Perrinville Shadow

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Thrillers  |  House: Booksie Classic


I

 

It was a cool October evening when the madness began. That night when everything changed. The blood red sky of a setting sun in early autumn was in stark contrast to the dark and jagged branches of the old woods below.  It had been a rainy summer that year, and the autumn that had followed was, so far, very cold indeed; the leaves had been stripped from some of the perennials, which themselves were reminiscent of barren skeletons. Like bones without flesh.

A yellow moon was rising in the maroon skies to the east. It had finally appeared from behind the dark clouds of a thunderstorm that had passed through some two hours earlier. Its hypnotic beam illuminated the urban landscape below; Mondestrunken if ever there were such a thing.

Riding along the wind were the sounds of voices that seemed rather cheerful. Faint, but just strong enough to carry through the immense layer of fog that blanketed the woodland floor. They were coming from a nearby park, an expanse of green lawn bordered by these very woods on one side and a city street on the other. An aging playground fashioned from faded, sun-bleached wood served as the centerpiece, and next to this main feature sat a rusted set of old swings. Their appearance of rusty orange suggested a keen lack of use throughout the passing decades. However, this was not the case tonight.

The voices belonged to a trio of shadows that were departing from the swings. They shuffled across the gently sloping lawn in the direction of the adjacent city street, where the lone car parked here would have been shrouded in darkness were it not for an incandescent lamppost nearby. Two young women accompanied by a young man, these shadows with the voices turned out to be.

One of them, a young woman who’d had far too much to drink, was dancing across the wet grass in a state of utter jubilation, singing a terribly off-key rendition of the latest chart topper. She held in her hand a bottle of cheap beer, and at the conclusion of her performance took a bow for the audience of two that accompanied her.

“And that amazing performance,” she blurted out, “was brought to you by thee one…thee only…Mikaela Verrington e’rybody!” She moved her hands to her sides as if to take hold of the skirt that wasn’t there and took a curtsy. The girl walking behind her flashed a fake smile, perhaps absentmindedly sending a telepathic message of “Thank God that’s over!” Her friend Mikaela was intelligent and attractive, and a great athlete whose accomplishments had graced the front page of the local newspaper on many occasion. Not to be included among Mikaela’s list of talents was the ability to sing, and Emily, with her fake smile, knew all too well how evident this was whenever Mikaela was drunk.

As the saying goes, everybody’s a critic. Even the ones that are completely tone deaf. That was the only feasible explanation as to why Jeremy Sanford was clapping his hands together in pure amusement at the sight of his girlfriend of two years singing her chops off. They’d met at a college party in 2014, and hit it off from the start. Jeremy was surprised at how wild Mikaela could be with, say, the proper “motivation” so to speak. Mikaela Verrington, the always prompt and professional “Teacher’s Pet” inside the classroom, had a wild side indeed. And Jeremy loved it.

“You’re a real talent Mel,” he said with a laugh as she sputtered around, a dizzy mess. “I’m tellin’ ya. Those other girls don’t stand a chance.” He walked over to her and wrapped his arms around her waist. “I don’t stand a chance.” Smiling, he leaned down and kissed his girlfriend passionately. Were it not for the saturated taste of alcohol on her breath, Mikaela would have certainly tasted it on his own. Her hands found their way up the back of his flannel shirt and began running through his coarse, sandy-blonde hair.

With a bad taste in her mouth, Emily stared down at her feet and began playing with her hair in reluctant fashion. It hurt being a third wheel, particularly when she was around these two. And especially when they were hammered and had no real connection with the world outside of their own. She was of course happy for Mikaela. Why else would she have introduced the two of them at that stupid party during sophomore year? It wasn’t so much a feeling of jealousy that Emily felt brewing inside her so much as it was a feeling of being replaced; Mikaela had been her best friend first, and Jeremy (in Emily’s eyes) seemed only to be the flavor of the week. A week that had stretched on now for two years and counting.

Faking a cough, Emily made herself heard. “I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to get outta here,” she said, her arms crossed beneath her breasts. Glancing at the iPhone in her hand, she continued to make her case. “It’s ten already.” Her disinterested friends continued on with their public display of affection, apparently unaware that she had even spoken. With a cool shiver beginning to creep its way through Emily’s body, she muttered an inaudible bit of profanity under her breath. It was at this point Mikaela pulled herself away from Jeremy, turned around, and finally acknowledged her friend shivering in the cold. Unlike the fake cough, Mikaela could see the shaking in Emily’s arms and legs was a genuine response to the cold October night, which had suddenly grown colder.

“Oh, sorry Em,” she said sorrowfully. It was though the alcohol had momentarily lapsed in its hold over her mind. “I don’t mean to ignore you. You know what it’s like, those nights when you’re tipsy.”

Emily knew, but not well. Rare was the occasion when she went over the legal limit, much less even approached it. As it were, she was the only one that hadn’t popped off a bottle cap that night, and found herself designated driver of one Jeremy Sanford’s car.

Feeling his needs were not being met, Jeremy grabbed Mikaela’s rear with both hands, swung her around, and continued mashing his face up against her own. Wincing, Emily began walking away from the intertwined lovebirds and headed straight for the car. Oddly enough, it was this that got not Mikaela but Jeremy to pull away and tilt his head in a state of wonder, eying the shivering girl carefully.

“Your jacket,” he said matter-of-factly. Emily glanced over her shoulder to verify she was indeed the one being spoken to.

“What?”

“Your jacket,” Jeremy repeated, his hazed face free of emotion. “You were wearing your sweatshirt when we got here. The maroon one.”

She thought for a moment, and Emily remembered laying it idly alongside the rusted swings as Jeremy and Mikaela pumped back and forth in dazed confusion. No wonder she had been shivering so gravely. She turned to her right and gave them a look that seemed to ask, ‘Well, are you coming with me?’ No such look was mirrored in the face of Jeremy Sanford. Mikaela Verrington, however, showed uncertainty in her eyes, wishing to join her best friend of twelve years but seemingly unable to leave the grasp of her lover. With a deep sense of regret kindling within her, she watched as Emily departed, leaving the two embracing in the darkness of the early night.

The dew-painted lawn was cold and damp, chilling Emily’s feet as she trudged through overgrown grass that had been neglected for some time. She could not for the life of her remember why she had decided to wear sandals tonight. Perhaps it was a subconscious, fleeting reminder of those summer days of old before Jeremy had, quite literally, come into Mikaela’s life. Whatever the cause, those days were dead. As dead as a door nail.

By now, she had walked a distance equivalent to half the lawn, beyond the reach of the lamppost’s stale yellow light and well on her way toward the swings. The man in the moon proved her only company in this lonely endeavor, but his smiling, lopsided face would not be visible for long. For as Emily looked up towards the dark sky, her gaze found another storm system advancing rapidly from the west, seemingly hell bent on masking the all-seeing lunar sphere from above.

That was when the rain began again. A thick, coarse sleet that brought with it a cold sense of dread and despair as it beat down on the visitors of the park below. Emily could feel it, no more so than the moment her right foot plunged into a dark pool of water hidden precariously on the surface of the lawn. It chilled her to the bone. Cold as she was, she figured it was much hotter within the now fogged-up car sitting in the lonely parking lot.

A petite old woman that had been caught in the storm walking her dachshund was passing by the car now and, with a look that mirrored reminiscent disgust in the old lines of her face, noticed the vehicle moving gently back and forth.

“Darn kids,” she muttered in her dry voice. Replacing her gray hair beneath the hood of her blue raincoat, she refocused her attention on her home down the street, where her husband and the warm cup of tea he had prepared would be waiting for her.

Meanwhile, Emily had become absolutely drenched because of the storm, which had (perhaps unbelievably) picked up even more steam in only a matter of minutes. Streams of water were running through her matted down hair, her freckled face one of anxiety and frustration. It was becoming increasingly difficult to see through the sheets of pouring rain, and Emily couldn’t help but wonder if she should have reached the swings by now. Perhaps it was just the downpour and the all-encompassing darkness, but it seemed almost as if the park had grown larger in every direction around her. ‘Did Jeremy spike my coffee?’ she thought to herself. No, he couldn’t have. He wouldn’t have.

But she couldn’t be sure of anything right now. As an insatiable curiosity crept up into her mind, Emily turned slowly to the right until her dark face pointed in the direction of the parking lot. The queer yellow light of the lamppost was just enough to see Jeremy’s car despite the onslaught of the menacing rain. Squinting (as she so often did when filled with suspicion), Emily brushed her auburn hair behind her ears and focused on the windows. ‘Yep’ she thought to herself. ‘Couldn’t wait to get busy without me’.

She rolled her eyes in a half arc that spanned the cloudy sky above and ended focused on the woods. When her gaze returned to the car, something had changed. The silhouettes were strangely out of focus, as if they had never been inside the car to begin with and were instead between Emily and the vehicle, somewhere out on the lawn in the middle of the storm. Emily’s mouth opened in awe, trying to make sense of the apparent illusion she was seeing. Then it changed.

The two dark forms coalesced into one, and it was then that Emily realized what she had seen was most definitely not her friends. The form was beginning to take shape and come into focus despite the poor visibility through the rain, due mostly to the dim yellow light that wrapped around the edges of the shadow before her. It became clear now: there was someone else out there in the darkness. She was not alone.

Emily couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman, as the figure was draped in a cloak that obscured all bodily features. But whatever they were (or it was), they couldn’t have been there for long. She had walked near the very spot where the cloaked figure now perched; they would have been within reaching distance of her, and besides, she hadn’t heard a sound. Unless, of course, the figure had been there in the darkness all along. Within reaching distance. Waiting.

Trying to make sense of it all, perhaps to console herself, Emily decided it must have been the lovers from the car pulling a Halloween prank, and so called them out by name.

“Okay Jeremy, Mikaela,” she said. She managed only a hoarse whisper. “I appreciate you including me, but I’m not sure I want a part of that.” She rose a shaky hand and pointed in the direction of the steamed-up car in the parking lot. The cloaked figure didn’t move. She could feel the eyes beneath the hood resting on her, scanning the curves of her lower body. Analyzing meticulously. She knew in her heart the intentions of the shadow before her, and they were of a sinister nature.

Then, for the first time during this brief confrontation, the cloak moved in a manner definitely human. A single limb emerged from under the shroud, the end of which pointed a slender finger directly at Emily. For a moment that seemed an eternity, she stood there in confused terror until her worst fear was realized. “I want you,” a low voice groaned, one cold and devoid of humanity. And the dark figure took off at a sprint.

It took her the span of a single, racing heartbeat to process the scene. Her eyes whitened as the black shadow surged toward her, and an instant later she was off. The wet, muddy grass pierced her sandal-clad feet as she ran in the opposite direction of her friends and toward the dark woods instead. She had no chance to turn around and head for the car; it was safe to assume the speed and quickness of the fiend behind her was greater than her own, and the slick lawn would prove challenging enough. The adrenaline in her body had reached an all-time high; not even her first experience in bed could compare to the racing her heart, mind, and body now experienced. Like that time between the sheets, she could hear heavy breathing behind her, getting closer and closer. In similar fashion, her pursuer wanted her. They really wanted her.

In desperation, she attempted a scream for help, but the autumn air was so thick with rain it felt as though she were submerged. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway; the rain would have drowned out the scream in more ways than one.

She shot back a glance as she continued for the woods, and what she saw horrified her. The cloaked figure had closed the distance between them considerably, and in mere seconds would be within reaching distance. Those long, slender fingers would be running through her hair soon.

Emily ran so fast she was nearly hydroplaning across the sea of water that had replaced the grassy lawn. The maelstrom fought hard, but she was determined. A swamp of muddy earth clutched at her right foot as she raced along, winning the battle as it snagged the sandal away from her. She staggered for a moment, but regained her composure as a hand came down hard on the back of her head.

It was the demon in the cloak, and those long, ghoulish fingers had grabbed ahold of her auburn hair and wouldn’t let go. Emily screamed in horror as the brute strength of the hand was mightier than she’d expected, and the arm jerked back and forth in a whiplash motion as it tried so desperately to pull her to the ground. Her screams of terror rang clear, this time above the cacophony of the howling wind and rain. She felt the taste of iron, and became aware of the blood flowing down from her scalp and into her mouth.

Desperate to break free, Emily began yanking her head right and left opposite her assailant’s motion. It was a painful decision, as the cloaked figure was determined not to release their hold on her. As she continued yanking back and forth, Emily noticed her hair starting to slip through those long fingers in short, intermittent bursts. Like a ram at a charge, she thrust her head forward and nearly freed herself from the grip of the demon behind her.

They must have slipped in the mud, as the cloaked figure was now parallel to the ground and holding onto Emily’s hair for dear life. The arm pulled hard, and Emily’s head was thrust backward in a violent whiplash as she screamed in agony. But with one final tug, she pulled her hair free from the grip of the cloaked figure and ran for her life, fleeing further and further away from her friends in the parking lot.

She didn’t dare come to a stop until she’d reached the edge of the woods and begun looking for a place to hide. It hadn’t occurred to her that her attacker had given up the chase and was no longer hot on her trail; the amount of raw adrenaline rushing through her veins was enough to know that her stalker was still lurking. Somewhere.

Nor had it occurred to her that an iPhone was snug in the pocket of her rain-soaked jeans. At this epiphany, she thrust a shaking hand into her pocket and grabbed at the green rubber encasing her phone. With some amount of difficulty, she removed it from her pocket and began furiously pressing the home button and swiping right to activate the home screen. She got as far as dialing 9 on the keypad before the screen went black. “Shit!” she screamed in frustration. It was dead.

A now useless hunk of plastic and metal, Emily returned it to her pocket and backed slowly toward the trees, facing the lawn and never once shifting her glance. A shaking hand reached up to her temples and wiped away blood flowing from a wound to the head. She was dizzy, felt as though she might faint right then and there. She would collapse, and her friends would have no idea of her vanishing or of what might happen next. Nor would the police be able to shed any light on the mystery. No one would know of her fate, one ultimately sealed at the hands of a maniac.

Just then, a light flashed from far across the lawn. The rain had come to a sudden stop as she’d reached the woods, and Emily could see clearly now that the light was coming from the lone car in the parking lot. It looked as though Mikaela and Jeremy had finished banging each other; perhaps just now they had become aware of her absence. Maybe this would turn out alright after all. Maybe she stood a chance.

And then the knife plunged through her lower back and ripped out the other side of her lower abdomen. She winced as a sharp pain raged in her mind, and Emily’s head drooped down at the weapon protruding from her gut. A piercing, thick blade was jutting out a few inches beneath her ribcage, and despite the dark red color of her own blood, the knife flashed the yellow light of the car in reflection. It seemed to mock her, taunting her for thinking so foolishly that someone was coming to save her.

She tried to scream, but a slender hand from behind wrapped around her mouth and squeezed. Those same ghoulish fingers that had pulled at her hair. A fresh taste of iron overwhelmed her, and whether it was from her own, bleeding mouth or the hand that gagged her hardly mattered. Her attacker thrust the knife upward, and Emily’s feet left the ground as she was hoisted toward the night sky by the creature that had killed her.

The hand relinquished its grip on the knife, and Emily’s body stood upright for a moment before it crumpled forward and her face fell into the mud. Another limb emerged from beneath the cloak, and the two hands grabbed at her bare ankles and began pulling her lifeless body through the mess of underbrush and into the dark woods.

The clouds above were gone now, and the full moon shone brightly.

 

 

II

 

Was any of it real? Had any of it been real at all? To be honest, he wasn’t sure.

Jeremy Sanford stood slouched against the left side of his car, hands in pockets, his hair a complete mess. His girlfriend Mikaela Verrington remained in the backseat, and it was probably for the best she stayed there. Much of last night seemed a dream, one that ended up a nightmare. Emily had left the two of them alone, only to never return. Mel had tried texting and calling her best friend repeatedly once she had regained consciousness, but to no avail. ‘Too much beer’, she thought to herself, shaking her head in sorrow.

Jeremy, meanwhile, stared at his feet, lost in thought. He couldn’t remember anything important from last night; he’d bought some cheap beer at the store, landed the number of the girl working the register, picked up the two girls at Mel’s apartment, and they’d mentioned going to the park. Now he found himself here, with no clue how it happened.

His memory was as foggy as the overcast morning sky; it added to an already ominous feeling about the air, which itself smelled of rotting leaves and wet grass. As it was, the storm had inflicted far more damage on the local town than anyone could have surmised. Perhaps, as Jeremy supposed, that was why the town of Perrinville hadn’t sent a police officer, and had instead dispatched a lone private investigator to the scene.

Jeremy shifted his glance over to the PI, whose face was turned away from the car and focused on the woods in deep concentration; he wore a dark brown overcoat reminiscent of Holmesian attire, one that reached nearly to his knees. Atop his head sat a brown fedora with a single feather pinned to the side, and it covered nearly all of his clean-cut, sandy-brown hair. From the side of his car, Jeremy tried sizing him up; the detective appeared tall and fit with broad shoulders that, if all else failed, projected a real sense of authority about him.

With his back still turned from the car, the detective remained still for the most part, bowing his head occasionally and shifting his right arm in what was most likely the act of notetaking. Occasionally he’d stop, lost in thought perhaps, and then continue on with his work. It stayed that way for quite a while until he stowed something inside his coat pocket, turned on his heel, and began to walk in Jeremy’s direction.

It was then that Mikaela Verrington’s grief-stricken boyfriend got his first clear look at the detective’s face; he was young, not any older than early thirties at most. His high cheek bones were defined clearly, and Jeremy found himself thinking how peculiar it was that this young man looked considerably aged for his age. There were shadows beneath his bright, youthful eyes, perhaps a toll his job took on him. His furrowed brow was in stark contrast to his smooth, clean shaven face, and a trace of red showed on the left side of his lower lip. ‘A lip biter’, Jeremy thought to himself. He had the same bad habit.

The investigator’s walk slowed to a stop as he approached Jeremy, who now stood promptly aside his car, facing the man before him. Waiting, almost demanding, that the investigator speak first. With a reluctant sigh, he removed his fedora and broke the silence.

“I’m terribly sorry,” he started, but trailed off in hesitation as his eyes found Jeremy’s. He reconsidered, and began again. “Detective Morgan Dupree,” he said with a warm smile, and extended a gloved hand forward. “And who might I be speaking with?”

“Jeremy,” he managed, returning his hand to his pants pocket. Morgan raised an eyebrow with a sort of ‘go on’ look as he did so. “Sanford. Jeremy Sanford.” The detective gave a look of satisfaction, eyeing him closely. “The girl who went missing…she was best friends with my girlfriend.”

“A Ms. Emily Holloway as I understand it,” Morgan said matter-of-factly. “Would that be correct?” Jeremy nodded his drooping head. He couldn’t bring himself to look the detective in the eye.

“Well then, I believe a missing persons report is in order,” Morgan replied with a tap on his jacket pocket. “I’ve got some decent information here, but I don’t suppose…” His voice trailed off as he waited for Jeremy’s gaze to find him once again; it did only a moment later.

“I don’t suppose you could help.”

“Me? I don’t know anything about detective work. I never watched the old shows.”

Morgan grimaced. “Everyone’s seen those old things once or twice. You’d be surprised how informative they are.” He offered a worn-out smile and proceeded to explain.

“I’ve been on Ms. Holloway’s disappearance for a mere ten hours, and still I know next to nothing about her; where she’d be on a typical Friday night, who the rest of her friends are, etc.” He paused a moment and went on. “Considering the lack of evidence, it’s as though she were never here.” Jeremy’s eye twitched. He knew where he was going with this and objected.

“You think we made this up? There’s no way– ”

“No, that’s not what I think,” Morgan snapped. He eyed Jeremy carefully. “No, I’m looking for some background info. And you seem the perfect candidate.”

“Why not just ask Mikaela herself?” Jeremy wondered aloud. He knew the answer immediately, but Morgan pounced anyway.

“Her best friend could be dead, son. Sure, I’d like to speak with her, but given the situation, you think she’d be in any mental capacity to talk to a PI? Or even the will?” He shook his head dismissively with a glance to the car’s back window. Speaking again, his voice changed to a much softer and lower tone. “I don’t think she could handle it, what I found at the edge of the woods.”

 

They were walking a snail’s pace across the lawn. Whether it was fatigue or the need to prolong the inevitable, neither knew. Jeremy’s chapped, red hands had retreated to his pockets once more, and Morgan was adamant to remain silent until they were out of earshot. The sound of leather shoes trouncing through water-saturated muck was the most audible noise on an otherwise quiet morning; Jeremy could take only so much before he broke the silence.

“I don’t get it. You mentioned a lack of evidence,” he said panting. “So what are we looking for?” Morgan came to a sudden stop, sighed, and spoke, looking off into the distance towards the woods.

“Yeah, I know what I said,” he confessed. “But it’s not true. Not entirely. For Mikaela’s own sake, I thought it best to leave her out for this part.” Jeremy was confused, but the detective went on nonetheless. “I found some personal effects. Unless someone planted them, Emily was definitely out here last night.” Morgan noticed the blank stare coming from an uneasy looking Jeremy. “You alright son?”

Jeremy broke out of his trance almost immediately. “Yeah. This is just…really hard to hear,” he managed, rubbing his temples. His head was throbbing. Too much booze. He wanted to say something, but thought better of it. His voice was fatigued and wreaked of frustration; a less than ideal combination in the presence of an already suspecting private investigator.

“Nevertheless,” said Morgan from out of the silence, “we must carry on. We’ve got an attack on our hands, and the killer has Emily’s blood on his.” Like a wave from the north Atlantic, this thought chilled Jeremy to the bone.

They continued on until a glance over the shoulder could no longer spy the car in the parking lot. The trees here looked deader. Browner. More brittle; like long-lost, ancient souls standing forever in fixed position. It was as though the tress knew what the two men were thinking, and were solemnly reflecting the words written on their hearts. Perhaps the trees too had a beat pulsing through them.

The distant sound of the town clocktower rode along the air, and this reminder of time had Jeremy wondering whether they’d ever get to their final destination. No sooner had the thought come to him than Morgan stopped in his tracks with an abrupt halt.

“This is where our business takes us,” he said quietly. “This, I believe, is the place where Ms. Holloway knew no more.” Jeremy’s heart sank. There was a sense of finality in what Morgan had guessed aloud. He knew…no, they both knew the gut-wrenching truth, but for some reason pretended not to acknowledge it: Emily was indeed dead.

“You said you found some things…” Jeremy tried, placing his hand over his eyes and lower forehead.

“I did,” Morgan said. His gaze moved to the edge of the woods and, without a word, told Jeremy all he needed to know. There lay a pair of muddy and severely ripped jeans, one leg half submerged in a puddle of decaying leaves. These were no designer cuts either, as the two of them, even at a distance, could see clearly the red streaks coinciding with each slash. Jeremy gasped, and ran immediately to the ghastly scene before him. Morgan merely stood in place and, with a bow of his head, removed his fedora in a show of respect; he’d seen this before, and didn’t need to see it again with the pain of another standing next to him.

Jeremy arrived on the scene in a rush, his head spinning. Upon closer inspection, it was worse than he’d thought; there was a long tear running up the inseam, one so bad that the two legs appeared to no longer have any material connecting them. Off to his left, he spied a small piece of red-stained white cloth. Grabbing it between his fingers and examining it in his hand, he discovered what is was; a blood-soaked segment of Emily’s panties, and like the jeans, it was slashed considerably. Shaking his head in utter disbelief, Jeremy hardly noticed the arrival of the detective to his right, who had taken some time before coming over and standing beside him.

“I know it must be difficult to understand,” he began. “Girl goes out with her friends one night and ends up dead. Nobody ever thinks it’ll happen to them…until it does.” Jeremy withdrew his gaze from the scene before him and spoke to the detective.

“What are we gonna do?” he said. “What are you going to do, Morgan? What am I supposed to tell Mikaela?” He felt drugged somehow.

Morgan had prepared a veteran response. “In times of crises, it helps to be near loved ones; lend Mikaela your ear; be there for her.” He paused and thought for a moment. “Keep banging her if it helps. Try to regain a sense of normalcy.” Jeremy seemed visibly calmer after these words, but Morgan wasn’t done just yet.

“But I need you to do something for me.” He placed his right hand on one of Jeremy’s broad shoulders and continued. “I need you to pay close attention to how Mikaela responds to all this; what her thoughts are, how she’s feeling, any changes in personality…” He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a slip of paper. “Keep me in the loop.”

With a trembling hand, Jeremy reached forward and grabbed the ID card with two fingers. Detective Morgan Dupree, the card read. Kaluza Dr. and 58th Ave W. Perrinville, NE. He knew the place. The old town square, a fleeting district that had seen livelier days in the distant past. “Mikaela’s a special girl,” he heard himself say, though the voice seemed far off and disconnected.

Morgan nodded in agreement. “Exactly why the situation requires such care and attention to detail.” He glanced down at the wristwatch adjacent to his glove. “Speaking of Miss Verrington, now would be an appropriate time for our return.”

This time, the two made their away across the muddy lawn in hardly any time at all. Morgan had determined it was best to collect the remains of Emily’s clothing once Mikaela and her boyfriend were on their way home. Jeremy agreed wholeheartedly.

Upon their arrival, the Camry was still the lone vehicle in the parking lot, only the windows were opened slightly and Mikaela had drifted off to sleep. Jeremy had been careful to wake her gently, and once she had regained consciousness, they began to discuss what would follow.

“And you’ll be sure to keep us informed?” asked Jeremy, looking for reassurance. “Any developments whatsoever? Good or bad?”

Morgan nodded and spoke softly. “Of course, and I expect the facts to present themselves rather quickly. I take on only one case at a time.” He turned and faced Mikaela with a smile. “Don’t worry Miss Verrington. Soon enough, we’ll all know who’s behind this. I promise you that.”

Looking up at him, Mikaela returned the smile. Her deep brown eyes showed her satisfaction with the man before her. She believed him, and she knew he spoke the truth. And someday soon, they’d have the creature responsible for Emily’s death. “Thank you, detective.”

Smiling, Morgan reached for the passenger door and opened it gracefully for Mikaela to step inside. Once she was buckled in, he swung around to the other side of the car for one final word.

“This is where we part ways,” he said. “For now, anyway.” He offered a handshake, and Jeremy accepted it with newfound hope. “And don’t forget: keep an eye on Mikaela for me.” He turned and began to make his way for the woods once again, but heard a concerned voice over his shoulder.

“Detective?” It was Jeremy. “I need to ask. To get it off my chest.” He took a breath and swallowed hard. “You have any suspects?” Morgan waited, turned slowly, and looked Jeremy straight in the eye.

Everyone’s a suspect, Mr. Sanford.”

 

 

III

 

The funeral was held a week and a half later, just blocks from where the park woods bordered Norris Street. Perrinville was a small town, but despite its small size, Emily’s legacy and influence in the community was well represented in the number of attendees. So many, in fact, that the service was moved ahead of time from a small temple to the largest sanctuary around.

Not in attendance was Morgan Dupree, who had been searching all over town for any new leads he might be able to uncover. He’d spoken with Jeremy over the phone a few times, who routinely updated the detective on Mikaela’s most recent behavior; quiet and sad mostly, but other times smiling and engaging. A plethora of emotions for sure. ‘Can’t make up her mind, I guess,’ Jeremy thought to himself.

Everyone was asked to wear warm and pleasant colors, a humble request made by Mr. and Mrs. Holloway to celebrate the life of their daughter. Everyone could feel the elephant in the room, and even though Emily’s death served as the reason for the occasion, it was rather pleasant. The service itself featured various hymns, stories recounted from years prior, and a surprisingly cheerful sermon from the Holloways’ minister. Dr. Kerry’s jargon ensured Emily was now “in the hands of the Lord” and that “His will be done”. An unsatisfactory rationalization in the mind of Mikaela Verrington.

At the ceremony’s conclusion, a reception was held in the auditorium down the hall. A projector-screen combo had been erected in one corner for the many photos of Emily that friends and family had found collecting dust within their closets; graduation, pool parties, little league softball, the first day of school...all major milestones early on in life. Mikaela watched herself up there on the screen, standing alongside her best friend in the form of intermittent snapshots from childhood. Smiling, sometimes laughing to herself in brief spurts, she failed to notice her lover’s presence off to the right.

He tugged at the poorly-knotted tie hanging round his neck. He felt oddly uncomfortable, like he was in some way responsible for the events of the week prior. And it wasn’t just the tie. It felt like everyone around town was merely hanging on, grasping at a loose thread that would surely fray at the next sign of bad news. A sign, he hoped, would not materialize in the form of a phone call from the detective.

‘She looks so lovely’ he thought, watching his girlfriend’s eyes never shifting from the barrage of old photos. ‘Her glistening white teeth. Her long, flowing hair. And that body. Good lord, have mercy! What a body!’ He found his gaze moving from her sandal-clad feet to the bottom of her pink dress and beyond. It occurred to him suddenly that his mouth was dry, and deciding it was best to leave her in this blissful state of reflection, he excused himself and retreated for the punch bowl at the far end of the room.

It was no easy feat weaving through the sea of mourners that had collected at room’s center. From whitehaired family of the deceased, to friends from college, to people he didn’t recognize at all, there they were, recounting their collective memories of the girl who’d left her jacket at the swings. It was tempting for Jeremy to jump in on one of these conversations, perhaps to console himself of any self-perceived wrongdoing. Nevertheless, he discarded the thought and headed straight for the refreshment table

With not a moment’s hesitation, he reached for a glass, rattled the adjacent china, and plunged the gourd deep into the blood-red liquid below. Others would later mention an odd taste in the punch, as though someone had washed their hands in it, but he didn’t care. Cleanliness was the furthest thing from his mind as he raised an unsteady glass to his lips; it was cold and satisfying.

“Thirsty?”

It was the suddenness of the voice that caught him off guard. He knew who it belonged to. “Hey Brooke.” She stood not five feet behind him, her thin smile a fitting match to her taste in black apparel. Brooke Bailey had missed the dress code memo. Or more likely ignored it.

“You look surprised to see me,” she said, toying with her long black hair. “I was Emily’s friend too. Not like Mikaela was, but…you know.” He didn’t. Come to think of it, he couldn’t recall a single time Emily had even vaguely mentioned Brooke in passing. In a large sense, they were cut of two different cloths; Emily the partier, and Brooke the girl who’d practically taken up a residence in the library.

“What do you want?”

“To say I’m sorry.” And for the first time, Jeremy could hear genuine sincerity in her voice. “Emily was a good crutch for Mikaela.” This seemed an odd choice of words; it sounded even weirder after playing it back in his head.

“What did you say?”

She looked him straight in the eye. “Good looks; intelligence; job offers; state athlete of the year: Mikaela’s a special girl, Jeremy. A special woman indeed.” Turning to the left, she focused on Mikaela, who remained in place as old pictures reflected across her glossy stare. Brooke made a kissing motion with her lips, and there was a deep lust in her hazel eyes. Jeremy noticed her hand running up her leg and out of sight beneath her dress. Snapping out of what seemed a trance, Brooke turned back to Jeremy and smiled.

“Keep your guard up,” she mused playfully. “You’re not the only one with an eye on that body.” And with a grin that flashed a thin strip of teeth, she turned on her heel and made for the doorway.

‘Her eyes aren’t looking at me,’ Jeremy thought. ‘No, they’re looking through me.’ They never flinched as she drifted away from him and immersed into the crowd collecting near the exit. Weird. He plunged the glass back into the bowl and drained its contents with an impressively loud slurp. ‘Where’s the alcohol now,’ he thought to himself.

 

 

 

IV

 

It was not long before the town was shrouded in color by the remaining leaves; golden yellows and bright reds lined the streets wherever the wind had not yet triumphed, and the faint aroma of rotting foliage added to the feeling that autumn was still in the air. It was a sentiment not wasted on Mikaela, who’d decided one quiet afternoon to take a stroll around the neighborhood.

A trip down memory lane seemed an appropriate thing to do for the troubled mind. The path she took was a familiar one: W Koch Street, the very road paralleling her childhood home. Because Emily had grown up on the other side of town, Mikaela hoped her best friend’s absence wouldn’t be felt as strongly in this neck of the woods.

Clad in red velvet jacket and brown leather boots, she made her way across the cracked and uneven sidewalk pavement she’d long since forgotten. It was the kind of thing most bicycle-riding children would become immediately familiar with if things got, say, a bit bumpy. But not Mikaela. Even as a child, the former state player of the year had developed a reputation as being “the girl” on the block who could conquer any and all newcomers. Perhaps that was why the boys conveniently remembered the “chores” they had neglected until the time came for wrestling on the trampoline.

Those beautiful brown eyes were cascading and falling all over the scene before her, but something about the block made it strange in a way she wasn’t expecting. Everything looked the same, exactly as she had pictured it in her memories. Everything.

Not even father time had caught up with her neighbors of old. And their behavior: it seemed…what was the word? Superficial? Every time she saw someone familiar, it was the same, lifeless smile on their face that reminded her how long it’d been since her last visit. And why she no longer did.

A select few had decided it would be a good idea to water the lawn, apparently oblivious to the weather of late. A house to her right featured a parade of children splashing their way through a broken sprinkler tossed lazily out on the front yard. At this Mikaela took a double take, for she could have sworn the lone girl in the crowd looked exactly like her. Was her. But no, she thought. That couldn’t be.

Lost in thought, it took a moment to realize where she was; the path had brought her to the rundown picket fence surrounding the old Dennison house. Once a pristine, freshly white icon of the neighborhood, the chipped paint was telling of its neglect for some years now. Still visible were the dents embedded in the board sides, where children had run along rattling sticks through the openings. At the slightest touch of the wrinkled wood, she felt hardly removed from the past.

“Mikaela?”

Her hand clenched, fingernails scraping ancient paint as they clutched at the wood. The suddenness of the voice was unnerving. Even more so was the familiarity with which it called out to her. It was a voice she knew well, perhaps better than any.

“Mikaela?” the voice called again. Incredulous, she felt her heart drop as she tried to make sense of the impossible. It couldn’t be, she thought. It just couldn’t. But the voice perked up again.

“Come over here.” It hinted a trace of impatience, and with it the sense that it was no figment of anyone’s imagination. She turned her head back to the left, and her suspicion was realized. Standing dead center in the Albright’s front lawn, with a smile reminiscent of days of old, was Emily Hollaway.

“Emmy!” she managed through a choked-up throat. A sudden rush found her sprinting before she knew it. “Em, you’re alive! They told me you were dead, but I didn’t wanna believe it. I just couldn’t!” But she stopped right there, halfway up the old paved sidewalk leading to the Albright’s front door. Something was off. Mikaela was the only one who had moved. There stood Emily, her demeanor completely unchanged. There was something deep in her eyes that looked different, but before Mikaela could bring them to light, Emily spoke.

“I missed you.”

“I’ve missed you too,” Mikaela answered, the pace of her breath quickening. A goofy smile appeared on her face, but she paid no attention to how silly it must have looked. “We’ve all missed you. We had a service and everything! Where’ve you been this whole time?”

“Oh, I’ve been everywhere,” Emily voiced. “Watching. And waiting.” Mikaela inched closer, and the change in her friend’s appearance instilled a coldness in her; Emily’s expression had morphed, but now it was one of malice. One of contempt. And as the smile on Mikaela’s face began to wither away, the smile on Emily’s face continued to grow into a grin.

“What do you mean waiting?” It was painfully clear now that something was indeed wrong. Suddenly, her thoughts were filled with Jeremy and the detective. “Emily, we’ve got to let them know you’re alive.”

“They already know,” Emily revealed. “Everyone knows, especially Jeremy. He’s known all along.” Her fingers were twirling their way through strands of auburn hair. “Oh Mikaela, you silly thing. I tried to tell you. I just tried and tried, but you wouldn’t listen.”

“About what?!” Mikaela gasped. She could feel the bulge building deep in her throat, almost restricting her. “What the hell is this?”

Emily’s twirling quickened. “Jeremy,” she said coldly. Her grin…no, it wasn’t a grin. It was a leer. It stretched across the entirety of her face. “He was never right for you, that boy. Nope. I knew he’d do anything to have you for himself.” And what Mikaela saw next horrified her; black pus was leaking into Emily’s eyes. Gone were the iridescent greens, replaced by the black of death.

A tiny voice in Mikaela’s head was screaming for help, but it was the sheer terror that kept her cemented to the sidewalk. Emily watched wickedly.

“Aren’t you going to save me, Mikaela?” She so desperately wanted to do something. Anything. But couldn’t. And somehow, Emily had read these thoughts, and prepared a response. “You can’t,” she croaked, her eyes a sickening black. Her leer had spread impossibly wide to the point where it was stretching from ear to ear. “He’s bad news. And with those three words, her thin smile reached the point of no return. In an unbearably long instant, her lower face was severed, and the jaw detached. This was a thing of nightmares.

“Jesus!” Mikaela shrieked. She’d hardly noticed the return of her voice as her eyes searched frantically for anyone who would help. Her head whipped around to face the children running through the sprinkler; they were pressed up against the fence in excitement, each and every one of them, their faces gleaming with the same inhuman smile that Emily had burned into her memory. And Mikaela’s suspicion had been right. The lone girl of the group was her, just a younger version with eyes darker than she’d ever had in her life. Little Mikaela pointed a mud-dripping finger across the street at her older self and screeched “You’re next!”

The other children followed suit, but their fingers converged on a place behind where Mikaela stood frozen in terror; they were pointing at the center of the Albright’s front lawn. Emily’s body was a crumpled heap, disfigured in the bloodstained grass...

 

 

...and that’s when Mikaela awoke with a bloodcurdling scream. She was in the confines of her own room; no old picket fences; no smiling children; no Emily. Her heart was pounding with a strength she had not known before. Her shorts and tank top clung to her body, drenched by a cold sweat that had come during the night. The nightmare had spooked her, especially the surreal realness with which it had generated its own reality. She must’ve been on W Koch Street; she hadn’t so much as set foot on the pavement in years, and yet the clarity of the detail was extraordinary.

She reached for her phone on the bedside nightstand. The wallpaper of she and Jeremy flashed up on the screen, and without a moment’s hesitation she swiped to dismiss it. She pulled down the search bar and began typing M-O-R-G- until she found his name. The detective was the only result that showed. A single text was all she sent that night.

“Can we meet tomorrow?”

 

 

V

 

He was rolling his fingers on the coffee-stained table when she strolled through the open door; Morgan Dupree was a prompt individual. Of course, timeliness was something most in his profession worked hard at, but for him it came naturally. He’d had extra incentive this afternoon, however, after waking to find the message Mikaela had sent him in the middle of the night.

“I took to the liberty of ordering decaf,” he began, pulling up a chair from a nearby abandoned table. The metal legs screeched as they shifted across the scratched old floor. Mikaela instinctively reached the purse round her shoulder, but Morgan waved her off. “It’s on me.”

“That’s very kind of you Mr. Dupree,” she replied with a sigh. She slid into the chair and dropped her bookbag to the side with a plop.

He smiled and shook his head dismissively. “Not a problem. And you can call me Morgan.” Their eyes connected momentarily before he sat up and began to speak. “So, what’s on your mind?” Frankly, she didn’t know where to begin. The funeral? The ghoulish nightmare? The sense of isolation? She decided to wade into the shallow end of this deep conversation.

“I’d be interested to know if you have any leads.”

Morgan sat up higher in his chair and smiled. “As a matter of fact, Miss Verrington, I do. I most certainly do.” Just then something hit him A thought perhaps, or a memory. One he had filed away and was reluctant to retrieve. He heaved a great sigh and slouched back down into his chair with a frown. Glancing out the window at the tress blowing in the wind, he started.

“I really hate to be the one to tell you this Mikaela, but there’s been another attack.” Her eyes widened. Suddenly Emily’s eerie smile and the grinning children reappeared in her mind. Her gaze dropped to the coffee, where a familiar black liquid was rising to the top. “Miss Verrington?”

“I’m sorry. What?”

“There’s been another attack. Another fatality, to be more specific.” He shifted his weight as Mikaela offered only a blank stare in disbelief. “It was a young woman about your age,” he continued. “Her name was Brooke Bailey.”

Her heart stopped. The one who’d worn black to the funeral, Mikaela thought. The only one. Yes, she’d seen her there. It would have been difficult not to notice the person who stuck out like a sore thumb in a sea of bright yellows and pinks. She recalled a few awkward smiles in her direction from across the room, and she remembered Brooke had spoken to Jeremy.

“That’s terrible,” she managed after some time. It occurred to her that perhaps there were possible dots to connect to Emily’s death. “Detective? What exactly happened, if I’m able to ask?”

“Ask away my dear,” he replied calmly. “You asked if I had a lead just a moment ago…” He took a hot sip that burned his tongue. “Miss Bailey was discovered last night by one John Tracey, a custodian working the rec center on Cooper Ave.” The one near town hall; Mikaela knew it. Actually, she frequented it.

“It was in the gym. That’s where the attack happened.” Then Morgan’s voice became so quiet Mikaela needed to lean in. “She was found in the locker room.”

She’d never really thought of it before, but it only just occurred to her how many kinds of people must wander through there on any given day. It was a dark room with concrete flooring, the sort of place that featured hallways between rows of lockers. Something could happen in one corner of the room, and folks on the other side would hardly know it. A place where shady activity could be executed, no doubt.

“There’s something else,” Morgan continued. “I was debating whether or not I should be the one to tell you, but I realized it couldn’t wait.” He folded his hands neatly on the table in front of him. “It’s become clear to me there’s a pattern to these attacks. I’ve already let Jeremy know...” There was certainty in his voice. She didn’t think it was possible, but Mikaela leaned in even further. Her scarf drowned in the cup of coffee below

“You’re the target, Miss Verrington.”

 

 

VI

 

That night, she found unusual solace in the form of an old high school year book buried deep in her closet. It seemed an old-fashioned antique of a thing, frayed around the edges where over a thousand kids had eagerly grabbed to leave their mark on the most popular girl in school’s annual. She felt really popular now, for all the wrong reasons.

Flipping through the pages, she recognized the names of those she had long since forgotten. Though it had been only a few years, high school felt like ages ago. Nevertheless, the smell of the paper and the sloppy handwriting across it reminded her of better (and easier) days.

Eventually she found what she was looking for; the text was composed at an angle, askew beneath the table of contents early in the book. She read the following:

 

Melanie,

 

Your pretty cool, I guess. Wish we had more time to hang out. It’d be cool to get to know you. Good luck in college. You’ll do great! H.A.G.S.

 

Jeremy Sanford

 

Even all these years later, Jeremy’s poor grammar still irked her. Granted, she hadn’t even known him at the time. He’d been a complete stranger, but the finality with which the pen strokes bled into the page was something she’d been way too familiar with in high school. By the time Emily had introduced them at Greek Week, the degree to which he’d straightened out was more of a turn on than anything else. Mikaela truly was a nerd at heart.

She continued skimming through the glossy pages, pausing occasionally to read the more heartfelt memos left by friends of old. She found herself all over the place; yearbook committee member, a blurry snapshot of her final kill that won the state volleyball championship, homecoming queen…

But something peculiar caught her attention on the next page. It was the senior class ASB photo. It wasn’t the memory of her winning the class presidency that surprised her; the guy she’d beaten ran a far better campaign, but it was all a popularity contest in the end: everyone knew that. No, it was someone in the group of people surrounding her, someone in the upper right corner.

Mikaela was standing dead center in the front row; the group had been assembled on a flight of stairs leading down to the auditorium. Four rows up behind her, in the righthand corner, was the grimacing face of a girl she could mistake for no one. The shimmering black hair and Hot Topic T-shirt were an instant giveaway. It was Brooke Bailey.

It surprised her because as far as Mikaela could remember, Brooke had never attended a single meeting or given a hoot about actually governing the student body. Actually, come to think of it, she couldn’t recall Brooke even running for office. Ever. And yet there she stood, her dark eyes connecting with Mikaela’s through the black and white printing of the photo. What’s she doing there? she thought.

 

Somewhere on the other side of Perrinville, Jeremy Sanford had a similar thought running through his mind as he paced the outskirts of town.

“What am I doing here?” he said to himself quietly. He’d gone for a stroll in the night, opting for a paved sidewalk that separated the city-wide storm gutter from the nearby cornfields. The night sky above his head was exceptionally clear, obscured only by the breath he exhaled as he walked. Mikaela had called him and explained Morgan’s revelation at the coffee house earlier that day; despite his insistence, she’d expressed her desire to be home alone in quiet reflection. ‘I should be there with her’ Jeremy thought.

But here he strode, hands dug into pockets, shoes skimming puddles of water.

Up ahead, the sidewalk crossed over the old concrete bridge spanning the storm gutter. It was almost always bone dry in this midwestern climate, but the gutter was well known as the last place to be during the occasional flash flooding that swept through Perrinville. Perhaps even better known was the engineers’ glaring error in not installing a handrail along the lowly sides of the concrete monstrosity; Jeremy figured that was why everyone ended their walk here and turned around.

Nevertheless, he carried on. The moss that clung to the cement was still damp from the rain, but the rest of the bridge was otherwise dry. He felt alone, and was.

Well, almost.

As he approached the walkway, Jeremy spied a lone individual on the far side of the overpass up against the short walls of the bridge. It took him a moment, but a few steps closer now, he could see it was a homeless beggar covered entirely in tattered clothes with a beanie to top it all off. Several beer bottles clinked next to him, and his face hid in the shadows on the opposite side of the street lamp. Slumped over to his left, he was barely a few inches off the ground.

He looked to be asleep, and so Jeremy directed his gaze forward and pressed on. It wasn’t until he neared the end of the bridge when he heard a voice call out from behind him.

“Change?” the voice asked. It was low and rough. “Change for a smoke? God bless.” Jeremy paused to acknowledge his request; he never carried any cash on him, but thought better than to ignore the man and keep walking.

He sighed and turned to him with a distant look. “Sorry fella. Got nothing on me.”

“Liar,” the bum muttered, a nearly inaudible whisper. Jeremy paused and considered a retort, but felt it was hardly worth his time. He turned and headed for the end of the bridge.

“Hold on a minute,” he heard the man call out from behind him. The voice was stronger now, almost enthusiastic. “Yeah, I know you. Local kid. You’re banging the Verrington girl, right?” Jeremy stopped dead in his tracks. In the heat of the moment, he failed to notice his hands clenched in fists. “That slut’s gotta be good, right?!”

Jeremy spun around with an intensity that was foreign to him. “What did you say?” he threatened, his narrowed eyes glaring. The bum’s face was still shrouded in darkness, but he could tell there was a dark smile hidden just out of sight.

“I seen her in the papers,” the beggar seemed to gloat. “A damn fine woman. I’d hit that too.” He paused, then went on. “Probly better than the scrawny kid she’s got now.” The voice seemed familiar to Jeremy as he found himself approaching the beggar ever more closely.

“That your hobby?” Jeremy spat through gritted teeth. “Objectifying women?”

The bum waved him off playfully, like he knew this was coming. “Nah, kid. Just the one’s I’d like to-” And Jeremy was off. At full speed, he charged the bum with fists ready to deliver a blow; it was only an instant before he was face to face with him. But the dark figure was not entirely as he seemed. One deceptive jolt of agility and he was at his feet, towering over Jeremy. In spite of the darkness, he seemed to grow as he stood; larger and larger with each passing moment.

The instant he began to run, Jeremy realized his mistake, but his momentum couldn’t be stopped. Straight into the ragged figure he ran, seized by hands more powerful than he could have ever imagined. The strength of the brute was enough to hoist him into the air and throw him toward the lowly edge of the bridge. Far, far too close.

He landed with a thud as he collided with the concrete barrier, the jagged edges digging into his sides. He’d nearly gone over, nearly been claimed by the abyss that lurked under the bridge. His weight began to pull him over the brink, but Jeremy’s larger-than-average hands grasped desperately at the old stone, and he managed to stop himself. He hung there, swinging in the night.

The dark figure crept toward him, slowly and with menace. He came to a halt before Jeremy, pausing to savor the moment, and continued the task at hand.

He raised his right leg high in the air. As he did, the lighting changed, and Jeremy could see the face for the first time. A face that horrified him. Whether it was the face itself or his impending fate that did it, he knew not. The last thing he could remember was the terrible pain he felt in his fingers as he plunged into the abyss. And then…darkness.

 

 

VII

 

As soon as she received the call, Melanie was out the door, headed for the hospital. She’d heard from Morgan, who’d relayed the police’s early morning discovery of Jeremy at the bottom of the gutter. He was found unconscious with a faint pulse, the medics assuring it was a nasty hit to the head that knocked him out.

Melanie pulled up to the ER parking lot, killed the engine, and hustled through the sliding glass doors. A single nurse sat isolated behind the desk; gray in the hair with green spectacles perched on her nose, she lowered the newspaper, her gaze already darting in the direction of the young, panicked woman approaching her.

“Sanford, Jeremy,” the nurse called out. She must’ve known already. Perrinville was a small enough town. “Room 8F.” A bony finger gestured down the lime-green hallway, and Melanie followed instinctively. She needn’t heard the room number, for the lone two individuals in the ward stood outside the same room. A young male doctor and a police officer.

Their collective glance was one of fatigue, the doctor’s gray eyes acknowledging Mikaela whilst those of the officer drooped in aversion. Tired though he was, the physician’s expression was one of hope.

“Everything’s gonna be alright,” he assured her. She sensed a different reality behind his practiced smile. “It’s just a concussion.”

“Has he said anything?” Mikaela asked. “At all?”

The physician shook his head. “I’m afraid not. He’s been out since he arrived early this morning, but don’t you worry ma’am.”

Ma’am? Mikaela thought. I’m his girlfriend, not his mother. Where is she anyway?

The physician seemed to sense her next move as he reached for the doorknob to room 8F. His wrist turned, slowly, as he opened the door inward. There lay Jeremy, cloaked in hospital garb with a series of thick bandages wrapped round his head. His face was black and blue in some places with a laceration across his forehead, but he looked otherwise okay.

“I’d buy a lottery ticket if I were him,” the officer half joked. “Very lucky to be in that gooda shape with a fall like that.” She didn’t hear him as she strode across the room and kissed Jeremy lightly on the mouth, stopping suddenly as she considered his physical being more carefully.

“Sorry,” she murmured.

The physician approached the bedside and spoke softly. “Moving forward, it’s best that you know a few things.” She glanced up at him. “As is standard protocol, we’ll want to hold him over for at least a night or two. Make sure everything’s alright before he checks out.” Makes enough sense, Mikaela thought. “Additionally, it’s not unusual to experience memory loss after suffering a concussion, no matter how mild.” He grabbed a clipboard off a nearby desk and studied the block of text it held. “Otherwise, he seems fine. Like all things, it’s best we give it some time.”

The physician nodded, and he and the officer made their way for the door. But as they left, the doc’s final words troubled her. Give it time he had said. How much time, she couldn’t help but wonder. Any more time, and she might be all alone, left to fend for herself against the shadow that haunted Perrinville.

 

IX

 

Heavy leaves blew their way across the brown and untamed hillside. Some of them orange and auburn, but most of them brown. As she walked through these gusts of mildew-lined foliage, she swatted them as they stuck to her hair and bounced off her coat. The occasional small branch came flying by as well, but mostly it was the leaves. The leaves of an autumn that was nearing its end.

In her hands she held flowers; nothing radiant or overly colorful, but pleasant flowers nonetheless. She’d purchased them on her way over; Lucente’s was no more than three blocks from the cemetery, and he had the best floral selection in town. Her hands trembled as she carried them on this lonely endeavor, but the colors soothed her. They were the favorites of a dear friend. A friend she had decided to visit on this gusty November afternoon.

It took her but a few minutes to find the headstone; freshly white, radiant limestone, the grass still cut short near its base. She came to a stop before it and dropped her head to read the pristine chiseling: Emily Hollaway, it read. It still didn’t register in her mind that her friend was gone, but perhaps that was why she had come here. Alone. For the closure of it all.

“Hey Em,” Mikaela offered. She acknowledged the faucet that was her nose, and sniffled. “I brought you some flowers. Your favorite colors, right?”

A large, heavy sigh. She closed her eyes tight, but continued on. She had to.

“Jeremy’s doing okay. Been in the hospital a week now. Fell off the old bridge over the gutter. Always knew someone was gonna fall off the damn thing.” She faked a laugh, but the bulge that was building deep in her throat continued its rise.

“I wouldn’t worry bout it though,” she croaked, nodding her head through closed eyes. “The doctors and nurses say everything’ll be alright. It’s just the coma...” She felt herself losing composure. She would lose it any minute now. Gathering her strength, she fought through it. One last attempt to say what must be said.

“Morgan’s real close to catching whoever’s behind this. Morgan? Oh, he’s the PI. The one who discovered you...” And that’s when she lost it. Legs giving out, she plunged to the earth, her jean-clad knees digging into the wet soil at the base of Emily’s grave.

“Emily!” she sobbed uncontrollably. “Why did you leave me?!” She was hyperventilating, but powerless to control it. “I’m not strong enough! Now Jeremy’s gone because of some fucking lunatic on the loose!” Her hands relinquished the flowers as her forehead met the ground. Her hair was a mess, and her head was throbbing with a pain that was foreign to her. The stench of rotting foliage and wet soil was overwhelming. “I can’t do this on my own.”

“Maybe you’re not alone,” a voice nearby called.

She recognized that voice. It was one she’d come to know through late night phone calls and a single meeting at a coffee shop. The voice brought her hope, yet carried with it an association of despair. Clad in brown overcoat, beaming, Detective Morgan Dupree stood to her right.

He was visibly worn down. Looked like he hadn’t slept in ages. But his ruffian appearance was of no concern to her. A small smile appeared on her face; some reassurance in the midst of all this chaos.

He began to walk her way, and as he came more into sight, she noticed something unsettling: his expression was beginning to change. The beaming face had disappeared, replaced by one of disbelief and disgust, eyes wide and pupils dilated. Confusion overcame Mikaela, but despite this, she could tell that Morgan’s gaze was directed not at her, but rather, something behind her.

Her boots spun in the unkempt grass as she turned, and the confusion heightened. There stood Jeremy Sanford, bruised and battered, his face stone cold with contempt. A handgun extended from his outstretched arm, directed at Mikaela.

She spun again. Morgan was running at her, sprinting like a madman. He was waving his arms in the air and yelling something. His brown overcoat flailed after him as he picked up speed.

Again she spun, and the sight terrified her. Jeremy’s hand shook, but the finger on the trigger remained steady. She could see down the barrel, a black void that went on forever. She snapped her eyes shut, and readied herself for the black void of the great beyond as she heard the explosion of the gun…

 

The piercing agony of the bullet and the ripping of flesh never came. Her eyes flashed open. Her vision was watered and blurry, but good enough to see that she remained standing next to Emily’s headstone. She turned to her backside, where Jeremy stood in place as he had before. The gun still held out, a thin trail of smoke issued from its tip.

Returning her gaze to the detective behind her, she gasped. Morgan Dupree lay collapsed on the ground, a crumpled heap with a thin pool of murky red collecting at his side. She thought he was dead, but the slow rising of his chest told her otherwise.

Behind her, Jeremy was hastily stowing the gun away in an inner pocket of his tattered jacket. It took a moment before he looked up and found Mikaela’s gaze.

“What the hell did you do?!” she demanded through a shaky voice.

“It’s not what you think,” Jeremy said. “I can explain.”

Can you? Mikaela thought. You’ve been out cold in a hospital. Then she realized he didn’t need to. She put it together herself. It made too much sense. “It was you,” she whispered, her mouth ajar in disbelief. “It was you all along. You killed them. You killed them all!”

“No,” he exhaled. He grabbed her by the shoulders. “I didn’t kill them. He did!” He pointed right at Morgan, who stirred in awful silence.

 “That’s impossible Jeremey. He’s the detective for god’s sake! And you shot him!” Her head went spinning. She felt disoriented, like she were upside-down midair. His words failed to register, echoing in her head like it was an empty cavern.

“That’s exactly what he wanted us to think. He’s been posing as one ever since we met him. He knew we’d trust him.” It was a fair point, and it chilled Mikaela. He made sense.

“He’s not a detective Mikaela. He’s an imposter.” Her gaze transferred to Morgan, who continued to struggle on the ground as the pool of blood thickened in the grass. His eyes were clenched tight in pain from the bullet in his side, and he remained silent all the while. He looked helpless, like a forgotten child, and Mikaela felt powerless as she turned to help him.

“Don’t touch him!” Jeremy demanded. His words stung, like a whip on her back. She felt defiant all of the sudden.

“How could you possibly know any of this?” she cried. “How? Did he just tell you?”

Jeremy stood his ground. “He didn’t tell me anything. He showed me.” Her expression reverted to one of confusion. “I finally woke up from the coma this morning; hell of a short coma, if it really was one. Couldn’t remember why I was lying in a hospital bed ‘til the nurse came in and relayed the police report. Said I had tripped over the old bridge and fallen in the gutter.”

“That’s when I remembered. It hit me instantly. I remembered everything that happened.” He paused to collect his thoughts. “I didn’t trip off that bridge. Somebody pushed me off; this homeless bum chewing me out for change.” His head lifted as he stared deep into Mikaela’s dark eyes. “I saw his face. That was no swindler. It was Morgan.”

Mikaela felt another pillar of her reality being eroded away. She could see he was telling the truth. That painfully familiar look of sorrow she’d seen so many times in his eyes. A faint memory of bitter alcohol appeared in her mind.

“That night in the park,” she began. An image of steamy windows came to her. “You’re saying Morgan was out there too?”

The sound that interrupted them was cold and disturbing. They turned to see Morgan, supporting himself up on his shoulders and forearms. Blood was seeping through the gaps of his toothy grin.

“You’re slow to catch on,” he croaked. The shadows beneath his eyes were darker than ever before. “It’s unfortunate really; Emily was a fine girl.” The inevitable brick finally fell hard into Mikaela’s stomach.

“The hell are you talking about?”

He laughed. “Think hard, Mikaela. Think back. To Sophomore year. Greek…Week…” He emphasized the words with an overdone clicking in the back of his throat.

Mikaela fought the ever-increasing dizzy sensation in her head and tried to remember. Greek Week. Sophomore year. It had ended with…the party? That’s right: the party where she’d met Jeremy for the first real time.

“I was there, my dear.” Her skin crawled at the ease with which Morgan read her mind. “I saw you there, all alone in the corner. Weaving my way through crowds of shit-faced frat boys, you were all mine.” His eyes shone brightly, and Mikaela couldn’t help but wonder what it was that really lived behind them.

“And then, from out of nowhere, Emily shows up and sweeps you away. To him of all people.” His gaze fell on Jeremy. “Without that stupid bitch, it would’ve all worked out.” Mikaela could hardly bring herself to do it, but she had to know.

“What would’ve worked?”

Morgan sat up, and his grin grew lopsided to one side. “You. And me. Happily ever after.” The shutter that ran through her body was the first she’d experienced in years. “Ever since that first newspaper shot I saw of you back in high school. ‘Verrington leads team to state championship. Named MVP’,” Morgan recited memorably. “I knew it was fate. There’d be many newspaper clippings to follow, of course. Volleyball shorts, God’s gift to man.” He licked his red lips, and at that moment she realized sports were the last thing Morgan wanted to do with her. To her.

Jeremy sensed the same. “So you got rid of Emily.”

Morgan nodded slowly, his pale white skin stretched thin over his bony cheeks. “Nothing gets past you, old boy!” It was the bum’s voice, thick with mockery as it had been before. “One down, two to go.”

Two. Again he repeated the word in his head, and Jeremy remembered Brooke.

“Why her though?” he managed. Mikaela felt confused, but saw in Morgan’s dark, cold eyes that he knew exactly who Jeremy was referring to.

“Competition,” Morgan replied, and coughed up blood. “That lesbian had her eye on Mikaela, and I wasn’t gonna let her take what’s mine.” His face hardened. “It ain’t right anyway.”

“That night at the gym,” Mikaela thought out loud. “The night Brooke died…you were there. You’ve been here the whole time!” Morgan grinned. She yelled something inaudible, and felt her body tense as her hands drew into fists as she started toward him. Jeremy’s hold on her was enough, and with some effort he calmed her.

It was at that moment the first siren was heard, followed moments later by the flashing red and blue lights of the cruiser at the cemetery gate. The pitch became higher as it wound along the paved road up the center of the hill, and the black printed words “Perrinville Police” on the white side of the car were at last visible.

“I called as soon as I got here,” Jeremy said, turning to Mikaela. “As soon as I was certain you were here.” The two embraced, and she breathed a heavy sigh into his damp but warm chest. There was another siren now coming from the opposite direction, and it all finally became real to her: the nightmare was over, and the two of them were going to make it.

But for a final thorn in her side, the police making their way to the scene and with more on the way, she heard a blood-choked voice calling her name.

Mikaela,” the voice said through red-stained teeth. “Darling. It’ll be okay.”

And for the first time, as far as she knew, Morgan was telling the truth.

 

 

X

 

Time passed. Slowly, at first, but things eventually carried on. It was now the winter holidays, a time when those who called Perrinville home felt closer than ever. Such was the case with Mikaela Verrington.

Most of her time she spent window shopping, perusing the local markets and street vendors beneath the wreaths hanging from every streetlight around town. It was a sort of tradition she’d adopted over the years, though she knew, perhaps not too deep down, that she did it to regain a sense of normalcy.

The national papers had since moved on, but local newsprint occasionally mentioned something of the horrors that had struck not two months earlier. Morgan had been arrested, this time by real cops, and remained held in something she’d heard described as “solitude for the weak-minded”. They’d managed to pry out of him Emily’s true fate, and how he had pursued Brooke Bailey to the end. Jeremy corroborated the account of his attack on the bridge; he was regaining more mental clarity by the day.

And all the while, as he revisited these terrible acts, Morgan never stopped grinning. It was the noticeable lack of remorse that disturbed investigators more than anything. More than the acts themselves; the perpetrators’ recollections; the details. They’d bombarded him with questions, the most important being ‘Why Mikaela?’ “I pursued no one,” he’d answered. “I was simply claiming what’s mine.”

But all that was behind her now. The Holloways had closure, Jeremy was alive and well, and the shadow hovering over the town had finally dissipated. Brushing those thoughts aside, she pushed open the door to the Knotty Pine coffee shop and headed in.

Alone, at a small wooden table prepared for two, sat a man with a familiar face. And he was smiling. “Hey honey,” Jeremy said. “Got a table.” She slid in opposite of him, hardly noticing the package hidden behind the front right leg of his chair.

She looked at him. He looked at her. A goofy smile spread across her face as a single tear welled in her eye. “We’ve been through so much,” she reminisced quietly.

“I know.” He revealed the package he’d kept hidden and placed it on the table. “Merry Christmas.” He exchanged glances with her briefly, then watched as she took the present in her hand and gently removed the wrapping. The letters “M&E” were embroidered on the fake leather cover of the book, and as she flipped through the glossy, freshly printed pages, here were pictures of her alongside the dear good friend she had lost.

That tear welled further as Jeremy took her hand, but her smile never wavered. “I know how much she meant to you,” he said. “He took so much.”

“Not everything,” she said. It had begun to snow outside, and though she’d lost her best friend, Mikaela felt so grateful for what she did have. Life had pushed her around, and she had come out stronger. She’d have never believed it on that rainy night in October, but this would turn out to be a very wonderful holiday indeed.


Submitted: June 22, 2021

© Copyright 2021 pbowmanphoto. All rights reserved.

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