Fiction by Bobby Mathews
Caleb White has been dragging around behind me ever since I chained his body to an anvil and dropped the whole mess into the deep water near the base of the railroad trestle that spans Buxahatchee Creek.
Ain’t no telling where the little bastard will show up. Last week, he was behind me in line at the Pic-N-Go while I paid for gas. His flickering ghost appears in the grimy plate glass of empty stores as I walk around downtown. He lay next to me in bed in the dark every night for three months, the cords in his rotting neck rasping against the rusty logging chain I looped around it before I sent him down into the black, cold water.
I tell myself that it’s all in my head. But if that’s true, why were the sheets damp on the other side of the bed?
I felt the cold and clammy touch of wet chain links on the back of my neck on the night Taylor Davis finally let me get her into bed. As my lips skated down the slender line of her thigh, her back arched with readiness and need. Then there was the shiver of wet steel at the small of my back and the smell of slowly decaying water in my nostrils. I rolled away from Taylor, gasping, every last bit of lust and excitement leaving my body like geese headed south for the winter. It took a couple of seconds for Taylor to catch up, but the moment was over.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with you,” Taylor said after she rolled off of the bed and started to dress. Nothing sexy now, just a striptease in reverse. Taylor stared me down while she put on her bra and shirt, her mouth a thin line of frustration and disappointment.
“People get over things, Mike. They let things go, they move on. I’m talking about people here. Normal people.”
“Yeah,” I said. I couldn’t look at her. “Other people.”
When Taylor walked out, Caleb crouched in a cobwebbed corner and grinned his lipless yellow smile at me, a glistening length of chain clotted with rust dangling from a finger.
He never says anything. He doesn’t have to.
I guess I’d known Caleb most of his life. His family moved down here from somewhere outside Cullman, real white trash. They lived in a single-wide trailer, and you could never tell how many of the Whites there were, maybe ten of them with about seventeen teeth between the whole bunch and Caleb hogging four or five teeth all to himself.
No surprise that Caleb dropped out of high school. I guess a lot of us do. There ain’t a whole lot to do in Chilton County but grow peaches and cook methamphetamine. We used to go fish the Buxahatchee, but the water’s brown and ugly and dead thanks to the chemical companies treating it like their own personal shitter.
Caleb cooked meth at a canted-over trailer and chased girls at the Skate Shack, only place that’s left around here to go since the movie house closed. We all hung out there, country boys playing pool and eyeing the girls eyeing us, everyone alert to the possibility that someone might be looking right at them. The music was loud and the multicolored lights strobed relentlessly, giving the place and everyone in it a faintly madhouse look.
My brother Victor was two years younger than me, and everybody made a fuss over him. He had long, dark brown hair that fell in natural waves over the back of his collar, and he had these green eyes that always looked faintly amused. His teeth weren’t perfect, but that just made him look human instead of like a Greek god.
Was Caleb jealous of him? I guess so, because Victor was handsome and Caleb was not, but all I remember is how they circled around each other like a pair of big cats, wary and ready to fight over the slightest perceived insult. It all came to a head that night at the Skate Shack when Caleb tried to drag Cady Alberson out to the parking lot with him.
Cady wasn’t much to look at herself, but to a lot of the boys in the trailer parks around town, she was ol’ Miss Reliable. But that night when Caleb wanted to take her out to the parking lot, she didn’t want to go. She didn’t want to go just as bad as he wanted her to come, and they ended up in a shouting match near the entrance. Victor was shooting pool and I was shooting the shit, but I knew my brother was going to step in. Maybe I knew it before he did. Victor may have been the younger brother, but he was the leader. I walked where he walked and watched everything he did.
I pushed myself away from the wall of the building where I was talking to Taylor, but Victor straightened up from the table where he’d been lining up the three-ball for the side pocket.
He tossed me the cue and told me to take care of it for him.
I wanted to tell him that he didn’t have to get involved. But Victor knew that already, just like he knew that the tension between himself and Caleb White had been building and building, and that at some point the genie would come out of the bottle and the fight would be on. By the time Victor got to them, Caleb gripped Cady’s arm so tight that his knuckles were white.
Victor didn’t wait around. He didn’t say a word to Caleb, didn’t tell him to let the girl go. My brother was always a straight-ahead kind of guy. He hit Caleb in the mouth with his right fist, and one of that boy’s few candy-corn colored teeth went flying. Caleb went down and bounced right back up like a rubber ball. He charged at Victor with his head down, and Victor put a knee right into the middle of Caleb’s face. It pulverized his nose, and he stood up with both hands plastered to his ruined face.
Victor hit him again, and this time Caleb went backwards and stumbled against the Skate Shack door. One more shot with the side of his fist against Caleb’s temple, and the boy went through the door and fell to the weedy and cracked concrete parking lot.
You could have knocked Cady Alberson over with a feather. Her eyes were full of tears, shining in that ugly yellow fluorescent light. She might as well have been carrying a sign with MY HERO in bold letters and surrounded by hearts and stars.
“You good?” Victor asked her. She didn’t say anything, just clasped her arms around his waist and squeezed the hell out of him. He gave her a small pat on the back and then gently disengaged himself.
“He shouldn’t have done that,” Taylor said as she watched Victor come back and take the cue from me. He dropped the three in the side pocket but whiffed on the seven in the corner. His hands, the knuckles skinned from Caleb’s bony face, trembled. I put my hand on his shoulder when he came by, and it was like touching a marble statue.
Afterward, Taylor and I sat outside in the quiet, humid night and slapped idly at mosquitoes. Her shoulder was brushing mine. We weren’t quite holding hands, but weren’t quite not holding hands, either. We seemed to be drifting closer, like planets whose gravitational pull had aligned.
“Your brother should have minded his own business,” she said, and that knocked me out of orbit and back to reality. I leaned away from her. I had been in love with Taylor since the second grade, and usually the only thing we fought over was college football. But Victor was off-limits.
She felt the connection between us break, a nearly tangible snap. I still didn’t say anything.
“I’m just saying. Bad things happen to people who mess with the Whites. They don’t forget and they don’t forgive. You remember Alex Sadler.”
I did. Alex was a little older than us, and he had burned up when he missed a curve along Dug Holler Road and crashed into a tree. By the time the cops and the firefighters had arrived on the scene, there wasn’t nothing left of him to save.
“That was an accident,” I said.
“You’re so innocent sometimes,” Taylor said. “It’s sweet.”
She tried to move closer to me, but the moment was gone.
The word around town was that Caleb White or one of his family had done something, but no one knew exactly what. He’d bled the brakes on Alex’s car. He’d cut the fuel line to make the car burn hotter and faster. Caleb never said anything about it, just kind of smirked around whenever anyone talked about Alex, like he knew the punchline to a joke that no one else had figured out yet. Victor and I always thought Caleb was just trying to act inscrutable to make himself look tougher and meaner.
But the word got around. You didn’t mess with the Whites unless you wanted war. And now Victor had started one. For the right reasons, maybe, but there was no way Caleb White would look at it that way. Victor had embarrassed him and left him laying bloody and beaten.
When I drove us home that night, Victor kept looking in the passenger mirror. Every time we saw lights behind us, he tensed. It must have been contagious, because my own jaw was hard with flexed muscle by the time we dropped Taylor off at her place. I didn’t walk her to the door, didn’t try for a good night kiss. I didn’t want to leave my brother alone.
Three days later, he was gone. One night he went out and never came home. A deputy found his car pulled onto the berm with the driver’s door open and the engine still running. That was seven years ago, and Victor’s body ain’t ever been found.
Chilton County is a weird place. You’ve got flatlands, and you’ve got the very last little rolling hills that form the bottom of the Appalachians. But more than that, you’ve got rivers and creeks and swamps and bogs. There’s a million places to hide a body where no one will discover it.
My brother Victor is out there somewhere.
For the first year that Victor was considered missing, Caleb White played it cool. He didn’t say or do anything to arouse suspicion. He’d been questioned by the county sheriff, but his mushmouth family lied him an alibi so he walked out of the sheriff’s office a free man.
They dragged the creek and brought out cadaver dogs. But there was never any sign of Victor’s body. He was considered missing until this year, when a judge finally declared him dead. Seven years in the hell of knowing what had happened, but not knowing it for sure, either.
Everyone knew that Caleb had killed my brother. We didn’t have a body, so we couldn’t have a funeral. We held a vigil instead, an earthbound constellation of candles glowing in the dark like they would guide Victor’s wayward soul home. It broke Mama, the uncertainty of what had happened to her younger boy. She died six months later, a shell of the vivacious and funny woman she’d once been. At least we had a funeral for Mama.
Another body to add to Caleb White’s ledger.
Taylor came to the vigil for Victor and held a candle high for my brother. But the torch that I’d carried in my heart for her since we were little had seemed to burn itself out. I didn’t speak to her that night, even though she hung around after everyone else had gone, trying to catch my eyes with hers. I didn’t want to talk, though. I didn’t care right then if I never talked to another person.
I became a ghost myself, haunting the Buxahatchee. I fished sometimes, even in that evil and poisoned water, but what I mostly did was pole up and down the banks of the creek all the way to the mouth of the Coosa River. I’d convinced myself that Caleb had put Victor’s body in the water, and that if I got close enough to it, I’d feel my brother’s presence.
I let my beard and hair grow long. Went weeks without washing sometimes. My face was lined with exposure to the elements and ground-in dirt. I forgot to eat, and my clothes began to look like unfurled limp sails on a broken mast. I looked twenty years older than I was, and felt older than that. Nobody ever saw me around the Skate Shack anymore. I didn’t grow peaches, and I didn’t make meth. All I did was look for my brother’s body, keep my guns clean and my knife sharp.
When I saw Caleb White again, I would have to kill him. I didn’t want to do that, was afraid of him in fact. That was the secret truth that I could never say out loud. If he could kill my brother Victor, who was so special, so strong-willed and so full of life, what hope did I have?
Willow Mosses, one of the older ladies who went to church with my mother, found me one day when she was out gathering wild herbs for a poultice, and at first she didn’t know who I was.
“I ken you now,” she said when she finally recognized me through the hair and filth. “Michael Fagan, ain’t it? Lost your brother and your sweet ma last year.”
I nodded. I didn’t trust myself to speak. Hearing someone else acknowledge my loss felt like a dagger through my soul. Her voice was full of pity and something else.
“I heard that fella Caleb White talkin’ about it, you know. Bragging when they thought no one could hear ‘em. Him and his cousin Willard laid for your brother, Willard hunched over on the side of the highway like he was hurt. When Victor came along, he stopped to help.”
“You know how he was. He would help anyone. But there were two of them then, and they took him.”
I took off my hat and wiped a skinny forearm across my brow.
“Do you know what they did with the body?”
Those were the first words that I’d spoken to another person in weeks, maybe months, and my voice sounded like a rusty hinge on a door that’s been long disused.
Willow couldn’t answer me. She didn’t know that part. But she had given me something important. She had given me certainty. Where before there had been an overwhelming sense of suspicion that Caleb White had killed my brother, now I knew for sure.
I felt rage ignite like a hungry fire in the pit of my belly, and that fire illuminated the fear I felt. At last I understood that I was wrong. I was not afraid of Caleb White. I had been, until this moment, afraid that I would make a mistake, afraid that I would kill a man based on suspicion and dislike and nothing else.
Caleb had moved out of the family trailer to a slapdash wooden cabin fifty yards off of a meander of the creek where he lived alone. Willow Mosses told me that his family had finally gotten tired of him and kicked him out. Or maybe it was the other way around. It’s been so long that it’s hard to remember now. But I do remember that the bank of the creek below his place was high, maybe ten feet above the placid surface of the Buxahatchee. I floated down every night for a week, but I couldn’t see his shack. One night when the moon was high and bright like a beacon above me, I tied my jon boat to the root of a cypress tree and climbed, using exposed roots as handholds and finally hauling myself over the lip of the little cliff onto the spongy green grass of what passed for Caleb’s yard.
I just meant to look around. The place was ugly and old with a couple of broken-down vehicles parked haphazardly like soldiers left on the battlefield where they’d fallen. The trees looked like they had never been pruned, and the limbs hung heavy, some broken off from the gravity of their own weight, others with their leaves dragging the ground. The cat-piss smell of methamphetamine cooking was heavy in the air. A generator sat inert alongside a couple of uncapped five-gallon gas cans that appeared to be empty.
A small, narrow building squatted behind Caleb’s shack. I knew what it was, and I made my way to it, my steps silent in the soft black loam. As I got closer, my nose confirmed that this was the outhouse. Sooner or later, Caleb would make a trip. It would be the last one.
I don’t remember taking my gun out. I carried the gun all the time, reassured by the comfortable weight of it in my back pocket. I flicked the safety off and waited. My palm grew sweaty, and I switched the gun to my left and wiped my right hand on the dirty thigh of my jeans.
The wind whispered in the leaves, and I thought I could hear my brother’s voice coming to me from somewhere far away, a whisper forgotten almost as soon as it reached my ears. But I knew Victor, and I knew that he wouldn’t want me to let his killer go free.
I don’t know how long I waited there in the dark. Long enough that Caleb’s staggering, drunken steps toward the outhouse startled me. He had a flashlight with him, and its beam cut through the dark and swept the yard. I stayed hidden behind the outhouse. My hand tightened on the gun and it was only through sheer panic that I was able to stop myself from squeezing off a shot as he approached. Instead, I stayed still and silent. Heard the shithouse door open and close. Felt the creak of the board as he settled in to take care of his business.
Every step then was careful, every stretch of my foot fraught with the danger of breaking a twig or rolling on a stone hidden by rich dirt or dark shadow as I moved to the side of the little building. But Caleb was too drunk and too busy to notice anything that might be amiss.
He finished. The outhouse door swung open and he headed for his shack. One long step put me directly behind him. I didn’t hesitate, didn’t even think about it, just put a bullet in his head.
He fell. The boogeyman was dead.
It wasn’t enough.
I dragged his body to the bank. More work than it sounds like. Caleb wasn’t a big man by any stretch, but a hundred and seventy pounds of dead weight is heavy. And that soft loamy dirt that helped me silently creep up on Caleb’s shack? It was the enemy now, bogging his body down, slowing me. Every night sound that I heard — every cricket, every cicada, every hooting owl — reminded me that I was not alone out here. Someone could be creeping up on me the same way that I had sneaked up on Caleb.
Once I even whirled around, dropping Caleb’s feet with a soft thud, convinced that someone was behind me, between me and the salvation of the Buxahatchee.
There was no one. When I got to the edge of the bank, I lowered Caleb’s body as far as I could toward the jon boat and dropped him. The carcass made a muffled gonging sound when it hit the boat, half over the side and nearly capsizing the damned thing. I worked my way down the drop, again using exposed roots for hand- and foot-holds.
I made two more stops that night, stealing the logging chain and anvil from a guy I used to know.
We floated down to the train trestle, and you know what happened next. They’ve never found his body either. And they never will.
The trouble is that Caleb’s ghost won’t leave me alone. He’s nearly more irritating in the next world than he was in this one. He killed my brother seven years ago, and it’s been five years since I took Caleb’s life — or whatever passed for it — in revenge.
People have their suspicions, I suppose. But I’ve never told a soul about what I did, and I’ll keep it inside me until I find my own grave. The Whites give me the eyeball sometimes if I see them around, but I stay away. I did what I had to do. And I don’t regret it.
I started coming around people again a couple of years ago. Shaved my beard, got a haircut. Started eating again. I look almost like the boy I was, except for the deep-grooved lines that bracket my face and the gray hair that makes me look older than twenty-eight. Or maybe it’s the look in my eyes that I see in the mirror. My eyes are gray, intense. Taylor says they’re intimidating. I don’t look in the mirror often. When I do, my reflected eyes look cold and brutal and unfeeling. Predator eyes. Shark eyes.
Caleb’s ghost has been with me every step of the way, though. And I think I know why.
Earlier today, I ran into Willow Mosses again. She was in town buying what she called her “necessaries,” and I was on my way to see Taylor, my hands full of flowers for the occasion. Willow and I were in line together at the Piggly Wiggly, the supermarket my Mama used to call the Hoggly Woggly.
She told me that I looked good. That my mama would be proud, and Victor would, too. Then she leaned toward me and I canted my head to hear her better
“I guess you heard about Caleb’s cousin,” she said, her voice pitched low so only the two of us could hear. “Got married, he did. Got a baby, fat little happy thing that squirms and laughs fit to bust.”
The thought of Caleb’s cousin getting off scot-free made me go cold inside. I felt like the ground after the first hard freeze. I had held Caleb White to account, settled his check for good. But he wasn’t the only one, was he?
I left the flowers on Taylor’s doorstep and left without knocking.
Then I went and got my gun, loaded it carefully, and put the boat in the water. I floated down the creek with my mind clear and the understanding that my work wasn’t finished. In the prow of my boat, shimmering in the gentle breeze, Caleb White’s ghost stared at me and didn’t say anything. Maybe it was my imagination, a trick of the light and the dancing shadows that dappled the brown water, but I thought I saw him nod once in satisfaction.
I don’t want Caleb to be lonely in the afterlife anymore. It’s time to give him some company.