Friday, October 17, 2014

Chapter Sixteen

Pickup and delivery



          Hildy tried to look at the man seriously and make great eye contact.

When working in the field, Dr. Alejandro Juan Gutierrez, the medical examiner for Tillamook County, kept a perpetually-recording GoPro video camera strapped to the top of his head. He said it made notes and documentation easier. Which Hildy appreciated. But the one he was using now was brand new, shiny and silver, and it reminded her of the burnished metal discs that doctors stereotypically wore a hundred years ago. That, in turn, reminded her of Young Frankenstein. And paying attention was highly difficult when the man before you had a camera fixed to his head, that wobbled as he talked, and you couldn’t stop thinking the, “It’s pronounced Fronkensteen,” line over and over in your head. Hildy was, in fact, just doing her very best not to smile or laugh directly into the lens.

Not that Dr. Gutierrez was an intrinsically serious man, or would have minded a laugh at all. If anything, he was the opposite, bordering on outright inappropriate. Like a gynecologist who continues to talk and chuckle at his own jokes throughout an appointment. What she really wanted to do was avoid there being an awkward recording of her at a crime scene where she looked like she was having a really great time.   

          Mr. Birch Riley’s death had just been declared a possible homicide—Dr. Gutierrez citing suspected antemortem bruising and broken ribs beneath—and he had just committed to an autopsy.

          The camera wobbled.

          “What did you say?” she asked.

          “I said I need your permission to move the body?”

Hildy nodded, “Do it.”

“You three!” he shouted to a group of firemen behind her. “Grab a board! We’re moving it. No gurneys on the sand!”

          Hildy liked that he had asked her, instead of the chief or the sheriff, and that others were already looking to her for instruction. It meant she didn’t have to make a formal announcement, and that saved time. No announcement meant no speech, and no push back. No questions or tiny rebellions. Sometimes you got that from men when they felt deballed. But, right now, they were skipping the moment and space for that to exist in, and that saved time.

Nothing could go slowly right now.

          Fingerprints, which they very likely wouldn’t find on the beach or the body, could take four weeks or more to process and match, if a match came back at all. Autopsies took six to eight weeks. DNA tests could take anywhere from one to six months, depending on how busy the lab was. And the odds of identifying and apprehending a murder suspect with that kind of evidence, after that long, was all but astronomical. It would be, however, imperative to collect for later proving any suspect guilty in court. But that was in the future. Right now, as fast as possible, before memories, witnesses, or suspects could vanish, they needed to identify the victim’s inner circle and find any and all possible motives. She had to find the reason. And the reason would lead her to the truth.

          “Good. Now, one of you, grab that end. Yes. And, you, grab that end. Now lift with your legs. Good. Okay, now you, last guy, you have to hold the body to the board while they carry it. Yes. Right in the middle. Okay. Almost perfect. Now move your top hand just a little lower. A little lower. Just a little bit lower.”

          Hildy cleared her throat.

          “Sorry, Ms. Wilder. Okay. Yeah. I guess that’s fine. Gentlemen, to the van!”

K-9 units came in after that, but nothing more than a few articles of clothing was ever found along the beach or the bluff. Eventually, after a phone call to the Oregon State Police superintendent to keep them apprised, and another to the local district attorney, and then another to her boss, everyone on the bluff began gradually dispersing. And, before long, Hildegard Wilder was once again sitting in her car alone on Vida Seca Lane.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Chapter Fifteen

The robin



It was on his fourteenth birthday that Dusty’s father decided he was old enough to own the gun. He’d been given a spring powered BB gun for his tenth birthday, and a pump action air rifle that shot led pellets for his twelfth. And now, on his fourteenth, a Sunday, the last day of spring break, it was waiting for him on the kitchen table when he came down for breakfast.

          His father turned from the stove to watch.

          Dusty didn’t see him, nor did he hear the sizzle of batter in the pan.

After spotting the gun on the table from the landing, the kitchen could have been on fire and still appeared a little bleak by comparison.

          Dusty walked quietly to the table and pulled out a chair. Without hesitating or really thinking about anything at all, he laid the gun across his lap.

The .22 was heavy.

Picking it up, Dusty had only readied himself for the weight of his pellet gun and, unprepared, he nearly dropped it. They were practically the same size but instantly this was different. No plastic parts or cheap aluminum fittings. Just solid, darkly stained wood and black steel.

His fingers ran down the barrel, caressing the roughness of the unpolished metal. He vaguely tried to align its shadow with the pattern of the linoleum on the floor, but it wouldn’t match.

The tiles weren’t straight enough.

The gun was too perfect.

Just holding it was so much fun it felt like magic.

The smooth wood was exhilarating in his hands. Almost embarrassingly so. The hair on the back of his neck bristled like it had the day he’d found his sister’s bra thrown in with his clean laundry. It was practically obscene.

          He curled a finger around the bolt and pulled the chamber open. It slid like only oil and tight tolerances could; precision in motion.

His hands began to shake and sweat and he had to set it back on the table.

          “Did I do good?” his dad asked, bringing over a plate of steaming pancakes and a mug of hot chocolate.

          “Thanks, Dad,” was all Dusty could say.

A scruffy kiss brushed against his forehead, “Happy Birthday.” His father was walking away and nearly made it back to the stove when the patio door flew open.

Dusty’s mother stood motionless in the doorframe for a full ten seconds with a stunned look on her face, in her muddy rubber boots, before she pulled her gardening gloves off and spiked them on the linoleum. “You gave it to him anyway?” she boiled.

Dusty’s bare toes clenched around the bottom rung of the chair and, as she stormed behind him into the kitchen, Dusty instinctually reached out to guard his treasure, though he only had enough courage to touch it with his fingertips.  

“Yes,” his father answered. The calm in his voice wasn’t forced, but his shoulders rose tensely up around his neck as she encroached, and he turned away from her. “I told you I was going to.”

Dusty could feel his heart beginning to pound with the fear and anticipation of great loss.

His dad didn’t say anything more. He just picked up the batter bowl and poured into the pan. Dusty could tell he was nervous. He forgot to melt the butter in first. He’d told Dusty that was the key to making quality pancakes. Butter. Not spray. And the dollops he was pouring were in irregular sizes. Not his usual uniform three even circles.

Dusty was scared to watch and leaned his chin on the table in front of his pancakes, beside his outstretched arm, and began to imagine fleetingly hopeful outcomes.

          “After everything we talked about last night? After that huge fight? You still gave it to him? You asshole! Fuck you, Carl!”

          Dusty stared at the gun. Focusing. Hoping. Praying. Begging in his heart. Pleading silently with the universe. Possibly with no one at all. Desperately trying to convince himself that, if he never looked away from it, it couldn’t possibly be taken from him.

Just in front of the trigger, he noticed the latch that held in the magazine. He imagined flipping the gun over, and how he’d have to hold it to release it and reload without dropping anything. He wondered what a handful of bullets would feel like in his pocket. Would he even carry them like that? Maybe Dad would teach him some special, new way? What were they going to shoot? Pop cans? Like they had with the pellet gun? Would they walk to that same field in their neighborhood? Was it okay to walk down the street with a real gun like he had with his BB gun? He wanted to, so everyone could see it.

“Turn around and look at me!” his mother bellowed.

“No,” his father said. “He’s ready. I wanted to give it to him. And I told you I was going to.”

The fight went on that way for a few minutes. With Dusty’s mom erupting, livid at her husband for disobeying her wishes, tracking muddy footprints in circles around the kitchen; Dusty’s father avoiding her between flipping his oddly shaped pancakes and doing the dishes, sometimes muttering insincere niceties when he got cornered; and Dusty trying to remain as unnoticed as possible.

Regardless of his mother’s particularly moody scorn, the scene wasn’t unexpected. He’d recently observed that, on days when expectations were higher, things got unpredictable between his parents.

Or, more honestly, last night in the den while playing cards, his sister had pointed that out to him.

At first, Amy had used words and phrases he could hardly understand.

“During certain periods, especially on days of emotional significance, mom’s tendency to fall into fits of dysphoric mania collide with dad’s chronic minimisation of intention, creating a sensational vortex where no one’s needs are met and, in order for an episode like that to end, however overt or passive the aggression presents, both parties feel like someone has to lose.” But, once she’d broken it down for him, that mom was miserable and dad ignored her, it all felt so true that he could have sworn he’d noticed it himself.

“Yup,” Dusty had nodded agreeably, laying down three 7s and discarding a jack to win.

“Dusty,” she warned. “Make sure that the person losing between them isn’t you, okay?”


Amy was five years older than Dusty, a first year psychology major, and had told Dusty she could only stay home for the rest of the weekend. She’d explained that, if she didn’t return from break before the hordes of other freshmen, even though, for her, spring term didn’t officially start for another week, she wouldn’t be guaranteed new books. The margins of used books, she’d said, were full of apocryphal note taking, greased with dorm room residue, and smelled. They were, above all, to be avoided.

Whether he understood every single thing she ever told him or not, to Dusty, her words were canon. But, even so, Dusty couldn’t stand up. Not out of his chair. Not in defiance, next to his breakfast, in his pajamas, to tell his parents that he had done nothing to deserve this kind of exploitation. He just sat there, unchanging, not moving a muscle, afraid that any attention might lead him to trouble, and listened to his fate be decided for him.

Long enough for him to watch his hot chocolate go cold.

His pancakes no longer steamed.

And then it was quiet.

So intent on remaining inactive, Dusty had missed the cue that silenced the room. However, his parents, even in the midst of their bickering, had apparently found it impossible to ignore the bright purple boxer shorts and neon green tank top contrasting so explicitly against their beige carpeted stairs.

Dusty looked up to see his sister standing there smiling at him.

He smiled back.

She mouthed, “Happy Birthday,” to him like she was reminding him of a secret, one only Dusty was special enough to know, and all of the dread that had built up in him began evaporating. In the madness of the morning, the fact that it was his birthday had sort of wandered in and out of importance. But Amy had brought it back. Because that’s what she did.

His father made her a fresh plate of pancakes and gently set them on the table in front of her. Then he moved back to the kitchen and stood with Dusty’s mother, who seemed to just now have noticed the tracks she’d left in circles all over the linoleum, and went to the closet to pull out the broom and mop.

Dusty watched Amy cut into her pancakes, and, as she quietly, unconcernedly, ate, he admired her and puzzled over how she had become so different from their parents. She hadn’t said a word this morning. When she came down for breakfast she was completely calm. She didn’t glare or get mad at anyone. Not like their parents would have if they didn’t like what was going on. And she never did. At all. Ever. She didn’t berate anyone for being mean or try to teach them any lessons. She just walked in and ate her pancakes, and changed the world. Everywhere she went, everything she did, it was always like that. Everything was better when she was around. Like everyone just knew how to be a better person when she was with them. Like they remembered how to be happy. Just like today. Just now. It was like their parents had suddenly remembered that today was supposed to be happy, just because she walked into the room.

But she was going back to college tonight. And then what?

They finished eating while Mom mopped and Dad finished the dishes. He was very polite as he stepped, and even told her he loved her, as if to apologize without revisiting. And she said, “I love you, too,” as though nothing had actually even happened. And all the while, Dusty watched, keeping one eye on them and one eye on the rifle lying in the middle of the breakfast table.

His heart sank when his father walked over and picked it up.

Then soared when his mother stopped him.

“It’s okay,” she said. “If you think he’s ready, it’s okay.”

Before he knew what was happening or how to process his sudden good fortune, they were all in the car, driving over the bridge, with boots and sweatshirts pulled on over their pajamas, the gun in the trunk. The universe had heard his pleas. Heaven had reached down and granted him his wish.

His joy was dizzying as they drove away from the peninsula and onto the mainland. A few turns off the highway later, up a forested hill and onto a gravel road, they parked in the trees, in the dirt and pine straw. Dusty was so delirious, his sister had to poke him in the shoulder before he remembered to unbuckle and get out of the car.

In the shade of the pines, in the cold morning air, Dusty could see his breath, and the gravel crunched happily under his feet as he walked around. His dad pulled the gun out of the trunk from under a blanket and checked it again, for probably the fourth time that morning, that the safety was on and it was unloaded.

“We’ll get you a nice case for it this week,” he said smiling, delicately passing the rifle to him. “Do I need to tell you how careful you have to be with this?”

Dusty shook his head and his father let go.

Together, they all followed Dusty’s dad up the road and around the side of a freestanding steel-tube gate hanging from two 4x4 wooden posts. It had a No Trespassing sign zip-tied on the top bar, to which his father pointed out was, “Obviously for cars. We’re fine.”  

His mother eyeballed it warily, but, clearly attempting to be a good sport, silently followed suit.

A few feet further on, they were out and into a beautiful field, walking in the sun. The gravel track continued straight, along the left of the clearing, to the far side where it disappeared up the hill and into the trees. Towering firs lined the field on all sides, with only a few patches of oak and maple mixed in, fighting their way out into the sunlight. A few optimistic sparrows dove around them, hopeful for a few early mosquitos. The grass was tall already and in various stages, from fresh growing blades to seed, all together green and brown and purple, soaked in dew and up to their knees. There were no trails or bare spots, and it felt like they might have been the first people to ever trudge into the middle.

Dusty was glad his father had made them wear their boots, and he smiled, remembering how his mother had not taken hers off this morning and how funny her making a mess of the kitchen seemed now. Thinking back about it, it all felt distant and pointless, like it had happened to strangers a million miles away and hundred years ago. Because their family was all together now, and everyone was warmly smiling, and this was fun, and it was his birthday.

When they reached the center, his father told them to stay, and he ran off ahead to the end of the field. He pulled from his jacket pocket and unfolded a large sheet of paper, and a few thumb tacks, and pinned the bullseye to an enormous maple tree growing at the edge of the forest. He came jogging back, the sides of his rubber boots clapping against his calves and his pockets jingling, and stopped to pull out a handful of tiny .22 cartridges.

Dusty clumsily turned the gun over and released the lever. He slowly loaded them into the magazine, one from the palm of his father’s hand at a time, until it was full. Dusty then pressed it back into the hollow belly of the gun, until it clicked into place, and looked up at his dad, absolutely thrilled.

Both his mom and Amy were watching from a few feet behind, bouncing excitedly in the cold.

“Now turn it over. Yep. Hold it with your left hand like this, under the barrel.” Dusty’s dad stood next to him and mimed everything he was explaining. “Now pull the bolt back. All the way. Right. That loads the first one into the chamber. Now let it go. Good. Now it’s loaded. You only have to do that the first time, after you load a fresh magazine. It will feed a new round into the chamber automatically after that.”

“What do you mean automatically?” his mother asked.

“It pulls a new round from the magazine by itself after you get it started,” his father answered over his shoulder, in teaching mode, unnoticing of the slight edge that had returned to his wife’s voice.

Dusty noticed, but was too enthralled to care.

Amy slipped her hand under their mother’s arm and squeezed into her lovingly.

“Now raise it up at the target. Good. And now turn the safety off just like your pellet gun. Perfect.”

Dusty was shaking with enthusiasm, vibrating in delight.

“Okay, hold it tight into your shoulder and aim for the center of the bullseye.”

Dusty lined everything up exactly like he had with the pop cans in the field by their house and gently pulled on the trigger; cold and metal where he had been used to plastic. Heavier. More tension. Perfect. He kept pulling slowly. Steadily. And, far before he was ready for anything to happen, the gun made a sound.

Just a crack.

It wasn’t the explosion he’d expected. Not a thundering fire. No kicking recoil. Just a small crack and the feeling of a gentle release. And the ting of a tiny piece of metal the size of a pencil butt flying out the side of the gun to his right.

“Did I break it?” he worried.

“No,” his father answered. “You just aimed a little too high. It’s not like your pellet gun.”

Dusty was confused for a second about what had actually happened and failed to comprehend his dad’s instructions.

“Cool,” Amy said encouragingly.

He looked at the target.

“You hit just above the paper,” his father said. “Try again.”

He lifted the gun to his shoulder and did everything he’d done before, only, this time, even more deliberately. More focused. He wasn’t shaking quite as much as the first. And was absolutely determined to do well.


“Just a little high again. Trying firing faster. Just keep pulling the trigger until you hit it.”

Dusty looked over at his dad, unsure.

“You don’t have to pause between shots. It’s semi-automatic. You can just keep shooting until you figure it out.”

He aimed again.

His mother cleared her throat.


Nothing. No visible signs of hitting the paper. But, there was a tiny spot forming just above it where he’d consistently hit the tree three times.










Not a single shot hit the paper, though all of them hit the tree.

“Carl. I don’t like this,” his mother said.

Clank. The last time he pulled the trigger the bolt flew open. He was empty.

“Okay, now be careful. And put the safety on. Right. Okay, when you flip it over, the part where the shell casings fly out. Yes, that part. That might be hot.”

“Carl, I really don’t like this.”

“What’s that, honey?”

His mother moved in close behind them, and Dusty could feel her watching. Staring. Scrutinizing what they were doing. Examining the situation. He popped the magazine out much quicker this time. And pushed the new cartridges in much faster. Before she’d said much of anything, he was finished and had the gun flipped back over. “Dad, can I move a little closer?”

“Sure,” he said, smiling and moving to come with him, but stopping abruptly when Dusty’s mother grabbed his arm.

“Listen, Carl,” she was saying as Dusty escaped a few feet away from them, closer to the maple tree. “I didn’t know it was going to be like this. Amy, go with Dusty, please.”

Dusty moved even closer to the target. He could hear his sister moving through the grass behind him. He was hesitant to shoot the gun again, afraid it would worsen whatever opinion his mother was evidently forming.

“It’s okay,” Amy whispered as she neared. “You’re doing great. Just relax. You can do this.”

“Do you think we could go just a little closer to it?” he asked her, trying not to think about his parents and really wanting to hit the bullseye.

“Yeah. Totally. Let’s do it.”

They walked together, Amy on his right, with the gun in his arms hanging to the opposite side, until they were no more than thirty feet from the target, equidistant from their parents.

He could see that the grass thinned at the tree line, nowhere near as thick as it had been in the middle of the field, revealing the damp naked earth, the ferns in the forest, and a mess of knotted tree roots. A robin glided down from the trees to their right, straight through between them and the maple, low to the ground, and landed hard in the dirt to their left to hunt for worms.

Dusty aimed at the bullseye, just like before, even more resolute to hit the target now that he was with his sister. She would be so impressed and happy for him if he hit it. He took a really deep breath. Calmed. And shot.


          “I see it! You did it!” she laughed.

          His heart welled up in his chest. There was a tiny rip in the paper where the bullet had passed through the yellow circle in the middle and into the tree. Just an inch above center. Confirmation that he hadn’t been doing it wrong. He just needed to relax. His method was fine and he didn’t need to change anything.

          He could hear his mother’s voice getting louder and angrier behind them.

          The wind blew. The grass swayed. And the robin hopped off the ground with one flap of its wings and glided back the way it had come, stopping in front of the maple. It hopped back and forth, lowering its head to the ground as it went.

          Dusty looked up at his sister.

          She looked back at him with two raised eyebrows and very pursed lips, half hiding a smile that Dusty understood to mean, “It’s your birthday. If you want to…”

          He almost laughed out loud, and totally would have, had he not been afraid of scaring away the bird away.

          He aimed as carefully as he’d ever aimed at anything. He’d never shot a bird before. Not with his pellet gun. Not with anything. His dad or mom had always been with him, and he’d never had the opportunity or even thought to try with them around. Now that it was in front of him, he felt that it just might be the singularly most exhilarating thing he’d ever thought to do.

          The robin hopped a few inches. Then was still. Then looked at the ground. Then was still again.

          Dusty, completely sure of his technique and what was about to happen, slowly pulled the trigger.

Here it comes.


          The robin fluttered, and then hopped over to the patch of earth behind it where it looked as though someone had just flicked out a chunk of chocolate cake with their finger. The robin stuffed its beak down into the hole, pinched a tiny worm out, and swallowed it.

          Amy snorted, trying to quietly laugh through her nose, and turned serious again to look back and see what their parents were doing.

Dusty frowned at the hole he’d made and the very undead robin, and then turned back to look with her. They were still fighting. Mom, getting even louder. Dad, kicking at a clump of grass.

Amy shrugged and turned back, nodding in the direction of the bird with an interested smile.

Dusty silently agreed with a step forward, and they both tracked as quietly as possible toward the trunk of the maple and the objective of their hunting party.

Twenty feet away.

Careful aim.


This time they were too close and the gun was too loud for the robin to mistake as innocuous. The shot barely missed behind its neck, flecking out another bit of dirt just over its shoulder, and the robin fled.

But only up into the lowest branches of the maple.

They could see it perched there, even in the shade of the forest, and Dusty moved in as close as he dared.

He could hear his mother yelling behind them. She was beginning to swear. They didn’t have long.

 He aimed and stepped closer with the gun raised. He could only see the bird now, as focused on it as anything he ever had been in his life. He stepped carefully, out of the grass, onto the flat soft earth. Only looking through the sight of the gun. Amy was behind him. Waiting for him to succeed on his own. Or maybe afraid that two people would be more likely to scare the bird away. He didn’t know.

He stopped.


Sure of his aim.

Deep breath.









The bolt flew open.

The bird fell to the ground like it had been about to fly away, but, just at the last moment, had forgotten how.

And that’s when Dusty saw the house.

Directly behind where the bird had been, up the hill and deep in the trees, there was a red cedar deck that wrapped around a light green house with bay windows and a black shingled roof covered in moss.

Dusty’s stomach did a nervous somersault.

If he had been any closer he would surely have hit it, he thought, maybe even accidentally breaking one of those huge windows. But he was positive, from here, that the bullets would have fallen far short. After all, it was over a hundred yards away.

He walked up and found the bird on the ground, lying flat with its wings unfolded between the tree roots. He was standing over the robin, looking at the blood, as red as his own, when his sister walked up behind him and he felt the first wave of nausea.

“Did you get it?” she asked, her hands in her pockets, stepping over a fern.

Dusty pointed with the end of his barrel at the fallen lump of feathers and feet. He pushed its beak over to show off for his sister, the head of his trophy, but the bird’s neck turned loosely and the head fell limp to one side, and Dusty felt remorse sharply fill him and spread in his body like the chills of a fever. Suddenly recognizing the death he’d caused, he coughed and choked, and his soul felt like it was slinking out of his toes. He sniffed and began to cry. “Here. You take it,” he said, attempting to hand the gun to his sister while wiping his eyes.

“Oh, Dusty. No,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s yours.”

He held the gun, but no longer with any affection, and futilely kicked a few leaves and branches over the life he now so regretted having taken. There was no more fun in him as he trudged from under the tree and back to his fighting parents.

Amy followed, rubbing his back and whispering soft encouragements and laments.

They were all standing there together, mom yelling, dad shaking his head in disgust, Amy’s hand on Dusty’s shoulder, and Dusty gently sobbing, when they heard the sirens coming. They stood huddling in the field as three Tillamook County Sheriff cars tore up the gravel road and flew out into the long grass. The cars’ suspensions bounced over the uneven ground, and they all watched in horror as the patrol cars skidded and lurched, surrounding their family.

Two of the deputies exploded out of their vehicles and hid behind their doors, lights flashing and guns drawn. The last car’s door was kicked open but the deputy stayed in his vehicle to use the megaphone, “Lay the gun on the ground and, all of you, put your hands on your heads.”

Dusty dropped his gun immediately, thankful that someone had finally given him permission to rid himself of it, and listened to it heavily hit the ground. He didn’t care to watch it disappear into the blades of grass. He didn’t care if he ever saw it again.

He put his hands on his head, closed his eyes, and puked.

They were all handcuffed and put into cars. He rode with his dad in the back of one, his sister and mom in another. And only later that afternoon were they reunited; in a room with the sheriff where they all sat down and were asked to explain why Dusty had been allowed to fire eight bullets through the walls of the Chad family’s dining room.

Then Dusty’s life was shucked and torn into pieces.

Because, in the end, it didn’t matter that the sheriff had believed his whole story.

Mr. Chad had been watching the pregame when his television suddenly exploded in a hurricane of tiny bullets, and was far too furious to believe for a second that it hadn’t been on purpose.

The county prosecutor seemed to agree and pressed charges.

They ripped him out of school a day later.

Firing a weapon at an inhabited dwelling was a felony. He might have escaped punishment if they’d been able to prove it was an accident, and he hadn’t already been breaking the law. But, as it was, he had rapidly fired eight rounds into someone else’s home, while they were occupying that very same room, and all while trespassing on clearly marked private property.

The only redeeming value in his testimony seemed to be his age and that his remorse was so severe that he had vomited several times during the trial.

The judge sentenced him to a full year at Camp Necarney where he attended school classes in the morning, worked for the parks department while wearing an orange reflective vest during the afternoons, and slept in the barracks with his fellows—shoplifters and graffiti artists—at night.

His parents were allowed to visit on the weekends. And there, on their twelfth visit, they told him about the divorce. His mother blamed his father for everything, and she would be receiving full custody of Dusty once he was released.

From then on, he never so much as squished a spider without remembering that day, and regretting the robin, and eventually being flooded with guilt and remorse. The nausea would always return. And, reliably, so would his lunch.


Thursday, October 2, 2014

Chapter Fourteen




          “What do you want to do?” Jules whispered.

          Copeland didn’t know what she was talking about. Or, more accurately, which what she was talking about. For a while now, none of Cope’s thoughts had stopped swirling long enough to catch any real traction; having almost everything to do with a fallen dirt clod to his head; a fact that probably should have been mentioned to one of the many EMTs walking around.

“Have you thought about it at all?” she added.

Three possible responses drifted in and out of focus, but confidence in the right one failed him. All he really wanted to do was lean over and fall asleep in her lap. So, after staring into her increasingly disapproving left eye for what felt appropriately long enough, he gave up and turned his attention to the open door Dusty had just disappeared through.

Jules slumped.

Without looking at her again, he couldn’t tell whether she was disappointed in him or just mad, or which one of those things was actually worse. He also didn’t know where Dusty had gone; if he’d walked away and gone home or if he’d just stepped outside to get some air.

The fire truck’s cabin was cozy, smaller than any of them had assumed it was going to be, and the heat had been turned on for them while they waited. However, none of them had the vaguest idea how to turn it off—not without risking turning on the siren—and it had become far too warm.

Copeland watched a black cat hesitantly slink across the street and disappear into the bushes. He wondered why he never saw cats on the beach. There were certainly cats that lived at the coast. Why didn’t they ever go down and bask on the warm sand? Why didn’t they ever go to the water or fish in the tide pools? Why didn’t they hunt crabs like they hunt field mice?

His eyelids suddenly got very heavy and his thoughts swirled again.

Do all people turn that white when they die? The dead guy was so white. Or maybe he’d just really needed to get in the sun more. Watching the coroner work had been crazy. But super interesting. How many people could say they got to watch something like that from the window of a fire truck? Probably not a lot. Would his father have been as impressed? Did he think that kind of stuff was cool? Would he ever see him again? Was he still alive? Would he want to come back if he knew he was going to be a grandpa? Would it be weird to have hotdogs for breakfast? No ketchup or mustard. Just a plain dog on a bun. Maybe barbecued. They were going to have a baby. There was a microscopic person growing in the stomach of the girl next to him. Did she really like him? Would she ever let him see her all the way naked? Where were those puking sounds coming from? Was that the sound of Dusty puking on the fire truck?  

“Dude?” he called.

          “What?” Dusty’s low voice grumbled back from outside.

          “Are you okay?”

          “Leave me alone.”

          Copeland was too confused to argue.

          “You two are such babies sometimes,” Jules yelled, loudly enough for Dusty to hear over the sound of the idling diesel engine and his spitting and retching. She rolled her eyes to the ceiling and shook her head. She got up, ducked quickly over to the door on the other side of the cabin, and popped it open. “Take a deep breath, Dusty, and think about something else.”

          Cool air immediately began to circulate the cabin.

          “And you,” she said, slapping Cope gently on the cheek and sitting back down next to him. She put her hand on his thigh and squeezed, making his insides tingle. “No falling asleep.”

The wind caught the open doors and whipped them both wide open.

Cold, fresh air flowed breezily through.

Copeland’s moderately concussed head began to de-fuzz.

          Of course Dusty was outside.

          When it had happened—when Dusty had reluctantly helped him pull the dead guy out of the water—Copeland could now clearly remember having been shocked that he did it. Absolutely. Dusty refused to ever touch anything dead. Ever. He hated dead things. You couldn’t get him to even check out interesting road kill. His queasiness around still-life had been well documented, going so far as him gagging and hurling at the slightest provocation. Julianna always made fun of him, calling him a wuss and claimed he faked it for the attention. But Copeland had seen him puke and almost faint after stepping on a snail. He knew it was a real condition.

It all flooded back to him.

The fog in his head evaporated along with the heat.

He couldn’t believe he’d ever spaced something like that. Not about his best friend, not for a second, even if he had been hit on the head. For very understandable reasons—reasons not even Julianna had been told the most explicit details of—Dusty would never be able to handle things like this.




Thursday, September 25, 2014

Chapter Thirteen




          “Please don’t shoot him!” a man in his late sixties, possibly early seventies, was yelling, running and tripping through the sand and grass. “Please! He won’t hurt you! Please!”

Hildy had been staring into the powder blue eyes of the wolf, over the top of her gun sight, for at least a full minute. Possibly longer.

Without question, the animal was an immediate threat to her person, and she’d been rigorously trained for situations with wildlife. But once the wolf had seen her, had come face to face with her, it had stopped.

No movement whatsoever.

And she hesitated.

Its eyes, the way they stared at her, were practically human. They were also as terrifying as any devil could be, yes, but there was an undeniable sympathy. Like an actual soul lived behind them. And, when the animal had stopped moving, respecting her space, her life, killing it seemed an absurd thing to do.

She had learned to trust instincts like that; they fortified her actions, and denying them always led to trouble.

The old man was practically falling down the last hummock, stuttering, “P-please. He’s my dog. He’s a g-good boy. Please. He was just curious.”

Hildy didn’t look away from the wolf, but she lowered her pistol slightly, aiming at the sand below.

With the old man’s last steps between, he unbuckled his belt and yanked it from his pants. “Wally, sit.” The enormous wolf sat down and the man steadied himself at its side. He fed the tip of his belt back through the buckle and slipped the loop over the animal’s head, pulling it tight around its neck. “Good boy. You’re a good boy. What a good dog.”

Hildy lowered her gun the rest of the way, but held it with both hands still, as if she were about to take a shot, and raised an eyebrow at the old man.

The old man nodded gratefully and tried to catch his breath. “My name,” he puffed, “is Stanley Ramos. I live just there.” He pointed north, toward the end of the cape, and huffed, doubling over. “Thank you for not shooting him. My dog.”

“That is not a dog,” Hildy corrected.

“It is,” he wheezed. “He’s a Wolamute. It’s a mix. A hybrid.”

Hildy took a moment to assess. Then she took a deep breath and relaxed her shoulders. With her left hand she reached back and pulled her jacket away, and slid the tiny Glock back into its holster with her right; pressing hard until she was sure the tension of the brown leather scabbard held securely. She stood on her tip toes and looked up the bluff for the house. There wasn’t one. All she could see was the top of an overgrown English Laurel that ran across, east to west, from the cliff edge.

“Do you have time for a cup of tea?” the old man offered. “I’d like to properly apologize. I’m very sorry he scared you.”

“I wasn’t scared,” Hildy lied, bending over to pick up her notepad, still not taking her eyes off the dog. She felt instantly guilty for her indignation. Obviously she had been frightened. People who aren’t frightened don’t normally threaten to shoot the things they’re not frightened of. And, just honestly, it was a terrifically terrifying animal. Enormous, in the exact shape of what you’d imagine a killer to be.

It was obvious the old man knew as much. But he said nothing. He just looked at her with kind eyes and pursed lips. And she was grateful.

“It’s the least I could do,” he insisted.

“That’s nice of you,” Hildy agreed.

“Oh good,” he said smiling. He immediately turned away and led them all back up to the road, his makeshift leash in one hand and the waistband of his pants in the other.

People were often overly nice to Hildy. Always atoning for imagined offenses and feeling it necessary to stay in her good graces, because of her position. Because of her badge. It was always uncomfortable, and sometimes even weird.

Because there was no way to differentiate between the people who couldn’t help themselves from being unreasonable accommodating and the people who might be planning to rob a bank later. They might be courting her favor to possibly aid them in some elaborate deception. She had to alert. She had to stay vigilant. So she declined every kindness. She had to. And said, “No, thank you,” over and over again, effectively alienating everyone.

But this time she said, “That’s nice of you.” This time had to say, “Yes,” if for no other reason than to make sure that ridiculous beast was properly confined, and restricted from any future wanderings.

And she did feel like tea.

Back up on the street, she could see everything that had been hidden from her down in the twisting sand trails, along with the surrounding details that had gone unnoticed upon her arrival, due to an enveloping experience with Celine Dion.

Huge tussocks of pampas grass lined the left side of the street, sand spilling over the curb at their bases, and led up to a thick laurel hedge in the distance. As they got closer, she could see that a tall wrought iron fence with beautifully ornate fleur de lis finials stood in front of the hedge, holding it at bay, so closely that the morning glory that grew throughout intertwined them both. A matching dual gate, seven feet tall, was open on both sides of a one lane blacktop drive that continued straight at the bend, north, where Vida Seca Lane turned east and led off underneath the overpass to Kincheloe State Park.    

She followed behind the old man, and his dog, through the gates, past a beautifully landscaped garden. In the center of a ring of pink rose bushes sat a granite bolder that appeared to have been cut in half in. The rock was flattened and polished on the open side and bore large deeply chiseled letters that simply read VIDA SECA CEMETERY AND CHAPEL.

“That’s one of the rocks they used to build the dike that wrecked the town,” the old man said, nodding to the sign. “But it worked out so nice for us, my dad had them haul up one of the biggest stones left from when they blew the thing up. He was so happy, he used it to make the sign.”

“You’re kidding,” Hildy said, familiar with the town’s history. “That’s from the dike?”

“Sure,” the old man said, slowing down a little as the blacktop driveway began to incline. The great grey and white dog, noticing his master’s labor, gently kept going, pulling him with the leash in the direction of a stone chapel at the end of the graveyard.

“What do you mean that it worked out nicely?”

“Well, it’s a business. My family owns this cemetery. It was twenty-five acres on the edge of town with just a view of the channel, you see. Which was nice enough, I guess. But when all that land fell into the ocean, and all the buildings and things that were in the way washed out to sea, we eventually got this cliff and an ocean view,” he breathed heavily and smiled, pointing to the west, then quickly grabbing his pants before they fell.

There was a wrought iron railing that matched the outside fence, but only three or four feet high, running around the edge of the cemetery, guarding the cliff edge.

“We only lost an acre or so, and none of it had been used. So, when they were finally sure it was all safe, dad had the cliff face shored up with sand colored concrete, and word got out. Business started coming in from miles around. There’s a shortage of picturesque resting places, turns out. We started charging more for plots. And the people who could afford it didn’t mind paying a little more. So we charged a little more after that. And then a little more even. And, after a while, it got so we really only had to bury a few people a year to make a living. So it was nice. As nice as grave digging can go, anyway.”

Hildy nodded and smiled with what she imagined was her impressed face, and motioned to the backhoe parked in front of an open plot. “New clients?” she asked playfully.

The old man was crestfallen. He looked suddenly ashamed and remorseful. “I suppose there’s no hiding it. It is what it is,” he huffed. “Oh don’t look so sad. I’m fine. My father, he was a man of great faith and great wisdom, and I loved him, and the one and only thing he made me promise before he died was to never dig in the day time. It’s impolite to the grieving families.”

Hildy looked around, to gauge for herself what an imposition the old man’s backhoe and fresh pile of earth were being on the surrounding widows and orphans in their time of mourning. But she didn’t see them. She couldn’t see anyone. The entire cemetery was quiet and deserted as far as she could tell.

“Not many locals can afford to be buried here. And driving two hours over the pass, in the middle of the week, just to spend a few minutes at grandma’s grave. It just isn’t practical,” he shrugged. “We’re pretty dead around here on the weekdays.”

Hildy looked up as they walked.

The old man looked over.

She cracked a smile.

He laughed, “That was my father’s favorite joke. Made mom furious.”   

          Hildy laughed at him.

          “No. I don’t think I’m doing anyone any harm. And, the truth is, I just can’t stay up that late anymore.”

          As they walked, Hildy brushed up against the side of the great big dog between them, even laying a hand on him a time or two.

          “And…” he continued, as though he needed one more explanation to account for his actions, “there was a message on the machine this morning. Must have called in the middle of the night. Terribly sad. A Richard Burton died. Suicide. No funeral. They want to get him in the ground as soon as possible. Anyway…”

          The old man trailed off as they reached the chapel. Hildy followed them on a red pebble path around the side of the old stone building. All of the windows were stained-glass and the shingles on the roof were heavy black wood. On the backside of the chapel she saw the kennel that Wally had obviously escaped.

          He led the dog into the cage and pulled the belt off over his head. “That’s a good dog,” he said, shutting the gate and throwing his weight into it, knocking the latch straight again. “At night, I close the outside gates and just let him roam the grounds. Not even as a kid did I sleep a night so soundly as I have with Wally walking around. He really is the best dog in the world.”

          “I see that now,” Hildy agreed with a nod. She looked down at her feet. “Hey, I’m the one that needs to apologize. I almost… I came really close…”

          “Don’t give it another thought,” Stan said, shaking his head as he lashed the gate shut with his belt. “I’ll get a chain for this gate. And neither one of us will ever have to worry again.”

          Hildy’s cellphone rang and she smiled at the kind old man. “Thank you,” she said. “I have to go.”

          “No tea?”

          “It’s the sheriff,” she said with her phone in her hand, “I have to go back.”

          “Then no tea.”

          “Maybe some other time,” she said, smiling at him and walking away. “Thank you for everything.”

The old man waved and turned back to his dog. Wally had stood on his back legs and put his huge paws six feet up on the kennel wall, waiting for Stan to come over to him.

As she walked away, Hildy answered. It was the medical examiner calling from the sheriff’s phone, presumably having it held to his ear while he stood there in his latex gloves. He asked her to hurry back. Hildy didn’t ask for more, but hung up the phone knowing of only one reason for a woman like her to be asked to hurry to a scene. She looked over at the backhoe and the pile of dirt, at the wrought iron railing and the horizon beyond, then took a deep breath and ran.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Chapter Twelve

Wally the Whale



          Stanley Ramos had felt, after turning sixty, that sixty wasn’t old. And he was right. It wasn’t. By no means did the man have a foot in the grave. But every year after it had taken a little more effort in the convincing.

          So, after turning sixty-five, he bought himself a new backhoe, with a nice wide scoop to make up for how slow he’d gotten. A new dog, to keep the grounds and him safe at night. And had taken to doing his digging in the middle of the day. A shameful practice, his father had said, but Stanley couldn’t stay awake past midnight anymore.

If you had to do all of the things that needed doing, you needed to do them however you could manage doing them.

          And that went for everything.

          The Tillamook County Animal Shelter had never had an abundance of puppies. Mostly they had vacation runaways, decrepit mutts, and three-legged pitbulls. So, uninterested in taking home a jaded beast, and only wanting to raise a pup himself, but being in his pocket a little bit after buying a brand-new backhoe, he left his name at the front desk and waited. When the shelter finally called, Stan was eager. A litter had recently become available.

          It took him no time at all to pick the largest and most confident puppy. Of the four Husky type dogs—the lady called them—one outweighed his three brothers by twice as much. He sat unbothered behind the stainless steel cage doors. The other three puppies played and nipped and wrestled at the back of the kennel, while the large one sat alone, and looked out into the hall.

Stan stood in front of the kennel and whistled to get the puppies’ attention.

He waited to make sure they all saw him and acclimated to his presence.

Then he lurched.

Not at them, of course. But he did come off the ground a little bit, and very quickly so, settling in an athletic position with his arms ready in front of him.

Three of the four dogs flinched, and two of those yelped.

The puppy in the front didn’t move a muscle. He might even have narrowed his eyes at the old man.

“I’ll take the big one,” he’d said.

“Are you sure?” the young lady in stained jeans and a blue T-shirt with the shelter logo on the breast asked.

“I’m sure.”

“It’s probably a mix, but Huskies have so much energy. Even if you take him to the beach every single day, you’ll never be able to run it out of him. He’ll never be tired. You’ll be up all night with him, every night, for the rest of your life.”

“That’s exactly what I need.”


“I have the perfect place for him.”

“Then I’ll start the paperwork,” she’d said. “What do you want to name him?”

“He looks like a Wally to me.”

After that, he built a chain-link kennel around the backdoor of his apartment, behind the Vida Seca Chapel, and began buying enough dog food to feed a sled team.

It soon became clear, when the puppy grew to Stan’s waist, that it was no kind of Siberian Husky. And, at a year, when he weighed more than Stan did, that he was not all Malamute either.

When he took Wally in to get his last vaccinations, the vet told Stan he was a Wolamute, an Alaskan Malamute and Timber Wolf hybrid, and asked him never to bring him back. Though Wally was well enough behaved when Stan asked him to be, he scared every other animal in the clinic so badly there was fear of injury due to panic.

It was that kind of panic that Stan was begging the Lord to avoid now. There were a dozen emergency vehicles down the bluff, and he was sure that’s where Wally had gone. Just to investigate. He was a very curious dog, afraid of nothing, and a chaser of everything. Perfect traits for a cemetery guard dog.

Not so great now.

Stan had just finished digging a new grave and had walked up to check on Wally. He knew the strange sounds coming from down the bluff were driving him crazy. But Wally was gone before he got there.

He wasn’t a digger. Or a climbing escape artist like some smaller dogs. He just forced his way through things.

Looking at how the galvanized self-latch had given and spun away from the post, Stan could imagine how hard Wally had pushed. He would have stuffed his nose through first and then growled and slammed until his head was clear. By that time the latch would have been turned sideways enough for the door to just swing open.

A nice thick chain wrapped around the gate frame was probably long overdue.

“WALLY!” Stan screamed as he ran toward the fire trucks.

There was no sign of him on the street. And no one appeared to be alarmed in the distance. Certainly no one seemed to be worried about a giant roaming wolf-dog.

Stan set his tongue behind his teeth and whistled as loud as he could.

He stopped running and looked all around him, halfway between Vida Seca Cemetery and The Channel Inn.

He whistled again.

There was a howl.

Stan pushed through the huge pampas grass hedge and walked out onto the bluff.

Then he saw them.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Chapter Eleven

The exploring heart



          Regardless of how cute firemen were, they were absolute shit at keeping secrets. And that, Hildy had long realized, was not only an undesirable attribute for a companion—a workplace relationship more or less hinging on the man’s ability to keep her high ranking police official’s cup size out of the emergency services newsletter—it was a liability at a crime scene.

          Though, Hildy also believed, it wasn’t like they could help it.

Statistically, ninety-six out of every one-hundred firefighters were men. So, unless you had twenty of them in a room, which no station on the coast housed, any given company was likely all male. The job then demanded those men spend their days together; cooking, cleaning, sleeping, showering, and heroically risking their lives with each other, two to three times a week, depending how twenty-four on and forty-eight off fit the calendar.

You had to accept that those things in combination perpetuated a sort of battle buddy, locker room, auto shop, slumber party atmosphere. And that those boys were just going to tell each other everything.

So, however frustratingly fruitless any early attempts at romance might have been for Hildy with the all-American, muscly crew-cuts, it was just as well. And her current observations on the bluff were all but expected.

The somewhat sensitive information—the identity of the former sheriff’s department captain, Birch Riley—had spread from first responder to first responder with embarrassing speed. Eventually, she suspected, even making its way into the cabin of the fire truck where the three teenaged witnesses had been asked to wait. And, if even one of them had a cellphone, in a matter of hours the entire coast would know who the dead man was. But, heartbreaking as the situation was, the breach wasn’t that dire.

Each year between five and ten people washed up on shore, and all of them were accidents. All of them just tourists who didn’t know any better, or thought it couldn’t happen to them.

And, the truth was, nothing could be helped now.

A Bayocean police officer had brought up Mr. Riley’s pants and wallet from down on the beach, retrieved from half a mile north of where the body had been found. And Craig Allman, the Bayocean chief of police, had simply walked back to his rig, radioed dispatch to run the driver license number, and waited. The old man’s ears had obviously begun to fail him, his volume turned up, and the return call was overheard by far too many people not to have leaked.

All it ever takes is one little mistake.

Despite her lacking confidence in anyone who couldn’t remember to shut their car door when using a radio at a possible crime scene, and Hildy having seriously considered taking over right then and there, her job was to support local teams like this. Not to step in and just do it for them.

She tempered herself, allowing the chief to continue the all-important legwork without reprimand; valuing his self-confidence much more than exacting a teaching moment that could happen just as meaningfully at the end of her visit. And passively observed as the Bayocean Police Department attempted to find where Mr. Riley had been staying—the address on his license was more than sixty miles inland—looked for his car, and began discerning who he might have been in contact with over the last forty-eight hours.

On top of that, her presence here was all but superfluous, and would soon be unnecessary altogether. The coroner, the medical examiner, and the sheriff from Tillamook County were on their way. And, if they finished quickly enough, after she listened to their speculations, and gently lectured the chief for his carelessness, she’d enjoy the slow drive down the coast to Mo’s. With any luck, she’d make it to Lincoln City just in time for lunch. She’d have clam chowder in a sourdough bowl, to-go, and walk down the sand to a nice pile of driftwood she knew of, where she’d sit and stare at the trees that grew out of the rocks in Siletz Bay. There was something about them that spoke to her soul. Maybe it connected her to the earth and the unity of all living things; or maybe there was an easy correlation there to some calming childhood memory; or it just reminded her of the bonsai in Karate Kid III. She didn’t know.

“I’m going to take a look around,” she said to Craig Allman, the grey-haired chief, breezing past him without waiting for an answer. She clenched her jacket tight at the collar with her free hand, blocking her neckline from the breeze, and marched around the body bag, North through the sand.  “If the medical examiner gets here before I’m back,” she called over her shoulder, waving with her leather-bound notepad, “call me before they finish.”

She didn’t totally hear what the nearly deaf police chief had mumbled to her in reply. But a sergeant nodded as she passed him, obviously comprehending, and that was good enough. Someone would call her.

It was late morning in summer on the coast, and just the feeling of the beach air on her neck, in her ears, was plenty motivation to take a long walk on a seaside cliff like this one. Not to mention the view. There was a breeze, cold under the clouds, but everything felt so full of life, so sweet and thick; she felt, if she was brave enough, she could reach out into the air and touch it with her fingers.

Touch the spirit in the wind.

It was a ridiculous idea that she was too mature and accomplished to be having. It all stemmed from too many lonely nights of mindless television before bed, she had no doubt. It seemed only seconds earlier that all she had wanted in the world was someone’s hand to hold. And where had that idea gone? That sounded wholly easier and more natural than reaching out and grabbing God. But now she suddenly wanted to try. And, she supposed, sometimes, especially when she felt this alone, the more whimsical thoughts were the ones that kept her going. And, understandably, could feel the most pressing.  

She looked over her shoulder. Hildy had already walked a hundred yards, but there were men milling around behind her all the way up to the road. She’d never be able to walk far enough away from them not be visible to someone. She sighed and smiled and let go of her jacket collar. She continued to walk away, as casually as possible, and reached her hand out in front of her as she went; doing her best to ignore her instincts, the ones begging her to be cool.

The breeze floated through her fingers and over the back of her hand. It filled the green canvas sleeve of her jacket and she shivered. But only for a moment. The cloudbank, having been drifting all morning in what could only be described as a more-east-than-north sort of direction, had just drifted far enough to reveal the sun.

Steadily, more and more warmth blanketed Hildy, starting on her shoulders.

On her back.

Through her coat.

Through her hair.

The backs of her legs.

She walked on with one hand stretched out in front of her along the sand trails, weaving around low knolls of thick beach grass and hummocks of lavender with wild strawberry borders.

Then, two hundred yards away from her job, from the men, from death, she wandered in front of a small cypress, dwarfed by the sandstone on which it grew, and was totally hidden. She looked around, dropped her notepad into the soft sand, reached both hands high in the air, took the deepest breath of her life, and closed her eyes.

Everything but the breeze and the sun and the rolling roar of the ocean ceased to exist. She wasn’t happy. She wasn’t sad. She wasn’t anything. There wasn’t anything to be. Not worried or afraid. Not fulfilled or wanting. She just was. Quiet and still.

Which, when she eventually opened her eyes, made the large, well-groomed, fluffy black cat appear even more out of place than it might normally, or otherwise, have been.

It sat unmoving, staring at her, standing in the sand with its head cocked slightly to one side. Like it had been enjoying a leisurely stroll of its own moments before happening upon some crazy person with her hands stretched to Heaven.

Hildy put her arms down.

The cat sat.

She bent over, keeping her eyes suspiciously on him, found her note pad by her feet and stood up again.

For a long moment neither of them moved.

The breeze shifted.

The cat’s attention suddenly turned to the shrubs around them, then to the tree behind her. It lifted its nose and searched for something in air.

It went rigid.

Quickly, it lowered its body to the ground, looked up at Hildy, then darted straight past her and disappeared through the cypress to the south. For a moment, Hildy couldn’t help but feel that it had wanted to tell her something important. A thought that was all but lost as she once again dropped her notepad and pulled her gun, the one that lived sheathed against the small of her back, to point it at the wolf in front of her.