I dug Rita up on a cloudy night. No one could see me at the back of the park under the trees. It took me nearly two hours and by the time I finished I had bloody blisters and a stabbing pain in my back. It felt like I was digging for a week.
I had no idea what ten years in the ground could do to a body. It eats it. Rita’s flesh was gone with no trace. Bones, like gleaming albino insects from another universe, muddled the thick wet dirt. There was no way that I could recover them all so I scooped what was available into a plastic yard bag. When I hefted it over my shoulder my ghoulish package clicked eerily. Scooting from shadow to shadow, I hurried to my car with pools of hot sweat lapping at my skin.
The image of Rita’s skull haunted me as I drove across the sleeping city. Two empty black hollows stared back from the darkness. One twisted tangle of hair clung to the rough white bone like a grisly parasite. That hideous mask of death had branded me and I knew I would never forget it.
I fought nausea twice. Pulling over was unthinkable with that bag on the seat so I clung to the steering wheel like a child. Somehow I found my way back to the house. I sat there in the driveway numb and spent. Silence, like nothing I had ever experienced before, was everywhere.
I stared at the house. There were two lights. A huge blaze in the living room and a white pinprick above the sink in the kitchen. A shadow figure loomed behind the living room curtains. My heart pounded and I struggled for breath. It seemed impossible to drag myself and my gruesome cargo out of the car and up to the porch but I did it. And then I forced myself inside.
I shuffled through the dark hall and into the living room. My body sagged onto one corner of the couch and I huddled there. Quiet footsteps and a swish of black skirt came toward me and I cringed. Relinquishing the plastic bag to the blue-veined hand, I crooked my neck up and stared at Silvia’s pale face. Her dark eyes, sharply cut cheeks and chin, and narrow lips fashioned a pitiless mask.
Sneering with contempt, she said, “You think that I am going to hurt you, William. I am not.”
I ran a hand through my hair and stared at the carpet. At her shining black shoes. I asked in a quiet voice, “Why not?”
The shoes disappeared from my sight. When I looked up Sylvia was in the recliner across the room. The bag lay on the gray slate in front of the fireplace. Her long white fingernails brushed the wrinkled black plastic with a tiny scratching noise. “This is all I need from you.”
I flinched at the taunt inside her voice. I saw her expression of triumph and accused, “You’re lying,”
Sylvia’s gaze dropped to the bag. “I will take my sister and bury her in consecrated ground.” A hand gestured to the envelope on the coffee table. “You may take that with you. I will not bother you again, William.”
I didn’t believe her. Suspecting that this was all an elaborate trick, I refused to move. I pleaded for her to understand, “It was an accident. I told you, Sylvia. It was all a horrible accident.”
Her voice lashed out like fire. “Was it an accident that you buried her in an unmarked grave? That you married that woman three months after you killed Rita? Do not take me for a fool.”
I slouched in defeat, muttering sadly, “That was so long ago. I’ve suffered because of what I did. Every day, for years I suffered because of the guilt.”
“I’m sure that you did, William.”
She was toying with me. I wanted to end this farce. “You’re going to turn me in. I know you are.”
“I told you, you may have the evidence. It has served its purpose.”
I thought about how much it must have cost to uncover the information that was in that envelope. The pages inside documented the physical abuse Rita kept hidden from the world as well as the inflated insurance policies. The affair with Muriel while Rita was alive—it was all in there. All my secrets exposed. How much had it all cost? “You did all this,” I said incredulously, “just to force me to dig her back up? No, you’ve already talked to the police.”
“The police? They are fools. I tried to tell them years ago that you killed Rita. But they wouldn’t believe the truth.” Sylvia was amused. “I always knew the truth, William. And I thought about killing you for a long time. But when your second wife Muriel dumped you I realized there are worse things than dying. And then the market crash. That just about wiped out everything Muriel left you after the divorce, didn’t it?”
Obviously she had checked out everything about my life. “You know I’m broke.”
“All that lovely insurance money is gone now. How does that make you feel? A little less guilty about killing my sister?”
“I don’t know. That was so long ago. I was someone else then.”
“Yes. You were a man who could kill. And then for a long time you were a man who suffered the guilt for what he’d done.”
“And now you’re a third man. A repentant man who doesn’t have to suffer anymore.”
“I’ve put all that behind me.”
Sylvia’s eyes glinted with triumph, as if I’d damned myself with my admission. “You’ve lost everything and you have forgiven yourself. Why suffer anymore after so long?” She smiled malevolently. “I have not forgiven you, William.”
“You are going to turn me in. I knew it.”
“Would that make you suffer again?” She laughed haughtily. “Or would prison be a place to assuage the guilt you’ve awakened this night?” She caught my gaze and gripped it. “I’ve brought the guilt back for you, William. Can you feel it? Can your hands still feel the bone and the dirt as you pulled my sister’s corpse back up? Was there a distinctive odor, William? Of something old and rotten? Can you still smell it?”
My heart froze as I felt the hard bone on my palms and that vile taint clawed at my nostrils again. “No!” I screamed. “You’re going to turn me into the police.”
Sylvia held up the bag with Rita’s remains and I could hear her moving in there. “Do you see her empty eyes? They’ll never stop looking at you, will they?”
“You’re going to turn me in,” I gasped. Sylvia had uncovered the guilt that I buried so deep. I could see Rita’s skull grinning before my eyes. “Turn me in. I’ll be punished.”
“Seeing you punished in jail might give me some pleasure, yes.” Her mouth formed a voracious smile and she taunted, “But pleasure can be so fleeting. While pain can last forever. You will never escape the guilt now, William.”
I knew she was right. I sobbed, stumbling into the hall. I flung open the door and dashed into the night screaming.
The gleam of an alabaster skull blinded me from the darkness and a stiff tendril of hair brushed my cheek.
A native of Cicero, Illinois, Chris Dean enjoyed watching harness races at Sportsman’s Park as a youth. Traveling throughout the American west, Chris has worked as a gold miner, truck driver, musician, and concert promoter. Currently Chris farms near Chicago; when frost hits it’s off to Nevada for tournament poker.
Image by Jeffrey