The hospital monitor beeped along as the ventilator breathed for Rosetta. Scottie had taken his sheriff’s hat off as soon as he entered the room and now clutched it between his icy cold fingers, along with the bag of muffins he’d brought as an offering. He could not believe he was looking at his big sister. Rosetta had always been the tough one, looking out for the younger siblings. She got into just as many fistfights in school as any of the boys did. She’d take the school runts under her protection, whether they was kin or not. People learned it was easier to give Rosetta a wide berth as one might a wild hog nuzzling in the forest dirt.
“Christ, Rosie, what’d he do to you?” Scottie reached out toward Rosetta’s still face, both eyes swollen shut, bloody gashes on her forehead and cheeks, dark bruises spilling down her neck. Both her arms and legs were suspended, held together by metal pins and plaster. Her left ring finger, poking out from the cast, was missing a fingernail. Her right hand was missing two. Rosetta had not gone quietly into her beating. Not that Scottie expected anything less from her.
The irony was that most of the time, Rosetta could outmatch her no-good husband, Eddie Sr. She dominated the diminutive man, in both size and spirit. But when the whisky grabbed ahold of him hard and refused to let go, he’d come home lit up like a firework and go at Rosetta. She’d do her best to box him back to their bedroom where she’d shut him inside until he sobered up. Eddie Sr. would get in a couple of licks, but nothing Rosetta couldn’t handle.
Maybe that was Scottie’s mistake, believing his big sister could handle anything, even an abusive, piece of shit husband. He had offered a handful of times to run Eddie Sr. in on domestic battery, but Rosetta always turned him down. Maybe a few trips to the county jail would’ve straightened Eddie Sr. out. And instead, that loser had done this, felled his sycamore sister like she was nothing, like she was made of brittle, old newspaper.
Rosetta’s eyelids fluttered, struggling to open. “You didn’t have to come again,” she croaked as Scottie opened the bag containing the blueberry muffins.
“Thought you might be sick of hospital food,” he shrugged, laying the muffin on Rosetta’s bed tray and removing the wrapper. It would be a long while before she could feed herself after what Eddie Sr. had done to her. Scottie tried to just feel grateful that she had woken up at all, but he couldn’t control the tightening that ran through his body every time he saw his big sister wince in pain just from shifting her weight in the hospital bed.
“Didn’t bring Eddie Jr.?” Rosetta asked in between bites that Scottie had to feed her. Scottie and his wife were watching Junior for Rosetta until she got back on her feet. The kid was all fire and spit, but who could blame him after what he’d grown up with. Eddie Sr. was back at his house, probably working his way through case after case of beer, not caring that his wife and son were missing even though it was his own damn fault.
“Not until you’re looking a little better, Rose. We don’t want to scare the poor tyke.” As soon as Scottie said that, he wondered if Eddie Jr. would be scared of anything anymore after all he’d seen. Hopefully, he was too young to really understand what was happening.
“You seen Eddie Sr.?” Rosetta asked, staring down at the crumbs of muffin left on her tray.
“Not yet,” Scottie said gruffly, not wanting to admit that he drove by the trailer every day, peering in the picture window to watch Eddie Sr. reclining in front of the TV. It was all he could do to not sprinkle gasoline all around the trailer, light a match, and walk away.
“You going to arrest him?” asked Rosetta. Her voice was so flat as if she were talking about the weather or reciting a recipe from memory.
“Was waiting on you, Rose. Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it.” In a bigger place than Cutler County, Eddie Sr. would’ve been locked up immediately because that was protocol and that was what you did when somebody violently attacked another person.
But Cutler was different. Everybody was somebody else’s aunt or third cousin once removed. The bloodlines all ran together like one thick, pulsing artery and that made for quite a mess when things like this happened. In the old days, the men in Rosetta’s family would round up a posse and steal Eddie Sr. away in the middle of the night, taking him to an out-of-the-way barn or lonely mountaintop to show him just how close to death they could bring him. But times had changed. A man was on his own.
“What do you want, Rosetta?” Scottie asked again, almost whining. A real man wouldn’t have had to ask; he just would’ve acted. But Scottie was forever falling short of the marker of manhood. Even after becoming sheriff and strapping on a gun every morning, he still felt a little bit like a boy playing dress-up in his old Halloween costume.
“Boy, you still need me to run your life for you?” Rosetta rolled her bloodshot eyes. “Do what you think is right. I don’t have the energy to tell you what that is.” She sighed and settled down into her pillow.
“You wantin’ to sleep?” Scottie asked, leaping up to adjust her bed. Rosetta just groaned and nodded.
Scottie headed toward the door, tossing the empty muffin bag in the trash can. As he looked up at the florescent overhead light flicking in the hospital hallway and touched his gun in its holster, he softly chanted, “Be a man. Be a man,” without really knowing what that meant.