This story originally appeared in our February 2013 issue.
It was a bright weekday in mid-September and the Cormier boys—thirty-one years old, identical twins, best friends, incorrigible malcontents—were coming home. Their sixty-two-year-old father looked out his living room window as a U-Haul rumbled into the gravel drive. Bill Cormier did a double take. A U-Haul?
Bill had never known what to expect from his boys, William and Chris. Before they’d turned five, the brothers had burned down Bill’s house in New Orleans after taking turns playing with a cigarette lighter. William, older by five minutes, sounded the alarm: “One of the beds is on fire. And I didn’t do it!”
But if they had not been model sons, neither was Bill an exemplary father. After the fire, he had opened an escort service, the continuation of a career path that often put Bill on the shady side of the law. Even after he divorced his wife and won sole custody of the twins, the family was always on the move, Bill chasing a new job—hotel manager, computer technician, salesman. By the time William and Chris were sixteen, they’d gone to eighteen different schools and lived in eight states.
Raised in an atmosphere of impermanence, the two had come to rely on the one constant: each other. William was the dominant one, protecting Chris. As the boys grew into adulthood, so did their resentment against their father, resulting in the occasional fistfight.
But early in 2012, after more than a year on their own, the twins had come home—partly out of obligation to Bill, his disabled sister, and her two kids, and partly because of their own financial woes. In August the reunited family rented this simple one-story brick house in Winder, Georgia. Between Bill’s disability check and the twins’ poker winnings, the family seemed to get by—as long as tempers idled. It helped that William and Chris frequently left on gambling trips. But when they were all present, the six ate dinner in the dingy, drafty kitchen, and played Uno at the table. Bill was so happy to have the family reunited that he hung some old portraits on the living room wall—mop-topped toddlers wearing matching red soccer shirts and striped socks; teens in Navy Junior ROTC uniforms, smiling through braces. The boys teased their father for being sentimental, but that is how he always saw them—young, happy, together.
On that September day, Bill passed the portraits on his way to the driveway to greet his sons, who were just returning from a poker trip to Florida, William driving the truck, Chris following in the Chrysler they had driven down. Why the U-Haul? Bill wondered. He peered in the back of the truck and saw boxes of comics, an orange chair, some other furniture. But what struck him was the smell—a horrific odor coming from the back. It smelled like death.
Four hundred miles south, in the Florida Panhandle city of Pensacola, Patricia Burke was worried. She hadn’t been able to reach her friend Sean Dugas for weeks. This wasn’t like Sean, whom she’d known since he was three years old. Now thirty, bearded and dreadlocked, he’d earned a reputation as a free spirit who befriended everyone, from the retirees he met at the cigar shop to the teenagers he tutored through late-night Magic: The Gathering games at area comic shops. A reporter by profession, he was recognizable from his videos on Gulf Coast lifestyle—how to eat crawfish and make MoonPies—for the website of the Pensacola News Journal.
On August 27, Patricia and Sean had agreed to meet at the ranch house Sean owned on the city’s northeast side. But before Patricia could get to Sean’s front step, she saw a large man, his head shaved, leaving the house, closing the door behind him.
“Sean’s not here,” the man told her. Then he drove off.
Patricia left a note on the front door: Call me.
A week passed with no word. On September 7, Patricia returned to the house. She peered inside the front window. The place was empty. Gone from the walls were the charcoal etchings of the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame. Gone was Sean’s vast collection of Magic cards. Gone were his bottles of craft beer. The only thing left was his bulky old-model big-screen TV. Sean could be flighty, even scatterbrained. And since he hung in so many circles, it was not uncommon for one group to lose track of him for a while. But Patricia knew one thing for sure: Sean would never move without telling anyone.
She inquired with the neighbors. They told her that days earlier, a U-Haul had been parked out front. They saw at least one man loading it. The stranger told a neighbor that Sean had been beaten up and was going to live with him. Worried, Patricia called Sean’s father, who reported Sean missing on September 13.
After that, all she could do was wait.
Back in Winder, the twins had a simple explanation for their father’s inquiries: The U-Haul’s contents belonged to their friend from Pensacola, who got out en route. And the smell? That was their friend’s dog, who’d been left in the brothers’ care, but who had died on the way. Then the two closed the rolling door, removing nothing, and went inside. The story seemed odd to Bill. Why would they have dropped him off without his furniture? But his sons didn’t seem upset. He was glad they were home.
A few days later, the boys said they were going to bury the dog in the backyard. The smell was so bad, Bill worried the neighbors would complain. He refused to go out back. Gradually the odor disappeared.