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.
We are the last.
In three minutes and fifty-nine seconds, we will die and humanity with us. I stare across at the last people on earth and I can’t help but wonder what could have been done differently. How had we reached this point in time to where the entirety of the human race resulted in the two women and three men that existed in this room? None of us can find the courage to look each other in the eye. Maybe it’s that we grow weary of breath.
Each of us has found their respective corner in the room except me. I’m positioned in the center, staring forward at the comforting brown shades pulled shut. A few of them shuffle, growing restless at the last remaining moments. Three minutes. There’s a part of me rising, I expected as much. Human survival instinct is famed for its stubbornness. Or, it used to be. Something is eating at me.
There was something some years ago that a professor had mentioned in my Chemistry class. I hadn’t thought much on it until the following year in Biology. The breaking down of cells, how gravity had a profound effect on humans. Not surprisingly it went all the way down to a molecular level. Aging wasn’t only in our DNA, it was the product of the combined forces of environmental pressures and the strains we placed on our bodies. I’m not sure why I am thinking on this now, but I know I am on to something. All of the others may have lost faith in themselves, but I have never given up.
Three minutes and thirty-nine seconds. The large numbers on our Scyvies glare back at us from our wrists, the once calming blue a countdown to death. I close my eyes and draw a breath savoring the clean, fresh air. This wasn’t like back home, where it was required to walk outside in a mask. I always did, knowing what waited on the other side. That stench would never go away, no matter how many times they cleaned it. It wasn’t the stench that was the hard part. It was what followed from smelling it. Memories. Memories that we would all soon try our hardest to forget.
“Hull, cut it out.” A low rumble cuts the silence.
I ignore him, keeping my eyes pressed shut. I breathe in, then out, my mind grasping at the earlier memories. There’s a faint glimmer suspended in the back of my eyelids. I slow my heart rate, only focusing on my breath and the image.
“I said knock it off,” Harris growls.
There’s a faint scraping noise as Harris jumps to his feet. I again respond with nothing. Let these assholes give up. I’m finding a way out.
“Put a cork in it, Harris.” Ash drawls. I can’t help but smile at the tough son of a bitch. She never takes anyone’s shit and always has my back. She’s never understood me, but she fights like hell by my side. I think it’s secretly because she buys into what I’m selling. I should have gotten into the pyramid scheme business, I would have made a fortune.
“I will not put a fucking cork in it, breeder.” He spits on the floor. Harris has gone too far. That word is inexcusable, especially on this team. The room gasps at the word. I’m waiting for some kind of angry retort, or hear Harris howl in pain. The only thing that sounds is Ash’s snort and then quieted words.
“I’m going to remember that after me and Hull get out of here, shit stain.”
I feel the air stir as someone seats themselves in front of me. Their scent hits me and I know it’s Ash. Her calloused fingers rest over mine and her energy washes over me. It’s warm like summer rain.
“These idiots might not see it, but something’s changed ‘bout you in the last few minutes.” I smile crookedly at her words. Perceptive as ever. I don’t open my eyes.
“You remember last year, by the docks?” She’s quiet for a few beats, mulling it over. “You talking about that time traveling nonsense from your professor again?” The glimmer is turning into a distorted image. It reminds me of looking out from a window in my youth. My breath hitches for a second as sweat beads my brow. It is a window. A small two foot by two-foot window from the old house off of Jupiter Run. The distortion is from the rain, pouring outside. I can’t get over the smell. I’ve never been able to get it right over the years but today it’s there. A strong smell of gardenias, fresh cut grass, and dirt. Ash is here next to me, but still only seated in the room.
“Hull, that’s pseudo-science BS. You know that, right? Time travel ain’t real.” Her voice betrays her inner thoughts. I can tell she is getting excited.
“What the fuck is with you two? Acting like you got some way out of this. It’s bullshit.”
“Harris,” Cutter’s voice is like velvet, but there is a distinct edge to it. “If you don’t shut the fuck up, you’re not going to make the last minute or so with the rest of us.”
Harris quiets and there are footsteps as the others circle around me and Ash. Our Scyvies give us the last minute warning with one small beep. “You two hippies going to enlighten the rest of us?” Dawn has finally decided to join in. Mostly, because Cutter has. They had been travel companions for years before they met up with the group.
“We don’t have enough time for me to explain in full.” I mutter, “You remember what I taught you?”
Harris is on the floor, beside himself in laughter. “Here we fucking go again. Join our consciousness, find your fondest memory, travel back to your youth, our minds are the key. God damn horseshit.” His laughter is the only one in the room as the others quiet. Our breathing begins to sync. I let my mind wander back to that moment. The temperature in the room begins to drop rapidly. I know they are getting it ready for our swift departure. I’d read somewhere that it barely took a handful of seconds before you were gone. Even if this doesn’t work, at least we can die knowing that we tried.
The Scyvies give the thirty-second warning, two small clinks in rapid succession.
In seconds, the room is gone. I can no longer feel myself drawing breath or the goosebumps that have spread across my skin. The dull pain in my back and slowly numbing hindquarters has disappeared as I travel along the length of the glimmer. I find myself wondering what this must look like to the others. Everyone’s ride is different.
What are they seeing at this very moment? Ash is probably remembering the heat, long summers, and popsicles. She could go on for hours talking about the different flavors of popsicles, and each of her favorites and why. It was an odd thing, hearing a teen girl pine over flavored ice, but I knew they meant more than that. Back when her father had been alive, he had run a small Popsicle stand with snacks on the weekends for the local kids. It was an outdated thing for the time, but the kids loved it. They would set alarms on their visors, unplug and venture outside to have one of his homemade masterpieces.
Most of us had plugged in some time ago and never came back. It started around the year 2025 with the VR technology at its peak. Everyone that was anyone owned one. With prices dropping by the months, it was possible for just about everyone to get their hands on one. Eventually, they became state issued if you were of school age and was mandatory to own one for the public school system. Because of the decline in need for office space, and with the new technology, most people contracted from home. If you needed something, you ordered it online. It was then directly dropped through the wall in a chute so that it wasn’t left outside.
Theft was a way of life in most units and was expected. If something was left outside of your door, or you hadn’t had a proper chute installed, that was your own problem. There were a few people that didn’t either have the means, or the mental capacity to actually own VR gear. These were known as the Outsiders and them like many others existed before the drastic decline in the population around 2039.
It wasn’t that the people stopped having children, it’s that there was no longer a desire or need to. Fast forward to 2051 and just about everyone had opted out of childbirth or test tube children. Once we had located the specific chain of DNA that caused aging, along with decreasing the effects of outer stimuli, such as gravity damage as well as pollution, people were living to be hundreds of years old. We had some inkling of aging according to the history books some time ago.
Around the year 2006 scientists had begun to realize that eating too much, in combination with too much direct sunlight also contributed to the rapid deterioration of cells on the molecular level. Once we unlocked the secret of aging in our DNA, most aging could be entirely reversed or frozen. It went from monthly treatments to every six months, and then finally years. Before the global war, the United States had boasted that their scientists were working on a formula that you would need only take once in your lifetime at the exact moment you wanted to freeze your aging.
For the elders, this also meant that in just ten small treatments, they could go back to their peak years in their life. We had finally discovered the fountain of youth, and it came not from the box jellyfish-like people had suspected it would, but by accident from a single man that had spent his entire life isolated from the world.
Robert Cromwell, of the 200 block on Beacon St. in Somerville Massachusetts had been recorded as owning the property since the early 1930s. According to the bank records, the house was family owned and had been passed down for generations. That was only partially true. It was true that it had run in the family and had been since the 1930s, but the owner wasn’t Robert Cromwell Jr. As a matter of fact, Cromwell had no children whatsoever. He had simply changed his name over the years.
When they had discovered his secret in 2033, he had lived to be a hundred and thirty-three years old. This wouldn’t have been odd, except for the fact that he appeared to be a twenty-five-year-old male, with dark brown hair, blue eyes, and fair skin. The man had more money than several generations of families combined, and yet curiously he stayed in the quaint two-story home with blue paint and white trim. It was sad, really when they confiscated his home and he was imprisoned for tax evasion. He later died in his jail cell three months into his sentence and the public was told that he had a rare genetic disorder that didn’t age him on the outside, but that his organs had failed him.
None of us bought that.
It became a long-running joke on the internet. Sites dedicated to finding the man that could cheat death. Like many conspiracy nuts, people would post photos of Cromwell in a cabin in the woods, or in other countries boarding a plane. But there was a difference now, people could immediately tell if the photos were fake or not using simple software you could download from any mobile device, and it was free. More often than not he was spotted in a type of military garb or a lab coat, which lead everyone to believe that he had in fact, not died but had been forced to join a team of scientists so that old wealthy people in California and New York could buy their way into eternity.
Many people believed that we would eventually just upload our consciousness onto a hard drive and into bodies that never aged. But the issue with this was how to do it. It was never taken directly from the source, it was collected from various social Media, texts, emails, recorded Skype conversations, facial recognition software and personality traits related to them, and then used to create a ‘perfect being with no need of organs.’ The issue with this is that even with advanced programming, we still had not mastered the ability to make them entirely─ human.
They could mimic humans and could come damn close to actually being human but they still couldn’t pass the Turing test. Even now, in the year 2067, we still have not mastered it. Though, to be fair we stopped pursuing that quickly after finding the secrets to our own aging process. A.I. was now used as a means of cheap labor, sexual pleasure, and companions. Since humans no longer had a need for procreation, the poverty line grew exponentially.
The middle class completely dissipated, leaving behind two types of societies: the wealthy and those that survived. The ones that were left behind were stacked up on each other in slum-like buildings all over the world. Each space was sized perfectly for the decline in a normal household size. By 2015, the average of 2.54 dropped down to 1.5 by 2055 in the U.S. By the time we had reached the year 2060, most maternity hospital wings had been replaced and children based businesses had been shut down.
I know later generations if in fact there is any left, will probably wonder what all of this has to do with my current situation. I’ll get around to that if I make it through this next part in one piece. I’ve ridden the glimmer many times before but never for this long. Not to mention, I don’t have a current body to go back to so hopefully this all works out. If it doesn’t, well hell─ I guess all of humanity is fucked and this will just be one for the history books when an alien civilization finds it. I’m still pissed off that after all these years, there’s still no sign of intelligent life out there.
Then again, they might have taken one hard look at our society and decided to nope the fuck out. In any case, about five feet in front of me is the answer to all of my questions. Hopefully the solution I’m looking for. I want to walk through the second I see it, but I pause by the entrance of the rift. I’ve never traveled with anyone else, so I’m not sure if I actually am going to see the others or if I just walk through. From down the hall, I hear the ten-second warning from the Scyvies.
If I had to describe what I’m looking at, I’d compare it to a long tunnel made entirely out of fractured light that bent every twenty feet or so in different directions. My footsteps make no sound and you can see directly through the floor. As a matter of fact, I’m not entirely sure there is a floor. I’m fairly certain my brain has decided that the way my head is facing is up and wherever my feet land is down. There is a distinct odor traveling along the length of the glimmer and I know my time is gone. Not a single person has appeared next to me, so I know they either have to meet me on the other side, or they are lost like everyone else. This was it, it was now, or never. I dive through the tear in time and tumble onto the hard floor.
“Winner, winner, sky friend! Come now to collect your prize at 3112 West Main Street. Fame, wealth, and fortune are just around the corner─” I wave my hand silencing the bot. If where I initially thought of is actually where I am, then I know I’m back to my old loft off of Cadiz near Downtown. My head is killing me, but I manage to pull myself up to a sitting position. It’s muggy in the small space from all the rain, so I know it has to be spring or fall. A quick glance out the window tells me what I need to know─ it’s definitely Fall.
I’ve never done this before, so the next part hits me as a bit of a shock. Bile shoots up the back of my throat and spills all over the concrete floor and wall. I’m silently cursing my ignorance because I must have eaten a fucking turkey dinner before I got here. I dry heave for several seconds when the bot starts back up again, “Feeling ill? Try these home remedies from Natural Market supply house. Choose from these all natural flavors─” I growl and wave my hand again. “Alexa, purchase one month of bot-free access,” I yell. “Understood, would you like to enable single voice command purchase now?” I grind my jaw, “yes, fine whatever just shut that thing up.” “You have purchased a one-month premium bot-free access to─” “yes, thank you, Alexa, that will be all.” “Understood. Goodbye.” I sigh and look down at the mess I’ve created on both myself and my loft.
I stiffen as I remember what day this is. Normally, people like to travel back to happier times. Not me. I wore my depression like some badge of pride at this age. It was the first, and last time, that I would be twenty-three years old.
I was born at the tail-end of the depression in the year 2025. They, of course, didn’t call it that, but the recession was just a nicer way of saying, ‘we’re all fucked financially.’ My mother, one of the few traditionalists, conceived me the natural way. She never wanted a partner, so she chose to be artificially inseminated with her best friend, Laura. It wasn’t that uncommon by then for women to blend DNA with other women, it was a simple process using bone marrow. And thus, Jamie May Bonham was born on a windy day in October in a sad, one bedroom apartment with a midwife older than dirt. My mom had been pushing forty at that point, and the doctors had warned her that it could destroy her body if she didn’t get treatments. My mother, with all of her southern charm, told them to promptly go to hell and take their damn technology with them.
Lily May Bonham was nowhere near as delicate as her name would suggest. Mom took pride in being the only female engineer in her department. She was every bit a scientifically minded individual as she was religious and I always found that side of her peculiar. We would have discussions at length on how I believed science was the only answer, and she would talk about how they could go hand in hand. She never told me how to think, and that’s what I loved about her. She never told me I was wrong unless of course, it was on a math problem. She was ruthless with those. The point I’m making is that she never made me feel inferior to her, not for one second. This made me realize later that she was wise much beyond her years. Some people went entire lifetimes and never grasped that concept.
My mother loved to exercise. It was understood that the first part of the morning was set aside for her. It was a quiet time in which I was encouraged to go online and read my books assigned for the semester. I never actually enjoyed reading, but I loved being read to. I had loads and loads of audiobooks at my disposal and I listened to them every morning as I downed my protein shakes. Some time ago, the food crises due to over cropping all of the farmland made actual food extremely expensive. Food vouchers covered the necessities, which were up-to-and-including: nutrient shakes, or bars, water, and salt. If you wanted grown fruit, veggies, or real meat─ it was the equivalent of three month’s salary for one meal. It was a way for the government to claim that it was to help bring down obesity levels and for our own benefit.
A few times before mama died, we actually got to try real fruit. I still salivate thinking about that nearly fifty years later. Ironically, her rigorous exercise routine was her undoing. We lived pretty well for the time, which meant that the neighborhood hadn’t turned into the shit stain it is now. My mother ran for six miles once a day five days a week. I’m not sure why she chose this arbitrary number, but she was very cross with herself if she didn’t make her goal. The day had been much like it is now, rainy and the air clung to your skin. She had given me a kiss on the way out, telling me to be sure to run on the treadmill for a minimum of thirty minutes with a five-minute cooldown. I nodded, eager to get to the next chapter in my latest action adventure and murmured a quick, ‘I love you too’ as I plugged in. The mechanical lock was the last thing I heard before the worst day of my life happened.
I didn’t start to get worried until lunchtime rolled around. At first, I thought that maybe she had decided to stop by the market and surprise me with a candy bar, or piece of fruit. I made the first call to her phone at two pm, then four, and finally five-thirty. I was just about to phone Laura when the apartment’s auxiliary system informed me that an officer was at our front door. It was the backup system since the police did not yet have a direct line to my headset. More than likely, my mother had placed a passcode on her phone which was an incredibly outdated tech for the time and the officers hadn’t known what to make of it.
I don’t remember a lot from that day, but I do remember the knot in my stomach that twisted as I placed one foot in front of the other. I knew if they were there, it meant that they had to have checked her implant since she wasn’t conscious enough to give them the direct line. As I approached, I remember the officer had called out his badge number and informed me that he was there to give me news on my mother. I swallowed thickly and opened the door. At the time, I had barely made out what they said, but I got the gist of it. She had stopped by a local market on the way home. A man that was fed up and desperate had picked that moment to set off a bomb that had taken out half the city. There were no survivors, including the bomber. I had numbly thanked the police officer, took what little was left of my mother from him and closed the door.
The second worst day of my life was the current day that I chose to go back to. That sounds confusing as hell when I think about it. I haven’t fully grasped how I’ve managed to get here, but I have a few good ideas. That’s the key, making sure that I know how so that I can share all of this with the others. I’m nearly thirty years in the past, right before the global revolution took hold. I stare down at the clear liquid in the syringe laying on the floor in front of my feet. I thought that I had put this day behind me, but my subconscious must have chosen this moment because it was a huge turning point in my life. I rolled the needle around the ground with my foot, staring at the temptation for the second time.
Had I have actually done it right back then, maybe I wouldn’t have to deal with any of this. When I had pushed the fluid into my arm the first time, I had passed out before I emptied the entire thing. It left me in excruciating pain for hours before my neighbors called it in after getting home from work. I crush the liquid tube beneath my foot into the other mess I made on the floor, digging my heel in defiantly. I would not revisit that place again. I lost countless hours locked away in that place when I could have done so much more for people. Our people. There’s a mechanical whirr as the iBo fires up and starts vacuuming the liquid mess.
It was standard issue for the stacked units, in an attempt to keep out pests. There was one stationed between two units on each level. Each floor in our particular unit was fairly spacious in our building. Compared to most units that preferred to cram in anywhere from 18 to 22 units, our building only allowed 12 units per floor. The only reason that I’ve gathered from this is that my mother left a substantial amount of money when she passed on and she owned this unit in full. Many places in the city started allowing you to pay off a unit if you were born in a certain year. I was lucky enough to actually be grandfathered in and the place was mine. I change shirts and then walk up to the sweeping bot, staring as it removes the contents and then pauses.
The blood drains from my face as I realize what it’s doing. Shit. I leap across the room, knowing that it is going to dock and report its findings. I can’t allow that. I hastily rip at the panel on top, push down and then lift the covering. It’s still charging toward the wall, I’m shocked how much pull this small device has. If it manages to actually make it before I can figure out what to disconnect, the authorities will be here in seven minutes. I have twenty feet at most and it’s moving one foot a second.
Shit, shit, shit.
I’m following along like a dog sniffing at their owner’s hand for food. I could jam the wheels that would buy me time. I find the nearest piece of cloth and rip it off the window. The floor is concrete so it isn’t used to going over the carpet. Most places didn’t have carpet anymore because it was found to be incredibly unsanitary. There’s a groan and then a strong odor as the moving parts get caught around all the fibers. I nearly shout in excitement as it stops eight feet from its destination. It would buy me at least three minutes before the front desk was notified that the bot had malfunctioned. Then a few more before maintenance would be knocking at the door. I locate the belly of the beast and push down the release switch. A warning buzzer sounds and I curse loudly at the empty space. Why the fuck did they make these things so fucking difficult?
Those three minutes would turn into seconds because it would notify the office that someone was tampering with the device. What’s done is done. I still have time before they would come up the elevator. I finally get the container free and open the latch. All of the glass and metal is there. I cross over to the cabinets and pull out a bag, then pick out all the pieces of glass and metal and dump them into it. I have to leave most of the dirt, or it will look suspicious. I’m about to put it back into the vacuum when I realize something. The liquid isn’t there. Fucking idiot.
I hear the ding at the end of the hallway and leap over to the front door. Most units didn’t have a top lock, but ours did. I turned it and then bolted back over to the vacuum. I could hear the men talking as their keys jingled down the hallway. I have ten seconds, twelve at most before they are at my door. I’m frantically searching where I pulled the dry vacuumed contents out, but there is no other container. I angrily flip the vacuum over and finally find it. I want to scream in anger, but I manage to jump to my feet and pull at the island drawer where I kept all of my small tools.
I rip at the small drill and hope that it all charged. Bit, bit, I yell at myself. I locate the smallest sized one and run over just as I hear the guys walk up to my front door. “Alexa, industrial music” I call frantically. Loud mechanical sounds with base start filling the area as I flip the switch on my drill. The noise is softer than the music playing and I sigh in relief. The bolt removes easily, but I have less than a handful of seconds before the men will be beating down my door, or call the authorities. I’m less than happy when I finally tear it free. There are a bunch of clear liquids and then brownish liquids in the front. It’s a series of small rows with several of them.
I press my hands into my forehead as I hear the first knock at the front door. There has to be a code for each unit. It’s evenly distributed into eight cylinders, the two nearest the front being darker─ which meant that they must be older. That left the middle units and the ones near the back. Here was my problem. I couldn’t just remove all of the liquid, that would land me in for questioning by the local PD and if tampering was actually evident it would turn into a federal case. I had to put something into the container or they would know that I had removed it. But which one?
The intercom sounded as a gruff middle-aged man cut over the industrial music. “Please silence your music and answer the door within thirty seconds, or we will contact local authorities.” Alexa paused the music. “The maintenance crew seems to be outside of your unit and is unable to get inside. Penal code 1174-2 paragraph 4─” “I understand, thank you, Alexa. I am complying. Please turn on my shower.” “Understood.” Alexa flipped on my shower. I ran to the bathroom and pushed the telecom button. “I’m here,” I shout, “sorry, I’m in the shower. Give me a minute and I’ll be right there.” The guy lets out a long sigh and grunts. “You got thirty seconds.” I let go of the switch and douse my hair in water, careful to not get it on my shirt. I’m still grasping the liquids as I run over and get a glass from the shelf. It was now or never, I bring the liquid eye level and decide on the back right. It’s clear but has a slight bluish tinge. This has to be it, the other looks like water. A really loud knock comes from the front again.
It sounds extremely impatient. “Yeah, yeah” I mutter. I dump most of the liquid into my glass and stick it in the refrigerator. Then I fill the rest of the tube up with water from the sink. I can’t keep the poison there all day, it will do a scan before I go to bed tonight. But it’s safe for now. I race over to the vacuum, shove the tubes in the way they were facing before and quickly hand screw the bolt in.
“Resident 10127, you are hereby warned that I am going to call local authorities─”
“Sorry” I yell, opening the door. “I slipped on the tub when I got out. It’s going to leave a nasty bruise.”
The man waiting at the door for me is every bit as gruff as I expect. His beady brown eyes are cross as he points a meaty finger my way. “What the hell is going on here?” He hasn’t listened to a word I said. Thankfully, I look about as flustered as I feel and I take a few breaths, steadying my voice. “Like I said, I was rushing to get out of the tub and I slipped and fell.” He stares at me for a few seconds. “Well?” I blink and look from him to the artificial unit next to him.
At first glance, the A.I. units look human, but when you look closely at them, you can tell they aren’t breathing. This unit is a simple older model with red hair and freckled skin. He is tall, close to six foot three and his skin is paler than mine. “You going to let me do my job so I can get to the other few hundred units that need servicing today?” I blush a deep scarlet and step back from the entrance. The A.I. unit looks to me as his partner enters. “You may enter,” I say quietly. The unit nods and steps into my loft. This always makes me uncomfortable, how the older units are programmed. We had to give verbal permission for them to enter. I really don’t like talking with anyone, unless I have to. I hear the older man let out a curse. “God damn son-of-a-bitch ate the curtains. Management ain’t gonna be happy ‘bout this.” He had the lingo that most blue collars did around here, with a heavy accent. He was definitely from the North East.
“Red, get your ass over here. Now.” The unit increased his pace as he rounded the corner to meet with the old man. I pulled the door shut and took a casual stride into my living space. The old man stands as I walk past and grabs my arm. “You do this?” I feign shock and scrunch my brow in confusion. “Why on earth would I do that? Like I said, I went to take a shower and the next thing I know, the two of you are beating down my door. I didn’t see this until I went to answer the door.” The lines deepen on the man’s face as he sizes me up. “What happened?” I again blink at his question, my eyebrows going up.
“What do you mean? I just─” “The bots don’t just come out unless there is a mess.” He threatens. It was that ‘don’t fuck with me’ tone that elders have an annoying way of doing perfectly. “Look,” I say, “I spilled some of my water earlier and broke a glass. I managed to get most of the glass up before it came out. Then I decided to hop in the shower. There isn’t a crime against that, is there?” I challenge him with my own stern gaze. He shrivels a little but still keeps his chest puffed slightly. “Yeah, we’ll see.” He bends down and scans the area.
I know the bot has done a good job, so I don’t hesitate to walk from both of them. “Let me know if you need anything else,” I offer dryly. The man mutters something sarcastic under his breath, but I am already at my computer, stuffing the bag into the small door to the right. I pull up my schedule, double tapping the screen. I need to get reacquainted with my life. I know this is my last semester at the university, but I had no idea what day it was, or if I had classes today. I relax, seeing that it’s Friday afternoon and have nothing going on. Then I wince. Of course, I don’t, this was the day I was planning on ending my life. I hear a few murmurs over my shoulders and slide my hand to the right to put the calendar away.
I stand and walk over to the refrigerator, then grab a glass. I am one of the few people that still keeps the old water pitchers. I prefer the flavor of the charcoal filter versus the filtration system for our units. I knew it was probably in my head, but I swear I can taste some sort of medicinal residue. It always has a bitter, metallic flavor.
“In accordance with penal code 1174-2, paragraph 4 versus─” “Don’t lecture me on something my grandfather helped write, you hunk of junk. I said beat it.” I took a few sips, chancing a glance over at the two. The A.I. stood and turned walking down my short hallway. I tense as I hear the door slam. Apparently, even the older models are programmed with human reactions. The old man sighs heavily and meets my gaze.
I can see he is working something out in his mind. He nods and motions with his other hand for me to come over. I set down my glass and try to control my breathing. What does he know? Great going, Bonham. Your first day back in the past and you manage to make enemies with a man that can turn your life to shit in minutes. I picture the hospital. When I say hospital, I’m using that term very loosely. It was more like a privately funded prison. Most of the best hospitals were stationed further north or on the lunar colonies. For the rest of us simpletons, it was normally a house visit for federally regulated drug prescriptions, or it was diagnosed with your mobile care unit.
There was a mobile clinic in each building. It was a small, 4×4 foot space that you wore provided booties and face mask in. It then took a swab of your saliva or blood sample and quickly diagnosed the issue. Within two hours, the prescription was sent directly to you and you were ordered to quarantine in your quarters for the remainder of the contagious period. Then your entire unit was decontaminated and you could go back to your life. But attempted self-harm cases were different. You had to go under a physician’s care for a minimum of one year, effectively losing your spot on the lease and freezing your accounts until a doctor cleared you to go back into society. If you wanted to go about it the legal way and file for assisted suicide, that was a whole other mess. Much like the first one, you were required by the state to enroll yourself in a year-long program with a psychiatric care physician, then placed on medication and have been on the medication for a year before you were allowed to make that decision on your own.
Which meant it was a two-year minimum to end your suffering. Total bullshit. That’s why I took it into my own hands and did a shit ton of research on how to slowly collect the chemicals I would need to die peacefully. That was mostly here, in the U.S. but there were some countries that were way worse off.
“Look, kid, I don’t got all day.” I jump at his words, but manage to walk around the corner with a straight look on my face. I don’t bother saying anything as I stand in front of him. I’m not really one for words, most the time people just sort of say what they think and I remark here and there to keep them sated.
This guy, there was something about him. Even though he seems like a dick, his voice has softened a degree. His eyes even appear softer. I’m not sure if it’s all in my head when he speaks. “Had a son about your age a few years ago.” I stay quiet, interested in what he’s trying to say. I’m curious because he’s leading up to something, I can tell. He doesn’t sound angry, he sounds sad. “I know it ain’t easy. All this.” He motions with his hand making a circle. “Things aren’t making much sense anymore with all the old people young again. See, me, I’m a traditionalist. I ain’t wanting any of that weird shit, ya know?” I nod pressing my lips into a forced half-smile. Where is he going with all this? Then I freeze as I see his portable analysis machine.
He’s found the small amounts I’ve tried to hide with the water. I try not to panic, but I can sense it’s creeping into my eyes. I can feel them growing wider. I jump as he places his hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry, alright. As my grandfather would always say, I ain’t no snitch.” He stops and points his finger across from me. “Mark my words, if you make me regret this decision, I’ll make it hell for you and anyone related to you. You get me?” I tear up, trying to not let it slip from my eyes but my body betrays me. I feel the wetness slide down my face and I turn away. “You don’t have to worry about that. I’m the only one left.” He grunts and takes a step back. “No family, eh?” I shake my head.
He scratches the back of his head uncomfortably. “I…uh. I ain’t much good at this, but I seen that school you attend. It’s the third best school in the country and your, what, Top eight in your class?” “Five” I whisper. “What’sat?” he asks. “I’m in the top five,” I repeat softly. He cracks a smile, clearing his screen. “Seems like an awful waste to me. With scores like that, you can do just about anything you want.” He bends down and clears iBo system records. I don’t know this guy and he’s doing all of this for me. I’m awkward, unsure of how to thank him. If he would have reported me, I would have repeated the past and lost everything. Now it makes sense.
He had ordered the A.I. unit out in the hallway because it would have reported me immediately. It was legally bound to do so with the Human’s Rights Act of 2045. Basically if a human was a danger to themselves or others they would be reported to local authorities and processed within twenty-four hours.
I let out a long, shaky breath. “I don’t really have much to offer, but─” “yeah, look kid. I ain’t lookin’ for nothin’ alright? Just, do good in school and make something of yourself. Cut whatever nonsense this is out, alright? Some of us, you know, wish they got what you do.” I nod woodenly. The bot is back on the floor and heading back to the wall to dock. The guy is almost to the door when it dawns on me. “How’s your son?” I ask. He stops and casts a wary glance back at me. “He made it a little further than you did today, kiddo.” I’m so shocked, I’m speechless. The door closes behind him before I’m able to actually react to what he’s said. I’m tempted to go outside after him, but think better of it. I don’t want to raise suspicion more than I probably have with the A.I. unit. Besides, there was work to be done and I had no idea what the hell I am going to do to prevent what was bound to happen.
I wave goodbye to Karis after dropping her off at her new class. It’s been two days since she last went. I had taken what happened Monday to be a sign that both of us needed a break. I didn’t press too much, but I had a long chat with her about keeping what happened to herself. Especially for the other children and teachers. I don’t like telling my daughter to lie but in this case, it is best that we lie to everyone─ including ourselves. I left that last bit out, of course, an eight-year-old doesn’t need to learn the depressing truths of adulthood just yet.
I’m not even sure what is going on. The last two days have been quiet, no real incidents or weird indoor rain clouds. Just thinking that should be enough to make me feel stupid. Indoor rain clouds. What’s next, gnomes, faeries or maybe the boogeyman? Karis has been spending the night with me. As a parent, I know I really shouldn’t be feeding her fear─ she needs to see reason and logic. Unfortunately, there is no reason behind what has happened. I even got paranoid about it possibly be carbon monoxide poisoning and changed our detector. No luck, no explanation, so I’m relying on the loss of sleep and added stress theory. We’ve both been playing games, watching shows and movies. It was a nice staycation, but it is time to get back to reality.
Traffic is incredibly light today. I pull into the parking garage with 30 minutes to spare. I can’t remember the last time it’s happened. I sigh, my shoulders falling as I walk to the stairs. For once I can sit, read the news and enjoy a cup of coffee before the work day begins.
I look up as she peeks around my office door. “Hey, Carroll what’s up?” I ask. She inches her way into the space, nervously looking around. Carroll was one of those sorts that always looks guilty, even when they’ve done nothing wrong. With her brown hair and slight frame, I’m always reminded of a mouse or rat. Her voice is soft, sometimes it’s hard to hear. “I was wondering if I could have the rest of the day off?” I blinked a few times up at her and then looked over at the clock. It was barely eleven. “Everything ok?” She looks stunned for a moment, then drops her gaze to the floor.
“You…can’t ask that.” I blink a few more. She’s right, I didn’t think of that. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to pry, I was just concerned is all.” Carroll doesn’t react, just shuffles her feet a little and hugs herself. Something is definitely wrong. When she stands in silence, I realize she is waiting for me to approve her time off. My next sentence comes out stilted and awkward, “yes, of course, you may. Take all the time─” she’s out the door before I can finish and the words die in my throat.
In all the years we’ve worked together, I’ve never seen her so upset. I stand and walk across the hallway and then through the small door that leads into her office. An odor immediately hits me, strong and sour. I cover my mouth and nose, searching the room for the source of the smell. Everything is pristine as usual, it’s spotless, so where on earth is that vile smell coming from? I open each of her drawers, scan the desk, and open her cabinets.
“What are you doing?” I jump and spin around. Carroll is blocking the doorway, her eyes rimmed in red. As I get a closer look at her face, I realize she looks terrible. Her features are tired and drawn, her skin a sallow color. Like she hasn’t slept in days. “Do you smell that?” She inhales sharply, her hand coming up and hanging awkwardly as she points in my direction. “You smell it?” I furrow my brows, “Of course, it’s awful. What is that?” She lets out a long sigh, her shoulders sagging. “Oh thank god,” she says, “I thought I was going crazy.”
I walk over to the trash. “Don’t bother,” she whispers. I stop mid-bend and look over my shoulder, “What do you mean?” Carroll shakes her head, “You won’t find the source. I’ve looked everywhere─ even had maintenance go above me to see if a rat had died in the ceiling.” A rat. I look across at her and she suddenly is aware of me. She wraps herself in a hug, looking over at the glowing monitor.
She looks even more mouse-like as her eyes widen in fear. An overwhelming stench fills the space. It’s so strong I feel like I’m going to vomit, it’s putrid─ rotten. Carroll covers her face and steps back into the hallway. Her eyes water, “please, get out.” I look over at her sudden angry outburst. “Wha─” “Get. Out.” she repeats slowly. I walk from the room, “listen, I’ll have someone take a look at that, you take the day off, ok?” She barely hears me, her eyes staring at the dark space. “Carroll─” she jumps, “stay away from me,” she snaps. I’m stunned into silence. I’ve never seen her behave this way. She spins on her heel and bolts away.
“Daddy?” I look up from my meal, wondering how long I’ve been staring at my food. Karis’s plate is empty. “What is it, honey buns?” I ask. Her lips purse and she scrunches her eyebrows together. She looks so much like Jen right now it hurts. It’s the look she gave me when I brought work home. “Does your tummy hurt? You didn’t eat.” I shake my head, “no, baby girl, I’m just worried about your mom.” Her eyebrows go up “why?” she asks, “did you guys fight again?” Then quietly she adds, “is it about me?”
I stare across at this girl that is now definitely on the path to adulthood too soon and wonder if this is what causes it. I’ve never experienced divorce, well, except for my own, but not in life. Kids always called me sheltered. I look at the ground and frown, this is probably what they meant. “No, honey. I haven’t heard from mommy in almost a week. That worries me, doesn’t that worry you?” I’m shocked when she starts laughing. “Daddy, don’t fib to me─ are you playing a trick?” I look up at her face, it’s crinkling near her eyes and her eyes are sparkling. It’s the kind of look a child gets just before you’re about to bring out the tickle monster and they scream, ‘nooo don’t!’ but always stay just within your reach.
She really does think this is just a game. Some secret family joke. I can’t tell if she is in denial or really just believes─ I pause mentally. “Karis, have you heard from mama?” She laughs harder. “Daddy, you’re silly.” “Karis.” I snap in that no-nonsense adult speech we all somehow master. She stops laughing but the glint is still in her eyes. There’s something she’s not telling me. “Why are you asking me? You’re the one that told me mommy is picking me up this weekend.” My jaw drops and I fight the urge to yell, the audacity of this girl lately. “Karis, you know that’s not true. Why are you lying?”
Her lips pressed together and her chin raises, “I am not lying.” she sputters. “Your phone went off last night and you answered. Mama said that she would be here Friday to come and pick me up. And you said─” “Alright if you want to continue with this,” I reach into my pocket and remove my phone. I swipe across the screen and go into my recent calls. It’s the second time tonight my jaw comes unhinged.
She isn’t lying.
I pour through my text messages. There are dozens of new messages between Jenna and me. There’s even one from this morning telling her about Carroll’s strange behavior. Then another message about confirming her picking Karis up at 6 p.m. tomorrow night. “What the fuck,” I say out loud.
Karis gasps, “Oooo. Daddy that’s a no-no word” she whispers. I sigh, “I’m sorry, baby. I guess I forgot about mommy talking with me.” I press my fingers over the bridge of my nose. The pressure feels good, reassuring. What like you aren’t losing your damn mind? I shake my head and try not to fall apart. Karis scoots her floor across the chair and walks over to me.
I feel her little arms wrap around my body and her gentle squeeze. “It’s ok daddy, I get confused sometimes too.” She pauses, “especially with reading─ the words jumble funny. I don’t like them.” She backs away and puts one arm behind her back and then one up to her mouth, nervously biting at the nail. “Does that happen to you?”
I melt at her innocent words. She is trying to make me feel better the only way she knows how. I wish adults were this sincere, it would solve so many of my problems. “Yes, baby it does. It does to everyone that first starts. Speaking of which, go run and do your homework.” She pouts and chews on her nail more, her shoulders slumping. “Now, Karis. I mean it,” I say. She sulks the whole way, but I hear her grab her backpack and go into her room.
I wait until I’m sure she will actually be focused on her work before I slip outside and dial the number. Please pick up, I pray silently. The phone rings a second time, and then a third. By the fourth ring, I’m about to hang up when a sharp click sounds. There’s a brief silence and then shuffling.
She doesn’t answer. Maybe the connection is bad. “Jenna? Can you hear me?” I ask, worried that maybe she’s in the middle of a surgery. But, if that were true she wouldn’t have her phone on her. It isn’t allowed in the room while she’s working. Maybe she pocket answered. I listen to see if I can hear any rustling or a swoosh.
A long breath of air blows across the microphone, it sounds like a sigh. “Jen, are you on mute? I heard a sigh is that you? If you said anything, I didn’t hear it.” Click.
I jump, then sag and let out a huge sigh of relief, “Oh thank god” I whisper. “What’s that? What’s going on?” Her voice sounds extremely tired like I’ve woken her. I pull the phone away and look at the time. Shit. She normally wakes up in an hour for her shift. Now I feel like even more of an asshole.
“I’m so sorry to wake you, Jen. I just needed to hear your voice.” I instantly regret saying that. I know what she’s going to say.
“Tom─” she sighs, “Nevermind. Are you OK? Is this about Carroll?” I shake my head and then feel dumb, she can’t see me, “no, no just listen OK?” I know how crazy it’s going to sound, I know it isn’t true, but I feel like the right thing to do right now is be honest. Jenna is a doctor first, she’ll listen and tell me what I should do.
Am I safe to even be around Karis? My mind starts wondering what else has been going on while I took a mental vacation from life. I don’t like it, but I tell her everything─ Karis’s troubles at school, the otherworldly cloud visiter, and the missing timelines and not remembering that we had texted or called.
She’s silent for a few seconds. “Have you told anyone else about this?” “No, no one. You know how bad that would look?” My shoulders droop as the weight of the last few days leaves my body. “Besides, who the hell would believe me?” I hear a click on the other end and some rustling. She must have turned on her bedside lamp. “Honey, I love you, but you have got to start taking care of yourself. Stop worrying about me and everyone else.”
Even when I just told her something that I’d convinced myself was a mental breakdown, she still has that focus and pragmatic nature I love. She is thinking just like me, knowing that I must be under a lot of pressure. There is nothing about this woman that is horrible, no flaws, she handles herself and others so well. That’s what is making this all so hard, I can’t be angry when she’s so level-headed. How can I yell when she makes perfect sense? It was between her words that she wanted me to read, not what she was actually saying.
It’s a way for her to say that I needed to get sleep, eat, get mental rest from work and life. I haven’t given myself enough time to heal. “I’m sorry,” I mutter, “I know you have a life now─ a new one and I keep screwing it up.” She sighs on the other end, but it’s a candid one and somehow gentler.
“You honestly think I’m doing this because I want to?” She’s awake now, there’s no trace of grogginess. She has my full attention. This is news to me, after all, she was the one that filed for a divorce. “What do you mean?” I ask hopefully. “Tom, I’m not doing this right now.” I pace in the kitchen. I’m edging dangerously close to feeling optimistic. I want to ground myself, but it’s no use─ the words just fly out, “Jen, what is all this? Why are you doing this to us?” I hear her sniff on the other side, it’s a wet sniff, she must be crying.
Now I’m really confused. If she didn’t want all of this, why the insistence, why the new place, why any of this? At first, I thought what any newly divorced man thinks─ another man. But after a while, I realized that wasn’t it at all. There would have been plenty of signs, Karis would have seen him by now or hear her mommy talking with him.
“You know why.” her voice is really wavering, a cross between frustrated and sad. I instantly feel guilty. I have no idea why, I haven’t done anything, but her crying is something I’ve never been invulnerable to. I take a long breath in and then exhale. Ok, she is on one of her manic bouts. She probably thinks that we have talked about this before. I calm myself down before speaking.
“Honey, I really don’t. I’m sorry if we talked about this before, but I really don’t remember.” The tears start coming on the other end. She sputtering and sniffing, she sounds really upset. I wait patiently as she collects herself on the line. This is the first time I’ve really heard her get upset, well to this degree. The last time was the day that she left me.
“Tom, I really can’t do this right now. I have less than an hour to my shift.” I sigh, glancing up at the clock. She’s right, but it’s awful timing. If it weren’t for the hour, I would assume she is purposely avoiding me. Would it really matter? I think bitterly. It’s over, and she won’t even tell you why. That’s not fair, but I need to feel that right now to separate myself emotionally. “Alright, I get it. We’ll see you tomorrow.” She hangs up and I’m the idiot that’s still sitting here and staring at the screen.
Karis giggles as we pull up to the building. I stare for several moments from the parking lot. “Wow daddy, it’s like a castle” Karis squeals as she jumps up and down in the back seat. She isn’t kidding. I can’t believe places like this actually exist. I frown, realizing that while I make well over a hundred thousand, it’s nowhere near what Jen makes. I gape at the brickwork and tall iron gates, being a specialist definitely has its perks.
I open the passenger side door and gather Karis’s bags. A whole week away is going to be torture for me. Being a dad is really all that I know. I swallow thickly as I cross over to Karis’s door. I knew it was coming, I had gotten her a whole extra week during the transition of Jen getting a new place. I frown at the extravagance. This isn’t her, maybe she is going through something too. I’ve never known her to get something over $1200 a month─ which was tough in this city, but she had a way of negotiating.
This isn’t just a normal loft─ town-home? I squint at the windows, there are several bay windows, paired off in two’s and then a ten-foot gap between them. These have to be lofts, a town-home would have an entrance on the ground facing the main road and all I see is one entrance and a main roll-up garage door.
Still, these have to run at least three grand a month, we’re barely five minutes from the main city and that’s with traffic. No way she isn’t spending twice our mortgage on this place, I don’t even need to see what the inside of it looks like.
The weird part is this place is new─ it has to be, and yet the bricks look authentic, like something you would have seen in the early twentieth century. I can almost hear the blend of weird car horns and horse-drawn carriages. I glance around feeling incredibly uneasy. Where are the other people? I haven’t spotted a single car since we’ve pulled up. It’s Friday night and we are barely one street over from the main bars and restaurants. Where is everyone?
Karis’s door swings open and she peeks out her little head, “Did you get lost, daddy?” I crack a smile, “har-har” I say. I reach into the car and tickle under her arms and belly. Her giggles are like music to my ears. “OK, OK, I give!” she yells between gasps of air. Man, I’m going to miss this bundle of fun.
Jenna looks absolutely stunning and she’s not even trying. I swear she is getting younger, just last week she looked like she was in her late twenties─ she doesn’t look a day over 23. I always thought blue looked really great on her, there’s something about the way her hair looks against it, but these clothes seem like they were made just for her. It’s just a shirt over tights but somehow she manages to make it look like an evening gown.
“Hey Jen,” I say, hating how shy I sound. I’m 42 years old for christ’s sake. “Hey” she replies warmly. There’s something in her eyes as they linger on mine. I can’t help but respond, my body growing warm and heart racing. She bends down to Karis balancing on her legs. “Hey honey-bunny, you want to run upstairs and check out your new room?” Karis squeals again and tears up the stairs.
I shake my head. “Man, I wish I had a tenth of that energy. I’d get so much done.” Jen laughs leading me toward the stairs. “Right? I’d kill for that some days.” That gets a real laugh out of me, “Hun have you seen yourself? I have never seen any woman look as good as you at 39.” Her laughing stops and she pauses near the top of the staircase, “Looks can be deceiving.”
I’m confused by her sudden moment of silence. Had I offended her?
A scream sounds from down the hall─ it’s long and loud, really loud.
Conclusion coming soon! xoxo – C.A.
Gone. Before my eyes the world I knew swept from me in a tide of flame─ never-ending, and twisting to the sky. The barrel of the gun is pressed to the back of my skull. I’m on my knees like a dog, bound to a large steel frame─ part of an unfinished house next to ours. I watch silently, my voice gone from screaming. I squeeze my eyes shut─ God make it stop. I knew the answer to my silent plea. Prayer was for children and fairy tales. We had moved here to start a new life. The whole area had been part of a revamp project to help inner-city families. We’d moved into the first house built on a street called hope. Hope. How ironic. The now glowing embers and faint silhouettes are all that stands of our sanctuary. My eyes wander to their faces. I know I shouldn’t, but force myself to look. They hang from the porch, as if swinging from the gallows. My husband for the first time looks like a sleeping child. The half of his face that is left is serene─ the other half is a pulpy mass. They didn’t waste time on him.
I then look to my son and gag, wanting to purge the image from my mind. The whites of his eyes shine through the quieted flame, like the walking dead he floats and his little face is frozen in anguish. He is still wearing what he wore to bed─ his iron man socks and underwear. They didn’t even have the decency to dress him. His body is so terribly beaten that the color of his flesh is purple. I want to cry, but nothing comes out. There’s a fluttering response in my belly─ almost as if my unborn son knows his fate. I wish I could offer some comfort. I hope that they will end us both soon. Laughter sounds, silencing my thoughts. The barrel nudges me from behind, a gentle reminder of my position. There is a slight movement to my right, crunching gravel and the surrounding laughter ceases.
“You’ve been a bad girl, my dear,” the voice calls. It’s the kind of voice that creeps along your spine with all the eloquence of a black widow. Vertebrae by vertebrae it prods gently─ waiting for the right bit of flesh to sink its fangs into. From the shadows steps a man dressed in the finest suit I’d ever seen─ it’s perfectly tailored for his body. He is tall and solid, the kind of man you avoid on the street. It’s something in the way he holds himself, he doesn’t need to look intimidating─ he just is. Suit’s fedora is placed just so that I can’t get a decent look at him. I don’t need to, I know who he is. Daemon’s right-hand man, Ty. I’ll never call him this− it would somehow make him human. He doesn’t deserve that. To me, he’s just Suit. My eyes search the group as I memorize each of their faces. Finally, they stop on the Suit.
He sneers, “What, nothing to say for once sweetheart?” He pauses and looks around, chuckling with his filthy hyenas. Sauntering up, he steps behind me. I feel the gun removed from my head. There’s a crunching noise before the heel of his foot is put in its place. “Come on, there must be something,” he quips, digging his foot into my skull. I stare at the ground, mute. He sighs, retracts his foot and then brings it down hard on my head─ a grunt of satisfaction leaving his lips. I wait for the next one, but it doesn’t come. He’s pausing─ for what I don’t know. I wait and begin to fidget. Surely there is more. Then I feel the binds fall to the ground. I jolt forward, but someone slams me back into place. A tunnel of black clouds my vision, but I fight hard and remain conscious. It’s a small victory at least. He grabs both my hands and ties them over my head. I swallow thickly, the worst is coming. His hands brush against mine and trail along my left arm down to my chest. Suit’s hands hover just above my breast. Then he moves it over to my heart and presses against me firmly. For five long beats, he stays this way. Then the rocks scrape across the concrete as he shifts, standing over me.
The world is suddenly ringing─ jarring and cruel. His groans of pleasure sound as kick after paralyzing kick begins. My ribs sing in agony and I feel my right eye swell then finally close. One last kick and he stops, leaning down to my face. I can smell him─ smell the bourbon and rot through his shit-eating grin. I will never forget this smell. He reaches down into his pocket and pulls something out. There is a familiar flick and I jerk feverishly looking up. A lighter. But I’m not given time to panic, there’s a sharp pain in the back of my head. It’s the last I know before darkness creeps in. I wish in these last moments to join my family.
The breath of life wakes me and I curse at the unwanted gift. Pristine black shoes invade my one good eye, sliding to a halt. In the distance, a wailing siren sounds over the gentle crackling of subdued flame. Were they my sirens? Had someone called in the fire? Tristan… I vow revenge in that moment, for my husband, my two sons─ offering to whatever deity can hear me my servitude. An instant passes−the feint flutter of wings resonates against the buildings. My eye strains and then focuses to the dark stretch of alley visible between Suit’s legs. A lone raven lands and cocks its head to the side. It stares in my direction, then eyes the men. It’s waiting. A single grating voice disturbs the hush and I cringe at reality.
“C’mon where’s my feisty little reporter that I so admire. No stories for me?” Even though I know it won’t help, I stay quiet. He shifts and then continues, “maybe one about a particular company? Hmm, Vivian? ” My name slithers off of his tongue as if he were seducing a lover and I retch in disgust. Leaning down, he caresses my cheek. I try twisting away but he holds my face in place.
“You and me, we could have a little fun before you go. I’ve always had a thing for redheads.” I growl pulling furiously away from his grasp, but he holds my chin in place.
I level my gaze at him, “I’d rather swallow razor blades while cigarettes are put out in my eyes,” I quip through clenched teeth.
“Mmm, well suit yourself, love.” He lets go and with one hand, singles out a small patch of hair near my face. Reaching into his pocket, he pulls out a knife. When I try to squirm, he just laughs and cuts the strand from my face, nicking my brow.
He stands and parts the hair into two piles. One he pockets and the other, to my growing disgust, places in his mouth. He lets out a low moan, savoring the strands like they were a fine wine. Sick bastard. Suit finishes and leans down to dust off his shoes.
“Now, where were we, my dear?”
I feel the crushing weight of his foot bear down on my gut squeezing what little life is left of the child inside of me. I feel my baby’s fluttering movements as he tries to escape the pressure. I snap and thrust my head forward into Suit’s shin with as much force as I can. He curses and backs away, grabbing at his leg. Before I can stop myself words finally spew out.
“Stop it! You have what you want, they’re all dead.” My desperation does nothing but inflates his anger and he delivers a swift blow to my nose. Blood leaks down into my screaming mouth. Who was I kidding, what wayward deity would heed my call? I prayed for a quick death. There is that hope again─ I knew better. Daemon’s men took great pleasure in drawing out the kill. My husband was an exception to the rule, simply because in the right frame of mind, he would have killed these thugs in less than five minutes.
Suit chuckles, dusting off his pants. His tone comes out dismissive, “Alright, Green. It’s time the newbie earned his spot in the crew. Go on behind her and get your gun ready.” From behind, I hear shuffling and someone slowly walks up to me. I hear Suit sigh and tap his foot.
“Kevin, what are you doing? Pull out the gun and place it on her head. We need to teach her a lesson.” I can hardly manage to breathe as I wait.
“Yeah, sure I know.” Hesitation, “I just, you know─ do you have to beat her so much?” Suit doesn’t answer. The boy stutters, “I mean, damn man she’s already busted up real bad.” Keeping my head low, I glance at Suit’s shoes as he strolls over to Kevin.
“Tell you what, Green. Why don’t you give me the gun and I’ll find a man that has a pair out here to do it for you.” Kevin shifts again before I hear the gun being handed off.
“Look, I’m sorry Ty I just I got a soft spot for girls. That’s all, I don’t mean any disrespect─ It’s just whoa─ whoa okay man I’m leaving, alright?” The quick shuffle of his boots sounds as Kevin turns to leave. He gets midway across the parking lot before Suit puts three rounds in him. The deafening slump of his body signals the end of chivalry in the group.
“Any more concerns, gentlemen?” When no one speaks, he hands the gun off to the nearest lackey and walks in front of me. Lackey two quickly shuffles and then presses the gun hard into my temple.
“There now, all cozy.” He rubs his hands together. “Interruptions, interruptions. Where was I?” He claps, “Ah yes, the fact that you can’t keep your nose out of company affairs.” As if scolding a child, he tousles my hair.
“Well now, can’t have that, can we darling. Mr. Reese is a very busy man, I’m afraid, and can’t make it to your execution. But don’t worry. It will all be filmed for his enjoyment later.” His words sounded like he was explaining them to a business partner, just business as usual. No big deal we’ve murdered your entire family.
“You spineless piece of shit. You think you’re going to get away with this? I’m sorry, that all of you, are going to get away with this?” She spat blood at the ground wincing from the pain before continuing.
“What do you think will happen when a major news anchor doesn’t show for her reveal of the biggest accounting scandal the United States has known? All those poor families tossed aside─ They don’t even know what N.C. Global has in store for them, and all of you?” she paused chuckling─ let them blow her brains out.
“All of you just sit back, get richer and watch your former employees die on the street from starvation. Yeah, I stuck my nose in─ right where it belonged, arrogant prick.” A sharp slap across my face sends me into fits of laughter, all sanity thrown to the winds like ashes. He slaps me again and again. The blood’s really flowing now, soaking the ground in front of me. I watch as it snakes around his black boots, untouched and blossoming into wings. At least a part of me can be free. The raven calls in the distance, maybe letting me know it’s still there. Maybe it’s come for the soul I’ve offered. Or maybe I’ve finally lost it. I smile through the long tangles of red matted to my face. My vision is sorely impaired, I can barely make him out. I look up to Suit’s shadowed form and whisper my last words.
“Pray I don’t make it out of this alive.”
The Suit stops, watching me from above. I revel in his brief insecurity. For once, he is speechless. But that’s all Fate has allowed. To my dismay, his wheezing laughter sounds.
“You think this is only about money? Oh, little girl, it’s more than that. You have−” Quickened crunches of gravel interrupt us, followed by an alarmed voice.
“We got problems, someone reported the fire and shots. We got five minutes, maybe less.” Tick, tock the death clock tolls. Suit clicks through his teeth, “Too bad, I wanted to have a little more fun with this one too.” Leaning down, he presses his mouth close to my ear. “How’s that sweet little sister of yours doing?” No. Not this, let it end with this. I can feel his smile with the next sentence, “Lily, was it?” My eyes widen in disbelief and a gag is thrust into my mouth. God, no her life was just starting. Lily was halfway through her doctorates at Harvard, barely 18. We had just celebrated her 18th birthday a few weeks ago. We knew she was special after testing out of middle school at eight. Lily was the only family that I had. Our parents had passed when we were young and our grandparents had succumbed to cancer several years ago.
Standing, he turns and walks away. “Time for naughty little girls to go to bed.”
My bravado gone, I scream─ my vocal cords’ tearing until nothing comes out. Suit is gone, I don’t know where─ I desperately rip at my binds. My left shoulder cries in protest but I pull harder, finally dislocating it. It can’t end like this, not like this. They had to pay, all of them. The barrel nestles in the back of my skull. Give me fiery eternity─ I’d barter with any devil, spirit, or demon. The fates willing, even in death, I’d find a way. The resounding click cuts through my thoughts as the hammer is pulled back.
Flurries of wings, the splintering of skull, and silence.
Long moments pass and there is nothing. It feels like hours. I am stuck between existence and abyss. Did he pull the trigger? Maybe this is what they talk about. The minutes of brain function before you slowly fade. I’m in the fade. My thoughts cease as I feel the presence creeping behind me. Slinking, calculated steps. I wince at the glow and then look to see my body lying limp from the pole before me. Bits of gore and blood spray the sidewalk fanning out in a perfect semi-circle. Entranced I stare unable to tear my gaze from the beaten form. I should feel something, but all my emotions feel hollow. Except one─ hate. It fills me.
What is it that you want? The entity calls. Feathers explode surrounding my new body─ tenderly embracing it’s every orifice. I welcome the intrusion, letting it seep in. I halt as I draw breath. It is a curious effect because I feel nothing come in or out. For the first time, breathing is optional. For a moment, I struggle to find my voice─ then it rings out with clarity.
“I demand retribution” I growl.
Yes indeed, it whispers, then a pause. And I can help you─ but first, a contract must be formed. I should have known. Nothing is free in the real world, why would it be after death?
I’m surprised at the wariness in my own voice, “Do what you must.”
Laughter reverberates off the enclosed space like autumn leaves. Child, do you know what you are getting into? My chin rises stubbornly though I quake in fear from its mighty presence. “I don’t care the cost, give me the contract.” In an instant, the twin beauties appear before my eyes. Their chrome is embellished with delicate, intricate designs− Desert Eagles, 50 caliber. One forged from obsidian, the other pure silver. Ironic, Tristan always told me they weren’t for girls. He was a retired war vet, so naturally had taught me how to shoot. She winced at the past tense used in her own mind. A shame neither of us were prepared since we moved to our city home. Anger shoots full force as I think about what had been done to both him and our son, Jason─ of the life ruined inside of me. Yes, I would do anything it took to make this right. No matter the cost. Choose the right one to commit the act, or suffer an eternity of servitude without your vengeance. But a warning−patience does not exist within the dark.
Words appear on each weapon, snaking around the intricate carvings. Vengeance to the left on Obsidian: Loyalty to the right on silver. So here was my catch. Vengeance was what I wanted, wanted bad but loyalty made sense since I would be in contract. More than likely, I would have to serve this thing, whatever it was, for the rest of eternity. Or did it anticipate that I would think that and pick vengeance instead as the right choice? Decisions, decisions time was ticking.
“What do they both mean? Explain my choices.” Ah, clever girl. I will tell you, but for a price. I’m growing impatient with its games, but I need to know. “What is the cost?”
When and IF you are revived, no one will remember you. Not even your precious Lily─ if you so much as talk with her, the contract is broken and you will be sent to eternal damnation−
“And my vengeance is not given, I get it. Anything else?” I become nervous as the being is quiet for a while, I try to turn but something keeps me at bay. You are not allowed to see just yet, child. Of course not, could this thing be any more infuriating?
Here are the answers in which you seek:
Upon choosing the left with vengeance in mind,
There can only be Death to the life you are tied
Never to see the light of day
And dissipate your spirit will.
Upon choosing the right with loyalty in mind
Life will restore but to darkness, you bind
Vengeance is a mystery left to stay
However, your soul will forever remain.
What did it mean, what did it mean? I try to break it down, so if I choose vengeance my soul goes away and I lose my life. But if I chose loyalty then there’s a chance that I may never get my vengeance. What the hell do I do? Images flash through my mind, my husband Tristan asking me to marry him, our first time to make love. The joyous news of a child and our first home, then Scott’s first steps, his sweet morning kisses. All of it gone in seconds─ precious seconds that now slip past me and a choice that will change everything.
Time is running out ─ choose or I choose for you. My gaze flits left to right, wavering between the two. I hover for several seconds by Vengeance before finally jerking my hand to the right and gripping my destiny.
Now place the barrel to your temple and pull the trigger.
Didn’t I have enough bullets to the brain for one night? My hand shakes from the weight of the gun as I put it in place, taking all of my strength to put the finger on the trigger. Ten seconds, twenty─ screw it. I close my eyes tight and squeeze the trigger feeling the bullet of Loyalty scream through. Laughter erupts around me.
The contract is sealed.
Opening my eyes, I stare at stark, white walls. For a moment, I look around before realization sets in. This was it, a second chance. It is my time─ my fate and no one would take it from me again. Glancing down, I spot a neat pile of clothes and grin. On top is a folded piece of paper. Inside in fine print is an address:
105 West Main Street.
I know that it will lead me on the path to finding Suit and his men. The life telling machines beep in alarm as I rip the tubes from my arms and nose. Padding down the hall, I duck into the bathroom. The mirror is not a friendly place. I’ve lost quite a bit of weight and my hair has grown long. I know I shouldn’t, but I do anyway. I slowly pull at my shirt and look down. A small scar is visible, the scar where my little one was taken away. I have nothing. How could these bastards live with themselves? For god’s sake, I was seven months pregnant. Anger flows and I punch the glass in front of me.
The answer was simple─ I was nothing personal to any of them. Wiping the blood from my hand I lose myself a little to the madness and laugh. There would be no remorse or pity for them, and I was making it personal. I quickly change and smooth back my hair. Feeling a little less like a cancer patient, I step out of the bathroom. A nurse passes, eying me suspiciously. I take a casual stride as she passes and then slip from the nearest side exit. A blinding world awaits me, the sunlight shimmering down. Was it all a dream? As if in response, I feel the weight in each of my pockets. Reaching my hands inside they find the silky-smooth metal of the guns. There’s a street bike running, ten feet away. I smile as I ride from the parking lot.
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.
I watch from the window as the tall, dark-haired woman walks to her car. She’s dressed smartly for the summer in a cool white dress and matching shoes. Her coral colored toes peek playfully from the crisp, white heels. Coral nail polish is mama’s favorite too. I have a sneaking suspicion that there exists a secret witch’s coven dedicated to destroying children’s lives, all of them standing in neat little rows with coral painted feet. I stick my tongue out and make faces at the woman behind her back. Ms. Cathy’s neat little brown bun, like the last of my hope, disappears into the green ford explorer. The wheels crunching over the gravel sounds like rain beating across our thin roof. This time she stayed less than ten minutes. She spoke in that annoying tone that adults do when they think you are pulling one over on them. Most of the women that came out would simply say ‘mind your mother now and be a good girl’. They have never witnessed mama’s wrath or that look in her eye. The look that could melt all of Antarctica with a single glance.
“Katherine-Anne- Thomas you get out here right now.”
I sulk at Mama’s tone, she always sounds like she is screaming at me to come inside. No matter how far I stand from her. I take my time, dragging my fingers along the familiar dips and bumps on the wall. I pause at the entrance to the living room and then drop down to my knees and peer around the TV stand. Her blonde mane is perfectly groomed, each strand of hair curls to frame her heart-shaped face. Her bangs had been feathered just right to hover over magazine quality blue eyes. The rich seductive curve of her lips is outlined in a fiery red and she is clothed in a silky string top the same color over black slacks. If it is one thing mama is good at, it is finding stylish clothes on a budget. She once found a pair of real leather boots miss-marked at twenty-nine dollars. Not only did she get the boots at a reduced price but also a complementary matching purse and wallet. Mama always wins.
I cringe at the giggles and coos of my half-brother as he stands to point in his bouncy chair from the kitchen doorway. I hadn’t noticed him since he is on the left and mama is on the couch to the right. “Shi-Shi” Logan squeals in full force. His sing-song voice bounds from wall to wall sealing my fate with the happy jingle, tingle of the bells on either side of him.
“Katherine, now.” More than her usual yelling spree, it was the calm, collected voice she sometimes uses that scares me the most. And today is one of those days. I gulp and rise up on shaky knees. My teeth, no matter how hard I press them down, will not stop chattering. I round the corner I stare up at the fierce, flush face of my mother. I bring my gaze to the floor a millisecond too late and her hand clamps over my cheeks.
“Don’t you look at me that way, you know exactly what you did,” she spits, tightening her grip.
I haven’t done anything, it was more than likely our neighbors that called, but there is no
convincing her of that. Besides, apologizing only ignited her anger further. I wisely remained
silent and locked my gaze on the pearly glow of her coral nail polish. Each toe was dug firm into
the ground, straining to break free of their wooden captor. I became mesmerized by the gleam,
the unending sea of peachy-red and I tried to imagine what the color would feel like wrapped
around my arms. Maybe it would comfort and warm me, sprinkle cinnamon and peach kisses
across my face like grandma. Grandma’s kisses were always the best, proud and solidly planted
on my forehead. But grandma was dead, long dead from cancer that had spread throughout her
chest and stomach. There was no sense in wishing for her now. Logan’s preoccupied giggles
peppered through seconds before I felt the repeated pounding of numbing blows. He must have
lost interest and began playing with his toys.
My body lay as still as a statue, not moving until I heard her slowly pad toward the baby.
Cracking my eyes a tiny slit, I watched as she bent down and picked Logan up from his bouncy
swing. His eyes scanned the room and then looked down at me. He made an uncertain gurgle,
patting mama’s face and pointing to me. Laughing she nuzzled him to her face and walked into
the kitchen. I heard him say shi-shi as mama gently lowered him into his high chair.
“Now, now” I heard mama coo, “Shi-shi is taking a nap and it’s time for your lunch. How
about sweet peas for my sweetie?”
I counted the grooves in the wood. I looked as
far away as my eyes could without opening further. This was a way for me to gauge time, once I
was able to count them ten times it was okay to get up and go to my room. On the tenth pass, I
heard the key enter the front door and quickly stood up, dusting my arms and legs. Mechanically,
I walked to the front door and smiled as my stepfather came in. He had dark rings under his
chocolate colored eyes and his normal neat crop of black hair was tousled and unkempt. He
smelled of sweat and metal, no doubt from his long night shift. I knew it was almost time for his nap before he had to turn around and go to school.
My stepdad is a good guy; he never touches me or beats me in any way. That makes him
pretty decent in my book. I know that he knows about mom’s beatings but he cleverly avoids the
topic. Mom once confronted him and asked him to use the belt on me, but he said it wasn’t his
place and she snatched the belt away tearing it across my legs and back.
“James,” Mama says, her cheeks glowing like the color of her toes. His deep laugh
rumbles through his chest as mama hugs him tight.
I slowly inch toward the hallway as they talk about each other’s day. I am almost to my sanctuary when Mama calls from the kitchen. She must have finished lunch because when I return to the living room my stepdad is flicking through channels on the TV and eating a sandwich. My stomach grumbles in protest as I step into the kitchen. I look down at the off-white tile and marveled again at the
perfection of Mama’s handy work. The toes seem to be getting brighter as the day passed, shining
like the surface of the sun in the afternoon light. I silently wonder if I hack them
into tiny pieces what I would find. I began to seriously believe it
was her natural toenail color. Grabbing a patch of my hair she twists until I am down on one
knee whimpering. I hate giving in, hate it so much I bite down on my tongue and fight not to
scream. I stare blankly at Mama’s blouse, careful to not cry or show anger.
“You listen well you little brat. I want you to do the dishes” she yanks harder until
I am sure my whole left side of hair would rip off. “Logan’s father and I are going to sleep, understand?” I nod my head, gritting my teeth through the white-hot pokers in my skull.
“Your brother is also laying down, so I expect not so much as a clang from this kitchen.
Are we clear?” She gives my hair one final tug and throws me back into the stove. I drop to a fetal position on the floor and stare forward. She slowly walks toward me, each reddish-pink nail on her pristine feet slowly coming into focus. I can feel her staring down at me, watching every microexpression on my face. Finally, there is a shift in the air and then she is gone. Just to be safe, I slowly count to ten before getting up. I pace back and forth, imagining that each step creates a tiny groove in the tile. That would get her, if I just dent the floor enough she would trip and maybe put a chip in her flawless
toes. I pause as something occurs to me, why haven’t I thought of it before? The color, the c-
o-l- o-r. I drew it out in my mind, each syllable burning worse than the last. I have to rid her of
the nail color. It’s probably filtered into her bloodstream, polluting her mind with its filthy lies about me. A bad, bad girl− it would say. Looks too much like her deadbeat dad, it would snicker in its low
raspy taunt. No, not the sweet warmth of cinnamon and peach, it has tricked me all along. It has to be fooling Mama too.
Tears wet my face for the first time in two years as I pre-rinse each pan, bowl, and plate,
placing them into the dishwasher. It is our newest appliance, one that has eaten up most of my
Stepdad’s savings. I lean over to place the final two bowls in the washer when one
slips from my grasp. I stare in horror as it shatters into a thousand porcelain pieces, dusting the
floor like newly fallen snow. I freeze, my hands clamping over my mouth. I draw a shaky breath, my eyes glued to the doorway. The mountainous roar that follows confirms my worst fear. There is a flurry of movement, all yellow, red and black. Cool, clammy hands wrap around my neck and squeeze. “You-did- that-on- purpose, you little bitch.” I try in vain to speak to her. I try to tell Mama that it was the nails, the vile color she painted on them from the little glass tube was controlling her mind. Instead, the only thing I manage is a puff of air and a squeak as I slowly lose feeling in my legs. I claw at her vice-like grip sinking to the floor. My eyes lock with her tempests of blue. But somehow they look purple now, with ribbons of red snaking through. The coral has won, they have tinged her eyes. I must look like a stranger in our home and she is trying to protect all of us.
Maybe I am in my room, playing with the Barbie she gave me for my fifth birthday. It is probably just a dream and I will wake any moment to my other life. My real life. My lungs are about to burst, I can feel the coral sinking into them through my windpipe from Mama’s fingertips. My vision fades as I hear a soft voice calling to me in the distance. I smile at the calm, beautiful woman that reaches out to me. There she is, my real mother. I can see her in our backyard, looking at me with a profound sense of love. Tears spill down my cheeks as I call to her. From the distance, I hear my stepfather yell. A smile forms on my lips, my vision darkening but still present enough to make out what is in front of me.
I have finally done it; put a chip in the perfect peachy color. Just beneath Mama’s feet a rich, vivid red spills onto the floor. I grin as I feel the warmth of the color wrapping my body and drawing me close. It weeps softly, rocking me to sleep.