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 3

Anna met Zach as a up and coming associate, when he was a rising star for one of the firm’s biggest clients, a tech behemoth that was caught selling some very private data. He was only there for a single disposition, but that’s all they needed. They bonded over the fact that neither wanted to work for evil white dudes, but since neither had a trust fund, they still needed evil white dude money.

They kept up their jokes via text, and through a few drunken nights, but they both seemed too timid to announce their attraction. Over time, he got enveloped in Anna’s circle of pals and soon Harper, rebounding from that F-list comic, noticed him. And Harper does not wait.

There was that night, on the patio of that tiki lounge, after Harper threw one of her trademark fits, when Anna could tell that Zach wanted to kiss her. Maybe it was only the ghost of a want. That night, like a tongue drawn to the gap from a missing tooth, they toyed, however obliquely, with what could be. Harper reappeared later, to scoop Zach away.

Turns out, Zach was some kind of monster, judging from the damage tattooed across Harper’s body. No wonder Miles was so weird. God knows what he’s already seen.

How much did she really know about Zach? How many tech bros make a million for being chill or “woke”? Did she ever sit across from him at a negotiating table? Or piss him off in the middle of the night? But Harper did piss him off, plenty of times, in front of her, and he was quick with an “I’m sorry for having needs of my own.” Does marriage change someone that much?

Instinctively, as soon as Harper sensed she wasn’t alone in the kitchen anymore, she slipped her sweater back on. She turned to Anna, wiped her tears and shrugged: “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

 

There had to be some other explanation. Men catered to her every whim, even the men she didn’t encourage, but unlike Anna, there was no guilt in accepting any moron’s offer to help her move or drive her to the airport, even if the feelings weren’t mutual. Harper seemed to understand such acts of tribute were warranted. Her heartbreaks weren’t about men, they were always about performance. A second-place finish at a track meet. That typo on a contract that wouldn’t sink a deal, but revealed her capable of error.

“Do I really look that bad?” Harper asked. Anna answered by wrapping her arms around her. “Charlize wants to look this good when she cries.” Anna couldn’t remember the last time she got to comfort anyone, and it was delicious. She thought back to the friends they discussed, who had all faded into acquaintances, replaced by co-workers who knew the same facts anyone on Facebook might. She wished that someone would have warned her that playgrounds and tree houses and dorms would be as close as people ever get. It was all shrinks and self-help groups after that.

“Is this why you wanted me to come over?” Anna asked.

Harper nodded.

“It can be so hard to be a Mom, you know?” Suddenly any desire to bitch about Miles evaporated, complete with cartoon puff of smoke. “We’re not done drinking, are we?” she asked, and Anna shook her head “no,” now willing to guzzle a Zima if need be.

As they drifted back out to the living room, pitch black save for the lamp’s pool of light, it struck her that Harper may still be debating how much to tell. It would be pulling a fire alarm, as Harper must know that she wouldn’t rest until Zach was destroyed or at least, until she was divorced.

She can’t rush things, no, she’ll snag the tiny details and build them atop each other until she can say it out loud, and Harper need only nod.

Anna changed the subject, joking about the fact that she started going to the Hollywood Bowl alone, getting a seat way up in back with two bottles of cheap red, dancing in a way that embarrassed the twenty somethings around her.

“You’re still the coolest girl I know,” Harper said, looking for the glass Anna left in the bathroom. But before Anna could come up with an excuse, Harper had returned with one filled to the brim. Anna took a healthy taste and was impressed. Harper noticed.

“We’re into Zach’s stash that he saves for when the money bros visit,” she explained. “But I’m the one who picks them.”

“Is he going to be pissed?” Anna asked, getting back on track.

“That would involve being around,” she said, “He’s basically just a rumor here.”

“You guys doing okay?” Anna asked.

“What’s okay even look like?” she replied. Maybe Anna should stop drinking, so she can drive them out of there. But first, one last sip. The wine is that good.

“He sold his share of the company for a fortune. I mean, for a number that’s… He never has to work again, and we never have to worry.”

“What the hell happened to your arms? I saw, you know. I have a pair of eyes.”

“He doesn’t know any better.” Harper shrugged.

“It’s not 1960.”

“I don’t understand.” And it genuinely seemed as if Harper was confused. Wait. Harper filed a restraining order on that wannabe chef from Tinder. Why hadn’t she set Zach’s car on fire? Or take him for every last cent he’s worth? Oh.

Miles.

Still, the marks on her weren’t from someone losing their temper. They were methodical and deliberate the way TV serial killers are. Would she really want Miles raised by that kind of man?  Speaking of which…

“When’s Zach coming home?”

“He’s not,” she said, “Not tonight. Miles misses him so much, but it’s hard for him to understand where Captain Funeroo is. That’s what he called him when they were horsing around.”

“Does Captain Funeroo lose his temper?” Anna asked. That was too quick, too direct.

“Zach? Never.”

“You don’t need to protect him.”

“I didn’t,” Harper replied, then caught herself, “I don’t. You make compromises in a marriage, especially when you have a child. You hate the wine, don’t you? That’s okay, it doesn’t suit most palates.” That’s the Harper she doesn’t miss.

“Don’t change the subject.”

“Since when do you have a problem with Zach? Don’t you like him more than me?” That threw Anna off her stride. She thought there was a mutual agreement to ignore her crush.  Just as she was about to lean in and say, “I’m not going to let him lay a hand on you ever again,” a bright, hot shot of pain blanked her mind.

“No!” Harper shouted at Miles, who was biting down on Anna’s forearm, only relenting long enough to bite harder.

“What did I say? Huh? What did I say?”

As Harper approached, Miles finally released Anna’s arm and ran off.  Anna could have sworn she heard Harper scold him with, “Not yet,” but that made no sense. She seemed to have slipped into a deeper drunk, where her feet didn’t quite hit the bottom.

“It’s fine, hardly a scratch…” she began, assuming that Harper had already apologized but she hadn’t. That fact was blurred when she realized Miles broke skin, and pinpricks of blood appeared. “Let’s get you fixed up,” Harper said, and shuffled off, like this was as normal as street lights going on.

She woke up to a burning. It was Harper dabbing antiseptic on the bite. As she wrapped the wound with gauze, Anna smiled. What a change this was, someone fussing over her. “You’re good at this,” Anna said and squinted her eyes a bit to find her glass.

“Plenty of practice I guess.” And Anna caught the trail of their chat again, once again ready to swoop down, and hell, why not come out and say it?

“You don’t deserve this,” Anna said, shaping each word out of the fog. Anna reached for her phone which she could have sworn was right beside her. “Zach is never going to hurt you again.”

To this Harper smiled, in a way she couldn’t read, and said, “He never, ever hurt me.” And it was Anna’s turn to smile, knowing Harper couldn’t admit to being abused.

Harper continued, “He gave everything, which is just what a father should do.”

“I know why you asked me over,” Anna began and pressed her hands into the couch to stand. “You wanted me to find out what was happening and…” Words first, standing second.

“Don’t worry,” she replied, predicting Harper’s question, and suddenly the ache in her arm returned. Maybe she needed to put on her own mask, before helping Harper with hers.

Then there was a tug on her hair, followed by a snip. And another and another. There was something pleasant about the sound, crisp and final. Snip, Snip, Snip, and Away We Go.

A little boy’s giggle came to her like a radio station blaring from inside someone else’s car.  She started to wake, and on reflex, she reached back to discover her brown curly locks were no more. Sure some were still there, but she could feel some of her scalp against the back of the couch.

“Miles loves playing hairdresser,” said Harper. Her grin sparked some animal instinct in Anna, but one too dulled by the booze to articulate, let alone act upon.

“You’re right. I did call you because I, I felt overwhelmed,” said Harper. “What does a mother do? She gives. She gives and gives, and when she can’t any longer, she finds a way. Zach gave too, he did,” Harper prattled on.

Anna stopped listening to shake off her daze and find her phone. It was time to call an Uber. She caught Harper saying, “Don’t you see? Zach was just-”

“Fuck him,” Anna said.

And as soon she said it, as if she conjured him with the phrase, headlights filled the room. The fear shocked her clear, and she sought something she could use as a weapon. She still couldn’t quite picture Zach as malevolent, not in any real way. But it was only a car using Harper’s driveway to back up. Harper seemed to exhale too.

“Once you see, you’ll understand why I need you. It’s why I called, because I need you here, with me.” And she took off her slippers to reveal many of her toes were gone; some nubs were healed, others were scabbed over. The few that were intact only made the sight grislier. This was work, unfinished.

It turned her stomach. Better to simply call the police and have them drag Zach away. She’d never leave Harper’s side again. Where was her fucking phone?

“Boys need playmates. And they like to play rough.”

She unfastened the button on her sweater, and it fell to the floor. She slipped her arms through the straps of her dress, and then stepped out of it.

Anna was too busy trying to find her phone to notice Harper’s now naked form. Maybe Anna left her phone out in the car? But then Harper removed the hair from her head, and there was no ignoring the sight. The wig was impeccable, of course.

What stood before her wasn’t Harper; it couldn’t be. Hair had grown back in patches across her skull, crisscrossed with cuts. Her skin was a latticework of abuse: burns, bruises, scars and such. Some places were smeared with creams or tagged with bandages, no doubt from more recent atrocities.

But her face, unblemished, that was the same girl who vomited on those cobblestones in Prague, who bought her unlimited kamikazes after Josh dumped her, and who told her it was the law firm’s loss for taking her off the partner track. Why did a cadaver have Harper’s face?

“My baby. He’s an artist, you know? But he just needs more canvas.” Her phone may not be in reach, but an afghan was, and Anna grabbed it and swaddled her friend’s bare body with it. “I always could count on you,” Harper said. This felt right and true. And then, Anna decided to run for help.

She staggered for the door. Even if she wrapped her car around a telephone pole, she’d eventually wake up and tell the cops. It was only when she realized she didn’t have her keys that she stopped long enough to notice Miles in her way.

“Miles, do you want play with Aunt Anna?”

“She doesn’t seem like any fun.”

“Oh, but she is honey, she is. You know what her real name is?”

“Polly?”

“It’s Princess Funeroo.”

Standing still let a nausea catch her, and she threw up in her mouth, but it also startled her back to sense. Swipe the kid to the side and get out. And she might have, if Harper’s arm didn’t slip around her neck.

“Stay. We both know you don’t have anywhere to go.” And Anna nearly chuckled, but there wasn’t enough energy for that. Or rather, the prick of the needle flicked the world black.

As the days passed, the drugs kept the pain only an apparition that would vanish on the merest groan from her. Harper warned Miles to be careful with his new plaything, more careful than he was with Daddy or Polly. All that seemed left of Zach was in a few mason jars labeled “Captain Funeroo” standing in a jungle of Legos and stuffed animals. Zach’s tooth, or his finger would float into view within the jar’s murky liquid. Why didn’t they save some remnant of Polly?  Would they save anything of her?

When Miles brought out the saw for his magic trick, his grand finale, the only wonder Anna felt was at her friend Harper, who after all these years, and all this distance, and so many different choices made, could still know her so well. She’d always been Princess Funeroo, and how good it was to finally be a girl who showed up, and followed through.

 

THE END

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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