Originally published in Vol. 1, Issue #2 of Coffin Bell
It sits there like the perfect intaglio, all five toes accounted for, the heel an unspoiled ellipsis, inner arch like the cold, bright crescent of the winter moon. A footprint glaring at me from the carpet. A child’s footprint, more accurately, sunk deep into the thick, pink plush. I’ve been staring at it for the past hour at least, my face in my hands, elbows on my knees, eyes peeled into colorless olives. The light from the bay window on the other side of the loft has cycled through a half-day time lapse, aging from white to gold as it fans over the horrible thing. The shadows in the crater blanch and darken, elongate, retract again.
The house is brand new.
The carpet, new.
Only two people have ever lived here, and neither of them are a child.
Really, I don’t know why I haven’t noticed it before. I suppose moving here has left a fairly deep groove in my brain. Little details tend to get stuck in the tracks, while the big ones—the settling, the packing and unpacking, the first, fat mortgage check I scrawled out—weigh down and make the tracks deeper. It’s a wonder I have the mental fortitude to notice anything smaller than a crisis.
“You see that?” I’m pointing.
“What,” Carla says.
“Is it one of those stink bugs? I just found one on my sink.”
“I’m not sure how they get everywhere.”
“No, it’s a footprint.”
I blink out a succession of tiny furies. “You don’t think it’s weird?”
She can’t see it. Not for what it is. “Why would it be weird?”
“Because it’s a kid’s foot. See?” I line my shoe parallel to it, lifting my pantleg a bit to give it some flair. Like a battleship in a sea of pink fluff. “Tell me you don’t see that.”
“What I see is you acting weird.”
“I’m not weird. This is weird.”
“Can you help with the bathroom stuff? We need to get the basic stuff out, at least.”
“Why would it be there? Was it you?”
Her voice echoes out of whatever box of valuables she’s currently unpacking. More glassware, more tchotchkes. “Honey, that’s yours.”
“What? Not it’s not.”
She has that voice now, the one that answers a child when they ask if their goldfish is going to heaven right after its limp, nugget-shaped body is flushed into the watery void. Having to explain something so silly, so temporal, to a naïf who thinks it’s the world that’s ended.
“It’s definitely yours. You come up here all the time, doing your little push-ups and whatnot.”
“My little push-ups.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I always wear shoes, though. We’ve talked about it, right?” I spread my hands. “How dirty the carpet is. How I want it replaced. I always wear shoes, everywhere. Only time I take ‘em off is for bed.”
“Well maybe you came up or some other reason. Do I honestly have to humor you here? I mean, come on, Phil, it’s a footprint. It was either you or me.”
I look at her, mouth blowing invisible bubbles. I almost shake my head but I’d rather smack my tongue against my teeth. “I’m a size eleven, Carla.”
“So what, you think a kid broke in to the house and tiptoed around the loft? Is that it?”
“I don’t know, okay? All I’m saying is, it wasn’t here before. And now it is.”
The new in new house is an operative word. I suspected as much on the first viewing, when I saw the stains on the baseboards and the black sweat squeezing out of the pipe joints under the kitchen sink. And it’s confirmed now as I get a full view of the basement windows from the outside—sad things, beaten in and blackened and scrawled with rainstorm mud. The day we moved in I thought I spotted a mouse squish through one of the pebble-sized holes in the glass like it was fully invertebrate. Some would call that an omen.
Now here I am. Never thought I’d be down on my knees poking for ghosts, pressing my hand along the pane as if testing for a mirage. A quilt of stubby grass and fossilized leaves twists through. Dead weeds stick out from the muntins like stubs of hair in an electric razor. No one’s been down here in a long time.
The crawlspace under the porch is my next stop. Not much there, either. Fleecy dirt spotted by a few patches of crab grass. A long rock is the only other thing. Maybe a knob of wood.
On a whim I get down on my chest and stretch for it, smelling the tinny flush of the garden stones, wincing as their hard, cold surfaces brace against my jaw, smelling the strange ripeness of the black mulch. Feels like forever before my fingers manage to hook across the rock. I drag it out and instinctively brush it off like an old heirloom, pulling away the nubs of cobweb with my thumb. If it’s a rock it’s the strangest rock I’ve ever seen, smooth and cylindrical and flush at both ends, a ladder of thin slashes making their way up the front edge. In the center is some kind of joint or knobbed portion, like a hinge, and the crown is hairy with patches of gnawed-away hide and blood.
I turn it in my hands and set it down and stand up and look at it as it lies in the damp grass. I can hear the stream beyond the woodline, the soft trickle sketching out my thoughts. Loose and messy and formless. The strangest rock I’ve ever seen. If it’s a rock.
Not a rock.
A knee bone, sawed clean just above and below the joint, scratched at and bitten on the long parts. Surgical and feral in the same space, hidden beneath the porch where no bone should be.
I chew my fingers down to the pink meat below the nail and crack the shavings on my molars. I feel a lodestone grow in my stomach, heavy and magnetized with fear. I stare at it. I stare and hear every trickle of water that wrings itself through the blathering current behind me, racing along mud and stone to some pointless end. I’ve heard foxes bray like wounded children in the darkness but I’ve never heard a sound so dirgelike as that water, pushing on towards nowhere.
I have a child’s footprint with no child.
I have a sawed-off bone with no skeleton.
Each one is waiting, exposed like time capsules unearthed by the passage of days.
Do I rebury them? Do I commit them to another unwitting man or woman, another place or time? Pass the horror on like a defect gene waiting to rear itself in the next generation? I could if I wanted. I could throw it back under and rub the print out of the carpet. Clean the slate. Forget it all.
I stand and stare. Every strand of hair on my neck and behind my ears feels like an ice pick inserted deep under my skin. I feel that whatever I do next, I’ll do it irrevocably.
It was probably unwise to place the bone on the dining table for Carla’s assessment, but that’s exactly where I put it, laying it parallel to the tweed runner like the centerpiece of some grotesque pagan ritual. Under the soft light it looks yellowy and bilious, a diseased carapace with no center. I remember standing in this room with nothing else in it but now I share it with a piece of something that has most likely been rent out of some other living thing. Out of a victim. I’ve turned the dining room into a morgue.
“Get it off the table,” she commands immediately upon seeing it. “Now.”
“I want you to look at it first. What kind of bone is this?”
“What kind is it? Tell me that.” I bring her to the edge of the table and place her hands down on the edge, careful not to let them graze the rotting bone. “Your best guess.”
“I don’t know, a deer? Phil, get it off!”
“Too big for a deer. They don’t have knees like that.” I nudge it a little, not sure what might come of it.
“Don’t touch it—Jesus, Phil.” She lets herself breathe. “This is insane.”
She pulls her arms away. “I know what you’re asking and it’s insane. What the hell has gotten into you? First the foot thing, and now this?”
“Look at me. Look at me, okay?” I grab her hands, tug her hands, holding them up to frame my face. She gives a weak pull at first and then a hard one. I won’t let her go. “There was nothing else down there. Just this. It’s too big to be a deer. You know what that means. You know.”
“It could mean a dozen different things,” she says. Her hands finally fall into mine, patronizing almost, though I know she doesn’t mean it. Her belittlements are never intentional. “It’s like when you go looking on the Internet, Phil. When you type your cough or sore throat into a search bar and get a dozen things back but you always go to the worst one. Right? The cancers or the others. Always dying. That’s you, the worst. That’s what you’re doing here. You’re zeroing in on it.”
“That’s not fair,” I say, stung by how dead-on it is. “You think it’s a coincidence? A footprint and then a leg bone? That’s not just coincidence. No fucking way. This is a child’s knee, Car. It’s a child’s footprint upstairs and it’s a child’s knee here and there’s something bad going on—”
“—it’s a new house, never lived in, but somehow, we’re finding—”
“Phil, listen to yourself. Are you hearing this?”
“—prints and bones and who knows what next. Who knows? It’s like a goddamn crime scene.”
She just stares. I’ve gone beyond the reach of words, apparently, and now the eyes do the work, boring into me like diamond-tipped drills desperately trying to lobotomize the crazy out. I can see the glistening red lines that rim her sclera and the veins reaching in towards the center like barren grapevines. She doesn’t blink. I don’t know how she does that. The mystery of it makes me wither a bit.
“I know this’s been stressful,” she says. The boring stops and her eyelids flick and flutter. She cups a hand on my back. “And I know you don’t like change. But it’ll get easier each day, I promise. We’re going to make it a home.”
My hands drop.
I stare at the wall. The spackling putty we’d glommed into the nail-holes has turned a crusty white, far brighter than the livery yellow paint that coats the rest of the room. New is an operative word, a subjective word. We’ll have to give it a better color. We’ll have to work ourselves like dogs to get it back to a blank slate it’s supposed to be.
I stare at the wall and I stare at the bone.
I chuck it into the trash the next day, just as she’s commanded. There hasn’t been anything so obvious since. A few odd things, maybe. Tricks of the mind, as Car is so often accusing. I’d walked the neighborhood a day ago and swore someone was following me, closer each time. A kid on a bike, it turned out. Lapped me a few times, waved on each pass. Seems convenient.
At night there’re barks in the woods, those foxes I always hear, bleak cries that sit somewhere between a banshee and a baby. Mating calls, I’m told. Strangely human and not the least bit erotic. The sex must be hell.
I hear them late when I’m up in the loft, pouring over the footprint. I’ve moved the lamp from corner to corner, to every conceivable space, hoping to catch something in the way the light drapes over its shape. Perhaps the toes aren’t toes, the heel not a heel. Maybe something else. Maybe a depression from a carpenter’s knee or a roofer’s hardhat or the crater of a radial saw dropped from a sawhorse. Something else. Anything else.
I lay in bed thinking of every last possibility, not all of them earthly. The dark does strange things to human reasoning. Or mine, at least. Ghosts, demons, tricksters, eldritch spirits. Cannibals and cults. I envision an HOA that sacrifices tow-headed children so that the newest McMansion can be properly sanctified. Perhaps this one got as far as the loft before they drug him or her down to the basement and did their bloodletting and ate the flesh and committed a few more unspeakable acts of demented conviction my drowsy hypothalamus convinces itself is entirely probable. Perhaps one of the flunkies tried to hide any sign of struggle; bleach the blood, slice up the bones and throw them under the crawlspace, rub out the footprints in the carpet save for one. Perhaps.
I look over at Car’s white face resting on the pillow like a mote of perfect ivory and think my machinations as likely as they are crazy. Fey light bleeds through the window and I don’t sleep for more than a minute before the sun pops up to burn the earth for another day.
She warned me to throw it, which I did. But she also warned me to drop the whole business altogether. That presumes that I’m the one doing the holding.
Car’s sweet, but she’s got it wrong. It’s the other way around. The print holds me. The bone holds me. I’ve struggled through two weeks of sleepless nights and ragged-eyed days and neither will loosen their grip. Something calls out of time, out of memory, from some darkness between the earth and the heavens, between the still-empty rooms of our house and the weathered boxes whose contents will one day fill them. Between a benign footprint and the impossibility of its existence in the pink, fluffy carpet it marks. Disconnection, I’d call it. A gap between two ragged ends of rope.
That gap has me doing things I’d never thought I’d do. Standing on the stoop of the house across the street, for example, and pounding on the door until the neighbors crack it two inches all glass-eyed and stare in horror as I ask them if they’ve ever thought about the taste of human flesh.
Or watching the kids get off the bus every afternoon for the past week, following them at tectonic speed in my Yaris to make sure they get past their mailboxes and past their hedges and behind the shelter of their stormdoors.
Digging up the loamy soil in the backyard until my shoulders felt like they were being jerked by two Medieval torturers, chipping at the bedrock until my forearms tensed into overtuned piano wire. Mud between my toes and sweat stinging my eyes.
Hearing the foxes call and the patter of spoke beads on bicycles and the thick chewing of the anthropophagi who live on either side of my picket fence. I can smell the sour reek of blood on their teeth as they list the top brands of grass seed and the best leaf services and how to the line the door sweeps up just right to keep the mice out of the garages. Masticated flesh on their tongues and a photonegative glint in their eyes. I throw my shovel at them. I run into the house and lock the door. The breath running through my lungs is as hot and wild as anything I’ve ever dreamt.
I think about it even when I don’t. My hands are compresses on the sink counter, palms submerged in the gritty, lukewarm puddles left behind by the leaky faucet. I’ve fixed it three times but I know there’ll be a fourth. The cops have come calling twice but I’ll know they’ll try again. Can’t have someone throwing gardening tools at the neighbors.
Outside the window the sky is half-obscured, a rim of blue on top and below an inkline of dark, hoary clouds resembling mountains or impossibly tall trees or both. There’s a pink light between the two, like a streak in a petal. The sun going out. Same pink as in the carpet. Same shadows as what falls in the Stygian contours of the footprint.
Just one impression, one press. Not a trail. Not a triptych of smudges or a series. No evidence that a child played there. No evidence of anyone at all, in fact. An island with no hints as to how it emerged, no origin in the material world. A singularity. The bone the same. An animal’s, most likely. A leftover dog’s scrap from the family barbecue.
The bone is gone now of course but I’ve stared at the footprint every night. I’ve never touched it and don’t mean to unless the glare of my eyes counts as touch. How was it left? Where did it start? Was it truly in the past? Maybe sins can ripple backward just as well as they do forward, twisting reverse through the maybes of your life to punish you for what you’ll become. To pay for decisions you haven’t made but will.
Can it happen? Something bad between the reality of now and the possibility of what’s to come, a tragedy forcing the latter to reach back through time, willing itself into awareness long before it ever had the chance to exist? Sorrow, agony, rage, regret, all together like some poisonous cloud, pervading whatever capsule holds them and seeping into the next? Nothing can stay pure. No pristine thing can lay untouched by the talon of age, whether before us or behind us. The world turns. Perhaps the footprint is an augur of our own child, of some tragedy years from now when the house is not so new. Perhaps nothing more unordinary than a fall or a seizure. A warning of the distant little calamities that life has in store.
Either way, she knows, doesn’t she? There’s no coincidence when it comes to human purview. There’s two of us in this house and one of those two doesn’t know. The other is dismissive, cajoling, unconcerned. Too comfortable with the disconnection. She can live with the gap between the footprint and the knowing, between the bone and the knowing. She doesn’t see the mystery. Dealing with that has been frustrating in its own right but the frustration melts away when I consider that the failure might be willful. Of course it is. She’s always gotten her way.
It’s so clear now, sitting by the door as I am, waiting and waiting, looking into the half-painted foyer with the old shelves we’ve yet to remove, with the split ends of pastel carpet sticking off the end of each step as they trace upwards to the second floor, with the honey-dos staring at me from every corner and every shadow. She picked the house, after all. It’s only right she’d know what was waiting. Death. Death and whatever terror exists beyond that, the plinth where the living are strung up and reminded of what time they wasted and what poor decisions they’ve made. She knew it was here, in this house. She knew it and I didn’t.
“Phil? Why are you on the floor?”
“I was cold.”
“Cold?” She hangs her purse on the doorhook and pulls the deadbolt closed. “It’s warmer on the floor?”
She doesn’t see it. I’ve got it curled up tight and she doesn’t see it.
“Phil, there’s a cop parked out front. I just had a long conversation with her.”
Hand on her hip. Golden hour light beams in across the rose window and passes through her, pitching a triangular shadow against the empty foyer wall. “The neighbors called 911, did you know that?”
“You threw a shovel at Jim and Nancy?”
“Didn’t have a choice.”
“Phil!” All I can see are her hips, her thighs, her knees. Buffalo check pants where the threads are so fine the edges of the black patches look green. Sickly, fuzzy, microbial green. Dead green. “What is wrong with you?”
“I’m being punished.”
“What on earth are you being punished for?”
“Life is holding us account for future sins.”
“Future sins? Things you haven’t even done yet?”
“Doesn’t matter to karma whether it’s past, present or future, have done or will done. It’s all equal. All on the same plane.”
She shuts her eyes. “Is that why you’re throwing shovels at people? At our neighbors?”
“Couldn’t be helped.” My hands are still wet with dishwater but the grip is steady. Some kind of space-age rubber, extra hard. Won’t ever slip. Good for nailing in studs, patching the roof. It’ll land true.
Her black-red-green legs wilt somewhat. “Listen, I know you’ve been stressed, okay? I am too. A new house is a lot of work.”
“Yep. You said that.”
“It bears repeating.”
“Lots of work.”
“It’s okay to feel overwhelmed. It’s okay to worry. But you can’t—Phil, are you listening?”
“You can’t treat our neighbors this way.”
“You can’t extend decency to indecent people, either, Car. Shouldn’t have to say that.”
“Phil, this is serious.”
“The cop said you were screaming and carrying on—”
“How would she know? Word of mouth…” Incantations from devil tongues.
“—that you were digging up the easement. She’s willing to let it pass as long as you apologize and cover it again. Otherwise the county will have to come out, and they’ll charge us for putting the dirt back. Are you listening?”
A sigh so powerful and so long I can feel it bearing down on the top of my head. “It’s just another thing on the list, Phil. You get that, right? Another thing we’ve got to do. We haven’t even unpacked half the stuff sitting in the garage.”
“Why do you gloss over everything?”
Her voice stops winding, practically clicking to a stop. “What?”
I don’t look at her. “I said, why do you gloss over everything?”
“What are you talking about?”
“The footprint,” I say.
She has a new shadow on the far wall now, a gray rash that’s larger and more shapeless than it was, less dark perhaps, but stronger, deeper, far more enveloping. The divergent light has split it like a cord of wood, and the resultant slivers of darkness come in every shade of ash and splay every surface of the room, beating my eyes to whichever space they dare fall upon. The baseboard on the opposite side is the only spot that remains cleanly lit, gilded by the setting sun. It’s where I stare now.
“The bone, too.”
“Honey,” she says, as if I’ve strayed out from my rubber room, “are you still stuck on those?”
I can’t see her face anymore. Lord knows I try. I peer up and squint but it’s just a goddamn blot, a stain warbling in midair. I don’t even know if it’s her. Could be a golem in a blouse. Could be my own footprint. Could be a deer’s bone.
“I thought we discussed this.”
“We talked about it,” I say, retreating deeper into my grip.
“What are you holding?”
“We didn’t discuss it.”
“Phil, you’re starting to scare me.”
“Yeah? I’m sorry about that. But some of us’ve been living in fear since the day we moved in.”
“Fear makes you do weird things, Car.” I feel myself standing. I see her shadow twitch and shrivel.
She can see it now but it’s far too late. Compulsion has become momentum. My arm is pulled back one moment, swinging down the next. Terror bristles in the pulp of my teeth and the muscles in my neck, tracing the sinew from the shoulder to the elbow and splitting into each finger like localized ball lightning. My jaw pops on its hinge. The rush of it drowns all sound away. She might say something else, she might not. I can’t hear it either way. I can’t even hear my own voice.
“Fear breaks it and fear will put it back together.”
It was a clean kill, the hammer’s claw slipping through the eye with no more resistance than if it were piercing a warm, overripe grape. That was the easy part. The challenge will be standing at the edge of the abyss and realizing that I don’t feel at all bad for what I’ve done but knowing somehow I have to treat it like I do. Even in murder, there are pretenses.
I wrap her in the master bath shower curtain, rings still attached, feet stretched out the bottom. What blood hasn’t jetted out onto the unhung prints stacked against the entryway is now slipping over the curtain and pooling in the doorjam. A thicker thing slithers out to join the rest like a bulbous snake, brain or plasma or bone, something ponderous for later.
I drag her down through the narrow basement door and immediately the smell of it is enough to make me retch. The putrid vinegar of lightless things, the tinny perfumes, the cold cement, the strange wet-black grime that builds up in the cracks—all of it fouling up my nostrils and pervading my brain. Can’t think. Can’t reason. Can hardly perform the menial task of covering up my devilwork.
My legs concur and slip on the blood. I tumble down the rest of the way with the body sliding behind me, a wretched kid and his cadaver sled. They’re already waiting at the bottom when I arrive in a heap.
“This was a steal,” Jim says. Of course he’s not really there. Blood clots in his mouth and his eyes are like black, greasy anthracite jutting out of his head, so black as to be almost starry. “Either you had a good agent or the market was just right. You got lucky.”
“And now look at you,” Nance says as she saddles up to him, her sundress ringed with thick, crusty mold. They stand together like two undead regents atop the pile of wood scrap Car and I had been assembling from all the shelves and molding and bannisters we didn’t like, hiding it down here in a jumbled rat’s nest. Nails stick up from the boards like twisted little ice worms. It’s my only hope they’ve stepped on a few rusty ones.
I get to my feet again and haul the body to the pile.
“You thought she was in on it?” Jim asks in his dry slither.
“Whatever it is,” Nance says.
“That’s not the only reason,” I tell them both.
“I did it to prevent something.”
“Tragedy,” I say, so sure of myself. “The print and the bone were omens. Sin can chase us forwards and backwards. Doesn’t matter when.”
“That’s just crazy.”
“Yes,” I say, fiddling around in my pocket. “But if I repent now, well in advance of ever committing the sin, I won’t have to live with it.”
“It’s just a footprint and a bone, Phil,” Nance explains.
As I dig deeper and deeper into my pocket I stare down at the plastic curtain holding her body. In the bleak fluorescent light it resembles one of those crystalline grub worms, the same where you can see the offal and the blood beating within, the fragile life through the husk.
“That’s all it ever is until it’s too late,” I say. My hand reaches its small, square goal, lodged at the absolute bottom of the pocket along with a few balls of lint and some chewed fingernails. “Two disconnected points, then a loose string, then a taut one. Soon enough it’s slipped right over your neck.”
Jim laughs, exposing the oil burns on his gums. “Correction, Nance. It’s a footprint and a bone and your crazy fucking mind.”
“We’re not even here, you know,” Nance says gleefully.
“That proves it right there, doesn’t it? You know you’re insane and you still do what you do. If that’s not a special kind of madness, what is?”
I can hear the pounding at the door again, vibrating through the floorboards. A red beam scissors through the groundfloor windows and then scissors again. Siren light. Each time it comes it passes immediately below Jim and Nance’s chins, splitting their dull faces from the rest of their bodies. How I wish that shovel had done it for real.
“Now, now, Phil,” Jim says. “If you wanted it that bad, should’ve been a better aim.”
The match is already lit by the time I lift it up. I don’t feel the flame. Just an old and frozen wind blowing across my face, colder than if it were shot straight up from one of the earth’s poles. Fingers reaching through the hollow of a bone. The heatless flame dances to it. I go to my knees and then to my back. The match judders in my hand but the flame licks on. It’ll go up easy, I tell myself. All the lint and dust and little splinters of dry, dirty wood, the half-ruined mouse nests, the bug-husks. How couldn’t it? It will. It must.
I drop the match.
“What a waste,” Nance says, watching Car and I burn together. “A steal, just like you said, hon.”
The black smoke curls out of the basement, up towards the rest of the house, slithering through the windows and under the doors in a vile, tendrilous grace. They’ll see it for miles. They’ll remember it.
“Great school district, too,” Jim says. “Best in the state.”
No more bones. No more footprints. No more connections. Just ash. Cinders and ash, rent from whatever they once were.
“Best in the state,” Nance agrees.