Chain Reaction by Joe Clifford.

The winter sun crept over the crest of Wretched Mountain, spilling down the rocky knoll through the barren birches that lined a half-frozen Miller’s Pond. Earnshaw dragged Campbell Slocomb by the boots, split-apart skull oozing little bits of brain, and flipped him over on the steps of the old ranger station. He took his wallet, stuck it in the back of his jeans beside the rusty pair of pliers and flask of whiskey.

Earnshaw jiggled the teeth in his pocket like loose change from a stranger.

He doused body and shack with gasoline, struck a match, stepped back and watched it all burn.


As Earnshaw sat at the bar last night, he couldn’t stop thinking about Amy May. Since her return to Red Willow, just saying her name made him giddy.

“Well, look at what the cat’s caught,” Campbell said, taking the stool beside him.

Earnshaw now realized the goofy grin plastered across his face. But for once, he didn’t care what anybody else thought.

Campbell held up two fingers. “Two Jamesons,” he called out. “Looks like I ain’t the only one with good news.” He dropped the keys to his latest F250 on the counter. Campbell always made a show of picking up the tab.

But tonight wasn’t about petty jealousy.

It was about Amy May, who looked as beautiful as when they were kids, sharing hamburgers at Skippy’s Drive-In, skimming stones and laughing, they way she could still shoot those little daggers into Earnshaw’s heart. He could’ve sworn she felt it too. Because of the divorce, he knew they had to take things slow. Which had been hard on Earnshaw.

Maybe this was good. He was bursting to tell someone, and who better than Campbell Slocumb, his oldest friend and biggest rival?

“You want to go first?” Campbell said.

“After you,” Earnshaw drawled through a cockeyed grin.

“You sure?” said Campbell. “The way you’re chewing on that canary I wouldn’t want you to choke.”

It had started with a second place finish in the 3rd grade science fair, and only got worse the older they got. Sports. Girls. Life. Earnshaw never could compete with Campbell’s talent, good looks, or money.

Until now.

“OK,” Campbell said, hopping to his feet. “She didn’t want me to say anything until the divorce is final—”

Earnshaw’s first muddled thought was, How could he possibly know?
“But once the paperwork dries—”

Then that old familiar feeling crept in, and Earnshaw anticipated what was coming next.

“Amy May and me are getting married!”

Like a kick to the guts, it was the 3rd grade all over again, all the wires inside snapping, coiling around themselves, choking off the blood supply and making it hard to think.

“Well?” Campbell said. “Ain’t you going to say anything?”

“How about we head down to Miller’s Pond in the morning? Do a little fishing at the old ranger’s station, like we used to when we was kids? To celebrate.”


It was quite simple really, no different than the chemical change that had once earned him that red ribbon in the 3rd grade science fair, a chain reaction that occurs when excessive, pent-up energy is finally released.

Earnshaw had gone back to his place to drink. And he didn’t stop. The phone rang all night, but he wasn’t giving her the satisfaction of answering it.

Campbell was late picking him up, still dressed in the same clothes as the night before. At first Earnshaw wondered if Campbell was onto him, because he wasn’t talking, acting all moody. After they parked the F250 on the dirt road and began the long hike to Miller’s Pond, Earnshaw finally concluded his friend’s sullenness was just another example of the rich not appreciating getting richer. Which only pissed off Earnshaw even more. Here he’d gotten a girl like Amy May, and he couldn’t even be happy about it.

By the time Earnshaw cracked his skull with that rock, he was pretty worked up.

No one in Red Willow ever gave Earnshaw the credit for being as smart as he was. He could’ve been so much more had he not had the misfortune of living in Campbell Slocumb’s mammoth shadow. Like what he was doing here, getting away with murder, a simple but elegant plan. A burnt body only leaves dental records to go on. Which is why Earnshaw had pulled out all Campbell’s teeth. He’d extract a few of his own, sprinkle them in the fire, and the authorities would be looking for Campbell for his murder.

He’d finally trade places with Campbell Slocumb, once and for good. Fitting. Since he already felt dead inside, and being Earnshaw hadn’t earned him a damn thing his whole rotten life.

Earnshaw reached in his back pocket for the whiskey. He was drunk but not quite drunk enough to pull out his own teeth with a pair of rusty pliers. He brought back Campbell’s wallet instead. And now he saw the piece of paper sticking out.

Somehow he knew what that flowery handwriting was going to say before he even read a word.

Dear Campbell,

I am sorry but I cannot marry you. Spending this time with Earnshaw again has brought back old feelings. I waited for him once to get up the courage to come to me, and when he didn’t, I made the mistake of marrying the wrong man. I can’t do that again. You’re wonderful, Campbell, and you have so much going for you. But you’ll never be Earnshaw.

Amy May.

Earnshaw let the words sink in with the cold winter winds as the hot ashes danced up from the fire. Wretched Mountain never loomed so large. He never thought he’d say it, but he was going to miss this goddamn town.

Earnshaw balled up the letter and dropped it in the flames, listening to it crackle.

Then he jabbed the pliers into his mouth, clamped on hard to a molar, and pulled with everything he had.

Joe Clifford produces Lip Service West, a “gritty, real, raw” reading series in Oakland, CA.  His work has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Big Bridge, Bryant Literary Review, the Connecticut Review, Dark Sky, Fringe, Hobart, MonkeybicycleOpiumShotgun HoneyThuglitTigertail, and Word Riot, among others.His stories can be found at and


Thomas Pluck said...

This is damn good storytelling, we don't get enough consequences like this in crime fiction sometimes, and this was a welcome dose of reality

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Wow, tremendous opening, and you never let up. Like Tom mentioned, excellent storytelling.

Joe Clifford said...

Thanks, guys. (I've been following your stuff on Shotgun Honey, Thomas. Great stuff. Means a lot coming from you.)

Mike Miner said...

Joe, your writing sucked me right in. Perfect ending, still echoing in my head.

David Barber said...

An excellent piece of writing, Joe. Well done! Apologies for the delay in getting it published.

McDroll said...

Great story, you conjured up an authentic atmosphere, highly entertaining stuff.

Anonymous said...

So much irony packed into this tale of critical blundering that I wouldn't advise trying to board an airplane with a copy of it stuck in your pocket. You'd set off every metal detector in the place and wind up face down with handcuffs snapping down on your wrists. Well set up and the twist hinted but not revealed by the common background of the two men. Excellent! And,of course, Cool.

Joe Clifford said...

No worries, David. I'm honored just to be on here.

Robin B. said...

Agree on the consequences - good story and good telling of it!

I felt myself taking a look into Earnshaw's life, and feeling for him rather than the corpse as E. prepped to do some tooth-yanking to hide himself away and gone.

Really good stuff!

Anonymous said...

Great stuff, Joe. The pace and flashbacks do a great job of leading to that kind of ending. No big bang, just a slow burn and regret. Loved it.

Nicola Rain Jordan said...

Excellent story, well told.