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              A Mystery by  Judith Anne Barton


Withered stalks of dried corn bristled against him, their sharp-edged leaves razing his skin, so that beads of his own blood mingled with that of the dead man on his back.  His eyes now accustomed to the dark, he trudged on, through the cloying stalks toward the woods beyond. Like a dumb animal with blinders, he had no thought process, only an objective: get to the woods; dig a grave.
  Yet fragments of a recurring nightmare penetrated his frozen mind like splinters of rusted metal. In the dream, he has murdered someone, quite  unintentionally, and has to cover it up. There are distorted tentacles of dread and disbelief as he realizes that guilt and fear of discovery will plague him for the rest of his life.
   He always wakes from that dream with a start, sweatsoaked, with  shame, heavy and inescapable, crouching on his heaving chest. Until he blinks his fogged brain clear and realizes: I didn’t do it. Oh, the relief! It was like when he was a kid and almost wet the bed. That first grateful intake of breath expanding his ribcage with joy, cleansing him of all sin. His sudden innocence descending like the blessing of a priest’s hand on his head.
   But this was horrifyingly real.  He heard his own breath coming in gasps, and he bent his head down towards the dirt furrow beneath him, trying to expand his lungs as he staggered under the weight and stink of the body sprawled like a crucifix across his back.
   A slight mist hovered over the cloying embrace of narrow winding roads,  glistening river, undulating hills, and fertile fields of bucolic Bucks County. This vast stretch of familiar woods and meadows that he traipsed belonged to his employer, the internationally renowned actress Renata Rose, whose alliterative stage name was designed to fit neatly on theatre marquees. Her property, called Willowbrook, encompassed fifty acres, including a gracious fieldstone manor house, barn, cottage, pool, and tennis court. Less than a two hour drive  from New York, it was a weekend refuge from the pressures of Broadway and Hollywood.  It was also notorious for fabulously decadent house parties, attended by theater artists, intellectuals, and sycophants. 
   Now, in the pitch of night, he reached the border of the cornfield, and turned east onto the dirt path leading to the woods. Drooping brown sunflower faces, their golden petals folding in like fringed yellow bonnets, hung their heads in shame as he trudged past.  A distant owl hooted three times, reminding the man of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. This wasn’t the first commandment he’d broken.
   Not quite four months had elapsed since his adultery. He’d been trying to block out the memory ever since. Now it all came hurtling back, a thumping boomerang inside his head. 
   Renata had summoned him some time after midnight. An emergency, she’d sobbed. He’d hung up the phone, and pulled on his jeans.  Though he’d been drinking, it took him less than three minutes to cross the gravel lane leading from the cottage to the main house.  She was waiting out back, on the terrace, a half-full bottle of J &B in one hand and a monogrammed crystal tumbler in the other. She fell into his arms, her tears smelling like scotch and cigarettes.
   “Stay with me, Hutch, drink with me, I can’t be alone tonight.”
  He’d kept his arms at his sides, stunned by the suddenness of the physical contact; the awkwardness of it.  He was the handyman for Christ’s sake; she was his boss.
   Despite himself, he was aroused. Not just because she was Renata Rose, the star. There’d been an undercurrent of attraction between them from that day four years ago when Renata took possession of  this property, his family’s farm, and hired he and Dory stay on.
   The night of the adultery, Dory was away in Scranton, visiting her sister and the new baby. When she’d called him to say she’d arrived safely, he could hear the catch in her voice, trying so hard not to reveal what it cost to see her sister welcoming a third child, while she and Hutch had none. He hung up feeling shamed that he hadn’t made Dory pregnant after eight years of marriage. The doctor said it was her insides that were messed up, but Hutch wondered, feeling less than the man he wanted to be.  For Dory, for himself.
   He’d made his way through a six-pack by the time Renata called.
   “Hutch, I need you!”  Her silver voice was clotted, husky.
   He rushed from the cottage to the main house, stumbling a little, his chest expanding with the matching thud of footfalls and heartbeat.
   Through the screen door he called to her.
    No answer.
    He walked through the house to the terrace.
    “Hutch.”  There was relief in her voice. She held out the bottle to him.  “A lady should never drink alone,” she said.  Tears mingled with mascara sagged down her cheeks like collapsoing ladders. 
   A white silk robe, carelessly knotted, revealed a curve of breast, a swatch of something black and shiny underneath the sash.
  She stretched her hand out to him then, saying, “Be my friend.” It wasn’t so much what she said, it was how she said it.
  She poured him a drink and he took it. Then she leaned into him, crying.  Her lover had called it off again. How many times had he promised to tell his wife, to get the divorce! How many times could a heart be broken? Oh, Hutch, hold me, hold me, I need a man tonight.
    He came hard, almost blacking out.
   In the teary aftermath, she’d told him he was the only man she could really count on. She’d made him promise that he’d never let her down. Of course not, he’d assured her, wanting to be out of there, away from her and what they’d done.  She’d sighed and passed out, her mouth slack, her breath stinking of cigarettes and booze. And sex.
  Hutch slipped out of her as carefully as if he were easing away from a swaying cobra. This event could never be repeated, never acknowledged. He vowed never to meet her eyes again. He felt less manly now, more fragile than before.
  As he carried her into the house, he thought about Dory. She would be home tomorrow afternoon. Their lives as housekeeper and handyman at Willowbrook would continue. 
   Back in the cottage, he showered until the hot water ran out, then rubbed himself dry and put on clean pajamas, carefully focusing on fastening the buttons one by one, as if freshly laundered fabric, painstakingly done up, could bleach out sin.
   And now, a few months later, here he was, trudging through a sunflower field toward the woods, his body bent beneath the dead weight he’d hoisted onto his back.  Head down, breath heaving, he put one foot in front of the other.  Wan, watery light from a sickle moon cast a finely netted shroud over the thick woods in the distance.
  Hutch felt his shirt sticking to his chest. He breathed through his mouth, trying to avoid the salty iron smell of sweat and fresh blood commingling. He forged ahead, the woods coming closer now. The creeping horror of his task bore down on him like an additional weight on his shoulders.
What am I doing?
  He staggered toward the silhouette of the treeline. Elongated branches criss-crossed each other like prison bars in abstract. A ripple of breeze stirred the late summer leaves like a stage whisper: No going back now.

Past Projects...

Nonfiction (as Judi Barton)  

The Best Letter Book Ever (Available on Amazon)


Opening Night
Prozac in the 50's 
Mother's Milk 
Father, Son, and Holy Script 


Wedding in Tuscany 
A Good Home 



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