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.
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:
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.
“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.
Audiobook version here
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. I’ll 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 neighbor’s 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. She’d look alright if she weren’t so fat. I figure I can stick it out there for a while, get the basics, and then maybe go to the university downtown. I’ve 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 doesn’t discern poor from rich. Genius can be born from the streets. You just got to know the right people. People like Tita’s 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 don’t 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 to…fix it. That’s why I need to get out of this place, go to school, and then work on my real passion. At least then I won’t go to jail for what I do. I’ll 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 I’m 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 couldn’t 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─ he’ll 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.
* * *
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.