The mysterious case John Knocker's death and the lives of those around him.
|For the half-dozen years before making a mistake which would send his customers running for the door and the IRS rifling through his records, John Knocker had been a mediocre tax consultant and an adequate husband in Lewiston, Idaho. Once the dust had settled, though, he had neither business nor wife and only two things to show for his years of dedication: a now-worthless CPA certificate from Lewis Clark State College, and two children (a three-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy) he was allowed to see on the third weekend of every month. John had lacked the imagination or resolve to be dishonest or greedy, yet he felt himself to be the victim of an unjustifiable fate, so he hatched a plan to recover both his finances and family.
In robbing the local roller-rink, he proved himself to be as clumsy with a crowbar as he had been with the tax codes. The police caught John sitting on the floor of the Skateway’s office, a handkerchief wrapped around a huge gash in his palm dripping blood onto the carpet, the burglar alarm still clanging for attention.
John’s lawyer argued that, obviously, John was too inept to be a danger to society and, moreover, he’d attempted the robbery after hours, when no one could have been hurt.
The judge sentenced John to three years at the minimum-security penitentiary near Cottonwood.
By the second year of his sentence, John had grown to hate his wife, the IRS for ruining his business, and the clients who’d abandoned him. If only they’d remained loyal, he reasoned, his life would’ve turned out so much different. Now, though, he was desperate enough to consider the escape plan of his idiot cellmate.
Frank Ball (five counts fencing stolen property, one count assault and battery) had worked out the plan months before the skinny, red-headed Knocker shambled into the cell. Fred, who’d been a used car salesman, had the gift of gab, and he talked incessantly. It took less than three weeks for John to wish a painful throat cancer on the man. In between anecdotes of his life and exploits, Frank fed John snippets of his escape plan, hooking, despite their lack of details, the resentful man’s interest. Fred changed key points of the plan so often that John, laying awake and listening to the wind blowing across the Camas Prairie night, could only sum up the final plan as “We get over the all when the guards aren’t looking and then we run like hell.”
Herman Jenny let the creaking screen door slam behind him as he came in from checking the cows. The back porch smelled of old cat food and slop from the compost bucket in the corner. A yellow calendar on the wall above the ice chest showed all the presidents up to Reagan. As he listened to his grandson talking and smelled the fresh-brewed coffee in the kitchen, he scraped the mud and snow from his boots and took them off, carrying them with him through the faded green door.
“Hi, Grandpa!” called out the small, red-headed boy, a glass of Tang in hand, the funny pages laid out on the table before him.
“Morning, sleepyhead. Good to see you finally got up. It’s almost eight.” He ruffled the little boy’s hair as he walked past and then set his boots on a newspaper in front of the heater on the other side of the room.
“Something spooked those heifers last night,” he said to his wife. He sat down in his customary chair by the cellar door. “One of them kicked a hole in the side of the barn.”
His wife, Sylvia, set a cup of coffee in front of him and then popped a couple pieces of bread into the toaster. “Think it was a coyote?” she asked, serving him slices of bacon from a grease-sopped paper towel.
Herman winced. The bitter, scalding coffee was just the way he liked it.
“Don’t know,” he said. “Those pregnant cows spook so easy, could’ve been anything. My money’s on a wolf, though,” he added, winking at his wide-eyed grandson. “This winter’s turning nasty. They’ll be coming down from the mountains, looking for food.”
“Herman, don’t try to scare the boy,” Sylvia said.
“Wha’d’ya say, Trevor? Fancy sleeping in the barn tonight? I’ll give you twenty bucks,” Herman said.
“No way,” Trevor said, half-laughing, unsure if his grandfather meant it or not.
Herman shrugged. “Your loss. But you’re going to have to do it sometime. Can’t send you back to your mom in the city all sissy. She slept in the barn when she was five, you know.”
“Herman,” Sylvia warned, scrapping margarine onto the toast. “Did you happen to see any tracks while you were messing around out there?”
“No,” Herman conceded. “But you never know. There was a lot of wind last night, and I didn’t look very hard.”
“I bet.” Sylvia stubbed out her cigarette and then sat down at the table, sliding the plate of toast in front of Herman. “We need to get groceries when we pick up the mail today.” She picked up a pen, poured herself her fourth cup of coffee for the morning, and then started in on the crossword. Herman ate without speaking while Trevor giggled at the funnies. Around ten o’clock they piled into the truck and drove the half-mile to town, the huge bowl of the sky burning sapphire above the surrounding farmland. Sylvia dropped Herman off at the tavern. She and Trevor continued on to the post office and then to the grocery store.
Back at “The Ranch,” Herman took a stool and ordered a beer. Two other men, also farmers, talked nearby. A sign on the wall read: “Cows may come and cows may go, but the bull in this place goes on forever.” Another sign, penned by the owner himself, said: “Beer and whisky are fine by the glass, but you ask for a cocktail or a wine and you’re out on your ass.”
“Morning,” said the owner, appearing in front of Herman.
“Storm’s coming in, I heard,” Jack said. Handing Herman a bottle of Budweiser, he added: “Better wrap those waters pipes tight.”
“Did it say when?”
“Another day or two.”
“Thanks,” Herman said and then lit up a cigarette to settle in until Sylvia saw fit to finish her gabbing.
“Can I count on you?” Frank asked for what seemed like the tenth time.
“Yes,” John said with more annoyance than conviction. “But you’re going to have to give me more to work. I can’t tell what you’re planning to do.”
“That’s the beauty of it. If the guards ask you questions, then you can’t give away any details. It’s foolproof.”
John wasn’t sure of that, but kept it to himself. “When are you figuring to do it?”
“Soon as the snow comes in.”
“No reason. Anyone ever mention anything called “tracks” to you, by the way?”
“See my airplane, grandpa?”
Herman slowly took his eyes from the road to the green plastic model of a P-52 in Trevor’s hands. He then looked at Syliva, who was driving, and said, “You’re going to spoil him.”
“Ain’t it cool?” Trevor said, unfazed. “Did you fly one of these in the war?”
“I was in the Navy, Trevor. Did you hear me, Sylvia?”
“Yes I did. And maybe you would like to entertain him this afternoon?” Herman didn’t reply.
Back at the house, he told her about the coming storm. She checked the electric blankets were working and put another quilt at the foot of Trevor’s bed. Herman went to the cellar and checked the pipes and furnace.
Lunch was grilled cheese and tomato soup in front of the TV. Afterwards, Trevor stretched out on the floor, head propped on a pillow, his new toy circling lazy overhead. Sylvia curled up on the couch with a romance novel and a pack of Marlboros. Herman settled into the recliner with a cold can of Keystone.
Trevor came back from exploring the abandoned orchard behind the barn. He had a question: “What’s that circle of stones up there on the hill?”
Sylvia, who’d been reading at the kitchen table, set down her book and stubbed out her cigarette.
“You didn’t touch it, did you?”
“No,” Trevor said immediately.
“Good, because that’s an Indian’s grave and there’s a curse on it.”
Trevor screwed up his face. “Really?”
“Really. Come here, sit down,” she said, patting the chair next to her.“ Back when your great-grandpa, Joe, was just a kid, he got a beating from his mother because he’d skipped out on his chores. Well, he decided to get a little revenge on her. He went up to that grave and, against his father’s warning never to touch it, dug around until he found the skull. He wrapped that skull in burlap, washed it in a bucket of water in the barn, and placed it on the second shelf of the kitchen cupboard next to the sink (yes, the one where we keep the cookies). Well, when his mother opened the cupboard and saw the skull sitting there staring out at her, she did scream, but then she grabbed Joe and gave him another beating, one that he remembered for the rest of his life; and then his father gave him one just for good measure.”
“And that’s the curse?”
“Oh, no. You see, Joe put the skull back, but the damage had already been done. By disturbing the grave, he’d angered the spirit trapped inside. That year, many bad things happened on the farm: cows died, the woodshed burned down, Joe’s father got sick, and the winter was terrible. You see, that grave had been put there by the Nez Perce. The Indian’s name was Two Crows. He’d been the fiercest warrior around here, defending and preserving his people against any and all invaders, but with a blood-lust that made the rest of his tribe uneasy. When he finally died in battle, it was with no regret that they buried him and asked their medicine man to place a magic circle of stones around his grave to keep his vengeful soul locked in the earth so he could not escape to harm any of the living. And there the grave remained, undisturbed and forgotten for generations, long after he had ceased to be a story told to scare small children into behaving and revering the land. For nothing had made Two Crows more angry than those who resented the life Sahale Tyee had given them, or disrespected the land that was their mother.”
John Knocker was eating in the prison cafeteria when Frank sat down on the bench across from him.
“Just got confirmation: they’re saying there’s a storm on the way, maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow. I just need to make sure you’re with me on this.”
John tried to ignore him.
“Did you hear me? I said—”
John dropped his fork. “Jesus Christ! Yes! Of course I heard you. That’s the third time today you’ve told me.”
Frank leaned closer and whispered: “Yeah? Well, princess, that means we can get out of here. Unless, of course, you don’t want. Maybe you like it here.”
John sighed. Frank was an idiot, but he had the plan. Still, he had to ask the question: “Why is this storm so important to your plan, again?”
“That’s the beauty of it, don’t you see? The guards will be too preoccupied with keeping warm to go outside and check the wall.”
Frank beamed at his own cleverness.
“What about the cameras?”
“Don’t worry about ‘em.”
“What about tracks?” John asked, running his fork across the top of his mashed potatoes for emphasis. “Doesn’t the thought of them being able to follow our footprints in the snow bother you?”
This last criticism pissed Frank off. He shot up from his seat and stormed back to his place at the other side of the cafeteria. The guards watched him impassively. John returned to his food.
That night, John woke up feeling a blade pressed against his throat.
“Are you coming or not?” Frank whispered. “I ain’t leaving you here to rat me out. You understand?”
John tried to swallow but stopped as the blade pressed harder against his skin.
“Yes, goddamn it. Yes!”
The pressure against his throat vanished and the springs of the bunk below creaked as Frank settled back into his bed.
“Be ready tomorrow night when I tell you.”
Herman stabbed the shovel into the mound of freshly dug earth. He was sweating despite the cold wind. The hole seemed deep enough.
A dead calf lay nearby. He’d had to pull it out of its half-dead mother at three in the morning. With any luck, the cow would live, but the calf was a blow financially.
It was the damndest thing, too: Sylvia had woken him, saying she thought she’d heard something going on in the barn. He hadn’t heard anything. Grudgingly, he’d gone out into the freezing night to check, and found all the cows frightened but silent, doing their best to keep away from the one cow which was laying on its side. It’d gone into labor but had been unable to deliver the calf on its own: that’s why he and Sylvia had to stay up half the night on watch during this season, in case they’d need to wrap those birthing chains around a baby calf’s legs and yank the youngster free. If you missed the signs or you didn’t check often enough, you’d probably lose both cow and calf, and that was just too expensive for Herman and Sylvia to bear. It was ridiculous, too, Herman felt: what kind of animal couldn’t pop out babies on its own?
What made the situation worse was that in the winter, coyotes got pretty desperate for food. Attracted by the smell of blood, they’d come down in the night and chewed pieces of meat from the calf’s legs. Herman shuddered, wondering what the calf must’ve thought, having never lived, having its head wrapped in darkness, unable to escape the pain, unable even to understand or see the source of the excruciating pain.
He pulled the small body into the hole and shoveled dirt until the tattered sticks of meat and bone that the coyotes had left behind were hidden from view.
Later, he checked on the mother. She was still shocked and weak from loss of blood. He put fresh hay in her stall and then went down to the house for lunch.
Sylvia handed him a TV tray with a turkey and cheese sandwich and a tall glass of milk.
“I’ve got a church meeting this afternoon,” she said. “You stay here and keep an eye on Trevor.”
Herman grunted as he took a bite from the sandwich.
Sylvia took a careful look at her husband and then said, “You take it easy today, okay?”
Once Sylvia was gone, however, and the sound of the truck faded into the distance, Herman said to Trevor, “Get your granddad a beer from the fridge in the cellar.”
Trevor, terrified of the dark corners and dank smell below the house, refused.
“Do it now,” Herman said in his most menacing tone.
Trevor protested. Herman ordered again. Trevor ran from the room, sprinted down the stairs and returned with a beer. He gave it to Herman.
“Good boy,” Herman said. “See, that wasn’t so scary.”
Over the next hour, Herman sent Trevor for beer two more times. While Trevor watched “Hollywood Squares,” Herman alternated his attention between the TV and the cows at the fence outside the living room window. A group of them came in from the north forty every day to eat the hay he’d leave in a feeder near the barn wall. Clouds of steam poured from their nostrils as they followed the barbed wire to the barnyard.
“God, I hate those cows.” It may have been only a whisper, but the vehemence in Herman’s voice got Trevor’s attention. Herman, noticing the boy’s eyes on him, directed his next words at him: “You know I grew up here, didn’t ya? Well, my older brother, Gus, he was supposed to take over the farm when he grew up. Me, I wanted to move to Chicago to work in one of these car factories. I studied auto mechanics at high school. Did you know that? No. Of course you didn’t. Anyway, the war came, and all us brothers joined up. Gus went into the Marines. I went into the Navy. Maybe he saw that plane of yours, I don’t know. I got put to work as an engineer on a troop transport. Do you know what those are?”
Trevor shook his head. “You showed me a picture, but…”
“Yeah? Well, my job was keeping the damn engines running. We’d load up a group of soldiers and then dump them off on some god-forsaken beach somewhere to die. Over and over again. Crossed the equator twice, I did.” He pointed to a framed certificate on the wall. “Even delivered Gus to the Battle of Saipan. Yeah, that was my job. Nips bombed the shit out of us coming in. From what I got told, Gus didn’t even make it to shore. Made four more deliveries that day,” he added, his voice dropping to a whisper by the last words. “Get me another beer, would you.” It wasn’t a question.
Trevor, forgetting his terror of the cellar, raced down and back as fast as he could. His uncles had told him that Herman never talked about the war, so he knew he was part of something special today.
“Thank you,” Herman said, taking the beer and popping it open. He took a long drink. After watching the cows again for some time, and ignoring the silent anticipation of his grandson, he sighed, as if reaching a decision, and said, “Seems I started acting a bit erratic after that. Got me an honorable discharge and they shipped me home. But Gus was dead, see? Joe Jr. was gone, too, and any chance of me getting outta here. The farm was all mine. No one else left to run it. Nothing but a bunch of rocks and worthless grass, only good for keeping cattle, but cattle, you know, they need watching all the time: hay, water, medicine, calving, branding. Never any days off. No vacations. No money, either, really. Just load ‘em onto the trucks and ship ‘em off to the slaughterhouse.”
Herman wound down again, eyes out the window: a cow by the fence stood gazing in the direction of the house.
“Why do you scream at night, grandpa?”
Trevor had just ventured into forbidden ground. Every grandchild knew Sylvia would beat anyone presumptuous enough to ask after her husband’s nightmares.
Herman broke his gaze from the window. The boy looked frightened, but Herman thought he’d detected a hint of defiance in the quavering, little voice. It saddened him, though he wasn’t sure why.
“I’m getting outta here,” he announced, rising to put on his coat. “Tell grandma I’ll be back after dinner.”
“Yes, tonight. Storm’s definetly hitting tonight. Everything’s ready.”
In normal circumstances, John did everything he could to not see his cellmate straining on the shitter, but now he felt he needed to see the man’s face, to look into his eyes, ignore the stench and the disgust rising in his belly, and see if there was any truth written there.
“Like: everything. Jesus, man,” and here Frank started wiping his ass, “leave me to crap in peace, would you? Don’t worry. Everything’s cool.”
The tool shed, with its rows and piles of sharp, rusty blades, drills, nails, and piles of old barbed wire and wooden fence posts, was forbidden to Trevor, with dire, unspeakable punishments to be enacted on his corporeal body as well as eternal torment of his soul in the afterlife should he fail to respect the prohibition.
With no one around, though, Trevor felt pretty safe venturing inside dark, oily-smelling building.
After a little exploration and experimentation, he fashioned a spear out of a piece of piece of sheet metal he sharpened on the electric grinder and an old broom handle. Now he was an Indian, a hunter and a warrior. It was a good spear, too: it stuck to the side of the barn on the first throw. Inside the barn, every hay bale was a deer, bear or buffalo, his arm strong, his aim true, and his heart without fear. He leapt, dived, rolled, and threw the spear, each time sinking it into the side of a bale, sometimes severing the twine holding the bale together. He lost track of time. What seemed like only minutes was actually several hours, and he stopped only when he thought he’d heard his grandmother calling his name. Leaning out over the edge of the loft to look out a window, he looked around but saw no one. He leaned back, turned, and screamed.
Sylvia, standing on the back porch behind the screen door, heard the scream and sprinted for the barn with a burst of speed that would’ve surprised anyone who’d only known her as a sixty-year-old chain-smoker. She found Trevor curled up in pain on a stack of bales near the ground, blood welling up from a small but nasty-looking gash in his leg and dripping onto the hay. Hefting him in her arms, she carried the howling child back to the house and treated the wound—it wasn’t serious, more ugly than damaging, requiring a daub of Neosporin and a single gauze bandage. It took considerably more effort to calm Trevor, though. He insisted he’d seen a wolf, which Sylvia knew was impossible—he might’ve seen a cat, or even a fox, but no wolf would climb up to the hay loft. Finally, in a last effort to kill the story, she went to the barn and recovered the spear from where he’d fallen.
“Is this yours, little man?” she asked, coming back into the kitchen and holding the spear in front of him.
“And you see this blood here on the tip?”
“Seems to me you met with an accident, not a wolf at all.”
“I didn’t say it attacked me!” Trevor burst out.
Sylvia looked over the top of her glasses at him. “No?”
“Then maybe you should tell grandma exactly what happened, okay? No lies.”
Trevor sat up. “It was a wolf…or a bear, or something.”
Sylvia smiled. “That seems a pretty important detail not to be certain of.”
“I couldn’t see it well,” Trevor clarified. “It was like smoke. The sunlight only shone off parts of it, like the edges.”
“Or dust. I don’t know. I could only see it in the sunlight, only when it moved. It was right behind me and I didn’t hear it or anything. It had four legs, but the front ones were long, like arms. I think it had hands. It was big. Really big, you know? I would’a heard it. But I didn’t. I heard you.”
Sylvia patted him on the knee. “I think what you’ve got here is just an overactive imagination. I shouldn’t have told you that story.”
“I didn’t imagine it, grandma. I didn’t. I swear.”
“Don’t be swearing something like that, Trevor. Look, let’s get dinner ready. I’ll make your favorite tuna casserole. What do you say?”
“Grandpa said he’d be back later,” Trevor admitted, uncertain of Sylvia’s reaction.
“I’ll bet he did.” Sylvia sighed. “Well, he can worry about his own damn food tonight. You and I are going to have ice cream and chocolate syrup for dessert, not him. Okay?”
Amazed, Trevor asked: “You eat ice cream in winter?”
“Tonight we do,” Sylvia said, pulling out a pot from under the stove. Outside the kitchen window, the horizon was already grey with storm clouds and the thermometer read twenty-two though it wasn’t even dark out.
“Jesus Christ! Would you please hurry your ass up!” Frank shouted. The wind, howling through the trees around them, drowned out his words. The cold bit through the thin cloth of his prison uniform. Behind him, John continued complaining even though Frank couldn’t hear a word the man said. “Just hurry up!”
“Can’t,” John protested. “Too tired.”
“See those lights over there?” Frank pulled John close and pointed to a small group of lights off in the distance. “That’s the town. Not much further. But we’ve got to get inside soon or we’re going to fucking freeze to death, so you have got to get moving.”
John squinted. “That Cottonwood?”
John looked around, trying to see where they were. “I know a farm not far from here. We can hide in their barn until we warm up.”
“Well, then, lead the way. So long as we get out of there before dawn, I’m all for it.”
To keep them out of the wind, John steered them down a creek bottom, keeping inside the trees as much as possible. Branches scratched their freezing skin, making them yelp in pain, but at least the wind was calmer here. After an eternity—after both men had reached a point of constant swearing through chattering teeth—John led them up to the top of a hill. Below them, in the snow swirling darkness, they could make out the sliver of light that marked the house; off to the left, the bulk of the barn stood black against the sky.
“Come on,” Frank said, pulling John after him.
Just then, headlights crested a hill beyond the house. Both men dropped to the ground.
“Cops?” John asked.
“Out here? Don’t be an idiot. Maybe sheriff, though. Don’t know. We gotta wait and see.”
As the snow melted through their clothing to freeze against their skin, as their toes and fingers screamed in pain, as their insides convulsed with uncontrollable shivering, they watched as the car crept down the road, swerving as it went, sometimes stopping, sometimes speeding up, but always heading in the direction of the house. John was certain Herman must’ve gone off the road at least twice before stopping in front of the house.
Only after they heard the house door slam shut did they stand up.
“God damn it!” Frank growled as he hopped in place, his arms wrapped tight around his chest, trying to warm up. “Let’s go.”
“Hold on,” John said, putting a hand on the other man’s chest to hold him back. “Listen.” Voices in the house rose towards them, and the voices were getting louder.
“Fuck it. Come on! Let’s get in.” Frank hurried towards the barn, leaving John to follow.
Just as John was swinging his leg over the top of a barbed wire fence, the sound of a gunshot exploded from the house. Panicking, thinking that Herman might’ve spotted them, John fell, slashing his thigh open on the wire.
Frank rushed over and picked him up. “Into the barn!”
As they ran, even louder shouting erupted in the house. Both men clambered over the wood gate to the center of the barn.
After the cold, clean air outside, the smell of cow manure and piss struck their noses like a blow torch. Feeling along the wall like a blind man, Frank found the ladder to the hay loft. John followed him, limping with the gash in his leg. They found many of the bales had been cut, and quickly covered themselves in the loose hay to keep out the cold.
“What the hell was with the gun?” Frank asked.
“No idea,” John admitted. “Probably we don’t have to worry about it.”
“Okay, then. Just remember: we’ve gotta get outta here and steal a car before dawn.”
Half-asleep already, John mumbled about hiding in the barn for the next day.
“You really are an idiot,” Frank said. “They’re going to be looking for us soon.”
“Good thing you had everything ready, then,” John chuckled with a mirth he didn’t feel. “Great plan. Did you even think of stashing away some warmer clothes?”
“Just shut the fuck up. If you ain’t up when I’m ready, I’m leaving your ass here. You can rat me out if you want.”
John chuckled again. “You never told me where we’re going.”
“That’s how good my plan is.”
“Trevor!” Herman called as he stumbled into the house. “Get out of bed and take my boots off.” He plopped into the recliner and swung his feet up onto the Ottoman.
Sylvia set her book down. “Herman, take it easy.”
“Always do. Always do,” he said. “Bad night out there. Where is that boy?”
“Drive home okay?”
Trevor came out of his bedroom, wearing his flannel pajamas, a gray blanket draped over his shoulders.
“There’s my boy,” Herman said brightly. “Come here and give your grandpa a hug.”
The boy walked over cautiously. Herman’s face was red, and he stank of beer and cigarettes.
“He’s had a scare,” Sylvia said, as if to explain Trevor’s reluctance.
“Yeah? What happened?”
“Show him your cut, Trevor.”
Trevor did as he was told. Herman clicked his tongue.
“That’s a nasty cut. How’d you get that?”
“He got it,” Sylvia said before Trevor could answer, “playing in the barn. Seems somebody who should’ve been watching him wasn’t.”
Herman ignored the reprimand.
“Grandpa,” Trevor spoke up. “I saw something in the barn.”
“What di’ja see?” Herman slurred.
“I don’t know. It looked like a wolf, but grandma said it wasn’t. It was like ghost, too.”
Herman leaned back and smiled. “So you finally saw it. That’s good. All us men have seen it.”
“What?” Trevor asked.
“The thing that lives in the barn. All us brothers saw it when we were young. Your great-grandpa made us sleep in the barn every month to make men out of us. We saw it, sure enough, but we still had to sleep out there. Now, my dad didn’t give me any money for it, but I’m going to give you twenty dollars, Trevor, if you sleep out there tonight. How about it?”
Trevor shook his head.
“Twenty dollars, boy. That’s a lot of money.”
“I don’t want it.”
Herman pushed himself up from the chair and grabbed Trevor by the arm.
“Don’t be a baby,” Herman said.
“Herman!” Sylvia shot to her feet. Trevor was trying to twist out of Herman’s grip, but Herman was letting go.
“Back off, Sylvia. Our daughter’s been spoiling him rotten.” Turning his attention back to Trevor, he said, “Here’s what you do: go get the rifle out of the hallway and you go up to that barn and you wait there for that damn wolf. When you see, kill it.”
Trevor started crying. Sylvia shouted for Herman to let him go.
“Ever since his loser father went to prison, Catherine’s been treating Trevor like he’s going to break. She’s making a sissy out of him. Is that what you want to be Trevor: a sissy?”
“No,” Trevor said.
“There. See?” Herman said to Sylvia, triumphant. He then went to the hallway, pulled the rifle off the rack. Returning, he pushed it into Trevor’s hands.
“Now, put the butt up against your shoulder like I told you—”
“Herman Jacob Jenny! Stop right now! You’re drunk.”
Herman turned around and looked at her, a look of shocked surprise on his face.
“Of course I am.”
That said, he turned his attention back to Trevor. He positioned the crying boy’s finger on the trigger without the slightest fear—he always unloaded the gun before putting it up.
“Now, Trevor, you go up there, get that damn ghost wolf between those sights and pull the trigger.”
His breath stank and he slurred as he spoke. Trevor suddenly jerked back in fear, and the gun went off. Without so much as a puff of smoke or plaster dust, the bullet punched a neat, pencil-sized hole in the wood paneling a few inches above the TV.
No one moved. No one spoke, but the sound of Sylvia drawing breath was like a burning fuse. She exploded in a barrage of curse words that sent Trevor scrambling for his room. Herman started to defend himself, and then gave up under the fire of Sylvia’s anger. He stumbled to the bedroom and took off his boots before crawling into the blankets.
Sylvia, still fuming, went to comfort Trevor until he fell asleep. Later, she sat at the kitchen table with a pack of cigarettes, chain-smoking her way to a resigned calm by about one a.m. Then, with the whole house quiet around her, she too went to bed.
John woke in the dark because he felt something nibbling on his toes. Drowsily, he put it down to his feet warming up at last and fell back to sleep. When the feeling woke him a second time, he pulled off his sock and shoe and checked for burs or thorns. Satisfied, he snuggled back into the hay.
And that’s when the teeth tore into his foot.
The screams sent Frank flailing to his feet, hay flying around him as he darted backwards to slam his head against a beam in the dark. He fell to the frozen mud of the barn floor, spraining his ankle as he landed. Above him, the screaming rose to a final, sickening gurgle, and then stopped. Frank threw himself over the fence.
The snow had stopped. He leaned for a moment against the barn wall to take the weight off his protesting ankle and then hurried off again as a light appeared near the house.
Hurrying around the corner of the barn and then up the hill, Frank didn’t even realize he was heading back the way he’d come, toward the prison.
Trevor woke to the screams, thinking his grandfather was having another nightmare, but when the screaming continued, he realized they were coming from outside the house. He came out of his room and found his grandparents already standing in the dark of the living room, listening. Herman, holding the rifle, motioned Trevor to stand next to Sylvia.
“You keep him here with you,” he said to his wife and then went outside
Slipping on patches of ice as he slowly approached the barn, Herman silently prayed he wasn’t going to have to shoot someone.
The sheriff and a couple deputies arrived at around seven a.m. Herman showed them what he’d found in the hayloft. One of the deputies threw up right there; the other made a joke about swearing off drumsticks but was hushed by the sheriff.
There wasn’t much left of John Knocker below the waist except bits of shredded meat hanging off the bone.
The deputies found Frank’s tracks and caught up with him an hour later. He babbled about a wolf with arms, but no one listened given the size of the lump on his head.
“It’s ridiculous,” the sheriff said over his cup of coffee at the Jenny’s kitchen table. “Everyone knows wolves are too shy to attack humans.”
Herman remembered the glistening mass of blood and meat his flashlight had framed, and his stomach turned again. “Yeah. Maybe. But what was it, then?”
No one would credit that notion, but no alternative, credible explanation presented itself; accepting Frank’s ravings as true was not a possibility.
It would be several days before his mother broke the news to Trevor that he would never be with his father again.
The coroner examined John Knocker’s remains; the mortician buried them. A handful of close relatives attended his funeral. His wife and two children would visit his grave to honor his birthday, but after the fourth year of this, as the children’s lives grew busier and other matters became more important, they stopped visiting, and John Knocker’s grave became just another stone cleaned and plot of grass tended by city workers just trying to make a living.