Josiah considered staying quiet. He had heard the tires crunching the gravel in his driveway, and he heard the knock on his front door. He wasn’t in the mood for company. He thought it was probably his mom checking on him until he heard the unmistakable voice of Ezra Shepherd calling out.
“Out back,” Josiah finally called. He didn’t feel like talking, but Ezra had been too good to him through the years for him to ignore him.
It didn’t take long for the older man to find his way around to the back of the little, brick house Josiah had inherited from his grandparents. He started to get up from the back porch steps where he had been sitting for the better part of an hour but Ezra motioned for him to stay seated.
“Keep your seat.” Ezra pulled an old lawn chair from beside the porch into the patch of sunlight in front of Josiah and sat down.
“How’ve you been?” Josiah tried to be polite.
“Better than you, from what I’ve heard.” Ezra’s kind eyes crinkled in the corners when he smiled.
“You been talking to Mama?”
“Yeah.” Ezra nodded, scratching his neck at the edge of his gray beard. “Ran into her at the diner. She asked me to come out and check on you. Said you’ve been having some troubles with drink.”
Josiah jerked his head up to look at his friend. “She said that?”
Ezra nodded, but didn’t say anything.
Josiah let his head drop down to study the toes of his boots. “I quit drinking.”
“You did?” Ezra sounded surprised, but not unbelieving.
“I killed my dog,” Josiah sounded tired, his voice threadbare. “I figured I better stop.”
“You killed Crocket?” Ezra asked, his bewilderment evident in his voice. “Why?”
“I was hungover and driving too fast,” Josiah quietly explained. “Hit a deer and went off the road. The impact broke his neck.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“He was my best friend.” Josiah fought the tears scalding the back of his eyeballs. “I never loved an animal like I loved that dog.” Josiah’s jaw clenched and unclenched as he worked to keep his emotions under control. Finally, he said, “I don’t know why I was driving so damn fast. I guess I was angry.”
“Angry at what?”
“Myself, I guess.”
“I don’t know.” Josiah clasped his hands together between his knees, his head still sunk in defeat. He felt so much shame over killing Crocket he could barely look anyone in the eye.
“Did something happen?” Ezra coaxed information out of the younger man the same way he had done in Scouts when something was bothering one of his boys.
“I slept with my buddy’s little sister.” Josiah’s head dropped even lower. “I don’t even remember it. I was drunk. I’ve been drinking too much lately.”
“How come?” Ezra asked again.
Josiah shrugged. “It relaxes me. Helps me forget things I don’t want to think about.”
Josiah finally lifted his eyes to study the other man’s face, but didn’t speak.
“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”
Josiah let a couple minutes go by before saying, “I made a mistake. I tried to take care of something for my sister, and it didn’t work out the way I thought it would. I mean, it did for a while, but then someone got hurt. A kid.”
“Okay.” Ezra was obviously puzzled by Josiah’s vague explanation.
“I don’t want to talk about it more than that,” Josiah said softly.
“The kid’s okay and it won’t happen again. What I did wasn’t legal, though, and I don’t want to drag you into it.”
“Okay,” Ezra said again.
“I guess I just feel bad.” Josiah sighed at the enormity of the understatement of his words. “I screwed up, Man. I wish I could go back and do things different.”
“We all feel like that sometimes.” Ezra leaned forward in earnestness. “We can let it eat us up from the inside out if we’re not careful. We can let regret consume us, but that’s no way to live. I think you’ve learned that.”
“Whatever you did, you have to let go of it and move on.” Ezra reached out and grasped Josiah’s knee. “You can’t change it. You can’t drink it away. You just have to make peace with yourself and move on. Don’t make the same mistakes again. That’s all any of us can do when we mess up.”
“But how do you live with yourself?” Josiah’s voice was raw with pain. “That’s my problem. I just can’t live with myself. I’m okay when I’m at the farm working, but when I get home, I just can’t deal with it. Drinking is the only thing that calms me down.”
“You already know what I’m going to say,” Ezra smiled.
“And you already know what I’m going to say,” Josiah let a weak smile creep across his face.
“We’ve been having this conversation since you were a kid, Josiah.”
“I know. Religion’s just not my thing.” Josiah stretched his back and squinted in the sunlight. “I’d rather be in the woods than in church.”
“I’m not talking about religion,” Ezra protested. “I’m talking about Jesus. Church isn’t the only place to find him. He likes the woods, too.”
“How do you know?” Josiah raised one eyebrow.
“Why do you think I spend so much time in the woods?” Ezra chuckled. “I’m a terrible hunter.”
“You’re just hanging out in the woods with Jesus?”
Ezra laughed again and nodded. “I find it’s easier to hear him out there without all the distractions.”
“He doesn’t talk to me out there,” Josiah said. “But, then again, I’m not a terrible hunter.”
“No,” Ezra smiled, “but you’ve been known to be a terrible listener now and again.”
“Not gonna argue with that.”
“Well, listen to a man who knows,” Ezra leaned forward again, searching Josiah’s face for understanding, “there’s peace to be had, but I only know one way to find it.”
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.