WHAT DO WE DO NOW?
By Sharon Hunt
Killing a man wasn’t what Michael Thompson imagined when he suggested to his wife Helen that they visit the cottage one last time although death was on his mind. Still, he’d hung a man off his deck and then watched all those terrible minutes as the poor man strangled to death, his neck having not broken in the fall.
Witnessing what was happening, Michael thought of his father and how it was him he fantasized about killing, to avenge the beatings and terror the man had meted out to his mother and him in equal measure.
Had he killed this man because he hadn’t killed his own father forty years ago? Surely not? His mother had been dead thirty of those years and, despite it all, she wouldn’t have wanted him to commit murder, however justified.
Surely he did this to keep Helen from sinking into terror?
Then why didn’t he just get her in the car and drive home when things here turned so bad?
He didn’t have answers to any of the questions that went through his head as he waited for the pitiful gasping sounds to end. Nothing made sense, especially the way the body at last quieted and became still.
God help me, he thought. He’s dead.
Michael and Helen’s cottage sat on a bluff overlooking Preston and its bay. They had to drive through Preston and then take the first road off the main one, which snaked up to their cottage, at the top. This road was dirt and so narrow if you met another vehicle coming in the opposite direction, one of you was forced to back up to a laneway so the other could go by. There were just five laneways: two leading to abandoned properties, one disappearing deep into the woods where, it was rumoured, someone had a marijuana plantation, and the last two laneways winding back a little distance from the road to houses owned by neighbors Michael and Helen rarely saw and had never spoken to.
Usually there was little traffic on the road although, in summer, it picked up because of kids out joyriding. Backing up the road was bad enough but if you had to back down those sharp turns, it was nerve wracking. Without warning, the dirt shoulder could fall away into a six foot chasm. Michael had backed down the road once with Young Walt Jenson’s monster truck almost against his bumper and Helen gripping the dashboard and rocking as if she was having a seizure. After that, he refused to back down again, simply put the car in park and waited out the other driver. He and Helen didn’t come here often, after all, while the others were locals and more familiar with the road. Eventually, the other driver would relent, even Young Walt although, with him, the standoff was always longer.
Once, the young man had gotten out of his truck and, leaning into Helen’s window, said, “People around here take turns, Mr. Thompson.”
Helen pulled the neck of her blouse shut which made the young man smile.
“It’s much easier for you to back up the hundred or so yards to the MacDonald’s laneway than for me to back down almost to the county road, probably a half mile,” Michael said.
“Even so, we take turns around here.” Young Walt showed a tight, teeth-bearing smile. “I can wait just as long as you since I don’t really have anywhere to go.”
Michael closed the window, almost catching Young Walt’s fingers as he was slow to pull them away. He turned on the piano concerto he and Helen had been listening to and ignored her as she fretted her collar and wondered, again, if the cottage was really worth the aggravation.
As it happened, Young Walt couldn’t wait as long as Michael because fifteen minutes into the standoff, he spun his tires and started backing up the road.
“A small victory for common sense,” Michael said.
His refusal to take his turn was noted, though. Carl Williams, who owned the convenience store and hadn’t much cared for Michael since the incident over the razor blades, occasionally called him ‘straight ahead Mr. Thompson’ when he came into the store and laughed as if the two men were sharing a joke.
Michael ignored him, unwilling to be goaded into an argument. He was a lawyer. He knew how to hold his tongue, wait for the right time to act.
This last visit, Michael and Helen arrived in the afternoon with a storm gaining on them for the final hour of the drive. It had settled over the area now, making the sky and trees, the tawny clapboards and black roofs of the houses look saturated with color. The air was close but a salty mist hit Michael’s face when he put down the window.
Storms created the best light for photography, a hobby he missed sharing with Helen. They hadn’t even bothered packing their cameras this time. He missed their walks along the ridge or on the beach, too. Since she’d gotten sick, movements had become as contained and restrained as possible.
“I don’t remember this,” Helen said when they got out of the car. She had that glassy-eyed look which came over her more and more now. The first time he’d seen it was when they sat in the car, after the doctor had told them about the cancer, how aggressive it was, how there was no time to lose.
“What do we do now?” she’d asked bending over again as if she would pass out, the way she had in the doctor’s office. She’d toppled right out of her chair.
“It’s more common than you know, this reaction,” the doctor said as a nurse bent down and put a cold compress on Helen’s forehead and forced a little orange juice between her lips.
When she’d turned back to look at him in the car, he loosened his grip on the steering wheel and said, “Go home. We go home,” and backed out of the parking spot.
Turning now from the deck to look at him, she held out an empty Coke can as if it were a marvel, but a fearsome one. It was mostly flattened but rose a little on either end and if she had set it on the wood, it would have rocked like a cradle, maybe eliciting a smile, something she didn’t do much anymore. As it was, she let the can fall back on the ground.
“What don’t you remember?” he said. “What is it?”
She shivered, her scarf slipping down from her shoulders and settling in the crooks of her arms. “I don’t remember all this garbage when we left in July. We would have tidied up?”
He sniffed the air. Something was burning somewhere. People had bonfires during the fall, but those were mostly leaves and brush. This had an acrid smell, like vinegar.
“Of course we tidied up. But people walk through here, kids, you know, wander. Besides, it’s only some cans and candy wrappers.”
He handed her the bag of marshmallows she picked up in the store, saying they should roast them like they did that first year.
“I’ll get the rest of the things.”
After unloading the trunk, he found her staring at a black spot on the floor in front of the stove. It looked like a burn but, closer, it shone like grease or oil.
“What about this?” Helen looked from Michael to the spot and began scratching under her left arm, near the incision. The long scarf trailed her like something trying to escape.
“Afterwards, some people may think that the littlest thing is a sign of disaster,” the doctor had told him.
A lot of little things were signs of disaster to her now and Michael had begun to feel the same way. Still, he tried to shake off the feeling for her sake.
“You unpack and I’ll clean it up. I’m sure it’s nothing.”
It looked like motor oil but as he scrubbed, he decided it was probably blackened cooking oil from when she tried to fry chicken legs after the surgery and chemo were finished. Her thoughts were so scattered that she forgot the chicken on the stove and went to take a nap on the sofa. When he woke her to show her the ruined pan and scorched stove fan, he thought she was going to have a heart attack which wasn’t that unlikely anymore, since the extra drug she was receiving had already weakened her heart. They had to be careful.
The cottage was alone at the top of the hill, buffeted on three sides by gnarled pine and fir trees. Although it was a modest place – bedroom, bathroom, living and kitchen area – there were two acres of forest and a shed Helen made into a reading room.
People in Preston called the place ‘the crown’ or ‘the fortress’, both depictions making clear they thought Michael and Helen, like the others who came to visit, believed themselves better than the ones who lived here year round.
The people who lived here depended on tourists since there wasn’t any industry in the area. It was too wild and isolated for that. Tourists spent a lot of money on bad accommodations and worse food and, Michael sometimes thought, there should be a bit more acknowledgement of this fact, however grudgingly, from the locals. Those fishing boats, idle much of the year now because of government mismanagement of the fisheries, were at least given a small reprieve when tourists paid to be taken out beyond the point to watch for whales. In Preston’s sandy bay tourists swam and picked up shells and green-veined stones to take home, as Michael and Helen had, making a collection on a shelf.
Unlike most of the others, Michael and Helen had bought property here because they enjoyed the lack of busyness, although it soon became clear to him, at least, that lack of busyness was just another way to describe laziness.
The tourist season was only from June to mid-September, when it was warm enough to swim or sit out with a book and a glass of wine. Before or after that, the weather, with its predilection for fierce storms, warned off all but the truly foolhardy.
There was no airport within a four hour drive and no train or bus service. The last stretch of road into the village had been abandoned to the elements. The previous year, Michael had broken a front axle driving into a pot hole large enough to stretch out in. They had been late getting out of the city and it was so dark the pothole had been impossible to see until the car tire fell into it, forcing them to wait hours for a tow truck.
They hadn’t gotten to the cottage until after midnight and the headlights of the rental car picked up a scattering of what Helen assured him were wild animals but what he knew were people from beneath the deck.
Training a flashlight there, his suspicions were confirmed. The loamy soil held the impressions of bodies the way snow held those of angels. The next day he bought more topsoil, spreading it thick under the deck and working it into the ground until the remnants of whatever had taken place were obliterated.
Michael had suggested this last visit to get away from their friends who came to the house too often, like they were on a death watch, even though he told them, “All the results are good. The doctor says she will survive.”
He said this every time their friends were leaving but their mouths, frozen into smiles at the kitchen table, drooped as if disappointed by the news. They’d steeled themselves to an inevitable death – such aggressive breast cancer couldn’t really be cowed – and resented Michael trying to coddle them with false hope. He resented their lack of hope, false or real, and wished they would stay away.
When he went to look for her after cleaning the kitchen floor, Michael found Helen asleep beside the tunics and pants she’d unpacked. Her face was bluish and the dark circles under her eyes made her look like someone had punched her. Having grown up with an alcoholic father whose hands were more often fists than anything else, the idea that anyone would think Michael was that kind of man sickened him. He covered her with a blanket and shut the door, then settled by the kitchen window with a glass of scotch.
The rain had stopped and the storm clouds were gone, replaced by sun burning itself out in ribbons of red and amber undulating across the bay. From up here everything looked perfect.
Refilling his glass he thought he saw something move among the trees but it could have been the edge of the curtain he’d seen when he turned his head quickly. He was tired and the scotch was making things fuzzy. Still, he watched a while longer before giving up, deciding that Helen’s paranoia was catching.
They’d bought frozen lasagna on the way, neither of them up to cooking or going to the diner, the only place open now. Usually they cooked for themselves and took the rest of the food with them when they left for home because empty places had been broken into and food and liquor taken.
It didn’t seem like Helen would wake up soon so he cut a piece of lasagna from the pan and took it back to his chair.
The next morning, when Michael walked into Carl Williams’ store, Carl looked up from his newspaper and said, “The devil knows his own. What are you doing back here?”
“A last visit before the snow. I need some things, if you’re selling to me?”
Carl shrugged. “The shop is open.”
Although they’d owned the cottage for eight years, Michael and Helen were still outsiders and, it seemed, always would be.
She said it was the isolation that made people suspicious of newcomers. There was no work in the area except for catering to people like them.
“They probably feel like servants, attending to our every need or whim,” she said before mentioning the razor blades again.
Michael hadn’t meant to be sarcastic that time but he was exhausted and it didn’t seem unreasonable for a convenience store to stock enough razor blades. He remembered the hardened expression on Carl’s face when Michael asked if it wasn’t possible for Carl to keep more supplies in stock.
“This is a store, after all,” Michael said.
After that, Carl spoke to Helen more than Michael, especially when she went on about some box of cookies or a jar of jam, like a child discovering a wonderful surprise.
“You don’t need to fawn, Helen,” Michael had said, embarrassed by this need she had for people to like her.
“I was just being polite.” She held tight to a jar she wouldn’t open, in case he brought up the fawning again.
“No, you were trying to get him to like you, to like us. Well, that isn’t going to happen. We’re always going to be outsiders. Tolerated, but nothing more.”
This morning, Michael laid the items he’d picked up on the counter. “And a bottle of Tylenol,” he said.
Carl shook his head. “I sold the last bottle on Tuesday.”
“Are you getting more today or tomorrow?”
“No. I don’t get much stock now. The tourist season is over. “
“And there’s no call for Tylenol from people around here?” Michael sighed. Now he would have to drive an hour to the nearest town because Helen had forgotten to pack Tylenol which she used, when she could, instead of the morphine pills.
“Most around here have full medicine cabinets. I can’t keep stock on hand on the off chance someone from the city comes by,” Carl said.
“I see your stock of rum is good though,” Michael said, leaving what he’d picked up on the counter.
In the car, he phoned Helen to let her know what he was doing but the call went straight to her voicemail, which was strange. She didn’t use the phone now, except to talk to him.
Carl came out on the step and watched as Michael drove off.
He never liked Carl Williams. He was nosy and, Michael suspected, a cruel man, too quick to laugh at the mention of some bad luck, especially if it befell an outsider. Michael wondered what Carl thought of Helen’s bad luck, if he’d laughed about that, too?
When he got back, Michael let the bags drop on the table, still angry about seeing Carl, Walter and Young Walt on the front step earlier. Had they actually been watching for him to drive by? He’d had a mind to go back and ask if there was problem with him and Helen making an unexpected visit to their cottage but she was nervous alone, although she insisted he go by himself.
Throughout their marriage she had been the brave one, willing to take chances. She said they should buy the cottage when he worried it was too much money for such a short period of time every year. Since getting sick, though, she’d become timid, skittish his mother would have said, afraid of the dark, afraid of the light, afraid of her own shadow.
“What are you doing in here?” Michael said, turning on the light.
“I heard noises inside, when you were gone.”
“What kind of noises?”
“I called to let you know I was going into town. Were you talking to someone?”
She looked like she was trying to focus on him but couldn’t. “Who would I be talking to?”
“What’s happened with this now,” he said, fingering the cut in the leather.
“I found it like this. Maybe we shouldn’t have come back, Michael.”
“What are you talking about? We can come back whenever we want. I’m going to call Phil Hunter.”
“Do you really want to get the police involved?”
Phil Hunter was one of two officers responsible for maintaining a presence in Preston. He looked at the daybed and wrote something in his notebook before pointing out scratches on the cottage and shed door locks.
“Probably just kids using the place to drink or fool around, when you’re not here,” Phil said. “They don’t have a lot to do.”
“Well, they’re welcome to find somewhere else to do whatever they do,” Michael said. “Who installs alarm systems around here?”
“I wouldn’t go overboard now Mr. Thompson. With you being hundreds of miles away most of the year and with these things so easy to set off, you don’t want the noise disturbing people, do you?”
“Including the people who slashed our daybed and use our place when we’re not here, those people?”
Phil Hunter’s face set with the same hard look Carl Williams’ had. It seemed like he wanted to say something else, but knowing Michael was a lawyer, decided against it.
“Off hand, I couldn’t tell you where they sell alarms, but I’m sure you will find someplace.”
“Yes, I will.”
The officer nodded to Helen. “Hope you’re on the mend,” he said and then drove off.
Before dinner, Michael heard a cup shatter on the kitchen floor. Looking up from his book, he saw Helen pull away from the window.
“Who are they?” She pointed towards the trees.
Michael stood next to her watching as four people in masks and long veils walked towards the cottage. He’d seen people dressed like this at a mummer’s festival they called it, in the town where he went for Tylenol. The mummers danced and menaced people who watched them from the sidewalk. All in good fun, an old tradition revived by people who didn’t want to give up the past, a spectator told Michael.
This doesn’t feel like good fun he thought as the four neared the deck. They weren’t dancing but walking, slowly, four abreast.
“Get away from the window in case they throw something through it,” Michael said and went back to sofa to get his cell phone.
After calling Phil Hunter, he checked the door was locked and then took Helen into the bathroom; it had the sturdiest door in the cottage. While she shivered in the bathtub, he watched as the four of them climbed up on the deck and began walking, single file, back and forth the length of it. The largest of them pulled a chain.
When they saw him watching from the small window, each in turn walked up to it, pressing their mask against the glass. None spoke, simply staring for a moment and then backing away.
Michael held tighter to the baseball bat he’d taken from the bedroom closet. He felt the way he had all those nights as a boy, lying in bed, his nerves on edge, waiting for the key in the lock and the sounds in the hall. If there was just shuffling, he could turn over and finally go to sleep, but if the banging began, banging against walls, banging against the table his mother put flowers on until all the vases were broken, Michael stood up, waiting to act, like he did now.
The mummers were gone by the time Phil Hunter arrived.
“And they just walked around on your deck and then left?”
“And came up to the bathroom window and stopped and stared.”
“Did you speak to them?”
“Go outside, you mean, just me and the four of them?”
The officer sighed. “You didn’t actually think they’d do anything to you?”
“How the hell would I know what they’d do? One of them was hauling a nice sized piece of chain, Phil. Does this happen a lot here, because we’ve owned this cottage for eight years and I’ve never seen that.”
“Sometimes people still come around at Christmas. It was tradition for the longest time. In my father’s day, they dragged chains and beat them against the door until they were let inside for something to eat and drink.”
“It’s not Christmas.”
Later, when Michael went out on the deck, after arguing with Helen about leaving and finally agreeing they would the next morning, he saw smoke close to the cottage. He grabbed the baseball bat and went to see what was going on, too exhausted to worry anymore about being alone.
“Are you the ones terrifying my wife?” he said, confronting the four people in the clearing.
Young Walt sat closest to the fire, stoking it with a stick, while the Williams’ boy, Jeff and the twin sisters whose father had crashed his fishing boat into a coast guard ship, sat close by.
Michael had left Helen asleep, in bed.
“I’m speaking to you. Are you the ones who pranced around my deck this afternoon, in masks?”
The girls looked up at him and started giggling.
They were smoking marijuana.
“Mr. Thompson, what’s going on,” Cheri said.
“I want to know what you’re doing trespassing on my property and breaking into my house, scaring my wife.”
“Scaring you, too,” Jeff Williams said.
He looked more like his father than Michael had first thought.
“I couldn’t say for sure, breaking into things sounds like Walt’s job.” Cheri started to laugh again as her sister flicked her arm.
“Why would we need to do that?” Young Walt said. “We’ve got homes, you know.”
“Yes, and I imagine you can’t get up to all you do, there.”
“Oh, have you seen the videos?” Selina smiled.
“For Christ’s sake, shut up,” Jeff said.
Young Walt stood up. “We haven’t been around your place, okay?”
“You’re around it now. This is my property.”
“Yeah, well, when the other old people owned it, they didn’t mind.”
“I do. Clear off.” Michael began pushing dirt into the fire with his boot.
“Come on, the hell with this,” Jeff said, pulling Selina to her feet.
When he got back to the cottage, Michael was shaking with rage. He’d kept the shaking under control until the four of them stumbled off to Young Walt’s truck and drove away.
Helen was sitting on the deck. “We should sell the cottage,” she said, pulling the silk scarf from around her neck and letting it pool in the chair beside her.
It was past eleven. They were both wide awake.
Michael nodded. “I’ll call an agent when we get home.”
“We could find a place not so isolated, closer to the city.”
Even as a boy, Michael never believed life could change in an instant. It got better or worse in slow, drawn out segments of time. It had taken fifteen years for his father to finally abandon Michael and his mother, and twenty more for Michael to learn not to jump at every noise, but since Helen got sick, he dreaded the next minute because of what could happen. Things could fall apart in a moment – they had 4 October, 2019 – and there was nothing you could do when they did.
“We could pack and go now,” he said, knowing she wouldn’t let him drive on that road at night.
“There might be trees down from the storm. If we drove into one, we could be killed. We’ll go in the morning, like we planned.” She kissed his head and went inside.
It was going on one o’clock when Young Walt scaled the side of the deck. When Michael saw him, he stood up, noting again the half foot of height the young man had on him, as well as the muscles straining against his sweatshirt. Clearly, Michael was no match for him, but he would stand his ground as he had against his father. He had no choice.
“What are you doing here?”
The only thing on the table was his coffee cup. Helen’s scarf was in the chair and the baseball bat was across the deck where he’d dropped it when he got back.
Young Walt stopped, holding up his hands. “I just want to talk to you.”
“And you had to climb my deck at one in the morning instead of knocking on the door, in the daylight?”
“I figured you were up. I’m not here to do anything to you.”
“Excuse me if I’m not convinced.”
Everything slowed down as Helen got the scarf around the young man’s neck, winding and winding it after Michael shoved Young Walt, pinning him against the railing. The scarf was so long. Michael used to joke that she would hang herself with it someday. Now, as she tied off the ends, he realized she meant to hang someone else with it.
Young Walt pulled at the scarf as Michael lifted him over the railing, his body seeming to hover for a moment before falling.
Helen slipped to her knees, turning away as she threw up.
Michael grabbed the young man’s arms, holding tight, wondering how long it took someone to strangle.
When Young Walt stopped gasping, Michael joined Helen in crying.
She removed the scarf before Michael laid the body in the grave he dug under the deck. When he finished patting down the earth, he pulled the rain barrels on top.
They sat on the deck, looking down on Preston until the sun started to rise.
Could a body remain undiscovered up here, where wild animals roamed?
Could he and Helen live with what they’d done?
The answer to both questions was no.
On the drive out, Michael stopped at the convenience store for water, habit even more important in the face of catastrophe, he realized.
“Will we see you in the winter, at Christmas maybe?” Carl smiled, handing Michael his change.
Behind him, the back room door was open. A mask and veil hung on a peg just inside.
Michael got to the car before throwing up. He sat doubled over behind the wheel for the longest time before turning to Helen. “What do we do now?”
“We go home,” she said. “We go home.”
Sharon Hunt’s short stories have been published in various publications, including Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Her story “The Keepers of All Sins” was chosen as one of the Best American Mystery Stories for 2019.
Copyright © 2019 Sharon Hunt. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!