by Chris Offutt
A natural leadfoot, Sheriff Linda Hardin loved speeding over the blacktop with the lightbar flashing. She enjoyed the power of the SUV, its willingness to grip the blacktop tightly, and top a hundred in a quarter-mile straight stretch. The road was officially County 519 but was locally known as the Clearfield Road, the Poppin Rock Road, or the Going-to-Paragon Road. It ran south past fields of corn and tobacco, following Lick Fork Creek to the community of Zag. She slowed as she approached the county line. The emergency call had designated a gravel lane this side of Morgan County with a Grand Prix in a ditch. Two people were unhurt but “not acting right.”
Linda found the road easily, her car raising a billow of white dust on the crushed limestone. The Grand Prix had missed a sharp curve and gone into the ditch. The color of the right rear quarter panel didn’t match the rest of the car, having been added from a junkyard. Patches of Bondo had flaked away to the raw metal in various spots, each leaking lines of rust as if weeping red tears. She ran the plates. The car was registered to Roger Crawford, a name Linda knew as a small-time seller of weed. She parked and approached the vehicle. A young man lay asleep on his side in the back seat, hands tucked between his drawn-up knees.
Two people in their early twenties sat on the ground with their backs against a downed tree. Their clothes were dirty, both shirts marred by burns from cigarettes. The woman’s head lolled back against the bark. The man watched Linda as if nothing could surprise him.
“Roger,” she said. “That you?”
“Who’s your little friend here?”
He nudged the woman with his elbow and she looked around like a child waking from a nap.
“What’s your name,” Linda said.
“Shawna,” she said. “I go by Shana.”
“Uh-huh,” Linda said. “Looks like you all ran off the road. Who was driving?”
“Me,” Roger said, “but it wasn’t my fault.”
“What happened?” Linda said. “Deer run in front of you?”
“No,” he said. “It was his turn to drive.”
“Who?” Linda said.
“Guy in the back seat?”
“Yep,” Roger said.
“Who is he?”
“Jackie Ray,” Shana said. “He’s my boyfriend.”
“Uh-huh,” Linda said. “I see. It was your boyfriend’s turn to drive and Roger wrecked. Is that right?”
They both nodded and smiled, and Linda understood they were too high for mere weed. It had to be opiates.
“Y’all got any drugs on you? Or weapons?”
“Yeah,” Shana said.
“No,” Roger said.
“Well,” Linda said, “which is it?”
“Pills but no guns,” Roger said.
Shana nodded eagerly as if expecting a reward for a correct answer.
“Let me have them,” Linda said.
In slow, jerky motions they dug into the pockets of their jeans and handed over opaque plastic containers. Linda examined them. Both were from the same pharmacy in Tampa, Florida, prescribed by the same doctor. Sixty milligrams of Oxycontin, fifteen pills per bottle. Each had five missing.
“You got any more in your car?” Linda said.
“Yep,” Roger said.
“Okay. I’m detaining you. Don’t try to run off or I’ll have to arrest you. You want that?”
They both shook their heads without speaking.
“Good,” Linda said. “Stay here.”
She walked to the car, knowing they were too stoned to run. The front floorboard had a coffee can full of cigarette butts. In the glovebox she found twenty-four vials of Oxycontin, the prescriptions filled at four different drugstores. She opened the rear door. On the floor was a half-eaten cheeseburger and an empty container of Oxy. With a sense of dread, she prodded Jackie, then pressed her fingers to his carotid artery and felt no pulse. She tugged his arm but rigor mortis prevented it from moving which meant he’d been dead for a few hours.
She went to her car and requested an ambulance, then called the State Police. She returned to Roger and Shana, wondering how long they’d been driving with a dead man in their car.
“Roger,” she said, “I got to ask you. Y’all coming back from a run to Florida? Get some Oxy?”
“I had the idea you were a weed man only.”
“I was,” he said. “People want Oxy now.”
She cuffed him, helped him to his feet, led him to her car, and went back for Shana.
“Help me understand something,” Linda said. “You said it was Jackie’s turn to drive when your brother ran into the ditch.”
Shana nodded encouragement.
“I don’t see how the wreck happened,” Linda said.
“Jackie wouldn’t wake up.”
“Uh-huh. What’d y’all do?”
“Roger pulled on this road and slowed down but I couldn’t get Jackie awake. Roger, he reached back over the seat to shake him. The car, it run off the road.”
“I don’t remember. You got here.”
“Okay,” Linda said. “I’m going to have to handcuff you and you can sit with Roger in my car. Put your hands out.”
Shana complied and Linda pulled her up. She weighed less than ninety pounds. Linda opened the rear door and helped Shana into the back of the SUV.
“What about Jackie?” Shana said. “He coming, too?”
Linda closed the door without answering. She searched the car again to ensure she hadn’t missed anything before the State Police arrived. A tattered highway atlas, three empty packs of cigarettes, a lighter, a packet of ketchup, four stale French fries, and a corpse.
Unwilling to wait with her prisoners, she went to the downed tree they’d leaned against and sat on it. She felt sadder than she had in a long time. Shana would sober up in jail and learn her boyfriend was dead. A court-mandated rehab program would be hard-pressed to help her recover from such a loss.
Linda adjusted her position to face the woods. It was possible to turn her back on one small part of the world at a time. The powerful drum of a beak against dead bark carried through the woods and she scanned the overstory for a pileated woodpecker. It flew a series of arcing loops and landed in the boughs of an ash tree four feet wide. Below it grew crinklefoot ferns. A row of Queen Anne’s lace swayed in the ditch. As a girl she’d turned them red and blue with food coloring in cups of water. The stems absorbed the water and transferred the dye to the lacey white flowerheads. She wondered if kids still did that, if Shana ever had.
Chris Offutt grew up in the hills of eastern Kentucky and currently lives on a dirt road near Oxford, Mississippi. He is the author of Country Dark, Kentucky Straight, Out of the Woods, The Same River Twice, No Heroes, The Good Brother, and My Father the Pornographer. His new novel, The Killing Hills, is forthcoming in March 2021 from Grove Atlantic. It is the first book in a series. His writing has received a Pushcart Prize and a Guggenheim Award, an NEA, and an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for “prose that takes risks.” His work is included in many anthologies and textbooks, including Best American Short Stories, Best American Essays, and Best American Food Writing. His books have been translated into twelve languages and won three international literature awards in France. To finance his sons’ college education, he worked in Hollywood for seven years, writing screenplays for True Blood, Weeds, and Treme. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and chrisoffutt.com.