When We Troubled The Water – Part Two
“You still want to hear all this?” Charlie asks. He’s switched to water now, offering to buy you a drink but not pushing when you decline. You motion for him to go on and he shrugs.
“They found what was left of a body on my third day,” he begins.
. . . . . .
The new bones were found by an older black man named Tyrell. His fishing rod and tackle box were still by the waterside when he brought the sheriff, just in time for the 6:45 am sunrise. Charlie hadn’t meant to be out that early, but the screaming had carried over to his B and B, jolting him out of an, admittedly, restless sleep. It was too quiet in that town. In his tiny apartment in Old City, noise never stopped. There was always someone or something contributing to the melody of the city. Apparently, he’d lived with the noise for so long that the stillness of Andrew’s Hollow made him uncomfortable.
However, the terrified screams of Tyrell had him jolting awake faster than any 3 AM ambulance siren or screaming drunk, the sound causing a coldness to seep into his belly as he changed into a flannel shirt and jeans. His third sunrise in Andrew’s Hollow dawned over the grizzly remains of a skeleton covered in tooth gouges and a lump of purplish remains mounded beside it. So much for a quaint and peaceful town, he thought. He broke through the small ring of people that had formed in order to get a better look, and immediately wished he hadn’t. The flesh was stripped clean from the bones. Tendons and cartilage were the only things holding the carcass together, the whole thing covered in a greasy red sheen. It became blatantly obvious the longer he looked that the small mound was the organs once held between the skeleton’s ribs.
It struck him in that moment that the scene was almost neatly laid out. The bones carefully aligned like an abandoned dinner table after Thanksgiving. The organs placed to the side like the less appetizing part of the meal. The neatness of the scene was what made the chill in Charlie’s gut turn to rolling nausea. It was too human. The way everything was set just so. The gouges looked small and sharp based on what he could see around the arm of the sheriff. The teeth said animal, but the scene itself, God, it was like a human had done this. He was close enough that the smell of the ripe organs were beginning to tickle his nose. When an engorged horse fly settled on what looked like the spleen, Charlie gave in to the nausea.
Yellow bile burned his throat as he hacked up what little was left of his dinner the night before.
“Charlie!” Hands were on his back, soothing and leading him away at the same time. “Breathe, honey,” they said. A few hacking breaths later and Charlie was able to croak out some words.
“Yeah, it’s me. C’mon, it’s not safe here.” The last thing he saw was the small ring of people closing in around the body.
Minutes later, he was sitting in a bright yellow booth in Nanny’s Sweets. Julie’s nails, now painted lavender and already chipping, tapped irregularly on the table. Charlie swallowed, his throat burning, trying to make sense of how they’d gotten from the riverside to the cafe.
“What the hell was that?”
“Nothing for you to worry about,” Julie snapped, rubbing a hand over her face. She looked like she hadn’t slept. There were bags under her eyes, and her lips looked like she’d been gnawing on them, the way Charlie’s niece did when she got nervous. “Just let the Sheriff deal with it, it’s his job.” Charlie ignored the exhaustion in her voice and plowed forward.
“But the bones! And- And the guts… God! What does that?” Julie’s hand whipped out and closed around his chin, stopping him from speaking as her fingers pressed into the space between his upper and lower jaw. He felt like a bug pinned to the table as she glared at him.
“Shut up,” she growled, her nails pricking his skin through his stubble. “There are people in here that don’t know about it and don’t need to know.” A quick glance around told him she was right. There were kids playing with superheroes in the booth next to the window, the little girl proudly declaring herself to be Captain Marvel. Two old men wearing Vietnam Veteran hats were at the bar and a few old ladies were playing bridge over coffees. The jolt of the mundane scene compared to the image of the grisly bones still stamped on the back of his eyelids made the room seem to spin. He sank into the chair, dizzy and nauseous again.
“Sorry,” he mumbled. Julie just nodded before leaning back and adjusting her glasses. The small motion made the sleeve of her overlarge sweater slip down her arm. Charlie gaped at the fresh welts and scratches that covered her from wrist to elbow.
“Juliet Andrews!” A small woman bustled over, her white hair wrapped in a pink bandanna, blue shadow lining her worried eyes. “This morning! Was it-”
Julie held up a hand, cutting the woman off. “Nanny, not now.” When she flicked her eyes in his direction, Charlie knew that if he hadn’t been there, they would have continued the conversation. He just couldn’t bring himself to care.
Nanny gathered herself. “I’m sorry about that, Sweetie,” she said, smiling awkwardly in his direction. It reminded him of a used car salesman. “What can I get started for you?”
Julie took over introductions. “Nanny, this is Charlie. Charlie, meet Nanny. We’ll have coffee and the raspberry scones.” She gave Nanny an obviously phony, but layered, smile.
“Usual then. It’ll be out in a skinny minute!” Nanny smiled over brightly again and waddled off. Charlie wanted to ask about the sudden change in demeanor but held his tongue. Instead, he looked around. The café was brightly lit, natural light flooding in from the windows over the white tables and booths. The walls were painted pink with yellow trim, floral watercolor pictures shared space with framed posters of Betty Boop and Rosie the Riveter. A black and white photo of Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe was hung on the wall beside the kitchen window. You could see the entirety of the café from the booth Julie had dragged him to. It was perfectly settled in a corner of the shop. When he turned back around, Julie had repositioned herself with her back to the wall and her legs stretched out on the seat. She stayed that way, eyes on the door until Nanny came back with the food.
Charlie accepted the coffee and began his usual preparation method: three sugars and just enough cream to change the color. The ritual helped put his mind at ease. Julie had started sipping hers black while spreading butter on a scone. They didn’t speak again until she’d taken at least three bites of it.
“You get one question,” she told him, wiping crumbs from her mouth with her thumb. “Make it count.”
“You know something about the bones, don’t you?” After coffee and a bite of the pastry, Charlie was feeling a lot clearer. The tremble in his hands had faded along with most of the nausea.
Julie rolled her mug between her hands, raising it to her mouth and taking another swallow. She peered at him over the rim. “Yes, I do. But so does anyone who saw them this morning.”
His mind was racing, words tumbling around the way they always did when he had too much to think about. Most of it had to do with Julie, the way she was so calm about the grisly discovery and the way she’d dismissed Nanny from the table like a general with a nervous civilian. The way the people had seemed to shield the bones as she’d lead him away. Then there were the scratches and her exhaustion. His one question had been easy to decided on, but now he had another.
“Did you do it?” he blurted.
She sighed. “Do you think I did?”
Strange as it may seem, Charlie didn’t think so. Call it gut instinct, but something told him she was as innocent as he was. He shook his head. Some of the tension seemed to drain out of Julie’s shoulders.
“Finish your food,” she ordered, nudging his plate. “We’re going to the craft fair.”
“You trying to distract me?” he asked.
“That’s three questions.” Julie smirked at him. “And yes, it’ll take your mind off of it, for a while. You can hear about it with the rest of the town when we get a coroner’s report tomorrow.” He nodded and went back to eating.
Nanny waved them out, not letting them pay. A ring that looked like an exact copy of Julie’s dangled on a chain around her neck as she collected the dirty cups and plate.
. . . . . .
The craft fair was what he expected for the most part. It was warm and sunshiny, loud with the way the vendors were trying to reel in customers out of the tourists. There were sweet grass baskets, jewelry, food, including fresh produce, and assorted craft items like candles and flowerpot sculptures. One table was covered in snowmen made out of tiny flower pots. He considered buying the one with a red hat and feather boa for his mom. It kept his mind off the bones from this morning, and if it hadn’t, Julie’s chattering would have kept him distracted.
“I need to talk with Miss Janie for a minute,” she piped up from his elbow. He looked down and found her eyeing a tent with wooden sculptures crowded around a table with smaller sculptures and necklaces arranged in piles. “Feel free to look around.” Julie wandered over to the table, speaking with the slim, black woman at the stand, fanning herself with one of the paper fans Baptist churches kept in pews. Miss Janie, apparently.
Charlie perused the table while the two women spoke, moving behind the tent to chat quietly. Too quietly for him to hear. He gave up straining his ears after a few minutes; his mom always did say he was too nosey.
The table was covered in horses. Carved horses in different poses and sizes, they were delicate in the same way that a kitten’s claw is delicate. Every piece was pure movement frozen in time, running, rearing, eating, bucking. Something was off, though. Charlie picked up one piece, a black, cord necklace with a dangling horse charm. He wasn’t an artist by any stretch of the imagination, but Charlie had learned enough in college to be fairly competent. The way these horses were set, the too wide eyes, bared teeth, bedraggled mane, and the sharp lines spoke of anger. They were beautiful, but a horse that looked like that in real life would send him running in the other direction.
He ran a finger over the delicate head, surprised when he felt a bump in the mouth. Squinting revealed a fang, poking out of the horse’s upper lip.
“What the hell?”
“You hold onto that now.” If he was less secure in his masculinity, Charlie would have pretended not to have screamed when Miss Janie manifested behind him. Unlike most everyone else at the fair, Miss Janie wasn’t smiling at him. Instead, she was studying the charm grimly, squinting through the horn-rimmed glasses on her face. “I make ‘em myself.” She waved one callused brown hand in the air as if to show proof. “It’ll keep you safe.”
“It doesn’t like seeing it’s own face.” She acted as if that explained everything.
Julie entered the tent not a second later, a heavy looking duffel slung over one shoulder.
“Thank you Miss Janie,” she said. “We’ll be going now.” Janie nodded then turned the gimlet stare back on him.
“Put that on now, son. Don’t keep a pretty girl waiting!” He didn’t hesitate a second time, sliding the cord over his head as she hustled him out into the sunshine. The charm felt oddly warm as it settled on his clavicle.
“Keep that on you,” Julie warned him when they left the fair. She slung her new duffle into her jeep. The poor engine roared to life with a cough and a grunt.“Anywhere you wanna go next?”
“The closest library,” he grunted. Research was a writer’s best friend, and Charlie was about to do a shit-ton of it on Andrew’s Hollow. His hands found their way to the charm, fondling the smooth wood as Julie thundered them through the dirt roads that lead away from the craft market.