Dirty Faces

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Chapter 26: The Stranger

The baby jerked his arms up and tensely stretched out his legs, startled when the rush of cold air blowing in the front door nipped at his naked little bottom.

"Addie, shut that door behind you," Susan said as she finished changing Kody's diaper. Addie stopped in her tracks and turned back around to shut out the cold night air. Fortunately, it was warm and cozy in the house.

With the door now closed, Addie drifted over to the couch and sat down beside Susan. She watched quietly as her sister pinned the diaper in place, then pulled down the little white gown and loosely wrapped the baby in a soft blanket.

"There, now. That's better," said Susan. She gathered him up in her arms and kissed his little head. "Did he like the flower you drew for him?" she asked, now looking at Addie.

Addie nodded.

"That's good." Susan looked back at her baby and thought for a moment. "Addie, you want to hold the baby while I go take care of this dirty diaper?"

Not surprisingly, Addie grinned and nodded enthusiastically, as if a great honor had been bestowed upon her.

"Alright, then," Susan replied, as she placed the bundle in her sister's arms. She brushed her own hand against Addie's ice cold ones, becoming aware that she'd sneaked out without a coat. "Make sure you hold his head. Yeah, like that. That's good. Now don't touch his skin with them cold hands of yours, not 'til they warm back up. Don't want to make him cry."

Addie shook her head.

Susan picked up the soiled diaper and walked into the bathroom just off the front room. She hurried to rinse it out. Addie would never intentionally hurt Kody, she knew, but she worried she might forget he wasn't a doll and end up getting rough with him.

When Susan returned to the front room, Addie was still rocking the baby and he seemed content. She sat back down but let her sister continue enjoying holding the real-life baby doll.

Before Kody, Addie had been her baby. She played with her, bathed her, helped her get dressed, fought her over combing her hair, fought other kids that gave her a hard time. She never understood how her little sister could be so convinced that everybody was her friend when people could be so mean. Addie was friends with the Priest, the man at the store, Peggy at the diner, the boarders next door, the miners that passed the house going to and from work, the kids in the schoolyard. Even if they didn't know it, she was their friend.

Now that she was all grown up and married and moved out, Susan still felt a need to look out for Addie. That was probably why she hadn't been to church in so long. A couple years ago, for no apparent reason, Addie had started acting up in church. She would randomly start screaming during the sermon, or trying to talk whenever somebody else was giving a testimony. And she really flew off the handle when somebody received the Holy Spirit. No one ever seemed to be able to get her to settle down until she was darn good and ready to do so.

Though she missed the lovely singing, Susan still gladly came home to sit with Addie while Granny, Paw, and Kent attended the service. She rather liked the Sundays she got to spend with her sister, and she especially appreciated it tonight. Even after a year of living out there in the holler, she still got scared being there alone at night while David was at work. This night, at least, she wouldn't be alone. She would have Addie's company until midnight, then David would be finished with the half shift he was working 'in honor of the holiday'.

They weren't fools, though. Work had slowed down in the mines and any excuse to close down for a day just might be a job saved. Her Paw knew that when positions started being eliminated, his would likely be among the first. It was for that reason he had already written to his brother in Cleveland and arranged to bring the family there when that day came. Most of their kinfolk had already moved to the big cities with the fancy names and factory work anyway. The mere thought of such a separation from her family brought a lump to Susan's throat, but she'd been trying to prepare herself. Though admittedly, she did more pretending it just wouldn't happen than actual preparation.

Susan turned her gaze from Addie and Kody to the crackling fire before them. It was so warm in here and so cold out there. She dreaded the wagon ride home, not only because of the cold, but also because it would likely be just as uncomfortable as the ride into town had been. And she didn't much care to have the baby out in the cold night, either. She glanced over at her companions again and decided that, when David got off work, she would appeal to him to just spend the night here and let Paw drive them home tomorrow.

Kody started getting fussy and Addie's eyes widened, frightened she'd done something wrong. "Here, give him to me," Susan said softly. "You didn't do nothing wrong. He's just hungry." Addie looked relieved as she carefully handed her little nephew back to his mother, making sure to always hold his head as she'd been instructed.

"You're such a good helper, Addie." Susan took Addie's hand, which was now much warmer, and smiled. Looking into her pale eyes, she saw nothing but happiness, and it warmed her own heart that such a trivial compliment brought her sister so much joy. "How about you go back in the dining room and draw some more. I'm going to take Kody upstairs and feed him and put him down to sleep. Then, I'll come draw and color with you. How does that sound?"

It must have sounded pretty good because Addie grinned, jumped up, and skipped into the dining room.

Susan took the baby upstairs and sat down on the bed in the little bedroom on the front of the house. Though her own bedroom was just off the kitchen, she'd only slept in it twice; instead she'd always preferred to share a bed with Addie, like she had in the old house out on the mountain before the family moved into town.

After she had fed and burped Kody, she put him on the bed and lay down beside him. He yawned, his little eyelids already drooping. She counted all his tiny fingers and all his tiny toes, as if there could somehow be a change from the last time she took inventory. Then, taking in a deep breath of the slightly sweet, always calming new baby smell, she closed her eyes.

Susan's eyes jerked open and she sat straight up when she heard the back door open and close. In the short time she had been a mother, her senses had already sharpened and she had become a particularly light sleeper. She rubbed her eyes and looked around the room. The moon peeking through the lace curtain illuminated it just enough for her to see that the baby lying next to her was breathing, and sleeping soundly.

She hadn't planned on falling asleep. What time was it? Surely she hadn't slept so long that David was already off work and here at the house. And Addie wouldn't have likely let her forget that she was supposed to color with her. No, she couldn't have slept long at all.

For some reason she couldn't explain, she suddenly got a sick, uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach and the air felt heavy. Something was wrong.

She glanced down at Kody once more, then stood and stepped lightly out of the bedroom and into the hall. As soon as she got to the top of the stairs, she heard it: the sound of a struggle. Muffled whimpers and vague banging and rustling noises were coming from the general vicinity of the kitchen.

The sick feeling intensified and Susan felt like she couldn't breathe, though in reality, she was holding her breath. Her hands began to shake and sweat, her mouth went dry, and her heart beat faster than she could think. But still, she padded on down the stairs, praying Addie was fine and that no harm would come to her or her baby.

When she got to the bottom, she considered the gun rack hanging on the wall beside the door. She had never shot a gun in her life, but whoever was looking from the other end of the barrel need not know that. Wiping her sweaty hands on her skirt, she reached up and removed one of Paw's shotguns. Then, she continued, gun raised and shaking, through the front room and into the dining room.

Papers remained strewn all over the table with all eight of Addie's beloved crayons scattered about, but there was no sign of Addie herself. More thoughts than she could process at once flooded Susan's mind: thoughts of where Addie could be, what could have happened, what still could happen, what Granny and Paw would do if she'd let something happen to Addie, what she would do if she'd let something happen to Addie.

The noise was louder now, but Susan could see that there was no one in the kitchen; it was coming from her bedroom, and she prayed harder than she had ever prayed in her life that what she thought was happening in that room wasn't. She went on into the kitchen and crossed it, stopping outside her bedroom, the door standing wide open.

What she saw confirmed her fears. It made her want to scream and rage, but she managed to restrain herself because she knew he could overtake them both.

A strange man whose face she couldn't see sat atop her sweet Addie on the bed. Addie's mouth was gagged with a bandanna and tears streamed down her face, which contorted in agony with each violent thrust. Susan felt her supper make it's way up to her throat and it took all her strength to not break down at the sound of Addie's pitiful little cries. At that moment, all she wanted in the world was that man off her baby sister. She felt helpless as she stood, practically frozen, watching him take away so much that Addie could never get back while himself obtaining the pleasure he had sought.

The old mattress springs squeaked in unison with Addie's cries of pain. It was when the frequency of the squeaking and the cries increased that Susan finally remembered there was gun in her shaking hands. Not even knowing if it was loaded or not, she raised it to her shoulder to take aim. She was about to speak when the Stranger suddenly stiffened his back and let out a long, low moan.

And then her rage took over.

In a blur, she spun the gun around and raised it high over her head, crept up behind him, and came down with it, using every ounce of what physical strength she possessed. Then, the room rattled with the blast, and the Stranger fell lifelessly to the floor with a dull, sickening thud.

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