Dead

By Haddayr Copley-Woods

It was only after the letter arrived that Susan began to get nervous.

She'd coolly walked past the police station on her way to the post office hundreds of times since it happened, even stopping once to speak with Detective Clark, who was coming on shift. He responded, but narrowed his eyes.

She'd continued working in the same office: strolling right under the security cameras day after day, although she'd taken the precaution of getting rid of that coat.

It had been almost a year. The police hadn't questioned her for months. The morning before the letter arrived, Susan went to pick up a few things at the farmer's market. She didn't even flinch when the farmer remembered how much she liked Yukon Golds. "We'll have some later in the season," he'd said.

But then there was the letter. A certified letter, with a faraway postmark. From Jacob's wife—who wasn't supposed to know Susan existed, and who was supposed to be dead.

Stupefied, Susan had signed for it.

And it was still lying on her kitchen table, unopened, five days later.

Those five days were increasingly like a fever dream. The sun was too bright. It reached right through her dark sunglasses to cast everything in a vague, distracting haze.

Everything around her seemed to move faster than she did. It was an effort managing the smallest physical tasks of her job: filing, sorting, merging mailing lists and stuffing envelopes, writing messages with a careful hand.

Once again, she was as painfully conscious of not turning away from the security cameras at work as she had been in those first few days after she shot Jacob. Her voice sounded unnaturally high; the brittle laugh she reserved for her boss's jocular, unamusing jokes was even more forced than usual.


She hadn't meant to get away with it.

A year before, Susan had simply reached a point where she needed to protect her life—her breathing in and breathing out—more than the rest of it: her freedom, her dental appointments, her job. She had fully expected, when she saw Jacob walk into the office lobby, to be jailed for what she had to do.

The restraining order had expired that day. After the small dead birds he'd been leaving on her doorstep, the anonymous hang-up calls in the middle of the night, and the butterfly she'd found stabbed through its thorax with a nail file into her desk at work, she'd been expecting him. She was carrying the gun.

She left the office a little early that day, on a desperate whim. If she broke her pattern, Susan thought, maybe he wouldn't be able to find her.

When she stepped off the elevator into the cool, marbled lobby, it was empty; the security guard just happened to be on a break. And when Jacob walked in through the glass doors, her back just happened to be to the security cameras as she shot him in the stomach.

It had been her father's gun: a beautiful Glock .45 with, of all things, a laser sight. "In case," said her father, "Jacob comes for you at night."

She'd been so touched by the gift, and by the calm, no-nonsense way her father had explained its features: "This is the sight, this is the trigger, you cock it like this. Make sure you never turn the safety on. So you'll be ready." This is something you will have to do, his tone said. Unpleasant, but necessary.

They'd even discussed how she could get away with it, but after her dad died, Susan lost interest in alibis and body disposal.

She'd vaguely imagined that as soon as the gunshot rang out, the police, or at least security, would surround her. She hadn't made a plan beyond the shooting, so in the absence of one, she just kept walking home, where she waited for the police at the kitchen table, the gun in her lap.

When the door opened and it was not the police, but Jacob, she shot him again. This time point blank in the head.

That did it.

And still she waited for them to find her.

Prison, she decided, would be where she could finally grieve her father. Where, distracted from herself only by the occasional beating from a fellow inmate instead of the day-in, day-out minutiae of supporting herself and keeping the house clean, she would finally crack open and feel something again.

Although truth be told, she'd been not-feeling like this since long before her father died. "It's like he opened you up and sucked the life out of you," her father had said, only six months into the affair. He'd made two helpless fists with his small, compact hands. "It's like you're missing your soul," he'd said.

Susan hadn't had the energy or interest to argue.

So, after the shooting, she sat—soulless and waiting.

But no one called the police.

Surely, someone in the neighborhood had heard a shot; someone must have seen a bleeding Jacob stagger to the back door.

Susan shot Jacob for the second time at 5:15 p.m., when quite a few people should have been around. Millie Jakobsen, for instance, sat in her house across the street and watched everything that went by, all day long. People would have been coming home from work at that time, or soon after.

But no one called. Millie was, it must be admitted, the type who would think certain people deserved what was coming to them. Maybe other neighbors felt that way, too.

And then it began to rain, to really pour. It rained and rained and rained, washing away any signs that a bloody man had dragged himself from her office to her home. That's when Susan started to implement the plan her father had crafted before his stroke: out in the pouring rain, Susan began to dig.

This, too, was astonishingly easy—as easy as the shooting had been. The mud was heavy, but Susan was strong, and the shovel bit into the earth nearly of its own accord. When she hit dry dirt, the shovel again slipped easily down into it, and although wrestling the loose-limbed corpse of a six-foot-tall man into the hole in the dark was a challenge, she felt more than up to it. As a matter of fact, she found herself enjoying the physical labor and careful attention to logistics. Her arm and leg muscles hummed pleasantly as they had when she was a girl, helping her father in the garden.

And as her father had told her, she planted potatoes: Yukon Golds, all eyes down toward the body—to keep watch. And to grow.

Although she was getting tired by then, she scrubbed Jacob's brains and blood from the kitchen window, wall, and floor, and burned everything in the fireplace.

Unable to relinquish her father's gun, she hid it in a niche up inside the flue.

The very next morning, when Susan awoke to the police pounding on her door, she saw potato plants through the back window: sturdy stems. Riotous crinkly leaves.

Established overnight. Her father had always been gifted in the garden.

"Yes," she told the police down at the station. "I knew a Jacob Matthews from work a number of years ago, and he'd gotten it into his mind to stalk me, but I never knew why. We never had a relationship." (She and Jacob had been lying about that part so smoothly and in beautiful tandem, for so long—even after she filed the restraining order—that it required no hesitation or effort to continue.) "I didn't know he was back in town," she said. "I'd forgotten about the restraining order, to tell the truth."

Susan's genuine lack of regard for how she appeared or what happened to her was baffling to the police. They scrutinized her face as they showed her blurry footage from the security tape. "Yes, I do have brown hair like that woman," said Susan. "Yes, I do have a belted trench coat, but lots of people do. It's at the cleaner's right now. No, I can't say I'm sorry he was shot; he scared me. But it wasn't me. It wasn't me."

And then the faulty key card system, which, ironically, she'd been complaining about for months, recorded that she hadn't left the office until six minutes after she shot Jacob. And they never found a body.

"We know you did it," Detective Clark told her, white-mouthed with fury. "We'll figure out how. We'll be watching you, so don't try to run off."

And she didn't. She didn't quit, she didn't move, and she didn't leave the state.


On the fifth day after the letter arrived, Susan began to feel queasy, and the bright haze became even more painful. She broke into a sweat at the slightest exertion. Her breathing grew heavy with the effort of pushing the revolving doors at Macy's, where she'd finally gone to buy a new trench coat—a black one this time. Spring sale.

When she got home, heedlessly dripping rain from her new coat onto the entryway floor, the phone rang. Something about the ring frightened her.

"Open the letter," said the woman's voice before Susan even said hello.

"What letter?" Susan asked the woman who must be Jacob's wife.

"The one you signed for," she said calmly. "Don't be stupid."

She sounded older than Susan had expected. Susan felt like an errant teen, responding: "I don't have to. I had to sign for it, but I don't have to read it."

"Fine," said the voice. "Then you'll die." And she hung up.

She'd said: "you'll die" with the dull lack of interest another woman might have said: "you'll lose your place in line."

Susan believed her; the sick feeling had become suffocating. Sweat drenched her armpits under the new coat. Her moist hands shook as she held the letter; she could barely get it open, and reading through the haze was hellish.

Plant these in the potato patch under the new moon, or you'll die, was all the letter said. Enclosed was a packet of seeds. Susan managed, even in her altered state, to feel irritated by the repeated phrase: or you'll die.

She had no idea if tonight was the new moon; she was not the sort who paid attention to these things. She was guessing, by the way she felt, that it was.

Retching, she dragged herself out to the potato patch—a weedy, overgrown tangle.

She held the seed packet in her hands and squinted through the rain up at the cloudy sky, unable to see the moon.

She puked, and thought she saw pink. Her stomach had never hurt so much.

Yet she still didn't plant the seeds.

Not because of what they might cause; they would certainly bring Jacob back to life—Susan had no doubt about that, or worries. She still had the Glock.

But if she didn't plant the seeds, she'd be going wherever her father went after he died, or not going wherever her father didn't go. Either way . . . Susan tried to ignore the pounding in her temples and her dry mouth, the hundreds of bees that seemed to be humming while stinging her head and arms.

She decided later it was base survival instinct that caused her to fling the seeds at the moist soil in the potato patch. She didn't even remember doing it. But she felt instantly better.

She felt so much better she was keenly aware of how foolish she looked, draped melodramatically across her lawn in the damp at 6:45 in the evening.

She leapt to her feet, went inside, grabbed the Glock from its hiding place, turned off the phone, and climbed into bed where she slept soundly until morning.

In the dawn, through the back window, she saw clearly the slice of moon: slim and easy in the lightening sky, and the faint dusting of green in the shape of a man in her potato patch.

It was a delicate green collection, barely showing amidst the tumbled tangle of stalks and leaves.

Susan thought briefly about going out there to destroy the seedlings, but decided Jacob's wife had probably already thought of that.

Her voice mail that morning had one brief message on it: "I'll be there at the full moon, when he ripens. I only need him for a minute; he's got something of mine. Then you can kill him again, if you want." Click.

Again, the woman's voice sounded so bored and routine that Susan had to listen again to be sure the message was not notice that her water was going to be turned off from 1:00-5:00 p.m. to facilitate pipe repairs: "He's got something of mine. Then you can kill him again, if you want."

Susan had several options, the way she saw it: tempt fate by tearing apart the potato patch, turn herself in and lead the police to the body, or leave town and change her name.

Instead, she had the Glock professionally cleaned and waited for the moon to get fat.

Jacob's wife arrived the day the moon was full, pulling a suitcase on wheels behind her.

She looked younger than she had sounded: sleek and blond with bright red lipstick, which suited her. She wore a belted black leather coat and small, tasteful gold hoops in her ears. She looked just as bored as she'd sounded, reaching out to ring the bell with casual disregard.

Susan opened the door and saw that the woman's green eyes were focused not on the gun in Susan's hand, but on the small back yard.

"I see he isn't quite ripe yet," Jacob's wife said with her predictable lack of preamble. "I've traveled a long way. Mind if I freshen up a bit?" She did look weary.

"Not at all," said Susan, stepping aside and trying to affect the woman's calm, bored tone with surprising success.

After Jacob's wife had been to the bathroom, Susan offered her a glass of chardonnay and watched her sip as if she tasted nothing, stretching her slender, muscular legs in front of her on the couch. She wore no hose, even though the spring air still had a bite to it. She indicated no curiosity in the woman who had carried on an affair with her husband for more than a year and then murdered him. She didn't even glance at the titles on Susan's bookshelf or peer at her family photos.

Susan gripped the Glock, feeling a little foolish for keeping it trained on the woman, and swallowed some water. "Are we waiting for midnight, or something?" she asked.

"No," said Jacob's wife. "Just for the right time."

They shared a few moments of awkward silence before Susan blurted: "I thought you were dead. Jacob told me he killed you."

His wife shrugged, and stood. "You're not the only one he underestimated," she said. "Shall we?" The blonde woman led the way to the potato patch as if Susan was her guest, dragging the suitcase behind her. Apparently, she didn't expect this to take long.

She had the air of a woman waiting for a bus, even as they stood over the disturbingly accurate rendering of Jacob's body in the potato patch, waiting for him to awaken.

The tiny leaves had re-created every curve and nuance of Jacob's face and hair, and oddly, the body wore the same clothes it had when she killed him: jeans and a dress shirt, rolled up at the sleeves. Except everything was green.

He stirred slightly, and the movement of his body—just as Jacob had always awoken—sent the familiar charge of fear through Susan's stomach and groin. She stepped forward with the Glock, belatedly wondering if a bullet could kill a man made of leaves; she should have grabbed the electric hedge trimmer from the shed.

Before Jacob could do more than sit up, his wife had stepped forward and sunk her hands into his forehead.

And she pulled.

Susan had only a glimpse of the gray, flopping moist thing with large, dark eyes before Jacob's wife had somehow swallowed it, or it had melted into her skin. Susan couldn't tell which.

Mutely, Jacob's body fell backwards into the ugly twist of potato plants.

The woman turned. It was as if until this moment she had been in black and white. The brilliant animation which transformed her face and each subtle movement was so shocking that Susan found herself falling, too: sitting hard on the chilly, damp ground, like a toddler losing her balance.

"Ah," said Jacob's wife. Her voice held colors Susan hadn't heard before. "Now I see what he saw in you. You might want to get it back before he wilts."

Then she was gone: her hair a golden blur, the click of her heels on the stone path a counterpoint to the rumbling suitcase wheels behind her.

Susan turned to face Jacob, who had risen while she was distracted. Everything about him was in subtle movement. The potatoes interwoven deeply into his torso, arms, and legs peered out at her whenever Jacob's leaves shifted. All of the eyes watched her closely, carefully.

Jacob seemed oblivious to them. He glowered—his fists and arms, though green, looked solid enough. His mouth moved, but she couldn't hear him.

Susan set the Glock aside and braced her toes and legs, bending at the knees slightly, one foot slightly ahead of the other to better prepare for impact.


Haddayr Copley-Woods photo

In addition to her previous stories in Strange Horizons (one of which was reprinted in Best American Erotica), Haddayr Copley-Woods has stories in places such as Polyphony, Ideomancer, and Flytrap. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. For more about the author, see her website. You can send her email at haddayr@gmail.com.