He heard her over the din blasting from his headphones. Not her exact words per-se, but the sounds she was making. He removed the cans at once.
“What’s that, babe? Everything okay?”
She stormed from the kitchen into his office, smartphone in-hand, on-line banking app open, account balance at-the-ready. Reaching him she thrust her hand forward, forking-over the latest evidence of their Landlord’s ineptitude for him to examine.
He took it, and after adjusting his glasses, he peered at the cool, luminescent screen.
“Oh wow, there’s almost twenty-five hundred dollars in our checking account!”
“Yeah, because once-again that lazy-ass Robbie Domingue has yet to deposit our rent check!”
He chuckled to himself and shook his head.
“It must be nice y’know, to have so much money that you could just ignore a check for twelve-hundred dollars.”
She was pissed.
He pushed himself and his office chair backward, then reached for her and pulled her onto his lap. She couldn’t not giggle, and her little nose crinkled when she did. He adored it when she giggled like that. Her petite body resting on his lap felt good. She nuzzled his neck with her face, and that felt good to him too.
“Babe, what are we gonna do?” She asked him.
The next track on the playlist roared from his headphones, and she stopped.
“My Lord that’s loud! What’s that ‘song’ you’re listening to?” She used her fingers to put air-quotes around the word “song” when she said it.
“That’s ‘Cashing In.'”
(Ha-ha-ha-ha, ho-ho-ho. How do you do, I don’t think that we’ve met. My name is Ian, and I’m from Minor Threat!)
She giggled again, and declared “It sounds terrible.”
He growled, then pulled-up her shirt and gave her a vigorous raspberry, right in the middle of her tummy. Her giggling turned to laughter and her nose crinkled again.
They lived in a three bedroom, two bathroom house which they referred to as The Love Nest. They rented it from one Mr. Robbie Domingue, an affable but terribly absent-minded and lazy Landlord who had never, in their entire history at that address, deposited any of their rent checks in a timely manner.
“But seriously, though! It’s like he doesn’t even want our money!”
“Who on Earth doesn’t want money?”
“Yeah. Even Ian from Minor Threat likes money!”
(I’m takin’ a walk on the yellow-brick road. I only walk where the bricks are made of gold. My mind and body are the only things that I’ve sold. I need a little money, ‘cuz I’m gettin’ old…)
She was laughing again.
It wasn’t just the fact that their Landlord was forever making a liar of their checking account, though. It was so much more than that and sadly, a lot of it had to do with The Love Nest itself, and the fact that Robbie Domingue materialized to fix the various problems they’d had with that house with roughly the same frequency as he’d materialize at the bank the first of every month to deposit their rent checks.
She’d settled into the tub one evening to enjoy a steaming-hot bubble bath after work. The tub was filling up, and he was in the kitchen, pouring a glass of wine for her, when the silence was broken by an abrupt shout-
“Oh my God I broke the hot water!”
He set the wine bottle on the counter and rushed into the bathroom. There she was, up to her neck in bubbles, while the hot water ran with reckless abandon. She was holding the knob in her hand.
“It just popped right off!”
“No problem babe, hold on just a sec!”
He dashed to the hall closet and rifled through the shoeboxes full of pictures, the shopping bags full of Christmas ornaments, and all the other sundry stuff looking for anything that resembled a useful tool.
He returned with vice grips, and torqued their toothy mouth parts down hard onto the little screw part protruding from the wall. Once secured, he gave it a few good turns, shutting off the water.
Later that evening, she’d texted Robbie Domingue about it. Not long after he answered her, apologizing. He mentioned that the previous tenants had problems with the hot water knob too, and that he’d “swing-by to fix it ASAP.”
Several months passed, and the vice grips remained the primary apparatus for turning the hot water on and off in the shower. Robbie had texted another apology a few weeks after it happened:
Hey! really sorry I haven’t been by to fix the faucet been traveling for work I’ll come by this week and fix it ASAP!!!!
But that had been it. Robbie never got around to actually coming over and fixing it. And they had never heard from Robbie about it again after that.
The twenty-fifth rolled around, and according to her on-line banking statement, the rent check had finally been deposited. The drier gave a loud buzz, alerting her to the fact that dry, toasty-warm bedsheets that smelled fantastic awaited her behind its flip-down door. She put down her cellphone, and went to unload the drier.
Moments later she walked into their room to put the fresh sheets on the bed. Entering the room she flipped the switch on the wall by the dresser. The ceiling fan began to turn, but the lights mounted below it did not spring to life. She reached for the chain suspended below and gave it a tug. The ceiling fan, the entire thing lights and all, came crashing down onto the bed, followed by a cascade of plaster dust, and little bits of pink insulation from the attic.
“Fuuuuuck!” she shouted.
He was on his way home from fly fishing when he got her text:
You won’t believe this. The ceiling fan in our bedroom fell out of the god damn ceiling a minute ago.
While stopped at a red light, he texted-back:
Oh for fuck’s sake.
And she text-replied-back with:
Yeah. Texting Domingue.
Later that evening, while he was cooking dinner, he heard her phone ding-ding twice from the table. It was a text from Robbie Domingue. He picked up her phone and walked down the hall to the bathroom with it. He gave a soft knock at the bathroom door.
“Hey baby, it’s me.”
“Yeah? Me who?”
“Me. Your husband. Do you recognize my voice?”
“Are you peeing?”
She giggled again, and then added “Not that it’s any of your business, but yes.”
“Well, Robbie Domingue texted you back, finally.”
“Yeah, what did he say? Will he be here to fix the ceiling fan in the bedroom ‘A-S-A-P’?”
“Winner winner, chicken dinner” he deadpanned.
She cackled. He smiled and went back to cooking dinner.
Several weeks and a smattering of text messages from Robbie Domingue begging them to forgive him for his tardiness in getting-around to fixing their ceiling fan later, an electrician friend of theirs came by the house and fixed it for them, asking for nothing more in return than an invitation to stay for dinner. They happily obliged.
Not long after, on a Friday, he was returning home from an absolutely shit day at the ponds. His Boss had given him the day off. He’d wanted to go catch fish, but hadn’t felt like driving out to Lake Martin, or to the bar pits in Henderson. He’d opted instead to visit the small, two-acre drainage ponds he was fond of, in a nearby neighborhood. Hardly anybody fished there, and most of the time he could catch blue gill all the livelong day and not be bothered. It hadn’t been one of those days though. Nothing was biting.
His sour mood lifted when he returned home and saw her ‘vette in the driveway. He knew she’d gone to veiller with her mother and aunt earlier that afternoon and figured she’d still be there.
He parked, unbuckled his seatbelt, made sure to turn the volume on the stereo down from a 42 to a 6 lest she get punched in the ears by his music the next time they got in there to drive somewhere together, killed the engine and exited the Jeep.
He came in through the back door, to the kitchen. And there she was.
On entering he announced “There’s my baby” with a happy exuberance in his voice.
She didn’t respond. She just stood there, looking up at the ceiling.
“What’s going on, babe?” he asked.
Her eyes remained fixed on the ceiling and she raised her index finger, pointing in the direction she was looking just as a large water droplet fell, landing on his head with a soft, wet thump.
“What the Hell?”
He looked up. The ceiling was soggy from the edge of the fluorescent light fixture up there, all the way to the back door.
“Something’s leaking up there!”
“Fuck, could it be the roof?”
“No, I don’t think it’s the roof. It hasn’t rained in a couple of weeks.”
The Love Nest’s attic was accessible by way of a panel in the ceiling of the spare bedroom. He gave the cord affixed to it a tug. It opened, and out came the fold-up wooden steps. And what piss-poor shape they were in, too. The bottom segment barely held on to the frame of the segment above it, and several of the steps on both segments were broken. It looked like nobody had ascended them to the attic in years, which made perfect sense to them because Lord knew, it’d probably take another several years for Robbie Domingue to show up and take care of which ever tenant’s request it was -probably the first, probably fifteen fucking years ago- to come and fix them.
“You’re way too heavy to get up those steps safely, babe. I’ll have to go.”
“You’re probably right. But I don’t want you on those steps, either. Look at them!”
“Okay, No problem. Here’s what we do- I’m going to lift you up, and you’re going to grab that top step up there. It looks solid. Then, I’ll boost you up by your feet, and you can pull yourself the rest of the way in. Sound good?”
He took his petite wife by the waist and hoisted her up overhead. She took hold of the top step and it did indeed feel solid. Next he stooped, took her by the feet, and boosted her the rest of the way in while she pulled herself up.
“Alright babe, make your way in the direction of the kitchen and see if you can find the source of the leak.”
Moments later she hollered-back to him, “Found it! It’s a little clear plastic tube. It’s all wet, and I can hear it hissing.”
“I bet that’s the line that runs water to the fridge!”
“The water and the ice maker in the fridge;” he hollered more loudly, then adding “I bet that’s where it gets the water from.”
“Oh yeah, definitely! It looks like it’s coming from where the pantry is, I think.”
The water heater occupied a small alcove just off the pantry. He wasn’t a plumber, but it still made sense in a plumbing sort of way that the line which fed water to the fridge would terminate in that alcove somewhere. It also made sense in a Robbie Domingue sort of way that it would pick today to start leaking.
“Alright, stay up there and keep your eye on it. I’m gonna go see if I can find where it ends. Stand-by.”
“It’s absolutely soaking-wet up here!”
A second or two later he was in the pantry, opening the makeshift door which hid the alcove in which the water heater stood. Four clear plastic tubes like the one she’d described snaked up the wall.
“There’s a couple-few down here. I’m gonna pull on each one. Shout if you see it move.”
He took hold of the first and gave it a yank.
He tried the second. Nothing.
Then he gave the third a yank, and she shouted “It moved!”
“Okay! Stay there and keep watching. I’m gonna see if I can find a shut-off knob or something down here.”
He began to trace the tube, down the wall, part-way across the floor where it coiled several times over, and then into the wall the alcove shared with the kitchen, by way of a large, raggedy hole. He remembered seeing similar coils of tubing under the sink.
“Hang tight, baby!”
He dashed into the kitchen, opened the cabinet below the sink, and peered in. Sure enough, way in the back, were two more of those tubes. One in particular had a little metal valve on it.
“I think I’ve got it. Holler if the hissing stops!”
He flipped the valve into what he figured would be the “off” position.
“It stopped!” she shouted.
After helping her down from the attic, he sent a text message to Robbie Domingue:
There was a leak in the attic ceiling in kitchen soaked. Shut-off fridge water to stop leak. Ceiling will need to be repaired.
Several minutes later Robbie returned the volley, with:
Really sorry!!!!! In Shreveport for work till next fri
will handle that for ya’ ASAP when I get back!!!!!!
And the dingy-looking brown stain on the kitchen ceiling, and the bubbled, peeling sheetrock the stain clung to, had henceforth remained un-handled, even until the day they found the dead body.
He didn’t want her climbing into, or around in, that attic ever again. If the condition of the rafters up there was anything like the shape those steps were in, he surmised, it was better that he should fall through the ceiling than her.
They had been cleaning-up the other spare bedroom, the one they called The Calamity Room. It was where they’d put old clothes, all the things they didn’t use like that old bicycle, and boxes of Christmas ornaments, stuff like that.
For want of storage space anywhere else in the house, he set about moving the bike, the bins full of old clothes, the boxes of computer parts and old CD’s, and so forth, into the attic. He climbed the decrepit steps as gingerly as he could, and was relieved when he reached the attic safely.
From below, she hoisted the boxes and bins up to him. The bicycle was trickier, but they managed.
Once finished, he stopped to have a look around. Aside from their things, there wasn’t much else up there, save for a large cardboard box or two in corner, along with an old rocking horse and a large steamer trunk. The dust and the cobwebs on them were thick, like they’d been left there the day after the house was built and were forgotten about.
“Babe,” she called up to him, “are you about done? I don’t like you being up there so long.”
“Yeah baby, I just want to check out this stuff I found over here in the corner.”
“What, that old hobby horse?”
“That fucking thing’s evil-looking.”
And it was. What he could see of it’s painted-on expression through the dust, anyway. And the scaffolding of cobwebs that arose from the beams up to it’s nose enhanced the effect. He gave it’s nose a tap and it rocked, and stirred up some dust which looked like smoke in the beam of his flashlight.
Next he turned his attention to the old steamer trunk. A large thing, it reminded him of the kind of trunk you’d see floating around in the icy water near the Titanic while it sank. There was no lock, its lid was sealed only by a film of dust, and a buckle affixed to a leather strap.
“There’s a big-ass trunk up here! I’m going to have a look inside, maybe there’s something valuable in there.”
“Antiques Roadshow here we come!”
He heard her giggling. “I’m not holding my breath!”
He unfastened the buckle and removed the leather strip from it. He raised the lid, and a gentle creek emerged from the hinges. What greeted him next was the musty scent of dry rot with notes, oddly enough, of old beef jerky. It wasn’t so much a stench but rather, what remained left-behind after whatever had caused a stench had run its course.
He shined his flashlight into the trunk.
His heart stopped mid-beat and his lungs stopped mid-breath at the sight of what greeted him from inside the steamer trunk.
There before him lie what was left of the body of what appeared to be a smallish woman -definitely a smallish old woman, curled up in the fetal position, with a multicolored mumu clinging to her desiccated frame. Her head was turned sharply to the left, several degrees farther than a human head is supposed to turn. The vista of her skull, replete with empty eye sockets and patches of preserved tissue still clinging to it, looking up at him and grinning wildly, gave his mind the impetus it needed to command his brain to flood the rest of his system with adrenaline, freeing him from the suspended animation the fright had gripped him with.
With no regard for safety he bolted across the attic, negotiating each beam with wild, clumsy, ambling strides in the direction of the light which shone through the open trapdoor.
She dove out of the way of his feet and watched from the floor as the rest of his body followed, assholes-and-elbows, in a cloud of dust and cobwebs. A split second later he, too, was on the floor, and he launched his body toward the corner opposite them in a frantic lunge. Once there he stood, and pressing the palms of his hands against the walls as hard as he could, in an effort to center himself, he tried to get his breathing under control.
“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” he whispered, on every quick exhalation.
She dashed to him.
“Baby, baby what is it? What happened?” she asked, with the tone of a calm-but-urgent concern for her husband in her voice.
“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.”
“Baby? Baby? What is it?” she asked again, with a voice still concerned, but more soothing this time, while she rubbed his chest firmly with the palm of her hand.
“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck! Fuck!”
“What is it my baby?”
“Body. Fuck. Dead body in the trunk. Dead body in the fucking trunk!”
She thought of the trunk of her car first, but that wasn’t rational. Obviously he was being irrational. So she rubbed his chest harder, and squeezed his upper-arm with her other hand.
“Baby, what body? What trunk?”
He gasped and then his knees buckled. His ass hit the floor hard. He looked up at her, and after a deep breath, offered “That trunk in the attic. There’s a dead body in it, so help me God a dead body in the fucking trunk.”
He joked around with her all the time. It was one of the things she loved about him. But his demeanor was not indicative of any light-hearted bullshitting and playful skullduggery. He was telling the truth. And where the truth had rendered him scared shitless when first he glanced at it, it had now rendered him completely horrified after validating its existence up there in the attic, by speaking it out-loud.
Her eyes, which always reminded him of Princess Jasmine’s from that Disney movie, immediately became red at the edges, and welled-up with tears. Seeing this, he felt the sutures she’d fastened the fissures in his heart back together with begin to burn, and he snapped-out the horror-induced fugue. He was on his feet with a jolt, in time to catch her as she collapsed in a fit of tears against his body.
He held her for a long time. Then she held him.
Robbie Domingue set his tallboy of Budweiser down on the deck next to the folding chair he was sitting in, and dug after the vibrating cellphone in his pocket. There hadn’t been so much as a nibble on any of his lines all evening. The boat bobbed up and down gently in the water. He removed the cell from his pocket, inspected the screen, and answered forthwith-
“Hey there! How’s it going at the house?”
“Robbie *crackle* fucked, Robbie *crackle* completely *crackle* fucked!”
“What’s that? I’m sorry, I’m having trouble hearing you, I’m out here on the boat and the signal is terrible.”
“This is important *crackle* important God damn it *crackle crackle* big problem!”
“A problem? Hello?”
“Hello? *crackle* Big fucking *crackle* ass here right fucking now!”
“Aw gee I’m sorry. I’m out here at my camp for the next two weeks.”
“*crackle* the fuck you are!”
“I’m really sorry about this. But listen, you or your wife just text me. Whatever it is, text me a reminder in the next week or so, and when I get back I’ll be out there to fix it ASAP!”
“You *crackle* be fucking kidding *crackle*!”
“Alright got that? Just text me a reminder! Thanks!” *boop*
*sound of dead air*
The impact against the tile floor exploded his cellphone into a million shiny pieces. It made her jump.
He stretched-out his arms, extended the index fingers on both of his hands upward, and then lowered his head, and took-in an inhalation through his nose so gargantuan as to inflate his belly so much that it made him look fat. He held the air inside him, and stood motionless. Then, with a huge heave he exhaled and slowly lowered his arms, placing his hands on her shoulders gently.
“I’m really, really sorry about that, my baby.”
“What did he say?”
“Well, you’ll be relieved to know that while we’re tidying-up around the house and discovering bodies in the attic, our erstwhile Landlord is relaxing, and taking-in a beautiful evening on his boat.”
“I have no idea, his signal kept cutting-out. He could be all the way out in Gulf Shores for all I know. He could be anywhere!”
“Did he say anything else? And please don’t tell me what I think he told you.”
“I caught ‘reminder in the next week’ and ‘when I get back I’ll be out there to fix it ASAP’.”
“Oh my God this is such fucking bullshit!”
Level-headed, rational individuals sometimes make not-level-headed, irrational decisions when pushed beyond their collective wit’s end and by-and-large, they oughtn’t be faulted for it. They discussed calling the Police as they sat at the table, poring-over the day’s events and what to do about them. Neither of them were thinking clearly but then, who would be? They hadn’t had much luck with the cops when trouble arose in times past, and the whole story- the house, the problems with the house, their absentee landlord, all culminating in the grizzly discovery of a desiccated corpse upstairs seemed too ridiculous to believe.
“It’s insane!” she’d exclaimed.
“Yeah, and there’s no way they’ll buy it. Getting the cops involved will probably just make it all worse.”
“Probably best to not report it. Just let sleeping dogs lie, y’know?”
“Yeah. But what do we do about-”
“About the body?”
“Well it goes without saying she can’t stay here!”
“I can’t believe we’ve been sleeping under the same roof as a corpse. Oh my God, I’m gonna throw up…”
He loaded the steamer trunk into the back of his Jeep. It was 1:30 AM, and the humidity still hung heavy in the air.
He opened the door for her and helped her up into her seat, then he piled-in. He turned the key, the engine roared to life, and after grabbing the volume knob on the stereo and turning it the rest of the way to zero -neither were in any mood at all for music- he flipped-on the headlights, and they took off.
She gripped his hand tight and stared straight ahead, as he drove.
Finally, she spoke-up. “Do we have anything that even vaguely resembles a plan?”
“Well, I’ve never gotten rid of a dead body before.”
“I should hope not…”
He laughed uncomfortably, then offered “That said, I was thinking we could just dump her over the swamp bridge. Hopefully what’s left of her will sink, and it’ll be like she’s been down there under the water for years if anybody finds her, and that’ll be that. So, I move that we dump her over the bridge into the Basin. What do you think about that?”
“Sounds faster than digging a hole somewhere and it gets her the fuck out of our house. I second that motion.”
“Motion seconded. All in favor, say ‘aye.’”
They said “aye” in unison.
Several minutes later they were heading East on I-10 toward the Atchafalaya Basin Bridge. There they’d have twenty-six miles-worth of water to decide where to dispose of the corpse.
It didn’t take long for them to reach the bridge, and that was a relief. Once on it, they began to discuss where, exactly, to drop off their passenger.
“I’m thinking the Whiskey Bay Pilot Channel would be a good place,” she said.
“Sounds like a good bet, to me.”
She looked to him and they nodded slowly together, sealing their agreement.
He checked the rear-view, nobody was behind them. He brought the car to a halt cautiously, on the shoulder. He killed the headlights. A few moments passed before several eighteen-wheelers passed-by, opposite them. Things settled down not long after that, and soon there were no headlights approaching from either direction, signaling in-bound company.
Before leaving The Love Nest, after bringing the trunk down from the attic, he’d wiped it clean of dust and fingerprints. He had also grabbed a fresh pair of those yellow, rubber dishwashing gloves from the cabinet underneath the kitchen sink. He withdrew them from his back pocket and put them on.
“Stay here, baby. I’ll be back in a jiffy.”
“Please let me help you.”
“I don’t want you to have to see her. Plus, I only brought one pair of gloves and I don’t want your fingerprints on anything.”
He got down, and after he closed the door, she hopped over into the driver’s seat and took the wheel. “It’ll be way faster for us to get the Hell out of here,” she thought to herself as she buckled-up.
He removed the steamer trunk from the back of the Jeep. It was heavy, but easy enough for him to manage. He set it down on top of the concrete guardrail, and flipped the lid open. He didn’t care to see her himself, either, not again. No way.
He tipped the trunk over, and felt the weight of the contents take leave of it. Hearing a series of soft splashes below, he let-go of the trunk, and another, slightly louder splash assured him that they had once again successfully handled a problem that Robbie Domingue should have taken care of, “ASAP.”
He didn’t have to look at the Jeep to discern what she’d been thinking moments earlier. He had just to turn, open the passenger’s side door, and jump in. And just as soon as his ass was in the seat, her foot was on the pedal.
They awoke the following morning to an incessant pounding coming from the living room. He was still clutching her to him, just as he had been earlier that night when they were finally able to retire after the previous day’s ordeal. She was still clinging-fast to his arms. Neither had moved.
*bang* *bang* *bang*
They rose and made themselves relatively presentable- she in her robe and he, in his pajama pants. They went to the front door. He opened it.
They were greeted by a young couple, each twenty-something, and behind them was a large moving truck.
“Oh what’s this happy horse shit?” she inquired of their morning visitors, with more than just a dash of irritation peppering her voice.
“Hi,” the husband said, “we’re really sorry to bother you-”
His wife interjected, with “Yes! Really, really sorry, but-”
The husband continued, “I’m Robbie Domingue’s nephew, Ted. Two months ago he said we could rent this house.”
“Yes,” Ted’s wife affirmed, “Ted is Robbie Domingue’s nephew. Robbie said we could rent the house.”
“Yeah, uh, we saw your Jeep out there, and your Corvette in the driveway, and wait,” Ted peered inside, “is that your living room couch in there?”
“Has Robbie talked to y’all about this?”
“Uncle Robbie told us month before last that your lease was about to end, and that he’d tell you he’d decided to rent the house to us, ‘ASAP,’ so you’d have plenty of time to move-out and stuff. Gave us today as our move-in date, and everything.”
Staring slack-jawed at the couple, in silence, was the only response they could muster. Neither of them could believe it, but at the same time, it totally made sense. All of it.
Ted and his wife just stood there, looking at the two of them.
Answering Ted, after several more moments of gobsmacked silence, he said “No problem, just give my wife and me until noon to be out of your way.”
Ted and his wife were nodding in perplexed agreement as the front door closed on them.
He put his arms around the small of her back and held her close. She felt good pressed against him, and he gave a huge sigh. She placed the palm of her hand on his chest, and began to laugh. And after a moment, he was laughing right along with her.
© 2016 Kenneth Atkins