“Serial Killers” by Melissa Studdard

Editor’s note: “Serial Killers” was nominated for the 2010/11 Best of the Net Awards.

You gotta know how my best friend, Mary Lou Boone, grew up, to understand what we refer to around the town of Halfway as “the incident.” You gotta know about how her and her sister Darlene were so smothered sick with love and affection that they didn’t hardly know right from wrong. Just to see it was disgusting, like when you see one of them momma cats sitting right on top of her young and they can’t barely breathe under all that fur and belly. Only with Mary Lou and Darlene, it was like they had three momma cats sitting on top of them because both of their grandmas lived with them at the ranch. And if that wasn’t enough, they had their pa and both their grandpas living there and fussing over them all the time too.

The whole family had commenced to living together when Mary Lou was only four years old and her Grandpa Boone won the ranch on three kings in a game of poker. Triple King Ranch, he called it, which was a nice name, considering all the luck those kings had brung him. But what he didn’t think of was what the brand would look like on the cow’s asses.

“You just can’t go around branding KKK onto your livestock,” Grandpa Dillon had told him, and the rest of us had agreed.

Grandpa Boone pouted for awhile, and even made some arguments, like that no one organization could own a group of initials, but he finally gave in and came up with the name “Triple K,” spelled out just like that. It was a solution, we all agreed, that probably prolonged his life by many years.

Anyway, it was like the grandparents used up all their kindness on Mary Lou and Darlene and didn’t have none left over, because with each other they were cantankerous and crotchety and just plain nasty. Not a day went by at Triple K without an argument, and it usually had to do with cards. The grandparents, you see, liked to gather out on the lawn, under the old oak Bessie, to play poker. They sat round a little gray fold out table, drinking Grandpa Boone’s electric lemonade and cheating each other silly. Out-of-towners who came through once said the grandparents were the living picture of eccentric Texas millionaires, sitting there in such a slapped together looking arrangement, uncomfortable as all get up, rich as hell, caterwauling and arguing over the same stuff, day after day. They could be seen any day of the week (Sundays included) gesticulating and flapping around that table like a bunch of geese around a crumb of bread.

Old people can be pretty dang smart, though, and Mary Lou’s grandparents were no exception. They finally figured out that if they just turned their hearing aids off, they wouldn’t have to listen to each others’ accusations, and they could say whatever they wanted. Of course hand signals were still used, ones you wouldn’t expect your grandparents to know, but for some reason that didn’t bother them none.

Boy was it a sad day on the ranch when they all died. No one really blamed Pa Boone for the unfortunate tractor accident, though. Actually it was really kind of Grandma Boone’s fault. She’s the one who got so cold and had to move the table out from under old Bessie and into the sun since it was almost Christmas and dropped down near 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Or she could have just gotten a sweater. But, of course, if they hadn’t come up with the brilliant idea of turning their hearing aids off, they would have heard the tractor coming. Really, it was everyone’s fault. It’ll stump your brain forever to think of how many things had to align in order for the accident to occur -– Pa Boone deciding to use the tractor to haul some extra feed out to the barn, Mary Lou giving him the headphones so he could listen to his Farming for Fun and Profit book on tape, Pa Boone attaching the tiller to the tractor to break up some clumped together feed, the grandparents being half blind themselves.

Well it was a mess. A disgusting, awful, mess.

And Ma Boone was stark, raving, livid, pissed off mad, especially since, knowing Pa Boone couldn’t stand the sight of blood, she’d be cleaning it all up. Part of the reason Darlene had been sent off to veterinary school at Texas A&M University was to learn to handle all them things that made Pa queasy. He knew Grandpa Boone wouldn’t be around to do those things forever, but unfortunately he done knocked off Grandpa Boone when Darlene had only just finished her first year of veterinary school.

But queasy as blood made him, Pa Boone was covered in it that time. He was carrying on so much it took Mary Lou almost an hour to get him hosed off, and she had to rope him up to do it. He choked and gagged and coughed. He wheezed and spit and vomited until he was as covered in his own bile as he was in the grandparents’ blood. Ma Boone went outside and hosed off the tractor, and then Mary Lou put it away while Ma Boone finished cleaning up the lawn. I seen the whole thing from the window where I sat at the kitchen table finishing up eating some chili. It was gruesome. Luckily, my baby girl, Tucker, was on the floor, playing with some blocks and didn’t see none of that mess out on the lawn. I went ahead and stayed inside with her during the whole clean up, but when Mary Lou finished hosing Pa Boone off, I met them at the door so I could help him to the couch, where he sat dazed as a squirrel just fallen out of a tree.

When Ma Boone came inside, she was all sweaty, and her hair was matted and stuck to her cheeks. She had a mean look on her face, and she walked right up to Pa Boone and said, “Darn you.” It was as near to cursing as anyone had ever heard her get, and it was the meanest thing anyone had ever heard come out of her mouth.

Then she said, “We better start spinning you a good long yarn, or else they’re gonna send you up the river, and you ain’t coming back. They got a name for what you done. It’s called manslaughter. You ever heard of that? That’s exactly what you done. You done slaughtered them.”

Pa Boone nodded and looked away. He knew he’d done wrong, and he felt embarrassed that Ma Boone and Mary Lou had to clean it up for him. And though Mary Lou knew it would hurt her pa’s feelings, she said she thought her ma should come up with the story. Things just couldn’t be allowed to get any more out of hand.

Well, the next few days were real tense over at the Boone house. Mary Lou said that her ma hadn’t been out of the bedroom since I’d left, and her pa hadn’t gone into the bedroom, even to shower. One time, Mary Lou headed down the hallway that led to where her ma had sequestered herself, but then she heard her ma back there screaming and carrying on like a crazy person and turned back. Ma Boone kept a carton of cigarettes and a coffee pot in the bathroom, and apparently that was all the sustenance she required those three days as she stewed and brooded over her plan.

Mary Lou and me had been talking a lot by phone, but, finally, I decided to go over and see what I could do to help. People were starting to talk. Grandpa Boone hadn’t been over to Hank’s tavern in three days, and the men who relied on him losing at pool to feed and clothe their families were starting to worry.

This time I left Tucker at home with my husband, Wade. Mary Lou thought it’d be good for me to try to talk to her ma since she and her pa hadn’t been able to do it. Darlene couldn’t do it, either, because they hadn’t even told her what had happened. She was still at the university, and they didn’t want to mess up her final exams. So I went over to Mary Lou’s, and I got a fresh can of coffee and a new carton of cigarettes, and I headed back to the bedroom. But before I got there, Ma Boone blazed right past me like some kind of hopped up, caffeine and nicotine crazed Tasmanian devil, down the hallway and into the living room, where Pa Boone sat on the couch.

“Hot diggity,” she said, “Call up Sheriff Joe. I got me a plan.”

“They was huge and ugly and had Yankee accents,” Ma Boone told Sheriff Joe. “Roped them up just like they was cattle and then carried them off in a cattle trailer.”

Mary Lou looked over at me, wondering that she was sprung from the same genes as that woman sitting there calm as a pond on a summer day and telling that ingenious lie. Even with Mary Lou’s high school journalism experience and all that reading I liked to do, we knew we never could have spun a yarn like that. We got a whole new respect for Ma Boone that day, even though she hadn’t finished junior high school.

“Did y’all notice anything unusual about the kidnappers?” Sheriff Joe asked. Tattoos? Birthmarks?”

“Nope,” Ma Boone said. “Just what I told ya.”

“What about y’all kids? Y’all notice anything?”

We just shook our heads, afraid to say anything to mess up Ma Boone’s brilliant plan, and Pa Boone did the same when Sheriff Joe asked him, mostly for fear of botching up anything else.

Sheriff Joe said he’d send Dr. Ezra over to draw up some pictures of the criminals. He said Dr. Ezra was right talented and that we should go over to the prison to see the mural he’d done of a landscape. Me and Mary Lou nodded, and then Mary Lou went to the bathroom to freshen up her make-up before Dr. Ezra got there.

I remember one time years before the Triple K Ranch tractor incident when there was a serial killer in New York City. Everyone in town was convinced he was headed straight for Halfway. Rumors of spottings even circulated. Now, what that killer was supposed to find in Halfway, I’ll never know. We had a post office, a police station, a Dairy Queen, a Wal-Mart, a grocery store, a bank, a feed store, a doctor’s office, a church, one school district, a barber shop, a beauty salon, a hotel, some ranches and farms, and a bunch of defunct funeral parlors and tombstone shops. Other than that it was a few simple folk and some animals. I can’t imagine that it would be too interesting of a place for a serial killer, unless he was planning to kill the whole damn town. In fact, the way everyone knew everyone’s business, he would have to kill the whole town to get away with it. But everyone else seemed to think it would be the highlight of his American tour. Sheriff Joe Jackson’s ma, Lucille, even said that Halfway was known for attracting serial killers because all serial killers were Yankee New Yorkers. She said Yankee New Yorkers hated the south so much that the first place they would head was the best little, most uncorrupt town below the Mason Dixon. She knew this for a fact because she had once been to New York City to see a play about Lizzie Borden, who had been a distant relative of hers.

It wasn’t long after the disappearance of Mary Lou’s grandparents that the sightings began. Her sister, Darlene had come on home from school for the summer and had been told to beware of Yankee New Yorker serial killers when she stopped at the gas station right outside of town to buy some beef jerky as gifts for the family.

No one had ever called to tell her what had happened because, well, how do you say such a thing over the phone? And so it was that when she showed up, it was under the delusion that all four of her grandparents had been kidnapped by serial killers from up north. I’ll never forget her walking in the front door with that pretty, maroon Texas A&M basket full of beef jerky and that terrified, confused look on her face.

“Oh, Ma!” Darlene exclaimed, bursting in through the front door. She looked like a bull shooting into an arena as she dropped the basket on the floor and rushed to hug her ma.

“Oh, Ma, it’s just awful,” she said. “Awful. We gotta find ‘em. We just gotta.”

She was crying and sniffling all over the place and had begun to hyperventilate a bit.

“Shouldn’t we tell her the truth?” Mary Lou asked, looking over at her ma.

“Well, I don’t see why not,” Ma Boone said, patting Darlene on the shoulder. “She’s already upset.”

Ma Boone took Darlene by the hand and led her over to the couch.

“Sit down, Darlene,” she said. “I got something to tell ya.”

Darlene sat down. As a rule, people did what Ma Boone said without asking why. There was always a good reason.

“Now Darlene, there’s no easy way to say this, so I’m just gonna come on out with it, okay?”

Darlene nodded, wide-eyed.

“Darlene, your Pa ran right over all four grandparents with the tractor when they was out on the lawn there playing cards. They’re not kidnapped. They’re dead, and chopped up itty bittier than chunks in a compost heap besides.”

It was kind of like ripping a band-aid off real fast.

For a minute, there was dead silence in the room, and then Darlene began to laugh hysterically. Every time she tried to stop and say something, she just started back up again, laughing harder and harder each time. We thought she’d never like to have quit, until finally we were all laughing and hooting and slapping our legs with her. It was what they call contagious laughter. It was catching on, and we just couldn’t get it to stop.

Darlene finally got up and headed towards Grandpa Boone’s bedroom.

“Grandpa Boone, you old devil, come on out here,” she said.

We followed her into the room. She walked in and, not seeing her Grandpa, popped around the corner that led to his bathroom.

“Boo,” she called out, but no one answered.

She walked deeper into the bathroom, to the little room inside the bathroom, the one that had only the toilet in it. The toilet seat was down, and as soon as she saw it, she knew.

“My God, he is dead,” she said, finally understanding that this was no joke.

Ma nodded, and Darlene plopped down onto the toilet, stunned.

“Then why are y’all laughing, you sick-os?” Darlene said.

Mary Lou and me shrugged, kind of embarrassed. We looked over to Ma Boone to provide an answer.

“We just done got all our crying out already, Darlene.” Ma Boone said. “And once you get your crying out, you see that it’s really kind of funny.”

“Besides, they got to die doing what they loved best, and that was pissing each other off,” Pa Boone said.

At this, everyone laughed.

“But Jack over at the Pit Stop gas station said he seen the serial killers tearing out of town with a cattle trailer that had New York license plates. He said he seen it with his very own eyes.”

“People been seeing all sorts of things since Ma wove her brilliant story,” Pa Boone said.  He and Ma Boone smiled at each other for the first time in a week.

“He’s right,” Ma said. “You couldn’t set fire to a wheat field faster than the gossip went round this town.”

“What else are people saying?” Darlene asked.

“Well, there’s been reports of sightings from lots of people, and some say they’ve even received calls that their old folks is gonna get carried off too. There’s even been reports of calls about some of the children in town. Why you know the Coopers, with that hyper-active little son, Bradley? Well they got a wire tap on their phone now, because according to Mrs. Cooper, the serial killers done called seven times wanting to carry off their little Bradley. She said they even left a threatening letter on her door step, but when the police asked for the letter, she couldn’t find it.”

Once Darlene got adjusted to the idea that her pa had killed off all four of her grandparents in one fell swoop, she got down to the business of trying to help the family cover it up.

“They ain’t gonna buy this serial killer crap forever,” she told me and Mary Lou. “People like to see the body, and when no bodies turn up, they’re gonna come sniffing round here. Plus, if we quit searching, they’re gonna think that’s awful suspicious, and we don’t wanna waste the next few years of our lives searching for people that’s already dead.”

“Well I know that’s right,” Mary Lou said. “Why waste time that could be spent going to football games and watching TV and doing other stuff that matters?”

“Well, what are we gonna do?” I asked.

“You two just distract Ma and Pa. I’ll come up with something,” Darlene said.

It sounded sensible to me seeing as Darlene was the only one who’d been to college. She had even taken a class called “logic” where she solved problems just like this one.

I decided that we should cook dinner for Ma and Pa Boone since getting cooked for was Ma Boone’s favorite thing, seeing as she’d spent so much of her life cooking for other people and no one cooked much for her. I put Tucker into the playpen and went over to the pantry with Mary Lou.

“Don’t you dare even think of going nowhere,” I yelled out the kitchen window to Ma and Pa Boone, who were out back on the porch swing. “Me and Mary Lou are gonna whip you up a feast.”

Mary Lou called to me from the kitchen.

“Look at this Hazel Lee – no one’s been to the store since the accident. All we got is pie crust, cornbread mix, Bisquick, preserves, cherries, green beans, corned beef hash, Vienna sausages, tuna fish, chef Boyardee spaghetti-o’s, turnip greens, sweet potatoes, and peas.” All the vegetables were canned.

I looked in the fridge.

“What’s in there?” Mary Lou asked.

“Maraschino cherries, Spanish olives, powdered Parmesan cheese, maple syrup, coca cola, diet Dr. Pepper, two moon pies, and that beef jerky Darlene brung.”

“Oh dear God,” Mary Lou said. “I’m gonna have to go to the store. You stay here and keep them from leaving.”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “Your Ma ain’t going nowhere now that she got people gonna cook for her.”

“Right,” Mary Lou said. “You’re right.”

We grabbed Tucker and headed to the store.

When we got back, just a little over an hour later, Ma Boone was standing over the stove, and a feast was laid out on the counter. She’d made cherry pie, cornbread stuffing with chopped up bits of jerky in it, turnip greens, peas, sweet potatoes, tea with fresh mint from the back yard, corned beef hash, and a very, very fresh chicken, if you catch my drift. Pa had picked some apples from the trees out back, and Ma Boone had made apple turnovers from scratch, with little raisins in them. You could see the filling oozing out from the sides.

“You didn’t tell me we had raisins,” I said to Mary Lou. “We could of done cooked all this up ourselves without going to the store.”

But Mary Lou didn’t answer me. Her eyes had got all big and buggy looking, and she had a funny sort of twitch going. I finally realized she was trying to get me to look over at the table, and when I did I saw four brand spanking new old people over there, the likes of which I never seen in Halfway before. They were wearing Mary Lou’s grandparents’ clothes.

“Holy shit,” I said. I had never cussed in front of Ma Boone before, but these weren’t regular times.

I set my bags down on the counter, and Ma Boone pulled some cucumbers and tomatoes out of them and made a vinegar salad while me and Mary Lou went and sat down by the old folks.

“Ma, we said we was gonna cook,” Mary Lou said.

“And you still can,” Ma Boone replied. “I just wanted to have a little snack to offer our guests.”

Darlene was beaming.

“I saw an old folks home on my way back from Texas A & M. It’s just about twenty miles from here, up the freeway,” she said.

“But Darlene, you can’t just take random old folks like that,” Mary Lou said.

“Why not? Nobody else was using them. They don’t got no next of kin, and they said the food over at that old folks place was something awful. They’ll be happier here. Look at them.”

I looked over and saw how they eagerly watched Ma Boone pulling the chicken out of the oven. The one wearing Pa Boone’s lucky poker hat licked his lips.

“But how did you get them out?” I asked.

“I just told the people running the old folks home that I was working on a summer project for college. I said I was majoring in business management and that I was thinking of starting my own old folks home. I told them I would interview them and put their comments in my college paper. They liked that. They said I could have these here old folks as long as I needed them, even the whole summer if I want.”

“What you gonna do at the end of the summer?” Mary Lou asked. “What you gonna do then?”

“Oh, no one will remember by then. Besides, they don’t know who I am anyway.”

“You mean you didn’t have to sign them out?”

“No. Why would I do that?”

“Oh, dear God,” Mary Lou said.

“You kids can argue over the details later,” Ma Boone said, setting a plate on the table. “Right now we got some hungry folks to feed.”

“But they don’t even look nothing like our grandparents,” Mary Lou said.

Darlene just smiled and shoveled a pile of peas into her mouth.

The next morning I decided I’d better go over and check on the situation. I left Tucker with my husband Wade in case things had gotten out of hand again, and I fired up the truck and headed on over. When I got there, Darlene had the four old folks at the kitchen table again, feeding them waffles with blueberries and syrup and quizzing them on their poker playing abilities.

“If you’re gonna live here, you’re gonna have to play poker, and lots of it,” she said. “We’re richer than rich, so we’ll give you as much money as you need. I figure maybe $50,000 a piece for starters. You’ll need to play each other, and you’ll need to play some other people in town occasionally too. Can y’all handle that?”

All the old folks nodded at Darlene. She squirted whipped cream on top of their waffles and then drizzled chocolate sprinkles over the whipped cream. “And you can get used to this good eating. We’re gonna feed you right. You don’t ever gotta eat jell-o again.”

The old folks smiled at Darlene.

“Dang, Darlene,” I said. “You really could start a old folks home. These here old folks love you as much as all them animals out in the barn do. You could be a vet and a retirement home manager, or, even better, you could have an old folks home that’s a kennel too. That would be so nice because it would give the old folks something to do, and then the animals wouldn’t have to stay in cages when their owners went out of town — because the old folks could keep them in their rooms.”

“Well now that there is a great idea,” Darlene said. She leaned forward and patted one of the old folks on the hand.

“Eat up, Dearie,” she said. “We got brownie sundaes for dessert.”

“Oh boy!” he said. “Dessert after breakfast!”

“And, you,” she said, turning to the one in Grandpa Boone’s lucky hat. “How are you at shooting pool?”

“No good I’m afraid. No good at all.”

“Perfect,” Darlene said. “Just perfect!”

The next few weeks Darlene became a drill sergeant, and the Triple K compound became a boot camp for the elderly. Darlene trained the replacement old folks to walk like the Boones and the Dillons. She taught them how to speak and argue and sit. She told them about their pasts, their hopes, their dreams, their favorite shows. She played music for them.

They never asked about what had happened to the people they were replacing. They knew a good offer when they saw one, and they didn’t want to mess it up. Then, after Darlene felt she had them trained good, she let them loose on the world.

“Pa, call up Sheriff Joe,” she said, and Pa did as he was asked.

“Sheriff Joe,” she said, when he got there. “We don’t know what happened. We just came outside, and there they was, roped up and dumped out on the lawn. I guess whoever gathered them up didn’t have no use for them anymore.”

“Well, thank God for that,” Sheriff Joe said. “Thank the good lord for that.”

When he left, Darlene explained to us that this way, if it ever was discovered that these weren’t the real grandparents, we could pretend to be just as surprised as everybody else. She was gonna keep them all dirty and scraggly so it would be hard to tell anyway. The men had grown beards, and the women had crazy hair. She’d just say that whatever happened to them when they were kidnapped had made them go a little wild.

Later that day Sheriff Joe came over to talk to my husband Wade. I was in the bedroom, putting together a scrapbook, and I heard him come in, so I decided to listen at the door.

Sheriff Joe wanted Wade to stuff a cute little rabbit he accidentally run over with his truck. He said the tread marks weren’t too bad since the rabbit was brown, and he thought his ma might like to have it on her mantle after they made the stew.

“Hazel Lee said you been over at the Boones’ house today.” Wade said when they were done discussing the rabbit. “Mighty fine news about them finding the grandparents, don’t you think?”

“Oh, come on Wade, we both know those ain’t their grandparents.”

Wade laughed. “I figure about everyone in town knows those ain’t their grandparents. You think anyone will tell?”

“Oh, hell no. You know, the way I figure it, I don’t know what went on over there, and I don’t want to know. The Boones is good people and wouldn’t do nothing wrong intentionally, and, you know, if it makes them happy to have some new old folks around, well, who am I to criticize that?”

Wade agreed.

“Besides, it’ll keep this town happy for years to gossip about where those new folks come from.”

“You got a point there,” Wade said.

I decided not to tell Mary Lou or her kin what I heard that day between Sheriff Joe and Wade. I mean, what good would it have done? The truth was that we’d all grown right fond of the new old folks over the past few weeks, and no one was gonna send them nowhere. We liked having replacement grandparents.

I even told them I thought everyone should be able to get replacement grandparents when theirs died off, and Mary Lou and Ma Boone and Darlene said they thought so too.

And Pa Boone, he was so happy Darlene found a solution that he said he was gonna be extra careful not to knock these ones off too.

StuddardMelissa Stud­dard is the author of the best­selling novel, Six Weeks to Yehi­dah (recipient of the For­ward National Lit­er­a­ture Award and the Pinnacle Book Achievement Award) and other books. Her writings have appeared in dozens of jour­nals and antholo­gies, includ­ing Boule­vard, Con­necti­cut Review, Poets & Writ­ers, The Smoking Poet, and Redheaded Stepchild. She is a reviewer-at-large for The National Poetry Review, a pro­fes­sor for Lone Star Col­lege Sys­tem, a teach­ing artist for The Rooster Moans Poetry Coop­er­a­tive, an editorial advisor for The Criterion, a contributing editor for Tiferet Journal, and host of Tiferet Talk radio. A collection of interviews from her radio program was just released in book form as The Tiferet Talk Interviews. Learn more at www.melissastuddard.com.