A Single Life

I shouldn’t have murdered Richard Owens. I didn’t intend to. It was a moral lapse and I regretted it right away. It was true I was annoyed at Rick at the time, but not lethally annoyed.

It happened somewhere out in the middle of the U.S.—Iowa maybe, or Indiana.

Rick and I had met about a month before, picking tomatoes out in California. He was the cutest guy in the crew and I was the only unattached woman. Plus we were the only two who spoke English, so naturally we kind of drifted together but in fact we had nothing much in common; we were never what you would call close.

After the tomato season ended, we took off in my old Jeep looking, not very seriously, for more picking work. We weren’t in any rush. We spent a lot of days just hanging out in campgrounds or driving around the country.

You know what it’s like when you’re travelling with someone; you get tired of being with that same person all the time. His habits get on your nerves, you fight about trivialities, start disagreeing about everything, on principle.

The afternoon it happened, we’d been drinking beer, smoking a little weed with another couple from the campground. When they left, Rick fell asleep under the poplar tree at our site, his head on my lap. It was hot, and he was heavy and doing a really annoying sort of whistling snore with his mouth open. His breath was bad. I tried to push him off but he kept rolling back on to me. Not intending anything serious, I reached for the pillow behind my back and held it over his face to stop the noise of the snoring, more than anything else.

He woke up and struggled but I held him down, in fun at first. The thing about murder is, once you’ve started, you pretty well have to keep on going, for your own safety. Next thing I knew, he was dead.
Just like the thrillers all say, the most difficult part was getting rid of the body. Under cover of darkness, I managed to haul Rick into the Jeep and next morning drove away from the campground early, before anyone was up and around. I drove all day. Towards dusk I reached a nice, deserted stretch of road with woods on both sides. I dragged the body out, pulled it a ways into the woods, threw some branches over it, got back in the Jeep and headed south.

My family had more or less disowned me after I dropped out of college to work my way across the continent. To keep them from reporting me as a missing person, I wrote them a postcard: “Going to Florida to pick oranges.”

Whether or not Rick’s family, if he had a family, worried about his prolonged absence, I had no idea. I didn’t want to know. I made a point of not following the news. I didn’t want to hear whether his body had been discovered. I didn’t want to know if the police were on to the case.

In fact, nothing happened. Perhaps the body was never found. Whatever, the police never got on to me.
So, after a few years of skulking in illegal jobs in the U.S., I returned to Montreal and the bosom of my family. There was a tearful reunion and all was forgiven. (Though naturally, I didn’t say a word about the incident with Rick.) I registered as a mature student at Concordia.

I got a health card, a new driver’s license, and a passport. Not a peep out of the police. All there was to remind me of my unfortunate past were occasional panic attacks and some unpleasant dreams. But anyone can have those, eh?

I finished my degree and got a job in a bank and met Pascal. When we got as far as making marriage plans, I felt I had to tell him. A marriage shouldn’t have secrets. Sometimes cops get on to cold cases. They can do things with DNA. Or I might talk in my sleep, or let out the truth in a careless moment. If such a thing happened, I would need a husband who would understand my situation and be on my side.

“Would you love me whatever I did?” I asked Pascal.

“Whatever,” he swore. “Forever.”

But when I told him about what had happened between me and Rick, he couldn’t get away fast enough. “Don’t come near me again. Don’t try to contact me. Go away and stay away,” he said.

At least he didn’t call the police. It was Steve who did that.

Steve was the next guy I got involved with. He was a social worker, a lot more people-oriented than Pascal, a lot more understanding. He’d see where I was coming from, I was sure.

Maybe he did see where I was coming from, but he sure didn’t see where I wanted to be. He thought I should give myself up to the police. “Confess,” he said. “You’ll feel better for getting that terrible secret off your chest.”

“I won’t feel better when I’m sentenced to thirty years,” I told him.

“You can’t carry around guilt like that for the rest of your life,” he insisted.

I wasn’t sure it was guilt. More like uneasiness, maybe. I tried to explain: “We’re talking about something that happened years ago. The police aren’t interested; they were never interested. I only told you because I want to be fair to you. That’s the kind of person I am.”

“You weren’t fair to that poor guy,” Steve said. “Or to his family. I bet his folks are still hoping he’ll show up some day. For their sake, if not for your own mental health, you’ve got to confess.”

No way.

Steve—that bastard—went to the police himself and reported me.

I’d been smart enough not to reveal the crucial information: Rick’s name, and the date and place of the murder. Steve had no hard facts to support his story.

The police did come round and question me, mostly about my relationship with Steve. We agreed he must be holding some kind of grudge against me. They warned me to be careful, to give them a call if he harassed me in any way.

I settled down to the single life. I’d got away with murder, but it looked like it was too much to expect I’d manage a happy marriage as well. All because of one little slip-up long ago. It didn’t seem quite fair, but what could I do? I let my social life go and took up the solitary sport of running.

One day, jogging at the Morgan Arboretum, I tripped over a tree root and cracked my ankle. That’s how I met Jim. He came jogging along while I was still lying on the ground, gasping with pain. Like a hero in an old-fashioned romance, he picked me up in his arms, carried me to his car and drove me to emergency.

At first, he wasn’t a boyfriend, just a friend. He visited two or three evenings a week. I sat with my leg up while we watched action movies. When my ankle was better, we tried a little gentle jogging. The following summer we did some backpacking and canoe trips. Jim was a real outdoorsman and not much of a thinker or a worrier, which was all to the good from my point of view.

When he suggested a double sleeping bag, I told him, with regret, that I had taken a vow of celibacy. He proposed anyway on the strength of only a few chaste kisses.

The temptation was too much for me. “Yes,” I said.

I wasn’t going to mention the murder thing. I’d already told two people and that had come to no good. It would be unwise to spread the word any further. Besides, I almost convinced myself, the incident had nothing to do with me because when it happened I was a completely different person: a drifter, a druggie. Now I was a mature, responsible woman, law-abiding, and honest.

It was the honesty that got me. I really wanted to do the right thing. Maybe Jim will be like the third prince in the fairy tales, I told myself. He’ll pass the test, set me free of the ghost from my past, and we’ll live happily ever after.

I chose Algonquin Park as the venue for confession. We were on a canoe trip there, and a good distance from the nearest police station. I spoke from the bow, my back to Jim.

When I was done, he laughed. “Oh yeah,” he said. “Like you could just off some guy. Ha. Ha. Sure.”

“I could. I did.”

“Impossible. You wouldn’t have the physical strength for one thing. And you couldn’t do it even if you had. Not you, sweetie.”

I should have let it go there. I’d told the truth. My conscience was clear. But it irritated me that Jim didn’t believe me. This was rejection of the worst sort. He laughed at my deepest secret. He wasn’t accepting the real me. I was glad I wasn’t facing him. I’d wipe the silly smile off his face.

“I did so kill a man,” I repeated, slapping my paddle hard against the water.

“Okay, so tell me where. Tell me when. Tell me how.”

I told him, though not in complete detail.

“Nah. You’re remembering a bad dream. Or a book you read or something. The murdering impulse just isn’t in you, sweetie. I know you well enough by now to say that with absolute certainty.”

His patronizing attitude enraged me. “I murdered someone. Think about it. And then say something more meaningful than ‘ha ha, not you, sweetie.'”

What I needed him to say was that the murder was accidental. I wanted his reassurance that I wasn’t any more responsible for that momentary moral stumble than for the fall at the Arboretum. I needed someone to say it and set me free.

“I know you never murdered anyone,” was what he said.

“Do I have to prove it to you?” I shouted. I swung around clutching the paddle like a weapon, nearly upsetting the canoe.

“All right. All right,” Jim said in his easygoing way. “Here’s what we’ll do. Our campsite’s coming up just ahead.” He pointed with his paddle down the lake to a crescent of beach with a tent platform. “We’ll have a swim, cook up some dinner and then we’ll re-enact the scene. You’ll try to murder me and I’ll prove to you that you just couldn’t do it.”

He should have had more sense.

We had our swim and our dinner. We didn’t talk much.

After dinner, we set up the scene. “So you were sitting against a tree something like this?”

“It was a poplar, not a birch, but never mind. This will do.” I sat.

“And I have my head on your lap, like this?” Jim stretched out, smiling, complacent. “Then you whip out a pillow. And zap! Curtains!” He passed me a fleece camping pillow.

“Too small. I’ll need two of these.”

He fetched the other pillow for me and settled himself in position again.

“All right, go ahead,” he said.

“You have to be sleeping,” I reminded him. I’d powdered three valium tablets into his after-dinner mug of cocoa. He soon dropped off.

Then I took the pillows, slipped them under his head, picked up the pack with my clothes and the car keys, launched the canoe, and left.

I wouldn’t tell anyone else, ever. Because I wasn’t really a murderer. Jim had proved it. I was grateful to him for that.

Katharine O'Flynn lives in Montreal. Her work has appeared in Geist, Kalliope, Blueline, and Storyteller. She recently completed a novel under the aegis of the QWF mentorship program.