The obituaries made the Quickmires out to be good people: hard-working, good-to-honest, God-fearing country folk — all that shit. They spun more fine words once they were gone than the family ever had hurled at them as they preached their fire-and-brimstone stories of imminent doom in the Kwik Save car park most Sabbath mornings.
Nine of them pegged it in the flames that Christmas Day night: old Artie and Missie, their three eldest — Jared, Nehemiah — Nemo for short — and Rachel; a couple of other lasses they'd snared in from out of the dale and had always claimed to be distant cousins; and a pair of blue-eyed, blond-haired bairns of no more than six months old whose names and parentage stayed unknown.
There were those who said they had it coming, stacking up all them gas bottles to keep them warm at the end of the world. Others whispered they signed their death warrants the day Jared Quickmire started stepping out with the lass of the Thackerays, had her bun up her hair and dress right proper and as good as sew up that famous filthy gob of hers for keeps.
They made the verdict accidental death. Those who made it so were town folks, from the same cloth as those who wrote the Quickmires were good people. Again, there was no queue of locals ready to pronounce otherwise: hardly no-one willing to spill their conspiracies for the TV crews who were quick to join the hunt for clues. But it's a fact plain as day that just about everyone round the place kept their own theory as to why the verdict was as bullshit as the obits: some said suicide, others said them Thackeray boys had been itching for something more ever since they'd headed up in a convoy of four-by-fours with enough loaded shotguns to leave nothing to chance, and stole back their lass from under the Quickmires' noses.
You could say at least those who perished in the flames did so in the seeming sure knowledge of where they were headed. The whole lot of them would head down the Kwik Save, stand in a straight line behind Artie ranting out his eternal damnations. He'd rock back on his heels and punch out his words like a flyweight boxer while the rest of them — Missie, Jared, Rachel, Nemo, sometimes the younger ones wore painted-on wholesome smiles and eager head nods that said Judgement Day was a thing to savour.
Sometimes, folk would nudge up close and throw insults. The bravest would go face to face, spit back their own raw theories on evolution. Some tossed eggs. The Quickmires would never address you direct, no matter the provocation. They'd keep preaching out their warnings while the yolks dripped down their fronts. Then soon as the church bells started clanging, they'd pack back in their old wagon and head back up that long, dead-end track of theirs for another week of near-on hibernating.
There were few dared venture up the Quickmires' lane further than the third locked gate with its daubed-on 'Keep Out' sign: a post box was propped by the side, though it was seldom filled. Far as folk could make out, the Quickmires were fairly much self-sufficient. They plucked out veg from the shallow moor soil and grazed a rag-tag bunch of sheep and goats. Sometimes, Missie Quickmire would venture down in town and clean the Kwik Save shelves out of soup tins. She'd nod her thanks but never look those who served her in the eye.
Folk had been working on figuring out the Quickmires long before their deaths, and their deaths did not discourage them. Truth is there's only a handful could provide any answers, and there's not so much as a soul still drawing breath who'd dare confront the Thackeray brothers in the hunt for clues.
Whatever, it can be said without contradiction that Jared fair tamed that girl. Zeta was a Thackeray a mile off, coarse-tongued and glinty-glared, and just as prone to thinking up new ways of expressing her fury as her good-for-nothing older brothers. Her scrap with big Betsy Wardle over some slight or other was a thing of legend: it lasted two whole hours and swung from the car park woods to the playground and up Lunns’ farm, and had them both stripped down to their bras and gouged in blood. It finished when big Betsy Wardle collapsed from exhaustion and rather than accepting the win Zeta Thackeray went and rolled Betsy Wardle right in the chicken coup and infected her up so bad she spent a week on a drip and to this day gets a thumping in her lughole that keeps her up nights.
A week or so in Jared Quickmire’s company and Zeta Thackeray was acting ready to drop to her knees and beg forgiveness. Whether it was her who set her heart on Jared or him intent on doing some converting is not clear. What is known is that Jared always was the finest looking of the Quickmires, with his shock of blond hair and eyes deep and green as moss pools, and there were plenty of lasses who would happily have born themselves again in his company. Those that saw them together spoke of Zeta Thackeray fair drowning in them eyes of his. She took to wearing the same shapeless sack dresses favoured by Missie and Rachel and washed the bleach from her hair and the coarseness from her mouth, moved into that Quickmire farmhouse pretty much lock, stock and barrel.
That was more or less that as far as Zeta was concerned, that is till them brothers of hers heard enough word of the Quickmires’ God-weirding ways they took it upon themselves to rustle her up a little unexpected salvation, Thackeray-style. No sooner had Zeta been hauled out than she was paired up with a squaddie from an army camp on the edge of town. They said he bagged her for half his yearly wage and the promise he'd take her as far from Fryup as possible and keep it that way. Some say she came out bleached of her mind and is more than likely seeing out her days in some sort of padded cell, or else six foot under in the only place the Thackerays could find to hide their shame.
Rachel was Jared's twin: like him, gold-haired and deep-eyed and the type who got plenty a lad in the Kwik Save audience scheming to get under that sack-cloth.There were even boys who took to hanging round the Quickmires' lane bottom, figuring if Jared had took a friend for himself it followed that Rachel might soon be on the look-out for a suitable husband.
Greg Bulmer was the only known lad to ever speak to her: he was heading home from lamping with a ripe hare hung round his shoulders and his couple of lurchers slunk down by his side. He was wading out through thick fog and chanced a little up the Quickmires' lane and all of a sudden out loomed Rachel, dressed for a summer weekend despite the freeze. She said, ‘can I help you?’ and eyed Greg Bulmer in a way that made his mutts coil up round his knees, and Greg to drop his quarry and not stop legging it till he reached right home. He said later, ‘sure as hell I’d seen a ghost that night, that I’d pick up the paper next day and find some Quickmire tragedy, and the way things worked out, I can't help reckoning it was some kind of sign.' Those who doubted Greg Bulmer's story were directed in his back yard, where from that day on his mutts shook and whined up each time a fresh fog fell, and never did catch another hare in the rest of their sad-arsed lives.
Nehemiah — Nemo — did not share the good looks of his twin siblings. His eyes were muddy and his build was sharp and harsh. Word was Nemo was the weak link, hankered more for good life than his God. Nemo had been more seen for a while, racing his old yellow Chevette round the lanes with its windows wound down and Megadeth tracks shaking out of the stereo, and there was plenty of talk he was seeing Tara Marley on the sly. It hadn't escaped notice that Nemo had gone absent from the Kwik Save parade for the couple of Sabbaths before the fire all but wiped them out. Tara Marley said nothing then and has said nothing since. Word was while the Quickmire place was still smoking, she sat through the cop calls struck numb with either shock or secrets.
There was just one Quickmire who survived the flames. The firemen in the first truck to arrive on the scene told how they almost mowed down a skinny young kid stood out front in the mud tracks. She wore a grubby little smock dress and stared out big blank eyes while her siblings' screams lit the sky. Dinah Quickmire was pushing eight years old. She got shunted off to some other long-lost cousins while folk did their best to try to make sense of things.
For round about seven years the Quickmire farm stood black and ruined and there wasn't hardly a soul had the nerve to go snooping. Boys would hang round the lane end past sunset and swear if the wind blew right you could still hear the screams. But over time the interest eased and it seemed the fire had about licked the Quickmires clean out of history.
Then one morning when the sky hung red and the rooks cawed round the bare treetops, Dinah Quickmire came home. She arrived with a bunch of those so-called relation folks and they set about working patching up the old place. They toiled all the daylight hours and kept themselves to themselves. They waved off offers of help from folk who sensed the chance of being centre of attention. Once they'd finished, save the scorch marks on the brickwork, you would never have known of the tragedy that once went on under that roof. Soon enough, Dinah came to taking up her old man's place outside the Kwik Save, jabbing her Armageddons like the best of them. She wore shoulder-length hair black as coal dust, and her eyes were same drowning type as her eldest siblings. There were plenty of boys reckoned those Sabbath they got a glimpse of salvation.
That first summer home, Dinah Quickmire took to swimming at the rockpool most Saturday mornings. It was Ged Blackstock who caught sight of her first, as he headed up the lane in the hope of hooking rainbows. Fact is that day he hauled in a whole lot more. Dinah's swimsuit was low-cut and gloss-white and stuck to her new-grown curves like celebration cake icing. You might have thought Ged would have kept the sight for himself, but he had the kind of gob that could keep nothing in for long. Soon a bunch of boys had gathered. They hid behind the bushes, watched her stroke the water, shake dry in the dawn light. There was something in her ways that kept them silent. Each time ended the same, with Dinah hooking back on her push-bike and heading back up the old track to that cursed old farm of hers.
Soon enough the tall talk started and it was no surprise when Jim Marsden vowed he'd be the first to tame her. Jim Marsden had fucked just about every other his-age girl round the place by the time he was fifteen, and he reckoned his quick wit and a bunch of Old Testament verses he'd lodged in his brain since hanging round Kwik Save would be enough to do the trick.
One morning, while Dinah was stroking through the lake's far reaches, Jim Marsden stripped down to his boxers and waded right on out. He flashed a thumbs-up and gasped as he sunk in the cold. The early sun dappled the lake surface. Jim Marsden swam slow out of ear-shot, kept a safe distance from Dinah who flipped to back-stroke and carried on seemingly unawares. She reached the edge of the lake as usual, shook out and pulled up a towel over her shone-up skin. Jim Marsden shivered out all bug-eyed soon after, made out he'd snared himself a good thing. When Dinah set back off up the Quickmire lane, leaving drip-tracks like a kind of lure, Jim Marsden ducked up after her, hauling Ged with him for proof.
Two weeks later, that same lane was trod down with traffic as the whole place lent a hand to the Marsdens and Blackstocks trying to hunt out their boys. They hacked back the gorse and poked round the lake side while a pair of cop divers did their best to dredge the murk. The cops were quick to fence off the farmhouse on account of those who claimed they knew full well the answer to the boys' fate lay behind those Quickmire doors. The cops drove Dinah and the rest of them out in a blacked-up van while a Thackeray-led mob roared and hollered. They kept them in two days for questions, and good as stripped the place back to its old knock-down self. There were plenty of rumours over what they found. There was talk they'd started hoarding the gas tanks again, and their closest outhouse was back full of food tins to last at least six months. There were bags of cash and piles of guns, and a pack of cyanide pills on standby in case Judgement Day got a little too hot. There were a pair of blue-eyed, blond-haired bairns in the cellar, with snow-white skin as they'd never seen daylight. There was all that shit and more. But what they sure didn't find was any shred of suggestion that Jim Marsden and Ged Blackstock had ever made it that far.
Eight months later the cops shelved the case. There were enough had started to reckon Jim Marsden and Ged Blackstock had cooked the whole thing up as a means for getting away. It was a just about believable story where Jim Marsden was concerned. He'd been boasting over screwing a girl from a tough part of town, the kind of girl whose folks made the Thackerays out like guardian angels. Jim Marsden had been working double shifts at the butcher's, and some claimed he'd spoke of saving his cash for a one-way ticket out of the place before the girl in question started to show. They reckoned he'd come to realise that only supposed death was ever going to be good enough for the family in question to stop from sniffing him out.
Ged Blackstock was a different story. His folks were fifth generation Fryup farmers and the whole bunch of them had rarely ever been known to venture beyond Fryup limits. Ged had shown no inclination to be different, and his hedge-hair and scrawny stick-out frame had pretty much made up his mind to show no inclination where girls were concerned. Some said his trout poaching trips were just a front, that he'd grown sick of the whole farming business and couldn't face telling his old man he wasn't up with the first-born tradition, but somehow it didn't ring true.
The Marsdens and Blackstocks are just about the only ones who still hold out hope of something. Each anniversary, they paste posters and launch TV appeals. They've paid for the lake to be dredged up twice more. There's been folk headed out of the forest with tales of wild-haired tramps, and more than twice the Kwik Save store room's been burgled of long-life food tins. They've even had a medium head in the Quickmire house, which is back to derelict. They say he headed out with nothing but a snow-white swimsuit to show. It's probably bullshit, but that's what they say.
Mark Staniforth is a writer and journalist from North Yorkshire, England. His e-book of short stories, Fryupdale, is available via Smashwords. He blogs random book reviews at Eleutherophobia. He likes boxing, curry and everything written by Donald Ray Pollock.