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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.

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My Family is Falling Apart – A Short Story

Part I:

 

“Jenna”

She pauses, her back turned to me. Her shoulders are drooped more than usual, her frame wispy. She’s so light this time it looks as if a large gust of wind would knock her down.

She sighs and then turns around, leaning on the brick outside of the door. Her breathing is labored like she had just run from the house. She had only dropped off our little girl in her bed and used the restroom. She was winded walking from the bathroom to the front door. Now I’m really worried.

“Are you taking your medication?” Her features stay in that mask she wears when she can’t talk about her feelings, smooth, and lifeless. “Yes,” she answers, her tone taking on the same emotionless effect. A few seconds of silence pass before she makes eye contact with me. Her eyebrows raise as if to say, ‘anything else?’

Jenna is every bit as stunning as the day we had promised each other forever. Her smooth, creamy skin hasn’t changed and I’ve never seen her have a bad hair day. Her blonde hair has a slight wave to it and if you catch it in the sun it has bits of red. Strawberry blonde, I think I overheard one of her friends call it once. She’s always had one of those small frames, even after Karis was born. She just bounced back into her pre-maternity clothes no problem. Secretly, I think many ladies envy her for it.

Even now, with her face lacking emotion her beauty can’t be hidden. It’s always been a mystery to me, how she’s stayed looking youthful all these years. She’s pushing 40 and hasn’t aged a day since we met. I don’t mean that in an emotional sort of way that a husband sees a wife as beautiful at every age, I mean I’ve tried to find any sign of it and damned if I haven’t found any. I know that’s a thing men aren’t supposed to notice, or I guess be happy over─ but it’s just always struck me as odd. You know?

Well, I say wife. I’m still not used to this next part. She’s going to leave, head back home to her place near downtown. She got a job working at Baylor. Which was both good and bad. It meant long hours and being on-call at any time of the day. Why she chose to be a trauma surgeon, I’ll never know. The horrors she sees, I can only imagine.

The divorce finalized earlier this year. Ten years gone, I can’t believe it. It’s my worst nightmare.

Karis mostly stays with me. We decided given her mother’s hectic schedule, it would be best that she have a stable environment for home and school. It wasn’t traditional, but it worked. I can’t remember wanting to be anything other than a husband and a father. It is my life goal. I don’t really buy into that ‘ball and chain’ nonsense, never have. I’ve loved every step of the way.

 

Well, except this part.

 

Her face draws up into a tired smile, one of those forced ones she gives all of her patients when she has just pulled an eighteen-hour shift. It isn’t that she doesn’t mean them, it’s that her body starts to shut down most of the unnecessary functions. Such as excess of emotions. I’ve seen this woman shut down in mid-cry with razor-sharp focus and attentiveness that would rival any politician. It’s an amazing trait to have, I do envy her that.

Without realizing what I am doing, I place my hand on her shoulder. “Hey, you alright?” I feel her tense slightly, but she doesn’t move from my grip. I’m tempted to hold her, but I do the gentlemanly thing and back away, clearing my throat. Jenna had made it very clear that things were done, no sense in putting myself through all of this a second time. She relaxes and slowly bobs her head up and down. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just tired,” she pauses and then adds, “you know, with the new place and all. Moving and work has been draining.”

I don’t buy it. Not completely, but I know exhaustion when I see it. “Listen, Jen─ don’t drive. If you need me to get you an uber or drive you, let me. I don’t think you should be driving in that state.” She bristles, her chin raising a degree. A bit of her stubbornness flairs, and I’m reminded of the side of her that really turns me on. I know it’s not an appropriate thought, and I quickly flip the switch in my brain. Whoa, boy, shut it down. This venue is closed up for good, windows boarded.

She must sense my hesitation, or something in the way I look. “Who would watch Karis?” Her words are soft, inviting. It reminds me of simpler times. She’s looking up at me with those big doe eyes. I know she isn’t doing it on purpose, I know when she’s trying to seduce. This is different. Then, as quickly as it comes, she turns away and walks over to her small honda civic. I’ll never understand why she doesn’t buy something better, she’s owned that car forever. She easily makes enough to drive anything she wants. Yet, she sticks with this tiny, white car. My guess is she’s saving for an early retirement. Can’t say I blame her, my parents taught me well. I’d only need to put in another 7 to 10 years at most and I’d have enough to retire on. Even if I live to be 150. After that, well, I guess I’m fucked. But I’ll be old as hell and probably shitting myself, so who cares?

She leans on the door for a moment, her hair picked up by the breeze. “Tom, I just want you to know─” she trails off, her brows press together and she bites her lip. I want to be impatient with her, yell and scream and demand to know what’s going on. Problem is, I can’t anymore. I’m no longer entitled to an answer and it kills me inside. I’ve gone from anger to sorrow in seconds, depressing myself. What I want to say is, Spit it out, god damn it! Instead, I smile and say, “What is it, Hun?” Her eyes dart from the house to my face, no doubt looking back at Karis’s window.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers.

Then she’s gone, driving down the road and turning onto the main street. I stand there for a long time. Long after the dust has settled and my neighbors have turned out their lights. All I wanted was to be a husband, a father. Why is that so hard?

“When do I get to see mommy’s new place?” Karis asks. Her legs are dangling from the stool as she stuffs the waxy chocolate donuts into her mouth. I don’t know why those things taste so good to kids. It’s basically solidified fat and sugar. The film on your teeth is the worst. I don’t let her have them too often but today was the first day back to school and I wanted her to have something comforting.

Karis, much like myself at her age, is showing all the signs I did. She has bad anxiety. Yay genetics.

I can tell she’s already dreading school, her face falling as I usher her along to finish her breakfast. I can’t believe she starts 3rd grade this year. Seems like yesterday I was chasing a bouncing, squealing kiddo running in her diapers. I frown as I check my watch. Jenna was supposed to be here 20 minutes ago. Normally, Jen would have Karis giggling and forgetting about her first day jitters, excitedly telling her how much fun she’s going to have for the year. She was famously a few minutes late, but never this much. If she didn’t get here soon, I’d have to leave without her. This wasn’t like her at all. She always made time for Karis. Especially on the first day of school. It was a tradition for all of us to walk with Karis hand-in-hand to class and wish her a good day.

10 more minutes go by and I can’t wait much longer. I text her one last time, hoping that maybe she had slept in, or that she would respond with an immediate apology, explaining herself. Then a full 5 minutes go by, and then 7. This time, I really can’t wait anymore. For the first time ever, Jenna will miss Kara’s first day at school. I look over to Karis as she downs the last of her milk and smile, “You ready honey bunny?” She grins ear-to-ear at the nickname and nods her head.

I blow Karis a kiss from the hallway as she sits at her desk. She’s already chatting with a girl across from her and laughing. I recognize the girl from Karis’s 1st-grade class a few years back. Glad to see that Karis has already found a friend. Maybe it’s true what they say, kids are simple and they don’t think about things as much as we do. She seems to be adjusting just fine in her new desk, all smiles, and semi-toothless grins. I stare at her from the hall, she really is a spitting image of her mother. Except for her eyes. Her eyes are green like mine and she’s tall and lanky. Jenna and I would always joke about how Karis would be as tall as her in a few years. It wasn’t an exaggeration. Karis was easily going to reach six feet tall in her teens and she would be strong. Real strong. Every sport we’d put her in, she was number one on the team. I don’t mean to brag, but in this case, she actually is a hardworking kiddo. 

Now if she would apply herself more to reading, we would be all set. I’ve never seen a kid that could melt to the floor the way she can when she has to sit at a table and focus on letters. $1500 dollars and a reading tutor took care of it this past summer, but damn if the girl wasn’t stubborn about it. Took that from her daddy too.

 

I’d almost forgotten about Jenna’s odd behavior as I walk out to my car. Then the rage hits me. How the hell does she promise to be here and never show? How could she do that to Karis? No call, not even a text. At this point, I’m not sure if I should be angry or worried. But in the end, the anger fizzles and worry creeps in. My mind switches back to her face last night and her words. I’m sorry. What was she apologizing about? Was it because she knew she wouldn’t be able to make it this morning? If so, why didn’t she just tell me? I pull my phone from my pocket. It vibrates and I get excited. Maybe this was her. I frown at the text message alerting me that my phone bill has gone through─ and nothing else. What the fuck is going on?

I can’t worry about it too much, so I head into work. I’m hopeful that in the next few hours she’ll call, or text before I really start to freak out.

It’s not too bad of a day and nearly 2:30 when I get the call.

“Mr. Holloway?” the woman croaks. It’s one of those smoker’s voices, the stereotypical kind that you hear in cartoons.

“Yes, speaking,” I respond.

“This is Leslie Smith from Hawthorn Elementary. I’m the school nurse calling about Karis.”

The blood drains from my face. “Is she OK?” I ask. I stride across my office and then shut the door. Best that no one hears something else to give the office gossip. She sighs on the other end, and then is silent for a moment. It’s as if she’s carefully weighing her words. “Karis is fine, no cuts or bruises.” More reluctance and then, “It’s more what happened that really concerns me” she says. “Ma’am?” I’m confused for a moment as to why I’m getting a phone call if Karis isn’t hurt. Then my chest tightens. “Did─ she harm someone else?” I silently hope this isn’t true, it’s the last thing I needed after this day. “Heavens no, that girl is as kind as they come. Never seen her get upset even when she ought to,” the nurse chuckles despite her earlier reservations. “Ms. Smith─” “Mrs. Smith,” she interrupts. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Smith─ if my daughter isn’t harmed and she hasn’t harmed anyone, then what is the nature of this call?” I’m beginning to lose my patience. She’s silent on the other end again, but I can hear her shifting the phone. “Look, maybe it isn’t my place, lord knows I’ve had my fair share of problems, but, Karis said some very strange things today. Is everything OK at home?” I tense up. So, she had been paying attention to what happened this morning. “Well, normally her mother and I walk her in on her first day and her mom never showed” I finish. I feel the heat rising in my cheeks as I finish the sentence, it’s awkward having to say it out loud. “Well, now, that’s exactly what I mean” she sounds genuinely confused. “I’m not following” I say, trying to get her to the point. “Mr. Holloway,” she clears her throat and shifts on the other line. There’s that odd crackling that comes with a landline, they must still be using one of the ancient ones with a cord that connects to the base. “Karis was sent to me today because she asked the teacher if she and mama could go to the restroom together.” I’m still confused and even more so now. “You mean Jenna came up there? What’s wrong with that?” Relief floods my system. So she had finally got up there and had sat in with Karis. The relief is quickly replaced with anger. Why hadn’t she made an attempt to text me or call me back? I had been worried sick.

The silence on the other end makes me rethink my assumption. Something is wrong. I don’t know how I know it, something in the shifting, in Mrs. Smith’s sighs and heavy breath on the other end. My mind swims with the possibilities, but in the end I just ask, “What is it?” The nurse finally speaks at my question, “Mrs. Holloway never came in to see Karis today. As a matter of fact, Karis has been very cross with the staff and all of the other children are, frankly, afraid to go near her. During recess she sat on a bench and talked to an invisible person next to her. The teacher, bless her soul, tried to give the girl the benefit of the doubt─ first day jitters, you know that sort of thing. But as the day has gone on, she still insists on it.” I sit quietly, soaking in what she has just told me. I know Karis might have been upset, but I didn’t realize she was this upset. I am going to have to have a chat with her, see what’s really going on. Finally, I say, “Mrs. Smith. I know if this divorce is hard on me, it’s got to be harder on an eight year old.” I slowly start warming to the thought.

This isn’t some abnormal thing, it’s probably fairly common with children of divorcees. I hate thinking of that word, I hate that it applies to me and I hate even more that it includes her. Another broken family, nothing new─ welcome to America. Suddenly my lunch turns sour in my stomach and I’m unsure if it will stay put. I put on my best reassuring voice, the kind I use with my own mother, “Let me have a chat with her tonight and see what’s really going on.” I hear Mrs. Smith shift again and then a sigh, “See that you do, Mr. Holloway. Dr. Norris thinks that transferring her to a different class would be helpful as well. Children can be quite judgmental, as I’m sure you know. It may be good for a fresh start.” I bristle but the anger gives way to weariness. She’s right, as much as I hate to admit it. It would probably help ease her into the school year. I nod before answering, “I think that would be for the best. You have my permission.” She’s smiling as she says the next part, I can hear it in her voice. It’s forced, but I know it’s out of sheer politeness, she wants me to feel at ease. “I think that’s wise of you, Mr. Holloway. We’ll need you to fill out a transfer file, but we can send it via email. Just be sure to sign it before tomorrow.” “Thank you,” I say, quick to be done with this conversation. “Of course,” she says, then adds “and it’s a real shame to hear about all of your struggles. I hope it gets better for the two of you.” I awkwardly mumble a thank you and then hang up.

#

Karis is all smiles as she rushes up to the car. The crossing guard calls out for her to slow down, but she’s already at the passenger door. I wave and mouth sorry to the portly, scowling woman. She nods curtly, red-faced and then turns back to her duties, guiding the others across. “Daddy!” she gushes as she hops in the front seat. Her bag gets tossed and she reaches for her seat belt. “Let’s go home, I want to play VR!” I laugh at her eagerness. I’m ready to celebrate too, another end to a long work day.

Less than ten minutes later, we’re home dropping our things by the front door. That’s future us’s problem. I adjust the visor and goggles to her small head and then step back, knowing that she’s about to tear up the room on Beat Saber. I shake my head as she starts her latest pop obsession, really getting into the dance. Girl’s got some moves, just like her mama. Then I think about that and frown. I silently send out a warning to any and all potential suitors with a death threat so vile Fidel Castro would cringe at its savagery. I used to feel that way about anyone that looked at Jenna when she rocked Dance Dance Revolution at the mall arcade.

After dinner, I tell Karis to go brush her teeth and change into her jammies. I’ve avoided it all day, but it’s time for the chat. I know it’s probably normal so I make a mental note to not be overly serious, but enough that I get my point across. No one ever tells you about this part of divorce─ the ugly parts where you have to accept and understand how your child processes the inevitable change.

“I’m ready for my story, daddy!” she calls from her room down the hall.

#

“Karis, stop it.” I snap. Her green eyes are brimming with tears as she shakes her head at me. “No. Mommy was there, in class with me. No one else saw her, but she was there.” I let out a long sigh and squeeze the bridge of my nose, closing my eyes. I thought for sure this would play out way easier in real life─ how naive of me. I really want to be an adult about it, but in the end, my tiredness wins. I try a different approach, a more human one, “honey, I know today was tough and we’re going to have a lot of those, but I need you to be honest with me right now. Was mommy really there today, or did you just pretend like she was there?” Her chin raises and she squares up to me, “I am not a liar-liar pants on fire, daddy.” She crosses her arms in a huff and turns toward the wall, her little jaw trembling but held firm. I have to stifle a laugh by moving my hand over my mouth. The only time she ever gets this worked up is when she believes in what she is saying.

This is her truth, and while I don’t believe that her mom was actually there, I know that Karis believes it. After a few moments, I speak carefully, “Sometimes, when we get upset we see things. Things that aren’t really there.” Her shoulders stiffen and she still won’t look at me, but I sense a hesitance. “Daddy, Mama was there.” Her words are so soft, they almost come out a whisper. “Why won’t you believe me? I saw her.” Little droplets spill down her face as she presses her eyes together. I wince as she starts ugly crying, the kind that sends her whole body into shakes, and snot dripping down her mouth and chin. “Shh, shh,” I say, running my fingers across her back. I stand briefly, grab the box of tissues from her desk and then offer them to her. She grabs a handful and blows noisily into them. “I swear,” she says between sniffles, “I’m not making it up. I don’t know why, but no one could see her but me.” The last sentence seems to calm her and she relaxes, finally able to get it all out.

Poor girl. I continue to massage her back as she lays down under the covers. I draw them up to her chin and then tuck in the sides cocooning her the way she likes it. I massage her back until her breathing comes out heavy. I stroke her hair, then bend down and kiss her forehead, “I love you, bunny.” I whisper. She still smells like she did as a baby, that faint hint of baby powder and lotions and some unknown floral scent that has stuck with her for years. It’s that scent of youth, indescribable yet everyone knows what you mean.

#

I’m in bed when I hear the sound. The t.v. is up loud, so I tap the mute button and listen. The only sound is the wind outside rustling the grass next to my window. There’s a few creaks and pops, the house bending in the unforgiving September winds. I exhale and press the button. I jump as the movie blares into my room and I quickly turn it down. Apparently, I’ve been listening to it much louder than I thought. The main character is jumping into oncoming traffic, guns and car horns blaring. Finally some action. I’m tensing and balling my hands into fists as the bad guys squeal next to Detective Peterson. You got this, I scream mentally. He makes a quick decision and then he’s down a dark alleyway, the bad guys zoom past, losing him. Yes, I think, pounding my hands on the comforter. The detective gets out of his car and makes a call to the local PD. He’s one of those traditional grizzled types weathered from a career of seeing too much of humanity’s bad side. He lights up, and exhales a large puff of smoke when I hear something again. It’s almost perfectly timed to the scraping noise the detective hears in the dark alley. This is no movie sound, it’s here─ in my home.

It sounds closer this time and I can make out new details. Before it sounded like tapping, or a crinkling bag. Sometimes Karis sneaks out of bed for a cookie or some chips. My room is located right across from the kitchen and living room. So I’ve almost always caught her. The back door is attached to the breakfast area, it’s a design for parents to be able and keep an eye on their children in the backyard while they cook. We haven’t gotten a puppy yet, but there is a dog door installed. Recently Karis has been asking for a dog and admittedly, I would welcome anything to keep me company. Especially tonight. I frown as I hear it again. It’s a wet noise, like dripping onto my tile floors. Annoyed, I pause the movie. The sound stops. I’m probably just tired, I reason. It’s the wind or maybe it’s starting to rain outside. A couple of beats pass and I’m starting to doubt myself again when there is suddenly a few more droplets, and then it’s pouring rain.

It’s nearly three in the morning when my phone goes off. I jump at the invasive jingle. Light spills into the room, bathing everything in a dull, green hue. I know it’s a text, I’ve disabled all of my email alerts and all the other crap alerts that come with apps these days. It was a text, or a voicemail. And since the ringtone never went off, I know it has to be the former. There’s only one person that would be texting me this late. A lump forms in my throat as I reach for the phone. It jingles a few more times and vibrates in my hand. What on earth? I wonder. I stare at the name on my phone, shaking as I swipe at the lock screen. It’s her. I stare up at the repeated message as it continues to fill the message screen, over and over:

I’m sorry

I’m sorry

I’m sorry

I’m sorry

I’m sorry

I’m sorry

I’m sorry

I’m sorry

I’m─

“Daddy?” I let out a howl and the phone drops from my hands and onto the floor. It makes a loud clack and then slides to the wall under my window. Karis jumps and screams, scared and confused at my outburst. She pauses as I quiet and then bawls. I sigh in relief. “Karis, honey I’m sorry, you scared Daddy.” She continues to cry but walks toward my bed. “I’m scared,” she moans, “there was a monster in my room.” I pat the bad and wave her over. ” Now, baby, there’s no such thing as monsters.” She cries harder and wails, “There is so, and it was in my room.” she’s almost as hysterical as she was when I yelled. I look at the bright red lights on my alarm clock, 2:45 a.m. Best to just let her sleep in here or neither of us will get a wink. “Alright, alright” I say gruffly, “Come on up then.” She pulls herself onto the bed and dives beneath the covers. Karis’s tears dry up instantly in that annoying ability that all kids tend to have when they get their way. I shake my head as I get out of bed and scoop my phone up from the floor. The jingling has stopped, but the message has not changed─ just a few more of the same thing, I’m sorry.

I’m not sure how to respond. Is she sending this out of guilt? It was the same thing she had said last night before she left. Is she apologizing for missing Karis’s first day? That has to be it. Jenna probably just got off her shift and sent a message in a dead zone. Sometimes it takes a while for a message to send so it stores it until you hit an area with signal. It probably just sent a bunch after an attempt to send it the first time it didn’t go through. My gut reaction is to attack her, ask her what she was thinking, not even bothering to send me a text, or at least call. Even if she had to work overtime, she could have let me know─ something.

I take a few breaths, steadying myself. No, maybe something happened. Jenna isn’t the sort to make up excuses, that is one thing I know for sure. Finally, I send: is everything OK? I expect the response to come later, but one comes immediately: come find me. I stare at the message for a while. Is she standing outside of the house? I sneak out of bed and look down at Karis. She’s fast asleep, her head tilted back and mouth hanging open. I’m not sure what is going on, but I know it has to be serious since Jen is at my house at three in the morning. Not that her being awake at that hour is odd, just that she is here. She normally waits until at least six to call or message. I slip out of my room and turn toward the front door. I grip my sides as I walk across the cool tiles. The rain really dropped the temperature outside.

My teeth are chattering as I pull on the front door. My feet hit the cold porch and I’m tempted to go back inside. It’s absolutely freezing. When did it get this cold? I walk down the covered path and turn to the driveway. Her car isn’t here. I look up and down the street to see if maybe she parked further down. The only thing visible on the street is the streetlight three houses down. The wind picks up and I shiver, running my hands up and down my arms. My body is shaking uncontrollably. I’m not sure if it’s from the cold, or the sudden urge to run back inside and lock the door. My phone goes off again in my pocket, it sounds small and thin in the approaching storm.

Confused, I pull it from my pocket.

Come find me

Come find me

Come find me

Come find me

Come find me

Come find me

Come find me

Come find me

Come find me

Come─

A scream fills the house. The blood drains from my face as I spin on my heels and charge through the front door. It’s Karis, I know that scream anywhere. It’s the same one she does when she falls or hurts herself. I’m nearly to my room when the shadows bend toward the back window in the living room. They jerk, twist upward and tower over me. I stare at the dark swirl in awe. Not shadows, I realize. It’s more of an ooze. A moment of insanity takes hold of me and I reach out, extending my fingers. I should run, I should scream─ but what good would that do? If I am going to die to it, I want to know if it’s tangible. Perhaps this is a dream, I convince myself, some vision my brain has concocted from the film earlier. I frown. No, that can’t be right because there was nothing like it. Only people. This isn’t a person.   

I take one step. Then, another. It’s staring at me. I say stare not because it has eyes, but because I can feel it. I know it’s looking at me. It’s crazy, I realize, but it’s the only way I can describe what I’m sensing. I’m five feet from it, maybe less and it’s taller than I realized. It’s nearly to my ceiling. I stop as a streak of white light screams across it and branches in several directions. It almost reminds me of…“Lightning” I murmur out loud. It lurches away from me, diving toward the back door. My voice must have startled it. I hear the dog door crash open and the thing pushes its way through. It makes the same sound that a bathtub does when the last of the water drains out. Almost a suction noise.    

I want to move, but I can’t. I’m shaking all over. I want to say that I am completely in control and I have convinced myself that I’m simply tired. That the noises are the rain outside and what I just saw is the result of stress and sleep deprivation. Deep down, I know this is a lie. A smaller scream comes from my room, more of a scared whimper. Karis. My feet finally cooperate and I’m in my room. Karis is pressed against the headboard, the covers drawn all the way up to her chin. Her eyes are bulging, stuck wide open. I flick on the light and scan the room. Whatever that…thing was has left but it’s not going to stop me from searching the entire room. Now gaining some courage, I drop to my belly and scan under the bed.

If there was something here before, it is gone now. I know it to be true. Whatever it was left earlier through the back door. I stand and look down at Karis, my voice comes out heavy, tired, “was that the one?” She blinks at me a few times, her eyebrows pressed together in confusion. “What do you mean, daddy?” she whispers. “Was that the monster in your room?” A heavy silence fills the room and Karis’s lips quiver. Her teeth start to chatter. Suddenly, I don’t want to know the answer. I just want to lie in bed and close my eyes.  I want to dream of simpler times when it was Jenna, Karis, and me against the world. I want to forget that any of this has happened. I glance at my phone and check my messages again. I frown at the phone, close my messages and then re-open them. I try it once again, and then a third time before finally closing them for good.

The messages from when I was outside are gone. All of them are except for a single: I’m sorry.

Maybe it’s best if we just call it a night. We were both upset, the storm caused the sounds, I reason. Tricks from the lightning outside had created a shadow. Yes, that must have been it. I reach over and switch on the lamp. Then I walk to the other side of the room and turn off the overhead light. Karis hasn’t answered, but she is watching my every move. I curl up next to her and pull her into my arms. She rests her head between my chest and shoulder. I can tell the exact moment that she falls asleep. Karis’s breathing deepens and her body goes limp.

I stare up at the ceiling hoping, praying that all of this is a nightmare. I’m frightened to sleep, but it finds me anyway. The last of my thoughts drift to Jenna’s warm eyes and kind smile.

Part II coming soon. xoxo

Gallery

Red – A Psychological Thriller

Audiobook version here 

Warning, NSFW!

I pull the hoodie over my face, skirting behind Phase I in the west side apartments. I move quickly, rubbing my hands together and puffing little spurts of warmth into them. They’ve long turned into handscicles, and I vigorously alternate blowing hot air and rubbing them together. Phase I is much nicer than our apartments in Phase II. They even have platinum cards that unlock the gym by the office. Our apartments don’t even come with a stackable washer and dryer, let alone other amenities. Each building in Phase I contain two units, compared to our four, and the parking is covered. It takes about seven minutes to walk from Phase II to Phase I. I’ve timed it and with a marginal error of .08 seconds, varying on the speed of the walker, I find that a brisk pace clocks in at mostly seven minutes. I have not tested running.

Huffing up the final hill, I stop and stare out across the lot. The buildings in Phase II look like badly colored models, each strung with mismatched, twinkling lights. Travis and mine are one of the top units furthest to the left. Nestled close to the woods, it is the very last building to Phase II, and the only patio not blinking with festive lights. I tear my eyes from the gingerbread scene and lumber over to the parking spaces by the gym. My hands feel cold and sweaty. I cannot stop them from shaking, so I stuff them into the pockets of my jacket. I pray the thin fabric keeps them constrained, at least, for now. Tonight is the night I’ve been planning around for three long weeks. I crouch behind Tita’s brand new Infinity GI and watch as the thin figures run in place. The whir of the cycles and treadmills can be heard through the glass.

Tonight, the gym is packed with women, beautiful women, but only one is worth my time. Still, I take my time and marvel at their glistening, pale skin bouncing off of the harsh glow. It rivals the moon’s brilliance from the back alleyways in Fox Hollow. I stumbled across the neat little patches of homes several months ago. I’d fallen asleep and missed my stop after working a double shift. The moment I stepped off of that bus, I knew this would be the place of my future home. The stars were brighter, and the air smelled like honeysuckle after the rain. I inhaled it like a well-seasoned addict snorting a line of sugar. Call me crazy, but the hour bus ride and two-hour hike on foot is well worth it. I often envision myself sitting on one of the grand balconies, sipping Cognac and smoking Cuban cigars. Travis always makes fun of me for it, calling me ‘old man.’ It doesn’t bother me not really. Ill get out of this place someday, I know it.

Lately, I’ve been at the library studying every medical book I can get my hands on especially anatomy books. Sometimes when Travis and I get lucky, we leech off of our neighbors wireless, and I can search up any of the medical terms I don’t understand. I even started riding the bus to the local community college and asking questions. The advisor always has a hair out of place with a smile that never quite reaches her eyes. Shed look alright if she werent so fat. I figure I can stick it out there for a while, get the basics, and then maybe go to the university downtown. Ive been thinking about that a lot. The human body is a symphony of evolution. It changes tempo and accommodates for the key changes. Only genes matter. Each strand of DNA can make up the hellish discord people try to forget, or the heavenly chorus line that everyone remembers. It doesnt discern poor from rich. Genius can be born from the streets. You just got to know the right people. People like Titas father.

It wasn’t just about that though. I knew I wanted her from the first time she handed me her bags. I managed to snag a job at the Hilton carrying luggage for fifteen an hour. Not bad for someone like me. I always end up working in the usual places, retail, fast food, stuff like that. I had to borrow money from Travis to buy clothes for the interview, but I’ve already paid him back. I always pay back. I’m going to have to buy more clothes soon, or my boss will catch on that I lied about where I live. You got to lie when you aren’t born into wealth. It’s just how it is. Fake it till you make it and all that shit.

I remember being lost in Tita’s perfectly straight hair. Each strand was meticulously arranged to frame her face and shoulders. It ran down to her waist and was dark, darker than those gourmet chocolate bars that cost five dollars at Central Market. We talked the entire week she was at the doctor’s retreat. I found out her dad was one of the top neurosurgeons in the U.S., and was hosting a lecture that week on the new findings of children with Autism. Tita really wasn’t into that. She was more into anatomy, namely surgery, like me. It takes vast amounts of patience and deft slicing skills with a scalpel. Her knowledge of the human body was more than spectacular. It was a form of art. Somewhere, in the vast pool of human dredge, our bodies evolved from similar genes. It couldn’t have been coincidence that she stood before me, barely twenty-three, and almost through with her doctorates. We are the same, even in age, and I realized then, like now, that I need to show her my art. I can be just as precise. I’ve been practicing mostly on small to mid-sized animals in the woods behind Fox Hollow.

I am careful to always bring a change of clothing and shoes. But then, the need has progressed, and I have found larger things, softer things.

It is amazing how easy women will follow a good looking guy into the woods. Even some I barely know. It’s easy to single them out and know where to go. The bars are the obvious place, but those types quickly bore me. I like to find the odd ones that visit internet café’s or libraries. When I am able to get internet, it is really easy to pick out women in chat rooms. They always leap at the chance to meet up. One look at me is more than enough to convince them. And then off we go, hand in hand to their place of resting. Wealthy women are the most exciting. They assume that I target them for money and open their pocketbooks. The look they give me when I open them instead is breathtaking. I never touch any of them. It makes my skin crawl thinking of kissing their diseased, eager mouths. Only Tita could get a rise out of me in that way. We are the one percent of better equipped, and more evolved species. Not like my stain of a father. He died and left six kids to fend for ourselves. And for what, just to get his next fix.

I’ll never forgive him for what he did to Fe, and she was only fourteen. To a druggy, Fe was an easy meal ticket. No one questioned a hooker’s age. In fact, they probably knew. Fe’s beaten and half-burned body was dumped from the senator’s limo behind the local Chinese buffet. I was the only witness, and no one believes a nine-year-old boy. When the senator drove past, he handed me a crisp, hundred dollar bill. I held on to it for seven years and then stuffed it down his whore of a daughter’s throat as I plunged my knife in her left eye. No investigation was ever opened for Fe. She was born from an immigrant family. The other kids were legalized through the state and got into okay homes. One of my younger brothers even got into med school. I was too old for anyone to want me. No one wants a boy past the age of five or six no one, that is, except Mal. I never told Travis about him, probably never will. I dont think too much about that anymore. At least, I try not to. But sometimes it just kind of boils up all red and I have tofix it. Thats why I need to get out of this place, go to school, and then work on my real passion. At least then I wont go to jail for what I do. Ill get paid to do it. It will help me become acceptable to society. It cracks me up to think that some street kid like me is going to cut on all those suits with dick for brains.

I don’t want to think about that now though. I want to think about the silky smooth touch of Tita’s bare skin, and her beautiful toffee colored eyes behind square rims. I want to think about her hand brushing mine, as she slipped me a fifty that last night she stayed at the hotel. Through our long conversations, I gathered where she lived. I’ve been watching her ever since. She never misses a day of working out. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays she runs four miles. Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays are gym days. And Sunday she rides fifty miles on her bike. During the day, she attends school, and in the afternoon she shadows under Dr. Stein at Presbyterian Hospital. Every second Friday night, at exactly 10 p.m., she carries out a large, black duffel bag and is dressed for a night out. Her friends must meet her because I never see anyone visit Tita’s apartment, not even her father. When she returns at 3 a.m., she is dressed in casual clothing, usually jeans and a tee-shirt. I’m curious as to where she goes on these nights, and what, if not whom, she is doing. I’ve never seen her with a man or woman. Her driving is unpredictable. She drives the wrong way down one-way streets, and never manages to get into an accident. It’s almost as if she knows someone is following her. Travis’s Camry is no match. Even though Travis has a car, he doesn’t want it. He prefers riding the bus, so I’ve been steadily paying off the car. He says I only owe two grand, and then the car is mine.

I glance down at my watch it was almost time for Tita to get on the treadmill. I know Im being pathetic, but you never saw such bouncing beauties. The things I wanted to do to those tits. In heels, Tita is almost as tall as me, but her bones are small and delicate. She couldnt weigh more than a hundred and twenty pounds. I never thought about that before, I guess. But tonight, it is important.

My teeth chatter as I jump up and down. Next time, I’m borrowing Travis’s coat. He never leaves the apartment much anyway. Yellow blinking lights catch my attention, and I bolt across the parking lot toward the drink machines. I’m barely able to round the corner before the guard drives up. The brakes squeal, and from my peripheral view, I see that he has stopped. I can feel him scrutinizing my every move as I dig for change. Please let me have the right pants on. I relax as my hand grasps a crinkled wad of ones and I pull it from the stash. It’s going to cut into my dinner fund for the week, but this takes precedence.

Hey.” He says.

I freeze at his commanding rumble and turn. I pull the cowl from over my face and smile warmly. You have to disarm your opponent early before he catches on. I saunter toward him, wearing the fake grin. I’m good at making it reach my eyes. I’ve mastered it. My voice raises an octave and I take on a casual tone. I once read an article that people find higher voiced men to be non-threatening.

Evening officer,” I say. The guard likes this form of respect and smiles. His face and hands are weathered, no doubt from years of hard labor or service. He walks with a limp but tries to keep it hidden through controlled steps. If I had to guess, I’d say ex-military. He looks like a real hard-ass, even when smiling.

Haven’t seen you around. New to the building?” he asks. He’s testing me. He’ll be looking for a change in speech or tone that will give away my true intentions. This is his turf hell know the tenant list. There is no sense in lying.

Oh, no sir, I actually live in Phase II. Just came up to see my girlfriend. She’s in the gym working out right now.” I gesture toward the glass building. “She’s the curvaceous brunette on the far right.”

The guard lets out a low whistle, as he turns back to me. “I’ve been eyeing that piece for a while now.” He admires her for a second too long and I want to rip out his throat. Then he turns back. “I’ve never seen you with her though.” He says. I can tell I’m making him uneasy. I bother him, but he can’t seem to guess why. I let out a chuckle and scratch the back of my head. “Well, technically, she’d be upset if she saw me out here. If Daddy finds out we’re dating he’d flip a bitch.” I lean in. “I just like to watch her run if you know what I mean.”

The guard leans over laughing and slaps his knee. “Ah, hell, is that why you were out there crouched behind the cars like some weirdo stalker?” Someone has spotted me. This is unacceptable. I burst out laughing with him and nod my head. In my haste, I’d forgotten to fully scan the area tonight. There was no room for error and now my whole evening is compromised. Sooner or later though, hard-ass was going to ask Tita about her boyfriend. Once he finds out the truth, there will be no stopping him. No, I just have to take my chances and go through with the plan. The most the person probably saw was a guy with a hoodie standing behind Tita’s car. No defining features or giveaways. This is going to work. It has to.

Shaking his head, the guard gets back into his golf cart. “I’d do the same if she were mine.” The beep from the engine sounds and the guard starts it up. “Don’t go around scaring my tenants anymore, alright?”

I put on my best guilty face and incline my head. “No problem, won’t happen again, I promise.” I wave as he leaves and returns to the soda machine. I need a plan. No doubt he will wait to see if I return to Phase II. I got off lucky. He forgot to ask what apartment I live in. I stare at the white letters that are scribbled across the red machine. Maybe they will give me an answer. The black trim is stifling over the red glow. I want it to melt away so I can get to the cool innards. But it is strong. The only way to get my prize is to wait while the coins fall in place and the can comes to me. I just need to push the right button. I smile at the blue and red can that pops out. I know what to do.

* * *

I shouldn’t have gone for my ribs. I think one may be cracked. I had to keep the wound out of sight. Sergeant Guard thinks I don’t see him behind the first building in Phase II. His bulky form is easy to make out against the delicate branches of the dogwood. A stench of recently put out black and mild cigarillo permeates the air. Mal’s favorite. The red tinges my vision, but I push it down. I’m too close, I can’t lose it now. I manage to make it up the stairs and into our apartment. Travis is curled up in his usual spot on the couch with his laptop. His mop of brown hair is barely visible over the monitor. Like most eighteen-year-olds, the computer is his life. The only difference is Travis has a social anxiety disorder. I usually have to do most of his errands for him, so I know this will be hard.

Travis, help.” I wheeze, falling to the floor.

He jumps up and runs to my side. I feel guilty for tricking the kid, but this is the only way. I’m running out of time. In thirty minutes Tita will have finished. By now she’s left the treadmill and has moved to weight lifting. I’m impressed by her leg presses. The muscles beneath her flesh must be lean and strong. It will be a real treat to see them up close. I growl as Travis picks me up and walks over to the couch. I tell him I’ve been jumped by some punks in Phase II, he buys it. In less than ten minutes he’s off to pick up some meds from one of his online buds across town. I know the bus route. It will take him two hours and forty-five minutes to return. That leaves me just enough time. I hand him the hoodie and tell him to bundle up, it’s cold outside. I smile as he pulls the hood over his face and walks out. I’ve chosen my double well, we have very similar body types and from the distance the guard would be standing, we’d look identical.

Five minutes and fifty-eight seconds later, I’m in front of the gym. I’m hoping she remembers me. It has been three weeks since she last saw me. The guard will get bored once he is convinced I am really waiting on the bus, and will leave. I pray he doesn’t confront Travis to find out why I am leaving, when I am supposed to be waiting on my girlfriend to get out of the gym. These are risks I just have to take. Tita is looking at her wrist now and moves to grab her coat. Right on time, she never disappoints. I walk over to her building and reach for my keys. I know she is right behind me as I pretend to be lost, and looking around. I hate improvising but this will have to do. I take one final look and start heading back to the path. I’m surprised to find her watching me. She hasn’t said anything, and I’m nervous she doesn’t remember. I try to walk past her, but she steps in my path.

Jason?” her tone sounds guarded. I have to watch what I say.

I look up, feigning surprise. “Yes?”

Tita is staring me down like all those rich people do when I walk through their neighborhood. I’ve had the cops called on me twice for just walking down the street. I’m tempted to do her here, right under the stairs, but then some jack-ass walks out of his apartment to smoke. I stick my hand in my pocket and run my thumb along the blade. I know it is just a dumb thought, but I’m still irritated by his intrusion. By now, the red is making my head throb, I can’t last much longer. I need release soon.

What are you doing here?” Tita asks. Her eyes, normally soft and inviting, have turned to crystallized amber. This is not how I wanted things to go. I need to make her believe, it’s my last chance.

I look to the ground and cough, trying to look flustered. “I, well, just moved in. I’ve been at my parent’s this last week, so this is my first time seeing the place after we moved all of my stuff in.” I laugh, feeling like an idiot. “I think I’m a bit lost.” She doesn’t look convinced. I’m debating my next sentence. If Tita doesn’t buy anything I say, she’ll never invite me in. That’s why I nearly trip over myself when she does.

My goodness, you poor thing. I’ve been there before.” She gestures up the stairs to her apartment. “You want to come up for a bit?” Her shoulders relax and she smiles warmly. I turn toward the building as if hesitating on her invite. Then I turn back.

Sure.”

* * *

Tita prattles on about the weather outside as she puts her coat on the wall. She offers to take Travis’s coat and I let her. I finger the chloroform cloth in my pocket. I’m safe from the guard for now, but that doesn’t worry me. What does is trying to get to Tita’s car with a hundred and twenty pound duffel bag. Her apartment is just as I pictured it; Clean, and white. Her minimalistic taste is almost unbearable, I want her now. I want to see the red across the crisp, white rug. I want to flay her honey skin on the deep walnut flooring. But I restrain myself. Sooner or later she will have to turn her back and I will pounce. She turns on the T.V.

Would you like any tea?” she asks. Yes, I do. Then Tita walks away. She leaves a trail of perfume. It’s flowery and fresh like the smell of linen. I slip off my shoes and stand. The stove is in the back of the u-shaped kitchen and her back is to me. My hand is a miniature earthquake as I pull the cloth from my pocket and soak it with chloroform. I need this so bad. Just a few more feet and the red will go away. All the grunting men that stood over my naked, bent form will go away. The tiny razors and cigarillos carving into my flesh will go away. Mal will go away.

I’m behind her when she turns and smiles. Seconds later there is a sharp pinch in my neck. I drop to the floor and the world goes black.

* * *

I wake in an all-white room, the brick is gray and there is plastic lining the floors. The humming and beeping of the life telling machines drone on. I cannot move. She stands before me, an angel in white. She is adorned in a blue sash that is wrapped once around her thin neck and drapes on either side of her breasts. It is tinged in various hues of red, some stains newer than others. Tita leans down so close that I can feel the heat radiating from her body.

I saw you watching me.” She whispers. She rises up then pulls something from the table on my left. My eyes stretch as far as they can and I’m barely able to see the outline of a black bag. I look back at her, the knife glistens in her hand like a miniature sword. I see the same eagerness in her vision that often tinges mine. My gaze never leaves hers as she makes the first incision below my sternum.