ONLY BY DEATH
Ozark Mountain Trilogy #2
(Coming April 2018)
“For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.” Romans 8:13
Liam Berne was about to commit murder—at least according to Arkansas law. He blocked out the voice of his railing conscience as he clutched tightly to the wheel of his old Chevy Caprice, bumping and rocking over an unmarked road that led to a secluded bank on the Sure Foot River. Tall leafy trees and short-leaf pines lined both sides of the road and formed a tight verdant canopy, allowing only an occasional glint of sunlight to peek through.
He glanced over at his elderly mother, who had started rambling again.
“I do love ridin’ the roller coaster,” Dixie Berne declared, sounding as if she actually knew what she was saying. “But Roland’ll have a conniption if he finds out I threw away hard-earned money on a carnival ride.” She folded her hands in her lap and exhaled loudly. “How much farther’s the church? We’re fixin’ to be late for the weddin’!”
“It’s just over yonder,” Liam said, trying to sound calm.
“I’m your son, Liam.”
“You can’t drive without a license, young man.”
Liam smiled, then reached over and gently clasped her wrist. “It’s okay, Mom. I passed my driver’s test.” Nearly forty years ago.
“Carry me to the bus stop!” she said, her voice suddenly frantic. “I need to get home and fry my chickens. Aunt Lena and Uncle Jack are comin’ for supper.”
Liam swallowed hard and rolled down the windows. He could do this. He had to do this. It might be his only chance. “Let’s go to the beach. I know how you love the water,” he said. “Smell that salt air? Feel the sea breeze?”
His mother giggled, her soft white curls tossed about in the crosswind of balmy September air passing through the open windows. “Okay, but don’t tell Mama I haven’t finished the ironin’.”
His mother’s delight soon turned to silence. Once again, she seemed distant, her eyes vacant and seeming to stare at nothing.
Liam glanced at his watch. If he could just keep his mother from getting out of hand in the next few minutes, her troubles—and his—would be over.
He had agonized, getting to this decision. Some would surely contend that what he was about to do was vile. Or, at the very least, immoral. It certainly wasn’t legal. But it was kinder, more humane, than letting his mother’s life drag on for years in this useless state while his parents’ life savings went to pay the Alzheimer’s hospital. Using that money to prolong her pitiful existence was unfair to everyone.
Colleen would never see it that way. His sister had been given power of attorney in their mother’s affairs and was willing to use every cent available to her to ensure that their mother was well-cared for and comfortable. And why not? Colleen didn’t need the money. She was single with a full-time teaching position, thirty-year tenure, and a good pension when she decided to quit. She had never been married or divorced. How could she understand what it was to deal with a greedy ex-wife who never once held a job yet managed to get half of everything he’d worked for and eighteen months of alimony on top of that?
Liam sighed and glanced in his rearview mirror. Colleen had no clue how humiliating it was for him, at fifty-two years old, to be working full time at the poultry plant, and living under his sister’s roof because he was too broke to pay rent. When Colleen asked him to move in and share the responsibility of caring for their mother at home, in lieu of paying rent, he was sincerely glad to help. But he was equally motivated to keep Colleen from spending their inheritance on their mother’s long-term care.
That had worked for six months. But his mother’s’s memory was getting worse, and she wandered away from the house with increased frequency. Colleen insisted they consult with the folks at Foggy Ridge Alzheimer’s Center. The doctors there convinced Colleen that their mother should be admitted to that facility as soon as a bed opened up. Liam pretended to go along with it, but he had already decided what he would do if things played out that way.
“Stop!” His mother’s agitated voice brought him back to the present. “Let me out this instant, or I’ll call the police!”
“But we’re almost to the beach.”
She cocked her head and looked over at him. “Why, John Dillard. I haven’t seen you in months. How’s Monique?”
“She’s just great.” Liam exhaled audibly. Just great.
His mother’s attention suddenly seemed focused on the buttons of her pink dress as she rambled on and on about getting together with girl friends to sew pearls on Cousin Margaret’s wedding dress.
Between the trees, Liam spotted the glistening ripples of the river about fifty yards ahead of him. “Mom, look.” He pointed his index finger toward the front window. “We’re at the beach.”
“Hush. Can’t you see my baby’s sleepin’?”
“Right. Sorry”. Liam drove the car through some tall weeds and parked it in the shade of a cottonwood tree. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, considering what he was about to do. This was the only choice that made sense. And this might be his only chance to end the madness. Did he have the courage to go through with it?
“Who’re you?” his mother asked for the umpteenth time.
“Come on. Let’s go to the beach.” He doubted he would have much trouble convincing her they were in Galveston—at least long enough to do what he came to do.
Liam got out, his gut feeling as if someone had kicked it and left a shoeprint.
He spit out his gum and walked around to the passenger side and opened the door. He took his mother’s fragile, bony hand and gently pulled her to her feet.
“Where am I? I want to go home!” His mother held tightly to his hand, wearing the expression of a lost child.
Liam took her face in his hands. “Mom. Mom. Look at me.” Her expression softened and she seemed to recognize him. “We’re in Galveston. Let’s go swimming. We can stop at Winky’s and get a snow cone,” he said, his tone playful and coaxing.
Her dull blue eyes lit up like a child’s at Christmas. “I want grape!”
“Now that’s more like it. Let’s go.” Before I talk myself out of this.
Liam glanced in all directions and saw no one. But he’d never seen anyone here. He took his mother’s arm and walked through the weeds and down a dirt path to the river’s edge.
“Oh, Roland!” she exclaimed. “You brought me back! Thank you! What a surprise!”
“Come on. It’s a beautiful day for a swim.” Liam led her into the tepid water up to her shoulders.
His mother looked around, her thin white eyebrows scrunched. “Who’s gettin’ baptized?”
“You are, Dixie,” he said.
His mother just stared blankly.
Liam, feeling as if his heart were being pummeled like a punching bag at the gym, kept his arms tightly around his mother. He had rehearsed this a dozen times. Keeping her head held firmly to his chest, he lowered himself into the water, up to his neck. His eyes stung as she wiggled and fought in vain for a gulp of air, and he fought the urge to change his mind.
“Mom, don’t fight it,” he said, his voice shaking. “Please, just let it happen. You’ll be with Dad soon. I’m doing this for you.” Really?
Liam silenced his conscience. This was the merciful thing to do, and the only way of ending her life that wouldn’t produce incriminating evidence on an autopsy. He refused to accept that, by society’s standard, it was murder.
Liam waited several minutes after his mother stopped fighting before he brought her limp body to the surface. He checked her pulse. Nothing.
He took his thumb, his hand trembling, and closed her eyes, tears clouding his vision as his mind flashed through a lifetime of memories of when his mother was vivacious, quick-witted, and nurturing. Dixie Regina Anderson Berne had lived a full life and had been a wonderful wife and mother—and a proper southern belle. But Alzheimer’s changed all that, having stolen her beauty, her memory, her dignity, and any meaningful interaction with others. How could he sit by and let it take every last cent she had planned to leave her children? Maybe Colleen could, but not him.
He unfastened the clasp on the platinum cross hanging around his mother’s neck and dropped it into the river. The coroner would conclude she had wandered away and drowned. Or at worst, that she had fallen into the hands of a thief, who had stolen her jewelry and drowned her.
Her diamond anniversary band wouldn’t budge. Finally, Liam forced it over her knuckle and into his palm, vividly remembering the glow on her face when she and Dad proudly showed it off the day after their twenty-fifth anniversary. He dropped it into the river and stared at the ripples for a moment. He moved his gaze to his mother’s face, his mind flashing back to the time he accompanied her to the vet to have their beloved dog Amber put to sleep. As much as it hurt, it had been the right thing to do.
“I love you, Mom. So much. You’re in a better place.” He pressed his lips to her forehead, tears trickling down his cheeks. “Say hi to Dad for me.”
Slowly, reluctantly, Liam turned loose of her earthly shell, surrendering it to the river’s current. He watched her snow-white hair undulating as she slowly sank in the murky water, and deeply regretted that her body would have to be recovered, identified, and the cause of death pronounced by the coroner before they could give her the burial she deserved.
What he had to focus on now was making sure every detail of the story he had concocted for Colleen and the sheriff was consistent so that he wouldn’t come under suspicion.
A loud sneeze broke his concentration, and Liam jerked his head around and scanned the far bank, shocked to see a boy sitting on a rock, holding a fishing pole, its red-and-white bobber shimmering in the rippled water. How had he missed that?
Liam spun back around, his heart pounding. The kid was fifty yards away. If he’d seen what happened, would he have kept on fishing? Wouldn’t he have shouted or run to get help? Then again, if he had a cell phone, he might have already called the authorities!
Liam trudged through the water, his back to the boy, adrenaline pumping through his veins. He walked up on the bank, his wet clothes clinging to his body. From where he stood, he couldn’t see the car, which meant the kid couldn’t either.
Liam tried to catch his breath. There was no turning back. He should just walk to the car nice and slow, like nothing was wrong—and stick to the plan.
Kate Cummings heard the front door slam so loudly that the windows shook. Three seconds later, her twelve-year-old came charging into the kitchen, wearing a red-and-gray Razorback sweatshirt, a matching cap, and a toothy grin that told her his fishing outing had been better than just enjoyable.
“I’m back,” Jesse Cummings announced as he made a beeline for the fridge.
“Yes, I heard. I think every guest at Angel View heard.”
Jesserefilled his water bottle, then stood beside Kate at the stove, his fishy, wet-dog smell mingling with the aroma of the homemade pasta sauce she was stirring.
“Man, does that ever smell dee-lish!” Jesse put his face closer to the pot and took a big whiff. “Mmm . . . this is a perfect Saturday. The Razorbacks won. The Foggy Ridge Falcons won. Fishing was awesome. And now we’re having the best spaghetti in the world for dinner.”
Kate proudly stirred the sauce she’d made with plum and Roma tomatoes, Italian sausage, onions, peppers, mushrooms, and her own special blend of garlic, spices, and fresh herbs.
“So tell me about the fishing,” she said.
“It was awesome—the most fish I ever caught. Sixty-two crappie and thirteen catfish. I forgot my stringer, so I let them all go. But I took a couple selfies with the biggest ones. Tons of them were legal keepers. I should take Hawk next time. Grandpa’d go nuts, but it’s too far for him to walk.”
“So where is this honey hole?” Kate said.
Jesse unscrewed the cap on the spring water, gulped down half the bottle, and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “On the east bank of the Sure Foot, south of the bridge—on down toward Rocky Creek. There’s this wide flat rock that sticks out over the river. Such a cool spot. I caught one fish after another, and they were still biting when I finally ran out of bait. I practically had the place to myself‑‑except for a man and a lady over yonder, wading in the water.”
“That’s dangerous,” Kate said. “You do know that, right?”
Jesse rolled his eyes. “You’ve warned me a million times about the undercurrent. When I get hot, I take off my shirt, then fill my hat with water and pour it over my head. I just wish it felt like fall instead of summer.”
“Why don’t you go shower and clean up before dinner.”
Jesse glanced in the dining room at the new Navy stoneware, floral tablecloth, and the centerpiece his mom had made of fresh yellow mums and orange zinnias. He cocked his head and looked at her, “Cool, Elliot’s coming for dinner. Why don’t you just get married? He’s here all the time anyway.”
Kate felt her cheeks warm. “He’s not here all the time. But we certainly enjoy each other’s company.”
Jesse ran his finger through a dollop of pasta sauce on the spoon rest and stuck it into his smiling mouth. “Well, it’d be fine with me if you got married. I like having Elliot around. You’re over Daddy now, right?”
Her youngest son’s candor pierced her. Had he been able to remember his father, perhaps he wouldn’t have spoken matter-of-factly about the man she mourned so deeply—who had just vanished one day with Jesse’s two-year-old sister, Riley.
Kate tilted Jesse’s chin and looked into his eyes. “I doubt I will ever get over your daddy being murdered by some wayward mountain man who stole Riley from us for five years. But it’s behind us, and I’m enjoying life again.”
“Well, I think you and Elliot should get married.”
“You do, huh?”
“Yep. I like it when you’re happy.” Jesse downed the last of the bottle of water. “I’m gonna go shower. Don’t put the garlic bread in the oven ’til I get back. I love the way it makes the whole house smell good.”
Jesse shot out of the kitchen and she could hear his footsteps on the staircase.
Kate smiled. She loved being happy again and was glad Jesse noticed. For most of the years he could remember, she had been grieving the losses in her life. He couldn’t possibly understand how afraid she was to open her heart again, despite the fact she was inexplicably drawn to Elliot and too much in love to run scared.
Elliot Stafford loved her more than she dared admit. He had been a supportive friend during the time Micah was missing, slowly falling in love with her, but never once telling her so or acting inappropriately. He was sincerely devoted to her and the kids, all of whom adored him. So why, every time he hinted about marriage, did she seek to change the subject?
* * *
Liam Berne pulled his ’95 Chevy Caprice into the driveway of his sister’s red-brick ranch and then eased into his half of the garage. He paused to pull himself together, then got out and opened the trunk. He took out four plastic bags of groceries, spotted his sister standing in the doorway between the garage and the utility room, and walked toward her.
Act nonchalant. No matter what she says, don’t react.
Colleen Berne blocked the door, her arms crossed, worry creases connecting her thick eyebrows. Her dull brown hair bore streaks of gray and hung down to her chin, straight as a two-by- four, same as her figure. Despite the fact that there wasn’t an ounce of middle-aged fat on her, Colleen’s most attractive feature was her designer tortoise-shell eyeglasses.
Colleen glanced over his shoulder. “I was hoping Mom was with you.”
“Why would she be with me?” Liam said. “I told you I was going to run errands and stop at the grocery store.”
“I know. When she wasn’t in her room, I thought maybe I’d misunderstood and you’d taken her with you. I’ve been trying to reach you for almost two hours. Why didn’t you answer your phone?”
“Sorry. My battery went dead and I didn’t have my charger with me. So Mom’s out wandering again?”
“Apparently.” Colleen tucked her hair behind her ear. “I just got back from looking for her when you drove up.”
“Did you call the sheriff?”
“Yes. No one had reported finding her. That’s why I hoped she was with you. “
“Surely someone will realize she’s got Alzheimer’s and wandered off,” Liam said. “I’m glad we ordered that ID necklace with her name, address, and phone number on it.”
“She’s not wearing it.” Colleen’s lower lip quivered. “I told you she keeps taking it off. It reminds her of the dog tag Daddy wore in the army. She was wearing that platinum cross he gave her and won’t even let me take it off when she showers.”
“I’m sure Mom’s fine.” Liam forced a reassuring smile, finding it harder to lie to Colleen than he had anticipated. “The sheriff’s department will probably call any minute, and we can go pick her up.”
“They have my cell number. I can’t just sit here and wait. I need to keep looking for her.”
Liam squeezed past Colleen, the scent of Dial soap wafting under his nose, and walked through the utility room into the newly-remodeled kitchen. Wood floor. Granite countertops. Stainless steel appliances. Wallpaper with an attractive flower garden pattern. Colleen had better taste in decorating that she did in personal fashion.
Liam set the bags on the breakfast bar. “I’ll go with you. It’s pointless to split up if my cell phone’s dead. Let’s bring in the rest of the groceries and put away the perishables first.”
Liam turned and walked back out to the garage, Colleen on his heels. He handed her a bag, then picked up the last three, slammed the trunk shut, and followed her into the house.
Colleen began emptying the bags. “Mom’s living with us isn’t safe for her anymore. I can hardly wait until there’s a bed available at the Alzheimer’s center.”
“I know you’re right. But it hurts me to think of leaving her there like some stray puppy we turned in to the humane society.”
Colleen put down the yogurt carton, her eyes welled with tears. “Don’t you think it breaks my heart, Liam? But we have to do whatever it takes to keep her safe. She’s vulnerable when she’s out wandering. I don’t know what I’d do if something awful happened to her . . .”
Liam was touched by his sister’s raw emotion. What Colleen lacked in looks, she made up for in character. Her motives were pure and he knew it. His unspoken disagreement with her was concerning what was actually necessary. And in his opinion, watching his mother’s life drag on in some sterile institution that would cost a fortune and not add one minute of quality to her life was not necessary.
Liam blinked away the image of his mother’s limp body, weightless in his arms, and was hit with an unexpected swell of emotion. He coughed to cover of it up—but not before his sister picked up on it.
Colleen came over and stood next to him, her arm around his waist. “I know it’s hard. I hate it too. But it’s really the best thing for her. She’s been a wonderful mother.” Colleen gently rubbed his back, her voice now compassionate and soft. “We can honor her by being strong and making sure she receives the necessary care, for however long she’s still with us.”
Liam nodded, glad to let her assume his upset was due to his reluctance to admit their mother to the Alzheimer’s hospital.
Colleen pulled him closer. “Let’s get this done and go find her.”
The lump in Liam’s throat seemed to have doubled in size. He was beginning to feel the finality of his actions. He would have to join in the search for their mother. And when they couldn’t find her, Colleen would fall apart. The sheriff would be all over it. And Liam would have to give the performance of his life.