This week's post is from Marn, the writer of Antlers, Colorado
“Is this everything, sir?”
The cashier looks at me expectantly - I blink at her, not used to being a “sir”, and try to smile. It must be the gray hair. I used to dye it, but I stopped a few months ago. People aren’t used to seeing anyone in their mid-twenties with gray hair, and so I get treated like I’m older than I am, most times. It doesn’t bother me. I think it’s kind of funny, actually.
I look at the shopping bags next to the cashier, bloated with cleaning supplies, painkillers, batteries, a single utility knife. I hope it’s everything. I should have made a list, at least on my phone or something. I don’t want to drive half an hour back to the lake only to realize I’m missing something important and have to turn around. I don’t have time for that. It’s my fault, really, for waiting until the last night possible to do all of this. Six months to prepare and I still need to go out and run errands beforehand.
“That’s it,” I tell the cashier, and unfold a wad of cash out of my pocket. She smiles at me and waits for the receipt to print all the way before giving me my change, folded up in the flimsy paper.
“Have a great evening.”
I scoop up two bags in each hand and emerge victorious on the other side of the sliding-glass doors, hefting the weight of my purchases as I cross the vast expanse of parking lot outside the grocery store. The sky is clear, and the full moon is plastered on it like a giant spotlight, orange and looming. It was supposed to storm, but the weather’s held up so far tonight. I’m glad. Rain means the lake expanding outwards, overlapping the shore and butting up against the porch like it’s trying to drag the whole house under.
A bag boy rolling across the parking lot with a train of shopping carts waves at me. I nod back. I don’t come into town very often, if I can help it. There’s too many lights and sounds; and besides that, the people are too nosy for their own good. Everyone’s got to be in everyone’s business. I didn’t move all the way out here to Colorado to get quizzed about my life every time I try to introduce myself to a neighbor.
It’s not like I’m unused to the lack of privacy - I used to be in a band before I moved out here, and we were popular, I guess. We played on daytime TV a couple times, that kind of thing. We had fans. Then we all went off to do our own thing, and I moved into the lake house. We all didn’t talk much after that, not for years. That was my in for getting them to come visit when I needed them. Pick a bandmate, call him up and ask if he wanted to fly in and spend a few days together out at the lake, the two of us, palling around like old times. Every one of them was flattered that they were the one I thought to call when I got lonely, so of course they agreed.
Wes is the only one left, now, and soon I won’t even have him as my last resort. All my reliable resources, gone. I don’t know what I’ll do next time, but at least I have six months to think about it. I’m glad that I don’t have to produce a body for the lake every week, or I would drive myself insane doing it. I still might drive myself insane.
I throw the bags in the passenger seat and twist my keys in the ignition. Maybe I can cut the trip down to twenty minutes if there’s no speed traps on the road.
The drive back to the lake is almost calming. It’s late enough that the roads are mostly unpopulated, and I only see a few other cars the whole way, their headlights drifting up in front of me. The moon hangs in my rearview mirror, like a backseat driver peering over my shoulder.
I punch the radio on, but it’s hard to pick up any good stations out here, so I switch it over to the CD input. The droning guitar lick of Beck’s “Loser” blares out at me nigh instantaneously – this must be the mix CD Danton gave me when he came to visit half a year ago. I forgot I had it in here. I reach over to twist the volume knob up, but the CD skips.
Why don’t you kill…kill…kill…kill…kill...kill…
“Jesus,” I say under my breath, pressing the button to play the next track. Pain lances through my neck muscles. Ben Folds’ soft, high voice gibbers non sequiturs through the speakers, bits and pieces ripped from “Brick” and reformed as pidgin sentences.
It’s time to…sleep…freezing…feeling…cold…
“What do you want?” I snap at the radio. It’s done this before – the lake, I mean. This is how it communicates. Through bastardizing other peoples’ words. It likes music, I think, but it’s stooped to diner menus and billboards before to get me to pay attention.
“I know. I’m running a little bit late on that.”
“Yeah, I got it.”
I almost change the track again, but I don’t feel like finding out what the lake will do to “Wonderwall”, so I turn off the radio. I can live with another fifteen minutes of silence.
Malcolm is waiting for me in the foyer, standing dead center on the rug and watching as I strip off my layers and kick my boots into a corner. The dramatic looming is nothing new, but nonetheless a little unnerving, especially with the six inches of height he has on me. Mal looks a little like a mad scientist, bony hands dangling down at his sides and his hair sticking out at unruly, haphazard angles. The only light inside the lake house is the full moon streaming through the windows, and it glints off of his glasses, hiding his eyes. His tan skin is bleached in the glow.
“I’m home,” I say to him. He doesn’t answer, but his mouth twists into a scowl. I turn my back on him to hang my coat up on the rack next to the door. “Did you talk to Wes?”
“Danton’s trying,” Mal says flatly.
“Yeah, but did you-”
“What’s the point?” he snaps, but doesn’t move from the rug. “He can’t hear us. As far as we know, only you can.”
“Danton seems to think it’s worth a shot.” I pick my convenience store bags up from the doorway where I left them. Mal follows me into the kitchen, where I set to work unpacking, laying everything out on the table in elaborate order.
“You can’t keep doing this, Landis,” he says over my shoulder. “It’s not sustainable.”
I pick at the blister pack around the utility knife, trying to wedge my thumbnail between the clear plastic and the cardboard backing. “I know that.”
“Wes is the only one of us left. What are you going to do when you’re done with him? Start luring strangers here? Toss yourself in the lake?”
“I won’t throw myself into the lake.” I finally get a hold on the plastic and peel it away, freeing the knife. “The lake’s my responsibility.”
He’s right, though. I’ll have to make a new strategy once I’m done with Wes, but I knew all along that this would happen. I’ll have to start picking up strangers. It’s the only way. But maybe only people that no one will miss, or people who would be better off dead. It’ll be almost like I’m doing them a favor by throwing them in the lake. At least they’ll be serving a larger purpose.
Mal sidesteps me and passes through the table, standing so that it bisects him. I’m still not used to seeing that. I know that if I turned the lights on I would be able to see the dust particles floating through him like he’s an image projected on a screen, but it’s easier to trick myself into thinking he’s still solid. He’s just the same as he was before I killed him, anyway. They all are.
“Whose responsibility was it before? What happened to them?” He folds his arms over his chest. “Did they murder people too, or is that just you?”
“I don’t know,” I say. It’s a lie. I know from the news reports that she slit her wrists on the back porch and threw herself in the lake. Her body didn’t wash up until weeks later, after she was reported missing and the police came out here to look for her. The lake talked to her, too. I know that from her diary, which I found in a false-bottomed drawer in my bedroom’s nightstand. She got caught trying to abduct another woman from a gas station not too far from here, and decided that death would be better than letting the lake go unfed because of her mistake. I don’t know who owned the place before her, but someone must have. You don’t just leave a place like this alone. There has to be a caretaker.
I carefully lift the utility knife out of its torn packaging, flicking the blade of the knife up and down, testing the weight of it in my hand. It might be my best idea yet. At the very least, it’ll make things quicker this time around. It’s funny how you never really stop and think that there’s a certain science to efficient, painless murder until you have to figure out a way to do it.
“I could take hitchhikers. Or people whose cars are broken down,” I say, mostly to myself.
“That’s serial killer talk.”
The voice isn’t Mal’s, and I look up in time to see Jeremy drift into the kitchen. His hands are crammed into the pockets of his jacket, and he won’t make eye contact with me, a nimbus of blond hair drifting around his head like he’s moving underwater. He’s the most recently dead, and sometimes I think he’s still angry about it, because he doesn’t say much at all. Jeremy pretends to lean up against the fridge, but I know that he’s probably straining to keep himself from falling through it. Even though he’s shorter and stockier than Mal and Danton, they all drift through solid things just the same.
“Jeremy’s right,” Mal agrees, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “People start disappearing off the road every few months, someone’s going to notice. It won’t just be picking off your band buddies from out of town anymore.”
“Someone might even notice that we’re all gone before that, and come out here to investigate,” Jeremy says pointedly.
Mal shrugs his skinny shoulders up to his ears, making a non-committal “eh” sort of noise. “I mean, we didn’t have that many fans.”
“Both of you shut up.” I massage the side of my neck with the heel of one hand, squeezing my eyes shut and feeling the muscle flare up in pain as I twist my head down towards my left shoulder. I took two painkillers in the car, dry, but they haven’t kicked in yet. “Let me think.”
“You’ve had six months to think about this.” Mal’s voice is steely.
“Yeah, well, in a house where I can barely hear myself think-”
“Oh, yeah, whose fault is that?” Mal raises his voice enough to make me open my eyes and look at him. His hands are balled into fists, held up in front of his chest like he’s anticipating an attack. “Maybe you should have considered that before you started killing all your friends!”
He slams his fists down on the table. At first I think they’re just going to go through the wood, as intangible as the rest of him. And they do, eventually. But before they pass through, everything on the tabletop jumps – just the same as if I’d hit the table myself. I jump, too, and so do Mal and Jeremy. I guess none of us were expecting that.
Mal lifts his hands again, opening them and scanning his palms as if his heart line or his life line can tell him anything about what just happened. I look over at Jeremy, whose eye I manage to catch for a split second before he looks down at the floor. I sigh.
“I didn’t exactly plan on having to talk to you after I killed you.”
“Yeah, ghosts are never part of the plan,” Mal is dripping with sarcasm. “That’s our bad for coming back to constantly remind you that you’re a murderer.”
“Murderer is a strong term.” I match his tone.
I can feel him and Jeremy glaring at me, and so I take the utility knife with me into the living room. Wes is asleep in the recliner in front of the television, his feet propped up, the bottle of hard lemonade he was drinking when I left still miraculously in his hands and not on the floor. I guess it didn’t take long for the pills I put in it to take effect, even with the TV still flashing the evening news. Wes’s head is tilted back, exposing the long, pale strip of his throat and its jutting Adam’s apple. I flick the knife blade up and down again. I could have him drowning in his own blood before he even woke up. Then again, I’d have to drag him all the way out to the lake, and it’d make a huge mess.
“Hey!” Danton exclaims, levering himself through Wes’s torso like a swimmer suddenly emerging from the still waters of a pool. “You’re home!”
I take a step backwards, reeling, and almost drop the knife. My first instinct is obviously to yell, but I force my voice to come out in a hiss so that I don’t run the risk of Wes waking up.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Just hanging out with Wes,” Danton says, his eyes wide and earnest beneath a thick mop of dark, shaggy hair.
I’m almost beyond words, but I manage to choke them out of my throat. “Well, stop it.”
“Why should I?” His expression sours. “It’s not like I could wake him up if I tried.”
“Then what’s the point?”
“I wanted to watch TV. You never turn on the TV when you’re by yourself.” Danton frowns at me, and I shrug.
“So, get a hobby. Not my problem.”
“Yeah, hobbies are real easy to come by when you’re incorporeal.” He pulls a face, unsticking himself all the way from Wes’s body and hovering briefly above the recliner before touching down on the floor in front of me. Like Mal, Danton is taller than me by at least half a foot, but he wears the height in a less gangly way. He looks down his beaky nose at the utility knife in my hands. “Aren’t you gonna feel crappy when all your friends are dead, Lan?”
“What are you, my conscience?” I try my very best to smile.
“I’m serious.” Danton glances from me to Wes and back again. “Do you really want to be some crazy guy who lives by himself in the middle of nowhere and talks to ghosts and kills hobos every once in a while?”
“That’s not my choice to make.”
“Then whose choice is it?”
Danton’s voice is too loud, louder than the echoing voices of the newscasters on the TV screen, and the question hangs in the air between us. He cocks his head like I owe him an answer. I don’t. Everyone here thinks I owe them something because I killed them and gave their bodies to the lake. Maybe it would be news to them, but that’s not how murder works under any normal circumstances, and that’s still not how it works even though they’re still hanging around to bother me postmortem.
Although maybe it is a little bit my fault for assuming I could get rid of them so easily.
I elbow through Danton and jostle Wes by the shoulder. He smacks his lips, grunts, and rolls his head ever so slightly, but doesn’t open his eyes. I nudge his cheek with the butt of the utility knife and his eyelids crack half-open.
“S’cold in here.”
He brushes a few stray locks of hair out of his face. It’s the longest I’ve ever seen it get, pulled back into a little ponytail at the nape of his neck.
“I had a weird dream…about Danton, I think?” Wes scratches his cheek, peppered with stubble. “Have you heard from him? He hasn’t been returning my calls-”
“I wonder why,” Danton says dryly, at the same time I say “No, that’s weird.”
“Right?” Wes is still groggy, and struggles to his feet from the recliner, wobbling where he stands. He clutches at my shoulder for balance. “Hey, what time is it?”
It’s not a bad question. I glance over at the clock on top of the TV and grit my teeth – it’s almost midnight. I need to be quick or I’ll miss my time window. Were the others trying to stall me? Or did I just take too long getting back from the store?
“Dunno,” I lie through my teeth. We need to go outside before I run out of time to do this. Or before I lose my nerve – but I haven’t yet, not even with Mal, who was the first. I rub the side of my neck. “You look like you could use some air, Wes.”
Wes blinks slowly. “I do?”
“We should go outside. On the porch.”
“Sure, I guess,” he mutters. The words are slurring together behind his teeth, which means he’s still decently drugged up.
“Don’t-” Danton starts loudly, before presumably realizing Wes can’t hear him. He follows us into the kitchen, where Mal and Jeremy are waiting in silence like shadows. They join him in drifting out to the back porch with me and Wes. I wish they wouldn’t all breathe down my neck so much. It was hard when it was just Mal, watching me strangle Danton with my bare hands and a bit of rope.
The lake is vast and roiling and silver in the light of the moon. The normally glassy surface of the water ripples almost violently, a private earthquake, waves noisily lapping against the bank closest us. Wes teeters for balance and catches himself, leaning heavily on the porch railing.
“What’s wrong with the water?” he asks, his words all slurring together.
“I’ve never seen it that bad,” Mal says, the five of us all stopping to stare at the lake.
Mal’s right. It wasn’t like this even on the night that I killed him. Almost as bad, maybe, but not quite. Just bad enough for me to realize things were serious, and that I hadn’t been hallucinating the weatherman on the news telling me that the depths hungered for blood, the car insurance commercial lady saying that a sacrifice had to be made. I wonder if the woman who owned the house before me ever got to see the lake like this. I wonder if it was like this before she took a razor blade to her wrists.
I flick the blade of the utility knife up. Something’s breaking the surface of the lake between the waves, rows of long, spindly things waving like cattails in the late-autumn wind. I watch as the moonlight catches one and realize that it’s a hand, lolling at the end of an emaciated, rotting arm. Reaching towards the porch. Towards me.
“Shit,” Danton breathes.
“Landis.” Wes sounds a little more sober, and a lot scared. “What’s going on? What are those things?”
“I don’t know, Wes.” My voice sounds hoarse and tired, even to me. I step up behind him without taking my eyes off the lake.
I brace my free arm on his back so that he can’t turn around, and slit his throat from ear to ear with the utility knife. His blood washes over my hand, spraying on the knife and the railing and everything. This is the first time I’ve tried killing someone with a knife. The gurgling noises coming out of Wes and the bubbles of blood inflating and popping at the corners of his mouth make me wonder if it’s really more humane after all. Maybe I should have strangled him like I did the others.
I don’t wait for him to stop moving before I steer his body towards the lake. It’s easier to start before he goes limp – I won’t have to lug his whole body weight that way, just push and pull a little. I picked that up last time, when I killed Jeremy. Murder’s a real trial-and-error thing.
I tip Wes into the water front-first, so that I won’t have to stare him in the face while the hands jutting out of the lake drag his body under. Almost as soon as they do, the lake calms again. Deceptively, eerily smooth for another six months out of the year. Another job well done.
My legs are shaking, so I sit down on the single, dusty lawn chair on the back porch. There are dirty red flecks on the arms that could be blood, or rust. It’s hard to tell.
“Do you think he’ll come back, too?” I ask without looking behind me.
“He’s just as stubborn as the rest of us,” Jeremy answers, choosing his words slowly, like he’s afraid that it’s not what I want to hear.
“Hey, if you go nuts and kill yourself, we could do a reunion tour,” Mal says. I can hear the tiny smirk in his voice. “Séances across the country.”
I prop my elbows on my knees, letting my head hang down and lacing my hands behind my neck. “I’m not killing myself. What do you think happens when no one’s here to take care of this place?”
Mal doesn’t have an answer for me. None of them do. I think about going back inside, where it’s warmer, but I stay where I am instead, feet rooted to the rotting wood of the porch. Wes should be coming back anytime now.
Read more of Marn's work on his site for Antlers, Colorado