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Steven Grimes had known the Joneses, Alice and Frank for almost fifteen years and they had always been the perfect neighbours. Yet he was certain as he watched the two of them from the edge of his bedroom window that the large black bag which the pair struggled to carry to the back of their garden contained a dead body. He had only been there at the house by chance to pick up a few more of his belongings and take care of a few outstanding bills, but such mundane things were quickly forgotten as he looked down at the couple.
Frank was sweating under the tattered red baseball cap that he always wore, the tufts of his white hair poking out from the back as he strained with the weight of the bag. And of course Alice, her liver spotted arms straining with what looked to be the feet of the body as they shuffle-stepped their way towards the large compost heap which Steven knew sat in a secluded corner of the garden.
He knew because a couple of years before he and his now ex-wife Jane had been invited to a barbeque to celebrate Frank’s retirement. Forty-one years for the same company, who had thanked him with a golden handshake and imitation watch and then sent Frank on his way. Word was that he didn’t want to leave but the company insisted. They had already found a younger, more efficient replacement, and so with no real choice, Frank was retired. The barbeque also signified another milestone.
It would be the last social engagement for Steven and Jane as Mr and Mrs Grimes. Of course, they had long ago become quite adept at putting on a show of being a happy and in love couple. The cracks in their marriage at that point were already almost too large to mask over, but they did it anyway. He turned his mind back to that day, his stomach feeling now like a tight ball as he remembered a conversation that he had with Frank which at the time seemed so trivial that he wasn’t even sure why he recalled it with such clarity.
It was a blazing hot day in July and perfect weather for cooking outdoors. The heat was dry and uncomfortable, the sky blue and cloudless, and the dozen or so guests were doing all that they could to keep cool. He remembered that he was speaking to Frank about his garden, which was perfectly maintained. The grass was always neatly trimmed, the soil always turned and he had a small pond with two rosy-cheeked gnomes that they called Fred and Betty. As the two men stood by the grill (as men tend to do at these types of events) Frank had rubbed his forearm against his head as he looked Steven in the eye
“You know Steve I’m not sure what the hell I’ll do with myself now.”
The old man’s eyes glinted in the sunlight, and in hindsight Steven should have seen something then, but at the time his attention was firmly on Jane who was doing a fine job of drinking her way through the bounty of alcohol that the Joneses had been kind enough to provide. He looked on in pained embarrassment as she tottered around the garden with a half-eaten cheeseburger in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. Cringing inwardly, he decided that feigning ignorance would be better than causing a scene. He turned back to Frank, realizing with sadness just how old he looked. His face was thin and leathery, deeply lined from years of working outdoors. His nose was a bulbous lump and he peered from below bushy white eyebrows with eyes so pale blue they could almost be grey.
“I’m sure something will come up Frank. Take some time to relax, hell, after all the years you put in, you have definitely earned it.”
Frank had smiled then, just a curl of the lip but his eyes told a different story. Glassy. Reflective. Ponderous.
“You know me Steve; I’m not one to sit around waiting for something to happen. I think that’s why people die sometimes, when they don’t have anything left to live for”
Steven nodded, sipping his beer thoughtfully as Frank flipped the burgers, sending the delicious aroma of the grilled meat billowing towards Steven’s nose.
“You have worked all your life Frank. Maybe now you and Alice can spend some quality time together.”
“Quality time” he chuckled dryly. “If I can tear her away from her damn bingo nights then maybe we would. We don’t talk much these days Steve. But we are too old and too afraid to be alone, so we stay together.”
Steven felt his heart pinch a little. This old man had said exactly what he thought about his and Jane’s relationship. For a time he had loved her but as he got to know her, really know her the way people who spend a significant amount of time together always do, he had started to notice the cracks, the flaws in her character. There was darkness in her that over time was gradually pushing its way to the surface. Before they married she was slim and athletic, and always looked her best.
Over the last ten years however she had really let herself go, both physically and socially. She had started to drink heavily and was fond of voicing her opinion on anything and everything with cynicism and bitterness; particularly if it were a subject which Steve himself was interested in. He wasn’t entirely blame free. He was guilty for not standing up to her constant put downs and abuse, but as time went by he had developed a weary resistance to her brand of cynicism, and as the love died, so grew the indifference, which in turn gave way to hate.
He shot her another quick glance. She had gained considerable weight and now saw the world through small, piggish eyes, which seemed to contemptuously glare at everything that she chose to set them upon. It was as if the sweet, loving beautiful woman that he had fell in love with had overtime been consumed by some horrible and malicious imposter. Frank had said something to Steve which he didn’t quite catch.
“Sorry Frank, I was in a world of my own. Say again?”
“I said at least I have my garden. My pride and joy this place is Steve. My solitude from a world that I don’t really understand anymore. Worked my ass off to make it look good.”
Steve looked around appreciatively at the pristine surroundings.
“You certainly did that, it looks amazing. It makes me more aware of how my own could use a little TLC.” Steve said with a sheepish grin.
The two men shared a laugh, as Frank continued to work the grill.
“It’s all about recycling these days Steve, everyone is going green. Did I tell you that we had a circular come through the door a while back telling us that if we don’t change our ways then the planet will be beyond saving in just a few years’ time?”
“Yeah, we got the same letter, although I must admit I didn’t really read it. Too much damn junk mail. We threw it out” shrugged Steve, again glancing towards Jean who had found some poor unfortunate guest to talk at for a few minutes. Steve didn’t recognise him, but felt sorry for him nonetheless.
“I read it,” said Frank, gently manipulating the chicken legs on the grill with his metal tongs.
“Everyone on the planet leaves a kind of impression based on how much energy they waste, like an imprint”
“Oh, a carbon footprint?”
“Yeah, that’s it, a carbon footprint—anyway they say that everyone in the world leaves one, and if we don’t reduce it then the planet will be uninhabitable for our future generations.”
Steve nodded pleasantly, not entirely interested in all the save the planet talk. He was sure that his own carbon footprint would be pretty huge. He didn’t recycle; he didn’t try to save energy by turning off lights, or reducing his aerosol use. He was too set in his ways to change, yet it seemed to be important to the old man so he would go along with it for the sake of being polite.
“That’s pretty interesting Frank. I haven’t really thought too much about it”
Frank nodded enthusiastically.
“I did. I like being outside see? And the last thing I want is to be forced indoors or underground by some damn acid rain or air so poisoned that you can’t breathe. If a man can’t enjoy his own garden in peace Steve, then the man has no real life at all.”
“Thing is Frank not everyone takes it too seriously, and unless the law changes, well… nothing is going to change.” Steven said with a gentle shrug.
“Ahh but every little helps. Every little helps. For me it didn’t mean too much of a change. We started off by recycling. Just plastic and glass from our groceries, and we put some of those new energy saving light bulbs all through the house. Hell I even started out here. I got myself a good sized compost pile down the back of the garden there past the decking.”
Frank jabbed a charcoal smudged thumb over his shoulder. Beyond the wooden deck and chairs covered by a gazebo, there was a small stone path that wound out of sight behind the large pruned bushes.
“I keep it back there as it’s unsightly and doesn’t smell too good but it’s pretty remarkable. Everything returns to the earth Steve. It takes us all back eventually.”
There was coldness in his eyes which Steve had noticed but dismissed. He didn’t really want to spend his Saturday afternoon talking about saving the environment, and began to think about changing the subject.
“Did you catch the game last night Frank?” he asked cheerfully. Frank either did not hear or failed to acknowledge his question.
“Too many people, that’s the problem. The planet is overpopulated by people Too busy screwing. Fucking and then having kids that they don’t want and can’t afford to look after so they go ahead and feed off the money of the tax payer.”
Bitterness had crept into Frank’s voice which shocked Steve. He had never even heard the old man raise his voice, never mind drop the F-Bomb. He listened on, content for now to hear him out.
“Back when I was young we didn’t have all these electronics. Laptop computers, games consoles, big screen TV’s. People have become lazy and are wasting space, wasting resources. We have to compensate for that Steve, so even if it’s not a world changer, it all helps. Every little bit of it helps.”
“Maybe I should look into it.” Steven said noncommittally.
Frank nodded “maybe you should. It’s worthwhile”
As Steve watched now from the upper bedroom window as Frank and Alice put the bag down by the decking to catch their breath, he wondered just how far Frank had taken his recycling. Of course he would often see him heading out in his blue Nissan every Saturday morning to take his bottles to the recycling plant, often waving and smiling as they passed if Steve had happened to be in the front garden washing the car, or sitting on the bench to read his morning paper away from the prying and piggish eyes of his wife. He also sometimes heard the car go out in the middle of the night.
He tried to think how many times he had heard it, and for the first time asked himself why the old man would be heading out at such unusual hours, and more to the point what he was doing. He thought he knew, but couldn’t bring himself to believe it yet. He watched on, careful to ensure that he was out of sight as he peered around the corner of the bedroom curtains. He watched as the pair lifted the bag up again with some effort, then Frank lost his grip. He snatched at the heavy duty plastic, but he couldn’t maintain his hold and the bag tore free as the object they were carrying fell back to the floor by the stone path.
Steve recognised the girl. He had seen her on the T.V and on the front cover of most of the newspapers. She had been reported missing a few days earlier after disappearing on her way home from a night out with friends. He tried to remember the name given for her on the news report. He thought it might have been Lucy but it escaped him.
She looked quite different to the happy and smiling photograph used in the news appealing for her safe return. Now her skin was almost grey and her blonde hair was partially matted with dried blood from the ugly, jagged wound in her throat. Her eyes looked lifelessly and accusingly into oblivion, perhaps asking why her. Why someone so young could have found herself here, rather than tucked up in her own bed, or snuggled up to a boyfriend somewhere. Steve looked on helplessly as Frank quickly covered her, tucking the plastic underneath the body and getting firmer grip, before they two shuffled down that small path beside the decking.
If this were a movie, thought Steve, this would be the point where Frank would look up and see his nosey neighbour, and so would begin a game of deadly cat and mouse. But Frank didn’t look up; he was more than occupied enough to worry about the next-door neighbour who as far as Frank knew was at work. With a mind that was trying to process a thousand thoughts simultaneously, Steve sat down heavily on the edge of the bed.
“What have you done?”
He wasn’t quite sure if he had meant Frank or himself, or in fact if he had even said it out loud at all. It’s possible that it could have just been a thought, a snatch of sane questioning within a mind already fighting to keep control. He cast his mind to all of the missing person’s reports on the local news in the last few years that suddenly made sense. It seemed that Frank had found something to do with his days. Or more specifically his nights. And at what point did Lucy find out? Was she too afraid to leave him, or just too afraid of him to seek help from the authorities? Perhaps it started off just as using a different kind of light bulb here, or turning off the plug sockets at the wall before turning in for the night, but at some point for Frank, it had all changed. He had taken it to the next level, but Steve was sure that in Frank’s mind it still all boiled down to one thing.
A chill coursed through his body as the word floated into his mind, then melted away as he recalled the conversation about the compost heap.
“I keep it back there as it’s unsightly, and doesn’t smell too good but it’s pretty remarkable. Everything returns to the earth Steve. It takes us all back eventually.”
And of course Frank was right. It did. Steven wondered how large that compost heap was now? What would be found if the topsoil were pulled away, how many—
An idea struck him, one which horrified him and thrilled him at the same time. She would be home soon, and wouldn’t expect to find him here. And why would she? She had thrown him out of his own house after all, and seemed to be enjoying making his life a misery despite his best efforts to keep things amicable. Maybe it was time that he stood up for himself and finally took a stand. He thought he could do it and—more importantly get away with it. He would be doing the world a favour.
After all, every little helps.
Every little helps.