In Case of Emergency
Steel skies shrouded steel eyes. Grave digging was grim work, and Adler had grown to be a grim man.
The sun was breaking behind grey clouds when he dumped his last shovelful of loamy soil on her most recent victim. He quietly bent his head and uttered the customary prayer of remorse. He stood there for a few moments, biding his time before he went back to her. It was a routine the couple had developed over the course of their prolific career; she says her “goodbyes”, and leaves once the shoveling begins, waiting in the truck until he’s finished.
He counted the graves. As he had gotten older, and as her impulses became more erratic, he had begun to lose count. Some of the older ones were barely visible, and had they been seen alone they might have been missed by the passerby. Yet as the artist can recognize the subtlety of his craft more readily than others, so can the gravedigger always find handiwork, no matter how veiled his graves become through the slow wear of time. For the rest of his life, Adler knew he would be able to find each one.
There were twenty seven of them. Each one a dose less effective than the last.
As the number grew, so did the amount of time Adler found himself lingering with them. He dreaded seeing his wife now. In the beginning, the pair had their best days after the burials. The bloodletting seemed to drain the poison from her soul, and she became human once more. Her eyes shone again – her smile, so long hidden under the weight of her perversion, returned, natural and beautiful. She expressed sorrow, but gratitude as well. It took a remarkable man to do the things he had done for her, she would say. She was an expert manipulator, skillfully plucking the deep strings of his insecurity. But soon her condition grew to the point that she could no longer contain the true nature of these post murder states.
He opened the car door. She was writhing inhumanely. She didn’t notice him until he started the engine.
She looked at him, startled. But she smiled. “Oh, Addy…” Her sadistic mania would last a few disturbing days. But as inhuman as her arousal was, it was far preferable to what came next. Yet Adler felt the bile of disgust seep into the depths of his slowly rotting heart.
He put the car in gear and drove down the dirt road, past the special tree and back to the interstate. Evelyn resumed her writhing, murmuring something about “vibrations”.
It was a half hour or so before she collected enough lucidity to address her husband. “We should stop in Orange and rent a motel for the night,” Evelyn said. She leaned over and put her hands on Adler’s shoulder. “Just like the old times, huh?”
“Let’s just go home.” He knew she would pout, but he didn’t mind. She was still high enough to ignore these little slights. He learned to use these fleeting periods the best he could.
He couldn’t put her off forever, though. Once they returned to the ranch, he performed his customary post-burial duty and left her to herself, walking through the acreage to clear his head. In the past he would use these sabbatical walks to rationalize, dreaming up excuses and possible cures for Evelyn’s symptoms. But now, Adler only wanted to forget, coming up with fantastic scenarios and alternate histories of his life, trying to drown out the shrieking guilt that left a thick fog in his tortured mind. Like an addict to his needle, he longed to return to the comfort of the woods often.
Still, it was hard to keep the creeping conscience from stealing back into his thoughts. This last one – a simple kill, really – was young, as Evelyn preferred. Isaac Patterson, mid-twenties; she delighted in learning as much as she could from her victim’s belongings. This was torturous to Adler; it added the burden of acquaintance to an already abominable crime. He wondered if his torment was part of Evelyn’s game, but he pushed these thoughts aside. She was as much of a victim as the innocents she killed. Only their reprieve was permanent.
They found the boy in Bridge City, looking for a ride. She hated getting hitchhikers from the interstate. It was too easy. But she was feeling itchier than usual, and was willing to make a compromise. Isaac was very grateful, and Adler figured that by the time they turned off on that old dusty road Evelyn was so primed that she had forgotten how the boy had even gotten in the truck.
It was the same story. “We own some land off the road here, mind if we stop to pick up a few things? It won’t take but a sec.” Adler did all the talking. The quiver in Evelyn’s voice had almost given them away before, but the two were quick learners.
They stopped. “The house is just past those trees there. Say, you mind helping me out – there’s an ice chest and it’s a bit heavy.” Isaac, happy to oblige, hopped out of the truck and walked with Adler to the special tree. It wasn’t really special, of course. That was simply where the equipment was – duct tape, rope, and a gun in case of emergency. They had never needed it.
Adler was a strong man. Young Isaac soon was bound, gagged, and left there. Adler walked back to the truck – when Evelyn saw him from the woods, she leapt out to perform her work. She carried a small tote bag with her. Adler never asked what was in the bag.
Adler had a pair of shooting earmuffs for the noise. His ears could never have heard the screams as he sat patiently in the driver’s seat, but imagination is powerful. He didn’t hear the scream, but he felt the pain.
Isaac took about twenty five minutes. The shortest they had ever done was about three – the longest, over an hour. She climbed in the passenger side, breathless, and Adler went to lay the body to rest. The two had developed a wordless system, like an assembly line.
They had murder down to a science.
Adler turned this all over in his head unwillingly as he lingered outside. After a while he was just killing time, making sure Evelyn was asleep by the time he went back inside. The sun was setting by the time he returned to the house. Adler slept on the sofa. He would have welcomed a nightmare, but he stopped dreaming a long time ago.
A good kill lasted her a few months – a bad one, and she would start showing symptoms in less than a week. Isaac’s grace lasted four and a half weeks. Adler knew it was over when he walked through the door one Friday afternoon. Evelyn normally spent her days sleeping or in her photo room – a place Adler made a point to avoid – but would provide some semblance of a response when Adler came home.
The only thing greeting Adler this day was the message. Evelyn always let Adler know it was time in the same way. She was never good at expressing herself, and the mere fact that she needed to kill was enough to drive her to the brink. She was cursed with a need to hurt, and if she couldn’t do it to a stranger, she would do it to herself. The pattern of self-mutilation was more than either of them could bear. But like the rest of their new life, they found a way around this too. One day, Adler returned home to find the photo room locked, Evelyn inside and silent. When he went to the bedroom, he found a plastic bag tied to the handle. Inside, a torn up photograph. He did not have to piece many together then to see the face of their most recent victim.
So when Adler found the torn up picture of Isaac’s dead face tied to the bedroom door, he knew it was time. It was her symbol, letting Adler know that the comfort the boy had so fleetingly provided his troubled wife had run out. Adler appreciated the procedure. For Evelyn, it was a superhuman feat of sensitivity. Adler spent the rest of the day making the necessary preparations, knocking on the photo room door at sunset. Evelyn emerged, shivering like an emaciated dog, and the two hopped into his truck and headed east toward the border.
A few silent hours passed before they found a car stopped on the side of the interstate. Evelyn said nothing, but began frantically breathing, with a hint of moan, to let Adler know she was willing to stop. Adler pulled behind the car, an old rag-top jeep. Evelyn began to compose herself as he hopped out of the truck.
The girl was alone. Curly blonde hair fell around deep, wide set brown eyes. A letterman jacket covered some sort of sports jersey. Young. Adler’s heart sank.
“Howdy!” He was always surprised by how well he could mask his voice.
“Hi there.” She looked at Adler suspiciously. He had found all young girls to be wary of old men on the side of the road, and Evelyn would be key to the charade. He prayed she couldn’t hold it together.
“You got a jack?”
“Uh, no I, I – we never got around to getting one.”
Bad luck for her. “That’s alright. Eve, is the jack in the bed?” Window rolled down, Evelyn stuck her head out and nodded. It was too dark to make out the nature of her smile, but Adler knew what it looked like, and knew if the girl had seen it she wouldn’t have felt at all relieved to see her. But all she saw was the shadowy feminine outline of a wife or girlfriend. Adler could tell she already felt much safer.
“That’s my wife, Evelyn. I’m Adler, by the way.”
“I’m Sarah,” she said, and smiled for the first time. He walked back to grab the jack he always knew was there. When he tried to lift the jeep up, the jack failed.
“Well, can you believe it?” he said.
She stood over him, smiling sympathetically. “Looks like we both are having some bad luck.”
He gazed up at that innocent curly outline. “You’re telling me.”
He stood up. “But, it could be worse. My cousin lives just off the highway a few exits ahead. We could go and borrow his jack and be back in a few.”
“Oh, are you sure? I mean, y’all have gone to so much trouble already.”
“Not a problem.” He started to the truck and opened the driver side door, looking back at the girl. “Well, are you coming?”
“Oh, no, that’s okay. I’ll just wait here.”
“Wait here?” he asked. “That’s a bit too dangerous if you ask me. You never know who is running around this hour way out here.”
“Really, it’s okay. I’ll be fine.”
“Well look,” he offered, “let me at least call my pal Gus. He works for the sheriff’s office, and he can come out here to sit with ya while you wait.”
“Oh, no no no, you don’t have to do that!” she replied. They were always so predictable.
“I’m afraid I have to insist - I can’t leave you out here all by yourself!”
“Please, I’ve caused enough trouble…”
“It’s no trouble, not at all! But Eve and I would be devastated if something happened after we drove away.”
Evelyn was pretending to snore when the two climbed in the car. “You asleep, woman? Jesus… I apologize, sweetheart. She works at the school district and has quite the day, let me tell you.”
“It’s totally fine,” she answered, voice soft as she answered.
They turned off on the old dirt road. The truck had been silent for a few minutes, but the quiet was broken by Evelyn. Her snores began to turn into whimpers, unintelligible moans save for a few “pleases” and “I cant’s”.
“She must be having one heckuva dream,” Adler quipped. He had hoped that Evelyn would get the hint, but she offered no response. Sarah remained quiet in the backseat.
They stopped. “It’s just beyond these trees. Say, you mind helping me grab few things?”
The game had been given away here many times before. People can act so odd when they understand they’re about to die, Adler had noticed. Some defiant, some hysteric - some go into shock. Isaac, for what it’s worth, never had any idea. Adler could see Sarah’s reflection in the rearview mirror; she understood, or was beginning to understand, what was about to happen.
Yet she opened the back door and stood outside, obedient. She did not run. Adler motioned to the woods. “After you.”
They reached the special tree. Adler stopped, and Sarah did as well. Adler told himself to grab the girl. She turned around to face him.
“Are you going to kill me?”
He had never been asked that. He was surprised by the matter-of-factness of the question, and stared at the girl without replying.
“You’re going to kill me, right?” Her eyes were watering, but her voice was firm.
“No. No. Not me.” He told himself again to grab her, to get it over with.
“She is, then.” She nodded back in the direction of the truck, beyond the trees.
“But you don’t want me to die?”
Adler laughed – not at the question, but at the answer. “No. There’s only one person in the world I want to die.”
Sarah swung her arms out inquisitively. “So why don’t you kill her then?” she asked, exasperated. “You’d be killing a murderer!”
He only shook his head.
Sarah put her arms back to her sides. She looked down at the leafy, dead forest floor for a few moments before gazing back at Adler teary eyed. “I’m sorry,” she said.
She hung her head again, and waited. Adler studied her for a moment, listening to her muffled sobs quietly.
She gasped several times, trying to get her emotions under control. “Just do it, please,” she said, voice trembling but head staying down. “Please… Just get it over with.”
He grabbed her arm and ran past the special tree, deeper into the woods.
They ran for a while, listening to hear if Evelyn had followed them. The brush grew thick deeper in the forest, and progress slowed. Eventually they reached a rushing river Adler did not recognize. A sharp drop off in the rocky shores around the river created a small rapid that roared over the granite.
“We need to go back!” Sarah yelled over the rushing water. “We’re lost out here, and we can’t cross this. There’s no way.”
Adler shook his head, but as he inspected the sharp rocks and the rushing water he knew she was right.
She stepped closer and lowered her voice as low as the river would let her. “She can’t hurt me, okay? I can run. She can’t overpower both of us.”
Adler shook his head again. “I can’t protect you from her.”
“But there’s two of us and-” she began to shout incredulously, but she realized midway the meaning of his words. She looked at the rushing waters for a moment. “Look, w-we have no choice! I can take care of myself. I can run away, or I can fight…” Her voice trailed off.
Adler didn’t want the girl to die. But his mind couldn’t help but wonder what his wife was doing right then. Was she searching for them through the woods? Did she leave? Was she cogent enough to notice the passage of time? Was she still waiting for him? Anxiety filled the familiar cracks in his mind. It was habitual. Even after betraying his wife, he felt beholden to her.
He would have preferred to die in the woods, but he relented. The twisted responsibility he had for Evelyn had become ingrained within him. “I can’t protect you,” he repeated.
He looked at the ground as he spoke. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
“I understand. It’s okay, I promise.”
The trek was easier on the way back, but Adler wished it wasn’t. Guilt washed over him, drowning him more and more until they reached the special tree. But at least it was familiar.
“Are you sure about this?” he asked, looking over to Sarah. He was surprised by the look on her face – her mouth open, eyes gleaming with terror. “What is it?” he asked, but she didn’t answer. Her eyes were fixed on the base of the tree.
He looked, and saw the emergency gun laying on the forest floor, in front of a matted, unkempt head of long, black hair that led beyond the tree’s trunk. It was bloody.
They stood in front of the corpse for a while. Adler stared at his wife’s unmoving body while Sarah gazed respectfully at the forest floor. The girl had a keen sense of sympathy that Adler appreciated, even then.
But after a while, she felt compelled to speak. “We should get someone.”
Adler didn’t answer. He was transfixed by the pale, undisturbed face of his wife. It was expressionless, though he could still see the outline of her dried tears. Yet she looked calm, almost peaceful. Had she been freed from the weight of her unwanted torment after so, so long?
He looked at Sarah and smiled. “You can find this place again, right? You could bring someone here?” She nodded.
“Then go ahead. Take my truck. Tell someone what’s happened.”
“And you?” she asked. “You’ll be here too?”
He thought about this. “No,” he answered. “Find someone and keep going, past where the truck is now. You’ll find a clearing – can’t miss it. I’ll be there”
“Okay, okay. I’ll be back.” She started for the truck.
“Hey!” he called after her. “Sarah… I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault.”
Blue skies lit up Adler’s blue eyes. Grave digging was grim work, but Adler felt a contentment as he finished this last one.
The sun was rising by the time he finished his wife’s grave. There was no remorse this time, for his wife or for himself. They were both free, for the first time in as long as he could remember. He dumped his last shovelful of loamy soil on her simple grave and knelt down in the soft, fresh earth. Soon, the young girl Sarah would be returning, with the police or her parents, or someone. It didn’t matter. They would be horrified, no doubt, by the sheer number of casualties Evelyn had left in her wake, but Adler knew in his heart that no one had suffered as much as her. Bearing this in his mind, he forgave his wife one last time.
Adler picked up the gun laying by the foot of the grave. He angled the barrel of the gun up in his mouth. As he steadied his finger on the trigger, he couldn’t help but wonder what Sarah would think as she stumbled upon his fresh corpse. He imagined her horror, face quite the same as when she saw Evelyn’s body beneath the special tree. He allowed the feeling of despair that she would feel at the sight of him rush into his mind. The shame was as familiar as the sun shining on his face, and the smell of dirt that he had turned up so many times before. It was one more thing, and the last thing, that he could condemn himself for.
He died a guilty man.
About the author:
Frank Christian Burch is an aspiring writer living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He has a deep interest in stories concerning mental health and social injustice, and hopes to one day teach creative writing at a university.