Buster’s got the post-homicide jitters. The steering wheel feels like a jackhammer in his shaking hands. Speeding on a curve, the tires squeal. An empty Hardee’s cup rolls across a heap of glossy brochures leftover from his former job. Should he detail the car? Evidence is everywhere, but a clean vehicle would be so out of character—a dead giveaway, so to speak. Random garbage clutters the interior. Was anything Carlotta’s? A single hair could be incriminating, but he’d explain it away.
“I gave her a ride once from the airport.”
He checks the rearview mirror. How long has that sedan been following? Without signaling, he veers into his apartment complex parking lot and slams the brakes. The Buick passes.
Buster hurries inside and checks the lobby for security cameras. Does the building have a surveillance system? If so, he’s screwed. He’d better come up with a cover story.
“I was at work.” That alibi’s kaput. ProChem fired him last month; he’s unemployed.
“Carlotta got mad and left.” Nobody is within earshot, so Buster rehearses out loud. “Haven’t seen her since.” A shrug emphasizes his innocence.
That’s believable. Everything pissed her off. Cold bitch always dissed him with a twitch of her dark, comma brows.
Climbing the stairs leaves him breathless and wheezing. Pain stabs Buster’s ample belly, a stitch in his gut. His shirt is clammy with perspiration. Every peephole along the hallway seems to witness his return. He fumbles with his keys.
As soon as Buster enters the apartment, Hip Hop assaults his eardrums—Carlotta’s favorite and one of the million things that drove him crazy. Must be the radio alarm setting; he ought to smash the damn thing. His roommate, Philip, won’t be back for hours, but someone is in the kitchen. A shadow flickers along the floor. Goosebumps prickle behind Buster’s ears. He peeks around the corner and stifles a scream.
Seated at the dinette, Carlotta is slicing a green apple toward her thumb like a bored housewife. Late afternoon sun cuts around her silhouette. Blithely lounging around half-dressed, she seems unaware of any effect she has on him.
He is dumbfounded. Didn’t he strangle Carlotta with her own yoga pants? Buster’s mind stalls on weird inconsistencies. Slack jawed, he pictures the nightmarish drive on a distant county road: gravel flying, hell-bent, searching for a random, desolate spot. Between forgotten mile markers, he dragged Carlotta’s limp body from the passenger side. Heavy or light, why can’t he recall what she’d weighed? Rolled into a gulch, she came to rest face up by the water’s edge with her eyes reflecting the sky. Surely it happened. Was that a dream or is this?
Buster turns away and snaps his head back, half expecting the strange vision to change. But she’s still there. Nothing makes sense. He rubs his eyes and gawks at the blade flashing in the shaft of sunlight. Carlotta carves the Granny Smith with surgical precision, discarding seeds and core. He can almost taste the sour scent.
He swallows. His mouth is dry. “You have leaves in your hair, Carlotta.”
“Imagine that.” Carlotta eats a piece of fruit from the side of the paring knife. Her fingernail is broken.
On day one of this purgatory, Buster’s roommate coerced him into meeting some so-and-so’s sister at O’Hare. Good ol’ Buster, the only friend with nothing better to do. With a quick scribble of marker, Philip made a placard that said Anyone BUT Carlotta.
“Inside joke,” Philip had assured him. “She knows she’s trouble.”
Like a doofus, Buster held Philip’s sign while the entire passenger manifest streamed out of the gate. Carlotta disembarked last. Flustered by the sullen teenager, Buster stammered an apology for Philip’s questionable sense of humor. Any gentleman would’ve rolled her fuchsia luggage from baggage claim to temporary parking. He tried to make conversation:
“So how was the flight?”
“Ever been to Chicago?”
“Have you known Philip long?”
Carlotta snapped her gum instead of answering his questions. She barely looked up from her phone.
For weeks, he’d let her camp out on their couch because where was she going to go?
Obviously nowhere. Sunshine glows like a halo, edging Carlotta’s brunette waves. She crosses her legs. A bumblebee tattoo masquerades as a bruise on her left ankle.
Violent obsession pesters like a dark spell. With sweating hands, Buster pours a stiff drink. He grimaces as bourbon burns his throat. Caught in a fierce loop of confusion, segments of his memory black out. Time skips.
Certain he’d never see her again, Buster stared at her lovely corpse. Carlotta on the riverbank, cold and motionless as a Madame Tussauds wax figure—was she just faking?
What would the cops make of all this? In the laundry alcove, Buster sets his whiskey glass on the rumbling dryer. Sorting through the clothes hamper, he finds Carlotta’s yoga pants and stretches the elastic fabric between his fists.