Sheriff Shelby Hines thought about his own burial.
He needed a breather before he started the last leg of a climb that ended at a tumbledown trailer high up on Black Owl Mountain. From his position, he could see the side of the single-wide, a beat-up structure with broad lines of soot under the eaves. He kept his eye on a beach towel hung inside one of the windows, looking for any movement. Unsnapping his holster, he drew behind a tall sycamore, breathing deeply but thinking about what a nice place the hill would be for his gravesite. The spot had a fine view of the valley and you could see all the way into West Virginia on a clear day. He listened closely and thought he heard the roiling waters at the confluence of the rivers down below. Somewhere up above a red tailed hawk cawed and flew off. Yes, it would be a great place to be buried, he thought. If it wasn’t for the goddamn trailer.
Every deputy knew what was inside, even before they kicked in the door and started their screaming. Well, for the most part anyway. It was true that no one expected a family of possums to scatter out the windows and door, but from a full two hundred feet away they could smell the death that came from the trailer. The body looked to be that of a young male, but the face and torso were so mutilated that it was tough to tell for sure. Lifting a bandanna from his nose, the sheriff said, “Another angel rises to serve the Lord.” There were a few stifled laughs, either because the deputies thought it was funny, or because the body scared the hell out of them. Likely both.
“Well, see if we can find out who he is, or she, or whatever,” he said.
While a rookie gloved up and started to search the pockets, the sheriff added, “Too bad none of us arrived in time to administer the Naloxone.” This produced both laughs and groans. The Naloxone seminar was scheduled for a few weeks hence, and the topic usually triggered angry reactions.
Through a bandanna someone joked, “Can you get addicted to Naloxone, I wonder?”
“Hell yes, you can. But I hear there’s a drug coming out can save you if you O.D. on it.”
“And the good news is that it’s free and will be administered by the Sheriff’s Office.” More laughter.
“No doubt there’ll be a seminar and a tutorial to follow,” the sheriff added. In a glance he took in the filthy trailer and the drug paraphernalia on the floor and table. “By God,” he said, “it’s a self-cleaning oven, ain’t it?”
“Darwin at work,” someone said.
But over the soft laughter that masked the anger and fear that came with an opioid overdose, the rookie’s voice rose up, “The I.D. says Clayton Hyden. Anyone know him?” Some deputies shot knowing glances at each other. Except for the buzzing of a few flies, silence hung in the air and the heat seemed to reassert itself suddenly. Eventually a long-timer squeezed the sheriff’s shoulder. “Sweet Jesus, Shelby.”
The sheriff pinched the bridge of his nose and ran his hand over his face. The trailer seemed brutally hot now, and he mopped his neck with a bandanna. In the dark and suffocating space it was hard to make out his expression. He moved to the back of the trailer and ripped down the beach towel that hung over the window. Light filtered into the small space and motes of dust from the towel orbited around. He kicked out the glass and shouted, “Get some fuckin’ air in here.”
The boy had been his nephew.
At Clayton’s funeral the sheriff noticed a young man, a kid, really. He looked to be the Alpha male amongst an unwholesome bunch who showed up in hoodies and baseball caps. The sheriff could read the signs like a book: the long sleeves, the gaunt profiles, the sunken eyes. With the girls it was the greasy hair and the facial blemishes that stood out. There could be a lot of reasons for a lapse in personal care among males in Appalachia—poverty and hard living not the least of them. But for the girls, the women, the same lapse usually meant addiction. Looks were the last thing a mountain woman gave up on.
He made a mental note to interview the kid later.
After the ceremony, the sheriff again broached the idea of the hillside plot with his wife, Elva. And again she told him she wanted to be cremated, but that he should go ahead and find a place he liked. It made no difference. They would be together in the Lord’s kingdom someday. He should find a spot soon, though, she said. After all, he was sixty-three years old. “Men around here don’t live much longer than sixty,” she said with a wink.
But as it turned out, the sheriff had bigger problems. He had to take Elva to the emergency room later that night. A young doctor at Kentucky Eastern Regional explained that she needed an electrocardiography exam to monitor her ventrical ejection fraction, a quantity lost on the sheriff. All the sheriff knew was that the woman’s heart was racing and that she was in pain. He was about to learn more from the young doctor when a crew of hospital staff charged through the main doors wheeling a patient on a gurney. They shouted codes and barked out orders. It seemed like the entire emergency room had snapped into action. The young doctor heard his name on the intercom and tersely directed the sheriff to the in-take desk, a place where the sheriff had already spent the last hour filling out forms.
“What’s going on around here,” he finally got around to asking one of the bustling nurses.
“An overdose,” she said as she hustled off.
Eventually, Elva’s heart rate slowed, but not through any great effort on the part of the hospital staff, who seemed overly busy with the O.D. victim. It was the sheriff himself who comforted her as she lay in her hospital bed still groggy from the sedation. With his thick, liver-spotted hands, he stroked her frail forearm, the way he did when she was worried about something.
When she was finally alert he said, “They seem more interested in a saving a junkie than anybody else around here.”
“Well, don’t let it get to you.”
“But I do let it get to me. And why shouldn’t I? I deal with these people every goddamn day.”
“Shel,” she said, “please don’t take the Lord’s name.”
“Sorry. It’s just that it’s sickening, Elva. Drug addled criminals get better service than the sheriff’s wife. Now don’t you think there’s something wrong with that?”
Elva saw the vein swell in his temple. “Sweet,” she said, “it’s more the place than the people.”
“Now what exactly does that mean, Elva?”
“It means that people around here haven’t changed so much over the years, but times have. There’s not much around here for people anymore, now that coal’s gone, especially the young ones. There’s desperation in these hills, Shel. Drugs are how people cope. Think of young Clayton. He was a good boy deep down. He just ran out of hope, like a lot of people in these hills. Most folks just try to soldier on, but lots of them give up.”
In the softest voice he could manage the sheriff said, “Oh hell, Elva.” He stroked her arm again.
“I’m right, and you probably know it, too,” she added. “You just gotta exercise forbearance. So says the Lord, Shel. You gotta forgive. There must be a state of grace for those who struggle. This place is hard on people, especially in these times.”
The sheriff considered what she said when he left the building for the night. It was hard to take her words to heart, though. In the little lounge with the candy and coffee machines, he overheard a few of the nurses singing the praises of the young doctor who eventually saved the O.D. patient. They spoke as if the man were a god. It became even harder when the sheriff got news later that night that his wife had died of a heart attack.
They tried, the young doctor told him, but they couldn’t save her.
At the Sheriff’s Office, it was open season on users and dealers. A lot of small time movers and addicts were brought in to the county jail nightly, hauled in half-conscious most of the time. And if they didn’t have any useful information, they left another kind of half-conscious. On the night shift, the deputies took bets on how long some of them would last on two feet. A three-punch junkie was considered a bad-ass. One name came up often, but it usually required a beating to get it—Hellbender.
“The guy’s named after a fuckin’ salamander?” a deputy asked one dealer who finally gave up the name.
“I don’t know where his name come from. I never met him. I just heard about him. He’s supposed to be the main connection.” The dealer was given some paper towels to stanch the blood from his broken nose.
“But Hellbender is the name of a salamander in these parts. Do you know that? Have you ever read anything besides the back of a cigarette pack, Jethro?”
“I don’t know him. And I don’t know about any salamanders.”
The deputy gave him one for good measure in the ribs. It lifted him off his feet momentarily. “Who the fuck is Hellbender?”
“I don’t know, man,” the kid pleaded. Soon he started to cry, and eventually the deputy realized he wasn’t going to get anything from him. “Get the fuck outta my sight,” he said.
More than once the sheriff brought in the kid form the funeral, Lewis Coombs. He claimed to know nothing of any Hellbender. Claimed to know nothing about nothing, in fact. Like most of the others, they couldn’t hold him. But the sheriff thought the kid was hiding something. If he was, though, he never gave it up. Turns out, the kid could take a punch.
Needless to say, it was a bad time for the Naloxone seminar. In the hotel lobby up in Lexington, the deputies drank coffee and whispered cynical asides to each other. The tattooed and pierced presenters wore their lanyards like a badge of honor. For most of them, it was the only time they’d ever be in a position to lecture anyone, on anything. They walked around with an air of authority.
It didn’t go over big with the law enforcement crowd.
“Those lanyards should say ‘Former Junkie’,” one deputy joked.
“Yeah,” someone added, “or ‘Ask Me About Re-hab’.”
“Only job I know of where a positive drug test guarantees you an interview.” There was a collective shaking of heads.
For the sheriff, the whole thing tested his patience. It was tough for him to sit and listen to the same drug addled set that he spent his days chasing down. Yes, they were “recovered,” supposedly anyway, but it was hard to be lectured by people whose only achievement thus far was their commitment to drugs. At least that’s the way he saw it. Only one of them did he give the time of day to, a young nurse with a mountain accent. She conducted the Naloxone tutorial itself, a session the sheriff felt he absolutely had to listen to carefully. Overdoses didn’t phase him so much, but he didn’t want a screw up that could cost a deputy his job.
The nurse explained that the Naloxone had to be administered as soon as possible once it was determined that the patient was unresponsive. Every second counted, she pointed out, as she demonstrated the technique on a colleague. With her long black hair in a solo braid and her patient, country delivery, she reminded the sheriff of a younger Elva. When the session was concluded and opened up for questions, a deputy who couldn’t restrain himself asked what everyone else was thinking. “So, why do you think these people, these criminals, deserve such specialized care? I mean, the whole opioid epidemic has spread us real thin. We can hardly serve law-abiding people anymore.”
As she began to place her things back into the demonstration kit, the nurse said, “You answered your own question, deputy. Because they’re people. That’s why they deserve specialized care.”
“Ok, yeah, they’re people, though I sometimes wonder about that. But in my experience, they’re hardly worth saving. They typically just go back to using drugs as soon as they’re out of re-hab, or wherever. I mean, that’s my experience, like I said.”
“It’s not my experience,” she answered. “I know it’s hard, but we must try to be kind to those less fortunate, even the ungrateful and wicked, especially them, in fact. Your reward will be great.” She placed her stethoscope in her bag and added, “And I can tell you this, I’m certainly grateful to you deputies.”
The sheriff recognized the remarks. They were from Luke, a verse Elva used to quote now and again. It was then that he realized the woman must be a former addict. He hadn’t noticed it before because he hadn’t thought to look, but she had the scars on her arms. She had survived.
It was either good fortune or divine providence, the sheriff thought. He happened to be on patrol when the call came in for an O.D. victim in the holler. He recognized the address right away, a trailer where Lewis Coombs lived. He had been there before. This time, though, a girl had overdosed.
“She just passed out, man,” Coombs said. “I don’t know what happened. You gotta do something, quick.” He paced around the filthy trailer in just a pair of jeans, his sweaty hair matted to his scalp and his hands working hard. The sheriff gloved up and leaned over the girl. She was comatose on the floor, her face a map of red patches on her pallid skin. He readied the Naloxone syringe and prepared to jab it through her pants.
And then it hit him.
He looked up at Coombs, “So, where can I find Hellbender?”
“What? What are you asking me, you motherfucker? Give her the shot.”
The sheriff placed the cap back on the syringe and stood up. “You heard me. Where’s Hellbender?”
“You goddamn sonofabitch. You’re gonna kill a girl over Hellbender?”
The sheriff removed his gloves. “I guess so. Unless you tell me where I can find him.” Coombs moved to grab the syringe, but the sheriff was ready for him. He caught the kid with an elbow across the nose and Coombs hit the ground. The sheriff kicked him viciously in the ribs, and then in the gut. Coombs started to wail, softly at first, and then like a sort of keening, but it wasn’t the punch or the kick. It was the girl. The sheriff crossed his arms and waited. It was a huge gamble.
“You can’t do this!” Coombs screeched, the blood from his nose flowing into his thin moustache and mouth.
“I am doing it. Now, where?”
“Fuck! Up on Black Owl Mountain. Now give her the shot.”
“Black Owl? Where my nephew died?”
“Yes, you motherfucker. Now give her the shot!”
The sheriff plunged the needle into the girl’s leg and waited. Her eyes fluttered slightly and her chest began to expand with her breathing. Only then did he radio for an ambulance.
“If this information ain’t good, you will regret it.” he told Coombs.
Coombs had found a kitchen rag in the meanwhile and wiped at his broken nose. He had already returned to form. “What are you gonna do, kill me?”
“No, I’m gonna kill her.”
“What? What the fuck did you just say?”
“That’d even it up,” the sheriff said. “Best you not say anything to anyone, either. Otherwise it’s you who’s probably gonna die. Big time dealers don’t appreciate snitches.”
He waited for the ambulance outside.
Last Chance Liquor, on the county line, used to be a place where young and old might be seen together, maybe sharing a half-pint from a brown bag, or a beer. The sheriff had met Elva there, and they had sipped from a bottle they chased with Coca-Cola. Back then the neon sign was new, a mark of commercial success in Appalachia, like the marquee on the theatre downtown. An image of Elva bathed in that pink light at dusk came to him now as he sat in his truck in the lot. But like the marquee on the theatre, the “Last Chance” sign was long gone, replaced by a painted plywood sheet affixed to two-by-fours and mounted to the roof of the business. Even that had faded now. Some weathered picnic tables still sat on the lot, but only the addicts who patronized the store for cigarettes sat there. They scattered when they recognized the sheriff, though he was not there on business.
Inside, Booj Jones was at the till, and the two men commiserated about how tired they were, as old men will. They talked about young folks nowadays and reminisced about old times. Booj had been a close friend many years ago and the sheriff still enjoyed talking with him. Since Elva’s passing, he had seen a lot more of Booj. Back in his truck, the sheriff set a half-pint of Jim Beam and a large bottle of water on the bench. For what he was planning, he would need both.
As he pulled out of the lot, he hoped it wouldn’t be the last time he saw Booj.
It seemed like the climb up Black Owl Mountain was harder this time around. The sheriff stopped often to sip from his water bottle and to check on his firearm, an old .38 some redneck had used in a robbery twenty-some years ago, the serial number already filed down. He had liked it back then and took it before it ever got logged into evidence. Now he could just leave it when everything was said and done. It was perfect. Still, he was tired. Not only physically. Yes, there was that—he was 63 years old, and his muscles ached. But beyond the muscle and bone, deep inside, he was worn thin, especially since Elva had been gone. He was ready for it to be over.
This had to happen first, though.
At the tall sycamore he opened the bottle of Beam and rested. The liquor went down rough, but he knew he had to force it. An edge was needed for something like this. Up above a pair of black-throated warblers sang out, and the warm breeze felt much cooler than it really was when it hit the sweat on his skin. He took one last pull off the bottle.
The window he had kicked out had been replaced with a piece of cardboard. Someone was definitely in there. He prayed to God it was just Hellbender. After he had moved up alongside the trailer, he crept to a spot under the window where he could hear someone moving around inside, maybe straightening up, maybe not. But no voices, and only one set of feet walking about. This was it, he thought. By God, he was tired, though. And for an instant he thought of simply inching away and making his way back down the mountain. It would be easier. But he remembered Elva in the hospital, and the O.D. patient, and the young doctor, and everyone else who took her from him.
The knob turned and he threw the door open.
Hellbender stood in a pair of basketball shorts, a broom in his hands. “On the ground!” the sheriff barked. He swept the room with his gun, hooked up Hellbender, and cleared the rest of the little trailer. It had been cleaned up since Clayton.
Hellbender was just like the rest of them, a rail thin kid with a patchy goatee and a bunch of tattoos. “Are you a cop?” he asked the sheriff.
“I am. Are you Hellbender?”
This threw the sheriff some. But he said, “Then you’re the opioid king, the main man, way I understand it.”
“Must be another Hellbender you’ve got me confused with.”
“Funny man.” The sheriff looked out the window and then stuck his head out the door. “My nephew died up here. My sister’s boy. You know that? He was killed, actually. An overdose.”
“That’s a shame.”
The sheriff kicked him in the ribs, hard. It took the wind from the kid. “And my wife died in the hospital because the entire ER staff got caught up in saving the life of one of your junkies.”
When Hellbender regained his bearings he wheezed out, “There’s no one up here but me. I’m guessin’ that’s what you expected. You’re not here on official business, are you?”
The sheriff rooted around for paraphernalia—drugs, money, all the stuff he expected to find. But there was none of that. What the hell, he wondered.
“I meant what I said when I said it was a shame that he died,” Hellbender said, spitting a little blood. “Kids dyin’ left and right in these hills. Sorry about your wife, too. Though you maybe don’t believe I mean that.”
“You don’t need to tell me about kids dying. I see it everyday. I don’t often get to see the ones thats causing it, though. Your name comes up quite a lot around me. It ain’t gonna come up any more, I don’t think.” The sheriff wiped off the old .38 with a bandanna, set it on the kitchen counter and slipped on a black nitrile glove. He took up the gun again and spun the cylinder.
“Can I ask you what you’re arresting me for?” Hellbender said. “My guess is that you ain’t gonna arrest me at all, are you? You’re gonna kill me.”
“Well, you got it comin’, kid.”
Hellbender considered the remark. “Maybe so,” he said. But can I ask you a favor before you make them losses right?”
“You can ask.”
“Take the money I got out back. I’ll show you where. My sister, she don’t want nothin’ to do with me. She’s not like me. She lives righteous. She’s got a little boy and girl. Give her a few grand. She could use it. You can figure a way to get it to her, you know, anonymously, right? Her name’s Jaycee Whitley. Lives in Collins County, on Lost Creek. Keep the rest for yourself.”
The sheriff wondered about the money, and about Hellbender, too. He wasn’t what he had expected.
“Where’s this money?”
“Buried out back. Not too deep, though. I’ll show you.”
What could it hurt now, the sheriff figured? He got the kid up off the floor and outside into the heat. Hellbender indicated a shovel behind the trailer and the sheriff grabbed it. The pair walked to a spot near some elms not far away.
“You either gotta dig it up yourself or uncuff me. Maybe we can make some kinda deal.”
“Unless you can bring my wife back to life, the only deal we got is that I kill you fast, and that’s only if I think maybe you got something useful.” He uncuffed him and stepped away, training the gun on him all the while. “Start diggin’.”
The kid began to go at it. It had rained recently and the spade tore into the soft earth easily. “Why do you think people around here are so addicted to drugs?” Hellbender asked him.
“Because of people like you, I guess. Keep diggin’.”
Hellbender laughed through his nose. “Naw, you don’t believe it. You’re smarter than that, I figure. I’ll tell you why. It’s because of depression. And by that I mean personal depression and economic depression. And the one fuels the other. When coal died out, the economy died out, and peoples’ spirits died out with it. There ain’t much else around here. Hopelessness is all there is. It’s sad, but you can’t live on nothin’. And no one can live on hope alone, not for very long at least. I give the people what they want, what they need, even though it’s not really good for them. But it’s my only way out.”
Some of this reminded the sheriff of Elva’s way of seeing things. But some of it didn’t. “You’re trying to justify a plague you brought on. You make it sound as if you’re saving people.”
Hellbender stopped for a moment and leaned on the handle of the shovel. “I didn’t bring it on. But, yeah, you’re right, I ain’t saving anyone. Even so, I am giving them something. What’s the word? A reprieve, I guess you call it. A reprieve from this life out here.” He gestured expansively with his arms.
“How come you don’t take drugs?” the sheriff asked. Is that so you can stay sharp enough to profit off the misfortune of others?”
Hellbender jammed the shovel into the earth. “There’s some reason in that. But I had it as bad as any of these people. My father died of black lung and my mother died of cancer, once the company stopped paying benefits when my dad died. I just saw a way out and took it. Not saying it’s righteous, though. It ain’t.”
The sheriff had to appreciate the kid’s honesty. Truth be told, he was finding it difficult to think about what he came up there to do. He could hear the kid’s story as if Elva were talking about someone she knew, some down on his luck loser, some addict maybe, so-and-so’s son or daughter. Maybe even Clayton.
“Did you know my nephew, Clayton Hyden?” the sheriff asked.
“No, but I know he died up here. Again, sorry to hear it. That’s why I decided to use this place. Cops wouldn’t be likely to come back up here after that. They’d figure no one would be dumb enough to hide out in an abandoned trailer after all that.” He bent down and lifted out an old toolbox, but when he went to open it, the sheriff yelled, “Don’t.” Hellbender lifted the box and set it in front of the hole he had just dug.
“Just don’t move. I’ll get it,” the sheriff commanded. With the gun trained on Hellbender, the sheriff grabbed the toolbox by its handle and stepped back several feet. He set it on the ground and opened it with one hand. Inside were rolls of hundreds in rubber bands. Right then, the sheriff decided he wasn’t going to kill Hellbender. No, he’d take the money and leave the kid. And there wasn’t a damn thing Hellbender could do about it. It was the little bit he needed for that early retirement. He even considered giving Hellbender’s sister some of it. The kid’s story reminded him too much of Elva. He just couldn’t do what he came up there to do.
But he should have.
Hellbender reached into the hole and pulled out a soiled brown paper bag that exploded with one of the loudest sounds the sheriff ever heard. The bottom of the bag blew out and briefly caught fire around Hellbender’s hand. Birds scattered above and something scurried away back in amongst the elms. Cordite hung heavy in the air. Hellbender trained the gun on the sheriff who held his gut with both hands now. Blood poured through his fingers and expanded in a downward arc across his shirt and onto his pants.
Hellbender picked up the .38 that now lay on the ground beside the sheriff. “I’m sorry, old boy, but you give me no choice. You and I both know I wasn’t long for this world.” He glanced at the sheriff’s .38. “Serial number already filed off. No, you ain’t here on official business. But I am sorry to do it to you.” He tossed the .38 aside.
The sheriff groaned and tried to catch his breath. He looked at his wound and he knew it was the end of the line. He thought of Elva. He thought of the grace and forgiveness she possessed. And that which he did not, though she encouraged him to seek it. He saw a Cooper’s hawk fly off from a branch in search of something on the ground. It glided effortlessly, slowly in the way that they do when they scope out the ground, and he envied it. After a few labored breaths he was able to say, “You’re right, boy. I come to kill you.” He didn’t bother to add that he had since changed his mind about that.
“I know it. But I’m still sorry. I don’t want to hurt no one like this.”
The sheriff coughed up a little blood and said, “Try to get out of this place. These hills are hard on young people.” They were Elva’s words once, but now they were his. Hellbender pushed his greasy hair back from his eyes. The gun hung limply from his hand, parts of the singed paper bag still clinging to it.
“Why do they call you Hellbender?” the sheriff asked.
The kid did his best to compose himself. “The Eastern Hellbender is a creature around here under constant attack. It’s endangered, you know? But it still manages to hang on, like lots of folks I know. You know them, too, I’m guessin’. I just thought it sounded cool, like something that can’t be killed. Something that keeps on, no matter how hard it gets.”
“I know what you mean.”
“I wish I could help you, man. But you know I can’t.”
“Yes you can,” said the sheriff.
“What do you mean?”
“There’s a big sycamore over near the trailer, just a little piece down the hill.”
“I know that tree,” Hellbender said.
“I want you to bury me there. Six feet down, ok? Lookin’ out toward the West Virginia line. Then you come back here in a couple months, once the ground cover is on good, and burn down that fuckin’ trailer.”
The kid wiped his eyes and nodded. “Ok, I’ll do it. I mean it.”
“Hell, you already got the shovel. Help me get over there now, ok?”
The kid managed to get the sheriff up on two feet. With the sheriff’s arm over his shoulder, he walked him to the tree and let him lie down. “You want some water?” he asked the sheriff.
“No, just leave me be. Come back in a little while with the shovel. And remember what I said about getting out of here.”
“Yessir,” said Hellbender.
“That stuff about your sister. Is that true?” the sheriff asked.
“All of it.”
“Thanks. Goodbye, now.”
“Goodbye,” said Hellbender.
Soon the sheriff started to fade. At first he thought of Elva. He could see her at Clayton’s funeral, and then in her hospital bed. He saw his hand on her arm, and her gray hair splayed out on the pillow beneath her head. But then her hair turned coal black, like the young Elva he courted at the Last Chance. He saw the young mountain nurse from the Naloxone seminar, too, with her long black locks like Elva’s. Soon he couldn’t distinguish between them, but he didn’t mind. He heard the waters down below.
He closed his eyes and waited.
Chris McGinley has appeared in Tough Magazine, Switchblade, the ID Press crime anthology (forthcoming), Story and Grit (forthcoming), Pulp Modern (forthcoming), and on a host of crime writing websites like Shotgun Honey, Near to the Knuckle, Out of the Gutter, and Yellow Mama. He’s also written reviews and reconsiderations of films and books on SleuthSayers, Unlawful Acts, and the Flash Fiction Offensive. He teaches middle school in Lexington Kentucky.