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 2

Then again, maybe drinking on an empty stomach was making her melodramatic.  “Do you have any crackers or something? I meant to get lunch,” Anna said. But does she really need to eat? Only if she wants to stay upright, replied a voice that frequently urged her to go home early and take “no” for an answer.

“I had all these plans for a picnic spread from this little French bakery, but best laid plans, you know? How about a pizza?”

“I’m on this whole no fat, no sugar, no gluten diet, so yes, basically, YES.”

“I love being the bad influence for once,” And she walked out, leaving Anna to not argue about who was in fact, a good influence.

But then, out of nowhere, as if Harper was there, inside her head: “Who never let go of Anna’s hand that day at the clinic? The one that wasn’t even Planned Parenthood, for fear they’d run into one of their friends who always volunteered there.”  Because abortions are something successful women believe in, but never, ever have.

“Can I ask you a question?” There was Miles. Suddenly at her feet and playing shy.

“Sure.”

“How’d you get so ugly?”

“That’s not very nice.”

“Do you not know?”

“It’s not really a question, is it?” This seemed to stump him.

He redirected: “Are you ugly because you were always ugly, or is it your fault?”

“Does Mom know you talk like this?”

“Nobody likes a tattle tale… Polly.” He stabbed the name at her like it was the c-word. Then he grabbed a banana from the fruit bowl and stomped out, past Harper, on her way back in.

“Look at you, eating some fruit for a change,” said Harper.

“Love you Mommy.” It sounded so honest, like calling a cloud white. Suddenly Anna saw this manipulative little shit giving a TED talk, twenty years from now. Hadn’t she stayed long enough? It was fast approaching 4PM already.

“Pizza should be here in thirty,” Harper said, and just like that, Anna remembered she was trapped. Maybe she could cut to the chase. “Where’s Zach hiding?”

The question took Harper off guard, only for a moment, but Anna noticed.

“Today is just about us,” Harper replied.

Did that mean he was upstairs? Or in Fiji? She liked thinking about Zach in one of those loud Hawaiian shirts, pumping his fist to Journey at the resort pool.

Harper circled the conversation back to talk of mutual friends. Brenda’s non-stop humble bragging on Twitter since the divorce, and Violet’s big break as a chunky convict on that Netflix show. They both admitted giving up on it after the first season, well before Violet’s arrival.

But she noticed there were times when Harper mentioned a trip she took to New Orleans or Austin, a random getaway to Catalina with a guy she’d met on Bumble. Anna assumed that Harper was too busy to stalk her online, but she clearly had.  Wasn’t she busy with some hobby she’d eventually get some ludicrous award for?

Even when Harper did something as pedestrian as making jam, Food & Wine ended up mentioning it in a blurb. Anna spied a wall of Mason jars in the kitchen assuming she gave up trying to sell them. Not because no one was buying, but because Harper lost interest, as she did with the clarinet, vlogging and her feverish detour into real estate. Though she noticed no new passions replaced her jams. Did any new friends replace her?

“Who do you keep up with these days?”

“Oh, everyone. I host a book club with everyone we ever met and you’re the only one not invited.” There was a twinkle in the way she said it, as if she knew it would disturb the hell out of Anna. She played along:

“Cool. Let me tell you about a book I just read. It’s called Dianetics, and it’s gonna blow your mind.” A flash of concern swept across Harper’s face.

Anna assured her: “Please. People like me don’t join cults. We don’t have that kind of follow through.”

“Oh, you do,” Harper replied and winked. “I’ve seen it.”

And just like that, she forgot what drove her crazy about Harper. Because the one thing she dreamt of being is a girl who followed through.

When the door rang with the pizza, Anna suddenly noticed that Harper cringed when she stood and hobbled to answer it.  Was it the booze, or as she thought about it, didn’t she seem to walk that way since she arrived? Of course. That odd scar might not even be the worst of her injuries.

It was getting dark enough at 6PM, so she decided to turn on a light. As soon as she flipped on a floor lamp…

“Polly want a cracker?” Miles had reappeared.

“No, but Anna does.”

“Polly flinched.” And he punched her arm once, twice. She wasn’t expecting that kind of force. “I didn’t flinch,” she said.

“But you will now.” Sure enough, she felt herself tense when he wound up again.

“That hurt,” she said.

“Good!” And he scampered away, just as his mother returned.

“He must really like you,” Harper said as she set out the pizza with napkins.  “Normally he hides when we have company.”

“Well, he’s not scared.”  And she left it there, her arm still smarting.

Anna had slackened the pace of her drinking. She wanted to sober up to drive home. Part of her assumed Harper would rush her through a visit, as some kind of obligatory gesture to fulfill a self-improvement phase. This was something else.

Harper plopped down beside her on the couch. “Enough chit chat. How’s Brett?” Normally, Harper would launch into a long, riveting monologue before ever asking about her life. Anna even appreciated not having to report her doldrums. Then again, Harper might have realized she didn’t give a shit about school choices or home remodeling.

“It’s been eight months, which is just enough time for me to think Brett’s changed, so the sex is something other than the definition of insanity.”

“Any other contenders?”

“I’m focused on me right now.” Which was the truth, though to be more specific, she was focused on how she could stop being herself long enough to get a life. Like her tendency to wait for the exact right moment to do whatever she wanted, but when that moment arrives, the world tells her it’s too late for that job, that trip, that guy.

“Is Zach around? I wanted to talk to him and see if he knew of anyone in need of in-house counsel,” Anna said, blurting it all out in a single breath.

“I know people too, you know,” Harper said, smiling to sell it as a gentle ribbing but adding: “Stay at home moms have incredible networks. Nobody knows that.”

Anna nodded, but inside she fumed: “What was I thinking, assuming your start-up guru of a husband might be in a better position to get me a job than a former, almost jam queen?”

Harper seemed to sense this internal commentary, and countered with: “So saving the world isn’t floating your boat?”

“It’s breaking the bank,” Anna admitted. She was quick to add: “Maybe I’m not as philanthropic as I thought.”

“Nobody gives as much as you do. Nobody.” Harper replied. “I might have just the thing for you. It’s actually one of the reasons I asked you over.”

One of the reasons. She rolled that over in her mind. She did need to see her. “Let’s hear it, because a ditch would be a step up,” Anna said. “What is it?”

Anna was praying that Harper wasn’t the one who joined a cult. Nonsense. She’d start her own.

“First things first. Let’s polish these off and get some more. To new beginnings!” Harper took a swig and Anna sipped. She noticed another strange scar right below the neckline of Harper’s sweater, one she might have ignored if Harper wasn’t so quick to hike her collar up to hide it.

“We can do better than this bottle,” and she zipped off to the kitchen. Anna’s glass was still mostly full.

“Where’s the bathroom?” she asked, and Harper directed her down a short, dead end hallway off to her left. She brought her glass and dumped it down the sink, saving her having to explain the need to stay sober enough to escape. She didn’t think whatever Harper was about to offer was anything more than some vague contacts, but she remained curious why Harper “needed” her. Although, as she was within twenty yards of a john, she decided to use it. Her bladder is tiny, with a junkie’s resolve.

As soon as she finished, the door opened like she was at a restaurant and Miles strolled in, armed with his banana.

“Miles!”

“Are you going number two?”

“Go. Right now. I mean it.”

“It’s my house.”

“Do you want me to tell your Mom?”

“But I have to go.”

“Then let me finish and you can use it when I’m done.”

“You’re already done. I don’t hear anything.”

“This is private.”

“Aren’t you gonna wipe? Don’t you gotta wipe when you only got a crack in front?”

And he peeled the banana, same as he would in the yard.

She was suddenly grateful for that dress she chose, it being long enough to leave some dignity intact.

“Can you at least turn around?”

“You didn’t say please.”

“Please turn around.”

“I don’t feel like it.” Instead, he walked up and stood in front of her.

“Gross.” How she wanted to smack the little deviant but couldn’t fathom explaining how a six-year old had it coming.

“It’s probably gross when you go potty too,” she said. To this, he grinned, and she braced for some revolting comeback.  Instead, he smashed the banana in his hands and let the mess tumble into her underwear around her ankles.

“You gooed your pants.”

It did resemble some kind of mutant yeast infection. The whole thing was so strange, she couldn’t help but smile. Miles did not like that. He seemed to tense every muscle as if he could somehow transform himself into a grenade, and finally erupted with:

“IT’S NOT FUNNY.”

He stomped off and slammed the door behind him. Alone again, Anna shifted to her usual hunt for where she failed. Did she encourage him somehow? Why didn’t Harper warn her that her kid was a dick? Or maybe every little kid is this weird, but people don’t talk about it. She blamed so many baffling experiences on her naiveté about just how shitty the world is.

She decided to toss her underwear in the trash, buried under a gob of toilet paper and find a way to leave. She’d call Zach on Monday. She still had his cell. For this nonsense, she deserved a trip to In and Out, a six pack of the IPA and a binge watch of some BBC show with an old lady detective.

On the way back to the living room, she even had a great excuse: an imaginary date with some unemployed software engineer who interviews other software engineers for a podcast to be the next Marc Maron. Only Anna would fathom a software engineer in need of a job. But it was believable precisely because it was so sad.

The living room was empty, but she could hear a muffled crying elsewhere. She traced it to the kitchen sink, where Harper stood, trying to swallow down each sob like it was a shot of straight gin. Her sweater was off, revealing a line of scabbed-over scratches mingled with blotchy bruises and the same skin condition she saw around her neck. This time, she could make them out for the burns they were.

That’s why Harper had reached out, had invited her here. To ask for help. She was being tortured. But could Zach do that? She couldn’t picture Zach raising his voice, let alone smacking Harper around. That’s crazy. A far more pressing question arrived soon after. How much time do they have until Zach comes home?

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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About Stuart Conover

Stuart Conover is a father, husband, published author, blogger, geek, entrepreneur, horror fanatic, and runs a few websites including Horror Tree!

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