Down by the River
As soon as Shelby stepped off the bus, she knew she was already too late. The feeling at the pit of her stomach made her nauseous.
“Ma’am? You okay?" The bus driver asked as she swayed in the early morning heat.
"Yes. Yes I’m okay.”
The feeling passed quickly but she was left with a sense of foreboding. The sun made her squint through her dark glasses as she made her way down the dusty road.
This small Louisiana town was repressive and since the death of her mother Annie-Clare, life with her drunken Pa had become unbearable.
Shelby was cursed with a gift, a gift that had left her open to taunts and cruelty. Life would have been intolerable if it hadn’t been for Mary-Jo. She too suffered from taunts as people didn’t understand her. She had a simplicity that they mistook for stupidity. So they had befriended each other.
Mary-Jo had written her long, barely legible letters about Ricky and how happy he made her. Ricky was an outsider too. The town folk didn’t like him and didn’t trust him, she said. And Mary-Jo was condemned for loving him.
Ricky lived by the river so Shelby made her way there. Mary-Jo had said that he used to live on the outskirts of town in a trailer with his mom. One day it went up in flames with his mom and her lover inside. They said he was responsible and they ran him out of town where he was brought up in an orphanage for wayward boys.
As Shelby approached, Ricky was coming out of the trailer door. Quickly, she took in his tall thin appearance. He was wearing denim jeans and a jacket with an old vest underneath. His dark hair was long to his shoulders and his eyes were broody.
"Are you Ricky?" she asked tentatively, although she knew he was.
He looked her up and down sullenly. "What if I am?"
"I'm Shelby," she told him as he pinned back the door.
"Is that supposed to mean somethin?"
"I'm Mary-Jo's friend?”
"Oh, that Shelby," he said going back inside. She hesitated, then followed him in and it was surprisingly neat and spacious. He sat down in front of the TV, the sound too low to hear.
"I'm looking for Mary-Jo," she explained, standing awkwardly in the doorway.
"She ain't here," he said without looking up.
"Have you seen her?"
"Nope." Then after a moment he said: "You ran out on her."
Shelby swallowed nervously. "She didn't mind, she understood."
"She minded, she minded very much." He turned and she felt uncomfortable as his eyes traveled over her body. Sitting on the edge of the bunk, she fidgeted with her fingers.
"She said she was in trouble. Wanted me to come."
"Oh yeah? That's gallant of you."
Shelby didn’t understand his anger. "She's my friend. She needs me," she told him indignantly.
He stared at her. “Her friend?"
The guilt she felt for leaving still haunted her, "Please, Ricky, you don't understand."
"No," he said looking back to the television.
"I know somethin's wrong. I thought she’d be here."
"Well, she ain't and I'd prefer it if you weren't either."
Getting to her feet, Shelby felt a little braver. "It doesn't matter what you think of me, but I know you care for Mary-Jo, too..."
Ricky was up off his chair in a flash and Shelby flinched. "What the hell do you know? I might care for her, but if she cared for me..." He stopped as they heard the sound of cars.
Ricky looked out of the window and cursed. Shelby was frightened, sensing more than she knew.
Two cars screeched to a halt and within a moment the trailer was full of cops. Ricky tried to run. It was natural for him to run. Shelby watched with horror as he was violently hand-cuffed and dragged outside. She had forgotten how brutal they could be.
"Leave him alone!" she cried despairingly.
"Well, well. If it ain't little Shelb,” said a familiar voice and Rawden Hughes laughed. “I thought you'd gone for good." Shelby flinched, her eyes catching his badge and his promotion to Sheriff.
"That's right,” he said, “I'm the big boy now. Maybe you know where Mary-Jo is?"
"If I did, I wouldn't tell you."
Rawden’s face darkened and his bushy eyebrows knitted together. "I'm the law round here now, girl. You have to tell me."
"I've just arrived, I don't know anything," she said hoping he couldn’t see her trembling.
"And if you know what's good for you, you'll leave again, today," he told her as he got back in the car.
As she watched them screech off, she caught the curious look Ricky shot her.
She and Rawden Hughes went back a long way. She was indebted to him and he never let her forget it.
Her Pa was sitting next to the fire, staring at the flames. He was sober and didn’t look up as she entered. The place smelled of urine and booze and she turned her nose up slightly.
"I knew you'd be back. You shoulda' let me know. I'd have picked you up from the bus."
"Yes, well, I didn't know you'd be sober," she told him looking round, nothing had changed.
"A whole year and no word?" he said as she sat down in the high-backed chair feeling tired.
"I came back `cos of Mary-Jo." She watched him light a cigarette and draw heavily on it.
"You're a fool to come back here," he told her staring into the fire.
"I should never have left her," she said.
There was tension in this town and it frightened her. Closing her eyes, Shelby leaned her head back on the chair.
In her head she saw the swirling of water, tears of betrayal and shame. Trying to lose the image she opened her eyes and her Pa was watching her, his cigarette almost finished.
"Don't fight it, Shelby," he said quietly as the sound of her heart pounded in her ears. "You ought to talk with that crazy boy she's been hanging around with."
The following day Mary-Jo's body was found in the river.
The town was angry and they wanted blood. Why hadn't the Sheriff charged Ricky? He was guilty, they said. After all, didn't he kill his mother and her lover?
Shelby slept in her old room that night, grateful to be alone and to weep for Mary-Jo.
"The police are biased, they’ve always hated him," Shelby told her pa the next morning. She was sitting on the edge of the table. He was hand washing socks with a cigarette dangling from his mouth.
"I know what everyone thinks, but Ricky didn't do it."
He glanced up, "You know that boy's reputation?"
"Maybe, but he loved her."
"He's a bad `un. He did it all right."
Shelby looked at him strangely. He was still sober and he still hadn’t looked her in the eyes.
"He didn't, I know he didn't," she repeated.
"Mary-Jo was a beautiful girl. That boy took advantage of her."
"They probably took advantage of each other." She put her fingers to her forehead. "I can't believe she's gone."
"You were the only friend she had. She missed you." He wrung out the socks, pulled the plug and went to the yard to pin them out.
"I let her down, didn't I?" she said following him. "If I hadn't gone, she might still be here." Tears sprang easily to her eyes.
Her father's face softened, "It's all right, child, you go right ahead and weep." He squeezed her shoulder gently.
"Y'know, Pa, I like it when you're sober."
She wished he’d been sober that night a year ago. She needed him then and he let her down, but it was Rawden Hughes who had driven her away.
Shelby knew she should go and see Mary-Jo's family. Her ma was an old witch and Mary-Jo's two sisters had treated her like a servant, so instead she went down to the river and found herself at the spot where Mary-Jo's body had been found.
Lying back on the grass Shelby closed her eyes. Goose pimples prickled as the past tantalised her with images she couldn’t focus on. Then there was Ricky, so angry and hurt, but there was something else: something she couldn’t quite see.
"Little Shelb," came a voice from behind, snapping her out of her dream. Rawden Hughes smiled.
"Fancy you coming here - to this exact spot."
"Why shouldn't I?" She got to her feet quickly, her voice unnaturally high.
"Poor dumb Mary-Jo, eh?" he said and Shelby swallowed nervously stepping away from him.
"Mary-Jo wasn't dumb. You know that," she told him.
Rawden smiled again. "A year away from this place has done you good. You look prettier than ever."
She hated the way he looked at her; hated the way his belly squeezed into his trousers. "I couldn't marry you, Rawden. You know that."
"I always live in hope."
"Blackmail is a dirty game," she reminded him.
"Blackmail? Come on," he tutted. "Blackmail is a dirty word, little Shelb."
She looked around hopefully, but they were completely alone. She didn’t trust him. He was capable of anything.
“My pa was sober when I went home," she said, changing the subject.
"The loss of Mary-Jo hit him badly," said Rawden and she wasn’t sure what he meant. Mary-Jo's death had hit everyone.
"What about Ricky? Have you charged him?"
"Not yet. He'll crack. His type always do."
"Not if he's innocent."
"Even if he's innocent, but he isn't. He did it all right."
"I don't think he did," she argued. Somehow it felt important to say that.
He stepped forward and took hold of her chin. Recoiling, she grabbed his wrist to pull him away, but his podgy hands were firm.
"Why are you sticking up for him? What do you know?" he demanded.
Somehow she pulled free. "Leave me alone!" she cried, running away and up the embankment to the sound of his laughter.
Mary-Jo's home was in mourning. Her mother's face was blotchy and red with crying. Her elder daughters were tearfully fussing round. They all acted like they cared but it was a pity they hadn’t cared more when she was alive.
"Help yourself to coffee," Mrs McDonagh said.
"Thanks," said Shelby.
"We heard you were back," said Maureen, the elder of the two. "How's yer pa?" There was an inkling of sarcasm.
"Fine," said Shelby refusing to be riled.
"Have they charged that son of a bitch yet?" asked Patricia.
"I don't know," said Shelby savouring the rich dark liquid. "You think he's guilty then?"
"Hell, yes!" Both girls spoke at the same time. "Don't you?"
"No," she said, quietly.
"Oh, by God, there's always one," scoffed Maureen. Shelby glanced at Mrs McDonagh, but she didn’t look as if she were listening. "Mary-Jo was a fool!" added Patricia.
"Gullible," put in Maureen. "That boy saw her coming a mile off."
There was no point in arguing and Shelby finished her coffee and left.
Later as she walked home, her shoulders ached. The feeling of foreboding was strong and she knew it was more than just the death of a friend.
What had happened between Ricky and Mary-Jo? Why was her pa sober and what had Rawden meant? Could he have tried to blackmail Mary-Jo? Had they argued? Why was Mary-Jo in trouble? So many questions whirled around in her mind. She felt dizzy with them.
It was growing dark when she arrived home. Her pa was banging about upstairs. The coffee-pot was still warm. She was pouring a cup when something came crashing down the stairs. Rushing through, she found him lying at the bottom. He let out a string of obscenities. He was drunk, very drunk.
"You!" he accused shaking off her offer of help. "What are you doing here?"
"Pa! What's the matter?"
"You should never have come back, you little whore. Did you really think I didn't know about you and the Sheriff? Get out! Go back to whatever little hole you buried yourself in." He staggered through to the kitchen.
Shelby stared at him with shock and disbelief. "W-what do you mean?"
He laughed as he poured himself another glass of whisky. "The whole town knows you were screwing Rawden. I'm a laughing stock." He slumped into the chair.
"You don't need me to make people laugh at you," she cried. "Anyway, it ain't true!"
He pointed his finger in her face. "Did you think it was easy for me after Annie-Clare died? I brung you up."
"You didn't bring me up!” she shouted back. “I brought myself up. You were always too goddamn drunk, anyway!"
"Enough!" he roared rising from the chair. Shelby stepped back frightened. He poked two fingers into her shoulder. "You wanna get out of here before Mary-Jo's fate becomes yours, too, huh?
"Pa…" Hot tears ran down her face.
"Get the hell out!" he roared. She turned and fled.
Darkness was descending as she walked back towards town. She kept to the road and away from the embankment. Finally a car drew up beside her and Rawden got out.
"Can I give you a lift somewhere?" he asked.
"No, leave me alone," she said.
"Don't walk away while I'm talking to you, Shelb." She lost her footing then and slipped down the embankment. Rawden came down as she got quickly to her feet.
"Now that wouldn't have happened if you hadn't have run. I'm just offering you a lift, that's all."
"I don't want one," she said turning away.
"Why? Am I not good enough for you now?"
"You never were," she said boldly. "You took advantage of me." She tried to side-step him.
"You knew what you were doing," he said blocking her way. "Besides you owed me."
"Not for the rest of my life, I didn't!" she cried.
"It’s never too late for the truth to come out. I could make up a good story, my word against yours, huh? Is that what you want?" His hand was on her shoulder.
She was crying now, he was winning again. Her ma’s death had been no accident and only four people knew that, and one of them was dead.
Rawden was smiling now, his eyes sympathetic. His sweaty palm touched her cheek, his thumb stroking her chin. It repulsed her.
Sheriff?" a voice called. "Don't you have a killer to catch?" He turned sharply to see Ricky standing by the car looking down on them.
Glaring at him, Rawden came up the embankment. "You're not off the hook yet, so don't get lippy." He got into his car, slammed the door, and sped away.
"Are you all right?" Ricky asked, taking her hand and pulling her up the embankment. She nodded and wiped her face. "Funny place to be at this time of night, ain't it?" he said.
"My pa threw me out. Anyway, I could ask you the same thing." She began to walk, biting her lip to compose herself.
He shrugged and followed. "So where’re you going?"
"I don't know, into town, I guess." She shivered. The night had almost drawn in. Ricky handed over his jacket. "Thanks," she mumbled. "When did they let you out?"
"A coupla hours ago."
"I'm surprised, just because you're innocent," she glanced at him side ways. "don’t mean they can't make it stick."
"What makes you think I'm innocent, anyway?" he said.
"Because you cared for Mary-Jo."
He shrugged again. "Since when has that ever mattered?"
They walked along in silence for a while. He, dark and moody and she, tired and cold.
“He frightened us, me and Mary-Jo."
"Hmm, but Mary-Jo never really understood what was going on."
"So you deserted her?"
"No, it wasn't like that." But it felt like that now. Shelby knew it and so did he. She sighed, "Did Mary-Jo tell you about me?"
"She told me lots of things. I felt as if I knew you. But there was something she held back, wouldn’t talk about. It was somethin’ to do with you, wasn’t it?”
She wanted to tell him, tell him the whole sordid story, but was afraid. Instead she said: "What really happened between you and Mary-Jo?"
Ricky didn’t answer at first and she could see him scowling as they walked. She touched his arm so he stopped and looked at her with his sullen eyes.
“She said she loved me, but she betrayed me," he said quietly, just as it began to drizzle.
"She did love you, Ricky, you were one of the reasons I didn’t come back. Mary-Jo felt safe with you. She would never, never hurt you."
"But she did!"
As they approached town, a group of lads were sitting on their motorbikes outside a bar. She knew some of them.
"Hey!" Danny Blanche jumped off his bike and came over to them. "Why've they let you out? Do they let murderers out these days?" The other three came over, encircling them.
"Miss Mary-Jo too much for you to handle?" taunted one.
“What did you do to her? Huh? Huh?" said the other. The rain was coming down harder now. Their leather jackets shone. The lads continued to move round them. Ricky said nothing trying not to meet their eyes.
"We don't take kindly to outsiders taking our women."
"Yeah, never mind killing them, do we? Huh? Huh?"
"I didn't kill her," Ricky protested.
"What, speak up?" Danny poked his finger in Ricky's chest. Ricky pushed his arm away. The other three moved closer, their body's alert, tensed up and waiting.
"Stop it!" Shelby shouted. She’d had enough of being pushed around by people in this town. They looked at her with surprise. "Our women?" she scoffed. "Since when did you care for Mary-Jo? Weren't you the ones who bullied her; made her do things just so you could laugh at her? You stupid ignorant, louts!" With that she shoved Danny hard in the chest. He stumbled back and broke the circle. He raised his hand in retaliation, but Ricky hit him squarely on the jaw. A deputy's car rolled up and the fight stopped before it had started.
Looking at Ricky, the deputy said, "I'd go home before you get hauled in again."
The lads went back to their bikes with Danny rubbing his chin. The deputy went on his way.
Shelby stood alone in the street, the rain plastering her hair to her head. It dripped down her face and nobody could tell she was crying, too.
Her pa was drinking steadily when she got back. He'd wrecked the kitchen and was slumped in the chair with his bottle at his feet. She stood in the doorway.
"What the hell do you want?" he said, raising his bloodshot eyes.
"I've nowhere else to go," she said.
"Then go back to him."
He got up, staggering towards her. Catching hold of her shoulders, he slammed her back to the wall.
"Do you think I care about your problems?"
"You got him now, do you think I care?"
"What are you talking about?" Then he began to laugh. The smell of whisky breath repulsed her.
"I love you," he said, his laughter turning to tears. "I loved you," he wept. The sound of the rain and his sobbing filled Shelby with fear.
"What are you talking about!" she cried with alarm. His eyes fell on her jacket and his face turned into a sneer.
"His," he hissed. "That son of a bitch. Go to him!" He swung her round with one hand and opened the door with the other. She screamed as he threw her out into the dark wet night.
Shelby arrived at the trailer, breathless and soaked to the skin. Ricky gave her a blanket and a towel. She took off her wet clothes while he made coffee.
"I don't belong here," she said. "I don't belong out there either. They thought I was odd, too. Only Mary-Jo knew, only she really understood what it was like."
He handed her a steaming mug and sat down next to her.
“Whoever you are, Mary-Jo loved you," he said gently rubbing her shoulder.
She leaned into the welcome nook of his arm. The coffee warmed her. He didn't speak and she closed her eyes. The rain pelted. The wind began to howl and Shelby fell into a troubled sleep.
When she awoke, it was still night and Ricky was sound asleep beside her.
Clutching the blanket, she got up and poured herself some of the now lukewarm coffee. The wind had blown itself out and rain was nothing but a drizzle again.
The image of Mary-Jo was so clear in her mind. Her stomach churned. Memories of Rawden haunted her. Awful images of her pa, too. Abruptly she turned, and in the darkness she could see Ricky was awake and watching her.
"You remind me of Mary-Jo standing there like that," he spoke quietly. "You feel better?"
"Yes," she said, "but the coffee's lousy," she attempted to smile.
He got up. "I'll make some more."
"I'd offer to do it, but ..." She indicated her hands holding the blanket together. "I don't suppose you have something I could wear?"
"Sure," he said pulling open a drawer and handed her some jeans and a jumper.
"What did Mary-Jo tell you about me?" she asked.
"She said you see things."
"Did she really think I walked out on her?" she asked, sitting on the bunk again.
Ricky shrugged. "I was angry when I said that. I just know she missed you."
"When my pa got into one of his drunken rages he used to hit me. Rawden thought I was his to use whenever he wanted. Mary-Jo said she needed me, but it was me who needed her. She was the only one who didn't want anything from me. She never had a bad thought about anyone, although she had more cause to than most."
Ricky handed her some more coffee and she drank immediately. "I'm not a freak, y'know."
"I never said you were." He leaned against the wall, sipping from his mug and watching her. She imagined him standing there looking at Mary-Jo like that.
"I see things, that's all. Pa told me he sees things too, only he drinks to blot it out. He was drunk the day he beat up Ma. Mary-Jo and I were hiding in the closet. We were fourteen years old. Rawden arrived and Pa had passed out. We were cryin’. Rawden said he could fix it and we could pay him back later." Shelby lowered her eyes. "We didn't know what he meant then."
There was a fire burning in Ricky’s eyes and Shelby cringed from it.
"We were plum scared, Ricky. We had to do it." She thought of the burning shame she felt, but Mary-Jo had felt none. She was confused - didn't understand what he was doing to them.
Ricky eyes seemed to envelope her in guilt and she felt her cheeks burn. In barely a whisper, he said, "It wasn't your fault. Don't ever think it was."
She looked away and blinked back the threatening tears and for a moment they were both absorbed themselves in the warm coffee.
"Did you see who killed her?" he asked suddenly.
Shelby looked at him for a long moment, then, looked out behind him through a chink in the curtains. Dawn was beginning to break.
"She was scared, Ricky, real scared, she couldn't say no to him."
"Who was it?" he demanded, grabbing her arm. "It was Rawden, wasn't it?"
"I don't know!" she cried, the pressure of his fingers bit into her arms. "I could never see! But I... I..." she was on the verge of tears again.
Ricky shook her, urgently. "Tell me! Tell me who you think it was!"
"My pa," she cried. "I think it was my pa. I don't understand." She stopped abruptly, frightened at the rage she saw in his face.
"The son of a bitch, I shoulda' guessed. Why didn't you know? You see, don't you?" he demanded.
"He was so drunk," she sobbed, remembering his accusations as he threw her out of the house the night before. "Oh God," she said pulling away from him. "He thought I was her." Everything began to fall into place. How could she have done it? How could he do it? She buried her hands and sobbed.
In an anguished rage, Ricky knocked all the pots and pans to the floor. The noise was terrifying. Then he turned and slammed out of the trailer.
Running after him, Shelby begged him not to do anything stupid.
"Why, because he's your pa? Didn't he beat you? Didn't he kill your mom? Why are you shielding him?"
"No, Ricky," she desperately clung on to his arm. "Listen to me!" He shook her off. She caught him again and forced him to stop. "Listen! Mary-Jo wouldn't want you to do anything in anger."
"What do you know, you left her, remember?" He strode on, his body taut with fury.
How could she stop him? Did she want to stop him?
Running after him again, Shelby knew she couldn’t let him do it. Not for her father's sake, or her own, but for Mary-Jo's. She wouldn’t want him to jeopardise his life for her.
Running faster than she thought she could, she struck him in the back, knocking him forward, where he stumbled, winded.
Falling on top of him, she yelled, "I won't let you do this." They began to roll on the ground and as he tried to break free, she clung on.
A cop car sped past, its siren blaring.
"This is for Mary-Jo, not you," she screamed, thumping him as hard as she could.
"Goddamn you!" he yelled, fighting her off as they slammed into the side of a rock. The sirens stopped them and they both began to run in their direction.
When they reached her house, two cop cars were outside, their lights still flashing. Ricky had calmed down. He reminded her that with it out in the open, she would be free of the sheriff. "What he did was illegal, for chrissake. You were only a child."
Mary'Jo's mother was standing with a group of people. She was clutching a shawl tightly round her shoulders. "What's going on?" Shelby asked.
"God forgive him!" was all she said.
Shelby ran into the house in time to see them taking her pa's body down from the rafters. Rawden Hughes looked at her, and for the first time he looked genuinely sad.
"Well, Shelb, it seems he's confessed to the murder of Mary-Jo. Phoned her mom, he did. He also mentioned something about your ma, too."
Shelby stared at the blue contorted face that was once her pa. She couldn't remember when he stopped being her father. She felt no sorrow, just shock and a tremendous relief. It was over, she was finally free.
Ricky put his arm around her shoulders and took her outside.
"There's a train at noon," he whispered into her ear. "If we catch it, I see no reason to come back here again, do you?"
Putting her arm round his waist, Shelby nodded and smiled. This was what Mary-Jo would have wanted.
Karen Mossman lives in Manchester, England and is one of four children.
Her parents fostered and moved house 15 times before Karen married the
boy next door and they moved away again.
Growing up in a house full of children and animals, gave Karen plenty of
ideas for her active imagination and sometimes it was nice to disappear
into it for a while.