On a bright summer day in the old town of Mill Creek, Willa Mae Avery shot down the well-loved and well-known Terry Heed in a crowded diner to what seemed to be a wholly unprovoked attack. Those in Mill Creek had always known the daughter of Colton Avery was rotten just like him, they just never expected her to murder the champion of the town in cold blood. With the tragedy of Terry Heed’s death, Mill Creek wants vengeance. They want to see that 22-year old girl fry on the electric chair. However, these circumstances merely intrigue Detective Nina Jones. She wants to find out just what caused Willa Mae to pick up a gun and riddle Mr. Terry Heed with bullets. To find out just what made Willa Mae Avery a person to do something like that. Within her investigation, Detective Nina Jones finds out the complexities of a town such as Mill Creek and how all of its dark secrets, including those of Willa Mae’s childhood, could very well lead her to the truth.
Told through an alternating timeline of Willa Mae’s past through her perspective and Detective Nina Jones’ inquiries in the present, this is the first from Willa Mae’s perspective.
“A Beast Needs One to the Heart” – A Lesson from Big Man Colton
It had been a typical day for Willa Mae. She kept herself underneath the black walnut trees, out of the beaming summer sun, picking at the bugs as they crawled past her. She bent down and watch as they scrambled over one another in haste. Every once in a while, she’d stick her thumb down and squash the ones causing trouble to the others. Her teeth would grind as she did it, her finger digging into the dirt to sink those bugs deeper and deeper. “Go on,” Willa Mae would say to the rest of the herd. “They ain’t gon’ bother anyone now.”
Her daddy was out and the air around the house, which even in the dead of summer was damp and cold, felt warmer, and the birds sang louder in their trees. Mamma was cooking and little Delilah was helping her peel the potatoes, their house suddenly alive with those voices bouncing off the walls. Willa Mae could hear them laughing together as they gossiped about her Mamma’s cousins and uncles. Delilah always liked hearing the worst of the family secrets, though she wished she didn’t take such pleasure in those sinful things. Willa Mae knew it wasn’t out of wickedness (Delilah didn’t have none of that in her), but rather it was a steady reminder that it wasn’t just this household that had a strange chill about it. Other families had their troubles too.
“What’s this?” Mamma said to Willa Mae as she entered with her hands and overalls all covered in the yard soil. Willa Mae took a step towards the sink and her Mamma put her manicured finger up to stop her.
“You gon’ act like a dog, you’ll clean up like one too. Go rinse off outside and get those dirty shoes off this carpet!” Mamma’s eyes looked like black slits as they stared at Willa Mae. Delilah had stopped her peeling and glanced over to her sister with that beautiful look of worry she always had when Willa Mae was concerned. She had a face of a cherub, that girl, with a saintly disposition that shined through every pore of her. When Delilah was around, everybody tended to act a bit nicer to each other. Mamma, even, would stop herself from saying what her eyes did if Delilah was in the same room. However, that wasn’t always the case, especially if Mamma had a reason to be angry. Willa Mae tip-toed backwards, hoping to keep all that filth on her as she did it. If a tiny speck had come off her body, it might be more cause for alarm with her Mamma.
Willa Mae had turned and turned the faucet out back but no water came. Her cupped hands waited underneath the rusted mouth as the throat of it gurgled and groaned. Still, it remained dry. Willa Mae kicked it, once, twice, and then a thin line of brown water finally trickled out of the hose. She quickly rubbed her hands through it and pat her face with the droplets.
“Little girl,” her daddy said. Willa’s shoulder’s rose at the sound of his voice and she turned to him, the water already drying against her skin. He stopped towards her with those heavy feet, a limp cigarette burned right down to the filter on his lips. Colton was wearing his hard day all over him with his eyes twinkling with exhaustion, his hands hanging low enough that they’d be dragging across the ground if he were a shorter man.
He wiped his brow with his wrist. “Where’s your Mamma?”
“The kitchen,” Willa Mae replied.
Colton grunted and looked to his daughter. He knew she had hated him just as his lovely wife had come to. He’d rather have that. This little girl though, he thought, would do something about it sooner or later. He saw how her fists would curl when his voice turned into a growl, how she’d glance to the knives on the table when he’d spout his usual threats to her Mamma. Lord knows if he came near Delilah in that way, she’d poke him with whatever she could get her hands on. He pointed to the hose. “Turn that off now.”
Willa did as she was bid. Her father kept walking towards her, that cigarette now ash on his mouth. He let it drop from him and lifted a finger up, beckoning Willa to him.
“Get over here, little girl,” he said.
Willa Mae studied him as she always did, trying to figure out what was going on behind those dark eyes they shared. To her credit, she was better than most when it came to deciphering Big Man Colton’s moods. She could tell if he was lying and when she needed to lie to him too, if he wanted someone to listen or someone to hit. He wasn’t so hard to read. The man couldn’t keep much hidden on that hard face, especially when the thoughts recycled themselves throughout the days.
“What’d I just say? Stop gawking at me and come on,” he said as he turned back towards the tall grass where he came. It only took a moment for him to hear the girl’s feet pattering behind him.
“Now aim,” Colton said with a new cigarette sitting idly in his mouth. Willa held her hand steady, the gun resting peacefully there. The sun was low in the horizon, the vast blue now painted with pinks and purples. It was a shame the two of them had no way to appreciate the sky when it was like that. Pretty things had no use to them. Instead, the young girl had her finger caressing a trigger.
“Hold on.” Colton inched closer to his daughter and watched as those dark circles peeked towards him in the corners of her eyes. She shook slightly with his rumbling voice and approaching presence. He put his hands on his knees and took his time staring at her. He could tell she was trying not to let him affect her in any way by fighting off the urge to drop her arm and stare right back at him. No, sir. She would stay like she was, feet planted like a goddamn tree to prove herself.
Colton raised a finger towards her and poked her boney shoulder. Willa Mae faltered and sent a shot into the ground next to their feet. He heard wings flapping along above them, fleeing from that short volley that disrupted the quiet. Colton gave a hearty laugh that echoed from his black lungs. Willa could nearly hear the tar in those rare, joyful grunts of his. Surely enough, his pleasure turned to pain as he started to cough by what sounded like Mamma’s garbage disposal in the kitchen sink. Willa Mae stared at the powerful thing in her hand, her ears ringing with the sound it made. She’d seen her cousins messing with these guns, shooting up to the clouds and the trees and whatever small animal happened by them. They’d always laugh with each pop they made. Willa Mae, herself, couldn’t understand why they did all that cackling. She felt something else entirely, like she was too fragile to have something like this in her hands. She was more aware of just what she was holding, her hand a bit tighter with her daddy so close to it.
Colton wheezed off a few more coughs, waving his hand above him with a devilish smile. Sweat began to drip off his flat nose from the outburst.
“Shit.” He spit into the ground and wiped his tearing eyes. “You’re too fucking stiff.” He put his rough hands on her shoulders and felt the muscles of her back clench with his touch. He shook her. “Loosen up. Christ. You actin’ like you’re scared.”
That would do it. She took a deep breath of the Carolina breeze and with the fall of her chest, her body unwound itself.
“Good.” Colton looked like a shark when he smiled. They never seemed to reach his eyes. “Get that bottle out there in your sights then, suck in some air and when you let it go, press down on that trigger.”
Willa nodded but without the confidence her teacher was hoping for.
“Alright then, little girl. Let’s see it.” He took a few steps back from her and put his large, leathering hands on his hips. Waiting. He saw her eyes focus on the small glint from the bottle sitting on the wooden fence. She cocked the gun and took a breath like her daddy said. Then, as she exhaled, she pulled the trigger. The bottle shattered with high-pitch ringing and again those birds flew from it. The girl’s lips tugged upwards and her face wasn’t nearly as serious as it was seconds ago. He could tell she had a bit of pride in her and with that discovery, his amusement withered in an instant.
“Get that fucking smile off your goddamn face,” he said with a growl. “This here ain’t for fun. There ain’t nothing fun about this.” Colton went towards her, his large hands wide and deliberate as they grabbed that silver metal in her hand. In that moment, Willa Mae’s belly grew cold and a thick ball of dread clogged her throat as that valuable piece was taken from her. Seeing that in her daddy’s hands may be one thing, but he had that look in his eye. The one he got when Mamma said something he didn’t like, or someone wasn’t giving him the respect he thought he deserved. Her daddy put the gun flat in his hand, the barrel pointed straight towards her.
“This ain’t no toy for you to be playing with,” he said. “Why you think I’m teaching this to ya?”
Willa Mae opened her mouth to speak, thought better of it, and closed it again, her eyes never leaving the gun in her daddy’s hand.
“You sick in the head or something?” he asked, tapping the gun on his forehead. “I asked you a question.” His voice reverberated through Willa and the wind and the grass. She remained silent, pondering just how to appease this man in front of her. She hated her Mamma for making her go out to the hose, to kick her out while Delilah and she could keep out of situations like these with Big Man Colton. She was always the one to face him in these dark moods, always the one who took it on when she shouldn’t have.
Colton cocked the gun and pointed it towards her. “Men like me won’t be taking no pity on little girls. Especially ones like you. You listening to me? Another man like me or some other trouble gon’ come around here and you got to know that this... this right here in my hands is the only thing you need if you wanna get rid of them. This right here.” Her daddy pressed the warm barrel on her forehead. She felt the world around her slow with his movement, felt everything inside her come alive and buzz underneath her skin with a rushed voice telling her to run away and run away fast. But, perhaps since she was of the same flesh and blood of her daddy, she stayed still and kept her dark eyes on his.
She saw a quick flash of his yellow teeth as his lips curled up. He’d never say, ‘specially to her, but she might have been the strongest little bitch he’d ever come across. It could’ve been because she was either too stupid or too stubborn to do what was best for her, but the damn girl had a fearless way of saying fuck all to anyone who tried to make her smaller than she was. She was a true Avery, this one. Made up of the same things he was.
“You better start looking scared, little girl. I pull this trigger here and you’ll be up with our Lord and Savior.”
“I ain’t afraid.” Willa’s voice was coarse. Her mouth had gone completely dry.
Colton Avery laughed at his daughter. He reached down and grabbed her clenched hand. She tried to pull it back from him, but realized he was putting that gun right back in her possession, the barrel aimed straight towards his own gut.
“Not afraid? Shoot me,” he said low and with a challenge.
Willa looked to the gun in her hands, looked how it was pointed towards a man she had prayed so hard to be without. Every night, she’d shut her eyes real tight and say she wanted to be free of that curse. That man dragged them all down with him. He was too cowardly to stay in the depths of Hell all by himself. He made them cruel and liked it. He made that thing in her grow and she hated it. She had stopped feeling guilty for wishing him dead a long while ago. She hoped there’d be a time when that the God Mamma always told her about, the one that saved and damned the poor souls of this earth, the one that would strike you dead with the thoughts she was having, would take pity on her pleas. This could very well be the moment she had dreamt about.
“What happen? You lose that sudden courage in ya? Shoot me.” He was staring at her with nothing behind his eyes. Her learned tricks of his moods couldn’t help her here. But there was something dangerously serious in his stance, in how the lines of his face weren’t giving way to anything.
“Shoot me or I’ll shoot you right there.” Colton pressed his index finger between her brows. She stumbled backwards with the force of it, the spot hot. “I ain’t playing.”
He took a step forward and she raised the gun to his head. He smiled. Her hands were no longer steady and shook slightly. Willa Mae’s childhood had consisted of these challenges too adult for her to fathom. She had been able to get herself out of most of them, learned from them, expected them. But at this time, with that beautiful sky looking down on them and the tall grass as a witness, she suddenly wasn’t too sure about life and having it forever. That dark word she thought about but never really understood came to her like a bat out of Hell. Death, she thought, was much closer to her than she ever conceived it to be. Yet, it was still just a word, vague and feared. She desperately wanted to be ignorant of it again.
Her daddy dropped his head with an irritated groan. “Jesus fuckin’ Christ, you ain’t got no steel in your heart. You’re gonna end up just like your Mamma and sister.” His feet were fast when they came towards her this time and she knew he was as serious as the grave with this game. Willa started to backpedal, twigs and branches crunching beneath her, but her daddy’s hand caught a hold of her lemon hair and pulled.
“You fucking little bitch. You’re gonna die now because you might as well piss your pants then shoot me—“
Willa squeezed on the trigger and heard the bullet enter her daddy’s flesh, the volley muffling with his bone and skin. He clutched his thigh and released her and fell down with a loud thump. Dust and pollen floated into the air with the disturbance.
“Shit!” Colton Avery rolled on the ground with his teeth clenched together so tight they felt like they’d splinter apart any second. He pressed down on his wound, his hand wet with his sticky blood. Willa Mae stood as solid as a statue with the gun pointed towards her daddy. He glanced up to her, his eyes wild with a hatred that took up the air he groaned in. She felt the heat of it as she stepped closer.
“You shot me, you fucking bitch!” He spat at her. “You gon’ tell me you’re sorry?”
The little girl stared at him with his blank, black eyes. She shook her head no and her daddy smiled with blood and dirt in his teeth.
“That’s good. Good. Don’t feel nothing after. That’s good.” Colton let out another gravelly groan as he pressed down on that hole in his leg with more force. It was a clean shot, through and through that thick muscle. But Willa Mae didn’t know that. In fact, Willa Mae didn’t move as he cursed her and the pain. She didn’t see a reason too. Colton had made the mistake with this exercise. Before, Willa Mae only thought a divine act could strike her daddy down. Now, she knew a small piece of lead put into him at the right spot could take him too. And with that good news she thought about letting her daddy dry up, let all that evil come out of him, and just walk on back home like it was all but a bad dream of hers. Her Mamma would smile at her, a real smile, with the one she gave Delilah, and hold her real tight. She’d thank her again and again and kiss her hard. But, these thoughts suddenly felt sinful and wrong.
“I’ll get Mamma,” she finally said, shaking herself out of those dark desires. She turned towards the house but felt the familiar callouses of her Daddy wrap around her ankle. In a swift movement, Big Man Colton pulled that little girl down and she bit her tongue as her head hit the same ground he was heaving on. The gun flew from those delicate hands and Willa Mae tried to scuttle away as he heaved again, trying to bring her closer. With her free foot, she kicked and kicked to get away from him.
“Stop it, you little shit!” That firm voice made her stop. She was making it worse for herself, she knew. Colton Avery wasn’t the type to forgive or forget. He liked to add more reasons to hate someone. His grip tightened and Willa Mae’s bone began to ache with the increased pressure. She let out a small wince.
“Next time you shoot, little girl,” he said with gritted teeth, “you gotta shoot to kill. Hear me? Bastards like me need more than a shot to the leg. A beast needs one straight to the heart. Always shoot, little girl. Always shoot. Don’t wait for them to do no talkin’ because they’ll kill ya before you get the chance.” He released her leg and she quickly rose to her feet. He waved her away.
“Now go get your Mamma.”
Willa went. The walk back was vague, her own perception blurred on the edges. Her Mamma jumped at the sight of her daughter with red dots on her face. Willa Mae told her that Daddy was lying in the field with a hole in his leg. Mamma couldn’t seem to understand that and kept asking Willa Mae like she was speaking some other language altogether. “What?” She said after each explanation. “What are you saying?” Her Mamma would sit silent for a while with Willa’s words then shake her head, like she was shaking that untruth right out of it. What this little girl was saying to her couldn’t make sense in any circumstance. “What?” she repeated.
Mamma went out to the tall grass and came back with a white face. Delilah had, in the meantime, grabbed a dish towel and dabbed her elder sister’s face to help clean her up. She must’ve not understood much at the time, her eyes wide with confusion, but she knew her sister was feeling something hard and rough and wanted to do anything she could to help ease her. Willa Mae didn’t think much of what had happened. She remembered it much like one remembers a dream where the details become lost the more one tries to regain them. It was just a blurred image, her daddy pointing that gun towards her, the sound of the bullet hitting his flesh. When Mamma came back, she ripped the towel from Delilah’s hand and walked towards the phone. Delilah looked at Willa Mae with that worry again, thinking but not really knowing what to do if something were to take a turn in her Mamma’s soul. She wouldn’t be able to help Willa Mae then. Her Mamma had a hard heart when she wanted and could be just as cruel if she could justify it.
Willa Mae saw her mother continue forward with a zombie-like step, slowly and unsure of herself. Her little fingers shook as they reached for the phone, her voice small and quiet and Willa Mae wondered if the person behind the line could hear a word. It sounded like there was something large stuck in her Mamma’s throat, clogging what she wanted or needed to say. Whatever it was, she could not swallow it down like she had done so many times before in this house.
“He got a gun,” was what Willa Mae could manage to make out. Her Mamma leaned against the kitchen wall, rubbing her nail on the upturned paint. She kept her shoulders up, unnaturally so, to keep her face hidden from those little girls watching her closer than ever before. It seems kids like to pay more attention in times like these, times where their parents show a bit more of their humanity than usual. It was always a test to hide how life wasn’t something so easily led.
“I don’t know,” Mamma whispered again. “I don’t know how. I don’t know where it is.” She nodded with the phone pressed down over her ear, which seemed funny to Willa Mae at the time since the person she was speaking to could in no way know she was agreeing with them. She said a few more inaudible words. Delilah had instinctively gone to Willa Mae’s side. To her, there was always something steady in the way Willa Mae stood, something unshakeable that managed to keep her calm. Even at that young of age, Delilah would always try to find her sister in instances of uncertainty. One look at that fierce face and she’d feel safer again.
Mamma hung up the phone and the girls saw her body rise with a deep, deep breath, before she turned back to them. Her eyes bore into Willa Mae and one could easily imagine steam coming from her ears.
“You hateful thing,” her Mamma said and in a short moment her palm had landed itself across Willa Mae’s cheek. The force craned Willa’s neck to the side and her eyes prickled with tears. “You stupid, hateful thing!”
“Mamma!” Delilah whined. Her doe-eyes flashing to her Mamma and sister, pleading.
Willa Mae put her hand to the red spot on her cheek and her mother ripped it away, shaking her so hard that she thought her arm might fly from her shoulder blade.
The ambulance didn’t come for her daddy. Instead it was Uncle Jerry and Granny that came to load him up in Uncle Jerry’s pick-up truck. Uncle Jerry didn’t let Willa’s daddy sit in the front seat. He put him in the boot. “I don’t want no blood on this leather,” he said. Daddy cursed and spat as they pulled his crippled self up. “I’ll remember this, you fucker,” Big Man Colton said to Uncle Jerry. Uncle Jerry just shrugged his narrow shoulders and wobbled his wrinkly chin. “Yeah, I bet you will. Keep that blood inside ya, though. I don’t want no stains back here either.” And they drove him away on the dirt road.
Uncle Jerry was no real uncle of Willa Mae but had been called that since Colton and he had been like brothers since they were born. Granny didn’t necessarily like him, nor did anyone else really, but Uncle Jerry didn’t give a shit about anything and was the only person in Mill Creek that wouldn’t bat an eye when it came to facing Big Man Colton in his violent episodes. The truth behind this is Uncle Jerry truly didn’t care if he lived to the next day. He once said he was surprised each day the sun shined on his eyes and he woke. The man let things happen to him and wouldn’t be bothered to save his soul from the Hellfire if he had the chance. He’d just shrug, that shrug he used for anything and everything and anything in between and follow the Devil down into the flames without complaint. Therefore, he was the only one that would stick around Colton, regardless of what the man did to him. He never went to Colton or rather never went to anyone and stayed in his little shanty he built himself on the edge of Mill Creek County out in the woods. It had no running water or plumbing but the solitude was better than pretending to be interested in the other mouth breathers in town. So he kept to himself until Colton came around with all his bad ideas. Uncle Jerry wasn’t a good man or a bad man. He didn’t ever dissuade Colton or help him, he just laid back and let the day go as it was, never intervening. “I just let things go as they ought. Nobody need help from me” was what he’d say.
Willa Mae was up in her room for a few hours alone that day. Mamma didn’t have to tell her to stay up there. She washed herself clean and lay on the floor. Willa Mae didn’t remember much about her earlier days, but she remembered the afternoons that passed like this one, where she was alone and blank and staring up at the popcorn ceiling above her. She could manage like that for hours. Sometimes it was because she couldn’t fathom getting up. Her body was too heavy during those instances, too full of a weight she didn’t understand then. Sometimes it was her only time to dream about things. One of these fantasies started with her looking in the mirror, taking in the eyes of her father set in her head. Then, she’d touch the hair that was his too. She would put her hands on her belly and feel that thing they both shared move around beneath her skin. Next to the mirror was a knife. A sharp, thin knife that she somehow knew how to use. She’d prick the flesh of her stomach and carve an opening. The pain was instant, but felt good, the type of pain one had when removing a splinter or putting a bent shoulder back in its place. There was relief that went with it. The black sludge in her would come pouring out of that open, stinging wound and Willa Mae would smile, feeling lighter than ever. In the mirror now, her eyes were clear and blue, like Delilah’s.
Of course, the rest of Mill Creek heard of Colton Avery’s gunshot wound. The story that it was Willa Mae that had shot the man in the leg made people laugh at first. But, the more the people of Mill Creek thought about it, the more troubled they were that the little girl shot her own daddy. “What kind of demon does something like that?” some people said. “I just hope they keep her separated from little Delilah.”
Regardless of that, people whispered about the gun Colton Avery had and how he got his hands on one. It was a well-known fact that the good people of Mill Creek had unanimously decided to never take Big Man Colton’s money when it came to anything like that. Someone must have gifted it to him. Who, though, they couldn’t figure out. The theories were endless, and people found themselves gossiping over the next few meals they had, trying to solve the mystery. Whoever it was, they were putting the rest of them in harm’s way. The gun, however, was missing now. Willa Mae saw her Mamma go out in the dark, her flashlight bouncing around by her side as she stepped through the tall grass. She wandered about, thrashing around the marsh with frustrated tears stinging her cheeks. After a few hours of this, she screamed up at the sky until her throat throbbed. Willa Mae shook with the cry from her Mamma. It sounded too familiar to her, like she had that same cry in her too. Mamma came back home with hands all dirty from digging in the mud. She never did find it. Apparently, she even asked Uncle Jerry, who shrugged and said he couldn’t be sure of where it was. Granny, too, said she didn’t see it on Colton either. “You should focus more on him, Susan,” Granny said with a shake of her head. “Your husband won’t be too happy if you don’t.”
But, Big Man Colton wouldn’t be happy regardless of how the sun rose or fell in the coming days. Willa Mae had noticed how he looked at his family differently when he returned. There was always a sort of malignancy in his gazes towards them, but something had changed. Something that frightened Willa Mae when she caught him staring at her. She was now so acutely aware of his pinpointed attention. He would sit with his bandaged leg propped up, rolling a cigarette, licking the paper to finish it off, and stare deeply at the rest of them as they walked on their healthy legs in silence. He was waiting for an excuse, Willa Mae would come to think later on. An excuse to do what his mind had come to the conclusion of.
Mamma doted on him hand and foot, cooking all the meals he wanted whenever he wanted them. “There ain’t nothing else that can settle a man’s heart like a full belly,” her Mamma said once. Except, one day, Colton threw the roast she made him against a wall.
“Damn, woman.” He said. “That’s the damn worst thing I’ve ever put in my mouth.” She cleaned it up without a word and fixed him something else. He repeated the gesture, bellowing at her that she was trying to kill him in the guise of fried chicken and coleslaw. He would rather starve himself than take another bite of that poisoned food.