“The Worst Part” by Hannah Lackoff

“The Worst Part” by Hannah Lackoff

After it was all over, he had to go back and tell their parents. This was the worst part. To see their excitement as they saw his beat-up silver station wagon and came out to meet it, ready to help unload the weekend’s bags and supplies. Then their confusion as they saw the lone teenager in the driver’s seat. Then concern, as he stepped out of the car and they saw his ripped clothes, the blood and the mud he had been too exhausted to wipe off. They watched him stumble with the weight of it, but not one offered him a glass of water or a ham sandwich. Only Elsie’s dad thought he might want to sit down.

It didn’t get easier to tell the story, either. It got harder. The sense of relief as he drove out of each driveway was bigger, as was the dread that he would have to start all over again at the next house. His throat was dry and his stomach rumbled, though he was pretty sure he would never be able to eat again.

They were confused, of course. Here in the suburbs, where everything was pastel and perfect, children were lost to college or marriage; they moved away or had their own children who would one day grow up. Occasionally someone else’s kids drank or smoked or had an accidental pregnancy. Someone in the next town had overdosed a few years ago. How could this happen to their beautiful daughter? Their lovable son? Ordinary children — though theirs were extraordinary, of course, even in their ordinariness — did not turn into monsters. Did not ooze blood and pus on each other. Did not curse and howl and bite their friends. And most of all, they did not hack each other to bits and bury each other in the woods.

The parents were speechless. And then they were not. Then they were too vocal with their disbelief and protests. They called him a liar, they called him a murderer. They accused him of witchcraft, of luring their children away for a weekend of satanic orgies. They cursed him and they blamed him. He knew it was not his fault, but he also knew they saw their children’s blood on him, and that was all the proof they needed.

He tried to remind them that this trip had not been his idea — he had just been the driver. He didn’t want to say that his were the only parents who would loan them a car. He did not want to remind them that their children were almost eighteen, and had chosen to go on this weekend getaway of their own accord. He tried not to say it, but sometimes he had to.

Some cried. Some demanded proof. Elsie’s dad, who had been so kind with the chair, hit him in the face. He could barely feel it.

When he went home, his parents were out. This was the worst part, or maybe not. He couldn’t decide if he wanted company, or never wanted to see anyone again. He turned all the lights on and took a shower, let water steam into his wounds and make him flesh-colored again. He had to cut the jeans (his favorite pair) off his leg where Marsha had stabbed him with that fire iron. He could barely move his arm from where he had landed when John pushed him down the stairs. There was some unidentifiable substance in his hair. He washed and washed it, but it didn’t feel clean. After he got out of the shower, he took his father’s electric razor and shaved his head. It hurt. Everything hurt.

He wrapped his clothes in a plastic bag and put them in the outside trash, wearing only a towel. And that’s when his parents came home and he had to go through the whole thing again.

They took him to the hospital, first. His leg needed nine stitches and a tetanus shot; his arm was broken and his clavicle severely bruised. The doctor didn’t even want to talk about the head wound, just set his face in a serious line and swabbed a lot of stinging antiseptic on everything. They gave him extra bandages to take home, and some pretty serious pain pills.

They wanted to keep him overnight, but his parents insisted he come home with them. He was glad. He was especially glad to have someone else taking charge, even if it was only about ordinary things.

On the way to the police station they went to a drive through. He took one bite of the burger and threw up all over the car, and then he was sobbing so hard he couldn’t even clean himself up, just sat there crying like a baby while his parents mopped up around him, not making eye contact. He found himself apologizing for himself, which was stupid. It was his friends that had all been killed, not theirs. Didn’t he have a right to be upset for a while?

He was thinking pretty seriously about becoming a vegetarian.

At the station, he had to tell the story three more times, then sign a typed version of it. His fingers were stiff when he held the pen. The pain medication was making his head feel woozy, and he hoped he had gotten all the details right. He started to feel like he was watching himself from a great distance, and for some reason this was funny. He couldn’t stop laughing. They got him a big drink of water and pulled their chairs a little further away.

He just wanted to go home and go to sleep. Maybe if he woke up in the morning it would be yesterday, all of this would have never happened. But maybe if he let down his guard again, they would get him. He could still hear them on the edge of his brain, growling and mumbling, and that high-pitched, screaming laughter.

The police brought in a psychologist. They thought he was crazy, and was it any wonder? The psychologist read his statement and asked him a lot of questions about his feelings, and did he and his friends get along? Was there any jealousy? Problems at home? He answered as best he could, but when they asked about Joey he found he couldn’t speak, because there she was behind the psychologist, there she was at the window, there she was scratching at the door, and there she was lying on the ground with his chainsaw where her neck used to be.

There was no air in the room. He couldn’t breathe. Were there someone’s hands around his throat? The psychologist told him to put his head between his legs and take deep breaths. After a minute the oxygen came rushing back in great gulping breaths and he couldn’t stop shaking. The psychologist wanted to send him home, but the police said it was important they get back up to the cabin as soon as possible, just in case there were any survivors.

This, then, was the worst part. Go back? Survivors? Hadn’t they been listening to anything he said? If there were survivors, it was bad news for everyone.

They put him in the back of the police cruiser, and to his surprise his parents came along. He sat in between them and let them hold his hands as he concentrated on breathing through his mouth and not throwing up again.

It was a three-hour drive, and they had to stop twice so he could be sick. After the second time, his parents let him have the window, and his mother sat in the middle while his father looked out the other side and muttered to himself. His mother tried to stroke his shaven head, but her touch made him jumpy. When they neared the cutoff that lead to the dirt road enough time had passed and he was able to take another pain pill.

The cruiser was better on the unpaved road than his station wagon had been. And they didn’t have the radio on, so he didn’t have to hear that cheerful weatherman predicting fog and rain or that horrible jingle for Harmon’s Hardware. But each tree looked more menacing than the last, and he was sure he was going to pass out when they got to the bridge.

He didn’t, but he had to put his head between his legs for a solid fifteen minutes before he could get out of the car. The middle slats were out, just like he had said, and the area around them was still covered with Marsha’s blood. He looked down the hole where he had pushed her, but the pills had kicked in and he felt only a curious detachment from it all, and he had to suppress a giggle.

They climbed carefully around the end of the bridge, which was covered in sticks and large rocks. He led them up the footpath, and his tunnel of vision narrowed to a tiny circle. The police woman asked him if he could stop humming, and he didn’t realize he had been. It was the radio jingle for the hardware store.

It was worse the second time. Worse, somehow, to expect it, to not have that playful start, to not have even one kiss, with the promise of something more. To know, right from the beginning, that everything was going to end badly. Worse to hear the bird clock chirping from inside, in the pleasant sunlight, than counting the hours till dawn.

The worst part was that the cabin was just as they had left it. Shouldn’t it have changed in some monumental way? Friends had been lost and lives had been shattered, and the front door still hung off its hinges, and the front steps still splintered from where John had chased him back indoors. There was a burnt smell, and smoke still oozed out of the leaves. He felt like it had been years since he’d left this place, but it had only been this morning.

He didn’t want to go in. He felt guilt, fear, shame, and sadness all stabbing away at his insides with equal insistence. He was walking over their footprints from twenty-four hours ago, when they were innocent, happy, alive. When they were human.

He could see the blood on the inside of the bedroom window. Elsie’s window, where John had found her; dragging herself by her nails across the wood-plank floor. So there was some of John’s blood as well, but not as much. Most of that was in the cellar. Another place he didn’t want to go.

When the male police officer drew his gun at the rustle in the leaves and the female officer put her arm out to stop them from going any closer, that was the worst part, because he’d heard where the rustle was coming from. He knew what, and who, was there.

The male officer shouted at the shifting leaves. He told them to freeze, to drop their weapons, to stand up slowly. For a moment no one moved, or breathed, except the thing in the leaves. The officer called one last warning, then fired. There was a cry, and a moan, and he was on his knees with his hands over his head, saying her name over and over again, while his mother tried to touch him, to comfort him, but he couldn’t bear it.

After it was quiet again and he could look up, he saw the officer who had shot at her poking gently through the foliage. He scuffed some aside with his foot and picked up his kill — a small yellow fox, its bright color not the same as Joey’s hair after all. Then he yelped and dropped it, and the other officer began speaking to someone on her shoulder radio. His mother tried to block his view, but not before he’d seen Joey’s severed hand in the foxes’ mouth, still wearing the ring he’d bought her.

It was good the fox had been killed, he thought. Would whatever had infected Joey have otherwise spread to the animal? He wondered where Marsha’s body had ended up. Hopefully somewhere no scavenger could eat it.

The officers began moving towards the cabin, weapons drawn, crouching like cats. He heard one cry out at the sight of John in the doorway, and someone else weeping. To his surprise, it was his father, who had just glimpsed Joey’s ruined face through the leaves.

That might have been the worst part, seeing his father cry. Funny, but it had never occurred to him that his father could cry. He couldn’t watch, but he couldn’t look away. He couldn’t remember the last time he had seen another man cry. John had shed tears of blood before he was beheaded, but it wasn’t really the same thing at all. His mother took his father’s hand and they stood there together, looking at the cabin instead of at him.

The worst part was when the police came out of the cabin and confirmed everything he had told them. The worst part was that he hadn’t imagined it, hadn’t dreamed it, wasn’t crazy. The worst part was that they were all gone, and he had killed them.

People started arriving, in uniforms and white suits. He sat on a stump and watched them put bloodstained twigs in plastic bags, carry things in and out of the cabin, their white gloves turning crimson. He wanted to ask someone if he could have Joey’s ring.

When the ambulance came it was slow and quiet. They scuffed up the leaves and put Joey in a large black bag with a zipper on top. Then they went into the cabin and came out with two more. He told them about Marsha and the female office talked into her shoulder again, requesting someone look into it. Drag the river, maybe. Whatever it took.

The sun started to set, and somehow that wasn’t the worst part. He felt both panic and relief as he heard the Carolina Wren chime seven o’clock from inside the cabin. Maybe everyone here would start to drip and ooze and everything would be finished for good. Or maybe it would be time to go home. He found he was curiously satisfied with both options. When another hour had passed and the Eastern Bluebird sang into the fading light, he took one of the doctor’s pills. The clearing around the cabin was quiet and he realized he had never heard a real bird sing, only the clock. He suddenly wanted to smash it.

The original two officers who had driven them began to get nervous, and he realized they were taking him seriously. No one was doubting his story anymore, and so, just in case, everyone began to pack up their equipment. They would return tomorrow, but they told him he didn’t have to come. Behind him, his parent’s breathed an audible sigh of relief.

On the ride home, he didn’t feel sick. He watched the stars out the window, and kept an eye out for anything jumping out from the darkness. He had stolen a scalpel from a medical examiner and felt he could take on anything. When he fell asleep and dreamed of Joey, coming at him with that smile, he woke up screaming and the driver almost swerved into a tree.

Wouldn’t that be ironic? he thought. To have made it through all this and then die in the woods after all. Was that irony? He was so tired he could no longer be sure.

It was well after midnight when they made it home, though their house had no bird clock to tell them, only regular ones that ticked. He tried to go to bed but found the darkness smothered him like a body bag, and watched infomercials until dawn.

The worst part was calling the owner of the cabin and asking for his deposit back. He didn’t get it, of course. The property had been all but destroyed, and the owner was unwilling to chalk it up to anything but normal teen behavior. He thought about telling the police, but decided he wanted it all to be over more than he wanted his seventy-five bucks back.

They told him he had to go to counseling. He got to miss school, but what was the point? The counselor didn’t have any useful advice, didn’t have anything to relate it to. He read some books on familicide and the Holocaust, but the photo essays made him feel weak. He might have preferred social studies to this.

He sat by the door most nights with a hammer or something heavy by his hand, just in case. When it turned light out he took the pills the new doctor prescribed, the ones that were supposed to help him sleep, but when he dozed off he only got disjointed nightmares and terrible headaches. He fell somewhere between consciousness and sleep. Sometimes he sleepwalked. Once he awoke to a loud noise, only to find he had dropped the hammer on his foot and couldn’t even feel it.

His arm healed, and his hair grew back. He graduated in the spring, despite having barely participated in his classes. He walked with a slight limp when he bothered to walk at all. Mostly he sat by the door, watching his parents go in and out, watching his classmates go off to college, or to start families, or to make their own menial mistakes. He grew older.

This, then, was the worst part. Not the woods, or the blood, or the long car ride home. Not Joey’s face or Marsha’s missing body. Not the police, the psychologists, the pills, or the nightmares.

The worst part was surviving.

Hannah Lackoff has a BFA in English with a Creative Writing Concentration from Wheaton College in Massachusetts. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has been published or upcoming in Spark, Pinball, Grimm and Grimmer Anthology, 34th Parallel, The Goose River Anthology, 10,000 Tons of Black Ink (and “Best Of” Volume II), and Bourbon Penn, and has been performed at Wheaton College.