The rocking chair sat heavy on the front porch of the little worn-down shack, which itself sat heavy in the midst of a large expanse of cotton fields. The afternoon was quickly leaving, only to give way to another hot, muggy, windless night in the Delta.
Many people would be out tonight, lanterns and flashlights and headlights of old beat-up pickups searching the road ditches and rows of half-grown cotton, and also down by the Yazoo River, probably for a mile or two both directions, at least on this night. Sheriff Posley had said to keep the search within a mile or two in any direction from the shack, that a young boy of five wouldn’t get any further than that in a few hours, even if he walked straight in one direction the whole time, which is unlike any five year old around.
In the rocking chair sat the missing little boy’s grandmother and mother de facto, Elsie. She was no use in searching for him, as she couldn’t walk much further than the end of the gravel drive anyway. She would if she could. She certainly would. She would walk to the ends of the county and the state line, indeed as far as the river flowed, on to the ocean and to the ends of the earth if she had to in order to find the little lost boy, her only grandson. Her best bet was to sit in the chair and wait, she thought, and pray for the little boy and all the folks looking for him. Sitting was harder to do, and her prayers came fast and strong as the day grew darker.
“Please, Jesus, let him be found. Oh Lord, let him be found,” was her refrain.
Had he left, or had he been taken? A long list of thoughts and scenarios had run through her mind since that afternoon when he vanished. Perhaps he had ambled out to the fields and gotten into one of the endless rows of leafy plants and fallen asleep. They would surely find him, even if it took him waking up and crying and hollering. Or maybe he had followed the old dog, Tillie, down the road and gotten caught up in the ditch somewhere.
Other thoughts assaulted her. She tried to think through each good option and ignore the bad ones, but the bad ones preyed stronger upon her mind. What if he had been out on the road and someone picked him up? Or what if some wild dog had dragged him off? She didn’t think there were any wild dogs around.
Beside her in another chair sat Julia, faithful cousin and close friend. Julia was roughly the same age as Elsie, though she had never married and had no children. Elsie had married, and had stayed married, for 37 years, to Salem. He would know what to do, but he had been gone for six years. He had never even met little Thomas. Elsie pictured Salem’s grave out in the quiet churchyard three miles away. She closed her eyes and studied in her mind its stone marker near the giant magnolia tree along the back row of graves. The space next to it was empty, where she would be someday. How could she bury a grandson? Too painful. Another picture jumped in of a smaller grave, but she quickly pushed that aside.
“Where are you, Thomas?” she half-sighed and half-whispered, as if the little boy, wherever he was, could hear her. She dared not go inside and perhaps miss the little boy peek around the corner, as if he had never left. Julia could go inside, but not her. She heard herself groan, quietly, but there was not much competing noise this time of day. The bugs were silent yet, and there was no traffic on the road nearby.
“There, there, Elsie,” Julia had a gentle voice. She reached over and rubbed Elsie’s shoulder. “He be all right. I know it. I believe it in my heart.”
Julia rubbed a little longer, and patted softly, then pulled her arm back and looked up and out into the fields ahead of her. “I’m gon’ go look around in the yard again, sweetie.”
Elsie managed a muted, “Okay.”
“Just holler. I’m right here.”
So Julia got up from her post and went down the steps to explore the little yard. There were only so many places to look, only so many hiding places for a little boy to find and play in, or to crawl up into and fall asleep, and she had already looked into all of them once, and some of them twice or more. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to look yet again, before it grew too dark to see.
Back up on the porch, Elsie sat still in her chair.
“How can a bright, sunny day go so horribly wrong?” she wondered. “Please, Jesus, let him be found. Oh Lord, let him be found.”
The worst thought she could imagine was that he had ended up in the hands of Bob Kilmerson, clear on the other side of the fields. Bob Kilmerson had done time down at the Parchman Penitentiary near Jackson for hurting a kid, though no one seemed to know exactly what he had done. The truth had been twisted and had grown into all kinds of fabrications, told over and over between the locals, each version perhaps a bit different from another. He had done time for it, whatever it was, but not enough time in the opinions of most folks. Elsie had not been happy when Kilmerson had been released. She had wondered how a man could be so evil.
Kilmerson was sometimes seen walking along the river road, getting as close as a quarter mile to Elsie’s place, but Tillie would go off barking at him when he did. Tillie had a nose for Bob Kilmerson, it seemed, and Elsie had taken comfort in that. The law hadn’t kept him in jail forever, but at least Tillie would keep him away from Elsie’s property, and from Thomas.
There would be people searching all over Kilmerson’s place and if Thomas were there… she quickly pushed the thought aside.
Tillie hadn’t barked that afternoon, though, leastways not that Elsie had heard, and that’s what she had reported to the sheriff, sitting right on that porch. He had arrived quickly, just a few minutes after she had called 911 after Thomas had disappeared.
Elsie had hung the phone up and waited on the front edge of the porch, looking out down the driveway to the road, willing the sheriff to get there even quicker than he had, and then out of his car and up onto the porch. Then she had sat down in her chair, the sheriff standing near her, his notepad in hand. He had listened, mostly, written down a few notes, and nodded his head a few times. He had asked what any good lawman would have asked.
He had then asked general questions about Elsie’s boy, Davis, Thomas’s daddy. Davis had been locked up in Parchman, too, since right after Thomas had been born, for some drug related charge. Sheriff Posley had been in on the arrest. Elsie had taken Thomas to see Davis once, over four years before, but he hadn’t seemed to care about the baby.
The little boy’s mama had run off two weeks after Thomas had come into the world, and hadn’t been seen around there since. Rumors had spread that someone had seen her in Mobile one weekend a year or so later, drunk and yelling at some young man. Another rumor had come about that she was pregnant again.
“The boy’s mother… you seen her ever?” the sheriff had then asked.
“Sheriff Posely,” she had said, gently, but starting to cry. “You can ask all these questions ‘bout Thomas’ mama and daddy, but they ain’t had a thing to do with him yet, and they ain’t got nothing to do with him now.”
She had related how she and Thomas had gone into their shared bedroom for a nap, just like they did most days about that time, right after lunch. She and Thomas would both be getting sleepy, so she would lay him down in his little bed and she would slip off her shoes and rest on her bed. She sometimes dozed and sometimes just rested her eyes. Oh, why hadn’t she just rested her eyes on this day? She would’ve seen Thomas climbing up off his bed, which he was not supposed to do, and she could’ve said, “Now, Thomas, back to bed, honey. Just a few more minutes and we’ll get up and read us a book.” And he would have complied, ‘cause he was a good boy, unlike his daddy, whom Elsie had put out of her mind right then.
But on this day she had fallen asleep, like night time sleep, out of this world sleep. When she had awakened, the first thing she had done was turn her head over and look to Thomas’s bed and seen he wasn’t in it. Blankets all rumpled up, pillow dented in, but no Thomas. And she had moved up off her bed, calling his name. Figured he had gotten up to go to the bathroom or into the kitchen. She didn’t hear the television on the counter, though. She had slipped her shoes on and called his name a little louder, “Thomas?” Looking round the house, only four rooms, calling again, “Thomas?” Her voice growing louder.
She had gone outside and had been surprised how the day had gotten on. The sun had moved over quite a ways, the shadows slanting at different, late afternoon angles. She had walked out onto the porch and yelled, “Thomas!” and listened. Nothing. She had seen a little bird swelling up its wing feathers in a tree in the yard. She had walked down off the porch and around the house, yelling in every direction, “Thomas!”
“Thomas!!” Quiet. Then back into the house, hollering some more. The house so still and silent. He was gone.
The sheriff had asked, “Elsie, did you hear Tillie barking at anything, or anybody?” No, she hadn’t. She hadn’t heard anything. Not a peep.
“Well, where is Tillie?” he had asked next, leaning against the porch post, his hat in his hand, looking hard out into the surrounding fields. She didn’t know.
He had looked around a few minutes for himself, in the shack, around the yard. He had yelled, “Thomas…!!” a few times out into the expanse of fields and sky. He could see quite far into the fields in every direction since the plants were still low. No Thomas.
He had whistled for Tillie. Maybe Tillie would come bounding out of the rows with Thomas
right on her heels, laughing at the trick he had played on his grandma.
He had walked back up to the porch, talking into his radio as he walked. He had then asked to go into the house and look. He had come back out, his mouth drawn into a thin line and his forehead squeezed down into a frown of thought.
He had walked the length of the porch then, thinking to himself, and then asked again for a description of what the boy had been wearing, his height, his weight. Did he have shoes on? Did he have a hiding place or a fort or had he said anything that might give a hint? Had he ever run off before, maybe with Tillie? He had surmised out loud again that that might be it. Maybe Tillie had run off and Thomas had just chased after her. He might be out in the cotton exploring. He looked again out into the surrounding fields.
“I’m gon’ send a deputy over here. He’ll be here directly. And I’ll go out on the road and look around. “
“Please go to the river, Sheriff.”
“Elsie, I’ll get everyone available out on this,” he had continued, not hearing her request. “Don’t go nowhere. Stay off the phone. I’ll call. He can’t be too far away.”
“What about the river?” she had asked, a little louder.
“Yes, ma’am,” he had answered. “We’ll get someone there right away.”
Putting his hat back on, he had jogged over to his car, yelling back to her, “We’ll find him! ‘He
can’t have gone too far. Don’t you worry.”
The sheriff was good on his word. He called in for help to find a lost or missing child out at Elsie Wells’ house on Poynter Road, five miles north of town. He specifically directed that someone needed to head immediately to the river and start there. He drove straight to the river and then, not seeing Thomas, headed to the Kilmerson place.
Bob Kilmerson lived about two and a half miles away, straight to the south toward town. However, with the patchwork of cotton fields between the two places, it required a bit of going around the long way to get there. Within a few minutes, the sheriff pulled into the Kilmerson driveway and stopped his car.
The Kilmerson house had, at one time, been a fine house. Bob’s father and mother, both long dead, had been the beneficiaries of two wealthy cotton farming families. Their marriage joined up not only two loving and hardworking souls, but thousands of acres of profitable cropland. From that, they had constructed a fine house with large windows looking out on wide, expansive porches. A front porch welcomed one and all, with each end of it turning the front corners of the house and running back along the sides… one to a side door into the kitchen, the other to a small stair leading toward the back yard. There was a back porch as well, more utilitarian than the front, and long filled with so many trinkets, newspapers and old things in general, that passage through it had become impractical.
The house presented a lovely façade to all who viewed it. However, the planned filling of it with noisy, healthy children had gone awry. A daughter had been born but had contracted polio and died as a youngster. She had been followed by a strapping boy, named after his father, Frank. The boy had died in his crib one morning as an infant. Details had grown sketchy over the years. Had this tragedy occurred more recently, it would have been diagnosed as a SIDS death.
Frank, Sr. and his wife, Bonnie, had become so disheartened at the loss of their two children, they had given up on further attempts. The two losses had devastated all of the hopes of that particular Kilmerson line. Years later, to the surprise of both, Robert Kilmerson was conceived, and delivered nine months later at the county hospital, a healthy boy. By that time, the two parents were in their late forties. The joy and energy of their lives had so subsided, that young Bob was delivered into a melancholy estate.
By the time Sheriff Posley pulled into the driveway all these years later, the house had devolved into a mean shadow of its former self. What had been straight and true was now crooked. What had been planted and maintained had been choked out long before by weeds. The cropland had been leased out rather than worked, and the income from the leases mismanaged to the point that all of it had eventually been sold, piece by piece. Indeed, by this time, Bob’s life was but a remnant of past possibility. The only thing to which he proudly clung was the fact that he was related to another Kilmerson, a brother of Frank, Sr., by the name of Cale Kilmerson. Cale had built up a successful regional chain of hardware stores in a three state area.
The industry of this uncle, Bob’s one source of familial pride, exhibited itself in a few articles of clothing he had acquired over the years, each piece displaying the company moniker, Kilmerson Hardware. The crown jewel of his pride rested in the blue denim ball cap he wore whenever he left the house. It had started to fade, though he hadn’t realized it, the proud Kilmerson Hardware stitching across the front of it remaining yet intact.
Sheriff Posely pulled his car into the driveway, noting that Bob’s pickup truck was parked in the driveway. He parked behind it, got out, and walked up to it. He looked in the back of the truck, and then walked to the front and held his hands to each side of his face while peering into the cab. Nothing unusual. He felt the hood, which wasn’t hot to the touch. There was no sign the truck had been moved recently.
He walked across the yard, his eyes alert to anything suspicious. He hadn’t been on the property in the past few years, so he hadn’t seen things up close for a while and was surprised by the general disrepair of the place. A Bible verse out of Proverbs he had memorized as a child came to him suddenly, “I went by the field of the slothful, and by the vineyard of the man void of understanding; And, lo, it was all grown over with thorns, and nettles had covered the face thereof, and the stone wall thereof was broken down.” He said it to himself, halfway audibly, as he looked around and approached the front door.
He called out, “Bob Kilmerson?” No answer.
He climbed the wide steps of the once fine porch. He noticed the paint on the house, long peeled away in so many places, exposing the weathering wood beneath. The windows all looked intact, but seemed smoked over heavily with a general film from neglect.
“Bob Kilmerson!” he yelled, louder. “Sheriff Posley here! Need to talk to you!” The only response was the gentle tinkling of a half missing wind chime hanging from the corner of the porch ceiling.
The sheriff rested his right hand lightly out of habit on the handle of his service revolver holstered at his side. The doorbell was missing, only a loose wire wrapped in black tape giving away its former place. He walked up to the door and knocked, loudly. BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM. He waited a few moments, trying to see through the window in the door.
He knocked again. BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM, in quick succession, this time leaning in with his good ear toward the door, listening for a response.
“Mr. Kilmerson!! Sheriff Posley!” BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM-BAM.
He walked along the length of the porch and looked into every window. He couldn’t see much, and he saw no sign of activity within. He knocked on a few windows, gently, careful not to break the old floating glass. After making his way around the left corner of the house, he noticed the side door was cracked open. A rickety screen door hung crooked in the opening, its bottom board having carved a gentle arc into the porch floor.
He peered into the kitchen, cupping his hands and yelling for a response, receiving none. Becoming exasperated, and frustrated by the passage of time, he walked quickly back up to the front, giving two more loud knocks on the front door.
He walked along the porch, staring out into the yard as he went, turning the corner and down the other side porch and down the steps into the back yard. He walked around back, now on ground level and having to reach up to knock on the back porch windows as he went. He didn’t bother yelling out anymore. He had made his presence known. There was no noise of any kind, no drone of an air conditioner which should have been running at this time of day with the windows all closed up.
Not wanting to waste any more time, he walked around the house, calling out Bob Kilmerson’s name a few times. He then walked quickly back to his car, calling in for the Kilmerson phone number as he walked. A moment later the response came back and he punched the number into his cell phone. He reached into his car and grabbed his gloves and walked back through the yard and up the steps and up to the front door.
He knocked, BAM-BAM-BAM and yelled, “Bob Kilmerson, open the door! It’s Sheriff Posley! Come to the door!!” BAM-BAM-BAM. He stood perfectly still and listened, hearing nothing from inside. He pushed the SEND button on his phone and waited a moment. The phone inside the house rang in response, and rang again, and again. He disconnected the call.
Looking around into the yard and out onto the road, the sheriff pulled on his gloves. He grabbed the doorknob gently and tried to turn it. It was locked and wouldn’t give. He leaned over, concentrating, and tried with a little more force to turn it, pushing gently as he did so. The door was secured shut.
Straightening up, he let out a loud breath. He stared at the doorknob, biting gently on the inside of his lip and turning things over in his mind. He called in on his radio to make sure a deputy had been sent out to Elsie’s. He then requested for more help to be sent to form a wide perimeter and scour the area for the boy. The response came back that volunteers were already on their way, having heard through various channels that Elsie’s little boy was missing.
He nodded his head, thinking. He turned his glance toward the yard again and back to the
house, reaching up to rub his chin. He turned and walked again to the side of the house with the open door. As he approached it for the second time, he yelled out again, “It’s Sheriff Posley, Bob! Just here to check in with you! Are you home?”
He walked up to the screen door and listened again. No sound. He grabbed the handle and slowly pulled the door open, leaning in to look around.
He yelled yet again, “Bob!! Sheriff Posley! I’m coming in!” Looking back once more toward the road, he disappeared into the house.
A few minutes later, the sheriff exited from inside the house back out onto the porch through the same door, closing it back the way it had been. He had worked as quickly as possible, looking into every room, every closet, under every bed. The house was large but sparsely furnished and unkempt.
He had peeked into the attic by standing on a chair. He had gone quickly down into the basement. It was clear that Bob Kilmerson was not at home. It was also clear that Bob’s only way to get anywhere of reasonable distance was still parked in the driveway. Unless someone had come by and picked him up. Or unless he was out in the detached garage.
Sheriff Posley moved quickly to the garage. It was hardly of much use anymore, with its one overhead door having fallen off its track years before. One cursory look through the opening told the sheriff that Bob wasn’t in there.
The sheriff took one last walk around the house, circling around the outside edge of the yard and looking as far as he could out into the cotton fields. He wondered if Bob had seen the sheriff’s car coming up the road and had run out into the fields. He quickly dismissed that idea and returned to his car, got in, closed the door and sat there, thinking.
He figured that if Bob wasn’t off with someone, and he couldn’t think of who that would be with the man being such a recluse, then he must have gone on one of his walks. It was getting late in the day, though. He had seen Bob on his walks before, and it always seemed to be earlier than this. He called in to see if anyone had found Thomas. Any sign at all? With the expected negative response, he decided to drive down the road along the river himself. Maybe Bob was walking, or maybe Sheriff Posley would see for himself some sign of the boy.
Elsie didn’t realize how many searchers had been out. Within an hour of Sheriff Posely first calling it in, even more had gone out, leaving their jobs and their errands undone. People had heard that a deputy had been called out to Elsie’s place, and that her little Thomas was missing, and that her cousin Julia was on her way out there. The day was getting on. Some folks had dropped their activities and had driven out and parked along the road nearby and gone out into the fields. Some had just stayed to the roads and ditches. Salem Wells had been a well-liked man, a much respected man, and Elsie was in trouble. They would surely try and help her.
Searchers would also be out to the river. Elsie hated that the river was able to take her little boy under and kill him. Thomas couldn’t swim, and the water was muddy. Couldn’t see more than a couple of inches down into it. Thomas could have been playing along the bank and slid right in and…
“Oh Lord, have mercy,” she cried quietly. “Have mercy on little Thomas. Let him be found, Jesus. Have mercy on me, oh Lord.” A few giant sobs escaped out from her suddenly-heaving chest and spilled more tears down her face and neck and onto her collar.
By early evening, the light was dimming and the bugs had come out in full force. Not just the ones making themselves seen, flying around and landing on things and gathering near outdoor light bulbs, but also the ones out in the fields and tree lines, singing or scratching their leg songs, or whatever they do. Elsie had lived here all of her life, right here in this shack, and she loved the sounds of the bugs in summer. Except tonight she wanted to hear Thomas, and the bugs were so loud. If he were out there crying, they would outdo him.
Elsie wanted to fight off the approaching shadows. She wanted the fields to be suddenly stripped of their crops, and the river dried up, and the buildings lifted up from their foundations, exposing all of their contents. She wanted a full view in every direction for as far as needed to find her little Thomas.
Down by the river, one of the searchers saw something in the mud. He waved the beam of light back over it. It was a shoe. A small tennis shoe, it looked like. He walked over and picked it up. Yes, it was. He wiped some of the dried up mud off of it. He saw white with blue stripes all over, just like the sheriff said Thomas was wearing that morning when he disappeared.
“Clyde, come ‘ere!” he yelled to his buddy. “It’s a shoe! Hurry!”
Clyde, the other searcher, ran down the bank. He waved his light around frantically, first on the shoe and then all around the surrounding ground.
“Oh good Lord, Russ, it is. It’s got to be his.”
Clyde scanned out over the slow moving water with his flashlight. He then moved it back over
the surface, more slowly and methodically. It was a smooth, lazily roiling solid surface of brown. He looked straight down at the very edge of the river closest to him. The bank was rather steep, not much grass, mostly muck. There was nothing below him in the water that he could see. He knelt down as carefully as he could, for his footing was unsure. Russ did the same. They reached down into the water, almost up to their shoulders, waving around blindly in the dark muddy water, hoping to feel something. The river was slow but strong. It sought to pull them in the more they reached into it.
“Feel anything, Clyde?” Russ asked.
“No, nothing. Nothing but mud and water. God, help us.”
Russ sighed deeply, the sound almost complementing the slow sigh of the river. “I’d go in, Clyde, but I ain’t that good a swimmer.”
“We’ll get the sheriff on the radio right quick,” Clyde responded, still waving one arm in the water. “They’ll get divers in here, maybe drag it. You go on up to the car and call in, and I’ll keep looking.”
Russ rose up off his haunches and started back up the bank toward the car. Both men felt quiet pangs of guilt for not going in, though it was the sensible decision. It was dark, and neither man could swim very well. Had the lost boy been one of their own, however, they would have gone in, and they knew it.
Clyde waved around in the water some more, as deeply as he dared. Thomas could have easily
slipped down the steep bank into the water and disappeared. Clyde sat back up and scanned the river some more, then down at his feet. He could make out where he and Russ had positioned themselves in the muck when reaching into the water, but he wasn’t trained in any kind of tracking or investigating, being just a volunteer searcher. He decided to back away and let the experts come and do any further exploring. He and Russ had stepped around enough, making holes here and there in haphazard patterns, their boots caked with the heavy wet mud.
He could hear Russ back up at the car talking somberly into the phone, giving location, describing the shoe. He looked downriver with his light, sending the beam out into the middle and over to the other shore, not that far away. Back to the near side. Up and down the bank. Back out into the river. A few branches reached out from the bank downriver, but nothing appeared caught on them. He turned and looked upriver. He stuck the flashlight straight out from him and peered into the light, straight across and into the field beyond, the beam growing wide and dissipating into a useless opaque glow not much distance past the far bank.
He backed up the hill toward the car, making more prints in the mud as he went. The holes he made grew shallower as the soil beneath grew firmer away from the river. About halfway back up he stepped on something. He stopped and reached down to pick it up. Something made of cloth. He thought it might be another shoe, though it seemed too pliable. Holding it in the light, he saw that it was a hat. A baseball cap. He turned it around in the light. It read, “Kilmerson Hardware.”
The night seemed especially dark to Elsie, the blackness out beyond the reach of her porch light like a wall. She sat in her chair, on her porch, her largeness a mere dot on the wide earth, her house a dimly lighted island in a great expanse of nothing.
As the night moved along, Elsie felt her life leave her. What remained was just a shell, a covering, and would remain so. Her eyes, staring ahead, were those of a stranger. She had worked her way through so many Kleenexes, and then napkins, that Julia had finally gotten her a sturdy dish towel. Her thick arms and hands, grasping the now mangled dish towel on her lap, were not her own.
As for Julia, she had pulled a chair up beside her dear cousin, and sat leaning against her, her arms alternately around her and at her own side. She loved Thomas, too. Not as a mama or grandmama, but all the same she loved him. Her voice sometimes prayed in the early morning darkness, and sometimes she sobbed gently, trying to restrain herself. Her thin shoulders would bob up and down when she did so.
The sheriff called on the telephone. Julia went inside to answer.
“Tell Elsie we don’t have anything yet, but please know everyone is out looking. We’ve got some dogs we’re gonna take out. They’re world class.”
A soft “Thank you,” was all Julia could muster. She set the phone down and sought for her chair back on the porch and sat down beside Elsie again. Both of them were tired. The night had brought little relief from the heat the day had brought. Elsie’s neck glistened. Julia had found a fan at some point and would wave it intermittently at herself and at her cousin. A glass of water she had poured earlier for Elsie remained full, resting on the porch railing.
Within 15 minutes, the sheriff had driven back out and was standing on the porch beside them. “Thought maybe I could do better than a phone call.”
Elsie sat, silent. Julia managed a soft, “Thank you, Sheriff.”
Sheriff Posley took off his hat and fidgeted with it. He looked out at the yard, and then at the woman before him, and was utterly unable to tell her about the shoe or hat. He had planned to, but he couldn’t.
“Miss Elsie, I believe we will find him. I do.”
Elsie didn’t respond.
“It’s likely he just wandered off this morning when you were inside and somehow got turned around…”
“They’d a found him by now, Sheriff…”
“Well now, not necessarily. I’ve known of cases where…”
“You check Bob Kilmerson’s place? What’d he say?” Elsie looked up at the sheriff, her voice strong for once.
“Yes. We’ve got men over there right now looking around. Have been all day.”
“Looking around? You ought a turn that place upside down! That man grab my Thomas, I swear, I’m gonna…”
“Elsie, we are looking everywhere, including Bob Kilmerson’s. First place I went after I checked along the river.”
“What he say?! You ought a put that gun there to his head’s what you ought a do! Then he’d
tell you ever’thing.”
“Elsie, I can’t do that.” He didn’t want to tell Elsie that Bob hadn’t been at home, that no one knew where he was.
“We’re looking everywhere. You know, just so you know, Mr. Kilmerson didn’t do time for child molesting… I know people say he did, but that’s just a rumor.”
“What he do then? That’s what I heard.”
“It was an assault charge, and it was against a minor, but it was an older teenager, and it wasn’t a sexual assault. By the law, technically, he did it. That’s why he went to Parchman.”
“Why you go over there so fast then, if you don’t think he did nothin’?”
“’Because everyone else automatically thinks he did. Most people’d want me to just go over there and take him to jail and throw away the key. Maybe I should, just for his own good.”
“Sheriff, don’t come around here havin’ no pity for Bob Kilmerson.”
“I’m not, Elsie.”
“What’d he say when you went over there? He go walking today? He seen my little Thomas?” Elsie looked up at the sheriff.
The sheriff looked back. “He didn’t say nothing, Elsie. He don’t know nothing.” The second sentence seemed necessary in order to explain the first sentence.
“Well, I don’t know then. He don’t seem to care what people think about what he did.”
A picture of Thomas face down in the river suddenly took over Elsie’s thinking. She dropped her head into her hands, “Oh, Jesus. Oh Lord.”
Finding the shoe and the hat so near each other changed the strategy of those who searched. Sheriff Posley left again, leaving only Julia and a deputy behind with Elsie. Elsie wrestled to keep away the picture of her little boy in the water.
At times, it seemed as if she had no thoughts at all. To rest, her harried mind detached itself completely. No reason escaped from it, no details, only an all-consuming, hated grief.
Those working out in the dark branched into camps working two possible scenarios, drowning or kidnapping. One group kept on the hunt for the little boy, at the same time searching for the local ex-felon who had suddenly disappeared as well. The other group consisted of those who had the needed expertise and equipment to begin the task of dragging the river.
Elsie sat still in her chair and looked out into the yard. Just then something moved in her peripheral vision. She turned her head to look, as a man appeared out of the cotton and stole across her yard. She had seen him somewhere before. Out on the road. He wasn’t a searcher.
She watched in growing horror and silence as he came to the porch and walked up the steps. It was Bob Kilmerson. Elsie couldn’t move. She noticed that she was alone with him, the deputy and Julia having left the porch.
The bugs grew suddenly quiet. Kilmerson stopped before her, looking out into the fields before them, and then down at her in her chair. He looked hard at her, taking off his hat and tilting his head a little.
Elsie surprised herself by saying, “Why, Bob? Why you so bad?”
Kilmerson didn’t answer, but just looked at her and held his hat in his hands, running a finger or two over the stitching. He finally sighed and looked straight down at his hat. He shifted his weight and looked back up at her.
“Miss Elsie, I didn’t hurt your boy. I didn’t do it.” He moved his head back and forth gently as he spoke.
Elsie closed her eyes and thought to call out for Julia.
His voice continued, “That time way back yonder with that teenage boy – he was an animal. I was just plain defending myself, but no one believes it. Could a been anyone he went after, ‘cept it was me. No one believes it!”
“I don’t neither! Get on off this porch!” Elsie wanted to move but couldn’t.
Kilmerson didn’t move. “You gotta know,” he spoke again, “just for your own good. I ain’t done nothing.”
Elsie reached up to hit him, but instead of hitting him she asked for his hat.
“Gimme your hat so I can prove you done come around here bothering me. Them dogs’ll find you! Gimme that hat, I say!”
“This hat won’t help nothin’.” He looked down at the porch floor.
Just then a light appeared way out on the gravel drive and silhouetted Bob Kilmerson against it.
Seeing it, he put his hat back on and backed away slowly, whispering back at her, “I ain’t done it.” He then turned and descended the steps and walked quickly into the yard, growing smaller in the coming light.
The light grew stronger and Kilmerson disappeared into it. Elsie opened her eyes to see a car coming toward her into the yard. She had drifted off. Julia sat beside her still, her head sagged to one side, her own attempt to stay alert having flagged as well. Elsie felt lost, beyond anxiety, just lost. She looked to see who was getting out of the car in front of her.
It was only the deputy who had been on watch. He had decided to drive out into the adjacent roads, searching with his headlights and flashlight, but to no avail. He walked slowly up to the porch and climbed the steps, seating himself in a chair. He had only the will to murmur, “Elsie,” as he took his seat.
Elsie straightened herself a bit and looked around. The thought occurred that at least it wasn’t cold. She heard the deputy’s phone go off, and heard him answer it dutifully with a resigned, “Yeah.” A loud sounding voice came over the other end, so loud that Elsie could hear the voice, though not make out the words. It was a brief, staccato burst of language, the termination of which caused the deputy to shoot his legs out and sit bolt upright, instantly and in one snap, quite alert.
“They what?!!” His voice was sharp, and he didn’t wait for the answer to finish before turning to Elsie and loudly and clearly proclaiming, “They found him! They found him! He’s okay! Elsie, he’s okay!!”
The words seemed to bounce right off of Elsie at first. She looked down, breathing quickly to ensure she hadn’t dozed again. She turned her head back to the deputy and burst out instinctively, her voice a barky croak from lack of recent use, “Thomas?” Perhaps it was Kilmerson, and not Thomas, whom they had found.
The deputy stared at her and frowned, that possibility hitting him too. He stood up and said into the phone, “Repeat that, Sheriff. They found Thomas?”
He was still for a moment as the chatter resumed on the other end of the phone, followed by a quick fist pump and a swiveled turn to Elsie with a thumbs up and a smile that engulfed him from the neck up. His head nodded rapidly. He loudly whispered “Yes!” as he received the confirmation.
Elsie sagged. She wanted to jump off the porch and run through the yard, to wherever they had found him, but she sagged. She wondered where and how they found him. Who found him.
She felt herself standing up and raising her arms, her palms up at angles, her mouth dropping open as it smiled. She looked at Julia and then she looked up through the porch ceiling, as if staring right into the heart of heaven. She wished that she could. She wished that she could reach up and throw her arms around the Lord Jesus Himself.
A slowly building siren of emotion came out, “Aaaaaaaaahhhhh….” building into a crescendo, and falling again as more breath was needed. Again, “Aaaaaaaaahhhhh….” as the full brunt of the news hit her. She sobbed, her large, full frame in motion. Her hands retreated to her face and she yelled, “Thank you, oh Lord!”
She heard Julia, also now standing, “Thank you, Jesus!! Thank you, Jesus!! Oh, thank you, Lord!!” as her own hands had gone automatically to her mouth in prayerful salute. The deputy was still getting details over the phone, a finger over his ear as he strained to listen over the two women. They turned and hugged each other and wept loudly.
At the conclusion of the call, he hung up and filled them in on the details that he knew. A search dog had lit on a scent where the shoe had been found. There had been some running up and down the road for a bit, and then some failed forays into the opposite cotton field at several locations. Then, along a tree line, edging a field, they had found him. Huddled up next to a fallen tree. Elsie started crying again, muffled at first and then loudly, not caring how loudly, her heart exultant and her mind at ease.
She knew she would want to hear these details again, at another time, but all she could grasp at this moment was that her baby was alive and that she wanted to hold him. She grabbed onto Julia again with one arm and waved the other in the air. She nodded her head up and down. She loved Julia. She loved the deputy, and the sheriff, and she loved the searchers.
By early light of the new day, a gathering of adults sat happily together on the front porch, surrounding a chatty Elsie and equally verbose Julia. There were giggles and cackles and even a few guffaws. Thomas stood before them, his clothes messy, trying to stifle a yawn, but unsuccessfully. Tillie rested on her belly at Thomas’s feet, her front paws out straight before her, her head up, looking nowhere in particular, but seeming to pay attention. As much as he could, the boy felt deep within that this must be an important moment. He tried not to fidget.
“Now Thomas, you just tell me and your Aunt Julia and Sheriff Posley and these nice deputies exactly what happened, okay?”
“Yes, ma’am, I will.” He looked up and down the line and then settled his eyes on Elsie.
“Well, to start with, where did you go… before you ended up in that field for the night?”
“I went to the river to try and catch me a fish. Am I in trouble, Mama?”
“To the river? Young man, that is the last place you better ever be going without your…,” she caught herself as Thomas’s bottom lip swelled out and water filled his eyes. His hand moved to wipe away tears before they fell.
Elsie redirected, “Honey, you’re not in trouble but you could a been! That river is dangerous! Come here, sweetie!” She pulled Thomas to her and held him as he sobbed a bit. Julia reached over and patted his back gently with one hand, pinching the tears from her own eyes with the other. “Oh, my baby boy,” Elsie cooed. “You be a big boy, honey.” His head nodded up and down against her belly, and then he stood back in position.
“Okay, so you wanted to catch a fish?”
“Yes, ma’am, I did.”
“Well first, honey, back up and start in the bedroom while Mama was resting her eyes and you were napping. What got you to the river to even think about catching a fish?”
“I saw a commercial, Mama, where this boy was fishing with his daddy, so I decided since I didn’t have no daddy I could go by myself.” Thomas glanced at the sheriff and deputies, wondering suddenly what a man might think of him.
The words “Didn’t have no daddy” pierced Elsie. It was a deep cistern that needed cleaning, but not today.
“Honey, you still need an adult to go to the river, baby… so you were layin’ in the bed and you started thinking about that commercial?”
“Yes, ma’am, I did. And I wasn’t sleepy so I got up and clicked on the TV to see if I could watch it again, but it didn’t come on.”
“So I sat on the couch a little and tried to look at books. I got my pictures out and tried to color, but I just kept thinking about that boy fishing.”
“Didn’t none of us see any colorin’ pictures, Thomas, when we were lookin’ for you.”
“I put ‘em back up in the drawer, Mama, like you always told me to.”
“You were snoring, Mama, so I knew you was tired. I didn’t want to wake you up.”
“You could a woke me up, honey.”
“I didn’t want to, but I wanted to go fishing real bad.”
Elsie sat back in her chair, somewhat impressed at this newfound determination on the part of her grandson. She smiled a little and said, “Go on, baby.”
He then recounted how he had gone out on the porch and had started petting Tillie. Hearing her
name, the dog looked up at him from her watch at his feet. She closed her eyes in approval and readjusted her paws as he reached down and rubbed her head.
Thomas continued. He had known that he was not to leave the porch, ever, if Elsie was
sleeping, but when Tillie had run off after something in the yard, and he had run after her. He had caught a glimpse of the road, the road that he knew led to the river, the river that he knew had fish in it. He had come back up onto the porch and come inside to check again that Elsie was still asleep, and then he had gone to the river, Tillie with him.
The boy’s resolve turned suddenly against Elsie as she realized just what that determination could lead to. She wished suddenly for Salem to be present, or that the boy’s daddy had been a good man like Salem and that he was here. Here with her and Thomas instead of absent, a 45 minute drive away, sitting behind bars until long after Thomas would be a man himself. She closed her eyes and sighed, remembering Thomas’s daddy, himself as a boy, playing on this very porch and in this very yard surrounding her.
Then the sheriff said, “So, did you see any fish in the river? I’m glad you didn’t fall in!”
“Well, I didn’t see no fish. The man grabbed me.”
The adults sat up in unison.
“What man, Thomas?” Elsie asked urgently.
“That man you don’t like. The one who walks down the road sometimes. He grabbed me and started yelling at me.”
“Slow down now, honey…”
“Yes,” the sheriff interrupted, “we got to hear this part slow, Thomas.”
The boy was silent. He bit his lip but didn’t talk. No one spoke.
“Okay,” Thomas eventually answered, looking out over the yard with a little shrug.
The sheriff looked at his deputies and continued, “So you were standing there by the river, trying to see some fish…”
“Yes, sir, but I didn’t see none ‘cause the water was all dirty.”
“And Bob… I mean… the man, he grabbed you?”
“Yes, sir. Well no, he started yelling at me first.”
“Yelling what at you, honey?” Elsie asked.
I was standing there wondering where all the fish was and how do they see in all that dirty water to know where they should be going. Do they look like they do on TV, Mama?”
“I don’t rightly know, Thomas. What did the man do?”
“I heard him yelling at me to get away from the water.”
“Where was he?” the sheriff asked.
“He was up on the road behind me when he was yelling, but when I turned around he was
running down the hill at me.”
Thomas looked down at his feet and started playing with his hands.
“Runnin’ at you?” Julia asked.
“Yes, ma’am, right at me. I got scared. Tillie saw him, too, and started running up at him from
down the river a little. She was growling and yapping at him. I didn’t have nowhere to run to. I knew my mama didn’t like him.”
“What was he yelling?” the sheriff asked. “What were his words? Can you remember?”
“Yes, sir, I remember.” He kept yelling, ‘Get away from there! Get away from there!’ Over and over. Then he got to me, so I sat down ‘cause he started grabbing me, and I didn’t want him to be grabbing me so I balled up and kept pulling away, but he bear hugged me, and I started yelling to let me go.”
All of the adults were silent.
“He didn’t say nothing to me after that, but he carried me up the hill to the road. Tillie was biting his leg, and he was yelling at her to stop. I did hear that. I started kicking and trying to scratch him. I knocked his hat off!”
Thomas’s eyes grew wide with the retelling, his head turning just a little as he looked down at the porch floor.
“And you lost your shoe,” the sheriff said.
“No, sir. I didn’t lose it. It fell off when I was kicking.”
“Well, what happened after that?”
He set me down up by the road and said to stay there. Then he kicked Tillie till she let go of him. He said that he was gonna go back down and get my shoe and take me home. Asked me where my mama was or did she know I was down there by the river. Said I could a fallen in.”
“What did you say?” Elsie asked.
“I didn’t say nothing… I waited for him to go back down there, and then I took off running across the road into the cotton to hide.”
“Did he come looking for you?” Sheriff Posely asked.
“I never did see him after that. I ran though, and got real low down on the ground so he couldn’t see me.”
Thomas reached down and petted Tillie’s head again.
“Tillie followed him and was barking some and growling back down there, but I just hid myself. She come up and found me a little later. Maybe she run him off.”
It was silent. Elsie rocked back slightly in her chair. She looked out through the yard and saw in her mind the road that led down by the river. She knew the bank of the river from years before. She pictured the late afternoon just gone by, with her and Julia still on the porch and Thomas crouched down in the early summer cotton. A slight breeze blew in from the yard, whispering a little.
“He might have my shoe,” Thomas offered.
Elsie started in, “So that’s all he did, then, was bear hug you and carry you up to the road? Just grabbed you around like this?” Elsie made a bear hugging motion.
“Yes, ma’am, kinda like that, ‘cept I was scared. I couldn’t slip out a him grabbing me. I thought he was gonna hurt me.”
Thomas’s eyes grew a little red and swollen and started to pool with tears.
“Come here, baby, let me hug you,” Elsie reached out to him. Thomas ran to her and climbed up into her arms and onto her lap, burying his face into her shoulder. He sobbed a little.
Muffled, his voice came out, “Mama, that man gonna come ‘round here looking for me?”
“No, baby.” Elsie rocked him a little and cradled the back of his head in her hand, leaning her head against his. “No. He ain’t gonna come around here. Don’t you worry.”
Somewhere off past the fields a dog barked. Tillie’s head rose up. She sniffed the air.
Thomas perked up and looked out into the yard. “Mama, can I play now?”
Elsie looked at the sheriff, who nodded his head silently with a little shrug of his shoulders. He reached over and patted Thomas on the head.
“Thanks, Thomas. You did real good today. I’m glad you’re safe, and I don’t want you near that river no more, you hear?”
“Yes, sir,” Thomas responded.
“And another thing,” the sheriff continued, “you want to go fishing, you have Miss Elsie call me up and I’ll take you. And it’ll be better fishing than that old river.”
By late afternoon of that day, Bob Kilmerson’s body was found by a search team, a few hundred yards downriver from where it was presumed he had fallen in. Had the locals known that he had died trying to save a boy, they might have accepted him as their own. Of course, Tillie had seen it, but she couldn’t understand it for herself, much less add a word recounting it to the adults gathered there on her porch.
The man had redeemed his own broken life. He had been the one to happen by, and he had been the one to take notice of a little boy on the edge of the river. He had been the one to pull the boy back. No one else had done it. Then he had gone to retrieve his hat and the boy’s shoe, and just for curiosity, had gone back to that same edge and had peered into the dark water. And he had gotten too close and had fallen in.
Tillie had seen the man, unable to swim, thrashing and sinking in the muddy depths of the slow river. She had barked at him, and then she had followed her master’s scent into the cotton to hide with him.
A few days later, amidst the still joyful reunion of a grandmother and her little boy, after some meals of the boy’s favorite foods, and after some other visitors had come and gone, Sheriff Posley drove into the driveway. He pulled a chair from the trunk of his car and came up on the porch and sat by Elsie. Thomas played on the end of the porch, pushing some toy cars back and forth, making vroom noises, crashing the cars against each other and against the corner post.
“Salem sure would be proud of you, Elsie,” the sheriff crooned as he sat down. “He sure would be.”
He leaned back and patted the arms of his chair with his hands. “And he’d be proud of you too, Thomas,” he said to the little boy.
“I think he is, Sheriff,” Elsie smiled.
“You’re right, he is.” The sheriff smiled at her, a twinkle in his eyes. His lips pursed.
Elsie looked toward Thomas, “And there ain’t gon’ be no more running off by Mr. Thomas, is there?”
A return volley of more vroom noises and a muted, “No, ma’am,” came back. A loud crash of a toy car hitting the corner post followed.
The same toy car soon careened out into the yard, where it rolled over and over and ended up on its top in the tall grass. Thomas watched it until it lay still.
“I ain’t never gon’ leave my mama again.”