This story appears in issue 8 of Medium Chill, released 28 January 2023. Buy it here
It occurs to me just now how much more likely I am to discover a dead body than I’ve been at any other time in my life. Isn’t that how it usually goes: a quiet early morning stroll through an idle field or just along the edge of the woods? I’m sure runners and cyclists and hunters have similar odds, but with a dog’s superior sense of smell drawing me towards the scene, it’s probably going to be me happening upon the murder victim barely concealed and coated with an evaporating gloss of morning dew. Just my luck.
She’ll, of course, be nude or at least partially nude, maybe bottomless and splayed obscenely, posed rather than just carelessly discarded. But why should the corpse be female? I’m sure more men are murdered than women, so it stands to reason that there’d be a greater quantity of male dead bodies lying about waiting to be encountered. I don’t know what to tell you. I’m just a tired guy taking his dog on a walk in the clearing behind his allotment at dawn and finding himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s not my fault. Blame society. Blame the movies.
Maybe it works better if I have some connection to the victim, some emotional stake that propels the narrative. Otherwise, I just call the police and move on with my life, a little shaken by what I’ve seen. A few bad dreams maybe but no real story there. Maybe she’s one of my students or maybe a former student of limitless potential, and it sickens me to behold her here in this state. Of all people, why her? And now I’m consumed with unravelling the mystery of how she end up on display here along the route Dewey and I walk on this unlucky weekday morning.
Or she’s the neighbor girl across the street and two houses down. I don’t know her very well, but I’ve watched her grow up from a squealing child hopscotching down the sidewalk to a young woman coming and going at all times with a carload of exuberant friends. Sometimes we wave hello when I’m out doing yardwork and she’s coming home from school or softball practice, and I’m that friendly neighbor guy who lives alone and always seems to be outside. Doesn’t he ever get lonely? Why didn’t he ever get married? She and I have talked, but only a few times when I’m out with Dewey and she’s walking Penny, the family’s goldendoodle. I ask her where she’s thinking of heading for college next fall, and she tells me all about combined physical therapy programs.
Let’s say it’s summer break, so I’ve got some time between school years to conduct my own inquiry. The police will have interviewed the boyfriend, if there is one, as well as close friends and family. I, of course, will have been thoroughly questioned having been the one to find the body and eliminated as a suspect. Poor guy seems pretty broken up about it. That can’t be easy. My investigation will center on the neighborhood. That’s where she lived and where her body was found. It stands to reason.
I think of the old guy at the end of the other cul de sac, the one in the white townhouse at the top of the hill. He sits there on his front porch all day like a sentry, and there are three or four empty cases of Budweiser bottles along with his garbage every Tuesday evening that Dewey stops and sniffs on our short final walk before bed. I’m no teetotaler, but that seems like an excessive amount of alcohol to consume each week. It shows a lack of self-control, a recklessness of character. Maybe he’s too obvious. The audience would never stand for it. They’ve developed certain expectations.
There’s the woman who yelled at me one day for letting Dewey walk along the edge of her lawn near the street as we passed by on an afternoon walk. I thought she was joking at first. It felt so much like a parody of something a homeowner would become incensed over.
“I don’t want him shitting on my grass.”
“He already went. I have a bag with me, though, just in case.”
“Just keep him the hell off my lawn.”
“Okay. Fine. I’ll have a talk with him about it.”
A person like that is capable of anything. Maybe our victim allowed Penny to trespass a little too close to the woman’s azaleas. But I’m not sure this woman is the best suspect given the state of the crime scene. The state of undress. She’s no killer, but maybe someday soon it will be her lying out in that field. You never know.
Naturally, there will be developments in the case. A neighbor whose property abuts the field claims he heard what might have been a scream the night before the victim was found and the sound of a single dog barking incessantly. Someone else reports having seen a large figure in black moving through the allotment just after midnight. Before long, a janitor discovers blood stained clothing in the dumpster behind the local high school. Torn jeans and a pair of light blue cotton panties. Two white tennis shoes caked in mud and gore.
I used to always wear headphones and listen to music or a few chapters of an audiobook or a podcast when I walked Dewey. One evening about a year ago, I forgot them as I exited the front door, and Dewey and I were halfway to the street before I remembered. I figured that rather than go back and confuse the poor dog, who was already overcome with excitement about the walk, I’d do without entertainment and just enjoy the sensory experience of walking for a while. What a revelation. I could feel the cool nighttime breeze and hear the leaves shuffling around me through the quiet of night and the distant wildlife sounds from the nearby woods. It felt like meditation, like I was truly in the moment and having all the best ideas I’d had in some time. Now, I never wear headphones when I walk the dog and prefer spending some quality time in my own thoughts. Of course, those thoughts sometimes lead me to dead women in fields and elaborate muder mystery investigations.
The final reveal will be a letdown. How could it not be? It’s either an obvious suspect, which is no fun, or a completely unexpected one, which is contrived and requires massive suspension of disbelief to ignore the plotholes. It’s the girl’s dad hiding a dark family secret, or it’s the girl’s boyfriend’s dad covering up an embarrassing indiscretion, or it’s the friendly neighbor guy across the street and two houses up, the one always walking his dog. He watches her from afar at school and around the neighborhood, and when their paths cross late one night–he on a walk and she stumbling home drunkenly from an adolescent party–he can no longer control himself.
Or maybe something cutting edge: the case is never solved, and the director drops a few subtle hints rather than directly revealing the killer. In flashback, the camera follows her to and from school. It stalks through the high school hallways keeping its distance. It watches from behind the bleachers at softball and peers through her bedroom window as she undresses at night for bed. And in the end, the only living soul other than the killer who truly knows what happened is incapable of human speech.
Written October 2022