Carla Kilgore’s red hair and black eyes reminded Lauren of abandoned coal mines, rusty iron, and depleted coal seams. With that thought, she pulled her phone from her pocket and reviewed the pictures she had taken earlier that day. Pictures of death.
A succession of digital photos framed the murder, stretched it out longer than it had lasted in reality. Kilgore, Lauren’s neighbor, had closed her eyes when she started stabbing her boyfriend, but they were wide and wild by the time she finished.
Lauren was glad Carla hadn’t turned her crazy eyes on her at that moment. The teenager had come out from her hiding place and snapped the photos with her phone. By the time Carla’s fury had burned itself out, Lauren was back in her Chevelle. Her car was camouflaged by kudzu hanging over poplar trees. It was her favorite place to smoke a joint, and that’s what she had been doing before it all went down.
I never seen nobody die before.
Lauren nodded, then jerked upright when she heard Carla’s truck leave the scene.
The girl climbed out of her car and followed faint tire tracks across the abandoned land’s pockmarked surface, mindful of copperheads and yellow jacket nests. The trail led her to the edge of a high wall, manmade vertical rock face nearly 100 feet tall. Peering over the rim, she saw the man’s body at the base of it.
Pulling a Percocet from the pocket of her jeans, Lauren dry swallowed it. She crouched, wrapped her arms around her calves, and rested her chin on her knees. Waiting for her high, she stared at her surroundings.
Abandoned before the enactment of reclamation laws, this strip job was a nasty scar, an abrasion that had never healed. Black gashes striped the tall walls. Boulders, ejected from earthy beds, stood alone like rejected lovers. Locust trees, blackberry vines, ragweed, ironweed, and Joe Pye weed crowded each other, but it was the kudzu that truly throttled the landscape. It groped the mountains with eager abandon, making Lauren wonder how soon it would cover the man’s body.
She shrugged and leaned into the warm bliss that traveled her veins and spread outward through her entire being. She rubbed her nose, which had started to itch. Squinting up at the yellow sack of light suspended in the sky, the girl smiled. After a few minutes, she stood and stumped through the weeds on heavy legs. She took her time finding a path to the bottom where the body lay.
The man reminded Lauren of someone deep in a daydream, his eyes staring at nothing…forever. Blood streaked his skin, and muscle was exposed on his hands and arms. His shirt was covered in gore, almost in shreds from the multiple knife wounds.
A butterfly had settled in his sandy hair, its powdery wings forming a pale barrette. The teenager frowned and flicked the insect with her finger. It fluttered up and then resettled on the man’s knee. Lauren smacked it, flinching at the thwack her hand made against the dead flesh.
In death, the man’s bowels had loosened. Wrinkling her nose, Lauren lifted her phone and photographed him. She took the pictures fast, then retreated to her car.
Lauren lit a joint with trembling fingers and smoked it while pondering her next step. She decided to go home and sleep on it.
* * *
Lauren’s quilt landed in a heap on the floor after her father jerked it from the bed. “It’s nearly two o’clock in the afternoon! Get up, dammit!”
Lauren covered her head with a pillow and tried to roll away, but the man’s fingers gripped her shoulder and pulled her into the floor on top of the quilt.
“Alright, already! I’m up!” She stretched and ruffled her hair into a cockscomb. Blinking up at her father, she worked her jaw in a closed-mouth yawn.
The man leaned close to his daughter and poked her in the chest. “Where is it?”
“You know damn good and well what! Your mother’s watch . . . the one her grandmother gave her.”
“I don’t have it, Dad.” Lauren started to stand, but her father pushed her back down to the floor and crouched on her chest.
“Listen here, you little twat. It’s bad enough you have to steal money out of my wallet and your mom’s purse. It’s bad enough that you’ve sold everything in the house that ain’t nailed down, but you know how much that watch meant to her! If you’ve sold it for your damn drugs, I’ll kick your ass from one end of this house to the other!”
Lauren didn’t answer – couldn’t answer – until her father rose. The girl coughed and scooted away from the man. She retrieved her jeans from the corner of the bedroom and slid into them. Punching her fist into her pocket, she pulled out the watch and tossed it on the bed. Her father snatched it and started toward his daughter. When Lauren flinched, the man turned on his heel and stalked out of the room.
Reaching under the bed, the girl felt for the loose floorboard that covered her secret stash. She retrieved a shoebox from it and pulled out her phone. She swiped at the phone’s screen, convinced that she had dreamed the events of the previous day.
It wasn’t a dream.
She scratched her arm as she stared at the photos of the dead man. Lauren wondered how long it took the human body to rot. She wiped her nose on her arm, then rooted through the shoebox until she found the last of her coke. She snorted a line and began to formulate her plan.
* * *
Lauren sat on the porch steps of Carla Kilgore’s house. She leaned back, rested her elbows on the porch, and examined her neighbor’s yard. Barren patches revealed sandstone in several spots in the close-cropped grass. A harsh winter had thrust old railroad ties – makeshift landscape timbers – from the ground, and they remained askew. Spindly flowers spilled out of their beds. Lauren remembered the day Carla had planted them.
Carla had worn tight denim shorts and a striped tank top. Her right bra strap had fallen below her sleeve countless times while she worked. Each time it did, she had shoved it back up with a weary sigh.
Lauren had been fascinated by the repetition of this wardrobe adjustment. Standing beneath a pine tree in her yard, she had willed the strap to drop. Each time it did, she had been pleased to no end. The last time it had fallen, the woman had raked up the strap in agitation and left a smear of dirt on her shoulder.
Lauren shuddered with pleasure at the thought of that dark smudge on white skin. Then she remembered that Carla was a murderer. She was still pondering that fact when the woman pulled into her driveway.
Wonder where she ditched her truck.
Carla turned off the ignition but didn’t get out of her car right away. From behind the windshield, she stared at the girl. Lauren could see that her neighbor was trying to work out in her head why she was here since they weren’t in the habit of visiting each other. Finally, the woman exited the car. Her limp, the result of a coal truck colliding with her old Jeep years ago, was more pronounced than usual.
Lauren wiped her palms on her shorts. “Hey, Carla.”
The woman nodded but didn’t lift her eyes to meet the girl’s face. “What can I do for you?”
“Well, I need some help with a project I’m working on.” Lauren stood and scratched her nose.
Kilgore cocked her head, wary as a stray dog. “What kind of project?”
The girl grinned. “Photography.” She jabbed her thumb at the house. “Can I come in?”
* * *
Lauren worked her way through the maze of junk piled high in the old building her father used for storage. “Friggin packrats,” the girl muttered as she shoved aside a box of water-stained Reader’s Digest magazines. She slid between two metal school desks and stepped over garbage bags of scrap fabric her mother had saved for quilts.
Warped wooden crutches leaned against a wringer washing machine. Hundreds of mason jars lined homemade shelves; some lay on their sides, stuffed with shredded newspaper and mouse droppings. Lauren’s father had stacked old lawnmowers on top of each other until they reached the ceiling. Looks like bad modern art.
She found a tarpaulin-covered mass near the back of the building. Jerking the tarp with the flair of a magician, Lauren exposed an old trunk. After opening the container, she discovered it was empty. Perfect, she thought. She pulled a crumpled brown lunch bag from her pocket. She glanced around. Reassured that she was alone, she stuck her fist into the bag and retrieved several prescription bottles she had demanded from Carla.
Carla’s hands had trembled so severely that Lauren thought the woman would never get the medicine chest cleaned out. The medications, some prescribed to Carla and some to her boyfriend, had stood in neat rows on the shelves. Light brown containers capped with thick white lids that gleamed in the fluorescent light.
Lauren ran her fingertips across the smooth labels until her own hands began to shake. Some of the prescriptions were current, but others were outdated; they had never bothered to throw away the old meds.
Lauren’s eyes had popped at the contents. Flexeril. Vicodin. Lortab. Valium. Prozac. Doxepin. Ativan. Ambien. And, behind all the others, two that made her heart swell: Percocet and OxyContin. She had hit the mother lode.
She dropped the bottles into the trunk. From her other pocket, she retrieved a thick wad of creased fifty dollar bills—seven hundred dollars in all. Carla had protested that it was all the money she had in the house.
The girl peeled off three fifties and stuck them back into her pocket. She tossed the rest of the money into the container and shut the lid. She threw the tarp across the trunk and made her way back through the building. Outside, she blinked in the shimmering heat.
Summer’s turning out to be pretty good after all, she thought. The sugar tree’s in bloom.
* * *
Throughout the next few days, Lauren sneaked out to the storage building to check on the trunk. She was paranoid that her parents would go on a cleaning binge and discover her treasure. During this time, Carla kept her shades drawn and didn’t leave her house. The girl wondered when she would make another run to the drugstore.
That leg’s gotta be hurting. But Carla’s car remained in the driveway.
One morning Lauren rose to find that Carla had finally left her house. I guess she couldn’t stand it any longer.
Wonder what she’s told her doctor?
The girl’s mouth watered in anticipation. She wanted to go to Carla’s house and wait for her, but her father caught her wandering through the yard. He browbeat Lauren into cleaning out the basement.
At least it’s not the storage building, she thought with relief. But I need to move my stuff before she gets any ideas.
She broke away from the basement work after lunch. Seeing Carla’s car in the driveway, Lauren considered a visit. She decided to check on her stash first. She stepped into the building and wrinkled her nose.
A chipmunk must have crawled into a jar and died. It smelled so bad she wondered if an entire family of chipmunks had died.
The heat makes it worse, I guess.
Traveling her usual path, she rounded a corner and ran into Carla Kilgore. “What the hell--”
The woman shoved Lauren against the wall and placed a pistol against her right nostril. “Thought you was bein’ so clever hiding your booty in here, didn’t you? You’re not very bright, bitch. I can see why your daddy’s disappointed in you.”
Lauren started to speak, but Carla mashed her nose with the gun. The girl shrank against the wall, knocking a jar off a shelf. It broke, scattering shattered glass and dried corn across their feet.
“Be quiet, you little shit,” Carla hissed.
She grabbed Lauren’s arm and shoved her through the building. The rotten smell got worse as they got closer to the back. When they reached the site of the trunk, the girl saw that the tarp had been thrown to the side. She turned to the woman and lifted her hands in supplication.
“Hey, if you want your junk back, go ahead and take it. I was just messing with you.”
“Shut up! You know, I’ve never seen you strike a lick at a minute’s hard work. You are worthless.” Kilgore motioned with her gun. “Lift the lid.”
Lauren reached down and pulled open the trunk. The smell of decay engulfed her, making her eyes water, but not enough to blur the sight of Carla’s boyfriend stuffed into the container.
Maggots, beetles, and wasps covered his skin, which was now green and blue and blistered. Gagging, Lauren tried to stumble past the woman, but Carla shoved her against the trunk. The back of her knees hit it, causing the lid to slam shut. Putrid air billowed out around them. Lauren bent at the waist and vomited.
Coughing, Carla backed away from the teenager.
“Lift that lid again. Do it!”
Lauren turned her head as she opened the trunk. She swallowed against the bile that rose in her throat. “Look--”
“Shut up!” Carla stared at the contents of the trunk, her eyes black pinpricks. “He thought he could screw around on me, then beat on me. You see what happened to him, don’t you? Now it’s your turn. Get in.”
The girl’s eyes widened. She felt the blood drain from her face. She shook her head. “You’re frigging kidding me, right?”
Carla cocked the gun. “I’m serious as a heart attack, dipshit.”
Lauren worked her jaw. What if I just mule up and refuse to do what she says?
She remembered how she had trembled that first day, at the medicine cabinet. She looked at the gun. The barrel was steady in her face. No trembling now.
Crazy as a bess bug, Lauren thought.
Without taking her eyes off the gun, the teenager lifted one leg and stepped into the trunk. It felt as if she had stepped into a vat of hot sour cream. That thought made her stomach roll, and she expelled a stream of vomit that splattered Carla’s hiking boots.
Cursing, she reached out and punched Lauren on the ear. The girl fell into the muck that was Carla’s boyfriend. Thrashing around to gain a grip, she looked up in time to see her slam the lid. Lauren screamed and kicked the lid, but it held tight.
Jesus, she’s locked me in here!
In the wet darkness, she screamed again. And again. She only stopped after something soft dropped into her mouth. Crying, Lauren spit out the thing, willing herself not to vomit again.
She won’t leave me here, she thought. She’s just trying to teach me a lesson. Well, I done learned it. I got it!
“I’ll straighten up!” she screamed. “Please, Carla! You can’t leave me in here!”
She paused to see if she would say something. No one responded. Lauren pounded against the lid with her fists.
“You dirty bitch!”
Suddenly, the girl stopped her resistance. Instead, she concentrated on a thought that had entered her head. She had the answer. Carla was trying to teach her a lesson.
All I have to do is wait her out.
The woman would be back, and the joke would be on her.
Lauren giggled and shoved her hand into her pocket, ignoring the fluids oozing across her skin. She pulled a pill bottle up close to her chest and worked on the cap. Her hands shook, and something slick coated the bottle, but eventually, she got it open. Weeping now, she emptied the contents of the bottle into her mouth.
Some of the pills caught in her throat, and she had to keep swallowing to get them down.
Nothing like a Perc to take the edge off.