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Crime

This story contains sensitive content

Warning: strong language, cursing.


“True, I’m nervous, very nervous, but why do you think I’m mad?”

“Oh, I don’t know, Helen,” I answered. “Maybe because there’s a body in your backyard?”

“Shush! It was an accident.”

 I looked at the well-kept backyard. Fire pit, plastic Adirondack chairs, a picnic table to one side, and a grill on the other. On the table was a pumpkin, the top cut off. Bushes of some sort flanked the outdoor patio. Helen had done well fixing up her house and yard.

Most importantly, she had a privacy fence.

 I still was anxious. Who knows what someone might have seen or heard? The retired residents of Port Saint Lucie enjoy nothing more than other people’s business. Fortunately, most of her neighbors were snowbirds that hadn’t flown south for winter yet. Still, I found myself wishing for the sun to set. For darkness to arrive. Come on now, come on. Meanwhile, good old Helen kept going on about how no one appreciated the classics anymore. I interrupted, annoyed. She had to call me. I was her best friend, but still.

“Can we stop with the goddamned Poe and focus? Why is there-” I glanced at the body and shuddered. Then I looked closer. The woman had shoulder-length hair. It was three different colors thanks to an awful dye job. Mostly gray with black roots and auburn brown at the tips. She was short, with stick-like arms and legs. “Is that…Connie from next door? The one who keeps tossing her tree limbs over and lets her dog crap in your yard?”

“Yep. She had it coming. Come on, I’ll get you a margarita. You look like you need one.”

Me?” I shook my head and sighed. “Girl, you’re screwed. And worse, you’re involving me.”

Helen folded her arms. “I tell you she barged in here, slipped, and fell. Luckily, I have homeowners. Her family will probably be thankful she’s-”

It was all I could do to keep my voice low. “She has a knife in her chest.”

“Freak accident.”

“I see.” I knelt and looked more closely. Thank heaven for college anatomy and dissecting classes. I was sort of used to this. “Wait.” I looked up at her. “Is that from Tim’s pumpkin carving kit?” Her son was with his father this Saturday. Helen hated visitation, but sometimes it came in handy.

“My boss’s idea. We’re all supposed to carve pumpkins for the kids. Like I don’t have enough to do.” Helen gestured to the flies buzzing around the orange gourd. “But I said I’d try.”

Helen is a nurse practitioner at a pediatric practice. Other than one twitching eye, she appeared calm. She flicked pumpkin seeds off her scrubs and brushed back brown hair. I wondered how many edibles she’d had that day. Helen’s boss had stopped mandatory drug tests. The official reason was that they were too expensive. The real one was so the healthcare workers would burn out less quickly. It seemed to be working, at least in my friend’s case. Now she only threatened to quit twice a month over the previous once a week. “So sad,” she said. “I didn’t even lay hands on the woman. She’s so clumsy.”

“Sure. But just between you and me,” I lowered my voice. “I’m impressed you got the knife through her ribcage. I can’t even get them through the average pumpkin.”

Helen gave me a strange, toothy smile. It made me shiver. She came close and whispered, “anything can be a weapon if you try hard enough.”

***

“Look, you know the problems Todd’s been having,” Helen said.

We sat at Helen’s wooden dining table that she called an antique. I thought she was being overly kind to the poor thing. Screws and Gorilla Glue held the legs together. Really, it needed to be put out of its misery, or at least call in a carpenter. But Helen never seemed to have time. I looked out her sliding door at the now tarp-covered corpse and shuddered. I should be running for the hills, I thought. What came out was, “Look, Connie’s mothering skills are questionable. But is that a reason-”

“She’s a non-vaccinator.”

And parents should make choices for their children, no matter what we think. I didn’t say it. 

Helen continued, her voice rising. “She thinks vaccines are poison. Can’t get it through her head that there’s no mercury in them now.” Her hands clenched around her glass. “Early on, I tried to talk Connie into them. And she said I was getting paid by Big Pharma.” Her laugh was bitter as lemon. “Yep, that’s it. I just enjoy driving a car with more miles than-”

“But Todd goes to school, Helen.”

“Because Connie got tired of homeschooling,” she replied. “She wanted a voucher to avoid the vaccines. I told her there’s no medical reason for one. She freaks out. Eventually, Dad brings the kid in. Apologizes for his ex-wife, blah blah blah. I vaccinate, whatever. We catch flack and I tell my manager to shove it. There’s no court order, who am I supposed to listen to? Besides,” Helen drank her margarita off. “I did the kid a favor.”

I took her hand. “You certainly did.”

“But his real problem is his knee.”

“Well, he did tell Todd it hurts a lot,” I said. “But I’d think that’s to be expected.”

  Helen glanced outside. “It’s getting dark. Maybe we can get this done soon.”

“We?”

“I’d do this alone, but I can’t. My back isn’t what it used to be.”

“Helen-”

Helen raised an eyebrow. “Who helped you with that abusive idiot you called a husband? Loaned you money and never asked to be repaid?”

Why am I not freaking out? I thought. She’s talking about aiding and abetting for God's sake! I assumed my job and the margarita had something to do with it. Work in health care long enough, and nothing surprises you anymore. I’ve had total strangers tell me about their addiction. Their upcoming divorce and their sex lives. In detail. I’ve seen gangrene and people faint. I’ve been felt up, threatened, and once called 911 for someone with chest pains. I haven’t seen it all but there’s been enough.

I should say no.

But we’ve been friends since forever. And she’s right. She did help me out.

I could just see the tarp outside.

When I caught my husband cheating, Helen helped me move out and paid my apartment’s deposit. When he and his girlfriend disappeared, she comforted me by saying he could no longer threaten me with a horrible custody battle over Brian. Helen had stood by me all these years, and I owed her.

But still, a murderer.

“This is beyond me, Helen.”

Helen gave me that smile again. “Did you ever find it strange,” she said. “That your ex just left without taking you off his bank accounts? Fortunate that he was so stupid.” 

I sat there staring at her while the shadows lengthened. Finally, I couldn’t see the yard anymore. I drained my glass, then stood up, and turned the light on. “Consider yourself lucky,” I said. “That Brian is on a camping trip with the troop, or you’d be screwed.”

Helen smiled and gripped my shoulder. “Almost Eagle rank at fourteen! You must be proud.”

****

“Are you sure this is the best thing to do?” Helen said, slapping at a mosquito. “Damn, it’s like 55 degrees. Don’t mosquitoes hibernate?”

“No. They come to Florida for the winter. Here.” I answered. “Have some spray.”

“Damn things are immune to it. Let’s get on with this.” Helen opened the trunk of her SUV and pulled ineffectively on the wrapped tarp. “Help me with this, would you?”

I walked around the car checking out the place. Dry ground. Check. Boat ramp. Check. No sound except for frogs. Check. “Let’s get the canoe off first. Then maybe we can just roll her right into it.” I tightened the back brace I’d stolen from my office, made sure my gloves weren’t torn, and started untying ropes.

“You’re sure I can’t make it look like an accident?”

“Tell me, Helen,” I threw the last rope on the ground. “If someone came into the hospital like that, would you believe it?”

“Point taken.”

I walked back to her. “Now, listen. Everyone knows she’s on Tinder. Todd told Brian about it. Even if she’s found, they’ll think it was one of-”

“I’m surprised she gets anyone,” Helen sighed. “And here I am still single. Life is cruel.”

It was midnight, and we were at Fisheater’s Creek just on the other side of Lake Okeechobee. I’d picked this place because my kayaking friend had once counted no less than eighty-six alligators here. I would’ve preferred a pig farm. Problem was, the only farmer I knew just raised one for the county fair.  I didn’t know what a single pig could consume, and I wasn’t about to find out. It was a new moon, so hopefully, no one would be hunting right now. I had a headlamp, which I tried to use as little as possible.

“I haven’t finished telling you my story.”

“Later. Let’s get this into the canoe.” I pulled as hard as I could on Connie’s wrapped corpse. It was like trying to move a 120-pound bag of wet cement. I’m strong, but this was ridiculous.

“Here, let’s try this.” Helen climbed through the SUV’s side door and into the back. She grabbed Connie’s feet, and I wrapped my arms around the shoulders. I pulled and she slid towards me. I was just thinking this wasn’t so bad when my foot struck the canoe. I fell into it, Connie on top of me. There was ringing as my head struck the canoe seat. I barely had enough breath to cry, “Jesus Christ, Helen, help me!”

“I’m coming!”

I was about to join Connie in the next world. How ironic. I’d laugh if I could breathe. Then I felt someone pull at the tarp. The weight eased just a little. I shoved my hand under Connie’s shoulders and pushed hard. Connie’s torso rolled and fell into the back of the canoe. I pulled myself up to see Helen lifting her feet over the bow.

“That’s…the best I can do. Damn.” Helen bent at the waist. “You okay?”

“Sure,” I fell back into the canoe. “I just enjoy a freaking corpse-”

“Hush!”

I heard the rumble of a car.

Shit

Headlights flashed through the trees-

I think I'm having a heart attack.

-and disappeared. The rumbling faded away.

"Thank God," Helen said.

When I was sure I wasn't going to die I sat up. Helen grabbed my hand. I felt hers tremble and I was glad.

“You’re gonna owe me. Big time,” I said.

Helen paced, running her hands through her hair. “Anything, Sue. Just please say you’re all right.”

“I think so.”

****

I thought it best to canoe a bit upriver before we dumped the body. After ten minutes, I regretted that decision. It was cold. And I didn’t like that I couldn’t see under the water. What if there were manatees down there? They wouldn’t hurt us, but they could surface and knock the boat over. It’s happened before.

“I’m telling you, this was justified.”

“Connie. Even if she was an idiot-”

From behind me, Helen splashed loudly. The canoe twisted, nearly running us into a bank. I sighed. “Okay, fine. What happened?”

A soft, hitching sound. “I just didn’t know who else to call. I have no time for a social life. Not since Covid-20.”

2026 wasn’t quite as bad as 2020, but it was getting close. Still, I might've smacked Helen with my paddle. Except I was afraid I’d upset our boat, which already sat low in the water. She sniffed and I thought of Connie's son. Todd had torn his ACL tendon playing football and had surgery. He needed a knee brace, but his stupid insurance wouldn’t cover me providing it.

The joys of being an orthotist in America.

Last I’d heard Helen had found someone in West Palm Beach. But Connie didn’t want to make the hour’s drive to the facility. So the insurance company had found some online store from God knows where. It was all paid 100 percent, and Todd got his brace. How it fit was a different story.

“The online PT isn’t working out,” Helen said.

I wasn’t surprised, seeing how new this therapy was. The patient uses special pants or vests with sensors. Then they would do whatever exercises were required. They would also stretch using binders with more sensors. An A.I. analyzes the results, and a human makes recommendations. Or so it was hoped. Rumor had it the algorithm did everything. “Then send him to a regular PT,” I said. “The online is just to supplement anyhow.”

A splash and the boat twisted. “Don’t you think I told Connie that?” Helen said. “But she refused. Because her insurance only pays 80 percent for conventional PT. The online is covered at 100 percent."

"Because it's cheaper?"

"For insurance to rent out the leggings? Yeah. Plus, Connie would have to drive, and God forbid-”

“She can certainly afford it.”

“Yeah well, tell her that.”

I chuckled, thinking I couldn’t because she’s dead. Then I thought of the new Tesla Connie had just bought. It wasn’t a cheap model either. Helen interrupted my thoughts.

 “It was the same thing as the vaccines. I was in cahoots with the American Board of Physical Therapists. Owned stock or what the fuck ever.”

Too many times I’d invited Helen somewhere, only for her to be late or cancel altogether. Because she was working late or charting. She no longer bought her clothes retail. She was overweight and definitely overdoing the edibles. I had said nothing, because what good would it do? Between the new Covid and Monkeypox, healthcare workers were losing their minds. Insurance companies were driving everyone else to drink. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had a raise. “Okay, but is this a reason to-”

Helen rocked the boat so violently I thought we might topple in. I gripped the sides and screamed. For an instant, I thought I saw reptile eyes in my headlamp. Then they were gone. “Jesus Christ, what are you doing?”

“Sorry,” came back a soft whisper. “I tried to shove her over.”

“You nearly shoved us over.” I looked about and saw a small strip of sand. Just big enough. “Land there first, okay? Then we’ll take care of business.”

We landed without too much trouble. I got out, told Helen nature was calling, and headed into the woods. Coming back, something glittered in my flashlight. Actually, lots of things. I swore, and not too softly.

“What’s wrong?” Helen’s voice was high-pitched. I realized I had frightened her again.

“Nothing. Just asshole litterbugs leaving their cursed beer cans everywhere.” I found a dirty plastic bag and filled it with junk. “This is how wildlife-”

“For fuck's sake, organize a cleanup then! We’ve got bigger problems, okay?”

“Okay, okay I’m coming. Hang on. Sorry.”

I cut the tarp off of Connie. All the better for the alligators to-whatever. Then by tipping the canoe, we were able to get her into the water. I slipped and half fell into the river myself, but it was all right. Truthfully, I wished it was deeper. 

Hopefully, these guys are hungry.

I wondered if alligators hibernate. I didn’t think so, but it seemed too late to Google. If they did, there was nothing we could do anyway. I watched the body drift away into the darkness, my old sneakers sinking into the cold sand. I could have laid down and slept, but Helen touched my shoulder. 

“Let’s get out of here,” she said.

For a long time, there was nothing from Helen but soft splashes of her paddle. Suddenly she spoke, her voice cold as the water. “Dad brought Todd to the surgeon. The guy is concerned about his progress. I recommended a PT place they can go.”

“Good.”

“Therapist says he needs extra visits though.” A sigh. “Today, I’m carving my pumpkin, minding my own business. Connie breaks into my yard screaming.”

 The eastern horizon was turning the darkest of gray. Let's go, I thought. I lifted my paddle, but Helen didn’t move.

 “She said it was all my fault Todd wasn’t improving. It’s also my fault Dad is suing for full custody. On and on. I said I had recommended conventional PT in the first goddamned place. She didn’t like my tone.”

“I think you were very polite,” I said.

From the back came a sob. “Except I told her to fuck herself.”

“Well,” I said, “who else would?”

We started laughing and could not stop. By the time we had, the boat ramp was in view. Helen guided us ashore. I got out, but she didn’t. “She threatened to report me. Not that it matters-”

“And that’s when she fell on that knife.”

“Yep.” Helen got out of the canoe and I hugged her, feeling her body shake.

“We make a good team,” she said finally.

I pulled back. “What do you mean?”

Helen smiled. “There are plenty of people like Connie. What if they.…just disappeared?”

I stretched my aching back. “I think once is enough,” I said.

Helen tossed the tarp into the SUV. We’d find a dumpster for it later. As I headed for the car, my foot struck something. Another beer can. I held it, thinking, you fight by the rules. And all you get is more idiots destroying your hard work. Stomping all over it.

We could be caught.

 I could also end up in a nursing home someday. At least prison would be free.

“Tell you what,” I said. “Include litterbugs and I’m in.”

“Yeah?”

My mouth stretched, showing teeth, I’m sure. “Oh, yeah,” I said.














October 27, 2022 21:48

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2 comments

Martin Ross
22:02 Nov 02, 2022

Great dark comedy, with a poignant touch -- my kids are health care workers, and I'm tired of the abuse nurses and staffers take. And you deal wonderfully with COVID/QAnon issues, The dialogue between the narrator of Helen is very natural, and some great, believable backstories. The body dump scene is convincingly suspenseful, and I would look forward to further stories about these two. You should submit this and possibly a series. It would make great entertainment adapted for a Netflix or Hulu.

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Michele Duess
23:02 Nov 02, 2022

Besides me, I have a sister-in-law and a friend in healthcare. So I know what you're talking about. I'm glad you liked the story. Thank you.

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