The timer went off as I circled the last answer on my exam. It was a harsh, shrill sound—the death knell of many GPAs—judging from the frenzied scribbling and muttered swears of the students around me. Hopefully I at least did better than them. Fingers crossed.
After handing in my exam and flashing my school ID at the teacher’s assistant collecting them, I fell in step with the gaggle of exhausted college students making their way out of the building. Most would probably flock to the bars for a well-deserved drink after a late night exam, but my only plans involved going home and finally taking off my glasses.
Once outside, I detached myself from the group and started walking to the nearest parking lot where I’d left my car. I was almost there when my cell phone buzzed in my pocket. Perfect timing. I fished it out and hit accept, pressing it to my ear.
“Hey, Miss Lee! How was your last exam? Are we celebrating, or drowning our sorrows tonight?” my roommate chirped. What she really meant to say was, “Should I order pizza, or do we need booze?”
I laughed and rolled my eyes as I pulled my car keys out of my pocket. I felt pretty middle-of-the-road as far as my exam went. I certainly hadn’t aced it, but I hadn’t failed spectacularly either. What kind of night did that warrant?
“I’m thinking pizza and Disney movie marathon, just in case. And I want to sing at least three songs.”
There was a short silence on the other end of the line. Marie probably had a pained expression on her face. I was tone deaf as all get out, and we both knew it. Letting me sing was the ultimate expression of sisterly love on Marie’s part.
“One song, and I’ll let you have the last slice,” she offered. I snorted and pressed the unlock button on my key fob. The headlights on my car flashed as I approached.
“Oh come on, I’m not that bad. At least give me two!”
We were still bartering over how long I could sing before Marie’s ears bled when I felt a dull throb behind my eyes. I frowned and stared at my car. My feet crunched on the gravel as I took a tentative step forward. The throbbing spread to my forehead and I winced. I squeezed my eyes shut and took a step back. The pain lessened a few degrees and I scowled. Following the signs, I reluctantly tilted my head forward to look over the cheap Wal-Mart reading glasses perched on my nose. With them on, all I saw was my empty car. Without the suppressive powers of the lenses, I could see a blurry, humanoid outline sitting in my passenger’s seat. I blinked twice and the shape solidified somewhat. An elderly man that looked vaguely familiar was just sitting there like he owned the place. I didn’t stare long for fear of him noticing I could see him.
“Marie,” I whispered into the phone. “Didn’t you say something about an article in the paper on that professor in the biology department passing away?”
“Ummm…” she mumbled. I heard faint keystrokes in the background. “Yup, Dr. Hamilton; and it was psychology.”
“Nope! Nope, nope, and double nope,” I hissed. I spun around on one heel and flipped the whatever-it-was off in a very ladylike manner as I angrily stomped away.
“What’s wrong? Spider in the car?” Marie asked.
“Car’s broken,” I lied through gritted teeth. “I’m walking home.”
If it had been anyone else on the phone, I might’ve gotten away with the lie. There was a moment’s pause, and then I could hear Marie snickering as the real problem dawned on her.
“Oh, sweetie, is that what we’re calling them now? Was there a “nope” in your car?” she teased. I made an unintelligible exasperated noise as I made my way down the street. Thankfully our apartment was only two miles away. I could cut through the park nearby and maybe beat the pizza man home.
Marie Barerra is many things to me. Best friend, roommate, and most notably the witchy enabler of my philosophy of willful ignorance. I see things other people can’t. Sometimes those things look human. Sometimes, they even act human. And sometimes they pass through walls and scare the shit out of me while I’m in the shower. That still doesn’t make them real.
Since we met in high school, Marie has been taking the cheapest glasses we could get our hands on and charming them to suppress my…overactive eyesight. Having a witch for a best friend certainly had its perks. The unfortunate catch is that wearing her creations result in a lot of headaches if I keep them on for longer than an hour or two, but it’s something I’m more than willing to put up with.
“Did you still want only pizza?” Marie asked.
“Don’t tempt me with alcohol,” I told her as I crossed a street and headed into the park. “I’m going to need a lot of ibuprofen when I get home. Just order the pizza and I’ll be there in time to pick out the first movie.”
I hung up and shoved the phone back into my pocket as I entered the park. It was closed and unlit. It wasn’t surprising, given the late hour, but the gates were never closed and it made an easy shortcut home. I often saw kids play when I drove to school in the afternoons. It was a happy place, though a little creepy at night; with a jungle gym, corkscrew slide, and two swing sets that were quietly creaking in the breeze.
It was what I saw on the swings that stopped me. A hunched figure sat on the very last swing, unmoving and unperturbed by my presence. It wasn’t completely uncommon for teenagers to hang out here after dark, but they were generally in groups and drinking. This was just one person. A girl, judging by the plaid skirt.
“Hey, are you…okay?” I asked, hesitating as I stepped a little closer. Something felt off, but I wasn’t able to put my finger on what it was until I was close enough to see the crest on her blouse. It belonged to a private school in the area. I’d had friends from that school. I knew the uniform well: plaid skirt and a white blouse.
The girl’s top was soaked through with red, save for the very edge of the hem where a scant inch still shone pure white.
“Oh God. Holy crap, where are you hurt? I’ll call an ambulance.” I pulled my phone from my pocket and was just about to dial when the light cast by the phone glinted off something on the girl’s wrist. My hands trembled as I switched on the phone’s flashlight function and shined it on her.
The girl on the swing was young—maybe fifteen or sixteen—and hunched over not because of fatigue or even unconsciousness, but because she was being held up. What I’d seen a second ago had been the light glinting off the plastic zip-ties holding her wrists to the swing.
I jumped back several steps and pressed a hand to my mouth to keep from throwing up. Half hidden by the young girl’s hair was a gaping, jagged wound that had been ripped into her throat.
My heart pounded as I turned around and took several deep breaths. Today had been filled with way too many “nopes” for my liking already. Real or imaginary, I wasn’t sticking around to meet this one.
“Okay, Lee. Don’t panic. It’s not like you’ve never seen a dead body before,” I muttered under my breath. “Just go home. Go home, call the police, and then you can barf and watch Disney movies until the world is sunshine and rainbows again.”
The pep talk didn’t help much. I had barely managed a step before pain lanced through my head, as if someone had stabbed a knife right behind my eyes. A choking sound escaped my throat and I doubled over, clutching at my head. The pain blocked out everything but for what seemed like the misplaced sound of cracking glass. I forced one eye open, and the world before me had shattered into a kaleidoscope. My glasses had cracked.
I’ve broken countless pairs of glasses over the years. But never, not once, had they spontaneously broken while still on my face. This was new territory I had no interest in exploring.
“I can’t help you,” I breathed. “I don’t want to help you.”
I tried to force myself forward, to walk away from the grisly scene and be done with it, but I couldn’t. My feet were rooted to the spot. Fingers of ice clutched at my spine, paralyzing me as the cold spread into my limbs, my blood, into every cell. My heartbeat was so loud in my ears that I thought for sure it would bust out of my ribs.
I can’t breathe… A panicked voice whispered, though I could only hear it in my head.
The thought wasn’t mine. Or maybe it was; I couldn’t tell. Whoever said it was certainly right. My mouth was open, and my lungs labored to pull in air, but they were as frozen as the rest of me. I don’t know how long the battle between the cold I went on, but I lost. Darkness swallowed my vision, and I was left adrift somewhere between consciousness and sleep.