Josh Hagee took a chair as the school counselor composed herself on the other side of the desk. He noted the dandelion yellow file folder, too thick for the average five-year old, and blanched internally when the woman reached out plump fingers to open the cover. Her lip twitched and her mouth set in a slight smile that was meant to project tolerance and patience. She gazed at him over the frames of her glasses, and then returned her attention to the file.
“This is your third visit with us, isn’t it?” the woman asked. Her name was Cynthia Pederson, and she wore her brown hair in straight-cut bangs that ran through the pale horizon of her forehead. Her white blouse and powder blue cardigan were either sardonic or anachronistic, and Josh figured the latter was the more likely. Ms. Pederson showed little to no sense of humor, let alone irony.
“Yes,” Josh replied. The third time in less than a month.
“I’m afraid this time is particularly serious, Mr. Hagee,” she said. “You know our rules regarding hate speech and microaggressions?”
“Yes,” he said. The school was very proud of its zero-tolerance-for-intolerance policy. It had been one of the deciding factors in choosing the school for his daughter, Sofia. What he didn’t know was how this applied to her.
“This morning, Mister LeBlanc was guiding a free expression period, allowing the students to explore their imaginations through art.” Ms. Pederson paused, a calculated act that grated on Josh’s nerves. She pushed her glasses high on the bridge of her nose, and then said, “How is everything at home, Josh? Have there been any changes in the household, any new people introduced into Sofia’s environment?”
The question landed thick with judgment, though he immediately attributed this perception to his sensitivity to the situation. It was a natural reaction, he felt, to having been summoned from work for the third time in a month to be called a bad father.
“No,” he said. “Nothing.”
“I see,” Ms. Pederson replied.
She withdrew a sheet of paper. Josh could see the bold colors of a child’s art project on the face of it. Ms. Pederson eyed the painting and offered Josh a practiced expression of concern, blended with just enough disappointment to be infuriating. She handed the sheet to Josh and then peered over her tented fingers for his reaction.
Sofia had painted a wooded scene. Narrow tree trunks, slashes of brown, rose from the bottom of the sheet to the top. In the center were a series of rectangles, a house or a cabin with a single window and a smudge of pale yellow inside it, perhaps denoting a face. Directly above this figure and laid out along the roof were a series of crosshatched lines drawn with yellow paint. A squiggly line shot toward the thing from the blue sky like lightning striking a television aerial. Light blue, not very different from the counselor’s cardigan, filled the gaps between the trees. The image was blunt but rendered well enough for a child of five.
Across the top, in bright red letters, scrawled as if written in blood, were the words:
No Spic Talk
• • • •
Josh Hagee and Ozzie Dial hadn’t known much about Sofia’s parents when they’d adopted her. Her mother was Mexican, and the father was “not in the picture.” According to the agency, the mother was healthy with no history of serious genetic issues. Josh remembered little of the details regarding the mother’s medical history. He’d already switched into father mode, wanting nothing more than to hold his baby after years of wondering if it would ever happen. Naturally, Ozzie had paid attention, which was good. Ozzie always paid attention. Details thrilled him. He’d read every adoption form three times and then had broken the information down for Josh, whose eyes had grown heavy every time he’d been faced with another page of bland, tightly stacked, Times New Roman. “Just show me where to initial or sign,” he’d often told his husband.
When Sofia turned three, he and Ozzie decided it would be best if they maintained Sofia’s connection to her heritage, so as a family, they’d started Spanish language classes. Though he’d never become fluent, Josh could speak complete phrases and discern meaning from context. His daughter, however, was fluent and often switched to speaking Spanish, sometimes in the middle of a sentence. These days, Sofia continued to practice the language with the online program Josh had bought for her.
All of which made the horrible note on her art project more confounding and terrible. Was it possible she simply didn’t know what she had written? Spic? Where would she have even heard that word? Though thriving in the heart of Texas, Austin was not Texas. It was a liberal blue puddle in the middle of an immense red field, and Josh couldn’t remember the last time he’d witnessed an act of blatant racism. Certainly none of the kids in Sofia’s school would utter such a terrible thing? Would they?
Ms. Pederson had suggested a bit overzealously that Josh treat Sofia’s digression as a teachable moment (a phrase he hated nearly as much as microaggressions). The school practiced what it called a voluntary suspension policy, allowing parents to remove their children from classes to reinforce the severity of certain actions. Josh had taken the option.
As they neared the house, with Sofia rocking back and forth against her seatbelt, Josh returned to the subject that he’d put aside after the counselor’s office.
“Who taught you that word?”
“This is serious, Sofia. The word you wrote was a very bad word. It’s insulting to a large group of people. People like you and your mommy.”
“I don’t have a mommy,” she said. “I have daddies.”
“Sofia, I’m upset with your behavior. Now stop bouncing in your seat. Spic is a terrible word. It’s used by hateful people to make Hispanic people feel bad about themselves. Now I want you to tell me who taught you that word. Was it one of your friends at school?”
“No,” she said, no less animated in the passenger seat.
“Did you see someone say that in a movie or on the television?”
“Then who was it? Where did you learn that word?”
“From my daddy.”
“Sweetheart, I’m your daddy, and I would never use a word like that.”
“Not you,” Sofia said, rolling her eyes and giggling. She bounced in her seat. “My other daddy.”
• • • •
Ozzie Dial died three weeks after Sofia’s fourth birthday. He’d been driving home from a late night at the office and suffered a heart attack while changing lanes. His Prius broke through a guardrail and hit a steep incline. The car rolled half a dozen times, ultimately settling on its roof, crushing Ozzie in the process.
After the morgue and the funeral, after the endless paperwork for insurance companies and credit card companies and a hundred other details, Josh had thought it best if he and Sofia spent some time with a grief counselor. He wasn’t sure how to manage his own feelings let alone those of a child. He’d found the sessions tedious, the counselor saying nothing he hadn’t already told himself hundreds of times.
You seem angry, Josh.
And why the hell wouldn’t he be angry? His life had gone from on-track and wholly satisfying to completely fucked in the course of a couple of hours. Instead of building a family with the man he loved, he had become a single parent, and though he loved his daughter beyond words, he felt incapable of raising her alone.
Yes, he was angry. Genius diagnosis, buddy.
Even so, Sofia had loved “Mr. Bob,” and she’d continued seeing the man for the better part of six months. The therapist had found a way to speak to her about an issue far too jagged for Josh to handle. For that Josh was grateful.
In light of Sofia’s insistence that she’d learned a bad word from her dead father, Josh scheduled an appointment for her with Mr. Bob that afternoon. He took two days off work to spend time with Sofia during her suspension from school. At the therapist’s office, they sat on the sofa and waited, Josh checking his email, while Sofia bounced on the sofa cushion, excited to see her friend again.
The therapist opened the door to his inner office and leaned through, beaming a warm smile. “There she is,” he said merrily. He was portly, with a thick brown beard and sparkling eyes. Josh often mused that in his retirement, Mr. Bob could build a distinguished career as a department store Santa, if such a thing interested him. “It seems like forever since I last saw you.”
Though it had only been a month since her last visit, Sofia leapt from the sofa, shouting, “I know! Forever.”
“Hey Josh,” Bob said. “Sofia, why don’t you wait inside for me?”
“Thanks for seeing us,” said Josh.
Bob asked what was happening, and Josh laid it out. He didn’t know if scrawling the word was an act of self-loathing or simple innocence. But he wanted to know where Sofia had heard it. More and more, he felt certain the phrase had to have come from one of her friends in her kindergarten class, perhaps another child who’d tossed the phrase out naively, having heard it at home. More disturbing though was the attribution of the slur to Josh’s dead husband.
After the therapist returned to his inner office to begin the session, Josh checked his work email and scanned the notes for emergencies. Finding none, he tapped on the euphemistically branded “dating” app and opened a note he’d received that morning:
I’m free tomorrow. If that works for you?
Josh tapped his reply, Sorry. Busy the next couple of mornings. How does Friday work for you?
Waiting for the response, he gazed through the window at a mesh of leaves and branches. He cast quick glances at the two doors leading into the room, a reflex of guilt, and then returned his attention to the phone.
Ten minutes later, Friday works, appeared on the message screen.
When the door to the inner office opened again, Bob walked through. Sofia remained in the room, engrossed in coloring. Bob closed the door behind him and sat on the sofa next to Josh.
“I’d like to see her again next week,” Mr. Bob said. His sparkling eyes held concern.
“What’s going on? What did she say?”
“It’s nothing serious, so don’t get yourself worked up. Essentially, she’s manifested an invisible friend. Nothing new or troublesome in that. What makes this interesting is she doesn’t suggest the friend is present, like someone she might have a tea party with or play games with. This friend is remote. She talks to him, but he’s never actually near her.”
“My daughter is hearing voices?”
Mr. Bob held up a hand. “Right now, it seems to be her imagination at work. That’s all. I don’t get the impression this is indicative of a larger, medical concern. So don’t google ‘schizophrenia’ and think you’re going to solve a mystery. I have no reason to believe this is anything but a little girl trying to make sense of her father’s death. She’s acting out and attributing the behavior to a father figure.”
“So she really believes Ozzie is communicating with her?”
“I need more time with her,” the therapist said. “It seems she’s imagined an abstract notion of ‘father.’ She wouldn’t come out and say it was Ozzie, but that could simply be her unwillingness to accept that he’s gone. Clearly, she doesn’t mean you, so yes, I would assume her friend is a construct of Ozzie, though one which exhibits negative characteristics.”
“The racial slur. Some instances of profanity. Nothing she probably hasn’t heard a dozen times just walking down a street or through a store. How much access does she have to the internet?”
“Next to none,” Josh said. “Why?”
“Just establishing her points of influence so we can get a better idea where some of this messaging is coming from. What do you mean, ‘next to none’?”
“Her tablet only has learning apps, a handful of games, and an app to stream kids’ movies. I formatted the parental controls on the device before I gave it to her.”
“Good. Okay. And she has no access to your home system or any of your devices?”
“No.” He considered some of his online chats, and he knew better than to let his daughter anywhere near the content of those. His home computer and all of his devices were password protected, and he kept track of them.
“Good. Then let’s get an appointment set up for next week.”
“What do I do until then?”
“What you have been doing. If you can get her to say more about this friend, good. But go easy. We don’t want her feeling threatened.”
• • • •
The next evening Josh and Sofia had a couch picnic with pizza and juice. On the television, an animated ocean swirled and pulsed with color. For as much as Sofia enjoyed more recent films, her favorite movie, the one she always requested when she was feeling down, was Finding Nemo. So Josh watched the movie for the hundredth time as he considered the questions he wanted to ask his daughter.
Sofia had been sullen all day. Her eyes appeared heavy and clouded, and when Josh asked how she was feeling, she just said, “sleepy.” Throughout the day, she’d excused herself from activities, telling Josh she needed a nap but in every instance, he’d heard her up and moving around in her room not more than ten minutes after she’d closed the door.
As the screen filled with turtles gliding toward an ominous tide, Josh paused the movie.
“Dude!” Sofia said, doing an uninspired imitation of one of the film’s characters.
“I think we should talk about your friend,” he said.
Sofia lowered her head and kicked her legs against the sofa. “I don’t want to.”
“I don’t like him anymore. His voice sounds funny now, like he’s mad.”
“What’s he mad about?”
Sofia yawned and rubbed her eyes and nestled back against the arm of the sofa. “I think he was always mad, but he pretended to be nice, and I don’t want to talk about him, because he might hear me, and then he’ll start talking again.”
“Does he say mean things to you?”
She remained silent, wedged back in the crook of the sofa arm. She twitched as if startled, and then she put her index finger to her lips. “Shh,” she whispered.
• • • •
The man he’d met online, the man who actually looked better than his photos, the man whose real name was Roy though he identified himself online as “Jim,” kissed him and petted Josh’s chest through the thin cotton shirt.
“I had a good time,” Roy said.
“Yeah,” Josh said, leaning in for another quick kiss. “So did I.”
And while he meant it, and while a part of him wanted to see the man again, he didn’t believe it would happen. For five months after Ozzie’s death, Josh’s sole focus had been on Sofia. He hadn’t thought much about his own loneliness. Then, Sofia had spent a weekend in Houston with Ozzie’s parents, and Josh had felt an emptiness in the house bordering on the maddening. He’d gone out for a drink with friends, and had met an attractive guy who had looked nothing like Ozzie. Josh had gone home with him. After that tryst, he’d downloaded the dating app and had, on occasion, pursued transient companionship through the service. He never saw the men he met a second time. Part of this was a function of guilt. He had no idea what was considered a respectable mourning period. The other part, the louder more insistent part, was the sad and practical reality that it was far too soon to introduce a new man into the family, into Sofia’s life.
He felt relaxed on the drive back to his office. As the familiar scenery of the city fell in around him, his thoughts clicked back into everyday considerations.
His attempts to get more information from Sofia had failed. Though he’d asked several times about her friend, the one Mr. Bob believed to be an abstract of Ozzie, Sofia had said nothing new on the subject. During their time together in those days after the painting incident, Sofia had grown quieter. Removed. Her need to be near him, constantly engaged with him in conversation or action, as she’d been since infancy, had vanished. Sofia no longer demanded his attention. In fact, she made less than subtle demands to be left alone. When they weren’t together, she studied her Spanish lessons and spent long stretches in her room, drawing or claiming to nap, though she never appeared rested. As for her drawings, the pictures were odd for a girl her age, just fields and roads with the occasional car on them, and wooded areas, but gratefully none of them carried hateful captions.
At the office, Josh fell immediately into his routine, immersing himself in scores of emails and documents. Coworkers dropped by his office asking after Sofia’s welfare (he’d told them that she was down with the flu), and he assured them all that she was doing much better, a statement he wanted to believe, until Sofia’s babysitter called in a panic at ten minutes to five.
• • • •
The shrieking, muffled by the walls of the house, reached him the moment he opened the car door. The sound lodged in Josh’s throat like a stone. He raced up the walk and threw open the front door.
Chloe, the college student Ozzie had hired two years ago to sit for their daughter, stood in the living room. Broken picture frames and shattered glass littered the floor at her feet. One hand clutched her head, and her thumb was wedged sideways between her teeth. She appeared stricken and confused. Seeing Josh, her hands dropped to her sides, and she hurried to him.
“What happened?” he asked, setting off for the back of the house where the screams still pealed.
“She was fine when I picked her up from the school,” Chloe said, following him down the hall. “I got her home, and she ate some crackers and had her juice, and I swear everything was fine. Then she went to practice her language assignments. It was totally normal. Totally. Then I heard her crying, and when I went to ask what was wrong . . .” Her voice trailed off.
At the end of the hall, Josh pushed open the door to Sofia’s room. Toys and books lay scattered about the floor. A porcelain doll, dressed like a Flamenco dancer, lay in ruin. Sofia had torn the doll’s ruby red dress with its black lace hems, shredding the skirt and the sleeves. The face was gone, as if shattered to free something from its head, leaving a jagged ridge along the jawline and a partial dome of ceramic to which hair still clung.
Sofia faced the corner, arms locked at her sides with her head tilted up. She screamed at the ceiling, one piercing note after another.
Josh went to his daughter and pulled her into his arms. He turned her trembling body around and hugged her, stroking her hair and whispering, “Shh. What’s wrong, sweetheart? What’s wrong?”
Her screams subsided but she continued to cry. Small arms locked around Josh’s neck, and Sofia sobbed into his collar. He cried softly with her. Josh’s chaotic thoughts tumbled and collided. He needed to know what was happening to her, needed to make it stop. She was in misery, and it was his responsibility to soothe her, but this was all beyond his understanding. He knew she was hurting, and he knew with agonizing certainty that he was failing her.
No words of adequate comfort occurred to him, so he just repeated the sound Shh in his daughter’s ear. After some time, Sofia’s sobs ended, leaving the residue of her misery damp on his collar. He placed her on the bed and then sat beside her.
“Can you tell me what’s wrong?” Josh asked. He took her hand in his and held it gently.
“You’re going to leave me,” Sofia replied, her voice as soft as a whisper.
The dreadful proclamation startled him, and Josh shook his head.
“I’ll never leave you, sweetheart. Never. Why would you think that?”
“Because. He said.”
Josh knew the he she meant—her invisible friend. But if this friend was an extension of Sofia’s imagination, then surely the belief he would leave had originated with her, and he needed to know why.
“He’s wrong,” Josh told her. “He is very, very wrong. We’re a family, and I’ll always be here for you.”
“No. No. No,” Sofia said. Anger drew hard lines around the words. “You met a new husband and you’re going to leave me and I’m going to be all alone and he said . . . he said . . . and he told me . . .” But she couldn’t finish the thought.
“That’s not true, sweetheart. It’s just not.”
“He said,” Sofia whispered. “He told me you were going to have a new family and there wouldn’t be room for me, and you didn’t want me because I was a stain. A dirty little stain, and you and Roy didn’t want me.”
Roy? The name jumped at him from the mire of Sofia’s fearful speculation. How could she know that name? It wasn’t possible. And even if she did know the name, why would she believe that his presence in their life presaged her abandonment?
He told her repeatedly that he would never leave her, and he wrapped his arm around her small shoulders and pulled her tight to him. When exhaustion overcame his daughter, he tucked her under the sheets and kissed her forehead and waited for the soft breaths of slumber before standing and turning for the door.
On the wall, written in red crayon, were the words:
Cant be Saved
• • • •
Josh sent Chloe home and left a message for Mr. Bob, and then he walked the house, unable to outpace his fear and concern. He poured himself a shot of vodka, threw it back, and then closed his eyes until the sting in his throat subsided. The alcohol didn’t help.
He returned to Sofia’s room with a garbage bag and quietly, so as not to disturb her nap, gathered up the shattered pieces of the Flamenco doll. Once she was awake, he’d need to run the vacuum to make sure no slivers of porcelain remained in the carpet fibers. As he completed the task, he noted the stack of drawings and paintings on Sofia’s desk. Though fearful of what ugly language he might find scrawled among the pages, Josh believed there might be some clues to Sofia’s behavior in the artwork. Clearly, at school she’d felt more than comfortable expressing herself through painting. Maybe there were other clues in the buildings and landscapes she’d taken to drawing. Josh gathered up the stack of pages and carried them out of the room.
At the dining table, he spread the papers out and immediately noticed that some of the drawings Sofia had shown him during her school suspension had been altered. They still showed streets and what Josh imagined were fields, but now captions had been added to several of the pieces. The first he examined had numbers and words written along the neatly lined roadways. US 79 was written on a stretch of road running from the bottom of the page to the top. The road that intersected it was labeled Henry B. Oltorf Blvd. Other pictures showed similar intersections, some of which Josh recognized.
What became clear was that Sofia was writing down directions. She was plotting a course.
How had she known about Roy? He wondered. How was it possible? Even if she, or someone else, had managed to hack his phone and read the messages he’d exchanged with the man, they would have seen the pseudonym he used. They would have seen the name “Jim.” Josh had only found out the man’s real name that morning through a verbal exchange, and he hadn’t spoken to anyone about the encounter. Not a single person.
Was someone following him? Was the man who called himself Roy somehow behind all of this? Similarly unlikely threads of paranoia began to knot in his head. He attempted to untangle them with logic, but there wasn’t a fucking thing logical about any of this.
What if Ozzie’s spirit really was in contact with their daughter? What if he was always just behind Josh, at his shoulder, watching?
No, Josh thought. Ozzie’s parents both carried hard, red streaks of prejudice in them, but not their son. Ozzie wouldn’t chastise their daughter for learning Spanish. The lessons had been his idea. And he certainly wouldn’t coerce their daughter to write a phrase as hateful as the one Josh had read on her bedroom wall.
He was not beyond considering the possibility that his daughter might be haunted, but he refused to believe it was by the ghost of Ozzie Dial. No, if otherworldly forces were acting on the child, they were using Ozzie’s identity.
And was he really believing any of this?
He shuffled through more of the drawings until he had extricated all of the images that included road designations. As he did so, another picture caught his eye. It was identical to the one she had painted in school: a house or cabin with a single figure at the window; and trees rising high around the building. Again he noticed a crosshatch of yellow lines, covering the center of the roof above the window. Only this time the squiggled lines that he’d first thought of as lightning seemed to jut away from the design, more like the cartoon interpretation of a radio signal. This drawing also had words on it, but instead of the ugly racial slur she’d noted in red paint, it was a less overtly offensive phrase, yet one that made Josh uneasy.
Daddy Gundy lives here!
• • • •
Mr. Bob called as Josh worked on the riddle of the street names. Using his tablet’s map application, he was able to trace a path from Austin to a small town on the edge of the Davy Crockett National Forest, about three hours away. The town was called Lynnville, and all of the other intersections Sofia had carefully noted lay between their home and this destination.
Before Josh proceeded with the next step of his investigation, the phone rang and he picked up to hear the level, cheerful voice of his daughter’s therapist.
Josh explained what had happened—the tantrum, Sofia’s unsettling certainty that Josh would leave her, the grotesque slogan scrawled on her wall. He said nothing about Roy or the time he’d spent with the man. Then, he began to describe the pictures he had found.
“And this is a real city?” Mr. Bob asked.
“Yes,” Josh said. “It’s real.”
“She’s never been there?”
“I’ve never been there. I don’t even know how she would have heard of it.”
A pronounced silence filled the line between them, and Josh became impatient.
“What?” he asked.
“Nothing,” Mr. Bob replied. “At first, I was thinking about internet predators. You know, trying to lure her away? But if someone were attempting such a thing, they’d know Sofia couldn’t get there on her own. She’d have to convince an adult to take her, and then . . . what? Leave her with a stranger? It doesn’t connect.”
Josh had thought the same thing, but someone had given this information to his daughter. The town of Lynnville existed, and she had mapped a course to get there. Further, he had to believe that her invisible friend—who likely was neither—lived there, or at least she believed he lived there.
“Look Josh,” Mr. Bob said, “I’m out of town until Monday. I’m going to email the contact information for a colleague who works weekends. I’ll expect to see you Monday afternoon, but if Sofia has another episode, you should call him. Okay?”
“We’ll figure this out,” the therapist said. “Until we do, just try to hang in there.”
Though reasonable, the advice was insufficient. Josh had no intention of waiting for his daughter to endure another episode. He needed to bring her peace, to ease her mind. He wasn’t going to wait around hoping the problem fixed itself.
He said goodbye to Mr. Bob, and then he opened a search engine. He plugged in the two words he thought were the most relevant, the name of the town and the name of Sofia’s invisible friend. As he hit the return key, he prepared himself for a long slog through dozens of irrelevant websites.
His assumption was wrong. The information he needed came up instantly, and there was plenty of it.
Gundy Morgan had been the mayor of Lynnville, Texas. Six years ago, a woman named Yolanda Ramirez had killed him, shot him in a field on the outskirts of the town. Ramirez was convicted of the murder and currently resided in Mountain View, a correctional facility for women, awaiting the state to carry out her death sentence.
The first article he read was Gundy Morgan’s obituary, and it was as generous and fawning as one might expect, honoring a civic leader who had met an ugly end. Then he read several articles, regarding the trial and Ms. Ramirez’s sentencing. The bulk of them had the woman convicted before the trial even began, but one article stood out, if only because a less reactionary mind seemed to control the keyboard from which the article had sprung.
Josh wrote down the reporter’s name, and then continued reading.
• • • •
Over the years, Josh and Ozzie had wondered about Sofia’s birth parents. They’d woven stories about these people at the kitchen table after late night feedings, or while picking up toys in the nursery, or while enjoying the quiet moments during which Sofia slept. The story they decided on, the one that lacked the high drama and ridiculous conjecture of the more entertaining tales, was bland but wholly feasible: two very young people were in love, and Sofia had been the product of that love. They were too young to raise a child on their own, but they were smart enough to know it. Both Josh and Ozzie had imagined a happy life for the couple, now free to grow into adulthood, rather than having it forced upon them too young.
A sixty-three-year-old mayor, murdered by a young woman, had never played into their speculations.
• • • •
That night, he sat with Sofia at the kitchen table, pondering the numerous pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that would, upon completion, depict a Disney village and the heroes, the princess, and the villain that resided there.
Sofia looked exhausted. She could barely keep her eyes open as she tested one piece after another, making slow progress on the game.
“Sweetheart, can we talk about your friend?”
She shook her head without looking up from the table.
“Is his name Gundy?”
Her head lifted, revealing wide, frightened eyes. She raised her hands to the sides of her head as if ready to clap them over her ears. Her mouth pinched tightly, and she looked about the dining room as if searching for witnesses before nodding her head.
“Is he the one who told you to draw the roads?”
Again, his daughter nodded, slowly, cautiously. Her palms remained only inches from her ears.
“Does he want you to come visit him?”
“I’m not supposed to say.”
“Sweetheart, I’m your father. It’s my job to take care of you, and I can’t do that if you don’t tell me the truth. Does Gundy want you to visit him?”
“He doesn’t want me to visit,” Sofia said. “He wants me to stay.”
“Stay with him?” Josh asked. “For how long?”
“Forever,” Sofia whispered. “He said that somebody saved him, and he’s pure now, but I’m a stain, and I need to go to him to be clean. And I’m scared, because I don’t know what he means, but he keeps saying it.” She was working herself up. Her voice trembled horribly. “What’s wrong with me?”
Josh leaned forward and wrapped his arms around her. “Shh,” he said. “It’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with you. Nothing at all.”
Sofia stiffened in his arms and then began to wriggle free of his grasp. Josh let her go, and she sprang away from him, clapping her hands over her ears.
“Oh. Oh,” she cried. “He’s back. He’s back. Make him stop, Daddy. Make him stop!”
• • • •
He planned the trip to Lynnville without really knowing what he expected to do once he got there. He placed a call to Joan Carter, the reporter who had written the most even-handed, least flattering articles about Gundy Morgan, suspecting she might have background he could use. His cover story was ridiculous, a writer researching a novel about the incident, but it worked well enough to get him a meeting with the woman. After that, he didn’t know. He wanted to find the shack Sofia had drawn, because he felt certain that it was important to this mystery, but that was a needle in a haystack, and he didn’t even know how to find the haystack.
What was he looking for? Really looking for? A ghost? An evangelical shock jock with a cruel sense of humor and an audience of one?
Sofia’s insistence that this specter had been saved added a new layer of dread for Josh. He hadn’t expected it, though perhaps he should have. Gundy had no problem transmitting his vile prejudices, and though Josh knew intolerance and religion didn’t rely on one another, they’d been woven together enough times to make the connection unsurprising.
Saved? Such a bizarre idea. If Gundy Morgan had been saved why wasn’t his spirit comfortably nestled in Redneck Heaven? Why was he tormenting a child?
And what difference did the ghost’s motivation make, unless it would help him stop the thing and bring his daughter peace?
If he took Sofia with him, maybe he could show her an empty shack and convince her to ignore the voice, or perhaps use her as a conduit to the spirit, finding some weakness or weapon against it. But he wouldn’t bring his daughter anywhere near Lynnville. That was what Gundy Morgan wanted.
He called Chloe and told her he needed to work to make up for the days he’d taken off during the week. Normally Chloe didn’t work weekends, and after the horrible tantrum she’d witnessed that afternoon, she was understandably hesitant to say yes. But she needed the money, and she did love Sofia, so she agreed.
Sofia pouted when he told her the lie. In the morning, she asked him to stay, and then she begged.
“I’m just going to work,” Josh said, attempting to make light of his daughter’s concern. “You and Chloe will have a lot of fun, and I’ll be home at the normal time.”
• • • •
Joan Carter was easy to spot in the diner. An attractive woman in her mid-fifties, she wore her blonde hair in a short, utilitarian cut that framed her face. She looked up from her coffee when Josh entered and eyed him, visually deconstructed him, and put the pieces back together as he approached the table.
They greeted one another, and there were pleasantries, and Josh noted the woman’s direct nature, something that had been implied during their phone conversation, but which now came through clearly as he found no hesitation in her manner or words.
“You want to know about Gundy Morgan?” Joan asked.
“And you’ve read my articles?”
“The ones I could find online, yes.”
“There were others,” she said, “but my editor, a buddy of Gundy’s, refused to publish them. They got to the truth of the matter, but that made his buddy look bad, so he killed them. I spent two years writing about the lumber industry and school bake sales after that.”
“So, what isn’t in the articles?”
Joan paused, and Josh found the silence discomforting. He gazed at Joan, and only when their eyes had locked did she continue. She wanted his full attention, wanted him to see her face when she spoke.
“Gundy Morgan was a sick, racist prick who terrorized the women in this town. That’s the simplest way to put it.” She again went silent, allowing the information to sink in. “He took pride in his hate. Didn’t mask it. Didn’t dissemble. Even by East Texas standards he was an anachronism, but the town loved him. At least the men with power did.”
“But the women?”
Joan made a dull, um-hmm sound in her throat and nodded. “A lot of women wished they’d pulled that trigger.”
“But only one did.”
“Yes. Yolanda Ramirez. She was a young girl who worked at the diner here. Nice enough. She lived with her aunt out on Telegraph Road. She was smart and ambitious, used to say she was saving up for school. She was also strong, not physically mind you, just had that kind of character.”
“Gundy raped her?”
“She was one of his victims.” At this point, Joan broke eye contact. She drank some coffee and peered out the window, then focused her attention on the table. Josh began to wonder if the reporter also had been a casualty of Gundy Morgan. “But Yolanda was different. She got pregnant, and Gundy wasn’t having that.”
“Did she want money?”
Joan fought a smile and lost. “No. Yolanda wasn’t like that. She intended to have the child and raise it. She was a Catholic girl, so other options weren’t even considered. Honestly, she managed as well as anyone could after the attack. She continued working, even served Gundy his bacon and eggs, often at this table right here, but following the attack her aunt met her every night after work and drove her home.”
“Then I don’t understand,” Josh said. “Was the trauma deeper? I mean, did she just let her anger build until she couldn’t take it anymore?”
“No,” Joan said. “No, Yolanda wasn’t avenging herself, she was protecting her baby. Yolanda told me that Gundy came to her house and demanded she abort the child. He said that if she didn’t do it, he’d take care of it himself. When he came at her one night, she was ready for him.”
“It was self-defense?”
“No question,” Joan said. “And I put that and all of the other pertinent details into several letters I wrote to the defense attorney and to the courts and to the governor. Didn’t amount to so much as a fuck you note.”
“Did you testify to all of this?”
“I wanted to, but I wasn’t even called as a witness,” Joan said. “The fact is, Yolanda never stood a chance. Even her defense attorney, that sawed-off peckerwood, was a buddy of Gundy’s. He only took it to trial to get the death penalty. Wouldn’t even consider arguing the charges down.”
“I still don’t understand,” Josh said. “If Yolanda had kept quiet, if she didn’t want anything from Gundy, why was he so intent on her aborting the child?”
“That was a mystery,” Joan admitted. “But I heard a conversation between a couple of his buddies after the trial was over, and I think it explained his motivation. These guys were celebrating Yolanda’s conviction over beers down to Bowie’s. One of them toasted the verdict and said he was glad Gundy got him some justice. The other agreed, but he said something about what a shame it was that Gundy’s blood was going to be polluted.”
“Polluted?” Josh asked.
“I honestly think Gundy was worried about keeping his bloodline pure. The idea that his whiter-than-white DNA might be carried through generations of mixed-race children genuinely disgusted him.”
“Gundy was a monster,” Joan said. “His disease was hate, and it was contagious. It got him elected as mayor and it kept him in office for far too long. Only near the end did he start to lose some of his hold over folks.”
“He stopped going to church,” Joan said. “Around here, that raises eyebrows.”
“Wait a minute,” Josh said. “He stopped going to church?”
That didn’t exactly line up with talk of salvation.
“Well, he stopped going to Lynnville Baptist. I heard some strange talk near the end there, and I came across something, working on the story. In short, a scary man got scarier. An old boozy lawyer who’d known Gundy for about fifty years said Gundy had found himself a new savior. Wouldn’t say anything else about it. In fact, he looked like he was about to shit himself for having said that much.”
“A new savior?” Josh mused.
“Can I show you something?” She reached for her cell phone and powered it on before he could answer. After some tapping and swiping along the screen, she handed the phone to Josh. “What does that look like to you?”
The picture on the screen showed an open door and a tight space—a closet of some kind—brightly lit by the camera’s flash. On the floor of the closet sat a small, red pillow, likely for kneeling, and a large blue ceramic pot had been shoved against the base of the back wall. Above this, an intricate design of circles and lines had been scrawled in black paint. It looked tribal. No, he thought, it looked mystical.
“What am I looking at?”
“Gundy Morgan’s bedroom closet. I managed to get a few pics before the Sheriff’s Department ran everybody out. You know what’s in that pot?”
Josh shook his head, still examining the insane pattern scrawled across the wall.
“It’s animal remains,” she told him. “Looked and smelled like he’d coated them in lye. I wanted to get a picture of it, but the sheriff’s men ran us out.”
“You think he was sacrificing animals?”
“He wasn’t making lunch. But again, whenever I tried to talk to anyone about this, I met a brick wall. They weren’t interested in the crimes or eccentricities of their hero.”
“Can you send me this picture?” He handed the phone back to Joan.
“Sure can,” she said.
A moment later, his cell phone pinged and his screen lit up. The notification of Joan’s text ran across the picture of Sofia he used as wallpaper.
Joan reached for his phone, taking Josh off guard. “May I?” she asked, already holding the screen to her face.
“Sure,” Josh replied, too late to protest. He put her rudeness down to the overstepping curiosity of a journalist, but he still found it impolite.
“She’s pretty,” Joan said. “Is she yours?”
“Yes. My daughter. Sofia.”
“And she’s why you’re here.”
“I told you, I’m—”
“Bullflop,” Joan said, setting the phone down. She leaned across the table and whispered, “You may be familiar with yesterday, but I wasn’t born there. You haven’t taken a single note, and you haven’t recorded a word of this, so put away the shovel. Besides, she looks just like her mother.”
Josh said nothing.
“You adopted Yolanda’s child, and you’re looking for background on her parents.”
Instructed by her caution, Josh also looked about the diner, checking over his shoulder and ascertaining the whereabouts of their server before saying, “Yes.”
This news seemed to please Joan immensely, but the joy on her face crashed a moment later into a stern frown. “Do not tell anyone in this town about that. Gundy’s hooks are still in deep with a lot of these people. Some would be more than happy to finish what he started.”
• • • •
Before leaving her at the diner, Josh had asked Joan for directions to Gundy Morgan’s property. He’d thought it an easy enough request, but Gundy’s children had sold off huge parcels of land in the aftermath of their father’s death. Only one small plot, to the northeast of the homestead, was still owned by the Gundy estate. Managed by the eldest son, Gundy’s kingdom had been reduced to two acres of wooded area with nothing on it but dirt, trees, and a dying creek as far as Joan knew. She’d given him directions that circled up and around the property.
Her speculation about Gundy’s motivation—the effort to keep his bloodline pure—ate at him. It was grotesque, but in a way it explained the messages the monster had been sending to Sofia. He’d called her a stain, something to be cleaned, to be purified. To someone like Gundy those words were likely synonymous with the word erased.
Josh parked on the side of the road, next to a sign that had been burned into a scrap of plywood, reading: “We don’t call 911 until we’re done with you.”
Hesitantly, he set off through the trees. He could locate no defined path, but the ground cover was minimal, so he found little in the way of obstruction as he walked deeper into the wood. Under different circumstances, Josh would have found the scent of pine and rich earth relaxing, but the fact he was searching for a ghost, a depraved spirit, erased any pleasure he might have taken from the scene. Branches cracked in the distance. Leaves rustled from low ground cover on his right—a squirrel, a bird, a monster wearing Gundy Morgan’s face.
Though two acres wasn’t a large area to cover, Josh moved slowly, always conscious of the direction he’d come. He wanted to know he could get back to his car fast if necessary.
It took him ten minutes to find the cabin. In fact, he’d walked past it and had only caught it from the corner of his eye as he’d surveyed the land to his left. The building looked enough like the ones in Sofia’s art to tighten the skin at the back of Josh’s neck. This was the place Sofia expected to find her “daddy.” Hardly large enough to be considered a cabin, really more of a glorified shack, the cracked wooden slats siding the small building were etched with black mold and foul, oatmeal colored fungus. A single black window faced the path. The porch canted dangerously to the side, and the roof above it had caved, partially blocking the door.
His phone sounded, Josh dug it from his pocket.
“Josh, you have to come home,” Chloe shouted. Behind her voice, Josh heard shrill cries. Sofia’s miserable wailing.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“Sofia’s having another episode.”
“Make him stop,” Sofia squealed. “Make him stop! He’ll die. He’ll die!”
“I can’t calm her down,” Chloe said. “And I really can’t handle this. You have to get back here.”
“Look, Chloe,” he said, still moving toward the dilapidated structure, “I’m not at the office. I went out of town to see if I could find help for her. Please, just try to calm her down.”
“She can’t even hear me, Josh. It’s like I’m not even in the room.”
“He’s going to die!” The statement was followed by a shrill scream.
The desperate tone of his daughter’s voice yanked a cord deep in Josh’s chest, pulling painfully on his lungs and heart. Sofia needed him, but he was so far away.
“Oh fuck,” Chloe cried. A rattle and crash followed. She’d dropped the phone.
“What’s going on?” Josh called. “What’s happening there?”
Josh placed his foot on the lowest step. It snapped the plank, sending a tremor up his leg. He stumbled back. Continuing to question the open line between himself and his home three hours away. Shouting now, he walked to the side and lifted his foot high and climbed directly onto the porch, having to duck low to avoid the crumbling roof. A swarm of flies met him. Frantic buzzing accompanied the panicked voice of the babysitter and his daughter’s piercing cries.
“Put it down,” Chloe said. “Sofia, honey, you have to put the knife down.”
“Daddy said I had to or else he’d kill him. I have to or HE’LL DIE!”
“Josh,” Chloe called, now a good distance from the phone, “you have to get home. Now. Please, Josh. I don’t know what to do.”
He swatted at the squadron of insects and edged his way to the door. He had to go in the cabin, but he didn’t want to enter the place. It was obvious the building had been abandoned long ago, but he had to open the door and confirm its desolation before returning home to take a more reasonable approach to his child’s distress.
At the door, he tried the knob, and though it turned the door was jammed. He put his shoulder to the wood, and with a tremendous shove, the door flew inward.
The odor hit him hard. The interior was dark and his eyes needed time to adjust, but the stench was repugnant—sweet, dusty, fungal, and dense with rot. Josh covered his nose but not before his throat clenched, and he gagged from the reek. He blinked his eyes as he stepped into the shack, trying to speed up the adjustment period.
“I have to.”
Then his eyes adjusted to the contents of the grim little shack. The sight stopped him in his tracks.
An ancient clawed tub ran from the far wall to only a few feet from the door. The tub was filled with a pale doughy substance, the texture of clotted milk. At its center floated a man who seemed made of the same pallid material. Green eyes peered from a doughy face. His arms and legs were as thin as sticks, and his breastbone shown like a grate with shades of the palest lavender tracing each rib. And as the dread of this scene sank in, Josh saw that the man was not floating on the substance, but rather had fused with it, or his flesh had sprouted out like a creeping fungus to fill the basin, which now supported him. A distant thought whispered through Josh’s panicked thoughts: Is this thing a manifestation of Gundy’s new savior, or merely the price it demanded to be worshipped?
A fly dropped to rest on Gundy’s sunken cheek and a barely perceptible wisp of smoke rose as if the small, black body had landed in a pool of acid. A moment later, all traces of the insect were gone. Gundy’s sharp, bottle green eyes rolled up beneath wrinkled lids until the contents of the man’s eye sockets were the same color as the rest of his face.
“He’ll die,” Sofia cried. Her voice was weak now.
Above the eyes on either side of the man’s brow, ugly amber protrusions jutted like slender antlers toward the ceiling. The twisted points joined a foot over Gundy’s head, weaving and merging, fanning upward in a sepia mesh that appeared far too heavy to be supported by the frail figure.
Another fly landed on the sickly white chest and was similarly melted and absorbed by the man. A third and fourth followed.
The thing’s green eyes lowered to regard Josh in the doorway. They opened wide and a terrible focus entered them, as if Gundy were the one whose senses had come under attack. Then the pit of its mouth opened, revealing a toothless chasm.
Josh leaned against the door for support.
A vaguely metallic rattle sounded from the creature, but this bizarre clamor, like the muffled din of shuffling coins, did not emanate from its gaping mouth; it came from the net of horns above its head. The tone dropped into a hiss of static and then evened out until it faded.
Looking at the trellis of horns, Josh thought of antennas in the way he’d considered them in the scribbles Sofia had included in her drawings. Only now, he realized the things weren’t meant to receive signals. They were meant to transmit them. In this context, the crosshatched yellow lines that had seemed incongruous in her pictures made sense. Gundy was sending his messages from this place of hate through the yellowed antlers, and they rode along a hereditary frequency straight to Sofia’s mind.
Sofia’s screams returned, higher and louder.
Josh put the phone in his pocket, muffling his daughter’s pain, and searched the shack for a weapon, but nothing had been left in this space except the tub and its grisly contents. He stepped back onto the porch and spotted a length of two-by-four. Nails jutted from one end of the board. Josh leaned down and grasped it.
Inside he circled the tub and gripped the board like a baseball bat. He cocked his arms to swing, but his determination was immediately canceled. Tendrils of the white substance blossomed into the space above the tub and began thrashing the air. One struck the walls and scarred the wood with a long black slash, no wider than the line of a pencil. A second tendril whipped across Josh’s shoulder, cutting through the thin fabric of his shirt.
The burn was instant, the pain intense. He cried out, but maintained his hold on the board. He lunged forward and swung, planting the nails in Gundy Morgan’s face as the board concussed tissue with a wet slap. Smoke rose from the board. A tendril lashed Josh’s cheek, missing his eye by a fraction of an inch. A stuttering sound, like chuckling, resonated between the mesh of horns. Josh yanked the board free. Splashes of caustic fluid followed the weapon’s withdrawal, spattering the ceiling and the wall. Scalding drops landed on Josh’s cheek and brow. The holes in Gundy’s face filled with doughy, white tissue, quickly healing and shining as unblemished as before the attack.
Josh scurried back. Sofia screamed from his pocket.
Infuriated by the terror in his daughter’s voice, Josh charged forward, meeting half a dozen blistering threads as he came to the side of the tub. Ignoring the pain, he began to swing, not at the remains of Gundy Morgan but on the antlers, the mesh of yellowed twigs.
The board cracked against one edge of the nested horns and a chunk the size of his thumb broke away. From his pocket, both Sofia and Chloe screamed louder and at a higher pitch. He drew the board back and swung at the antlers, cracking and breaking the mesh, as the scalding threads landed across his neck, his face, his ears, his arms and chest. Josh closed his eyes so the whipping threads didn’t blind him, and he bludgeoned the construction rising from Gundy Morgan’s head until his board met no resistance except the back wall of the shed. He stumbled away from the lashing tendrils and dropped to the floor.
His entire body burned as if he’d just escaped a shower of acid. The reek of burning fabric and skin filled his nose. Panting against the agony, Josh opened his eyes. Though two small stumps still grew from Gundy’s brow, the complex weave of amber sticks had collapsed. A large arcing piece lay against the back of the tub like a headboard. Gundy’s green eyes, narrowed in rage, fixed on him.
Josh noticed the silence and dug the phone from his pocket. Chloe had ended the call. He managed to get on his feet, and he leaned against the wall for support as he worked his way back toward the door. Gundy’s angry gaze followed him, as Josh punched in Chloe’s number.
“You think you’re pissed now?” Josh asked, as he waited for the babysitter to answer. “Wait’ll I come back and burn this shithole down around your ears.”
Outside on the porch, he leaned against the doorframe. When the call went to Chloe’s voicemail, he hung up and tried again. On the third try, Chloe answered with a sobbing, “Josh?”
“Is she okay?”
“Josh, where are you?” Chloe asked through wet sobs.
“Is Sofia okay?”
“No, she’s not fucking okay. She was cutting herself, Josh. What would make a little girl do that to herself?”
“Cutting herself? How badly?”
“I don’t know,” Chloe replied. “An ambulance is on the way. I wrapped her arm in a towel. What the fuck is going on, and when are you going to be back here?”
He couldn’t possibly explain what the fuck was going on. He wouldn’t even try. As for when he was going to be home, he cast a glance back through the doorway of the dilapidated cabin, and said, “I’m heading back soon. I just need to stop for some gas.”