I heard voices whispering in hushed tones as the sunrise began bleeding through the fogged windows of the Camaro. My breath made the cold interior of the car damp. I popped the door, and it creaked loudly open. Everyone was either already awake or had never gone to bed. The fire still smoldered, white gray ashes lay about the ground inside the circle of chairs. Del’s broken chair still lay in pieces in the yard.
I lit a cigarette and walked over, taking a deep drag as I forced my feet to life. My lungs were tight and sore, but I needed the nicotine. Everyone milled about quietly, not saying much, staring at their feet. Jason wasn’t in the yard. The van was gone from the end of the driveway. My heart jumped. “Where’s the van?” I pointed to the open air where the van sat the night before.
“I,” Kenny considered a moment. “We,” pointing to Steven, “burned it like we said we were goin’ to.”
Kenny and Steven proceeded to tell me everything that happened while I was passed out in the van. Kenny drove the van into town, and Steven followed him in the car. Kenny parked the car outside of town just like he planned. Kenny walked to a nearby gas station. He bought gas and some other miscellaneous bullshit with cash, and made a big deal to the clerk about running out of gas in a car he wasn’t used to driving. Steven picked him up, took him back to the van, and the pair made their way to the abandoned apple orchards.
Kenny tossed the car, used his knife to cut up the seats and wiring harness. He took the stereo and some other shit from the car, covered everything in gas, and lit it. He took a grainy video on his phone. “Here,” he handed it to me.
Sure enough. There it was.
“I can’t believe you all did this.”
“You better get to believing it. Cops are on their way.” Jason smiled as he walked from the house.
I looked at him, and then I looked around. There were empty beer bottles and red cups strewn about the ground. The shattered chair, Grey’s half burned hat, cigarette butts, and the smell of liquor on our breaths would be a clear indication of what actually happened here. I held my arms out, “don’t you think we should clean this shit up before they get here?” I took a few deep breaths to keep myself from panicking. “how long do you think it’ll take them to get here?”
“Well, it’s not an emergency, and they have to come from the state police barracks about thirty minutes away.” Jason figured in his head. “Got at least an hour I’d say.”
“Alright.” I desperately tried to think, but my focus was dulled from the night before. “You all” I pointed to Del and Grey, “get a trash bag and get all this shit cleaned up, and do something with that chair. Del and Grey exchanged glances, and without speaking, decided to follow my lead. Everyone looked lost. They knew they needed to do something, knew that they had gone too far, but they were frozen.
“Stevie, go inside with Jason and find something that we can use to get the smell of liquor off our breath.” Steven started toward the door of the house, but Jason folded his arms.
“Just wait a minute. You ain’t gonna order me around my own property.” As Jason spoke, everyone stopped and looked to me.
“Fair enough.” I said, “but let me tell you how this looks. I’m not a cop or anything, but looks to me like an older man got a bunch of kids drunk using the highest strength liquor money can buy. Looks like that older man invited those kids out to a party and convinced them to commit fraud. Christ,” I shook my head, “there’s a fucking Firebird with custom exhaust and rims. It’s got five thousand in stereo equipment in the back hatch, and you wanna convince a state trooper that someone stole, of all the vehicles here, your broken down mini-van?”
Jason tried to pin me with an alpha-male stare down. But I wasn’t budging. “If someone, including you,” I pointed to Jason, “has a better idea, I’d love to hear it.” I nodded toward the house. “You call the cops at,” I looked at my watch, “5:45 in the morning because you want to get them gone before Monica wakes up?”
“No,” Jason rolled his eyes like a petulant teenager, “if I waited until noon to call them, don’t you think that’d be a red flag?”
“The fire still being hot from the party we had last night is a red flag.” I was beginning to come unhinged. We didn’t have time to argue. “Do you have a better plan?”
Jason uncrossed his arms. “I’ll play along Mikey. But after this is over, don’t come back here. Come on Stevie, lets get Mikey here some tooth paste.”
“You don’t have to worry about that.” Jason was lucky that my loyalty to Kenny and Steven overrode my anger. If I could be certain that Jason, and not Kenny, would get clapped for burning the car, I would sell that old fucker down the river. Monica and the kids would probably be better off. “Kenny,” back to the plan, “I want you to move the cars around. Sports cars go in the front. Use the other cars to block them in. We need to create a reason for our thief to steal the van. So we need to make the sports cars harder to steal. Got me?” I tossed him my keys. Daniel did the same.
“Dan, you and I are going to come up with a story that makes this all logical. And we are all going to tell the same story.” I ran to my car and grabbed a notebook and pen from the back seat.
Dan and I hammered out the details of the night in writing. Dan spoke to what happened, and I repackaged events into something between the truth and a lie. We would admit to drinking the night before. We would make sure and mention that it was Daniel’s birthday. But we would claim that we passed out early. Jason would say that he went in because he had little kids and would need to be up early with them in the morning. Everyone would say that I passed out early (which was true, but also had the benefit of giving me plausible deniability if this whole thing went sideways). The van was the last car in the driveway because Jason ran out to buy food for us late in the evening, and we didn’t hear the van start because it was so far from the house. When I was convinced that every detail had been accounted for, I called everyone over and read it to them twice.
Jason scratched his head, “well damn, that’s a pretty good cover.”
“Yep.” I growled. I couldn’t believe this prick got us into this mess. I quizzed everyone on the details of the story over and over again until a pair of state troopers pulled into the driveway. One was male, the other female. They were both wearing mirrored sunglasses, despite the fact that we were very much still in the dawn.
“Good morning.” The female officer was the first to speak. The male officer simply waved as he followed his partner. “I’m officer Jenison,” the lady officer was carrying a clip board. “This is officer Miller. Who is the home owner?”
“That’d be me.” Jason stepped forward and wiped his hand on his pant leg before offering it to Jenison.
“How do you know these gentlemen?”
“Well, this one is my nephew through marriage. The rest are his friends. Known all of them but these two,” he pointed to Del and Grey, “for years. Since they were young uns.”
“Uh huh,” she nodded and wrote on the clipboard she’d carried from the car. It was one of those steel clam shell ones. The kind that only police officers, FBI agents, and high school principals seem to carry. The kind that could double as a weapon.
“You know,” Jason cleared his throat, “I don’t know as I ever seen a cop as beautiful as you.”
I let out an audible groan. I couldn’t believe Jason’s inability to take this whole mess seriously. He had committed a serious crime, probably a felony. And he dragged Steven and Kenny along with him, and now he was hitting on the investigating officer. She was beautiful, but Jason was short and had a beer belly. He losing his hair and his teeth. Besides that, his fucking car was supposed to have just been stolen. He should be figuring out how he’s going to get to work on Monday, not hitting on the state trooper.
Officer Jenisen giggled like a preteen school girl. Her posture seemed immediately less guarded. I couldn’t believe that worked. “So your van was stolen, Mister Blevins.”
“Yes ma’am, it was.” Jason pointed to where the van’s tire indents could still be seen in the yard.
“And none of you saw anything?”
We all shook our heads. Jason answered for us. “Woke up this morning, and it was gone.”
“Ok,” the cop shook her head and sighed. “Let’s start taking statements. Who wants to go first?”
Over the course of an hour everyone copied from memory the statement that I prepared. The troopers went back and sat in their car, while we each took turns with the clip board. They seemed to have no interest in actually finding the van. There was no sense of urgency and no curiosity on their part. After we each finished writing, Jason walked over to where the officers sat in the cruiser. They exchanged some pleasantries, and then the cruiser was gone.
“What did they say?” I asked as we waited for baited breath.
“Well, they looked up my insurance information over there on the computer, and they notified the insurance company. Supposedly they don’t really investigate this kinda thing. If the van turns up, it turns up, but it ain’t like a murder where they have meetings and make a bulletin board and shit like they have on TV. Said it was probably a bunch of joyriders. Said they’d probably dump the car when it ran out of gas. They’d call me when it turned up.”
“Well, it won’t take em long to find it. I left it near the walking trail along the river.”
“She said that the insurance company would be the one doin’ the investigation. Not them.”
“Ok, so what happens if the insurance company figures it out?”
“I’m guessin’ they’ll clap these two for insurance fraud.” Jason pointed to Steven and Kenny. Kenny looked like he was about to be sick.
“If they figure out it was me, I’ll tell them you got us all drunk and high and put us up to it.” Kenny replied.
“Uh huh.” Jason nodded. “And if I find out you told them anything, I’ll cut your girlfriend’s fuckin’ brake lines.”
Kenny closed the gap between he and Jason much faster than I would’ve expected. He and Jason had an inch between the points of their noses. Kenny had to stoop to be eye level with Jason. Jason took a step back and raised his hands. “Look fellas, it’s been a long night. Why don’t we just all go in and get some sleep.”
“I’m good.” I twirled my keys on my finger. “I can’t get out of here soon enough. Grey, think you could move your all’s car?”
Grey nodded but Del spoke, “we’re leavin’ too. We’ll sleep at home.”
I turned to go without a word to anyone else. I climbed in the car and was glad that it rumbled to life. I turned the radio up loud to drown out my panicked thoughts the entire drive home from Pennsylvania.
The following week was uneventful. It was easy to forget about what Kenny and Steven had done, but there was always the hint of danger just out of sight. The sword of Damacles was hanging by that single hair. Steven called to check in every day to ask if I’d heard anything, but I hadn’t.
Until a voicemail appeared on my phone. “Mr. Dugan, my name is Lee Decker. I’m an investigator with Argonaut Insurance, and I’m calling related to the stolen van in Pennsylvania. Please give me a call back.”
My heart pounded in my chest. I weighed my options. If I waited too long to call him back, if I called the other guys to see what they knew or what they said, then it might make him suspicious if he found out. If I called him right back and he had already spoken to Steven or Kenny, or anyone else, and my story didn’t match theirs, then that would make him suspicious. I took a couple deep breaths, went downstairs and got myself a glass of water, my mouth always got dry when I was nervous, and I made the phone call.
“Lee Decker,” He answered the phone in the middle of the first ring.
“Mr. Decker, this is Robert Dugan, returning your call.” Being a voracious reader gave me different modes of speaking. I could sound professional, casual, or academic, depending on my company. My voice was indistinguishable from my father’s, so most people who didn’t know me thought I was much older than seventeen.
“Yes.” There was a long pause, and I heard papers being shuffled and tossed around on the other end of the phone. “I just wanted to call and let you know that the van was found.”
“That’s wonderful, I’m sure Jason will be glad to get it back.” I played dumb, but I’m sure I wasn’t fooling anyone.
“Well,” Decker laughed, “I’m not sure he’ll be glad to get it.”
“Someone torched it.”
I let a long pause linger. “Torched it? I’m sorry sir, I’m not sure what you mean.”
Decker sighed into the phone, “Someone set it on fire, son.”
Another long pause, “why would someone do that?”
“Well, that’s what I’m hoping to find out.”
“Well, I hope you get whoever did it. Jason depends on that van to haul his kids around and get back and forth to work. He doesn’t have the money to replace it.”
“Uh huh. Did you see anything out of place that night?”
“No sir.” I replied simply, then added, “nothing stands out.”
“Ok. Well, some of the others reported seeing the same car drive by several times the night of your friend’s party.”
“They did?” I pretended to think for a moment. “I didn’t see anything. That must’ve been after I went to bed.”
“Would you mind telling me you remember of that night?” Decker asked.
“Do you have access to the written report that was taken the following morning?” I replied.
“I’d like you to tell me again.”
“I’d like you to tell me if you have access to the police reports that we filed the morning after the van was stolen.”
“Ok. Well, if you have access to the reports, then you know what happened. Forgive me sir, but I don’t think my memory would be improved by the passage of a week. That report was taken the morning after the van was stolen. I was very careful to be as thorough as possible for the benefit of any investigation. Nothing I can tell you or say today, again, after the passage of a week, can improve that original report.”
“The car that was scoping out the property was not in any of the original reports.”
“I have no memory of a car. You will note in the original reports that I went to bed far earlier than my friends. That should serve as an adequate explanation.”
This time Decker left me hanging with a long pause. More papers shuffled on the other end of the phone.
“Thank you for your time Mister Dugan. I believe that’s all I need right now.”
“Feel free to call me if you should need any further assistance in your investigation Mister Decker.”
“And you feel free to call me if you remember anything new.”
“I will.” I hung up the phone and let out a deep exhale. I was suddenly short of breath. It was as if I’d just realized that I was holding my breath. I set to calling the others.
We planned to meet at Del and Grey’s trailer to put our heads together and share information. I hadn’t been to Del and Grey’s trailer for quite a while. I was curious about the conditions there, but I was dreading what I would find. I picked Steven up on the way. He was agitated to the point of incoherence.
“So you got a call too huh?” I asked.
“Yeah.” Steven was equal parts animated and solemn. He shifted around in his seat constantly. But his face was drawn and tired. “Yeah,” he said again, “I got a call.”
“I’ll talk about it when we get to Del and Gray’s. I don’t wanna have to go over it twice.”
The trailer hadn’t been improved at all since my last visit. The front yard had turned to mud and shale. There were broken ceramic tiles arranged in a makeshift walkway from the driveway to the door. The foundation was still bare cinder block covered with a tattered and brittle blue tarp. “What a shit hole.” Steven commented as we danced across the tiles to the front door.
I walked in without knocking. Daniel was sprawled on the couch against the back wall watching TV. A cigarette dangled from his fingers. Del and Grey sat across from each other at a card table in the kitchen. A kerosene heater glowed in the corner.
Daniel sat up when we walked in. “Kenny isn’t coming.”
I flopped down in a half-broken wooden chair near the door. Steven sat on the couch. I pulled out a cigarette and twirled it in my fingers a bit before lighting it. I pulled the ashtray on the coffee table close. “I’d like to say I’m surprised.”
“So what does everyone know?” Daniel asked.
“Well, a private investigator from the insurance company called me. I told him a bunch of bullshit about how I hope he gets the person who set the van on fire. Played dumb. Played like I was just some confused teenage kid. I figure we give him what he wants, a bunch of stupid teenagers.”
“Well, we are aren’t we.”
“Some of us are.” Daniel glared at Steven.
I slouched in the chair and took a pull off my cigarette. I could feel the weight pressing on my shoulders. “What were you guys thinking, Stevie?”
Steven took a deep breath and hung his head for a moment. “I wasn’t thinking. I don’t know man. I was really fucked up on a whole bunch of shit.”
“What’s a whole bunch of shit?” I asked.
Del and Grey’s heads suddenly lifted from the card table. They were paying attention now.
“I took some pill that Daniel gave me during the party.” Steven admitted in the voice of an embarrassed child.
“You gave Steven pills?” I was having trouble processing this. I knew that Daniel, Del, and Grey were on pills. I’d suspected it for a long time. Daniel never hosted parties anymore. He’d dropped a pile of weight in the last few months. It’s crazy how a person can simultaneously know and not know. I knew Daniel was on pills, but I was still shocked when it was articulated. Speaking the demon’s name made it real, brought it into existence.
Del, Grey, and Daniel sat silent, waiting for my reaction. “I knew you all were on pills.” I took another long drag. “It’s not hard to see. And it’s not my business.”
Perhaps in that moment, I should’ve been a better friend. But in reality, there was nothing I could’ve done to change the course of events. If, for Daniel, the choice was between addiction or friendship, I have no doubt addiction would be the clear winner. Daniel’s addictions would be his to own and to grapple with. I would continue to be his friend until he gave me a reason not to. Daniel would need a friend who wasn’t on pills if he would ever overcome them. And besides, we had to work together if we were going to get rid of Decker. “Right now my only worry is this thing with the van.”
Daniel seemed surprised by my easy acceptance. I don’t know why he sought it to begin with. I was always Daniel’s tagalong. When we were kids, he gave me hand-me-downs out of pity. But quietly, he nodded, thanking me for my indifference.
“Well, he hasn’t called me yet.” Daniel shifted his weight. “But he has been asking around town about us.”
“How do you know that? Asking around town?”
“Yea, he’s got photos of us somehow, and he’s going around town asking people about us.”
“Probably our drivers license photos. What’s he asking people?”
“Well, I got a call from some friends of ours who live near the 7/11.”
“Uh huh,” drug dealers, I thought to myself.
“He was asking them about you specifically.” Daniel motioned to me. “Guess your whole playing dumb thing didn’t throw him off the trail.”
“What the fuck. What’s he asking about me for? I had less than nothing to do with this whole cluster fuck.”
Steven laughed, “you mean apart from writing the entire cover story and engineering the clean up? Like it or not Mikey, you’re part of this.”
“Well what did your friends,” I used air quotes, “tell Decker?”
“They asked him who he was, he told them. Then they told him to fuck off.”
“Ha,” I laughed, “that’s one reason to love the hollow.” It was and still is true. West Virginians are tribal. They hate outsiders, and they can smell one a mile away. Decker’s not having an accent probably didn’t help him out any.
“Yep, we don’t have to worry about anyone in town giving up anything.”
I turned to Stevie, “Well, Stevie, you got a call too, right?”
“He did worse than that. He showed up at the house. I saw a car circling around. Same car, and you guys know how I live way back at the end of the road. No one comes down my way on accident. Can I have one of those?” Steven pointed to a pack of cigarettes on the table.
“Sure.” Daniel took a cigarette from the pack and handed it over.
Steven took a drag and shoot his shoulders, trying to loosen up. “Thank God my mom wasn’t there. Have you all told your parents about this?”
Daniel nodded, “Monica told my mom. She called me and asked about it. Not much more than that.”
“I haven’t. Didn’t think I needed to, but I will as soon as I can.” I replied. “I didn’t think this guy would show up here. Christ, the van wasn’t worth that much money. They gotta be paying this guy more than the van’s worth. It’d be cheaper to cut a check wouldn’t it?”
“Not if word gets out you can just torch your shit and get outta payin’ for it.” Daniel noted plainly.
“True.” I agreed.
“So the guy, Decker,” Steven continues, “he knocks on the door. Starts asking a whole bunch of questions. Starts saying he knows what really happened, and I better tell him. It’ll go easier if I tell him. So I ask him to tell me what happened, and I’ll let him know if he’s got it right.”
“He really does think we’re stupid doesn’t he?”
“He must. He doesn’t tell me what he knows of course. He just tells me I have a week to think about it.”
“When’s the week over?”
“Day after tomorrow.”
Del spoke up from the card table, “that means he doesn’t know anything he can prove. He needs to flip someone.”
“Yep,” Grey agreed. “Might be why Kenny ain’t here.”
“You guys really think he got to Kenny?”
“That’s the play isn’t it?” I crushed my cigarette and lit another. “Make us all suspicious of one another. Make us all think the others are lying. Tell us they’ll go easier on the one that cooperates. We gotta stick together here. If we don’t tell him shit, then none of us will have to worry about anything.”
“The real fucked up thing is that this happened to begin with.” Steven’s speech was quick and panicked. “Jason got us drunk and put ideas in our heads. Now we got an investigator snooping around.”
“You all did it. Jason didn’t make you do anything.” Daniel defended his Uncle.
“Easy for you to say Daniel. Decker’s not showing up at your house.” Steven’s temper was starting to flare.
“He might be showing up at your house because he knows you did it.”
“Goddamnit,” I pointed at each of them, “this bullshit isn’t helpful.” I stood and paced across the floor. “First, Daniel, don’t you feel some responsibility that your uncle laid a sob story on your best fucking friends and now they’re having to deal with this bullshit? Like it or not, you have a role to play in this. You lied to the cops just like I did. Just like Steven and Kenny did. I mean, I can’t believe you’d sit here and defend that piece of shit. If we get rolled up in this, I will make sure you do. Do you hear me?” I felt my face warm and turn red. “And you,” I pointed to Steven, “you’re gonna keep your mouth shut. Decker doesn’t know anything, and he’s not gonna find out anything.” I turned again to Dan, “can you get Kenny on the phone?”
Daniel flipped open his phone and set it on the table. The speaker began ringing, “hello?”
“Hey Kenny, can you talk a minute.”
“I don’t want nothing to do with this anymore.”
“Kenny.” I sighed, “you burned a fucking van to the ground. You. You did that. You lit the match.” There was silence on the other end of the line. “So can you talk or not?”
“Good. Have you heard from Decker, the insurance investigator?”
“I haven’t called him back. He’s been lookin’ for me in town. I heard from our neighbors he was tryin’ to find out where I live.”
“Your neighbors tell him anything?”
Kenny laughed, “Course not. Some guy walkin’ around in a suit askin’ questions. What a joke.”
“Alright, so here’s what we’re gonna do. We’re all gonna call him. I still got the notebook paper with the statement we wrote. I’ll copy it down at the library and bring everyone a copy. You stick to that fuckin’ statement. All of you. Don’t make up shit. Don’t add things. You tell the story in that statement to everyone you know. Talk about it like you would if the van were actually stolen. Get other people to tell the story for you, then they’ll tell it to Decker and he’ll go away. Sound good Ken?”
“Yeah, Mike. I’ll do it.” Kenny sounded defeated. Somehow the tinny speaker of the phone conveyed the fatigue, sadness, and betrayal that we all felt.