Arkansas Gothic: Part Three
She gently felt around her head, afraid of what she might discover. Nothing hurt and that was a good sign. Finding no lumps or bleeding, she got up and put the phone back on the end table from which it fell, smoothing out the wrinkles in the pink tablecloth in the process. While she readjusted the hem, she wondered whom she was talking to when she must have passed out. Esmeralda couldn't think of who would call at such a late hour. Maybe she called someone? The police?
The shot rang through her memory. Trembling, she sat down on the floor and hugged her knees. How long had she been out? She closed her eyes and listened for sirens. That Betsy girl may not have taken her seriously most of the time, but she couldn't have missed the gunshot. No, she would have sent someone, but with that terrible storm outside? Esmeralda found herself wishing John was still around. No, he was gone and she needed to be strong.
She stood up and grabbed the poker from the fireplace. She felt a little silly carrying it towards the mudroom to get the flashlight. "I'm sure the bad guys are going to be real scared of an old woman. Hear that, bad guys? I'll give you a good poking for scaring me," she said to her fear.
A cascade of thunder rumbled in answer. Esmeralda moved more quietly now, shuffling down the hallway in fuzzy slippers that only added to her sense of helplessness. She swapped them for her gardening boots and threw on one of John's old jackets. The worn denim felt like armor and his lingering scent, still familiar as it ever was, formed a miasma of strength protecting her, as though the old ghost held her close like he used to when the storms got ugly.
It took a bit of digging around the top shelf in the closet, but she managed to find the emergency flashlight he'd given her for a birthday present. Always the practical type, he beamed when he showed her how it didn't need batteries, just shake it around a few times to power it up and you'll always have a light handy. He saw it on an infomercial late one night when he couldn't sleep; thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread.
Of course, she had never used it before. When the power got knocked out during a really bad storm, Esmeralda wouldn't dare try to wander down to the mudroom in the dark with the wind howling like it did. She'd just hide under the covers like she did as a girl until morning. "Now look at me," she thought, "ready to brave the night and God knows what else out there. Just little ol' me. Guess it's easier when you don't have much reason to stay."
The flashlight worked as advertised. In fact, it was comforting to have a machine that worked better the more you shook it in frustration. Fully armed, she opened the door into the garage. The muffled patter of rain hitting the roof was soothing, its power softened like a bear's is by adding the name 'Teddy'. She left the light off in the garage, hoping to slip out unnoticed by the people she imagined lay siege to her house. "Aren't you a devilishly clever one? They won't see Granma comin' up behind 'em to give 'em a good thump on the head!"
The side door creaked as she snuck out of her house. A stream of water poured out of the rain gutter to her left, making an impromptu fountain out of the drainage ditch that ran alongside the driveway. Most of the rain was blowing away from her and she managed to keep mostly dry by hugging the outer wall. She kept the flashlight off for now, relying on the light shining out of the rear window. The wind shifted and drenched Esmeralda as she approached the backyard. Wiping away the water with her sleeve, she looked up to see the branches of the giant sycamore out back sway violently. "Well, I'll be. That young tart was right. Guess my mind is playing tricks on me. That sure didn't sound like thun-"
A great sheet of purple lightning ripped across the sky, illuminating dark shapes in the clouds that weren't there a moment before. The thunderclap felt like it would snap her in two and she fell against the house in shock. She sat there for a moment in awe as if the Almighty had just called her name, but the rumbling died down and the only noise left over was the static of rainfall. Esmeralda got back to her feet, feeling her age, when a thought pushed through the confusion. "Wait a minute. Looked like something was down there."
She turned the flashlight on and walked out towards the gulley behind the house. The beam made a cone of light reflecting off the downpour. It was hard to see through so she walked closer until her foot slipped on a fallen branch and sent her tumbling down the hillside. Thankfully, the earth had softened plenty, cushioning her as she rolled to a stop on a lump in the ground. Then again, she didn't remember there being a mound like this at the bottom.
Her hand pushed into something warm and slick. It wasn't mud, that much was certain. The flashlight was still at the top of the hill, slowly dimming without kinetic input. Esmeralda felt around until she happened upon what must have been...
This time she didn't bother to scream. Her mind fled to the warm embrace of oblivion. At that moment she wanted nothing more than to go to sleep and never wake up.
“That is without doubt the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“Show a little respect, Carl. We’re witnessing the god damn miracle of life here.”
“Eww, she’s licking the gunk right off of them!”
“That’s how dogs clean themselves. If you’re gonna be sick again, let me get you a bucket first.”
“What about that? That ain’t look like no pup to me.”
“It’s the afterbirth. Jesus, Carl. You have kids. Didn’t the doctor tell you about that sorta thing?”
“Hey, I wasn’t the one delivering ‘em. There are some things a man’s better off not knowing. Oh God, is she eating it? Ugh, better get that bucket, Harry.”
Harry turned back towards the bar just as the ringing bell on the door announced another visitor. Watching Tulip give birth to her new litter, he’d forgotten to lock up. Not bothering to look up as he grabbed the bucket, he shouted, “sorry, friend, but we’re closed for the night.”
Deputy Reynolds eyed Carl hunched over across the bar. The smell filled the entire bar by now and he couldn’t help but gag a little himself. Harry popped back up with the bucket. “Oh, hey Mike. Didn’t see you at first. What can I do you for?”
“Looks like Carl’s had a little too much tonight. You need me to drive him home?”
“Oh, he ain’t drunk. He’s just got a weak stomach for the beauty of creation. Tulip just squeezed out a coupla pups.”
“She did now? This I gotta see.”
Mike walked over to the bathroom. Sure enough, there were six little puppies all fighting over a spot to suckle. “Now ain’t that adorable. Really, Carl, where’s your appreciation for the beauty of creation?”
“I like the creating part just fine. It’s the delivery that does me in. Thanks, Harry.”
Carl made good use of the bucket. Deputy Reynolds motioned Harry over to the bar. In his quiet, professional tone, he asked, “any chance you see a tramp come in here earlier tonight?”
“Tonight, no. Some stranger came in around noon, didn’t see him leave though. He was gone before six for sure.”
“You talk to him at all?”
“Just took his orders. He sat down in that booth over there,” Harry pointed out, “didn’t talk much. Smelled foul too. You catch him getting into trouble?”
“We found him up behind Mrs. Watson’s place. Fellah ate both barrels of a sawed-off shotgun underneath that big ol’ sycamore. Esmeralda was the one who found him. Poor thing is a nervous wreck.”
“Strange place to go off yourself. Figure out who he is?”
“Nope. No ID, no identifying marks. We’ll run the dental records but there’s not a whole lot left to run. By the way, I don’t suppose that stranger tried to pay with a check?”
“Nah, paid with a twenty. Wouldn’t accept a check from someone like him.”
“Just thought I’d ask. The only thing we have to ID him besides the dentals is an old carving on the tree. Reads “P.D. + R.O.” inside a heart.”
“Esmeralda know anything about it?”
“I don’t think so. She was pretty shook up, but she said that carving was there when she and John bought the house, as far as she could remember.”
“Well ain’t that tragic.”
He shook his head in emphasis. Mike was silent for a while, listening to the quiet yelps coming from the bathroom. Harry interrupted, “looks like it’s finally starting to clear up.”
“Guess that’s my cue to hit the road. Say, you need any help finding homes for those dogs, my kid’s been bugging me for months.”
“Will do. You have a nice night there, Deputy.”
“Heh, you too. Hey Carl, get some sleep.”
“Will do, Mike. Will do.”