“I need to borrow your car.”
Gregory did the thing with his head. That little shuffle and tilt she knew well. A bit to the left, avoiding her eyes for a moment, then reaching for the cigarettes in the back pocket of his jeans. It was only five o’clock but already dark and starting to snow.
“Leonard’s got a little gig for me,” he said.
Leonard Herschler. He was an artist, lived over in Paine’s Crossing and was loaded. He owned a house that had its own name, like in British novels: Whitelodge. He’d been big decades before, some avant-garde genius. He was now a thin old man who had a passing resemblance to a praying mantis, all limbs and no flesh.
“What little gig?” Lila asked.
“Part of the project he’s working on,” Gregory replied, trying to light a match and failing. He kept scraping it against the box and nothing happened.
“You mean the road kill.”
“Yeah … kind of.”
Lila took the match and the box from his hands, then struck the match with swift fingers. The flame bloomed. She lit the cigarette dangling from his lips.
She arched an eyebrow and took a swig from the vodka bottle. “Kind of how?”
Gregory had met Herschler when he was still taking classes at Woodcourt, at some fancy function. Herschler had been impressed with Gregory’s animal anatomy sketches and had told him he was working on a project involving animal bones. When Gregory dropped out of Woodcourt he started doing odd jobs for the old man, including gathering specimens for Herschler’s project. As a result Gregory had taken to picking road kill. He perpetually carried plastic trash bags and a backpack with him and the sight of a bloated rat or a squashed raccoon made him giddy. Lila thought it was gross. She wondered how he did it. When they’d been in high school her cousin had not been able to dissect a frog; she’d ended up dissecting it for him. Dragging carrion around seemed odd for someone as squeamish as Gregory, but he said it beat working at Pizza Mia.
“I just need it tonight. You don’t have a shift, do you?”
“No. Richard keeps cutting my hours,” she muttered.
Lila was behind on the rent and her roommate was giving her the stink eye. Roomie had brought up the fact that her cousin wasn’t chipping in and had been staying in the spare bedroom for two months even though he’d only been supposed to stay for a week.
“He’s offering me $10,000. We can split it.”
The vodka went down her windpipe. Lila coughed and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “What kind of animal does he want you to get him?”
Gregory did the head thing again. Little tilt.
“It’s a dude. Look,” he said raising both hands, “it’s a lot better than it sounds. Herschler was scouting, looking for animals yesterday, right? So he drove over to the abandoned shoe factory. He didn’t find any animals. Instead he found this guy, some homeless drifter, sleeping there. Only when he looked closer the dude’s not sleeping. He’s dead. Just frozen stiff. I mean, what an idiot, right? There’s no fucking window panes and it’s cold as shit, but maybe he’d gone in there to shoot up or something. Fell asleep and died.”
“Well, he wants … he’s saying he doesn’t have a human skeleton and he wants one for the big art installation he’s building.”
“That’s insane. What, he thinks no one’s going to wonder what happened to the dude? He can just exhibit him?”
“Oh, I dunno. Herschler doesn’t exhibit shit anymore. He builds this stuff for himself. And no, he doesn’t think anyone’s going to wonder what happened to the dude. Lots of people pass through on the commuter train and lots of homeless hop off.”
“Oh, yeah. Sure.”
“We put a tarp in your car, wrap the dude in it, drive to Herschler’s place and toss the stinking dead guy in his studio.”
“Just like that.”
“He cleans bones all the time. He’ll know what to do.”
“Then why doesn’t he drag the guy himself?”
“Because he’s old and can hardly drag some stiff into his car. Christ, don’t be silly. That’s why he hires me to get carcasses.”
“What if the police find out?”
“Look, you don’t have to go with me. Just lend me the car.”
“No way you’re driving my car without me.”
Her car was parked out back. It was old, ratty, but the heating worked. Lila drove, periodically Gregory passed her the bottle and she took a swig, and with the loud music playing on the car stereo it wasn’t really any different than any other weekend.
It was midnight by the time they reached the factory. It was also damn cold, the snow really coming down, not just the odd tiny snowflake or two. Lila huffed as she got out of the car. The factory resembled a mouth with black, rotten teeth sticking out in the snow, ready to swallow them whole.
“Let’s hurry. I’m fucking freezing,” she said.
Gregory took the tarp and flashlight from the trunk and they went into the ruined building. Young people came to party at the factory some weekends, but it was quiet now. Lila kicked empty beer cans from her path.
It didn’t take long to find the homeless guy. He was slumped in a corner, under a blanket. Gregory aimed the flashlight at him and they stared at the guy’s pale face. It was only the second dead person Lila had ever seen. The first had been their Grandma Rose, when they were thirteen. Gregory had fidgeted all through the eulogy. His mother had been so mad at him that she grounded him for a week. Lila immediately demanded the same punishment be applied to her.
They set the tarp on the floor, drank all the remaining vodka.
“Might as well get it over with,” Lila muttered. “I’ll grab the feet, you grab the shoulders.”
So they did. Up close the homeless guy smelled real bad, piss and the rancid stench of garbage. Lila lifted his feet and they began moving him … and then the homeless guy opened his eyes and began kicking. He got Lila in the chest and she fell flat on her back on to the snow.
“Whatyadoing, whatyadoing?!” the guy was yelling.
Gregory was yelling too. “Fuck man, put that away!”
Lila raised her head. The homeless guy had taken out a knife and he was swinging it around, pushing Gregory back.
They were fuck in the middle of nowhere and Gregory was about to get killed by some psycho drifter so Lila did the only reasonable thing she could do: she hit the man on the back of the head with Gregory’s flashlight. The guy turned around, blood gushing over his face, scrabbling at Lila, stumbling.
“Hit him again!” Gregory yelled.
There was terror in her cousin’s face, but also certainty. When she looked at Gregory she knew what she ought to do, the only thing she could do.
She hit the man again. And again. And then Gregory was also there and he kicked the guy and Lila let the flashlight come down four, five times. Six times. Until the man stopped twitching and her lungs felt like they would burst.
Lila let go of the flashlight and stumbled out of the factory. She fell to her knees, her hands buried in the snow as she vomited.
She heard the crunching of boots on the snow as Gregory came up beside her. He took off his gloves and rummaged in his pockets, finally producing a cigarette and matches. He shook as he took a drag, then he offered her the cigarette and she closed her eyes for about a minute.
“What are we gonna do?” she asked.
“Take him to Herschler,” Gregory said.
“Fuck that. He’ll call the police.”
“How do you—”
They could have argued longer, she supposed. But she was cold and tired, standing there in the middle of the snow with the taste of bile in her mouth. Fuck it, she thought as she took a drag.
She didn’t hand him back the cigarette and they drove to Herschler’s place in silence. Lila kept wanting to tell Gregory “remember when you wouldn’t dissect a frog in high school?” and she said the sentence in her head about 30 times but didn’t utter a word. Gregory didn’t speak either, instead turning the stereo high as it would go. Lila hated Gregory’s music. She didn’t attempt to change it.
Whitelodge was a fancy house near the sea, the country mansion of some tycoon from the early 1900s that Herschler had painstakingly restored. His studio was a massive, windowless space which must have served as the house’s cellars at some point. Dragging the body down there, down all those steps, was hard, but they managed it. They dumped the corpse on this big, sturdy table and Herschler made a weird clucking sound when Gregory pulled the tarp back and showed him what lay underneath.
“Well done,” he said. He didn’t seem put off by the sight of the corpse. He even smiled.
Lila wiped her forehead with the back of her hand and looked around the studio. Dozens and dozens of bones lay around them, some articulated and set in place, others just waiting on trays. There were shelves with numerous bottles filled with chemicals, gleaming tools, books, anatomical charts pinned to the walls.
“So you must be the famous cousin. Lila,” Herschler said.
She turned around, surprised the old man was talking to her. She’d seen him in town but he hadn’t struck her as particularly friendly.
“Yeah,” she said.
“You look very, very much alike. The same cheekbones. The same bone structure. If I didn’t know any better I’d say you were siblings. Are you the same age?”
“Lila is the eldest by seven days,” Gregory said. “She’s always been the one to go first.”
“Remarkable. You have the same eyes, too. Darksome devouring eyes,” Herschler said. “Quite remarkable.”
They began talking about other stuff. Lila walked around the room. She paused by a metal cabinet, one of the drawers pulled out. Inside were several scalpels and knives. She picked one, feeling its weight, remembering the time she’d used one similar to cut open the frogs. The feeling of the tissue, its resilience. She’d thought it would be like ripping tissue paper apart. It wasn’t. She placed the scalpel back in its drawer.
Lila circled the table where the body lay. She had avoided looking at it since Gregory had uncovered it. Even now her eyes darted away, ignoring the corpse. Instead, Lila stared at the skull of a moose. It was so blindingly white. She remembered Gregory telling her that Herschler bleached the bones with…ah…hydrogen peroxide was it? God, she had no idea. Macerate, degrease, bleach. Was that the sequence? Fuck if she knew. But that thing was white. White-white.
She paused before a skull that struck her as particularly strange. It had ugly teeth, sharp and vicious, a thin jaw. The skull was not in very good shape, cracked and knit together again with pieces of wire. It didn’t gleam white like some of the others.
“What’s this?” she asked.
She had interrupted them and Gregory looked put off, but Herschler appeared to be pleased by the question.
“That’s a jackal. Canis mesomelas. The first find for my project, the one that started it all.”
She thought that was an appropriate beginning since Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead, had a jackal’s head. She remembered that from history class.
“What’s your project about? Why the bones?” she asked.
He reached towards a shelf and pulled down a porcelain model of a head. “This is a phrenology bust. Each of the 48 faculties of the brain is mapped upon its surface. Here you can find the place where love lives, as well as morality. And here are our animal instincts: combativeness, destructive impulses, etcetera.
“What I search for is similar to what the phrenologist might have sought, using slightly different tools. It’s about discovering the true nature of things. What lies beneath the false cover of muscle and veins. The naked reality we fear to address. The dichotomy of life and death, good and evil, animal and human, soul and flesh. The two sides of the coin, heads and tails sitting by each other.”
“Are you going to set his skull on the wall?” she asked, finally looking down at the corpse.
Herschler smiled, turning to Gregory. “It is late, my dear boy. I must be off to bed and I’m sure you have better things to do than to chat with me all night long. Before you leave, though, I have a bottle of excellent whiskey you should take with you. For your efforts.” The old man turned back to her. “I’m very glad I had a chance to meet you, Lila.”
Lila didn’t drink whiskey but on the ride back Gregory opened the bottle and asked if she wanted a sip. She shook her head.
The car smelled of booze. It didn’t smell like blood. She thought this was funny because she kind of expected there to be a lingering smell, the scent of death, but no.
“He tell you the man was dead, Gregory?”
The music was loud and he palmed the knob for the volume, lowering it. “What?”
“He tell you the man in the factory was dead, Gregory?” she repeated, her hands tense on the wheel, clutching it as hard as she could.
“What’re you going on about?”
“He wasn’t dead at all.”
“Well, obviously not.”
Something about his voice just made her want to beat him to a pulp. The way the “obviously” came out and the smirk that grazed his lips, and the way he narrowed his eyes at her.
She found herself yelling at the top of her lungs, “You wouldn’t dissect the fucking frog!”
“What the fuck are you going on about?!”
Lila slammed the brakes, hard. It had been snowing heavily and everything ahead was whiteness and everything behind was whiteness. Gregory was staring at her like she was a wild animal.
Lila took a deep breath. “Did he say he was dead?”
“Don’t fucking look away. Look at me,” she said. He was doing the thing with his head. The tilt. The nervous tilt. “Did he say the man in the factory was dead?”
“He said he might be.”
When she had dissected Gregory’s frog she’d discovered it had food in its stomach. She had gazed at the frog’s last meal. She remembered that little detail then as she stared at her cousin.
“I’m sorry,” he said loudly. But he couldn’t really be sorry because Gregory was never sorry about anything.
“You going to call the cops?”
She laughed and he laughed with her, like he always did. Perfectly synchronized, perfect in their symmetry. She smiled, showing him her teeth, and he smiled, but then the savage mirth died in his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
“Shut up. Give me a sip,” she said. Her voice trembled.
The whiskey tasted awful even if it was expensive. She drank anyway. For a while she thought about the skulls in Herschler’s studio and wondered if the man’s skull would look as nice and white as the other ones.
The sudden silence made her raise her head. Gregory’s music had reached the end.
She leaned over, pressed play to start it up again, then handed Gregory the bottle. They drove back home and stood outside for a while. He lit her cigarette and they watched the snow fall.