by Dannye Chase
CW: murder, death, dead bodies, gore
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Tina was a waitress at Raymond’s favorite local cafe.
Her hair was dark and her skin pale, her fingernails unpainted and her feet very small, just like the others that Raymond kept in the basement. Tina also had a faint tic that made the eyelashes of one eye flutter out of step with the other. Raymond had imagined Tina resting in one of his plastic tubs, wondering if perhaps one eye would freeze open in death, and the other closed, as if she were peeking back at the life she’d left behind, before Raymond put the lid on and sealed her up.
Raymond had no plans to kill Tina, of course. That would violate the rules of common sense. She lived in his hometown, she was well-known to him, and anyway, there was no more room in the basement, where tubs sat behind ever-expanding drywall, carefully wrapped in plastic to keep the smell in and everything else out, all the creeping, messy bits like roots and worms.
So that was that. Until the cafe changed its menu.
Mud pie. Children made them, Raymond knew this, their fat little hands shaped pies of sand and dirt, wet enough to be goopy. So when Raymond saw mud pie on the menu, his reaction was first revulsion, and then bewilderment. How on earth could a cafe serve mud?
The question made Tina laugh. It wasn’t mud, she explained, but chocolate. From the refrigerator, Tina produced a clear plastic cup full of brown goop—chocolate mousse. But that was only the beginning, Tina said, a mischievous expression on her face. Because now it was time to add the worms.
Raymond didn’t hear much of the rest of the explanation. He remembered it all visually, though, viscerally. The gummy worms were red-and-white, blue-and-pink, yellow-and-green. They curled gently around Tina’s fingers as she pushed them into the mud, leaving their heads to stick out of the muck that rose higher all around them. Then she produced a container of dirt—chocolate crumbs, Raymond realized—and poured them in until the dry choking bits concealed all but the tips of the worms.
There was dirt all over Tina’s fingers when she was done, sticking to a trace of mud here, the sticky ooze of a worm there. In between, the long bones of her fingers moved gently.
Raymond was horrified. He was ruined for anything else that day, that entire night. He sat in the silence of his basement and thought of blue-and-pink worms and pale white fingers. And then he thought of the lake.
Quail Lake formed one border of the town; the rest was corn fields. It was deep enough to drown in, Raymond knew, because every once in a while, he’d hear that someone had.
But Quail Lake played a much larger part in local history. Every few years in Raymond’s town, a small number of people would go missing, seemingly on the same night. Raymond, who was responsible for quite a few disappearances himself, carefully spaced in time and geographic location, suspected that very few of these missing people were ever really missing. People got tired of small town life and left. Children ran away. People fled their families. Certainly that was the reason that some of the people Raymond had killed had never even been reported missing.
But it was also said that on those particular nights when people would vanish, the water level in Quail Lake would drop. Raymond wasn’t sure if this part was true, but he didn’t think it really mattered. Surely there were reasons that lake water would recede: the pull of the moon, the shifting of the earth, changes in underground streams. Perhaps such a thing had once coincided with someone going missing, and thus a legend had been born.
In any case, what interested Raymond now was the fact that in the center of Quail Lake there was an island. No one lived there or moored a boat there or really spent any time there at all. What Raymond could see of the island from the shore was that it was rocky, with occasional trees whose roots were probably the only reason that the soil hadn’t crumbled into the lake years ago. It was the perfect place to bury a body. If Raymond was really going to bury one.
And little by little, he realized that he was.
Not Tina, of course. Raymond hadn’t lost all his senses. Instead, he traveled to a town where he hadn’t hunted in several years, and returned with a body.
Raymond had established earlier that there was a row boat that had been left on the shore of Quail Lake. What he hadn’t expected was that as he rowed to the island, the dirt in the boat started clinging to the sheet wrapped around the body. The dead man was getting stained even before he went into the ground, and Raymond could not look away from it.
But when the boat bumped gently against the island’s shoreline, Raymond felt some serious misgivings. The island was large enough, but it was mostly rocks, sharp and smooth, crowded together. The few trees seemed locked into battle with each other over what earth there was, gnarled roots jutting out of the ground to claim territory. Raymond despaired suddenly for his cold, quiet basement, with its nestled tubs and white walls.
But there was no room there. There was no room. And now that he’d come this far, better to put the man into the island than the lake, which might give him back up.
Raymond climbed cautiously onto the island. The dirt was wet in places and dry in others, and Raymond knew his shoes would never recover. He’d have to chuck them into the lake on the way back, he decided. Drive home barefoot and next time bring plastic bags as protection.
Next time. Surely there would not be a next time, with barely enough open space here to bury one body?
But as Raymond finally stood on the island, among the roots and rocks, his stained shoes sinking into the soil, he knew. It wasn’t perfect here, but it was right. Raymond was seized by the memory of Tina with her fingers in the dirt and suddenly he couldn’t wait to put this one in the ground. The shovel he’d brought dug eagerly into what grass he could find, chopping at tree roots, unearthing black, rich dirt that clotted on everything as it came up, congealing onto the shovel, covering the grass. It wasn’t a full grave, not six feet down, and not long enough for the body to go in straight, but he was used to curling them up to go into the tubs.
When it was time, Raymond took the man out of the sheet. That was the first real difference. In the basement, he wrapped them tidily in a proper shroud without a hair showing. This body he held in his arms, cold skin smudged with dirt. He dropped him into the ground whole. The man landed with a soft, wet smack, and the mud oozed up around him like a cradle.
Fine soil coated Raymond’s clothes, mud clung to his shoes, and sweaty trails of filth colored his neck. He sat down in the dirt and watched as the first insects came. One tiny one crawled across the dead man’s forehead. Eventually, a black shining body propelled by a horrifying number of legs wound its way among his fingers.
Raymond finished burying the man then, packing in the soil and dirt, making the ground as level as he could. Then he walked back to the shore and threw up into the lake.
Raymond couldn’t explain why he kept bringing more bodies to the lake, except that the memory of Tina’s fingers in the chocolate was as potent to him now as the memory of his hands around the throat of his first kill. But not for the same reasons.
Raymond’s world was shrinking, like the free space in his basement had, until there was no place he could go that he didn’t feel claustrophobic. Every time Raymond killed, he was consumed with the fear that there would not be enough room for another body on the island, and thus he’d have to re-open an older grave and put the new one on top.
The idea felt wrong, revolting, terrifying. He never looked into the tubs. Never. And this was no plastic casket. The bodies on the island would be making mud with their own fluids, covered in bite marks from every conceivable creature. And so Raymond was spending hours chopping open a grave every time he brought a new body. Enduring back-breaking, filthy work to make holes amid the rocks.
Eventually Raymond understood that this new compulsion was going to doom him. Even if no one ever noticed him making all-night disposal trips to the island, there was still something worse coming: the kill of someone close. Because four bodies in, four torturous graves dug, and he was only more hungry. Raymond was not going to be satisfied until it was Tina’s body in the muddy ground, until he sat there, hour after hour, waiting for real worms to crawl along her fingers.
Raymond lived a few weeks in careful, controlled despair before the answer came to him. The legend of Quail Lake. When the water went down, local people disappeared.
Every day, Raymond got up early and left his orderly house wearing dirty shoes. He had to start wearing sunscreen and bug repellent, a sweaty hat crammed onto his head. And yet he was happy again.
One morning, Raymond smelled fish as he approached the lake, and there were a couple flopping in the muck where there was normally water. The lake was still mostly intact, but Raymond was filled with such an excitement that he worried he’d pass out. By the time night fell, Raymond had never felt so alive. He took Tina sweetly, right there at the cafe as she closed up. The wrongness of doing this so close to home was overshadowed by his elation at finally having his fantasy come true. Poor Tina looked so confused when he reached for her throat.
Getting the boat to the island was going to be difficult, of course, with less water in the lake, and with people gathered to gawk. But by the early morning hours, Raymond found the lake deserted. There was no one to watch him force the rowboat through the sucking soil of the lake bed among the rotting fish.
Finally they got to open water and Raymond could row, faster than he ever had before. As they neared the island, Raymond could see lower parts of it, places that were normally covered in water. He’d expected tree roots, dripping wet, and those were there, but that wasn’t all of it. The island wasn’t like a mushroom on a single stalk. Instead it seemed to be rising up on several separate columns of earth.
Raymond knew the reason that the island looked taller was because the water level had gone down, and yet—could it possibly ever have been that tall? The surface of it was so high up now that Raymond had to claw his way up toward it, digging his hands into the soil, using the shovel as leverage. He was completely covered in mud by the time he realized he’d never make it, especially not dragging Tina along with him. So Raymond did the only thing he could. He dropped back down to the boat and used the shovel to start digging a hole into the side of the island where there was some loose earth.
Almost immediately, Raymond noticed that there were far more bugs in this soil than when he dug from the top. Muddy as he was, they were all over him already, shiny black beetles and coiling worms. Raymond frantically tried to shake them off, but they were everywhere. Raymond told himself to simply focus on what he was doing. After all, he could drop into the lake on the way back and drown them all.
The bugs got bigger. The farther in Raymond dug, the larger the creatures that flung from the shovel to hit the boat, the lake, Raymond’s body, the sheet that shrouded Tina. They were all black and crawling, and then there was one that was a bright, shining yellow. It came loose from the soil with a sucking sound and hit Raymond’s chest with a wet smack. Raymond stopped digging and looked down at it, his horror slowly growing.
The yellow object was not a bug. It was an earring. And it was still attached to an ear.
Raymond had found one of his other bodies. There shouldn’t have been one all the way down here, they were buried far too shallowly, too close to the surface. But here she was, sticking out of the dirt, a bit of blond hair, a pale, jutting jaw bone that held perfectly even teeth, a leg bone shoved up against the rotting face.
Raymond reached out a hand to touch her, a muddy finger against blotchy skin. Then his gaze fell to Tina’s body in the boat, and he fell to his knees to unwrap her. He lifted her like an offering and began to shove her body into the shallow cavern he’d made beside her companion in death.
It was not until that moment that Raymond finally realized that something was truly, horrifically wrong. It took only one push, and then it was like the island inhaled, sucking Tina into it. Her arm went first, and then her body pivoted and the muck surged over her legs. She slid into the mud as slick and quick as a worm. The last thing to go was her other hand, and Raymond was frozen in terror as the island slowed to consume her fingers one at a time, until she was gone.
Raymond understood it then, because he too was a ravenous thing with unholy tastes. That this was no island but a living creature with thick legs sunk into the ground and endless muddy mouths, that the lake hadn’t fallen. That the island had simply stood up. And it was still hungry.