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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 – Conclusion

Part I

Part II

Part III

I stare across the house from the living room and then turn back to the patio door. So this is it. This is what being insane is like. It’s Monday morning and I’ve scheduled an emergency appointment with a psychologist first thing. I have to run by the office first but it shouldn’t take long. Kyle is giving the presentation instead of me. It’s the first personal day I’ve taken in nearly five years. Suffice it to say everyone has already asked if I’m dying.

 

I roll into the parking lot, jet up the three flights of stairs and then slip into my office. I don’t intend to stay long, just look over the presentation and make sure it doesn’t have any obvious mistakes. Kyle is usually great with this sort of thing when I need to sit one out, so I’m not worried. I skim through most of it and grin. Good man, I think, looks great. I sigh in relief and send out an email that it’s approved. If this doesn’t seal the deal I don’t know what will. It was four months of hard work with a more than capable team. Minus Carroll.  

 

I stare across at the empty office. What on earth was she afraid of? Why did she call Jenna instead of me? Jen doesn’t work here. It just doesn’t make sense and the more I think about it, the angrier and more hurt I get. Did they talk about me behind my back? Had they always been this close? At this point I know it’s useless to dwell on it, but it’s the one thing that just doesn’t fit into the equation. Shaking my head I scoop up my keys and pull my door shut. I’m turning the lock when the smell hits me.

 

Jesus, it’s bad.

 

I glance up as people start to funnel through toward me. “Hey Tom, I thought you were taking a personal day?” I grin and wave at Kyle. “Hey man, you know I trust you to do an amazing job, but I’m still going to check.” Kyle gives a hearty laugh, shaking his head. “I would expect no less from our top guy, and honestly I welcome the second set of eyes. You never know, and with Carroll gone─” he sniffs and turns toward her office. “Holy shit. Did something die in there?”

 

I stiffen and turn toward the office. “You smell it too? Carroll mentioned it the other day. I thought I was going crazy.” Kyle turns toward me, his eyebrows raised. “Wait, Carroll called you? What did she say? Is she OK?” I study his face. His breathing has picked up and his nostrils are flared. His eyes are wide, scared-looking with a hint of anger. Then it dawns on me. They were seeing each other. I chuckle uneasily, “well, she was here a few days ago before she quit. Said she needed to take a few personal days.”

 

Kyle’s face turns pale and his fists ball at his side. “This is so typical. She hasn’t responded to me in over a week. She just disappears from the office, randomly shows up and then asks for more days off.” He wipes at his eyes muttering something about needing a minute and then he’s gone.

#

“Tell me more about the women in your life, past, and present.” Dr. Tanner says. I expected to talk a little bit in this first session, but these questions are leading to something I don’t like. What does this have to do with anything I’ve just said to him.

 

“Look, no disrespect but I’ve just told you that my house was torn apart by a non-existent tornado and that my soon-to-be ex-wife was a monster and some weird wind-beast is following me around. Why are you even asking me about this?” I say.

 

He smiles across at me with that infuriating calm all physicians seem to possess, “Yes, you mentioned these things, but one of them was before a head injury, the other was around bedtime, and the third you said you were looking out of your back window.”

 

OK, I think, and? I stare over at him and cross my arms.

 

When I don’t answer, he sighs and continues, “Tom, all of these things have a pattern. Do you not see it?” I frown, “That I’m going insane?” I offer. He shakes his head, “Far from it. When was the last time you had more than a few hours of sleep?” I pause awkwardly and think. Holy shit, he’s right. When was the last time I had enough rest?

 

I let out a long sigh. The weight of the world rushes from my shoulders to my fingertips and then finally the floor. The known side effects of sleep deprivation, all of them added up. I place my face into my hands and cry. Finally, things were making sense. I feel his warm hand on my shoulder and then he places a box of tissues in front of me.

 

“I tell you what, I’m going to go ahead and prescribe you something to help you both relax and sleep. It’s just a mild sedative and it is non-habit forming.” I nod automatically and sniff as I wipe the soft tissue against my face.

 

He reaches into his drawer and scribbles on a piece of paper. “In the meantime, let’s schedule another session and we can get more into the heart of the issue. I think this may be all stemming from much more than sleep-deprived hallucinations.” What could possibly be worse than this? I wonder.

The drive home has never felt so long. It’s as if my body has caught up to what Dr. Tanner said. I ache, from head to toe and my eyes are so raw I can feel every vein pulsing beneath the surface. I really want to talk with Karis, but I think it’s better that I just close my eyes for the next twelve hours.

 

I can’t believe how dumb I’ve been. Monsters? Conspiracies? Damn, man. Get your shit straight. I’m really glad that the pharmacy was around the corner from the doctor’s office. I don’t think I would have made it another mile past what I have. My knees wobble as I turn the lock and stumble inside. I don’t think any amount of caffeine could keep my eyes apart. I want to collapse in bed, but remember I won’t get actual sleep unless I take my meds. He warned me that I may be able to fall asleep while anxious, but I won’t be able to stay asleep.

 

I down the pills, kick off my shoes and collapse into pillowy bliss.

 

#

The sound I hear next is not the one I expect. I expected the familiar soft jingle that wakes me every single morning. This one is different. Like a low drone, a humming. I roll and pull the sheets over my head. Not alarm, I think, go back to sleep. Then it happens again, and then a third time before I realize that my phone is ringing. Angry, I roll over and look outside. It’s still light out, I must have only been out for a few hours. Damn it. I scoop up the phone and look at the caller I.D.

 

I clear my throat a few times and then answer, “Hey man. How did the meeting go?”

“Hey. I’m sorry, were you sleeping? I didn’t know you were taking another day off.” I bolt up and look at my phone. It’s 10 a.m.

 

Tuesday at 10 a.m.

 

“Christ, dude. I’m sorry. The doctor gave me some pills yesterday, I haven’t been sleeping. I must have slept straight through my alarm.” “Oh wow,” he says, “hey, no worries man. You must have needed it. I can hold down the fort another day, you get some sleep.” I clear my throat again, slowly starting to clear the fog in my mind, “You sure? I don’t mind coming in if you need me to help. Everything go alright yesterday?” I can hear his smile from the other end, “we crushed it. They signed first thing this morning, that report was freaking phenomenal man. You added some stuff in there I didn’t even think of. I really appreciate that.”

 

I grin, “well, keep at it and you’ll be where I am in a few years.” He chuckles. We both knew he was just as good. I’m hoping to see him promoted by the end of the year. The guy was a genius.

 

He shifts and then sighs, “there is one thing you can do for me.” he says. “What’s up?” I ask. “Can you ask Carroll to please call me when she can? I just want to know if she’s OK.” He sounds really sad, almost broken. Poor guy, I know where his head is at right now. “Of course. I’ll let you know right away if I hear anything.” “Thanks, man, I really appreciate it. Speaking of which, this is a little off-topic but can you have Brett call maintenance and check out her office? That smell really needs to be taken care of. People have been complaining all day.”

 

“Sure, I’ll give him a call right now. And Kyle, thanks again for all your hard work and taking care of yesterday and today.” I say. He thanks me and hangs up. I make another note to promote him asap and then roll out of bed. First thing’s first.

 

“Brett Manning.” he rumbles on the first ring. “Hey, Brett. I need you to email maintenance about Carroll’s old office. There’s a─” “Smell like putrid ass coming from there? Yes, I know. I put in a complaint a few hours ago, hopefully, they get to it today. Honestly, if it isn’t taken care of tonight, I think I may have to quit. Sorry, not sorry.” I laugh and shake my head, good ole Brett. “I don’t blame you. Let me know if they fix the problem today. If not, we may just go ahead and give a staff holiday tomorrow or let people work from home.” “I vote staff holiday,” he quips. “You would. Thanks, man, I appreciate it. See you tomorrow.” “Maybe,” he says and hangs up the phone.

 

The rest of the day goes by pretty uneventful. I pick up my phone for the thousandth time and look through my text messages. Still nothing. If I don’t get a call by 8 tonight, I’ve decided I’m going to call her instead. Normally, I like to let her be the one to call me in case they are in the middle of something. Just relax, I think, they are probably having a good time and forgot to call last night. Besides, would I have even heard it?

 

My stomach complains at me in a high pitched squeal and then a deep rumble. My first instinct is to reach for a box of cookies, but when my stomach turns just thinking about it, I realize I need actual food. A quick glance in my fridge tells me all I need to know. Take out it is.

#

I settle on some pepper beef and rice and then plant myself in front of the computer. It’s been so long since I’ve used this thing for fun that I forget I have at least three new games I’ve purchased recently. I used to be an avid gamer. In college, it was all I did. Hell, my degree was wrapped around becoming a 3d modeler for the game industry. My buds and I had won several competitions for most innovative. That was just before the crash in ‘08. I basically graduated with a useless degree, and here I am now managing teams of people that make websites for other companies. It wasn’t a dream job, but it paid more than enough to keep us comfortable. At the end of the year, I’d be looking at a possible promotion and making over $200k. It wasn’t what Jen made, but it was a decent living.  

 

The game fires up and I’m pumped. I’m a super nerd for sci-fi, especially shooters. Add mechs and I’m all in. This one checked all the boxes. Before I knew it, the doorbell sounds.

I glance at the camera and see the young delivery guy there. I’d have to go AFK for a minute, but I was in free play mode so I wouldn’t be holding anyone back. 

I let out a long sigh and pat my stomach. Man, that was some of the best Chinese food I’d had in a while. Or you were just hungry, I think. I stand and stretch, yawning loudly. I’m beat. I glance at my watch. It was well past Karis’s bedtime. I look at my phone and instantly feel guilty, there’s a missed call. Then, on closer inspection, I notice it wasn’t Jenna. Damn. Part of me is hoping that she got voicemail for once. Then a new feeling sets in. Why haven’t they called? It’s now been two days. While that wouldn’t really be a point of concern for many, it was for me. Jenna is an extremely punctual and respectful person. The silent treatment wasn’t her thing. Even when they fought she would tell him that she was angry and needed a moment to herself.

 

Maybe she sent a text, or she’s in an area without reception, I reason silently. I pull up my messages and then click on her name. I send a quick, ‘hey haven’t heard from you in a couple days, everything alright?’ Message and then wait. Fifteen minutes drag on, and then another thirty. I pace, staring at my phone and willing it to light up with the little rectangle of light. Don’t be crazy, I tell myself, they do live in the country. Unable to stand another minute of this I leave the room. I needed a distraction. A shower. My body responds with a slight shiver. Not the bad kind, but the sort that tingles you all over in anticipation. How long had it actually been since I’d taken a nice, long one? I sigh, pausing just outside of the bathroom. Best to keep it nearby, just in case, I think. I circle back to the living room, scoop up my phone and then pad to the bathroom. The cool tiles are unwelcome to my feet, but I ignore the slight discomfort in lieu of what is waiting for me. The hot liquid instantly bubbles out, splashing my arm as I pull it back. A sneak peek of what is waiting for me once I leave the frozen floor rocks that are my tiles behind.

 

I check the ringer, see that it is on and that no new text messages have arrived. Let it be, I tell myself. If you don’t hear from them by tomorrow, then worry.  This seemed to calm me. I shrug off my clothes and toss them aside. I pull at the glass door until the soft clink happens. My legs fold and I sit on the bench, allowing my head to get completely submerged.

My body melts into the water and despite the warmth, I shiver. I might as well be outside for all the heat I’m retaining. A cold creeps along my spine and seeps into my bones. My eyes close and I feel myself drift from the beating water against my skin.

 

Flashes of Karis’s smile pop into my mind. We’re walking along the beach, the sky an endless blue. I love you, daddy. Her giggles sprinkle across my mind like a summer breeze. I’m all grins, smiling at her sweet face. I love you too, baby girl, I say, reaching out and taking her little hand. The sky fades from the warm, sunrise colors, to an ugly grey and blue. Thick, dark clouds roll in. Not just any clouds─ those clouds. Its clouds. Instinctively, I reach to pull her close to my side and grasp at air. Karis is gone.

 

I spin frantically, searching the whole area, but the only thing I can see is the tall, dense grass. Miles and miles of nothing but the tall mess of green that reaches to the sky. There are no trees, no place to hide. Lightning explodes around the sky, and an angry rumble growls from the distance. Then it starts. This time it’s not just close to me, it’s behind me. No matter which way I turn, it is always a step ahead. It’s loud enough to be annoying, but soft enough that I can’t get a handle on just how close it is.

 

The suction sound drones on. It’s now moving all around me. Coming from every which way. I cover my ears and spin on the shore. There must be some way out of here. Some way back to the comfort of my home. I’m struggling to remember what it was I was doing. Something to do with warmth, I was vulnerable. The draining noise stops momentarily, and all that can be heard is the gentle rustle of grass behind me and the waves lapping at my heels. Something about the water dug at me as I stood there. Why am I here? Could it be possible that I fell asleep?

 

Yes, that sounds right.

 

I had stayed up late to play a game and checked my phone. After that, I─

What was it? My head is pounding as the deep rumble sounds again. Shower. The thought jumps into my head and I remember. I had been checking my phone before I turned on the shower. Then I sat down and closed my eyes. This time, it is distinctly closer. I know this because the spider webs of light are blinding, and the earth shifts beneath my feet. This can’t be real, I reason, because I’m dreaming.  I can feel Its vibration as It crawls toward me. I’ve fallen asleep in the shower, and I am safe and alone. The shiver returns as I sense the movement behind me. To my absolute terror, I know that It is standing there.

 

Click

Click

Click

Click

 

It’s swirling is now mixed with a new sound. Insect-like pops and chitters that blend with the draining-suction. Wake up, I yell. The clicking now sounds questioning, prodding even. It’s backed away, but I know full well that the demon is less than twenty feet from me.  I have acted, but not in a way that It expects. It’s not sure how to react, Its clicks and pops almost sound confused. I take a step forward, inching my way toward the water. When nothing happens, I take one more. Suddenly, the pattern starts again, click whirr, click, click, cli
God damn it, wake your ass up now I growl. I howl in agony as a new sensation rips into my left wrist. I spin toward the pain, cradling my left arm with my right. Blood oozes down my arm, then drips to my feet. It’s the only noise that fills the air. The wind has died, the lightening subdued. Not even a blade of grass dares to stir. It’s as if the entire world is holding its breath, terrified of the beast. 

My eyes are glued to my arm. There are two distinct slices trailing from the top of my wrist down to the forearm. Neat, precise cuts. Deep ones. I stare at the blood as it pools from my wounds. It wraps my arm and drips to the ground. I’m mesmerized by the amount that flows from me.

It isn’t real, I tell myself. Over and over again. It isn’t real, it isn’t real, it isn’t real.

There’s movement behind my arm. A darting movement that is so fast I can’t keep up with it. It’s as if the monster exists in two places jumping between the planes. I can see that it towers me. The gargling, and then clicks continue. Almost as if this is Its way of drawing breath. There’s a waving movement, like thousands of wriggling worms.  I want to look up, but I can’t bring myself to. Somehow I think that if I don’t look at it, it can’t harm me.

If I can’t see it, it can’t see me. 

I smirk, remembering the logic I’d had as a child hiding beneath my covers. I guess we never really grow up.

It sighs, breathing a rancid stench into my face and lungs. I squeeze my eyes shut. It isn’t real, it isn’t real, it isn’t real. 

The pop-click, then click, click, click is inches from my face. Every muscle in my body tenses up as I ready myself for the inevitable blow. My legs buckle and I drop to the ground.

I’m surprised as my hands shoot out and are met with smooth, wet tile. I’m crouched on the shower floor, my head leaning on the wall. Suddenly, I’m overwhelmed with emotion. I curl my legs under my chin and rock back and forth beneath the stream. It’s long since gotten cold, but I don’t care.

I’m free from the evil creature. At least, for the moment.

#

I groan and roll over, willing the annoying sound to stop. The jarring noise sounds again, and then again. I growl and roll towards it. Scooping the phone up, I look at the screen and then hastily hit the green button.

“Hey, I was wondering when I would hear from you guys.” I sit up, excited to hear Karis and Jenna’s voice again. “Daddy?” I clear my voice a few times, trying to get the grogginess out of it. “Yeah, baby. Daddy is here. How is your trip going?” Static fills the speaker. It sounds like she’s trying to say something, but it keeps cutting out. “Sorry baby, Daddy can’t hear you. What was that?” I struggle to make anything out. “…my’s good. I’ve had fun.” I smile as she finally comes through. “You’ve had fun? That’s great! I miss you, sweetie.” There’s silence on the other end.

“Sweetheart, are you there?” There’s a burst of static, then “Daddy?” I panic and respond instantly, “Yes, I’m here. I’m glad you’ve had a great time.” There’s a long static filled pause. “…my’s good. I’ve had fun.” A knot forms in the pit of my stomach. “Yes, baby. You just said that.” I swallow thickly. “Can you put mommy on the line?” I’m met with more static. “…Daddy?” A lump forms in my throat. “Who is this?” I manage to choke out. There’s a long pause, then, “…my’s good. I’ve had fun.” This time her voice sounds different. As if she knows something that I don’t. My hands tremble as I hear the static grow louder from the other side.

Her laughter breaks through the static. Not Karis’s soft, twinkling laughter. It’s something else. Something that sounds like my little girl. My throat goes dry. I’m finding it harder and harder to breathe. How long is it going to toy with me?

“Daddy?” it’s her. It sounds like her. She’s frightened. “Baby? Where are you? Are you OK?” “Daddy, are you OK?” I let out a long sigh, covering my hands with my face. “Yes, sweetheart. I’m alright. How is your trip?” The silence that follows makes me nervous. I’m worried that I am being messed with again when I hear, “Oh. It was good. I told you that a long time ago.” I sit up. “A long time ago?” She sighs really loud, “yes,” she says, “like, a long time ago.” I’m immediately alarmed and confused. I glance at the date on my phone, then bring it back to my ear. “When did you talk to daddy about the trip?” I can hear her fidgeting on the other line. “Daddy?” My stomach twists, “yes, baby?” “When are you going to come to get me?” I frown at how small and scared she sounds. “I can come now if you want.” I tear up as I hear her start crying on the other end.

“Honey? Don’t cry. I’ll come over, right now.” I hear a few more gasps and then the phone goes quiet. Confused, I immediately dial Jenna’s number. It goes straight to voicemail.

I roll out of bed and throw on my clothes.

#

I’m in Jenna’s driveway, tearing across the parking lot when my phone goes off.  I pull it out frantically, then frown at the screen. It’s the same number from last night. I swipe it to go to voicemail and beat on the door. I wait.

Thirty seconds go by, then a minute. I’m not sure if she has heard me. This time, I knock louder.

I take a step back and yell, “Jenna, it’s me.” Thirty more seconds, still there is only silence.

My phone jingles and I look at the message that’s popped up:

Voicemail 00:31

Maybe it was work. I am supposed to be in this morning. I look at the time and frown. Not this early, it’s barely 7:30 in the morning. The office won’t be open for another thirty minutes. Probably a telemarketer or scam. No one calls me. Except Jenna.

I try the door again and gasp as it pops open. I stare as it slowly comes back toward me and snaps shut. I try the knob, and it easily swings open.

“Hello?” I call inside. I hesitate at the entrance, unsure of what I should do. I didn’t want to intrude. Maybe I’m just overreacting. Suddenly, I’m embarrassed. What if Karis is just having a moment and I read too much into it?

“Jen? You here?” I glance around the living room and then over to the stairs. A thin streak of red lines the stairs all the way to the top. Now I’m really worried. I’m very aware that the only thing I have is the clothes on my back, and my phone. What if someone else is here? What if they have a gun?

I ease the door closed and quickly run over to the kitchen. Without thinking, I reach above the refrigerator in the cabinet. Strapped right where it was in our house is Jen’s gun. I rip it out and check the clip, exactly fifteen bullets are still there. She hasn’t had a chance to use it. I pull back, getting one bullet in the chamber and turn toward the stairs.

I jump as the phone vibrates in my pocket. Jesus, I swear silently, Good thing I didn’t have my finger on the trigger. I edge up against the wall and look at my caller I.D. The same number is calling me. Maybe I should go outside and answer it. Maybe it’s Jenna.

I sneak back outside and manage to answer on the last ring. “Hello?” I say quietly, not wanting to alert anyone that may be inside. “Jesus, dude. You’re hard to get ahold of. Did you get my message?” I relax at Kyle’s voice. “No, sorry man. I had to run and pick up kiddo early this morning. I may be bringing her into work today.” There’s a slight pause on the other end. “You getting to see her again?” I frown, “Yeah, why wouldn’t I?” “I don’t know man, there was a lot of…you know. With you and Jenna.” I sigh. Oh right, he wouldn’t have known about the agreement between me and her recently. “Oh, yeah that all got worked out. So, what’s going on?” He cleared his throat, “well, turns out they found something in Carroll’s office. They are shutting down the whole office for the day. I just wanted to let you know to not come in.”

“They found something?” I ask. “Yeah, they think an animal might have crawled up between the floorboards and died. They hired a crew to come in and clean it up.” “Oh, OK.” I say. “I appreciate you letting me know. We all coming back in tomorrow?” I look over at the door. It’s still propped open, no Jenna in sight.

“Yeah, it shouldn’t take too long. The crew actually got here about twenty minutes ago. I just wanted to catch you before you left.” “Alright,” I answer, “thanks again, man. I’ll see you tomorrow.” He mutters something and then we both hang up.

Good. That means I can see what the hell is going on. Hopefully, Jen is just upstairs and can’t hear me. My mind goes back to the first time I saw her in this place─ the way her skin moved beneath my touch. Her long, unnatural stride.

I glanced up as a dark cloud rolled over the sun, bathing the area in an eerie green light. Again, I pause by the door. What if this is a trap? What if…It is in there, waiting for me to walk right into Its trap. Is Jenna a part of it? I started thinking about how different she had been acting lately. This huge, expensive looking home. How young she looked the last time I saw her.

Tom, I just want you to know─ I’m sorry. 

I stare into the house as I push open the door. What are you sorry for? I wonder for the thousandth time. Sorry that you tore us all apart?

I climb the stairs, the gun weighing heavy in my right hand. I peek into Karis’s room, then double check the hallway. It’s quiet as ever. The sun shines for a moment, bathing the room in a warm glow. It’s a peaceful feeling, almost safe. I know why she loves this space. It’s completely open. You can see the entire house from up here and most of the kitchen. Jenna always hated walls.

The sun slips back behind the clouds and the putrid green is back. I take a deep breath and push on Karis’s door. It makes contact with something and stops. Something solid. I grunt and push harder. A loud whimper comes from behind the door. I pause, crouch down and call softly, “here boy, come here.” Another whimper. I look down the hall again and then back to Karis’s door. It’s wide enough for me to squeeze through. I have to make a decision. I look into her room.

Her bed has been made and everything is neat. It looks as if she hasn’t even been here. I reach in and grasp at the door handle. The whimper gets louder and I feel something jump on the door. There’s a soft woof and then another whine. I feel around until I grip something tangled around the door. It feels like─ I pull it off the handle and then bring it around the door. The lump on the end hobbles toward me and then the dog is suddenly in front of the door. He’s been completely tangled in the leash, no doubt trying to get out of the room and then shutting himself in. He nips at me as I untie it from around his neck, and then shoulders. It doesn’t hurt, I can tell he’s just scared. I coo down at him, running my hands behind his ears and neck.

He whines but allows it, desperate for human contact. I pick him up and take him downstairs. I’m reluctant to tie him up, but I need him to stay out of the way while I search for Jen and Karis. I fill a bowl of water and another with a little bit of food. He doesn’t seem to take notice as I hook the leash around the table and tie it off. He’s happily chowing down on the food as I climb the stairs.

Now I’m really worried. Jen never mistreats animals or leaves them alone for longer than a few minutes. The dog would have been with her, or in the back room where he could go outside and then back into his crate. I glance down at my arms and gasp. They’re covered in blood. A quick glance tells me it’s not my own. It must be from the dog. I want to run and check his injuries, but I need to find them first.

I’m at full speed. If someone is still in the house, they would have attacked me by now. Or got out. I’m being incredibly stupid, but I need to know.

Fuck it. 

“Jenna?” I burst into Karis’s room. I drop to look under her bed and then search her closet. They all turn up empty. “Karis? Honey, are you OK?”

I scream through the hallway, busting down every door on the way to Jenna’s room. Empty, empty, fucking empty. 

My phone goes off just as I round the corner. Jenna’s room is a few feet away. I halt at the entrance. It’s then that I notice all the water. It’s pooling into the room. My phone hums several times as I trace the source back to the right. The door is closed.

My lip trembles as my knees wobble, threatening to buckle beneath me.

I can’t breathe. Can’t move. I’m vaguely aware that my phone is going off again. I stare at the silver door handle. My own reflection is small, weak. Jesus, I look so small.

My hand trembles as I reach for the phone. It’s buzzing again, this time with a voicemail. I know what is waiting for me behind that door. I bring the phone up to my head and play back the message.

“You sick son-of-a-bitch. I know it was you. I KNOW IT WAS YOU─ Do you know how they found her?” The phone drops from my hands. There’s more screaming and yelling, but I can’t make it out.

I don’t want to do what my legs are doing, but they won’t stop. I’m in another person’s body opening the door.

All I wanted was to be a husband, a father.

I’m not splashing into the room and reaching for the handles to turn off the water. I watched numbly as the stranger in my body screams, cradling the two small forms. I want to yell at him, tell him not to fall for Its trick. But it’s too late. The drain sounds, swirling and whirling around him. The room darkens as rain begins to beat against the glass.

The thing rises beside him, taking on Jenna’s form. It smiles, wrapping Its hand around his and then pulls the object into his mouth. There are a series of clicks, and then a final boom fills the house.

 

 

 

 

      

 

 

 

 

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.