at the Gate
Landry couldnt 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
Caroline. Shed better check on her. She turned off the television
and went to Carolines room. Vacant. Nothing but a hodgepodge
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
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, hed moved
to the farmhouse, once part of a large Tennessee farm. He said
his wife had died and hed had to move away from the memories.
He usually kept to himself, but hed helped them out a few
Mr. Trammels got a heart of gold, Jean said.
Have you forgotten the lawn mower he fixed for free? Or
the time he straightened Carolines tricycle after I backed
I know, Prentice said, but you have to admit
the sketch looks like him.
Jean nodded. A little, but Mr. Trammels thinner. His
chin is more pointed. Besides, his cars a red Buick.
Trammel drives different cars. He works at Moes Fixit
all day, comes home and tinkers with the junks he couldnt
fix at Moes. Youre 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. Trammels never bothered anybody. We hardly
ever see him.
Thats the point. We dont know anything about
But we have no reason to suspect him, except for a sketch
that looks like a lot of people. As you said, lets leave
it to the sheriff.
I suppose youre right, Prentice said. Trammel
hardly seems like a man whod kidnap a little girl.
next day and the next, the family made pleas, Sheriff Blanton
made statements and answered questions, but Anita Smithson was
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 sheriffs department had a new sketch. This man had a
mustache. Trammel was always clean-shaven, and he didnt
have a cat. But what if the mustache was a disguise?
Throughout the day, images came and went in her minds eyea
green car with a rusty fender, a gray Chevrolet, a white kitten,
the poster of Anita Smithson (once she saw Carolines 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 mans 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 Prentices shotgun propped against the wall. She
had told him a dozen times to put that cannon back in the cabinet
after his clay-pigeon slaughtersdeafening 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 Carolines 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
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. Trammels 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. Trammels
place, theirs, and Holbrooks 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 didnt 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
Trammels 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 Trammels red
Buick and a hodgepodge of rusty carsgreen, gray, brown.
Trammel could have driven any one of them.
She remembered the first time shed seen him. He was hunkered
down by the gate, watching Caroline ride her tricycle. She had
But hed stood up and come forward with his hand outstretched.
She saw the pliers hed used to work on the gates hinges.
How ridiculous to suspect him of watching Caroline! Prentice had
come out of the house then, and theyd had a friendly chat.
Why had she not remembered that feeling, that warning, when Prentice
had talked about calling the sheriff? But you cant 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 shed 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 didnt 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
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 oneenemy,
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?
He laid down his spoon. Where?
Her knees felt weak. She sank into a chair. She pointed toward
Trammels place. Her hand trembled.
A cats a cat, Prentice said. All white
cats look alike.
But this cats different, Jean said.
And then, an awful picture, only half-imagined before, wavered
in front of her eyesher daughter in that monsters
clutches, her daughter as helpless as the small animal shed
just seen. Caroline! she gasped.
Youre 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. Its not the first time weve left
her sleeping while we did our work. Besides, I dont think
Trammels even at home. I called to tell him his goats crawled
under the fence, but nobody answered.
But he . . .
Its like you said. Old cars dont prove anything.
Hes always had old cars. And thousands of people have white
But I saw it! Jean screamed. Dont you
understand? I saw it! Its a creepy, evil cat!
She jumped up and ran down the hall to Carolines bedroom.
The covers had tumbled to the floor; the bed was empty.
Prentice was right behind her. He gasped as if hed been
slugged in the stomach. Jeans 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 Blantons on the way, he said, bending
over her. Are you all right?
He pulled her to her feet. She fell into his arms. Its
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
She slumped down and burst into sobs.
Daddy! Daddy! Screams rose from the playhouse, and
Caroline ran screeching into Prentices arms.
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 poetryAnemones (1998)
and Gleaners (2005).