The following short story is from Lincoln Michel’s 2015 short story collection, Upright Beasts, from Coffee House Press. Be sure to also check out our interview with Michel about his influences and his debut collection.
I wish it was me who had found her and not my husband. I kept wondering what she looked like in her natural state, so to speak. What if Gerald had moved her around?
Gerald didn’t notice me when I got there. He was walking around in a semicircle as if he wanted to get closer, but her body was letting off a magnetic force that kept him away.
“Who does she belong to?” I said. I was out of breath and leaned against a tree.
“What?” Gerald said, turning around. There were a few cows nearby. They were looking at the three of us with large eyes.
“I mean, she’s half on our land and half on the Smiths’ pasture.”
“Ah,” he said. “I’m not sure it matters.”
“The head is on our half,” I said. “I think that should count for something.”
I had been folding laundry when Gerald called. I liked doing it right when it came out, when it was so hot it almost burned my hands. I could feel his excitement through the little speaker beside my ear. Gerald told me he had been walking near the edge of our property and found our cat, Mitzy, chewing on a dead woman’s face.
We’d lived on this backwoods land for two years, Gerald and I. It was a twenty-minute drive from town. If you walked through the woods, you’d come across a cow pasture cut out from the forest with rusty barbed wire. When we first moved in, we used to drink a bottle of wine and go and stick our hands through the fence so the cows would lick our palms for salt.
Gerald had already placed his bandanna over the woman’s head. He said it was the Christian thing to do.
“Oh, Gerald,” I said, and threw my arms around him. “Who would do something like this?”
“It’s deer season,” Gerald said. “She was probably shot by a hunter who realized his mistake and fled.” He was looking past me. He had a large beard at that time, and his face seemed to be shrinking into it as he talked. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s probably what happened.”
The woman was on her belly beneath the barbed wire, legs jutting into the cow pasture. You could tell by the color of the dirt that there had been a lot of blood, yet her jeans and green button-up looked untouched from the back. They could have been pulled fresh out of the dryer.
“I think I have that exact same shirt,” I said. “I bought it on sale at Gap.”
I squatted close to the body. I thought she would look peaceful, and that I would feel a spiritual calm spread through my veins, but it didn’t happen. With her head hidden under the bandanna, she looked more like a mannequin. I wanted to reach out and bend her limbs into a livelier pose.
Gerald squeezed my collarbone with his hands. He bent down and put his dry lips against my cheek. “The cops said they’d be here soon.” He said it so matter-of-factly. She was already passing out of our hands. “We should go back to the house.”
“No,” I said. “We need to be with her till they come.”
My husband sighed and sat on a stump with his hands on his knees. I stayed in the damp grass near the body. The woman was laying belly down, with her arms curled in front of her head. I could imagine sleeping like that, with a pillow under my head instead of mud. I kept hoping the wind would blow the bandanna off her head. There were a few bugs crawling over her body. One flew onto my foot, and I flicked it away.
“I’m getting kind of hungry,” Gerald said after a bit.
Not much normally interrupted our eating out here. We inherited the house from Gerald’s parents after his father died of a stroke and his mother gave up and moved to Florida. It was a quiet place, but close enough to town that we weren’t hillbilly hermits.
Gerald and I had met in high school. He had been on the state champion football team, although I always forgot which position. We’d been together for long enough it felt like nothing at all.
It was already getting dark when the police arrived. They turned the forest upside down with lamps and walkie-talkies. They took Gerald aside, and I couldn’t hear what he was saying. He seemed to be giving a description of our cat.
I watched the police dump out the woman’s backpack. There was a bag of trail mix, three tubes of beauty product, a bottle of red wine, and a digital camera. All objects I own and use myself. They put these in plastic bags that they zipped shut. At one point I thought I saw Mitzy, her eyes bouncing beneath a bush like glow-in-the-dark balls.
The police only asked me if I’d heard any unusual noises. I said no, and they said they might need to talk to me down the road.
After that we had to leave the area.
When we got home, I went to the bathroom. I flushed the toilet and then looked in the mirror and tried to cry. I walked around the house, calling for Mitzy. She kept darting under different pieces of furniture.
Gerald was snacking in front of the TV. I sat down next to him and took a handful of chips.
“Was she beautiful?” I asked.
“What? I didn’t know her,” he said quickly.
“But you saw her face before you covered it up,” I said. “What did she look like?”
“Christ, Carol. I dunno. Normal?”
“That’s it?” I said. “You don’t remember her eye color or anything?”
Gerald stood up and walked over to the trash can and spat out a plum pit, then walked back and sat down.
“She had brown hair,” he said. “About your length. I dunno if you’d call her pretty. Pretty enough I guess. Her face was wide open and stuck in the mud. I didn’t want to keep looking at her eyes.”
“For some reason I want her to be beautiful,” I said.
I could have been doing anything when it happened. Slicing an apple, napping on the porch, wrapping my fingers around Gerald’s privates. And out there, she was breathing her last breaths. The police had taken the body away in a dark bag, but I kept wondering about her. I would try to imagine her face, and it would be the face of a sister of mine. A twin sister I never knew I had, a mirror reflection I had failed to protect.
I didn’t dream about her, or didn’t remember the dreams, but I also didn’t sleep much. I rolled onto my side and watched a small pool of saliva leak out of Gerald’s red mouth.
At breakfast, I couldn’t help myself. “Would you say she was older or younger than me?”
Gerald was dipping pieces of bread into his runny eggs. He took the piece that was halfway in his mouth and placed it down on the rim of the plate.
“It’s in the past,” he said. “Death is just a part of life. I think we should let it go and move on.” He put the toast back into his mouth. I got up to refill my coffee.
It was a bright day outside. A ladybug flew into the window. I thought I heard gunshots in the distance.
“Hey, maybe we could go in and see a movie later tonight,” Gerald said. He scraped a large chunk of butter across his toast. “Wouldn’t that be fun?”
“Her skin was pale. It seemed like she might have a lot of freckles, like me,” I said. “Do you remember her freckles?”
“Christ,” Gerald said. “Sometimes I wish we’d never even found that thing.”
Since the economy had gone sour, Gerald hadn’t had much work. He got a call every now and then to fix up a rotted porch or help build a new staircase, but most days he sat around. That day, he put on his coat and gloves and drove off like it was any other Tuesday. He’d finished up his breakfast while I was in the shower.
“Gonna go put in some applications,” he said. “You never know when things will pick up.”
Mitzy came out from behind the stove and jumped on my lap. I ran my fingers over her head a few times. “You weren’t really chewing her face, were you? You were just licking it clean to get a good look.”
I listened to Gerald’s pickup sputter off, then walked over to my jacket and pulled out the policeman’s card. I told the lady who answered my name and said I wanted to know what they had learned. “Did the autopsy reveal anything? Has anyone identified the body? Do they have to do that before the autopsy?”
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” she said. “That’s privileged information. We can’t give out information on ongoing investigations to anyone who isn’t a relative of the victim.”
“How do I know if I’m family or not if you can’t tell me her name?”
“I’m sorry, you’ll have to wait for the public announcements same as everyone else.”
Mitzy yawned and hopped off my lap to find her bowl of water.
“The secret to a good red sauce is brown sugar,” Margaret said. “You might not think it, but that’s what all the restaurants do. Mix it in until it’s muddy and mix in the noodles.”
We were drinking vodka cranberries on her porch. I’d decided to get off the property, sit somewhere where I didn’t feel the presence of the spot by the fence.
“I used to use powdered sugar, but it always tasted like some trash from Olive Garden.” She gave a laugh. Margaret liked to repeat the tricks she’d learned on cooking shows. I waited for a lull to release my secret.
“Margaret, we found a dead woman on our land,” I said, taking her hand as if to protect her. “She was by herself and bleeding all over the ground. The killer is still out there.”
I waited for her shock.
“I know, isn’t it awful? You poor darling.”
I pulled back. “How did you know?” I’d been watching the local news every night and hadn’t heard a peep.
“Gerald told me. Raj and I ran into him at the store.” Margaret took a sip from her drink. The cranberry juice left a thin red sheen above her lips. “What can you do, though? Last week Asha’s goldfish went belly up, and she woke us up screaming. She was in our bedroom doorway with the sad, slimy thing in her hands. Just have to put it out of your mind, I guess.”
There were a lot of paths in the woods. I kept thinking someone would spring out from behind a hill or oak and twist a knife into my stomach. I picked up a large stick to walk with. There was a chunk of wetness around the top, some fungus or mold, and I dropped it back down.
When it was Gerald’s turn to pick our movies, he always chose detective films. His favorites were the French ones that were filmed in such dark shadows that you’d think the sun never flew over Paris. I never quite understood them, but Gerald would squeeze the popcorn in his fists into tight wads of excitement. And yet here I was scouting the woods alone.
The spot seemed all wrong without the body. Even though I had visited that corner of the pasture dozens of times, noth- ing looked right. The barbed wire was spaced too far apart, and the trees had been moved a few inches to the left. I stepped on a small plant with foreign-looking leaves.
I walked around stooped over until my back hurt. I didn’t find any clues. Even the bloodstain seemed to have been soaked up by the dirt.
There was something peaceful about the spot though. I went home and packed a small lunch and came back with a blanket and a book. After a time, Mitzy came by and jumped on my lap. Together we dozed off and woke only when Gerald’s truck pulled into the driveway.
Gerald peeled off his undershirt and approached me in bed. His beard glistened with flecks of water from the sink. We had the window open, and the wind moved over my face and shoulders. Mitzy watched us from the foot of the bed. When Gerald’s fingers landed on my neck, I rolled myself onto him. Gerald was silent as I grunted. Something had been welling up inside me, and I let it out until we returned to our sides of the bed covered in a sheen of sweat.
“Well sure, I could be over there in an hour,” Gerald said. “What’s happening?” I said. “Was that the police?” It was two o’clock in the afternoon, and we’d been playing cards on the living room table.
“It was Wallace Smith.”
“Oh my god, Wallace? He did it?” Wallace was our neighbor who owned the farm the body was half on.
“What?” Gerald said. “Wallace wants me to help reshingle his barn roof.” He smiled and got his measuring tape out of the top drawer. He pulled it out a few inches and let it snap back. “I guess he heard about my employment status. ‘Neighbors help neighbors; that’s what we do’ was how he put it. Funny guy.”
It didn’t sound right. Wallace Smith had never called Gerald for any help before. In fact, when we’d first moved in, we had a big dispute over the land boundary. For a while we thought we were going to have to hire a lawyer.
“What if he thinks you know something?” I said.
“I know a lot about roofing. That’s why he’s hiring me.”
“No, Gerald, about the murder.”
“Murder?” he said. “Are you still on about that? Wallace is just a nice old man who needs a hand. I think he got an arm twisted under a tractor or something. But don’t worry, I’ll be careful.” He winked and gave me a kiss on the cheek. “It’ll be nice to have a little extra cash flowing in, eh? Maybe we can see that movie.”
Margaret was insisting I try a new Thai restaurant with her in town. She said I needed to breathe some city air. I was afraid something would happen, and I would miss it.
“Gerald,” I said, “do you know where my shirt is?”
“What shirt?” He was shouting but standing only in the other room.
“My green blouse. The button-up one with the pockets from Gap.”
Gerald walked around the corner. He had Mitzy in his arms and was pulling back her ears. He shrugged. “If it was stained, I probably threw it in the wash.”
On one path, I found a candy bar still in its shiny wrapper. On another, three crumpled beer cans and a full pack of cigarettes, which looked like hunter trash. It was almost cold in the shade of the woods. All the bugs and animals were hiding from me.
I went back to the spot. I placed my hands carefully between the barbs of the fence and maneuvered into the cow pasture. A barb caught my thigh and ripped a hole on the way down. I could feel a trickle of blood dampening the denim. There were a few footprints in the mud and cow pies. They led in different directions. A cow wandered over and licked my hand with a rough, pink tongue.
The pasture was a few hundred feet long. At the end of it I could see the Smiths’ barn. The only thing on the roof was a rusty weathervane. Had Gerald lied to me? What was he doing instead of roofing?
I thought I could follow the line of trees on the far side along the barbed wire without being seen. When I got close, I crouched behind a row of hedges and listened to Gerald and Wallace Smith laughing. Gerald had something in a blue tarp about the size of a body draped over his shoulder.
“Just hurry with it if you want to get paid,” Wallace was say- ing. I was trying to breathe as quietly as possible, and it was hurting my lungs.
Gerald and Wallace went around to the door of the barn, and I squeezed my way between the fence slats. “Fuck, this shit is heavy,” Gerald said.
I thought about all the little moments in my life that had brought me to this moment and how pointless they all seemed. A brown chicken walked around the side of the barn, and I tried to shoo it off. It moved closer, bobbing its head. It seemed to be staring me right in the face.
I looked up. Gerald had materialized on the roof. The rolled-up tarp was at his feet. He held a hand over his eyes to gaze down at me, making his face pitch black.
“What are you doing down there?” he said. He had a big smile sliced into the center of his beard. The sun was shining hard on him.
“Who’s there?” someone said. Then Wallace hobbled around the side of the barn. “Why if it isn’t a pretty lady,” he said. He reached out with his good hand. The other was limp in a sling. “How are you, Carol? I didn’t expect to see you again so soon.”
“I was just out for a walk,” I said. I could feel my heart thumping impotently against my chest. “How’s the roofing?”
“Coming along,” Gerald shouted down. “Hot day, though. If you’re walking back through, could you bring me a glass of lemonade?”
I found it harder and harder to talk to Gerald. He would come home sore and hungry and ready for the TV. We would eat dinner, make love or not make love, then go to sleep. I stopped asking him about Wallace or the body. The roofing job went on and on.
When his snores started, I slid out of bed and searched through his clothes. There was nothing unusual, only some movie ticket stubs. I didn’t know what clues I was supposed to be putting together.
The corner of the fence was still a quiet place for me. I would go there to read and think. I rubbed the dark veins creeping up my calves. I could calculate only a year or two before we’d probably want to add a child. Life settled into its mold no matter what you did.
It was getting close to dusk. I went over to the fence and ran my fingernail over the rusty wire. Gerald was off hammering nails into something with Wallace. It was a quiet day, and the clouds knocked into each other in the sky. I stood in front of the fence and got on my knees and scooted in backwards. My arms were out in front of me. The mud was cold against my face.
I didn’t think about a lot of things. Or I did, but in a detached way, as if they were slowly trickling out of my mind.
I felt comfortable, you could even say at peace, and lay there in the mud for a long time.
Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw Mitzy. She darted behind an oak tree and hissed loudly. With one ear in the mud it was hard to hear, but one or possibly two sets of boots were approaching.
“Things Left Outside” is reprinted by permission from Upright Beasts (Coffee House Press, 2015). Copyright © 2015 by Lincoln Michel.