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Ike knew the instant that he saw the face on the screen that it was his father’s, the strong chin, the black hair, greased and slicked back. He hadn’t been paying much attention to the news story, so he rewound it.
The search party had found the basket of clothes strewn on the ground behind the laundromat. They found her body about two miles away. She had been raped and her skull crushed buy a large stone. She was nine years old, born the same year as Ike’s older sister. At the time of the murder, Ike himself was only five. The case was over forty years cold when a young detective with fresh eyes stumbled across the sealed box in an auxiliary evidence room. The only real leads the original detectives had saved were the sketchy story told by an old man who had witnessed a rusted blue Ford pickup in the laundromat parking lot and a sketchy artist-rendering of the dark-haired driver the old man had described. Ike pressed the pause button when the sketch appeared again. He knew it was him. If he had seen the face a few years ago, when his old man was still alive, he wouldn’t have seen the likeness.
He had viewed his father in one light till his older sister shone a new one on his memory only a few days after the gravediggers had covered the old man with the thick Georgia clay. With time, Ike came to understand why his sister never shared her secret with him. He was angry at her anyway. She had conspired with his mother to let him love a man who didn’t deserve love, or life, if it came to that. They knew the father was a deviant and Ike could never forgive any of them, nor could he forgive himself for being a fool. He wanted to know exactly what his father had done, but when he prodded his sister for details she could only sob till she lost her breath. He never asked again, and he didn’t know the details, but he knew enough that his natural naivety would never recover. So when he saw the sketched likeness on the five o’clock news, he was able to see what he could never have seen before.
After the story ended, Ike sought, and then retrieved, a few old photos of his family from his sock drawer. In one white-edged polaroid, he saw his father in a pale blue suit, standing behind his sister, his hands on her shoulders. She wore a lacy white dress. Red roses climbed the trellis in the background. On the back of the picture, in his mother’s writing, it read “Easter 1973.” The girl at the laundromat had been taken in February of that same year. In another picture he saw his father standing in front of a rusted blue Ford pickup. Ike removed his glasses, wiped them on the hem of his shirt, and again looked closely at his fathers face. Ike knew then that he was his sister’s father and not his, and that he was also the man who left the shattered little girl in the February mud.
He called the hotline number early Monday morning.
When they met at the local Waffle House, the fresh detective asked him how he knew. Ike told the detective about his sister’s molestation and then showed him the photos. The detective saw the resemblance immediately. The fresh detective then explained how the coroner, four decades earlier, had inserted a rag inside the slaughtered little girl and retrieved a semen sample.The coroner had predicted the future, inferring that someday that sample might evince guilt. The detective told Ike how the coroner had placed that sample in a sealed container and how the current coroner and a host of scientists had extracted, quantified, amplified and then isolated the markers of the male perpetrator. The detective then produced a long cotton swab from a thin plastic container and said, “if you really want to know for sure, this will do it.”
Ike took the swab from the detective, rubbed it around between his cheek and gums, placed it back in the container, and handed it to the detective.
The detective said, “Now we wait.”
Ike didn’t have to wait long, a few days, and then came the call he had expected, and then the story ran on the local news. He heard the reporter say his father’s name. He heard the dead girl’s aged mother thank him for coming forward. When the reporter asked something about closure, he clicked the red off button.
Ike tried not to think about his father or his sister, or the broken girl in the February mud, but soon found himself unable to think of anything else. He saw in his skull and in his heart what he knew, and it made him queasy. He then began to see what he inferred, and he vomited in the toilet, and then in the trash can in his office, and then on the sidewalk in front of his home. He began to be ashamed, and then afraid, of his own markers.
He tried to forget. His wife understood and tried to help him forget. He pulled her close, slid his hand up her blouse and then down the front of her panties. He began to stiffen, much as he always had. Then he saw her as something else, a pale and misshapen face and body in the February mud. He grabbed his penis to be certain that he was no longer erect and ran to the bathroom and vomited again in the toilet. He lay in the shower, the water so hot it scorched his foreskin and scrotum. He stayed till the water ran cold.
He tried to forget, but there were children in the street, on the sidewalks, and in the yards. He could not look at them. There were women in the street. They looked like little girls. He could not look at them either.
Ike could not lie with his wife. He slept first in the closet and then in the backyard and then in the brambles behind the park.
Once, years later, he thought he saw his wife and sister walking along the trail beneath the parkway bridge. He wanted to call to them as they passed, but as they drew closer, he could see that it wasn’t them at all
Alan Caldwell lives in Carroll County Georgia, but is working on moving to his rural property in the mountains of Northeast Alabama. He has been married to his lovely wife, Brandi, for 33 years. He has one son, Caleb, who is a firefighter, a daughter-in-law, Chelsee, who is an emergency room nurse, and a grandson, Asher. Alan has been teaching for 27 years and spends much of his free time outdoors or reading. Alan has been collecting stories, mostly about his family, for over 40 years, but has just begun writing them.