After his second divorce, Doug’s father had moved out of town, purchasing an old restored farmhouse near the golf club on the outskirts of Turlock. Here he had the space to keep horses, a cow or two, and about a dozen sheep, something he had been unable to do for many years.
At first, Doug was excited to spend his weekends there. Being in the country meant a lot of places to explore. He had the run of a good twenty odd acres, a vast tract of land compared to the boxed in backyards of suburbia he had been accustomed to for half his life. It reminded him of the old house in Empire, the place of his earliest memories, or at least the shadows of those earliest memories. He wasn’t there long enough to form very solid recollections. At six years old, he, his parents, and three sisters had packed up and moved the half dozen miles to Turlock. Now, nearly a teenager, he was revisiting the excitement only a young child with lots of leg room can fully understand.
The only downside was that, when his father divorced his second wife, Doug had lost the company of his stepsister, Jaime. Even though she was a girl and a couple years younger, at least it had been someone to hang around with. Here, the only friend roughly his age was his dad’s black and white springer spaniel, Comanche. Though he loved that dog to death, he wasn’t the best conversationalist.
Perhaps inevitably, the initial excitement of staying out in the country soon began to fade and, after a month or so spent stomping around every last square foot of his father’s property, Doug became increasingly bored. The fact that he was alone most of the time certainly didn’t help. Despite having recently retired from the force, his old man was constantly in town, hanging around the station as if he’d never quit, chatting up the pretty receptionist at the front desk who would, within the year, become his third wife. Naturally, Doug had zero interest in his father’s love life, except for the fact that it took him away from the house, turning the court-ordered ‘weekends with dad’ into excruciatingly long stretches alone at a farmhouse with nothing or no-one to occupy his time.
It was this insufferable lack of something to do that was ultimately responsible for Doug snooping around his father’s things, something he would not have, in ordinary circumstances, dared do. The upside was that, given his old man’s recent profession, the odds were decent that his search would yield something of at least mild interest. The immense gun cabinet, a veritable treasure chest of interesting items, in which his father stored, not just the usual assortment of deer rifles and handguns, but also grenades and an actual machine gun, was, of course, locked up tight. This wasn’t surprising, given his dad’s emphasis on gun safety, but it was disappointing. The sheer amount of firepower, both in kind and quantity, was truly impressive. Running the evidence department at Turlock Police Department for so many years clearly had its perks.
So Doug climbed the chipped and unpainted wooden stairs that terminated at his father’s bedroom and began rifling through the drawers. It wasn’t long before he found a big beefy canister of department issued mace. With great care, he turned the nozzle away from his eyes, held it at arm’s length, and gave the mirror a good dousing. The noxious liquid splattered against the highly reflective glass and a great misty cloud of the stuff promptly returned the way it had come, hitting him squarely in the face.
The pain was immediate, intense, and utterly debilitating. He dropped the can and stumbled blindly around the room with outstretched arms, trying, and failing, to find the bathroom. His body was racked by spasms that jerked him around like a rag doll. He couldn’t manage to stop coughing. Afraid of taking a spill down the steep old staircase which he knew to be just on the other side of the wide open bedroom door, Doug thought it prudent to drop on all fours and crawl around until he could feel cold linoleum under his hands and knees. Eventually, he did, and made it to the bathtub. Cranking the knob all the way to the left, he stuck his face under the tap and tried to flush out the toxins, in between bouts of dry heaving. It didn’t help much. He remembered hearing somewhere that you were supposed to pour milk in your eyes but he had hardly been able to find the master bathroom that was literally connected to his father’s bedroom. Blindly navigating his way downstairs to the kitchen would be impossible.
After ten excruciating minutes or so, Doug’s vision returned and, about an hour later, his skin ceased to feel like it was on fire. He found the discarded Mace canister where it had rolled under the bed and put it back where he’d found it. He had no intention of letting his dad know what he’d done, more out of embarrassment than fear of punishment. In fact, his father would likely be delighted about his ordeal . The man was gung-ho about learning life lessons through brutal experience. Doug had only to recall the time he pissed on the electric fence surrounding the property to know this was the case. His father had been only a few yards away at the time and could have easily warned him to go somewhere else, anywhere else. But, he hadn’t. And Doug had received the shock of his life, both figuratively and literally.
He headed downstairs and then outside to sit on the porch with Comanche, letting the late afternoon breeze cool his face. The sun was low and the sky ablaze with the orange hue of sunset. He looked down the single road that stretched several miles into town. Not a single car, in either direction. His father apparently planned to stay down at the precinct even longer than usual. With the last of the pain in his eyes and face beginning to recede, the boredom returned and Doug went back inside and resumed snooping around the house.
This time around he avoided private areas such as his father’s bedroom or office. There was no telling what further dangers lurked in such places. Downstairs was far more dull, but at least it was familiar. Better to suffer boredom than some other horrific injury. Knowing his father, there very well could be booby traps up there for potential burglars that he himself had avoided triggering only by sheer luck.
After poking around and finding nothing in the laundry room, kitchen, cellar, and dining room, Doug gave up and resigned himself to a long and uneventful evening. He stretched out on the sofa in front of the TV and flipped through the channels, hoping for an episode of The Fall Guy or A-Team, but found only late afternoon talk shows, soap operas, and infomercials.
His father had recently bought a pretty fancy VCR but only ever used it to watch crap he’d tape off the TV, like football games or car races. As far as Doug was concerned, watching paint dry would be more captivating than staring at a bunch of dudes in tight pants throwing a ball back and forth or a few dozen cars driving in circles for an hour. Still, there remained a chance, however slight, that maybe his dad had gotten a wild hair up his butt and taped something good, like an R-rated movie.
Doug got up from the sofa and began to sift through the twenty or so videotapes his father kept lined up in a cabinet built into the TV stand. He trailed his finger along the spines of the various titles, all scribbled with a felt marker in his father’s hand. Aside from the racing and football, there were a few Dirty Harry movies Doug had seen a dozen times, a tape about deer hunting, and a do-it-yourself home plumbing instructional video.
Doug resigned himself to watching a soap opera and had almost shut the doors of the cabinet before glimpsing a single tape that had escaped his notice. There was nothing written on the spine so it was likely blank, destined to be the receptacle for the next idiotic game or race. Still, though, it was possible that something was on there and his dad had merely forgotten to label it.
He plucked it off the shelf, held it near his ear, and gave it a little rattle, as if this might reveal its contents. Acknowledging the stupidity of this, he powered on the VCR and, as it hummed to life, was suddenly seized by a moment of apprehension. Was this a trap? Did his father know exactly where the tape was cued so he’d know if it had been watched? Why did it have no title? And, more importantly: Could it be a porno? Doug shuddered at the thought of being privy to his father’s particular sexual fetishes. In the end, though, he decided it was worth the risk. The last time he recalled being this bored he had counted the flies on the ceiling for over thirty minutes. He preferred not repeat the experience.
Putting his qualms aside, he fed the tape into the slot. The internal gears made their familiar whirring and whizzing sound as the tape was digested and readied for viewing. He pushed play and retreated to the couch to watch.
At first there was only a loud hiss of static and digital popcorn that, after several seconds, began to resolve itself into the semblance of an actual image. Lines of distortion paraded up and down the screen and then the whole picture began to go all squiggly. Doug leaned forward, trying to see through the crappy distortion. He could just make out a pathway that wound up toward a large building which filled most of the upper frame. A small figure near the entrance was sitting, elbows propped on knees, blocking the door. The camera was jerky and there was a time stamp, identifying it as a home video. The cameraman was moving toward the person, who had not budged.
Doug squinted at the bad image, trying to discern any further detail. The video was shot at night, sometime before dawn, which didn’t help. Then, quite suddenly, the picture snapped itself into a clean image. For a moment, though, even without the distortion, he was uncertain what he was looking at.
Then, like a punch in the stomach, he saw.
Quickly, Doug snatched the remote off the arm of the sofa and paused the video. His mind reeled with shock and disbelief. The person on the path had not been sitting. It was a woman, lying on her back, legs spread and propped up with shoes flat on the concrete path, dress hiked up well above her waist. What he had taken for elbows were in fact her knees. Was this woman passed out? Dead?
Taking a few moments to compose himself, Doug resumed the video. The cameraman moved closer, lens aimed directly up the woman’s dress. She wore no underwear, at least none he could see through the blood smeared up and down her thighs. The shot lingered here for several terrible seconds, finally moving forward and revealing the woman’s face.
Doug became aware that he was holding his breath. He exhaled noisily and tried to get control of his turbulent emotions. The woman was old, more so than his grandma even. At least seventy, maybe even eighty years. Her eyes stared unblinking at the sky and then, a moment later, with a shift of the camera, into the lens.
Yes, she was dead alright. Most definitely dead.
Here the tape stopped and then cut to the same scene but about forty-five minutes later, according to the time code on the camera. It was now brighter out, just after seven in the morning. Several police officers were milling about and there was yellow tape cordoning off the immediate area. The woman remained, but was mercifully covered by a tarp. Little flags were planted here and there in the grass, marking a footprint perhaps, or a dropped weapon. The camera roved around, seemingly at random. At one point it tilted up, revealing the spire of a church Doug recognized, located just outside town near the flea market.
He stopped the tape and went outside on the porch to sit with Comanche for a bit. He panted and frolicked like always, his canine mind blissfully unaware of the depths of cruelty lurking in the hearts of men. Absently scratching him behind the ears, Doug stared off down the empty road. Something about that horrific scene was familiar. He was certain there was a memory just beyond reach, nagging at him to be recalled.
To clear his head, he set out into the pasture with his dog, tossing a chewed up frisbee for him to fetch. After several dozen rounds, Comanche was panting with exhaustion, clearly ready to call it quits. Doug led him back toward the house to fill up his water bowl. On the way, he remembered.
It hadn’t been that long ago. Less than a year, maybe. The story had been in the paper and all over the news. Some old lady had been raped and killed practically on the doorstep of the church that she had been waking up at the crack of dawn to unlock every Sunday for the past twenty years. It was speculated that the assailant had been familiar with her routine and had been waiting there to ambush the poor woman. Doug couldn’t remember, if he had ever known in the first place, if the killer had been caught.
He went back inside and, against his better judgement, continued the tape where he had left off. The next segment began in the hallway of what appeared to be an office complex. The camera passed a mirror mounted on the hall in which Doug caught a glimpse of his father, the enormous block of a VHS camera balanced on one shoulder. At the end of the hall was an office door which had been propped open with a chair. A man dressed in white coveralls with gloves and a hairnet exited and passed by, giving the camera a courteous nod as he did. Rounding the corner, the image panned across a wall splattered in red. It resembled one of those paintings where the artist just flings pigment at the canvas and calls it art. The camera lingered on this a considerable amount of time before tilting down to reveal a spectacle so grotesque that Doug felt his lunch threatening to rise up his throat.
A man, slightly overweight and wearing a short-sleeved shirt with a tie, was lying on the carpet, stained red just like the wall. His face appeared to have caved in on itself. The eyes were beaten into the skull, giving the entire visage the vague resemblance of a demon. Rather than a nose and mouth there was instead a chunky mess that looked as if someone had spilt a hefty plate of lasagna. The man’s forearms were destroyed, reduced to ground burger. A hammer lay across his chest where the killer had apparently tossed it.
The camera swung back up to the blood spattered wall and Doug noticed what he had failed to the first time. Superimposed among the gore was the vague silhouette of a person with an arm raised in the air, a negative space created by the killer’s own body as he repeatedly brought the hammer up and down on the victim, painting the wall behind him with each stroke. Judging by the upright posture of the killer’s ghostly imprint, the unfortunate man had almost certainly been sitting at his desk and tumbled onto the floor at some point during or following the attack. The forearms were, of course, defensive wounds, as the man vainly tried to ward off the blows.
He went out and joined Comanche on the porch again, sorely in need of a break before continuing on to the next scene, if there was one. Again he wondered, and even envied, his dog’s ignorance of what human beings were capable of. It occurred to him that the world was probably a much nicer place before people began to crawl across its surface, multiplying like viruses. Of course, there were bad people and there were good people. Fortunately, the latter outnumbered the former. Still, seeing the stuff on that tape made him wonder just how many depraved sickos were out there, going to work every day, paying their taxes, voting, and generally being productive members of society, all while leading double lives alone at night in their basements or attics, undetected.
Doug suddenly found himself briefly overwhelmed with pride and respect for what his old man did for a living. Or used to, anyway. Though he was now in the habit of referring to himself as a ‘gentleman rancher,’ he would always be a cop. At least on the inside, where it mattered.
He refilled Comanche’s water bowl from the hose and went inside to finish the tape. He really didn’t want to, but at the same time, knew he would forever wonder what else was on there. And, more than likely, there wouldn’t be another chance. The video would soon be returned to the evidence locker, along with several other things stacked and marked in boxes in the foyer that his father had yet to take back. He collapsed on the couch and pushed play, determined to get through the rest before his dad got home.
The next scene wasn’t so much gruesome as disturbing. The camera panned across the burnt shell of a mobile trailer that had clearly exploded for some reason. Two bodies, charred beyond recognition, were lying petrified with limbs raised in seemingly unnatural positions that resembled store mannequins after a warehouse fire.
After this, things once again took a turn for the grotesque. The scene opened on a pickup truck parked on the shoulder a little ways ahead of the camera. Already there were several cops present. As his father neared the vehicle Doug could see the back window behind the driver splashed in red goop. The glass was cracked but unbroken. For a brief moment the camera scanned the bed of the pickup and the asphalt down below. Doug even caught a glimpse of the pointy toes on his dad’s favorite cowboy boots.
The camera tilted back up and then along the driver’s side where it peered into the rolled down window. A shot gun had been wedged in the steering wheel with the barrel resting on the driver’s chest. His face, if it could be called that, was a gaping wet hole. Flies were already crawling around the wound, no doubt laying eggs. Or eating. The remaining flesh around the side of the head hung in ribbons that Doug, unable to rid his mind of food metaphors, thought looked a bit like raw strips of bacon, marbled with fat and gristle.
He stopped the tape. After rewinding it to the approximate spot where it had started, he returned it to the black plastic case, snapped it shut, and placed it back on the shelf. His curiosity was more than satisfied. He thought maybe he understood now why his father had never really talked about work that much. A job like that must take something from you. He wondered if his old man carried the images of those crime scenes around with him wherever he went. Did they flash into his mind, uninvited, while he was just going about his day, eating lunch, driving his truck, talking to his family?
His thoughts were interrupted by the noisy rumble of his dad’s truck as it swung into the gravel driveway. For a moment, a small and puffy cloud of dust hung in the air behind the rear tires before settling. Doug watched his father climb out of the vehicle, slam the squeaky door, and walk up the path toward the porch, two brown and greasy paper bags dangling from each hand.
He’d brought home burgers for dinner.