The clock radio alarm clicked on, “...police are still searching for the missing Coal Ridge woman, currently they have no suspects and no leads. In weather, after some early morning sunshine, it's going to be a wet Tuesday with afternoon showers, so you better grab your umbrellas. It'll be a little colder than yesterday, with a high of 57°, but with a low of 44° there are no frost warnings for tonight. This forecast brought to you by…”
Mark turned off the alarm clock radio. He didn't care who brought him the weather, in fact, he didn't care about the weather. There wasn't much he did care about these days. A tired sigh slipped past his lips as he tried to decide whether to go back to sleep or not. “If I get up, I'll have to face you,” he said aloud to the empty room, “and if I go back to sleep, you'll haunt my nightmares.”
<You could just kill yourself today.>
“I could,” Mark replied, “but what then?”
<What do you mean, what then? Then nothing. Just the peace that comes with oblivion.>
Another sigh filled the room; he’d argued this with himself many times in his life, but not so often as he had over the past few days with her. While he’d considered suicide in the past, it was the unknown that always caused him to hesitate. If he could be reasonably certain that oblivion awaited him, he'd have done it long ago, but his mother was a devout Catholic, dragging him to that church on Poplar Road at least once a week until her recent passing. The thought of having to face judgement in death was all that kept him in this miserable life, it was bad enough knowing that people were judging him daily, imagining having to face judgement from an omnipotent being who knew his every thought and desire was simply overwhelming.
Then again, that was before she started talking to him. He'd always been told he wasn't right in the head, even by his own mother, but this...it was either a psychotic break or as close as he could come to proof that sweet, sweet oblivion did not, in fact, await him.
<You’re thinking about it aren't you? That's your problem, you think too much. Stop thinking about it and do it.>
“I'm just tiring of the same old rhetoric.” He’d tried to ignore her, but she wouldn't go away, and she wouldn't shut up.
<Are you though?>
“Yes, I am. And just doing things is how you do stupid things.”
<It seems that you can think through things and still do stupid things.>
That was a difficult point to argue given his present circumstances. Instead, he rolled out of bed and began his daily ritual. Teeth brushing, exactly eighteen strokes per tooth, inside and out. One egg, a piece of toast, generic white bread, and a glass of water for breakfast. Rinse out the egg shells and keep them for Mrs. Bradley's garden. Today was an off day for showering, so he rinsed his face, put on a little extra deodorant, and brushed his hair, parting it exactly center over his left eye. He had to remind himself to eat breakfast slowly, chewing each bite eighteen times; it would be the only food he had until dinner. And…
Here was the problem, there was no and.
Mark closed his eyes and sighed, counting backwards from nine before replying. “That's not helpful.”
<Sure it is.>
“No, it's not. It's barely a suggestion that shows absolutely no imagination.”
<Oh, you’re looking for creative suggestions now?>
<Okay, take a walk...and step in front of a bus.>
He’d walked right into that suggestion, pun intended. For a moment, the tiny one-bedroom apartment rang with his laughter, then Mrs. Buckley pounded her ceiling, his floor, with the damn broomstick. He often thought about mounting her head on that broomstick, going so far as to plan it out in his mind, but the risk was too great. If she were to be murdered, her neighbors would surely be the first suspects.
With breakfast done, he wiped the plate with a semi-clean dishrag, and set it carefully in the sink. She was behind him, probably looking over his shoulder. “Go away.”
“That happily defiant tone is infuriating,” he said, turning around. The kitchen was small, consisting of a half-sized steel fridge that looked like it belonged in the 1950’s and still required defrosting, a slightly more modern range, archaic microwave with dials instead of buttons, and a small counter-table with two chairs, one of which wobbled. Aside from a cheap toaster, he had no other appliances, and the few cups, plates, and utensils he owned all fit in one cabinet and a drawer.
<It really is quite pathetic.>
“The kitchen or my life?”
Walked into that one too. “Thanks,” he offered, unable to come up with a better response as he stepped out of the kitchen. Never having been known for a quick wit, Mark knew that a good response would come to him later, after it no longer mattered.
The living room in the small apartment thirty-six feet above Buckeye Drive seemed to grow more empty every day. Yesterday, or was it three days ago, he had sold his mother's loveseat, leaving him with an ugly green chair that was amazingly comfortable, a pressed wood end table that no one would buy, and perhaps the last tube TV in the world, that sat on a plank that ran between two stacks of old milk crates. It turns out people would pay decent money for a cheap TV stand.
<So, what's your plan for today? Are you going to sit there and stare at the blank TV until it's time for The Price is Right to come on, like yesterday?>
“Yeah, unless you have a better plan,” he said, dropping into the green chair.
<How about taking a bath with your toaster.>
“How about...shut up.” He crossed his arms over his chest, telling himself that from this point forward he would just ignore her.
<Why is it that you're not going to work again today? Oh yeah, it's because you can't even hold a job scraping up roadkill and raking little league fields.>
Mark ground his teeth together. He got a job working for the City of Coal Ridge while he was still in high school, taking care of trash collection in Wooddale Park. It was supposed to have been a summer job, but then they'd put him on the crew that cleaned up the stadium after football games, and he'd just never left. He might have worked for the city forever, if not for that one mistake. His co-worker Bruce had suggested they go over to the End Zone to have a liquid lunch; Bruce always did stuff like that and never got in trouble, so he’d thought, why not.
That asshole Scott had found out about it and fired him, but not Bruce. Not the guy who had spent time in jail for putting kids in a homemade electric chair. Not the guy whose idea it had been to have the liquid lunch. Not the guy who had gotten so fall-down, dirty ass drunk that he'd barfed on a councilman's car. Not even the guy who was arrested last week for killing someone and hiding the body in an old fridge. Nope, that guy wasn't fired, just him.
“He should have been the one,” Mark muttered.
<No, you should have been the one.>
He turned, ready to tell her that she WAS the one, which would have been a hum dinger of a zinger that might have even shut her up for a while, when he remembered that he was ignoring her. He turned back to the dark TV. It was okay, he could save that one for later if she refused to go away.
The morning sun rose over the trees across the street, turning the TV into a distorted mirror. He looked squat, much heavier than the medium build he'd carried since high school. Never having liked his own reflection, he glanced at something else in the distorted TV mirror. On the right side of it he could see the reflection of the open door leading to his tiny bedroom and sitting on the old dresser with the broken drawer was the hat he wore that night, the one he'd stolen from Scott's office when he'd pretended to beg for his job back. It should have implicated the bastard, but no one had seen him in it.
“I guess I did a better job planning it than I thought,” he said, trying to find something positive. He knew the moment the words fell out of his mouth that it was a mistake to speak them aloud.
<Oh yeah, pat yourself on the back big man. You thought about it. You planned it. You did it. I hope you're proud of yourself.>
A small smile touched the corner of one lip. “I am.”
<Die in a fire.>
Mark considered it a moment. “I don't think I'd prefer to go out that way.”
<Oh, come on, there's a can of gas in the shed for the lawnmower, you can just douse yourself and this whole pathetic apartment and end it all with one flick of a Bic.>
“I think not,” Mark said quietly, a grin spreading across his face. His distorted image in the TV added a crazed menace to that grin. “It didn't end it for you, did it?”
He'd hoped for some reaction from her. Anything, but the one time he didn't want her to be silent, she said nothing, so he decided to poke her.
“Oh, come on,” he mocked her with her own words, feeling very clever, “you remember that night. You were walking home from your friend Dana’s house, like every Sunday night. You probably took comfort in the consistency of it; consistency is comfortable, you know.”
She said nothing, but he could still feel her presence, so he continued. “Did you know that sometimes I peeked in the windows of Dana's house? You probably didn't. Did you ever wonder why I picked you? It was an accident really. I'd seen you and Dana a bunch of times, but you didn't notice me. I was the guy picking up garbage. I was the guy planting flowers. I was the guy that makes Coal Ridge pretty. You didn't see me. No one ever sees me. But I saw you. I saw you being Dana's bestie. That's what you call best friends, right. Bestie. You were Dana's bestie, but that didn't stop you from sleeping with her boyfriend, did it?”
Mark was smiling so hard that his face ached, but he wouldn't have wiped away that smile if he could. It felt good to smile. “You know what I'm going to say next, don't you? You know that I saw through the window when Dana left the room and you snuck a kiss from her boyfriend. I watched him slide a hand up your shirt while you rubbed at the front of his pants, but when she returned you were back on the opposite ends of the couch, you were probably checking Facebook or Instagram or Twittering, while he absently ate popcorn. You deserved this.”
She responded. It was quiet, but she responded. Mark moved forward to the edge of the green chair, his hands gripping the arms. “Oh yes you did. You were a bad friend. A vile betrayer stained with sins of greed and gluttony.”
<I didn't deserve to die for that; I didn't deserve this.>
“You did deserve it,” he nearly shouted in his excitement. Mrs. Buckley's broom beat at his floor, he stomped his feet in response. Not since that night three days ago had he held the upper hand, and he wasn't about to give it up because some old bitty thought he was being too loud. “Not only did you deserve it, but I think your still hanging out here because you enjoyed it!”
<That's not why I'm here.>
There was something different in her tone. Something dark that gave him a moment of pause and sent chills down his spine. The broom continued its banging, but his stomping ceased.
<Uh-oh. You can feel it, can’t you; the tables are about to turn.>
“No.” The broom continued its banging.
<Because you don’t know why I’m here…or if I’m here at all.>
“No.” The banging stopped; the momentary silence was unnerving.
<You've wondered if everyone had been right all along. Is my voice only in your head? Can anyone else hear me? Maybe my voice is just one of many that have been talking to you all along, except mine got louder than the rest after you finally did that thing you always dreamed of doing but were too afraid to do until after mommy died. Did killing me finally cause that psychotic break you always feared?>
Mark stood and started toward his bedroom, his movements were wooden. He struggled to lift his feet off the floor, wondering how this went so wrong. He’d killed her, he should have the upper hand. He should have the power. What was she even doing here?
<Where are you going big man? Don’t you want to talk about it anymore?>
She'd followed him into his bedroom as he climbed back into the bed and pulled the torn green comforter over his head.
<Come on momma's boy, you remember watching me leave my bestie’s house already knowing the route I would take. Jogging to get ahead of me was harder than you thought it would be; how out of breath you would be when you got to the old ticket booth in the alley behind the stadium is the one thing you didn't plan for. It almost made you call it off. Almost.>
Mark squirmed under the sheets. He'd replayed the events of that night in his mind many times, but as a conqueror, a victor. Her tone suggested that he was something lesser.
<But you couldn't call it off, could you? You couldn't because you planned to do it in that spot, but then you found out that the city was going to put up security cameras around the school and stadium. So you stood behind the old ticket booth trying to catch your breath and realized that you'd forgotten the sap you stole from the storage room two days before being fired. They could have fired you for so many reasons, it wasn't because of Bruce, it was inevitable. At some point you would have been caught stealing something small, something you didn't think anyone would ever miss. At some point you would have fucked up, just like you always do, just like you did that night.>
Mark threw the blanket away from his face and sat up in his bed. “I didn't fuck up! I got you. I. GOT. YOU!”
<At exactly the wrong time.>
In the small mirror leaning against the wall atop his dresser, Mark watched as his mouth moved, but her voice fell out. “No,” his voice was little more than a whisper, “you’re in me?”
<We're in you.>
That dark tone was back. Another shiver ran down his back and tears welled in his eyes as he asked, “Who’s we?”
In response, Mark felt his left-hand curl into a fist and that arm rise involuntarily to stretch out in front of him. It was his arm, he could feel it, but no matter how hard he struggled he couldn't lower it. His hand was balled so tightly that the knuckles were turning white.
<Do you remember how you did it?>
Mark nodded, staring at his left hand, seeing his mouth move in the mirror.
<You didn't have the sap, so you hit me in the back of the head with a loose brick, intending to knock me out for whatever awful purpose you planned next, but what happened instead?>
His thumb extended from his fist. “I cracked your skull.”
<And you popped one of my eyes out.>
He'd tried to forget that part. Blood began to drip out of his fist where the nails were digging into his flesh, causing him to wince in pain.
<I was still alive, but you couldn't finish me. You couldn't look at my eyeball hanging out of its socket, so you pretended that it didn't happen. You pretended that everything had gone to plan. You wrapped me in the sheet, took me down to the park in the trunk of that old green Honda that used to belong to your mom, and rolled me into the ravine behind Miller's Pond, all just like you planned.>
“No…” The fingers in his fist began to cramp as the memories returned unbidden to his mind.
<You pretended that you didn't hear my dazed whimpers. You pretended that I was dead, but I wasn't! I wasn't dead Mark! And now it's your turn.>
A terrified scream filled the room as his fist hammered back, the extended thumb stopping a hairs breadth from his eyeball.
<Oh, it's not going to be that easy Mark. You see, something found me down there, something old that has been trapped for a long time. Its hungry, I was too far gone, but you Mark, you will feed it well. I just need you to come here, and you know what, you’re going to come here or I'm going to jam your thumbs into your eyeballs and write out a confession in your blood.>
Mark struggled to move his thumb away from his eye; his hand vibrated with the effort. Blood dripped onto the green comforter. “How are you doing this?”
<I told you Mark, I'm not in here alone. It's with me. You're screwed, but you knew that already. Now just stop fighting and give into the pull.>
That was it. For three days he'd felt something tugging at him, trying to pull him somewhere. It's why he hadn't left the building in three days, even refusing the offer of twenty dollars to help Brady Thomas carry the loveseat into his basement. With a shake of his head, Mark exerted all his will to move his thumb. It touched his eye and began to push its way into the socket. He screamed, but the sound never made it past his lips. He was a prisoner in his own body; she wouldn't even give him the release of a scream.
The thumb pushed deeper.
Something in his head audibly popped.
“Okay!” He let go. It felt like he’d been hanging onto the edge in a wave pool and could now feel himself being carried by the current, but he wasn’t moving. Mark pulled his thumb back, the nail dripped with blood and tears.
“That was way more difficult than it should have been,” she said, releasing a long sigh.
Her voice was different. It sounded more real, as if he'd been listening to a poor recording of it played on a dying speaker. With the heel of his hand pressed up against his injured eye, he lifted his head. The terrified scream that leapt out of his mouth, was as high pitched as it was loud.
“Just like the scared little man-child I knew you were,” the words carried a tone of disgust.
She stood less than a foot away, dried and crusted blood running in swaths across her face where the sheet had made rivulets around her head, and that one eye hanging three or four inches out of the socket. There was something dark and shadowy on her stomach with pulsating hues of red lines; it looked like a patch of pudding skin. A filament ran from it to his own stomach. Looking down, he could see a smaller patch of pudding skin on his stomach. When he tried to touch it, his hand passed right through.
“Freaky, isn’t it?”
Her face was inches from his when he looked back up. The hanging eye moved. Mark turned sideways and vomited on the green comforter.
“Aww, is your tummy upset. That's so much worse than having some idiot hit you in the back of the head with a brick and knock your eyeball out.” Her tone was sharp, the underlying anger much more pronounced in person. She moved away from him, around the bed to the window, the filament seemed to expand and contract as she moved, always keeping the same tension. “It's out there waiting, Mark.”
Coughing up a little bile, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and looked over at her silhouette in the window. “How...who...what…” There were simply too many questions for him to ask just one, and he was too freaked out to complete a thought, leaving an uncomfortable silence hanging in the air.
The tether seemed to pass through her. Scooting off the bed on the opposite side and looking down, he reached for it again, and again his hand passed through it. “What is this?”
“So, you didn't do it?”
“I think I did, but not intentionally and I have no idea how.” When she turned to him, the sunlight from the window obscured her features. “At the bottom of that hill it found me; the pain and hunger coming off hit me like your brick." Its presence had snapped her immediately awake, and she'd clawed her way out of that sheet. With her one eye, she could see it hovering over her, its form was indiscriminate, with subtle and overt shifts that made focusing on it difficult. She'd recoiled from the visual and emotional onslaught, reached out for something familiar...and found Mark. She continued while gesturing to the tether. “This pulled me away from it somehow, but it linked me to you.” Again, that tone of disgust that added yet another note of hatred to her voice. “It took me awhile to realize that I wasn't in the same world. In our world I'd be dead by now because of you, but not here. Not in this hell.”
“Um, what? What do you mean not in our world?”
“Don't worry, it won’t matter in a little while.”
“What do you mean?”
She didn't know what she meant, because none of it made any sense to her either. It seemed to be a place where people who died would pass through, but that was little more than a guess based on what happened to her, so she ignored his question. Instead she moved back around the bed to stand in front of him, trying to get close enough to make him uncomfortable.
“What are you doing?” He asked, a note of panic in his voice as Mark’s gaze settled on her dangling eye.
“I'm going to drag you out of this room, down the stairs, and out the front door so that it can eat you.” She stepped forward with as much menace as she could muster.
Mark practically fell backwards, grabbing onto the dresser with one hand and nearly pulling it over. “Why?” He knew it was the wrong question as it fell out of his mouth. “I mean, uh, um...get away from me!”
She took another step forward. He crawled across the bed, one hand slipping in the vomit and causing him to crash to the floor on the other side. Standing as she came around the bed, he put his back to the window, literally the furthest point in his apartment from the front door. “Do you want to know what I noticed over the last three days of watching your pathetic life.” Without giving him a chance to answer, she continued. “Not once have you used my name,” she said, putting her face right up to his, “what is my name?”
He stared at her, his eyes wide, his lips trembling.
“You don't know it do you?” When he said nothing, she continued. “My bestie’s name was Mila, and the boy on the couch was her twin brother.” She looked over his shoulder and took a step back. “You didn't carefully plan it all out. A notion to commit murder in that alley behind the school probably popped into your sad, angry little mind a long time ago, and once mommy died you started to spiral. You couldn't stop thinking about it, and by chance you saw your opportunity while peeking in windows to see what normal families did. That is why you did it.”
She took another step back. Emotions ranging from terror to outrage played across his features, but they were beginning to focus into a familiar anger, when a wave of hunger rolled over him.
“I escaped from it using you as a tether, but it never stopped hunting for me.”
The room descended into shadow as she took another step back.
“I don't really know the rules of this place yet, but I'm figuring it out.” The tether between them dissolved.
Mark looked over his shoulder. The mass outside the window had the face of a spider with a hooked beak. His eyes widened in surprise as a shadowy tentacle reached inside and grabbed him, pulling him screaming through the glass.
Backing out of the room, she watched as it began to devour its prey with a satisfied grin on her face. With her left hand, she pushed her eye back into its socket and wiped away the streaks of blood. Just before Mark’s head disappeared into the ever-changing shadowy form, she whispered, “My name was Emily.” She clapped her hands once. “And now I have things to do.”