Trying unsuccessfully to ignore raised voices coming from inside the house where she lived with her sister and brother-in-law, eleven-year-old Jillie Ross stooped to retrieve a green plastic toy soldier and two milky white stones – the latest of many gifts left by a growing number of crows in exchange for the bits of bread she scattered on the porch daily. The toy soldier was missing a leg, but the crystalline stones were pretty. She did a happy dance for the benefit of the crow watching from its perch atop the backyard fence, stuffed the toy and stones into her jeans pocket and headed for the back door.
Her stomach tightened as it always did when her sister Beth and brother-in-law Digger argued. Usually, she’d walk the mile or so to their neighbor Mrs. Potter’s house and hang out long enough for the storm to die down, but for some reason, that day she chose to stay close by.
She sighed, repositioned the eyeglasses on her sweat-slick nose and shot a final glance toward a sumac bush underneath which she’d seen a huge rattlesnake that morning. After making a mental note to warn Beth about the snake, she stepped to the back door.
“Stop your blubbering and tell me where it is.” Digger Elliott’s angry voice blasted through the open
door. The sound of flesh smacking flesh confirmed that the argument had escalated, as usual.
Hesitantly, Jillie opened the screen.
“You will tell me, you know,” Digger said. “It’s just a matter of time. I ain’t even started on you good yet.” He paused and looked thoughtful. “Or maybe I been going about this all wrong. Maybe it’s your little sister I should be working over, the white-haired little freak.”
Beth sniffled, but otherwise remained silent.
“I’m talking to you,” Digger yelled.
“Why would I lie?” Beth said. “I’d tell you if there was such a thing.” Her voice sounded tired and sad – like she’d said the same thing so many times she’d lost count. “She doesn’t know any more than I do.”
“Well now, it’s a sad fact of life that innocent folks sometimes get hurt.”
Beth’s quivering voice rose. “Don’t you touch Jillie. I swear I’ll kill you if you so much as look at her funny.”
“Whooooeee, listen at you threatening me. Just who the hell do you think you are?” Digger growled, the sound like something from a wild animal.
Beth wiped her hand across her face and smeared blood over her mouth, chin, and cheeks. Tears streamed from the bright green eyes. The usually smiling lips were swollen and cut.
“I gotta take a leak.” Digger lifted his shirt and unbuckled his belt. “You and me’ll finish this when I get back.” He weaved, bumped into the wall, stumbled for a couple of steps, then disappeared into the bathroom. The sour smell of booze floated on the air behind him. An open, half empty bottle of yellowish liquid on the kitchen table offered testimony to his condition.
Beth glanced down the hall then back toward her sister. She shook her head once and held her finger to her lips.
Jillie stood still.
“Go to Mrs. Potter’s.” Beth’s voice was barely more than a whisper. “He’s pulled the phone out of the wall, so you’ll have to call the police from there.”
But Jillie couldn’t move. She couldn’t stop looking at her sister’s nose, all sideways on her face, or at the streaming blood that made parentheses around Beth’s mouth before dripping onto her white ruffled blouse.
“You got to go get help.” A pink bubble appeared under Beth’s nostril, dangled for an instant, and then popped. “Hurry, before he gets back.”
The sound of a door opening down the hall followed by heavy footfalls and cursing spurred Jillie to action. Wishing for the cell phone Digger had steadfastly refused to buy. I ain’t paying good money so the gov’ment or some foreign hacker can listen to me trash talk my buds. She tore her eyes from her sister’s pleading face, turned and ran through the kitchen and out the back door.
After only a few steps, she slowed. While she was running away, Digger would be hurting Beth. Her eyes frantically darted around the yard for anything big enough to make him stop.
Sun glancing off metal caught her eye. Digger’s machete lay where he’d left it, next to a clump of sagebrush he’d gotten tired of whacking at.
Jillie jumped over a discarded metal detector, grabbed up the machete, and ran back to the house. She flung the screen open, screaming at the top of her lungs, “Leave my sister alone.”
Digger’s eyes remained fixed on Beth. “Get out of here, Freak,” he yelled “Go on back outside and talk to your birds.” He dropped to his knees astraddle Beth. “You know what I hate? I hate the way you find money for her to feed those lousy birds when I have to beg my parents for cigarette money.”
“That money pays the bills, and what’s left belongs to Jillie.”
“Yeah, yeah, a monthly check for the poor little orphan after her mammy and pappy died.” Digger snorted. “That money comes from taxpayers like me, and all’s I want is some of it back.”
“You’d have to pay taxes to be called a taxpayer.”
“Bitch.” Digger growled. “Where is it? Ever’body knows it’s here someplace.”
Beth moved her hands in slow motion. Her eyes grew unfocused, a far-away look in them like she saw things no one else could see.
Digger lifted his fist.
“Stop it!” Jillie hefted the machete above her head. “I said leave her alone.” Seemingly of its own volition, the heavy weapon dropped. The blade thumped against the side of Digger’s head then buried itself in the spot where his neck connected to his shoulder. He hollered a cuss word and made a grab for the blade. Then he grunted, made a funny kind of eep sound, swayed back and forth a couple of times, and collapsed onto the floor.