This is a novel excerpt. Copyright is held by the author.
HE DIDN’T do what he was told.
He couldn’t. It was better this way. He’d leave the boy in the woods.
He drove. He thought he was far enough away. Fifteen miles out. How far should he drive? It was dark and cold and no one went out this way. It would be spring before anyone would find the boy, if then. Part of him didn’t mind if they did find him. The boy was wrapped in a black plastic garbage bag. He was sure he hadn’t left his prints on him.
He pulled into the tiny dirt road off Rt. 6, then pulled over halfway up it, parking on the patch of turn around space where the road got wider. He shut off the headlights. It was pitch black. Not even a speck of moonlight from the overcast clouds. Weatherman said snow was coming. Everyone in town was out getting their bread and milk. Their valentines too.
He popped the trunk. Put on latex gloves. Fixed his beanie hat in the mirror to make sure it covered his ears. You got this, he thought.
It has to be done. The consequences of not doing it were too great.
He went to the trunk, pulled out the black garbage bag. The boy was heavy inside. He flopped him up over his shoulder like a rolled-up rug being brought into the house.
He walked a few steps, realized he’d need his flashlight. He flicked on the tiny flashlight he kept in his pocket on ground below him, then shined it a bit ahead to see if there were any obstructions. Just trees and branches, fallen leaves and various bushes and vines. He kept walking.
Was he doing the right thing? Bringing the body here? Then he reminded himself. There was no choice. He pretended to be a soldier. All is fair in love and war, for freedom, right? Freedom has a cost, he reminded himself.
He walked through the stillness of the black night feeling a demon peering over his shoulder. He could sense it. He kept going. Into the depths of black.
He didn’t do what he was told.
It didn’t matter now. It was too late.
It started to snow lightly. He needed to find a place to put the boy before it snowed too much.
He stopped, at the sight of a stone wall ahead. A field lay beyond that. He was tired of walking. He couldn’t put him in the field, it was too visible. Instead, he dropped the bag into the mess of leaves, under the Elm tree. He started to cover the boy in the black bag by kicking leaves over it. Then he worried. He worried that maybe his prints were on the bag. He thought about the boy, rotting in the bag. If he took him out, an animal would surely eat him. He’d decompose by late spring so long no one found him. It wasn’t as if he had completely disobeyed. He made a decision. The boy needed the cold air and the dirt.
He stepped back, took out his multitool and cut open the bag. There. The boy could lay there. On top of the open bag. He covered him up with leaves because he couldn’t stand to look at him for even a moment.
A hand lay free, open. He started to kick leaves onto it and then stopped. What was a boy doing out here anyway? What would they say? If they found him? Before he decomposes? How did he die?
He flipped open his multitool again, carefully standing by the boy’s head. He knelt down and made some cut marks on his wrist. Isn’t teen suicide a thing these days? He thought. He’d heard it on 60 Minutes. He looked away as he cut. He brought his shirt to his nose. The boy was already starting to stink.
He stood up. He’d burn these clothes. Bury this multitool.
He didn’t listen. But no one needed to know about that.
He walked back to his car. It snowed heavier now. Six feet by dawn. That’s what the weatherman said. Six feet seemed fitting. Even though he knew the boy was dead, he hoped he wasn’t cold.
The August sun beat on Luke’s back, amplified by his black Nirvana t-shirt that sucked in the scorching heat. He popped his skateboard up with his foot, grabbing the nose of the deck. He squinted from the sun in his eyes. He wiped the sweat from his brow with his other hand and pulled off his Sony Walkman headphones. Muffled sounds of Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train blasted through the earphone speakers.
It had been four weeks since he met the girl in the woods crouched behind the bushes to spy on her father, the Vietnam Vet living in a camper by the pond under the oak tree. He’d been intrigued ever since.
The truth was, things were sad and lonely before Luke knew Morgan existed. Before his father died, his mother was always adamant about involving both him and his little sister, Haley, in extra activities – to make up for the lack of socialization from being home schooled. There were karate classes, piano and guitar lessons, youth group and summers at bible camp. All of that changed when his father had the heart attack, while driving the tractor trailer. Luke knew money was tight now, with his father gone. His mother also had a hard time getting out of bed, on most days. At first, he was patient with her. The grief was unbearable for everyone. He decided to fix the situation by getting a job at Mr. Pitney’s pig farm nearby. It was hard work, but he could do the work mostly by himself, except when he worked with Jose, the farmhand from Mexico that also worked on the farm. Jose lived in a trailer on the property and was hoping to save enough money to bring his family in Mexico to the United States. Luke enjoyed his company, and Henry Shine’s company too. Henry was Mr. Pitney’s son. Henry was a bit slow-Luke wasn’t sure what to call it, though he didn’t like to call it retarded, the way most kids his age did. Luke would hear them on the street make fun of Henry, as they’d point and say, “Look at that retard!” Luke, on a few occasions, stuck up for Henry. For that reason, Henry loved Luke and followed him almost everywhere he went on the farm. Luke didn’t mind, and he was proud to make money to help with the bills. Still, it was hard because he spent the rest of the time teaching Haley and himself with the homeschool books. He also did the mowing, the cooking (even if it was just bags of instant rice, tuna sandwiches and Lucky Charms), the cleaning and kept Haley company.
Then, one day — his mother got out of bed. She cooked eggs. Made toast. Got a job at the local pharmacy as a pharmacy technician when the life insurance ran out. The insurance money had only been enough to cover the funeral, some bills, groceries and rent for the months following. With his mother’s new job at the pharmacy, things were looking up. Until they weren’t. It all ended the day his mother laid eyes on Butch Finch.
Butch Finch was a truck driver, like Luke’s Dad. Except he was nothing like Luke’s Dad. Driving truck was all they had in common.
Butch showed up at the pharmacy with a fever and prescription. Luke’s mother waited on him. Luke didn’t know what kind of charm Butch laid on her to hook his mother in or how her mother could even think of looking at another man after losing her husband, his father, the greatest father in the world, just seven months before. But somehow, Butch was suddenly at the house fixing the leaky pipe under the sink (Luke told her he’d get to it), sitting on the couch watching “Wheel of Fortune” with his mother and Haley, and showing up at the breakfast table the next morning while his mother cooked pancakes and strutted around the kitchen as if she was mother of the year, calling Luke “honey,” “sweetie” and asking if he’d finished his homework. She hadn’t even taught him in months, now she cared about homework? So, he grabbed his skateboard, left the pancakes on the plate, put on his headphones and headed out the door. He’d been doing that most days since.
Butch kept showing up, when he wasn’t on the road. He wasn’t fixing faucets anymore. He was piling up beer cans – a collection started on the front porch that then spread to his Lazy Boy in the living room. He sat on the toilet for too long, ate all the Oreos and while he smiled and acted nice to Luke in the beginning, in front of Luke’s mother, he made sure to pull Luke aside, behind the garage and say, “You fucking little shit I’ll wreck you up if you even think about coming between me and your mother.”
That’s when it started.
Now, in this moment, headphones still blaring Soul Asylum, sun still scorching his skin, Luke stared down the dirt driveway. He looked to see if Butch’s beat up Ford truck was there. He’d been on a truck trip and was due back at any time. He sighed a breath of relief when he saw it missing.
Luke set his skateboard down and flipped open the mailbox to grab the mail. He was waiting for the public-school paperwork. The only good thing about Butch was that he’d convinced Luke’s mother to send both Luke and Haley to public school. While Luke never minded being homeschooled, and loved it when things were normal, before his dad died, he was relieved that he wouldn’t have to worry about teaching Haley any longer. Also, going to school would ensure Haley got out of the house, made friends, and wasn’t around Butch so much. The silver lining was he’d get to see Morgan every day at school. He liked Morgan. He liked her a lot. They spent most of the time talking on the phone because Morgan’s family, primarily her grandmother, was strict. But Morgan managed to sneak out a time or two and they were able to hang out, at the park and the pig farm. Luke was thinking about asking Morgan to go to church with him next Sunday. Morgan didn’t talk about God. Luke missed church. He missed going with his dad, his mom and Haley. He missed the sermon. He didn’t blame God for his father’s death. He knew his father would want him to go back to church.
“Luke! Luke!” Haley came running out the door, ponytail swinging. Luke looked up from the mail he was sorting through, smiling when he saw the envelope from Elmwood Public Schools. His smile dissipated when he saw the look of pure panic on Haley’s face.
“What is it?” Luke asked.
Haley grabbed his hand and said, “Come quick, it’s Mom.” She paused to catch her breath. “She, she —” Haley stopped, trying to catch her breath.
“Wait, what? What’s wrong Haley?” Luke demanded as Haley gasped for air. “Just calm down, Haley. Take a deep breath.” Luke soothed her and worried she’d have an Asthma attack. Not that she had Asthma, it was just that she was panting so heavy.
“Mom. She’s not waking up!” Haley spit out.
Luke ran to the house, Haley in one hand, the mail in another. He left the skateboard at the mailbox. He bounded through the backdoor, letting the screen door slam shut behind him. He tossed the mail onto the kitchen table as he passed by.
“She’s in her room,” Haley said as the two of them walked down the hallway towards their mother’s room. “She said she was going to take a nap and I was playing with my Barbies. But I went to ask her if she was going to warm up some spaghetti. She said she was going to Luke. I’m so hungry. And you said I shouldn’t use the stove. But when I went to her room she was sleeping. And I called and I shook her Luke and she didn’t wake up! I saw you through the window in the driveway. Is she going to be ok? Luke? Luke!” Haley spoke a mile a minute, sobbing in between. Luke said nothing, but kept focused on getting to their mother.
Luke paused outside his mother’s bedroom door.
“Haley,” he said. Haley swallowed her cry and gulped, looking at her brother without saying a word.
“Stay here.” Luke ordered. “No. Wait. Go in your room. I’ll come get you.”
“Haley, go,” Luke demanded. He wasn’t sure what he’d walk into. Was his mother alive? He wanted to protect Haley. “It’s ok,” He added. “Let’s not scare Mom, OK?”
“OK,” Haley said. Luke noticed she still had her Barbie in her right hand. The one with short uneven hair because Haley cut it. Haley stepped into her bedroom, the doorway just to the side of where they were standing. Luke closed her door.
He stood outside his mother’s door and said a prayer. He turned the doorknob.
It was dark in his mother’s room. The shades were pulled tight, all the lights off. It was stifling hot, but not as hot as outside since the shades were pulled. There was a small breeze from a fan that sat on the floor, gently humming as it moved side to side, spreading air around the room.
Luke flipped on the light.
His mother lay on the bed with mix matched pajamas on, missing one sock. He could tell she hadn’t showered because of her matted, frizzed perm. The bed was unmade. A pillow had made it onto the floor. The pet cat, Bingo, stretched, then sprung up and ran out the door as Luke came closer.
“Mom,” Luke called. He reached over, tugged at her shoulders. “Mom —” He said again.
He felt her face. She felt warm. Not hot or feverish, but not cold either. He felt her chest to see if her heart was still beating. It was.
“Mom,” Luke said again. He looked around the room. Prescription bottles lined the night stand. He never knew his mother to need so much medicine until his father died. He never knew her to be sick. He picked up a bottle, the one with the cap off. “Xanax,” he read on the bottle. “Take as needed.”
There were other bottles too. Luke picked them up, one by one, to look at each bother. There was something strange about the bottles. There were no labels on them. He opened one and peeked inside. There were hard tablets inside. He dropped one onto his palm and looked at it. Percocet, was written across it. There were other pills too, in zip lock bags. “Vicodin,” he read on the pills. He knew his mother had anxiety and headaches since his father died, but where did she get all these pills? Surely the doctor hadn’t prescribed them all?
“Mom,” Luke shook his mother. “Mom. Mom!” He said again.
His mother groaned and covered her eyes.
“Mom, get up. What are you doing?”
“Leave me alone. I’ve got a headache.” She moaned.
“Mom, Haley’s hungry. She was worried about you. She tried to wake you up.”
“Just leave me alone, I need sleep.”
“Mom, where did you get all these pills?”
She opened her eyes and looked at Luke. He noticed the bags and dark circles beneath her eyes.
“I told you Luke, I had a headache. The doctor gave me those pills.”
“All of these pills?” Luke said. “Even the ones without labels?”
Luke’s mother rolled over and looked at the nightstand, realizing her son had found her stash. She’d been keeping it in a gym bag in her closet but took them out to see how many she had. It was true, some were from the doctor. He had prescribed her Xanax for the panic attacks. But when the headaches started, nothing helped. Not Motrin, not Tylenol. The doctor only suggested a higher dose of Motrin. One day, her head hurt so bad she couldn’t stand it. Butch had a Percocet prescription for his back. He gave her one. It took the headache away and made her feel marvelous. Butch kept sharing the pills until his prescription ran out. Since he was on the road and not back to get a new prescription, she decided to stock up on some. She worked in a pharmacy, after all. Her job was to sign off on the shipments. It was a small-town pharmacy. Nothing complicated. The pharmacist, Mr. Robinson, was a gentler, older man. He didn’t keep watch the way he should. It started with a pill or two, here and there. Then it grew to more pills, moving to different types of pain killers to have, just in case. She’d collect them to have only if needed, so she wouldn’t run out. That’s what she told herself.
“What are you trying to say?” His mother sat straight up now.
“Mom, the doctor doesn’t give pills without prescriptions. These bottles don’t have labels.”
“Are you calling me a thief? Do you think I’d do that to you and Haley? I need that job.” She said.
“Mom, these pills aren’t yours.”
“Those pills are extra pills. Extra pills at the pharmacy.”
“Mom, listen to yourself. You can’t take these pills. You’re going to kill yourself!” Luke dropped his backpack onto the carpet and unzipped it.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“I’m taking these pills away from you.” Luke started to dump the bottles without labels and the Ziploc bags into his backpack. There was room, as he only had an extra t-shirt and package of fruit Gushers inside.
“Stop that! Now!” Luke’s mother started grabbing bottles and bags of pills off the nightstand, throwing them onto her bed. She knocked over the open Xanax bottle and it spilled onto the floor. “Now look what you’ve done!”
“Look what I’ve done, look at you Mom! You’re stealing pills! How can you do this? Do you think Dad would be proud you’ve turned into a drug addict?”
Luke’s mother leaped up off the bed and slapped Luke across the face. “How dare you! How dare you! You don’t know how hard it is!” Luke stood, dumbfounded, his backpack filled with only a quarter of the pills his mother had stolen.
“You don’t understand! I am no thief! I am not a drug addict. These are prescription pills, Luke. Doctors prescribe them. I just need them to get through the day sometimes. I don’t have time to always get to the doctor with work and you kids and all these headaches. I just took the extra. No one will miss them. It’s just for now. Just for a little while.”
“It’s Butch, isn’t it? He’s giving these to you! He’s got you addicted!”
“Leave Butch out of this. He’s good for me.”
“How can you say that? Dad just died! How can you say that?”
“Your father wouldn’t want me to be alone.”
“But you’re not alone. You have us.” Luke stared at his mother. “You have Haley and me.”
Luke’s mother paused and looked at her son. If she could only explain how dark and lost she felt inside.
“I’m sorry Luke. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean. I just mean. I just need some of the pills. I’ll stop. I promise. I just need to rest now. I have a headache. Please, please. Just leave me alone to rest. I’ll be better in the morning. Here. Take these. Take these pills and flush them down the toilet. Just take them.” She shoved the bottles on the bed toward Luke. Let him take those bottles away, she thought. She knew there were more hiding in her purse. She’d just finish those. Then she’d stop.
Luke grabbed two bottles and put them in his backpack with the rest. He left some on his mother’s bed-the bottle of Xanax that had spilled and one bottle of Percocet’s.
“Promise me, you’ll stop. I’ll leave just these few here. The one’s the doctor prescribed. The Xanax.” He picked up some of the Xanax off the floor and put it in the bottle on the bed. Then he grabbed the other Percocet bottle and put it in his bag. “I can’t lose you too.”
““I promise,” His mother said, wanting to mean it, but knowing it was a lie. A lie for now. She’d just finish what she had. She wouldn’t take anymore. She wanted to mean it.
Luke didn’t know if he should believe his mother. He didn’t want to leave her with any pills, but he also needed her to get up out of bed each day. To get to work. He wasn’t a doctor. What if it was true? What if she needed the pills the doctor prescribed? He’d only take the painkillers. The ones she stole.
He zipped his backpack. “Haley’s hungry,” he said. “I’ll make her spaghetti.”
He swung the backpack over his shoulder and left his mother crying in bed.