Fiction by Danny Mueller
December 2, 2022
The call comes in, rabid coyote maybe, dispatch wasn’t sure. They said it was urgent, law enforcement en route. Inside an old barn, somewhere rural. We’re on the edge of a suburb that hadn’t blossomed, so that was typical on the shift.
Jerome the trainee’s head on a swivel in the seat next to me, bouncing along nervously. Beads of sweat along his forehead.
“Rough road,” he says.
He doesn’t expect a reply from me. He hasn’t had many since training began last week. Why I agreed to train my replacement was still not clear to me. My misguided sense of duty, probably. Chuck had showed me the ropes when I was coming up, so I’d do the same for Jerome. Plus, he was Janine’s kid, so this would probably be his life. I’d never really thought of it as mine.
The truck rumbles on the uneven two-lane, in need of repairs but in no danger of getting them. We jostle around on the cracked vinyl of the bench seat. The truck smells like diesel and old takeout.
A flash of tan in front of us, and I slam on the brakes. Almost in time but not quite. The impact was glancing, an off-center thump instead of the loud bang of a direct hit. Goddamn deer. Hazards on and we’re pulled off. It would be easier if I could bring myself to just drive on. Jerome is nervous, or maybe just seems that way to me.
“Stay in the truck,” I tell him.
I wish he’d stop calling me that. I’m young enough to be his older brother, dammit.
Whatever we hit is nowhere to be found. No sign of blood. I search the weeds, all the way up to the fence. Long enough to ease my conscience. I feel relief at not having to deal with whatever it was. And guilt at the relief. Maybe whatever we’d hit was ok.
“What was it?” Jerome says.
Back in the truck, we’re coming up on the turn off, dirt road. Three mailboxes mark the spot, and an old barbed-wire fence. I wonder if those fences come pre-rusted. We turn, and ease over the cattleguard. Brrrrump Brrrrump. I remember bouncing around on the backseat as a kid, feeling that vibration and giggling.
It takes some effort to stay in the ruts made by other vehicles. I flip on the high beams, and suddenly we can see the whole road, fenced in on the left, dust kicking up all around us. The dust is making it hard to see with the high beams, so I turn them off. I turn the headlights off, too, for a second—it’s a straight road. The clouds of dust, the road, the fences, disappear, and we’re bouncing through wonderful darkness.
I turn the lights back on, and sense Jerome’s questioning, but he says nothing. There’s a house coming up in the distance, an old ranch-style farm house with a wraparound porch, a light on downstairs. Next to it is one of the biggest live oaks I’ve seen, standing there alone. I think this one is ours. First one on the left. I look for a barn but can’t make anything out in the dark.
I slow down and see the turn, a break in the fence with its own cattleguard. The metal gate is half shut, and before I’m fully stopped Jerome hops out of the truck to hold it open. He smiles at me as I drive past. Brrrrump brrrrump. Something about the way he’s smiling makes me feel sad for him.
He climbs back in and we drive the last couple hundred feet toward the house. I can barely see an old barn now, hulking behind it. I park under the live oak, where it seems a tire swing should be. I turn off the truck and the lights.
A deep silence replaces the diesel rumble I’d forgotten was there. The silence has its own kind of a sound, for an instant, before Jerome opens his door and the alarm starts to beep. I take the keys out of the ignition, and there is silence again. I get out of the truck and close the door softly behind me, wary of disturbing it.
The front door to the house looks open. The light I saw from the road is coming from one of the rooms to its right. The porch and upstairs are dark. A swinging bench floats there, to one side, unmoving. I wonder how different the house must look in the daytime. How inviting, and warm.
I feel a jolt of nerves in my belly, and look over at Jerome. He’s staring at me, a question in his eyes. I think he feels it too.
“You ok?” I say.
He nods, and steps closer.
I look back up at the house, for any motion, but see none. I reopen the driverside door and shut it loudly, and clear my throat. Still nothing. I feel that jumble in my belly tighten into a ball, and wonder if it’s nerves or my gut trying to tell me something. I used to be able to tell better. Jitters from hitting the deer, maybe.
I move around to the back of the truck to open the cargo bay, as loudly as I can. Could it be the wrong place? No, dispatch said first house on the left. I consider calling it in to get a repeat on the specs but decide not to. This has to be it.
Jerome is pretending not to stare at me. Maybe his gut is telling him something too. Or hell, maybe he’s more spooked than I am. I wink at him, and it seems to make him relax a little. It makes me relax a little too.
I grab the two wrangling poles from the bay and toss one to Jerome. I prop the other against the truck and fish out a couple pairs of work gloves from the plastic cubby. I hand one pair to Jerome, and slide mine on. The cowhide is cool to the touch. I make a fist, and hear the leather stretch.
I look at the house again, and the barn behind it. Looming in the dark. I feel the ball in my stomach jump. I draw in a sharp breath, and then another one, slower, deeper. I look to see if Jerome noticed, and he looks away. I wish someone else were in charge. Police are en route, but that could mean anything from fifteen minutes to a couple of hours. I glance toward the road we came in on and see only darkness.
“Well, let’s walk up and see what we see,” I say. “Go ahead and sleeve up.”
I consider correcting him again, but don’t.
He gets the Kevlar sleeves out of the back of the truck and slides them on. I never used the things—Chuck always said if you were close enough to need them, you were doing it wrong. That’s what the wrangling poles are for, he’d shout with a grin. But I wanted to keep the kid safe.
I hand him a headlamp and put my own on. I check it against my hand to make sure the beam is strong. Jerome does the same. I grab my pole and motion to him with my head.
“Stay close,” I say, and quickly add, “don’t call me sir.”
He starts to respond ‘yes sir’ but stops himself and nods.
I start to smile at him but catch myself. I grip my pole and walk toward the house. I angle to the right, to see if I can get a glimpse through the open door.
“Hello?” I call out. “Animal control. Anybody home?”
Nothing from the house.
What I can see through the front door seems to be in order, an end table and coat rack. We circle toward the room the light’s coming from, but there are curtains on the bottom halves of the windows.
“Animal control!” I shout as loudly as I can. “Police are right behind us.”
I glance at Jerome. He stares back at me.
“What should we do?” he says in a whisper.
I almost whisper back, but catch myself.
“We don’t have to whisper. Come on back to the truck. I want to check in with dispatch, see who the hell called this in.”
I get back to the truck, and hop in the driver seat, one foot outside, and turn the keys to power up the radio. I flip the receiver out of its holster and catch it, a move I perfected the first month on the job. The dispatch radio made me feel important then, somehow. I’d learned all the call signs and numbers, before Chuck told me they didn’t use any of that stuff in the county. I turn the radio on and click the receiver.
“Dispatch, this is animal control, copy?”
“Copy. Whatcha need?” a woman’s voice said.
“I’m out here with my trainee and there’s not a soul in sight. You know if the police are on the way?”
“Probably not yet, there was a fatality off the interstate and it’s been all hands. You ok?”
“Yeah. It’s just strange,” I say. “Door to the house is ajar, light is on, but no one’s around. You know who called it in?”
“It was the homeowner, an older gentleman. I took the call. He sounded quite upset.”
“Oh yeah. Said his wife had been attacked, didn’t see by what. Thought it might’ve been a coyote. Said he was sure it ran into the barn. When I asked if his wife needed an ambulance, he about screamed my ear off.”
“Yeah, real charmer. If you see him, tell him she needs to get checked out for rabies. You know the drill.”
“I’ll tell him if I see him,” I say. “I’m starting to think he must have driven his wife to the hospital, and that’s why this place is so quiet.”
“Makes sense. Officers should be there in 30 minutes or less. You good?”
“Yeah we’re good, over and out,” I say.
The man and his wife would have left in a hurry, which would also explain the open front door and kitchen lights. I flip the receiver back into its holster on the dash and take the keys out of the truck. I look back at Jerome.
“You hear all that?” I ask.
“Yep. Old dude was probably too cheap to pay for an ambulance.”
“Well she probably didn’t need one if it was just a bite, long as they get her to a doctor. Always advise people to get any bites checked out, yeah? Especially if we can’t find what bit them.”
“Let’s go check the barn.”
We move away from the truck and begin circling past the house on the other side, where it’s dark. I feel the urge to keep my distance from the place, but I ignore it now, and we pass close by the house on our right. The barn is a couple hundred feet in front of us now. Our beams of light cut through the damp night air and begin to illuminate its faded boards. Flecks of red paint hint at what it might have once looked like. I wonder how old the thing is.
As we get closer, the ball in my gut crackles, and presses up against the roof of my stomach. With each step, the ball feels tighter, more electric. I feel the urge to spit, and swallow roughly instead. I grip my pole in both hands and look over at Jerome.
“Stay on guard here, ok?”
“Yes sir—I mean, I will,” he says.
I hardly notice his effort. The barn door is in front of us now, and we can see a crack where the two doors meet. A dim glow seems to emanate from within.
I take a step toward it, when the ball in my stomach flips, ice cold, and I stop. I hold my hand up for Jerome to do the same. I feel physically repelled by those doors. Like I can’t step a foot closer to them, any more than I could step off the edge of a cliff. A sinking feeling, and I wonder if I dismissed my gut too soon before. What if the guy hadn’t driven his wife—I’d been so fucking ready to jump on that explanation.
I motion to Jerome, and we begin to circle to the right of the barn. I want to keep distance from those doors. Maybe there’s another entrance around back. A few boards are missing on the side of the barn, and I walk up to see if I can see through it. My hands feel sweaty in the cowhides. I look in.
I think it’s the swaying of the body that makes it hard to recognize at first, until I hear Jerome issue a guttural ‘no, fuck!’ next to me, and suddenly I know it’s that. The body of a man, hanging. Jerome begins to run back toward the front of the barn, but I grab him.
“Let me go!” he shouts, and almost squirms away.
I pin him against the barn wall, more roughly than I mean to.
“We don’t know what the fuck is going on! We need to call this in,” I say.
“He could still be alive!”
The kid is right. It would be pretty cold of me not to check, if there’s even a chance. I look back through the boards, to inside those front doors. It takes me a second to realize what I’m seeing.
There is a shotgun propped up there, pointed at them. A rope runs from its trigger to one of the doors. I realize with a sinking dullness that it’s rigged to go off at whoever comes through it. Jerome sees it too.
“Come over here,” I say, more calmly than I feel.
I walk him away from the opening. I pick up a large rock and hurl it at the boards, taking a few new ones out. I kick a few others loose. The opening should be large enough to squeeze through. I see the body again, and wonder if the swaying means he might have done it recently. I stick my head in through the hole and do a quick 360. There’s nothing nearby that looks dangerous.
“Don’t follow me in here,” I say to Jerome, and hoist myself through.
The barn smells like rusted metal and sawdust. I walk slowly toward the man. I’m looking on the ground for any tripwires or pressure plates as I go, but I don’t know what I’m doing—shit I learned from videogames and movies. I reach the man, and look up. From the purple of his face, his bulging eyes, protruding tongue, I know he’s dead.
Suddenly, Jerome is there, and I feel scared for him.
“I told you to stay put!” I say, angry.
But he doesn’t hear me. He’s wrapped his arms around the man’s legs, and is trying to hold him up. His face contorts with effort, and the man rises a little.
“Help me!” he shouts, and tears are streaming down his face.
And I do help him. I wrap my arms around the guy who might have killed me, or Jerome. And I lift. I’m surprised at how light he is.
“Thank you, thank you,” Jerome says to me through sobs.
I feel the lump in my throat, and think how silly it would be if I cry too, holding up this homicidal dead guy with my trainee. And then the tears start, and I don’t think to feel embarrassed.
I don’t know how long we stand there like that. Not long, before I think of the others, and guide Jerome back out the way we came. I don’t trust myself to disarm whatever the old man had rigged up.
There are police, and flashing lights, after a bit, and crime scene tape up around the barn. There’s Jerome and I, being ushered away, and sat down on the back of an ambulance. The paramedics give us thermal blankets, even though it isn’t really cold, and we wrap ourselves in them. The crinkle of the blanket feels comforting, and I pull it tight around me. Jerome does the same.
They wheel a body bag out of the house, maybe the wife that got bit. I wonder dimly whether there even was a coyote. They cut the man down and wheel him out too, under a white sheet. They must have only had the one body bag.
The man had already killed his wife when he made the call, cops said, and had everything else set to go. I can’t get my mind around it, even still, almost a year out. Someone making a choice like that. I can’t think on what might’ve happened to Jerome, or me, if things had gone differently. Feels too raw to contemplate. Like too deep a precipice to look down into.
I wonder about the wife. What her life had been like. That front porch could have been so inviting on another day. With a warm summer breeze and cicadas buzzing on the wind. Iced lemonade, the condensation dripping onto the arm of the bench swing. Making a ring in its wood. I wonder if anyone will ever make it like that again.
I still see Jerome from time to time. He’s an apprentice for a cabinetmaker now, good trade. I was relieved he didn’t stay on. I say it gave me the excuse to stay, that someone has to do the job. Truthfully, I’m still figuring it out. But it felt right to stay. And I try to listen for that now, what feels right. Sometimes, it’s clear.
Daniel Mueller is a writer and massage therapist who resides in northern Michigan. He likes looking for cool rocks, taking pictures of pretty things, and seeing what’s around the bend. Nothing satisfies him quite like writing, when the words catch the light of meaning in just the right way.
Artwork by Kita Das