Hannah's Plea

“Population 932” boasted the rusty tin sign welcoming the infrequent visitor to Waushooka, Georgia. Not everyone saw the village marker. Although pointed in the right direction, it was posted on the wrong side of the dirt road. And even if observant drivers spotted it, they were focused on a fervent prayer for safe deliverance over a dilapidated old wooden bridge built in the Depression Era.

The Indian name Waushooka meant “dead place” or “burial land” aptly describing the settlement. Its main street, once macadam, deteriorated over time and was now as sandy as the other streets in town. The small fishing village covered most of Killman Island, which only ran about two miles from tip to toe. A larger barrier island protected Killman from the mighty Atlantic while meandering channels cut through the tall wetland grasses on the leeward side.

Waushooka didn’t host the splendor of beautiful antebellum homes or Civil War heroes atop bronze mounts like Savannah to the north. Instead, weathered clapboard homes lined the hard-packed streets. Moss-covered trees provided shade from the hot southern sun. Old but seaworthy fishing boats berthed at the wharf. When not out working, the paint-peeling ladies of the sea rested in their slips like babies in cradles.

Since Waushooka had no middle or high school, the students were bused to Beaufort on the mainland. The fearful driver wouldn’t cross the creaky old bridge so the kids met their transport on the other side. Younger children stayed on the island attending Waushooka’s three-room elementary school. Most ran barefoot dodging sandspurs.

The one exception was Jack “Ked” Calhoun. The moniker “Ked” derived from his pre-teen days when his feet were adorned with the village’s only pair of Keds sneakers. His original nickname “Keds” changed to the singular form one night during the rainy season. After jumping in puddles all day, Keds placed his prized sneakers on the porch to dry. During the early morning hours, his pet bloodhound, Beau, crawled from beneath the porch, snatched one sneaker and buried it in a place never to be found. Thus Keds became Ked.

While at Beaufort High, Bobby Joe Boudry and Ked Calhoun, both raised on the island and best friends since birth, became teen heroes as the premier running back tandem in Georgia high school football. Both were highly recruited, but before they made their choice of colleges, the Viet Nam conflict broke out and they joined the Marines.

Prior to basic training, with Ked as best man, Bobby Joe married his high school sweetheart, Kathy Cummings. Kathy and their newborn daughter moved in with Bobby Joe’s mother on the island when the two young Marines shipped out to Southeast Asia. Only one returned. Bobby Joe’s dying words were for Ked to take care of his wife and little girl.

When Ked returned to Waushooka as a decorated hero four years later, the villagers voted him their new chief of police. Besides performing his law enforcement duties, bachelor Ked looked after Bobby Joe’s wife and young child. Six years later more tragedy struck when Kathy died from cancer. The little girl, Hannah, moved in with her grandmother on the mainland. Ked, devastated at losing his friend Kathy, felt a deeper pain when Hannah left. She was like his daughter. He raised her with the tender love he knew Bobby Joe would have provided – maybe even more. Ked didn’t have a wife to focus on so all his attention and affection were directed at Hannah. He loved her fiercely and when she left the island, Ked’s heart shattered.

Through the years he continued his support for her in every way. Ked sent Grandma Boudry money every month, but more importantly spent precious time with Hannah. She grew up knowing Ked’s love and returned the same. As far as she was concerned, Ked was her daddy – the man who loved and protected her. Lucille, Ked’s doting assistant who answered the phone and kept the chief in hot coffee, marveled at the almost spiritual bond between her boss and his young charge.

Late one night Ked sat in his office alone with feet comfortably positioned on his ancient roll-top desk reading the bi-weekly Waushooka News Sentinel. As Ked turned to the comics, the front door burst open and a blond, freckle-faced youngster flew into the office pleading for help. It wasn’t the sound of a teenage girl’s high shrill scream or an ear-piercing screech; no, it sounded more like a loud, woeful moan emanating from a desperate and desolate soul. When Ked turned to check out the commotion, he heard a loud gunshot as a fatal bullet tore into her back propelling the girl airborne. Arms and legs splayed, she hit the floor with a thud. The image of a diver trying for a belly whopper flashed before Ked. Then Ked recognized the body was Hannah’s.

The shock of what he saw made him operate as encased in a gigantic bottle of molasses. Rising warily from his hard-backed swivel chair, a second shot ripped through the warm night’s silence tearing into his shoulder. It felt like a punch from a prizefighter. The jolt knocked him backwards over the chair and his head slammed against the cinder block wall. The last thing Ked remembered was a glimpse of white.

Two days later the memory of Hannah’s anguished plea caused Ked to bolt upright in his hospital bed. Doc Witherspoon, the island’s elderly physician, stood by his bedside with a look of grave concern. He gently assisted Ked back to the pillows. The doctor explained what took place and said the whole affair was probably a random event.

Ked remained still but told Doc he didn’t agree. He felt – no knew – he had witnessed a premeditated act of evil that took his little girl’s life. Questions shot through his mind, not only about what exactly transpired, but why. The biggest question of all was “Could I have done anything to save Hannah’s life?” Tomorrow, with or without Doc’s permission, he would start finding the answers.

That night Hannah’s plea for help tormented Ked’s sleep and he woke frequently to see her image fly through the air. But the image wasn’t as bad as the sorrowful prayer for help. Ked likened the sound to a dead person reaching out from the slide to hell pleading for someone to pull him back before consumed by fire. Hannah’s plea tortured his soul. Each night it intensified and he wanted to soothe her spirit. Would killing her murderer do it? If necessary, he would die trying.

The next morning found the chief of police bandaged, arm in sling, sitting at his desk and sipping Lucille’s coffee. She explained about her visit to Hannah’s grandmother’s to offer the department’s condolences. Ked would see Grandma Boudry later. He knew her grief must be deep; after all, she acted as Hannah’s mother for eleven years. Hannah was all she had.

Ked began his investigation. Because the shootings happened late at night, most of the population slept, but he knew those who didn’t and one night owl lived directly across the street from his office. The second and top floor of the ramshackle Killman Island Hotel housed Chris Douglas’ apartment. Ked heard cigarette-hacking even before knocking. Disheveled and blurry eyed, Chris opened the door to see Ked leaning against the opposite wall.

“Well, well, if it ain’t our glorified island constable.”

Since Ked beat up Chris during a playground brawl in grade school, the two carried on a guarded relationship. Ked looked around noticing empty liquor bottles, full ashtrays, dirty dishes and an unmade bed. Then he eyeballed Chris, “Getting’ a little short for your weight, aren’t you?”

Chris started to retort but an impatient Ked cut him off.

“Look, you know why I’m here. I need some answers. I know you were still up two nights ago boozing just like every night. So tell me…were you still sober enough to see anything? At least tell me what you think you saw… if anything.”

“Calhoun, I’ll tell you this. I don’t THINK I saw anything but I KNOW I saw the shooter.”

An incredulous Ked barked, “What! Why didn’t you tell me before?”

Chris answered smugly, “I knew you’d eventually come to me.”

Ked thwarted his urge to once again maul Chris just like he did back in the sixth grade.

“Okay, what did you see?”

“It was a Klanner.”

“Oh, come on, Chris, the Ku Klux Klan hasn’t been active in these parts for thirty years.”

“I know what I saw. And listen Calhoun, I had a few nips, but I was sober.”

Ked asked a few more questions before leaving the foul-smelling apartment. He drove his pickup to the Boudry’s.

Grandma Boudry wrapped her big arms around his neck and hugged him close to her. They both cried. Ked broke away to sit at the old claw-foot kitchen table like so many times before. Grandma, Hannah, and Ked spent countless hours in these chairs sharing their lives. Hannah’s dreams were discussed and plans made for them to come true. Now the two sat with bowed heads not knowing what to say – just silently missing their Hannah, their reason for living.

Finally Grandma served coffee and sat back down. Ked cautiously related what Chris Douglas observed. It didn’t take long before he learned the answer to his puzzle. Grandma confessed keeping some information from him. Hannah was dating a black boy.

Why didn’t his little girl tell him? Ked raised Hannah to fight prejudice and other societal ills. He asked why Hannah didn’t tell him. Grandma admitted it was her idea. She was afraid Hannah would feel the stings of bigotry. She convinced her little girl to “hush ’bout the subject for now; even to your daddy.” Tears formed as she moaned, “Oh, God, Ked, I killed our little girl.”

Embracing the forlorn woman, “No, you didn’t, Grandma, some sick, redneck son of a bitch did and I promise you, he’ll get what’s coming to him.”

Ked spent his days investigating but dreaded the nights when Hannah’s calls for help awakened him. In the pre-dawn hours, the desolate pleas became louder. Her requests – not just for help – but help from Ked haunted him. “Please, Daddy, H E L P me,” she cried.

Seeking a peaceful refuge, in the darkness he walked out to the dock on the point past his house. At first this offered a respite from Hannah’s doleful pleas, but after a short time he began hearing her sad request in the lapping waters too. Ked wondered about his sanity.

Then one night Hannah didn’t come. For the first time since spending so many weeks of agonizing awakenings, he slept through the night and arrived late for work.

Lucille stood at the office door anxiously wanting to know if anything was wrong. He shrugged “no” and asked for his morning update. She excitedly explained they received a wire from the state police stating a Klansman was killed in Macon County the day before.

“Because you supplied them with such thorough information, they determined he might be linked to Hannah’s murder.”

Ked wondered. “Could this be why I slept last night? Has revenge calmed Hannah’s tortured soul? Is this the resolution she sought?”

Still awake at three a.m., Ked returned to the dock. Heat lightning illuminated the horizon and the air stilled. A lone figure at the pier’s end, silhouetted against the horizon’s glow, Ked listened. Nothing. No wind, no water, no insects, nothing but silence – no Hannah.

Suddenly the long bulrushes swayed like the grass skirts of hula dancers. Ked became engulfed in brilliant light. He looked skyward. The heat lightning, now a permanent dazzling white, hovered overhead. Then Hannah’s daddy felt a soft warm breeze and heard a gentle whisper, “Sleep well, my son, Hannah’s now with me.”