by Michelle Ian
available on Amazon
Michael Kerrigan waited for the world to come back into focus. The minutes ticked by as the night rooted its way in from the distance. He checked his watch for the hour, but time itself had become a sinister thing. The macabre images of his youth played out before him in an endless reel, spinning out of control until, at last, there was only that memory in time. He sat in silence, forced to relive that night over and over while the moving pictures on the screen struck a merciless and bitter blow. Paralyzed, he continued to watch the video project the things he fought for so long to suppress. Unable to deny it any longer, he wept. His eyes fell within the tiny box of the cellphone’s screen.
“I need you to do this. I need you to be a man!” His father towered above him, his skin waxen and his expression half-crazed as the cold, steel handle of the shovel he pressed into the soft tissue of Michael’s shoulder bruised his skin. His father’s face morphed into a contorted mask of both intensity and rage, his eyes locked onto his in a way he’d never seen before.
This can’t be happening. The words fell flat, failing to comfort him. He drew up every ounce of his strength to block the impending panic attack that aimed to consume him. Still, he could do little to stop it. Michael reached inside his bag, his fingers clutching at the cool, hard plastic within. He popped the cap and let the cold, carbonated liquid slide rapidly down his throat as his feverish lips formed a makeshift ring around the outer rimmed top of the bottle. Gritting his teeth against the head rush of pain, he waited with his jaw clenched for the thaw to take hold as it penetrated the back of his skull like a shiv. However, this merely cleared the way for the track to replay itself. There would be no end to this nightmare. It beat down upon him with a harsh but righteous fist, unrelenting in its every swing. Couldn’t be… He held the phone tight in his hand, projecting every thought, every emotion, as it trailed across his cellphone’s screen like a teleprompter. Michael zoned in on himself; panic encapsulated him like a bubble. His voice resonated thick, coming through the speaker like putty pushed through a sieve; it oozed out static, whispering into the night. The fear trapped inside was like a powerful engine, holding him to the body that lay motionless at his feet.
He counted every heave of the shovel as it struck the earth, his love for the person he once was, buried deep within the grave he forged for his childhood friend. He dug into the ground, his courage slipping through his fingers like smooth, crushed gravel. The dirt piled mid-thigh beside him. The years since had brought their share of cold and sleepless nights. His dreams now haunted with a persistence that rivaled time as the reminder of what he’d left behind often spilled out into the days. At last, the shutter stopped, and the video went dead. How long had it been? He wasn’t sure. Not that it mattered. A sickness had settled in long ago, leaving him so far gone nothing seemed to make sense. He became lost, lost within himself and in his writing. He didn’t want to be found, to make his way back from the land of make believe. Eventually, he left home. Home at that point was a four-letter word of a different kind. Still, he had always found his way back, returning for those special visits, usually to spend time with his best friend… his only friend. Michael studied his seventeen-year-old self before switching off the screen. Coward. He lowered the phone onto his lap, hearing the word as if he himself had spoken it aloud. Everything around him moved in slow motion, the air itself hazed and full of ripples.
“Come on… Talk to me.” The petition caught in his throat, while his pulse thwacked inside his head. He revisited the text and dumped the video. To no surprise, there appeared to be no other messages or clues, the number itself, private, most likely the recipient of a burner phone. He unclenched his hand and flexed his fingers, instantly feeling the blood circulate as pins and needles burst from beneath his skin. Flashes of his old friend’s body, half buried in the dirt, imprinted its own cigarette burn from inside his mind. The blood, still fresh on his skin, glistened in the moonlight. Was it possible he wasn’t alone? He could make out nothing but a narrowed path that led out past the brush and into a stretch of scantily clad trees. However, now he knew the truth. Someone else was there, watching him. Their face a mystery, hidden behind their camera’s lens. Their eyes focused only on him. Eventually, the images faded, becoming nothing more but a mass of peppered white static skittering out into the night.
Why now? Whoever this was could’ve doomed both him and his father years ago. Why hold on for all this time? Because revenge takes time. The sinister voice flowed deep from within him, as smooth and pristine as silk. Revenge was like the stars aligning in the universe. Each cluster within every house meant something a little different for everyone, but it did indeed mean something. He switched the phone to silent, desperately hoping, at least for tonight, this would be the worst to come. Michael rose from the bench, wiping his face clean with his hand. When had he sat down? He couldn’t remember. His body moved like that of an old man’s, his arms hung down at his sides like slabs of concrete. He stared into the center of the sun, daring it to blind him as the blaze of the autumn fire beamed back from within its core. Yet there could be no solace, no forgiveness, even in the eye of the flames. The voice of his old friend called out to him, the golden days of their youth now so far behind.
What do you think, Sticks? Do you think we can get her runnin’? The sun began its descent, clearing the way back into the present as daylight faded across the city. The air cooled, and he was relieved to see as he circled around, only himself. Gradually, the dusk rolled in and the street lamps, taking their cue, illuminated the park as he peered across the street to the boardwalk.
Every passerby proved suspect, walking along the city’s streets and giving up none of their secrets. I’ve come undone. Michael knew it was true, for he understood what it was to become unhinged. That part of the human condition was like an old friend. The answers were soft to the touch, but paranoia continued to sink its teeth in, clouding his instincts and hardening his edges.
Most likely a psychotic, the maestro of this game had made their move. The plan of attack was an effective one, disarming him in a way that had left him both vulnerable and shaken. The ammunition, until now, hidden away, buried deep for the past thirteen years… or so he had believed. He stuffed his cellphone back into his pocket and headed out for the bookstore. What he needed was time to think, but that was a luxury too far out of reach. He would keep to his business and wait. Fighting the urge to look back, Michael forced his attention forward. Every footstep along the pavement seemed to mimic his own, and though the bookstore was close, he couldn’t help but to feel that danger was that much closer as his own regurgitating dialogue helped steel him along the path.
Don’t turn around. They’ll know you’re looking.