I probably looked really stupid with that incredulous look on my face. My eyeglasses were skewed and I just stood there with my mouth gaped open, catching flies. I was conscious of every breath, could hear my heart thumping away in my ears, could feel it pressing almost painfully against my ribcage, could feel it throbbing at my temple in an agitated rhythm. My arms were limp at my side. I was amazed my legs weren't jelly. They sure felt like it.
"Thomas?" My voice shook but I didn't think it was from fear. I was just confused. As the inquiry left my mouth, my vocal cords once again shut down.
A damp, hot breath cascaded across my face in a single breeze, smelling of unidentified things. Things best left unidentified. I closed my eyes reflexively and cursed myself. Man, that was a bad move. A low rumbling sound caressed the air and I flinched.
Then, all at once, it was like time sped up. a loud roar echoed off the walls and "Thomas", or what was left of him, started moving. I screamed and ran, backpedaling, no longer caring that thing had once been a friend. I stumbled but righted myself before falling, picking up speed and thanking all those years of high school track. Thomas was big, but he'd always been the slow poke growing up.
I tore out of the house with no real direction in mind. I glanced at the houses on either side of me but kept going straight, convinced that slowing down enough to get help would only get me killed. It isn't Thomas anymore, I reiterated in my head. He can't keep up with you. He was always slower. I screamed a few times for good measure, hoping someone would hear and call the cops. It ate up much needed stamina but I could only run so long. I was fast, but I was a sprinter.
I looked back as I turned a corner and stumbled. This time I did fall. The old Thomas would have been eating my dust. He would have lumbered behind me for a short period of time, then given up entirely. A runner, he was not. This new, debatably improved, Thomas was no quitter. And he wasn't slow.
He pounced and landed, his weight nailing me to the rough road. He growled in my face as if demanding my submission. I didn't know what to do and my mind ran in a never ending litany of disjointed thoughts, circling and circling like a hamster wheel. He held me down with a hand around my throat as he sat on my chest, my vision erupting into patches of black and white, my head starting to feel thick and sluggish. He started to sniff and almost purr, my brain taking in his actions in garbled freeze frames along with teeth, drool, fur, and pointed ears. Grey, grey fur. Why did he have fur? I blinked my eyes, attempting to clear them, but my eyes weren't the problem.
The purring continued and he leaned in. His long tongue coated me from chin to forehead, granting me a moment of clarity long enough to think, Ew, dog slobber. Soft fur rubbed against my cheek and the purring continued near my ear.
When I woke up, I felt like I'd been beat with a sledge hammer. I hurt everywhere. I groaned and shadows erupted from the background. I flinched and jerked away, hitting cold metal with my arm. I jumped back and felt a tug at my other arm. A voice was trying to sooth me, its tones softly lilting and beckoning me from my ledge. I looked down and everything made sense. There was an IV in my arm. I was wearing one of those horrible hospital johnnies. The metal I'd come in contact with was the railing on the bed. I looked up and the shadow and calming voice was identified. Thomas. I sighed. Normal, he looked normal. No monsters here. I'm just crazy. And strangely, that thought was comforting because the idea of monsters was just too petrifying. That, I couldn't handle.
I looked at Thomas with a small smile, the best I could do with how much pain I was in. But the look he returned made me pause as it sunk in. Remorse. Fear. Agony. "I'm so sorry." His voice broke and I knew. I knew and I screamed.
It never should have happened. None of it should have happened. Looking back, it almost seems inevitable. Like it was fated. Like some twisted fate drew us kicking and screaming from the path we were intended to follow. But isn't that how things always seem, looking back?
Laughably, it started on one of those days that just makes people want to stay indoors. Ominous weather, portentous weather. Windy, rainy, with lightning crackling across the sky, I was in heaven. I love storms. Maybe it was my sensitivity to light that gave me headaches or the ease with which I suffer heat exhaustion. Maybe it's just my overall contrariness. I love doing what others don't. I like rainy days. My favorite number is thirteen. I prefer Halloween (or All Hallow's E'en if you want to get all religious or Samhain if you want to get pagan) to Christmas (wonder of all wonders, another pagan holiday). I never do the popular thing and I like it that way.
That day was no different. I stood outside in the rain and basked in the water and wind beating at my skin. The extra laundry was well worth it. I carried neither raincoat nor galoshes nor umbrella. I wasn't stupid. I didn't want to die today. But people don't always get what they want.
Fate came in the form of a man streaking across my backyard. "Run!" he yelled, grabbing up my arm and yanking me with him. Having had my eyes closed, my arms stretched up to the sky, I jerked off balance and uttered a startled squawk. He never slowed down but dragged me alone until I could get my feet under me.
Long after my legs started to stumble behind him, my heart and lungs protested the abuse. My flip flops were awkward and hurting my feet as they snagged on the uneven ground. I was certain they would break. He turned and crouched down, practically dragging me into his lap. He put a finger up to his lips and mouthed, "Quiet."
Yeah, like that was going to happen. My breath was sawing through my lungs in gasps and starts, wheezing in a way that just sounded wrong to my ears. My heart was jumping around my chest like a Jack Russell Terrier on crack and, no matter what I did, I couldn't seem to keep my movements from stirring the leaves and sticks that littered the ground.
He frowned but pulled me closer, as if he could squeeze my battered lungs into cooperation with his wishes. At least I could say that my face sucking cotton definitely muffled my distress. I didn't see what passed us, but, freak of all freak outs, I felt it. It was cold. Not standing in the rain cold but about to die of exposure cold. As he walked by, I wondered how long it took to get frost bite and marveled at how numb I felt suddenly. My brain scrambled in all directions, trying to flee some instinctual danger but my body unable to comply. I didn't know or care if it was due to exhaustion or fear. It didn't matter. All I knew was we were dead if it found us. The knowledge was like some hereditary instinctual knowledge passed down from when we still lived in trees and hunted like animals.
Long after it passed, I held still, unable to move, unable to breathe. The cold dissipated quickly, but it lingered like an after image. I wasn't really cold, but the memory of it gave me chills and I could almost feel it against my skin, dying to return and possess me. The man I was sprawled across didn't speak, he just loosened his grip and lifted me up until I was standing. He seemed to scan the woods around us, then headed off in a new direction. I was totally lost.
We started running again and my previous hell returned. I lost a flip flop. The other broke shortly after and I stumbled for a few steps before I could kick it off, the man still dragging me by the iron grip on my wrist. By the time he finally stopped, I recognized nothing and felt like I'd been transported to some faraway mythical land, the Kingdom of Back in the Boonies. "What the hell was that about?"
I forgot entirely about keeping quiet and shushed me again. Then he looked at me as if he was suddenly seeing me for the first time. My brain offered comparisons to leeches. I gave him a snide look, daring him try that again when he was the one that dragged me into the middle of the woods with the boogeyman on his tail. Then his face contorted into a look no one ever wants to see. It was a look of condolence, the look a doctor gives you when you only have a few weeks left to live.
"We're dead, aren't we?" I was proud of my calm. Not many could stay calm when confronted with that news. No denial for me.
"Yeah," he bit his lip. "It has our scent. We can't escape it."
"Then why did we run?"
Yeah, I would. Logic might tell me it was pointless, that I was going to die anyway and it would be less painful in the end if I just gave in first, but my body didn't always respond to my brain and my brain didn't always respond to logic. "What if we could disguise our scent somehow?"
"Look around you, what are we going to disguise it with?" His aggravation was slipping out.
"Deer urine?" Yeah, I knew it was a stupid idea but hunting popped into my head and hunters use deer urine to hide their scents. Yeah, dumb idea. I didn't even need to see the eyes he was giving me to know that. "Well, there has to be something!" Then I got mad, "And why the hell did you grab me! It was after you! It would have left me alone!"
"It would have killed you simply because you were in its path."
I shook my head, trying to shake out his logic. I wouldn't believe it. I couldn't. It was his fault. "No, no, no."
"Lady," he grabbed my face in one hand. "Look at me." He tilted my chin, causing my gaze to hit his against my will. "This was the only thing I could do. I'm sorry I passed by you. That was my only sin. I'm sorry."
"No." The word was anguished, filled with everything I was feeling and wishing I wasn't. The feeling of freedom as I held my hands and face to the rain was such a distant memory, I couldn't even fathom the feeling. I was left with a crushing weight that scared me and drove me into a frenzy at the same time it made me feel like giving up. "Can't we try?" The words were small, softly spoken, as if by a child meekly asking to go outside to play.
"Sure, we'll try." I didn't feel it when the killing blow sliced through me, splattering my blood across his face.
It was the first snow of the year. Soft little flurries drifted to the ground at their own lazy pace while I hovered at the window, agitated and hyper-vigilant. A fire was putting out only enough heat so that I could feel it if I was, oh I don't know, three feet way. The window was radiating cold, a cold that soaked into my bones. I preferred the cold. Cold keeps me awake. I needed that today.
The snow had only just started within the last half hour and the ground was not yet white. Flurries dropped and instantly melted as the ground temperature wasn't cold enough yet. It would be soon. The pines that populated the Blue Ridge Mountains near my little escape crowded up against the cabin, leaving little room for parking or outdoor activities and also, unfortunately, little in the way of line of sight. My little black Sentra was parked up against the side of the building and not visible from my vantage point overlooking the front porch.
I saw movement in the trees and tried to tell myself that I was letting my imagination get the best of me. "You're imagining things, Tess, like always," I told myself aloud, if only to reinforce the thought. Yeah, but even paranoids have enemies. My mood soured again and I tried to pull my eyes from the world outside. If I wasn't going to get hypnotized by the falling flurries, the least I could do would be not to obsess about the shadows I saw in the dwindling light of late evening.
I sat down on the locally braided rug that had a place of honor in front of the fireplace. I didn't bother picking up the book from the kitchen table and trying to read. I knew that would be an utter failure, like the snow gazing before it. I was just not distractible today. I let the fire heat my cheeks, felt the burn until it was uncomfortable, until I could feel myself sweating around my hairline. I sighed. I didn't want to think about it, but watching the flames flicker back and forth, equally hypnotic to the snow under ordinary circumstances, just left my mind wide open to speculation and reminiscence.
I didn't know what I did wrong, what perceived slight I perpetrated against him. I remember his eyes. He had cold, dead eyes that chilled the soul much like the windows chilled my body. Those eyes could communicate just as easily as words. What they'd told me? You're dead. You're dead and you don't even know it yet. The face matched the eyes, with a cruel twist to his mouth and a scar that made you wonder what he did to earn it. His hair had once been shaved but it was clear that appearance meant nothing to him and he had likely shaved it so he wouldn't have to deal with it.
The person I was, I would have thought nothing of the implied threat. I would have witnessed it, been chilled to the bone, then quickly forgotten it and moved on with my life. But he didn't let me forget it. A week later, my brother went missing. My family was devastated by it. Nobody could understand what happened. Devon wasn't one to just up and disappear but, because there was no sign of foul play, the police did nothing. The next day I received a letter in my mailbox. No postage, just a white envelope sitting there expectantly for me. I didn't even notice the lack of postage until afterwards. The police picked it up later that day but the words were still burned into my brain like the after image of the sun, "Do you miss him, Tess?" The words themselves weren't ominous, but I called the police and gave them the letter anyway. I still didn't make the connection.
A few days later, I found my dog on the back porch. I shuddered at the memory. I had been in the habit of letting her out into the fenced in backyard and allowing her to run everyday. Though a lazy bum by nature, the retired racing greyhound loved to run on occasion. That day, when I went to go let her in, all I saw was red. It was everywhere. Red caked her fur, it was splashed on the boards of the porch, across the glass of the French doors and windows. My once loved pet lay in a mangled conglomeration of blobs that I couldn't all identify. I ran back out of the sunroom, not even bothering to open the door to the porch, trying to escape the image. I collapsed on the living room floor, sucking in jagged breaths that I wasn't sure were from crying or the urge to throw up.
The police looked apologetically at me when they came. I couldn't go beyond the living room. My coping mechanism was a whole lot of "if I don't see it, it isn't there". It kept me from falling apart as the police asked away. It didn't really help me function.
I spent the next few days in a state of emotional numbness that I couldn't quite shake. I called in to work. They understood. Between my brother's disappearance and what happened to my dog, I needed a couple of mental health days. I wasn't sure if staying home was the best idea but I didn't have the ability to do anything else. I didn't function. I couldn't. I slept, albeit fitfully. I used the restroom when my bladder felt like it would explode. The image obsessively played through my head. I didn't eat. I didn't do anything else. I couldn't.
Later that week, I managed to go to work and started getting my head under control. I got home, checked my mail like I always did, and went home and cried when I was greeted with the empty dog crate. Cinnamon wasn't there. I didn't have to walk her. She would never again be hungry for her Purina One.
It was another few hours before I pulled myself out of that hole and sifted through the mail. The air seized in my lungs when I found an envelope without any postage on it. I dropped it without thinking. "No." I called the police without even opening it. I didn't ask what it said.
The detectives came by a few days later, apparently after they'd been able to do some analysis on the letter. On the inside, the letter had been coated in dried blood. The words had read, "I wonder where your brother is..." I freaked out but the detectives assured me after they calmed me that the blood was animal blood, dog to be precise. They suspected it probably belonged to my dog, but they wouldn't know for certain until further testing was done. I nodded weakly as they continued on, now asking me questions I didn't know how to answer.
The next letter I received was weighed down with something bulky. I don't know why I opened it. I didn't open the last one. I knew not to open it. I did it anyway. When I tipped the contents out, a large bulky class ring fell into my hand. The stone was diamond. It proclaimed Asheboro High School, Class of 2009. I looked to the inside, to the engraving so often there. My brother's name was spelled out in script across the interior surface of the ring. Upon closer inspection, I don't know how I got up the courage, there were spots of blood in the harder to reach areas. I pulled out the letter with a growing sense of dread. It was coated in blood as it would be if someone with blood on his hands had handled it. It read, "You're next." Somehow, I knew the blood was his. My brother's. And something about that statement made the connection. I knew.
I didn't pack a bag. I just grabbed my purse, got in my Sentra, and left heading West. I hadn't planned where I'd end up, I just drove. I should have stayed. I should have called the police. I know. I'm stupid but I panicked. I think I had a right to panic at that point, now didn't I?
I walked back over to the window. I couldn't help myself. The night had taken on that eerie quality it gets when the ground is covered in snow and the sky had never relinquished its clouds. It wasn't really dark, but there were shadows. I tried not to obsess about the shadows. They couldn't hurt me.
An arm wrapped around me, holding my face in a tight calloused grip. I screamed into his hand, my heart rate going into the stratosphere instantly as adrenaline got the party started. I tried rearing back with my elbow into his torso but couldn't twist around enough to nail him. He was directly behind me. I slammed down on his foot but he didn't even budge. He laughed at my efforts, his laugh sending dread coursing through me. "Do you have any idea how long I took killing your brother?" The words whispered into my ear, freezing my brain and my resistance. The voice sounded like it had been beaten and broken and put together again like Frankenstein's monster.
I felt something hard against my back. A weapon, I knew. As I felt the cold of the metal, my mind screamed knife. "I really enjoyed him," he said, interrupting my thoughts. I was dead. It was only a matter of how long until he allowed me relief. The monster's voice answered my question with the last thing I wanted to hear, "I'm going to enjoy you more."