I dragged his corpse through the woods like a lamb from the slaughterhouse, my muscles screaming for relief with each exhaustive step I took. The moon betrayed me tonight. Its usual iridescent glow loomed behind a thick smoke of clouds, making it nearly impossible to know where I was or how far I was from the road. But I wasn’t allowed to stop. I was alive with horror; my fear speaking to me with a trill that bounced off its mocking tongue.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” I cried, lugging my murdered friend over a fractured tree. His name was John Burgess, a thirty-two-year-old alcoholic involved in a hit and run, killing a seven-year-old boy, and this was his punishment. Not by me, no, by the little boy’s father; even though I was the one that cracked his skull open like a coconut.
You see, he hired a hitman, expecting it to be a quick and untraceable transaction. But what he didn’t know was the man he hired never committed the murders, instead, he hunted and stalked others involved in crimes, whether it be by their own hand, or their trusty henchman’s, and force them to do his dirty work.
I would be the henchman.
I was sixteen and stupid. I got wrapped up in the wrong group of people, becoming their little follower all because I wanted to fit in and be popular. It was late at night when it happened, maybe 11 p.m., and we were hanging out near the railroad tracks, drinking cheap liquor, and getting high. We were all laughing, making passive-aggressive jokes to each other when suddenly one of the members of the group piped up, daring someone to jump across the tracks as the train plowed its way toward us.
Nobody said anything for a long minute. Except for me. I stupidly opened my mouth and volunteered Ezra, the floppy hair jock I had a crush on. I didn’t actually think he would do it, but he was bullheaded, always looking for a challenge, even if it meant it might cost him his life. And unfortunately, this one did.
As the train rumbled down the tracks, its brute force shaking the ground like a simmering earthquake, Ezra geared up, waiting for the perfect moment to jump. Then something happened inside of me; something very focused, very potent. Something I could only describe as a paradigm shift. Maybe it was the roar of the train that shook me to my senses, but I knew I had to stop him. My heart slammed into my ribs, and I rushed towards him, my screams of horror bleeding, shouting for him to stop, but he couldn’t hear me. I tried to reach out for him, but the next thing I knew, he was gone, leaving behind a lone left shoe.
And now this was my punishment. To remember what it was like to be a killer. To relive the gutting pain I felt ten years ago, all because I wanted to fit in. I got noticed by my peers all right, but for the wrong, harrowing reason, and no matter how far I ran from that life, I ended up right where it all started. Murder.
I struggled to get John over the tree, his pant leg becoming caught on one of the branches. Frustrated, I dropped him, and he hung there like a rag doll, the sound of his blood pattering against the leaves. I wanted to scream, but there was no point. The idea was as useless as a glass hammer. Not to mention, it would get me killed, and I didn’t want to die for my own selfish reasons. So, I just collapsed onto the ground and sobbed a choir of tears.
The burner phone I was given rang, its jarring sound bringing me back to reality. There were only two working keys on the phone—the answer and end call buttons, the others were ripped out and burned, rendering them useless.
I answered it with a hasty and vexing “What?”
“Why did you stop?” He chided. I didn’t know his name or what he looked like; he wore a black ski mask, but his voice was deep, withered, almost frayed to a crisp.
“Why? Why did I stop?” I shouted, understandably perplexed by the question.
“Maybe because I’m dragging a dead man that’s twice my size through the fucking forest—”
“You have ten minutes.” He hung up.
I closed my eyes, my hand strangling the phone. I started to feel sick, an unsettling shiver icing my bones. My muscles ached, and I was covered in someone else’s gore, but I knew the sooner I disposed of the body, the sooner it would be all over. For now.
So, I took a deep breath and stumbled to my feet, tucking my hands underneath the corpses’ arms, and yanked him free from the protruding bark. Unfortunately, luck was still not on my side, and I lost my balance, falling backward onto something hard, John’s mangled body splaying on top of me.
“Shit,” I whispered, the back of my head throbbing from whatever I slammed against.
“You know, there was an easier way to do that,” a muffled voice said.
Panic instantly pierced my veins, adrenaline coursing through my body like wildfire. I writhed beneath the corpse and managed to toss him from my petite form, scrambling away from the person the voice belonged to. I had been so focused on getting John buried, the idea of someone else being out here hadn’t crossed my mind.
“Are you okay?” the voice said. It was a man’s, but it wasn’t as withered as His, no, this one was younger, smoother. It sounded like Ezra’s, and a lurch of sadness dizzied my heart.
He took a tentative step forward, and I scooted back against the tree, hugging my knees to my chest, fearful of what he might do if he got too close. With a quivering voice, I said, “G-g-go away. Y-you shouldn’t be here.”
“And neither should you.”
I didn’t say anything. I sat there, the cold air pinching my lungs, and prayed he would go away. But he didn’t. Instead, he sat beside me, almost too calm for a person that stumbled across a girl hauling a dead body through the woods. I shifted my body away from his, disgusted. Not by him, but by myself.
“I’m Tate,” he said.
I glanced over at him, but it was impossible to see, he was swallowed by the darkness. I decided to prolong my silence.
He placed a hand on my shoulder. “You don’t have to be afraid.”
I thought for a long, hard moment. Do I trust him? Befriend him? Kill him? What? I knew I was being watched; my every move scrutinized with extraordinary detail. I knew I had to be careful. But before my brain came to that conclusion, my name slipped carelessly from my mouth and stuck the landing.
“Anna,” I whispered.
I couldn’t see it, but I think he was smiling. I could hear it in his voice. “It’s nice to meet you, Anna,” he said. “It looks like you might need some help here.”
I opened my mouth to say something, but it quickly snapped shut. I wasn’t able to form a coherent sentence. He stunned me into silence again.
“I know why you’re out here, and I know it’s not on your own free will.” He rose from the ground, slapping the dirt and leaves from his pants.
“You’ve done this before?” I said warily.
“Twice. I just finished my third. I’m guessing this is your first?”
His words hounded my thoughts. Three times? He’s done this three times? I became unsettled, like someone misplaced one of my organs.
I nodded, then quickly said “yes,” when I realized I was only a shadow to him.
“Come on, I’ll help you. The longer you take, the quicker he’s going to terminate you.”
Terminate. God, what the hell was this? A fucking video game?
Hesitantly, I grabbed Tate’s hand, and he pulled me up with ease. He instructed me to grab John’s legs, and he would get his upper body. There was a grave already prepared a few yards ahead—all we had to do was dump him in it, and cover him with dirt and some branches, making sure the ground looked undisturbed.
I crouched down, latching his feet under my armpits, and together we wrenched his body up, Tate carrying most of the burden. We trudged through the forest blindly, and everything came crashing down on me all at once. I started to feel lightheaded, my legs becoming numb with each uncertain step. I was carrying a man I murdered in cold blood, through the woods, with a stranger who could easily turn against me if something went wrong. And in a situation like this, something always goes wrong.
Tate asked, “How did he make you do it?”
“With a hammer. You?” I said like this was a casual conversation between two best friends.
I started to sweat, despite the wintry chill in the air. It was mostly out of fear, but I’m sure the 170-pound corpse played a small part.
"Do you know his name?"
"No, he's never told me."
Of course not, I thought.
There was a million questions buzzing through my mind, but before I could grasp at one, Tate abruptly stopped, causing me to roll my ankle and collapse onto the ground. If the hitman wasn’t going to kill me, John’s dead body certainly was. How ironic would that be?
“We’re here,” Tate said. “All we have to do is bury him.”
I pushed myself up, drunk with exhaustion. “Then what?”
He lowered his voice to a whisper. “We try and make an escape.”
I stared at him through the darkness for a long moment, unsure how to respond. Do I risk dying by trying to escape? Or do I live the rest of my life as a proxy murderer? I was getting sick and tired of these perilous decisions. I couldn’t think straight. I could barely function. My mind and body were decelerated.
“Huh, what?” I said, Tate’s voice jolting me back from my musing.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m about to bury a man I just murdered. What do you think?” A headache started to rap against my skull. I just wanted to sleep.
“At least you don’t have to do this alone.”
I nodded, oddly comforted by the thought. He was right, at least I’m not alone, not to mention he just saved my ass from getting killed. Maybe luck was starting to turn in my favor.
We rolled John’s corpse into the shallow grave and we used our hands to shovel the dirt, making sure he was packed tightly in the ground. This wasn’t what I wanted to be doing on a Friday night.
“If you don’t mind me asking, what did you do to get yourself stuck in this situation?” Tate said, a genuine curiosity nipping at his voice. I should’ve seen that question coming, but it caught me off guard.
“Something really stupid,” I said.
“And what would that be?”
“Involuntary manslaughter, though most would argue voluntary manslaughter.” I shivered, repulsed by the words that came out of my mouth.
“Looks like we have something else in common.”
I rubbed my hands down my jeans, wiping away the dirt. “What would be the first thing?”
“That we’re both stuck in this unfortunate situation.”
I let out a humorless laugh. “I’m still trying to figure that one out.”
“Well, if you do can you let me know?”
“I can’t make any promises.” I laughed again, except this time, it was sincere.
I noticed the sun was starting to shine through the trees, the clouds blushing with flames of crimson. The glow settled on Tate’s face, and this was the first time I was able to make out his features. He was smiling at me, a rare type of smile that made you forget where you were, mesmerizing you. One as beautiful as the sunset. He stared at me with thoughtful brown eyes, speckled with flecks of gold, and though his face was covered with dirt, he was the most gorgeous, alluring man I’d ever seen.
“Can I ask you something?” I said, packing more dirt over the grave.
“You can ask me anything.”
“Has it gotten easier for you. You know, to do this?”
He paused for a long minute, letting the question marinate. Finally, he said, “There’s nothing easy about killing, but when it’s done for the right reason, you start to see it for what it really is.”
“And what would that be?”
“Justice.” He smiled, inspecting the soil. “Looks like we’re done here.”
I let out a breath of relief, lusting for a Xanax, and a bottle of wine. “Thank God.” I looked down at my clothes to see they were caked with blood, dirt, and God knows what else. I didn’t even want to think about it.
"See, that wasn't so bad, was it?" Tate said, a playful tone evident in his voice.
I rolled my eyes and offered a soft smiled. I said, “What do we do now?” But before Tate could answer, three loud, distinctive claps echoed through the forest, jumpstarting my heart.
“Very well done, you two,” a deep voice rumbled.
My head lashed in the direction of the voice, my heart knocking against my ribcage, and I scanned the trees to find it, but I couldn't. I felt a shift in the pure air, it was being suffocated by a visceral evil, making my senses prickle to attention.
It was the hitman.
I clasped my hand around Tate’s, squeezing it with an iron grip. “I did everything you asked. Please.”
“Yes, yes you did. And you did it with a little help from a friend I see.”
“Just let us go, man!” Tate shouted.
The hitman stepped out of the shadows, a shotgun tracked on us. A violent tremor seized my body, and the horror of what was about to happen nearly closed my throat.
"Please don't do this," I cried, hot tears drowning my cheeks.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t do that. You see, cross-contamination is the leading cause of infection, and you know how fast an infection can spread if not treated properly.”
We slowly stepped back.
He slowly cocked the gun.
“Now, Simon says run.”