A Place for the Dead and the Dying
By P. T. Corwin
I’ve already killed two of them back at the cabin. I can only hope their souls are burning in hell.
I chase the last girl through the forest, where the full moon drowns the sky in a dark blue and the night is alive with the whispers of leaves and the screeching of foxes.
She’s younger than me. Faster as well. And every intake of air grates against my lungs, making me cough. I don’t know how much longer I can keep this up.
I should have brought a gun, a knife. But all I have is an ax, too heavy for me to throw. Not that I could hit anything anyway. Through my mask, the world is no wider than the eye holes allow. But I keep it on. Even as sweat runs into my eyes and latex sticks to my hot cheeks. I keep it on. It’s the same one as they wore that night. A burnt face, skin yellow like puss, winding over exposed red flesh. I want it to be the last thing she sees.
From further down, where the path bends to the right, I hear panting and a chaos of leaves.
I know these woods. I’ve come here on walks with my Judith, and there’s a hill here that leads down towards the city. The girl must have missed the turn, gone off the path and slipped in the dark.
Her head rises at the edge of the hill, leaves pinned to her hair. She plucks them out, a moment of vanity before she sees me. She scrambles to her feet and disappears below the hill line. Like dipping under water.
By the time I reach the edge of the hill, she’s not far gone. And she’s limping, steadying herself on the trees.
I can catch her, if I’m quick about it.
The hill is steeper than I thought. The moss and leaves make it more slippery. I need to be careful. If I fall and hit my head on one of those tree stumps, it’s over.
What if I die before I finish it? What happens to my poor Judy’s soul? Will she haunt this world forever, never to find peace?
I shuffle down the hill, slow myself down by holding on to the trees. Like crossing a frozen lake. This way, it will take me longer to–
Something cuts through the silence. Music. Only faint, somewhere further down the hill.
It hits me.
Craven’s Point. A plateau further down this hill. A famous spot for teenagers to make out at night, when the sprawling city below is nothing but a distant valley of fairy lights. I took Judy there on our first date, back when we were still in college. Her summer perfume filled the car. Our first kiss while Roy Orbison sang on the radio.
There are always people at Craven’s Point. There are bound to be people there right now. If the girl makes it to that plateau…
There’s one way I can think of to catch up with her, but it’ll cost me my ax. I will have to find another way to kill her.
Maybe Judy is watching me now, stuck in this world until my work is done.
Judy, my love, give me strength.
I drop the ax and push myself off from the tree. I almost fly down the hill, my feet moving faster than my brain can handle. Branches snatch at my jumper, slice the latex over my face.
I slam into a tree harder than I had planned. It knocks the wind out of me, shoots pain up my wrists. But it worked. I’ve gone further in these few seconds than I would have gone just by walking.
And the girl is just a few more steps away.
She turns just as I leap onto her.
We tumble down the hill like a pair of dead bodies. Roots punch into my back, tear at my hands and arms. I cough up leaves and dirt.
Finally, a fat stump breaks our fall. As we lie there panting, it looms over us like a church tower.
If there is a God, I hope he understands why I do this. I hope he forgives me.
I spit out grit that crunches between my teeth.
Beside me, the girl is wheezing.
I roll over, climb on top of her. I wrap my hands around her warm neck.
“Wait!” Her eyes wide with panic. “John. It was his idea. The masks.”
“That’s why he’s dead.”
“We didn’t know.”
I let her speak. I want her to lie to me, just like the other two. Liars go to hell.
“It was supposed to be a Halloween prank.” She sounds like she’s about to cry. She must have practiced this. “We did it a dozen times before we got to your house. People just screamed and we ran away. It was a laugh. We never meant to hurt anyone.”
“Hurt? Hurt?!” I knock her head against the ground.
Her eyes turn upwards, eyelids flutter.
“You didn’t hurt her. You killed her. You murdered my wife!”
I squeeze. I want to squeeze the soul out of her like Popeye squeezes spinach from a can.
Her mouth opens, gasping for air like a fish on dry land. What is she whispering?
I lean in closer.
“…valley of death, thy rod will protect me.”
She’s praying. Not very well, but it might still work. If I kill her now and she goes to Heaven, I could never forgive myself.
“…fear no evil…”
No. She doesn’t deserve to go like this.
My hands ease their grip.
She coughs, gags for air.
I’ll finish it, Judy. I promise, I’ll set you free. But I need her to–
She knees me hard where it matters, and now it’s me trying to catch my breath.
I roll off her, holding my crotch.
She scrambles to her feet.
Can’t let her get away.
I grab her by one ankle, the hurt one.
She yells, tries to pull away. Trips. There’s a horrible noise, a wet splat. Then a faint gurgling from above me.
I crawl over to a tree, lift myself up and lean against it.
I can’t see the full picture from this angle—I don’t think I want to. Just her body speared upon the tree, the church tower growing out of her like a flower in pavement.
Her foot twitches, disturbing leaves. Twitches…twitches…
It is finished. She tried to get away, tried to escape justice. That must count as a sin.
Judy, I’ve done it. You can rest now. You’re free.
But what about me? Where can I go now that I have nothing left?
I’m tired. Distracted. So I don’t see him until it’s too late.
He jumps out at me from the right—John, the man with the plan—and the next thing I know is pain. Incredible pain, like from some beast sinking its teeth into the right side of my stomach.
My ax. He’s used my own ax against me.
I was stupid leaving it behind.
My legs collapse under me and I slump down on my ass, the rough bark I’ve been leaning on scraping my back.
I try to move, try to get up, but my legs won’t obey.
I can smell him. Filthy pond water stinging my nostrils.
“You were dead.” I have to force the words out. Every syllable like a knife carving up my insides.
“What? The little diving lesson back there?” He steps in front of me. He is dripping with water, seaweed clinging to his jeans and his denim jacket. “Nothing but a typical Sunday with dad for me.”
I feel sleepy. Can barely hold my head up.
He laughs, kneels down. His hair clings to his face in wet strands. “Look at you. Big scary avenger.” He rips the mask off my face and tosses it into the leaves. “But underneath, you’re nothing but a pathetic old man.” He grabs my face. His fingers are cold against my cheeks. Or maybe that’s just me.
I want to reach out for him, but I can’t lift my hand off the ground.
“What? You want to try again?” He moves his face closer, close enough that I can smell the cigarette on his breath. “Give it your best shot, Gramps. For your old lady.”
Tired. Cold. Need to sleep. Just a little.
“Hey!” He slaps me hard.
I slide over, ready to fall, ready to rest, but he props me back up against the tree, like a defenseless dummy.
He’s not done with me yet.
“Wake up, Gramps!” He pulls my eyelids apart.
I can see only a fuzzy blur in front of me.
“When you get to Hell, say hi to your wife for me.”
He spits in my eye. The mucus runs down my cheek like a tear.
The fuzzy blur moves away, and I am left alone with the darkness and the pain and the silence of the forest.
I have failed. I let him get away. John. The man with the ideas. Without him, Judy would still be alive.
Will she really go to Hell with the two women I’ve killed? So they can torture her even more and for all eternity?
And what about me? Killed by the same man, who still walks free?
Where do the dead go if they cannot find justice?
Judy told me once, snuggled against me in bed while the snowflakes fell over the black canvas of night, that she believed—truly believed—that we all get our own version of the afterlife. Whatever makes us happy, that is where we go. We could live in a mansion in the clouds or stay here, watching over our loved ones, or go back to a place where we were happiest.
I asked her where she thought she would go and she said, “My happiest place.”
“And where would that be?” I asked her.
“I don’t know. I only know you’ll be there.”
I will, my love. I will.
© 2020, P. T. Corwin