by RYAN LINK
soothing chime rang out. “Ladies and gentlemen we are now cleared to land. We should be on the ground shortly,” a tired voice scratched, barely audible through the cabin speakers. Nick sat up, yawning as the overhead lights flickered to life.
The flight had been unexpectedly long. The pilots had woven a path through violent weather in the west only to join a backlog of planes circling over O’Hare. Nick had drifted off to sleep for precious few minutes just before the final announcement. As promised, the plane soon landed with a bump, careening from left to right in the wind, and after brief taxi through the snow, arrived at the gate.
Nick followed the hushed procession of passengers through the empty terminal. Here I am again, he thought as his footsteps traced out the same path he had trod nearly a year ago. Frannie had tried, with marginal success, to make him view these trips positively. On his ride down the escalator, he imagined her right now, sitting on their couch in L.A., watching television, one tiny leg folded beneath her, the other swinging, not quite touching the floor. Nick’s parents loved Frannie intensely--a fact his mother was rarely remiss to remind him of. Surely, I love her too, he thought.
Soon, Nick was standing expectantly at the conveyor belt under the metallic flickering of a fluorescent bulb. From the corner of his eye, he caught sight of a dancing mass of brunette hair as a very tall woman swept through the exit doors into the wind outside. That wind could snap her in half, he thought. Seconds later, a brush of cold air reached him, and he shivered. Then, a light flashed and the mechanical serpent jolted to life.
The last to receive his bags, Nick walked out into the breezeway, where a few remaining passengers were securing transportation in the whipping wind. He headed toward a waiting taxi but was brusquely cut off by a man in a suit who stepped around and in front of him. Strands of bright red hair stung his face as a giggling woman followed close behind. The pair entered the taxi and slammed the door. Through the window, the redhead smiled coyly at Nick. Wheels ground the pavement, turning in place, and carried the taxi away. Nick watched in irritation as the taillights receded into the swirling snow. Gradually, he became aware of a voice from behind him.
“Yes, I checked again; it isn’t here,” said a young woman on a cell phone about ten feet away, facing down the passenger pickup route. “I don’t remember where it is. All I know is the name, I think,” she said. By this time much of the taxi traffic had cleared out. “No, I don’t have my reservation number!” she cried. “Just come get me. I’m freezing.”
The woman was wearing tight blue jeans, sandals, and a short sleeve blouse that covered one shoulder and hung precariously from the other. Snow stuck to her bare arms. Nick stared at her, somewhat reminded of Frannie. The woman was thin, thinner than Frannie, in fact, but she filled out her jeans with an appeal that Frannie lacked. Her dark brown hair was whipping back in the wind, exposing her porcelain neck to the cold.
The young woman turned at a right angle, revealing her profile. Through her swirling breath, Nick made out delicate features. She remained looking down at the pavement, listening intently. After a few seconds, she said frailly into the phone, “Fine,” and hung up. Nick’s unmasked scrutiny was discovered when she looked up and briefly met his eyes, only to turn away and begin to sob.
At the sound of tears, Nick wheeled around and started for the street, but he halted after only a few steps. He creased his brow in a moment of thought and doubled back. The woman heard him approach, and she spun around, wiping her eyes. They glistened in the streetlights, black within green within white. She seemed taken aback and not a little frightened.
“Yes?” she squeaked out.
“Sorry, I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation,” Nick said wondering at his boldness. She wiped her eyes and forced a polite smile.
“Did you lose your bags?” he asked.
A fresh tear rolled down her face as she nodded. She sighed lightly. “And my sister is out in Rockford. She won’t come get me tonight. It’s too far.”
“Hmm,” Nick said uncertain as to what consolation to provide. Her eyes danced nervously. “But you have somewhere to go, right?” he offered.
“Well, I wasn’t supposed to head to Rockford till tomorrow, so I do have a reservation in the city. But I’m not entirely certain about the name of the place.” The woman glanced aside and rubbed her hands together. After a pause, she looked up at him timidly. “Are you going into the city?” she asked.
Nick nodded. “I’m headed downtown to the Crawford.”
As Nick said the name, she clasped his arm and cried out, clearly relieved, “Yes! That’s it! Can I come with you?” At that, Nick’s eyes widened, and he could feel a prick of sweat under his arms. She noticed his apprehension and tried again, “I mean, can we split a cab since you know where you’re going?”
Nick looked behind at the remaining taxis, asking himself what exactly he had hoped for when he approached her. He turned back, biting his lip in indecision. The young woman gave him a pleading look, prompting him to concede. “Sure, let me grab one. Come on. I’m Nick by the way.”
The cab ride was pleasant, if slightly awkward. There was no traffic, and Jen seemed less worried. Nick learned that she had just flown to Chicago for the first time to visit her sister and brother-in-law. She thanked him repeatedly during the drive, casually touching his arm, each time sending a butterfly fluttering through Nick’s stomach. She is beautiful, he thought.
It turned out that Jen’s emotional reprieve was short lived, crumbling upon arrival at the Crawford. Once she had repeated her name three times to the youth behind the counter, each time with increasing alarm, he finally admitted to her that he had no record of her reservation and that the hotel was fully booked. Jen again broke down into quiet tears.
“I should have stayed in Phoenix,” she said covering her eyes with her hands. “I can’t believe she won’t even come get me.” He reached out to comfort her. At his touch, she dropped her hands and said weakly, “Thank you for what you did to help me tonight.” Abruptly, she turned and walked toward the entrance.
Nick watched her go. I tried, right?
He surprised himself with what he did next.
“Wait! I’ll sleep on the floor,” he cried out. “You can stay in my room for tonight... at least till your sister can come get you.”
Nick shuffled in after Jen and clumsily set his suitcase down on the floor. The room was small and freezing, though well appointed. “Well, feel free to take the bed,” Nick said, looking at the small loveseat by the window. “I’ll sleep over here on the sofa.” Jen protested, insisting she was a much better fit on the loveseat, but finally agreed to the arrangement.
Nick told her he had to wake up early in the morning and needed to get to sleep. Jen assured him that she would leave sometime tomorrow with her sister while he was at work. She thanked him again, and they hugged awkwardly. They said their goodnights, and she stepped into the bathroom and closed the door.
Nick lay down on the sofa, finding it smaller than it seemed. He laughed at himself and resignedly turned to face the back cushions. His eyes closed, heavy with sleep.
In the final moments of wakefulness, he perceived a low rustling at the door and the soft murmur of women’s voices. He stirred briefly, craning his neck to hear, but found only silence. After a moment, Nick shook his head, covered himself completely with a blanket and was overcome with sleep.
“Nick?” He woke with a start. “Nick.” He pulled the sheet from over his head in one quick movement. In the darkness, Nick struggled to remember where he was, his breathing slowing as his memory caught up with him.
He looked into the room toward the bed, and immediately his stomach lurched like he had been dropped from a high place. The sight of Jen’s silhouette, visible against the glow from the peephole, caused Nick to visibly tense. She was wearing her shirt, but nothing else.
Jen quietly stepped toward him, exposing her thighs to the ghostly glow of city lights creeping through the curtains. Nick drew in a breath as his eyes moved up the curves of her legs. He quickly turned back toward the darkness of the sofa cushions. Nick thought of Frannie at home sleeping and cursed himself.
“Yeah?” he managed to croak.
“I’m cold,” she whispered from feet away. He heard her take another step towards him. “Come to the bed,” she said softly.
“What!?” he exclaimed into the cushions. His palms began to sweat and words poured from his mouth. “No, I can’t. I don’t think my fiancée would appreciate that. That’s not something I can...” He was cut off by the touch of her small, weightless hand on his shoulders. He felt her kneel down. “Your fiancée?” she whispered. Her breath brushed his ear. “You said she was just your girlfriend.”
“Still, it’s not ok for me...” Again he was cut off. Jen gripped his shoulder and turned him to face her. She crawled even closer, bringing her face to within inches of his.
“But I am right here,” she insisted. Her voice was not pleading. She moved to kiss him.
“Don’t do this,” Nick implored, doubting his resolve. Jen’s pupils contracted in the twilight; her irises spun down on the tiny black voids. She mounted Nick with surprising speed. By the time she had removed his pants, he was not fighting her. Nick’s mind was reeling, though: Frannie! I’m sorry, Frannie. You will never have to know about this.
Jen took him on the floor between the bed and the sofa.
He dreamt that night of the woman with red hair from the airport. In his sleep, he saw her slowly pacing the halls just outside his room. Back and forth she walked until the morning came.
Nick awoke to sound of the door closing. He was sprawled on the floor, nude. The last memory of wakefulness he could recall was a terrible feeling of guilt building within him as Jen rolled away, breathless. He wondered at how he had managed to sleep given what had happened.
But in an instant, nausea overtook him. Nick lurched to his feet and stumbled to the bathroom, where he vomited. After he finished, he sat on the cold tile floor, resting his forehead on the lip of the toilet while he gathered his resolve.
A pair of lips, stamped in red, eclipsed his face when he finally managed to stand up and look in the mirror. His shoulder was bruised with her finger-marks.
The plane ground to a halt. It had been one week to the day since his encounter with Jen. Somehow, despite his tattered nerves, Nick had held himself together through the constant pall of guilt, an endless workload, and a nagging stomach flu.
Frannie had seen the finger marks on his shoulder, as Nick knew she would. She had initially reacted with concern, but had slowly developed a sense of suspicion--suspicion, Nick knew, that was due in no small part to his appalling excuse involving heavy turbulence and a scared old woman. He mulled the lie as he waited in his seat.
To his displeasure, much of his thoughts had been consumed with Jen over the past seven days. Often, he would catch himself staring blankly, his mind having wandered to the feel of her legs and her tongue inside his mouth. It was just once, he told himself as he stood up. Only one night.
In the taxi, he found that Chicago had been buried beneath a layer of snow. He almost laughed, thinking of a similar cab ride a week before, but he frowned instead. The guilt over what he had done was still too fresh. He was not a man prepared for the greeting that awaited him at the Crawford.
Nick found Jen sitting in the lobby, drinking a glass of red wine. She was smiling to herself with bright red lips, reading a magazine. Her legs were crossed, seductively exposed in a short black dress. A delicate foot was slowly rocking fore and aft in a black high heel. Nick turned in place, back toward the door, shocked.
“Ah, just as you said!” she exclaimed. Nick spun around to face her, completing his static circle. Did I tell her I’d be here again? he asked himself. Yes... yes, I suppose so. She grinned, threw the magazine down and jumped up.
“What are you doing here,” Nick asked with obvious apprehension. “I thought you were visiting your sister.”
An expression of confusion interrupted her grin but quickly passed. “Oh, I did. I’m back in town now.”
“You’re not staying here are you?” Nick asked. “I mean, not that you shouldn’t or anything.”
“No. I’m staying with friends,” she said.
“You have friends here?” Nick asked. He was confused, especially given her predicament seven days earlier. “You didn’t call them last week.”
She looked hurt. “Well, then I would not have met you, would I?” she asked. Her tone changed immediately. “Come on, put your stuff up. Let’s go grab a drink.”
Nick pursed his lips. “Umm... you know I have work tomorrow morning and it’s almost...” Nick glanced down at his watch, praying it was later than he knew it was.
“8:55,” Jen offered impatiently. She placed a hand on her hip. Nick’s brow furrowed as he glanced to the check-in counter. The young man from last week was observing them with guarded interest.
“Come on. Just for an hour,” Jen said tilting her head towards the door. A lock of hair fell in front of her face which she quickly brushed behind her ear. Nick stared at her moist lips.
“...yeah, ok...,” he agreed hypnotically and turned to check in.
Jen was looking out the front windows onto the street as he made his way out of the elevator. She was a perfect hourglass, though not voluptuous. Nick could not help but admire her from behind. She spun around with a smile. But just then, through the window and across the street, obscured by the lights inside, Nick saw a flash of red hair, bringing to mind the woman from his dream. He turned to Jen, his mouth opened to speak, but she was already at the door. “Come on,” she beckoned.
Two hours passed, and Nick was halfway drunk. His fingers cupped an empty glass. Jen had filled the time with playful banter while saying little of herself. He offered nothing of any importance in return but was content to carry on with her, finding the conversation frivolous but oddly charming. He was both amused and disturbed by wandering thoughts of her naked body that filled his mind during lulls. There had been no talk about the episode that occurred a week prior.
As his next drink arrived, Nick wondered again why Jen had spent so little time with her sister and who these friends were that she was staying with. He had asked, he was sure, but did not remember the answers. Looking down at his watch, he sighed. At least the liquor is numbing my stomach, he thought.
At midnight, Nick stumbled into his hotel room with Jen close behind. The floor rocked but steadied as his palm found something unmoving. Jen closed the door with a bang and giggled loudly. She grabbed his shirt and pushed him forcefully against the wall with outstretched arms. Again, the room spun.
Nick’s eyes began to adjust to the phantom light flooding in through the open curtains. Jen cocked her head and slowly eased the pressure against him. Her hands moved to her shoulders, where they paused briefly. Slender fingers curled under and grasped her dress straps, pulling them outward. Her dress fell to her waist, revealing fair-skinned breasts. She pressed forward, grabbing the back of his head as she kissed him.
Soon, he was stripped naked on the bed, pinned down at the shoulders. Jen’s dress was rolled up from the bottom and down from the top. She threw her head back as she began to thrust on top of him. Nick’s vision was blurred with intoxication. He knew that it was happening again and wondered how he had allowed it so willingly.
That night, he dreamt and sweat. He saw still frames of Jen standing in the dark, naked, with the red haired woman. Their hands were long and skeletal, with yellow fingers reaching nearly to their knees. Thick, dark nails extended well beyond their fingertips. He heard feathers rustling as he stared at the redhead’s full mound of pubic hair. There was a dull pain below his navel. The red-haired woman’s eyes were unfocused and entirely black. She moved towards him in swift, jerking motions. Her face grew and grew until he saw only one giant black eye.
Nick woke vomiting. The carpet around the bed was wet with bile and liquor. He stumbled to the toilet to finish. After his retching had turned dry and finally subsided, he listened for Jen but heard only silence.
The bathroom mirror greeted him again, this time with a phone number, scrawled in deep red lipstick. But he also noticed a circular blue bruise forming above his groin. He tested it and found it to be sensitive to the touch. Nick could not recall when it had happened--he could not recall much at all about the previous night, in fact--but could only assume it was due to Jen’s antics in bed.
When he emerged from the bathroom, he noticed panties hanging from the room’s door knob. With a stab of guilt, he thought of Frannie for the first time since seeing Jen nearly twelve hours ago.
Nick shuddered to consciousness. People were standing, reaching upwards for their bags. Immediately, his stomach roiled with the sickness that had followed him the past week. Nick grimaced as he thought of Frannie. She had been furious. As if the suspicious bruise on his stomach had not been enough, she had discovered a damning note apparently hidden by Jen in the back pocket of his work pants. Nick gravely mused at the enormous response that the string of well selected words had induced. Frannie had left him, likely for good, it seemed.
Still though, through it all, thoughts of Jen had mocked him relentlessly. He was at once furious and aroused at the thought of her. In angry reprisal, Nick had made sure to book a different hotel this week. As much as he desired Jen, he did not want to see her waiting for him again in the lobby.
After arriving, he slumped down on one of the tropically clad twin beds and listened to his messages, hoping to hear from Frannie. Dejectedly, Nick tossed the phone on the other bed and went to look out the dark window. His room faced a neighboring building that largely obscured any view of the city. In its place, the ghostly reflection of his own face glared back, thin and drawn. His shirt collar hung loosely around his neck. He was tired--exhausted, in fact.
But as he stared, Nick remembered the telephone number that Jen had left clinging to the mirror in thick strokes. Frozen, he stood for minutes, obsessing over the image of those ten blood-red digits as his breath condensed on the glass.
Soon, the number was dialed and the phone was ringing.
“Hi… it’s Nick.”
“Oh, Nick!” she exclaimed with a giggle. “Of course!”
Nick wasn’t sure if he should be horrified or relieved. “Well, so you’re still in town?” he asked.
“Of course I’m here,” she said plainly. “How else would I see you?”
Nick was flustered. “What about your sister? Have you seen her this week?” he managed to ask.
Jen chuckled. “Oh, my friends are taking care of me. Where are you at?” she replied in one breath.
Nick faltered. “Oh, well, I’m at the hotel.”
“Not the usual one,” she observed.
“Yeah, not the usual,” Nick said as his eyes narrowed. He paused, then said, “Listen, I just wanted to call and make sure you were making it ok. I better go.”
“Bullshit.” Jen said forcefully, letting the word hang. “You didn’t call to ask how my day was. Where are you?”
Nick cursed his weakness. “The Riverway,” he replied.
Jen laughed. “Meet me at Winnie’s in 20 minutes.”
Nick stepped out of the cab. His feet crunched the ice on the curb. Jen was standing just outside the door, smoking. She was wearing a black leather jacket and a short red dress. At the sight of him, she threw the cigarette down and squashed it with a booted foot.
Jen approached with a smile, kissing Nick forcefully. She pulled Nick back toward the street. As he was being twisted around, his eyes caught on a tall brunette, inside the bar, laughing. He was struck by her beauty, but found her unsettlingly familiar. In the last moment before Nick lost sight of her she met his gaze, and he remembered: the airport.
“What are you doing? Don’t you want to go in?” he asked.
“No I know somewhere better,” Jen said impatiently and pulled Nick into another waiting cab.
“Hold on. Did you see that woman?” Nick asked peering back into the bar as he pulled the door closed. He strained to find her in the crowd of revelers, but could not.
“Woman? I see you’re keeping your options open,” Jen said playfully. She laughed at him and turned away, but the thought of the brunette hung in his mind.
A minute passed in silence as Jen stared out the window. Nick’s eyes roamed her body, lingering here and there. He noticed that the nail on Jen’s ring finger had been painted black and was longer than the rest. He reached to touch it but she pulled away sharply and balled her hand, still looking out of the window.
“Frannie pretty much ended it with me,” he admitted, hoping to break the silence.
Jen snapped her head around to look at Nick. Briefly empathy broke across her face, but then she grinned. “And?” she asked.
Nick angered at the sight of her smile. “And your little note is what did it!” he accused.
She turned and looked out the window again. The soft glow from a passing streetlight lit her. “You’re mad at me?” she asked plainly. Nick couldn’t tell if she was still smiling.
“I’m mad at you, yes,” Nick said in a lower voice. “I’m mad at both of us.” Jen continued to look out the window, showing no response.
After a long pause, she turned to face him with serious eyes and said, “I’m sorry, Nick, I really am. But what did you expect?” Nick looked down. I don’t know what I expected, he thought, just what I got, I guess.
Jen slowly reached out and placed her hand on his. Nick felt an uneasy relief at her touch. His eyes moved to her bare legs as she parted them slightly. He looked up to her lips. At that moment, he felt free of consequences, assured that all the damage had already been done.
“Now you can be mine,” Jen said.
Nick looked into her eyes and sighed sharply. “You can’t say that you want that,” he protested. “You don’t even know me. Not really...”
Nick strained to see past her. “What’s happening?” he asked. The cab was pulling to a stop on a side street. The driver moved silently, methodically as he turned the engine off. Jen grabbed Nick by the hair and kissed him. He could feel the single long nail dig uncomfortably into the back of his head as she bit his lips. He thought he tasted blood. She unzipped his pants and pulled him free.
“What... what about the cabbie?” Nick asked breathlessly as Jen straddled him, her short skirt riding up her thighs. “Oh he doesn’t care,” Jen said. She glanced behind her at the balding cab driver who was staring vacantly ahead into the street. “This doesn’t bother him.”
Nick closed his eyes. “Again?” he whispered. Yes, again, he thought as she pressed down on him.
Minutes later, Jen dismounted him. She moved back to her seat, pulling her skirt down. Looking around the front seat at the driver, she said simply, “Ok.” The cab again pulled out into the street.
Nick felt exhaustion flooding over him. He looked at Jen, following a bead of sweat trickling from her brow. His eyes closed, and he thought of Frannie. The cab drove on and on, never seeming to hit a red light.
Nick slept and dreamt. In the dream he was still in the cab, but Jen was not there. He could hear a soft scratching sound coming from all around him, both soothing and repetitive. But, quickly, the scratching took on a staccato quality and became irritating. He moaned restlessly in response. It seemed as if a giant crow was pawing at the roof of the cab.
He felt a pain in his belly just below his navel where his bruise had been. Suddenly, the tall brunette was sitting in the cab next to him, nude but for a pair of black underwear. She was turned facing him, her left arm outstretched toward his gut. Her breasts swung with the motion of the cab. He looked down. A single yellow, skeletal talon was digging into him. The brunette was smiling, and blood filled her mouth. Slowly, the blackness came.
Nick awoke in his hotel room, the terror of the dream still with him. Dawn was just breaking. To his surprise, Jen was in bed next to him. She was facing away, breathing lightly.
A sharp pain stung above his groin, and he moved to massage it with his hand. The thick wet substance he found there made him jump from the bed. He fumbled at the lamp on the night stand, trying frantically to turn it on. As light flooded the room, he was instantly sickened by the brownish-red splotch on the sheet where he had been laying. He looked down at his belly to find a coagulating smear of blood where his bruise had been.
“The woman did this!” Nick screamed. Jen stirred and turned to look at him. A smile seemed to flash across her face. “What woman?” she asked quickly with an air of concern.
“The brunette in the bar!” Nick said, flinging his hands in the air. He looked at Jen accusingly. “You know her,” he stated. Jen was taken aback as she shuffled to sit up. The sheet slid from her breasts.
“Nick, I don’t know anyone at that bar.” Jen looked down with wide eyes. “What’s on your stomach?” she asked.
Nick shook his head violently. He reached down to pick up his underclothes. “You know her and you know that redhead,” he accused again. “And this blood...,” he started as he pulled an undershirt on, “this blood... I don’t know what you are doing, but I’m done with this.”
Nick found his pants on the floor in front of the bed and pulled them on. Jen began to plead for him to stay. He winced with pain as he picked up his suitcase. She jumped up nude and began pulling Nick back toward the bed. Her grip was strong, but he managed to open the door and step just out into the hall, leaving Jen straddling the doorway.
The sound of a closing door startled them both. Down the hall, a man from a nearby room was frozen where he stood, stunned by the sight of a naked woman in the hall and the struggle taking place. Jen released Nick with a look of infinite frustration.
“When will I see you again!?” Jen cried through the doorway. The door shut on her. Nick heard an angry scream seconds later as he approached the elevators, brushing past the onlooker.
By midday Nick was in a wretched condition. His stomach clenched in nausea. He had called in sick, finding much resistance at the office. Ultimately, they relented, though, with a warning to be better by tomorrow.
After washing up, he had discovered, to his surprise, only a small puncture wound where the blood had erupted onto his stomach in the night. The wound was bruised and very sensitive, however. He considered going to the hospital but hadn’t yet gained the initiative required, and he wasn’t sure what he would say when he got there.
Thoughts of Jen sprang forward. He wondered if he had overreacted, but quickly reassured himself that he had not. It was clear that the three women had designs of some sort. He considered that they were drugging him somehow, but could not search out a motivation. They were not robbing him, he knew. Nick tossed back and forth on the bed. He thought of Jen’s frantic face as he pulled away from her that morning. He was so tired...
He woke up at dusk to the sound of his cell-phone ringing. The room had turned cold and the sun was setting behind the buildings across the street. The rapid change in subjective time startled him, and he stood up quickly in shock.
He froze. “...yeah,” Nick finally said as he let out a sigh. Jen must have searched his cell phone in the night to find his number.
“I know you think I hurt you somehow...”
He cut her off. “Jen, who are those women?” he asked. “I know you know them. What are you trying to do to me?”
“Nick I am so sorry,” she said weakly. “I haven’t been honest.” Nick kept quiet. “I need to see you, so I can explain.”
“No, that’s not a good...”
“Nick,” she said.
His belly stung. He closed his eyes and insisted, “Tell me now, over the phone. What do you want from me?”
“Ok, listen,” she said with a trembling voice. “I need your help.” Nick heard her beginning to cry. “I can explain, but you must come see me,” she implored again. He exhaled loudly.
“Somewhere public, then.”
Nick waited, facing the water. To his left, a slit of the blood-red sky was visible through the buildings. Night was flooding in from the east. The streets were busy with the ebbing foot and motor traffic of rush hour. Through the noise, he made out a particular set of footsteps behind him. He did not react when they stopped, but he knew she was there. She waited, but when he did not turn she stepped in front of him.
Under her leather jacket, Jen was wearing the same blouse and light blue jeans as she had the day he had met her three weeks ago. She reached forward and touched his hand. Nick felt a fire in his wound.
“Take me back to your room,” she said softly, guiding his fingertips under the hem of her top. He felt the soft, gentle arc of her stomach. Even, now, in the midst of this uncertainty, he was drawn to her. Her mirrored eyes were coaxing him closer and closer.
Suddenly, her gaze broke away, darting to a point just behind Nick and to his left. Jen’s face caught the light in a startling way as she sucked in a hissing breath. Shadows formed beneath her cheeks, and her eyes retreated in their sockets. She lifted a black-nailed hand to her mouth.
“Oh, my God!” a man’s voice sounded from behind Nick. “Audrey?!”
Nick turned to find a short, thin man gaping in disbelief. He was wearing dress clothes and a long black overcoat. The three stood in a silent standoff.
Then, a scream rang out, followed immediately by the sound of squealing brakes. The short man spun around to face the source of the commotion. Nick was already looking.
A car had skidded to a stop ten yards away, and smoke was rising from its wheels. Nick made out a woman in the middle of the lane, beating on the car hood and yelling profanities at the driver. With horror, he realized it was the red-haired woman. His stare shifted as the smoke cleared and revealed, just beyond the car, a pair of eyes, a smile, and flowing brunette hair that he had seen before, once waking and once dreaming. He tried to turn back to Jen, but his eyes remained fixed on the woman.
Finally, Nick broke free and spun around, nearly in unison with the other man, but Jen was no longer there. The man walked aggressively toward Nick, grabbed him by the arm and asked, “Do you know her?”
“Yes... yes...,” Nick said, staring at the void left by Jen.
The man pulled out his cell-phone and began dialing. He looked at Nick with panic and anger in his eyes and cried, “That’s Audrey Young! Do you know who that is?!” An urge to flee was building within Nick.
“Yes, I need police,” the man said into his phone. “I’ve seen Audrey Young on the Riverwalk at Dearborn with some man.” Dread filled Nick’s guts. The lights and sounds of the city seemed to recede down a tunnel along with the screaming man. “Yes, that Audrey!” the man exclaimed. Across the street, Nick made out two fleeing forms crowned with flowing hair. “No, she’s gone, but he’s still here!” the man said, tightening his grip.
Nick wrested free and fled. He heard angry shouts behind him but did not turn. With a curse, the man began to pursue him. Nick headed for the next intersection, weaving between pedestrians. Within seconds, he had arrived and darted left across the street. As he turned, he stole a look at his pursuer, steps behind.
Nick sped ahead at an all out sprint, down the much emptier street. Suddenly, the façade of buildings broke, revealing a vacant side street that seemed to reach through to the next block. As Nick turned, he felt a hand clasp down on his collarbone, twisting him violently at the waist and sending tentacles of pain through his belly. He reached up to pry the hand loose but slipped on a patch of ice, bringing himself and the pursuing man to the ground. They rolled, grappling, into the far wall.
Despite his pain, Nick was the first to regain his feet. Nearby, he spotted a folded metal chair propped against dumpster by a side door. He rushed for it as the other man scrambled to stand. In an outburst of adrenaline, Nick grabbed the chair by the legs, turned and swung it at the head of the oncoming man.
The lip of the chair caught him on the cheek with a dull metallic thump. The man spun and fell on all fours with a guttural groan. Nick’s vision pulsed with his own heartbeat. The man tipped over onto his side, moaning. Nick approached slowly. The left side of the man’s face was bloodied and sunken.
“Who is Audrey Young?” Nick demanded. The man looked up at him in shock but made no response. Nick raised the chair as if to strike again. “Who is Audrey Young?!” he asked louder. The other man raised one hand and muttered something unintelligible. Nick inquired once again.
The man sputtered out, “The woman you were with.” He spat a wad of blood. “She’s been... she’s been missing... for a month.”
“How do you know that?” Nick asked quickly.
“I work with someone,” the man said through clenched teeth as he rolled onto his back. “her sister’s husband.” Nick stared in silent reply.
The sound of sirens erupted blocks away. Nick dropped the chair with a clatter and ran, leaving the writhing man, but the sensation of pursuit trailed him.
He reached blindly for the light switch in his room. Nick was breathless, and the exertion had aggravated his wound to the point of bleeding. The door slammed behind him as he squatted on the floor, cupping his forehead in his hands. What did I just do!? He tried to slow his breathing but the thought of the man’s broken face set his mind racing.
Abruptly, he stood and extinguished the light. His eyes darted around the room sending him rushing to the window to draw the curtains. The lights of the city were smothered in a flourish. Nick stood, gripping the fabric, momentarily soothed by the darkness. He gradually sank to his knees.
But then, there was a knock on his door. His lungs seized and he crouched down in primal reflex, a mouse under the shadow of a hawk. The police? He silently sprung to look through the peephole, but found only the facing wall. “Who is it?” he whispered.
“Nick, you know who it is.” At the sound of Jen’s voice, he turned and scrambled to the middle of the room, where he spun around in uncertainty.
“Nick, let me in,” the voice said urgently. Nick backed against the wall in silence. The door handle rattled, sending a jolt through his belly. “Let me in,” she implored with rising irritation.
A drop of sweat coated his eye with brine. He could make out a faint rustling just outside in the hall. Suddenly, a dull pop rang through the door. The handle slowly rotated a quarter turn to the sound of grinding metal surfaces.
A grin broke over Jen’s features as the door swung open, and she caught sight of Nick, paralyzed against the wall. She smoothed her windblown hair and strode into the room with calm triumph.
“You followed me,” Nick whispered.
“Mmm,” she affirmed, stepping toward him. She reached out and stroked his face with her fingertips, causing Nick to shrink back. Jen’s eyes glinted as she glided forward to kiss his cheek.
Through the haze of Jen’s hair, Nick saw two dark forms sweep into the room. He tensed his neck to see around her, but her hand gripped his jaw with viselike strength. The door squeaked as it swung to close, stopping just short, held slightly ajar by a jutting piece of the broken lock. A thin shaft of hallway light peeked through the narrow opening.
“What... do you... want?” Nick ground out into Jen’s ear, unable to open his mouth.
Jen rotated his head slightly and moved back to allow him a peripheral view of the forms in the room. A shrill cry erupted from his throat as he made out two women facing the window disrobing, one with red hair, and the other with dark brown. Nick squirmed in vain against Jen’s iron grasp. “Oh, Nick,” Jen intoned with pity.
The brunette’s blouse fell to the floor, revealing grotesque and unintelligible runes carved into her back, scabbed over with brown crust. Nick struggled with increased intensity, grasping at Jen’s hand. “You’re missing,” he spit out. “Your sister... is looking for you.”
“No, Nick,” Jen said distractedly as she watched the undressing women. “Audrey’s sister is looking for Audrey.” She turned back to him, leaning in to bring her face within inches of his. “I have new sisters, Nick... and we are many,” she hissed. The last word drew out with a deep and scratching voice that was not her own.
Nick gritted his teeth in terror as spittle danced on his lips. “Going.... to kill me?” he asked gutturally. Jen’s grip grew tighter, her fingernails forcing his cheek flesh between his teeth. Nick’s feet briefly lifted from the floor as she spun him around and away from the wall. His eyes darted from side to side in a vain attempt to see the women behind him.
“No,” the deep scratching voice said. “That does not interest us.” Nick gasped as she pressed a finger into the wound above his groin. “Your life is just a beating heart.” Pain flooded his body for an excruciating moment. He felt a terrible tearing, as if he was being shorn from his bones. Jen withdrew her finger, and paused in thought. “We want something more.”
His eyes widened with terror as he felt a gentle caress on the back of his neck. The touch slowly traced the trembling curve of his arms and lingered on his rigid fingers, almost tenderly. Nick sucked in sharply. Another set of hands coiled around his waist. These hands were different, though; the fingers were much too long. With a final surge of strength, Nick managed to tilt his head just enough to make out a pair of hideous avian claws, inching to embrace him.
Ryan Link is a native Texan who lives in Houston with his wife of ten years. He works as an analyst in the energy industry and holds a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the University of Houston. Some of his favorite authors and influences are Frank Herbert, Alistair Reynolds, George R. R. Martin, and H. P. Lovecraft. Ryan's new dark sci-fi novella, renatus, is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Ryan's Website: sites.google.com/site/rlinkauthor.
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