David presses his stubby nose against the passenger window, fascinated, like a dog, by the passing trees. He turns to look at me. Snot runs around his upper lip, into the corner of his mouth.
“You’re disgusting,” I say.
He struggles for a moment with the ropes binding his hands and feet.
The sun has cracked the horizon behind us. Warm light leaks across my neck.
“Almost there,” I say, not to him, not to anyone, really.
I turn on the radio and flip through the channels. R&B gets on my nerves, so I skip ahead. I’m not really in an 80s Rock mood, either. I pause on the hip-hop station, but David starts bouncing along with the rhythm, grunting with that guttural sound that reminds me of apes.
Instead, I find an instrumental jazz station and let it fade into the background.
David smiles at me. He doesn’t look like a murderer right now.
Then he stares down at the ropes, his mouth a small O of surprise, as if this is the first time he’s seen them.
“Yes, David. You’re tied up.”
He brings his wrists up, puts the rope in his mouth, and gnaws.
“Don’t do that.”
He’s drooling all over himself. I have to stop him. For all I know, he might be able to chew his way through. Doing my best to keep the car steady, I reach over and open the glove box. Inside is the usual assortment: a couple of maps and a small bottle of Tylenol and my registration. In the back, though, I find a small bottle of petroleum jelly. The label is gone, worn away by time. This stuff must be ten years old.
I shove his head back against his seat, take off the cap and rub some of the goop on the ropes. He puts them in his mouth again.
“Aackh!” His tongue is hanging out, glistening with the stuff. His eyes begin to tear up.
“You deserve this,” I say, as we crest a hill and plunge into a valley. “You deserve worse.”
* * *
“What’s wrong with David?” I remember asking. I was eight. I had watched him next door for two years. I knew he was different, but only recently had I begun to think something might be wrong.
My mother swatted my wrist. “There’s nothing wrong with him. He’s a special little boy. It’s not his fault.”
Special? Not his fault That sounded wrong to me.
He sat, penned in his backyard, a boy my age with buzzed hair and a never-ceasing stream of drool decorating his chin. He pushed a small blue ball along the grass until it rolled out of his reach. Then he began to howl, like a wolf. His mother appeared within moments to carry him inside.
“We should have them over,” my mother said. “I’m sure Jackie could use a break. We could do lasagna.”
All I could think about was what would happen if he peed himself in our house. Would I have to clean it up? Could my parents possibly be that cruel?
* * *
It’s risky to stop, but I have to pee. I’m not like David. I have the presence of mind not to piss myself. He’s done it at least twice since our little road trip began. The car smells like an outhouse.
There’s a 7-11 at the next exit. I park in the back and use the old blanket in the back seat to cover David’s ropes. I tuck him in.
“Nap time,” I say.
David grins and shuts his eyes, but they pop open a moment later.
“Don’t make any noise. Be quiet.”
Inside, I step up to the counter. The attendant is sixteen, seventeen, white-blonde hair and green eyes.
“Hi,” she says.
“Hi. Where’s the bathroom?”
She looks at me from beneath long, dark lashes. “You from around here?”
“No. Er, yeah, originally. On vacation. Visiting family.”
She’s got the key now. It’s attached to a battered foot-square board that reads “Please Don’t Steal Me” in cracked white letters.
“Where do you go to school?”
“I’m, uh… I was home-schooled. I graduated last year.”
“Oh.” She swings the key just out of my reach. I could grab it, but I would have to lean across the counter.
“Can I have the… you know?”
She looks profoundly disappointed as she hands it over.
I want to stay and talk to the girl. At least, a part of me does. The stupid primal part that wants everything to be normal. A few months ago? I would have had her phone number right now. Making plans. But now, the thought of her is tying my stomach in knots, and I need to get back to David.
I piss an almost clear stream against the urinal. I wonder if anything has been on the local news yet. Maybe national. It was a big story. And this, another dramatic chapter.
Outside, I find David asleep, curled up under the blanket and snoring like a bear.
* * *
I had one more course to finish up, and it was taking forever, because I was already over it. I was ready for high school to be done. I sat in the living room, the book sat in my lap, and my attention never left the TV.
There was a knock at the front door. I was closest, but I ignored it.
So my father got up from his chair and took a peek through the curtains. “It’s David.”
My mother, in the kitchen, stuck her head around the corner. “Oh? Let him in.”
My father opened the door. “David, put that dow—”
The blast left me deaf for a moment. The deafness quickly gave way to a high-pitched ringing.
My book fell to the floor, and my father fell, too. Smoke billowed around him as he fell, face all gore and bone. My mother screamed.
David screamed, too, and pulled the trigger again.
Blood poured from the wound in her stomach. I scrambled across the living room floor, desperate for cover, but when I looked back I saw that David had gone. So instead I crawled to my mother, tried to put pressure on her stomach, but her life came up around my hands and ran away into the carpet. By the time help arrived, she was long gone.
* * *
I’ve spent a solid day behind the wheel. I’m exhausted. But where can I stay? I can’t drag David out with me, not without being seen. There’s a campground about ten miles ahead, so I force myself to stay awake until then.
They don’t ask me any questions. They take my ten bucks and give me a ticket with a number 33 on it and point me toward my site.
David snores in the passenger seat.
I pull in, recline the seat, and settle in. I expect to pass out in an instant. The exhaustion, though, is no match for David’s snoring. I lie there for an hour, eyes shut, no sleep.
Finally, I slap him on the cheek.
“Gwuh!” he says. In the half-moon light I see him grimacing. He looks angry.
But that’s not possible, because he doesn’t understand anger.
* * *
His parents cleaned him up nicely for his court appearance. He wasn’t able to testify—he knew only five or six words, his mother said from the stand, crying crocodile tears and dabbing her eyes with a white handkerchief—but he looked as sharp as I’d ever seen him with his nice new haircut, his fancy new suit, his expensive new shoes.
When the prosecution showed the pictures of my mangled parents to the jury, David laughed. Not at that, at something else he had seen, a fly buzzing around the room maybe, but his parents scolded him and looked mortified.
No motive. Poor helpless creature found his daddy’s gun, copied what he had seen a thousand times on TV. Couldn’t possibly have known better. He can’t use the bathroom by himself for God’s sake.
The jury sent him home with his parents. Strict supervision by a twenty-four-hour live-in nurse, state-appointed.
Her name is Megan. I tied her up with an extension cord and left her in a closet yesterday, when I took David.
* * *
We pass a billboard of a cowboy twirling a lasso above three scantily clad cowgirls. A strip joint. David grunts and hits his head against the window.
Something is working him up. Can’t be the cowgirls, can it? No.
“You like the lasso, David?”
He squeals. He doesn’t understand a word I’m saying.
“We could tie one out of your ropes there. Put it around your head, tie one end to the bumper, drag you right along! Wouldn’t that be fun?”
He laughs. He hears the lighthearted tone and reacts like a puppy might. A stupid dog.
Hours pass. It’s midday when we enter Oregon Grove.
The town is frozen in time. Not a thing has changed since our last family vacation here, two years ago. One street, two lines of shops. A library, a town hall. The memories solidify as a lump in my throat, and I think of my parents, there on the sidewalk, having a spat over which to visit first: the library or the antique store. Me with my Gameboy, not caring one way or the other.
Their ghosts dissipate as we drive through.
Four more miles.
If the town seems just like I remember it, then the cabin is a photograph, one I keep in my pocket and look at with longing twenty times a day. The tire swing out back, dangling from the oak tree my great-grandfather planted. The line of tin cans by the fence my father and his brothers shot with BB guns. The barrels by the front door we filled with apples and sold at the county fair.
Everything the same. We would come for a weekend that would turn into a week, and for a little while, I could forget that summer would soon be gone.
I park in the gravel drive. I keep both hands on the wheel, even after I’ve shut off the engine. My knuckles go white. For a few moments I stare at them, think that this is what fear looks like: white knuckles on a steering wheel. How stupid is that? Why am I afraid?
I take a deep breath and get out.
When I yank David from the car, he tumbles out and laughs, rolling around in his piss-soaked pants. There’s a huge stain on the seat. I hadn’t considered that. DNA evidence. I might have to dump the car. But how will I get out of here?
There will be time to consider that later. Not much time, but some.
One hand under each armpit, I drag him down to the edge of the lake. It sparkles in the afternoon sun, throwing off glinting flecks of yellow-white light. I drop David in the muddy bank and take off my shirt.
He’s still laughing, wallowing in the mud like a pig. I bend over, put one arm behind his knees, the other behind his neck. I lift.
The forest is empty around us. We’re alone.
One foot in the water. Then the other. Three, four, five steps. David laughs with his eyes shut and his mouth wide open.
The water is just below my stomach. I stop. With my eyes closed, I begin to lower him.
His foot touches the water, and he begins to cry. First it’s whimpering, but it quickly turns to sobbing and howling. He sounds like…
Like a little boy.
I give him a hard shake. He looks at me, sniffling, face wrinkled and wet with tears.
“You don’t get to cry. You don’t have the right.”
He’s still crying, but silently now. He shakes his head, says, “Wa.”
He says, “Wa,” again.
“You son of a bitch. You’re going in the water.”
“No wa!” He bites down on his lip so hard it bleeds.
“No.” I shake him once more. He cries harder. “Stop crying.” But I’m crying now, too. “You deserve this. You deserve so much worse.”
“Drew,” he says. He’s looking at me. He sees I’m crying—he must—and he looks concerned.
The world has turned to wet madness through my tears. I begin to sob. “Drew,” he says, my name coming out of him smoothly, no stuttering, no grunting. He rests his head on my shoulder.
Stomach-deep in the lake behind my parents’ cabin, we cry.
When I’ve cried myself dry, I look at David again. He says, “No wa.”
I nod. “Okay. No wa.”
We return to shore. I set David gently in the grass. He lays back and stretches out his legs, breathing in the fresh air.
There’s a moment, then, when reality smashes into my chest so that I can barely pull in a breath. Because I’ve given myself only two paths. One ends with David dead and me with my foot on the accelerator and the car pointed to Mexico. The other ends with me in jail.
I need an answer, and I’m not the one to give it. I turn to David.
He smiles, hair still dripping water onto his forehead, which in turn runs down his cheeks, like tears, but happy tears.
“Why?” I say, and maybe I’m talking to him, maybe I’m talking to myself, maybe I’m talking to Jesus or Buddha or Hare Krishna. Maybe I’m talking to the whole goddamned universe, not thinking that it owes me an answer, not being so deluded as to believe I’m special enough to warrant its attention. But asking just the same, because what else can I do?
I go to the car and dial 9-1-1 on my cell phone. I need this to be over. I need to be human again, and this is my last chance.
Branden Johnson lives in Chicago with his beautiful wife and a rambunctious chihuahua. His fiction has appeared in Writers Post Journal, The New England Writers’ Network (NEWN), and Escape Velocity Magazine. When he’s not writing, he’s thinking about how he probably should be writing.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “The Exoneration of David McCrae”
An earlier version of this story was originally published in the Autumn 2006 issue of NEWN. It’s one of those stories I’ve never forgotten. I thought it deserved to be seen again. Branden revised it slightly to reflect his improved writing, and at our suggestion, modified ending.
Note the way Branden skillfully weaves together the present story and the flashbacks. Writers are often cautioned against using multiple flashbacks in short stories, but here breaking this “rule” works and makes the piece even stronger. The NEWN editors felt the same way. We hope you agree.
Our decision to write “Why We Chose To Publish” with each FA story was an idea we borrowed from NEWN.