There’s a dad named John, wine glass heavy in hand, peering through blinds, marking the progress of his newly bought yard roomba.
It cuts in the pattern of an emperor’s garden — the kind where he invites his guests for a party, they wander down its paths, and find that he’s been burning prisoners at its center. The flames equal the height of the fruit trees circled around them.
A cloud of dust rises over the grass as the roomba cuts. The front door opens. John marking the progress of the machine on his patch of land. An SUV drives by, slows down to watch the grass shorten. A green light on its back blinks red and it stops just short of finishing the job.
John stands with hunched over disapproval, swears and sets his glass of wine down on the porch, diminishing the chances of finishing it before dinner is delivered. He runs a strong finger over the red light. The sun is dimming orange over the vinyl houses boxed around him and his home. After a moment of stiff-backed thought, he steps inside to retrieve the owner’s manual.
He learns the battery is still very much alive. But there’s a foreign object jamming the apparatus of the roomba’s insides. This task would have to move off the yard and into the garage. He presses the fob on his keys.
With a mechanical hum, the door folds upward. The sky is purple now. A slight screeching peals out as the door reaches the end of its track and the sound causes the killer waiting in the bushes to crouch a little lower. The pond one row of houses over begins emanating the usual roar of frogs and crickets.
Parts slide out and click into place. The dad is deft with the movements, as if the manual was fashioned from his own skin. A few silent steps behind him. He continues his work, dislodging a rock from the blade cage. The killer raises the knife. Fleece-gloved knuckles tighten.
John gasps operatically, his mouth gaping wide enough to conjure violin glissandos. Holds up his arm to keep the killer away. A blade thrusts and his limb defense is bloodied. Another thrust. This one landing somewhere in his torso. He crumples onto his machine, white-knuckling its edges under the weight of his body.
And with a vapid hurl of the machine, he stops the next thrust of the knife, striking the killer in the chest.
There’s preternatural speed to the way John drags his body out of the garage and down the drive all the way into the street. The killer recovers. And he emerges from the garage into a half-lit world of vinyl siding and smooth concrete.
John loses his momentum and the killer catches up to him, straddles his soon-to-be-murdered body in the street and raises the knife.
But, dinner is about to be delivered. The pizza man pushes his clutch to the floorboard, taking in the scene ahead of him on the street. A cloud of weed billows inside his mouth. Then first gear.
RPMs rattle the mailboxes. The front bumper is about to hit the killer, only the width of three more drives ways to go. But, still holding the knife, the killer leaves his victim a moment to diagonal toward the sidewalk, dodge the immanent closer that’s flooring it his way.
The pizza delivery man is out for blood, his tires turned at a forty-five-degree angle in a rubber scream, careening toward the killer’s waist.
It’s a partial hit.
So the killer and delivery man lock in a dazed hand-to-hand altercation. There’s a gladiatorial nonchalance to their movements, gripping each other’s throats and kicking at their injuries from the crash. But it’s not long before the delivery man is dead. He takes a knife stoically to the chest. Strikes the killer’s one last time, cracking something, before succumbing to the stab wound. His body cursive against the neatly cut grass. Orange roses begin to close, just slightly.
In the fading light, John’s body is different. Like his wounds have filled with adrenaline, oozing with warmth and comfort, a crazed strength gathering beneath his shoulder blades, pooling in the vessels of his fists as he runs up the street. The killer pursues.
The low sun stretches their shadows into a nymph and god, long, slender, sharp, weightless across the asphalt. Turning the corner, around the row of houses, they pass front porches and carefully parted blinds behind windows. Miniscule camera lenses on doorbells narrow at the pace of their movements. Accelerating, their chase moves downhill toward the drainage pond at the neighborhood’s edge.
And, suddenly, in one moment, the dad and the killer collide in the shallow waters of the pond. Their violence breaks up the water’s surface. The kind of primordial splashing that would have formed islands if their blood was made from something more ethereal. Islands where women would hide their children in caves, far from their vengeful fathers.
John grows weak. His adrenaline has its limits and it drains out of him through the gaps of his wounds. He’ll die soon. But the killer is steady, marble in his fortitude. Thick mud covers their knees, splatters across their chests. Drops of water ring out of the fleece gloves as they grip around the knife. And, he murders John.
As the killer makes his way up the street, John’s body floats seismically across the pond’s surface. He wipes the mud off his shirt, exhales relief into the purple sunset. The knife rests snuggly in a belt loop. It bounces up and down.
Blinds stay shut and no one turns on their porch light. Only the streetlamps show up with their automatic timer buried deep inside. The maroon-colored shrubs at a nearby house look soft, sheltering. The killer has a new hiding place.
Working out a fractured arm bone, he listens to a conversation climbing its way over a privacy fence.
“Did you measure the frame before you ordered?”
“I didn’t need to measure. I knew the size of the mattress. I had no way of knowing that a king could be any other size than the king on our bedroom floor.”
“Everything has to be measured. Especially when you’re ordering off the Internet.”
“Not beds, beds are beds.”
“Well, I was just really looking forward to sleeping on a king tonight. Now we’re on the floor again.”
“It’ll be fun. Like when we were college kids. The dorm. The floor.”
“We met in graduate school.”
“I met you as a sophomore. You were wearing a purple jersey in the cafeteria.”
“Wasn’t me. I was morally opposed to sports. A phase I went through in undergrad.”
“Could have been one of those ironic protests.”
“I protested by not paying tuition, auditing classes from the hallway, and even the windows sometimes.”
“You loved watching me, then?”
“I loved hearing the lectures — all the talk of agrarian lifestyles. The land between the two coasts. Overrun by yellow-eyed goats and emaciated wolves. It was the kind of land you could drink like terrible wine. Stain your teeth and fill your body with blood.”
And the killer sleeps, his gloved hands resting between his knees as his side absorbs moisture from the mulch. The others continue their conversation with a lust-locked kiss, silhouettes under the glare of their security light.
The weeks following the first two kills mark themselves with a more nocturnal violence. In the midst of pursuit, kitchen sinks are leaped over. Men are pushed off granite countertops at neck-breaking angles. Strangle-holds reach stalemates. Attic doors are pulled down onto the homeowners’ heads. There are tangles on living room furniture, guest room combat rattling the framed prints of crocus flowers nailed to walls. Torn thermostats bludgeon struggling faces.
When not killing, the killer rustles bushes, only as soft as an orchard breeze, as he gazes through the windows. Lives lived in squares of velvet, lightbulb heat. He watches couples fill each other’s wine glasses with cyclical talk of work. Kids snatch spoons from the center of a table, chasing each other in sudden explosions of playing cards. A middle-aged bachelor watches a record spin on the turntable. Teenage couch-sleepers lay before a television streaming endless movies, each picture worse than the last.
Poorly dubbed dialogue passes through the window:
“But, Harry! There’s a body in the trunk. We couldn’t possibly drive it.”
“Just to the coast. And we’ll be through for good. Think of it, Eveline. We’re almost free.”
“There’s no ocean that could wash us from the guilt. It’s simply awful, Harry. I simply can’t bear it!”
“You keep talking like this and I’ll leave you in the ocean too.”
“You don’t mean it.”
“The fact of the matter is that it’s high time we get a move on. Now, are you coming or what?”
“You’d really be so cruel?”
“Not as cruel as the waves when they crash your body against the rocks!”
“They can’t crash what’s been turned to gills.”
“What are you going on about now?”
“You know the truth. Not the truth that’s in the trunk. But the real truth. The one that comes from the ocean.”
“I thought we had an understanding. No more of this talk.”
“You know damn well I can’t help who I am.”
“Stop it, Evelyn!”
“I’ve got air for blood. I can breathe in the depths.”
“I’m warning you.”
“Seafoam caught me at the moment of my birth.”
“Stop! For the love of God!”
“When the time of this land is over, and the waters swallow all we know. I’ll remain. Rightful heir to the throne of my father. Hail his name!”
But the killer’s gone before the scene ends. He’s luring men to back porches. Struggling in garden lava rocks. SUV’s drive by, the security lights of backyards reflecting off their mirrors. And their pace stays the same. They stop at stop signs, crawl over speed bumps. It starts to rain.
The killer scrapes down the shingles of a roof slanted at the storm. Halfway down, he stops himself with his gloved hand. But the knife slips away and continues to slide. Downward, clattering, until it lands in the gutter, its tip pointing upward over the edge like a gargoyle talon. Dogs bark staccato from their side of the fence.
There’s another dad, this one named Garrick, who flips on his back porch light, having a smoke. But he notices a sharp gleaming in the rain. It’s really coming down. The grass sinks below the puddle line, devolving into mud. His tossed cigarette sizzles in the wet yard. And in a minute, Garrick’s holding his hand above his head and carrying a lawn chair. With a dutiful drop, he places the chair beneath the gutter. And he steps skyward.
The rain blurring his eyes, Garrick feels along the gutter to find the blade, inspect it, see if it’s from his own kitchen, trace the story on how it got up to the roof beforehand — had his kids been fucking around again? Their teacher hadn’t sent a note home lately, but there was no way to know for sure.
The killer slides the rest of the way down the roof, no effort to do so silently.
Raindrops break against the mineral of the shingles, crushed from a northern mountain range, trucked out of a mine cut deep into the slope. Drive a machine far enough into the tunnel and oracles will run long fingers across its windshield.
With a liquid explosion, the killer’s heels crash into the gutter, hurling stray raindrops and loose hardware into the air. Garrick falls to his back. The killer crumples close by. Then slowly assembles himself to his feet.
Real animal shrieks tear out from between his jaws. He crawls on his palms and heels, backward, away from the killer as quickly as his winded body will crawl. Dogs scratch from the other side of the fence, yelping at the sounds of a dying creature. Garrick backs to the yard’s corner, his throat ripping a little with each scream, the dogs scratching, growling, thrusting their snouts into the fence. The killer approaches as he squeezes his fists tight, an attempt to ring the cold water out.
Garrick’s all the way against the fence corner. His fingers grope at the boards behind him. He pulls himself into the planks, an absurd effort to disappear in the glare of his back porch light. He pulls until the boards begin to break. More animals scream. The neighbor’s dogs flash their teeth through the openings. Garrick stands up. Broken boards in his hands, shrieking, an animal already dead. But he’s bending his shoulders forward like a predator. The neighbor’s dogs have broken loose. They’re tearing at his wrists and heels, leaping at his chest, snapping at his throat. But Garick’s only looking at the killer. Garrick’s screaming goatman screams across the yard.
That’s when the dogs bring him down. A tangle of jaws and splintered boards, they writhe across the grass. They gouge through the mud. The killer stands uncertain, like a young nobleman unsure of his stance as the painter brushes his portrait across a canvas. Garrick blurs in the snapping movements of the dog attack.
But the hesitation ends. He stabs Garrick, only suffering two bites to the meat of his forearm. Not much in the way of killing happens for at least several more nights.
Instead, he catches phone conversations from the shadows of a water meter. He slips himself between trash bins to hear the arguments of parents with their parents. He even finds himself in a family’s attic, his gloved hands still wet, held up to the humming furnace. A dinnertime discussion knocks against the plywood beneath his feet. It lilts into the insulation beyond the boards.
“Oh, they quoted the HOA alright. They quoted us.”
“What was it?”
“Egregious. It was egregious. They said that to secure a neighborhood of our perimeter — with one security officer driving around in his truck, performing hourly flashlight checks where he parks and then shines his light into the spaces between homes. That’s it. That’s all he’d do. We’d have to raise our monthly fees by 33%. And he doesn’t even have a gun. To have an officer with a concealed carry license, that would raise us up by 45%. These are people’s homes. They chose this neighborhood because they could invest in their families. Sure, there’s a pond and the yards are a decent size for a place like this. But how are people supposed to live here if things change? And it’s not about the HOA fees raising. It’s the fact that there’s a killer on the loose!”
“We don’t know that for sure, hon.”
“What the fuck else would it be, hon?! Men are getting stabbed with knives by heaven knows who. And we don’t know why. Frankly, I was the only one at the meeting to mention it. No one’s even curious about who it is! For all we know, our daughters could be riding around in his truck, swapping spit in the parking lot during halftime.”
“No. No, don’t cut me off. Imagine it. Imagine if our daughters were dating the killer. And none of the parents knew. Because that could very well be what’s happening. There’s simply no way of knowing. And if there really isn’t a way to know — which there isn’t — then that means that it is happening. It’s happening right now. There are girls from this neighborhood who are taking the killer by the hand and hopping in his car after school, buying some line about getting in his chariot. They’re taking pictures of him. They’re recording videos of him. And they’re laughing every second of the way. Because they only care as much as the HOA does that there’s a motherfucking killer on the loose. He’s come down from some big city, disguised as a handsome stranger, and he’s dating our daughters.”
There’s a detective named Manetti. And someone has interrupted his painting process to tell about the killings. The brushstrokes chaotic, thick with oil and edges. The air hangs damp with the smell of paint and dissipating clouds of weed. As the phone call solidifies its direction with a few clarifying questions, he orders that the pond be drained to search for evidence. He’ll be there in the morning.
Manetti has a crime-scene drive ritual and it’s to call the third shift operators on dispatch. They love him for his ability to end their shifts without having to say anything at all. They only listen:
“I had a final once — terrible class — where we just had one problem. And it was to figure out how long it would take a swimming pool to drain. Gave us the dimensions of the pool and the size of the drain itself. Got a B, and it was the highest in my class. Probably a lot easier to estimate the drainage of a pool, rather than a pond. More hard angles to work with, but I’m convinced that anything can be measured. That’s what quantum physicists are trying to do at the quark level anyway. And at the spiritual level, well, they’ve been at it for years. People think of religion and spirituality as so subjective, but the reality is that they were able to measure hell itself. Four hundred and fifty miles wide at the top. Then it’s narrower and narrower all the way down. Boggles the mind to think about it, eternal torment having a diameter, but that’s what the poets discovered, and it was the mathematicians who interpreted it. Now it’s up to us to use those equations to make some sense of the evil around us. That’s how I see my job, this business of chasing after bad guys. It’s how I shrink the diameter of hell. And it’s why I had the pond drained.”
And Manetti puts his car into park, turning the key with musical timing. The sun scratches red over the horizon and it’s just enough to cast a shimmer over the drained pond. A nauseous sight.
“You know. I’ll have to finish this story another time. Sorry to keep you on a loop. I’ll call you on the next one.”
Where water used to reach the bottom of the pond, there’s a thick layer of wet fleece gloves. Countless pairs, stretched across the whole width and breadth of the pond, hide the mud that bubbles faintly beneath them. They glisten, like the fat of a ram sacrifice. A singular image of softness and light, broken up only by one shape in its center. The killer sleeps, hands between his knees, laid across the bed of gloves.
Manetti watches the sunrise, the colors shifting in the gloves’ shimmering until the killer wakes in the early light. He stretches, then recoils back into himself, clearly cold. Shivering gloved hands raise above his face. Manetti takes a drag of weed from a distance. The killer reaches to his longest finger, pinching down on the excess length of the glove, peeling the slick fleece from his hand. Other gloves will have to do.
His feet sink a little as he stands. Taking steps, pivoting the direction of his gaze, bending down to try a new pair of gloves — each one as cold and wet as the last. He continues his search all the way to the edge, where Manetti waits. The killer speaks without looking.
“I thought I was the killer.”
“You could be. Where are you from?”
“Beautiful this time of year, isn’t it? What are you doing here?”
“We often hold feasts under the dead leaves. It’s warm and carried by wonderful breezes.”
“Sounds beautiful indeed.”
“Well, you’re answering my question. What are you doing in town?”
“You never answered mine.”
“You never asked, knifeman.”
“Are you the killer?”
“You see,” the detective laughs. “That’s a good fucking question. And I’ve been kicking my hooves at the edge of my skull trying to figure it out.” He slaps his forehead with a heavy palm. “I knew I liked your game. What makes you ask?”
“Dear God,” the killer sighs into the orange air. He climbs a fence, joints cracking at the movement. But he turns his head before making the hop. “I had a dream. Last night.” He’s hesitant, his tone having already given up, “That hell had a circle at the top of it.”
Manetti smiles with mock sheepishness, “What do you know about hell?”
The killer, shaking his head, drops into the yard on the other side, met with animal screams. A lawnmower roars from somewhere across the neighborhood.
— Caleb Bethea is a MFA at the University of South Carolina, studying fiction by night. By day, he works as a copywriter. But, the best of his time is spent with his wife and two kids by the ocean. You can read his work elsewhere in voidspace, HAD, Maudlin House, and mutiny! magazine. He tweets @caleb_bethea_