By Christa M. Miller

It was about 11 p.m. when Tammy and Lester arrived at their new house. Early enough to finish the work Lester had started the night before. Late enough that traffic was light, so no one would see them park the truck.

Pulling onto the two-track in the trees at the property’s far end, Lester turned off the lights and coasted until Tammy was sure they’d crash into a tree. She kept her mouth shut, though. Lester always knew what he was doing. He’d found a way to get this house, hadn’t he?

Finally he stopped and parked. “Got your jacket?” he said. “Good. We’ll have to walk through some brush.”

They got out and walked through about fifty feet of woods. Larry hadn’t wanted to risk flashlights, so only the half-moon’s light guided them. Tammy could see well enough to avoid stinging branches and to step over deadfall. She felt like nothing could touch her, like she was a moon goddess moving through the trees into the field beyond.

“When we get to the house,” Lester said, “you get the wheelbarrow from the barn—see it? There’s a wheelbarrow just inside the door—and meet me at the back door.”

“Sure you don’t need help bringing the trash downstairs?” Tammy asked, even though his instructions had been clear.

“Just get the barrow.” His voice was patient. She was grateful for that.

They covered the rest of the field quickly. When they reached the house, Lester guided them around the back, where tall oaks rimmed the backyard. The trees and the hulking barn’s roof blocked the moonlight, so as Lester walked between barn and house and then disappeared through the kitchen door, Tammy felt boxed in. Watched, even.

She pushed away the panic that made her want to run. Lester had gone to a lot of trouble to get her this place. She didn’t know what, but she could tell by the way he needed her help. Plus, it had been six months since she’d told him, as she drove him to the garage to pick up his truck, how much she loved this place. He must’ve spent the whole time coming up with this plan.

God, she loved him. She owed it to him to calm down, remember the way she’d set it up for him: they way the yard would look in the afternoon, sun shining brightly through the ring of trees. The field would stretch toward a wide green riverbank. If she strung a hammock across the two outermost trees, she might be able to see the river. It would sparkle with reflected sunlight; on a hot day, she and Lester could go wading, the cool mud squishing between their toes.

The fantasy propelled her across the yard to the barn. It would be just like she’d told Lester last spring: if they had the river, the hammock, the shady trees, the beautiful farmhouse, maybe they wouldn’t fight so much. They wouldn’t be part of the trailer park anymore, putting up with the drunks milking workman’s comp and the gossiping bitches who thought they were better than everyone. More important, they wouldn’t be homeless. Rumor had it that the state would take away the park, destroy it to make room for the new bypass going in. If they found a way to get this place, she told Lester, they’d have a place no one could evict them from.

She couldn’t wait to tell Aaron and Kyle. Well, maybe not Kyle. He talked too much, and the COs—or worse, the other inmates—would want details. Aaron, though, would definitely need to know he had a real home to come after the Army was done with him.

She opened the little door beside the barn’s big main doors. Lester’d been right as usual: the wheelbarrow was right in front of her. She grasped its two wooden handles and backed out into the yard.

Something warm squirmed against her ankle. She dropped the wheelbarrow and nearly screamed, imagining rats crawling up her body. She almost couldn’t look.

A kitten stared up at Tammy from just inside the barn door, as if daring her to come get it. Little shit. She’d never liked cats, not even kittens, and ones that pulled stunts like that were worst of all. She’d get it all right, along with the rest of its smelly litter. She’d get Lester to take care of them.

A window slid open overhead. “Tamara!”

Lester only called her by her full name when he was dead serious. “I need help,” he said in a low voice. “You ready with that barrow?”

“Just admiring our new place, baby. I’ll be right up.” Tammy thought her voice sounded higher, shriller than usual, but Lester didn’t tell her to keep it down.

She banked the barrow in an arc and wheeled it toward the back door. She was just as glad to be heading indoors. For mid-September, it was sure getting chilly at night.

Dragging sounds came from upstairs as Tammy stepped through the door. She found her way to the stairs. God, this place was bigger than it looked from outside. It would be a bitch to clean, but worth it for all the space.

Lester was wrestling four big, bulging industrial-strength Hefty bags. He panted hard, sweat rolling down his broad red face. He smelled like a pig. For a moment she was afraid for him, but it wasn’t like he didn’t work for a living. Nissen’s worked him hard—harder, since they moved the bakery to Saco. Her fear resolved into nothing but love. He was doing this for her. For their future.

Before she could tell him, he nodded at her. “Go clean up the bathroom, will you? Wipe it down real good, now. The tub especially.”

“You need help getting those downstairs?”

He shook his head. “Gonna rest a while. You be a good girl, now.”

“Sure thing, baby.” She smiled at him, but he didn’t smile back. Poor exhausted Lester. She went into the bathroom.

She had to work to keep her dinner down. Forget never dreaming that Lester would get her this house. Not even in her nightmares would she have thought he’d get it for her this way. He’d smacked her a few times, but she’d never thought he might be capable of worse. Still, he only did things people deserved. She had no reason to feel afraid. She forced herself to look around, figure out how best to clean this mess.

Even though most of the blood had dried over 24 hours, the spattery brown lines and sprays, thrown across the tub surround and the ceiling like a mad artist’s work, smelled horrible. Musky like her newborn sons before their first baths. Metallic like the empty lot by the trailer park after the boys finished their target practice. Rotten like beef that had turned. Those were the main smells. There were others underneath, but Tammy didn’t let herself identify them. If she did, she might smell it every time she used this bathroom.

She grabbed one of the two containers of Clorox Lester had left for her, uncapped it, inhaled deeply. It smelled clean. Strong. She set to work. Working would purge the smell.

She’d scrubbed the tub surround and was working her way down into the tub when Lester came up behind her. He stood in the doorway, watching her, his eyes narrowed like they always did when he was planning. “How you doin’?” he asked.

“Well, see for yourself.” She stood aside, ignoring the way her back muscles cramped and locked her spine. She couldn’t let him know, about her back or her reaction to the smell. He might think she wasn’t dependable. He might leave her, like her first husband Dallas. Like Dadda. She got back to work. “Need a ladder to get at the ceiling,” she said over her shoulder.

“Tomorrow.” His voice had gone flat, like she’d pissed him off. “Finish that bathtub. Be quick.”

Tammy took a chance. “I do something wrong, babe?”

“No.” It sounded more like a grunt. His eyes fixed on something over her head. “I’m just a little tense, is all. We’ll be home before dawn if you hurry.”

So that was it. “Can’t wait till we’re all moved in and don’t have to worry no more,” she said.

He didn’t answer. She heard him clump away. Tammy lowered her head and kept scrubbing.


Moving the Hefty bags downstairs and into the wheelbarrow wasn’t the hard part. Neither was wheeling them through the backyard into the field, even though the barrow got stuck a couple of times on rocks and muddy ruts. The hard part was trying to light the bonfire. Everything was still damp from the past few days’ rain, especially back by the river where the earth was spongy and shaded by dense trees.

Watching Lester circle the pile of wood he’d constructed last night, squirting lighter fluid and flicking the long-barreled lighter, Tammy shivered. She tried to ignore the four trash bags waiting in the wheelbarrow beside her. She worked to focus instead on how much she trusted Lester. He must’ve known doing it this way was the right thing. It had to be; they couldn’t wait for nature to take the couple. By then, the bypass might be going in, and they’d be homeless. “Damned if I’m going to live in the Preble Street shelter with a bunch of smelly drunks,” she’d told Lester. Still, and God help her for thinking this, maybe he’d gotten the timing wrong. Maybe they should’ve done it earlier in this season, or later in the next. Or not at all.

“Lester,” she said. Her voice was thin, like a helpless child’s. She cleared her throat. “Lester,” she said louder, deeper.

He grunted back at her, over his shoulder.

“You sure they had no relatives?”

“I spent every fuckin’ weekend workin’ here this summer. The old lady wouldn’t shut up about being all alone. No one’ll bother us.”

“What about the—the utilities?”

“We’ll tell ‘em the folks up and moved to Florida. No one’ll think twice.”

He’d planned it all out. She shouldn’t second-guess him. Yet she couldn’t help herself from saying, “Maybe we should—I don’t know. Maybe bury... them.”

“Bury them?” Lester paused, looked back at her. “Tamara, we can’t afford that. Some wild animal diggin’ things up, or some damn hunter’s dog sniffin’ ‘em out. Use your head for more than givin’ blowjobs.” He shook his head and went back to work.

The comment stung, but he was right. Who was she to question his plan? He was the one who’d come up with the whole thing. Her job was as his helpmeet. That was all. It was right.

As if to prove her questioning wrong, the fire caught. At first it was just a surface burn, the flames eating the lighter fluid. Then the wood caught.

Lester stood, his arms folded. Tammy came up beside him. Finally, she saw, he was smiling. Together they watched the fire grow.

When it was big enough, Lester wheeled the barrow to the fire. Then he took the end of one bag and gestured to her to take the other. “Ready?” he said. “On three.” He counted, and then they tossed the bag on top of the woodpile. The fire hissed and pulled back as if it couldn’t stand the smell either. Then it licked up around the plastic. “See, sweet?” Lester said. “See how easy?”

“Perfect,” Tammy agreed. She slipped her arm around his waist, hugged him close. The cold was getting to her, and her feet hurt. She wanted to sit, but the ground was too wet and the truck too far away. Besides, she couldn’t leave Lester now. They’d worked so hard, and he still needed her help.

After a good fifteen minutes, they tossed the second bag up onto the fire. This time, the fire didn’t recede so far. It roared steadily. Tammy told herself it was just the gases from the flames that moaned like a lost soul. She stood closer to the fire, hoping it would reach out and pull the chill from her bones. That was when she smelled it again, that reek, only burning this time. She looked around wildly. There was no place to go to get away from it. And Lester needed her.

The third bag tore when they lifted it. Its contents spilled onto the ground, and Tammy found herself looking into the open dead eyes of the old woman Lester had killed. Even in the fire’s dim light, Tammy could see the messy red-and-brown pulp where the woman’s ear should have been. “Chrissake, Lester!” she cried, jumping away. What had he used? A bat? An axe? A wall? God.

She almost screamed when he turned to her. He held an arm in his hand, probably the old man’s. It was hairy, muscular, a working man’s arm, not a dead arm. He looked like he wanted to beat her with it.

Now she could taste the smell, much worse than in the bathroom. It got into her sinuses and behind her eyes and into her head. She wanted to drink the Clorox, bleach her brain, and knew she couldn’t. Instead, she bolted.

“Tamara!” Lester hollered, but she didn’t listen. She ran back toward the house, back where she could sit in their truck with no slime and no dead things. She ran and ran, crashing blindly through the trees and bushes until she lost the impulse to scream. Still she knew there would be no getting rid of that smell. She could bathe daily in bleach, and it would still be there. Eventually it would drive her crazy.

It took Lester an hour to return. She dreaded the waiting because she knew the smell would be in his clothes, on his skin. When he finally did come back, the glow at the end of the yard was dark. She sniffed cautiously. Lester smelled of smoke and sweat, but that was all.

“What kept you?” Tammy asked, her voice small and quiet, as she looked at the darkened field.

“Had to clean up. Had to make sure the fire was out. You don’t want your pretty house to burn down, now, do you?” Lester laughed, and the smell was on his breath.

Tammy screamed. She screamed and screamed and couldn’t stop, not even when he dragged her out of the truck, not even when he punched her, and not even when he grabbed a tree branch from nearby and started hitting her with it. When she blacked out, she thought, the smell would be gone.


Christa M. Miller is a writer based in southern Maine. Her stories have appeared in A Cruel World and Flashing in the Gutters. She has completed her first novel and is at work on a sequel.

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