When Ethan came back to the living room, he popped open the cans and passed them on. He kept his voice easy and slow as he said to Autumn, “You were telling me about seeing them burying people. Did you see how these people died?”
Those stark, unbelievable words hung in the air. Autumn stiffened up, pressed her back against her mother’s chest. Ethan sat forward, reached out his hand, and lightly touched her shoulder. “You know me now, Autumn. Your mom knows me too, in fact, she even knows I play the piano. I’ll play for you later, but first, it’s time we cleaned up this mess, and that means you’ve got to tell me what you saw. All right? Can you do that?”
Autumn gave him a long look, then said, her voice clear and steady, “The people were already dead, Ethan. They were lying next to each other. Blessed and Grace were digging Daddy’s grave even deeper so those dead people would fit in it.”
“You’re sure they were people, Autumn?”
Even as she nodded, Ethan saw her small face cloud over. He knew what she was thinking: He doesn’t believe me; he thinks I’m a stupid little kid. She couldn’t have been clearer if she’d spoken out loud.
“Could you tell how many dead people there were?” Now wasn’t that real smart, asking a seven-year-old how many bodies were piled around.
Autumn sat forward, her small hands making fists on the table, her eyes on his face. “I was so scared, Ethan, I just couldn’t think. I ran to Mama.”
Joanna said clearly, “Yes, she came to tell me what she’d seen, Sheriff.”
“Did you go and look?”
“At that point I didn’t think it was necessary.”
At that point? What did that mean?
He said, “If my kid came to tell me she saw dead bodies, I think I’d be up like a shot to see what was going on. Oh, I see, you thought Autumn was making it up.”
“No, Mama didn’t believe that,” Autumn said. “She just didn’t think I saw what I thought I did.”
Joanna Backman’s face was so leached of color he thought she’d faint. He waited for her to say something, but it was Autumn who spoke. “I wanted Mama to come with me so I could show her what they were doing, but she wouldn’t. She pulled me against her and rubbed my head and told me it would be all right, and we were leaving first thing in the morning, and I wasn’t to worry about it. I’d forget about it—that’s what she thought. But I knew it wouldn’t go away. How could it? I saw them digging up Daddy’s grave, and I saw them burying dead people in it.”
Joanna took her daughter’s hand. “She’s right. I believed Autumn was seeing something in her head, but I didn’t believe the Backmans were actually in the cemetery at that moment burying people. Autumn had just lost her father; she was grieving for him terribly. Perhaps she’d misinterpreted whatever she’d seen.”
The thick silence in Ethan’s living room was broken only by Lula and Mackie’s purring.
He said slowly, “You believed Autumn was seeing horrible things in her head because of what you’d both seen earlier that day in the cemetery? You thought she was dreaming it?”
Joanna saw incredulity on his face, heard the disbelief in his voice. She said, “That’s what I hoped at the time. I mean, who wants to believe something that horrible was actually happening right below the bedroom window?”
Ethan said, “You went to the cemetery, didn’t you, Joanna?”
“Yes, I planned to, alone, so I could come back and reassure Autumn. I was walking toward the center staircase when I heard the three of them come through the front door. They were talking. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, so I tiptoed down to the bend in the stairs. I heard Mrs. Backman then, her voice was really clear, so I stopped right where I was and listened. I couldn’t have misunderstood her. She sang out, sounding happy as a lark, ‘Well, boys, I’m thirstier than a desert in hell. We got it done, all solemn and proper, and it’s over. Nobody could complain we didn’t do it right. That big pile of dirt will settle down soon enough. Now, I need a nice whiskey sour. Grace, you know exactly how to make it. Blessed, you want a Diet Coke?’
“Blessed said he did, with a slice of lemon. Grace didn’t say anything. I would swear they should have heard my heart pounding. They’d just buried people and she wanted a whiskey sour? I wanted to run, but I knew I had to wait and listen, but for the longest time I didn’t hear them say anything more. I stayed bent down, in the shadows of the bend of the stairs. I thought they’d gone when Shepherd said, ‘We’ll take care of Joanna in the morning. Make it look like an accident, Blessed; we don’t want Autumn to distrust us. Everyone will be so pleased she’s here at last, where she belongs. She’s strong. I know it now, stronger than Martin.’