It was an ugly sunup. The same few colors repeated themselves until it all bled together into a saturated mess of a soup. Jim and the Marshals were on the front porch, looking out at the neighborhood.
Clover Street was a part of a different development about a mile and a half down the road – you went left and down the hill and followed the turn in the road that was hard to see by the house with blue shutters on it that faced the corner. They had probably walked past the house where it happened a hundred times.
No one had gotten any sleep on the porch, but everybody outside that little bubble of lilting air went about their business more or less as normal. When they got there, Jim hadn’t even looked up. He just started talking in a low voice. He told them that the police wouldn’t be able to help, and what with Gret being one of theirs they would clog up the place in their fever to do their jobs. He told them not to call the police, and not to do anything at all.
Less than a day ago Annette had gotten up around this time to go on a walk with Gret, and the day before that had been dinner. They cleaned up the dishes together while Kyle started on the hunt for Zig.
It was funny where her mind went when she was standing on the porch. She pushed past most of what she should have been feeling, and she settled on an odd sensation that she didn’t know had bothered her.
Jim hadn’t helped with the dishes. That was all she could think about – he had left them for Gret and her to do. When they were done he had probably thanked them for the work, but that wasn’t how Annette remembered it.
She tried to remember what the last thing she had said to Gret was and realized it was almost definitely “have a good day,” so she tried instead to think of what she should have said.
Stay away from the house.
I love you.
Please don’t go.
We can protect you.
Say goodbye to Izzy before you go.
We’ll miss you.
There was a crack. Kyle had dropped the coffee mug he was holding, and it shattered on the stone. He went to apologize.
“That’s not what you have to be sorry for,” Jim said.
None of what she thought of worked. She looked at the puddle of brown pooling at the wheel of Jim’s chair and imagined – vividly imagined, without knowing why – the tire of a car stuck in deep mud. The car revved and the tire spun furiously in reverse, and all it did was kick up the shit from the swamp.
“Jim, I tried to get there. It was his territory, and – ”
“And you fucked up and got my daughter killed, Kyle. Why weren’t you there?”
Kyle didn’t say anything for awhile. Jim spat.
“She shouldn’t have gone there alone,” he said. “You were supposed to warn her if it got too bad. That’s what I told you. That’s what I told you to do!
He was choking. Kyle’s face didn’t move. By inches, Jim regained his breath.
“If you had listened to me,” Jim said, “my girl wouldn’t be dead. You told me never again. That’s what you told me.”
Feebly, he lurched forward as though to take a swing at Kyle. He was out of breath. Every bit of what Jim had said slid off Kyle like he hadn’t heard it. Jim turned away and looked out at the trash men making their rounds.
The person she fell in love with wasn’t a person. Annette knew that. If he had emotions, they didn’t look like the ones people had. He could fake it, but sometimes things slipped up and everything about him looked off. If you knew what you were keeping an eye out for.
Jim saw Kyle frown sympathetically, but Annette saw something different.
Annette saw his lips curl downward, his brow wrinkle, his eyes falter. She saw him go through the motions of a frown, but there was nothing in it. It was like two pages of a flip book; passive to desperate with absolutely no space in between them. His face just changed without transition. The only time she cared to see what animated him was when he did things like that. She wasn’t actually sure if he could get angry.
“So what do we do?” Kyle asked.
“You two don’t do anything,” Jim said. “I go to Clover Street and clear this mess up.”
Annette imagined the car stuck in the mud lurching nauseously and buckling under the stress. It wheezed, but the wheel wouldn’t go backwards.
“That’s what he’ll be looking for,” Kyle said.
“Yeah, I know. But I’m ready for him.”
Kyle kneaded his hands until Annette was sure the bones would shift.
“What about Izzy?” he asked.
“I’ll talk to her about it when I get back. I’ll handle it. I’ll handle everything. You two go home and wait on me.”
“What if you don’t make it?”
“I don’t need your help, kid. We don’t need your help anymore. I can see now that you’re not trustworthy.”
Something coughed in Annette. She settled on what her last words to her friend should have been.
Don’t listen to your dad, Gret. Your dad doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Don’t trust him and don’t listen to him, or it’s going to kill you.
“Shut up,” Annette said aloud. “Shut the fuck up, you stupid old man.” Her voice was low and quiet. In her head it sounded fast and ice-angry, but she was hoarse and almost rasping by the end of it. Her hands shook. “Shut up,” she said again.
Jim Parsons raised his eyes to meet hers.
“You want to know what’ll happen if you go to Clover Street, Jim? Do you want to know? You’ll die.” She got down on her knees and stared right back into those eyes of his. She lowered herself to him. “You’ll die in a second if you go to that house. You won’t make it through the front door before he’s playing with you, and you have to know that if you’re even a fraction as smart as the woman you got killed.”
“What did you say?”
“Annette –” Kyle said.
“You killed Gret, Jim. She’s dead because she listened to you and she knew she shouldn’t have.” She felt Kyle’s hand on her shoulder and a presence in her mind urging, daring her on. She stood up, but kept her eyes on Jim’s. “Do you have any idea how far she would have gone on your word? She went to that house for you. And if you follow her there Izzy isn’t going to have anybody.” She regarded him spitefully. “If you’re going to kill yourself at least do it better than that. Have the guts to at least recognize that people need you.”
“Don’t you dare talk about my daughter that way. Don’t you fucking dare.”
“Yes! She was your daughter!” Annette yelled. “Do you not get that? She loved you! She trusted you. And nobody’s willing to admit that you aren’t trustworthy anymore!” She slammed both hands into the railing and dug her fingernails into the chipping paint.
Kyle’s hand squeezed her shoulder, and she slowed down.
Annette approached him again. “Jim,” she said quietly, “you made a mistake when you went to the jail and talked to him. He walked circles around you.”
“No. You’re wrong.”
“He did. You’re old, and you’re sick and the medicine makes you confused sometimes. But whenever anyone’s around they’ve gotta pretend like you’re okay, and you won’t admit that you’re fading.” She took a deep breath. “And it killed her.”
Jim pulled himself up onto the edge of his chair. “I read him right. I did.”
“Do you even remember what he said to you?”
“I asked the kid –”
“Do you even know his name, Jim? Is he just ‘the kid’ to you?”
Jim opened his mouth over and over again, but didn’t say anything.
“It’s Jake,” Annette said. “That’s his name. Jesus.” She wiped her eyes. “It was never about him, was it? Or Chelsea? It’s about getting back at him. That fucking number. And the note. And ‘Stagger Lee,’ right? You remember his name just fine.”
“I don’t –”
“Do you care more about him than your family?”
Jim Parsons had never looked older. He rasped, and couldn’t look at Annette. He made strange faces as he tried and failed to start a sentence. When he finally spoke again, it was through a set jaw and rigid teeth. And he only spoke to Kyle.
“Go home, kid,” he said. “Take your wife with you, and be ready when I call.”
He turned around and went inside his house.
Before Annette walked off the Parsons’ property she heard a crash, and turned just in time to see Jim throw a little orange bottle of pills at the wall.