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."

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