The Mistake

Don Shook

© Copyright 2019 by Don Shook

Photo of a truck hit by a train.
Dawn sensed something wrong. The front door to the store hung open. There was an uncommon stillness, and even the ever-present, rising and falling murmur of cicadas was absent. Only a muted creak greeted her as the heavy door swung slowly in the faint breeze. Something wasn’t right. She hesitated a long moment.

It had been a tedious walk to the store, and while the cotton dress she wore was light, she grew increasingly uncomfortable as the temperature climbed with the sun. Sweat matted her bright auburn hair and streamed down her face. She hadn’t wanted to make the trip but a barren pantry forced the issue. She had the strength and resilience of youth though, and walked steadily, one sandaled foot in front of the other, cotton dress clinging to the sweat dampened curves of her preternaturally voluptuous body. Mature oak, elm, pecan, hackberry and cottonwood trees lined the narrow road, and she walked quickly from tree to tree, then loafed through each patch of mottled shade.

She heard the car long before she saw it and got off the road, jumped the drainage ditch and slipped up near the barbed wire fence of the adjacent pasture. They passed going the opposite direction, much faster than it made any sense to push a beat up ‘39 Chevrolet. She waved away the dust of their passage. Dawn knew them all too well, but she wasn’t afraid of them. She could be over the fence and deep into the vast stillness of the cedar breaks before they could even turn around. They would never catch her.

The older one held a debt of her father’s and, to pay it off, she had been forced to drop out of school and go to work in an industry that in her wildest girlhood dreams she could not have imagined. She hated him for that, even though her earnings had paid off the debt. And she hated him for putting his hands on her and forcing her to allow men she found detestable to do so as well. But she hated him most because he knew that she had not only taken money for allowing important and powerful men to do much more than put their hands on her, but that she had actually enjoyed it. It was a discovery that had overwhelmed her, but one that surprised him not at all and about which he only grinned sardonically.

Because of him, she could never return to school…the same school at least; and she would live the rest of her life trying to hide that dark secret. She had rebuffed every advance he made and had made her feelings plain, but he had persisted and, until now, there hadn’t been a lot she could do about it. But he was paid off now; she owed him nothing. And all she wanted was to stay far away from him.

The ancient building finally came in sight. The interior would be cool, with a washtub full of ice and soft drinks. She was thinking about a Barq’s Creme Soda, so cold that condensation dripped down the side of the bottle. Before she popped the cap, she would roll the chilled glass over the back of her neck. The store was built of quarried limestone and its thick walls and high vaulted ceiling provided insulation against both heat and cold. It had been a trading post before the last of the horse culture Indians were driven off the North Texas plains. There was a historical marker on the road out front which people occasionally stopped to ask about. A few Confederate holdouts fought a skirmish with a Yankee patrol there, and the limestone walls were pockmarked by the musket shot and mini-balls of those ancient warriors. Rumor had it that the Yankees hung the few surviving Confederates from a nearby live oak. She almost skipped the final few yards through the shade of that same oak, now grown huge, finally crossing the gravel parking area and climbing the worn steps.

Had she been less preoccupied, she might have accorded more critical review to the door hanging open. Doors to buildings like the store were always kept shut. There was a large glass pane in the upper half, allowing anyone willing to wipe away the dust, a view inside. The legend: DOCKERY was painted on the glass. Beneath that, in smaller letters, appeared Groceries, Tools & General Supplies. The signage was faded, the paint hard, peeling, and interlaced by a web of tiny cracks. During hot months, the bottom half of windows facing the prevailing wind were open; those on the opposite side were open at the top. In cold weather, the openings were reversed and reduced to allow only circulation of fresh air. But the front door was always kept closed. Now, it inexplicably hung open. In the abstract, she realized that an indefinable something was wrong; but she was hot, tired, and more than a little out of sorts.

Miz Jane,” she called out, stepping inside and closing the door behind. “Miz Jane, you here?”

In the unnatural silence, her voice rang like a struck anvil.

Miz Jane, where are you?”

Apprehensively, she walked further inside. The stillness was broken only by the hum of a refrigerator and the muted cadence of an ancient mantel clock. Just past the entrance, a pickle barrel stood near a heavy three-sided counter. Resting on the maple top of the counter, rubbed to a high luster by decades of human hands, was an antiquated cash register. Kerosene lanterns were precisely positioned to light the room…as they had been since long before rural electrification made them unnecessary. Near a corner, jumbled magazines were stacked next to some large, empty boxes. For a moment, she took it all in, then stepped up to the counter.

“Miz Jane?” she called out again…to be rewarded only with silence. She withdrew the shopping list from the pocket of her dress and began reading. She finished, carefully re-folded it, and slid it back in her pocket. She slipped her right foot out of a sandal and absently traced a large tic-tac-toe figure in the dusty floor with her toe. If Jane wanted her to, she’d take a dust mop to it.

She walked back to the front door and waited. Impatience finally seized her and she hurried across the road to Jane’s tiny, weathered house. The front door was closed. She opened the screen and tried the knob. The door was unlocked. She opened it and called out…but there was no response. The house was small and she knew Jane would hear her if she was there. Nonetheless, she removed a sandal and pounded on the door frame with its heel. Somewhere in the far distance a dog barked. She waited awhile, then sighed, and walked back to the store.

She paused before entering again. She wanted to leave but she didn’t want to make another trip. The interior had the familiar, musty smell of age. For Dawn, it evoked memories… cold drinks when North Texas was an oven, hot chocolate as a cold north wind beat against the sturdy walls. Sometimes she helped Jane stock the shelves. The old lady was approaching eighty and suffered from arthritis.

Jane could’ve sold out long ago, or just closed the doors. Her family wanted that, but she was of the stubborn mold and steadfastly determined to continue. “Waldo ‘n me run this place nigh onto fifty year. He passed away behind this very counter, and me a’ standin’ right here beside of him. I ain’t no better. I have to keep on a’ makin’ a livin’.” She worked each day from dawn to sundown before retiring to her tiny home. She lived alone and seldom strayed. Exceptions were Sundays and holidays when she would take up the checkerboard against her brother, either at her place or his which was close to town. Jane took lunch in her tiny office in the back of the store. Otherwise, she was always out front, ready for customers. But it was not Sunday, it was not a holiday, and it was not lunchtime. And Jane was nowhere to be found. Besides, Jane would never have left the door open.

Tentatively, Dawn moved past the counter and immediately saw that the cash register drawer was open…and empty. “What’s going on?” she asked aloud, jumping at the hollow sound of her own voice. She jerked around, as if someone was listening. She examined the drawer…hoping to find a reason for the old lady’s absence. But she was no cop; she was just a country girl beginning to grow out of adolescence. There was nothing in an empty drawer that meant anything definitive to her. Still, the human brain is a marvelous instrument, not required to function cognitively to resolve a situation. Dawn suddenly tensed…there was a possibility just outside the level of what she was willing to accept. The speeding car that passed her on the road had come from the direction of the store. And she knew those men, the older one…well. They’d spent time in the Dallas County jail. Maybe they had been responsible for…robbery? My God, she thought, is that what happened? Did they rob the store? “Jane!” she cried urgently, the edge of hysteria coarsening her voice. “Jane, where are you?” Hesitantly, one step at a time, she moved toward the back.

Each step was an eternity. She felt trapped…prey to be sprung upon and devoured. Behind each shelf she expected to see someone leap up with dreadful intent. The narrow passage to the back became a gangplank of demons… pirates of the soul seized her imagination. Primal responses lifted the hair at the nape of her neck and on her arms. Her vision tunneled and the room grew darker. Silence pounded in her head. She heard the whispery scurrying of mice, the soft tap-tap of a dripping faucet. The muffled tick of the clock was now a heavy wooden mallet striking a hard surface. Her voice quavered in fear and indecision, “Jane…Jane…are you here?” The back door was locked. She pulled at it uselessly before remembering that it was always locked…dead-bolted from both sides, one lock over another. Another of Jane’s idiosyncrasies. “Cain’t nobody sneak in or out the back way,” Jane would explain patiently.

Jane!” She cried out again, stamping her foot in frustration. In haste she started for the front, but turned a corner too quickly, bumping a shelf and sending a can of peaches to the floor with a sharp, cracking sound. Another can fell, followed by another…and yet another. She shrieked, and cursed her clumsiness as her hands flew to her face. The cans rolled to a stop. She stood very still… heart thumping wildly…madly…and felt the first, hot flush of tears.

The opportunity to do something…anything…was welcome. She retrieved two of the cans; but one had rolled out of view. She tracked down the narrow aisle and saw the dented end of the can near the front counter. It was just as well that she’d dislodged it, she thought, because it was rusty and couldn’t be sold. Maybe Jane would let her have it. But when she picked it up, the rust was wet and slick. She was trying to form the thought that the can was leaking…probably went bad and burst… when she saw the source of the contaminant…and knew more certainly than ever that something was very wrong.

At first it looked to be nothing more than a large pool of dark something. But it attached to nothing. It was out of place where it was…didn’t belong there. It was a dark crimson liquid forming a pool on the floor close to, but not touching, the pickle barrel. She gingerly tested it with her index finger. She carefully examined it, rubbing her thumb and first two fingers together, feeling the stickiness of it…analyzing. There was a smell that she recognized. It was the same odor she remembered from the time the train killed Jabbo Dugan…

Just a little girl, she had been asleep in the passenger seat of her dad’s old Model A truck. He had stopped at the unguarded crossing down by the propane tanks, waiting for an oncoming train. Jabbo, coming from the other side in his ancient International stake-bed truck, had either thought he could beat the train or hadn’t seen it through the plywood board he had installed in place of a broken driver’s side window. She stirred from sleep at the prolonged steam whistle, fully awakening to the booming sound of the crash and the bedlam of thousands of tons of train screeching, lurching and hissing its way to a stop. The wreckage of Jabbo’s truck…a dying Jabbo pinned inside…had come to rest on their side of the tracks. She remembered standing a few feet away from the smoking wreckage as her dad labored with all his strength to free Jabbo’s massive body. She remembered the grunting, gurgling sounds Jabbo made as life ebbed away. She remembered her dad cursing… finally yanking the driver’s door open. But most of all she remembered the blood pouring out and down onto the running board…a torrent of it spilling into the soil. And she remembered the smell… the thin, coppery smell of Jabbo’s blood.

Instinctively, she recoiled, wiping her hand on the edge of the barrel. She gagged and fought off the urge to vomit. She knew the liquid on the floor… the barrel… and her hand…was blood.

Dawn jumped to her feet, covering her mouth with her hand and muffling the scream rising in her throat. Unformed questions made a jumble of her thoughts. Was it Jane’s blood? What could have happened? What was going on here? Slowly, she sorted things out. Was Jane hurt? If this was Jane’s blood, she had to be hurt. Maybe Jane had cut herself somehow and was bleeding to death in her house across the way. That’s why she hadn’t answered! But maybe someone had hurt her when she caught them stealing something. She felt compelled to find Jane. Ignoring the fallen cans, she lunged for the door. But she stopped short. Random thoughts raced through her mind as she reached the entrance, but nothing made any sense. If Jane was hurt and bleeding, why didn’t a trail of blood lead somewhere? Why were there no signs of a struggle…anything that might show what had happened? Hurriedly, she looked around, searching for a trail of blood. But there was nothing… only the one thickening pool by the pickle barrel. She wondered how Jane could have cut herself so badly to lose that much blood; but nothing made any sense.

Slowly, she concluded that Jane was hurt badly …stabbed maybe…and carried off somewhere… She broke off in mid-thought, growing agitated at the possibilities. Her heart was pounding, and although it was relatively cool inside, she found herself breaking a sweat. She knew she had to do something…anything. She couldn’t just stay here doing nothing. Done! She would go to the McWhorter place. She knew Mrs. McWhorter…her mother had taken in washing from her that winter and it was the closest house around, only a mile or so distant. But she stopped again, not because of what she was thinking, but because of what she heard. A car was pulling up, its tires crunching the gravel in the parking area.

She tripped and almost fell in her haste to get to the window. Nervously, she licked the heel of her hand and cleared a small circle on the dirty pane. Suddenly she wished she had never come to the old store that day, or that she had listened more carefully to her instincts when she found the door standing open and the store deserted. She wished she had run down the burning road, slender legs pumping, hair flying…away from this place. She wished she was anywhere but alone in this ancient building with its locked back door, its empty cash register, and an unexplained pool of blood. She backed quickly away from the window. It was all coming together now. Suddenly everything made sense: why the door had been left open, the cash register empty, why Jane was gone, and why there was a pool of blood. A wave of terror rolled over her. They were back…and they were coming inside. Only this time they weren’t coming for money. They were coming for her.

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