One hour earlier
Tufts of blond hair stuck comically out above an immense stack of paper. Luke shifted from the keyboard to his pencil, tapping his foot impatiently against the floor.
Clack, scratch, tap.
“Luke!” His coworker, Rudy, gestured toward the window. “Look, Dorky’s flirting with Blondie again!”
Most of the offices at 451 Egret Street boasted scenic views like quaint Main Street, the Egret Cove wetlands, or the ocean on the horizon. As lowly 2nd-year associates, Luke and Rudy were not afforded that luxury. Instead, their window faced the building next door, which was the office of Palm Sands’ radio station, WQPS 90.9. Spying on the people inside had become their favorite pastime.
“He just touched her arm,” Rudy said, between slurps of coke. “And...oh! She’s giggling! He shoots, he scores! I might win this bet after all.”
“I bet you ten bucks that Dorky would get in Blondie’s pants.”
Luke scratched his head. “How do you plan to verify that?”
Rudy shrugged. “Oh. Well, I didn’t think it through that much.” He fidgeted with his class ring. It was one of those tacky things, with a fake emerald and various collegiate symbols.
Luke snickered, turning back to the screen. “Sorry, but no time to talk. I’ve got to finish this, or Kevin will be furious.”
“Ah, well, Kevin’s a pain in the ass,” Rudy snickered. “And a weirdo. Do you know what he did earlier today?”
“He saw me in the men’s room and started talking to me while I was standing at the urinal, mid-pee. You know how much I hate that, right?”
Luke glanced back to his screen. Come on, I need to finish this.
“He talked to me for fifteen minutes in the bathroom. Ranting about how worms are the world’s most amazing creatures, because they recycle stuff into soil. I mean, the guy is a nutcase. No wonder he’s still a virgin.”
“And one time I got here early, and he came up to the office through the freight elevator. Smelling like vomit. I mean, what was that? A walk of shame from a drunken night with his worm-loving friends?”
“Yeah. Listen, I can’t talk. I got to get this done.”
Rudy flushed red, his tone defensive. “Well, that’s not my fault. You disappeared for half the day.”
“I was at a doctor’s appointment for Jackson,” he snapped, his eyes darting over the top of the monitor to glare at Rudy.
“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean…How is he?”
“The doctor now knows something is wrong, just doesn’t know what.”
“That sucks, man.”
“The brain scan wasn’t normal.” He fidgeted with his pencil, as if it could erase bigger mistakes than misspelled words. “I was sure it was going to be.”
“All you optimists, setting yourself up for disappointment.”
“Aren’t you the optimist? You used to be a salesman, after all. Every product is wonderful, cheap, and never breaks, right?”
Rudy chuckled. “Well, yeah, until you buy it.”
“Or marry it.”
Rudy looked at Luke, his eyes going wide. “Trouble in paradise, huh? Anna not putting out?”
Luke let out a bitter laugh that didn’t sound at all amused. “No, she’s wonderful. It’s me. I was just so much nicer to Anna before we got married.” He leaned back in the chair, crossing his arms over his chest.
“What are you talking about? You’re the perfect husband. Dude, if I swung that way, I’d marry you.”
Luke shook his head. “No, you don’t get it. I said some really awful things today.”
“What did you say?”
He didn’t reply, looking down at his lap dejectedly. Rudy stared questioningly at Luke, waiting for a response. After a few minutes he shrugged, giving up on getting an answer.
“Don’t worry man, she’ll get over it. Buy her some chocolate or something on the way home.”
Luke nodded, returning his attention to the screen. His reflection was dashed across the monitor, and he winced at the sight of his sunken eyes and messy hair.
Did I always have that wrinkle across my forehead?
“Hey, look, look!” Rudy shouted, once again breaking what little concentration Luke had.
“I need to finish this.”
Luke glanced out the window. Blondie was leading Dorky into one of the empty corner offices, flicking her hair and glancing over her shoulder flirtatiously.
“Damn, if he can get her, then I can get Natalie Dormer,” Rudy said, his eyes dancing with excitement.
“No, you can’t,” Luke rebutted, finally breaking into a smile.
They watched the scene unfold behind the glass. Dorky and Blondie started making out, hands clumsily writhing over each other. He stumbled against her, towards the wall, as he clumsily fumbled at his pants.
Then, suddenly, they stopped.
“Why’d they stop?”
“She didn’t like what he was packing, if you know what I...”
“She’s offering him a pill,” Luke said, squinting. Even through the reflections dancing on the glass, a gray pill could be seen in her outstretched palm.
“Oh, I know what that is.” Rudy rolled his chair forward, peering through the window. “It’s Earl Grey.”
“Earl Grey? Like the tea?”
“No, dude. It’s this new drug everyone’s talking about. Super rare, super expensive.” He took a loud slurrrrp of coke. “It’s supposed to make you super perceptive, or a mind-reader or something.”
“Hey, I could use some of that,” Luke joked. “Then I could just read Anna’s mind and fix my marriage.”
“Well, there are rumors…” Rudy lowered his voice to a whisper. “Rumors that it causes, like, a very small percent of people to become violent. Remember a few weeks ago when there was the story about some woman strangling her husband? They think she was on it, even though forensics didn’t show traces of anything in her blood.”
Luke stared outside, dread settling in his stomach. Through the window Dorky was examining the pill, rolling it between his fingers. He grimaced, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, but then Blondie looked at him suggestively.
With a shrug he popped it into his mouth, swallowing it whole.
“Let me know if anything interesting happens,” Luke said, twirling his chair back to the desk. “Like if he starts reading all our minds or something.”
“I don’t know about that, but Blondie just took off her shirt!”
Luke’s neck twitched, but kept his eyes glued to the screen. “Anna has enough reasons to be mad at me. I don’t want to give her another one.”
“Who’s going to tell her? Me?”
“Come on, Rudy.”
Rudy sighed dramatically. “They just went under the table, anyway. Can’t see a damn thing.” He remained at the window with his face nearly pressed against the glass, desperate for a glimpse of Blondie’s buttocks.
Luke rolled his eyes and continued typing, pointedly ignoring his friend.
Ten minutes later the duo across the street emerged. Blondie’s skirt was hiked up to her armpits; Dorky’s tie dangled askew like a torn fingernail. They rummaged around for the rest of their clothes, and even from such a distance Luke could see that Blondie was red with embarrassment.
“Was he always that ugly?” Rudy said.
Luke looked up, not understanding the question. He glanced at the window, surprise rippling through him.
Dorky does look worse than usual. He now had a pallid complexion, deep bags under his eyes, and a gaunt, sickly face.
Maybe it’s the reflections across the window. Or the dim light. I can’t see them that well… Luke chuckled to himself. Or maybe it’s our egos. After all, if someone as ugly as him can get laid, so can we.
“Hey, you owe me ten bucks,” Rudy exclaimed. “Come on, cough it up!”
Luke rolled his eyes and pulled out his wallet, his eyes still glued curiously to the window. Dorky had sat back down at his desk. He was furiously scribbling something on a sheet of paper.
Then he stood up, walked over to the window, and taped the paper to the glass.
The paper read in clear, black handwriting: I SEE YOU.
Rudy scooted his chair back from the window, his face drained of color. “Get back,” he hissed furiously.
Luke’s heart pounded, but he kept his voice steady. “There’s no way he can see us up here. We’re a floor above him, and with the reflection of the sunset…” He shook his head. “It must be meant for the floor below us. I mean, you can’t be the only one who watched them do it, right?”
Rudy’s gaze remained on the window. His feet shuffled to push him further back, even though the chair had snagged on a desk corner. “The office below us is Hamilton Tutoring Center. I don’t think a bunch of teachers and little kids just watched them going at it.” He turned to Luke. “It’s clearly meant for us.” His puffy face was flushed pink, lending him the resemblance of a cornered pig.
“Maybe he did it just in case someone was watching. I mean, some people walk up to their dark house and say into the bushes, ‘I know you’re there!’, just on the off chance someone is there.”
Rudy stood, gesturing wildly. “No. It’s the drug. He’s reading our minds right now, and that’s how he knows we’re watching him.” He backed away. His rear end hit a stack of paper, sending it fluttering to the floor. He made no move to pick it up. “That guy’s fucked up. He could stalk us out to the parking garage tonight, gut us like…”
Rudy whirled around, his face now white. Kevin loomed over them, a frown cut deep into his face.
“Join me in my office. Now, please.”
He glanced at Luke, who just shrugged. Rudy’s eyes were bulging and his lip was quivering, but he meekly followed Kevin into the office.
Luke turned away from the window and returned to the spreadsheet. “Forty-five percent of z-one,” he mumbled, clicking away. Forget about Dorky, Earl Grey, everything. You need to get this work done, or you’ll be fired. And if you’re fired… Anna will be really angry then.
As his fingers raced across the keyboard, his thoughts trailed back to Jackson. At least the doctor said he’s not in pain. He grimaced at his reflection in the monitor. Is that just a nicety they tell all worried parents? It’s not like Jackson can tell him he’s wrong.
He ran a sweaty hand through his hair, his attempts at focusing fruitless. The doctor also said he was sure the MRI would be fine. I can’t listen to him.
He sighed and cradled his head between his hands. I’m not going to finish this by five. As he sat there, his mind in a jumble, a chill creeped up his spine. It prickled the back of his neck, nagging silently at the edge of his mind.
It was the feeling of being watched. Luke bolted up, glancing around wildly, but his part of the office was mostly empty. The closest person, Evan the intern, was several desks away, clandestinely texting underneath his desk.
Look behind you. He slowly swiveled towards the window. Taking a deep breath, he glanced down.
He practically jumped out of his seat. Dorky was against the window, staring back up at him. His face was pressed against the glass, steaming up a patch of the window. He was like a statue – unblinking, motionless, still.
There’s no way he can see us. He’s drugged out of his mind, just doing some harmless, creepy stuff. Stupid kid. Luke shook his head at the figure below, trying to rid himself of the thought.
Dorky nodded back conversationally.
Luke stumbled back from the window, his heart pounding. No way. He can see us! He stepped back towards his desk, his legs shaking.
He collided with Rudy, nearly losing his balance.
“He can see us,” Luke blurted out. “He was watching me, and…”
Rudy sat down at the desk. An awkward silence ensued.
He just stared vacantly at the computer screen.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” Rudy picked up the coke absentmindedly, clearly functioning on autopilot. Slurrrp. Then he went back to fidgeting with his class ring, not even making eye contact with Luke.
“You don’t seem fine.”
He finally turned to Luke, anger flashing across his face.
“What do you want me to say? Kevin just told me that I’ve been underperforming. I have a week to clean up my act, or I’m out.”
“I’m sorry, that sucks.”
“It’s okay. I’ll just put out some job applications. Everything will be fine.”
“It will be, Rudy, I promise –”
Luke stopped, listening as a strange noise resounded through the office. The sound was muffled through the glass, but it was incredibly odd. Geese? The sound seemed to be a haphazard mix of high and low pitches, and it rose and fell like waves on a stormy sea.
Luke ran to the window. The scene in WQPS’s office was one of absolute pandemonium. Some people were running to the stairwell, while others slammed their office doors and tried barricading themselves inside. Others just stood there, screaming and screaming. Luke glanced around the churning office of people, looking for the source.
Dorky was standing in the center of the room. He was standing on a chair, holding something in his right hand. It was pale and round, with tassels or strings hanging from it. For a second, his eyes gleamed red.
A loud scream pierced the air.
The sound wasn’t from across the street, though; it was from above Luke. Thumps and clangs sounded across the ceiling, accompanied by more screams.
“We need to call the police.” Luke picked up the phone, his sweaty fingers slipping over the keys. 9, 1...
Clack. Rudy held down the disconnect button, cutting off the call.
“What are you doing?!”
“We can’t call the police.”
“We don’t have time. We got to run.”
The screams on the floor above intensified. A few men shouted something, followed by a loud thump. The workers near Luke were starting to stand up from their desks, looking around wildly before running for the door.
“Come on, we can call on the way.”
Luke hesitated, glancing out the window. Dorky was still grinning, now standing on one of the desks. He twirled the weird, round thing by one of its strings.
What is that?
The strings were long and golden, clumped here and there with something dark. The round object was pink, almost the same pale shade as flesh.
It was Blondie’s head.
Luke bolted to the stairwell and sprinted down the stairs, his hand slipping on the banister and his feet nearly tripping over each other. As he descended, he heard screams from the third floor too. Rudy’s footsteps echoed behind him.
He was glad he wasn’t alone.
Luke reached the ground level first. Across the street lay the parking garage, which was their best means of escape. He frantically yanked at the doorknob, choking back a sob when it wouldn’t open.
“It’s still locked!”
I should have remembered. This door auto-locks until 5pm. He fumbled for the FOB, but his pocket was empty.
“Doesn’t matter, we’re safe in here,” Rudy said, leaning against the wall. He took out his phone, putting it back almost instantly. “No reception. Oh, well.”
“How can you be so calm?” Luke fumed, mopping the sweat off his face. “Something insane is happening across the street, as well as above us and below us. You were freaking out about it just ten minutes ago.”
“Crazy things happen sometimes. It’s just part of working in a city.”
Luke studied his friend. In the dingy light of the concrete stairwell, Rudy looked white as a ghost. His usually chubby cheeks were now clinging to his jaw. His eyes were sunken into his face, deeper than they had been earlier.
“You’re anxious to get home to Jackson,” Rudy drawled.
“Well, duh. Of course I am.”
“I know what’s wrong with him, you know. Not too hard to figure out.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s stupidly simple. I can’t believe you haven’t figured it out.” His face fell into shadow, obscuring his eyes. He appeared to be nothing but a twisted, grinning mouth, detached from its body.
“What are you saying?”
“Kevin gave me Earl Grey.”
Luke stopped. His hands grew cold, leveling out to match the temperature of the doorknob.
“It turned me into a genius, Luke. Just by looking at people I know everything about them. I know Judy the secretary has been fucking Mark the janitor. I know Evan the intern is an ex-con from Arizona. Hell, I know you tried cigarettes once in school, promptly threw up, and blamed it on the cat.”
Luke backed away. He tried the door, but it was still locked.
“I always wanted to be a genius, you know? Like you. Like all the others here. Never really felt like I belonged.” The mouth opened, letting out empty, reverberating laughter. “And now, just think! I know everything about everybody.”
Luke tried the door again. No luck.
“I’m omniscient.” The disembodied grin grew wider. “I’m basically God.”
“If you know what’s wrong with Jackson, then tell me,” Luke said. “Don’t give me this empty talk about how you’re God. You just sound like an idiot.”
“An idiot! Ha, ha, that’s rich, coming from you. You’re so ignorant, you don’t even know what’s wrong with him.”
Rudy finally stepped out of the shadows, his body swaying in the flickering, fluorescent light.
“Don’t worry. If you take the pill, you’ll be God too.”
“I’ll take it if you prove it works.” Luke’s voice quivered, but he stared coldly at Rudy. “I know you’re a great talker, a salesman, but I need proof. Tell me what’s wrong with Jackson, and I’ll gladly take it.”
It was a lie – but lies bide time.
Rudy cocked his head and leaned in, inspecting Luke. His face was so close to Luke’s that he could smell his stale breath, see the mottled purple under his eyes.
“Nice try. If I tell you, you’ll have no reason to take it.”
Luke turned the handle.
The door finally opened.
He raced across the street and into the parking garage, his shoes slapping the concrete. He grabbed the banister and rushed down the stairs. Thump, thump, thump. Rudy’s footsteps sounded behind him, but he didn’t turn around. Those few seconds wasted could be the difference between life and death.
“Come on, Luke,” the voice echoed down to him. “You have nothing to lose.” Luke’s legs ached and his lungs stung, but he kept going.
“And what happened to Dorky, huh? He didn’t become some superman. He became a murderer.”
“We need some way of dealing with the chaff.” His voice sounded louder, closer. “Blondie was an idiot, so the pill made him kill her.” He chuckled. “Is that all you’re worried about? Because I can guarantee you, you’ve definitely got the right stuff.”
“I’m not worried about being murdered,” Luke growled. “I’m worried about becoming a murderer.”
Down another flight. He ran out into the lot, followed closely by Rudy.
“Poor little Jackson, his life held in the balance by your hesitation,” Rudy taunted behind him.
“So he can be saved.”
Keep him distracted. Just a few more steps. The green Accord sat in the corner of the lot, glinting in the dim light. “We just need to figure it out, and then we can save him.”
“But you won’t figure it out.”
“It takes a genius, huh?” Almost there. The keys bit into his hand. His shirt stuck to his back.
“More than a genius. Someone who’s taken the drug.” Rudy’s voice was much closer now. Where is he? Behind the red SUV? Luke broke into a jog, his shoes pounding hard against the pavement. “Tell me, Luke. Will Jackson ever forgive you?”
Luke mashed the unlock button repeatedly. The car blipped angrily back at him.
“Will he forgive you for passing up the chance to make him a real boy?”
The Accord swam and shimmered before Luke. Patches of his vision flickered to black. Almost there. He felt weak, heavy, slow. The world began twirling away.
His fingers locked on the handle. He yanked it open.
Rudy stared back at him from the driver’s seat, his eyes glittering red.