I’ve gotten sidetracked lately and neglected to post a story as promised. There seems to be so much to do and so little time. I haven’t done much original writing. I only wrote two short stories in October. I put up one on Scribophile and one of Critique Circle for comments on improving them. Then there was a long interval. I wrote a short story last week and it’s up on Scribophile. Since these are considered “closed sites” I can take them down once comments are made and still market them as unpublished.
So since last October I’ve spent most of my writing time doing editing. Editing the short stories and the novel, City of Strangers. It’ll probably end up in a drawer with my other novel. I’ve done a lot of investigation about publishing and it is a monster of a job. Thousands of would-be authors vying for the attention of a few agents. As for self-publishing, a writing friend I have in UK self-published a book. Sold about 17 copies. Without an agent and a publishing company to do the marketing, the only way to get sales is with a huge social platform. That also takes a lot of work, plus it is something I just don’t know how to do.
As usual, I have digressed. Last time I posted I was talking about Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. It was published on Terror House Press on January 10. It is a story about a boy’s fear of a serial killer, strange dreams, and a stern, possibly abusive father. Some early readers complained that I never revealed the identity of the serial murderer in the story. Others realized that the identity of the killer wasn’t the point of the story. It was about the boy’s relationship with his father. However, for those who need closure, I went back and added a scene in the middle of the story and another scene at the end revealing the murderer. That wasn’t the version that made Terror House, so the short one is public. I’m attaching below the longer version. Available only here…
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep
Logan and I are heading to the park to play catch like we often do on weekends. He’s tossing the football up and down as we go. That’s when I realize I am dreaming. I must be dreaming because Logan is dead. I thought when you realize you are dreaming you wake up. But I’m still in the dream. It’s weird, but I want to stay. I miss Logan. He is my best friend. Was my best friend.
He gives me that famous Logan grin, the lopsided one, and opens his mouth to speak. His words are off with his mouth, like in a poorly dubbed Japanese horror flick. They are slow and echo around my head, “Go long.” I run so he can throw a long pass. I look back and am amazed at how much distance I have put between us. He tosses the football in a long arcing lob. As it begins its descent, he runs toward me, almost as fast as the ball is flying. I catch the ball against my chest, tuck it under my arm and turn to run. I usually run back toward him, dodging his tackle to score an imaginary touchdown. But in this dream, I’m running away from him. I don’t know why. He’s faster than me and will probably tackle me before I get very far. I glance down at the football and stumble. It’s no longer a ball. It’s Logan’s head, with his thick eyebrows and curly blond hair. “He’s coming for you,” the head says before I drop it. That’s when Logan tackles me. As we go down, I turn and see he has no head. It freaks me out and I start yelling. Yeah, I scream like a freaking girl. The park goes black, but I’m still wrestling with the headless body. It’s like he’s trying to wrap me up in a cocoon or like a mummy. I can’t get my arms loose.
A brilliant light pulled me up from the dream. Dad stood at my doorway in his striped boxers and white T-shirt and yelled, “What the hell’s going on in here?” I was tangled up in the sheet. I wrenched it off and threw it on the floor, scampering to the head of the bed, as far from the attacking sheet as possible.
Mama appeared beside Dad in my doorway. I suddenly felt naked in just my checked pajama pants. They didn’t even reach my ankles anymore. I’d stopped wearing the pajama top because the shoulders were binding, and I couldn’t button it. Mama said I was going through a “growth spurt”. I’d be glad when I stopped spurting and had some clothes that fit.
“Bad dream, honey?” she asked. Dad blocked her from entering my room.
“I’ll take care of it. You go on back to bed.”
She stopped trying to come to me but lingered outside my door. Dad came and sat on my bed.
“You were in here yelling like a baby. You’re fifteen now. I expect you to show a little maturity.” Dad was big on me being a man.
“But it was Logan.”
I heard my mama’s quick intake of breath out in the hallway. “He attacked me.”
“Logan’s dead. He’s gone. He can’t attack you, son,” Dad said. “That’s foolish talk.”
“It was his friend, Ken,” Mama called from the door. “The boy’s had a nasty shock.”
“I knew I shouldn’t have let him talk to the police,” Dad told her. “All that talk about mutilation put all sorts of crazy ideas in his head. Now his imagination is running wild. Your mollycoddling him isn’t helping. He needs to stop being a mama’s boy and man up.”
I didn’t like it when Dad talked as if I wasn’t even there. But he did it on a regular basis.
“But it was Logan,” I whined. Dad hated it when I whined. I hated it, too, but I couldn’t help it. I gritted my teeth and refused to cry. I could feel my face redden as the tears threatened to pour out. My anger at him, and the whole crappy world, was rising to a fever pitch.
“Logan is dead and gone. They buried him,” Dad said.
“No they didn’t. They buried his fucking head!” I shouted, tears slipping from my eyes at last.
“Ken, don’t,” Mama called, anticipating Dad’s response.
“I’ll let that pass on account you’re upset. You talk like that to me again and I’ll have to get my belt. I ain’t having no backtalk.” Dad was mad as well. I knew his threat was meaningless, though. He hadn’t used the belt on me since I was twelve. Coach had noticed the marks on my backside at PE and sent me to the school nurse. She called Social Services. They investigated and Dad had to take a course in anger management. I can’t see where it’s done much good, except he doesn’t use that damn belt anymore.
“Then y’all get outta my room. I didn’t ask you to come in. Leave me alone!” I yelled. Dad grabbed my jaw in a painful grip.
“You’re walking on thin ice, boy.” He shoved me back and left the room. I heard Mama and him bickering down the hallway until she announced, “I’m sleeping in the guest room.”
“Goddamnit!” Dad yelled and slammed the bedroom door.
“Sorry, Cupcake,” my older sister Junie said from my doorway. She always called me Cupcake when Dad got on me about not being man enough. I was mad, but not enough to forgo my standard comeback.
“Then eat me.”
She laughed and drifted back to her bedroom. I had to get up to put the sheet back on the bed and then to turn off the overhead light. On the way back to the bed, I stumped my toe on the leg.
“Ow! God fucking damnit!” I ground out through clenched teeth.
I sat on my bed, massaging my aching toe, and staring into the darkness. I liked the dark. I could think without being distracted by sight. Mostly these days I thought about Logan. I would keep my blinds drawn and my room dark at night and think about him. I didn’t need to see for I knew where everything was, except the leg of my bed, apparently. In the depths of the night, I would sometimes wake up and look around my room. All the familiar sounds, the faint tick of my alarm clock, Dad’s snoring, which even my closed door couldn’t muffle. And the familiar dark figures barely visible around my room, huddled like sentinels. It was comforting. Comfort seemed in short supply these days.
Everything used to be so simple. Now Junie was going off to college this fall. I’d miss her. Mama and Dad didn’t get along. They’d always bickered as far back as I could remember, but it had gotten worse. Dad seemed mad all the time and took it out on me. I ran cross-country; I made good grades; I didn’t get into trouble. What was his problem? Recently, it was that I wasn’t man enough. He got on that kick after he found out Logan was gay. I guess he was afraid Logan would infect me with gayness. I’d known he was gay for almost as long as Logan had, but he’d only recently become more open about it. He was my best friend since first grade, and I didn’t see any reason that should change. Dad didn’t see it that way. He made me account for every second I spent with Logan, and when Logan came over, I had to keep my bedroom door open. And no more sleep overs. How sick is that? “He’s my best friend, not my boyfriend,” I’d said. That got me sent to my room.
I think Dad was suspicious because I didn’t have a girlfriend. I liked girls, it’s just that few of them liked me. I think it’s because of Mary Jo Kapechni. We had one date last year. Then she told all the girls I was a lousy kisser and grabbed her tits. Both were technically true, but she made me sound like some sex-crazed loser. Maybe I was a loser, but sex-crazed is a relative term when it comes to teenaged boys.
So it was just me and Logan. He was the one person I felt totally at ease with. We just had a natural connection. Until two weeks ago. That was the day he disappeared.
Logan was the third victim.
About six months ago, a guy from Chapel Hill disappeared. Stacy Johnson was a good student, a soccer and basketball standout, and well liked. His parents said he wasn’t the kind to run away. A close examination of the back door of his house revealed scratches around the lock that the detectives said could indicate the lock had been picked. The theory was that someone came in the house and took him.
The story dominated all the local papers for a few days. Every detail about Stacy’s life was examined and sifted for some evidence. They posted a picture of him in his soccer jersey. He was a handsome guy, fifteen, with flyaway blond hair and big blue eyes. I wished I looked like him, knowing someone who looked like that had no problem getting girls. They mounted a massive manhunt for him but came up with nothing.
A week later they found Stacy. Or at least they found his head. Students came upon it in the middle of his school soccer field one morning. They posted gross pictures of the severed head before the police could secure the area. Of course, the pictures went viral. Logan and I had seen them. The handsome features were frozen in a rictus of terror, eyes and mouth wide. The cuts around the neck weren’t clean, but jagged. The police finally released that the murderer had made the cuts with a serrated blade, except for the bone. That had been cut with something heavy and sharp, an ax or a cleaver. The paper had clinically reported the cuts were “not post-mortem”.
No one could figure out why Stacy was taken or why he was killed. More important, they had no clues who would do such a thing. They never found the rest of his body.
It took weeks for the horror to die down, but it did. Everyone moved on with their lives. Newer tragedies pushed Stacy off the front page. His family was left to grieve alone.
About two months later, Jackie Sheldon went missing. He was a high school student in Raleigh. He was an average student, fifteen, long blond hair, on the basketball team but didn’t see much playing time. The newspaper said he had words with his father and stormed out of the house. His parents thought everything was okay when he came home that night. The next morning he was gone. People thought he’d run away. No one connected the two cases until a detective noticed similar scratches on the back door of the Sheldon house. Someone had picked the lock. They could have entered and taken Jackie.
When Jackie’s head showed up on his parents’ doorstep a week later, all hell broke loose. It became national news. The detectives scrambled to find some link between Stacy and Jackie. Chapel Hill and Raleigh are close enough for people to interact. There had to be some connection. The newspapers proclaimed a serial killer stalked the streets. They named him the Butcher. It sold papers.
There were no pictures online of Jackie’s head, but the other details became common knowledge. He’d been held for a week and then beheaded. His body remained missing.
Logan gives me his lopsided grin and opens his mouth to speak. His words echo around my head, not coinciding with his mouth, “Go long.” I begin running so he can throw a long pass. I look back and see I’ve covered a lot of ground. Something about this seems familiar. He tosses the football in a long arcing lob. As it begins its descent, he runs toward me, almost as fast as the ball is flying. I catch the ball against my chest, tuck it under my arm and turn to run away instead of running toward him. I glance down at the football and stumble. It’s no longer a ball. It’s Logan’s head, with his thick eyebrows and curly blond hair. “He’s coming for you,” the head says before I drop it, a headless body tackling me. I woke up sweating but didn’t scream.
“I knew Jackie,” Logan said to me one afternoon, about a week after they found his head.
“I thought I knew all your friends.”
“I have to keep some secrets,” he said and laughed. “Create an air of mystery.” We were lounging in my room, he on my bed, me on the floor leaning against the bed, door open, of course. “We met in summer league basketball last year. We liked each other and kept up with emails and texts.” It surprised me that Logan had kept this secret. What else didn’t I know about him?
“Did you know Stacy?” I wondered if there was more.
“No. But Jackie mentioned him in an email once. I think he got some pot from him. The email is gone now.”
“Logan. That may be the connection the police are looking for. Jackie and Stacy knew each other. You need to tell someone.”
“I don’t have any evidence and I don’t need the police snooping around me. Just forget it.”
But I couldn’t. Maybe it was a drug deal gone wrong. No, they would probably just shoot. This was ritualistic, as the papers said. It took a lot of planning.
And then Logan disappeared.
We lived in Cary, which is nestled between Raleigh and Chapel Hill. Logan was a fifteen-year-old high school athlete. He had blond hair. It matched the established pattern.
His mom called us first that morning asking if he was with us. She said he wasn’t home when she woke up, so she thought he just left early. When he didn’t show up at school, I became nervous. By lunch I was frantic. Where was Logan? Was he in the hands of that monster? Was he aware of what was happening? Was he as afraid as I was? I’ve never been particularly religious, but I prayed as hard as I knew how. God, please return him. Return all of him.
The media circus descended on Logan’s house. His life was dissected and displayed for all to see. His picture with his heavy brow and signature grin stared at me from the newspaper.
As feared, his head showed up later.
“Go long,” Logan says as he pulls the football behind his head, preparing the throw. I have a moment of déjà vu, like I have seen this before. But I run. I look over my shoulder and see the ball sailing through the air. I turn just in time and catch it against my chest. I tuck it under my arm to run. It feels wrong. I look down and see it is Logan’s head, glaring at me. “He’s coming for you,” he growls. I throw the head down and am tackled by his headless body.
I woke, fighting with the sheet.
My heart was racing so fast I could hear it in my ears. I was drenched with sweat and was panting like I’d just run the length of the football field. Why was Logan tormenting me? He was my friend.
I lay looking around my darkened room, absorbing the comfort of night, trying to return to a calm place. Off to my right was the deep, black outline of my open closet door. That was where the monsters used to live, and when I was little, I made sure Mama closed that door every night so they couldn’t get out. I doubt that door had been closed since I was ten and decided monsters were kid stuff. Beside it was the bulky dresser with its six drawers and skinny mirror. I had to duck these days to see myself in it to comb my hair. Then there was the door to my room, which I kept closed as much as I could. This was my sanctuary. All others keep out. Opposite the foot of the bed was the tall chest where I kept my jeans, T-shirts, and Calvins. It almost came up to my shoulders. I remember when I couldn’t see or reach what was on top of it. I’d have to pull my chair from the desk and stand on it. And rounding out my familiar room was my desk, the scene of my homework successes and debacles for ten years.
There, calmness had returned. It always worked.
But something was wrong. There, beside the chest, was another shape. Tall and rounded in the corner. It was too dark in my room to make out what it was, but it didn’t belong. And then it moved. Logan’s message, “He’s coming for you,” wasn’t a taunt. It was a warning! I was paralyzed. How did he get in? He must have picked the lock. I’m a fifteen-year-old blond. He’s come for me! The next time he moved, it broke the spell.
“Dad!” I screamed. “He’s here! Dad!”
After a small eternity, the door burst open, and Dad hit the light switch.
“He’s in the corner,” I yelled. We both looked at the corner at the same time. There sat my desk chair with my hockey stick propped in it. A dirty jersey top was hung over it, swaying in the breeze from the central air conditioner. Just as I’d left it that afternoon.
Yeah, that went down about as well as you’d expect. I was grounded for two weeks.
People at school were weird to me. They avoided eye contact and didn’t speak in the halls. I’d catch people staring at me like I’d grown a second head or something. Ugh, I didn’t mean to make a pun. It was like I had some disease. I still sat with my friends at lunch, but there was a strained silence most days. Being the best friend of the victim of a serial killer was not the key to popularity.
I told the police detective what Logan had said about Jackie and Stacy. He thanked me and said it was a significant lead, but I could see the lie in his eyes. They were stalled in the investigation. It was as if they were just waiting for the next victim to drop.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the dream. It was always the same. Logan’s head always said, “He’s coming for you.” What if it was a message? Logan was my best friend. We’d do anything for each other. Wouldn’t he warn me if he could? But how could I protect myself? Mama was trying to get Dad to spring for an electronic security system. It wasn’t as expensive as I thought it might be, and Dad was actually considering it. I pushed for it, too, but he said I was a coward. Why was wanting to be safe considered cowardice? I decided my dad was demented.
Apparently, I couldn’t rely on him. I’d have to come up with my own way of protecting myself.I immediately knew what I should do.
Logan gives me his signature grin and opens his mouth to speak. His words reverberate around my head, “Go long.” I begin running so he can throw a long pass. I look back and see I’ve covered a lot of ground. Something about this seems familiar. He tosses the football in a long arcing lob. As it begins its descent, he runs toward me, almost as fast as the ball is flying. I catch the ball against my chest, tuck it under my arm and turn to run. I realize I’m running the wrong way and don’t know why. I glance down at the football and stumble. It’s no longer a ball. It’s Logan’s head, with his thick eyebrows and curly blond hair. “Wake up, now!” the head shouts before I drop it.
I startled awake with a catch of my breath. My heart was hammering from the dream again. But he hadn’t tackled me this time. I wondered why? Then I heard the faintest creak of a floorboard. I was lying with my eyes closed, but I opened them just enough to see. What I could make out in the darkness of my room looked as it always had. The open closet door, the dresser, chest, chair, and desk. I had moved the hockey stick after my last scare. But something was off again. Logan told me to wake up and I could feel something was wrong in my room. There. Against the blackness of the door to my room was a darker blackness. It was still, but I could barely make out an outline. The outline of a man.
I feigned sleep. I remembered as a little kid I believed if I pretended to be asleep the monsters couldn’t get me. Or if I kept every part of my body away from the edge of the bed or covered by the sheet. No monster ever got me, so those magic tricks worked. But they would be useless against this monster. The hammering of my heart amped up a few notches. It was so quiet in the room I was afraid he would hear my heart thumping. I was on my right side, which was how I usually passed my nights. I made a small groan and rolled over flat on my back, my right hand slipping under my pillow, a bead of sweat rolling across my face into my eye, stinging. I kept my eyes cracked, watching the door. A long time passed. Maybe I was just being paranoid, seeing things that weren’t there. Maybe. But I’d swear the shape by the door just moved. It was coming closer. As usual, my blinds were drawn tight, but one errant moonbeam slipped through and suddenly glinted off what appeared to be a needle. He was going to drug me. That’s how he’s doing it! I continued watching, scared nearly out of my wits. I just hoped I didn’t wet the bed. Dad would never forgive that. If I screamed now would Dad refuse to come? Or if Dad came would the man murder my whole family? When the shape was less than three feet away, I pulled my hand from under the pillow. I aimed Dad’s Smith and Wesson and fired four shots point blank into his chest. In the flash of the shots, I saw a man in a balaclava and a night vision visor.
Mama and Junie were screaming as Dad burst through the door, hitting the lights.
“What the hell you doing with my gun,” was all he got out before he stopped and stared at the figure on the floor. The needle was still in the man’s hand.
“Holy shit! Excellent work, son. That’s my man.”
I just stared at him. I had two bullets left in the gun. I gotta admit, I considered it.
The media feeding frenzy that ensued was nearly worse than that awful night. I had a small sampling of what Logan’s family went through, except theirs was compounded by the loss of their only child. I can barely wrap my head around that kind of devastation.
The bad guy was a coach Logan and the others met at summer league basketball. He had photos on his wall of Stacy, Jackie, Logan, and me. I hadn’t played summer league, so I don’t know how I got on the nutjob’s radar. There were pictures of several other guys he was probably planning to grab after me. I don’t know why he was doing it, but I guess evil that dark doesn’t really have a reason. What kind of reason could there be, anyway?
Things finally settled down and life went on as it had before. Junie went off to college and Dad still acted mad all the time. But he treated me with more respect after I killed the bad guy. It seemed that using a gun had made me a MAN in his eyes. How sick is that? The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if I should have used those last two bullets in Dad’s gun that night.