The day my father shot the neighbor’s child was just like any other warm, September day in the South.
We lived on the outskirts of a small East Texas town in a roomy farmhouse with white, peeling paint. The old clapboard house was typical of our usual housing, a bit outdated and run-down but affordable. Our house sat on top of a small hill, just off the pitted black-top road that snaked through our country neighborhood. Our landlord lived a couple of acres behind us in a house very similar to ours, only a little newer and less run-down.
Across the road was a smaller home with gray siding and with less property attached. This was the home of the Clark family, for whom I sometimes babysat. They had three small children, and often wanted to go out on the weekends. I was always happy to earn extra money, as babysitting was the only way I was able to purchase my first pair of Levi’s 501 jeans–the fashion piece that was crucial to every 12-year-old in the 1980’s.
Next to the small gray home across the road, to the left of our property and behind a rusty pipe fence, was the worn, double-wide mobile home that housed the Robertson family. Mr. Robertson often sat outside on his wooden porch, a beer in hand, country music blaring, as he methodically shot the ducks that were swimming in his duck pond across the dirt lawn. His three children would sometimes play “freeze-tag” with us in our yard or in the yard across from us; we weren’t allowed to go to the Robertson’s home since Mr. Robertson’s drinking made my parents nervous. I didn’t mind, it’s not like I really wanted to go watch him slaughter those ducks anyway. I always wondered when he would run out of targets.
To the left and further back from our home was the Neal family home. I never saw it, since about half an acre of woods separated us. I could only see the long, winding dirt road that lead to the house when our school bus would pull up to pick up the Neal children–8-year-old Callie and 6-year-old Ben. I always admired the way Callie’s white-blonde hair shimmered in the afternoon sun as she got off the bus every day.
It happened on a Sunday afternoon. I remember it was Sunday because I was mowing the acre of knee-high grass with a push mower in our front yard, all the while wondering if God would be mad that I was doing it on a Sunday. Mom was inside cooking an early dinner, while my 13 year-old brother and my father were target shooting on the left side of the front yard. My father had lined up old coke bottles and tin cans next to the line of trees that separated our property from the long, winding driveway that led to the Neal’s home. He used a pearl-gripped pistol to shoot the bottles; he and my brother took turns with both the pistol and the rifle that belonged to my father. My brother and my dad rested a few minutes on the porch, guns scattered out next to them, when Mr. Robertson came walking up the hill to our home in a hurry. I knew something must be wrong, for one thing I had never seen Mr. Robertson walk so fast and for another, he had never before been to our home before. It was rare that he left his hunting stand on the front porch of his home. I turned off the mower so I could hear what they were saying.
“They are coming around to see if anyone has been shootin’ their guns today,” Mr. Robertson was saying to my dad, his hands on his hips. “I haven’t been shootin’ today, I been inside. They will be here to talk to you, I am sure.”
Mr. Robertson abruptly headed back down the hill and sat in the lawn chair on his porch. The hiss of a newly opened beer echoed in the distance, but hardly disturbed the silence on our porch. My dad stared straight ahead at something I couldn’t see; the color drained from his face. My mother, who had been standing just behind the tattered screen door as Mr. Robertson spoke, opened the squeaky door and stepped out onto the rickety porch, the screen door slamming behind her.
“What’s going on?” she asked, though I felt sure she should have heard everything Mr. Robertson said.
My dad didn’t answer her question. “You were never shooting,” my dad said to my brother. “I will tell them I was the only one shooting. You hear me?” My brother nodded. My dad looked at me. “You hear me?” I nodded in agreement.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, still unsure what had happened.
“That girl next door got shot,” my father answered.
My stomach fell. “Is she dead?” I asked.
“I don’t’ think so,” my father answered. “Looks like we are about to find out.”
The beige Sheriff’s department car was already halfway up our long driveway. The officers got out of the car and walked up to the porch and introduced themselves. They took little time for niceties.
“Those your guns?” the tall, thin, dark-haired officer asked my father, nodding toward the guns as he took out a pen and notepad.
“Yes sir, they are, “my father answered.
“Have you fired them today?” the officer asked.
My father then explained how he had been target shooting while my brother and I mowed the lawn. I was disgusted; my brother never had to mow the lawn. I just knew they would detect the lie, but they didn’t.
“A young girl next door was walking along that road right there,” the officer said, pointing to the left of our property where my father was shooting. “She was shot in the neck, it’s serious. We don’t know her condition. It looks like you were the only one shooting.”
My father looked ill. He shook his head and weakly explained how Mr. Robertson shoots his ducks daily and his property is located across the road from where the little girl had been walking, had they questioned him?
The officers pretended not to hear. They took a statement from each of us, and warned my father to stay close since they would likely be coming back. There was somber silence on the porch as the beige car pulled out of our driveway.
My father wordlessly walked into the house, the screen slamming behind him.
The officers did not return that evening. My father lay on the couch smoking constantly, while the rest of us picked at our dinner. My stomach was in knots, a familiar churning that seemed to be a regular part of my everyday life. My brother and I went through our usual routine as we prepared for bed, anxious to be able to go to school the next day and escape the almost tangible tension in the house.
The next morning, yellow bus number 42 arrived at the end of our driveway and picked us up as usual. The double doors squeaked open and my brother and I stepped onto the bus, only to be met by total silence. Over twenty pairs of eyes bored into us as we stood there in the entry, our eyes sweeping frantically over the length of the bus, attempting to find an empty seat in which to escape the awkward scrutiny. Nobody moved over to share a seat as they normally would have, nor did they speak. The bus driver barked an order: “Move over and let them sit!” and the bus began to move.
Finally, one younger girl moved from her seat to sit with someone across from her, allowing us to claim a seat to fall into. Eventually, someone in the back of the bus spoke.
“Yeah, I heard their dad murdered Callie,” someone sneered. “I wouldn’t even show up to school if it was me.”
A low murmur spread throughout the bus. My face burned and I prayed for the earth to swallow me up. I wanted to throw up, caught between the anxiety of not knowing if Callie had truly died and if my father would go to prison, and the shame of being in the spotlight for something so horrific. I buried my head into the green vinyl seat back in front of me until I heard bus doors open and the last person pass by. Slowly my brother and I stepped off the bus, sickened by the uncertainty of the day that would unfold before us.