Jerry Stintson was experiencing a surge of previously dormant, hidden emotions he’d never known himself capable of having.
Maybe it gets better, he reasoned. Maybe it’s like when you strain a muscle you don’t use–it’s sore for awhile, but then it heals and gets stronger than ever.
“Yeah, right,” he mumbled, but no one heard him over the coonhounds’ caterwauling.
He felt helpless and afraid. He had visions of finding his son’s body dead, raped and bloated in a creek bed somewhere. Maybe he was still alive, though. Maybe someone was raping him or torturing him.
Right now. Could be doing it right now.
How could he ever go to sleep again if they didn’t find him? How could he lay his head on his pillow every night, close his eyes and get a peaceful night’s rest while his son was being raped? Maybe he was dead and his body was gettin’ ate up by coyotes.
“Stop it! Stop it!” This time they did hear.
His brother Tony placed a hand on his shoulder. “You alright, bro?”
Jerry looked deep into Tony’s eyes and wondered from what shadowy corner of that vast, empty head of his he’d pulled such a stupid question from.
“Hell no, I’m not alright. Hell do you think?”
Tony pulled back. “Sorry, man, I was just… sorry.”
Jerry sighed. “No, I’m sorry. I’m on edge right now. Feel like I’m crawling outta my skin.”
“Well,” said Tony, glancing back at the armed assemblage of people behind them, “What with everyone we got out here lookin’, I expect we’ll find that boy in no time at all. Prolly just run off someplace, anyhow. You know how them kids is.”
“Apparently you don’t know my kid real well, ’cause he don’t do stupid shit like that. He ain’t like you was at that age.”
“Yeah. Kind of a nerd, like you.” They started walking again. They were almost to Mitchell Park.
Tony laughed. “I’m just messin’ with you, bro.”
“Not the time.”
Kimball jogged up beside them, rifle in hand. “What’s your kid doin’ comin’ all the way out here, anyway? You know we don’t want folks pokin’ around this area. Too close to the fence.”
“Try and stop a kid like that,” said Jerry. “He goes where he wants and we’d have to tie him down to stop him. Always thought he could take care of himself, but…” He choked back tears.
“Sorry I have to ask you questions like that, Jerry. I know it’s hard. But I’m trying to conduct a search and an investigation at the same time, and it ain’t easy. I need any information you can give me, no matter how unimportant it seems.”
Jerry modded. “Sure. Sure. Well, we checked everywhere else he goes. Last place I know to look. Don’t think he comes down here too much, though. Too bad I ain’t got the money for that detective to come down here and take a look.”
“I went to his room, told him not to get involved.”
Jerry stopped and turned on him, and everyone else around them stopped, too.
Kimball stiffened. “We don’t need his help around here. Me an’ the boys can handle things just fine.”
“Like you handled the other ones? You stupid son of a bitch. This ain’t no dick swingin’ contest–this is my boy’s life you’re playin’ games with, here.”
“Jerry, you wanna calm down and take that finger outta my face right now, is what you wanna do. You just settle down.”
“You settle down, fucker,” said Tony. “Why the shit would you turn down good help? You’re an asshole, man. Always was.”
Andy Thompson, one of Jerry’s neighbors and a good friend of Kimball’s, stepped between the quarreling men. “Y’all cut it out, this ain’t the time for petty bullshit.”
“Tell that to Kimball!” spat Jerry.
The crowd was moving around them now like water around a fallen limb in a river, and the dogs were taking off into the woods, barking and howling and making an altogether joyful racket.
“Come on then,” said Tony. “Andy’s right. Time’s a-wastin’.”
They hadn’t ventured far beyond the barricades and into the woods when they heard shouting up ahead, and an intensifying of the dogs’ barking. By the time they caught up with everyone else there were several men rushing forward to hold Jerry back.
“What is it? What’d you find, is it him? Is it him?”
He wriggled in the grip of two men much larger than himself as Kimball cut through the gathering crowd. He emerged a few moments later with a sunken expression, and Jerry knew.
“Where is he? I wanna see him!”
Kimball seized him a tight bear hug, not even letting go as the sobbing, hysterical man rained closed-fisted blows down upon his back.
“Let me go! I wanna see him!”
“No,” Kimball whispered in his ear through gritted teeth, “you don’t.”