Nothing will hurt you here.
It started with a whisper, low and slow. Gentle pings on the piano, and then, strings, each note a pull, causing a twinge in the middle of the chest that feels almost like pain, the low bass a soothing rhythm, slowing the heartbeat to match its cadence, first slow and calming, then gradually growing faster, louder, to a climactic peak, a cathartic exhalation, before slowing back down in a comforting decrescendo.
“It is beautiful.” I breathed after the song finished, suddenly realizing I was crying. “Oh my gosh, I have never felt like this while listening to a piece of music. This is incredible, Lucy, truly incredible.”
“Thank you, Ms. Hahn.”
Lucy’s expression was inscrutable. Her deep brown eyes pools of ink beneath black lashes, not a single line on her expressionless face. She was looking at me intently. “How does it make you feel?”
I wiped at my face to dry the wetness on my cheeks. “I don’t know… there’s something about it, a sense of something I can’t have, or something that I’ve lost somehow…”
“Yes?” Lucy prodded, leaning forward.
“Longing.” I finally said. “This song. This song captures perfectly the feeling of longing.”
Lucy nodded, seeming satisfied.
The sheet music lay haphazardly on the table.
“How did you make this, Lucy?” I asked. Lucy was my brightest student, technically gifted, able to execute the most difficult pieces on both the piano and strings without a single mistake. She was a joy to watch perform, her hands a flurry of perfect technique, the product of thousands of hours of practice and natural talent. But for all of Lucy’s gifts, being creative was not one of them. Not once has my best student created a truly original piece.
Lucy leaned back and looked up at the ceiling. “You wouldn’t believe me.”
“Of course I would.” I countered, not quite feeling the certainty of my words. There was something about the piece that felt surreal. Even then I knew, I knew the song I just listened to would go down in history as an iconic piece, it was simply too good. There was no doubt in my mind I was witnessing the nascent of a musical legend. It was exactly the kind of thing artists dream of, the only thing.
She flicked her gaze back to me. The silence between us stretched, the air in the room thinner, as if we’re at the peak of something. Finally she said, “It came to me in a dream.”
“A dream.” I repeated doubtfully.
“Yes.” Lucy sighed. “You’re going to think I’m crazy.”
As a teacher at one of the most prestigious music conservatories in the country, I have certainly seen my fair share of students being driven to the brink of a mental breakdown. There was an unbelievable amount of pressure, being at the top of the craft, the cutthroat competition, the hours and hours of practice, the extreme passion and perfectionism, the never ending mantra of not being good enough.
I watched Lucy’s face and was suddenly struck with the youth of it. The face of a girl too young to be feeling this much pressure, to carry this weight. And it was a heavy weight, wasn’t it? To be this talented.
Girls her age should be giggling about boys and decorating their dorm rooms, worrying about make up and what outfit to wear to the next party. Instead, here Lucy was, talking about composing music in her dreams.
“It just asked something in return.”
I blinked. “It?”
Lucy nodded. “I thought I was dreaming, you know, I didn’t take it seriously. It asked to take a piece of me, a feeling, a human thing, and it said in exchange, it would help me turn it into a timeless piece of music.” She looked down at her hands. “Then I woke up, and I had this song in my head, I recorded myself playing it and here we are.”
I swallowed something thick in my throat. Poor, poor Lucy. Another young talent broken by the pressure. Already I pictured myself making phone calls to the school health center, helping Lucy make an appointment for an evaluation.
“But you see, I think it actually took it.”
“The feeling.” A look of deep concern crossed my young student’s face. “I don’t feel it anymore. I can’t. It’s like, it was cut out of me.”
“The feeling of longing.” I said slowly.
“Lucy, listen to me.” I leaned forward. “I am glad you finally found your creative side, but I think you’re putting yourself under too much pressure. You have to take care of yourself, okay? I’ll make you an appointment with Sheila. You’ve met her, right? The school psychologist. I really think—”
“Forget it.” Lucy stood up. “You think I’m crazy. Anyway, I have to go, I have other songs I need to record…”
“Yeah… I have to. It’s the only thing that matters anymore.”
Then she was gone, the wooden door swinging shut behind her, leaving the rapidly scrawled sheet music on the table. I stared at the sheets for a moment, noticing the slightly unhinged way in which they were handwritten, as if it was done subconsciously, automatically. There was a particular spot where the note head was shaded so aggressively that it looked like the lead of the pencil snapped.
I should have gone after her, should have stopped her… but I didn’t. I had a busy schedule, the next student already waiting outside in the hallway, and I told myself I would call Sheila to check on Lucy later. It could wait, I told myself, she needed to calm down, maybe get some songs out of her system. Secretly I wondered what kind of masterpiece she was going to record next. If it was going to be as good as the one she just showed me.
Already I was intoxicated by the music. If I was being honest myself… I simply wanted more of it. It felt precious. It felt… worth it.
I would never forgive myself for that.
The tragedy of Lucy Chen made headlines across the country.
The nineteen year old prodigy was renowned for having created thirteen masterpieces in a matter of weeks. Each masterpiece was titled a specific emotion, each perfectly capturing the feeling. The effect was described to be almost supernatural, the way each note was so perfectly placed that it caused measurable physical effects in both the performer and the listener: heart rates racing and falling, muscles tightening then relaxing. It was not uncommon during a performance for audience members to start weeping.
In short order, this drove Lucy’s creations to the highest recognition. The collection aptly called “Fragments of a Soul” garnered Lucy the Pulitzer Prize for Music posthumously.
The last piece of the collection was titled simply “Joy” and it was dedicated to her music teacher, Ms. Geraldine Hahn, who declined any comment on the matter. The sheet music was rumored to be accompanied by a handwritten letter addressed to the teacher, the contents of which widely speculated upon by many music enthusiasts.
Geraldine Hahn left teaching shortly after Lucy Chen’s death, citing “personal reasons” for her early retirement. It was rumored that she had checked herself into a psychiatric facility at the urging of her family and colleagues. Both Ms. Hahn and the school have declined to comment if her retirement had anything to do with Lucy or the letter.
The tragedy of this musical genius will resonate with music schools across the country for decades to come, each of the thirteen pieces achieving cult status. It has been said that the highest achievement for a student was to perform all thirteen pieces in succession without a mistake.
“Joy” became one of the modern choices for an audition repertoire for most conservatories, which typically required only classical works such as Bach or Chopin.
The exact nature of Lucy’s death is to be kept private in accordance to the wishes of her family, though they have confirmed there is no evidence of foul play.
I am not sure why I am writing you this letter. I think some part of me thinks you might understand. Or maybe I just want someone to know. It seems the right thing to do, to tell someone.
The most wonderful thing has happened.
I was scared at first. It was terrifying, the blackness of it. Like an endless shadow. At the same time it was calling to me, pulling me deeper into it, like gravity.
And then, of course, the music. The music was so beautiful, so perfect, that I just had to keep going, keep giving.
After a while, little by little, the more I gave it, eventually… I stopped being afraid.
Now, nothing feels the same. Nothing feels like anything, really.
And I…like it.
I wish I could tell you how freeing it is. How beautiful. To feel this nothingness.
I have no more worries, no fears, no ugly memories. There is no pressure to do anything or be anyone. Nothing hurts. Nothing matters.
I feel… weightless.
I hope you like this final piece. It is the last part of me.
Do not be afraid.
Do not worry.
Nothing will hurt me here.
When I think of the word “monster” I think of my daughter.
It was an involuntary reflex, an automatic thought as my academic husband would have called it, the association between “daughter” and “monster” carved into the recesses of my brain, my neurons easily connecting the two concepts together.
I know it is not the correct way to feel about one’s own child, and for many years I punished myself for it. Over and over I admonished myself for feeling the way I did. It was abhorrent, going against every natural human instinct to love and care for one’s flesh and blood.
For a mother it was especially unforgivable.
To be fair, to this day, I am convinced my daughter is a monster.
I knew from the moment I held her in my arms, the way her pale blue eyes absorbed all the light in the room, reflecting nothing back, like a demon. I felt no surge of love when they gave her to me wrapped in pale pink fabric, after hours of exhausting labor. The only thing I felt when her skin touched mine was pure disgust, the nausea causing my eyes to water.
My husband Erick mistook the tears in my eyes to be from joy.
“She is beautiful isn’t she?” He had smiled so brightly then, as he took my child from me and held her in his arms, like he had just been given the most precious gift. “Arla. I want to name her Arla.”
“I’m… not feeling well.” I had managed to choke out. Even then I knew, I knew what I was feeling was abnormal… deplorable. Erick would not have forgiven me. It was not a forgivable thing.
“Of course, of course, honey.” Erick barely took his eyes off her. He was charmed already, my husband, the first of many that my daughter would have under her spell. Everybody it seemed, except for me.
Arla was sixteen when the deaths started.
There were dead animals before that, of course, pets mysteriously disappearing or getting ill. I could never prove it, there were always perfectly reasonable explanations, with Arla’s beaming innocent face dispelling any suspicions. It was also possible, of course, that I was simply insane, and that I had spent the last sixteen years harboring a sick delusion about my daughter, like the deplorable broken human being that I am.
Trust me, that thought never strayed far from the back of my mind, a whisper of doubt in every interaction, every innocent comment, every seemingly innocuous event that could have a thousand meanings and repercussions.
Arla was never overtly malicious to me, but here and there, she would do something so unexpectedly hurtful, and she would look fascinated, absolutely riveted, at her power to wound me. It was like she was surprised at her own strength, at her ability to affect other people. I often got this feeling around Arla, that everyone in the world existed only to entertain her.
Nobody else seemed to share these feelings about my daughter, of course.
That was okay, I was rather adept at pretending now. I’ve had sixteen years of practice, after all. Two… maybe three more years and Arla would flee the nest and I would be able to finally breathe again. Two years. That was hardly any time at all.
I was perfectly ready to continue our farce of a happy family for another few years, burying all my dysfunctional feelings under practiced smiles and nice suburban rituals, but then that one cursed afternoon, while doing some half-hearted house cleaning... I found the lock box under Arla’s bed.
After that I could no longer keep pretending.
I stared at the contents of the box in front of me in quiet trepidation. Even then, even then, my brain looked for other explanations, for more innocent reasons, for what Arla had been keeping under her bed.
I stiffened. A chill ran down my spine. I shook it off as I turned my head to look at my daughter.
Arla stood by the kitchen counter with her dark copper hair in a messy bun, wearing a wrinkled t-shirt and shorts way too short for a sixteen year old. She was beautiful, people always said, ever since she was little. She was not merely pretty, no, that word denoted a level of wholesome innocence, soft symmetrical features that was pleasant to look at. No, Arla had that rare kind of bewitching beauty that stopped people in their tracks, to the point that it was unsettling.
At this moment, she looked like she had just woken up, the hint of sleep still in her eyes, and somehow that made her look more ethereal.
“Hey darling.” I said, my mouth dry.
Arla shot me an amused look. Her pale blue eyes glinted beneath impossibly long lashes, first resting on my face, then landing on the open box on the dining table in front of me. She remained silent.
“Arla… I found this under your bed.” I said lamely.
She looked back at me and the glance between us made the air in the room feel thin.
I swallowed. Not for the first time I wondered how completely abnormal it was, the way my daughter made me feel, as if I was as small as an ant, an insect she was thinking of crushing under her heel.
There was just something about her eyes. It was blue, so blue. A pale, unnatural color. Vampiric.
Suddenly, she shrugged, and the weird aura dissipated. "And?”
I turned back to the contents of the box. There were at least ten of them. Different colors and textures. Locks of hair each bundled together with a thin piece of pink ribbon. One particular lock of hair looked like it came from a friend of Arla's from middle school. The one with the thick dark curls. The one who went missing five summers ago.
I picked up another lock that was shorter than the rest. A flaxen bundle with a hint of gray. Like Erick's.
“Where did these come from, Arla?” I asked, tears stinging the back of my eyes. Was it possible? Despite everything I was still hoping I have simply gone insane, that maybe my mind just broke sixteen years ago, a sort of postpartum psychosis that never went away, that maybe, maybe my daughter was simply my daughter, an ordinary girl with an unfortunate mother. I tried, I really tried, to be loving to her throughout the years, even though I… was afraid of her.
Arla sighed and pulled a chair to sit down across from me. She suddenly looked older than her sixteen years. She held my gaze.
“I know you think I’m evil, mother.”
“Stop.” Arla held her hand up, interrupting my protestations. “I know, mother.”
I closed my eyes, and I realized I was crying, two trails of tears had made their way down my cheeks. Inexplicably, I was suddenly overwhelmed with a feeling of relief. I knew then that it was finally out there, in the ether, something close to the truth, the invisible walls between us finally broken. I could let them out now, these feelings I have been so ashamed of.
“I didn’t kill them.” Arla said, her voice gentle and even, as if she was talking to a child. “I know that’s hard for you to believe. You’ve always been the only person to see it, you know, the darkness in me, nobody else could.”
I took a breath.
“Look at me, mother.” Arla commanded with quiet urgency. “Really look.”
I opened my eyes and gasped, a scream caught in my throat.
Sitting in front of me was not my beautiful daughter, instead, it was a deep gray humanoid apparition, with black voids for eyes, wings like those of a vulture, and large angled horns… like a demon’s.
“Don’t be afraid.” The creature said. “I know how it looks, but I’m not evil, mother. I simply… am.” It motioned to the locks of hair in the box. “It was their time. I loved them, all of them, that’s why I kept these. But it was their time. Do you understand?”
“It will be your time too, mother, someday.” The apparition was gradually becoming hazy, morphing back into the familiar form of my daughter. The copper hair, the pale blue eyes, the unnaturally straight teeth. Suddenly I was looking at Arla again, and she was smiling. “But not yet, you see? But when the day comes, I want to be there, to guide you. Most people don’t see the real me, they only see this.” She motioned to herself, the perfection of it, the beauty and youth. “I’m sorry I can’t be as comforting for you... But you brought me into this world, so of course you could see what I really am.”
“And what’s that?” I managed to ask.
“Death.” Arla said simply. A sadness crossed her face. “Every so often, I take human form. I find it necessary, to continue to appreciate the lives that I take. Also... to love. Though I know I could never love the way humans do... Not really.” She held my gaze. "I envy you."
A breath of air felt stuck in my chest. “Arla…”
“It’s okay, mother.” She smiled, then reached across the table to touch my hand. I had to fight the urge to recoil. “You will never love me, I know. But believe it or not, I love you, in the way I know how, I really do, and that’s enough, okay?”
I released the breath that I was holding. Part of my brain wondered if I was actually having this conversation. Or if my delusion has reached its pinnacle. But one look at my daughter, the unsettling beautiful face, the feeling of her cold hand on mine, and I knew, I knew in my heart that it was true.
My daughter, the monster.
“It’s okay, mother.” The monster said again. A small nod, as if giving permission.
A weight I didn't know I had on my chest lifted. Somehow I was no longer afraid. Instead, I was... grateful.
I lifted my gaze to catch my daughter's eyes and gave her a half-hearted smile.
"Thank you, Arla." In one swift motion I swung the knife I was holding across the monster's slender neck, an explosion of red blurring the edges of my vision, and finally.... finally, for the first time in sixteen years, I could breathe.
You know the moment, that one crazy euphoric moment, when you think, this is it, you’ve been waiting for this, this is the start of the rest of your life.
Her name was Lena.
Raven haired with big brown doe eyes that felt like a warm cozy blanket on a rainy day. She was brilliant, too, and kind. You could barely keep up with her. Because of her you turned into a different man, a better man. All of a sudden you were watching independently released movies only five people have seen and reading Sartre and volunteering at the animal shelter.
It was a cute story, how you met. She was sitting alone in a corner table, her dark hair in a messy bun, an errant strand grazing her right cheek. She had a laptop open in front of her and her brows were furrowed in adorable concentration.
She ignored you at first, her focus on her work. But in time she opened up to you, letting her walls fall away, the banter flowing easily, like you were old souls, having met before, in another time.
You were the best version of yourself around her. You couldn’t remember the last time you pulled out a seat for another person in your life, and yet, with Lena, it came naturally, like a primal instinct almost forgotten. You had this insatiable need to be her provider and protector, and there was nothing wrong with that, was there?
In short order she became your everything, and you tried your best to be everything for her. You should have seen the signs, but you were too busy loving her. Nobody ever warned you about that kind of love. The dangerous kind. The stuff of tragedies, recorded for posterity, an omen for future lovers and naive dreamers.
You couldn’t believe it when she stopped answering your calls, your number blocked, her friends stonewalling you, a girl army of sharp tongues and quick wits, preventing you from even talking to her.
A little time was all you needed. After all, eventually she would see that you were the only man for her, the only one who understands her, who would love and protect her no matter what.
You were prepared for this, you were prepared to fight for her. You weren't the type of man who quit when the going gets tough.
That restraining order really was a bit overboard on her part, though. Did the police really have to make such a big deal out of a lovers quarrel? 'Stalker' seemed like such an extreme word.
She was always so dramatic, Lena. That was one of the things you loved so much about her. She was so passionate about everything. Of course, that would change soon, once she settles down. They all settle down, eventually.
You had to get creative. Changing your name and appearance seemed a bit overboard at first, but later became such an obvious solution. You just needed a bit of cover, so you could get close to her again.
It was easy, really, with the latest black market appearance augmentation available nowadays. A new nose, darker brows, glasses. You barely recognized yourself when you looked in the mirror.
It took some time, tracking her down again, but eventually you found where she was hiding.
She was still freelancing, working remotely either in her ridiculously expensive downtown studio apartment, or the vintage coffee shop a couple of blocks from her street. She still ordered her coffee plain, with just a dash of oat milk, and liked a blueberry muffin in the afternoon.
Different city, same Lena. It was easy to know people, really, if you just put in the effort.
Lena used to go running in the morning. Three miles by seven, without fail. She seemed to have stopped doing that since moving, however. You read in one of her texts to her friend, through one of those ghost trackers you secretly downloaded onto her phone, that she stopped running because she was afraid she would run into you! How silly. Silly Lena, overreacting again.
Today, though, she seemed to have gotten the courage to put on her running shoes again. It was about time, really. It had been three months since the whole debacle. You would think she would stop the cold shoulder by now.
"Oh! I'm sorry, I wasn't paying attention." You smiled your best smile as you strategically ran into her on the trail. You held your phone up like an offering. "Working and running, you know."
Lena smiled uneasily, a slight crease between her brows. She was trying to place you. You looked familiar, she was almost sure she knew you, but not quite. Like a word at the tip of her tongue. The appearance augments were working their magic. Though of course they would, at the price you paid for them.
"I'm sorry." You said again. You held out your hand. This time you were going to do this right, take it slow. Now she was vulnerable. "My name is--"
You did not have time to react. In fact, you did not feel the blade at all, until the hilt was pressing into your side, flush against the soft skin of your abdomen. A frown crossed your face as the taste of copper gurgled up your throat.
Lena was not smiling now, her deep brown eyes dark pools of ink, a well you could sink into. She leaned forward and held her lips against your ears, her voice pure silk and velvet as she whispered. "Yeah, I know who you are."
The ground was closer all of a sudden.
Always full of surprises, that Lena, your lover.
It was the ache of the jaw, the cramp by the shoulder blade, the knot in that triangular muscle holding the head in place that was keeping all the bodily tension from exploding like a shaken champagne bottle.
“Stop fighting it.” The massage therapist muttered gently, trying to work out the knot on my left upper back.
“I’m not.” I insisted.
She was silent for a moment, pushing on my shoulder with the palms of her hand. “Right here, you feel this? You’re very tense here.”
“I don’t know how to not be tense there.” I sighed. How many more minutes of this? I never would have come to this place if it wasn’t for the free massage voucher that my friend Zara had kindly insisted I redeem on her behalf. She had emphasized that I sorely ‘needed it’ and I knew I wouldn’t hear the end of it if I didn’t follow through.
So here I was, making things awkward not only for myself but also for this poor therapist who was unlucky enough to get me as her first client of the day.
“Try breathing out slowly after taking a deep breath.” The therapist, her name was Katarina, suggested helpfully. “Do you want me to guide you?”
“No.” I said, sharper than I intended. I tried to soften my tone. “I mean, no, it’s fine, really. Just… I’ll try on my own.”
Katarina was silent again, no doubt wondering how to get through to such a difficult client. That, or she was silently praying for time to somehow go faster so that we could both leave this awkward situation behind us with some modicum of dignity.
“Just… let me work out this muscle, can you do that? Imagine you’re letting go of it, letting me take full control.”
I almost laughed out loud. Relinquishing control was not something I knew how to do, no matter how much I wanted to.
I tried to take in the dim lighting, the scented candles releasing lemon balm and lavender into the air, the gentle pings of the classical music playing subtly in the background.
I attempted to hold my breath and to exhale it slowly, trying to ration out the the air in my chest to last a full seven seconds. Wasn’t that what they said in those meditation apps? Exhale for a full seven seconds? Or was it eight? I knew prolonged expiratory breathing activated the parasympathetic nervous system somehow. But the seven (or eight) seconds have always seemed unnaturally long to me. How did people do that? I ran out of breath after five.
Katarina seemed to have given up on trying to get me to participate in this exercise. (I was trying, I really was!). She was now really putting some weight into her massage, forcing the knot in my trapezius into submission.
The persistent tension in my shoulders, carrying the self-imposed pressures of my life, resisted with unnecessary strength.
Dying, for me, was a beautiful experience.
I know that sounds crazy, blasphemous even, to describe such a tragic thing, a viscerally sad thing, in such a dissonant way. You might wonder if I was depressed. And truly, I wasn’t. In the end, despite everything, I was stupidly happy. Still, if I was being completely and truly honest, dying, the actual act of it, not the pain or the ragged breathing, no, the actual process of letting go… that part. That part was bliss.
Let me tell you about my life, before I ask you to celebrate in its ending.
It wasn’t a particularly spectacular existence, some might even call it boring, run of the mill. A life that could be mistaken for a thousand others. Of course, to me, at the time, it was everything, the only thing.
I was born in a small Midwestern town, raised in typical Midwestern niceness, by a father who was strict and distant but did his best, and a mother who was a tad too religious but who did all the mothering things with unmatched fervor. I was clothed in clean clothes, my feet adorned with shoes that were sensible and fit well. I was loved and scolded and hugged in all the typical ways. I had two sisters I constantly squabbled with, banging on the shared bathroom door, hastily getting ready for the day in a panic, somebody always holding up the one hairdryer, using up all the hot water.
I loved, oh yes, I loved. Roman, that was his name. I remember thinking his name had that unique way of rolling easily in the curl of my tongue, passing effortlessly through my lips, like I’ve said his name all my life, or that I’m meant to, for the rest of it.
He was brilliant, my Roman. I met him at university, studying astrophysics. He had grand ideas and even grander dreams. He loved life but at the same time was disillusioned by it. He said to me once, using his hands to gesture into space: “It’s not possible, you know, that this is it. There’s more to this, more to everything, we just can’t see it.”
You would think it would hurt, the way he said it, the way he longed for something more than us, more than what I could give him, but it didn’t. Because I knew what he meant, I felt it too.
There was something in between the empty spaces, he told me, between the tiniest of particles. An answer to everything.
I never found out what he meant, neither did he. He died shortly after his twenty-fifth birthday, before he was able to finish his research, before he got to meet his daughter, at that point still the tiniest clump of molecules gestating inside me.
I remember the pain of that moment. How the world became dull and gray. How I went to sleep too many nights hoping to never wake up again. But day after day I woke up, and I would go through the motions, and I would go to work and my prenatal appointments, smiling at my doctor, telling him yes, yes, I’m doing okay. It’s hard, but I’ve got my sisters, you know, and my mom…
Then I had my daughter, and at once the world had color again. She had Roman’s eyes, almond shaped and deeply brown, thick dark lashes swooping downwards at the sides. I swear she looked at me in the exact way Roman did, with that exact slight raise of the brows, the slight curl in the lips, and I remember weeping.
I named her: Aster. Star. The only one that mattered in my universe, my sun.
We had a simple life, our little family of two. We fought a lot, in the way all mothers and daughters do, Aster having the quick wit of her father, the stubbornness of her mother. She broke my heart a million times when she was a teenager, which we mended as we both grew older. Then as quickly as she came into my life, she left. I understood. She had to build a life of her own, having met her own star, her own universe.
And it was good.
She’s finally here. My star. “Aster.”
Large dark eyes stared down at me. She was older now, my star, smile lines having formed at the corners of her eyes. Have those always been there? They must have. Aster always smiled with her eyes.
“Hey mom, it’s okay. We’re here.”
We. I couldn’t see well these days. She must have brought her little boy, my grandson. I squinted at the small blonde head on her lap. She named him… Roman.
I wanted so much to smile, but it hurt to even breathe. My chest muscles struggled to expand. I saw the nurse put a hand on my daughter’s shoulder, shaking her head.
Yes, there was pain, every single muscle hurt, the air caught uncomfortably in my chest, but there was also something else… something light. Suddenly I felt weightless. I knew then it was time to go.
Time at once contracted then expanded, and I could see everything, the future, the past, all possible choices and universes all at once. I finally saw it, what my Roman was talking about, the space in between the tiniest particles, the invisible energy that connects all of us together, in every universe, in every possible dimension. My universe, my stars.
I died then.
And it was beautiful.
Everyone has a sad story, if you dig deep enough, like scratching a scab. You can dig and dig, and eventually everybody, invariably, opens and bleeds.
Luisa was great at that, finding everyone’s sore spot, knowing just the right way to make it hurt. It could be an innocent sounding comment, a raise of an eyebrow, a gaze too long at a scar or some other secret imperfection. Whatever your Achilles heel was, she could find it, use it. Then she would parade it around like a war totem, a symbol of her strength, another battle won.
I used to admire it, her skill of reading people. Luisa was not reckless with it. Instead she wielded it with practiced precision. She used her weapons only on people who deserved it, people who were already broken anyway, people so irredeemably damaged that their only destiny was to destroy other people on their path to self-annihilation.
As Luisa always said, there was no shortage of evil in the downtrodden. She never had sympathy for the bully who was bullied, the abuser who was abused. There was a point of no return, Luisa told me, when someone no longer deserved forgiveness.
Of course, this also made me afraid of her. She terrified me, my sister.
“You are a terrible person.” I remember saying to her, when I was the naive age of thirteen, young and foolish enough to think that I could stand my ground, thinking I had it all figured out, my sister, the villain.
At first I thought she would get angry, and I was prepared for her to scream or yell or hurt, but instead she laughed. She laughed and laughed.
“Oh Andrea. Of course I am.” Her eyes dimmed. Her beautiful face etched with unexplained sadness. I remember thinking that in a certain shadow she looked decades older than her years. It was the only time she looked at me with rare tenderness. “But you... you'll be okay, Andrea. You're not like me. Promise you'll never be like me.”
Of course, it wasn't until much later that I learned what broke my sister. She had protected me from an unspeakable evil in our own house. In doing so she sacrificed her own innocence, something she would never get back. A bully who was bullied. An abuser who was abused.
Luisa, my sister.
There is a very specific feeling, in the first few minutes of waking, that lingers after a dream.
If it was a bad dream, for me anyway, it feels heavy, like a weight sitting on my chest. On the rare occasion that it was a happy dream, then when I wake, I go through a strange type of grieving. Like I lost something important somehow, a part of me missing.
Bad dreams have been the norm for me lately.
I was still half-asleep when my phone rang. The ugly anxious feeling still in my chest.
My Pebble (the latest mobile phone, my company always made sure we had the best gadgets, it came with the job) was buzzing on my nightstand. I watched it go silent for a few seconds then it started ringing again. Shit. Whoever was trying to call me had been calling all morning. That could only mean trouble.
I picked up the pebble-sized device and attached it behind my right ear. A gentle beep told me I was connected, as well as a subtle light blue glow. “Collins.” I answered.
“Jesus, Katie, where have you been? I've called you ten times. Have you seen the news?” An unmistakable rough voice barked from my Pebble. It was my boss, Tom Bogdan, head of the local investigative division. Then of course, who else would it be? Nobody called me much nowadays, especially -- I glanced at the holographic display of the time beside my minimalist closet -- not at five in the morning.
I grimaced. “Good morning, Tom. And no, of course not, no normal human should be awake this early.” I paused, knowing it must have been something important. “What's the matter?”
“There's another body.”
I was instantly awake. I sat up so fast from my bed that my head pounded painfully, reminding me of the half of a vodka bottle I drank last night. Sadly, that was typical for me lately. It was a cheap brand too. A wave of nausea washed over me as I tried to steady the throbbing in my head.
“Shit.” I finally managed to answer, hoping the Pebble didn’t pick up the slight gagging noise I just made. From the tone of Tom’s voice I was willing to bet this body had the same M.O. as the previous murders I had been investigating: there would be no blood, no sign of forced entry, and worst of all, no DNA.
“Yeah, so, I am going to need you to meet the medical examiner at the office, he will be there at seven. And Katie?”
“Can you be careful this time? No antics like your last case. You almost got yourself killed.” Tom's voice had softened slightly. Slightly. It was the rare occasion that he was not actively yelling.
I couldn't promise him what he was asking. “Maybe I'll avoid the same antics...”
“Funny. I'll see you soon.” My Pebble beeped, Tom was gone. He was always to the point, my boss. A man of few wasted words.
I pulled up the news on my holographic display. I didn't have to scroll for long. The top story of the day was about another body found in connection to Leung Industries. The news had a photo of the corporate offices located in the San Francisco Bay area. In the shot was the CEO and owner Teddy Leung, flanked by his army of bodyguards, and his daughter Lara, hidden behind a bearded blond man in black tactical gear.
Leung's company was the largest producer of nanochips used in almost every single piece of electronics in the world. Future Synthetics, the company behind the small Pebble behind my right ear, was a subsidiary. Needless to say, he was a multi-billionaire.
Before the recent serial murders, the biggest news was that Future Synthetics had contracts in the works with the Defense Ministry. Now, hardly anyone was talking about that.
I fought the urge to make myself a drink as I wondered who the victim was. Instead I reached for my coffeemaker. I had to make today count. I was moving too slow. The body count was rising by the day.
The drive to the office was an uneventful one. My electric car was programmed to drive me there through the safer parts of the city, as per company policy. It added a few minutes to my trip, which was just enough time for me to calm down. It was just as well, there was no way my car would go unnoticed in the rather unsavory neighborhoods just a few blocks over. My car wasn't even that nice, it just looked like it wasn’t purchased from a junkyard, which was not a luxury the less fortunate parts of town could afford.
When I arrived, Tom was in his office with a bespectacled man with flaxen hair. That must be the medical examiner. They seemed to be deep in conversation, both stopped talking abruptly when I walked in, as if I had interrupted something.
“Collins!” Tom exclaimed, as if he had not just dragged me out of bed to come here at an ungodly hour. I raised an eyebrow at him. He stopped calling me by my last name years ago.
I waited for an introduction. None came from Tom.
After a few awkward seconds the blond man cleared his throat and held out his hand for me to shake. “Vincent Fletcher. Nice to meet you, Detective, your reputation precedes you.”
“Um, yeah, okay. Call me Katie, please. Nice to meet you too... Vincent.” I was utterly confused. “You’re the medical examiner?”
Now Vincent looked equally confused. No, not confused. A rather amused smirk had formed on his face. I disliked him instantly.
Tom was suddenly vocal again. “Agent Fletcher is from Central Office. He is here to help us with the serial case given the… gravity of the situation.”
I understood now. Vincent was to be my babysitter. And since the order must have come from high above, I had no choice in the matter. That didn’t mean I would make it easy though. I gave my boss a glare that in any other situation would have gotten me fired. “I don’t work well with partners, Tom, you know that.”
Tom rolled his eyes. It looked hilariously adolescent on his scruffy face. “That, I know. But there’s been a new development.”
“Right, the latest victim.”
Vincent still had that smirk, one corner of his mouth raised almost comically in a half smile. He suddenly seemed to realize it and tried to rearrange his face to a more serious expression. He held my eye. “The body has been identified.” He paused for effect. “The victim was Lara Leung.”
It took my brain way too long to acknowledge the name. When it clicked my breath felt stuck in my chest. Lara Leung. The daughter of Teddy Leung.
“That’s… not good.” I muttered. No, this was not good at all. Lara was a controversial figure. She did not agree with her father’s way of doing business. Hippy daughter, billionaire father, poor little rich girl who just wanted to change the world. It was a tale as old as time.
And now she was dead.
It may have something to do with that message I received from her two days ago. The voicemail she left on my second phone. The burner.
Shit, shit, shit.
I tried to keep my expression neutral. Vincent seemed to be studying me very closely. I cleared my throat. “Well, if Central Office is involved, I take it you’re going to take lead?”
Vincent suddenly gave me a warm smile. He reminded me of one of those guys who could sweet talk their way through everything. Behind his spectacles I could see clear blue eyes and classic Nordic good looks. My dislike for him deepened.
“Katie, I’m here to follow your lead. Central just wants to make sure you have all the resources you need.” Vincent put his hand lightly on my shoulder. I found it slightly patronizing. “But first, why don’t we get some coffee and you tell me what you have so far?”
I held my tongue. It was the last thing I wanted to do. But it would be good to find out what this guy knows. Besides, my head was still pounding, and I could use more coffee. I gave Tom a meaningful look before turning back to Vincent with a tight-lipped smile. “Ok then, let’s go.”
I played Lara’s message in my head while I waited for Vincent to get us coffee. I needed to get my shit together. My nerves were shot. My leg shook underneath the table, and I just noticed a slight tremor in my hands.
Hey…. It’s me again. I umm, have that book you’ve been wanting to borrow. So… the usual time and place? Let me know. Ok. And umm, I’m looking forward to book club next week. I even got my dad to read the book and he liked it. Ok, I gotta go. See you soon. Bye.
It sounded like a benign enough message. It was supposed to. Still, I was going to get rid of that burner phone as soon as I get home. Everything was traceable and recordable nowadays. Especially with the Pebble. Good thing burners still existed in certain places. There were always enough people wanting to opt out of the convenience at the price of surveillance that Pebble provided. I could always say that I just wanted my privacy, if my burner was found.
Who was I kidding? There was no scenario where having a coded message on a burner phone from a dead girl looked good. No, it would look very bad. Today better go as planned.
I rubbed my temples.
I’m looking forward to book club next week…
That meant Lara was in trouble. And she was running out of time. I thought I had at least a week. God damn it. She must have been caught.
“Rough night?” Vincent interrupted my thoughts as he sat down. In his left hand he was offering me a steaming mug of black coffee.
“Thanks.” I said almost sincerely. The aroma of the caffeine was enough to give me a bit of a second wind. I indulged in a long sip before looking up at Vincent. I took a moment to study him. Something about him, other than his generic looking symmetrical face, was familiar. There was the faintest linear scar on the left side of his chin. I was certain I had seen him before.
“I am familiar with the details of the previous cases. Before I tell you what I know about the latest one, I want to hear what you think.” Vincent started pleasantly enough. He raised his mug at me as if gesturing to me to start talking. “I am curious. Like I said before, your reputation precedes you. Surely, you must have a theory by now? After... how many victims have there been? Eight?”
I took another sip. I had a sudden feeling that I could not trust this guy. “Well, as you know, there hasn't been a single scrap of usable DNA in any of the crime scenes, no cameras that could identify any potential perpetrators, no sign of forced entry. All eight cases were victims found in their homes, their heart suddenly stopped beating somewhere between when they went to bed and when they were found in the morning. Their Pebbles did not record any suspicious activity during those hours.”
Vincent stayed silent, listening to me intently. Nothing I was saying was classified information, but I continued. I needed to give Vincent enough so that he told me what he knew about what happened to Lara.
“At first the deaths were deemed coincidental.” I paused. “Have you heard of SUNDS? Sudden unexplained nocturnal death syndrome.”
“I can't say I have.” Vincent answered, still giving me his full attention.
“It's a phenomenon where an otherwise healthy person, with no known medical problems, suddenly dies in their sleep. The first case of SUNDS was identified over 100 years ago, in South East Asia, where it has been the root of some interesting folklore. Some victims of SUNDS were observed to suffer from night terrors.” I noticed Vincent frowning, probably wondering what this had to do with the murder case. “The first medical examiner thought that this was the case, especially with the first few victims being young, male, and of East Asian descent, where the syndrome is more prevalent.”
Vincent interjected. “I'm assuming you have reason to believe that the victims did not all just suffer from SUNDS.”
I sighed. This was going to take longer than I thought. The throbbing in my head has not lessened in intensity. “The current theory of why SUNDS happens is some kind of arrhythmia - a disorder in how the electricity travels through the heart. Somehow it is triggered in the night when the victim sleeps, after a heavy meal, or after the body's response to a night terror, causing the heart to stop.”
I took another long sip of coffee.
Vincent waited for me to continue.
“It was a good theory. Until all the victims ended up being somehow connected to Leung Industries and its subsidiaries. All eight victims so far have either been part of the board, a majority stock holder, a senior engineer, or a competitor.” I held Vincent's gaze. “Do you know that quote from Ian Fleming? Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is--”
“Enemy action.” Vincent finished for me. His expression has changed. He was more serious now, colder.
“Whoever had access to these people, who would have reason to have them dead, that's your perp.” I finished.
Vincent suddenly laughed. “That's it? You still don't have a how, who, or why.”
“Oh, I have a few of those things.” I said, against my better judgment. I could not stand to be laughed at. I reminded myself to be careful.
“I bet you do.” Vincent was no longer the smiling charming man of a while ago. He took off his glasses and set them on the table. Without them he looked less the blond choir boy and more ruthless Viking warrior. All he was missing was a beard.
My heart suddenly started racing. A beard…
“Well, let me tell you what I know.” Vincent set his coffee down. I noticed his hands were smooth, steady, like a surgeon. His expression remained blank, as if he were discussing the weather. “I know that Lara has been talking to you, and giving you all kinds of sensitive information.”
I sucked in a breath. Good thing my hands were under the table hiding my slight tremor.
“She had it, you know, some kind of proof. She was going to give it to you.”
I have that book you've been wanting to borrow…
“It was a shame, really. She was a nice girl, I really liked her. But she was naive. She didn't understand how the world worked.” Vincent has now taken a small silver tablet and put it on the table. It came to life with a soft beep, and a light blue glow. On the screen was a live rhythm of an electrocardiogram: a heart rhythm. I had a bad feeling of who they belonged to.
“How do you like your Pebble, Katie? I know they provide you with the latest model at the Investigative Division. Did you know that you can detect your heart rhythm with it?” Vincent's smile returned. But it was no longer merely annoying, it was terrifying. It was the smile of a killer. “In fact, you can disrupt the rhythm quite easily.”
Vincent leaned closer to me. “Tell me, Katie. Have you been having bad dreams lately?”
I tried to steady my breaths. There was a sudden heaviness in my chest. Surely Vincent wouldn't try anything here? We were in a public place, a coffee shop just two blocks from the precinct for Christ's sake.
“Oh, Katie, you don't really think I'm that stupid do you? I could have pressed this button anytime I wanted. I may have already activated it. Once you're in an excitable rhythm, all it takes is a heavy meal before you go to bed, or a bad dream, or a restless night after a couple of glasses of whiskey.” He suddenly chuckled. “Sorry, you're not a whiskey kind of girl, are you? You like your cheap vodka.
“Why?” I asked through gritted teeth.
“I can give you a billion reasons why.” Vincent answered flatly.
I needed to stall for time. I watched the steady heart rate on the tablet. “I can't believe Lara’s father would have approved of this.”
Vincent laughed again. The sound grated my ears. “Oh, I don't work for Teddy. Teddy was going to be voted out by the board at the end of the quarter. He was becoming too soft, too easily... influenced. And now, with the loss of his daughter, why, he's going to have to step down. You know, to take care of himself. We take mental health very seriously at Future Synthetics.”
I even got my dad to read the book and he liked it.
“The board was behind this.” I said.
“Now...” Vincent rolled his eyes. “I didn't say that, did I? You're trying to get me to say something I don't mean, Katie. How amateur.”
“Teddy was threatening to stop the supply of nanochips to your company.” I leaned forward, I could hear my heart pounding in my ears, my headache worsening. “You couldn't have that. Not when a contract with the Defense Ministry was in the works. But Teddy didn't agree with the military applications you were working into the Pebble.”
Vincent frowned at me. “You seem to be forgetting you shouldn't get too excitable Katie.”
It was my turn to smile. It hurt my head to do so. I pointed to the Pebble behind my right ear emitting a light blue glow. “This is a jailbroken Pebble, Vincent. You seem to have forgotten Lara was not only Teddy's daughter, she was also a brilliant engineer.” I pointed at the ECG rhythm displayed on the tablet monitor on the table. “Three guesses whose rhythm that is. All I know is, it's not mine.”
“You're bluffing.” Vincent's eyes narrowed. He seemed to watch the heartbeat on the rhythm as if he could recognize the heart behind the tracings from the way it beat.
“You better hope you haven't pressed that button yet, Vincent... or whatever your name is. Try not to eat too big of a meal before going to bed tonight. You know what they say, it can give you nightmares.” I stood up, leaving my empty coffee mug on the table. Vincent's expression remained blank.“Oh, and thanks for the coffee.”
My heart was still beating wildly as I walked out of the coffee shop. At first I wasn't sure Lara was able to do it, cloning my Pebble and switching the code with the person she thought was behind the murders. But as I watched the ECG tracing on Vincent's tablet, I became certain that the beats were way too slow and steady to be mine.
“Holy shit, Katie.” Tom's voice suddenly came on in the jailbroken Pebble in my ear. He had been listening the entire time. “You did it. I can't believe they had someone in the Central Office doing their dirty work for them. But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, given the state of things...” I could hear the disappointment in his voice. “Anyway, congrats on another successful case, Katie.”
I swallowed. I wasn't normally not this soft, but I felt a sudden urge to cry. Maybe it was my recent brush with death, maybe it was the loss of the friend I almost had in Lara. “I don't deserve it, Tom. It was all Lara. She lost her life over this, Teddy Leung lost his only daughter, and Leung Industries lost their best engineer.”
Tom was silent for a moment. “I know, but there was no other way. We were running short on time. And we didn't have any high ranking allies. Not anyone we could trust.” He sighed. “There is going to be a shit show after this, you know that, right? The fallout from something like this, it’s not going to be pretty.”
“I'm ready, sir.”
“Good. And Katie?”
“We're switching to a different comms device after this.”
I chuckled, despite feeling like weeping. “I sure hope so, sir.”
I would not be exaggerating if I said I would give literally anything to turn back time and be normal again. Back when I was simply Rebecca Reyes, college drop out, part-time barista. Things were simpler then, more manageable, back when my life wasn’t complicated by my… abilities.
Oh sure, at first it was amazing, like a plot right out of a superhero movie, but then, the pressure of it all started to get to me. For one, it was insanely overwhelming, the sheer amount of information ready to grasp within my fingertips. All I had to do was close my eyes and focus on a place in my mind, and bam! Suddenly I had unrestricted access to all kinds of places and things I really shouldn’t be privy to. Let me tell you, I didn’t have nearly the amount of self-control needed to deal with that in any kind of moral or ethical manner. And yes, there was such a thing as knowing too much. You might think you want to know what your best friend was up to when she told you suspiciously vague plans that did not include you that weekend, or where your mother actually goes during the “yoga class” time slots marked on her calendar, or what your coworkers talk about when you’re not there, but no, trust me, you really don’t.
You see, astral projection is one of those things that theoretically would be awesome, but instead should really come with a big red warning label that says, “your life will never be the same and you will lose everyone you love and care for.”
Okay, at this point you’re probably wondering, why was I thinking so small? Here I was, gifted with a literal superpower and I was just using it to spy on my family and friends? Why not astrally project into bigger more important things, like say, the Pentagon or Area 51? Shit, I could walk into the CIA headquarters and name my price. I just have to open with, “Hey, you want to know what they’re talking about in Pyongyang right now? How about Moscow? Yeah, that’s right, I can find out almost anything you wish. Anytime, anywhere.”
Well, I did think about that, and I decided that in all likelihood my own government would probably freak the fuck out and lock me up to do experiments on so they could weaponize my newfound abilities. Yeah, I’ve seen Stranger Things. No thanks.
See, that’s one mistake I was determined not to make. Going big was too risky. With this kind of thing, it was usually best to stay under the radar. I may have superpowers but I was no hero. After a lot of soul searching I decided the riskiest thing I was willing to do was start a pseudo private investigator business. I needed the extra cash - I was still paying off student loans on my art degree I didn’t even finish - and, hey, it was better than serving coffee. Turns out, there was a lot of money to be made in the PI business. In only a few months I made a ridiculous amount of cash ratting out cheating husbands and thieving corporate employees. I even tracked down a few teenage runaways for good measure.
It was fun and lucrative. Until I started to see some really fucked up shit, that is.
Long story short, that was what led me here today, astrally projecting over Ashley Winchester’s sleeping body, wondering what in the world I should do.
You see, other than being my former cheer captain who made my high school life miserable and stole my boyfriend (screw you, Craig), Ashley Winchester was also, get this, a killer. Yeah, that’s right. Two months into my wildly successful PI business, I received an anonymous tip that All-American Ashley Winchester was involved in some shady activities. At first I thought somebody was messing with me, trying to get under my skin, but it didn’t really matter. It was a good enough reason for me to start investigating. And okay, maybe I also wanted to dig up some dirt on my high school nemesis. It always annoyed me when I scrolled through social media and occasionally stumbled upon Ashley’s ridiculously perfect instagram reel. Over the years Ashley had graduated from videos of tuck jumps in her cheer uniform to posting wine pictures in Napa Valley and her early morning runs. She was not all sunrise yoga and kombucha in real life. No way. So astrally project I went, hoping to find some dirt, assuming at worst Ashley’s “illegal activities” was financial fraud or tax evasion or some other white collar shit, but nope, instead I found out that she was a straight up murderer.
After two months of following Ashley around, I estimated she has killed no less than ten people in the last year.
No, I haven’t actually witnessed her kill anyone per se, that would have messed me right up. But I have witnessed enough correspondence to surmise what she had been up to.
Apparently, it was her job, and true to form her killing style was subtle. No loud guns or bloody machetes for Ashley, oh no. She preferred to kill with the most elegant and feminine weapon of all time: poison. She used different ones, a special one for every occasion, and apparently she was quite the chemist, choosing substances that evaded routine forensics.
You would think a hit woman would want to stay out of social media, but instead Ashley reveled in her online persona. She used it as the perfect cover, hiding in plain sight. She even had a reel about her gardening, no doubt some of the plants excluded from the feed being the poisonous ones.
Interestingly most of her victims were certified human scum and probably deserved to die anyway (we’re talking mass murderers and crime lords here), but surely that didn’t make her any less culpable? That was why I gave her safe house address to some questionable people looking for revenge. Somehow they tracked me down through my suspiciously effective PI service (in retrospect that wasn’t exactly laying low) and they pretty much threatened the information out of me. What was I supposed to do? Risk life or limb to protect a proven murderess? As I clarified earlier: I was not looking to be a hero.
Of course, predictably, now my stupid guilty conscience was eating me up.
It occurred to me that, just like me, Ashley probably had her own personal reasons for doing what she was doing. Maybe her family was being held hostage in some dark barn basement somewhere and the only way she could free them was to execute a certain number of hits. Maybe she was brainwashed as a young orphan to be a trained assassin like some sort of Black Widow. Maybe she was a soft-hearted serial killer who only killed bad people. Who knows? Also, not that it mattered now, but Craig turned out to be a cheating asshole anyway, so really she did me a favor in high school.
I looked at the alarm clock next to Ashley’s bed. It was almost two in the morning. If they were coming tonight, they would be coming around now.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
I didn’t have time to research the people who threatened me about Ashley, but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to surmise they were probably part of some really nefarious shit. To my knowledge Ashley has only killed criminals like drug lords and sex offenders. It wasn’t like she was killing innocent children or anything like that. These people wanting to kill her were probably human traffickers or worse.
There was a small noise from Ashley’s back door. I didn’t have to astral project to know it was the same scary looking man who held a gun to my head earlier.
I focused all my mental energy on Ashley’s face. During astral projections I have absolutely no physical abilities whatsoever. I couldn’t make noise or even blow out a candle. What I did know was that certain people were more sensitive to my presence than others. Some would turn their head and look straight at me even though they couldn’t see me, sensing that they were being watched. Some would get goosebumps and shiver in my presence even in a warm room. It must be some kind of innate instinct some people have.
At first it freaked me out, but once I was certain that they really couldn’t see me, I got used to it.
As luck would have it, Ashley happened to be one of those people.
Right now, I was really hoping her heightened senses would wake her up.
I hovered over her, inches from her face, willing my astral body to project whatever power it had. I mentally screamed at her sleeping body.
Ashley, wake up! Wake up!
Another noise from the hallway. They were getting closer.
All of a sudden Ashley’s eyes fluttered open and I was looking right at her pale blue eyes. It felt as if she could see me as she seemed to hold my gaze for a few seconds. Then quickly she sat up and smoothly retrieved a small black handgun from a hidden compartment in her headboard. Her movements were automatic and practiced. She had the gun cocked and ready to shoot in seconds. She aimed it at her door with steady hands.
A man dressed in black stops at her doorway. He must have heard Ashley’s movements and is deciding what to do.
“I know you’re there.” Ashley said suddenly, her voice surprisingly soft and gentle. “You’ve been watching me.”
If I didn’t know any better I could swear she was talking to me.
The man kicked in the door and fired off multiple shots at the bed without hesitation. An explosion of pillow feathers filled the room. Ashley had rolled off the bed just in time and fired back. Her glass bedside table shattered in the midst of the chaos.
Suddenly there was a lot of red. Too much red.
If my astral body had a heart, it would have been racing. My physical body back in my bedroom has started sweating. I felt a familiar psychic tug trying to pull me back.
No, no. Not yet.
I resist the psychic pull. It was contracting like it always did when there was perceived danger. But I couldn’t leave, not yet.
The man was leaning against the wall, leaving a smear of blood behind him as he slid down to the floor. He was still alive but there was a swell of dark red wetness slowly enlarging on his dark shirt. His gun was a foot away and he was struggling to reach it.
Ashley was sprawled on the ground next to her bed. She was unconscious.
I went over her in a panic. To my relief I saw that her chest was rising and falling. Her eyes were closed and there was a trickle of blood down her scalp. She must have hit her head on the bedside table that lay in broken pieces around her.
The man grunted. He almost had his gun now. Shit.
I focused on Ashley. I didn’t really know how her senses worked, but it worked when I tried to wake her up earlier so I decided to try it again. I bombarded her with mental chatter: Ashley, damn it, you better wake up. I know you don’t like me and I don’t like you, but you better wake up or this guy is going to kill you and probably me too. Wake up, damn it!
Lo and behold Ashley started to stir awake. Slowly. Much too slowly. She looked confused. She blinked a few times while rubbing the back of her head and then squinted at me.
Ashley’s shoulder exploded in a splatter of red. The last thing I saw was Ashley’s terrified eyes before I was snapped back into my body.
No, no, no.
I woke up in my rented room in a pool of sweat. A quick glance at the clock told me it was two-twenty in the morning. Ashley’s safe house was only a fifteen minute drive away. I specifically chose a hotel close enough in case something like this were to happen. My link to my body was strongest when it was close. Also, hiding out in a room registered under a false name was probably better than being a sitting duck in my own house while I was astral projecting.
My plan was to get into my car and drive far far away in case things went south.
Instead though, once I was in my car, I found myself racing as fast as I could straight back to Ashley’s place.
I only had one thought that overpowered all the others at that moment.
I could still save her.
Time, too much of it, was a dangerous thing.
Megan mulled this over as she was beginning to notice a few things. Peripheral things. Things that she otherwise would have completely ignored back when she was too busy.
Megan scoffed at the thought of her previous life. It was a trap, she always reasoned, the golden handcuffs of the high-paying nine to five. Sure, she had a roof over her head, an expensive one at that, and she wasn’t starving, but for all those comforts, she paid with her precious time and sanity.
Now, though, she finally had the luxury of having time. Enough time to think, to make connections out of thin air, to remember things in a different light, a clearer light.
Yes, it was very possible Megan was suffering from some kind of post-retirement psychosis. Alternatively and infinitely preferably, she was the most sane she has ever been her whole life.
She understood now. Everything was clicking into place.
Today for example, she had nothing planned. It was a weekday, Tuesday to be exact, the least exciting day of the week. Most people were busy running on their hamster wheels making that dollar. Not Megan. Not anymore. She had no ladies to lunch with, no friends to visit, no classes to attend, no jobs to do. It probably would depress most people having such an empty calendar. For her, it was liberating.
How did she get here? Megan purposely retired from the workforce at the ripe old age of thirty-three. She didn’t have a trust fund, nor did she find a rich partner to provide for her. No, Megan was working class born and raised, complete with student loans and a mortgage.
Her retirement plan really was quite simple. She was lucky enough to work in tech, around the time when being in tech was absurdly lucrative. She landed an unreasonably high salary right out of college, and her benefits included a good chunk of company stocks. The timing was right. It was a bull market for tech and her investments grew exponentially in an unprecedented short amount of time. Of course, all that comes up must come down. She saw the writing on the wall and moved all her assets before it all went to shit. After everything calmed down, she moved on to the next company, asked for double her old salary, and continued diligently squirreling away her money.
Yes, the pay in tech was good, but man, did she hate every single minute of it. It was soul sucking work. The only thing that kept her going was that it allowed her a way out of the rat race. She always knew the woking life wasn’t for her, growing up watching her parents slave away every day, living paycheck to paycheck, coming home exhausted to their bones, working to their graves. They didn’t even know themselves anymore outside of their careers. How could they? It consumed most of their lives.
They had that look in their eyes after they finally got to retire. Empty.
Megan swore she would never be like that.
Her mother had rolled her eyes when Megan made the mistake of verbalizing her concerns in the midst of learning her fifth coding language. “That’s just life, Meg. We work and we work. Nothing comes free. You better get used to it.”
Megan always resented her for that. She did not want to get used to it. She thought it was an unnecessarily depressing concept to instill in a child: life sucked and will always suck. Still, thanks to her mother, it started Megan on her path. For thirteen years she worked the grind, lived criminally below her means, and invested most of her inflated salary. As soon as she hit her magic number, three million dollars to be exact, she said fuck all you guys, I’m out of here before anybody knew what was happening.
That was probably the single most satisfying moment of her life.
No, she didn’t feel guilty about it. God knows, she paid the better quarter of her life for it. Her time, from here on out, was hers and hers alone. It was the principle of it, really.
Anyway, now that her days were not filled with mind numbing work and self-important bosses, she had come to realize a few things.
One, that reality was not as it seemed.
It all started when Megan watched her neighbor, Trina, coming in and out of her house in the morning.
Now, normally, Megan wouldn’t even notice her neighbors. She barely spoke to them the past ten years, save for the occasional perfunctory nod when she bumped into them walking their dog or watering their plants, and only when eye contact was unavoidable.
But now… now that she had time, she noticed that Trina would get up every morning, have coffee on her porch, then, at 7:45am on the dot, she would get into her dark green Subaru and drive away, presumably to work. She would return later that day at 5:30pm, with her honey hair in a bun and purse over her shoulder, apparently exhausted from a long workday. It went exactly like this, like clockwork, Monday to Friday.
Well, except on Tuesdays.
On Tuesdays, Megan would watch her leave in her car in the morning, but she wouldn’t see her come home. Of course, at first, Megan assumed Trina just stayed over at a friend’s, or a lover’s, or volunteered at the local homeless shelter, or some other painfully boring, logical, benign thing, and she would come home late that night when Megan was already asleep. Really, it was probably none of her business. In the morning, like clockwork, at 7:45am, Trina’s garage door would open and her dark green mini SUV would come out with her in it.
Made sense. Except one Tuesday night, Megan stayed up late - all night, in fact - and watched Trina’s garage door the entire time. Trina never came home. No car. No Uber. No lights flickering on and off inside the house. Not a peep of sound from her neighbor.
Just as Megan was getting ready to call the police the next morning, her jaw dropped when, at 7:45am on the dot, her garage door opened and her dark green Subaru pulled out.
Now, Megan was not one to jump to conclusions. Obviously, she had to test her theories. The first possibility was that she somehow missed Trina coming home. She doubted it, she had never once fallen asleep without noticing, thirteen years of pulling all nighters programming had trained her well. Still, she had to rule it out. So for the next three Tuesdays, Megan stayed up all night, watching Trina’s house, and every single time, she wouldn’t see her come home. But every Wednesday morning, Trina would magically appear on her porch, having her cup of coffee, right before leaving through her garage in her dark green Subaru.
How could a car appear in a garage that it never physically returned to?
There was no doubt in her mind. Megan had seen this before, in her days in software development. She felt it in her bones.
It was… a coding glitch.