Until two weeks ago, ten years had passed since I last heard from Lee.
I was about to lie down for the night when I heard that little ding from my cell phone. The text message snapped me back awake, and I stood in the darkness, the white glow from the phone’s screen the only light in the cabin. Nobody I know would text me at eleven o’clock at night.
My dog Anna whined as she watched me pull my boots back on. She knew that something wasn’t right. Dogs always know.
“It’s OK, darling,” I said. “I’m about to do something I’ll probably regret. But I’ll be back.” At least I hoped I would.
Eighteen hours later I’m in the hollow, stepping careful with my old deer rifle, not knowing what I will find, what I would become a willing party to for the sake of an old friendship.
Now we sit in the darkness of midnight, staring into the glowing coals of the fire and saying nothing for long stretches of time. The fire pops at intervals as the hickory burns. Lee jumps a little with every hissing crack, as if he expects a tongue of fire to leap out of this crude little altar to consume him for his sins.
The full moon that illuminated the hollow so completely is setting behind the ridge. A coyote howls and is answered by a chorus of mournful yips and howls off in the distance. It sounds like damned spirits grieving their fate, condemned to walk these hills and hollows until God puts out the light once and for all.
“I can’t go to prison,” he says. He begins to rock in his camp chair, repeating the words over and over, like some demented Gregorian chant.
“I know, Lee.”
We both know what happens to pudgy middle-aged men who are sent to prison for child molestation — especially men who are former preachers. Some lines can’t be crossed. A man of God, even defrocked, has got to recognize the difference between wrong and right.
“You’ve got to get me out of here, man. They’re coming for me. Getting close now. I can feel it.”
I say nothing. The front page of The Birmingham News has covered the manhunt for the past week.
It is only a matter of time until they find his abandoned pickup on the logging road two miles away. Then they will spread out and walk through these hills in long flanks with dogs and guns, a small army of lawmen, auxiliary deputies, and volunteers, any of whom would love a chance to pull the trigger on a pedophile. It’s not everyday you get to bag a trophy, and the reporters have stoked the fire of their rage by labeling Lee as “possibly armed and dangerous.”
He doesn’t look to dangerous to me. He looks like a broken-down old man who can’t even find the courage to end this all himself.
“Mexico,” I say. “I’ll take you down to Big Bend. You can slip across the border as easily as the Mexicans slip in. I’ll drive around and cross at Ojinaga. Pick you up and head on down to Mexico City. A man can get lost in that crowd for a long time. You can disappear. You’ll be okay there until things settle down.”
There is silence again as we both stare into the fire. Deep down, we both know I lie. My words come out flat and float away into the darkness of the hollow.
“I can’t go to prison. I can’t go to prison. I can’t go to prison.”
“I won’t let them take you. We’ll leave at first light. You’ve got to calm down, now. Keep your head on straight. I need you thinking clearly.”
“Help me, brother. I messed up big this time. Help me. Please. I can’t be locked up.”
“Hey,” I say. “Let’s me and you pray about this, like we used to pray when we were kids. We’ll ask Jesus to forgive us. He’ll help us. I know He will. He forgave that thief on the cross. He’ll forgive us too.”
“I don’t think I can pray. I can’t remember how.”
“Sure you can. Let’s get down on our knees. Remember how you used to say that men should always get on their knees to talk to God? Kneel down with me. I’ll lead and you repeat, just like we used to do before our football games in high school.”
We get down on our knees in the hardwood leaves, two sinners in the hands of an angry God. I put my left hand on his shoulder to steady us before the celestial throne.
“Follow me now,” I say. But my words sound empty, as if they are coming from someone else.
“Our Father which art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
I see Lee’s lips move. His eyes are closed.
He doesn’t see the .45 as I ease it out of the waist band of my jeans behind my back. For an instant, I see the reflection of us kneeling in the flickering firelight, a portrait in stainless steel on the side of the gun — two sinners before the Mercy Seat.
I swing the barrel up just above his right ear. There is a flash and a crack in the stillness of the hollow. In my mind’s eye it is like the lightning that struck the longleaf at the top of the ridge.
Lee slumps forward, face down in the dirt.
I continue to kneel for a moment, but I don’t finish the prayer. The blood pools and forms a rivulet that runs an imperceptible slope toward the creek.
I get to my feet. I have a lot to do in the six hours that remain before sunrise. I will leave no trace of our presence here. The hollow will look much the same as it did years ago when two boys first found it.
I focus on the task at hand. I’ll have the rest of my life to think about what I’ve done.
One thing is certain. I know that one day I too will stand before the Great White Throne to give an account of what I’ve done. I’ll be asked for a reason.
Maybe I’ll answer that question with one of my own.
“What are friends for?”