Where Foxes Run
A short story by Linda June
with MaryAnne Tebedo
Copyright: 2018 The Letterista, LLC
The man slogged through the ankle-deep water with his heavy burden dragging at his neck. The half-moon illumined his way just enough to avoid the larger obstacles, but still, his laborious progress seemed perilously slow.
* **** *
The concrete pathway along the creek stretched before Brian as he set his feet down in long strides. He was on his return leg back to his apartment overlooking a stream and greenway trail. Miles away to the west, the Rocky Mountains of Denver imposed themselves like guardians of a harem. Seldom passed a day in which Brian did not take his exercise along the banks of Fox Run Creek.
As a moderately successful writer of men’s romance novels—otherwise known as stories wherein the heroic cop/detective/soldier/spy always got the beautiful girl—Brian enjoyed his time outside and away from the computer. His Germanic ancestry had bequeathed him a tall, athletic build which demanded regular exertion. Without it, he could easily sink back into depression and, possibly, the bottle.
* **** *
The boy hesitated, hand on the doorknob, and gazed back at the hedgerow once again. That Biscuit failed to materialize from under the bushes today was troubling. His little caramel-colored cat hardly ever missed greeting him in the yard when he returned from school. Maybe she was upstairs, asleep on his bed.
With his father gone on business quite often, the seven-year-old had only the mother and the animal for companionship in the narrow, clapboard house. Biscuit brought him comfort, something to love. Twisting the knob, the boy pushed through the door.
In the kitchen at the back of the house, the boy quietly placed his lunchbox on the gray and white mottled Formica counter top next to the sink. “Hello, Darling,” spoke the mother from the counter between the sink and the stove. She was hacking a whole chicken into pieces with decisive whacks of a small cleaver. Chicken blood spattered her white chef’s apron and, below it, her yellow slacks and white canvass sneakers.
* **** *
On the trail, Brian often spotted tracks in the snow or mud of the local wildlife. Those prints he couldn’t identify, he’d photograph and later research on the internet. In his eight years at his current apartment village, he had identified the traces of dogs, cats, deer, racoons, mice, rabbits, fox, coyote, clouds of ordinary and exotic birds and once, even those of a cougar.
The idea of big cats prowling nearby intrigued him after the fashion of vampires and werewolves. Cougars were nearly as elusive and no less dangerous. It surprised him that they haunted the prairie environs this far from the foothills, although, in arid Colorado, wherever water trickled or flowed, so too did an abundance of wildlife.
Today, Brian noticed two elongated, serpentine sets of tracks in the drying mud, one superimposing in places on the other. They marked a foot chase between a rabbit and a fox. At the brow of the embankment, the prints vanished. Peering over, Brian could not determine the outcome of the match. It seemed both hunter and hunted had flown over the edge and landed in the sandy-bottomed creek below. No traces ascended the far shore some twenty feet away.
* **** *
“Have you seen Biscuit?” the boy asked.
“What, no kiss for your mom first?” Dutifully, the boy raised his face towards her, crooked slightly away. The mother bowed down and made to peck his cheek, but at the last second, slid to his lips. The boy hated it when she did that. It didn’t seem right. The kiss lasted too long and made him feel—he wasn’t sure how it made him feel. Not right, that was for sure. They were like thunder from invisible lightning, and he hated them. Those kisses were like how she kissed his father; and when Father was home, she only kissed the boy properly on the cheek.
“I’m sure Biscuit’s around here somewhere,” the mother said. With bloody fingers, she handed him a wicker basket with a long loop of a handle. “Here, go pick some raspberries for your mom, would you? I feel like making a cobbler for desert.”
The boy badly ached to search for his cat, but he took the basket and stepped out the back door. This was not a day to cross the mother.
Near the back fence composed of tall, wooden slats, stood a lanky, garden tool shed, a convert from an old outhouse. Behind it, running the length of the fence, sprawled the thicket of raspberry vines. The boy began to pluck ripened fruit until he noticed, in his peripheral sight, an unsupported spade standing upright. Its blade had been forcefully imbedded in the soil between the shed and raspberries, and between the body and head of Biscuit.
* **** *
Yesterday, the cops had visited again. Her remains had turned up, finally, after all these years. At the news, Brian grabbed an elbow, fell against the door frame, buried his face in one large hand and let a shudder pass through him. He was sorry to hear it, he said, wiping down his face, thumb and fingers on either side. But not really surprised. They refused to give him details.
Brian had invited them to sit at his dining room table. He made a pot of coffee, for himself, as it turned out. They commanded him to again recount the last time he had seen Elaine. They had been over it so many times five years ago, and it wearied him to repeat himself again now.
One of the cops this day had also been on the case half a decade past when Elaine had disappeared. He had made Homicide since the first interrogation. Detective Eckert was pushing fifty. Shaped like an anti-tank stanchion only taller, he probably had played the defensive line on his college football team. His short, cop-styled hair — long enough to part, short enough to look neat under a pork-pie hat — was dyed a dark brown except at his gray temples.
His partner, Williams, a muscular, medium-sized woman of near forty, was new. She wore her curly brown hair shoulder-length and clasped in back with a black barrette. Apparently, one parent was white and the other probably half white, half black. They both wore professional suits. Eckert pursued most of the questioning. Williams gazed around the apartment when she wasn’t pinning Brian to the chair with her trenchant, silent scrutiny.
* **** *
Once safely distant from the edges of the last housing development, the man unbound her right knee from his left. He let the body fall to the ground and massaged his aching arms.
* **** *
Nothing had changed in five years except that he had moved from his garden level one-bedroom unit to a bright, airy three-bedroom apartment on the third floor of the same building. Here, he had formulated one extra room as his office and surrendered another for the complete enjoyment of his gray tabby, Mr. Rogers.
As expected, Elaine had not received his desire to split up with any kind of equanimity.
While she had concealed her obsession at first, still, he should have recognized the early signs. The overly-frequent calls and texts; showing up at his door out of the blue between scheduled dates; “accidentally” running into him at the grocery store a few minutes after his arrival; hints of fast-creeping jealousy.
But he had muffled his growing disquiet in favor of her deep brunette beauty; her tall, lithe frame and charmingly spiked hair; her intelligence and graceful movements. The fact that one so exotic would find him attractive enough to drag to bed in a squall of passion after their second dinner together shrouded his misgivings like chocolate over a rotten peanut.
Then the stalking began openly and in frightening earnest. Next came the irrational suspicion. Visits alone to his parents and little sister earned him cold shoulders and scathing accusations of infidelity. She professed an allergy to Mr. Rogers and strongly suggested his removal on behalf of her comfort. She became snippy, then enraged at him whenever he doted on his cat.
* **** *
Finding a flat stone about the size and shape of a thin book, the man dug at the soft bank, widening what appeared to have been an animal den of some sort.
* **** *
The relationship had barely aged three months when he realized he must escape. His very life depended on it. Elaine kept him in a constant state of agitation and distress. She couldn’t stand to be apart from him and afflicted him with her insecurities whenever they were together. Often, she accused him with his own words, insinuating a hardness of heart he’d never before noticed about himself.
He had begun dreaming of the oblivion of whiskey. It beckoned seductively from the depths of a decade past, but he knew well how the succubus of vodka would ensnare him, render him powerless to flee the crypt of his soul that was Elaine. He sensed that if he tumbled into that muddy pit once more, he could never claw his way out again.
Envisioning grievous rage and pitiable supplications that could last hours and possibly succeed in dragging him back into her lair, Brian had determined to break the news to Elaine from a distance. He leaned on the balcony rail and called her office late in the workday, hoping she had not yet departed from her job in downtown Denver. Gazing across the greenway, he traced the silhouette of the distant peaks, now magnified and veiled in an ethereal afternoon haze.
Her office line and cell phone went unanswered, and he had dared to leave a diffident message on both. Moments later, he caught sight of her car speeding across the bridge spanning Fox Run Creek, heading west, away from Brian’s home. Either she had recently arrived or had been sitting in his parking lot for God only knew how long. Brian had heaved a martyr’s sigh and retreated to his living room.
* **** *
At last, the man had excavated a hole in the bank large and deep enough to curl up the body deep under the sleeping prairie sod. Removing the small revolver from his jacket pocket, he carefully wiped its entire surface with the woman’s cotton skirt. Then he clasped first her left hand, then her right hand around the pistol. By now, her hands were ice cold and stiffening. No matter, thought the man. He was almost done.
* **** *
“Did you try to call her again?” Queried the homicide detective, pen poised over a small notepad. He did not look up at Brian. He knew his partner wouldn’t miss a flinch or a feint.
“No. I’d already left the message. I expected her to call me or come back at any time after that.”
“And did she?”
“Yeah. She knocked on my door later that night.”
After a couple of beats, the detective asked, “And you let her in?”
Brian had gone over this with them a hundred times already, but he knew they would keep asking until they thought they had caught him changing his story. But they wouldn’t. Sighing, Brian replied, “No.”
“No? Why not?”
“Honestly, I was afraid of what she might do. I didn’t know what I would do if she decided to attack me. Or try to kill herself in front of me.”
* **** *
The boy stood trembling over the corpse of his beloved cat, too shocked to cry, his fingers white around the basket handle. It reminded him of something else, something he couldn’t quite remember. It had something to do with the mother, though. That she had done this to Biscuit, he had no doubt. Why didn’t he doubt that? What if some mean neighbor had done it? No. No neighbor had done this. He wished he could remember the thing tickling the back of his mind.
* **** *
“You think she would have?”
“Killed herself in front of me? Yeah. Maybe. Yes. She’d already threatened to do that if I ever broke up with her. She was crazy. You can’t predict crazy people. I had no idea what she was capable of and had no desire to find out.”
“You think she would have attacked you?”
* **** *
The mother was calling his name. The boy did not respond. “What have you done?” the mother gasped, hand flying to her cleavage. “Why did you kill Biscuit? What did that poor cat ever do to you?” she demanded. The boy knew he hadn’t chopped Biscuit in two. But the mother kept pounding him with hysterical questions as though it were a certainty that he had. Her panicky, feverish interrogation began to confuse him. She was on her knees, gripping his delicate shoulders and shaking him. Back and forth. Back and forth. “Are you nuts? Why did you DO this?” Maybe he did do it. Maybe he just couldn’t remember. No. Maybe. “Don’t you know this is what little boys do when they realize they love their cats more than their moms?”
* **** *
“What would you have done if she did?”
“I really don’t know. Tried to restrain her, of course, but I think she would have fought like a badger. I didn’t want to hurt her. Or get hurt, for that matter.”
“So, what happened then?”
* **** *
Now, he remembered what he couldn’t earlier. Curled up on his bed, the memory seeped back into his mind like blood through a bandage. She had let him buy a hamster once. He named it Peanut and took very good care of it. Then one day, he came home from playing with the neighbor kids and found Peanut’s cage open and the hamster gone. He looked everywhere upstairs and down. The mother then suggested that maybe Peanut was exploring the cellar. Oddly, she made no mention of his careless attention that had allowed Peanut to escape his cage. Pressing the old button switch that controlled the single bulb hanging from the floor joists above, the boy tromped down to the dank space where lived the furnace. There, in the spot where they said there used to be a coal bin, was Peanut. Someone had drawn a star inside a circle in the dirt floor. In the center of the star lay Peanut, impaled to the ground with a large knitting needle.
* **** *
“She yelled and screamed at me through the door. I’m sure the neighbors corroborated that five years ago. It was past ten and this is a pretty quiet complex. People don’t generally air their domestic issues out loud here.”
“Hm. So you just let her stand out there and raise hell?”
“Weren’t you afraid someone would call the cops?”
“I was hoping they would.”
“Huh. And then?”
* **** *
She stood outside his door, head bent down, face obscured through the peephole. The man saw only the crown of her head. She had pommeled the door thirty seconds earlier, and he had crept silently across the carpet, trying to still his ragged breathing. Suddenly, he heard a key slipping into the deadbolt. His heart skipped a beat. She had a key. Where the hell had she gotten his key? A clay mold while he showered? A photograph and website? How many other keys had she duplicated? How many times had she snuck into his apartment when he wasn’t there? What did she do while alone inside his home?
Angry now, he yanked the door open before she could finish her sly entry. Startled, she gasped, whipping her hands back as though under arrest. Recovering quickly, she screeched, “What the hell was that phone call, man? What are you trying to do? I told you I’d kill myself if you ever left me. You must want me to die! Well, YOU should die, you bastard. I thought you loved me like I love you! Tell me! You want me to die, huh?” she bellowed, too furious to weep. She tried to push past him, but he blocked the door, bracing one leg behind himself.
“Calm down, already. You’ll wake my neighbors.”
“Calm down like hell! You dump me over the phone?” The last word was shrieked an octave higher. “What the hell, you coward! Let me in!”
* **** *
“She just suddenly calmed down. It was eerie, you know? I didn’t expect her to just stop yelling and go away like that. But she did.” Brian clasped his coffee mug in both hands, leaning over the table, viewing the scene on the liquid screen in the mug.
“She just turned and walked away? Just like that.”
“Yes. I was surprised. I wanted to think that it was all over, but I figured she just had a brilliant Plan B pop into her head, so, she left. Then I had to worry about Plan B.”
“Huh. What did you do then?”
* **** *
The boy heard the mother clomping down the wooden stairs. As she passed under the dangling bulb, her shadow oozed over the lifeless body of his hamster. “What have you done?” She hissed.
* **** *
“I made coffee and sat down to read. I didn’t want to sleep until I was sure she wasn’t coming back with a bazooka or something.”
“You could’ve left the apartment and gone somewhere else, you know.”
“Right. I thought about it, but what if she’d thought of that, too, and was waiting for me in the parking lot or in back, if I left by the patio door? I didn’t want to risk it.”
“You could’ve called the cops yourself, you know,” the detective said, still absorbed in his notepad.
“Uh-huh,” Brian smirked derisively. A brief, faint smile flit across Eckert’s face.
* **** *
The lower half of the man’s body poked from the cavity in the embankment. It was completely black inside, and he had to work by feel through his leather gloves. Holding her hands around the gun, the man positioned the barrel against the soft spot on the side of the woman’s head. Squeezing his eyes shut and counting to three, he pulled the trigger. Though it was a small, .22 caliber pistol, the hot explosion flashed like heat lightning on the other side of his eyelids. He thought his ears might start bleeding.
Quickly, the man backed out of the cavern and began refilling it. He judged he had about two more hours before dawn would dilute the blackness around him. He had to work fast now. He had to hike up the path and get closer to home before the sun rose.
* **** *
“Did she come back?” Detective Williams, apparently, could talk.
“She came to the patio door. When I heard the gate, I turned on the light and looked out. She was drunk and stumbling around. She had a bourbon bottle in one hand and a prescription bottle in the other. She held them up for me to see.”
“What time was it?” Williams wanted to know.
* **** *
“All right. Come in,” the man said, stepping aside. Once inside, he quietly shut the door. The woman dug something out of her purse and spun to face him with a sneer, her loose skirt twisting around her legs. Backing away from him, she leveled a small, black hand gun at his forehead. He froze.
“This is what happens when you throw me out like used kitty litter,” the woman said. Then she swung her arm sideways and drew down on Mr. Rogers who had taken refuge on the man’s desk chair.
* **** *
“I’m not sure exactly. I think it was in the neighborhood of midnight.”
“Okay. Then what?”
“I wasn’t going to open the door, but then she stumbled, fell and hit her head on the railing. She hit the patio concrete and passed out. I panicked. Thought she might be dead, or, if not, then she might die for sure if she had really taken a bunch of her Xanax pills with the bourbon. I went to her and checked her pulse, listened for breath. She was alive.”
“Did you really care? After all, that would have solved all your problems, right?” Williams said. Brian lifted his face and regarded her sadly.
“Of course, I cared. I never wanted her to kill herself. Hell, that’s why I endured her crap for too long. But I also knew I couldn’t let her destroy my life, which she was trying her best to do. It was a Catch 22.”
Williams scoffed. “Anyway….”
“Anyway, I was afraid she would die if I left her lying there unconscious. I heard that if you could keep people who O-D on booze and drugs awake…” he trailed off. “So, I pulled her up and tried to put her in a patio chair. I kept pinching her face and squeezing her wrist to wake her up. But the chair was too flimsy. She kept flopping over and almost fell out of the chair. So, I pulled her to her feet and kind of ragdolled her around, trying to get her to wake up.”
* **** *
Without thinking and in one quick, coordinated motion, the man rushed forward, seized the woman’s wrist and drove his fist like a hammer into the side of her head. She collapsed, the gun falling to the carpet with a soft thud. He released her wrist and let her arm flop across her waist. He stood over her, glaring down at her motionless figure, breathing as though he’d just come in from a jog.
* **** *
“Ragdolled?” Said Eckert.
“Yeah, you know, walked her around with her arm over my shoulders and my other arm around her waist. She started to come to, thank God. I took her out on the lawn where the air was cooler. I thought that might help. It seemed to. She started moaning and waking up. She was beginning to walk on her own then.
“I took her a few paces up and down the path behind the apartment complex. It was even cooler the closer we got to the creek. Then she started to, uh, erk, you know? Like she was going to puke, which was good. I helped her down to the creek so she could barf there.”
“Why was that?” Eckert asked.
“I don’t know. I guess I didn’t want her puking on the sidewalk where people would come across it, maybe step in it.”
“How thoughtful of you,” sneered Williams.
“Yeah, regular Boy Scout,” confirmed Eckert.
“Whatever. It made sense at the time.”
“Did you call for an ambulance or anything?” Williams asked.
“Why the hell not? You knew she was O-D-ing.”
Brian stared at his empty coffee mug, summoning another wave of patience. They’d been over this so many times five years ago. Now he had to lay it all out again for Detective Williams.
“Yes, maybe. It was possible that she had only drunk too much and the pill bottle was just a decoy, to scare me. Know what I mean?”
* **** *
The man found himself gawking at the woman on the floor. He was half-seated on the back of the couch that faced the sliding glass door to the patio. Wracking his brain, he simply had no recollection of how she had ended up lying there so still like that. Then, he knelt and checked her pulse. None. He declined an ear close to her staring face. No breath, either. How long she had been like that, he couldn’t say.
* **** *
“Well, right or wrong, I didn’t call. My phone was still in my apartment and she was coming to. Honestly, I still didn’t want to let her into my apartment where she might get too comfortable and make it harder to finish breaking up. I figured she was probably manipulating me. I wanted her to sober up enough to just go away.”
* **** *
The man sat on his couch, considering what to do. Absently, he scrubbed his mouth as though washing it. A couple of hours later, he rose.
He went to the bedroom and retrieved a thin belt. Returning, he repositioned the woman until she was lying on her back, legs straightened. He stuffed the gun into his left pocket and placed her purse on the back of the couch. Next, he lowered himself to the carpet beside the woman and strapped her right knee to his left.
* **** *
“Look. I know it makes me look bad, but I thought at the time that she was sobering up, and because she was that she hadn’t really taken a bottle of Xanax. And that being the case, there was no reason I couldn’t just let her off with a warning, so to speak.”
“Meaning what, exactly?” Eckert wanted to know.
“She did barf in the creek. It was too dark to see what all was in it,” he said, turning his head as though reliving the moment. “Thankfully. I have a hard time not puking myself when I see other people’s puke.” He stared at the carpet a moment. “She got steadier on her feet after that, so I figured she hadn’t really taken pills, after all. We walked across the stream to the other side and went downstream for a while. There’s more sand and fewer rocks along that side. We just walked up and down the creek for a while until she was sober.”
“How long did that take?” Eckert again.
“I don’t know. A couple of hours. More, maybe. Once she started begging me to not break up, I figured it was time to take her back to her car and send her on her way.”
“I took her back to her car, anyway.”
“Did you go through your apartment to get to the parking lot?” Eckert wanted to know.
“No. We were on the south end of the complex and it was faster to go straight to her car from that direction. Anyway, I escorted her back to her car and made her get in. She was lucid enough by that time. I told her that she should just go away and forget about me, and if she tried to follow me or bug me anymore, I was going to call the cops. I told her that her behavior was crazy enough to get her committed, and the neighbors would probably agree, so she should just drive away and never look back.”
* **** *
The man stood up, dragging the woman up with him. He wrapped her right arm around his shoulders and tested the binding around their legs. The belt was holding, but her skirt was hitched up on that side. Nevertheless, it still hid the belt well enough if they were seen in the dark. When he moved his left leg, her right one moved, too, simulating the appearance that she was using him as a drunk’s crutch.
The man curled the fingers of the woman’s right hand around her purse strap and the strap around the fist a couple of times. The purse flopped against his chest as he moved her around. Using his finger, he lowered the woman’s eyelids to about half-mast. Finally, he grabbed his keys and ragdolled the woman out the patio door.
Avoiding the pools of light from the landscape spotlights, he dragged the woman around the grass for a few minutes, leaning enough to the right to stay balanced. He softly murmured in consideration of the windows open to the sweet summer night’s air, “Deep breaths. That’s it. Big breaths. Good, good. You’ll feel better soon.” Presently, he said with notable alarm, “Hold it in, hold it in. Can you wait until we get down the bank?”
* **** *
“I don’t know. Apparently not, unless she did, then came back again later. All I know is that I went back to my apartment and fell asleep on the couch. She never came back to the patio door, as far as I know, and never knocked on the front door, either.”
“Didn’t you think it strange that her car was still in the lot the next day?”
“I didn’t leave the apartment for the next three days, except to take my walks. When I’m hot on a book, I often spend upwards of sixteen hours a day cranking it out. I may not come up for air for several days. I didn’t know that her car was still there.”
“Hmf,” was all Eckert had to say. Williams muttered something under her breath. Eckert already knew the whole story, but it was still new to Williams.
“What happened next?” Williams continued, aloud this time.
“Nothing. Well, you guys paid me a visit — what, four days later? Otherwise, that’s all I can tell you. I wish I knew what happened to her as much as you do.”
“I’m sure you do,” mumbled Williams. Eckert closed his notepad, neatly capped his pen and deposited both in his jacket’s inside breast pocket. Finally, he raised his eyes to Brian and said, “That was some rain we had Tuesday, wasn’t it?”
“Boy, I’ll say. Made me glad I moved upstairs. I watched the creek rise and start overflowing the banks. It was kind of frightening. It was moving a hell of a lot of water. I hear it flooded out a bridge south of here.”
“Flooded out more than that,” Williams said, rising to her feet. She shared a long look with Eckert, who dipped his head in a nearly imperceptible nod. “By the way, we talked to your mom yesterday.” Slapping both palms flat to the oak table, and craning towards Brian’s face, she continued. “She said you confessed to her that you killed Elaine five years ago and buried her body in the creek bed.”
Brian couldn’t prevent the guffaw before it escaped his throat. Williams’ accusation was so absurd that it told him everything he needed to know, namely that they desperately wanted to pin Elaine’s death on him but had not a shred of viable evidence and no contradicting witnesses.
“Really?” he chuckled. “You paid her a visit at the Wickerwood mental hospital?”
“We did. We’ve got it all, Brian.”
“Huh. Did she tell you that before or after she told you how the demons come and rape her every week? Did she also tell you I killed my pets when I was a little kid? I hear that one a lot. She killed my hamster and my cat herself while I was at school or at a friend’s house. Detective Williams, my mom’s been disturbed for a long time. Hardly any place better than Wickerwood for her. But, hey. I understand. A lead’s a lead.”
Descending the stairs to the parking lot, Eckert said, “Well. What’d you think?”
“He’s one very cool cucumber. Almost think he’s not good for it. The case file says some neighbors saw him that night pretty much as he described it, walking her around near the creek. He could be telling the truth, but you know, last person to see her alive, car left in the lot and all that.”
“Plus, a guy whose mother has sex with demons probably has a few issues himself.” Eckert laughed.
“Yep. Guess we’ll have to see what forensics can find.”
“Five years. The body was feeding worms for a long time. They’re not going to find much, my guess. Flood water that exposed the body didn’t help much, either.”
“Right. Hole in the head doesn’t line up, though. Looked like her head was caved in then someone put a bullet in it besides. Is he known to have guns?”
“Not that we’ve been able to determine, but that means nothing in Colorado.”
“How ‘bout her?”
“She bought a .22 eight years ago. Had a concealed carry permit.”
“Which came first, the bullet or the divot? I doubt tipping over on his patio did that much damage.”
“Hmm. Tox report might possibly turn something up.”
“We know she took anti-depressants already. Alcohol will be long gone, if it was ever there in the first place.”
“Guess you’re right. I kind of felt sorry for him, though. Lovers like that are about as easy to shake off as boogers on a finger. Sometimes, you just have to wipe them on your jeans.”
Eckert laughed. “You got a way with words, Williams. Anyone ever tell you that?”
Brian leaned against the door, sobbing quietly, grieving for Elaine at long last.
What have I done?