Eloise tried to avoid trips to the county sheriff’s office if she could. It had nothing to do with Tim Crawford, a kind and portly man with an Arkansas license plate and a Texas drawl who had spent many a Saturday in her kitchen playing poker with her father around their worn, oak table, fingers drumming rhythmically against its edge.
“I always said Tim shoulda made it big,” her dad would say after cleaning him out and pocketing the crumpled bills. “He’s one helluva performer, but one bad poker player.” It was hard back then, as it was now, to imagine Tim Crawford’s raspy voice crooning a country song over the metallic brightness of an acoustic guitar instead of sitting behind a desk with a badge on his belt and a gun at his hip.
And it wasn’t because Barry Mayfield had been recently promoted to detective, prompting even more rambling Facebook posts that matched his motor-mouth in volume if not in incoherence. Eloise couldn’t decide which version of Barry she disliked more, him, or his online persona, but either way, she couldn’t help but wonder how someone so utterly clueless could be trusted with the county’s toughest cases. Not that Columbia County, Arkansas had many cases to begin with. The last missing person case dated back to 1978, and citizens were still in the habit of leaving their doors unlocked during the day if they were making a quick trip to the grocery store or dropping their kids off at school.
As Eloise swung her battered Honda into a front space and gazed up at the detention facility, a squat brick building with a couple scrubby bushes out front and a chain-link fence capped in barbed wire stretching out to either side (though there wasn’t much to contain in the first place, if anything, she mused, the fence was keeping out coyotes) she remembered why she disliked this place so much. It wasn’t the staff or the mundane facade, and it had nothing to do with the way the fluorescent lights flickered slightly if the door shut too hard. No. Eloise hadn’t even known about the lights then; all she knew was that every time her father went up to visit the county sheriff’s office, it was because Tim Crawford had found one of his friends slumped over in their recliner or locked in a cold, perpetual slumber under rumpled sheets, and she would spend a night, sometimes two, on the couch, listening to her father’s snoring drift in from the other room. Just in case.
Growing up, Eloise had known her daddy was older than the other parents. She would find him waiting outside the elementary school, speckles of gray dotting his thinning hair and coarse beard, crow’s feet crinkling at the corners of his pale blue eyes as he smiled and lifted a paint-covered hand to wave at her from the crowd of parents. Her dad, Jack Hall, was a handsome man, or he had been when he was younger. Sometimes Eloise would secretly spend hours flipping through photo albums and old yearbooks, searching clusters of faces for her dad’s: tan, smiling, and bright-eyed. But he would always find out, and inevitably the photo albums were moved to the attic to make room for fishing poles and tackle boxes. At least, that’s what her father claimed. She knew the real reason the photos were hidden away where they couldn’t be stumbled upon by accident, but they didn’t talk about her mother.
Linda Hall was filed under the off-limits section of conversation topics right beside politics (Jack was a non-confrontational sort, and he didn’t like the possibility of a heated debate) and art degrees (because “no matter how talented, no daughter of mine is gettin’ a cent of my money if it’s goin’ toward that nonsense” is a conversation ender. As a contractor, Jack was a practical man, and he didn’t believe in degrees that didn’t lead directly to a career instead of poverty. Eloise got her bachelor’s in advertising thank-you-very-much, moved to Little Rock, and doodled on napkins and scraps of paper if she had a spare moment). All she knew was that her mother had been a kind woman, a secretary at the university for a few years while she worked on finishing her degree, and that she was gone too soon following a short-and-sour battle with cancer.
After a nine-year-old Eloise brought home an assignment to write a thank you card to her mother, Jack broke down, his body convulsing with sobs as he tucked himself away in the kitchen, leaving his only daughter alone in the den. It was then she decided never to bring up Linda Hall if she could avoid it, and it was then that Jack realized he would never fully get past this grief, this heavy sorrow that stared him in the face every morning with a dusting of freckles on her cheeks and bright orange hair falling over her shoulders. He never told her this even though he meant to, that Eloise looked like her mother. That he loved her copper penny hair and doe eyes and her constellation freckles. Somehow it got lost along the way, just like loose change and frightened deer and stars when the sun comes out.
Eloise eased the door shut on her way in, walked past the receptionist, who was too busy arguing on the phone with what sounded like an ex-husband, and knocked on the door to Sheriff Crawford’s office before pushing it open a few inches.
“Come in,” came Tim’s gravelly voice from the chair behind his desk. Eloise slipped into the office and sat across from him, ignoring the ache in her back that accompanied her five-hour commute, clasping her hands tightly in her lap, mentally bracing herself for anything he might say. The Sheriff wasn’t facing her, but the wall behind them, which was painted a yellow that reminded her of straw and covered in crayon drawings made by his two sons when they were younger. On the corner of one drawing, a picture of a giraffe and what Eloise interpreted as a beach towel with eyes (a ghost?), Tim had taped up the photo used on Daniel’s graduation invitation last spring. He was finishing at the University in Fayetteville with an engineering degree and going off to work in oil somewhere, probably Texas or Alaska, somewhere nice and big and rich in black gold.
Eloise remembered getting her invitation in the mail, sticking it to her own fridge, and graciously declining to attend the ceremony. He was three years younger than her; they weren’t really friends anymore. Her life was in the city, not the dandelion fields of Magnolia. Now, seeing that same face smiling at her from this wall, a dull ache began blooming in her chest. She should have gone. She would have been rewarded with that winning smile he always gave her. He would have called her Ellie, and she would have scrunched her nose at him in mock anger, like always. And then maybe they would have gone to dinner, have reminisced over the kiss they shared in secret when they were little. Maybe he would tell her to come with him to find the black gold, and maybe she would have said yes. But it was much too late for that now.
Tim slowly turned his rolling chair to face her in a symphony of squeaks and groans. She could see his eyes were red-rimmed and his face pallid with exhaustion.
“Eloise.” And his voice cracked on the last syllable, catching on the s like a child does a loose kite string. She looked at her hands, clasped so tight, keeping in what she wasn’t sure, waited for him to finish his sentence.
“I wanted to tell you in person,” he said, “that I found your father yesterday morning. He was dead, Eloise.”
Dead. The word felt meaningless as it ricocheted through her mind.
“How?” she heard herself say.
“Digitalis overdose we think. He might as well have just had a nice steaming cup of foxglove tea.”
Eloise squeezed her hands together so tight she thought she might break her own fingers, the elephant in the room sucking up all the air so she couldn’t speak. Tim Crawford allowed the silence to hang in the air, suspended by Eloise’s hardened gaze as she willed him to divulge the details, to explain why this horrible thing had happened. He allowed the question to fall flat on the floor, like an elephant in traffic, as he hammered out a rhythm on his desk with his index fingers and shook his head.
“It was an accident according to the report.”
But Eloise knew her father did not make mistakes. So why did he leave her like this? And why didn’t he say goodbye first?
The useless receptionist walked in without knocking.
“Sorry, Tim, it’s Dennis again,” no doubt the ex-husband, “I have to take care of this. I’ll see you tomorrow.” She stormed out without waiting for a response, heels thundering down the hallway and lightning strikes of curses falling from her lips as she slammed the door on her way out. The lights flickered. Eloise hated the county sheriff’s office.
“Thank you for your time,” she gritted, then made her exit, wishing she had as much power as the receptionist, that much anger. Instead, she let the door swing shut as gently as she had when she came in, and she finally unclasped her hands when she reached her car, their rutilant flush like a rash, a poison that was creeping up her arms, crawling all over her body, infecting her, suffocating her, burning her down.
Only a week had passed, but the garden was already overgrown, weeds springing up on unsuspecting marigolds, threading their lanky green arms around the flowers’ throats and choking the sunshine out of their petals. Beside them, the lantana bushes threw out their golden blooms to the unappreciative sidewalk and peppered the front path with yellow stains, each spot a teardrop of honeyed rain. There’s no place like home, Eloise thought as she turned her key in the lock and stepped inside the museum of her childhood.
She didn’t turn on the lights as she walked down the front hallway, and she left them off when she entered the little eat-in kitchen and slumped into her chair at the oak table. She ran her fingers over its edge, feeling for the place where she carved her initials once, EJH, tracing the rough lines made by her father’s stolen pocket knife. A butterfly landed on her knuckle and rested there, small and reminiscent of the lantana bushes that brought it. It must have flitted in behind her when she came inside. Eloise examined the creature, its papery wings fanned out and stilled. Her phone buzzed with a message from her boss, and the butterfly departed from her hand and ventured into the kitchen. She ignored the message. He could wait until her “vacation” had ended. Eloise snorted once at the thought of sending her coworkers postcards from the bank, the lawyer’s office, and the funeral home. Wish I weren’t here, it would say.
Even though she could peruse the photo albums and yearbooks all she wanted now, Eloise no longer felt their magnetic pull. There would still be repercussions for her actions, just new ones now. She wasn’t sure why she headed into the garage, why she pulled the cord that opened the attic door, and unfolded the ladder as she had done over a dozen times at Christmas and for summer garage sales. An amber haze greeted her when she turned the light on, one bare bulb furnishing just enough brightness for the cardboard boxes to take shape, but not for their labels, scrawled in Sharpie over 20 years ago, to reveal information about their contents. Save for boxes of multicolored lights and a collection of nutcrackers, Eloise didn’t know what to expect from the attic.
She pushed her way to the back, peeking inside the brown paper crates at the assorted curios: albums of baseball cards, picture frames, a planter shaped like a bull, and a sewing machine that used to belong to her mother. Hot tears pricked at her eyes but were swiped dismissively away as Eloise came upon the box in the corner, the one that would contain the pictures. It was nearly impossible to reach, she would have to balance on the slats in the floor or else put her foot through the living room ceiling, and without knowing how heavy it may be, there was no telling whether she would be able to return with it. She rocked forward onto the balls of her feet and made her first leap, then another and another until she was crouching beside the box, brushing off its dust, and opening its flaps in the dimness. Her hands reached in, casting around in the darkness until they found them. Bound high school yearbooks, the old photo albums with the baby pictures, and something else. Something she did not remember flipping through on the living room floor. A slim leather-bound book, with curling pages, yellowed from age and water damage.
Eloise picked her way back through the maze of boxes and made her return to the kitchen, and, setting her discovery on the oak, she opened the volume to its first page. It was not a book, but a ledger. Lists of transactions wobbled across the paper in her father’s messy scrawl, some blotted out with ink or washed away with time. Scanning the columns and rows of money, Eloise found nothing out of the ordinary. As years progressed, the handwriting remained the same, tilted and smudged (as is common for lefties), yet numbers orderly and balanced.
Her eyes landed on an entry, unlike the others. A donation to a wildlife preserve a couple hours away. She remembered this. Her mother loved animals, she was getting her degree in animal science, according to a woman who once worked with her at the university. They’d had an awkward lunch when Eloise first started school; Mrs. Halloway from admissions insisted on meeting Linda and Jack’s daughter. But Eloise hadn’t been able to focus on much then, just hearing her mother’s name spoken in casual conversation was enough to send her reeling. Her mental filing cabinet had been disrupted. Still, Jack donated yearly to the wildlife preserve in honor of his late wife, and they visited once when Eloise was a Sophomore in high school. She wished she could feel connected to the animals there the way her mother likely would have, but she wasn’t her mother’s daughter. She was her father’s girl.
Below the entry detailing the donation to the wildlife preservation was another abnormal charge. The memo line simply said “For M.” The amount of zeros in the right-hand column was staggering, the balance leftover setting off alarm bells in Eloise’s head. Who was M? And why was he getting so much money? The charge repeated every three or four months for four years, and then the entries stopped. Eloise closed the ledger and stared at the empty chair across from her.
“What was it for?” she asked, though it sounded more like a strangled yelp. Images flashed through her memory of bills counted under the table at Jack’s weekly poker games, his worn work boots by the door, little aluminum shavings littered on their doorstep, and the shotgun he always kept beside his bed. Just in case. Her mental filing cabinet had been dumped out on the floor, papers strewn everywhere with no labels, no definition of off-limits or acceptable or understood.
There was no one to answer her, not at the house anyway, with its empty hallways and hollowed rooms. So she went back to Tim’s office, marched past the receptionist (who was filing her nails anyway and not paying attention), and opened his door without so much as a knock. To her surprise, they weren’t alone. Who was sitting in the sheriff’s chair but Daniel, who looked at her with wide eyes.
“Ellie, what are you doing here?” he asked. Eloise almost scrunched her nose at him. Almost.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, shooting a meaningful look to Tim, who stood by the open window, an unlit cigarette pinched between his lips. He only shrugged and proceeded to light up, and Eloise shifted her gaze back to Daniel.
“I came back for your dad’s memorial service,” he said. “He was always good to me, even when I put that nail through his hand.”
Eloise remembered that hospital trip. She’d told her father it was a mistake to give a fourteen-year-old a nail gun, but he insisted it was fine and nearly lost a finger for it later. The hospital bills were steep, and she picked up a summer job as a lifeguard to help offset the costs. The thought of money drew Eloise’s hand to the ledger in her bag.
“Daniel, do you mind if I speak to your father alone for a few minutes?” she asked, avoiding eye contact with both of the Crawford men.
“Sure.” And Daniel was out the door, out of sight again. Eloise pulled the ledger from her purse, ran her hand over its cover before handing it over to Tim.
“Do you recognize this?” she asked, her voice barely above a whisper.
Tim opened the slim book and skimmed its pages with interest.
“This belong to your father?”
“I think so.”
Eloise flipped to the marked page and pointed at the entry of interest. The first of the ‘for M’s.’
“Do you know what this could be?”
Tim tapped his index finger thoughtfully against the side of the pages and shook his head. Eloise could feel tears pushing at her eyes, but refused to let them fall. She cleared her throat.
“Why are you lying to me?”
Tim closed the ledger with a snap. His eyes met Eloise’s and his gaze softened.
“Eloise, your father…he loved you very much, and everything he did was to protect you—”
“Then why did he keep this from me. Who is ‘M’? Why was he giving them thousands of dollars that could have gone to paying my tuition or to saving for retirement or to….” She sunk into the chair across from Tim’s desk and finally allowed herself to cry.
“Or to pay for a better doctor who wouldn’t prescribe him too much heart medication?”
Tim set the ledger on his desk gently and kneeled down, so he was eye-level with Eloise.
“Listen, sweetheart, your father only kept this from you because he thought it would keep you safe, make things less complicated. I’m not sayin’ he’s right or wrong, but I know one thing, and that’s that he wouldn’t let anything happen to his little girl.”
Eloise swallowed a sob and croaked, “but I’m not little anymore.”
Tim let out a soft laugh. “Our kids are always little to us.” Then he rose to his full height, tucking his thumbs in his waistband. “But I suppose you have a right to know the truth.”
Jack Hall was a good man. This was what the minister said at Friday’s memorial service, as Eloise sat in the first pew, a wadded tissue clutched in her hand, the ledger and a handwritten letter safely tucked in her purse. Father, friend, mentor, boss. He was good at all of these things. Poker player too, Tim joked when it was his turn to speak. A sea of black-clad men and women laughed, but sorrowfully, not at all like the jovial way her father would when he made a bad pun or got into a false-serious argument with her at the dinner table about whether pancakes or waffles were a better food. That laugh was exactly what they were here to mourn the disappearance of. A world without her father’s laughter was less bright indeed.
Jack Hall was a good man. This was what friends and coworkers said to Eloise as they filed past her on their way out of the church. Barry Mayfield made another rambling post on Facebook about him, and when Eloise saw him at the funeral, she did not feel the familiar pang of annoyance she was usually met with at the thought of him. Instead, she felt something like guilt twisting in her gut as she handed him the letter and the ledger and recognized him for what he was. Her brother. Well, half-brother technically. The source of her father’s secret payments. She assured him that the letter would explain everything. How Jack wanted to preserve Mrs. Mayfield’s good image by keeping Barry’s true parenthood secret. How he hadn’t wanted to upset Mr. Mayfield, who was ill at the time and eventually passed away without knowing of his wife’s infidelity. How he paid as much as he could during the years after his death so Barry could finish high school. Eloise left him with a hug. He may have been talkative and obnoxious, but he had lost two fathers in his lifetime, and probably needed the comfort.
Jack Hall was a good man. This was what Daniel said when he dropped Eloise back off at the house. After inviting her to visit him sometime in Houston. After Eloise accepted on the condition that he refrained from calling her Ellie.
“We’ll see,” he said, and gave her a kiss on the cheek that begged to be revisited later.
Jack Hall was a good man. Eloise turned the phrase over in her head as she walked up the path to the front door, flowerbeds newly empty. He was not a good man, she decided, because of what he did for her. He was not a good man because he cut the crusts off of her peanut butter and honey sandwiches, or because he didn’t blow up at Daniel after driving a nail through his hand. It wasn’t because he made regular donations to the wildlife reserve in his late wife’s honor, helped his daughter with her math homework, or spent his weekends making repairs on the house of the family down the street (who was fostering several children) without charging them a cent. And he was not a bad man because he had a love affair with a woman whose husband was sick, nor was he bad because he kept this information secret from Eloise all those years of her upbringing. Jack Hall was a good man because he did not care if anyone thought of him as good. He could have destroyed the ledger and buried the evidence of his wrongdoing. Instead, he stored it where he knew Eloise would find it as a message to her. One that said, “I love you, and I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner.” She forgave him.
Jack Hall was a good man, and she was her father’s girl.
Amelia Kleiber is studying English, education, and creative writing at Stephen F. Austin State University. Her work has been published in HUMID 13 and 14, and she won third prize in the Piney Dark Fiction Contest in 2019