It was a trite scenario. Something so overdone that it managed to be both boring and ostentatious at the same time.
The middle of a road leading to two opposite places—the forest or the hills. What’ll it be? High sun over the hills or shadows dancing in the forest? Whistle of sharp wind grazing the peaks of the hills or two-bit chainsaw echoes within the forest? What’ll it be? Elevation or seclusion? A higher grace or a darker enigma? What path will lead you to your best self, your best life?
What'll it be?
What a crock.
It wasn’t a magic sign. It wasn’t some metaphor for life.
No, that’s just how it went when you found yourself all by your lonesome in a valley. You were always in the middle of two things. Two landscapes, two temperatures, two clouds, two sounds. Sounds were like mosquitos—buzzing loud and quick, leaving no trace of where they actually landed until they’d already ripped into your skin and left behind itching, burning poison. Keller leaned against the hot metal of the Cadillac, gazing out into the dull sky and brooding over this.
Valleys were a lot like hollers. Keller had grown up in dirt poor hollers clear across the country from where she stood now. All in all, valleys and hollers were just drop-offs—wannabe holes dragging down the earth, confusing anyone’s senses who entered. Whether it was Virginia where Keller had come into the world, or Idaho where she was now, it didn’t make a difference.
Two-stroke chainsaw magnifying in volume beyond those dying pines. Keller hated that bladed monster just about as much as she hated valleys and hollers and the never-ending two different ways to go scenario she kept finding herself in.
An alarm beeped twice, faint, from her hand. She looked down to see the one percent keeping hold on her cell phone’s life fade out completely. Black screen. Black mirror showcasing a new, tiny reflection of Keller’s face. She looked as tired and moody as she felt.
The air got quiet then. No more chainsaw. Relief flooded through Keller and she slowly got back into the car, wiggling in comfortably behind the giant steering wheel. A little natural noise she didn’t mind. But human-made sounds were always unnerving, especially when you couldn’t immediately see the source. Dead silence wasn’t a welcome song, either, as it usually signaled only one of two things—the aftermath of something terrible or the waiting for it.
Keller put the old, beautiful heap of automobile into gear and pulled onto the hot tarmac, relishing in the blowing dead air that posed as the 1977 El Dorado’s AC. Maybe she was just being sensitive and dramatic about the whole, dreaded sounds thing. After all, she had used both sound and silence to her advantage less than forty-eight hours earlier when she’d killed Andy. She’d stalked him quietly for weeks before, and truly thought the murder itself would be carried out just as quietly.
But Keller hadn’t banked on Andy killing her best friend in the moments before it was his time to die.
Homicide is a fickle thing. Anyone who’s ever watched a true crime documentary, or a slasher movie knows this. Keller couldn’t for the life of her understand why she’d thought it would be any different in her own situation. The whole point of killing Andy was to get him the hell out of his wife’s life before she was the murdered one.
Andy’s wife, Malin. Keller’s best friend, Malin. The well-renowned former astronaut/scientist Malin who had a beautiful line of accolades following her everywhere she went. When people said her name, Malin Boudreaux, they corresponded it with all those insurmountable, brilliant achievements and skills. No one ever said Malin Boudreaux: Beaten and Battered Wife of a Real Loser.
Keller clutched at the cracked leather that wrapped the steering wheel, enjoying the way the frayed strands prickled her clammy hands. She clenched her teeth together, stared straight ahead as she drove towards her decided path in that moment—up to the forest. Anything remote was welcome. Any old forgotten place would do for Andy’s chopped up corpse. She was ready to dump him off already, get him as far away from Malin as she could finally.
Keller swallowed down bile back into her gas station coffee-coated stomach for the millionth time since she’d started this wild drive. She didn’t give two shits about dead Andy. Nah, that didn’t make her nervous one bit. It was what she had to do after. Doing right by Malin, respectfully giving her the send-off she deserved.
Malin Boudreaux: the one-of-a-kind, too-good-to-be-true human in this world that everyone marveled after. That’s how she had to be remembered.
That’s why Keller had had to bring her along on Andy’s disappearing act.
That’s why the world would never know what a monster Andy truly had been. No justice would exist because the truth wouldn’t. Malin didn’t deserve to be dragged down with her torturer.
Keller scoffed at herself. She was no martyr. No greatest, all-sacrificing best friend here. She wasn’t going to kid herself that she was as good of a person as Malin had been. Hell, if Keller hadn’t run off to the big city to escape the wretched Virginia holler in the first place, maybe none of this would’ve ever happened. But she’d abandoned her best friend. Left the person she’d grown up with when she had needed Keller the most.
No, Keller wasn’t looking for her own laurels. Killing Andy, preserving a golden legacy for dead Malin, was the least she could do for turning her back on a shitshow that had become a bloodbath.
Well, originally there wasn’t supposed to be any bloodbath.
Malin would have been proud of Keller’s nerve. She’d chosen a symbolic way to take Andy out. Something almost poetic. Loss of complete will, complete power. Keller hadn’t totally thought the idea up herself though—fate had intervened casually on the television one Tuesday afternoon in the background, as Keller had waited on her Starbucks order at the counter.
Scopolamine. A seemingly innocuous drug for motion sickness could be rendered a most dangerous poison if an overdose was administered, turning the receiver into something of a literal zombie. A weird numbing of the brain that brought upon lack of will and a bot mental state in which the overdosed party would do whatever he or she was told.
The television at the Manhattan Starbucks was circling through the daily news, and a brief story ran about a man who had used scopolamine to aid in killing his wife. The details on how this man had actually done the murder itself hadn’t mattered to Keller—because the beautiful thing about this scopolamine was that Keller would be able to choose whatever happened next. It was a godlike power that Keller could exercise, giving the necessity of what she would have to do deliciously satisfying in its own way.
And boy, had it been. Keller smiled in spite of herself as she reminisced killing Andy, temporarily fogging away from the slow drive she was making up the valley and towards the forest.
The perfect accessory to murder would lend itself in the form of a lactose-unfriendly casserole.
There was always this weird, cheese-laden corn casserole in the fridge at Andy and Malin’s house. It was Andy’s favorite food, and a broken nose or busted up clavicle might ensue upon Malin if that Frigidaire was ever vacant of a giant glass baking dish of it.
Keller had a key to the house. Another perfect accessory. She’d had it for years. Malin asked her not to tell Andy, so he never knew. Everything was easy. Getting into the house, poisoning the casserole (which had been fresh, by the way), watching it all unfold through the overgrown hedges by the back window—easy. Andy and Malin lived on a sprawling ten-acre lot, so neighbors (witnesses) were not an issue.
It took less than half an hour for the drugs to hit Andy full force. He was at the bottom of the staircase when Keller walked inside. She remembered looking down at him for a good sixty seconds, studying the way his limp body rested at an odd position on the stairs; his ass plastered at the very bottom, and his head three steps up. Andy was a big guy. Tall, stocky. Making it all the more cartoonish of a scene—
The chainsaw was revving up again. But it was louder this time. And it was right next to Keller. She slammed on the brakes and whipped her head around to look at the empty passenger side of the car.
Only, it wasn’t empty.
She muttered the most offensive—albeit creative—expletives to the fresh, unexpected specter now sitting beside her in the passenger seat. Buckled up and holding a vibrating chainsaw was Malin. She stared down at that chainsaw in her hand, smiling slightly at the rapidly gyrating belt. And then, just as quickly as the chainsaw had revved, it disappeared from Malin’s hands, and she looked over at Keller, her long blonde hair swinging over her small shoulders.
Malin didn’t say anything. Neither did Keller. What was there for Keller to say? What the hell are you? Why are you here? Your dead body is in the trunk of this classic peach clunker, so I know you’re just a figment of my murdering imagination? How’s Heaven? Or Hell? Or…why the fuck do you have a chainsaw, Malin?
Keller looked ahead out the front window. She moved her foot from the brake to the gas and turned the steering wheel just enough to pull the Cadillac out of the road and onto the weed-covered shoulder. She put it in park, looked over at the passenger side seat again, expecting to find it empty. It wasn’t. Malin was still there. Glistening beryl eyes, like she was about to cry. Malin had always been a crier. Total opposite of Keller, who they’d used to joke didn’t have tear ducts.
This wasn’t real. Keller wasn’t so delusional. Yet, there was an almost annoying symbolism in everything.
The Along-For-The-Ride Apparition Malin opened her mouth to speak. No words came out. But Keller didn’t need words. She knew the disappearing chainsaw had been a direct allude to what she’d had to use to dismember Andy so that she could fit two bodies and corresponding evidence (i.e., a bigass suitcase packed for a fake leave-it-all-behind scenario) in the trunk. The sound of the two-bit coming from God knows what direction from earlier? Not real. Another mirage of sound.
Keller looked away from Malin at her surroundings outside the car. She was thankful for a faux chainsaw. It meant the forest was as deserted and alone as it looked. No humans. Hopefully animals to devour Andy, but no actual creatures that could use a phone to call the cops. Keller caught a glimpse of an especially thick area of brush and trees and overgrown goodness. She stared at it for a moment. Then, turned the car off.
This is where she’d dispose of Andy.
The sky was undeciding and bleak as ever, but it had grown darker, so Keller assumed it must be nearing late evening. Between her dead cell phone and even more kaput car clock, she couldn’t be sure.
Keller got out of the Cadillac, walked around it.
Walked up the road a bit.
No one was around.
It was safe.
And it was time.
Keller had thought about going full Breaking Bad and just sloshing Andy’s body in a vat of muriatic acid so she wouldn’t have to dispose of anything. She also wondered if today’s serial murderers used pop culture TV as much as she had with this killing. It was inevitable, right?
But just securing the scopolamine alone was enough risk for Keller. That meant muriatic acid was out.
So now here she was, about to dig a nine-foot hole. Not a six. A nine. Maybe an eleven if the last cup of coffee kicked in at the right time, and she was only going to throw some bits of Andy in it. Then she would dirt it back up. Then she’d do it all over again, perhaps five more times. Nine-foot holes were nothing in the scheme of things. The bigger picture was successfully hiding a monster forever, so that everyone back in Virginia would always believe the note Keller had left behind. The one that would be presumed to be in Malin and Andy’s words.
There was no dispute about the time of day it was once Keller was finished hours and hours later. It was dark out. Nearly pitch black, except for an eerie moon right out of a horror film. When she walked back to the car, breathless, but surprisingly barely dirty, another quip out of a horror film greeted her.
Two crows on the hood of the Caddy.
Crows. Keller found this curious, not unnerving. Maybe because she realized in that second that she’d never actually seen a crow in person before. She closed her eyes, shook her head, opened them again. The crows were gone, and Keller smirked knowingly. Just another figment of her imagination brought on by all this bullshit traumatic mess. Her brain really was taking her for a ride today.
Keller got back into the car, breathing a bit easier, but now faced with two ways to go, as usual. Ghost Malin was in the passenger seat again. No chainsaw this time, that was nice. Keller turned the key in the ignition, glancing down at the black screen of her cell phone that rested on the center console. She didn’t know why. Of course it would still be dead. She looked up at the rearview mirror, straightened it, and threw the car around suddenly, nearly taking it on two wheels and leaving a deafening screech on the pavement as she headed back in the direction she’d come. The way of the hills this time. And despite the phantom just to her right, Keller found her mind wandering off again within seconds.
Standing over Andy’s drugged-up state on the stairs hadn’t brought upon any hesitation in finishing the job, but Keller had found herself wanting to just…stand there and stare down at him forever. The tyrant had become the helpless victim. Oh, what a beautiful scene.
When Keller had finally snapped out of her own trance, she’d kicked Andy in his side until he came to. His eyes were glazed over like a pair of hot, drippy doughnuts, but he was still mobile, and Keller had leaned down, clutched at his arm, and directed him to stand up.
She’d tugged with all her might. Keller was stronger than most women her age—not because of a size advantage, but because she was a lifetime athlete. Along with Andy complying and shakily pushing himself off the stairs, Keller was able to get him to his feet. She gave him another order to walk to the back door of the house and out to the shed, while Keller followed behind him.
Andy wordlessly did exactly that, though his lopsided trudging was so slow that it truly was reminiscent of a nearly forgotten 1950’s inflated zombie culture. Keller had her hand grasped around the handgun in her purse, just in case, but they made it all the way out to the backyard shed with no resistance. Andy didn’t even act like he was cognizant of who Keller was, or himself, for that matter.
They went into the shed and she directed him to stand with his back against the far wall. He had done so, still doughnut-eyed, staring at her with no realization that he was doing so.
This is when Keller had hesitated.
She had wanted to make Andy suffer. She’d been this salivating sort of angry for the last two months—since the last straw had commenced and Keller had finally decided to end Andy.
She’d shown up as a surprise for a weekend visit to Malin, knowing Andy would be away on a business trip to leave the two old friends by themselves. It had been years since they’d seen one another in person. Keller had walked into a darkened home, a surprised Malin at the kitchen table.
A Malin who was absolutely unrecognizable to Keller.
Between her swollen-up face, to black and blue chest, to the casts on both her left arm and right foot, there was no question in Keller’s mind who had done this. Malin may have refused to admit it, or talk much about it, but Keller didn’t need any confirmation from her. She was going to save her friend who couldn’t find the strength to do it herself. She owed Malin that much after abandoning her five years earlier.
Keller would finally be the one to give Malin her life back before Andy had the chance to wipe it out.
But standing in front of this version of Andy. The one who’d been stripped of all his will. Keller had suddenly wondered which magic weapon that jingled around in her oversized purse would be best to use to kill Andy. The gun? Or the Drano?
At this point, he probably wouldn’t feel a damn ounce of pain, so shouldn’t she go with the least messy? Yes. So, that’s exactly what she had done, though one more satisfaction was owed to her.
He would do it himself.
She had handed Andy the bottle of poison and commanded him to drink it. He tipped his head back, swaying so suddenly that he nearly fell over, and drained the entire little vial down his throat.
When he was dead not even an hour later, Keller had gone back into the house to leave the typed note she’d constructed to Malin from Andy. The one she’d originally planned to use that in no way had involved Malin. The one that was a fake Andy telling Malin that he was leaving her forever. Malin would never know the truth about what had happened here. Keller would never have her burden that.
But something had been off in the house. As Keller had walked towards Malin and Andy’s bedroom to leave the note there, a strong smell hit her out of nowhere.
Rusty. Chemical. Violent.
She remembered pushing open the door and falling to her knees in the kind of despair you only see in the movies that get nominated for Oscars.
Malin was dead. Andy had murdered her right before Keller had arrived with her diabolical plan.
But Keller couldn’t see it. It was like her memory was forbidding her from reliving the trauma of discovering Malin’s dead body, blacking her out. Even after two days in the bright-hued El Dorado, driving across the country, being inside her own head deeper than ever before.
That moment, that memory, it was lost to Keller.
Keller sucked in her breath and abruptly halted the car, her eyes nearly bulging out of their sockets at the sudden sight before her.
Children, teenagers, families, a whole gaggle of them crossed the road in front of the Cadillac, some of the parents throwing a glare at Keller for almost running into them. Keller’s eyes moved past the people, and an amalgam of colors whirled in front of her.
Keller rolled down the window just slightly, and all the senses came through. Music that was too loud, and funnel cakes that smelled so good, you’d want to eat them until you threw up.
The carnival. A magical, fountain of youth place.
The place where Keller had first met Malin decades ago when they were just eleven years old.
There was an unexpected, loud squeaking noise that cut through the night, and Keller’s gaze followed it.
An old Ferris wheel. Identical to the one from all those years ago, at the carnival where two best friends had first encountered one another.
And then Keller realized something as her eyes darted around to take in the rest of the show. All of it seemed exactly the same as that carnival before.
Keller realized something else then. Her breathing was shallow, suddenly coming in sharp, painful gasps.
She squeezed the steering wheel so tight that she was sure her knuckles would burst through the skin. She rested her head on the wheel, tried to understand what was happening. She couldn’t breathe—why couldn’t she fucking breathe?
Keller’s eyes involuntary crossed. Her eyelids were heavy. She couldn’t keep them open any longer. She gasped for breath that just wasn’t coming, clinched at her throat, clawed at it. Her eyes were tightly closed now, anvils on the end of her lashes.
A bird made a harsh sound nearby.
Keller didn’t know how much time had passed, or why the horn of the Caddy wasn’t blaring, since she could only assume that she was passed out on it. But Keller’s eyes lost the weight, and as her eyelashes fluttered back open, she realized she wasn’t hunched over the steering wheel at all.
She was lying flat on her back.
No. No, no, no, no, what was happening? She internally screamed at herself to snap out of it. She was carrying out an atrocious crime! She had to get Malin’s remains to northern Idaho. To the little town that was Malin’s favorite place in all the world. That little town they’d come upon one summer on a random backpacking excursion. They’d been eighteen. It was just six months before Malin would meet Andy the Monster. It had turned out to be Keller and Malin’s last trip together. Eighteen years old, and wild and free and at the mercy to the magic that is to be young.
No, no, no. Keller didn’t have time for the reminiscing or the sadness of losing Malin. She had to keep moving, keep moving. Mourning would have to come after it was all done. It would have to come after…
Keller’s hair was wet. So were the smells surrounding her.
Rusty. Chemical. Violent.
Keller looked up into a clear, night sky. Tons of stars. No moon anymore. She tried to move her head. Nothing. Tried to wiggle her fingers. Nothing. Of course. She was in a delusion. A dream. Her mouth hung open. She could hear the wheezing. She could taste blood. A cell phone beeped its low battery alert from somewhere in the distance. Closer than the crow’s song.
That was impossible. Keller didn’t have a phone charger in the El Dorado, and her cell had been dead for hours—
A familiar silhouette leaned over Keller, looked down on her. Long, blonde hair framing—almost hiding—the face of this woman.
Something was in each of her hands.
A buck knife.
Something was in each of her eyes, too.
Keller made the motion to reach up, but she still couldn’t move. She tried to call out to the shadow, to Malin, through her pulsating breaths. She couldn’t do that, either.
Keller closed her eyes, tried to will herself out of this nightmare and back to reality. She went somewhere else then, but not to the stopped car in front of the carnival amongst the hills.
Keller was in the doorway of Malin’s bedroom, fresh off killing Andy. She was on her knees, waving her hands out in front of her frantically, trying to grab hold of the crown molding, the door handle, anything. She was fading, the chemically soaked rag pressed against her mouth and nose, liquid dripping down her chin. She swayed, crumpled to the shiny travertine floor. Malin was crouched down, smiling and shaking her head, rag in hand, blonde hair framing her pretty face.
Whips of slashes by blade through the air. Striking the flesh of Keller’s hands and arms and wrists. Slicing into the tendons of her legs, the muscles of her stomach. And then everything went black.
Keller coughed and sputtered and choked, her body heaving up in resistance every now and then as she traveled further and further away from existing. She could hear Malin’s voice, full of cunning and sadness and satisfaction all at once. A strange mixture of emotions, a hard one to understand. Words from Malin’s lips came from up above, strung together, yet grossly disjointed.
“I’m sorry, but…”
“…Had this coming.”
“You don’t know anything…”
“…You left me. Five years is a long time.”
“You did this to yourself, Keller...”
Keller opened her eyes again. Outside. The backyard.
Malin was on her knees in the grass beside Keller now. Her cream blouse was covered in crimson. They were only mere yards from the shed. From Andy’s body.
Keller opened her mouth, tried to speak again. Tried to explain herself to Malin, tried to apologize, to yell, to scream, anything.
But sounds became so reticent, so superfluous. Even her dying breaths were almost inaudible. Keller’s eyes wandered weakly, stopped on movement on the roof of the shed.
There had never been a second note left behind in the fake words of Malin and Andy proclaiming that they were leaving town forever.
There had never been a frantic packing of a suitcase, or chopping up Andy with a chainsaw from the shed.
No discreetly shoving it all in the trunk of the El Dorado.
Keller was taken over then by a heave in her chest, and a vignette slowly rolled inwards until everything was nothing.
Vibration in Keller’s hand.
She opened her eyes and looked down. Her cell phone was coming to life, the screen blinking and portraying the caller ID image of Malin from their college years.
Keller lifted her gaze and looked around. A clear night sky sprinkled with stars. No moon. An amalgam of colors whirled in front of her, along with music that was too loud, and funnel cakes that smelled so good, you’d want to eat them until you threw up. Clumps of crowds walking past Keller, bustling to the corndog stands or the next kitschy amusement ride.
Something touched Keller’s arm and when she looked over, the cell phone in Keller’s hand had stopped vibrating. Malin stood there, beaming. Malin pointed up to the slowly rotating Ferris wheel, just as it made a loud squeaking noise. They looked up at it, then back at each other and laughed. Keller’s gaze moved to the land beyond the carnival. Flat, easy, heading towards a bridge that offered one way in and one way out.
Keller glanced back down at her cell phone, up to the Ferris wheel, and then her eyes landed on Malin again. Keller held up the car keys and motioned towards the big, peach clunker waiting for them at the edge of the bright lights. Malin nodded and looped her arm in Keller’s.
Just the two of them. No one left to blame.