She eyed the envelope resting on the passenger seat, pristine but insipid even as it nestled all her preserved fruits of several years of labor; summer jobs, part-time waitressing through university, internships, and finally shavings off of a paycheck that was just enough to keep her expediently sheltered and rudimentarily fed. Smoothing out her thrifted scrubs, she forced herself to exhale; her breath instantly pluming into oblivion. If only she could have compelled the overwhelming sense of foreboding to follow in its flight, she might have been able to assuage the booming march of her heartbeat.
In the diner ahead, a lightbulb above the door flicked on and off thrice in quick succession and she moved to the passenger seat, quickly depositing the envelope in the side compartment. A man only a nudge taller than her five-foot-six-inch self, strutted across the parking lot and slipped in the driver’s seat; the badge on his belt glistening as he made himself comfortable.
She regarded him a moment. “So, why exactly can’t we take your car?”
“Because Miss Khan” he said turning his whole body to face her “if by some grim chance you were to be spotted, it’ll make an easy enough explanation that I borrowed a friend’s car since mine broke down and you were there to pick it up on your way back home at the end of a very long shift at the hospital”.
“And what if someone happens to wander in during the interview?”
“I indulged your curiosity and you were leaving” his tone was practiced, almost casual, like he had done this hundreds of times before. Maybe he had. Yet, it was his unblinking eyes boring into hers as he spoke that startled unsettling stirrings in the pit of her stomach.
She pulled out the envelope from the car door and extended it towards him, placing it in his now open palm but kept her hold on it. “Half now, half when I’ve got what I need”.
“That was the deal” His mouth stretched in what was perhaps intended to be a smile as he pocketed the money. “I’m sure I will get what I’m owed when you’re done”.
She couldn’t remember the last time her nerves stuttered like they did when confronted with his anticipation for a transaction she hoped, planned, even prayed would become available in time, but as of yet was not an assured reality. Even though she had only paid him half of what she owed, every last penny of her savings had to be scraped together for it and her checking account didn’t hold nearly enough to cover the remaining half. But he didn’t know that. Besides, if all went according to plan, this exclusive would earn her the promotion her boss confided in her she was a good candidate for. But years under one’s belt in one of the biggest news outlets in the country still played its hand in razing new blood, no matter its genius. Which is why she had to make a move that would both stun and impress the powers that be; an exclusive interview with the possibly the most ominous serial killer of the century was bound to send shivers down some crooked spines.
Even with her thoughts running a mile a minute, it didn’t escape her notice that for a prison guard expected to be loyal to the law, he certainly was not very concerned about rebelling against its speeding regulations. They rode in relative silence until a few blocks from their destination he voiced “by the way, why her? There are easier ones in there, you know, with far juicier details. It is a loony jail after all”.
“I don’t care about “juicy details”” She countered “This woman. She never laid a finger on her victims but they died the ghastliest deaths I’ve ever come to know of. Their faces were gone, mutilated beyond recognition, so were their teeth and prints. It's like they never existed. They were only recognized because of their belongings. I’m interested in the how and why of it all”
“Whatever you say. We’re nearly there, better get down. Can’t have you on tape”.
It calmed her nerves a little to know that with a procedure mask covering her face and the guard’s word to scrub the CCTV footage of her inside the prison, there wouldn’t be a fallout around the corner for her once this practically dubious venture reached its conclusion. She could’ve chosen to request for an interview as a journalist but every single person who had chosen to do so, had been turned down. Not to mention, the allotted time strictly allowed only an hour of visitation each day and no more than thirty minutes if done on a phone. The upside to exploring the clandestine route was that she had nine or ten hours every day until the guard’s shift ended. She could accomplish in a week what would otherwise take a month or more. The downside to walking the clandestine route was that she would be keeping a serial killer company for nine to ten hours every day until the guard’s shift ended.
They walked through the deserted corridors of the prison’s west wing. She eyed the gaping cells; every subtle breeze against their hollow husks from the pair’s brisk walk was like a gasp that begged for new life to be impounded into them.
She swallowed the rapidly growing lump in her throat. “Where are all the inmates?”
“Not here. The floor was cleared after she got here”.
“The entire floor?”
“Yes” he answered without looking at her, a small smile dancing on his lips “All of it”.
Silence grew more deafening with each step they took. Or were those whispers that came rushing at her from every corner, barely loud enough to make out the warnings, but amassed in such a force that they pressed against her skull?
No. She shut her eyes tight and forced herself to exhale. She could not afford to fall apart at the hands of her own jitters.
Jimmy’s steps slowed as they rounded a corner and the lights overhead bounced off a double paned tempered glass surface which ran along the entire expanse of the wall. With a start, she realized she wasn’t looking at merely a choice of interior design, but a glass wall encasing space roughly the size of a townhouse dining room. There wasn’t much on the interior padded walls, and only minimal soft furniture could be seen through the dimmed lights. There was a bed in the corner, partially swallowed by darkness. If she didn’t know better, she would have believed it was never used to hold anyone.
She jumped when a loud scraping noise yanked her out of her wary inspection as Jimmy dragged a chair to where she stood.
“Where is she?”
“I can’t see her”
“Maybe she doesn’t want you to” he said leaning against the wall “It’s not like she knows who you are”
She grabbed the chair and tried to make herself comfortable as Jimmy turned on his heel and walked off.
“My name is Amal Khan” She continued, doing her best to sound eager like she was thoroughly enjoying being there “I’m a journalist with The Metropolitan Press. I was hoping we could have a chat if that’s alright with you. What’s your name?”
She waited for a response but nothing but silence lingered behind the glass.
Amal checked her watch. Eight and a half more hours to go. Goosebumps raided her arms and she became painfully aware that she was being watched. She could feel tentative eyes boring into her form now.
“I understand if you don’t want to be bothered. But I don’t think it would be wrong to assume it gets quite boring being all alone up here. Can’t hurt to have some company, can it?"
She wasn’t sure if it was her words that elicited it or if she was still being ignored, but small scraping sounds varying in their ferocity every few seconds started up when she stopped talking. Scribbling. Someone was scribbling, or drawing, probably both.
Amal was so focused on trying to figure out exactly what her ears were picking up, it nearly made her heart jump out of her chest when a small voice sounded. “I’m never alone”.
It can’t be. Was it really a child? Is that why they hadn’t made her identity public?
In the sudden whirlpool that Amal’s frenzied thoughts were thrown into, for a split second her mind reeled back to when she would pull pranks and change her voice to sound exactly like that of a child and how it never failed to freak out her friends and her mum. She understood why now. It was unnerving to have your idea of a person be challenged with unfamiliarity.
For the next few hours, Amal tried unsuccessfully to get her - the inmate in a maximum-security prison for the criminally insane (she had to remind herself) – to talk some more, even a few words. She even tried to coax her out of the corner cloaked in darkness, promising to not ask any more questions, but to no avail. It wasn’t until there was a loud jangling of keys that resonated from the walls all around her, did she wake up with a start to realize a full day’s work and the lack of any rest in between had taken its toll and she had nodded off in her chair. As she moved to look up from the floor in an attempt to blink away her bleary vision to clarity, she caught a pair of socked feet quickly shuffling back to the corner, behind the glass.
“Miss Khan. Time to go” Jimmy announced before she could call out after the retreating silhouette.
Every night that followed since was as unpredictable as a desert storm. Amal had resorted to addressing the girl in the glass cage by ‘Jane’ as she was yet to reveal her name. Or her face for that matter. Some nights Jane would simply not utter a single word or make a sound. If not for the slight creaking of the bed as she moved to receive her food from the hatch Jimmy pushed the tray through, Amal was convinced the expansive cell wouldn’t even bear a memory of Jane’s existence. She excelled at becoming one with the shadows.
Other nights, Jane would reveal she had one sibling and they both shared a love for myths and folk tales. Her ramblings often missed the questions Amal posed, but sometimes she dove into monologues so deep and staggering, they sent shivers down Amal's spine and left her speechless.
She tried to be patient with Jane but when even after ten days of barely any sleep and spreading herself thin, most of her questions were simply brushed upon but left unanswered, Amal decided she had to switch tactics. Jane's tone had grown somewhat relaxed, even eager over the past week. Even if she didn't fully trust Amal, she had definitely grown used to their routine.
"Jane, If you do not like talking to me, you can tell me”.
“You’re not resting”
“I’m getting enough sleep” Amal lied “Do you want me to stop coming here? I can stop. Go on with my life.”
“But there’s no rest”
“What do you mean?”
“Your eyes sleep. Your mind doesn’t. You know you see things that aren't there, believe things that aren't true when there's no rest.”
Amal decided to ignore her. “Jane, did you know Maria Souza? Chiara Ricci? What about Taron Ellis?”
“How do you know you’re not in a dream?”
“What?” Jane’s question was so out of the blue, Amal didn’t know what to make of it. “Because I’m here. I can feel everything. I’m not flying over buildings or endlessly falling through the floor, am I?”
“That’s what sweet Taron said. Then he flayed his own face. Until there was nothing left”
Amal’s breath caught in her throat. This was the first time in ten days Jane had spoken about any of the victims.
“How do you know that, Jane?”
“All it takes is one day”
“What does that mean?”
“He realized he had to wake up. He finally saw it one day. I helped him”
Amal marched to the surveillance room where Jimmy said he would be at this hour of the graveyard shift.
“You said the floor was cleared after she got here” she blurted “Why?”
“Why do you want to know?”
“Jimmy, for the love of God! I haven’t slept, actually slept, in days. I have a headache that never goes away now, my presentation is coming up sooner than I’d like, and I still don’t know how much of what she has said has any connection to what she has done. Please, just tell me”.
Jimmy said nothing for a moment and simply eyed her.
“She talked to the women. That’s all she did. But whatever she said to them resulted in inmates shanking each other, a couple of them hung themselves. There was far too much money being used up with her allowed to interact with other people; inmates or guards. So they limited it all. Her movement and interactions. They locked her in and threw away the key, so to speak, dedicated strict measures and guards. We rotate and there’s only one psychiatrist cleared to speak with her. Happy?”
Black spots blinked in and out of Amal’s vision as she drove home from the diner’s parking lot that morning. How could a few choice words provoke such violence? What did she say to those people? Why did she even do this? How long did it take for her to dig her claws into their minds deep enough to rattle them like ragdolls?
Her questions of ‘Why’ and ‘How’ still remained unanswered. Amal went to bed with her heart crashing against her bones, the weight of it caving her chest in. She twisted and turned in fits, her throat beginning to constrict with the nerves wrecking her brain. She shot up only to find herself back in the driver’s seat of her car. When did she get there? She didn’t even know when the next night had fallen. She shut her eyes, trying to take deep breaths when there was a rustling beside her. Her eyes flew open to find a woman sitting there; her dark hair thinning, framing a drooping face that had no features at all, like their own skin had been stretched over to bury them underneath. She turned to Amal and a child’s ear-splitting scream ripped out of her entire being.
Amal's blood curdled and froze as she let out a scream of her own.
"HEY! WHOA!" Jimmy exclaimed as he swerved the car and pulled over the side of the highway.
“What? Where- Where am I?” Amal sputtered.
“Where are you?” Jimmy repeated “You’re in your car. Where else? What’s wrong with you? Jesus Christ! I nearly crashed into a truck”
“No. No. I was in bed. I was home”
“Aren’t you every night? Maybe you need some time off, eh? Get some proper rest. Pull yourself together”.
Amal glared at him despite the haze clouding her mind, but he was right. She needed some time to herself. Right before they reached the prison’s parking lot, she put in a request for a week’s leave of absence. She wasn’t worried about it getting denied; her vacation days had barely been used.
Amal knew she didn’t only need a break from her day job, but also from her still-secret nightly ventures. She had no intention of staying longer than necessary that night. No more coddling a psychopath’s ego.
She took a deep breath and readied herself for one final talk but before she could say a single word, a voice sounded through the speaker on the glass wall.
“You can have what you want. I’ll also let you see me”
Was it Jane’s? It sounded aged somehow. She shook her head to dismiss thoughts that weren’t going to help expedite anything.
“What’s the catch?”
“Sit closer to me tonight”
It didn’t matter why; this was everything she had been working for. Only a few more hours and she could leave all of it behind. Amal moved her chair closer to the glass; closer than even she was comfortable with. But she knew that’s how Jane wanted it.
“Your turn” said Amal with exhausted but resolute eyes.
“Do you know what a double-walker is, Amal?”
“You mean a doppelgänger? Or a twin?”
“Take your pick” Jane sighed “According to the lore in the sacred texts, a double walker exists at the same time as a person, walking around in their skin. Their existence itself draws the life from The One. So every scratch, every heartbreak, every calamity exists in The One’s life because of its double. As long as they exist, The One true self can never have the life they deserve”.
“Why are you telling me all this?” Amal interrupted “It’s just a myth. An old wives’ tale”.
“But it’s not. See, Maria, Taron, Chiara; they all wore my face, my skin. They strutted around with their liberties and luxuries like it belonged to them. But it didn’t. The universe spoke to me, but they stole what was rightfully mine, drew it away, while I got beaten, starved. Used”, she hissed, “It took more than half of my life to find them. But I did. Chiara was easy. Sleepwalked. I only had to mimic, show her the real mirror only a handful of times before she accepted she was living someone else’s life. The other two, they fought back. Wouldn’t admit that they weren’t real. But truth wins in the end and they knew they had to feel real pain to wake up from their dream. Taron never even stopped, his shell did”.
Amal could not move. Ice ran through her veins as she watched Jane’s feet touch the ground, in the sphere of light that stopped shy from the bed. With every step she took, more and more of Jane’s tall, slim form emerged from the darkness. Amal’s neck was stiff. All this time she had waited to see what Jane looked like, but now she did not want to see her face; she did not want to see the monster’s ugly mutilated soul. But something told her she would not be allowed to leave unless she looked into her eyes, so she forced herself to stand on shaking legs and dragged her eyes upwards.
She first saw the birthmark on her neck, that mirrored her own. Then she saw her face. It had her mother’s eyes, and her father’s nose as well as the small cluster of freckles by the left eye. She stared with wide eyes at a face she known and watched transform her whole life, behind a glass wall. Amal tried to scream, but there wasn’t enough air left in her lungs.
“Who are you?” She mumbled beyond a whisper
“I’m Amal Khan” the face smiled.
A heavy clothed hand covered her mouth and she went under with a sharp smell invading her senses.
She woke up to a muffled jangling of keys, her eyes were heavy and the headache had never been worse. She reached for the wall to pull herself up. But it felt different, wrong; glass.
Adrenaline coursed through her veins and she pried her eyes open. She was inside the glass chamber, with Amal- no, Jane- on the other side, on the outside, in her scrubs, smiling down at her. Jimmy stood by her side.
“Please” she croaked “Please don’t kill me”.
“Oh sugar, I’m not going to kill you. I’ve never killed anyone. As long as you’re in there, I know I’m not in a dream. I’m real”, she beamed.
Her world crashed around her, ringing, and thudding. “I’m real too” she begged “Please you don’t have to do this. I can help you. We can live together. Anything please”
“That’s alright” she smiled brightly “I believe I have a few days off to figure myself out. My brother was right. You should sleep now”.
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A very haunting story... reminded me of Silence of the Lambs. Well done!
Idk how i missed this. thank you so much, that's very kind of you to say <3
Great story, Sarah.
Thank you so much. Appreciate you taking the time to read it.