I hadn’t spoken to anyone for six days when I found the bones in my backyard. It was a new record for me, the previous having been five days, twenty-two hours, and fourteen minutes. Before then, it had been three days, nine hours, and thirty-two minutes. I didn’t hate interacting with people; it was more of a game, sort of like when you were a kid and you tried to break your record holding your breath underwater, struggling for weeks to hit the one-minute mark, finally surfacing in triumph because you did it, you’d hit your goal. At first, I’d only last six or eight hours, then a day or two, but, with practice, it became easier. The hours slipped by, days even, but ultimately the pressure built in my lungs until it became unbearable, screaming I’d like extra sour cream with my burrito while in line at Chipotle because otherwise I’d drown. My white whale was a week. I had to know: could I last that long without going insane?
The bones I discovered by accident. I had this old tree, and its roots were getting too close to my foundation. I dug through the shed looking for a shovel. Inside was an old lawnmower I never used, an ancient set of tools, weed killer covered in dirt, a hose too rusted to attach to a spigot, and other shit I should’ve tossed out years before. I didn’t normally spend much time outdoors. I preferred air-conditioned bars, twirling my fingers in a cold vodka tonic, or the comfort of my couch. I watched Thunder games and YouTube videos, ghost hunter stuff and true crime channels. Lot better than sweating my ass off in a hundred-and-ten-degree weather, but I didn’t have a choice. Last thing I needed was a ten-thousand-dollar bill for piers I couldn’t afford.
The soil was cracked. Late summers in Oklahoma were typically droughts. It made digging impossible, and I hosed down the soil to make it easier to manage, but it took forever, water sprouting from the loose connection at the spigot. It was slow going, digging for some time, then watering again, trying not to turn the soil into mud but soft enough to move. I’d dug about six inches and exposed the root when I hit something hard underneath it. I thought it might be limestone, but it was white instead of brown. Bone. Figured it was an animal, a pet the previous owner had buried there, but it wasn’t. I’d found a human ribcage.
I should’ve called the police, but I was mortified. Curious. There were so many questions. Who was this person? How did they get here? Who had killed them? When? And why?
I went to the store and bought supplies an archaeologist might use to excavate dinosaur remains—a brush, small gardening shovel, handheld cultivator—and got to work. It took me hours, digging by lamplight until morning came. It was a full human skeleton, a little over five feet tall. Wrapped around it were remnants of cloth, denim, it looked like, from a jean jacket. I knew nothing about the timespan of decomposition, but I figured whoever it was had been there for some time, now forgotten, a cold case tucked away in a detective’s file.
I placed it in the bathtub. I spent the rest of the day staring at it. I had no idea if they’d been a man or a woman, young or old, happy or sad, but they’d been recovered. That was what was important. They’d been found, and they wouldn’t have to hide underground any longer.
When I was twelve, my mom took me to see the Spook Light. It’s on this dirt road in northeast Oklahoma by the Missouri and Arkansas borders. Legend had it a ghost roamed the street with a lantern in hand. About a hundred years ago, a farmer’s daughter had run off with an Indian kid, but when the farmer went searching for her, he was beheaded. Locals thought the Indian kid had done it, chopped off the farmer’s head when he’d caught up with the couple, but they never could find them. They’d disappeared, and Mom knew I loved scary shit. Loved Freddy Kreuger and Jason and Predator. Loved The Shining and Poltergeist. Hellraiser. It’s all I’d read or watch, and so when she heard about the place, she thought I’d get a kick out of it.
Supposedly, if you sat there long enough, an orb would appear above the hill. Most said it looked like a motorcycle. Some said it bobbed up and down, others it flickered. Mom drove a Ford Bronco back then, but she was so short she had to sit on a pillow to reach the pedal. We waited there for hours, her sucking on cigarettes while I stared out the window, at first convinced it would show at any moment, appear atop the horizon like an astral being teleporting from another dimension, but my excitement waned as the hours marched by. Eventually, I fell asleep. Spook Light never showed, and I woke up the next morning in bed.
Two nights later, Mom left and never came back.
When I needed a break, I drove around Oklahoma City. Hit up clubs, dive bars, concerts. I’d arrive after midnight when people were drunk and making bad decisions. Over the years, I’d seen a man stabbed, a drunkard tasered, a man firing a gun over his head, and people fucking in an alleyway. All sorts of debauchery. It got to the point I craved it, witnessing people at their worst, at their most vulnerable. I could vicariously live through them for the night, slip into their skin and feel what they felt, their fear and their lust, their pain and their angst, their innards retching. It refueled me somehow.
I headed to Little Darlings, this strip club on the south side of the city. I’d never been there before but had been interested. The place was big. Three stages, a main and two side, a large balcony with VIP rooms and plush leather couches. Round tables pockmarked the main floor, surrounded by velvety lounge chairs. The girls were dressed in lingerie, hair perfect, nipples covered in pasties. They chatted with men in groups of three or four, all of them smoking cigarettes and downing Budweiser longnecks.
I ordered a vodka tonic with lemon, writing down my order in a small notebook I carried with me. The waitress probably thought I was deaf, but I had no reason to correct her. I sat away from the stages to get a good view of the place. A DJ introduced the next entertainer. Her name was Persephone. Before dancing, she grabbed a towel and wiped the pole clean. She wore a black body suit and thigh-high boots that sparkled underneath the spotlights. The music came on. Persephone twirled around the pole. Several men and a couple of women sat stage side with stacks of dollar bills in front of them. One guy, center stage, danced along with the music, hands above his head, fingers pointed into pistols. His wife or girlfriend sat next to him, downing a shot. They were both drunk, boisterous and happy. I wanted to know what it felt like to be them, reveling in their comradery.
Persephone flipped the top of her bodysuit to reveal her tits. The man and the woman both cheered and tossed cash onstage. Persephone approached them and got down on her knees. The couple stood, and Persephone took the man’s hat and put it on her head before planting the woman’s face into her chest. The crowd cheered and tossed dollar bills into the air. Persephone smiled and grabbed the woman’s hands, pulling her up on stage. She resisted at first. Curly haired and pink-faced, she shook her head no, laughing with eyes squinted, wobbling a little, but she gave in. I knew she would even before she did. People always succumbed to their basest desires. It was an inevitability, much like death, awaiting all of us.
The woman raised her hands above her head, clasped them together, and shook her butt. She wore tight jeans and a blue shirt exposing her midriff. Persephone grabbed her around her waist, their noses touching as dollar bills rained down. Persephone pushed the woman to the stage floor, fondled her breasts, then buried her face between the woman’s legs, mimicking fellatio. Her boyfriend jumped in celebration and pulled out his phone, pointing it at the two women. He filmed the activities, saving it for later, maybe when he was having a bad day at work, wondering why he kept at it, wanting nothing more than to disappear underneath a blanket of darkness. He needed to capture the joy he felt this night, watching on as his woman was ravished, as she basked in the attention.
The bouncers swarmed him to wrench the phone from his hand, but he squirmed free and backed away. They barked orders, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying, only unintelligible cries filtering through the music. The DJ cut the stereo. The woman pushed Persephone and berated the bouncers, spittle flying. She screamed to let her man go, that she’d sue the place into the ground, they didn’t know who she was goddamnit, and she jumped onto a bouncer’s back. She grabbed him around his neck, and he tried to fling her loose, swinging her legs out so she kicked her husband. Her grip weakened, and the bouncer pulled her off. He grabbed her from behind, and I got a perfect view of her face. It was plastered with hot, molten fury. Cheeks flushed red, hair disheveled, mouth snarled as though she might, at any moment, bite someone, and all I wanted to do was crawl into her skin, burrow deep into her consciousness, and wrap myself around her seething rage.
I didn’t get home until a little after 3 a.m. My least favorite time of day. The bars were closed. Most everyone had gone home to rest, delaying their hangovers for as long as they could. No one was online really. Old posts on Facebook; tweets I’d already seen. Only thing to do was sleep. Or try to. Most nights I stared at the ceiling for hours, drifting in and out, jerking awake each time I slipped in my dreams.
Tried to pee before heading to bed. I needed to make a doctor’s appointment. Had a hard time going to the bathroom, sometimes standing in front of the toilet for five, six, even ten minutes before a dribble came out. Been putting it off for weeks, though, fearing a bad diagnosis, hours of radiation, chemo, wondering if I’d be able to survive. Hoped instead it wasn’t a problem at all, merely symptoms caused by scrolling WebMD.
I pulled back the shower curtain. The skeleton was still there, but it wasn’t the same. Her body was growing back: muscle, sinew, nerves, and arteries, new eyes watching dreams mix with reality.
The cops showed up next morning. I hadn’t showered or brushed my teeth. Smelled like booze and an ashtray still, and they asked if they could come in. Didn’t even think about it. Wasn’t until they sat on the couch I remembered the dead body in my bathtub.
Death smells long after decomposition. It’s sweet but rotten, pungent like spoiled meat. It worsens faster than it wanes so even after years it’s enough to make a person vomit.
“We appreciate your time this morning, Mr. Cotes.”
They introduced themselves as OKCPD detectives. Older guys in wrinkled suits. They both had pocket notebooks.
“We understand you were at Little Darlings last night.”
“Did you witness the altercation around 1:15 a.m.?”
I nodded again.
“Could you explain what happened?”
I glanced toward the bathroom. I could smell her. I knew they could too.
“In your own words. What did you see?”
I put up a finger, indicating a moment. I grabbed my notebook and returned. The detectives exchanged odd looks. I wrote down what I’d seen and slid it over. One detective read. The other looked at me with his mouth open.
“You a mute?”
I shook my head no.
“Why don’t you talk then?”
“Like a vow of silence kind of thing? You religious?”
I shook my head no.
“Why did you leave after the incident?” asked the detective who’d read my statement. “You saw the man escaped. Everyone else stayed to give a statement. Managers kept people inside, but somehow you and he were able to slip away.”
“You mind if we take a look around your house?”
The smell grew stronger, more acrid.
I shook my head no.
“You don’t mind?”
I wrote in capital letters: “YOU CAN NOT SEARCH MY HOUSE.” I underlined it twice.
“You’re not giving us permission?”
“Why aren’t you speaking?”
“What are you hiding?”
“The victim died. You sure you want to aid and abet a murder?”
“Did you know Travis Alcott? Is he here now?”
“Why do you look nervous?”
I pointed toward the door. I knew my rights. Fourth Amendment, unreasonable search and seizure.
“We can get a warrant if you want. Won’t take an hour.”
“It’d be a lot better on you if you let us look around.”
“We find nothing, we’ll be out in no time.”
I pointed to the door again, standing this time.
“Okay.” They stood. “This is your first mistake.”
They paced in the driveway. One spoke on his cell phone, and the other smoked a cigarette. They weren’t leaving, waiting until a warrant was issued.
I had to get rid of the body. I checked the time, only twenty minutes away from a week. My lungs were exploding, desperate to breathe, but I’d never been this close before.
I couldn’t move the remains with the cops outside. I was trapped. I could cut them up into little pieces. Hide them in the crawl space, hope the cops didn’t look too closely. I had a saw in the garage. I had luggage. It wasn’t perfect. Not foolproof, but it was the only chance I had.
I got what I needed, but before I got to the bathroom, I heard someone inside the house. I thought the police had already started their search.
Twelve minutes until a week. I was drowning now. My head swam in pure, unadulterated panic, but then the shower turned on.
Why would the cops turn on the shower?
The detectives were still outside in the driveway. They stared at the house, waiting for the warrant. Two patrol cars joined them, along with four uniformed cops. By now, they had the house surrounded. I smelled soap, clean and crisp.
Four minutes until a week. Colors dimmed. Body numbed.
The shower turned off. I thought to run, slip out the back, jump the fence, catch a bus to the mountains, change my name, get a job that paid cash, and never come back. I’d find a place where I could go weeks without speaking, disappear into the landscape, just another wild animal trying to survive, when she stepped out of the bathroom. She had a towel wrapped around her body, and her hair was still wet, long and grey and falling down her back. With her finger she motioned for me to follow her. She sat down on my bed, and I took the corner chair. We stared at each other. She didn’t seem confused, wondering how she got there, where’d she been, how much time had passed since her death. It was like she’d expected this, waited years, now happy the time had finally come.
Two minutes. The cops knocked.
“Mr. Cotes, we have a warrant to search your premises.”
They knocked again. More urgent this time, but when we didn’t answer, they didn’t wait any longer. A battery ram crashed against the door. Wood splintered. She stood, and the police screamed for me to get my hands up, to lie face down on the floor motherfucker, but I didn’t move. They charged into the room as she kneeled before me, her hands on my knees, peering up at my drooped head, checking to see if my eyes were still open, if I was still breathing, or if I’d succumbed to gallons of water.
The clock ticked down the seconds. My body retched. My lungs ached. I was drowning, and everything illuminated. The panic subsided. Stars shimmered into a singularity, an orb of light.
An alarm went off in my head.
“Speak,” she said. “Open your mouth.”