Leave it to a stranger to ask Edgar Rennie the question none of us dared to ask him.
“Why’d you dig her up?”
The speaker was a tourist, a rich lady from the looks of her: appliqued denim skirt, neat hair style and spotless red pumps. She said she was from Virginia, and was over this way antiquing.
He sneered as he replied.
“Well, because my son — that’s him right over yonder, by the river bank over there– name’s Cooper — didn’t believe me.” Edgar held his hand palm downward and made a sweeping motion with his gnarled fingers. He pointed out the window, across the road, where a half grown boy, wiry of body, wearing dirty cut-off shorts and no shirt, was squatting by the river, skipping rocks one right after another. ” I told him and told him that our place had been built by the very first family what settled up in here. Told him Mrs. Friedl died in childbirth all them years ago, and she was buried in the yard. In those days, that’s where you buried your dead. You just dug a hole in the yard. Cooper said, my boy, said I’s just tellin stories. Says I’m always tellin stories. So I showed him, yes I did. Showed all the younguns. Made every one of ‘em come out of the house and take a look at her. Like I said, she wasn’t too terrible awful to look at; a hundred years takes all the flesh off a body. She had the most beautiful red hair –“
“And she was buried in your back yard?” The well-dressed lady from Virginia sniffed. She obviously did not believe a word of it. Millie and me, we just exchanged looks from behind the counter. We’d heard all this before, and more stories besides. We’d heard how he marched the children to every funeral in the county, whispering to them how short life is, how evil people die young. It was common gossip that Edgar was a little crazy and a lot dangerous. Mom said she wouldn’t be a bit surprised if he had murdered someone once. He was cunning, and extremely truthful. It wasn’t a good kind of truth though. No matter what the preacher says on Sundays, I don’t believe the truth always sets one free. I believe that the truth sometimes takes prisoners.
“Mary Ann, hand me one of them Red Mans,” said Edgar. I pulled out a package of chewing tobacco as fast as I could and held it out to him. As he drew the packet out of my hand, he shimmied his fingers, feather-like, across my palm. I snapped my hand back in alarm, and Edgar smiled, displaying huge yellowed teeth with black spaces here and there. He chuckled, deep in his throat. “You a little squeamish, Mary?”
The tourist lady looked my way. She had the eyes of a hawk, just like Edgar. I backed up and plopped my rear end down onto a stool in back of the cash register, and leaned against the wall. I folded my arms across my chest and crossed my legs, smoothing my blue jeans a bit over my pointy knees. I stuck my chin out. Millie pretended to bustle around like she was fraught with store business. Anyone who knew us even a little would have known that for the farce it was; the store pulled in so little business, especially in summer time when we didn’t have hunters and skiers to wait on, that minding the store was usually a sedentary occupation. One could only dust off the tops of the coffee cans and Pampers boxes just so many times.
“It was — um — very nice to meet you, Mr. Rennie. I think I’d better get going.” The tourist lady slipped out of Edgar’s spell and sped away. Millie and I said nothing. She whirled around with the dust cloth, pretending not to notice him and I stayed put on my pine stool. I set my eyes on him with a glower that I hoped conveyed bold defiance. Edgar plodded up and down the two little aisles of groceries. Every once in a while he’d look my way and grin. It wasn’t a nice grin either. Finally, he selected a box of Rice Krispies and popped it on the dark wooden counter along with the Red Man.
I jumped up and punched it into our antique cash register as fast as I could, but it wasn’t fast enough.
“What do you think of my digging up Mrs. Friedl?” he asked. His voice was low and calm. His narrow green eyes cemented themselves on my face.
“I don’t believe a person should mess with the dead,” I said.
“I believe I unnerved that woman, don’t you?”
“You think I’m telling the truth?” Every word was crisp, intelligent, calculating. I didn’t mind saying Edgar was evil, but I would never call him stupid. Besides that, I knew for a fact he was telling the truth.
Edgar stood still for a moment. He collected up his change off the counter, where I had placed it not wanting to take a chance at touching him again. He put it in his pocket one coin at a time.
Then he looked right in my eyes again, and leaned over the counter a bit as he gazed. He looked off balance. “You’re a smart girl, Mary Ann, aintcha. You been to college. You seen the world. I bet you can figger things out about people better than most anybody around here. Yes. I bet there’s lots of things you’ve figgered out around here.”
I caught a glimpse of Millie. She grimaced. I said nothing. The silence hung heavy as Edgar gathered up his bag with the Rice Krispies and Red Man and walked to the door. At the door, he turned around again. “I’ll be seeing you girls.” He left. The spring on the door kept creaking for a minute. Millie stood up straight and huffed. Her brown eyes glimmered, and her shiny brown curls danced on her shoulders. Of the two of us, she was prettier.
“Who’s he think he is? Weirdo. You really think he dug that grave up, or was you just saying that to get rid of him?”
Mom and Dad were relieved when we girls got to be old enough to mind the store. It freed Mom up to run the post office, which was located right next door to the grocery store, and it freed Dad up to take a better-paying job in town. We didn’t mind too much. The store smelled of coffee beans and chocolate bars and dried-up floor wax. It was an old building, built with big sunny windows and dark, usually dirty, hardwood flooring. Though tiny, it was the Grand Central Station of gossip in our hollow. Millie had started in at the store full time right after high school. Her grades weren’t as good as mine. I had always been the student, and she had always been everybody’s sweetheart. It worked out well when I went to a four-year college on partial scholarship, part work-study, and some of Mom and Dad’s hard-earned cash. Millie wasn’t jealous. She was a homebody anyway. I was the one who hungered after bigger things, and soon enough I had acquired them.
Monday through Friday, I worked as a reporter for the Morgantown Herald. It was a good job for a girl out of this little hollow, fresh out of college to boot. People at home treated me like a walking dictionary. I got asked questions about all sorts of things. Many was the Saturday I’d find myself smack in the middle of heated conversations on topics ranging from state politics to alternative medicine to coal mining reclamation. No one honed in on me as intently as Edgar Rennie, though, and some days I fretted myself half sick wondering how much he knew I knew.
I knew a lot. The weekend that Edgar had dug up Francesca Friedl, one hundred and fifteen years after her interment, I was out in the garden trying to tie spindly new tomato plants to wooden stakes. The Rennie place sits high on the hill above us. In winter, we hardly saw them at all; just once in a while his youngest daughter, Samantha, would come stepping down through the snow drifts, a threadbare scarf around her flaxen-haired head, the hand that held it trembling with the cold, her cheeks bright and her pale little blue eyes squinting ahead. Sam Rennie was right around twelve, I guessed. I saw her often but she remained a mystery to me. She seldom spoke above a whisper. She’d tread softly into the store, not even stopping to stamp the snow off her boots, select a few items with shaking hands, lay a little pile of change on the counter, and as soon as I bagged her things, off she’d go — back up the mountain, trudging as if a huge weight lay upon her fragile frame. I can’t recall having ever seen her smile or laugh or play like other children. Often we wondered, out loud, around our dinner table, what was going on up at the Rennie residence. Mom said Edgar had “gone through” several wives. She said she never seen any divorce decrees in the paper. One woman after another just sort of ran off. None ever took the children with them even. Mom said she believed they were lucky to get away from him their own selves.
I was tying up the last tomato in the first row when I heard footsteps crashing faintly above me, on the dry dead leaves of last winter, high on the hill in the woods. I shaded my eyes with my hands and looked up onto the mountainside.
A breathless voice, a voice I knew but didn’t know, called from the hill.
“Mary Ann! Help me! Mary Ann!”
It was Samantha. She ran into the yard, tripping over a branch, holding her sides, out of breath. She sank to the earth. She looked up at me as I walked toward her, her thin face rosy-cheeked from running. Her gold hair was unbrushed, down to her waist, falling across her face. She burst into tears.
“I can’t take it no more. I can’t stay there no more.” Her voice was deep and her breaths came in quick gulps.
I sat down beside her and patted her on the back. I felt peculiar trying to comfort her. I had seen her in the store every week, ever since she was a wee little thing, but she so rarely said anything or even looked at any of us, I felt like a stranger to her. I prayed that God might help me do something for her. An uncomfortable ache throbbed in my chest.
“He’s digging up graves! Now he’s digging up graves!”
“Oh, now, Sam — just you tell me what’s going on. You can trust me.”
“You can’t tell no one –” she looked back at the mountain, gasped for breath, then looked at me again. She was whispering now. “You can’t tell no one what I’m gonna tell you, do you understand? My father will kill you. I mean it!”
That was early on in June. After that, I developed a habit of looking over my shoulder every time I went out back by the mountain. I couldn’t get the picture out of my mind of this thin, leathery man lining his children up in the back yard, behind his little slapped-together tar papered house — making the boys dig and dig — forcing open the ancient pine box with a crow bar — and yelling at them –just ragtag teenagers — to look at her, look at her. Sam said he was in a frenzy, laughing and then screaming at them all to look at the skeleton. She said it hit her, all of a sudden, that she was the daughter of a madman.
“Maybe it’ll be that way with me, too,” she had said, that bright pretty June day, gazing at me with fearful pleading in her eyes. “If I can’t get out of there, maybe I’ll end up like him.” Or maybe, she added, “…maybe one of us kids’ll be next in a pine box.”
Sometimes I felt a creeping feeling in the middle of my back, like someone was looking at me from the woods. Sometimes I imagined there was a wizened old mountain man aiming a shotgun at me from the top of the mountain. My day job in Morgantown felt like a whole different world than my Saturdays in the store, living under the shadow of Rennie’s Mountain.
I didn’t see Sam again for a long time after the day she told me about her nightmarish home life. When I did see her again, it was on one of my Saturdays in the store, a warm golden September afternoon when I had the place all to myself. Millie and Mom had gone to Morgantown to shop after the post office closed at noon. I had the front door to the grocery blocked open with a chair. The sunshine and the yellow jackets wandered in at will. I helped myself to a cold Diet Coke and dragged a wooden rocker out onto the front porch. I sat back in my rocker, propped my legs up on the rain barrel and sipped Diet Coke like a queen. I watched the silver and white waters trip and leap over the stones in the stream. The mountains were jungly with greens of all shades, and the air was vibrating in a cacophany of whistles and chirps.
Stepping out of the woods, Samantha appeared on the path from Rennie’s Mountain. She didn’t look up. She gazed intently at the ground as she made her way up to the store and on up the steps. She stopped when she got to where I was sitting. I swung my legs down off the rain barrel and leapt up out of the rocker.
“Sam! How are you? Let me get you a pop. What kind?”
She pressed her lips together and her eyes shone. It was almost a smile. “Dr. Pepper, please.”
“Dr. Pepper it is. You sit down and make yourself at home.” I scampered inside and pulled a cold Dr. Pepper from the cooler, and ran right outside again. Samantha was sitting on the long wooden bench that stretched the whole length of the store front. I sat back down in my creaky rocker. I imagined I could feel her fear — her fear of everything and everybody. I handed her the Dr. Pepper. “There! On the house.”
She thanked me and popped it open. A look of simple joy bloomed in her eyes, a look I’d never seen before. “That’s so nice of you. Thank you.”
We sat for a while sipping from our soda cans. I asked her if everything was okay. She said sure. I asked if life had gotten any better. She said she didn’t know. She said she needed to get a loaf of bread to take home, but not right away. I said okay. We sat there, talking about nothing much, and drank our pops. The sun dipped down below the tops of the trees on Rennie’s mountain. Day’s end sunlight poked through the openings of the black web of tree branches, sinking slowly. Teasing shafts of orange and gold danced on the river, across the road. After a while, Sam rose, went in the store and collected up her bread. I dropped it in a brown paper sack for her and she walked down the street toward the mountain path. Before she disappeared into the woods again, she turned around. “Mary Ann!”
She stood still. She seemed to be searching for words.
I climbed down off the porch and walked over to her. “Is there something you want to tell me?”
“Yes. Um.” She stood up tall and looked at me. “I’m going to run away.”
My mouth must have dropped open, because she laughed a bit — a jittery gurgle. “I’m going to need help. I’m only fourteen — they find me, they’ll just bring me home again. And — I think– he’ll kill me if they bring me back.” She hesitated. Her eyes grew moist and pink. “I hate to pull you into all this.”
“Is there some way I can help you?”
Samantha lifted her chin. A peaceful look shone in her pale sad eyes. She was one brave kid. “When you get the report that I’m missing — and I know you will — you’re at the paper — I need you to call Human Services and tell them. Tell them what I told you this summer. Tell them they can’t send me back to that house, not ever…okay? Is that okay?”
“You betcha.” In my own ears, my voice sounded too casual. Inside, I was shaking.
She stared at me for a moment, then she darted into the woods, and ran up the path to her father’s house. As I watched her disappear into the woods, the orange glow over the mountain faded into an ashen gray.
The day before Thanksgiving I was tapping away on my keyboard at the Herald, grumbling to myself. It had been a horribly busy week. The other reporters had whisked through their assignments and left already. I suspected that the longest assignments for this week had all been dumped on me, the rookie. It was early evening. The little news room was dimly lit except for my corner.
Even my editor gave up on me. “Mary Ann, um–couldja lock the doors for me when you get done that thing? I need to get home.”
“I guess so. I’m sorry, Jim. I have been working on this stupid article all day. It’s just not coming together.”
“Yeah, well, we all have days like that. But you should try to have days like this when it isn’t a holiday!”
Jim rustled papers and snapped cabinets shut here and there, and then he was gone. I was alone in the news room, swearing under my breath, plodding along at my keyboard, wrapped in silence except for the irregular tapping of my fingers typing.
The front door opened and clicked shut. I heard some papers shuffling, a sound that seemed to come from a different direction; but then I heard footfalls behind me in the room. “Jim?” I said, not turning around, intent on my task. “Forget something?”
“Always knew you’d turn out to be successful.”
The skin on the back of my neck turned icy cold. It was unmistakably Edgar Rennie. What was he doing here? What did he want with me? I spun around in my swivel chair, faced him, and willed myself to be calm, be confident, be nonchalant. Inside, I was nearly nauseous with fear.
“Mr. Rennie! How nice to see a face from home. Here, have a chair. What can I do for you?”
“What can you do for me,” he echoed. He sat down in Jim’s chair and leaned back. “Guess you haven’t heard any news from home then.”
“No, not today.”
“Not today, huh? I bet you hear lots about home though. Yes.” He leaned back in his chair like he had all day to set and chat.
“Is there…is there something I can help you with?”
He cocked his head to one side. His hair was short, but full of matted places, unwashed. His snakey eyes mocked me. “Ain’t you the business type. ‘Is there something I can help you with.’ You sound so damn professional.”
I felt an itchy warmth prickling in the skin on my face. I eyed the telephone.
He followed my eyes. “Wishing you could call the police?”
His voice was low and poisonous. I could hear him, in my mind, taunting little Sam: ‘Your mama ain’t never coming back, so you may as well get used to it.’ I straightened up and willed myself to be tough. “All right, Mr. Rennie. What exactly are you here for?”
“Samantha run off. Though — I expect you done heared that already.”
I hadn’t heard that, and I thanked God that I hadn’t. Truthfully I replied, “No! I — I didn’t know that. Any ideas where she might have run away to?”
“Do I have any ideas.” It was not quite a question. He locked his glittery green eyes on me again. He scratched the back of his head, then took a smudgy-looking cigarette out of his shirt pocket. He fished out a pack of matches next, and lit the cigarette at a leisurely pace. He had dark, dark circles under each eye.
“I believe you’re all alone here, little girl.” He blew a tunnel of smoke out over my head.
“I have a gun, Edgar,” I lied.
“I bet you know where my daughter is. She taken a shine to you. Yes. She did.”
There was an elevator inside my windpipe, slowly rising. I wondered if I was going to faint — or maybe puke. I was glad I could tell the truth, because I am such a pathetic liar. “I have no idea where she is, Edgar, and that’s the truth.”
Another diaphanous cloud ascended. Edgar leaned back in his chair and rocked a bit, though it wasn’t a chair made for rocking. The joints of the chair squeaked eerily in the quiet room.
“I was hoping you could put it in the paper for me.”
The elevator in my throat stopped, reversed, and began descending slowly. I don’t believe anyone on this earth has ever felt more relief. I grabbed up my legal pad and pencil and adopted the pose (or so I prayed) of a serious journalist.
“Well, sure. What do you want to do — an ad?”
“An ad. Yes. I think an ad. A big one. Say there’s a reward, and put a description of her — I don’t have no recent photographs or nothing like that. Just put in a description, and say there’s a big reward on — on any information that leads to her safe return home.”
“I’ll be more than happy to put that in. And — I’m very sorry to hear you’re having some troubles at home–“
“So what’s it cost me.”
I stopped, stumped. I had no intention of putting this in the paper, and so I had not thought of cost. “You’ll have to call the ad department Friday morning. I’m a reporter — don’t work in ads, technically speaking, though I’m happy to take down the information and leave it on Patty’s desk for you –“
“Friday! Horse shit! I want it in tomorrow!”
“Well, tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and –“
“Guess there ain’t no paper tomorrow, hey?” He got up, real slow, like he was stiff and sore. He rubbed his greasy dark hair with the palm of his hand. He looked at me intently. “A gun, huh?” he said. He leered at me, with a laugh that sounded like air hissing out of a hole in a tire. He left the news room as quietly as he’d come in.
For a minute or two I waited, frozen in my seat, until I heard a car start up and drive away. I sprang up and locked the front door, pulled all the shades, and ran back to my desk. With trembling hands, I reached for the telephone, to call Human Services.
Again I heard papers shuffling. Another set of footsteps bumped through the hallway, and Jim stuck his head around the corner.
“Who in the blue blazes was that?”
Good help is hard to find, they say.
Several days later, I found out that Human Services had checked up on my phoned-in tip that Edgar Rennie was abusing his youngest daughter, and possibly the four older children as well. Turns out, they were fairly well showered with phone calls similar to mine. Our whole little town, turns out, knew a piece here or a piece there about what was going on up on Rennie’s Mountain. Sam was found at a friend’s house, and was placed in foster care. A friend of hers stopped in at the store one Saturday to tell me “Sam is real happy, and she said to tell you thanks.” I never saw her again. She moved far away. She must have been afraid even to write to me. I heard from time to time how she was doing — she got married. She had a baby. She went to nursing school, and is now a nurse someplace out west.
Edgar went on trial for child abuse, and was convicted, but walked free after just three months in jail. Mom called one day, about a year after I’d moved up to Morgantown permanently, and said that Cooper Rennie had gone crazy and shot his father three times. Didn’t kill him though.