"What if I shared my most condemning secret?"
Annette lifted her eyes from the dessert menu to meet those of her equally as decadent date. Ray had tapped into the essential plot element of intrigue with that line. His countenance had grown rigid, the humor of their previous conversation long gone from his otherwise glorious gaze. Every time she concentrated on those deep blue orbs, she felt a mixture of elation and enough jitters to about send her rocketing for the nearest toilet.
Anxiety always made her nauseous. If she were a character in one of her beloved slasher films, this would be her cue to run for cover—mostly for a safe place to be vulnerable enough to spew. Ray triggered the effect more than any other man she had known, but in a good way. Well, if there ever could be a good way to be sick from nerves.
“Secret?” she said in what she hoped was a steady voice.
Was he about to confess his love to her? Annette’s heart leapt to her throat. Her hand shot to the area, checking if the vital organ had actually dislodged itself and obstructed her airway. Nothing clogged her gullet, but she did feel more inclined to excuse herself at the thoughts running away with her innards.
Three months of snail’s pace dating had her half wondering why the man kept asking her out. Each time they met, he appeared every bit as enthused to see her as she was ready to upchuck onto his branded jeans, but an odd form of trepidation had hovered underneath the surface of his advances.
A plot-thickening detrimental habit? Illegitimate children living in Borneo or Maldives? The audacity to leave the toilet seat in a vertical position?
Ray reached across the table to take Annette’s hands. The warmth of the contact made her hyper-aware of the Disney-style setting surrounding them.
A pair of bluebirds chirped in the maple branches stretching above their patio cafe table. The smog of city traffic had been replaced by the aroma of apple pie en route to a table beside them. Violins played over the lowered sound system.
With a flash of pearly, straight teeth, Ray said, “We haven’t known each other long, but I feel I can trust you with this. Do you trust me?”
Annette could feel the giddy grin warping her own features into an expression better befitting a cartoon character. Was he really going to confess? Or was this some darker matter of another nature? Her mother had warned her about drug dealers and men who wanted women for accessories or only as baby incubators.
Ray hadn’t alluded to any such fantasies, but he was also right; they hadn’t known each other that long.
“Of course, I trust you,” Annette said, a little surprised she could feel the sincerity in her own voice. Those were often the final words before the killer pops out to gut an unsuspecting victim. She’d witnessed it over hundreds of tubs of popcorn.
Ray’s grin was back, melting her insides like a blowtorch over a stick of butter. “I have a collection…”
Annette was leaning closer, eyes wider than a kid with free reign of a candy aisle. She almost believed she would end up alone. Most of her friends were already married, some with children on the way. Annette was afraid the odd angle of her nose, her too springy curls, and her hammy thighs would keep any serious callers at bay.
Not Ray. He had made it a habit to tell her she was enticing inside and out; that her loving nature was all he needed. And now, he was finally adding his own character details.
Ray rubbed her palms with his tanned fingers. “You’re right. It’s…I have”—he leaned in closer, giving a shifty glance to a passing waiter—“maybe it would be better just to show you.”
Annette’s dazed expression froze while her mind shattered a vision of Ray making love to her on their wedding night. This sort of anticipation was enough to silence all cravings for dessert. How could she wait?
“You can’t tell me?”
Ray’s eyes sparkled, grin widening. “Will you just come over and see? I’ve never shown anyone before. But Annette, you’re amazing.”
“I suppose maybe—”
“Just for a bit,” Ray said. “Please?”
Dazed by his charming confidence in her, Annette somehow managed a nod. She had to ignore the inner alarm at walking right into a plot where her character was about to move from witness to victim.
Ray appeared as a giddy teenager about to disrobe his girlfriend for the first time. Annette’s stomach was threatening, but so far, no gurgling.
This was it. Ray was about to show her into his secret world. She should have known it would include this door. He had nearly pissed himself when she inquired what was behind it the first time he showed her around his condo. What could he be hiding? A collection of rocks from all over the planet? A sex dungeon complete with cuffs and other restraints?
Would she even care?
Annette could feel her sense eroding in the wake of Ray’s chipper mood. Whoever said beauty, brains, manners, and success couldn't be lumped into one person had never beheld the charming grin of Raymond Devonshire. If anything, he was the unlikely hero who traps the killer just before he claims the final main character.
Ray’s hand twisted the doorknob.
The gradually moving barrier revealed a sight like no other; a metaphorical portal to another realm.
Hundreds of beady, plastic eyes were fixed on Annette. Tiny bodies hung from the ceiling, peeked out from shelves, lined a walkway on the carpeted floor, and even gazed over the edge of the ceiling fan. Each creature represented a different animal, some with several different colored versions. Some fictional, some exotic.
Ray’s pride worked through his body, transferring through the hand he used to help Annette inside his treasure trove. “What do you think?”
“Wow, this is, uh…”
“Quite the collection, right? I started back in the nineties, and now I have every Weeby Woobie ever made.”
More visions of a life of bliss with Ray tumbled through Annette’s mind into a blackened pit. This was his big secret?
She feigned as much exuberance as she could muster. After all, this was her devilishly handsome Ray; another peek into his world. She wanted to know everything there was to know about him, even if it included fad toys.
“Y-yeah. Pretty amazing.”
Weeby Woobies. She knew all about them. Those dang fur-crusted squeak toys that started wars between mothers in fast-food restaurants, sending frightened children for the cover of tables. The same toys the popular girls in grade school used to hang off their backpacks and brag about for status. Annette had a few of her own, but they were the same common ones everyone had.
Ray slipped his hand in hers. “Come. I’ll introduce you.”
The fact that Ray used the word “introduce” had her inner alarms blaring. She recounted the recipe for a perfect partner and realized sanity was nowhere on the list. Who leaves out such a vital ingredient? Please, God, let her out of here before she’s expected to converse with an inanimate object.
Annette found her stiff legs coursing down the path to a bookshelf where the bulk of the creatures were meticulously stacked and sorted. By color. And species.
She flicked her wary eyes to Ray who beamed right back.
He reached careful fingers to pluck a mint green sheep from the middle shelf. An identical version peeked out from behind that painted grin. The toy was deposited into Annette’s hand with Ray’s fingers closing hers over it as if it may flee otherwise.
“I want you to have this one. Her name’s Annette, just like yours. I knew there was a reason I kept two.”
The sheep released its joyful squeak when Annette’s trembling fingers gripped through the wooly curls. When she turned her head, two more shelves she couldn’t see from the door came into view. All the creatures were arranged with just as much attention to detail.
Even though Ray wasn’t talking to them, something stirred inside Annette. What level of strange was this? She took in his straight posture; his face frozen in boyish glee. The sheep was still choked in her grip like a lifeline she could use to evacuate herself out of the shrine.
“Oh, Ray. Thank you. This is…a wonderful gift.”
“I knew—I just knew you’d like it. And now, I can tell you all about my business.”
“You collect and sell them, right?” Annette was proud of herself for how even her voice sounded. Mentally, she was recalling the nearest bathroom in case the salad was on the return trip after all.
“Indeed. Quite the lucrative business for collectors.”
“And now, I don’t have to hide it from you anymore. Oh, Annette, I knew you wouldn’t judge me.”
Ray threw his arms around her. She squeaked every bit as loud as the toy in her smothering hold. She hoped Ray mistook the sound for joy.
Annette was dressed in a white gown, her hair adorned with flowers to match those in her grip. Ahead was a pulpit bathed in the light of a stained glass window. She was walking toward it. The pews were empty. Silence reigned.
A round tennis ball-sized creature hopped to the podium, squeaking. When she turned, she saw the pews full of Weeby Woobies.
Ray stepped out from a side hallway. His head was a gigantic version of the sheep he had given her. She squealed and shut her eyes. Only a few small clicks sounded around her. It had gone totally dark as if her eyes signaled a change of scene.
Weeby Woobies surrounded Annette. Their plastic eyes shook with their oncoming motion. Clicks came from the inner black spots comprising those dead gazes. They jumped—squeaking in time with each landing—closing in.
Annette screamed. She batted at the air.
The rainbow of gorilla Weeby Woobies bounced for her arms. She pulled them in tight, but the purple one found purchase on her elbow. It smiled up at her, climbing higher without the use of proper limbs.
Bulbous gators and seals clung to her legs. Elephants and bears bounded for her torso. Her screaming ceased when the pile of furry bodies turned her into a shuddering mountain of chromatic fluff.
Annette tossed her gray comforter aside with a sleepy squeal. Her oversized shirt clung to her damp body.
A dream. Thank God.
When she turned to check the nightstand clock, a muffled squeak sounded from under her shoulder. She gasped, her shock oozing into a furrowed brow. The lump was plucked from under her.
Her fingers gripped the fluff and chucked it toward the window where the early morning sun filtered through sheer curtains. The sheep squeaked upon contact with the beige wall.
Annette felt an inner stab of guilt. Ray had given her that thing out of love. At least, she thought that was why. The poor man concealed a hobby that would likely ostracize him from other adults if they found out, but he had trusted her enough to share it. To be vulnerable. Who was she to judge when she had her own collection of horror flicks?
Besides, everything else about Ray was absolute perfection. She smiled when she pictured his long lashes as he neared to kiss her. And he always held her so gently, took her to sample pricey cuisine, and let her command the pace in the bedroom. He was her own fantasy come to life in both body and spirit; her storybook hero.
It would take more than an obsession with fad toys to back her away.
Annette’s peace was smothered when she noticed a tiny silhouette on her windowsill. It hadn’t been there the night before. For an indeterminate stretch of time, she stared at the ball-shaped object.
Could it be? How?
Dread formed a pit in her stomach, nestling beside the leftover dinner she consumed after Ray had dropped her back home.
Her toes alighted on the chilly hardwoods. Cautious steps carried her to the window. She inched back the curtain with the speed of one expecting a monster to jump out.
On her windowsill sat a blue-gray Weeby Woobie in the shape of what she supposed was a wolf. Its eyes were turned toward her bed. A folded piece of paper lay beside it. Before the full gravity of the situation caved in on her, Annette found herself reaching for the note—eyes on the minuscule creature as if it could come alive and nip her fingers.
My apologies for intruding, but you’re the only soul I’ve ever entrusted with my whole self. And now, I bestow upon you a gift I had always planned to give the one who stole my heart. Please accept this treasured figure and keep him with his love always. If you know what I’m asking, call me with your answer. I’ll patiently wait as long as you need.”
Annette could feel saliva gathering under her tongue. Her fingers lurched en route to claim the figure. On the tag attached to the wolf’s silky buttocks was a printed name.
The toy fell to the floor, landing with a half-squeak. Annette dashed to the bathroom door, barely sticking her face through the porcelain ring before she hurled.
Oh, God…Ray’s nuts, she thought.
He came into my room while I slept…
How did he even get into my house? Why did he think it was okay?
An almost heave had Annette gripping the sides of the bowl. Dancing Weeby Woobies flitted across her vision as if she were hungover. She had to pull herself together before—
The masculine voice had a scream echoing through the toilet. Annette’s bulging eyes met the shape of Raymond in her bathroom door. An object dangled in his grip. Her watery vision prevented her from focusing on it. A knife? A torture device?
“Are you alright?” Ray asked. His tone revealed none of the gravity it should have for his forced entry.
Annette had scooted to the far side of the toilet, placing the blessed object between her and what could be a mentally broken man. If she thought screaming for help would save her, she would already have done so. Now, she was willing her eyes to clear so she could focus on his weapon of choice.
Slowly, the shape between his fingers cleared. Long, white…a washcloth. And on his features, nothing but sympathy.
All of Annette’s limbs choked the commode as if the room convulsed around her. What was she supposed to say? He hadn’t assaulted her yet. In fact, if she read the earlier implication correctly, he wanted—
Wait, had he proposed? Using a Weeby Woobie? God…
And yet, no one had chased her the way Ray had. Unsettling methods aside, the man was courting her in his original fashion; writing his own script he wanted her to join. Should she be impressed? Horrified? Turned on? Could she at least roll with the situation long enough to get her head straight?
Articulating the truth could land her in a ditch—dug by Weeby Woobie minions. She was safe at the moment, so she could figure out details later. For now, she blurted the first believable, but totally impossible line to explain away her affair with the bathroom toilet.
“I think I must be pregnant.”