Always and Forever

Some stories just kind of land in my head, coming from some mysterious place in my subconscious. Others have to be built from pieces that I find laying about my head. This is one of the latter. I was driving to dance practice one afternoon, the day after my birthday in 2018 and felt the urge to write so I began thinking about my next story. I had only written seventeen stories so still had no idea what I was doing (as if I do now at 75 and counting?). I decided I wanted to write about college aged individuals. I thought about people I knew in college and interesting things that had happened. For some reason I remembered a girl who drew the attention of another girl who befriended her and then refused to let her have a social life. She consumed her. I wondered if that ever happened to guys. So I decided to write about it. Then I went and danced for an hour.

After dance practice on the drive home I came up with the names of the characters and some of their characteristics. It’s important for me to know who my people are since I like to allow them as much agency as they will take. That may sound a bit crazy, but I recently read an article that showed 63% of authors allow their characters to drive the story. I’ve believed in doing that for a long time but just didn’t say much since people would think I’m crazy. At least I know I’m in good company.

The female detective in the story has an interesting genesis. I was having some issues with a part time job. I had to contact the home office (on the other side of the country) several times. The person I spoke with was a Ms. Garza. I thought, “What an interesting name.” I have never met Ms. Garza but my detective is kinda like how I envision the employee. I’ve even brought Detective Garza into other stories. Why drop a perfectly good character with whom you are already familiar? And once again, it’s written first person. I seem to prefer that style. I guess it’s my vicarious way of having a life. Anyway, here’s my tale of a touch of madness.

Always and Forever

            “I must be cursed,” I muttered, head in hands, elbows propped on my knees. Bryson sat beside me on the sofa. He put his hand on the back of my neck and kneaded lightly.

            “Come on, bro. You don’t believe that,” he murmured.

            I turned my head to look at him, my eyes red and swollen from crying.

            “How else do you explain it? Every girl I like something awful happens to her.”

            “Well, you do seem to have rotten luck, but that’s all it is. God ain’t out to get you or any shit like that.” He smiled, but didn’t laugh. The situation was too grave.

            “I think someone forgot to tell God.” I had been a wreck all day. I got the call early that morning from Francie that Jenny, my Jenny, my girlfriend Jenny had been killed in a fall from the seventh floor of her dorm. The dorm had outside walkways to the suites with only waist-high railings. I always thought it was kinda unsafe what with how we college kids get, but had never heard of anyone actually falling. Until now. Now Jenny. Aw, shit. Here I go again. I can’t stop the tears.

My roommate Bryson is a champ. He’s been sticking close, getting rid of callers and visitors, keeping a bottle of water nearby, handing me Kleenexes. Taking care of me. He’s good at that. Always has been. Ever since freshman year. We met when he rescued me from some jocks. They seemed to think it was fun to pick on someone significantly smaller. Bryson jumped in, bumping chests with the leader, called him Shit-For-Brains and stood them down. He’s not any bigger than me, but he doesn’t take shit from anyone. He reminded them and they slowly worked out in their lumbering jock way that if they took the time to beat us up, they would probably get in trouble with their coach, might even miss some games. We’ve been best friends ever since. We room together, hang together, pledged the same frat together, and go places together. People say we even look like brothers. In a way, we are. Best friends, always and forever.

“Kev, why don’t you go lie down for a while,” he suggested.

“Yeah,” was all I could muster, and trudged back to my bedroom. It was what, 1 pm? Yeah, Sunday afternoon. Bryson was right behind me.

“I got a lot of homework to do, so I’ll be in the living room if you need anything. I’ll get us something to eat later. You don’t worry about it,” he told me. Yeah, Mr. Take Charge is on duty.

***

I managed to get some sleep and felt much more human by that evening. Numb, but human.

“Crap, I think I have an Econ quiz tomorrow,” I said, looking at my books for the first time since Friday.

“You aren’t seriously thinking of going to class tomorrow?”

“Well, yeah.”

“Dude. You just had a shitstorm all over you. You are in no shape for some dickhead professor’s quiz. I hate to be blunt, but a death in the family is an excused absence. Take it, bro. You need it, whether or not you think so.”

“Jen…” I couldn’t get her name out without choking. “She wasn’t exactly family.”

“Girlfriend, same thing. You guys been together for a couple months. In college that’s like years.”

“I’ll see how I feel in the morning. Right now, I think looking over my Econ notes might keep my mind off other things.” But it didn’t. Saturday night Jenny should have been with me but had texted that she didn’t want to see me. I called, but she didn’t answer. I texted I was coming over and she texted that she didn’t want me to. So I sulked around the apartment. And now, this. Shit. I should have gone over.

***

Monday morning was gray and threatening rain. It was a perfect match for my mood. Bryson was up and puttering around early.

“Dude, you look wasted. Did you even sleep?” he asked.

“Some. I need to get up with Francie. See if she knows if they have made any arrangements. For Jen… Jenny.”

“Oh yeah, she called. Said the police haven’t released her to her family yet. Being pissy about drugs being involved.”

“What? Jenny didn’t do drugs. At least not that I know of,” I said. But I hadn’t thought Marcie was still doing drugs, either.

“Girls do some crazy shit when you ain’t watching ‘em.”

There was a knock at the door. Bryson started for it.

“You want to head back to your room? I’ll get rid of whoever it is.”

“I have to face our friends sometime. I’ll just leave if I feel like falling apart. I think I have that part perfect by now.” I amazed myself that I could say something so flippant.

There were two strangers at the door; a man and a woman. They were dressed in nice suits, nothing fancy, just business attire. Jehovah’s Witnesses, I thought? They introduced themselves as Detectives Garza, a short, matronly female and Wilson a taller, tired-looking man. They asked to come in. Bryson didn’t move from the door.

“We’re dealing with a tragedy right now. Come back some other time,” he said.

“Yes, that’s what we’d like to talk to you about,” said Garza. “Are you Kevin Jennings?”

“No, and he’s not seeing visitors right now. He’s had a shock. As I said, maybe later.”

“And you are?” asked Detective Wilson.

“I’m Bryson Johns. This is my place, too.”

“Look, Mr. Johns, here’s the deal,” Detective Wilson said. “We need to talk to Mr. Jennings about a suspicious death and we can do it nice right here, or we can send some uniforms to firmly assist on his presence down at the station. You can pick.”

My skin went cold at the word ‘suspicious’. What the hell?

“Bryson, let them in,” I called to him, standing to walk to the door.

“You sure, bud?”

“Yeah. I need to know what’s going on.”

Detective Garza brushed past Bryson. “Well, Mr. Jennings, we were hoping you could tell us.” She crowded into my personal space.

“Me? All I know is what Francie told me.” I backed up a step.

“The roommate, Francine McDonald?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Why don’t you tell us what you know, beginning with the last time you saw the deceased,” Garza instructed. Well, so much for the pleasantries.

I gasped a little as my throat closed. My Jenny was now ‘the deceased’? I realized I was hyperventilating. Bryson was suddenly there beside me, leading me over to the sofa.

“It’s okay, bro,” he crooned to me softly. “It’s okay. Just breathe slowly.”

Then to the detectives, “You dicks are scaring the crap outta him. Can’t you see how broke up he is?” Bryson said accusingly. He planted himself between me and the detectives. “I have enough pre-law classes to know what you can and cannot do. Now you go easy on him. If you upset him again, this interview is over.” He sometimes goes bulldog when defending me. I always feel so safe when he’s around. I haven’t always surrounded myself with the best of people. But knowing that someone has your back no matter what, is so comforting and even humbling. It’s also kinda great. I know Bryson has my back.

The detectives looked sourly at each other, and then Garza nodded. They all sat. Bryson sat on the sofa beside me, lending me strength. The detectives sat in the two chairs facing us.

“Mr. Jennings. I’m sorry for your loss. I understand this can be a difficult time for you. We just need to find out what you know. Miss Stanton’s family needs closure on this, just like you do,” Detective Garza said, proving that she could play nice when she wanted. “When did you last see Miss Stanton?”

“That was Friday night. We were at a party at my fraternity.”

“Delta Tau Upsilon?”

“Yeah.”

“I understand you and Miss Stanton seemed to have some kind of disagreement that night. Can you fill me in on that?”

“What? Oh, it was nothing. She said she thought I was flirting with some other girls.”

“Were you?”

“What? No! Jenny is my girl. Was my girl,” I said as my throat closed again. I swiped at the tears. Garza had the decency to wait a moment. Bryson handed me a tissue and put a hand on my arm. The simple gesture gave me strength.

“Why would she think you were flirting?”

“I don’t know. She said someone told her to keep an eye on me. Probably one of her bitchy girlfriends. You know how girls are.” Detective Garza’s steely glare showed that perhaps she did not know how girls are.

“So you didn’t take her home?”

“No, she went with a girlfriend.”

“One of the ‘bitchy’ ones?” Garza asked sarcastically.

“Sorry. I’m just a little frazzled,” I said. Bryson glared at the detectives.
            “Easy, detective,” he warned.

“So you didn’t see her last night?” Garza asked.

“No.” I elected to leave out the angry texts.

“Saturday night. Date night. I thought you’d be with ‘your girl’, as you call her.”

“I think she was still pissed about Friday and said she wanted to cool off.”

“You think?”

“Well, she didn’t say why. Just that she didn’t want to see me,” I said huffily.

“So you went to see her, talk some sense into her?” Garza led.

“What? No.”

“Did Miss Stanton do drugs?”

“No, not as far as I know.”

“And how far is that?”

“I don’t know. She never mentioned drugs.”

“We got a tox screen,” Detective Wilson interjected. “Seems she was high on acid. She flipped right over the rail outside her suite. Seven floors down is a long way to fall. Maybe she thought she could fly.”

“Hey!” Bryson said forcefully. “I done told you, if you can’t be civil you can take your ass outta here.” Wilson bristled, but Garza’s hand on his forearm settled him.

“Yes, she could have fallen accidentally. Or someone could have helped her. Her suitemates said they were at a mixer. She stayed up in her room. Alone. They didn’t know about any LSD,” Garza continued.

“So what has that got to do with me? I don’t do drugs.” At least not anymore.

“Where were you Saturday night?”

“I told you. Jenny didn’t want to go out, so I stayed here.”

“Can anyone vouch for you?”

“I can,” said Bryson.

“Bryson,” I said warningly. “Don’t lie about this. You were at the frat. You tried to get me to go. I just stayed here.”

“Mr. Johns, if you have had all those pre-law classes you would know that lying to a detective is a misdemeanor. Don’t make me take you in.” Bryson just continued glaring. At this point I’m not sure Detective Wilson could take Bryson in.

“I don’t think anyone saw me here, but I was here. I’m innocent until proven otherwise.”

“Interesting turn of phrase, Mr. Jennings. Do you feel guilty about something?

“No, just a figure of speech,” I didn’t like her tone.

“We have a witness who places you at Miss Stanton’s dorm about 8 pm. ME says she fell about 10 pm. Why are you and your friend lying about your location on Saturday evening?”

“Bryson was just trying to be helpful in his own clumsy way. But I’m not lying. I was here. Anyone who says different is lying.”

Garza stood up abruptly. “I think that’s all we need for now. We’ll be in touch if we have more questions. I know you college kids have restless feet, so please notify the police if you plan to leave town. Good day.” They showed themselves out as Bryson and I sat on the sofa stunned.

“Dude. They think you did it. We need a lawyer.”

***

I was a basket case. On top of losing my girlfriend, now the cops think I killed her. How do things like this happen? Thank God I had Bryson. He called my parents when I asked him to. I was too freaked out to talk to them. They said they were calling a lawyer they knew, and he’d help me. Mom stressed that I not talk to the police without him present. And the standard parent lines—Don’t worry. Everything will be okay. We love you.

***

I went back to classes on Tuesday, for what it was worth. In three classes, I took exactly zero notes. I have no idea what the professors said. I’m not even sure I was in the right classes. Nothing makes sense right now. This will play hell with my grade point average. I guess your GPA doesn’t matter too much in prison. Shit. This is serious. I’m so fucking scared.

***

Detective Garza contacted me late Tuesday and invited me down to the police station “to fill in some gaps.” I told her I’d come in Wednesday if my lawyer could schedule it.

“Lawyer? You have something to hide, Mr. Jennings?”

“No, but you and your friend seem to have painted a bull’s eye on my back. I’m just making sure you play by the rules.” I was amazed my voice held steady long enough to say all that.

“Whoa, dude. That rocked!” Bryson exclaimed after I hung up. “Show ‘em you got balls.”

***

My folks’ lawyer friend, Mr. Fallon, had an office in town and he set aside time for us to talk and then said he’d meet me at the police station. He was very reassuring. He said that so far all they had was “supposition and innuendo”. “That and five bucks might get you a latte at Starbucks,” he joked. I felt so much better. Then I told him everything and his demeanor changed. He became grave.

“I’m glad you told me. They are sure to find out and use this against you. I’ll do what I can to get ahead of it, but it looks bad. Still, no smoking gun. Garza’s a bulldog, but she’s fair. Wilson is a piece of shit.”

***

I pictured the worst from all the TV cop shows, but I wasn’t put in an “interrogation room”, or cuffed to a table or anything. We met in a relatively attractive, comfortable office. Mr. Fallon was at my side and reminded me I didn’t have to answer anything I didn’t want to and to look to him if I had a question.

Garza led with her ace.

“Mr. Jennings. Did you ever know a Marcie Gray?”

Oh shit.

“Yes.”

“You are aware that Miss Gray is deceased?”

“Of course I am.” What are you, stupid? I said in my mind.

“In what way did you know Miss Gray?”

“She was my girlfriend during sophomore year.”

“And you know how she died?”

“I object to you baiting my client, Garza. You have the file; you know exactly what he knows.”

“Just trying to get it in the record for this case. She died of a bad reaction to poisoned street drugs. Seems she got hold of some speed with a high strychnine content. Isn’t it coincidental that both your girlfriends died from drug-related causes?”

“That’s not a legitimate question, Garza. And the record shows that my client was in no way involved in his friend’s drug use. He didn’t know she was using and definitely wasn’t her supplier.” Except I did know she had used, and I knew her supplier. I just thought she had stopped.

“So he says. It’s just the old smoke and fire adage. But let’s move on. Do you know a Laurie Lee? I believe you called her Spooky Lee?”

“I don’t call her that. At least not to her face. She was Marcie’s roommate. She’s weird. Everyone calls her Spooky. She moved in with Darlene after Marcie died.”

“Yes, I see that here. It seems that Miss Lee and Darlene Massey didn’t care much for you. They said you were abrasive, argumentative, made threats and hit Miss Gray.”

“That’s a lie! I never hit Marcie. I’ve never hit any woman. Spooky and Darlene were a couple of bitches. They did everything they could to turn Marcie against me. Then they told lies about me.” The arguments I had with Marcie were mainly about those two bitches.

“Now why would those nice girls say such bad things about you? What did you ever do to them?”

“Nothing. They just couldn’t stand that Marcie didn’t have time for them when she was seeing me. They wanted her all to themselves.”

“Yes, and you and Marcie fought about that, didn’t you?”

“Hold on, Garza,” Mr. Fallon said. “What are you getting at?”

“I’m just establishing that your client has a problem controlling his anger issues around women.”

“What anger issues?” I exclaimed.

“Garza, we’re here as a courtesy. We’re not here to help you go on some fishing expedition.”

“What anger issues?” I asked again.

Garza continued. “Isn’t it true that you have a prescription for Ativan to control your violent tendencies?”

“What? No! It’s for agitation and impulsivity. I have trouble concentrating sometimes. That’s all. Why are you trying to make me sound like some kind of lunatic?”

 “Yes, impulsive actions like helping someone fall from the seventh floor, or adding strychnine to speed, or sending dead flowers and a chopped up doll?”

“We’re done here,” said Mr. Fallon, disgust dripping from his voice. “Come on, Kevin.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “What dead flowers? What chopped up doll? That’s crazy stuff. Hold on, Mr. Fallon. I want to know what they’re talking about.”

“I’m talking about Paula Warren. Recognize the name, Mr. Jennings?” My stomach dropped.

“What? What’s happened to Paula?”

“Why should you care? I believe when you broke up she called you a ‘monster’ and to leave her alone. Paula seems to be one of the lucky ones. She withdrew from school before someone could kill her.”

“I didn’t know she withdrew,” I said. I really didn’t. I had dated Paula briefly during my junior year. She said something about harassing phone calls and noises outside her apartment. I slept over a few times to check, but nothing happened. I mean, no harassing calls or prowlers. Plenty else happened, but that’s neither here nor there. Then she said she thought it was me doing it. Someone was feeding her lies.

“Well, what did you expect after you sent her a box of dead flowers and the next day a box with a doll chopped up into bits? A doll with blond hair just like Miss Warren. Of course she left. For her own safety.”

“What? I never did that. That’s sick.”

“Well, the UPS guy picked your picture as the guy who sent it.”

“But that’s impossible. I never did anything like that.”

“Then, there is Susan Cummings.” The nightmare seemed never ending.

Garza continued. “You dated her after Miss Warren. We have a statement from her you seemed mentally unbalanced, and she was afraid of you.”

“I don’t know what was going on with Susan. She said someone was stalking her and leaving threatening messages on her phone. She said someone called and told her I was crazy and would hurt her. I wouldn’t hurt her. I’ve never hurt anyone. Why is this happening to me?”

“Well, look at it from my perspective,” Garza began reasonably, too reasonably. “I have four girls here, two dead and two terrified. And the common denominator is you. What am I supposed to do with that?”

My first thought on what she could do with that probably wouldn’t help my case so I went with my second thought.

“I’m being set up. Someone is trying to ruin my life. I’m being systematically set up.”

“Now what makes you so important that someone would go to all this trouble to ruin you? Doesn’t really make sense, does it?” Garza just looked at me.

“It’s that Spooky bitch. She’s behind it. She told me she would get me one day. Said she wouldn’t rest until everyone knew what a monster I was. Monster. That’s it. Both Paula and Susan said someone told them I was a monster. It’s not exactly the most common word. It must have been Spooky. I’ve seen her slithering around campus lately, turning up where I am, like she’s stalking me.”

“And why would Miss Lee think you’re a monster?”

Oops.

“Um, because I took Marcie away from her. She was very possessive. She hated me for taking Marcie. I don’t know. She’s crazy. She probably blames me for Marcie’s death. If she’s the one who told you I was at Jenny’s on Saturday, you can forget it. She’s out to get me.”

“Yes, I’m sure we’ll be talking to Miss Lee. Now are there any other girlfriends, dead or alive, that we should know about?”

“Not funny. Not at all,” Mr. Fallon said. He put his arm around me and escorted me from the police station.

***

“So according to your lawyer, they got nothing on you?” Bryson asked.

“Yeah. Put together it all looks bad, but there’s not enough facts there to hold it together.” My interview with the police still freaked me, but I was starting to calm a bit.

“Unless they find more evidence,” he cautioned.

“No. There is no more evidence. I didn’t do anything. It shouldn’t have gone as far as it already has.”

“Hey, man. Not to scare you, but police plant evidence all the time. It saw a TV show about it. They could come in right now and claim they found a kilo of cocaine and lock your ass up forever.”

“I’d just tell ‘em it was yours.”

“That’s cold, man. After all I done for you, you’d rat me out like that?” he asked, acting wounded.

“In a heartbeat.”

He had a point. I don’t think Detective Garza would plant evidence. Hell knows what Detective Wilson would do. Mostly he just sat in and glowered at me. He’s got Bad Cop down pat. Garza’s Good Cop could use some work.

“It’s that Spooky bitch who’s the problem. I bet she set the whole thing up.”

“What spooky bitch?” Bryson looked bewildered.

“That crazy girl who was Marcie’s roommate. She hated me.”

“Oh, yeah. The crazy one. I remember her.”

“The cops will talk to her. I’m sure she doesn’t know about you or she’d have the cops all over us by now.”

“You sure about that?”

“Pretty sure. She hates my guts. She knew I introduced Marcie to a dealer. She just never knew who. Marcie was smart enough not to tell her.”

“You don’t blame me, do you? I mean, you know I didn’t try to hurt anyone?”

“Bry, we’ve been through this. I hated you for a while. I know I accused you of killing Marcie. But I saw how it affected you. You couldn’t have known you had a bad batch. That was your source’s fault. We all took our chances using street drugs. And if anything good could come from such a fuckup, at least it made you turn your life around and me stop using. You know I’m good with what happened.”

“Yeah. At least I was low-level enough that my connection just beat me up and said there’d be worse if I ever opened my mouth. Piece of cake.”

“I watched you, Bry. What happened with Marcie almost killed you. You blamed yourself. You didn’t even argue with me when I blamed you. You were in a very dark place. As much as I loved Marcie, it hurt me more to see you in such pain.”

“But you pulled me through, bro.”

“Hey, that’s what bros do. It’s me and you, bud. Always and forever.”

“I do remember her and that Darlene chick, with the white-painted face and all the black clothes and shit. A real freak show.”

“Yeah? You know Darlene thought you were pretty hot.”

“Oh, don’t tell me stuff like that. There are some things you can’t unhear. She was the spooky one, you ask me. What’d Marcie ever see in them, anyway?”

“You get thrown together freshman year, make friends, and it sticks. Look at us. Except for the fact that you are apparently hot to Goth chicks I don’t know what I see in you.”

“Same at you, asshole. But you know that’s not true. We have something special. This strange connection. I felt it the first time I saw you. We’re a good team.”

“Yeah, it’s weird how it just happens. What are the odds of finding someone who can end up as close as we are?”

“That’s what Marcie said. That we’re good for each other. That we look out for each other. She’s the only girlfriend you had that I ever really liked. The others didn’t stack up. Paula and Susan were no way good enough for you. Well, I kinda liked Jenny. But you two were getting way too serious. Sometimes it felt like you were leaving me. It’s me and you, bro. Always and forever. We’re bonded. We belong together. I’m no homo but you know it’s always bros before hos. It’s us against them. We’re like Butch and Sundance, or Thelma and Louise on testosterone.”

“As I recall, those didn’t end too well.”

“Well, you know I’d take a bullet for you, bud.”

“Yeah, I believe you actually would.” I suddenly noticed a tear roll down his face.

“What’s this? What’s wrong,” I asked with concern. Bryson never cried.

“I fucked up. I fucked it all up.” More tears streamed out.

“No man, nothing’s fucked up. We’re good.” I didn’t know what he was talking about.

“Yes, I did. I didn’t mean to. I just got so scared.” He was literally sobbing now, his breath hitching.

“Come on, dude. Let’s talk about it. You’ll feel better.”

“I can’t. You’ll hate me. I can’t live if you hate me.”

Something was really going on with him. I went over to the sofa and sat beside him and put an arm around his shoulder.

“Hey, you’re my brother, remember. Always and forever. Nothing’s going to make me hate you.”

“I love you, man. You’re my other half,” he whimpered.

“I love you, too. Always.” He had his face against my shoulder, still crying pitifully.

“I didn’t mean it.”

“Mean what?”

“All the nasty shit I said about you. It was just to make them go away.”

“What nasty shit?”

“I told Paula and Susan you were crazy, a monster. A real whack job and you might attack them. I told Jenny, too. I don’t think she believed me, though.”

I sat up, pushing his face off my shoulder.

“Bryson. What are you talking about?”

“Those girls. They weren’t good enough for you. And they were coming between us. I couldn’t let them take you away from me. I need you. You complete me. You belong to me.”

“Oh shit, Bryson. What did you do?”

“Nothing much. Susan was easy. I scared her a little with some phone calls and scratching around her condo. Once she thought it was you, she left. Paula was harder. I ended up sending her some stupid stuff, dead flowers, cut up doll. It scared her real good.” I watched as he told me this and his face lightened as if he was enjoying the memory. Then his face crumpled again.

“I didn’t want to hurt her,” he said through renewed tears. “She made me.”

“Hurt who?” I asked, but was afraid I knew the answer.

“Jenny,” he said in a small voice. Oh, fuck. Is he saying he killed Jenny? Oh fuck, oh fuck.

            “She called me to come see her that night. I won’t at the frat party. Oh, I’m so sorry. Please don’t hate me.”

            “Just tell me what happened, Bryson. Please.” I said it as evenly as I could.

            “She was mad as hell. She said she knew I’d been dicking with her, trying to scare her. She said our attachment was unnatural. Unnatural! That’s what she called us. She said she would tell you what I was doing, and you’d hate me forever. I couldn’t stand that. I love you. You belong with me.” He curled in on himself, sobbing.

            “Go on, Bry. Get it all out.” The tears were now flowing down my face also.

            “We fought. When I knocked her down, she hit her head on something and it knocked her out. I know I did wrong, but I was so scared. I fucked up. I fucked up because I thought I was gonna lose you. I had a tab of acid on me. I still deal a little. I didn’t tell you because I knew you hated it. I put it under her tongue and tied her up with her sheet. Once she was tripping, we went outside on the balcony. I told her she could fly while on acid. She wanted to try.”

            “Oh my God, Bryson.” I couldn’t come out with any more than that.

            “It hurt so bad to do that. It was even worse with Marcie. I hated dosing Marcie. It liked to have killed me to do her like that. But she was taking you away. You hate me now, don’t you?” He didn’t make it a question. He knew.

            “I fucked up so bad. If they take you, then we can’t be together. If they take me, we won’t be together. Now I’m afraid you might leave me. There ain’t but one way out.”

            He slipped his hand down between the sofa cushions and pulled out a pistol.

            “Shit, Bryson, put that thing down before you hurt someone. Where’d you get it, anyway?”

            “I’ve had it a long time. Just in case. We can really be together like this. A suicide pact. It will solve all our problems. We’ll be together forever.”

            “Yeah, I want to be with you bud, but we’ve still got a lot of living to do. There’s so much we haven’t done yet,” I babbled, playing for time.

            “I’m sorry, Kev. I fucked that up. We got no future. I guess we really are Thelma and Louise.”

            Suddenly the door burst open and Detective Garza and Detective Wilson charged in, weapons drawn.

            “Bryson Johns, drop the weapon!” she shouted.

            Bryson looked over and fired at her. The shot hit her in the chest and she actually flew a few feet backward from the impact. Before she had landed Detective Wilson unloaded three shots into Bryson’s chest. He got a surprised look on his face and dropped the pistol. Wilson raced up and kicked it away. He looked back to Garza, and she shouted, “I’m all right.”

            I grabbed Bryson and cradled him against my chest, sobbing harder than ever. He smiled and whispered, “Hey bro, you do still love me, don’t you?”

            “Of course. Just me and you, dude. Always and forever.”

            “I’ll be waiting. I know you’ll find me. You belong to me.”

***

Detective Garza filled me in the next day on all that had happened. Spooky Lee was actually working with the police. She had told them I had connected Marcie with a drug dealer and they’d been watching me to try to find him. They knew that I did not go out the night Jenny was killed. They were just trying to rattle me to see what they could shake loose. One break came from my saying that Bryson was at the fraternity party. They checked, and no one remembered seeing him there. They finally found a cam shot of a person entering Jenny’s dorm who had no business there—Bryson. At the interview at my apartment, Detective Garza noted how similar both Bryson and I looked. She got a picture of Bryson and took it to UPS and the clerk immediately identified him. He had been a bit iffy on the picture of me. The girl who said she saw me at Jenny’s dorm also identified the picture of Bryson. She later said she just assumed it was me because I was always there. From leads from another investigation Detective Garza had figured out that Bryson was the dealer who supplied Marcie. As she looked into Bryson’s past she found he had a sealed juvie record. She had to get a court order to open it. Once she saw it she called in all units and raced to our apartment. They had treated Bryson as an adolescent for antisocial and sociopathic behaviors. He became obsessed with people or things and ended up destroying them. He lied without remorse and showed no empathy. Just as she arrived outside our apartment the surveillance team watching through a part in the curtains saw Bryson draw the gun. She said she was just thankful that she had taken the time to put on her Kevlar vest.

***

I’ve tried to put this behind me. I’ve spent umpteen hours on my therapist’s couch crying my eyes out. I think I’ve shed enough tears to float a damn battleship. If getting the emotion out that way is effective, then I’m well on the way to being cured. I’ve been thinking a lot about Bryson. I knew he was clingy, but had no idea he was so sick. Am I that naïve or was he just that good at it? I’ve read up on his particular pathology and saw a lot of parallels. It’s kind of eerie looking at it in hindsight. All the signs were there. But I think they got one thing wrong. They said he showed no remorse or empathy. I believe he did. I think in the end he was sorry for how he had ‘fucked up’ as he put it. And obsessive or not, I’m damn sure he did love me. He loved me with all his warped heart. And I’ll try to remember him like that. My best bud. Always and forever.

Escape to Paradise

One of my passions is ballroom dance. I’ve been doing it for more than 40 years. I’m nowhere near competition level but I consider myself rather competent. Another passion is cruising. I’ve been on 18 cruises. I like traveling and I hate living out of a suitcase. This way I get to unpack once, but I’m in a different place every day. Food is provided and pushed all the time, there is constant entertainment, and they make my bed. What’s not to like? All but two of my cruises were specific dance cruises. See passion number one. A new passion I’ve picked up in retirement is writing. I don’t claim any talent at this but I enjoy it. Since I’m not trying to support myself, I can write whatever I please and not care what anyone else thinks. Even with this attitude I’ve had seven short stories picked up by magazines. Six have been published, I decided not to let go of the seventh one.

This story is a combination of all three of my passions. I get to write about a cruise and ballroom dancing. It also involves abusive partners, mystery, the scent of ginger flowers and very strong drinks with tiny umbrellas. Well the last two items are up to you. So pull up your chaise and tropical drink of your choice and enjoy.

This story appeared in Scarlet Leaf Review on January 21, 2020.

Escape to Paradise

 At 8 pm on a Thursday in January, there was a knock at Jenna’s door. She looked through her peephole and began shivering. It was Dusty. Dustin Randall, her ex-boyfriend. Dustin, the ex-boyfriend who wouldn’t let go. Dustin, the ex-boyfriend who nearly put her in the hospital the last time he beat her. Which would be the LAST time he beat her, she had decided. She had packed her bags and left him. First, she fled to the Women’s Center. They helped her get an apartment. She never gave him her new apartment location. Someone must have ratted her out.

 “Go away, Dusty!” she shouted through the door. She was aware he could hear her through the cheap thin material.

 “Come on, baby. Let me in,” he wheedled.

 “You’re not supposed to be here. I have a restraining order.”

 “Yeah, my daddy’s getting it dismissed. Come on, babe. I just want to talk.”

Jenna closed her eyes and prayed for strength. The results of their last ‘talk’ had not yet healed, leaving lingering yellow and green marks on her face and arms. 

 “I’m calling the cops!” she yelled.

 “And what are they gonna do? They’re all on my daddy’s payroll.”

 “My lawyer said I could call the State Troopers. They don’t kowtow to your family.”

 “You don’t want to make me mad, Jenna. You know how I get. You just bring the misery upon yourself. Don’t make me hurt you.”

 “Go away! I’m done with you. I don’t ever want to see you again. Can’t you get that through your thick head?”

 “You know I can’t do that, honey. We belong together. You and me. You belong to me. And I aim to keep what’s mine. Now open this fucking door!” Jenna had just finished dialing 911.

 “911 Emergency. What is the nature of your emergency?”

 “There’s a man trying to break into my apartment,” she whispered.

 “Are you able to get out of the apartment?”

 “No. He’s at the only door.”

 “Do you know the identity of the intruder?”

 “Yes, my ex-boyfriend. I have a restraining order against him.”

 “I’ve already dispatched the police, in the meantime..,”

 “No. The police are on his daddy’s payroll. They won’t do anything. Can you send the State Patrol?”

 “Sorry, ma’am. We’re only connected to the police. Your police department is not owned by any family. They will protect you. I suggest you get into the most secure room you can and barricade the door. The police should be there in five minutes.”

 Wham! Jenna dropped the phone at the sound of Dusty trying to break the through the door. She could hear the faint squawk of the 911 operator still trying to talk to her. Jenna scurried into the kitchen, clawed open a drawer, and pulled out the revolver she had just bought. Checking that it was loaded and that the safety was off, she put her back against the wall directly in front of the door. With arms extended, holding the gun with both hands, Jenna pointed it at the door. The end of the revolver trembled violently.

 “Dusty, go away! I have a gun.”

 “And what do you think you’re gonna do with a gun? I ain’t scared of you, girl. You ain’t got the balls to shoot me. We gonna have us some fun. You ever heard of being pistol whipped?” Wham! A huge crack appeared in the door. 

Wham! The thin veneer of the door shattered. Dusty pushed his arms through, knocking the plywood out of his way. He leered evilly when he saw Jenna ten feet away, scared out of her wits. She usually thought he was so handsome, and he usually was. But when he got that evil look on his face, she knew she was in trouble. He forced his way into the room. Before he said anything, Jenna fired the pistol at him three times. All three missed, mostly because she turned her head to the side and closed her eyes as she fired.

 “What the fuck, girl? You gonna pay for that.”

 Jenna fired the remaining three shots. At least one hit him because Dusty went down howling in pain. Bright red appeared on his thigh. She could hear sirens in the distance.

 Dusty looked at Jenna through the grimace of pain on his sweaty face.

 “You have just signed your death warrant, bitch.”

***

 The police swarmed in a few minutes later. They immediately recognized Dusty and knew what was what. Jenna was disarmed and taken into custody. They called an ambulance for Dusty. She called her lawyer from the police department. Since she was in her own apartment, had a restraining order and a broken-down door her lawyer could bully the night cops into not booking her but releasing her to him. Mr. Randall would probably fire them.

 As he drove her to a friend’s house he said, “Too bad you didn’t kill the bastard. Save us all a lot of trouble.”

 “He said he is going to kill me. He means it, too.”

 “Well, he’s going to have to wait. Violating the restraining order, breaking down your door, communicating threats. We might put him away for a while this time.”

 “No, we won’t,” Jenna said with defeat in her voice. “His daddy will just paper over it. He’ll be bandaged up and out on bail by morning. He’s never going to stop. Not till one of us is dead.”

 “That’s just defeatist talk. Come on. There’s a new judge who isn’t owned by the Randalls and I think I can get this before him. We might get that ass some serious time.”

 “You really think so?” For the first time there was hope in her voice.

 “Yeah, I do. Here we are.” He pulled up in front of Arlene’s house. Arlene was Joyce’s half-sister. Joyce was Jenna’s best friend. Joyce’s apartment would be the first place Dusty would look. Dusty didn’t know Joyce had a half-sister which made it a perfect hideout. Arlene opened the door as they got to the porch. 

 “Come on in, honey. That bastard acting up again?”

 “Ms. Connors, thanks for taking Jenna in like this. Remember, for both of your safety, the Randalls mustn’t find out she’s here.”

 “I ain’t scared of Dusty Randall. Let that punk set foot on my property. I got a shotgun and I don’t miss. I’d love a chance to blow his ass clear across North Carolina.”

 “I love your fighting spirit but please, lie low. Good night, Jenna. Get some rest. I’ll call you tomorrow.” He left.

***

 When her lawyer called the next day, the news was as expected—not good. They had released Dusty on bail that morning. He never went to the jail. His family arranged for him to be held overnight at the hospital. The Randalls were making noises about suing her, but her lawyer explained NC law was on her side. The broken door, the recording of the 911 call and the all-important restraining order proved that she was within her rights to defend herself, with deadly force if necessary. The good news was that he had the case placed before the new unbiased judge. The bad news was that the case wouldn’t be heard for another month. Until that time, Dusty was free to do as he pleased. 

 “He knows where I work. I can’t take a month off. He’s going to find me and kill me.”

 “We’ll work something out,” he said.

***

 On Monday morning, Jenna drove her five-year-old Honda Civic to the State Employees’ Credit Union where she worked. She didn’t see Dusty’s Camaro anywhere in the parking lot, but still waited for the security guard to come out to escort her into the building. She worked in an office, not as a teller, so Dusty would have to get past the security guard and locked doors to get to her. She knew he was crazy enough to try it, though. 

 After work, the security guard walked her out to her car. As she pulled away, she thought she saw Dusty’s blue car a few blocks behind. Since he didn’t get any closer, she figured he was trying to tail her to her apartment. As planned, she drove straight to her attorney’s office in a highrise. It had the benefit of a gated parking lot. The gate guard watched as she entered the building. Once inside, she went through the building, out another little-used service entrance, across an alley to where Arlene was waiting. Tomorrow Arlene would bring her back to enter through the side entrance and she would take her car to work. Jenna knew this would not work for long. Dusty was a lot of disagreeable things, but stupid was not one of them. Crazy, but not stupid. That’s what made him so dangerous. He would figure out there was a ruse and discover it. But she had a few days.

***

 “Aruba? You think I can afford to go to Aruba?” Jenna exclaimed over the phone to Joyce. It was Wednesday evening.

 “Yes, you can. My brother and his fiancée are having to cancel. They can turn the tickets over to us. They’re willing to let them go for half-price. It’s a steal. And it leaves this Saturday. You can get away from dickhead and relax. By the time you get back, it’ll be 14 days closer to the hearing. Less than a week to go at that point.”

 Jenna was hesitant. She had vacation time and her boss at the credit union was very supportive and concerned about her situation. It was a near certainty that she would approve the time off. But a cruise? Such a luxury seemed almost obscene considering the trouble she was facing. But then again. Fourteen days without having to hide, look over her shoulder, be constantly on edge would be heaven. 

 “How much?” she finally said. Then, “I’m in.”

***

 Jenna packed in her apartment on Thursday night with a State Trooper guarding her. She realized she hadn’t obsessed about Dusty for several hours and was feeling a little happy again. Just one more day to go.

***

 As she ate her lunch on Friday at her desk, as she usually did, Jenna heard a commotion out in the lobby area of the credit union. Someone was shouting. She walked over to the security station near her office and looked at the console, which had a view from all the security cameras in the building. Sure enough, in the lobby was Dustin Randall, red faced, probably a little drunk facing off against two security guards. He ranted while they just impassively stood in front of the door that gave access to the rest of the offices. Her boss showed up beside her.

 “That asshole needs to get shot, and not in the leg,” she said. “You’re doing the right thing to get out of town for a few weeks. Send me a postcard. I can stick it on my refrigerator as my inspiration to get back into my bikini.”

 As they watched the camera footage, Dusty seemed to wind down his rant and give up. He turned as if to leave, but it was just a feint. He swung back around with a roundhouse punch aimed at the first security officer’s jaw. The officer reacted in time and only got a glancing blow. Immediately the guards jumped on Dusty, taking him to the floor. In no time they cuffed him, with him screaming obscenities and Jenna’s name, waiting for the police to come pick him up. Jenna revised her estimation of Dusty. Looks like he is stupid, after all. Well, she thought, this will keep him tied up until tomorrow. It looks like I will get away.

***

 “Wow, I didn’t realize how big it is,” Jenna gaped at the Ocean Flyer, pride of the Cormorant line, as they were boarding.

 “Yep, just us and 2,000 of our closest friends,” joked Joyce. 

 Once on board, they hustled up to the Lido deck for the buffet lunch. Sitting at a table, looking out over the palmed resorts of Fort Lauderdale, Jenna momentarily wondered if she was just having a wonderful dream. She was so afraid she’d wake up to find Dusty breaking down her door. This is paradise.

 “Forget him,” Joyce said, placing her hand on Jenna’s. “At least for the next 14 days. Relax, unwind, get drunk, flirt with some cute guys. That’s what vacation is for.”

 “You’re right. Tell the waiter I’ll have a margarita. And find me some cute guys.” They both laughed gaily. 

***

 There were so many activities on board the ship they hardly knew what to do first. They would be at sea for two days before any island stops so they’d have plenty of time to explore. Jenna found one activity that she considered a must.

 “There’s an orchestra playing ballroom music in the Queen’s Lounge after dinner. Let’s go.”

 “Ballroom? Seriously?”

 “Yes. I took lessons for a couple of years, BD, Before Dusty. I let that get away. I want to reclaim something that he has no part of.”

 “Okay,” Joyce said dubiously. “But you’re buying the drinks. And if it’s all old folks, I’m outta there.”

***

 It turned out there were mixed ages in the lounge and several single men. That immediately caught Joyce’s eye. She and Jenna were attractive young ladies, so they quickly caught the attention of the men present. A very attractive fortyish man came to their table.

 “I’m Jack, a ship dance host. May I have this dance?” He held his hand out to Joyce. She giggled girlishly and accompanied him to the floor. Two minutes later, after she had walked all over his feet, he resignedly returned her to the table. 

 “Sorry, guess I should have told you I don’t know how to dance,” she said to him sheepishly. Jenna could tell he was biting his tongue. “You should ask Jenna here. She’s a bona fide ballroom dancer.”

 “Joyce! I am not. I haven’t danced in two years.”

 “It’s like riding a bicycle. It comes back easily. May I?” the host asked. Jenna allowed him to lead her to the floor. She could tell it was a foxtrot.

 “I only know American style foxtrot,” she said. It impressed the host she recognized it was a foxtrot and that she knew there was a difference in styles. He beamed, took her in dance hold and moved off. Slow, quick, quick. Jenna found that it came back. They floated around the room effortlessly. This is what dancing is all about, she said to herself. It’s like flying. Just skimming along, free and easy. We’re like Fred and Ginger. Oh, how I have missed this. When the host returned her to her table, he commented it was one of the best dances he’d had recently and hoped she would allow him to dance with her again later. She smiled and assured him he was welcome anytime. She felt like she was glowing.

 “Ooh. He likes you,” Joyce giggled. “And so debonair. Looks like Cary Grant.”

 After another song, a young man, upper twenties, their age, came to their table. He was cute, and Jenna found his nervous look endearing.

 “I’m nowhere near as good as you, but do you want to dance? I’m Drew, by the way,” he said to Jenna. It was a rumba. Jenna figured even a novice could probably handle it. 

 Drew proved that he had a basic understanding of the dance. He only stepped on her a few times, but mostly he did basic moves. This gave her an opportunity to talk to him.

 “So, are you enjoying the cruise?” was all she could think to say. She grimaced at how trite it sounded.

 “Slow, quick, quick,” he said. “Can’t talk. Counting. Slow, quick, quick.”  She giggled and allowed him to finish the dance without further interruption. 

 He returned her to her table and asked Joyce to dance, but she said no. She decided she wasn’t a ballroom dancer and was content to just watch. Plus, she was on her third hurricane.

 Drew came back a couple more times that evening to ask Jenna to dance as did Jack. The third time Drew returned her to the table, Joyce asked him to stay awhile.

 “Shtay awhile,” she drawled. “It’ll shave ush all time.” He looked at Jenna and she just grinned. Joyce was a lovable drunk. Drew pulled up a chair and sat by Jenna. 

 “Look at that old couple,” Jenna pointed out a couple in the crowd. It was a waltz so nearly everyone was dancing. “They aren’t doing anything fancy, but they look so happy. They’ve probably been dancing with each other 50 years. It’s so romantic to be so comfortable and in sync with someone. Her eyes are closed. She’s probably remembering the handsome boy she fell in love with.”

 “Her husband or some other guy?” Drew asked. Then he winked and laughed.

 “Oh, you,” Jenna chided and swatted his arm lightly.

 “You are such a romantic,” he said. “It’s nice to find that. I’m afraid I don’t see it all that much.”

 “Drew. You have a southern accent. Where are you from, anyway?”

 “Well, I grew up in Winston-Salem. That’s in North Carolina. Now I work for a bank in Charlotte. Me and my buddy Bill decided to take a cruise together. He’s probably up in the disco putting moves on underage girls. He’s a mess.”

 “Hey, we’re from North Carolina, too. Just outside Greensboro. And I work in a bank. Well, at least, a credit union.”

 “Wow, howdy homegirl,” he laughed. They heard a snore and noticed Joyce was out. 

 “Well, I guess I need to get Sleeping Beauty to bed. Come on, girl. Up.” She grabbed Joyce’s arm and dragged her up. Joyce stumbled a little, and Jenna put her arm around her. 

 “Let’s go, babe. Goodnight, Drew. I hope to see you around the ship.”

 “Night.”

***

 Midmorning next day found Jenna ensconced at a small table on the Lido deck enjoying the sunshine and a breakfast of fruit. 

 “I swear I’m not stalking you. Really. Cross my heart.” Jenna looked up and Drew stood by her table with a tray of food. 

 “Well, good morning, have a seat,” she invited.

 “Thanks. Where’s your other half?”

 “In bed with an ice pack on her head.”

 “Ouch.”

 “That’s what she said,” she quipped. “How about Bill?”

 “Oh, he’s out at the pool chasing a bikini.”

 “Already? It’s barely past 10,” she asked with surprise.

 “I guess the early bird gets the bimbo,” he said.

 “You don’t seem to think much of Bill, sometimes.”

 “Don’t get me wrong. I love him like a brother. It’s just he has no judgment. He just thinks with his, well, his smaller head.” Jenna couldn’t help but giggle. 

 After breakfast, Drew went to check on Bill. Jenna thought a walk along the deck would be nice. As she neared the front of the ship she saw people gathering at the rail and pointing. She went to see what was going on. Just fifty yards away she saw a family of dolphins leaping about playing and having a marvelous time. Everyone was exclaiming and taking pictures. She was as charmed as anyone. She looked up and saw people on other decks had also noticed the dolphins. About two decks up she noticed a handsome man, a very handsome man with an evil leer. He was staring at her. It was a face she knew all too well. It was Dustin Randall. She froze for a second and then bolted. She raced as fast as she could back to her room. Once inside, she bolted the door and slumped to the floor leaning against it. Her heart felt as if it would burst.

 “What’s going on?” Joyce croaked blearily from her bed.

 “Oh my god, Joyce. Dusty is on the ship.”

 “What? He can’t be? How would he even know?”

 “Hell, his family knows everything that goes on. They probably had your phone bugged or something. I just saw him on deck, staring at me.”

 “Are you sure it was him?”

 “Joyce. I lived with him for six months. I know what he looks like. He’s here. He’s come after me. What am I gonna do?”

 “We need to see the captain.”

***

 They soon found out that no one can just ‘see the captain’. The purser’s office directed them to the security office. 

 “So you think your boyfriend followed you on this ship?” said Chief Security Officer Nigel Scott.

 “Yes.”

 “Has he made contact or threatened you in any way?”

 “No. But I have a restraining order that he can’t come within a thousand feet. Anywhere on this ship is inside that. And he knew I was coming on this ship.”

 “What’s the name?”

 “Dustin Lee Randall.” The security officer pulled up a computer file.

 “No one by that name on the manifest. Does he have an alias?”

 “Not that I know of.”

 “Well, there’s no one with that name listed. And our security is too tight for any stowaways. Maybe you just made a mistake.”

 “It wasn’t a mistake. You took pictures for our key cards when we got on. Let me look through the pictures and I’ll find him.”

 “I can’t let you go through our files, miss. That’s about a dozen breaches in security protocols. And even then, there are about a thousand men on this ship.”

 Jenna pulled out her phone. She didn’t have service on the ship but the camera app worked. 

 “Here’s his picture. Can you look for him for me?”

 “Miss. I have more important things to do than look through a thousand pictures trying to find a person who isn’t even on the ship.”

 “Oh, please. I’ll never be able to relax if I think he’s here. He’s said he will kill me.” She hated playing the damsel in distress, but this was an emergency.

 “Okay, look. Go to the purser’s desk and buy some phone minutes. Send his picture to this number.” He handed her a scribbled number. “When I have some free time, I’ll try to run through the guest photos. All right?”

 “Yes, thank you.”

 Jenna followed his instructions and then locked herself in her room. 

 “So you gonna stay here in the room the rest of the cruise?” Joyce asked, hands on her hips.

 “What else can I do?”

 “Oh, babe. Get over it. Go and live it up. There’s like a hundred people around you all the time on the ship. He’s not going to try anything here. Plus, there are hunky deck crew, totally kissable, too, standing every few feet on the deck. They can surely take care of him. You’re safe here. Safer than anywhere else. Don’t let him take this away from you.”

 “You think so?” Jenna was unsure. 

 “I’ll be right beside you. If I see him, I’ll scream bloody murder. Everyone will be watching. Probably taking video.”

***

 Joyce was recovered by the evening, but sipping only ginger ale. She raised an eyebrow as Drew approached their table in the Queen’s Lounge. 

 “Mind if I join you ladies?”

 “Please, sit,” offered Jenna. After a moment, Joyce gave Jenna a pointed look. A look that said ‘go for it’.

 “I’ve got a roll of quarters I need to throw away. I’ll be in the casino if anybody needs me,” she said airily and walked away.

 “Is it something I said?” Drew looked puzzled.

 “No, just Joyce being Joyce.”

 They danced to several songs. While he was nowhere near the skill level of the dance host, Jack, he was competent. Jack claimed a few dances, but he had to work the entire room. After about her fourth dance with Drew, Jenna said, “You should probably dance with some other ladies or people might talk.”

 “Let them talk. I enjoy dancing with you.”

 Jenna knew she was blushing, but it was nice to be getting positive attention for a change.

 “You seem preoccupied. I hope I’m not boring you,” Drew breathed.

 “Oh, it’s not you. I just had a bad moment today. I thought I saw my boyfriend.”

 “Boyfriend? Um, am I in the way?”

 “My ex-boyfriend. He’s been harassing me. I think he’s on the cruise, the bastard.’

 “I don’t want to get mixed up in any weird domestic stuff. Why don’t I go sit at another table?”

 “Don’t go, Drew. He’s not going to cause any trouble. I alerted the ship. They’re looking for him. As Joyce said, we’re always surrounded by like a hundred people. What’s he going to do?”

 “You sure. I don’t want to cause you any trouble.”

 “You won’t. You’re the nicest thing that’s happened to me in a while. I’m enjoying it.” Drew smiled self-consciously. She thought she saw a hint of a blush. It was adorable.

 “We’re stopping at the private island tomorrow. Care to explore it with me?” he asked.

 “I’ve already talked with Joyce about hitting the beach.”

 “Bring her. If I can pry Bill away from his bikini bimbo, we can make a foursome.”

 “Sure.”

***

 Drew showed up at the gangway the next morning alone. 

 “No Bill?” Jenna asked.

 “The bikini apparently held more promise. I swear she’s not even 17.”

 The three of them left the ship and were soon walking along the sand under palm trees. It was the middle of January and here she was in paradise. Bright sunshine, sparkling water in a shade of blue only seen in the Caribbean, gentle breeze softly scented with tropical flowers and coconut. If only I could stay here forever, Jenna thought. Stay here with someone like Drew.

 “Listen, you kids. I don’t need a sunburn as my souvenir, so I’m going to park it in a chaise under a palm tree. I’ve got a novel full of heaving bosoms to keep me occupied. You go have fun.” Joyce shooed them away. So they explored. Jenna had a delightful time. Drew turned out to be quite charming.

***

 That evening the purser found her at her dining table and asked to see her for a moment.

 “Security Officer Scott has checked the photo you provided against the passengers. It doesn’t match anyone on board. I’ve talked with the captain. Our security team will remain on alert, but we feel sure it was just mistaken identity. It’s happened before. Please try to relax. Here is a complimentary pass from the captain for a day in the spa. Please enjoy.”

 Back at the table, she told Joyce that there was no sign of Dusty. 

 “I was sure I saw him.”

 “Your nerves have been a mess, girl. You probably just saw what you fear. Kinda like your worst nightmare.”

 “I guess.”

***

 After dinner, they went back to the room to freshen up. Joyce said she had actually won money at the casino and would try her luck again.

 “Anything beats watching you and Casanova make cow eyes at each other.”

 “Joyce!” Jenna was shocked.

 “Hey, I just call it like I see it. He’s way hunky. I say go for it. I’m okay with the old bra on the doorknob, but I’m not spending all night in the library. Make it a quickie.”

 “Joyce! You’re scandalous. I’m not bringing Drew back to my room.”

 “Okay. Go to his. But mark my words. Sex is in the air.” She leered playfully and left before Jenna could throw anything at her.

 Jenna changed to a dress a little less formal than her dinner wear and headed for the lounge. She left her room and began walking up the long narrow hallway. You could see nearly the entire length of the ship here. It was dimly lit and kind of spooky. There was no one about except a gentleman coming from the direction she was heading. She started out. She suddenly noticed the man’s limping walk looked familiar. Her heart flew into her throat as he got close enough for her to make out his face. Dusty!

 She turned and fled back to her room. She could hear his running steps behind her.

 “Jenna! Stop, damn you!”

 She zipped her card in the lock and quickly slipped in the room and bolted the door. As she leaned back on the door, sobbing, she slid slowly to the floor. Would this nightmare never end?

 Once she was relatively together, she called the security desk. She explained that regardless of what they had told her, someone matching the description of her ex-boyfriend had just chased her back to her room. She realized she was sounding hysterical but couldn’t help it. Before long Security Officer Scott, her room steward and the ship’s doctor were in her room. 

 She accepted a sedative from the doctor. “He called my name. I know his voice. Why doesn’t anyone believe me?”

 “I’m sorry, miss, but I just don’t see any way he could have gotten on the ship. I have passed the photo you gave us to all ship’s personnel. If he is on this ship, we’ll find him. There is a suite available on the King’s deck. Entrance to the deck is key carded. We can upgrade you and your roommate there for extra security if you wish. No charge, of course,” the security chief offered. 

 The purser had paged Joyce, and she burst into the room.

 “What’s happened? Jenna, are you okay?”

 “No. Dusty IS on board. He chased me down the hall.”

 “Oh, shit. Sorry, guys,” she apologized for her colorful language.

 “I was just telling Miss Davenport that we can upgrade the two of you to a more secure deck.”

 “It’ll be a bitch to move all this stuff again,” she groused.

 “Don’t worry,” he said. “Your steward can arrange for some porters to transfer your belongings.”

***

 By nearly midnight, they had moved into the new suite.

 “Nice digs,” noted Joyce. “We actually can turn around without bumping butts.”

 “Yeah,” Jenna said wanly. She was a little spaced by the sedative. Joyce sat on the bed beside her.

 “Jenna, level with me,” Joyce said seriously. “What’s going on? Did you really see Dusty? Or do you just think you did? I mean, be honest. How could he have gotten on the ship with no one knowing? It doesn’t make sense.”

 “Not you, too,” moaned Jenna. “No one believes me. Do I have to turn up with a fucking knife in my chest to make you believe me?”

 “Oh, no, baby.” Joyce tried to soothe her, taking her in her arms. “I believe you. If you say you saw him, then you did.” Jenna just folded herself into a ball in Joyce’s arms and cried.

***

 Drew found them at a table during lunchtime the next day. He came up to their table, smiling.

 “Ok. This time I am stalking you. What happened last night? I missed you in the Queen’s Lounge.” He suddenly noticed her pallor. “Oh god, what’s happened? The boyfriend again?”

 “Yeah, he attacked her last night,” Joyce told him. 

 “Oh my god. I thought the ship said he wasn’t on board.”

 “Apparently the ship fucked up,” Joyce said tersely. 

 “I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do?”

 “Well,” Joyce said. “I gotta take a leak. Stay here while I go.”

 “Your friend has a way with words,” Drew murmured, trying to lighten the mood. Jenna just looked at him. 

 “She’s just angry. Dusty has ruined her vacation, too. He poisons everything.”

 “I’m sorry you’ve had to go through this. You are such a nice lady.”

 “Thanks. I think I’ll go back to my room.” She got up to walk away.

 “Shouldn’t you wait for your friend?” 

 “Oh yeah. Walk me to the elevator? They restrict my deck entry. I’ll be safe from there.”

 He walked her down to the nearest elevator.

 “I know you’re feeling low right now. But I hope you come to the Queen’s Lounge tonight. It’s just not the same without you. I’ll miss you.”

 Jenna made a half smile. “I’ll see.”

 The elevator opened, and some people got off. She got in, with a group of people, pressing ‘King’s Deck’ on the panel. Drew seemed quite taken with her, she thought. She was somewhat taken with him, as well. Too bad the cruise was such a bomb. She could really do with two weeks of mindless flirting.

 The elevator stopped. A few people got off, a few got on. When the elevator stopped on the Queen’s deck, most people got off. It required a key card to go further. As the last person exited the elevator, Jenna glanced in the mirrored wall and almost died on the spot. The reflection showed that Dusty was right behind her in the elevator. 

 “I said I’d kill you,” he hissed. He grabbed for her arm, but she evaded him, and dove out the rapidly closing door, screaming. By the time security personnel had arrived, the elevator was long gone. One of the deck crew lifted her in his arms like a child and carried her to sickbay. 

***

 Hours later, Joyce helped Jenna climb into the bed in their suite.

 “It’s going to be all right, babe. Don’t you worry. Joyce is here and everything’s going to be fine.”

 “No, it’s not. They think I’m crazy. You do, too. Everyone does. Maybe I am.”

 “Now, that’s crazy talk. You know I’m with you on this. You just get some rest.”

***

 The next day, the ship’s doctor, purser and captain came to see her.

 “Miss Davenport,” the captain began. “We are terribly upset that your vacation has been marred by problems on this ship. My crew and I have done everything we can to ensure your safety, but I don’t know what else we can do. Tomorrow, we will dock in Curaçao. There is an American embassy there. If you wish, my staff will assist you in contacting them to arrange air transport back to your home destination. Unfortunately, we cannot offer a refund since the voyage is nearly half over, but if you have purchased trip insurance, our ship’s doctor will assist you with filing.”

 Jenna thought for a few moments. “Yes, I’d like to go home. Joyce, I want you to stay. There’s no need to ruin both our vacations.”

 “Nothing doing, hon. We’re in this together. I go where you go. Besides, I’d have a crappy time without you here to enjoy it with me. Looks like it’s time to pack.”

***

 “You up for dinner in the dining room tonight?” Joyce asked later that day.

 “Yeah, I think so. Might as well use it while we can. I have enjoyed the food on this cruise.”

 “You and me, too. A couple more days and I’d have to break out my fat britches.”  Jenna had to laugh.

***

 After dinner, Joyce said, “Come on. I’ll go with you to the Queen’s Lounge. You know Romeo will be there looking for you. And don’t worry. Neither of us will leave you for a second. Total protection. But you need to unwind a little.”

 “You don’t like the music. I hate to make you go through that.”

 “Oh, hell, girl. I’ve gone through much worse for a lot less. Just buy me a couple of hurricanes and I’ll be fine.”

 As soon as they found a table in the Queen’s Lounge, Drew showed up.

 “I was so worried about you,” he said to Jenna. “Are you going to be okay?” She had taken a half a sedative tab after dinner, so she felt she had a grip on her nerves. For now.

 “Thanks, Drew. You’re a dear. I’ve enjoyed meeting you.”

 “That sounds a lot like goodbye,” he said, puzzled.

 “It is. I’m leaving the cruise tomorrow. The captain said I can get a flight back to the US from Curaçao. I just don’t feel safe on the ship anymore.”

 Drew’s breath caught quickly. “Are you sure that’s the right thing to do? To just toss the whole vacation?”

 “I don’t know what else I can do. Constantly look over my shoulder waiting for him to attack me? That’s not a vacation. 

 “Joyce, talk some sense into her. She’s just giving up.”

 “Why do you care?” Joyce asked. Drew got quiet. 

 “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know I’m not allowed to have an opinion.”

 “Joyce, you don’t need to be rude,” Jenna said. “Drew, I’d love to stay. I’ve had such a nice time with you, but it isn’t working. I’m a nervous wreck.”

 “Well, it’s just that you’ve become kind of special to me these past few days. You seem to understand me and are so nice. Aw crap, I don’t know how to say it. I like you. And I’d like a chance to know you better.”

 “Drew, don’t start. We’re from different worlds.”

 “What different worlds? Charlotte and Greensboro are what, a couple hours apart? Maybe we were meant to meet.”

 “Oh brother,” Joyce said dryly. “I’m on the Love Boat.”

 “Well, at least, can we dance?” he asked. They danced several dances. Drew seemed determined to keep her dancing. He really is taken with me, she thought.

 A rumba came on. Drew pulled her close, very close. She realized she enjoyed dancing this closely with him. His face was close to hers. He kept looking into her eyes. Oh god, she thought. This feels like one of those trashy novels Joyce loves. He leaned in, as if hoping for a kiss. What the hell, she decided. Give him a nice memory. She opened her mouth to him. Maybe the sedative was just kicking in, but she was feeling a bit lightheaded. Or maybe it was the kiss. Damn! He’s good at this. A moment later, he had his mouth by her ear. 

 “Oh, Jenna. I think about you so much. I’ll be lost without you. Won’t you reconsider leaving me?” he whispered in her ear.

 “I’m not leaving you, Drew. It’s this ship. I can’t be on a ship with my ex. And I’m sure he’s somewhere on board.”

 “Jenna, you’re tearing me apart.”

 “Drew, please don’t make this any harder for me.”

 They remained in the lounge until the band quit at 11, but Jenna could tell the life had gone out of Drew. She’d been unaware of how deeply he felt. She liked him, too, but he was way ahead of her. The ladies gathered their belongings to leave. 

 “Will I get a chance to see you tomorrow?” he asked. She would swear there were unshed tears in his eyes.

 “We’re doing an early breakfast. I’ll be at Lido at 7.”

 “Okay. Bye.” He looked down at the floor. She felt awful.

 “Drew, you’ll be okay. Just do like Bill. Go chase some bikinis.”

 “I’m not interested in bikinis,” he said like a truculent little boy.

 “Joyce, go on. I need to talk to Drew.”

 Joyce looked at Drew. “She has a curfew of midnight, young man. Not a minute after. Got it?”

 He gave her a half-hearted grin. “Yes, ma’am.”

 Jenna laced her arm through Drew’s. They strolled up the incline out of the lounge into the central part of the ship. He turned right, and they went through the double doors out onto the deck. There was a half moon out. It cast enough light on the water that you could see the outline of an island in the distance. It was quiet and romantic. Drew dropped her arm and propped both of his on the deck railing, looking down into the dark sea.

 “Drew, I’m sorry.”

 “Are you? Was I just a game?”

 “No, Drew. You know I care for you.”

 He petulantly snatched his arms off the railing. He jammed his hands in his pants pockets and started walking away, down the deck. Jenna followed. 

 “Drew, I’m not trying to hurt you.” He passed a windbreak and stopped again at the railing. She came up to him. It was darker here. He pulled her gently into himself. She had to admit she liked his arms around her. It had been a while since she felt safe in a man’s arms. He was leaning in again, so she helped and reached her mouth toward his. She also had to admit she liked kissing him. She was becoming lightheaded again. Maybe she shouldn’t have taken that half tab. But it was hours ago. It should have worn off by now. She realized she had trouble keeping her balance. Drew supported her.

 “What’s wrong, hon?” he asked. “Like my kisses that much?”

 She found that she couldn’t get her tongue to work to answer him.

 “That’s okay, baby. You don’t need to say anything. Dusty said you always talk too much.”

 What? her brain flared. She tried to struggle, but could not control her body.

 “Shh, honey. Everything’s okay. It’s just time for you to take a swim. You’ve been depressed and talking crazy the past few days. I’ll say I tried to get to you but you jumped before I could stop you. I had a bit of trouble dosing your drink tonight. That bitch of a roommate of yours wouldn’t take her eyes off me. I can tell she’s hot for me. She’ll need consoling after you go overboard. She’s not bad looking. I can probably get her in bed in no time. Whadaya think?”

 Jenna was paralyzed and could only look at him with eyes wide with terror. 

 “You were so easy. You just ate up my sad little boy routine. Dusty said you’d probably spread your legs for me before the week was out. I was hoping for some of that before you went over, but you had to mess it up. He ain’t even on this ship. He’s back in Greensboro. You were crazy to think he’s here, but it works in our favor. Now the whole ship thinks you’re nuts. Anyway, this is where we part ways.” He put an arm under her to lift her over the railing.

 She heard a click and realized it was a gun being cocked.

 “Stop right there, Mr. Wilson.” It was the Chief Security Officer Scott. “Release Miss Davenport and turn around slowly.” When Drew released her, she fell to the deck. The momentary deflection of the guard’s attention gave Drew the moment he needed. He jumped past the guard and raced down the deck. Two burly deck hands cut off his exit. They cornered him. With a crazed look back at Jenna, he dashed to his right and sailed over the railing. A deckhand ran to the side and threw over a life preserver, the other ran to the wall and rang the man overboard bell. The security guard came and propped Jenna up. “Good thing I kept an eye on you.” Once again, a deckhand picked her up like a child and carried her to sickbay. 

***

 Jenna was sitting by her attorney in a courtroom twenty days later. It was the beginning of February, so she was the only one in the courtroom sporting a suntan. She got it during fourteen glorious days in the Caribbean. Once she had realized Dusty wasn’t on the ship, she could relax. She realized she had experienced hallucinations, but they had seemed so real. The ship’s doctor said that was common in survivors of abuse. The final eight days had done her a world of good.

 “Guilty,” the judge intoned. “Sentencing to be on…” he looked at the court calendar. “The 24th of February. Bailiff, take him away.” The bailiff led Dustin Randall in an orange jumpsuit from the courtroom.

 “Your honor. I’m Mr. Mills from the District Attorney’s office,” said a man approaching the gate separating the attorneys from the courtroom. “We’d like to request a delay in sentencing of Mr. Randall until the disposition of our case. I have three warrants for the arrest of Dustin Lee Randall, his cousin Andrew Scott Wilson and his father, D. Jarratt Randall. We plan to charge them with multiple felonies including bribery, racketeering, wiretap, suborning felonies, conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to hire a murder, attempted first degree murder, kidnapping, assault with intent to kill, witness tampering. And there may be more.”

 “Your honor,” the Randall lawyer objected. “These charges are all hearsay. A spurned woman violently attacked young Dusty and now they want to drag the Randall family name through the mud. The family has suffered enough. I move to drop the charges as baseless.”

 “Objection overruled. The charges will stand. Sentencing is delayed. Since we relate the counts to the current tort, the clerk will calendar them on my court dates. Court adjourned.”  

A Dark and Stormy Night

I have a dim memory of an old episode from the tv series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” about a storm and some nervous nurses waiting it out. Something about a nurse killer on the loose. In the final scene we find that one of the nurses is the actual killer. She was a big woman and I think she was a man in a wig. Anyway, that errant memory flittered through my mind and left a seed. Storm, nurses, murder afoot. After a wrote it, I had to go with a tongue in cheek title. Hence “it was a dark and stormy night.”

A Dark and Stormy Night

            A dim flicker of light glimmered at the office window. Candace, ‘call me Candy’, Johnson barely noticed as she continued inventory of the med stocks for what seemed the hundredth time that week. A few moments later a soft rumble could be heard in the distance.

            “Storm’s coming in,” Denise Patrick said. Master of the obvious, Candy thought sourly.  “It’s supposed to be a big one,” Denise continued. “I just heard about it on the radio.”

            “Just my luck,” said Candy, slamming a cabinet door.

            “Huh?” asked Denise.

            “Just my luck to draw the late shift in this rustbucket place with a storm brewing. By midnight we’ll have bedpans all down the hallway catching water from the leaky ceiling.”

            “It leaks? That can’t be very safe.” As I said, thought Candy, master of the obvious.

            “No, it’s not. But we’re not St. Joe’s. We’re a poor little clinic run by a poor little hospital in a poor little section of Philly.” Candy decided the only upside of the situation was they had no patients in their care for the late shift. The decidedly downside was that she had to work it with Denise. She wasn’t sure exactly what it was about Denise that rubbed her the wrong way. Pretty much everything. She was a mousy little hausfrau, seemingly afraid of her own shadow. She didn’t appear all that bright and Candy wondered how she ever got through nursing school. Candy, on the other hand, was a plus size blonde, brassy and full of life. She sashayed her way through her daily rounds, flirting with the patients, keeping up a light banter. It kept the men’s spirits up and she didn’t mind the occasional pat on her fanny. God knows some of them had seen horrors she’d never know. A smile and wink for our brave boys cost her so little, she thought. But working the late shift sucked. Especially with a freak storm coming in. But they were stuck until two am when the overnight relief came on.

            There was a bright flash of light through the window. The rumble came quicker this time.

            “It’s moving fast,” Denise offered.

            “Good, maybe it’ll do it’s thing and get the hell out of here fast, too. I hate having to dash out to my car in the pouring rain.” Another flash, shortly followed by a louder rumble.

            “Lordy, I hate storms.” Candy noticed Denise babbled when nervous. “We used to have bad ones back in Kansas. Big storms, and sometimes tornadoes and hail. I just want to crawl into a cellar and hide.”

            “Well, our cellar is over that way,” Candy nodded with her head, as she lifted a load of towels to be sorted.

            “I can’t go down there,” Denise looked at her with fear bright in her eyes. “That used to be the morgue. I don’t dare go down there.”

            “Don’t tell me you’re a nurse and scared of dead people?”

            “I just haven’t had much experience around them. I’ve only been a nurse for a few years.”

            “Well, honey, it’s something you’ll just have to get used to.” Candy figured Miss Mousy’s patients would be dropping like flies from her tepid care. Candy kept her men’s spirits from flagging with her brazen sexuality. She didn’t dial it down, and her men responded. She was a very popular nurse.

            A brilliant flash and crash almost simultaneously made them both jump. It was followed by the rattle of a hard rain hitting the flagstones outside. Over the next few minutes there were multiple flashes and the rumbling never stopped, rolling and echoing through the air and seemingly through their bones. Candy thought it sounded like a bowling alley with the constant rumble of the balls. Maybe I’ll get Hank to take me bowling this weekend. We haven’t done that in ages, she thought with a smile. Hank was back from the Pacific with everything intact. She was so afraid he would return with a loss of limbs or a shell-shocked zombie like she had seen so many times over the past months. Or not return at all. Stop thinking about downers, she told herself. Hank’s home and all is right with the world. The war is over.

            A sudden massive crash shook the entire building. Denise screamed and her pile of towels flew through the air.

            “Wow, that one was right on top of us,” Candy said. Then she silently chided herself. Now who’s stating the obvious?

            Candy felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned but no one was there. Then a cold splash of water hit her nose. She looked up and got hit in the middle of her forehead with another cold splash.

            “Oh, Hell’s Bells. I need a bedpan for this leak. You take the back hallway and check. I’ll finish looking around up here.” Within the next half hour they found fifteen leaks and had bedpans in place collecting the spillage.

            “At the rate the rain’s falling, we’ll have to empty them before the next shift comes in. What a gruesome night. Glad I’m going home and not coming in.”

            Over the next hour the flashing and rumbling would sometimes abate for a few minutes but always came back with renewed vigor. Candy didn’t know if it were multiple storm fronts or the same storm just circling. Either way, they were receiving severe punishment from the elements.

            Another particularly violent crash hit and the lights flickered and then failed altogether. Denise emitted a short shriek.

            “Oh, ain’t this just grand,” Candy said sarcastically. She had several other choice phrases that came to mind but didn’t want to totally offend Denise’s delicate sensibilities. The sudden darkness was total. After a few moments their eyes had adjusted but it was still nearly impossible to see anything.

            “The generator’s supposed to kick on when the power goes out,” Candy complained. “I wonder why it hasn’t tripped yet?”

            “I don’t like it.” Candy jumped because Denise’s voice was right at her elbow.

            “I think there’s some candles in the supply cabinet. Let me check.” Candy groped her way to the supply cubbie behind the nurses’ station. Within a few minutes she had a couple of white tapers lit and sitting on the desk.

            Candy had just said, “Well, ain’t this comfy,” when the phone rang.

            “Bellhaven Clinic,” she said automatically into the phone. “Oh, hi, Ray. Yeah. Yah don’t say. Well, the power’s out. No, it didn’t kick on. Where? Crap. He said what? No. No. I said hell no.” She listened for a moment more and slammed down the phone.

            “What?” Denise wanted to know.

            “The main road’s flooded. Ray said our relief might not be here till daylight. We have to stay all night.”

            “But, I don’t want to.”

            Candy glared at her. “You think I do? I would walk out on ‘em, but the road is flooded so I couldn’t get home anyway. Either way you look at it, we’re stuck. By the way, Ray told me how to get the generator on. We just need to push a button on the side.”

            “Oh, good. Where is it?”

            “In the cellar.”

            “Oh.” Denise’s eyes were wide.

            “Oh, for Pete’s sake. Are you that afraid of the cellar? Come on. I’m not going down there by myself.”

            “But there used to be dead people there. There might be spirits.”

            “Oh, for crying out loud. Come on.” She roughly grabbed Denise’s arm in one hand and a candle in the other.

            Once in the cellar they found that other undiscovered leaks had let water in and there were small puddles in various places. They found the generator and, sure enough, there was a big red button on the side. Candy pressed it. Nothing happened. She pressed it again, holding it longer. The generator made a wheezing noise. Then after a few burps it began a soft hum. Looking up toward the door they noticed a soft glow meaning the emergency lighting was working. They hustled up the stairs, ready to leave the dank and disquieting place behind.

            The emergency lighting was just sparse dim lights that did little to enlighten the place and nothing to dispel the gloom. Still, they could see.

            Candy decided it was time for a break. She plopped down in a chair at the nurses’ station and picked up her Hollywood magazine. She ruefully noted it was two months old and she had read every article at least twice. She tossed it aside.

            “Well, I ain’t doing much else tonight. I’ll take my double time pay sitting on my bum. How about you, Toots?” Denise approached the desk looking fearful and browbeaten.

            “Yes. Me too.”

            “That’s the spirit, girl. Show some gumption.”

            Denise picked up the Hollywood magazine and looked at it. After a moment her eyes grew wide.

            “What?” Candy asked.

            “Are they really making a movie about that man who killed those seven co-eds? That was so awful. Why would they make a movie about it? I was almost too scared to go to work for a week after it happened.”

            “Sorry, hon. Blood and sex sells. It’s gotta have one or the other.”

            “But that’s so awful.”

            “Yeah, and it’ll make ‘em a bazillion bucks. People love a good horror story. I think they call ‘em slasher movies. You know, like Hookman or the Midnight Caller or the Scarecrow.”

            “I don’t know about that. All that kind of stuff scares me. Especially the Scarecrow.”

            “Listen,” Candy said loudly. Denise clutched her heart. “The rain. It’s stopped.” They both noted how quiet it was for a moment. There were more flares followed by rumbling, but it was no longer directly over them. It still rolled and echoed, drawing out each rumble. “I think we’ve survived the worst of it,” Candy said with as much enthusiasm as she could gather. She looked at the clock and it was just now two am. She should be getting off right now. The long night loomed.

            They went to the front window and looked out. There were no street lights, but by the occasional flashes of lightning they could see tree limbs scattered about. Some lawn furniture was missing or overturned. The yard crew had their work cut out for them. But the rain had stopped.

            “You don’t really believe all those slasher stories, do you?” Candy asked. “They aren’t real. Just stories people tell to frighten each other or the kids.”

            “Daddy said the Scarecrow is real. He wouldn’t tell me a lie.”

            “Well, maybe. But I think he’s overblown. One kook kills a few people wearing a scary mask and everybody goes crazy. I bet the others are just copycats. Or didn’t even happen. There is no demented serial killer running around killing, killing…”

            “Nurses.”

            “Well, yeah. I don’t believe it.”

            “I wish I was that sure.”

            After a few more minutes of desultory conversation Candy said she had to go to the ladies’ room. She could tell Denise didn’t want to be left alone but she was damned if she’d invite her to the bathroom. The girl needs to grow a spine, she thought. Then she got an idea of a fun prank. After finishing her business, she quietly slipped out of the lavatory and crept to a linen supply closet. She grabbed a pillowcase. Using her scissors she cut two eye holes, and drew some black lines on it with a felt pen. She pulled it over her head, cinching it around her neck with a draw cord. She pulled an abandoned old black great coat from the closet to hide her nursing whites. She crept up the hallway, just out of sight of the nurses’ station. She picked up a bedpan, dumped out the water and tossed the pan into the room. The clanging of the pan startled Denise, eliciting a shriek. Candy jumped into the room using the lowest voice she could muster and said “The Scarecrow has come for you!”

            Denise’s earlier shriek was nothing compared to the scream she now emitted. She ran from the station screeching as if all the demons of hell were after her. Barely able to contain her laughter, Candy pursued her down the hallway. Denise ran into a supply closet and closed the door behind her. Candy thought, what an idiot. Now she’s cornered. I guess I need to teach her how to handle an emergency.

            Denise was crying, trembling and hyperventilating so hard she could hardly hold the door handle. She braced herself to keep the Scarecrow from opening it. Oh lord, I’m so scared, she thought. She looked around to see if there were any type of weapon or protection in the closet but it was too dark. She just trembled and moaned, holding on to the knob as if her life depended on it. She never heard the click as the door was locked from the outside.

            After what felt like hours of kneeling hanging onto the knob, her hands began cramping. She whimpered, not daring to let go. She kept catching herself almost falling asleep, jerking upright each time. Finally she did not catch herself and fell into a fitful exhausted sleep.

***

            Denise jerked awake. At first she was disoriented, finding herself on the floor in a closet. Then the fear grabbed her heart like a vise. The light coming under the door was brighter than the emergency lighting so either the power was back or it was morning. She carefully twisted the doorknob. Or tried to. It refused to move. She realized it was locked and she was trapped inside.

            As she considered her predicament she also had another realization. The monster who had chased her last night was wearing a white skirt and shoes under the black coat. It was Candy all along. She played a mean trick on me, she thought, feeling incredibly foolish. Gathering her courage, she rattled the doorknob. She shook the door, shouting, “Candy, let me out!” She beat on the door and pleaded with Candy to let her out, but no one came. She was kneeling by the door crying when she heard sounds outside. Fear still spiked through her, but she knew she needed to get out. She heard what sounded like people talking. Multiple people was good. That would be safe. She pounded on the door, yelling for help. In a moment she heard the click as the door was unlocked. The bright light of day blinded her as it was opened and unknown arms pulled her up. She fought down the urge to struggle against them.

            “It’s okay. You’re safe now,” said a man’s voice. As her eyes adjusted she could tell he was wearing a policeman’s uniform. “It’s all over now.”

            “I was locked in,” Denise began, not knowing exactly what to say, totally disoriented.

            “That’s okay. Come outside and have some coffee.” That sounded like a wonderful idea so she allowed the officer to lead her outside to an ambulance where there was coffee and some doughnuts.

            Denise looked around. There were a number of official looking cars in the parking lot.

            “Where’s Candy?” she asked.

            “You need to drink your coffee first,” said the policeman.

***

            Inside two detectives were conferring.

            “Well, the MO is the same. Slashed from side to side. She bled out in minutes. The same message written in blood. I don’t know why he didn’t take them both, like over in southside last month. Maybe he didn’t know she was hiding.”

            “She was lucky. Looks like she barely escaped the Scarecrow.”