Jeff Phillips: A Body in the Woods

 

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There’s not much that can spoil a nice afternoon bike ride as quick as your friend, up ahead of you, jumping off his bike to spin it around, hopping back on, his face scrunched like he’s on a roller coaster about to accelerate, and he waves you back. “Go! Go! We gotta get out of here!”

So you do the same. This is urgent, questions will not be asked, because you imagine there’s maybe someone with a gun, or a bear, something that can snuff your life in a matter of seconds. I almost tumble off the trail as I jump down from my bike to point it in the reverse direction, but I recover my footing. Some small ounce of survival instinct helps me overcome my clumsiness. I get my bike moving again. Craig shows no signs of stopping, but he looks back over his shoulder like I’m fucked. So I start pedaling harder to catch up. I’m not looking back, I don’t have the spare seconds. Whatever it is might be close, it might take advantage of any slowing. I have to focus all energies forward, pedal harder than I had ever thought possible, risk my foot slipping off the pedal, the pedal cracking my shin bone. I have to risk it. I have to find new speed and get out of these woods alive.

I catch up to Craig once we’ve ridden all the way back to my house. The biking trails were maybe five minutes away, but we’re back in two.

This was a Wednesday, our elementary school does half days on Wednesdays. Usually I’d have a friend over after school. This day it was my classmate, Craig. We had some lunch, Ramen noodles, then went for a bike ride. My older brother and I had recently discovered a new trail in a patch of woods by riding along a stretch of power lines. I wanted to show Craig. And now, Craig most definitely felt like he had been shown something.

Back at my house we catch our breath. I ask him a few times, “what was it?! What the hell was it?! What is going on?!”

He’s finally able to tell me that he saw a dead body in the woods.

We go inside. My mom sees that we’re shaken by something, there’s no holding back, so we tell her. She calls the police. The police tell us to stay put, they’d like us to show them where we found it. Goddamn, we have to go back out there! But it’s okay, they’re sending cops. They’ll have guns. We don’t say much of anything while we wait. Craig has these braces with a sort of spiky rod going across his tongue. It’s supposed to train him to stop sucking his thumb. He’s ten years old but he doesn’t see sucking his thumb as something that should be embarrassing, something a child would do. It’s an oral fixation and he’ll probably start smoking cigarettes within a few years. He finds a way to squeeze his thumb in there. With our hearts pumping, our adrenal glands firing on all cylinders, now’s the time to suck.

Two detectives arrive. They have very calming voices, but they are serious. “We take this seriously,” they say, “can you tell us more about what you saw?”

“Well, I freaked out,” Craig says. “I saw, like, a naked person lying there, but I didn’t get a good look, it freaked me out and I was like we gotta get out of here!”

“I didn’t see anything,” I added.

“You did the right thing, can you show us where you saw it? Can you take us there?”

I let Craig take the lead, since he was up ahead of me, went around the bend and warned me before I could take that turn. We ride in their unmarked, blue car and park near the power lines. We have to walk for a little while, a car isn’t going to fit down that narrow trail, never mind the terrain, it’s like muddy moguls.

We arrive at the bend where I saw the panic clinch Craig. I brace myself. I’m going to see a dead body. This is going to change things. I’m not going to be very innocent after this, I think to myself, this is a dark thing to see, a very bad thing to see. Oh man.

We go around the bend, all cautious, because we could be walking into something quite dangerous. The detectives feel for their holsters, we’re in good hands with them, but still, my heart is hammering at my ribs like it has the authority to turn me right around, but we gotta keep going around the bend, gotta do the right thing.

What we see is the fallen trunk of tree. The bark has rotted off, it’s a pale tan in color, like someone’s flesh. There’s a branch, shed of its leaves, reaching off to the side, like an emaciated arm. And there’s a maroon jacket draping across the top of it, someone’s discarded letterman jacket, emblazoned with ELHS on the back, the initials of our local high school. Blur your eyes, it’s a fucking body, alright. But call up two detectives, they drop whatever they were doing, you lead them 15 minutes into the woods, and it’s just a partially decayed tree adorned with clothes someone no longer wanted.

There’s relief, my mom is so glad her son and his friend don’t have to see a dead body. There’s embarrassment, I can’t believe we dragged them out here. I’m also somewhat disappointed, in the seconds before the unveiling of what was around the bend, I had prepared myself for that loss of innocence, to proudly declare that I had seen some real shit. But I’d be leaving there, a gawky ten year old kid whose voice cracked when crying out at losing a game on Sega Genesis, when Sonic the Hedgehog abruptly faces you, the player, then falls through the bottom of the screen.

Craig got defensive, he coulda sworn he saw what he saw.

But the detectives tell us it’s okay. The short, bald one with the mustache tells us we did the right thing. He assures us a few times, “you did the right thing, it’s always good we check these things out. You did the right thing.” He’s a nice guy. He’s not mad at us for this.

Craig sucks his thumb again.

The taller detective, with thin, windblown hair, looks over at Craig. There’s maybe a little bit of disgust behind his eyes. “Yeah, you did the right thing,” he echoes. But from his dry, monotone voice, I’m not so reassured. I feel like he’s going to go home later and ask his wife and kids to guess what kind of crap he had to deal with at work.

Better then spending the rest of the afternoon wrapping up the body in plastic, to take down to the coroner, I think to myself. Better than scouring the scene for clues. Unless he got a real kick from that kind of thing, which, he’s a detective, he probably does. I probably would too.

Later that evening, when Sonic falls to the bottom of the screen and it flashes Game Over, I feel pretty goofy. I also feel like I might be pretty lucky that I get to do goofy things like push a cartoon hedgehog’s life to the brink, press reset, and that’s as dangerous as it gets.

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