THE PROPERTY AT 6630 23½ MILE ROAD
by Robert James Russell
They came in the night for Lee Cabell’s things—two men, August and John, sent to take back what the old man could no longer afford. They had parked a quarter mile down 23½ Mile Road just after midnight, could just make out the farmhouse silhouetted against the dark sky and flanked by moonlit swatches of chapped and scarred fields that went on for acres and acres before butting up against great spans of maple and beech and basswood.
Issue #107 soundtrack: Thin Lear "Second Nature"
August sat perched at the driver’s side of the rental sedan with the night-vision binoculars affixed to his face, alternately watching the house and the road headed east. “What time is it?” he asked after a long silence between them.
“Look at the dash,” John said flipping through printouts provided by the bank illuminated by a penlight wedged behind his ear. “It’s right there.”
August scanned the house again, then the distance between them and it. “Can’t. Don’t want to miss anything.”
“There’s nothing. They’re asleep?”
“Have to be sure.”
John sighed. “Ten after.”
“Good. Okay. You ready?”
“Yeah, I’m ready.”
They exited the car with little noise and walked slow down the gravel road, savoring the crunch under their boots as they navigated the November cold lit by the dim moonlight showing the brown gashes smiling in the freshly-plowed fields—what, only weeks before, were rows of soy ready to be plucked from the ground.
“And you got the plan?” August asked, hands stuffed in his black military-style jacket.
John studied him, the black backpack slung over his shoulder. “You take this real serious, huh?”
“My man,” August said, “you have to. You’re taking something of theirs, something they don’t want to part with. You’re ripping it from them forcibly and asking them to be okay with it.” Pause. “They usually aren’t. So yeah, I take this serious.”
“Alright. Fair enough.”
“And you remember the meet-up?”
“Best Propane Station back on County Road Twelve.” John held up the copy of the inventory, squinted at the words.
“Fendt 936 Profi Vario. How big is that?”
August smiled. “It’s not your granddad’s John Deere.”
“Granddad didn’t have a John Deere.”
“Well, maybe his granddad, then.”
“Maybe.” Pause. “And the bank don’t want nothin' else?”
“Used these babies go for upwards of two-hundred thou.”
They walked the rest of the way with that satisfied quiet between them and the farmhouse, the whole of his property, grew larger and more impressive the closer they got. The house, based on photos they had received weeks prior, was rotting: paint chipped, wrap-around porch bowed and sunken in the middle parts from years of wear, and they could just make out the whispered creaking of the place as it shifted with the winds, each slap against its hull moving the very foundation of its existence inch by inch. Beyond the house: a pair of faltering silos and a faded-green bank barn converted for storage.
“We start there,” August had said on their drive in. “That’s where he’s keeping the tractor.”
“Map says there’s another barn on the lot too.”
“Had new alley doors installed on the bank back in May.”
“Only one reason to do that: Protecting an investment.”
And now, walking up the drive, both men studied the windows of the old farm house, watched for any indication the old man and his wife had changed their habits this evening, but found none. John took to watching the property as well, making note of the ancient Volkswagen alongside the house, ensnared now by wild grasses, hood rusted plumb like some forever-yawning steeled beast.
Just past the house fifty or so yards was the barn, silos poking out just overhead from behind it, keeping watch. They circled it, made note of the various paddock doors boarded up from the inside and what used to be open-facing side sheds long since converted to walls. John traced his finger over the green paint of the vertical boards, looked back out to the tree line and couldn't help wonder how old it was. How long it had been around and how they, now, were set to challenge that.
When they reached the alley doors, August inspected the three-eighths binder chain and a padlock holding the pair of them together. John looked back at the house—still dark, quiet—then back to August who was now removing a lock pick set from his pack.
“Well?” John asked.
“Easy enough. Padlock’s garden variety.”
“I mean how long’s it going to take?”
“The lock? Couple of minutes.”
“As long as it takes me to jack the ignition.”
“As long as it takes, alright?”
John met August’s gaze, ran his tongue over his bottom teeth. “You think there’s a chance we can do this quiet? That they won’t wake up?”
August laughed, kneeled, and started on the lock with the first of the tension wrenches and the hook pick. “They’ll wake. I can promise you that.” He paused, looked up at John, sullen, looking as if he had only now realized the full weight of the job at hand. “Look, man, you signed on, Julian vouched for you. That’s all good and all. But this isn’t just taking a goddamn toy away. You said you knew that, told me you understood what we were up to.”
“Just remember, we’re taking them to their rightful owners—”
August sighed, turned back to the lock and inserted the tension wrench again, shifted it, found the right direction and held it in place. With his other hand he took the hook pick and felt around, feeling for the pins. “They signed a contract, man. You know this. We’ve been over this. You can’t pay back what you promise to, why should you get to keep it? Houses, farms, cars, whatever...it’s all the goddamn same.”
John looked at the poked and prodded fields, felt the wind pick up. He could just make out the navy-colored clouds against the sky, the hint of rain to come, and as August reached for the snake rake pick John turned—perhaps by habit, perhaps out of paranoia—to look at the house: but now, instead of the pitch-black home, a single yellow light shone bright, the kitchen window, and between the parted cloth curtains a sunken and hollow face stared back at him—a woman, Ursula Cabell.
“Shit….shit…” John said quietly, not looking away from her. “Fuckin shit.”
August kept at the pick. “What?”
“There’s someone….someone looking at us. From the house.”
August turned his head, smiled, wondered if it was a joke, then saw the woman just as she fled the window frame, only the slightest outline of gray hair and big bugged eyes before she was removed from the portrait. Then, the faintest scream erupted from inside the house, Ursula waking her husband up. “Fuck,” he said. “Okay, we gotta move. Know your role, okay?”
August went back to the pick, calm, collected, and John crumpled the inventory and other bank and legal documents in his hands, winding them and gritting his teeth as his palms sweated, watching as an upstairs window flicked on, bright against the darkness, then another and another, the light spreading like some horrible disease.
“They’re coming, man.”
“We knew they would,” August said. “Just a bit earlier than we expected is all. It’s okay…Mr. Cabell isn’t going to do anything.”
Then, through the cold night air, through the darkness, a gravel voice shouted: “What the hell are you doin to my barn! I swear to Christ I’m gonna blast ya!”
Lee Cabell strode toward them shirtless, sinewy still in his old age, dirt-gray beard down to his chest with only hints of black throughout, some form of youth still clinging on. He wore jeans and was barefoot and carried a Marlin Classic Model 1895 like he meant business.
“All you,” August said finishing up the lock. “Keep him away while I get this popped open.”
“Keep him away? Jesus.” John paced, nervous, then took three quick breaths and stepped out to meet the old man. “Sir, we’re here by accordance of the bank...your bank…”
Lee slowed, stopped about ten paces back, lifted the rifle and aimed, steadier than he should’ve been able to. “Got three shots loaded, boys. And I’m a crack shot. Well within my right to fire.”
“John!” August screamed. “Talk to him. Now.”
John lurched forward, stopped. “Sir, we’re from the bank. You haven’t paid on the tractor,” he paused, held out the papers, then: “The Fendt. We’re here to take the Fendt.”
“It’s mine,” Lee shouted back. “And you two, sneakin around in the middle of the night...callin yourself men. You ain’t from the bank.”
John took another step. “Sir—”
“—take one more goddamn step and I’ll blow you away. I promise ya. And I’m well within my right.”
“There’s two ways we can do this, Mr. Cabell—”
“Swear to god, take one more step.”
“You no longer own the tractor, alright? You can be mad as you want, can cuss us out, but my partner and I are taking it back to the bank. You got any other issues you take it up with them.”
John felt good about that, about what he said, watched Lee squint down the barrel through the sights, poke his head upright again as August popped the lock off, then lower the gun at his side. “I don’t got any idea what you’re talkin about.”
August stood, grunted. “Mr. Cabell, you owe a great deal of money to the bank on this tractor you got squirreled away in here. They’ve sent notices, lots of notices, which my partner has copies of, and until you work it out with them, the bank, that’s all there is to say about it.”
“How in the hell you expect me to get by? Don’t got no sons.”
“Not our concern, Mr. Cabell. We’re employed by the bank, don’t have anything in the way of answers. Just telling you how it has to be.”
“You don’t understand,” the old man pleaded. “I just need—”
“—enough,” August said. “John, go hand him the papers while I get the doors.
John nodded, walked toward Lee while August slid open the alley doors, smooth on their new runners, greeted with the smell of hay and old oak timbers and stray animal shit. He could just make out the outline of the machine, the giant beast resting in the cold and darkness, the wheels taller than himself like some big toy. He smiled.
Lee snapped out of his stupor, watched August take a step in the barn as John approached, lifted the gun back up, and aimed again. “You just stop, goddamn it. Don’t take one more step.”
John complied, showed his hands like he meant no harm. “You aren’t going to hurt us, Mr. Cabell. You’re a reasonable man.”
Lee studied him, then August. “Tell your partner to get out of there. He’s got no business—”
“—we do have business, sir,” John said.
August sighed, loud enough for the others to hear, stormed toward them, fuming. “Goddamn,” he said. “We can do this the easy way or we can come back with the police, make it a lot harder on you and your wife. You understand? And I don’t much appreciating having a gun trained on me so please, before you make this any worse, lower the damn thing.”
August stood next to John now, panting. Lee lowered the gun. “You sneak onto my land, my livelihood, like a bunch of thugs,” he said. “Expect me to just go quiet? I don’t need to see no papers. I know who you are, why you’re here.”
August snapped and strode forward. “I don’t know how else to tell you this but you’ve lost here. And I swear to Christ if you don’t put that damn gun away—”
But it was too late and the old man, again quicker than either of them would’ve figured, raised the rifle and shot off a single round that hit August in the chest, just above the heart, sending him back and down with a snap and a thud, the echo of the blast shot out over the fields until it hit the trees and cracked between them. The whole thing happened so fast it took John a moment to register what had happened, believing it only when he saw the blood exit August with alarming conviction, staining his black clothes even darker. August couldn’t speak, just gasped and reached out and John knelt to be with him but Lee yelled at him to stay put.
“What the fuck have you done?” John screamed. “You killed him!”
“Not yet I didn’t. Get your hands up. Don’t know what you got hidin' on your person.”
“You crazy fuck,” John said watching August’s eyes roll back in his head, fall flat on the ground. “What have you done...”
The back door of the house flung open with a loud groan, Ursula Cabell standing in the doorway with her arms folded along her waist, near-white hair twisted into a long braid hung over his shoulder wearing a white dressing gown like some haunted specter.
“Ma’am!” John yelled after registering who it was. “You need to call the police. Your husband shot my friend, and I think—”
“—shut your mouth!” Lee said pointing a thin finger his way, then turned back to his wife. “Go call Joe. Tell him I’ll have two for him and he needs to get over here tonight, alright?”
Ursula stood there for a moment longer, hovering over the scene, then nodded solemnly and disappeared back into the house.
“Who’s Joe?” John asked, only then realizing he had already pissed himself, could feel it now running down his legs, warm. Then, pleading: “Sir, you have to let me go. You have to let me get my partner here to a hospital.”
“Too late for him,” Lee said pointing the barrel of the gun at August who now lied crooked and limp like some stuck animal. “He’s long gone to the other side.”
John began to weep, fell to his knees and raked his fingers into the cold earth. “We’re...official,” he managed to get out. “The bank sent us...just let me go. Please. I have me a wife at home. I have—”
“Son,” Lee said through thin, distorted lips. “Don’t care who you are. Ain’t no one, ever, gonna get between me and my land. That tractor there, what you came to take from me, that’s all I got left to work my plot, do something of substance. Otherwise, what the hell am I but an old vet in house falling down with no money or future.” Pause. “No, a man ain’t worth a damn thing if he don’t have no land. So bring the entire goddamn Reserves—I got enough gall to stand here take em all out. Promise you that.”
John wiped his face, calm now, thinking about the old man’s words as met his gaze, then caught himself wondering about the barn again. Wondered how many generations it had been standing and watched as Lee lifted the rifle and squinted through the sights, sniffed loudly, took the shot. The bullet hit the trespasser square in the head, knocked him back to the ground, askew like his friend, a killing blow, Lee would later recount. One that had been predetermined by those with knowledge of such things. He kept the rifle aimed for a minute longer, wasn’t sure for what, perhaps to be sure death had come to take them both, then lowered the gun as the echoes of the shot faded and the quiet of the night had absorbed him once more.
He turned to see Ursula at the back door and sniffed again. “Fetch me a shirt, jacket. Got real cold.”
“Sure,” she said.
“Put on a pot of coffee, too. I know Joe likes his coffee,” Lee said looking back out at the barn, doors ajar and the Fendt tucked into the darkness, then way out into the fields he knew intimately, knowing there was work yet to be done.
Robert James Russellis the author of the novel Mesilla (Dock Street Press). He is the managing editor of the literary journals Midwestern Gothic and CHEAP POP. Find him online at robertjamesrussell.com and @robhollywood.
Christine Stoddard is a Salvadoran-Scottish-American artist and the founding editor of Quail Bell Magazine. A Puffin Foundation emerging artist, BinderCon NYC scholar, and Folio Magazine Top 100 Media Visionary, she lives with her shiny new husband in their kingdom by the sea. Christine's words and images have appeared in Cosmopolitan, Bustle, The Huffington Post, The Feminist Wire, So to Speak, The Southeast Review, and beyond. Recent gallery and publication credits include: The New York Transit Museum, The NYC Poetry Festival, The Brooklyn Quarterly, and WriterHouse (solo show). Upcoming gallery and publication credits include: Raw DC, The Story Shack, and Figment DC. For more, visit the artist online at worldofchristinestoddard.com.
Thin Lear is the moniker of Queens, New York-based musician Matt Longo. His new EP is a lush concept album that takes its baroque-groove cue from Village Green-era Kinks and The Zombies. For more, visit Thin Lear on Facebook, Soundcloud, and Bandcamp.