For those unaware, I decided to participate in the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge this year. People are put into groups and given an assigned genre, subject, and character. I ended up with Mystery, which I’ve never written before, but I had a lot of fun with it. You can find more information and the story below. Feedback is welcome.
Subject: A horoscope
Character: A bird watcher
Story Title: Feeder
Synopsis: Vincent Carmichael discovers a dead body in the woods behind his house, but when he returns with a police officer the body is gone.
Alternative Synopsis: A heartwarming tale about a man, a dog, and a dead body.
Vincent Carmichael recently developed a routine. He woke at six – sometimes sooner if his body worked against him – and took the dog for a walk. Maggie was an English cocker spaniel puppy that he brought home a week prior. His wife Sarah left him two months prior, and while he had no interest in moving on romantically, he was finally ready for some form of companion, hence the dog.
“Another foggy morning,” he said as he stepped outside through the back door. Maggie barked in reply before taking off in a run toward the private woods. She required a leash due to a lack of proper training, but Vincent wasn’t worried; she was too excitable and craved his attention too much to run off for long. He pocketed a small notebook and pencil before closing the door and following.
The trail had been there since before Vincent and Sarah moved in, but over the years he added several bird feeders. His father taught him how to build many things in his youth, a bird feeder being his favorite. He now owned a carpentry business, but that didn’t stop his interest in birds. He checked the feeders every morning, notating how much seed remained and which feeds attracted the most attention. There was no reason for it, but it gave him something to think about, a distraction. Sarah considered his interest an obsession, but he no longer had to worry about that. Good riddance, he thought on days he felt particularly salty over the blow.
Vincent was checking the first feeder when he heard barking. Maggie arrived several seconds later and whimpered before barking and taking off again. “What the hell,” he muttered, abandoning his mission and jogging to catch up with her. He found her whimpering again near a patch of bushes to the left of the trail. A sinking feeling overcame him as he slowed his pace, and he removed the miniature flashlight that was always in his jacket pocket. He turned it on, the light’s beam cutting through the morning fog. He dropped it in shock after noticing a flash of red and the outline of a body.
Bending to retrieve the flashlight, Vincent noticed a crumbled up piece of newspaper lying beside the body. He picked it up – his weak stomach too queasy to face the body just yet – and held the light to it. The page was weather worn, but he could immediately tell it was the horoscope section of the local newspaper. Sarah used to recite their horoscopes every morning, being a firm believer in their messages. It was the only thing about her that he didn’t like, and he gladly ignored that section of the paper after she left. The paper was somehow still readable. Sarah’s horoscope, Leo, was circled.
It’s time to stop making excuses for your past and let go of what’s been troubling you. Now is the time for a new beginning. Don’t let it pass you by.
He mulled over the words, Maggie’s bark snapping him out of it a minute later. “Get away from there,” he said, his voice hoarse. He clicked off the light and ran back to the house, Maggie at his heels. Once inside, he hastened to the living room, dropped the horoscope on an end table and picked up the phone, dialing 9-1-1. It felt like ages before he heard a voice on the other line.
“911, what is your emergency?” the operator asked.
“Yes, I was on a walk with my dog and we came across a body.” Vincent spoke in a rush, hoping the woman on the other line caught everything.
“Where did you come across a body, sir?”
“In the woods behind my house.” He gave her the address, his heart racing. What if the person was still alive? He didn’t think to check. All he knew was that he couldn’t face it alone, and surely the police needed to know about it immediately.
The operator took his name and informed him that an officer was on the way. Vincent thanked her and hung up, starting to pace. How could something like this happen, and on his own property? Perhaps someone wanted to frame him, but that wasn’t right seeing as how he didn’t have any enemies. “That’s not true,” he said, as if needing to debate himself. “Sarah hates you.” But Sarah hadn’t been around in two months. His mind continued to race with several different theories until he heard a loud, determined knock at the front. Letting out a sigh of relief, he walked several long strides to the door, opening it.
“Vincent Carmichael?” the man asked knowingly. “My name is Officer Greg Nelson. You called to report a dead body?”
“Yes,” Vincent said. He looked back to see Maggie running toward them so he stepped outside and closed the door. “Thank you for coming. I’ll take you back.”
They walked around the house to the woods, following the trail from earlier that morning. Officer Nelson went first to check things out, declaring it a necessary precaution. Vincent didn’t argue and swept a glance at his feeders while he waited, hoping the events of the morning didn’t mess with his data.
“You’re sure you saw a body?” Nelson asked.
“Of course I’m sure,” Vincent said, walking to where Nelson stood, where the body had been, but it was gone, as was any trace of blood. His stomach dropped. “It was right here. I don’t understand.”
“Have you been drinking, Mr. Carmichael?”
“Of course not!” Vincent said, offended. “My dog found the body first. She ran out here ahead of me and started barking in this spot. It was still dark so I used my flashlight. I’m certain there was a body, and blood.”
Nelson crouched down and moved a light of his own over the ground, most likely checking for traces of blood. He clicked the light off after a moment and stood. “The only crime I see here is poor grounds maintenance. It’s uneven here, and the grass is overgrown in other places. See what I mean?”
Vincent looked again, noticing a slight rise where they’d been standing. “I suppose it’s possible I was seeing things,” he said in disbelief. Something still didn’t feel right, didn’t add up. “What about the blood?”
“That I can’t account for, seeing as there isn’t any,” Nelson said. “Trick of the eyes, I expect. You might want to have them checked.”
“My eyes are fine,” Vincent said, growing frustrated. “What about my dog? Are you suggesting she also had a trick of the eyes?”
“Dogs get excited.” Nelson paused. “I tell you what, let’s go back to the house. You can answer a few questions for the record, and I’ll make sure we keep an eye out for anything suspicious.”
Vincent let out a sigh of relief. “Thank you,” he said, turning to walk back to the house. He needed to know that his encounter was being taken seriously. The last thing he needed was for someone to think he was going crazy.
They entered the house through the back door to find Maggie barking by her food dish. Vincent remembered she hadn’t eaten yet and grabbed her bag of food from the pantry. “Have a seat,” he said to the officer. “Do you want coffee or anything?”
“No, thank you,” Nelson said. He sat and pulled out a pencil and a miniature notebook similar to the one Vincent used when recording bird feeder findings. “When were you last in the woods before today?”
“Around six yesterday morning,” Vincent said, remembering the day easily. “I go out there every morning to check the feeders during Maggie’s walk. Sometimes we stay to watch the birds. Are you a fan of birds, officer?”
“Not really, no.”
Vincent frowned. He stepped over to Maggie’s bowl to add a half cup of food. “Well, they’re fascinating creatures.”
“Glad to hear it.” Nelson sounded disinterested. “Let’s hear about the rest of your day.”
“We ate breakfast after the walk,” Vincent continued. “I read the paper before calling a couple customers. I went to my shop after, which is in the garage, and broke for lunch around noon. Maggie joined me in watching the birds out back. I returned to work after that until five. I showered, delivered a cabinet to a customer, and went to my brother’s house in town for dinner and got back just before eight. I had a beer, watched Magnum, P.I., let Maggie out, and went to bed around ten.”
Nelson looked up from the notebook he’d been writing in. “I’ll need contact information for these customers, and your brother as well.”
“Of course. Anything to be useful.” Vincent didn’t like writing in his small notebook for anything other than feeder data so he found another one in a junk drawer and started writing names, phone numbers, and the addresses of places he’d gone.
“While you were home, you didn’t hear or see anything suspicious?” Nelson asked.
“Nothing out of the ordinary. The birds came and went, but that’s pretty typical seeing as how I have the feeders in the woods. But I didn’t see anyone.”
Nelson nodded, taking notes for a moment longer before closing the book and standing. “I’ll check the records to be sure, but I don’t know of any missing people in the area. We’ll be in touch if we find something, and let us know if you notice anything.”
Vincent was disappointed in the result. He didn’t wish for a dead body, but the experience felt far too real for it to result in a trick of the eyes. “I will,” he said, knowing there was nothing else to be done. “Sorry for wasting your time.”
“Don’t apologize,” Nelson said. “These things happen. Anyway, it allowed me to stretch my legs. You did me a favor.”
“Glad I could help,” Vincent said, forcing a smile. He handed Nelson the list of contacts and walked him out before grabbing the horoscope from the end table and returning to the kitchen. He watched Maggie from the doorway for a moment before reading the horoscope again. Perhaps there had never been a body on the ground, but this meant something. There had to be an explanation for what he’d seen.
“Have we gone crazy, girl?” he asked.
Maggie didn’t reply.
Two weeks went by without word from Officer Nelson. Vincent continued with his routine, except now he walked Maggie up the street and left her inside while he checked the feeders. He’d occasionally find her sitting at the back door, whining, but after checking the woods several times he accepted that he really had been seeing things, or someone thought it was a humorous prank of sorts and didn’t care to attempt it twice after a police officer showed up. Regardless, things were back to normal.
That morning, Vincent opened the door to walk out front with Maggie, but like the day he found the horoscope, he didn’t attach the leash in time. She took off immediately, seemingly determined, and ran to the back of the house toward the woods. “Maggie!” he yelled, slamming the door and rushing after her. “Come back here!”
Maggie didn’t listen and quickly vanished from view. He caught up eventually and noticed her fervently digging up the earth. “What’s gotten into you?” He retrieved the flashlight from his jacket and swept the light across the ground, stopping at Maggie. She growled before continuing to dig while Vincent watched in awe. She hadn’t been in his life long, but he had yet to see her behave so strangely, as if possessed.
He let her carry on for another minute before noticing something in the dirt. He knelt beside her, looping his fingers around her collar and tugging enough to make her move aside. She barked before licking his hand and submitting, apparently satisfied with herself. “Good girl,” Vincent said before shining the light over the ground again, seeing the object glitter before him. The ring was attached to a finger, or what remained of one. His eyes moved upward to verify the bones of an arm. Maggie hadn’t dug any further, but she’d gone far enough.
It was a warm summer morning. Vincent was supposed to be working in the garage. He was there, but work wasn’t involved. Already several beers in, his mind was lost. He’d been drinking a lot lately, and Sarah was the only one who knew about it. Out of beer, he went back to the house to find more.
He noticed a letter on the table next to a horoscope dated the day prior. “Another damn horoscope,” he muttered, prepared to throw it away, but the letter caught his attention. It was from Sarah. She was leaving him. His bird obsession had gone too far, and him throwing her against a tree the other day for touching one of the feeders was the last straw.
He finished the letter and glanced at the horoscope. Sarah’s was circled, and it confirmed why she was really leaving him. Now is the time for a new beginning. She had always lived her life by such statements. Looking out the window, he spotted a flash of blonde hair in the woods. He clutched the horoscope in his hand and rushed out to his wife, his eyes dark with rage as he noticed her throwing one of the feeders to the ground.
“How dare you!” he bellowed in a tone that wasn’t his, his body shaking. He’d never been so angry.
Sarah wasn’t listening. She never listened anymore. They became strangers as she obsessed over her horoscopes the way he obsessed over his feeders. At least his hobby made sense, he thought. When she didn’t respond, he reached out and grabbed her wrist with force.
“Don’t touch me!” Sarah whipped around to face him, her cheeks stained with tears. “I’m so tired of this. I’ve made the arrangements. Our marriage is over. I’m starting over.” Without another word she turned to approach another feeder, but she wasn’t fast enough. Vincent picked up the thick wooden feeder from the ground and advanced on her, smashing it against her head. The effect was instant. Sarah fell to the ground, but Vincent didn’t stop there. He swung the feeder at her head again and again until there weren’t any pieces left to swing.
The ground was littered with bird seed and blood.
Maggie’s barking brought him back to reality. He blinked a few times before pulling the wedding ring from Sarah’s bony finger, pocketing it. “I was going to shove that horoscope down her throat,” he said as if catching Maggie up. “I must have forgotten.” He looked at her, his mind lost to him once again. He stared at her for several seconds before standing. “Perhaps a dog wasn’t the best idea either,” he added to himself. “Come, girl.” He turned toward the nearest feeder.