We Are All the Same in the Dark Page 3

I joke with Trumanell that I could quit trucking and turn this place into a museum. She could sit on the porch and sell sweet iced tea and Mama’s snickerdoodles folded up in Saran Wrap.

We could charge admission like the fucking LBJ Ranch, where our thirty-sixth president invited people to his brick house on the prairie like it was the Taj Majal.

I’d splatter just a hint of blood-red paint on all that relentless white on the house, because less is always more. Let the mind do the work, not the eyes. Daddy taught me that. I’d plant the wheat back and tell the real story of Peanut Butter and Nelly to the kids who make up stuff about us in the fields that touch the edges of ours. Sipping beer on their tailgates, howling at the moon, scaring the shit out of themselves, rolling up and revving their pickups at my cattle gate. I lay low every June 7, listening to them holler.

What’s in that big truck? You’re crazy as fuck!

Chantilly and Lace! Show us your face!

A decade later, nobody in town has the full picture of what happened out here at the Branson place. They just shake my cattle gate, seethe, and wonder.

Angel is back to playing dead on the couch. Trumanell is still on the floor, yawning, saying she’s ready to gown down, even though it’s the middle of the afternoon.

It’s Angel who jumps to life at the rap on the door.

For the first time, she sees my gun.

Part Two

* * *


Once a thing is set to happen, all you can do is hope it won’t.

—Odette Tucker’s favorite quote,

from In Cold Blood


The Branson place is rising up in the distance like Moby Dick out of the sea—a big white territorial whale that seems like it scared everything else away. It pretty much did.

So I don’t have a good feeling. I never do when I head out here. If the house is a killer whale, the past is a maverick shark circling its body, waiting for me.

Ten years ago, the fury at the Branson place was deafening. Machine against rock, gun against glass, metal against clay. More than two hundred men rolled over the cattle gate and stormed the farm uninvited. Grandfathers, fathers, brothers, uncles, doctors, lawyers, farmers, teachers, plumbers.

They hunted for nineteen-year-old Trumanell with shovels, backhoes, and metal detectors. They smashed windows with rifle butts, shredded crime scene tape, slaughtered wheat, dug holes until rats and snakes slithered homeless across a field turned into an apocalyptic, deeply pocked moon.

At the time, Trumanell’s father, Frank Branson, also missing, was suspect No. 1. His son, Wyatt, was No. 2. It had been twenty days. The local cops, far outnumbered, had the choice of pulling out guns and laying waste to the people they sat next to at church or standing back and watching their crime scene get destroyed.

My father was their boss. At his orders, the police stood back and let the town go to work. A wild storm came up that night after the marauders exhausted themselves. It transformed all the holes to tiny mud ponds. Remnants of crime scene tape flew for miles that night, twisting into the high branches of trees, chaotic yellow ribbons calling for Trumanell, the town sweetheart, to come home.

I still see bits of yellow plastic threaded in birds’ nests and cattails every spring and wonder if it’s tape that blew from the Branson place. I always wonder if Trumanell is sending me personal messages, instead of just torn peanut M&M wrappers, which is what it was the one time I climbed an old oak to look.

I floor the car to 80, kicking up red dust. The scanner is running its mouth like a dark comic: A squirrel is preventing a woman from entering her house. A man at 3262 Halsall says his wife is hitting him with his lucky baseball bat.

There’s no chatter about why I’m alone, scared, speeding on a prairie road with trees scattered like sailboats, thinking how my daddy, the town’s late great top cop, told me to never come back to this little Texas hellhole unless it was to bury his ashes. Don’t try to find the truth about Trumanell. Some answers are left to the by-and-by.

Yet I did come back. Five years ago, I buried his ashes by my mother’s in Holy Trinity Cemetery on the edge of town, and became a rookie cop here, falling in line behind my father and grandfather. I dragged along my brand-new husband, a Chicago lawyer named Finn, after Huck Finn, who agreed to give my hometown a five-year try. He knew how much I was haunted by June 7, 2005, the black square on my calendar. He knew how much the night Trumanell disappeared was threaded in my own story.

People weren’t surprised when the moving truck arrived and unpacked my things at my father’s house instead of hauling his away. Natives often return, especially the ones who swear they never will. Texas is a beautiful poison you drink from your mother’s breast; the older you get and the farther you run, the more it pounds in your blood.

And then there is my own legacy in this town. I’ve been told I’m special, a brave girl, ever since I was three and I climbed a ladder with a piece of Tupperware to trap a rabid bat that was thinking about taking a bite out of my eleven-month-old cousin, Maggie. I’ll never forget she was laughing and pointing at death while it spun around her head.

The truth is, I’m not brave. I’m not even that willing. I’m just more afraid of one thing happening than the other.

More afraid of my cousin dying than falling off a ladder that might as well have been a skyscraper. More afraid of not being a cop like my daddy than being one. More afraid of leaving things unfinished here than eventually going all in and finishing them.

More afraid things would go wrong today if I brought my partner, who thinks Wyatt Branson is batshit crazy and should have been locked up years ago, even though there is no proof he killed his missing sister and father. Even though Wyatt was found far from the house that night, out of his mind, down by the lake. Even though my own daddy worked the Branson case and, until the day he died, proclaimed Wyatt innocent.

I swing behind Wyatt’s rig, telling myself this is another false alarm. Ever since that incendiary documentary aired last month marking the ten-year anniversary, the emergency calls to the station have tripled.

That’s because a retired FBI agent sitting in his velour La-Z-Boy, face in half-shadow, told the world he suspected that Wyatt was a killer—a serial killer—still at work.

The lens swung from that La-Z-Boy into the eager, open faces of three bleached blondes and one redhead posed on motorcycles, groupies who chase Wyatt on long-haul trips and post his whereabouts.

One of them claimed she saw Wyatt buy a “suspicious blue dress” at a Walmart outside of Beaumont. The redhead, the prettiest, tossed her hair aside to show red marks on her throat. She said Wyatt gripped her neck during a sexual encounter in a rest stop bathroom. “I’ll never fame-bang a guy again,” she vowed earnestly, while the camera crawled down her cleavage. “The sex was hot, but I thought I was going to die.”

An Oscar-winning director teamed with a well-known journalist to make this documentary, and still they got it wrong. They got it all wrong.

I’m hoping the anonymous tipster got it wrong, too. It was one simple sentence that had me pounding the gas.

Wyatt Branson has a girl out there.

The fresh paint on the Branson place blares white noise, sticky in the heat, only three weeks old. The field is shaved as close as a groom’s face, the way Wyatt keeps it now.

I crack the car window, slowing, listening to tires crunch against gravel. It’s the only sound I hear. July is always hot and utterly still. It’s a melancholy that makes my heart ache, like grief is rising up out of the soil for every dead thing that ever lived.

I had decided no lights. No siren.

Wyatt paints the house every June 7—walls, shutters, shingles, columns. He does it “at Trumanell’s insistence” even though he says there is not enough white paint to cover up the things that went on in this house.

Wyatt’s painting ritual marks the beginning of summer. It wakes the town mourning for its missing girl. The owner of Dicky’s Hardware, not wanting to mess with Wyatt, sets out twenty-one gallons of Chantilly Lace like clockwork, forty percent discount, three rollers and two brushes for free.

Wyatt says Trumanell thumbs through the paint samples he brings home every year, but she always picks Chantilly Lace.

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