His hands thrashed about to find my throat while I held him at arms length. They had been wrought again and again by time, appearing more as gnarled branches than human appendages. They were not the hands of an idle man, but one who had worked hard for his wealth, toiling by the sun and the dirt and the sweat of his brow. In the moonlight I could see how they writhed. Thomas, though three years my junior, was stronger than his slender build hinted. He held the old man’s legs as he contorted in every attempt to evade the inevitable.
It was a month ago tonight that we had resolved to kill the old man. In his later years he had become quite insufferable. Having long since retired, he spent the majority of his days sitting on the porch spewing vitriolic obscenities at the passersby, deriving the utmost joy from making proper men spit and children cry. Life hadn’t been much easier for us either. He was a terror daily, demanding from my brother and me the most trivial of acts, seemingly with the only intention of inconveniencing us further than the current burden of caring for him had already.
We had reasoned over and over how we could do it. Thomas had originally suggested that we use our grandfather’s gun, which was stored in the basement, typically loaded, in case of emergencies; robbers and wild animals and the like. He reasoned that we could easily claim we thought he was a robber in the darkness. But in his weakened state I argued that no one would accept that as a reasonable alibi. Not only that, but the sound of a gunshot would certainly warrant immediate alarm and suspicion from the neighbors, who would beyond a doubt inform the authorities. Again, Thomas suggested we could poison him little by little, one day at a time. But again, this was unacceptable. It was likely that if his body were investigated, the poison would be noted. However we decided to do it, we agreed that it needed to be clean and it needed to be quiet.
At length we discussed it and finally agreed that the man was to be suffocated in his slumber. He was at such an age where nocturnal deaths weren’t uncommon, which set us in a position where after the death we could safely alert the police, claiming to have found him upon waking the following morn. It was wholly believable, left no evidence, and absolved us of all suspect. Though the townspeople hated him, we had never shown any outward animosity towards our father.
His ancient body quaked violently until, at last, all movement ceased. I removed the pillow from his face to find his eyes wide open. Staring, as if in shock of his fate, or our betrayal, or both. I glanced away hurriedly, not caring to look into those cold eyes a moment longer. Thomas saw them too. He backed off the body and slowly continued back, never once breaking his gaze.
“Thomas.” The voice of his older brother appeared to awaken him. “Get the window.” He nodded half-heartedly and commenced to open the window. The air that followed was warm, but felt better than nothing in the heat of the room. Thomas sat down below the bedside window while I attended to our work. I placed his pillow back next to him and straightened the sheets and caught another glimpse of my father’s eyes. In the midst of this heat they chilled me to my soul. I walked towards the door. “Are you coming, Thomas?”
He nodded slightly and his voice, dry and shaken, rasped a reply, “Yes.” He peered around the room a moment, “I’ll be right down.” And with that, I left.
In the kitchen I prepared for Thomas’ arrival. I lighted a personal lantern as well as a variety of candles that littered the table. I poured two glasses of cheap wine we had purchased last week, saved for tonight, and I cut slices of fresh bread and cheese from Vermont. We had agreed that it was best to celebrate our father’s passing; after all this was a freedom for both of us. Having originally planned to wait for my brother, my resolve ran thin and I could no longer postpone my feasting. The patricide had made me famished. The moment my teeth sunk into the soft bread my mouth gushed with saliva. The bread was so deliciously fresh and it smelled of the local bakery. The cheddar was also not to be missed. It was sharp, but in perfect contrast to both my bread and my wine. I was so caught up in my feasting that I failed to notice my brother’s entrance. He stood across the table holding a glass of wine, very nearly spilling it with his trembling.
“Thomas!” I exclaimed, “A toast!” He looked at me, eyes so very sullen. “To the end of our slavery and the beginning of our lives.” I downed the remainder of my glass and began pouring another. “I honestly didn’t think it would be that easy,” Thomas stared blankly, “you know, to kill someone. Not him in particular, he was frail enough; I mean in general. I suppose I had no idea what to expect.”
“John, you don’t feel like…” he trailed off like he was still trying to form his thought, then continued: “like something in you just died?” He eyed me as if coming out of a daze.
“I suppose I should be feeling a bit of remorse, because he is our father… But no, greatly I feel unchanged.”
“What about because he was a living thing?”
“Oh.” I had forgotten that Thomas had never gone hunting as a child, unlike myself who would at times go into the woods with friends to bring back rabbits or on special occasions a buck. The thought hadn’t crossed my mind until now, but perhaps was this the first thing he’s killed?
He sipped the wine and we sat in silence at the table, eating the fresh bread and cheese we had bought to celebrate.
“It’s good cheese, isn’t it?” I asked, hoping to alleviate the tension plastered across his face. “Very good, if I say so myself. The bread too.”
“Yes. It’s very good.” He began to regain his composure.
“The wine’s not bad for what we paid for it either.”
“No. It’s fine.”
For a long period of time nothing needed be said. We sat and ate until we were full, then we stared at the walls as if waiting for something to happen, each of us dealing with the deed in our own way. I’ll admit to a feeling of guilt, but in an unexpected fashion. I felt guilty not for taking a life, but for feeling nothing after the act. I felt largely unaltered, which, in a way, put me very ill at ease. I could observe from Thomas that he was experiencing every moment with a new and terrifying emotion that he had to struggle to suppress. How I wished for the same.
The clock had just struck three, marking an hour since our father’s passing. It was about this time that I truly began to study Thomas. The toll of the chimes initiated a jump of surprise and I began to realize a deterioration of his demeanor. His hands had been shaking since the incident, but only recently had I noticed his eyes. They alternated from stoic glances to sporadic bursts of darting all about the room. Aside from that he had been sweating profusely, not that I could blame him; it was far too warm that evening.
“Thomas…” He looked to me and I continued, “Perhaps we should practice what we’re going to say when we talk to the police tomorrow.”
“Yeah.” He nodded in agreement, “Good idea, John.”
“You’re just going to tell them that you woke up to find him—“
“Why me?” He questioned defensively. His jittery eyes now very focused.
“That’s fine; I’ll tell them I found him. Your room is just closer to his.” I continued.
“Why would you go in his room?”
“I’m going to market and I wanted to know if there was anything he needed…” I trailed off as Thomas shook his head with disapproval.
“We went to market today, people saw us there. Why wouldn’t we get everything in one trip? Especially since we only got the bread and cheese, we could’ve carried more.”
“Fine, then I was going to check on him in this heat.”
“What if tomorrow’s not as hot?”
“Then I wanted to see if he needed any chores done.”
“You think they’d accept that you wanted to do his chores?”
“Fine,” I very nearly yelled. Our voices had been rising with slight intensity since the start of our conversation. “What would you say then?”
“I’d say –” He stopped as though he’d been struck by lightning. His eyes meticulously scanned the room.
“Shhhhhhhhhhh!” My brother insisted.
I grew with concern. His sudden alertness conjured horrible possibilities. Wild thoughts of my nightmares rushed through my head and I felt my cheeks flush with blood. What if someone was watching? What if they had found us out? I had been so careful; we closed the windows, held him down, kept it clean. We did everything in our power to keep this as controlled as possible. No. This was impossible; we had given no one any reason to suspect.
I whispered to my brother, “What do you hear?”
“I don’t know.” He squinted his eyes trying to make any sort of connection. “It sounds like footsteps… or scratching… from upstairs.”
I listened intently but heard nothing.
Thomas continued to follow the sound, though after a time he appeared lost. I wondered if it had stopped. Feeling a break in his patrol, I interjected, “I didn’t hear anything.”
“I’m not sure if I did either.”
There was only a brief pause before Thomas fell backward off his chair, aghast with great surprise and terror. “John, did you hear that?” He stared into me, frightening me more because again I heard nothing, “Did you hear it?!”
“What did it sound like?” I asked, but in response he only pointed upstairs. “What? It’s probably just the wind—“
“It wasn’t the wind, Jonathan, it was a voice.” He whispered with great intensity, “It was a human voice, and it said my name.” Of this, he was certain.
“Well be quiet!” I match his tone, “If someone’s in the house, don’t let them know we know.”
“No, John. I know that voice.” His eyes widened and he pointed to our father’s bedroom. I realized that he was inferring our failure in completing our original task.
“Thomas. Get a hold of yourself.” I attempted to reach him, unaware that I was still whispering. He looked at me and I could see a wave of reason slowly washing over him. I could see his very thoughts as he tried to convince himself of this lunacy. Then came the silence. “Good. Now pull yourself together. You’re letting your mind play tricks. We’ll both be damned if you go mad when the police come.” The very inkling of our discovery filled his body with a coarse rigidity.
I had just begun cleaning when it had happened. I have never been one for superstition, and I would scarcely believe it had I not heard it with my own ears. But I had heard it, and I can never unhear it, nor can I unsee what then became of that night. I had just cleared the wine glasses from the table and had picked up what remained of the loaf of bread when I heard a distinct ‘THUD,’ from a room upstairs. I glanced across the table at a frighteningly pale figure that somewhat resembled my brother. He returned a stare, which formed a response that simultaneously gloated that he hadn’t imagined the sounds while maintaining a terrible fear of the gallows. An encore of the sound was precisely what we needed to break us from our terror. Very little was said; we both knew someone was upstairs and they were the only thing standing in the way of our freedom. Thomas grasped the knife that we had just used on the bread, indicating that he would go first to investigate. I motioned he should take a candle, but the moon was out, and that was light enough for him.
As he began stealthily up the stairs, I made myself busy, cleaning our mess. If someone had spied us earlier, it was likely that our silence would alert them to our sudden realization that we were no longer alone. I tried with all of my reason to discern who could be in the house, and why. I doubted very much that a neighbor had heard the little ruckus that there was, and even if they had heard it, would it have been probable cause enough to warrant their own investigation? Would they have found the body? And how would they have even gotten upstairs without our knowing, unless they came in a window? Perhaps then burglars in the night were here to rob us. It is true that our father had amassed a small fortune, enough for us to live well on, but certainly not any wealth of extravagance or leisure. And what would we do with our visitor? I knew we wouldn’t be able to kill a neighbor without consequence, but a thief perhaps… Though we would need to hide the body tomorrow and find a quiet way to dispose of it. I imagined how foolish my brother felt for alluding to our failure, but only a fraction to how foolish I felt that his allusion had even affected me.
My conjecture immediately halted the moment I heard the terrible sound. Not even in the wailing of the town cats or screeching of birds had I heard such distress. It was so nearly inhuman, but I knew the source without even a second guess. Amidst the horror of the scream was the slight timbre of my brother’s voice. I reached for the lantern and sprinted up through the house. The scream pealed away to layers of cursing and heavy grunting, as if he was in a fight for his very life. As I reached the hallway I could hear the sickening ‘shick’ and ‘chruuch’ of a knife cutting through flesh and the blade grinding against bone, over and over again. I listened for a source and realized the sound was traveling from the now sepulchral room of our father.
As I turned the corner light from my lantern illuminated everything. There, crouched by the bed, was Thomas. He thrashed violently into the cadaver, screaming and cursing with every thrust. Blood coated his hands and chest, and against a moonlit backdrop he looked more like a wild beast than my brother. I rushed to him and with every ounce of my strength I attempted to pull him away, his knife ripped down the motionless chest before he lost his grip. I restrained his arms as he kicked wildly towards the corpse. It was at this point that I realized the window hung wide open and I knew with utter certainty that we had been found out. It was a sheer impossibility that our neighbors remained oblivious to our disruption.
“Have you gone completely mad?!” I am without restraint when I pin him to the wall. Between the light of the moon and the lantern I could see tears in his eyes.
“I was right! It was him!” He barely managed to get the words out between gasps of air, “I came in and he looked at me! He said my name and he looked at me and I had to do it! He wouldn’t stay dead! He just wouldn’t! I had to. I had to…”
He slid his back down the wall and continued rambling in his crazed state, his voice trembling with every breath. I picked up the lantern that I had placed before the struggle and perused the scene. As I noticed the blood stained sheets and body, littered with wounds, the thought dawned on me that our careful planning had been in vain. I explained to Thomas that we needed to hide the body and that our plan had to change but he was in no condition to help. His progressive madness devoured him as he continued his wild murmurings. I began stripping the sheets, wrapping the body in them as I peeled them off the bed. Miraculously very little blood had fallen on the wood floor. I fetched a bowl of water and a towel and cleaned until it was unnoticeable. Through all of this I maintained a stoic outer appearance, unshaken by my brother, but my emotions betrayed my composition. Internally I was swept into a whirlwind of doubts, the biggest of which was whether or not Thomas had imagined the whole thing. I knew he must have… but I heard the mysterious sound that beckoned us just as well as he. Could he be right? Had we failed to murder our father? I pushed the thoughts out of my mind to accomplish the task at hand, a task now substantially more difficult and more dangerous.
“I need you here, with me.” I stared him down, like an animal establishing dominance. His mumbling had ceased and though he now stared at me, I doubted his cognizance. His body still lightly convulsed with tremors of terror, but I could see him fighting to regain control.
“What should we do?” He barely stammered.
I thought out the scenario countless times over but our discovery seemed more and more inevitable by the moment. At length we assessed that before we could corroborate an alibi the body must be well hidden. We couldn’t take the body out of the house tonight without potentially being spotted by any neighbors who would have been awakened by the screams, and hiding him in any room in the house would be just as much a risk when the police arrive. Our only remaining option was to hide him under the house. When the house was originally constructed the basement had a dirt floor, it was only in later generations that someone had the good thought to place a wood floor over soil. It was here we would bury our father, if only temporary, until we had the ability to get him out unnoticed.
Before we commenced with the act I tried to talk Thomas into relinquishing the knife he was still brandishing. Despite having explained the corpse couldn’t possibly become any more dead he remained obstinate in his possession of the object. This made me notably uneasy. I doubted very much that he would ever consciously harm me, but I could not be sure with him in such a state. Nevertheless he maintained his blade and we hoisted the body into the hall.
The descent to the basement was typically an easy venture and would still be had we not had to transport the aged cadaver. From our father’s room we would go down the long hallway, down the stairs, through the foyer, and into the kitchen, wherein there was a door proceeded by more stairs. Our father had grown weakened and mildly corpulent through his age and seldom had the energy to walk the duel stairs. Likewise, we too had so become burdened by the trip, having to fetch various trinkets from the cellar on his whims, that we kept a majority of our belongings on the ground level or second story. It was this detail that two facts emerged; the first being that the basement had become fairly barren, leaving only the least desired of his belongings to fester in the stink of time and forgetfulness, truly making an appropriate tomb, and the second being that we had forgotten entirely where the floorboards were weakened and that finding a hiding place would prove more of an ordeal than time would allow.
In a race to beat the nearing dawn and the certain police investigation it would usher in, we clumsily wrapped the body in the sheets and hobbled down the hallway. The body weighed about as much as I imagined it would and took all of our strength to keep our grip on the cloth. I had no choice but to leave the lighted lantern in his room until we finished the task at hand. In our silence my imagination took advantage of our state and I recalled stories whispered around the fire in my childhood, terrifying stories of betrayal and murders and ghosts. I blamed Thomas’ superstitious irrationalities for this lapse of reason. And though I knew even then that I was being a fool, I couldn’t erase these thoughts or convince myself of their fraudulent claims. What struck me to my soul was not the horrible intentions of the parties involved or even the possibility that ghosts are indeed real and vengeful beings, but that in all these stories, either by supernatural or man made means, the bad men always met a ghastly fate. And as much as I convinced Thomas that we did the right thing, for our own lives and well-being, I knew beyond any doubt that we were the bad men.
By the time we reached the bottom of the first set of stairs I felt such physical strain that I suggested we stop a moment. Thomas agreed, clearly feeling the strain as well. It was in this respite and in the dim light of the moon that the dreadful realization hit me. I could see it, glistening in the darkness; spots of liquid rubies had littered the stairs, and for all I knew they led a trail back to his bedroom. The body was dripping. We agreed to hurry onward with no further rests and clean the blood upstairs as soon as we reached the basement level.
Through much struggle and sweat we reached the cellar door. The few candles that still burned in the kitchen mixed with the moonlight to reveal a blood-speckled floor, which led out into the foyer. Too exhausted to care now, I propped myself against the wall next to the door and fumbled for the knob while holding up the body. The latch in the doorknob clicked and I plied the door open to reveal a pitch-black stairwell. At the bottom of the stairs moonlight littered the floor, coming from the tiny windows that were above ground near the basement ceiling. With great caution I took the first step into the blackened abyss. One foot after the other I felt around, only placing pressure on the foot after I had undeniably found the subsequent step. I could feel the cloth in my hands tremble with my brother’s waning grip.
“John…” His voice was muted and trembled ever so slightly. He had stopped moving. “I hear him breathing.”
“That’s enough. I don’t want to hear anymore of your paranoid prattle. We’ll be at the gallows by noon tomorrow if we don’t hurry.” And the truth was I didn’t want to hear it, because I had become just as paranoid as he. I pulled onward to finish the task but with a tremendous jerk I felt the other side go limp. I could just barely see the blanket slip from his hands, falling to the floor and uncovering the twisted face, his eyes still staring.
The sight of those eyes was just enough to entirely break Thomas, and before I could stop him, he leapt down to the body and slashed his throat vigorously, as if to finally assure himself that this man was unequivocally dead. Warm redness gushed down the stairs and I felt the oozing liquid at my feet. I immediately lost all control and screamed at Thomas, disparaging his idiocy, but in the excitement of the moment I lost my footing, sliding down the wetted steps, dragging both the body and Thomas with me.
We hit the floor with a crack. I imagined it was a floorboard until I felt the surge of pain shooting through my left side. I was certain I had broken some of my ribs, but I couldn’t address the pain yet. I continued to curse Thomas and wrestle the knife from his hands. He threw several punches at me in attempts to keep his weapon, one of which hit where the intense pain struck me, but it was my fist meeting his throat which finally distracted him enough for me to grab the knife and throw it across the room.
With both of us hunched over in exquisite pain, gasping for air, recovering our strength from the trek downstairs we were both immobilized by something sinister, something impossible, so fantastic that we were marred by a disgusting emotion that was not unlike fear, but wholly more powerful. In the midst of our breathing I heard a sound that no logical conclusion accounted for. A sound discordant from myself and too close in proximity to be coming from Thomas, the source of which could only be the blood-soaked body that lay on the floor between us. This old man that had tortured us in life had tortured us all the more in death, for in between my labored breathing and shots of pain which dulled all my senses I could hear, from the ancient bones between us, the unmistakable sound of a beating heart.
Unable to fully comprehend the implications of what we both heard so clearly, we both immediately began tearing up floorboards, working as fast as our worn out bodies could fashion. In the moonlight I found shovels. We quickly broke ground and as we dug I glanced around the basement. Just as I remembered, we had rather emptied it, nearby there were a series of shelves that only had a handful of memories left on them, including some old books, some unused ceramic pots, some nails and tools, which would help with covering the hole in the floor, and our grandfather’s gun, which we avoided to save ourselves further trouble, a concept that seemed rather pointless anymore.
I could feel my ribs stabbing into something inside of me every time I cast down my shovel, filling my torso with an excruciating pain. If it hadn’t been for Thomas being so adamant in digging we’d have never finished the hole by morning. We now stood before a hole in the floor roughly six feet long, four feet wide, and three feet deep. We had figured it would be enough to hold the body for the time being but we also lacked the capacity to dig further. We eyed our work in silence and moved to the body that now haunted our thoughts. Worn down and weak we dragged the body to the edge of the hole and rolled it in. It had landed in a grisly position with its spine twisted and face pointed to the sky, or towards us; the imagination reeled.
Anxious to hide the terrors of this night I moved fast to the shovels, as Thomas stood in bewilderment at the placement of the body. I had just turned back when I saw him shake out of his gaze and turn only to lose his footing mid-step, falling directly over the terrible mass of skin and bones and into the hastily made grave. He screamed with unmatched horror and I scrambled to his aid. I latched onto his arms and pulled him off, kicking and screaming over and over that he had been pulled, that the corpse had grabbed him, and as soon as he was on his feet he began stomping with all his might upon the old man below. Sickening crunching and cracking sounds of bone and cartilage seeped from the ground with each motion as I tried to restrain him. I looked into the grave to see a face entirely unrecognizable. Except for those eyes that continued to stare deep into my soul.
With a great push I knocked Thomas to the ground, begging him to stop this insanity, but he was unreachable. Whatever remained of my brother was lost in the labyrinthine complexes of his mind. He was now but a shell that was ruled by his fear, and I feared him. He struck back at me with a clenched fist to my right ear, leaving a terrible ringing sound for a brief moment. I struck back at him and tried to restrain him with my arms, but I withdrew quickly when I felt teeth break the skin of my left forearm. He pulled back, taking an inch of solid flesh with him.
In a glut of pain I stumbled back, my skull cracking hard against the shelves I spied earlier. Now my head, my left arm, right ear, left ribs and whatever organs they punctured all screamed in a discordance of agony only amplified by the physical and mental strain of the night. My vision blurred on impact for a moment, but in my good ear I heard erratic scrambling and heavy labored steps, followed by an awful metallic sound. My vision came back just in time to see my brother in the moonlight, standing before me, covered in blood, bruised and damaged and completely deranged. And in his hand I saw it, reflecting white light, shimmering in the fantastic brilliance of unmatched terror. I saw the knife that my brother was going to use to kill me. With no time to consider I reached for the shelf above me. Thomas lunged forward and in utter immediacy I had fired my grandfather’s gun, piercing the chest of the man in front of me. The discharge of the gun echoed through my body and in extreme pain and exhaustion I collapsed to the floor, vomiting and sweating profusely.
The time I spent on the floor was entirely indiscernible. It could have been minutes, but just as easily hours. I sat in that terrible silence, observing the work of my hands, dull to any emotion, crippled with physical pain. Eventually I heard the sounds. They were so very faint at first but became unmistakable, familiar. As my mind pushed me farther into the depths of my madness I heard cacophony of accompanying noises. First the pounding of the hard wooden door. Then voices. Very faint, very far away, then very near and vivid. Then came the sounds of shoes on the floor above me, then on the steps. The lantern in the room, the stripped sheets, the blood trail, the mangled and unrecognizable bodies, surely they saw everything. The rest is a blur, I cannot possibly recall more. The aftermath of the night of August the twenty-fifth will forever pale in comparison to the events that preceded. As I sat in the basement, covered in blood, surrounded by cops and cadavers, the final thing I recall, with growing intensity, becoming abhorrently unbearable, was the sound of two beating hearts.
© 2012 by Dwight Evan Young. All rights reserved.