He started shoveling a shallow grave. Jim Blake had mouths to feed, after all. They were ungrateful mouths, his demanding and entitled wife included, but they belonged to him. Sometimes you find yourself digging one grave to keep your family out of another. Do you do it because they deserve it? Or do you do it because that's your job?
The shovel hit something metal. Jim stopped. This was already difficult enough, given the frozen ground. Now it was worse, and not just because he'd uncovered a pipe. He knew the pipe wasn't supposed to be there. It was a new development, and that meant the infestation was growing again.
He was standing next to a pickup truck with his tools and the cardboard box he was trying to bury. It held what was left of the body from the motel room. The empty pool was nearby, with its ragged bunting strung along the fence, and the low slung motel beyond that. Jim tried to figure which way the pipe went. To the gas station next door or across the street?
Jim uncovered a little more. It seemed to run towards the road, which made sense. The gas station was really just a concrete island with no pumps and an empty store. The place had never been occupied, it's construction having stopped two years ago and never resumed. Now the place seemed to be falling to ruin. The property across the street, however, was a different story.
It was a church with an octagonal steeple. The sight of the old place warmed his body, but not in a good way. Most mornings Jim woke up with an inescapable dread. It felt like a little person sitting on his chest. Jim called the dread his money demon, but that was only half the story. Yes, he was struggling to make ends meet…
He realized today was the day the credit card bill would arrive. Susan would probably meet him at the door, demanding answers. It would be no use making her actually read the bill. Who had made all those charges? Somehow it would be his fault for not understanding that everything she bought was a necessity and therefore the blame fell to him to find the money.
So here he was with a shovel and a bloody box and a three inch hole. And a pipe. It traveled to the end of the motel and under Broadway, a breezy street that rolled downhill from the highway. It didn't have much traffic right now. Thank god for that.
At the church, however, stood two contractor vans. Guys were coming in and out with ladders and wood. Jim had heard that someone was turning the building into some sort of bed and breakfast with a bar in the basement. Whoever that was, they weren't responsible for the pipe. They were going to pay the price though. What idiot would start such a project here anyway?
Jim put the shovel in the pickup, closed the gate, and drove off. The box was still in the bed. He drove towards home. Susan would be too upset about money to notice the human remains.
Along Broadway there was a place where the road dropped off in a steep wedge of trees that ended at a pile of rocks and the reservoir. This wasn't the first time he wondered how hard it would be, how much it would hurt, to just drive through the guard rail. He didn't want to act like some depressed kid off his meds, but he had to admit there was practical value in his death. He was worth more that way. And no one gave a damn about anything else anyway.
A cop came up behind him and flicked on the spinners. There was no siren, so it couldn't have been serious trouble. But where did the guy come from? Jim had just left the motel. The cop must've been in the church parking lot.
“You've got a broken right directional.” the officer told him. Peering over the tailgate, he said, “What's in the box?”
The box was starting to show blood stains.
“A human head.”
He laughed. It wasn't a head. It was a couple of finger tips, some teeth, and bits and pieces of internal organs Jim didn't recognize. He wasn't a fucking surgeon, after all. The cop took the comment as a joke and gave him the warning citation. Their town was a rough place, but it's plague was drug dealing and domestic abuse and sometimes arson, but not serial killers with heads in boxes.
Besides, Jim Blake was white. Carry on sir, I'm sure it's none of my business.
As he climbed back into the truck, he noticed a pipe sticking out of the hill below the guard rail, hanging over the ravine that dropped into the reservoir. Jim went to take a look. The road buckled above where it would've run, the pavement cracking. It was right where the cop car had been. He grabbed the shovel and peeled away the broken blacktop, revealing the curved metal back of the beast. He drove off.
When he got home, Susan was just as angry as he expected, not to mention a couple glasses drunk. Maybe she'd stop there, or maybe she wouldn't. It didn't matter. Jim had grown accustomed to her screaming, to chairs flying across the room when she got really bad. He was supposed to be a man, after all. Don't take that shit. Walk away.
The problem was that Susan was very pretty. She stood there with the bill in one hand and a glass of cheap Riesling in the other, with a white blouse unbuttoned three spaces down at the top and green eyes and auburn hair. A single gray thread tickled her nose. God, she was beautiful. What Jim resented was that she bitched about how little time they spent together, then proceeded to spend that little bit of time in a screaming, crying fit that she mostly wouldn't remember.
“Where are the kids?” he said.
“On their way up. It's dinner. You're late.”
Jim shook his head and sat in the den. It was a little space off the living room no larger than a closet. It had a window that looked out onto the truck and its cargo. It had a desk with a police scanner. He turned it on. The boys came to eat. Not much was happening on the scanner. Then he felt something brush his leg.
He peered under the desk and there it was, a narrow copper tube no more than an inch wide sticking out of the wall. He glanced through the doorway at his unhappy family eating their tuna fish casserole. In the ceiling above the table he saw a long, round bulge. Jim took the phone and dialed.
“It's in my house now.” he said. “You said if I did the dirty work, it wouldn't come for me.”
“I said I'd try my best to keep it away.” said the voice on the other end. “But I can't control, it Jim.”
“What did I do to deserve this?”
“Maybe nothing. It does what it wants.”
“Well I hope you enjoy burying what's left of me and my family.” He hung up.
The scanner came to life with reports of a fire on Broadway. It was the church. Jim got up to leave.
“Where do you think you're going?” said Susan.
“There's a fire.”
“Are you a fireman?”
She didn't understand. It was his job to make sure she didn't have to. He took one last look at the bump in the ceiling and left, hoping this wouldn't be for the last time. He went back the way he came. The truck bounced over the lump in the road. Then he came to it.
Across from the motel stood a tower of fire. So much for the bed and breakfast. The old place was finally gone. Jim remembered the days of his childhood he'd spent there. They taught him about the elect. You can't buy your way into heaven with good deeds, they said. God had already chosen his few since before they were born.
What had bothered young James Blake was how happy all the grown ups had seemed about this. They'd gone on singing their hymns and holding their potlucks, as if they were certain in their salvation. They had no reason to believe that and if Jim had a saving grace, it was his willingness to see the world's indifference and fucking do something about it.
He wasn't a church man. Or a drunk. He wasn't blinded to a man with a bloody box because their were darker skinned kids smoking weed and probably planning to knock over a Seven Eleven.
There was a shadow inside the fire. Jim felt that little person on his chest. No, it wasn't right to call it the money demon. It was so much more. Emerging from the orange glow was the shape of a tangle of pipe, a labyrinth in three dimensions growing four stories out of the ground. A cancer. The firemen fell back.
“What the hell is that?” one of them shouted.
It's the end, thought Jim. He folded his arms on the steering wheel and pressed his face into them and began to cry.
“What more do you want from me?” he sobbed. “Do you want me to pray to you? I can't.”
Still red faced and burning with tears, Jim fetched the box and walked across the street. Would it take him instead of his family? The question was hollering inside his head. There was no answer, of course. The thing wasn't going to tell him what to do.
He tossed the box on the ground. The firemen didn't notice. The cop from earlier was there too and he didn't notice either. People didn't see, Jim thought. They refused.
“If you're going to turn against me,” he said “Then you can bury your own victims.”
Jim took a step forward. He hesitated. There was a moment when he considered running headlong into the fire, into the massive knot of pipes at its heart. There was the insurance money, after all. But like the little demon that made his chest feel tight, this was about more than money. His family was going to require even more of him, an even bigger sacrifice.
He left the box there and returned home. It was time. This was the end.
image courtesy of pixabay