When the limo pulled up in front of the Whatley farmhouse, it was obvious that no one had been there for several years. The house and yard surrounding it were definitely showing signs of age and disrepair. There were shutters hanging at odd angles from the windows. When Melvin stepped up on the front porch, the floorboards gave way under him. It took all three of the boys to help him out of the hole when the man realized he had injured his ankle in the fall. Zora put her two semesters of nursing training to good use and examined him. She didn't think that it wasn't broken, but she said it would be best if he kept off it as much as possible until they could get him to a doctor.
"I ain't gonna go see no doctor just for a sore foot," Melvin complained. "I'll be just fine."
"Stubborn old mule," Pet grouched. "You gonna hurt yourself good one of these days, and then where you gonna be?"
"In your arms, right where I belong, baby," Melvin told his wife affectionately.
"Silver tongued devil," Pet giggled. "You ought to quit."
"Don't ever tell him that, Pet," Annie Mae warned her. "He might listen to you and take off like that good for nothing…."
"He is my children's father, whatever else he might have been," Pet pointed out. "I won't have him talked about like that in front of them."
"My father is sitting right here in this room," Huey stated firmly. He walked over and hugged Melvin as he added, "He loved me enough to make me his son when he didn't have to, and kept on loving me when I thought he wouldn't."
"I won't ever stop either, son," Melvin assured him as he hugged back. "The same goes for you, Zora. You two are just as much my kids as if you was my blood."
"We love you too, Dad," Zora responded. "Now shut up and get in the passenger side of that car. One of us has to drive you to a doctor," she added.
"I done told you, I ain't a going," he grumped. "This is just a sore foot, and I don't need no doctor to tell me what I already know."
"Men are the most stubborn creatures on the earth," Zora fumed. "I swear I will never get married."
"You'll get married, dear," Mrs. Amee said with a smile. "One of these days the right fellow will come along and you won't know what hit you."
"Hmmph!" Huey snorted. "The man that hits my sister better have his life insurance paid up. Momma will kill him dead without thinking twice about it."
"That is if your grandmomma don't beat her to it," Melvin added. "That's the only thing Mrs. Annie Mae told me about marrying Pet. She said if I ever raised my hand to her in anger, they wouldn't find enough of me to bury in a Ziploc bag."
"That's right, and the same goes for anybody that messes with any of my babies, white ones included," Annie Mae announced, looking at Dixon and Jessie.
"I would cut my own arm off before I would hurt Dixon," Jessie vowed.
"I weren't saying you would, sweet boy," the old woman told him. "I meant anybody that hurts either one of you." She looked up at the old house and shuddered. "It shore feels strange coming back to this place."
"Well, I'm sure there's quite a bit of work to be done to clean up the place so that we can stay here tonight," Mrs. Amee said firmly. "We might as well get in there and get started."
"Zora, you get on the bedrooms to get them ready for us to sleep in tonight," Pet ordered. "Dixon, you and Jessie go with her. Huey, help your daddy bring in the suitcases and the coolers with the food."
"Annie Mae, how about you and I start shaking the covers off the furniture in the parlor and the dining room?" Mrs. Amee asked.
"I say time's a wasting," Annie Mae said as she stepped into the house.
Soon enough they were all busy working on the old farmhouse. In fact, they were so busy that they didn't notice the movement in the trees out behind the old barn as a dingy, beat up old green sedan pulled into the darkness of the woods and stopped. After a few hours toiling away, they were all ready for a break and met up in the kitchen downstairs. Pet had done her usual miraculous work and the room was as clean as the two older women could remember ever seeing it.
"It's not as bad as I thought it would be," Zora told them all. "The bedrooms upstairs are pretty clean for a house that hasn't been lived in all these years."
"Well, no one's lived in it, but I have had people from town come out about once a year and clean a bit and keep the place up," Mrs. Amee explained. "They seem to have done a decent job of it."
"Mamee, one of the rooms upstairs that was locked," Jessie reported.
"I'll bet I know just which room it was," Annie Mae thought out loud. "The third door on the right from the top of the stairs?" she asked. The boys nodded.
"That was your Uncle Josiah's room," Mrs. Amee told them quietly. "It was locked the day that Doug disappeared, and it's never been opened again that I've been told about. We don't even know where the key is to be honest. Poppa would never talk about it before he died." She shook the sadness off physically and announced, "Well, let's get back to work." The family split up, but as they were separating, Mrs. Amee motioned for the boys to come over to her. "Josiah had a trap door in the ceiling of his room that opened into the attic," she told them. "If you were to go up there, you'll be able to find a way back down into his room," she added.
"Thanks Mamee," the three boys grinned.
"Don't think you're about to leave me with all of the cleaning while you three go traipsing up into the attic," Zora threatened.
"I'll help you," Dixon told her. "Maybe you guys can find a way to open the door from the inside, and then we can all go in there," he told Jessie and Huey.
"That sounds like a plan to me," Huey grinned.
"Trap doors to the attic sound awfully V.C. Andrews," Zora mused aloud. "If you find a little boy's body in there, don't eat the donuts."
"What?" Jessie asked in confusion and a touch of fear. He wasn't sure about whether he wanted to find someone's body.
"Never mind her," Huey said. "She's a sister. That means she has to be weird; it's in the job description."
"Yeah, just like the job description of brothers is that they are annoying," she responded. Huey stuck his tongue out at her. "See there," Zora added.
While Huey and Jessie were in the attic looking for the top side of a trapdoor, they were unaware that their family was no longer alone in the house. The rest of the family was becoming all too aware however. Annie Mae had walked out onto the back porch to get some air and rest after lunch. When she did, she was grabbed from behind and a cloth put over her nose. Her struggle was short and useless. When she didn't come back into the kitchen in a few minutes, Pet went out to look for her. She too didn't return.
Mrs. Amee was sitting in the parlor with Melvin who had his ankle elevated. They were both starting to nod off when an unusual sound from the kitchen startled them. Mrs. Amee looked up and saw a strange scrawny young man dressed all in black walking into the room. "Who are you and what are you doing in my house?"
"Who I am is the angel of the Lord, and I am here to smite you in His name," the scrawny young man called out. "God's church has declared holy war on all those involved in Clan Short. The evil ways of Satan must be stopped. There will be no more of the wickedness that foul group spews into the minds of children around the world."
"That wickedness you're talking about is called love and acceptance," Mrs. Amee corrected. "If you believe that's evil and wicked, then you're on the wrong side of the cross."
"Women are to be silent and subject to the men of the church," the young man snarled.
"Well, I'm a man," Melvin called out as he sat up more on the sofa and turned to face the guy. "What's more I'm a fair sight older than you. I believe that Bible you're so fond of says you should respect your elders."
"There is no respect for those who allow the abomination of homosexuality under your roof, so you must all be wiped out along with it," the young man told them as he pulled a pistol from his pocket.
"How can anyone advocate violence and murder yet claim to be a follower of a loving God?" Mrs. Amee asked.
"God is holy and righteous and He loves those who fear him," the young man responded.
"Is this really what you believe or is it just what you've had drilled into your head by some arrogant, Bible-thumping, hate filled jackass?" Melvin challenged. "Besides from what I heard on the radio while I was driving, it's your people that are being wiped out."
"Those are the lies of weak willed politicians unwilling to follow the laws of God," the gunman snapped. "The righteous will always prevail."
"Well that would explain why the radio was reporting that your church was being declared a terrorist organization," Mrs. Amee observed. "You and all the other members of your hate mongering church are now wanted criminals throughout the Federation."
"Once the evil influence of Clan Short is eradicated from the universe, the people will see that we were right and only doing our duty to God," the young gunman snorted. "We will be seen as the heroes of decency, and defenders of values that we are."
"You have a pretty impressive opinion of yourself, don't you son?" Melvin asked. "All I see is a street punk threatening an old woman and her family with a gun."
"I'm doing more that threatening," the gunman told him coldly. "You two have talked enough. Let's go join the other two women in the barn."
"What two women?" Melvin questioned, although he feared he already knew the answer. "If you've hurt Pet or her Momma, I swear boy, I'll hunt you as long and far as it takes to shove that gun so far down your throat that when I pull the trigger, the mortician won't be able to find an exit wound." He looked over to Mrs. Amee and apologized. "I'm sorry you had to hear such from me, Mrs. Amee, but you know I ain't gonna let nothing happen to my Pet."
"You won't do anything that I wouldn't do myself," Mrs. Amee told him. "I nearly lost Annie Mae when we were young on this farm to that blasted influenza that took so many others from our families. I wouldn't let her go then, and I'm not ready to do it now either."
"Shut up and come on, you old bat," the gunman ordered. "I'd say since I'm the one with the gun, you should be more worried about what I plan to do to you rather than the other way around."
He led them out to the old barn closest to the house. Pet and Annie Mae were lying on the ground inside the structure. They were both unconscious. Mrs. Amee gasped at the sight.
"Pet!" Melvin cried as he dropped to his knees beside his wife. "Are you hurt baby? Speak to me, Pet!"
"She'll never speak to you again," the gunman told him coldly.
"You killed my wife!?!" Melvin growled as he stood to face their intruder. "I'm gonna rip your scrawny, ugly head off with my bare hands."
"You will do nothing but die in this barn when I burn it to the ground," the young man told him. "You're all going to hell already on fire." Melvin tried to tackle the guy, but didn't move quite quickly enough with his sore ankle. Their attacker clubbed him over the head with the butt of the gun. Melvin grunted and sunk to the ground. The gunman then looked up to Mrs. Amee and said, "You will all die anyway, so I don't care how it happens. I prefer to burn you all in this fire, simply because I like fire. I killed my uncle in one when I was just a teenager. There are other members of the church bringing the war to your legions around the country as we speak. They are shooting and even using your own Federation weapons against you. Your influence over the innocent of this world has come to an end." After tying the old woman up and gagging her roughly, he headed back to the house.
Meanwhile, Huey had made an important discovery in the attic. There are no bathrooms in the top of the house. He told Jessie that he would be back soon and then headed back down into the lower levels of the farmhouse. He found Dixon and Zora making a bed in one of the rooms and asked if they had seen a bathroom.
"Yeah, I saw it," Zora told her little brother. "It's in the backyard, halfway between here and the barn."
"You're kidding, right?" Huey asked.
"No, it's called an outhouse," Zora explained. "Mrs. Amee said her father opposed indoor plumbing because of the expense and the inconvenience of having to remodel the house."
"Inconvenience?" Huey asked. "Inconvenience is having to walk halfway back to Charleston just to go pee."
"You could just pee off the back porch," Dixon suggested. "I used to do that when Mo… I mean when I lived in a house way out in the woods in Alabama."
"You're joking with us, right?" Zora asked him. When he didn't respond for a moment, she wrinkled her nose and said, "EEWW! Little boys are so gross."
"Well, at least we don't have cooties," Dixon defended with a childish giggle. "Come on, Huey. Now I have to go too."
"Well, just hang it off the back porch, you little redneck," Zora teased. He stuck his tongue out at her as he left the room.
"I was just a little kid back then," Dixon grumbled as he walked down the stairs with Huey. They went out the back door of the house and headed for the small wooden shack between the house and the barn. "You go first," Dixon said when he saw the dilapidated and dirty outhouse.
"Well, it's your family farm," Huey told him. "You should have the right to go first."
"Yeah, but you said you had to go before I did," Dixon pointed out. "You're older too. You know what they say, age before beauty."
"I know you did not just call me ugly," Huey gasped.
"No, no!" Dixon denied. "I just meant that I should respect my elders and let you go first."
"Elder?" Huey snorted. "I ain't no Mormon, Dixon." He reached out and opened the door a crack. They could see the two holes in the long bench across the back wall. "There, see, it's got two urinals. We can both go together. I promise I won't look or nothing. I just don't want to be in there alone. There might be snakes or bugs or something."
"Well, now I don't want to go at all," Dixon admitted.
"That's fine with me," the gunman told them both. He had walked up behind them while they were discussing who would go first. "If you wait and pee in your pants, it will take longer for you to burn," he added with a maniacal grin.
"Who are you?" Huey asked. He didn't ask anymore once he saw the gun.
"Please don't do this," Dixon begged. "We've never done anything to you. Why do you want to hurt us?"
"Your kind has hurt me plenty, fag!" the young man exploded. "I was eight years old when my parents died in a car wreck. My only living relative was my mother's brother. Uncle Marvin was one of you people. He raped me the first night I was in his house and it didn't stop until I ran away from him in high school. I met a girl and fell in love with her but just a month after we got married she was hit by a drunk who was pulling out of the parking lot of a queer bar. She was killed and he walked away. Well, now it's time for you people to die and the righteous to walk away." He waved the gun at them and ordered them to the barn.
Only minutes after Huey left, Jessie found the trap door. He opened it carefully and peered down into the room below. He could see the sunlight coming through the window showing decades of accumulated dust on everything in the room, including the skeleton lying on the bed. Wait a minute, skeleton? Jesse looked again and realized that it wasn't a human skeleton after all. It was the metal structure of an android. There was a horrible smell in the room, so he put the trap door back in place and went back downstairs to join Zora in the room she was cleaning.
"Don't eat the donuts," he said as he walked in.
"What donuts?" she asked.
"I don't know, but you said if I found a body in that room, not to eat the donuts," Jessie explained.
"You're lying, there's no body in there," she retorted. "Is there?" she asked a little nervously.
"There sure is," Jesse replied. "It's an android boy's skeleton. It's weird too. You can tell that it was messed up pretty bad, with the arms and legs cut off and the head is disconnected too. The thing is it got laid out on the bed as if the android were lying there sleeping. It's almost like it's laid out for a funeral or something."
"That's just creepy," Zora said with a shiver. "I think I'll sleep in the car tonight. For now, I'm going out back to see what's taking Huey and Dixon so long to get back in here." She left the room as Jessie started stripping the linens off the bed.
"Momma!" Zora called out as she walked down the stairs. "Have you seen the boys?" She got to the main level of the house and started looking around and couldn't find anyone. "Where is everybody?" she called as she headed to the back door.
"They're all in the barn," the gunman answered her. "You can join them now," he added as he flourished the gun. "Let's go quietly, and I won't have to knock you out."
"Why should I go quietly?" Zora demanded. "You're going to kill me at some point anyway, aren't you?"
"I suppose it's your choice then," the gunman answered. "Do you want to die here in the house alone with a bullet in your head, or do you want the chance to say goodbye to the rest of your family before you all go to hell?"
"My soul is prepared for the future, and I know where I'm going," Zora said firmly. "I would like to see my family one last time though. You win, Mister Big Shot that needs a gun to get a girl to go the barn with him. Let's go."
"You aren't afraid of dying, are you?" the gunman asked her as they walked out of the house. "You would have made some man a good wife with strength and faith like that. Unfortunately, your faith is misplaced in a cult belief that God rewards people for flaunting His laws and following the disgusting desires of their flesh."
"Buddy, if you think the desires of the flesh are disgusting, you obviously have the wrong partner," Zora told him. "Maybe you should try the real thing instead of just using your hand. Oh but with your looks and personality, I can see where the chances of getting the real thing would be pretty slim."
"Common trash," the man snarled as he struck Zora in the back of the head with the gun. The young woman cried out in pain for a second before falling to the ground unconscious.
Jessie couldn't stop thinking about the android he had found on the bed in Josiah's room. It just didn't add up to him. If Doug had been killed in that room, there should have been some signs of the struggle, some bloodstains, something that would show the horror that had taken place there. Not only that, but if Mamee's father hated Doug so much, why would he take such care to see that Doug was laid out the way he had been? If the human body that was part of Doug had decayed in that room, the smell would have been unbearable to the whole house. He had to go back and look closer at that room. He left the room he was working in and went back into the attic. He opened the trap door and climbed down the ladder built onto the wall below it.
The first thing he did was open the windows to let some fresh air into the stale room. He turned then and began looking around the room for anything that would help to explain the mystery of Doug Whatley. He found it on the bedside table. There was a handwritten note sitting in the layers of dust. Although it was written to a particular person, it wasn't sealed or hidden in any way, and Jessie couldn't help but satisfy his curiosity by reading it.
My Dearest Darling Girl Amee,
I know I have not been the kind and loving father that you deserved. There was so much in my life that I never wanted you to know about for fear that you would lose your respect for me. I never saw that I didn't have respect; I had fear and it's not the same. So many times in your life I wanted to hold you in my arms and tell you that I love you and am so very proud of you. I acted so cold and indifferent to you on your wedding day, because I was so afraid of appearing weak if I showed my feelings. I can't help the way I was raised child. I do regret it though, oh god how I regret it for you, and a thousand times more so for your sweet angel of a brother.
I'm sure it surprises you to hear me speak so of him when I was so cruel to him when he lived. I admit that I was cruel. I was every bit as evil to him as my father had been to me. You see, your mother and the others around here were all correct. Josiah couldn't have been more like me if he had been my twin rather than my son. I was just as delicate, sweet and gentle when I was his age. I even had a love like his.
That is perhaps the greatest surprise of all, I'm sure. It's true, though. When I was a strapping young buck like he was, I was just as enamored of another boy as Josiah was of his beloved Douglas. I was forced to alter my relationship with Horace to suit the demands of my father and the expectations of the folks around me. I have wished every day for the last sixty years that I hadn't given in. It's just as well though. If I hadn't changed, I wouldn't have had your saint of a mother, much less you and Josey in my life.
Just so that you know, I was never unfaithful to your mother in a physical sense. I may have thought of my childhood days with Horace every day for the last sixty years, but he and I were never together that way again after I married your mother. I never dreamed as I was growing up that I would ever feel about a girl the way I did about your mother. She was the closest and dearest friend I had besides Horace. I believe that's what made me so crazy after that terrible influenza epidemic. I had lost the two people closest to me, and then to lose sweet little Josey as well. It was more than I could bear.
I never really hated Douglas as much as it must have seemed that I did. If anything, I was jealous of the affection I saw between him and Josey. Somehow, I couldn't stop myself from turning into my father, though. I should have tried to fight that so much harder. The madness I went through after the deaths of Horace, Sarah, and then Josey was too much for me to cope with, especially when I was fighting off the same disease that had taken them.
I did something the morning that I sent you and Annie Mae off to Charleston; something so wholly evil that I will deserve the eternity in hell that I face for it. I killed Douglas. I tortured that poor boy more horribly than I would ever thought possible. I did unspeakable things to him all night long and finally spat in his face as he finally died. May God send me straight to the worst level of hell for what I did that night.
I laughed at his screams of pain as I mutilated him. I was just as evil as everyone always thought me to be. The thing that spurred me on to more violence and sadism that night and that has haunted me every night and day of my life since was what that dear little angel said in between his screams. That boy who had never done anything in his short life but try to please me for the sake of his love would look into my eyes and apologize for not being able to do more to please me and then he would look to the sky above him and tell your brother that he loved him. I was killing him for what he was saying, yet he kept right on saying it. He never once denied his love for your brother, not even when I told him that I would stop hurting him if he did so.
For sixty years I have lived with what I did that night. My guilt is no longer something I can face. I have gathered the broken remains of my first son-in-law and returned him to the place where he would feel closest to Josey. I call him that because I don't doubt that if it had been possible for them to do so they would have wed one another. I was a fool to oppose and even punish a love so pure and genuine. I only hope that someday all those that I hurt will be able to forgive me, including you my darling daughter.
Your wretched undeserving and evil sire,