Grist Mill Road by Christopher J. Yates is a dark, twisted, and expertly plotted Rashomon-style tale (available January 9, 2018).
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The year is 1982; the setting, an Edenic hamlet some ninety miles north of New York City. There, among the craggy rock cliffs and glacial ponds of timeworn mountains, three friends―Patrick, Matthew, and Hannah―are bound together by a terrible and seemingly senseless crime. Twenty-six years later, in New York City, living lives their younger selves never could have predicted, the three meet again―with even more devastating results.
I remember the gunshots made a wet sort of sound, phssh phssh phssh, and each time he hit her she screamed. Do the math and the whole thing probably went on for as long as ten minutes. I just stood there and watched.
I don’t know when I realized I was counting. Eight, nine, ten. For along time it seemed as if all sensation, everything but my eyesight, had been switched off. But once I realized I was keeping track of the shots—eighteen, nineteen, twenty—it felt like something I could cling to because my sense of balance had been switched off along with everything else. I was standing on the nauseating brink of something I didn't want to fall into, a world beyond comprehension.
This wasn’t real life, this was a show. And this show wasn’t for me, I wasn't even allowed to stay up late enough to watch this sort of show. No, none of it made any sense, a silent movie with Russian subtitles.
And yet I watched.
What does it mean to watch? When a crime takes place in front you, what is watching? Is it a failure to act or is it simply keeping your eyes open?
I was twelve. I was twelve years old.
Forty-one, forty-two, forty-three …although the newspapers reported Hannah had been shot only thirty-seven times with my Red Ryder BB gun, so maybe Matthew missed a few times, or more likely some of the pellets simply glanced off the ropes. He had used so much rope, I imagine he had to be taking careful aim at the gaps. We were both pretty good shots by then—I could plunk a soda can one-handed from thirty steps and Matthew no doubt thought himself a better shot than me. No way, José.
I figured everything was winding down now. Hannah’s screaming was slowly becoming less and less. And between the screaming there was crying and that also was becoming less and less.
When Matthew pulled the trigger the forty-ninth and final time, there was only half a scream, a sharp yelp that died quickly in Hannah’s throat. And that yelp was a sickening enough sound on its own but it is the absence of the second half of her scream that rings loudest in my memory.
I can still picture it as well, the way Hannah’s head twisted despite the rope tied around her neck, a reflex that had come absurdly too late.
The woods fell ever more silent. It felt like the moment in a storm when you see the flash of lightning and wait for the thunderclap. Is it closer?
And then Hannah’s head drifted back. And her chin dropped to her chest. And her long dark hair fell over her face.
Matthew stayed as still as a lead soldier and I did the same, fused to a plate of the earth, not even breathing, just trying to exert some small measure of control over my life for a few final seconds. The world at that moment was reduced to a thin sort of strip like a newspaper cartoon, a ribbon of life that started with Matthew, the butt of the rifle wedged at his shoulder, and ended two frames later with Hannah, motionless, tied to a tree.
But then came a sound that snapped us both out of it, something small scurrying through the undergrowth, Matthew’s head jolting and his body coming alive. He leaned the gun carefully, almost respectfully, against a rock and began to creep forward, stopping an arm’s-length away and peering in at Hannah like she was darkness in a cave.
He picked up a stick and prodded her arm. Nothing.
He jabbed again, Hannah’s flesh like dough, a small crater of skin filling itself back in. Raising the stick higher, he hesitated a moment. What kind of a world might exist beyond the curtain?
And then Matthew parted her hair. That’s when I first noticed the blood dripping from Hannah’s chin, soaking the neckline of her T-shirt, its pink collar crimsoning.
I spun around and spat on the ground, my eyes beginning to scope the woods, looking to see if anyone else might have witnessed it all. When I turned back, Matthew still had his stick under her hair, standing there with his head to one side, as if reading spines in a bookstore.
Hey, come take a look, he said.
I pressed the heel of my hand to the bridge of my nose, trying to pushout the gathering sense in my forehead, a new universe exploding.
The BB’s gone right through her eye, said Matthew. Straight into her brain. She’s stone-cold dead.
I couldn’t rub my forehead hard enough to make the pressure go away so I started to hit myself instead, thump thump thump. Still to this day the heel of my hand fits perfectly into the hollow between my nose and my brow.
I said come here, said Matthew, turning to me. We haven’t got the whole damn day, Tricky.
It was only Matthew who called me Tricky. To everyone else I was Patch or Patrick, or sometimes Paddy or Paddyboy to my dad. But Matthew was Matthew to everyone, me included. He’d never let you shorten his name, would even correct adults if they tried on a Matt or a Matty to see if it fit. My name’s Matthew, he would say every time, very calm and straightforward.
Sniffing, I started to move, feeling like old kings must’ve felt taking their final steps to the executioner’s block—which is a selfish way to think of it but that’s just how it was at the time. I walked as steadily as I could toward the two figures connected by a stick and when I stopped, Matthew pulled me closer, positioning me at the perfect spot. What do you think, Tricky? he said.
Swallowing hard, my eyes ran along Hannah’s measled arms, up to the circle of ropeburn like a choker around her neck. And then, not turning to face her, but with grimacing eyes, I peeked beneath Matthew’s stick. There was nothing but blood and mess and some of the blood was already congealing. Blackness and wetness and skin. Hannah’s left eye socket looked like it was housing a dark smashed plum.
Yeah, I said, trying not to cry. She’s dead. Matthew dropped the stick.
We didn’t check for breathing. We didn’t feel for a pulse.
I stood there for a moment and then Matthew tugged me, not unkindly, hooking his fingers in the back of my shirt to break the spell.
We didn’t make the sign of the cross. We didn’t pray for her soul.
There are layers of rock piled high everywhere in the Swangum Mountains like stacks of pancakes. Our failures were mounting as well. We didn’t even cut her down.
Copyright © 2017 Christopher J. Yates.
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Christopher J. Yates was born and raised in Kent and studied law at Oxford University before working as a puzzle editor in London. He lives in New York City with his wife and dog. His first book, Black Chalk, was an NPR “Best of the Year” selection.