Lenny leaned against the Volkswagen's window to catch a glimpse of the full moon. It hung high off the left side of the pocked gravel road, so brilliant in the hot, clear sky that it lit up the route like a searchlight. The car's right front tire dropped into a deep hole, bouncing him high enough to bang his head against the car's roof. Flakes of rust clung to his hair. He grabbed the wheel with both hands. In the passenger seat, Earl shifted and moaned, still asleep.
It was two hours since they'd crossed the North Carolina line, headed for the old cabin that belonged to Lenny's uncle. Lenny had spent his boyhood summers there, fishing and hunting the streams and woods of the Sandhills. But that was years ago.
The gravel ended abruptly and the road tapered to a dirt lane. The heavy gray dust cloud that trailed the small car changed to a thinner, orangey mist blowing up from sun-baked dirt. A sharp bend caught Lenny by surprise, and he braked hard, skidding nearly out of control. The turn brought a stark change in the landscape. No longer bordered by open, cut late-summer fields and small farms, the road was now hemmed by tall, straight loblolly pines and scrubby vegetation. Patches of white, sandy soil glimmered in the headlights.
Lenny downshifted, slowing so he wouldn't miss the landmarks for the next turn. He shook Earl awake.
"What is it?" Earl sat up and yawned. "Where the hell are we?"
"Almost to the cabin. Help me look for the turnoff. I'm lookin' for a sign on the right, pointing down an access road, toward the river. Says somethin' like 'Pee Dee Watershed Management Site Number 12', or '20'."
"Well, which is it? Twelve or twenty?"
"What?" Lenny was concentrating on the small headlight beams flashing across the trees.
"Will it say twelve, or twenty?"
Lenny looked over at Earl. "Hell, it could be Number 8, for all I know. What difference does it make?"
"What do you mean, 'it could be Number 8'?"
"Earl, just look for any damned sign pointin' to any damned watershed site."
"Hey, don't get mad at me. I'm not the numbnuts can't remember what the number is. And what kinda sign did you say it is? A waterbed?"
"Watershed. Waterbed don't make sense."
"You ask me, this whole cabin idea don't make sense. Especially you not rememberin' what number is on the sign."
Lenny's head swiveled back and forth, from the road to the stupid grin on Earl's face, and he gripped the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white. Finally, he stomped on the brake and clutch, the small car fishtailing to a stop. He glared at Earl, who fell against the dashboard.
"Listen, asshole, thanks to you, I'm under quite a bit of pressure here. I jus' want to get to Uncle Bo's cabin so I can figure out what to do about this mess we're in." He leaned over and put his face right next to Earl's. "Your mess."
"Whoa, there, Len. A little too much nacho cheese, partner." Earl wrinkled his nose.
"What the fuck is wrong with you?" Lenny asked. "Ain't you got any idea of the fix we're in?"
"Sure I do. It's just that... well, that breath of yours is makin' it hard to think."
Lenny's fists balled up and he pulled back to throw a punch. Earl flinched, pulling his arm up in self-defense. Lenny regained control and pulled his hand down. He took a deep breath, letting it out in a slow, tight stream through pursed lips. It was an anger management technique he'd learned from his ex-wife, Gail. He often thought it was about the only good thing he'd ever got from the marriage.
"Just keep an eye out for any signs. Do you think you can do that?"
"Yeah, sure." Earl slowly lowered his arm. "I jus' wish I knew what number I was lookin' for."
Lenny sighed. He put the VW in gear and pointed the car back down the road. As he drove, he peeked at Earl, who spent his time picking at a dried glob on his shirt, instead of looking out the window for signs. Considering the rest of the mess on his clothes, Lenny was confused about Earl's concern with that particular stain.
Distracted by Earl, Lenny nearly missed the sign for the watershed turnoff. It turned out to be Site Number 21. "There's the sign," he said, pointing back over his shoulder. Earl turned to look.
"What number is it?"
"Twenty. Just like I said." Lenny smiled.
About a half mile beyond the access road, another road cut into the pines on the left side. Lenny misjudged how far it was past the sign, and didn't see it until he'd passed it. He had to stop and back up. Wide spaces separated the trees and a thick bed of dried, russet needles blanketed the ground in the open areas between them, including the narrow drive. The branches diffused the moonlight, creating a web of shadows all around them. Lenny carefully guided the Beetle through the forest until, at last, the cabin's dark shape appeared atop a knoll ahead of them. He parked around back.
"Get the guns," Lenny said, nodding toward the back seat. "I'll get the money and other stuff out of the trunk." He shut off the engine.
"Why can't I get the money?"
"I mean, why do you get to carry the money?"
"Jesus Christ, Earl. Do you think I'm gonna run off into the woods with two big bags of stolen cash, hike fifteen miles back to Marston with them swingin' over my shoulders, stop some yokel and ask him if he knows a nice motel where I can stay?"
"Well, no, that's not what I'm saying." Earl pushed up the brim of his Durham Bulls ball cap. A greasy strand of long blond hair fell across the left side of his face. "But half that money is mine."
"And one of those shotguns is mine. Do you hear me saying I think you're gonna keep 'em both? I'm not planning on keepin' your money. I'm just gonna carry it inside."
"Well, then, why don't you carry the guns, and I'll carry the money?" Earl scratched his stubbled cheek.
"Godammit, Earl, you're really pissin' me off." Lenny took another deep breath, and rubbed the back of his neck. "All right. How about this? Why don't you carry one of the guns and one of the bags of cash, and I'll carry the other." Lenny watched Earl process his proposal.
"Then who carries the groceries?"
Lenny stared at Earl for a long moment. "I'm going in." He reached into the back and grabbed his shotgun, and then slammed the car door. At the front of the car, he yanked open the trunk so hard it bounced back shut, nearly clipping his head. He reopened it slowly, and hooked his fingers through the loops of four plastic grocery bags. He tucked the shotgun under his arm. With his free hand, he grabbed one of the canvas bank bags.
"Nice night, don't you think?" Earl had come up beside Lenny, holding the other gun against his shoulder like a soldier. "Though I 'spect it's going to rain. You can smell it in the air." He closed his eyes, tilted his head back and sniffed deeply.
Lenny shook his head and banged the trunk closed.
"Hey! I need to get the other bag out of there."
Lenny walked around to the other side of the cabin. He stepped onto the low, covered porch and placed all of the bags next to the door. The full moon, covered now by thin ribbons of cloud, still provided enough light to see. Lenny studied the porch's edge to locate a board with a deep, weathered V notched in a corner. Counting five boards over from the V, he leaned down and felt the ground below the porch for the key he trusted would still be there. It was. Before unlocking the door, he dug around the shopping bags to find a flashlight and some batteries. Lenny aimed the beam into the cabin, just as Earl appeared at the side of the building.
When he walked into the one-room cabin, Lenny recoiled at its thick, damp mustiness. He ran the light in hurried, jerky movements—up, across, down, back up—as he scanned the large space. In a far corner, the flashlight's beam surprised a large rat, its perfectly round eyes shining like tiny stoplights. The rat darted away and Lenny was just able to see its tail disappear down a hole in the floor, beneath one of the cabin's two windows.
"Leave the door open, so we can get some air in here."
"Jesus! This place smells worse than your breath," Earl said, ambling up to the door. "Shine the light over here so I can see where I'm walkin'. I don't want to step in some animal's shit."
Instead of pointing the beam at Earl's feet, Lenny aimed the light at one of the grocery bags. "Hurry up and get the other flashlight out of the bag."
As Earl moved about, inspecting the stuffy room, Lenny opened a gallon water jug, poured some into each palm and rubbed them together briskly. He dried his hands on the legs of his jeans.
"Hey, Earl," Lenny said, holding up the jug. "You might want to see if you can get some of that blood off your hands. Though I'm not sure what we're gonna do with your clothes."
Earl stood up from where he was shining the flashlight down the rat hole, and walked over to Lenny. He tried the same washing technique as Lenny, but he had far more blood, too much to get all of it without soap or a towel.
"Damn, this shit is sticky." Earl's pants were too covered in blood to be used for drying, so he shook his hands rapidly to dry them. "Why the hell didn't you remember to grab soap?"
"If it wasn't for your stupidity, we wouldn't even need soap. Why didn't you think to get some?"
"All I'm sayin' is, it wouldn't have hurt you to pick up a bar of Ivory or something when you was running around like a madman, grabbing shit."
"I was only 'running around like a madman' because, as always, you have to go and act like an idiot when you think someone looks sideways at you. There was no reason to be shootin' those people, Earl." Lenny grabbed the jug from the other man and took a drink.
"I told you. He was mouthin' off at me."
"He was not. I was standing right next to you. He never said a word."
"He muttered it under his breath. You just couldn't hear it. He called me a 'hippie', plain as day. But I ain't no goddamn hippie, and no one is going to call me one, either." Earl spit toward the door.
"Well, if I couldn't hear it, I don't see how you could've."
"So, you're sayin' that guy didn't say anything, and I blew his brains out for fun?"
Lenny threw his arms out wide. "That's exactly what I just said, asshole!" He started to take a calming, deep breath, but stopped. "Screw Gail, and screw you, Earl."
"What's your wife got to do with this?" Earl asked.
"Ex-wife, asshole. And she ain't got nothin' to do with this."
"Then why'd you say her name? That don't make much sense, Lenny. Like you not getting any soap."
"Will you forget the fuckin' soap, for chrissake!" Lenny pressed his fingertips against his temples and closed his eyes.
"Easy for you to say. Thanks to me, you only got a little blood on you. If I hadn't blocked most of it, you'd be soaked, like I am." Earl held his arms open in a "look at this" gesture.
"Only because you were the one who decided to shoot that clerk for no reason, you idiot." Lenny began pacing the small cabin. He glanced at the rat hole, suddenly wishing the rat would come back.
"I told you, he called me a goddamn hippie. Ain't no one gonna smartmouth me like that and get away with it."
"Well," Lenny said. "He sure as shit didn't get away with it."
In the reflected glow of Earl's flashlight, Lenny saw the other man was smiling at what he'd thought was a compliment.
"But I still think you were an idiot not to have snatched some soap," Earl said.
Lenny stopped pacing and shone his flashlight directly in Earl's face.
"Hey, get that out of my eyes."
Lenny hands were shaking, but he managed to keep the light pointed at Earl's face. He backed up to where his shotgun leaned against the wall. Waving his hand behind him, he felt the gun's barrel. He lifted it and aimed it at Earl.
"What are you doin', Len?"
"I gonna ask you to do something that I ain't so sure you're capable of doing, Earl. I want you to shut up."
Earl backed away slowly. "Sure thing, Lenny. I'll shut up. I ain't got no problem with that. If that's what you want me to—"
"SHUT UP, NOW! And don't move." The gun wobbled in Lenny's hands. "I've had just about all of you I can take, Earl. We had it made, can't you see that? Hittin' that restaurant went just as I planned. We got the money from the safe and got away without anyone even seein' us. All we had to do was head out west and enjoy the money. But you couldn't be cool with that, could you?"
"Lenny, listen, man..."
Lenny cocked both barrels. "This is your last warning, Earl. Don't say another fuckin' word."
Earl held his palms out, nodded and smiled. Casually, he tucked his thumbs into the waistline at the back of his jeans.
"I wish to hell I had listened to my gut instinct and kept on drivin' when you begged me to stop at that convenience store to get somethin' to eat," Lenny said. "Guess I'm nothin' but a softie." The flashlight beam slipped a couple of inches, so it wasn't directly in Earl's eyes. "And while I sure as shit don't think that guy deserved to have his head blowed off, even if he did call you a hippie...man, doing that girl was wrong, Earl. Just plain wrong."
Lenny's mind replayed the scene at the convenience store. He is casually checking out the display of Little Debbie's snacks when there's a thunderous blast and he's splattered with the clerk's blood. Behind him, Earl is holding the smoking Magnum, his head and chest covered with more than just blood. Suddenly, a teenage girl who is standing by the soda cooler starts screaming. Earl walks over calmly, like he was going to ask her for her phone number, puts the gun against her head and blasts the back half clean off.
"Just plain wrong," Lenny said again, shaking his head. "Man, I begged you to just stay in the car and watch the money. And you carrying that fuckin' cannon around everywhere was just trouble waitin' to happen."
Earl's mouth opened to speak, but he closed it quickly.
"So now, instead of me bein' able to relax in some nice, fancy hotel somewhere, I gotta hide out in this smelly-ass shithole with the dumbest, ugliest, most annoying freakin' retard that ain't got the common sense God gave a rock..."
Earl brought the handgun around so fast that Lenny didn't have time to react. The first bullet hit Lenny in the throat. At once, his mouth filled with the hot, coppery taste of blood. Earl fired a second shot immediately, striking Lenny's chest. As Lenny fell backward, his finger contracted and the shotgun fired, the discharge lighting up the room with its brief brilliance. The barrel had been close to Earl's face and the blast sent his lower jaw splintering across the cabin. Earl dropped the pistol, his hands flying to what was left of his face. He danced around the room, making a gurgling sound. Thick blood flowed down Earl's shirt from his severed jugular vein and he stumbled against the open door, where he collapsed.
Lenny's eyes followed Earl around the room. Lenny had fallen straight backward, so that his head rested on one of the bags of cash, like a pillow. He sputtered and choked but couldn't clear the blood filling his throat. After a few minutes, he watched Earl's head fall to one side, his eyes open and staring directly at him.
Lenny felt a cold, tingling sensation move up from his toes. He knew he should try to stand, but he was too weak and too tired. He lay on the floor, looking over at Earl's dead, gloriously silent half-face, and grinned.
There was a slight scratching noise across the room and Lenny turned slowly to see the rat standing next to the hole in the floor. He and the rat stared at each other for a long time.
Eventually, the rat inched across the floor, crawled over Lenny's body and began gnawing at a box of Little Debbie's Cupcakes.
About the author:
Ray Morrison's stories have appeared in Ecotone, Aethlon, Foliate Oak, Night Train, Carve Magazine, Southern Hum, and others. When he's not writing, he practices veterinary medicine in Winston-Salem, NC, where he lives.
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