I was right. I didn't sleep that night after I saw Jarreth's video, but it wasn't for the reason you'd think. You'd probably expect it'd be about replaying what I'd seen in my mind all night long and maybe adding extra details that weren't really there to make it even worse. Oddly enough, the footage never showed up, not even as a faint glimpse of hell behind my eyelids.
It was the front door of the Warren house I saw every time sleep got too close, and my hesitant finger pressing the doorbell. It was the knowledge that it would likely be Mrs. Warren's face that I'd see when the door opened, only that part wouldn't happen. The knob would turn with the impossibly slow tedium that belongs in suspense thrillers, the door would open just a crack, and a voice would come from the other side. Not Mrs. Warren's voice, mind you, or even Mr. Warren's or Jody's. It was a soft sound, like a whisper.
I'd jump awake then, sporting a sweat like I was going through menopause or something. I also spent moments in the living room of the Warren house sometime around three or four. I guess my head needed a break from that front door and the voice. There were a couple of times I snapped awake again, but I'd been sitting on their couch, trying to will myself to speak so I could ask if there'd been anything they hadn't told me right after we found him.
I don't believe those people who say they can control what happens in their dreams because no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't bring myself to make a sound. I got broken a little the last time I went there, seeing parents in that shape. I had to watch Mrs. Warren wail for her son and send pleas to God for an answer. Of course, He didn't answer back. That's not His way. God knows better than we do how to make horrible things work out for the better and silence tends to be one of His devices in times like that. All she had left to do was weep and ask why. There weren't any signs! How could she have missed it? Why did He have to take her son away?
I wondered if Mr. Warren would be there when I went back. Before, if he dared make a peep, – a sniffle, a whimper, an offer of information – she'd scream at him to Shut up! You just shut your fool mouth! You weren't even here – you never are! You were out of town! You're always out of town!
He'd pipe down after that, crimpled and beaten all the way on the opposite side of the couch.
Like she said, there hadn't been the first sign. But could that be right? If I'd have gone through the things Jody had, I know I'd have presented some right funky indications that something was wrong, and especially if I'd considered going back out there to jump off the cliff. Jarreth had said as much. Jody shook all the way home and wouldn't allow a word of talk.
I didn't think I'd get anything more out of the Warrens, but in light of the new evidence, I wouldn't be doing my due diligence if I didn't shove the spade a little deeper beyond the topsoil.
Then there was Jarreth saying he didn't want the video getting out and neither did I. There'd have to be some kind of an explanation, though – a good reason for scratching the scab. I decided I'd tell them it was a hunch if they asked. Years in my line of work will make a man funny that way, so I thought it'd fly well enough as an excuse.
I considered all of this during one of the waking spells and about the time I'd satisfied myself that was the way I'd handle it, I nodded off and stood behind the front door of the Warrens' house again, watching my finger do its shaky, cowardly dance as I tried to press the button.
And I was awake, shivering and sweating.
Then I was back in their living room, about to ask for more from Mrs. Warren.
So the carousel went until dawn, turning and turning in its nightmarish circle.
Later the next day, after I'd drained several more cups of coffee from Rita's pot at Clem's, I made myself drive out to the Warrens'. The gravel driveway had mostly been washed away, downhill into the main road, so now there was more dirt and mud than I was comfortable with. They lived up the side of a mountain and I was happy for once that there hadn't been much rain to soup it up and threaten to slide me around.
What remained of the gravel popped and cracked under my tires as I slowly made my way up. It sounded like a bag of Reddenbacher's right when it gets going good in the microwave.
I stepped out of my cruiser and snuck a peek at the front windows, hoping to catch a glimpse of Mr. or Mrs. Warren checking to see who the visitor was, but there was no one staring back at me. So much for avoiding the unsettled stomach when my waking mind replayed the dream from the night before. I'd have to watch my finger press the bell and wait for the door to open just a hair just like the dream version of me had.
It was probably more about postponing the inevitable meeting, but I decided to survey the house before climbing the three steps up to the small wooden deck that served as a porch. It was modest, but nothing to be ashamed of by any means. Mr. Warren made enough money that his wife didn't have to work. He was employed by a tech firm in Atlanta and stayed gone three or fours nights a week. I reckon that's the price you pay if you're going to be the sole provider. Mr. Warren wasn't there then, either. I could tell by the absence of the SUV. The skirting around the bottom portion of the house was dirty and I doubted that he'd have been in the state of mind to pressure wash the red Georgia clay from it. Otherwise, the siding was a pleasant off-white. It had once been a doublewide mobile home, but had been settled onto a permanent concrete foundation and there was an add-on over on the left side.
My favorite feature of the house was the front door, actually, though it didn't play so handsomely in my mind anymore after the night I'd had. It was a rich, brown, natural wood with a rectangle of glass at the top in three sections.
My finger looked just like it had in the dream, moving toward the button, except it didn't shake. I thanked God for that. The sound that came from the other side of the door was another thing to praise the Father for – it was a simple, no nonsense ding dong that I imagine every house in America boasted back in the days when just having a bell at all was fancy enough. There was no hellish voice, still remarking forty years later about the condition of deputy Soseby's shoes.
Only a few seconds passed before I saw Mrs. Warren's face peer through the glass. She opened the door and it was as sad a sight as I'd imagined it would be. Her hair was unwashed, tangled, and matted. She wore a light blue house coat with smears of old food she'd dropped on it in several places and never bothered to wipe off. In her left hand, she clutched a bunch of used tissues and in her right, she held a picture frame. Jody's photo would be under the glass; I didn't have to guess at that.
"Sheriff Reese." She looked surprised, but uninterested – irritated, in fact, - that I'd be back on her doorstep. "There something left to take care of? I thought we were done with the red tape when I buried my son."
I remembered I was wearing my hat and took it off. "I'm so sorry to bother you, ma'am. You've been through more than anybody ought to already."
"What do you want then? I got business to attend, as you can see." I was okay with her brand of hospitality at the moment; I expected it. She turned the frame over in her hand so she could look at Jody's picture and put the tissues to her mouth, stifling a soft whimper.
"Can I come in, Mrs. Warren?" I shuffled my feet awkwardly. "I won't take up much of your time."
She opened the door wider and motioned for me to come in with the hand holding the tissues. The living room was immediately to the right beyond a small foyer.
"Sit if you like, but I can't offer you much in the way of refreshments. Tea's gone, coffee too. And the milk's sour."
She hadn't cleaned anything for days. It seemed like there was old food, dirty laundry, and filthy, caked dishes covering every surface. It was a scene in staunch opposition to the home I'd visited before.
"Mrs. Warren, can I do anything? Let me get you some groceries and somebody to help you out here. I noticed Mr. Warren's vehicle isn't in the drive and you probably shouldn't be alone."
"He's out of town. Again. He can stay gone for all I care."
"Thank you, though. I appreciate the offer, but I'll be fine by myself. I don't want any company. This mess you see won't stay that way forever, so just forget about it when you leave, if you can."
"Don't you worry about that. I'm not here to judge."
She plopped down in a recliner in front of me and motioned that I should have a seat on the couch against the wall. Mrs. Warren isn't an unattractive woman. She's not what most people would consider too fat or too skinny. Until lately, you'd find her doing that Zumba workout at the community center two or three times a week with her hair pulled up in an efficient little ponytail. Most days, her makeup is simple, but elegant and soft - not gaudy, like she's trying to change anything about her face. Even without it, I've always thought she was pretty and you can't say that about every woman. The thought reminded me of something my daddy said a couple of times from the back pew of the church as he'd survey the ladies coming in with their perfect faces and big hats. Son, them women don't need all that paint. They look fine without it, but I know a bunch of men who could use a touch of spackle. Thing is, God knew if He put it in a man's mind to throw on some makeup, we'd have it so loud the deer'd pick us out in our stands from a mile away. That's why you never seen a clown wearin' camouflage.
"What'd you come here for?" she asked as she fixed me with a stare that said, Make this quick. "I know the county's not in the business of checking up on people, or else they'd have been out to see about my lights blinking by now."
"No ma'am. Fact is, I need to pry a tad more. But now that you mention it, I'll see to it somebody gets out here to check on that for you asap. You have my personal guarantee," I said and made a note in my pad.
"What's left to pry about?" She cocked her head to one side.
"This is the last time I'll bother you."
She sighed and put her hands in her lap. "Well, I can't think of anything I didn't tell you before."
I realized I'd spent so much energy dreading going back there and having another conversation, that I hadn't prepared for it. For a time we sat there and looked at each other. I became aware of other things around us that were an indication of how deeply her depression had cut in. There was an ashtray full of half smoked cigarettes on a small table to the right of the couch. I knew she didn't smoke, but they were there nonetheless and there were lipstick marks around the filters the same color I'd seen her wearing when I first came over. I figured she maybe tried to pick up a new vice to help her cope. I could also see a sliver into the kitchen and on the countertop was a burned out toaster. A patch of the wall behind it sported a char mark half the way to the ceiling. There'd been a fire and she'd gotten it out, but she hadn't bothered to fix the damage or even throw out the ruined appliance.
"Sheriff, I know I've been curt with you since you got here and I'm sorry about that. But you have to understand that I just want this to be over. Look around you and you'll see that I'm really not taking it well." She blew her nose a long honk into the tissues she had in her hand. They were spent, so I leaned forward to the coffee table between us where there was a box of them and plucked a few out for her. She told me thank you and continued. "Believe me, I want to get back to my old self as quick as I can, but the process seems like it's taking its own sweet time. I'd sit here and let the process keep rolling along while I occupied my mind with other things if I could, but that's apparently not the way it works. The process pauses when I do, so I hope you get why I'm eager to have whatever this is done and for good."
I hope I'm never in that place – the one Mrs. Warren was struggling to get out of. Up till then, I'd hoped to have a child or two of my own someday and I guess most of me still does, but then there's the chance of having to go through a kind of hell like she has and I don't know if I'm equipped for that. Back at the office, I pictured myself as Jarreth's dad as he pushed through reliving that night at Shoeshine Drop and that had been hard enough.
"I won't say I understand. I can't imagine what you're going through so let me get to the point," I knew that I was going to have to tell her about Jarreth coming to see me; I just wouldn't mention there was a video. "Mrs. Warren, I was paid a visit yesterday from Jody's friend, Jarreth. He had some new information he'd been afraid to share until now."
She prickled noticeably when I said Jarreth's name. "I don't think I want to know any more about it. Would it make any difference if you tell me?"
"Probably not to you, but it might to me. I'm trying to keep anything like this from ever happening again. I'm sure you'll agree I need to do that."
Mrs. Warren gazed beyond me through the front window. I got the feeling she wasn't mulling over whether or not to let me tell her, but more likely readying herself to try and handle it. "Alright. I'll listen and I'll help if I can."
I told her the story about Jody and Jarreth driving out to the Drop, but left out the detail that there was a video. I told her everything that was in it, though, including Jody levitating in the air over the edge. I thought that part would undo her and she'd kick me out of her house, but she surprised me. She put the tissues to her face and wept violently for her son. I let her have all the time she needed.
When she collected herself, she looked at me with a pitiful pleading in her eyes. It was all too much. Why did there have to be more? I felt sorry for her and I wanted to cry too, but not only for her and Jody. I wanted to cry for every victim and every mother and every father that cursed place had claimed. Because death exists with the living too, doesn't it? Maybe it even takes joy in killing just enough of a person to make the pain, but allowing an ember of life to remain so it can make one final slice with its long, rusty sickle later on.
I felt like I needed to break the silence.
"I'm sorry to be adding to your misery."
"No, I'm glad you did." She looked past me again, out the window at something only she could perceive. Probably the depth that lay in the tree line across the yard. There was nothing there but limbs and trunks and leaves – some dead, some thriving – and that was good for her, I guess. The nothingness of it. After a few seconds, she came to and shot up from her chair. "There's something I need to show you."
A fresh sense of dread washed over me. I felt it from my head to my toes. I was weary of being shown new things because they hadn't turned out to be good lately. The goodness and badness of news seemed to ebb and flow on a tide, leaving clumps of information like shells on the shore. You know how people say celebrities die in threes? That's how life spits news out at me. Jody died tragically and just as I'm ready to try and fix it, here comes Jarreth in my office with something new. Now Mrs. Warren had something I needed to see. I made a mental note to get an appointment with Doctor Phillips and have my blood pressure checked. And if you know me well enough, you'll know getting me to the doctor's office is a feat in itself, but I trust Doc Phillips. He comes from a long line of physicians that started over a hundred years ago in South Carolina.
She asked me to excuse her and left me to go to the back of the house – the bedroom, I assumed.
While she was gone, I took the opportunity to scan what I could beyond the living room. There wasn't a lot to take in – more of the same disregard for a trashcan. I hadn't lied about judging her. My dorm room at UGA might have been worse and nobody close to me had lost their lives the entire time I studied Criminal Justice there.
She emerged from the back soon enough with a single folded sheet of notebook paper in her hand. It looked like a letter from the marks that bled through to the other side and it had been read over and over again. When I was in grade school, we used to crumple a piece of paper and uncrumple it repeatedly to see who could get it the most worn down before it tore. That's what her scrap looked like. It had originally been tri-folded by the writer, but now you could barely tell where the creases were. There was no doubt in my mind that it had been authored by Jody.
"Here," she said and held the paper out toward me. "I think once you read it, you'll see why I kept it from you. I didn't think it would make any difference, but now that you've told me what Jarreth said, well ... you just read it."
I took it from her gently.
"Be careful with that. It's the last thing I've got from him and I guess I wore it out already."
"I will," I said. She sat back down in the armchair across from me to wait and stare through the window beyond me until I was done.
It was written beautifully in an elegant cursive I'd not seen in a long time. They don't teach cursive anymore in the schools around here, so I wondered where he'd learned it so well.
Dear Mom and Dad,
If you're reading this, I'm either dead or have gone insane from the thing I'm about to do. I always thought that was a stupid thing to start a message with when they do it in the movies, but now that I have to leave this for you, I guess it's the only thing that makes sense.
Let me start by saying this is in NO WAY a suicide note. I don't want to die, but after what I experienced the other night, I don't see how that's not going to be the outcome. There hasn't been a second since Jarreth and I went out to Shoeshine Drop that it hasn't haunted me. I can feel it even now. The sensation of hanging there over the edge with nothing under me and screaming for you. Maybe I shouldn't put anything about that here, but I'd want to know if it was my son. I won't say any more. You won't understand what I'm talking about, but if I told you, you wouldn't believe me or it'd scare you. Or both.
I have to go back out there. Don't wonder why because I don't know except that if I don't find out for myself if it was real or not, I might not ever rest again.
I'm so tired. I haven't slept. I can't eat. I tried to keep down a few crackers because you said that's good for a queasy stomach, but they came right back up, so now I'm weak too. I know after what happened, I shouldn't go out there without my strength and definitely not alone. I just can't bring myself to drag anybody else into it. That wouldn't be fair to them and I love you guys so much. Mom, Dad, Jarreth – all of you mean too much to me to risk something bad happening to any one of you. So I'm praying that the worst that will happen is nothing and I'll get to come home and ask you to take me somewhere so I can get help. But if I don't come home and I go over the cliff, you need to talk to Jarreth and you need to tell somebody. Show them this letter because it's calling me – Shoeshine Drop. It means there really is something out there. And it's hungry.
I handed the letter back to Mrs. Warren.
"Well?" she asked.
"I take it you never spoke to Jarreth. He didn't mention talking to you."
"Why not? Or at least why didn't you show me this days ago?"
She shook her head. "Would you have believed it then? I didn't. And I didn't need to ask Jarreth about it. For all I know, that boy was drunk when they went out there. Matter of fact, I'd lay money on it. Would you have believed it?" She held up the paper and shook it more harshly than she intended to. She caught herself and tenderly folded it by the vanishing creases.
"No, I wouldn't have."
"No, you wouldn't have. Nobody would because this is crazy talk. At least I thought it was until now. Now I don't know what to think. I just wanted to give my Jody a little dignity."
I shifted on the couch and leaned forward, resting my elbows on my knees.
"Is that letter the last of it? I need to have everything out in the open if I'm gonna figure out what to do about that place."
"That's all. I could tell he was bothered for a couple of days, but you know how teenagers are. Always bothered by something. Always moping around like somebody shot their puppy and I just ignored it, Sheriff. I ignored him."
"Please call me Marty. We're way beyond formalities, don't you think?"
"Okay. Marty." She sighed heavily. "What do we do now?"
I wasn't sure about that yet, but I'd spend some time mulling it over with a glass of something to wet my dry throat in front of me. I'm not much of a drinker and especially not on the job or behind the wheel. The days Soseby operated in were long past, but I thought it might require something stronger than what Rita was pouring at Clem's.
"You let me worry about that. Your part in this is over and you need to rest. Rest and heal as best you can."
She nodded and resumed her blank consideration of the view from her front window. It was a trance I suspect she went in and out of systematically while the gears in her head got new oil.
It was close to noon. I got up and put my hat back on. "Mrs. Warren ..."
"We're beyond formalities, Marty. It's Gail."
"Do us both a favor and don't mention this to anyone. Does your husband know?"
"He hasn't even seen the letter. I don't want to do that to him."
"That's probably for the best. I'm not usually a fan of husbands and wives keeping things from each other, but in this case ..."
"He doesn't deserve the way I've treated him," she blurted, still looking out the window. She got up to see me out like the good hostess. "He's an easy mark, but I'll do better. And we'll get through it. Gonna take some time, but yeah."
I had a foot out the door by then, but I turned and touched her shoulder. "You don't owe me or anybody else an explanation. You and Mr. Warren do this privately. And if you need anything, you have my number."
"Thank you, Sheriff ... Marty."
"More than welcome, Gail. Get some rest."
I walked back to my cruiser, aware that she watched me, maybe wanting to be alone, but hating to see company go. That's not what it is, though, I thought. She's looking beyond me again. Into the nothingness.