Monday, August 9, 2021

Amends, fiction by C.W. Blackwell

He wheeled onto the dirt road in a mid-nineties F-250 with a bad muffler and a rash of rust eating up the rear quarter panel. It was still early, the time of day when workers sweated in the fields or under rough-running cars, busting knuckles and building dirt in their nails—or maybe catering to the lunch crowd in one of the seaside grease traps down on Beach Street. Even though Gene Akers had taken the day off, he still planned on getting his hands dirty. 

He found Avery sitting on the front bumper of her Jeep, watching the creek surge and sputter around a bend. She didn’t look much different than last time he’d seen her, at least not physically. Same wild brown hair pulled back. Same way she’d fold her arms and stare off in thought. But she had a certain peace about her now that only comes after running on the streets and finally getting clean.

He hoped she’d notice that about him too.

“Looks like the worst is over,” she said. He assumed she was talking about the storm, a tropical nightmare that drowned the county for three days straight. The governor even made a disaster declaration on account of a busted dam the next county over. It was the reason she’d called him so concerned, after all. Not about the storm itself, but what it might uncover. She looked him over, gave a quick smile. “You look good, Gene.”

“So do you, Ace.”

A hug. The kind with a couple of pats like old friends.

Still, it wasn’t enough to cut the tension.

***

It took some effort to hike the creekside trail, even with boots and shovels to keep steady. Despite the clear blue sky, the forest felt swollen with water. It dripped from the redwood boughs in quarter-sized glops, settled on the trail in ponds that stretched from edge to edge. At one point, Gene had to lay out the blue poly tarp so they wouldn’t sink to their knees in the soft mud. 

“There,” said Avery. They’d come to an old growth redwood, scarred and hollowed from some long-ago wildfire. Maybe eight feet in diameter. “That’s it, isn’t it?”

Gene leaned on his shovel. “Could be.” The tree looked right, but the memory had to rinse itself of all the dope grease from back then, like looking up from one of the puddles they’d walked through. “I think we went inside of it, didn’t we? Or was that just you?”

Avery didn’t answer. She’d already started up the embankment opposite the hollow redwood, grasping at tanoaks as she went. The sucking sounds of her boots in the wet forest silt made Gene think they’d never be able to reach the site, but he followed her anyway. It wasn’t long before Avery called out—a shriek that left no doubt what she’d found. She stood stock-still with her mouth covered.

Gene saw it too.

“It’s a good thing we came,” he said after a long silence.

“I don’t know if I’d call any of this good.”

None of the flesh remained, at least none that Gene could see. The skeletal figure wore a skin of dirt and redwood needles. Mud-packed orbitals. Crescent ribs curling from the earth. Some of the clothes remained, but in tatters.

He tugged at the corner of a filthy wool blanket buried in the mud.

“How much of our DNA is on this blanket, you think?”

“You tell me, Gene. It’s your blanket.”

He knew he shouldn’t laugh but he couldn’t help it. “I imagine plenty.”

“There you go.” 

“I once went a few weeks without thinking about him,” said Gene. “Some drugstore commercial brought it back again. What’s the longest you’ve gone?”

“A day or two.” Avery tapped the skull with the tip of the shovel, as if searching for an exit wound. “Can you blame me? I’m the one who fucking did this.”

They hammocked the bones between them in the blue tarp and dug another grave beneath the redwoods, this time deeper and further up the hill. When they dumped the last shovel load, Gene stood over the hole as if he were about to say something but nothing came. After a moment, Avery turned to him with wet eyes and said quietly, almost inaudibly: “Could you give me a minute alone with him?” 

***

Twelve years ago, they spent a rainy Friday night watching Halbert’s Pharmacy from the parking lot of a Foster’s Freeze. Dark storefront windows, no cars out front. Gene had found a little cash in an unlocked car earlier that day and scored a couple Suboxone strips to get them through the night. But one night was all they had, and inside the pharmacy they could have all the nights they wanted. All the days too.

The alarm would sound, they knew that.

Three minutes inside would be too much.

They had to be quick.

They kept the car running and the trunk lid popped. They’d throw the pills in the back and Avery would drive them as far north as they could on a tank of gas. Maybe all the way to Redding, then Spokane. They’d cold-plate the Honda along the way for extra insurance. The pills would go for twenty a pop whenever they needed cash.

That was the plan. 

Avery flipped her phone open and shut it just as quick. “Where’s Mike?”

Mike Sandhoff was Gene’s friend from high school, fresh out of CDC for boosting a minivan from a Kohls parking lot. Gene asked him for help with the break-in and to keep eyes on the place from the outside, give a few honks if he saw any heat—but now he was a no-show, and Gene felt embarrassed for asking him in the first place.

“Forget Mike,” he said. “We won’t need him if we’re fast enough.” 

He used an eighteen-inch pry bar on the back door and had it open in a matter of minutes. It was an old store, the kind every small town had. One that had stayed in the family and kept the Halbert family name. It also meant dry rot in the jamb and an easy break-in. Once the door popped its hinges, something happened that Gene initially took as a stroke of good luck but would soon deem otherwise: the alarm didn’t go off.

No sounds, no blinking red lights on the control panel.

Nothing.

As they slipped behind the counter, Avery wondered aloud: “Is it a silent alarm?”

“I don’t give a shit, Ace,” said Gene. He swept an armful of Diazepam into a Hefty bag, a few bottles clattering onto the linoleum floor.“Silent or not, we get out just as fast.” 

 A few armfuls later they had two bags of dope, all under a minute and a half. Gene thought about taking the pry bar to the cash register but decided against it. The silence toyed with what little judgement he had. Did they just forget to set the alarm? 

The sound of footsteps broke the silence. 

Someone cursing in the dark corners of the pharmacy.

They bolted toward the back door, Hefty bags rattling as they went. Avery made it out, but Gene felt a hand pulling him backward, tearing at his clothes. A man’s voice growling and spitting. Threatening to blow his fucking head off. They struggled in the doorway, Gene and some half-naked old man trading blows, grappling for a silver revolver that seemed to pop around their frames without discharging. They fell into the alley, rolling, punching. The storm had turned into a heavy downpour and neither man could find his footing. When the gun finally slid out from under them, Avery picked it up, planted it on a hairless patch of the old man’s scalp and pulled the trigger. 

***

Todd Halbert’s wife had gotten tired of his drinking and kicked him out for the night. Too cheap to spend money on a motel, he’d been sleeping on a couch in the lobby of the pharmacy. At least, that’s what Gene and Avery gathered from social media as they spent the next few months touring gritty mountain towns in the Pacific Northwest with a trunkful of pills. Gene remembered the cheap booze on Halbert’s breath, the rage in his eyes that he’d seen before in other drunks woken from a deep vodka stupor. 

What remained unspoken between them was a drizzly Friday night in Tacoma. Their stash running low, and after a few close shaves with the State Patrol, Gene woke alone in a Comfort Inn as Avery rocketed down I-5 with what little cash and dope remained. It took a month to make his way back to California, and a few years after that to quell the resentment he felt for waking up double-crossed and dope-hungry at a roadside motel. 

Now they stood in Gene’s tidy cabin, the dark circles from those days mostly gone, the hollowness of their cheeks filled out. That night at the pharmacy felt like a lifetime ago, maybe ten lifetimes. Still, in the bed of his F-250 lay the filthy shovels they’d used to dig Halbert’s second grave. That was happening now, not then. 

The past had caught up to them.

“A hiker would have found him,” Gene said, as if looking for reassurance—as if he could hear Halbert’s bones stirring in that far-off place in the woods. He’d just returned from incinerating the wool blanket in a burn barrel at the edge of his property and he smelled faintly of gasoline. “That hillside just completely spit him out.”

Avery nodded, glancing around the cabin at the tokens of Gene’s new life. “I used to see people hiking with their dogs up there,” she said. “Only a matter of time before one of those dogs turned up with a jawbone in its mouth. It had to be done.”

“We should sleep easy tonight. We’re finally done with it.”

“Maybe you’re done with it. But it’s not over for them.”

He studied her carefully, trying to decipher what she meant. She told him that she followed the family’s social media accounts, that she learned Halbert’s wife still lived alone, never remarried. She went on about Jesse Halbert taking over the store when the old man went missing. It made him uncomfortable the way she seemed so invested in their lives, but he tried not to let it show.

“So you’re Facebook buddies with the Halberts?”

“I don’t know about buddies, but I keep up. I know they go to his empty grave plot every year on his birthday. Margaret never misses an anniversary.”

“Who’s Margaret?”

“His wife. If you followed them, you’d know how much we wrecked their lives.” She offered a small shrug that signaled a change in topic and she gestured at the walls. “You did good, Gene. I like your place. You look good, too.”

He laughed. “You told me that earlier.”

“Well it must be true, then.” She settled into his brown corduroy couch and pulled her knees up to her chest, making herself at home. “You know, I never had a chance to apologize for what happened in Tacoma.”

A sarcastic laugh. “What happened in Tacoma?”

“Stop it, I’m trying to say I’m sorry. I was a wreck back then. You must have been furious.”

“Can’t imagine I was happy about it.”

“I shouldn’t have done that to you.”

“Thanks, Ace. You don’t mind if I still call you that?”

“It’s been a while since I heard it, but I don’t mind.”

He sat on the other end of the couch, gave her a soft kick with his toe. “We were both wrecks back then. I don’t think we made one smart decision between us.”

“If we did, I can’t remember it.” 

“But you know what? You look good too. Even prettier than I remember, if that lands okay.”

“I’ll take it.”

He rose and washed the grave dirt from his fingernails in the kitchen sink and shook his hands dry. “Hungry? I have a couple of filets in the refrigerator. It won’t take long.”

“You were always a great cook.”

***

She found him in the night. 

Gene had laid a bedroll in the living room for himself and set Avery up in the bedroom, and when she slipped under the blankets beside him, he woke, briefly forgetting where he was. After twelve years, she still felt familiar. Maybe her touch was lighter, lips more patient. In the glow of the woodstove they could have been young again, could have been any age, really. For a moment, he let himself forget why she’d come back. For a moment, he forgot about the drugstore and the skeleton in the forest—about Tacoma and the double-cross.

She ran her hands over his chest, kissing his neck.

“Is this okay?” she asked. 

He didn’t respond, just pulled her closer.

***

Around 5:00 am, he woke and added a log to the woodstove. Avery stirred, watching him in the darkness. She thumbed her phone and the light brightened her face. 

“Did you sleep?” she asked.

“Yeah. I dreamt a lot.”

“About what?”

“I dreamt that a crow flew into the cabin.”

“You mean into the window, or it actually got inside?”

“It got in. It made a nest in the cabinet. Is that some kind of omen?”

She ticked away at her phone, green eyes shining back the content on the screen. Then a smile and a quiet snort. “It says dreaming of a crow in your house means you’re exploring the deeper parts of your subconscious so you can move past something difficult. I’d say it fits here, don’t you think?”

“Not sure if I believe in that stuff, but yeah it fits.”

“I think you can learn a lot from dreams, Gene.”

“What do you dream about?”

“I don’t know. I never remember them.”

He put a kettle on and fried some eggs. They drank coffee and chatted about their new lives, about how and when they stopped running. He told her that his old man passed away and left him the cabin and a fishing boat, and now he made okay money chasing salmon around the Monterey Bay. She told him how she managed a feed store up in Chico and how it earned her enough for a used Jeep and a double-wide in the foothills. Just a little place to hide out and put on her vinyl records. She said it like she was happy how things turned out, but her eyes told a different story. 

He didn’t press her. 

“You can stay another night if you want,” he said. They were now standing in the gravel driveway, the sun yet to break through the redwoods. The smell of cold field grass and chimney smoke in the air. “Stay as long as you want.”

She toed at the gravel, arms crossed and head full of thoughts. “I’m going to say hi to a few people in town and head back today.”

Gene heard sadness in her voice. “You okay?”

“Yeah, fine. Just that something feels unfinished to me.”

“With Halbert? What’s left to do?”

“Don’t get mad. It just isn’t sitting right. I thought it would, but it's not.”

“Tell me what you're thinking.”

She shook her head, lips rolled to one side. “Goodbye, Gene.” She gave a quick hug and opened the car door. “Call me sometime.”

He watched her coast down to the main road. She gave a little wave when she straightened the Jeep and then she was gone. But whatever went unspoken remained with him. She’d left a ghost of it haunting the driveway, rattling its chains.

***

Bones have memory.

Avery thought about this whenever she took pills for a headache or a fever. It woke something in her marrow. It made the old junkie nerves flutter. She felt it now as she stood in aisle three of Halbert’s Pharmacy, the aisle marked ᴘᴀɪɴ ʀᴇʟɪᴇғ. She turned a bottle of Tylenol in her hands—that hollow rattle inside like the sound of tires on a gravel road. Her bones knew that sound, too. 

The man behind the pharmacy counter looked thin and athletic. Wiry muscles down his arms and neck like a runner’s physique. Prematurely gray. He didn’t look much different than his online profile, only the confident smile was now more menial as he shuffled from his computer terminal to the back of the store, filling orders and answering phone calls. Jesse Halbert didn’t favor his father’s side and Avery thought that was probably a good thing.

She waited at the counter until she caught his attention, then lifted a bottle in each hand, asked, “Which is better for a headache, Tylenol or Advil?” She shook the bottles like a pair of maracas. “I can never remember the difference.”

He watched her over the rim of his glasses. “Most people take Tylenol for a headache,” he said. “But both will work. There’s bottled water in the coolers if you think it might be dehydration.” He dragged out the last word as if something had crossed his mind.

Avery caught the look. Part of her hoped he’d recognize her. She’d spent an hour on the street, watching the pharmacy—talking herself into it. She didn’t have anything worked out, nothing that she wanted to tell him. Just a nagging urge to be inside those four walls again and to try and make sense of the past.

She decided to beat him to it.

“I know you from somewhere, don’t I?” she said. 

Jesse Halbert smiled, flipped his hands in the air. “Wow, crazy. I was going to say the same thing. You grow up here?”

“No, but I lived here a while back. I’m just visiting an old friend.”

“Hold up.” He held a finger in the air as he scrolled his phone, squinting at the screen. He kept looking up at her and back to the phone. Maybe he was searching for a news article about the robbery. Maybe looking at a composite sketch. A wanted poster. Avery wanted to run for the door and take the nearest freeway onramp with her foot jammed in the pedal. She’d found herself halfway between running away and making amends, and neither direction felt safe.

“Instagram,” he said, smiling again. “We’re friends on here somehow.”

Exhale. “Oh. I thought maybe that was it.”

They went back and forth, guessing at mutual friends and distant acquaintances. The warmth she’d sensed from his online persona was starting to show, and she played innocent well enough. 

After a few minutes he looked at his watch. “There’s a diner across the street, you hungry? I usually close up for the lunch hour.”

“Oh, I don’t know.”

“You don’t know if you’re hungry or don’t know if you want to eat with me? It’s okay either way.”

It took all she had to keep up the charade. 

“Yeah, okay,” she said. “I haven’t eaten all day.”

“Maybe that’s why you have a headache.”

He went to the back door and entered a five-digit code into the alarm control panel and hopped the counter as if he’d done it every day of his life. “Hurry,” he said. He gestured to the front of the store. “We only have two minutes before the alarm goes off.”

She didn’t have to be told to hurry.

Her bones remembered that, too.

***

Gene had just sold ninety pounds of Chinook at the municipal wharf and was waiting at the intersection of Mission and Laurel when he spotted Avery outside the pharmacy. She was standing at the corner with Jesse Halbert, waiting her turn at the crosswalk. The light changed and they strolled across the street, laughing like old friends. He watched them until the car behind him honked, then he hooked right onto Mission and pulled into the Arco station and parked by the air compressors. 

Dammit, Avery. He tracked them in the side mirror of his pickup as they disappeared through the double-doors of the diner. What the hell are you up to?

He thumbed his phone and opened the message app, cursor blinking in the text box. He wrote three versions of what are you doing before erasing it all and clicking the screen to black.

He went to the minimart and took the restroom key and changed out of his fish-stained overalls with clothes from his truck box, washing off as much of the stench as he could with gas station soap and second-gen paper towels. When he came out of the restroom he opened the message app again, stared at it a moment, then slipped it back into his pocket and jogged across the street toward the diner. He circled the building and went through the kitchen where a few line cooks gave him sideways glances, and when he came out near the diner counter he sat in an empty swivel chair and pulled his hat down low. 

Avery and Jesse sat in a booth within earshot, talking about family, childhood. He could see the top of her head just above the wooden partition. When Jesse told her about his father, she began to dab her eyes with a paper napkin. Whether she really gave a shit about Jesse’s story was anyone’s guess. Gene figured it was the burden of guilt more than anything. Avery went on about her own father, and how his early death derailed her childhood—and from what Gene could remember, that part wasn’t a lie. Still, it made Gene queasy. Whatever was happening between the two of them sounded like some kind of goddamn love connection. 

He hammered a text: turn around

He heard her phone chime. She unzipped her purse and spun around so her eyes just cleared the partition. She played it cool, told Jesse she had to make a phone call and then she came around the corner and grabbed Gene by the elbow.

“Come with me,” she growled. She went down the hall, pushed open the women’s restroom. She shook her head and pointed to the men’s. “In there.”

Gene swept the men’s room and Avery bolted the door behind them.

“Why are you following me?” she said, eyes hot.

“Don’t turn this around on me. I saw you at the pharmacy on my way home.”

“So what? Now you're my minder?”

“Just cool it, Avery. Nothing good can come of this.”

“You don’t decide what’s good for me.”

“This affects me, too. I actually like my life.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

He rested his hands on her shoulders. “Ace, please. Whatever you’re up to, it’s too hot for me. I don’t want anything to do with it. You hear what I’m saying?”

She noticed herself in the bathroom mirror and she straightened, pulled her hair back, and fixed her hair tie. She lifted her right foot and grimaced. “Jesus. Do you men just piss all over the floor?”

“Some do. I don’t know why.”

“And you smell like fish guts, Gene.”

“I know.”

She blew a long, anxious breath at the ceiling. “I’m just so tired of carrying this around with me. It gets heavier every day.”

“I get it. So call me, talk to me. Not him.”

Another sigh, this time with tears. “You don’t know what it’s like.”

“My father just died, too.”

“That’s not what I meant. You didn’t kill anyone.”

The door rattled. A man’s voice grumbled on the other side.

“Tell Junior there’s an emergency,” said Gene, thumbing a fresh tear off her cheekbone. “Then come back to my place and we’ll talk about it. This was a mistake. You understand? I don’t blame you. But it was a mistake.”

She gave a small nod. “Maybe you’re right. I just wanted to take it all back.”

“I get it. There’s a lot I’d like to take back, too.”

Another rattle. A loud knock.

She checked her shoes again. “Goddamn. Is it getting deeper in here?”

“Just get rid of him—and leave now. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“And meet me back at the cabin.”

***

Avery didn’t show.

Gene paced the hallway, circled the cabin until the sun went down. He stood in the gravel driveway with his arms crossed, eyes hard on the road, listening for the sound of her car. He must have looked at his phone a hundred times. Depending on what Avery was cooking up, he worried that any messages between them might come back to bite him. He considered buying a prepaid phone down at the minimart just to place an untraceable call, but as anxious as he felt, he wasn’t certain he could walk out of there without a case of Old Milwaukee under his arm. He cursed himself for letting Avery back into his life, however briefly. Goddamn he wanted a drink.

Just after midnight a car raced up the driveway. Headlights brightening the trees. He heard footsteps and an urgent knock on the door. He took the nine-millimeter from his gun safe and crept half-naked into the kitchen. Through the window he saw Avery standing at the front door. She was calling his name over and over. He tucked the gun behind a couch cushion, flicked on the lights and unlocked the deadbolt.

She looked injured—leaning into the jamb, favoring her left foot. Clothes mudstained and torn. Blood smeared her face from a gash on her forehead. Before Gene could ask what happened, she burst into a long rant about Halbert and how she just needed to make it right, how she couldn’t sleep another night with the thought of that empty family grave plot. 

Gene looked her up and down. “You dug him up again, didn’t you?”

“It took me hours, Gene.” She talked fast and wild. “Then I fell and hurt my foot. My head. Oh God I fell so many times. I just really need your help. I don’t think I can finish this by myself.”

Gene glanced at the Jeep. Engine running, high beams on. He kept his voice in a steady monotone so it wouldn’t get away from him. “Do what, exactly?”

“Bury him in his family plot where he belongs.”

He didn’t know what to say. Avery looked like she’d just crawled out of a grave herself. He pictured her out in the darkness, hacking at that cold mountain dirt. He thought about the gun, too. He didn’t want to think about it, but he sensed it there behind the cushion. Just an arm’s length away.

“You know where his family plot is?” he asked.

“The cemetery on Ocean Street.” She lifted her phone in the air. “I have screenshots of their last visit. It’s between two ginkgo trees.”

“Then what? You going to give him a eulogy?”

“No—then we go separate ways. It’ll be done.”

“I thought we were done yesterday.”

“I mean really done. Done done.”

“What if I don’t help you?”

“Then I spend all night digging with a bad ankle. Straight through till morning.”

Gene bit his lip and gave a slow nod. He could control his voice, stop himself from reaching for the gun, but he couldn’t help the hard, glassy glare. As tattered and sideways as Avery looked right now, he didn’t think she could manage what she was about to do. Not alone. He’d have to help her if he didn’t want her to get caught and drag him down with her.

Or he’d have to kill her.

“Let me get dressed,” he said. “You lead, I’ll follow.”

***

A few minutes later they were snaking down the mountain, past the town of Boulder Creek. Night mist in the valley, no cars on the highway. Avery flicked the radio on, tuned to a vintage punk broadcast from the college. She wondered why you could only find good radio music in the middle of the night. Gene followed behind, and she kept an eye on his headlights in the rearview as the dark redwoods rolled by, mist collecting on the windows and running off in little furrows. 

She knew he didn’t trust her instincts, but that didn’t bother her. 

His part would be over soon.

She took a dirt road along the river and killed the headlights when they got near, rolling to a stop behind a grove of bay laurels. They each took an end of the tarp, Halbert’s bones and a couple shovels rolled up inside. A few yards downriver, they found a path leading up the embankment where the backlot of the cemetery sat. 

“It’s the second row down,” said Avery. “Just over there by the ginkgo trees like I told you.”

Avery clicked on a small flashlight and read the names on the gravestones. According to the engravings, the Halberts had buried their kin in this section of the cemetery for at least a hundred years. After reading four or five epitaphs, they found Todd Halbert’s name etched in granite.

They still hadn’t filled in the death date.

“Is there anything buried here?” said Gene.

“Who knows,” said Avery. “I’ve heard of folks burying photos, mementos.”

“Whoever finds him will have a hell of a mystery on their hands.”

They unrolled the tarp and went to work, Halbert’s skull gaping at the sky all the while. The earth still held much rain, and despite Avery’s twisted ankle, the digging went smoothly. Together they looked like antagonists in some gothic horror film, sinking into the grave as the hole deepened. By the time they climbed out, the mist had become a heavy drizzle. With hair pasted around their foreheads, they dragged the skeleton to the rim. They took a moment, not saying anything at all. Not even the slightest of eulogies. Just the sound of the river and the quiet of their thoughts.

One quick tug and the bones toppled into the hole.

Avery looked across the cemetery and back down over the river. A few lights blinked across town, but everything felt still and final. Like they’d buried the last man on earth. She could already feel the weight lifting.

“We better get going,” said Gene.

“I’m staying,” she said, resting on her shovel.

A blank look. “What?”

Avery’s face lit up with the glow of her cell phone pressed to her ear.

“Yes, I’d like to report a trespasser,” she said.

“What are you doing?”

“That’s right, in progress. Santa Cruz Memorial.”

A sharp whisper: “Are you crazy?”

“A woman. Mid-thirties. Digging with a shovel.” She hung up, then: “You better get out of here Gene, you don’t have much time.”

He looked as if she’d hit him with the shovel. “I don’t understand. Why go through all of this if you were just going to call it in?”

“Maybe they’ll know I tried to make it right.” Crying now. “Go, dammit.”

“I didn’t want this.”

“You’ve made amends now.” She gestured to the muddy grave plot. “You can move on. But I can’t. I lied to you when I told you about the feed store, about the double-wide. I haven’t been able to move on from this, Gene. Clean one year, using the next.”

“I could still help you.”

“You can't. No one ever could.”

“It’s not just about you. We did this together.”

Sobbing. “Well, I’m the one who pulled the fucking trigger.”

“They’ll ask you about me, won’t they? I’m not ready for this.”

He reached under his jacket, hand stalling there. 

“I saw the gun while you were digging,” she said. “Kill me if you have to, but I don’t think it’ll help you.”

“How can I be sure you won’t rat me out?”

“I’ll tell them it was Mike Sandhoff with me that night.”

“I thought he was dead.”

“Exactly. They’ll buy it. As long as they have me.”

His gun hand fell to his side. “Ace. Avery. Don’t do this.”

A police cruiser passed on the main road. Spotlight sweeping in the dark.

They both saw it.

“Go,” she said.

He gathered the tarp and shovel, took a step toward the river. He stopped and watched her for a moment. The way he looked at her made her feel so alone. Part of her wanted to go back to his cabin where they could have another night together. Maybe more than just one.

Another pass of the searchlight. 

A second cruiser up on the road.

She mouthed the word: please.

***

Down the embankment.

Through the bay laurels.

Gene chucked the shovel into the river and coasted the pickup as far as it would go before hitting the ignition. Then up the mountain. The whine and click of the windshield wipers all the way up. When he reached the cabin, he built a fire in the burn barrel and set the tarp ablaze. By now, she’d be in custody. Maybe she’d play it smart and wait for a public defender before confessing to the whole ordeal. She could plea down to manslaughter and get out in ten if everything went well. She’d still be young when she got out. In prison terms, middle age was still young.

The flames grew.

The sky began to change.

A crow perched on a young redwood tree, eyeing the burn barrel. It dipped its head and cawed and then it dove through the branches and coasted out of sight. 

He listened for it. He could still hear the wings pumping.



C.W. Blackwell is an author and poet from the Central Coast of California. His recent short fiction has appeared with Down and Out Books, Fahrenheit Press, Gutter Books, and Mystery Tribune. He is a 2021 Derringer Award winner. His debut poetry collection "River Street Rhapsody" will appear Spring 2022 from Dead Fern Press. 


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