Short story contest runner up: And Then – This Happened

A wayward traveler stumbles upon some old-fashioned Southern hospitality in the third-place winner of "Crime Pays."
By Judi Hill | Published: September 23, 2015


country road photo by sean davis via flickrChad Turner yawned, then jerked alert when the wheels of his Range Rover grazed the shoulder. He checked the rearview mirror. Nothing.

Chad hated Highway 158. Most boring road in North Carolina, he thought. Nothing to see until you hit the Atlantic Ocean. He looked out the window, wishing for a “South of the Border” billboard. Instead, he saw graveyards and plastic flowers. The bright bouquets were in family cemeteries, all snuggled close to small farmhouses. They scattered along the highway like bits of confetti.

He drove slowly toward Murfeesboro. He had both windows down and the radio on. The air was soft.

Ahead, on the left, he noticed a farmhouse with a particularly pretty cemetery, and what looked like a fresh grave. He slowed. Were they still burying people in family graveyards? Was that legal?

He looked toward the house and saw a woman sitting in a porch swing. She was attractive. Why not, he thought.  He made a quick left and swung the black Range Rover onto the gravel driveway. The woman in the swing watched him, frowning, so he smiled and gave a little wave.

She made a whistling sound, called “Toby,” and a German Shepherd came out from under the porch.

Chad leaned out the window. “I wonder if I could ask you a couple of questions about this stretch of highway?”

She snapped her fingers and the dog went to her and lay down under the swing. Finally she said, “Sure. Come up to the porch.”

He got out, went up the walk and stood near the steps. “My name is Chad Turner. I’ve noticed several family cemeteries along this road,” he continued, motioning toward the headstones in the side yard. “I wondered if you can tell me about them.”

“They’re graveyards,” the woman said. One leg was tucked up under her and she pushed the swing with the other foot, not missing a beat. “What’s to tell? They are graveyards.”

Chad laughed. “Yeah, I know what they are. But I’ve seen so many. I guess I thought family burial grounds were a thing of the past.”

“Nope,” the woman said. “Not in Chowan County.”

He shaded his eyes and looked at her. She was not as old as he first thought. Maybe late twenties, early thirties. She was pretty, and her dark hair was pulled up and fastened with a clip.

“I was wondering if I could visit your cemetery,” Chad said. “If you wouldn’t mind.”

She stared at him.

“If it’s not an imposition,” Chad continued. “I’d be careful.”

“They’re dead,” the woman said. “You don’t have to be careful.” She rose out of the swing. “I’ll open the gate for you. It’s a little tricky sometimes.” She snapped her fingers and the dog unfolded from under the swing and stood beside her.

As she neared him, Chad realized she was more than just pretty. Her skin was flawless, as if she’d been airbrushed, and her green eyes were pale. There were little beads of sweat on her upper lip.

The woman and Toby walked ahead of Chad. She was tall, narrow hipped and she pulled at the hem of her kaki shorts as though trying to make them longer.

There were more than 20 plots in the small cemetery – all neatly tended. The oldest tombstone was dated 1852 and the newest, Margaret Louise Burnett, age 82, was only a week old.

“It looks like you’ve had a recent loss,” Chad said. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry,” she replied. “I thought Marge would never die. Mean as a snake, that old southern woman was.” She paused, looked off into the distance – then she smiled. “Now I’m the one who’s sorry. That was an ugly thing to say.”

Chad chuckled. “Not at all. That’s the kind of information you’re supposed to share with strangers. Was she a relative?”

“She was my ex-mother-in-law, which is definitely not kin. I shouldn’t have buried her with my family.” She paused. “But it was free and I didn’t have any place else to put her.” She stepped toward Chad, hesitated, then offered her hand. “I’m Summer Burnett.”

“It’s a pleasure, Summer. I’m Chad Turner,” he said as he took her hand. It was warm and firm. A serious hand.

Summer looked at him, eyes squinted. “Wanna sit on the porch? Have a glass of tea or water? Or a beer?”

“Sure. Sounds good,” Chad said, hoping he hadn’t answered too quickly. He glanced at his watch. Almost eleven. “I guess it’s too early for a beer.”

“Never,” Summer said.

Chad took a seat on the steps and leaned back against the porch post. In a few minutes, Summer was back with two opened longnecks. No glasses, no napkins, no niceties – just two longnecks.

Summer returned to the porch swing and Toby to his post underneath. They drank from their bottles, letting the silence lay comfortable between them. The air smelled like flowers and newly cut grass.

Finally Chad said, “So, Chowan County’s claim to fame is they still have family cemeteries and they still use them?”

“Yes. That, plus the mastermind of 9/11 went to school at Chowan College.”

Surprised, Chad said, “Wow, I knew he went to college in this country but I didn’t know it was here.”

“Yes, well it’s not something we’re proud of. Like, there’s not a brass plaque on a marker somewhere.” She paused. “Piece of scum. He’s the same guy that sliced Daniel Pearl’s throat.” She pushed the swing harder. “Let’s not talk about it. Can’t understand people like that. Always gets me crazy.”

Finally, Chad asked, “So where is the ex-husband?”

“What makes you think there is one?” Summer replied.

“Pretty hard to have an ex-mother-in-law, even a dead one, without an ex-husband.”

“Yeah, well he left long ago. Left me with his mean-ass mother.”

“Where is he now?”

“Last I heard, he was in Georgia. At least that’s where we sent the divorce papers. When I didn’t hear back, it was granted on grounds of desertion.”

“I’m sorry,” Chad said.

“Why? First you are sorry about dead Marge, and now you’re sorry that Bobby took off. You gotta quit being sorry for things you know nothing about. I’m happy to be rid of both of them.”

Chad laughed.

“What are you doing in this part of North Carolina?” Summer asked.

“I’m running a survey crew. My RV is parked over in Winston. But on weekends, I write.”

“Write what?”

“A bestseller,” Chad replied, smiling. “Have you ever met a writer who was writing anything else?”

“Never met a writer.”

“Well, if you ever do, that’s what we are all writing.”

“And where does my graveyard figure into this visit?” Summer asked. “Which of your careers is interested in my land? Are you surveying my farm or am I going to read about it in a novel?”

“Oh, I just thought all these little cemeteries were interesting. But,” he paused, “they’ll probably end up on a page eventually.”

Summer stood up. “More beer?”

“No, I’m thinking about running into Murfeesboro for a bite to eat.” He studied his hiking boots. “Hey, would you care to join me? Or do you have dinner plans?”

“Dinner plans?” Summer raised an eyebrow. “I haven’t had any dinner plans since I went to my high school prom.”

She rose from the swing. “Give me a minute to brush my hair and put on a skirt.” She hesitated. “Although, I shouldn’t take off with a guy I just met.”

Chad laughed. “If you’re worried, don’t ride with me. Follow in your car. Take Toby along.”

“Good idea. I think I will,” Summer said and disappeared into the house.

Chad and Summer had dinner in a little steakhouse, the best Murfeesboro had to offer. It was a perfect meal. Perfect steak, perfect wine, perfect conversation – all wrapped in that happy, getting-to-know-you bubble.

Summer felt it was the beginning of something special. Chad knew he had found the woman he wanted. They left the restaurant, both confident they would see each other again.

Chad, carrying his leftover steak in a doggie box, walked Summer to her car. Toby rose up in the backseat, already smelling the meat.

Chad patted the dog’s head. “OK, boy, I’ll split tomorrow’s lunch with you.” He offered Toby a chunk of T-bone and it disappeared.

Summer leaned against the side of the car. “You’re spoiling my dog.”

“I want him to like me,” Chad replied. He stood close to Summer. “I’m running the survey crew for a few days, but what about Saturday? Could I stop by and maybe we’ll find something to do?”

“I’d like that,” she said.

He kissed her lightly, then opened the car door and helped her into the driver’s seat.

Chad watched her car move away, then went back inside. He walked through the restaurant and into the bar. He ordered, “Jack Daniels with a water back.”

It was 9:45 PM.

Chad chatted up the bartender. They talked sports and Chad told him about the novel he was writing. The bartender marveled at Chad’s ability to write all day and reckoned how it must be nice to travel around the country doing research and writing. Chad agreed, but said he would soon be moving on to South Carolina for a fresh perspective.

Chad drank steadily (although he wasn’t drunk) until 11:45; fifteen minutes before closing. He said it was time for him to turn in so he told the bartender goodnight.

He headed the Range Rover toward the RV park and then whipped a U and went out Highway 158.

He drove slowly until he neared Summer’s house. No lights were on. He turned off the highway into her driveway. He drove on to the grass and circled around the house – almost to the back door. He cut the motor and lights. Her car was in the carport behind the house.

Holding the rest of the T-bone steak, he got out and closed the car door carefully. He gave a low whistle. Toby came around the house and right up to Chad. He gave him the steak and told him he was a good boy. Then he straddled the dog, grabbed his head, twisted and broke Toby’s neck.

Chad walked around the house. The front door was locked, but the back door was open with just the screen door locked. He took out a small knife, cut the screen and slipped in silently. He stood still for a moment, listening, letting his eyes adjust to the darkness. He took plastic handcuffs out of his pocket.

There was a tiny nightlight in the bathroom and he could see Summer asleep in the bed. She was lying on her back…the best way, Chad thought.

In one quick motion, he straddled her and captured both of her hands, tightening the plastic tie around them. She struggled, still foggy with sleep, trying to discern what was happening. Chad could see her eyes widen as she recognized him. He liked that. It felt romantic. He put his forearm against her throat to stop her scream.

Chad couldn’t be sure if she had enjoyed the lovemaking or not. He had accidentally crushed her larynx, so she might have been dead all through it.

He cleaned up quickly and stuffed the used condom in his pocket. He went to the Range Rover, got a shovel and began carefully moving the dirt off the mother-in-law. In no time at all, Summer and Toby had been tossed in on top of Marge and covered up. He tidied up around the grave, even putting back the dead flower stems. Easiest burial I’ve ever had, Chad thought.

As he drove back to the RV park, he reasoned that it might be a while before Summer was missed. And it might be even longer until they found her body – if ever.

Chad began planning his move to South Carolina.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

judi1Judi Hill is founder and director of Wildacres Writers Workshop – a 25-year-old conference held in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. She has published seven short stories and several nonfiction pieces. She is currently working on a mystery novel and a nonfiction book titled Only Makeup Holds Me Together.

“A news story commented on the possibility of serial killers who moved around the county targeting women,” says Hill. “That same day, in the entrance to a Walmart, I saw 19 pictures of missing women. What kind of killer gets away with that? An ordinary one. I wrote about an ordinary man who travels around – and kills.”

NOTES FROM THE JUDGE, DAVID C. TAYLOR:
“A story that leads you along quietly and then stabs you in the chest. Maybe you should have seen it coming, but you didn’t. Chad Turner remains a bit underdeveloped as a character, [but] knowing the ending, that is not a bad thing. He is the evil that is out there lurking behind an innocent façade. Summer Burnett is nicely drawn, and the details of the family graveyards along the highway are arresting and set a tone of slightly macabre that informs the story. The mention of “The same guy that sliced Daniel Perle’s throat” reiterates the idea that random violence is out there waiting, as does the protective presence of Summer’s German shepherd, guardian against the unknown.

The innocence of the date in Murfeesboro lulls us, and the end is a shock. It is then that Chad’s character comes out, quickly and starkly: “Chad could see her eyes widen as she recognized him. He liked that. It felt romantic. He put his forearm against her throat to stop her scream.”

What I miss is a sense of foreboding throughout the story. It is difficult to foreshadow something evil coming without giving away the twist, but if it can be done by small accretions of detail, a small lie told to Summer, an inner thought by Chad that was at odds with what he says, the reader’s tension would grow. He lets her go home while he stays at the bar and drinks. The reader relaxes a bit. And then he makes the U-turn to her house, and the reader seizes up with the realization that something awful is about to happen.”


Read “A Deadly Diet” by Wendy Robertson, the first place short story.
Read “All Things Are Connected” by Orrin Hanratty, the second place short story.

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