Sugar City

By Akanksha Singh

 

This is it.
This is the end.

Livy, the house, Mammy’s old Bible— everything’s gone. Every. Damned. Thing.

I’ve never hated God or myself as much as I do now.

Sheriff Walker puts a hand on my shoulder. He’s got that look in his eyes, the one that says ‘poor bastard.’ I almost expect him to say those words. Instead, all he says is, ‘Can I get you anything, Ray?’

I shake my head and look away; a tear escapes unnoticed. ‘I’m fine, Jim.’

Livy.

My sweet, darling Livy.

Gone.

Sheriff Walker rounds his desk and sits down. ‘Ray, I need to ask you a few questions. Routine stuff. It’s a formality, really. This won’t take long. Forty minutes, say. We’ll be finished by sundown.’

I glance around his office. It smells just as I remembered it, like tobacco and Douglas-Fir. I’d only ever been here twice in my twenty-two years. The first time was with my old man, to report some passersby who were stealing our beets and squatting on our land. And the second was with Livy, to congratulate Jim on his promotion to County Sheriff.

‘Where were you between eight and two today, Ray?’

He knew exactly where I was. Everyone did. In a town of eight-hundred and thirty-six, not a lot happens without the populace knowing: ‘It’s a Saturday. I drove to Sugar.’

 

Three hours later, as the amber hues of dusk ebb their way to nightfall, the questions finally feel like they’re coming to a close. Jim seems to be repeating certain questions to knot loose ends.

Why was I in Sugar City? Did I talk to anyone in Sugar when I sold the beets today? Did anyone see me leave Sugar? If I left Sugar at ten, why did I not make it home till after two? Did anyone see me fixing the truck when it broke down on the State Highway? No, my grease-smeared hands weren’t enough proof…  

‘That’s all, Ray. I’m sorry you had to go through that. It’s mostly for paperwork’s sake. Anyhow, the Denver Fire Department’s sending over an investigator soon— to rule out foul play. Once his report is in, we can be done with all this.’

I chew the inside of my cheek. My eyes start burning.

Jim searches for my gaze and continues, ‘Why don’t you stay with us tonight? I can ask Etta to make that peach cobbler you like, and we can put you up in the guest room.’

I guess I don’t have too many choices. It’s Jim’s or the inn in Crowley County— and it’s far too late to drive over right now.

Damn, I’m tired.

I fumble getting up. Everything hurts. Jim hoists me out of the chair and swings my arm around his shoulder. ‘Come on, Ray.’ He leads me out of the office.

Outside, the night is an abyss. Lights from town are few and faint. The crisp air stings against my skin.

As Jim drags me to the truck, my legs give way. I see her.

I see Livy.

 

As a kid, my old man used to tell me that boys like me deserved everything bad that came their way.

Sometimes, I think I still believe that. I stare at the crescent scar on my right hand, courtesy of Dad Dearest. I got it on my seventh birthday. He came home reeking of moonshine and smoke, and pushed his lit roll on to me. I don’t remember crying, but I remember him falling off a kitchen stool, into a puddle of his mess, laughing.

At least I had something to remember that birthday by.   

My eyes trace the scar before returning to the coffin. Father Michael nods towards the shovel. And just like that, the first throw of dirt breaks over the wood.

I want to cry, but I’m not sure if I have more tears in me.

Just a lullaby for Livy and the baby. I used to sing to the womb every night before the fire.

Our lullaby.

It simmers out of me without effort.

My hum is cut short with a sigh.

I can feel Jim behind me, and I turn to face him. He’s in civvies now, and his paunch spills over his belt. He’s talking, both hands gripping his ten-gallon by the brim. I pry my eyes open to follow what he’s saying. My ears take time catching up. ‘Her brother couldn’t make it, huh?’

Livy and this brother of hers exchanged letters— sometimes as often as twice a month. But I’d never met him in the four years we’d been married (guess he wasn’t thrilled with our elopement).

I shake my head.

‘I know this isn’t the time,’ says Jim, ‘but we’ll have to head down to the house tomorrow.’

 

Tomorrow came, eventually, though I wasn’t sure when yesterday ended, or when today began.

Here it is: home. Or what’s left of it.  

The saltiness in the back of my throat mingles with the smell of charred wood. My throat dries instantly, but I try swallowing the lump. It doesn’t budge.

I’m lost. It was all I had, and now it’s gone.

My ratty childhood, my first years of marriage, and my last days with Mammy— gone. All gone.

A black rectangle shadows the perimeter of the house. Parts of the outer frame are still upright, but they’re sooty and cut off at the struts. The gable studs look like they collapsed inwards and fed the fire.

The only colour in sight is some red rubble at the back. It’s from the roof I had painted for Livy after we’d gotten married. ‘It’s a red roof, or divorce Mr Lawson!’ she’d tease.

Jim walks towards me with a crate. ‘This is all that the bucket-brigade could rescue. They’re coming in later to do a full sweep of the area, but I thought you might want some of your old man’s things from the shed.’

I don’t want anything.

Except Livy.

I envision her, just as she was the morning I drove to Sugar: golden hair, jade eyes, and that tired apron, knotted just above her belly. A lump swells in my chest. ‘Was she— When the fire started…was Livy aslee—’

The tears burst out in sobs. I can’t help it, and I don’t think I want to. My shoulders slouch over me and I give into the aching.

Jim rubs my back with a heavy hand till I quiet down. ‘You can’t ask yourself those questions, son. Ain’t no point.’

He’s right: the only way forward is out.

 

* * *

 

‘Mr Matheson?’ The blonde smiles at me from across the room. ‘Mr Hayworth will see you now.’ She’s in the process of packing up. Presumably, I’m the last appointment for the day.

Colin Hayworth is the best lawyer I can afford. Being a construction manager pays less than you’d think. Much, much less. But Hayworth is the man I need for this job. At six-two, he’s a man who demands authority. And that diploma from UW Law School hanging on his wall? (again, not Ivy, but as good as it’s going to get for an ex-bricklayer like me)— all the convincing I need.

‘Your wife’s legal counsel called.’ His tongue clicks between his teeth: a tick my ears almost don’t notice any more. ‘They’re filing a financial fraud claim.’ Didn’t I say this guy was a great lawyer? No hollow exchange of pleasantries, just plain brass tacks.

Hayworth continues, ‘They’re claiming you sent a monthly sum of seven-hundred dollars to an account in Connecticut.’

I had. And I’d forgotten to mention that throughout our two years of marriage: ‘Shit.’

‘It’s true then?’ Hayworth raises his eyebrows. ‘Don’t lie to me, David. If there’s anything else you need to tell me, now’s the time.’

My shoulders knot. I reach a hand to the throbbing pain in my temples.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

‘I have a brother in Hartford. Mitch. The money goes to him,’ I say. Hayworth remains still; calculating. ‘He’s at a… home.’ I swallow. ‘An asylum, I mean. When our father died, Mitch lived with me and my grandmother. But when she died, he— he— he… came unhinged.’

I see a change in Hayworth’s expression, but I’m not sure what he’s thinking.

‘Drink?’ He nods towards the crystal decanter in the corner, and pours us a glass each.

I study his desk— stacks of paper, books, and files, carelessly dress its surface. No framed photos of family, or a globe. A silver letter opener and matching pen stand. And on the open file, beside the lamp, sits a glass paperweight. Marbled blue and green, the papers flutter under it.

He hands me the glass and sits back down. I take a slow sip and notice the green in his eyes darkening.

‘So, your brother in Connecticut— he’s been there for how long?’

‘Fifteen— no— sixteen years.’

He nods, but says nothing in response.

‘And was Mrs Matheson always faithful to you?’

‘She was.’ I smile. That was her sole redeeming quality. ‘At least, I think she was.’

‘Mr Matheson—’ he pauses and squints at the file. ‘David— is there anything else of relevance I should know about?’

I shake my head.

‘Things like this, like your brother,’ he says, ‘are easier for me to deal with if I know about them. So if there’s anything else, now’s the time to spill.’ His tongue clicks.

The click sounds different today. Less like a tick, and more like a sound of disapproval… Of disgust?

‘Nothing else,’ I say. There was nothing else.

He nods, straightens his spine, and moves the paperweight aside to scribble down something. ‘Would you excuse me for a minute?’ Click. Click. ‘I have to make a telephone call.’

I place my hands on the armrests—

‘I can make it outside,’ he offers.

I slink back into the chair. For a moment, the stillness around me is stark. I reach for the paperweight in front of me, replace it with the pen stand.

Up close, between the ribbons of colour, I notice bubbles. ‘Huh.’

A sigh escapes me. I can hear Colin on the phone outside. I pull myself up, and stretch my legs.

I’d never been alone in his office. Bookshelves spanned the entire right wall.

‘Well?’ he asks, closing the door, a minute later. ’Shall we continue?’

My jaw stiffens. I smile. Nod. ‘Of course.’

I push him to the ground. He lands with a thud. I raise my hand— paperweight and all— ready.

‘Why?’ He braces a hand over his head. Like that’s going to help.

‘Because you know, don’t you?’ The paperweight warms to the temperature of my skin.

‘Know what?’

‘You know!’ This. This is the problem! Everyone plays dumb, lies— begs even— when it comes to this point. People will do just about anything to stay alive.

‘Please! Don’t!’ He shrieks.

Too late.

I grate my teeth. The paperweight meets his skull. Right between the eyes. His right temple— once, twice. Then his jaw. My grasp tightens on the paperweight. It’s getting slippery.

His hand trembles, attempting to ball into a fist. I stand and dig a heel into it. It crinkles, but nothing snaps: dissatisfied. That’s what I am.

Focus.

Stay calm.

My hand comes down on his skull again. Just above the bridge of his nose. Again. Again. The wetness splatters over my smile. I’m sure my teeth are stained red. My smile feels almost genuine.

The left temple to finish.

This time, a pool of sludge makes its way to the carpeted floor.

Calm washes over me momentarily.

I hum the lullaby. Our lullaby.

My molars grind against themselves again.  

He knew about Mitch— he had to have. Livy must’ve told him. It was all just too easy.

I look down at him (or whatever’s left of him and those ugly jade eyes). ‘Still want to know why?’ I lick the blood from between my teeth. ‘It was the ranch hand’s— she said it wasn’t his, but it was.’

It wasn’t mine, anyhow.

‘Poor bastard.’

 

 

Special mention: “Sugar City” was shortlisted and highly commended for the Queensland Young Writers Award 2016 in the 18-25 age category.

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