3rd Place – April 2022

Obsession

by JJ Rushmore

The little things made me hate him. But that’s not why I killed him.

The ‘him’ mentioned above was my next-door neighbor Jerome ‘Tank’ McCutcheon. McCutcheon had bought the waterfront home next to mine on Big Pine Key a couple of years ago. He proceeded to irritate me from the day he moved in. His offenses may have been minor, but they ranked high on my aggravation index.

Our neighborhood is considered upper middle class, and the residents proudly maintain their properties in pristine condition. Not so McCutcheon. He rarely mowed his lawn. When he did, he did a poor job and didn’t bother to trim the edges. He picked the most annoying times to mow, like eleven at night or five in the morning. His lawn mower was a broken-down contraption with no muffler that would wake an Egyptian mummy.

He never secured his rubbish bins. Deer and raccoon frequently pulled off the covers and scattered refuse in the street. When this happened, he just left it there to blow around and rot.

His front lawn looked like a redneck yard sale, with decrepit furniture, discarded plumbing fixtures, and decaying building materials strewn around in disparate piles of junk. The mounds of debris were havens for snakes and lizards. An antique muscle car with no front bumper sat on blocks in one corner, its rusting hulk and gaping grille looking like a toothless monster from a Transformers movie.

McCutcheon had no regard for the serenity of our peaceful cul-de-sac. He enjoyed roaring his Harley-Davidson up and down the street on otherwise quiet Sunday mornings. And whether he was driving his motorcycle or his foul-smelling diesel pick-up, he always drove much faster than the 25-mile-an-hour speed limit. I flagged him down more than once to admonish him for driving too fast, saying he was endangering the neighborhood’s children and the Key Deer that wandered about. He just blew me off with a scowl and denied he had been speeding.

His face wore a permanent scowl. When he was more unfriendly than usual, he’d augment the scowl with a sneer. Like when I told him he had put out twice his legal number of stone crab traps.

Our dislike was mutual. It could have been because I insisted on calling him Jerome, but I’m sure it had more to do with the attention I paid his wife Suzannah.

Suzannah was a classic Southern belle. She was kind, sweet, and fragile. There was an aura of softness about her, an atmosphere of tenderness that permeated her speech and her appearance. She was a pastel woman, with translucent, alabaster skin, pale green eyes, and long wispy hair the hue of white gold.

Her delicate feet contrasted with her otherwise subdued appearance. Silver glitter polish adorned her toenails, and every toe wore a golden ring. Each ring was unique and displayed some sort of cute creature: a butterfly, a turtle, a puppy.

In the mornings Suzannah would glide down to the curb in her nightgown, wearing a diaphanous robe that could have been left at the house for all it covered. We would meet there to pick up our newspapers, or in the afternoon to gather the mail. Her husband was invariably away at work.

We would speak of trivial things like the weather, or recipes, or my tabby cat Mandy. If the topic of her husband arose, she spoke of him in glowing terms. She always had a smile for me and a habit of gently touching my arm in empathy for any of my petty travails.

Not that I mistook her demeanor for anything but innocent friendliness. That was just her natural manner. Besides, I was twice her age, and she was married. A woman like her would never desire a broken down, disabled vet like me, complete with shrapnel-damaged leg and PTSD.

Which didn’t stop me from falling in love with her. I would plan my days around our visits to the mailbox, deciding what I would wear, what topics we might discuss, and rehearsing what I would say. I couldn’t get enough of her. There was even a bit of voyeurism when I peeked at her sunning herself by the pool in her next-to-nothings. It was not a casual thing—I had to limp to my third-floor balcony and use binoculars to get a good view. Obsession would not be too strong a word.

One day McCutcheon came home early and spied us gabbing at the mailbox. Suzannah’s face clouded over, and her expression morphed into a hang-dog look. Tank jumped out of his truck and immediately began screaming at her to get in the house. She scrambled to the front door, visibly cringing at his overbearing presence.

The next morning I looked out my window and noticed something yellow hanging on the fence by the mailbox. It looked like a child’s shirt.

As I approached, the reality was more gruesome. Someone had tied Mandy’s decapitated body to the chain link fence, her legs spread-eagled, her disemboweled entrails sagging to the ground.  Her severed head hung from my mailbox like a grisly Christmas ornament.

I fell to my knees, unable to fully grasp the horrid images assaulting me. After a while I recovered and reverently gathered Mandy’s remains and buried her in the back yard. I didn’t see Suzannah that day. Or the next. Not exactly.

The following day it was time to take the boat and check my stone crab traps, recover any ‘keeper’ claws, and re-bait the traps with frozen pig feet. When I arrived at my trap line near Annette Key, I could tell McCutcheon had been out tending his traps. He had moved them from where I last saw them.

Fishermen were allowed only five traps for each licensed household member. Being single, that was all I had. McCutcheon was only allowed ten, five each for him and Suzannah, but because of his scofflaw ways he had put out twenty.

I eased up to the first buoy and hauled the trap out of the water. It reminded me of a black plastic milk crate with a hinged top. I saw jerky movement through the slats and hoped to score one or more keeper claws. When I opened the top, my eyes followed several crabs scurrying around the container. I plucked out the smaller ones with large tongs and tossed them overboard. I removed a clump of seaweed, and when I went to grab the first large crab, my heart stopped.

The pig feet I had used as bait were mostly gone, leaving only bones cleaned of their meat, not an unusual situation, given the crabs were always hungry. But the pig feet had been replaced by another foot, one with silver glitter toenails and golden toe rings adorned with cute creatures like a butterfly, a turtle, and a puppy.

I awoke lying on the deck, the sky spinning above me like a roulette wheel. I arose and glanced in the trap, hoping for the horrific nightmare to end, but to no avail. A stomach spasm made me double up and I heaved over the side, until the void in my gut matched that of my heart.

Shaking, I dumped the trap’s contents into the Gulf, including Suzannah’s half-eaten foot. I couldn’t face checking the rest of the traps, but I knew it was necessary. As the law required, I had labeled each trap with my name, address, and license number, and I had done so with an embossed aluminum tag riveted to the trap. I was sure the evil known as McCutcheon wanted more than just to shock me—he also wanted to pin Suzannah’s murder on me. What better way than to have her body parts show up in my traps? I looked around nervously for a Fish & Wildlife vessel, which I was sure would be arriving soon. I continued the macabre work of emptying my traps, not bothering to sort the crabs for size.

I returned home with my empty traps, determined to set a bigger one. I piled my traps onto McCutcheon’s boat, knowing he would be puzzled by their presence and want to investigate.

Inevitably he returned from work and walked out to his boat, suspiciously eyeing the foreign crab traps. One rifle shot from my third-floor balcony brought him down. The wind and muzzle suppressor minimized any noise from the shot. Our houses were the only two with full-time residents, and all the snowbirds had gone north for the season, so I was in the clear.

A couple of bloody hours with power tools and I was ready. The next day I took McCutcheon’s boat and filled his twenty traps with his own body parts.

The authorities would find the rest of Suzannah’s remains eventually, but they wouldn’t connect her death to me.

Like I said, it was the little things that made me hate him. But that’s not why I killed him.

Writers’ workshop and writing group