Victim

by Nicole

by Nicole Guerrero

A soft breeze billowed the filmy white curtains on the bedroom windows. The girl on the bed turned over onto her back, staring up at the alarm clock reflection on her ceiling – 3:37 in giant red numerals. She lifted her fist and let it drop listlessly onto the coverlet. Then she sighed in frustration and sat up, running her hands through her hair.

Serina washed her face with cool water, then pulled on the previous day’s clothes, crumpled in a heap on the chair. She pocketed her keys and shut her apartment door securely behind her. Her sneakers vibrated on the metal stairs as she descended to the street,. Somewhere, a dog was barking. She found her car and sank into the cool leather seat.

Serina headed for the freeway, enjoying the dearth of cars on the road. She rolled her windows down, letting the air swirl gently through the car; it tickled the hairs on the back of her neck. She reached across the seat for her pack of cigarettes; the brilliant green of the dashboard clock played over her hand as she pulled one out of the pack and lit it before bringing it to her mouth. She sighed a stream of smoke out the window, and tried to forget the day’s events. She had been late to work . . . again. Attempting to sneak into her cubicle ran her directly into her supervisor, Gloria. A mountainous woman, she towered over Serina, a sneer curling one corner of her rubbery, lipsticked mouth.

 “Well, well, well, look who decided to join us today!”

 “I can explain,” Serina stammered. “I -”

 “I am really tired of your excuses, young lady. You have been late at least once a week since you started. Warnings and write-ups have no effect. I have no choice but to fire you.”

 Serina could feel her face warming with embarrassment; tears threatened in the corners of her eyes. Gloria straightened to her full height and sniffed. “I don’t want to hear any blubbering. Clean out your desk immediately.” Serina’s meagre box of belongings still bounced around in the back seat as she continued her late-night drive. No one had said goodbye.

She flicked the half-smoked cigarette out of the car as she crested a hill. Something was fluttering down below, a large, white object. Serina squinted, but she couldn’t figure it out.

She coasted downhill; it became clearer as her headlights swept the ground. A man in white was standing in the road, arms outstretched, head thrown back. Standing in the middle of her lane.

With a sharp intake of breath, she slammed on the brakes, both feet pressed down into the floor; she jerked the steering wheel to one side. Serina was screaming but no sound came out. The man stepped in front of her car again, one foot raised, then down, then the other. His feet met together perfectly as he stood awaiting the crash, enveloped in a pool of light from the streetlamp overhead.

The impact pushed Serina forward, the seatbelt chafing her neck. A harsh crunching sound echoed in her ears as the steering wheel embraced her. The man was swept up and she saw him as he flew, inch by excruciating inch, over the windshield. A beatific smile played upon his face. His arms were stretched over his head, like a high-diver arcing into a pool. His shoulder-length hair streamed out from his head; a quick memory scuttled through Serina’s mind of the signs she used to see on the freeway, warning of illegals fleeing into the road: the father in the lead, the mother following closely behind, dragging a young girl, pigtails flying, behind her. He was wearing a white terry-cloth robe, belted tightly at the waist with a piece of cord; the bottom half belled out with the breeze as he floated out of sight. No shoes, just long socks, the soles stiffened with dirt; his toes were pointed like a ballet dancer. He landed with a sickening thud on the trunk of her car, making it creak with the weight.

Serina lifted her head slowly and tried to breathe. She sat up in her seat and felt along the door for the handle. Black balls bounced in front of her eyes. She walked unsteadily to the back of her car, steeling herself for the awful scene.

The man lay curled upon his side behind her car, his once-spotless robe marred with bits of gravel and daubs of blood. His eye, streaked with red from the taillight, rolled in her direction, and he smiled through gritted teeth flecked with red. “Thank you,” he whispered.

Serina stood over him, eyes frozen open. “Oh, my God, I need to call for help,” she said, more to herself than to the man.

He took a deep, shaky breath, and spit, “No.” With effort, he straightened his body into a clean line, rolling onto his back. Serina shook her head to clear it and hurried to the passenger side door of her car to get her phone. She tapped buttons frantically, but the screen stayed dark. “Piece of shit,” she hissed, throwing it on the floor of her car.

She walked behind her car again to check on the man. He was inching his hand slowly towards his robe pocket, teeth clenched with the effort. He withdrew a piece of paper from it, and shakily extended his arm to her. “Please . . . take . . .” he managed, before his arm dropped to his side and he lay still. A trail of blood had slid out of the corner of his mouth, which remained partway open.

“Mister?” Serina said, her voice barely a whisper.

She knelt upon the gravel and stuck two trembling fingers upon his neck. It was utterly quiet, save for a lone cricket blithely chirping away near the trees. Serina covered her mouth and bit back a scream. She stayed that way for what seemed like an eternity.

The ache in her knees brought her back; she uncurled slowly and looked about her. No one had stopped. No call boxes in sight. She didn’t want to look at the man again; his eyes were open and glazed over, like those Kewpie dolls her grandma used to have in the living room. Stray light would glint off them in the dark, forcing her to stretch the comforter securely over her head. Serina looked at everything else except his face, raking her hair back from her forehead with broken fingernails.

It was then she saw the paper again, clutched in the man’s palm. He wanted me to take it, she thought. She pulled it out of his hand carefully, avoiding the blood, and held it by the tips of her fingers. It was a cream-colored envelope with an address hastily scrawled across the front. She stuffed it into the back pocket of her pants, then grabbed her purse and keys and hurried down the road in search of help.

Serina stayed close to the shoulder as she ran; overhanging branches caught and slapped at her bare arms. Each streetlamp seemed miles from the next. The thudding of her shoes on the blacktop echoed the thudding protestations of her heart. She stopped to catch her breath, bent double, her hands resting on her knees. Serina pushed herself to keep going until she saw the familiar blue exit signs; they swam in front of her eyes. She felt faint and slowed to a walk down the ramp. The bright lights of a gas station seared her retinas. She shaded her forehead with her hand as she searched for a phone.

A bell jangled over the door as she pushed it open, causing a young bored-looking boy to straighten up and pretend to busily polish the glass counter with a rag. Serina swept down the tiny aisle of cool beverage cases towards the back of the little store. The phone was hanging on a graffiti-covered wall, surrounded by dusty cases of soda. She touched the receiver tentatively, a bird of panic flapping her chest. She took a deep breath, grasped the receiver, and pressed the three-digit number she’d known how to dial since she was a child.

“Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?”

 Serina’s mouth worked, but only a squeak came out.

 “What is your emergency?” the operator repeated.

 Serina wet her lips and tried again. “I-” she whispered. “Please. Help.”

 “Where are you calling from?” the operator said, beginning to sound impatient.

 “I don’t know. I’m in a store.” A scream was slowly building inside of Serina. She shifted her weight from one foot to another, feeling the counterboy’s eyes on her. “Someone needs to come. Please.”

 “Well, how am I supposed to send someone if I don’t know where you are? Little girl, if you’re playing with me, I’m gonna get you in trouble with the cops. Find out where you really are, and call back.” Click.

Serina took the phone away from her ear, staring at it for a long minute. Then she took the receiver and began slamming it against the rest of the phone, over and over again, as a sob escaped her throat. She left the phone swinging by its cord, tears cascading down her face, to find the boy staring at her with startled eyes. As she advanced toward him, he shrank into a corner of the counter, the filthy rag still clutched in his hand.

She stopped at the beverage case, grabbing a random bottle before coming up to the counter. As she placed it on the glass she came face-to-face with a pistol. The boy was holding it in a slightly trembling hand. “We don’t want any trouble now,” he said. “Take the soda if you want, but don’t make me have to use this, okay?”

“I need your help,” she said, slowly, trying to remain calm.

 The boy just stared, still suspicious, and said nothing, continuing to hold the gun. Serina snuffled and swiped at her nose with the back of her hand. She didn’t look up, tracing the letters of the soda bottle label with her eyes as she spoke. “I had an accident. I hit somebody. A man.”

 She met his eyes briefly, then continued. “On the freeway. Can you – can you call for me?”

 Serina watched him relax a little – just a little. “Alright,” he said, finally. “How about you go sit outside?”

She thought it best not to argue, so she grabbed the soda bottle by the neck and pushed the cool glass outward until her face met the street. She sat down on the curb and pressed the cold plastic to her hot, sticky cheek.

* * *

Serina leaned her forehead on the window in the rear of the taxi the officers had called for her. She could hear a faint rattling as the driver made turns. She could feel him looking at her in the rearview mirror, but neither one of them said anything.

When the cab finally stopped at her building, she slid across the seat to the other side of the car, tipped the driver, and struggled up the stairs to her apartment, fumbling at the lock. She tripped her way over to the bed; a weak ray of sun was pushing its way across her room towards the coverlet, but she didn’t bother to draw the blinds. The pillowcase was cool under her cheek. A vision of the man’s bloodstained grimace floated in front of her face, and then blackness swiftly overcame her.

It was morning again when she awoke, mouth full of cotton, legs wooden. She stretched out on the bed and flexed her feet slowly. Her mind was filled with dim memories of tumultuous dreams where the man kept sailing over her car. She shuddered as reality washed over her; the police told her she wasn’t in any trouble, but she felt she needed to make things right somehow.

Serina turned on her side to find the envelope propped up on her bedside table, a thing which she did not recall doing. She pinched it between thumb and forefinger and brought it close to her sleep-fuzzy eyes. The handwriting was full of loops and scrawls, and the letters ran together. The ink had bled through the paper in a few spots.

The address followed Serina into the shower and back into the bedroom as she washed and dressed. She stuck the envelope in a pocket once more, and headed down the stairs to find a bus.

The bus driver raised his eyebrows when she asked him about the address. “No,” he said slowly. “We don’t stop at Hollow Point; it’s a tiny backwoods road. We stop at Azalea, though; it’s a couple blocks’ walk from there. Why do you want to go there, anyway?”

Serina ignored his question; she paid her fare and took a seat near the middle of the bus. The bus lumbered through the familiar streets while Serina watched from the window; everything looked different now that she wasn’t the one driving.

She met the driver’s eyes in the rearview mirror. He cleared his throat and resumed watching the road for a beat.

“You know those weirdos out there?” he blurted.

Serina stared and said nothing. “I hear they do messed-up stuff out in the woods there,” he continued.

Serina wasn’t sure what to say. The driver pressed on once more. “Look, girlie, I’m just telling you to watch yourself. You shouldn’t go alone, nice girl like you. Don’t wanna see you on the news or nothin.’”

She murmured, “It’s something I have to do.” It was more to herself than to the man.

The roads began to narrow as they edged closer to woods. The bus squealed to a stop at the beginning of a long dirt path. Serina stood up and threaded her way to the front. The driver looked at her and said, “Go straight down this road here, then make a left, then another left. That’s Hollow Point. You sure you want to go there?”

Serina just nodded, not trusting her voice.

The bus driver rolled his eyes and said, “Okay. Be careful. Have a good one.”

She stepped gently off the bus and headed down the dirt road. Clouds puffed up around her sneakers as she walked. The road soon narrowed and she made a left at a small sign; dirt was upgraded to gravel. Serina turned left again, onto a small lane overhung by trees – Hollow Point Drive, read the fading sign. The gravel had changed to tiny shells, which crunched loudly under her feet as she plodded along. Slowly, a large house came into view.

The house was made entirely of brick, with white Doric-style columns on the front porch. The upper windows had been relieved of their panes and gaped like blind eyes. Serina shivered, standing a few steps away from the lawn, vastly overgrown with weeds. Half of her wanted to turn and run back the way she had come, but yet, she felt compelled to walk up the drive to the door. The porch had been ground down by time, the white paint fading to a dingy grey upon closer inspection. The floorboards sagged as Serina walked across to ring the doorbell. Even for a hot day, the porch was shrouded in a chill breeze, and she crossed her arms for warmth as she waited.

A old man with bright white hair slowly opened the rust-flecked door. Some curls of paint dropped off and fluttered to the ground. He smiled at Serina and folded his liver-spotted hands in front of him. “Hello, there,” he said.

Serina just looked at him; he had on a burgundy velvet smoking jacket, tied about the middle with a piece of cord. He wore long socks and no shoes.

“How may I help you, miss?”

“I- I hit a man,” she said softly.

“Excuse me? What did you say?”

Serina fumbled in her pocket for the piece of paper. She wordlessly showed it to the man. He pondered it for a second, head to one side like a bird. Then he looked up and smiled again.

“Yes, yes, my dear. All will be okay. Why don’t you come inside?”

He put his arm around her shoulders to lead her into the house. The door creaked loudly as it swung shut behind them.

Serina looked about her as the older man steered her through the front room. It reminded her of her grandmother’s house: the light blue walls; the chintz sofa and loveseat, faded carefully by time and sun; the coffee table with the legs carved to resemble claws. As they shuffled through, she could hear the loud ticking of the grandfather clock, a heartbeat resounding through the hall.

The man in the velvet jacket steered her to the sofa, motioning for her to sit. He sat at the other end, turned slightly towards her. He arranged his outfit carefully as he crossed one leg and rested it on the other knee. “Mmm,” he said. “So, it was Terry. I’m sorry that you met under such unfortunate circumstances. You would have liked him.”

In her mind, Serina saw the man fly over her car once more. Now he had a name. Her breath hitched and the man beside her reached across the cushion and patted her hand with one of his own.

“You mustn’t blame yourself, young lady. It was not your fault.”

Serina passed a hand across her face. “I could have stopped. If there’d been more time -”

“It was time.” She looked up to find his eyes searching her own. They were a strange color, almost violet from the jacket. “Tell me your name, my dear.”

“Serina.”

“Lovely,” he said, closing his eyes for a long moment. “Calm. Peace. But your life is not so at this moment.” It wasn’t a question.

Serina opened her mouth to speak. “And I don’t mean just because of the . . . incident with Terry.” He put his head to one side again; a smile crinkled the corners of his eyes. “Would you care for some tea?” he asked, ringing a little bell he extracted his pocket.

“You asked my name, but you didn’t tell me yours.”

“Aloysius.”

Despite herself, Serina smiled. “What an unusual name.”

“A very old name,” he corrected, “for a pretty old man.”

A second man walked into the room, bearing a silver tea service on a tray. His hair was greying at the temples, but Serina didn’t think he was that old. He was also garbed in a robe, but his was black. And he was barefoot.

Aloysius regarded Serina carefully as she watched the man place the tray on the table in front of them and then shuffle away. He picked up a dainty china cup and began to pour. The scent of jasmine wafted towards her nose as she held the cup in both hands. She began to lift it to her lips, then thought better of it and rested her wrists on her knees. “Too hot?” he asked, kindly.

“A little,” she murmured as she watched him pour himself a cup and immediately put it to his lips; he took a long swallow. In the pause that followed she followed suit with a small sip. He watched her and narrowed his eyes a tiny bit.

“I wouldn’t poison you,” he said matter-of-factly. “But you were right not to trust me. After all, we don’t know each other – yet.”

They sipped in silence for a moment.

“So,” Aloysius continued, “you saved him, actually.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“Terry was very . . . tormented by the signs he received. They affected his dreams, and his waking life, to a great degree. That was how we knew. It was time.”

“Signs?” Serina asked, absently running her thumb over the rim of the cup as she held it.

“His dreams,” Aloysius sighed, “became more than just coincidence. Near-death experiences. It go so he eventually stopped sleeping, just wandered the halls, day and night, and up and down the streets.”

“That poor man,” Serina said softly.

“He was always the seer, and should have been the leader. But he was also very fragile.” Aloysius stood and walked to the window, fingers laced behind his back.

“He threw himself out of the window one night. After they pieced him back together he realized the only true way for him to be released was by someone else. And that was you. You were the catalyst.”

He turned from the window. “And now are you here to be helped.”

Serina’s eyes widened. “I think you’re mistaken. I just – wanted to make things right.”

“Serina,” he said, taking a step towards her. “I know you have a soul that writhes in pain.”

She could feel the hackles on her neck rising. “I have to go,” she said, rising from the couch.

In an instant, he was beside her, his hand closed upon her wrist. “You must have been seeking something,” he said, looking into her eyes. “Most people wouldn’t have come here. And though someone tried to dissuade you, you still knocked on my door. What makes you different?”

Serina tried to break her gaze from those strange colored eyes. “Please,” she whispered, “let me go.”

“But you have been chosen,” he said, tightening his grip.

“Let. Me. Go!” she said, gritting her teeth. She raised her sneakered foot and stomped with all her might upon his toes. He loosed his grip and she ran for the door.

She skidded through the gravel driveway, heart thudding wildly. Aloysius yelled from the doorway as she hurried to the street. “One sacrifice begets another!” he shouted. “When the signs start, you’ll be back!”

Even when she was clear of the house, she kept running. Her lungs ached. Her leg muscles quivered and threatened to collapse, but she did not stop until she felt solid concrete underfoot again.

Serina staggered toward the first object she saw, a wrought-iron chair under an umbrella. She leaned her chin on her hands and struggled to breathe normally.

“Hey,” a voice at her elbow said, “these are for customers only.”

She slowly turned her head to look at the boy in the green work apron. He crossed his arms as he stood over her.

“I-” she started. It came out a whisper. She licked her lips and tried again. “I want . . . a drink. I . . . just need a minute . . . Please.”

She heaved herself to her feet, took a step towards the door, and promptly crumpled in a heap on the sidewalk.

* * *

The bus squealed to a stop. The avenue was mostly deserted at this time of day. Only one person was waiting for him to arrive.

As the doors hissed open and the woman got on, the driver felt as if he recognized her from somewhere. Her hair hung limply in a face that was young, but haggard, as if she had spent many sleepless nights. He looked at her rumpled clothes and generally disheveled appearance with something approaching distaste.

She pushed her fare into the box with ravaged fingernails and asked through dry, cracked lips about Hollow Point Drive. “Hey,” he said, “you got on here about a year ago and asked about that address, didn’t you?”

If she heard him, she made no sign. Her eyes seemed to stare through him. She muttered “signs” and took a seat in the middle of the bus again.

“What happened to you?” the driver tried again.

The woman stared out the window.

“Remember, ya gotta walk to Hollow Point from Azalea.”

“Yes,” she said, in a voice that sounded far away.

The rest of the ride passed in silence. When the bus pulled to the curb, the driver watched her stumble off, then drove away, shaking his head.

She plodded down the dirt road and turned left, then left again. The house was further ravaged by time since her last visit. The porch had holes in the floorboards, and Serina stepped into one as she made her way to the door. The scratch began to well with blood as she pulled her ankle free. She passed a shaky hand over her face, then rang the doorbell.

There was no answer. She knocked on the door to no avail. She tried the knob, and it twisted easily in her hand. She wandered through the hall; the grandfather clock was still there, its heart now stilled, initials scratched into it. The sofa had bled stuffing and springs.

She traveled further now, to the staircase. The wood was soft and rotting, and Serina could detect a faint smell of urine. She placed her feet carefully as she ascended.

She turned right at the top of the stairs and found herself in a barren room. The floor squealed in protest as she padded across it. She opened the door to the closet, as she had done so many times before in her mind. The lone hanger held what she sought.

She drew the robe over her arms and tied the cord with trembling fingers. Her color was blue, and Serina thought it was beautiful. She didn’t see the note, but she had read it so many times before that it was unnecessary. Put this on and wait for further instructions. A faint smile played upon her lips as she crossed to the open window and waited, an autumn breeze curling around her unshod feet.

She never heard him come up behind her. A flash of burgundy velvet and silver before the searing pain, and she fell to her knees, marveling at the rivulets of red.

* * *

Detective Rafferty would maintain for the rest of his life that it was the case that haunted him the most. He ascended the rotten stair in that nearly-condemned house to discover the stiffened body, splayed out on the floor, near what used to be a window. The female was covered in a moth-eaten, tatty blue bathrobe, striped with blood. A knife had been plunged deeply into her side. But these were not the things that bothered him, waking him from tenuous sleep for many years.

As he approached the body from the right, he could see her face. One eye staring open, and the face stretched into a hideous grin. The other half of her face was hidden by her arm where she lay on her side, one hand stretched to the boards, the fingertips forever stained with red.

With a shaking hand had been written, “I am the last. I am free.”

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