I cursed silently and lowered the rifle from my eye to my side. The deer had gotten away. My scope had wavered around a bit, rushing past blurring red and yellow trees, until it had finally trained on the shiny, smooth neck of the deer, and then something had scared it off. Before my finger rested on the trigger it had leaped with silk agility over a broken, peeling fence, and disappeared into the foliage. I emptied my water bottle with several drags from my dried throat, and then tucked it into my pack. I’m a bit of a naturalist, so I didn’t want to leave my trash all over the place. Imagine that. Bill W. Ellis, a naturalist who hunts. Well, let me tell you, when I kill an animal I use everything but the guts. I either stuff it or eat it. Nothing goes to waste. I’m not one of those bastards that will chop a deer’s head off and leave the rest to rot. No no, I’m a naturalist. I keep the population under control.
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Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something move. It pushed through the underbrush silently, almost cautiously. It would stop, move forward a few steps, and then stop again. I saw a few patches of brown flash from the dense flora, and then the deer was hidden by the trees again. It didn’t matter. I kept my eyes (which, and I don’t mean to brag, are pretty sharp) right on the spot where I had seen the deer. I lifted the rifle to my eyes. I peered through the scope, moving the cross hairs up and down, left and right, until I saw the red dot in the center stop on the slightly moving brown. I smiled and enjoyed private victory.. Just the thrill of the hunt, you know? I worked hard to keep from shouting; I didn’t want to scare the game away after all the work of finding a decent spot. I exhaled heavily but silently. My heart ticked in my chest.
The rifle kicked and the shot resonated in the silent woods all around me. A few birds squawked in fear and flapped away over my head. But my attention was on the deer. It made a small choked sound (my least favorite part of hunting) and dropped heavily to the ground. I was pretty sure the shot had hit it in a heavy part; the bullet had thrashed through the leaves and thwacked into the animal. Wherever I had hit it, it was dead. I didn’t move. I clicked the rifle into safety and leaned it against an aging, thin barked tree, and jogged the short distance away to see my kill. Dead leaves crunched under my army green boots as my legs pulled me closer to the carcass. When I got there, My heart leaped thickly into my throat, and as if it had a long arm reaching into my stomach and tying it into wringing knots, I vomited sour regurgitation all over the ground. I had killed a man. I had smiled as I trained the laser onto what I thought was deer hide. I had had to restrain myself from giggling childishly as I pulled the trigger and sent a hot lead bullet spiraling through the air. I had even liked the thick smacking sound the bullet had made. Bullet breaking deer bones? No. Bullet cracking human skull.
He had slumped and crumpled on the dirty ground, falling onto his side. I brushed a few clinging leaves from him and rolled him onto his back. His lax arms flopped around and his mouth dropped open, blood trickling from the corner oh his lips and a small rivulet from his right nostril. He was already cold to the touch. His eyes, two baby blue gems, were frozen open like marbles tucked into a wax statue. I coughed up more vomit and then put my ear to his chest. A few random beats. Like a watch wrapped in cotton, who’s battery is beginning to die. I gagged when I noticed something warm and sticky dripping down my face. I brought my hand to my cheek. The fingertips were stained red.
“I...I’ll...viz...I’ll viz...” I jumped and yelped when he began to squirm and tried to talk.
“Oh my G-God...Oh My...Just...Just lay still, don’t move, I’m gonna get you an ambulance you’re gonna be just fine, just don’t move,” I rambled on. He made a strange grimace and gargled deep in his throat, and more blood trickled down his chin. I smelled it strong in the air. That metal, oily smell.
“I’ll viz...I’ll...visit...visit...viz...,” he mumbled wetly, his head turning from side to side. I covered my mouth when he turned his head far to my left and I saw a ragged bullet hole just above the temple. Grey and red matter hung from it like a bloated worm struggling to escape its hole. Pieces of pink skull hung in his blood matted hair. His opposite temple bulged too far outward. I knew immediately where the bullet had stopped. And then his pale hand clamped onto my shoulder. The grip was strong...iron, for a dying man.
“I’ll visit you, you coward,” he gargled. His eyes were glazed a dull blue. His crusted, bloody lips pulled into a bone chilling grin, revealing yellow and red teeth. He laughed, the chortle sounding choked. Yellow brain fluid seeped from the entry wound and puddled on a leaf. And then, he went slack in my arms. His fingers fell away from my shoulder and his chest stopped heaving. His eyes were wide, reflecting fading sunlight, open to the world yet seeing nothing. A trace of that grin still lingered on his still lips. I dropped his body and crawled away, breathing hard.
Horrible thoughts forced their way into my brain as I struggled to round up my escaping breath. Not so much his threat; I assumed that he was delirious in his final moments. What would become of me? Jail? He wasn’t wearing any bright fucking colors. It was an accident. An accident. But hell, lots of things were accidents. I’ll still get charged with manslaughter. No murder charges, only manslaughter. That’s what will hang me.
Unless they never find the body.
I was appalled at myself for even thinking it. But when my swimming eyes swiveled back around to the blood-soaked patch of ground where he lay, It began to melt into sanity. It seemed more and more commonsensical. I had killed the man in the middle of nowhere. It was hunting season. Gunshots echoed across the dried fields and countryside every day. So what if someone had heard it? For all they knew I had killed a deer. If I could drag him to my cabin at the edge of the woods I could get a shovel and bury him... no cops, no sentence, no trial, no nothing... free as a bird... That thought proved to be a deal I simply could not refuse.
I slipped my camouflaged arm through the black leather shoulder strap of the gun and walked over to the corpse. His mouth was still parted in the same slack half smirk, blood drying and no longer dripping down his face. His eyes, now empty like the broken windows of an old abandoned house, looked straight up at the sky. I grimaced as an ant scuttled across one of the glass looking eyes, slipping out from beneath an eyelid and bustling down his cheek and out of sight. I lifted his legs up under my arms. He had stiffened and the texture had changed dramatically; instead of moving in the joints normally, I wrestled them up and one of them popped. One of his boots slipped off of a foot, frozen in position, and clumped to the ground. I began to groan and stagger backwards, my teeth bared, my eyes squinted shut, the cold meat dragging along behind me.
I saw the orange lights of my cabin casting welcoming, warmthy shadows across the darkening forest floor. Incalculable species of insect and frog chirped all around me and a soft breeze whistled through the trees. The sky had melted like Sherbet into many orangish and reddish colors, rolling across the flat landscape like a beautiful work of art. It was still bright enough that when I plopped down on a rotten log outside and looked down I could see his face. And, as I watched, his stiff face pulled into a sly grin and one pale eye squinched closed in a playful wink.
“Oooh, you’re a strong one, Billy Boy,” the dead man said. His voice was cold and gurgling. I jumped away, my sudden screams echoing throughout the silent gathering of trees. I ran away, but when I turned away from my protective cabin door, my hand securely fastened on the smooth knob, looking back to see him swaggering after me-- his carcass was still crumpled and unmoving on the ground.
You’re tired you dumb ass. It was your imagination. It’s not every day you kill a man and decide to bury his body. Nerves, Bill. Nerves. It’s this or get it porked in jail for a few years. Bury him and get the hell out and forget about it and never come back.
I heeded my own advice, and shook the vision out of my head. I jogged around to the back of the cabin and unlocked the storage shed. My hands felt in the dark across dusty shelves until they touched long, smooth wood, and I removed the shovel with both hands, wielding it like a weapon. I also stooped and tugged loose a crinkling old blue tarp, which I had stuffed away years before in a dank little shelf. I didn’t want a repeat of what I had saw, imagination or reality, while I was burying him. Most of all it was his eyes; he could watch me dispose of him without blinking, like he was a dirty little secret. And they were so pale.
I stooped and folded his chalky hands on his abdomen, doing so as quickly as I could to avoid seeing him. With panicked, jerky actions I whipped the tarp out and it hovered above the corpse like a magic carpet, and then it silently floated down, giving the body a shapeless look, like a face beneath a white sheet in a morgue. I grunted as I shoved the shovel deep into the earth, removing huge chunks of mud and grass and worms and tossing them over my shoulder with soft plods behind me. My arms were already achy and burning from dragging the lifeless stiff behind me, but the thought of a small square of room with bars over the windows seemed to motivate me to push harder, dig deeper, work faster. I glanced over at the body occasionally, and caught myself watching for signs of movement. If the blisters welling up on the palms of my hands hadn't burned like they did, I might have slapped myself right then and there. But soon enough, even as blood and water ran from the broken sores on my hands, I had a hale nearly four feet deep and around seven feet long carved into the dark earth. Panting like a winded dog, I straddled the body, grabbing handfuls of the crisp tarp, and pulled it slowly over to the edge. His parts didn’t loll around as they had before. It was like taking a frozen cow from a butcher’s freezer. I let him flop to the ground and rolled him into the hole, smiling wickedly as I finished the deed that had taken me by surprise. At first I started to kick clods of dirt down on top of him, several of which clattering down onto his face, and then I reluctantly lifted the shovel and filled in the awkwardly shaped hole.
I threw the shovel into the trees and began praying, and everything seems to be a blur from then on...I remember walking into the house...and my next memory is laying in bed that night, my eyes wide open, listening to crinkling sounds from outside. Crickets and Locusts chirping to each other, frogs chortling, and then crinkle. Like a newspaper being folded. Or Old parchment. Or tarpaulin. I pulled the thick blankets over my head and shut my eyes tight, trying hard to block the outside world out. It was my imagination messing with me again. It had to be. I even shuffled across the bare floor and flicked my tiny radio on, droning country music oozing from the round speakers. That boring drizzle would put me to sleep for sure. I flopped back down into my big mattress, gazing out the window at the large axe askew in the tree stump I had chopped myself. I decided to concentrate on that day, my first day in my new cabin, and closed my eyes. Sleep overcame me.
The moon had risen above the furry tree line and a single ray fell upon the bulging mound of dirt in the ground. A lone spider skittered across it, it’s skinny brown legs moving it’s round, hairy body. And then the ground began to move up and down. A small mound of dirt swelled from the top half of the grave and tumbled down the side. A bone white hand wriggled out, the fingers waving in the air. The digits tossed a shard of old, dirty blue tarp to the side, and a worm slithered out from between the knuckles and coiled around the fore finger, it’s wet head resting on the dirty fingernail. Half of it’s body was embedded in the skin. It held on tight to survive the rapid movements. Another hand softly emerged from the ground. They grabbed handfuls of the dry earth and tossed them angrily away from the scar of a hole. Puffs of dirt billowed out from a sinking spot between the two hands, and then a head poked out of the ground, ants streaming across the stiffened features with bits of flesh in their pinchers. The small piece of brain emerging from the bullet wound appeared to be composed of the tiny black insects and teeming. Dirt clung to it in clumps of stained earth. The cheeks, the eyelids, the eyebrows, the entire face was covered with small red patches of missing meat, which the ants now carried away, panicked, scurrying all over the corpse like moving freckles. The head resembled some morbid constellation in a sky of dead flesh. Those same pale eyes swiveled around in dark sockets until they found an open window, a bundled shape tossing and turning inside it like a living picture. The eyes flicked from the window to a sawed off tree, illuminated by another beam of moonlight. An axe was buried deep inside it. The dead lips smiled. A slug parted them and dribbled down the chin, followed closely by a trickling bloodline from the ant bites. As the figure finally stopped moving and the sheets rose and fell steadily, dead legs were pushing out of the ground. Dead limbs were clawing at a smooth wooden axe handle. The moonlight silhouetted a shambling figure wrenching an axe out of the stump, and wielding it in front of it as it limped around to the front of the house. “Billy Boy...” It called silently. It’s throat was full of dirt, grating. “Oh, Billy Boy...” and then it laughed...in a different man’s voice.
I awoke to the sound of something heavy and metal dragging along the wooden floors of my cabin. I heard heavy foot steps, sliding with something slippery under them. They made a sliding sound each time as the shoe came down, and the other foot was quick to catch the weight. Slishhh-thunk. Slisshhh thunk. Slissshhh thunk. Slisshhhh thunk. I sprang from the bed, all the energy and horror from the day flooding back into my head as the blood had flown out of my victim’s. Something glinted beneath the crack in the floor. Breathing hard, the world spinning, I glanced out the window. The stump was bare. There was a sneering crack where the axe had been.
“Bill, this is your father. I need to talk to you,” came a voice from the other side of the door. It was muffled through the wood. I snatched my rifle up from beneath the bed and shoved a shell home. I pointed the barrel at the blank door, the hairs on my body rising and an icy chill rubbing it’s hands up and down my spine.
“You died. You had a heart attack four years ago.” I shouted back, tears running down my face. I remembered my father’s silver casket lowering slowly, with a mechanical whispering, down into his grave, as his headstone watched solemnly. And he was outside the door? With an axe?
“I want to see you, son. They let me come back. to see you. I told you I’d come back and visit you, didn’t I?” came my father’s friendly, deep voice. I could smell tobacco wafting up into my nose. How he had loved to stuff his pipe and his lower lip as he listened to woodpeckers on the front porch. I also picked up the smell of oily dirt and fresh blood somehow hidden beneath it. The metal thing glinted again and caught my eye, swimming, but lined with rage.
“You’re dead! I was the one who found you! You were blue, God Damn it! BLUE!”
The voice seemed to pause.
“I died. But they said I could come back and see you. You gave me a gift once, and I want to give it back to you,” the voice said again calmly. Slisshhh-thunk. The doorknob crackled as he tried it. I had it locked. “Oh, come on, Son. Unlock this damn thing. It’s your old man, and I’ve come a long way to see you,” it said, the voice sounding suddenly distant. The last words of the sentence had wavered a bit and sounded all to familiar. My father's warm voice died the same way the rest of him had. “NOW OPEN THE FUCKING DOOR!” The voice shouted. Something hit the door lightly. Later, I would find the piece of dirt that had fallen out of the mouth. The thing shined once more and I saw it leave the floor. WhoooooshhhhhTHAK! The door dented in and wood snapped as the axe head buried itself in the door, ripped free, and whacked into it again. It hammered into the wood several more times as I watched, helpless in shock, frozen, until a hole had opened up wide enough for me to see who was on the outside.
It was the man I had killed. He smiled gaily, even as spiders scuttled from his hair and crawled over his eyes. His moldy hand snapped the lock open and he opened the door. Dirt dusted off him and pattered on the floor as he slid-walked toward me.
“See son? You gave me the gift of death and a fiery passage to hell! And now, the demons let me come back to return the favor!” He said happily, in my father's voice. He swung the axe and I dropped to the floor as it smashed into the wall and bits of wood hit my face. I lifted the rifle and it was level with his gut. I pulled the trigger and my ears popped. KRAK! KRAK! KRAK! KRAK! KRAK! KRAK! KRAK! KRAK! click. Click click. Above me I saw eight bullet holes torn into the man’s abdomen, random cavities oozing fat and steaming. Even as coagulated blood pattered down on my face I gaped at my empty weapon, spent and useless in my hand. I dropped it and crab crawled away from where the zombie stood, wrenching his axe out of the wall. It came loose with shrill pop and suddenly he loomed over me. He smiled and his chest heaved as he jogged after me, the axe wavering in his grasp. Instinct took over as he approached. In slow motion I saw his dead features melt into a look of pure evil and rage, his milky white eyes beginning to glow a fiery red. A roar, bending my father's voice and his own, exploded from him. When he had begun to bring the axe down, I kicked his knees hard and he buckled-- and fell squarely on the axe, ribs popping and the back of his soiled shirt poking out like a tent as he hit the floor heavily. He gasped and choked, bloody dirt falling out of his mouth, flies crawling around on his gray tongue and flying out of the trap door. A flower of blood bloomed from it and he was still. The red glow that was his eyes faded into the same, horrible pale blue. I climbed to my feet and backed out through the doorway, keeping my eyes on him, slowly feeling my way to the backdoor, to the key hooks beside the light switch, for the familiar key chain of the shed key. I watched him the whole way and he didn’t move once. Slimy gore drained from him, bugs swimming along in it as they too left his body.
“I’ll show you, you freak! This time you’ll be all the way dead!” I shouted at him as I shoved the key into the padlock and threw myself inside. My panicked voice resonated across the silent woods. I wanted him to hear me, to know he was in trouble and fear me, and at the same time was waiting to wake up, sweating, in bed at home. But for the time being, I planned on killing him...again... whether it was a dream or not. My hands touched the bumpy plastic of a smelly gas can, and I knew my lighter was on my bedside table. This time, fighting fear, I walked back into the house. The body was still unmoving on the floor, slightly lifted by the axe beneath it, the shirt poking up and now ripping to reveal the crimson triangle of steel protruding. I over ended the can and it sloshed wetly inside the red, stained can, chugging down the funnel and spilling out all over the floor and dousing the body. I watched it soak into his clothes, drip off his flesh, bead in his matted hair, run across his wide open eyes. The smell was very strong; almost unbearable, burning my eyes and nostrils. I stepped over him and dumped it all down his legs, onto his buttocks, up to his shoulders, and then I walked backwards away, leaving a tiny trail shimmering a dull yellow in my wake. I glanced at the window. Closed and locked, but it would open. I snatched my lighter and stopped to the ground. I grinned as I pulled the gear back and held the small button down. It clicked and flashed. No flame. I tried again. A flicker. No flame. I cursed and tried it again. No flame. I held it directly to the floor and did it. The flicker ignited a drop of gas for a split second, and then burned out. And then the man picked himself up, groaning, the axe still buried in his chest. He wrapped a greasy hand around it and yanked it free, blood spattering on the floor in front of him. His ribs bulged awkwardly. He casually walked towards me, the axe swinging like an umbrella at his side. He left a trail of blood spots behind him.
“What goes around comes around, Billy Boy. What goes around comes around. And you simply can’t kill those of us that are already dead, Billy,” he said. He smiled as he saw me crouched on the floor, my lighter touching the wood. “I’ve burned once already today, Billy. It won't do much...I might not be as pretty afterwards,” he said. I shrugged, trying to be as calm as he was, but I felt like I could piss my pants any minute. I tried the lighter again. Flicker. No flame. His eyes glowed the bright red again, steam curling from beneath his brow, and he lifted the axe slowly above his head. He was close. It would sink into my skull easily. “I’ll see you in hell, Billy Boy,” he said. Then I flicked the lighter one last time. A dancing yellow flame mamboed out of the spout.
“I think I have a good fifty years or so,” I said, watching the shocked look on his face. Before the axe could move, I had put the flame to the gas and dove onto my bed. I didn’t feel hungry flames swallow my shoe and begin melting it to my foot. I wrenched the window open, wriggling out hurriedly, seeing him out of the corner of my eye. The axe clattered from his hand as the fire raced along the floor like an evil snake, wispy and curling up his legs and rapidly enveloping his whole body. He screamed and swatted at himself, his face blackening and melting off. His eyes, their glow blending with the fire’s, shriveled and tumbled from the sockets like two roasted marshmallows. Charred hairs and pieces of the brown jacket detached and see sawed in the air around him like golden leaves around a maple tree. His clothes had begun melting to him, the fishy smell of burning flesh tingling my nostrils. He pitched backwards and then my whole room exploded into all colors of yellow and orange, and I was thrown backwards into the trees by a rush of heat. Apparently the fire had reached the gas furnace. My head connected solidly with the shovel I had buried him with hours before and I was knocked unconscious, at least until the bright lights of the fire vehicles stirred me awake un incalculable time later. Blood burned my eyes and I had a moving sensation. The sky was a blooming purple, the last ghosts of stars fading above me, everything shifting around. I tried to speak. My throat stung and I cringed.
“There are some traces of gas in there. There's a crispy inside the bedroom. An axe damn near all the way through him. This guy must have known who he was dealing with to knock him off like he did,” came a deep, almost joking voice from the upper right of me. I tried to turn to see him but the pain in my neck stopped me. Finally, I felt myself drop heavily and I was looking up at the open doors of a bright ambulance, paramedics bustling about with tools in their gloved hands. I smelled tangy, burning wood and gasped when I saw the remnants of my cabin; a few black poles rising from a pile of charred mush and billows of dark smoke tufting into the fresh morning. Tress behind it had blackened and now smoldered with the debris.
“Shit, he’s awake. I’m gonna fill him in,” came another voice. I saw a square jawed police man lean over me, his chin covered in stubble and unshaven. He smelled strongly of coffee but I was happy to see him. “Sir, can you tell me what happened?” he asked calmly, patting me on the shoulder. I tried to sit up but he pushed me back down onto the cot. I was about to tell him about everything...the dead man, his fiery eyes, killing him, burying him...but I stopped myself. My throat fought me from the inside but I managed:
“A man broke into my house and dumped gas all over himself...He said he was gonna kill me with an axe...So I shot him...and he set the place on fire,” I rasped harshly. I wheezed. I heard one of the paramedics say I had a large sliver of wood embedded in my throat and severe burns. The cop frowned solemnly and nodded.
“You must have umpteen horseshoes up your ass, my friend. That stiff over there was a serial killer hiding out in the woods. Jimmy Grisby. Killed his whole family with a craftsman Saws All,” he said, gesturing to the cot next to me. I saw a misshapen black bag, the zipper wide open like a dissected frog. Inside there was a black, burned man shaped thing, with a mouth frozen open and the crumbling hands hooked into eternal claws over it‘s chest. Someone tossed in what appeared to be a blackened fragment of axe, the blade and a piece of the handle, and then two men in surgical masks zipped it up and put it into a Coroner’s meat wagon. It drove out of site with the yellow lights flashing. He smiled at me, and I was loaded into the ambulance. I felt a cold plastic mask slip over my head, the rubber band snapping over the back of my head, and the cool gas that I inhaled made me drift off to sleep. My last thought was: it’s over.
Three week later I was safe at home. My gun had been auctioned off by my brother, because I didn't care to keep it around anymore. I took a sip of coffee and looked at the blank spots where my deer heads had been. Soon, pictures of relatives would replace it, pictures I had taken at my celebration picnic. I had survived a deadly explosion. My church threw a big bash for me at Indian Lake, Ohio. Smiling at the memory, I folded up a week old sports page and shuffled to the front porch to retrieve my new one. When I opened the door, I felt fear swell into my stomach like an ice grenade.
On the front porch, there was a small piece of cardboard with a Neuse of string tied to it. It looked like a morgue toe tag-- A burned morgue toe tag. The edges had wrinkled up and curled, the ink running down it in spidery rivers. Maggots swarmed over it and I watched them squirm over a darkened axe blade, pinning the toe tag down to keep it from blowing in the wind. I picked it up and saw a small arrow drawn in the corner, hidden by a fold of black ash. I flipped it and read the back of the toe tag even as it crumbled in my hands:
Dead men don’t die, Billy Boy. I’ll see ya soon.
-- Jimmy Grisby