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The wiper blades swung maniacally across the windshield as rain and hail poured down. James leaned forward, peering across the steering wheel into the pale green light of the storm. He had known it was coming the moment he stepped out into the heavy Florida air at Tallahassee Airport that morning. He and his wife, Cynthia, had flown out from New York for his uncle’s funeral and rented a car to reach the backwater town where his mother’s family had once lived.
An hour later, the storm broke. James slowed the car to 30 and sat back in the seat, bringing one hand to rest on the shifter. Cynthia put her hand on his and smiled.
The rain had mostly stopped when they pulled into a service station outside Chipley. James got out to look around and stretch his legs while Cynthia lay asleep in the passenger seat. There was another gas station across from the one he had parked at and two fast-food restaurants on the other corners. The thought of coffee occurred to him, and he went inside the gas station. A tired electronic chime announced him, but the clerk didn’t look up from his phone. James went to the coffee station and poured himself something that tasted like burnt peanuts. The clerk rang him up without speaking, and James handed him his credit card. The door chime once more rang as he left, and the clerk went back to his phone.
Cynthia was awake when he went back to the car, scrolling through her own phone. He tapped on the window and pointed to the convenience store. Cynthia looked up, shook her head and mouthed, “Nah.” James got back in the driver’s seat and merged back onto the highway.
Puddles spotted the funeral home parking lot, quickly evaporating in the July sun. James spotted a pale blue scrub jay picking among the mulch of the landscaping and, feeling nostalgic, wondered in vain why it reminded him of elementary school.
A sombre employee asked which service they were attending and held the door open, directing them to the last room on the left and inviting them to refreshments in the dining room. Cynthia took James’s hand in her own as they made their way quietly down the hall.
Standing in the threshold, James surveyed the crowd for any familiar face. Finding none, he moved towards the casket.
To his surprise, it was open – he must not have been in the water long. His uncle lay poised, as though patiently awaiting the end of these formalities.
The man inside looked older than he expected and was so gaunt that his skin appeared taut, the lips straining to cover his teeth.
James reached to touch his uncle’s sinewed hands but hesitated and placed his own hands upon the edge of the casket instead. He tried to recall some fond memory that might rekindle his love for the dead man that lay before him, but truthfully James hadnt known him well. The memories he did have were of a violent drunk who would not hesitate to discipline his children or the children of others. Feeling foolish, all James could muster was a quiet amen.
There was no receiving line of friends or family (his cousins were nowhere to be seen), and James thought that perhaps he should initiate one. Looking around at the small segregated pockets of people and listening to the low murmur of their conversations, he abandoned the thought. He and Cynthia briefly toured the scant memorials that had been displayed before they made their way to the dining hall.
Again, James looked around the room and this time spotted his cousins sitting at a table by themselves. James took his wife’s hand and led her to the table.
Eric was James’s age, and they had been close in childhood. Jane was three years younger, and James remembered her as quiet and reserved. It appeared not much had changed.
Eric stood up and shook James’s hand. Jane remained where she sat.
“Thanks for coming, it means a lot to us.”
“Of course, I’m sorry we couldn’t make it sooner.”
Eric waved off the apology and gestured for them to take a seat.
“Y’all want anything,” Eric asked, indicating to his own cup. “Coffee, tea?”
“I’m alright, thanks.” James said and turned to Cynthia, who smiled warmly and shook her head.
An uncomfortable silence followed.Attempting to break it, James asked, “Is there anything we can do to help?”
“No, thank you, everything is pretty well taken care of. We’re just going to wrap up here, then head back to our place and start clearing some stuff out.”
James knew their dad’s place was a trailer in an oak grove on the banks of the Choctawhatchee River outside Brixton.
In the sixties, when Hurricane Betsy swept through, the river flooded and washed out the trailer park where James’s uncle lived. Most of his neighbours left and never came back, but his uncle was stubborn, making him one of the only inhabitants left among the old oak trees.
“Let us help. We’ll meet you at your dad’s place, give you a hand, maybe have something to eat.”
“There isn’t much left to do, but the company sounds nice,” Eric said. Jane only sat staring at her untouched cup of tea as before.
James and Cynthia checked in to the local chain hotel, having an hour or so to kill before heading to his uncle’s. They dumped their bags on the floor and collapsed onto the bed.
They awoke half an hour later, showered, and changed into more casual clothes. James stood by the door with one hand on the handle, watching Cynthia put on her shoes. Ten years into their marriage, he still loved watching her do the most ordinary things. She zipped the back of a suede boot and fixed her hair in the mirror one last time.
“Ready?” he asked.
James drove them out under a slowly fading sun. They rolled leisurely through the oak grove’s winding dirt roads with the sound of crickets drifting in on the humid evening air.
The trailer was exactly how he remembered it, if not a little faded. It was white with pale blue shutters and a matching blue lattice skirt along the base. Garbage was piled up along the front, and a barbeque sat with some patio furniture in the yard, all of it rusted and webbed with the neglect of years.
James parked on a dead patch of lawn like his family always did, and let out a sigh before heaving himself out of the car. The property was hemmed on all sides by scrub and trees. He wandered across the yard and found the old path down to the river. He had heard his uncle had wandered, intoxicated, to the river’s edge and fallen in. It was said his cousin Eric heard a splash and went to investigate, and found his father only moments too late. James was surprised to hear it, as he remembered his uncle as a strong swimmer; but he was not surprised to hear it had happened while drunk.
James had anticipated that his uncle’s drowning would have tainted the place more. Not that the trail and their little stretch of river wouldn’t always be haunted by it, only he was surprised to feel the comfort of familiarity that seemed to overwhelm it. He stepped onto the path, and the air grew a fragment cooler but infinitely quieter.
He remembered playing with his cousin Eric, swimming, building forts, catching frogs, slinging slingshots. Once, they had caught a pair of mice and kept them in a bucket. He remembered how one mouse ran frantic, trying to gain a purchase on the slippery plastic walls, while the other sat still but for the panting of its breath. He hadn’t felt right about the mice and asked his cousin to let them go, but he refused and teased him for asking.
James heard the trailer door open behind him, a greeting called out, and Cynthia making pleasantries. He took one last breath of childhood and went back toward the sounds of conversation.
Eric stood with his arms folded just outside the door making small talk with Cynthia. James came up to them and shook his hand. “Everything good?”
Eric shrugged. “Good as it can be. I appreciate y’all coming all the way out here.”
James waved the comment off before slapping at something that bit him. “I haven’t missed the mosquitoes.”
“Them jokers are real angry this year. Plus, they just don’t taste city folk too often.”
The three of them laughed and went inside.
Not much differed from the trailer of James’s childhood. The orange shag carpet was still worn to a flat pale pile, and the wallpaper, unchanged since the late seventies, was yellowed and sticky from cigarette smoke. The leather recliner in the living room was the same, though cracked and peeling, while the scratchy old sofa had been replaced by a fat brown leather one that stretched along the far wall. To his left, James saw the old wooden dining table and remembered blowing out birthday candles at it. Beyond the island bar to his right lay the same narrow kitchen, everything still covered in the same gummied-up linoleum.
James and Cynthia looked at each other before nodding. “Sounds good.”
Eric went into the kitchen and pulled some mismatched drinking glasses from a cupboard, some cola from the fridge, and a bottle of vodka from another cabinet. Vodka cola – his uncle’s favourite drink. James and Cynthia sat on the stools at the island and Eric stood on the other side, pouring their drinks.
“Where’s Jane?” James asked.
Eric pushed their glasses towards them. “She’s in her room. I’ll go grab her.”
“Oh no, that’s alr–” Cynthia started to protest, but Eric was already across the living room and into the hall. A second later there was knocking, and a moment after that both Eric and Jane emerged from the hall. Jane sat down in the recliner and stared into the dark TV. James looked at Cynthia, who also appeared disconcerted by Jane’s catatonic air. Cynthia picked up her glass and made her way to the living room, taking a seat on the sofa across from Jane. James followed, going to sit next to Cynthia, and Eric came last, carrying a bar stool to sit on.
The conversation moved like a shy dog. They talked about the weather and the humidity and the bugs. They talked about the town and how it changed in the ten years since James’s last visit. The Maynards still ran the grocery store, but the Taylors had sold the bowling alley, which was now occupied by a Mexican restaurant. Eric tried to turn the conversation to race but was diverted by Cynthia, who asked Jane if she was seeing anyone. Jane shook her head.
Two more vodka Cokes and the topics of discussion had grown unsustainably thin. They sat quietly, listening to the chorus of bullfrogs outside, offering polite questions as they occurred to them, like the solving of a riddle. James excused himself to use the bathroom.
“Remember where it is?”
“Holler if you get lost.”
Some laughter then, and he left.
James washed his hands in the same pale pink sink he remembered from childhood and dried his hands on a towel that was probably new but felt familiar all the same – rough and worn and stale.
As he stepped out into the hallway, he could hear the plodding of their conversation but had no desire to rejoin them. Family was important to him, but he agonized in small talk. Instead, he quietly made his way down the hall towards the bedrooms.
Eric and Jane’s rooms were on the left, as always. These he passed by undisturbed. It was the master bedroom, his uncle’s, that he was curious about. As kids, they were forbidden from venturing inside, and the only time they had (to jump on the king-sized bed), it had earned them a vicious belting.
James pushed the door open slowly, not wanting it to creak. Like everything else in the house, it was almost exactly as he remembered. It was sparse, the few furnishings dominated by the massive California king. James stepped into the room and hesitated as if his uncle’s voice might rumble out to scold him. Only quiet laughter came down the hallway. He smiled. Cynthia had a way with people.
James went past the bed to the closet and looked inside. A few shirts still hung there, along with a couple suit bags, though earlier at the viewing had been the first time James had ever seen his uncle wear one. He closed the folding door on the smell of mothballs and turned back to survey the rest of the room: long narrow windows along the far wall and a dresser against the wall at the foot of the bed. That was it. He went to the dresser and looked at his reflection in the mirror. It was unnerving, as if he was seeing through his uncle’s eyes and was caught red-handed. He shook the feeling off and started to open drawers. T-shirts, in the first drawer, some old porno magazines and a bag of marijuana underneath a pile of socks in another. James shook his head, smiling at the mundane stash. Thinking he had already hit the old man’s jackpot, he half-heartedly opened the next drawer, mostly in the interest of being thorough.
He was about to close the drawer when he noticed, tucked behind them, the edge of an old shoebox. He lifted a pile of cargo shorts and set them up on the dresser, then pulled out the box. He listened for signs that he was missed, but the conversation seemed to still be inching along without him.
James lifted the lid from the box. There were photographs inside, mostly Polaroids. At first, he thought it was another collection of pornography, though this time apparently homemade, his uncle featuring prominently in many of them; but the other participants were mostly obscured. With growing horror, he realized who they were. He slammed the lid back on. There was a sound, and he realized Eric was standing in the doorway. He looked from James to the dresser and back. James felt his heart racing. Could Eric see the box, or was it obscured by the clothes he had taken out as well? He tried to angle himself so that the bulk of it was hidden.
“Hey, sorry, I was just having a look around.”
Eric gave off nothing but a silent gaze, then came into the room, hands in his pockets.
“He was a mean old bastard.”
James turned to face him, leaning against the dresser, hoping to block the fruits of his intrusion from view.
“He was alright,” James managed to say, his voice only quivering slightly.
Eric sat on the bed, sighing. Here it comes, James thought.
“We’re talking about ordering something to eat. You hungry?” Eric asked, staring at the wall.
James’s tension slackened ever so slightly. Perhaps he hadn’t seen the box. Even if he did, maybe he didn’t even know what it was. Maybe his uncle only kept it for himself.
“Yeah, that sounds good.”
The quiver was gone from his voice now. He even managed a smile, but Eric did not look up to see it. Silently, he rose and walked out. James stuffed the contents back into the drawer and closed it, feeling stupid and lucky.
He came back to the living room and sat back down on the sofa next to Cynthia. Eric brought everyone another drink, and Jane sat quietly as before. They ordered pizza and ate it in awkward silence.
Finally, mercifully, their social obligation seeming satisfied, James and Cynthia started to hint at their departure.
“So soon?” Eric asked.
“Yeah, we better get going. We’ll see you at the service tomorrow, though.”
Something frantic seemed to come over Eric. “Why not stay for one more drink?”
“Any more, and we’ll be driving back to town with one eye closed,” Cynthia said, covering one eye in an attempt at humour. James laughed, but it failed to hide their discomfort.
Eric paced around the room, agitated, fussing with this and that, making his way to the kitchen and pouring more vodka into their glasses. “Just one more, really, you’ll be fine. Cops ain’t out much on a weekday.”
James attempted to convey some finality with his voice. “No, thanks Eric. We’ll hang out some more tomorrow after the funeral.”
Eric stopped fussing about the kitchen, his back to them. “Alright. Just hold on one second then.”
Before they could argue, he was across the living room and disappeared down the hallway. James and Cynthia looked at each other then sat back down on the sofa. Eric came back a minute later.
James saw the shotgun in Eric’s hands, but his brain didn’t register what it was until the first blast rang out. Jane looked up at her brother but did not move as the first shot sent her spinning lifeless from the chair. Blood filled the air like a fine morning mist. James could hear Cynthia’s scream through the high whine of a perforated eardrum. He saw his cousin slide the forestock back and forth, and his brain registered the shuck-shuck even without hearing. The second shot seemed muffled but still rattled his brain. He looked at what remained of his wife slumped on the sofa next to him. His body began to respond. James bolted for the door as his cousin shucked the next round into the chamber.
The police arrived the following afternoon after being alerted by a friend of James’s uncle, who had gone to check up on them when they failed to show up to the funeral. They found a man sprawled out on the lawn, the grass around him soaked in blood. When they entered, sidearms drawn, they found the two women in the living room. Room by room, they made their way through the house before coming to the master bedroom. Inside, another man lay on the bed with a shotgun in his arms and photographs piled in his lap. Everything from the jaw up was sprayed upon the wall behind him.
To investigators, the scene told a fairly straightforward story. Naked violence no longer moved them. The forgotten inhabitants of Brixton relished in the tragedy’s retelling, until finally the reporters packed up and moved on to the next one.
Eventually, the cars were towed away, and the house was boarded up. Kids started to break in, to test themselves against the ghosts, before it was decided to have it demolished. The old oak grove stands as it ever did. Countless rains have fallen since then, washing it all away, and the sandy Florida soil drinks it in.