The following is excerpted from the novel The Distant Dead by Heather Young. Copyright © 2020 by Heather Young. On sale June 9 from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.
The Distant Dead – Excerpt
To get to Marzen from Lovelock, you took Interstate 80 thirteen miles east to the Lovelock-Unionville Road. Then you drove south through three miles of sage and sand, climbed into the foothills of the Humboldt Range, and took a nameless dirt road that forked to the right halfway up Limerick Canyon. This road rose through more hills furred with sagebrush until it ended in a small, square valley where a few dozen buildings huddled together. Only when you were upon them would you see that they sketched a town: a smattering of houses and trailers, a general store and a bar, a small school, a fire station, and a church the size and shape of three shipping containers welded together with MARZEN BAPTIST painted in red letters on one side.
Two hundred and seven people lived there. Eighty-four men, seventy-six women, and forty-seven children. Most of the men, and some of the women, worked at the open pit silver mine farther up in the hills. Their fathers had been miners, too, and their grandfathers, but they knew the ore would be gone long before their children could punch the clock. They didn’t talk about this, though. In Marzen, you took your problems one day at a time.
The town had no police force – its citizens managed the occasional drunken fight just fine on their own — so the fire station was where you had to go if you wanted to report a dead body. Jake Sanchez was the volunteer on duty the morning of March 14, which for him meant watching The Price is Right on the black and white television with his feet on the desk. He didn’t notice the boy in the doorway until the boy said, “Jake?”
Jake put his booted feet on the floor and turned the swivel chair to face him. He knew him, of course. His name was Absalom, though no one called him that, not even his mother. One night, after last call at the bar she ran, she’d told Jake she picked it because she sang in the Baptist church’s small choir and loved the anthem “When David Heard.” O Absalom, my son, my son, it went. Would God I had died for thee! Her own son had no father to weep for him, so she’d decided to name him after King David’s favorite son, whose father beat his breast upon the walls of Jerusalem when he heard Absalom had fallen in battle. Of course she’d known her boy couldn’t really be Absalom, not in a town like Marzen, so she called him Sal. She’d died nine months ago, and sometimes Jake wondered if he was the only one left, other than Sal and the uncles he’d been sent to live with, who knew her son’s secret, unspoken name.
“What are you doing here, Sal? Did you miss the bus?” When Marzen kids finished fifth grade the Pershing County school district sent a bus to take them to Lovelock for middle school. Sal had started sixth grade in the fall. Jake looked at his watch. It was just after seven-thirty; the bus had left fifteen minutes ago.
Sal didn’t answer right away, and Jake peered at him more closely. He hadn’t liked it when Sal was sent to live with his uncles. Gideon and Ezra Prentiss lived three miles outside town on land that had belonged to their family since the Gold Rush. They were pariahs of long standing, thanks to family history, a reputation for violence, and rumored criminal enterprises that, depending on who was talking and how imaginative they were, included cattle theft, meth cooking, drug running, and money laundering for the Russian mafia. Since Sal had moved to the Prentiss place he’d grown thinner and he always looked tired, but this morning he looked even worse than usual. He was pale beneath the tawny skin that was the only clue to his father’s identity and his shaggy dark bangs flopped into eyes that were sunken with exhaustion.
“I found a dead person,” he said.
Jake rocked forward. “What?”
Sal’s shoulders twitched, as though he thought Jake was going to grab them. “I found a dead body. Up the hill a ways.”
“Holy shit.” Jake stopped and got himself in hand. He was wearing the uniform of the Marzen Volunteer Fire Department, and despite the game shows he took that responsibility seriously. He turned off the television. “Is it a skeleton?” No one in Marzen was missing that he knew of, and every once in a while somebody turned up the bones of a miner or a settler who’d taken a wrong turn on the way to California.
Sal hesitated. “No.”
“Do you know who it is?”
The boy’s dark eyes slid sideways, to the station’s refrigerator. There was a sign taped to the door that warned of terrible consequences if food was left in there too long, or if anybody took food that wasn’t theirs. “I think it might be my math teacher.”
“Your math teacher?”
“There’s a car. I think it’s his.”
Jake didn’t know what to do. He looked around the small station for help, but of course there was none. Leon Petrelli wouldn’t relieve him until two. Maybe he should treat this as a medical call, he thought. Marzen was small enough that its fire department volunteers doubled as paramedics, and Jake was even more proud of his EMT license than he was of his fire department uniform. He could take the ambulance up there, see what Sal had found. He wiped his palms on his pants. “Okay, why don’t you show me.”
They drove up the dirt road that led from the town to the Prentiss place. Jake figured Sal had found the body on his way to the school bus, and sure enough, about a mile along they came upon an old brown Corolla parked just off the road, and Sal told him to stop. Jake walked over to the car. He knew better than to touch it, but he looked inside. It was empty.
He walked back to where Sal waited beside the ambulance. All around them the foothills of the Humboldt Range rose in bristly mounds, treeless and dry. To the right the land sloped up toward a rocky cliff that threw man and boy into shadow. The wind pushed Sal’s Denver Broncos sweatshirt against his thin chest. It was cold in this high desert country in March; the tops of the mountains were still white with snow.
Sal turned and led Jake up the slope. They climbed in silence, through sagebrush that snatched at their pants legs. When they reached the top the ground dropped into a seasonal wash that ran along the base of the bluff. A cluster of acacia trees stood there, their canopies lifted to the sky like open palms. They were the only trees Jake had seen since they left Marzen, and the dense little grove spoke of shelter, of safety. Of a place to hide.
Sal stopped. The wind whipped in the sagebrush and the gray-green leaves of the acacias, and moaned as it curled among the hills. There was a smell, too, faint but insistent. Tangy, ripe, burnt. Far above, two chicken hawks floated in lazy circles, their wings tipping in, then out, then in again.
Jake looked at the boy. His eyes were closed, his shoulders drawn in tight.
“Is it down there?”
Sal nodded without opening his eyes.
“Wait here.” Jake pressed one hand against his belly, tucked in his shirt, and walked into the wash.
When he reached the grove of trees, he didn’t see the math teacher right away. He saw the careful ring of stones that made the fire pit, and the ashes piled in the center. Around it lay trees that had grown and died and fallen, their corpses blackened in the long, quiet decay of desert things. At first, Jake took the math teacher’s body for one of these. Only when he saw the empty vodka bottle and the children’s jump rope did he see what was left of the man. Then Jake, too, closed his eyes.
* * *
Heather Young is the author of two novels, the award-winning and Edgar-nominated The Lost Girls and The Distant Dead. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars, a Fellowship from the Sewanee Writers’ Workshop, and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and the Tin House Writers Workshop. She lives in Mill Valley, California, where she writes, bikes, hikes, and reads books by other people that she wishes she’d written.
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