My short story “Love’s Burden” was published by Main Street Rag in their Crossing Lines anthology.
The idea for my story was inspired by a news story about a Durham, North Carolina man who was found carrying a woman’s bones in his backpack. He had murdered her and then subsequently carted her bones around for a couple of years before being arrested. Which proves that sometimes real life is even more surreal than imagined stories.
You can read the complete story below:
Deep in the most heavily wooded area of the city park, Michael sat against a tree, away from prying eyes. He opened his backpack and pulled the bones out one at a time, caressing each, until they were all stacked neatly in front of him. Then he picked up the longest bone and sniffed. It had a rich earthy smell, with a hint of burnt oak, like a fine wine. He closed his eyes, savored the aroma, and rubbed his hand along the length of the bone. It felt hard and smooth like a favorite marble from childhood. When he lost the scent, he opened his eyes and placed the bone gently onto the pile.
Then he picked up the smallest bone. A slight breeze blew across his hand and the bone moved, like a tiny hummingbird fluttering in his palm. He pinched the bone between his thumb and forefinger, held it delicately, and rubbed his fingers up and down. This bone felt a little coarser than the leg bone, a little less finished, and yet still perfect.
Michael made his way through the whole pile, taking his time, relishing each individual bone. The last piece he picked up was her skull. He placed the skull on his lap, braced it between his thighs. He ran his fingers slowly from the top of her head, over her cheekbone, to her jaw. He poked his forefinger into her mouth, slid his finger over her teeth, and closed his eyes. He felt her breath warm him, her tongue flicking playfully over his fingertip.
She was right there in front of him, alive and sensual. He opened his eyes and let his hand cradle her skull. “I missed you today, Laura. Did you miss me?”
He waited, and when he heard her soft voice, he smiled. “I know, I know. I hate having to keep you locked away. But I have to keep you hidden.”
When she asked him to tell her about his day, he did. There was breakfast at the mission, scrambled eggs cold and runny, toast dry and hard. After he ate, he’d wandered through downtown Durham, searching for treasure: cans to recycle, coins dropped on the sidewalk. He never begged, although occasionally a stranger handed him a dollar or two; he’d snatch the money away and tuck it into his pocket before the stranger changed his mind.
A police officer had stopped him today, peppered him with questions. “What are you doing here? What’s your name? Where do you live? Loitering’s not allowed; move on.”
Michael had clenched his hands around the straps of the backpack, terrified the cop would look inside, but he didn’t. He just stood and glared, until Michael shuffled off and hid in the dark recesses of an alley, watching and waiting until it was safe to come out again.
When the danger was past, Michael had wandered the streets again, made his way to the library. He went to the bathroom, relieved himself, then washed his face and hands. He found his favorite chair, set apart from the others, sat and pretended to read. A young girl, her face buried in a book, tripped over his backpack. He reached out and grabbed her arm, shaking it with anger. She pulled free and backed away from him, her eyes wide with fear. “Sorry,” she muttered.
When the girl was gone, he pulled the backpack closer between his legs. “Sorry, Laura. Are you okay?” he whispered in his library voice. When she told him she was, he relaxed and leaned back, his legs still wrapped tightly around the pack. He dozed off until a librarian tapped him on his shoulder. He jumped up, grabbed his backpack, and raced out before she could ask him to leave.
He walked down the library steps and joined the swell of workers as they streamed from their office buildings. Five o’clock. Quitting time. For him, another day past; time to go back to the mission. He arrived there, filled his tray, and looked for an empty table. The room was packed. He was forced to sit wedged between two strangers, one with his head down, talking to his soup, the other staring into space.
Michael ate his dinner in silence. He didn’t taste the meatloaf or the mashed potatoes or the green beans. They just filled his belly. A few times, when no one was watching, he slipped his fingers into the backpack and handed Laura a morsel. When she whispered to him that she was full, he stood up, returned his empty tray, and left the mission.
He walked to the city park, going deep into the woods, where he would make his bed. But before he slept, he would spend the evening with Laura. After he finished telling her about his day, he rested her skull on his chest. He cradled her there until he grew tired. Then he packed her bones into his backpack, wrapped his arms around it, and drifted off to sleep.
He woke feeling a tug and then the backpack was ripped from his body. A man he’d seen at the mission stared down at him, his eyes narrowed, his mouth twisted. “What d’ya got here?” Before Michael could stop him, the man yanked open the backpack and spilled Laura’s bones onto the ground. “What the fuck?”
The man jumped back, and Michael scrambled to his knees, gathering the bones. “Get away! Leave us alone!”
The man stood, a look of revulsion on his face, as though rooted to the ground like one of the towering trees.
“I mean it. Get out of here!” Michael screamed, his hands curled into fists.
The stranger turned and fled as Michael picked up the last of her bones. “Don’t worry, Laura. I won’t let anyone take you away from me. I lost you once, but that won’t happen again.” He stood and began to follow the man deep into the woods.
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