A few minutes before dusk, Wade heard the crunch of dead frozen leaves and the snap of twigs coming his way. From his perch in the treestand, he pointed his thirty-ought-six towards the trail as his finger eased on the trigger. His heart thumped. One of two things ought to be coming, either a deer or Bill, ready to call it a day. It would be just his luck if it were a deer. Squinting through the scope he saw an orange vest and hesitated. What if it were somebody else? This was public land.
“You about ready to head home?” Bill shouted. “I’m freezin’ my nuts off.”
Wade saw Bill had more orange than when they first entered the woods. Flecks of neon cheese crumbs littered his beard and his fingers. Probably a bag of Cheetos lay under a tree with two discarded 40-ounce Buds. Such a degenerate. No wonder Tessa wanted him gone. Why she chose him over Wade five years ago still made no sense. His finger twitched on the trigger.
“What, you think I’m deer? Ain’t got no horns, bro.”
Wade lowered the rifle and pushed the safety. He couldn’t do it. Not with Bill looking at him with that dopey aw-shucks expression. Grabbing his pack wedged under his treestand, he climbed down two branches to the hard, half-frozen ground. What the hell was he going to tell Tessa? Sorry, I left your husband alive on our hunting trip. Maybe I’ll shoot him next time. Tessa with her fiery temper would probably call him weak, threatening to find another man with bigger balls. That same weakness had afflicted Wade’s entire life: no follow through on his desires.
“Didn’t see a damn thing,” Bill said, shaking his head. “How about you?”
“Nothin’,” Wade said.
“I swear, hunting ain’t nothing more than freezin’ and drinkin’. Or is it drinkin’ and freezin’?” He belched and smiled, so proud of himself. “Speakin’ of which, I say we head over to Slim’s before happy hour’s over.”
“Besides, I ain’t in no hurry to get home. Tessa’ll be bitchin’ about something I forgot to do.” Bill spat, his chubby face tightening with disgust. “I’m tellin’ you, there ain’t no way to satisfy that woman.”
Wade shook, but it wasn’t from the chilly twenty-five degrees. He just needed to do this. Turn off his conscience, raise his Winchester, and blow a hole through his childhood friend. Why was he hesitating? He and Tessa had planned this out for over a month now. Just do it, you coward.
“Gotta take a leak first,” Bill said, walking towards a patch of saplings. “Water these here trees. Goin’ green with a little bit of my yellow. Environmentalists oughta love me.”
Wade shook his head. The idiot was making this too easy. Gripping his rifle, he felt his hands moisten with sweat inside his Thinsulate gloves.
“Hey, what’s this over here?”
Bill found it. The four foot deep grave Wade had had the foresight to dig a couple of weeks earlier before the freeze made everything rock-hard solid. Even then the ground hadn’t been very soft.
“Whatcha looking at?” Wade said, trying to sound natural.
“This,” Bill said, working his way to the hole that was about twenty yards from the big tree. He walked towards it in a clumsy, lumbering stride. The sun was setting and everything seemed to be covered with a gauzy layer of gray. “Looks like somebody wants to bury a body.”
Bringing the walnut stock to his shoulder, Wade pushed the safety off.
“Can you step two paces to your left.”
“What?” Bill said, turning around.
The whites of Bill’s eyes widened when Wade squeezed the trigger. A bright orange flash lit up the nearby trees and saplings, followed by a thunderous boom, and a solid kick in his shoulder. Bill jerked back, dropping his beloved Remington 770, and clutched the center of his chest where a reddening puncture grew. Confusion clouded Bill’s face as he stumbled backward. He didn’t fall into the hole, but landed a few feet away from it in the clearing. Close enough to roll Bill’s thick body into it without much effort. Thanks, bro.
Wade waited. He heard his friend’s final gasping breaths, but didn’t want to see it. A mixture of exhilaration and horror rushed through his body. He’d done it. Bill was permanently out of Tessa’s life. They might have to wait a little while to go public, but he and Tessa could be together without the shame of a divorce and all of that. It felt good that it was finally over. Mostly.
It grew darker and colder while Wade gave Bill’s soul a few extra minutes to leave the earth. He drew in a deep breath crossed over the saplings to Bill, whose open eyes faced the sky, his brow still knit with bewilderment.
Bill’s round body collected leaves and branches as Wade push-rolled his corpse into the grave. Just like Bill, Wade thought looking at the corpse covered in earth and grime, a pathetic mess to the very end.
Shaking his head, he removed the Army Surplus fold-up shovel from his pack. He stood over Bill’s body, trembling.
“Why’d you have’ta go an’ marry Tessa, jackass? You knew I still loved her, even after we broke up for a spell. That wasn’t right.”
He threw a spade full of dirt on Bill’s stupid face. Chucks of earth bounced off his forehead and slid down into his greasy hair. Tessa had wanted to marry Wade. Put pressure on him to ask, but he just wasn’t ready yet. So they broke up. Wade needed a little space, some time to think. But then Bill swooped down like a hawk circling an open-air chicken farm. Bastard.
One measly toss at a time, Wade kept scooping and dumping. This was taking longer than expected. Wade hadn’t brought a full sized shovel because he didn’t want to draw Bill’s suspicion and have to answer his dumbass questions about why he was driving around in the middle of winter with a shovel. He could hear Bill declare, “ain’t nobody diggin’ holes when it’s this cold, bro.”
Wade shook his head. So what? He should have come up with some excuse to appease Bill. Anything really. His friend would’ve been dumb enough to believe it. Wade swore to himself. He was suffering the consequences, yet again, from over-thinking. That over-cautious, over-planning brain of his that had to over-analyze every possible angle. Sometimes he thought so much that it led to near paralysis. That’s how Tessa slipped through his fingers and into Bill’s impulsive, I’m-taking-whatever’s-in-front-of-me meaty paws.
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
Wade was more than halfway finished with the burial when he remembered Bill’s Remington. He found the bolt action after a quick search. Hesitating, he held it over the hole, unable to let go. It was a nice rifle, but that Leupold scope was even better. Wade squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. What the hell was he thinking? He didn’t kill his best friend for profit. Nope, not at all. He wasn’t a thief. His motivation was true. This murder was for love, pure and simple. He dropped the rifle into the pit.
The lingering light of the day was no more than a fading candle in the west. The darkest shade of navy blue was surrounded by blackness with the billions of white pinholes. The bitter cold that Wade had endured all day was turning into hypothermic freezing as the dry arctic breeze from the north had picked up strength with bone-piercing gusts. Wade’s toes, fingers, and nose felt numb, but his back and arms ached something fierce. The pile of loose dirt he’d shoveled weeks earlier grew harder as his spade dug closer to the ground. Wade strained his eyes, teary from the wind, to see what was in front of him. Good enough, he decided. He patted down Bill’s grave, trying to make it smooth and natural.
Wade tensed for a quarter of a second when a vision of Bill’s arm shooting out of the ground and grabbing hold of his ankle seized his brain. He laughed it off. When was the last time he’d eaten? Just two packages of beef jerky since this morning’s breakfast. He imagined a bowl of Tessa’s hot and tasty venison stew with Tessa sitting across a table from him, wearing a loose robe with nothing underneath. She reached across a table, exposing her soft breasts, and fed him a chunk of warm, delicious cornbread. She has a tender look of satisfaction in her eyes as she took his hand, leading him to his bedroom. A smile crossed Wade’s chapped lips. Yes, Tessa was worth killing for.
Wade scooped up branches and leaves as fast as he could, tossing them over the grave. He needed to get out of there, find some cell phone reception, and let Tessa know he’d done it. Then he would collect his reward. Food was no longer a priority. Though it was dark, Wade felt pretty certain no random hunters would take notice of this spot tomorrow, or the next week or even a year from now. But he’d come back tomorrow, just to be sure.
He grabbed his pack and rifle, and worked his way down the trail. Wade pushed Bill out of his mind, focusing on Tessa and their future together. But that made him think of the time lost. Why hadn’t he taken out Bill earlier? There had been plenty of opportunities. How many chances had he had to push a drunken Bill, rod and reel in hand, out of his aluminum boat or let the jackass drive home, three sheets to the wind, instead of wrestling his keys away?
Wade had walked a quarter of a mile, before he realized he’d been trudging in the wrong direction. Just getting deeper into the woods. Of all the things he’d prepared for, a flashlight wasn’t one of them. He turned around, retracing his steps. When he finally reached the open field, it was already after seven. Making out the outline of his Chevy Silverado on the road was like finding a pop machine in the desert. He had three things on his mind: warmth, food, and Tessa. Then fear struck Wade. He patted his front pockets. Nothing but his buck knife. He dropped the Winchester and his pack, running his gloved hands all over himself hoping to find them somewhere else. Nothing.
“Bill, you… you…” He cursed Bill’s name, and then screamed at the rising moon. How could he have been so stupid to forget? Bill had come by around noon wanting the keys because he was “gettin’ the munchies.” Wade tossed them down from the tree, unnerved to see his friend before dusk, the appointed killing time, and eagerly shooed him away.
Wade pulled on the door handle hoping that Bill might have done him an unintended favor by leaving it unlocked like he often had with his own F-150. But the alarm beeped angrily. Wade stepped back. The last thing he wanted to do was to trip the alarm and have a game warden bust him for hunting after hours. Besides, he hadn’t told anybody he was hunting. He was supposed to be up north, checking up on his granddad in the nursing home.
Running his hands over his head, Wade knew he wasn’t the smartest guy in town, but hanging out with Bill, he must have tricked himself into believing he was.
“How could I be such a fucking idiot!” he shouted.
He glanced at his cell phone, no bars. And there wouldn’t be from at least another three miles. He looked into the sheer darkness of the woods. He’d have to go back, find Bill’s grave, and unbury that keys-stealing bastard.
* * *
Although the sky above was dark, it was pitch-black inside the woods. Wade’s eyes adjusted just enough to tell the difference between big solid objects like tree trunks, but he couldn’t see the branches that scratched his face. He wasn’t even sure if he was on the trail. He powered forward trying to find the spot: the tree he had stood under when he’d murdered his best friend. He exhaled. Tessa was worth it, right? He chuckled softly realizing he’d violated Bill’s first rule in the bro code, “No hoes before bros.” Wade’s eyes watered, but he told himself it was because of that damn dry arctic wind.
It took about two hours of circling, snapping through branches, and tripping over rocks before he found the tree. He knew it was the right one because he’d left the treestand behind. Good Lord, he was sloppy. But then again, it wasn’t every day that you kill your best friend. At least this mistake paid off.
An intense shiver took hold of him. His teeth clattered uncontrollably. The wind chill factor made the single digit temperature feel like negative fifteen. He realized he was also dehydrated, having tasted the last drops of black coffee back when there was daylight. But that wasn’t the main reason he was shaking. It was task that lay ahead. Wade gripped the oak’s bark for support. A few yards beyond the tree lay Bill Moody. Best friend and biggest idiot in the world. Why’d that dipshit choose Tessa? So many other women liked him in spite of his lard ass and crudeness. It was that whole personality thing. Something Wade sorely knew he lacked.
He looked at this watch. Already 9:30.
“Get with it, coward,” he whispered to himself.
He dropped his pack and pulled out the shovel. He paced twenty yards like he was football official marking off a personal foul plus five extra. The ground finally seemed to soften. Wade looked down, not seeing anything, but knowing that Bill was underneath. Thoughts of the past invaded Wade’s mind. The two of them, boys, fishing in the creek with a string of perch, camping in the woods, getting kicked out of Boy Scouts for locking the Scoutmaster in the latrine. Nausea overcame Wade, but he couldn’t afford to vomit. He was already weak and shivering like a newborn pup. He had to keep it together. He had to keep it in.
He forced his brain to recall the day that had to be the lowest point of his life. Five years earlier he stood at the altar wearing a stiff penguin suit with all of their friends and family watching. He’d been burning with a jealous rage, but kept that stupid fake smile plastered across his mug. He’d handed that shiny diamond ring over to Bill, and watched him slide it over Tessa’s finger. He watched her slip away from him while standing there like an impotent, useless man. Why, why, why did Bill choose her?
Wade drove the shovel’s blade into the dirt and threw the soil over his shoulder. He was pissed, attacking the ground with adrenaline and fury. That asshole of a best friend took the one thing he’d ever wanted. Tessa. Took her because he could. She was weak and vulnerable after their breakup. But it was temporary. Wade didn’t blame her, but he blamed Bill. He had violated the first rule of the bro code, not him. Fuck Bill. He was a liar and a hypocrite.
He was about two feet deep, half way there, when the shovel hit something hard, like a rock. The sound of metal hitting metal was deafening and Wade swore he saw a spark from the contact. Where the hell had that rock come from? Then he realized it was Bill’s rifle barrel. That Remington was definitely useless now.
When he tried to dig again, something felt wrong. Wade held the shovel up towards the sky. In the darkness he could make out a forty-five degree angle bend in the aluminum blade.
“No, no, no.”
He was so close. So close to the keys. So close to warmth, food, and a life with Tessa. He stepped out of the hole, put his foot on the back of the blade and pulled up. Nothing happened. He’d have to give it more torque. He counted to three and jerked up, hard and fast. He heard the snap and fell into the hole still holding the handle. What the… but he knew. The hinges had snapped off from his pull and now the collapsible shovel with a bent blade was broken in half.
Wade let out a dry, hoarse yell and pounded on the ground. Why? Why this rotten luck. Bill was just two feet away. Then a thought flashed through Wade’s mind. Had Bill done this somehow? Even in death he’d probably still be a troublemaking son of a bitch.
Wade began digging with his hands. Clawing and scooping the ground, tossing the dirty behind him as fast he could. Why had he dug so damn deep?
Everything hurt and nothing made sense anymore. He just needed to do one thing, get to Bill and get those fucking keys back.
“Come on buddy, you can do it. Dig, dig, dig, dig,” Bill’s voice shouted in the distance.
Wade stopped for a split second and then went back to scooping and tossing.
“Shut the hell up,” Wade responded in a dry, raspy voice.
“Come on, son, can’t you do better than that?”
Wade grabbed the blade and started shoveling, one gloved hand on the broken pole and the other underneath the bent spade for support.
“Go Wade, go. Go Wade, go. Woowee, you can do it, boy.”
Wade kept at it. Building up a sweat in spite of the freezing air. Then he felt something solid, but not rock solid. Pulling off his gloves Wade felt something like denim and what he suspected to be a shinbone.
“Congrats, man. You found me, but I didn’t put your keys in my socks, that’s for sure,” Bill’s voice said with a laugh.
Wade realized that he’d need to dig another two feet out and four deep to get to Bill’s waist. Either his pants or jacket pocket, whichever one Bill had stored the keys in. Wade was exhausted, plain and simple. But he knew he had enough energy to dig to those keys. Just enough. And when he got those keys, he’d walk back to the truck, going the right way this time, get inside the truck, eat that extra pack of jerky on the console, and then turn on the engine to warm up a little. Then, when he was ready, he’d go home and take a steaming hot bath to warm up the center of his bones. It would be great if Tessa was there with him too. Maybe she might come over.
“Ain’t no way Tessa’s goin’ ta wanna take a bath with your dirty ass,” Bill said with that idiot laugh.
Was the voice coming from woods or somewhere deep inside of his head? Wade couldn’t tell.
“I didn’t say nothin’,” Wade said as Bill kept laughing.
“Now let me get this straight, bro. You think you’re gonna just prance on out of here once you get them keys. Right?”
“You don’t think you’ll succumb to the elements first? You got no water, no food, just sheer exhaustion in zero degree weather. Hell man, I’m betting you’ve got a date with the devil tonight, not Tessa.”
Anger surged through Wade and he started digging like a mad man, mumbling, “I’ll show you” over and over again as he shoveled soil over his shoulder.
At some point, Wade lost track of time, he had moved enough earth to get up to Bill’s waistline. He felt a lump in Bill’s front jean’s pocket. He tried to reach inside those tight Wranglers, but the angle was off. He couldn’t get his fingers inside. It chilled Wade to feel how cold his friend’s corpse was. He pulled out his gutting knife and cut a hole above the keys, cutting into the flesh a little. Bill had been silent through much of the second digging, thank God. Wade tore the pocket lining free and jangled keys in front of Bill’s dirt covered torso.
“See this, bro. I’m gonna make it home tonight. And once I clean up, I’m gonna bang your wife all night long,” Wade shouted hoarsely.
“Look at them keys, Einstein,” Bill’s voice said in a calm even tone.
Trembling, Wade held the keys up to the sky where, through the canopy of tree branches, he could make out the Ford logo on the leather keychain. It wasn’t his Chevy insignia.
Bill’s voice began to chuckle. “Try again, cupcake.”
Wade collapsed into ball, huddled around Bill’s waist. He had nothing left, zero. But he knew if he fell asleep he would never wake again. He might’ve even cried if Bill weren’t there, watching, ready to mock him.
“Come on you pussy. I’d expect cryin’ and whimperin’ from most men, but not you, Wade. Not in a million years. You ain’t one to ever give up, are ya? Besides, whatcha doing so close to my junk? You aren’t gonna blow me, are you, bro?”
With quivering hands, Wade pushed himself up and took the broken spade. He shoved it into the soil and then flung a small amount behind him.
“That’s it, buddy. Keep on diggin’.”
Wade shook his head and kept shoveling, slowly building momentum. He had to get to the jacket now and check those pockets. One of the sixteen or so that were stitched into hunting jackets these days. He scraped and tossed dirt, his knees straddling Bill’s waist, “Cowgirl style” as the dead man said.
As Wade worked his way up the torso he stopped to check pockets. He found bullets, tissues, receipts, and best of all, a half-eaten Snickers bar. Wade consumed the candy bar like a lone coyote scarfing up an injured rabbit. The corn syrup surged to Wade’s head. With a burst of energy he scraped away the dirt wall, finally making it to Bill’s chest. Only the ugly bastard’s face remained buried.
“Look at you, son.” Bill’s voice said. “You made it! Like I’ve always said, nobody can stop Wade once he puts his mind to it.”
Wade took off his gloves and searched for Bill’s breast pockets. His fingers ran across Bill’s sticky bullet hole. Wade’s stomach heaved, but he held back the juices inside that hollow cavity. Then he touched a lump. Reaching inside the top pocket, he pulled a set of keys out. They were his. He knew it.
“Well don’t just sit there lookin’ at ‘em. Get while you still can.”
“Yeah,” Wade said, or at least he thought he did. “Thanks buddy.”
Wade reached up, setting the keys on top of the hole. He counted to three and stood, barely. He had to use both sides of the pit wall to hold himself up. His entire body quaked as his muscles strained not only to stand, but to function. He needed to pull himself out of the grave. He could do it. He knew he could. But when Wade lifted his right leg, the left gave out. He collapsed on top of Bill’s hard, uneven corpse. Wade breathed, sucking in the cold air. He listened to the wind pushing the leafless branches overhead.
“Bill,” Wade croaked as he shoved the dead man’s knee. “Hey, Bill.”
There was only silence. Wade tried to stand again, exerting as much energy as he ever had. But nothing happened except inert, useless strain. Exhaustion, entire and complete, enveloped Wade. He fought to keep his eyes open, but they were closing on their own. Automatic shutdown.
“Bill where are you?” Wade thought. He needed him bad. Needed his best friend’s support to get him out of this hole: the fucking hole that he’d dug himself. “You gotta help me out, bro.”
Except for the arctic breeze pushing through the naked trees, it was a silent winter night. A feeling of horror overcame Wade as he realized Bill was nothing more than a dead body, and had been ever since he’d shot him earlier in the day. Fading into a deep, eternal sleep, Wade heard Bill’s voice one last time.
“See ya in hell, bro.”
Travis Richardson was born in Germany, raised in Oklahoma, and currently lives in Los Angeles. His novella “Lost in Clover” was listed in Spinetingler Magazine’s Best Crime Fiction of 2012. He has stories published in online ezines including All Due Respect, Shotgun Honey, and Powder Flash Burns and as well the anthologies SCOUNDRELS: TALES OF GREED, MURDER AND FINANCIAL CRIMES and THE MALFEASANCE OCCASIONAL: GIRL TROUBLE. He also shoots short movies. Find out more at http://tsrichardson.com