“It’s the strangest case. Blood everywhere, all of it the perp’s, but more than could’ve come from one guy.”
I listen to a cop speaking to another man over his coffee at the Waffle Hut. I try to eat my pancakes.
“Somehow he shot himself once in the leg, then three times in the chest–all with a broken arm and a smashed-in face.” The cop shakes his head. “All the locks on the cages are busted, but there’s no sign of a second person. None of the women are talking.”
The other man–in a freshly pressed, dark gray suit–holds his coffee, but hasn’t taken a sip. He’s no cop.
“How the hell do you shoot yourself like that?” the cop continues. He digs his fingers into his scalp as if that will squeeze the answer out.
The man in the suit nods. “I suppose that’s why they called us in.”
“Yeah, real X-files-type shit. The detective on the case–Matix–he’s kinda, y’know, distracted. His niece was found alive on his doorstep after being abducted. I can understand wanting to call it ‘case closed,’ but it just doesn’t add up. At all.” The cop chugs his coffee.
“Distracted?” the man in the suit repeats. “Can you be more insensitive?”
The insensitive cop continues, loudly. “I think it was the ‘sixth woman.’ There had to be a sixth. They found size eight flip-flops in the trunk. Brand new. Didn’t belong to any of the victims.”
“There’s no footprint database.”
“There should be a goddamn footprint database. You FBI and NSA guys have all kinds of freaky data on people, so why not footprints?”
The government man in the suit smiles sickly. “Who commits crimes barefoot? We’re going over what they have.”
I try to finish my pancakes, but my stomach feels full. It’s not; it’s a reflex, commonly described as someone’s ‘stomach sinking.’ It doesn’t sink–it contracts. It’s reflex, since vomit tends to deter predators.
“If there are any prints your guys missed, I’m sure the FBI will find them,” the man in the suit says.
I remember the board in front of the basement. I used my hands to move it.
“The FBI is bound to have dealt with cases like this before–there’s always evidence,” the cop continues. He tips his mug against his lips only to realize it’s empty.
I removed the magazine with my own hands…and didn’t wipe it down. My pancakes want to evacuate my body.
“It can be hard to figure out exactly what happened–and even then it can be hard to believe. But we’ll figure it out.” The man in the suit still hasn’t so much as sipped his coffee. “Sometimes, all it takes is a hair to get a read on the real perp.”
The blood drains from my face to join the rumbling pancakes.
“Why did you want to come to this restaurant?” the cop asks.
“I love Waffle Hut. They’re everywhere, and every store is the same. It’s familiar and tends to attract ‘regulars’ for that same reason.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean? Are we here running down a lead?”
I try to bury my face in my pancakes. Shit shit shit shit. My prints aren’t in a database. Neither is my DNA. I have no priors. There’s no way they know who I am. No way.
The two men get up to pay their tab. I can hear them walking toward me.
They pass; I realize I’ve stopped breathing as my lungs begin to burn. I hear the men continue out of the restaurant.
My lungs continue to burn and my eyes begin to ache.
How long have I been staring at my pancakes? How long can a person go without breathing?
My eyes feel like they’re being pried out by rusty nails.
“Excuse me.” Denni, the waitress, stands by my table with a pot of coffee.
I’m startled, “Wha?”
“Nel, you’ve been staring a hole into your pancakes for the last twenty minutes. You okay?”
Twenty fucking minutes? What the fuck.
“Yeah, just… I’m done. Sorry, Denni.”
“Was the food okay?”
“Yeah, always is.”
“Okay, I’ll get you your check.” She pauses a moment. “By the way, I never noticed before…but you’ve got such beautiful, dark eyes.”
Shit shit shit shit shit.
My eyes are not dark. My eyes should not be dark and “beautiful”–they should be pale and hazel and boring.
I don’t know if I say “thanks” or much of anything as I pay for my meal, and then duck into the women’s restroom as quickly as I can. Women’s restroom, shit, should I use the men’s? NO. No, that’s stupid.
The restroom is empty. I lock the door behind me and freeze when I catch sight of the mirror.
Dark eyes. Dark brown.
The eyes of a killer.
Not my eyes. I am not a killer. I am…but…NO.
Focus focus focus. Not your eyes. Remember your DNA. Hazel eyes.
There are no pain-sensing nerves in the human eyeball, but there are nerves all around the eye, the socket, and the muscles on the sides and tops of the ball that allow it to move in the socket. Those muscles and nerves are pretty standardized, but vary slightly from person to person. That’s where the pain comes from as I force the DNA of my eyes to rewrite back to my own.
The color fades from the irises in the mirror as the thin blood vessels redraw themselves on the whites of my eyes. My eyes are hazel. Asshole’s eyes were brown. Asshole is dead. He doesn’t deserve to have me remember his name, much less his genes.
The weight in my stomach is still there and I find myself bowing down to the porcelain god. Nothing comes up. Nothing and nothing. My stomach is already empty. Still, my body wants to vacate the pancakes that are no longer there. My lungs still burn, like my ribs can’t move enough to allow me to breathe.
Changing my eyes wasn’t enough to use up my meal…but my lungs. If I had changed my lungs, that would’ve done it.
Focus. Focus. Calm calm calm. I feel the pressure in my chest release as I continue to grip the sides of the toilet with white knuckles. I gulp in air like a catfish on a muddy riverbank. The bathroom’s rancid odor tastes like shit. It takes me a few minutes before I can stand.
I killed a man, but he’s still alive. Part of him is still alive. It’s in my body and it’s threatening to take over. He’s not dead. Not yet. Not completely.
I decide to call in sick and go home.
There is water. Swimming. Sunshine and darkness.
Damp air and pain. A splinter in the eye. Gun in hand. His hand. He’s everywhere–by the firewood, in the house, in the car.
Run. Run. Run. Run.
He’s following. Behind. Ahead in every crowded room. The walls are filled with dead women, stuffed and mounted on the walls. He’s in the kitchen at the end of the hall. Turn and run. He shoots. The dead women on the walls cry. He laughs as he swings the log. Laughs as he fires the gun.
All voices are his.
All is pain.
There is no breathing in the water. So much pain.
Like burning lungs from drowning.
Like the change.
Light, darkness, pain. Run down the hallway.
Doors are mirrors in the endless hall. He’s coming. He’s behind. He has the knife, the gun, the log. The floor is made of dead women–they cry tears of blood from glass eyes.
Look at the mirror.
He’s there, with a splinter in his eye.
All screams are his.
All is pain.
I can’t breathe. Lungs burn.
I. Me. My. Nel.
Blankets, soft and warm. A bed that’s too small. Too small.
I rocket out of bed and plow headlong into the mirror on the dresser across from me. The glass breaks and cuts into my scalp.
I look at what remains of the mirror and see his face.
“No.” I grip my skull with the hands of a killer. “Nononononono.”
My heart is racing; it threatens to break free of my chest…his…the chest.
Focus. Focus. This isn’t you…isn’t me. Focus.
I stumble to the bathroom, hands covered in blood from the head wound. My pajamas are stretched and choke me around the neck. I tear them off with one hand and start the shower with the other.
Focus. This isn’t me. I am Nel. Remember your DNA. Do it, dammit. This guy is dead. You killed him.
He is dead.
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