The Bones Under the Oak (Parts IV & V)

Part IV: How Many Bones Make a Man?
Ann Cro
Fred and Martha Tolliver were on the hillside below their house in their work clothes. Fred wore an old Virginia Tech baseball cap and garden gloves and Martha had on a broad brimmed straw hat and an apron. She was holding open a large black garbage bag and Fred, after looking around surreptitiously to make sure that no car was passing on the two-lane mountain road that ran by the house, picked up two bones and carefully dropped them into the sack.

“Well, that’s the lot!” he said, removing his gloves.

“Are you sure?” Martha asked doubtfully. “It seems like an awful few bones for a whole man.”

Fred sighed and lowered himself down on a stump. “Well, that’s all I could find anyway. If there were any more they were probably carried off by foxes or raccoons or even that dumb hound of the Freemans up the road who’s always roaming loose.”

Martha sighed. “Seems a sad way to end a life. Just a garbage sack full of bones. I wonder who he was?”

“We don’t even know for sure it was a he,” Fred pointed out. “It could have been a she.”

Martha shivered. “Don’t say that! I don’t want to think about some poor woman beaten and broken.”

“Well, a man would have suffered just as much as a woman,” Fred pointed out reasonably.

“Yes, I guess so,” Martha conceded. “It’s just that you think of a man being able to defend himself. Whereas a woman . . .” Her voice faded away.

“Well, judging from those bones, if he was a man, he wasn’t very big,” Fred said.

“Maybe he was just a boy. A teenager. Oh, Fred, do you think we’re doing the right thing? Maybe the police could find out who he was. Think of his family. They must be sick with grief!”

“Now, now,” Fred patted her on the shoulder. “Don’t get yourself all worked up. We decided it was best not to involve the police, not to have to answer any questions. Those bones may have been laying here for years for all we know.”

“No,” Martha said slowly. “I don’t think so. They’re so white. Almost pretty.”

“Well, the least we can do is bury them,” Fred said practically. He picked up his shovel and began to dig. When the hole was deep enough, they opened the garbage sack and dropped in the bones. Then they took the little flowering dogwood tree that they had dug up in the woods and planted it on top of the bones, taking care to cover everything well and then watering the tree generously. When they had finished, they stood back to admire their handiwork.

“It sure looks pretty there,” Martha said.

“Yeah,” Fred agreed. “Kind of like a memorial to whoever it was.”

Fred picked up the shovel and the garbage bag and, taking Martha’s hand, the old couple walked back up the hill to their house.

* * *
Part V: Whose Bones?

It was a chilly evening in late fall when Dr. Bruce Parker Patterson, professor of French at Burney Christian College, walked out of his office on the college campus grounds into the night and was never seen again, alive or dead.

The next morning, when he didn’t show up for the class he was teaching on Medieval Spanish, the students, all three of them, reported his absence to the Dean’s office. (Although Parker Patterson was a French professor with a specialization in Postcolonial Caribbean literature [His dissertation was entitled “Christianity and Voodoo in the Postcolonial Era” and dealt with two very minor and largely unknown writers.], he felt that the doctorate he had earned at Middleton State University allowed him to teach what he liked and what he wanted to do was to establish himself as a Spanish professor since there were more Spanish students than French, and, as chair of the Department of Languages [Spanish and French], he could pretty much do as he liked.) The Dean’s secretary called the small garage apartment he rented across the road from the college and, when she got no answer, she tried his landlady who lived in the house to which the garage belonged. The landlady agreed to check in on him in case he was too ill to answer the phone, but found the apartment locked and, when she went in, all was in order; his bed had not been slept in and his car was still in the garage.

The next step was to notify the police. They commiserated with the secretary and the landlady, but explained that forty-eight hours had to go by before they could file a missing persons report and, in the meantime, the professor would probably show up or contact someone at the college. Privately, the police thought it just possible that a forty-year-old divorced man might have gone off with a woman, even though the secretary and the landlady assured them that Patterson wasn’t “that kind of man”. And with that the college had to be content.

The matter was referred to the assistant dean who assigned the professor of Scottish religious history to take over Parker Patterson’s class in Medieval Spanish since no one believed that the young female Spanish language instructor (MA, Rosemont State College) was able to teach such a weighty subject and do it justice. It was only a temporary measure he assured the secretary but the two students who were still enrolled in the class (one had dropped the course just that morning) must have a worthy substitute and, since the course was taught in English anyway, it really wouldn’t matter if Dr. Matthias MacDougal taught it or Dr. Parker Patterson. To the somewhat timid question of Dr. MacDougal’s qualifications to teach a course on a Spanish subject, the assistant dean replied that there was plenty of information on the internet and all MacDougal had to do was to check it out.

“The important thing is continuity,” he declared sententiously.

And so Dr. Patterson was replaced before he was declared missing.

* * *
Parker Patterson left his office late, after a pleasant tête-à-tête with his student assistant, Hannah Walden Green. Hannah’s pleasure in his company was a source of personal satisfaction to the unprepossessing little man who had never cultivated many friends among the faculty. It was after ten and very dark as he crossed the green and passed out through the gate.

The college was located in a little depression in the low hills that lay to the west of the town of Bean Junction. It was surrounded by tall pines that half hid the neat red brick buildings from the winding, unlit, two-lane country road that bordered the campus. The apartment that Parker Patterson rented was on the opposite side of this two-lane road, on a little rise that overlooked the campus grounds. He had crossed the road many times without incident and had no way of knowing that tonight would be any different from dozens of other times.

He stood for a few moments in the shadow of the bushes surrounding the college gates before stepping out into the road. The night was dark and silent and the only sound was the wind that stirred the branches overhead. He was already in the middle of the road when he was caught in the headlights of a large pick-up truck being driven very fast. For one horrible minute the world stood still. He wasn’t even fully aware when the vehicle hit him. He was lifted up off his feet and over the hood of the truck and was flung down into the ditch beyond. Then the world went dark.

When he came to, he found that he couldn’t remember clearly what had happened. He wasn’t aware so much of any bodily pain, only a great aching in his head and his eyes couldn’t seem to focus. Slowly he became conscious of the sound of frightened voices speaking in agitated whispers. He tried to call out, to ask for help, but his mouth seemed unable to express the words that his brain formed. The white blur of faces hovered over him and a strong smell of alcohol wafted around him.

“Oh my God, Merle! Is he dead?” It was a tearful girl’s voice speaking.

“Shut up,” a boy’s voice said savagely. “He’s not dead!”

“But he’s hurt badly,” the girl’s voice trembled. “We’ve got to call an ambulance!”

“And have my father find out that I took the truck without permission? And what will your father say when he knows that you were out with me?”

“I don’t care,” the girl said, half hysterically. “We can’t just let him die! We’ve got to do something!”

“Yeah, sure,” the boy said sarcastically. “Then they’ll arrest me for driving drunk. This time they’ll take away my license for sure. Not even my Dad’s friend the judge will be able to stop them this time!”

“But Merle . . .” the girl wailed.

“Shut up! It was an accident! It wasn’t my fault. He was there in the middle of the road. I couldn’t even see him!”

“We can explain that to the police,” the girl insisted.

“No! They won’t believe us! They’ll say I was going too fast.”

“But . . .” the girl’s protest faded away in the face of the boy’s anger and fear. It was tangible. It hovered there in the cold night air with an almost physical presence.

“I’m not going to let a dumb accident ruin my life. I’ve been accepted to the Air Force Academy. This will ruin everything!” The boy began to cry, great shaking sobs like a small child.

“Don’t cry, Merle! Oh please, don’t cry,” the girl said, almost on the verge of tears herself.

A light came on somewhere above them and reflected dully off the silver roof of the pick-up truck. A voice called out, “Hey! You there! What’s going on? Any trouble? Do you need help?”

Parker Patterson tried to call out, to ask for help, but the words would not form themselves. The boy seemed to gather himself together. “No, everything’s fine,” he replied. After a moment the light was extinguished and darkness fell again.

“We’ll take him somewhere,” the boy said, thoughtfully. “Up into the mountains. No one will ever find him and if they do, they’ll think that he’s a hiker who had an accident and fell!”

“But, Merle, we can’t just let him die!”

“Why not? He’s almost dead anyway. If he were a dog, we’d just shoot him. We’d have to. To keep him from suffering.”

“But he’s not a dog, Merle! It’s murder! We’ll be damned to hell for eternity! Nothing is worse than that!” The girl moaned, terrified.

“Don’t be stupid, Bethany! Hell and heaven are just things they talk about on Sunday. We’ve got to do it, Bethany. There isn’t any other way out for me.”

The boy walked over to the ditch and, reaching down, pulled Parker Patterson up onto his shoulder and carried him over to the truck. He dropped him roughly in the truck bed.

Parker Patterson lay dazed. They meant to let him die. He couldn’t take it in. These things just didn’t happen. He tried to think what to do but was conscious that his mind wasn’t working properly. He looked up at the cold stars overhead, wondering if they held any significance for him. On the whole, he thought not. There couldn’t be anything up there in that vast, empty blackness.

“Hell and heaven are just things they talk about on Sunday.” He had always believed that and lived his life accordingly. The only reality was this life and you only had one chance at it. The only thing that counted was power and the ability to use it. From the time he had arrived at Burney Christian College fresh out of graduate school, he had worked to acquire power. He had obtained the support of powerful men on the campus by allying himself with them against those colleagues that they perceived as a threat to their power. He had accommodated the president of the college by helping to suppress the Faculty Association and by slandering the colleague who was working to reinstate it. He had damaged the reputation of others in order to enhance his own and never felt a twinge of regret. Now he lay in the cold, silent darkness and wondered why it had all seemed so important. He remembered a colleague speaking of justice as an absolute and how foolish it had seemed to him at the time. He wondered if he would receive any justice in this life—if this boy and girl would be made to pay for what they were prepared to do. He didn’t think so.

His eyes closed and he slept. When he woke the truck had stopped and the boy was opening the door of the truck bed. He pulled Parker Patterson out roughly and slung him over his shoulder.

“Is he dead yet?” the girl asked in a trembling voice.

“Not yet,” the boy replied.

“What are you going to do, Merle?”

“You know what I have to do,” the boy said violently. “If you don’t want to see, stay in the truck.”

He carried Parker Patterson up the side of a small hill and deposited him on the ground. Overhead Parker Patterson could see the stars through the branches of the oak tree under which he lay. He groaned. The boy shuddered involuntarily. He looked around him and picked up a large rock that he balanced over his head. Parker Patterson stared up at him. The last thought that he had in this world was, “What a bitch of a way to die.”

© 2010 Ann Cro. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Ann Cro lives in Tennessee among the mountains and the dark and silent woods that she describes in her story. She holds a Master's degree from East Tennessee State University and is currently setting up a language school in sunny Italy with her husband of thirty-six years. This is the third installment in her short series, The Bones Under the Oak.

Miss part of the series? Read Part I , Part II , and Part III now!
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