Time to Kill
And who’s the little girl?
Never mind the girl…
Officer Vern VanDunk coasts slowly to a stop in front of Chief Maxwell’s house, parking out on Cannonball rather than in the driveway. He’s not doing this for symbolic effect or anything like that, but he reckons such might be felt if the chief were to see him do it. Vern is here, all right? He’s playing along, he’s doing what he needs to do, doing what’s expected of him, but…
“But I just don’t like it,” he sighs as he ambles slowly up the chief’s driveway. The asphalt needs some work, the once deep black has faded to a salty gray, kind of like the chief’s hair ever since he was relieved of his familial duties. “Maybe that’s where this is really coming from, maybe it’s some kind of weird mid-life crisis.”
But that wouldn’t explain the possession, now would it? Vern sighs again as he climbs the steps to the front door. As much as he respects Chief Maxwell, which is a whole hell of a lot considering he’s here in the first place, he’s well aware the man isn’t the most imaginative in the world. The thought that he’d be able to conjure up the story about The Tome of Rock and all the nonsense about the Earthen folk and the plan for the sacrifice tonight, it’s… well, it’s almost as ridiculous as the fact that they’re going through with it. Six police officers, six grown men got together and assassinated a little girl’s parents in cold blood and then proceeded to kidnap said little girl, and… and… Vern’s hand falls off the doorknob.
“This is too much,” he says to himself as he sits down to stare at Cannonball’s bend, to stare off into the leafless forest beyond it, his eyes darting from one towering bark’ed spire to the next in search of some kind of sign, some kind of pattern in the distribution of the branches, some kind of something to let him know that this all hasn’t been a huge mistake. Vern sees nothing, just trees, some of which are infested with various fungi, others with lichen. Some alive, many dead, their wood bleached whiter than a skull beneath the sun. His eyes then go to the sky, where not a single cloud wafts.
“At least the sun is out,” Vern decides. He puts his hands on his knees and leverages himself up to his feet. “That’s something, right? It’s a beautiful day today, warm and comfortable and not a cloud in the sky.”
Yes, that certainly is something. Something a certain child will not be able to directly experience because she’s locked in a grown man’s bedroom.
Vern walks into the house then. His feet fall heavily unto the thin carpet, tracking tiny pebbles and debris he picked up from the disrepaired asphalt. He notices but doesn’t care, doesn’t make any attempt to wipe his feet. Knuckles on wood.
A small shriek answers. Vern puts his ear to the door and knocks again, then says, “Eh, h-hello? You, uh… it’s one of the police officers, I’m here to check on you. Are you all right in there?”
For a moment Vern gets no answer aside from the report of his heart beating its way up his throat into his ears. He’s very thankful to be leaning against the door at the moment; were he forced to support his own weight, he’d surely topple to the floor.
Then, in a small and mousy version of a girl’s voice, a defenseless, “No…”
“What’s wrong?” VanDunk asks, concerned. “Are you hurt? Should… may I come in?”
Another long silence.
“My name is Sarah,” mouses the tiny voice. It sounds like she’s been crying. “Sarah Hammond.”
“Sarah,” Vern says slowly, handling the word like it was a precious gemstone. “Sarah, I… I’m going to come in, all right?”
Sarah doesn’t say a word. The door shifts a bit, as if a small body was no longer leaning back against it, and Vern walks in.
The scene Vern VanDunk finds is less of a bedroom and more of a catastrophe; the mattress is absent of its sheets, knocked askew on its box spring; the nightstands present with two gaping square holes where the drawers should be, and the drawers each lay in one far corner of the room; the closet doors are wide open, one of them hanging with less hinges than the rest, and all of the clothing has been pulled and used as projectiles in what Vern imagines was the pinnacle battle in a war which could never be won. In the middle of the wreckage sits Sarah Hammond, legs folded, hands clasped together, head down and leaking tears.
“Oh, Sarah,” Vern says, taking it all in. He wants to say more, but brings no words to his lips.
To make things worse, Sarah looks up at him, stares directly at him with her deep dark young eyes, and weeps silently, making no move to even try to escape. It seems things are sinking in for everybody. Vern closes the door and sits at its foot, holding Sarah’s gaze. He does not weep, but he feels as though he could. Feels as though he should, in a way. For Sarah, for Thaddeus, for his sister who will soon lose her wonderful fiancé, for himself who will soon lose the best brother-in-law a man could ask for, for Chief Maxwell for being so misguided and stupid and foolish and… and taken, the man is so taken by the story in the mysterious book he found that he went out and took someone else.
And tonight, that someone else will die. And there’s nothing Vern can do, because he’s part of it.
Good lord, Vern is part of it. He didn’t pull the trigger, and he won’t be driving the boat tonight, but he’s playing just as big a part of it as everyone else involved. How did things go so wrong so fast? Not two days ago Vern’s biggest concern was what to order for dinner, and now… everything just… it got so bad… so bad, so fast…
“Are you going to say something?” Sarah Hammond asks between her soft sobs, those sobs which say more than words could ever hope to convey. Vern only wishes he could say something, and in a way, Sarah does too. Sarah wishes this dirty cop could say something that would make it all go away, that would bring her parents back to life, that would wake her up from this freakish lucid nightmare and put her back in the back seat of her parents’ minivan on Cannonball Road. A thought occurs to her. “What did you do with the van?”
Vern looks up suddenly, feeling bewildered. “Excuse me?”
“My parents’ van,” Sarah asks again, working with great effort to stop the silent tears. “After you shot th–”
“I didn’t shoot them, Sarah,” Vern says, nay, pleads, implores her to understand. “It wasn’t me, I would nev–”
“After you shot them dead,” Sarah continues, having hardly heard him at all, “what did you do with their silver minivan?” Another thought occurs to her. “What did you do with them? ”
“I drove here with you and Chief Maxwell,” Vern says after a moment. “After… after what happened happened, Chief Maxwell and I got into one cruiser and the other Fellers took care of the rest. I…” He takes a deep breath. “I don’t know what happened to your parents, or their van. I’m sorry, Sarah, I…”
“No,” Sarah says, and for a horrible moment Vern is sure she’s going to start crying again. But her face is stone, carved and polished like granite without a single crack in its surface. “Don’t say that, don’t you dare!”
“But I am,” Vern says, leaning forward as though he was going to crawl towards her. Then, he starts to do just that. “I’m more sorry than you can even imagine, Sarah, I didn’t want for any of this to happen. I don’t even want to be part of this!”
“What’s your name, Officer?” Sarah asks, watching him freeze in place on his hands and knees like some kind of lame dog. Or pig.
“Vern,” says Vern with only a small bit of hesitation. “Vern VanDunk.”
“Well, Vern,” Sarah says coldly, “if you don’t want to be part of this, then don’t be.”
“You don’t understan–”
“No, I sure don’t!” graduating into a yell. She begins to weep anew. “I don’t understand any of this at all! Nothing makes sense, I don’t even know where I am! But you’re not going to help me, you’re not going to try to stop this, this… whatever this is. All you’re go’n’a do is sit there groveling on your hands and knees like a pig in the mud saying how you wish it wasn’t so, but you’ll just go right along with it.” The shattered look on Vern’s face is slightly comforting to Sarah, but only slightly. Truth be told she feels awful saying these things, but the feeling of being trapped here in this bedroom is worse. The feeling of being orphaned is worse. The feeling of this awful day slowly encroaching towards the mysterious tonight is much, much worse. “You’re not going to do a thing except go right along with it, because that’s how folks like you are, Vern VanDunk.”
“Folks like me?” Vern asks, blown back into a sit. “What… what do you mean? Police officers? White men? What?”
“Assholes,” Sarah says sharply, then buries her face in her hands as she breaks down into tears.
Assholes. The finality in her young voice is resonant, terrifyingly strong. Assholes. It shakes Vern to his core, sends his mind spiraling down a dark corridor until it spins itself out and crashes into the woodwork. Assholes. Troubling, yes, but he knows she’s right. Vern is just as pivotal in all of this as the other Fellers are, as the chief is. As Jim Hubert is. Assholes.
And the worst part of it all? It gives Vern a sense of peace in a way few other words would have been able to accomplish. Assholes. Yeah, Vern VanDunk is one of the assholes, one of the Fellers who conspired to murder this child’s parents and kidnap her so she can be sacrificed later on in the evening, and he’s just as complacent as all the rest, and maybe that’s okay. Maybe that’s just his role to play. He’s an asshole, all right… but does that mean he has to act like one?
“No,” Vern says to himself with a quick shake of the head. He climbs to his feet and looks at the girl, the fresh terror on her face clear as the cloudless blue sky peeking through the leafless trees out the window. “No, it don’t.”
“What’s happening?” Sarah gasps. “Wh–… what are you going to do to me?”
Vern stalks over, his head hanging so low his back is slightly hunched, his eyes boring into hers. When he’s before her, a towering form blocking out the dim lights casting his dark and engulfing shadow over her entirely, Vern holds out his hand. Sarah stares at this hand for a few seconds, then wipes her tears and flickers her eyes to his as if to ask again what’s happening.
“Come on,” Vern says, taking his hand back a tiny bit and then reoffering it. “You’re… you may be right, I might be an asshole for allowing myself to be involved in all this, but… hell, Sarah, if you were in my shoes you might be doin’ the same thing.”
“No,” Sarah says defiantly. “Never, I would nev–”
“You might,” Vern says with enough assurance to put paid to the matter. “You just might, but that really ain’t important. You ain’t in my shoes, I am, and I’m sorry to say it but things have to go the way they’re going. There’s just no choice in the matter. I can’t get you out of here, I can’t bring your parents back, and I can’t stop what’s going to happen tonight.”
“What’s going to happen tonight?” Sarah asks, her eyes suddenly brilliant with light, with an intelligence that’s possibly been there from the very start, hiding just below the surface. “What are you men going to do to me tonight?”
“That’s not up to me to tell you, I’m afraid,” Vern says with some regret, enough for it to seep through his voice in heavy pangs. “You’ll need to ask the chief; I don’t know that he’ll tell you, but he’s the only one in the position to disclose that information.”
“Then what is up to you, Vern?” Sarah asks dryly. She brings her knees to her chest and hugs them tightly, looking away from this asshole dirty cop. “What are you even still doing here?”
“Well, Sarah, this whole thing is a mess. I think it’s a mess that one man can’t tidy up.” Yet again Vern reoffers his hand. “But there is a mess I can tidy, and if you’d be willing to help me, I would greatly appreciate it.”
Sarah refuses to so much as look at him, let alone take his hand. Vern nods at her, his face emotionless and hard. She’s not sure what he’s going to do now; part of her thinks he might reel back and strike her, punch her head, kick her between the legs hard enough to send her flying across the room, but he doesn’t do that. He simply goes to the bed and uses his knee to fix it back into alignment with the box spring. He finds the fitted sheet, fixes it over the mattress, drapes the normal sheet over that, then the comforter over that. He sets the pillows up not quite in the way they were set up before Sarah dismantled the room, but finely enough. One garment at a time he folds up Chief Maxwell’s clothing and stores them back in the closet, some shelved, most hanging. There’s not much he can do about the dangling door – Sarah tore the rusty old nails clear out of the doorjamb, which looks to be pretty well dryrotted – but when the doors are closed it looks acceptable. Lastly he picks up the drawers, slides them back into the nightstand.
“Were they empty when you pulled ‘em out?” Vern asks her, finally breaking the silence.
“Yeah,” Sarah mumbles, still hugging her legs to her chest. Hugging them even tighter now, in fact.
Vern nods. Takes a look at the room. Nods again. “Well, all right.” He approaches Sarah again, but doesn’t offer her a hand up. Rather he sits down next to her and rests a hand on her shoulder. “What’s happened to you ain’t fair, and I don’t want you to think I’m foolish enough to think it is. But…” A sigh.
“But what?” Sarah mumbles. “It’s just the way it has to be?”
“That’s pretty much the long and short of it,” Vern says, nodding defeatedly. “Can I… is there anything else I can do for you?”
“Bring my parents back,” Sarah mumbles to the floor. “Tell me this is all a bad dream and make me wake up in the back seat of my parents’ van before we got pulled over.”
Vern sighs again, this time nasally. “C’m’on, Sarah, I’m really tryin’ he–”
“Maybe you shouldn’t, then,” Sarah snaps. “Maybe you should just leave me alone until tonight, Verd.”
“Whatever,” Sarah mumbles. Her voice sounds airy, distant, as if she wants nothing more than to drift away, as if, in her mind, she’s already started to do just that.
Vern turns things over in his mind for a moment, then slowly rises to his feet. “Very well… for what it’s worth, I really am sorry, Miss Hammond. If I had any pull in this you wouldn’t be here, but the fact of the matter is that I don’t. But I won’t sit here and try to convince you; it won’t matter much in the long run.” He goes to the door. Without turning back around, “Someone will be back to check in on you at around two. It’s about noon now, or it was when I got here. I won’t tell you not to destroy the room again, but…”
‘But what?’ Vern thinks to himself. ‘What else is there to say?’
Not a whole lot. Vern lets himself out and closes the door behind him without looking at Sarah, then turns around and locks it. He walks into the living room and stands before the portrait of Maxwell’s old family, made before his ex-wife fractured the man’s life and took his little boy away. Did she drive him to this madness? Is Jane the reason Daniel Maxwell found The Tome of Rock and decided to act on plans to commit murder and then kidnap an innocent child so she could be sacrificed to some alleged meteor called Rock? Perhaps… although Vern himself finds it unlikely. She drove him to drinkin’, that’s for damn sure, but this crazy Rock business… this nonsense is something else entirely, something perhaps beyond human understanding. Vern notices something covering the face of Maxwell’s son, something crusty and mucky green that looks a whole lot like a dried glob of mucus, and wonders if it was Daniel’s doing. Ultimately it doesn’t matter; it’s a mess, and one that Vern can tidy up before he goes.
Vern takes a tissue out of the box on the coffee table, wets it with his own spit, and begins to work the glob. It takes some doing, requires some real elbow grease from Officer VanDunk, but he gets the job done. Throws the tissue out in the kitchen. Leaves the house without dawdling. His patrol shift was supposed to start at noon and he’s running mighty late, but he thinks Chief will understand, given the circumstances.
As he’s pulling back on to Cannonball proper, Vern gazes at the clock on the dash and sees that it’s almost ten to one. Fixing up the bedroom must have taken a while, oh well. Chief will understand, and if he doesn’t, well… in truth, Officer VanDunk just might be seeking out new employment in the near future, regardless of how Chief feels about his being late. This police business… perhaps Vern just ain’t cut out for the job.
“Or maybe the other Fellers ain’t, I don’t know,” Vern says to the digital clock on the dash. “Maybe I just need to get out of this town, let things fall where they may, stop buggin’ my sister and her fiancé all the time… not that it’ll be a problem after tonight…”
A heavy sigh.
“At least Sarah won’t be alone there for too long.” The numbers on the clock stare digitally up at him. 12:48. “At least there’s that.”
“And I tidied up the mess,” he reminds himself. “Part of the mess, anyway… so… at least there’s that, too.”
Yeah. At least there’s that, too.
Hello Commons, this has been the eighth subchapter of the third chapter of Under the Hood: The Imprisonment of Jonathan Knox, a novel about a man who likes to eavesdrop on his neighbors.
Under the Hood: The Imprisonment of Jonathan Knox is the second book in the W-2222 series, a series of books which take place in Universe W-2222.
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