The More They Disappear: New Excerpt

The More They Disappear by Jesse Donaldson
The More They Disappear by Jesse Donaldson
The More They Disappear by Jesse Donaldson takes us to the front lines of the battle against small-town drug abuse in an unnerving tale of addiction, loss, and the battle to overcome the darkest parts of ourselves (Available August 2, 2016).

When long-serving Kentucky sheriff Lew Mattock is murdered by a confused, drug-addicted teenager, chief deputy Harlan Dupee is tasked with solving the crime. But as Harlan soon discovers, his former boss wasn't exactly innocent.

The investigation throws Harlan headlong into the burgeoning OxyContin trade, from the slanted steps of trailer parks to the manicured porches of prominent citizens, from ATV trails and tobacco farms to riverboat casinos and country clubs.

As the evidence draws him closer to an unlikely suspect, Harlan comes to question whether the law can even right a wrong during the corrupt and violent years that followed the release of OxyContin.

one

Mary Jane Finley was late. She’d changed her outfit three times but nothing seemed to fit. It was the mirror’s fault, the way it reflected her body lumpen and plain. She had new curves, new skin—had for a while now—and no amount of makeup could bring back the face that had twice been Finley County’s Junior Miss Harvest. Those years, from twelve to fourteen, had been her best. After that her body ran its own course, and no diet, fast, or finger down the throat could help her regain the promise she’d shown. There always remained twenty pounds she couldn’t shed. After futilely changing her clothes one last time, Mary Jane scowled at the mirror and said, “Fuck you.”

She drove her red coupe past the house where her boyfriend, Mark, had lived before he left for college. She knew Mark was back in town, waiting by the window for that moment she drove by, and she resisted the urge to honk hello. The finished homes started to thin out as she rolled down the street at a steady twenty-five. In countless plots there lay only the expectation of a house—floor plans staked with wooden boards, electric boxes rising from the emptiness, scraggly seedlings of trees. Mary Jane parked in a deserted cul-de-sac next to the bones of a two-story and slipped on a backpack before hiking into the woods.

It was bow season but the trails were quiet. Most hunters waited for gun season to bag their bucks. The occasional bird flitted from branch to branch and called out, but Mary Jane paid them no mind. She adjusted the backpack, which held a broken-down rifle that weighted itself awkwardly against her shoulders. Her impulse was to step into the thickest woods and move under the cover of brush, but she knew her feet would kick up leaves that way and a stray limb might scratch her face. No. It was better to stay on the worn paths.

She moved with a certain grace through the woods, though that grace wasn’t the result of years spent hiking so much as years spent walking down the hallway in heels. “Down and back,” her mother would say until blisters formed on Mary Jane’s feet, Mary Jane refusing to show pain. Down and back. Mary Jane a plaything to order around. Down and back. A mindless animal.

She was not a born killer, nor an experienced one, but she’d prepared. If she was in over her head, she didn’t realize it, and if she had doubts, they didn’t show. She was buoyed by thoughts of her and Mark together. She thought of this act as not altogether different from a marriage—something that would bind them.

In many ways she was the perfect criminal. She came from a respectable family—her father was an investor, her mother a socialite. She descended from the Revolutionary War general who at one time owned all the land in the county that still bore his name. No one in Finley County would ever believe Mary Jane Finley had committed a crime. No one knew about her sadness, her addictions, or her faith that Mark Gaines would carry her away to a better place.

She reached a clearing along the ridge overlooking the river and the wind died down. Months before, the hike would have left her breathless, but no longer. To the west a few abandoned trailers hunkered along the river road and to the east Mary Jane could make out downtown. In the distance lay Josephine Entwhistle’s house and behind stood only the skeletons of unfinished homes.

By the time Mary Jane arrived, the party was in full swing. She briefly considered turning back, but there were expectations, a plan to follow through with, and if it worked, Mary Jane would no longer she be trapped in Marathon, would no longer feel so damn alone.

She pulled a Ziploc of pill dust from her backpack—a mix of Xanax and Adderall that she snorted in bumps off her car key. She’d learned there was a pill for every need and Mark fed each one of hers. Afterward she took out the stock and barreled action of a .308 Winchester. The smell of gun oil calmed her. Her grandfather had taught Mary Jane to shoot when she was just a girl, the lessons his way of stemming her mother’s influence, of showing Mary Jane there was more to life than beauty pageants. They’d gone hunting every deer season until he passed away, and when it wasn’t deer season, there’d been wild turkey and dove. Somewhere in the basement the mounted head of Mary Jane’s first buck—a four pointer—gathered dust. In a strange way she’d discovered that shooting a rifle wasn’t altogether different from walking down the runway. Both required great balance, great composure.

She attached the stock and barreled action, tightened the action screws, and checked that the chamber was empty, then wrapped her index and middle fingers around the trigger, and pulled. A smooth click. The action was sound. She’d started to develop a kinship with the Winchester and regretted she’d have to get rid of it. The .308 was right on the edge of kicking too hard and she liked that about it, too.

She attached the scope, cradled the barrel in a tripod, and looked down the sight. Partygoers mingled. The mayor, the judge, and other politicians stood around laughing at one another’s stale jokes—men with names that went as far back as Finley, names like Craycraft and January and Estill. Mary Jane could wipe the whole town clean if only she had the bullets. A .308 with a good scope: that’s all it took. She moved the gun from face to face—a god above them. She wished Mark was there with her—to feel this, to see her as no one else could. She wanted Mark’s hand over hers as she cupped the trigger—Mark caressing her, her caressing the gun—the power all theirs. She chambered a round and set the butt of the rifle against her shoulder. Theirs was a fated love. A sacrificial love.

The last of the pill dust went up her nose and her thoughts about the future dissolved and turned to smoke. Her fears drifted away and fell into an abyss. She was patiently numb to consequences—her mind focused by one pill, her doubts erased by the other. The shot was a touch under two hundred yards and it was quiet along the Ohio.

She peered through the scope and found Lew. Oblivious. Flipping meat at the grill. She drew a deep breath and aimed the rifle at his chest, let the world come into focus and thought of nothing but the pressure against two tips of fingers. When she exhaled, she drew those fingers toward her heart and the rifle kicked.

The smell of gunpowder floated in the air. Mary Jane felt the warmth of the barrel and looked back through the scope. Lew fell forward onto the grill. For a moment nothing else changed. Then came the distant sound of screams. Mary Jane watched the crowd scurry like ants as smoke rose from the grill. Her body convulsed and knocked the rifle from its cradle. Then she vomited a thin, weak stream onto the ground. She cursed and struggled to regain composure, started humming “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”—an old runway trick to calm the nerves. In less than a minute her body steadied and her stomach settled. She kicked dirt over the vomit, loosened the action screws to break down the rifle, and placed it in the backpack along with the casing before she headed back in the direction from which she’d come.

*   *   *

It may have been the music blaring from the speakers of a souped-up Mustang or the noise of the crowd or the fact that people had become accustomed to cars backfiring; whatever the reason, no one connected the boom from the hills to Lew Mattock’s collapse. The spatula slipped from Lew’s hand and spun to the ground, where dirt clung to its greasy edges. Harlan Dupee watched him double onto the grill and assumed heart attack, though he couldn’t seem to move his legs and help.

It was Lewis Mattock who ran to his father’s side, pulled him to the ground, and yelled, “Shooter!” The crowd scattered. Some ran for water, others the woods. Most ran in circles to nowhere particular. Harlan dropped to the ground and watched Lew’s legs jangle until his massive belly—a mound rising from the cracked clay of a dry October—stilled. Lewis Mattock slumped back on his knees, a look of horror across his face. Time must have passed. When Trip Gaines, a local doctor, checked for a pulse and shook his head, Lewis wrapped one burly arm around his wife and the other around his twin daughters before shouldering them into the safety of Josephine Entwhistle’s house. Dr. Gaines laid his suit jacket over Lew’s wounded face. The smell of burnt flesh hung in the air.

The crowd waited for someone to give the all clear, and even though no more bullets rained down, Harlan lay on the ground a long while before getting to his feet and asking people to please seek shelter inside the house and stay there until told otherwise. Most rubbernecked glances at Lew’s body as they passed. A couple retched. More than a few sobbed in fits and starts. Two other deputies, Del Parker and Frank Pryor, joined Harlan around the body. Blood had begun to pool through the weave of the doctor’s jacket, which Harlan lifted. Lew’s right eye was gone and his face had become a pulp of meat and bone and yellow flesh. The earth swallowed what blood coursed from the hollow in his skull. Harlan dropped the jacket back in place and started giving orders. He did his best to sound confident, but it had been years since he’d asked the deputies to do anything other than what Lew told him to pass along. He had Del radio Paige Lucas, the rookie out patrolling roads, and tell her to stop any suspicious vehicles. After that Del was to get the neighboring county’s dogs and search for evidence. This left Harlan with Frank, an overweight deputy with a ruddy face and a chip on his shoulder. “Head inside and get the contact information of everyone here. See if anyone noticed something unusual.” Frank shrugged before spitting on the ground and joining the crowd as they herded themselves into Josephine’s.

Harlan marked off the area around Lew with caution tape and radioed Holly from the sheriff’s cruiser, explained to her what had happened, and asked her to send someone out from the state police, the crime lab in Frankfort, and the coroner’s office. Then he pulled out a textbook on criminal investigations from the toolbox of his truck. He hadn’t worked but a couple of murders, and Lew had always been there to guide him. The textbook was left over from a correspondence course he’d taken years before, and the mere fact that he kept it made him the best deputy in an otherwise apathetic department. He flipped to the chapter on murder investigations, found the gunshot section, and started making checkmarks as he completed each step. He started by removing the blazer from Lew’s face and snapping photographs with a point-and-click. Then he drew badly scaled sketches of the scene with a shaky hand and redrew them to keep from examining Lew up close. He wrote his account of the murder, trying to recall the details. He waited for help.

The witnesses came out of Josephine’s one by one, hurried to their cars, and sped away, as if putting distance between themselves and Lew’s corpse would help them forget. But it wouldn’t. They would talk about it at dinner and dream about it at night and even people who hadn’t been there would claim to be haunted by the sight of Lew Mattock’s dead body.

Harlan stared at Lew as if he might provide some guidance, and when a burly hand touched down on his shoulder, he jumped. “Jesus,” Frank said. “Relax.”

“What are you doing?”

Frank pinched a load of snuff and showed his bean teeth. “I’m finished.”

“Already?”

Frank tapped his notebook. “I talked to every last person.” A thin man wearing a fleece jacket stood behind Frank with a pen and paper. Harlan looked to Frank for an explanation. “This guy’s with the newspaper,” Frank explained. “I told him you’re in charge.”

“Stuart Simon,” the man said. “I edit the Registrar.”

Harlan shook his head. “Not now.”

“Just a couple questions, Deputy.… It’s Dupee, isn’t it?”

“Frank, can you escort Mr. Simon to his vehicle?”

“I just want to know—”

“Now,” Harlan yelled.

Frank took Simon’s arm. “Come on, Stu,” he said.

Simon started to wage a halfhearted protest but stopped as the dispatch from Lew’s cruiser crackled with Holly’s voice. Harlan couldn’t make out what she said and asked her to repeat herself. “Fire,” she said. “Over at the Spanish Manor. The volunteers are on their way. Want me to do anything else?”

Harlan looked at Frank. “Head over there, but on your way pull over every car with a busted taillight or expired registration. Look for guns.”

“I don’t think hoping the shooter has a busted taillight is much of a plan,” Frank said.

The editor slipped Frank’s grasp and started writing in his notebook.

“Just do it,” Harlan snapped. He radioed back to Holly that Frank was on his way. He was thankful the textbook had been safely hidden in the cab of his truck. He didn’t need Frank or the other deputies doubting him. And he definitely didn’t need some reporter doing the same. Harlan had grown soft since he joined the department. They all had. You kept your job by avoiding any police work that might cause extra paperwork. Harlan had been promoted because of those through-the-mail criminology courses, but whatever policing knowledge he’d learned was rarely put to use. Now was his chance to prove himself. He’d always wanted the sheriff’s badge on his chest—not like this, of course—but you didn’t get to choose what life threw your way. Or when.

Along the river road an ambulance-style hearse pulled up with the coroner who serviced Finley and the neighboring counties. Behind him came a state police cruiser with lights flashing. The state policeman came down first, took a look around, and said, “Damn shame.” He put out a thick hand and introduced himself. His eyes were almost all pupils and he wore a gray-flecked mustache. “You want me to take samples from the body?” he asked. “I didn’t know the man, so it won’t affect me the same.”

“I’d appreciate that,” Harlan replied.

The coroner joined them a minute later. He was new—a kid with a two-year degree, fresh pimples, and a talkative manner. The sun started to set as they worked and the sound of crickets chirping rose from the woods. Harlan held a flashlight while the coroner labeled plastic bags the Statie handed him. At some point, he looked up to watch a sports car speeding along the river road before it disappeared into the coming dark. He realized, perhaps for the first time, that his life of writing traffic tickets was over.

“I can’t believe someone shot Lew,” the kid coroner said, trying to sound like some wizened old-timer. “He seemed invincible.”

“No one’s invincible,” the Statie replied.

The crime lab investigator from Frankfort showed up just in time to say “nice work” and collect the samples. He told Harlan to develop and send him the pictures. The sooner the better. They bagged Lew and the Statie helped lift him onto a gurney while the kid coroner struggled with his end; meanwhile, the investigator and Harlan loaded the grill into a van. Harlan closed the lid so as to not see the burnt flesh along the grates.

He examined the crime scene one last time, and just as he was ready to call it, he noticed a small depression that had been beneath the body. It led to a fragment of bullet buried four inches into hardpack.

“That’s good police work,” the Statie said as Harlan sealed and marked the evidence.

“More like good luck.”

The kid coroner had lit a cigarette by the side of the road, and Harlan walked up to join him, rolled a smoke of his own, and listened to the Ohio murmur its song—a gurgling chorus of choking mud.

*   *   *

Mary Jane chewed her last bite of Big Mac and searched along the bag’s bottom for stray fries. Tara Koehler had been working the drive-thru, and as she handed the order over, Mary Jane mentioned she was going to see a movie to set up an alibi. Tara had added a fried apple pie on the house, so Mary Jane finished off her meal with dessert, licking the last bits of sugary glaze from her fingers.

It had been a long time since she’d seen another car, which should have been comforting, but the emptiness made her nervous. She kept checking the rearview mirror expecting to see flashing lights where there was only blackness. After her dinner, she lit a Marlboro Light and one cigarette turned into two turned into a quarter pack and soon enough she felt nauseous again. The burger and fries sat heavy in her stomach and Mary Jane stifled the urge to pull over and jam a finger down her throat.

Mark had told her to drive out to the West Virginia border and toss the rifle into a wide branch of the Big Sandy, but Mary Jane couldn’t make it that far. In the darkness, she had trouble figuring out how far she’d traveled. The names of the small towns she passed weren’t written on any map, and even though the rifle was stowed safely in the trunk of the car, she felt like it was sitting beside her—chatting away. When the stereo began losing its station, she snapped it off and heard nothing save the wind rushing through a seam in the window. She downed another dose of nerve pills but it didn’t work. Lose the gun, she told herself over and over. Lose the gun.

A sign marking a one-lane bridge flashed in her headlights, and Mary Jane banked onto the road paralleling the water. Her wheels caught a pothole in the dark and the wind snatched the cigarette from her hand and flung it to the backseat. Flustered, she hit the gas, cursed, hit the brake, and pulled sharply to the side of the road before rescuing the still-burning Marlboro and bringing it to her lips. Crickets whirred and animals scurried in the woods. A small hole had burned where the cigarette came to rest and she fingered its scorched edges. Through a cut of trees, the river muttered. It wasn’t wide like the Big Sandy but in the scant moonlight it looked deep enough, and if she couldn’t return to find this place, how could anyone else?

She stuffed every last trace of the crime in the backpack and hiked to the river before swinging it two-handed into the dark. After the bag plopped in the water, she lit one last Marlboro. A ceremony of sorts. It had been that way ever since she took up smoking. A cigarette for making it to school, for making it to lunch, for making it through the final bell. A cigarette while driving, while walking, while staring out the window and thinking important thoughts. A cigarette to celebrate the arrival and a cigarette to celebrate the leaving behind.

On the road home, Mary Jane could almost trick herself into believing she was returning from some innocent adventure—that she’d been lost but found her way. After an hour, she passed the sign that marked twenty-six miles to Marathon. There were three such signs on the roads that led east, west, and south from town. The road north lacked one despite the mayor’s best attempts to weasel himself a square of Ohio dirt. Mary Jane offered the sign her middle finger, a rite of passage Marathoners learned as soon as they were old enough to drive and had the good sense to head someplace else.

Her father was sitting alone on the porch when she returned. The lit end of his cigar pulsed and Jackson tilted his head to blow smoke toward the stars. In his other hand he swirled a highball glass that Mary Jane guessed was more gin than tonic. “I’m afraid you’re on your own for dinner,” he said as she climbed the stairs. “I haven’t heard from your mother. Do you think you can manage?” Jackson tried to pass this last bit off as a joke, but Mary Jane knew it was a barb meant to draw blood. Ever since she’d been rejected from colleges six months before, her father couldn’t help reminding Mary Jane that she was a disappointment.

“I already ate,” she said.

“What did you have?”

“McDonald’s.”

Jackson laughed. “Your mother would love that.”

“You know she wouldn’t.”

“On that matter, at least, I agree with her. Do you know what that trash does to your body?”

Mary Jane opened the front door. “Yeah,” she said. “It makes you fat.” She let the door slam and ran upstairs to her room where she opened the window and screamed into the night. Her room looked onto the street and she could hear the groans of the porch swing echoing as Jackson rocked back and forth, could smell the smoke of his cigar rising. If he had more commentary, he kept it to himself. Mary Jane fingered a hole she’d cut in the window screen for her hash pipe. For years she’d worried her parents would ask about it, but they either didn’t realize what the hole meant or didn’t care.

She stepped back from the window and grabbed a teddy bear off the bed. It had been a present from her father when she was nine. The bear had come with a name—Teddy Ruxpin—and a tape deck so he could tell stories. In a way the bear was a substitute for Jackson himself, who rarely told Mary Jane stories or tucked her in at night. She opened the tape deck and removed a bag of pills. Pills were her ticket out of Marathon. Mark called Oxy a “miracle” drug, and the first time he gave Mary Jane one and taught her to grind it to dust, she came to understand the meaning of the word. Oxy wasn’t like pot, which made her paranoid, or booze, which made her sloppy. It didn’t skew the world or make things funny; it offered separation. Separation from her father’s passive-aggressive insults and her mother’s chain-smoking sadness. Separation from the fat girl in the mirror. Separation from a life that stalled out in high school. Oxy offered oblivion.

She crushed a blue pill between two spoons and snorted the dust. “I love you,” she said to the bear, pretending it was Mark. She understood why Mark wasn’t there, why it was smarter for them to stay apart, but that didn’t make her feel any less alone, and for a brief moment her doubts about Mark, about his love or his capacity to love, reared their ugly heads before skittering away on a sea of painkiller. Mary Jane stretched herself like taffy over the bed; her head lolled over and her mouth hung slack as she stared out the window at a starless sky. The house and the street outside fell asleep.

When she came to, it was to the sound of her parents yelling, their voices snaking through the empty halls and up to her room. Mary Jane heard her name bandied about but drowned out the specifics. The specifics didn’t matter. Her parents fought because they knew no other way, had lost whatever drew them together in the first place. The older she became, the more Mary Jane understood her parents’ marriage was based on something other than love, that they stayed together because neither was strong or merciful enough to walk out the door. And Mary Jane was just another part of the problem, fuel to toss on a fire. It seemed her parents were forever blaming each other for whatever deficiencies they saw in their only child.

Mary Jane put on her headphones to drown out the noise, lit a candle, and pulled the atlas from her bedside table. Pencil lines connected Marathon to Montreal. As she read the names on the map, she savored the way the vowels formed on her tongue. She’d taken French in high school at her mother’s insistence and it turned out to be the one class she enjoyed. She imagined herself speaking French at the grocery store, ordering wine at a restaurant. She imagined her and Mark starting a family there, a better family than the one she’d grown up in—because their kids would never be Finleys in Finley County. She knew a couple of girls who already had rings on their fingers and husbands who bought them pretty things and sometimes she doubted she’d ever have that life for herself. Now, for the first time, it seemed within reach.

Mark had been indifferent to Montreal when she came up with the idea, but the more Mary Jane told him about the city, the more she repeated things she’d learned from high school textbooks, the more excited he became. Montreal was across the border and far away from his father and that was a good start. There was even a university where he could study once they got settled. McGill. The Harvard of Canada. Mark said they needed to stay in Kentucky a little while before leaving, just to play it cool, though Mary Jane would have left that moment if he were willing. She didn’t care who might chase them. She knew how to press the gas.

*   *   *

Lewis Mattock answered the knock at the door, which turned out to be the pizza delivery guy. He’d ordered a large cheese because, despite everything, the girls still needed to eat. Lewis tried to talk to the guy about sports, the weather—anything other than his father—then handed over a too-generous tip. The phone continued to ring nonstop, streaming a steady diet of calls from people asking for news. Each time Lewis told the caller his father had passed on, they offered the same canned condolences and he offered the same canned responses. An assembly line of conversation.

Sophie followed him into the kitchen as Lewis got plates ready for Ginny and Stella. She opened a bottle of Merlot and popped a Xanax from her stash, but still she talked and talked. “Give your mother one of these,” she said, cupping a pill. “She’s in shock.”

Lewis looked out to the living room, where his mother was sitting statue-like on the couch watching a movie with the girls. “We’re all in shock,” he said. “I think she just wants to be left alone.”

Lewis let the girls eat in front of the television to distract them, not that they weren’t used to eating in front of the TV. His mother liked to tell him that his daughters would rot their brains away but tonight she kept her opinions to herself. Mabel Mattock was always wrinkling her nose at Lewis and Sophie’s parenting. She disliked the mess of toys that dotted the living room like land mines, the gaudy oil paintings of Ginny and Stella that hung over the fireplace, the general lack of discipline.

Once the girls were fed, Lewis turned off the phone’s ringer and poured himself a bourbon and Coke. He offered his mother a slice of pizza and a glass of wine, but she politely declined. None of the adults ate. Sophie wanted to leave the ringer on in case her father called with news, but Lewis was done with the phone. He was tipsy by the time Sophie’s father came back from the morgue. Trip talked as men do in times of crisis, told Lewis that his father didn’t suffer, that he was in a better place, that there would be justice. Sophie prodded her dad with questions and the doctor continued to fill the air with words as the girls sang along to some Disney song on the TV. Lewis drowned out the noise with booze.

His mother came and hugged him good-night and told the girls to sleep tight before retreating to the guest bedroom. A digital clock on the wall flashed half past nine but it was an hour off from the time change in the spring. Not much longer and it would be right again. “I should put the girls to bed,” Lewis said, more to himself than anyone else. Sophie took a break from the conversation with her father to tell Lewis that was a good idea.

He turned off the television over the girls’ weary and halfhearted protests, guided them to their room. Ginny asked about Grandpa. Again. Neither girl understood what was going on, but Lewis didn’t know how to explain. They were just five, mature enough to think for themselves but naïve about the world and the people in it. He told Ginny they’d talk in the morning. Earlier he’d said they’d talk after dinner. He found that parenting was often just stalling on the questions you didn’t want to answer and hoping your kids forgot to ask again, but Ginny and Stella never seemed to forget. Stella asked why his breath stank and he said he didn’t know. One day he’d answer their questions. I’m drunk, he’d say. Grandpa’s dead. But for now he said, “I love you” and waited for the girls to repeat it back to him, their voices rote and robotic but comforting nonetheless.

*   *   *

It was near midnight by the time Harlan left the office with the paperwork for Lew’s murder in hand. He stopped by the ruins of the trailer park fire, which was just down the road from his place before going home. The town’s volunteer crew had managed to keep the fire from turning the whole place to ash. The trailer’s bent and scorched frame prevailed against the night sky even though the windows and doors had blown out and broken glass littered the grass. Harlan’s flashlight revealed a couch reduced to coils and a stovepipe that leaned at an unholy angle, its sheet metal no longer moored to the remains of the roof. Other than the couch, the home looked empty. A few discernible odds and ends were buried among the debris—mugs, the blade of a kitchen knife whose handle had burned away. Frank’s report claimed the place had been abandoned and that the fire was likely started by faulty wiring. Given what else the day had wrought, Harlan was inclined to go along with Frank’s assumption and leave good enough alone. He doubted anyone would come asking the sheriff’s department to do a thorough investigation, and it didn’t make sense to bring an arson investigator out for a fire that no one cared about.

He called it a night and headed home, but as he pulled into the dirt drive of his property, his headlights hit upon two specters in the grass—a rail of a girl working herself atop a fat boy whose body writhed beneath her. The girl moved in slow circles, hips falling from the side, taking whatever the boy had to give. The boy’s pants were clasped around ankles, and when the girl let gravity carry her, his legs kicked and made to rip them in two. She wore a long white T-shirt that he kept lifting to reach for her breasts, but she pushed him down easily, her palms burying into his fleshy, hairless chest. A quarter moon dangled low in the sky behind them like a lure at the end of its line. The boy pointed toward Harlan’s truck and the girl turned to stare into the headlights, never stopping her up and down.

Harlan had caught prowlers before—dope-smoking refugees from the Spanish Manor—but nothing like this. He honked and the horn tinned into the lonesome, quiet night. Spurred to action, the boy rolled the girl over, slipped out, and ran buckshot for the woods, hitching up his pants as he went, his pale ass flashing like some prehistoric firefly through the cypress trees. Harlan cut the lights and let the girl get decent, a process she took her time doing.

“I was almost finished,” she yelled when he stepped out. “That tubby was gonna come. I could see it in his eyes.”

“Guess he should’ve stuck around,” Harlan said.

She buttoned the waistband of her cutoffs and stuck out her hand, straight ahead and rigid like a man. Harlan ignored it. He knew her from the backs of cars he’d pulled over, had seen her running from house parties and caught her getting drunk in places she shouldn’t. She was a tough case—a mother absent, a mean streak of a father. “You’re trespassing, Matilda,” he said.

“If you want to arrest me, go ahead. And call me Mattie.” The girl’s lips quivered and her belly heaved. Her eyes darted all over and beyond. She was high on something.

“All right, Mattie. I’m too tired to arrest you, so why don’t you head on home.”

The girl put a hand to her hip, shifted her weight, and jutted out the bone on the other side. “That’s it?”

“What more do you want?”

“I don’t know. Yell at me. Give me a lecture. Call me names or something.”

Harlan started for his porch. “Next time,” he said.

When he heard her feet moving, Harlan turned to watch the girl lope into the woods, her fingers hooking a bare belt loop to keep her shorts from falling. The quiet returned and he slumped onto a rain-soaked couch that barely fit his porch. The house was a shotgun, a glorified shack, but it faced the river—the view the sole reason Harlan had bought it. Graying clouds pulled themselves across the sky and stretched over the moon and stars. Headlights glinted through the cables of the suspension bridge connecting Kentucky to Ohio and the orange globes atop it gave off a soft glow. Harlan could hear the whir of a riverboat casino chugging along the water. He pictured desperate gamblers throwing their last dimes and found himself wishing he possessed even an ounce of their faith.

He scanned the write-up on Lew’s murder. The dogs had found the shooter’s spot along a ridge overlooking Josephine’s, even turned up a small bit of bilious spit, but by the time Harlan reached the clearing, it had been dark and pretty much combed over. He and Del walked the woods with the dogs but came up empty. Frank and Paige spent the evening visiting a few of the county’s most frequent offenders, taking their pulse, and Holly was coming up with a list of hard cases and inmates Lew had locked away that were recently released. Harlan and Lew had never seen eye to eye when it came to running the department, but no one deserved to go out like that—face disfigured and scorched. It made Harlan’s stomach twist like a quirt.

The barbeque was meant to be a celebration of Lew, one in a series of campaign events leading up to his coronation as Finley County’s first-ever four-term sheriff. Now the election was a month away and the lone candidate was an end-of-days crazy who headed up a militia of one. People would expect Harlan to run. Before Lew came along, Finley sheriffs and their chief deputies had carried on a tradition of trading terms back and forth like dueling banjos. At one point Harlan suggested he and Lew might do the same, but Lew didn’t care much for tradition. He preferred being the boss. He kept the politicians happy and avoided bad press, and most people in Finley County had forgotten that anyone else had ever enforced the law.

A decade spent observing Lew taught Harlan that being sheriff was more about politics than policing anyway, and Harlan wasn’t much of a bullshitter. But now the job was his, and there was a good chance it would be after the election, and if that happened, Harlan would change things. Lew had catered to Finley County’s rich and powerful, but Harlan cared more about the people eking out a living along the fringes, the unfortunates whose drunken fights ended in assault charges and whose kids died of drug overdoses. He’d grown up watching his dad beat his mom and his mom threaten his dad, stood by while both of them drank away any semblance of their lingering humanity. In his early twenties, during his first years as a deputy, he’d pushed Lew to do outreach in the worst parts of the county, had lauded the benefits of preventive policing—a term he’d learned through his schooling. But Lew didn’t care for newfangled ideas. Eventually Harlan stopped trying so hard. His ambitions were back-burnered and then one day they were forgotten. Lost, really. The only woman he’d ever loved died, and that took something out of him. Ever since he’d laid Angeline to rest, each successive sunup to sundown seemed a sort of accomplishment.

Marathon was the only place he’d ever called home, but Harlan had never fit in. He’d been too raggedy, too scatterbrained, too much a loner. He’d grown up poor, wore oversize, hand-me-down clothes patched with iron-ons, spent his weekends by the side of the highway selling junk his father salvaged and quilts his mother sewed. Every now and then, when he booked a former schoolyard bully, they would retell jokes from that long-ago past. Harlan the dupe. Harlan smells like poop.

Something had kept Harlan in Marathon and maybe this was it: he was meant to be sheriff. It wasn’t happiness that kept him. Nor obligation. His father had drowned in the river. His mother followed not long after, her last days spent in a mental hospital. But if Harlan found Lew’s killer, things would change. The other deputies would start to respect him and the town would do the same and his name might become as synonymous with “sheriff” as Lew’s had been.

Harlan put the paperwork for the murder back in its folder and rolled a joint from a plastic bag hidden in the couch cushions. Cave crickets hopped across his lap, but he paid them no mind. He’d come to terms with the crickets, the snakes in the grass, the den of opossums burrowed beneath the house. There’d been a raccoon one summer that squatted on its hind legs and stared at Harlan while he smoked and to whom Harlan spoke when he was lonely. Then one day it stopped showing up. That loss felt like any number of losses Harlan had experienced—random and raw. He mouthed her name—Angeline—and toked the joint as he sunk deeper into the couch. She would have been proud of him.

“Sheriff Harlan Dupee,” he said to the crickets. He said it again, changing the cadence of his delivery, pausing to accentuate the word sheriff, speaking through clenched teeth, offering up a quick grin or handshake. He said it over and over, like a mantra, repeated it aloud until sleep overwhelmed him.

 

**

Copyright © 2016 Jesse Donaldson.

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Jesse Donaldson was born and raised in Kentucky, attended Kenyon College and Oregon State University, and was a fellow at The Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas. His writing has appeared in The Oxford American, Little Star, and Crazyhorse. Among other things, he's worked as a gardener, copywriter, teacher, and maintenance man. He currently lives in Oregon with his wife and daughter. The More They Disappear is his first novel.

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