It was Colby’s fourth birthday. Vivian showed up early and saw the back of her brother Burrton’s truck driving off. The broken taillight gave it away. She wasn’t exactly the doting sister and knew something was wrong. He wasn’t the kind of guy to run and buy ice cream for the cake. What would it be this time? Marion and Burrton seemed to rub each other wrong from the moment they said I do. It almost made Vivian glad she hadn’t found anyone. So far anyway.
Vivian found the over skinny, overwrought Marion in the kitchen with the remains of a blue birthday cake on the floor and on her clothes. Red faced and tow headed Colby was screaming at her.
“It’s all your fault. It’s all your fault.”
Vivian, ever resourceful, sent Colby to wash his face and calm down and got Marion to tell her what happened. It wasn’t much of a story and ended with Burrton packing his bags and leaving for good, he said, this time.
Marion sobbed, “Good riddance, good riddance, you stinking bastard. Now, I’ll be all alone.”
Vivian scraped cake off Marion’s shirt. “You’ve got Colby.” More than Vivian had.
Marion’s skinny frame shuddered. “I need a cigarette.”
Vivian pulled her plumpness to a standing position. “You do that and change your clothes too.”
Vivian cleaned up and found a cake mix to pop some cupcakes in the oven. Someone had to be responsible.
After the party, Vivian sat in the forest green vinyl recliner with the hole in the arm picking at the stuffing and wondering if Burrton really was gone for good. She knew her duty was to be there for Marion and Colby. She’d been cleaning up behind Burrton for years. It was least she could do for Colby. She pulled her cardigan closer as she sat there watching Colby pull the heads off of all his new dinosaurs with a bit too much vehemence for a four year old. It was like a storm cloud had attached to his four year old head.
A month later, no one had seen or heard from Burrton. Marion had the divorce papers drawn up and didn’t know where to send them. Colby’s preschool class had a Valentine’s party planned and Marion wasn’t really in the Valentine’s kind of mood, so Vivian volunteered to go be a helper for the party. She was the lone spot of black in a sea of pink and red shirts and craft paper.
In college, Vivian had a roommate who also did not get dates for Valentine’s or any other occasion, they had vowed to wear black on the dreaded lover’s day until they found someone. Fifteen years later, Vivian still wore black and she’d lost track of the roommate. She could handle four year olds on Valentine’s, but that’s about all she could deal with.
After passing out the pink and white cupcakes and pretzels, she stood by Colby’s desk and watched him color all the hearts on his cards black.
“Don’t you want another color, Colby? How about a green crayon?”
Vivian reassured herself that the cloud following Colby would disband as he got used to his dad being gone. Hopefully.
At Halloween, Marion was busy celebrating. The divorce was final so Vivian took Colby to the store to buy a costume to trick or treat. He wanted the Jason mask outfit.
“How about superman? Or Batman?”
“No. I want the mean man outfit.”
“How about Peter Pan? You like green.”
Colby spoke through gritted teeth, “I want to be the mean man.”
Vivian shook herself and decided it must be a phase with no Dad on the scene.
Marion started dating. Dating a lot. She thought Colby could use a man around the house more. Vivian thought it must be nice to have all kinds of attention without trying.
It was Vivian who Marion called when Colby stuck a steak knife in the leg of her latest beau. He said it slipped and no one pressed charges. The boyfriend disappeared and Vivian stayed with Colby a lot on weekends after that. She tried staying at her house but Colby looked her in the eye and ripped her houseplants out of the pots. It was just easier at his house where there were more toys.
Valentine’s day became an annual event with Vivian and Colby. She’d take the day off, wear black, go help with his school party and then after school they’d go out for cheese pizza and ice cream. The kid needed some attention or something, Surely he would grow out of his surly stage. Valentine’s day was the least she could do.
When Colby was six his tow head fading to a sandy blond, Vivian caught him burning his Valentine’s cards.
“Why’d you do that?”
“It’s a stupid holiday. No one in class loves me.” While Vivian agreed, it was a stupid holiday she decided not to encourage burning things.
“They mean well by giving you a card. Besides I love you.” She side hugged him and for once he didn’t pull away, but he growled low in his throat. She reminded herself you can’t pick your relatives and you had to do your duty. Poor Colby didn’t mean to be creepy. Watching him grow up was like watching an avalanche gain momentum. It really wasn’t his fault his mom didn’t pay attention to him.
When he was eight, Colby got scissors and cut the heads off all his stuffed animals.
“Why’d you do that?” Vivian asked.
“I’m too old for stuffed animals. That’s baby stuff.”
“Maybe you are, but other kids who don’t have toys would be happy to have them.”
“They’re stupid kids.” Vivian felt the dark cloud that she now called the Colby Cloud come over her.
“Why do you say that and do things like that?” She asked curiosity suddenly holding her prisoner. Sometimes he was like a horrible dark scene in a movie that you can’t take your eyes away from.
“They don’t know about the real world.”
“What’s the real world?” She wanted to cover her ears and run away, but she stayed.
He squinted his dark brown little eyes at a spot on the wall and said, “Mean people, people who don’t do what they say, and then you die.”
“I do what I say.” She told herself, no, stop, end this conversation, offer him candy or something.
“You’re the only one.” He paused then looked her in the eye with a tremor in his lip. “Will you always do what you say Aunt Vivian?”
She swallowed hard under the Colby cloud but knew her duty. “Yes, Colby I’ll always be here for you.”
“Are you going to die?” He asked.
“Someday. Everyone does some day. Then I’ll watch over you from heaven.”
He dark eyes looked away. “I know.”
Marion and Colby’s cat died rather strangely when Colby was 10. Somehow he ate antifreeze and died a rather painful death. Colby was home alone when that happened. Marion was always out. Vivian didn’t think the cat would have survived if Marion was home either. Colby wanted a dog this time. Marion didn’t want the responsibility of another pet.
On Valentine’s Day, Vivian bought him a hamster he could keep in his room. She apologized to the hamster before she took it in the house. “I’m sorry. I’m sure it is not going to be an easy life for you but he needs a friend.” The gray whiskers twitched and the fuzzy guy ran back inside his can cave.
Colby was delighted. He’d just turned 11 and had shot up to nearly be as tall as Vivian’s 5’4”.
Later over pizza, Colby offered some rare gratitude.
“Thanks for the hamster. I named him Dracula because hamsters are nocturnal.”
“Of course you did.” Vivian smiled but felt a chill. The kid just needed someone to direct those dark energies. She wished she was better with kids.
When Colby was 12, the hamster died in a vacuum cleaner accident that Vivian didn’t want to know about.
Marion called in the middle of the night a year later. The police had been and Colby had been taken to juvie jail for assaulting Marion’s latest flame. She told Vivian that Colby thought the man was an intruder. The man would recover with 14 stitches in his head where he’d been hit with a baseball bat. Later, the court sentenced Colby to 2 years and counseling. Vivian felt hopeful that the counseling could get rid of the Colby cloud. Surely someone could get through to him. She never had been able to. Then again, maybe she’d never tried.
She visited him every other Saturday and of course took pizza on Valentine’s Day. He seemed if possible more sullen than he was before the going to jail.
“How’s the food in there?”
“How are classes here? Better than school?”
“Is the counseling helping you feel more…” she searched for an appropriate world, “content?”
“What does that mean?” he didn’t meet her eye.
She blinked several times. “No need to swear with me.”
“Yeah, whatever.” Awkward silence passed for a while. She realized knowing him was like watching a wreck on TV. They keep showing horrendous footage and you keep watching.
“Have you seen my mom?”
“What? No. Not since we came for your birthday. Is she okay?”
“How would I know she hasn’t called or come for like a month. She’s killing me.” Vivian made a mental note to call Marion to give her some gentle prodding. Poor Colby.
Marion was drunk when she called and not really interested in talking about Colby. She said she’d called Burrton who had only visited once since the fateful fourth birthday and wanted him to take Colby when he got out. She’d dubbed him uncontrollable. Vivian didn’t debate the matter with Marion but thought of Colby and the dark cloud that had emanated from him since he was young. Was it uncontrollable or was it simply a dark fascination with life that drove him? Burrton certainly wouldn’t be a good influence on him.
Vivian was the one who drove him to the airport when he got out of juvie jail.
“I can’t believe you’re on her side.” Colby spit the words into the side window as he looked out.
“I had nothing to do with this Col. I’m just the messenger driving you to the airport. I’m not your mom.”
“Whatever. You just pretend to like me.”
“Why would you say that?” It was spooky that he felt that. She tried to like him for himself. He hadn’t meant to dig such a hole with his life. Vivian had grown accustomed to all their conversations going this way, but his new found insight must be a result of the counseling in juvie. The cloud apparently did not abate or maybe some kids in jail reinforced Colby’s cloud.
“You always do what you’re suppose to. Not what you want to do.”
“Okay, oh wise one, what is it I want to do?” She tried to turn her sarcasm up a notch but part of her was curious what he would say.
“You want to ditch this responsible act and probably punch me in the mouth.”
She laughed but recognized a certain insight in his comment. She turned the subject back to him.
“What is it you want, Colby? What’s life suppose to give you?”
He grunted and ran a hand through his long hair. “The things I want to do are illegal.”
“Sometimes you just have to choose to do the right thing. Its just part of life. It can be very satisfying.” Her voice shook. It was the closest she’d ever gotten to telling him what to do.
“I don’t WANT to do the right thing. I never have.”
“That’s not true,” but she’d said it mostly because that’s what you say.
She got him on the airplane with the sense she’d done what she was supposed to and even though it evoked guilt, a little relief.
On Colby’s 16th birthday, she got word that he had killed his Father in California. The call came from Marion.
“I always thought he’d kill someone not get killed,” Marion said hollowly. “Burrton wasn’t worth the trouble he caused. I’m surprised I didn’t kill him.”
“Where is Colby? Back in juvie jail?” Vivian asked. Her brother had been absent so long it was hard to work up much emotion, plus he’d been mean when he was here. Sending Colby there had obviously been a mistake.
“No. They can’t find him. He got his driver’s license while he was out there. They think he might be on the run and they’ve got a search out for Burrton’s car. I know I’m sure not opening my door if he’s outside it.”
Vivian sat by the phone after Marion hung up wondering what had made Colby’s storm cloud break open. She guessed it was inevitable at least it seemed so now.
Vivian watched the national news carefully over the next weeks. Every couple days a middle aged woman was killed in a line following Interstate 80. Sacramento, Reno, Salt Lake. He was working his way back to the Midwest. Vivian had a conviction of it. She didn’t know what to do. If the police were following it, they weren’t putting it on the news. She just had a conviction that it was Colby, nothing tangible. She couldn’t call the police, what would she say? “I think my nephew is killing women across the country that remind him of his mom.”
Besides, Colby was family. She had mixed feelings. Was it her duty to stop him as a citizen or her duty to protect him as family? There was no etiquette book for this sort of thing. She’d always done her duty for Marion and for Colby, no matter how strange and distorted things had been.
Evanston, Laramie, Cheyenne. Three more women. Would he make it all the way to Des Moines? Would he keep going or would he come home?
A perky reporter on the morning news announced that the police had made connections between three of the killings and were dubbing him the I-80 killer. He didn’t seem to stay in one place for long and that’s why they were having trouble pinning him down. The reporter turned for a new story and the scene behind her was suddenly filled with pink and red cards.
Vivian snapped her eyes to her kitchen calendar. Valentine’s day was only 3 days away. She knew suddenly. She knew. He was coming for her. But would he kill Marion before he dropped by for her? Would he feel better when Marion was gone? The boy never stood a chance.
She slept poorly and woke up groggy on Valentine’s Day. She was out of coffee. With a sigh, Vivian pushed herself out to her car to go to work still debating what she should do about Colby.
She could call the police and tell them her concerns (fears?). She still thought she might be imagining everything. Even if it was Colby killing people…well she didn’t have an answer for that.
She should warn Marion, but then Marion already said she wouldn’t open the door to her own flesh and blood.
SLAM! Vivian’s car spun around in the middle of the intersection. When the screeches stopped and the world stopped rotating, Vivian tried to take in what had happened. The passenger door was bowed in, her neck hurt, and glass was all over everything. Before she could evaluate the pain, her door jerked open and a man grabbed her by the front of the shirt.
“Hey lady! Why don’t you watch what you’re doing? You just pulled out in front of me.”
“Now I’m late for work.” He pulled her wilting form up higher.
“I didn’t have any coffee and I have a lot on my mind…”
“No excuses, woman. Do you hear me? No freakin’ excuses. Whatever made you do it, you ran the freakin’ light.” With a deep guttural sound, he pulled back a fist and Vivian closed her eyes in expectation.
Instead of an impact there was a scuffling sound and she sort of wilted to the ground. She squinted up to see a police officer wrestling the guy. Two hours later, several tickets, and a new neck brace, she finally arrived at work.
The man’s fist and words kept ringing in her ears. “No excuses, woman.” She heard her herself and coworkers making excuses all day. When she got in the rental to go home, she knew.
She stopped and bought two half gallons of ice cream on her way home. At 7pm, she ordered pizza and turned on the porch light. Colby rang the doorbell at 7:25. He looked skinny and dirty.
“You’re a mess, Colby.” She said and grabbed him in a bear hug.
He looked startled whether it was the hug or her statement was unclear.
“I thought you’d be surprised,” he said with a menacing tone.
“Not really. I expected you.”
The door bell rang. Colby’s dark eyes narrowed. “Did you turn me in?”
Vivian smiled and said, “I thought about it, but I think that’s the pizza guy.”
“You ordered pizza?”
His voice sounded stunned behind her as she walked toward the front door.
“It’s our tradition, isn’t it?”
She returned with the large cheese pizza. Colby licked his lips like he hadn’t eaten in days. Maybe he hadn’t.
They ate the first slice in peace, neither talking. She noticed Colby watching her out of the corner of her eye. Was he planning?
“Where you been?” Vivian asked in a general way.
“Here and there.” His tone was reluctant.
“Salt Lake? Cheyenne?”
“For dessert,” Vivian announced opening the freezer, “a half gallon each of our favorite flavors.” She set the container of chocolate chip cookie dough and a spoon in front of him and the rocky road in front of herself.
“That’s not like you Aunt Viv.”
“It is exactly like me. I decided today no more making excuses for myself. I eat a lot of ice cream and I’m a fat middle aged lady. Why hide it in small bowls and seconds?”
This brought a chuckle from the droll Colby.
When Vivian was sated with creamy chocolate, she said, “So what about killing your dad? What’s with that?”
She nodded grimly and pulled her sweater tighter around her.
“Why’d you let me in?”
“You’re still Colby.”
“It wasn’t my fault.”
“Stop right there. No excuses. My house is a no excuses zone.” Her heart jumped in trepidation.
“That’s not fair! You don’t know what it was like out there.”
“I also don’t know what it was like in juvie jail but I want you to tell me without excusing yourself.” Her insides quivered but she stuck to it.
“I don’t have to tell you anything. You never liked me anyway.”
“You know, Colby, there’s some truth in that.” She couldn’t believe she’d said that out loud. In some scary way, it was liberating. Colby had that stunned look again. It made her laugh. “I think I was too busy making excuses for your behavior, my behavior, your mom’s, that I forgot to love you.” A wave of something like affection for Colby hit her. Could the squeeze in her chest be love, a little too late?
He gaped at her. Suddenly he snapped his mouth shut. He looked out the dark window. “I’ve gotta go.”
“You haven’t told me what happened with your dad.”
“I don’t have to tell you nothing.”
“That’s true. I’m asking.”
He shuffled the toe of his shoe on the vinyl tiles of the floor. Barely above a whisper he said, “You can’t make me tell.”
Her resolve quivered. She wanted to say that’s okay you don’t have to tell me. “No I can’t make you. I’d like to know that’s all. Your dad was my brother, you know.”
In the silence that followed Colby pulled a switchblade out of his pocket and opened and closed it over and over again. Snick, click. Snick, click. Snick.
“He was such a bast…”
“Just tell me what happened.”
He slammed the knife point first into her oak dining table. Vivian jumped. Her neck jerked in the brace and started to ache again. She listened to the ticking of the clock on the wall.
“We kept fightin’. Every day yelling and arguin’. I threw a punch. He threw a punch depending on the day. He just wouldn’t …”
“No, don’t go there.”
Colby glanced up and she noticed a tear creeping from the corner of one eye. He was human after all.
Colby let out a big sigh. “So we argued all the time. He didn’t like my friends. I didn’t like his or his habits. Then he had a poker party and he was drunk. I don’t remember what set us off. I wanted to watch TV and he wanted the TV off or something. We started pushing and shoving. He said horrible things and I just lost it. I couldn’t stop myself.”
He snatched the knife from the table and held it out at Vivian. “What do you know?” He shouted, “What the hell do you know about life?”
Her voice shook, but she looked him in the eye. “I have hidden from life much of the time you are right about that. Though I did live with your father for all my formative years, so I might be able to relate to you there.” She tried to keep a steady eye meeting his eyes.
He gave a dry chuckle and withdrew the knife slightly. Then the cloud came over him. He spoke through gritted teeth. “I tried to get up an leave. Dad caught my leg and drug me back. He pounded me and I suddenly felt the knife in my pocket.” He stood up and turned his back to her looking at the ceiling. “I cut at him trying to get him off of me. He didn’t seem to notice but finally one of my pokes made him roll off me. I jumped up; I kicked him in the ribs. He deserved it and I ran out of the house.” His shoulders hunched. “I didn’t know he was dead until the next day. No one would ever believe me so I started driving.”
The silence lingered.
“He probably did deserve it.” Vivian admitted.
“What about the women?”
Colby turned to her with a look of incredulity. “What women?”
“Women have been killed all along I-80 the last couple weeks while you’ve been missing.” She wanted to look away.
At first he stared. A darkness came over him. “Oh my God.” He seemed to say this to himself. A growl came from his chest somewhere. “I can’t believe you could think I’d do that.” He dove across the table grasping at her shirt. Since it was the second time today, she was ready. She veered away from him and ducked into the darkness of the front room.
She started to edge toward the phone. She wondered if the front door was a better idea. Strangely she felt less afraid of him than she had when he was a small unarmed child.
Vivian heard him groan from the kitchen. “It’s your fault I hate you. ” He screamed.
“No excuses.” She screamed back.
“I hate you. I hate you.”
She moved quietly and went to stand in the kitchen door. His skin was brilliant red and he grasped the switchblade in a tight fist.
With the one empty hand, he flipped the kitchen table. Vivian flinched but stayed where she was.
In one step, he was in her face. “I could cut you.”
“Why?” Her heart pounded in her chest, was she making her biggest mistake or is this what real life was? Dirty, messy, painful.
“Because you made me. Ahhhh. I’m so mad.” He was engulfed in the dark cloud.
Vivian pushed her sleeves up and thrust her arms forward. “Cut me.”
He paused and stared into her eyes. He slashed her left arm, which made her cry out, but she didn’t retreat.
Colby waved the knife around.
“Do you feel better? Did it help? If it helps, maybe you should do it again.”
“It doesn’t help damn it.”
Something in Colby crumbled. The hunched shoulders were back again. She wrapped her bloodied arm around him and he didn’t push away. It was a start.
A pounding came from the door. “Police, open up. We had reports of a commotion.”
She felt Colby stiffen. She shook her head. “No excuses. It is what it is and we need to get it cleared up. Okay?”
He didn’t agree but she moved toward the door. As she pulled the door open, she heard the telltale snick of the knife. She blocked the view into the room with her body as best she could.
“Hello officer.” She felt the knife in her back and leaned into it. Her mind flooded with the usual justifications for the bad situation. No, This had to end. Colby needed a new start with no more lies. “We were having a rather vigorous discussion. “But now,” she leaned back further and heard the quiet click of the knife closing. “We are much better.”
“Ma’am, there’s blood dripping off your elbow. Do you need an ambulance? I need to come inside.”
Colby elbowed past her holding his hands out for the officer. He looked her in the eye. “No more excuses.”
Colby confessed to his status as a fugitive from California as the officer handcuffed him. Vivian refused to press charges for her injury. Her arm hurt less than her neck anyway. When she went out to the police car where the police held him, he said, “I didn’t hurt any women. Anywhere. I’ve been panhandling for enough gas money to get home these last two weeks.”
Vivian ruffled his hair. “I believe you.” And she found that she really did.