I’m waiting for April like usual, up on the flat rock. I got a bottle of wine with me, also like usual, and it’s mighty hard not to screw off the cap and start without her. But April’s eyes go wide and frightened when I drink alone, like she’s seeing into a future with a girlfriend who gets drunk and beats on her like her daddy does now, so I make myself wait.
It’s pretty up here, back behind the MacLiven homestead up the mountain. The moon’s so close you think you ought to could touch it, and this big, flat lip of rock is wide enough to lie on, both of us, and summer nights like this one it’s nice and cool against your cheek. You can see flat across the valley, past April’s house and past mine, past town, on down to the river and across, back up the next mountain. And it’s quiet, quiet enough so a girl can hear herself think for a change.
I’m whistling, swinging my legs off the edge and just letting my mind wander in peace when I finally hear her shuffling through the leaves. My stomach does a little flip, sending a wave of warmth out through the rest of me. I stand up and walk back toward the trees to meet her.
“Hey, Ape,” I say, loud enough for her to hear me but not so loud the MacLiven dogs’ll take to barking. “Let me help you with the munchies.” April works in the five-and-dime after school, and even though she’s always a little late, she’s a sweet girl and she does a good job, so they give her lots of little free things she can’t afford to buy, like brand-name potato chips and bottles of Pepsi Cola.
April don’t answer me, and I get a tight feeling in my gut, thinking maybe her daddy’s been whomping on her again, and we’re going to spend the evening trying to stop her face from bleeding, me sitting real close to her in the parts where she cries—I can’t never hold her like I want to, cause she always hurts so damn bad—and me just watching in the parts where she yells and kicks tree trunks. Those ain’t our finest evenings, let me tell you. I like it a lot better when her daddy’s so drunk he don’t even notice April, and she comes up here happy to see me and we talk about which star’s the brightest, and what poor girl Eddie Coltrane is doing this week, and how many days it is till we ditch this hellhole together. Cause me and April are going to California in the spring. We got to wait till I graduate, cause Mrs. Jackson says I’m smart enough to go to college if I work real hard, but you can’t go to college unless you’ve finished high school. But soon as I do, we’re gone.
We won’t have to hide ourselves out there in California.
You sure as heck got to hide here in Bolton County, North Carolina, though. You ain’t a makeup-wearing, frilly-dress-loving girl itching to marry a redneck out here, you ain’t nothing. You’re worse than nothing. So me and April wear the same things Carla Ann and Mattie Rae and all them other girls wear, and we laugh and giggle when the football team at Bolton High walks by, and we never hold hands in public or look at each other funny or anything that might get us tied to the back of a heavy-duty pickup and drug down the side of a mountain on a Saturday night.
We ain’t stupid, April and me.
Anyway, April ain’t answering me, and I’m already unscrewing the cap on the wine to give her the first sip cause she sure as heck is going to need it on a beating night. Then I drop the blamed thing, and I’m down on my knees feeling around for it and trying to hold the bottle straight so the wine don’t spill, when I stop cold. Cause them feet right there in front of me ain’t hers. They’re big, man big, and all of a sudden I’m thinking maybe April’s daddy found out about us and is coming to kill me. I nearly pee myself. But instead I make myself look up, and there’s Eddie Coltrane standing in front of me. For a second I feel like I’m floating, I’m so relieved, and then it sinks in who it is. Being alone up on the MacLivens’ mountain with Eddie Coltrane is only a little better than being here with April’s daddy.
Suddenly I hope April don’t show up. I’m pretty tall, but I ain’t no match for Eddie Coltrane, and I’d die if he hurt her.
“Evening,” Eddie says. He’s looking right over me, like I ain’t even there, rooting around in the dirt by his feet where he could kick me real easy. Anyway, it’s plain weird that Eddie Coltrane would say anything that cordial to me. Maggie the Hag, he calls me. I think maybe he’s trying to get me to answer him all friendly-like, and then he’ll laugh that low, mean way he does when he’s got some poor git cornered, and a bunch of his football team buddies will jump out from behind the trees and gang bang me. So I don’t say nothing back. No point in being laughed at on top of everything else. But I do stand up, out of reach of them big feet of his.
Then Eddie says, “No, sir.” I frown at him, cause I ain’t asked him nothing, and though it’d be just like Eddie Coltrane to say I ain’t pretty enough to be a girl so I must be a boy, he sure wouldn’t ever call me anything as polite as “sir.” Besides, he still ain’t looking at me, even though we’re nearly the same height and I’m standing right in front of him. So I stare a little harder at Eddie’s eyes, and then I turn and look where he’s looking, sort of off over my left shoulder.
Then I whoop and duck behind Eddie—like he’d ever protect me—cause some stranger is standing on the flat rock where I was just sitting. I know he’s a stranger cause he’s the handsomest man I’ve ever seen, so handsome you couldn’t ever forget him. They don’t come that handsome in Bolton County. Not even Eddie’s that handsome, not even with all his Brylcreem hair and his fancy clothes.
Maybe the stranger’s giving Eddie handsome tips. That makes me snicker. Ordinarily Eddie would make fun of the way I laugh, but he don’t so much as turn his head. “Yes, sir, I done it just like you told me,” he says, but he don’t sound quite like himself, and it hits me that Eddie Coltrane is frightened.
Suddenly I think maybe I’d of been smarter to stay on my knees, where the stranger might not see me. But of course he’ll of seen me already, when I was sitting there on the flat rock whistling like an idiot.
“Who you talking to, Eddie?” I whisper in his ear. I figure he might not realize it’s me, being preoccupied with the stranger and all, and he might go ahead and answer, like a reflex. But he don’t say a word, like he don’t even hear me.
All of a sudden I remember April, and I steal a look at my watch, glad the moon is so bright tonight. She’s almost an hour late. She ain’t never this late, unless she ain’t coming at all, and that always means her daddy’s been beating on her. My gut ties itself in a knot, and I want to run down the mountain, away from Eddie and the handsome stranger, toward April’s house to see if she’s okay. But I don’t want the stranger to notice me. So I wait for him and Eddie to finish up, telling myself that even on the worst beating nights, April’s daddy ain’t never broke anything, and when he’s sober he’s nice enough, and you can tell he more or less loves her. She’ll be hurting and bruised and probably bleeding, but she’ll be all right.
I’m trying mighty hard to reassure myself.
But my gut is all twisted up, and the longer I stand there, the worse I feel. Tonight don’t feel like every other night somehow. And he might love her when he’s sober, but when he’s drinking April’s daddy forgets all that, and one of these days he might go too far. He never has, I tell myself, but I know better. Never has don’t mean never will.
Stranger or no stranger, I turn to run. I take two steps and hit something hard and smooth and cold as ice. I yelp at the pain where my fingers and my knee hit it; then I look back, scared the stranger’s heard me, but he ain’t moved. I turn back to see what I hit and how far I got to go to get around it, but ain’t nothing there. So I pick up my foot, and I move it forward real slow, and it hits a patch of ordinary air and stops dead. I put out my hands and they hit something that ain’t there, too, something hard and smooth and cold and invisible.
That’s when I start hollering.
It’s a dumb thing to do, shouting at the top of my lungs like that, and I know it, but somehow I can’t make myself shut up. I’m panicked six ways to Sunday, and somehow hollering seems like the only thing to do. I go on for must be five minutes, till my throat hurts, and don’t neither Eddie nor that stranger budge. Don’t nobody come running up the mountain to save me, neither, though the MacLivens got to have heard me. Not even their dogs take to howling. I suddenly wonder if the stranger has killed the MacLivens and their dogs, and if he’s going to kill Eddie and me, and my hands and my knee hurt like the devil and I’m worried to death about April and I just don’t understand what’s happening. So I stop hollering and start crying.
And still don’t neither of them so much as look my way. Eddie just says, “Yes, sir,” one more time, and then he turns and takes off down the mountain, almost knocking into me on his way. But he don’t hit no wall. And when he goes crashing past the MacLiven place, making all kinds of noise, the dogs start in barking. A big whoosh of relief floods through me.
When I look back at the flat rock, the stranger’s gone.
I reach out my hand, but the invisible wall’s still there. I slide my hand across it, walking and then running, but it don’t end. Not to my right, not to my left. It don’t make no sense. None of it does.
I lay off crying long enough to take a big swig of wine, and that helps a little with the churning knot of fear in my gut, so I take another one. All this spooky stuff is making me dizzy, so I sit down right where I am and go ahead and chug down half the bottle for good measure. After that I don’t feel like crying no more, which is good, but the wine don’t take away the fear about April. I got to find me a way through that wall. I try to stand up, but instead I fall off to one side, panting like a lady about to have a baby. The trees are spinning around me, and I shut my eyes to make them stop. I’m a right fool, drinking so much wine like that when I need to be finding a way down to April. “I’m coming,” I shout, only it comes out more like a bullfrog croak. “I’m coming to you, Ape. I’m coming. I swear, as soon as I can stand up.”
I’m making little hand puppet shadows on the flat rock—the moon’s that bright tonight—when I hear her shuffling through the leaves.
“Hey, Ape,” I say, pushing myself up and walking toward the trees. “Bout time you got here. A girl could starve to death waiting on you.” I’m in a particularly fine mood, and I can’t help needling her a little. April’s always just a little bit late.
She don’t say nothing, and I get a queasy feeling in my gut. “Ape?” I say, and I start walking a little faster. “You all right? Your daddy been beating on you again?”
She walks out of the trees then, and I get a good look at her. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, April, look at your face!” I put down the bottle of wine and run over to her, but she walks past me and sits down on the rock. I pick the wine back up and hurry over to sit down beside her. “Oh, baby,” I whisper. “It ain’t never been this bad before.” One eye’s so puffed up I don’t think she can even see out of it, and her lip is busted up good, and just about her whole face is purple in the places where it ain’t crusted over from the bleeding. Her legs are bruised up where they stick out under her summer dress, and her arms, too, and one of them is broke, wrapped up in a homemade sling.
Her daddy ain’t never broke nothing before. A slick finger of fear slides up my throat.
“April,” I say. “April, look at me, honey.” But she just keeps staring out over the valley. I look where she’s looking, down at her house. Lit up like that, it looks inviting, friendly, like a normal house where normal people live. Potted geraniums on the front porch, jasmine growing up the sides. It’s too far away to see, but I know the walkway is swept clean all the way to the road. April keeps a tidy house. I always tell her she don’t have to clean for me when we move to California. We’ll do the cleaning together, I tell her. And our California house will be a normal house, where normal people live. A home.
“April,” I say again.
She still don’t say nothing or look at me. Looks like she’s going to do angry first tonight, before miserable. I screw off the cap and hold out the wine. She don’t take it. I hold it out for a while, till my arm starts getting tired. Then I put it down. I ain’t going to drink till she does, not on a night like this one.
I look back toward the valley, toward my own house. No lights on there. Doors’ll be locked, too. My folks don’t care if you stay out late, but they’ll tan your hide good if you wake up any of the little ones trying to get back in before morning. Most Fridays I sleep in the shed after seeing April home safe. I got a corner set up with an old mattress made of rags, and a couple of books I like, and a stash of cheap wine. April don’t know about the wine. Heck, she don’t know I sleep in the shed on Fridays. It would just upset her to know.
“You going to tell me what happened?” I say after a couple more minutes. April just puts her head down on her knees and starts crying.
Guess it’s going to be miserable first, after all.
“I came up here as soon as I could get away from him,” she says, all muffled through her arms and her knees and that fat lip.
“I know you did,” I say. “I didn’t mean anything about you being late. I was just teasing you. You know that.”
“I’m so sorry I wasn’t here Friday night,” April whispers. I frown, cause tonight’s Friday night, but she goes on talking. “I should of come, but he was watching me.” She’s full-out sobbing now, and I forget asking what she means about Friday night. I just want to stop her from hurting so. “If I’d of come, it wouldn’t of happened.”
“April, honey, don’t go blaming yourself,” I shush her. I’m having a real hard time not drawing her to me and holding her tight, here in the one place where I can. “You can’t help what that awful man does to you. It ain’t your fault.” I don’t say besides, if you’d of snuck out, he’d of just whomped you worse later, so it wouldn’t of mattered anyway. Course, if she’d of snuck out, he might of been passed out drunk by the time she got home, and it wouldn’t of happened, like she said.
Then I shiver at the thought of him whomping her worse than this. I open my mouth to tell her we need to think about leaving Bolton County sooner, diplomas be damned. Better a dead-end shit job for the rest of my life in California than April paralyzed for life. Or dead. Better anything than that. But she lifts her head and starts talking before I do.
“I got so much I want to tell you, Maggie. Should of told you long before now. But you know I ain’t a big talker.” She sobs, loud and heartbreaking. “Anyway, none of it matters anymore. Just one thing matters: I love you, and I will always love you, more than I love my own heart. God, Maggie, I should of been here with you.” She stands up, shaking and heaving and just as miserable as I’ve ever seen her. And that’s saying something.
“April, wait!” I holler as she turns and runs off into the trees. She ain’t never given me a speech like that. It sounds like a goodbye speech, and I think I might be sick. I jump up and take off after her, but I slam into something hard near the tree line, and I fall smack dab on my butt in the leaves. By the time I stand back up and snatch a handkerchief out of my pocket to press against my busted lip, she’s already at the MacLiven place; I hear the dogs barking as she wails on past like her heart’s breaking.
It nearly breaks my heart, too, her thinking she’s done something wrong. Course I wish she’d been here all the times she didn’t show, but I sure don’t blame her for it. Suddenly I’m on fire, mad as a hornet, balling up my fists and swinging at the air. “Someday I’m going to kill that no-good daddy of yours, I swear,” I yell as hard as I can. “I swear it. You hear me, April? He ain’t never going to lay another hand on you, I swear.”
Then, just as sudden as it came, the fire leaves me. That was mighty dumb of me, telling the whole world I’m going to kill April Burgaw’s daddy like that. Course most of the world can’t hear me, but the MacLivens can. I sit down in the leaves, tired and sad and hungry, and then I remember tonight’s terrible milestone. “Oh, April,” I say. “We got to get us out of here before something awful happens.”
And then I figure out what she was trying to tell me: her daddy’s forbid her seeing me. The broken arm is his way of saying he really means it.
I crawl back over to the wine on my hands and knees and sit there on the flat rock drinking it down, watching the moon and the stars and wondering if in California there really is a home for April and me, a real home like the word’s supposed to mean, where nobody hits anybody and folks are just happy to see two decent people in love.
I’m lying on my back on the flat rock with my left eye scrunched tight and my hand like a telescope in front of my right eye, looking at the full moon, bright as I’ve ever seen it. I’m about to switch eyes when I hear her shuffling through the leaves. I sit up and turn toward the trees.
“You got the munchies, April?” It ain’t the way I normally say hey to her, but I’m real hungry. “I got the wine, like always.” I’m already screwing off the cap. I’m suddenly real thirsty, too.
But it ain’t April walking out of the trees. It’s Mattie Rae and Carla Ann, and they’re looking around like they’re scared a bear is going to jump out and eat them. Carla Ann keeps smoothing the front of her dress, the way she does when she’s nervous.
“This the right place, you think?” she says.
“Yeah,” Mattie Rae says, nodding her head. “This is just the way April said it looked. See, there’s the flat rock, over there.”
I don’t say nothing at first, cause I ain’t too happy about April telling Carla Ann and Mattie Rae about our special place. I mean, it’s okay with me if other folks come up here sometimes, heck, it ain’t like the place is a big secret or nothing, but it irks me that April’s invited other folks to horn in on our evening, in the one place where we can be alone together.
Maybe Mattie Rae and Carla Ann feel the same way, cause they don’t say nothing to me, neither, but just stand there looking uncomfortable.
“It ain’t going to get no easier, Mat,” Carla Ann whispers. “Let’s just do it and get it over with.”
Do what? Suddenly I get a queasy feeling in my gut, like maybe April is breaking up with me and she’s sent these two to tell me. But no, that ain’t right; nobody knows about us, and April sure ain’t going to tell nobody, not here in Bolton County. I mean, Carla Ann and Mattie Rae are all right, and I guess they’re sort of friends, but you tell them something and pretty soon everybody knows it. And maybe they’d be okay about us, but sure as shinola the rest of our redneck town wouldn’t. April knows that as good as me.
Mattie Rae clears her throat and nods and takes Carla Ann’s hand in hers. That throws me for a loop, and for a minute I think maybe April and me aren’t as alone as we’ve always thought we are. I stand up and walk toward them just as they start walking toward me. Carla Ann pulls Mattie Rae to a stop about a yard away from me, and I stop, too.
“So what’s this ain’t gonna get no easier?” I ask. “Go ahead, spit it out.” I’m kind of excited, like it’s Christmas Eve.
“This is silly,” Mattie Rae says. “She can’t hear us, nohow.”
“Now Mattie Rae, you know that handsome man said she could,” Carla Ann says. “So just go ahead and say it.”
“How come I got to be the one to say it?” Mattie Rae says, pulling her hand out of Carla Ann’s. “Why don’t you say it, if you’re so keen to get it said?” Carla Ann just looks at her.
“What the heck y’all talking about, I can’t hear you?” I say. “I’m standing right here in front of you. Just say it, for chrissakes.” I unscrew the wine—it don’t look like April is coming—and take a long swig. I don’t offer them none. Not yet, not till I hear what they got to say.
Then I wonder what they mean about a handsome man. I don’t know no handsome men. Couple of good-looking boys, sure, but no men. Life in Bolton County sucks a body dry pretty fast. But before I can ask about him, Mattie Rae starts talking a mile a minute.
“All right, all right. Hey, Maggie, if you’re here, me and Carla Ann got something to tell you. We’re awful sorry about what happened. Thing is, we saw you and April kiss one time, and I mean, if that’s your thing, well, okay, but we done something stupid and talked about it at lunch one day. And Eddie Coltrane and his gang heard us talking, and we tried to say ‘oh, nothing,’ but you know how he is, and so we ended up kind of telling him about y’all kissing.” Mattie Rae stops for a breath, and when she goes on, her voice is quavery. “Oh, Maggie, we’re so sorry. He’s probably the one left that note for April’s daddy, saying it was you she was sneaking out with at night, what made him tear her up so good this last time. And, you know, all the rest.” She waves her hand around. “If we hadn’t gone blabbing our mouths, none of it would have happened.” Mattie Rae is outright sobbing now. Carla Ann is sniffling, too, but she comes over and puts an arm around Mattie Rae and shushes her.
My head is spinning. Eddie Coltrane knows about me and April. April’s daddy knows about us. Oh, mercy. I feel six kinds of sick. The sky is crashing down. I don’t even say anything to the girls when they turn around and walk off. I just take a long, long chug on the wine.
We can’t wait till graduation no more. Me and April are going to have to leave right away. First thing in the morning, we’re going to pack up and hit the road, before anything really terrible can happen. If something terrible ain’t already happening, right this minute. Mattie Rae said April’s daddy had whomped her good. That must be why she didn’t come tonight. What if he does worse before morning? What if he kills her? I got to get her out of there right this very second.
I take maybe four steps toward the trees before I stumble and fall. My stomach feels awful and I know I’m going to be sick. My head is reeling and I can’t even handle being on my hands and knees, so I lay down right there in the dirt and close my eyes and wait for the world to stop spinning. And all the while my heart is bonking like a wild thing, crazy scared I ain’t going to make it to April in time.
I’m lying on the flat rock, swinging my legs over the edge, looking up at the stars. Except I can’t hardly see no stars, what with the moon being so bright. I’m just about to go take a wee in the woods when I hear her shuffling through the leaves.
“Hey, Ape,” I call out. “I’ll be right back, you go on and open up the wine.” Then I stop dead in my tracks and my stomach does sixty million flips, cause it ain’t April. It’s Eddie Coltrane.
What the heck is Eddie Coltrane doing up here?
I tell myself to stay calm. Maybe he’s coming up here with his latest conquest. Plenty people know about this place, no reason Eddie can’t use it now and then. The MacLiven dogs don’t even bark anymore, less you make a lot of noise.
I shiver; me and April are lucky we ain’t never run into Eddie up here before.
I’m already out of the moonlight, in the shadow of the trees, and Eddie don’t look like he’s seen me or heard me. Don’t know how he missed hearing me, but I’m glad. I stand there, still as a stone, and wait for him and the girl to get hot and heavy so they don’t hear me sneaking off. I left the wine over on the flat rock. Guess that’ll be my present to them.
But Eddie just stands there and looks around, real uncertain-like, and nobody else comes out of the woods behind him.
“Maggie,” he says. I near about pee my pants. He’s heard me after all, and he knows it’s me. How’s he know it’s me? Cause I said Ape? Does he recognize my voice?
Suddenly I hope April ain’t coming after all. I’d die if he hurt her.
Then I realize he called me Maggie. Not Maggie the Hag, just Maggie.
“I got something to tell you,” he says. “I hope you can hear me. He says you can.”
“Course I can hear you,” I say, forgetting I wasn’t going to let Eddie know exactly where I’m standing. “He, who?”
“I done something that turned out bad by accident,” Eddie says, “and then he said I had to do something else bad, on purpose, to make it good. I know that don’t make no sense, but that’s what he said.”
“No, that don’t make no sense,” I say. I don’t add, but it sounds like the kind of self-serving horseshit you’d come up with.
“I swear, Maggie, I never meant for you to die. I swear it.”
That sounds so ridiculous that I forget all about being afraid. “Eddie Coltrane, what the heck are you talking about?” I say. “I ain’t dead, you can see that for yourself.” I step into the moonlight so he can see me. But he don’t turn his head to look at me; he just keeps on staring out over the flat rock.
“But he said killing you by accident was worse than killing you on purpose, cause when you kill somebody on purpose it don’t leave no unfinished business. That’s what he said.” Eddie sounds like he don’t understand what he’s saying anymore than I do. “And he said I had to do this thing to clean up the unfinished business, and then I had to come tell you, so you could rest in peace.” He’s working real hard not to cry, I can see that. I get a real queasy feeling in my gut. I ain’t never seen anything that could get Eddie Coltrane close to tears.
“What thing, Eddie?” I say. “What did you do?” I think I might be sick. Tell me it wasn’t April.
Then Eddie flinches and stands straighter. “Yes, sir,” he says.
I look at the flat rock, where Eddie’s looking, and some stranger is standing on it. He’s the handsomest man I’ve ever seen, which is maybe a trick of the moonlight, but mercy, he is breathtaking, even to me.
The stranger points at me, and Eddie turns his body to face me, but his eyes are kind of searching all around, like he can’t see me. But that stranger sees me. He has eyes that are dark and bright at the same time, like they’re lit up from inside, and I can tell he knows exactly where I am. The churning in my gut settles some, like I feel safer with him there, even though that don’t make no sense.
“Me and some buddies come up here last Friday,” Eddie says. “We heard from Mattie Rae and Carla Ann that you and April were dykes. Tad MacLiven said y’all come up here a lot, so we spiked your wine and come up here to watch. That stuff in your wine was supposed to make y’all horny. We were going to take pictures of y’all making whoopee and put them up at school.”
Eddie says it like it’s a normal thing to do. I sway on my feet, and I can’t hardly breathe. We’re ruined. If Eddie knows, then the whole school knows. April’s daddy will know. April! Oh, Lord, her daddy’ll kill her. I got to go get her out of there. I turn and run toward the trees, but I don’t get ten steps before I smack into something hard. It’s so hard I bust my lip, and I start to cry cause of the pain, and cause of the whole horrible mess me and April are in.
Eddie goes on talking while I pull a handkerchief out of my pocket and press it to my lip.
“But April didn’t show that night, and me and the guys got bored waiting, so we left. Then you drank the whole damn bottle of wine by yourself, and you died.” Eddie says it like it’s my fault for not knowing the bottle was spiked. Then my brain catches up with his words.
“I died?” I shout. “I died? What do you mean, I died?”
“When you didn’t show up at school the next day, I come back up here to see, and there you was, dead as a doornail on that rock. I drug you off over there—” he points behind me, into the woods “—but I couldn’t dig a decent hole, so I drug you back and rolled you off the edge.” He points back at the flat rock, where the stranger is standing.
“I died?” I holler. I’m staring at the stranger, and he’s staring at me. He nods.
“Then this here gentleman showed up.” Eddie clears his throat. “And he said his name was Death, and he was coming to collect you, but you couldn’t leave till you were at peace.” Eddie shifts his weight, like he’s getting uncomfortable again. “And seeing as I was the person who killed you,” he says, in a tone like he don’t agree with those words but ain’t going to argue with the person who said them, “I had to be the one to make things right so you’d be at peace.”
“What about April?” I shout. Suddenly I feel cold. Her daddy is going to kill her, if he ain’t already. “Is April dead, too?”
I hadn’t realized I believe what Eddie’s saying till I say that. I’m still staring at the stranger, and he shakes his head. I feel so relieved, I start crying again. I bring my hand up to wipe my face, and I can partway see the ground through it. It scares me so much I holler. But Eddie goes right on talking like he don’t hear me.
“Mr. Death, there, said you was worried April’s daddy would hurt her too much one day. And the only way to free you was to make it so he couldn’t hurt her no more.” Eddie’s voice is starting to shake. “He said I didn’t have to kill him, cause it wasn’t Angus Burgaw’s time yet.”
I’m holding both hands in front of me, in my shadow, then up higher, in the moonlight. I can see the sky through them, and the stranger. Death. Death is beautiful to look at, and not scary at all. Not like Eddie Coltrane and Angus Burgaw.
Eddie’s stopped talking. “What did you do, Eddie?” I say, to get him going again. But of course Eddie can’t hear me. I’ve finally figured that out.
Eddie takes a deep breath and starts back up. “He said I had to wait three days, so he could visit April, and some other folks, and they could say their goodbyes and confess their sins to you. Then I had to knife Mr. Burgaw in the back, in one particular place. Mr. Death showed me exactly where, and he made me practice on himself. Over and over.” Eddie sounds like he’s going to be sick.
“Say their goodbyes?” I say. “April came to say goodbye to me? April knows I’m dead?” I start crying again. I’d give everything to see April again, and she’s already been to see me, and I don’t remember it. It ain’t fair.
Then that makes me kind of laugh while I’m still crying, cause being dead sure trumps any other kind of unfair there is. Like I’m worrying about a stubbed toe when a bear’s just clawed off my right arm.
“It was terrible,” Eddie whispers. “All that blood. And he screamed, like he said Mr. Burgaw was going to scream when I did it, so I wouldn’t get spooked.” And then Eddie Coltrane really and truly starts to cry. “Mr. Burgaw opened the door up for me and let me in and gave me a beer, and I stabbed him in the back and left him there on the floor in his own blood. I know I ain’t the nicest person around, but shit, Maggie, I ain’t never wanted to hurt nobody like that.”
I’m starting to understand. “You paralyzed him, Eddie? So he can’t hurt April no more?” My hands are just a sort of wispy shimmer now, like the air over the roads in town on a hot day.
“Mr. Death said Mr. Burgaw wouldn’t remember what had happened, and I wouldn’t get caught, as long as I came up here and told you afterward. And one more thing he said I had to tell you.” Eddie clears his throat and wipes his face. “I got to make sure nobody hurts April long as she’s in Bolton County.” Then he looks at Death. “Am I done, sir?”
Death nods at him, and I ain’t never seen nobody look so relieved in my life. Eddie makes a little sort of bow, and then a salute, like he ain’t sure what the proper etiquette is for saying goodbye to Death, and then he turns and takes off crashing down the mountain. The MacLiven dogs start in howling about five seconds later.
April’s going to be okay. I take a deep breath and let it out, and it’s like all my worries just flow on out of me, too.
All I ever wanted in this life is for April to be safe.
I look at Death, and he smiles the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen and holds out his arms to me. I walk over to him and he wraps me up tight in those arms, and I feel warm and safe. I feel like I’m home.
This story originally appeared in Scared: Ten Tales of Horror.