The man rose from the waiting room chair and placed the People magazine back on the small side table in precisely the spot where he'd found it. He arched his back and winced as he stood. Though he was only fifty-four years old, his glasses, graying hair, and posture suggested he was much older. The creases and wrinkles, the fatigue around his eyes, suggested a man nearing the end of his life rather than navigating the middle.
“It's Phil,” he said, finally able to stand up straight.
“Oh, I'm so sorry,” the young woman said.
“Yeah, they said they were sorry last time, too. They said they would change it in the system.”
“Oh, I'm very sorry we didn't get it updated for you.”
“People say a lot of things.”
“Well, I'm Angie, Phil, and I'm going to have them change your information in the system right now. How does that sound?”
She didn't wait for his answer. Angie turned to the woman behind the reception desk and asked her to update Mr. Carson's file. Angie told her he goes by Phil, and asked her to change his records to reflect this. The woman replied that she could. “Sure thing,” she said.
“Awesome, thank you, Kelly. There, Mr. Carson, from now on, in this office, you will be known by and referred to as 'Phil.' Problem solved.”
“I prefer Mr. Carson,” he said.
Angie inhaled and froze.
Kelly turned in her chair. Working in a dental office meant she interacted with a lot of very stressed out, and often angry, people. Anxiety, the physical pain of dental problems and dental solutions, and the often high costs associated with them, brought out some of the more undesirable human behaviors. She'd been sworn at, shoved, had pens, pencils, and toothbrushes thrown at her, and a great grandmother had once dragged a shaky, wrinkled old hand into the bottom of a purse and thrown what she had retrieved at Kelly's head. Her computer, phone, and desk had been pelted by butterscotch hard candies, pen caps, an old lipstick case, a collection of rolled up threads and lint balls, and seventy-six cents in change. There were two quarters, a dime, two nickels and six pennies. One of the pennies hit Kelly in the neck, and as the caretaker was escorting the old woman away from the desk and toward the front door, the old woman yelled that she wanted her money back.
Kelly understood that she didn't work in an amusement park. She understood people were coming to see her because something bad had happened or was going to happen and it was most likely going to cost a lot of money.
But Mr. Carson's attitude was special, even for a dentist's office. They hadn't started care of any kind, and already this was his attitude?
She wanted to say something. At 2:00, in the middle of an already long and stressful day, she was ready to say something. But the man was saved by a call on the office phone. Kelly turned back toward her work station and answered it.
“Well,” Angie said, reapplying her courteous smile, “Mr. Carson if you would follow me, we can begin.”
Angie lead him down the short hallway toward one of the five dental stations. She stopped and again cranked up the smile that was expected of her before turning back to face him. She stretched out her arm.
“We'll be right in here.”
Before he could slip by the divider wall into his section, a mother and a little girl appeared from the section before his. They were suddenly in the hallway, together, blocking it, still speaking with the dentist, Dr. Fensworth. Mr. Carson stopped suddenly. His eyes widened, as if he'd been lost in thought and was genuinely alarmed by the sudden appearance of the mother and daughter.
“Thank you, Dr. Fensworth, thank you so much. Ella, can you say 'thank you' to Dr. Fensworth?”
The little girl would have if she'd not seen Mr. Carson, his eyes wide with fright, staring down at her. She grabbed her mother's leg and pulled herself in, burying most of her face in her mother's upper thigh and hip. She pressed her face entirely into the faded blue denim of her mother's jeans.
The mother turned, feeling the sudden fear in her daughter's grip.
“Ella, what are you... oh, I'm so sorry, we're in your way. Come on, Ella, let's move over and let the nice man pass.”
Mr. Carson's face changed. His eyes narrowed and his awkward attempt at keeping good posture seemed to relax. He smiled, and Angie watched the seemingly seventy-year-old man morph into what looked more like a man in his fifties. Mr. Carson pressed his back against the wall, sucking in his gut and spreading his arms out to each side to make himself as narrow as possible.
“Not to worry, madam, by all means... ladies first.”
As he said this, he let his left hand swing in a low arc from the right side of his body to the left, beckoning them to pass down the narrow hallway before him.
“I'll try to make myself very small, but I'm not sure how long I can hold it.”
He sucked in his gut again, taking a long, loud breath. He held it, letting his cheeks and his eyes puff out. He held the pose until he noticed the little girl craning her head around the side of her mother's thigh to see what he was doing. When he knew the little girl was looking at his face, he turned slightly toward her, his cheeks huge and red, his hands pressing harder and harder into the wall behind him.
“Hurry,” he said, catching the little girl's eye, “I can't hold it much longer.”
The girl smiled and stepped slightly away from her mother's leg. She let a few giggles bounce out as her mother struggled with whether to sneak by him or back away and let him pass, first.
“Please... hurry!” he said, his cheeks and forehead now nearing tomato level red.
“Oh, okay,” the mother said, taking the little girl's hand. “Thank you, sorry.” As they passed Mr. Carson, she added, “Please excuse us.”
“No problem,” he chirped, quickly shutting his mouth and puffing out his cheeks again.
The little girl was transfixed. Her mother tried to rush her along, but she stared back at the strange man making strange sounds and strange faces and wanted to see what he might do next. For now, he was still pressing himself into the wall and staring, eyes wide and wild, straight ahead. As the girl and her mother reached the end of the hallway and were about to disappear from his view, Mr. Carson blew his full lungs' worth of air out and dropped slightly, his hands pressing into his knees to hold him up. He huffed and puffed, waving weakly for the little girl to continue on, not to worry about him.
The little girl giggled again, waved, then disappeared into the lobby.
When Mr. Carson turned around again, Angie was smiling.
“That was very cute, Mr. Carson.”
He blew a puff of air from his nose and winced again as he straightened up. The smile faded from his mouth, replaced by his previous flared nostril scowl. The shine in his eyes dimmed again, pulling him back into his late fifties, then early sixties. But he kept his rosy cheeks, and with the scowl and dark, squinted eyes to go with them, he eclipsed his previous look and soared, as Angie saw it, into a crotchety mid-seventies.
“Through here?” he croaked, pointing to the reclined chair behind Angie. She nodded, and Mr. Carson stepped by her, his shoulder bumping into hers.
“Have a seat on the chair, here. The first thing we'll do is take some new images of your teeth. Have you been having any trouble, any pain or sensitivity you'd like the doctor to know about?”
“I'll let the doctor know about it myself.”
Angie secured Mr. Carson's bib and raised the chair to keep him more upright. She pulled the first set of bite wings from their drawer and glanced at his chart. Most of his molars had crowns now. He'd had over a dozen cavities filled and refilled, even between some of his lower and upper incisors. It had been almost a year since he was last in. Angie knew he would be having some issues. His gruffness might be because of the throbbing pain of some infected root. It might be time to have one or more of the crowns replaced, and possibly consider root canals.
It would have been hard to see it, even sitting in the chair next to her and looking into her face at that exact moment. A joy was bubbling up, dancing, from inside, but on the outside, Angie's lips sharpened at their corners ever so slightly, a barely perceptible smile.
Without looking at the date of his last appointment, she knew: October 17th, 2015. He'd come in at 2:00pm that day. He'd come in at 2:00pm today, too. The appointment before that had been a 2:00pm appointment, as well.
This showed a rhythm of some sort, at least in appointment scheduling. Maybe he was free on Tuesdays at 2:00pm, so consistent appointments were a matter of necessity. Maybe scheduling early afternoon appointments allowed him to leave work early and have a good excuse to not come back in for the rest of the day. Maybe he liked to use the excuse to steal a few extra hours of evening freedom.
Or maybe this habit was simply one of his many habits.
Are you a creature of habit, Mr. Carson?
“I'm going to place the bite wings now. Can I have you open your mouth a little?”
Mr. Carson opened his mouth with a grunt. Angie laid the heavy lead vest across his chest and secured the straps.
“Not quite that wide. A little less. There, good, go ahead and bite down for me.”
Angie swiveled the imaging machine, a plastic box with a long, silver tube at one end. Every time she maneuvered the machine into position, it felt like a canon. It pivoted on its metal arm, like a turret, and she aimed the canon down range – toward Mr. Carson's face.
Angie stepped behind the protective wall at the back of the station.
“Just hold still for a moment, and...”
A click and a beep sounded. Angie returned to his side, sliding the canon around the front of Mr. Carson's head, imagining laser beams and machine gun fire and tiny rockets blasting into his face, taking off his nose, blowing off his ears, all ordinance hitting their mark and leaving nothing but a smoldering bare skull hanging limply from its neck.
“Now the other side.”
She repeated her steps, placing the wings, positioning the canon, and stepping back behind the wall. Another click and a beep.
“And done!” she exclaimed, separating the velcro straps and removing the lead vest.
“Has anything else changed since you were in last?” Angie asked. She knew what his response would be, so she kept the question vague enough to draw him into the trap. If he simply offered the information she asked for, she would note it in his chart and move on. But she knew he wouldn't do that. She assumed he would, once again, let her know he would only be speaking to the doctor.
“Just send the doctor in,” he said, adjusting the bib on his chest.
Oh Mr. Carson, we're going to have fun today.
“Well Mr. Carson, Dr. Fensworth is very busy in the afternoon, and he is very particular about our jobs as his assistants. He would prefer to discuss your medical changes and needs, and he would prefer that we get any accessory information for your file updated. You can understand that, right?”
Mr. Carson's face changed. Now, to defy her would mean defying the doctor's wishes. He grumbled a quick acquiescence, “Yes, I suppose that makes sense.”
“Plus, I can't leave yet, because I'm doing your cleaning.”
He sighed as she started lowering his chair to horizontal.
“It looks like it's been a little while since we've seen you, but today we're not doing anything out of the ordinary. The last time you were in, you would've received the same treatments. I'm going to use an ultrasonic water tool to clean any plaque off of your teeth. Some people feel some sensitivity when having this done, so you can let me know if it is too much for you, or if you need a break, okay?”
The chair clicked into place. Mr. Carson was staring up into the overhead lamp. He flinched when she placed the protective sunglasses over his eyes and one of the earpieces scraped along the hair and scalp just over his left ear.
“Sorry, just your protective shades. We want you to look cool while you're getting your teeth cleaned.”
“It's fine,” he said, squirming to find a comfortable position.
Angie donned her face mask and eye shield. She clicked on the overhead lamp.
“That was pretty cute what you did with that little girl in the hallway.”
Even through the shades, Angie could see Mr. Carson's eyes change. They widened with recognition, like he was seeing an old friend again for the first time in a long time. As soon as the look washed over his face, he changed it. He blinked hard three times and made a noise like it was nothing, no big deal, like he didn't even really know what Angie was talking about.
A creature of habit.
“Do you have kids?” she asked.
“No, no kids.”
“Do you work with kids?”
Another flash in the eyes, quickly extinguished.
“I'm a teacher,” he said.
“Aw, that's nice. And you teach kids that age?”
Mr. Carson nodded.
“You know,” Angie said, beginning the cleaning, “since you walked in, I've had this weird feeling that I know you from somewhere. You look so familiar. Do you teach here in town?”
She didn't expect a verbal reply, not with the water tool and suction device in his mouth. Mr. Carson nodded.
“Do you teach at Booker Elementary?”
He nodded again, flinching slightly as Angie sprayed an obviously sensitive area.
She didn't stop.
“Oh, okay, maybe that's where I know you from. I went to Booker. That seems like a lifetime ago. I don't remember a lot from those days, but I do remember stealing peaches from the peach tree at the back fence. Have you seen that peach tree, the one beyond the baseball field? I think the Heathers family lived there. We used to eat the peaches and then plant the pits. They never sprouted, not one, but every time we ate a peach we planted the pit and would run out the next day fully expecting to see the tiny tendrils reaching up from the dirt. We probably planted hundreds in the ground out there.”
Another flinch, this time with an added groan after.
“Oh, sorry. A little sensitive there, huh?”
Mr. Carson let out a harsh breath and nodded, enunciating his complaint as best he could with all of the equipment in his mouth.
“Hey, look at me. There's nothing to be scared of, okay? It's perfectly natural. Don't worry, I'll go slow. It won't even hurt.”
Mr. Carson flinched again, without Angie having done anything. She saw his eyes widen but put the water tool back in his mouth.
“Can you open a little wider for me?”
She pulled his jaw open wider and held it there. She could feel him squirming under the pressure, feel him realizing the danger he might be in. He wanted to sit up, he wanted out of the chair, he wanted out of the office. He wanted to leave and drive to his house and pack the things he needed and go, tonight, and never come back. Like a dog ready to run, Angie could feel him quivering.
Like a dog ready to run, Angie held him down by the neck.
She leaned over so she could be millimeters from his ear as she whispered:
“You leave now, all that kiddie porn on the laptop under your bed goes straight to Agent James Kotaki at the FBI.”
A rush of breath left his nose. Her grip on his jaw tightened.
“Now, I can feel your fear. I can feel you thinking about jumping out of this chair and running from this office and trying to escape all that you've done.”
Mr. Carson felt a single point of contact on his neck. Something pushed against the skin over his carotid artery. Something small and hard was holding there, his heartbeat thumping against it. Above him, in the reflection from the overhead lamp, he could see it.
Angie was holding the silver hook of her explorer tool against his throat.
“Not only will that kiddie porn go to the FBI, but if you try to get up, if you cry out, if you so much as squirm in a manner that isn't to my liking, I will plunge this probe into your neck and tear your fucking throat out. Now, please nod if you understand me.”
Kelly called out from the hallway. She popped her head into Angie's section.
“Hi, sorry to interrupt, but you don't have to do the 2:30, Ellie's got it.”
“Thanks, Kelly,” Angie said, smiling.
She could feel Mr. Carson straining to choose: stay still so this woman doesn't kill you, or make your move now, jump to your feet and scream for help? She could feel his twisting in the chair, his hands squeezing the armrests a little harder. Like a quail lying low in a hide, he was trying to stay still. He was holding his breath. He was trying to think, trying to control his pulsing nerves. With the fox this close, he wasn't sure whether to stay still or fly.
He made his decision. He took a breath and relaxed his hands. Once Kelly was on her way back to the front desk, Angie smiled down on him.
“Good work, you didn't even try to run or scream or anything.” She patted his head. Sweat was beginning to soak his gray hair. “Now, again, please nod if you understand my rules.”
Mr. Carson nodded.
“You know, I thought we would get a little further in this conversation before you started catching on. Bravo, sir, bravo to you for paying attention. I'm kind of surprised you remember the little phrase you used to say before all of our recess and after school... meetings. But now I realize I wasn't the only student you said those kinds of things to, right? It probably hasn't been that long since you last said it.”
He managed two words before the hook dug a little deeper into his neck. He winced away from it now, feeling that Angie was applying enough pressure to break the skin. He felt the prick, felt the heat around the area, and felt the hook slide around in the blood it had drawn.
“Mr. Carson, you promised. Remember, T is for truthfulness. Isn't that what you told us?”
He nodded his head against her grip.
“Please try to be a better listener. If we don't listen, we don't learn, right?”
He closed his eyes against the words. She was pelting him with the little maxims from his classroom. They were words from another time, another place. They were words from another him. He wasn't Mr. Carson, second grade teacher, right now. He put it on every morning when he entered his classroom, and he took it off every evening when he left. He didn't want to have to hear about the classroom now, without his mask on. He didn't want to have to pretend. He'd said those words hundreds, maybe thousands of times in his years as a teacher, every one of them a lie. To have them rain down on him here, without his mask, naked and exposed, was too much.
He gripped the arms of the chair and tried to be as still as he could. He wondered how she could know all of these things? How she could know about the laptop? How she could remember what he said before he...
He closed his eyes against the images, tried to close his ears and shield his mind from them. But the insides of his eyelids became mirrors. The harder he shut them, the more clearly he saw who he was without the mask.
“Now, you're probably wondering a lot of things right now, huh? Well, I have you here for the next twenty-five minutes or so, before people will start wondering what is going on, so we have plenty of time to answer all of those scary questions zipping around inside that stupid head of yours. First things first, as you're probably trying to deny, this is real. This is really happening right now. I need you to keep reminding yourself of that, and I will try to help remind you, too.”
The ultrasonic tool was back in his mouth and spraying away. Angie went from tooth to tooth, ignoring his spasms, ignoring his winces and shudders of pain. Whenever his eyes closed against the pain, Angie would stay there for a bit, and whisper for him to try to keep his eyes open. As she reached one tooth in particular, Mr. Carson groaned and one of his legs kicked up and off of his chair, then rebounded with a thud, squeaking the chair and its metal base.
She stopped, and a second later he again felt the gentle prick of the sharp hook at his neck. Her voice didn't change.
“When I was a little girl, I remember doing exactly what you're doing now. I remember watching the other kids file out of the classroom toward the playground, toward recess. Toward freedom. I watched them go and I wanted to scream: scream what you were doing, scream for them to stay, for them to help me. I remember standing at your desk trying to understand what was happening.”
She went back to work in his mouth and he groaned again. A single tear formed in the corner of his right eye, and when he shut his eyes against the pain, it rolled its way across his cheek and into his ear. Angie wondered if, at this point, he was flinching away from the pain of her work or the pain of her words.
“After, I remember trying to ignore it, trying to pretend it hadn't happened. But I watched you smile at me, watched you welcome the other kids back into the classroom the way you always did, watched you walk to the black board and continue on like everything was normal. I saw you look at other girls in the class and then look at me and I knew. I was different. It did happen. I couldn't keep trying to tell myself it didn't.”
The water tool stopped and Angie suctioned out the excess water and saliva build up.
“You know, Mr. Carson, it looks like we have some excessive plaque build up here. Not to worry.”
The metal hook dug its trail, along the gum line between tooth and tongue. She made long, slow strokes, and continued even when the blood started flowing.
“You doing okay with the pain, Mr. Carson? I'm giving you the special treatment, so don't tell anyone, okay? It's our little secret? You don't want me to get in trouble, do you?”
His feet kicked and scraped along the base of the chair, and more tears streamed down the sides of his face.
“I've been wondering something. For years after I was in your class, I had nightmares. I woke up screaming, I wet the bed, and it didn't really change in third grade. Or fourth grade. Or fifth. I did get better at convincing mom and dad that nothing was wrong. I used towels to control the pee. I washed my own sheets. And now, even now, there are nights when I sleep soundly through the night and don't piss myself. But those nights are pretty rare, and so I ask you: how have you been sleeping? From what I've seen, you don't sleep very soundly, either. You tend to sleep best between two and four in the morning, but even that is rarely sound sleep. I can't tell if you're dreaming, or what you're thinking as you toss and turn, but it doesn't seem like good, quality, rejuvenating sleep, you know? So I'll ask again: have you been sleeping alright?”
Mr. Carson was panting now, driven nearly to hysteria by the pain and the shock of what was happening to him. He was losing it, and he was going to cry out for help. Angie felt it coming on, but before he could yell for help, she lifted the sharp metal hook into the roof of his mouth. She stared down at him, down into his red, wet eyes, until his panting stopped.
“Me either. Man, the weeks and months and years get lo-lo-lo-long when you don't sleep well, right? It can feel too long, like if you can't sleep and you can't get away from the pain for even a second you should probably kill yourself. That's what I thought, at first. If there is no escape from the pain and the only thing that might help is sleep but you can't sleep, well, then... what do you do? For me, I tried to help myself sleep. I tried sleeping pills. I stole them from my mom. When they didn't work I tried booze. Then I tried them together. That worked a little bit for a little while, but pills and booze bring with them their own problems, don't they? When their benefits started waning I tried something a little... stronger. I got over my fear of needles really quickly and found that heroin can be a very sympathetic friend. H and I shared many sad, lonely stories and consoled each other, night after night, for almost a year. But again, like booze and pills, heroin started to turn on me, too. But in our last days together, in those last few bouts of vengeful give and take, heroin showed me something about myself. When the last syringe emptied its venom into the vein on the top of my foot, a voice appeared. It rose up from beneath the angry shouts and the wailing self hatred. It rose up from beneath the voice begging me to kill myself. The small voice grew louder, still barely audible amid the sounds of whiskey glugging down my throat and pill bottles popping open and rubber bands tightening while veins were being slapped to attention. A small voice, screaming in the depths, screaming from a dusty box I'd bolted and chained and buried.”
Angie stopped scraping and for a few seconds, Mr. Carson had some peace. She wanted him to breathe for a moment, to feel a small rush of adrenaline and brief endorphin relief. She offered a momentary stop to the pain. Then she pulled one of her sleeves up nearly to the elbow and held it out for him to see. His eyes followed the path of gray scars, back and forth, crossing and crossing again along every inch of skin on the underside of her forearm. The jagged patchwork had been woven from the palm of her hand up to her elbow and, it seemed, beyond.
She bent down to whisper again.
“There are more, Mr. Carson. A lot more.”
She pulled the sleeve down and pried his jaw open again.
Back to work.
“I'd been trying to convince myself that it didn't happen, that you didn't do those things to me. That voice had been screaming so loud for so long I'd forgotten the other voice existed. It came back to me like a stranger. A strength, a force, a determination I'd forgotten I owned. When I couldn't convince myself it hadn't happened, I tried to convince myself that I'd wanted it, that I'd enjoyed it. That's when I cut myself. The pain became my new friend. The pain helped me sleep. At least for a little while. But it was only more noise trying to drown out the other voice, and I just couldn't drown it out forever.”
Angie pulled his head to the right. She slapped his cheeks twice, hard.
“You still with me, teach? Any of this make sense, any of this resonating with you? I feel like maybe part of why you do what you do is because you don't understand what it's like to be helpless like that. You don't know what it's like to be at someone's mercy. Not anymore, though, right? Now you know,” she laughed, “now you know, big time. So tell me, how does it feel? Do you like it?”
He shook his head. He was starting to sob.
“Are you crying, Mr. Carson? That's surprising, because I seem to remember you telling me something when I cried at your desk. When your hand went under my dress the first time, I think I cried. You said something. Do you remember?”
Another sob, harder now, wracked his body. It was loud enough that Angie slammed her palm down over his mouth and pressed him deep into the cushioned chair.
“You said, 'Oh don't cry, little angel. Little angels don't cry.' Angela, your little angel, right?”
Angie held the hook over Mr. Carson's face. She brought it down slowly, made sure he was watching it glint in the lamp light, just before it touched his cheek. She ran the long rounded edge of the hook across the corner of one of his eyes, wiping the tears down toward his ear. She let the metal trace the tears' path three times before moving to the other side. On the other side, she turned the hook so the sharp tip pierced one of the tears as it left his eye. She dragged the point along his cheek, tracking a series of diminishing spirals down to his jawline and all the way to the tip of his chin.
“Don't cry, little angel,” she whispered, “angels don't cry.”
She'd dragged the hook hard enough to create a series of red spirals in his skin. She followed them back up to their origin and held the point of the hook directly over his pupil.
“Don't cry, little angel.”
Mr. Carson closed his eyes. He blurted out a plea for her to stop without trying, without thinking, and started to sob again. He closed his eyes and she let the hook's tip touch his eyelid and rest there.
“I need you to know something,” she whispered, “something you taught me. I need you to hear it and really think about it and never forget. I need it to go deep into your mind, into your bones, into your soul. Are you ready? I need you to know that life... isn't fair. Did you hear me, Mr. Carson? Life isn't fair. And that's okay, as long as we're honest about it. It is what you taught me. It is what that little voice in my head wanted to tell me. Through the noise of me telling myself I deserved what happened to me, through the noise of pretending I wanted it, that I asked for it, the little voice pushed through all of that to tell me that life... isn't... fair.”
Angie got down low again, right next to Mr. Carson's ear, and held his head with both hands. She got down to his ear so he could feel her breath, so he could smell her, so he could remember this moment forever.
“Life isn't fair, Mr. Carson. You're going to know that, soon. You're going to know it truly, deeply, for the first time, and it is going to change who you are. My advice to you is... let it. Let it change you.”
Her hands left his head.
“Let it change you.”
Mr. Carson bit his lip against the rising flood of mental debris. His fingers dug deeper into the chair's armrests and his legs trembled. The rush of emotion overtook him and a groan started deep in his belly and squeezed its way, like bile, up into his mouth. He vomited it into the air above him, then into the entire office. Before he knew what he was doing, he was up from the chair spitting blood onto the floor and wiping his mouth madly and screaming. He was punching out in all directions. He tripped on the instrument table and matched the noise of crashing tools with even louder screams. He formed no phrases, no words, only grinding, ghoulish vowels in random sequences at random pitches and tones. When Kelly met him in the hallway, he pawed wildly at her face like she were a monster ready to devour him. When Dr. Fensworth seized him by the arms, Mr. Carson swung an elbow back into the doctor's face. The doctor went down, his nose bloody, and Mr. Carson pushed past Kelly and made his way to the front door.
As he pushed out into the sunshine, more hands seized him. This time, there would be no elbows thrown, no pushing aside, and he would be taken into custody by special agent James Kotaki of the FBI, who'd received detailed information about a Mr. Philip Carson's possession and distribution of child pornography, as well as information about his position and influence as a teacher at Booker Elementary School over the last twenty-nine years.
The information provided would be enough for the Federal prosecutor to force Mr. Carson's attorney to seek a plea deal of five years in prison followed by probation, mental health treatment, and placement on the national sex offender registry. The prosecutor denied this plea and on May 1st, 2017, Philip Carson was convicted of twelve counts of possession and distribution of child pornography and sentenced to sixty-five years in federal prison.
He received many letters once in prison, but he only ever read one. The rest, he crushed angrily in his hands and threw away without opening. But the first one, return-addressed from his mother's house, was short:
Dear Mr. Carson,
Perhaps now you can understand what we all felt in your classroom. Perhaps now, trembling under the violence of the men around you, you can understand the helplessness and fear. Don't push it away, that small voice rising inside you. Let it in. Listen to that voice and let it change you, Mr. Carson. Let it change you.
And then kill yourself.
Love, the little angel
“Let me see your hands!”
The girl laid Billy's head on the bed. She was crying, and the tear streams were slowly cleaning a path through the blood on her face. As she raised her hands, even the spaces between her fingers were coated. On her palms, on the backs of her hands, on her wrists and forearms, soaked into her hair, covering her neck and face, soaking into her torn shirt, her torn pants, the blood was everywhere.
“Hands up, now!”
As her hands rose, team leader Decklan could see that they were trembling. As he stepped forward, her hands flinched. She didn't want him to come closer. She didn't want him anywhere near her. She seemed partially scared for herself.
Almost more so for him.
“Lopez!” Decklan yelled. Officer Lopez stepped into the bedroom from the living room, her MP5 raised. She'd raised her boots a few inches higher than necessary as she crossed the threshold. She didn't want to step in the puddle of vomit officer James had left there, next to the entrails.
“Jesus,” she whispered, seeing the girl on the bed. She'd seen the two men downstairs, the man hanging from the wall in the stairwell, the other bodies broken and bleeding in the apartment. She'd seen the open chests and crushed skulls and fractured limbs and blood – the dark, wet blood everywhere, everywhere – but now, in the inner chamber, in the nightmare's churning heart, the only thing left living must be the monster. From here, the flashlight on her machine pistol now glaring off of the still-drying blood, the monster seemed to be a frail and terrified woman, her arms shaking as they shielded her face from the bright lights.
As Lopez looked closer, it seemed the woman's arms might be shielding her more from the staring eyes.
“Cover!” Decklan growled. Seconds later, a flash lit the room, then another. Each flash shook the frail woman and she seemed to sink lower and lower into the bed. By the last picture, she was stuttering through tears:
“That's w-what... that's what you... are... ”
“Alright, secure the suspect,” Decklan said.
Lopez rounded the bed, her feet sending sucking sounds as they pulled globs of sticky blood from the floor. The walls were coated in long, runny streaks of it. Blood was dripping from the ceiling. The bed was nearly soaked, but Lopez saw a small patch of somewhat dry, clean exposed sheet behind the woman. She pulled her cuffs, let her weapon hang at her side, and raised a knee onto the bed's dry spot.
“Un... f-forget-forget-getable...” the woman continued. Her voice wandered from syllable to syllable, as if she were searching for the right match of melody and lyrics. She was switching cadences, repeating words, sorting through musical puzzle pieces in her mind
Decklan let the woman know she was being placed under arrest. He began the Miranda rights speech.
“Tho near... or f-far...”
When he got to her right to an attorney, Lopez clicked the first handcuff around the woman's right wrist. She knew she would need to grab the blood-soaked wrists and pull them down behind the woman's back before securing the second. Looking at the wrists, Lopez knew there was no way she could do so without touching the blood. She knew it would soak into her gloves, her new gloves, and possibly touch her skin. She knew that feeling, that smell, the sharp iron sting, would stay in her nostrils for weeks, would tinge the taste of whatever food or drinks she consumed. She knew she would feel it when she washed her hands, would feel the sticky film as her hands slid across her body in the shower. She knew it would be weeks before she felt clean of it.
“Do you understand these rights as they have been read to you?”
Lopez grabbed the woman's wrists. Just before contact she knew what would happen, she felt it, like a static charge building on her forearms, rippling tiny arcs of electricity from hair to hair on the back of her neck. The current surged, and when she grabbed the woman's wrist, an invisible bolt surged between them. The woman's stuttered murmuring stopped and she sucked in air as if coming up from beneath the suffocating battery of unseen, imprisoning waves. Lopez gasped, too, and her hand locked on the woman's wrist and shook slightly, as if she were trying to pull it free but couldn't.
Decklan rounded the foot of the bed and leveled his weapon at the woman's face.
“Face down, face down on the bed, now!”
“I can see you,” the woman said, breathing in another thankful breath.
“Let her go!” he yelled, “you've got two seconds!”
“I knew it.”
“I knew you would come!”
The woman let out a sigh and her eyes rolled back in her head. She went limp and slid sideways on the bed. Lopez caught her before she could tumble onto the floor, and she pulled the now limp arms together and secured the second cuff.
“Suspect secure,” she said. She stepped off the bed. In two more steps she was in the living room. She could feel where the blood had soaked into her gloves and pants. She could still feel the stickiness under her feet with each step. She paused at the bathroom, but the sight of the two dead men there pushed her into the kitchen, and then out into the hallway where the dam she'd been shoring up broke and she threw up against the far wall near the door to apartment twenty-seven. She laid her forearm against the wall to steady herself, but it gave way and she slid to the floor and gasped for air.
It was minutes before Decklan appeared, standing in front of her.
“That's probably about enough of that,” he said, his hand held out. She nodded and took the hand and let him yank her to her feet with a grunt. When he pulled her up she turned and went to let go, but he held her. She could feel his eyes calling to hers.
“You good?” he asked.
“You want to talk about it?”
She shook her head. “Later.”
“At the station?”
She nodded again.
Decklan sighed. He wasn't satisfied with the answer but he understood. They'd just seen the one of the worst scenes in NYPD history, and the images would stay with both of them for the rest of their lives. And something else, an unspoken something between them knew that tonight wouldn't be the end of it. Neither spoke it aloud, but they both knew tonight was the beginning.
“Are you up for transport?”
Lopez nodded. She went to wipe her mouth but looked at her right hand and stopped. Her left hand was no better. She considered her forearms. Both were speckled in patches of blood. She turned her head and spit the remaining bile onto the floor and wiped her mouth on a small patch of sleeve that seemed clean enough.
Decklan brought the woman out. She was awake, now, humming and muttering strange words in strange orders under her breath. Once Lopez took hold of the handcuffs, the woman went silent. She said nothing as they passed the men in the hallway. She said nothing as they passed the man in the stairwell and in the hallway below. They'd fitted her feet with plastic booties to preserve any evidence on her feet and to spare the apartment complex the extra clean-up.
Lopez and Decklan were wearing the booties, too, and they all marched to the sound of crinkling plastic until they reached an area free of blood. There, they each pulled another set of plastic booties over their shoes and continued to the door.
A squad car was waiting at the alleyway entrance where the SWAT team originally entered. A layer of plastic sheeting had been secured on the seats and across the floor, front and back. The young officer in the driver's seat went to get out of the car and Decklan immediately waved him back in. The driver sat back down and closed his door.
“He doesn't say a single word on the drive over,” Decklan said. Lopez nodded. “That car needs to be a church basement on a Monday morning.”
Lopez opened the back door. She went to put her hand on the woman's head but didn't need to, the woman dropped down into the cruiser and settled into the sheets of plastic without a word.
“I'll be here for the detectives and then I'll join you. The station is ready for clean-up and booking, you can just pass her off and go take care of yourself. They have a holding cell ready.”
Lopez made her way to the far side of the cruiser and opened the door. Decklan called to her.
“Lopez! No one talks to her.”
She got in the car and they pulled away. The driver hit the lights and the sirens. Lopez looked back to see if the noise or the lights would upset the woman. They didn't, she stared forward and bobbed silently to the movements of the car. For the six minute drive to the station, the woman didn't speak, didn't murmur quietly to herself, didn't move unless moved. When they pulled into the station, a small team was ready. The driver got out, and as Lopez opened her door, she heard a faint voice from the back seat.
“You-you're un-unforget-able t-too.”
The shower hissed to life and Lopez shut her eyes and mouth into its violent spray. She tried not to smell what was washing off of her face, what was running out of the ends of her hair. She worked way too much soap into way too much lather and soaked herself in it, only breathing again once she thought the overwhelming sweetness of her soap might overtake the smell of hot, rusted flesh. It did, mostly, enough where she could ignore the smell of blood and pretend it wasn't there.
After she washed her hair three times and scrubbed her body from head to foot three times, she let the water run down her face and chest, turning once the scorching warmth was too much for her pruning skin. She let the water burn down her back, shivered at the feel of the steam on the red goosebumps at the back of her neck. She pressed her palms into the wall in front of her and leaned there, head down, until the tears began to fall. She let them fall, let them merge with the burning waterfall and steam. A single sob rocked her body and she clenched her jaw against it, but only for a moment. When the second sob gripped her, she let it shudder through her arms and legs. She let the third one twist her stomach and pull strands of electricity from between her vertebrae. Everything beyond the fourth sob was lost in a dam burst of painful memory. She gasped and sobbed and let the crash of water dull the pitiful sound. She pressed her hands harder into the tiled wall, hoping it would hold her up despite her failing legs. An image from the past rose up behind her closed eyes. It played a scene of her father, waving to her from a small dock before walking away. Her mind played the image amid the sounds of footsteps on linoleum, the sound of rain on a roof, and the sound of a little girl's scream.
“I'm sorry,” Lopez said, her head hanging lower. The words seemed to pull her toward the floor, but on saying them a second time, her head straightened. She opened her eyes and took her hands from the wall so she could wash her face again. She shut the water off and breathed, blowing droplets of water from her lips to the floor.
Drea's head rolled from its resting place on her shoulder down onto her chest. She groaned, her body noting the pain in her neck before she was fully awake. Light began registering in her brain, a clouded, shifting spectrum of yellows and reds and browns. The colors merged and split, twisting into shapes that seemed to be crystallizing into something familiar, only to break apart again. As they broke, Drea became aware of two other sensations: the feeling that she was spinning in long, swooping passes, and a rhythmic beating on something nearby. She could hear the thump, thump, thump of something hard, metallic. She could feel the thumping under her. It rattled her legs and back. She could feel it faintly in her arms.
She tried to pick her head up. She winced at the effort. Another sensation was making itself known. She was sitting, she could feel the hard platform under her legs and could feel the bend in her knees and the feel of the floor under her feet. She tried to raise her hands to her face. Her lips were tingling and she wasn't sure if her mouth was open or closed. Her hands did not answer her call, and with another effort to raise them, she felt the dimpling of rounded metal against the skin and flesh of her shoulders, her forearms, her chest and thighs. She tensed again, harder this time, and the dimples went deeper. Now there was a sound, hushed and in the distance.
Rattling. She could hear the rattling of chains.
The voice was distant and wavy. Her brain was playing with the volume. She felt her head pull to one side and then slump back against her chest. She was waking up. She was groggy and confused and couldn't remember where she was but she realized she was just now waking up.
“We have... so many questions, Andrea.”
No one called her Andrea, not since third grade. The colors were clearing. The sounds were drawing closer, louder. Another jerk from her arms and legs set the chains rattling again, this time clearly. She could smell the iron. The feeling in her face was returning. Her mouth was a desert and she smacked her lips and pressed her tongue into the sides of her teeth and the roof of her mouth. She tried to work up some saliva, tried to swallow, tried to lick her lips. The more she tried, the drier her mouth seemed.
A face appeared, suddenly staring into her eyes.
“Are you ready to begin?”
Officer Lopez was standing at interrogation two's viewing window. She was wearing her training kit: NYPD-issued sweats and socks, a navy blue t-shirt under a navy blue hoodie, and her favorite running shoes, the white and gray sneakers she wore in last year's New York marathon. She stared at the woman sitting in the metal chair behind the glass. Now she had a name. The woman, now showered and changed, now slouched over the table where she'd been handcuffed, was named Caroline. Caroline Ayers, twenty-seven years old.
Lopez thought it might be the overhead lighting, or the jailhouse jumpsuit, or the weight of whatever Caroline must have seen that evening, but she'd have guessed forty-seven before she guessed twenty-seven.
Lopez looked at her phone. Decklan had texted her nine minutes ago. He'd be joining her shortly, along with detective Jonathan Cole, who would be doing the interrogating. Lopez had met Cole on two previous occasions. He seemed like a good detective. When she first saw him, they were at a crime scene together. Lopez thought he might be the suspect's lawyer. Cole was tall and thin and always wore glasses. He seemed to be the kind of man who liked to wear glasses. He seemed the kind of man that must have suffered bullying and abuse over many years for his enjoyment of glasses, now wearing them as proudly as he wore his badge.
She wondered what sort of interrogator he could be. Unless he were submitting a scathing report, typed, single-spaced, he didn't carry the kind of physical dominance and intimidation most of the other detectives utilized in their own interrogations. She was interested to see him work, see how you could generate trust and fear and willingness to cooperate with his... look.
She noticed she was rubbing her lip. She rubbed her lip when she was deep in thought or when she was nervous. She also noticed she'd been rubbing her lip while holding her hand over her nostrils. Now, seeing Caroline again, even after her twenty-five minute shower and a completely new set of clothes, she still thought she might be able to smell that room, again. She kept waiting for a waft of blood, and her hand tried to protect her from it.
The door opened and Decklan and Cole entered.
“Officer Lopez, this is detective Jonathan Cole.”
“We've met,” Cole said, still reaching out to shake Lopez's hand, “do you remember?”
“Twice,” she said, pulling her hand out of his and stuffing it back beneath her armpit.
“That's right, very good.” He managed to say it without sounding condescending.
“You get them? You catch those guys?”
Cole nodded, “Sure did. Axel got twelve years for the armed robbery and Simms got twenty-five-to-life for... the other one.”
Decklan was waiting for more from either Cole or Lopez and got nothing from either. There seemed to be a story there, an important story. He chose not to dig any deeper.
“She ask for a lawyer?” Lopez asked. She was struggling to hide the warble in her voice. She put a free hand over her mouth to try to stop it from trembling as Decklan responded.
“No, did not... would not respond when asked about an attorney. We've arranged for one. He is in route.”
“Are you going to wait?” Lopez asked. Cole looked at her, then to Decklan.
“Yes, Lopez, we are going to wait,” Decklan said.
“Caroline Ayers, twenty-seven years old, out of Brooklyn,” Lopez said, “do we know anything else about her?”
“We're lucky we know that much. She was found with no ID and she wouldn't give us her name or social or anything we asked for. She didn't respond to a single question, just kept babbling to herself.”
“What was she saying?”
“Pretty sure it wasn't really English or Spanish or any other language most humans speak.”
A sound took their attention to Caroline. She pulled the chain of her handcuffs through their locking loop on the table, as far as they could go in one direction, and then as far as they could go in the other. She pulled the chain slowly, letting each loop clink along the metal lock bar. She kept a slow, steady rhythm for three pulls back and forth.
“Do we think she is high?” Lopez asked, never taking her eyes off Caroline.
Cole finally spoke: “I think it might be more of a mental health issue. She may even be autistic. She's showing some of the signature movements and speech patterns. Like this...”
Click, click, click, the metal handcuff chains continued their clunky trail back and forth.
“Sometimes, people with autism will try to calm themselves with patterns of speech or movement. They way she is pulling the restraints back and forth, feeling the metal, listening to the click, seems almost like stimming.”
“Stimming?” Lopez asked.
“Stimming, self stimulation. It's calming,” Cole replied. “My sister has a pair of squishy balls she takes with her everywhere she goes. If she is in a new place or is feeling overwhelmed, she just squeezes them.”
Lopez finally looked away from Caroline. She wanted to see Cole's face when he finished. She thought about him saying these things about his sister, knowing these things about his sister, and being so open about it. She thought of him helping her, of all of the times it must have been confusing or embarrassing to help her. She thought about all of the times he probably had to explain it before: to friends, neighbors, people on the street; girlfriends. And now he had to explain it yet again, to some young officer who judged him about his glasses.
She looked away.
He never looked away from Caroline. “We went through the apartment. We talked to people in the neighboring rooms and got nothing. Seeing the layout of the bodies, and the... injuries... I've seen a lot of things in my time here. I've seen mass stabbings and bloody shootouts and torture rooms. I was with the team that looked through the shipping container full of Chinese nationals last year.”
He stopped talking. He just stopped and shook his head. There was a rhythm to it, and he didn't stop shaking his head until Lopez spoke again.
“Then how did you find out her name and age?” Lopez asked.
Decklan went into his back pocket and unfolded the piece of paper he found there.
“She is a missing person,” he said, displaying the poster. Lopez looked at the poster, then into the interrogation room, then back to the poster and shook her head.
“Two weeks. Check this out, an anonymous caller made the report. This anonymous caller gave her name and age, her address, and even sent in the picture. Officers are checking the address now, and we still have no idea who the anonymous caller was.”
“Is it possible the anonymous caller had anything to do with the guys at the apartment?” Lopez asked.
“So far there is nothing to suggest that. Hopefully, she will be able to tell us more, because right now, none of this makes sense. Assuming this fragile, possibly psychotic little thing didn't tear those men's hearts out herself, what is the story? Some kind of new gang violence? Is there some group out there trying to make a name for themselves by twisting the heads off of their rivals?”
“Well,” Cole said, stepping to the door, “let's ask her.”
“Andrea, I'm going to ask you a series of questions.”
Drea was awake now. Her vision had cleared enough to see that she was sitting, chained to a chair in a large, dark room. The man in front of her was familiar. The spinning in her mind hadn't fully stopped, but the ride was creaking slowly to its end and she felt his identity would come back to her soon.
The voice, there was something in his voice.
“What we need from you are straight-forward, honest answers. You can be honest with us, can't you, miss Newton?”
The voice, mid-pitch, nasal. Drea wondered if it could be someone from work, or one of the bar patrons.
He stepped again out of the darkness and leaned forward so they would be face to face. Even two feet away, there wasn't enough light to tell her what she wanted to know.
“Andrea Newton, is that your real name?”
Andrea lifted her head up and let it fall again. It was something like a nod.
“I'll take that as a yes. Good. Andrea Newton, do you know who I am?”
Drea squinted. She did know, he was familiar. She couldn't zero in on an exact who. She knew him, but couldn't place the “from where?” She shook her head.
“Miss Newton... remember when I said I needed you to be straight-forward and honest? Do you remember that?”
Drea nodded again. The shifting in his voice, the blurred colors and shifting shapes and the spinning of the room, it finally came together. She'd been drugged. On realizing she'd been drugged, the symptoms became more clear. She tried to talk but couldn't tell if she was opening her mouth, or making noises. She tried to move but her limbs were full of curing cement. It was like struggling against a lead blanket. Her body was there with all of its power and potential, but someone else was holding the remote controls.
“Do you lie to your daughters?”
The blanket lifted slightly. Kayley and Tanya, their faces rushed in to fill the swirling chaos. She pulled again at the chains and they rattled again, a little louder this time.
The man stood up and turned. Now, maybe twenty feet behind him, Drea saw a row of heads lined up in the darkness. They were turning to each other now, nodding. Their whispers barely reached Drea's ears, but she could hear the excitement.
“Fascinating,” the man said. “Truly fascinating, is it not?”
Drea closed her mouth and tried to force her breathing to intensify. Her ribs didn't want to expand. Her lungs felt punctured, every breath lost into a damaged balloon. She kept working her tongue around her mouth, trying to build up some saliva and regain her voice. She coughed. It was a dry cough, the kind that brings on another cough, and that one another.
“Now Andrea, our next question is about your incredible strength. Even now, in the state you're in, I'm still wondering if I used enough chain. There is no reason you should ever be able to get out of those. We've all heard stories of mothers lifting whole cars off of their trapped and dying children. We've heard stories of mothers fighting off wild animals and violent husbands and madmen. But still, I'd like to think that even if I had one of your precious little girls here, right now, kneeling on this cold cement floor...”
Another man appeared from the shadows. A girl was with him, young, thin, light-skinned. She was wearing underwear and a tattered t-shirt. They had a hood over her head and she'd obviously been gagged. Even with the gag, her muted screams still filled the small, dark space.
The muted screams filled Drea's mind.
“...even if I brought your precious Tanya here and made her kneel before me, I'd like to think you'd still be bound by those chains. All of my training in science tells me I should be safe here, and yet look...”
The man held out his hand to show his trembling.
“Do you see? I can't believe it, I haven't felt this way in... well, since two hours ago, but before that, well... it's been years since I felt these things!”
Two hours ago. Drea found it, the pieces finally fit. That nasally voice, that pompous air. The bar, the man, the college blonde. What did his license say?
The words screeched out in a raspy whisper. After saying his name, her anger built up again. She flexed her arms up and out, envisioned them ripping through the chains, splintering the metal into pieces and spraying them outward in every direction. She imagined standing from the metal chair, tearing it from the ground if she had to. She imagined the broken metal legs making nice weapons to use on the shadowy men before her.
“There she is! There's the honest and straight-forward Andrea Newton we know! And look at you, yet another surge of energy. Truthfully, even this much action is a surprise. You shouldn't really be conscious after taking what we gave you. Some of us thought you might die. Others of us knew better. Others of us have seen... incredible things.”
Polk stepped forward again, dragging the girl with him. He thrust her downward onto her knees in front of Drea. When she screamed again, Polk shook her once, hard, and the screams died down into whimpers.
The chains shook again, harder.
“Don't touch her!” Drea rasped.
“Incredible things, Drea... truly incredible things.”
“I'll show you incredible things,” she hissed.
“I know you will,” Polk said, playfully shaking the girl by her shoulders. “She's going to show us incredible things. Would you like to see some incredible things, little girl? Well, then, Andrea... miss Newton... I have one... more... question.”
Polk drew a knife from behind his back. He let it shine in the light before sliding it across the girl's neck.
“I think I know the answer but I somehow know I should ask. It just feels right to ask. I think a gentleman would ask. You can't just assume things, right? Not these days. Not in these unpredictable times. No, we shant hypothesize, we shall go straight to the source.”
He pulled the knife back and the blade pulled a crease across the girl's neck. Drea could see the carotid artery pulsing beneath it as the girl panted in fear.
“Andrea how... did you get... so strong?”
Polk let the word “strong” bound around the room and then settle into the silence. Then he smiled as the knife plunged into the girl's neck.
“NO!” Caroline screamed. The scream seemingly came out of nowhere. Detective Polk had been asking her his softball opening questions hoping to create a basic rapport. She'd offered her name, Caroline only, without a last name. She hadn't responded when he asked her age. When he asked her if she knew where she was, she jerked in her chair, pulling at the chains of her handcuffs and grinding them aggressively against the table's lock bar. She nodded her head again and again, as if answering questions that weren't being asked.
“It's not me, it's her-her... it's her, it's not me...” she'd said.
Cole told her they found her in an apartment. He asked her if she remembered the apartment. She pulled at the handcuffs again. This time, the metal made a sound that suggested a weakness was being created. Cole stood up from his chair and stepped back. He'd had three hundred and fifty pound football players high on PCP in those cuffs and they'd never made that sound.
“It's not me, it's not me, please...”
Cole asked her to calm down. He apologized and asked her to calm down, told her he wouldn't ask her any more questions. He told her she was safe now, that everything was fine and she was safe.
That's when she'd screamed.
Drea's voice returned. She shrieked at the knife. Blood flowed out of the girl's neck as she groaned inside her hood. Polk held her there, held her out for Drea to see, and then, when he felt the fight leave her, let the girl slide through his arms and slump onto the floor.
The chains rattled again. And again. And again. Drea caught her voice, felt her lungs fill again, and the “No” she'd been screaming morphed into something else, something primal and beyond words. The sound rumbled up from her belly, from the beginning, and roared its way out into the darkness and overtook it.
Had she not been sounding her devil scream, she might have heard the men's excited ramblings turn to gasps. She might have heard the rattle of chains produce another sound, something small but definite, down at the bottom of the chaos and noise.
A single clink.
One of the chain links gave way. There were nearly thirty more, but during her screams and her heaving fury, a piece of her bonds gave way.
She heaved again.
Another sharp clink. The ting of metal bursting.
“Yes,” Polk whispered, his eyes widening.
She heaved again. A long line of chain ripped from its base and flew up and over Drea's legs, slamming into the cement on the other side. Her growling continued, and Polk began to growl along with her.
“Yes, YES!” He roared. “Yes, Drea, teach us! Teach us!”
He knew he should leave but he couldn't. He couldn't miss this marvelous creature rising before him, couldn't miss the the twisting, grunting power of his hypothesis, his prophecy, coming to life. His years of study and search, all of his mad musings and failed experiments, all of the lost girls along the way, they all lead to this moment. While his monster rose up from the scattered fragments of her shell and showed herself to the world, he would be there to see it.
He would bear witness.
“Can you see?” he screamed. He was addressing the men fleeing the room behind him. Drea's cries and his own manic laughter covered their escape, but it didn't matter. They didn't matter.
“Can you see what we've created?”
Another chain popped free from its base, and another. Drea began to squirm and feel the faint air of freedom. She snarled at the remaining chains and shook in her chair. The floor rumbled beneath her, and the bolts holding her seat in place started to give.
“Stand, Andrea!” Polk cried, falling to his knees. “Throw off your chains and stand!”
Drea obeyed. One more heave of her chest and arms ripped the chair from its bolts and pulled one set of chains completely from their station at her feet. Drea stood, hot breath chugging from her throat, and she let her eyes quickly scan the room before settling on Polk.
“Rise, holy goddess. Rise!”
Drea took hold of the remaining chains across her shoulders and crushed them in her hands. She looked down at the dragging tails before tossing them to the left and right. They clattered against metal walls, the walls of a warehouse or an airport hangar.
Polk crawled forward, his head bowed, his hands raised in exaltation. He crawled through the pool of blood spreading out from the hooded girl's neck, smearing two trails with his knees.
“Soon the world will see. They will see what we have done and they will marvel. They will see and they will fear and they will MARVEL!”
When he crawled close enough, Drea grabbed him by his outstretched arms. She pressed them into his sides, breaking the bones of his forearms and the ribs they contacted. He winced and then laughed, his eyes wide and curious and hopeful. She pressed him downward into the floor, compressing his spine and breaking his collar bones under her thumbs. She packed him, tighter and tighter, into a ball, and then they both, together, shrieked a final death cry as she ripped the mass in two.
The handcuffs blew apart at the chain and the cuffs popped from her wrists and danced on the cement floor. Caroline stood and raised her hands above her head, clenching them into white hot fists. She brought them down on the metal table. The first blow crushed the metal downward under her two fists, carving the table into a double-u shape. Her second blow tore the securing screws from the table's base and they ricocheted around the interrogation room. Now, with the legs loose and the table already nearly flattened, her third blow melded it with the cement below.
She ripped the cuffs from her feet. She took the metal chair in her hands and folded it, screaming along with the twisting metal, until the chair had been packed into a small, rough sphere the size of a basketball. As she packed it in tighter and tighter, she reached a point where she seemed unhappy with the ball's progress. She slammed her palms into each side of it, flattening the sphere, and then ripped the mass into two pieces, throwing them to the ground.
She stomped one of her feet. The cement crunched and fragments peppered the wall behind her and dinged against the crushed table in front of her. She brought her foot down again and stomped her foot another few inches down, into the core of the building. Another stomp would have reached the foundation, possibly some of the electrical lines, but she stopped. She raised her hands in the air and they hung there, as if she were praying, begging God to stop her, and after a raspy breath and a full-body tremble, she fell to the floor, silent and still.
Drea fell to her knees. She crawled forward, past the broken chains, past a few of the pieces of Polk's body, to the girl on the floor. She was already crying when she lifted the girl's head and cradled it in her lap. She was ready to see the wavy hair, the button nose, the beautiful lips of her precious Tanya. She was ready for the wave of despair to wash over her and take them both away forever. She was sobbing when she pulled the hood back.
The knife had pierced the carotid artery. The color had drained from the girl's face, but even in the pale, twisted horror of death, Drea still recognized her. It was the blonde college girl, the one from the bar. Now, seeing her face, she remembered carrying her out of Polk's apartment, remembered carrying her into the hallway, down the elevator, into the lobby. She remembered the hopefulness she'd felt then, that she'd saved this poor stranger from a terrible fate.
And now she held her lifeless body on a dirty cement floor. Had she not tried to save this girl, the girl might still be alive. She cried for the girl, and for her own regret. She cried tears of anger. And she cried the guilty tears of a mother who was glad to see another mother's child under death's hood rather than her own.
“Aw, mom!” The little girl's voice rose and fell with her shoulders as she slumped back in her bed. Drea slid the covers up and over the girl's chest, tucking the sides in slightly.
“Are we going to go through this, again?” Drea asked.
The girl nodded. Her sister, sitting on the bed across the room, was shaking her head while tapping away on her phone.
“Yes,” the little girl declared.
Drea sighed. “Okay, hit me with it.”
“Do you have to go?” the little girl asked, pouting and stretching out the words “have” and “go” much longer than was necessary. She used to cry at this moment, when she was younger. Now, even though she tried to work up some fake tears, she'd simply played this games too many times before. The well was dry.
“Do you like living in this amazing apartment?”
Four hundred and fifty square feet of fourth floor, one-leaky-bathroom, rat hot-spot, New York apartment shouldn't have been amazing, but the girl nodded.
“Do you like having delicious, gourmet food to eat?”
“The latest designer clothes to wear?”
“Yes,” the girl giggled.
“Well then, super mom has to go to work.”
The little girl sighed. Drea kissed her forehead, then kissed it again, and again, until the girl giggled again.
“Don't worry. You'll be asleep before you know it, and I'll be back before you wake up.”
“I hope you make lots and lots of money,” the little girl said.
“Me, too, sweetie. Me too.”
Drea left the room and turned off the light. The older girl followed her out.
“I love you,” Drea called as she closed the door.
“I love you, too, mommy.”
The door shut quietly. Her other daughter's eyes were waiting, mocking.
“It's getting better,” Drea said.
The girl shrugged and headed for the kitchen. Drea followed.
“I didn't want to tell Kayley, but Amanda can't come stay with you two tonight. She got called into a late shift to cover for someone.”
“That's fine,” the girl said. “I know how to lock the door.”
“Yes but do you know about stranger danger?” Drea asked, one eyebrow raised.
“And calling 911?”
“And stop drop and roll?”
“And vampires and aliens and werewolves?”
“I read all the Twilight books,” the girl said.
“But those books didn't talk about aliens.”
“I think I'll be okay.”
Drea smiled. Kayley, her ten-year-old, the sweet, selfless, protector of the cute and innocent would be asleep in minutes, without nightmares or twitching legs or even a trip to the bathroom to interrupt her angelic sleep. Tanya, her nearly fourteen-year-old, would be up late into the night texting her friends. Drea could see the pride in Tanya's eyes. Though she tried to hide it behind sarcastic responses and general nonchalance, Tanya felt proud that her mom would trust her to stay home alone with Kayley. She enjoyed the independence. She enjoyed the trust. And she respected the relentless hard work her mom endured to keep the three of them sheltered and fed.
“What do you think, around 3:00?” Tanya asked.
Drea nodded. She grabbed a duffle bag and shoved her purse into it before swinging it over her shoulder.
“Seriously, though, are you good?”
“Yeah, mom, I'm good.”
“Good. Text me if you need anything.”
Drea hugged her daughter and Tanya hugged back. She didn't always hug back, but today, Drea got both arms, medium squeeze, and Tanya's head pressed against her chest.
“You're so... awesome,” Drea whispered.
“I know,” Tanya whispered back.
Drea shut the door and waited to hear the two dead bolts lock and the chain slide into place before making her way to the stairwell.
Club Nero cast it's red light onto the rain-slicked sidewalks of seventh street, near Midtown. A few blocks in any direction would bring the viewer to newly remodeled building facades fitting of the twenty-first century, but Nero's owners had ignored the memo. Old, stained bricks, dirty sidewalks, and dingy metal framed eight foot windows. The windows were new, each in turn having been smashed by rocks, a man with a crow bar, and a drunk driver and his Chevy pick-up. The new shiny windows would've looked out of place, were it not for the beige curtains concealing what was going on behind them. Beige curtains illuminated by orange-red rim lighting drained any essence of glamour or elegance and replaced it with desperation.
Drea's duffle bag had switched shoulders three times on the fifteen-block walk. Now, squeezing in between patrons smoking outside, she carried it by the handles.
“Evening, Scarlet,” the bouncer said, grinning.
“Hey, Manny,” Drea replied, smiling back. The usual greeting. It ended there.
As she always did, Drea held her breath as she passed through the front door. She held it as she weaved through staggering drunks and waitresses balancing drink trays on frail arms. She slipped past each of her co-workers, not yet acknowledging any of them. She held her breath from front door to backstage, and once she was through the last curtain and the pulsing of the music softened behind two walls of separation, she exhaled. She let the breath out slowly, feeling her chest sink and deflate. She followed the exhale down to the end, until she had no more air to let slip, and then dropped her bag on a table and waited, eyes closed.
You can do this.
She held the exhale.
You can do this.
Eyes closed, she couldn't shut out the noise from the club. David was announcing the next featured dancer, Desiree.
Go get em, Dezzy.
“You're actually early.”
Drea opened her eyes and unzipped her bag. David was leaning against the door frame, the way he usually did. Drea's deep breathing exercises were, in part, to deal with the inevitable insult or back-handed compliment David would toss her way. She didn't think he meant to be outright mean with the things he said. He was a boy, trying to connect with the girls on the playground by calling them names or pulling their hair. She told herself that if he ever became more than that, if he ever crossed a line, she'd put him in his place.
“Well praise me when I'm dressed and ready,” she said, pulling out her cut-off gray Yankees shirt.
David was still standing in the doorway. Drea pulled her red shorts out of her bag and laid them next to the shirt. She watched David stay in the doorway out of the corner of her eye. She stared at her clothes, giving him a few seconds to do the right thing on his own.
He didn't leave. When she finally looked up at him, he was smiling.
“Well get changed, then,” he said.
Drea didn't smile back. David's smile faded. Some of the other girls would have taken their clothes off with him watching. Some of them would have enjoyed it. His mouth tightened and he looked for a moment like he might say something.
“Hurry, I need you behind the bar,” he said, and closed the door.
You can do this.
Two hours into the shift, Drea's mind was quiet amid the firestorm of noise and light in the club. Between reading orders on the computer screens, reading the lips of people screaming their orders over her bar, and juggling bottles and sifters and various glasses, linear time had disappeared. Now, at peak bar activity, there was only this moment: this pour; this shot; this idiot ordering another mojito. The fifth mojito, for the man and his friend, had Drea crushing mint and covering her finger tips in lime juice and sugar.
Yes, let me crush up some more fresh mint for you. What's that, the last one didn't taste like it had fresh lime juice in it? Are you Kim Kardashian? Are you Carrie from 'Sex in the city?'
As she passed the glass across the bar to him, another round of hoots and whistles rose up in the crowd. Drea knew before she looked up that it must be Shelley, most likely upside down near a full split at the top of the center pole. Always was a crowd favorite, and when Drea looked up, she found she was right.
“If you want to see how far that split can go, you know what to do, Shelley fans!”
David's voice in person made Drea cringe, but over the loud speaker it made her flinch. Even after three years here, it was still startlingly obnoxious.
Shelley's fans did know what to do, though, and with another round of whistles and cheers, crumpled dollar bills began to tumble onto the stage. With each wave of bills, Shelley would let her legs fan out a little farther. The crowd would roar and more money would fly and the legs would part a little more. Shelley's work as a dancer prepared her for the stage, but it was her work as a contortionist that took her act to the next level.
Here, in the peak of the show, Drea saw him. She'd noticed him walk in, noticed him talking to different women at the bar and on the dance floor throughout the night, but now, churning in the roaring screams of the crowd chanting for Shelley, Drea saw the man for who he truly was.
He'd finally found a young woman who let him say more than two sentences before walking away. Drea didn't recognize her as a regular. She was cute, blonde, petite. Drea thought college student. For some reason, the girl, a solid New York eight, didn't mind chatting with a middle-aged five.
The man said something that made the girl smile, and he turned and made his way to the bar. He raised a hand at Drea.
“Hey! Two Cosmos!”
He had his ID ready.
Drea twitched slightly before smiling.
Vodka, lime juice, cranberry juice, triple sec. Drea batted the ingredients around the bar. She didn't need to watch what she was doing. She was more interested in what he was doing. After ordering, the man had turned back to make sure his little college girl wasn't going to run and hide. She stayed there, grinning back at him and swaying to the music. He smiled back, his smile fading when he turned back to Drea.
“Tonight, please!” he barked, curling his index finger in the air between them.
Drea stopped. She'd started squeezing the lime but now, now she crushed it. She murdered it. She ended it, and the green, tangy blood ran through her fingers and down into the rest of the glowing red mixture.
She slid the glasses onto the bar and dropped in two lemon twists. The man tossed two twenty dollar bills across the bar and walked away.
Drea had served enough self-important men to let her boiling emotions settle to a low simmer. Those feelings, the frustration of watching men throw money around, of watching men puff their chests and their wallets at each other, those feelings rose and fell with a single breath. She could look out across the bar, or across the dance floor, and spot dozens of men acting in similar ways. Nothing special about that.
But this man, sliding back to little miss college girl, set off different alarms. He changed Drea's heartbeat, changed the way the world looked, the way it sounded. He brought everything down to a slow, clear movie, the way trauma can dull the noise of the insignificant flaws of life. She felt her heart slow, the beats thumping harder, deeper, a sledgehammer pounding molten steel into a dark, heavy anvil. She felt the crawl of electricity from her tailbone to the base of her skull, felt it charge up her ears, sharpen her field of view. Her feet felt heavier on the mats behind the bar, driven downward into the floor by a growing strength in her limbs, in her core. This man tripped the same wires Chad Blescoe had tripped in high school before his lawyer father had the date rape case dropped. This man tripped the same wires Mr. Finn, the girls' volleyball coach, tripped whenever he'd look at her, or any of the other girls on the team.
The same wires in Drea's mind her stepfather tripped.
She knew what was going to happen before she saw it. He was good, she had to admit. Most guys she'd seen try to drug the drinks of the women they were with were clumsy and obvious about it. But in the noise and chaos of the club, clumsiness didn't usually matter.
When another roar went up and Shelley's legs began to pass the 180 degree split, he made his move. He'd probably practiced it in his kitchen, moving quickly and decisively while trying to look casual. He supported both drinks with his left hand and flitted quickly in and out of his blazer pocket with his right. His hand then passed quickly over the drinks and then back to his side where he brushed it off on the side of his pants before switching back to one drink in his left hand, the other in the right. The tainted drink was in his left hand. It was all very smooth, very choreographed. Drea thought he may have mixed up the drinks at some point in his early trials and sworn never to do so again.
“Two Manhattans, please!”
Drea made the Manhattans without acknowledging the woman who ordered them. When the woman asked what type of bitters the bar used, Drea silently held up the bottle of Angostura. When the woman, already slurring her S's and holding her N's far too long, asked if that was a good brand, Drea nodded. The drunk woman wanted vocal responses. She wanted eye contact.
No eye contact.
Drea was still watching the man when the woman gasped her shock at paying twenty-six dollars for two drinks. The man combined the drinks in his left hand again, returning to his pocket. The drunk woman was still complaining as she stared into her wallet and tried to distinguish the different bills she discovered there. The man pulled a phone from the same pocket where his pill had been and thumbed at its screen. He raised a hand a nodded at little miss college.
He needed to wait a little longer for the pill to dissolve.
“Do you have change for a fifty?” the woman yelled, spraying a fine mist onto the bar and onto Drea's forearm when she sputtered “fifty.”
Drea took the money, dropped the change, and sani-towelled her arm off. Her eyes never left the man, who'd now sent a text to someone and was dancing his way back to the young blonde. Drea needed to get to the girl before she tried her drink.
“You're so pretty,” the woman said, grabbing Drea's wrist. “I want to be a pretty pretty bartender.”
Drea looked down at the hand on her wrist and then finally into the eyes of the poor, lonely drunk woman now shining wet, red eyes back at her.
“You are beautiful. Do you have any idea how many guys are looking at you right now?”
The woman stopped smiling. She sat on the stool and turned her head from side to side, looking for staring men.
“Don't look, you'll take away the mystery and... intrigue. Let them stare.”
The young woman smiled again and then started to cry. It was loud, open-mouthed crying, the kind of crying and the reason for crying only a young drunk woman can achieve.
When Drea looked back up, the young blonde and the man were gone. Her eyes scanned the bar, the dance floor, the stage. Nothing.
“Stay right here,” Drea said, prying the woman's hand off of her wrist, “I'll be right back.”
The woman cried “Thank you,” over and over to Drea's back as Drea walked out onto the dance floor. It had only been a few seconds but Drea cursed herself for each one of them. The man had brown hair and was wearing a blue sport coat and khakis. Now, to her left and right, sitting down and standing and dancing all around her, were men in dark sport coats with brown hair. Many of them also in khakis. She let her stares hang a little longer on each man now and tried to narrow her criteria: a man with wavy two-inch dark drown hair, bold eyebrows, and a hot young blonde girl at his side.
When a hand slapped her ass, she didn't turn around.
The music rose, driven by the finale of Shelley's show. Another cheer went up from the crowd as the lights dimmed and the center stage spotlights shined on the glitter paint on her twisting and spinning legs. She was preparing for her final drop, her legs above her head entangled around the pole, her arms supporting her below. In the darkness, four beats before Shelley's face-first slide toward the floor, Drea saw him. He'd found a small open table against the far wall to the side of the stage, and he and the blonde girl were sitting, their faces a few inches from each other, smiling about some shared secret.
The girl was more than halfway done with the Cosmo.
The heaviness rose up in Drea's chest again. The drugs would be making their way into the girl's system now, slipping into her blood stream and deadening her senses. Depending on the type and amount he'd used, the girl had maybe thirty minutes before she'd start feeling the effects.
Drea had a way of locking onto certain people, certain men. She'd always had it, an ability to sense darkness and feel it, even if she couldn't see it. She would be drawn to them, sometimes at distances of nearly a mile away.
She watched the girl suck the last of the drink from the glass, squinting and hissing against the burn of the alcohol. She watched the man smile at the girl's greediness, and watched him ask her if she wanted another. The girl nodded, wiping her mouth and bouncing with the music, and when Shelley dove down the pole and slid to a stop with her face only inches from the floor, the girl threw up her hands and screamed with the rest of the crowd.
The man joined in, whistling through his fingers.
Drea set her radar and felt a pulse ring back to her from where he was sitting. She would watch them and wait, and if he had drugged the girl's drink, and if he did plan to take her from this place and do something to her, the girl wouldn't go alone.
Two more dancers played through their acts. Violet, a rhythmic gymnast from Ukraine, was first, twirling red sashes around to selections of classic rock. Her act was somewhat hit or miss, a crowd favorite on some nights and almost completely ignored on others. Shelley had amped the crowd up enough that almost any act that followed hers would be cheered. The blonde girl loved it, waving her arms back and forth and telling the man, over and over, how much she wanted to do that.
When Violet was done, the blonde girl had maybe fifteen more minutes of her functional buzz.
Drea watched from behind the bar, checking the couple every few seconds and checking the time every few minutes. When one of the other bartenders stepped behind her, Drea reached out and pulled her in close.
“I'm going to need coverage for a smoke break,” she said. The other girl stopped and glanced over Drea's shoulders.
The girl looked back over Drea's shoulder and across the dance floor.
“You sure? Smoking is dangerous.”
Drea gave her a look and the girl closed her eyes, nodding.
“Let me know,” she said, and continued out into the maelstrom with her tray of drinks.
With Violet gone, it was Charity's turn. Charity had been at Nero's the longest, almost six years now. She was married with two children and she had, even up to nine months pregnant, danced for private parties. She represented the old school: no twirling flags, no pole tricks, no pyrotechnics or karaoke. She danced. She took off her clothes. She did the simple things well, and Drea had never seen her have a bad show.
Her music started, and David announced her.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I'm feeling... very giving. I'm in a giving mood tonight. You seem like good people. You seem like the kind of hard-working, down-to-earth New York heroes that deserve a little extra on your Saturday night. Is anyone out there feeling stressed tonight?”
A few hoots rose up from the crowd. A few hands went up.
“Is anyone out there feeling... over-worked tonight?”
A few more cheers and a few more hands went up.
“Is anyone feeling under-appreciated tonight?”
He had them, the cheers would continue to grow now.
“Oppressed? Distressed? Just feeling like an all-around mess?”
The cheers filled the space, overtaking the music. The mass of bodies began to sway back and forth, fists punching the air, screams floating up into the darkness around the stage.
“Well then please... allow me... to offer you... some Charity.”
The spotlight carved a white hot circle in the darkness of center stage. The circle of light was empty, but its glare illuminated the outline of a figure walking slowly toward it from backstage. The music built from nothing, and the crowd rumbled. Every step the figure took brought the cheers higher, louder, more crazed. The DJ began the faint hint of a baseline and the cheers roared. Just as the figure reached the spotlight, and just before her foot slid forward and shined in the glory of the light, the music cut out and the spotlight died. Most of the lights in the club went out, as if someone had cut the power. The cheers slowed into hushed gasps and murmurs. The crowd let out a collective “Awww,” at their disappointment. After making them sit in their confused silence for a few seconds, David's voice returned:
“Ladies and gentlemen... Charity!”
The spotlight beamed suddenly back on, holding Charity in bright and shining stillness. She was white marble, Greek goddess perfection, and as the first hard beats boomed from the speakers and Charity shifted through her first three poses, the crowd lost its collective mind. The dance floor ignited, the churning arms and legs and whipping hair and drunken screams like a sudden blaze, a field on fire. In that moment, all eyes turned helplessly to Charity as she moved, and for a few seconds, even Drea succumbed to the power.
When she looked away, her fellow bartender was staring back at her, motioning out into the chaos. She was pointing, her mouth closed, her brow furrowed. She was pointing to the man at table forty-two. Drea knew before she looked up that he was gone.
The girl was gone, too.
Drea threw the small bar apron onto the counter and ran to the table. The man and girl were gone. She looked left and right but everything was a sea-swept twisting coral of flashing lights on writhing arms. She would have trouble seeing them even if she were standing next to them. She stopped, closed her eyes, and waited for the pulse.
Slowly, the music died down, the cheering and chanting faded, and the sensation tingled in her gut.
He was behind her.
Drea turned. She didn't see the man, but she felt him. She pushed her way through the crowd and scanned back and forth. Not at the standing tables, not at the lines to the bathrooms. She felt another pulse and turned, toward the front door.
They were outside.
Drea ran to the door and broke through to the sidewalk outside, nearly falling into the street. Manny stood from his chair at the door.
“Drea? You alright?”
She nodded, scanning both sides of the street in both directions. Manny asked her if she was looking for someone and she waved him off. She saw the man. She saw the back of his head, and the back of the blonde girl's head. They were in a taxi with its blinker on, and as she ran toward it, the taxi pulled away.
When the man had given her his ID, Drea had looked at his address. She developed this skill, memorizing the address of any guy that sent even a tiny blip to her darkness radar. Blue blazer man had, along with about a dozen other men that night. For a moment she doubted herself, but when her own taxi pulled up and she closed herself in, she said what she thought with confidence:
During the drive, Drea couldn't believe she'd let herself get distracted enough to let him slip out. Now she was chasing him in a taxi to an address on his driver's license. She didn't even know if that's where he'd be taking the girl, and she had been caught off guard enough that she rushed out of the club still wearing her tiny red shorts and her extra small, cut-off gray Yankees t-shirt.
Did she remember the apartment number?
In the elevator, the girl hung an arm around the man's shoulders, giggling at how tired she felt. Her head wobbled back and forth as her sentences got shorter and her eyes stayed closed a little longer at each blink. He held her up by her waist, counting the floors, and wondering if he should stop on an earlier floor and walk her around a little longer. They were usually silent and nearly unconscious at this point.
But when the elevator dinged at the tenth floor, he stepped out. The girl was silent except for a few low moans, and by the time the man turned the key in his apartment door, he was fully supporting her weight and she wouldn't say another word for the rest of the night.
The man closed the door behind him and locked it, also sliding the bar latch into place. He stopped, listening in the darkness. The apartment was silent, and he dragged the girl through another doorway and clicked on the light. It was a small bedroom, sparse decorations around a large, made bed. He laid the girl down and lifted her feet up. He clicked on a bedside lamp, which gave off a low, reddish-orange glow, and then he stepped to the doorway to turn off the main ceiling light and shut the door.
With only the low lamplight, the room was nearly dark again. The girl's body reflected a hint of the red lamp glare, and he watched her chest rise and fall as she breathed.
“Well, we're finally alone,” he whispered. “Can I get you anything?”
He stepped to the edge of the bed and let his hand hover over the girl's legs. He watched the faint shadow roll across the skin of her calves, over her knees, and up her thighs.
“What would you like to do now?”
He mumbled and sat on the bed near her feet. He took her left foot in his hands, running his fingers along the edge of the red heels, down to their pointed tips. He slipped the first shoe off, then the second, and set them on the floor at the foot of the bed, side by side and perfectly even.
“There, is that better?” he whispered, pressing his thumbs into the bottoms of her feet. “You're probably ready to get out of that dress. It looks so tight, that can't be comfortable.”
The man let his hand hover again, and watched the shadow slide up her thigh. The shadow sharpened when his hand descended, and reached its darkest when shadow and hand merged. The man shuddered when he felt her skin. He let out a long breath, like a final decision was being made.
Whatever the decision had been, he wouldn't be allowed to act on it. A hand reached out from the darkness behind him. He hadn't heard the bedroom door open, or heard the balcony window cave violently inward. He hadn't heard the footsteps across the bedroom floor before impossibly strong fingers seized him by the neck and hair and pulled through the air and onto his back.
Any scream or gasp he tried to let out died as he hit the ground. The thud took his wind and replaced any battle cries or calls for help with guttural moaning. His fingers reached out for something to hold, for stability, but the hands dragging him ripped him free of everything. His arms bounced off of the bedroom doorway, scraped along the hallway walls, and ricocheted off of a desk in the living room with a thunk. The pulling stopped once he was on the living room carpet, and as he was regaining his breath and about to speak, a foot slammed down onto his chest and kept him moaning for air.
When his hands went up in front of his face to shield him from his unseen attacker, a hand snatched his wrist and twisted. The base of his radius and ulna snapped in succession, and before he could groan out the beginnings of a scream, a hand slammed down over his mouth.
“Don't speak, it's time to listen,” the voice told him. It was a voice he'd heard earlier in the evening, though he didn't remember it now. Drea kept her hand over his mouth, the other clamped around his already swelling wrist, and brought her face down to a few inches from his. He was squinting from the fear and the pain, and when his eyelids cracked and he saw her face, he shut his eyes again.
“Is this your thing, Michael Polk? You drug girls and bring them back to your apartment and rape them?”
Michael squinted harder, moaning and trying to shake his head back and forth.
“Oh no? That's not your thing, that's not what's going on here?”
Michael's breath returned and he screamed into Drea's hand. She increased the pressure to let him know he should calm down, but she felt a hard click in his temporomandibular joint so she let off a little. She didn't want to dislocate his jaw.
“Michael, it feels like you're lying to me. Are you lying to me?”
He shook his head against her hand.
“Is there an unconscious girl in your bed?”
Michael gasped and writhed under the pressure of Drea's shin across his chest. He planted his feet and tried to lift his hips and bounce her off of him, but her pressure was more intense than he could understand. The woman on top of him couldn't have weighed more than one hundred and thirty pounds, but his bucking and twisting didn't move her a bit. There might as well have been a car parked on his chest, and he shook his head and screamed into her hand again in desperation.
“Wait, there is not an unconscious girl in your bed? Is that what you're saying? Because I'm pretty sure I was just in there looking at her. Are you saying I'm crazy, that I'm seeing things?”
Michael didn't respond. He tried to move his wrist from her grasp and immediately regretted the decision.
Drea shook his head and drew her face closer to his.
“Michael Polk, I need you to focus!”
Another pop from his wrist caused his body to shake beneath her. His cheeks puffed out under the pressure of another muffled scream, and the fiery hatred burning in his eyes slowly faded as tears welled up and the hatred gave way to helplessness.
“There you are, I knew you'd come around,” Drea said. “Now, let's try again. Do you like to drug girls and bring them back to your apartment so you can rape them?”
Michael closed his eyes. His eyelids forced a stream of tears down each cheek and his screams became sobs under Drea's crushing hand. Despite the sobs and his closed eyes, his nodded.
“See, doesn't that feel better, telling the truth? I think lies are just the worst. Now I have to admit, I was kind of hoping you would bring little miss blonde college girl back to some rape den with lots of other special men like you. It's kind of a hobby of mine, stopping people from doing things they're not supposed to do. But since it's just you here in your swanky little apartment, maybe you can help me. I'd love to talk to others like you. I'd love to share this conversation with others who might benefit from it.”
Michael didn't nod or shake his head. He closed his eyes again, spilling more tears.
“Oh, you do know others, don't you? Jesus, how do you freaks find each other? Bridge Trolls dot com? Worthless trash dot org? Ugh, it's gross to think about it. So here you go, tell me about the others like you and I won't drop you the ten stories down onto the pavement below.”
Michael kept trying to shake his head, trying to scream, trying to wriggle free. He wasn't getting the message, wasn't learning the lesson. Drea planted her feet and hoisted Michael up by his neck. He choked against her crushing grip and flailed at her arms with his own. She walked him to the window and turned around so he could look out on the surrounding buildings and all that open air between them.
“It's a beautiful night to be outside. You'll have fresh air and a wonderful view all the way down. So what do you say, buddy? You want to tell me about the others like you?”
Drea froze. For a moment, she thought the figure standing in the hallway might be the college girl. But this girl was much smaller, wearing a Monster's Inc nightgown. She was younger than Kayley, maybe six or seven years old.
Drea dropped Michael without thinking. He collapsed on the floor and choked for air, grasping his badly broken arm and wheezing. The little girl was tired and confused and looked like she might start to cry. Drea knelt down and lifted Michael to a sitting position, her face just behind his.
“You drug and rape women with your daughter in the next room?” Drea hissed into his ear. “Tell her you're fine, that everything's fine, do it now.”
“Hi, sweetie,” Michael said, the words rasping through a damaged voice box. He called her sweetie, something Drea called Kayley. Now, hearing him speak again, hearing him lie again, with her hand on the back of his neck, Drea found it very difficult not to pull his head off and throw it screaming into the night.
“Daddy are you okay?” the little girl asked.
“I'm fine, sweetie, daddy is fine.” He coughed again, cleared his throat.
“Anyone else home?” Drea whispered.
Michael shook his head and mumbled “no.”
“Who is she?” the little girl asked, rubbing her eyes.
“This... this is a... friend of daddy's. She is helping me with my arm because... I hurt my arm. I'm sorry, honey, did we wake you up? Were we too loud?”
“I'm thirsty,” the little girl said.
Michael looked sideways at Drea. This was his chance, his opening. Drea couldn't believe a man like him, a predator, a rapist, would bring drugged girls back to his home, back to where his daughter was sleeping. She thought about the things he'd done in the room across the hall from his little girl's room. She thought about the fact that he'd left his tiny daughter home alone to club stalk his next victim. Her grip tightened around the back of his neck.
“Do you want some water?” Michael asked. The little girl nodded. Michael went to get up and Drea pulled him back down. He winced at the pressure.
“No, no, you stay here and rest. I'll get it,” Drea said. She stepped to the kitchen and opened two overhead cabinets. The second had cups and she grabbed a small plastic cup with Cinderella on the side.
“Cinderella okay?” Drea asked, holding the cup out for the little girl to see. The girl nodded, and Drea took it to the refrigerator and filled it halfway.
“What's your name,” the little girl asked, taking the cup.
“My name?” Drea asked, shuffling quickly through a mental list of decent names. “My name is... Carly. What's your name?”
“Stephanie. Stephanie Polk,” she said, taking long gulps of the water.
“How old are you, Stephanie?”
Stephanie was still drinking, but she held up five fingers, and then two more.
“You're seven? Wow, that's amazing,” Drea said, looking back at Michael. She imagined him holding seven fingers up, and she imagined breaking every one of them.
“Seven and a half. My birthday is in October!”
“My birthday is in October, too,” Drea said, lying again. “Only the coolest people were born in October.”
Stephanie nodded with a smile. She finished the water with a satisfied sigh and handed the cup back to Drea.
“Thank you, Carly.”
“You're welcome, Stephanie. It was nice to meet you.”
“Goodnight, daddy. I'm glad Carly is fixing you.”
Michael had started going into shock from the broken bones. He tried to return the goodnight but it caught in his throat and he coughed again, waving to Stephanie instead of speaking. Stephanie walked back to her bedroom door and waved at Drea before closing it behind her.
Drea walked back to Michael and knelt down next to him. He flinched away from her when she reached toward him, but her hand rested on top of his head and didn't slam anything or or squeeze anything or break anything. She slowly, gently, grabbed a handful of his dark brown hair and made sure his face was turned toward hers.
“Well that is a surprise. Your daughter, Michael? You bring women back to the apartment you share with your daughter and you rape them?”
“Please,” he said, starting to cower again.
“I'd just... really like to hear the why. Give me the why, Michael. Why?”
“Please, I don't know why...”
Drea jerked the hair back and forth before bringing her face closer to his.
“Why, Michael? Right here, right now, right on this funky beige floor, you're going to tell me why.”
“Why? Why? There is no why...”
Another jerk of his hair got him crying again.
“I don't know, I don't know!”
“Yes you do, Michael. You know. You know. So tell me.”
“Tell me, Michael.”
“I don't know...”
“Michael, I'm getting angry.”
“I don't know.”
“I'm getting angry, Michael. I do weird things when I get angry.”
“You don't understand...”
“I want to understand, Michael. I really, really want to understand.”
Drea stared at him. She watched the tears form around his lower lids and streak down his cheeks, again. He started to blubber and sob.
“I'm weak, alright? I'm worthless and weak and I'm nothing. I'm nothing, is that what you need to hear? I've been nothing since my wife died. Cancer took her from us and left me with bills and a little girl and nothing. What am I supposed to do with that, huh? I have a dead wife and a daughter who needs me and I'm empty inside and what am I supposed to do? Women don't want to have anything to do with a guy with a kid. So I... I just wanted to...”
Michael lowered his face onto his hand. It worked fairly well to stifle the sound of his crying.
“I just wanted to pretend. I drug the girls and bring them here and... they're asleep, they don't even know... I'm gentle, I'm really gentle, and I just...”
“Okay, you're right. You're right, Michael, I don't want to know. Don't say another word. Here's what's going to happen next. I'm going to go get little miss college blonde. I'm going to take her home. We're going to leave and you are going to go to sleep and tomorrow when you wake up, you're going to get Stephanie to school and you're going to go to work. You're going to work and make sure she gets to school and you're going to give her a good life. You're not going to drug any more girls. You're not going to bring any more girls back here. Are you listening, Michael?”
Michael nodded quickly.
“Are you hearing me?”
He nodded again.
“You're lucky you have a daughter. It's unfortunate that she has you, but you're going to be better from now on. You're going to be better from now on for her, aren't you?”
Michael nodded again, slower now, letting his head sag and his eyes close at the end.
“I'm sorry,” he said.
“You would've been sorry if that little girl wasn't thirsty.” Drea grabbed his hair again and shook a whimper out of his mouth. “And you will be sorry if you ever even think about touching another unconscious woman again.”
Drea rose, wiping her hands on the edge of the nearby couch. She stepped to the hallway and turned back.
“Michael... you better hope I never see you again.”
She opened the door. A moment later she appeared again, the girl's body cradled in her arms.
“I'll be watching you,” she said. As the door closed behind her, the glow of Michael's cell phone illuminated his face. He coldly wiped the tears from his eyes and cheeks and sniffed hard once. He pressed 'send' and held the phone to his ear. When a voice answered, Michael's voice was level and calm again, demanding in its deep simplicity.
“I think I have something for you,” he said. The voice responded quickly. “Right now,” Michael replied. The voice responded and was about to hang up when Michael cut in:
“Also, could you send Dr. Hong up? Tell him right radial and ulnar fractures, possible carpal displacement.”
Michael ended the call and pocketed the phone. He looked over his shoulder at the sprawling night skyline beyond and smiled.
Tonight might be a success after all.
No one shared the elevator with Drea and the girl. No one was in the lobby on the ground floor. There was a front desk, but no one seemed to be manning it. Drea was considering this when the prongs from the tazer pierced her shirt and skin. The voltage caused her body to seize and jerk to the left, most likely drawn by the extra weight of the girl's legs. They slammed into the wall and the girl dropped, crumpling against the wall and then falling onto her back. Drea steadied herself and reached for the prongs to tear them out as the second set hit her from the side. The duel electrical forces dropped her to her knees, then to her stomach, then onto her side in the fetal position. She looked up at her attackers through the blinding pain in time to see light glint off the edge of the syringe before it plunged into her neck. She felt the needle go in, heard the plunger squeeze the fluid into her jugular vein, and watched the world fade away as the syringe slipped out.
“Yankees,” a voice scoffed.
Then she was gone.
Rated R - violence and language
From inside the stained old building, through the moaning metal doors and the soot-blackened cinder blocks, they could hear him dragging her. Over the din of distant generators wheezing and threatening to quit, they could hear her pleading with him to stop, to let her go, not to do this, that this was a mistake, that this was all a terrible mistake. The scraping of her shoes on the wet cement and her bubbling pleas for mercy hummed a mid range, punctuated every few seconds by the crash of a garbage can being kicked across the alley by her flailing feet.
The tenants had heard this music before. It was his custom to find them and bring them back here, kicking and screaming and terrified, past these same apartment windows, past the fleeing cats, past the wide eyes peering through dark curtains, past the shutting of windows and the dropping of shades.
He liked the flutter of almost closed curtains most.
“Please, please don't do this. Please, sir... sir, sir please...”
He slid her to a stop against a dumpster. He didn't release his grip on her shirt and hair. The fingers of his left hand searched the clutter of a deep overcoat pocket, stirring a small batch of keys to jingle. He pulled the keys from the pocket, knowing by feel which key he needed, and stabbed it into the door lock.
“Please, please don't...”
His right hand closed more tightly around the woman's shirt collar and the thousands of shoulder-length black hairs he'd grabbed along with it. He gave the pairing a quick downward jerk, forcing her face up toward his own, and she choked on whatever words she was about to say.
He held his left index finger up to her lips. She closed her eyes to the acrid smell. The bitter taste of sweat and dirt on long-unbathed skin seeped in before she could shut herself off.
Her first tears rolled over her cheeks as he ripped the door open and dragged her inside.
Two of the hallway's three light bulbs were out. He dragged her through flickering darkness over crinkling newspapers and trash scattered throughout the corridor. She wasn't sure of the smell hitting her, the bitter rot of spilled beer, or vomited beer. Or pissed beer. Maybe all three. Probably all three. As the smell peaked, he dragged her over the legs of someone else. She landed hard on the other side but looked back at the person she'd touched. An old man stared back at her. She mouthed “Help me” to him, but did not do it twice. His scarred face, his empty eyes, his dying heart would not be able to help her. His expression didn't change as she was pulled away down the hall. His expression wouldn't change even when her screams filled the hallway.
His expression wouldn't change even when he was dead.
When they turned a corner, the ground shifted from smooth cement to something more like gravel. She could feel the small pebbles rolling beneath her backside and feet as he dragged her. There was a music to them as they rolled, a high-pitched crunching, a grinding, a tinny tinkling, and as one piece caught under her shoe and she scraped it long and hard against the cement floor, she recognized the sound.
It was broken glass.
“Please, you can't do this!”
He pulled her up a flight of stairs to a short landing. He turned and continued up another flight of stairs to the second floor.
“Stop. Please stop. You don't know what you're doing!”
The man stopped, his head turned low to listen. When she whimpered again he jerked her head down and to the left, whipping her head hard enough that she thought he might break her neck. When she cried out, his other hand slid around her throat. She bit her upper lip and closed her eyes.
Footsteps rose from the hallway ahead of them, the hollow click of stilettos. A woman was making her way toward them. The girl wondered what she should do. Would it be any use crying out for help in this place? It would probably just endanger the other woman. The girl hadn't made up her mind when the click of heels made their crescendo and their owner's legs appeared.
For a second she felt relief. Red stilettos, with legs much thicker than she'd envisioned, and longer. The person walking in them was taller than she'd imagined, nearly the size of the man dragging her. For a split second, she felt the dream might end right here and the nightmare that she knew lay ahead might never come.
“Oh Billy, you gettin' your nasty on tonight?”
The nightmare rushed back in. The woman in red stilettos was a man. He was a man and he knew her attacker by name, Billy, and knew what Billy liked to do to women.
“Boy, you crazy. Well, have fun, honey, you do you.”
Another tear made its way down the girl's face. The stilettos clicked their way down another corridor and into an unknown doorway. The door slammed, and Billy and the girl were back in the dark quiet. He dragged her another ten feet or so before fishing his keys out again. He slammed one into the lock, gave one hard turn, and shoved the door inward. The girl held onto his wrist as he pulled her inside, but otherwise she gave no more resistance.
Two lines of SWAT members converged on the metal door at the alley's center. Team one's leader leveled his MP5 at the door while team two's leader readied his Remington 870 shotgun. A third team member appeared from the line with a long black crow bar. He speared it into the space between door jam and door, just above the handle, and pulled. The door burst open with a sheering crack.
Team one's leader entered first, shifting right to allow for the second man to have a clear view along the left. They stopped, the flashlights on their weapon barrels darting hot circles of light into every dark corner. This portion of hallway was clear, and the message was whispered into every headset.
Around the first corner, team one's leader yelled “Freeze!” while the second man whispered into the headset again: “We've got a body. Make that two bodies, repeat, two bodies.”
Their flashlights went naturally to the heads of the victims. The body they'd seen first, the one that made team leader yell “Freeze,” was sitting, back against the wall, at the base of a set of stairs. He seemed to be sleeping, but the flashlight beams illuminated a wet sheen across the man's face and shoulders.
Guns steadied on the two bodies as team leader and second approached. From the side they couldn't tell the extent of the damage. As they made their ways closer and could finally see the front of the men, they realized why the men weren't moving and why there was blood everywhere.
“Call homicide,” team leader announced.
The seated man's chest had been opened. Instead of a sternum, ribs, heart and lungs, his head was slumped down over a blood-soaked, empty chest cavity. Otherwise, he seemed untouched. The man lying next to him was not untouched. It was obvious his arms and legs had been broken in multiple places, and while he was lying chest down on the bloody floor, his head had been turned a full one hundred and eighty degrees around. His face was looking up.
What was left of his face.
A fist-sized hole ran straight through what had been his face, having taken his upper jaw and nose. His lower jaw now hung from one of the mandible joints, the other joint having been ripped clean from his skull.
Team one's leader guided his light to the stairwell. There were long, dripping blood smears on each wall, some made obviously by bloody hands, and others by larger, more blunt surfaces. Maybe heads, maybe torsos. Once they entered the stairwell and looked up and back to the entry to the second floor hallway, the leader whispered into his headset again:
“Body in the stairwell.”
This man was hanging by his head and neck from a hole in the wall. Someone jammed his head into the wall hard enough to tear through the drywall and into the wood and metal underneath. They'd jammed his head hard enough to break his skull, and deep enough for his head to lodge and hold up the rest of his body's weight. As one of the SWAT members passed, he jumped suddenly and jerked his rifle sharply toward the body. One of the dead man's hands had twitched, and was still twitching.
In the second floor hallway, the carnage of the previous bodies faded away. Three dead bodies, each mostly in one piece, seemed like pretty pictures compared to the bloody canvas before them.
Billy slammed the door shut, clicking three bolts into place, and pulled the girl up to her feet. She was murmuring frantically to herself, occasionally sounding out actual words.
“My fault... it's okay... it's okay, I'm okay...”
Billy held her face in his hands, lifting her chin so they could stare into each others eyes.
She shut her eyes against his gaze, against his chugging breaths. The stench of fresh liquor and old decay charred her senses. She could feel his breath wrap around her face and neck, ballooning the back of her shirt as it made its way down her back. She could feel each finger, each finger nail, digging in along the back of her neck, up into her scalp, his thumbs pressing into the inner crease between her nose and her cheeks. Her skin slid and shifted over her skull as he squeezed. Her skull followed every twitch of his growing rage.
“What, you won't even look at me now?”
She'd shut her eyes against his stare and the grating pressure of his breaths. She'd shut her eyes so she wouldn't have to see any of it, and so he couldn't see all of it. So he couldn't see all of her.
“Come on, sweetie. Look at me.”
His grip on her face tightened. She heard his lips part, heard the wet squish of spit as he stretched his mouth into a wide smile. Her head tried to roll away to one side, even without her trying. He jerked it back into position.
“Now, now, now, don't be rude,” he whispered.
She moaned. At the end, the faintest billow of a word emerged. She tried to shut her lips against it, but could not.
His hands stiffened. She heard his smile fade away.
“What did you say?” he whispered.
In his vice grip, she tried to shake her head. She twisted her face back and forth in his massive hands, insisting she'd said nothing, insisting he had no reason to be upset. He stopped her head shaking and pulled her face forward and back, nodding for her.
“No, don't lie. Nobody likes liars. What did you say, sugar?”
More tears made their way out from under her closed eyelids. She coughed out a sob and once it was out she couldn't contain the rest.
“Aw, don't cry, sugar.” He took his thumbs to the tear streams, smearing them across her cheeks. “Sshhh sshhhhh ssshhhh, don't cry. Not yet. I haven't given you a reason to cry.”
“Please, you don't understand...”
“Billy is gonna take good care of you.”
“You have to stop.” With this sentence, she opened her eyes. Billy looked for the fear he'd been waiting to see. He'd been longing for it, desperate for it. He'd felt her breaking, felt the moment coming. Now, through the tears, as she stared back at him, he knew he could tighten his squeeze on her head, stare back into her eyes, and drink in her despair.
Her eyes were darker than he thought they would be, darker than he remembered from when he first saw her on the street. His room was dark, though, he knew that. The room was dark and she was cowering beneath him and her eyes were red from the tears so it made sense that her eyes would seem different. But they were afraid. They were full of true fear, the last eruptions of pure fear before death. They were soaking in it.
Just like all the others.
Like the others, she held the final fear of leaving earth, of losing everything she'd ever thought she wanted. Soon he'd see the last of it fly from her eyes. Soon, he'd see her realize her darkest fear and then give in. He'd see all the fear vanish in an instant, and see, finally, right at the very end, her relief.
He would see her let go.
He kept his eyes on hers and held her tight.
“It's almost time, sugar,” he said.
“You don't know...”
“Are you ready?”
“You don't know what you've done.”
Billy re-gripped her hair with his left hand so he could relax his right. He held her eye contact as he pulled his hand back and curled it into a fist. He wanted her to see him do it. He wanted her to know what was coming. He needed her to know. In that moment of knowing, he would get to see what he needed to see.
But her eyes didn't change. The fear was there still, but as he stared, Billy could see it was different, slightly, from the others. He could see a fear of him, but that wasn't the core fear. There was something else around it, underneath it.
“Please,” she whispered, unblinking.
She was afraid. But she wasn't afraid of him.
She was afraid for him.
Then he hit her. He held her upright with his left hand and drew back his right. He'd done it before. It was the moment he'd been waiting for, the reason behind everything else. He wanted to feel his thick, heavy fist slam into a woman's face. He wanted to feel his knuckles crash into her jaw. He wanted to feel her teeth break free from their roots, see her spit them out on the tan carpet.
All of the other moments of his life pointed here. This act, this moment, this magnetic north. This moment pushed his construction work, his bouncer shifts at the bar, his buying groceries and paying rent and watching TV and drinking and going to bed, it was all entirely for this. He wanted to feel the warm blood on his knuckles, to feel the mist of it on his face, to smell it in the air. He wanted to feel and hear the thud of her skull slamming into the floor, hear the smaller, thinner bones go first, then the bigger, thicker bones with their deeper crunches and cracks. He wanted the floor to rumble. He wanted the walls to shake. He wanted the violence to rise and rise until the whole building knew, the whole city, and the entire police force was sent. He wanted his mark left in blood, permanent, impossible to wash out.
He wanted people to remember.
“Look alive, Evans. Stay focused!”
Team one's leader was first into the hallway. His flashlight inspected each body he passed for any movement. He knew there would be none. The first man he stepped over was clearly dead, slumped over on his side with most of his head missing. Different pieces of it were on the wall above him and on the ground next to him. Across the hall from him, another man was kneeling. He'd been bent over backwards, his back obviously broken, his head jutting out from between his kneeling legs, locked in some final grotesque yoga pose.
He also appeared to be missing his hands.
This building was known for its drug use and prostitution. Officers had seen a lot of terrible things in these halls. But nothing had ever made three SWAT members throw up in their tac helmets.
“Carlson, Lopez, perimeter!”
Two more SWAT members made their way up the stairs and stopped at the entry to the hallway. Team leader pointed down the hall.
They stepped over the bodies and took up positions at the end of the hall.
“All clear here, sir,” Lopez called back.
Then it all happened right here, he thought. He counted eight bodies in the hallway, with the other two downstairs and one in the stairwell. Even for this building, that was a lot. Stranger still, none of the men so far seemed to have died from gunshot wounds, the preferred murder tool of this tenement. Crushed skulls, broken necks and backs, massive wounds without any clean knife markings or powder burns, and blood everywhere.
Team leader waved up another officer. He pointed with all five fingers on his right hand to one door in the hallway. There were four doors for the four apartments in this section, but only one door had five of the eight bodies around it, and blood running into the hallway from the space beneath it. He shined his flashlight down to the door's base.
The blood pool was three feet wide and growing.
He pointed again.
The officer lowered his shotgun and swung his leg in a short, violent arc. His boot hit the door just below the door knob. It flew open wildly, careening inward and slamming into the inner wall with a crash. None of the locks had been engaged. With how easily it swung open, the men weren't even sure the door had been closed.
Team leader stepped in, aiming right, into the kitchen, then scanning left into the living room.
“Police, police, get on the ground!”
More bodies. On the kitchen floor, one of the bodies had been filled with what seemed to be all of the knives the occupant owned. He was a pin cushion, the majority of the knives jutting out of his chest. A headless body lay at the base of the refrigerator, and was the primary cause for the pool of blood forming in the hallway. The team members did not see the head, not until someone opened the refrigerator door and it came tumbling out, its face still locked in a final scream. The refrigerator door had been slammed, again and again, with the man's head in it, until the tissue and bone of his neck gave out. The door had been wrenched open and closed, like the jaws of a hunger-crazed beast. Only now had the beast vomited up its meal.
Team leader stopped calling for medical, for forensics, for back up, or for homicide. Everyone who could be called had been called, and none of them would be ready for this scene.
Seal team six wouldn't be ready for this scene, he thought.
Two bodies in the kitchen, two more in the bathroom. One lay on the bathroom floor, face down, broken. The other was hanging from the ceiling, swaying slightly. His head had been forced through the ceiling materials, much like the man hanging by his head in the stairwell, and blood was still dripping from the tips of his fingers.
In the living room, six men had been beaten to death in various ways. One had a hole in his face similar to the man downstairs. Another had lost his head entirely, but much of his spine had remained attached when his head was removed. It was lying at his side, the end of the spinal column near his hand so that the spine lead upward to the motionless skull like the grotesque string of some demonic balloon.
Another man had his legs wrapped behind his back and up over his shoulders and around his head. Another had both arms ripped off.
Team leader stepped on something hard and looked down. It was a 9mm Beretta, the metal barrel bent at a ninety degree angle. The metal had ridges in it, like the gun had been crushed in someone's impossibly strong hand.
To get into the bedroom, team leader had to step over a pile of entrails. Amid all of the things he'd seen to this point, he finally had to stop. He lowered his gun and put a hand over his mouth and nose. He knew he would vomit if he didn't. He knew he might vomit, still.
The eleven by nine foot bedroom had become an alter, like a sacrificial tomb. The central ceiling light was still on, but it was covered in blood and was barely getting any light into the space. The blood cast a deep red shadow over the room and the three figures in it.
One figure, a large black man in a red dress, was slumped against the far wall, holding a heart in his hands. His chest was a massive open wound, and it was later discovered that he was holding his own heart. His legs had both been broken at the femurs and at the knees and mid-shin. The legs had been twisted and intertwined like vines.
He was wearing red stilettos.
The metal top of the baseboard of the bed had been removed. It was twisting through the abdomen of a man on the floor, having been pushed through, bent back, and pushed through again multiple times.
Tearing the metal top off of the baseboard had left jagged upright posts. Two men had been pressed downward so that the jagged metal posts tore through their throats and held them there, chin up and eyes to the heavens, as they bled out.
The dark redness of the room and the amount of blood made it difficult to discern all of the room's features. Team leader let out a sudden yell when the red mass of blood and gore on the bed suddenly showed two bright eyes. The girl was so covered in blood that she blended into the room and could only be seen when she showed the whites of her eyes when she opened them and the whites of her teeth when she spoke.
“I'm sorry,” she said.
Team leader kept his gun on her. He wanted to tell her not to move. He wanted to yell for her to get on the ground, to keep her hands where he could see them. He couldn't say anything. He simply watched as she looked up at him and offered up what was in her hands.
“I'm so sorry.”
She rolled a matted mass of bloody hair over in her hands.
Billy's face looked out at the team leader.
School is easy
The morning workout helped dull the whining voice in my mind that reminds me what lies ahead today. Chemistry lab test, live reading of my short story in Literature, a quiz in US History, and a handful of daily assignments I haven't finished yet. Used to be that I would feel that tingle all over, especially the fluttery stomach and racing heart and that flushing in the face. These things used to mean something. They used to be a big deal. Not so much now. No more sweaty palms and pits, no more nervous fidgeting, no more jacked heart rate or racing mind. Now I feel a substantial annoyance, an almost audible dullness, and an overwhelming sense that none of this matters and high school kids are like monkeys stacking rocks in the forest. All the whooping and chest slapping makes it all seem so important. It all seems like life and death, future-altering business, and the consequences of failure are real and far-reaching. They're not, there are no consequences. Bill Gates and Stephen King and Sharon Stone aren't feeling the affects of their bad grades and detentions and parental disappointings from high school.
Well, maybe Sharon Stone does, I don't know.
But here, we are such bees in the hive, such meaningless worker ants stacking blocks that will be toppled tomorrow for a new batch of ants to stack. Being tested on material that will be forgotten within three months is worthless, but we're taught to treat it with all seriousness. Maybe there is some training going on in our brains and these meaningless tasks are adding us collectively up into the adults we will become. Maybe we are shaping the future of our lives and of the world itself by our little actions here. Or maybe not... that.
“Jason, are you on for short story readings today?”
Of course it's James Heller. He snuck up on me. Come on, Jason, how could you lose your focus like that? James Heller seems like a kid who walks around swallowing air rather than breathing it. His anxiety and manic need for acceptance makes him treat everything like an impossible puzzle that it is not. Nothing is simple for him. Just breathe, James Heller. Don't gulp the air in and belch it out awkwardly. Just breathe, in and out. It's easy.
Someone kill me.
“Yeah man, Roberts sent us on our way after Greg's wedding story and alphabetically I'm pretty sure I'm next.”
“And then me! Are you super nervous? I'm nervous, way more nervous than I thought I'd be. Are you ready? Do you feel ready? I don't feel ready, maybe with another month to revise it. Or a year, maybe, right?”
Am I ready to read a 2,000 word story I wrote up last night before my nightly dump?
“I am, I finished it last night. It's nothing special, but it's something. I'm not worried.”
He smiles, first surprised by but then inspired by my courage and calmness. If I'm reading his face right, he's thinking that he doesn't understand how I do it, that he wishes he could be calm and cool like me. The face almost reads, “man I wish I were you.” I try to hide my embarrassment for how awkward and sad he looks but I feel my face slipping into a pity grimace. Before he can fully register the pain I'm in at how needy and sad he is, I morph pity into sheepish humility. I even look to my feet to sell it. When I look back up at him, it is out of the tops of my eyes, briefly, and then back to my shoes.
He buys it. It's the persona I sell most often, false humility. Done poorly, it's evil and hated and drives enormous wedges between the liar and the masses. You can't say, “I hate to brag,” before bragging, unless you don't mind people seeing you as narcissistic. People don't like narcissistic. They don't like liars.
But false humility done well...
“Dude, I bet your story is awesome. I can't believe I have to go after you, why couldn't Mr. Roberts save you for last?”
“James, it's really not that good, I'm just glad I got it done in time. What is your story about?”
He is charged up and ready to tell me all about his story. He is so eager to explain it in great detail to me and see my initial reaction. He sees me as a writer in the way some people in the school see me as an athlete, like I'm on another level. Without trying very hard, I'm on his pedestal, and he feels like he has found, in me, a kindred spirit.
Let's see if we can make this quick.
“My story? Oh, uh... it's a science fiction lab experiment gone wrong. My character is a lone scientist running seemingly simple tests on the electrical field of a new planet on which astronauts have only recently established a base of operations. He is in early stages of planetary testing and exploration. When an energy storm moves in without warning his particle field generator is overloaded by something like electricity and the entire lab is lit up and fried like a death row inmate.”
Now a quick praise and deflection...
“Dude, that sounds awesome, what are you worried about?”
“I don't know, I guess the ideas always work in my head. I'm not sure anyone else will understand or care.”
This kid is smart. Too smart, the kind of smart that doesn't allow him to tap into the view others have of him because he is too busy thinking about the things he is thinking about: the very important things. He is doing what he wants and enjoys and doesn't adjust for the perception of others. He cares what other people think, but not enough to change his interests. This is of course, in high school, a huge mistake. You can love what you do, you just can't show it, not all of it, to anyone. You can obsess over things, but you have to know how to throw the dogs off the nerd scent when they come sniffing around the junkyard that is your mind. If they get a whiff of your pure, nerdy joy in minutia, if they smell that you truly care deeply and passionately about something that 98% of all high school students don't care about, and you can't cover up your passion in time, they will destroy you. They will seize your joy and hold it up for the rest of the dog pack to see. They will mock it. They will howl and sneer and tear it to pieces. They will devour your joy and lick its blood from their lips and announce their victory with rolling roars to the moon. They will revel without remorse. The last sound your intrepid spirit will hear is the piercing howl of your carnivorous peers.
Once the pack collectively chooses your joy for destruction, it is very hard to put the pieces back together.
“Jason, what if no one gets it?”
Considering the options I can lay before this poor soul, just selling him a mindless, easy answer is a bit cruel. Maybe this route will help him in the long run. Maybe opening up and getting torn apart by his peers is what he needs for some perspective.
“Don't worry about what anyone else thinks. It's your story. Read it proudly.”
I should have proofread his piece before fanning the flames of the cavalier. I should have given him some advice on delivery, or shown him how to preface it to the class to limit his emotional attachment to it, or at least convey the sense that he wrote it easily, without even trying, so if it's crap it was fast crap he didn't try on, and if it's good then well... he's just that good.
I should have shown him how to create a buffer.
Instead, being busy with my own problems, I wish him well. Little guy has to grow up someday.
“Thank you Mr. Gray, a well-written piece with some good thought behind it. You may return to your seat.”
That went well. Good response from the class, good response from the teacher, a solid A on the work, no doubt, and all without a lot of effort.
“Mr. Heller, you're up!”
Mr. Roberts says this with what seems to be actual anticipation. When calling on most of the students so far, he has failed to hide his obvious sadness at what he knows will be ridiculously poor writing. He teaches kids like us all day, every day, and has done for over twenty years now. How must he cope with the continued downward spiral of high school intellect, creativity, or the lack of a general grasp of English? How sad would it be to continue teaching an ever-sliding sinkhole of low ambition and even lower effort?
It makes me sad just to imagine myself in his shoes. How he actually feels must be nightmarish.
These creative stories have been primarily about subjects and characters pulled directly from current pop fiction, and most of that from TV.
A short story about vampires? Really? How do you find the savvy to investigate such interesting, new territory?
Oh what, a haunting in a rural farm house?
A story about a brilliant but cold and acerbic physician? You didn't.
On second thought, though, if the students are banking on the possibility, or probability, that Mr. Roberts would have no idea there were shows and movies out right now about vampires and werewolves and TV shows like House or Breaking Bad, then the students are a little bit brilliant. It is a good guess that these popular cultural phenomena would be lost on Mr. Roberts.
But if he checks, even with just a Google search of basic terms related to the stories, then I would guess over 80% of the class will fail this assignment.
That would be awesome.
Maybe Mr. Roberts needs a little help studying these incredible literary works more closely. Maybe if someone got him started on a little research to compare the stories of the class to the stories of nightly network and cable TV, he could start pulling at the plagiarism thread and see how much of this rat nest sweater he could unravel.
Do I have his email address?
James clears his throat before beginning. For a second, he looks like he might take the sheepish, cool, “I'm totally not invested in this story at all,” approach. But then he opens his mouth.
“I am still deciding between two titles for this story.”
His big, nerdy mouth.
“I was thinking, 'The Last Scientist,' or something more subtle and sensory like, 'The Photon Plane.' Maybe after I read it one of those two will seem more appropriate. Let me know what you think.”
Oh God, he is so eager. He is obviously in love with his story and has taken great pride in its writing. In fact, this may be the only story in the entire class that received any real revision. Even as he holds the pages it is like he is cradling a baby, his baby, and he is very proud.
This sort of eagerness for a job well done or love of one's work does not go over well here. I can hear the shifting in seats and the small hissing of sighs from an embarrassed body of peers. They slide lower into their desks like they're preemptively taking cover from the firestorm they know is coming. They duck their heads and try to avert their eyes.
Please don't make eye contact with me, they silently plead.
Please don't read this horrible story and make me listen to it and please don't be proud of it when it is obviously awful.
They are annoyed at his nerdiness. How dare he work hard on something, or care about something. How dare he show passion and effort. When he fails after working so hard it will be embarrassing for everyone and make us all feel uncomfortable. I can hear the room resenting him for it. How dare you put us in that position?
But what if he succeeds?
“A ripple of lightning cut into the thick black clouds above Dr. Elion's station. The plexiglass enclosure allowed him a nearly 200 degree field of view out onto the Morrah landscape, and the lightning lit the glass and took his shadow far across the lab floor and up the back wall. His slight frame cast a surprisingly large shadow. But even after the fourth flash of light and the first hard, low rumble of thunder, he didn't look up from his screen. There was no time.”
Immediately, a class of twenty-five high school students slow their murmuring. They start to get quiet. Very quiet. Minds are pulled from bored hazes and refocused on one kid's imagination. From the first paragraph, everyone in the room knows they are experiencing something different. A few of the stories presented this week have been decent, good enough to listen to and not openly mock. Decent enough to think that, with a little more skill and a rewrite or two, they could be polished into something readable, maybe even publishable. But this one, everyone knows, is different. I can hear the thoughts pass through the collective mind of the class. I can hear people, caught off guard, being suddenly pulled into the story against their wills. The thoughts ricochet back and forth between, Wow, this is actually good, and, no, no, it's nerdy. Space stations and lightning tests? Dumb.
But it is good, actually good. They can't deny it. They are being forced to confront their prejudice against the nerd, James Heller, and reconcile it with the power of this story, the power of his art form.
They want to - they need to - create distance from him. They want the story to falter. They are waiting for a flubbed line, a break in grammar, or a hacky twist in the story line. They desperately want emotional distance from him, from this nerdy creature they've always either ignored or ridiculed up to this point. They don't want to respect him. They don't want to like him.
An overwhelming class thought: Do I dare enjoy this story? It's coming from an outcast, I can't care about that, I can't support that.
Watching people try to not show joy is hilarious. Why would you try to keep a straight face when listening to something great? If even one relatively popular person loosened up and smiled and sat up straight and openly enjoyed the story, it would give the rest of the class permission. And it wouldn't be a big deal, because in the end, if the others didn't enjoy it or dare to admit that they thought it was good, it wouldn't be that hard to shrug and give the story a thumbs up. Since James is a bottom dweller in the school's social landscape, a lighthearted vote of approval could be spun as kindness and charity, and not a full emotional commitment to something weird and nerdy.
“In the end, the project had been a success. The smoldering lab crackled and stank with ruin, and the charred body of Dr. Elion lay splayed across the floor, an arm outstretched in pleading terror. The hiss of the airlock blew a plume of pressurized air across the poor doctor's face, and a few flakes of ashy flesh took flight. Three sets of boots strode to where he lay and paused briefly. They then walked directly to his computer station. Two of the men lifted the processor. The third man directed the others to take the system to Dr. Coral, and the men then left him alone in the blackened rubble. He sat quietly at the desk. When he was sure the two men were gone he reached behind what had been Dr. Elion's monitor. From the jumbled blackened mess, a small click opened up a hidden slot in the monitor, and a small gray cylinder slid into his hand. There had been a terrible accident on the station where a man lost his life. But accidents, true accidents, are very rare. The new lightning receivers were experimental, and it was reported that their storage potential was unknown. But that wasn't altogether true. There were a few who knew full well their capacity, and they knew what sort of surge protection modifications needed to be made to make a seemingly accidental power surge overload a system and cause this amount of destruction. These modifications would need to be made invisible so the follow up inquiry would find only randomness and bad luck at fault for the tragedy. Tragedies are valuable. Keeping powerful technologies a secret is valuable. The dark plans of scary men flow beneath the surface of the common class. This hidden touch of control, this dark current, has always been flowing, and would always flow, and great men like Dr. Elion would always be at risk for being pulled under and drowned beneath it.”
He did it. The crazy, nerdy, freckle-faced dork loser actually did it. He impressed the class. A truly good story had pulled them, in only the way great stories can, up from where the audience was to where they are now. James had managed to take us to a higher plane of understanding about our world. In 2,000 words he'd been able to create an interesting atmosphere, character, and story line. He weaved in a brief back story for the protagonist which made decisions within the story both believable and troubling. James had opened some eyes. He'd shown us what hard work and vision and focus and caring for your passions can get you.
The class is actually clapping. Legitimately clapping.
But with that realization, that someone else reached a higher plane, comes the realization that doing likewise is hard. And scary. You risk much when you reach so high. This realization brings an immediate resistance to such works. The insecure and jealous mind can quickly shift from “Wow” to “whatever, what a nerd, I could do that if I wanted to but I don't want to because I'm not a nerd.”
“How dare he try to reach beyond his place?”
“Who does he think he is, George Lucas? You're no Lucas, go back to your cave, nerd, go back to your comic books and computer programming. Go back to the seventh circle of high school where you belong, and don't you dare try and rise again.”
The class tide is shifting again. As quickly as they'd appreciated his skill, their respect is turning to disdain. I can feel the jealousy. When Mr. Roberts opens up the room for questions, the first comment comes from a girl in the front row named Taylor. She thinks the story is great, and rattles off the standard high school class literary criticisms like “very descriptive” and “good details.”
“I could see the lightning and feel Dr. Elion's heartbeat. I felt like I was on the station.”
The second comment comes from the seat behind her. Paul Beal, an intelligent sophomore, also gives praise for the story line and the management of details. But he opens up a crack in the dam when he says, “It sounds like something I've read before.”
It isn't an outright charge of plagiarism, but it doesn't need to be. All critics and hecklers and haters need is a sliver, a tiny crack through which they might blow their toxic fumes. To even bring up plagiarism allows anyone feeling uncomfortable about the superiority of James' abilities an easy relief. “Obviously he cheated, he stole that story, someone else wrote it, a real writer, so now I'm again safe to live in my mediocrity and insecurity.”
This is the shift. Slowly but surely the class begins to turn on him, and it only takes thirty seconds. The tide of public opinion is fickle, and all it would take is one admirer to give the others permission to go back to liking this work of art rather than feel threatened by it and feel compelled to bring it back down to their level. One champion to lead the way for the mundane and average. One voice to lead the mouth-breathers.
For me, there is no reason this story, as compared to the other stories of the week, should get anything but the highest praises from the class. If these same people who told miss hot cheerleader Miranda Long that her pitiful attempt at capturing a Jersey Shore-esque feel in her short story “Life in da club” was hilarious, awesome, and “so true” were going to drag down someone with real talent, I might have to bomb the school. Miranda's story was so bad it was maybe three lines from being a brilliant satire. She brilliantly lampooned her own existence. The fact that she was completely serious made it a personal satire just for me.
And maybe for James, too. His smile when she was done reading suggested he was on the same page I was on... this shit is hilarious, and this shit makes me want to burn down the school with myself in it.
The room is muttering. They are giving each other an excuse to hate this brilliant piece. James is not a cool kid and he dares show real talent?
How dare he? We hate it.
I am waiting for more praises to come but they aren't. The room has gone silent. It is too socially dangerous to support James Heller. The mediocre mob has spoken.
Well shit, if no one else will do it, I will do it. What the hell...
“Yes, Mr. Gray?”
You're welcome, James.
“Science fiction is extremely difficult to do well. Many writers focus on the science and leave out the character elements that propel the story. But James, in only 2,000 words, has managed to create Dr. Elion, thoroughly flesh him out personally and professionally, put him into an interesting location with a compelling story, and make him take actions that allowed us to see into his mind and watch him develop, even just slightly, as a human being. He was faced with choices throughout that I wouldn't want to have to make. And maybe I wouldn't have made the same decisions he made, but I understand why he made them.”
I see nods of agreement from my periphery. I hear audible agreements. I will pull them back to his side and give them permission to like him, just because of who I am. "Well, if Jason Gray thinks it's good, then I guess I do, too."
“And that opening paragraph with the rippling lightning across the barren hellscape? Forget it, totally awesome, it drew me right in.”
Time to distance myself from this love fest and give him the chance to explain himself and win back the hearts of the class without me.
“Mr. Roberts, I'm really not into sci-fi stuff, but this story was great. I was wondering if James could tell us where the idea for this story came from?”
I turn to James. “How do you come up with this stuff?”
The question is both mocking and impressed. I've stated that I don't like nerdy stuff, but I'm impressed by stuff that is done well. It gives the class permission to like it from a distance as well, and praises a very needy James with props he is not accustomed to receiving. And if he can explain where he got the idea for this story, he can squash the plagiarism charge and receive the praise he deserves.
Man, why can't people see how easy high school social politics are?
“Well, it's hard to say where any of my stories come from originally. They are usually fragments of thoughts, or single images that stick with me, and generally if I have an image or an idea that stays with me for more than a week, I try to start forming and shaping it into something more real. I remember waking up one night a few weeks ago to a wild lightning storm. It was that storm that caused the house fires in Deschutes River Woods. The brilliance of the lightning stayed with me. I can still remember how bright the sky was, and how I had never seen anything like it. From the lightning itself to the house fires it caused, I started thinking, What if that had been my house, or what if I'd been working on something important when the bolt struck? I imagined finishing up my last 10-page research paper for Dr. Hansen's Chemistry class just as the bolt hit. I imagined all of that hard work, all of those hours that could have been spent doing other things, wasted in an instant. From that idea, from the loss of something important, maybe even a life's work, the story sprouted. Once I had Dr. Elion in my head, the process of giving him a life and a family and motives and drive was actually really easy. The rest just sort of flowed from there.”
I'd sent the pitch and James had crushed it, far far out of the park. Of course, story ideas come from thought, from experience, from simple instances that other people might overlook as meaningless. Every student in the room witnessed that lightning storm, myself included, but none of us gave it a thought beyond, Wow, cool storm. Some people take things deeper than that, take them more seriously. James does that.
When faced with the simplicity of his creative process, the fact that he gets a little bit of inspiration and then works on it and molds it into something bigger, the class gives him credit. They have to, he took something we all witnessed and forged pure gold.
After he answers my questions, two more hands rise with questions. These questions further probe the idea of where the story came from, and then the questions shift into why James made the decisions the way he did, how long it took to write, how many times did he rewrite it, and finish with a question about what he is working on now.
“Now I have a number of stories in their early formation stages. I have this idea about a man who decides to try and track down the drug dealers in his town and steal from them, I guess sort of like a super hero. His wife recently filed for divorce after he lost his job in the recession, and two stories spur this notion of robbing dealers: he reads in the paper that federal authorities stopped a car with $200,000 worth of heroin and marijuana in the trunk, and then he witnesses a drug deal go down live in a rite aid parking lot. These two events, coupled with his crumbling life, convince him to attempt anti-drug vigilantism.”
The class is visibly excited about this story. I can see their minds circling. They think it's a cool idea, but they feel like it's familiar. Great stories usually feel familiar, they feel obvious, full of truths that are right out there in our faces every day.
There is also, I think, an underlying excitement at how James in particular would treat this story. Since he proved to them that he knows how to weave description and dialogue and character thought and action together in interesting ways, the rendition of an inexperienced average Joe taking on the town's drug dealers sounds amazing. Even I am a little excited about his potential on this story.
“I also have an idea for a graphic novel about a kid in a wheelchair with a wild imagination where he is a superhero. He slowly realizes the things he imagines are starting to become real.”
Okay, James, don't push it.
“Those are the main stories I'm working through right now. Otherwise, it's all fragments and possibilities.”
Miranda raises her hand. “Would you consider expanding the Dr. Elion story into something like a full-length novel, or even a series?”
The class likes this question. They instantly agree and echo the question with their nods and eager eye-contact.
Well played, Miranda, good for you.
“You know, I hadn't really thought about that until right now. That is actually a great idea.”
With that, Mr. Roberts agrees with Miranda's sentiments, thanks James for his reading and his honesty, and excuses him back to his seat. As he makes his way down the aisle, he gets to hear something very few high school nerds ever get to hear: genuine applause from an entire class. Everyone joins in, they have to, how could you not respect what this kid has just done? He walked a tight-rope over public humiliation, artistic criticism, and personal pride. He crossed over a fiery crocodile moat while axes were thrown and arrows zipped by and he barely faltered. I can't take full credit for his success, he did all of the hardest work. But still, I'm pretty proud, of him and of myself.
As I leave the classroom James grabs my arm. When I turn to him he doesn't speak. He can't really, he's being talked to by four or five students about his story. He simply squeezes my arm and smiles.
“I told you,” I say, smiling back, and watch him turn to his new adoring fans, ready to answer any and all of their questions. His life will never be the same. I hope he stays hard-working and humble. I hope he remembers the ways to quiet the haters and feed the hopes people have.
Do other people really not see how easy it is to do things like this?
Shit, time for Chemistry.