Go Forth, Christian Soldier
The first night, Drew comes home on foot at a quarter past three. Calvin and Madeline Dunn awaken to the sound of their son’s key in the front door, the security alarm chiming its thirty-second warning and then silencing at the competent touch of his fingertips on the keypad. For a split second, Madeline feels a surge of joy, of special pride.
Unlike the other college-age children of the ladies in her Bible study and her garden club and her walking group, Drew hardly ever visits for anything less than a major holiday, and, even then, he is home for a day of festivities and gone the next, and, even then, he never drops in unannounced, he never surprises his parents. His brother Ben is the same, firmly rooted now in Sacramento, job-secure, married, raising Cal and Madeline’s first grandchild. The Dunn boys are lovers of independence, young men smitten with the lives they have built for themselves with their own two hands. So, for that initial split second, Madeline finds herself brimming with unmitigated delight.
He drove there straight from Nashville, Drew says as he sits on the edge of the couch in the living room, his head in his hands, his knee bouncing frenetically. He left his car in a field on a backroad outside of town and walked the rest of the way home. He is scared, he says. He is sorry, he says. He tells it in that order: fear, then regret. As his trembling voice forms these words, Madeline sees a sudden vision of the past, of a little boy padding into she and Cal’s dark bedroom, reeling from a nightmare, tearfully penitent for asking once again if he can burrow under the covers between them and know peace.
“Son, what on earth are you talking about?” Cal asks him, glancing with terror-wide eyes at Madeline. She meets them, feeling as if she is in a strikingly realistic veneer of a dream.
Drew swallows hard. He speaks a name in a whisper, “Hallie.”
Hallie: his girlfriend coming up on a year now. Madeline has met her twice—once during Family Weekend on campus, once at Thanksgiving brunch in that very house. Hallie: a dark haired girl with slender, balletic limbs and a softly-twanging voice, a pre-law student to Drew’s artistic focuses. They were on a hike or a picnic or a canoeing trip—Madeline suddenly cannot register which her son says it is—in the state park near the university. Something happened. There was a comment, an insult hurled. There was an argument. There was a shove, a glancing blow. There was a struggle. Something happened. Something happened.
A short while later, Cal and Madeline are leading their son up the attic steps. They are clearing space amongst the storage bins to make a pallet of blankets and pillows for him on the plywood floor.
“Thank God it’s not summer,” Drew says, chuckling a bit, as he watches them. “Or it’d feel like a furnace up here.”
An impulse that Madeline doesn’t understand jolts through her, and she suddenly wants to slap him, she wants to strike her child. Instead, her gaze bores into the shadows muddling the corners of the attic. Her gaze bores into the plastic tubs that hold the baby clothes of this boy here and his brother before him.
“You get some rest now,” Cal says to Drew. “It’s all going to be okay. . . it’ll all be okay.” Madeline does the unthinkable when they return to their bedroom. She grabs her phone and checks the news. She scans for her son’s name. Nothing comes up. Drew isn’t yet a suspect. Hallie hasn’t yet been declared missing. The world is still ignorant of it all. For the rest of the night, she and Cal sit up in bed and stare in silence at the curtains faintly glowing in the moonlight. Then Cal begins to mumble his thoughts to her in a nervous, hungry voice. They have two days, he wagers. Maybe three. Drew said the place where it happened—the place where he left her—was deep into the park, but he hadn’t been sure how deep. When the police find his dorm room empty, the next place they will look is this house, Cal says. That’s why they need to act fast, to plan quickly and thoroughly. Does Madeline remember the cabin Cal’s father left him in the Davis Mountains, near the Mexican border? Does Madeline remember Cal’s old half-junked VW Jetta idling in the lot across town? If he pays his buddy Gary—the mechanic, Madeline, remember?—to work out the engine’s kinks, then it could run good as new again, it could run all the way to Texas and beyond.
Then Cal whispers, “Where are you going?”
Madeline doesn’t look at him as she shoves her feet into her slippers and thrusts her arms into her bathrobe sleeves. “Backyard. I need some air.”
He lurches halfway out of bed. “Let me come with you.”
“I just need a minute, Cal.”
The razor edge on her voice makes him falter, and she hears his soft, paranoid call trail down the stairs after her: “Well, come right back in, okay?”
On her way through the dark stagnant house, Madeline detours into the dining room, swipes one of the cloth napkins from its place setting, and slips it out of its decorative ring. Then she steps out onto the back patio. The cold night air, the wind testing the bare trees, the muffled roar of semis skating the distant freeway—it all accuses.
I am his mother, she thinks. But is this her plea for mercy or her means of justification? Abruptly, she clamps the napkin over her face and stuffs it in her mouth, wailing. She does not know whose death she is crying for.
The next day exists in a stupor. After only a few hours of transfigured life, there is a routine in place that has already grown mindless: Cal and Madeline bring up food to the attic, they bring up water or coffee or cans of Coke, they bring down the bucket Drew uses as a toilet, they bring it back up empty and freshly cleaned.
In between these tasks, Madeline can barely move herself to stand from the couch. But Cal cannot bring himself to stay still. He calls Gary, offers him a generous sum to expedite the Jetta fix-up under the guise that he needs it ready before the weekend so he can enter it in a car show. Gary informs him that it will still take at least a day or more to obtain the correct parts. Meanwhile, Cal takes Drew’s cell phone into the garage and smashes it with a hammer. Just to be safe, he smashes Drew’s smartwatch as well. He kicks both compromised devices into a storm drain on his afternoon walk through the neighborhood.
The thought of action makes Madeline feel lightheaded, so that, when she climbs the attic stairs and sees her boy’s face rise up from his pillow, sees the glare of his glasses and the tousled spikes of his hair, she finds herself almost breathless at his smallness. He is so childlike that it hurts her bones. Then she blinks, and his familiar bedhead resembles a bramble of thorns, the matted fur of a wild animal. All of a sudden, his bright smile is a cave to her, his teeth stalagmites.
How could he have done this in anger? she thinks. He is so gentle. He is so sensible. Still, despite her confusion, she cannot help but feel relieved. Anger: it was all just an accident, an unforeseen rupture of emotion and control. That’s what he said anyway, the night before: I didn’t mean to do it, I didn’t mean to do it, over and over again. And as they held his shaking body on the couch, she and Cal answered: We know, we know. Over and over again, like the response in a litany.
Anger. A better sin than malice. A better sin than premeditation. But lying? Deception? Is this a better sin than the admission of an unforgivable truth?
Drew says, “Thank you, Mom,” when she hands him his dinner on a tray. He does not say, “I took Hallie out there to kill her.” He does not say, “I liked killing her.” He does not say, “If you tell the police, I will kill you too,” although an intrusive voice in Madeline’s head reminds her that he could, that any previously inconceivable violence is now freely capable of coming out of his mouth.
That night, Cal takes a sleeping pill. He offers one to Madeline but she waves him away. “I’m going to ask Drew if he wants one,” he says lowly, as if ashamed, and leaves their bedroom. A few hours later, while he snores beside her, Madeline gets out of bed. She takes the napkin from the dining room table with her again and cups it under her chin on the back patio, as if to catch an impending flood of words or vomit or blood. She thinks of Hallie—her limbs twisted, her hair tangled with mud, the skin of her throat or her chest or her stomach bruised with Drew’s fingerprints—and this makes her stomach lurch. She thinks of Ben, if she should call him in secret, confide in him or confess to him, beg him to come home. But even if she does, she knows that Drew will probably already be gone by the time he arrives. And she and Cal have not yet allowed themselves to voice the underlying truth of Drew’s coming departure: that if he runs and makes it, if he succeeds, they will never see their son again.
Madeline balls the napkin into her mouth to scream and then immediately stops. There is a light at the fence to her left, not ten feet away from the patio. She almost mistakes it for a firefly, a rogue survivor of the winter out for some night air. Then the light fluctuates tellingly, dimming and intensifying again as it is pursed between wine-red lips. There is a woman smoking a cigarette against the fence, her trench coat arms spread out to either side of her, resting along the top of the white pickets. She’s out there in the dark, but Madeline can see in the faint moonlight that she is tall, rail-thin, and dressed in business-casual attire, as if Madeline’s backyard is simply a resting spot on the woman’s walk home from working late at the office or having a drink with her colleagues at the bar down the street.
Madeline lowers the napkin from her face, hurries to the light switch by the patio doors, and flicks on the spotlights affixed to the roof at either end of the house. The woman neither winces nor moans at the sudden brightness; she isn’t drunk. Her hair is dark, Madeline can see now, and it’s arranged in a billowy yet disheveled updo. Her eyes have dull purple circles underneath them; she is tired.
So am I, Madeline thinks, and even smiles a little. Tired women attract tired women. We must be homing devices for each other’s weariness.
The woman watches Madeline watch her before taking another drag of her cigarette. “You, uh, you pray out here in the dark?” She blows smoke against the sky and shrugs. “Private. Quiet. Seems like a good place to do the deed.”
Madeline doesn’t tell the woman that she has prayed every single moment of that day, that she prays in her eyelids when she blinks, she breathes in prayers and then breathes them back out in short panicked bursts, she swallows them gummy and tasteless so they can sink like stones in her stomach. Without words and without voice, she asks for things of which she has no comprehension. She asks for things which are not human and which can never be.
The woman jerks her chin up at the house, at the shingles on the roof. “You know what you’re going to do?”
Glaring at her, Madeline wrings the napkin with both hands until the very fibers must be crying out for mercy. I will steal the world’s forgiveness and heap it upon his head. I will wash him white as snow myself. I will help him to live. I will let him go.
“Honey, I didn’t ask what you want to do, I asked what you’re going to do.” The woman crosses one ankle over the other, her stylish black trousers rustling. “What you’re really going to do.”
Before she knows it, Madeline has stepped off the patio and is charging through the dew moist grass toward the woman, clutching the napkin in her fist like the handle of a whip. The woman appears to be unconcerned. All she says is, “I’m not here to cause you pain.”
It makes Madeline stop. She can feel her heart booming, and she can see her breath vacating rapidly into the cold. There is a chance that she will break down in front of this woman, this stranger. The threads of her composure are threatening to unravel.
“Go ahead, sin,” the woman says.
Madeline stares, mouth agape, prayers leaking out.
“Forsake your child.” The woman takes a drag. “Do it.” The night is terribly silent in her pauses. “Permission granted, if that’s what you need. Sin.”
Madeline closes her mouth and contorts her face into a snarl. “Get out of my yard,” she says, then stalks back to the patio, turns off the spotlights, and goes inside the house.
The next evening, Hallie’s picture is on the news. There is live footage: a shady, leaf covered grove; a forest backdrop against which a reporter’s voiceover recounts information; a shot of the entrance to the state park and a mess of police vehicles, like toy cars abandoned by a toddler in a sudden stroke of boredom.
Up in the attic, Drew’s face fills with fear for the first time since the night he came home. “They found the body,” Cal tells him in a short, gruff voice, and Madeline wonders why he does not say, “Hallie’s body,” or “her body.”
“Then we gotta go now,” Drew says, crouching under the low ceiling, folding up his pallet with a wild urgency.
Not us, Madeline thinks before she can stop herself. Just you. But, still, it’s been us this whole time, hasn’t it?
Gary dropped the Jetta off that afternoon, not even three hours before, and Drew leaves for Texas in it under the cover of night. Calvin and Madeline do not stand in the driveway and wave. They do not even watch from the window. They turn off all the lights in the house and sit beside each other on the couch, stock-still, unable to bear even accidentally touching knees.
“They’ll come tomorrow morning, you know,” Cal says. Madeline supposes he might as well have said, “The world will end tomorrow morning, you know.”
At seven A.M., they let the police into their home. Outside, the sun is high and burning like ice. A cordon has been erected around their front yard. Officers in uniform idle in their driveway while news vans and media personnel and curious neighbors crowd in the street beyond the police tape.
Mr. and Mrs. Dunn, do you have any idea where your son Drew might be?
No, they both agreed to say the night before. They have not seen him. He has not been home since the start of the semester, and they have not received a phone call or text from him since the past weekend.
Are you both aware of what has happened to Hallie Clemmons?
Through her own mask of numbness, Madeline hears Cal feign ignorance: “Oh my goodness, no—oh my goodness—are you sure it’s her? I can’t believe this . . . I can’t—wait, you don’t think Drew had anything to do with it, do you?”
The police ask to search the house, and Cal acquiesces. Every square inch of the attic has been sanitized anyway, purged of any trace of their son. They spent the whole night cleaning and burying and burning, and Madeline is so exhausted that her hands are tremoring, although the police seem to mistake this for shock.
She remains in the living room while two policemen follow Cal upstairs. A female officer stays behind, and Madeline can feel her hovering nearby. Sunlight trickles in through the curtains, and it looks so beautiful, so heavenly, that she almost forgets to breathe.
“Mrs. Dunn, you don’t look well,” the female officer says. “Do you need some water?” Blindly, Madeline feels for the officer’s hand, grips it, and pulls her toward the kitchen herself. “Do you have any children?” she wants to ask, but she cannot speak. Please God, are you the mother of anyone? Are you the mother?
She guides the officer to the back of the kitchen, to the computer desk where the junk mail is piled. There is a map tacked to the wall above it, colorful pins marking vacation spots and road-trip destinations reached. Madeline hears the softened footsteps of her husband and the two policemen wandering the bedroom above. She feels liquid running down her face, so she must be crying.
The officer says something, but Madeline doesn’t register it. Her unsteady hand traces the veins of the map westward and then down to a browned bruise, an aberration on the smooth topography of the earth.
She is on her knees now, and she feels the officer’s calloused palm cradle her cheek, and she knows that she is both the servant and the traitor, and she understands that she is not crying, she is bleeding.
Corey Davis is a young, emerging writer from Jackson, Mississippi, and an honors graduate of the University of Mississippi, where her fiction work won the Ella Somerville Award and the Evans Harrington Creative Writing Scholarship. Her fiction and poetry have also appeared in Goat’s Milk, MudRoom, Brave Voices, and more.