Dorothy Levine did not hold the office of "Town Gossip" in Hungerspeak, Montana, but if the position had become available, she would have filled it admirably. Almost devoid of self awareness, her conversations were composed of external factors that, like circus acrobats, cartwheeled their way by her in passing: a spate of stormy weather, a flier passing before her eyes proclaiming in bold, bright colors the items that would be on sale at the local market that week, or a random story, passed on hot-potato style, or spewed like vomit around town, about some tragedy or scandal involving another neighbor. Probably all small towns have people like this, but by and large, underneath it all, they're good at heart, and do a fairly good job of otherwise passing for human.

         It was six twenty-five in the morning when Meagan opened her front door in response to her persistent knocking. Dorothy had composed her expression into one of earnest looking solemnity, but inwardly, she was eager and excited at the prospect of being able to deliver a juicy tidbit of bad news.

         "There's been a plane crash. From what I heard, it's Ed Wilkins. Crashed his crop duster into the cemetery that fronts those hills right outside town. I just thought you'd want to know right away."

         "Thanks Dorothy. I already heard the...news. May Huxtable called me about it a little while ago." Dorothy's lower lip quivered slightly, but she did her best to hide her disappointment. She prattled on about the few gory details she’d been able to glean earlier from the gossip line until Meagan got her to detach herself from the front porch and go back home.


         By seven, Meagan was at the cemetery. She stood shivering in the early morning air behind the yellow tape, along with a few neighbors and curiosity seekers. She was close enough to make out the heap of twisted metal that had once been a plane. She looked away and up at the sky, still silvery in the west.

         "Really something that he died right in a cemetery huh?"

         Meagan turned around. It was Alice Fairfield, the Hungerspeak Savings and Loan bank teller.

         "Yeah," was all she could think of saying in response.

         "I heard something--I don't know if it's true. One of the firemen walked out here a while ago and told someone the plane crashed nose down right into the spot where his wife's grave is. How's that for creepy and eerie?"

         Meagan felt slightly sick. "Yeah. Pretty strange, I guess." She turned back to the graveyard and stared at the still smoking wreck.


         Meagan marched through her day like an automaton, while inwardly, the news of Ed's death moved through her like ripples in a lake around a single thrown stone. She took a few calls, made arrangements to have an old couch picked up for donation to the local thrift shop, and engaged in polite, social conversation with neighbors she encountered while running errands in town. She could hear and see people's mouths moving when they spoke to her, but the words were as empty and meaningless as electric car windows rolling up and down. Her own words back to them tasted like dust in her mouth.

         Ed and her had history, over 20 years worth. She and her husband, and Ed and his wife Lisi, moved in different circles so hadn't socialized much beyond the occasional chit-chat at 4th of July town picnics, but when her own husband died 17 years ago, Ed, in acts of neighborly kindness, would often come by to help with chores like fixing a fence gate gone awry, hauling off brush from her property, or sometimes just sitting a spell with her on the front porch to talk. By chance, they had a number of shared interests in common; it turned out they were both amateur seascape artists, loved heavy metal rock (something which used to drive Meagan's husband crazy, and which Ed simply hid from Lisi, a prim, devout, little Christian woman), and both understood, and would often have a good natured laugh, about the Dorothy Levines of this world. There was never anything romantic between them; Ed loved his own wife as Meagan still loved her husband, but kindred spirits, they did become true and fast friends. It was five years after her husband's death that this all changed, and she ended up sitting on the prosecutor’s side of the courtroom during Ed's criminal trial, averting her eyes from him and rigidly clenching her jaw in the suppressed, smoldering fury only a massive betrayal can induce.


         “You know Ed, you’re this town’s one claim to fame. You never told me that there’s a plaque dedicated to you in the town hall.”

         Ed turned his face away from Meagan, pretending interest in the moths swirling around the front porch light. “It was nothing.”

         “It wasn’t nothing. It says you’re a war hero. What did you do in the air force?”

         “Same as what I do now, I was a paramedic. That silly plaque was for parachuting into enemy territory with a combat unit.”

         “Yes, aaaaaannnnnnd???”

         “I got shot, but continued working with the wounded and saved a bunch of lives, got a few fancy medals for it and blah blah blah. So there you have it.”

         “Wow, pretty cool!”

         Ed smiled at Meagan and shrugged. “Yeah, there just is no greater satisfaction than saving a life or helping someone. Its kind of been a kind of life-long purpose for me. When I was a kid, my bedroom was a like a hospital for every sick or injured stray creature in Hungerspeak. I remember once, when I was six, there were these ants crawling around in some spilled ice cream on the sidewalk. I was looking at them through a magnifying glass, and noticed one of the ants was teetering, like it was dizzy or something, so I-"

         Ed never got to finish the sentence about his efforts to save the ant, because Meagan had gotten the picture and was laughing so hard it brought tears to her eyes.


         Three years after Meagan’s husband died, Ed, a senior paramedic with an emergency response service at the time, saved the life of her then thirteen year old daughter, Casey. A few years later, this incident would be the beginning of the end for him.

         Casey had been walking alone in the rain, down Oldham road. A car came rocketing around a turn, hit her, and sped off. She was left lying in a widening pool of rainwater and blood, awake, and gasping for every breath. To this day, it's not known who called 911. It was assumed the hit and run driver did it from a disposable cell phone in a momentary burst of guilt. An ambulance showed up minutes later, and had it not been for Ed, Casey would have died before even making it to the hospital. He stopped the bleeding, and since he knew her well because of his friendship with Meagan, held her hand for the entire ambulance ride there. She was awake and terrified, but over the oxygen mask covering most of her face, kept her eyes fixed on Ed's. She held his gaze as though that alone would keep her alive. In his usual professional and caring manner, he smiled encouragingly and assured her she would be fine, and she was. She got out of the hospital six weeks later, and with the resiliency of youth, recovered fully. She carried on with the business of being a teenager, including going through a phase when she was fifteen, as young girls often will, of wanting to be an actress or a model. Meagan had no words to express her gratitude to Ed for saving Casey. The loss of her own husband had shattered her; she did not think she could have survived the loss of her only child.

         It was two years after the accident when Casey told Meagan about how Ed had molested her in the ambulance. She told about how he had put his hands under her shirt and down her pants on the way to the hospital.

         Eight months later the case came to court. Ed had been out on bail during that time. He denied the charges, but Casey was convincing enough on the stand to bring a guilty ruling by the judge. She had no reason to make something like that up, especially about a man who had saved her life.

         His lawyer trotted out a seemingly endless parade of character witnesses for him, and as he had no prior criminal history, and was a war hero, was given no jail time, just probation and was placed on the registers sex offenders list.

         It was the end of his career as a paramedic. He took a job as a mechanic at his friend Joe's Garage, but his crime and conviction had been the biggest scandal to ever hit Hungerspeak, and like a contagious disease, disgust and censure of him, fueled by the Dorothy Levines of the town, spread, and Joe lost so much business by reason of having Ed employed there, that he had no choice but to finally let him go. Ed then did handy-man jobs here and there, but sometimes people were loath to have something as heinous as a child molester around, and work became harder and harder to come by.

         In the months after the trial it was awkward for him to even walk through the town. Acquaintances who had once greeted him enthusiastically now nodded politely and turned away, or pretended to be looking elsewhere altogether when they passed him in the street.

         He had many close friends who stood staunchly by him through the trial and afterwards as well, but even with them, it was like a broadax had slashed an unclosable rift between him and the world he had known. He would be sitting at a poker game with his buddies, cold brews and laughter shared all around, when some off-hand, humorous mention was made about one of their teenage daughters doing this or that, or some risqué joke would be told, and a momentary, uncomfortable silence would fall over the room like a pall. Slowly, over the months, visits and invitations from even his most verbal supporters and friends dwindled.

         Hungerspeak had been his home and the home of his family before him. He had built his life here and did not want to leave, but after a year of increasing hardships following his trial, he knew he needed to start a new life elsewhere. Even with being on a sex offenders list, he thought if he moved out of state to a large, major city, he could live his life in relative anonymity. There would be more options to find work as well. Right now, most of their financial support was coming from Lisi’s small, home based catering business and their savings. In a city, he could get a job in a factory or as a mechanic. Full background checks were seldom done for positions like that. He might even be able to get work, or at least do some volunteer work, helping people at a senior care center where his conviction for a sex offense with a minor might not be a factor. His own two children were away at collage, so there would be no disruption of their lives or schooling a move like this could cause. Ed, for the first time in a year, saw a light on the horizon.


         Lisi refused to uproot and move. She cited the client base she had built up over the years in her business, her church groups, her long term friends, and her two sisters, both of whom lived in Hungerspeak. Ed’s reasoning and pleas fell on deaf ears. She was adamant.

         None of the excuses she gave were the main, real reason, but she would never admit her true motives. Although Ed denied repeatedly that he had molested Casey, Lisi was a devout, bible-thumping Christian and knew well the evil inherent in man. She never believed or forgave him for bringing such ignoble disgrace to the family, and wanted to get back at him for what he had done. She wanted him to continue to suffer. She wanted him to continue living in shame. She wanted him to shrink more and more into himself. She wanted him to burn in hell and his life to be hell on earth. Such motives as hers, full of malevolence and spite, were so socially unacceptable in themselves, and so inherently evil, that even though she sometimes glimpsed them, like road kill in a rear view mirror, she barely could admit even to herself that she had them, let alone tell Ed her true feelings. She did, however, never miss an opportunity to make a sly, covert remark that would remind Ed of what he had done.

         In the world Ed and Lisi had grown up in, people seldom divorced, nor did a good man ever abandon his family or fail to support and protect them as long as he was able. Ed was one such good man. Eventually, he apathetically accepted the fact that any hope of having the life he once had was over. He had earlier been trained to fly single engine planes. There were many farms and ranches in the state, and he was able to get work as a pilot doing crop dusting, fly-over horse herding, and other such jobs. He kept to himself. He supported his family and saw to their needs. Sometimes, late at night, he would sit out on the front porch and gaze up at the parade of stars and constellations heroically poised in the dark, clear sky, and he would cry. A dutiful husband, he cared for Lisi at home around the clock when, twelve years later, she got cancer, which not long after, killed her.

         Even when she was dying, she never forgave him.

         And he never forgave her.


         Meagan now stood in front of her window, the one that faced Dorothy Levine’s house across the road, thinking about Ed’s death that morning and repeating to herself over and over “what’s done is done. I have to protect my own.” She remembered, with a stab of pain, shame, and guilt, thinking those exact same words by this very window, so long ago now, and why.


         About two years had passed since Ed’s trial and conviction. By then, Casey was eighteen and would shortly be starting bookkeeper training at a school in the nearby town of Granville. The director of a small, private medical center in Hungerspeak, the one Casey was taken to when she had her accident, was a close family friend and had promised Casey a job in their finance department when she completed her training and returned.

         On the night before she was to leave for Granville, she came into Meagan’s room in the middle of the night, turned on the light and sat down on Meagan’s bed. Meagan shot bolt upright, instantly awake, because Casey was crying copious tears. She was crying so hard as she spoke, that she almost choked over her words when she told Meagan what would end up being, next to the earlier news of her husband’s death and Casey’s accident, the worst thing she would ever hear for the remainder of her life.


         "Aren't you glad? Isn't this heavenly?"

         "What ist?..I mean is." Casey giggled at her mistake in the self-conscious way a fifteen year old often will.

         "What ya mean what ist? What ya think you're holding in your hand there?" Now all three girls broke into gales of laughter. Casey then started coughing so hard she had to put down the smoldering joint she was holding into an ashtray and wait till she got her breath again.

         "Oh this, yea, I am really glad you older-by-one-year, more "worldly" girls are here to show me the ropes." Casey started laughing again. Coughing. Laughing.

         "Yes, me and Vanessa are sophisticated ladies of the world. Speaking of worldly, are you really serious about pursuing an acting career when you finish High School?"

         "I am."

         "Then start getting your name out there now. I've been thinking, with what happened to you earlier, you can turn that into money in the bank."

         "What do you mean?"

         "Well think about it for a minute. You had this accident that almost killed you, and a family friend, who was also an EMT type guy, saved your life. Booorrrriiiing. But what if you put an exciting and unique twist on that, something they could even make a movie about."

         "Like what?"

         Well, for instance, a story about a war hero sexually abusing a near to death thirteen year old in an ambulance would give your name and face national celebrity, especially if it went to trial. It could make your name a household word, and you could use that exposure later when attempting to launch your career."

         "But that didn’t happen."

         "So what?"


         Casey was essentially a good hearted girl, but was not the sharpest knife in the drawer and had a sheepish mentality. Between that and a cloudy dullness that had enveloped her thinking from several months of sustained drug use, she was easily swayed and eventually went along with this ridiculous and destructive plan. She rehearsed her story with her cohorts, practicing it over and over until she could tell it in a dramatic and believable way.

         Stories of sexual crimes were a dime a dozen; every big city had their share, and it soon became obvious, after the trial had come and gone, that the accusation against Ed and subsequent court case would get no more than local and some minimal state coverage. By the time Casey was close to graduating high school, she also knew she was going to be a bookkeeper, not a movie star. As is often the case with the harmful or stupid things people do, they’re easier done than confessed to, so what she did carry away from the experience, which would be hers to keep, was a very guilty conscience.

         Meagan talked with her well into the night about what had occurred. Casey felt better, and they agreed she would leave as planned for her training the following morning. Meagan assured her that while she was away at school, she would work out the best course of action to now take in regards to Ed and getting his false conviction remedied.

         The next day, after Casey was gone, Meagan stood looking out the window, still numb with the news of the previous night and the realization of the past few years of hell Ed must have gone through since the first public telling of the lie. His career had been ended, his standing in the community destroyed, his life and personal relationships shattered. A minor version of that might occur with her own daughter now, and by extension to herself, once the truth came out. It could jeopardize Casey’s chance of getting the job that awaited her, as it would make her look unstable, unbalanced and dishonest. There might even be legal trouble or a civil law suit by Ed’s children due to the perjury she had committed. If nothing else, she would be remembered for bringing about prosecution against a beloved war hero by bearing false witness, and people in small towns had long memories.

         As she gazed out the window, lost in her thoughts about this, the mail truck pulled up in front of Dorothy’s house. Dorothy came outside and started eagerly bending the mailman Ralph Macafee’s ear about something. Meagan decided then and there that what was done was done. She had to protect her own. With a decisive snap of a cord she lowered the blinds and turned away from the window.


         That was so many years ago, and as of today, Ed was dead. Meagan figured it wouldn’t help him any if she now finally told the truth. It would only make it worse for her and Casey that they both kept it hidden all this time.


         It took over a week for the debris from Ed's crash to be completely carted off. The broken remains of his wife Lisi were recasketed by her family; the mahogany "Princess" model she'd originally been buried in was shattered to smithereens when the plane dove nose first into the gravesite. Ed was then interred beside her at a service that surprisingly, almost the entire town turned out for, as Ed, despite everything, had been remembered by many as a well-liked man and a war hero. The area of the couple's gravesite was then resodded over with a healthy mixture of Kentucky Blue and Red Top grass. By the following spring, it blended in with the rest of the Hungerspeak graves like a patch in a cemetery quilt.

Published twice in Underground Voices, in You and Me, Things Japanese, Fed Caps Words about work, Greenprints, Animal Wellness, and Vampires2 magazines, in a Dark Moon books Anthology and in a Treasures Beyond Measure anthology; work to come out in upcoming issues of Horror on the Installment Plan, Metro-Fiction, Transformation, a Spruce Mountain Press Anthology, and in Guardian Angel Kids Magazine, took 4th place in "Echoes of the Right to God" international essay contest, honorable mention in "Reading Writers" suspense fiction contest, short list of finalists for both the "Smories" short story contest and PK Poetry competition, two time finalist in a Scinti story contest.

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