I looked up at her. She was smiling. I was confused for a second, then I put the smile with the hopeful look I’d last seen, put both of those with the photo and the smell and came up with: “I . . . see him too.”
I almost said that I smelled him, just because that’s the way I think now, but I caught myself in time. A human would be concerned with the dead boy in the picture and not the smell. I think.
She cupped her hands over her mouth. Dropped them. “Oh my God. I was afraid I was going crazy.” She put her hands back to her mouth. Started crying.
There was something wedged under my right thigh. I pulled out a Spongebob Squarepants stuffed doll and stared at it. “If you are, so am I,” I said. I got shakily to my feet. I needed to get out of here.
We wound up outside in the back yard, huddled on a small concrete patio by a rusted Weber grill. I’d holstered my gun during the journey through the house, but I still held the Spongebob doll. I opened the back door and tossed it inside the kitchen. It slid across the floor. I shut the door.
“When did that start?”
“The smell? Five days ago. His face . . . a couple days earlier than that. It started the day after I got the photo back, because y’all kept it for a while for copies, you know? I put it back in the frame, and, I don’t know, I didn’t hang it up right away. I left it on the coffee table and I went to work, because I need to do something, even if it’s just carrying pancakes to horny truck drivers, and when I came home that night, I saw it. I thought it was someone’s sick idea of a joke. That someone had broken into this shit house and put a Photoshopped picture of Charlie in the frame. But then I just . . . I’ve known Charlie’s dead for a while. This was just like confirmation.”
The frame felt warm to her, too. She put it, and the other photos, just in case they turned, even though they hadn’t–yet–in Charlie’s bedroom. The smell started soon after that. She finally decided to call me, because, she said, the only thing worse than thinking she was crazy was thinking she wasn’t.
“When I saw how you reacted to the smell, I was like, thank God, I’m not crazy. But then I thought, well, what’s the alternative then? Somehow my son . . . my son’s corpse is in that photo?”
Fuck almighty, I thought, I need a drink. I pinched the bridge of my nose, hard.
She asked me what I thought it meant. How that could be happening. “It’s impossible, you know?”
As impossible as me changing into a two-legged murderbeast.
She asked me what we should do now. “Should we tell someone? The news? The other police? Because we both see it, I’m not crazy, it’s real.”
Just shut up a second. Shut. The hell. Up. And let me think. Because there was something I’d noticed about the picture, and maybe it meant nothing, but still.
“Deputy? What should we–”
“His sweater,” I interrupted, because seriously, she needed to shut up already. “It was clean.”
“It . . . look, when a body decomposes, there are fluids that leak out. Clothes get dirty. But his sweater was clean.”
= = = = = = = = = =
“So?” I still don’t know what to do. Anderson sees him. She smells it.
I hesitate at calling it a miracle, but it’s something that needs to be witnessed by others. I don’t understand what his sweater has to do with anything, and I do not need to hear about fluids and decomposition. My son is rotting in his school picture, and all I want to know is why.
“I need to go,” she says. She starts to walk away, looks like she’s just going to cut around the house rather than go back inside.
I grab her arm. “What the hell am I supposed to do?” I feel her muscles tense under my hand. For a second, I think she’s about to hit me. Then she yanks her arm free of my grasp.
“Don’t ever grab me again, for starters.”
“I’m sorry. But what am I supposed to do?”
“I need to think about this. I’ll be back. If you don’t want to stay here, get a motel room.” She considers me a moment. “I’ll pay for it, if you need me to.”
“Fuck you,” is my automatic response. I’m broke, but I don’t want anyone’s charity. “Sorry,” I mutter. I run my hands through my hair. “Anyway, I’m not leaving him. I called you because I wanted to know someone else saw him too. I’m not scared to stay here.”
“All right. I didn’t intend to insult you. If you’re fine here, great. Putting a towel under the door might help with the smell. But I need to go. I need to clear my head. I can’t do that here. The smell’s too bad.”
It’s nonexistent out here, but I nod. She walks around the house. I listen for the sound of the gate latch lifting; when I don’t hear it, I walk around the corner of the house. Anderson’s already climbing into her car. I wonder for a second if she jumped the waist-high fence.