Content Advisory: murder, themes of death
The apartment is near enough to the river that the walls are stained from an old flood. The murderer—I can’t remember his name, but it doesn’t matter—unlocks the front door, throwing a glance toward the neighbor’s windows. It’s mid-afternoon on a Tuesday. No one is home.
“I don’t know if I still have anything of hers. She only spent a night here when she was having trouble with her boyfriend,” the murderer says, fumbling at the wall inside to hit the light switch. I can hear a television. “But we can take a look.” He shoots a sickly grin at me and I know he’s already imagining dismembering me in his bathtub. It’s a look. You start to know it after a while.
“I understand,” I say, following him in. We’re both pretending that he’s going to help me find clues about the disappearance of the woman he murdered. “But I have to be sure.”
The living room is worn, the sofa cushions sagging in the middle where a single person must sit for hours in front of the tv. It’s on a commercial right now, delightfully loud. Maybe he’s one of those people who needs the constant noise. Maybe he just turned it on so the neighbors don’t notice the screams.
The murderer scuffs wet feet on the rug, then shoulders off his coat and slowly unwinds his scarf. I take the bait and move past him, taking off my own coat. He shuts the front door. I can’t hear it over the sound of the television, but I know he shoots the deadbolt.
“The guest room is just through the kitchen,” he says, urging me onward. He passes me, hits another light switch.
When I step in, the television comes back to its program—some midday talk show—and I’m hit with a memory so vivid that I stop walking. I’m on the floor spitting out teeth, feeling like my skull has shattered. I roll onto my back, feeling old toast crumbs grinding under my head, and bring up my hand to protect myself too late—the golf club hits me again, snapping my head to the side. Head spinning, I see the furry dust gathered under the refrigerator and I have a moment to think this is such a stupid place to die.
Then I’m back, standing in the kitchen again, its floor oddly clean. He’s going down the hallway, past the bathroom, so I hurry to catch up.
“Here we are,” he says, opening a door at the end of the hall. He stands in the doorway, gesturing for me to squeeze past him into the room. I do, and it feels weird because I’m taller than I was when he murdered me.
I’m two steps into the cramped room when he grabs me around the neck and yanks me back. I stumble, losing my balance and hitting his chest. He hooks his arm under my chin, squeezing off my air supply.
There’s an unexpected punch in my flank. I get a hold of his wrist but I can’t stop the knife from going in again, burying itself deep.
I’m panicking, choking. The knife goes in again under my ribs. My lungs scream for air. Part of my brain is howling he’s going to kill me again—why did I let him lead me in here—
But then the monster thinks, I’ve let this go on long enough.
I stop struggling. I feel the knife one more time and marvel at how different the slick jabs of its blade feel from the blunt shattering force of a golf club. I pull his arm away from my neck and turn around in his very startled embrace. He gapes at me, then drives the knife up under my ribs. Ignoring that, I cup his cheeks gently in both my hands and kiss him.
He tries to rear back, but his lips are glued to mine and he doesn’t have the strength to pull me forward. For a moment I taste him, cigarette smoke and a take-out hamburger.
Then I pour myself into his lungs, a choking flood of lake water, silt and algae and weeds, bottle caps and candy wrappers. He claws desperately at my shirt, his eyes wide. Water squeezes out of his nose and tear ducts. I hear it splatter to the gritty rug under our feet.
At the last second, he jerks the knife up to my face. If he’d gone for his own face, cut off his own lips, that might have worked, at least for a minute or two before I tried again. But he doesn’t think of that. He goes for me instead, and gouges a bloodless slit in my cheek that closes as fast as he can move the knife.
And now it’s too late. The knife clatters to the rug. He convulses, sags. I hold him up as his knees give out. I watch him until his eyes glaze over. Then I end the kiss and lower him gently to the floor.
The television blares in the other room. A cook is demonstrating an easy thirty-minute meal to a delighted host. The carpet is damp under my knees. I look down into the dead face of the murderer and my stomach rumbles. I haven’t eaten in weeks.
I try to savor my meal. Soft, fatty flesh yields to my teeth. Bone crunches pleasantly. The heart is juicy and tough and full of rich, iron flavor.
But by the time I’ve made it through the upper torso—barely five minutes—the color is leaching out of the room. The sound of the television feels flat. My next bite is bland and rubbery, and then my grasp on myself slips entirely.
The monster sits back on its heels and surveys the corpse in front of it, feeling disappointed. Even that is muted.
It can’t force itself to finish its meal, even though it might be days before it can eat again. Everything tastes like dust. It gets up, casting an indifferent look at the blood that has soaked into the carpet.
The kitchen holds no power of memory over the monster anymore. It passes through the living room. Steps out into the cold February afternoon.
The river down the embankment flows sluggishly under a thin scrim of ice. The monster travels along the shore until it’s out of view of the road, then steps out onto the ice and lets itself fall through.
There are online forums where desperate loved ones post queries about missing family members gone so long that no one official is looking anymore. Armchair detectives pour over photos and maps to try to track them down and usually fail.
The monster has gotten good at guessing which cases are murders and which are suicides, accidents or runaways. A runaway is disappointing and represents days or weeks of wasted work with no meal at the end. A suicide or an accident is a passable find. The monster can eat that, although it only leads to a few days of maudlin memories, perhaps a brief stirring of guilt or despair or surprise.
The murders are the best. No matter what is left of the body, the spirit attached to it is full of truncated life. The monster just needs to have a chewy bite of heart or even a slow lollipop suck on a hip joint and it’s filled with so much interest and color and flavor that it feels lighthearted for days. Then the hunt begins: visiting the scene of the crime, tracking the murderer to their hiding spot, going in for the kill. If the monster can manage it, it’ll draw the hunt out for weeks, though it can’t put off vengeance forever. The spirit of the murder victim won’t stay around indefinitely, and if it fades before the monster feeds, the meal tastes like ashes.
Once, it happened across a whole trove of victims buried in shallow graves by an enterprising serial killer. The monster was able to string itself along on ghost after ghost, using them up like batteries until there were no more victims left and it had to end it. That had been a happy few months.
There are a couple promising new reports on the forums, but there’s only one that’s nearby. Four months ago, a woman went missing while her husband, a police detective, was grocery shopping. Her body was never found.
The house where the victim lived is crammed among a thousand identical ones. It’s an older neighborhood that was made up of immigrants a hundred years ago, now inhabited by their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The monster walks past front yards the size of tablecloths—this one with a faded collection of fake flowers sprouting from frozen soil, this with a pool-blue bathtub Mary, this with a cement water feature, currently dry.
The monster doesn’t stop when it reaches the victim’s house. It merely casts a glance over it as it keeps walking. All of the curtains are drawn and the mailbox by the front door is crammed full. The front lawn is an uninspired square of crispy brown grass, studded with a thrift store’s inventory of sun-bleached lawn ornaments—birds with wings that spin in the breeze, plastic cats tucked under dead bushes, pitted cement gnomes.
The houses are too close together for driveways. Around the block, the monster comes to the narrow alley behind the houses where the cars are parked. Not many of them since it’s a weekday.
The monster locates the back of the house. No car; another square of dry lawn and kitsch detritus; more closed blinds. It walks up the path to the door and turns the knob until it hears the lock break. Then it steps inside.
The monster has been in the houses of many victims over the years. The houses, like the victims, share that feeling of severed life. Sometimes the houses are obsessively maintained, brimming with neatly labeled Tupperware. These are families who are clinging to the status quo, terrified that if they let go of routine for just a second, everything will collapse and they’ll have to face reality.
Other times, grief manifests in distracted neglect, a break in the routine. Plants go unwatered; trash is left in the can for too long. Fridges contain spoiled food and barely-eaten lasagnas dropped off by well-meaning neighbors. Family members walk through their lives with bated breath, unable to return to normal until they get some kind of news.
This house is in the latter category. The monster squeezes through a dark, sour-milk smelling kitchen packed full of furniture and cardboard boxes. It climbs the stairs to the second floor, to a master bedroom with an unmade bed, dirty clothes left abandoned on the floor where they were shed.
The monster picks up a glass of water on a bedside table and drinks it. It tastes flat, slightly chlorinated. Microscopic crustaceans tickle the monster’s tongue, a wash of copepod exoskeletons. There’s a touch of human saliva in it, sour with alpha-amylase.
The monster checks the bathroom. Licks its finger, runs it around the shower drain, licks it again. Shampoo, soap scum, but no blood. None in the sink, either.
It goes through the dirty laundry. There are still unwashed clothes of the victim’s here. The monster chews the sweat stains, but none of them taste like fear.
The lack of anything conclusive would be frustrating if the monster could feel anything. It wanders through the house, touching knick-knacks, fingering curtains. The house is jammed with too much furniture, towering piles of books and bags of clothes and cardboard boxes of assorted junk. There are paths worn among the piles, suggesting that they’re nothing new.
It’s in the living room when it hears footsteps stop suddenly just outside the back door. The monster turns toward the kitchen. There’s a cold breeze coming in, a bright spill of light where the kitchen door has swung open on its hinges, too broken to latch shut.
The light expands as someone pushes the door silently open. A shadow spills across the kitchen floor. The monster stands in the middle of the living room and watches it.
The shadow creeps forward. There’s the silhouette of a gun held in both outstretched hands.
It would be so nice to want to eat this person, but the monster just can’t. Whether this is the victim’s murderer or not, there is no benefit to killing them now. It would just be another tasteless meal. The monster needs to take on the victim’s vengeful spirit before this murder would have any meaning.
The monster steps back between boxes and crouches down. A man appears a moment later, unshaven, hard-eyed. He does a fast sweep of the room. It’s the husband, recognizable from photos online.
There’s a faint scrape in the kitchen. The husband flinches slightly and then turns back to the hallway. “I told you to stay outside,” he hisses.
“You need someone at your back,” another man whispers back.
“Just let me do my job.” The husband disappears, heading silently for the stairs. The second man leans into the room to give it his own once-over. The monster doesn’t recognize him, but he looks similar enough to the first man to be related. A brother, probably.
“Christ, what did Abby do to this place?” The brother nudges a box with his toe, his mouth twisted in distaste. “Looks like a warehouse in here.”
The husband doesn’t reply, and after a moment the brother follows him. The monster waits until the footsteps reach the top of the stairs, then moves for the open back door. It slips out and back down the path to the alley, past a blue Subaru that wasn’t there before, and looks back.
In an upstairs window, one of the curtains twitches aside. The husband squints out and meets the monster’s gaze. Then he whirls away from the window.
The monster runs.
There’s a pond a ten-minute walk from the victim’s house. Water remembers things that few others do; or perhaps water is the only thing willing to divulge its secrets to the monster.
The monster crunches down the frozen shore, then kicks a hole in the ice. It plunges its cupped hands through and lifts out a trembling reflection of itself and the bright blue sky. It drinks deeply. The water tastes of duck shit and cigarette butts, gasoline and Fireball whiskey from the bottoms of nip bottles.
And just the faintest hint of human death. The monster follows the trace, walking across ice that shouldn’t be able to support its weight. It stops, punches another hole, drinks again. There are half a dozen hemoglobin molecules mixed in with fish scales and the grease from abandoned potato chip bags.
The pond is fed by a river that runs through a culvert under the road. The monster crosses the road and follows the river further. There are sirens wailing in the distance but the monster only half-notices them. Perhaps the husband called the police. Perhaps it’s unrelated.
On the other side, the monster pulls out a handful of river weeds and chews as it walks, tasting the remnants of collagenase enzymes that come from decomposing bones.
Behind an auto parts store, the river disappears into another culvert and doesn’t surface again. The water is moving too fast to form ice here so the monster ducks down and pours itself into the culvert, sliding belly first until it is no longer human-shaped at all, thrashing its way upstream. It filters water through its teeth; digs claws into the mud and pulls up a fat, hibernating fish. The fish tastes like human cadaverine…
…and a startling memory of having a bag jerked down over my head. For a moment I stop, my skin prickling in the cold water…
Then the monster swims onward.
The culvert reemerges behind the parking lot of an abandoned grocery store. The lot is empty, the store windows blocked up with newspaper.
A finger bone is lodged in a tangle of broken branches. The monster picks it up and forms a human tongue again to taste it.
I climb up onto the shore, rolling the bone around in my mouth as my body forms around me. It’s slightly different than the last body I wore, as if I’ve been birthed into my own child, another new generation in a very long existence. My jeans are soaked through, plastered to my legs, and my winter coat is streaming water from its pockets. I pull a branch out of the mud and another bone comes up with it.
I crunch that one down and follow the trail of bones like breadcrumbs. By the time I’ve found the last phalange, my head is buzzing. The frigid air is so invigorating, and there’s a delicious smell of exhaust coming from a delivery truck idling next to the fast food store on the corner.
The heavier bones are still where they were buried, too hefty to be washed downstream. I sit on the shore and gnaw on an ulna, watching the sun get low on the horizon. Birds flock in one of the trees nearby. A cat stalks in front of the bank across the street, tail low and swishing.
I used to drive by here on my commute every day. I remember when the grocery store went out of business and I had to find somewhere else to stop on my way home. I sort through my memories, plucking each one out like a jewel, examining every facet. I used to collect succulents. I was afraid of spiders. My name was Abby.
The street isn’t busy right now, so I notice when the blue Subaru comes down the road, traveling slow. It’s the one that I remember seeing in the alley/it’s Mike’s car.
I know when he sees me because he hits the gas and pulls into the lot, roaring toward me. The car skids on sand before it stops.
I rise to my feet and step into the river until I’m knee deep, but then I can’t go further. I want to stay, and the feeling of wanting is so good that I stand there.
Mike gets out of the car, hand on his holster. Looks like he left his brother behind. “Freeze,” he booms, jogging toward me. God, he looks rough. He hasn’t shaved in weeks. “Hands in the air.”
I’m still holding the victim’s ulna. I look down at it and let it drop into the water, where it disappears with a splash.
“What the fuck was that?” He comes closer, drawing his gun. “What the fuck did you just drop? Hands in the fucking air.”
I raise my hands in the air. “Hi, Mike,” I say.
He ignores that. “What did you drop?”
I shrug and look down at the water running past my knees. Then I look up at him again. “When’s the last time you slept?”
“Come out of the water. Slowly.”
I wade out of the river and climb up the bank as best I can with my hands still in the air. He waits for me at the top.
“Turn around,” he says. I obey and let him cuff my hands behind my back. His skin is burning hot against mine and I can smell the puffs of his breath, stale coffee and stomach acid.
“You’re under arrest for breaking and entering,” he says, holstering his gun so he can frisk me. He pulls a handful of river silt out of one coat pocket and matted leaves out of the other, tossing them both to the ground with a sound of disgust.
“You should call this in.” I stare at his car, worrying a sliver of bone out of my gums. “You’re going to want to cordon this area off.” I twist to look over my shoulder at him. “But don’t look at it yourself. I don’t want you to see that.”
He finishes checking my ankles for hidden weapons and looks up at me. His eyes are bloodshot. The last time he looked this bad was when his mother switched to palliative care for her lung cancer. “Why not?” he asks warily, rising to his feet.
“You should ask your brother to take care of the funeral,” I say. “I know you think he’s a dick but he’s better at this stuff than you are.”
His lips tighten into a hard line and his eyes go very cold. “What’s over there?” he asks.
“It’s your wife’s body, Mike,” I say.
I see the red flush up his neck, an eruption of hair-trigger rage and fear and horror and nausea. “Fuck you.” He swings his hand up to my face—maybe it’s a punch, but at the last second, he grabs the collar of my coat instead and hauls me toward the river. “You’re going to fucking show me what you dropped, asshole. Did you steal something from my house? You think we won’t find it?”
I’m an odd mixture of monster and murder victim right now. I let him pull me because for a moment I forget that he’s not stronger than me, and because I am enjoying the volume of his fury. I don’t want him to see the bones, and at the same time, I’m excited to see his grief.
We stop at the edge of the river which is far too silty to see the bone that I dropped. But we can see where I dug handfuls of mud off the torn trash bag. A dark red skull stares up at us, one eye socket visible above the mud. Abby doesn’t want to look at it.
The husband—Mike. Mike makes a broken noise, something like a shout and a gut punch of air and a sob all in one. Then he shoves me forward hard. I stagger and turn as he rips his gun from its holster and aims it at me.
Three bullets hit me in my chest, a tight clustering that showcases his practice at the gun range even in the midst of a killing rage. The next one hits me in the shoulder, and then the face. I take a step back at the impact.
“You can’t shoot me while I’m handcuffed,” I say. “That’s not self defense.”
He gapes at me and I can see the moment where he decides he missed and he tries again. Two more bullets to the head. One to the neck. The last two into my chest again. He lowers the gun, his mouth moving but no words coming out.
“They’re going to think you killed her, you know. How else could you find the body?” I break the handcuffs and step back into the river. There’s a brief tug of regret in my chest, and then I let myself dissolve.
I was murdered on cement. I remember that much. I had a bag over my head at that point, so I didn’t see anything. The murderer never said a word. All I heard was his angry breathing.
He stabbed me in the chest. I didn’t count how many times. If I had, I wouldn’t trust its accuracy.
I know I was home, and that I decided to take a walk because I was angry at an exchange of texts with Mike’s brother. Mike was out grocery shopping or else I’d have invited him along. I walked to the park and sat by the pond until it started getting dark. On my way back, I took a shortcut through a parking lot, since it was early October and getting cold. There were only a few cars in the lot, and I made the mistake of walking past the black truck.
The rest gets hazy. Tape over my mouth, a burlap sack over my head, shoved in the tight space behind the truck’s front seats. A sedate drive that only lasted a few minutes. Being dragged out of the truck and dumped on cement. Being stabbed.
I consider all of this as I splash water on my face in the bathroom of the public library. My coat and pants have dried, but my hair is still damp and tangled with river weeds. I let the hot water run over my hands and close my eyes, breathing in the smell of toilet cleaner and urine.
I don’t stop until I realize a couple people have come through the bathroom and I’m getting odd looks. I dry my hands and pull some weeds out of my hair, then head upstairs.
I walk through the mystery novel section, pulling a book out at random. I bury my face in the pages and breathe in the smell of book glue and ink and dead skin cells and dust mites.
At the public computers, I rub my finger over the smooth spot worn into the mouse. The keys are pleasantly clicky.
I bring up a map of the area and lazily trace the roads around where I remember being abducted. I didn’t travel far from there, so the place where I was murdered has to be close by. But it’s just so nice to sit here right now that I let myself get distracted by the body odor of the person sitting next to me and the warm, dry air coming from the heating vent against the wall. I get up again twice more to run my hands over book spines and tap my fingernails on the metal shelves. I rifle through a stack of brochures for a substance abuse support group, shuffling them like a deck of cards. It’s intoxicating.
I go back to the computers and browse the local news, rocking my chair back and forth to make it squeak. There’s a breaking news story about my remains being found in the river. Abby’s remains.
Finally, I go back to the map and pay more attention to the route. A five-minute drive from the lot next to the park will only get me two and a half miles away if the van stuck to the speed limit. Unfortunately, that area includes a lot of commercial and industrial property that is just smothered in concrete.
I study the map until the library closes and I’m kicked out. But even that is a lovely experience. It’s refreshing to be in the cold air after being warm. There’s a certain dry tightness the air gets when it’s below freezing out, and I can feel that on my skin.
The river tugs at me. I wander that way until I get to a tiny community garden area that’s been abandoned for the winter. The garden beds bristle with wind chimes and tomato cages and popsicle sticks with hand-written labels. I crawl into one of the gardens like I’m climbing onto a king-sized bed, and then roll onto my back to stare up at the stars, breathing in the smell of leaf mold and decay.
I manage to spend two full days doing little more than wandering the city. I sit in the subway and listen to the trains go by. I watch a mechanical billboard cycle through three different ads over and over. I find a greasy McDonalds bag in a trash can, still rattling with cold French fries in the bottom, and I sit in a park and eat them one by one, chewing them up for a few minutes each before carefully spitting them onto the ground. People give my bench a wide berth.
But restlessness builds in my gut. By the second night, I can’t sit still anymore. I go for a swim in the bay, floating beneath the massive swooping arches of a suspension bridge, but even that doesn’t stop the itch. I need to look for my killer.
There was a time—very long ago—when I didn’t need to hunt like this, when I only needed my little Scottish loch. Every so often I’d wander the shore, taking on the shape of an escaped horse, saddle empty, reins loose. I’d wait for someone to climb onto my back and then…well, the villagers told stories.
But eventually I went hollow. I started to buckle under the burden of a thousand years of memory. There was a long line of stories telling me what I was, and I rubbed against the bounds of that so much that I started to erode. I’d seen everything so many times that nothing mattered anymore.
The only way out from under the suffocating weight of mythology was to put on someone else like a coat and see the world through different eyes for a while.
The next morning brings gray skies and little gasps of snow whisking past on the wind. My hair is crispy-frozen and the hems of my jeans crackle as I walk.
I take a leisurely stroll back in the direction of the parking lot where I was abducted. There’s enough traffic on the streets that I don’t stand out too much.
The parking lot is empty. It’s a dentist’s office, I notice now—a low, boring building with generic landscaping and no security cameras that I can see. I walk to the spot where the black truck had been parked and stand there, turning in a slow circle.
Right or left out of the lot? There’s no way I’d ever remember that, and that’s good. It’s going to take me a while to make my way through all of the clues. I’m hungry, but I don’t want to lose this vibrant world just yet. I turn right and let my fingers trail along a chain link fence, picking up a dry scrim of black dust on my fingertips.
I take turns based on the mostly forgotten memory of the drive. It might be faster to be methodical, but that’s not what I’m after. The snow picks up as I go, but the ground is too warm for it to accumulate. I stick out my tongue and catch the flakes. They taste like distilled car exhaust and woodsmoke. I love it.
On a long stretch of road that runs past an apartment complex, I step into the gutter and spit, then rub my finger in the sputum, stirring it up with road salt and dirt. I stick my finger in my mouth and taste everything that the rain has washed off the parking lot next to me. I taste tiny crumbs of rubber tires, motor oil, and spilled coffee. I taste dog shit and antifreeze and chemical fertilizer. I taste blood.
Plenty of people could have bled in a parking lot. That doesn’t mean anything. I cross the lot, studying the cars. In the middle, I spit on the ground again: it’s stronger here. Then further back, toward the bushes that have been planted in white gravel by the wall of the building. I’m definitely getting closer.
The parking lot is asphalt, but the sidewalk next to the building is concrete, edged by the white gravel landscaping. If he stabbed me here, there would have been a lot of blood. Someone would have noticed if he didn’t clean it up.
I look at the bushes again, then walk along the side of the building. There’s a central air conditioning unit hidden behind a vinyl fence. Next to it is a hose hookup. There’s no hose connected. I turn the knob. Nothing, but it’s winter. They’ll have turned off the water for the season. Back in October, it would have still been on.
I pace away from the hose hookup. This side of the apartment building is nearly windowless—probably a stairwell. If I keep close to the wall, the vinyl fence and air conditioner screen me from the parking lot. Around the back is a tall fence that shields the property from the train tracks beyond. I find a bare patch of concrete that’s out of sight, but within reach of the hose.
I squat down, spit on the ground. Pop my finger in my mouth.
There it is. A sizable number of hemoglobin molecules burst across my tongue. I close my eyes. It tastes like the old blood in the bones that I crunched between my teeth.
This is where I was murdered. Just like that, the restlessness in my chest eases.
I only have a day of relief before I have to get back on the case again. Abby is too antsy. She won’t let me suck on mustard packets from Burger King while I listen to the sound of plastic balls clattering together in the ball pit.
My gut pulls me back toward where I was abducted, but when I reach the parking lot, I keep going. I walk toward Abby’s house with a single-minded focus, and eventually the restlessness loosens its grip. Abby’s spirit wants to go home again as much as she wants to find her killer.
The back door has been replaced with a heavy steel-core one. The blue Subaru is gone. I touch the lock, then push my fingers into it, water flowing into the cracks. I freeze into ice and the lock squeals with bending metal, then breaks.
I step into the kitchen and it’s so different now. Exactly the same, yes, but different. It still smells like spoiled milk–I wonder if Mike has gone grocery shopping even once since the day I went missing. There are dishes piled in the sink, a precariously balanced mountain just waiting to tip over.
We inherited the house from Mike’s parents. We’d been living here for years, taking care of them as they aged. His older brother got an equivalent amount in cash and, honestly, I envied him for that. The house was a money pit crammed full of their stuff. We planned to sell it eventually once we’d gotten rid of the junk inside, but that was a formidable task, especially with his brother sabotaging our efforts at every turn by making Mike feeling guilty about throwing out their own heritage, even if that ‘heritage’ mostly consisted of their father’s old comic book collection and their mother’s Precious Moments dolls. Danny even dumped some of his own crap in our shed without asking. I remember texting him angrily to get rid of his damned golf clubs. I could have been living my own life and instead the last thing I did before I died was move boxes around.
At least the dining room table shows an attempt at organization—a box of silverware has been upended here, which I find heartening. Maybe Mike’s starting to think about the future again.
I head upstairs and crawl into the bed, resting my head on my pillow. It’s soft and comfortable. I don’t sleep, but if I did, I could fall asleep here. I roll onto my back and stare up at the ceiling. I can feel the pillow getting damp under my head.
Tires squeal outside and then a car door slams. Heavy footsteps come running up the back path. Someone shoves the kitchen door open so hard it hits the wall. I don’t move. Abby wants to see him again.
The footsteps come charging up the stairs and then the bedroom door is shoved open just as hard. Mike bursts in, gun in a two-handed grip, his eyes wild.
I think he’d have shot me right there if I weren’t laying on his wife’s side of the bed. “Get up,” he shouts, almost unintelligible in his rage. “Get the fuck up.”
I stretch and sit up.
“Get off the fucking bed, asshole. Hands in the air. You think I wasn’t watching this place? You fucked up.”
“Have you found a buyer for the comic books?” I ask as I get to my feet and raise my hands. He’s shaking with rage. I wish I could feel rage like that.
“Shut up,” he grinds out. He’s still keeping me at a distance. “You don’t know my brother. You don’t know about the comic books. You’re just trying to make me angry and it’s working.”
“Danny runs a landscaping business,” I say. “He lives a few blocks from here. His middle name is Phillip. He broke your nose when you were twelve when he shoved you off your bike.”
“Shut up.” His eyes are very narrow, his jaw set so hard that I can see it throbbing in his temple.
“You don’t even have room for the comic books,” I go on. “You didn’t read them when you were young and you don’t have any interest in them now. You just wanted to keep them because they were your dad’s, but you can’t keep five hundred pounds of paper for the sentimental value.”
Mike blinks and I see his rage falter. He opens his mouth, then closes it. I used this argument before when I convinced him to get rid of them.
“How did you…” he whispers, his arms lowering just a bit. Then his face hardens again. “How did you get my wife to tell you that?”
His wife wants to put her arms around him. “She misses you,” I say.
He pulls the trigger. It hits me in the chest, forces me to take a step back. I’m honestly startled by it. Abby didn’t expect her husband to shoot her and I… and the monster doesn’t understand human motivation very well.
Mike studies me, his lips still set in a hard line. He nods once to himself when I don’t react to the bullet other than that.
“Why did you kill her?” he asks, ejecting the clip. He puts it in his pocket and takes out another one, slamming that home.
“I didn’t,” I say. “I don’t know who did.”
“Bullshit. You were there at her body.”
“I found it.” I pause. “I saw your post in the forums.”
That makes his eyebrows twitch up. “You’re a detective?” he says, the last word dripping with derision. “A detective who turns into water and takes eleven bullets without blinking?” He shakes his head. “It’s stress-induced dementia, I know. I don’t even know why I’m still talking to you.”
I don’t know why I’m still talking to him, either, except Abby wants him to stop being so angry when he looks at her, and I feel like I can draw this out longer if I can dangle him in front of Abby like bait. “I can show you where she was killed.”
“You just stumbled across that, too, huh?”
“I didn’t kill her. I didn’t make her tell me facts before she died. She’s telling them to me now.” I cock my head to the side. “You broke the stove the first week you moved into this place. It cost three hundred dollars to fix. Why would she tell me that?”
He stares for a long moment. Then, almost unwillingly, he whispers, “Is she here now?”
“In a sense.”
“Can you ask her what happened?”
I shake my head. “She doesn’t know much. She walked to the park and was abducted on her way back. He was driving a black truck and was parked at the dentist’s office nearby. He put a bag over my head and drove to an apartment building a mile away. He stabbed me to death. He never said anything.”
“What about your other senses? Did you smell anything notable?” The detective in Mike is coming out.
“Gasoline,” I say. “But there was a bag over my head.”
“What kind of bag? Plastic? Did you see a logo?”
“Burlap. No logo.”
“Did you get an impression of his physical size? When he was—” His voice cracks and he clears his throat. “When he was stabbing you?”
I think about that for a moment. “He was muscular,” I say. “Strong. A big guy, I think.”
Mike lowers the gun more. “Where were you killed?”
I tell him. It’s not far from here and he immediately recognizes the place.
“I’ll pull their security camera footage, but it’s been four months,” he says distractedly. I don’t know if he’s really talking to me or just thinking out loud. “I’ll check all the residents, see if any of them own a black truck.”
My eyes find the creases between his brows. The fine wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. It’s thrilling to pick out the details of his face. The chip in his front tooth from a tussle during an arrest. The slight bend to his nose. I don’t usually get this close to the family members of murder victims. I am an off-putting creature even when they believe I’m human. The only ones who get this close to me are the ones who are trying to lure me to my death.
“She’ll be gone, you know,” I say. “Once we find the killer. That’s the only reason she’s here.”
The corners of his mouth turn down. I can tell that he’s only half-convinced that she’s really here, that he’s even having this conversation. If it hadn’t been four months without a lead, he probably wouldn’t be listening at all. But he’s desperate and he’s devastated and I’m giving him a fresh avenue to explore.
“Where…” He pauses. “Where will she…go? Where was she, before?”
“You start in the ocean. You end in the ocean. You’re only yourself for a little while.” I shrug. “She got dammed up, is all. But no one can stay dammed up forever.”
He pinches the bridge of his nose. It’s an odd reaction, and then I realize he’s trying not to cry. His eyes are red. He squeezes them shut, cursing quietly.
I move toward him—Abby moves toward him. I touch his hand and he jerks, startled, his eyes opening.
And then I kiss him.
For Abby, this is how she wants to comfort her grieving husband. She’s wanted to touch him since he showed up by the water where her body was buried, and this is the first time he isn’t trying to arrest or attack her.
Well, I’m hungry.
There’s a brief moment when we’re just kissing like humans do. Then he tries to pull back, but his lips are glued to mine. His eyes go wide.
Then the water comes.
I pour into his throat, a torrent of icy lake water choked with leaf tannins and tiny fish, dissolved road salt, snails and mosquito eggs.
There are three fast, loud bangs. I feel the bullets thud into my gut and I’m going to ignore them but they hurt. They hurt like nothing I’ve felt before. I break the kiss, pulling back, my hands clutching at my belly.
Lake water spills over my fingers. I goggle at myself, at the dark, silty water pouring out of three holes in my gut. How—this has never—?
Mike heaves himself away from me, coughing, vomiting up water. He’s still holding the gun and he keeps his head craned in my direction even as his shoulders shake with his retches.
I push a hand into the hole in my gut and dig around, then pull out one of the bullets. It’s weirdly deformed, homemade. Silver.
Like the tarnished silverware taken out of the box downstairs.
My knees are going weak. I stagger forward, pushing past him. There’s no way I can make the ten-minute walk to the park and its lake. Instead, I hit the bathroom door with my shoulder and stumble in. I slam a knee hard into the edge of the tub, then slump forward like melting snow. Half of me is down the drain before I manage to pull my legs into the tub. I stretch out, down a hundred feet of pipe, and then I’m not conscious anymore.
I am a city block’s length of public sewers.
I am a tank in a water treatment plant.
I am a hundred square yards of the bay.
I am a half-mile stretch of river running behind the industrial park.
My thoughts are fish and soda can pull-tabs. My tongue is a thousand ropy strands of milfoil. My fingers are shards of broken ice, broken glass, broken plastic.
“Are you there?”
I open my eyes and look at the underside of a bridge high over my head.
“Hey, can you hear me?”
I blink. Now there are empty tree branches segmenting the sky above me. A bird’s nest clings to a fork in the branches.
“Ah… Abby? Abby, can you hear me?”
Water slops inside of a culvert, slapping back tinny echoes.
“Look, Abby… It’s been so hard since you’ve been gone. I don’t know what to do with myself. How can I keep going when you were the only reason I got up in the morning?”
A chunk of ice slices into my cheek, and that means I have a cheek. I pull in my hand, withdrawing from a thousand pockets of water in between broken branches and the spokes of a drowned bicycle. Now my hand exists too.
“My therapist says I have to figure out how to live for myself, but God, that’s hard. We were together so long that I don’t even know who I am without you.”
I wiggle my toes and a fishtail splashes. I try again and this time I feel silt between them. The other hand comes in. I open my mouth and take a breath.
“I didn’t—Christ, is that you?” There’s a burst of movement to my left, on the shore. I float on my back, spinning gently in the current.
“Do you need… help?” Mike sounds uncertain. I turn my head and see him standing there on the shore. He’s not in his uniform. He’s just in a heavy coat and jeans, a knitted hat pulled low over his head. He looks wan, tired. Time has passed.
I roll over, go under water. More of me comes together and I rise up from the water near the shore, knee deep. Mike hovers a few feet away, looking like he’s on the verge of running.
“You look different,” he says. His voice sounds hoarse and thick, like he has a cold.
That happens sometimes. I slick my hands back through my hair and feel water run down my neck. My head is still confused, and when I try to speak, ice creaks. I pull myself together more and try again.
“You shot me,” I say.
“You tried to drown me,” he replies. He coughs wetly. “I spent two days in the hospital with pneumonia.”
Two days. I unfocus. Water drips from my fingertips and patters to the lake. “You shot me,” I say again.
His expression turns uneasy. “I did some research,” he says. “The night after you led me to…the river. I thought if what I’d seen was real, I wanted to know what would stop you. I researched what sort of thing can turn into water and can’t be shot, but looks like a person.” He hesitates. “Mostly.”
Those stories. Those heavy, unbearable stories that follow me, that define the exact limits of my existence. No wonder it tore through me—a gut punch of myth ripping through my skin and pulling out the lake inside.
“Yeah. Silver.” He’s eyeing me like he’s thinking about experimenting with another bullet. “You were right about the murder scene. We sprayed it with luminol and it lit up like a neon sign. Unfortunately, it was out of range of the cameras and the apartment complex tapes over its security footage after a week anyway, so we didn’t get anything there.”
I look down at my feet, but there’s nothing below my knees but lake. “How long.”
“It’s been four days. I didn’t know if you would be here. I checked up the river too.”
Four days of living, lost. I put my hands up to my head, feel my face melt into my palms. Then my hands go at the wrists and the whole upper half of me pours back into the lake.
When I rise up again, Mike has retreated about fifteen feet up the shore. He doesn’t say anything when I stand up and take an experimental step toward the edge of the water. My knee can’t rise above the water because it’s only water itself.
“You tried to drown me,” Mike says again, a little defensively.
“I didn’t mean it.” I did, sort of. I wonder if I could have eaten him. If Abby would have let me. I rarely get to eat humans other than the murderer when I’m on a hunt. By the time the victim’s hold on me has loosened enough that the idea sounds palatable, it’s too late for me to waste time killing someone else.
My stomach rumbles.
“Could you…” Mike sighs and rubs the back of his neck. “Can you tell me how you found the crime scene? And her body? I need more information. I’m so close.”
“The water told me,” I say.
“Can it tell you more?”
I take another step forward, but I can’t step out of the water. I fold to my knees and sit where it’s waist-deep.
“What do you need?” he asks quietly.
“I’m hungry,” I say. It’s almost plaintive. But I didn’t finish my last meal. I haven’t finished a full meal in a while. There’s just no pleasure in the feast anymore, and now I’ve gotten too weak.
“What do you eat? You want me to get you a burger or something? Takeout?” He trails off when I look up at him, and I know he knows what I eat. He did his research. “I could go to the butcher?”
I want him to put his toes in the water. I want to pull him in by his ankle, to drag him to the bottom of the lake and eat him face first.
But instead I nod slowly. Livestock will do for now.
Mike retreats further up the bank. “I’ll be back,” he says, and goes.
I become aware again when a cut of beef, bloody and rich with iron, is slung into the lake. I fall upon it as a school of a hundred fish, devouring it before it can sink to the bottom. There isn’t even a bloodstain left when I’m done.
Mike watches from the shore, a sick expression on his face. He’s bundled up in his coat, a scarf wrapped around his neck, and every so often he coughs. The sun is getting quite low. I crawl up out of the lake next to him, pulling myself out of the mud. He scrambles back a few steps, cursing.
“I don’t know how I thought you were just a vagrant when I first saw you,” he says shakily.
I wring out my coat. It’s getting below freezing, though I don’t mind.
“So, uh, how does this work?” he asks.
“The river,” I say. “The grocery store.”
“Where you found the… where you found Abby?”
I nod. He gestures back at the edge of the park.
“I’ll drive us there,” he says.
He’s parked on the street. His lungs must be too waterlogged to let him walk all the way from his house. He’s spread a plastic trash bag on the passenger’s seat for me to sit on. That, for some reason, makes me stop and blink.
Mike went home, got a trash bag, and put it on his car seat so he could feed raw beef to a lake monster and then take it for a drive. The only time people are afraid of me leaving a stain on their furniture is when they mean to cut me open.
“What?” he asks warily.
I’ve gotten into cars with serial killers before. I’ve let desperate murderers lure me into dark alleys. I’ve dangled myself like bait in front of people who think they can cover up their crimes if they just get rid of me.
I’ve never gotten into a car with someone who knew what I was.
“Nothing,” I say.
The car radio starts playing pop music as soon as the car starts. He reaches out and turns it off. I turn it back on and close my eyes as the air vents start blowing over my face. The air is hot and dry and smells like dust.
We don’t talk as we drive back to the closed grocery store. I just listen to the music and drip into the footwell. Mike seems uneasy again.
It’s fully dark by the time we pull into the empty parking lot and drive up to the back, by the river. Mike turns off the car and then sits, staring.
“Maybe I’ll sit here,” he says, both of his hands white-knuckled on the steering wheel.
I slide out of the car without answering and head for the river. After thirty seconds, I hear his door open.
The area at the river is unlit, but I don’t need to see it. It’s been viciously chewed up by the murder investigation. A week has passed since I found Abby’s body here, and the police have gone over everything, raked through the mud, sampled the water, sawn branches off trees.
I sit down on the shore and look around. I don’t know what I’m looking for, but when I was here last, I didn’t care about getting clues. I only wanted the body.
Now, I push all my fingers into the ground on either side of me and soak into the mud. Mike comes down the riverbank with his phone flashlight on, lighting up the area. I stare into the light, feeling my optic nerve prickle. It feels so good that I keep doing it until he turns the flashlight down toward the water.
“Well?” he asks.
I soak further down, pushing my wrists deeper. I pull one hand out again, holding a ragged piece of plastic trash bag. I put it in my mouth.
It tastes like Abby’s blood and gasoline. There’s the faintest hint of something else—rotten eggs and thyme and garlic. I say that out loud.
“Maybe someone used the trash bag for their lunch,” Mike says, and then I see nausea climb up his throat. It hurts him to think of Abby’s body being shoved in with garbage.
“No,” I say distantly. “It’s not food. It’s…powder.”
Now he frowns. “Like rodent repellent? The organic repellent has that kind of stuff in it. Garlic, onion, rosemary oil, peppermint. That sort of thing. It usually comes in little bags that you leave in corners of your house. Abby hated to use traps.”
I should have known that about Abby. She should have recognized the smell. She’s fading faster than I feared.
He has his phone out and is typing quickly. “Maybe there’s a particular brand…” he mutters. “You’re sure? Eggs, garlic and thyme? Anything else?” I shake my head and he frowns. “It’s not the mouse repellent. That doesn’t have rotten eggs because you’re supposed to put it in your house. It’s deer repellent.”
I put a handful of mud in my mouth and strain it through my teeth, but there’s nothing more to find. The police have done a thorough job of removing anything relevant to the case, and time and exposure to the elements has done the rest.
“Okay, well, that’s something,” Mike says, sounding disappointed. He’s shivering inside his jacket. “Deer repellent. Don’t see a lot of deer in the city.”
I climb out of the mud and wander up the riverbank to the parking lot again. I look around. The grocery store is dark to the right. To the left, across the street, is a bank. It’s also closed at this hour, only its drive-through ATM lit up. The light spills over its front bushes, which have been wrapped up in cloth to protect them from snow damage.
“We already pulled their CCTV footage,” says Mike. “Their cameras don’t reach this far.”
I continue forward, leaving wet footprints behind. There’s traffic in the street. Mike grabs my arm before I can walk into the path of an oncoming car.
“It might not hurt you, but it’ll be hard to explain,” he says through gritted teeth. “Keep an eye out.”
The car passes and I step into the street, crossing to the bank. I walk up the neatly cropped lawn to the footpath that leads to the front door.
“What is it?” Mike asks.
I stop in front of one of the bushes and crouch down. It’s wrapped in burlap. I press my face into it and sniff. It smells like a distant memory.
“Shit,” he says. “Burlap?”
“Why do you need deer repellent?” I ask.
“To keep deer from eating your plants.” He’s staring down at me, gray-faced.
“The dentist’s office had landscaping. So did the apartment building, and he knew where the hose hookup was.”
“It would be stupid to kill someone where you worked,” he insists, his voice edging upward.
“If you knew where the cameras were? If you knew you could park there and no one would notice?” I hesitate. “Your brother—”
Mike shakes his head. “No,” he interrupts. “Danny’s a landscaper but he would never hurt Abby. He doesn’t drive a black truck.”
“Not even for work?”
He flushes. “I’ve never seen his work vehicle. But maybe…one of his crew…”
“I texted Danny the day I died,” I say. “I was angry with him.”
“He left some stuff in our shed,” Mike says tightly. “That was it. We went through all Abby’s message history after she disappeared. He hadn’t even picked up the stuff before she went missing.”
I start back across the street. Mike comes after me, dodging traffic. He grabs my arm again and I dissolve out of his grip, cohere again.
“You can’t hurt him,” Mike says. “Leave him alone. We don’t have any evidence, and we won’t because he didn’t do it.”
I keep going faster, heading for the river. Mike breaks into a jog behind me.
“Stop,” he calls. Then: “I will fucking shoot you.”
I can hear the click of his wedding ring on the grip of the gun. I stop next to his car and look back at him. He’s aiming the gun at me.
We stare at each other for a moment. Then I pull open the car door and get inside. He waits a second, then holsters his gun and heads for the driver’s seat.
Danny lives in an apartment building with two roommates. None of the three are home when we pull up to the curb. Mike parks, then calls his brother. It rings through the car speakers
“Hey,” his brother says after two rings.
“Hey Danny,” Mike says, his voice high with stress. “I just swung by your house but you’re not home.”
“Nah, I’m out with some guys at the bar.” A note of concern enters Danny’s voice. “Is something wrong?”
Mike stares at the steering wheel for a long moment. “Just thought we could catch up,” he says finally.
Danny pauses too. “Rough day?”
“Something like that. Could I meet up with you?” His eyes shift over to me, then away, and he says with more enthusiasm: “What bar are you at?”
He thinks I won’t attack Danny if we’re in public. He’s only partly right. It depends on how hungry I am. And I’m getting quite hungry.
“Yeah, come on over. I’ll buy you a drink. I’m at the Penalty Box. You know where that is?”
“I do,” Mike says. “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
“Great. See you soon.”
Danny hangs up. Mike glances at me.
“They won’t let you into the bar. You’re wet,” he says.
I wipe my damp sleeves over my face, trying hard to pull myself together.
The Penalty Box is just over the bridge, in the city proper. It’s a sports bar and there’s a game on, so it’s crowded. Mike has to circle the block twice before he finds a parking spot. By the time he parks, I’m almost dry. He frowns at me, wrinkling his nose, then reaches out and plucks strands of river weeds from my hair.
“You’ll do,” he says grudgingly.
We get out of the car. Mike pushes the door to the bar open and lets us into a hot, crowded space that smells like beer and whiskey and French fries. There are televisions around the room, all tuned to the same hockey game. It’s like a choreographed dance, hockey sticks rising in unison from all corners of the room.
Mike leads the way to the bar where a group of men are all sitting with beers. I follow and can’t remember if I’ve ever been in this bar before. I’m running out of time. If Abby goes before I find the murderer, I won’t be able to eat once again. I can’t keep doing this.
“Hey, Mike.” Danny rises to give Mike a hug. He’s a big guy, muscular. Looks like he does physical labor for a living. His eyes shift to me and he frowns. “Who, ah…”
“This is…” Mike glances back at me and hesitates, going blank. “It—uh. He looked like he needed a hot meal, so I thought I’d…” He trails off.
“You’re too kind for your own good,” Danny says, turning away from me. “You want a beer?”
“Could we talk in private?”
A shadow briefly crosses Danny’s face. “Sure. You want to step outside?”
They both move past me, heading for the front door. I wait a moment, then follow.
The two of them are walking slowly down the sidewalk. Danny’s taller, older. He stands straighter, more confident, with broad, muscular shoulders. Mike is hunched, huddled in his coat. I don’t think it’s all because of the pneumonia. He looks like he’s bracing for a punch to the gut.
“You doing okay? You shouldn’t be out in this weather,” Danny says.
“Yeah, I’m okay,” Mike says, then coughs. “Look, Danny. I… I had some questions.”
Mike hesitates. He looks up at the bridge ahead. The arches are strung with lights, sweeping across the dark sky. “You, uh. What kind of truck do you drive for work?”
“It’s a Ford F-150,” Danny says. “Why?”
“A few of the guys have black trucks, right?”
“Yeah, a couple.” Danny glances over his shoulder and sees me. He stops walking. “What is this?”
Mike looks back too. “Hey, how about you wait inside?” There’s a note of desperation in his voice.
I shake my head.
Danny turns to me. “Fuck off, would you?”
“Why did you kill Abby?” I ask him.
He flushes, anger creeping up his neck. It’s almost the same reaction as when I told Mike where Abby’s body was. “I didn’t kill Abby,” he snaps. “What the fuck?” He looks back at Mike. “Is that what you think? That I killed her?”
“No,” Mike protests immediately. “We think it was a landscaper in a black truck. I thought maybe one of your guys might have…I don’t know.”
“Who’s ‘we’?” Danny asks. “You and this homeless guy? What the fuck, Mike?”
“Ignore him,” Mike says. “I’m just saying we got some new evidence from the crime scene and I thought if you had any information about one of your guys, you could help me out.”
Danny stares at him a long moment, then starts walking again. “Is this an official investigation?”
“Not yet.” Mike follows him onto the bridge. I trail behind. I’d flow down the gutter next to them, but the walkway onto the bridge is just a metal grate suspended fifty feet over the water.
“I really don’t need this right now,” Danny says, rubbing his hands down his face. “Can we keep it on the DL? I already lost customers last time I was questioned.”
“I’ll do what I can but I’m not going to put your business ahead of the investigation. She was my wife.”
“Family comes first.”
“Abby is family.” Mike says it automatically, like they’ve had this argument before.
I can see Danny try to hold back for a second. A muscle twitches in his jaw. But of all the things Mike could have said, that was probably the one thing Danny can’t let pass unchallenged. “Abby was destroying our family,” he bursts out.
“How?” Mike asks incredulously.
Danny shoves his fists in his pockets, walking faster. “She made you forget who you were. Where you came from. She convinced you to throw our family’s history in the trash.”
Mike looks lost. “Dad’s comic books aren’t our history.”
“Fuck the comic books,” Danny spits. “You were talking about selling the house. That was our childhood, Mike! And you were pawning the china!”
“You think I was forgetting our history because I didn’t want to keep pouring money into it?” Mike asks helplessly. “It’s just a house. You want it? I’ll sell it to you.”
“That’s not the point. The Mike I knew wouldn’t get rid of it in the first place.”
“The Mike you knew didn’t have an underwater mortgage! The Mike you knew wasn’t living in a house crammed with boxes of junk packed so tightly he couldn’t breathe! It’s not a link to the past. It’s a fucking anchor.” He rakes his hands through his hair. “And you weren’t helping, storing more crap in our shed.”
“This again. It was just a couple boxes of junk.” Danny makes an obvious effort to relax his jaw. “You know, let’s just drop this. It’s been a rough week for both of us.”
Mike sighs, the fire going out of him, and then nods, rubbing the back of his neck. “You, too?” he asks tiredly.
His capitulation makes Danny’s shoulders relax. “You heard about my buddy Jimmy, right?”
“Oh.” Mike looks troubled. “Yeah, I heard he died. Sorry, I know you two were close. Was it a heart attack or something?”
“They don’t know,” Danny says darkly. “Apparently the door was left open and a pack of feral dogs got to the body first. No one found him for a few days, and by that point…”
“God, they ate him?” Mike asks in horror. Then, after a beat, his eyes flick to me.
I stare back at him. Things are stirring in the back of my head, like something buried deep in silt.
Danny grimaces. “Wish I’d thought to call him. I hadn’t seen him in a week. If I’d—“
“Golf clubs,” I interrupt.
Both of them turn to stare at me.
“In the shed. What Abby found,” I say. “They were golf clubs.”
I can almost picture it. Abby had found a pile of boxes in the shed, and shoved in the corner was a bag of golf clubs. She’d been in the shed enough to know they weren’t her in-laws’.
“We didn’t find golf clubs,” Mike says, then trails off, looking at his brother.
Danny’s expression is poleaxed. He opens his mouth, then shuts it. Then opens it again: “Where did you get that idea?”
“You didn’t think she and Mike would find them,” I say. “You thought they were safe there. They had a whole house full of junk, so what’s a little more?”
“We went through all the stuff Danny left in the shed,” Mike protests. “There weren’t any golf clubs. I’d have remembered.”
“Not if Danny picked them up first.”
“I didn’t go by the house until a few days later,” Danny insists. “The police went through everything before then.” He shakes his head. “I don’t even golf. Why would I have golf clubs?”
“They were Jimmy’s,” I say. “You were helping him out. He needed to get rid of them for a while.”
“How—” Danny’s expression is almost comically shocked. He stares at me speechlessly, like he can’t quite figure out how the conversation jumped to this. “Where is this coming from?” he asks finally. He turns to Mike. “Why are you listening to this guy?”
“Jimmy killed a woman in his kitchen,” I say. “He beat her to death with a golf club because she wouldn’t sleep with him.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Danny sputters. “He was cleaning out his apartment and he wanted me to hold onto a few things for him until he had room. Nothing in there was a murder weapon.”
“Did you help him hide the body, too?” I ask.
“You stored his stuff in my shed,” Mike says. There’s something dark in his eyes, and I know Danny has lost credibility by admitting that they were Jimmy’s things.
Danny spreads his hands. “My apartment is small.”
“Abby found them,” I continue. “She texted you to get rid of them. You must have panicked. You knew she wouldn’t understand the significance of the golf clubs, but Mike would. He’s a cop, and the murder had only just happened a week or two before. You didn’t want to be arrested as an accessory to a murder, and let’s be honest. You’d have killed her for less.”
Danny turns to Mike. “Who even is this guy? Is he claiming to be some kind of psychic? You’re being conned, Mike.”
“You came by the house but Abby was out,” I say. “You grabbed the clubs and then went looking for her. You knew she’d be on foot since Mike had the car.”
“Bullshit,” Danny says. He laughs harshly. “You think I stabbed her to death in the park?”
“No,” I say. “You brought her to an apartment complex where you work and you stabbed her there.”
Danny’s face is gray. He takes a step away from me. “You’re a psychopath.”
“Danny,” Mike says, his face raw with a sick, growing fear. “How did you know she was stabbed?”
Something flickers in Danny’s eyes as he stares at me. Then it’s gone as he turns to his brother. “You told me about the forensic analysis after they found the body,” he says.
Mike grips his brother’s arm. “Did you… Danny, did you kill her?”
Danny clasps Mike’s arm back. “Why are you choosing to believe this stranger over your own brother? I’m your family.” He shakes him slightly. “I’m your only family left. Don’t jeopardize that.”
I see the look come over Mike’s face as he realizes the truth. It’s heartbroken, horrified. “You—how do you—” He takes in a breath like a sob. “How can you think I’d just let it go?”
Danny searches Mike’s face, and when he doesn’t find what he’s looking for, his expression slowly hardens. “You would just throw me away like that?” He shoves Mike away. “Are you going to call the police?”
Mike looks back at me, his eyes wide. “You can’t do it,” he says to me. “Please.”
Danny glances back too and mistakes Mike’s meaning. “Ignore the fucking psychic. Nobody will care what he says.”
“I have to call it in,” Mike says to him.
“So you’re going to finish what she started, then?” Danny steps back, a shudder of affronted anger going through him. He storms to the railing. “You want to throw me away like everything else? Will that make you happy? I’ll let you get the last push.” He hoists himself up and swings a leg over, straddling the railing. “You want me to do it? I’ll do it.”
“Stop it.” Mike lunges for him and Danny swings his other leg over, holding himself over the drop. Mike clamps his hands on Danny’s wrists. “Stop it, goddammit.” His voice is shaky.
Danny’s eyes are fixed on his brother’s face. “When I die, I want you to know that it’s your fault.”
“Please, Danny.” Mike tries to pull at him but Danny has a firm grip. “Come back over. Don’t—don’t do this to me.”
“Are you going to call the police?”
“I—” Mike looks at me, then back at his brother. “Please, Danny, just come back.”
Danny’s lip curls. “Give me your phone.”
Danny lets go of the railing with one hand and swings a leg out over the drop. “Give me your phone or I’ll let go.”
Mike fumbles his phone out of his pocket and hands it over. Danny flings it out into space. It spins end over end as it drops down a hundred feet toward the water.
“Now climb over,” Danny says.
“You climb over here,” Mike insists.
“No.” Danny’s voice is cold. “You’re going to climb over on this side. Then I’ll climb back over, and I’ll go. How’s that? You’ll never see me again. You just wait here for five, ten minutes. Then you can call the cops if you want to destroy our good name and the legacy that our parents worked so hard for, but I’ll be out of here.”
Mike is sickly pale. He looks over his shoulder at me, at the Penalty Box a hundred feet down the sidewalk. “Let him go,” he says to me. “Don’t touch him. Please.”
I just stare back at him.
“Hey, let’s have the homeless guy climb over too,” Danny says. “Come on, guy. Get over here.”
“Please,” Mike says to me.
Maybe it’s some vestigial feelings from Abby’s last scraps of consciousness that makes me approach them. I climb over the railing and look down. It’s almost tempting to jump. I want to know what it feels like to rain into water from this high up.
Mike climbs too, a little more awkwardly. His hands are shaking and his cheeks are wet.
“Danny,” he whispers. “Why did you destroy my life?”
Danny laughs bitterly as he swings his leg back over. “I didn’t destroy anything,” he says, getting solidly back onto the bridge. “You did when you went and married the bitch.”
And he gives Mike a shove.
Mike’s mouth opens in an O of surprise. His gloved hands slip straight off the railing and he windmills backward, going up on tiptoes in some wild attempt to catch his balance. Then he’s arching outward, falling.
Danny turns toward me, his face grim. He probably thinks he’s going to shove me, too. He plants his hands on my chest, but they go straight through, punching out my back with twin bursts of water. Danny jerks from me with a cry of shock and I nearly lean forward to pour over the railing and envelop him. Abby is just a weak pulse of distress in my chest, so faint that in another breath or two, she’ll be gone. And I’m so hungry.
This is what I do. This is what the monster does.
But instead, I push myself backwards off the bridge and I rain.
I meet Mike halfway down. He’s gone limp, staring upward at the bridge, his hands still reaching up like he can grab it.
I hit him like a water balloon, like waves crashing against rocks. We spin in mid air and I sling myself around him, wrapping him in a bubble of lake water.
We hit the bay a moment later. I break the surface of the water and Mike shoots down into the bay like a torpedo out of a submarine.
I keep spreading, a starburst of freshwater expanding into salt. I diffuse outward into the darkness of the bay. There’s room to stretch out here. I can push my toes down into old rusting shopping carts and an upturned car. I can taste the insides of a shattered tanker ship. There’s a delicious bunch of bones here that are too old to contain a spirit, but they crunch nicely between my teeth.
Then I hear Mike make an underwater sound and I realize he hasn’t surfaced. I spin, locating the surface. Looking up, the bridge is just a smear of sparkling light and Mike is a thrashing shadow.
I buoy him on an upswell. He breaks the surface and immediately starts choking and gagging. Another lungful, four days after the first—I don’t need to care much about human health to know that’s not great. He’s out of it, barely able to tread water. It’s shockingly cold and I can feel his heart thudding unevenly.
Way up, I can see people looking over the railing. Not Danny. Pedestrians, maybe, or a car that happened by. They’re shouting.
I wrap around Mike again and drag him toward the shore. It’s a distance away, a collection of huge upturned slabs of stone. Fishermen use it in the summer, and it’s streaked in gull shit and horseshoe crab remains. Now, I wash Mike up onto his back on the stone. He’s choking still.
I come together kneeling over him and shove my hand down his throat. I branch down his windpipe, brachiating outward.
I close my fist and pull, peeling water and lymph and bacteria out of his lungs. I toss it onto the rocks and go in again. Blood comes out this time. Mike gags and sucks in air frantically. He rolls onto his side and coughs.
I hear people running, getting closer. Someone scrambles over the rocks. “He’s down here!” they shout. As they come into sight, I dissolve and slosh back into the bay.
There’s a black F-150 parked down the street from the bar. It’s not familiar to me at all. I can’t even remember being dragged into it.
I slide into it and crawl into the space behind the front seats. There’s a toolbox here and a folded length of burlap. I lick the carpet like a cat and then roll a hair around on my tongue. It’s one of Abby’s.
Half an hour later, the driver’s side door opens and Danny gets in. He tosses his phone into the cup holder and starts the car. It smells like he had another beer. He cuts the wheel and pulls out into traffic, sighing.
There are two police cars on the bridge and I can hear an ambulance siren. Danny drives in the other direction. We take a roundabout route out of the city.
When we’re on a less trafficked road heading into the suburbs, skirting the edge of the bay, I climb into the passenger’s seat. Danny shouts, swerving the car. He hits the brakes and the truck screeches to a stop.
“Where the fuck did you come from?” he shouts, his voice going up an octave.
I put my hand on his hand on the steering wheel, then freeze. He tries to yank his hand free, his eyes going wide. He grabs at me with his other hand, but it disappears into my chest and then freezes there as well.
He shouts wordlessly as I slide into his lap. I put my foot on top of his on the gas pedal. The truck leaps forward. We hit forty miles an hour, then fifty. Sixty, seventy. And then we hit the guardrail.
Beyond, the bay glitters.
Danny screams the whole way down.
Mike gets out of the hospital three days later. Two of his coworkers help him get home. He moves slow like when he hit the water, he lost whatever strength he had to keep himself upright.
“You just take it easy,” one of the guys says, helping Mike up the stairs. “My wife’s going to come over later with a casserole so you don’t have to worry about food. You want a coffee or something?”
“No thank you,” Mike rasps.
Another guy pulls down the blankets on the bed. “We’ll be downstairs for a while,” he says. “You need anything, just shout, okay? Or text. Here’s my phone.”
The two of them help Mike into his bedroom. They go so far as to help him get his shoes off, but then they leave him there sitting on the edge of the bed. He stares down at his socks, his face blank.
I step out of the bathroom. I’m not even leaving wet footprints right now. My belly is full and I feel so light. When I stop in front of him, he jerks his head up. His eyes dart over me and then his face crumples. He puts both his hands over his eyes.
“They dragged his truck out of the bay, but he wasn’t in it,” he whispers. “I didn’t know if…”
I say nothing, going to the window to look out. The sun spilling in is warm on my face. I lick the glass and it’s nice and smooth and cold and tastes like Windex.
“Is Abby still here?” His voice is still very quiet. I don’t know whether he’s trying to keep the guys from hearing him or whether this is the best he can do right now.
When I ate Danny, I kept waiting for it to get dull and tasteless, but it didn’t. I realized I was waiting for Abby to leave, but she wasn’t leaving.
Because she’d already left.
She must have faded when I jumped off the bridge. Was it because I’d gone after Mike? Was that the resolution she wanted? Or had it just been her time?
It didn’t matter. She had gone and I’d kept going like a river following the riverbed, not knowing that I wasn’t supposed to know the way.
“She’s gone,” I say, and then I lie. “She was happy.”
He lets his hands slide off his face. His breathing sounds easy, at least. He sends me another look and then, exhausted, swings his legs up onto the bed.
“Thank you for saving my life,” he says. It’s hollow, as if he’s not certain that’s something he should thank me for. “You could have let me drown.”
If this were one of the myriad myths about me, that’s how it would have ended. I’d have gone for Danny first. Eaten my victim. Left Mike to sink or swim. Neither outcome would have mattered to me because nothing would have mattered. Eventually, I think, there would have been nothing left of me but a beast: always hungry, never sated.
I’m so tired of being the monster. Or at least, of being that monster. I want to slough off all that myth and start something fresh and new and light. Something that saves people sometimes. Something that helps people, and something that people help. Something interesting.
“There’s a boy who went missing six months ago,” I say. “He was abducted an hour from here. The trail’s gone cold.”
The ghost of a grimace brushes Mike’s face as he lies back against the pillows. “Give me, like, a week.”
And I do. Because I have time.
About the Author
Bennett North is a queer writer, artist, photographer, and gardener living between Providence, RI and Boston, MA. When not doing all those things, Bennett co-edits Translunar Travelers Lounge (translunartravelerslounge.com), a biannual speculative fiction magazine. Bennett’s work has appeared in F&SF, Escape Pod, Podcastle, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and other markets.