Tuesday, October 29, 2013

"Bits and Pieces" - a sequel to "Seeing Through the Mask", from Nov. 1, 2011.

My first new short story in too many months! This one is actually the sequel to a story I wrote way back in 2011, called Seeing Through the Mask. I strongly recommend reading it before taking in this story.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

"Bits and Pieces" 

“Jenny?” I cried, trudging up the leaf-strewn hill.  “Jenny! Are you here?” 

The wind kicked up, sending leaves cascading over my tennis shoes.  Briefly my left foot slipped, but I caught myself with one hand before I hit the grass. But not at the loss of my paper coffee cup, which bounced once on the grass before the top sprang off and its contents spilled out all over the ground. 

“Dammit!” I screamed, staring at the steaming place on the dead grass.  I had really been looking forward to that cup of coffee.

But more than that, I had been looking forward to seeing Jenny again. It had been a year since we had laid eyes on each other. I had been looking forward to this day since  we had first met, on Halloween the year prior.

I pulled myself upright again and zipped up my sweatshirt against another sudden breeze.  The trees in the old cemetery groaned and creaked, their damp, dead limbs protesting the movement. The breeze brought with it the smell of dead things: decaying leaves, old moss, and cold stone. 

That was why I always came to the cemetery to write my breed of dark poetry; it always seemed to put me in the mood to contemplate the fruitless dichotomy of life and death.

Most people would have laughed and dismissed my work immediately at the mere phrase “fruitless dichotomy of life and death.” But not Jenny. She was one of the few people who really wanted to hear what I had written, to get to know the deeper me beneath the metaphors.  Even though we had only spent that one afternoon together last year, I knew I had to see her again.

“Jenny, are you here?” I called. “It’s me, Claire. I brought a lot of new material this year.”

I finally crested the top of the hill, the highest point in the cemetery. This was my old go-to spot, where I came every Halloween to surround myself in the macabre. Last year was the first year I had ever been joined by anyone; I had gotten lucky, in finding Jenny.

This year, I wasn’t as lucky. A skinny man sat at the base of the tree. He wore glasses that looked too big for his face, and at least three sweaters against the chill in the air. The result made him look like a turtle, poking its thin neck out from an overstuffed, puffy shell. The frock of thinning hair on the top of his head stood out at comical angles in the breeze.

“Oh, hello,” he said awkwardly, blinking two magnified, muddy-brown eyes at me from behind his glasses. “I heard you shouting. Are you looking for someone?”

As my old introversions took over, I pulled my Chicago Bulls cap down further over my face. “Oh, it’s nothing,” I lied. “I… um… I probably should be going.”

I had responded before I had even thought about what to say. I only got to see Jenny once a year; I couldn’t leave yet!  But I didn’t want to sit next to that creepy-looking guy. Something about him gave me the willies. Besides, I had no idea if she would even appear if I wasn’t alone at the top of the hill.

“Oh, it’s okay,” the guy continued.  “I won’t disturb you. You can sit, if you like. I’m not going to be here much longer, and I don’t want you to miss your friend.”

He was sitting in my spot. This was my fifth year in a row at the cemetery on Halloween, and my second year in a row with Jenny. It wasn’t fair that he was taking my spot.

Still, he got there first. And at least he wasn’t going to stay long. Maybe Jenny would appear after he left. “Okay, thanks,” I said. I trotted around to the other side of the tree and planted my rear on the thick roots. From my backpack I produced my composition notebook, the one I had covered with Sharpie doodles of skulls and ghosts. 

Last Halloween, Jenny had showed me that, if I let my eyes unfocus and cleared my mind, I could see the spirits of the people buried in the cemetery wandering around. Halloween night was apparently the one time of the year when the barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead was  thinnest.  It has something to do with why Mexican culture celebrates the Day of the Dead on November 1st.

It was also why today was the only day of the year I could see Jenny. 

I had chosen my old spot because of the view it allowed me of the rest of the cemetery. The view from the other side of the tree simply showed off the dead scrub of thorns and weeds that grew at the base of the tree, separating the other side of the hill from the rest of the cemetery.

This sucks, I moped, opening my composition book.

“So, did you say your name is Claire?” The guy’s voice said, from the other side of the tree.

Great. First he takes my spot, then he tries to force me into awkward small talk. I briefly contemplated throwing myself into the thicket of brambles, but then I thought better of it.  “Yeah,” I begrudgingly said, flipping through the pages in the notebook.

“I’d say  Claire is a funny name for a boy, but I’d say you’re probably tired of hearing it,” the guy replied with an awkward chortle. 

My short hair, lack of make-up, and unflattering clothing had yet again brought out the razor wit in the best of society. As if I didn’t get enough of that at school. Then why bother saying it, asshole? I wondered. Instead of retorting, I chose to simply remain silent; with any luck, the guy would take my silence as indication he should leave, and then Jenny would feel free to come out. 

On the most recent page of my notebook, I had drawn a (very terrible) cartoon of me and Jenny, the way I pictured we looked last year at my place on the hill.  Me, in my hoodie and cap, she in her school girl uniform, one knee-length stocking, and one black leather shoe. 

Something like electricity suddenly filled the air around me. It was nothing I could perceive with my normal senses; it had no appearance, no sound, and no physical feeling. But something happened, there in that moment, which made me feel warm and alive and happy again. Like I had felt when Jenny was around. 

At the bottom of the page in my notebook, a single line of beautiful script appeared, as if written by an invisible pen held by an invisible hand.

It’s him.

I froze, staring at the page. I wasn’t afraid. The feeling the air, the way I felt her with my senses in a way that was nearly impossible to explain, told me that she was near. It was the words that she had written on my page that gave me pause. 

When Jenny appeared to me last year, she only had one leg. She said that when she had been murdered, the previous February, the killer had taken her left leg. It was the signature of the Doll Parts Killer. The police had been unable to catch him for more than ten years. Every four or five months or so, another body popped up, each one missing a piece. The police assumed the killer kept them as trophies, like some sick big-game hunter.

My hands starting to shake as the realization of what Jenny had written on the page sunk in. I took a pen from my pocket and scrawled on the page beneath the script:  Are you sure? 


I stood so quickly that my notebook fell to the grass and I toppled my backpack, spilling its contents at the base of the tree. I stood for a moment, listening, but I heard nothing except for the light echo of traffic from the road, a few hundred yards away. Somewhere among the graves, a crow cawed. 

“So what brings you out here, all alone, on a night like this?” 

I jumped at the voice and spun to find the awkward-looking man only feet from me. He had come around the other side of the tree with barely a sound at all.

The half of my brain that told me to run for my life prevented the half that tried to stay calm from speaking. I choked on some words that slipped from my throat in an unintelligible murmur. The trying-to-stay-calm half gestured at the spilled writing materials.

“Oh, let me help you pick them up,” the man said, taking a step closer to me. He knelt at my feet and started gathering my pencils and books.

Good thing the run-for-your-life part of my brain was still partially in control. I took a step backward, away from the man, which put me nearly out of his arm’s reach when he lunged for me.

He grabbed my left foot and pulled hard, which set me off balance. I fell hard on my butt on the wet grass. He pulled me a few inches closer to him by my foot. He was stronger than he looked.

I screamed and kicked with my right foot. He dodged, faster than a guy who looks so gangly should be able to dodge, and grabbed my right shoe with his other hand. I twisted and kicked my feet, but he had intertwined his fingers with my shoelaces and held tight.

“Stop screaming,” he grunted through gritted teeth, pulling with both hands again. “If you stop screaming, I won’t hurt you.”

I screamed harder as I slid a few inches along the grass, closer to him.  “Help!” I cried, twisting my legs as hard as I could. “Someone! Anyone! Help!” 

On his knees, he released one of my feet and lunged his newly freed hand for my face. I managed to get my free knee between him and me, but he was too close for me to kick my way free.

Then I remembered the pen in my hand, which I had used to write my reply to Jenny’s disembodied message. I thrust as hard as I could and plunged the pen into the palm of the man’s hand.

He screamed and flinched away far enough for my free kneecap to become my free leg. I planted the sole of my shoe as hard as I could into his nose. His head flipped back like a Pez dispenser, and my other shoe was suddenly free of his  hand. I scrambled to my feet and ran.

In the movies, action like that would have bought me plenty of time to run away. In real life, it felt like only a second before I heard footsteps following me down the hill. “Stop running! Stop screaming!” He yelled, his weasely voice full of rage. “You’re just going to make it worse!”

I didn’t realize I was still screaming.

I ran toward the road. If there were other people around, he would leave me alone. Someone would come to help me.

But the cemetery was huge, and the road was a long way away. My lungs burned from the cold air and my legs ached from wrestling with the stranger and running full speed down the hill. A stitch, like a cold knife, tore at my side.

A row of stone mausoleums, each more than ten feet tall and at least as long, came into view. I recognized them: the nine structures made a three-by-three grid. Each held four caskets, one on top of the other.

I darted among them, and when I was sure I was sufficiently hidden, I pressed my back against the cold stone and tried to will my heart to stop pounding in my ears. Behind me I heard shoes come to a stop on the grass.

He’s trying to find the best place to enter, said a voice in my head. It was warm, soothing, and kind.

Jenny! I thought, and I nearly melted from relief.

He’s two monuments to your left, Jenny said. Move around the right side of your block.

I did as Jenny instructed. Somewhere close by, shoes crunched on dead grass. A frustrated grunt met my ears.

Rotate again, same direction, Jenny said. That will leave you facing the road.

Again, I did as she told me. I was now facing the outside of the mausoleums, and I could see the road some hundred yards away.

He’s still looking for you. You have to run for it.

My heart lept in my chest. I can’t leave yet!  I haven’t gotten to see you!

Jenny’s voice was frantic. Claire, you have to go, now! This is your only chance!

But I won’t get to see you for another year! I protested. I felt on verge of tears, and, to my surprise, they weren’t from fear.

There will be many more years! Jenny said. But only if you get out of here alive! I care too much about you to let this bastard have you, too!

You’re the only one who’s ever gotten to know me, I replied.

And you’re the only one who’s ever known me, Jenny said, her voice thick with emotion. But Claire, if you care about me at all, please save yourself! Run!

The conversation had happened in less than the blink of an eye; at the speed of thought. I gritted my teeth, squinted the tears out of my eyes, and ran as if my life depended on it. Because it literally did.

It took the pursuing footsteps a few seconds to figure out which was I was going, but then they thudded behind me. Panic filled my chest and I ran until my heart felt like it was going to explode and my legs felt like they were made of hot slag.

I love you, I thought to Jenny as I approached the cemetery gate and my body screamed for me to stop.

I love you, too, she replied as I stepped past the gate and into the parking lot.

I didn’t stop until I got to the road. When I finally had the nerve to turn around, the man was gone. In full sight of all cars on the road, I pulled my cell phone from my pocket and dialed 911.

Police arrived. Armed, they went into the cemetery to find the guy who had chased me. He was nowhere to be found, but they did recover all my stuff from the top of the hill.

I wanted to go back in with them. I wanted to talk to Jenny again. But they wouldn’t allow it.

My parents showed up. A news crew interviewed me the next morning. A police sketch of the man went on every news station in three states.

I had no idea why the Doll Parts Killer was in the same cemetery as me on Halloween night. I would have asked Claire for some insight, but by the time I made it back to the cemetery, days later, there was no answer from her. 

So I decided what I had to do.

First, I had to find another way to talk to Jenny. I needed her.
Second, I had to catch the Doll Parts Killer.