Mac gripped the steering wheel until his knuckles turned white. He was stuck behind the bus on a narrow road. The vehicle stopped often and started again with an arthritic lag, expelling children amidst blue clouds of exhaust. The kids looked happy.
Bet they wouldn’t smile if they saw the body in the back seat.
Not just a body.
He glanced over his shoulder at her. Her red curls sprang out from beneath the quilt that he had thrown over her. Shelby’s wild hair was the first thing he had noticed about her the night they met.
That was a long time ago.
He cursed the bus driver and shifted in his seat. Beads of sweat rolled down his back. He tugged at his shirt, pulling it away from his damp skin.
“It’ll be okay,” he said. “It’ll be okay.”
The woman in the seat next to him stared through the windshield. “You’re kind of a hot mess.”
Bette was his girlfriend. She looked her age, twenty. Smooth skin. Shiny brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. Blue eyes that didn’t crinkle at the corners.
She had been his student, a senior in last semester’s abnormal psychology class. He was an adjunct instructor at a small college in Kentucky. Mac was forty-five. In sunnier times he had joked that he was old enough to know better…too horny to care. It didn’t seem so funny now.
Mac could have screamed with joy when the bus turned down a side road. He pushed the accelerator and the car seemed to leap forward. He was glad to leave the school children behind.
Please God. No more delays. An acrid smell rose up from the car as he sped along back roads, ascending hills, descending into valleys. A few houses and trailers clung tenaciously to the steep slopes, most of them dilapidated, deserted, or covered with kudzu.
“We’re almost there.”
“Good.” Bette’s voice was steady, almost languid.
How can she be so calm?
Two hours ago he had called her to meet him, offering no explanation. They had agreed to meet in the parking lot of an abandoned church that was within walking distance of her house.
Bette had strolled across the weed-pocked pavement with her head bent over her smart phone. At his car, she had peered into the backseat window, then asked, “Is she asleep? Sick?” She had leaned close to him and whispered, “Dead?”
Her breath on his ear had made him tremble, as it always did. Not in pleasure this time, but in fear.
Mac trembled now, thinking about it. He turned the car up a deep rutted road. It bounced along the path as it curved through the woods that snaked along a high ridge. It skidded at a spot where a hard rain had washed out the road.
He spun the steering wheel to get back on course. Moments later he pulled onto a soft bed of pine needles and parked beside a ragged house.
Mac pulled his keys from the ignition and turned to look at Bette. Her usually porcelain skin was flushed now. Two bright spots of pink highlighted her cheeks. He realized she was excited by what they were about to do. Excited by what he had done.
He leaned over the seat to pull the quilt away from Shelby’s face. Her skin was pale as buttermilk, her lips blue. He touched her cheek. It was cool. Her hair was still damp from her bathwater.
He had drowned her in the tub.
He withdrew his hand and swiped at his eyes with his knuckles. Bette frowned at him, then climbed from the car. “Let’s get this over with.”
She didn’t wait for him to gather Shelby into his arms. By the time he got his dead wife out of the car, Bette had reached the front porch of the old house. He followed her fast, though his legs felt like the might crumple beneath him.
The front door was partially open, hanging crooked on its hinges, and it wouldn’t move when Bette pushed it. He laid the corpse at their feet, then set his shoulder against the door and shoved it hard. It flew inward. Mac hesitated, waiting for mice to scurry into the dark corners of the room. Sure enough, he heard them skitter across the floor. Once it grew quiet, he walked inside.
Dirty windows filtered the sun so that it cast a dark amber light across the room. A thick layer of dust covered every surface. Pale weeds reached up through cracks in the floor. He jumped when something shifted in the chimney.
“Birds,” Bette muttered. She put her hands on her hips as she surveyed the room. “So where is it? The thingamajig?”
“Cistern.” He swiped at a cobweb, then motioned for her to follow him. “In here.”
They stepped into what was once a kitchen. An old cast iron cook stove hulked at one end of the room, rust flaking its surface. The spot where the sink used to stand was empty but the outline of it on ancient linoleum was visible through the dust. Mac looked around, then pointed to a crude door cut into the wall. “There.”
He tugged at the door, wincing as it scraped the floor. When it opened, cool air wafted over them. The scent of it brought to mind pale fungi and other vegetation that thrived in darkness. He peered into the space but didn’t step through the doorway.
“When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to go down there. Granny was afraid I might fall into the cistern. I snuck down a few times, but she finally caught me and wore me out. Never went down there again.”
“How long has it been since anybody lived here?”
“I’d say thirty years, at least.” He took a deep breath. “We’d better hurry. I don’t want to be up here after dark.”
“You afraid of boogers and haints?” Bette’s voice was teasing …cruel.
“Bears,” he said.
Mac returned to the porch and retrieved Shelby’s body. He carried it to the door of the cistern room, then climbed down a set of nine rickety steps. He could feel them give a bit when he stepped on them.
Bette had set her cell phone on a half-rotten shelf near the door. Apparently she had engaged the flashlight app, for most of the shadows had fled the space. Mac lifted his chin at a thick wooden circle in the center of the room. “That’s the lid. Slide it back.”
Bette grabbed the lid and shoved it to the side. It tilted, but didn’t fall completely away. A large part of the hole was revealed. A current of dank air drifted upward from it.
Mac shoved the corpse into the cistern feet first. He expected it to splash. Instead it thumped, then made a squelching sound as it slid farther down. Bette grabbed her phone and illuminated the hole with it. It revealed a thick black muck. Only the back of Shelby’s head was visible, her bright curls in high contrast to the dark mud.
Mac slid the cover back over the hole and they hurried outside. When they climbed into the car, Bette threw her arms around his neck and kissed him hard. Her tongue seemed like a tiny darting serpent trying to crawl between his lips. He shuddered, resisting the urge to wipe his mouth.
They drove off the ridge as dusk was softening the hard edges of the world.
“Look.” Smiling, she pointed toward the woods. “Lightning bugs!”
He was stunned by the childish delight in her voice.
Mac wrinkled his nose at the scent of grease. Bette had insisted that he take her to a drive-thru restaurant for fast food. She refused to go home.
Reluctantly he had taken her to his house. Now she sat on his couch, dipping her fries in ranch dressing while she watched a rerun of The Vampire Diaries.
The paper fry pouch, soaked with oil, was almost transparent. Mac moved it from the couch to the coffee table and swiped at a greasy spot it had left on the upholstery.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to be here,” he said.
She answered him without looking away from the flickering screen. “Why?”
“Tomorrow I’m going to call the police and tell them that Shelby is missing. You know they’ll take a hard look at my activities. The husband is always the first suspect. If anyone sees you going in or out of my house, there better be a damn good reason for it.”
“So tell them I needed to talk to you about an assignment.”
He glanced at his watch. “At ten-thirty at night?” He shook his head. “Besides, you’re not even taking a class right now.”
Bette shrugged as she sucked on a straw stuck in the lid of her Diet Coke. She picked up her phone and swiped the screen, then tossed it onto the couch. Looking up at him, she asked, “Why’d you do it?”
Mac opened his mouth, then closed it. I can’t explain it, he thought.
The act had been spontaneous, a moment of madness. Shelby had called him from the bedroom to hand her a towel. When he entered the room, he had caught a glimpse of her body, her life chronicled by a caesarian scar, stretch marks, sagging breasts. His own body hadn’t aged any better.
Resentment had filled him in that instant, as red and furious as a fast-moving fire. The very sight of her had confirmed the certainty of his own mortality. Without hesitation he had murdered her, the mother of his son. A son now grown and studying abroad halfway around the world.
He walked upstairs and stood in the doorway of the bathroom. The scent of Camay soap was still suspended in the damp air. Shelby never wore perfume, preferring the simple fragrance of the old-fashioned soap on her skin.
Mac moved into the room and perched on the side of the bathtub. The water in which he had drowned his wife of twenty years had grown cold. He let his fingers trail through it, then pulled the lever to drain it. He winced at the slurk sound the dregs made. It was too reminiscent of the sound her body had made when it sank into the cistern muck.
He grabbed a towel and used it to wipe water from the floor at the base of the tub. Shelby had kicked a lot as he held her under the water. He dropped a sopping wet towel into a hamper, thankful it had been a bloodless murder.
When he turned, he found Bette standing in the doorway. She was using both hands to twist the ends of her ponytail.
She used to do it in his class. She would pull her hair to one side so that it draped across her shoulder, then twist it and release it.
Twist and release.
In the classroom he had found it beguiling. Now he realized it was an affectation, a tool she used to draw the male gaze. Suddenly he felt old and stupid.
Bette sauntered over to the bathtub and flipped the lever so that it would hold water. She turned the handle for hot, then for cold, and waited for the tub to fill. After a quick glance around the room, she grabbed a bottle of bubble bath and squirted some into the water.
Mac stared as white, slightly iridescent bubbles multiplied on the water’s surface. When they formed airy mounds, Bette removed her jeans and t-shirt. She didn’t have on panties or a bra. She never wore underwear. That was the first thing he had noticed about her the day they met.
She stepped into the tub and sank slowly into the bubbles, Venus in reverse.
He moved across the room and stood over her. She lay with her eyes closed, her head resting against the porcelain. Her mouth turned up slightly at the corners, as if she found the whole situation slightly amusing.
“How’d you do it?”
Her question startled him.
“Drown her. How did you actually do it?”
She opened her eyes. Her pupils were enlarged, so much so that her blue eyes looked wholly black. Mac found the sight disturbing.
“Why would you ask me that?”
He held up his hands and made a choking motion. “Held her under the water,” he whispered.
Bette scooped a cloud of bubbles between both her hands and blew on them. They flew through the air and spattered Mac’s pants. The girl giggled.
Bile rose up in his throat. He swallowed hard, then fled the bathroom.
Downstairs he flopped onto the sofa and stared sightlessly at the television screen. He slid his hands flat across the couch cushion. Its rough fabric felt soothing. His fingers touched Bette’s phone.
Mac picked it up and examined its black silicone case. Bette had painted white skulls and red flowers on the back of it. Shaking his head, he turned it over and swiped the screen.
Her Facebook page was filled with selfies in lewd poses and in various states of undress. Most of her friends were male and many of her posts were direct messages to boys and men. The majority of them were crude. Sighing, he swiped out of her feed and peeked at the phone’s search history.
Some of her website visits were typical of what one would expect from a young woman her age: celebrity news, beauty tips, funny memes. However, she seemed to regularly visit darker sites.
These websites featured graphic horror stories, art, and movies. Others were dedicated to true crime. He was shocked to discover that she had posted on discussion boards for torture enthusiasts.
There she had shared her original fiction. The stories appalled him. After reading one in its entirety, he gagged and threw the phone across the room. It landed on the floor, its screen cracked.
Mac wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He gazed at his knees for a long moment, then stood and trudged up the stairs. In the bathroom doorway, he paused to watch Bette soak in the tub. She was paddling her feet in the water, humming a tune unfamiliar to him.
He walked over to her and sat on the edge of the tub. She smiled at Mac and playfully splashed water at him. He chuckled. When he leaned over her, she turned her head to offer him her cheek to kiss.
Instead, he wrapped his fingers around her neck and squeezed it with all his strength. He pushed downward as he did so, so that her face was underwater. You wanted to know, he thought. Here’s how.
She fought her death longer than Shelby did, perhaps because she was younger and stronger, but her attempts were as futile as his wife’s. When he was certain Bette was dead, Mac released her. Her eyes were blue again, wide open, surprised.
Shelby’s death had disturbed him, but he felt oddly satisfied by Bette’s, as if he had done the world a favor.
Mac shook water from his fingertips, then wiped his hands and arms against his pants. Pulling a keyring from his pocket, he thought, I better get that quilt from the back seat of the car.
“I’m going to need it one more time.”
The drive to his grandmother’s house was in total darkness. He didn’t feel the panic that had threatened to overwhelm him earlier in the day. There were few cars on the road. No school buses lumbered along the curves to delay his trip.
Mac pulled his car close to the old house. He had grabbed a flashlight from a kitchen drawer before putting Bette’s body in the car. Now he flicked it on and laid it on top of the girl before pulling her from the back seat. The light bobbed up and down as he walked with the corpse, but it was sufficient to keep him from tripping in the dark.
Inside the house, he could see signs of their previous visit: footprints jumbled in the dust. He staggered across the space and laid Bette’s body on the floor of the kitchen. The flashlight dropped off her corpse and rolled across the room, highlighting cobwebs and bird nests in a whirl of illumination. Something larger than a mouse scuttled in a corner.
Probably a raccoon or a possum.
Mac ached all over, but especially in his arms. The muscles of his forearms burned from the strain of strangulation and heavy lifting. He massaged them while he rested.
When he was done, he retrieved the flashlight, grimacing at the aged grime that now coated its handle. He set it back on Bette’s body, heaved her into his arms, and started down the stairs into the cistern room.
The steps creaked, louder than before. He hurried to the bottom and half-dropped the corpse onto the floor. The flashlight fell again. Light shined on Bette’s face, turning the curves and hollows of it into a grotesque mask. It reminded him of his childhood, when his older brother held a flashlight beneath his chin while he told Mac scary stories.
Shuddering, he grabbed the light and set it on the shelf Bette had used earlier. He slid the cover from the cistern and peered into it. Shelby had disappeared completely into the thick muck.
He lifted Bette by placing his hands in her armpits. They were damp. Grunting, he dragged her to the opening and shoved her into it. The body fell head first and sank as slowly as Shelby’s had. Its descent was accompanied by a disgusting squelching sound, like the slurk that had occurred during the first disposal. After a few minutes, only the pale soles of her feet were visible.
Mac replaced the cover of the cistern, then sat on the bottom step to catch his breath. He hadn’t realized until this moment that his heart was hammering his rib cage hard enough to break bone.
That’s not possible, but it sure feels like it. He massaged his sore arms again. They hurt more than before, the pain radiating upward into his shoulders and down his back.
I should have used that gym membership Shelby bought me last year. Didn’t realize I was so out of shape.
The room began to spin. Mac clutched the stair post, nauseated by his sudden dizziness. He squeezed his eyes shut, then opened them again. The spinning had ended.
Using the post as a crutch, he stood. He shuffled to the shelf and reached for his flashlight. When he did, the ache in his shoulders and back became unbearable. Mac cried out and dropped to the floor, where he curled up, his only defense against the pain.
The shadows in the room stretched toward him. He thought the batteries in the flashlight must be dying, but when he lifted his head to look at it, the beam was bright.
The batteries aren’t dying.
If he had been able to, he would have laughed at his own folly.
You can’t forestall death.
The shadows gathered close around him. His vision narrowed to a pinprick.