Current day, North of Mount Silver, Virginia.
The little dog growled, baring its tiny teeth at the man standing ominously over the family. The four of them seated at gunpoint in their living room.
“Keep that ugly thing quiet!” he commanded.
Raven looked up at the man, her eyebrows furrowed. “Mr. Buttons don’t like you none. You’re mean.”
“I’ll show you mean, pipsqueak,” he shot back.
Another man standing parallel from the first shouted, “Shut the hell up, Ben. Kevin told us to...”
Frannie stood. “I should’ve known it was that bastard Kevin. What’s he and my no-good ex up to this time?” she asked with her hands on her hips, the woman’s pretty face a mask of contempt. “What did they go and do, piss someone off and now whoever it is wants to kill me and the kids?”
“No, ain’t nothin’ like that, ma’am.”
“Ma’am? I’m not your momma, asshole!” she replied sharply, crossing her arms. “If I were, I’d a done beat your ass...”
“Ain’t nothing stopping that, lady,” Ben replied with a smirk.
“Uh oh, you and the bad man are gonna make Jesus mad at all of you, mommy,” Raven said.
“Alright young lady, shut it, I don’t need your business right now!”
“Yessum, momma!” the girl said sadly, petting her still very dirty and very hungry pet.
“Look woman, they’ll be here in a minute and you can take this shit up with them then,” he said. “But, right now you need to sit your pretty rear back down on that couch.”
“Oh, nah uh, this is my house!” Frannie responded angrily. “You don’t tell me...” Her voice trailed off as she heard the rumbling of an approaching loud engine. She recognized the sound of Kevin’s old Camaro as it came up the driveway.
All eyes turned toward the door as the sound of footsteps and muffled voices emanated from the front porch.
The door flew open and one angry Cole stormed into the house. He pointed a finger behind him. “Get the hell out, both of you!”
Kevin stood on the porch holding the screen door for the two large men as they exited. He didn’t dare cross the home’s threshold and like a vampire waiting for permission to come in, just stood silently on the porch. He understood full well the fury of one mama bear named Frannie that was holed up inside and wanted no part of her.
“Benjamin Cole Hitchens, what in the hell are you up to?” the woman inquired furiously. She strode angrily over to him and forcefully jammed a finger into the man’s t-shirt clad, very hard chest. “I can barely afford to keep a roof over these kids’ heads with the small amount of child support you pay me! If you go and get your ass sent off to prison again...I, um, I don’t know what I would do!” Frannie’s shoulders drooped and her head fell. She lifted her hands to her face and began sobbing into them.
Cole felt his heart sink and his fear leave. He grabbed the crying woman on instinct and pulled her toward him, holding her tight.
Raven shoved the dog into Hunter’s arms and ran over along with Kaitlyn to join in the hug. The boy sat back down, petting the dog, attempting to ignore the activity.
“You’re a dick, Cole,” the woman said with a sniff, snuggling deeper into his embrace. “I hate you for what you did.”
The man rested his cheek on Frannie’s pretty head, enjoying the warmth of her body against his. It was a feeling he had missed every day since he had been sentenced to prison.
“Yes, honey?” Cole replied, looking down into Raven’s large eyes.
“Are you going to stay, now?”
“Not tonight,” Frannie sniffed, breaking her ex-husband’s embrace. She pushed the man away from her and knelt down to Raven’s level. “No, baby. Daddy’s actually gonna get on out of here and go back to not breaking the law. Ain’t that right, Cole?” She glanced up and shot her ex-husband a sharp, pointed look.
He squinted back, “Ummm, yeah. That’s right,” wondering what the phrase, not tonight, meant.
“Why can’t daddy stay?” Kaitlyn asked. “He ain’t hurtin’ nothing. He’s still our daddy and this is his house, too!” She ran over and grabbed Cole around his middle. “Please don’t leave daddy, I missed you so much!”
Cole inhaled and closed his eyes, feeling the tears beginning to form in them. He pried his oldest daughter from his waist and looked into her eyes. He could still remember the first time he did that. She was so small and helpless, looking back at him as he held her in his hands with no care in the world. “Sweetheart, I can’t do that. Me and your mom, well, we can’t go back, ’cause your granddaddy and me, we did some bad stuff and...”
“Don’t bring my daddy into this, Cole! This is all you, I don’t know why you keep throwin’ him under the bus. Own it and be done with it. Daddy, was a good God-fearing man...an honest man! You need to point a finger at someone...how ’bout you point it at that son of a bitch out yonder!” Frannie extended an arm and a slender finger toward Kevin who was quickly backing off the front porch to safety.
Cole cleared his throat to argue but stopped, he chose instead to crack a weak smile at his ex. “Right, well, I have to go, uh, take care of some things.” Cole released the teary-eyed Kaitlyn and sadly eyed his son, sitting alone, attempting to stay detached from the situation. “Bye, Hunter,” he said.
“Will you just go on and leave, already? That’s what you’re good at!” the boy responded.
“I’m goin’, but for what it’s worth, I do love you guys and I’m, uh, I’m sorry.” he said, his voice shaking. “One day...”
“One day? No!” Raven ran up to him and he knelt to give her a big hug. “Please come back and stay with us, daddy. Please, don’t stay gone, again!”
Cole looked up at Frannie to see her standing across the room with her hand over her mouth and tears streaming down her face. She quickly turned away and walked toward the window. He squeezed Raven tightly then stood and opened the squeaky screen door to walk outside. He glanced once more at Hunter, then let it close with a familiar smack. Cole stepped down from the porch and approached the Camaro. He smelled the odor of pot in the air.
“That went well.” Kevin said observing Cole as he approached. “Wanna hit?” he asked, taking another drag from the joint held in his fingertips.
“Nah.” Cole quickly threw his right fist into the side of Kevin’s face, the left to the other, finally burying his right into the man’s abdomen sending the joint flying and Kevin doubling over to the ground.
“What the hell dude?” the stoned man said, spitting blood and tobacco from his mouth.
Cole reached down and helped Kevin up. “Now, we’re even.”
“The hell you say, bro,” he replied, putting his hand to his jaw to verify nothing was too seriously damaged. “Not until we got that money in our hands.”
“I know, but I had to clear the air.”
“Hey, speaking of clearing the air, did you see where that roach went?”
“Just roll yourself another one, you lazy bastard,” Cole laughed. “...but give me the keys. I’m driving!”
Frannie watched the strange activity play out in her front yard. She knew that Cole had kept his distance from the troublesome Kevin Monroe ever since he had quietly gotten out of the slammer. It was concerning to her that he would suddenly become so friendly with the man out of the clear blue like this again. Her ex had practically became a hermit of sorts after release, shying away from any place but Reno’s Garage, where he worked as a mechanic or his little apartment in town, right above his old friend Tom’s pizza joint. That simple circular path had become Cole’s sad and lonely existence after prison. In fact, he had avoided all of his old haunts, including, sadly, her house and the four people that lived in it.
Their divorce was his idea, not hers. She had made every opportunity to keep in contact with him, to let him know she was waiting, his kids were waiting. She tried every way possible to make sure he knew they loved him and wanted him home. Then something happened, he quit writing back, stopped calling to talk to them, and even quit showing up when they would visit, almost as if he had vanished in plain sight.
Before he went to jail, his family was his everything. Frannie was no doubt his soul mate, but their children were his sunshine to her moon and his relationship to the four of them all was as variant as the seasons. He was wonderful in that way. Cole made everyone in their little family feel special, no one of them considering themselves more precious than the other, but still each placed on a pedestal. Frannie herself would still occasionally wrestle with her jealousy when her husband would seem to ignore her in lieu of playing outside with the kids or running into town with them on some adventure, leaving her with a dirty house. Only to return later with a car full of sleeping children and some gas station rose in hand, sweeping her off her feet once more like they were in high school all over again. She would smile a sweet smile and forgive him of his trespasses and he would answer with one of pure lust, then relieve her of her tensions. They were beautiful together in this way...
Frannie felt something tugging on the bottom of her flannel shirt.
“Mommy, the puppy’s whining, it’s hungry, can we go now, please?”
“Yes, Raven, sorry baby, let’s go.”
“Hey, what’s that momma?” Hunter asked, pointing at her bottom.
“What’s what?” she asked trying to look behind her.
“This? Hey, this is a hundred dollar bill, momma!”
The woman lifted the note from the boy’s hand and eyed it. Cole must have slipped it into her back pocket when he was hugging her. “Son of a bitch,” she said under her breath.
“Jesus hears you sayin’ them nasty words...”
“Yes, ma’am.”Current Day, Mount Silver, Virginia.
Kaitlyn volunteered to stay in the car with Mr. Buttons, the Death Monger. “Sorry puppy ‘bout your name. I’ll see if I can get everyone to start callin’ you Mr. Buttons only,” she said with a smile, observing the calico-coated creature yapping at passersby. The girl scratched behind the animal’s ear. The furry flap of skin falling back as the dog leaned into her fingers enjoying the action. She noted a small patch of blood on its interior. “You really have been through it, huh, Mr. Buttons?...Mr. Buttons, so simple,” she shook her head at the utterance of the word. “People just have to make things so difficult.” It was so typical for the hard-headed Hunter and Raven to avoid finding common ground, neither wishing to budge on their choice of names. This détente proliferating until their mom ended all of the bickering, ultimately deciding to call the ugly thing both names.
Irrespective of the events surrounding their new four-legged friend, Kaitlyn was happy. She got to see her dad up close today and hug him, almost like it was three years ago, before everything bad happened. Since he had returned from prison, he had avoided everyone, her and her siblings included. Until today, the only way she could see him was to sometimes accidentally miss the bus at school and venture across town to the garage where he was working. Kaitlyn would keep her distance, but she could see him through the large open doors as he worked on the cars coming in and out. She noted he always looked sad and very lonely. The girl wanted desperately to go up to the garage and ask him to come home, but was afraid it might make him mad, then it would be her fault and he would never come back.
Her mom was no real help in the answer department for that matter, because, either she knew more than she was letting on or she was as clueless as her children. Kaitlyn had mostly leaned toward the latter of the explanations especially after she saw her mom one day in town doing the same thing she was, spying on her dad at work. She never mentioned this observation to her mother as it would not have changed the fact that they both missed the man. Nevertheless, it did crack open the window into the soul of her stalwart mother, a realization that this woman, who had always been there for her babies, was hurting just as much as her children, if not more so.
Kaitlyn’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the 1977 Ford station wagon’s driver’s side rear door opening forcefully. A massive, sweaty man with a scar across his face rocked the large vehicle as he entered, sending Buttons into a barking fit.
“Shut that damn thing up!” the man said in a low growl, slamming the door. He bounced the wagon around some more as he slid roughly across the bench, then lifted a pistol over the back of the front seat, pointing the barrel at the canine’s head.
“No! Wait!” Kaitlyn shouted, shielding the angry dog. She leaned her face to the animal and whispered, “It’s okay, Buttons. C’mon, be quiet. Hush, now,” she said and glanced fearfully at the intruder.
The dog whined as it calmed under Kaitlyn’s touch.
“Now, where’s your momma?” Phil asked.
“In the IGA,” the girl replied and pointed out the windshield at the painted green building.
“Your brother and sister?”
“In there, too. What do you want, mister?”
“For you to keep your trap shut and don’t say nothing to your mom when she gets out here or I swear I’ll kill all of you!”
Kaitlyn thought for a moment. “Wouldn’t I just be delayin’ things? ’cause as soon as we’re all in the car you’re gonna have us drive off somewhere and do who-knows-what to us. I might as well just scream right now and save all them!”
“Too late, girl!” the man said and ducked. “Say something and a bullet goes in everyone’s head,” he whispered.
“Hey, we got your food, Death Mong...” Hunter opened the station wagon’s back door to find he was staring down the barrel of a 9mm pistol.
“Get in!” the man said and grabbed the boy, yanking him forcefully into the vehicle. He pointed the gun to Hunter’s small head. “Ya’ll just get on in here and sit down all quiet like!” he commanded.
Frannie stifled a scream and nervously sat behind the steering wheel. She looked over at the man reclining in the back seat, holding her son around his neck. The woman watched Hunter grimace as the pistol dug into his temple. “Wh-what do you want?” she asked.
“I’ll tell you when we get ta’ where you are gonna drive me!”
“Okay, please...just don’t hurt my boy!” Frannie said, desperation thickly coating the plea.
“Don’t want to, just do what I say and nothing happens,” he replied. “Oh, and don’t try to call any attention to us. Don’t want no police pullin’ us over.”
“Okay.” Frannie fired up the old station wagon with a roar and slid the column shift into reverse. She calmly backed from the parking space, then throwing it into drive, slowly pulled out onto the road.
“Doin’ great, there Frannie. Now, up here, get up on Daniel Boone Trail going out toward the high school.”
“Okay,” the woman replied. She clutched Raven’s hand and smiled a worried smile at Kaitlyn. “It’s gonna be okay,” she said with an affirming nod.
Raven returned the expression, Kaitlyn did not. She, instead, turned her attention to the dog. She took the paper grocery store bag and extracted the dog food from its interior. She tore open the top of the sack and poured some morsels into the empty paper bag, then rolled up the dog food’s container, and set it on the floor. Then, she tore the top half of the IGA brown bag and rolled it down until it was barely above the pile of morsels at the bottom. Kaitlyn set the makeshift bowl down and Buttons followed without provocation. She lifted her feet from the floorboard to give the hungry animal some space to eat. It didn’t take long and the round eyes were staring back up at her and Raven looking for more.
“That’s one ugly ass dog,” the man said.
Raven sat up on her knees and before anyone could stop her, asked, “Have you looked in the mirror?”
Frannie grabbed her daughter and yanked the young girl back down onto the seat. “Raven!”
“Sorry,” she replied, her head hung down.
“Turn right up here at the blue mailbox,” Phil commanded, waving the pistol in that direction.
The woman did as told and turned onto a narrow gravel road.
“It’s about five minutes up ahead,” the man said and let Hunter go from his one-armed chokehold. The boy quickly dove into the third row seat behind the man to get as much clearance as he could from the gun and its owner.
Frannie sighed with relief, then wrinkled her nose at a pungent smell. The man was now leaning with his arms spread across the back of the bench seat. They were bent at the elbows and his hands pointing back toward his center, one still holding a weapon. He had evidently forgotten, or more likely never used any form of deodorant. “Raven turn the air up, honey,” she said, suddenly feeling a large wave of sympathy for Hunter.
“Yes, ma’am,” the small girl said and leaned forward to slide the lever up on the a/c control.
The action helped, but only momentarily.
“Alright, up here, take a left,” he said.
Frannie nearly gagged. It was as if the man had eaten raw sewage, as well. At this rate, she would be begging him to shoot her before he tried anything with her.
“There’s where we’re going!” he said, lifting his arm to point a finger out of the windshield.
Her eyes watered and a wave of nausea hit Frannie as she let up off the accelerator. She could now see a large two-story farmhouse rising from behind a hill. It was white, and as they approached,she noted the weathered paint cracking and peeling from its sad exterior. She imagined with a little bit of TLC it might be pretty once more.
“We’re here!” the man with bad hygiene said. “Everyone out!”
There was another vehicle sitting outside the home. Frannie recognized the dirty, white Cherokee as the one from her house. This looked like Kevin’s people, again. “Shit.”
“Welcome, Mrs. Hitchens!” said the thug she recognized as Ben sitting back in a dusty recliner. He lit a cigarette, took a long drag, and then blew the smoke carelessly into the room.
Frannie waived her hand in front of her face. “That is really a nasty habit.”
“Don’t give a shit what you think, lady or I’d be married again,” he said drawing in another lung full. He exhaled with a smirk. “You might as well go on upstairs with that nasty lookin’ critter. You’re gonna be here for a minute or two.”
“Could you at least tell me why we’re here?”
“Money, sister. Nothin’ but the cash.”
“How much, I might could...”
“Naw, honey, nothing you got...and I know you got something real good under them jeans an’ all, but I can get all that from any woman, plus, more with what me and ol’ Phil here’s going after, ain’t that right, Phil?”
The large man nodded in agreement.
“Still, we won’t be able to pull this off if anything bad comes of you and your heathens, so you just need to head right on upstairs, pretty please,” he said waiving his hand toward the stairs.
Frannie felt Phil’s pistol poke in her back. “Everyone upstairs, now!”
Ben sat up when Phil returned from upstairs. “That pistol wasn’t loaded, right? I told you not to have it loaded when you picked ’em up.”
Phil grinned. “Nah, it wasn’t loaded too much.”
“Phil, you hurt them kids up there and I’ll kill ya’ myself, you hear me?”
The large man waved off Ben’s threat. “Don’t know why you worried about Cole’s family and all. Ain’t gonna matter when this is all over.”