The idea for the suspense short story below came to me when I was out for a walk with my four-legged friend Harold. He has a tendency to try and pee on the netting and old bed sheets people put over their trash bags. While diverting him from peeing on one such sheet, the shape of the bags underneath gave me the seed of this story. So, thanks for the inspiration Harry!
It’s running for eight now. I have to be at work by 8:30. And there’s still that thing that needs doing. But the bed is warm and that thing is something I don’t want to do. I have to. I know it. I only want to deny it for a little while longer.
I roll over and swing my arm out to encircle a warm body that is no longer there. My arm flops against the sheet and mattress beneath, as if surrendering to the fact of his absence. The sheets are warm, inviting. The day ahead is cold and awkward.
It’s been a week since I’ve been at the office. People will ask questions. They’ll say, “Oh Rebbecca, how are you doing? Really?” in that tone that makes you want to punch them. Or they’ll pretend nothing has happened. Or they’ll look away. I don’t know which I’d rather.
Another glance at the clock tells me I have no choice if I’m going to be on time. I untangle myself from the sheets. So warm. Goodbye. My clothes are on in a minute, my hair pinned up. I throw on a little make-up — no one’s going to question my appearance today and I can’t be bothered to give a shit.
I try not to think about the next task as I descend the stairs. I push it out of my mind, thinking instead of the soothing aroma of brewing coffee. It will fill my nostrils when I enter the office in about twenty-five minutes. Then I can hide at my desk and carry on with my life.
Then I’m in the porch facing my nightmare. My weekly nightmare. I managed to avoid it until now, since that day so long ago. My parents had done it, or David had done it. But he won’t be doing it anymore.
Black garbage bags, ten of them, fill the space. My knees go a little weak, thinking of entwining my fingers into the thin, tacky plastic. And I have to swallow back vomit that is threatening to creep up my throat. A sour taste lingers in my mouth.
This is not hard. I know it’s not hard. People do this every damn week. Why can’t I?
But I know why. And I can’t think of that day without thinking of long-dead Snuffles. Beautiful, loving Snuffles. God, how I miss that dog.
I walk around the bags and sit, fall almost, to the bench next to the door. It’s hard to breathe so I open the door a crack, letting the light Fall breeze caress my face. That was a mistake. That’s when I see it.
The sheet sits next to the stairs, on a little patch of grass in front of the house. That’s all it takes. I start to urge.
I shove the door closed with a bang and dash for the bathroom. Barely making it I puke into the sink. Hot, sticky tendrils of it flow over my chin. The smell almost makes me vomit again. I hold it down. I raise my head, knowing it’s a mistake, and look into the mirror.
But I don’t see myself, not as I am, no, I see a little girl, innocent and carefree. A little girl that didn’t know her life was about to change forever.
I walked Snuffles every day before school, around seven-thirty. It had been one of the conditions of getting her. My mother made me promise to walk her and so I did. But it wasn’t a chore, Snuffles was the best friend an eight-year-old girl could have. She loved to cuddle and would lick my face with her hot little tongue.
On this particular morning, it was cool, a little later in the year than it is now and I could see my breath as I walked. I had mittens on too, with Snuffles leash wrapped around one. We strutted along like we owned the world.
It was garbage day. Piled beside each driveway, on a little strip of grass, were black or green bags. Often one or two and, rarely, three or more. Over most of them, as required, was a sheet, to keep birds away. Some late-risers, putting out their own bags or getting into their cars, smiled at me as we passed. I smiled back. We lived in a small town outside a big town; it was safe and most people knew each other.
Snuffles would stop every now and then, squatting as she peed. In my pocket I had two poop bags, just in case, though she hardly pooped on her walks. For which I was very thankful.
In front of one house there was a paisley sheet covering some very lumpy trash. Snuffles squat on the grass next to it. I stopped to let her do her business and looked around, waiting. It was a quiet part of the neighbourhood, sleepy even. Most of the cars were still in the driveways. The overnight condensation glistened on metal and glass in the rising sunlight. I remember thinking how calm and dreamlike it was.
I had no idea that dream would soon turn into a nightmare.
There wasn’t the usual tug on the leash and so I looked to see what Snuffles was doing. She was chewing on something sticking out from underneath the sheet. I remember thinking that people should do a better job of bagging their trash.
It was a little sausage, pale and tubular. Snuffles gnawed on it with her sharp little teeth, leaving impressions in the meat. Little bits of it came away and revealed red beneath. Tiny trickles of that red ran from the opened seams. That was strange, I had never seen a sausage that looked like that inside.
And did sausages have little wrinkles like that? No, not usually. And what was that at the end? It looked like, almost could have been, a fingernail. I leaned in closer to look.
It wasn’t a sausage. Snuffles was chewing on a human finger, now gnawed and raw with blood.
Adrenaline flooded my body. I didn’t know what to do, which way to go. I froze, not old enough, experienced enough, to handle the situation. I let my eyes trace the shape of the sheet. It was a particular kind of lumpy, a shape that was, now, very clear. I backed up a step, tugging on Snuffles’s leash.
She protested, still trying to get at the finger she had mangled. I pulled harder. The dog protested but finally relented. However, she was on one side of the sheet, I was on the other. The strap of the leash snagged against the material and started to drag it.
“No,” I whispered, knowing I did not want to see what was beneath that sheet. I wanted to keep walking, to pretend this hadn’t happened, to have my innocence left intact. It was too late for that.
The sheet drew back in slow motion. Behind the chewed, pale and, yes, lifeless, finger was a palm. Connected to it were three other, dead fingers and one stubby thumb. Against the red blood of the mangled finger, those digits looked almost white.
Snuffles came closer and the sheet continued its slow reveal. Soon an arm, clothed in a suit, blue and pin-striped, slid into view. From the crumpled outline of the sheet, I knew what was coming. And I knew I was not prepared for it.
Little brown tufts of hair popped free as the sheet travelled on. Next the start of an eyebrow, darker than the other hair. And along an almost white jawbone were hints of stubble. Finally, the first of two horrors presented themselves to me.
The eye was open, begging, pleading but soulless, locked in the agony of death. Its brother soon joined it and the pair locked on my own. I couldn’t look away. I could only stare at the little blood vessels, gape at the blue pupils that still haunt my nightmares.
It was too much. I tugged again and Snuffles, yelping a little, came to my side. As she did the head was revealed completely. What was left of it.
The left side of his skull was only partly there. Above his eye socket, along a jagged piece of exposed white bone, were flecks of red and grey. Beneath and behind it was a mass of misery that I hope never to see again in my life. I suppose brain surgeons see it all the time. But not like that, not penetrated, destroyed. I found out later that it had been done with a golf club. I didn’t need to know that. It didn’t help.
The middle-aged man’s stiff corpse lay there, exposed, unmoving and unseeing in the morning cold. But I still didn’t, couldn’t move.
My knees gave way and I slumped to the ground. Something, some reflex, some survival mechanism clicked on in my brain then. And I screamed. I howled, like a wounded animal.
I don’t know how long it was before someone, one of the people from one of the nearby houses, came out and found me there. My throat was raw as she wrapped her arms around me and turned me away from the body.
Later I found out that it was a town councillor, the body. The man had been involved in some shady dealings and got his comeuppance. It shook our little town to the core, not that I was aware of it at the time. They sheltered me from it. I only wish they could have protected me from that scene.
To me, who he was didn’t matter. He was only the body. And I would never forget it, no matter how hard I tried. I would look into his eyes every garbage day.
After rinsing the sink I make my way from the bathroom back to the porch. I summon courage that doesn’t exist. Damn you David, you son-of-a-bitch. This is your job. Instead, you made time with Cindy at your office. Well, you’re gone now and I’m left with this. The remnants of your life, collected in ten bags, that you couldn’t be bothered to take when you moved out.
And it’s fucking garbage day.
I walk out the front door, ignoring the bags, and lock it behind me.
The bags will still be there later. That’s okay. I’ll deal with them then.