This was going to be the plan:
Wait in the parking lot of the gun club until he turns from Germantown Pike onto Preble County Line Road. Pull out after him, run him into the ditch, drag him out of his truck. Put a bullet in his brain.
There were other details: how to dispose of the gun, how to trick out the scene to make it look like a robbery. But that was the essence of it: dark road, ditch, bullet. A good plan, everyone said. Simple.
I wasn’t going to argue. It was my plan.
The plan was founded on two facts and one piece of dumb luck.
The facts were: 1) he was working 12-hour shifts at a job site eighty-five miles from home and always returned well after dark on a seldom-traveled country road; and 2) he was a drunk and a speed freak. It was a good bet he’d be riding the tail end of a methamphetamine high but would have taken the edge off on the way home with three or four shots at this bar he liked on Route 35 near Eaton. Those were the facts, but by themselves wouldn’t have led to much of anything.
But lucky me, I found a half-rusted .38 on a rocky island below the railroad bridge over Twin Creek just south of Germantown. Two of the six chambers had expended shells in them, but four bullets remained. More than enough, even after I test-fired the gun into the water at the upstream end of the island. Rusty, but functional.
A couple of friends were going to help. They knew him, knew what he was capable of. But they didn’t need a reason beyond the fact they were my friends. And maybe they were excited I’d hatched a plot that would be exciting and dangerous, something they wanted to be a part of even if they didn’t really understand what they were signing up for. Dark road, ditch, bullet in the brain.
Amazing, really, the things dumbass teenaged boys will agree to.
The man’s name was Ed, and he was my step-father. His offenses were so common, so banal, as to be barely worth a mention. In the long annals of boys with step-fathers, my own experiences would barely rise to the level of the merely typical. Sure, he was violent and abusive, and sure it got worse as time passed and he worked longer hours and drank more and more. Once he started using meth he got so volatile and unpredictable I kept a baseball bat next to my bed at night. If he was in the house, I came and went through my bedroom window.
But I don’t offer these details as some kind of justification for my plan. They were just part of my decision-making process, part of how I rationalized my plan. But they didn’t make it okay.
Because here is something else about him. The summer between tenth and eleventh grade I got sick and spent most of the summer in the hospital. Some difficult to diagnose fungal infection. Ed came to see me more than anyone except my mother, and a couple times a week throughout the summer he brought me grocery bags filled with comic books and Playboy magazines. When my doctor objected to the magazines, Ed told him to mind his own business. Nothing wrong with a boy looking at some nudie pics, he said, especially one who’d been stuck in the hospital all summer long.
The night came and my friends and I got into position. I was in the back seat of the car, two friends up front. Ed appeared on Germantown Road a little before ten, a lone pickup on a dark road. He didn’t quite stop at Preble County Line Road, but he wasn’t going fast when we pulled out behind him. He weaved back and forth for a quarter mile or so, then just as we were about to run up beside him he veered into the ditch all on his own.
We stopped and I jumped out the car. I don’t remember what I felt. I know I was scared because that’s the way I’ve always remembered it, but the sensation of that fear is long lost to me. I remember hesitating out there on the empty road and my friend urging me on from inside the car. "Go on, man. Go on." I remember thinking my plan was stupid, but finally I went up to the driver’s side of the truck and pulled the door open. Ed was sitting there with his hands in his lap and he looked up when the dome light came on.
I usually avoided him when he was stoned, and never made eye contact with him, but that night I looked right at him. His pupils were black and as big as nickels. I didn’t think he recognized me. But then,
"Bill," he said. Just that.
Then he puked on himself.
He started to slide sideways out of the seat and I reached out, held him up. One of the guys in the car asked me what was happening and I told him Ed had thrown up. "You’re not going to do it?" Something like that. I just said, "Help me move him." We pushed Ed to the side and then spent twenty minutes or so getting the truck out of the ditch, rocking and revving until the tires bit. My friends took off and I drove the truck home, managed to drag Ed into the house and left him on the living room floor.
The next day I put the gun in a shoebox and took it the Germantown police station. Told them where I’d found it, but didn’t mention anything about firing it, and certainly nothing about the plan. They didn’t seem to care, but they took the box and I never heard anything else about it.
A few months later, my mother crossed that boundary in her mind or heart that had kept her there with Ed through so much. They got divorced and that was that. Ed was out of our lives. Twenty-eight years ago.
Recently I was chatting with a critique partner who’d just read a draft chapter from the novel I’m working on right now. "Where the fuck does this stuff come from anyway?" He was laughing as he asked, but I think it’s a fair question. Where does this stuff come from, whatever this stuff is for each of us? What’s our back story, and how does it influence the nature of the stories we put down on the page?
I don’t know why others write crime fiction. I only know that for me, the stories I write are, among other things—many, many other things—an attempt to answer this question: Who would I be now if I’d made a different choice that night on Preble County Line Road?
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