Finding that first body wasn’t so bad, though it rattled me at the time. The dead man was curled up on a piece of cardboard in the alleyway I cut through sometimes on my way to the good coffee shop, and I would have assumed he was just sleeping rough, if he hadn’t been on his back, eyes open to the gray morning sky, lips flecked with bits of whatever he’d thrown up and choked on. The flecks were still wet…
Finding that first body wasn’t so bad, though it rattled me at the time. The dead man was curled up on a piece of cardboard in the alleyway I cut through sometimes on my way to the good coffee shop, and I would have assumed he was just sleeping rough, if he hadn’t been on his back, eyes open to the gray morning sky, lips flecked with bits of whatever he’d thrown up and choked on. The flecks were still wet.
When I got close enough to realize he was dead, my legs went weak and I crouched down to keep from falling, and had to steady myself with one hand on the damp asphalt to keep from tipping over. I could smell the acid tang of his vomit, or imagined I could, and I started breathing through my mouth, too fast. I was talking to myself too, a litany of “fuck oh shit oh no” but I got my phone out and looked at it. Nine-one-one, right? Except, was this an emergency? He wasn’t going to get better. Whatever. The operator could chastise me if they thought it wasn’t really that urgent.
I dialed and the very calm dispatcher answered and I said, “I just found a dead body.” I followed her instructions to check for vitals, my hands trembling as I confirmed the obvious. I waited on the line and listened to the scream of ambulances and fire engines and cop cars approaching. Their arrival didn’t take long. I was downtown, and there were police and fire stations and hospitals all within a mile.
The paramedics rushed in, very fast, but pretty soon, they started to move slowly instead. A uniformed cop took my statement and my number and address and we agreed it was sad, a real tragedy. Eventually he flipped his notebook closed. “Is that it?” I said.
“Thanks for calling it in,” he said. “A lot of people would have just walked by. We’ll be in touch if we need anything else.”
I was dismissed, and I drifted away, toward the coffee shop I’d been headed for in the first place. I thought about dead bodies. His wasn’t the first I’d seen. Apart from everything else, I’d been to my share of funerals. The first was a teenage cousin who died when I was just eleven, and I remembered his body in the coffin, incongruously wearing sunglasses. (It took me a long time to piece together what had really happened: suicide by gunshot, and the bullet had destroyed his eyes beyond the abilities of the mortician’s cosmetic arts). A high school friend who died in a single-car accident (she was the first girl who ever held my hand and said she loved me, but that’s a different story), and a great-aunt, and my great-grandmother, and a few others over the years.
But funerals, no matter how sad or tragic, are different—you expect to see a body there. Even someone like my mom, who’s been a paramedic and seen dead bodies on countless occasions, is at least prepared for the possibility of confronting death when she goes to work. It’s in the nature of the job. Stumbling on a body unexpectedly is whole different experience, a sledgehammer reminder of mortality, an earthquake that shakes apart your day.
I sat in the coffee shop, looking at my phone, thinking of posting online about what I’d found, and deciding it would be too ghoulish. It occurred to me I’d gotten off lightly, in some ways. I knew a few people who’d found bodies unexpectedly over the years. Some of them had found their friends or relatives, and that was brutal, but I’d also known two people who found strangers dead, like I had—one a murder, another a suicide. They’d both taken their experiences harder than I was taking mine.
In high school my friend-of-a-friend Erik—one of those jaded, seen-everything done-everything sort of seventeen-year-olds, unflappable and eternally unimpressed—had gone out to a gravel pit to smoke weed, and found a murdered woman on the ground, dressed in nothing but her underwear, covered in dried blood and flies. This was in the days before cell phones, so he’d gone to the nearest residential street and pounded on doors until someone answered and called the police. Even twenty-five-years later I could vividly remember Erik on the local TV news, his voice shaking, tears on his cheeks, as he described what he’d discovered.
I’d never seen him affected by anything, but that experience shattered him, at least for a time. As I sat in the café I tried to look Erik up, and to find the details of the crime, but I couldn’t remember his last name or where exactly he’d found the body, and the internet was too vast and full of tragedy to narrow things down enough.
In college my ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend Ken opened a practice room in the music building and found a girl inside who’d hung herself. I wasn’t friends with him, and at the time our mutual connection hated my guts because I hadn’t acquitted myself well in our breakup, but I heard enough about the situation to know Ken was a devastated insomniac most of the time for weeks after, and tortured by nightmares when he could sleep.
Even all these years later, I was sure Erik and Ken still thought about the people they’d found. I imagined the memories intruding into happy moments—birthday parties, backyard barbecues, symphonies. They’d seen ugly death up close, without the opportunity or training to erect any defenses beforehand, and it seemed likely to me that the experience had allowed shadows to creep into their hearts. I knew how that felt. Death would always be a little closer to them than it would be to most people, a raincloud above their heads that might lift and lower but would never entirely dissipate.
I was in better shape than they’d been; I’d never stumbled on an unexpected victim of violence. I decided I’d probably shake off the morning’s discovery. I’d shaken off worse. This body would become a story I told sometimes, and then a story I never told, and then a story I forgot.
I believed that until the next day, when I found another body.
I wasn’t the only one who found her, but I was the first. I pushed the elevator button in the train station concourse, and when the door slid open, there she was, slumped against the back wall, neck at a broken angle, blood all down the front of her tank top and spattered on the thighs of her yoga pants. I took a step back—the blood was still oozing out of her, toward the doors—and one of the people waiting to board with me screamed and ran. The station police ran over and started yelling at everyone to stand clear, and another cop hammered toward the stairs to the street, presumably to see if he could find the assailant. I stumbled away in a daze, going up the stairs myself with other people, all chattering—“Did you see that,” “Was she dead,” “Oh my god the blood”—but I was quiet. What were the odds? What were the odds? Two bodies in two days.
I walked the few blocks home, to my little in-law unit. The place is tiny, but my landlady in the main house let me to take over the backyard and turn it into a garden five years ago, and playing in the dirt became my chief hobby. Sadly, she’d been in and out of the hospital for months, and was about to move into hospice care. (I thought: At least I won’t be the one to find her body.) I wondered what her heirs would do with the house when she died. It was famously difficult to evict people in Berkeley, but I still worried. I probably couldn’t afford another place with the way rents were rising these days.
I sat in a lawn chair out back beside plots of turned soil and drooping late summer tomato plants, and looked at my phone. There were a few posts and tweets about the dead woman on the local social media channels, but nothing I hadn’t seen for myself. After a while I mindlessly went about my usual chores, washing dishes and taking out the trash and dragging the cans to the curb, occasionally checking for more news or details. She’d been stabbed repeatedly; no assailant identified; police were checking security footage; some people said the cameras in that elevator hadn’t worked for months though. That was all. The next day the elevator was closed, covered in police tape, and two days later it was open again and smelled strongly of bleach.
I found the third body a day after that.
I had coffee with a guy who wanted to make one of my horror stories into a film. Of course he didn’t have any money for an option, or very much experience making movies, but he’d shown me a short film of his online that was pretty good, so I’d agreed to meet him. My agents wouldn’t be thrilled with me giving someone an option for a dollar, but it wasn’t like Hollywood was clamoring for my work, and you never knew. He was young and nervous and he wanted me to geek out with him about old George Romero and Hammer Horror films, but I’d never been into either of those really, so it was kind of awkward. He bought the coffee, though, and we parted with an understanding and a promise from me to call my agents about him.
Afterward I decided to take a walk and try to remember what it was like to feel hopeful. I ended up on the campus of the big local university, with its acres of paths winding past statues and old stone buildings and invasive eucalyptus trees. There was a place I liked on the edge of campus that was pretty secluded, with a steep bank leading down to the creek, where I went sometimes to think and watch the water. I crunched through the leaves toward the spot, and then stopped on the bank.
There was a dead college girl half in the water, face down in the creek, legs awkwardly pointed up the bank. She was in disarray, skirt pulled up, underwear crumpled nearby. The back of her head was a hole, and the rock that had made the hole was next to her, partly submerged in the water, bits of blood and hair still stuck to the top. I thought of the girl Erik had found. She’d been naked except for her underwear around her ankles, if the rumors were to be believed. Erik had refused to talk about it.
I knew I should call someone, but I was afraid. I’d found one dead body earlier this week, and the cops had a record of that. If I showed up at another death scene, first one on the spot, would they start to wonder about me? They could easily find out I’d been there when the woman was killed in the elevator too—there was sure to be security footage from the concourse. Three corpses in a week would get any detective wondering if I was more than just unlucky.
The ground was covered in leaf litter, and I hadn’t left any discernible tracks, but I walked out carefully just the same, and did my best to walk the streets home like I hadn’t just seen the thing I’d seen.
On my last date, before it was even a date, we talked about dead people. Sort of. Really, we talked about ghosts. We stood outside the bar, her smoking a cigarette, me just enjoying her company, a pleasure I hadn’t expected. She’d asked me for a light when I passed by, and since I smoke weed, I had a lighter on me, and since she was pretty, I obliged. We got to chatting and I did the humble-brag “Oh, I write stories” thing, and she asked what kind, and I said fantasy and horror mostly, and she said, “I just love ghost stories.” After a bit of that she asked me if I believed in ghosts. “No,” I said. “Most people who write horror are skeptics.”
“I’m not sure what I think.” Her eyes were dark and faraway. “I don’t really think I believe in ghosts, but… I definitely believe in consequences. Maybe people who see ghosts are seeing them for a reason, even if the ghosts aren’t real.”
I’ve been thinking about what she said lately. I think I could handle ghosts. I could convince myself they aren’t real. The bodies are definitely real.
I found the fourth body when I was at a bar downtown drinking whiskey with my friend Gary, who’s also a writer, but far more successful than I am; he just writes books and screenplays these days, while I have to supplement with ad copy and editing and book doctoring for the kind of aggressively unteachable amateurs who really need a book mortician instead.
When I came into the bar he said, “Whoa, you decided to upgrade the scruff into a full beard, huh?”
I scratched at my still-fairly-new beard for a second and then stopped myself. “Yeah, well, time for a change.”
“Beards are like push-up bras for men,” he said, delivering the line like he’d written it, when I knew for a fact someone else had posted it and gotten millions of shares on social media. “I still wouldn’t date you, but you’re creeping closer to the ballpark.”
“I’m honored.” I wasn’t.
We drank and talked. I didn’t tell him about the bodies. One body, maybe I would have, but three was… too much. He mostly complained about his boyfriend, and I thought at least you have someone, and tried not to think about that last date, let alone my last relationship. I mostly tried not to think about the women I’d seen dead in the elevator and by the creek.
“You oughta get back out there, man,” Gary said. “This city is full of beautiful, smart, interesting women, if you like that sort of thing.”
“You do make having a relationship sound super appealing. I’m missing out on so much arguing and drama.” The dead woman in the elevator might have been beautiful, in life. The college girl too. Had they been smart, had they been interesting? Now they were nothing. A fog of black smoke wanted to envelop my brain. “I’ve gotta hit the facilities. Order me another?” Gary raised his glass in acknowledgment.
I went down the long hallway to the pair of any-gender bathrooms, neither occupied, both doors open a crack, and pushed into the nearer one.
There was a man on his knees, his head in the toilet bowl, unmoving. I refused to accept the obvious conclusion. I told myself he’d probably just gotten drunk and come in to throw up and passed out. I approached him and said “Hey are you okay?” I reached out to shake his shoulder and wake him up.
That was the second dead body I’d touched in ten days, and the fourth I’d seen. He felt like meat, not a person. I tried to lift his head out of the water, thinking vague thoughts about the CPR I’d never learned how to administer, and his body fell over onto the tile, his head hitting with a clunk. He’d been beaten badly all over his face, the flesh swollen and discolored, the lips split, broken teeth spilling from his mouth. Toilet water streamed out of his hair across the tile. I stepped back, covering my face, trying not to scream, trying not to breathe.
I backed out of the bathroom and pulled the door shut after me. There was no one else in the hallway. I couldn’t report this discovery, either, for the same reason I hadn’t told anyone about the girl in the creek. It was too suspicious. Four bodies. No one was that unlucky.
But if it wasn’t just bad luck, then what? Was I being targeted? Was some killer… what, murdering strangers to mess with me? That didn’t make any sense. I’d found the first body on a route I took often, true, but the one in the train station… I didn’t have a day job or commuter routine, so there was no way for someone to plan for my arrival. Likewise, no one knew I visited that creek, and I’d gone on a whim. Gary and I went to half a dozen different bars when we got together, and had only chosen this one an hour before our meeting. There was no logical way this was planned, so it had to be a coincidence. Unless—
No. Coincidence was the only explanation.
The bar was crowded. Someone else would have to piss soon enough. Let them find the dead man and report him. A bar bathroom was a swamp of DNA and fingerprints, so there’d be nothing to connect me to the scene.
I went into the adjoining bathroom, halfway convinced I’d find a dead body there, too, but it was just the usual horrors of a public restroom. I used the toilet, then washed my hands, looking closely at my fingernails. It had been weeks since I’d dug in the dirt of my backyard garden, but I still felt like there was soil under my nails, some deeply ground-in filth that wouldn’t wash off. I splashed water on my face, and stared at myself in the mirror like, a character in the bad novels I edited. I’d been losing weight for weeks, and my eye sockets seemed sunken, my cheekbones pronounced, my beard ragged. I was more aware than usual of the skull under my skin.
I walked back to the bar and slid back onto my stool beside Gary. It only occurred to me then that when someone found the body and called the cops, everyone in the bar would be a possible suspect…. especially the ones who’d left for the restroom at some point. I finished off my whiskey and said, “This place is too classy for me. Want to go to that dive over on San Pablo?”
“Bar crawl!” Gary crowed, and we left before the dead caused any fuss.
The next day, after my hangover subsided, I sat down and tried to focus on writing. I had to produce a bunch of marketing emails for an online clothing store’s A/B testing, but I was distracted, and it all just seemed stupid—who cares what clothes you wear when we all end up in a shroud? Dramatic crap like that. I deliberately didn’t look at the news or any of the local social sites, because I didn’t want to know about the body from the night before.
Eventually I went out, planning to get a beer at a nearby happy hour and do some of my own writing—not one of the bars we’d hit the night before, because I don’t want a reputation as that kind of regular. As I walked, I kept my eyes down on my feet, so if there was a corpse in the bushes or gutter or behind a trash can I wouldn’t see it. I made it to the bar with no further reminders of mortality. Inevitably, one beer became three, and then I had to use the bathroom. I waited until I saw someone else go in and come out without incident before going to pee myself.
By the time I stumbled home, it was after dark. I fumbled my keys at the door, then stopped. Someone had broken the glass pane beside the door, and the door was slightly ajar.
I went cold, and thought about calling the police, but I didn’t want them here. Maybe whoever had broken in was long gone—I’d been away for hours. I didn’t have much worth stealing, after all. My laptop was in the bag on my shoulder, my phone was in my pocket, and my place was small, so even a thorough burglar would be in and out quick without much to show for their trouble. “Hello?” I called. And then, absurdly, “I have a gun!”
No answer, and the place felt empty. I opened the door and went into the living room, which was intruder-free. I stepped around the polished stone slab of the coffee table (my fanciest piece of furniture, bought in more promising times) and into the tiny kitchen. No one there. That just left the bedroom and the bathroom to check. I took a big knife from the kitchen and rounded the corner to the bathroom—
The burglar was on the floor. He’d fallen, somehow, slipped or fainted or who knows what, and he’d hit his head on the bathtub. Blood was coming out of his ear, but his obviously broken neck was the bigger problem. He was young, probably barely out of his teens. Fuck. Fuck. I thought of cops in my apartment, all over my yard, asking questions—
My phone buzzed. I looked at it, staring at the first line of the email it displayed. Hi Mike, this is Brody, Jan’s son. Jan, my landlady. I swiped to read the rest.
Mom came back home from the hospital last night because she was feeling better, but the doctors say it’s just temporary. Apparently sometimes there’s an “end-of-life rally” and people feel totally healthy right before they go into the final decline. She wouldn’t listen to us when we told her she should stay in the hospital, though, and told us all to go home, so we did. You know how stubborn she can be. Anyway, we’ve been calling her all day, and she hasn’t answered, so I’m getting worried. I was going to drive down from Folsom to check on her, but thought maybe you could knock on the door, and go in with the spare key if she doesn’t answer? We’re afraid she might have taken a bad turn. Give me a call at—
I closed my eyes. I could see Jan clearly in my mind, wearing her dingy off-white housecoat, collapsed on her kitchen floor, or unmoving in her bed, or in her bathtub, dead and cooling. I knew Jan wasn’t upstairs anymore, not really. Nothing was up there now but her body. I knew. Her son would come, the paramedics would come, someone would see the broken glass by my door, there would be questions… there was no way this ended without questions, and once the questions started, the answers would come.
I left the burglar and went into the backyard, underneath the moon, and stood beside the bare dirt by my tomato plants. I prodded the soil with the toe of my shoe.
“Consequences,” I said aloud. I thought about my last date. The random meeting outside the bar. The talk of ghost stories. My awkward “Would you like a signed copy of one of my books? I have some at home, just down the street.” Her being drunk enough to say yes, us walking down deserted side streets, all weeknight empty. Her thinking I lived in the whole big house, and laughing at herself when I showed her my tiny in-law unit, and then turning sad when I told her the landlady was in the hospital. Scrawling “To Julia, the nicest surprise I’ve had in years” in a copy of my last collection. More drinks, more talking, reading her one of my stories and trying not to slur, thinking this was it, the kind of thing I wrote about, the chance meeting that changes everything, the kind of thing that never seems to happen in real life, at least not to me—
Then the bad part. Me misreading things, I guess, making a move I shouldn’t have. Her scratching my face, so deep—I stayed inside for a week until my scruff had grown into a beard full enough to hide the marks. Me, reacting to the scratch out of pure instinct, not intent, not even anger, just pushing back when she hurt me, both of us drunk and uncoordinated.
Her falling off the couch. Her head cracking against the corner of the table. Me trying to wake her. Then sitting dazed on a chair for almost an hour. Then worrying the cops wouldn’t believe it was an accident, because I’d waited so long to call. Then thinking of the scratches on my face and realizing they’d think it was murder or at least manslaughter anyway.
Then thinking of my garden. My shovels and spades. The high privacy fence. The landlady, not home, in the hospital. The convenient dark of the night. I thought of actions, when I should have been thinking of consequences.
I shook myself back to the present. I knelt beside the dirt and dug down, scooping out earth with my bare hands, until I hit the layer of broken paving stones and bricks and rocks I’d piled on top of the body to stop animals from digging it up. I lifted enough of that trash out to uncover what was left of the face. Her face.
I took out my phone and called 911. The voice that answered sounded familiar. She was the same dispatcher who’d answered when I called about the man in the alley.
“Hello,” I said. “It’s me again. I found another body.”
Then I curled up on the dirt, and closed my eyes, and pretended I was nothing but a body myself.