Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Enemy at the Gate

Elizabeth Howard


Jean Landry couldn’t take her eyes off the television screen. She needed to do chores, but anxious faces held her. Distressed parents, Sheriff Blanton, reporters. A five-year-old girl missing. Anita Smithson. A pretty dark-haired girl the same age as her own daughter.
Caroline. She’d better check on her. She turned off the television and went to Caroline’s room. Vacant. Nothing but a hodgepodge of toys.

She hurried to the back porch. She heard talking and singing. She might have known Caroline would be in the gingerbread house.

The birds were singing, too, but the seeds were almost gone. She filled the feeders and walked to the far corner of the yard to urge Caroline to come to breakfast.

Prentice had done a terrific job on the playhouse. She could see why lost children might be tempted to stop and nibble the roof decorations.

*

The evening news featured another grief-stricken plea from the Smithsons. For the first time, Sheriff Blanton mentioned a suspect. Two children had been playing with Anita. When their mother came to call them home, a green car sped away from the curb. When Mrs. Smithson called Anita for supper, she had vanished.

The spokeswoman had a description and a composite sketch. The man was middle-aged, 5’ 10”, 185 pounds, glasses, receding hairline, long sideburns, wearing a flannel shirt.

“He looks like Trammel!” Prentice said.

Bailey Trammel lived next door. A few months ago, he’d moved to the farmhouse, once part of a large Tennessee farm. He said his wife had died and he’d had to move away from the memories. He usually kept to himself, but he’d helped them out a few times.

“Mr. Trammel’s got a heart of gold,” Jean said. “Have you forgotten the lawn mower he fixed for free? Or the time he straightened Caroline’s tricycle after I backed over it?”

“I know,” Prentice said, “but you have to admit the sketch looks like him.”

Jean nodded. “A little, but Mr. Trammel’s thinner. His chin is more pointed. Besides, his car’s a red Buick.”

“Trammel drives different cars. He works at Moe’s Fixit all day, comes home and tinkers with the junks he couldn’t fix at Moe’s. You’re always complaining about old bombs dripping toxic fluids. And his banging on metal half the night. I think we ought to call Sheriff Blanton. Say Trammel looks like the sketch. Leave it to the sheriff.”

“But Mr. Trammel’s never bothered anybody. We hardly ever see him.”

“That’s the point. We don’t know anything about him.”

“But we have no reason to suspect him, except for a sketch that looks like a lot of people. As you said, let’s leave it to the sheriff.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Prentice said. “Trammel hardly seems like a man who’d kidnap a little girl.”

*

The next day and the next, the family made pleas, Sheriff Blanton made statements and answered questions, but Anita Smithson was still missing.

On the fourth day, the sheriff reported another sighting, possibly another suspect. A few blocks from the Smithson house, a woman had seen a man in a gray car offer her little girl a white kitten. She ran outside, but the man drove away before she could get the license number. She thought the car was a Chevrolet. This time the car was gray and a kitten was involved, but it was the same neighborhood and possibly the same modus operandi.

The sheriff’s department had a new sketch. This man had a mustache. Trammel was always clean-shaven, and he didn’t have a cat. But what if the mustache was a disguise?

Throughout the day, images came and went in her mind’s eye—a green car with a rusty fender, a gray Chevrolet, a white kitten, the poster of Anita Smithson (once she saw Caroline’s face on the poster). Superimposed over these images was the face of Bailey Trammel. With a mustache, and without.

But many men would fit the description. The witnesses were mothers who admitted they had not seen the man’s face clearly and a group of children. Everyone knows how imaginative children are. They see ghosts in dust balls, ogres in shadows.
*
Saturday, Jean awoke at first light. She brewed coffee, and, barefoot, still in robe and pajamas, went out to the porch swing to watch the world awake. She would not disturb Prentice and Caroline, who liked to sleep late.

There was Prentice’s shotgun propped against the wall. She had told him a dozen times to put that cannon back in the cabinet after his clay-pigeon slaughters—deafening explosions, shards scattered over the pasture like the digs of a mad archeologist. It was stupid to leave the gun on the porch, especially with a five-year-old in the house.

Jean looked toward Caroline’s playhouse, tucked back in the corner near the grape arbor. It seemed otherworldly in the fog, quaint and pretty, a fairy tale come alive.

A screech owl lifted from a post and swept off into the fog. Cardinals flew to a feeder. Jean was admiring their beauty when a kitten crept forward in the grass. Not a kitten, but a half-grown cat. White. Where had it come from? Only Trammel and the Holbrooks lived close by. The Holbrooks would never have a cat because of Margaret’s allergies.

The cat crept nearer the feeder. Jean jumped up, flapped her hands, and shouted, “Scat!”

The cat sprang away, scampered across the lawn and through the trees. Trammel’s cat? Did he have a cat after all?

She ran down the steps and across the yard to the gate, which had been a cattle gate when the McKellars lived there. Trammel’s place, theirs, and Holbrook’s had all been part of the same farm. Jean and Prentice, tired of city life, had counted themselves lucky to get the smaller piece. They didn’t farm exactly, but they did have a few cows, a couple of horses, and a garden.

Jean peered through the gate, but all she could see was the ragged hedge. Trammel had said he was going to prune it, but the yard was a jungle of overgrown shrubs, vines, and weeds.

She tried to open the gate, but it caught in the high grass on Trammel’s side. She pushed, grunting and shoving until it opened wide enough for her to squeeze through. She crept on tiptoe. The grass covered her ankles. Spidertraps glistened in the dew like filmy flowers. She wished she had her shoes. What if she stepped on glass or a nail or a spider? Anything could be hiding in such tall grass.

She peered through the thick hedge. There was Trammel’s red Buick and a hodgepodge of rusty cars—green, gray, brown. Trammel could have driven any one of them.

She remembered the first time she’d seen him. He was hunkered down by the gate, watching Caroline ride her tricycle. She had felt shivery.

But he’d stood up and come forward with his hand outstretched. She saw the pliers he’d used to work on the gate’s hinges. How ridiculous to suspect him of watching Caroline! Prentice had come out of the house then, and they’d had a friendly chat.

Why had she not remembered that feeling, that warning, when Prentice had talked about calling the sheriff? But you can’t accuse someone of evil just because he makes your skin shiver.

She felt eyes watching her through the hedge, from the sweetgum branches, from the hydrangeas by the side of the house. Morning-glory blossoms on the fence were giant eyes, watching her.

Something rustled in the hedge, and there was the cat, feinting at a sawbrier leaf. The cat looked gray in the shadows, but it was the same scrawny cat she’d seen at the feeder. It jumped and pounced, its prey not a leaf, but a mouse. The mouse almost escaped, but the cat pounced again. Jean watched in horror. It was almost a relief when the cat bit its victim. The mouse shrieked, and Jean heard the bones crackle.

She started running. The cat, grown huge, was ready to pounce on her, to crush the bones in the nape of her neck. She stepped on a sweetgum burr and cried out. She limped along as fast as she could with the pain. She squeezed through the gate, tearing her blouse and her arm. The abrasion stung, and blood trickled down, but she didn’t stop.

Where had Bailey Trammel really come from? Did the authorities know he was here? Had they planted him in this quiet, isolated neighborhood to protect him from his past? Was he lurking about, trying to capture innocent children? Like the witch in Hansel and Gretel?

She recalled the image of Trammel peering at Caroline through the gate. The gate to their home. She had read plays in college, stories of warfare, an enemy at the gate of the city. An enemy who might be a brother, often the case in those old plays. Or perhaps, a friend, or neighbor. Trammel was undoubtedly that one—enemy, witch, tiger, blood lust on his breath, savagery in his heart, the blood of Anita Smithson on his hands.

She fled into the house and locked the door behind her.

“Spooks after you?” She nearly jumped out of her skin.
Prentice sat at the table, eating shredded wheat and bananas. “You look like a wild woman. Where have you been? What happened to your arm?”

“Oh, Prentice,” she panted. “I saw it.”

He raised his eyebrows. “It?”

“The cat.”

He laid down his spoon. “Where?”

Her knees felt weak. She sank into a chair. She pointed toward Trammel’s place. Her hand trembled.

“A cat’s a cat,” Prentice said. “All white cats look alike.”

“But this cat’s different,” Jean said.

And then, an awful picture, only half-imagined before, wavered in front of her eyes—her daughter in that monster’s clutches, her daughter as helpless as the small animal she’d just seen. “Caroline!” she gasped.

“You’re hysterical,” Prentice said. “I looked in on Caroline when I got up. I thought she might want to help me feed the horses, but she was asleep.”

“You left her alone and asleep with that monster next door?”

“Calm down. It’s not the first time we’ve left her sleeping while we did our work. Besides, I don’t think Trammel’s even at home. I called to tell him his goats crawled under the fence, but nobody answered.”

“But he . . .”

“It’s like you said. Old cars don’t prove anything. He’s always had old cars. And thousands of people have white kittens.”

“But I saw it!” Jean screamed. “Don’t you understand? I saw it! It’s a creepy, evil cat!”

She jumped up and ran down the hall to Caroline’s bedroom. The covers had tumbled to the floor; the bed was empty.

Prentice was right behind her. He gasped as if he’d been slugged in the stomach. Jean’s legs gave way, and she crumpled to the floor. Above her, Prentice floated in blackness.

She heard him dial the phone. His voice shouted and murmured intermittently.

“Sheriff Blanton’s on the way,” he said, bending over her. “Are you all right?”

He pulled her to her feet. She fell into his arms. “It’s all my fault,” she cried. “We should have called the sheriff in the beginning.”

A siren wailed. It was a hopeful sound. She and Prentice went out and stood on the porch.
The cat ran out of the woods, headed toward the feeder. That mangy cat stalking her birds, the way Trammel stalked little girls.

Jean grabbed the shotgun, drew the hammer, and fired. She staggered back against the wall as the boom echoed across the valley. Blood and guts exploded, and bits of fur shot up and drifted like thistledown.

“My God, Jean!” Prentice shouted. He grabbed the gun from her.

She slumped down and burst into sobs.

“Daddy! Daddy!” Screams rose from the playhouse, and Caroline ran screeching into Prentice’s arms.

***

Elizabeth Howard has an MA in English from Vanderbilt University. She writes both poetry and fiction. Her work has been published in Xavier Review, Cold Mountain Review, Comstock Review, Wind, Poem, Appalachian Heritage, The Licking River Review, The Distillery, and other journals. She has two books of poetry—Anemones (1998) and Gleaners (2005).

 

© Elizabeth Howard

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012