Burning the Middle Ground, “Prologue: False Start”

Prologue to Burning the Middle Ground: False Start

 L. Andrew Cooper

Ronald had the facts. Brian McCullough was seventeen when it happened, a senior in high school. His sister Fran was ten. The father, Matt McCullough, worked as a veterinarian despite being a real MD. The mother, Linda McCullough, had advanced degrees in psychology and taught special education at the middle school. Everyone knew that the family didn’t go to church, and everyone knew that Matt was having an affair. When the term “open marriage” broke into the town’s vernacular that summer, the God-fearing people of Kenning were scandalized. Fran heard someone describe her family as “godless,” and she asked a teacher what the word meant. The teacher said “godless” meant people who were going to Hell. Afraid, Fran joined the First Church of Kenning. There, she heard the Reverend Michael Cox’s sermon on the sanctity of marriage, which beseeched the righteous to redress the unholy.

Ronald, a web journalist, would describe what occurred the following Tuesday with care. He would be humorless and exact, embellishing only for effect. He imagined Brian walking home from school. The boy noticed that the front door of his family’s large two-story house was open. Fran must have forgotten to shut it all the way. But why were his parents’ cars in the driveway? They weren’t supposed to be home for another hour at least. Brian walked faster. Without knowing why, he broke into a jog.

Stan Johnson lived next to the McCulloughs. Stan kept a handgun in a locked metal box on a shelf in his garage because his wife had a strict rule against letting guns in the house. Every boy in the neighborhood knew that the lock on the metal box was rusted and that the Johnsons hardly ever bolted the garage window. More than once, “Wanna go look at a gun” had been a dare at a boys’ sleepover party.

Brian couldn’t have been thinking about Stan’s gun when he entered the house. Ronald imagined the boy having little on his mind when he called “Hello?” and closed the door behind him. “You know you guys left the front door open?”

Nobody answered. His voice shook the house’s quiet stillness, bouncing off walls, finding no response. The place seemed empty, but the cars in the driveway suggested otherwise. His parents must have come home early for some reason, and the only reason he could think of was Fran, maybe trouble at school. Maybe a teacher had called their parents in for a conference. Mom and Dad had gone for the conference and then taken Fran home, and then, maybe they had gone out for ice cream. The convenient store that sold cones and scoops was two miles away, but the day was pleasant enough, so maybe they had decided to walk. Maybe they had expected to meet up with Brian on the way over. He hadn’t seen them, but he had taken his new shortcut, and they couldn’t have expected that. He had nothing to worry about.

There was a faint smudge on the bottom stair. The foyer still had a dark hardwood floor, but they had covered the stairs and the second floor with off-white carpet about a year ago. Dad had joked that since both of his kids were finally out of their Kool-Aid phases, they could risk the investment.

The smudge wasn’t quite a footprint, but it might have been left by a shoe. It was brown, but it wasn’t the right color for Diet Coke. Fran had started raiding Mom’s soda supply over a month ago. After a few evenings of jittery babbling at the dinner table, Mom and Dad had taken Brian’s suggestion about limiting Fran’s consumption of what he called “nasty acid—with bubbles.” Fran had forgiven him for the resulting one-can-per-day restriction.

Brian called up the stairs: “Hello?”

Sound traveled well in the house; if they were home, someone would have responded. The cars in the driveway, the open door, the smudge on the stairs: by themselves, they didn’t mean anything was wrong, so they didn’t justify his nervousness. Figuring he was just hungry, Brian decided against searching for his family upstairs and in favor of seeing if any of the ham from Sunday’s dinner remained in the refrigerator.

To the left of the main stairs the foyer turned into a short hall that led past the dining room and ended at the kitchen. The hallway floor was the same dark wood as the foyer, but the kitchen had blue faux-marble tile, and there he noticed more smudges. They weren’t the size of a whole shoe, but they were too regular to be anything other than tracks. They might have come from a heel, something sullied by a dip in a brown puddle that the rest of the shoe had missed. Brian couldn’t divine a direction from the tracks. They either started or ended at the open doorway for the stairs down to the unfinished basement.

“Hey—are you guys down there?”

Light from the kitchen stopped halfway down the stairs, and Brian was on the brink of darkness before he realized he might want a flashlight. Deciding that blind groping would suffice for finding the light switch at the landing, he continued downward, unready for the object near the bottom that tripped him. He broke the fall with hands and knees and tumbled onto his side, hugging a leg whose kneecap howled agony.

“Goddamn it, OW!” The sound was strange in the confined dark space; he felt embarrassed, as if he had been caught talking to himself. He waited for the pain to subside and struggled to his feet. Brushing dust from his jeans, he chided himself for the stupidity of coming down without a flashlight, of coming down at all, of being so worried, of thinking—

When the hand swiping dust found something sticky, his head turned toward the half-lit stairway. Eyes adjusting, he could distinguish the outline of the object that had tripped him. A shoe. It was a man’s shoe, too small to be his, so it had to be his father’s. He limped closer and saw it was more than a shoe.

Dad’s left foot rested on the third stair from the bottom, and the leg extended from it diagonally. Dad lay on the landing. Brian must have fallen over him. “Dad? Sorry, I didn’t see you there, I—”

The right leg splayed out away from the stairs, as if Dad had been trying some kind of weird stretch. Brian felt it in his stomach before his brain signaled the alarm. He lurched forward, found the light switch, and flipped it.

Dad’s eyes were open, and he was lying on his back in a brownish red pool. “Dad!” Brian collapsed to his knees on the concrete at his father’s side, not sensing the new jolt from his damaged kneecap. He shook his father once and stopped. Dad must have fallen down the stairs, and moving a man with a broken neck could kill him. Brian pulled his arms away. “Dad, can you talk?”

No answer. Brian’s shaking hands hovered above his father’s chest, wanting to touch, wanting to intervene, but afraid. The space between his hands and the chest remained constant—Dad wasn’t breathing. He allowed two fingers to make contact with the neck, hunting for the jugular. He didn’t find a pulse, so he tried the other side, wishing that the CPR training in health class had been this year instead of freshman year, because he was stupid and he couldn’t remember how, because he kept searching and failing and trying again.

When he accepted that there was no pulse, he realized he was kneeling in his father’s blood. So much blood couldn’t have come from a fall. Brian’s convulsing hands tipped Dad’s head back until his mouth fell open. Brian couldn’t remember how many breaths—one, two, three, and then he scooted so he could plant his palms squarely in the center of the man’s chest and push, one, two, three, four, five, and then breaths, one, two, and then compressions, one, two, three, four, five, six, and then breaths, and then compressions, and then Brian realized that his father’s lips were lukewarm and that tears were running down his own cheeks.

“Please, no.” The sound filled the basement and made him aware of his surroundings, aware that there could be something else wrong, that maybe—“Mom!”

In the room’s most distant corner, she lay face down on the concrete, at the center of her own brownish-red pool. Barely standing, Brian lurched through the distance between his parents and flipped his mother onto her back. Her nose was crooked, broken, perhaps, when she fell forward, clutching her breast where the bullet had entered. He had seen too many similar configurations of flesh on TV not to know that he was looking at a bullet wound, that his mother had been killed by a gunshot.

Did Dad run?

She had been shot in the chest, but he had been shot in the back, on the stairs, going up. Whoever had done this had been downstairs when they found him, and the intruder had shot Mom in the chest, and Dad had turned to run for help or for—


Brian bolted for the stairs. He stumbled when he stepped on his father’s leg but kept going, taking three stairs at a time and screaming his sister’s name. The tracks led him through the kitchen, into the foyer, onto the next stairway. “Franny are you up here! It’s me Brian are you okay? Franny answer me please!”

He came to his own bedroom first and looked in but felt stupid for looking in because she wouldn’t be there, she’d be in her own room, which was next, where he looked in and saw her sitting on the edge of her twin-sized bed and he jumped at her, threw his arms around her, squeezed her, lifted her from the bed, saying “Franny Franny oh God Franny we’ll get help I’ll get you out of here oh God thank God you’re okay!”

The girl was warm in his arms but unmoving. She was breathing, but her shoulders and neck were limp. “Fran are you okay what did they do to you oh God Mom!”

Fran wriggled, so he put her down. He knelt beside her, feeling the pain in his knee but not caring, and started to check her for injuries. Her hands were in her lap. One held a gun.

The sight knocked him backward, away from his ten-year-old sister, onto the off-white carpet. Her shoes had only smudged the stairs, but his had left deep tracks all around. His were bloodier than hers because she had stepped over their parents before the pools had become wide and deep.

“Fran?” He heard the horror in his voice as his mind put together enough details not only to imagine but to believe, for a moment, what she had done. He got back on his knees and said, “Fran, what happened?”

The question rippled the girl’s posture. Her shoulders straightened, and her neck lifted her head. Her eyes met his, and he saw in them something he had never seen on TV or anywhere. He saw his sister’s expression, and his jaw fell open. With an arm that looked too frail to lift it, Fran raised the gun to her right eye and fired.

Stan Johnson pulled into his garage at his usual time and saw that the window was open. He looked for the metal box and found it empty. He called the police, who discovered a group of bike-riding boys who had seen Fran McCullough walking around the Johnsons’ house. A uniformed officer named Winston Beecher knocked on the McCulloughs’ front door. No one answered, so he went in. The bloody footprints prompted him to call for backup, but he didn’t wait before rushing up the stairs. He found the boy in his sister’s bedroom, presumably in the same position as when the little girl had splattered her head on the bedspread and walls.

Brian McCullough did not speak for a year.

Talking to you is way more interesting than talking to myself. What do you think?

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