The sweet smell of morning dew rushes into my lungs as I gather a deep breath of the cool air surrounding me. Conner’s friends live here, I think to myself. Conner lives here. As I perch on the top step of his front porch, my legs ache from pumping on the pedals of my bike, the sounds of his mother’s cooking filling my head. Behind me, the screen door creaks open, and Conner joins me on the porch. He does nothing for a while, nothing but stare up into the cloudless sky, crouching with his arms resting on his slightly grass-stained knees. His eyes fall to meet mine, inclining his head toward the porch swing. My head bobs up and down to form a nod. On the porch swing, I reach my arm over Conner’s lap to touch the window behind me, and his warm hand drops onto mine, giving me a sense of reassurance, telling me things would be ok. “Conner,” I whisper. A crisp breeze tilts the flowers in their box, and the morning is slow to leave. They’re his mother’s flowers. Knowing Connor, the ones he grows are in the back. “About Friday,” I say, my voice still lowered, knowing his mother was in the kitchen, her straggling mind not realizing he was out of bed. I part my lips to form words that might never be said; his warm hand slides off my arm, and he looks at me, his silver eyes seeming to bore a hole in my already worn-out heart.
“We good?” Conner mumbles back, questioning years of friendship.
“Yeah”, my lips bunch up on one side of my mouth, and I feel my eyes sink to the ground, studying the cracks in the pavement, watching a bird hop down the street in front of us. The sound of the door opening never reached my ears, but the slap of his mother's hand against the door frame jolts me back to reality. Conner lets his neck fall, studying the sidewalk, mulling over the spot I was before. Blood reddens his cheeks.
“What you doing out in morning?” His mother’s disconnected speech calms me, reminding me of warm summer mornings when we were eight. When I was still taller than Conner, coming home covered in mud and dirt, grins wide. I sigh, wishing I could go back. Because then, Conner’s mom didn't have Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a disease that warps her speech and makes her sound crazy. To other people. But to me, that voice is home. The weight on the other end of the swing eases up, and I jerk my head up to see Conner grinning at the ground, his mother staring at him, the soft crinkles around her eyes drooping. “Come inside”, she utters softly. “I’ll be gone soon.” Shuffling to the porch door, the smell of fresh tortillas slowly wafts through the screen door, and Conner cranes his neck and looks my feet, cursing almost inaudibly beneath his breath. We share the pain; neither of us expected to stay this long, and we had plans to meet Alexander and Robin at the beach. My phone weighs down in my back pocket, and the corners of my lips turn down. I’ve never been to Conner's place, even after 10 years of friendship. Slumping onto the couch, Conner collapses next to me, sighing.
“Wait,” he flys out of his seat, grinning. “You have to see this, it's amazing how fast it grew.” Conner races to the sliding door and yanks it open, racing for the garden. Since the 4th grade, Conner’s loved plants, and his mom had already loved them, so he had it coming for him.
His mom calls back as she leaves the house - “I’m leaving, tell Conner I’m gone when he comes back.”
“Yeah,” I mutter as I grasp the remote in my hands. From outside a gurgling sound travels through the door. It's probably just Conner running the hose, I say to myself. He’ll be back soon.
After an hour of flipping through T.V. shows, my brain wakes up. Conner. Slowly, I move to the sliding door and step out, allowing my eyes to wander around the garden. He’s not here. He’s not here. My brain is paralyzed, and my body is frozen. On the back of my neck, the hairs stand on end. As one entity, I go stiff. Everything goes stiff. All the city sounds begin to fade away. Somebody is watching. Somebody is watching me. Now I go slower, think before I do. The spot by the hose is wet, and my shoulders relax slightly. It makes sense. But I can still feel eyes piercing holes in my back. I bend down and dig my fingers into the wet soil and draw them out. My fingernails are caked with dirt. And my fingers are caked with blood.
My heart races. I stagger back, and the realization hits me. Where’s……. Conner? No. Tears well up in my eyes, but in my heart is a different feeling. Hate, yes. But more importantly, something else. Something built into human nature. Survival. I back away from the scene, from the holes in the ground, from the dripping hose that wasn't dripping. Twisting my body around, I stretch a hand out to the door handle. Wait. In the corner of my eye, there was a flash. A blur. Somewhere in my head, I know what it is. Who it is. Nevertheless, I'm not going to wait to find out. Sliding the door open, I rush inside. As I slip the door closed, I can almost swear I see the blur again.
My breath is heavy against the glass door, and I turn away. Doors. I need to lock all the doors. Bolting for the door to the garage, I twist the lock with one swift move. Done. Slower this time, my worry disappearing, I strut to the next, the one Conner and I came in through this morning. Together. He’ll never come through there again. Blinking away tears, something catches my eye as I near the door. The handle is turning.
I throw myself against the door and grab the handle, my blood running faster, my breath warm against my lips. On the other side of the handle, the pressure doesn’t release. It comes harder. And so do I. My hands shake and the grip on the other side forces my hands down, and to leverage it I have to get down on my wobbly knees, praying for the pressure to stop, praying for a miracle. After minutes of doing this, my hands are sweaty, and tears roll down my cheeks. The handle is barely inches away from clicking, inches away from opening. Inches away from my death. Death. That idea sends a rush of adrenaline through my veins, and on a wing and a prayer, I give one final heave. That’s all I need. Without hesitation, my left-hand flys up to the lock, and with a flick of my wrist, the lock clicks. A shaky breath escapes from my throat, which brings on a sob. Adrenaline is sucked from my body, and the moment is over. Exhaustion comes pouring in, collapsing me onto the hardwood floor, dropping my eyelids, making them heavier and heavier.
Grabbing a blanket, I stretch out on the couch. I sigh, a weighted breath. Closing my eyes, I’m about to drift off to sleep. Thump. Within seconds I’m on my feet, ready to strike, ready to flee. Something appears on the other end of the sliding door. The sun is setting; orange, red, and pink, streaking across the sky. Regardless of the colors, it's still dark, and I have to squint my eyes to see. It’s a body.
Darting across the living room, I rush to the wall adjacent to the sliding door. Creeping along the wall, I press my hand to it as if to remind myself it's there. As I reach the covered end of the door, I come to a halt. The clothes. I recognize the clothes. Inching closer to the door, I stop when it becomes dangerous. When I could be seen. Isn’t that what my sister wore this morn…… This time the sob comes from inside me, racking my insides, wrenching my guts. Staring at the ground, my eyes go out of focus, then back, then out again. Thump. Without a sound, my eyes drift up to the door, the blood from my sister’s headless body smeared to shape words on the glass:
NEED I SAY MORE?
I can’t fight it anymore. The tears stream down my face, blurring my vision. No. This killer is taking everything. Everything. This killer is killing everyone I care about, everyone that matters to me. Out of nowhere, a rattle shakes the house. It’s coming from the door. My sister’s body is gone, the words her blood had formed smeared to say nothing, now just blood smeared on a door. Another rattle. An inch closer.
Heart pounding, I take a step in the other direction, away from the door. Too fearful to find the sound, I turn away from the door. From behind me, a chuckle escapes from someone’s lips, cut short by fear. I whirl around, face to face with him. Face to face with a killer.
I stumble back, stunned by what I see. A memory clicks inside my head, but I can’t see it, can't reach it. For a split second shock registers on his face, but in his eyes, the shock is taken over by bloodlust. This man remembers me. In some distant part of my memory, I remember him. Slowly but surely, his pointer finger faintly touches his lips, and his hand ropes around his back to produce a knife. It’s dripping blood.
Boom. Like an explosion in my mind, the memories come flooding back, nights spent laughing at my house, me as a 4-year-old girl giggling as he pushed me on the swing, me yelling for him to push me higher, him telling me to fly for the stars. Evenings that he tucked me in when my parents weren't home. Not him. No. My brain searches for an answer, for a reason. What was his name? If I don’t know why I want to know who. Need to know who.
My brain runs through a path that holds memories that I’ve spent years trying to forget. He steps forward, his lightweight running shoes barely making a sound on the frigid tile floor. I back up, tripping on my shoelace. And then he takes a strike.
Thomas. First, he moves for my wrists, reaching the knife closer and closer. Barely resting on the inside of my right wrist, I wriggle free of his grip and scramble to my feet, determination flooding my senses. Determination to live.
“Thomas.” On my tongue, his name falls flat, the emotion intended in my voice lost somewhere in between the journey from my brain to my mouth.
“Yes?” he answers blankly, like it doesn't matter, like all the memories that we made together didn’t matter, like they never happened. But I know they do.
“Why?” I can feel my throat closing, the last sound strained, cracking. Nothing. No response, just him rising to his feet, and without hesitation, he charges at me. Diving to the left, he spins on his heels and charges once again, the impact knocking me to the ground, this time going for my throat. The pain is sharp this time, the veins in my neck bulging.
Not yet, Thomas. Not yet. I jerk my knee up to his stomach, and the sound is what hits me first. No time to think - not anymore. Flipping over the couch, I make a break for the staircase, his hand reaching out for my ankle, barely skimming my heel. Stumbling forward, the air rushes around me, my sights lined up with the staircase railings. Faster. Underneath me, my feet fly and I breeze up the staircase and into Connor’s room. Behind me, the weight of Thomas’ body on the stairs makes my heart beat faster. Numb fingers fumble for the lock to the window, and in the back of my head, I can hear him coming closer.
Closer. It’s so hard to focus. So hard. Faster. He’s getting closer. No. The window pushes up and the chilly air hits my face, whipping my hair around. His steps are strong, his strides confident. Intimidating me, daring me to try him, daring me to escape. Rearing back the knife, a grin breaking out on his blood-covered lips. Without a second thought, I climb out of the window and onto the roof, stumbling around with the wind at my side. At the window is Thomas’ face, searching, and when he sets his eyes on me, a smile darkly illuminates his face. A whisper parts his lips, and It’s like I can feel his warm breath on my neck. “Die.” A killer is behind me, reaching, longing, and before I can breathe, I’m on the edge.
A breeze is all it takes. All it takes to send me down, off the roof, plummeting to the ground. It comes in sections, the pain, and it torments me, my eyes wandering as if it would make it stop. As my eyes drift across the grass, memories flash before my eyes, reminders of life, life as we know it. Life as I know it. And my eyes fall on a secret door Connor and I had created years ago when we would stay there for ages trying to see how long we could go before something booted us out. Hunger, thirst, whatever came first. Bones shattered, I belly crawl to the door and wriggle in through the narrow doorway.
Even in the pitch-black room, I know my way around, but it's not the same. Never will be the same. Connor will never be here to tease me about how I’m too tall for the roof and I’ll never be able to remind him that he’s the taller one. Fumbling for the key and my consciousness, I put the key between my bloody, split lips and shakily raise it to the keyhole in the lock. With all the energy I have left I turn the key in the keyhole and barely hear the click before my eyes slide closed, and the crushing pain fades….
My eyes adjust to the darkness once again, and soon I’m able to make out shadows. One attempt to reach for the flashlight I know is across the room reminds me of my broken bones and the jump that I made yesterday. If anything, I know that I’m relieved not to be on the run, looking back with every step. But I ran. Knowing the consequences, knowing the truth, I ran. I’m battered. I’m bloody. But I whisper to myself, or no one in particular, “He may hurt me. He may shatter me. But I will not give in, because I cannot be broken.” Until I hear on the other side of the door - the killer’s ragged breathing. Then it hits me. I’ve locked him out. But I’ve locked myself in...