“Do you really believe she is in the here and now, picking flowers, washing dishes, wearing her hair down, singing Adele, free as a bird, quoting goddamn Shakespeare and Mister Rogers to keep you from trying to kill yourself and join her?”
Wyatt is sucking blood off his thumb. “Opened a cut,” he grumbles.
I’m staring at the flattened ground and wondering if the thumb he’s sucking is the one that left a mark on the neck of the girl in the documentary. On the way over, I just straight out asked him. He said that he didn’t expect that kind of shit from me.
He wasn’t lying about Angel and the dandelions. Here they are, dying, laid neatly in a five-foot oval, like tiny dead dolls with fluffy heads of hair. It sends a shiver through me, hard to do in a bare field in July even with the sun halfway down. One edge of the circle is disturbed by a single footprint. I’m comparing it to the shape of Wyatt’s boot.
Pasture, sky, barbed wire. Pasture, sky, barbed wire. Write those three words a hundred thousand times. That’s what it feels like on this stretch of Texas highway known as Flat Belly by old ranchers and as Siesta Highway to the long-haul truckers it hypnotizes.
Even so, it didn’t take long before Wyatt told me where to pull over.
He said I was lucky that Trumanell marked the spot. He jumped out of the truck and picked a piece of paper out of the barbed wire. Stuck it in his pocket without explaining before spreading a particularly wicked double twist of wire for me to crawl through. He’d done that dozens of times for me before; this was the first time I ever wondered for a second if I’d be coming back.
Now his thumb is sucked dry and he’s rubbing his arm. Bothered. I glance back to the road, a noisy, violent ocean of eighteen-wheelers. At least two hundred feet away. It’s a miracle Wyatt spotted Angel at all. Too much of one?
Angel couldn’t have stretched a gap in the wire by herself or climbed over even the lowest part of this fence line without scratching herself. Not without years of practice. Not in the thin sundress she was wearing. So she came from another part of the field. Or she was carried over.
My eyes settle on a lone clump of trees sitting to the west. The trees could be watching. And the telephone poles. Texas ranchers aim drones and long-range night vision cameras at grassy fields these days like they’re surveilling crime in a shopping center parking lot.
The ranchers know that all this heat and sky and emptiness messes with the best of us—that everything that lives under this sun seeks a place to explode. Foal-hungry coyotes, machine-gun freaks, kids who want a place to drink and screw and tip cows.
Angel might be on one of those cameras.
Wyatt is holding out his hand impatiently. “Toss me your keys. I’m going back to the truck. I did what you asked. I brought you here. What’s with the look? Think I’ll take off?”
I chunk them over reluctantly. I’m not sure which is worse— checking out this scene alone or with him lurking over my shoulder. “You may be waiting for me a while,” I say.
“I’ve been doing that for ten years. Why stop now?”
My eyes follow his taut form until he’s back on the other side of the fence.
I pull out my phone and begin to snap pictures.
The dandelion circle appears on-screen like the outline of a small grave. Ants are traveling down into the black cracks of earth like coal miners. I focus tight on the footprint. I stand back and shoot a broader view of the fence and the field.
I walk a grid pattern until I’m submerged in Indian grass so high it tickles one of my childhood phobias. Disappearing in grass like this is like getting lost at sea, the sun doing the dirty work of the water.
Insects are furiously scraping their body parts together, buzzing at high pitch. A cicada vibrates against my leg, sending the same kind of violent shiver as the first time a boy dropped one down the back of my shirt. I bat it away and spread the grass to the ground, searching for things I want to find and things I’m worried I will.
A backpack, a shoe, a phone, Angel’s false eye with a serial number, any fingerprint of where she came from. Unseeing eyes made of human tissue, decomposing, clouding over like the sky that watches down on them. Any sign at all that Wyatt stumbled into a killing field. Or has turned this into one.
I thread my way out of the weeds. You’d need at least a hundred cops for a good search out here in this choking heat, the sky smoking toward night. I glance back at the pickup, wishing I hadn’t chosen such a dark tint for the windows. The drumbeat of hard rock escaping. Wyatt has always liked the air conditioner blasting on high, the music blasting higher.
I’ve been uneasy about Wyatt’s lack of cooperation ever since I picked him up. He didn’t follow my orders earlier to stay at the house. His pickup was missing from the drive when I got there. I thought he’d finally run. It took a half hour to find him in the west pasture fixing a fence post and another fifteen minutes to convince him to get in the pickup. He didn’t want me there on his land. And every bit of his body language says he doesn’t want to be here, either. There’s very little time left before the sky steals my light. I debate about returning to the truck. I trek toward the trees, skirting the dandelions. Wyatt used to play wildflower games with Trumanell in their fields. Did he reenact one with this girl?
The dandelions, they’re a problem for him. For me, if I’m pre- tending to be an objective cop. Wyatt had an aversion to them he’d never explain. Maybe that works in his favor right now. He over- came that aversion to save a girl.
I catch a flash of activity just past the clump of live oaks. A crow is cawing, thrashing at something on the ground. I’ve always been wary of crows, ever since my father told me they could remember my face.
The rapid beat of Wyatt’s music is too far away to hear. But it feels like my stump is pulsing with it.
My stomach churns at the thought of it being another girl, this one not so lucky. I pull out my gun. Pick up the pace.
Three feet from the trees, I heave my dinner into the soil. Not human remains.
Two crows. One is dead. The other, raping it.
I’ve heard of crows copulating with death. Twisted, like humans, since the beginning. The ancient Egyptians left their most beautiful and high-ranking dead women to rot in the sun before burial so no one would rape them.
There is no explaining.
I aim at the manic flapping. One shot. The bitter crack of it shocks the insects to stillness. When they recover, they’ll find a bloody feast waiting.
I pick my way back carefully. I kneel gracelessly in the circle of dandelions and do something I haven’t done for ten years, since God did and did not answer my plea for help on a black road when I was sixteen.
I pray that Trumanell was not left to rot in a field like a Grecian queen.
I pray that if someone’s hunting Angel, I’ll find the hunter first.
The sun has dropped neatly into its hole. I can barely make out the shape of my truck in the dark. The barbed wire fence has virtually disappeared. I stop, breathless, inches from its tiny knives.
Devil’s rope. That’s how my uncle described barbed wire from the pulpit—evil that was tricky, almost invisible, until you were already caught. Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald—the most unspeakable evidence of man’s capacity for sin.
I maneuver the fence easily. It’s not even close to the obstacles I’ve used to test my leg. No one expects my agility, an advantage as a cop. Nine times out of ten, the bad guys aim for my prosthetic leg. It is my good leg they should be thinking about if they really want to hurt me. Take out that one, and it’s game over.
The silhouette of Wyatt’s head in the truck window is not visible. The highway, so desperate an hour ago, is already going to sleep.
“Who did you kill?” It slithers at me from the dark.
My hand jumps to my gun and rests there. Wyatt, out of the truck. Close. I can’t make out his face in the shadows. But his mint gum, I can almost taste it.
“Jesus, Wyatt,” I say shakily. “Give a girl some warning. I killed a bird. A very evil bird.”
“If you say so,” he says. “You’re the cop. Cops are the deciders. Let’s go. Trumanell is going to be worried. I didn’t tell her I’d be gone this long.”
If he’d just stopped at let’s go. If Trumanell’s name wasn’t dropped in the air like a casual match.
“Are you fucking with me?” My voice is low, barely restrained. “What do you mean? I feel like you’re fucking with me.”
“I mean, are you fucking with me? About this place? The dandelions? About Trumanell? Do you really believe she is in the here and now, picking flowers, washing dishes, wearing her hair down, singing Adele, free as a bird, quoting goddamn Shakespeare and Mister Rogers to keep you from trying to kill yourself and join her?”
“I wouldn’t say she’s free,” he says, after a second.
A mockingbird calls out in the dark. It could be confused about the time of day. It could be warning all the other birds that there is a killer out here.
Wyatt steps forward. The earth folds in like a box. All that exists is the foot of space between us. I’m struck by his face, like always. Tonight, I see the shadow of Trumanell. I see the kind of looks that make you royalty in a small town no matter what you came from.
“You need to ask what you’ve always wanted to ask,” Wyatt says. “Which is whether I killed True.”
Then he disappears in the white, white light.
A former journalist, Julia Heaberlin is the author of the international bestsellers Black-Eyed Susans and Paper Ghosts, her newest crime novel set in the moody landscape of Texas where she grew up. Heaberlin’s psychological thrillers, all set in her home state, have sold to more than twenty countries. She is also the author of the critically acclaimed Playing Dead and Lie Still. As a journalist, she worked in features as an award-winning editor at The Detroit News, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and The Dallas Morning News and has always been especially interested in true crime and how events play out years later. The Star-Telegram Life & Arts section was named one of the Top 10 sections in the country during her tenure as its editor. Heaberlin lives in the Dallas/Fort Worth area where she is at work on her next novel.