Coming of Age Suspense Fiction

 “Did you ever hear about this?”

Christy slides the magazine across the table. Miller looks up, wiping his Cheeto-stained fingers on his sweatshirt.

“No. What is this?”

“Crazy article. So apparently this guy is like, super normal family man and then one day he snapped and killed his neighbor. And when they caught him, they found, like, twenty peoples’ heads in his backyard.”

I am staring at the beam of late afternoon sun streaming in from the smeared library window in the corner, trying to count the millions of twinkling book dust floating by. But I am also listening.

“Well this is the guy,” Miller says with an air of finality.  

Christy nods. “That’s what I think. Bette?”

I realize that they’re looking at me now; Miller through his unnecessarily expensive black rimmed glasses, Christy with her ironic blue lipsticked smile. They expect me to say something.  

I manage to make my brain force the word “Yeah” to my mouth.

I suddenly wonder why I was so excited about this idea two weeks ago. Everyone has a true crime podcast now. I’m almost ashamed to think about how arrogant it is to think that ours would be any different than the others. I want to back out.  

Christy hands me the magazine. It’s a People Magazine from 1999. I was 8 years old then. 8 was a big year. It’s a full four page story. Four whole pages dedicated to the man named Henry Wyatt Herndon, the Smithfield Ripper.  

The living room was always brightest in the morning because it faced East. That’s what Mama said. The sun made it a little warmer on the first bitter cold day of November, but the old hardwood floor still felt shivery under my slippers. I knew it was Saturday, because Dragon Tales was on, and Dragon Tales only came on Saturday mornings. I was eating cereal and waiting for Mama and baby Ricky to wake up. I liked it best when the house was quiet; quiet and sunny and cozy.  

I wouldn’t have heard the door open at all, but Daddy dropped his keys, and they crashed to the floor in a clattering mess of sound. Daddy whispered a very bad word and groaned as he bent down to retrieve them. Daddy had a bad leg.  

“Princess, whas you doin’ up?” His words were slurry and jumbled, but he smiled his bright, sweet smile and bent down to kiss the top of my head. He smelled of metal and rust and medicine. 

“Watching TV, Daddy.” He had red smears on his jeans. I wondered what he had been painting in the garage, and why he was doing it so early in the morning.

“Where’s your mama, Princess?” Daddy took his coat off. The faded green flannel shirt underneath it was ripped in the back, and he had more red smears on the sleeves. 

“Sleeping.” Fear crept up the back of my neck, but I didn’t understand where it was coming from. The living room felt small and dimmer, somehow.  

“Princess, ya wanna help Daddy with my project?”

“So what’s our game plan here?” Christy twirls a strand of hair around her finger as she studies the laptop screen. Henry Wyatt Herndon’s life in pictures is displayed there; photos of the monster as a child, as a teen, as a groom, as a father, as a killer. His mugshot taunts me; there is nothing behind his eyes but pain and disapproval.  

“Well, let’s talk about his early life first. Parents, pets, you know. I can do that part.” says Miller. He speaks as if he’s an expert in his field, and I’m embarrassed for him.  “Then we go into the crimes, talk about the victims. I figure you can do that part, and then Bette can talk about the trial.”

Christy’s face is strewn into a serious, concentrated frown which looks glaringly out of place on her tiny face. “Yes, I can see that.” She nods, all business.

“Apparently his lawyer, some guy named Roy Varner, got him out of the death penalty with all these crazy tactics.”

“No.” I can’t stop myself. “No, I don’t want to talk about the trial. I think I’d like to talk about his life.”

It was so cold in the garage that I could see my breath. It escaped from my mouth in faint blue tendrils as I tried to keep my teeth from chattering together. There was an impossible amount of garbage bags and plastic sheeting scattered across Daddy’s tool bench, but that’s not what I was concerned about. I knew the next step. I closed my eyes tight and waited, just like always. One, two, three, four…Eventually I was going to get to 10, and I was going to have to be a good helper so that Mama and baby Ricky would never know, but I kept my eyes squeezed tight, so tight that tears streamed down my cheeks and burned my frozen skin.  

“Time, Princess. Open yer eyes.”

“Bette, are you okay?” Christy’s tone is one of rare, genuine concern. She is studying me as I study the online photo album. Someone had found a family picture taken at a Christmas party sometime long ago. The monster stands alongside a slim, pretty brunette with laugh lines around her clear blue eyes. She’s holding a chubby, crying baby, and between them is a little girl with a face framed with curly black tendrils and dark, thoughtful eyes. She is wearing a red velvet dress with lace trimming that itched terribly and black patent leather shoes that had gotten scuffed on the sidewalk. Such a normal family, I think. Such a pretty, normal picture. There’s a proverbial lump in my throat that I wish would dissolve before the tears start.

I nod. “I’m okay.”

Miller is typing furiously. “So our Henry here is the penultimate family man, and then one day the neighbor yells at him for having his car stereo too loud in the middle of the night, so he goes right over to the dude’s front lawn and stabs him in the head.” Miller looks up. “Who stabs someone in the head?”

Christy laughs. “A piece of shit.”

Miller shakes his head. “I can’t believe he had a family.”  

I opened my eyes and saw red. Angry red that was jumbled and nonsensical. My brain wouldn’t process it and I was glad for that. It was just red and meat, that was all. I felt the cold steel of the saw handle that Daddy pressed into my hand. It had to be this way, because Daddy couldn’t touch the tools. If Daddy touched the tools, the police would come and he would be sent away forever.  

“Steady, now,” he said, closing his big, protective hand around mine and guiding the blade towards the table. It sunk down, and I pictured a knife cutting through butter because that was the only way I could do it. “Steady. Go quick but firm.”

Quick but firm. Quick but firm. Back and forth, just like the last time. Don’t look at the angry red. Don’t think. Soon it would be done, and we could put the meat in bags and Daddy would make them disappear like all the others.

“Don’t worry, Princess,” Daddy said as he smiled down at me. “He was a bad man who said mean things. Bad people who say mean things deserve to have mean things done to them.”

“I just wish we could, like, talk to him,” says Christy as she sips her iced latte. “You know, give us an edge. Lots of podcasts just talk about the crime, but there aren’t a lot who get down and dirty with the actual killer.”

“It would give us an edge,” agrees Miller.

I stare at the faint blue lipstick stain on Christy’s straw, until finally I get up from the table.  

“I think I’m going to go,” I say. They both look at me with funny expressions. They can’t read me. I never realized that they couldn’t. I wonder if anyone can.

As I step into the fading, chilly afternoon, I breathe in the clean air. It smells like perfumed smoke and sunshine. I pull out my phone and dial. A weary but pleasant voice answers.

“Roy Varner speaking.”

“Hi, Roy. I need to talk to my dad. Can you arrange visitation?”

November 16, 2019 04:50

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E. Jude
08:53 Jun 05, 2020

If I could give this story five likes, I would. It's so well written and such a great story line. I love your flashbacks and I was hooked. It's so amazing. I think people always read the newest story on your page, but sometimes, when I scroll down I find fantastic stuff, such as this. I can't critique it. I would love if you would take a look at my story/stories, if you don't mind!!! XElsa


Jessica C
18:44 Jul 27, 2020

Elsa, Thank you! That is so kind. This is one that I want to revisit and expand on someday.


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