The Empty Chair Excerpt

She came here to lay flowers at the place where the boy died and the girl was kidnapped.

She came here because she was a heavy girl and had a pocked face and not many friends.

She came because she was expected to.

She came because she wanted to.

Ungainly and sweating, twenty-six-year-old Lydia Johansson walked along the dirt shoulder of Route 112, where she’d parked her Honda Accord, then stepped carefully down the hill to the muddy bank where Blackwater Canal met the opaque Paquenoke River.

She came because she thought it was the right thing to do.

She came even though she was afraid.

It wasn’t long after dawn but this August had been the hottest in years in North Carolina and Lydia was already sweating through her nurse’s whites by the time she started toward the clearing on the riverbank, surrounded by willows and tupelo gum and broad-leafed bay trees. She easily found the place she was looking for; the yellow police tape was very evident through the haze.

Early morning sounds. Loons, an animal foraging in the copious brush nearby, hot wind through sedge and swamp grass.

Lord, I’m scared, she thought. Flashing back vividly on the most gruesome scenes from the Stephen King and Dean Koontz novels she had read late at night with her companion, a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. Those sorts of books made her boyfriend laugh but they spooked Lydia every time she read them, even when she’d read them before and knew the ending.

More noises in the brush. She hesitated, looked around. Then continued on.

“Hey,” a man’s voice said. Very near.

Lydia gasped and spun around. Nearly dropped the flowers. “Jesse, you scared me.”

“Sorry.” Jesse Corn stood on the other side of a weeping willow, near the clearing that was roped off. Lydia noticed that their eyes were fixed on the same thing: a glistening white outline on the ground where the boy’s body’d been found. She could see a dark stain that, as a nurse, she recognized immediately as old blood.

“So that’s where it happened,” she whispered.

“It is, yep.” Jesse wiped his forehead and rearranged the floppy comma of blond hair. His uniform — the beige outfit of the Paquenoke County Sheriff’s Department — was wrinkled and dusty. Dark stains of sweat blossomed under his arms.  He was thirty and boyishly cute and, though he wasn’t the lanky, unsmiling cowboy type that appealed to her, she thought now, as she often did, that you could do worse in the husband department.

“How long you been here?” she asked.

“I don’t know. Since five maybe.”

“I saw another car. Up the road.” Lydia asked, “Is that Jim?”

“Nope. Ed Schaeffer. He’s on the other side of the river.”

Jesse nodded at the flowers. “Those’re pretty.”

After a moment Lydia looked down at the daisies in her hand. “Two forty-nine. At Food Lion. Got ’em last night. I knew nothing’d be open this early. Well, Dell’s is but they don’t sell flowers.” She wondered why she was rambling. She looked around again.  “No where Mary Beth is?”

Jesse shook his head. “Not hide nor hair.”

“Him neither, I guess that means.”

“Him neither.” Jesse looked at his watch. Then out over the dark water, dense reeds and concealing grass, the rotting pier.

Lydia didn’t like it that a county deputy, sporting a large pistol, seemed as nervous as she was. Jesse started up the grassy hill to the highway. He paused. “Only two ninety-nine?”

“Forty-nine. Food Lion.”

“That’s a bargain,” the young cop said, squinting toward a thick sea of grass. He started up the hill again. “I’ll be up by the patrol car.”

Lydia Johansson walked closer to the crime scene. She prayed for a few minutes. She prayed for the soul of Billy Stail, which had been released from his bloody body on this very spot just yesterday morning.

For the soul of Mary Beth McConnell, wherever it might be.

For herself too.

More noise in the brush. Snapping, rustling.

The day was lighter now but the sun didn’t do much to brighten up Blackwater Landing. The river was deep here and fringed with messy black willows and thick trunks of cedar and cypress — some living, some not, and all choked with moss and viney kudzu. To the northeast, not far, was the Great Dismal Swamp, and Lydia Johansson, like every Girl Scout past and present in Paquenoke County, knew all the legends about that place: the Lady of the Lake, the Headless Trainman. . . . But it wasn’t those apparitions that bothered her; Blackwater Landing had its own ghost — the boy who’d kidnapped Mary Beth McConnell.

Lydia couldn’t stop thinking about all the stories she’d heard about him. How he’d roam silently through the marshes and woods here, pale and skinny as a reed. How he’d sneak up on lovers lying on blankets or parked along the river. How he’d slip into the side yard of some house along Canal Road and ease up to a girl’s window after she’d gone to sleep. Peer in at her, rubbing his hands like a white-faced Carolina mantis, stare until he couldn’t stand it anymore then reach through a hole he’d cut in the screen to snake a hand up inside her pajamas. Or just crouch on the shoulder of the road in front of a house in Blackwater Landing and look through the windows, hoping to catch of glimpse of a girl he’d been stalking after school.

Lydia opened her purse, found a package of Merits and lit a cigarette with shaking hands. Felt a bit calmer. She strolled along the shore. Stopped beside a stand of tall grass and cattails, which bent in the scorching breeze.

On top of the hill she heard a car engine. Jesse wasn’t leaving, was he? Lydia looked toward it, alarmed. But saw the car hadn’t moved. Just getting the air conditioning going, she supposed. When she looked back toward the water she noticed the sedge and cattails and wild rice plants were still bending, waving, rustling.

As if someone was there, moving closer to the yellow tape, staying low to the ground.

But no, no, of course that wasn’t the case. It’s just the wind, she told herself. And she reverently set the flowers in the crook of a gnarly black willow not far from the eerie outline of the sprawled body, spattered with blood dark as the river water.

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