11 o’ clock p.m.

The police arrived so fast they could have been waiting for my call. For the second time that day I was forced to sit on the edge of an ambulance, being looked over for phantom injuries regardless of the number of times I reminded them that my once-white shirt was covered in blood that did not belong to me. Each time I told them was like a new blow to my chest. My life had turned surreal in so little time; Marshall and dead didn’t go together and it was hard to wrap my brain around the idea. Even harder still to take in that it was my fault.

The police swarmed like angry bees around the yard, buzzing in and out the door, some with guns, others with cameras, even the rare one carrying baggies of blood samples, my keys, and, the most surprising, a dirt-caked, blood-crusted kitchen knife. I recognized Officer Gale among the officers with guns going through the house. He averted my gaze at all costs, but it wouldn’t have mattered if he had walked into me; my eyes were directed solely at my feet, praying to whatever God would listen that I would not see the dreaded black bag being carted down the driveway. I was laden with thick, wool blankets around my shoulders, but I was shivering. My neck was stiff with the weight of my hung head. I suffered for the sake of not having to see what held Marshall’s corpse, but still…I knew.

The wheels of the gurney bobbed along the cracked, risen pavement raucously, claiming my attention. I didn’t have to see the bag to know what was bouncing along the bed of the gurney. I bit my lip to hold back the sob threatening to escape me, but the rest of me just shook harder. The tears pooling in my eyes blinded me, which may have been the better option, if I had not been seeing shapes, blurred images of dead eyes and cut throats. My lungs burned with my prohibition of sobbing but unable to catch my breath.

“Paige?!” Poppy’s familiar voice called, in a panic. I didn’t look up, knowing I wouldn’t be able to see her. Gravel from the driveway crunched under her shoes, hinting that she was close, but I didn’t look up. I just couldn’t.

“Ma’am, this is part of a police investigation, please step b—” Officer Gale instructed, sounding like he was trying too hard to be professional.

“I’m her best friend, now you step back! Paige!” she yelled. For a moment I wondered vaguely how she had known about this, I had not called her. As soon as I had asked myself the question, I remembered that Vinnie, Poppy’s older brother, had been given a police scanner by their uncle, Chief Verra; Vinnie knew the address, he would have known something was wrong with something in Marshall’s house, and Poppy knew that I would most likely be with Marshall. For someone who rarely applied herself in school, she was probably one of the smartest people I knew.

“Paige, are you okay? What happened?” she babbled, now beside me. I wiped the tears from my eyes with heel of my hand, smearing my makeup. I cursed all non-waterproof mascaras and my crappy eyeliner while she sat beside me. For what could have been the first time since they met, Clark was not accompanying her. It seemed unnatural for there to be one here without the other.

“Where is Marshall?” she questioned when I didn’t answer any of her questions. My lower lip shook again, but I buried my face in my hand this time to hide my breakdown and waved hysterically in the direction the gurney had gone. I could hear her sharp intake of breath before she went completely silent. It took a while, but eventually, she repeated, “What happened?”

I bit my lip, prepared to keep silent, but it just burst through my lips like bile. “I fell asleep! And when I woke up, I was still sleeping on the couch with Marshall, but…but…” I took a moment to get control of myself. “He was wearing that stupid clown mask,” I picked up the one he had dropped by the front door; it had been put in a bag and left in the ambulance, for what reason I did not understand. “And his throat had been cut.” I broke into hysterics, throwing the mask behind me with a fervor that surprised even me.

“Calm down, Paige,” she soothed, hugging my shoulders with one arm. “Everything will be okay.”

“No, it won’t! He took my keys! Your house key, Clark’s house key, everybody’s key! He got them all!” I sobbed.

She dropped her arm so fast I thought for a moment that I had burned her. I couldn’t bear to look at her when I knew she could be killed very soon and it would be all my fault. I felt the heat of her arm hesitantly reach out once again, then hug me like she had before. The gesture was meant to be comforting, but I fell deeper into depression. If I could have crawled into a hole and died, I would have gotten my wish.

“I’ll…I’ll change the locks. I’ll tell the others to change the locks, too,” she stammered, laying her head down on my shoulder. “Everything will be okay. The police are gonna get that sick fuck.”

I sniffled. “You’re right. I’m gonna kill that asshole for this.”

She didn’t say anything; I didn’t know how I felt about her reaction, but I kept my mouth shut nevertheless.

“Did you call your Mom?” she wondered aloud.

Damn. “No.”

“Did the police call her?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I asked them not to. I wanted to be alone.” She understood the hint, but promptly ignored my wishes to be alone.

“Where’s Clark?” I mumbled.

“Home I guess. He doesn’t know that I came here. I decided to find out for myself first before I worried the others.”

“You should call him. They should know. Tell them about the keys,” I handed her my cell phone. She threw it to the ground and pulled out her own; she had hated my ‘crappy’ phone ever since I got it, saying that a good phone would allow me to hear her more clearly when we talked. I didn’t pick up the phone, only stared at the purple rectangle, knowing it would be fine, but wishing it had broken. I felt sick to my stomach and wanted everything to fall to ruin, knowing that Marshall was gone and never coming back. It was the worst feeling in the world to see people jogging or walking their dogs when I thought everyone should be cowering in fear in what they thought would be the safety of their own homes.

If Cody could get into Marshall’s home, he could find a way to get into their homes, even if it meant stealing keys. He could do it.

Poppy jumped off the bumper of the ambulance and stepped quickly away to make her phone calls. I stayed silent throughout each conversation, and I caught a few words she had with each one of them. “Marshall…gone…murdered…Cody…Paige…not good…keys…locks…love you…careful…”

She rounded the corner quickly, and for a moment the screen of her phone blinking, CALL CLARK: ENDED blinded me in the otherwise dark night. The sound of the sirens was deafening, and my frayed nerves ached. Miserable. Not good was about the understatement of the century. The blanket around me was heavy, and it scratched my skin, itching, biting, gnawing; driving me to complete insanity.

“You’ll be okay,” she said.

I nodded. She bent down and picked up my phone. “You should call your mom. She’s probably worried about you.” She offered it to me, but I kept my arms at my sides. “Take it.”

I shook my head. “I don’t want it.”

“Why not?” she demanded, pulling a face.

“Because if she calls, I’ll pick up. I don’t want to keep saying what happened,” I explained, getting up on wobbly legs and falling back into my seat; I couldn’t tell the difference between shock and fatigue.

Poppy stared at me for a while, frozen halfway between handing me the phone and preparing to throw it at my head. Her lip curled back over her teeth and she bit her tongue, hard. She curled her fingers more tightly around the piece of plastic.

“Fine,” she exhaled loudly. “I’ll call your mom.”

“Thanks, Poppy. I can’t do it anymore, I’ll go crazy.”

“You would do the same for me,” she recalled, looking down at the phone and replacing her hostile expression with sympathy. “If it was Clark,” she forced out, clearing her throat as if it caused her great pain to spit out those four words.

“I would,” I nodded.

She nodded back and disappeared back around the corner. Officer Gale’s head perked up when he noticed me talking and alone. He made sure to be the first one there, practically running to get to me, even though I couldn’t have gotten up to get away from him if I wanted to…and I really wanted to.

“Ms. Taylor. I’m seeing a lot of you today,” he smiled almost condescendingly, but the friendly gesture was laced with pity.

“Murder has its ways of bringing people together,” I snapped, scowling at the person who seemed to think it appropriate to smile and joke around when my entire world was falling to pieces.

He looked scared. “You’re absolutely right, it does.” He moved ever so slightly away from me.

“What do you want now, Gale?” I barked after a very long interval of silence, during which he just stared at me. I could hear Poppy on the phone with my mother, Sage, trying to calm her down, but finding it a much more difficult job than she would have thought. That was another reason I had not wanted to talk to her; she worries too much.

He flinched at my tone.

“You’re the closest thing we have to a witness,” he informed me. As if I hadn’t known that.

“And?”

“I need to bring you down to the station for questioning,” he finished, taking another slight step back and bracing himself for my wrath.

I groaned and leaned back into the ambulance. “More questioning?”

“Afraid so.”

“It’s been a really long day for me,” I whimpered. “Can’t we do the questioning thing tomorrow?”

“Afraid not.”

“Come on! I watched people die today and woke up from sleeping on my boyfriend’s corpse, could you please cut me a break?” I yelled, trying to hold back the tears. It wasn’t a feat easily accomplished, but it was achieved all the same.

He pursed his lips and helped me stand. I hung my head, trying to mask my crumbling façade, and hide the glistening drops of moisture gathering in my eyes despite all of my effort at keeping them inside. My legs were still reluctant to move, but Officer Gale supported me on the way to the car, keeping his body planted entirely between me and the view of the black body bag I knew was just a short distance away. I turned to Poppy, trying now to get Sage off the phone, and used a couple of wide, outrageous gestures to get her attention. “I’m going to the police station,” I mouthed. “Tell her.”

She glared at Officer Gale, but she seemed to understand what I was trying to tell her, nodding, and turning her back on me.

He opened the door for me and I slumped clumsily into the seat. The door locked instantly, but I didn’t feel safe. I couldn’t trust locks anymore. The driver’s side door opened, and I flinched back against the window, oddly prepared to bolt if I needed to. I didn’t need to, and Gale appraised me with a strange look. He wanted to laugh at me, I could tell, or make some kind of joke out of my trauma. The look I shot him silenced any unnecessary comments he had thought about voicing.

His door locked as well once it was closed.

He wasted no time in getting to the point of this car ride as he backed out of my driveway.

“When was the last time you saw Mr. Rimida?” he demanded, shoving the wheel in the opposite direction of where I knew the municipal building to be. My shoulder bashed the car door, and I found myself disliking Officer Gale more and more by the agonizing seconds I spent with his bipolar ‘good cop’ ‘bad cop’ persona.

“Um…” I prepared an indignantly sarcastic response to his newer, ruder, attitude, but it wouldn’t have helped anything. I sighed. “On my way to Marshall’s house.”

“What was he doing?”

“Following me. He was across the street, smiling at me, that bastard, and I ran from him. That was when I d…I dr…” I hesitated, knowing how unbelievable and embarrassingly clumsy it sounded.

“You what?” he questioned harshly, skeptical. I may not have been able to get a handle on his ever-changing mood swings, but I knew easily how ready he was to pounce on any diverse answers than what would be expected in a situation such as mine. Thinking back on how the evening began, and how it ended, I should have lied, but at that moment, there was too much going on in my mind to think of a convincing story.

Instead, going against every thought that told me not to, I whispered, “I dropped my purse.”

He raised one eyebrow doubtfully, but didn’t look away from the road. “What was in that purse?”

I bit my lip and stared unwaveringly toward the mat under my feet. “My keys,” I mumbled under my breath.

“What?” he answered loudly, a striking contrast to my barely audible words.

“My keys!” I near-yelled, getting angry at this twist in what I thought was his personality. Turns out, I didn’t like the ‘bad cop.’

He was silent for a while; at first, I thought I had shocked him into it, but a single look at his face put that to rest. His expression was calculating.

“Do you know how Mr. Rimida,” he sneered, “got into the house?”

“With my key, but—”

He interjected, “With your key.”

“Which was in my purse!” I argued, fighting to stay upright while he made a very illegal U-turn in the street, finally beginning in the correct direction of the police station.

“So you want me to believe that the key, belonging to you, and left in the victim’s home not three feet from where you were sitting, was stolen and used in the murder all in the same night?” he challenged.

“Yes!”

“Why didn’t you call the police when you first saw Cody?”

I froze, unable to give an actual answer. We should have called the police, there was no doubt about that, but why had we chosen instead to sit and watch that stupid movie? I should have paid more attention to what was going on, especially given the circumstances of how I had gotten to his home. I should have kept Marshall safe.

“I felt safer with Marshall, I wanted to be able to relax and watch a movie with him. We just wanted to forget what happened to…”

He interrupted again, (which was really getting on my nerves, by the way; ‘bad cop’ or not, shouldn’t he still remember manners?) “Forget? You wanted to forget that—”

Now it was my turn to take the chance at interruption. “Yes, forget! About my dead classmates!”

I turned my head toward the window and caught the sight of what I thought was a clown mask hung from a tree branch along the sidewalk, but it was just a pair of shoes twisted expertly around the top of the highest limb. I saw Cody, I knew I did, leaning lazily against the trunk of that same tree. As I was about to voice my sighting, I saw him again, walking a dog across the street. I saw him pushing a stroller with a squealing baby along an emerald green lawn. He was driving the car next to us and crossing an elder man at the intersection we had just passed and laughing on a porch beside himself. I had gone into shock, or I had simply cracked.

I shook my head and the illusion shattered.

It was then that I realized Gale had been talking and I had no clue whatsoever as to what he had been saying. He continued to ramble on about whatever he had started speaking, while I looked on in confusion, until I couldn’t take listening any longer. Instead of giving an educated response and pretending that I had heard every word, all that emerged from my parted lips was the lame, “What?”

His face turned red with indignation and he spoke too fast for me to comprehend the meaning, so I slumped further into the chair, rolling my eyes and wishing that I could be anywhere but here.

“Are you insinuating that I killed Marshall?” I hissed venomously.

“Yes,” he drawled slowly, in a manner of which someone would speak to the mentally handicapped, though it also contained a mocking tone.

“What reason would I have for killing him?” I snapped, sitting bolt upright and scowling at him from my place now above him.

“Who knows?” he shrugged. “No one has to have a reason to kill someone, sometimes they just do it.”

“Well, I didn’t!”

“Can you prove that? Anything at all that could be considered proof?” he scoffed, sparing me only a single sideways glance.

I racked my brain for anything solid, merely to humor him, but at first I came up with nothing. Slowly, the image of my blood-stained back came back to me, and I knew I could have him cornered.

“The back of my shirt is covered in blood,” I reminded him. “If I had killed him, wouldn’t the front of my shirt be covered in blood?”

I had heard in the passing of the officers from the house that the carotid artery had been cut. I could remember, vaguely, my father tell me once of the force the blood spurting from a cut neck would contain and I knew that that method of murder would leave a stain on the front of my shirt, not the back. There had been blood on the carpet, interrupted by whoever had been standing over Marshall. Cody’s shirt would have been spattered.

“It sounds like you’ve had quite a bit of time to think about this,” he charged.

I couldn’t win.

He pulled into the parking lot of the station and slammed the door behind himself. He rounded the hood of the cruiser and opened my door for me. I looked up at him and, like a switch, he smiled, signaling the return of ‘good cop.’

“Did your friend call your mother?”

I nodded and crossed the parking lot with my head hung. He followed closely behind me, perhaps waiting for me to make a break for it, but I barely had enough energy to place one foot in front of the other. He opened the door for me and entered a few steps after. He directed me to a large gray door and sat me at an equally grey table, taking his place across from me. It was absurdly similar to television interrogation rooms; it even came with its own-way window.

“So, Paige,” he began, “how long have you been dating Marshall?”

I stared at him. “Are you bipolar?”

“What do you mean?”

“First you’re yelling at me and accusing me of things I didn’t do, and now you’re being nice and asking irrelevant questions…what is with you?”

He laughed humorlessly. “All part of the job.”

I should have hit him, but I refrained. Instead, I murmured, “Since freshman year.”

“What did you plan on doing after you graduated?”

“I was going to California, I have a scholarship to Cal-Berkeley, and he was going to Rutgers, but we were planning on keeping in touch; I didn’t have much hope for the relationship,” I explained, wiping at my eyes before the moisture could get a chance at forming. “Marshall didn’t want to give up on us, though, so he got me a webcam for Christmas.

“Did you love him?”

The question was simple, but I couldn’t come up with a simple answer.

“I don’t believe that I can…fall in love…at this point in my life. I’m only eighteen. But I cared about him…a lot. I loved him, but I wasn’t in love with him.”

“How do you feel about losing him?”

“What are you? A cop or a shrink?” I mocked half-heartedly.

He smiled dryly, “Whichever you prefer.”

I sighed. “I don’t know yet. Kind of numb. But it’s not that good kind of numb either. More like I feel like my limbs are rotting from the inside out. Like I’m falling apart, piece by piece. And it’s only gonna get worse.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because it always does. And it doesn’t even feel like he’s gone yet,” I whimpered, feeling like an idiot for crying, but not caring who saw. Marshall was dead, and my friends were sure to be next; he had said so himself.

“You said that you would be attending Cal-Berkeley? What will you be studying?” he graciously changed the subject and for that I was grateful.

This was a subject I had always loved to drone on and on about, but today was not my day. “I want to major in English literature, and minor in business. I want to be an author.”

My parents had been nervous at the thought of being an author in the future, worried that my plans would fall through. I tried not to let their pessimistic thoughts get to me, but I assured them, nonetheless, that even if my hopes of writing the words that would touch people all over the world did not happen as planned, the education I received from Cal-Berkeley could also help me in getting a job as an editor. They had been sated, and I was left alone. My eagerness at going to college would have been assurance enough if they knew how ready I was to get out of New Jersey.

“Why so far away?” he said.

I chuckled. “I hate it here. Everything about it…I just…I don’t want to stay here.”

“It’s not so bad…” he started.

“Ya, ya, everybody loves it here. It’s not so bad here. I’ve heard it all already, but the point is I don’t like it,” I scorned.

“Are you going to come back after college?”

“On Christmas, maybe, but that’s it.”

“You’ll change your mind. The grass isn’t always…”

There was a knock on the door and a smaller man with prematurely grey hair and crooked glasses poked his head in. “Excuse me, sir,” he apologized in a nasally voice, “but Mrs. Taylor is here.”

“I can go home?” my back straightened a little more with hope.

“Of course someone will be watching your home until we know for sure that what happened to Marshall was not your doing. But the chief thinks it would be best to let you go home, considering all that you’ve been through today.”

My head hurt.

“Thank you,” I smiled and stood quickly, knocking over the chair and racing for the door. I debated on whether to pick it up, but in the end, I turned into the hallway and searched for my mother.

“Paige!” my mother, Sage, called from a bench around the corner.

I ran at her and propelled myself into a hug. She rubbed my back soothingly, but that only helped me to cry harder. I felt like I was going to throw up. We stood there for a while, until she finally suggested that we go home. I didn’t want to go to sleep, for fear of the nightmares of blackness and gunshots, but I desperately needed to get back to the privacy of my home, where I could cry without anyone thinking badly of me, or thinking it was all a front to hide my murderous intentions toward my boyfriend.

She held my hand, which was so much colder than hers, and pulled me toward the double doors. They swung open as we drew nearer, revealing an older couple, both with blonde hair, almost as blonde as my mother’s, and I knew instantly who they were. My heart jumped into my throat and my stomach plummeted into my feet. The woman’s leaking, hawk-like, glacier-blue eyes fixed themselves on me as she entered, and my pulse sped up, somehow knowing what was about to happen. Those eyes narrowed at me with obvious hate and her thin lips parted.

“You whore! You killed my son! I hope you rot in prison you little bitch! I hope you die and burn in hell!” she screamed, trying to throw herself at me. Hazel. Her husband, Bradley, held her back and gazed at me sorrowfully.

Sorry,” he mouthed to me as his wife spouted hurtful profanities at me as she passed. Sage put herself between us when we crossed paths, but Hazel spit at my feet. She missed, but her purpose made a lump rise in my throat.

Marshall’s parents.

I could hear the dry attempts she made at spitting at me again from behind, but nothing made it to me. “Mom,” I whispered, looking for a garbage can. “I’m gonna throw up.”

I sprinted for the doors and caught them as they closed. There was a garbage can on the sidewalk beside the parking lot. I used it mostly for support, hanging onto it while my body hung limply over the surface. My whole body shook with the heaves dispelling my stomach of its contents, until finally I was hanging there with my arms wound around the half-open lid of the garbage.

“Oh, honey,” Sage cried, wrapping her arms around me and lifting me to my feet.

“I’m okay,” I repeated, hoping that eventually when I said it, it wouldn’t be a lie. It didn’t happen, though. She half-carried me to the car and let me rest in the backseat.

My chest heaved with each hollow thrust of my recently emptied stomach. The car ride took longer than I remembered, but eventually we slowed to a stop in the driveway. Sage sent my father, Pierce, out to the car and he lifted me into his arms. It was more difficult than it had once been, when I had been carried into the house as a child. He started toward the stairs to put me in my room, but I thrashed with a vengeance until he nearly dropped me, and he instead placed me on the couch.

I lay there for a long time, staring unblinkingly at the white ceiling. It was a long time later, maybe an hour afterward, that the phone rang. I didn’t even flinch.

“Hello?” Sage greeted from a few feet away. “Who is this?”

“Oh, are you feeling alright, Joel? You sound a little sick.”

“Right. I’m sure you’re not the only one. She’s not up to talking right now, do you want me to send on a message?”

“Alright, I’ll ask.”

She was suddenly leaning over me with the phone pressed against her shoulder. “Honey, it’s Joel. He’s not sounding well either. Would you like to talk to him?”

I nodded silently and held out my hand for the phone. She placed it against the palm of my palm and folded my fingers around it. I held it to my ear and sat up.

“Joel?” my voice sounded sick and tired, even to me.

“Look out the window,” the voice ordered. It didn’t sound like Joel, but Sage had said that he hadn’t sounded like him. I stood and went to the curtains.

Four things seemed to happen at once.

One: I opened the heavy curtains with all of my remaining strength and went to tie them to the side where they belonged.

Two: Joel’s voice laughed and chuckled, “I’m watching you,” into the phone, sounding sinister.

Three: I saw the clown mask outside under the blood soaked sweatshirt-shroud in my front yard, the phone pressed against Cody’s ear, the lips of whom mimed in sync with the words spoken into the other end of the line. There was a grimly amused smile on his face, as there had been all day, knowing that he was able to drive me into insanity and make me wish I was dead. The murderously cold look in his eyes was still there, painfully aware of his surroundings and searching for his next victim.

And four:

I fainted.

 

 

 

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