Please, I Need To Breathe (from Elements of Horror Book Two: Air)
It happened each time the familiar stench of death met his nostrils. As if by instinct, his head snapped back with such intensity and force his neck popped. There was something putrid about the scent of a rotting corpse that set off this reflex. Even Mother Nature cringed and pinched her nose closed as her gift of fresh air was contaminated with an acrid aroma which labored to spin one’s head and send the stomach into gastric revulsion.
It also was an unpleasant reminder he needed to remove the bodies that had gathered in his brother’s basement over the last few weeks.
Justin would never tackle the task. Left up to him, they would collect indefinitely, or at least until there was no more space for any others to be crammed into. Obviously, he had no sense of smell. Or, was it he enjoyed inhaling the memories of his murderous ways? Jonathan would have to remember to ask, as if it mattered. Chances were his morbid curiosity on the topic would fade after the corpses had been removed and buried in the mountains. The house would fully air out after a day or two and become like any other. In a week or so, he would return and find the stink had returned thanks to Justin’s habits.
Early on, he had almost threatened to turn Justin in to the authorities. Yet, how could he do that to his own brother? In retrospect, he wished he had. Now, it was too late. He had inadvertently assumed the role of an accomplice by disposing of the evidence. The never-ending cycle of being his brother’s garbage collector had become his cross to bear.
Yet, it wasn’t Justin’s fault. Jonathan knew it was an affliction—a mental condition of sorts—causing Justin to murder in such quantity. When the killing sprees had begun, Justin had blamed it on the phases of the moon. But that had been a charade, an excuse, a validation. Justin was an addict. As a junkie needed his fix, Justin was addicted to the adrenaline rush of hearing the pleading and screams of mercy from his victims.
Atrocious as it seemed, Jonathan had developed a sense of empathy derived from his own mental condition. His own experiences had proved one had no control over what the brain demanded.
During his second U.S. Army tour in the Middle East, he had been wounded by a roadside bomb explosion. He had considered himself lucky to survive as others in his vehicle had been killed. Then, the blackouts started. There were instances where he would be fine—at the top of his game—and his conduct considered normal for one in a war zone. Without warning, he would be overcome by a huge, black tornado and sent into its internal darkness. Somehow, in this oblivious state, he continued to perform his duties. Yet, upon awakening, he would find he’d lost several hours with no recollection of what he’d done during the missing time. Before long, the frequency of these blackouts increased from one a month to a peak of one every two or three days. Worried he might put either himself or his men in danger, he had reported his condition. Subjected to examinations by all types of doctors, he had been temporarily confined for observation in U.S. owned European medical facilities. Even after maintaining an exemplary service record, they had him classified and medically discharged Jonathan as mentally disabled. His life had never been the same.
Returning to civilian life, employment had been impossible to land. His type of discharge converted the “Thank you for your service” remarks into “Thanks, but no thanks.” Surviving on a tiny government check once a month, he battled depression and a loss of self-worth. At times, he reached out to various helplines and made the necessary calls. Yet, his embarrassment had kept him from attending meetings or making his appointments. In his mind, he was a waste of a human being. Suicide seemed to be the only option available to relieve him of his downward spiral. And then, Justin contacted him.
Jonathan had avoided his family since returning. He was aware his father’s disgust with his condition, having himself retired from the military with a perfect record. The Major would never understand. Jonathan was a disgrace, a failure, one shamed and not welcome home. His mother had little to offer in the way of understanding, as well. She had been proud and standing tall among the members of her various social clubs while bragging of his fighting overseas. As with his father, she had found it difficult to admit her son wasn’t still the omnipotent hero. No, not a hero … only a zero … a letdown she had to eliminate from conversations before his condition was discovered and someone had dared to think it was genetic.
Justin called one sunny afternoon and gave him the news. Mom and Dad were dead—killed in a car accident. None of the safety devices their big SUV had come with could save them from an eighteen-wheeler crashing through the siderails of an overpass. Justin mocked their final moments before being crushed as the truck smashed on top of them and faked tears. Their bodies had been so mangled the funeral services would have to be completed as closed casket.
Justin had forced Jonathan to stand alone as he had refused to attend the services. Later, he would laugh about having done so. “You’re a stupid bastard, aren’t you? They never loved us. They were social conscious assholes, both of them, and only used us to elevate their own position among the social elite. I’m glad they’re fucking dead. I wish it would have happened sooner.”
He hadn’t changed over the passing months.
Pulling open the basement door, the pungency of the air hit Jonathan hard. It had been a smell similar to ten thousand trash dumpsters in the city’s restaurant district raising their lids at once and flooding the city with the odorous remains of last week’s lunch specials. He stood a moment, trying to adjust to the stench, but found it impossible. As he descended the basement steps, he could see Justin had been busy. The layers of protruding legs he had first sighted on his way down had become a stack of bloating, naked bodies.
Jonathan exhaled the air from upstairs and inhaled a breath of the basement’s sour air, fighting back his gag reflex. It had only been a couple of weeks since he had last cleared the basement of Justin’s indulgences. Today, there were seven more bodies to remove. This was becoming an every-other-day event for Justin. If his twin insisted on this frequency, he would have to start helping with the disposal. Luckily, most of his victims were either young teens or slender twenty-something women, so they weren’t going to be that heavy to carry up the steps. Still, their burying in the rock-filled, mountain soil would take a lot of effort … effort where more than one doing the shoveling would be helpful.
Their parents had been social climbers concerned with their community image. Viewing their reaction to the bodies in front of him that first time could have been entertaining. Still, the one thing their parents had done was to leave the twins substantial insurance money. There had been close to a million dollars to split, plus policies to pay for the two houses and other properties they owned.
Within a month after the funeral, Jonathan had taken residency in the smaller, second home and Justin had remained in the old homestead he had never left. A few weeks after settling into his new abode, Jonathan’s blackouts returned. No longer existing only hours, there were nights and even full days lost to his memory. He confided this in Justin during a phone conversation in hopes of gaining his understanding but was chided instead. “Hell, I’d love to lose some days. Be good to get rid of the boredom for a change. You’re lucky you don’t have to deal with it like I do. I gotta have my excitement. You know, my rushes. Life is too short to live bored. Just be you when I call. I hate talking to strangers.”
It was only a few days later Jonathan learned what Justin had been talking about.
The phone had awakened him on the couch. Not wanting to answer, the call had gone to his voicemail. It had been Justin. “Hey, I need you to help me out. I’ve got some things in the basement I need you get rid of for me. You know, crap that needs to get buried somewhere. If you don’t mind, bring that old van over and load it up. I don’t want anyone to find it, so come alone and keep your mouth shut about it. I won’t be home, but you have a key. Remember, brothers gotta help each other out. Talk to you later!”
Jonathan remembered when he had entered a smell, like that of today’s, had smacked him in the face. It was the initial time his head had snapped back, and his neck popped. It was then he should have turned and walked away.
His mind continued to wander during the wrapping of the first two bodies in garbage bags. The third body to be enclosed in trash bags shocked him back to the present. Its eyes fixed on him, Jonathan felt as if he was being dissected by the dilated pupils trying to hide the deep blue beneath the heavy haze. For once, Jonathan saw more than just a dead body. This girl was beautiful. Raising up her dangling scalp to its normal position, her red hair added a fullness and familiarity that made Jonathan’s head swim. He had seen this one before—somewhere she had been working behind a counter—and remembered how great she looked while still breathing.
The other bodies had been unknowns to him, just carcasses needing disposal. Yet, this one was different. Recalling her smiling face and energy, she was more than the others. This one was a person … a person who should still be inhaling the fresh air outside. She should be going to concerts, attending musicals, enjoying all aspects of life. Instead, she was lying here bloating and rotting.
Justin had shown her no mercy. It was obvious the girl had been scalped alive. There was too much blood to have been done after she had died. Open slits peppered her once rosy cheeks like a multitude of long freckles—all superficial penknife jabs meaning to cause only pain. Deep box cutter slices from her shoulders to her fingers had opened wide with the bloating, exposing the tendons and muscles inside. Jonathan imagined the desperation of her screams of agony as they had been made while feeling the life flow from her wounds. Her supple breasts, once desired by those she brought fantasies, were now missing nipples—savagely torn away by pliers, Jonathan guessed. Even her vagina had been the victim of multiple stabbings. His eyes, running down her body, noticed her feet were missing several toes from each, obviously snipped off by the bloody wire cutters still on the table. One calf had been completely removed from the bone and the other dangled loosely. Without a trace of remorse, a Tic Tac Toe diagram had been sliced into both thighs and imaginary games played.
Justin had gone too far with this one.
Jonathan wanted nothing more than to jump in his van and drive away. Running up the stairs and out the back door, he vomited off the porch. Let Justin take care of them. If he’s so demented and cruel as to find excitement in doing this to such a beautiful girl, he deserves to at least clean-up after himself. In fact, he needs to go to jail, to prison for life, or even hang. How could someone so vicious be my brother?
Yet, instead of departing, he took a seat on the back step and lit a cigarette.
There had been tremendous initial shock at discovering what his brother was asking him to do that first time. Four naked bodies laid before him that day … bodies covered in the wounds made by a deranged attacker. But, when he thought about it, there was little difference between those and the bodies of the bystanders and enemy they’d stacked high overseas. Those rotted quickly while baking in the heat of the afternoon, the buzzing of flies their musical accompaniment. Bullet torn bodies left out for their relatives to take if they wanted and later burned if they didn’t. Even then, he preferred the smell of a pile of burning flesh in the air as to the smell of rotting corpses in the basement. Outside, if one didn’t like the smell of a human barbeque, they could walk into a fresh breeze free of death.
Ignoring every inkling of common sense telling him to walk away, Jonathan had set to work to help his twin. With the absence of body bags, he had adlibbed and substituted multiple garbage bags to cover them individually. Jonathan wanted no evidence left in his van. Double bagging the top and bottom of each victim would keep his vehicle DNA-evidence free.
Loading the last of the bodies in his van that long-ago day, Jonathan had to figure out where he could dispose of them. His parents had owned property bordering a state park in the mountains only an hour’s drive away. Now, it was his and Justin’s. He could drive to the edge of their property and bury them in park land. That way, if they were ever discovered, he could claim their property had only been used as a pass-through to the park’s by the murderer. It would be impossible to prove otherwise.
Driving home late that afternoon, after each had been buried in their own grave, his muscles ached. Jonathan had learned the hard way. The following trip, he had dug only one large grave and tossed the bodies in atop each other. It had been much less work and taken less time. He had felt better both physically and in knowing the less time he spent there meant the less the chance of someone seeing him there. It was a “Win-Win” situation for him, and the bodies never complained about being stuffed in together.
Finishing his cigarette, Jonathan rose and smiled at his earlier frustrations. So often had he been called upon to clean-up that it was now routine. Plus, a trip to the mountains every two weeks had not only given him exercise, but plenty of fresh air to breathe. After filling his lungs with the air of the dead, it was a relief to fill them with clean mountain air. He felt more alive, more able to handle the pressures of life. He could almost see the trees doing their thing with photosynthesis and shooting out the air’s freshness. He had even contemplated building a home up there but had quickly reconsidered. His presence, so close to all the bodies buried, would make him an immediate suspect should they ever be discovered. He would have to settle for refreshing his lungs every two weeks and be satisfied.
Shaking his head, he knew he was in too deep to quit and live a halfway normal life. Justin had made sure of that. The next time they got together, though, he would have to have a long talk with his twin brother. The current rate of killing was simply too rapid. Not only was the body burying becoming a burden, but the authorities had to be on high alert. If there wasn’t already, the number of missing people would soon raise suspicions and bring about a major investigation. Sooner or later, Justin would make a mistake, and both would end up in prison. They had to reduce the chances of that happening.
Okay, relax and take a deep breath. I just need to breathe, to breathe in life, not death. Justin, where the hell are you at? I could use some help. Next time, you either show up or do it all yourself.
Gulping down one last swallow of fresh air, Jonathan returned to the odorous cloud inside the home and to the basement. Finishing the wrapping, he carried the bodies out one by one and lay them in the back of the van, thankful for his dead mother’s obsession of landscaping. She had demanded seclusion from the neighbors and positioned various trees and bamboo shoots to ensure she would get it. Not only did it keep the neighbor’s wandering eyes from invading her privacy, it hid his body loading process. Now, all that was left was to clean-up the basement.
Before heading back down the stairs, Jonathan, reminded of the strong breezes outside, opened all the first-floor windows. As overbearing as the smell had been, the fresh air currents sent the curtains dancing and the odors taking flight. It was the first time since he had arrived inside that breathing wasn’t a challenge. If only the basement had windows.
The hose was still lying in the corner where he’d left it last time around. Spraying the dried blood off the metal restraining table in the center of the room, Jonathan then turned his attention to the bloody instruments and tools his brother had utilized. Dropping them in a bucket of industrial disinfectant to soak, he turned his attention to the floor. His shoes had been sticking to the dried blood spatters and puddles during the body removal, bugging him with each step. Mopping and hosing in rotation several times, he struggled to eliminate the signs of his brother’s handiwork. Floor complete, he washed off and wiped down the instruments before putting them back in their proper places.
Jonathan had made the cleaning a part of his routine after a few visits and finding Justin had ignored doing so. He had worried about the blood clogging up the center floor drain in the beginning. The picture of plumbers pulling out their metal snake and finding it covered in victims coagulated blood was not one he wanted to experience in real life. He had since made sure to dump several buckets of drain cleaner into it each visit. He hoped that would work in helping the drain from being stopped up by loosening any of the blood from the pipes and washing it into the sewer system.
Finished, Jonathan stood back and inspected his work before returning to the upstairs and the fresh air. Even with the bodies removed, the basement clung to the odor of rot. He made his way to an open window and relished in the freshness the outside air offered.
The open windows of his van helped the mountain air keep the smell inside minimal as he later drove up the mountain incline on the two-lane county road. Cherishing the cleanliness of the air, Jonathan was enjoying the ride. Singing along to a classic rock tune on the radio, his journey was almost complete. Soon, he would arrive, bury the bodies, and be done with the dirty work for at least a week, maybe two, depending upon his brother’s needs. He tried to tally up how many trips he had made and how many bodies had been buried. Ten trips, maybe fifteen … three or four bodies a trip to begin with, increasing gradually to the seven he carried today … at least sixty bodies. Too many, way too many.
Turning onto their property, Jonathan maneuvered his van through the forest path to his burial grounds. It had been raining and the trail was muddy. He had to be careful and not get stuck. If he did make it, burying with a shovel loaded with heavy mud would be a real chore. He jumped, not remembering if he had forgotten to bring the shovel. A quick stop and check in the back proved his worries to be unnecessary. Damn, I’m getting jumpy. I don’t know why. Something’s wrong … just not right. It’s the path. It looks like someone’s been back here. The weeds are not standing tall … almost like they’ve been mashed down.
Slowing the van, Jonathan continued to seek out signs of trespassers. The land is posted. No one should be here. Unless park employees have some legal right that I didn’t know about, they would be trespassing if accessing the park from this direction. Could it be campers thinking they’re on park land? If so, they’re going to be in for quite a surprise. I won’t stand for trespassers. They’ll either leave or I’ll get my brother up here to take care of them.
He was almost disappointed as he left his property and entered state park lands without any human contact.
Arriving close to the burial site, Jonathan delayed the unloading process, instead deciding on taking a look around first. Walking through the final brush and into the clearing, piles of fresh dirt, like giant molehills, dotted the grassland—each standing where Justin’s victims had been buried.
His burial grounds had been discovered!
Something stung him in the center of his back and jolted him forward. Stumbling, Jonathan’s forehead hit one of the few scattered saplings as he was slammed to the ground. He felt himself blacking out, exiting the world as he had done so often. No! Not now. I got to get out of here. There are bodies in the van. I must find somewhere new to bury them!
It had been so long ago, so many months, since he had awakened to the bright lights and stale air. Doctors questioned him endlessly, but he had no memories of anything since feeling the sting in his back. But, breathing in the recycled air of the place brought a true desire to inhale fresh mountain air.
Jonathan had no knowledge of how he had arrived. Nor, did he stop wondering about how many bodies were stacking up in Justin’s basement.
Regardless of his responses to all the doctors’ questions, there were no responses to his own. Most in white coats seemed too wrapped up in their own philosophies and opinions and sidestepped his inquiries. None made much sense to him, but he played along.
In hopes of treating his affliction of blackouts, the doctors had requested the authorities provide anything of personal nature that might help. Their opinions were that the items might spur a response and strike a nerve to bring him around. A single letter was received. It was this letter that had sent Jonathan into a mode of silence, a world existing somewhere between him and his blackouts. One that squeezed the air out of him and kept it out … suffocating his mind and his body. He longed to once again breathe in and feel the wonder of the fresh air of freedom in the mountains. He needed to breathe so desperately but found the air of the asylum not worth consuming. Somehow, he would make it happen. Perhaps, Justin would come to his aid. Like a knight riding a white horse, he would admit his guilt and minimize his brother’s. Until that day, he could only ponder over his parents last written words in a letter never sent.
We are so sorry for treating you as we did. Mrs. Johnson’s son was killed in a battle last week, probably one like you had fought many times. We saw her tears and the heartbreak of his loss and realized we weren’t unlucky you came back to us with medical problems, but lucky you came back at all.
Please, can you find it in your heart to give us another chance?
We love you so much and feel so empty with you not being a part of our life. We want you to get better, like you were before you left. We’ll do anything we can to help you get back that way—happy and carefree, and enjoying life.
Please, don’t ignore this. We want you back in our lives more than anything in the world. Remember, we love you. Please, don’t desert us. You’re our only child.
Our love always,
Mom & Dad
Elements of Horror Book Two: Air is available for Kindle, in paperback, and on Audible here.