I stood at the edge of the rural road, looking north. Because I knew another road once met the edge of the one I stood on, I could see the subtle difference in the ground and the trees’ varying thickness ahead that the forgotten dirt road left behind. Up until 1965, the road led to the Chowderwick house, once home to a prosperous family. It had likely fallen in now and was probably a pile of boards and tin cups somewhere back in the dense trees. It was likely that no one would remember that a house once proudly stood back there in a generation. Such places litter the South.
From the confines of my mind, I saw an image of Lilly Chowderwick when she was 6. In 1964, the Esper community went into shock when they heard Lilly had been abducted and likely murdered. Sheriff Brimley found blood along the floorboards near the wood stove in the front room and along the porch that comprised the entire length of the front of the house. Dogs lost the scent at the edge of the porch. To him, such things indicated that whoever did the crime had planned on not being caught.
Sheriff Brimley conducted as thorough an investigation as was possible in the South in those days. He concluded that Lilly was likely dead and that someone would slip up and say something incriminating one day. Or, more likely, someone would stumble upon a hidden set of bones somewhere within the rural boundaries of Maylean County.
Lilly’s dad Jeffrey inherited a good fortune. It included a store along Main Street as well as some mining interests across two counties. He didn’t inherit the savvy or patience that Lilly’s grandfather used to build a small fortune. By the early 1960s, the Chowderwicks had retreated to the acreage along the road on which I stood. Jeffrey was rumored to beat his once beautiful wife, Lilian. Lilian often disappeared from public view for days on end. Esper, like all small towns, whispered and gossiped each time. After Lilly’s murder, Lilian fell into a trance and seldom spoke. It seemed like she was waiting for her turn.
Sheriff Brimley brought in Jeffrey for questioning. Jeffrey insisted he had nothing to do with Lilly’s disappearance. Although the Sheriff believed his story, he arranged a trunk interrogation a week later. Two of his deputies grabbed Jeffrey as he walked on the edge of the town drunk. They deposited him in the trunk of one of their cars and drove him a few miles to a barn. After convincing Jeffrey he would likely die in that barn that night, they decided he hadn’t abducted or killed his daughter. He was capable of it, though. He confessed to beating his wife repeatedly.
In 1965, Jeffrey died when he drank too much and walked out onto the main road on a cold Wednesday night. A truck loaded with lumber crushed him as he stumbled out onto the road. The driver said he never saw Jeffrey. The accident happened where the swamp and creek encroached on the farmland adjacent to it. The trees often leaned and overhung the road.
Within months, Lilian left without saying goodbye. Everyone assumed she moved out west where distant cousins once lived. No one knew for sure.
I had promised to tell no one the secrets of Esper or Lilian and Lilly Chowderwick. Fifty-five years later, I knew that DNA would out their family secret. I knew what no one else did: that little girl had not been abducted or killed. Lilian murdered her husband. She endured countless beatings after the burial of the empty coffin that should have held her daughter. When the time was right, she killed Jeffrey and put his body on the road. I helped.
Despite my promise, I can finally say that I know all this because I’m the one who drove little Lily out of town in May of 1964. If she had stayed, her father would have continued to abuse her or worse.
My confession must include that I am an accessory to several crimes.
I’m not sorry, and I don’t apologize.
In a few minutes, Lillian would drive down this road and meet me in the place she swore she’d never see again. And with her would be Lilly, now 61 years old, a grandmother in her own right, with a full life that remained a mystery to me. At that age, we decided that she should know that we killed her father.
Though the air was filled with dust, the tears on my face came from a place of nostalgia.
There are hidden roads everywhere if you know where to look.