Don has a problem.
He bursts into his kitchen through the raspy screen door and races over to his wall phone. (Yes, he still has one of those.) At the phone, he stops and walks back to the door, looks out, and yanks at his chin. He walks back to the phone.
Don picks up the receiver and punches buttons.
“Hank?– Yeah, Hank. You gotta get up here– No, it’s serious this time.– Yeah. Serious. Serious–” In response to something on the line, Don swivels around and glares at the clock. “Well, that’s fine, but don’t keep me waitin!” He slings the phone back into its cradle and resumes pacing. He resumes tugging at his chin, too.
Twenty minutes of hot, humid day pass before Don hears the crunch of tires out on his gravel drive. He explodes from his screen door with a bang and paws at the open window of Hank’s pick up before the man can even put it in park.
Rivulets of sweat run down out of the hair near Don’s temples.
“God. You look like you’ve run a marathon,” Hank says. “What’s the matter?”
“Get outta the car. Get out.” Hank takes his time to oblige. “Come here in the house.” Don casts oblique glances back and forth down the driveway.
In the kitchen, Hank twists his arm out of Don’s clammy grasp. “What’s going on? If you yank at me one more time, I’ll punch you in the nose. So help me.”
Don turns around, and his whole body– even the tip of his nose– quivers with emotion. “I done something,” he says.
“What’ve you done?”
“Something… not good. Come out back. I can show you.”
Don leads Hank through his shanty-like house and out the back door that wobbles on its hinges. They trudge through a fringe of green trees and underbrush and out into an open field, bursting with June color– sprays of yellow, white, and purple float among the green.
They stop at another line of trees that rim a small ditch down which a stream babbles.
Don points down into the ditch.
It takes Hank a moment to register what he’s seeing. At the bottom of the ditch lies a man in a white shirt and jeans; a large red stain fills most of the shirt.
“Did you do that?” Hanks asks.
“I think so,” Don says.
“Exactly how did you do that?”
“I’m not sure.”
“What do you mean?! ‘You’re not sure.’ How are you not sure if you shot somebody?”
“I don’t know!” Don wails.
“Is he dead?”
“I reckon.” Don gulps back the hysteria that threatens to overwhelm him.
“You reckon? What? Do you mean you didn’t check?” Hank slides down the edge of the ditch.
“Well– I panicked. I was out shootin some rabbits, and then– I think maybe I shot him!”
Hanks leans over the body, two fingers against the man’s throat. “He’s dead all right,” Hank announces.
“What do you think I should do?”
Hank bites the side of his lips. “Well– I suppose you outta call the sheriff.”
“Call the sheriff?! Are you crazy?! You know what I got up in the house? If he don’t take me in for that, he sure as shit won’t think this is an accident.”
Hank raises an eyebrow. “It was an accident, right?”
“Course it was an accident. I was huntin rabbits, not trespassers– Sides, I’ve never seen this guy in my life!”
Hank looks from his friend to the dead man and knits his brow. “What do you suppose he was doin out here in your woods?”
“I don’t care! I don’t know what I’m gonna do with him. What if they find him? They’ll think I did it.”
Hank frowns at the dead body.
“You think we could move him?” Don asks. “Put him for someone else to find?”
“Well, there’s always poachers running on old McCaskell’s farm. Maybe if we could get him over there…” Hank spits toward Don’s feet. “You and your ‘stuff’ get me in more trouble…”
“Nobody’s in trouble yet!”
“Yeah? How are we supposed to move him?”
“I got a wheelbarrow.”
“Great,” Hank says, grinding the back of his teeth over his words.
They trudge back through the fields and to the rear of the house. Don’s meager possessions lie scattered across the unshorn lawn. The wheelbarrow sits beneath the decaying overhang of the lean to, which juts from the back of the house. The barrow is filled to the top with weeds– some still growing. Don yanks the mess out in handfuls and drops it on the ground. The front wheel of the barrow looks a bit soft, and as Don moves it, it makes a thumping noise against the ground.
They wobble back to the dead man with the wheel beat keeping time.
“You ever think of the morality of what we’re doing here?” Hank asks. “Just to hide your ‘stuff’.”
“I haven’t got time to think of nothin.”
They both descend into the ditch together. Don moves to the man’s head and arms; Hank moves to his feet. They pick him up and lumber sideways up the bank, their steps jerky.
“I guess there’s not much more I could do that would send me to hell,” Don says, clearly now thinking of the morality of the situation.
Hank huffs. “If you believe in such a place.”
“If there isn’t a place, that’s pretty good for someone like me, wouldn’t you say?” Don laughs.
They set the body into the wheelbarrow as if he’s only sleeping, and they’re afraid to wake him up.
“I’m not so sure about that either,” Hank says. “There’s such a thing as hell on earth, isn’t there?”
Don peers at his friend from across the barrow. “What are you implying?”
“That you’re an idiot.”
Don takes the handles of the wheelbarrow and strains to move it forward fully loaded on a soft wheel. He puffs his cheeks as he pushes.
“Oh common!” Hank takes one of the handles and together they inch it forward. Across the field. Across the unshorn grass. Around the house. They pause in the gravel drive out front.
“Let’s dump him in McCaskell’s woods, and then we’ll put an anonymous call in to report him,” Don says, stretching his back.
“We’re gonna have to cross the road.” Hank peers down the gravel drive where it twists away through the trees to the main road.
“We’ll make it quick.”
“With that tire?” Hank shakes his head and leans into his side of the wheelbarrow once more.
Don’s driveway meanders through a thick swath of trees that hide his house from the road. The men are drenched in sweat by the time they reach the end of it, and they bat the drips out of their eyes with their T-shirt sleeves.
Don tiptoes out to the black top, looks both ways, and then races back. “Coast’s clear. Gotta hurry.”
Though by no means a main road, it isn’t a back road either, and the Staties use it as a shortcut to their barracks often.
Hank and Don puff with all the breath their lungs can muster, and for once, the little wheelbarrow bumps. They reach the lip of the black top and the soft tire catchs with a jarring bump. The barrow lists toward Hank.
“Watch it!” Don says.
The wheelbarrow tips on its side and the dead man goes sprawling. For a moment, the two other men stand blinking at the spectacle.
“Well, don’t just stand there!” Don says, voice breaking high.
“Oh, shut up.”
Hank scrambles over to the man’s head while Don rounds to his feet. They hear a car nearing the far curve, tires humming.
They drag the man up from the ground and have him suspended between them when the car bursts through the corner and down the straight stretch past them. They freeze as if it will transmute them into invisibility. The car’s slipstream buffets them as it passes, and without turning their heads, they both roll their eyes to see who has gone by.
“Shit,” Hank growls.
The car’s break lights grow fiery red at the opposite end of the straight stretch, and the cruiser pulls over onto the gravel shoulder.
“What do we do?” Don says.
“I don’t know.”
“Put him down.”
“You put him down.”
“I’m not gonna drop him in front of a cop. That’s just disrespectful.”
Still frozen they hear the trooper’s boots on the gravel before they see him.
“What’ve you boys got there?” the officer asks, hand close to his sidearm.
Hank looks over at the trooper. “Hi, officer,” he says with a smile rimmed by sweat.
“I’m gonna have to ask you to put down the body, boys,” the Trooper says without a hint of rancor.
Don looks at Hank, and Hank looks at Don. They set the body down on the gravel as if he is just a baby. As they straighten, Don catches Hank’s eyes again.
“Run!” he says.
©️ 2021 Katie Baker