Some five hundred yards from the slaughterhouse, a girl lay flat-bellied on the ground, hands propping up her head and bare feet crisscrossing in the still air above her. Though late September, the afternoon sun warmed her back and legs. Jagged rocks and gravel dug into her stomach. Never mind, she thought, the ants will scatter if I budge.
The property surrounding the abandoned buildings stretched across ninety acres of prime farmland, but it had never known a spring planting or an autumn harvest. For the last twenty years, it hadn’t known people. Only a shell of the monstrous slaughterhouse remained with its rusted gates, shattered windows, and splintered floorboards. Cracked, sunken concrete blocks lined the main entrance. Slivers of glass clung to the window frames, casting prisms of sunlight through the apertures of the decaying building. The outbuildings creaked and sighed like a ghost town. Long after the slaughterhouse shut down, the thick stench of cattle, shuttling to their deaths, still hung in the air. Sometimes, standing motionless, she heard their terrified cries in the hushed air --- an eerie, haunting song gathered into an endless echo.
She pulled a sketch pad and charcoal gray pencil from her knapsack and fixed her eyes on the ground. Within a day, the anthills had multiplied. Grain by grain, mounds of sand transformed into miniature mountains by the frenzied activity of hundreds of ants. She etched the first lines and columns, then the curves and arcs of the teeming village. A cursory note on the side of the drawing: September 20, sandhill perimeter 1 inch. A line of ants, like a funeral march, carried the carcass of a wasp with a shattered right wing and crushed thorax. Its unmolested antennae extended forward as if still deciphering its surroundings. But now, the wasp belonged to the ants. She took out a ruler, measured the height of the tallest anthill, then drew it to size on her pad. She had to hurry. She and her brother were sixteen today.
Then she heard him. Approaching from the corner of the slaughterhouse behind her, she knew it was him without turning to look. She’d seen him lurking outside the school. Heavy footsteps crunched the gravel, signaling his advance. He’s about fifty feet away, she calculated. Her muscles tightened and the first wave of fear swept through her.
"Hey there, pretty girl.” A thick, raspy voice. “What brings you way out here by yourself in the middle of the day?”
Stay calm, Virgil would say. She leaned forward on her elbows and stuck her hand into her knapsack. Where was it? The man moved closer. He coughed and spit. Don’t signal fear hummed Virgil’s voice in her head. She could feel the man’s eyes on her body. Her stomach lurched. She turned and sprung to her feet in a single motion, facing him. Virgil in her head. Look him in the eyes. Don’t look away.
It was him. About 6’2”, early twenties. She surveyed his face --- sunken cheeks, dull, colorless eyes, just bones and muscle, oily strings of hair hanging to his shoulders. He’d move fast. His mouth widened into a grin of crooked, stained teeth as his eyes roamed up and down her body.
“Get away from me.” Her voice cracked.
He coughed out a laugh. "Now, why would I do that?" Another step toward her. “Figured I’d find you here.” He glanced around the parking lot. “Don’t know what you see in this place.”
“What do you want?”
He spat and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “Well, little thing, I was hoping we’d be friends.”
“Go away.” She planted her feet. Get your balance; no fast moves until you’re ready to strike. Virgil again. A wave of nausea engulfed her, the taste of vomit crawling up the back of her throat. She bent down slowly, watching him, picked up her knapsack, and hugged it snugly against her chest. She slipped something into her pocket. “Get out of here and leave me alone.” Her voice broke again, betraying her nerves.
"Don't get all nervous or nothin’. Thought we’d get to know each other a bit. Seems like the perfect spot, nobody around and all.” He moved a few steps closer to her. “Ain’t no need to be scared. We’ll have a good time long as yer nice to me.” His words slurred as his grin stretched to the edges of his face. He spat out black chew, aiming it just in front of her boot. She smelled alcohol. Good, maybe he’s drunk, she thought.
"Go away and leave me alone. I'm not saying it again," she said, glaring at him.
His lips curled into a contorted sneer. "Who do you think you are talking to me like that? I could break every bone in your body if I wanted. I'm talking all polite, and you answer me like that? “He stepped within a few feet of her. He drew out a small pistol from his right pocket, tossing it deftly from one hand to the other without looking at it. “Yer coming with me one way or the other, girl. I’m gettin’ me some. The way I see it, I ain’t leaving here without you.”
"The way I see it," she replied, surprised at the clarity of her voice, “you can walk away, and we’ll be done. You take one step closer, and I'll shoot you in the head."
Surprise and anger flashed across his face. "Gonna kill me with that pencil there?" His bottom lip twitched, the muscles in his face tightening. Neither one moved. Virgil, in her head again, know when to act. The man’s jaw jutted out and shifted left and right, then centered in clenched teeth. The muscles in his right arm tensed. He lunged at her. She ducked and shifted to the left as the man stumbled past her. She pulled the handgun out of her pocket and swung around to face him. Baggy clothes or a knapsack, Virgil taught her, hides a weapon. The man turned around to face her, his face red with rage, and aimed his pistol a few feet from her head. She squatted down in front of him, then sprung up, pointing the Ruger 9MM at his forehead, and shot. The sound seemed to emanate from far away, and, for an instant, she wondered if she had pulled the trigger. Then she saw a small dark circle above his right eye where the bullet had entered his cranium. He dropped his gun and raised a hand over his eye, then fell to the ground. His leg twitched in spasms and stopped, his body stone still.
She stood over him, the sun’s slow descent casting a long shadow of her body over his. He seemed miles away, lying there in the vacant lot. The wind’s picked up, she noticed. Air in motion touching earth --- swirls of winged seeds, breezes on our faces, fluttering leaves among the mighty trees, sweeping clouds across the sky. Suddenly, she was lifting upward, heel then toes gently lifting off the ground, circling in the air away from the man’s body. Streams of wind brushed her tingling skin, a faint rustling of leaves in the stand of birch trees below. Higher and higher. The slaughterhouse disappeared under billows of pearl-white clouds. Her arms opened, floating in an ocean of air. Time raced and slowed at once. Bones softened, skin loosened, and fell away, her senses scattered into vast space.
Then, as suddenly, heaviness gripped her body as she drifted down through the clouds. Her toes touched gravel. Dread seized her. She felt herself shifting back into her body, standing next to the dead man. She forced herself to look at him. A trickle of blood dripped from his right ear, dotting the ground. His body was curled to the right, his left arm cupping his chest, the other bent toward his forehead where the bullet had entered. She was still holding her gun. She slipped it into her pocket and walked back to the anthills. A platoon of soldier ants was marching across her open sketchbook. She knelt, watching the last ant crawl off the paper. Her fingers trembled as she closed the sketchbook and stuffed it into her knapsack. She combed the ground for her pencil but didn’t find it. Never mind, she thought, it needed a new eraser anyway. Another spasm of nausea. She brushed her sleeve against her mouth, tasting vomit. She lay down, her head on the knapsack, and gazed up. Birds careened in the azure sky. The waves of nausea slowed, and the warm gravel pressed into her back. She checked her watch, already 3:30 PM. She sat up and pulled out her cellphone.
“Virgil?” She heard his familiar grunt. “Something bad’s happened.”
Long pause. “You at the slaughterhouse?”
Now she'd wait. She lay down again and closed her eyes. Ouch! A piece of glass cut into her shoulder blade, and she sat upright, drawing the sliver out. Shielding her eyes from the sun, she turned away from the dead man to the white pines skirting the far edges of the parking lot.
A grunting engine sounded. Virgil’s truck climbed the steep hill to the slaughterhouse. CC jumped to her feet and ran toward her brother’s truck. The sight of Virgil, wearing his brown felt cowboy hat, calmed her. She brushed tears off her cheek. He rolled down his window.
“You brought your fishing boat?” CC asked.
Virgil slowly stepped out of his truck, walked past her, and stood next to the dead man. “You did this, CC?”
Virgil crossed his arms, scrutinizing the body. “Did you know him?”
“No, I mean, I've seen him around, but I never talked to him. I think he's been following me for a while.”
“Hmm,” said Virgil, still looking at the dead man. “I don’t recognize him.”
“I told him to go away. I was working on my anthills when he showed up.” Her words rushed out. "He pulled out a gun and aimed it at me, so I shot him." Her words rushed out between sobs. “I didn’t want to kill him. I just wanted him to go away!”
“Calm down.” He circled the man’s body. “No one saw you or heard the shot?” Virgil crossed his arms and looked toward the slaughterhouse.
“Can’t ever be sure, even here.”
“I know, you’ve told me that a million times. But I’m sure. I was here alone.”
Virgil nudged the body with his foot. “Gotta get rid of it.”
CC stared at him, wide-eyed. “We can’t do that. We need to call the police, report it as self-defense.”
Virgil glared at her. “You crazy? Nobody’ll believe that. You’ll go to prison for life. We’re going to get rid of him and forget about it. You got that? And stop crying.” He bent down and studied the man's head. "Good shot."
“I warned him, I told him to get away from me,” she sobbed.
“The guy deserved it, or you wouldn't have killed him."
“I know, I know,” she whispered, comforted.
“Grab the things in the back of the truck," Virgil said.
“Why’d you park there?” she asked.
“Dumb question,” he snapped. “Leave tracks all over the place?” Virgil kicked the dead man’s chest and rolled him on his back. He glanced sideways at CC, who was staring at him. “What are you waiting for? Get going.”
CC returned with a tarp, rope, a shovel and rake, and dropped them next to the body. “How’d you know to bring all this stuff?”
Virgil picked up the man's gun, which had fallen a few feet from his open palm. He checked the magazine and dropped the bullets into his palm. He pulled out a plastic bag from his pocket and tossed the gun and magazine in it, and handed the bag to CC. "Put this in your knapsack. We'll get rid of it later."
CC‘s eyes were fixed on the man’s face. “Huh?”
“Put this bag away,” he demanded. “I’ll get it from you later.”
"Oh." CC forced her thoughts back to Virgil and dropped them in her knapsack. Pin drops of sweat settled on her face and neck.
Virgil spread the tarp out on the ground. He shoved the corpse on top and wrapped the tarp snuggly around it. “Throw me the rope.” CC didn’t respond. She was staring past him.
“The rope,” he yelled. CC tossed it to Virgil. He tied the tarp several times around the body, then knotted the rope. “Help me carry him to the boat. A dead body’s heavy, so brace yourself for the weight.” At the trailer, Virgil lifted the body over the side of the boat, first head and chest, then legs and feet. It dropped with a thud on the floor. He climbed in and dragged it under the cabin, out of sight. He jumped out of the boat next to her. “Give me the Ruger. I’ll give it back after I clean it.” CC pulled the gun out of her pocket and handed it to Virgil. “Follow me,” he said.
“Show me where you were standing when you shot him.”
CC walked back to the anthills. Spots of blood had seeped into the cracks of cement. Virgil bent down and scooped up the dirt and sand around it, then put it in a plastic bag and into his pocket. He scratched a wide circle around the area with a knife and handed her the rake. “Rake over this whole area." He picked up the shovel and came back with gravel from the side of the slaughterhouse, then covered the raked ground with a light layer of gravel. He pointed to the truck. "Walk in a straight line to the truck, and I'll follow right behind you." They got in the truck, and Virgil backed up slowly, got out, and raked the path of the tires every fifty feet or so. “Cover our tracks as the saying goes,” he mumbled, "maybe we'll be lucky, and it'll rain." He drove onto a narrow asphalt road.
“What do we do now,” CC asked, glancing at her brother. The brim of his hat sat low on his forehead, and she couldn't see his eyes. Virgil didn't answer. The sun drifted along its arc toward the western horizon. CC opened the window, drawing in the fragrances of wild gardenia and wisteria along the road. "How’d you know to bring the boat and all those tools? It’s like you already knew what happened and what to do.”
Virgil sped up, said nothing. She knew better than to ask a third time. The truck moved southward, ascending hills then dipping into a thick forest of firs, cedars, and pines. Soon they turned onto Highway 61, hugging the shoreline of Lake Superior, the blue-gray sheen of the lake blending imperceptibly into a bank of low gray clouds.
Virgil turned onto a muddy one-lane road and backed up next to a wooden dock extending a few feet into the lake. He loosened the boat from the trailer and guided it into the water. CC jumped out and secured the boat alongside the dock. They’d done this a hundred times before, but now, to CC, it felt like the first time.
Virgil climbed into the boat and started the engine. CC moved to get in. “You’re not going with me,” he said. “Drive the truck behind those bushes and wait for me.” He revved the motor. “And stay out of sight. I'll be a while." He pushed off the dock, turned swiftly, and headed into the broadest stretch of water.
Virgil taught CC to drive when she was twelve. She parked and leaned against the window. Lucky for us, the place is deserted, she thought, probably part of Virgil’s plan. He never relied on chance. A few minutes later, she got out and started along a trail, peering out at the lake, hoping to see Virgil’s boat. Where is he? Panic seized her for the second time in one day. What if something happened to him out there?
The third time up the trail, she viewed his boat heading toward the dock. From the northeast, a bank of dark clouds crept low along the lake, stirring up waves, rocking his boat sideways. She ran to the dock. His hat, shirt, and jeans were wet from the spray. He was shivering.
“I’ll grab a blanket from the truck,” CC said immediately. “You’re freezing.”
“No, let’s get the boat up,” Virgil replied. “We gotta get out of here.” CC steadied the boat. "Stay here, and I'll get the truck.” Within minutes, they had trailered the boat and were heading away from the dock. Virgil had wrapped the blanket around his shoulders but was still shaking from cold.
“You don’t have any fat to keep you warm,” CC chided, trying to lighten the mood.
"You should talk," Virgil replied.
Warm tears welled up. CC rubbed them away. “Virgil, … I …. well, I don’t know what to say.”
“Then don’t say anything.”
“Is the body gone forever?” Tears again.
“Had his last boat ride.”
They headed southeast along Highway 61, paralleling the contours of the lake. “A storm’s coming,” she said quietly.
"Yeah," he said.
They drove the forty miles home without words between them. Speeding through the growing darkness as the rain began, first gently in tiny specks on the windshield, then hammering hard as nails. Thunder rumbled in the distant sky.