Five years earlier
Jane Moreland couldn't believe how heavy Henry was, now that he was deadweight and starting to ripen. She should have done this last night, right when it happened, but she'd needed a clearer head. Polishing off the bottle of Knob Creek and passing out on the kitchen table hadn't helped matters much.
Well, no sense complaining. She'd been due a little
She woke up after noon, unsure what had transpired the night before until she saw him, lying there beside the sofa, neck all twisted to one side and his face blue as a Smurf.
At least there isn't blood all over the place
, she'd thought. Just a little at the corner of his mouth. None on the carpet. One less thing she had to worry about.
There was no way she could get him in the truck during the day without anyone seeing. To kill time, she took a long, hot bath, washed and dried a load of laundry, drank three bottles of Coors that had been tucked away in the back of the fridge, watched a Jimmy Stewart movie on TMC, and chain-smoked half a pack of coffin nails. The entire time, her eyes kept flicking to the clock, then the window, waiting for the sun to check out. She found some old jeans and a .38 Special concert T-shirt, put on her scuffed cowboy boots and tied her blond hair in a high ponytail.
When it was half past six, she dragged an old throw rug from the garage, laid it next to her husband and turned him into it with a whole lot of grunting and sweat. She'd thought it would be as easy as rolling up a burrito. Back when she was in high school, she'd worked at a burrito joint owned by a pair of Chinese brothers with deep Southern accents. She'd never been able to reconcile the words coming out of those faces. It was a time before Chipotle, when a burrito was a mushy thing you got at a Mexican restaurant that tasted like crap. The job, and the place, didn't last very long. In the two months she worked there, she became an expert at making burritos so fat, they were just about to bust out of their flour straitjackets.
A dead Henry, she learned quickly, was a hell of a lot more to handle than shredded beef, beans and rice. Once she'd gotten the rug around him and cinched off the ends with duct tape, she sat propped up against his cocooned body and laughed, wondering how many burritos it would take to equal Henry's total mass. Logic dictated that she should have been distressed at this point, perhaps freaked out or even, daresay, remorseful.
“You didn't earn my remorse,” she said to the rug-encased corpse, giving it a hard slap as she stood up.
Good old boy Henry was a righteous bastard, a redneck from some pissant town in South Carolina who'd made his way to New Jersey via a construction job when he was in his twenties. They'd met at Dingo's Bar when she was still two years from legal drinking age. At first, she'd been entranced, as young, dumb girls will, by his sweet Southern accent. She'd heard him order a Jack and Coke over the din of meatheads and was immediately drawn to the rugged cutie with long hair and five-day stubble. He couldn't have stood out more if he had worn an alien mask and bikini.
They dated for six months, took a trip to Vegas and became a clichÃ©. It took a whole year before the real Henry Moreland came out. He smacked her across the face in a drunken stupor one night because she didn't hand him the TV remote fast enough.
The rest is the same sad story that too many women confess to at shelters or police stations. After a while, Jane didn't know who she hated moreâHenry for being an abusive asshole or herself for not having the guts to run away.
On nights she couldn't sleep, she'd let her mind linger on all the different ways she could make him disappear. That was her happy place. Poison his dinner, cut the brake lines in his truck, loosen the top step going down to the basementâthe possibilities were endless. Thinking about it always settled her down. But that's all they wereâprivate thoughts. Jane knew she was too chickenshit to actually do anything. Hell, she couldn't even bring herself to jump in the car and just drive until she hit a border crossing, north or south. It didn't matter.
And then he came home last night so drunk he could barely stand. He'd parked his pickup on the front lawn, stopping just a few feet from the house. Jane had been reading in her favorite lounge chairâthe one with the little head cushionâon the ground-level porch. It had been a nice night and even the bugs tapping against the overhead light didn't bother her . . . much. If Henry had applied the brakes just a hair later, he would have killed her. She should have been fuming at him.
No. It was the other way around. He stomped past her, bursting through the door screaming incoherently, a bottle of Bud dangling in his fingertips, sloshing suds all around.
“Henry, what are you saying?” she'd asked, tensing up for the inevitable. He'd cracked one of her ribs the week before. It was just starting to heal. She knew another shot to her right side would break the rib entirely, and he was not taking her to a hospital anytime soon.
When he swung at her, for what only Henry and God knew, she'd twisted away, protecting her vulnerable side.
That's when he kind of corkscrewed in the center of the living room. His feet went out from under him and he pitched forward, so drunk he didn't have the sense to put his arms out to break his fall.
His head thwacked the corner of the coffee table.
And just like that, he was dead. His neck swiveled to an angle the human spine is not meant to support. He was dead so fast, his body didn't even twitch. Jane heard a sickening crack, like marbles being smashed together. When she got the courage to get close to him, kneeling on the floor so she could see if he was breathing, she saw that the lights in his eyes had been turned off for good.
Henry was the second person to die in front of her. The first was her grandpa, who suffered a fatal heart attack during Thanksgiving dinner when she was eight. He was talking one second, asking her mother for more yams, and gone the next, his head on his plate, peas and carrots mashed under his cheek, staring at her with graying eyes.
Jane couldn't call the cops because all of Henry's friends were on the force. He liked to tell them that if anything ever happened to him, Jane was suspect number one. Sure, they laughed it off when he said it, but she couldn't trust them any further than she could throw Henry. Henry knew that there might come a day when he pushed her to her breaking point. That was his way of letting her know she'd never get away with it.
“Bet you didn't see this coming,” she said to the open trunk. The back of her old Honda sagged a bit from his weight.
It was going to take a hell of a lot to get him out of there, but she had plenty of time and no fear of prying eyes.
Jersey's Pine Barrens, or Pinelands as the locals called them, were vast and dark and sparsely populated. The moment Henry took that dive, she knew she'd end up here. The Barrens were an infamous dumping ground for bodies. Henry was just another log on the fire. The critters and wilderness would make quick work of him.
It was a two-hour ride from their house to this spot. She remembered it from the nature walks she used to take with her father. The trail was a mile from here. She found a break in the trees and drove as deep as she could. Decayed leaves crunched under the tires. They would cover up the fresh grave nicely.
She almost popped a vein in her neck getting Henry out of the trunk. His body made a soft thud when it hit the ground. Wiping her brow, she grabbed the shovel and flashlight and got to work.
As she dug, she thought about what she'd do when she got back. Dozens of scenarios swam through her head. Whenever she started to worry about being accused of murder, she said out loud, “Habeas corpus.” Not that she was any kind of law expert, but she'd watched enough
Law & Order
to have a little confidence in her assessment of the situation.
had to mean corpse, and her husband sure fit that bill. Now the
part, she was just spitballing.
Without a corpse, they'd have to leave her be. Wasn't that the gist? Or was there another word for it?
No matter, she didn't care if it took a year for everything to die down and go away. She'd proven she was patient.
Lost in her dreams of a new life, the head-piercing screech that ripped through the still night air made her drop her shovel.
“What the hell was that?”
Jane grabbed the flashlight propped on the edge of the grave. The beam swept through the trees.
What kind of animal makes a noise like that?
She couldn't stop the hammering of her heart.
It was one thing to hear an odd cry during the light of day. Hear something like that in the dead of night, in the middle of a primeval forest, and it got your attention.
Jane picked up the shovel, now holding it as a weapon. She waited, her chest rising and falling faster and faster.
A soft breeze ruffled the trees. She saw hundreds if not thousands of twinkling pinpricks in the sky.
She didn't dare move or make a noise. Whatever it was, it either sounded as if it were royally pissed off or in pain.
Could have been an owl. They're supposed to sound like a woman screaming. So are deer when they're afraid.
Her body tensed.
What's out here that would scare a deer like that?
“I don't know, but it's scaring me pretty good right about now,” she said, comforted by the sound of her own voice. The jolt of fear snapped her to reality for the first time since Henry had taken his fatal fall.
“Holy shit. I'm out in the middle of nowhere, burying my husband. What the hell's wrong with me?”
“Oh, my God,” she yelped, swinging the shovel in every direction in an effort to protect herself. The growl sounded near . . . and dangerous.
A river of cold sweat trickled between her breasts. She'd never been so scared in all her life, not even the night Henry broke the bedroom door down with the fireplace poker, trying to get at her because he was drunk and horny and angry as hell that the Yankees had lost the playoffs to the Tigers. “Beaten by nigger town!” he'd spat over and over again, even while he was on top of her, grunting and pumping too long because he had a full case of whiskey dick. She'd been terrified that night, but she knew he couldn't hump and swear forever. He'd eventually roll off her and pass out.
Now, she wasn't so sure what would happen.
“Stay away from me,” she said with faltering conviction. She saw the rug with Henry wrapped up inside, and for the first time in over a decade, she wished he were here.
The flap-flap of wings whooshed overhead. Jane looked up but didn't see a thing.
Eyes flickering around her, a scream froze in her throat as she watched something swoop down and carry the carpet, and Henry, away.
There weren't any birds that could do that. Henry weighed over two hundred pounds. It would take a damn pterodactyl to get him off the ground.
“No, no, no, no, no!” The shovel clanged at the bottom of the grave as she struggled to get out. Her car was only fifteen feet away. She had to get inside. The soft soil crumbled in her hands. The more she struggled for a solid hold, the worse it got, like quicksand.
Jane tried jumping straight out of the hole, but she'd dug it too deep. She hit the edge hard with her chest, knocking the wind out of her. Her feet and hands fought to get any kind of purchase. It seemed as if everything gave way at once. She fell on her back, staring in horror as one side of the grave poured on top of her.
That insane flapping noise returned.
Maybe it's better I just stay in here and wait for it to leave. If it thinks I'm gone, it won't stick around.
Jane gathered more soil, covering her body from the neck down. She clicked her flashlight off, trying her best to steady her breathing so as not to make a sound.
When she heard another growl, she almost screamed. She had to clench her lower lip between her teeth, drawing blood, to keep from crying out. Hot tears dripped from the corners of her eyes.
You did this to me, Henry! I wouldn't be here if you hadn't turned into a monster. I kept telling you that drinking was going to kill you someday. Goddamn you! Goddamn you!
Jane wept as quietly as she could, holding on to her belief that it was Henry that put her in this position. Before she knew it, she was fast asleep, the stress of the past twenty-four hours having bled her dry of her last ounce of energy.
* * *
The flickering sun filtering through the trees woke her up. When she lifted her hand to block the rays, sand and dirt fell into her eyes.
She was cold. A case of the shivers hit her hard.
Birds chirped. A woodpecker hammered away on a nearby tree.
“Thank you, God,” she whispered, emerging from the soil like she was in a cheap zombie movie.
Now that she wasn't in a panic and could see what she was doing, getting out of the hole was a whole lot easier. Any hopes that what had happened last night was a dream brought on by temporary insanity were dashed when she saw that Henry was still missing.
What the hell could have taken him?
Jane had heard that there were bald eagles in the Pinelands. Didn't eagles carry off baby cows? A baby cow could weigh as much as a man, couldn't it?
No, they weren't that strong.
She'd go online to check when she got home.
Where, for the first time, she could actually relax without the fear of madness to come.