The Harrowing Tree

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Chapter Five

FIVE

That morning, Christian Mercer stepped out into the cool, autumnal briskness, coffee in hand, and stood at the railing of his wraparound porch. It was the same shade of robin’s egg-blue as the rest of the house, but it’d begun to chip away, desperately in need of a new coat of paint. His ex-wife had liked the color, he told people, that’s why he never changed it. But, really, he liked it too.

Mercer started his day like this every day, even in the winter, simply breathing in and breathing out, holding on, letting go.

Sipping coffee.

It was peaceful. Quiet. And it allowed him to adjust to each day, to remember the one before, and move on, taking each moment one at a time.

He was alone. Not lonely, but alone. It was often the two were mistaken, one for the other. He wasn’t married. His brothers lived elsewhere, near but not near enough. His parents, too. Alive but elsewhere. They’d found solace where the sun is brighter, hotter, and settled down their roots in large towns, cities. But this—this was all that Christian Mercer could ever imagine his life to be like.

It was simple. Serene. And though mere happenstance had led him here, he never thought to leave. Never considered it.

A gentle breeze sent him tugging at the collar of his shirt.

The day would be a cool one, he knew, shivering slightly.

He drank slowly from his mug, his back to the rail, and shouted his good morning to Benny, the town’s dog, who was already up and roaming. He had an owner once, Mercer was sure, but after all these years, Benny simply came and went, and each night ate and slept at another person’s house. The town owned him, or at least they’d like to think so. But no one owned Benny. More like, Benny owned them. That’s why so many people of Bellriver kept bags of dogfood in their garages, just in case he decided it was their time to put up with him.

Last night, the old flatulent St. Bernard slept at Milly Gober’s, three doors down. Mercer wouldn’t be surprised if tonight would be his night.

Just to be sure, he finished his coffee and checked to make sure there was dog food in the house. Dry, never wet. Benny hated the wet food. He’d eat garbage, eat your drywall, even eat Rosa Stetson’s wig collection and Mr. Marlborough’s pomade. But no, you give Benny the wet stuff, and he’ll knock it away with a paw. Won’t even look at the stuff.

Picky bugger, Mercer thought, grinning.

Benny was also quite the burglar, a lesser pleasant quality of his. Leave a pie in the window, it was his. Leave a shovel on your porch, Benny now had a shovel. Forget to check your stoop for a package, Benny now had his very own colonoscopy preparation kid, in the case of old Mr. Morris Browning. Benny burgled, its what he did.

Mercer had wanted a dog for years but managed to convince himself not to get one because of the job. That’s why he was glad Benny was around; he played pet for those who couldn’t have pets. Who couldn’t handle the responsibility or vowed not to. He made them feel as though Benny was theirs; he loved them all in all their entirety.

Back in his living room, standing before the mirror over the mantle, he adjusted the collar of his uniform and tucked the lengthy hem deep into his trousers. His badge was pinned just left of his heart, and it shone where the light breached the windows, pooling onto the cool, hardwood floorboards at his feet.

Below the mirror, on the mantle, an old photograph of his ex-wife stared back at him.

Juliann.

It’d been years since the divorce. An amicable separation if there ever was one. Not from love lost but love well spent. Mercer liked his distance, his quiet; a man of silence and thought. While, on the other hand, Juliann was a woman of voice and opinion. Of breaking rules. Breaking free.

She’d moved back home to be close to her parents, and he hadn’t stopped her when she’d left. He often considered what life might have been like had he reached out, told her to stop. To stay. But even Juliann knew when she left that it was for the better, for the both of them.

Still, he thought about her daily. Thought of the letter he still kept in the drawer of the bureau she once used. The empty one. The one that stayed shut.

She’d gotten closure, in a sense. By writing that letter.

But Mercer?

He picked up the frame, frowned, and set it back down.

Mercer was still waiting for the day that he stopped watching the door, wondering if Juliann might still walk through it. Might come back to him.

He walked to work that morning. Though, the station was half a mile from his front door, so he did it mostly every day, leaving the cruiser parked behind the old school house. It was a nice walk, a calm walk, one that woke him and one that allowed himself to be ingratiated back into the world before the workday began.

Mercer loved that he lived so close to town. He couldn’t quite see the station, but at night, he could see the lights that illuminated the townhall’s clocktower from his bed, glittering and bright, almost like the nightlight his gran had once given him, to ward off the shadows of the evening. They were pretty, though he supposed his constant exposure to them may have dulled his senses after all these years.

That’s why Christmas time in Bellriver was his favorite. The lights went up, a Christmas tree was decorated and lit, placed in the heart of the gazebo, and he could go to sleep at night knowing that, soon enough, they’d be taken down. The lights, the tree. It gave him something to hold onto—hope for when they’d go back up again.

It was only November, though. Still a few weeks before the tree went up. Though, evidently, not too early for snow.

A few flakes fell on his walk to work, shivering down in a way that always brought him back to the Charlie Brown Christmas Special he’d watch as a kid. So real they almost looked fake.

During the day, Bellriver was quiet. Few cars rolled in and out. The Mountain Town, as the local-out-of-towners of Hilltown nicknamed their small village—Mercer thought it was supposed to be ironic, having a nickname longer than the actual title, a mountain of a name—was more of a retirement town. A place where people came to live out the rest of their lives, rather than start new ones.

Though, Mercer thought, it was great for both.

But you didn’t come to Bellriver without a purpose. At least not intentionally.

So much of town was consolidated, squashed together.

Peggy, one of the cooks over at Sue’s Soups—a soup shop erected in Sue Stafford’s home kitchen—also worked as a bus driver and the coach of one of the town soccer teams. Sports teams, also, were coed, ages varied. One of the town selectmen, Jan O’Leary was on the volunteer fire squad. A mailman, Elke Jetson was also a worker at the Transfer Station, Bellriver’s dump, and worked during the week as a lunch monitor at Bellriver Elementary. Even all the men and women working the snowplows and the sanders in the snowy months could be seen on construction crews in the warmer ones.

The education department, viewed by anyone from out of town, would have seemed lacking. Bellriver only had one school, containing grades K-5., and a total number of students less than fifty. Four teachers, one of which was the principle, and another the nurse, kept things running smoothly. The older kids bussed to Hilltown.

Once a month, Mercer had Student of the Month duty, in which the chief forced him to take three kids out to lunch over in Hilltown. Mercer didn’t mind the kids; he was actually pretty good with them. But if the job was optional, he would have opted out long ago.

The way Bellriver worked was . . . unorthodox, to say the very least. But the fact that it worked at all was what really mattered in the end, and he loved it. Loved every part of it.

Before heading into work, Mercer stopped in front of St. John’s.

Christian hadn’t grown up in a religious household, but he’d like to think he found God on his own. No one led him to Him. He found sanctuary, found sanctity. Mercy. And he liked St. John’s. It was nice. Safe.

Before Bellriver, Mercer had never set foot in such a small church, and yet felt so at peace, segregated—but in a good way. It wasn’t often he listened to the sermons of the Rev, but he liked to go and sit in the pews. Listen to the silence—and the unsilence, as Juliann always used to say.

She loved it too. Actually, in one of her letters—Juliann only ever liked to write letters; she had a laptop but preferred the pen—she mentioned how much she missed the small-town life of Bellriver. St. John’s, included.

Reverend Winchester on the other hand . . .

Mercer couldn’t imagine ever missing a man like that. They shared different perceptions of God. And everything else.

Still, they were civil. Or, as civil as they could be.

Not long ago, right in this church, he’d wed Juliann, and every day since the divorce, he liked to stand there and remember, if only for the sake of resurrecting something he’d never thought would die.

He gently sighed and put a hand to his pocket, feeling for his wallet. And within, the polaroid photo he kept of him and Juliann, standing right here on the steps of St. John’s. Taken on their first visit to Bellriver.

“It’s so pretty,” she’d once said. “I want to stay here.”

“So why don’t we?”

A brow had gone up. “You’re kidding.”

“I don’t have to be.” And he’d pulled out the camera, then. “Come on,” he’d said. “Let’s take a picture.”

“What for?” asked Juliann.

“Because this is the place I love you. And this,” he nudged his chin up the steps at the church, “is where, one day, you will say I do.”

“I . . . do?”

Mercer still remembered getting down on his knee. The ring.

Her eyes—the way she screamed, and said, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

Beside him, Benny strolled to a stop. He took a seat at Mercer’s side and, as though he knew the officer’s entire past, he stared up those steps, glancing between them and Mercer. As if to ask, “Did you forget how to climb?”

Mercer rubbed Benny’s head and went into work.

In his pocket, that polaroid burned a hole in his trousers.

“Kerry?”

He said her name like it was suddenly the hardest thing he’d ever had to do. Like it sat there, burning a hole on his tongue, and yet there was nothing he could do to put out the fire.

Bear it—that was the only thing to do, Andi knew. He could bear it, and then, one day, move on.

This was Andi’s first murder investigation, but she knew from this moment that this would be the worst part of her job—no matter what came, no matter what she went through, or what she was forced to face, this would be the worst of it.

Telling the family.

Kerry’s father was older than she expected. He had a head of wispy white hair that trailed down his sideburns and sprung out from his ears; his eyebrows were the same bushy white, and every part of him looked as though he’d just recently been electrocuted.

But his eyes—they spoke of years of unrest. Of exhaustion.

He ran a tremulous hand down over his face and said her name again, echoing it, like he couldn’t quite get his mind around the fact that his daughter—his only daughter, his only living legacy—was now dead.

Mr. Sean Greaves looked up at them with eyes unseeing. They looked tired, Andi saw, but it was more than that. They looked drained—of light, of color, of life. Not entirely unlike Kerry’s own when they’d discovered her body out on Hollow Hill.

“Kerry had moved out of town, correct?”

Chief Hastings was crouched before him, stooped so that their eyes were level.

Sean’s eyes twitched to hers, but he sat there, sinking deeper into his reclining chair before the fire, and remained silent.

He wiped at his face, now puffy and splotchy.

“I realize this is difficult, Mr. Greaves, but anything you can tell us—”

“You don’t know,” he cut in, his voice cold. Skeletal. Like the flesh of his words had been stripped clean and all that was left was this angry, broken whisper. “You don’t know anything.”

But Chief Hastings did—more than most every could.

Andi’s own hands shook as she struggled to take notes.

The chief started again. “Could you tell us where Kerry has been these past years?”

“All over,” Mr. Greaves managed some time later. “Stayed with different friends she’d met in college. Colorado, I think. Texas for sure.” He shook his head. “We sort of lost touch after a while.”

Chief Hastings offered a gentle nod. “Did you know she’d returned to Bellriver?”

“I’d heard rumors that she’d come back.” He loosened a shuddering breath. “She didn’t reach out. But I knew she was staying with some friends in town. Some older friends.”

“Could you possibly tell us who?” asked the chief.

It took a long time, or what felt to Andi like a long time, for Mr. Greaves to say, “Jeannie Fellows. And her man. Mark.” He put his head in his hands and it drowned out his voice; the chief drew closer to hear. “Jeannie called me that first week—told me my daughter was here on business. Got a job offer close by. Some travel job starting up soon and she needed a place to stay.”

Hastings looked back to see to it that Andi was taking notes. She was.

“Just a thought of my daughter with those people . . .” He grimaced. “Sets me on edge.”

“Is there a reason?”

“I suppose Miss Fellows and her fiancé are nice. But that weird friend of theirs . . . He was always after my Kerry. Always. Tanner was the name. Never liked that boy.”

“Tanner, you said,” asked Andi.

“Yep. Tanner Driscoll. That’d be the one.”

Andi stopped writing. “But why didn’t Kerry just stay—?” She stopped talking when the chief cut her a sharp glance.

Mr. Greaves suddenly looked over at her as though this was the first time he’d noticed she was there.

“With me?”

The chief swallowed. In a soft, nurturing voice, she asked, “Did you two have a falling out?”

He didn’t answer, but after a few moments, he pointed a bony finger towards a desk pushed back against one wall. “Top drawer,” he said. “Grab me the folder.”

Chief Hastings nodded with her chin, motioning for Andi to retrieve it. She went to the desk and pulled on the drawer; the handle was loose and the wood was flimsy. Everything about this place, about Mr. Greaves, seemed to be falling apart.

Right where he said, on top of the cluttered mess of pens and old staples, colored paperclips and old, crumpled up sticky notes was a folder. Andi drew it out and brought it over to where the chief was crouched.

“It’s her portfolio,” he told them, taking it from Andi. “It was.”

He seemed somewhat taken aback, Andi noticed, as he settled into the new verbiage. Was. Had been. Wasn’t any longer.

“She called it Rule of Thirds,” he told them, opening the folder. “It’s some photography term, I guess. Has to do with three points to a photo, I think. All her pictures feature that same rule, all of them.” He breathed slowly and turned the folder so that they could see the print outs. “Just a copy. The real one is on display somewhere.”

“I think it’s supposed to be a play on words, or something,” he told them. “About her being the third child. The youngest.” He offered a shrug of a withered shoulder.

Andi, at first, didn’t know what she was looking at. Each photo was of Mr. Greaves, and in each, he was either caught mid-yell or snarling into the distance. Always frowning. Never happy.

“She caught me at my worst.” Mr. Greaves flipped through the pages upon pages of photographs. “Captured the worst parts of me and showed them to the world.” Slowly, he shook his head, and in that moment, Andi was certain he was on the verge of falling apart. Mere moments away from collapse. “We didn’t speak much after that.”

“Your other daughters,” the chief began, “do they live close?”

“They share a condo out in southern Florida. And, if you’re about to ask me if they would ever wish to harm my Kerry, the answer would be no. Never.” His eyes crinkled with a sudden sadness so profound—not doubt at the prospect of having to tell his other children of what has happened here in Bellriver.

Mr. Greaves closed the folder and handed it to Andi, then slumped forward, his back arched, showing the bones through his shirt.

“Keep it,” he said. “I don’t want it anymore.”

She took it and the chief flashed her a look, telling her to hold onto it.

“Is there anything else you could tell us?”

Gently, Mr. Greaves nodded. “She kept it secret. But my daughter was having . . . relations,” he said, almost choking on the word, “with a much older man. They’ve been seen together all over town.”

“Any idea of who?”

It took him a long time to answer. He simply sat there, staring off across the way, his eyes searching but drinking in nothing. But then, just when Andi thought they’d lost him, he said, “Never knew him. But he was the reason I’d kicked my daughter out.”

“Kicked her out? I thought she left.”

Mr. Greaves seemed to shrink lower to the ground with every second, sinking deeper and deeper into himself. Crumbling from the inside out, like his bones had turned to dust.

“That’s what she told people. That it was time for her to journey out.” He shook his head, so, so slowly. “But I think that’s the real reason she returned to Bellriver, chief. To be with him. But I . . . I told her that man was going to bring her nothing but trouble.”

The chief nodded. “Is there anything you can tell us about this man?”

“White. Male. Older, much. I’d say early fifties.” Mr. Greaves shook his head. “I’d know him if I saw him.” He sighed, leaning further forward, nearly tipping to the floor. “But it didn’t take a genius to tell that he was married.” He dragged his large, shaky hands along the stony plains of his face once again, cold and cracked and on the verge of crumbling. “Could tell by the ring alone.”

The chief glanced at Andi, who returned the look.

“And if you ask me,” Mr. Greaves suddenly said, “if anyone killed my daughter, it’d be him.”

These last words were dead, softly spoken, uttered as if by a stray breeze rather than the man that slouched before them.

“Why do you think he’d wish her harm, Mr. Greaves?”

“Because I believe there’s a reason my daughter returned to Bellriver, and I don’t think for one second that it was really about some job.” He closed his eyes and settled back into his chair, falling into himself. “And now she’s dead, chief. So, if it wasn’t him . . . then who?”

Who was correct, thought Andi.

“Who killed my daughter?”

“White male. Early fifties. Married,” Mercer repeated back over the radio.

He tried not to sound too steamed that it was him working dispatch rather than the new trainee. But, Chief Hastings had it right. If the girl was to learn, this was the best way.

“Correct,” radioed Andi.

“So, basically half this town.” Mercer cursed inside his head. “You headed over to the Fellow household?”

“Copy that.”

“Hey, Andi?”

“Yeah?”

“Did Hastings say anything about the owl statue?”

There was a pause and the chief’s voice came over the radio, loud and clear. “Why don’t you head over to the Historical Society? Ask if there’s significance of the statue.”

Mercer said, “On it.”

“And Kit?”

He groaned into the radio. “Yeah, Chief?”

“Check if the statue’s got any religious meaning behind it. Maybe stop by the chapel on your way through town.”

Mercer couldn’t help but ground his teeth. “You sure sending me in the path of Reverend Winchester is such a good idea?”

“You’re a big boy, Kit.”

“It’s not me I’m worried about.”

“Bad blood?” Andi asked the Chief after she signed off with Mercer, hanging up the radio on the dashboard of her truck.

She looked at her, both hands on the wheel, taking her eyes off the road for only a second.

The chief gripped the side of the door for dear life.

“Let’s just say Mercer isn’t the best . . . people person.” Hastings sighed, looking out the window at the rolling pastures, unfolding to the distant tree line, the waiting wilderness. The mountains that rose beyond. “Then again, the Rev did try to put a curse on him the last time we spoke.”

“A curse?”

Chief Hastings grinned, despite her unease. “Welcome to Bellriver.”

Jeannie sat in the church pew towards the front of St. John’s long after the Sunday morning service had ended.

She wasn’t alone. There were always a few stragglers, villagers that liked to talk to God on their own terms. Without interruptions.

Jeannie Fellows had never thought of herself as entirely religious, but since she’d started dating Mark, she found herself more at peace, in a church, talking to a ceiling. Praying. Admitting she needed help—wasn’t that always the first step to actually receiving assistance?

A weight had lifted from her shoulders the moment she’d first looked to God, and Jeannie liked that feeling—liked knowing someone always had her back.

“People share this common misconception about God,” Mark had told her in the beginning. “They blame their misfortunes, their losses—the death of a loved one—on an absent God. A God that wasn’t there for them in their time of need. ‘He didn’t save my dog from being flattened by a truck, so he must not exist.’”

Jeannie remembered nodding. “Aren’t they right, though? Wouldn’t God step in if he really did exist? Step in with some of that divine intervention and save the day?”

“Or their spouse,” added Mark.

“Or their spouse.”

“Or their parents. Their kids,” Mark continued. “The neighbor across the street. Her cat.”

Jeannie had squinted. “Exactly.”

“But that’s not what God is,” he’d told her. “That’s not what God does.”

“Then what? What does he do?”

“God . . .” Mark trailed off before staring again. “He can’t wave his fingers and magically fix your problems. Can’t just make it okay. He can’t prevent death or stop tragedies. He—”

“Then what can he do?”

“He can hold your hand,” said Mark. “He can help those who are suffering to suffer a little less. He can help you heal when you have lost someone, or when you have fallen. He can’t snap his fingers and keep you from tumbling to the ground. But he will always be there to help you back up again. That’s how God works,” Mark had told her. “That’s what God does.”

And that’s why Jeannie sat in that pew, hands clasped before her. Praying. She didn’t know where Kerry was. She didn’t know if Kerry was safe, or if she was okay, or if she was drugged off her mind. Dead in a ditch.

Jeannie just wanted Kerry to come home.

She’d never had any kids of her own. Mark had a daughter from a past relationship—who was currently visiting—and Jeannie loved her as her own. But Katherine lived with her mother, so this bond Jeannie had managed to form with Kerry, it had felt so close to what she’d imagined being a mother felt like.

And now her girl was gone, missing. Run off somewhere, probably with whoever was getting her those nasty pills.

She breathed deeply, exhaling slowly out through her nose.

When it came down to it, Jeannie knew that, whatever happened, Mark was right—God would be there told their hands. To help them off the ground again. And if she prayed hard enough, God would bring Kerry home.

Still, an impatient voice at the back of her skull still wondered: where did Kerry go?

Jeannie didn’t stay in St. John’s long, only long enough to pray and allow herself to thing without Mark asking her what was on her mind.

Kerry would be okay.

She was a strong girl.

She would be okay. She would.

Jeannie echoed the thought inside her head until it felt real. But was it true?

Did it feel true?

She stared at the ornate designs imprinted on the alter at the back of the small chapel where sunlight cut down through the stained-glass windows in arcs, letting her eyes focus. Unfocus.

Focus.

When she lifted her gaze, Jeannie noticed one of her closest friends, Tanner Dricoll sitting alone on the opposite side of the church. He was alone, his head bowed in prayer.

Tanner? What would he be doing in a church?

Jeannie rose to move beside him. Perhaps he was worried about Kerry as well, though he hadn’t sounded all that surprised when she hadn’t come home the night of the fight. Or like he cared.

“She has to learn how to be an adult. She’ll come back to you and Mark when she realizes that only children run away.”

But was that true?

Jeannie could think of plenty of reasons to run away. To leave—but that had been before she’d found Bellriver. Now she had nowhere to go. And no reason to leave. But wasn’t running sometimes a part of life?

Wasn’t running sometimes what you need to do to get somewhere new?

But Tanner’s response to Kerry’s vanishing hadn’t surprised her. She’d always known Tanner didn’t like Kerry. She turned him down years ago, when he’d asked her out. But Jeannie suspected Tanner was just annoyed with himself for still crushing on her all these years later.

Jeannie stood when a gentle breeze drew her attention to the back of the church. The doors were propped open to “allow the word of God to reach the people,” as Reverend Winchester put it—when in fact the chapel’s million-year-old heater was on the frits again.

But as Jeannie turned, she stared out into the cool autumn air, and let her gaze wander across the village commons, the small blue-green pond at its center, to where their small, red-bricked home stood, framed perfectly in the doorway of St. John’s.

And there, parked out front, the white truck she’d seen around town that belonged to that new officer. The female one.

Good for Bellriver, she’d remembered thinking. It was about time they had a woman for a cop.

But that wasn’t what she was thinking then.

Jeannie felt a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.

Something in that moment told her that, at long last, God had answered her prayers. Kerry Greaves had been found.

And she wasn’t coming home.

At least, not in the way she’d hoped.

Just then, Officer Mercer stepped into the chapel. He stood there, a shadow blotting out the light, and his figure—entirely menacing in a way that, never before, had been anything but benevolent towards Jeannie and her friends, her family—blocked her home.

The place she simultaneously wanted to run to and run from.

Officer Mercer made his way down the aisle, slowly like a bride, but looking more like he was approaching his own grave. And Jeannie held her breath.

He stopped when he’d nearly reached the alter and, squinting, looked at Jeannie.

“The Rev in?”

Slowly, gently, she nodded.

In response, Officer Mercer did the same. “It’s actually good that you’re here,” he told her, his eyes tracing lines on the floor. “You should head home, okay.” He blinked, before looking deep into her eyes—and Jeannie knew.

She knew.

“The Chief needs to have a word with you, I’m afraid.”

I’m afraid—and so was Jeannie.

All she could do was nod.

Tanner, who must have heard them talking, was suddenly at Jeannie’s side, taking her by the arm.

“Come on,” he quietly told her. “Let’s go find Mark.”

And for the very first time, Jeannie wanted nothing more than to be anywhere but with her husband.

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