While Jason Kelley was pondering the wildlife along Route 68, Terrence Coyne was finishing his second can of Miller Light. His wife, Bridgette, regarded him with what he perceived to be an accusatory stare. He glared at her and she quickly looked away.
“Don’t look at me like that,” he said. He opened his refrigerator—their refrigerator, technically speaking—and saw that there were no more beers left. The one in his hand was the last one.
“I’m not looking at you,” she said.
“It’s just that you got drunk last night again. And this is already your second beer tonight.”
“I thought you said that you were taking no notice,” he retorted sharply. He knew that this was not exactly what Bridgette had said; but never mind that. His wife’s holier-than-thou attitude about his drinking never failed to infuriate him. All day he had to endure the tedium of working in his father’s feed store in Wagosh. Wasn’t he entitled to a little bit of compensatory drinking? Wasn’t he entitled to little bit of fun, for Chrissakes?
He heard his son begin to squall from the far end of their rented house and he felt his anger rise. “Can’t you keep that kid quiet?” he said, in a voice that was a fraction below a shout. He noticed that while there was no beer in the refrigerator, there was plenty of baby formula, and all the healthy crap that his wife liked: low fat milk and cottage cheese. Yogurt and lean ham. Bridgette was responsible for the grocery shopping and she knew that he liked to kick back with a few beers of an evening. Would it kill her to pick up a twelve-pack of Miller Light?
“I’m sorry,” Bridgette said, going out of her way to be conciliatory even though they both knew that he was being an asshole. This was just another part of Bridgette’s holier-than-thou act. It was a stratagem that she employed when he was in an obviously bad mood: She went out of her way to be nice so that he would not have an immediate excuse to vent and lose his temper. Then when he finally did lose his temper, he would feel like even more of an asshole because she had given him no just cause. “I’ll go check on Jeremy.”
He swallowed the last mouthful of beer and watched her walk past. Eighteen months after delivering the baby—their son, he reminded himself—she had lost the last traces of her post-pregnancy weight, and he had to admit that she looked not half bad. Of course, noticing her in that way was the thing that had gotten him into trouble to begin with, if you wanted to get technical about it, and thereby trace the circumstances that had brought about the ruination of his young life. Bridgette Coyne might be holier-than-thou about her husband’s drinking; but she had not been too holy to have sex with him back when she was Bridgette Mackey, a girlfriend whom he had seen as a temporary if enjoyable source of amusement. This side of Carey County wasn’t known for its nightlife or its abundance of single young women. And Bridgette Mackey, then barely nineteen years old, had been one of the prettiest of those available. She had been young and sweet and ripe—oh, so ripe.
So Terrence had dallied and he had had his fun. All the while, Bridgette had seemed to be very impressed with him. And why shouldn’t she have been? After all, he had been something of a sensation during his days as a running back on the Wagosh High School varsity football team, still less than ten years ago. He was also a scion of the moderately prosperous Coyne family of Carey County.
Then a positive pregnancy test had changed everything. Now he was twenty-six, and trapped with a wife who no longer interested him so much. His son was cute enough in certain moments; but he mostly ate and shat and cried a lot.
He was too young for all this. Wives and children and their associated responsibilities were for some men, he supposed—but not him. Not yet, at least.
Terrence’s days were spent in the tedium of his father’s feed store. Hour upon hour of checking store inventories and waiting on customers. Then balancing the store’s books, sweeping the floors, and setting up new displays. Pretending that a stupid question from a customer wasn’t stupid, but the most important thing in the world.
And another thirty years of that were all that was waiting for him, thank you very much.
It was all because of Bridgette. Bridgette and her faulty birth control. When Terrence had met her, she had claimed that she was preparing for college. She had said that she wanted to attend the University of Dayton or Ohio State. A girl like that, Terrence had believed, would take pains to assure that she never got pregnant. Until the day she had informed him that the proverbial rabbit had died.
Bridgette came back into the kitchen. Her displeasure was written on her face. Not displeasure at the baby, of course. She cooed and fussed over Jeremy as if he were an angel descended from heaven. (Terrence wondered, for perhaps the thousandth time, if Bridgette had allowed herself to get pregnant in order to entrap him.) No, Bridgette was upset because he wasn’t acting like Father of the Year and Mr. Happy Husband. He wasn’t joining the party. Well, it was a party that he had never wanted to attend.
“I’m going to have a few beers with Glenn tonight,” he announced. “We made plans.” This was, in fact, a lie: A night of drinking with his buddy Glenn was a spur-of-moment decision, a reaction to the unexpected depletion of the house’s beer reserves. That and the sudden weight of his domestic claustrophobia. He knew that Glenn would be available. Glenn was always up for a few beers at the Parrot Inn.
“You mean Glenn Rutledge?” she asked.
“No, I mean Glenn Frey, the guy who played guitar with The Eagles. Ol’ Glenn wants to talk with me about his next solo album project. Of course I mean Glenn Rutledge. How many Glenns are there between Wagosh and John’s Mistake?”
“I was just asking,” she said sullenly.
“Well, it was a stupid question for you to be just asking.” He noticed that she recoiled from this rebuke as if his words had physically stung her. Good. That would repay her in part for what she had done to him. He could tell that she was thinking about talking back but thought better of it. She didn’t want a repeat of what had happened to her one night last April. Truth be told, neither did he: His father had given him hell about that—and her parents, also. A county sheriff’s deputy had questioned him. “Domestic violence,” the uniformed prick had called it. Only his father’s clout in the county, and a promise to never, ever, ever strike his wife again—no matter what—had kept him out of jail.
“It’s already well past ten,” she said, as if he needed a town crier.
“Well, I won’t be gone late. I’ll be home around midnight,” he said.
Bridgette sighed, resigned. “Okay, Terrence. Have it your way.”
“I ought to get to have somethin’ my way,” he said. Before she could respond to him, he turned on his heels and headed out of the kitchen, through the living room and towards the front door. The main door was already open to let in the fresh air and the smells of the rural summertime. A screen door kept out the mosquitoes and the gnats.
Terrence pushed open the screen door, making a bit of a show of tossing the door back against its hinges. He let the door fall back against the doorframe with a loud slap of wood against metal. The air outside was warm and mildly humid. A trio of moths were fluttering around the front porch light.
It’s a good night for having a draft beer with a buddy. A damned good night for beer. He thought about how good it would be to see the familiar crowd at the Parrot Inn; and then he thought about their new waitress—a hot little number named Tina, or Riley, or something.
These thoughts were still in his mind as he climbed behind the wheel of his Chevrolet Camaro. It was a 2001 model. His car was more than ten years old. He had purchased it only last summer, using the little he had managed to save from his paycheck at the feed store, plus a supplementary loan from his father. A loan that both he and the old man knew would never be paid back.
From the driver’s seat of the Camaro, he surveyed the farmhouse in which he, Bridgette, and Jeremy lived. The rent was eight hundred per month—for space in a house built sometime around World War II, a house that stood too close to Route 68, a house built just a few years after a group of WPA workers had supposedly found ancient human remains while paving the roadway for automobile traffic.
He glanced upward, at the full moon that shone through the branches of the many trees that surrounded the house. The house was practically enveloped by woods. There had once been a farm here—many years ago—but the backyard now gave way to undergrowth a stone’s throw beyond the rear porch. There were a few long-fallow fields in the back that had been taken over by weeds, scrub bushes, and maple saplings—and serious woods beyond that. Almost any spot in Carey County was “country” by Cincinnati or Columbus standards; but this part of Route 68 was really out in the country.
Like practically every resident of the area, Terrence knew all about the Shaman’s Highway and its many legends. He had heard about the demonic witch that supposedly haunted the covered bridge farther down the road; he had heard about the hellhounds and the ghostly voices that were said to emanate from the woods late at night.
“And I ain’t never seen or heard a damned thing,” he said to himself, dismissively. The Shaman’s Highway caused him no fear whatsoever. His friend Glenn had once admitted that the highway creeped him out sometimes, and Terrence had badgered him about it mercilessly. The Shaman’s Highway was a campfire tale for children and imbeciles. No real man would be afraid of anything out here—unless he was a pussy, he had reminded Glenn.
Speaking of his drinking buddy: Before he started the Camaro’s engine, Terrence removed his cell phone from his pocket and typed out a brief message to Glenn Rutledge: “Meet me at the PI. 15 minutes.”
He started the Camaro, backed it up into the yard rather than the gravel turnaround, and then pointed the car at Route 68. He was about to pull onto the main road when his cell phone chimed with a new text message.
“See you there,” Glenn had responded.
Terrence smiled as he gunned the accelerator and the Camaro pulled out onto the Shaman’s Highway. As he had expected, Glenn was up for a beer. Glenn was always up for a beer.
Bridgette Coyne stood at the kitchen window of her rented house and watched the taillights of her husband’s Camaro disappear from sight. Terrence would no doubt come home drunk tonight—as was the usual result of a night with Glenn Rutledge at the Parrot Inn.
Terrence and Glenn had been classmates at Wagosh High School, class of 2004. Bridgette hadn’t entered WHS as a freshman until the fall after Terrence and Glenn had graduated, so she didn’t know them during their glory days. She did know that both of them had been big shots, co-captains of the football team and all that.
Now they were both grown men heading towards the milestone year of thirty, still acting like high school had never ended, and still without any real plans for the future. Her husband went through the motions of working at his father’s feed store. But he resented his dad; and the elder Coyne didn’t seem to think much of Terrence, either. Glenn worked at the Jiffy Lube in Wagosh.
She had long suspected that Glenn—big, sensitive, homely Glenn—had something of a crush on her. She did not believe that this was a factor in his friendship with her husband. Glenn knew that she was married; and he had been friends with Terrence long before either one of them had ever laid eyes on her.
Terrence and Glenn met up at that damned bar—the Parrot Inn—every chance they got. They spent their evenings acting like two eighteen-year-olds at a Friday night keg party, she supposed. Terrence had never invited Bridgette to accompany him, of course; but she could imagine what went on: Terrence and Glenn reminisced and talked tough for the local crowd, and—Bridgette imagined—occasionally hit on local women. Terrence’s reputation as a lady’s man had been well established during his single days. He obviously had difficulty letting go of his self-image as an eternally young, roughhousing high school jock. Would he part with his reputation as a lady’s man any more easily?
Bridgette had foreseen none of this in the beginning—the very beginning. She recalled the night three summers ago when she had met Terrence Coyne at the Carey County fairgrounds just north of Wagosh. She and her fourteen year-old sister, Emily, had been waiting in line for the Matterhorn ride when she turned around and saw a young man with curly brown hair, a dimple on his chin, and a smile that instantly warmed her. Her first thought was that he looked a bit like Ben Affleck—except for the curly hair, of course.
But Ben Affleck was nearly twenty years older than her and lived in Hollywood. This young man was only a few years her senior, and he was standing right there, looking so confident, his skin tan and glistening in the summer sun. There was a lot of talk in the press about obesity in the rural Midwest; well—it hadn’t affected this one: She glanced down at his abs and noticed that his shirt formed a flat washboard leading down to his belt and his blue jeans. With his hands in his pockets there was a slight tension in his biceps. This guy apparently did some serious working out—or had in the recent past.
Then she had made another association: Wasn’t he a Wagosh High School football star from a few years back? Yes, she was almost certain that he was.
“Riding the Matterhorn with your younger sister, aren’t you?” he said. This was not exactly brilliant as first lines go; but as was often the case, the really cute guys could say just about anything and get away with it. Bridgette had confirmed that yes, Emily was her younger sister; and yes, they were indeed waiting for the Matterhorn ride. Within a few minutes self-introductions were made, and it was Terrence and Bridgette standing there talking, Bridgette’s younger sister feeling left out and no doubt turning away to roll her eyes at the entire conversation. By the time her turn on the Matterhorn came, she had given Terrence her cell phone number. She would have stayed behind and talked to him even longer if not for Emily, who was by now tugging her arm and giving her that look which said: Come on sis, enough is enough.
What an idiot she had been, she now reflected. Terrence had swept her off her feet without even trying, more or less. Before long he had become her world—her entire world—in a way that now made her feel foolish and gullible, but which had seemed perfectly natural and inevitable at the time. While they were dating, Bridgette had seen flashes of his temper, glimpses of the man who really lay beneath the charming exterior. But she had denied that to herself, pretending not to see it.
And then came the day when she had found out that she was pregnant. He had pressured her to have an abortion at first, which she bluntly refused. Then her parents had found out, and his parents had found out. The two older couples got together somehow, and it wasn’t more than a few weeks before Terrence asked her to marry him. His proposal wasn’t much in the way of romantic—and certainly not on bended knee. He had proposed marriage, she later reflected, in the same manner that a young boy would apologize for some infraction when so ordered by his parents.
And hadn’t Terrence in fact been ordered by his parents? Walter Coyne was known around town for his religious views and “family values.” He wouldn’t tolerate any son of his knocking some girl up, thereby creating another out-of-wedlock birth and another unwed mother. Terrence’s father had pressured his son, she knew. The elder Coyne had delivered some sort of an ultimatum, and she was delivered a grudging marriage proposal.
This realization had not kept her from accepting, of course. She had been pregnant, after all; and she allowed herself to believe that Terrance might take to married life and fatherhood if given the proper amount of time, space, and encouragement. She had heard that men were that way sometimes—they loathed being tied down when it was only an abstract concept, but once they got a taste of it they found that it suited them. Men often grew into the task—wasn’t that what she had heard?
But Terrence showed few signs of growing into his new situation. He came home from his father’s feed store every day in a surly mood, often barely acknowledging the presence of his wife and child. He dropped little comments now and then, about how all of this was holding him down, how he hated working for his old man, and how generally miserable his life was.
So far, Bridgette had done her best to ignore these painful little barbs, and to hold out hope that Terrence would eventually change. But her husband was growing more distant and disagreeable as the weeks and months dragged on, her ever-persistent hope notwithstanding.
Hope, thought Bridgette. Hope must be a trap.