This week’s Fiction Friday post is another story that came into the world through Z Publishing, in the America’s Emerging Suspense Writers series (which also includes mysteries, though that part didn’t make it into the book title) earlier this year. It’s a longer one, but one of my favorites, complete with murder, mystery and small-town scandal.
For All We Know
When Kenny shot Charlie, no one was really sure how to react. It wasn’t because it was all that surprising — Kenny had had it out for Charlie since day one — but we didn’t know whether to rejoice at the end of a feud or dread whatever was coming next.
The bullet hit Charlie in the chest, right beneath the collarbone, on the wrong side. That is, if Kenny had been trying to kill him, anyone would’ve thought he’d aim for the heart. Now there was no chance Kenny could’ve shot that poorly at a range of 10 feet, but no one could think of a good reason why he would’ve shot Charlie without intending to kill him. Charlie’s a good four inches taller than Kenny, and noticeably burlier, too; we figured wounding a guy like that would be a lot like picking a fight with a grizzly bear, armed with nothing but a hot branding iron. It just didn’t make any sense.
Charlie died less than two hours later, and we weren’t any closer to figuring out why everything unfolded as it did (or what the proper response to the whole thing was) when Kenny showed up at the cop shop, stuck a gun in his mouth and shot himself right in front of the attendant. (Next day the papers said the desk jockey was no more than a 23-year-old kid, fresh on the job that week, who got scared shitless watching a stranger lose their staring contest by blowing his brains out.) We were downright stumped. The whole town was. Kenny was always quiet in school, a skinny blonde kid with glasses and straight Cs through high school, except for a B- he got in shop class. But when Charlie came to town it was like a modern-day Wild West cowboy turf war settled in.
Charlie had a smile for everyone — most teachers loved him, and a lot of students did, too (with the exception of Kenny), but he probably wasn’t the most popular. He wasn’t much for sports, except pick-up basketball, occasionally; he got kicked off the tennis team for taking a whiz right outside the court at a match and he never seemed to care about appealing the ejection. Other than that one offense, he was usually pretty polite and didn’t try to get away with anything either — he just seemed like a regular guy. But there was something about him that drove Kenny into such a rage whenever he laid eyes on big bear Charlie that anyone could see the steam coming out of his ears from a mile away.
Less than a week after the shootings, the papers printed some nonsense about Kenny being bullied as a child — just to confirm the clichés, I guess — but we all knew it had to be deeper than that. The kind of blind hatred Kenny had for Charlie didn’t come from a slow buildup of swirlies and getting jumped for lunch money, and I’m sure it wasn’t any of that cyberbullying garbage people are going on about these days. Kenny’s revulsion seemed unique in the fact that it stayed the same from when he first saw Charlie’s face to the day they died. But none of us could believe he was just a psychopath, neither. He came from a good family out in the country with two younger siblings — a brother and a sister — with no family history of mental illness or disability. The only criminal record was his great uncle Thythik’s from when he tried not to pay his taxes and ended up doing it anyway.
So where was the motive (for the hatred, not the murder)? What made Kenny Kilbourne “snap,” the news reporters asked. Well, they got his 22-year-old sister Sandy to answer some questions on some prime-time TV program that puzzled people even more.
TV interviewer: How would you describe your older brother, recently deceased?
Sandy Kilbourne: Dead.
TVI: [flustered] Well, yes, but ah…before that. As your brother, flesh and blood. …?
Sandy picked at her long, unpolished fingernails in serious concentration for a few seconds, then smiled briefly at the camera, and said, “Flesh and blood he may have been but my brother Kenny ain’t really my brother Kenny. His ma adopted me after Charlie’s ma — my ma —decided she didn’t want me.”
Now as you can imagine, her saying that raised all sorts of questions and quite a bit of scandal that both sets of parents was none too happy to have revealed on television after the deaths of their 30-year-old sons, but that was just the tip of the iceberg.
Sandy tossed back her straight blonde hair with a flick of her head and flung her arms across the lap of her hot pink dress. “Kenny was more of a brother to me than Charlie was, but Charlie was so straight with me I couldn’t hold it against him,” she said seriously. “I handed him my phone number a week after I met him, when I was a freshman in high school, and he looked me straight in the face with that sad smile of his and told me I was his sister without even looking at the note. I slapped him good and hard across the face because I thought he was bringing some religious crap in on me, like, ‘you’re just my sister in Christ, darlin’.’ When I found out he was serious, I hit him again and cried my eyes out for three weeks straight, but after that we were almost like friends. Casual acquaintances, y’know, except that we knew something about each other that hardly anyone else did. But I knew I could never be his sister and he knew he could never be my brother and that was that. I already knew how much Kenny hated Charlie, I just never knew why.”
Now I wasn’t the first one to read into that line about ‘he knew, I knew we’d never be brother and sister’ and think, ‘damn it all, they were having incestual relations’ and Kenny was out for revenge against the guy who spoiled his sister. But then we go to thinking how she said — and everyone knew — those boys were deep in the throes of animosity long before Sandy was going ga-ga over Charlie. Sure it all could’ve been a lie. But then a third party showed up who claimed no strong ties to either of them and confirmed Sandy’s story by saying Charlie would never hook up with a 15-year-old girl at that time, much less his sister. Why? Because Charlie Fontaine was screwing the mayor, 10 years his senior with a husband and two kids. How in the world this person found out about the affair was then a mystery, as is why they chose to speak up just then, but the day after that news came out the source was suddenly impossible to reach and the mayor was gone without a trace.
Needless to say the whole town was in an uproar, and the gossip was spreading like wildfire as it always does. A murder-suicide in which the victims are connected by a blonde bombshell plucked out of one family and put in the other, plus the mayor’s affair with one of them — a significantly younger man — was too good not to be part of a weekly TV drama. But in the state’s haste to find their missing mayor and the press’s hurry to cover the story, weeks passed before anyone realized that Kenny’s younger brother Jeb had also gone missing.
Jeb had been away at college in West Virginia, so no one thought it strange that he hadn’t phoned home until Thanksgiving rolled around and he hadn’t called to tell his parents when or if he was coming home. They tracked him down two days later and soon everybody knew Jeb had been the anonymous third party who phoned in with the information about the affair.
How did he know? He was friends with the mayor’s daughter Angela who got him a job house-sitting for their family, when they were supposed to be on vacation in Florida for two weeks. But duty calls, and Mama had to come home early on “business” — at which time Jeb Kilbourne happened to be coming over to feed the dogs and caught Charlie and Madame Mayor Benedict locking lips in the living room. The mayor of course paid him more than the prearranged house-sitting wage to keep quiet (raising quite a vicious rumor among us townsfolk about just how much and from what accounts she paid him), but Jeb knew who Charlie was —how much his brother Kenny hated him, and only that he’d broken his sister’s heart one day — so he wasn’t too fond of the guy. It was only a matter of days before he told Kenny what he had seen, and by then it was less than a month before the shootings occurred.
So, what? Was Kenny sleeping with the mayor too, and wanted her to himself? Had he simply been looking for an excuse to off Charlie, and eventually chose to on the basis of his questionable morality? Or did he act as he thought he should have in the eyes of his younger brother, who knew so little of what happened between Sandy and her “real” brother, in order to carry out justice?
Well, if you’re anything like us, the answer — the truth about what happened — was a long shot from what we could’ve come up with at the time. Exactly one year after the killings, the mayor wrote a letter to her husband from Washington (the state, a long way from here) with all the necessary details of the affair, in an attempt to convince Mr. Benedict that honesty was still the best policy, even though she wanted a divorce (we all got a good laugh at that). But she also added a few words that seemed to be merely included for the sake of our own curiosity as citizens of the Town Which This Tragedy Befell. According to her, Charlie had confided in her his own terror at being discovered, and that he didn’t want to leave her but he was also afraid to stay. When she suggested they run away together (this was after the younger Kilbourne witnessed their affair), he didn’t see her or answer her calls for weeks. Three days before his murder, Madame Mayor saw Charlie and Kenny having a serious conversation just up the block from Billy’s Bar and Barbeque from her car. Charlie appeared to be begging Kenny for something, grabbing his forearm at one point, to which I imagine Kenny responded with a death glare darker than any Charlie had ever seen, and he let go. The desperate look on Charlie’s face must’ve been too much for the mayor, because she quickly changed the subject of the letter after that.
Jeb was as surprised as the rest of us at this new evidence, but many people were tired of the crime by then, and the death of Kenny Kilbourne and Charlie Fontaine was barely a blip on the radar amongst the rumors about our newly installed mayor, and the fate of the old high school, with the paperwork now signed for a new one to be built less than a mile away. The old mayor’s family moved away and apparently settled the divorce quietly (not quietly enough to escape our notice, of course), Jeb graduated from the university and is off doing the Peace Corps somewhere (and when asked about his two weeks MIA after the shootings, he said he simply “had to clear his head”), and Sandy is working for Charlie’s (her) ma at the travel agency in the city. For most people, the irony of that last part has gone stale, but it still cracks me up a bit. Whatever happened to the story, though? The scandal? I’ll tell you, the tides do change quickly in a small town. To most people, the case of Kenny and Charlie was neatly packaged from the start — the victim and murderer were both dead, and it never seemed like anyone else was involved in the killings. It struck people as strange that Charlie didn’t cry out in fear or surprise when Kenny drew the gun, nor did he try to run or hide or draw his own weapon, but whatever the story was, there was no one among the living to worry about. When the people got tired of not getting answers, then got some sort of consolation in the ex-mayor’s letter, everyone was ready to move on.
Me, I wonder if Charlie didn’t ask for it, literally; for whatever reason, maybe out of shame, he’d wanted to off himself and couldn’t do it. Just made sense for Kenny to be the one to do him in. Like cats and dogs, some people just seem wired to hate each other. But there are many answers to life’s questions, and the mystery surrounding small-town scandals is no exception. Neither is the question of Great Uncle Thythik and his apparent failure at tax evasion. For all we know, the question is the answer, in the sense that it’s all we’re ever gonna get.
One thing’s for sure: The uncertainty makes life a helluva lot more interesting.
Copyright © Cait Buxbaum, 2019