Karen Raylor selects a romantic comedy. It’s one of the few that Brad truly enjoyed, and they had watched it together four or five times during their twelve years together. Karen hasn’t seen it since Brad died. As she pulls its case from the shelf and looks over the cover art, she experiences a solemn reverence. The emotion lasts while she puts the disc in the player, is dulled by the tedium of getting past the ads to the menu, and is renewed when the opening song starts up. I’d forgotten how good this is, she thinks, her feelings an ocean of elated nostalgia clogged by the massive seaweeds of grief that grow in its ever-darker depths.
When the movie finishes, Karen’s high begins to wane. She feels the weight of loss in her life, each dead loved one like a chain tied to her that leads to a sinking anchor. Despite her usual demeanor of overcoming adversity and focusing on the positive aspects of life, Karen lets the anchors draw her down. She manages to hobble from her chair to the couch and pull a blanket over her, curling halfway into the fetal position. Mr. Totsley leaps up and compresses into a ball behind her bent legs. Karen reaches back and pets him absently, her mind dark and numb.
Tears flow from Karen’s eyes. At first, a trickle she doesn’t even register. Then, a torrent that soaks the pillow. She feels that Nana wants to speak, to reassure, but Karen doesn’t let her. She wants to be alone with her dark feelings.
Eventually, Karen sleeps.
* * *
Mercer Evans nearly flies out of bed, his mind electrified. Sure, his dreams had been filled with busty, naked chicks as always, but this is different. He’s thought of something new. Something special.
“Yeah,” he says as he sits on the edge of his bed, arms straight and taut like pistons ready to fire, eyes wide as he stares at the wall without seeing it. “That’ll work. That shit’ll work for sure.”
Mercer only stops at the bathroom to pour out a pitcher of cock lemonade before heading downstairs. As he enters his workshop — the place where he creates things he might let others see, not the special room with the shrine to Karen — he smiles. “Oh yeah, Karen. You’ll love this. You’re gonna fuckin love this.”
As Mercer gets lost in the actions of taking his idea from brain to being, his thoughts wander. Randomly. A database problem they’re having at work that’s messing up an urgent project of his. A reminder that a local party store is having a sale on Double Desdemona and other beers tomorrow. Then, further back.
High school. Freshman year. A group of four upperclassmen fixating on him. Cornering him in the bathroom, in wood shop. “Look at this scrawny faggot,” they would say. “How many dicks you sucked, faggot? Get over a hundred yet? Got a nice collection of spooge in your belly?” They would punch him when they could get away with it. “Stop sucking dicks, faggot!” They would shove cutouts from smut mags in his face. “This is a woman, faggot. You’re supposed to suck women, not dudes.” Even in the midst of dealing with their abuse, Mercer would have powerful urges to grab the smut and add it to his collection.
“I’m not a damn fag,” he had told them one time, which had only made them laugh and pile on the insults with increased fervor. “Come on, guys, I love titties. For real,” he had said another time, trying to connect, ignorant of the fact that any reaction on his part was giving the bullies exactly what they wanted. “Yeah, chicks with dicks,” they leered. “You like those trannies, huh? Like to squeeze some tits while you’re smoking a pole? You’re even more fucked up than we thought, faggot.”
Things had escalated when they found out Mercer had never known his dad. “Aww, poor little Mercy fag never knew his daddy, boo hoo,” they taunted in the secluded painting room of the wood shop, looking at each other and laughing with zeal, as always. “No wonder you like the titties. Just a little mommy’s fag, aren’t you? You still drinking from that cow? She let you jerk off while you do it?”
A darkness had crossed Mercer’s face. “Don’t ever talk about my mom,” he commanded. His voice was confident, fear gone, avalanched away by his righteous anger. They had laughed, but uncertainly. Trevor, always the leader, had retaken the group’s power. “Or what, faggot?” he said, poking Mercer hard in the chest. “You gonna chloroform us? Suck our dicks while we’re out?” The bullies laughed again.
“Just don’t do it,” Mercer stated. He had stared at Trevor with calm hatred until Trevor caved and glanced at his friends. Trevor turned back to Mercer again. “You little sperm-gargling powder puff fairy. I’ll say what the fuck I want about who the fuck I want. Especially your mom. I’ve fucked that ugly whore so many t—”
Trevor had cut off, unable to speak, the breath driven from him by Mercer’s quick foot to his stomach. As he hunched over, Mercer rocketed his knee into Trevor’s chin, knocking him flat out. The other three abusers had looked from each other to Trevor, eyebrows up and mouths open. For a moment, Mercer thought they would bolt.
Instead, they grabbed Mercer, two holding his arms while the third pummeled his abdomen. “Let him go, I got an idea!” one had exclaimed. Mercer crumpled to his side, holding his stomach and breathing in sharp gasps, unaware of anything until the cold paint gooped into his ear, nose, and mouth. He turtled up, back to the ceiling, as they dumped the rest of the can on his head.
“Shit,” one of them had worried, “we’d better put paint on ourselves too before we go tell Mr. Roscoe how Mercer ambushed us.”
“Yeah, good idea,” the other two agreed, and all three splashed themselves.
When the bullies brought a livid Mr. Roscoe to the paint room, Mercer had the sense to lift his shirt, revealing the mass of red welts beneath. An interrogation by Mr. Roscoe and the principal had brought the truth out of the four abusers, who had been expelled.
Mercer had gained notoriety from the event. Nobody messed with him after that. He started pumping iron and began to feel invincible. At times, he was tempted to bully younger boys, but something always stopped him. If asked, he would have said he didn’t have time to waste on little fags, but the back of his mind held a muted desire to do the right thing.
A few months later, Mercer learned that Trevor had gotten stabbed at his new school. Lost a kidney. Mercer had laughed and felt vindicated, but only for a short time before a confusing sadness took over.
Coming back to the present, Mercer holds up his finished handiwork and slowly turns it so that he can admire it from different angles.
“Yeah,” he breathes. “That’ll work.”
* * *
Karen Raylor heads to work on Monday. After crying herself to sleep Saturday on the couch, she had woken up Sunday feeling groggy but soothed. By noon, she had been able to reflect on her pity party as both melodramatic and necessary. By bedtime, she had once again felt as strong and implacable as a river. This morning, she’s ready to face anything.
For the most part.
Karen can’t shake the feeling that there’s some minor crack in her mental defenses, that Mercer is slowly oozing through and gaining ground. She sits up straight, relaxes, and breathes deeply, but the dark sensation remains, a small blot on the brightness of her outlook like the moon just starting to eclipse the sun.
At work, there’s a vase of flowers on her desk and a card from the executive team with warming sentiments like, “Remember the good times,” and, “Our hearts are with you.” Karen has a rush of gratitude that she prevents from watering her eyes.
But, work is work, and she has a moderate backlog of tasks to sort and prioritize from her two days off — executive calendars to coordinate and appointments to plan, emails and voicemails to respond to, reports to make and databases to update, plus she knows a dozen things will pop up during the day — so she jumps right in. It feels like only an hour has passed before lunchtime startles her consciousness.
Karen has brought food, as always, but today she also runs out to Riverside Police Department, eating as she drives. She fills out a report for the heart and note from the mailbox. She also amends her prior report to state that the heart of leaves could not have been Mercer.
Back to work. The afternoon goes by just as quickly, even with Karen staying an extra forty-five minutes. By the time she leaves, she’s completed everything critical from her backlog and has the rest waiting in a queue that she should be able to knock out tomorrow morning.
After dinner and dishes, Karen relaxes with Mr. Totsley for twenty minutes before donning workout clothes so she can practice karate. Putting on a playlist of 80s energy music, she chuckles as iconic songs come up, tunes from sports movies that seemed to have always been used during scenes where the protagonists were training hard to maximize their chances of overcoming their nemeses. Karen laughs aloud when she pictures herself in a montage — punching, kicking, grappling, running, sweating — earning her yellow belt, then orange, then… well, she’s not sure, she realizes, but she knows she’ll learn the progression of ranks soon enough. For immediate purposes, she cycles through a prism: yellow, orange, red, purple, blue, green, black. She definitely knows it ends with black.
Her laughter subsides as the montage becomes less cliché and more inspiration. She focuses on that image of herself receiving her black belt from Mrs. Draver. Bowing. Grinning. Shaking hands. Tying the knot of her black belt for the first time. The class and audience creating a roar of hands and voices. Jamie in the audience. Abby. Even Nana.
Pulling her vision back, Karen focuses solely on her yellow belt. Imagine the beautiful picture of a final result, Nana had told her. See it. Feel it. Revel in it. Then break up the journey into milestones, and focus ONLY on the first one. Keep the end in mind, but always work toward the next milestone.
“Yaaaa!” Karen yells as she performs a fierce reverse punch. She puts all her emotion and power into it, projecting so strongly that her voice fills the house. Mr. Totsley flees to the kitchen.
A sound breaks Karen’s concentration. Some kind of banging noise, but she couldn’t quite tell what it was over her music and focus. She pauses the playlist and listens.
The sound does not repeat.
She listens for a full minute that feels like five.
The only things Karen can hear is the wind-driven dance of the shadowy trees. The surge of blood in her ears.
Something caresses her leg.
Karen screams and jumps, sending poor Mr. Totsley sprinting back to the kitchen with a yowl.
Feeling foolish, Karen hastens to follow and reassure him, but her mind is still grasped by the unknown sound.
Karen stands and peers out the kitchen window. All she sees is the pervasive darkness of a fall evening. The stars hide behind a thick layer of unseen clouds, as does the moon.
She moves on.
Living room. Kitchen. Dining room. Bathroom. Bedroom.
Certain that she’s making a big deal out of nothing, Karen heads to the sliding glass doors that open to the back yard. She flicks the switch on the floodlights, banishing the night in three cones of brilliance while causing the rest of the darkness to deepen by contrast.
Twenty yards from the doors is something of metal that stands two feet high. None of the lights shine directly on it, and it takes Karen a moment to realize that it’s…
A heart. A heart with a metal snake winding around it. Just like the tattoos she and Mercer had gotten.
Eyes wide, breath frozen, Karen draws and closes the thick blinds over the doors. She leaves the outside lights on. She stands still, then slowly backs away, imagining Mercer banging on the tempered glass at any moment.
Karen drops to the floor and army crawls to the living room as quickly as she can, the skin of her arms barely registering the sting of minor rug burn. She reaches up to the dock where her phone is waiting to continue the energetic playlist. In her haste, she pulls the whole thing down. She jerks her head to the side at the last second, but the dock still connects with her temple.
Head exploding with pain, Karen tries to switch her phone from music to the phone app. Her fingers fumble, hitting the wrong things. Finally, she summons the phone’s virtual keypad.
She types 9-1-1, having to hit backspace three times.
She aims for the call button. Hits zero instead.
Call button… she makes it.
Collapsing to her side, Karen sets the phone on the floor under her face.
“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”
“Help… stalker…” she breathes. “Backyard… might try to break in.”
“Ma’am, the Smart911 profile tied to your phone lists you as Karen Raylor, 2703 Willoughby Road, Riverside. Is that correct?”
“Are you Karen Raylor?”
“Ma’am, we’ll dispatch the police to your location. Stay on the phone with me until they arrive.”
“Ma’am, are you hurt?”
“No. I mean, I did drop this phone dock on my head.”
“Are you bleeding?”
Karen touches her temple and looks at her shaking hand.
“Ma’am, are you in a safe location?”
Karen bolts up and looks at every window. She doesn’t see Mercer peering in, but it’s easy to imagine glass shattering and a rock landing in her house.
Karen reaches for the phone and bumps the button to end the call.
She stares at the dormant app for a moment before recalling the operator’s last sentence. Ma’am, are you in a safe location?
Knowing she should call back to 9-1-1 but focusing more on the immediate danger, Karen decides to hide.
Chapter 8 Choice: Where should Karen hide before calling 9-1-1 again?
- Garage: Climb in her car. (50%)
- Kitchen: Get a knife. (50%)
- Living Room: Stay where she is. (0%)
- Upstairs: Hide in her room. (0%)
This poll closed on December 4th, 2017.