|Publisher:||Chicago Review Press, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
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The summer's heat arrived in Fallen Mountains like a winged thing, swift and startling: the pansies drooped, the lettuce bolted, the trees shook off their buds. As Red walked back to the police station from the diner, crabapple blossoms, pink and white and wet, dropped from the trees that lined Main Street and stuck to his shoes. He fiddled with the locked door and stepped inside, wiping his feet on the mat, dabbing sweat from his neck with his handkerchief.
The letter announcing Red's retirement lay tucked in the top right drawer of his desk, sealed in an envelope he'd planned on submitting to his secretary, Leigh, at the end of the day on Wednesday. Today was Tuesday, and Leigh worked just two days a week. The truth was there wasn't a whole lot for a secretary to do at the police department of Fallen Mountains, Pennsylvania, which wasn't a department, really, just Red and Leigh, and the fact that the borough kept on approving the position at all was a small miracle. In the past year, the most egregious offense the two of them had handled had been when a bunch of kids broke into the high school at night and let a troop of farm animals run loose through the halls. Chickens, two pigs, one Nubian goat: mud on the walls, droppings scattered through classrooms. Red had seen to it that the culprits were put to work with the janitor one Saturday, scrubbing and mopping until the place glinted and sang with a piney-clean scent. He ended up feeling a little guilty about the punishment, though, those kids stuck inside working on a beautiful spring weekend, and he'd taken them some fried chicken from Wheeler's Diner for lunch.
There were, of course, minor transgressions that occurred in Fallen Mountains, small troubles that Red, over the years, had come to expect. The Baumgardners were always getting into it at their double-wide way out on 28, tearing into each other and carrying on until one of the neighbors would call Red to complain. (Mrs. Baumgardner was six feet tall and had a good fifty pounds on her husband, so he was typically the one who got the worst of it.) And there were the usual indelicacies: phone calls in the middle of the night, people overdoing it at the bar, folks trespassing and shooting deer out of season. Much of the time, Red also served as a game warden of sorts — he was the one people called when there was an animal mangled in the middle of the road, or a snake under their porch, or a skunk prowling around their garden. Red was proud, though, that Fallen Mountains was a place largely isolated from the greater sins of the world, a fact he was reminded of every night, watching the evening news from his living room recliner.
But Red was turning sixty in the fall, and he could no longer deny the fact that this was a younger man's line of work. Hauling drunks to the station late at night, dragging deer off the roads, squeezing under porches with a headlamp strapped to his forehead and praying he wouldn't come face to face with anything venomous — these were things he'd once done without difficulty, things he'd actually embraced with a manly vigor. But not anymore. He was tired, he was ready for a change of pace. As he geared up for his retirement, Red looked back on his time as sheriff with a sense of satisfaction.
Well, mostly. Twenty-two years of service and only one indiscretion, one real regret, a mishandling of sorts, and so long ago. In the grand scheme, it wasn't a legacy to be ashamed of, Red knew that. But recently, with Transom Shultz back in Fallen Mountains, with that unimaginable mess he'd fashioned out at the Hardy farm, Red found himself thinking quite a bit about that mistake — about what he'd let Transom get away with all those years ago, but even more about the boy who'd paid dearly for Red's silence. Possum, he was called then, and was still called, even though he was a grown man now.
As Red sat at his old metal desk, staring out the window into the steaming June afternoon, the cars sleepy and slow as they drifted past the station, he thought of his father. The man had spent his whole life working in a steel mill back in Pittsburgh; he'd quit school in the eleventh grade and been miserable for as long as Red had known him. But at night, for a tiny sliver of each day, his father would come alive, reading Faulkner aloud to Red and his brother: Sanctuary, As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury. His father's favorite quote, the one he'd recited countless times to Red and his brother, was the famous one from Requiem for a Nun: "The past is never dead. It isn't even past." In an attempt to remind his sons that every action had a consequence, Red's father had their mother write it in her nice calligraphy and frame it, and that terrible truth had plagued Red and his brother all through adolescence. Every street race through McKee's Rocks, every skipped class, every rock thrown into the glass of old factory buildings, every girl he ever touched — Red thought of Faulkner.
Red pictured it now, that yellowed paper, his mother's fancy lettering, because he could feel it: the past, sweeping into the present like a giant ship. That one slip-up from seventeen years earlier, it was back to shine its ugly face at him yet again. He was sure of it. Earlier that afternoon, as Red leafed through an article about trout fishing in warm weather and munched on a vending machine cookie, Transom Shultz's new girlfriend called to say she hadn't heard from him in four days. She was coming to the station first thing in the morning, she said, to file a missing persons report.
Red stood up from his desk, walked to the supply closet and found a small black notebook that would fit in his front pocket. He eased back into his chair, grabbed a pen from the mug on his desk, and opened the pad to the first page. It seemed like the right thing to do, take notes, be prepared for that meeting with Transom's girlfriend. On the television shows, this was all computerized now, he knew — fancy tablets where you could maneuver information with a fingertip, fling it from one screen to another — but there was nothing wrong with a notebook. He spun the pen between his fingers and tried to think, sifting through the preceding months, piecing together some sort of timeline of events.
Transom had come back six months earlier, right after old Jack Hardy passed. Red remembered that because he'd run into Jack's grandson, Chase, with Transom at the hardware store a few days after the memorial service. Transom nodding his head and saying, Sheriff, and Red's heart shooting into his throat at the sight of him. Transom couldn't have been in town for very long by that point because otherwise, Red would've heard about it. Within a few weeks of that, Transom had bought the Hardy farm off Chase: Red had learned about that in the Fallen Mountains Gazette. As far as Red knew, Chase himself neither explained nor complained about the transaction, but the town had buzzed with the news. Why had Chase sold it? What would Jack Hardy say about the property changing hands?
Sometime in the spring, Transom had gotten the place timbered, all the trees in those magnificent old woods, cut down and hauled from the property. For weeks log truck after log truck rolled past the station, the brakes rattling the windows. Then came the oil company.
Red picked up the phone and dialed his friend at the Gazette, a reporter who fancied herself a bit of an environmentalist and who'd written a few stories about fracking in the newspaper. He asked her if she could find out when the oil company had started working out at the Hardy property. April, she told him. Five weeks ago.
Transom was the first to lease the mineral rights in Fallen Mountains, though there'd been drilling close by for over two years now. Frackholes, turning dirt and drilling deep into the ground for Marcellus shale. Excavators, dump trucks, rollers: all spring Red watched them knock through town and out 28 to the Hardy farm. He saw the workers at Wheeler's Diner and the gas station — men in pickups with out-of-state license plates, men he didn't know and didn't trust. He added another bullet point to his notes. He couldn't count that out, the possibility that something had gone awry with one of the workers.
But again Red thought of the Faulkner quote. The shale pit, that dreadful summer: Possum stuffed in the trunk of an old car, Transom standing at the edge of the woods. With just a touch of invention, couldn't Red link a multitude of sorrows back to that mistake, that terrible night? As the years had trundled past, hadn't he done that, drawn connections and questioned whether he was somehow responsible? He started writing one final thing in his notebook and then crossed it out, pressing his pen down so hard it tore the paper. Red wiped his forehead with his handkerchief and sighed. The words were gone but it didn't matter. Already his mind had started slinking in that direction; already he'd started to remember and doubt and unfurl the possibilities, and there would be no stopping it now, his dreadful imagination. Always when he remembered, he was ashamed. This time, though, was different. This time, Red realized, he was also afraid.
He grabbed an antacid from the bowl on his desk and chewed on it, the chalky berry substance sticking to his teeth. "You're getting ahead of yourself, old man," he whispered. He leaned forward at his desk, slid open the top right drawer and held the sealed envelope of his letter in his palm. That letter would have to wait now, because he had to sort this thing out. He put the letter back in the drawer and shoved it closed. He could hardly believe such poor timing, such terrible luck. A few weeks before what Red had imagined would be his last day as the Fallen Mountains sheriff, Transom Shultz was missing. Again.CHAPTER 2
It was just before Christmas and all through the night, there'd been snow, a light, feathery dust that draped the pines and covered the black roof of the main barn. The snow came still, in a drowsy, slow fall, and Chase Hardy lay in his bed, watching the flakes flicker through the gray light. He heard a vehicle pull up but, peering out the window, didn't recognize the SUV parked out front. Next to him, Laney lay on her side, her arm draped across his chest, her blonde hair strewn across the pillow, lips parted. Pretty. Chase slipped from beneath the covers and dressed.
He trotted down the steps, buttoning his flannel shirt. He opened the front door before his guest even had a chance to knock, so that as it swung open, the visitor stood in a strange pose at the threshold, left arm held up and in position to tap.
The two men took each other in for a moment, both equally surprised, until the one outside stepped forward and wrapped himself around Chase, gripping him in that same warm and prodigious embrace he had used for years.
"Transom," Chase said: an exhale, his breath pressed from him by his friend's thick arms.
"Brother," Transom said, and that word they'd always used to describe each other somehow felt both good and strange. He held Chase tight. "Been too long."
In the kitchen, Chase leaned against the counter and watched as Transom sat at the table, devouring a thick piece of pound cake someone had dropped off at the house a few days earlier. It had been a week now since his grandfather, Jack, had passed. A week since that terrible thud, the sound of flesh to floor, since he'd dashed up the creaking old steps of the farmhouse and held Jack in his final moments. Two days earlier, they'd buried him on the other end of the farm.
Jack, who could make Chase laugh on days when the chores loomed and the daylight was running out. Jack, who until the day his wife Maggie died would tell her she was the most beautiful thing that had ever happened to him. Jack, who'd taught Chase everything he knew about farming, the woods, life — sweet and gentle Jack. There was a reason why two hundred people had come to the viewing, the line snaking its way around the block of the funeral home, folks huddled in groups as a light snow quivered across the night. And there was a reason why Chase had made it clear that only he and Laney and the preacher were to be at the burial site. No need to have all those people clambering up the snowy hillside, saying everything all over again, looking at him with pity.
Laney had been taking care of everything for Chase, tending to all the tasks of mourning. Laney, who was, well, he wasn't sure what she was anymore, not a wife, not even a girlfriend, and at the moment he had no energy to try and put a label on their relationship, his mind spinning and hazed with grief. Chase regretted that, for her sake, because he did love her — he just wasn't quite sure he could characterize that love, at least not yet. In the meantime, Laney swooped in with grace and competence. She met with the funeral director on his behalf, set up the time for Jack's viewing, had it listed in the local newspaper. She arranged for Jack to be buried at the little family plot on the farm, next to Maggie. Laney handled the guests, too, the friends and neighbors who kept showing up at the house, uninvited and without warning, shuttling coffee cakes and casseroles so that the refrigerator and countertops were covered in aluminum pans and Pyrex, the idea being that food and company could fill the void left by the dead. Although of course that was ridiculous. Chase knew that every person dropping by was rallying around him out of love for Jack and support for him, but deep down, he wished they would leave him alone.
When they'd buried Jack, Chase and Laney stood with the preacher, the winter sky gray and sour, the wind cruel and biting as they huddled on the hill where four generations of Hardy family members had been laid to rest. Afterwards, he'd told Laney he'd prefer to be alone, but when he'd gone back to the farmhouse, the intense silence had been unbearable: no sputtering coffee pot, no humming woodstove, no radio buzzing with the old Gospel tunes Jack loved. Even walking the woods, which almost always could put him at ease, hadn't helped. The night before, even though he felt selfish about it, even though he knew she would read into it, he'd asked Laney to stay.
Transom took a drink of coffee and made a face. "I see you still haven't learned how to brew a decent cup of coffee, Boss," he said, wincing as he swallowed. A yellow crumb stuck to the side of his mouth. "I don't know how you can drink this. Seriously."
"I see your appetite hasn't waned."
Transom grinned: wide beautiful teeth that his parents had spent a fortune on back when they were in middle school. "True enough." He folded his hands and looked around the kitchen. "It's good to be back," he said. "It's good to be home. Place looks the same."
"How long has it been this time? Four, five years?"
"Something like that." Transom looked Chase in the eye. "Listen, Brother, I was sorry to hear about Jack. Real sorry. He was a good man." He paused. "Best man I ever known."
Chase shifted his weight and looked down. "I appreciate that. I do." He flicked his wrist to dump the last sip of cold coffee in the sink and turned to look out the window.
"Is he buried here on the farm?" Transom asked, rubbing his thumb along the rim of his coffee mug.
Chase nodded. "Up top that hill with the rest of them. Maggie, my parents." He put his mug on the counter.
Transom shook his head. "I should've come sooner, I know that. It was selfish of me. Stupid. I had all sorts of excuses. I was busy. It had been too long. Truth is, I've never been good at goodbyes. And you know, as long as I stayed away, I could sort of convince myself nothing had changed." He paused. "If it'd be all right with you, I'd like to go up there. Pay my respects."
Chase shuffled his feet. It was the last place he wanted to go, back to the hill where his entire family was buried. "Sure."
Transom sliced another thick piece of pound cake and took a bite. "Anything in season?" He grinned. "I thought maybe we could go out and take the gun for a walk."
"Rifle's over. Small game's in," Chase said. Grouse, squirrel, pheasants. "Might be able to flush out a rabbit or two." With small game, you spread out, maybe fifteen feet apart, and walked the field, pushing whatever was hiding in the grass and brush from its hiding spot so it took off running.
Transom stood up. "You've got a shotgun for me, right? I know you've got an arsenal in Jack's room." He grinned, shoving the last bite of pound cake in his mouth. "And some clothes. I've got a pair of boots in the car, but I'll need pants, and a heavy jacket if you've got one." He walked to the door. "Be right back."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Fallen Mountains"
Copyright © 2019 Kimi Cunningham Grant.
Excerpted by permission of Amberjack Publishing.
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