellow of her dress turned from mud, as he initially thought it was, to the blood she claimed it to be. And now the stains looked much, much redder.
“It’s... not yours?” What kind of question was that?
She shook her head. Then blinked and corrected herself, “Maybe some of it is.”
He was baffled. He was so unbalanced by the confession after struggling with her silence for what felt like hours that he wasn’t sure what was true anymore. First Marwos, now a goat, and Tommy got sick? Images pieced together in his mind about what could have happened, but the range of possibilities made him dizzy. He wanted to sit down, but no. He had to make sure Tommy got home safe.
John ran to the phone and dialed the Jenkins’ number. The operator picked up.
“Joseph Jenkins, please,” John said.
“One moment,” the operator said.
And then a frantic voice picked up on the other side, “Sheriff Evans? Did you find him?” The voice was Joseph.
“No…,” John said, “It’s John Bernard. Tommy isn’t home?”
“No, he’s not. How—how did you know I was looking for Tommy?”
John went silent for a moment as his heart dropped. Tommy was missing. Isabella might have been the last person to see him. “I’m coming over,” John said, “We need to talk.”
Tommy Jenkins Went to Hell - Part 2
“He said he was sick,” Isabella repeated to Sheriff Evans. He loomed over her with his arms crossed while stroking his black mustache. She leaned back on the Jenkins’ cream striped sofa, refusing to break eye contact with the tall man.
“So, you let him walk home alone? What did you do after he left?”
She shrugged, “I stayed in the woods. I was just playing.”
“When did you decide to head home?”
“The sun started to go down. I headed back the way we came—from the church.”
“And that’s when Mrs. Williams found you?”
Evans sighed, closed his leather-bound notebook, and tucked a shiny black fountain pen in his shirt pocket. “We’re going to head out for a search party. Mr Jenkins, you’re coming with me. Mrs Jenkins, I recommend calling all the friends you have to join the search. Mr Bernard, please escort Miss Bernard home and join us this evening. The woods around Redwater are not small, nor are they safe. So, please bring extra ammunition. We head out in an hour.”
Everything after that happened quickly. Before their boots left the front door, Maria—Mrs. Jenkins—was on the phone calling their neighbors. Yes, hello, operator. Parker residence please. Cathy, hello, my Tommy is missing.
John and Isabella biked home, and when they arrived, John set the bicycle against their cottage and strode inside to grab his Springfield hunting rifle and extra ammunition. Jane was in the living area, patching a hole in one of the boy’s trousers while the two toddlers sat on the floor with whittled wooden cars and people between them. John did not make eye contact, but he saw from the corner of his eye, Jane was watching him. And then when Isabella came through the door behind him, she tensed.
Isabella turned and headed to her room, closing the door behind her. Jane set her sewing on the side table next to her sewing chair, and stood to follow John into their bedroom where he kept his collection of guns. She found him deep into their closet, shuffling through an ammo box, the hunting rifle already strapped about his shoulder.
Jane cleared her throat, “Can we talk?”
“Yes, what is it?” John said, emptying the ammo box on a shelf in the closest. He couldn’t find the damn .308 shots.
“I spoke to Mrs. Williams when she returned to the church. She said she brought Isabella home. Did she say anything to you?”
“We talked briefly.” It was true. There weren’t many words passed between Mrs. Williams and John. Most of it were looks of acknowledgment. Mrs. Williams expected—entrusted—John to settle Isabella’s wild and out-of-character behavior, to snip it in the bud once and be done with it. And that was John’s intention until Isabella began to speak instead of avoid his gaze. Now, the top priority is finding Tommy, because if he didn’t, there would be a whirl of consequences beyond what any eight-year-old child could imagine.
“Tommy is missing,” she said, lowering her voice and inching in towards John as if this was a secret only she knew.
“I know. I’m headed out with Joseph and Evans. We’re going to go find him,” John said, loading a round into the rifle chamber, stuffing the box of located .308s into his jacket pocket, and securing a tweed golf hat on his head to keep his hair out of his face.
“You’re leaving right now?” She asked. “Are you… leaving her here?”
John turned then to face his wife, unpleased with her tone. It spoke of something he was in the dark about. It held fear. “Yes,” he said cautiously, “I’m not taking her with me.”
Jane’s hands lowered from her chest to in front of her skirts then and she looked down. “I understand. It would be silly, right, to take a chlid into the woods at this time of night?”
“It’s just that—,” Jane dropped her shoulders and laced her fingers together, still refusing eye contact with John, “I talked to Mrs. Williams, and she told me that when she found Isabella that… that she didn’t see Tommy leave the woods.”
“What exactly is that supposed to mean?”
“He’s too young to be going home by himself.”
“Eight,” she said. “Mrs. Williams just thought it was odd that Isabella wasn’t with him. She said she saw them head into the woods but only found Isabella…”
“Jesus Christ, Jane, do you have something to say? Tommy is missing right now, and I need to go find him. Just speak.”
“No!” She said, throwing her hands down at her side, tears welling into her eyes, “You don’t understand! Mrs. Williams said that when Isabella came back she seemed confused. She didn’t know where she was, and she said that—that her eyes...” her voice dropped to a strained whisper, “they were glowing blue.”
John scoffed, “That’s ridiculous. Trick of the light.”
“No, Jane,” he said, frustrated that Jane would even suggest anything so… so… unnatural. “I’m not going to sit here and listen to gossip. I’m going to go find Tommy, and you’re staying here with the children. We are not discussing this again.”
He headed out, fully strapped and packed with additional ammunition, his medical bag in the event that they find Tommy scathed, and a filled oil-lantern for the dark. Before he left out the front door, he paused in the living room to kiss the foreheads of his young boys and to glance back at Isabella’s closed door. He could swear he heard a soft sobbing from between the cracks. But he did not have time to console her. He needed to leave. He needed to find Tommy.
By the time John arrived to the search crew outside of the church, there was a group waiting on assignments from Sheriff Evans. The night had already fallen and stars rose in the black sky. The moon was only a waxing crescent, teasing no assistance to the men out searching that night.
Sheriff Evans stood on a stump facing the group of men, back to the woods, and holding a lantern up. He addressed the twenty-or-so men waiting for direction.
“Listen up. We’re looking for Thomas Jenkins. Skinny, eight, brown hair. He’s been alone for about four hours now, wandered around Redwater woods since before the sun went down. He was last seen headed towards the church, but we fear he did not make it that far. At this point, he will be hungry and tired and scared. Check in trees—we know the boy’s a climber—and check under bushes. Check anywhere a seventy-pound kid could hide.
“If you find him, notify your group leader to set off a flare. If he is noticeably injured, set off two flares and Dr. Bernard—he’s over there, wave, please, thank you—will come runnin’. Please make sure the area is safe from predators. Do not touch the boy if you find him. Leave that up to myself or Dr. Bernard. There are four group leaders—Charles, Kareem, Eisenhower, and Jones. Assign yourselves a minimum of five to a group. Leaders, grab your flare pack before you head out. Let’s move.”
The crowd dispersed, shuffling to find a group leader and begin the trek through the woods. John found himself next to Kareem who was counting heads and then explaining the section of Redwater that they would be searching. He discussed techniques, and reiterated good places to check for the boy. Kareem had an efficient team. While John wasn’t particularly close to the men in that group, he did know them all to have good reputations; they were men of good deeds and good intentions as far as everybody knew.
First, of course, there was Aditya Kareem who’s family immigrated from Bengali a decade ago. His family, which consisted of him, his father, and his two younger brothers, and their respective wives and children. His mother and sister, however, stayed in India. They settled in Blackrock as farmers, and while there are racist folk about town who swear up and down that Kareem’s family are always up to no good, John always knew them as peaceful. They threw the occasional grand party that unsettled their neighbors a half-mile out, but John supposed it was jealousy that unsettled them more than the complaint of noise because there were no better summer squash and potatoes in the entirety of Redwater County than that of the Kareem’s.
The other men had their own good standing in Blackrock for other reasons. Edward Moore, or Eddie as he went by since he was a kid, started out at a little thieving boy coming from a hard family, but as he grew up, he made amends with those he did wrong and now works at the tannery fixing up saddles and reins and other goods for the locals. He’s never needed much help from John, but they always shared a short word when they ran into each other. Oscar Perez was also a kind fella. His family had roots in Blackrock before it was ever even known as Blackrock. He was about fifteen years younger than John and a head shorter, but he packed a dense body and a hell of a punch. The Perez’s were down on Isley as cattle ranchers. They were not people to mess with, and most folk often didn’t considering their insurmountable generosity—Abuela Perez was John’s favorite to work with seeing that she always had a meal prepared for him every time he made a house-call to check on her. Lastly, the group consisted of Jesse Campbell, the youngest of the entire gathering of search party members. He was always a cautious boy and stayed quiet and out of the way as he grew up. It was rather surprising to see him there that night considering he learned his prudent ways from his mother after his father passed away in a hunting accident when Jesse was just knee-high.
Being around these men was comforting to John because although he did not know them well, he did trust their reputations, and trusted that they wouldn’t miss him if he slipped away once they neared Marwos, thinking better of his intentions and abilities to survive the dark wilderness alone.
When they began to head into the woods, John followed. Kareem’s team was to search the closest to Marwos. He thought that if he fell behind, he could break off and head into that section alone. He hoped to find Tommy intact, but something deep in his gut told him that it wasn’t going to be the case. Something in Isabella’s voice from earlier that day, and Jane’s comment—her eyes were glowing blue. What could it mean? It most certainly could have been just a trick of the light, but what if it wasn’t?
God, what was he thinking just then? Demons and devils didn’t exist as much as the holy folk of the town believed they did. He wasn’t going to let superstition get in the way of what could be a real medical emergency. Marwos had wolves and coyotes and bears and cottonmouth snakes. There was a real danger lurking in the depth of it and if he truly got lost out there, he could have been gone by then.
No. John shook his head. He wasn’t going to think about it. Tommy could also have just climbed a tree and was waiting out the night. He was a smart kid, after all.
They entered the tree line. It was dark. Without the aid of the moon, the only light they could make out was the shadows and highlights from yellow flames of lantern held up high. As they broke apart from the rest of the party, the echoes of crunching leaves and snapping twigs underfoot echoed alongside the yells of Tommy’s name. The farther they got from the rest of the groups, the more Kareem’s group spread out, covering ground with about ten feet between the five of them. After a half-hour trek from the church, they made it to the edges of Marwos and changed course, deciding it would be best to comb the woods to the edge of the road.
“If the boy has any instinctual direction, he would have gone that way and taken the road home. But that’s a two hour walk back to his house, so it’s a clear chance he’s on his way there now,” Kareem said. He had a point. Even if Tommy got lost, there was a chance he headed west around the lake. If he did, and he continued to follow it, he would have ran right into the main road which would have brought him home.
As hopeful as he wanted to be about him heading towards the road, John still felt the urge to check deeper into the woods. He wanted to tell the group his thoughts—his sinking feeling, but to find the right words without being suspicious was impossible. Nobody went into Marwos. Even Evans thought it was unreasonable to think that Tommy would have made it that far. However, knowing that Isabella admitted to it… John wondered if Tommy never made it out.
He stopped in his place, lowered his lantern, and backed away from the group who prepared to spread out to comb through towards the road. He blew out his light and backed towards Marwos slowly, crouching behind the trunk of a thick pine to wait for the group to get far away enough to forget about him. No one looked back. No one cared that John was missing. They only searched for Tommy.
John stood. He turned, shuffled in his pocket for a new match, lit his lantern, and then walked towards Marwos. Marwos was not a large section of woods, but it was thick. Thorns and poison ivy grabbed at pant legs and loose fabric. There was an illusory defined barrier between the strong, stout white pines and the lanky, clasping slash pines that made up the difference between the Redwater woods and Marwos. John stepped across that boundary and felt the earth shift under him, almost as if it shied away from his footfalls. He continued forward.
When Isabella said they went into Marwos, John wasn’t sure at first what she meant. Sure, it wasn’t a grand forest, but it did stretch for a squared two miles, with three-quarters of it’s land sparring off the encroaching white pines, and the other quarter jutting out into the lake as a peninsula ever-reaching toward the island in the center of Redwater Lake, toward Death Island.
The main attraction of Marwos for peculiar children like Isabella and Tommy—like John, Joseph, and Peter—was the island. Protruding from the water like an alluring hill, it invited imaginative children who felt the threat of the name was no match for their invincibility that childhood granted them. It was a place far away from the adults where they could just be themselves. Most adolescences and teenagers stayed away from the island because it was a mile-swim in black, copperhead-infested water with the only reward being a place to sit under a speckled canopy of mostly dead trees. But to young children? It was a pirate island. It was a good strategic location for guerrilla warfare, a place to make camp, to pretend a game of deserted island in the middle of the wide, blue ocean that they only heard of from the few travelers that marched in and out of town and from those stories that grandpa used to tell when he lived in Virgina.
Death Island was adventure.
But it was hard to get to. Between traversing through the thick undergrowth, thorny vines, and out-maneuvering the predators that lurked there, you also had to get past the booby traps set up by the formidable landowners, the Walker family.
John knew by then the people that they were, which meant that they’re rather kind and unfortunately mistaken as ill and barbaric pagans due to their dark skin color and familial roots originating in southern Louisiana, but though they could be obstinate and boisterous, they were often considerate of the townsfolk and made it their duty to protect wandering children from the dangers of Marwos and Death Island. In fact, they did well enough to ward others away by spreading the name “Death Island” and warning people of the dangers of the area that the last time any child had gone missing due to those woods was thirty years ago when Peter disappeared.
The irony was not missed on him.
As John progressed between the lanky trunks and bushy undergrowth, an eerie feeling crawled down his spine, tingling his neck and sending shivers through his arms. He had hoped he’d never have to be there again. He may not truly remember the events that took place the night that Peter disappeared, but the feeling of Marwos was not forgotten. It was a feeling that he didn’t belong there; and not just because it was nature and he’s never really felt “at home” in nature settings (he was a man that loved his house and manicured gardens), but it felt that the woods simply did not want him there.
Past a certain point, it grew silent. Only the crunch below his boots and the drumming of his heart could be heard. An acrid scent rose from the ground, like a mangled mix of decaying fauna and fungus feasting on remains of lost souls, both innocent and not. It unsettled John to think that below his feet was topsoil rich with nutrients sucked from life that once was crawling through that very forest perhaps only decades ago, but the bodies now lay disintegrated by acid spat by ravenous bacteria and unforgiving fungi.
John inhaled deeply, holding in his breath. He wasn’t going to think about death. Instead, he was going to make a plan. He had a feeling that the children were attempting to make it to Death Island. With that in mind, he followed the overgrown path through Marwos that led to the peninsula. He hoped if he stayed on the path and kept his ears piqued, he could pick up a sign of Tommy perhaps hiding in a tree or under a bush. So, with his lantern held high, he took large steps forward, hiking over fallen trees and brambles. The path was expected to be less clear, but even John can make out crumbled leaves and stamped dirt. It was an animal path, taken by both hunter and prey. It was familiar. It was the very same path. It was odd. Underneath the looming pines, John felt like a kid again. Everything seemed so large and intimidating, and while John felt very out of place in those woods, it was all so exhilarating. His hands shook with the same excitement he felt all those years ago running behind Peter and Joseph towards the peninsula.
Yet the dark frightened him. It made him jump easily. It made him paranoid of what could be watching…
A low growl resonated through the woods. From behind him? John turned. The lantern swung on it’s iron handle. Orange light illuminated the unfamiliar backs of the trees and allowed the shadows to dance in rhythm with the squeaking swing of the lantern. He stepped backwards, and the darkness approached him, thick and shadowy, encroaching in his bubble of light. Every step back resonated two footfalls, and John knew that both were not him.
A snarl behind him. He snapped back around to face the path towards the lake. In the motion of the flame, he caught sight of a moving shadow dashing across the path to the other side of the trees. A wolf? Larger than a coyote. Faster than a bear. John moved the light to the left side of the path to illuminate a larger area, perhaps it would scare whatever was hunting him. Nothing. He moved it to the right, and in the bushes between two pines he saw bright, fiery blue eyes.
The lantern went out with a howl from the beast.
John dropped the lantern, shattering the glass on the forest floor, and ran.
He ran back towards the road. He leaped back over the fallen branches and trunks, over bushes and brambles. Something snagged at his pant leg and ripped through the fabric, scratching his leg. He felt the sting of a slice, but kept going. His chest heaved, his ribs burned, and he suffocated taking in mouthfuls of iron-scented decay all around him. His head screamed, but the woods were still so, so eerily quiet other than the slap of branches from his face and the heavy panting from his lips.
He wanted to look back. Was it a trick of his mind? Was he just getting farther from his investigation because of the fear that he tried so hard to bottle? It was an illusion. It had to be. He needed to know. John looked back, and when he did, he did not see the shadowy blue-eyed figure as he did before. Nothing. There was nothing. He tripped. He jerked forward as he tried to bring his foot up to continue his run, and he fell. Caught on the roots. The palms of his hands scrapped against hard rocks, and the tender meaty flesh of them stung. He tried to push himself up, but something slithered under his pant leg from his exposed ankle and wrapped around his calf, cutting into his flesh with pokes like thorns from a vine. He felt it twist and rope itself around him. He gasped.
He turned on his side and reached for the small knife he buried in his left coat pocket. It wasn’t there. He shifted and felt in the right one. Gone. Gone. Gone. His heart thrummed against his ribcage so deafeningly loud against the quiet of the woods. The vines continued to tighten against his leg, now to his knee, like a snake does to it’s prey.
What if it was a snake?
John managed to turn on his back and sit up. He pulled at the strap of the Springfield on his back and aimed it in the dark near his foot. He couldn't see a damn thing! He aimed a little higher and shot.
As he did, a red flare rose high into the dark sky. A second red pop followed it.
And in the momentary illumination of his rifle shot, he did not see vines or roots or the snake his was fearing. He saw the wolf with it’s foaming jaws snapped around his leg. It’s blue eyes stared at him wild with rings of yellow around the pupil, but then once the flash of light disappeared, so did the blue.
In that moment, John leaped up and ran towards the flare—towards Tommy—without thought of the path or what else might get him because anything, anything at all, would be better than that wolf, or whatever it was. Even if it meant Tommy might be hurt, anything else was better than staying in Marwos.
When he reached the location where the flares went off, a murmuring gathering had already formed around the area. This annoyed John to no end. He was the doctor. They should not be crowding the boy if he was found, let alone if he was hurt.
“Move aside,” he announced, pushing himself through the crowd of men.
John stepped into the center, but he did not find Tommy. He saw a carcass. Heath Charlie, the one who found the body, whimpered on the ground at the feet of the crowd.
“I—” he stammered, “I’m s-sorry.”
John grabbed a lantern from a man near him and held it above the bloodied mass in the center. It was not Tommy. It was a small deer, from what John could tell by the tuffs of brown fur left over with a similar hue to that of Tommy’s hair color. But it was short and coarse, where Tommy had wavy locks that touched his shoulders bore from a rat’s nest on his head. And one small hoof laid half-covered in leaves near, but detached, from the ankle of the thing. The rest of it was unrecognizable.
It was a heap of bone and organs and blood.
“I thought—” Heath stammered again, “I thought it was him.”
John shook his head, “No, it’s not. It’s time to move out. It’s been long enough. Where’s Sheriff Evans?”
Evans pushed through the crowd, finally arriving onto the scene.
“Good God,” he said, putting his hand to his mouth and nose.
“Indeed. Evans, it’s time to call it. We should head back and try again in the light.”
“I think that’s the right call, John,” he said eying the mess on the ground with a disgusted, yet intrigued look. Evans took a moment longer to look at the carcass before whistling and announcing the departure with the groups. Team leaders were to make sure everyone was accounted for before heading back. They would all regroup in the morning at 7 when the sun was out and Tommy would be easier to see.
“Hopefully,” Evans said, “Tommy will be home before then.”
Then he left, stepping around the carcass and heading back towards the church. After once last glance at the thing on the ground, John followed. An exhaustion settling over him, but with more questions than he had when everything began.
Tommy Jenkins Went to Hell - Part 3
When John returned to the cottage, it was well past 3 in the morning. He didn’t stop to talk with Evans, as the both of them were tired and, frankly, sick. John promised to see him in the morning ready to go. The house was dark, save for one lantern sitting on the sill of an open window from the living room that Jane set to wait for his return. Inside, Jane was asleep on the sofa, Josiah curled under her arm cradling a stuffed toy fox. Silas and Isabella must have gone to bed.
He set his bags and outdoor clothes down by the front door and slid off his shoes. He would clean it up in the morning. Jane and Josiah looked peaceful. They must have fallen asleep waiting up for him. He took Josiah from Jane’s arms and carried him to his room. He passed Isabella’s door first, which was shut, but a soft, yellow light glowed from under the doorway. John sighed. He’ll talk to her later. He passed Silas’s door next, which was ajar. Inside, he saw the slow rise and fall of the boy’s shoulders and heard the soft snores from within. Silas always did sleep soundly. Even as a baby. The third room on the left was Josiah’s. John pushed open the door softly with his toes and set Josiah down on his back in his crib. As John pulled his arms back, Josiah stirred. He hated the crib, and now that he could talk, he voiced those feelings loudly and daily. Jane often let him sleep with her on the sofa or in their bed. It didn’t bother John, really, but he did often press that the boy needed to sleep on his own otherwise he’d never learn to be independent. But Jane always protested.
“Why would he need to be independent when he has me?” she would say.
John would just shake his head and let her be, because in all honesty, he did enjoy the little warm body curled into him between him and his wife. Josiah, though he was two, still had that baby smell. Odd as it may be, there was something comforting about it. Sure, Josiah would have to grow up eventually, but it ached him to see the growth already between his other two—Silas turning five that year and Isabella already seven, almost eight in a month. He wished they all still had their baby smells.
After putting Josiah to bed, John went to Jane on the sofa and gently shook her awake.
“Would you like to go to bed?” He asked.
She groaned and batted him away weakly.
He smiled and let her be. He wasn’t going to bed, either. Instead, he headed to the kitchen first to grab some bread and jerky, then settled in at his desk in the back study. The study was a small room, added on with a wood frame and stone walls when he was a child. It used to be his father’s, as was the mahogany desk and the leather recliner that was purchased brand-new from the furniture supplier. He pulled out a black leather-bound notebook from the bottom drawer and opened it to a blank page.
He couldn’t get away from the gnawing feeling in his stomach. Why couldn’t he remember the night of Peter’s disappearance? Why is Isabella being secretive? Where is Tommy? And why does it all feel connected? He scribbled in the journal, writing down his questions and possible answers to them, then scribbling the answers out that didn’t make any sense at all until the entire page was covered in scratched out scribbles and only the inked question remained—WHERE IS TOMMY?
There came a knock on his study door. John flinched and caught his breath.
“It’s open,” he said, closing his notebook and laying his pen on top it’s soft leather. The door opened slightly and a small figure in a white linen gown stepped through the doorway.
“Isabella. What are you doing up?” He sat back in his chair and took his reading glasses off, placing them to the side of the notebook. Isabella’s eyes shifted from the notebook to John.
“Did you find Tommy?” She asked in a soft voice.
“No,” he said, sighing, “We didn’t find him. We did, however, find a dead deer.”
Her eyes widened—whether surprise or fear, John would never know. Isabella stepped forward in the silence that followed John’s comment, and she sat upon his reclining chair. She lifted the footrest and pushed the seat back to lounge. She stared at the low ceiling. She rested, but John did not. Isabella was acting stranger—stranger than usual. No matter how much John thought about the events from when Mrs. Williams pounded on their door to just then when Isabella entered the study, there was one detail that protruded like a light against the dark.
“You didn’t tell them about Marwos,” John said.
Isabella tensed, forced her shoulders to relax, and then shrugged. She did not look at him.
“What happened after Tommy got sick?” He knew she was hiding something. It was obvious. Her nervous glancing and fiddling fingers that have not stopped messing with the hem of her gowns since he had come home earlier were a telltale sign of dishonesty.
A pause. Then she blinked. Then she said, “We got separated. And then he ran away.”
“He ran?” Questions flooded his mind. “What made him sick? What separated you?”
She shrugged again. “I don’t know. He just got sick all over the floor and ran. I don’t know where he went.” Shards and splinters. She wasn’t giving anything more than fractured information. It was frustrating John. That was not her. That was not something Isabella did. Do children often lie to their parents at a certain age? He thought it started around twelve or thirteen, but seven was supposed to be a golden age of obedience. Or so he thought. Thinking back, he lied to his parents around her age, didn’t he? When he was hiding something, certainly. And she was hiding something.
“You lied to the sheriff,” John said, trying to pry more information out of her.
Restless shoulders, restless lies. Another shrug. He was not going to pretend to understand her anymore. She knew better, and if she didn’t, she would learn now.
“And you lied to Mrs. Williams. And to me. Why would you do that? You realize that Tommy’s life is in danger? He could be starving right now, or dehydrated, or worse—he could have fell into the lake and drowned. He could have been eaten by the coyotes. You both know those woods are dangerous. And worse—you went into Marwos? People don’t come back from there, that’s why it’s off-limits, do you understand? There are sinkholes and cliffs and predators. Grown men do not go in there. There was no reason for you to.”
She cried then. Balled fists to her eyes, she sobbed in his recliner. She tried to speak, to apologize, maybe, but all that came out was a stream of huffs and hiccups and coughs. He waited and watched her cry patiently. Her fit would pass, but he was not going to let up. He was her father; there was no reason for her to lie to him about anything. She was seven; what was the worst that happened? They saw something and got scared and separated? Probably. She lost him and it was lucky that she had made it out to the church for Mrs. Williams to find him. John’s heart sunk to think if it happened the other way around. It wasn’t a pleasant thought—a sudden morbid relief came over him that his daughter was able to survive while Tommy did not. Best case was that they both made it home, but what if that wasn’t possible? What if it was a sacrificial situation? Was Tommy a hero who placed himself in the sight of danger to save Isabella? Or was he merely the weaker of the two who fell prey to a terrible predator of Marwos? He did not know. Part of him really did not want to know, but just as something bothered John about the situation, it was swallowing Isabella up and making her spit up over herself sobbing in his recliner.
“Isabella,” John said in a softer tone as her cries died to soft hiccups, “what happened to Tommy?”
“Tommy—” she said, taking deep breaths between her words, “went to—went to—”
“Yes, where did he go?”
“Tommy went to hell.”