Shadow of a Debt || Ryan Curcio

The greased-back, blond strands hung like melting icicles dangling from an evergreen over almond colored eyes; this is what he looked like before they lowered him into the grave.

His wife invited all the bill collectors to the funeral. They stared into the rectangular pit like leeches ready to glob onto a host.

On the epitaph, they etched, “You owe us more…”

Don’t get me wrong, they were respectful as all heck at the service. Never once did they get in the way, or cause a brouhaha of any kind.

However, the instant they dropped his body below the point where the tears soaked into the decomposition—maggots squirming in skull troves where the once living lay their dead-heads—they dove on the earth like famished vultures.

Every few minutes, the collectors would rap on the plot of dirt shadowing his tombstone. “Mr. Rice, sorry to bother you in this condition, but you still owe us for this month’s car taxes and are also well behind on your property taxes. Good news, though! You can begin paying the combined $36,000 you owe in back taxes, plus interest of course, in ten easy payments of $3,600, or, if money’s tight, just 36 payments of $1,000. Hey, we’d even be willing to go as low as 1,000 payments of $36. Your wife assures us that you are good for every penny! Mr. Rice?”

***

One day, the IRS took an interest in Mr. Rice’s case. A particular agent, Harold, pulled up Rice’s profile. He licked his lips when he read the word “deceased” under the category “living status.”

“I might have to pay this Mr. Rice a little visit.” Harold let out a laugh— hot air billowed from his lips, spreading through the room like fast-moving fog. The man in the next cubicle could not contain his agitation any longer.

“Harold, you have mental problems. This place probably has a room at the loony-bin on reserve for you.”

“I don’t have time for the ineffectual diarrhea spilling from your lips.”

Just as Harold finished rattling off his retort, a news notification binged on his phone: “Magnitude 6.6 earthquake likely near Bend, Oregon. Seek shelter immediately.”

Harold’s skin shone porcelain. He got out of his cushioned swivel chair and began scrambling for his belongings. He picked up his peacoat, briefcase and tin of Altoids, and flashed a bony middle finger at his cubicle neighbor.

“I hope the earthquake swallows you and your family whole, James.”

***

A couple days after the earthquake rocked the town of Bend, Harold decided to pay this Mr. Rice a visit. Anyone who had accumulated $36,000 worth of debt was surely worth his time.

Harold needed to first stop by Mr. Rice’s residence to speak with his widow, because he did not know where the body was buried. Harold pulled the address up on his GPS tracker in milliseconds: 180 Soil Street.

On his drive, there was still a fair amount of debris lining the roads. Uprooted trees leaned against power lines; branches lay in the street like pieces knocked off a chessboard.

“What a dump,” noted Harold. “Can’t they pay someone to come clean this sorry mess up?”

Harold parked his Prius about ten feet back from Mr. Rice’s house on a hilly road. He pulled the lever for the parking brake, unfastened his seatbelt, and got out of the car. The distance between him and the house felt greater when standing outside of the car. The lawn was overgrown, weeds sticking out in every direction like a cowlicky head on a bad hair day. His feet crunched some twigs when he stepped up to the welcome mat.

Harold rapped three times on the large gray door. A woman with a head full of tight yellow curls answered the door. Her eyes were puffy, pink; the outside corner of each eye held a black speck of dried mascara.

“Yes, can I help you?”

“Hello Mrs. Rice—”

“It’s Ms. Rice.”

Harold twisted the left corner of his mustache between his thumb and forefinger. “Yes, of course, my apologies. Ms. Rice, I work for the IRS and I’ve come to ask you if you might point me in the direction of your husband’s gravesite? It’s fairly routine for the IRS to run a posthumous audit, nowadays.”

Ms. Rice lifted her arm slowly, pointing behind Harold’s head to the right.

Harold let out a forced chuckle that sounded like he momentarily choked on a marshmallow. “Oh, Ms. Rice you have a wonderful sense of humor for someone in your present position.” He tried peering inside the house but Ms. Rice shoved herself across the threshold onto the front step, and closed the door behind her. She jangled a set of keys.

“I was actually just about to go over there now. Care to join?”

Harold winced a little. “All right. Thank you.”

***

Ms. Rice drove a battered pickup littered with amoeba-shaped rust spots. The bed was covered with a tarp. Every time they took a turn, a strange groan came from under the hood.

Ms. Rice turned to smile at Harold. “There’s a dying cat in there.”

He looked sickly, pale, almost the color of frost inside a freezer. “Can you drive a little slower please? I feel quite nauseous.”

“Oh, yes, no problem. Sorry, I have a little lead in my foot. Well, here we are anyway.” Ms. Rice had driven them up the paved walkway right next to where her dearly beloved was buried. Harold pushed open the dented passen-ger door, and walked over to Mr. Rice’s headstone.

“So, if I might ask, how did your husband accrue such a copious amount of debt, Ms. Rice?”

“Bastard had an affinity for gambling. That and strip clubs. Only thing that dick was good at was pissing money away.” She put out her cigarette on the bottom of her boot.

Harold was down on his hands and knees on top of the burial plot.

“Mr. Rice, can you hear me down there? I want to negotiate how to begin paying off your mountainous list of back taxes. We have terrific payment options. Mr. Rice?!”

Harold crouched, then spun his neck toward Ms. Rice. “You told several bill collectors, as well as the IRS, that he is good for the money. What do you mean by that, exactly?”

“I believe he had gambling winnings he told no one about, ’cept for his sleazy lawyer. I overheard him on the phone one night arranging to have this money buried with him when he eventually croaked. Stingy chooch.”

Harold began knocking on the dirt. “Mr. Rice! Mr. Rice! Mr. Rii—” The earth beneath Harold was loose, and he was swallowed by a small sinkhole.

Ms. Rice backed up her truck to the still solidly packed portion of the earth. She hopped on the tailgate and un-bungeed the tarp. The tarp was hiding a mound of dirt and a shovel. She began scooping and filling in the hole Harold fell into.

“Ms. Rice, can you please call someone for assistance? I landed hard on my tailbone, and I think it’s going to bruise pretty badly.”

“Why would I do that? You wanted to see my husband—now you have all the access you can get. I knew someone like you was coming, so I prepared. The earthquake did most of the work for me. I just needed to cover this natural trap with some loosely packed dirt.”

Ms. Rice continued her work until when she looked down, Harold’s face was an eclipsed moon. She packed the dirt once more with the back of her shovel, ignored the faint screams from beneath the upper crust, and loaded her things into the truck bed before driving off.

This was originally published in Spring 2018 edition of The Helix.