PROOF • by Christian A. Winn

They drove Mangrum’s body into town on a flatbed Ford. We’d heard it was coming, that they were delivering proof.

You were at my door, saying they were down at the mall, the body laying suited in a glass encasement. I hadn’t seen you in the five days since we’d heard, though I’d been calling, worried. You’d been so low and frightened. This man had taken Heather, your sister, my friend.

“He’s here,” you said, running pale fingers through your bobbed red hair, the August sky tall behind you. “Put some clothes on. I have to see.”

You wore the blue-flowered sundress I bought you for Easter, held your thin arms behind your back. You smelled like soap and sugar.

“What’s wrong with my slippers and robe?” I smiled and reached for your waist, but you stepped back and shook your head no. I wanted to comfort you, that was all, be easy and kind as we once were.

“They’re bringing him to each city. One by one.” You chewed your bottom lip, staring. A crow landed on my front lawn behind you, cocked its neck mechanically, staring.

You touched my forearm, your palm warm and trembling. “Thirty three cities, forty-four taken, including Heather and that girl Claire from South Valley.”

“He was a monster, a flawed engine.”

Mangrum had taken so many — young and old men, women and girls. Since late winter the previous year, he’d been in our cities taking what we could give him, what he wanted us to give him.

I would read the paper to you in the weeks after Heather disappeared, following his path south, then east, then back north again. It’s what you asked from me — to sit on the river bank mornings and tell you the news, and for weeks then there had been news. Those mornings you held my bare ankle and looked across the slow summer river and sometimes cried.

Now he was here, and on my cracked front walk you looked me in the eye to say you were ready, it was time, and I went inside and quietly changed clothes in the warm back corner of my room.

We walked the blocks west and found the crowd gathered around a black truck with a wide silver badge stenciled onto the hood. The glass coffin shimmered, two men with shotguns flanking each end, a dress-uniformed officer addressing so many people we knew — Carlton and Peter who’d been tracking Mangrum themselves, your Aunt Janet and your mother who’d lost such a one as Heather, just seventeen, the entire collection of men and women who’d been carrying fear around our city.

We walked the lot, asphalt softening beneath our feet, the air heavy with August, and stood beside a tall woman and her teenage daughter.

The mother touched my shoulder. “I wouldn’t believe, if it weren’t for this.” She pointed over the crowd as the officer stepped to the microphone.

“Did you ever know Heather?” you asked. “Or, any of them?”

“Claire, she was our babysitter,” she said, cupping her mouth.

“I was eight that year,” the daughter said, hugging her mother.

“Heather was my sister,” you said, and began working forward through the crowd.

The officer began, “Now you all might’ve heard,” making a pistol with his hand, “that we took Mangrum out last month, up in Blue Springs, that we found the disappeared, stacked in rows, many rows.”

He swept his pistol-hand toward Mangrum, who was angled stiffly in our direction — black hair combed slick, pink-painted lips just open, showing slim white teeth, so nearly a common man.

They all applauded.

He continued, “But then, rumors began.”

People murmured their versions of hearsay, that Mangrum had kept on, was still alive out there, had been seen in the places we lived.

“But, we HAD him, we sure as hell HAD Mangrum.” He reached toward the quieting crowd. “And now you have him, too.”

Stairs were moved into place on each side of the flatbed, and a line formed. We were allowed a close look at the thing that had taken so much, and now had been taken himself.

As we moved forward the officer laid out the story of Mangrum’s death — the heroics, the gunplay, his final plea of, “Come with me.”

Small holes were cut in the head-end of the coffin, and people leaned in, spoke to him, their fists clenched.

Up on the flatbed you knelt and closed your eyes, whispering something I could not hear. I hoped you were simply chanting Heather’s name, filling that coffin with her. Long moments later you stood, flattened your dress and flipped Mangrum off.

I stepped up after, ran a finger along the glass-edge waiting for his eyes to snap open, for a smile to curl. I wondered what he loved as a boy, his favorite song, stories he wished to be told. I wondered if he had ever been someone like me, or you, and what had gone wrong.

We descended the stairs, walked into the mall where I bought you slices of pizza and an orange Fanta. The air was frigid and antiseptic. Around us people bought jeans and button-up shirts and jewelry, which you told me seemed impossible.

We weren’t young anymore, this much seemed clear even then, and I never truly saw you smile again, which I am so sorry for. By winter we’d leave for good, drift into years and separate lives.

Goddamn the things taken.

But that night after you spoke to Mangrum you lay tight beside me letting me hold your waist and hip, and at dawn we walked to the freeway overpass hand-in-hand to watch the flatbed steer into the near lane, blue tarps billowing over Mangrum, diesel rev rising as they drove him west into the still-dim horizon.

Christian A. Winn‘s fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Pinch, Santa Monica Review, cold-drill, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Gulf Coast, Chattahoochee Review, Greensboro Review, and Bat City Review. He lives in Boise, Idaho where he teaches fiction writing at Boise State University.

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