In The Country Dark


by Mike Mallow



Darkness is everywhere. It lurks just below the surface, waiting to rear its ugliness, even in small serene West Virginia communities. The darkness of murder and drugs puts a disenchanted journalist and recently reunited childhood friend in the crosshairs of a reclusive rural crime lord. The unlikely pair, navigating a trail of past traumas, broken dreams, and small victories, try to find a way to shine a light on the dark underbelly of their community before the darkness becomes their own.




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Chapter 1 - HIT



It’s funny how people don’t really think about certain friends unless that friend happens to be right in front of them. Cabel Walsh was no exception, not putting a lot of thought towards his friends, or much of a focus on anything, during his long drive home from the office. Instead, his thoughts danced around from the mundane to the ridiculous, but ended where they often had – work.

Although the newspaper industry was dying, the work made Cabel feel alive. Interviewing and investigating were not so much his forte. There were officemates that made a mission of raking up everything short of muck that could be counted on to crack the nut of a story wide-open. But that wasn’t what Cabel was about, even though he loved to write. Honing and chiseling away at words until they were their sharpest was his passion. The click-clack sounds of the computer keyboard soothed him when he was carefully crafting the perfect paragraph.

Cabel was contemplating an upcoming writing project while he traversed from Baker County, through Stonewall County, to reach his home in O’Brien County. But even those thoughts could only hold his attention for so long. During the cross-county journey through the rural West Virginia countryside, he ceased paying mind to his work and turned his thoughts toward what his plans were for the oncoming weekend.

It was Veterans Day and the autumn sky gradated from blue to orange, the colors sagging below the horizon during the hour-long commute. The rugged Appalachian hills silhouetted against the darkening quintessence and soon it would dip into an unrelenting shade of black that only the unpopulated vacuum of the country could supply.

As he contemplated his options for the weekend, he remembered something more pressing. It was the recollection of date plans that evening which forced Cabel to accelerate. The wheels of the black SUV began turning faster as the race down the desolate two-lane began. He sped not to reach his destination faster, but to find a patch of earth that intersected with the ever-elusive cell service for the area.

Cabel’s left leg started to bob anxiously while he kept one eye on the road and another on the signal strength of his cell phone, which displayed on the center console navigation screen of the newer-model vehicle. A glimmer of excitement shivered along his nerve-endings when a single bar of service strength illuminated on the panel, presented as the shortest single line in a row of increasingly taller lines that were grayed-out until the signal could grow stronger.

“Call Miranda,” Cabel commanded, slowing the vehicle to help maintain the signal. The console screen transitioned to black and displayed the single word “DIALING” in a font unimpressive for the times. After a pause, a ring tone could be heard.

“Hello?” a poor cell service distorted woman’s voice answered.

“Hi Miranda, it’s Cabel.”

“Cabel? You got to tell me about that name some time,” she responded, her tone chipper through the static.

“Would love to, but my cell service isn’t great where I am,” he evaded. “Just wanted to let you know that I’m running behind. Can we meet at the tavern rather than me picking you up? I don’t want to keep you waiting.”

There was a brief lapse before a voice crackled back over the static. “Um, yeah, I guess that’s fine.”

“I’m so sorry,” Cabel apologized, recognizing some disappointment in her voice. “I got caught up on an assignment and lost track of time.”

Miranda laughed. “That’s okay. As long as you buy me a drink, and tell me about the name thing, I’ll let you slide this time.”

***



Troy Mason was engaged in a fistfight with an 83-year-old dementia patient from Ward D, the nicer of the sections of the nursing home. What the gentleman lacked in mental fortitude he made up for in physical fitness, and was possibly recalling the memories from his youth when he was a bare-knuckle boxer.

Troy was overconfident and allowed the gentleman a free punch, brandishing the twisted grin of displaced confidence as he lowered his guard. It proved foolish. A swift left hook to the jaw put Troy to the floor. He spun and dropped to his knees while the rattle of the impact gave him a lightheaded sensation. Once his knees impacted the floor, the rest of his body followed in a crash. His head, the last to take a turn, hit hardest and bounced off the white tiles.

The spritely gentleman danced gleefully over Troy and hooted to himself with two arms raised in victory.

A man dressed in nursing scrubs that Troy knew as Dave, rushed into the small room, eyeing the situation. The aged gentleman paid him no mind and continued to spryly bobble and dance. Troy remained motionless on the floor with the broken pieces of his ego.

“Were you just fighting?! You shouldn’t be fighting with the residents, Troy,” Dave chastised from the edge of the brightly lit room, his tone heavy with indecision of whether he should engage any further.

Troy rose enough to turn onto his side. He responded slowly, “Reckon in this particular moment, I concur.” Troy slowly stretched his pinned arm from under his body and rubbed his jaw, grumbling unintelligibly when the painful area was discovered. He tasted the coppery flavor of blood, but fought the urge to spit the confirmation onto the pristine floor.

A fellow Certified Nursing Assistant, Carl, arrived soon after and ushered the old man away while the standoffish Dave seemed to decide it was safe to help Troy get upright again. Dave crouched down, slipped both hands under Troy’s shoulder, and yanked upwards. Troy stubbornly refused to budge at first, but yielded after recognizing Dave’s relentless need to make things right.

Once in a sitting position, it took both palms flat to the floor to keep him upright. Appearing to recognize that he had accomplished all that he could, and that Troy wasn’t getting to his feet any time soon, Dave stood and moved in front of Troy to reestablish eye contact.

“This is bad,” Dave stated grimly before his eyes drifted away. He nodded, agreeing with his own statement. “This is really bad for you.”

Dave seemed to wish to express more, but was torn from his thoughts when Carl reentered the room and shouted.

“What are you doing, man?! You are right in view of the cameras!”

Carl reached out a hand to Troy, which Troy refused to take. He looked away.

“Dammit Carl, the old man called me a candyass. I can’t let that kinda slander slide,” Troy defended. He sighed and looked back to Carl. It took further hesitation for him to scoot in a way that he could offer a hand back to Carl. With a sharp heave, Carl pulled his coworker upright.

“He probably meant candy-striper,” Dave interjected. It was a feeble attempt to smooth over the situation and he seemed to realize it, but doubled down regardless. “Are you sure he didn’t say ‘candy-striper?’”

“What the hell’s that mean, Dave?” Troy’s speech slurred while the taste of blood intensified, but he was unwilling to swallow the slurry that accumulated in his mouth.

“That’s probably a worse insult to Troy,” Carl added.

“Yeah. True,” Dave acknowledged, letting a loose chuckle slip from his lips.

“What the hell does it mean?” Troy repeated with frustrated emphasis.

“Candy-striper is an old-timey name for a teenage girl who volunteers as a nurse’s aid,” Dave revealed. He took a step back, probably worried that Troy’s temperament was about to reach a fever pitch.

Troy remained calm for the moment and leered at the stark white metal door that the old man had exited. His temperature rose and the flame to fight reignited in his heart.

“I’ll kill the bastard,” he tried to shout, but spit and blood gurgled in his mouth and droplets sputtered on his lips. He ignored this and thrust towards the door. After a few short steps, he was stopped by Carl, who grabbed him by the shoulders.

“Calm down, Troy. You don’t need to dig your hole no deeper,” Carl assured in a calming yet patronizing tone. “Nature has done most of the job for you already, buddy. It wouldn’t be fair to rob it of the finale.”

Troy paused. The fire of anger coursing through his body subsided a bit and he was finally able to gain control of it, extinguishing it after a few deep breaths. He then locked eyes on a white towel slung over Carl’s shoulder.

Troy tugged on the cloth. “This got any bodily fluids on it?”

Carl shook his head, which prompted Troy to jerk it away. He dabbed his lips and expelled the slosh in his mouth into the deep fabric, which stained the bright white cloth with splotches of red and pink. As he did this, Troy continued to glare at the door.

“Stupid nature,” he finally muttered with an empty mouth.

Dave smiled and nodded. “There you go,” he started to say more but was interrupted when Troy jerked away and slinked towards the opposite door from where the old man had left, tossing the soiled towel in the middle of the floor.

“I’ll be in the break room if anyone wants to laugh at the guy who got owned by geriatric Rocky.”

An hour passed and Troy remained in the break room. His thoughts whirled with an assortment of emotions. Like berries in a blender, they swirled and churned as the downward torrent funneled them into the tearing blades of regret, whirring them into a smooth mixture of nothing. Through the numbness, he began to cycle wildly through the five stages of grief, though he had nothing to mourn. Perhaps the future, or perhaps the past that led him to the present were good candidates to lament. Either way, he was rendered nearly catatonic with emotions when the Director of Nursing, Jill, found him and ushered him to the staffing office.

It was a room he had been in before, and for more reasons than just his initial interview. He had a long history of shenanigans at the nursing home. Deeds that he thought could be tucked away in the corners of the sprawling building. But there were cameras everywhere. Every corner of the nursing home that would not be deemed an invasion of privacy was recorded. Elder abuse became nonexistent as a result, but Troy’s misdeeds were easily exposed. He felt now that his days may be as over as his gurney-surfing days had been just months earlier.

Another hour inched by and Troy was still seated in the empty human resource director’s office. He had been led to the small room by Jill and abandoned. Left to suffer in the silence of the world once again. It was in the silence that his thoughts most screamed, bellowing aching words that his physical body could not answer. His right leg bounced nervously as a result, and his eyes took turns staring at the floor and darting around the empty room.

It was after normal work hours and that meant the director had already left for the day. For all his run-ins with management, he still managed to get along with her better than most. Being called back to work would likely negate any goodwill the director had previously harbored for Troy.

A large desk separated him from the director’s workspace and his eyes eventually landed on the far wall. He gazed blankly until his vision focused on all the notes and restaurant coupons posted on a cork bulletin board on the opposite wall. Dueling flyers for York Café, Seneca Sandwich Company, and The 33 Restaurant – fierce competitors for the community lunch dollar – hung by one another and boasted near-identical specials, though the 33’s bore the more professional design of the trio.

Other notes were scrawled and pinned to the board, but in too tiny a script to be read without squinting. Troy attempted anyway, to no avail. Moving on, Troy scanned further and was able to hone in on a crudely drawn letter from one of the director’s nephews. He leaned forward out of the chair as he read the waxy, colored letters that simply spelled out “TO ANT ADRI, FROM COLE.” The “E” in the name was written backwards and several stick figures of different colors were sketched on the lower half of the paper. Troy leaned in and inspected the kid’s handwriting for a moment, like it was a fine art piece hung in a museum.

Troy grimaced and slumped to a hunched position, then plopped backwards into the metal chair, the force pushing the seat on two legs before settling into place. He brushed his fingers through his short, wool-like hair, eyes fixated on a large picture frame on the opposite wall.

It was a round metal frame with six individual photo compartments housed within it. In each of the slots was a different picture of the same woman. She was an older woman with shoulder-length gray hair, sunken eyes, but a youthful face. Only one picture contained another person, and that was of the director. Her arms wrapped around the woman from behind and she smiled as if things could never be better than they were in that snapshot of time.

The office door swung open as Troy spotted one final detail. Wording at the top of the large frame simply read “Mother.”

“Hello Troy,” a short, slender woman greeted coldly as she walked past him and rounded the corner of her desk to seat herself on the opposite side. Jill had entered with her but remained near the door after it eased to a close.

“Miss Knotts,” Troy replied pensively, leg still bobbing.

Miss Knotts scolded. “I don’t appreciate coming in here after hours to address a situation so ridiculous.” She produced a key, unlocked a desk drawer, and pulled a manila file from an envelope that was labeled with Troy’s name. “Why were you fighting with Mr. Harry?”

“He called me a stripper,” Troy replied. Whether he misspoke or attempted to lie had not yet been decided in his mind, but he decided to run with it regardless.

“And I don’t take my clothes off for no one.”

Miss Knotts shot a confused stare that chilled Troy to the core and he panicked, wondering whether he should correct himself or think of a new lie.

“He called me a candyass.”

“I don’t care if he called you a candy cane, you don’t fight with the residents,” Miss Knotts snapped back. “There is no instance where this is appropriate.”

“For what it’s worth, he won,” Troy conceded, placing a hand gently to his bruised jaw.

Miss Knotts shook her head in disbelief. She said nothing for a moment, which let the room fall into an uncomfortable silence.

“I’m going to have to let you go,” Miss Knotts stated softly before the tone intensified. “This is just too unacceptable. I know you’ve been through a lot and came a long way since your overdose, but we just can’t support these antics.”

Troy leapt out of his seat. “This is not fair!”

“It’s plenty damn fair, Mr. Mason! We could have gotten the sheriff involved. Be thankful for what you’re getting. This isn’t surfing a gurney. This is a human in our care that you were fighting with. This is serious stuff! If you really can’t understand the fairness in this decision then you need to take some time to soul search about what exactly fairness means. You’ve acted unprofessionally for too long and this is the last straw. You have endangered a resident and I can’t let that slide.”

Troy locked eyes with Miss Knotts for a moment. He tried to hold the gaze, but her piercing brown eyes stabbed deep and he broke contact. His eyes gravitated back to the pictures in the frame, back to the one of her embracing “Mother.”

“Good luck, Mr. Mason,” Miss Knotts finished, motioning for him to leave. Jill pulled the door open and stood aside, waiting to escort the disgruntled man from the building.

“Adriane,” Troy replied disrespectfully. He made one final attempt to glare into her eyes, but found reestablishing contact was just as difficult as maintaining it. He broke gaze immediately and started out of the room.

Adriane Knotts sighed as she sat back down. Troy saw this over his shoulder while Jill pushed him onward. She stopped and left him standing in the center of the hallway.

“Don’t move.”

Troy remained facing away from door, but turned his head so he could view as much as possibly in his periphery. He watched the director spin her office chair towards the photo wall and stare longingly at the same pictures Troy had just been scrutinizing.

“How did I do?” Miss Knotts asked Jill without turning from the photo.

Jill answered. “That sounded fair to me.”

Miss Knotts cupped her hands and placed them over her face. Troy made out one last phrase as Jill’s hand returned to the small of his back.

“Oh Mom,” he could barely make out. “That was a tough one.”

***



An hour after Cabel had called Miranda, the two were enjoying drinks at Robinson’s Tavern, the only legitimate bar in Chancy. There were dives, some with beer and wine licenses, and some just operated on a word of mouth basis.

Chancy was the only incorporated town in O’Brien County, but calling it a town was questionable to the city folk who regularly day-tripped to more desirable places in The Mountain State. Chancy had once been a place of pristine beauty. It had a historic district once lined with Victorian style houses that towered over the river valley. Pictures from the early twentieth century painted a portrait of a quaint country town steeped in the essences of Americana.

Like all things touched by time, that portrait had changed to a place that was weathered and eroded. Some of the homes fell into ruin and had been razed, some burnt to the ground in unfortunate fires decades before anyone alive remembers. The rest were reduced to aging timbers that were becoming unstable under coats of chipping white paint.

Those portraits. Those black and white snapshots taken what felt like an epoch ago were all residents and historians had left to remember that pristine town. Some of the structures still remained and served as a reminder to how things used to be. It couldn’t be fixed now, save some rich savior buying up the town and restoring it to its former glory. But doing so would give the town away to someone who couldn’t appreciate it for its heritage. That was a bridge too far. So it continued to fall into obscurity, and all the inheritors could do was whine and lament how they didn’t know that all things ultimately crash into an inevitable wall of change.

“Okay, so tell me about your name,” a punch-drunk Miranda Murray prodded mischievously at Cabel.

Cabel smiled sheepishly at her. To his relief, Miranda had not over-dressed for their date. She wore a modest grey dress that had most likely been her outfit worn to her teaching job earlier in the day. “That was the first thing you said to me when I called earlier, but it took twenty minutes for you to get to it now. What gives? Are you less interested?”

“Was desperate to get a drink in me first,” Miranda coolly responded. “But really, tell me what kind of name is Cabel? Kah Bell? Cat bell, but without the T?”

“Cat bell without the T does seem like the simplest way to explain it,” Cabel reluctantly agreed. “I’ve tried to explain it other ways, but most people take to saying it wrong. It’s pronounced the same as Cabell County, but only West Virginians get it then.”

As a Marylander, Miranda ignored the slight. “Is it a family name?” she pressed.

“No. I was meant to be named Caleb, but my mom was dyslexic,” he responded with playfulness, swirling a glass of neat bourbon.

Miranda’s eye widened for a moment as she attempted to withhold a giggle, but was unable to do so.

“That’s... ridiculous,” she choked, spritzing a small amount of drink through her painted lips beforehand.

Cabel quickly gulped down another sip of his drink before he replied, “Ridiculous? You should try introducing yourself with that name.”

Miranda laughed politely as she looked away for a moment and brushed long, copper hair from her face. Her glass had been empty for some time now without Cabel realizing it. She took small sips from the glass, getting drips of the melting ice with each pass until he noticed and motioned the barkeeper for another.

“I have an idea,” Miranda transitioned after receiving a full glass. “Why don’t we say one thing about us that’s super awkward and that we normally wouldn’t tell anyone else.”

Cabel looked to the floor. He quickly scanned his memory for something that he could disclose with minimal embarrassment. “Okay, but you go first,” he eventually complied.

Miranda rolled her eyes. “I like to watch people squirm by asking them random, super uncomfortable questions,” she admitted. “Religious questions are the most fun.”

“What?” Cabel chortled. “So to clarify, your awkward quirk is making people feel awkward? That feels redundant.”

“What can I say, I’m an enigma,” Miranda replied with a confident shrug. She took one more sip of the fresh drink and sat the glass on the bar. “Now it’s your turn.”

“My parents named me Cabel,” he answered wryly.

“Come on, be serious,” Miranda insisted and kicked his leg lightly.

“Okay, okay,” Cabel relented. “I... like to shower in the dark.”

“What?” Miranda exclaimed. “Do you not like seeing yourself naked?”

Cabel shook his head. “No, no, nothing like that. It’s just relaxing. I akin it to being in the womb — warm, wet, naked, and in the dark.”

“And weird,” Miranda added. “I guess you won that round.” She caught an eye on something on the television across the bar and turned to watch, mesmerized by a Virginia Lottery commercial that was playing.

Cabel took notice of her distraction and it took little effort in finding the reasoning. “We’re a border county, so most of our TV stations come from Virginia. They’re sadly more relevant than the few we get out of central West Virginia.”

“I wondered,” Miranda confirmed. “I never bothered to get cable here since there’s only about 50 channels offered.”

“Please,” Cabel scoffed. “Growing up in Tipperton, we only had thirteen, and two or three of those were PBS channels.”

Miranda giggled and leaned over Cabel briefly. “Maybe you weren’t meant to be named Caleb,” she said softly. “Maybe your parents enjoyed their thirteen channels so much that they meant to name you Cable.”

Cabel put his hands on her shoulders and helped her upright, both laughing as he did so.

“Seems like you’ve had enough,” he commented before Miranda shifted in her chair to lean over the polished bar.

Cabel turned towards the bar as well and took a long sip of booze. He gazed behind the bar at the mirrored wall that was mostly obscured by neon signs for various brands of beer and liquor. He took in the atmosphere of the room and tried to eavesdrop on several conversations happening around him, but was unable to hone in on any particular exchange. Though smoking had been banned in the bar some years ago, the latent fragrance of spent cigarettes could still be detected in ghostly whiffs.

“So you live in Chancy, but work in Huntsville?” Miranda asked after a few beats. She had gotten control of herself and the levity had dissipated enough to ask a more serious question. “That’s a bit of a drive, isn’t it?”

“Yep. Two counties over,” Cabel mumbled, his tone turning serious as well.

“Why there and not here?” she inquired. “What does that newspaper have that the local one doesn’t?”

Cabel didn’t answer right away. He remained facing towards the bar and slowly set his glass down. Miranda, even in her half-inebriated state, caught on quickly that this was a sensitive topic and cautiously leaned in to gauge his reaction.

“Respect,” he finally mustered.

“You’ve worked there before?” Miranda asked instinctively, sitting back in her stool.

Cabel pursed his lips but found the strength to force a polite smile. “Three years ago. I had worked there since I was in high school and really thought I was going to go places with a career there.”

“What happened? If you don’t mind me asking,” Miranda inquired more guardedly.

Cabel turned back to the bar for his drink. “Creative differences.”

“What creative differences?”

“I was creative, they were not,” Cabel replied with a facetious smirk.

Miranda smiled back and playfully tapped his shoulder. “Oh, you,” she squealed with vested bemusement.

“I hope to come back to it someday,” Cabel remarked without prompting. “Perhaps when the family sells it or puts someone else in charge who has the taste for a guy like me. But for now, I’ll remain in exile.”

Miranda stared into his eyes again and her existing smile widened a little more. “It’s good to have ambitions, especially while we’re still in our twenties.”

Cabel smiled back and winked. “Indeed.”




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