Across town, Wesley sat at the kitchenette table inside the cluttered little camper. There was an open cigar box on the table in front of him and he stared at the contents with unseeing eyes. The aging camper hadn’t been the only thing his father had left behind when he skipped town—leaving Wes to figure out a hard world on his own. The only other thing of value he had inherited was kept hidden in the cigar box, now sitting atop the chipped formica table. His old man had probably not intended to leave it, but that’s the risk you take when you orphan your son in the middle of the night.
He looked around the cluttered room with a growing feeling of disgust. Beer cans and fast food wrappers littered nearly every surface, and where they weren’t laying, dirty clothes—inside out and crumpled—were strewn about. Often, at night he could hear the mice foraging for food amongst the foil hamburger wrappers and empty potato chip bags.
How many opportunities like this come along in a lifetime? he wondered. He was tired of living this way. It wasn’t just the crammed camper with its leaky roof above the front door. He was tired of being forced to play a bad hand in this life. First his mother and then his father—left without warning; without reason. Then school had been nothing more than a long string of failures and disappointments. His low grades drew increasing ridicule that escalated into open hostility from most of his peers and the faculty. In the end, he had made it out of there against all odds—thanks to Rodney.
Rodney. He owed his friend a debt that he could never repay. And yet, no one knew just how dark and lonely it was to live in his shadow. People liked to reminded him of just how much worse his life would be without his friend—how much further down the slope of society he’d have slid if not for the lifeline that was his friend. But he knew better. Everyone he knew had their breaks come early in life: the family; the money; the brains; the looks. His big break just took longer to get there—but it had arrived at last. He emptied the contents of the cigar box into the army bag and threw the empty box across the little room.
A light rain began to tap on the thin roof above them before Rodney finished telling Sadie what happened on the river. “Well, what do you think?” he asked, his face a mask of worry and exhaustion. “Do you think they’ll find out that you found it?” she asked. Rodney thought for a moment, “I don’t imagine anyone will ever find the body. And no one saw us going in or leaving the channel—not that I noticed anyway. If we can get in and then out again without drawing too much attention I can’t see how anyone would know it was us. There’s dozens of people on that river on any given day. We just have to be careful spending it. We can’t spend it around here, not like it is anyway. But that’s a problem to worry about later.” “Okay,” she said, “but if anything looks or feels wrong, get out of there. Don’t even think twice—just leave the money and go. I don’t want anything happening to you, no amount of money is worth that.”
Rodney smiled as confidently as he could and walked over to kiss her. “Don’t worry, I’m not taking any extra risks,” he said, putting his hand on her stomach, “but this money is going to help us get out of this place,” he said looking around the trailer’s living room. She just smiled uncertainly and nodded. He could see the worry on her face but he knew that she would trust him, she always did. Rodney leaned over and kissed her once more before he bent down to kiss her belly, “I’ll be back soon,” he said as he crossed the room. When he opened the door, he turned back to look at Sadie, still on the couch. “Love you,” he said with a wink and walked out.
Outside, the rain had strengthened, now coming down in fat drops. He sat in his truck with one thought running through his head in an endless loop: why did it have to be Wesley there with me? He loved his friend like a brother, but this was a high-stakes game, and Wes—big as his heart is—was anything but stable or dependable. He’d have to make sure that he understood that they needed to keep the money a secret, and that meant no big spending. Good luck with that, he thought as he let out a groan in the empty truck cab.
The truck’s headlights raked across the camper windows as Rodney pulled into the drive. Before he could stop, Wes came out of the front door carrying the duffle bag, taking the porch steps two at a time. He climbed into the truck, tossing the bag on the floor as he got in. “What’d Sadie think?” he asked in the dark cab as Rodney backed out of the driveway. “She’s happy about it, nervous, but happy. We just have to be careful doing this last part and then everything will be smooth sailing,” Rodney said.
The rain began to fall in heavy sheets as they drove to the head of the old logging road. “You know, I’ve been thinkin’,” Wes said as they drove, “I’m going to bury my half under the camper for now—just until the dust settles and all, and we’re sure things are cool.” “No,” Rodney said at once, “we’ll keep it all together for now. I don’t want to start splitting things up yet. Too many lose ends.” “Well, what are we going to do with it then?” Wes asked with a hint of anger to his voice. If Rodney noticed, he didn’t say anything, answering instead, “I’ll keep it at the trailer for now. Don’t worry—it’ll be safe. I’ll find a good spot.” Just what I expected, Wes thought as they drove through the rainy night.
The roar of the deluge drowned out the truck’s engine as it came to a stop on the logging road next to a wide patch of ferns. Both men got out—Wes with the army duffel over his shoulder—and stood in front of the hood. Rodney had to raise his voice over the rumbling of a million raindrops slamming into a million leaves, and he nearly shouted, “If we stay in a straight line, the river is right through there. With any luck, we’ll come out right by the cove.” Wes’ face was a stream of water and he just nodded and stretched his arm out as if to say: lead the way.
They had been walking for so long that Rodney was beginning to get worried when the trees finally gave way to the chest-high grass of the riverbank. He waved his dim flashlight around the bank looking for some sign of where they were when he spotted one. An elm tree had long ago lost the support of the dirt bank below it and now leaned out over the water. Rodney knew the slanted tree was only a short distance downriver from the cove and he picked up his pace as he walked.
When the two reached the cove, the log was exactly as it had been when they left. Both men looked around the woods out of nervous habit and then rolled the log away. The dirt was still soft and in the rain the hole had turned to mud. Wes reached down into the quagmire and felt for the case. His hands locating the handle, he pulled it to the surface and set it on the ground as globs of thick mud ran off the sides. Wordlessly, Rodney reached over and grabbed the case, hauling it to the edge of the water to rinse it.
Setting the case down under the outstretched limbs of a hemlock, the men sat side by side and opened the briefcase. The shock looking at so much money was almost as strong as the first time seeing the neat stacks of banded bills. Water was dripping on the bundles and the men rushed to stuff them in the duffel bag, grabbing the blocks of hundred dollar bills with wet hands. Once they were done, they gathered rocks to fill the briefcase for weight before Wes threw it as far as he could out into the cove. The pouring rain boiled the river’s surface as the silver case sank below the inky water.
Neither men spoke as they walked back through the dark woods to the truck. As usual, Rodney led the way and Wes followed behind just far enough to not get hit by any branches that whipped free of the man in front of him. They made better time on the way back out of the woods, and before long the truck’s glass glistened from Rodney’s flashlight.
Rodney stopped by the driver’s door to dig his keys from his front pocket. The rain continued to fall in waves, as if a great plug had been pulled from the heavens above them, and the squall almost entirely muffled the pistol shot. It was dark—and raining—but at such a close range Wes couldn’t help but hit his target. Rodney’s head jerked to the side as his body fell limp in the mud by the truck, keys still in his hand. Wes watched his dark figure in the rain but there was no movement. He nudged Rodney’s leg with the toe of his boot, but the body just settled back lifelessly.
A short distance into the woods, Wes sat on his knees quickly digging a shallow grave. The rain had stopped and the moonlight broke through the clouds in patches of pale light. No one came out this far so it wouldn’t need to be deep—just enough to not be noticed. Keep the money at your house, he thought as he dug angrily, why, so you and Sadie can leave town like my mom and dad? Just ditch little ol’ Wes and sail off into the sunset? Oh no—it’s my turn this time. You, Sadie, this river, this whole town can kiss my ass; I’ll be sure and not write.
The first pink glows of the morning sun began to warm the sky beyond the windshield as Wesley pulled into the gas station. He had been listening to the news but there was mention of any missing persons or any money disappearing. He reached into the bag and pulled a couple bills from one of the stacks of money before exiting Rodney’s truck and strolling into the store. He was still wearing his wet clothes from the night before and was starving from the long walk and the drive out of town.
“Thirty on pump five,” he said as he grabbed a basket inside the store. He walked around brightly lit mart tossing various things into the basket: chips; candy bars; a 6-pack of beer—everything he thought he would need for the long drive ahead. He didn’t plan on stopping until he hit an ocean and the fewer rest stops along the way, the better. I can make good plans too, he thought as he tossed a can of Vienna Sausages into the basket.
He set the basket down on the counter and emptied the contents as the man behind the register scanned the bar codes. When he was done, the man behind the counter said, “with the gas it’ll be $66.37,” in a disinterested tone as he bagged the loose items. Wes handed the man one of the bills as he began picking the bags up. Outside, a newer Buick sedan pulled into the station and stopped at one of the pumps, but it’s windows were tinted and Wes couldn’t see inside the car. The driver just sat in the car without getting out to pump any gas or come inside. There’s no attendants here, buddy, Wes thought, but the car was beginning to make him nervous.
The hair on his neck began to stand up as he stared at the car longer. Why isn’t he getting out? he thought. He suddenly felt very certain that the car was here for him. Maybe it was the cops, alerted by Sadie after Rodney never returned. Or, maybe it was whoever the money belonged to. His mouth became parched and he was tempted to open one of the beers in his bag, but he remained frozen—staring at the motionless car.
The man behind the counter spoke, snapping Wes from his trance. He didn’t hear him though, and without turning away from the car outside just said, “huh?” The man now sounded annoyed rather than bored. “I said,” he repeated, waving the hundred dollar bill in the air, “there’s something wrong with this bill. It isn’t real—not even a very good fake.”
Wes stood motionless, still staring at the car. Not even a very good fake. And his world went dark.