The Unhappy Life of an Ad Man
by Sean Silleck
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
At the bottom of the ravine, crowded with thorny vines, the trail snaked through a patch of wetlands and then climbed a short rise, where the terrain opened up into an area of old-growth forest, massive dark trunks towering into the gray sky.
The sparse undergrowth here made walking easier, with only the occasional boulder to navigate around.
Clenching his teeth against the pain, David hurried to catch up to Renee.
“Can I say something?” he said.
“What?” She didn’t slow down.
“Well, if you think about it, this would actually make a very nice place. Obviously it’s not a clearing, but there’s a lot of space to chase a ball. And think of all the great smells around here, the animal dens and rabbit holes.”
She didn’t answer but, by the way she started to look around, he knew she was thinking it over. Her pace slowed, and she lifted her chin, as if to catch a scent on the wind. Finally she stopped altogether and cocked her head, her gaze settling on a spot thirty yards to the right of the trail.
“Over there,” she said.
He followed her to the place she had indicated, a spot where the forest opened up to reveal a clear circle of sky. In the distance they could hear the sound of rushing water.
“This is it, we’ll bury her here.”
“It’s very nice,” he said. “You can imagine on a clear day how the sun will beam down right on this spot. It’s perfect, Ren.”
“Yeah, it is. Now start digging.”
He sucked in a slow breath, gave her a weak smile and carefully — so very carefully — laid Elsa down on a patch of soft earth. Then he removed his jacket, took up the shovel and with a well-aimed stroke sent the tip of it into the ground.
It struck what felt like solid rock. With a dozen or so strenuous whacks, he was able to get down about four inches, but below that the ground, hardened by recent frosts, would give up no more than a chip or two at a time. He leaned on the shovel and glanced anxiously at Renee, who had seated herself at the base of a tree and was observing his efforts.
“Something the matter?” she asked.
“No. It’s just the ground is a little hard. I didn’t think it would be so frozen yet.”
“You’ll have to break it up with the shovel before you dig.” She made a fist and swung her arm straight outward, as if stabbing someone in the chest.
“Yeah,” he said. “Guess I will.”
Standing with his feet wide apart, he rammed the shovel straight down, then pried away the loose fragments of dirt. He repeated this process again and again, and soon his face was slick with sweat. He rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, wiped his forehead on his arm and pounded the unforgiving earth.
In half an hour, he managed to create a hole that was roughly two feet in depth and three in diameter. He stepped out of the hole, knocked the dirt from his sneakers and looked at Renee.
“Just taking a small break,” he said.
“Okay.” She was busy working on some sort of figure made of twigs, dry leaves and thin shoots of grass. She glanced at him and shrugged.
“It’s tough going,” he explained.
“I see that.”
“So, I don’t want you to think I’m slacking off or anything.”
“I don’t think that.”
“I mean, I agreed to do the digging, and I’m going to do it.”
“Good.” Renee twirled a stick in her fingers, waiting for him to continue. Beside her lay Elsa’s body, whose quilt had flapped open to reveal a long brindle tail.
“Only thing is, it might take a while,” he said. “How much daylight do you think we have left?”
“I don’t know, an hour or so. Will it be enough?”
David rubbed his chilled nose. “I hope so.”
“And remember,” Renee said. “It’s got to be deep. At least five feet, so nothing can come and dig her up. A wolf can smell dead flesh from two miles away.”
“Uh, okay. Sure.”
He kept digging, breaking up the earth, hacking through roots, including one as big around as his arm, scooping up the dirt and tossing it into the steadily growing pile beside the hole. Every so often he paused to glance at the sun and each time was startled by how far it had fallen toward the horizon.
He was taking another break, leaning his weight on the handle of the shovel, when he heard a noise not far off in the woods, somewhere in the gloom beyond the fading sunlight. A rhythmic crunching of dry leaves. Then silence.
“What was that?” he said in a whisper, straining his eyes to see.
Renee looked up. “What was what?”
“That noise in the woods, just now,” he said, pointing. “There’s something out there.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” she said, but then eased the Smith and Wesson out of her pocket and set it on the ground beside her. “Probably just a bunny.”
He listened hard for a repeat of the sound. But there was only the soft murmur of the wind in the branches above him, punctuated by the rustle of leaves along the forest floor.
Getting back to work he found his arms and back had more energy in them now. Further down, below the frost, the earth became softer, the roots thinner. Pausing only to pry out the occasional large rock, he made steady progress.
When he finally climbed wearily out of the hole, the sun was a thin slice of blood orange perched on the very edge of the horizon. Renee came to stand beside him, and together they inspected his work. In the weak twilight, the hole was completely black; it might have been bottomless. Renee took up the shovel and used it to measure the depth.
“A little more, huh?” she said.
“More?” he said. “You’re kidding.”
“A little bit. Another half a foot.”
“It’s up to here on me.” He thumped his stomach twice with his fist.
“I told you it had to be deep.”
“I know you did, but come on, Ren. Seriously.” He felt like he was standing at the top of a steep, emotional slope, and one misstep would send him plummeting down it, unable to stop himself until he hit the very bottom. He took a deep breath, and then another. Neither one helped. “It’s going to be dark in like fifteen minutes,” he said. “There’s something in the woods.”
“You said you were willing to do this.” Her voice was as cool and indifferent as the distant stream. “You promised you’d see this through to the end. Were you just stringing me along?”
“No. God, no.” He felt something tightening in his guts, a shapeless horror whose source was impossible to identify. It was like fear of the dark, a depthless void filled with as many terrifying images as the mind can conjure: ghosts and madmen, demons and monsters. “It’s fine, I’m doing this,” he said. “I’m getting back in the hole.”
She stood over him in the day’s last light.
“I’ll build a fire,” she said.
While David continued to dig, Renee gathered several armfuls of dry leaves and kindling and piled them next to the hole. She erected over the leaves a perfectly balanced teepee of twigs and then touched the base of it in several places with her disposable lighter. Soon a column of smoke and flames began to wriggle up into the chilled air. She placed larger and larger sticks on the pile and as the twilight gave way to the night sky, the red glow of the fire rose and expanded through the trees, casting long shadows into the woods.
Resting between shovel strokes, David thought he heard the sound again, somewhere off to the right, but when he jerked his head in that direction, he saw nothing but dark forest. He really hoped it was just the crackling of the fire playing tricks with his ears.
The sky was a deep, liquid black when he finally hauled himself out of the hole and fell to his knees in front of the fire. His back was a single expanse of hot pain, his head spun from exhaustion, and he could no longer feel his hands. But at last the work was done: the hole was dug. Soon they’d be on their way home. Soon, finally, the real healing would begin.
* * *
“It’s good enough,” Renee said. “Now get back in and I’ll hand Elsa down to you.”
With a shiver, David nodded and then eased himself back into the hole. It was up to his chest now and very clearly a grave.
Renee kneeled to gather Elsa in her arms, then got to her feet, returned to him and gently handed the body down. He laid the dog at the bottom of the grave and made sure the patchwork quilt was tucked in all the way around her. Then he straightened, turned back to Renee and found himself staring into the stark muzzle of the Smith and Wesson.
“Um, Ren?” he said.
“I know about the others,” she said. In the red light of the fire he could see that her face was streaked with tears. But her voice was firm and steady. So was the barrel of the gun. “I know that what’s her name — Jennifer — wasn’t the only one. There were others, on other trips. Mandy, Rebecca, Natalie — those are the ones I know about for sure, but there were probably more. It was a pattern, wasn’t it? A life style.”
“Okay, hold on. I can explain that. I can explain everything.” He tried to scrabble out of the grave, but with one foot she shoved him back in. He struck hard against the opposite side and looked up at her in shock. “Wait, seriously,” he said, holding up his hands. “I was going to tell you the whole thing, in the car on the way home. All of it. Because, you know what? I’m done with that life. I’m quitting the whole industry. No more clients, no more trips. I’m serious, Ren. I want us to be together. I want to start over.”
“Did you even love Elsa?” Her voice was flatter now, and her eyes had taken on a dull light.
“What? Yes, of course I did.”
“I want you to say it.”
“Say it?” He shifted his weight uncomfortably. “I loved Elsa.”
“Huh? Um.” He cleared his throat. “I loved Elsa. I... loved her.”
“Did you really think there would be a way back from this?” Her voice had dropped to a whisper. “Hike a few miles, dig a hole, and everything would be forgiven?”
“Ren, come on.” He stared up at her, trying to meet her eyes. “I know you’re angry, but please don’t kill me. I’m not worth it. Seriously.”
She looked at him now, but her gaze was vacant, as though she were staring at some point beyond his head. She seemed to be considering a difficult decision, one that was beyond her ability to make. Finally, a kind of shudder passed through her body, she blinked twice, and the gun dropped to her side. Her shoulders began to tremble with sobs.
“Ren?” he said. “I’m going to get out of the hole now. Okay?”
“Goodbye, sweetheart.” From the pocket of her jacket she took a red ball and a rawhide bone and tossed them into the grave. Then she turned and began to walk in the direction they’d come, her outline growing indistinct where the glow of the fire faded.
* * *
David watched her a moment, expecting her to stop or come back. When she did neither, he hauled himself out of the grave and quickly began to shovel the mound of dirt back into it. When he was done, he tamped the grave down with his feet, grabbed his jacket and started at a jog after Renee.
A sliver of yellow moon shone through a gap in the clouds up ahead, but otherwise the forest around him was pitch black. He thought he could make out Renee’s figure in the distance, a flash of her pale jacket, but it might’ve been just a trick of the moonlight. In the dark, he no longer recognized the terrain they’d passed earlier and, every few yards, he had to stop to make sure he was still on the trail.
He suddenly remembered his phone. Thank God he hadn’t left it at home! He dug it out of his jacket and thumbed it to life. There was no signal, but the battery was at 76%, plenty of juice to last till he got within range of a cell tower, and it could also power the flashlight.
With the trail well lit now, he quickened his pace, darting around a large glacial erratic and hurrying through the patch of wetlands.
“Renee!” he called out, and then paused and listened hard for any hint of movement.
For several seconds there was only silence, and then he heard it, the same sound from before. The crunch of feet on dry leaves, steady now but without haste, fifty yards or so back down the trail. Something was following him.
Breaking into a run, he crashed headlong through a patch of thorns, shielding his face with his arms but still getting two deep scratches on either side of his head. He climbed the switchbacks out of the ravine and, miscalculating one of the sharp bends, thumped hard against a tree, which knocked the phone out of his hand and sent it clattering down between two steeply pitched boulders. It glowed through part of the fall but then, with a sharp tinkling of glass, went dark.
He kept going, up and up, and was relieved to reach the field of tall grass and the open sky, which provided a hint of moonlight, just enough to catch a glimpse of Renee disappearing into the woods on the other side.
He charged after her. About halfway across the field, the ground suddenly dipped, the toe of his sneaker caught on a root, and he went tumbling over, his knee bending several degrees the wrong way. The pain was blinding, and for a full minute he lay on his side, trying not to cry out.
Struggling back to his feet, nauseous with pain, he started forward once more. He hobbled the rest of the way across the field and through the pine forest and went careening down the steep gully on his back, keeping his damaged leg straight out in front of him. At the bottom, listening for Renee’s footsteps up ahead, he heard instead a new sound behind him. A kind of muttering, breathy and low.
Back on his feet, he limped along the trail, not daring to look back. He recognized the stand of white birch, and then found himself on the old logging road, just two or three hundred yards from the trailhead.
Passing the big bulletin board and the trail map, he heard, to his infinite relief, the cough of a car engine starting up and saw a beam of white light illuminating the trees in the distance. Of course! She was waiting for him in the car! Oh, thank God. Everything was going to be okay.
But then, by some weird optical illusion, the light in the trees seemed to fade the closer to it he got. He hobbled faster, but now the light was definitely receding, like a promise of eternal happiness suddenly snatched away.
“Renee!” he cried, but he already knew the worst.
He staggered into the parking lot just in time to see the red taillights of the car bob once and then disappear over a rise well down the road. The engine noise faded into silence, and the darkness closed in around him. As it did, he heard the sounds behind him again, the heavy shuffling steps, several sets of them now, accompanied by low growls.
He turned toward them, his arms held out from his sides. “What took you so long?” he said.
Copyright © 2016 by Sean Silleck