The day I witnessed the murder was the day I wore my favorite flannel for the last time.
It had white paint speckles over the right arm from my sloppy attempts at painting the kitchen, the front pocket was torn down one seam and mostly held on by the button, and the collar was wrinkled and folded in on itself. Finding a good flannel is impossible these days; I swear they're made from sandpaper or tissue paper.
But this one, this flannel, had achieved that perfect balance. Three years of washing had broken down the stiff fabric until it was soft and supple but still tough enough to withstand heavy use. The mere act of buttoning it and rolling up the sleeves gave me the confidence of an old time cowboy. There were no walls I couldn't paint, no fence I couldn't mend, no yard I couldn't mow...and, well, no murder I couldn't clean up.
Now before you go assuming anything, just because I cleaned it up doesn't mean I committed it. I'm just a guy who loves his flannel, hates people, and wants to maintain the status quo. I mean, what would you do if you were out walking your fence line and you stumbled across someone being murdered?
I'm lucky I saw them -- heard them, rather -- before he saw me. I was about to call out when a gunshot sent me diving face first into the dirt.
I took cover behind an old decaying stump nearby. It was shocking enough to see someone out here, miles away from anything, let alone see someone get shot. My property is a good hour outside of the nearest town. It's made up of ten acres of woods, interrupted only by my winding gravel driveway, cabin, and eight by eight garden plot.
The cabin was last year's project. It had taken five months of living in a cheap tent that was far from waterproof, but I managed to finish it enough to live in before the first snowfall. It was a good thing I did, too.
That winter we got twice the average amount of snow, three fatal wrecks occurred on the stretch of road between me and town, and a raccoon made his home under the front porch. I'm pretty sure my body temperature dropped a good two degrees as well. I spent my time chopping wood, stoking the fire, and eating. My hands became so rough and calloused that I could run them over the unfinished wood on my walls without feeling a thing. Actually, I think I ended up smoothing it out a bit.
Needless to say, the raccoon and I survived that winter. The scratching under the floorboards even became a sort of lullaby as I headed to bed while he headed out into the world. I entertained myself with images of him hustling about, pouring coffee grounds into his tiny coffee pot and staring into the mirror to tie a little double Windsor knot, his brows knit in concentration, while the coffee brewed and bubbled, emitting the sounds and smells of productivity and professionalism.
I know I should have evicted him and sealed off his entrance once green buds began peppering the skeletal branches on the trees. But I had grown fond of his company. It was like having a roommate who works the opposite shift as you. There's a unique sense of both companionship and independence. Anyways, where would he keep his tie collection?
That winter is why I was out here and walking the fence line. Clearly it wasn't intact. As the man went about doing what seemed to be a bit too familiar to him, he trampled through the underbrush with little regard for the noise level. At least I knew he was oblivious to my presence. He was louder than squirrels chasing each other through fallen leaves.
Despite this, I dug my nails into the decaying bark remaining on the stump to keep perfectly still. The wood caved in under my nails and released a sweet, rotten scent into the air. Unidentified bugs wriggled through mazes of hollowed out tunnels making up their own metropolis. The feeling of creatures with multiple legs running up and down my body hit me without warning. Watching them was a mistake.
A thorn bush to my right side sank its claws into my jeans with every adjustment I made. I let it. My boots were a good inch deeper into the loose dirt than they had been when I first dropped to this position, and my shins were aching with the weight of my entire body pressing down on them. A solid tap against my boot proved that my feet had gone completely numb. Great.
I lowered myself to a sitting position, shifting the debris around me off to the sides so I would make as little noise as possible. As I rolled my ankles, a familiar static began emitting from my slumbering feet. I've always hated that feeling. It brought back memories of elementary school and sitting cross-legged on the shiny gym floors. One poor kid was always sabotaged by his unresponsive feet when it was time to move. It was usually me.
Loud crashing erupted from the direction of the horrific scene, interrupting my thoughts. The killer was finally on the move. He stumbled toward the end of my property, dragging something behind him by the rope thrown over his shoulder.
An army green tarp, wrapped around something cumbersome, heavy, and human shaped, trailed behind him. It flattened the long grass and snagged on a few jagged rocks, but it never took more than a couple solid yanks for him to free it and continue on his way. In my opinion, moving a body shouldn't be that easy.
At first, I was relieved. I was afraid he was going to leave the body here, on my property, in my woods. I don't know what I would've done if he had...I prefer not to think about it. Convince the cops that the guy who lives alone in the woods just happened to find a body in his backyard? Yeah, right.
I took a deep breath in an attempt to calm down, thankful for his exit, but a hint of copper filled my nostrils and sent my breakfast on a swift departure from my stomach. After I had left my partially digested oatmeal on the ground for the birds, I inhaled again, instinctually and against my better judgement. I've never been more thankful for the overwhelming odor of vomit. With tears burning in my eyes and bile burning in my throat, I shoved a sprig of pine needles under my nose.
While I had been puking as silently as possible (which is not easy, in case you didn't know) and trying to get a breath of fresh air, the murderer had kept up a good pace. He was out of sight. That meant as far as I was concerned, he was no longer my problem. The birds resumed chirping in the trees and my stomach settled with each wintery inhale. Then I made a very dumb decision.
I certainly wasn't pleased about the day's events, but a morbid curiosity nipped at my thoughts regardless. So, I went to see where it happened. The sight of the pool of blood staining the ground in front of me dispelled that curiosity immediately. It glinted and gleamed in the sunlight, equal parts beautiful and disguising. The pool was dark in the deepest parts, nearly black, but transitioned to the recognizable red on the edges. There was so much...I shoved the pine branch harder against my nose, letting the needles prick at my skin.
So this is where I panicked. My chest felt tight and my breathing was shallow and uneven and my thoughts were racing out of control. It was just too much. I caught of glimpse of bloody drag marks extending into the grass -- a gruesome breadcrumb trail telling me exactly where NOT to go.
The smell of fresh blood mingling with the pine was not helping. I took my knife and dug as deep into the dirt as I could, throwing handful after handful onto the horrific scene. A rich, earthy smell cleansed the air. Dirt packed into my fingernails and my nose ran nonstop with the exertion as my flannel took up a temp position as tissue. My eyes never strayed from my knife.
Once I was confident the worst was hidden, I turned around. The dark liquid was now covered in loose clumps of dirt. I wiped my hands on my shirt, leaving long trails of dirt staining the fabric like the trails of blood staining the grass ahead of me. Sprinkling handfuls of dirt and leaves and raking the grass back upright with a stick, I removed the morbid trail.
I worked until the sun had dipped behind the trees, sending rays of orange filtering through the branches. The day had taken its toll on me. My shoulders and back were so tense the muscles felt like rock. My eyes darted from side to side as I walked, trying to take in every sight and identify every sound. As the light dimmed, every shadow that flitted through the air above me made me cringe and my eyes strained harder and harder to make out shapes in the dimming light. I was jumpier than a kid at his first overnight camp.
The chirping of crickets crescendoed around me in a deafening ocean of sound. Anyone who thinks the woods are quiet has never spent time in them alone. Leaves rustled in the distance. Frogs contributed to the chorus, mocking me with chants of "murder, murder, murder." The final straw was the loon. I don't think I will ever get used to that ear-piercing, gut-wrenching scream piercing through the air.
I admit it, this sent me into a solid sprint. As I ran, I felt the darkness transforming into a malicious presence. It nipped at my heels, lunging for me as I ran. The sounds grew louder and louder and sweat poured down my forehead, burning my eyes and obscuring my vision even more than the diminishing light. Unseen roots grasped at my feet. Branches grabbed at my arms. But I didn't slow down.
When I finally reached my door, I crashed through it, slamming it shut on the night. I made it, I thought, my breath ragged and harsh. I peeked out the windows my right, both hoping and fearing I would catch a glimpse of whatever -- or whoever -- was out there. The faint outline of the full moon behind the thickening clouds cast an eerie glow over the woods I had just escaped. The black of night had transformed into a luminous gray. As I gazed at the tree line, I noticed two glowing eyes staring back at me.
I dropped to the ground, yet again, my face against the splintered wood floor. He was back. The murderer was back. I felt the sweat begin to pour down my back again and the smell of copper flood my senses.
I don't remember touching the blood. But it didn't matter. I tore off my compromised clothes and threw them into the fireplace without a second thought. The match lit on the second strike. It landed on the front pocket, the one that I tore while building this very house. A small flame flickered. It lapped at the worn fabric as it gained a foothold. Then it began devouring it. I spent the night sprawled out on the floor under the window, praying he wouldn't come any closer.
It stormed that night. The rain washed away the blood-soaked dirt and, with it, any evidence of the heinous act I had been witness to.
The next morning I woke to a fireplace full of ashes and a memory that would haunt me forever. One action, one spark, and my life was changed. I peered into the woods, half expecting the crazed killer to be standing at my window with his gun. The sun was obscured behind the remaining storm clouds and water dripped from every surface. It was like the world was in mourning.
As I watched, none other than my nocturnal neighbor emerged from the trees, returning home for the day, albeit tie-less. This act of normalcy gave me renewed confidence that I might be able to go back to my boring life, absent of future murders and erased of past ones. I cleaned out the fireplace, locked the door behind me, and headed into town. I needed to buy a new flannel.