A bone-chilling work of fiction featuring a heartbroken brother, forever changed by a youthful trauma, which culminates in an unforgettable tour of his childhood home…
by: Carolynn Kingyens
Walker Newcomb developed a severe case of imposter syndrome soon after his little brother went missing at the county fair almost thirty years ago. At twelve, he was technically still a kid himself when his doped-up mother handed him a rolled-up twenty dollar bill she’d recently used to snort a line of coke so he could take his kid brother to their town’s annual fair. Walker, and five-year-old Cooper, had been counting down the days on their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ calendar to the miraculous date of Saturday, June 22, 1991, the first day of Hamilton’s Annual County Fair.
Cooper wanted to visit the petting zoo first, where he got to feed a gaggle of goats. He once observed that the dry corn kernels he’d been given by one of the teenage staff to feed the shorn sheep resembled the yellow-stained teeth of his mother’s bully-boyfriend, who’d, at times, taken his anger out on Cooper’s big brother, who he loved more than anything but felt defenseless to protect.
Walker wanted to watch the bronc riding cowboys first, then go to the petting zoo afterward. So he did what any logical big brother would do at that moment — he suggested an old-fashioned coin toss.
“Heads or tails?” called out Walker.
“Tails,” piped up little Cooper.
When Walker tossed his quarter into the air,the rim of the coin would glint in the hot, Jersey shore sun. As the coin began to fall, he noticed his little brother looking up at him how he’d imagined a son would look up at his father. Neither boy knew their fathers. Cooper’s dad was a drug dealer who’d gotten shot and killed by another drug dealer over an ego turf war in Atlantic City. Walker’s dad, however, died of pancreatic cancer. He was once an in-home hospice patient of his board-certified RN mother. But she’d later get hooked on his father’s prescription pain medications, Tramadol and Percodan.
Walker never knew this version of his mother, the hardworking professional who took care of the dying with dignity and owned a quaint two-bedroom condo a few blocks away from the shitty beach littered with trash and the occasional used hypodermic needle, poking through the sand. He only knew the mother after her downward spiral — a selfish slob, who only cared about getting high or getting laid.
Walker caught the quarter in his right hand, then quickly slapped both the coin and right palm over the back of his left hand, making a loud sound in the process. Next, he took a quick peek while simultaneously shielding the coin toss results from Cooper. The results revealed Heads — Walker’s call. However, he would go on to lie to his little brother, telling him the quarter had landed on Tails instead.
“You won, Little Man — fair and square,” lied Walker. The happy smile on Cooper’s face was worth the lie.
While Cooper fed the marbled-eyed goats through the generous space between the wide, wooden slats of fencing, Walker would turn in the direction of the bronc riding cowboys in the hopes of catching some action when he spotted Skylar Echohawk emerge from the crowd like a beautiful Indigenous Goddess in her colorful Pow Wow dress.
He had a crush on Skylar Echohawk ever since the first grade and was happy to learn that she lived in the lemon-yellow house with the pretty cherry blossom trees located directly behind his sad-looking home which was the color of dried blood or spaghetti sauce, depending on the light, and time of day. Just then, Skylar locked eyes with Walker, before making her way over to him.
Whatever you do, stay cool, Man. Don’t say anything stupid like Cowabunga! Where did that come from? I can smell her perfume. She’s near, thought Walker.
“Hello Walker,” said Skylar.
“Oh, hi Skylar. I like your dress,” said Walker, trying to blow off his nervousness.
She seemed genuinely happy to have spotted him. “Are you going to Ashley’s Fourth of July pool party?” she asked.
“I was planning on stopping by,” Walker offered. Will you be there?” His voice was beginning to quake.
“Yes. I was wondering if you’d bring Cooper so my little sister has someone to play with?” asked Skylar.
Cooper? thought Walker.
He didn’t answer her question. Instead, he turned his attention back to the fence and goats, narrowing his hazel eyes with a laser focus that would rival The Terminator, scanning every child’s face at the petting zoo, looking for Cooper’s.
“What’s the matter?” asked a worried Skylar.
“I don’t see Cooper. He was standing right next to me a second ago, feeding the goats.” Walker felt like his heart was thrashing around inside his rib cage like a suicidal bird. Panic started to settle in.
“Cooper couldn’t have gone very far, Walker,” Skylar encouraged. “What was he wearing?”
Walker’s world suddenly stood still. He could see Skylar’s lips moving but he couldn’t make out what she was saying. An eerie calm washed over him, as if he was in the eye of a storm, until a big, bulky security guard with the garlic breath clapped his large, meaty hands right in front of Walker’s face, snapping him out of his state of shock.
This was when forty-two-year-old Walker woke from another Groundhog Day-nightmare involving the day his little brother vanished at Hamilton’s Annual County Fair on June 22, 1991. Never to be seen or heard from again. The guilt had caused a continual ripple effect in Walker’s life. He would never marry, nor have children of his own. Instead he’d frequent a slew of prostitutes so he didn’t have to foster real relationships because deep down in his paralyzed psyche he did not feel worthy of receiving love, or happiness. These days, paid sex was his only happy place, barely seven seconds of bliss before his world grew dark again. Walker missed his little brother, and noted each upcoming birthday on his wall calendar. This year Little Man would’ve turned thirty-five.
Walker wrote poetry as a way to placate his demons. He started writing poems in high school after he was forced into state-funded therapy to deal with his grief. He began to pop opioids just like his mother, little white and blue pills that resembled Tic Tacs. The pills gave him a feeling of weightlessness. Some days he’d swear he could float. In addition to his drug use, he stole cars to sell their parts to crooked business owners for quick cash before a Hamilton police officer stepped in to become a mentor by first getting him some therapeutic help for his clinical depression. The police were aware of the traumatizing events surrounding his little brother’s disappearance. A few were even on the force that fateful day when they got dispatched to the scene in a bid to help find Cooper.
The therapy and mentoring had given Walker some tools to help navigate his life without his little brother. He joined the police academy after high school graduation, dedicating the rest of his life to finding missing children like Cooper. After graduating from the academy, Walker became a rookie cop on the Hamilton Police Force and was able to read his brother’s cold case file for the first time. The only thing the search dogs hit upon was Cooper’s Ken Griffey Jr. baseball card that he’d always carry inside his pants pocket. The baseball card was found ten feet away from the petting zoo, right beside a big puddle. It was like Cooper was here and then gone — a childhood ghost.
Teresa Monroe, the boys’ mother, would sleep for days at a time with the help of sleeping pills and valium to deal with the fact that her younger son went missing. Walker was left to fend for himself inside that vast vacuum that was left behind; the void that would become his new reality.
Larry Logan, Teresa’s then boyfriend with a string of past priors from assault to robbery, took off, and was nowhere to be found after Cooper’s disappearance. The police did catch up with him two towns over, but his alibi checked out. Walker and Cooper would call him Loser Larry and Yellow Teeth behind his back. It wasn’t until Walker was twenty-six, and five years on the force, that he would run into his mother’s ex-boyfriend again. This time, it was at a crime scene on the other end of town. Someone had shot Loser Larry in the back of the head before carving out the words “Child Killer” into his barreled chest. The first thoughts Walker had on the case was good riddance.
Teresa would eventually clean up her act and was able to hold down a part-time cashier job at the 7-11 on the corner of Jefferson Avenue & Franklin Street. She looked much older than her sixty-nine years. Walker would sometimes stop into the 7-11 after his night shift to grab a coffee, a lottery ticket, or just to check in on his mom from time to time. They didn’t have the best relationship. He’d never gotten over how she’d allowed Loser Larry to beat on him and call him names. Walker wasn’t a father, but he knew he’d never allow his partner to treat his child, or any child, the way his mother allowed her partner to treat him. This truth was one of the elephants in the room whenever they’d found themselves alone in each other’s company. But Walker learned a long time ago how to live with elephants, and how to live with demons.
“Good morning, Mom,” said Walker when he got to the register.
“I got this,” said Teresa, gently patting the back of her son’s hand. He smiled at her the way he’d smile at acquaintances.
“Thank you,” he replied with a nod.
“What time will you be over for Christmas dinner? I placed an order at the Stop & Shop for a fully cooked turkey with all the trimmings. I invited Skylar and her son Matteo to join us.”
“Skylar Echohawk, our backyard neighbor?!” asked a bemused Walker.
He hadn’t seen Skylar Echohawk since high school graduation. He heard she went off to New York to study fashion design at a top school on a full ride scholarship. Skylar’s grandmother had taught her how to sew those impressive Pow Wow dresses since they, too, lived on a tight budget. Skylar was voted Best Dressed, Most Beautiful, and Most Likely to Succeed in their senior superlatives. She looked like a cross between Alyssa Milano and Jessica Alba.
Walker would never forget the time they’d kissed during an impromptu game of Spin the Bottle at Ashley Turner’s Fourth of July pool party, twelve days after Cooper’s disappearance. He wasn’t planning on going but changed his mind at the last minute. After swimming for a few hours, the rising eighth graders piled into Ashley Turner’s basement to play video games and ping pong until she dragged out one of her father’s emptied beer bottles from the recycle bin, holding it up to them as if she’d found the Holy Grail of adolescence.
“Now I want everyone to get into a circle,” she barked like a schoolmarm. She began to list off the rules of the new game:
“When the bottle lands on someone, you must kiss that person for at least ten seconds — no excuses. And I will be counting.”
All the boys were vying for the dark brown bottle to land on Skylar Echohawk. She wasn’t just pretty, but also super smart and kind, almost ethereal. She was too good for this world, thought Walker. Their collective fear, however, was for the bottle to land on Ashley Turner, their school’s Nellie Oleson. No one liked Lil’ Miss Bossy Pants and only went to her pool party in the first place because she was the only one in their entire neighborhood with an inground pool and a plethora of video games. Most of the kids came from low income families who could barely keep their heads above water, and then there were the kids like Ashley, whose parents would indulge their every whim.
Walker decided to play the game, knowing the odds, and gods, were stacked against him. But as fate would have it, he would get to kiss Skylar Echohawk after all when the bottle landed on him during her turn. They looked like two deer caught in a semi-truck’s headlights. Bobby Sanchez pushed a seated Walker towards a reserved Skylar, who was also seated. They closed their eyes and began to slowly lean over the rested bottle, their lips barely brushing. He let Skylar take the lead and was surprised when she’d slipped him the tongue. Ashley began her annoying countdown:
Walker didn’t want her kiss to stop. Her breath smelled like a mixture of pineapple and mint.
This is as close to heaven as I’ll ever get, thought Walker.
He felt Skylar pull away. His immediate focus went to covering up his erection by using Cooper’s New York Yankees ballcap, hoping nobody noticed.
That memory of Skylar’s kiss acted as a beacon of light on his darkest days. He couldn’t even bring himself to do a Google search, fearing he’d see a photo of Skylar in the arms of another man with several happy children cascading around them, the life he’d always wanted with the girl of his dreams but felt it was a life out of reach.
“What’s Skylar been up to these days?” asked a nonchalant Walker.
“She’s back home now taking care of her mother,who was recently diagnosed with cancer. She left her husband about two years ago and has sole custody of their five-year-old son. I invited her over for Christmas dinner to give her a break.”
She left her husband, he repeated in his head.
“So what time will you be coming over? You never gave me an answer,” asked Teresa.
Walker began to shake his head, trying to erase his thoughts like an Etch & Sketch.
“How does three sound?” he asked his mother.
“Sounds perfect,” she replied.
During his drive back home to his two bedroom condo near a shitty beach reminiscent of where his mother once lived so many years ago, where he planned to get some sleep before his next shift, his thoughts kept retreating to Skylar Echohawk. He wondered what she looks like now, what she’s been up to after all these years. Then his thoughts traveled, as they always did, back to Little Man.
A few years prior, he’d read in the local paper that Skylar’s little sister had received a prestigious position at the Boston Ballet Company. She was allowed to grow up and fulfill her ballet dream, unlike Walker’s little brother. What would Cooper be doing today? he often wondered.
Walker never gave up looking for his kid brother. The hope of finding him alive and well, living the beach bum dream in a bungalow in Barbados had long since been dashed. The likelihood that Cooper was dead, buried in some junk yard lot with an obese, drooling basset hound lying atop of his grave was more the reality, no matter how horrifying.
On Walker’s days off, he would follow up on every lead, no matter how cold. There was one lead that looked promising. An anonymous caller had reported that Cooper’s body could be found close to home. That was five years ago. This bit of information never sat well with Walker. It gnawed at the back of his mind ever since he received the tip. It was the not knowing that was most maddening. Teresa, however, never checked in on the status of the investigation, even after she’d learned that her son had taken it over. Walker thought his mother’s behavior was odd but chucked it up to the effects of hardcore drug use, which was known to have some neurological effects on the brain in respect to some emotional states.
Two days before Christmas, Walker mustered the nerve to jump over his mother’s fence and knock on the back door of the once manicured, lemon-yellow house with its pretty cherry blossom trees. He could see that Skylar’s childhood home had begun to deteriorate with peeled paint everywhere and an abundance of overgrown shrubbery. Her childhood home was almost as sad looking as his.
Just then, he heard his name called out from an open window a floor above from where he was standing on the concrete patio. He looked up and waved at a shadow.
“I’ll be right down,” the delicate voice said.
Walker began to pace before suddenly stopping in his tracks when he saw the back door open and laid eyes on Skylar Echohawk, now forty-two and mother of a five-year-old little boy.
“Hi Walker,” she said sweetly, giving him a big hug. They stood embracing for what seemed like an eternity before Skylar broke the awkwardness.
“I’ve thought about you so many times over the years. I always hoped you and your mom would find closure, and I even kept track of Cooper’s case online for a while. But I see that it remains open.”
Walker nodded his head, before confessing that he, too, thought about her over the years, wondering if she’d become a fashion designer in the big city, and a wife and mother.
“Do you have time for a coffee?” he asked, before making a gesture with his hand to infer the direction of his house.
“I know you’re back in town taking care of your mother, and that you have a little boy named Matteo. I just came over to my mother’s house to dig out the life-size nativity scene in the mess of her basement. She hasn’t put it out since the Christmas before Cooper went missing. I wanted to surprise her when she came home from work today. I could use some help, if you’re game.”
“That sounds like fun. My mom and Matteo are spending the day at my aunt’s house to give me some time to wrap Christmas presents. After all these years, I’ve never been inside your house. I was always curious which bedroom the boy of my childhood dreams slept in.”
Skylar reached out for Walker’s hand as they walked the long way around to Teresa’s house, forgoing the need to jump over the fence.
“So how do you take your coffee?” asked Walker.
“One cream and one sugar,” said Skylar, pausing before asking her next question.
“So, when can I get that house tour?”
“Before or after coffee?” he asked.
“Before,” she replied.
Walker smiled and put on his best snobbish-sounding accent as he moved from one small room to the other with Skylar following closely behind.
“And this was the room where I walked in on my mother going down on her fat slob boyfriend. No amount of scalding hot showers or drunken blackouts could blot out that disgusting image from my ten-year-old memory.” He stopped short of his words, it was painful.
“And this was Cooper’s bedroom. I made my mother promise not to take anything down, to keep it exactly how it looked on the day he went missing. At first, it was in case they’d found him alive. After we lost all hope for Cooper coming home, it became the shrine it is today.”
Before leaving his brother’s bedroom, Walker would touch the highlighted square box on their old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ calendar, which denoted the date of Saturday, June 22, 1991, the first day of Hamilton’s Annual County Fair and the date of Cooper’s disappearance.
The house tour continued.
“And this room right here is my bedroom. And here’s the spot where Loser Larry chipped my tooth on my bedpost.” But before Walker could say another word, Skylar reached up and kissed him — long and hard, pressing her chest into his before they pulled away to take a mutual breath.
“I’ve always dreamed of doing that, but I was too chicken shit,” said Skylar.
“No, I was the one who was too chicken shit. I was in love with you since the first grade, and knew you were out of my league,” replied Walker.
“But I waited years for you to ask me out. I thought you didn’t like me. Who knows what would’ve happened if one of us wasn’t so chicken shit to take the first step?” she mused.
“Oh snap, look at the time,” said Walker. “My mom will be home in an hour, and I haven’t been to the basement yet.”
They decided to end the house tour early so Walker can dig out the life-sized nativity scene to surprise his mother. Skylar went downstairs to help Walker clear a path for the Christmas boxes at the back of the basement. There were boxes on top of boxes on top of boxes, floor to ceiling. It looked like a hoarder’s paradise.
“When was the last time you’ve been down here?” asked Skylar.
“It had to be before Cooper disappeared. We used to play hide and seek down here,” replied Walker.
Skylar went off on her own, digging through the boxes, trying in vain to find any salvageable Christmas decorations. The basement had a lingering foul odor that neither Skylar nor Walker could place.
“A squirrel, or a raccoon, must have died down here. Do you smell that?” asked Walker.
“Yes, I do,” she replied. “It wasn’t too strong at first, but the longer we’re down here, the stronger it gets. It’s probably a small critter that got trapped down here and couldn’t find its way out, and probably died in one of these boxes. Poor little thing,” she added.
Walker tried to find the source of the smell and noticed that there was a small room hidden behind the faux wood paneling. He kicked in the paneling and when he peeked inside he’d found a large, blue and white beach cooler. Duct tape was used to secure all four sides of the lid. Using his pocket-knife, Walker was able to cut through the multiple sheets of the gray tape, unsealing the lid from the container. By now, Skylar had found her way inside the little room. They both stared down at the creepy-looking cooler.
“What do you think is in there?” asked Skylar.
“I have no idea,” he replied.
Together, they lifted the lid of the cooler, and underneath a baby blanket and several stuffed animals were the mummified remains of a small child. Walker recognized the faded and tattered Star Wars T-shirt as the one Cooper had been wearing on the day he went missing.
“FUCK, NO! NO FUCKING WAY!” Walker screamed out in the dust-filled hidden room at the back of the basement.
Skylar started to cry. “Cooper?!”
“I got to call this in,” he said as tears streamed down his face. He would pace back and forth as he talked to his partner about what they’d just found in his mother’s basement.
“Yeah, she’s at work right now, the 7-11 on the corner of Jeff Ave and Frank Street. Yeah. I’ll be here. Call in the forensics unit. And make sure you get her alone with me first. I’ll get the truth out of her.”
Within minutes, sirens could be heard a block away from the boys’ childhood home. All these wasted man hours searching for a dead child, a dead brother — the drained ponds, the step by step grid searches of Mahoney Park, the search and rescue teams, the search and rescue dogs, the piles of news articles, the digging up of backyards — and all this time Cooper Christopher Bradford was crumpled up inside of a sealed beach cooler in their mother’s secret room in back of her basement.
Walker felt there was validity to that anonymous tip from five years ago, reporting that they’d find Cooper’s body close to home. And you don’t get closer to home than your damn basement. He then recalled the gruesome state of Loser Larry’s body some sixteen years prior with the word “Child Killer” carved deep in his chest. At the time of Cooper’s disappearance, Loser Larry’s alibi had checked out so Walker didn’t put the two cases together. He knew Ol’ Yellow Teeth would eventually end up dead sooner or later, either from suicide by cop, or at the hands of someone else. He was a walking advertisement for bad karma.
Walker turned to Skylar right before the police and forensics teams arrived.
“You were with me the day Cooper went missing, and you are with me now when Cooper is found. Maybe in some strange way, Cooper brought us back together again. He knew how much I loved you.”
The two embraced before they were interrupted by Frank, Walker’s partner. We got Teresa. She’s in my car right now.”
Walker left the cooler with his brother’s remains. He left beautiful Skylar and his best friend and partner in the secret room in the basement and made his way outside to talk to his mother. He saw his mother bury her head in her hands after he tapped on the car window. He brought his handcuffed mother back inside the house to speak with her inside Cooper’s shrine-bedroom. He walked her over to Cooper’s bed before bringing an old chair in from his bedroom. He stared at his mother for a full minute as she continued to weep in her hands. Walker placed his portable tape recorder down on Cooper’s side table before pushing the record button:
“Teresa, I need answers right now. How did Cooper Christopher Bradford end up in your basement? Did you kill my little brother?”
Teresa shook her head side to side to imply a No to his question.
“Mom, I am recording our conversation. You have to say the word, not just shake your head.”
“Then who killed Cooper, and how did he end up in a duct taped beach cooler in a hidden room in your basement?”
“It was Larry. He told me he’d gone to the fair that day to check up on you and Cooper.”
“That’s a lie,” replied Walker. “That man was a piece of shit, who hated your kids. He wasn’t going there to check up on our wellbeing. That was a ruse for something more sinister.”
“He said he saw you talking to a very pretty girl, whom I’d gathered was Skylar, and then he said he watched as Cooper walked over to the sheep pen on the opposite side of the petting zoo.” She paused to catch her breath. “That’s when he took him. I didn’t know until he confessed to me after he’d killed Cooper. He told me if I called the police, he would kill you next, leaving me with no children.”
He buried Cooper behind his dead father’s trailer. I begged him to bring my Cooper back home. He brought my baby boy back in that cooler. I hid behind the front door with a bat, ready to strike him hard in the back of the head, but he grabbed the bat and ran out of the house, dropping the cooler in the living room.” Tears rushed from her eyes. “I tried to find him on my own for years to make him pay for what he did to my baby. When I heard he was back in Hamilton, living across town under a new name, I paid two friends I knew to shoot Larry in the head. They’re the ones who carved “Child Killer” on his chest.”
Walker looked away from his mother in disgust.
“I love you and Cooper with all my whole heart. I know I wasn’t a good mother and I made a lot of mistakes, and even put the both of you in harm’s way. But I never killed my son. I just wanted his remains close to me. I’m the one who placed his Winnie the Pooh baby blanket and his favorite stuffed animals inside the cooler. I was so scared that if I called the police, Larry would find you and kill you, too. He was an evil, evil man.”
Just then Frank walked into the room.
“Did you get it?” he asked.
“Yeah, I got it.”
“Does it check out?”
Walker nodded yes.
“Okay, Ms Monroe, I’m going to take you down to the station for a formal statement. Walker will meet us there. I’m going to lift you up now.”
A handcuffed Teresa tried to comfort Walker as Frank escorted her out of Cooper’s bedroom but he backed away from her. She knew she’d be spending whatever years she had left in a federal prison for not just concealing a crime but for also ordering a hit on Larry, a conspiracy to commit murder charge.
Skylar waited for Walker on the front stoop. It was dark by the time he’d gotten back home from the station. They embraced.
“So, what now?” Skylar whispered.
“I have to start planning my kid brother’s memorial service. I have to have a real burial. I waited thirty years to bring Cooper back home, but he was home all along.”
Walker wept long and hard as he fell fast to Skylar’s embrace.
Carolynn Kingyens grew up in a row home in Northeast Philadelphia, where every Spring she looked forward to attending St. Anselm Parish’s carnival, the equivalent to Disney World. She is the author of two poetry collections: Before the Big Bang Makes a Sound and the newly released Coupling, both published by Kelsay Books (Coupling is available on Amazon). In addition to poetry, Kingyens writes essays, book and film reviews, micro fiction, and short stories. Today, she lives in New York and Canada with her husband and two amazing daughters.