The Last Thing You’ll Ever Read

If you knew the world was going to end and you only had time to read five more books, which would you choose?

I found myself pondering this question today while looking at the long expanse of new bookshelves in my bedroom. Filled with so many delicious titles to choose from which of my many books (how many do I have?) would I pull off of the shelf and savor?bookshelf-clip-art-home-ideas-for-bookshelves-for-kids-clipart

 

Here’s my short list:

#1 Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger. I see this book referenced everywhere and no I’ve never read it. Go figure.

#2 To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Another one that is so much a part of our cultural lexicon and that I’ve never taken the time to read, and yet still own.

#3 The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. Supposedly the quintessential horror novel and yet I’ve never read it–partly I think because of what my mind does automatically when I see the title. I turn it into Turn of the Shrew which must come from mixing it up with The Taming of the Shrew by Shakespeare. Either way the word shrew annoyed me away from the title.

#4 The Stand by Stephen King. This one I have read and it holds the number one most favorite book spot in my heart. Also, if the world were going to end this would almost be preparation for it.

Hmmm… #5.  I might leave that one open. Perhaps this one’s not on my shelf yet.

What would you add to the bottom of this list? What would be on yours?

My Take on H

H is for Happiness
Word count: 871

 

His wife was acting squirrely. Anna was normally a very serious woman, practically no sense of humor at all and that suited Abraham Hesse just fine. He was a scientist, she was a scientist, there wasn’t much room for silliness in their professions, nor in their home. Thankfully, they’d had two kids, Peter and Olive, who were just as serious as they were.

He’d first noticed the change in his wife on Tuesday. She’d been in the kitchen, on her phone, giggling. Anna was not a giggler, it didn’t need to be said. He’d asked her what was so funny but she’d flipped her phone over and said something about adding to the grocery list.

It was true that Anna kept a running list on her phone so he’d dismissed it at once. Perhaps he’d only misheard her. Perhaps she’d been clearing her throat.

However, before dinner on the same night, he was sure he heard her humming. Anna was not a hummer, that went without saying. That was, in fact, ridiculous. When he got closer to her, the sound stopped and she turned to him questioningly. Her face was unlined, he was startled to see how much younger she looked. He quickly left the room without saying anything.

On Wednesday morning, Anna got up much earlier than the rest of them, and when he blearily turned off his alarm he swore he could hear her singing in the shower. Anna was not a singer. In fact she was very close to tone deaf and rarely even listened to the radio. When he approached their shared bathroom door, the singing stopped, and the space seemed filled only with the rush of water. Could he have imagined it? A slip of a dream still in his mind when he awoke?

Maybe.

The following day he caught Peter, Olive, and their mother huddled together in the kitchen. As soon as he entered the room they sprang apart, each going their separate way. He stood for a moment, annoyed, then left by the front door without a word. Perhaps they’d only been planning something– a school project maybe. A coincidence that they had scattered like rats with a secret, nothing more.

On Saturday his serious faced son Peter (so much like his own, that face) had a soccer game. Abraham attended as usual sitting in the stands with the other parents–keeping himself purposely separate. He hated small talk. After awhile he grew puzzled, then concerned. The boy looked like stranger– a smile ready on his face, his gaze easy and relaxed. He was enjoying himself on the field. It was Peter out there, but it wasn’t Peter.

At home his daughter Olive stared at him blankly when he greeted her and he had to admit that she probably hadn’t heard him. There were earbuds in her ears and he realized with horror, she was actually dancing away from him, down the hall and to her bedroom, the door of which she closed with a thump.

Had his whole house gone mad? It was too much. He could tolerate a little eccentricity from his wife but to have it affect his children? Never. Their futures were at stake.

Dancing, music, jokes, humming, singing. He had to put an end to it all. Right now.

He called a family meeting. They met in the living room. He in the chair, his son across the marble coffee table, his wife and daughter closest to him on the sofa. Despite the stern look on his face and the tension in his shoulders, they all had the audacity to be smiling at him. Unsettled, he realized his wife and daughter were even holding hands.

“What is wrong with all of you?”

His wife glanced at her children. They all nodded and then turned back to Abraham.

“I said, what the devil is wrong with all of you?”

Their eyes got bigger, bolder; their smiles faded, slipped away. The skin of their faces rippled, just slightly.

Abraham shrank back, afraid.

The skin on their arms rippled, tiny rivers bucked and entwined just under the surface. Abraham’s breath came faster and faster.

“Dear god,” he said, although he had never uttered the words before. He swallowed hard. “I’ll think of something. I’ll fix this. I know I can.” His voice was barely a whisper, his body didn’t move out of the chair. He was riveted in place by the sight of his family, and their condition.

“There’s nothing to fix, Abraham,” his wife said.

His son reached for his hand, but Abraham sat back out of reach. He was studying a problem that he meant to solve. His concentration was total.

“How can I kill it,” Abraham whispered. “Maybe I can cut it out?”

His wife laughed, sweet and bell-like, like nothing he’d ever heard before. “Abraham, you can’t kill happiness. No matter its form.”

She moved closer to him, leaning over and gently kissing the center of his forehead. The touch was light but he was instantly contaminated; he could feel it spread across his forehead, down his cheeks to his smile muscles, settling there.

Idiotically, he began to smile.smiling man

Doesn’t It Just Figure

A Dab Will Do You
Word count: 521

 

Last night–rough. Tom tried to roll over but found that he couldn’t move at all. What a bender. He really needed to stop going out with the Davis Brothers, Thorne and Jack. He couldn’t possibly out drink those two. The headache, oh man.

Jack had yelled,  “If you found the fountain of youth, would you drink?” and Tom’d lifted his drink and said something about wasn’t that what they were doing? And then laughed, so much laughter. A little hard on the ears if he was honest. A little overdone.

What had Thorne said? Drinking it was like drinking off the devil’s tongue. He’d said, only a sip will do you, but had Tom listened? Did he ever?24825_zoom1

He was paying for it now. He couldn’t even turn his head, couldn’t open his eyes.

He could hear though, the sounds of voices. A lot of them, but subdued. Maybe he was on the floor of the bar. He didn’t remember making it home last night. Maybe the TV was on.

What had possessed him to drink so much? Oh, that’s right. Jack’s wife left him, that ballbuster. Tom’d felt a kinship to him having been tossed by the wayside himself. Together they’d toasted their new lives, their freedom. Jack’s wife had wanted a taste of the good life without him. Hook up with whoever, that Brent guy probably, they all knew that. She’d wanted to taste the wine, sit in the Queen’s spot. Well now she had it, didn’t she?  Along with a misogynistic playboy with a penchant for battery in a trailer with no AC in the middle of July. It was almost funny, if you had that kind of sense of humor.

“I’m so sorry, Jack.” Tom could swear he heard Bella. “It was just a stupid accident.”

You don’t leave somebody on accident, Bella. If only Tom could move his face, he’d be sneering. Stupid woman.

“It’s my fault, Bella.” He heard Jack say and Tom wanted to shout–never admit it man! Don’t let her back in! “I brought the drink.” He could hear Jack’s tears, the man was bawling like a lost three year old.

Tom was confused. Bella hadn’t left him over booze. That was more Tom’s wife’s problem.

What the hell was going on?

He was feeling nauseated now. If he didn’t get it under control he would be revisiting the Bombay duck he’d eaten. Don’t swallow, that was the trick. Tom found he couldn’t swallow anyway. His mouth was too dry.

More voices. He was really tripping. He could hear his mother murmuring, was that his sister? What was going on here?

“I’d like to say something.” Who was that? It was so familiar. “All of us who knew Tom knew he was capable of anything–he had so much potential. He just had demons to fight. Unfortunately, I was one of them.”

Was that Marissa? Anger bubbled in his stomach. Who let that wench in? The woman who, at the divorce hearing, swore to never look him in the face again unless he was– dead?

Oh no.

 

Skeleton in the Breeze

A Ray Bradbury inspired story:
Word count: 451

 

Tom discovered it first thing in the morning on the way to his mailbox.skeleton

It swung in the crisp fall breeze, covered in vapory thin clothes, bones rattling against each other, a macabre wind chime prominently displayed from the old tree. Tom’s cat hissed at it, skittering away from it into the bushes leading out to the old field.

The skeleton swung, unperturbed.

Tom stood silently watching it swing and twist. Occasionally, a lone leaf would fall off a branch above it and scrape across the old bones.

His wife joined him. “My God, Tom. Will you look at that?”

“I am looking,” he muttered, running one hand through his white hair.

“Do you suppose it’s some kinda joke? Bored teenagers, or something?”

He shrugged his shoulders, continuing to stare until his wife sighed, rubbing at an arthritic knee, and headed back towards the house. “Just get it outta here, will you?” she said.

Tom fetched the ladder but when he set it up he found himself unmotivated, stuck halfway up. Why did it even need to come down? He liked it, though he couldn’t say why. Its clothes were faded red, sleeves torn and pants ripped but it felt more alive to him than he, himself did. It didn’t hurt like he did, wasn’t bent and crooked, achy.

Its teeth rattled at him, seeming to talk, or maybe just chomp in his direction. He leaned closer to it and saw that there were wispy bits of white hair attached to its scalp, not unlike his own.

He climbed back down, leaving the ladder and the skeleton to the morning sun.

Into the night the skeleton danced among the bare branches of the tree. Frayed clothes knitted together, twisted muscles stretched across its bones.  Blood dripped from fingertips that covered slowly with skin. Eyes bulged, then covered with eyelids, teeth hid behind lips, wispy hair thickened and coarsened, turned dark.

The sun crested the old field and filled the little farmhouse with light, shining on Tom’s side of the bed, which was empty. Tom’s wife rolled over grasping the blanket to her chest, slumbering.

The cat stood in her place in the yard, swishing her tail back and forth, watching the slow and ponderous figure making its way through the field beyond the leaf littered yard. Watching its shoulders roll and the clothes on its back flutter and whip, the red plaid flannel shining in the early morning sunlight. Soon the figure walked more steadily, then confidently, striding. Youthful hands swept once through dark hair before settling over his heart. As light painted the meadow a golden hue he broke into a run, an old man turned young, and disappeared from view.Belle-In-The-Sun-Part-2.1

My Take on F

Flashbang
Word Count: 267side_jpg

The moon hung high in the sky, yellow, bloated, expectant. Every man in the group was aware of it, but none more so than Alex. His eyes slid toward the orb, then back down to the grass. Then back up again.

Bad luck follows the moon. An odd superstition for a swat team member, maybe, but he knew some of the other men were also on edge, could see it in their lined faces, their furtive glances into the shadows.

All around Alex the slight shufflings of movement sounded, of boots on hard packed earth, of weapons held at check.

In front of them, the small yellow two story house sat in darkness. Trees hovered around the roof occasionally making scratching noises and some kind of bug trilled shrilly in the bushes.

Sweat dripped off Alex’s brow.

Inside a drug dealer slept. Mark Belltrollis, aka Bellman, aka Belltolls, a midlevel worthless punk who was hardly worth the week of preparation Alex’s team had put into his capture. Hardly worth all of the anxiety coursing through his brain, and his nerves, and his muscles tonight.

The soft whisper of an ear radio signalled that the other team was ready.

Two of Alex’s colleagues stepped forward with a door ram, then slammed it against the door, bursting the wood, and each man rushed inside.

Alex was third in line and the first up the stairs. He cleared the landing, stepped aside as Rourke slid beside him, tossing the cannister into the room. A pause, then the flash bang went off, and the shrieks began.

 

Wilder

well-766dc35738532cd02cfe163b74563af7This is one of my favorites, written a little more than a year ago. Enjoy.

Wilder
Words:  1861

 

They say, God never gives ya anything ya can’t handle, but in His defense, I don’t think Wilder is one of God’s.

He’s special, ya see.

That’s what the doctor’s say.

With all due respect, those doctors don’t live with him. Wilder ain’t theirs. They can’t know that boy.

I know him. I made him.

That little devil is mine.

 

Wilder’s named after his grandpa, Wilder Thompson, the great explorer. Esteemed in his community, even got a park named after him. City folks want a statue of him but say it ain’t in their budget. Maybe next year, they say. That’s been goin’ on twenty years now.

Wilder, he’s six, going on seven. Towheaded boy. Kinda small for his age, stretchy little boy muscles. In the womb he never stopped movin’, I swear he pushed himself outta my body all of his own. He bit me, hard, six days after he’s born. His brothers and sisters,  Emmaline, Gertrude, Johnny, William, and George, they was all sleepers at that age; Wilder he was screamer and a biter.

If I weren’t a poor woman, I’d of hired a wet nurse.

Then I would have, anyway. I’d have other plans now, knowin’ what I know.

He’s two when he discovered the gift of fire. Most babies that age they scared a fire. One touch and their little fingers don’t wanna touch it no more. Wilder, he’s the opposite. He stared at it, then stuck one skinny little finger in the candle fire like he couldn’t help himself.  Over and over again. Til he cried to hisself.

That was a long winter. We sat in the dark a lot. Poor Wilder.

When he’s three we called him the destroyer, just between the two of us, you understand, Wilder’s daddy and me. He broke furniture and his brother’s toys, my only good vase. Tossed our Bible in the fireplace, a real family heirloom. He broke spoons on his back too, acting like that he would really get it–we were good parents, we tried to teach him right. We beat him regular but it didn’t matter. There was no taming our Wilder, he’s aptly named.

We didn’t send him to school, we kept him home. We knew no teacher could keep him and why would we do that to some poor woman? Emmaline, bless her heart, tried to teach him at home but by then, Wilder was more mean than innocent. He waited til she took a nap, then took a glass an’ with the sun’s accomplice, heat, he burnt her hair right up. Her pretty long hair she’s so proud of. Just turned it into a burnt singed mess.

Poor Emmaline.

Soon after, he jumped from the rafters–how’d he get up there? and landed right on Gertrude. I say landed. I mean aimed.   He stuck her so hard he broke her arm.

Poor Gertrude, good hearted, heaven sent. She never even raised her voice to the boy but I see her avoid him now. No one could blame her, Wilder had no fear for himself, his own pain, you could just see it in his eyes. He just needed the pain of others.

That was a hard lesson for all of us to learn. Wilder could be anywhere and wherever he was, he was likely plotting against us.

Little devil.

 

He’s sleeping less now. I lay awake an’ listen for him at night. Some nights dawn greets me ’fore my eyes close.

I worry.

I worry about my other younguns. Their futures. George, he’s old enough now to marry only nobody will take him. Like he’s tainted. Like he’s got bad things inside of him too.

Poor George.

Johnny and William, the twins. One light, one dark headed, both angels. My sweet boys. Best helpers on the farm, those two. Dedicated. I send one to get water at the well and the other, he follow along just to help. God’s best work, those two. Ten years old and just as docile as lambs, gullible. Dumb as rocks, too, god love ’em cause I do. Sweet boys.

Wilder tricked Johnny.

He waited for ‘em at the well. Waited for one to get busy and then the next moment he tackled Johnny, turned him ass over tea kettle into the well with a big splash.

That was the only time William ever hit him. He hit him hard too, a goose egg on the side of his sweaty head, knocked him clean to the ground, dazed him good. Wished he coulda learned from it.

Then William got the rope and fished his brother out of the well.

At home, and drying out, the only thing Johnny said was, “Father, the well is almost dry. Time to hire the Hadfields to come divine a new well.”

I didn’t punish William, a kid can only take so much. And he’d taken a lot those past six years. Poor boy.

I didn’t punish Wilder. I didn’t dare. I couldn’t be everywhere at once and I couldn’t be awake all of the time neither.

But it did give me an idea.

 

One Sunday morning I did it. I planned it so as no one’d be home but me and the little runt. It was better that way. If it had to be this way, and it did, better I hold all the guilt, better that god hold me to it and not the innocents, the brothers and sisters, the father. If there be guilt and maybe there won’t, better it burn a black hole in me, the mother. I brought him into this world.

It was Easter Sunday, a right proper church holiday. Bell could be heard all across the meadow callin’ all the parishioners to service, ringin’ and ringin’, joyful.

I played sick. It was a little lie, and God will forgive me this once. It was for a good cause.

All the children got dressed up in they’s Sunday best. The girls in their pretty bonnets, Father wearing his best hat. Everybody’s shoes, nicely shiny, hands and faces real clean. All  except Wilder. He wasn’t invited, the pastor done already made that clear in years past after Wilder set the good man’s vestry on fire. He burned up thirteen beautiful new bibles that day, a crying shame. But he got what he wanted. He never went back.

Now isn’t that a bit a irony?

I waited an hour, lying under my aunt Maybelle’s best quilt she willed just to me, watching the little devil play with a little wooden train and two tin soldiers next to the fire. The rest of his tin soldiers were sitting quiet in my pocket, but he didn’t know it. I waited til it seemed most probably that I’d need water, about the time to start cooking our Easter dinner. To alleviate any suspicion, you understand, any trouble. Then I coughed real hard, long and laborious, really tossin’ some phlegm in there, making it real authentic. I waited for him to notice me and then I said, real sweet, “Wilder, sweetie get your old Ma some water from the well.” I waited him out then, coughing and moaning slightly til he couldn’t ignore me no more. “Dammit, boy,” I said. “Fetch that water or I’ll tan your hide.”

He got up slowly then, like I knew he would, stretching his cat like limbs and went for the bucket in the kitchen.

I waited two minutes, just enough time for the boy to get out of sight and then I raced out the back and beat him to the well. The old well, not the new one. I checked to make sure the little tin soldier was still sitting on the outer edge of the well. The light hit it just right, it glinted in the sun, an irresistible treasure for a boy like him.

Wilder was stepping along swinging the bucket up in great swingin’ arcs over his head, belting out some tune he heard in town. He wasn’t paying attention and he walked right by the well without seeing the soldiers at all. My spirits fell, but I had one chance left. I snuck out behind him, added a whole row of tin soldiers to the edge of the well, then crept back to my hiding place.

Wilder soon followed, bucket full now, his concentration now set on not droppin’ all that water on his shoes.

All those tin soldiers line up glinting in the sun was a temptation no little boy could resist. he set his bucket down, picked up the soldiers and began a game of war.

I crept  up behind him, snappin’ a twig at the last moment, aint that how it always goes? and he swung around to look at me, his eyes all startled.

“I’m real sorry.” I whispered and leaned down quick as you please, and grabbed his legs and lifted his legs up and over the rocky wall of the well. It was so quick he didn’t have a chance to make a peep but I heard him when he hit the bottom of that dry well. He said, “Mama” real high pitched and angry, kinda angry-scared. By that time I was already hefting all the five and ten pound rocks I’d gathered over the last month over the edge of the well, raining down a hell and judgement he never saw comin,’ the little devil. I tossed every last one of them and then I gathered all the twigs and logs that the rest of my strength could manage and tossed them down too and then all I could do was lean against the well, tired and drained and my soul lost.

 

The hard part was lighting the fire. Every match I tossed down the well blew out before hitting the bottom. I finally had to balance a log on the edge of the well, ignite it and let it burn and then poke it with a stick until it toppled o’er the edge.

“You was a bad lil devil but you’s at peace now. God bless you and keep you, I couldn’t.” I said before I left. By then the fire had burned itself out and the stink was leaving too on account of the Spring winds. It was time to bury him.

I got the wheelbarrow, our best shovel and filled it with soil. It took much longer than I thought but I got it filled up and dumped down the well, twice. By then I was sweating and weak and required sustenance. I walked slowly back to the cabin, a part of me gone forever.

William met me halfway there. “Mama! Are you all right? You’re sick, Mama, come lay down.” And that sweet boy led me to the divan and sat me upon it and Emmaline made me some tea and after I’d sipped it half way down I said to all assembled, “Wilder done run off. Probably for good.”

Nobody questioned how a six year old coulda run off and neither did we speak of the little devil again.  Some sins don’t bear speaking of.

 

My Take on E

E is for Exercise
Word count: 1940

 

Sherrie just needed 125 more steps to make her hourly goal. If she used the bathroom on the third floor instead of the second where she was now, she could make her step-count goal and add another flight of stairs to her daily total. fitbit-force

Yes, that’s what she’d do.

She glanced at the clock on her monitor. Six minutes until the hour. Plenty of time. She grabbed her purse, slung it over her shoulder and weaved her way through a labyrinth of cubicles. She could follow outside the outer edge and add to her step total but it might take too long–it was too close to the top of the hour. She’d take the long way back to her desk instead, add more steps on the other side of the hour.

Best to loop around to Janice’s group–she didn’t know a soul over there. No one would try to stop her to chat. She rotated her arm lighting the display on her Fitbit–four minutes left to the hour.

There was the door to the stairs. She slipped through, taking the stairs two at a time then knocking the door open on the third floor, and heading directly to the bathrooms near the west elevators.

Almost there. She checked her watch one more time. One minute to spare.

She’d forgotten her phone at her desk but surely she’d reached her hourly goal–maybe even doubled it. She settled down onto the toilet seat with a sigh of contentment.public-toilet

The bathroom was empty, silent except for the heat rushing through the vents over her head. Silent except for the shuffling of her feet, then the twang of the toilet paper unrolling into her hand.

Shattering the silence–a loud hollow bang, then a scream. She froze in her spot. Another scream, blood curdling this time, then cut off.

Sherrie felt all the blood in her limbs rush to her torso, leaving her ice cold.

What was going on out there?

She could hear voices, getting louder, along with thundering steps. Someone was coming closer, and fast.

Another bang, a thud, then murmured voices.

Fear so sharp it tasted like acid rushed through her. She trembled, her eyes watering. Should she get off the toilet? Try to hide? What if the toilet flushed? What if they heard and came into the room? What if they came in the room anyways and she was sitting here like an idiot on the toilet?

Further away she heard another scream, someone was crying. The footsteps outside of the bathroom faded away heading toward the noise.

It was now or never. She stood up, begging the toilet not to flush–it flushed anyways. The one in the stall next to her did as well. She held her breath, expecting the worst, listening.

No one entered the bathroom.

She pulled her purse off the coat hook, slipped it onto one shoulder and pushed the stall door open. It creaked hollowly.

Her rapid-fire breathing was the only sound in the room. Out of habit she glanced at her Fitbit–noting the time. Six minutes after the hour.

Could she get to the stairs unseen? Escape that way? She edged out of the room, looking around. The hallway was empty.

How many–who?– were there? Where were they now? She shuddered, slipped out of her shoe accidentally. Fought fiercely to put it back on, scraping the back of her heel, listening all the while.

She was almost there. This side of the building was deathly quiet. No voices, no cries, there was barely a hum of computers.

She crossed the hall to the stairwell door, slammed through it, suddenly unable to contain her energy anymore. Her feet stomped down the stairs, one slick hand on the rail. Exhilaration shot through her veins– she’d made it, she was safe just a few more steps–.stairwell

She rounded a corner stopping suddenly in front of a bearded man with a gun who looked, if anything, more startled than she was.

“Oh god,” she said the air whooshing out of her, terror freezing her in mid-motion.

“Stay where you are,” he said, but she wasn’t moving, couldn’t move, could barely breath.

“I’ll shoot you where you stand.”

She nodded mutely unsure what to do now. He looked like he didn’t know either. He looked scared. And despite his beard, very young.

So he wasn’t one of the shooters then. A lookout, maybe? She cursed her luck.

He looked nervously at the door, then back at her. “What floor are you supposed to be on?” he said.

“Two,” she whispered, then unsure he had heard her, she cleared her throat and pointed at the door.

He looked even more unsure. “Okay, you aren’t one of those floor three bitches. That’s good.” He let out a breath of air, leaned against the wall, arms crossed on his chest, the gun dangling. “What department are you in?”

“Sales. Sales support,” she said and her face burned with embarrassment. Was she really having a conversation with a– well, what was he? Some kind of domestic terrorist?

Yes, he was. He and whoever he was with. But why?

She found herself babbling. “Mitchell’s group. You know Mitchell? Tall, curly hair, kinda pudgy? Nice enough guy.” The terrorist shook his head at her and she said, “You work here?”

He narrowed his eyes at her. Why had she asked that? It was the wrong thing to say. What would he do now?

He shrugged his shoulders, maybe figuring it didn’t matter at this point. “Yeah, I used to be up on three. I remember you, now. I saw you around sometimes. You used to use the bathroom on our floor–” a light dawned on his face. “That’s what you’re doing, wasn’t it? Just now.”

She nodded, and then realized she was sweating. Profusely, in fact. She lifted one arm and released a pungent fear sweat smell. Red bloomed up her cheeks and she shifted around in her shirt to allow the air to dry her out. Sweat dripped from her hairline. Self consciously she swiped at it with her sleeve. She needed to get ahold of herself.

She took a deep breath, letting it out slow, slower, trying to steady her fiercely beating heart. After a moment it cooperated, slowing to a more steady beat.

There. That was nominally better. She looked closer at the youngman. Did she recognize him? Maybe, maybe not.

His face. Oh no. He wasn’t wearing a mask or doing anything to protect his identity. Her heart sped up again. Did that mean he was planning to kill her?

“What– what do you want?” she whispered.

“To shake things up.” He shrugged his shoulders again. “Say, why do you always use the bathroom on the third floor?”

She squeezed her eyes shut, feeling briefly dizzy, and suddenly very tired. She raised one arm to hold the rail, then her knees gave out and she sat on the stairs with a solid thunk.

“You all right?” he asked and he looked so genuinely concerned she almost laughed. Then she did, because the whole thing was so ridiculous. Why did she use the bathroom on the third floor?

It was so stupid, she grinned expectantly, earning her a grin from him as well. She raised her arm indicating the Fitbit.

“Hey, isn’t that one of the exercise things?”

She nodded, still giggling.

“How does it work?”

“I have no idea,” she said, and now her voice was strong. “I just wear the fucking thing everyday and it counts my steps. Yay me, I get 10,000 steps today.” Slowly, her giggles subsided to silence.

His face looked thoughtful. “Can I see it?” he asked.

“Why?”

“I’ve never seen one up close.” He pointed at it with his gun and at first she tensed, but then she realized that he wasn’t threatening her. He’d forgotten it was in his hand.

“Come on, let me see it?”

She shook her head, unsure why she was being so stubborn.

“There’s nothing to see. Just a black band. It’s basically a watch.” She showed him the display and the clock flashed briefly– 3:48.

How about that? she thought. Just passing the time with a terrorist discussing her exercise routine.

“How much’d that set you back?”

“I got it free through my job.”

“But it’s expensive, right? A couple hundred?”

“I guess so.”

“Man, I’d like one of those.”

She nodded absently, suddenly tired. Sad.

He gave her a sly look. “Give me yours.”

“What?”

“I said, give me yours.”

He definitely remembered the gun now. He waved it at her. “Now,” he said.

“No.” It was out of her mouth before she’d even realized it. Too late to take it back now.

“I said–”

“I heard you.” She stared him down. “This one’s calibrated for me. Get your own.”

He was so taken aback he stepped away from her and leaned against the wall. “Fine,” he muttered under his breath.

The door banged open beside him and three other young men crowded the landing.

“Jesus, Jonathan. Where’s your mask?” one of them said.

Jonathan shrugged, reached into his back pocket and pulled out a ski mask that matched his friends’. “I didn’t need it,” he said. “No cameras in here.”

“What the hell?” The same guy pointed to Sherrie, noting her for the first time. “What about her?”

“No, she’s cool. She’s from two.”

Sherrie’s heart raced to the top of her throat strangling her voice. Her knees knocked. Her purse fell off her shoulder, landing on the concrete with a thud.

“We gotta go,” the first guy said. His shoes slapped down the stair next to Sherrie. She leaned away from him pressing as far into the wall as she could. The others followed him including the young man she’d been conversing with for the last half hour. She watched him guiltily slide the mask on over his head, his eyes cutting over to her, then slip past her.

One of the others stopped on the next landing. “What about the chick?” he said.

Sherrie heard the leader say something under his breath, then he stomped back over to her.

“Yeah, sorry,” he said and before Sherrie could cry out ‘no’, his gun swept up and he pulled the trigger in her face.

She heard a click, her limbs turning to liquid, her mouth opening to scream mutely.

“Dammit,” he said, “Give me your piece.”

Jonathan handed his gun up and the leader raised it and shot Sherrie in the chest. She watched him hand the gun back to Jonathon then say “Let’s get out of here.” He turned on his heel, pushing past Jonathan, and raced to the final landing, disappearing around the corner.

Sherrie was lost in pain, buried in it. Her breathing sounded like a hiccuping machine to her ears and she knew she was probably going into shock. She hoped that would make the pain go away.

Jonathan was still standing in front of her. His lips were trembling uncontrollably. He leaned down, being careful to not look her in the eye, instead he looked at her shoulder, her arm, her forehead, but not her chest where blood welled across the silky fabric looking like a macabre tie dye flower.

His eyes were sad, his vision blurry, and his hands shook gently as he grabbed her Fitbit and yanked it off of her wrist.

He slid it onto his own wrist, snapping it in place, sighing resignedly, then stood up and followed his friends down the stairwell and into the bright sunlit parking lot.