Sunday, February 28, 2016

Something I'm working on.

Gentle Reader,

Here's an excerpt from something I'm working on.

Caril Ann Fugate, the girl who would become a legend, walked home from school on the afternoon of January 21, 1958. The skies over Lincoln, Nebraska were overcast that day, and night would come early, so Caril kept a brisk pace. She wasn’t walking alone, but her mind was wandering, and she barely followed the giggling conversation of her friends. She was tired after a long day, and her thoughts at that moment were of home and Mother and her baby sister Betty Jean, as well as the warm supper they would soon enjoy. Caril’s hair was in a ponytail and her friends wore sweaters under their coats. The cars that passed by on the street sported tailfins, chrome, and bright pastel paint. Caril was only fourteen, and she thought that the world was how it had always been and would always be. Well, aside from one significant change. Charlie Starkweather was no longer in her life.

There had been times, over the past year and a half of dating, when Caril wondered if she might marry Charlie Starkweather. She had loved him, she really had, and a part of her still did, in spite of his troublemaking. She’d cooked for him, she’d sat and talked for hours with him, and she’d held him and stroked his hair. She even ran around with him in the woods, with Charlie dressed up like an Old West sheriff, while they hunted for Indians, laughing like fools. Those outings weren’t the kind of thing that Caril told her friends about, and she’d known it was strange, but that was okay, because that was Charlie. Why shouldn’t they play? It would be too late when they were older, and besides, it hadn’t been all that long since Caril had played with dolls. No, Charlie wasn’t like the other boys, and sometimes this worried Caril, but it was also part of his appeal. Wasn’t it? Yes, she had always thought so. She’d really believed that, at least for a time. Now she wasn’t sure.

They’d done all of the normal things, too, of course. Charlie took her to movies and to the ice cream shop for malts. They sat on the floor and listened to records. Charlie even taught her to drive, and what trouble he was in when she accidentally damaged his car! They’d kissed plenty, too, though that was all. Sometimes he’d punch at the air and get that wild look in his eyes, like he was ready to bite, and Caril would watch herself then. But eventually the moment would pass, and she would ruffle his red hair and he would just be her Charlie again. Sometimes he would recognize how he’d frightened her and he would buy her something, maybe a stuffed animal or a soda pop. He would look at her, all timid like, as if he was afraid she might hit him, and she always understood that this was his way of apologizing.

Yes, for a year and half, that was how it had been. Then, things started to change. Charlie got upset with her more and more often. He was impatient and got jealous. Caril didn’t like that. She wanted Charlie to be nice to her, and besides, it wasn’t fair. She’d never done anything mean to Charlie. She’d never run around behind his back or given him cause to doubt her. Sure, her sister Barbara had tried to break them up a few times, but Caril hadn’t listened. Barbara would bring around other boys, but Caril didn’t give them the time of day, no matter how nice they were. Oh, how angry she’d been over that meddling from Barbara! Besides, it was Barbara who’d brought Caril and Charlie together in the first place, once she’d gotten tired of Charlie herself. It was all too much, it really was, how people could interfere. Caril was fourteen after all, and that was old enough to decide on her own which boys she liked. And that Charlie, didn’t he remember the one time he’d called it off with her, and how she’d cried and begged him to come back? Didn’t that count for anything? Didn’t she get any credit for her loyalty? How soon they forget, she’d said to herself.

But then came that one scary night after the movies, when they fought, and he roughed her up a bit. Yes, that was new. Charlie had been getting in fights since he was little, but he’d never touched Caril like that before. Not like he really meant to hurt her. And he did hurt her that night. She’d been too frightened to cry, but all the way home, while Charlie sulked in the driver’s seat, she knew that something had changed. She pressed herself tightly against the car door, holding her sore arm, and she could feel that new, frightening difference as she watched the streets pass by her. Charlie was no longer just her silly boy, her grown-up boy who liked to play in the woods. She was finally seeing a bit of the Charlie that she knew others saw: the peckerwood, the good-for-nothing punk, the bully. She didn’t want to see it, she really didn’t, but she did see it now, like it or not.

And hadn’t she seen it even before that night, if she was really honest? Yes, she supposed she had. Charlie liked to fight and other kids were scared of him, and maybe this should have worried her, but instead it made her feel safe. He was mocked for his attempts to ape everything James Dean did, right down to his hair and how he dressed, but she’d been drawn to his looks. She’d even liked his bad attitude, despite the ridicule it brought, and despite the warnings of others. If Charlie was her James Dean, then by god, she would be his Natalie Wood. This was what she told herself. And this was part of why it took her so long to be done with him. After all, she was the one who’d encouraged him in everything that he was, so how could she turn around and blame him now? She’d held his hand in the forest and asked him to tell her about himself, and he’d told her more than she’d dared to ask. He told her about how the woods sang to him, and how he wanted to get rid of all the people and just live in peace with the animals. He’d had tears in his eyes talking about the cruelty of other people, the unfairness of their endless rejections, but then he got that funny look again and Caril went silent until it was over, as was her way.

Still, despite everything, there was no going back after the night he hurt her. She hadn’t told her mother, and certainly not her stepfather, but she was sure that they knew something was wrong. Something had changed. Caril knew that her stepfather had never liked Charlie, and after that night, her parents put their feet down. Mother was gentler about it, but regardless, their decision was final. Charlie wasn’t welcome at the house anymore, and Caril wasn’t to ever go with him again. How surprised they were when Caril agreed.

Charlie came over that Sunday, when he finally realized that this wasn’t just a mood, that she really wouldn’t talk to him. Caril had been at the sink with her mother, washing dishes. Charlie stood in the doorway for a long time, begging her to turn around, to go for a walk or a drive with him. She was afraid to even look at him then; she couldn’t stand to see his tears, knowing it would make her weak. But she also dreaded seeing the angry, distant look that he gave her that night after the movies. Her hands were shaking as she wiped the dishes. She felt queasy, but having Mother at her side gave her a little strength.

Finally he asked her, did she really mean it? Did she want him to go away forever? And she took a breath and said yes, that was right, she never wanted to see him again. He stood there for a while, not speaking or moving. Finally Caril’s mother half-turned and asked him to leave. Her voice was soft, but her tone left no room for argument. Charlie stood there a moment longer, like he was thinking about what to try next, but then Caril’s stepfather came in from the other room. He didn’t say anything, but he didn’t need too. They were all pushing Charlie out, and he knew it. Finally he muttered something and flew out of the kitchen, the door slamming behind him. Only then did Caril realize that she’d been holding her breath. She set down her dish towel and let the breath out slowly, shakily. Mother patted her back and said, “Come on now, Caril, let’s get these finished.” They did the rest of the dishes in silence, and that was the end of it. They didn’t speak of Charlie’s visit after that, and only much later would Caril realize how the rejection by her parents had wounded Charlie. He’d secretly been bringing them little presents for over a year, always hoping to win their approval, and always knowing that he’d somehow failed. In time, Caril would understand that begging for approval was as close as Charlie got to feeling like he was loved.

School, which Caril never enjoyed, was a useful distraction over those next few days. Charlie wasn’t that far from her thoughts, but he was just far enough, and that was where she wanted him. Caril knew she would never forget Charlie Starkweather. She had loved him, despite everything, and he had loved her, too, in the strange way that he had. But she had also grown to fear him, and not only for his wild eyes and the explosive violence of his fists. Charlie had a secret, something that Caril alone in the whole world knew. Charlie was more than a rebel and a peckerwood. Charlie Starkweather was a murderer.

Caril wasn’t sure whether or not to believe Charlie, when he told her what he’d done. She supposed that she never really believed him all the way. One thing Caril knew about Charlie was that he loved to tell wild stories, and he was always willing to lie to protect himself. So when he told her that he was involved with the murder of the gas station attendant in Bennet, the one whose killing was all over the news, it was hard for her to accept. Even with everything Charlie had done, and all the trouble he’d been in, murder seemed like an impossible leap, an escalation beyond any reason. How could he do that? How could the frightened boy who’d cried on her bed really do something like that? Or even the silent, frightening boy with the cold stare and the quick fists, the one who punched at the air and clobbered those who crossed him, how could even he do such a thing?

But of course, being Charlie, he hadn’t quite told her everything. He said he’d gone to the gas station with friends, and that they’d done the killing while he merely took the money. Charlie often spoke of these dangerous friends, gangsters he said, who were out there running wild, doing big things like killing people. Yet Caril, for all the time she’d spent with Charlie, had never met them or even seen them. She wasn’t sure that they existed. And if they didn’t, then that meant that Charlie, despite his claims to the contrary, must be both the robber and the murderer.

He’d tried to butter her up, to soften the blow a bit, by giving her a little toy dog before making his confession. At first she’d cooed over the dog, but she forgot all about it as Charlie told her what he’d done that night, with his voice low and his eyes never quite meeting hers. She asked him if he’d hurt anyone else, and he said no, but he would only stare at the floor as he said it. And then, when she realized that he’d either stolen the dog from the gas station, or bought it for her with the stolen money, she’d put it up on a shelf with some other old toys and refused to look at it again. She couldn’t look at it, because looking at the little dog made her remember what Charlie had done to get it, and she could not let herself dwell too deeply on that, not at any cost.

Charlie’s story of merely robbing the dead man was a lie; Caril knew it had to be. Even so, the idea that Charlie could really kill someone was too big for her to get her mind around. And so she carried on, both believing and not believing, for several weeks. She found a way to shut the thoughts up behind a little door in her mind. The thoughts were always there, but they were quiet, sleeping, maybe waiting for the day when some other frightening revelation would wake them up again and demand action. Caril knew such a day might come, because it just wasn’t feasible to go on the way she was, but she was scared of what would happen then, so she didn’t push. She’d always been afraid of confronting Charlie, and also of ending their relationship. She was grateful at the end of every good date they had, when those considerations were pushed off into some vague and distant future. But then came the night after the movies, when her fears came home to roost and she saw the bad future clearly. Charlie was a killer, he really was, and he was capable of hurting even those he loved. Suddenly all of Caril’s previous fears about what Charlie might do to himself, or even to her, seemed petty. They could never compare to the horrors that she was imagining now. The gas station attendant had been cut down in cold blood. A man who did that was capable of anything.

These were Caril’s thoughts as she walked home from school on that cold January day with her friends. She imagined Mother and Betty Jean and the meal they would share. She bid her friends farewell and quickened her pace. She had no way of knowing that even her worst nightmares fell short of the truth, that this final rejection by Caril and her family was the very last one Charlie Starkweather could endure. She had no way of knowing that she was about to enter an empty house, devoid of life except for Charlie, who was waiting for her, hiding silently behind the door. She couldn’t imagine that her family was already dead, and that she’d already lived the very last normal day of her life. This was the first day of her new life, a strange and frightening one. Charlie was leaving behind him a trail of death, the stuff of legends that would echo down through the decades, and she would forever be a part of it, like it or not. There was no way, as she opened her front door, that Caril Ann Fugate could know any of that.

Wikipedia article

Ever Yours,

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