We played down near the old cross bridge in our bathing suits, like a couple of happy pigs. Cot was a dainty girl, but her demeanor cast a shadow, large and dangerous. I myself was of a normal size and disposition for my 15 years, I guess.
She roared her 8 year-old voice like the banshee. Above her sandy locks she swung a makeshift cudgel around and around.
"C'mon you!" she boomed. "I'll make you into cat food!"
Her invisible assailants swarmed her and she dealt them death blows, one after the other. I finished my rolled cigarette and flung the remainder into the creek.
"Damn, but your loud," I admonished her.
At that, she cut through the crowd of demons, or ogres, or zombie-army-soldiers she was fighting and jumped on me. I tried to get up but too late. Cot caught me in the gut with her fighting club and knocked me back down against the old willow, catching my spine on a gnarl and forcing the wind from my lungs. She then proceeded to scream in my ear with such vigor that my eyes watered and I forgot for a moment where I was.
Then she was gone, down the south trail into the dark of the forest. Her pretty hair bouncing behind her was the last to disappear into the gloom of the growth.
I muttered, collecting myself. I had a swipe of barky gunk across my abdomen from Cot's attack. It refused to come off by way of civilized rubbing, nor did it succumb to somewhat less-composed scraping. I jumped back into the creek. The water was chilling in the grace of heat on that early fall day. The creek blinded me, reflecting the sun's filigree brightness.
I could hear Cot, still crashing away in the brush. I called to her and the crashing stopped.
"What?" came her small reply.
"We have to be back home!" I yelled.
"Oh… crap," I heard her say, more to herself than to me.
I paid her no mind, but washed off my face and blew spray at the tops of the trees. When I got back up to shore, I was surprised to see Cot was already getting dressed.
Finally, we tramped on home.
Lucius, our both-older brother, spied us coming. He ran to receive us with his usual cuff to the temple. Cot was quick and evaded him while I just stood there for mine.
"There’s more friggin' diggin' today Johnny!" he screamed, after the fashion of a drill sergeant, his face right in my face.
"Cripes, I remember… That’s why we came back when we did.”
This was a comment sufficiently craven to earn a roll of Cot’s eyes.
"Trying to evade your duties is what you’re doing! ATTENTION!" He all but bellowed.
"I aint doing no attention Luce," I sighed.
He did not even reply, but took the moment to occasion what I can only describe as a "smash" to my jaw area with the heel of his hand. I collapsed, swimming . Blood was flowing into my mouth from unknown sources when I heard Cot's girly voice whispering to our brother:
"Tonight when you're sleeping I'm gonna stick one of Mom's knitting needles right into the inside corner of one of your eyes, - doesn’t matter which one - about 4 and a half inches, and then swish it around. Then you’ll be sweet as pie. I've been reading up on it --"
Still blind, I heard an issuance of outrage from Lucius. To his credit, he acted as anyone might who cannot divine the sincerity of a given mortal threat. He stormed toward the well-hole, or should I say, away from the author of his future lobotomy, snatching up his shovel as he went.
I don’t blame him for fleeing; Cot’s threats were uncannily stomach-dropping in their delivery. I count myself lucky that I was rarely on the receiving end of one.
She helped me up as I wiped at my eyes. I gave her a smile which told her that my jaw was not broken and my teeth were all there. She smiled back her sweet smile.
We heard the evil news when Luce got back from the store.
After digging for about 3 hours, we broke off, Luce to Bill’s Supermarket for milk and beer, me to my room to read my comics. While I read, I could hear Cot sweetly humming through the wall, to her passel of dolls.
About an hour later the sound of the truck drumming up the rut-torn road echoed off the pines. Luce fairly exploded up the wooden steps and through the screen door.
"Miss Holly's been killt"! he yelled to all occupants.
For a second my mind did not register what he said, but my body got it. A song of adrenaline pierced my guts like I was zooming down the Matterhorn at the state fair.
Miss Holly was our teacher.
There was trampling in the hall and then Cot was at my door staring at me wide-eyed. She was well aware of the depth of feeling I had for Miss Holly. She gave me crap about it all the time, with her sly inquisitions whenever she caught me in reverie on our walks home from school.
Now, my stomach continued to drop, tears coming to my eyes as I strode past her to the front room.
My brother, also aware of my feelings, spoke with what I can only describe as reverent awe.
"Murder," he said.
I wanted to look handsome at the funeral service in the event that Miss Holly’s eyes might scan the attendees through the lid of the casket. Of course I knew rationally that this would not happen. Yet, I could see it over and over in my mind like a movie, and unreal though it was, the idea held sway over me on that day, 3 days later, of Miss Holly's funeral.
I looked at the moth-eaten suit stretched over my frame. It was small but sufficiently black, and solemn.
Whether I was handsome was for Miss Holly to decide.
Cot and Luce flanked me the long walk to church. Both Mom and Dad were gone to work at their respective jobs, and could not join us. This was just as well, I suppose, given what was soon to occur.
Murder, my brother had said.
The word had hung in the air, around us and through us. My Momma, whose name was Janice, dried off her hands and approached from her kitchen. "Luce, what did you say?"
"Mom, Miss Holly was found dead. Somebody killed her."
Momma had looked over at Cot and me. I knew she was mulling over whether we should be hearing any more of this. I looked her dead in the eye and I gave a direct order, if only telepathically, for her to let us stay and hear.
She clearly received my message because her eyes got a little shiny just then. Then she turned back to Luce and said, "Go on, Luce."
Lucius took a deep breath as he looked at me and said, "She was found behind the mill."
There was a heavy silence. I said, "Luce, who done it?"
"You ain’t gonna believe it," Luce answered.
Now, as we trudged to the funeral service, shaking in our skin with the cold shivering back at us, I felt sadness like a shroud on me. I would never see Miss Holly smiling across he desk at me, ever again. I started crying and Lucius turned his head so as not to notice.
Cot sidled up to me and kind of nudged me so as to push off the bad feelings. It worked to a small extent and Luce was able to turn his face back to us.
We could see townfolk approaching from different directions, mostly on foot. The road became treacherous with tracks and ruts, so we started across the green expanse of the church lawn.
The entire landscape of our small town stirred inside the lobby the church.
From top down there was first the Mayor of Copeland, fifth in a row of patriarchs bearing the township's name, just come in the door. Rayburn Copeland had his wife, whom he clearly considered little more than chattle, in impatient tow. She stopped and started like an auto with a bad clutch as he made his rounds, glad-handing and smiling and smirking.
Then there was Chief Constable, Gregor Kamen, who went to kindergarten and all the grades thereafter with my Mom. It was in his company that Luce had seen the main suspects in Miss Holly's murder get dragged off to the halls of justice. Their heads were down low Luce had said.
Chief Constable Kamen was looking from face to face, not really talking to anybody. It was almost as if he was scanning the faces of the attendees for a sign of guilt, and I was given to doubt whether the two in custody were in fact the responsible parties.
Their heads were down, Luce had said, their hands manacled behind them. Police jackets were over their heads but Luce knew who they were.
"It was the Donnel twins," Luce had said, the drill sergeant evaporated, replaced by the voice of a scared boy-child. "Ol' Bandana is the one who found Missy Holly’s dead body. I talked to him. He says they, uh...he says they..."
Momma’s hands stopped their nervous motion, and there was a stillness through the whole room. Luce paused, and seemed grateful to do so.
Luce was unable to finish this particular sentence. Mom turned away and quickly walked back into the kitchen.
Luce looked very uncomfortable. He had turned away and closed the door, walking out to the truck, pretending he had something to attend to.
Cot and I exchanged meaningful glances. Although neither of us was exactly sure what Luce was unwilling to say, our mother not willing to hear, we could tell it belonged to the realm of the awful, and the adult.
Cot shuffled toward her room and slipped in, closing the door behind her. She was clearly disturbed by these affairs, bothered in a way that remained inaccessible to my boy self.
I went to my own room and covered my head with my pillow.