Karen Raylor nods. I’m going to use the same route I have the past few days, she thinks. He may have already been watching me run, and if I change it up after the letter and the heart, it just looks like he’s getting to me. Best thing to do is act like I don’t even care.
Grabbing her running keychain, which only has a key to the front door and a compact canister of pepper spray, Karen pauses. She really looks at the canister for the first time in well over a year and notices that it’s a month past its expiration date. I doubt it’s suddenly just ineffective, she thinks, but I’ll replace it the next time I get groceries.
Out the door, locking it. To the sidewalk. Right turn.
End of block. Another right.
Karen lets the back of her mind guide her legs. Up front, she starts playing music on her mental radio. Sure, she has wireless headphones her friend Jamie gave her, but Karen doesn’t like the feel of them as she runs. Karen’s first choice is an 80s love song that had been a divergence from the band’s usual hard rock. It’s pure nostalgia, and although she’s past the age of being able to truly relive the sentiments of her youth, it’s still one of her favorites. She remembers being a teenager and playing it for Nana, who had listened patiently and then commented, “It does have a nice sound, but keep in mind that when men sing about love, they usually mean sex. Of course, when women sing about sex, they usually mean love.” The concept had astonished Karen’s worldview, and she had wrestled with it for several years before finally agreeing that it seemed correct.
Song three has pleasant instrumentation but lyrics that are clearly stalkerish, and Mercer jumps to mind. Karen pauses the song, wondering if she should play something else, but then resumes it. Act like I don’t even care, she reminds herself.
Karen is halfway through her three-mile run. She’s passed from her neighborhood of large yards to one where the houses are older and closer together. Trees tower over the houses, almost creating the illusion that she’s out in the country and not inside the city limits.
A vehicle slowly closes in from behind.
Its engine is just above an idle. Karen forces herself not to look back, but she can tell that her gait has stiffened up.
Her heart thumps. The vehicle starts to pass. She keeps her gaze straight ahead.
Karen only glances over when she can see the red of its tail lights. An older van, gray. Someone peering out the front passenger window. Looking up, not at Karen. Smiling. Then, Karen sees a face in the sliding door’s window: a child, also gazing upward, face neutral. Karen slumps her shoulders in relief. Just a family enjoying the fall colors.
She chides herself for being paranoid. Come on, Karen. Even if Mercer does show up next to you in a car, or jump out of a hedge, what’s he going to do? Grab you in broad daylight in the middle of a neighborhood? She chuckles once without humor.
A thought worms its way forward from the shadows of her mind: He might do just that. He never did care much for laws. She confronts the thought. If he does, I’ll use my pepper spray right in his face.
What if he’s faster? What if he knocks it out of your hand or pins your arms?
What if he grabs you?
What if he covers your mouth?
I’ll hit him. Karen recalls the self-defense moves she’s heard about. I’ll fight dirty. I’ll slam my heel into his foot. I’ll knee him in the balls. I’ll punch him in the throat.
That’s my girl, Nana speaks up. Never let someone else control you when they mean you harm. Never play the victim.
Karen stands straighter and runs faster.
Still, she’s a little unsettled. Knowing what she plans to do if Mercer confronts her and gets physical doesn’t guarantee she’ll be able to pull off any of it, and she has never practiced those moves.
Karen senses Mercer’s voice. It’s still locked up in that soundproof, windowless room in the back of her mind, but she can tell he’s yelling, demanding to be heard. A morbid curiosity almost lets him speak, but then she adds another foot-thick layer of concrete around the entire room and shifts her attention back to the fall scenery and her music.
* * *
Mercer Evans is in his special room. The room in the back of the basement that he never lets anyone see. He keeps it locked up to be sure.
The room has small, high windows, but Mercer blocked them off so completely that even direct sunlight on a cloudless day can’t pierce through. When he has the door shut and the lights off, he could be in a deep cave. Not that he usually has it completely dark when he’s inside.
Two dozen candles cast their yellow light. As the company of flames dance asynchronously, Mercer stares at the pictures on the wide corkboard. Karen’s head is the largest, dead center. Her face appears in at least twenty other places. In a few of them, Karen stands full-body as she had been in the original photographs, clothes on. Mostly, though, Mercer has superimposed Karen’s face onto images he’s taken from smut magazines. Sometimes he’s brought over her entire head; in others, he’s cut out just her face, leaving the hair of the women from the magazines visible.
Not women, Mercy, his mother’s voice says in his mind. Whores. Vile, soulless whores. Jezebels. Don’t you look at them. Don’t you ever look at that smut.
But Mercer does look at that smut, and he has ever since he first found a discarded magazine when he was ten. The pictures had snared and thrilled his young mind, and he had discovered the pleasure of greasing his axle a few weeks later.
Pulling himself back to the present, Mercer expertly ignores his mother’s voice.
Mercer has set up his special room for several women over the years, but he has never put in such effort for any of them as with Karen. More images, more candles, more time immersing himself in brash fantasies. He has even used scissors for the first time on his beat-off bible, the original magazine he found as a kid and managed to keep hidden throughout his adolescence and in decent shape for thirty-two years. It’s one of the few things in his life that he treats with reverence.
The change to the dark basement room that he finds most enticing, though, is his addition of the stained glass. Mercer has bought two-inch by six-inch pieces of transparent glass in six colors. He has smoothed their edges with silicon carbide sandpaper and attached rubber grips with a clear-drying adhesive. They lay on a nearby table, lounging on a cushion of thick velvet. He can’t tell them apart in the candlelight without picking them up, so he keeps them in precise alphabetical order: blue, green, orange, purple, red, yellow. He sure as fuck doesn’t have them in the fairy-ass order of a rainbow.
When Mercer visits the special room, he nearly always rubs out a load of albino tadpoles. That has been the case since he first set it up. The stained glass, though, brings an edge of novelty that almost makes him feel as though he’s ten again. After staring at the pictures of Karen and naked women with Karen’s face, which almost seem to move with life in the spastic illumination, he fixates on one or two that help him start a captivating mental movie. Then, he picks up one of the rectangles of stained glass — his mind always choosing the right one in the moment — and holds it over his eyes while soaking up the tinted imagery. This time, it’s purple. Mercer reaches for the glass while unzipping his pants.
Back upstairs, Mercer grabs a Double Desdemona in each hand and sits heavily on the couch. His heart is still racing, and his mouth is stuck in a grin as he stares out the front window. Goddamn, Karen, he thinks. Our sex is so fuckin good. I’m so glad we got back together. He glances down at his hands and the partially visible depictions of Desdemona. Mercer rotates the bottles until he can’t see the demoness at all. Not right now, slut. Not when I’ve just been with Karen. I’ll fuck you again later.
Mercer Evans smiles more deeply, stretches his arms wide, and places one beer on the coffee table so he can open the other.
* * *
Karen grins when she checks her phone after finishing her shower and doing her hair. Abby, her teenage cousin, has messaged her.
Hey. What are you doing?
Karen sends, Not much. Want to hang out?
Five seconds later, Yeah. Where?
Want to check out the mall and grab some lunch? I can pick you up in 20.
Abby replies with a thumbs-up emoji.
Karen smiles again. Despite Abby’s brevity, Karen knows she’s excited.
On the way to the mall, Abby is quiet and reserved, not her usual self. Karen decides to give her silence.
There’s a surprisingly large crowd for 11:30 on a Friday. The stores and the mall itself are decked out with decorations for fall and Halloween, and Karen soaks in the visuals; her favorites are oversized leaves and the pumpkins, ghosts, moons, and black cats. Many employees even wear partial costumes that don’t obstruct their uniforms. One young woman in a store that carries rhinestone jewelry and flashy pre-teen clothing has yellow contacts and vampire teeth. The teeth are a major step up from the prevalent, drool-inducing type that are glorified mouth guards. She grins at Abby and Karen, her fangs so convincing that Karen has to overcome an absurd moment of fear that courses through her nerves.
As they walk on, Karen thinks about what it might be like for Abby to hang out at the mall on a school day, regardless of the family tragedy that made it possible. Karen remembers when she was a teen and the few times she went somewhere fun while everyone else was in school; she had felt a little guilty, but mostly like a rock star, exhilarated and invincible. Of course, Abby might feel conflicted about enjoying the day off after her cherished great-grandma had died.
“I’m feeling pretty sad about Meemaw,” Karen says, using Abby’s preferred name for Nana. “A little better than yesterday, but it’s still hard. I think it will be for a long time.”
“Yeah,” Abby says quietly, head angled toward the reflective tile floor.
Karen knows that Abby enjoys fall as much as she does, and she had hoped that the festive atmosphere of the mall would help Abby open up, but Karen can tell that her cousin needs more time. Maybe all the fall stuff here reminds her of Meemaw, she thinks.
A half hour later, Karen still doesn’t sense that Abby wants to talk about Nana, and Abby also hasn’t stopped at any stores.
“Hungry?” Karen asks. “Want to hit the food court?”
“Okay,” Abby says unenthusiastically.
“Yeah.” Abby manages a brief smile and almost meets Karen’s eyes.
When they’ve gotten chicken shawarma, rice, veggies, and hummus from the Mediterranean place, Karen leads them to a table, making sure to sit in a chair perpendicular to Abby’s instead of across from her. After a few minutes, she speaks up again.
“Abby, do you want to talk about Meemaw? I know it’s hard, but it does help.”
Abby’s eyes get slightly watery as she finishes a bite and pokes around her plate for another. “Not here.”
Karen reflects on the raw emotions of youth and figures she would be having just as hard of a time with Nana’s death if she were Abby’s age. I DID have that hard of a time when I was only a few years older than Abby, when my parents died. It wasn’t much easier when Brad died. Karen pushes those thoughts away, not wanting to cry herself. She knows that if Abby saw her crying, her cousin’s emotional dam would burst open.
Neither one says another word as they finish their meal, return to Karen’s car, and drive back to Abby’s house.
In the driveway, Abby undoes her seatbelt. She looks down to her lap, at her hands. She reaches over to Karen, eyes shining, and gives her a hug. “Thanks,” she whispers, the word barely discernible. Karen squeezes her as hard as she dares.
A moment later, Abby pulls away and gets out. Karen watches Abby rub a hand once across each eye as she walks to her door. I hope she can open up to her mom about it, Karen thinks. Her dad’s at work, so she doesn’t have to worry about him saying anything about her being a “typical emotional female”. Karen knows that her uncle, Dale, would never intentionally be mean to Abby, but he does have a mild brand of sexism that mostly surfaces when Abby displays the commonly erratic behavior of a teenage girl.
Back home, petting Mr. Totsley, Karen thinks again about what she would do if Mercer attacked. I really need to know some moves, she thinks. Theory won’t help me one bit if my mind hesitates and I don’t have training to take over. I need to learn. To practice.
Chapter 3 Choice: How should Karen learn self-defense?
- Alone: Find a digital series and practice regularly at home. (25%)
- Class: Join a class. (50%)
- Friend: Find a digital series and practice regularly with a friend. (25%)
This poll closed on October 30th, 2017.