Release date: May 30, 2023
Publisher: Death's Head Press
Print pages: 115
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How The Skin Sheds
I GOT TO Diane’s about noon. I could tell by the empty stable and the free-swinging gate that something wasn’t right.
The bruised clouds overhead seemed to paint the perfect picture of trouble, which I’d been following all morning like some north star that led to no good.
I hitched Bones to the same post I always did. He didn’t seem to like the air either and had spent the last hour huffin’ over it, not all that eager to get to my sister’s ranch. He had a way about things. A sixth sense. I’d like to think it was that same sixth sense what led him to crush Stewart William’s head like a grape underfoot, turning that fool thief into blood wine. A good horse knows an asshole when they see one, and Stewart was starving him—hence the name I later gave the poor beast.
Bones whinnied as I walked toward the porch and saw the front door ajar. Some bad shit had definitely gone down—my worst fear being a wagon full of stiff dicks found a lone woman in the middle of nowhere and I wasn’t there to stop them.
I pulled my gun and didn’t fuck around, kicked the door wide. Diane faceup was the first thing I saw. Half on the bed, half off, like she was maybe sliding down when rigor mortis set in. The top of her dress had been ripped open, and her breasts spilled out. Where her nipples used to be, there were dark-red circles. Jagged circles.
I held the gun out and surveyed the room. There were only two other doors in the house. One in the back which led outside, and another to the side where Nadine slept. My niece. That door was closed.
I got to the door and turned the knob. It was locked. I knew Nadine was either dead or taken, but I called out anyway. “Nadine! It’s Uncle Garrett. You in there?”
I opened the door, and the sun shot through the window, blinding me, like some kind of blessing, knowing damn well if Nadine was dead, I couldn’t bear to see it.
I swung my arm at the air, connected with nothing. I charged into the room and out of the sun’s path, finger on the trigger and ready to kill. Nadine was on her bed, legs crossed, eyes wide.
She was alive.
I bent down, put a hand on her knee. “You’re safe now, girl.” The words held as much weight and comfort as a single grain of sugar on her tongue. It was too late for safety. The damage had been done.
I brought my hand from her knee and saw blood, the source of which came from under her nightie. Her being albino, the blood was like dye on a birch tree. Ink on ivory. Stark and alarming.
I didn’t touch her again. I wasn’t sure the touch of a man, no matter the intent, would bring solace.
Her left eye was filled with blood and her cheekbone was bruised and swollen. Dirt on her face hung like a mask. The saddest, and maybe scariest, part was the mask held no white streaks where tears should have fallen. She was broken, eyes fixed on the wall behind me like the images of the violent event played over and over again on it, maybe dreaming of a scenario where she murdered those responsible. Or maybe the
re was no image at all, just a black void.
“I know you don’t wanna talk, Nadine. But I need to know who did this to you and your momma.”
She tore her eyes from the wall and laid them on me. That’s when the impact hit her. Those ice-pink orbs bubbled over, and the dirt washed away one salty river at a time, then she dove into my arms, and I held her as tight as I could, whispering how sorry I was that I wasn’t there when she needed me.
I only ever saw her and her mother every few months, stopping in to do whatever work I could, usually staying a week or so, but this time I ran a day late on account of a bounty I had me a lead on. The reward wasn’t a whole lot, but enough to have me saddle up Bones and take a detour. Never did get the bastard.
I didn’t expect to ever hear Nadine’s voice again. The world don’t deserve an angel like her, and if she wanted to crawl inside herself and never come out, I wouldn’t blame her. But she did speak.
“It was a man I ain’t ever seen before.”
She nodded with her face buried in my shoulder.
“I know you don’t want to think about him, but if you can tell me what he looks like just this once, I’ll never ask again.”
She sat back against the wall and wiped her face. Salty mud streaked sideways. “He had brown eyes.”
“Anything else? Was he a fat man, skinny man? Bald?”
“He wasn’t skinny or fat, and he had hair. Brown hair, with a dark yellow mustache, ‘cept the mustache was kinda crooked.”
“Like he slipped while shaving?”
“No, like this part . . . ” She put her finger on my mustache, in the middle where the two sides met. “Is over here.” Then she moved her finger to the side a little. The man was born with a cleft palate.
“Okay, honey. I know exactly what you mean, and that’s everything I need to know. Now, I want you to do your best to forget his face. Every time it pops up, I want you to think of that doll there instead.”
I pointed toward a rag doll she had sitting on the corner of the bed. Hideous looking thing, but I gathered she saw the beauty in it.
She nodded again, then grabbed the doll.
“Did he say anything? Maybe something to give you an idea on where he was headed?”
She shook her head.
“You stay here. I’ll be right back.” I stood up to go, and she lunged for me, then doubled over in pain.
“Please don’t go, Uncle Garrett.” Her voice cracked like a blazing campfire.
I ran my hand over her matted hair, then eased her down on the bed. “I’ll just be in the next room. I’m not going anywhere without you. I promise.”
She curled up, knees to her chest, and held the ugly doll.
I walked out and scanned the room where my sister poured from her mattress. There were broken dishes on the floor, the table, and one of the chairs was toppled over. She’d given the man a fight.
On the table was some blood—a large smear and a few drops next to that. I reckoned that was his blood, because next to it was a ripped blouse with a long swath of cloth missing from it. He’d made a makeshift bandage for a wound.
I had only glanced at Diane when I first arrived, so I didn’t get a look at how brutal it was. Along with her missing nipples, she’d been disemboweled. And he hadn’t just stabbed her. Your guts don’t spill across the floor like that. He’d pulled them out and played with them.
Other than a glisten deep in the center of her belly, the rest of the blood had dried. I figured she was killed early morning, maybe the night before, though that’s not when he would have left. He still had his time with my niece. He would have had to deal with my sister before touching Nadine, cuz ain’t no way in hell she would have let that man near her daughter.
Movement caught my eye. Nadine stood at the threshold of her bedroom. “I don’t want
o stay here no more.” Her eyes fell on her mother, following the ropey entrails. I could tell she’d already seen her, maybe even watched it happen.
“You won’t have to. We’re heading out.”
I checked the floor near the fireplace where Diane always kept a gun hidden. There was a loose floorboard there, and inside was a shotgun and a dozen shells, along with a stash of bills and a necklace our mother had given Diane before she died from a broken heart when our pa was killed in a bank robbery. He was the teller at Candlewood National and took a bullet to the head. The thief claimed to have only meant it as a warning shot. If that was true, both men had shit for luck that day.
I put the necklace on Nadine and said, “Go ahead and get yourself cleaned up, then grab the rest of your clothes and anything else you want to bring.”
She hobbled away on weak legs. I bent down and kissed my sister’s head. A tear threatened to fall, and I denied it.
So she didn’t worry, I told Nadine I was heading outside to hook Bones to the wagon. No way the poor girl was able to ride horseback in her condition.
I took what food Diane had and tossed it in the wagon along with as much water as I could carry in my canteen and a few bottles she had lying around, then hitched Diane’s horse to the wagon alongside Bones. The two looked good together. Black and white. Yin and Yang, as the Oriental folks sometimes said.
By the time I was done, Nadine was standing at the front door. She looked like a ghost floating there—a dirty white dress with skin that matched Bone’s hide. She’d taken shears to her hair, cutting the length just as short as she could. I understood.
“I don’t want anyone finding Momma like that,” she said, so I went for the barn to get the shovel. “I don’t wanna bury her neither.”
I turned back. “Well, what’d you have in mind?”
She didn’t answer and went back in the house. Within moments, I saw the warm glow of flames lick the walls inside, and Nadine ran out with nothing but her doll and a blanket. She stood there in the dirt, as though waiting my approval. I nodded, extended my hand. She took it and climbed
into the wagon.
I studied the ground for tracks, hoping to find some direction as to where this hare-lipped fucker went. Seeing how it rained twice that week, it wasn’t hard. Fortunately, the tracks headed west, toward Franklin’s house. Our next stop. If I could get Franklin to come along, this asshole didn’t have a chance.
I hopped on the wagon seat, whipped the reins, and we ate the road ahead, while the nightmare burned behind us.
NADINE NEVER ASKED where we were going, never said a word at all that first hour. I looked back a few times, checked on her, thought maybe she found some sleep. But she was sitting upright, gazing at the sky behind us, watching the cloud of smoke made from her mother’s charred body and the only home she’d ever known.
Nearly broke down a few times but held back, stuffed that shit inside. It wasn’t so much I needed to be strong for the little one. I needed to keep the rage burning. It was fuel, kept my mind on the goal ahead. If I gave up the chase and didn’t avenge Nadine and her momma, I’d never forgive myself.
I stopped the wagon long enough to piss and hold Nadine’s hand as she went behind a bush. She didn’t want me out of her sight, not even for a moment, and I was okay with that. Pain from her lady parts made her wince some while squatting, and I knew she might need to have a doctor look her over once we got to Cross County, where Franklin lived.
I offered her my scarf to clean up, then we headed back to the wagon, her little hand squeezing mine. The grief I felt for her was near unbearable. I was horribly sad my sister was dead—that goes without saying—but my pain didn’t compare to Nadine’s. Hers was biblical. Sackcloth tearin’, head shavin’ pain. I never understood those acts of mourning, but I was beginning to. Yet she held her shit together like nothin’ I ever seen. Well beyond her years. She’d aged decades on account of a run-in with a madman.
On the way to the wagon, she said, “I stabbed him.” Then reached over and touched my right shoulder blade. “Right here.”
“You did good, Nadine. And I’m going to do a lot more than stab him when I find the sonofabitch. Ain’t no sense in keepin’ that secret. You understand?”
She looked at me with those bright pink eyes and gave a hardy nod. “I do, Uncle Garrett.” I nearly traded the rage for a river of tears right then and there.
“I suppose we should talk about a few other things while we’re at it. I’m not gonna throw honey on my words cuz you’re a strong girl, just like your momma. So, I’ll be as real with you as I would anyone else. That bein’ said, first thing’s first. We’re family, and I ain’t goin’ anywhere. Consider them words as solid as those Moses carried down the mount.
“As far as our living situation, we’re on the road for now. May be for some time. And you know why. But once done is done, you’ll be living at my place. It ain’t no mansion, but it’s an upgrade. So, now that you’re privy, I hope you’re not opposed to the plan, cuz it’s all I’ve got.“
She stared at the ground as we walked, a slight limp in her gait. “I’m not opposed.”
“Was hoping you’d say that.”
I helped her back into the wagon, gently. She settled in, then threw her eyes at the horizon—a gorgeous sky that held happiness just out of reach—a sun-shaped carrot-on-a-stick we might never get to.
WE HIT THE outskirts of Cross County where Franklin lived in a shithole shack in a small valley, where all the rain conspired to shoo him out, flooding the tiny house with every big storm.
He didn’t live there by choice. It was given to him as the bare minimum after being freed a few years prior. While he got the shack-house, he was robbed of the 40 acres and a mule a lot of other slaves had received. But you’d never hear him complain.
I’d met Franklin when he was still a slave. I used to make deliveries to the Howell plantation he was on. He’d help me unload, and we’d converse about this and that. He had a sense of humor I found both entertaining and enlightening. Despite his circumstances, he wore a smile and often joked about the situation. Once I got to know him, I asked how he managed to make light of being a slave, and he’d said, “There are only two other options, Garrett: lose my mind or kill the whole damn Howell family. Making light keeps my hands off their necks and myself from the gallows.”
More than once I nearly brought a hand to Mr. Howell myself on account of how he treated my new friend, but Franklin warned me of the likelihood of losing my job, as well as the fact that any ire would be directed toward him. So, I never touched the man and instead daydreamed about hanging him from my own makeshift gallows, while every slave under his thumb watched.
These days, Franklin spent his quiet days writing, after having been taught to read by one of the house slaves there. His spelling was godawful, but his tales entertaining. That little shack-house was full of stories, written on everything from packaging and birch bark to planks of wood and regular old paper, which I’d grab him whenever the chance.
Franklin greeted us outside as we pulled up. His toothy smile faded when he saw the weight of my face and faded even more when he saw Nadine. He’d met her more than once. I’d brought him with me on a couple visits. He was good with her, and she was fond of him. So was Diane.
“Tell me everything’s okay, Garrett.” I think my past worry for Diane rubbed off on him. He knew about my concerns—her catching sickness out in the middle of nowhere, or worse yet, some drunken gang showin’ up and having their way with her, as these were the times we lived in anymore. Man had traded morality for a strong buzz and a wet hole, even if it meant crossing the line.
“Wish I could.”
Franklin ran to the wagon, peeked inside, looking for Diane I figured. “Ahh, hell. What’s goin’ on?”
I helped Nadine out of the wagon and told her to head on inside and lie down. “We’ll be right here talkin’,” I said.
She limped on in, and I told Franklin what had transpired.
“What kind of devil does that, Garrett?”
“One that’s got a tail ch
asin’ after him, I’ll tell you that.”
“I’d expect nothin’ less. And you’d better believe I’m comin’ along.”
“Part of the reason I stopped here first.”
“Unless you need me watchin’ your niece, of course,” he said.
“She ain’t leaving my side. Appreciate it, though.”
“Good. I’d rather get my hands dirty.” Franklin stared at the ground a moment, sighed. “Hell . . . Don’t even know what to say.” He looked at me. “I’m sorry, brother.”
“You shoulda seen her, Frank. All pulled apart. Who the fuck slices a woman up like that?”
“A dead man, that’s who.”
“I wish Nadine hadn’t seen her. Now she’s gotta live with that image, along with everything else.”
Franklin put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “We’ll find him. The day’s early yet. We’ll grab some chow and head out, make sure he don’t get too far ahead.”
“We’d better eat on the way. We’re stuck taking the wagon. Ain’t no way Nadine can ride horseback. Matter of fact, soon as we hit Cross, I need to get her checked out.”
“Enough said. Let me grab my knife and the grub.” Franklin didn’t own a gun, just one of many things he lived without. Not because he wanted it that way, but, like a lot of newly-freed slaves, he was penniless and mostly unemployed, with the exception of the odd job whenever he could get it. But he had his dignity, and that was more important than even the shithole roof over his head.
“Hold on. I got you a gun.” I grabbed Diane’s shotgun from the wagon, along with the shells, and handed them over.
Franklin took the gun in his hands like it was a newborn baby. “This Diane’s?”
“You sure you wanna part with it?”
“Hell yes. I’ve got my rifle and six-shooter. That’s all I need. Now get that grub, and a pen. Maybe the hunt will pull a story out of you.”
Franklin set his gun under the wagon’s bench and made for the house. A few minutes later we were headed toward Cross County.
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