She shivers by the window. Breath settling to a decent rhythm.
“Drink.” His clammy hand on her shoulder.
Steam rising, she brings the mug to her lips, prays it’s poison.
word count: 30
She shivers by the window. Breath settling to a decent rhythm.
“Drink.” His clammy hand on her shoulder.
Steam rising, she brings the mug to her lips, prays it’s poison.
word count: 30
I didn’t want to go back to his apartment. I didn’t want to go home. But it was dangerous to stay in Virginia. How soon would his ex’s body wash up on the banks of the Dan River? How soon would the local news air video feed from traffic cameras showing us dumping the suitcase over the bridge? How soon would Danville police track down his car?
He fell asleep at the wheel twice. The first time, he claimed he was only looking down at the dashboard, checking his gas levels, checking his speed, checking the time—it was almost dawn, but the sun had yet to rise. I wondered it would ever again. We belonged in the darkness, the shadows. The light of the sun would reveal the blood on our hands, permanently stained. No soap, no water would wash it away. We’d go through our daily lives carrying our shame like a scarlet letter. Anything we’d come in contact with would spread the mark—a hand shake here, a passing of papers there. It would spread like a plague until the whole of the earth was consumed. Maybe that was where original sin came from—Adam and Eve’s disobedience passed down through the generations. We were they reincarnated, repeating the cycle, bringing down the curse of death, just so he could keep the fruit of his loins. I doubted even God would save us now.
When he fell asleep the second time, his foot went heavy like lead on the gas pedal. The engine moaned as the dial on the speedometer passed ninety. I beat my fist on the steering wheel and honked the horn to jolt him back to consciousness. I wouldn’t risk a third time. As soon as we crossed back into North Carolina, we would find a cheap motel, pay cash so we couldn’t be traced.
Super 8 has a first floor room available on the back side of the motel, facing a construction lot containing a dormant tractor and mounds of clay piled ten to twenty feet high. It was the perfect place to lay low. Instead of pulling up in front of the room door, he parallel parked into three spaces in an empty corner of the parking lot on the edge of the construction zone, right next to one of the taller clay mounds. With the age of his car, passersby would think it had been parked there unnoticed for weeks, maybe months, possibly abandoned. It wouldn’t appear to belong to a guest staying at the motel—a guest police might be looking for.
The ceiling in the bathroom was peeling—crumbs of plaster swept behind the door. A faint brown ring lined the porcelain siding of both the toilet and the bathtub. There was a layer of smudge on the mirror, similar to his murky windshield, but I didn’t need to see my reflection to know I looked terrible. Deprived of sleep, the bags under my eyes weighed my face. I struggle to lift my neck. My body was heavy, as if I were sinking, drowning under the surface.
I pulled his oversized sweatpants over my hips, turned off the light, and stepped over the large stain on the carpet just outside the bathroom door—probably from a drunk hooker’s vomit, or pee. This was no hotel of luxury. This was a place where people disappeared from the grid—the cheating husbands, the drug addicts, the “honorably” discharged civil servants, the criminal scum dodging the cops. We were the latter. If we were lucky, the place had bedbugs too. We’d need them to corroborate our story about his mattress and box spring anyway. If one of his neighbors ever asked, we could roll up our sleeves, lift our shirts, and reveal the raised red welts on our arms and backs, where the tiny critters feasted on our flesh.
I worried for Stephan, however. Already tucked into the bed closest to the closest, Stephan lay still, curled under the covers, sleeping with his thumb in his mouth. He didn’t deserve this punishment. He didn’t deserve to lose his mother; he didn’t deserve to lose his father, either. No child should have to suffer the blunt consequences of his parents’ selfish decisions.
“Why’d you kill her?” I could barely hear my own voice. He stepped out of his shoes, kicked them toward the dresser on which the TV sat. “I mean, it couldn’t have been just because she took Stephan,” I added.
“Why not?” He pulled his shirt over his head and tossed it onto armchair by the window.
“I don’t know. I guess . . . I thought there was something more.”
She’d taken their son, erased him from Stephan’s life for almost a year and a half. That was his motive. No one would’ve blamed him if he hunted her down, found her sitting alone on a park bench in a small rural town—isolated from witnesses, yards away from the children playing on the swings—and snapped her neck. But I couldn’t wrap my brain around why he killed her after she’d come back, after she’d brought their son back. Without any persuasion or prying from him, she’d picked up the phone and promised to come home. Why go through killing her after she’d already fixed her wrong? Did she threaten to take Stephan again? Or was it much for him, seeing everyday how big Stephan had gotten, knowing he would never have those memories of watching him grow? He couldn’t forgive her for taking what she could never return?
It was much easier for women to forgive a lover’s wrong than it was for men. Maybe the man I dated before him never forgave me for aborting our baby, either. Maybe he dreamed of killing me too. And just as Stephan’s mom couldn’t save herself, my obsession with becoming a mother now wouldn’t bring back the child I’d killed. What would he do to me if he learned of my past? After tonight, I knew at least one of us was capable of murder, but would I make the mistake of provoking him to kill me? Would I stoop down to the level of his ex—of my past self—and snatch a child from a father again?
I leaned over the bed Stephan lay in and kissed behind his ear. “Sweet dreams,” I whispered. I prayed he would never have to remember this night, or anything that happened before. I turned around just as his father pulled the curtains shut, but I caught a glimpse of the pink sky in the distance, behind the mounds of clay outside the window. The sun rising would signify a clean slate for us, a new beginning—all of our guilt buried in the night, the dark depths of the river, floating downstream, hopefully to larger bodies of water and eventually feeding out into the Atlantic Ocean, past local, state, or federal jurisdictions, past territorial waters, and out of our lives forever.
But even as he slid into bed behind me and pulled his sweatpants down to my knees, my eyes wandered to the remote control lying on the nightstand, and I couldn’t help but think about pressing that power button, changing to one of the local stations, and waiting for the top of the hour breaking news report, between the weather and traffic . . .
Grisly discovery made in suitcase washed ashore . . .
I hadn’t thought about what we would do once we crossed the border into Virginia. Truthfully, I didn’t think we would ever reach this point—that eventually he would come to his senses, or I would. Instead, we subconsciously watched ourselves perform like actors in a suspense film, screaming for us to stop, stop and face the consequences, call the police before it was too late. But when we still stuffed the body into the suitcase, when we still put it inside the trunk of his car, when we still took her sleeping child along for the ride to unknowingly witness his own mother’s disposal, our subconscious stared on horrified, unable to tear eyes away.
The Virginia border was just under two miles ahead, and I had to think fast of what we would do next. Would we try to find a park near the highway where we could bury the suitcase, or would we just pull onto the shoulder and find a spot in the woods? Even if we did find a place to bury her, what would we use? I didn’t think to ask if he had a shovel before we left, but why would he even need one? He lived in a second floor apartment, he had no yard, he barely left home unless he was going to work. Where else could we easily find one? Going to the store to buy a shovel this late at night would only raise suspicions—not to mention it was unlikely we would find a hardware store open 24 hours.
Why was the decision left to me? He didn’t weigh out his options with me before he moved her into his apartment. He didn’t consult me before he decided to end her life. But he pushed all the responsibilities of eradicating the problem down onto my shoulders. I couldn’t stand on my own two feet underneath the weight. Eventually my knees would buckle, and I would fall forward face first into the ground, inhaling dirt, and in the end, when he no longer required my quick mind to hide his shame, he would bury me right beside her.
As we approached the “Welcome to Virginia” sign, he turned to me. “Well?”
I shrugged. “Maybe we could hide it somewhere in the woods on the side of the road.”
“Are you shittin’ me?”
“What happened to ‘we can’t just toss it. You’ll get caught’?” he asked in a nasal voice, mocking me.
“Better here than in the lake behind your apartment where someone’s sure to identify her!”
He shook his head and returned his attention to the road. A pair of signs notifying us of an upcoming split in the highway passed overhead. Ignoring them, he pressed his foot down on the gas pedal, and we lurched forward. He turned the volume on the stereo as high as it could go. The speaker vibrated against my leg and the windows rattled as if about to shatter.
I checked Stephan in the rearview mirror. He was still sound asleep. Was it possible that he was deaf? I couldn’t remember if I’d seen a hearing aid in his ear. Maybe he never had one. Maybe his mother kept it a secret. Jobless, she couldn’t afford doctor’s visits, had to pretend he just wasn’t listening to her—children that young had short attention spans. Or maybe she’d become so vindictive she’d allowed his father to believe Stephan didn’t like him, didn’t want to be near him, when in actuality he couldn’t understand him, couldn’t connect with his voice, match it to his first memory of his father long forgotten.
Maybe I could convince him that we should add Stephan to my insurance, schedule an appointment with an audiologist sometime next week when everything settled.
The fork in the road was slowly coming into up, and he was still driving a steady 70 miles per hour.
“Are you gonna pull over?” I asked.
“I don’t know where I’m going!” he snapped.
I read the sign above our lane. We wanted to go to Danville, but this sign was leading us down a business route. Anything “business” would take us right into the heart of town—the last place we wanted to be with a dead body in the trunk.
I pointed to the sign for 58. “Take the exit!”
He swerved at the last minute, treading across the grass, almost clipping the exit sign with his side mirror.
We merged onto a two lane highway, as empty as the last. There were no street lamps, and the trees on either side of the road created a pitch black barrier that narrowed as we drove along. I watched him drum his fingers on the dashboard and steer with the other hand, screaming along with track, “All these things I hate revolve around me . . . Just back off before I snap!” My brain shook against my skull, and I covered my ears, expecting to feel blood ooze through my fingers from all the noise.
“Do you think you could turn it down? Please!”
“So are you gonna tell me what we’re doing?”
“I don’t know! Just keep driving!” I smacked the dial with my palm. Finally in silence, I laid my head against the window. The forest outside was peaceful, undisturbed. I wanted to disappear behind the curtain of leaves, lie amongst the shrubs, let the cool breeze sooth my exhausted mind and rock me to sleep.
“Why can’t you make a fuckin’ decision?” he groaned. “You said you would help me.”
“I didn’t tell you to kill her!” I banged my forehead against the glass. The music was gone but the headache pressed on, squeezing against my temples. I looked up and perked when I saw the yellow diamond: BRIDGE ICES BEFORE ROAD.
It wasn’t ideal, but it could work. We wouldn’t have to get our clothes dirty, or scrape our arms on branches, or leave behind our footprints in the dirt for someone broken down on the side of the road and waiting for the tow truck to get curious and follow them right to the makeshift grave. All we needed was the arm strength and the prayer than no car would pass by as we pushed the suitcase over.
The headlights illuminated the sign: DAN RIVER — JAMES LESTER TRAMEL BRIDGE.
“Stop,” I said, tapping the window. “Stop right here!”
He braked hard and jerked the steering wheel right, nearly colliding with the guardrail.
“Smoothly!” I whined.
“What the fuck are we doing?”
“We’ll throw it in the river,” I told him.
“Do you have a better idea?”
He sighed. “I just want this shit to be done.”
“Well let’s hurry up before a car comes.” I checked on Stephan once last time before following him to the trunk.
The smell of rotting flesh had permeated inside, and the whiff nearly knocked me out when he lifted the lid.
He covered his nose with his forearm. “You take the one with the sheets,” he said through his sleeve. He extended the handle to the larger suitcase and pulled it out. It hit the ground with a loud thud, and the wheels, unable to properly roll under the weight of her crumpled body inside, scraped against the pavement like chalk on the blacktop.
He dragged the luggage behind him, and just as he was about to heave it over, I shouted, “Wait! It might float.”
“We gotta figure out how to weigh it down.” I moved the other two suitcases around and patted the inside of the trunk in the darkness, feeling for a weight, or crowbar, or maybe even the tire jack, anything that would sink the unlikely coffin down to river floor.
“Didn’t you say better here than back home?”
He was using my own words to mock me again. Before I could rebut, he pushed the suitcase over the edge and stormed toward me. I backed out into the highway, held out my arms. I was next. Without the sun, water temperatures were much cooler at night, maybe even freezing. This was how it would end for me. Death by drowning or hypothermia, whichever came first. I turned toward the eastbound lanes, anxious to see a pair of headlights, a witness. How soon would they get here before he hauled me over his shoulder, dumped me into the black abyss?
“What are you doing?” he asked.
I dropped my arms.
“Get in the damn car,” he said then snatched the second suitcase out of the trunk and tossed it into the river.
“Water,” she whispers harshly, her voice sounding as if someone, invisible to me, is pressing a forearm against her throat, making it hard to breathe.
I run upstairs, two at a time, get a glass from the cupboard and hold it under the faucet.
Mama and Deddy said I was only imagining things. “The end of a dream, is all,” Deddy said. “Like when you dream your alarm is ringing, and it wakes you up.”
But I knew the scratching under the floorboards weren’t tree branches hitting the side of the house. I knew those soft cries—“help, somebody”—wasn’t the wailing wind blowing through the crack in my windowsill.
There is a girl in our basement. She’s been here three months.
She drains the glass in two gulps, holds it out for me to refill it. The dirt caked around her eyes and cheekbones crack and peel as the muscles in her face revive.
“How’d you get in here?” I ask, searching for burrows between the walls and floors where she might have dug her way through, like the rats we set traps for.
She points to the top of the stairs, and I turn to find Deddy standing by the basement door left ajar.
“You just too curious, boy.” He slams it shut, locks it from the outside, leaving us in darkness.
Written for VisDare, a weekly challenge to craft a story based on the provided photo in 150 words or less—or more, as is always my case… 😉
We didn’t speak. On Highway 29 North to Danville, we were the only car for miles. He drove in the right line, repeatedly drifting toward to the guardrail until the loud vibration from the rumble strips under the tires caused him to jerk the car back onto the road.
“Are you sleepy?” I asked, but he didn’t answer, remained focused on the road—though, how he could even see the road through his foggy windshield, I wasn’t sure. He’d tried to clean it twice, but that only made it worse. The windshield wipers had smeared a cloudy layer of dirt and wiper fluid across the center just as we were approaching a curve, forcing him to suddenly hit the brakes and wait for it to clear so that he could see well enough to continue driving. Still, it was like peering through muck.
Maybe the glass was just old—aged with the car, a ’96 Camry—and he never thought to replace it. Years of sweaty palms and fingers touching the glass, of food and drinks spilled due to a careless knock of the elbow, of bird droppings in the spring, of bug guts splattered at fifty miles an hour in the summer, of dirty rain water spread from corner to corner by dull wiper blades had added up to a cataract-type vision driving down the empty highway in the middle of the night, barely able to see the road ahead or the dashed and solid lines marking the outside of the lane, even with the high beams on.
Before we left, I had insisted on putting Stephan in his car seat. I surprised myself at how quickly I’d done it without hesitating or asking for direction, pulling tightly on the seatbelt to make sure he was secure, as if my brain had suddenly registered that I was a mother now and trickled all the necessary knowledge down to the rest of my body. When I leaned forward to kiss his forehead, I felt another force control me altogether. Stephan was now my primary concern. He’d just lost a mother, and contrary to what his father might believe, he’d lost a father in infancy. I was his only hope for a normal childhood, a normal life. All my actions that night meant nothing if I didn’t return to him doting parents who would love and care for him unceasingly, even if one of those parents was me.
I turned to check on Stephan, to make sure his car seat hadn’t fallen forward or slid across the backseat into the door due to his father’s sporadic driving. He was sound asleep. His head bobbed only when we hit a pothole in the road— nodding “yes,” shaking “no,” answering questions in a dream, in a police station, sitting next to a man with a badge. Do you know what happened to your mother? Did your father do it? The anxious thoughts invaded my mind suddenly, and just as quickly, I replaced them with images of Hershey’s chocolate bars and Hot Wheels Thunderbirds and projected them into his dreams. If not for the darkness, I believed I would’ve seen his lips curl into a smile. My first motherhood test passed—expelling the nightmares. Not even the thrash of heavy metal from the radio would stir him—I hoped.
I never thought of his father as someone who enjoyed rock music. I’d always assumed he listened to urban hip hop—Lupe Fiasco, or Wale—but without a word, he’d slipped Bullet for My Valentine’s The Poison into the CD player, and we continued down the highway under blood curdling screams.
“Is this really appropriate?” I asked, thinking of the dead body in his trunk, of how perfectly it matched to the lyrics— “. . .betrayed one more time . . . you’re gonna get what’s coming to you . . . now is your time to die . . . cover her face . . .” —as if it were the soundtrack to his violent break-up. I envisioned him turning the stereo in his apartment up full volume to muffle her screams as he straddled her torso and pulled the pillow over her face, driven by his hatred of her and the aggressive shredding from the speakers egging him to press harder, not to let up, until her arms stopped flailing.
“It might wake Stephan,” I added, and my voice sounded so out of place against the rock music, like a dove trying to coo over a lion’s roar. He only turned the dial down a notch, as if that would make a difference, but Stephan didn’t move, so I kept quiet the rest of the ride—cracked the window so that the inrushing air would slightly drown out the music and relieve my ringing ears—until we were fifteen minutes from the border, and he finally asked, “So what are we gonna do when we get there?”
I twisted the knob but hesitated to open the door. His cries were strong, desperate. Not high-pitched squeals like a baby’s cry for milk or to have his diaper changed, but deep in his gut, a low, steady moan like a dying man, as if he already knew, already sensed that his mother was gone, and that sudden awareness was slowly killing him.
The front door slammed shut, startling me, and I quickly snatched my hand off the knob.
“Oh, Stephan’s crying,” he said and brushed past me into his room.
Stephan. His name was Stephan.
I lingered at the threshold, watched as he took the boy from the small Hot Wheels bed and rocked him.
He was much bigger than I had imagined; his feet dangled over his father’s crotch. I couldn’t remember if he’d ever told me the boy’s age. There were only the pictures in his phone from when he and his ex were still together and living in Philadelphia. Stephan was only five or six months old then. Old enough to sit up, utter single syllables, and possibly even stand—if he held onto someone’s leg, or a flattened cushion on the couch, or the dulled corner of an end table—but not quite able to walk. He was still too top-heavy; his body needed time to grow into his head. Time lost when his mother took him in the middle of the night and disappeared.
I wasn’t allowed to see Stephan when they moved in—the consequence of dating a man with a child and a selfish baby momma who could vanish without a trace. However, his baby pictures stayed with me. Even when I knew how fast children grew in year, I still dreamt of him as a red-faced newborn wrapped in a blue blanket, wearing a blue cap on his head, and lying on my chest. As in infant, I pictured the tiny little body that could fit snuggly in my arm—his head resting on my shoulder, his bottom in the crease of my elbow, his pudgy feet in the palm of my hand where I could curl my fingers in and tickle the bottoms of his feet until he laughed so hard, he passed gas.
Watching how he bounced Stephan up and down against his chest, I realized that round, cheery bundle of joy was what he had hoped to reunite with when he received the email from him ex promising to give his son back. He was expecting to hold his baby boy again when he left me to meet them at the Greyhound station. Instead, he found his ex standing alone, and a toddler, taller than his knees, walking without the assistance of inanimate furniture, who looked up into the eyes of his father and failed to recognize them.
“I didn’t know he was here,” I said.
“Where else would he be?” he said over his shoulder as he tucked Stephan back under the covers.
“Maybe a neighbor’s house. A friend’s.” I could’ve taken care of him, I wanted to say. It would’ve come natural to me, like sex. Even without the experience, you still knew exactly what to do once it was in your hands, right? How to position your bodies so that you were both comfortable. I could’ve kept Stephan for however long he needed. Fed him sweets and teach him songs so he’d feel comfortable with me. Tell him stories of an important trip his mother was about to embark on, so that neither of us grew suspicious of her sudden disappearance. All the while, unbeknownst to Stephan or me, his father would solicit the help of someone else, maybe a co-worker or drinking buddy, with a similar baby momma issue, who could sympathize with his actions and help him get rid of the body. And then, once all evidence of her was erased, we could get back together, I’d move in, and the three of us could be a family, pretending there was never a fourth person in the equation.
That way was less messy for me.
“I mean, what if he found her?” I asked.
“Watch him until I get back,” he said, dodging my question. He left to retrieve the box spring and drag it down to the dumpster.
Stephan’s eyes were still open, though not enough to signify that he was conscious. His heavy eyelids hinted at being on the brink of sleep, but the furrow in his brow suggested he was questioning who I was and why I stood in the doorway staring at him. Did he think he was dreaming, or had he heard what I’d said about his mother and wanted to understand. Could two-year-olds comprehend the meaning of death? Did they know it was final? That death meant someone was never coming back?
Before I could talk myself out of it, I let myself in and sat at the foot of his bed. The mattress was thin and sunk down to the floor under my weight, bringing my knees level with my chest as if I was squatting.
“Hi.” I reached out and touched his leg. He didn’t flinch or draw back, but the room still felt cold. Maybe it was the ice blue coat of paint on the walls, or the fact that his eyes still looked open although I was sure he’d fallen asleep by then.
“I’m a friend of your—” The permanent frown on his face stopped me from saying “dad’s.” It was the same frown, I imagine, he gave his father when they met again for the first time—a look of disbelief that he or I could be anything but strangers.
“I’m a friend of your mother’s,” I said, and a sudden draft sent a surge of electricity through my body and raised all the hairs on my arms so that I searched the room expecting to find his mother’s angry ghost. Instead, his father leaned against the door, having returned from outside.
“Let’s get this over with,” he said.
“Are we taking him?”
He shook his head.
“We can’t leave him here alone. Who knows how long we’ll be gone? What if he wakes up again?” What if he woke the neighbors? What if they called the cops? What if the cops came and found Stephan home alone? No parents, no babysitter, but an ever-present stench of something recently dead that had been decomposing for days.
“We’re just dumping the suitcase.” He rolled his eyes. I could tell he was getting annoyed with me. I was being too worrisome. “You’re such a nag,” he used to joke back when our relationship was less complicated. Naggy, an unwelcomed nickname he gave me when I complained too much about his hot apartment, or the fact that he never wore more than a robe and boxers whenever I visited.
Sometimes I wondered if my constant whining was the reason he never made us official. Now that I knew his secret, held the power to send him to death row and take his son from him, again—this time permanently—did he regret inviting me back into his life? Did he regret introducing me to his mess now that I was making it too difficult to clean it up?
“We can’t just dump it anywhere,” I tried to rationalize. “Doesn’t she have family?”
“She doesn’t have anybody. Nobody knows she’s here. She said she was renting some guy’s basement before she moved down.” He shrugged his shoulders and sighed. “But she lies, so I don’t even know.”
I looked down at Stephan, still asleep or at least pretending to be. “Well, regardless, your neighbors have seen her. If we just dump the suitcase anywhere, the police will eventually find it, and if they show her picture on the news, it could lead back to you.”
“So what do you suggest?”
“We go far. Virginia, maybe. Or at least the border. That’s about an hour drive.”
“This late?” he asked.
He turned into the hallway, swinging his arms back and forth and pacing in a small circle. “Fine,” he finally said. “I’ll get the suitcase. You take him. We’ll drive my car.” I wanted to protest taking his car, but he raised his hand to silence me and left before I could say anything else.
Stephan was breathing heavy, though I feared if I lifted his chin, I’d find his eyes still partially open, staring down at me with distrust. I tucked the comforter around him like a cocoon and scooped him into my arms. It felt too natural to lay him on my chest, position his head in the crook of my neck, as if I’d done it many times before. His steady breathing paused for a moment, as if he’d noticed a change and needed investigate the new environment to be sure it was safe. Eventually, his body relaxed, and his soft snore returned. Looking at his face—his smooth skin, his rose-colored chubby cheeks, his flat nose, slightly bigger than my knuckle—I wondered if he was still young enough to forget his mother. If I stayed around long enough, held him more, kissed him the way she did, sang sweet lullabies until he fell asleep, would he start to believe that I was her, that I had always been a part of his life?
“You lookin’ at me?” the buck’s eyes question. They shimmer as if moist, as if at any second, they could blink. Esmeralda tousles the short brown hairs on its neck, warm and soft to the touch, as if blood still circulates through its veins.
“I didn’t know you hunt,” she says.
Flint chuckles lightly. “Hunting implies killing.” He shakes his head. “No, I only extend life.” He presses his palm into the small of her back, guides her to the couch.
She plops down on the cushion, crosses her legs. The wiry beard of a black schnauzer hidden underneath the coffee table tickles the top of her bouncing foot, startling her.
“God! I thought it was real!” she says, patting her chest.
“At one time, he was.” He takes a steaming mug from the table, holding it in his palm. “I remember how much you like English Breakfast.”
“Do you stuff all your animals?” She blows, sips, licks her upper lip.
“I make the living into art.” He finger combs her beach wavy hair.
She nods, rests her head on his shoulder. The mug slips from her fingers, spilling tea onto the carpet.
word count: 189
Flash Fiction for the Purposeful Practitioner is a weekly challenge for writers to create a story in under 200 words using the provided photo prompt and introductory sentence as their ‘muse.’ Click the froggy icon to read other stories inspired by the photo and add your own.
The odor was even more intoxicating when we returned to his apartment. I wondered if it was affecting my judgment. Maybe the stench had manifested itself into a barrier that intercepted alert signals from my brain telling my legs to run. It kept my arms stiff by my side when I should’ve been snatching up the phone to dial 9-1-1 with hands not yet soiled by the dirt we would bury her body.
“How’re we doing this?” he asked as I took each suitcase out of the other and lined them up in front of the bed.
“We’re gonna pack her body up in the big one,” I said.
“Can she even fit?”
“We’ll make her fit.”
“Wouldn’t it just be easier to chop off her arms and legs?” he said, measuring the width of the suitcase with his forearms.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said placing my hands on my hips. “Do you have a machete packed in your trunk? Because I don’t.”
He turned his back and sighed audibly.
“It’s extremely hard to dismember a human body,” I continued. “You’re cutting through bone, and you can’t do that with a regular old kitchen knife.”
He didn’t answer, only shook his head. Maybe he was finally starting to realize how deep into the sludge we were headed. A boiling tar pit that would singe our skin and fossilize our bodies. Forever preserved like the citizens of Pompeii imprisoned in an crusted shell of molten rock because they ignored the warning signs of impending doom, failed to escape before their world came crashing down in a barrage of fire and brimstone.
“Fine,” he said scratching the back of his neck. “I wouldn’t have made it this far without you, so I’ll follow your lead.”
My stomach lurched, an unsettling reminder that I hadn’t eaten since earlier that evening, and with the devil’s hour quickly approaching, our surroundings seemed to grow darker—the lights in the hall were dim, the curtains were drawn, outside the clouds and trees blocked illumination from the moon and distant stars—setting the tone for sinister activity to take place.
How quickly had he shifted the responsibility to me, as if I was the one to smother his ex, and he only followed along, fearful that he would be next if he didn’t cooperate. My decisions were digging a deeper grave for myself, well past six feet, the shovel of my tongue knocking on the gates of Hell, and despite my fear of a face-to-face meeting with Satan, I couldn’t compel myself to stop.
“Take the shower curtain from the bathroom,” I instruct him. “We’ll line the suitcase with it. Hopefully the plastic will catch any body fluids that seep through her clothes.
He left the room, and I removed the sheets from the body, taking the corners and folding them across the bed, avoiding any areas that might have touched her, absorbed her sweat, her blood, her urine, her tears. Holding them away from me like dirty underwear, I threw them into the closest suitcase, quickly zipped it up, and wiped my hands on the front of my jeans. I would have to remember to toss them too as soon as we were done.
He returned with the shower curtain ripped from the rings and pressed it into the suitcase as if lining a foil sheet in a baking pan. Then I kicked the suitcase forward, closer to the foot of the bed.
“Just pull her feet and drag her in,” I directed.
“You won’t help me?”
“Hell no! I’m not touching her!” I declared, as if avoiding physical contact with the deceased would clear me of any wrong doing.
He smiled, which sickened me further. Did he think this was a joke? A dream we could wake up from? A movie we could turn off?
The body slid down the bed, pulling the fitted sheet off the mattress—satin clinging to her moist skin. I turned away as he pulled her closer, not wanting to see her eyes begging me why. Then came the solid thump when she fell into the suitcase. He balled the sheet and tossed it over her face, relieving me of the pull of her stare. Her neck bowed in front of the short end of the suitcase, and the crown of her head stuck out above the zipper.
“Can you like . . . push it down?” I asked, holding my hands in front of me, but instead of nudging it down, he pushed all of his weight into it as if tightly packing clothes, and I heard a crack.
“Oh my god!” I turned and squeezed me shoulders to my ears.
“She’s already dead,” he said flatly.
“Just . . . fix her legs,” I said over my shoulder.
He picked up her legs, which were hanging over the edge of the suitcase, and bent them forward, folding them like an accordion so that she lay inside the suitcase in the fetal position.
“Zip it up,” I said, and the zipper made a low, deep buzz as he pulled it around the suitcase.
I looked up at the bare mattress. From what I could see through the dim light, it was clear, a creamy white, but I imagined a stain at it’s center in the shape of a body like the chalk outlines crime scene investigators draw around a homicide victim to mark where he was killed.
“We have to get rid of the whole bed,” I said.
“I agree. It still stinks in here,” he said. I was relieved to know that he had not gotten accustomed to the smell. Even now, it still made me dizzy.
“I could take it downstairs to the dumpster. That wouldn’t be too suspicious, right?” he asked.
I shrugged my shoulders. “We can say you had bedbugs.”
“Oh, nice.” He rolled his neck and proceeded to lift the twin-size mattress. “Not too heavy,” he said balance, it above his head.
“Just don’t drop it.” As he turned sideways to fit the mattress through the doorway, I added, “We should pack some clothes too. Make it look like we’re going on a trip and not moving something fishy out of the apartment in the middle of the night.”
“Your call,” he said and continued down the hall toward the front door.
I quickly scooted out of my jeans and put them in the suitcase with the sheets. Then taking the smallest suitcase, I went across the hall into his room, opened his drawers, and threw the first articles of clothing I could see—white t-shirts, sweatpants, plaid boxers, socks.
As I zipped the suitcase, I heard a faint whine. At first I thought it was him opening the front door, coming back for the box spring. A terrifying thought quickly ran across my mind that maybe his ex wasn’t dead. Maybe she was gasping for breath through her plastic cocoon, trying to claw her way out of the suitcase. However as I approached the sound, it came from some place past her room, closer to the front of the apartment, behind a door I’d assumed was a second bathroom, though I’d never been inside. I pressed my ear against the wood, and the sound sharpened into a cry. A baby’s cry.
His son had been here the whole time.
Of course, he didn’t own a suitcase. That would’ve been too simple. He didn’t have many clothes—you tend to pack light when you drift from place to place. He’d only been in town six months when we met at the DMV—I renewing my license, he getting his CDL.
“I’d make a great truck driver,” he’d said later that afternoon over coffee. “I can’t stay put in one area for long.” He then recited the cities he’d lived before temporarily settling in Greensboro, North Carolina. Boston, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Richmond.
Repeatedly he’d expressed his desire to live in Atlanta, or further south in Florida, possibly Miami, with its white beaches and exotic women. However, he loved how quiet Greensboro was and reveled in our small town atmosphere. By then, I was already smitten, so I convinced him to give my quaint little city a year, enough time for him to fall in love with it, and subsequently, with me too.
“I don’t want to be a burden,” he said.
“It’s a little late for that,” I scoffed as I backed out of the parking space in front of his apartment.
“I mean, I don’t want you to get your hands dirty.”
“Then why even show me…her?” I couldn’t make myself say body, still in shock that I was agreeing to help him. How could I blatantly ignore another woman’s voice silenced forever? Could I be that blindly in love after only a few months?
Our first night together was in the backseat of his Toyota, under the clear, starry night sky. We’d pretended to have found the perfect spot for a date when truthfully, the blanket lining the backseat, the pillow propped against the door handle, the pile of laundry rising from underneath the driver’s seat, and the toothbrush and tube of toothpaste in the cup holder had always been there.
We’d just finished watching his favorite movie on Netflix, Doomsday. He had an unsettling obsession with graphic deaths—blood squirting from the neck of a decapitated body; a man with half his face blown off from a shotgun, blood splattering on the camera lens; cannibals surrounding a pyre, a primal chant of hunger exiting their lungs as a crane lowered their hostage into the dancing flames.
My pizza had been sitting at the back of my throat, waiting to resurface as the scenes became gorier. I squirmed in the seat, but he put his arm around me, stilled my body, kissed my neck and my collarbone and lower, unbuttoning my blouse.
“I love to give you pleasure,” he’d whispered, going further to say that he couldn’t be aroused until he knew I was, until he knew my entire body was quivering under his touch, until he knew I was gushing to have him inside of me. But I could already feel him rising during the movie, when I was still shielding my eyes behind my fingers, when I turned my head every time a sword severed a limb. Was it my moans that turned him on, or could it have been the last breaths of the dying characters on screen?
How easy it was for him to kiss me back at his apartment, to touch me, give me pleasure while his dead girlfriend decomposed in the bedroom. How easy it was for me to return his affections. Was I really any better than him?
“Are we going to the store?” he asked.
“We can’t leave a trail.”
“You sound like you’ve done this before,” he said jokingly. I was never a fan of his dry humor. It came at the most inappropriate of times. His voice often carried when he spoke distastefully of “trannies” and referred to white women as “snowbunnies” in public.
“I’ve watched enough forensic files cases on TV to know that killers are always caught when video of them buying weird items at Wal-Mart, or Home Depot comes out,” I said, keeping my eyes on the road, both hands on the wheel, making sure my tone remained stern so that he could understand the seriousness of what we were doing.
“What could be weird about buying a suitcase?” he asked.
“In the middle of the night?” I pointed to the clock on the dashboard displaying the time. 1:45 AM. “And what if they find your girlfriend’s body inside a suitcase that you recently bought. They would have the receipt, the tape. The evidence is stacking up against you already.”
“She’s not my girlfriend.”
“Fine! You’re baby mama!” I sharped right into my driveway and put the car in park.
“How would they know it’s not your suitcase then?” he asked.
“It was a gift from my parents back in college. A luggage set to go to Mexico for Spring Break with a couple of my roommates. I’ll take my nametag off it and it’ll just be a plain black suitcase. No trail.”
He nodded and moved to unbuckle his seatbelt.
“Stay here,” I said, and taking the keys from the ignition, I trotted up the steps into my house. The luggage set was in the back corner of my bedroom closet. I packed the three smaller suitcases inside the larger one, lugged it back down the steps and heaved it into the trunk.
I could feel him standing behind me, watching as I retched into his downstairs neighbor’s garden. As my shoulders hunched and my body shuddered, I anticipated his palm on the center of my back, between the shoulder blades, that slight nudge that would send me over. There was no reason to keep me around, spare my life. He’d shown me the devil, etched away the thin crust and revealed to me the darkness he’d kept buried inside his heart for most of our relationship, and I had rejected it.
“Will you call the police?” he asked softly, with the same voice he used to tell me he needed me, pleading, desperate. I turned around and looked into his eyes, glowing gray in the moonlight, tears shimmering as they collected around his lower eyelid. One tear dripped from the corner, began to glide down his cheek. I reached up to wipe it away, and he snatched my wrist. “Will you call the police?” he said again, more forceful this time, the bass growing in his voice. He squeezed my wrist, the tips of his fingers pressing deep into bone, drawing up blue veins, cutting off circulation, curling my hand forward, drawing me to my knees.
“We have to,” I said finally, and he tossed my wrist back into my face and spun around, scratching his head with both hands.
“Because there’s a dead girl in your bed!” I snapped.
He knelt in front of me, curled his hand around the back of my neck. “You still don’t get it, do you?”
I hung my head as he tickled my spine. His hand was large—his thumb running up and down my throat while the rest of his palm cupped behind my neck. Would he press forward, cut off the air to my lungs? Would he snap my neck, bend his hand as if twisting the lid off a glass soda bottle.
“We can tell them she went to bed drunk and choked on her vomit during the night,” I suggested.
“They’ll check her stomach.” He patted my shoulder as if to say, thanks for trying. I’d shown him an inclination to help. My life was saved— for now.
“Plus they’ll wonder why I took so long to call,” he added, standing and leaning against the patio door.
“How long…has it been?”
“A couple days!” I stumbled back into the railing, the metal hitting the center of my spine directly. I put both hands on the bar to brace myself and keep from flipping backward at yet another shocking bomb dropped onto my conscience. His dead ex-girlfriend in his bed. Her body festering for a couple days. What was next?
“It’s a wonder your neighbors don’t smell anything. I could smell it as soon as I got here. I thought it was an animal.”
“That’s why you have to help me!” He rushed to me, swept me into his embrace, bending my back over the banister. He kissed my shoulder and neck hurriedly, but as he moved higher he slowed, biting on my cheekbone, planting a row of kisses down to my lips.
“Stop,” I whined, but he wouldn’t let go, holding tighter, kissing harder, slipping his hands into the front my jeans. Before I knew it, we were back inside, where I again couldn’t breathe, the reek of decomposition impairing my better judgement. He laid me on the loveseat, knocking litter off the coffee table as he wrestled me out of my clothes and mounted me. It was then that I realized this was another way to live. If I couldn’t help him rid himself of his ex permanently, the least I could do was relieve the tension in his groin, make him feel he didn’t waste his time showing me his evil secret. Though lying on her back got the last one killed, if I could give him what every man expected and wanted from a woman, silently, maybe he would feel less murderous, less vengeful. Maybe his desires of being a father would awaken once again. Maybe we could forget what he’d done, start over with a clean slate, save my life and cleanse his soul.
When he finished, he sat on the arm of the couch and lit a cigarette while I slid back into my clothes. He took a long drag then turned and handed it to me. “Why not?” He shrugged. He knew I didn’t smoke, but what was the point of being righteous now, wanting to extend my life? We all died eventually. If not by the hands of someone else, someone we undoubtedly knew and loved, then by our own hands.
I held the cigarette between my index and middle fingers, inhaled the nicotine, and listened to the echo of the final nail being driven into my coffin. “Do you have a suitcase?” I asked.