Friends Like These

“Who is he?”

“I have no idea.”

We looked down at the dead man. Brown suit, brown tie, brown hair. Altogether beige. A brown book tucked under one arm. I wondered if it was a bible.

“How long has he been dead?”

“How the hell am I supposed to know?” Den always asked me questions like that, like I was a goddamned doctor. I knew there was something with bugs and rigor mortis, but temperature played into it as well, and I didn’t know how. It was cool for this time of year; maybe the bugs were confused.

Rigor mortis was anyone’s guess. I hadn’t touched him. I wasn’t going to touch him while I was on my own. I got nightmares watching kiddie cartoons; touching a dead guy was going to keep me up for weeks.

We stood in my yard, the floodlights on the front of the house spotlighting the body and a small patch of lawn beyond before the glow was swallowed by the woods. Twenty acres, all trees, house dead center. I could have lit the house on fire and nobody would have seen.

Den crouched down next to the body, frowning at it. As if he knew a goddamned thing either. “No bruising,” he said. “And no blood.”

“Maybe he was stabbed in the back.”

“Let’s roll him over.”

Which meant touching him. I began to regret having called Den at all. There were bears in the woods, and sometimes cougars. One day, maybe two, and the body would have been gone without our help. I crossed my arms and glared. Den glared back.

“You think ignoring this is the way to go?” he asked.

“How bad could it be?”

“You get mail, don’t you?”

Shit. The mailman. Always cheerful, friendly. Sometimes a little flirtatious. Or at least I thought that’s what it was; the previous Christmas he had left his business card, which was how I found out he painted houses on the side. My house needed painting. I never called him.

I uncrossed my arms and stepped over the body to stand next to Den. My slippers were already soaked through from the nighttime dew; how much worse could it get? “Fine,” I grumbled, crouching next to him. “On three?”

We rolled the man over. He had been losing some of the brown hair on the back of his head. He would never know the disappointment of going completely bald. Bald wasn’t so bad. I always told Den he would look less like a sleazy lounge singer if he was bald. He did not think that was funny.

No blood on the man’s back, either. No wounds of any kind. But he was stiff and cold, which ruled out the rare eyes-wide-open coma I had been wondering about. “Heart attack, maybe,” I mused. “Or a brain thing.”

“Aneurysm,” Den corrected automatically. He did not see me roll my eyes. “What do you want to do with him?”

I didn’t want to do anything with him. I wanted to stop shivering in the yard in my flannel pajamas, go back in the house, and crawl back into bed. I stood and glanced around the small circle of light. Still no cougars. “The big rock, I guess,” I said, resigned.

“That’s a thousand feet back.”

“Along the septic trail. At least it’s relatively clear.”

“Don’t you have anything closer?”

“You think I live in front of the goddamn city cemetery?” I glowered at him. “It’s the big rock, or we go inside and google ‘how to bait a cougar.’ I don’t want this cluttering up my yard.”

He stood up. “How come you only call me when you have some impossible problem?” I stared at him long enough for him to sigh. “Where’s your wheelbarrow?”

“You know I don’t have a wheelbarrow.” Sometimes I thought Den asked me stupid questions just to annoy me.

We would have to drag him. I picked up the book he had been carrying – not a bible, but a catalogue of gardening equipment, complete with perforated order forms. A door-to-door lawnmower salesman? He should have known, taking one look at my yard, that he was wasting his time; but perhaps he hadn’t been able to see in the dark.

I set the book on the porch. We rolled the man onto his back again. Den took the left side, and I took the right, hooking my arm underneath his shoulder. Together, we began to pull. On my own, I began to swear.

“He looks thin,” I complained. “How can he be this heavy when he looks thin?”

“Do you think we should have brought a flashlight?”

We had crossed the line between light and shadow. The woods before us were unlit. “Give it a minute,” I told him. “Your eyes will adjust.”

I didn’t need to see. I knew the trail to the big rock as well as I knew the layout of my house. Of course, that didn’t stop me from stubbing my toes on every stone and root along the way. I should have changed out of my slippers before I called Den.

On my own, the walk to the rock took five minutes, maybe a little more if I stopped to look at the flowers. The woods was full of wildflowers, even some of the sun-loving ones. I had purple irises scattered throughout the woods. I’d transplanted a single blossom when I had moved in ten years ago, and thanks to the birds it had gone everywhere.

No birds at night, though. Insects. Malevolent-sounding crickets buzzing like baby chainsaws in the darkness. I heard a coyote in the distance; slowly more and more joined in until there was a chorus of them, singing to the stars.

“We should have left him,” I growled.

“Those are babies,” Den pointed out. “Besides, coyotes aren’t going to eat a human, unless they’re starving, in which case you’re a better bet.”

“How do you figure?”

“You’re smaller.”

“I can also run away.”

“They’re dogs. They live out here. You really think you can get away from them?”

He had so little faith in me. “I’d throw them chunks of this guy,” I said.

“By the time this guy is in chunks,” Den said, puffing a little as the undergrowth grew thicker, “they’ll want to roll in him, not eat him.”

“That’s disgusting.”

“Says the woman hauling a dead guy by his armpit.”

That was different. He was not in chunks yet. By the time he was in chunks, I would have forgotten about him. It occurred to me I had gotten over my squeamishness pretty quickly.

But then, I always did.

Without a moon the rock was nothing but a dark object blotting out the stars. The undergrowth around it was tangled and thorny; my pajamas were never going to survive it. But this close to getting rid of Slightly Bald Man, I did not care. When we were done, I could go back inside and have a hot bath before crawling into new pajamas and between my warm sheets.

Den was slowing down. “Where is it?” he said.

“Relax,” I told him. “It’s on the other side. Just follow me and it’ll be fine.”

I walked as far as I dared, then stopped, extending one slipper forward. The brush gave way abruptly. “About eighteen inches in front of us,” I said.

This time Den said “On three,” and I thought next time we ought to make it four, just to shake things up.

Together we pitched the heavy body forward. It dragged some brush along as it slid over the edge.

I heard the soft thud as it hit the others.

We waited a moment, catching our breaths, the crickets humming around us. They sounded happier now, even friendly. I heard a soft hoot, and realized there were birds out after all. Owls hunted rodents, who always seemed to want to make a home in my basement bulkhead. I liked owls.

“How many is that?” Den asked, still puffing.

“Not sure,” I replied. “The first one was when, last July?”

“June, I think.”

“Let’s go back.”

“Give me a minute.”

“You need to work out.”

“I’m in fine shape,” he protested. “I just don’t spend all my spare time hauling dead guys.”

I hadn’t used to, either, but I had to admit it was a good upper body workout. I gave him another thirty seconds, then turned. “Now, Den, or I’m leaving you here.”

He grumbled at me, but we fought our way out of the underbrush and found the septic trail again. Through the woods I could see the faint, friendly lights of the house.

“What time is it?” he asked.

“Not wearing a watch. Why?”

“Wondering if anybody delivers pizza at this hour.”

Darkness or not, the eye roll came. “I live in the middle of nowhere. Nobody delivers pizza ever, remember?”

“Why do you live here again?”

I looked up at the sky. “I like the stars,” I told him, but he already knew. “I can make nachos.”

His step picked up. “Nachos would be nice,” he said, and in the dark, I smiled.

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