The next morning, waking up at 8 rather than the farm life 5, among the first things I noticed was a paper origami bird on the desk by my bed, facing me. I picked it up, and I noticed there was some writing on it. Hardly had my eyes gotten used to the morning light before I unfolded it and read:
— Signed, the Queen in Pink.
I immediately panicked, and I hid the note in my pocket. What in the world was this!?
Over breakfast, I asked my aunt and uncle if they had left anything next to my bed, and they said no. They were already worried about me, knowing my relationship to Amy, and my question just made them more worried. They then tried to console me about last night, and that just made me more frustrated. I didn't want to talk about it. I rushed through my meal and left the house to get some fresh air.
I thought back to the previous evening, and that scene on the sofa (and on the floor). The skinless corpse; the scalp and the castrated genitals stuffed in the skin of his face; and the threat of a so-called "SCAVENGER HUNT" for the rest of James Aiken's body parts. And, Amy crying right beside it all. After my witnessing it, the rest of night was anticlimactic. Before I knew it, a crowd gathered behind me to see what I saw. I could hardly hear or notice what their reaction was. A few that overcame their shock at the sight went to check if James' wife was safe.
Mary Aiken was also found dead in the bedroom. Her corpse did not suffer as drastic a fate as James'. There were, uncomfortably, some vaginal trauma. But other than that, her corpse was more or less intact. It seemed that Amy, despite all her cuts and bruises, was lucky to be alive.
Then, the sheriff ushered Amy out to our tiny town jail, where she was to be treated and held. Upon returning, he ushered the rest of out. I noticed my aunt and uncle in the crowd, and, as they rubbed my shoulders, we took the short walk back to our house, where I slept late.
And that was the rest of yesterday.
I could not believe he was dead. I just couldn't believe it. And in such a horrible fashion too. How much pain did he go through? What did he, of all human beings, do to deserve this? It was senseless. It was undeserved. He was gone. I'd known him all my life, and he was gone.
It should be noted that some time after graduation, I was planning to go to Austin to work for Mr. Aiken as an aide. Now that was, of course, not to be. I walked out into the blue sky realizing that I now had no plan for the summer. It dawned on me just how much the direction of my life depended on him. What was I going to do now? Perhaps I could use my dad's name to get a stint for a newspaper. But I felt a lack of motivation. And I worried that Mr. Aiken's "big secret" died with him.
I had always hated this sky. We all did. It was under this barren openness that horrible things were allowed to happen. Poverty, starvation, stooped backs, beat up and disfigured hands and feet, murder, lynching. "The curse of Hill Country." What was the point of being born here if we were all just going to fade into obscurity? Sometimes I wished that after I died, I would just become a cloud, unconsciously passing over this town to bring rain, making the summer just a tad bit less awful for the people here.
I looked back at the note. Were my aunt and uncle playing a prank on me? No. That would be extremely insensitive after what happened last night.
If it wasn't my aunt or uncle, that means it was someone else. As I held the note under the sun, rereading it, my hands trembled. Someone entered our house during the night.
As it turns out, I wasn't the only one who received one. Other people also reported getting them, which for the most part were folded into an origami bird, and ended with "Signed, the Queen in Pink." Some prankster was going around to people's rooms in the night!
Many of us gathered in front of the barbershop to, quite literally, compare notes.
"Yep. I got one too. Says, 'James Aiken didn't deserve his fate, but he walked right into it. — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"
"Mine says, 'James Aiken should have learned how to dodge. — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"
Everyone nervously shuffled.
"Well... Mine says, 'Don't ever vote for a woman politician, unless it's me. — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"
"'Onions taste best raw. — Signed, the Queen in Pink'.. Hahaha, well I disagree, personally."
What is this nonsense?
"'Hill Country? More like Hunchback Country. — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"A bunch of women discreetly straightened their backs.
"'Patillo Higgins deserved better. Wait, who's Patillo Higgins? — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"
"'Lick my clitoris. — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"
"'You are much too shy for such a smart young lady. People do enjoy listening to you talk. Put yourself out there more. — Signed, the Queen in Pink'... W-wow! D-do you guys really enjo—"
"'Bigamy is a complicated game. But if you are successful at it, you will get to experience the esoteric "spiritual X-some" — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"
"'If you think Amy Aiken's attractive, wait till you see me. — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"
"'It's unfortunate what happened to James Aiken. But at least he died sucking his own cock. — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"
"'Looks like Mary Aiken finally got what she wanted: A knife in her vagina. Wait, what? — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"
This is genuinely disgusting.
"'URGENT! THIS IS NOT A JOKE. GOVERNOR LEE O'DANIEL IS GOING TO KILL HIMSELF. And that's a good thing. — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"
"'If you have a choice between schizophrenia and a lobotomy, go with schizophrenia. — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"
"'Reading books is a waste of time. — Signed, the Queen in Pink'."
"Wait, everyone. Shouldn't we do something about the governor?"
"'Little one: If you can't beat the Queen in Pink, join her. — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"
"'Little one: If you can't beat the Queen in Pink, beat your meat. — Signed, the—'"
The boy's mother snatched the note away.
"'Commies ain't red, and Pinkos ain't pink. — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"
"'Railroad tycoons are homosexual. — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"Everyone cheered. This is not good.
"'Don't worry about getting addicted to cigarettes. Just keep smoking. — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"
"'This is the FIND YOUR FRIEND game. You have the letter "A". Whoever also has an "A" on their note is your FRIEND! — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"
"Wait, Vivian? I got an A!"
"Hahaha! Hello, Tessa! We haven't talked much, but I guess we're friends now!"
They linked arms.
"Well, this is great! Look at us! We're like two peas in a pod!"
I hope they get shot.
"'If you're taking out a loan, make sure you have no assets. — Signed, the Queen in Pink'
"'I am getting increasingly frustrated with things, and I'm beginning to think that perhaps this world isn't for me. I have decided to take my own life. I am so, so, so sorry to all my friends, family, and everyone who cared about me. I love you. I love you all so much. But I feel I have no choice. Goodbye. My final, dying wish is that Emily Baker lets me have sex with her. — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"
Emily Baker was not present.
"'The Earth is flat. Just kidding. — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"
"'Women shouldn't be allowed to vote, unless it's me. — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"
"'You are a fine young lady, Erica. You shall do well in my court. There are certainly a great many young men fawning over you. But perhaps your ideal man isn't a suitor, but a friend. Think of Adam. — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"
Erica blushed and looked across at Adam. Adam shyly looked away, then pulled out his note.
"Adam, your feelings are written on your face. It seems that everyone except Erica is aware of your feelings for her. Love is strange, isn't it? — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"
Erica welled up with tears. Adam, after helplessly watching her for a while, slowly walked up to her. He gently lifted her chin and stroked her cheek. They stared at each other for what felt like a minute, until the silence was broken by someone shouting, "Kiss!"
After some hesitation, Adam held Erica's face and kissed her, and people applauded.
I hope every single person in this town gets drawn and quartered.
"'Elections aren't popularity contests. Not anymore, that is. — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"
"'Your armpits are very alluring. — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"
"'You shouldn't be masturbating to the Virgin Ma—' Actually, never mind. Mine is empty."
"'In order to beat the Southern Caucus, you have to be the Southern Caucus. — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"
"'Don't worry about another world war. My prediction is that another one is coming, and it will be ugly. But don't worry about it. — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"
"'Adults should wear diapers. Just kidding. — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"
"'No one likes your new hairstyle. — Signed, the Queen in Pink'. Haha, I'm sure you folks don't think that ........... Oh shi—"
"'In my opinion, all these people complaining about 'starving' because of the 'Depression' don't realize how privileged they are. They should suck it up and pull themselves up by the bootstraps. — Signed, Herbert Hoover'"
"'The alcohol lobby should tell Pappy to pass the beer. — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"
"'James Aiken's last words were "Yeehaw!" Just kidding, it was "Hey, what are you doing? Stop! Stop it! ARRRRGH!" — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"
"'Everyone deserves to have their own Sam Cherry bullet. This includes James and Mary Aiken. — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"
"'Don't worry about getting addicted to coffee. Just keep drinking. — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"
"'Jeeeenny and Daaaavid siiiiitting in a Ford. F-U-C-K-I-N-G! — Signed, the Queen in Pink.'"
Jenny and David sprinted away in opposite directions, with their parents chasing after them.
"'Rule 22 is the cornerstone of American democracy. — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"
"'Hey penis sucker, you know who the most beautiful person in the world is? Read the second word. — Signed, the Queen in Pink'"
I pretended that I didn't receive one. Not everyone had, in any case. At some point, everyone looked at Mr. Foster, in anticipation. Surely, he had gotten one.
Mr. Foster looked distraught. He sighed, pulled a slip of paper from his pocket, and read, "'When H.L. Hunt takes his shoes and socks off and plops his bare feet up on the desk, your job is to lick them. Lick them clean. — Signed, the Queen in Pink.'"
There was quite a bit of discussion throughout the day on who the murderer was. The primary suspect, of course, was Amy. With all the intermingling going on after the ceremony, it seemed that pretty much everyone else had an alibi.
It seemed odd that Amy would have been able to overpower a large fistfighter like Mr. Aiken. Perhaps Mr. Aiken was so shocked that his own daughter was going after him that he let his guard down. It was worth noting that Amy was also badly bruised. There had been some kind of fight going on in there. Both Amy's and James' loose behavior over the years did not help defuse this image. Still, it wouldn't make sense that James Aiken's corpse would end up in that state.
Earlier in the day, there was another suspect: Ms. Daeth (who, for most of today, locked herself home). After all, she was the one vaguely prophecizing Amy would do something to her father on graduation day. However, Mr. Foster cleared her name by giving himself as her alibi. She was dining at his place, he said.
I was not thrilled.
Of course, Mr. Foster was sort of a de-facto authority figure in our town, so there was no helping it. On top of that, we were all indebted to him over the years, of course.
And the same was true with Ms. Daeth. She had an exceptional Christian altruism, even by Hill Country standards. Back in the 20s, many Foster City families' lives were made easier thanks to her. I remember in the 20s, how when my mother suffered from illness or a sprained ankle or whatnot, it was Ms. Daeth that would take extra time out of her day to help us out. Even after being widowed in the 30s, she was still quite bright for a country woman, and a great conversationalist, and despite her age (in her 40s now) maintained a quite attractive face and figure—including a somewhat straight back.
I understood that it was difficult for the town to suspect people they respected. It was easier to blame a troublemaker like Amy. But I didn't think this was fair at all. Ms. Daeth knew something was going to happen. Maybe she didn't do it, but did she really have to be let off that easy? Was Mr. Foster really going to undergo no scrutiny? Was his word law? I began to hate living in the country. I felt sick. I wanted to get out of here.
Like a hot potato.
And then there was the "scavenger hunt."
Not long after the note-sharing front of the barbershop, one man came hysterically yelling from his house saying he had found a finger in his wardrobe. He held it up and we all looked away.
And thus the word began to spread that everyone should search their houses. The sheriff asked that if any other pieces were found, to bring it in to him (or call for him if they were too uncomfortable to do it themselves).
I went back to my room and checked the drawer of the desk that the origami bird was sitting. Sure enough, there was a toe sitting over my now defunct school notes. It was a toe, but it had been disfigured—chiseled, nail removed, possibly even burnt—that it was hard to tell which toe it was. It must have been the pinky or ring toe. I studied it abstractly like that for a while, then in a sort of delayed reaction shouted and threw it after remembering whose toe it was.
My aunt bursted into the room asking what was wrong. I brushed her off again. Now they were just going to be even more worried.
I managed to swallow my grief and disgust and bring it to the sheriff. The body parts came trickling in like that throughout the day—some found in odd corners and stuffed underneath steps outdoors even. There were patches of skin, fingers chopped up piece by piece. Two neighboring houses had the misfortune of having to turn in either nipple. By the end of the day, it seemed like more or less the entirety of Mr. Aiken's missing skin had been recovered. At first, the sheriff was hoping the body parts could be rearranged around Mr. Aiken's corpse for the funeral, but they came in such small, disfigured sections that putting them back together them was infeasible.
Technically, Amy—the Aikens' sole adult child—although being held in jail, had the right to direct the fate of the body parts. Deeming them unusable, she wanted them cremated. And so they were. Mr. Aiken's corpse was to also be cremated. So it goes.
So, last night, some prankster, or pranksters, was not only going around leaving notes, but spreading James Aiken's body parts.
With this so-called "scavenger hunt" taking place, Amy was, at least, partly absolved. At least, even had she performed the murder, there had to be at least one other complicit actor: She couldn't have spread the body parts that night because she was being held in the jail.
Actually, now the details of the murder were extremely bizarre. The sheriff searched the house as soon as we witnessed the scene, and didn't find Mr. Aiken's body parts anywhere. So how did they even get spread? The course of events around the murder would have had to be something like this: Amy, or her accomplice, would have had to murder her parents, then leave the house to smuggle the body parts out to some hiding spot (and if that smuggler were Amy herself, she would have had to even reenter the house), so they could be spread out later. All this would have had to be done between when the ceremony ended and those girls knocked on the door of the Aiken house. Did anyone notice someone entering and leaving the Aiken house during that hour or so? Plenty of people were outdoors. If we had missed it, how did that someone know what the opportune time would be to do the smuggling? How did that someone know the precise time that no one was looking? Just thinking about it made my head spin.
Of course, this was a small town in the country, and especially in this pre-Emmett Till era, newspapers had a tendency to avoid reporting the grisly details of deaths, murders, and lynching cases. The bizarre details of the murder were not properly communicated to the press, and thus it didn't even come close to making headlines. After all, it wasn't all too surprising that an anti-segregationist, "Communist" Austin statesman would undergo a political assassination or a lynching. I thought about how many other horrific incidents like this had been lost in the darkness of the past.
Also: How in the world did this prankster, or these pranksters, enter so many people's houses without them noticing? As it turns out, a few people did notice some shadows and figures passing by them through the night, but thought they were hallucinating (their imagination running wild of paranoia after witnessing Aiken's corpse).
Had all these shenanigans had their intended effect? As the day went on, the town was starting to believe more in the supernatural. How else could one explain such a bizarre murder, as well as the notes and the spread body parts? And all this was compounded when one thought back to Ms. Daeth's performances over the past few weeks. Parents started interviewing their kids on whether she had said any other noteworthy things.
People were worried. Was what happened to Mr. Aiken just the beginning? What if they were next? Could it happen to their families? Their kids? And as that magnificent pink curtain was drawn over us, some of us began to even long for that long-hated yet safe sapphire.
And thus, as that curtain was drawn, many—people of all ages now—gathered in front of Ms. Daeth's house in hopes of catching a show. We waited, waited, chatting amongst each other, speculating, theorizing, worrying.
But Ms. Daeth did not emerge. Instead, a young girl—about 7—from the crowd went up to where Ms. Daeth usually stood, and pulled out a note.
Her mother angrily lunged out at her, her husband holding her back. "Ava! Why didn't you say you got one!?"
"The note said to not let a single soul know until now. And to read it in front of her house," Ava innocently said.
"That's why you were asking me how to pronounce all those words!? You're getting a spanking! You're getting a—" Her mother lunged again, and her husband held her back, murmuring something like, "It's okay. Let's hear it."
Ava stepped up to Ms. Daeth's porch (I guess she felt too short), and began reading.
"'Little Ava, sweet Ava. Do not let anyone, not a single soul, know you've received this note until the evening, upon which you must read it aloud in front of Ms. Daeth's house.
I, the Queen in Pink, offer my condolences to all those that were close to Mary and James Aiken. I mourn their deaths from the bottom of my heart. For all the world is my children—the old and young, the fair and colored, the left and right, the good and bad. Let us all take a moment of silence for James and Mary Aiken. Now, Ava, count to 20 in your head, and then continue reading the message.' Oh, woopsy."
Ava began counting to 20 with her fingers, and we all waited awkwardly in silence.
"'The Mothman—not me—has removed James Aiken from this world. Whether some manifestation of Mr. Aiken is in Lacrasa now, and how he fares in that dark city where buildings protrude from other buildings, where rivers flow in the sky, and that monster stands on Lake Lhume, is not known to me. Progress is like a steamroller. If you thrash around and stick out too much, even in the name of progress itself, you may get flattened. People get hurt along the way. But in the long run, we save lives, and reduce suffering. Noble ends are met by using unsavory means. Not that extremeties don't have their place: Extreme pushes and pulls exist to bring the ship back on course, balancing out in the service of moderation. And history shall move forward, slowly fulfilling its manifest destiny.
In any case, do not fret, for I, the Queen in Pink, will protect you from any further attacks from the Mothman. However, I can only do so much. You all must make sure to take great precaution in your activities. Do not intrude in all the greater games being played. To begin: Do not visit Amy Aiken, do not talk to Amy Aiken, and do not trust Amy Aiken.
— Signed, the Queen in Pink'"
Of course, I decided to visit Amy. Despite that veiled threat in the speech, my aunt and uncle egged me on. And besides, the note in my pocket implicitly told me to.
In fact, it just so happened that visiting hours opened then, after the sheriff and his wife Ella had finished their outdoor activities (they, too, had to participate in the farm life) and had retreated to the jailhouse (Like in most country jails at the time, the sheriff and his family of 2 lived on the first floor).
I walked to the lonely jail; not a place I had visited very often, or anyone in this city for that matter. It had a deceptively cute looking cubical structure made of limestone, with cathedral-like barred windows peering out. The inmates were kept on the second floor, with a maximum capacity of 7. For the past several years, it had been more or less empty. In fact, its most common captive over the past 4 years was Amy, who often had to be held overnight following her theft and vandalism antics. Now she was back for, what looked like, a more extended stay.
As I stared up at the cube in the pink, I was hesitant to enter. It had been 4 years since I'd talked to her. But after standing there for a few minutes in conflict, and remembering yesterday's scene in the Aiken house, I swallowed my doubts, mustered up all my courage, and walked in.
As soon as I arrived, the sheriff knew I was there to meet its sole inmate.
"Yep, she's been as unruly as always. "Don't touch me!" and all that. You'd think I know better, but her injuries this time were pretty bad. Thought she'd let us, or a doctor, treat her. Not even close. "Don't touch me!" Lord almighty, that's the last thing you want to hear from her. Let me just say: We sure as hell knew not to touch her. You know she's a goddamn tiger. Looks slim as hell, but I've been here since this city was just a Fort on the frontier, and I've had a harder time with her over the years than I had with some hardened criminals. God, I'm telling you, her nails are as goddamn scary as an Indian tomaha—anyway, we left her medical supplies and whatnot, and she treated herself. Looks like she's fine in that regard. Ella thought she'd have a better time. Boy, you should've seen what happened when Ella tried to enter her cell with breakfast. The girl just gave her the most indecent, obscene lashing. Poor Ella came back down with tears, hahaha. We know now not to enter her cell now. Just leave the meals and whatnot at the cell door and let her do her own thing. That girl's more defensive now than I've ever seen her. Like a cornered animal. Scary as hell."
Forget this. I'm turning back.
"Well, she's eating her meals. Ella's been leaving her some clothes too, and she's been changing into them. And, you know, this was cute. Ella went up to leave her lunch, and that girl—so quietly, so meekly—asked for some makeup. Hehe. Well, it's easy to forget she's a girl after all. Hell, I can relate. Might as well look good if you're gonna be stuck here who knows how long.
"I should stay as impartial as I can, but I'll tell you: She's a good kid. And this is coming from me. You know I've scuffled with her more than anyone else in town. But the more I've scuffled with her, the more I've come to know she's a good person at heart. Just needs guidance, structure, something like that. Nice to see you here, by the way. Didn't think no one would come after that horrific lecture. I remember seein you two playing together all the time as kids. Guess she's gonna figure out who her real friend is, eh? Heh, sorry, didn't mean to tease you. But, well, I mean it. Hope you can get through to her. No pressure."
"Actually, I just realized. I have a business meeting."
The sheriff took that as a joke. I suppose it's too late to turn back now.
I ascended to the second floor. Walking down the hallway, I checked empty cell after cell. Each cell had the same format: A barred window in the center letting in a tint of dark pink, and a bed on the far right corner. It wasn't until I reached the end of the hallway that I found the cell with what I was looking for.
There she was: huddled against the left corner with her knees tucked in. Her head was facing down against her knees, and her long hair blocking her face.
I suppose Ella had left her Pioneer clothing. She was dressed almost head-to-toe: A bushy nightcap above tight blue bodice from which ballooned long sleeves leading into white gloves. And a classically long skirt forming a dome on the gray floor underneath which hid her legs. I noticed an nightgown folded on the bed as well.
Noticing my presence, she looked up.
It was hard to make out her face in the tint, but it was her face: the same one that was beaming on the stand during graduation, except now with a decent amount of bandages, and—contrastingly—coated with even more makeup than when she was on the stand: beaming red lipstick and conspicuous blush, yet still looking somewhat tired, dead underneath. And yet, for some reason, my heart began beating. I suddenly realized that I had subconsiously trained myself to avoid looking at her face over the past several years, because, maybe, somehow the way it grew made me uncomfortable. But now, for the first time in years, we were alone, and that face was looking directly at me. And I didn't know what to say.
I am a worthless idiot that deserves to die.
She didn't respond, and looked back down, hiding her face under her hair.
I stood there, hesitating for a while, regretting that I had come at all. She clearly did not want to talk. Who did I think I was to come here? But then, suddenly,
"Wasn't expecting you," she said, bluntly.
"Well, I thought... Must get pretty lonely in here."
"Nah. I'm used to it."
She looked up, and turned her face away towards the window behind her.
"No kiddin'. It's nice in here," she said, "No one to bother you. No chores, no responsibilities. No folks asking you to hang out. I like bein' alone. All I have to do here is sit and do nothing. Doin' nothin' is kinda fun, honestly."
"You should throw a baseball through the barber's window and spend a night here. It ain't bad."
"Haha. Well, guess we're adults now. I learned that the hard way."
A somewhat cryptic comment, but I somehow understood what she was trying to say.
Another silence followed, which was broken, once more, by her.
"How've things been, Kev?"
"W-well, I guess I'm good."
"Sorry 'bout your parents, again. I felt bad. They were super nice to me back in the day."
"No, it's fine. And, besides.. err.. I feel more sorry for your parents."
Woops. That might have been too insensitive.
"Heh, you can say that again. Can't wait for my turn."
Never mind. She has an even darker humor than me.
"Ah, right, guess you were gonna go down to Austin with Daddy, eh?"
"Daddy thought you were some hot shit, hahaha. Whaddya think? Are ya hot shit, Kev?"
"Not really. I think he was just thinking of my dad."
"Haha. I can relate. Met some 'great' Austin statesmen and some of 'em talk to me all like 'Aiken's daughter, huh? You're going places.' Like hell I am. The only place I'm going is to the gallows, heh. But Daddy really thought you were something, Kev. Talked about ya quite a bit."
"Well, he said good things about you too. About... err... how you're a good girl at heart and everything, and bright."
"Ugh! Well, that's Daddy for ya. Tryna 'hook us back up.' He was playin' politics even with us. Glad ya didn't fall for it."
"Huh? What do you mean?"
"Well, anyway, now what? What's your plan?"
"Um... Not sure..."
I hadn't thought about it at all.
"If anything," I said, "Well, your dad was working on... err something. Let's see, how much am I allowed to say..."
"Big Oil? Big secret?"
"Yeah. Told me about Sid Richardson, Clint Murchison, and the whole bunch. Well, nah. I dunno what his big secret was. He guarded it like piece-a treasure. Think about that: Didn't even tell his own sweet, gorgeous, smart daughter. I'm offended."
"I mean... it seems like you still know quite a bit."
"... Hey, Kev. Are ya thinking what I'm thinking?"
"..I think so."
We decided to team up: To combine our fragmented knowledge in an attempt to recover that secret, or, at least, find a way to break a story on the matter.
Aiken was very secretive about who his contacts were, and kept them relatively separate. So one of our orders of business was to try and figure out who and what that network consisted of.
"How big was Daddy's secret? Did he really think it could break through the Marsh empire?"
"Charles Marsh? Is he really that big of a deal?"
"He controls half the news industry in Texas."
"Well, according to your dad, my dad was friends with him."
"Yeah, my dad was too optimistic about that. You think 'friends' means anything? 'Friendship' means nothing."
Not like that, Amy! Not like that!
"You realize, Kev, the field that we're workin' with?"
"An oil field!"
"Hah! Right, right, Kev. And here, these 'friends' will coat 'emselves in gusher rain and stab each other in the back, come up the next day and say 'Wasn't me.' Talk about a minstrel show."
"Joiner cried on Hunt's shoulder one day and sued him the next. Y'know why Richardson befriended Murchison as a boy? Cause Murchison's dad was rich. There's a smackin' foundation for 'childhood friends'. Hell, like 'friends' means squat to anyone nowadays. 'Friendship' is just two people takin' advantage of each other."
An awkward silence, as she realizes her slip-up.
"Kev, y'know why I befriended you?"
"Cause you were poor."
"Listen, Kev. Think about Marsh this way: He made Sid Richardson. You think he's gonna give up one of his greatest creations over a friendship?"
"How did he make Richardson?"
"Oh, shit. He didn't tell you"
"Well, shit. There's some missing info there. And I have no idea how we're gonna track down the sources for some of these stories. Marsh advanced Sid some money, guaranteed his loans or somethin' when Sid was living on scraps"
"How in the world did your dad figure this out?"
"Well, Daddy used to be a lawyer right? Well, he has friends up and down the pipeline, no pun intended, all the way up to the fed. When our little Siddy boy wasn't paying his debts, they knocked on his door. And well, word got back down to my dad."
"Now how the hell do we blow open that one? I don't know the name of the federal agent. I'm sure someone knows, but who? Daddy probably had a plan, but he probably didn't count on dying like this. Now all we have is a buncha missing gaps. It's gonna take years to fill these in."
"Well, Charles Marsh knows. If we can get him to—"
"What did I tell ya, Kev?"
"Well, Lyndon is sleeping with his wife..."
"God, you guys are apes. Daddy really pokes his nose in the wrong places."
"That's not what I'm saying."
"Jesus, think of that poor girl. And poor Lady Bird."
Amy is a girl, after all.
"I mean, that 'poor girl'—wait, isn't she rich?"
"Champagne on the patio. Har har."
"I mean, it's love, that's all. If Lyndon gives up his career for her, everything's solved."
"Like hell love exists."
"First friendship, now love!?"
She became more animated the more we talked. She'd sometimes awkwardly waddle around the cell, strangely meddle with the wall with the tip of her shoe, then she and her skirt would drift onto the bed, where she would lie down in contorted, kiddish positions, hiding under the blanket curling up like a cat and waving her leg out like a snake. She'd go lean against the window, and stare out at the pink sky, the heels of her shoes tapping against the floor. Most of the time, she sat against the left wall of the cell, giving me a sideview of her face all but hidden by her hair. After a snarky remark she might brush her hair away and smirk at me, then let her hair fall back against her cheeks, effectively making a teaseshow around glimpses of her face.
"Hey, Kev, I just remembered. We're 18. Who are ya gonna vote for?"
"The Senate election? ...Probably Dies."
"He's so conservative."
"Right... Forgot that you were pretty conservative... Daddy used to complain about that, hehe. You know, your dad was pretty left."
"I'm guessing you're for Mann?"
"Yes and no."
"He's definitely my favorite candidate. But he doesn't stand a chance at winning."
"This election's Lyndon vs. Pappy."
"Last time I checked, Lyndon was nonexistent in the polls."
"Was that before or after Roosevelt's endorsement?"
"Ugh... Wait, how did that happen?"
"Jesus, Kev, I was so fucking pissed. I'm a Roosevelt gal, but he can really screw it up sometimes. I dunno, Kev. Mann's ten times a New Dealer than Lyndon ever was. Lyndon probably used one of his stupid tricks."
"Well, anyway. Let's say it's just between Pappy and Lyndon. Whaddya think?"
"Well, I think Pappy's going to win... But I'd prefer Lyndon at that point."
"I think Lyndon's gonna win."
"Pappy serves special interests, but doesn't know what the hell he's doing. Lyndon wields oil money like a sword."
"But Pappy is way more popular."
"Just watch, Kev. Lyndon's gonna win."
"It almost sounds like you're for him."
"Well, I'm voting for him. I'd rather him than Pappy."
"The daughter of James Aiken is voting for Lyndon Johnson. Put that in the headlines."
"I mean, you gotta do what you gotta do. Daddy was gonna vote for Lyndon himself."
"What a strange world."
At least Amy and I agreed on not liking Lee O'Daniel. I'll admit, in some way I was pleasantly surprised when his candidacy for governor took off, in spite of what the newspapers and political analysis deeming it infeasible. It was nice seeing someone "outside" of the system get into it. However, his actual governorship went as bad as I expected. He was simply incompetent. And I wasn't a fan of his extremely base populism. I'm religious, but using the "Ten Commandments" as a platform felt insulting to my intelligence. I would have much preferred someone cool and conservative in the governorship, like Coke Stevenso—
"Wait, Amy. I think I'm going to vote for Pappy."
"I want him out of Texas."
"Hey Kev. Who was your favorite president?"
"Oh, damnit. You're such a Texan."
"...Why do you say that like it's a bad thing?"
"We should've stayed in our lane."
"What does that mean?"
"You know what I mean."
"Who was yours then?"
"Lincoln. Or, hell, I'm a gal of the present. Roosevelt."
"I like FDR too."
"Or liked him. Not so much anymore."
"I mean, a third term is just... not right."
"What's 'not right' about it?"
"I mean, he's just breaking way too many rules! Okay, fine, there's nothing technically wrong with a third term, but it's just another step in a bad trend. Just look at that court-packing disaster: It's just proof that he just wants unlimited power."
"Or doesn't wanna be blocked by senile legacy Republicans."
"Or wants to tear apart the Constitution! I don't like Republicans either, but guess what? That bill got killed in the Senate hard, bipartisan."
"The Senate? You mean the most anti-reform institution in the federal government? Jesus, Kev. Whose fault is it that we're on the brink of another war? Whose fault is it that we haven't had a civil rights bill since the fucking Reconstruction? The Senate."
"A lot of 'civil rights' legislation shouldn't be passed."
"Ah, so you're racist."
"No, I'm a Constitutionalist! That's the point of the Senate. To protect the Constitution."
"More like protect big oil interests. Did ya forget what we're trying to do here?"
"Well, okay, the Senate has... It has problems. I admit. But you can't just throw the Constitution in the trash. It's what keeps people from becoming dictators."
"Y'know what I think, Kev?"
"Let's throw the Constitution in the trash."
"I think the entire American system—capitalism, 'democracy'—needs a complete overhaul. We need something that actually lifts people up."
"We already have it. Look, I like the New Deal as much as you do. Well, okay, maybe not as much, but—"
"We need something that wouldn'tve gotten us into this mess in the first place. The Depression, another war. Jesus, Kev. You can't say FDR's proof that the system works. He's runnin' around plugging holes in a sinking ship."
"That's what your dad's friend used to believe, but now he's—what was his name?"
"Heh. They're like political soulmates, heh. Or they were. Well, still got along well. Till yesterday, that is."
"O-oof. W-well, yeah. I mean, I know your dad disagrees. But here's a guy that used to believe those sorts of things, like Communism and all that, and then came to realize the best sort of change comes through the system. Our system. And now he's working with FDR."
"The FPC? Well, we'll see how he fares. With the oil lobby, I think he's fucked."
"Well, that's what we're here for."
"God, I hope, Kev."
"Hey Kev. Let's play a guessing game. Whaddya think Daddy's secret was?"
"Fuck if I know. Lady Bird's an actual bird?"
"Hahaha. How about, the KKK controls the AAA."
"The Hill Country is an oil field."
"The Hill Country is gold mine."
"In the Hill Country, money grows on trees."
"The Hill Country's a blasted heath."
"Hah! I get it!"
"Thank God. I'd slap ya if you forgot."
"No, you're locked up."
"Let's see.. Hoover was right."
"Harding knew too much!"
"The unreleased 'Bedside Chats'."
"Hahaha, nice! Alvin Wirtz is a vampire."
"Ummm, Ed Clark doesn't exist."
"George Brown's the 'Root' in Brown & Root."
"Ms. Daeth is dead."
"Well, Amy, here's the thing. What do you want? A revolution? How the hell are you going to get one? How are you going to make sure it doesn't get co-opted by bad actors?"
"Well, you're right, Kev. This is where Daddy and I used to argue so much. Not that he wanted a revolution overnight or anything, but he genuinely thought it could come somewhere in the horizon, like decades from now maybe. And I'm just like, nah, it ain't coming Daddy. And even if it came, the new world sure ain't gonna be pretty. I agree with what you were sayin' about Olds. I think he has the right idea. Hell, Daddy himself—'spite all his writings—was working through the system, not against it. I mean he's trying to get Rules to 'investigate' the issue, for Christs' sake. Daddy's such a hypocrite. Don't you think, Kev?"
"I agree, Kev, that the most practical way forward is through the system. But, listen, the more we go 'forward', I think, the more we're losing something. Like our soul, or something. I mean, we're doomed to go forward, so there's nothing we can do about it 'cept making it as smooth as possible. But the more we lock in to the future, the more likely a truly ideal society becomes impossible. That's what I think."
"That was the vaguest rant I've ever heard. You said absolutely nothing. What are you talking about? What do you mean by 'ideal' society? What does 'ideal' mean to you? Is there something you want beyond, say, the American Dream?"
She did not answer.
"Well, then Kev. If you're sooo scared of the spooooky 'third term', who do you think should be President?"
"I don't know... Garner?"
"Oh come on, what is it?"
"Nothin', Kev. It's just that... you're such a Texan."
"Why do you say that like it's a bad thing!?"
"Listen, Kev. Don't get the wrong idea. I adore Texas. Wouldn't rather be anywhere else. Back when we weren't poor, daddy took me to some other states. California, New York, the Capitol. It's all great, but it's nothin' like here. I'd like to go to Washington someday, make a positive change and all that. But I want my home to be somewhere here. Somewhere where I can build a big ranch. My dad wasn't much of a country guy, but I love that sorta life. I wanna build a ranch nearby a creek, maybe even a lake—somewhere where I can fish, shoot deer, make my own food. With a lotta open space. Somewhere I can walk from one end to the other and marvel at the sights. I'm glad we are where we are, y'feel?"
"Well, I have similar visions. I'd also like to settle in a ranch."
"You, me. How about we build one together? Hehehe, just kiddin'."
I wanted to reach across the bars and punch her in the face.
"Man, Kev, my body hurts like hell."
"Ah, shoot. I guess you must still be recovering."
"Where does it hurt?"
It was getting dark. The pink had dimmed into a dark purple. Oddly, we hardly talked about her parents' murder. But just by talking to her, I knew she didn't do it.
I didn't even notice until afterwards that we didn't talk about it. We were too preoccupied drifting back and forth between working on our little project and talking about politics in general. Evidently, she was very interested in politics. It was a lot like talking to Mr. Aiken. It was interesting to see how Amy differed from her father. She was a little less radical, and more pragmatic. She would have made a good conversation partner over the years, had I actually tried to close the distance.
We began wrapping up our findings for the day. She actually knew a lot that I didn't, and I knew quite a bit of things she didn't. Aiken had, evidently, very carefully compartmentalized who received what information. It was nice to see that his daughter was privy to a good amount of it, though.
I looked at the list we made (using a pen and paper I borrowed from the sheriff) on people to contact, with notes and question marks next to some of their names. The point was to poke all of them and see if any of them had any scraps of Aiken's secret.
"Damn! I wish we had telephone lines."
"Guess you'll have to write 'em."
"Wait, Kev, hold on. Y'gotta be careful. Daddy was really careful with his mail. I dunno if he was just paranoid, but he didn't wanna refer to sensitive stuff in writing, y'know."
"You think just referring to the 'secret' would be going too far?"
"Damn! I wish we had telephone lines."
"Hahaha. Well, I guess we can try to phrase it in a way to make it discreet? Maybe we can try to draft some letters tomorrow. And besides, err, you don't have a plan for the summer, do ya?"
"Well, if you find yourself in Austin—or anywhere but here really, you can get it done."
"I dunno what you're planning to do, Kev. Just don't get stuck here, y'know what I'm saying? Hot potato and all that."
"Hey, you'll come tomorrow, right?"
There was just a hint of eagerness in her voice.
And a hint of relief, upon hearing my answer.
"Can ya believe we're talking like this, Kev? Daddy was always tryna get us chatting. Well he got what he asked for: Over his dead body. Hahaha."
Her sense of humor was way too dark!
By the time I left the Foster City jail, it was dark outside. I hung my head up as I walked back to my house. I couldn't believe the contrast between how awful I felt in the morning and how, now, I actually felt... good? I felt better after talking to her. And a small part of me hoped that she felt a bit better after talking to me.
I hated the cloudless sapphire, and I despised the overwhelming pink, but the starry night sky was always beautiful.