By Kevin Wiggins
The sky, devoid of clouds, allowed the sun to blister the land all day; until the night and the stars and a full moon prevailed.
For Justin, as he sat on the ground pulling his goatee and listening to the hot breeze rustle the leaves, night was marching into position much too slowly. He tired of sweating, and trying to discern the whistling in the wind. He couldn’t hear over the crackling and popping of the fire. The noise forced him to strain to hear any syllables the wind might offer.
Retribution came to mind but he didn’t think that was it.
Then the crickets chimed in. He’d cuss at them and sometimes they’d stop, or not.
Perhaps vengeance? Maybe. That’s what he was thinking before his brother Travis scrambled his concentration.
“Did you hear me, did you?” Travis pleaded.
Justin’s eyes were scanning the sky, as if UFOs were about to attack.
“I said I got drunk with Eric last night. He’s drinking a lot these days. Even using meth, you know that? Selling it to kids.”
Travis stared down at his brother with a grave face but the elder brother refused to bite: “I’m done with that idiot.”
“Kids on meth, and you don’t care?”
“He’ll pay the price, one way or another … those kinds always do.”
“And how many kiddies will go down with him?”
The brothers sat (Justin) and stood (Travis) respectively on top of a cliff (a cliff they called The Cliff) a few miles from Three Rivers, the county seat, while both sipped beer on a hazy summer day that was dwindling into darkness. Streaks of blood red, pus yellow and bruised purple lazily crossed the sky like haphazard battalions.
Cliffs towered over a landscape once dominated by strip mines; mines now all abandoned and covered with high grass. Pine trees smothered the hills in the distance, and the beavers made their dams in the spring water trapped between the cliffs.
“Now listen to me …. (Travis stopped, took his time, puffed a smoke, swigged his beer while piercing into the night sky with his squinty eyes.) He told me he pushed Shawn off that cliff. I mean this cliff, this very cliff.” As he spoke he jabbed his index finger back and forth in the direction of the cliff’s edge.
“And he was fucked up?”
“He’s always fucked up.”
“If your fucking with me I’m gonna kick your ass.”
“You and whose army?”
While Travis waited for his brother to absorb the magnitude of his words, the light wind shifted and smoke from the fire attacked his eyes. He turned his head away and wiped the tears from his eyes with his beer-free hand.
Justin pretended he didn’t notice. “Why’s he talking now, after all these years, … to you no less … you two haven’t been exactly chummy for years.”
“You know Dominque and Trip? Kids that play in the playground by my house. You’ve seen them before. Well I was sitting on the porch and they ran up to me and told me, to my face, he tried to sell them meth, in broad daylight.”
“If he’s making it, selling it, using it” Justin said while wiping the sweat off is brow with the back of his hand, “it won’t be long until he’s dead … or in jail.”
“Along with half the county.”
“Half of Ohio.”
Travis flicked his butt out over the cliff. The brothers watched the red sparks fly and hover in the breeze before the butt snuffed out and dropped into the abyss.
“If he did kill Shawn, intentionally, we don’t have to do anything,” Justin said. “Dead man walking.”
“All I’m saying is let’s have a talk with him and clear the air. Maybe things didn’t go down like we thought they did, all those years ago.”
“Nothing going to bring back Shawn. And the Eric we knew, he doesn’t exist anymore.”
“Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord.”
“You ain’t the Lord. Lord of the flies maybe.”
“You need to open your eyes, brother, and let the sun shine in.”
“We don’t need the sun, we need the moon. And there’s a full moon tonight … blood moon … Blood-Burning Moon, Redemption Moon? Blood-curdling Moon.”
“You don’t make no damn sense.”
“It’s a story I read in school. About racism. Can’t remember it right.”
“Random you are.” Travis was still wiping tears from is his smoke-filled eyes.
“It’s not that random. It’s about justice, or the lack thereof.”
“That’s what I’m talking about: Justice.”
Justin gave his brother a long hard nasty stare, like his brother didn’t know a damn thing about what he was talking about.
A jetliner flew across sky the, blinking red and white. Darkness was almost complete. The moon wasn’t red; but it was full, and bright.
“Why you keep coming out here anyway?” Travis asked.
He waited for an answer but his brother ignored him.
Justin preferred to listen to the crickets and watch the red and yellow streaks fade to black, anticipating the stars that would soon be sprinkling across the sky.
“All right,” the elder brother said, after a long pause, “why don’t you get me a beer and we’ll cogitate about the dead man walking.”
“Sure bro, I know you’re getting too old to get off your fat ass. Arthritis is setting in,” the younger brother teased as he ambled over to the cooler and opened it before yanking a couple of sweaty beers out of the melting ice. He even opened his brother’s beer before handing it to him, then watched his brother’s sweaty Adam’s apple bob up and down as he gulped. He watched his brother’s sweat drip off his nose before they both resumed their gaze up into the sky. Stars seemed to be gathering from all over the Universe, like a vast jury.
“Why don’t you call Andy and have him get Eric and himself over here,” Justin said, eventually. “We can have a talk and get this all figured out. Personally, I think this is a bunch of bullshit. Shawn fell off this cliff. He’s not the first nor the last that will die out here in the strip mines. That’s a fact.”
“Eric’s capable of anything,” Travis warned.
“Now. Not then.”
“Why don’t you call him?”
“I didn’t bring my phone.”
“What if I hadn’t come out here?”
“I’d had a peaceful night.”
Even though they were in their late 30’s, they only had each other; but they didn’t see it that way. Born late, their grandparents and parents were dead. Justin was divorced with one child he never saw; Travis had never been married and had no children he was aware of. They had girlfriends but neither of them were in love.
“Looks like every star in the Universe is out tonight,” Travis mused.
“The judge and jury.”
“You’re speaking in tongues tonight brother.”
“You call Andy yet? I’d like some peace before this night’s over.”
Travis pulled out his phone. He chatted with Andy for a while before asking where Eric was. “All right, call me back.”
“Did you even tell Andy what this was all about?”
“He knows, but he doesn’t want to deal with it.”
“Then he shouldn’t. You find Eric.”
“We all need to be here.” Travis knew his brother understood that.
Neither brother spoke for a while. The crickets fell silent too. The air seemed to be getting thick, like an invisible fog that you could feel.
Without warning, Justin jumped up and walked over to the edge of the cliff. He looked up into the multiplying stars, then down into the darkness. Lastly, up at the moon; it wasn’t red and it wasn’t yellow. It seemed to Justin it didn’t know what mood it was in, as if it was trying to make up its mind about something.
Eventually, Travis followed him. “We should turn on some music.”
“I don’t want to listen to that country bullshit you listen to.”
“You can’t listen to Soundgarden all your life.”
“Call Andy again. And don’t do it here, go into the woods. I need to think.”
“Anything you say asshole.”
Justin watched his brother fade to black before turning on his car and listening to “Black Hole Sun.” It might be a sad song, but it reminded him of good times, and that’s why he couldn’t listen to it all the way the way through anymore.
A few minutes later, Travis returned. “Andy sez Eric’s busy. Mixing up a batch. He sez Eric will be ready next Saturday night.”
“He sez he’s busy? You tell him this is non-negotiable. Either he comes here, tonight, or we hunt him down like a dog.”
Travis could plainly see the ire and wrath in his brother’s eyes, but he was surprised when his brother snarled at him, so he decided the only thing he could do is snarl back, that is until he thought he might have seen a shooting star. Justin confirmed his hunch, and they both thought it prophecy: This night would right a wrong, and Justice would be served. At the very least, truth would prevail.
“Tell him we just want to talk to him,” Justin said.” If he refuses, as a last resort, tell him we’ll burn down is fuckin’ meth lab.”
“No one knows where that is. He’s not a complete idiot.”
“Won’t be hard to find,” Justin scoffed.
“Tonight, we set things right,” Travis said. Justin nodded, barely.
Once Travis walked into the darkness again, Justin returned to the cliff edge and stared down into the blackness remembering what happened that night exactly twenty years ago. It was a blur for all the survivors. They were all drunk and stoned. If Shawn hadn’t fallen, or perhaps pushed; it might have been remembered as one of the best nights of their lives. It was on the eve of their graduation, and they all thought the world was their oyster.
But Fate had other plans, Justin lamented to himself.
He couldn’t stare down into total darkness for long before his eyes turned upward into space. Looking down offered no hope for the future. What’s done is done. But gazing upward into the vastness of space offered hope, somehow. Maybe not for himself, but for Mankind. Maybe man would get it right, someday. He wasn’t even sure what he meant, he was just searching for something positive.
When Travis returned, he sported bloodshot eyes, and a silly grin. And he took two more beers from Justin’s cooler.
“The stars are out thick tonight.” He handed a beer to his brother but Justin didn’t want more beer, he wanted an answer.
Travis looked grave at first, before his lips widened and an ornery grin waded across his face. “Andy says he’ll have him here in about an hour, dead or alive.”
Travis sat down by the fire while his brother dropped a log into the pit. They both watched the embers float up and zig-zag into the firmament until the night swallowed them whole. Eventually, Justin sat down too, on the other side of the pit. The music stopped, and the crickets fell silent.
Justin wondered if he as was ready to tell his brother what he thought needed to be said.
Finally, he said it.
“You know Travis life is like a series of threads. Strands that stretch out until they break, like rubber bands.”
“You are drunk.”
“No, it happens to everybody. Look at us. Our grandparents are dead, our mother and father. Somebody else is living in the house we grew up in. That whole life we led is dust. It might as well be a million years away. And Shawn, he’s been dead for twenty years now. He’ll always be eighteen. Until there’s nobody left to mourn him, then he’ll be forgotten, completely.
Travis’s phone broke out in song: Kenny Chesney’s “When the Sun goes Down.”
“It’s Andy.” Travis stood up and started pacing around the fire. “Sure, okay, all right, we’ll be here.”
Travis played with his phone for a while before telling his brother: “They’re on their way.”
They didn’t talk for a long time after that.
About a half hour later, the brothers heard slow crackling gravel before they saw any headlights.
The headlights were out long before they heard footsteps, or noticed any faces in the firelight.
Andy had always been a popular fellow. He had a cheery glow that affected people, pulled them in and made them feel safe. He was handsome and kind. Everybody liked Andy, especially women.
And it wasn’t always true, but Eric had become the opposite of Andy. The drugs had sucked his soul dry. He looked irritated and anxious, like he had a lot of pent up energy he was dying to unleash. He never could grow a full beard and it was obvious he hadn’t shaved in a long time. Patches of hair grew haphazardly across his face. He’d lost lots of weight. Justin hadn’t seen him in months, and was shocked by his waif-like appearance. When Eric walked up to the fire, Justin noticed his pale-yellow skin.
“How you been Justin?” Eric said. “Haven’t seen you in a coon’s age.”
“I don’t hang out in bars much anymore. I prefer the fresh air, and the open sky.”
“I hear that. I hear that. I’m outside a lot these days. Going here and there, to and thro, I’m a busy guy.”
“So I hear.”
“Everybody always hears lots of things. Whether their true or not, that’s another thing all together. I get around, I do my thing. Mainly I mind my own business.” He spoke rapidly, anxiously, desperately.
“So do I, and tonight I got business with you. We can get this over real quick, and be on our way. You been telling people you killed Shawn. Pushed him off the cliff.”
As Justin spoke, Eric’s eyes opened wide and darted back and forth, one to the other of his old friends. His eyes met theirs, one at a time, while they all seemed to be trying to find out what might be going on in their hearts and minds.
“No, wait a minute, I … I.” Eric stopped talking. Andy and the brothers couldn’t tell whether he failed to find the words, or just couldn’t speak them.
“I loved Shawn,” he said, finally, “…I loved Shawn. I love him to this very day. I would never have hurt him. He was like a brother. We were all like brothers, back then. (tears welled in his eyes). We were all brothers, a band of brothers. I would have took a bullet for any of ya.”
The other three men around the fire knew those words were true once, but they were uncertain if Eric could even understand love and loyalty anymore.
As for Andy, he wasn’t his gregarious self this night. He was somber, seemingly intent on listening.
“I’m going to ask you again!” Justin yelled like the wrath of God resided in his Soul. Did you push Shawn off this cliff?”
Eric’s face distorted, overcome with pain and anguish. He was struggling with his emotions, digging deep inside his heart, grappling to find the right words.
But Justin wondered: Was he trying to find the truth, or just trying to save his skin?
“No, no, no!”
“You told me you did,” Travis said. “And you told Andy too. And God knows how many others.”
“Hey, I got a substance abuse problem. I say shit that ain’t true. I do things I wish I didn’t. I think things I wish I wouldn’t. I’m a drug addict and pusher but I am not a killer. And I as sure as shit did not hurt Shawn in any way.”
Eric fell to his knees before the fire, and pounded the ground with his fist.
“But you get confused sometimes,” Justin continued, “and you’re not sure what’s real and what’s not.”
“Hey, can I get a beer. It’s been a day from hell, and this fire’s hot.”
Travis opened the cooler and handed him a beer. Eric jerked the bottle out of Travis’s hand and twisted the cap off and threw it in the fire. He poured it over his face and drank the rest and threw the bottle over the cliff. Before he spoke again, his face contorted as if his heart had shattered. Justin could almost see Eric’s heart breaking. But what exactly had broken his heart: drugs? The guilt of killing Shawn? Or was there something even more devastating crushing his soul?
“Sometimes I want to jump off this cliff and flap my wings all the way to Heaven, to the Promise Land, and Shawn will greet me there.”
“Did you kill him or not?” Travis demanded.
Eric peered into the stars for an answer, then after about a minute, he considered the eyes of each of his old friends, his sad, worn eyes imploring them for help, only Andy’s eyes offered any sympathy.
“Sometimes I think so, and sometimes I know I couldn’t have. And other times …well … I just don’t know.”
“This is bullshit,” Travis said as he pulled his switchblade. “He knows, he fuckin’ knows!”
Andy jumped between Travis and Eric. “This is useless. Are we going to be judge and jury with him all fucked up on drugs and booze? You can’t do this Justin, it’s wrong.”
“Maybe we should have some law?” Justin said.
“Maybe we should throw him over this cliff and rid the county of this plague before he ruins a lot of young lives,” Travis said.
“What do you say to that Eric?” Justin asked.
“I need help. I can’t do it on my own. Maybe I get sober and figure things out, maybe I’ll remember what’s real again.”
“That’s what I’m saying,” Andy said. “He’s a wreck. You’ll never get anything out of him in this state. Why don’t you tell them Eric, tell them what you told me? Remember?”
“I can’t recall,” Eric said as Andy helped him back on his feet.
“About the mosquito.”
Eric looked around at his old pals with darting eyes and a desperate countenance, searching the recesses of his mind for answers, for the truth, and, perhaps, for forgiveness.
“He told me it was all just an accident,” Andy said. “Shawn was at the cliff edge, and a mosquito buzzed passed his head. He tried to swat it away and he lost his balance.”
“The problem is he’s got too many versions,” Justin said. “And his brain’s fried.”
“Let’s just do him now,” Travis said, “God knows he deserves it. Who knows what more damage he’s going to do before he sobers up, and likely he never will.”
“You’re not God,” Andy said with contempt, “he’s so fucked up he can’t tell the truth from the lies. Let’s turn him in. Take him down to the sheriff and have him confess. I mean confess to dealing drugs. You up for doing that Eric? You agree with that and I’ll help you all the way.”
As he spoke, Andy pulled Eric up off the ground. Eric hugged Andy like he was his mother.
“Wait a minute, hold on,” Travis said. “I say we try to beat the truth out of him first.”
Justin looked at his brother like he didn’t recognize him anymore. “When did you turn into a sadistic fuck?”
“You know how these druggies are, they’ll do anything to keep on using.”
“Go ahead, do me,” Eric sighed, “you’ll be doing me a favor. You can’t hurt me anymore than I’ve already hurt myself.” As he spoke, he pulled away from Andy and tripped over a rock fell face first into dusty dirt.
As Justin watched Eric fall, he also noticed clouds were smothering the stars. And he could feel soft warm raindrops hitting his bare arms. Soon after he heard tires on gravel, saw headlights that soon stopped and disappeared. The sound of a car door shut. The sound of boots on hard dry dirt.
“It’s probably a fucking deputy,” Travis said with disgust, but they soon found out it was worse than that: it was Mad Dog, otherwise known as Cole, Shawn’s father.
“Motherfucker,” Justin muttered.
Cole wore a red flannel shirt that covered his arms, blue jeans that covered his legs, long black boots that covered his feet, and a wide floppy straw hat that covered most of his face. All the men around the fire knew it wasn’t Cole they were dealing with, this was Mad Dog.
About the Author:
Kevin Wiggins was born in Coshocton, Ohio and graduated from Kent State University in 1989 with a major in Journalism and a minor in English. He was a political reporter for several daily newspapers in Ohio and won several reporting awards before dedicating himself to writing novels and short stories.