Showing posts with label neva bryan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label neva bryan. Show all posts

Monday, December 28, 2020

Everlasting High, fiction by Neva Bryan

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?”

“Where’s what?”

“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. 

Neva Bryan has published nearly 60 short stories and poems in literary journals, anthologies, and online magazines. Her work has appeared in publications such as Weirdbook, Shotgun Honey, the Anthology of Appalachian Writers, and Minding Nature. She holds degrees from the University of Virginia and Chatham University. Neva lives in the mountain coalfields of Virginia with her husband and their three dogs.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Midlife Crisis, fiction by Neva Bryan

The school bus rolled onto a road furred with oil and coal dust. It crawled along the spine of a mineral-stripped mountain before descending into the first of many dark hollows. Leather and lace leaves skittered in its wake, sailing across the hood of Mac McHenry’s car.

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.

My wife.
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.

“Do what?”

“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?”

“I’m curious.”

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.

I am.

Mac groaned.

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.

Fifty of Neva Bryan’s short stories, poems, and essays are published (or soon-to-be published) in literary journals, online magazines, and anthologies, including Shotgun Honey, Weirdbook Magazine, and The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. She is a contributor to the 2018 Anthology of Appalachian Writers and the anthology We All Live Downstream: Writings about Mountaintop Removal. Neva lives in the mountain coalfields of Virginia with her husband and their two dogs.