Until Death

 

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Written by

Matt Thrasher

 

 

September 4th

13

9:00 AM

The Vander Police Department was bustling with activity when Frank arrived at nine o’clock sharp, as it typically was on Monday mornings. Frank entered the briefing room still radiating contentment from the weekend, but was taken aback when he saw the front page of The Vander Chronicle taped to the whiteboard. The headline read “Angels of Vander: Another Woman Vanishes” in bold print. Frank scoffed at the newspaper’s melodramatic nomenclature as his good-natured attitude dissipated. He took a seat a split-second before Litchfield strode through the doorway. The Deputy Chief wasted no time before diving into the briefing.

“This,” Litchfield boomed, gesturing to the newspaper headline. “This is what our town is becoming. This is what is happening on our watch.” Jesus Christ,Frank thought, rolling his eyes. Just when his opinion of Litchfield was beginning to improve, the man uses a glorified tabloid for theatrics in a police briefing.

Frank managed to glean the important points, despite Litchfield’s song and dance. Vander’s newest missing citizen was Amanda Zaleski, known as Mandy to her family and friends, a thirty-three-year-old elementary school teacher and mother of two. Her husband Brad had reported her missing after she had left the house that afternoon to visit her sister across town and never returned. Mandy’s sister claimed that she never made it to the house. Her car was found on the shoulder of Pioneer Avenue with a punctured front right tire later that evening.

The briefing only lasted ten minutes, but it was enough to exhaust Frank. Processing the new disappearance while having to put up with Litchfield’s buffoonery was a lot to ask of one man. He walked to the station parking lot with his head down, the familiar itch of anxiety beginning to reappear. When Frank reached his cruiser, he slouched behind the wheel in contemplation as the automatic gate to the lot creaked open and shut. He kept the car off, ignoring the rising heat of the day and allowing himself a quiet place to think.

Frank would never hear the detectives admit it, but he knew that the investigation was at a momentary dead end. Their theory, as far as he surmised, was that someone was causing these disappearances, but unless a modus operandi magically revealed itself, the department was stuck spinning its wheels. Frank’s chest was gradually tightening, his breaths becoming more shallow. He thought of his wonderful weekend with Valerie and Cade, and his anxiety melted into irritation. He had only been offered a short reprieve from his internal disquiet before thoughts of the disappearances had invaded his mind once again, which didn’t seem fair. It was also becoming increasingly frustrating to Frank that the disappearances were causing this reaction in him at all. I’m a cop, for fuck’s sake.

Frank swiped at his brow with the back of his hand, his eye stinging from sweat that had found its way in. He turned the car on, blasting the air conditioning. As he threw the car in drive and exited the parking space, his irritation grew.I’m so goddamn useless in all this. Frank pulled up to the gate and stopped hard, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel restlessly while the mechanism creaked the gate open. I’m the asshole who’s gonna be scraping drunks off the sidewalk while there are innocent people missing. Parents, spouses, children worried sick. The gate finally stopped its painfully slow journey and Frank pulled erratically out onto the street. The dispatcher came over the radio.

“We have a drunk and disorderly outside Paul’s Liquor Store.” Frank checked his watch. 9:20 on a Monday morning. A drunk outside a liquor store, Frank thought. Now who could have seen that coming?He waited for someone else to respond. The radio was silent, and Frank sighed. Looks like I’m getting dealt shit cards today.

“Officer seven-one-two responding,” Frank uttered with a complete lack of intonation. He drove swiftly to the center of town, and as he approached Paul’s Liquor Store, he could see a small crowd forming. Frank pulled diagonally into the space directly in front of the store’s entrance, taking note of the disheveled, scraggly man shouting and swaying from side to side.

It was Keith Brenner, one of Vander’s most infamous drunks. He was wearing a torn flannel shirt despite the heat and tattered jeans that looked as if they had been soiled the night before. Matted tufts of hair stuck up in every direction, and his thick beard was damp with saliva and malt liquor, most likely from an Old English forty. Keith’s bloodshot eyes bulged wildly when he noticed Frank’s cruiser approaching.

Frank turned on his body cam. If history was any indication, his confrontation with Keith could turn violent. He was normally very respectful to Frank, at least when he was sober, but all bets were off when he was drinking. Keith was screaming at Paul Nethers, the owner of the store, who was keeping a safe distance from the deranged man but continuing to argue with him. Frank approached Paul from behind, placed his hand on his shoulder, and lightly nudged him backward. He shot a stern expression toward Paul, who understood the gesture and walked back inside his store. Keith screamed obscenities until Paul was completely out of sight.

“What are you doing, Keith?” Frank asked, speaking as if Keith was a teenager who had just broken curfew.

“It’s a FREE goddamn country!” Keith shouted, spittle spraying from his lips. He looked at the crowd that had grown to roughly a dozen. “What?! Mind your fuckin’ bisniz!”

“What’s the problem?” Frank asked softly. Keith snapped his wide-eyed gaze back to Frank.

“The problem?” Keith sounded offended by the question. “The problem’s that I’m out here, mindin’ my own bisniz, and this guy,” Keith said, pointing into the store, “he tells me to fuck off.” He raised his arms in mock bewilderment. “Just mindin’ my own bisniz.” Keith’s slurred diction was partially caused by the alcohol, but Frank knew that it was mostly due to his upbringing.

“Really? Because what I’ve been hearing is that you’ve been making the morning pretty unpleasant for the people around here,” Frank said, motioning toward the onlookers.

“I have RIGHTS. I can…”

“Why don’t you go home Keith?” Frank interrupted. Keith was visibly shaken by the question.

“I, umm, I can, there’s, umm,” Keith stammered. “I have the right…”

“What’s the problem, Keith?” Frank repeated, this time in a nurturing tone. He took a slow step closer. Keith looked once again at the crowd, then cast his eyes down toward Frank’s shoes. His shoulders slumped.

“Hilly kicked me out,” Keith muttered. He began to break down in tears and Frank closed the gap between them. He put his arm around the man’s shoulders.

“Come on, you can sleep this off at the station,” Frank said, ushering the sobbing man to the cruiser. He opened the rear door and helped Keith in, ensuring that he didn’t hit his head. He walked around to the driver’s side and got in, making no acknowledgement to the shrinking crowd. As he settled into the front seat, he flipped the bodycam off and fired up the engine. He left the liquor store parking lot, headed back to the station.

“I’m sorry,” Keith mumbled when they were almost to their destination.

“What’s going on with you and Hilly?” Frank asked earnestly. Frank couldn’t remember a time when Keith and Hilly weren’t fighting, but she rarely resorted to throwing her husband out onto the street. The department had responded to a few domestic disturbance calls at their trailer park residence over the last few years, each of which ended in the two of them reconciling their differences, at least until the cops left. Whatever Keith did to anger his wife this time must have been serious. When he received no response, he took a quick glance into the backseat. Keith was sprawled out, arm over his eyes, asleep. Frank let out a breathy laugh and turned back forward. Why help solve the real cases when I have this?

They arrived at the station and Frank helped Keith to a holding cell, where another officer would supervise the drunken nap. He guided Keith to the cell bunk where he sat down with a thud, tipped over onto his side, and immediately fell asleep. Frank gave the officer on duty an amused grin as he left the detainment area, walking back through the station toward the parking lot. As he walked by the break room, he noticed three officers crowded around the coffee pot, laughing and joking with one another. He changed course and entered the break room just as two of the three officers were leaving. He grabbed a plain white coffee mug out of one of the hanging cabinets and poured himself a cup. The one officer left in the room with Frank was Sergeant Maggie Arnold. Frank had attended the Academy with Maggie a handful of years before, and he considered her a good cop and a good friend.

“What’s goin’ on, Mags?” Frank said, nodding toward the two officers striding away.

“I had a very pleasant conversation with Gloria Wilson this morning,” Maggie said, grinning. She was more than happy to recount the story for Frank.

“Oh Christ, what’d she do now?” Frank asked, smiling in anticipation and taking a sip of the highly mediocre coffee.

“Well, not only is her nonexistent neighbor still working for the Soviets, but now he’s also the Antichrist and there’s a good chance he’s ushering in the end of days. I’ve marked my calendar for the rapture this evening, per her request,” Maggie said, smirking through the last few words. Frank had a mouthful of coffee as she finished, and he struggled to swallow and laugh at the same time. This caused both he and Maggie to laugh even harder.

“She gave me the same bit about Russian spies the other day,” Frank said after catching his breath. “That apocalypse thing is new, though. I’m gonna have to remember that one.” Frank downed the rest of his coffee and set the empty mug on the counter. He and Maggie stood in silence for a few moments, faces relaxed and content, enjoying the light atmosphere brought on by their laughter. Maggie’s expression slowly faded to one of somber contemplation.

“Can you believe what’s going on? Two weeks ago Vander was so quiet, you could have mistaken it for a ghost town,” Maggie said, looking blankly past Frank. His expression mirrored hers, and he looked down at his feet.

“I feel kind of useless,” Frank said, looking back up at Maggie. “What good am I doing chasing drunks and idiots around town when there are three missing people out there?”

“John and Oscar know what they’re doing,” Maggie said, locking eyes with Frank. “We’ll find them. Don’t worry, Franny.” She giggled as she walked past Frank, patting him on the shoulder and exiting the break room. Frank sauntered out a moment later.

He made his way to the Detective Room, where he leaned against Kotching’s desk and stared at the cluttered whiteboard containing information on the disappearances. At the top of the whiteboard, “Angels of Vander” was written in large letters. Frank groaned in disgust. The fact that The Chronicle’s phrase had infiltrated the department’s vocabulary was asinine. He shifted his gaze down to photos of Katheryn, Jackie, and Mandy that seemed to stare straight into his soul. Words covered every available inch of the board, color-coded to delineate personal information from possible leads. None of it was new to Frank. The longer he stared at the board, the more his skin began to crawl. For the first time in days, the urge to smoke clawed its way back to the front of his mind. Frank tapped his foot incessantly and chewed on his thumbnail as he thought about the “Angels”. He had no desire to imagine what horrors were being inflicted upon them, in fact there wasn’t even any evidence to suggest any kind of suffering as of yet, but found himself doing it nonetheless. Images of torture and pain flashed before Frank’s eyes. A young woman handcuffed to a radiator, most likely an image supplanted in his memory from a movie he watched too young. A dingy basement with a stain-covered mattress. Screaming and crying. A body found in the woods.

Frank shivered as a chill went up his spine. He removed his hand from his mouth, suddenly aware that he had been gnawing on his thumb. He hadn’t bit his nails since he was a child. He touched a hand to his forehead and felt beads of sweat, despite the air conditioner loudly cycling stale air through the department. The need for nicotine couldn’t be ignored now. Frank stood up from the desk and hastily made his way through the department. The further he walked, the faster his feet moved, and when he exited the building he practically jogged to his cruiser. He fought the impulse to smoke the Marlboro right there in the car, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to mask the odor and that any number of his fellow officers or superiors could see him. Frank got in his cruiser and tried to make a quick escape, but was stopped once again by the painful slowness of the automatic gate. Frank jittered and squirmed in the driver’s seat as the gate took a millennium to open and stomped on the gas as soon as there was enough room for the patrol car to squeeze through. He flew down the street, moving considerably faster than the speed limit. He caught himself biting his thumbnail once more as he shifted lanes, nearly clipping the bumper of the car in front of him. Frank was stopped by a red light at every intersection he approached, and had to fight the compulsion to flip on his lights and blow through each one. He would have done it if not for the threat of consequence if he was caught using his siren when there was no emergency. His insatiable nicotine addiction mixed with thoughts of the Angels, bloody, beaten, and miserable, and when he pulled the patrol car behind the Home Depot, he felt as if his internal organs were turning to mush and his chest was collapsing in on itself.

He parked the car with a screech and got out, leaving the door open wide as he popped the trunk and rummaged through his emergency bag. He removed the pack of smokes and lighter, feeling safe in the nook, surrounded by walls. In an instant, Frank had the cigarette in his mouth. He lit it and inhaled the bitter, gray smoke, feeling a wave of euphoria ripple through every fiber of his being. He closed his eyes and savored every last fleeting moment of the nicotine in his system. The cigarette burned down to the butt and singed Frank’s fingers, shocking him back to reality. He dropped it to the ground, stamping it out with the heel of his boot. He pulled a second one from the pack. This one seemed to last longer, the effects being less euphoric, but still heavenly. When it was gone, he stamped it out in the same fashion as he had the first, retrieving a third stick from the pack. Now that the first two cigarettes had soothed him, he decided to take his time on the third, leaning against the rear of the car and crossing his ankles. He thought he probably looked like a uniformed James Dean.

When he was almost finished, inhaling the last long breath the cigarette would permit, a tall, burly man wearing an orange Home Depot apron came around the side of the building carrying a wooden palette. He jumped when he saw Frank, unaccustomed to seeing anyone loitering behind the establishment. Frank was just as startled as the employee, snapping his head toward the man while letting the cigarette turn to ash in his hand. The two locked eyes, both unsure of what to do. The man nodded his head once as a hello, a gesture that Frank returned. The employee dropped the palette against the wall, turned around, and disappeared around the side of the building. Frank breathed a disappointed sigh, putting out the cigarette. He was disappointed in himself, and how he was making the department look. Instead of doing his job, he was parked behind a hardware store sneaking cigarettes like he was still a teenager back in Chicago. I need to quit, Frank told himself, just as he had a thousand times before.

Frank sprayed himself with cologne, popped a piece of gum in his mouth, and got back in the cruiser. He stared out the windshield at the beige wall in front of him. He was frustrated that his vice was interfering with his duties as a man of the law, but he didn’t regret indulging in it. His mind was quiet, and he felt ready and able to perform his job to the best of his ability. Frank pulled the car out from behind the store and was headed toward Frontier Avenue when the dispatcher’s voice resonated through the radio.

“Check welfare on a Patricia Buford, address 2670 Alta Vista Drive.”

“Seven-one-two en route,” Frank said into the microphone, making a quick u-turn. He drove toward Alta Vista Drive, his thoughts turning to Valerie and Cade. This was another routine, dull task, but this time, Frank was happy to do it.

 

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Dream Report

Here is a story,

written by Jaime Bennington

 

 

 

There is a woman speaking Mandarin across the way. She is by the laundry room in between worlds yelling about something I cannot know. Somewhere there is a child whining. The two are unrelated.

From where I sit, I listen.

I think about the dream I had last night where I was home, but you weren’t there. They went by the same names and said the same things, but their faces weren’t yours. There was dread near my heart. I felt that if I said anything about their fraud they would have made quick work of me.

Whatever that should mean.

And then without warning I was in another place. Gone were the walls and the people that had tried to feel so familiar, it was as if they were never there in the first place. I wonder if they were relieved to no longer need to hide in plain sight…

I was,

with friends.

We were happy, by a fire. Someone suggested that we go swimming. It was night and exciting. I said yes. It was nonverbal. We didn’t speak much.

We gathered around the pool.

It was open.

In a circle we wrapped ourselves, hand in hand.

So many of us.

I couldn’t see their faces if they had any. It didn’t matter though, because I knew them. I could feel that much.

Fingers met mine and weaved themselves to the knuckle where our palms met. I wasn’t alarmed.

I should have been, but they held my hand. It was a better feeling than the one that had been and the one that would soon be.

They bled each other with knives.

In the pool it gathered.

I ran. It might have been luck, but they didn’t come looking. Instead they laughed and they chased the others who had felt that what had transpired had been too violent. It had been.

 

I can’t ever tell when I am dreaming. There are people who can and I’ve heard that when they do they dream better because they can make a difference for themselves.

Maybe that is why.

Until Death

Written by

Matthew Thrasher

 

10

6:30 PM

Frank pulled the cruiser into the department parking lot and killed the engine. He had scoured his memory on the drive over for any reason for this impromptu meeting, but had come up with nothing. He thought that it was highly unlikely this meeting had anything to do with his recent misconduct with Alex Verney. Frank would bet his next paycheck that Alex would keep quiet about the altercation that evening, not wanting to attract any more attention from the authorities. However, Litchfield repeatedly stated that he had eyes and ears all over the city, and at times it felt as if he might be Big Brother, so there was no telling what the man knew. When Frank knew he couldn’t stall any longer, he took a deep breath and exited the cruiser.

Frank entered the station to find the desks empty and the hallways deserted. He checked his watch and was surprised to find that it was already 6:30. Shit, Frank thought. He was supposed to be off duty an hour and a half ago. He considered himself lucky that he didn’t have a hundred voicemails from Valerie. It actually struck him as odd that Valerie hadn’t tried to contact him at all, but that was something to worry about later.

As Frank made his way through the station, he grew increasingly more worried that he had been called in to be reprimanded for that evening’s behavior. He tried to dismiss the thought and get himself under control, with little success. When he arrived at the Deputy Chief’s office, Suzanne’s desk out front was vacant. Frank assumed that she had probably gone home right after she had made the call to him. He approached the doorway cautiously, lightly tapping one knuckle on the door as he entered.

“You wanted to see me, sir?” Frank said. He was having a hard time controlling his nerves, but managed to keep his voice steady. Litchfield stared at his computer screen, never moving a muscle as Frank spoke.

“Come sit down, Frank,” the Deputy Chief said, his eyes glued to the screen. As Frank sat down in the chair in front of the desk, Litchfield clicked his mouse and turned to face him. The Deputy Chief usually had a terrible poker face, but at that moment Frank had no idea what the man was thinking. Frank’s heart was beating like he was a rabbit caught in a trap. Litchfield breathed a heavy sigh and rubbed his eyes with the thumb and forefinger of one hand.

“This has been a stressful week for all of us, Frank. The pressure of this job… not a lot of people can handle it.” Frank nodded his head slightly. “But over the years you’ve proved yourself a real asset to this department. You’re reliable,” Litchfield said. He tapped a case folder on his desk. “This shit made me realize that I need more men like you by my side. So, no more beating around the bush. How’s about we make you a sergeant?”

Frank was blindsided by the offer. He had been waiting to make sergeant for the last six months, and it only took two disappearances and a week of grueling emotional turmoil for him to finally achieve it. After shaking off the initial shock of the proposition, Frank was filled with immense gratitude.

“I’d be honored, sir,” Frank said with a smile on his face. The Deputy Chief returned a tired grin. Frank took a deep breath and chuckled, Litchfield furrowed his brow. “From the way Sue sounded, I thought you were gonna send me to the farm.”

Litchfield looked toward Suzanne’s desk.

“She’s been a little shaken up by everything that’s going on. You know, she’s got two girls of her own, one of them about the same age as Jackie Douglas.”

Frank nodded his head, emotions clashing within him. While he was incredibly excited by the promotion, it also doubled his internal pressure to find the person responsible for the disappearances. He had nearly lost himself in thought when he noticed Litchfield stand, an action that he mimicked from his spot across the desk. The Deputy Chief extended his hand, which Frank grasped and shook firmly.

“Go home, Frank. And congratulations.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Frank exited the office and headed to the back of the station to turn in his bodycam. On his way there, Frank pondered whether he could have been wrong in his initial impression of Litchfield. He had always thought of the Deputy Chief as a blowhard whose one-track mind only had one objective: rising through the ranks. However, it seemed that when the chips were down, Litchfield knew what he was doing. Frank was also shocked that the Deputy Chief had taken note of his work ethic, something that Frank never thought the man would ever acknowledge, even if he spent an eternity on the force. Maybe he was a good cop disguised in an asshole’s body.

Frank dropped off the bodycam and headed home. He was worried about what Valerie would say about him being almost two hours late, but was hoping that the good news might balance things out. He pulled the cruiser into his driveway and prepped an apology before he exited the car.

When Frank walked in the front door, he couldn’t help but smile. Valerie was seated in the recliner with Cade in her lap, both of them fast asleep. Frank tiptoed past, being extremely careful not to wake them, and scurried down the hallway. He changed into a plain white tee shirt and sweat pants, grabbing the Tom Clancy novel he had been reading slowly but surely off his nightstand, and crept back into the living room. He planted himself on the couch and began to read. He intended to wait until Valerie had woken up, but before he knew it Frank had drifted off to sleep. This time it was a black, dreamless sleep where time seemed to be nonexistent. Two minutes or two years could have passed before he was awakened by Valerie’s light shaking of his arm.

“Hey,” Frank said with a lazy smile. Valerie kissed him and sat down on the couch next to him.

“Hey yourself,” she said. Valerie was dressed in pajamas, her hair in a messy bun that resembled a bird’s nest. She was wearing glasses that would look more at home on a librarian than a stay-at-home mom in suburban Arizona. Somehow, someway, Valerie could still make that look work for her. Frank didn’t know how she did it.

“Have a good nap?” Frank asked, motioning toward the recliner.

“I could ask you the same thing. Tom Clancy is nature’s NyQuil, huh?”

“Hey, we don’t trash Clancy in this family.”

“Oh, was that in the monthly newsletter? I must have missed it,” Valerie said, giving Frank a sarcastic grin. Both of them laughed, making sure to keep it quiet so as not to wake Cade.

“I have some good news,” Frank said.

“What is it?”

“In the very near future, you’ll be married to Vander PD’s newest sergeant,” Frank said, beaming.

“Oh my God, that’s amazing!” Valerie gave Frank a long kiss. She pulled away and the two looked into each other’s eyes. “When will I get to meet him?”

“I’ll introduce you tomorrow,” Frank quipped back. He loved their playful banter, but didn’t see much of it when times were stressful. He was beyond grateful to see it now.

“Alright Sergeant, let’s go to bed.”

“Ten-four,” Frank said. For the first time in the last week, Frank finally felt like himself again.

 

September 1st

11

7:00 AM

Frank awoke to the decadent smell of freshly-cooked bacon wafting through his bedroom door. He sat up in bed, deeply inhaling the aroma as he stretched and rubbed his eyes. The first touches of morning light were peaking through the window, illuminating the room in a soft, comforting glow. It seemed as if everything in his life that had been insanely hectic for the last week had faded away, so Frank took a moment to bask in the serenity of the year’s first September morning.

Frank was scheduled for the night shift, and he intended to utilize every available moment of daylight to spend with Valerie and Cade. He climbed out of bed and watched as the sun crested Callaway Creek Mountain, appreciating the natural beauty that Arizona had to offer. Frank could feel no trace of the near-crippling anxiety that had almost consumed him and hoped that it was gone for good. Thoughts of the two missing girls still itched at the back of his mind, occasionally gaining some of his attention, but he was able to brush them off for the time being. He was determined to let nothing ruin his time with his family.

Frank walked out of the bedroom toward the kitchen, where he found Valerie finishing up breakfast. Cade was in the living room sitting against the couch, playing with his favorite Thomas the Tank Engine toy. Frank went to Cade first, sitting down cross-legged on the floor next to him. Cade paid no attention, completely engrossed in his attempt to chew Thomas in half. Frank started slowly walking his fingers across the floor, which caught Cade’s eye. The kid was smart enough to know what was coming next. Frank started tickling Cade around his midsection, causing Cade to laugh hysterically and drop his toy under the couch. Frank retrieved the toy and handed it back to his son before standing up with a grunt and meandering over to the kitchen.

Frank wrapped his arms around Valerie’s waist and kissed her cheek as she scraped scrambled eggs from a stove pan onto the two plates in front of her. The breakfast that she had made included scrambled eggs, crispy bacon, and two slices of buttered toast each, a monumental step up from Frank’s usual breakfast of soggy oatmeal and black coffee on the way out the door. Frank took his plate and seated himself at the head of the dining table, making sure that he could see Cade. Valerie sat in the chair next to Frank and they both took a moment to admire their son as he slid Thomas the Tank Engine back and forth across the carpet. Frank couldn’t believe that the pure-hearted bundle of joy seated in the living room was truly his flesh and blood, his DNA.

When Frank had first heard about Valerie’s pregnancy, he initially had reservations about being a father, but after seeing Cade’s face for the first time, he knew that everything had turned out right. Cade had been a fairly easy baby to raise compared to some of the horror stories he had heard other new parents tell. Cade wasn’t colicky, he hardly ever fussed, and he seemed curious and inquisitive about the world around him.

“That kid is going to be smarter than the both of us,” Valerie would say occasionally.

“Dear God, let’s hope so,” was Frank’s usual response.

Frank turned his head to Valerie who met his gaze, and they both smiled. Frank knew that they were thinking the same thing. How did we make something so perfect and pure? Frank personally didn’t have the slightest clue.

He took a bite of his eggs and before he knew it, he was devouring the entire plate like a feral animal. The bacon didn’t stand a chance; it was gone in a matter of seconds. The stress of the last week and Frank’s constant mental frenzy had caused his meal schedule to be thrown out of whack, and he was compensating greatly.

“Don’t just inhale it,” Valerie said, the look on her face a combination of amusement and horror.

“Sorry Hun,” Frank said, wiping his face with a napkin, “The food is amazing.” Valerie chuckled and rolled her eyes before continuing to eat her breakfast.

“So I was thinking that maybe we could take Cade to the park today,” Frank said, just moments after clearing the last bits of food off his plate. Valerie’s eyes lit up at the proposition.

“That’s a great idea!” Valerie shouted. Cade turned his head, curious as to why his mother had raised her voice. After the momentary distraction, he returned to the important matter of picking up Thomas the Tank Engine and throwing him onto the ground repeatedly.

“I thought it would be nice for him to play around in the sand and maybe I can push him on the swings. Who knows, he might make a little friend or two,” Frank said.

“I’ll get ready for the day and then we can go right on over,” Valerie said, beaming with joy. Frank leaned in and gave Valerie a kiss. Just then, Frank felt a tug at the bottom of his shirt. He turned to find Cade standing right next to him, his trusty Thomas held in one hand. Frank figured that Cade must have waddled over in the short time that he had turned his head to look at Valerie. Kid is like The Flash, thought Frank. Cade lifted Thomas above his head, offering him to his father as a grin spread across his infantile face.

“Thank you, Cade,” Frank said. He accepted the gift graciously and picked Cade up, placing him on his lap. The two pushed Thomas back and forth to each other on the table as Valerie finished her breakfast and left the room to get ready for the day. Frank played with Cade until Valerie was out of the shower, at which time he handed Cade off to her and took a shower of his own. He got ready much quicker than Valerie and found himself in the living room with Cade as he watched a television show that was supposed to be good for developing brains. As soon as the episode ended, Valerie was ready to go and the three of them hopped in the family SUV and made their way to the park.

When they arrived at Hammond Park, Cade immediately made a beeline for the playground sandbox. He planted himself in the center and went to work repeatedly picking up handfuls of sand and letting it slip through his fingers. Frank and Valerie occupied the bench closest to the sandbox, where Valerie took out a book and began to read, glancing up every few pages or so to make sure Cade was still his happy-go-lucky self. Frank was staring into the space in front of him, letting his mind wander while Valerie kept her nose buried in the book. The novel she was invested in was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and Frank thought that the book completed a comical picture of the two of them.

His mind kept trying to pull thoughts of Katheryn and Jackie to the surface as he let it wander and he had to make a conscious effort to suppress them. He would focus all of his attention onto what Cade was doing, and that helped to keep his mind occupied. At that moment, Cade was using a plastic shovel that someone had left in the sandbox to make an enormous mound of sand in front of himself. Birds were singing in the trees and the sky was clear and blue, the perfect setting for a day at the park.

After a while, Cade grew tired of the sandbox and meandered over to his mother, lifting his arms in the air to indicate that he wanted to be picked up. Before Cade could reach her, Frank swooped in and did the job for her, carrying him toward the swing set. Valerie smiled and waved to Cade, who returned the gesture with a giggle.

Frank placed Cade in the bucket swing and began to push him, much to Cade’s amusement. The higher he was pushed, the louder his laugh grew. Frank pushed the swing reflexively, looking around at the different types of people that frequented Hammond Park. There were two mothers shooting the breeze on a bench near the jungle gym as their daughters ran rampant around the playground, as well as a father and son tossing a Frisbee to their golden retriever. There was also a woman in a bright pink track suit speed-walking down the runners’ path near the parking lot, where she passed a bench that was occupied by an elderly man in a black jacket. The man had a snow-white goatee and was wearing a gray ivy cap pulled down low. He seemed to be doing nothing more than enjoying the sound of the birds, but the man had Frank’s undivided attention from the moment he first caught sight of him. Frank’s palms became sweaty and his mouth dried out, and he couldn’t help but feel like somehow he knew the man, although the face didn’t ring any bells. The anxiety that Frank had been keeping at bay suddenly came rushing out, congregating in his chest and squeezing his heart until it felt ready to burst. Every breath became a struggle, and Frank felt like his lungs might wither and die.

Suddenly, the bucket swing that Cade was seated in struck Frank in the chest on a backswing, knocking whatever air was left in his lungs out of him and doubling him over. He winced and took a few seconds to regain his breath, glancing up at the bench afterwards. The elderly man was gone. Frank looked in every direction but could not seem to find any trace of him. Oddly enough, Frank’s anxiety had dissipated and he felt just as good as he had that morning. Maybe what I needed was a sharp blow to the chest, Frank thought.

He began to push Cade on the swing once again when he noticed Valerie standing near her bench with a concerned look on her face. Frank flashed a cheesy fake smile in her direction to indicate that he was okay and that he did realize how dumb he must have just looked. Valerie rolled her eyes and shook her head, smiling. She sat down and delved back into Gillian Flynn’s world.

They spent another hour at the park, running around in the grass and helping Cade traverse the jungle gym. Valerie didn’t end up doing all that much reading, but she was okay with that. She would much rather play with Cade. By the time the three of them left the park, he had fallen asleep.

 

When they got home, Frank used the time that Cade was asleep to fix the malfunctioning garage door that he had been meaning to get to for some time. The door would open properly most of the time, but occasionally it would get stuck halfway or not move at all. It took a few hours, but Frank finally got it back in suitable working condition.

When Cade awoke from his nap, Valerie thought it would be a good idea for the three of them to watch one of Cade’s favorite movies together. She put Toy Story in the DVD player and they watched it uninterrupted from start to finish. Frank had to admit that he loved the movie just as much as anyone else, but the best thing about watching it was seeing how captivated Cade looked during every scene. The kid was mesmerized by the Pixar characters and it filled Frank with joy to see how much happiness Cade radiated while watching the film, even though it was about the 12,000th time he had seen it.

The rest of the day was fairly uneventful. Frank prepared his equipment and uniform for his shift, Valerie decided to clean the bathroom, and Cade played with various toys in the meantime. Frank made spaghetti for the adults for dinner and a small bowl of macaroni and cheese for Cade. Frank and Valerie thought their dinner was delicious, and Cade wore most of his on his face instead of eating it. After Frank and Valerie finished tucking Cade into bed a few hours later, Frank opted to get a few hours of shut eye himself before he went on duty at 1:00 in the morning.

 

The night shift was long and tedious, filled with mental malaise and wandering thoughts. Frank spent the majority of the night trying to keep his mind occupied, but the most exciting task he was assigned was crashing a party on 16th Street. The neighbors had made a noise complaint and there was a variety of cars on the street, but when a teenager opened the door to speak to Frank, he was the only person who could be seen. A fold-up table was placed in the center of the living room and red solo cups were strewn about the room haphazardly.

“You have a little party going on in there?” Frank asked.

“Just have a few friends over,” the teenager said. He was choosing his words deliberately and carefully.

“Where are they at, then?” Frank asked. The teenager hesitated for a moment.

“Upstairs.” Frank nearly smirked at the succinct response.

“Okay, well you guys keep it down, alright? I don’t want to have to come back here,” Frank said, turning and walking back toward his car.

“Yes sir, Officer,” the teenager mumbled, miming a sloppy salute. Frank had to hand it to the kid, the sober act was pretty convincing up to that point. He also found it impressive that everyone in the house managed to hide and keep quiet so well. He chuckled as he walked back to his patrol car.

Frank parked at the end of the street, far enough out of view to not be seen by the partygoers but close enough to see them come out of the house. His plan was to wait until the inebriated teens stumbled out of the house and stop the prospective drunk drivers before they could ruin anybody’s life. I’m a glorified babysitter, Frank thought. He couldn’t wait to get home and spend the rest of the weekend with his family.

 

September 3rd

12

9:20 AM

Valerie sprinted down the middle of Wright Street as Catholics of all ages cheered her on. She was breathing heavily and her legs were tired, but she was determined to finish the race on a high note. She had known that she wouldn’t be in top fighting shape for the 5K, but she was running out of steam faster than expected. In her prime, Valerie could finish half-marathons without a problem, but this race was kicking her ass. Every time one of her Nikes hit the pavement she felt the needle in her fuel tank dipping closer to empty.

Valerie was having one of the best weekends she’d had in recent memory, and finishing this race would be the cherry on top. On Friday, Frank had suggested that they take Cade to the park, and seeing the two of them interact warmed Valerie’s heart. It was also great to see her husband’s usual personality shine through the stress and anxiety that he had been experiencing the previous week. She was even able to poke jokes at him and he would give them right back, just like they were in college again. Saturday was just as good as Friday, most of the day being spent lounging around and watching movies as a family. She even found time to finish Gone Girl, and was excited to pick up another Gillian Flynn novel as soon as possible.

It had been a relief to Valerie when she learned that the church was still putting on their annual 5K for Leukemia that Sunday. She had been uncertain about whether it would still happen in light of recent events, but believed that it was important that the show go on. The event was for a good cause and was the first race she had been able to run in two years.

Valerie spotted Frank and Cade in the crowd as she inched closer to the finish line. There was a light breeze blowing through the Sunday morning air and Valerie was extremely grateful for it. Beads of sweat dripped down her face intermittently, but she paid no mind to them. This was the final stretch, and Valerie kicked into the highest gear that she had.

She crossed the finish line in front of the church a few seconds later, clocking in a time just under twenty-two minutes. A few racers had finished before her, but she was still in the top ten. She slowed to a walk and paced around with her hands on her head as Frank walked over to her with Cade in his arms. Cade was clapping his hands together and was wearing an ear-to-ear grin.

“That was incredible!” Frank exclaimed as he leaned in and gave her a kiss in between her gasping breaths.

“Thanks,” Valerie managed to force out, flashing a smile. She noticed some commotion near the church and saw that members of the congregation were taking photos with the winner of the race. Valerie recognized the woman from Sunday mass, but was unsure of her name. Mindy or Mandy sounded vaguely correct. Good for her, Valerie thought. That’ll be me again soon enough.

Frank couldn’t have been more proud of his wife. After taking off two years due to the pregnancy and raising Cade, Valerie finished in the top ten during her first race back. He was truly amazed by her. This was the one of the best weekends the family had ever had together, and Frank loved every second of it. He remained in the same state of joy until he learned of Vander’s third disappearance the following day.

 

Until Death

Written by

Matthew Thrasher

 

August 30th

7

 

8:30 PM

Frank had finished his shift and gone home for the evening, where he now stared mindlessly at the television from his living room recliner, clad in sweat pants and an old Academy tee shirt. He was looking at the pictures moving on the screen, but he wasn’t seeing anything. There was too much on his mind to focus on the hijinks of some nonsensical sitcom family.

Frank had smoked every day this week, each day smoking one more cigarette than he had the previous. Today he burned through three, but the familiar act of gripping the smoldering stick between his fingers had failed to stop his mind from racing and the calming effect of the carcinogen inhalation was now almost negligible. He was starting to leave these sessions just as anxious as he had been going in. Valerie knew that he had been smoking, too. Frank could see it in her eyes when he spoke to her. He had been making less of an effort to hide it, and maybe even subconsciously wanted her to know. It was growing increasingly bothersome to Frank that she was ignoring his nasty habit rather than confronting him about it.

There had been no new leads or recent developments in the Katheryn Jennings case. Frank had even driven past the tattoo parlor parking lot a few more times, hoping to spark an epiphany or make a groundbreaking discovery, with no luck. The pain and tightness that he had been experiencing in his chest recently had subsided to a dull throb. He could hear a faint hum in his eardrums and his body felt as if it was an idling car whose engine was begging to be given a rest. From the hall, he heard the door to Cade’s room close and the soft shuffle of his wife’s footsteps toward the living room.

Valerie took a seat on the couch adjacent to the recliner and faced Frank, grabbing the remote off the coffee table and muting the television. She took a deep breath and allowed her eyes to wander while she searched for the right words.

“You know that you can always talk to me, about anything, right?” Valerie asked earnestly. Frank hesitated before answering, retracting the recliner’s footrest and sitting up straight in the chair.

“I know that…” Frank muttered. He could see the worry culminating behind his wife’s emerald green eyes.

“I know you’ve been smoking…” There it was. Frank felt a wave of relief, but before he could get a word in, Valerie continued. “I saw the story about the missing girl on the news. Is that why you’ve been acting so strange?” Frank swallowed hard.

“You know I can’t talk about open cases,” Frank said, his face becoming stern.

“I know, I know you can’t. But you can talk to me about how you feel, Francis.” Frank nodded silently, frustrating Valerie. “You can’t just nod your head until I stop and then keeping brooding like you have been,” she said, beginning to raise her voice. Frank stared at her unflinchingly. Valerie uttered a deep sigh and walked over to Frank, sitting down on the arm of the recliner and taking his hand in hers. “I know you, Francis. I know that it’s not easy for you to open up. But everything that’s going on is obviously upsetting you, and I want you to know that whatever you’re going through, you’re not going through it alone.” He wrapped his arms around his wife, leaned his head against her, and held her tight.

“Thank you,” Frank said, on the precipice of tears. They sat together in a comfortable silence and before Frank knew it the anxious haze that had shrouded him had dissipated. It occurred to him that never in his five years on the force had a missing persons case involving a teenager resulted in anything but an eye roll and a slap on the wrist. The situation was tragic, but it was standard police work. When he had joined the Vander police force all of those years ago he witnessed a murder so grisly he has yet to see anything like it again. At the time it had shaken him so badly that Valerie had taken notice as she had now, but that case was the exception not the normal. So why should this one get under his skin? He tilted his head to look at Valerie, eternally thankful to have her by his side. She met his eyes with a warm, loving gaze.

“Come on, let’s go to bed,” Valerie spoke softly, almost as a whisper. Frank’s mind remained relatively unburdened by thoughts of the case for the rest of the night as the couple retired to the bedroom.

 

August 31st

8

9:00 AM

Frank was greeted the next morning with the news that there had been yet another disappearance. Information was being spewed left and right by his fellow officers, and Frank was having difficulty making heads or tails of it. He was still trying to comprehend the situation when he was pulled into the briefing room where Deputy Chief Litchfield began to lay it all out for him.

“Okay, listen up people. At 6:00 o’clock yesterday evening, fourteen-year-old Jacquelyn Douglas was reported missing by her mother Angela,” the Deputy Chief stated, gesturing to the wall behind him, where a photo of Jackie had been taped next to one of Katheryn. “She was last seen at 3:00 PM getting off the school bus at the corner of Sonora Street and Gilmour Avenue, just two blocks from her home. Jacquelyn is a young pianist and honor student, and her instructors are being questioned as we speak. As of now, there is no evidence to suggest that the disappearance is connected to the Jennings case in any way, but we will not rule out the possibility. As always, keep your ears to the ground and report to Kotching and Atencio if you come across anything. Alright, let’s get to work.”

Frank left the briefing room speechless. One legitimate disappearance in Vander was shocking enough, but two in the span of less than a week was unheard of. He felt like he was in an episode of the Twilight Zone. He tried to dispel all thoughts of the two missing girls as he made his way toward his cruiser, placing all of his effort into focusing on the tasks before him.

 

The first call that Frank responded to was from one of Vander’s most notorious frequent callers, Gloria Wilson. Gloria’s house doubled as Vander’s hub for feral cats, which was how she occupied the most of her time. The woman was a widow in her late seventies who lived in a neighborhood a few blocks south of the Hayden Grove Cemetery, and she was crazier than a shithouse rat. When Frank arrived, she spun him a story that the department had heard so many times that most officers could recite it like Homer reciting the Odyssey.

“That Kenneth Fillmore is spying on me! He’s got cameras all around the neighborhood. I’ve seen them myself! But every time I go to show anyone else, poof! They’re gone! He’s trying to make me seem crazy, I know it. I think he might be working for the Soviets,” Gloria spouted. Frank nodded and pretended to be enthralled by the story, even going so far as to pretend to take notes. Talking to Gloria was about as fun as getting teeth pulled, but the more she thought you believed her, the quicker you could get off her front step. If he pointed out the fact that Kenneth Fillmore had been dead for the last year and a half and the house across the street had been vacant ever since, he feared he might send her into a frenzy. The last thing that you call crazy, is crazy. He told Gloria that he would talk to Mr. Fillmore and get to the bottom of everything, at which point she let him go.

For some time after, Frank sat at the bottom of the hill facing Frontier Avenue, pulling over the occasional speeder. He received a call from the dispatcher in the early afternoon about a public disturbance at a nearby convenience store, but when he arrived, order had already been naturally restored. It was clear to Frank that whoever had been causing problems had high-tailed it out of there when they heard that the 5-0 was coming. He spent the rest of the afternoon staring out the windshield of his cruiser at the bottom of the hill with thoughts of Katheryn Jennings and Jackie Douglas scratching at the back of his mind. He tried to push the thoughts away and found that a knot was forming in his stomach. Frank closed his eyes and leaned his head back, the urge to light up slowly creeping upon him. After his conversation with Valerie last night, he wasn’t keen on giving in to his bad habit. He breathed in for five seconds, held for five, then out, repeat. In, hold, out. In, hold, out. In, hold, out…

 

Frank opened his eyes and found himself kneeling in front of the altar of Saint Bernadette’s Catholic Church, facing the pews. Every seat in the church was filled with quiet, motionless churchgoers dressed in black, all staring unblinkingly toward the altar. Frank searched the crowd and found that he recognized every face that his eyes passed over. His mother was seated in the front row wearing a long, A-line dress, just like the ones that she would wear every Sunday when he was a child. He saw Valerie sitting in one of the middle rows, looking exactly as she did the first day that he had met her in college. Frank noticed Chief Ellerton and Deputy Chief Litchfield seated toward the back of the church as well. Most of the crowd was full of former teachers, friends, and members of the Vander community, but his heart stopped when he noticed Katheryn Jennings and Jacquelyn Douglas sitting in the farthest corner of the church.

Frank felt a wave of sickness rush over him and tried to stand up to leave, but found that he was unable to move anything but his eyes. He began to panic and felt a hot coil wrap itself around his lungs. The church bell began to ring, its sharp peals echoing throughout the building. The crowd rose in unison and turned to face the wide double doors at the back of the building. Frank watched the churchgoers stand together and noticed something near him out of the corner of his eye. It was difficult to determine what the object was in the periphery of his vision, but Frank was almost positive that it was a casket. The realization sent a wave of sorrow and guilt rushing over him and tears began to flow down his cheeks uncontrollably as the doors to the church burst open.

Standing in the threshold of the doorway was a malevolent being that Frank knew could only come from Hell itself. The creature was gargantuan, towering over every patron of the church, the doorway stretching to allow its entrance. As the demon stepped into the house of the holy, its cloven feet clacked on the hardwood floor and its menacing horns scraped the ceiling. Every inch of the being was as black as the midnight sky, and Frank knew that the demon was there for him. The colossal hellspawn picked up the basin of holy water from where it resided in front of the doors and began walking slowly toward the altar. As it approached, Frank could see nothing but fire behind its eyes. The crowd’s gaze followed the demon as it meandered up the center aisle and stopped in front of Frank.

Frank quaked with fear as the demon raised the basin above Frank’s head. A curling, evil smile stretched across its face as it tilted the basin, pouring the holy water onto Frank’s head. When it touched his body, the water felt like molten magma. Frank attempted to scream as the holy water began burning his skin away, but was unable to utter a sound. As Frank started praying for death, the pain ceased and he opened his eyes.

He was standing in the middle of a dense forest, twilight tinting nearly everything in view black. Suddenly, he heard Tyler’s scream ring out through the trees and found himself running toward the sound faster than his legs could carry him, running for what felt like an entire lifetime. When his legs eventually collapsed on him, he found himself at the base of the largest tree in the forest. Halfway up the tree he saw Tyler, nailed through the hands and feet in a morbid representation of Christ. Instead of blood, a black, viscous liquid dripped from his wounds. Maggots had eaten away through his mouth and cheeks, leaving something that resembled a smile permanently on his face.

“Cleanse your soul of evil and sin,” Tyler barked, causing Frank to recoil. Tyler’s body began to spasm while Frank looked on in horror. Tyler opened his mouth, letting out a stream of black smoke that began coalescing at the base of the tree. Frank was frozen in fear as he witnessed the black mass transform into his demon. In one swift movement, the demon brought its leg up over Frank’s head and stomped down, crushing his body into a pulp.

 

9

 

4:30 PM

Frank awoke in his patrol car with a gasp, drenched in sweat and shivering uncontrollably. He looked around frantically, trying to readjust to reality. Frank shook his head and rubbed his eyes, slowly remembering that he was on duty and parked in his usual spot for catching speeders. Whatever dream he had just experienced, it had not been a pleasant one. He could only remember kernels of information: a church, some trees, the color black. The memories of the dream were fading with every passing second.

Frank could feel the cloud of anxiety expanding inside him once again and thoughts of the missing girls could no longer be ignored. What good was he doing sitting on his ass when he could be out helping save them? Frank began working over the facts of the case once more and had a sudden revelation. He knew that the last place that Katheryn had been seen was in her class at Vander Community college, and while the detectives had already spoken to the professor, days had gone by and the case had made no noticeable progress since then. Frank thought that giving the scholar a second pass couldn’t hurt and could possibly unearth new information. He called the college and found that the professor was named Martin Calhoun and was currently teaching a class in room 214 in the West Building. He thanked the woman on the other end of the line and sped off toward the college, hoping to catch the professor as class was ending.

Frank arrived in the nick of time, walking up to the door of room 214 just as a bald, bespectacled man with a double windsor knotted tie emerged. He was carrying a briefcase in one hand and a stack of papers in the other, leading Frank to believe that he was the professor.

“Excuse me, Martin Calhoun?”

“Yes?” the professor responded, looking up from the papers in his hand.

“Do you have a moment to speak with me about Katheryn Jennings?” Frank asked. The professor furrowed his brow.

“I already spoke to two detectives about it the other day and I told them everything I know, but if you would like me to talk to you again, I would be happy to help. It’s just that I have errands to run before my next class,” Martin stated.

“It will only take a moment.”

“I wish I could, but I really must get going. If you come back after my class tonight, I’ll sit down with you and tell you everything I told them. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” The professor began striding away toward the parking lot.

“Dr. Calhoun,” Frank said, taking a few steps in pursuit.

“Excuse me, officer.” The words stopped Frank in his tracks and he watched the professor walk briskly away. He took a deep breath and exhaled forcefully. Back to square one.

Frank checked his watch, which informed him that it was ten to five. He decided to cut his losses for the day and head back to the station to finish off his shift. As he drove through the streets of Vander, he couldn’t help but feel dissatisfied with how things turned out. He arrived in the department parking lot and was walking toward the station’s front door when he saw a young man in his late teens cautiously approach him. He had shaggy brown hair and was wearing an AC/DC shirt with worn-out jeans and a pair of Chuck Taylors.

“Excuse me, Officer…” the young man said, leaning in to see Frank’s nameplate, “Bailey. Umm… I think I might have some information that could be helpful in the Katheryn Jennings disappearance.” Frank’s blood began to pump faster and had every intention of seizing this opportunity. He ushered the young man into the building and sat him down with Detective Kotching. He remained close by so that he could hear every word.

“What’s your name?” Kotching asked.

“Max Johnson,” the young man said, visibly nervous but maintaining composure.

“Okay Max, tell me what you know.”

“Well, I’m not sure if what I know is actually helpful. I just remembered something from class that I think it would be better if you knew, just to make sure.” Kotching nodded patiently. “Okay well, Katheryn and I have Spanish class together and she’s basically a local celebrity, so I took notice of her right away.” Max began to fidget slightly, uncomfortable with divulging this information. “But so did Alex Verney, another guy in our class. So one day I see Alex trying to make a move on her, and she rejected him. I didn’t hear most of the conversion but I think she said something that hurt his ego and he made a big deal out of it and stormed out of class. Not too long after that, Katheryn goes missing and Alex hasn’t been to class since. Seems a little strange and I thought the police should know.”

“Do you know where this Alex Verney lives?” Kotching asked earnestly.

“Yeah, he lives at the Sun Springs Apartment Complex, I think. I’m always hearing about parties he’s got going on over there,” Max stated. Kotching copied the name of the complex onto a slip of paper.

“Thank you, Max. You’ve been a huge help,” Kotching said while shaking the young man’s hand.

“I hope you guys find her soon,” Max said before getting up and exiting the station. You and me both, kid, Frank thought.

“Alright, let’s go see what the guy knows,” Frank said to Kotching. The detective glared at Frank.

“Are you crazy, Bailey? I’ve got two cases in my lap that both have a dozen possible leads more likely than a college kid with a bruised ego. I’ll send someone over to talk to him tomorrow.”

“But John…”

“Frank, I know what I’m doing. You did your job, now go home to your wife and kid.” Frank would have continued to argue, but he knew the detective well enough to realize that he wouldn’t get another word out of him. Frank walked out of the station and before he reached his patrol car, he had already decided what he was going to do.

He searched for Sun Springs Apartment Complex on his phone and called the number that he found. The man on the other end of the line informed him that they don’t divulge resident information, especially not on the phone, but if Frank came into the office to prove that he was an officer, then the man could help him. Frank hung up and jumped into the cruiser, speeding off toward Sun Springs.

When he arrived, the man informed him that Alex Verney resided in apartment 143. Frank walked up to the door, the anxious feeling slowly subsiding. He rapped his knuckles on the door three times in succession, and upon receiving no response, knocked again. Suddenly, Frank heard the muffled sound of shuffling feet and the door opened a sliver.

“What?” Alex snapped.

“Alex Verney? I have some questions for you about Katheryn Jennings.”

“I don’t know anything,” Alex said, and tried to close the door. Frank shot his hand out to stop it from closing.

“If you could just speak with me, I would greatly appreciate it,” Frank said. His words were amicable, but his tone was threatening.

“Come on, man! Leave me alone,” Alex shouted. Frank pushed on the door, opening it a few inches wider.

“What do you know about Katheryn Jennings? I’ve been hearing that you two didn’t get along so well, so I don’t buy that you don’t know anything about her.” Frank’s stare was cold and intimidating.

“Alright man, Jesus,” Alex said, letting the door swing open. Frank was surprised by the young man’s disheveled appearance and could tell that the apartment was in disarray. “Yeah, I know Katheryn is missing and I know that the last thing I said to her… well, I wish I hadn’t. But I swear I don’t know anything.” Just then, an African-American teenager that Frank recognized as Tre Voss, one of Vander High’s most notorious weed dealers, emerged from the hallway.

“A little bit of a young crowd to be hanging out with, don’t you think?” Frank asked Alex. He raised his voice so Tre could hear him. “You know anything about Katheryn Jennings, Tre?” The kid remained silent and shot daggers at Frank, who returned his attention back to Alex.

“I’ve been told that you and her had a fight not too long ago. Nothing about it seem pertinent to her disappearance?” Frank asked.

“I asked her out and she rejected me, that’s all that fucking happened. What are you saying?” Alex asked, raising his voice.

“You were one of the last people to have a hostile encounter with Katheryn. I’m just trying to get the facts straight,” Frank responded.

“Jesus H. Christ!” Alex shouted, “I like the girl is all, okay? I asked her out and she rejected me and I lost my cool for a second. That’s it, that’s all that happened! If you’re suggesting that I had anything to do with her going missing, then fuck you.” Alex slammed the door in Frank’s face. Frank was taken aback and hesitated a moment before pounding on the door.

“Alex! Open the door. Open the goddamn door!” Frank beat his fist against the door a few more times before turning around and walking away in a huff. He was breathing heavy and felt like his head was stuck in a pressure cooker. Frank got inside his patrol car and took multiple deep breaths to calm himself down. When his blood stopped boiling, he realized how far he had flown off the rails. Christ Frank, you need to get yourself together, Old Boy. He hit the gas and pulled out of the Sun Springs parking lot, needing to distance himself from Alex Verney and the hysterical thoughts creeping into his mind. He drove and continued to do so until he no longer remembered why he was driving in the first place.

It was only when Frank’s phone began to ring that he had realized how long he had been out driving around. When he answered, it was Suzanne, Deputy Chief Litchfield’s secretary on the other end of the line. While her demeanor was normally friendly, her voice now sounded grave and concerned.

“The Deputy Chief needs to see you in his office. He wants you back to the station, now,” Suzanne said. Frank felt like a rock had been dropped in his stomach. Shit.

 

Until Death

A continuation…

 

4

8:50 AM

Frank had been hopeful that being briefed on Katheryn Jennings’s disappearance might ease his anxiety, but he was mistaken. He had arrived at the department at ten minutes to nine, joining a steady flow of police personnel into the briefing room where there were five long tables running parallel to each other. Frank chose the third from the front, giving him a direct line of sight to the where Deputy Chief Brian Litchfield would be giving the department the rundown. As the flow of Vander Police Department employees entering the room slowed to a trickle, Frank found himself tapping the table relentlessly. The Deputy Chief, being the finely-tuned machine that he was, arrived exactly at nine o’clock. He started the briefing without delay, and Frank absorbed every word.

“Okay, listen up, cause I’m in no mood to be repeating myself. As you know, we have a missing persons case. Her name is Katheryn Jennings, age twenty-one, attends Vander Community College. Some of you might remember her as the winner of the Miss Vander competition last month,” the Deputy Chief stated. Frank remembered that he had seen her photo from the pageant in the newspaper, which must have been why she had seemed so familiar to him. “Her five minutes of fame could have played a factor in her disappearance.” Frank nodded his head slightly. It didn’t take a genius to realize that connection. It’s not uncommon for stalkers and psychopaths to come out of their dark holes to harass beautiful woman that happen to stumble into the public eye. “Katheryn was last seen in her Bio 201 class at Vander Community College at 8:00 P.M. It’s likely that she was abducted while walking to her apartment in the Valley Vista Apartment Complex. When she had not returned home by late yesterday morning, her roommate, Aubrey De La Rosa, called Katheryn’s parents after failing to reach her several times. The parents called us soon after that.”

Litchfield continued with the briefing, stating that as far as her parents or Aubrey knew, Katheryn hadn’t been seeing anybody romantically and was very dedicated to her schoolwork. She had returned from a two-year trip to Italy about a year ago, where she had been living in Padua with a host family where she helped run events for a local church. Someone in the room scoffed under their breath at this piece of information, and the Deputy Chief shot daggers in return around the room until he was sure it would not happen again, only then did he continue. The trip abroad had been arranged by Sacred Heart Catholic Church, which Katheryn had attended ever since she was an infant. Katheryn had led many charity events and fundraisers for the church when she was in high school, so when she asked if she could be a part of one of the churches in Italy for two years, her parents and Sacred Heart were happy to oblige. Now that she was residing in Vander once again, she had rejoined the Sacred Heart community and attended mass every Sunday. To Frank and everyone else in Vander, Katheryn seemed to be a saint.

“We currently have a BOLO out on Katheryn, and everybody should be on high alert. Patrol guys, if you find anything useful, report into Kotching and Atencio ASAP. Alright, let’s get to work.”

Everybody exited the briefing room, moving on to their regularly scheduled assignments. Frank leaned against the hallway wall, trying to thread together pieces of the case and conjure some sort of lead. He had lost track of time and was staring into the dead space in front of him when Deputy Chief Litchfield approached him. There were no more people bustling out of the room and everyone but Frank had gone about their duties.

“You losing your mind on me, Bailey? You’re staring at the wall like a goddamn vegetable,” Litchfield said. Startled, Frank shook his head slightly before locking eyes with the Deputy Chief.

“Sorry, Litch.”

“Hey, it’s Deputy Chief to you. How many times do I have to say that?” asked Litchfield, a scowl enveloping his face. “How about you get your thumb out of your ass and go do the job I’m paying you to do. How’s that sound?”

“Ten four, Vicejefe,” Frank responded, a slight smirk touching the corners of his mouth. Litchfield furrowed his brow in frustration but remained silent, walking past Frank to attend to more important matters. Frank enjoyed making the Deputy Chief’s blood boil. It was apparent to Frank that Litchfield was only concerned with climbing the department ladder and obtaining the position of Chief to feed his own ego, a quality that Frank found despicable in a law enforcement officer. He made the most of every opportunity to push Litchfield’s buttons.

Frank sauntered down the hallway and out the back door of the department to where his patrol car was parked. As he climbed into the driver’s seat, he thought about Vander Community College and the Valley Vista Apartment Complex. The college was only a stone’s throw from the apartment, with a handful of establishments running down Peyton Street in between. Frank walked the street in his head, looking for any areas where an abduction could have occurred. First he came to a Circle K, which was open twenty-four hours and always well-lit, so the chances that Katheryn could have been taken there were slim. Then he came to a barbershop and a tattoo parlor that resided next to one another, with the tattoo parlor’s parking lot adjacent to it. The parking lot was at the corner of Peyton and Mangold Street and had no lights in its vicinity. Big Dave’s Tire Shop was across Mangold Street and was the last building before Valley Vista Apartments. Frank would bet his whole year’s salary that she was taken at that dark, foreboding parking lot.

He turned the key in the ignition and started the car. He was assigned to patrol Vander’s western block today, so he thought he would go check out the parking lot for himself. If Frank was going to find anything helpful to the case, he believed that it would be at ground zero. He pulled away from the station and made his way to Mangold Street.

When he arrived, he parked in the lot, which was empty except for a lifted black F-150 and sun-worn red Subaru. He paced around the entirety of the lot, looking for broken glass, drops of blood, anything that could point to a sign of a struggle. He knew that the area had likely been combed through already, but it didn’t hurt to have a fresh set of eyes look around. Frank found nothing, not even a broken beer bottle. He leaned against his cruiser, scanning the surrounding area. Frank thought about asking the employees of Viper Tattoo and Big Dave’s if they had seen anything, but decided that it would be overkill. If they had seen anything, they would have spoken to Kotching and Atencio about it, and judging by the lack of leads, Frank thought it was safe to assume that there were no witnesses. Frank breathed a heavy sigh. It seemed he had reached a dead end before he had even started. As he opened the door to the cruiser, he noticed the Fine Stay Motel a block down Mangold Street. The gears in Frank’s brain began to slowly turn. Frank got into the car and drove a block down Mangold, parking in the Fine Stay parking lot. He stepped out of the car to look in the direction of the Viper Tattoo lot and found that he could still see a sliver of it from where he was standing. If the Fine Stay had any sort of camera pointed down Mangold, there was a chance that Katheryn and her abductor would be on the footage.

Frank walked to the office. As he opened the door and approached the counter, the skinny employee with shoulder length, greasy brown hair working behind the desk looked up and stared at Frank with sunken eyes. Frank shot him a polite smile that was returned with the same expressionless gaze.

“Good morning,” Frank said, “I’m Officer Bailey. I was wondering if you could answer a question for me.” The desk clerk shrugged and looked down at his hands, where he was fiddling with a hangnail. “Does this motel have any security cameras that face toward Peyton Street?” The employee looked up with an expression of irritation and perplexity.

“What do we look like, the fuckin’ Ritz? Course we don’t got cameras. We barely got bedsheets, for Christ’s sake. I already told your buddies this anyways, so what’re you bothering me again for?” Frank should have guessed that Kotching and Atencio had already talked to the man. The motel wasn’t directly on Katheryn’s route home, but the detectives were thorough. He also knew that people in this part of town didn’t generally welcome the police snooping around their businesses after they had already spoken to them once, so he decided to cut the conversation short.

“Thank you for your time,” Frank said as he turned and began walking out the door.

“What’s this about, anyway?” the clerk asked as Frank crossed the threshold of the doorway. He turned back to face the man, who seemed slightly uneasy. “I mean, what’s the missing girl gotta do with the motel? Your friends didn’t say.”

“Nothing directly, as far as we know. Just covering our bases.” The desk clerk relaxed, his worries melting away when he realized that the police officer in his office had nothing to do with the motel itself. “If you hear anything, give the department a call, alright?”

“Sure,” the clerk muttered as he went back to wrestling with his hangnail. Frank doubted that the man had heard what Frank said. He made his way back to his patrol car and slumped into the driver’s seat. He had made no progress and the anxious feeling had not subsided, turning into a slight, uncomfortable tightness in his chest. Frank couldn’t pinpoint why the case bothered him so much, which added to the irritation. He took a deep breath, and while thoughts of cigarettes started floating around the back of his mind, a dispatcher’s voice came through the radio.

“Reported fireworks at the abandoned church on Simmons Road,” the voice stated. Fireworks had been illegal in Vander ever since the wildfire the year before, which made Frank’s life a living hell during the fourth of July weekend. He thought it was strange to have people lighting fireworks off at this time of the year, but Vander High students tended to meet up at the abandoned church lot to drink and engage in other illicit activities, so it didn’t come as a complete surprise.

“Officer Seven-one-two responding,” Frank said to the dispatcher. This was an easy way to get his mind off Katheryn Jennings.

“Copy,” Frank heard through the radio as he pulled out of the Fine Stay parking lot and drove south toward Simmons Road. When he arrived at the church, the lot seemed completely desolate. It was right next to a housing community, which is where the call complaining to the station about fireworks probably came from, but it seemed that the pyrotechnic wrongdoers were long gone.

The church had once been a thriving Catholic community called the Holy Apostles. Around the time that Frank joined the police department, the Catholic community deciding on expanding and building a new, larger church called Sacred Heart on the opposite side of town. It was determined that the lot with the old church would be given back to the city of Vander because the Catholic community did not have the attendance or religious personnel to keep both churches running in a city as small as Vander. However, ever since the new church had been built, the old lot had been stuck in legal limbo while companies competed for the land. The ordeal was a complicated mess of red tape, building codes, and unreached deals. The lot devolved into a hangout for teenagers to fight, drink, and exchange bodily fluids with each other. The church itself was tagged relentlessly with graffiti, but the doors were always chained and padlocked and the windows boarded with plywood so that minimal damage could be done.

Frank pulled the cruiser around the building’s right side, parking in the slowly diminishing shade cast by the house of worship. As he put the patrol car in park, Frank noticed a muddy-colored car parked at the rear of the building. He exited his vehicle to investigate further, noting that the car was a Honda Civic and appeared to have been manufactured in the early to mid 1990’s. The sedan didn’t emanate a feeling of abandonment, but upon further examination of the lot and surrounding area, it seemed to Frank as if he was the only creature with a heartbeat for miles. Frank’s initial thought was that the Civic belonged to the firework fiend, who, after seeing the cruiser in the distance, decided to make a break for it and hop the wall into the neighboring community. Running away and ditching their primary means of transportation wouldn’t be the brightest course of action, but Frank had experience dealing with the delinquents of Vander High and had concluded that none of them were going to be the next Albert Einstein. If he had to make an educated guess, Frank would say that the car belonged to Jimmy Sanders or Lucas Younger. They were the type to end up in Dutch for petty crimes like shoplifting, lighting off fireworks, or spray painting a bad word on the high school gym. Frank knew how to lure them out.

“Alright, it’s fine by me if you hide. I’m gonna tow this car here if no one comes out to claim it, though,” Frank shouted to the abandoned lot. The response was absolute silence, not even the chirrup of a bird. “Fine, have it your way.” Frank was surprised. That trick always worked when they busted kids partying and getting drunk around bonfires in the land out beyond the cemetery. He had no intention of going to the trouble of getting the car towed, but decided that searching the plate number and speaking to the troublemaker’s parents might be the next best thing. He pulled out his black pocket notebook and scribbled down the make and model of the car as well as the plate number. As he was returning the notebook to his pocket, he glanced up at the rear of the church.

Above the weather-worn double doors was a bronze depiction of a crucified Jesus. The drooping eyes seemed to be staring into his and gave him a feeling of intense nausea. Frank was not a fan of churches and despised the representations of Jesus on the cross. He thought it morbid to choose a torture device with a malnourished, bleeding, broken man tacked to it as the symbol of one’s religion. Valerie was Catholic and attended mass at Sacred Heart every Sunday, so Frank kept most of his feelings on the subject matter to himself. He was an atheist, but had been raised Catholic by his mother. Frank couldn’t remember many fond memories of his mother, but didn’t care to try. He hadn’t spoken to her in a little over a decade.

The longer he stared into the vacant eyes of the crucified Jesus above the doorway, the more nauseated he felt. The contents of his stomach seemed to solidify into a solid mass of rock and sink within his body. The tightness in his chest turned into a death grip on his heart and his breathing became short and laborious. Frank’s hands became clammy and a dizziness encircled his head, but he could not seem to break the gaze of the bronze man above him.

Suddenly, the dispatcher’s voice sounded from the radio. Hearing the female voice pulled Frank back to reality, allowing him to snap out of the trance. Frank walked swiftly back to his cruiser while the dispatcher spoke.

“We have an accident on the bypass, multiple vehicles involved. Injuries reported.” Frank quickly jumped into the front seat and turned the patrol car on, taking a deep breath and gripping the steering wheel tightly.

“Seven-one-two en route,” Frank spoke into his shoulder microphone and peeled out of the church parking lot. It’s a busy morning in Vander, Frank thought. The one thing he knew for sure was that he was going to need a cigarette later. Or ten.

 

 

August 27th

5

9:20 AM

Valerie entered Sacred Heart Catholic Church clad in a modest pink dress with a rose gold necklace that Frank had given her for their third anniversary and a pale pink clutch handbag to match, her nicest Sunday attire. She figured that if there was ever a time to look her best, it would be in God’s house. Valerie dipped her finger in the basin of holy water and made the sign of the cross before walking down the center aisle between the rows of wooden benches. She took a seat in one of the middle rows on the left and kneeled to pray before mass began. Valerie felt like she had a little more than usual to talk to the big guy upstairs about this week.

The first thing that Valerie prayed about was her husband’s peace of mind. She knew that the job of a law enforcement officer was a stressful one, but the last few days had seemed even more emotionally taxing on Frank. She wished that Frank would come with her to Sunday mass, even if his beliefs drastically differed from hers. He had been dead set against church ever since she had known him, but he wouldn’t go into much detail on why. She still made the occasional request for him to join her, though. Valerie thought that maybe Frank would find peace within the church if he just gave it a chance, but every time she brought it up, he would respond with, “You know I don’t buy what they’re selling,” or something to that effect. Her husband was a compassionate man and a great father, but he was not one to open up easily and internalized the majority of his emotions, sometimes leading to a raging sea of conflict in his mind. Valerie believed that being present in the church could calm the tides, but if Frank wouldn’t come, she would pray twice as hard for him.

She also prayed for Cade, that he should maintain good health and grow up full of wonder and excitement. A prayer was issued for Pam Johnson as well, who worked in Human Resources at Southwest Pharmaceuticals with Valerie and had just been diagnosed with breast cancer the previous week. She asked God to help Pam with a swift and painless recovery. Finally, she prayed that her father’s soul rest peacefully in Heaven, just as she did every week, before sitting back on the pew. She leisurely flipped through the psalm book in front of her until mass began.

For most of the mass, the regular routine was followed and the proceedings were pleasantly predictable. Songs were sung in voices desperately attempting to be angelic; bible passages were read aloud. Valerie placed her five-dollar donation in the basket that was passed around and greeted her neighboring churchgoers with “peace be with you.” Father David preached a homily about maintaining strength in one’s faith in the face of adversity while everyone nodded their heads silently. Everything seemed to occur just as it had for countless Sundays, until Father David stood up after communion. He had made sure that everyone had returned to their seats before he spoke.

“Brothers and sisters, as you probably know, a beloved member of our Sacred Heart community is missing. Katheryn Jennings is a beautiful, intelligent young woman and always made faith a priority. Her parents are here with us today. Please bow your heads with me and pray for her safe return.” Before Valerie bowed her head, she looked toward the front row, where she could see Katheryn’s parents. Only the backs of their heads were visible to her, but from the way Katheryn’s mother was constantly bringing a tissue to her face, Valerie assumed that she was crying. The man in the row behind them leaned forward, placing his hands on their shoulders and whispering something to comfort them. Valerie recognized him as one of the lectors who sometimes read the bible passages aloud during mass. She hoped that whatever he was saying was helping ease their suffering, at least momentarily.

Valerie bowed her head and prayed with the rest of the church. She had heard about Katheryn the day before on the news and thought that maybe a portion of what was troubling Frank was due to Katheryn’s disappearance. Cases such as Katheryn’s didn’t happen often in Vander, and she knew it must be stressful for the whole department. She didn’t want to further burden Frank’s mind by bringing it up, so she had kept it to herself.

It had come as a saddening shock when she saw the news report. Valerie did not know Katheryn very well, but had seen her with her family at mass and charity events organized by Sacred Heart. From what Valerie had seen, Katheryn seemed to enjoy organizing events for the church like it was her profession. She had even been helping arrange the 5K Run for Leukemia that Valerie was planning on participating in next Saturday. Valerie prayed hard for her safe return.

When mass ended, Valerie considered given her thoughts and prayers to Katheryn’s parents, but decided against it. They had enough on their minds and were probably being bombarded by countless other people giving them their own thoughts and prayers. When pulling out of the church parking lot, her mind once again turned to her husband. Today was his day off, so she hoped that he was giving his mind a rest, at least for just a little while. She decided that she would suggest watching Young Frankenstein with Frank when she arrived home. Frank was a sucker for Mel Brooks films. She doubted they would be able to watch anything uninterrupted by Cade, but thought that Frank would appreciate the gesture anyway. She switched on the radio, where a Bryan Adams song was just beginning. She turned the volume up and sang along as she cruised the Vander streets and headed back home.

 

 

August 28th

 

6

7:00 PM

        A growing audience packed themselves into their seats at the Vander Performing Arts Center as the night’s performers waited backstage. Among them, tapping her foot nervously, was Jacquelyn Douglas, known as Jackie to her friends and parents. Jackie was fourteen, barely a freshman in High School, and was the youngest of the performers slated for the evening’s show. The entertainment that the attending audience members had come to see was a compilation of musical pieces performed by some of Vander’s most talented musicians. Jackie had been given the opportunity to close the show with a rendition of the first movement of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and was feeling a cinderblock of pressure resting on her shoulders.

Jackie had been a natural at the piano ever since she sat down at one at age seven. It was as if the ebony and ivory keys spoke to her and guided her elegantly through each piece. Her first instructor had called her a prodigy and had stated that Jackie was the quickest learner she had ever seen. Recently, Jackie had begun to gain the attention of individuals outside of Vander, and even outside the state of Arizona. The Vander Chronicle had recently written an article about her musical prowess, and word had traveled around town. She knew that many of the people filing into the auditorium had only come to see her. Jackie thought that maybe someone from New York could be coming to see her performance, but that could just have been wishful thinking. If she could play the Mozart piece without a hitch, it could prove to be a giant stepping stone on the path of her blossoming musical career.

Jackie heard the bow of a violin as the show began. She did not know how long the violin piece lasted, but soon it was replaced by a cello, and after that Jackie stopped hearing the music completely. She was in her own world, going over each note to the Mozart piece in her head repeatedly. Before she knew it, someone was tapping her on the shoulder and telling her that it was her turn in the spotlight. Jackie walked out to the grand piano on stage on legs that felt as sturdy as a house of cards. Somehow she made it to the seat without her knees buckling underneath her and sat down. The crowd could have been clapping for her or they could have been completely silent, but Jackie couldn’t tell. She couldn’t hear anything except the sound of her own heartbeat in her ears. She took a deep breath and glanced down at the keys. Under so much pressure and with so many watchful eyes glued to her, the keys looked more like a monster’s teeth than a means of creation.

As soon as she began to play, the anxiety melted away and she felt the most comfortable she had ever felt in her young life. She was the only person in the auditorium and was playing Mozart for the angels in Heaven. Time ceased to exist and Jackie lived blissfully in each moment from note to note. She didn’t want the piece to end, but when it did, it concluded beautifully, the last notes sounding like the last moments of a life well-lived.

The crowd erupted in applause. Almost in unison, the members of the audience rose to give Jackie a standing ovation. A few people whistled their approval and when she took a bow, the applause grew even louder. Jackie was overwhelmed by the reaction, and felt as if the smile on her face had been permanently set there in stone. She could see old teachers and members of her church cheering her on and her mother was jumping in elation. Hot tears of joy streamed down her cheeks. She was proud. She was triumphant. This was the best moment of her life. Late in the afternoon of August 30th, Jackie disappeared.

 

Until Death

Today we are doing something different. I will not be posting content of my own, instead I will be sharing a story written by one of my closest friends, Matthew Thrasher. Based off a short story that Matt wrote for his brother in December of last year, “Until Death”  is a product of everything that this website stands for. This is a project that will continue to develop here on this website for the foreseeable future. 

P.S. Mark this one is for you.

 

 

Written by

Matthew Thrasher

 

August 25th

1

 

5:45 PM

Officer Francis Bailey, known to his friends and colleagues as “Frank”, or occasionally “Franny” when they wanted to give him a light ribbing, slouched behind the wheel of his Crown Victoria police cruiser. He had parked at the bottom of a small hill and was now watching light traffic pass east on Frontier Avenue. For the last seven and a half hours or so, Frank’s duty to protect and serve saw him canvasing spots around town with a radar gun, ensuring the safety of the community by pulling over soccer moms that tended to get lead feet. When he joined the force half a decade ago, his mind had been swollen with notions of bringing justice to degenerates, sickos, and thugs. The reality of his current situation was less than satisfying.

Frank heard an engine approaching just over the crest of the hill and aimed the radar gun in that direction. The noise emitted was more like a banshee’s scream than the hum of a motor and Frank prepared himself to see a sports car fly over the hill’s peak a la Dukes of Hazzard. Instead, a pickup truck that looked as if it may have once been forest green but had long since turned the putrid color of mucus crested the hill and lumbered along Frontier Avenue towards Frank’s patrol car. The radar gun’s output read “30” as the glorified hunk of scrap metal lurched its way past. Frank uttered a breathy laugh. He figured that whoever was driving the truck deserved a commendation for getting the thing to run at all, even if they kept it at a cruising speed of five under the speed limit.

He lackadaisically placed the radar gun in the passenger seat and rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. He was practically praying to receive any type of call from dispatch. Hell, he would happily drive halfway across town just to yell at the stoners from Vander High for loitering in the Carl’s Jr. parking lot if it meant he didn’t have to clock any more meandering commuters meandering. Frank knew full well that he was performing a task that is carried out by stationary cameras in larger cities, and it gave him a feeling of monumental insignificance. He leaned his head on the headrest and gazed vacantly out of the windshield as the radio remained silent. Cars passed in both directions while Frank maintained his near-comatose state. He let his mind wander, and that brought him to his wife Valerie and his son Cade.

Frank and Valerie had celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary in June, the same month that Cade took his first steps. They married right out of college, eager to start their new life with each other. A few months prior to graduation, Valerie’s father had informed her that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Although Frank had expressed his desire to work for the police department in a larger city such as his hometown of Chicago, he agreed when Valerie insisted that they move to Vander to be near her father. He felt as if there were bigger fish to fry than the criminals inhabiting a southeastern Arizona town with a population of fifty-thousand, but he loved Valerie and knew that it was the right decision. He had applied to the police department and passed the tests with flying colors. He attended the Academy and underwent field training, did the whole song and dance just to end up slouched in the driver’s seat of a cruiser daydreaming about the past while on duty.

A black Camaro honked at a sluggish light blue Volkswagen Beetle as it descended Frontier Avenue, snapping Frank back to reality. He watched the Camaro pass the Beetle on the left as both cars drove past, and from his vantage point he couldn’t see either vehicle breaking any traffic laws. He grabbed the radar gun and held it on the dashboard disbelievingly as a brown sedan coasted down the hill. The flashing red numbers read “35”. A gray minivan followed shortly behind it at the leisurely pace of thirty-three miles per hour. Frank thought that people would be in more of a hurry to get home, considering it was almost six o’clock on a Friday evening, but the people of Vander continued to defy his expectations.

He gave up and placed the radar gun on the passenger seat once more. Frank closed his eyes, breathing a heavy sigh. All he could think about at that moment was that he wanted a cigarette. He had quit smoking almost seven years ago (well, mostly quit), and only felt the craving now when he was immensely stressed or unfathomably bored. When he was unable to smother the desire for a “cancer stick”, as Valerie called it, he would indulge in his vice. It was against department policy to smoke on duty or in uniform and Valerie was adamant about Frank living smoke free, so sometimes he had to get creative.

He checked his watch. His shift ended at six, so he would have to make his way back to the station to drop off his bodycam soon. The bodycams had been a fairly recent addition to the department, because in Chief Ellerton’s words, “A department without bodycams is just beggin’ for a lawsuit.” With the boring shift approaching its end, Frank felt that he could survive without a cigarette for the time being. He put the car into drive and pulled out of the cutout onto Frontier Avenue and headed west for the station.

When he arrived, the department seemed much more active than it typically was on a Friday evening. After he returning the bodycam, he made his way to what the Vander Police Department called the “Detective Room.” It was there that he saw nearly every cop in the station streaming in and out of the room. When he had managed his way inside the room, he noticed a large rolling whiteboard had been moved in from the conference room. A photo of a beautiful, blonde young woman was taped in the center, above which the word “Missing” had been written in black dry erase marker. Underneath the photo was the name “Katheryn Jennings”, printed in the same way. Frank was shocked. Vander hadn’t had a serious missing persons case in years, and when missing person reports did surface, they usually turned out to be a teenager who had decided to “run away” and were found shortly after. From the way that everyone at the station was behaving, Frank assumed that this case was not one to be taken lightly. Well, I did want a little more excitement, he thought to himself.

Frank noticed that the people shuffling in and out of the room were bringing stacks of paper and files to Detectives John Kotching and Oscar Atencio. If he wanted the inside scoop, these were the guys to talk to. He walked swiftly to where Detective Kotching was sitting behind his desk.

“What do we got?” Frank asked, nodding toward the file that Kotching was holding. Kotching glanced up just long enough to see who had spoken before burying his head in the folder once more.

“Call just came in a little while ago. Her name is Katheryn Jennings, age twenty-one. She was last seen walking home from her class at the college but never arrived home. We’re looking at possible abduction.” Kotching’s eyes never left the file while he spoke.

“Are there any more details?” Frank frowned.

“You should be briefed on it in the morning. Oscar and I have it handled for now.” While Frank desperately wished that he could pry out more information on the case, he knew that the surly, veteran detective was done speaking to him for the evening. Detective Atencio was hurriedly jotting down notes onto a yellow notepad and glancing between papers scattered about his desk, indicating to Frank that he wouldn’t be any more help than Kotching. Frank walked away from the detective’s desk and stopped just before crossing the threshold of the doorway. He took one last quick glance at the photo of Katheryn on the whiteboard before exiting the room something about it struck him as familiar.

 

While driving away from the station, Frank remembered that he had promised Valerie that he would start repainting the garage this weekend. While he had to work during the day tomorrow and wouldn’t be able to start painting until the evening, picking up the paint now would make his wife happy and show that he was serious about his promise. During the drive to Home Depot, Frank could think of little else than Katheryn Jennings. She may have been abducted while walking home from class. Things like this didn’t happen in Vander. And where had he seen Katheryn before? Why did he recognize her? Frank felt a sweat break out on his forehead and rolled down the window. The cool breeze whipped against his face and he shuttered as a cold chill ran up his spine. This case didn’t sit right with him. He desperately wished that he had more information.

When he arrived at Home Depot, he wandered inside dazed. His mind was working overtime, speculating about who Katheryn was, where she was, and what happened to her. When he found himself in the paint section, it took him several moments to remember the color that Valerie wanted. Realist beige. An employee helped him mix the color properly and while he strode toward the checkout counter with a paint can in each hand, his mind fell back to a familiar thought. I need a cigarette. The urge seemed to become stronger with every step. By the time he was in line, Frank had become antsy and impatient. He stared at the back of the round, bald head of the customer in front of him, trying to telepathically will the man to complete his transaction quicker.

When Frank was finally able to check out, he walked briskly back to his car, tossing the paint into the back seat and pulling the car around to the rear of the home improvement store. He popped the trunk and riffled through an old duffle bag that he always kept in the car just in case a time like this arose. He removed a pack of Marlboro’s and a Bic lighter from the bag. He leaned against the building, making sure that he was out of the general public’s view, and lit the cigarette. He inhaled deeply, holding the smoke in until he could feel his nerves calming, then exhaled. He made sure to blow the smoke in the direction of the wind, so that the smell wouldn’t stick to his clothes. He repeated the process until the cigarette was burnt down to the butt, then dropped it to the ground and stamped on it with his heel. One was all he needed. He made sure the lighter and the Marlboro’s were back in his bag and removed a pack of Dentine Ice gum and a bottle of Tommy Hilfiger cologne. He popped two pieces of the gum in his mouth and sprayed himself with the cologne before replacing the items, closing the trunk and climbing into the driver’s seat. Driving home, he was more relaxed than he had been all day, but Katheryn Jennings was still in the back of his mind.

 

August 26th

2

 

5:05 AM

Valerie woke to Cade’s wails, her eyes snapping open. The sound seemed to propagate throughout the entire house. She flipped on her bedside lamp and rolled over to see if her husband might be willing to volunteer for baby duty this morning. However, Valerie could see that he was still fast asleep by the way in which his eyelids twitched in the lamp’s yellow glow. Great, she thought to herself halfheartedly, he gets to dream and I’m stuck with this. She sat with herself for a moment before willing herself away from the comfort and warmth of her bed sheets and shuffled down the hallway to Cade’s room. He was standing in his crib face scrunched and misty-eyed until she picked him up. Valerie figured that he would be hungry so she carried him to the kitchen.

She took a bottle of formula from the refrigerator and placed it in the bottle warmer that her friend Stephanie had given her for her baby shower. Once the bottle was warm she brought Cade into the living room, sat on the couch, and flipped on the television to find something to watch while Cade drank.

She flipped through a few dozen channels, each sporting their own blasphemous infomercials, until she gave up on the idea of entertainment and simply stared at the TV screen. When he was finished Cade promptly fell back into sleep. Valerie walked with him to his room, his small body pressed to hers. When she finally made it back to her own room she stopped in the doorway. The lamp was still on and Frank had shifted in his sleep so that the yellow light shined on his face. He didn’t seem to mind though. Valerie stood there for a little while yet and watched her husband sleep.

He had smoked yesterday, she was sure of that, but she didn’t know why. She had smelled it on him as soon as he walked in the door and when she had kissed him she felt as though she had licked an ashtray. Valerie knew how Frank thought he was sneaky with the gum he chewed and cologne he sprayed before walking in the house, but it never worked the way he intended it to. She had almost called him out on it this time, but something was wrong. Valerie could tell that something weighed on him. He tried to mask it, to play it off like it was nothing, saying that he was “just a little tired from work,” but she could tell there was something more there. Eight years is a long time, it’s enough time to learn a person’s bluff.

Valerie moved to the bed. She sat at the edge of the mattress and contemplated sleep. It became clear to her that she had no chance of falling back asleep now. Not with the way Cade had woken her up and the way she thought about Frank. Well if I’m going to be up, I might as well make good use of my time. Valerie figured that Cade would sleep soundly for the next two hours or so. If on the off chance that Cade did wake up again and Frank managed to continue his imitation of a corpse, she would be back soon enough.

Dressed and ready to go, Valerie peeked out the bedroom window to get a glimpse of Callaway Creek Mountain. Hints of the coming sunlight poked over the ridge of the mountain, but the sun would not be up for another hour. She stepped away from the window and looked to her phone. Today she was listening to Madonna.

Valerie was glad that she had finally found her running groove again after having Cade. Having been an avid runner who regularly signed up for charity 5K’s and even the occasional half-marathon, the process of getting back up to speed was miserable at first. At first she could only walk around the block, the she could walk for twenty minutes, then she could go on short runs, and finally she was able to run like she had used to. Feeling the morning air was her vice. It soothed her and brought her back to her center. Her thoughts kept turning to Frank though as she ran. Whatever was bothering him, she hoped it wouldn’t bother him for long.

 

3

 

6:00 AM

Frank sprinted through a seemingly endless forest of dark, twisted, towering trees for what felt like an eternity. He stopped and spun in a circle, looking frantically in every direction, trying to get his bearings. The spirit of the forest loomed over him, and Frank knew that at any moment it could crush him like a cockroach. He fell to his knees, overwhelmed by the darkness enveloping him. He grabbed mats of his hair and pull them out in tufts, screaming into the abyss. He felt seconds stretch into eons while he cowered in the dead leaves piled on the forest floor.

Suddenly, he heard a faint voice in the distance. He listened, and waited for minutes, hours, days for the voice to speak again. When he was on the cusp of giving in to absolute insanity, he heard the voice again, and this time could make out a word.

“Franky”

As he was attempting to decipher the significance of the voice, it sounded off once more, this time including his name in a blood-curdling scream. Frank bolted in the direction of the scream, running until his legs felt as if they might snap like toothpicks and his lungs filled with fire, but he never seemed to come any closer to the origin of the voice. When he could run no more, he stopped and found himself facing the largest tree in the forest. He looked partway up the tree and met the gaze of his childhood best friend, Tyler Jacobs.

Tyler was nailed to the tree through his hands and feet, his arms splayed like a prepubescent Christ. Blood oozed from his wounds and trickled down the bark, pooling in a crimson puddle at the base. Part of his torso was missing, looking as if it had been eaten by some wild beast of the forest. His head hung limply on his shoulders; his eyes were gray and cloudy.

“Why, Franky?”

Frank’s vocal chords refused to utter a response. His legs quivered and hot tears began to stream down his cheeks. Tyler asked the question a second time. Staring at the blood moat surrounding the tree, Frank finally found his voice.

“I’m sorry, Tyler.” Frank struggled to hold back a sob but was unsuccessful. Tyler’s gray eyes stared into the depths of his soul.

“All your fault.” Tyler’s eyes turned black and the skin on his face began to melt like candle wax. He opened his mouth and scorpions poured from the orifice as the skin on his face gave way to flesh and bone. The scorpions crawled down the tree and grew in size with every passing second, making their way toward Frank. He turned and ran, all the while trying to scream but finding no voice to scream with. He turned his head back just long enough to see a colossal stinger plunge its way into his back and burst through his chest.

 

Frank awoke gasping for breath in the early hours of Saturday morning. He sat with his legs hanging off the side of the bed, his head rested in the palms of his hands. He could hear the shower running and wondered if he had been making any noises in his sleep that disturbed Valerie. After a few minutes, he could hardly remember the nightmare that had woken him so violently. He thought it had something to do with scorpions. He looked out the window and saw the sun starting its ascent over Callaway Creek Mountain. It was a beautiful scene, but his mind was already too preoccupied to absorb it. A nagging thought refused to be subdued. I need a cigarette. The thought was like an itch he couldn’t scratch, demanding his full attention. He could taste yesterday’s Marlboro on his tongue. Frank shook his head violently, attempting to clear his mind. His morning was off to a less than ideal start.

 

 

It Walks There

Honestly when I started writing this story I had a hard time finding anything to say. I didn’t have all of the usual suspects to work with like a narrative, characters, or even a concept that I wanted to expand on. My only motivation to write anything was to try and get back on the metaphorical Creative Horse and get back at to that Creative Grind. I think it worked…I think. I can’t be totally sure though. I guess we’ll see won’t we. 

P.S. Sometimes you can’t make these things up. Other times you don’t have too. 

 

It walks there between two walls on the carpet. The sound that it makes rolls under the door like vapor. Feeling its way across the impossible mess of childhood, through the countless objects defaced and made smooth by the dark of the night, and into the ear of the boy sleeping closest too the door. This boy does not dream anymore, because the sounds turn them bad. Instead he sleeps in the dark, nestled like a crayfish in its vertical mound burrowing deeper and deeper still until nothing can be heard.

On most nights the mother would pile both him and his brother into her bed. There they would compact into a single mass until the sun came up. However, tonight is like those other nights. The nights where the mother cannot afford to sleep with restless children, so she puts them away at the far end of the hallway.

When she had put them away in their room, the mother had left the bedroom door open. She always did this so that the boys could see the white sheen of her doorframe from their room if they ever woke in the middle of the night and needed to find her. Yet sometime after he had fallen asleep the door had managed to pull itself shut, as most bedroom doors have the tendency to do. Cordoning the children from the night beyond the door and the things that it always brought with it.

He can hear it now,

(The crunch of foot against fiber beyond the door).

 

And he stirs.

The boy ignores the urge to wake by pulling the comforter up and around his head. It is a thoughtless act. He can feel the way it moves inch by inch through the meat of his brain towards the pit in which he hides. It finds him and when he comes to he comes too slowly, pulled up from the pit by the shoulder blades. He is tugged ever so gently to the surface like a small fish on a hook.

At first there is confusion. Small prisms of light bleed through the comforter from the window that runs along the wall behind his bed. The yellow glow of halogen figures its way through the pores of the fabric to speckle his shoulder and his chin. His hot breaths are reflected back into his face by the blanket that rests on it and his knees are nearly pulled to his chest. All that he has to do is remove the blanket from his face to escape the wet heat, but he doesn’t. Instead he pulls his knees to his chest and breathes deep. The boy lies there like that for what can only be a very long time.

He listens to it walk. He listens until he can’t be sure whether he is still hearing it or if it has stopped and its sounds are instead perpetuated through silence. Whatever is beyond the door refuses to tire or slow. There is no change in direction, or distance. It just walks there.  It comes every night. And when the sun rises in the morning and everyone wakes to start their day, they see them there.  Tracks that lead up the hallway and down where each step is perfectly imprinted on the last. Nothing enters or exits that space. It simply walks there. A presence made of nothing certain.