This old story was written over a decade ago as a submission for one of the larger SF/F magazines’ themed Americana Horror Halloween issue. It didn’t make the cut, and now it is yours.
Warning: horror, gore, physical assault. The dog doesn’t die.
The cat shot across the highway with kamikaze determination, a grey missile in the Subaru Forester’s lights. Neme wrenched the wheel to the left. The Forester swerved into the fast lane, nearly smashing into a pale van. The cat veered away from her tires and vanished into the darkness. Her heart thudded.
Behind her, a car horn blared. She caught a glimpse of the van speeding past her in the slow lane. For a moment they became parallel. The man gave her an outraged glare, and his memory hit her, hard and vicious like a sucker punch to the stomach – the hood of a red Toyota truck wrapped around a concrete lamppost; the engine innards exposed in a jagged mess of metal; an older man halfway through the shattered windshield, his cheek to the metal, milky eyes opened wide but seeing nothing. The driver’s grief washed over her in a wave of dull ache, his fear coating the back of her tongue with acid, and Neme clenched her teeth against the pain. Tiny needles pricked her fingers, a belated reaction to adrenaline.
“I’m sorry,” she murmured, watching the van melt into the night.
This was the second bad memory she had picked up since leaving Marina’s. The first one had been of a fire, when she stopped at a gas station in Arkansas. Once again, she wondered if she should’ve taken Marina’s offer of sleeping pills and an airplane ticket. But being stuck in a small cabin with the same people for hours… Their memories would cut through the strongest tranquilizers. Instead of waking memories, she would have nightmares, which would hold her captive until the pills wore off.
The dashboard clock read ten to midnight. She had been driving for eighteen hours. Neme shifted in the seat, trying to loosen the aching muscles of her back. Seven more hours to go. Eventually, she would have to stop – it was inevitable.
The adrenaline rush wore off and drowsiness was creeping over her. She glanced at the navigation system. Nothing but little towns, one after another. Too many people…
She briefly considered pulling over on the side of the road and napping in the Forester. The speed limit here was seventy, and she would get little more than fragments from the passing vehicles, shreds of memories unlikely to wake her. On the other hand, if someone plowed into her at seventy miles an hour…
A green exit sign reflected the Forester’s headlights back at her with a small constellation of small signs promising fast food and gas. She could take the exit, get some coffee, go to the bathroom. As soon as she thought of the bathroom, she realized she had to stop. In and out. Coffee, bathroom, and on her way in fifteen minutes.
Fifteen minutes. I can do fifteen minutes.
She took the exit, heading down toward a sleepy town. As the Forester decelerated on the smooth curve, Neme watched the memories rise over the town like a mirage from the shimmering air, no longer held back by speed. They loomed, ethereal, translucent castles, vague until she chose to focus on them.
Some she would see, some came to her by touch, and some would prove strong enough to thrust through her defenses on their own. Those she dreaded.
The curve brought her to an intersection. Neme stopped and leaned forward, scanning the street. To the left lay a busy strip full of fast-food spots and gas stations, bright with electric light and oversized signs. Too many people. To the right, a small plaza greeted her, little more than a parking lot with a Bob’s Doughnuts sandwiched between a Quick Lube and some sort of restaurant. The tall electric sign by it said Get-a-Burger. Both the Quick Lube and Bob’s Doughnuts were dark, but the Get-a-Burger’s windows spilled light into the street. The letter board below the sign proclaimed, “Open 24 hours.”
She turned right and guided the Forester down the street and into the parking lot. She found a spot, parked the car, grabbed four $1 bills – enough for a coffee – and stepped from the Forester. A cold night breeze nipped at her ears. She shuddered and hurried to the electric glow of the Get-A-Burger.
She was almost to the sidewalk when a low pitiful whine made her turn. She leaned to the left and saw the dim outlines of two trucks next to the dumpster, in the small space between the building and the concrete wall holding back the hill.
The whine came again, a tortured sound of something miserable and alone. It led her to the second vehicle. She glanced into the pickup truck bed, careful not to touch anything, afraid to pick up any stray memories. A pair of brown eyes looked back at her from a cage.
A dog. A Boxer, she thought, although dog breeds weren’t something she knew a lot about. The dog cowered, hugging the floor of the cage, the sharp bumps of hip bones sticking out from the dirty brown fur. The white patch just above his black nose was torn and bloody, scabbed over more than once. Dried blood caked the bars of the cage. He must’ve tried to force his way out. She looked for the cage’s door and found it secured by a padlock.
The round dog eyes stared at her, pleading. She reached out, throwing caution to the wind, and a pink tongue licked her fingers.
If only I could get her away from the dog.
The memory pierced her, a sharp blade in the stomach. She gasped. The dog whined. She backed away from the cage driven by instinct. She saw no image, nothing to concentrate on, except for that single horrible thought. Some dark malignant force left memories here that burned and sliced into her.
She wished she hadn’t stopped.
The dog cried out. She glanced about her for a rock, a stick, something to knock the padlock off and stopped. Even if she found a rock, she still couldn’t break the lock – the metal arch was as thick as her finger. If she hadn’t forgotten her cell phone at Marina’s, half-way across the country, she could call information and find out the number for the local animal society. There wouldn’t be anyone there tonight, but they had to have an answering machine. She looked back at the lighted windows. The building looked older. There might be a phone inside.
She didn’t want to go in. All that she wanted to do was to climb back in her Forester and drive as far and as fast as she could, away from the evil that lurked in this plaza.
The Boxer whined again. Neme pulled a pen she always carried attached to the loop on her jeans and searched her pockets for some paper. Finding none, she scribbled the license plate number on her wrist.
She turned and hurried toward the Get-a-Burger. The dog’s whimper accompanied her every step, until she pushed open the glass door.
Whoever owned the restaurant must’ve wanted to mimic the large fast-food chains. The place tried to stick to the same tried and true formula: clusters of hard plastic chairs, uncomfortable enough to make sure the diners didn’t linger, oversized menu, and garish posters of hamburgers hanging from the celling advertising the latest specials. All the ingredients were there but somehow, they didn’t blend quite right.
It might have been the hard concrete floor and the colors of the walls, ranging from dark grey to lighter greyish blue, with a stripe of bright red running at eye height along the walls in a vain attempt to offset the coldness. An odd mix of cooked meat and disinfectant floated in the air. The place felt almost… sterile. She saw no phone.
No monster lunged at her. No malevolent feeling made her shiver. Just an empty fast-food joint.
Neme walked past the empty tables to the counter, peering into the cooking area between the stainless steel grill and fryers. A faint singing came from the back, a well-modulated smooth male voice.
“It’s only forever, not long at all, don’t you see, baaaaby…”
She looked around the counter. A big rubber frog sat in the corner, by a sign that said, “Squeeze the frog for service.”
Neme hesitated, pulled out her pen, and used it to squish the frog. A loud squeak echoed through the place, followed by a dark-haired head that poked from behind the refrigerator. Their stares connected.
“I’m sorry.” The man stepped out in the open and started toward her, wiping his hands with a towel. “Been waiting long?”
He was in his early thirties, fit, with broad shoulders and dark hair. An open face, not handsome but pleasant, a wide smile and warm eyes. If an old lady was trying to load a heavy item into her grocery cart, he would be the one to run over and help her.
“What can I do for you?”
“Do you have a phone?”
“We’ve got one by the restrooms but it’s busted. Is it an emergency? Do you need to use my cell?”
She opened to tell him it was and murmured “No” instead. An abused dog didn’t qualify as an emergency, at least not in the way most people meant when they asked the question. She didn’t want to touch his phone. Besides, if the dog belonged to him…
“Can I interest you in a burger?”
“No, thanks.” She hesitated, uncomfortable. “I’ll take a coffee.”
“Coffee it is.”
He turned away to get a styrofoam cup. “My name’s Tyler.”
She felt pressured to give her name and hesitated. He was probably lonely working the night shift and trying to be social. “Neme.”
“Unusual name. Is that short for something?”
“It’s actually Mneme with an M. It’s Greek.”
“Well, I think it’s a lovely name.”
He poured the coffee into the cup and slid the pale plastic lid on it.
“I saw a dog when I was coming in,” she said. “In a cage. Is he yours?”
“No,” he said. “I’m more of a cat person.”
She sensed no lie in his words. Maybe it wasn’t his dog after all.
“He’s in a sad shape.”
He grimaced, setting the coffee on the counter. “That’s a shame. You know, all kinds of weirdos park here. It’s a big lot and we don’t charge for parking.”
“How much do I owe you?”
She put two-dollar bills on the counter. The sweatshirt slid up her arm, exposing her wrist and the license plate number written in ink on her skin. She pulled her hand away, not sure if he had noticed.
He took the money with a smile.
“Which way is the restroom?”
“To the right and around the corner.”
Neme left her coffee on the counter and went into the restroom. She passed the phone on the way. It was missing the receiver.
The windowless bathroom was surprisingly clean, the tile, blue small squares, freshly scrubbed and smelling of bleach. A big clock on the wall told her it was 20 minutes past midnight.
Given the choice of three stalls, painted pale grey, she picked the first from the door. Inside, someone had scribbled on the wall using a ball-point pen “Jesus loves you. He died for your sins.” A different ink proclaimed “I doubt that” and a long arrow pointed to “died”. Words “Rose Again!” ran along the arrow.
Above it someone had written “Don’t you girls have anything better to do?”
Neme finished and brushed against the stall as she turned around to flush.
The toilet was full of blood. It spread in thick crimson torrents over the white ceramic basin and down onto the tile. Neme clamped her hand over her mouth and shook. Blood spatter marred the grey paint. Bits of hair and pale tissue stuck to the tile and to the left, a bloody handprint glared, where someone’s fingers had left red tracks, sliding down the wall.
Panic gripped her spine with icy claws. Her heartbeat thudded in her ears like the blows of some giant hammer. Neme forced herself to stand still. It was a memory. It wasn’t truly there.
The blood handprint beckoned her.
Don’t touch it. Don’t…
She had to know. The compulsion squeezed her, leaving no room for thoughts or logic. Her hand reached to the bloody prints. Her fingertips brushed against the dark smudges.
Pain exploded into her. Neme whimpered. Terror pulsed beneath her fingers, flailing as if it was alive. The memory rushed at her in a blood-chilling cascade. A woman with long red hair coming from the stall and Tyler, the guy from behind the counter, grinning, a knife in his hand. He shoved her back into the stall. She slid on the wet tile and fell, grabbed the plastic toilet paper holder in a desperate attempt to scramble up. He grasped her by the hair and pulled. The woman clawed at his hand, kicked his knee, and Tyler went down on top of her, knife plunging down through her green sweater. She bit his arm and writhed on the floor under him. Her fingers gouged the flesh of his neck. He slashed at her hand, slicing through the flesh to the bone. Blood drenched the floor and soaked Tyler’s hair as the woman scratched his face.
“Fight,” Neme whispered, “Fight, fight.”
Tyler rose. The woman lay unmoving on the floor, her grey eyes pale and unblinking. Tyler stepped from the stall and went to the sink. He was bleeding from the deep scratches on his neck. His face looked serene. Tranquil.
The memory vanished. Neme breathed in short, tiny breaths and stumbled from the stall. Her hand touched the tile, memory exploded into her fingertips, and she saw another body in the corner, blond hair caked with drying blood, Tyler crouched over her, the same peaceful expression on his face.
He kills women. He kills them here in this bathroom, lone women, late at night.
The thought cut through the gore of the past like a knife. He was waiting for her. She knew it with absolute certainty. She dashed to the bathroom door.
Neme pressed her hands against the wood, holding the door shut. A flood of faint memories flashed before her, hundreds of faces, repairmen, restaurant visitors, travelers, all who touched the door in its years of existence. Led by fear and instinct, she dove further and further into the cascade of visions, searching through the past, looking desperately for something she could use, elbow deep in diaphanous shreds of memories.
“… not long at all, don’t you see, baaaaby…”
He was right outside. She had gone as deep into the past as she could, all the way to the construction of the building.
“Holding the door isn’t going to help, Neme.”
He leaned against it, and her feet slid a little on the tile.
A memory snapped taut before her, suddenly bright and vivid. A wooden beam wedged across the doorway. It must’ve fallen during construction.
The door opened an inch.
The beam looked solid, so solid, it was almost real. She scrambled forward, her boots making slippery rubber noises on the tile. He pressed harder, and she slid back, trying to grab on to something, anything to keep her hold. Her mind locked onto the memory of the beam.
He laughed on the other side. She threw her weight against it, pushing as hard as she could, but he was too strong.
The door slid a fraction of an inch.
Another half inch.
Panic punched her. Her mind locked on the fallen beam. She pulled and suddenly it was there, in a shower of wood shavings and dust, blocking the doorway. The odor of freshly cut wood washed over her.
Tyler hit the door. It slammed into the beam with a solid thud and came short. He hit it again.
The beam held.
Neme stepped away. Her palms were wet with sweat. Her head swam.
“Oh, neat trick, Neme. Neat trick. Wanna see mine?”
The door shimmered with angry swirls of deep red, and Neme saw Tyler grinning at her from the empty doorway, nothing but the beam in his way.
He laughed. “You called?”
She stumbled back from the doorway, numb with terror, until her back hit the wall. He laughed again.
She drew a hoarse breath. He was staying put. He could crawl right over the beam, but he was staying put. Why wasn’t he coming for her?
The door. It was still there. He didn’t make it disappear, he just made it transparent.
She slid along the wall to the floor. Her heart fluttered in her chest as if a small bird was caught in the cage of her ribs and was frantically trying to escape.
Tyler grimaced and knocked on the empty air. It answered with a dull wooden sound. He walked away, came back with a chair, set in front of the door, and landed, leaning back, one leg over the other. A large knife appeared in his hand as if by magic and he ran his thumb along the shiny blade.
“It seems we’re at a standstill. You can’t get out and I can’t get in. But–” he raised the knife, “–I will win at the end.”
She only had to last until the morning. In the morning someone would come and find her.
“You think that you can wait me out.” He kicked the door lightly, and she jerked as it hit the beam. “But see, I own this place. I’ve locked the door and put the “Closed” sign in the window. All I have to do is to call my workers and ask them not to come in the morning. Then we can be here as long as you like.”
She hugged her knees.
“You think about it, Neme. I’ve got a couple of phone calls to make.”
Neme stretched her legs and glanced at the clock on the wall. Thirty minutes. She had been trapped for a mere thirty minutes. It felt like years.
The cold from the tile chilled her legs. She used to sit like this on the porch of her house, looking out at the Oregon wilderness. It seemed unreal now, like a fragment of someone else’s life, weak and fading before the stark reality of the bathroom and Tyler rocking in the chair outside the door.
She would die here.
Neme closed her eyes. She should’ve never left her safe haven. But Marina’s mother had died, and Marina had been falling to pieces. Neme had felt her desperation over the phone, in the faint shiver in her voice, assuring her that everything was fine, that she was holding it all together. And so she had jumped into her Forester and drove across the country to share her only friend’s grief. She had stayed for three weeks, longer than she had meant to, partly because Marina had needed her and partly because she had dreaded the drive. She should’ve flown back…
Tyler shifted in his chair. “Talk to me, baby.”
She gave him a startled glance.
He spread his arms, the knife still in his right hand. “I’m bored, you’re bored. Talk to me. What’s your talent?”
She glared at him.
“Oh, come on. I saw the beam thing – but that was new, wasn’t it? You were surprised. I remember the first time I did something.” He leaned forward. “I was five and my parents locked me out of their bedroom. I went into their bathroom and listened to the noises for a while. I remember wanting to know what was happening. So I put my hands against the wall and looked through it. I saw them fucking on the bed.”
He laughed. “The defining moment of my childhood. It was a lot of fun after that. The dirty little things people did behind closed doors when they thought they were alone? I was there, watching them. All the girls, all those haughty pretty little things squeezed tight in their jeans in junior high? I owned them. I knew what color underwear they wore. I knew who their parents were sleeping with. No secrets, Neme. No secrets at all.”
“Why are you talking to me?” Her voice came out hoarse.
“Because I want to know things about you. Come on, how often do you get to tell people your secret? What is it you do, Neme? It has to do with touching.”
She drew her knees to her and rested her head on them, but his voice was inescapable.
“I saw you coming out of the stall. You were already scared, Neme. What did you see?” He snapped his fingers. “The redhead. It had to be the redhead, she is the only one I took there. The stall was too narrow, no swinging room. The handicapped one at the end is much better. You tried looking in there, Neme?”
“That’s what it is.” He grinned. “You see the past.”
“Memories,” she said. “I see memories.”
“What’s it like?”
She said nothing.
“It’s hard, huh. I bet you see memories everywhere. I bet you don’t like a lot of them. Let me guess – you live alone? Somewhere in the woods, where there are no memories? That’s a mistake. Memories are information. You and I, we’re information gatherers, and information is power. When you know things about people, you can control them.”
He raised his finger at her, like some overbearing college professor. “You never get stronger if you don’t practice, Neme. First, I learned how to look through walls. A thousand tries later, I figured out how to make them transparent for other people. Nothing in this life comes without an effort, not even talents such as ours.”
“Why did you kill the women?”
He shrugged. “Why not? It’s all about power over your life. I have a right to make my life as comfortable as I wish it to be. If I see something I like in the store, I buy it. If I see food I like, I eat it. Seeing a woman I’d like to have and can’t because of some silly circumstance troubles me. It’s like an itch I have to scratch, so I scratch it. I make her my own forever. It’s very simple, really. I want you. I think you’re pretty. And you have talent, and that’s very sexy, Neme. Irresistible. So I’m going to add you to my little private harem. Don’t give me that look. You’ll be in exquisite company. You saw the redhead – I have very good taste.”
Smug bastard. “No,” she said.
He laughed, rocking back on the chair legs. “No? Oh, you’re too much fun, Neme. You’re killing me.”
She stood up. There had to be a way out. There had to be some way to beat him.
“What are you going to do, baby? Whatever it is, it will do you no good. You’re weaker than me, Neme. You run from your talent, while I use mine every day. But whatever it is that’s driving you right now, please go ahead and do it. I’d love to see you try.”
She touched the wall. Memories hit her, rocking her back, agony, terror, desperation. She clenched her teeth and worked through the cascade, sorting them into individual personalities. Slowly she began circling the bathroom, running her fingers on the tile. She passed by the beam, two feet from Tyler. He was leaning forward, rapt, fascinated. She turned her back to him and kept walking. One memory after another. Hungry people, crying kids, worn out mothers, woman in a Get-a-Burger hat smoking a meth pipe…
Neme crouched and opened the cabinet under the sink counter. Bleach. Plastic bags of hand soap. A big bottle of hand sanitizer. Extra toilet paper.
She stepped into the first stall, skipping nothing. Every moment of the fight. Every scratch, every lunge, every stab, over and over, and when there was nothing left, a single brutal slash to the throat to finish it. When it was over, she stumbled from the stall light-headed, bile burning the back of her tongue.
“You know, this is the first time I’ve ever had an audience,” he said. “I’m almost nervous. That’s how artists must feel at their first gallery showing.”
She glanced at him in spite of herself and caught her breath. The beam was fading. It was still solid, still real, but she could see the faint shimmer along its inner edge where the reality was beginning to evaporate into a memory, and she knew by some sixth sense she couldn’t make it reappear. When she had reached through the memories for it, the beam felt sticky. Now it was sleek.
She didn’t have much time.
Neme moved into the second stall and found nothing, save for the phantom leaks of blood crisscrossing the floor.
“The third one is the one you want,” Tyler’s voice came. “Be careful, that one packs a punch.”
The third stall crushed her. Murder after murder, women screaming, fighting, pleading, one whimpering in a corner. Her lips were moving, soundlessly shaping the words around phantom cries. Please, no! Please, don’t. No! It hurts. Help me! Somebody, help me!
The wave of suffering overwhelmed her. Her fingers tingled; her hair rose on the back of her neck; her stomach hurt, cramping… She stood helpless in a whirlwind of agony, their pain trapping her in a cage, the bars of which she couldn’t break. Neme felt herself melting, as if her very soul was unraveling, strand by strand, to join this awful, raging, hurting whole. Nine knives stabbed and she screamed in nine phantom voices.
Neme panicked. She fought and flailed, like a cornered animal, willing the memories to vanish, and just when she thought the battle was lost, she ripped free, burst from the stall, and into the wall. She crashed to the floor and lay there, panting.
“That good, huh.”
Neme pushed herself up to her knees and wiped the sticky strand of saliva stretching from her mouth. Her head swam. She had the answer. She saw it among the carnage.
It was a long shot, and she tried not to think about it, terrified he’d pluck the knowledge from her eyes. She wasn’t sure she could do it, but he left her no room for self-doubt.
Tyler had seen her pull the beam from the past. He was smart, and if she gave him time to think, he’d figure it out. She had to make him forget reason. She had to make him mad. Enraged. She couldn’t allow him to be calm or take his time, because if he thought he was in control, it wouldn’t work.
She forced herself to get up off the floor, aware of his eyes glued to her.
He spoke like an educated man. A classic psychopath, superficial charm, arrogance, narcissism. Massive ego.
Tyler scratched the door with the tip of his knife. “The best part is that it would be so easy for you to just lay down on the floor and let me in. I thought you would by now. But you keep at it. Way to go, baby. Way to go.”
She had to distract him. She had to think like him. Talk like him. Say his name over and over, the way he did it to her, as if he owned her.
She forced the words out of her mouth. They came out hoarse. “You lied about the dog.”
“You lied about the dog. You took him from one of the women after you killed her.”
“But I didn’t lie. It’s not mine.”
Her voice was growing stronger. “You took him, and you stuck him into a cage. And now you’re starving and torturing him. What did the dog ever do to you, Tyler?”
He concentrated on her face. “What’s this sudden fascination with the dog? Where are you going with this?”
“I figured you out.” She strode to the middle stall and began pulling the toilet paper from the bin, gathering it into a soft wad. “You think you’re special, but you’re just a creep.”
“One of those sleazy little weirdos everyone avoids in high school. The kind that hold their cell phones low, hoping to snap a shot up a girl’s skirt as she walks by. The ones who set fires, and torture small animals, because deep down they know they’re fucked up and hollow, so they keep trying to feel something but it never works for them.”
“Nice try, Neme. Won’t work.”
“These guys, they grow up into failures. They live in their parents’ basements, jerking off to weird porn at night, they trawl the incel forums, and in the morning, they go back to their dull jobs and try to impersonate a human.”
“I own this place.”
She moved out of his view to the sink and began piling toilet paper against the wall.
“You keep mentioning that. You must be very proud of this shitty little joint in the middle of nowhere.”
She heard him rise off his chair. He was trying to see what she was up to. The tile next to her grew transparent and she saw him leaning against the invisible wall. In that instant, she realized why he had worked so hard to make the walls transparent. He loved fear. He thrived on it, reveling in the panic of his victims when the walls vanished, and he appeared.
“A restaurant is supposed to be warm and inviting. Look at yours. Look at it, Tyler.”
He actually glanced to the side.
“It looks like a hospital morgue. It even smells like one. You don’t know how to decorate it or make it welcoming, because you are dead inside.”
She mushed the last of the toilet paper into the hand dryer and looked at Tyler.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Warmth and happiness, those things are for other people, Tyler. You like to think that you are special and superior, but you will never know what it’s like to make love. You can’t even get it up, so you stab women instead. You’re not special. You’re just defective.”
He bared his teeth at her. “Nice, Neme. Truly nice, baby. I was going to be chill about it, but now I’ll really have to show what happens to a woman when she makes a man mad. I’ll make a special effort. You’re worth it.”
She’d piled the toilet paper and paper towels into one huge clump.
“A lovely art piece,” Tyler mocked. “Now what?”
He stared at her from across the wall, so close.
“You should drug screen your employees.”
She sniffled, stood up on her toes and reached up to the top of the mirror. Her fingertips brushed smooth plastic. She grabbed it, flinching against fragments of memories, and pulled a small green tube of a lighter from its hiding place.
Tyler’s eyes widened.
“Like you keep telling me, you own this place. It’s your hunting ground. I’m going to take it away from you.”
Neme flicked the lighter.
She flicked it again and again, her thumb sliding off the wheel. A tiny flame flared into life.
He hit the wall with his fist. “Don’t you fucking do it!”
Neme held a clump of paper towels to the tiny flame. The paper caught. She dropped the burning clump into the sink. The mountain of paper went up. Flames licked the drywall.
Tyler hit the door. Thud! The beam shuddered. It was thin now, a mere board.
A smoke detector screeched into life. Neme backed away from the door.
She pulled the huge plastic container of hand sanitizer from under the sink and tore off the lid.
The beam broke and fell apart, vanishing into nothing. She ran from him, across the floor to the last stall. He growled like an animal and lunged after her. The knife sliced across her shoulder and got stuck in the sweatshirt. She ripped free.
Get to the stall. Get to the stall!
Steel fingers gripped her shoulder, spun her around, and Tyler’s left fist smashed into her stomach. All air rushed from her lungs in an explosion of pain. Another blow hammered her chest, knocking her off her feet and into the stall. Her shoulder hit the hard porcelain and she slid down, wedged in the space between the toilet and the wall.
He leaned over her, the knife gleaming in his hand, every detail of his terrible face crystal clear. His upper lip drew back, like the lip of snarling dog, exposing his teeth. The skin over his nose wrinkled. His eyebrows knitted together; below them his eyes burned with fury and something else, a fiery mix of hunger, and pain, and all consuming need, for which there was no word.
The knife hovered poised at her face. He was drinking in her fear, prolonging it. Just like he had done nine times before.
She reached through the past into a tangle of memories that sat waiting for her, churning with madness and suffering. She dove deep into it, shredded by the pain, and through its depth she saw nine Tylers bending forward with nine knives and nine women fighting for their lives. In an instant she saw the women die and him standing triumphant over their battered corpses. Her mind locked onto his image, and she pulled as she had done with the beam.
Scratches burst open on Tyler’s face and neck, and he screamed as she flung the memories of every wound his victims had inflicted on him in his face and made them real.
He staggered, blood running down his face, his eyes shocked. She knew it wasn’t going to be enough. The wounds were too shallow to stop him.
Neme opened herself to the memories, merging, melding with the aching, tortured mass, until even she didn’t know where the past ended and reality began. Pain coursed through her, but she forced herself past it, made herself focus on Tyler’s stunned face, on his violent eyes. The memories shifted around her and obeyed.
She could barely see Tyler in front of her. She moved on pure will. Neme grabbed on to him and jerked herself free of the memories, thrusting him in her place.
For a second Tyler stared into space with unseeing eyes. His form turned transparent, the blood on his face ethereal and shimmering, and then he slashed at the empty air as the churning tangle of memories enveloped him. The memories raged, exacting their revenge, and Tyler howled soundlessly, torn apart by their agony.
Neme pushed from the wall and scrambled out of the stall, past the phantom Tyler. The memories couldn’t hold him forever. Like the beam, he would eventually return to his proper place. She had to be ready.
Tyler stabbed himself. He drove the knife into his stomach in frantic frenzy again and again, his body becoming more solid with every stab. She watched him carve his own flesh, waiting for him to surface.
The fire had spread to the ceiling. Smoke billowed. The smoke alarms screamed at a deafening pitch.
Tyler snarled and spun around to her, his face splattered with his blood. He stumbled forward…
She thrust her hand against his chest, zeroing on the specific moment, branded nine times into her soul. The knife, the neck, the slash, the same way, every time. She punched the layered memory into Tyler.
He lifted his hand, his eyes haunted.
The knife. The neck. The slash.
Blood poured from Tyler’s throat. Neme turned and ran.
The lights blinked and went out.
Neme dashed out of the bathroom into the dark restaurant. Her shoes slid on the floor; and she grabbed the counter trying to keep her balance, catching a glint of something metal as she pushed off and ran to the door. Locked.
She fumbled looking for deadbolt, turned it, and burst into the night.
Free. She was free.
Neme ran to her Forester. She had minutes before the Fire Department got here. She couldn’t afford to answer their questions.
The keys. She’d need the keys. The metal thing on the counter was a key ring.
She turned back and dashed back inside. The restaurant churned with smoke. Acrid fumes stung her nose. She coughed, groping blindly until her hand found the counter. Memories punched her, but she tore through them. Her fingers closed around the keys, and she almost dropped them. They felt like Tyler.
The dog whined at her approach. She unlocked the padlock, threw the cage door open, and grabbed him. He was so thin in her arms, so fragile that she was afraid to squeeze him too hard. She ran to the Forester and set the dog in the ground to swing open the door. He squatted and peed, brown eyes pleading. Neme hoisted him into the front seat, slammed the door closed, and dashed around the car to the driver door.
The fire had spread and the windows of the Get-a-Burger glowed with reddish light. The dog whimpered.
The engine started with a mechanical growl. The headlights came on and in their yellow glow, she saw a grey cat, the same cat that nearly caused her to drive off the road. It sat in front of the car, untroubled by the noise of the engine, clever yellow eyes staring straight at her above a mouth that seemed to be smirking.
I’m more of a cat person….
A distant howl of fire engine sirens rolled through the night.
Neme glared back at the cat. She dropped the parking break, shifted into gear, and stepped on the gas. The cat vanished in a flash of grey fur, and the forester tore out of the parking lot, onto the exit ramp and up onto the highway.
Six hours later the Forester was speeding down the interstate. A happy dog curled up in the front passenger seat, content after devouring the sandwiches Marina had packed for her trip.
Neme nodded at the familiar landmarks, the tire shop, the sign for the orchard. In a few minutes she would make the junction, and then only thirty miles separated her from the dirt road leading to the cozy house.
She hoped Tyler died. If he didn’t… If one day he would come looking for her… A small part of her whimpered at that thought, but another part, a larger, stronger part welcomed it.
Let him come looking. Let him try. She had time to test her new-found strength. She had time to practice.
Neme adjusted the rearview mirror and watched the sunrise light the sky behind her.