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
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
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
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
“Sure thing, baby.” She smiled at him, but he
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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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