Clay sat on his porch swing. The rotten wood floor creaked as the toes of his work boots pressed down, easing him back and forth. He’d developed a sort of rhythm over the past hour. Or was it two? Anyway, Clay took a drink of vodka from the bottle in his right hand, a bite from the lemon in his left. Back and forth. Back and forth. Drink. Bite.
Clay’s eyes swam into focus, seeing her for just a moment before flickering away to whatever images played in his mind.
When he spoke, his loose southern drawl slurred, “What’s the point? It all goes to the same place, don’t it?”
For residents of La Fourche parish, it was nothing to climb into a bottle and stay there for a week or two. But Clay Lafayette carried a 10 year chip in his wallet and everyone in town knew it. The second Blanche had told Clay they were having a baby, he didn’t look twice at a liquor store. He’d made a promise to his wife and unborn child and he’d kept it. Even when cancer claimed Blanche seven years ago. Clay had kept sober.
Dee drew a deep breath. “Clay,” she started, but she didn’t know how to finish.
At the sound of his name, he looked at her again, his eyes red and pleading. Dee glanced down to her shoelaces. She couldn’t stand to look at such naked emotion, such raw grief.
Without taking his eyes from her, Clay reached into a plastic bag and pulled out another lemon. Drink. Bite. Back and forth.
“Why are you doing this?” Dee asked.
“What else am I gonna do, cher?”
“Somethin’ else? C’mon, now, do you think Blanche would want to see you this way? Giving up all you’ve worked for? Or your little girl. Think she’d want this?”
With that, Clay’s grief melted away and what replaced it frightened Dee. His eyes became steely. His stubbly jaw flexed as he gnashed his teeth together.
“All I worked for?” Clay asked, rage simmering like a pot of jambalaya and twice as hot. “All I worked for? You want to know what I worked for, Dee? I worked for them. Think I give a fuck about a tiny piece of shit I can find in a Cracker Jack box?”
Dee hugged herself and kept her eyes trained to the ground. “Clay, I don’t mean meddle. People are worried about you is all.”
“People,” he scoffed. His teeth sank into the rind of a new lemon like a snake’s fangs.
“People are prolly talkin’ a lot today, I s’pose.”
“Did they tell you how Sheriff Dean found Jenny?”
A wave of cold nausea washed through Dee. She rocked forward and braced herself on the rickety porch supports.
“I take that as a yes,” Clay said. He took another swig. “Chains, Dee. They found her in chains. Every bone in that little girl’s body was busted. Cuts and scrapes and…” his voice trailed off. He didn’t need to finish. The townies knew what that sins that monster had visited on the little girl. Dee couldn’t blame Clay for drinking. If the vodka helped pull a curtain over his guilt-ridden imagination, then more power to him.
“But what gets me, what I will never be able to forget,” Clay’s voice shook, “was that she was chained up. A little thing like her. God knows she’s built like her mama, bird-thin. She didn’t want Jenny to get away.”
Back and forth. Dee’s eyes misted over and for a moment she was thankful. With blurred vision she could pretend she didn’t see Clay’s tears. Jenny’d been tortured for most of a month. The whole parish had been looking for her. Sheriff Dean found her in a maintenance shed by the elementary school, chained to a stake in the ground like an animal. After the sigh of relief that the girl was alive came the anger at the kidnapper.
“How’s Ros?” Dee asked.
“How do you think she is?” Clay growled.
“Talk is that she’s crazy as a loon, Clay.”
He closed his eyes tightly and took another bite, the bitter and sour tastes exploding on his tongue, dowsing the vodka burns in his throat. Clay’s rocking became more agitated. His face reddened.
Dee’s voice was wary, but low. Almost soothing. “Clay, no one blames you for what happened.”
Fresh hot tears rolled down his cheeks.
“No one blames you,” she repeated. “What Ros did…” Dee shook her head. “She’s clearly a sick little girl, Clay. There’s no way you could’ve known.”
“Goddammit Dee, Ros smiled when the Sheriff came here to collect her. My baby girl stuffed her best friend in a closet.” Clay gagged. “Jenny could’ve screamed herself raw and nobody would hear her. Ros said that was her favorite part.”
Dee’s mouth felt thick with the taste of bile.
“Clay,” she said, “we all know you loved the hell out of that baby girl of yours. If you had to you’d take a bull by the horns and wrestle it to the ground, break it’s neck with your own hands and serve it up on the grill with your daddy’s special sauce. We all know you’d ‘ve helped Jenny if you had any inkling.”
“Leave me alone,” Clay slurred. “ Dee, just take yourself on home.”
Dee shuffled from foot to foot for a moment. She began to walk back to her own trailer, but she stopped and turned back toward Clay, blurred in the twilight.
“What are you going to do?” she asked.
“Fire up the grill,” he said with a weak smile.
Drink. Bite. Back and forth.