Twelve-year-old Afia Afton was startled awake by the rapid, repetitive thuds of someone pounding on her front door. She had fallen asleep while watching an episode of Miami Vice. Her dad didn’t like her watching that show, but it was easy to sneak it in on nights that he worked extremely late. Most of the other girls in her class went all weak-kneed over Don Johnson with his linen jacket, dangling cigarette, and five o’clock shadow. Afia had a crush on Philip Michael Thomas, especially when he wore the black button-down shirt with the double-breasted jacket over it. Let the white girls swoon over Crockett if they wanted. Tubbs was the one who made her tingle.
The repetitive thuds came again, harder this time, rattling the doorknob on her side. Afia glanced at the clock on the wall opposite the television. It was seven o’clock in the morning. She had fallen asleep in front of the tube after the credits had rolled on Miami Vice and the real-life Barbie doll who reported the news on Channel 6 began reading her teleprompter. Why were the TV reporters always bubbly little bleach blondes with doe eyes, voluptuous lips, and large breasts? The way they constantly stumbled over their words and corrected themselves as they delivered the news made them sound illiterate. Well, maybe not illiterate, but they never sound as if they actually comprehend what they’re reading. It was annoying.
“Dad?” she shouted. “Someone’s at the door.”
He must’ve found her asleep on the couch when he rolled in from work last night and not wanted to wake her. Usually he at least draped a throw over her if she’d allowed herself to drift to sleep out here. The fleece throw was still smartly folded in half over the back of the couch. She yawned and shivered, then grabbed the throw and draped it around her shoulders. Her father’s bedroom was just outside the living room. She stood up and turned toward it. The door of her dad’s room was wide open, which was also unusual after he’d worked the late shift.
“Dad? You in there?”
There was a third round of pounding at the door, hard enough to rattle the decorative China set that still hung on the wall in the kitchen four years after her mother had disappeared. Afia heard them shaking against their hangers from the vibrations whoever was outside was creating. Why wouldn’t he just take that stuff down? This round of aggressive knocking was followed by the booming, angry voice of a man who was not her father.
“Hollow County Sheriff’s Department. Open up!”
Afia felt her skin crawl against the throw she’d draped over herself. She peeked into her father’s bedroom as she passed by it on her way to the front door. The bed was still made. There was no sign of her father. No sign of the pair of boots he usually left sitting at the foot of the bed when he came home from work. He wasn’t home, then. Was it possible that he hadn’t made it home from work at all? Panic began to claw at her heart and creep its way into her throat. She was left at home alone often these days. It was just her and her father, after all. Sometimes she had to be home alone. But she could never remember a morning when she had awakened and not found her father either cooking bacon in a frying pan in the kitchen or sawing logs in bed that sounded like a growling grizzly bear.
“Dad?” she screamed. “Dad? Where are you?”
Another thud and the sound of splintering wood sent her running to her own bedroom. She slammed her door and searched frantically for something heavy that she could shove against it. The front door of the house she’d shared with her father since birth slammed against the interior wall. That was immediately followed by the clomp clomp clomp of an army of boots marching through her place. With nowhere to run, she peeked through her bedroom window. There were two sheriff’s department cars in the driveway, their strobes alternating red and blue. Behind them was parked an unmarked car. Inside that one sat a jowly white man in a tie and sport jacket. No sheriff’s deputies were in sight around him. That must mean they were all in her house. If she opened the window and bolted, she doubted that the jowly man would be able to run fast enough to catch her. But where could she go?
“Afia Afton?” a baritone male voice called from the other side of her bedroom door. “My name is Abe Wickham. I’m a Hollow County sheriff’s deputy. Are you in there, Afia? There’s nothing to be afraid of. We just need to make sure you’re all right.”
The jowly man in the car caught sight of her then. She saw him snag a CB radio mic and start speaking into it before she ducked below the window casement. Her heart felt like it was going to burst right out of her chest. Her breath was ragged, shaky. Her hands trembled. Distantly from the other side of her bedroom door she heard another man’s voice. He said something about a window. Then came the Wickham man’s voice again: “10-4.”
“Where’s my dad?” Afia screamed. “What have you done to my dad?”
There was a long pause from the other side of the door followed by an exasperated sigh.
“Afia, we need to talk to you about your dad, but we need to do it face-to-face. I’m going to need you to open your door for me so we can talk. If you don’t, I’m going to have to open it myself.”
Another voice, male but not as baritone as Wickham’s added, “Christ’s sake. We don’t have time for this.” Someone else—Wickham maybe—shushed him.
“Nobody’s going to hurt you, Afia,” Wickham said. His voice was somehow closer now, as if he’d pressed his lips directly against the gap between the closed door and its frame. “We want to help you, but we need you to help us do that.”
Afia glanced through her bedroom window again. The jowly man still sat in his car. He was staring off in the opposite direction now. Bored, maybe.
“Jesus, Abe, just open the door,” said another man’s voice.
Afia spoke up then. “Ok. I’m opening up. But if you try to hurt me I’m going to kick you all in the balls.”
Laughter from behind the door.
“Ok, Afia,” Wickham replied. “I’m stepping away from the door. Come on out when you’re ready.”
She opened the door to find four white men in uniforms with shiny gold badges pinned on their chests, shiny black boots on their feet, and shiny, intimidating handguns strapped to their hips. The tallest of them, a man with narrow eyes and what the other girls in her class referred to as a porn stache over his lip, wore a nametag with the same shininess of his badge just above it. On it was printed one word in all caps: WICKHAM. He went down on one knee as she approached him and removed his hat. Their eyes locked for a second. Afia thought he looked like an angry man who was trying to fake gentleness and sympathy. He wasn’t good at it.
“Afia, I’m afraid I have some bad news,” Wickham said. “We found your daddy this morning in the town square. He’s passed away.”
Afia’s knees buckled. She collapsed to the floor in front of him. No one tried to catch her.
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