DON'T BE AFRAID
Don't Be Afraid
She would be dead in less than a day. This knowledge gave him power and he was content to watch her, as he’d watched her for weeks, knowing that everything she did that day would be her last. Like most pleasures, the joy in killing was heightened by the delay.
He followed her as she wound her way to the office down tree-lined streets and through the center of town. An artists’ seaside refuge growing mainstream. A Starbucks next to the old gallery, a Talbots edging out the dusty five-and-dime. Old money rubbing shoulders with new. He wedged his forgettable sedan between a boxy Volvo and a new Mercedes and watched her laughing with a friend over lunch at the newest little bistro on main street. She shook her head at the metal dessert cart, smiling regretfully at the young waiter, fighting the eternal battle to lose weight. It was her last chance for the chocolate cheesecake. She should have said yes.
She didn’t notice him when she strolled back to the office, pausing to chat with people she passed on the way. Everyone noticed her. Kisses exchanged in the air, flirty little waves. Nobody noticed him.
If anyone saw him walking half-a-block behind her, they wouldn’t remember. He had a gift for becoming invisible. Later, after he’d killed her, the town would ask who had done it and why, but no one would remember the man trailing behind.
Even if they did, he’d mastered the art of appearing harmless. A handsome face. A charming manner. No threat to anyone.
Don’t be afraid.
THE NEXT KILLING
The Next Killing
The shed was dark. She couldn’t see a foot beyond the door where she peered in, the murky shadows at the front giving way to deep black, hinting of strange things hidden in corners. It had an awful musty smell that reminded her of a dead mouse her father had trapped once under the sink.
“No,” she said, turning back to look at the others. “I don’t want to go in there.”
They were watching her with predatory smiles. “But you do want to join the club, right?”
She swallowed hard, shifting her backpack. She’d been so excited when she got the note, pausing near her locker between classes to pull the little square from its hiding place under her math book.
“Meet us this afternoon near the track.” She’d read the single sentence over and over again, amazed that they’d asked her, thrilled to be chosen.
She lingered when school ended, waiting for others to leave before slamming her locker and hurrying out the side door. The track was empty, but one of them was sitting in the bleachers, waiting. The other stood just beyond the fence.
The walk across the playing field beyond the track was so quiet that she could hear the crunch of grass underfoot. They hardly talked, smiling occasionally if she asked a question. In the silence she heard the slight, wheezy sound of her own breathing.
Beyond the playing field the grass came up higher, tickling the skin at their ankles. The shed came into view, standing alone in the shallow basin of land below a slight rise.
“Wouldn’t that make a great club house?” one of them said stopping in front of it. Gray clapboard with faded green asphalt shingles peeling off the roof, it had a double door held together by a wide chain and a heavy padlock. The lock hung open.
“Maybe,” she said, her voice betraying the doubt she didn’t feel free to express. The sun beat down on them. She could feel the heat underneath her uniform blouse, sweat trickling into the new space created by the small buds appearing on her chest that was swaddled in what her mother stupidly called a training bra.
“Why don’t you go inside and look it over?” they said, making it sound like a suggestion, though one hurried to unhitch the padlock and the other pulled the chain through the metal loops. The door squealed as it opened and she’d leaned cautiously inside.
“No,” she repeated. “It’s too dark.”
“That’s just because your eyes haven’t adjusted. Step all the way in or you won’t be able to really tell.”
She looked from one to the other, searching for some indication that they were joking. They stared back at her with those strange, fixed smiles. Like alligators, she thought, and wished she hadn’t come.
“Don’t you want to be part of the club?”
How many times had she wished to be popular like they were? Yes, she wanted to be part of the club. She wanted to sit at the good seats in the cafeteria. She wanted teachers to smile at her the way they smiled at them. She wanted girls to feel envy when she walked down the halls and for boys’ heads to turn on the streets.
She let her backpack slip from her shoulder and drop to the grass. The door creaked, swinging slightly on its rusting hinges. She looked at the gloom and thought of wolf spiders and bats. She swallowed hard.
“Go on,” one of them said. “Hurry up.”
She took a deep breath and stepped inside.
The sudden shove in her back knocked her forward and she fell hard, slamming her knees onto rough wood floor. The door banged shut, the entire shed shuddering with the impact.
Blackness engulfed her. She screamed, struggling to her feet and stumbled around, hands outstretched, trying to find the door. By the time she reached it they’d restrung the chain and fastened the lock.
“Let me out! Please!” She pounded the door and it shook in its frame, but didn’t budge. Her begging and pleading went unanswered though she could hear their muffled voices outside.
“You stupid wannabe,” one of them called. “This will teach you to stop following us around.”
Their laughter rang through her sobs as she lurched around in the blackness, slamming her shin against something hard, stabbing her hand on something sharp. Things clattered to the floor, smashing her foot, rolling around her. Something splashed her legs.
The smoke surprised her, a gentle waft against her face. She coughed and shied away from it, nostrils quivering at the scent.
There was a cracking sound, like a tree branch breaking, and suddenly there were flames racing along the floorboards, tongues of orange licking at the juncture of old walls, climbing the leg of a rickety workbench, lapping at her feet.
Choking on the billowing smoke, tears streaming from her eyes, she tried to stamp out the flames and beat them back with her hands. A sweet smell, like meat on a grill. Her own flesh burning. A line of fire reached the roof, turning a rotting beam to ash, which fell like hot, black raindrops on her head and shoulders.
Above the angry hiss of the fire and her own cries she could still hear their laughter. She would hear that sound forever.
THE DEAD PLACE
The Dead Place
No one thinks of death on a sunny day. The sky was the rich, translucent blue of the Caribbean Sea and Lily Slocum looked up into its warmth and closed her eyes for a moment, thinking how great it would be to go to the beach. She was four blocks from the university and six blocks from home and the messenger bag filled with textbooks was digging into her shoulder and rubbing against her hip.
She didn’t notice the car idling at the stop sign up ahead. She couldn’t see the driver looking in the rearview mirror and even if she could she wouldn’t have thought it meant anything more than an admiring glance from a stranger.
Lily Slocum will be described as pretty. Reporters will list the description her roommate gave the police: White, medium-height, wheat-blonde hair worn long and pulled back in a ponytail, brown eyes. Last seen walking just past midday on Bates Street, brown t-shirt and tan shorts, orange messenger bag slung over her right shoulder, green flip-flops slapping the concrete under her feet.
No one will mention the car that drove slowly past before circling back to follow her. No one will be able to give a description of its make or model or speculate as to the identity of the driver. No one will notice.
Certainly not Lily, who thought she might actually tan on such a sunny day and checked her arms to see if they were getting any color, the tiny bells on her silver bracelet tinkling. A bracelet will be mentioned and her roommate will say, yes, yes, she always wore a silver bracelet. She will also provide a description of her earrings and the small turquoise ring Lily wears on the third finger of her right hand.
A cell phone will also be mentioned. This one small detail will make it all the more remarkable. She had a cell phone. She was talking on a cell phone. So how did she disappear somewhere between Bates and McPherson, the street with the rundown student apartments where her boyfriend waited to celebrate an end-of-year lunch?
He called her as she traipsed along and she had to pause to dig the cell phone out of her bag. “Hey,” she said. “I’m on my way. You got lunch ready?” She walked a little more slowly as she talked and if she felt something at her back she didn’t mention it. They were living together and their parents didn’t know.
He will rerun their conversation many times in his head. He will be forced to replay it for their parents and the police. He will repeat her last words to hundreds of strangers watching on TV, the camera zooming in so they can see tears overwhelming him: “See you in a minute, babe.”
He will describe her as a sweet, friendly girl. Her parents will add kind. Lily was so kind. When the car pulled up to the curb, Lily smiled at the man who asked for her help. “Sure,” she said, stepping closer to the car, shielding her eyes so she could see the map he was holding.
The weather will be talked about. It was a hot day. Unseasonably warm for May, the town overflowing with people because graduation was only a few days away. Lily had told her roommate she wished she were graduating now instead of a year from now. She wanted to be free of this small town. She didn’t know that the man smiling up at her from the car lived to grant her wish.
People don’t just vanish. They aren’t there one minute, walking along a sidewalk in the sunshine, whole and sentient, only to disappear the next. Only sometimes they do.