The Hunters

L. Keith


Mom likes to pretend everything is normal. The house stays the same regardless of how many years have gone by. The photographs on the shelf haven’t been updated. Nor has the floral furniture.

Time stands still at 89 Clark Street.

Technically that’s not exactly true. The electronics are new, along with the carpet at the bottom of the stairs. So is Matthew. Now that he’s living here, Mom lays the pictures with Dad down so he can’t see what she’s doing.

We never talk about it. Matthew never comments.

They never do.

I haven’t spent much time with my mom’s newest companion. There’s little reason to get close to him. Like all the others, he’ll be gone soon, too overwhelmed by the troubles of our fractured hearts to linger long.

One of them actually said something to that effect during his final exit. Brian was his name. He’d been a big burly man with a hero complex carrying around big dreams of fixing us. Six months later, he stood at the front door, cheerful face weighed down with defeat.

“Come down and give me a hug, Tay,” he requested, knowing my answer before he asked. I stayed on the landing. I never venture down further. “Kid, please, for me.” The hope in his voice was long gone.

We drained it right out of him.

He stood there for a few more seconds, waiting for something. He probably thought my mom would drop to her knees, begging him to stay.

Brian should have known better.

“Your hearts are fractured,” he said as he pulled open the door. He pointed at me, his last bag in hand, but looked at my mom. “Get her some help, Shelly. She deserves better than this.”

They all say some form of that. Maybe they’re right, but their opinions will never matter.

From up in my room, I can hear the obnoxious sound of Matthew’s complaints. That’s all he does anymore. That pleasurable feeling of helping a lonely widow and her damaged daughter has worn off. Usually, it starts before they move in, but Matthew is one of the few who insist on being here to protect us.

Chivalry leaves a bitter taste on my tongue. Only because it’s never selfless. These men aren’t helping us because they care. No, it’s brownie points they’re chasing. They love how people regard them after discovering who they are helping.

I wouldn’t be surprised if they gave these men parades and awards for stepping in and helping the unwanted. Because that is precisely what we are. We were once headliners. Reporters used to stalk our front door, hoping for a quote they could print to sell papers.

It didn’t take long until the newness wore off and we existed entirely through gossip. My mom heard it all during her trips out of the house.

The fact no one saw me after that night made me an urban legend.

I kind of like the way that feels.

The knock on my door makes me roll my eyes. Matthew knows he’s not allowed up here. Only I’m allowed upstairs.

Irritation floods through me as I shut the book on my desk, hiding away my secrets. “Go away,” I yell, knowing I’m wasting my breath. They never listen.

He sighs. They all sigh a lot. “Taylor, honey, can we talk?”

Why do they do that? Do they believe cute little nicknames will warm my heart up to them? Most of them think if they get close to me and replace my dad even slightly, they’ll make me all better and win my mom’s love.

They’re so stupid.

They get what they deserve.

He knocks again, softer this time. The sound is followed by another sigh. “Tay, I’d really like to talk to you.”

Of course he would. They always have a bag full of lines they enjoy dropping on me. It’s all the same recycled nonsense they pick up from television shows and movies. That’s where they get all their knowledge, the media.

And they wonder why they fail.

“Please, princess,” he pleads, and the nickname almost gags me.

It would be nice to tell him the truth. I’ve always wanted to be honest, just to see their faces. All these losers who walk through the front door think they’re in control. They try to manipulate us, to force us into their molds.

They never succeed, obviously, but they try. Just once, I’d love to look one of them in the eye and break the news to them.

If they cried it would almost be enough.

My mom’s voice cuts through the images in my head of Matthew crying, shaking his head when he realized why he was in our house. It’s a shame it’ll never happen. “What are you doing up here?”

“I just wanted to talk to her,” he says. “We’ve got to get her to talk. No one can survive like this. And, honestly, we could afford a better shrink if we could turn these lights off.” The last part was meant to be a joke. Matthew thinks he’s funny.

Darkness isn’t funny. You’d think he would have learned that by now.

My office chair falls over when I jolt up. I run to the door, too afraid to open it. One door isn’t enough space between us. “The lights stay on.”

“The lights aren’t protecting you, honey. They wouldn’t have saved your dad. What happened was–”

“Get out,” my mom’s voice booms, so unexpected I flinch away from the door. “Get out of my house.”

Matthew argues back, but I don’t bother listening. His short time with us is up. There are some lines you can’t cross, and he danced right over them all.

I wait, staring out the window over my desk to see him loading up into his truck. He’s slow, walking backward, trying to talk my mom into letting him stay. I can’t read his lips or hear his voice, but I know he’s dropping words like love and care.

He has to know it’ll never work.

After his truck leaves the driveway, Mom comes to my room with two root beer floats. Dad used to celebrate everything with his favorite dessert, and we’ve made sure to keep the tradition alive.

She sets my glass next to my book, reading over my shoulder. “Matthew never introduced me to him.” She points to one of the names on the list. “The other ones were all dead ends. So was he. I thought for sure his nephew did it.”

Matthew’s nephew, Andy, was found three blocks away from our house that night, under the influence, with blood on his hands. The cops said it was his blood, but we had to ensure they were right.

I hate it when they’re right, only because it leaves us back at square one.

I cross off six names quickly, leaving one glaring back at us in angry capital letters. TRAVIS CAINE.

“He’s popped up a few times,” I tell her, flipping through the well-worn pages of the only book I’ve ever memorized. The one we created together. “His alibi was full of holes, but the police never looked into him.”

Mom scoops vanilla ice cream into her mouth as she scans the page. “How many are left?”

I’ve lost count of how many times she’s asked me that question. At one time, I had a definite number that I rattled off every time we eliminated someone. Now, it’s impossible to know.

When the police gave up solving the case, I thought we’d have it in less than a year. We’d cross off a name. Then another, but then we’d add two more. We never realized how messy the process would become. The names we gathered became connected, creating a sticky web we couldn’t unravel.

It would have been easy if it hadn’t been so dark that night. If I had turned the light on when I came down the stairs, I would have seen the monster’s face.

Not that it would have saved my dad, but still. There would have been justice.

“Do you recognize him?” she asks, finger hovering over the black-and-white mug shot of Travis she’d printed years ago.

I shrug. “No idea, but I’ll start looking into him.”

The start of the hunt is the only time she ever smiles. I miss the brief look of happiness when it’s gone. It makes her look younger.

“See if he has a cousin or a friend,” she tells me. “Brothers are too close. They always get suspicious.”

I hide my eye roll. I know what I’m doing. “Of course.”

Her hands wrap around the top of my head, and she plants a kiss in the middle. “We’re close, Tay. We’re going to find him.”

And when we do, he will pay.

L. Keith lives in Ohio with her husband and three kids, where she spends her time obsessing over true crime and writing all the sad things.