Max Cleans Up

Max Cleans Up

by Jesse Barben

The man blended in perfectly. He had been carefully fitting in now for millennia and had perfected his human look so well that no one ever suspected him or even came close to guessing what he really was. He leaned against the half wall that surrounded the children's play place and looked in at the children playing there. It was a weeknight, and the mall was not particularly busy. A handful of shoppers bustled right past the play place, but inside a small number of toddlers played ferociously.

He looked exactly like a middle-aged man, and he even held a small paper bucket of cheddar tater tots from the food court. The tater tots had grown cold, untouched, but he held them as part of his human disguise. Not that he needed any camouflage tonight. No one noticed him or his fried prop. The security guard chatted slyly with several young women who were almost certainly underage. Parents and grandparents sat on benches within the play place, looking down at their phones while their toddlers duked it out on the slides and play structures. A small child had an even smaller child in a headlock and the younger child croaked out for help from his mother, but she was not listening. The man had to laugh at this. He laughed out loud, even, which he rarely allowed himself to do.

He looked down at the tater tots and pulled a face. He stepped over to a trashcan and threw them in and then looked longingly into the play place. He was so hungry, and it had been so long.

He was still staring when a new smell wafted through the air. It electrified him, and he stood still, trying to determine which direction it was coming from. He wanted to run, but he forced himself to walk at a normal pace: out of the food court, out of the mall, and into the parking lot where he hurriedly looked for his car. He found it and fumbled with his keys, giddy with anticipation.

The body lay sprawled on the floor, oozing blood onto the cream-colored carpet. A broken soccer trophy lay nearby, the faux marble base smeared with blood. Behind the body, a profoundly pathetic struggle was taking place: a thin middle-aged man was beset by two smallish, angry women who were alternately pummeling him with tiny fists, grabbing for his mobile phone, and pulling on his shirt collar. He valiantly held the phone above his head as they grasped desperately for it. The air was thick with yelling and cursing.

The man was named Max and his attackers were his wife, Sheila, and her teenaged daughter, Isabelle. He eventually toppled under the attack and landed on his back on the floor. He couldn’t see much of anything from his vantage point under the two struggling women but when he looked to the side he could see the dead boy’s face, still frozen in an expression of surprise, eyes open. Max felt the phone wrenched from his grip and heard a shriek of triumph. Isabelle leapt off him and began stomping on his phone until little pieces of it were scattered around. His body relaxed in defeat as Sheila climbed off as well and he lay there breathing heavily. She extended a hand to help him up.

“We need to call the police!” he spluttered as he took her hand and wobbled to his feet. “Get your phone!”

“We’re not gonna call the police,” Sheila yelled, her eyes wide with fury. She pointed up at Max, her finger almost touching his eyeball. “Belle didn’t mean to hurt Declan. It was an accident, but it will ruin her life! We have to help her.”

Max looked at Declan’s body and back at Sheila.

“Then what are we going to do?” Max demanded. “People will start looking for him as soon as he misses school tomorrow.”

“His parents will start looking for him tomorrow morning when he doesn’t come home tonight,” Isabelle added.

“What are you going to do about this, Max?” Sheila demanded.

Max looked startled.

“Wait, what?” he said. He said this a lot in his life, more now that he was married to Sheila.

“What are you going to do?” Sheila demanded, cocking her head in the direction of the corpse.

Max took a step back and spluttered, “I didn’t murder this kid! This is not my fault.”

Sheila paused and then with concerted effort the angry creases in her forehead smoothed out into an expression of calm. Max recognized this as a change in tactics and was immediately on his guard. She smoothed her hair, cut and colored in a style that would be better suited to a younger woman.

“I understand that, but we’re a family and we’ve got to work this out.” She held out a hand to Max, who kept his hands at his sides. “Belle and I are looking to you to take the lead on this.”

Max threw up his hands and looked at his wife and stepdaughter, who both looked back at him with equal parts panic and expectancy.

“What we’re going to do is: Isabelle calls 911 and tells them what happened,” Max said, jabbing the index finger of one hand into the palm of the other to emphasize his words. “She was going through his phone when he was in the bathroom, finds out he’s cheating on her, and when he gets out of the bathroom she slams him in the head with the trophy in a jealous rage. That’s about what happened, right? Only we’ll say it was temporary insanity.”

“What was I supposed to do, Max?” Isabelle screamed, taking an aggressive step toward Max, pointing a finger in his face.

Max leaned back and turned his face away. He looked over at his wife with a mixture of panic and pleading.

“Sheila, please tell your daughter to get out of my face. Her finger is almost touching my eyeball. I don’t know why she’s mad at me.”

Isabelle stood with hands on hips.

“I didn’t mean to... it was a heavy trophy.”

Max pinched the bridge of his nose, and clenched his teeth. Neither of them were nearly as upset as they should be in his estimation.

“We really need to call the police. Like, now,” he said.

At that moment, both women turned on him. Sheila stepped towards him, her face menacing and her eyes narrowed. Isabelle followed closely, scowling. Max held up his hands and started to take a step backward but Sheila swiftly closed the gap and he was soon standing toe to toe with his wife.

“For the last time, Max, we are not calling the police!” Sheila bellowed. “Can’t we count on you to step up and be a man for once in your life? Once in your life!”

Max stood in stunned silence, tensed up and waiting for them to attack him.

“This is the real thing, Max!” Sheila said. “Can’t we, like, dissolve him in acid or something?”

“What are you talking about?” Max exclaimed.

“You know,” Sheila said, “Just go to, like, Home Depot and, uh, they sell acid and plastic tubs, right?”

“That doesn’t really work,” Isabelle broke in. “And when Declan goes missing they’re gonna remember that Max was buying several gallons of acid and a man-sized tub.”

“Can I talk to you for a second?” Max asked, looking pointedly at Sheila and gesturing toward the door.

Sheila followed Max out into the hallway and they spoke in hushed tones.

“I just can’t hide a body. The cops are going to find it!” Max said. “This is not my fault. This is not your fault. Isabelle needs to deal with it. We support her, of course, but this is Isabelle’s responsibility.”

“In parenting we need to be united,” Sheila said. “Remember? The two of us in one canoe and Belle in another. That’s what the therapist said.”

“This feels more like you and Isabelle united against me, like always,” Max said. “And I don’t really think David is a real therapist anyway. He’s a clinical social worker, whatever the hell that is.”

“This will literally destroy her life.”

“David also said saving her from the consequences of her actions is harmful to her.”

“Yes, but you just said he’s not a real therapist.”

“I thought the thing about consequences made a lot of sense.”

Sheila’s eyes were full of tears, which seeped out into the wrinkles around them. “What if she gets the death penalty?”

Max paused. He knew Isabelle to be a spoiled monster but the show of sincere emotion from Sheila made him stop. He was defeated in the struggle for the phone, and he was now defeated once more. Max stood and felt sorry for each of them in turn: Declan, Isabelle, Sheila, and then himself. Himself most of all.

Max found himself alone with the body. Isabelle had changed clothes and she and Sheila had gone to the mall to establish an alibi. It did not take Max very long to realize that he didn’t have the first clue about disposing of a body. He debated for a moment on Googling it but quickly realized that would be foolish. At the rate things were going his internet activity would be subpoenaed soon, and he didn’t want “how to dispose of a dead body” in his search history.

Nervous, frightened thoughts kept coming unbidden into his brain. He would tackle the dead body the same way he tackled any difficult assignment: break the large task up into smaller tasks.

Max carefully laid down a large beach towel on the floor near his stepdaughter’s boyfriend’s corpse. Technically ex-boyfriend now, thought Max, and the strangeness of the thought almost caused him to laugh. He took a deep breath and carefully rolled the dead boyfriend from his back onto his stomach on the towel. The head and abdomen were on the towel with the arms and legs splayed out.

Max bit his lip, grabbed the late Declan by the ankles, and started to drag him out of the room. The towel quickly bunched up underneath the body and slipped out from underneath. Max didn’t notice until he reached the basement door, and the body had left smears of blood all throughout the hallway and across the kitchen tile. Max started to panic but quickly told himself: One thing at a time.

The body thumped sickeningly as Max pulled it down the stairs, the face was taking most of the abuse. Finally, the body rested in the middle of the concrete floor, near the drain. The basement was unfinished and mostly consisted of a washer and dryer, boxes, and random tools hanging from nails. Max grabbed a large black trash bag from a box on the shelf. A teenage boy was too large to fit in one, so he had to think about his next steps carefully. If he could make it past the first step, he would be all right. He fought down nausea, and he was starting to sweat. He pulled a hacksaw down and went and knelt by the body. Holding onto the leg with one hand and the hacksaw handle with the other, he slowly lowered the hacksaw until the teeth of the blade were barely touching the skin.

For several minutes he sat there, poised to saw through the leg slightly above the knee but unable to. He had several false starts, and he thought briefly of Isabelle and Sheila at the mall, shopping for scented candles and cheaply made clothes and possibly eating a Cinnabon. He was sure he would vomit, and he sat shivering for several moments.

Finally, after much time had passed, he did it. Once it was done, he placed the leg in the garbage bag and then he did in fact vomit. His clothes and the floor were a gory mess. The leg had taken all he had and the thought of several more limbs and a head to go was too much.

The leg was unsettlingly heavy in the garbage bag as Max carried it up the stairs. He set it on the kitchen floor and changed clothes in the bedroom he shared with Sheila. By now the blood on Isabelle’s bedroom carpet would’ve seeped through the carpet and down through the carpet pad and possibly through to the concrete slab below. He thought about this as he grasped the garbage bag and his keys. He would tear out the carpet and scrub the floor with bleach, but then how would he get new carpet and dispose of the old without attracting suspicion? He’d throw this bag in with garbage, but what about all the rest of the bags that would have to come next? Max chose not to think about it. The trash would be collected in the morning, and Max rolled his plastic bin out to the curb.

“What’ve you got there?” asked a harsh voice.

Max froze. After a long pause he said, “Just a little garbage, fella. Trash day is tomorrow.”

He let go of the garbage bin handle and turned to face the voice. He was surprised by what he saw. To Max’s eye, the man looked to be about 50 years old. He was dressed casually, and his clothes were worn and not particularly stylish. He was shorter than Max, and a good deal sturdier, with gray hair and a reddish face. Red from too much sun or too much alcohol, or maybe hypertension, Max couldn’t tell which. He gave Max a friendly smile, showing teeth that were particularly white and straight for a man his age.

“That’s not just a little garbage,” the man said.

Max stood there facing the man, trying with great effort to play it cool. His attempt at playing it cool included standing very still. The man put his hands in his pockets and raised his eyebrows, waiting.

“It’s regular. Garbage. It’s a regular amount of garbage.”

The man laughed out loud. Cackled, really, a coarse sound like cawing crows that made Max flinch.

“Why’re you so nervous?”

“I- I don’t know what you’re trying to do,” Max said.

“So you’re telling me that if I look under that lid and move a few pizza boxes, I’m not gonna find some human flesh? Like an arm or a foot or something? Maybe a hand?”

Max could no longer keep his face under control and he looked at the man, horrified. He had gone pale and his hand shook slightly.

“Have you been watching me?” Max whispered, after another awkward pause.

The man, still smiling, held up his hands.

“I have a proposition for you that would help both of us.”

“How can you help me?” Max demanded.

“I know a little bit about situations like yours. I’m assuming you have some, ah, evidence that you’ll be needing to dispose of quite soon.”

“I don’t know what...” Max stammered, looking up and down the street. “I...”

“Maybe let’s talk inside?” the man suggested.

They walked toward the door together, Max stumbled slowly up the driveway and the man clapped a heavy hand on his shoulder, as if they were embarking on the start of a great new friendship.

“So you eat people? You’re a monster who eats people.”

Max leaned against the kitchen counter staring incredulously while the ghoul who looked like a man sat at the kitchen table. The garbage bag lay at his feet, and he looked perfectly comfortable.

My name is Nick,” the ghoul said, pointing to himself. “And, yes. Freshly dead is my preference. And specific... alive people.”

“OK, but I’m still confused about your... offer,” Max admitted.

Nick laughed.

“As you say: I eat people.”

How?”

“Chew and swallow. Sometimes with a fork and knife, though not usually.”

Max’s face was a mixture of horror and bewilderment.

“You’re a cannibal?”

Nick absently picked up the pepper shaker from the middle of the table and looked at it. He shook a few flecks of pepper onto the table cloth.

“To be a cannibal there has to be a human eating another human. I’m not human, as you mentioned.”

“Are you some kind of monster? You look like a person.”

Nick brushed the tablecloth with his hand and let flecks of pepper fall to the kitchen floor.

“The best way to describe myself is a ‘devouring entity.’ We roam the earth, waiting. It’s not just the, uh, meat. There’s a kind of energy that comes from these violent deaths that I need.”

Max’s face had slowly turned from horror to skepticism. The way the ghoul- Nick spoke so matter-of-factly made Max profoundly uneasy.

“Anyway, I can get rid of that body, starting with this...”

He nudged the bag with his foot.

“Leg,” Max said without thinking.

The two men, or rather, the man and the ghoul, stared at each other for several moments in the noiseless kitchen.

“I don’t believe you,” Max said finally.

“I get it,” Nick said, leaning back in his chair. “No one gets on board right away. But, listen: throughout history, there are cases where someone gets away with murder. No one ever finds the body. That’s me, or someone like me. Everyone knows they did it but it’s hard to prosecute someone with no body. That’s what I can do for you.”

I didn’t murder anyone,” Max whined. “It was all my-”

“Stepdaughter, yes, you told me.”

Max collapsed into a chair across the table from the ghoul and put his head in his hands.

“This is just... the worst day.”

Max looked across the table. He leaned forward to look the ghoul in the eye. The ghoul’s eyes looked like regular blue human eyes, but looking into them made Max feel slightly ill.

“Just... what do you want from me?”

“Simple. I eat this guy, and then I want to eat your stepdaughter. Like a trade or more like a two for one deal.”

Max sat up in the chair, suddenly angry.

“Get the hell out of here!” he yelled. “I don’t know what you’re even talking about anymore and I have just too much on my plate to deal with any more... weirdness.”

Nick laughed and slapped the table.

“Then what are you gonna do?”

Nick chortled loudly, grinning at Max. Max looked chagrined.

Why do you need to eat them both?”

“Jealousy killings taste the best. I get such an energy boost from them. This one here will last me months. I need both the victim and the murderer. Like pairing a really good wine with cheese. Plus, I know about everything that’s happened. What’s to stop me from reporting you to the police? There is no shortage of evidence around here.”

Max pushed his chair back, stood up, and started to pace the kitchen. Nick sat comfortably in his chair, as though he had all the time in the world.

“You know, I said to myself, ‘There has to be a catch.’ A woman like that still single? But it was because she has a maniac daughter who she never says ‘No’ to, that’s why!”

Max ran his fingers through his hair while Nick listened politely.

“I love all your introspection, Max, but do you want me to eat him or what?”

“Let me think! Can I just think for a minute?”

Nick shrugged, got up, and walked to the fridge.

“You need a beautiful woman to feel OK about yourself,” the ghoul said as he rifled through the fridge, “And she needs someone much less attractive than her with money so she feels OK about herself. Patriarchy is a bitch. Can I have this ground beef?”

Nick was holding out a styrofoam container.

“That’s old,” Max said. “And... gray.”

“Just how I like it.”

Max went to the kitchen window to look for Sheila and Isabelle. Nick chewed noisily as he spoke, which would have bothered Max more under different circumstances.

“You have to see that you’re going to jail,” Nick said, mouth full beef. “You’re covered in DNA, basement is splattered with it, Isabelle’s room, on Isabelle, on her clothes. This is the first place the police will come. And then they have motive, cell phone records, witnesses.”

Max had started to sweat again. Nick rummaged around in the package, pulled out one last shred of rancid meat and popped into his mouth.

“Best case: the cops arrest all three of you, charge Isabelle with murder and charge you and Sheila as accessories and you with destroying evidence. Worst case: they find a way to blame it on you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Either the cops or your lovely wife will figure out a way to say you did it. I’ve seen situations similar to yours and I would say you’ve entered a ‘loyalty free zone.’ Your wife and Isabelle are not gonna hesitate to blame you to save their own skin.”

“What motive would I have to kill Declan?” Max said.

“They’ll think of something, and if they can’t, the prosecutor will. Maybe you are a budding serial killer. You do have a dismembered teenage boy in your basement. That’s pretty textbook serial killer stuff.”

“I’m not! You know I’m not!”

“Doesn’t matter what I know,” the ghoul said in a soothing voice, looking sympathetic. “Your only crime is being a cowardly pushover.”

Max sat down and put his head in his hands again. Nick patted Max’s shoulder with a thick, meat-scented hand.

“I admit I’m not human, but what I know of humans tells me Isabelle is gonna say whatever she has to say.”

Max looked up at Nick and asked pleadingly, “Why wouldn’t she just say she hit him in self-defense?”

“Then she gets charged with manslaughter and gets sentenced and goes to jail or gets probation and her life is ruined for all intents and purposes. If she pins it on you, she and Sheila both get away scot free.”

Max shook his head and sighed. Nick laughed and slapped him roughly on the back.

“That’s how it goes! You don’t even like this girl.”

“She’s awful, yeah, but I don’t know that she deserves to be eaten... alive? Do you eat her alive?”

The ghoul smiled.

“There are worse ways to go, and really she has it coming. It’s an eye for an eye. No one will ever know except you and me.”

Max was at the window again. He knew it was only a matter of time until Sheila and Isabelle returned.

“What about Sheila? She’ll know I had something to do with it.”

“There won’t be any way she can prove it, as long as you keep your mouth shut. She can’t accuse you of anything without implicating herself, and even if she does: no evidence. Really how much longer has this relationship got anyway? Six months? I’m solving so many of your problems right now.”

“We love each other.”

The main let out a long, cynical laugh.

“I’m immortal, but this whole thing is so depressing that it makes me want to die. It really does.”

As Max watched out the window, headlights turned up the road.

“They’re coming! You go hide in the basement!”

“With the body? Great!”

“Don’t you touch it! I’ll be down in a minute.”

The ghoul looked the basement over. He sniffed the air and smiled to himself. He rooted through Max’s tools and boxes and selected a ragged lawn chair, which he unfolded and set by the body. He sat down and waited patiently in the dark. He listened to the angry, nervous, and petulant voices upstairs. At one point, his stomach growled. He leaned back in the chair and hummed a few bars of a song he couldn’t remember the title of. He had first heard it 20 years ago or maybe 20 centuries. Hard to tell anymore. Max eventually came down the stairs looking tired and defeated. He flicked on the light and looked at the ghoul sitting expectantly on his lawn chair perch.

“Isabelle’s gonna sleep with Sheila in our room for the night while we, uh, sterilize her room. I told them I had everything well in hand, and they didn’t want to know the details. Tomorrow morning we’re just gonna act like everything's normal. We have our cover story about Declan straight.”

Nick sat comfortably in his lawn chair. The body lay on the concrete floor between them.

“So,” Max said, after some time. “Your... ‘process’ gets rid of all forensic evidence?”

“Once I’m done there won’t be any forensic evidence. The CSI guys can swab all they want and it will be squeaky clean. Gimme your shirt and pants.”

“How do monsters know about forensic evid- you want my pants?”

“They’re covered in evidence,” Nick said, gesturing. “You keep calling me a monster, but I’m the most ethical and honest person in this house.”

“How do you do it? Does your saliva, like, dissolve DNA or something?”

The ghoul had stood up and was loosening his belt. He had also unbuttoned the top two buttons of his shirt. He pointed a finger at Max.

“Listen, man. The Universe is throwing you a bone. No catch. All your problems go away for one gorgeous instant. You should just be grateful I caught all that death and jealousy on the wind and came along when I did. I am hungry and you are in over your head and frankly a little bit of a fool.”

“What do you mean?”

“You should’ve just called the cops, but I come here to find you sawing away, neck deep in someone else’s problem. Stupid, is what that is.”

Max turned red and stepped angrily towards the ghoul.

“Even for a monster that eats human flesh, you’re a real asshole.”

“You know what? I think I’m no longer hungry. I’ll just leave this here.”

“Just eat.”

Max looked away while Nick ate. The sounds turned his stomach. Nick ate determinedly for a long time. After finishing the body, he polished off all of Max’s bloody clothes along with Isabelle’s clothes that Max had retrieved from upstairs. After that, he lapped at the basement floor and walls like a kitten drinking milk from a saucer. Max watched this in horrified fascination. To Max’s eye he had gained only five or ten pounds. Nick straightened up and walked upstairs with Max trailing behind. He spent almost an hour in Isabelle’s room. At the end of it all, Nick didn’t look much different. After every room was checked, Nick asked Max for some floss, which Max found to be the most upsetting part of the whole business.

“I think you should be all set. Now for dessert.”

Man and ghoul retired to the living room. Max had changed into basketball shorts and an old t-shirt, and he sat on his couch absently looking around the living room, the last several hours floated through his mind like a dream. He could almost convince himself that it was a bad dream, if not for the strange man still seated in his living room, patting his belly like someone who had just finished Thanksgiving dinner.

Max needed to get a few hours’ sleep before he had to go to work in the morning and act like everything was normal. He wasn’t at all sure he could. Starting tomorrow, his life would be irreparably changed. He told himself he was satisfied with his decision.

“Just try and catch her before she gets to school tomorrow,” Max said sleepily.

“Good idea. When the cops investigate they’ll probably conclude that they ran off together. Everything is wrapping up so nicely.”

Max laughed to himself. He wondered if this really did mean the end of his marriage to Sheila. Probably. The thought brought him equal parts remorse and relief. He drifted off to sleep, sitting on the couch with the faint hint of a smile on his face.

Nick sat watching Max sleep for several minutes. Then he got up and went to the fridge to look for more spoiled meat. He looked over at the clock on the microwave. Only a few more hours until Isabelle would be waking up.

Max sat alone in his new apartment watching a large television. It was a new television as Sheila had smashed his old one when she threw him out. She had destroyed a lot of his things that day. It had all come to a head when Sheila realized Max wasn’t going to tell her any specifics on what had happened. She tried to get him to tell her where Isabelle was, and where Declan’s body was stashed, and how he had cleaned up the house so thoroughly. Max always told her that he had taken care of it. He also insisted that he didn’t know where Isabelle had gone, and possibly she had run away because she couldn’t live with the guilt. And so, she threw him out.

He spent most evenings like this now, and it had been a welcome change. He absent-mindedly watched the news: a police shooting, a high school teacher caught sleeping with a student, and somebody opening a cat café where you could buy lunch and play with rescue cats. Max sat puzzling over the logistical and health concerns of opening such a business.

“Police are asking for your help in finding two teenagers who have been missing since March.”

Two pictures appeared on the screen, side by side. Yearbook photos from the previous school year. The news stories were getting less and less frequent, but as he always did, Max felt a pang of remorse followed by fear of being found out. But no one could possibly know what really happened, he assured himself. He hadn’t seen the monster since that night.

“Detectives currently have no leads in the couple’s disappearance. No arrests have been made and police have not identified any potential suspects. If you have seen them or have any information, please contact police.”

Max changed the channel.

THE END

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