The Spirits Within
Brady hated Halloween. Everyone dressing up like a super hero or something else stupid had never worked for him. He knew, better than anyone, that you couldn’t pretend to be someone else. He’d tried. Still didn’t get him any friends.
When you’re a foster kid, you’re who your file says you are. It was that simple. The people you lived with had read the whole thing, and there was no changing their minds. So you stuck it out until the next foster family, and you started all over again. For sixteen of his eighteen years, Brady had hoped, wished, and begged to be set free, to be eighteen and on his own. Then it happened.
He’d aged out of the system. Didn’t matter that he was still in high school. Didn’t matter that he’d finally ended up in a decent neighborhood with a decent school. But when he turned eighteen, the money stopped, and the people who’d said he was like their son told him he’d have to start paying rent if he wanted to keep his bed in their house.
Brady told himself it was cool. Fine by him. He’d hang around long enough to get his high school diploma, then he’d split. So he took what jobs he could find that didn’t need a car to get there, and so far, he was paying on time. Now, though, he ate fast food in his room and avoided the people in the house as much as possible. He wasn’t family anymore, just a renter.
The whole thing sucked. But what did he expect? No one had ever cared about him, not for a second. He was another name on a long list for the social workers, and just another mouth to be fed, when they felt like it, for the fosters who’d been paid to keep him. That was life, and he was used to it. Stick to yourself, get that high school diploma, then start your real life, he’d told himself since forever.
So this new job was close enough to walk to after school. He worked from three to midnight, with time off for dinner, which he never took because he wanted the money more. Like most of his jobs, it was stupid and mindless, but he was getting a kick out of jerking the clients’ chains. A Halloween place called The Spirit Store had opened up in an empty video place, one of those deals that plastered neon green and orange signs in the windows and was crammed with Halloween crap. Cheap stuff, all of it, and probably toxic as well. Not that he cared if people wanted to poison themselves with black lipstick and nail polish. His job was to help people find costumes and then ring them up. Period. The place didn’t get busy until after five, usually, and the closer to Halloween, the busier it had become. Not tonight, though. Good thing, since the twerp who was supposed to be working with him hadn’t shown up, hadn’t called, and for all Brady cared, was dead.
The store could get creepy when it was quiet. Normally, Brady liked quiet, since he didn’t get a lot of it in a house filled with younger foster kids. Tonight, though, he was getting a little goose-bumpy. Couldn’t say why. Just felt something, like whispers in a dark corner where he could catch a word here and there, but nothing cohesive. An air of dark anticipation hung over him, a feeling he tried to deny but couldn’t. If he could have swatted it away like an annoying swarm of bees, he would have.
As it was, he chalked up the heebie-jeebies to being tired and depressed. No matter how hard he wished it were otherwise, the school year was creeping along at the pace of a guy going home to tell his wife he’d been caught hiring a hooker and the court date was in two weeks. All he wanted was out of this life that clung to him like a bad smell. To be on his own. To have a real job, make real money, and have real friends. Wasn’t going to happen in this town, that much was for sure.
Just when he was about to check out the whispering still coming from the back of the store, a woman pushed open the front door. He gave her a glance, but he sure didn’t feel like helping her. She looked like the type who’d open every costume package and leave without buying anything. So instead, he finished setting up the display of Halloween makeup until, with her standing right beside him, he couldn’t ignore her any longer. Who shopped for Halloween stuff at eleven at night?
“Can you tell me where I can find a slutty princess costume?” The woman demanding his attention wasn’t much older than he was. Pretty in a bleached blonde kind of way, but wearing too much lipstick and pink stuff on her cheeks. She wore bright orange, tight shorts and a skinny T-shirt he recognized as belonging to a chain that sold wings and beer to men who only dreamed about having a woman like her. Hot and sexy, he imagined is how other men would describe her.
“Uh, I don’t think we have anything like that. I can show you where the women’s costumes are.” Turning, he headed for the side of the store crammed with over-priced, flimsy, cheaply made shit.
“I like your shirt,” the woman said, pointing to it as if he’d never seen it before. “ ‘Don’t piss me off, I’m running out of places to bury the bodies.’ So cool.”
He didn’t tell her it was the only black T-shirt he could find at the thrift store, and since all the sales help at his job were required to wear black, he bought it anyway. No one had complained.
“Here you go.” He pointed to the rack of costumes. “Let me know when you’re ready to check out. We close at midnight.”
He had to get some sleep before he caught the 6:30 bus to school. The walk to his house, not his home, would take at least twenty-five minutes. He was gonna be so happy when he could grab that piece of paper at graduation and start his real life. He just knew having a diploma would make up for all this shit he was going through.
“It sucks working this late, doesn’t it? I just got off my shift.”
He stared at her. Making conversation wasn’t in his job description. “Yeah, I guess. But I go to school, so I gotta work when I can.”
“Me, too. I’m going to the community college, working on my LPN. I want to be a nurse someday.”
Brady shrugged, wondering where this was going. “That’s good, I guess. Me, I’m going to write books.” Surprising himself by his disclosure, Brady turned, ready to flee for the front of the store. Talking with girls wasn’t really his scene.
But she reached out and put a hand on his arm, and he was trapped.
“What kind of books? I love to read. Don’t have much time these days, but whenever I get a chance, I pick up something. Usually Fantasy. I love other world stories.”
Despite himself, Brady found himself liking her. Underneath all that make-up she was kinda pretty. “Me too. I really love Game of Thrones, too.”
“Oh, and the show on HBO is great! I love the dragons, they look so real.”
“I don’t get HBO. Don’t own a TV.” He didn’t explain that he didn’t want to intrude on the new crop of fosters that had just moved into the house. To them, he was the outsider, even though he’d been there first. They had no problems with hogging the TV, but then, they hadn’t been in the System long. They thought they were still “Normal.”
“That’s too bad, but you can catch up when it comes out on DVD. Shouldn’t be too long.”
“Don’t have the money for that kind of crap.” Sweat rolled down his back between his shoulder blades. He hadn’t talked with a woman or girl for this long a conversation since he was a kid and thought he was like everyone else.
“Got to get back to work. Cameras.” He pointed to the corner where a black rectangle protruded from the ceiling. It was left over from the video store days and didn’t work, but the Spirit Store owners told everyone who worked there that it did to scare them into pretending to be working. Brady had taken the time to check it out and knew otherwise.
“Okay, thanks.” The woman seemed unhappy with him, he couldn’t figure out why. Who cared, anyway? Did she expect him to flirt, say something nice? Not in his job description. He kept to himself, always had, always would. Flattering women wasn’t in his job description.
Whatever he’d done, worked, and the woman paid for her costume with a credit card and was out of there before 11:30. Hesitating in the half-opened door, she turned to look at him. For a second, he thought she was going to ask him something, so he turned his back. He wanted to close up early.
In a way, he was sorry to see her go, but he didn’t even say “good night.” She’d made him wonder for a few seconds if they’d known each other in a foster home as kids, the way she seemed to feel they could talk like friends. Nah, couldn’t be, he’d decided. She was just the overly friendly type. Usually, that kind didn’t come within ten feet of him. Something about him scared them off, and he was good with that.
He waited fifteen minutes for someone to come through the door and ruin his plan to close up early, but no one did. He’d already straightened the crap up, so all he had to do was hit the lights and lock the door. It was electronic and programmed to turn green when the alarm was set, as if anyone would want to break in and steal any of the cheap merchandise. He got to the house by 12:15 and let himself in through the kitchen door, creeping upstairs after stealing milk from the fridge. They’d never miss it, because he didn’t use a glass, he drank from the milk container. The idea of them never knowing his lips had touched their precious milk gave him a reason to smile. Smiling was a hard deal, but now and then, he used those muscles.
Two days later, he heard a sound bite of the news when he was heading upstairs after school to change into his work clothes. The announcer said a woman was missing and her name was Gloria Redfern, she was a waitress at Hooters and twenty-two years old. Her parents, with whom she was living along with her three year old son, said she hadn’t come home from work two nights ago. Anyone with information, blah, blah, blah.
Taking few steps down the stairs so he could see the TV screen, Brady recognized the woman who’d wanted the slutty princess costume, her picture totally different from the woman he’d seen, because she was cuddling a little kid and smiling like a proud parent. Still, he knew it was her.
“I gotta use the phone,” Brady called to the kids clustered around the TV, waiting impatiently for their “program” to resume. He couldn’t afford a cell phone and the fosters were required to keep a working house phone, so he didn’t worry about not having a cell. No one called him anyway. Picking up the phone, he headed upstairs where he could have some privacy.
Dialing the information number he’d seen on the TV screen, Brady was put through to a man when he said he was calling about the missing woman. Normally, he’d have ignored the whole deal, but the photo of her with her kid had bothered him. He didn’t want that kid to go through what he’d gone through. Probably the grandparents were old, and the boy would end up in foster care in the end, and that wasn’t right.
Brady described exactly when the woman had left the Halloween store to the man who’d identified himself as Sgt. Lowell. Said he was positive of the ID. Told him the address of the store, his name, home address, and every other stupid thing Sgt. Lowell wanted to know. But when the cop wanted him to come down in person to talk about the woman, he put on the brakes.
“I got school and two jobs, and no car,” Brady muttered. “You want to see me, you come to me.”
Now he was sorry he’d gotten involved. This was going to be a hassle and he couldn’t afford any time off from work, not with his next rent payment due in a week.
Still, he was surprised when he got called to the principal’s office the next day. The man he’d spoke with on the phone was in Mrs. McTavish’s desk chair, along with another man he introduced as Detective McCray, who leaned against the wall with his arms crossed, staring at Brady as if he were a particularly ugly bug. The guidance office had been cleared for them, and Brady found himself repeating everything he’d already told Lowell. When he complained that he was missing his classes, Lowell gave him a look like he was some kind of doo-doo smeared on his shoes.
“A woman’s life is at stake here. I think it’s a little more important than shop class.”
“It’s honors English, and I’ve already told you all I know.” Brady rose from the chair facing the guidance counselor’s desk and grabbed the door handle. “I’m outta here.”
“Not so fast, son.” McCray shoved a beefy shoulder into the half-opened door, almost catching Brady’s hand between it and the jamb. “Tell us more about yourself, why don’t you?”
That was when Brady knew they weren’t telling him something. He’d seen enough “Law and Order” on TV growing up to recognize the trouble he was in. He also knew enough to keep his mouth shut.
“I’ve told you everything I know, and if you want to talk more, get me a lawyer.” He’d heard the line so many times on TV, it sounded almost natural.
“Guilty people want lawyers, not innocent folks.” Lowell was trying to be charming, but Brady wasn’t falling for it.
“What’s the real deal?” Brady wasn’t letting go of the door handle. McCray might outweigh him by fifty pounds, but Brady was wiry and strong, even if he wasn’t over five foot, eight. All that walking gave him a muscle edge over the slightly paunchy detective. “You’re not just looking for a missing person.”
“Don’t you know?” McCray smirked at him. “Sure you do. You were there. Tell us how you caught up to her after she left The Spirit Store. And where’d you dump her body?”
“What the hell?” This wasn’t TV, this was real life, something Brady knew all too well. “Dump her body? What kind of joke is this? How do you know she’s dead?”
Lowell shook his head, as if Brady had screwed up, big time. “We’ll be getting DNA right now, the team is at your place. Can’t argue with science. We’ll find yours on her body, that’s for sure.”
Brady wasn’t as dumb as they thought he was. They’d told him they didn’t have any body. Any sympathy he’d had for the woman and her kid dissolved like sugar in rain. Once more, life was handing him lemons and he was just supposed to swallow the bitter juice and smile.
“Not mine. If it’s there, you planted it. Now arrest me, get me a lawyer, or get out of my way.”
Lowell and McCray looked at each other, speaking a language only they could hear. Ignoring McCray’s body-block, Brady forced himself through the door. “Leave me alone. You’ve got nothing, or I’d be in handcuffs.”
“Let me cuff the little twerp.” Lowell was almost pleading with McCray. “Just for fun.”
“We play this by the book. We can’t afford any screw-ups.”
Brady heard the last just as he sprinted down the hall, his heart thrumming like a rabbit searching for his warren with a fox hot on his ass. What the . . . ? His mind kept looping with the photo of the woman and her kid, and despite the hassle he’d been through, he still felt sorry for the little boy. Looking down, he ran full-bore into the guidance counselor.
“Brady, I was just looking for you. We need to talk.” Grabbing Brady’s elbow, Mrs. McTavish pulled him to the side of the hall. “The police think you had something to do with that waitress who disappeared a couple of nights ago. They said her car was covered in blood. ”
“I didn’t know about her car,” Brady snarled. “When they dragged me into your office, they told me I killed her. But they don’t have her body.”
Mrs. McTavish looked stricken. “I told them to wait while I tracked you down. They weren’t supposed to talk to you alone.” She paused. “But you are eighteen, and an adult. They can do what they want. Brady, I need to know how much trouble you’re in. Is there anything you should be telling me?”
A small, round woman carrying too much weight, Mrs. McTavish looked like a pickled egg about to burst out of her shell. Staring at her, Brady had to force himself to stop imagining what she’d look like, exploded all over the hallway. He tried to remember she was the one who’d gotten him into Honors English, and how she kept telling him he could do anything he wanted in life. At least she’d pretended to believe in him.
“No,” he answered with unqualified certainty. “Nothing at all.”
“Then be careful. I don’t know why they wanted you, but I saw pictures on my computer this morning of her car. Pretty gruesome. I know you had nothing to do with this, but if you can help with anything, anything at all, tell them so they can find the real killer.” Wringing her hands, Mrs. McTavish glanced up and down the hall way over his shoulders.
“What if she’s not dead? What if it’s someone else’s blood?” He was thinking aloud. “Where’d they find her car, anyway?”
Mrs. McTavish was looking at him as if she’d never seen him before. “Parked in that lot beside the soccer field, off Landston Pike.”
He knew the place well. It was half a mile from his house, and he’d passed it on the way home from work at The Spirit Store. Had she been dying there when he’d been trotting home? Why hadn’t they found a body? He knew better than to ask Mrs. McTavish anything else.
“Hope they find her. Or whoever did it. Now I gotta get to class.”
Before he could escape, she caught his arm. “I was coming to find you to tell you Principal Willston wants you to go home. He doesn’t think you’ll get much from class today.”
Studying at her, Brady read the truth in her face, her eyes. “He thinks I’m a killer, doesn’t he?”
She refused to confirm what he knew to be true. “Go home, Brady. Don’t say anything to anyone about this. I’ll call you when you can come back to school.”
“So I’m suspended because I sold some lady a costume?” This had to be a joke of cosmic proportions, and he was the butt end of it.
“Just go home, Brady. I’ll call your parents and explain.” She sounded tired and sad.
“Don’t bother. They’re not my parents. Just my landlords.” Jerking free of her hand, Brady ran for the front doors. He could feel the detectives’ eyes following him as he sprinted across the bus line to the road leading back to his house. His room. His rented room.
When he finally got home, his former foster parents were standing in the front yard, steaming mad. Pausing at the edge of the walk, Brady stared at them and received nothing but glares in response. Not a word was spoken. He knew, as he watched policemen walking out of the house with boxes, that they would take any and everything, whether or not it was his. He wished he had a computer so he could pull up the pictures Mrs. McTavish had mentioned, but he used the one at the library when he had to write a report.
For a second, he thought of approaching his former fosters and telling them it was all a mistake, that he had nothing to do with anyone’s disappearance, but the half-step he took onto the grass was as far as he got. His landlords turned their backs to him, effectively saying anything and everything they would have said with words. He was an outcast. No affection, no support, no concern for his welfare would ever cross their narrow little minds.
He’d always known he was alone, but he’d never felt it as keenly as now. No one was on his side. What was he supposed to do now?
He had the twenty dollars he allowed himself per week for food in his pocket. Eating wasn’t high on his priority list just now. His cash was hidden under a floorboard in his room, and he was feeling kinda light-headed because he’d skipped dinner and breakfast. Maybe he could hang out in a McD’s for a bit, wait for things to settle down, eat from the dollar menu. Think. Try to figure out why he was a suspect.
The security cameras at the Spirit Store didn’t work. All he could think was that the woman had left her costume behind in the car, along with the credit card receipt. They’d found out he’d been alone in the store when she came in, put two and two together and come up with eighteen. Stupid jerks. Anyone who knew him, knew he’d never hurt anyone.
Then again, who really knew him? His stories, the ones he wrote out longhand in half-used school notebooks, were the closest thing he had to friends. None of the stories were about people pleasant or even kind, some even portrayed evil as he’d seen and known it in his own hard life. But of all the stuff in his room, the few clothes, the school assignments, the money under the floorboard, all he wanted were his stories. The money would be helpful, though.
He thought about all of this as he nursed his drink, refilled it, drank it slowly again, and pushed around the cold French fries on his tray at McD’s. Darkness fell and the shift changed behind the counter. He bought another dollar hamburger, chewing it slowly. Finally, he knew what he had to do.
The walk to the soccer field was so familiar, he could do it with his eyes shut. He’d blown off work at The Spirit Store tonight, so he was probably fired, but he had expected that anyway. The detectives probably made sure he’d never work there again when they’d talked to the store manager. Halloween. Such a stupid excuse for a holiday. Not even a holiday, an excuse for people to pretend to be someone else. He did that every day of his life, pretending to be normal.
The parking lot lights glared on the yellow crime scene tape that fluttered around one spot. The woman’s car must have been there, he figured, and now it was gone. Probably towed for forensics to get a better look. He looked out onto the broad expanse of grass. The color was otherworldly under the sodium lighting.
No soccer game tonight, not even a pick-up. Sitting in the bleachers overlooking the field, Brady slumped over, cradling his face in his hands. Nothing felt real anymore. Even his skin didn’t belong to him. He’d thought that if he could see where the woman had come, he might get a feeling for what had happened to her. How pathetic was that? he asked himself. He wondered how far he could get if he started walking now. There was nothing for him here. No home, no school, no friends, no answers as to why the universe had chosen him to beat up. If he’d believed in that reincarnation crap, he’d have said he was a real creep in his life before this one. There was no other explanation, because he’d never hurt anyone in his life.
Even though he’d been sitting in McD’s for hours, he felt as if he’d been walking the whole day. Every muscle ached. Hauling himself from the bleachers, he started across the field with no particular direction in mind. He was just going to keep going until something stopped him. The dew soaked his sneakers, and the hems of his black jeans sopped up more wet. Shoulders rounded, Brady remembered every word he’d spoken to the woman, hoping for a clue. If she reappeared, live, she’d explain Brady had nothing to do with whatever happened to her. Everyone would be nice to him, even that prick detective, who’d have to apologize. Mrs. McTavish, too, for asking him if he had anything to confess. She’d be nicer to him. One thing though, he was never going back to the house. He’d stiff the former fosters on the rent and get another place. Somewhere where he could have friends.
The other side of the soccer field led into woods. Not paying attention to where he was going, he trudged onward until he tripped on some vines and went sprawling. Cursing at his continuing bad luck, Brady pulled himself to his knees and glanced around for other obstacles. By now it was dark enough that he had trouble seeing. Great. Getting out of the woods and onto the open near a road was the smartest thing he could do.
As he wearily arose, he had second thoughts. The brush and trees would provide him with some shelter. If he could find a big tree, he could sit against it and get some sleep. No one was looking for him, he assumed. The cops probably figured he wasn’t going far with no money and no car. So why not spend the night here? Except for the bugs, the place was okay. He’d seen it enough in the daylight. Even seen a few deer come bounding out of the tree line, now and then.
The tree he selected was broad enough to support his back. Squatting down, he swiped away some nuts and debris at the base before settling down. If he could just sleep a few hours, he’d think more clearly. Come up with a real plan other than walking until his shoes disintegrated. Sighing, Brady wiggled around, trying to get comfortable until, without realizing it, he was asleep. At first, he dreamed of being cold and wet and angry because he couldn’t get dry. Slowly, though, he sank deeper into a dreamless sleep, deeper than any he’d ever experienced before.
When he awoke, he didn’t know where he was or what time it was. The sky dark, the air heavy, he was nonetheless soaked in a warmth he didn’t understand. What was the source of the heat, clearly not sunshine? Rubbing his eyes open with his dirty hands, he shouted in surprise as the woman he’d met in The Spirit Store squatted beside him. Glowing as if she were radioactive, she smiled at him.
Brady tried to speak, but couldn’t. Lifting one finger to her lips, she gestured for him to remain silent. Then, to his shock, she spoke.
“Not looking good for us, is it? I’m dead and you’re going to be a goner before dawn, in all likelihood. You want to know why I came into your store? Do you?”
Brady nodded, though he’d never thought to question her appearance. She’d just been another customer.
“I was hiding from a man. A customer at the restaurant. He’d been in every night for a week, always sitting at my table, always trying to ask me out. It’s against the rules, we can’t date customers, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer.” Shaking her head, she smiled sadly at Brady. “He’d started waiting for me to get off my shift, then he’d follow me to my car. Night before last, he had someone with him. A lookout, I guess. Then the first guy tried to grab me and kiss me, while the second man pulled up in a car and tried to shove me in. I maced him and his buddy and drove until I saw an open store. Yours. When I pulled in, they drove off. But I knew the first man, the one who tried to kiss me, he’d been following me home earlier in the week, so he knew where I lived. I figured he’d be waiting for me there, but my parents were there, and my dad would try to protect me.”
Brady tried to speak, but couldn’t. She shrugged. “I didn’t want my dad to get hurt, so I stayed as long as I could with you. Then I drove around, hoping he’d get tired of waiting for me, and leave me alone. But I was wrong.
“He’d hidden in the back seat of my car. The locks don’t work, so it was easy, and I didn’t see him. He made me drive out here, and then he raped and killed me.”
Brady remembered the creepy sounds he’d heard in the store that night, almost as if someone was whispering in the back. Sheez, he thought, could they have been in the store and he never saw them? How could they have gotten in? The employee entrance opened in the back into the stock room, and he guessed the shift before him may forgotten to lock it. He hadn’t entered that way, preferring to use the front door just to piss off the manager, if he happened to be there. Not that night, though. And the prior shift left through the front as well.
Brady started to tell her he thought maybe the two men were in the store when she came in, but she laid a finger on his lips that was as solid as his own.
“Let me finish. You need to know everything, so you can be ready if you decide to do this.”
“Let me finish. You need to know everything, so you can be ready if you decide to do this.”
She was matter-of-fact. Bad stuff happened, there was nothing to be done about it but to take the body blows and come out the other side as best you could. That much Brady understood.
“I fought, of course. Hurt him, too. He’s been hiding, afraid for anyone to see him because of the shape he’s in. I want you to find him and take him to the police. Tell them the truth. If you can’t do that, he’ll kill you. So you have to be strong. Do what you have to do. Do it for me, do it for yourself.”
Fearing he’d lost his mind, Brady was sure he was hallucinating. That was, until she stood and pointed to the west. “He’s in a storage locker he has at the corner of the street by your store. I haven’t seen his friend since the parking lot at the restaurant, but I’m sure he locked my killer in there. The bastard who killed me thinks he can stay hidden until you’re arrested. He knows the police have been questioning you. He put some of my bloody clothes in the dumpster behind The Spirit Store for the police to find, just before he went into hiding.”
Brady knew now he didn’t have a choice. Finding incriminating evidence where he’d worked would be all the detectives needed to send him to prison. He’d been in an emotional prison so long, he didn’t think he could stand another kind.
“Tell me what to do,” he croaked. His face hurt from looking at her. She seemed as pretty and made-up as when she’d come into the store, not bloodied and battered. “I don’t have any idea.”
Reaching into a pocket in her tight shorts, the woman pulled out a gun. “He used this to keep me quiet, then to kill me. He thought he threw it in the river, but I found it. The storage locker is number B-102. Shoot the lock off. His friend will be back soon to let him out. Now, before it’s daylight.”
“I’ve never done anything like this. . .” Brady started to whine.
“Do it now, or you’re going to die. Don’t ask me how I know, I just do. Make up your mind, and do it.”
“Okay.” As soon as Brady shoved himself upright, the woman disappeared. One second there, the next, not. If she hadn’t touched him, he’d have known it was a dream. But one bloody fingerprint rested on the back of his left hand, and he knew whose blood it was.
The short sleep had helped him, and fear fuelled his progress to the storage lockers. A high chain link fence surrounded the storage lot, but Brady didn’t find it hard to scale. Finding the numbers was hard in the dark, but he was outside B-102 before he knew it. Fumbling for the lock, he almost dropped the gun when he heard noise inside the locker.
“I know what you did!” he yelled, mostly out of fear and false bravado. “She told me! I’m here to get you and turn you in!”
Before he lost his nerve, he shot off the lock. With echoes of the sound reverberating in the concrete corridors of the storage place, Brady flung open the door.
The man inside bowled Brady over like a toy, growling like an animal. Losing the gun, Brady clawed at his attacker’s face with a strength he didn’t realize he had. This was life or death, the woman had warned him, and if he didn’t fight back, he’d end up as dead as she was. And he didn’t want that. Life wasn’t worth crap, but he had more living to do. He could make it better.
“No!” Brady screamed as he took body and head blows that had him reeling. “You can’t kill me like you killed her!”
Brady now knew the woman had fought for her life like a cornered wild animal. That’s why the car was such a horrible scene, and why he had to fight harder than even she had. For this man who was suddenly on top of him, his hands around his throat, squeezing the life out of him, needed to die for what he’d done. As rage and fear crescendoed in him, Brady struck back, using every trick he’d used in fighting the bigger kids who wanted to put him in his place in all those awful foster homes. Hatred for his mother for leaving him alone to grow up like he did, hatred for what this man did to the woman to orphan her little boy, exploded in Brady’s chest. Blood rage washed over him, freeing him from all semblance of decency.
He would kill this man, and it would feel good. Clawing his way closer to where he’d dropped the gun, Brady knew his attacker was too focused on killing him with his bare hands to notice he’d gotten the gun. And was raising it. And was pulling the trigger.
Later, when the police came, they found the woman’s body in the locker along with the bodies of other women who had disappeared over the past year. The smell alone sent crime scene techs gagging into bushes.
Brady didn’t hang around long enough to see the whole scene unfold with the police. Wandering back to the woods, he called for the woman, and when night fell again, she reappeared before him.
“I’m sorry,” was all she would say at first. “I hoped you’d live.”
“It’s okay,” Brady asserted, feeling free for the first time in his life. “I got him before I died. He won’t hurt anyone else.”
“They’ll think you were part of it, that you were a team with him. They’ll figure out two men had to be involved.”
Brady shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. I stopped him. He’ll never hurt anyone else.” He didn’t tell her there wasn’t anyone to be hurt by whatever the police said. No one in his life would care for more than half a second. In a way, it felt good to be free from worrying about what he was going to do with the rest of his life.
“I miss my little boy.” She was walking beside him, through the trees. “But I can’t go back to see him. It’ll just confuse him and make him sad.”
“So where do we go from here? What’s next?” Brady was pleased to see that he wasn’t bruised or bleeding and could speak normally, even though his killer had crushed his larynx.
“Not sure. The second man is still out there. We’ll be led to the next step, is my gut feeling. We’ll find him, then figure out what to do. Thanks for being here with me. I didn’t like the idea of doing this alone.”
“Me either. Hey, tell me about your kid, won’t you? I like little kids. I used to be one.”
“I’m sure you were.” Her laugh was filled with silver and light. “It’s good to have a friend so I can brag about him. He’s my favorite topic of conversation.”
Friend. Brady had a friend. He felt better than he ever had when he was alive. They walked side by side while she chattered on about her kid, and Brady was flooded with an emotion he didn’t understand. At last he realized that’s how happiness felt.
He’d take it. Being dead wasn’t so bad after all.