The Gravel Road

     Birds and crickets drop their morning soundtrack on the Hollow while lingering wisps of last night's dew settle into these foothills that have swallowed him whole. In a decrepit chair on the front porch Ben sips hot coffee and gives a cold shoulder to the dawn of a new day. He eyeballs the barn adjacent to the house and considers the rotting apple hidden on the top shelf of his work bench. Surely the makeshift bowl holds enough charred bud to shroud his anxious thoughts and postpone the arrival of the day's demons. Not now, he decides, not yet. If the game warden comes back around, he needs his frayed wits about him. Yesterday the air reeked of suspicion when he shared the account of how he came to kill the neighbor's pit bull. That stench of doubt kept him up all night. Then there's the matter of those neighbors and whether Ben started a war. 

     'They're blackbillies.'  Danny blows dust off the chainsaw and wipes sweat from his brow.    

     The eyes and ears of Rocky Hollow, its Carl the Janitor, Danny is a neighbor and grizzled lifetime resident who witnessed Ben's pathetic lumberjack charade a few days back and showed up this morning on a mission of mercy to finish the job. Ben admires Danny's handiwork -- the branches of a fallen tree carved and spread cleanly like a Thanksgiving turkey breast -- and swallows hard the lump of envy over his handle of the chainsaw as if it's a natural extension of his arm. His shame from last week's failed attempt at manhood still stings and he makes a mental note to get rid of the broken chainsaw corpse that laughs at him from its resting place in a far corner of the barn -- a monument to his inadequacy.  

     'How's that?'  Ben braces for the racist rant.  

     'Black hillbillies. Get it?'

     Ben offers a neutral grunt. 

     'Worse than you're used to back in the city. They got less to lose.'  Danny revs the saw to punctuate this and cuts into a giant slab of trunk.

     Ben chews on this rough cut of insight for a minute and looks into the swath of woods that separates their land from his. Out here he always feels like someone's watching, as if the hills do indeed have eyes, and now more than ever regrets his lifetime's guilty pleasure of horror movies. He packs a 3 inch hunting knife at all hours, brandishing it openly when checking all door locks at bedtime. The idea of remote living seemed so romantic when they bought this place. Suddenly, less than a month in, thanks to his savage act creating new enemies, it's a slasher revenge flick waiting to happen.   

     'But you did what you had to do, Ben.' Danny kills the engine. 'And it was a favor to the rest of this Hollow.' 

     The crunch of car wheels on gravel cuts the awkward silence. Ben looks down the hill and watches the black Ford Explorer's cloud of dust follow it up to his barn where it parks and idles. He makes a mental note to have an apple later.  

      Watching Officer Cox's eyes dart about the room, it sucker punches Ben that he spends too much time alone in this barn. Each day finds his hands idle and his mind skittish for 8 hours while his boys are at school. His intentions to become a hermit have been realized already to an extreme, and he worries if this is where the Ted Kaczynskis of the world get their start. To his friends he romanticized the idea of spending days writing in the barn, churning out essays and stories and eventually a respectable body of work, and he bought into the idea at first. Soon it became apparent that the lonely hours would be dangerously loaded with revelations and personal confrontations. His writing flowed thick and strong, but the subject matter was grim -- mostly post-apocalyptic plots of survival and murder. He suddenly sees this setting through Cox's eyes -- disheveled, littered almost maniacally like a squatter's den, not remotely indicative of mental fitness -- and a pulse of paranoia beats within. Somewhere in the mound of chicken scratched notebooks is written a memo of hypothetical scenarios for how that dog might meet its end. Ben stares out the window at Danny in the distance, considers for the first time that he unwittingly volunteered to be the Hollow's patsy and wonders just how fucked he is now.