by Taylor Collier
Lewis had heard all his life to stay away from the Pickford house on the outskirts of town. He’d never really questioned anyone long enough to get a thorough explanation, but the general consensus in Brownfield, Texas, was that nobody went out to the Pickford’s. If the Pickfords ever needed anything, they came to town.
So when Lewis got the order to go check on the nine-one-one call made by Marissa Pickford, he was nervous, even nibbled on his gums. The operators hadn’t even stated why she had called. Lewis drove to the edge of town slowly, hoping he’d get a call to turn around, but he sensed there was no getting out of this assignment.
Lewis knew to stay away, and it hadn’t ever been an issue. But EMS refused to go out, and since Lewis was the newest officer on duty, they sent him out, despite his objections. Lewis knew they’d always acted strange, had kept to themselves, which made some in the town suspect they were into drugs.
The Feds even came down to check it out once, stopping Mr. Pickford on his way into town one day and searching his car. They found a powdery substance, but when the lab tests came back, the results were inconclusive. The lab analysts said they’d never seen anything like it before but claimed it was some kind of pulverized plastic.
They’d even questioned Mr. Pickford, but he simply told them it was the herbal medicine he needed and took every day. They had no evidence to hold him, so they had to let him go.
Lewis’s old friend from high school, Roby Williams, had joined the highway patrol and had been convinced that the Pickfords were running a meth lab or some kind of illegal drug facility at their house. Officer Williams came into the station one day and said “You’ll never believe what I found at the Pickfords!” before passing out and slipping into the deep coma that he’d been in for the past five years.
Lewis pulled onto the dirt road that led to their house and flipped on his lights, no siren. When he got to the house, he stepped out of the car and immediately felt like his teeth were being tickled. He tried to scratch them, but the itch went down into his gums and the roots of his teeth. His eyes dried out and his left ear popped suddenly. He adjusted his belt and unfastened the leather strap on his holster for easy access to his gun.
The Pickford house had been around for as long as anyone in Brownfield could remember. It’d been a farmhouse the Pickford family had owned ever since cotton was first grown in West Texas. The two-story house was puke green with yellow trim and a shingled, black roof. A grey, sheet-metal barn stood behind the house. Lewis, trying to ignore his teeth, eyes, and ears, couldn’t decide whether or not the barn was bigger than the house. He stepped up to the wooden porch and knocked firmly on the door three times.
Almost instantly, the door cracked opened and Leroy Pickford spouted out, “You aren’t supposed to be here.”
“Leroy,” Lewis said. “I know that just as much as you do, but your momma called nine-one-one, and they sent me out here to make sure everything was all right. My name’s officer Wallace.”
“They don’t want you here,” Leroy said. “You’re not supposed to be here.”
“I know that, Leroy, but I just need to see your mom and make sure everything’s okay. I’m just doing my job.”
Leroy, a twenty-three year old high school drop-out, pulled the door back, opening it for Lewis. “Come in,” he said. “Please excuse our messy house.”
Lewis stepped inside and the itch in his mouth and eyes stopped instantly. The house was spotless: all the furniture had the glossy look of having just been polished. The rugs all look vacuumed, and the wooden floors had obviously been mopped within the past few days.
“Nice place,” he said. “Now where’s your mother?”
“The house hasn’t been clean in decades,” Leroy said. “That’s what Mom always says. I try to clean up when I can, but she’s always complaining about living in a pigsty.”
“Is she in bed?”
“No, she’s out back,” he said. “But you can’t go back there. You’re not allowed back there.”
“That’s fine, Leroy. Can you go ask her to come inside the house?”
“I’ll be right back.” He turned to walk out the back door but paused and turned back around. “What’d you say your name was?”
“Okay, I’m gonna run get her. It might take a while. She really doesn’t like it when anyone interrupts her work. Go ahead and sit on the couch in the living room. I’ll be back as quick as I can.” He turned around and slammed the back door behind him.
Lewis’s left hand was shaking and he couldn’t make it stop. He tried grabbing his left hand with his right, but then they both started shaking and wouldn’t stop. That’s when a screeching, ringing noise made Lewis slap his shaking hands on his ears. It felt like hairpins had been shoved deep into both of his ears.
He sat on the couch and the ringing stopped, disappeared. Lewis checked his watch but the numbers blurred; the hands melted into each other. A steady humming noise leaked down from upstairs, and Lewis stood up, determined to find out what was making the noise. The ringing punctured his inner ears again, forcing him to sit back down on the couch.
He thought about whether or not Leroy and Marissa Pickford would be coming back inside the house soon, and Leroy’s words echoed in his mind: it might take a while. He found tissue in his shirt pocket — something no one in West Texas went without during the winter — and quickly tore off pieces and shoved them into his ears.
He stood up again; he still felt the ringing, but the tissue clogging his ears made it bearable. He headed for the stairs and started to climb. The humming noises intensified and Lewis opened the first door he saw at the top of the stairs. Nothing, just a neatly made bed with a bookshelf full of cookbooks.
He took the tissue out of his left ear. The ringing burst in again, but he could hear the humming down the hall. He plugged up his ear and made his way to the room where the mechanical humming seeped out from under the door.
When Lewis opened the door he saw Mr. Pickford. He had his shirt off and wires spilling out of his chest, hooked up to some kind of mainframe that was creating the incessant humming noise.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” Mr. Pickford said, looking up from the desk. He was filling gel capsules with a powdery substance.
“Technically,” Lewis said, shocked. “Neither are you. Your obituary was in the paper three years ago. There was even a funeral.”
“Sit down,” Mr. Pickford said.
Lewis felt something grab his shoulders, push the backs of his knees, and force him into a sitting position on the floor. The ringing stopped, and he pulled the tissue out of his ears.
“After that highway patrolman was snooping around here five years ago, I had to make everyone think I’d died. Nobody would suspect a widow of doing anything.”
“What are you talking about? Is Mrs. Pickford okay? She called nine-one-one earlier today.”
“Mrs. Pickford’s just fine,” he said. “She’s out back with Leroy, but you know that already.” He coughed, phlegm spilling out of his mouth. He cleared his throat and spit into the trash can next to the desk. “You should’ve stayed on the couch, Officer Wallace. Or should I call you Lewis?”
“What’s going on?” Lewis asked. “What are you putting in those pills?”
“You wouldn’t know what it was if I told you, but you’ll find out what it does to you soon. You were scheduled for your first dose earlier today, Officer Wallace.”
“I’m not taking anything,” Lewis said, trying to stand up. He fell back onto the floor, harder this time.
“It won’t do you any good to resist.”
“Are you going to tell me what’s going on?”
Mr. Pickford laughed and the mainframe started shaking. “So you want me to explain how everything works so you can go tell everyone?”
“I’m an officer of the law.”
“You’re about to have the honor of becoming an officer of the Pickfords. You can try to run and tell everyone in town what’s going on, but we control three-fourths of the town already. Why do you think we had your bosses send you out here on some trumped up nine-one-one call?”
“How did we get so many under our control when no one comes out here?” Mr. Pickford stood up from his desk. He walked across the room and stood over Lewis, “Do you remember your doctor appointment last month?”
Lewis nodded; the doctor had tried to put him on anti-anxiety medicine for his high-stress job. Lewis had soundly rejected the notion.
“Most people take the doctor’s advice,” Mr. Pickford said. “You’re not supposed to be here, but we had to take more extreme measures since you refused to take the medicine your doctor prescribed.”
“You can’t make me take any pills,” Lewis said.
“You don’t seem to understand, Officer Wallace. We can make you do anything we want. We’re not asking for much, just that you take the pills so you don’t have to come to the house every time we have something for you to do.”
Mr. Pickford walked back to his desk and picked up two pills and a glass of water. “Get up and come over here.”
Lewis remained sitting until his left eardrum burst.
“You better listen to what I tell you,” Mr. Pickford said. Lewis stood up and walked towards the desk. A thick, brown liquid poured out of his left ear.
“You can’t get away with this,” Lewis said.
“No? I think it’s a little too late for heroics. Go ahead and take your medicine.” Mr. Pickford handed Lewis the glass of water and the two pills. “You’ll need two pills, twice a day,” he said. “I’ve got enough pills made for your first three-month supply.”
Lewis jerked his arm back to throw the pills, but before he could, his hand was up against his mouth and the pills were inside, already dissolving. They tasted like urine-soaked sheet metal. He quickly washed them down with the glass of water.
“Where’s Mrs. Pickford?” Lewis asked.
“She’s working out in the barn. You really shouldn’t worry about her. She’s fine.” Lewis felt a strong sense of calm seize his body. “You’ll get your orders and refills of your medicine in the mail, from the postman,” Mr. Pickford said. “But for now, your first order is to watch the roads that lead out to our house.”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Pickford,” Lewis said. “Nobody needs to be out here anyway.”
“Exactly. But let me warn you, Officer Wallace. These pills don’t control what you say, so be careful what you let slip, otherwise you’ll enjoy the same coma as your friend, Roby Williams.”
“Yes sir,” Lewis said. Mr. Pickford handed him a bottle of pills, and Lewis turned and headed for the door.
“Oh, and Officer Wallace, you’ll be marrying Linda Jones. Go ahead and build a house across the dirt road from our place. In the future, your children will be helping us manufacture our medicine. We might even make you mayor of Brownfield for all your help.”
Mr. Pickford paused. “Remember, Lewis,” he said. “Be careful what you let slip. You don’t want your mother to have an accident after her son dives into an unexplained coma.”
Lewis liked Linda, the way her hair curled up at her shoulders. She’d make a good, steady wife, and that was all anyone could ask for. The Pickfords knew how to make people happy. Lewis knew that more than anything else.
Copyright © 2006 by Taylor Collier