“You should be more concerned about what I can do, Freddie” Alice says, “…and less about what I can justify.”
Margaret awakens, batting her eyes as she looks around in confusion. Her head throbs, and there’s pain on the back of her head. Reaching up, she feels a raised knot there. It’s warm, and it stings when she touches it. She remains still, pressing herself against the soft, upholstered cushion of the car’s passenger seat. Pine trees whip past the windows as the sun peaks out above them, but Margaret can’t tell if it’s dawn or dusk.
“That’s what I told your father, that son of a bitch,” Alice says. Her voice drips with malice so acidic that it burns holes in the upholstery. “Always putting me down. Always making me feel like I’d done wrong whenever I didn’t do what he liked. Well this time, I did something he really didn’t like. Didn’t I, Freddie?”
Margaret clutches the silver locket hanging from her neck. She says, whimpering, “Mom, where are we going?”
Placing one hand on the wheel, Alice turns to look at the man’s corpse behind her. It’s buckled in and sitting upright in the middle of the rear seat. His mouth hangs open. His glazed, unclosing eyes frozen in an expression of shock.
“Mom, look out!”
Alice turns back around in time to see a bowling ball-sized rock roll out from the tree line into the path of her speeding car. It’s too late to react.
Some time later, Margaret opens her eyes, batting them in a daze once more. Her head throbs harder with a pulsing, insistent ache. Something warm and wet trickles down her forehead. The dashboard now bears a small dent directly in front of her that wasn’t there before. She tries to look behind her, but pain shoots down the side of her neck, preventing her from turning her head. Moving only her eyes, she sees that the driver’s seat is empty.
The car rests on the side of the road, facing the trees. A thin plume of smoke wafts out from beneath the hood. Margaret smells the acrid scent of burned rubber and metal in the air. Alice limps around to the front of the car, observing the driver’s side wheel well with a look of vexation, muttering curses under her breath.
A loud snapping sound like someone stepping on sticks comes from somewhere behind the car. Alice looks up in the direction of the noise. Margaret watches as her expression morphs from one of wariness to horrified surprise. “What is it, Mom?” she says.
Alice rushes over to the driver’s side door and opens it. Then she leans into the car and opens the glove box, revealing a handgun inside. Margaret recoils at the sight of the firearm as if it was a poisonous snake. “What the hell, Mom? Why do you have a gun?”
Alice grabs the weapon and pulls it out. As she does, she glances into the backseat and freezes. Margaret watches as Alice stares into the backseat for a few moments, then looks through the rear window behind the car. Her eyes dart back and forth several times as her body begins to tremble.
“No,” Alice says. “It’s not possible.”
She shakes so much she pulls the trigger by accident. The gun discharges with a loud, “Pop!” Margaret shrieks as the bullet grazes her leg. “Mom, what are you doing? Please stop!” Tears run down Margaret’s cheeks. “I want to go home!” she says, grasping her locket and sobbing.
Margaret watches as Alice stands up out of the car and points the gun behind it. “I don’t know how you’re doing this, Freddie,” Alice says, “but I killed you before, and I’ll kill you again!”
“Pop! Pop! Pop!” The gunshots sound like firecrackers going off. Margaret screams and ducks down. She squeezes her eyes shut as she covers her head. Pain shoots down her neck. Then she hears the sound of footsteps running away from the car.
Silence fills the air. Margaret remains doubled-over in the leg space in front of the passenger seat, staying prone, breathing heavily. Soon, she hears a tapping sound on the passenger side window beside her. She attempts to turn her head to look, but pain again shoots down the side of her neck. Grimacing, she lets out a low moan, then turns her torso to face the window. She sees Alice standing there with her hand upon the glass. She has a weird, I-know-something-you-don’t-know grin on her face. She taps once more as Margaret stares at her, dumbfounded.
“Mom? What happened? Are you ok?”
Alice continues smiling and tapping on the glass, her taps growing louder, harder, more insistent. Alice feels herself feeling strangely weaker and lightheaded, almost as if she’s falling asleep. Then, she blacks out.
Gravel grinds under Francine’s black boots as she circles the car, smoking a cigarette. A strong, cool breeze whooshes through the pine trees beneath a grey, overcast sky, tussling her shoulder-length, reddish-brown hair. She wears a brown trench coat over a black business suit with a detective’s badge hanging from a chain around her neck.
She sees that the driver’s side wheel sticks out at an odd angle. Leaning down, she perceives that the axle is bent inside the wheel well. Long, curved skid marks lead from the road’s northbound lane to where the car now rests on the side of the road, perpendicular to the center line. A gun lies on the ground next to the driver’s side door.
Looking through the windows, she sees that the car key is still in the ignition, attached to a keychain with several other keys attached. A body of a man sits in the backseat, wearing a dark suit. His face is a still-life of shock perforated by three bullet holes, one in each cheek and one in the middle of his forehead. His open eyes resemble painted marbles. In the front passenger seat, Francine sees what appears to be a large pile of ash. She puts her face up to the window to look at it more closely.
“Detective Monroe?” says a voice behind her. She turns and sees a man in a state trooper uniform walking toward her. His patrol car sits on the side of the road about 10 meters behind him. The driver’s side door is open. Red and blue siren lights whirl around on top of his car, shining their colorful beams against the tree trunks.
“That’s me,” she says, flicking her cigarette butt away as she turns to face him. “You’re the one who called this in, I presume?”
The trooper nods as he approaches. “James Magnuson,” he says, shaking her hand. “Yes, I called it in. I was patrolling the area when I came across this abandoned vehicle. Thinking there’d been an accident, I got out of my vehicle to provide assistance. As I came closer, I saw a subject in the back. After calling out several times, I could tell that the person wasn’t moving. When I looked inside, I saw the gunshot wounds in his face. Based on that and his general appearance, it was obvious that he’d been dead for a while, more than a day, at least.
“I rarely head this way since it’s so remote and hardly anyone ever even uses this road. My guess is that the killer or killers came out here to bury their dead buddy somewhere deep in the woods, but they had a little car trouble before they could find the perfect spot. Then they panicked and took off instead of finishing the job.” James scoffs and shakes his head. “Amateurs.”
He continues. “The car is registered to Frederico Gomez. Mr. Gomez is listed in our database as having been missing for three days along with his wife and daughter, Alice Gomez and Margaret Gomez. The body matches his description, but I looked around the area and saw no immediate sign of the others. The fact that someone shot him in the face a few times tells me this wasn’t just business, it was personal.”
“What about that big pile of ash in the front seat?” Francine says. “What do you make of that?”
James shrugs, glancing at the car. “I was hoping you could tell me. Hopefully it’s not…”
“Human remains?” Francine says, finishing his sentence. James nods and says, “Yeah.”
The radio inside the trooper’s car chirps, then a staticky voice says, “Unit 77, please respond. Over.”
James looks over his shoulder and says, “Please excuse me a moment.” Francine nods, then James turns and walks back to his car.
Francine looks back at the car to resume examining the ash pile. But as she does, she sees motion in her peripheral vision along the tree nearby line. When she looks up, she sees someone striding towards her from within the woods. She sees that they’re wearing a state trooper uniform, just like James’s. As the person comes closer, stomping through the underbrush, she sees that the person looks exactly like James. They make eye contact, then he disappears behind a tree, out of sight.
“Detective Monroe?” says James’s voice behind her. She jumps, startled, then turns around. James is standing there, looking at her quizzically. He says, “Are you alright?”
Francine furrows her brow as she looks at him, then back in the other direction toward tree line. Seeing no one there, she nods her head rapidly and says, “Y-yes, I’m f-fine.”
“I just got another call and I need to leave. The police forensics team should be here soon. Are you going to be alright until they get here?”
Francine feels a flare of irritation as she regains her composure. It’s as if he’s implying that she can’t take care of herself because she’s a woman and needs a man to look after her. With a look that’s somewhere between a smirk and a scowl, she pulls back her trench coat to reveal the service pistol clipped to her belt. “Yeah, I think I’ll be alright,” she says. James nods and turns around to leave. As he walks away, Francine leans into the car and pulls the keys out of the ignition.
Francine pulls the screen door open. Its rusty hinges creak in protest. She stands upon the front porch in front of a small, tidy house. The air is chilly. Shadows play about the home’s facade from nearby trees swaying in the wind. She balls her fist and pounds on the door. “Mrs. Gomez?” she says. “This is the police. Please open up!”
She stands there, listening to the baleful wind blow, looking around as she awaits a response. The neighborhood consists of small houses in neat rows. Parked on the streets and driveways are economy-brand vehicles. A pile of old toys sits in a yard across the street. No one’s around despite the obvious signs of human inhabitation.
After about 30 seconds, Francine pounds on the door again and says, “It’s the police, I have a search warrant!”
She waits another 10 seconds, then pulls the keys from the car out of her pocket. She tries the one that looks the most like a house key. It slides straight into the lock and turns easily. The deadbolt disengages with a loud “Click.” She turns the doorknob and opens the door, then steps inside.
Francine finds herself standing in a darkened living room. The musty air smells like ancient cigarette smoke mixed with chemical disinfectant. The shades are drawn, the mid-day sunlight glowing faintly around their edges. “This is Detective Francine Monroe,” she says in a commanding voice. “I have a warrant to search the premises. If anyone is present, they must make themselves known immediately.”
The floorboards creak beneath Francine’s feet as she walks across the floor, scanning the room. An overstuffed sofa sits against the wall next to a coffee table. On the other side is an entertainment center with a television. At the far end of the room is a fireplace with a simple wooden mantle. Upon the mantle sit several pictures. She goes to get a closer look at them.
In the first picture, she recognizes a younger and very much alive Freddie Gomez. Sitting across from him at a table is a pretty, petite woman, presumably Mrs. Gomez. Between them is a little girl with a birthday cake in front of her. “Must be Alice and Margaret,” Francine says to herself. The cake has a candle on it in the shape of the number 6. Alice has a silver locket hanging from a chain around her neck. They’re all smiling, except Alice’s smile doesn’t reach her eyes.
A wave of emotion washes over Francine as she recalls her own daughter’s sixth birthday. A tear runs down her cheek as the images of Freddie and Margaret start to resemble her own husband and daughter. “Oh, Marc, Esther…” she says, whispering. “I miss you so much.”
Her lower lip quivers and she realizes she’s about to start crying. Stopping herself, she takes a deep breath, dons a blank, emotionless expression, and continues her investigation.
The rest of the pictures are of them in similar poses as well, with Freddie on the left, Alice on the right, and Margaret in between them. The family looks older and older in each image moving from left to right. Alice’s fake smile fades from one image to the next. In the last photo, she’s not smiling at all, but is frowning instead, as if she finally decided to give up the ruse. Francine notices she’s wearing the silver locket in every picture.
Walking down the hall and into the bathroom, Francine turns the light on and looks into the mirror. Her hair is disheveled, and large purple bags the color of bruises hang beneath her eyes. She looks 10 years older than she is.
With a deep sigh of dissatisfaction, she opens the medicine cabinet behind the mirror. She spies some prescription pill bottles among a tube of toothpaste, a couple deodorant sticks, and box of floss. She picks up the bill bottles and looks at their labels.
“Lithium – Mood stabilizer; Vioroxetine – Antidepressant; Clozapine – Antipsychotic.”
Francine looks closely at the labels and sees that the fill date on each is several months’ prior, yet all the bottles are nearly full. She puts the bottles back where she found them and closes the cabinet door. As she does, she hears what sounds like creaking footsteps. Holding completely still, she listens for several moments. “Hello?” she says. “This is the police. I have a warrant to search this property. Is anyone home?”
The air seems to grow heavier and mustier, making it hard to breathe. Francine sucks in a deep breath as she creeps down the hallway, the floorboards creaking slightly, and peeks into the living room. No one’s there. She hears a strong wind blow outside. The whole house groans and creaks.
She continues down the hallway toward a wooden door. She turns the doorknob and pulls. The door is heavy, and it makes a sucking, whooshing noise as it opens into a pitch-black space. A wall of cold, rancid air smelling of rotten metal hits Francine in the face. She gags, fumbling her hand around on the wall next to the doorway inside the room in search of a light switch. Finding one, she flips it on. A fluorescent light overhead buzzes to life, bathing the room in white incandescence. She’s in the garage.
A drain sits in the middle of the concrete floor. A car rests on one side with an empty space beside it. A pool of congealed blood lies on the floor next to the car’s front wheels, flowing into the drain. Two heel-sized drag marks extend from the pool toward the large empty space and then disappear. Francine reaches for her holster and draws her weapon, pointing it at the floor as she grips the handle with both hands.
Slowly, she walks down the short flight of wooden steps leading to the floor. She takes long, deep breaths through her nose to stay calm, despite the putrid smell of decaying blood. She concentrates entirely on all the sensory input around her, collecting as much information in her mind as she can.
Something shiny catches her eye as she approaches the drain. Bending down at the knees, she sees the object glimmering in the light and reaches for it. Her fingers strain against the cold metal of the grate, and she’s just barely able to grasp the object with her fingertips. She pulls it out and gasps at what she sees.
It’s a gold ring, slightly scuffed and worn around the edges. It’s remarkably shiny and clean even though it was at the bottom of the bloody drain. “No… it can’t be,” Francine says, her eyes welling up with tears.
Her fingers trembling, she turns it around to examine the inside. Her heart sinks. There, on the inner lining, engraved in looping cursive letters exactly like how she remembers, are the words, “I’ll always love you, Francine. Marc.”
Francine’s entire body jolts and she accidentally drops the ring, gasping. It bounces off the edge of the grate and falls back down into the drain. “No!” she says, falling to her knees. She sticks her fingers through the grate, wriggling them around desperately, feeling nothing but air. She sticks her face up next to it, struggling to catch sight of the shiny object once more. But she can’t see it.
After several minutes of trying to recover the ring in vain, she gives up. She stands, looking at her blood-covered fingers as she holds her hands out in front of her, and bursts into tears.
“You look like shit.”
Sepatha shakes her head as she looks Francine up and down in disgust. Francine cocks her head to side with a half-shrug. “Thanks for noticing, Chief.” she says.
Sepatha scoffs, then says, “Give me an update on the Gomez case.” She wears a pressed blue suit with her black hair pulled back into a tight bun. The air inside her office is cold and sterile. Everything is clean and spotless, from the metal filing cabinets lining the walls to the computer monitor on her wooden desk. Not even a single dust mote hangs in the light streaming in through the window.
Francine says, “I visited the scene of an apparent car accident where I reconnoitered with State Trooper James Magnuson, who first discovered the wrecked vehicle. When I arrived, I observed a male body in the back seat with gunshot wounds in his face. I found a wallet containing Mr. Gomez’s driver’s license in the front pocket of his suit jacket. The coroner’s report later confirmed that the body was indeed that of Mr. Gomez.
In the car’s front seat was a large pile of ash. Trooper Magnuson and I agreed that the ash could’ve been human remains…”
“Or, maybe it was just burned leaves from someone’s yard,” Sepatha says, unimpressed.
“That could be. Regardless, Mr. Gomez’s sister reported him missing a day after he failed to show for their weekly breakfast at a neighborhood diner. She said she tried calling his phone repeatedly with no answer before calling the police. A background check on Mr. Gomez shows he was a retired firefighter with a nearly clean criminal history. The only blemish on his record was a misdemeanor battery charge stemming from a bar fight when he was in his twenties. The charge was later dropped.
“Mr. Gomez was married to Alice Gomez and together they had a daughter named Margaret. Alice is a teacher at a local high school, the same one Margaret attends as a senior. They both failed to show up at the school two days in a row without notice shortly after Mr. Gomez disappeared and were subsequently reported missing themselves.”
Sepatha leans forward, crossing her arms on her desk with a grave expression. “What do we know about Mrs. Gomez?”
“Mid-forties, high school teacher her entire career. Married her college sweetheart but they divorced less than a year later, supposedly on amicable terms with no children to fight over. Remarried shortly thereafter to Mr. Gomez, a man 20 years her senior. She has no criminal record, but she does have a history of mental illness. Specifically, she was diagnosed as bipolar with psychotic tendencies. She has been in and out of psychiatric facilities for most of her adult life. I tried to check into her juvenile health records, but they’re sealed tight.”
Sepatha frowns. “Do you think her mental health could be a factor?”
Francine slowly nods her head. “I searched the Gomez residence with a warrant and found several prescription pill bottles with Mrs. Gomez’s name on them. They were almost full, despite having been filled months ago. Either she had other medication she was already taking or…”
“Or she went off her meds,” Sepatha says.
Francine opens her mouth to say something else, but notices someone walking past the office door window. The person looks exactly like Francine’s grief counselor, Elaine. She makes eye contact with Francine through the window and gives her a horrific grin, then disappears from view.
“What is it?” Sepatha says.
Francine shakes her head and bats her eyes. “Nothing. I thought I saw someone I knew, but it couldn’t have been them.”
Sophie takes a sip of beer, then puts it down on the coffee table in front of her. She leans back onto her sofa cushion, relaxing. “Did you hear that Margaret Gomez went missing?” she says.
Vanessa sits next to her, tapping the little keyboard on her phone screen with her thumbs on. “Hmm?” she says without looking up.
The muffled sounds of dramatic music and gunfire come through a closed door on the other side of the room. Sophie turns her head toward the door and says, “Billy, turn your game down! It’s way too loud!” The sounds decrease until they’re barely audible. “I can still hear it!” Sophie says, and then the sounds disappear completely.
She sits up to take another drink and says, “Yeah, she and Mrs. Gomez haven’t been at school since last week. I heard her dad went missing too. Some people are saying he was murdered!”
Vanessa looks at her, the light from her phone shining on her face. She reaches for her own can of beer sitting in front of her as she says, “Margaret Gomez? Wasn’t she dating Jacob Tompkins for a while?” She takes a sip and goes back to tapping on her screen.
“Yeah, but they broke up a few months ago. He’s with Ashley Hutchings now.”
“Eww,” Vanessa says. “I hate Ashley Hutchings.”
They both fall silent for several moments, sitting in front of a blank television screen in Sophie’s parents’ living room. Finally, Sophie says, “Are you almost done texting? I’ve been wanting to watch this movie for like, ever.”
“Calm down, you said your parents won’t be home for another few hours. I’m almost finished.”
“Who are you talking to anyway? Is it a boy?”
Vanessa smiles and says, “Yeah.”
“Is he hot?”
“Who is it?”
“Oh, you don’t know him. He goes to another school. His name’s Reid. I met him at a party.”
“You met a hot guy at a party and now you’re texting him, and you haven’t even told me about him yet?” Sophie says, exasperated.
“Sorry, I guess it slipped my mind.”
“Ugh,” Sophie says, making a disgusted face.
A moment later, Vanessa turns off the screen and puts the phone down on the coffee table. Then she picks up her can and shakes it, finding it empty. “I’m gonna get another beer before we start,” she says. “Want one?”
Sophie shakes her head. “No, I’m good,” she says, reaching for the television remote.
Vanessa gets up and walks down the hall behind the sofa into the kitchen. Sophie turns on the t.v. and starts looking for “Nightmare on Elm Street” on the search screen. She hears the faint sound of Vanessa opening the fridge and popping the tab on a new can of beer. As she does, Vanessa’s phone lights up to show that she has a new text message. Sophie peeks at it and sees that it says, “Hey beautiful, looking forward to tomorrow night” with a rose emoji. But the contact name doesn’t say “Reid.”
It says, “Brad.”
Sophie’s eyes widen and her jaw drops. Then, she hears Vanessa’s approaching footsteps and sits back, attempting to look relaxed.
Vanessa walks around the couch, taking a sip of beer. She sits down, saying, “Alright, let’s watch this movie!”
“Vanessa,” Sophie says. “What did you say the name was of that guy you’re talking to?”
Vanessa gives her an odd look and says, “Reid, why?”
“Then why are you making plans for a date tomorrow with a guy named Brad?” Sophie says, her eyes darkening. “Is it Brad Mueller, as in, my boyfriend, Brad Mueller?”
“What the fuck? Were you going through my texts, you little bitch?”
“Did you just call me a bitch?! Get the fuck out of my house, Vanessa, right now!”
Sophie stands and points at the door. Vanessa scoffs and says, “Whatever,” with a repulsed sneer. She grabs her purse from where it was sitting next to her and then marches out the house’s front door, slamming it behind her.
Billy pokes his head out from his room as Sophie collapses onto the sofa, sobbing. “Is everything alright, sis?” he says.
“No!” she says through her tears. Then she picks up her own phone from where it was sitting on the coffee table and begins madly texting as she sniffles and sobs. Her face is red, and puffy.
The front door opens, its hinges squeaking. Sophie and Billy turn to look at it.
“Really Vanessa?” Sophie says. “What, did you come back to apologize? Well, forget it. You’re fucking dead to me, now get out of here!”
Sophie jumps up off the couch and storms over to where Vanessa stands in the doorway. As she’s about to unleash another tirade of insults, she hears Billy say, “Georgie? What are you doing here? Man, you gotta get out of here. After my parents caught us smoking weed the other day, they said I can’t hang out with you anymore. If they see you here, I’ll be grounded forever!”
Sophie glances behind her and sees that Billy is looking at the person standing in the doorway.
“Are you crazy, Billy?” she says. “That’s Vanessa, not your little stoner friend, Georgie.” Billy looks at her like she’s insane and says, “I think I can tell the difference.”
The person looks at Billy and then at Sophie with a sick, ironic smile on their face, then slowly begins creeping toward them. Instinctively, Sophie takes a few steps backwards behind the coffee table. The person continues walking straight towards her, sliding the table out of the way with their leg effortlessly, as if it wasn’t even there.
Sophie says, “Stay back!” The person reaches for her, brushing her arm with an icy cold fingertip. Sophie screams, then turns and runs down the hall and out through the house’s back door.
Billy sees this, then, looking over at the person in fear and awe, he says, “Is that you, Georgie?” The person doesn’t respond, and instead begins slowly creeping toward him, the creepy smile frozen on their face. Trembling, Billy looks the person up and down, then ducks back into his room and shuts the door.
Francine opens her throat, pouring the beer straight down her esophagus and into her stomach. She puts the empty pint class on the bar, then takes a deep breath, inhaling the scent of stale beer and cigarette smoke. An old rock song with a raspy-voiced singer plays in the background, its melody interrupted by the sound of pool balls cracking into each other. A neon sign hangs above the bar, but it’s too fuzzy for Francine to read, and she sees it in double.
Someone opens the bar’s front door and enters, shining a bright sunray into the dark, dank, dreary locale. Francine cringes like a vampire caught in the daylight. She looks, but her vision is too clouded to see who it is. The person’s outline seems familiar, though. She watches as the person slowly creeps toward her, smiling. Francine shakes her head, astonished, and says in a drunken, slurring voice, “Marc? Marc is it really you?”
He stares at her, the smile frozen on his face, and says nothing.
“Oh Marc, Marc I’ve missed you so much!”
Francine leans over to embrace him but catches only air. She falls off her stool, crashing to the floor, knocking the wind out of herself. She looks up and sees that the person has disappeared, like they were never there in the first place. She lays there for several moments, struggling the breathe, then pulls herself back up to her stool.
The bartender approaches, frowning. “Maybe you should call it a night, ma’am,”
“Ok,” Francine says, “How much is my tab?”
“Don’t worry about it,” he says, shaking his head. “Just go.”
Francine looks at him in drunken shock as she slowly sways back and forth in her seat. “You’re kicking me out?”
“No, I’m just asking you to leave.”
“Just relax and tell me what you saw, Sophie.”
Francine’s head feels like it’s going to split open. She silently wonders when the five aspirins she chewed up and swallowed a few minutes ago will kick in. In the meantime, she tries to ignore the pain and nausea of her hangover. “You can have your parents here with you, if you like.”
“No, it’s alright,” Sophie says, sitting with her arms folded upon her dining room table. She sniffles, wiping tears from her eyes. “My friend Vanessa and I, er… I thought she was my friend, were hanging out while my brother Billy played video games in the next room. Our parents were gone, out on a date night.
“While Vanessa was in the kitchen, getting another Coke, I saw that my boyfriend was texting her about going out with her behind my back.” Sophie pauses, sniffling some more. “I confronted her, and she called me a ‘bitch’. I told her to get out, and she left. But then…” Sophie’s lower lip trembles and she looks down.
“Then what happened?” Francine says, gently.
“Then… she came back. But she was… different. She… smiled at me, like she knew something horrible that I didn’t know. I’ve never seen Vanessa make a face like that. Then, she began walking toward me in a creepy way like, she was trying to cut off my exit. But that’s not the weird part.”
“Billy came out of his room, and when he saw Vanessa, he called her ‘Georgie,’ his little pothead friend who lives down the street. When I told him that it was Vanessa, not Georgie, he said he saw Georgie standing there, not Vanessa.”
A chill like icy water runs down Francine’s spine, spreading across her shoulders and dripping down her neck. “What did you do then?”
“I… I… I…” Sophie says, her face scrunching up. “I ran away. I was so scared, and I didn’t know what to do. I heard Billy close his door, so I thought he’d be alright, but I… I just couldn’t stay there. I had to leave. When I heard that Billy disappeared, I felt so guilty. It’s my fault he’s gone, isn’t it?”
Sophie bursts into tears, covering her face with her hands. Francine puts her hand on her shoulder, wishing she could say that everything would be alright, that they would find Billy, and that everything would be ok. But she knew it would be a lie.
Francine sits slumped over in her chair with her chin resting upon her fist. She reaches for the pack of cigarettes on the nearby end table, finding only one left inside. Sighing, she takes it out and puts it in her mouth, then reaches into her pocket for her lighter. She pulls it out and flicks it on, using its flame to burn the end of the cigarette as she sucks the sweet smoke into her lungs. She takes a few puffs, then puts the lighter back into her pocket, breathing the smoke out of her nostrils like a discontented dragon.
A glass filled with melting ice cubes sits next to a half-empty bottle of vodka on the end table with an orange juice carton beside them. She stares at the television screen, its blue light illuminating her tired, wrinkled face as the local news comes on.
The newscaster’s voice blares through the television speakers. “Police arrested a young woman earlier today on suspicion of kidnapping.” The screen cuts to a video of a girl in handcuffs, walking with her down as police lead her into a courthouse.
“18-year-old Vanessa McClain was the last person seen with 13-year-old Billy Tamby before the boy disappeared several days ago.” A graphic appears with pictures of Vanessa and Billy side-by-side.
“Ms. McClain was first identified as a person of interest in the disappearance by Billy’s older sister, Sophie Tamby. Ms. Tamby told police she and Ms. McClain had gotten into an argument at the Tamby residence the night Billy disappeared. According to Ms. Tamby, Ms. McClain left the home, but then returned shortly thereafter, acting in a bizarre and threatening manner. Ms. Tamby said she fought with Ms. McClain but was overpowered. She said she then ran to get help. When she returned, the boy was gone, with only a large, mysterious pile of ash inside his room that hadn’t been there before.”
The screen cuts to an image of a middle-aged man and woman standing on the front porch in front of a pink house with distinctive yellow trim. Their eyes are sorrowful, their mouths turned upside-down in frowns of lamentation. Microphones with logos of various news stations surround them. Francine gasps. “I recognize that house,” she says. “It’s just down the street from me.”
The woman says, “We want our little boy to come home. We’re begging Vanessa or whoever else might know where he is to please just tell us so this can all be over.”
With a depressed sigh, Francine picks up the remote sitting beside her and turns the television off. Her apartment fills with an eerie silence, with moonlight washing into the otherwise darkened space through the window. Sitting there, alone in the darkness, she picks up the bottle of vodka and fills the glass. Then, she hears something. Looking over, she sees a person’s silhouette standing in the hallway, and freezes with a sharp intake of breath, gripping the chair arms tight. She stares, unmoving, as the silhouette begins to approach her. Francine glances over the back of the chair to the kitchen portion of her studio apartment. Her gun rests on the countertop beside an empty vodka bottle. The person steps into the moonlight, and she’s able to get a clear look at their face. She can see that they’re smiling.
“Marc?” she says, incredulously. “Marc, is that you? How did you get in here? Was that you at the bar, or was it just my imagination?”
Saying nothing, he continues advancing toward her, the bizarre smile frozen on his face. With fresh tears in her eyes, Francine stands and holds her arms out, ready to embrace him. “Oh, Marc,” she says, sniffling.
He takes another step toward her, and she wraps her arms around him. Despite how drunk she is, she realizes she’s holding someone whose body is as cold as a corpse. “Marc, you’re ice cold!” she says. She leans back to look him in the eye and sees that he no longer resembles her husband. Instead, the person she’s holding now appears as her boss, Sepatha.
She jerks backwards, pressing herself against the wall. “Wh-who are you?” she says. She looks over at her gun where it lies on her counter. It seems like it’s miles away. When she looks back, the person now appears as Trooper Magnuson. He smiles ironically, like he knows something she doesn’t, something horrible.
Francine squeezes her eyes shut. “This isn’t real. This isn’t real. This isn’t real,” she says, her voice choked, strained. When she opens them, she finds herself staring into Magnuson’s as he looms over her. She suddenly feels extremely lightheaded and drowsy, as if she’s about to fall asleep.
Fighting not to succumb, she stands and pushes him away. He falls backward, knocking over the end table, sending the glass and bottle flying, splashing vodka everywhere. Then she runs over to her counter and grabs her gun, pointing it at him where he lies on the ground. From where she’s standing, the chair conceals his face.
“Don’t move!” she says, cocking the hammer back. “Or I’ll paint the wall with your fucking brains!”
Slowly, the person rises from the ground and stands upright. Francine sees that it now resembles her dead daughter, Esther. At the sight of this, something snaps inside Francine’s mind. She runs out her front door and down the hall of the apartment building, screaming and crying, flailing the gun around.
Elaine lies on top of her bed within the silent darkness of her bedroom. Her head rests in the middle of a marshmallow pillow. A large, fluffy down comforter covers her body. She dreams of climbing through the mountains, reaching the peak of the highest one, then jumping off and flying through the air.
Her phone rings, snapping her awake. She reaches for the phone where it lies on the nightstand next to the bed.
“Mmph, hello?” she says, groggily.
“Elaine? It’s me, Francine,” says the voice through the receiver.
“Francine?” Elaine says, sitting up. “Are you alright? What’s going on?”
“I need help. Can you… can you come get me?”
“What happened? Where are you?”
“I’m outside of my apartment. I saw… something. I… I… can’t describe it. I just need help. Will you please come get me?”
Elaine sighs and says, “Have you been drinking?”
After a short pause, Francine says, “Yes, but…”
“Did the bartender take your keys and now you’re locked out of your apartment again?”
“What? No, that’s not what happened. I just… saw something and it really freaked me out.”
“You’re hallucinating again?” Elaine says, concerned.
“Yes! I mean, I think so. But this time it just felt so… so real. I dunno. I just need help. Can you please come get me?”
Elaine shuts her eyes, then throws the covers off herself and starts to get out of bed. “I’ll be right there.”
Half an hour later, Elaine’s beat up old sedan pulls up to the curb in front of Francine’s apartment. The morning sky is just starting to brighten. She sees Francine standing over near the end of the block. She’s pressed against the brick wall, peaking around into an alley. She seems to be holding something. Elaine gets out of her car and starts walking toward her. “Francine? Francine are you ok?”
Francine doesn’t seem to hear her. Elaine gets close enough to tap her on the shoulder. “Francine?”
“Gahhh!” Francine says as she whirls around, whipping Elaine in the face with her gun. “Umf!” Elaine says, falling to the ground.
Francine points her gun at Elaine, her hands shaking. “Who are you?” Francine says, her voice shrill and raspy.
Elaine sits up on her elbow and rubs the side of her face where a red, stinging welt has already appeared. “It’s me Francine, Jesus!” she says, cringing.
Francine starts breathing harder and cocks the hammer back. “How do I know it’s you?” she says, her whole body trembling.
Elaine looks at her like she’s crazy and says. “I’m Elaine, your grief counselor, remember?”
Francine doesn’t anything, and Elaine continues. “You started seeing me three years ago after someone shot into your house while your daughter was inside, killing her. Your husband disappeared immediately afterward, and no one knows where he went. Someone else, a stranger, eventually confessed to shooting your house up, but the reason they gave didn’t make any sense. Your mental health deteriorated, and you began having hallucinations. You turned to alcohol for solace, and then your life got even worse. You then came to me, begging for help…”
Francine slowly begins to lower her gun. Elaine stands up as she continues to speak. “We’ve been working on helping you get past the grief so you can move on with your life. I… I thought we were making progress.”
Francine hangs the gun down at her side as she slumps her shoulders and lowers her head. She lets out a sob, and Elaine walks up and puts her arms around her. Francine embraces her, crying into her shoulder.
Francine sits with her head down and her face buried in her arms. An empty coffee mug rests on the table beside her. Elaine pours coffee into it, then pours some into her own cup across the table. She holds an icepack over the part of her face where Francine hit her with the gun. A yellow-brown bruise peaks out from behind it on her skin.
Francine turns her head to stare out the kitchen window into the overcast grey sky, her face lined and sullen. Elaine sits down and takes a sip of coffee, looking at Francine pensively. “So, you want to tell me what this is all about?”
Francine sits up with a deep sigh and shakes her head. She sips her coffee as she gazes out the window into the morning gloom. Then, she says, muttering, “I’m being followed someone who looks like people I know.”
“You mean, like with disguises?” Elaine says in a neutral, non-judgmental tone.
“No,” Francine says, her face slackening. “I mean, the first time I saw them, it looked like a state trooper I’d just met. The next time, it was you.”
“Me?” Elaine says, surprised.
Francine nods. “Yes, that’s why I…” Her voice trails off as she glances at Elaine’s icepack guiltily.
“It’s alright. I can see that you’re under a lot of stress. That must be what’s triggering these elaborate hallucinations. Is there anything else going on that you want to talk about?”
Francine thinks for a moment, then says, “There’s this new case I’m working on. It’s a homicide and missing person’s case. A man’s body was found in an abandoned vehicle out in the middle of nowhere, and his wife and daughter are missing. Something about them just reminds me so much of Marc and Esther.” Her voice cracks at the mention of her daughter’s name. She picks a napkin up off the table and uses it to wipe her eyes.
Elaine gives her a sympathetic look. “It sounds like this case is resonating for you in a place that’s very personal. Just remember what we talked about.” Elaine reaches for a notepad and a pencil laying nearby. She folds the notepad over to a fresh sheet of paper, then draws two big circles next to one another so that they’re not touching. Over one circle, she writes the word, “Business” and over the other, she writes the word, “Personal.” Then she turns the pad around so Francine can see.
“In life,” Elaine says, “things are either business or personal. The trick is knowing what’s what and keeping the two apart. The ‘Business’ circle never overlaps into the ‘Personal’ circle, and vice-versa. You’re not your job, and what you do for a living is not a reflection of who you are. It’s just how you use your skills and talents to make your way in the world, based on the opportunities that are available.”
Nodding impatiently, Francine says, “I know, Elaine. You’ve said this nearly every time we’ve met for the past three years.”
“You know it,” Elaine says. “But do you understand it? It’s a simple idea, but difficult to grasp and thus difficult to realize, especially when you have as stressful a career as yours.”
With a frustrated grunt, Francine says, “What I need to understand is why is that thing following me? Why does it look like people I know? What does it want?”
Elaine looks down for a moment, then says, “Francine, are you familiar with the concept of gang stalking?”
“Gang… stalking?” Francine says, her face contorting.
Elaine nods her head. “It’s where people become convinced that they’re being stalked by several people at once. They start believing that everyone is out to get them, from close friends to total strangers. They become hyper vigilant and anxious, thinking that people are always following them no matter where they are, at home, at work, and everywhere else.
“But gang stalking isn’t real. It’s a figment of one’s imagination, and, left unchecked, can become a persistent, paranoid delusion, not unlike a hallucination. In both cases, one’s brain’s misfiring, sending false signals, telling your mind things are happening that aren’t really happening at all. It just means you’re sick, Francine. That’s all. You’re sick, and you need to get better, and you will get better as long as you keep your mind right. Stop drinking so much. Focus on what’s real and what matters in your life. Take better care of yourself; exercise, eat well, get enough sleep. It’s all up to you, and it’s all in here.” Elaine taps her head to make her point. Francine looks at her with a blank expression for a few moments, then sighs, shaking her head.
“No,” she says in a defeated tone. “No, that’s not it at all, Elaine. The thing, the creature that’s following me was in my apartment last night. I don’t know what it wanted, but it was there, for me.”
“Come on, Francine,” Elaine says impatiently. “You don’t really believe that, do you? You’re a police officer, a detective. You deal in facts, not opinions. You know you’ve had mental health problems for a while now, and that they impede your ability to perceive reality. If you give into the notion that some kind of paranormal creature is out to get you, then you’ll soon find yourself sliding down the slippery slope of madness!”
Francine stands abruptly. “Thanks for the ride and the coffee, Elaine, but I need to go.” Without another word, she turns and storms out the front door to Elaine’s apartment as Elaine looks on in shock.
“Fernando, for the last time, stop calling me.”
Sepatha hunches over her desk, placing her phone’s receiver over her mouth.
“But baby, I…” comes Fernando’s voice through the speaker.
“Don’t you ‘baby’ me. I am not your ‘baby.’ If you don’t stop calling me, you are going to face a shitstorm of consequences. Do you understand me?”
“I said, ‘Do you understand me?’”
“Yes… yes I understand. I… I’m sorry.”
Sepatha sighs and shakes her head. “Fernando, you know I’m this close to divorcing you. Ever since I found your secret online dating profile, I knew I’d never be able to trust you again. That’s why I kicked you out of our house, remember? Let me guess, you’re sitting there in your crappy little apartment in your boxers, surrounded by empty beer bottles. Am I right?”
Sepatha rolls her eyes and scoffs. “When I’m ready to talk, I’ll call you. In the meantime, do not call me or attempt to contact me in any way.”
Fernando starts to say something else, but she hangs up on him. Sighing once more, she looks up at the clock hanging on the wall.
“12:03 a.m.?” she says. “Where did the time go?” She looks down at the stacks of paper littering he desk; case files from half a dozen murders, robberies, and worse. She yawns and says, “If people could just stop committing crimes, that would be great.”
She stands, picking her purse up off the floor and slinging it over her shoulder. Then she walks over to the door and opens it as she flips the switch on the wall. The fluorescent lights overhead turn off, shrouding her in darkness. Pale moonlight beams through the window as she closes the door behind her.
The only light inside the darkened hallway comes from the red “EXIT” sign at the end. Walking toward it, she passes rows of desks in the main office space inside the police station. They rise like tombstones in the reddish darkness. The office is silent except for her footsteps on the tile floor.
She pushes through the exit door, stepping out into the parking lot. The sky above is a massive, starless void. Sulphur lamps hang overhead on metal posts, casting an eye-straining orange light across the cracked blacktop. Sepatha’s car is the only one there. Her shoes make rapid clip-clopping noises as she marches toward it. Then, she sees something out of the corner of her eye. She turns her head to look.
There, over toward the edge of the parking lot, standing in the bushes, is a man, staring at her.
“Fernando?” Sepatha says, whispering. He takes a step towards her, and she turns and runs rest of the distance to her car. Reaching it, she turns around and looks behind her. The man is walking straight towards her, an ironic smile frozen upon his face.
“Fernando, what are you doing here?” Sepatha says with a mix of frustration and anguish. “I told you to leave me alone!”
She opens her purse and begins fumbling around inside it as the man continues coming toward her. She pulls out a mace canister and points it at him, but he doesn’t alter his pace.
“Leave me alone!” Sepatha says, pressing her finger down on the button. A stream of liquid sprays from the nozzle, dousing the man’s face and chest in abrasive chemicals. But he doesn’t react or even slow down. He just keeps walking towards her at the exact same pace, smiling.
At the sight of this, fear shoots down Sepatha’s spine, crashing into her stomach like a cannonball. She grabs her keys from her purse and jumps inside her car, speeding away as the man comes to within inches of the door.
Francine pulls her car up to the side of the road and steps out, her boots crunching on the gravel. Looking down, she sees the curved skid marks on the pavement where Mr. Gomez’s car used to be, before the police towed it away. A rusty lug sits inside one of the skidmarks.
Morning frost covers the ground like powdered sugar, revealing something Francine hadn’t noticed before: a set of footprints leading from the road into the woods. They’re deep and placed far apart, as though the person was running. Looking closely, she sees that next to them is another set of prints, fainter, shallower, and closer together than the others. It appears as though this person was slowly walking in pursuit of the other. She follows them like a bloodhound with a scent.
The footprints lead her deeper and deeper into the evergreen forest. She steps on a pinecone hidden beneath the underbrush, rolling her ankle. She falls forward, landing hard on her hands and knees. Several dead pine needles lying on the ground stick into her hands and she yelps in pain. Tiny streams of blood flow from the wounds as she pulls them out, one by one.
A few minutes later, she arrives at a small clearing with a large pine tree near the center. The running footprints approach the tree, then stop and turn around. From there, they become shallower and closer together, like the person was walking toward their pursuer. The other footprints approach them, and at the spot where they meet is a large pile of ash. It looks the same as the one from the front seat of Mr. Gomez’s car.
Approaching the pile, she notices something shiny just beneath the surface. She reaches into the pocket of her trench coat and takes out a piece of white cloth. Then she pulls a pen out of her other pocket and uses it to dig around inside the ash pile. Pulling the shiny object out with the pen, she sees that it’s a silver locket on a chain. Lifting the chain out with the pen, she uses her cloth-covered hand to gingerly open the locket. Inside is a tiny mirror.
She hears a crunching sound behind her. She puts the locket into her pocket as she turns around and sees a figure standing at the edge of the clearing. It’s her daughter, Esther, wearing a dress riddled with bullet holes. Blood pours from her wounds like that flowing from the punctures on Francine’s hands. Esther smiles and starts walking toward her, slowly.
Francine pulls her gun from its holster and says, “Stay back. I know you’re not my daughter. My daughter is dead!”
Esther doesn’t respond, but instead continues walking slowly towards her, smiling.
Francine fires her weapon, popping off a burst of rounds. Esther is unfazed, Francine fires again, this time aiming for the head, but it’s as if the bullets have no effect. Esther slogs forward with a zombie-like gait, coming closer and closer, smiling obscenely.
Francine pulls the trigger once more with an audible “click.” She realizes she’s out of bullets. Esther is upon her now, and the feeling of lightheaded weakness starts to overtake her. Francine stumbles back, losing her footing on the slippery ground and falling on her rump. She looks up at Esther in horror, trembling as she opens her mouth to scream.
Esther stops and looks down at the ground beside where Francine fell. She covers her face and lets out a primal, animal-like scream that devolves into a guttural hiss. Then she turns around and scurries away through the trees, back the way she came.
Francine watches, stunned, then looks around for what Esther might’ve seen. Lying open on the ground is the locket. Francine looks at it and sees her reflection in the tiny mirror.
“Are you alright, dear? You look a bit peaked.”
The old librarian gazes at Francine with cloudy, bespectacled eyes, looking her up and down. Her gaze rests for a moment on the silver locket hanging from Francine’s neck.
“I’m fine, thank you,” Francine says. She stands facing the librarian at the circulation desk. “Do you keep an archive of past editions of local newspapers?”
“We do,” the librarian says, nodding her head. “How far back in time are you wanting to go?”
“As far as I can.”
“Oh, well in that case you’ll probably need to visit the microfilm room, I’m afraid. Our digital archive only goes back 10 years.”
The librarian leads her toward the back of the library. Francine looks around nervously as they walk together. She sees some high school students in one of the study rooms, their backpacks resting beside their chairs. An older woman scanning a row of recipe books. A middle-aged man sitting at a computer, reading the news. She feels relieved when she doesn’t recognize any of them.
They arrive at a closed metal door. A padlock hangs from metal hinges attached to the side of the door and the doorjamb. The lock and hinges look brand new compared to the scuffed-up condition of the door. The librarian reaches into her dress pocket, producing a large set of keys.
“Teenagers,” she with a frustrated sigh. “A couple of them let themselves in here a couple months ago and vandalized our archive, pulling strands of film out of their cases for no reason other than to be destructive. We wouldn’t have even known who did it if our security guard didn’t happen upon them by chance while they were in the middle of the act. They were each fined $1000 and ordered to do community service. The damage they did to this town’s history, however, is beyond measure.”
“Why not get some cameras and put up some ‘You’re being filmed’ signs?” Francine says.
The librarian smiles. “That’s exactly what I said to the library’s board of directors, but apparently cameras are far too expensive.” She points to the padlock and says, “This was the best alternative they could come up with. But don’t worry, dear. They only destroyed old business and property records. The newspaper archives should be completely intact.”
Francine gives her a timid smile and says, “Thank you.”
The librarian nods and unlocks the padlock, then opens the door. Inside is a small room lined with metal shelves containing stacks of microfilm cassettes. There are numbered labels on the covers of each cassette. One shelf in the corner is noticeably empty. In the center of the room is an old microfilm scanner sitting on top of a small wooden table.
“The news archives are there on the north wall, labeled 100 through 199. The latest record we have on file is from January 1, 1899, when the first newspaper began publication three years after the town was founded. Do you know how to use the machine?”
“I think I can figure it out.”
“Ok, just let me know if you need anything.”
The librarian turns and begins shuffling back toward the circulation desk. Francine steps into the room and walks up to the shelf containing the newspaper archive. The air inside is noticeably drier, and smells like old paper and sawdust.
She spends the next several hours poring over past headlines from the city’s local newspaper, starting with the most recent editions and working backward. Her eyes become bloodshot from staring at the screen. Her fingers start to cramp from constantly opening microfilm cassette cases. Her back and rump grow sore from sitting for so long. All the headlines consist of either senseless violence or uninteresting happenings about town. It seems that according to the newspaper, life in this city is either terrifyingly violent or mind-numbingly boring, maybe both.
Finally, just as she feels herself starting to nod off, a small headline in the lower corner of the back page of an issue from 18 years ago catches her eye. “Court Finds Woman Insane After Unexplained Disappearances of Family, Friends.” Perking up, she slides the microfilm scanner down to focus on the article and starts to read it.
“Katie Gillespie, a local, middle-aged, transient woman was found not guilty by reason of insanity yesterday in a bizarre case that has baffled investigators and befuddled the justice system. Ms. Gillespie spent the majority of her life in and out of jail for various drug charges. She will now spend the rest of her life inside a high-security mental health facility. The court has already determined her to be criminally liable for the disappearances and presumed deaths of many people, several of whom were her close family and friends. No bodies were ever found, only large piles of ash in places where those people frequented. Authorities contended that the ashes were the remains of the victims’ bodies, but couldn’t determine how or why Ms. Gillespie, or anyone else, could’ve somehow incinerated them.”
A picture of a woman wearing a prisoner’s uniform appears next to the article. The woman looks into the camera with a blank expression completely lacking in emotion. She has short brown hair and bright green eyes. Francine stares at the image incredulously. Something about her seems so familiar, yet so foreign and far away at the same time.
The article continues. “Against her court-appointed lawyer’s recommendations, Ms. Gillespie took the stand in her own defense. In a tearful entreaty to the jury, she insisted she was being ‘followed by someone who looks like people I know.’ She ended her statement by saying, ‘Why doesn’t it just kill me like it did with all the others?’ before breaking down in tears.
“Later on during the trial, Ms. Gillespie had to be removed from the courtroom after a severe outburst in which she shouted that a person sitting in the back of the courtroom ‘has been dead for 10 years’ and was ‘the thing that did all this.’
“Jurors deliberated for less than an hour before returning their verdict. Ms. Gillespie was subsequently handcuffed and transported to the Bermuda County Mental Hospital to begin receiving treatment. The verdict is essentially a life sentence as Ms. Gillespie will never be allowed outside the hospital grounds for the rest of her life. Her lawyer vowed to appeal.”
Francine looks at the picture once more and into the woman’s bright green eyes. As she does, memories flood her mind from when she was a child.
“Mommy, why isn’t Katie here? She’s my favorite cousin!”
10-year-old Francine sits on a sofa in her aunt’s living room with her mother. She recognizes other family members milling about, coming and going with drinks in their hands, smiles on their faces. The dull hum of conversation drones in the background. “Last Thanksgiving,” the little girl says, “she took me to the movies. She drove me in her new car. It was so much fun! I was hoping we could do something like that this year.”
“Oh, uh, Katie had to go away for a while, sweetie,” her mother says. She leans in close to her and speaks in a hushed whisper, looking nervously around to see if anyone heard.
“Where’d she go? When will she be back?”
“I…” Francine’s mother pauses, seeming to hold back tears. “She just had to go away for a while. I don’t know when she’ll be back.”
“Well, I hope it’s soon.”
“We all do, sweetie. We all do.”
With a look of concentration and concern, Francine carefully continues scanning the headlines. She finds one from a few months after the first that says, “Criminally Insane Woman Escapes Mental Hospital.” She begins to read.
“Katie Gillespie, a committed patient at the Bermuda County Mental Hospital, disappeared from her room in the hospital’s ‘maximum security’ wing last night. Authorities have since been unable to locate her. The guard assigned to watch her, 28-year-old Jim Garrison, has also disappeared, leading to speculation that he helped her escape. According to an anonymous source at the hospital not authorized to speak to the press, hospital security personnel discovered a large pile of ash outside Ms. Gillespie’s room, upon which sat a pair of glasses similar to those worn by Mr. Garrison.”
Francine’s phone buzzes in her pocket. As she takes it out and answers it, she doesn’t hear the door opening behind her.
“Hello?” she says.
“Francine, it’s Elaine. This is going to sound like a weird question, but… are you following me?”
“F-following you? What do you mean?”
“I mean, this morning I thought I saw you at the grocery store. Then I saw someone who looked like in my office parking lot a couple hours later. A few minutes hours ago, I thought I saw you on the street when I went to lunch. Each time, you were walking toward me with this weird smile on your face, but then you disappeared before I could say anything.”
Francine clutches the locket hanging from her neck. “N-no, that wasn’t me. I don’t know what to tell you. I… I…”
She hears a quiet rustling sound behind her. Cringing, she says, “Elaine, I’ll have to call you back.”
She hangs up the phone, then slowly turns around. She’s startled to see the librarian hovering over her, smiling ironically. Francine jumps, shrinking back into her seat. Her hands shaking, she opens the clasp on the locket, revealing the tiny mirror inside. Then, with a short, high-pitched yelp, she shoves the mirror into the librarian’s face.
The librarian looks at it for a moment, then at her. “Is this your way of telling me I need to clean my nose, dear?” she says.
Dumbfounded, Francine closes the locket and says, “I’m s-sorry. I don’t… I don’t know…”
“The library is closing soon,” the librarian says, interrupting her. “I’m afraid you’ll need to pack up. You can come back when we open tomorrow at 10 a.m.”
Francine enters the police station from the staff parking lot, then walks down the hallway and takes a right. At the end of the hall is a wooden door with an engraved sign on it that says, “Evidence.” She uses her keys to unlock the door and then steps into the room.
Inside are rows of large metal shelves with various boxes and plastic bags sitting upon them. All have the word “Evidence” imprinted upon them along with names and numbers in black marker. She walks down the main aisle and then turns down the fifth row, stopping next to a nondescript cardboard box on one of the shelves. Written on the side are the words “Monroe – Code 2501: Criminal Homicide.”
She reaches into the box and pulls out a manila file folder. With a deep breath, she opens it and examines its contents. Inside is a small stack of documents held together by several paper clips and plastic clasps. On the top is a police report, signed by “Detective Peter Abernathy.” Francine recalls how she begged Sepatha to allow her to participate in the investigation with Detective Abernathy. But Sepatha wouldn’t allow it, citing the obvious conflict of interest. Francine knows she shouldn’t even be reading the case file, but continues anyway. She resisted temptation for three years, but today, she decides she must read it out of necessity.
The report details with emotionless detachment the events of her daughter’s murder and her husband’s subsequent disappearance. Francine finds that Abernathy’s notes are thorough and objective, noting all the details of her home, large and small. Then, she notices something odd.
In a section detailing the house’s backyard, Abernathy describes a large pile of ash sitting next to a small barbeque grill on the patio. He says that it seems like too much ash to have accumulated from such a small grill, but then he never mentions it again in the rest of his notes. Shocked at this revelation, Francine shakes her head and says, “He must not have thought it was relevant. And why would he? It’s just a pile of ash sitting next to a grill, nothing more.”
The next part of the report includes an account from the crime’s single eyewitness, Francine’s former next-door neighbor, Ted Early. “I he only caught a glimpse of what happened,” he says. “From where I was sitting on my front porch, drinking a beer, I saw a beat-up old car slowly roll down the street, then stop outside Francine’s house. Moments later, the sound of gunshots erupted from the car. I ducked for cover as the car peeled out and sped away. Then I ran inside and called the police.”
When asked who the car was shooting at, Mr. Early said, “It’s the damnedest thing. I could’ve sworn it was my cousin, Phillip. I glanced up just as someone walked out of Francine’s house through her front door, and it looked exactly like him. But Phillip lives on the other side of the country. I’d just gotten into an argument with him that morning over the phone and I know he was at home. I was thinking about how mad I was at that assho- er, I mean, at him, when I looked up and saw him standing right there in my neighbor’s yard. Then the shots rang out. I hit the deck and didn’t see anything else after that.
“I called Phillip right after I called police. He answered and I said, ‘Phillip, were you just standing outside of my house?’ and he goes ‘Are you fucking crazy?’ then hung up on me. I called him on his landline, so it couldn’t have been him I saw, but I’ll be damned if that person didn’t look exactly like him. He was even wearing the same sort of clothes Phillip wears.’”
When told that there was no evidence of anyone getting shot in Francine’s front yard, Mr. Early shrugs and says, “I guess they missed. The shooter must’ve had bad aim, because I know I saw someone standing in Francine’s yard and in point-blank range of the car.”
Francine flips the page over to look at the next document beneath it. The words “Suspect Criminal History Report – Jack Thompson, II” appear at the top. In a mugshot attached to the report, a man stares at the camera with a look of dejected contempt. Crude tattoos of various indiscernible shapes and images cover his neck. His criminal history is voluminous and with a variety of phrases that all involve the word “Assault.” Francine looks at his picture, recognizing him as the man charged with murdering her daughter.
She flips this document over. Beneath it is a court record. It says, “Mr. Jack Thompson, II has pled GUILTY to the charges of ASSAULT WITH A DEADLY WEAPON and NEGLIGENT HOMICIDE. He is sentenced to 20 YEARS in the penitentiary system.
“Mr. Jack Thompson, II, hereby known as inmate #0110365, will be sent to the Bermuda County Penitentiary to serve out his sentence.” It lists the prison’s address below. Francine memorizes it, then closes the manila folder and places it inside the box. Then she turns and leaves.
Back out in the hallway, she sees Sepatha walking towards her with a serious expression on her face. “Detective Monroe, could I have a word with you?
“Y-yes, of course,” Francine says, hoping Sepatha isn’t about to ask what she was doing inside the evidence room.
“Have you heard about the situation with my estranged husband, Fernando?”
“What? No, I haven’t.
“Last night when I was working late, he called me at my office to harass me. Then, as I was leaving, I saw him in the parking lot. He chased me and I sprayed him with mace before escaping. He has since been arrested and I’ve taken a restraining order out on him. I intend to press charges on him for stalking. I’m telling everyone in the department to make sure everyone understands the situation.”
Francine says, “You’d have to be pretty crazy to attack the chief of police, especially in a police station parking lot.”
“Definitely,” Sepatha says. “I knew he was bad, but I never realized how deranged he could be. He didn’t even flinch when I maced him. He just kept walking towards me with this creepy smile on his face like he… like he…”
“Knew something horrible?” Francine says, finishing her sentence.
Francine shudders. “That’s so creepy, Chief. I’ll be sure to keep my eye out for anything suspicious.”
“Please do,” Sepatha says. As Francine starts to walk away, Sepatha says, “Oh, Francine?”
Francine turns back to look at her.
“Have you heard anything from Trooper Magnuson?”
Francine shakes her head.
“He didn’t report in for duty a few days ago and nobody has seen or heard from him.”
Francine shifts around uncomfortably in the hard, plastic chair. She leans forward onto the cold metal shelf sticking out of the wall in front of her and starts tapping her foot, rapidly. There’s a window on the wall above the shelf with thin wires running fencelike through the middle, creating a diamond pattern in the glass. A buzzing sound comes from somewhere on the other side of it. Francine braces herself.
A moment later, a man wearing an orange prisoner’s uniform walks up to the window and sits down at a chair in front of it. Francine recognizes the tattoos covering his neck and sees that he has a few new ones as well. He leans forward onto the metal shelf sticking out in front of him, staring at her through the diamonds in the glass. He has a blank expression with hooded eyes, like he couldn’t be less impressed. Francine looks at him as she reaches for the telephone attached to the wall beside her. He reaches for his own phone on his side of the wall.
“Do you know who I am… Jack?” Francine says.
“Fuck yeah I know who you are, bitch,” he says, sneering. “You’re the lady whose daughter I killed. I remember you staring at me in the courtroom like you wanted to kill me. You still wanna kill me, bitch? Well, take a good look, ‘cause this is as close as you’re ever gonna get. Prisons keep people in, but they also keep people out, know what I mean? I’m never leaving this place, I already know. I’m gonna die in here, so you’ll never get to kill me yourself. I guess that sucks for you, huh? What, did you come to threaten me or try and make me feel bad? Well forget about it. I don’t give a shit about you or your little girl. You want me to apologize? Well I ain’t gonna do that either. I didn’t even mean to kill her. I shouldn’t even be here!”
A prison guard appears behind him. “Quiet down over here!” Jack winces and looks over his shoulder at the guard, quickly nodding his head. Then he looks back and glares at Francine. “Fuck you,” he says in a low, hoarse, growling whisper.
Francine takes a deep breath. “Jack, I believe you. I already know what happened that day. I know you didn’t mean to kill Esther and I… I forgive you for that.”
Jack’s face registers surprise. His lower lip quivers slightly, and a wet sheen envelopes his eyes, but only for a moment.
Francine says, “I’m here to ask you a question about what happened that day, and I’m begging you to be honest with me.”
Jack glances down for a moment as if in thought, then gives her a curt nod.
“You said during your confession that you were shooting at the house and no one in particular. You said it was because you thought someone you hated lived there. But a witness said they saw someone standing in my front yard and it looked like you were shooting at them, specifically. Who was it?”
Jack lets out a frustrated sigh and shakes his head. He looks down for a moment, then looks back up at Francine, meeting her gaze. “I don’t suppose there’s any point in hiding it from you. It doesn’t matter if you think I’m crazy.” He pauses for a moment to gather his thoughts, then continues.
“When I said I thought someone I hated lived there, I lied. The truth is, I thought I saw him standing there in the front yard. Kevin, that little piece of shit, he killed my best friend Paul during a drug deal the week before. He just straight up robbed my best friend, shot him in the face and ran away like a little bitch. I’d been looking for him everywhere, and when I thought I saw him walk out of that house… your house, I couldn’t believe it. I grabbed my gun, pointed it at him, and pulled the trigger until my clip was empty.”
He opens his mouth, then pauses, as if debating with himself about saying something else.
“…As I sped away, I looked into my rearview, hoping to see the motherfucker lying dead on the ground. Instead, I saw that he was still standing there, staring at me as I drove away. But it wasn’t Kevin anymore it was… it was…”
Jack squeezes his eyes shut and shudders. His demeanor as a hardened criminal shifts to that of a scared little boy. “It was Paul! I’d just shot at my best friend Paul, thinking it was Kevin. But that’s not possible because Kevin killed Paul. Kevin killed Paul! God damn it, Kevin killed Paul!”
The guard reappears behind him and slams his hand down onto Jack’s shoulder. “Ok, time’s up. You’re done.” Jack swings his elbow up, knocking the guard’s hand away. “Get your fucking hands off of me!”
The guard puts him in a chokehold and drags him out of his chair. Jack gags as two other guards rush up and pin him down while Francine looks on through the window, horrified. Another guard runs up and puts Jack’s hands in handcuffs. Then, all four lift him up and begin carrying him out of the room. One of the guards says, “You just earned a week in solitary, Thompson.”
“I’m so sorry for how I treated you, Elaine. I was just scared.”
Francine stands outside the doorway of Elaine’s apartment, her body hunched over in a pleading gesture.
Elaine leans against the doorjamb with her arms crossed and a skeptical look on her face. She looks Francine up and down, at her wrinkled clothes, her tired face, her stringy, greasy, unwashed hair. “You look like shit,” she says. Francine looks down and says, “I know, and I feel like it, too.”
Elaine opens her arms wide, and Francine moves in close. They embrace.
A few minutes later, they’re sitting at Elaine’s kitchen table, sipping coffee.
“So, you really believe that a creature who can make itself look like people you know is following you around?” Elaine says.
“Yes,” Francine says. “And it’s stalking people I know as well, appearing to them as people whom they know. It appeared to my boss as her estranged husband one night, and it made itself look like a girl’s ex-friend before it killed her little brother. And that day you thought you saw me following you around? It was the creature.”
Elaine looks down at her coffee, gazing at her reflection in its murky opaqueness, unsure of how to respond.
Francine continues. “I think it attacked my cousin Katie a long time ago, did the same thing to her that it’s doing to me now.”
“But why you, and why her? What does it want?”
Francine shakes her head and looks out the window. “I don’t know. But I think it feeds off of emotional energy and is drawn to interpersonal conflict between people. When people’s emotions are heightened because they’re upset with someone, this somehow draws it to them. But I also think it can feed off of anyone. When it catches someone, it absorbs all their energy until nothing’s left but a pile of ash.
“It has to get close to consume your energy, and so it somehow makes itself look like someone you know to try and get close. I don’t think it can distinguish whether you’d want to talk to them or not, though, just that you know them and have thought about them recently. It looks different to everyone, but always as someone the viewer knows. I believe it’s always nearby, somewhere close to where I am. But I don’t know why.”
Elaine lets out an exasperated sigh as she looks out the window and shudders. “But what can we do?”
“I don’t know,” Francine says. “I shot it several times with my weapon, and I believe it has been shot before by someone else before, as well. Bullets don’t seem to affect it. It follows that anything which causes physical harm wouldn’t hurt it, either.”
They sit in a despondent silence for several minutes. Looking outside, they see that tiny snowflakes have begun to float down from the grey, overcast sky. Elaine glances down at the locket hanging from Francine’s chest. “What’s that?” she says. “I’ve never seen you wearing that before.”
Francine looks down and puts her hand around it. “It’s a locket I found at the scene of where the creature killed someone. Inside it is a… tiny mirror.
Francine jerks her head up as her eyes open wide. “You just gave me an idea!”
“Can I help you ladies with anything?”
The portly shop owner approaches Francine and Elaine where they stand in the middle of the store. One all the walls around them are mirrors of various sizes and shapes, casting infinite reflections in all directions. Some of the mirrors have elaborate, decorative frames while others have ones that are simple and basic. Etched onto one of the store’s windows in whimsical lettering are the words, “Ernie’s Glass and Mirrors.” Fluorescent bulbs buzz overhead in rows, filling the store with bright light against the dark night sky outside.
Elaine smiles at him and says, “No thank you, sir. We’re just looking.”
“Alright, well we close in 15 minutes, so just let me know if you need anything.”
Francine watches as the man walks away. “There’s nobody else in the store right now, so I think we’re good to go,” she says.
“Are you sure this is going to work?” Elaine says. “I don’t want to risk going to jail for nothing.”
“As sure as I can be,” Francine says. “Ready?”
Elaine stands in front of Francine, and then they both close their eyes and take big, deep breaths.
Francine recalls the worst memories of her relationship with her husband, all of which had something to do with his drinking problem. He’d get drunk and become aggressive, yelling at her, threatening to hurt her. He eventually quit drinking and their relationship improved dramatically, but she never forgot how mean he could be when he’d been drinking.
She thinks of every awful thing he said and did and how angry it made her. Her body warms as she feels her heart rate increase. She feels rage growing inside her, and in that moment, she wants nothing more for her husband to be there just so she could slap him in the face.
Elaine thinks about her feelings of hatred for her father. She remembers watching him beat her mother on a daily basis while Elaine was a small child. One day he hit her too hard and knocked her out, but she didn’t wake up. The scars of the tragedy remained inside Elaine’s mind long after the police arrested him and sent him to prison. She imagines those scars now as long, jagged blades she holds in her hands, ready to cut anyone who threatens someone she loves.
Francine and Elaine open their eyes at the same time. They look through each other, breathing heavily, boiling with rage. “Do it,” Francine says, growling. Elaine responds with a might screech, then slaps Francine as hard as she can. The impact emits out a loud, fleshy “whap” that rings out throughout the store. Francine puts her hand up to her face with a look of mild shock, then hauls back and punches Elaine in the stomach. Elaine grunts and doubles over, gasping for breath.
“Ladies! Ladies!” The shop owner says as he comes running up with an incensed look upon his face. “Stop that right now! Come on, break it up!”
“Stay out of this,” Francine says, pulling her gun out from under her overcoat. She points it at the ceiling and pops off three rounds. The shop owner looks frightened and puts his hands up. Then he turns around and runs away, out through the store’s front door. The bell hanging above it jingles as he makes his escape.
“Ok, I think we’re alone,” Francine says, rubbing the red, hand-shaped welt upon her face.
Elaine wheezes, smiling as she struggles to catch her breath. “Damn, I didn’t expect you to hit me that hard.” She takes a couple more breaths and says, “Do you think it heard us? Do you think it’ll come here?”
“I hope so. If not, I don’t know what else to do. Now quick, turn out the lights!”
Elaine scurries over to a doorway leading to the store’s back room. There, she finds a panel with several light switches on it. She presses them down all at once. The lights go out, flooding the store in darkness. Then, she kneels down and presses her back against the wall, her heart pounding inside her chest.
They wait for what seems like hours. Several times, Francine considers giving up and telling Elaine they should leave before the cops arrive. But then, she hears something. It’s the sound of the bell above the door jingling. Then she hears the soft scraping of shuffling footsteps in the darkness, slowly coming closer and closer. As it approaches, Francine begins feeling more and more weak and lightheaded.
The sound comes so close that she thinks he could reach out and touch whoever’s making it. Her legs tremble under her weight, and she feels as though she might pass out. “Elaine! Now!” she says. Elaine stands up and flips all the switches on, filling the store with light.
Francine steps back and gasps at what she sees. Elaine stands directly in front of her, staring at her with an ironic smile on her face. Francine struggles to comprehend how this could be possible, but then quickly realizes it’s not Elaine at all. The Elaine thing starts to take another step toward her, but then stops. Still smiling, it turns and looks all around itself.
Seeing its reflection in all the mirrors, its smile turns into a hideous frown. It whirls around looking at itself in all the individual mirrors as if it’s horrified at what it sees. The thing lets out a screeching, inhuman wail. Francine cries out and covers her ears, watching the creature with a look of abject terror.
The wailing intensifies, becoming louder and higher, assailing Francine’s eardrums. As it does, the creature’s skin and clothes bubble up as though they’re of the same boiling flesh. Its appearance changes from that of Elaine to Sepatha, then Sepatha to Marc, then Marc to Esther. It then looks like Trooper Magnuson, then changes into other people Elaine knows, old friends and acquaintances she hasn’t thought about in years. It even briefly appears as her elderly babysitter from when she was a child.
Finally, the creature’s wailing reaches a crescendo, smashing all the mirrors and breaking all the lightbulbs. The store once more plunges into darkness as the staccato sound of shattering glass fills the air. Then, silence.
Francine feels her strength return, and her mind becomes clear once more. She strains to listen and is surprised to hear the sound of shallow breathing in front of her. Pulling her lighter out of her pocket, she flicks it on.
In the soft light of the tiny flame, she sees a naked woman with short brown hair kneeling before her. The woman looks up at her with bright green eyes.
“Katie?” Francine says. “Is that you?”
“Y-yes, Francine, it’s me. I’m… I’m so sorry about everything that happened.” Katie coughs, then continues speaking. “The thing, whatever it was, started following me shortly after our grandmother Rose disappeared. This is when I was a teenager and you were a small child. You probably don’t even remember that, do you?”
Francine shakes her head.
Katie nods and says, “Rose disappeared after claiming for weeks that something was following her, something that could make itself look like people she knew. Everyone thought she was just a crazy old lady. But then, one day, her daughter, my mother, your aunt, found her bedroom empty. Rose was gone, with only a big pile of ash sitting next to her bed. I heard all of this from my mom, who swore me to secrecy.
“After that, it seemed like everywhere I went, I saw someone I knew, walking toward me with this hideous smile. But I knew right away that it wasn’t them, not really. It was this thing that got Rose, and now it was coming after me!
“My friends and acquaintances started disappearing, killed by this thing, this creature. I was blamed for it, but I never really knew what was happening until the creature finally came to claim me once and for all. In that moment, I saw that it was Rose! The creature had taken over her mind and body, forcing her to stalk and kill people against her will by sucking out their life force. Then, it took me over too, controlling me, making me look like whoever the person viewing me was recently thinking about. And it made me hungry, an insatiable hunger for raw emotion that I could never satisfy. It was torture.
“You have to help me end the cycle, Francine. I believe we can do this together as a team, just like when we were kids. Will you do it? Will you help me?”
Katie sticks out her hand as she looks up at Francine with pleading eyes. “Please?” she says, whimpering.
Francine reaches out to take Katie’s hand, but then hesitates. She looks into her eyes as if searching for her soul. Then, she grasps Katie’s hand. At the same time, she removes her thumb from the button on the lighter and its light goes out.
In the darkness, Francine lets out a pained gasp. The sound turns into a fizzling, crackling noise. Then a heavy silence hangs in the air.
“Francine?” Elaine says. “Are you alright? I found a flashlight back here next to the electrical box.”
Francine doesn’t respond.
“Francine, are you there?”
Elaine clicks the flashlight on. A beam of light shoots out from the lens, piercing the darkness. The mirror shards littering the ground reflect the light everywhere like a deconstructed disco ball. In the fragmented glow, Elaine sees Francine standing in the middle of the room next to a large pile of ash.
“Francine!” Elaine says, shining the light at her. “Did it work? Did we stop the creature?”
Francine says nothing as she gazes at Elaine with an ironic smile, then starts slowly shuffling toward her.