Down By the River – by Tom Bentley

He stood on the screened-in front porch, shifting from foot to foot. Though it was a cool fall afternoon in the little South Dakota town, a thin runner of sweat fell down the collar of the starched shirt. Caleb felt like he’d been on the porch for twenty minutes, but it had been three. He lifted his hand again to knock, but dropped it, fist clenched to his side.

Damn, he’ll probably walk by the window and see me. Call the cops. Great.

He exhaled and knocked. He heard a creak on the old wooden floors, and then heavy footfalls. The door opened with a quick snap. Richard Brixton’s considerable shoulders filled the doorway and atop them, his head moved in a slow pan down, from Caleb’s face to the tips of his best shoes.

“Bar’s closed,” Richard said.

“No, Richard, it’s not like that. Look, I’m sorry, I don’t want to bother you, just to talk. Just for a minute.” Caleb felt his shirt sticking, the sweat moving down his lower back.

Richard’s head pulled up slightly, his eyes lidded. “You’re sorry, for sure. A sorry sight.”

Caleb shook his head. He started to speak, but a woman’s voice interrupted.

“Richard, who’s there?”

Richard turned away from the doorway, speaking over his shoulder. “Nobody we want to talk to,” he said. He turned back to Caleb. “In fact, nobody.”

“Richard, please, I know it’s been years, but this is important. I just need—”

Edith Brixton’s face appeared from under her husband’s arm, which blocked the doorway. She pushed her husband’s arm down and stepped to the front of the doorway. She smiled at Caleb, but then her face tightened.

“Caleb, what are you doing here? Is something wrong?”

Caleb moved a tiny step forward, but Richard spoke first. “Lillian’s not here. She hasn’t been here for years. She hasn’t had a drink for years. She doesn’t touch drugs. She’s finally healthy again.” He glared at Caleb, crossing his big arms over the deep chest. “And that’s with no help from you.”

“I’m not looking for Lillian,” said Caleb. “Well, not really.” He straightened and lifted his head. “I went through a program. I haven’t had a drink in seven months. Nothing.” He lifted his hands and opened both palms upward. “I know it’s not that long, but it’s something, isn’t it?”

“It’s shit,” said Richard. He moved his wife aside with his hip and stepped out on the porch, almost eye-to-eye with Caleb. “That’s a bunch of shit and so are you. You almost killed my daughter, with your drink and drugs and idiot lifestyle. Why are you even here? Why don’t you leave well enough alone?”

Caleb stepped back, and looked out to the street, where his sagging old Buick rested. He wiped his face and said, “It’s, well, I’m here because it’s part of my commitment. I want to apologize to you both for the hell I put you through.” He pulled at his Adam’s apple and looked off for a moment. “But there’s more: I have to tell you what happened. There was an accident, a long time ago. Someone was killed. It was an accident, but—”

Richard jabbed a big index finger into Caleb’s chest. He pushed against him, and Caleb staggered back, awkwardly catching his rear foot on the first step, so that he had to quickly step back to the base of the stairs.

Richard shook his head, face reddening. “That’s it. Someone was killed, you say? More shit from you? That’s it. Get out! Get off my property! Get out and stay out! We don’t want anything to do with you, and bet your miserable life on it that Lillian doesn’t either. Go!” Richard pointed his finger to the street.

Caleb turned toward the street, and then back to the Brixton house. “I’m sorry, I really am. I wish you’d let me explain.”

Richard said nothing, but continued to point to the street. Caleb turned to walk away, hearing the door slam behind him. He was about to get in his car when Edith came quickly out of the door and down the steps. She came up to Caleb, looked up at the house, and then handed him a crumpled piece of paper that she had clenched in her hand.

“Caleb, Lillian’s back in California.” She looked back toward the house, and then looked into Caleb’s face. “I never thought you were a bad man, and it’s good to hear you’re sober. If you need to talk about something important that involved Lillian, I think you should. But don’t bring any more trouble into her life.”

She touched the top of his shoulder and turned away. When she reached the yard, she turned around and said, “God bless.”

Caleb started to speak, but she waved him away with a flutter of her hand, and walked back into the house. He got into the car and sat for a moment. He slapped his steering wheel and expelled a quick burst of air through clenched lips. Then he took a long breath.

He reached into his pocket and pulled out an old Liberty-head silver dollar, the coin’s metal smoothed and softened with age. He rubbed its face, returned it to his pocket and started the car. The loose exhaust rattled and wheezed as he pulled slowly away.

#

Caleb headed out of town, toward the highway. He’d checked out of the hotel already, at that point thinking that if the Brixtons would give him Lillian’s address, he’d go straight there, wherever there was. California, he thought. I never thought she’d come back to California. He had the radio tuned to an oldies pop station that played familiar songs from the 60s; Caleb twisted the Off button with a quick snap.

She said she’d never come back. But we both said a lot of stuff.

He turned onto the highway and headed south. Might take three days once I hit I-80, he thought. Depends on if I stay in hotels, or just crash in the car. Wonder if Edith will call her and warn her. If Richard had his way, he’d probably have my car head-on a semi at 75 miles an hour. He lifted his shoulders up to his neck, grimaced, and dropped them back down. Can’t say I blame him.

The flat plains stretched to the horizon, mostly dull golds; some big fields dotted with cattle, some with hay bales. There were some dark, low hills far ahead, but nothing with real detail to focus on.

Twilight fell, and the fields gleamed. The day’s weight fell on him. He saw a sign for a small motel, the Wayfarer, and pulled off the exit on the outskirts of a little town called Mullen. Just the basics, a dresser, a bed, a bedside table. He was too tired to look for a restaurant, but he had two sandwiches in the car, which he started to eat in his room. Then he saw out the window that there was a large patio area behind the motel, with a couple of picnic tables snugged under some big willow trees. A single streetlamp cast a thin yellow light.

When he settled at the table, he could hear running water close by, but he couldn’t see through the trees in the dimness. He finished the first sandwich and was into the other when the tall man who had checked him in walked by carrying a mop.

The man nodded to Caleb. “Takin’ in the evening, are you? It’s a nice one.”

“Yeah,” said Caleb. “Is there a river near here?”

“Sure, just fifty yards through those trees, down a steep bank,” he said, inclining his head. “The Dismal River, connects with the Platte.”

Caleb nodded and the man went his way.

Caleb set the half-eaten sandwich on the table, and swung around to the sound of the river. He leaned his head onto his fist and listened to its soft hissing. The Dismal River, he thought. That’s just about right, isn’t it?

He spat, got up and went to his room, and set his wallet and the silver dollar on the dresser. Turning off the light seemed to suck all the air out of the room; he slept, dreamless.

#

Traffic was light as he angled south, but it picked up when he hit the interstate. When he touched the long Nebraskan stretch of I-80 where the road was an undeviating, straight-line ribbon without a twist, he accelerated to the mid-80s, keeping a watchful eye in his rear-view mirror. He shifted about on the long bench seat and wished he had a joint.

He’d loved to smoke pot and drive since he was a teenager, taking his parents’ second car for long summer jaunts when they were out of town, radio loud and windows down. It was fun to do it with friends, but better alone, where he could let his mind wander. No joints for this cowboy now, he thought.

High school had passed in a blur; at least he’d picked up some decent woodworking skills in shop, enough so to become a journeyman cabinetmaker, working out of a small shop in a small town, Willits. Working, but not enough so that he could set up his own place. He’d been shaping wood at Emery’s for almost five years when Lillian walked in looking for a custom sleigh bed; he could barely talk to her about the bed-frame design without thinking of being in the bed with her. Three months later, his handiwork was their shared territory, and six months after that, it became the marriage bed.

As the 1970s moved into their middle, the pot never left the picture. Mendocino County turned out to have some prime conditions for growing potent weed—good soil, remote, forested land, rich water supply—and lots of folks trickled into the small towns and never left. Shiny, high-wheeled four-wheel-drive beasts replaced some rusty, beat pickups, and some kids he knew from high school all of a sudden had twenty, thirty acres in the hills, with a four-bedroom ranch house plunked in the middle. High times.

Not so much for Caleb. Not that he didn’t smoke more than his fair share—he did. Lily too. But she was a mid-wife who worked out of a small clinic in town and wouldn’t think of smoking on a workday. Lily didn’t really think of her work as work, exactly. More like being a part of the natural cycle: She helped bring things to life. Caleb, again, not so much.

They spent whole evenings laughing in the living room around the TV, watching forgettable shows, or walking the little streets of their downtown with silly grins, peeking in store windows. But the 70s recession had hit small Northern California towns hard. There were a couple economies: the pot economy, and the rest, and Caleb was definitely part of the rest. Things were tight, with money and with Lily.

#

He shot through Wyoming. On a bluff above the Green River, he pulled into a long tunnel. Rivers, he thought. Another Dismal River, and this one sucks you into a dark tunnel. They all do.

Utah was more of a blur, dry, scorched, and blinding at times, even with fall’s slanting light. He drove through Nevada at night, and laughed a dry laugh when he saw the marker for the Humboldt River. Yeah, I know that one, he thought. Not all rivers lead to the sea, like the Humboldt. Some don’t go anywhere. Some just stop.

He spent a few hours of crap sleep at a fleabag hotel in Reno, and then dropped down into California, threading his way toward Highway 101 north; when he was above Santa Rosa, he felt the pressure in his chest. The rehab people had said to breathe through his fear, his anxieties, but what if it feels like you can’t breathe at all?

I can’t believe she moved back to Garberville. An hour away, a fucking hour’s drive. I even know the street she’s on. I’ve driven on it. It’s amazing no one told me, that I didn’t run into her somewhere.

It was late afternoon when he passed Willits, past the studio apartment he’d rented after the accident, the one he’d sublet while he was in the rehab program, the one he returned to from the miserable post-rehab part-time job he had installing pre-fab cabinets in lousy apartments like the one he lived in, the one where he stared at the television every night and it stared back.

“Caleb.”

She nodded at him on the doorstep and opened the door into a living room crowded with furniture, a giant couch with colorful afghans, a couple of old overstuffed chairs, lamps with colored glass shades and beaded tassles. She made an offhand gesture to the couch.

“My mom told me you’d probably come. I thought about getting out of town, but then thought what the hell. Want some water?”

“Lily, you look good. I mean, you look great, real healthy … yeah, water would be good. Thanks.”

She moved through a doorway to an unseen kitchen and he sat on the big couch, sinking in so much at first his knees were high in the air. He resettled himself before she returned.

“Well water,” she said, handing him the glass. “The good stuff.” She sat in one of the chairs. “Why are you here, Caleb? And why bother my parents? My mom said you’d been through some program, but why would you want to come here?”

Caleb shifted on the couch, and some of the water from the glass fell on his best shirt. He brushed at it, and then looked at Lily with a frown.

“Lily, this probably sounds stupid, but I kind of wanted to apologize to your parents, in a way. I mean, not in a way, but to actually apologize. To say I’m sorry for all the shit that happened between you and me. And to tell them about the accident.”

She sat forward quickly in the big chair. “Stupid? No, not stupid—insane! You wanted to tell them about the accident? How in hell’s name would that be of any use to anyone? And apologize? You know my dad. It’s like saying ‘I’m sorry’ to a bank building. What in hell, Caleb?”

He sat up, and the water sloshed on his pants. He muttered and set the glass on a lamp-side table. “Lily, I haven’t had a drink in seven months, haven’t smoked pot in seven months. No other shitty drugs either. I did really well in this program.” He raised his hands, palms apart and chopped them downward. “But here’s the deal: part of getting through the process, of understanding your issues and facing them, is to apologize to the people you’ve wronged, to be honest about what you did.”

Lily stood up from her chair and moved a step toward Caleb. “You want to tell my parents about that shit that happened seven years ago? You think you could just show up out of the blue and tell them that stuff, and apologize? And that it would be all creamy-dreamy, because you’d been through a program? Caleb, you’ve been stupider than a skunk with six heads before, but this is the topper.” She sat back down hard and stared at him, her breath coming in gulps.

He started to get up from the couch, but its softness only made him bounce a little to the side. He righted himself and said, “Lily, I wanted to do this for you, to make things right.”

She shot up from the chair, hands clenched. “To make things right? How in hell, Caleb? After all those wasted nights and days, you losing your job, then me, then kicked out of the apartment? And the river, the river, Caleb? How do you make that right?”

He pushed himself off the couch and stood, running his hands through his thick hair. His eyes looked swollen, reddened. “Lillian, I don’t know. I wanted to make things right, but I don’t know. I just wanted to say I’m sorry.”

She crossed her arms over her chest and looked at him, silent. He nodded a little, and moved toward the door. He started to put his hand on the knob, but then reached into his pocket and pulled out the silver dollar. He turned and held it up to her. “I still keep this in my pocket, every day,” he said.

Lillian stared, and started to speak, but shook her head instead. She shook it again and said softly, “Caleb.”

He turned and walked out the door.

#

Caleb got back and his car and started it up, and then held the wheel. Where to go? What now? He’d practiced his apologies to Lily’s parents and to Lily in his head for a few months. They’d fallen apart in a few minutes. What now? It was mid-evening, a clear, cold night. He noticed some big leaves from the maple tree in front of Lily’s house had stuck to his boot. Fall.

He got back on the highway to head to his apartment in Willits. When he saw the sign for the crossing of the south fork of the Eel, the story opened up in his mind like a movie screen. Sure, it had been his idea to grow the pot. His cabinet work had been trickling in, and Lily had been cut back to three days at the birthing center. No money and no prospects. But it was definitely Adamo’s idea to get the guns. Caleb had resisted at first. “Hell no! What if we kill someone? Worse, what if we kill ourselves?”

But Adamo had overruled him. He had the big four-wheel drive truck that was essential to the operation, so he had last say. And Caleb always had trouble actually saying no to Adamo anyway. They’d been friends since grade school, and Caleb had eaten dinner with his big, boisterous Italian family countless times. Adamo had soured on his job too: delivering towels and linens and bedding for a laundry service within a 100-mile radius of Willits got old fast. Adamo said he was getting old with it.

They’d bought the guns at an outdoor shop in Eureka. Remington 30-06s with a 4x scope. “This will knock a buck halfway to Hades before it can shake its rack,” said the shop guy. The rifle felt heavy and strange in Caleb’s hands. He’d never shot a deer in his life, and neither had Adamo, though they’d both spent some time around guns. But after a while, the rifle seemed like just another piece of equipment, like the shovels, pipes, tarps, pumps, connectors, chemicals, fertilizer and other crap they hauled deep into the woods in the early spring seven years ago.

Adamo had checked out the site more than a year before that without even telling Caleb. Way the hell off the highway, first to outside Covelo, and then through public land up a high, old fire trail and then a serious two-hour trek by foot through the woods. Adamo knew a fair amount about planting and irrigation and weather just from tending his parents’ huge garden on their acreage, which included lots of grapevines for making their own wine. He was thinking of the pot being a bit like the wine, though more profitable. He’d found a place, probably an eighth of an acre that had good drainage, good soil, and good water from a big running creek nearby that was a tributary of the Eel. It had a nice clearance within the redwoods and pines, which shaded any prying or flying eyes. He’d spent a few days camping up there a couple of times, just to see where the sun hit hardest, and how long it lasted. From everything he’d read that was out there for amateur weed farmers, the spot was ideal.

If you call ideal trudging for hours through the woods with giant, heavy backpacks, trenching lines for the water source, grooming the planting area, planting the germinated seeds and then falling exhausted into grimy sleeping bags. It wasn’t like camping.

In the late spring, they’d had to cut by hand a big bough of a Doug fir that was throwing too much shade on the planting, out of fear of someone hearing a chainsaw. They had to climb up into the tree to do it, and it took hours, and it almost fell right on their crop.

#

Caleb was fifteen minutes out of Willits, but lost in the memory. He pulled at his nose and scowled. He wanted a cigarette. Giving up the cigarettes had been harder than giving up the pot and the booze. Just thinking about those days, when he smoked a pack, a pack and a half, made him jones for a smoke now. Instead he just drove. Drove and remembered.

Adamo and Caleb were spending about a week out of the month at their “farm,” as they called it. At first he told Lily that he was camping, but then Lily had seriously asked him if Caleb was gay, and if Adamo was his lover. When he told her, she blew up. But finally, after lots of talk about bills and bad jobs and new possibilities, she agreed. She’d even begun to be enthusiastic about it.

In the early fall, there were some unexpectedly heavy rains, for a week or more. Adamo was sick with paranoia, but he knew that he’d never get the truck up the fire road, and that hiking in would be misery. Finally, when the weather cleared, he went up alone, and came back with a glowing report: the plants had budded out nicely, and were close. It was time to go up and stick around, until harvest day.

The sun had returned, but the trudge through the mud was arduous. They had been rotating their campgrounds, choosing a discrete, woodsy spot hopefully under ten minutes from the grow site, but concealed; they always covered up their tracks. It was early afternoon by the time they’d pitched the tent and set up their white-gas stoves to make dinner. Caleb had never heard the creek so loud; they were 75 yards away and it sounded like a roaring rapid.

“Let’s go check the plants,” said Adamo. They brought a couple of foldable shovels in case they needed to do any digging, a small saw, and the rifles. When Caleb saw the plants, he was amazed. It had been a month since he’d been there last, and they were covered with resinous, shiny buds that gave off a deep, skunky odor. “Man,” Caleb said, “We’re going to pull sixty or seventy pounds out of this. This is righteous!”

But Adamo wasn’t looking at the plants. He was looking off at the small trail they used when they put the pipes in for the water supply. The trail rose up a very small hill, though some redwoods and brushy ferns, toward the creek. “What the hell?” he said. “There’s something moving there. Look!”

He pointed up the trail, but Caleb couldn’t see anything moving. But then he did see what had caught Adamo’s eye. There was a bearded man standing behind a redwood about seventy-five feet away, mostly concealed by the tree. But Caleb caught sight of a red patch that was on the man’s hat.

“Shit!” said Caleb. “Hey, hey, who are you? What are you doing here?” he shouted. Adamo didn’t say anything; he just ran toward the man, who started running away through the woods. Caleb ran after him.

Caleb’s heart thudded in his chest while he dodged the ferns and ran through the trees, trying to catch up to the man, who ran at an easy clip, skirting their trail, which at that point went essentially uphill toward the creek. The man finally paused at the top of trail, before it broke off into deeper woods, and turned to face them.

Caleb caught up to Adamo, who was panting forty feet or so below the man, with his rifle raised. Caleb approached and pulled up his gun as well.

“Hey man, just hold the fuck up,” said Adamo. “We don’t want to hurt you. We just want to know what you’re doing up here.” Adamo had his rifle held mid-waist, at the ready toward the man, but his hand was off the trigger. Caleb did the same.

“So, what’s the score, man?” shouted Caleb.

Without saying a word, the man turned and started to run into the woods. But he slipped in the mud, and staggered to his knees.

“Shoot him,” screamed Adamo. “We’ve got to shoot him!”

The man struggled to get up, slipping again to one knee.

“What the fuck, Adamo?” said Caleb, raising his gun.

“He’s going to get us busted. He might even be a cop!” said Adamo. “Shoot him!”

They both raised their guns.

Caleb barely had the stranger in his scope when Adamo fired, but Caleb fired a moment after. He remembered the shots as sounding like a hammer pounding on thin metal, echoing off the hill and into the woods.

The stranger went straight down, onto the wet earth. No movement. Adamo and Caleb climbed the small hill, slipping themselves in the thick mud. Adamo reached him first, leveling the rifle toward the prostrate man, who lay face down on the trail, blood seeping through the back of his jacket. “Hey, get up!” he said. “Get up!”

When the man didn’t move, Adamo reached down and flipped him over by his shoulder. He was tall and thin, with a scraggly brown beard, maybe in his mid-thirties. The shot had gone through his light backpack and through the left side of his upper back, and exited in a bloody wound through his chest. He was dead.

Neither Caleb nor Adamo said anything at first. Caleb knelt down at the stranger’s side and laid his gun on the muddy trail. He sat and put his head between his knees. Then he became violently sick. Adamo stood almost unmoving, looking down at the body.

“Looks like one shot,” he said. “One shot and through.” He shivered and looked down the trail. “Check out his pack, would you?”

“Check out his pack?” said Caleb. “We just shot some guy and you want to check out his pack? This guy is dead!”

“I know he’s dead!” shouted Adamo. “I want to find out if he was stealing our weed, and who the fuck he is. Never mind!”

Adamo roughly pulled the pack off the body and looked inside. He pulled out an old grey sweater, and a paper bag. Inside the bag was a half-eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He threw it all on the ground, kneeled and then reached around the body to the man’s back pockets, but came up with nothing. Then he went through the man’s front pockets. Nothing. Nothing except a worn silver dollar. He flipped the silver dollar into the mud between Caleb’s legs. Caleb picked it up and stared at it.

“Nothing,” said Adamo. “No wallet, no ID, no keys, no papers, no weed, nothing. Who is this guy? He had to have been here to steal the weed, right? What in hell?”

Adamo stood up. “We have to get rid of the body,” he said. “We need to bury him out here.”

Caleb jumped up. “No way. Not doing it. We need to tell the cops. We just killed a guy.”

Adamo grabbed him by the collar, and squeezed tight. “Not a chance we’re going to the cops. Are you kidding? We’d get the electric chair or something. We’re not going to the cops. We have to bury him.”

Caleb shoved Adamo’s hand roughly away. “I am not going to bury some guy that we killed. We don’t even know who he is and we’re going to bury him? Hell, you shot him—you bury him.”

“What do you mean, I shot him? How do you know it wasn’t you that shot him?”

“Fuck Adamo, I barely know how to shoot. Sure it could have been me, but it was most likely you.”

Adamo glared at Caleb. “Doesn’t matter. We have to bury him.”

Caleb got up, picked up his gun and started walking down the hill. “I told you, I’m not going to bury him,” he said over his shoulder.

“Asshole!” Adamo shouted. He picked up the body and awkwardly slung it over his shoulder, so that the man’s legs were dangling down Adamo’s back. Then he staggered toward the creek, about a hundred feet away. The creek was raging. The banks were fairly wide for a small creek, maybe ten feet across, but usually it was a slow flow, at best a couple of feet deep in pools, but less in mid-stream. But now it was roaring, a cascade of rushing water.

Caleb watched, not able to understand what Adamo was doing. He moved a bit up the hill to see more clearly what Adamo was up to. His heart was still pounding hard. When Adamo pitched the body into the creek’s waters, it rose for a moment on a snag, bumped against a big boulder, and then was gone.

Caleb walked slowly up to Adamo, who was looking downstream. The creek bent quickly out of sight from that point, the body no longer visible.

“I can’t believe you just did that,” said Caleb. He’s just going to wash up a hundred yards from here. What’s the point?”

Adamo turned to him. “No. No he isn’t. I walked almost a mile and a half creekside the other day I was here, checking it out to see if there was going to be any flooding or backup that might mess up our camp or the planting. It’s running high and running fast for a long distance. He might go several miles.” He ran his hand through his hair and looked back downstream. “Nobody comes up here. By the time anyone finds the body, we’ll have harvested the pot and gone.”

He looked back up into Caleb’s face, searching his eyes. “Look Caleb, this is a terrible thing. But it’s done. If we turn ourselves in, it’s over. Our lives are over.”

“I’ll tell you what’s over, Adamo. This,” he said. Caleb gestured to the woods, and toward their planting. “It’s over for me. I don’t want a dime of it. It’s yours. I won’t say shit about the shooting, but just take me back into town. The pot is yours.”

Adamo looked at Caleb for a long time; Caleb looked back. “OK,” Adamo said. “Whatever. Yeah, that guy’s dead, and it’s tragic. But we’re still alive. So if you want to keep being a stone-broke loser, that’s not my problem.”

Caleb shook his head, and walked back to the man’s belongings. He picked up the clothes and sandwich and put them in the backpack and started heading toward their camp.

“I’m going to pack up my stuff and head down the hill. I appreciate the ride.”

Neither of them spoke while they trudged down the hill. When they got to the fire road, Adamo’s truck was the only vehicle there.

“OK, there it is. Where is that guy’s car? This is the only road for miles— how did he even get in there? He didn’t have any camping stuff. Well? Caleb, huh?”

Caleb slung his gear into the back of Adamo’s truck, and climbed into the passenger seat. When Adamo got in, he said, “I don’t have a clue how that guy got in. Maybe he had a camp set up a ways back in the woods, and that was just his daypack. Maybe he came in a helicopter, or dropped from the sky. I don’t care about how he came in. I care about how he went out. Dead.”

Neither of them spoke on the long drive home. When Adamo dropped Caleb off at his house, he said, “See you around, Caleb,” and looked at him for a long moment.

“Right. See you around,” was all Caleb said. When Caleb got into his house, he quickly undressed for the shower; the silver dollar rolled out of his pocket and fell on to the floor.

He had carried it now for more than seven years.

#

Caleb pulled into town, passing by a bar he’d been to countless times in the old days. He looked into the dim doorway, clenched his teeth and grimaced, and drove on. Lily looked good, he thought. I wonder how long it’s been since she had a drink. He’d thought she’d lost her mind when he told her about what had happened that day in the woods, screaming and crying for hours. But she’d agreed with Adamo—what would become of them if they turned themselves in?

Yeah, but what became of us when we didn’t turn ourselves in?

Adamo did cash in, and he flew around town for a while in a spanking new truck, with his new girlfriend in tow. Caleb barely spoke to him for a couple of years, and then Adamo moved to Italy, where he’d inherited some property. As for Lily and Caleb, their occasional partying turned into daily dosings of drink, pot and other drugs. They both lost their jobs, and finally, their house. Not so finally. Finally was each other.

Caleb walked up the crumbling concrete stairs to his dark apartment. It was cold, but turning on the lights didn’t make it any warmer. He put his keys, wallet and the silver dollar on his dresser and went to bed.

#

Morning. Five minutes after Caleb got up, before he even brewed the thick pot of coffee without which he couldn’t see, he called his sponsor, Christian. Christian’s voice was foggy; he probably hadn’t had his coffee either.

“Caleb, yeah, OK. Good to hear from you. You all right?”

“Yeah,” said Caleb. “Well, no. Not really. I mean, I haven’t fallen back or anything. Still clean. But man, the forgiveness thing, the apologies—it’s all been crap. I might as well have had the plague. Lily’s parents, Lily—I drove like three thousand miles to have doors shut in my face.”

Christian paused and then cleared his throat. “Caleb, that’s a downer for sure, but it’s a process. You have to trust the process. Even if your connections don’t absolve you of the wrongs, you are moving forward. You have to go through the process.”

Caleb stood up and walked around in his small kitchen, the curly phone cord wrapping around a wooden chair. “Christian, you know, I never gave you the details of the ‘wrongs,’ as you call them, and you never asked. But these were some big-time wrongs. And I’m not talking about just fucking up my life and Lily’s with drugs and crap. I’m mean stuff maybe for which there isn’t forgiveness.”

Caleb could hear the sounds of Christian moving around. “Listen Caleb, I’m not really up yet, but I think we should talk. Why don’t you come down to the center in about an hour, and we’ll talk it over.”

“Yeah, OK, whatever. I’ll see you later.”

Caleb dressed and ate a meager breakfast of cold cereal. He tried to read the Willits newspaper, but couldn’t concentrate, so he threw it away. He cleaned up his small apartment, and took out the trash for the first time in a few weeks. When he took the trash out to his outside can, he saw on the front page of the paper that the deputy police chief had received an award for community service. He set his kitchen trashcan down and read the article, twice. And then he got in his car.

At first the officer at the front desk told him he’d have to wait a while before he could see anyone, but when Caleb said it was about a murder, the desk officer made a quick call. A tall, athletic-looking man in a suit came from down the hall. “Caleb, I’m Detective Morris. Come on back.”

Morris led Caleb down the hall and into a small windowless office with several desks, one occupied by a uniformed officer, who looked up and then back to his work. Morris pointed to a chair in front of the room’s biggest desk, which was strewn with papers, a couple of styrofoam coffee cups and some stacked binders. “Take a seat Caleb. Can I get you some coffee?”

“No, I’m OK.”

“Fine. So, what’s this about?”

Caleb scratched his head, and leaned forward in the chair, staring at Morris. “Look, this is going to sound kind of crazy. Well, it was crazy. Anyway, a guy got murdered, years ago. Up in the woods, way up outside of Covelo. Never made the news or anything.”

Morris adjusted a pad on his desk and picked up a pen. “Right. So what was the victim’s name? And how many years ago?”

Caleb lifted his hands a little and spread his fingers. “More than seven years ago. I don’t know his name. Or anything about him, really.”

Morris put down his pen. “So how do you know he was murdered?”

Caleb ran a hand quickly through his hair. “Because I murdered him. Well, I might have murdered him, I’m not sure. I was there when he was murdered though. I shot him. Or at least I shot at him.”

Caleb started rubbing his knees with his palms. “Hey, Detective Morris, I think I would like some of that coffee. That would be great.”

Morris had the officer go get Caleb some coffee, and then they settled in. Caleb told him the whole story, including the pot, what happened with Lily, Adamo going overseas, his enrolling in the program and being sober. And that he was basically trying get clean, to apologize.

Morris asked lots of questions, including many about dates, and a lot about the dead man’s description. They had spoken for an hour and a half when Morris put down the pen.

“OK, Caleb. Thank you. I’m going to ask you to wait for a bit while I check some records. Make yourself comfortable, and if you need anything, just ask Officer Strong there. I’ll be back.”

Morris got up and went down the hall. Caleb picked up an outdoor sports magazine off of a nearby desk and began flipping through it. He flipped through it many times, and then through the day’s paper, which was also on a desk. Then he sat and stared. A couple of passing officers peeked in the room for a moment at him, but didn’t enter.

Morris took over an hour before he returned, and he brought another man in a suit with him, who stood while Morris sat. “Caleb, this is Lieutenant Mitchell. I’ve briefed him on your story, and we’ve been going over the county records for deaths, missing persons and the like for a while. We also had the folks over at Humboldt County go over theirs too. There is no record of the disappearance or murder of a man fitting that description, or really, anyone close, for that period. Or that year, for that matter.”

Lieutenant Mitchell leaned over the desk and said, “Caleb, we’ve got a call into Sacramento. They are going to look into detailed records for all the counties for a couple of hundred miles all around and see what’s what. Now, we’re not going to charge you with anything here. You are free to go. What we’re going to do is try to find something that ties this together, so we can proceed. We’re going to get a hold of your friend Adamo’s relatives here and see if we can talk to him.”

He turned to Morris. “Bernie, do the follow-up on Sacramento, and get an officer over to the Minelli household. Keep me up on it. See if you can get some officers up there sometime in the next few weeks.” He came around the desk to Caleb and put out his hand. “Caleb, I appreciate your honesty. You don’t leave the county, OK? We’ll be in touch.”

Caleb half-rose, and shook Mitchell’s hand. “Yes, sure. I won’t. I really am sorry about everything here.”

Mitchell nodded and left. Morris rose and said, “That’s fine Caleb. I’ll be calling you in a day or two. Stay safe.”

Caleb got up and shifted toward the door, but then turned back to Morris and said, “Detective Morris, what happens when you can’t find a body, or evidence or anything?”

Morris whistled out an audible breath through pursed lips. “Well Caleb, maybe nothing. We’ll see. You call us if you have anything more to add.”

Caleb left the station and walked to his car in the damp fog, feeling a headache coming on.

Shit, what have I done? he thought, sitting with his hands on the wheel. I don’t want to get Adamo in trouble. But they aren’t even going to send anyone to look for weeks. Ah, they probably won’t find him anyway. They can’t even find a dead body, much less a live one. One more pointless confession.

He drove slowly home. He had a cabinetry repair job on his list, but the appointment wasn’t until tomorrow. He thought maybe he could go for a long walk in the local woods, gloomy as it was. And then, his thoughts took a different turn. The woods. Yes. I’m going.

At home he jumped out of the car and quickly packed a lunch, throwing in an extra sweater and a folding shovel in his backpack. It had been more than seven years since he’d been back, but he knew just where to go. The drive seemed longer than it ever had been, and it had always been a long drive. His car struggled in its lowest gear to get up the old fire road, spinning its wheels in the loose dirt more than once. Luckily, there hadn’t been any real rain yet. He parked where Adamo always parked the truck, and moved up the old trail.

There wasn’t much of the trail left. Seven years had sifted and turned, saturated and cracked, blown and rolled the earth, so that in many spots it wasn’t clear that there ever was a trail at all. But Caleb could follow the trail. He’d seen it in his dreams, then and now. It was still there.

He hadn’t taken a serious hike in a while; winded, he stopped several times, once to eat the sandwich and munch an apple. When he arrived at their original grow, it took a while to orient himself. The actual pot plot was long gone, of course. But there was so much brush and undergrowth that it wasn’t until he saw the old Doug fir they’d sawed the big bough off that he was able to fix his bearings. Then he walked up to the river.

He heard it before he saw it, a soft purling, a curl of sound. To get there, he had to walk past the spot where they’d shot the stranger. He paused for more than a minute; an involuntary shudder ran through him. I’ll probably never know who that guy was, he thought. Now, I don’t even know if he was real. But I guess ghosts are real.

He moved up and around the hill to the river. There was a little bit of sun coming through the sodden sky, and it did its little dance down through the redwood needles, flickering on some slow ripples in the current. Caleb felt his throat closing a little. He set his backpack on the ground, and pulled out and unfolded the little shovel. Then he set the silver dollar on the ground.

He’d intended to bury the silver dollar on the banks, thinking that he could finally bury something, the memory, the weight, the pain. But he looked at the dollar on the ground, and then at the river. It was the river that he’d heard all along, whenever he thought of that day, the roar of the river, the accusation, the judgment.

He picked up the silver dollar and moved to where he could see the edge of the bend, where the man’s body had curled around and disappeared. Caleb threw the silver dollar into the bend’s flow, where it knifed into the water, leaving a ghostly gleam in its wake. Then he knelt on the riverbank and wept.

The tears came in long, choking sobs. Caleb gripped his hands at his chest, interlacing the fingers. “I’m sorry,” he said aloud. “God, I’m sorry.”

After a while, he rose and headed back down the trail. His steps were stumbling at first, but somehow light. It seemed he was back at the car in no time. I’m hungry, he thought. It will be good to get back home.

tombentley

Tom Bentley is a fiction writer, an essayist, a business writer and editor. (He does not play banjo.) He’s published hundreds of freelance pieces—ranging from first-person essays to travel pieces to more journalistic subjects—in newspapers, magazines, and online. His small-press short story collection, Flowering and Other Stories, was published in the spring of 2012. His self-published book on finding and cultivating your writer’s voice, Think Like a Writer: How to Write the Stories You See was published in June of 2015. He would like you to pour him a Manhattan right at five.

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