It was ugly work.
At least the rats gave me a wide berth; they understood my nature and knew that when I ventured into their domain, I held dominion. Still, sifting through twenty years worth of bodies was a daunting task. The most recent were the worst, of course, their gnawed, putrid bodies like rancid Play-Doh in my hands. One by one, I checked for the metal dog tags, imprinted with the “code” I’d developed to keep track of the bodies in case I ever needed to sort them out, and I carefully wrapped them with nylon fishing wire – not to keep the rats out, because there was no way to do that, but to give the remains some semblance of physical integrity. Some day, this place would be discovered, and somebody was going to have the job of figuring out whose bones were whose. This person would almost certainly be a forensic pathologist or some such person, someone who dealt with death daily, and as such a kindred spirit, so I figured it was only neighborly to keep everyone’s parts together, and separate from everyone else’s parts. Further down the tunnel, the bodies were reduced to skeletons, piles of bones, gnawed and cracked, sucked dry of marrow.
And hair, hair like old, mildewed wigs, hair that crumbled between my fingers.
There was no Internet in 1985, at least, none worth writing home about, and certainly no such thing as the World Wide Web. Even so, they had web pages, they were referenced on missing persons sites, on sites set up by their parents and brothers and sisters. Their parents had given up, I think, all hope of ever seeing their children alive again, but they were offering a reward to anyone who could give them a lead to their children’s bodies, a clue as to what harm had befallen them. To anyone who could give them closure.
I’d gone to my secret abode, where these things are kept, and I found their possessions, tucked away in their own plastic bags, in their own drawer. Unlike the others, I never looked to profit from their deaths, never assumed identities, never appropriated credit cards or bank accounts. Purse and wallet and keys and jewelry were all packaged up safely, and though the leather was dry and cracked when I opened them, the wallets divulged the identities I’d tried to wipe from my mind. As if by refusing to benefit from them, as if by setting them aside and never, ever, knowing a damned thing about them, I could somehow suspend my guilt.
But of course, there’s no way to do that. Not really. Guilt is the one universal.
And when, some significant time after she’d fled, after the shower had run, after doors and drawers had opened and banged shut, Jill stood in the doorway to my bedroom, a silhouette framed by the lights in the hallway, I told her I was sorry, that I hadn’t meant to hurt her.
“No, I’m sorry. I thought…”
You thought right. But I didn’t say that. Instead: “Its okay. It was just a misunderstanding.”
She hit the light switch, ducked under webs, stepped over others, and stood by my bed. Clothed now, she was wearing a baggy t-shirt and jeans.
“What did you do to your hair?”
She touched her bleeding scalp, but otherwise ignored me, instead tugging at the webbing that she’d looped around the shackle that held my right arm. “It’s not coming loose,” she said, surprised. “Fuck.”
“It’s probably bonded with the leather.”
“Can I cut it? With a knife or something?”
“No, you’ll probably just slash my hand all up. Um. There’s a toolbox in the closet, you know where it is?”
“Well, on a shelf above it are some tools that didn’t fit right in the toolbox. One of those is a hacksaw.”
She looked at me, and her nose wrinkled. “Ewww.”
“I saw that movie.”
“I’m not sawing off your limbs.”
“No. The chain. Saw the chain. What’s wrong with you?”
“Oh.” She looked at me, relieved, then she blushed. “Oh. Right. Duh.”
She ducked under my web (her web? our web?) and slipped out into the hall. A minute later I heard her shifting things around in the large, walk-in closet, heard her jumping, then a thump, a crash, and string of curses. Then the sound of a chair being dragged across the floor, and a minute later she was back with two saws. She held them up.
“The one in your left hand is for metal. No, your other left.”
She looked at me quizzically.
“Oh, wait. My left. Your right.”
I held the chain taut as she sawed at it. She wasn’t very good at it and kept getting the blade stuck. The second time it stuck, she burst into tears, but kept at it, and eventually it gave way.
“Thanks,” I said, but she was already half way out the door. Once I was able to bring my claws to bear on the problem, the other shackles gave up their lives quickly. I sat up, hammered blows on my numb legs to wake them, and once I was able to walk without falling over, and getting tangled in my own webs, I made my way to the bathroom.
The tub was full of hair, long, soggy dreads of many colors, and I scooped them up. I sank to the ground, leaning against the wall, knees drawn up, clutching Jill’s hair to my chest, and I rocked slowly, and tried not to think of what the future held.
Because what the future held for me was a long, painful look into the past.
The future held research into who Michael Gilliard and Kimberly Cotrell were, about their lives, their achievements, their families, about the people who waited for them, who still looked for them. I alone knew all about their deaths, but I knew nothing about their lives, and that, I felt, didn’t properly honor them.
Lying in an abandoned and forgotten tunnel under the city didn’t properly honor them either, and so I worked, for days, sorting the bodies, tying the gnawed bones together, setting the bodies aside and digging further into my past. And when I found them, I brought them back to my lair, and I washed their bones, cleaned them as best I could, and set them in a wooden box, letting their bones mingle, because they would have wanted that. And I put their possessions in with them.
Now all I need to do is figure out how to get them found, without implicating myself.
And if that doesn’t set things right, nothing will.