The crunching of leaves underfoot was one of Josiah’s favorite sounds. Along with the bird calls and the wind blowing through the trees, the sound meant he was where he wished he could spend all his time—the woods. He felt most at peace when he was walking under the trees.
Peace was what he wanted more than anything. His mother seemed to think he was restless and needed to find a good girl and settle down to start a family. It wasn’t that Josiah didn’t want that . . . because he did. It was that he didn’t feel ready for it. There was something inside of him that constantly raged—an unrest that he could only shake when he took solace in the comfort of nature.
He had grown up in these woods surrounding his parents’ farm. He had spent his entire childhood roaming through the trees with Carter and Abigail. They had built forts, played in the creek, caught hundreds of crawdads, and lived a million kid adventures. His first dog, Bowser, was buried beneath his favorite oak tree. His sister’s cat rested nearby. The first time he ever kissed a girl, he had leaned against the tree he eventually carved their initials into.
Josiah and Carter had climbed all over “their” mountain, hunting deer and squirrel and ginseng. There was nothing quite like being the only human for miles, and knowing you were alone with yourself and your thoughts. Lately, his brother’s girlfriend had taken most of his time, so Josiah hadn’t been spending as much time with him. Since Carter was his best friend, this meant Josiah was alone more often than not, which, in turn, meant he spent more and more time walking the woods, Crocket at his heels. He spent a lot of time hunting, but, today, he was just walking, trying to find some peace.
He was stumble-sliding his way down the ridge when he heard his name being shouted through the trees. At first, he thought it was his mother, but, when he got to the bottom, he realized it was his sister.
“There you are!” Abigail called to her brother. “I’ve been hollering for you for half an hour. Mom said you were close.”
“I was up on the ridge,” Josiah replied.
“What were you doing up there?”
“Crocket wanted to have a looksee,” Josiah said as he pulled a can of Skoal from his back pocket. “What’d ya want?”
Abigail leaned her back against a big white oak, and said, “I just wanted to talk to you.”
“Why ya wanna talk about that piece of trash?” Josiah pressed a pinch of tobacco between his lip and gum. “He back in town?”
Abigail shook her head, crossing her arms over her stomach.
“Well,” Josiah squatted down, sitting on his boot heels, “what is it?”
“Good,” Josiah answered.
Months before, Abigail had come to Josiah and Carter and told them Nathan Bates had inappropriately touched her daughter. Her brothers promised to take care of it. After Nathan left the hospital with myriad injuries, including a broken jaw that had been wired shut, he left town and hadn’t been seen since.
“We messed up, Joe.” Abigail’s voice trembled with emotion.
“Whadaya mean?” Josiah squinted up at her. “He got a beat-down and left town. Sounds like we had a problem and we took care of it.”
“He died in jail.”
“Good,” Josiah repeated his earlier sentiment.
“He was there for touching somebody else’s kid,” Abigail’s voice cracked. “They kept him out of general population, but he hung himself from the doorknob with his pants.” Abigail shuddered.
Josiah’s gut clenched as he muttered, “Sounds like he did the world a favor.”
“Josiah!” Abigail stared hard at her brother, her eyes wide in her pale face. “Are you hearing me? He touched someone else’s kid. Because he was out there free because we didn’t say anything about what he did to Emma.”
Josiah stood up and walked a few steps away, reaching down to scratch Crocket’s head. He didn’t need his sister to break it down for him. He wasn’t stupid. They had messed up. They should have gone to the police and reported what had happened. Instead, Josiah had beaten the ever-loving crap out of that dirtbag and let him limp away with no one the wiser.
“How bad?” he asked.
“How bad what?”
“How bad was what he did to the other kid?”
Abigail sighed as a tear slipped down her cheek, “I don’t know, Joe. Jonathan said he heard the mom walked in before too much happened. She called the police, and they arrested him. He killed himself the same night.”
“Why’d you have to tell me this?” Josiah spat on the ground and turned away from his sister. “I don’t want to know this.”
“Because it’s killing me,” Abigail cried. “All I was thinking about was Emma and making him pay for hurting her. I wasn’t thinking past that.”
“Me, neither,” he muttered. Straightening his back, he walked back toward his sister and said, “Nothing we can do about it now, Abby. What’s done is done. We just got to live with it.”
Josiah sat slumped in his worn recliner, facing the television blaring incomprehensible noise at him. His glazed eyes stared at the screen, but he could only see Nathan Bates’ battered face in his mind. Josiah had beaten the man to a pulp. He had hit him over and over until the skin across his knuckles broke open and Carter took over. He had relished the crack of bone when he buried his boot in Nathan’s side. He wanted to kill him. If Carter hadn’t stopped him, maybe he would have. The fury inside of him had washed over his brain like an anesthetic as he beat the man who hurt his niece. When it was over, they walked away, leaving the groaning man to get up and get help on his own or lie there and rot.
Josiah lifted the fourth can of the night to his lips and swallowed the bitter liquid. He wasn’t sure if he was more upset that he had beaten Nathan instead of reporting him or because he had stopped beating him and walked away.
Cracking open his fifth beer, Josiah tilted back his head and tried to drown the raging ache inside of him.
Rachel Holbrook writes from her home in Knoxville, TN. She is the author of the syndicated serial, Little River, Volumes 1 & 2. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in Burningword Literary Journal, *82 Review, Ink in Thirds, Akitsu Quarterly, The Avalon Literary Review, The Society of Classical Poets, and various other literary journals. She recently won an Honorable Mention for her short story “A Slow Burn” at the Sigma Tau Delta International English Honor Society’s annual convention. She also received the Springs of Helicon Award for Poetry, awarded by Tennessee Wesleyan University. When she’s not writing, she enjoys going on literal and literary adventures with her husband and six children.