A Therapeutic Death
A Therapeutic Death, J.B. Stevens’s collection of short crime stories, is an outstanding volume. Stevens blends mystery, comedy, true crime, and noir masterfully. Furthermore, he mixes micro-fiction with longer works in an uncommonly skillful manner.
The volume opens with “To Keep A Secret,” an Appalachian noir piece. It is reminiscent of the best David Joy work. The story tells of two veterans coming to terms with their mistakes, a decade after their time in Iraq. The ending is heartbreaking in its inevitable climax.
Collection, Crime, Humor, Military
$12.95 – $3.99
To Keep a Secret
By J.B. Stevens
Keith met Barry at the Waffle House near Cherokee, in Western North Carolina’s Appalachian high-country. Inside, it smelled of frying bacon and Clapton’s “River of Tears” played from hidden speakers. The two men hugged, sat, and ordered from a fleshy waitress with nicotine stained fingers.
After she left, Barry talked. “Think any more about my plan?”
“It’s not the right move,” Keith said. “We aren’t drug dealers.”
“You owe me,” Barry said.
“And how many times do I have to pay?”
Barry coughed. “As many as it fucking takes.”
“I’m not a dealer.”
“I’m not either. I just need money. You know what I’m doing for cash. I don’t even like men. I hate myself.”
Keith sipped the coffee—grounds assaulted his mouth. “Grow up. We all hate ourselves. Some of us are just better actors.”
“Help me with this one sale,” Barry said.
“I can’t,” Keith said. “I’m a father. A legitimate businessman.”
The waitress returned with food. Barry bit the waffle. Syrup dripped in dense brown globs. “Father? Like you spend any time with your kid. You’re a horrible dad.”
Keith let the barb slide. “I feel like I’m paying for your drug habit. We need to get you off the smack.”
Barry looked up from the food. “Get off? I’m never getting off. I can’t let that shit come back into my mind. Fuck you for being so… normal. I can’t just forget.”
“I never forgot anything,” Keith said.
“What you did,” Barry said. “What I helped you do. That’s international front-page shit. One call to CID and you’re in Leavenworth for war-crimes.”
Keith breathed deep, like the VA yoga teacher had taught him. Keith’s mind skipped back. He felt the blood, sticky on his hands, and he heard the call-to-prayer, and he smelled the dust… He shoved the memory down and away. “It’s just…“
Barry frowned. “What?”
“You’re a junkie,” Keith said.
“I want to support you, not sell drugs.”
“I got problems and need money.” Barry started crying.
“PTSD is real. You’re the victim.” A good lie, Keith almost believed it.
“Damn straight,” Barry said.
“We’ll get you right,” Keith said. “You were with me then. I’m with you now.”
“With you? I was following you. You were my officer and I saw what you did.”
“A decade ago. Maybe it’s time to move on?”
Keith’s chest ached. Barry was the best of them. A pure soul. And the war had taken that purity and soiled it and it was gone forever. “Here’s the deal,” Keith said. “I bought you a thick-as-hell coat.” He touched the package next to him in the booth.
“I’m getting you a room at the motel, tomorrow,” Keith said.
Barry grunted. “Why tomorrow?”
“I need time to get cash from my safe. I can’t get a motel room with my credit card.”
“So my ex doesn’t see the credit-card statement at the next alimony hearing and think I’m screwing whores in motel rooms.”
Barry grinned. “Fucking whores in motel rooms… again.”
“Touché,” Keith said.
“Whatever. And after the hotel?”
“Get you in rehab. You kick the junk and you’re on with my landscaping crew.”
“I should be leading them, not on the squad,” Barry said. “You owe me. My silence is your entire life.”
“That’s why I’m hooking you up,” Keith said. “My everything depends on your silence.”
“You better not forget that.”
“The motel’s near the lake. Meet me by the Cheoah Dam. Tomorrow. Two.”
“That’s in the middle of nowhere,” Barry said.
“I don’t want my ex, or her people, seeing us,” Keith said. “They’re up and down those hollers.”
“The hell am I supposed to do tonight?”
“That’s why I got this coat, to take care of you.” Keith held out the jacket.
It was nice. Notch lapels, navy-blue, a touch of cashmere in the blend. Keith had bought it at some cheesy surplus store with “Fortunate Son” playing on repeat. The place was full of rednecks lying about their time in the shit. They all wanted to play tough guy. The real tough guys didn’t have anything left to prove.
Barry stood. Keith followed. He ushered Barry into the deep-blue embrace. It flowed and rippled down his reedy frame. The coat would take care of Barry. The coat would fix things. The coat was true.
Barry smiled. He ran his hands down the sleeves. “Thanks, brother.”
They hugged. Barry felt like a deflated football with sticks inside. Heroin was evil.
Barry needed peace. Keith needed to end the torment.
The coat was the best way to help.
The next morning, at the dam, Keith looked out over the concrete, waiting for his friend. Keith stood against a low wall—a foot away from the edge. The river thundered behind him like a kid’s nightmare-monster.
Barry walked out of the forest, looking strung-out, a meth-head John Rambo. Barry smiled and spoke. “We good?”
“Will be,” Keith said. He waved Barry over.
Barry came. Keith didn’t move.
Keith turned and pushed.
Barry fell and screamed and banged into the river. The splash echoed. The nightmare monster grabbed Barry and the rapids covered his head and the yelling stopped and it was calm.
The coat made swimming impossible. The coat did its job.
Keith thought of that kid bleeding out in the Baghdad sand. Barry had died that day, he just didn’t realize it… Death took a while to catch up.
Barry never had a chance.
Keith dropped the yuppie-special fly-fishing-rod he’d stolen from the Asheville prick that turned Barry out. Barry’s Asheville sugar-daddy.
When the Sheriff found the clues, it’d all be clear.
Western North Carolina had so many drownings… Keith wondered if anyone would even care. Barry was just another white-trash junkie vet from the holler, drowned in the middle of nowhere, strung out and alone.
Relief surged. Keith knew he’d done the right thing. It was time to get home. It was his weekend with the kid.
Keith turned and walked away.