Beatrice preferred the company of the dead to the living.
The living held no interest for her, their existence nothing but noise, this movie or that TV show. Whatever nonsense they’d seen on their cellphones.
The dead were on the other side. They could answer her questions.
Hector, the man from the county, sat on the divan in Beatrice’s living room, the one upholstered in crushed velvet that used to be red but was now faded pink.
Beatrice and her husband had bought the piece of furniture at Sanger-Harris in 1965. They had taken in a matinee, Dr. Zhivago, at the Majestic. Afterward, they had gone shopping. She remembered that day like it was last week.
Hector put his cup and saucer on the coffee table, centering them on a doily.
“Would you care for more tea?” Beatrice asked, even though it looked like he hadn’t taken a sip of what she’d poured for him.
“Thank you, no.” He picked up his clipboard. “Tell me about your family.”
Beatrice’s house sat across the street from the only cemetery in University Park, a quiet little town surrounded by Dallas.
She looked out the window at all the graves and sighed.
Hector said, “Doyle? That’s your husband?”
Every day about this time, she liked to wander through the tombstones. Just to listen.
“Was,” she said. “He’s gone now.”
Hector looked up from his clipboard.
“We built this home. Doyle and I did. 1962. We were newlyweds.”
The house had been the biggest on the block at the time. Three bedrooms, a two-car garage. A basement, too—one of the few in the city. Now it was the smallest home for miles around.
“Have you had someone look at the roof?” Hector pointed to the damp spot on the carpet.
Beatrice didn’t speak.
He jotted something down. “And no children, right?”
“Jenny. Except for her.”
Hector tapped his pen on the clipboard.
“Our only child,” Beatrice said. “She died when she was a toddler.”
The pain from Jenny’s passing was a constant in Beatrice’s life, a hole in the middle of her chest, the jagged edges worn smooth by the passage of time.
Such an angel, skin like alabaster, flaxen hair. Beatrice remembered their last night together, how beautiful Jenny had been in her tiny gown and robe, cheeks red with undertaker’s rouge.
Doyle hadn’t wanted the child to sleep in the bed with the two of them, but Beatrice had insisted. It was the night before they put Jenny in the earth. How could she not be with her parents? So the child lay between the two of them, cold and still, until it was time for the funeral.
“Do you have any problems living alone?” Hector asked.
Beatrice pushed Jenny from her thoughts and stood. She shuffled to the window and stared at the gravestones.
“Ma’am? Are you all right?”
“I’m not alone,” Beatrice said.
“The county has people who can help you.” Hector put his pen away. “That’s why I’m here.”
Outside, a gust of wind blew through the live oaks in the cemetery. Leaves skittered down the street.
“I already have people who can help me.” Beatrice turned from the window.
“Could I get a name for the file?”
“Maybe one of them will tell me about Jenny someday,” Beatrice said.
She stared at the man. He was in his 40s, with thick black hair and watery brown eyes. He seemed like a nice person. She wished he could understand.
“I don’t see where you have any other family.” He shook his head. “That’s a problem.”Beatrice realized that Hector would never understand.
“The county needs to find a place for you to live,” he said. “It’s for your own good.”
“I don’t want to leave here.” She turned her gaze to the cemetery. “This is my home.”
Hector slid the clipboard into his briefcase. “We’re in between a rock and a hard place here, ma’am. Your house is not habitable. The smell—how long since you’ve taken out the garbage?”
She looked away from the cemetery. “I wish you could have met Jenny.”
Hector smiled. “Me, too, ma’am.”
“Would it be OK if I packed some things? Before you take me to my new place?”
Hector’s brow furrowed. After a moment, he nodded.
“Could you help me get my suitcase?” Beatrice asked. “It’s in the basement.”
Beatrice strolled through the cemetery, one hand brushing against the tombstones. She wished for the courage to join her daughter, but she was weak. Always had been, according to Doyle.
The sky darkened as clouds formed overhead. The wind grew strong and cool.
She stopped at Jenny’s grave. “Hector wouldn’t tell me anything.”
“Sometimes, when they leave, I can hear things,” Beatrice said. “The newness of it, I guess. They talk to me as they reach the other side.”
Thunder cracked in the distance.
“I ask about you, Jenny. I always do. I just want to know that you’re all right.”
Across the street a sedan stopped in front of Beatrice’s house. The car parked behind the one that Hector had driven. The vehicles were the same make and color. A few seconds later a police car screeched to a halt nearby.
“Why won’t you talk to me, Jenny?” Beatrice knelt by her daughter’s grave, the revolver in her hand.
Doyle had given the gun to her when they moved into the house. For protection, he’d said. A revolver and a candy tin of bullets, 20 total.
Beatrice had 10 left, and she wondered if that would be enough. How many more people would she have to lure to the basement just so she could ask about Jenny?
Across the street, a police officer pointed to the cemetery.
Beatrice pushed herself off the ground and stood. She cocked the hammer of her gun and lumbered toward the home that she and Doyle had built.
Harry Hunsicker is the former executive vice president of the Mystery Writers of America and the author of eight crime thrillers, including Texas Sicario (January 2019) and The Devil’s Country, which is in development as a feature film. He is a fourth-generation native of Dallas, and his fiction has been shortlisted for both the Shamus and International Thriller awards.