Serial Killers are part of our Trembling With Fear line and are serialized stories which we’ll be publishing on an ongoing basis.

Plaything Part 1

Anna drove white-knuckled up to Santa Clarita, having never acclimated to the creep and dash of LA freeways. She doubted the dress she chose, chalking it up to the Harper Effect. Even back in college, Harper left people wondering why they weren’t as cool as she was. This “effect” was free of malice or even intent, which made it ache all the more.

Harper’s blunt text: “i need to see you,” arrived out of nowhere on a Wednesday afternoon. Anna’s first impulse was to drop everything. But that was an old reflex, from when they were inseparable. This was six years into Harper’s Mommy Exile, and their last brunch was two years ago. But it was comforting that Harper assumed they were still close enough to be cryptic, so she offered: “How about Saturday? Like 1?”

She readied her “happy for you” look, that’s expected from her married or more successful friends, though it might be rusty from her tendency to bail on baby showers and toddler birthdays. Weddings at least offered open bars and the forgivable hook-up.  Now parties felt like junior high dances, everyone pressed into corners again, boys with boys, girls with girls, only now, at their center, were sticky-fingered trolls, all at once needy and brutish.

There’s still time to cancel: car trouble, or the all-purpose “work” excuse. But then she recalled gloating about her new non-profit gig, with its work-life balance. That white shoe law firm was an awfully convenient way to explain all the dateless sex, social disappearances, and streaky sobriety.

That mercenary gig also kept her floating above the silent, sucking void of student loans. All she got for her vow of poverty was mind-numbing contract work. Turns out, she had to climb a brand-new ladder for the prize of losing to her old firm as the court rules that a major corporation can poison x number of kids.

She’d never admit such things to her old friend, but maybe she would to Harper’s husband, Zach. Once she listened to whatever ailed Harper, she could ask Zach if he knew of anything that paid more than a hunger strike.

Zach had recently sold off his little app for a ludicrous sum, a fact she came across when a mutual pal sent her a link to a write up in The Fucking Wall Street Journal. And just like that, Harper managed to marry a millionaire after all.

Her GPS announced the exit just in time to miss it. Rather than taking that as a sign, she took the next off ramp, and zig-zagged through the strip malls and big box stores, relieved by the neighborhood’s “America in Decline” feel. She still lived in a goddamn major city and she’d cling to that cache until they found her alone and dead in her apartment, being eaten by her cats. She did not own cats. She did not own cats yet.

A flicker of envy did appear as she turned onto Harper’s street. The homes were unique, even a little funky, creating the sense of a nifty hipster enclave. These people didn’t sell out; they left the rat race with their good taste intact.

Yes, Harper’s place was the standout. Two stories of crisp, modern design, mostly glass. Out front were neat rows of bamboo and some kind of rock garden. Of course, it was even fucking ecologically responsible. The front door was framed by a pair of Japanese maples that stood like alien courtesans.

She parked in the driveway, then froze, the engine still running. When did Harper ever leave this Crate & Barrel cocoon to see her? Fuck this. She’s a grown-up and as such, gets to do as she please. If Harper needs to talk, they can text, like people in the 21st century.

“What up, lady!” arrived in Harper’s husky sprite voice. She’d let her billboard blonde locks grow out, right down to her waist, which only made her look younger. Anna imagined backing up and speeding away, but instead, she put the car in park.  She’s a grown-up and as such, is shackled by expectations, despite what her bookshelves of self-help argued. The clock read 2:30PM. What’s an hour or two? After all, Harper had been there for her years ago. With that, she slipped into her unflappably supportive persona and got out.

Harper threw open her arms, and Anna felt her friend’s firm, lithe frame press against the ten pounds she was going to lose next month. Anna hugged back, and felt her college pal flinch, if only for a moment. Is she disgusted by her? Anna’s old therapist, the one whose office always smelled of curry, would be shaking his head. “What do we call that Anna?” “We call that Anna Accurately Judging the Situation, Dr. Morris.”

“Thanks so much for making the drive, it always sucks.” Harper said, headed back to the house. Anna followed after her, appreciating the long, grapefruit tinged summer dress and the shapeless, chunky grey sweater on top, held in place by a single button. On her, it would look like pigeons shitted yarn on her shoulders.

As Harper opened the door, there was a dull, arrhythmic banging from upstairs. “When was the last time you saw Miles?”

“His third birthday, I think.”

“What? No. Miles! Come down here and say hello to your Aunt Anna!”

“NO. She’s stupid,” came down from on high.

“Batman was stupid last week,” Harper shrugged.

“Maybe I made an impression.” Anna didn’t think that at all, having avoided interacting with him during that last bash. It was easy to do, what with all the other adults desperate to pat his head and pretend he was fascinating. “Tell me you’re drinking these days,” Harper said, drifting away from the stairs and into the kitchen.

Anna didn’t need a tour. The house vibrated with the ohm of Architectural Digest. The austere décor was tempered by Miles’ paraphernalia strewn everywhere, a rainbow shrapnel. Harper ducked back out of the kitchen. “Don’t judge me, the nanny had the week off, so I couldn’t clean.” Leave it to Harper to misread her slack-jawed envy. “If you’re a good girl and finish this shitty Chardonnay, you might get some of the good stuff. Ugh, that’s my Mom voice, I can’t turn it off lately.”

“I wish my Mom made me drink when I was growing up. It’s the type of thing you get book deals for now.”

“How is Ellen?”

“Migrated to Iowa of all places, out of fear of hurricanes and people of color. It’s like instead of dementia, Mom’s getting racist.”

“Really? Do you visit?”

“Calls for birthdays and holidays. We talk about seeing each other, but that’s just a game we play. She doesn’t want to fly, and I don’t want to fly there.”

Harper handed her a half glass of white that smelled like peaches soaked in gasoline. “Pound this, so I can open the good stuff. Cheers.”

Anna took advantage of the opening and asked, “What’s up?” Harper looked baffled.

“You texted you needed to see me.”

“It doesn’t have to be an emergency, does it?”

Anna gritted her teeth. She wanted to storm off, but of course, that would be, “Anna getting emotional.” Anna had long been cast as the neurotic one, the one that didn’t get over things. When that’s all she did. Get over them. Or stuff them out of sight when they’re inconvenient for friends. Things like Zach.  Exhale. Let Harper be Harper and eventually she’d get to ask for Zach’s help.

“I missed you,” Harper finally admitted. “I can still do that, right?”

“Of course! It’s just so hard to find the time,” Anna replied. Anna could tell Harper was hiding something. She’d eventually fess up. If she didn’t, that would be a shock. Of sorts.

“Hi Polly.” And there was Miles climbing up on one of the stools in the kitchen. She wasn’t sure how big six-year olds were, but he seemed oversized, obese even. There was no trace of Harper’s elegance, only her big blue eyes and golden hair, in a pageboy cut. He called to mind an Aryan hobbit. As soon as she thought it, she tried to erase it with an overdose of sunshine: “Hey there! I’m Anna.”

“You’re Polly! Don’t be a liar. Lying isn’t nice.”

“This is Anna. Now apologize.” Harper said, but with a grin.

“You’re a liar too.”

“Maybe I remind him of a Polly he knows.”

“Polly was his last nanny.”

Harper gently scolded, “Show her how polite you are.”

“It’s not my fault Polly’s a dumb-dumb head!”

And he scooted off his seat and scurried away.

“Nobody talks about the shitty sixes,” Harper said.

Maybe things weren’t so perfect. The thought relaxed Anna. She could resume her place of Confidante-In-Chief, where Harper could sit out the Mommy Wars for brief respites to bitch about her brat, knowing that she’d never shame her. Harper could even live vicariously through Anna’s dating escapades, and that alone would be reason enough to start having some.

“I’m opening another, and you can’t stop me,” Harper announced, stabbing a new bottle with a corkscrew and twisting it about. In the motion, her sweater sleeve fell down to her elbow revealing a twirling of scar tissue running from her wrist all the way up her arm, like stripes from a barber’s pole.  Harper caught her glaring at it.

“A riding injury. Can you believe it? Turns out motherhood fucks with everything you’re good at,” Harper explained. It felt invented somehow, but not in that moment. She shoved the sweater back down to hide it.

“Where do you ride now?”

“All over. Santa Barbara. There’s that horse trail down by you, passing the Hollywood sign.” If she was in LA, why didn’t she call? But Anna gulped that syrupy white to stop that thinking.

But then she thought back to the scar. She must have ridden the horse through barb wire to get that kind of wound. It didn’t feel real, Harper being marred like that. She was the type of the girl that always got away clean. After all this time, what finally caught her? Her guess was something other than a horse.

Rob Kotecki

Rob Kotecki is a writer and filmmaker. His fiction has been published online and produced by the horror podcast PSEUDOPOD. His films have screened at film festivals around the world. His latest, TILLY, won the Brooklyn Horror Film Fest Audience Award and was sold to REDBOX. He is an ex-finance journalist and earned a BFA in Film Production from NYU, and an MFA in screenwriting from UCLA.

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