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Someone left their cellphone in my store. I shouldn’t have unlocked it. A horror short.

Warning** This is NSFW and for some, NSFL. ** Reader beware.
Let me start by saying, I’m not a nosy person─ and I’m definitely not a thief─ so when I first noticed that the customer had left their phone, I ran outside to give it back to them. We’re located in a little strip-mall shopping center, so the parking lot is literally right outside.
Here’s where things began to get weird. The parking lot, was empty.
I tried to rationalize it. Maybe they had been picked up and drove away.
Maybe I hadn’t walked outside as quickly as I thought I had.
I’m telling you I had myself relaxed and snacking on some beef jerky within 10 mins of that man leaving.
Notice I said it began to get weird.
You probably won’t believe me. How can you, you weren’t here?
Please, don’t judge me─ I’m begging you. I need to tell someone my story. Because there is no way in hell anyone will understand.
Especially when they come for me.
It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.
September is an especially slow month in retail. I’ve been working in it for nearly ten years and every year is slow as hell around this time. When I say slow, I mean one customer per three hours kind of slow. The only people that tended to walk in were personal shoppers, or old people. Everyone buys shit online now.
Which leads us to my next predicament.
It started as a little jingle in the drawer. You know, one of those little trills an app makes when it gives you a notification or a reminder? I was pretty annoyed at first because it reminded me of my own app I use to buy and sell stuff online.
By the third chime, I scooped up my phone to turn off the notifications. I was super annoyed because I had just finished selling my prized books and marked them as sold. I was already sore I had to get rid of them and it was marked as sold. Jeez buttholes, leave me alone. But it wasn’t my phone. In fact, I hadn’t even received any spam mail or texts. So that got me curious.
It’s not your phone, I reminded myself.
After the dozenth trickle of messages, and no calls, I decided to go ahead and pick it up. I mean, why not? It probably had a finger print lock on it anyway. I thought about just shutting it off, but then thought better of it in case the owner called the phone looking for it.
Personally, if it were mine I’d just use a phone locator and ping it.
The guy had seemed older though. Maybe he didn’t know how to.
The red notification indicated that there were more than a thousand messages waiting for a response. Whoa. So it was the same app I used. Whatever this guy was selling, it was super popular. The most messages I’d ever received on there was when I gave stuff away for free. I bet he was doing just that.
I wish I could say that I put it back in the drawer and went about my business the rest of the day─ and to be fair I had the first hour or so. But the messages just kept coming.
Every few seconds triing.
It was really getting under my skin and at the same time peaking my curiosity. Over a thousand messages waiting for you, and still counting. What the hell was he offering?
OK, I reasoned. Maybe I just take a little peek.
I pulled down on the screen and then tapped the app. To my surprise, it logged in. The tab for messages was at the bottom and I shamelessly opened the top one.
Is this still available?
??
Hello?
I squinted at the thumbnail. It was pale flesh colored and looked folded up. From the image, I couldn’t exactly make out what it was.
Well, I had gotten this far.
I tapped on the picture and waited as it pulled it up.
It appeared to be a jumbled mess. I still couldn’t make sense of what I was seeing. It looked like a piece of furniture straight out of a Halloween shop. The feet looked like they were made of actual feet. The rest of the─ chair? Was made out of various body parts all sewn together. For reference, the seller stood next to it and you could see him from the neck down. I recognized the same shirt he had worn into our store.
OK.
Not what I was expecting, but couldn’t be what all the messages were about. Disgusted, I clicked on the messages again.
The next photo was more disturbing than the last. I retched and quickly closed the picture.
Holy. Shit.
This guy was fucked up. I needed to call the police right away.
You bet your ass I was going to, until this next part.
I had my phone in my hand, when it went off. First, it rang.
I do what I always do when I don’t recognize the number─ I rejected the call.
Big mistake.
My phone shut itself off. I mean, straight away. It was like by rejecting that call, I shut off the power instead.
I nearly jumped out of my skin when the store phone rang. I was shaking, but put my game face on and picked up the phone.
“Thank you for calling─”
“Why didn’t you pick up the phone?”
“I’m sorry?”
“Well, you were so enthralled by my apps and going through my private messages but you couldn’t pick up your phone?”
“Jesus.”
“Yes, I suspect you’ll pray to him soon enough.”
“You’re a piece of shit, and I’m going to call the police. Right fucking now.”
“Are you?”
I swallowed a few times in confusion. “What the fuck is wrong with you man? That’s a little kid. That’s so fucked.”
He laughed at me. He actually laughed at me. The kind of laugh that makes you think they know something that you don’t.
“I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that you touched my phone with your bare hand. I’m also going to take a guess that all the cameras in your store don’t work.”
I was completely silent. He had me there. But it didn’t change the fact that this was his phone, with his info stored on it. All of it was stupid, he was just trying to scare me.
“Fuck you. You don’t have shit on me” I shouted.
He paused and then chuckled. “Call the police, Richard. Go ahead.”
The line went dead.
Shaken, I replaced the phone back on the cradle. What the fuck was going on? He wanted me to call the cops. Told me to. He knew my name. I glanced down at my shirt and then sighed in relief. I’m a fucking idiot, my name was on my shirt.
I was going to nail this asshole. The cops would take me seriously, it’s not like I would call the police on myself if I were guilty. I felt sick to my stomach as I heard the cute jingle going off repeatedly. How old did these people think that child was? Chained up like that, covered in─
I bent over to the trash and puked until I couldn’t any more.
First thing’s first. My hands shook hard but I managed to take a few breaths and steady them enough to pick up the phone. I dialed 9 when the phone lit up.
“Call the police, Richard. Go ahead.”
I hung up the phone and picked it up. I’m ashamed and glad that I did. It was a text. A text from someone labeled ‘mom’.
Hey hunnie, I was thinking about making a pizza tonight does that sound good?
My eyebrows creased as I looked at the message again. Mom spelled hunnie that way. My mom.
But this wasn’t my phone. I picked up my own, unlocking the screen. It was still blank. I searched through my apps frantically looking for my Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. I sighed as they popped up. I clicked on my instagram and frowned. It was asking me to login. I tried to select to login with Facebook and sighed in frustration when it said my account wasn’t found.
What the hell?
The phone next to me went off again.
Hey dude,ustill going to come this weekend?
I got the doritos if u can snag some cokes.
The name on the text read JB. His name was Josh, but he’d always hated it and went by JB. We all knew that. I also knew that we were going to have a chill online stream with him, me, and his followers. Fuck.
Fuck this was all wrong.
I grabbed the phone and looked at it again. It was exactly like mine, a black galaxy s8 with a black cover. A black cover with a WW logo on the back just like mine of my favorite super hero. I clicked on app after app, all logged into my accounts with saved passwords from everything.
This guy had every password I ever owned, all logged onto this device under my name─
with my fingerprints.
Oh fuck, oh god. I swear to you guys it wasn’t me and I didn’t.
I couldn’t do that to anyone.
Especially a child.
#
Guess what? I’m back and wish that I had better news.
Yesterday went by uneventful. I still haven’t called the police. There is an image waiting for me on the new phone. I’ve tried texting and calling on my other phone, the one that was mine just yesterday. It just hangs up immediately and telling me that my text messages aren’t going through.
I’ve tried everything from resetting it (even factory resetting) and turning it off, and then on. Even weirder is the fact that I can’t download anything on it, even on wifi. It’s like the thing all of a sudden bricked. I think I’m going to go ahead and get a new one later today after my shift.
Since last night until this morning the messages haven’t stopped. I told you guys earlier that if I attempt to uninstall the app, it starts appearing in my email. I mean, full messages with images and all. I glanced through a few of them and quickly deleted them all.
I’ve changed every single one of my passwords, my bank account, all of my social media accounts, and got a new phone number. I was a little late coming in today because of it.
Did you just read that? I said I changed my phone number and all of my accounts.
That’s why I thought I had escaped this.
Until I pulled into the parking lot less than ten minutes ago.
tirring
I couldn’t believe it. Could. Not. The messages started pouring in again, one after the other just like before.
Who in the actual fuck is this guy and how is he transferring my stuff over like this?
I had this all figured out. I was going to attempt to do my research tonight so I could have a solid leg to stand on when I called the police. But the more I’ve asked people, the more they let me know it was in my best interest to just start my life over and not mention it.
I’m so torn. I want to do the right thing, but how can I when I know that it will mean years of convincing juries otherwise? And some definite jail time for me while proving my innocence. Even if I don’t get jail time, I’ll spend years of my life in and out of courtrooms. No one will believe me. I’ll be labeled a serial killer, or worse maybe a pedophile. I haven’t looked at more of the pictures, but the ones I did see were enough to lock me or anyone away forever.
All that blood.
This next part I’m sharing with you─ the one that made me lose the contents of my stomach─ well, you probably should stop reading this. Now.
My hands can’t stop shaking. I can’t make those images go away, I have to tell someone.
What I’m about to share with you, you can’t un-see. So just be warned, reader. I gave you a warning, so this next part is on you.
Those poor children. They are being forced, they have to be. God knows what else has happened. They’re all skin stretched over bone. The look on their faces. I don’t mean to be crude, but I can’t find any other way to relate to what their eyes show─ have you ever seen someone that has just died? Or maybe a junkie that has OD’d? Their eyes have this really weird glaze over them, like a film. I only know because my father OD’d on heroine and then later died. His eyes looked the same, moments before he stopped breathing.
This child in the photo had that very same look. The same eyes. The eyes just before death. They were covered, and I mean covered, in blood and─ parts. Human parts.
It gets worse. Remember, I tried to tell you not to look at this.
Some of those parts were large, they looked like they belonged to an adult. Then there were─smaller chunks. Please, don’t make me say it. Fucking christ. It was other children.
Do you know why that child was covered in blood?
I want you to think long and hard about starving. Really starving. Like the kind that will leave you desperate to ingest dirt or bugs, literally anything that gets near you. That is the level of thin this poor child looked.
Not only were they covered in who knows how many other parts of any known age, I haven’t gotten to the reason for not getting any sleep last night, or eating anything since then. It’s all I can think about─ all I can see. I mean, this is really messed up.
The child was also eating itself.
I can’t stop crying, I don’t know how I’m going to make it through work today. I know tomorrow is my day off, so if I can just pull through this six hour shift, I can have a whole day to do something. I’ve heard of reverse image searching, so I know if someone has ever posted from this image address it might show up again. Right? Maybe give me an idea of where this guy is located. I mean, that’s how it works I think. I could be horribly dumb or wrong, but I think it can find it if it’s been posted before.
If I can somehow prove that this has been done before my social media or emails were created (and I suspect he must have been doing it for a long time) maybe I have a snowball’s chance in hell to prove this was all being pinned on me.
I’m grasping at straws and I know it.
#
I finished my work day somehow. He hasn’t messaged, or called me anymore. I still haven’t had the courage to look at that image. That text message with the ‘?’ on it and ‘image attached I told all of you about earlier. I don’t think I have the heart or the stomach to see what this psycho has prepared for me. Or what he’s doing in my name, on my accounts.
I’ve mostly grown immune to all the vibrations in my pocket throughout the day. I don’t trust throwing it out in case he’s watching me, but I don’t want to destroy it because it’s evidence. I’m still clinging to some belief in human compassion. Maybe people will believe me.
But even as I think it, I know they won’t. I have to actually prove they exist somewhere I can’t get to. I could get lucky, he might be another state away.
#
I’m sitting at my computer at home now when I discover the truth.
He isn’t in another state, neither are they, and I now know that I am unequivocally fucked.
In fact, it could be a neighbor for all I know. It’s in the same fucking area as my house. And I’ve only managed to reverse image search two of the pictures. The one’s that I’d already seen.
How long has this been going on? Has he been watching me this whole time?
I’m beginning to wonder if it isn’t me doing all of this and if I even believe myself at this point.
#
It’s my day off and now I have something else to worry about. My mother is missing, she never came home last night.
Her job called earlier asking if she was coming in. I didn’t even know they had the landline number.
I always thought it was strange that we were probably one of the few families that actually still had one.
I was a little worried when she didn’t show last night since we had planned to have a pizza and watch a movie. I didn’t get too worried since she’s a nurse and sometimes has to work odd shifts. She also gets shit reception, so a missed text wasn’t really that big of a deal.
Not coming home the next day, or showing up for a shift? Big deal. My mother is the sort of woman that hasn’t missed a shift since the 90s. Pretty sure she isn’t going to mess up that track record.
I don’t want to admit it, but I’m pretty sure me ignoring that image has everything to do with this. He isn’t going to stand for being ignored. Apparently, I didn’t learn this the first time I didn’t answer his call.
I’ll admit it, I thought this could have been a prank. Somewhere in the back of my mind I was thinking this had to be JB doing some stunt for his Youtube. He’s pranked me before. I grew sort of suspicious after the reverse image search showed up in my neighborhood and my phone was bricked. I thought maybe he had put my phone as the ‘new phone’ and maybe gave me a bricked phone.
Though admittedly, he’s not really a genius and he wouldn’t do something as disgusting as this. Denial has been strong in me since all of this is happened. I’m looking for any way possible way to not have a choice in this.
I know it’s shameful, but I don’t want this kind of responsibility. I didn’t ask for it. Why did this asshole pick me?
He’s forcing me every step of the way and by ignoring him, I’m just pissing him off.
Now my mother is suffering for my own ignorance. It’s one thing if it’s me, but she doesn’t need to be hurt because of it. That woman does everything for me. She has since my Dad decided that drugs were better than his family.
Now I’m getting mad. Mostly I’m confused, but my anger is slowly mounting at the sheer arrogance of this asshole. OK, squeamish or not, I’m going to have to look through more of these photos and reverse image search these. Maybe they’ll give me some kind of clue. Maybe they’ll give me something.
My answer was another text message. I knew better than to ignore it this time.
I snatched it up and opened the message.
Maybe you’ll do better at not ignoring me this time,it read.
There was an image above it. I recognized the chair immediately and my mother’s favorite pair of sandals. I clicked the image and braced myself.
She looked better than I thought she would, the only thing I noticed was a few small bruises by her left eye and a thin trickle of blood from her head. But her eyes were closed, which meant he had hit her hard enough to make her unconscious. My mom wasn’t super old, but I knew that a head injury on a woman that was nearing her 50’s to not be a good thing.
I’m so angry, I’m barely able to respond but I take a few breaths and type,
Alright, you have my attention. What do you want?
His response? A single smile emoji. Seconds go by, and then minutes. I’m to the point that I’ve chewed off all of my fingernails and even drew a little blood before the next message sends.
1309 David St, come through the side gate, bring no one.
Enter the back door and sit at the kitchen table.
Put your hands on the table, and do not move.
If you call the police, I will kill her and then I will kill you.
#
Fuck, you guys. I’m actually doing it. I know it’s got to be a trap, I mean, it has to be. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that this man is going to do exactly as he says he will. Even if I do manage to call the police, he will kill her. Then, who knows how long until it’s me. I have the sinking feeling that if he is able to do as much as he has with the phone he’s given me, he’ll easily be able to brick and delete everything on it.
I would be the prime suspect in all of it and he wins, again. He knows that I’m at his mercy, he is toying with me and I can’t do anything about it. I may be on my way to my death, but I do exactly as he says.
#
My hands are resting on the table. There’s a strange odor that’s filled the house. It doesn’t smell bad, in fact, it smells absolutely delicious. The room smelled like something similar to a chicken pot pie. I could smell flour, carrots, onion, maybe some─ I sniff at the air again─ garlic? And there was another smell, like a rich and creamy smell. It was heavenly, and despite what I had been through in the last 48 hours my stomach audibly growled. I guess it had been a while since I’d actually eaten anything.
“Richard, I’m so glad that you could make it.”
His voice sounded different than I expected. I expected it to creep me out, or make my skin crawl. It was pleasant, like an older gentleman that was talking to an old friend. I immediately stared down at the table, careful to not look over at him. He was standing in the doorway.
“Oh now,” he tutted, “there’s no reason for that. You can look at me, I won’t harm you.”
I kept my eyes glued to the table, sure that this was some kind of trick. I’m really thrown by this nice guy act. He sounds genuine, like he really wants to be nice to me. My stomach twists in knots.
“Really, I won’t do you any harm. I just wanted to chat.”
“And, my mom?” I stutter.
“I promise I won’t harm her if you look at me. I prefer to look in your eyes. You can tell a lot about a man by looking him in the eyes. I prefer it.” His words were friendly, but there was an unspoken warning there. “You are a man, aren’t you Richard?” Now he’s insulting my manhood, but it’s his other words that lead me to think that I should listen. Not the insult.
I nod and tilt my head up and then stare right into his eyes.
I was right, he’s older but not super old. His eyes are kind, large and a pale shade of blue. He’s got creases just around his eyes, the kind of wrinkles you get from years of smiling and easy living. He’s dressed in a blue polo with khaki shorts and brown loafers. He looks the epitome of a well-off dad that just got back from the store. His hair has grayed a bit near his temples and he has a slender, yet masculine jawline. He doesn’t look particularly strong, but you can tell he keeps himself in shape.
It’s what’s in his hands that intrigue me. Two bowls with equal looking pies and forks sticking out.
He pads over and sets them on the table, scooting the one from his right hand to me.
My stomach rumbles again as the smell reaches my nose. It smells so damn good. I eye it warily as he digs into his own. After eating a couple of bites from his, he sighs, sticks the fork into mine and takes a scoopful into his mouth.
“Eat, Richard. You’re going to need your strength,” he says soothingly.
I don’t really want to, but I know this is part of his game. Control, power─ These sort of guys thrive off of it.
I stare down at the golden crust and smooth, creamy soup-like filling. Despite it all, he’s right. I do need to eat.
He smiles, raising his eyebrows and leans in, “don’t be shy, it’s homemade. None of that store-bought junk here. Made it just last night, popped it in the freezer and baked it a little while ago.” He stuffed some more in his mouth, “You’ll love it, I promise. It’s my mama’s recipe, she won best-in-state with this a few years ago.”
I picked up the fork and cut into the crust, there was an audible crunch as I scooped it out. He wasn’t joking about the flavor. The crust was perfectly flaky and buttery and the inside was creamy and smooth. It might have been that I was hungry, but this had been the best meat pie I’d ever eaten.
He smiled over at me, “how does it taste?”
I’m still baffled by him, but I nod, “it’s good.” I scoop more into my mouth, “really good,” I add.
He’s all grins from ear to ear and slaps the table, “see? You thought I was fibbing, didn’t you?” He leans over his own and shovels a bit more.
I grin nervously and relax a degree, looking around. I hope he hasn’t harmed mom too much. I don’t know what this man is planning or what he wants to do with me, but I know that I know too much.
I swallow a few times, take a breath and start my plea, “Please, don’t hurt her because of me─”
“Let’s not talk business over food, now, this is sacred,” he interrupts angrily. “People these days, they don’t understand about hunger. You can walk down the street and see the obesity.” He clicks his tongues a few times, “they raise their own damn kids the same way. Oh─” he covers his mouth, “please excuse my obscenities, that wasn’t very gentlemanly of me.”
I nod, shaking my head up and down like an idiot. As if he needs my permission. “Although, you’ve got a bit of a mouth on you too, don’t you young man?” He asks. I nod again. He eyes my fork hovering over my bowl, long enough that I get the point and quickly spoon some more into my mouth.
His easy smile returns and his face relaxes. I eat quietly, my eyes returning to the table. I thought about what it was he was saying, a knot of dread forming in my own stomach. My own mother was pretty heavy set for her height, she looked like she could have been close to two hundred pounds and was always fussing about losing weight. She’d tried different diets over the years, but would constantly sabotage herself and eat candy or cookies. I think she gave up some time ago.
So he didn’t like people that took food for granted, or over-ate. Was this why we were being targeted? I’m not thin as a rail, but I was nowhere near heavy.
“Most parents I get don’t deserve their children. They take care of themselves, you see,” he says. “I have to teach those children and parents a lesson about not taking life for granted. He leans back and finishes the last bite of his food. He neatly dabs at his mouth with the napkin, sets it down and then crosses his arms.
I’m about halfway done with my own when I finally get to the meat. The veggies had been extremely delicious, but the meat─ it was unlike anything I’d ever had. It was moist, yet firm and fell apart in my mouth. It had sort of a game-y flavor, but it wasn’t bad, I could tell it had been marinated or possibly pressure cooked to make it juicy.
“Well now, you’ve made it to the best part,” he chuckles. “That is a secret family recipe right there. Mama was so hung up on it, she’d never tell any of us.” He sighed and brushed at invisible crumbs on his pants, “except me.”
I nodded, trying not to say anything that would upset him more. Until just a few moments ago, you’d think this guy was just some pig-headed old man stuck in his ways. I know the reality behind his snake-like southern charm and the anger that really seethed below.
I want to get out of here. I want him to spit it out and tell me how I can save my mother, whatever he wants. I’d even kill if I had to. Not like my life isn’t already ruined. After several long minutes I finish the last of the pie. I follow suit and clean off my face and hands, then sit with my hands folded and wait.
He surprises me by extending his hand, “there’s a good boy. Alright now, go on and say your peace.”
There’s a large lump in my throat and I’m sure he can see me visibly shaking. He knows I’m scared, he knows he has me. Secretly he must be jumping for joy at the chance to watch me squirm. I want answers. I want to know why me, why all of this and why he has chosen to ruin my life. I’m just some guy trying to get by. I want to ask all of this, but I can tell he’s testing me and that I’m going to have to do this his way.
“What do you want from me?” I ask. I try to sound as non-threatening as I can, hoping to appeal to some form of his human side. If he has one.
He smiles at me again, but this time it’s another sort of smile. One that makes me believe that he already has what he’s looking for. Then, as if reading my own thoughts he says, “Oh, I’ve already gotten that. You see Richard, I’ve been doing this for a very, very long time. I’ll do it again once you’ve left, and I’ll get away with it.” He paused, inching closer, “Don’t try to find me, don’t be brave and just live what life you have left to. You’re free to go on about your way.” I sit very still, staring across at him.
“What do you mean? What about my mother?”
His grin gets wider. “She’s here, don’t you worry.” It’s not what he said, but how he’s said it. Like a game he’s playing with a child who doesn’t yet understand the rules.
He leans in real close, so close that I can smell his breath. It lingers in the air, the sweet smell of carrots, potatoes, and the delicious meat.
“Tell me again, Richard. How did you enjoy the meat pie?”
─To Be Continued? Maybe. The killer is still out there.
❤ Grey
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My Family is Falling Apart – Part II

I wave goodbye to Karis after dropping her off at her new class. It’s been two days since she last went. I had taken what happened Monday to be a sign that both of us needed a break. I didn’t press too much, but I had a long chat with her about keeping what happened to herself. Especially for the other children and teachers. I don’t like telling my daughter to lie but in this case, it is best that we lie to everyone─ including ourselves. I left that last bit out, of course, an eight-year-old doesn’t need to learn the depressing truths of adulthood just yet.

I’m not even sure what is going on. The last two days have been quiet, no real incidents or weird indoor rain clouds. Just thinking that should be enough to make me feel stupid. Indoor rain clouds. What’s next, gnomes, faeries or maybe the boogeyman? Karis has been spending the night with me. As a parent, I know I really shouldn’t be feeding her fear─ she needs to see reason and logic. Unfortunately, there is no reason behind what has happened. I even got paranoid about it possibly be carbon monoxide poisoning and changed our detector. No luck, no explanation, so I’m relying on the loss of sleep and added stress theory. We’ve both been playing games, watching shows and movies. It was a nice staycation, but it is time to get back to reality.

Traffic is incredibly light today. I pull into the parking garage with 30 minutes to spare. I can’t remember the last time it’s happened. I sigh, my shoulders falling as I walk to the stairs. For once I can sit, read the news and enjoy a cup of coffee before the work day begins.

#

“Tom?”

I look up as she peeks around my office door. “Hey, Carroll what’s up?” I ask. She inches her way into the space, nervously looking around. Carroll was one of those sorts that always looks guilty, even when they’ve done nothing wrong. With her brown hair and slight frame, I’m always reminded of a mouse or rat. Her voice is soft, sometimes it’s hard to hear. “I was wondering if I could have the rest of the day off?” I blinked a few times up at her and then looked over at the clock. It was barely eleven. “Everything ok?” She looks stunned for a moment, then drops her gaze to the floor.

“You…can’t ask that.” I blink a few more. She’s right, I didn’t think of that. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to pry, I was just concerned is all.” Carroll doesn’t react, just shuffles her feet a little and hugs herself. Something is definitely wrong. When she stands in silence, I realize she is waiting for me to approve her time off. My next sentence comes out stilted and awkward, “yes, of course, you may. Take all the time─” she’s out the door before I can finish and the words die in my throat.

In all the years we’ve worked together, I’ve never seen her so upset. I stand and walk across the hallway and then through the small door that leads into her office. An odor immediately hits me, strong and sour. I cover my mouth and nose, searching the room for the source of the smell. Everything is pristine as usual, it’s spotless, so where on earth is that vile smell coming from? I open each of her drawers, scan the desk, and open her cabinets.

“What are you doing?” I jump and spin around. Carroll is blocking the doorway, her eyes rimmed in red. As I get a closer look at her face, I realize she looks terrible. Her features are tired and drawn, her skin a sallow color. Like she hasn’t slept in days. “Do you smell that?” She inhales sharply, her hand coming up and hanging awkwardly as she points in my direction. “You smell it?” I furrow my brows, “Of course, it’s awful. What is that?” She lets out a long sigh, her shoulders sagging. “Oh thank god,” she says, “I thought I was going crazy.”

I walk over to the trash. “Don’t bother,” she whispers. I stop mid-bend and look over my shoulder, “What do you mean?” Carroll shakes her head, “You won’t find the source. I’ve looked everywhere─ even had maintenance go above me to see if a rat had died in the ceiling.” A rat.  I look across at her and she suddenly is aware of me. She wraps herself in a hug, looking over at the glowing monitor.

She looks even more mouse-like as her eyes widen in fear. An overwhelming stench fills the space. It’s so strong I feel like I’m going to vomit, it’s putrid─ rotten. Carroll covers her face and steps back into the hallway. Her eyes water, “please, get out.” I look over at her sudden angry outburst. “Wha─” “Get. Out.” she repeats slowly. I walk from the room, “listen, I’ll have someone take a look at that, you take the day off, ok?” She barely hears me, her eyes staring at the dark space. “Carroll─” she jumps, “stay away from me,” she snaps. I’m stunned into silence. I’ve never seen her behave this way. She spins on her heel and bolts away.

 

#    

 

“Daddy?” I look up from my meal, wondering how long I’ve been staring at my food. Karis’s plate is empty. “What is it, honey buns?” I ask.  Her lips purse and she scrunches her eyebrows together. She looks so much like Jen right now it hurts. It’s the look she gave me when I brought work home. “Does your tummy hurt? You didn’t eat.” I shake my head, “no, baby girl, I’m just worried about your mom.” Her eyebrows go up “why?” she asks, “did you guys fight again?” Then quietly she adds, “is it about me?”

I stare across at this girl that is now definitely on the path to adulthood too soon and wonder if this is what causes it. I’ve never experienced divorce, well, except for my own, but not in life. Kids always called me sheltered. I look at the ground and frown, this is probably what they meant. “No, honey. I haven’t heard from mommy in almost a week. That worries me, doesn’t that worry you?” I’m shocked when she starts laughing. “Daddy, don’t fib to me─ are you playing a trick?” I look up at her face, it’s crinkling near her eyes and her eyes are sparkling. It’s the kind of look a child gets just before you’re about to bring out the tickle monster and they scream, ‘nooo don’t!’ but always stay just within your reach.

She really does think this is just a game. Some secret family joke. I can’t tell if she is in denial or really just believes─ I pause mentally. “Karis, have you heard from mama?” She laughs harder. “Daddy, you’re silly.” “Karis.” I snap in that no-nonsense adult speech we all somehow master. She stops laughing but the glint is still in her eyes. There’s something she’s not telling me. “Why are you asking me? You’re the one that told me mommy is picking me up this weekend.” My jaw drops and I fight the urge to yell, the audacity of this girl lately. “Karis, you know that’s not true. Why are you lying?”

Her lips pressed together and her chin raises, “I am not lying.” she sputters. “Your phone went off last night and you answered. Mama said that she would be here Friday to come and pick me up. And you said─” “Alright if you want to continue with this,” I reach into my pocket and remove my phone. I swipe across the screen and go into my recent calls. It’s the second time tonight my jaw comes unhinged.

She isn’t lying.

I pour through my text messages. There are dozens of new messages between Jenna and me. There’s even one from this morning telling her about Carroll’s strange behavior. Then another message about confirming her picking Karis up at 6 p.m. tomorrow night. “What the fuck,” I say out loud.

Karis gasps, “Oooo. Daddy that’s a no-no word” she whispers. I sigh, “I’m sorry, baby. I guess I forgot about mommy talking with me.” I press my fingers over the bridge of my nose. The pressure feels good, reassuring. What like you aren’t losing your damn mind? I shake my head and try not to fall apart. Karis scoots her floor across the chair and walks over to me.

I feel her little arms wrap around my body and her gentle squeeze. “It’s ok daddy, I get confused sometimes too.” She pauses, “especially with reading─ the words jumble funny. I don’t like them.” She backs away and puts one arm behind her back and then one up to her mouth, nervously biting at the nail. “Does that happen to you?”

I melt at her innocent words. She is trying to make me feel better the only way she knows how. I wish adults were this sincere, it would solve so many of my problems. “Yes, baby it does. It does to everyone that first starts. Speaking of which, go run and do your homework.” She pouts and chews on her nail more, her shoulders slumping. “Now, Karis. I mean it,” I say. She sulks the whole way, but I hear her grab her backpack and go into her room.

I wait until I’m sure she will actually be focused on her work before I slip outside and dial the number. Please pick up, I pray silently. The phone rings a second time, and then a third. By the fourth ring, I’m about to hang up when a sharp click sounds. There’s a brief silence and then shuffling.

“Jen?”

She doesn’t answer. Maybe the connection is bad. “Jenna? Can you hear me?” I ask, worried that maybe she’s in the middle of a surgery. But, if that were true she wouldn’t have her phone on her. It isn’t allowed in the room while she’s working. Maybe she pocket answered. I listen to see if I can hear any rustling or a swoosh.

A long breath of air blows across the microphone, it sounds like a sigh. “Jen, are you on mute? I heard a sigh is that you? If you said anything, I didn’t hear it.” Click.

Click

Click

Click

Click

Click

Click

Click

Click

Click

Cli─ “Tom?”

I jump, then sag and let out a huge sigh of relief, “Oh thank god” I whisper. “What’s that? What’s going on?” Her voice sounds extremely tired like I’ve woken her. I pull the phone away and look at the time. Shit. She normally wakes up in an hour for her shift. Now I feel like even more of an asshole.            

“I’m so sorry to wake you, Jen. I just needed to hear your voice.” I instantly regret saying that. I know what she’s going to say.

“Tom─” she sighs, “Nevermind. Are you OK? Is this about Carroll?” I shake my head and then feel dumb, she can’t see me, “no, no just listen OK?” I know how crazy it’s going to sound, I know it isn’t true, but I feel like the right thing to do right now is be honest. Jenna is a doctor first, she’ll listen and tell me what I should do.

Am I safe to even be around Karis? My mind starts wondering what else has been going on while I took a mental vacation from life. I don’t like it, but I tell her everything─ Karis’s troubles at school, the otherworldly cloud visiter, and the missing timelines and not remembering that we had texted or called.

She’s silent for a few seconds. “Have you told anyone else about this?” “No, no one. You know how bad that would look?” My shoulders droop as the weight of the last few days leaves my body. “Besides, who the hell would believe me?” I hear a click on the other end and some rustling. She must have turned on her bedside lamp. “Honey, I love you, but you have got to start taking care of yourself. Stop worrying about me and everyone else.”

Even when I just told her something that I’d convinced myself was a mental breakdown, she still has that focus and pragmatic nature I love. She is thinking just like me, knowing that I must be under a lot of pressure. There is nothing about this woman that is horrible, no flaws, she handles herself and others so well. That’s what is making this all so hard, I can’t be angry when she’s so level-headed. How can I yell when she makes perfect sense? It was between her words that she wanted me to read, not what she was actually saying.

It’s a way for her to say that I needed to get sleep, eat, get mental rest from work and life. I haven’t given myself enough time to heal. “I’m sorry,” I mutter, “I know you have a life now─ a new one and I keep screwing it up.” She sighs on the other end, but it’s a candid one and somehow gentler.

“You honestly think I’m doing this because I want to?” She’s awake now, there’s no trace of grogginess. She has my full attention. This is news to me, after all, she was the one that filed for a divorce. “What do you mean?” I ask hopefully. “Tom, I’m not doing this right now.” I pace in the kitchen. I’m edging dangerously close to feeling optimistic. I want to ground myself, but it’s no use─ the words just fly out, “Jen, what is all this? Why are you doing this to us?” I hear her sniff on the other side, it’s a wet sniff, she must be crying.

Now I’m really confused. If she didn’t want all of this, why the insistence, why the new place, why any of this? At first, I thought what any newly divorced man thinks─ another man. But after a while, I realized that wasn’t it at all. There would have been plenty of signs, Karis would have seen him by now or hear her mommy talking with him.

“You know why.” her voice is really wavering, a cross between frustrated and sad. I instantly feel guilty. I have no idea why, I haven’t done anything, but her crying is something I’ve never been invulnerable to. I take a long breath in and then exhale. Ok, she is on one of her manic bouts. She probably thinks that we have talked about this before. I calm myself down before speaking.

“Honey, I really don’t. I’m sorry if we talked about this before, but I really don’t remember.” The tears start coming on the other end. She sputtering and sniffing, she sounds really upset. I wait patiently as she collects herself on the line. This is the first time I’ve really heard her get upset, well to this degree. The last time was the day that she left me.

“Tom, I really can’t do this right now. I have less than an hour to my shift.” I sigh, glancing up at the clock. She’s right, but it’s awful timing. If it weren’t for the hour, I would assume she is purposely avoiding me. Would it really matter? I think bitterly. It’s over, and she won’t even tell you why.  That’s not fair, but I need to feel that right now to separate myself emotionally. “Alright, I get it. We’ll see you tomorrow.” She hangs up and I’m the idiot that’s still sitting here and staring at the screen.

#

Karis giggles as we pull up to the building. I stare for several moments from the parking lot. “Wow daddy, it’s like a castle” Karis squeals as she jumps up and down in the back seat. She isn’t kidding. I can’t believe places like this actually exist. I frown, realizing that while I make well over a hundred thousand, it’s nowhere near what Jen makes. I gape at the brickwork and tall iron gates, being a specialist definitely has its perks.

I open the passenger side door and gather Karis’s bags. A whole week away is going to be torture for me. Being a dad is really all that I know. I swallow thickly as I cross over to Karis’s door. I knew it was coming, I had gotten her a whole extra week during the transition of Jen getting a new place. I frown at the extravagance. This isn’t her, maybe she is going through something too. I’ve never known her to get something over $1200 a month─ which was tough in this city, but she had a way of negotiating.

This isn’t just a normal loft─ town-home? I squint at the windows, there are several bay windows, paired off in two’s and then a ten-foot gap between them. These have to be lofts, a town-home would have an entrance on the ground facing the main road and all I see is one entrance and a main roll-up garage door.

Still, these have to run at least three grand a month, we’re barely five minutes from the main city and that’s with traffic. No way she isn’t spending twice our mortgage on this place, I don’t even need to see what the inside of it looks like.

The weird part is this place is new─ it has to be, and yet the bricks look authentic, like something you would have seen in the early twentieth century. I can almost hear the blend of weird car horns and horse-drawn carriages. I glance around feeling incredibly uneasy. Where are the other people? I haven’t spotted a single car since we’ve pulled up. It’s Friday night and we are barely one street over from the main bars and restaurants. Where is everyone?

Karis’s door swings open and she peeks out her little head, “Did you get lost, daddy?” I crack a smile, “har-har” I say. I reach into the car and tickle under her arms and belly. Her giggles are like music to my ears. “OK, OK, I give!” she yells between gasps of air. Man, I’m going to miss this bundle of fun.

#

Jenna looks absolutely stunning and she’s not even trying. I swear she is getting younger, just last week she looked like she was in her late twenties─ she doesn’t look a day over 23. I always thought blue looked really great on her, there’s something about the way her hair looks against it, but these clothes seem like they were made just for her. It’s just a shirt over tights but somehow she manages to make it look like an evening gown.

“Hey Jen,” I say, hating how shy I sound. I’m 42 years old for christ’s sake. “Hey” she replies warmly. There’s something in her eyes as they linger on mine. I can’t help but respond, my body growing warm and heart racing. She bends down to Karis balancing on her legs. “Hey honey-bunny, you want to run upstairs and check out your new room?” Karis squeals again and tears up the stairs.

I shake my head. “Man, I wish I had a tenth of that energy. I’d get so much done.” Jen laughs leading me toward the stairs. “Right? I’d kill for that some days.” That gets a real laugh out of me, “Hun have you seen yourself? I have never seen any woman look as good as you at 39.” Her laughing stops and she pauses near the top of the staircase, “Looks can be deceiving.”

I’m confused by her sudden moment of silence. Had I offended her?

A scream sounds from down the hall─ it’s long and loud, really loud.

 

Conclusion coming soon! xoxo – C.A.