A Killing in the Hills - By Julia Keller


Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, is not on any map, although a small cadre of friends and colleagues joined me in stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that reality:

Lisa Gallagher, a woman of indefatigable energy and great passion for storytelling; Susan Phillips, best friend and honorary West Virginian; Elaine Phillips, Marja Mills, and Elizabeth Taylor, whose friendship, guidance and support are warmly appreciated; and Kelley Ragland and Vicki Mellor, publishing professionals whose rigor and wisdom make working with them a privilege and a joy.

The roads get lost in the clotted hills, in the Blue Spruce maze, the red cough, the Allegheny marl, the sulphur ooze.

Irene McKinney, ‘Twilight in West Virginia: Six O’Clock Mine Report’

She didn’t come here often, because there was nothing left.

When she did come, it tended to be at dusk, and she would stand and look at the bare spot, at the place where the trailer had been. It was only a few dozen yards away from Comer Creek.

You could smell the creek, a damp rotting smell that was somehow also sweet, even before you could see it. The woods around it made a tight screen, as if the branches were gripping hands in a game of Red Rover. Daring you to break through. You could hear the creek, too, its nervous hum, especially in the early spring, when the frequent rains made the water run high and wild.

When she was a little girl, she would play on the banks of the creek in the summertime. Her sister Shirley kept an eye on her. In no time at all, Bell – her real name was Belfa but everybody called her Bell, because ‘Belfa,’ Shirley had told her, sounded dowdy, old-fashioned, like a name you’d hear at a quilting bee or a taffy pull, whatever that was – would get astonishingly muddy. Not that she cared. The mud squirted between her toes and drifted under her fingernails and stuck to her hair. Somehow it got smeared behind her ears, too, and across the back of her neck. Bell could remember how glorious it felt on those summer afternoons, playing in the mud, glazing herself with it. Soft and cool. A second skin. One that made her slippery all over. Hard to catch and hold.


Or so it seemed.

Everything was lost now. The scattered black sticks that had once been the metal frame of the trailer had gone a long time ago, breaking apart, sinking into a bath of old ashes. The brittle gray flakes were scooped up by the wind and carried away.

The woods should have taken over the spot by this time, covered it, the way the woods gradually came to cover everything else. But the ground under the trailer had been burned so badly that nothing would grow here. It was too scorched. It was a dead thing.

As dead as her childhood.

On those rare occasions when she did come back, she would stand at the spot while the West Virginia wilderness – green, brown, silver, blue, and black – turned, with the forward march of darkness, into a single color. Everything melted into one thing.

Once, standing there, she heard an owl. It wasn’t the lilting and musical Who-WHO Who-WHO of the owl’s cry in fairy tales, the sentinel voice of wisdom and patience. It was a horrible screeching, raw and stark. A red slash of sound.

She flinched, trembled. This was the scene of a terrible crime, and the owl’s cry was a warning.

She did not return often, because there was nothing here. Only the past. And for that, she knew, she did not have to come back.

Because the past traveled with her.

Part One


The old men sat around the little plastic table in the crowded restaurant, a trio of geezers in shiny black jackets, mumbling, chuckling, shaking their heads and then blowing across the tops of their brown cardboard cups of coffee, pushing out their flabby pink old-man lips to do so.

Then sipping. Then blowing again.

Jesus, Carla thought. What a bunch of losers.

Watching them made her feel, in every restless inch of her seventeen-year-old body, so infinitely superior to these withered fools and their pathetic little rituals that she was pretty sure it showed; she was fairly certain her contempt was half visible, rising from her skin in a skittish little shimmer. The late-morning sunshine flooding in through the floor-to-ceiling glass walls made everything look sharper, rawer, the edges more intense. You couldn’t hide a thing in here.

She would remember this moment for the rest of her life. Because it was the marker.