A car horn interrupted the driver's thoughts, and he realized his mind had been elsewhere, reliving a despairing moment, an ugly slice of time in which he'd killed a friend. A tear formed in his eye and rolled down his cheek.

He hoped the night would not hold any more surprises. Enough had already gone wrong. He hesitated, and when he pulled onto the road the reflection of the street lamps off the wet pavement reminded him of a carnival midway, and he fancied being transported to another world where things would not be as they were: life dependent on death.

He tightened his grip on the steering wheel and cursed the troublesome mist that swirled through the air. He could discern no rain falling, though the moisture seemed to be everywhere, a monsoon of molecular proportions emanating from the fabric of the world it coated. His lack of concentration didn't surprise him. He didn't want to be there, driving around town on such a night. The windshield wipers cleared his field of vision, and when he saw the place where he'd found her before, some bar along 31st Street, he slowed the car and pulled in. His actions were not prescient, or even fantastic. He knew where to look. She frequented such places.

He heard a rattling noise and realized it was his ring clattering against the steering wheel as his hands shook. He wanted to blame it on the wine, but he knew better. The drinking had not intoxicated him to the point of being even remotely prepared for the task ahead of him. Beads of sweat ran down his back at the thought of it. There was no getting around what he had to do. She'd come back. And people ought to stay dead when they're put that way.

He thought of Papa. Times like this perpetuated his essence, and he imagined his name—though he didn't speak it, and he did not for a moment pretend to assume his presence. That would be tantamount to disrespect, and disrespecting Papa was not a good idea. He rolled down the car window, letting the cold mist pepper his face as he leaned back in the seat, and waited.

Michelle Baker stepped off the stage and tried to ignore the remnants of the night's audience, the leering faces, each sharing a fantasy they thought their own, and it went through her again, one of those black-hole feelings that sucks you in and tells you you're not getting out, no matter what you do. The doctors called it depression. Michelle called it life, because it had always been that way for her. But there were moments, like that time in Florida, early in the season before the heat set in. A stiff breeze had come off the sea and rolled back the clouds, leaving the moon and stars contrasting against the black sky. Then the dark haired man with rope sandals in his hand slid his arm around her, just as natural as that, and they walked along the beach talking of life as if it were theirs. There had been no darkness then.

Her shift was over. She was going home. She could have her mother pack some clothes and together they could drive down to South Texas, spend a few days at Padre Island.

Lisa, another dancer, a soft little brunette who'd only been there about a month, intentionally brushed against Michelle as she walked past.

"Hey, sweetie," she whispered.

Michelle smiled but said nothing. It came with the territory in these places, the girls loving each other. You learn to hate men so you turn lesbian. The problem with that is after a few weeks, or months, or however long it takes you, you start to hate women too. And where does that leave you? In hell, she guessed.

She didn't even rehearse anymore, worrying over the steps and the music. None of that really mattered. She was a stripper, beginning her act with suggestive clothing and ending with nothing but an idea. It was, though, the boring monotony—the same faces, the same looks and catcalls—that allowed one to detach from it all and exist in such a world. But there were exceptions, those nights when someone would stand out from the crowd, their eyes searching deeper than her nakedness, and that scared her, for she knew the thoughts of such people went beyond fantasy, and they would make them real, given half a chance. She had not seen anyone like that tonight, but the fearful feelings that surrounded those encounters wrapped around her thoughts, and lingered heavy as she said good-bye to the other dancers and stepped outside into the rain.

He sat forward in the car seat and stared in disbelief. She was there all right. There had been no mistake. And when she crossed the parking lot, she saw him as well, her lovely blue eyes piercing the night as if they carried their own source of illumination. She seemed to look right through him, but he knew that was just an act. A smile played across his lips. The parking lot was empty except for the two of them. He'd planned on following her, but it wouldn't be necessary. He did have a bit of luck now and then. He worked his hands into surgical gloves and grabbed the roll of duct tape. He tore off a six- inch piece then ran his hand through the roll, wearing it like a bracelet. Next he retrieved the sock from the floorboard. It was lined with plastic and filled with wet sand.

Opening the car door, he stepped quietly onto the asphalt, sliding the black-handled knife into his back pocket. He did not intend to use it just yet, but he would if he had to. With the torn piece of tape readied in his hand, he came up behind her. She was completely unaware of his presence, and he paused as the sweet scent coming from her hair filled his senses. He wanted to touch her, to take her in his arms and love her, the way he had always loved her. It was then that he saw her the way she had been, lying on her bed, wearing only the top half of her see-through pajamas while she pulled the covers back and shifted ever so slightly. It was not unusual. She often stayed that way after it was over, even getting out of bed on occasion to walk around the room, stopping close where he could see her, watch her through the cracks in the door.

He thought about the small room that had been his prison, where dust particles would dance in the sunlight that showed through the broken window shade, giving an impression of substance to the beams, making it appear as if he could reach out and grab them. But that, like so much else, had been nothing more than an illusion. The dust was not only in the light. It had filled the room. He'd eaten mouthfuls of it with every breath. They were casualties of their own fates, and he thought she must surely understand what he had to do.

He raised the sock, swinging in a high arc to give it more velocity, and when he brought it down against the back of her head, he remembered how the light would catch her pretty necklace as she walked about the room. It was an enlightening moment, for she dropped quite readily to her knees, not unconscious, but dazed to the point of incoherence. He pressed the piece of tape over her mouth then slid the roll from his arm. He pulled her hands behind her and bound them with several revolutions, then tore off another piece and slapped it across her eyes as he brought her to her feet. She offered little resistance and a delightful urge to take her now ran through him, testing his resolve. He pushed the thoughts away and guided her across the parking lot toward the car. Once there, he shoved her into the backseat. The lot was still empty. He started the car and drove away, pulling onto 31st Street.

When he reached Yale Avenue, he turned south, traveling until he found a suitable location, an old house that had lost the fight for survival. It stood in a neighborhood that had been suburban but was now a mixture of banks, retail outlets, and, ironically enough, real estate offices. Acting as a reminder of the house's fate, an industrial trash bin sat in the front yard, boasting the name of some construction company on its side. He thought that a ridiculous notion. What they were up to was anything but constructive.

He pulled her from the car and walked her to the front of the house, pausing briefly to check the door. It wasn't locked. They seldom were. He pushed her inside, his heart pounding with anticipation as he switched on the flashlight he'd doctored for just such occasions. Its dim red glow revealed an old mattress on the floor. Some things were just meant to be. She had begun to struggle, even as he'd pulled her from the car, and he had no choice but to use the sock again. With a small shove she fell onto the mattress.

Kneeling beside her, he removed the tape from her eyes and studied her face, so pretty and yet so lined with fear he hardly recognized it. She could not speak. He'd left the tape on her mouth, but she shook her head and pleaded with every expression she had available. It had been cold in that room, a chilling dampness understood only by those left alone, not for moments, but for eternities in an unforgiving and infinite darkness. He would not go back. She would die first.

Michelle Baker felt the man's warm breath fall across her face, and she thought it like the stale air that might be in a dark room where an electric chair was kept. He was going to kill her. She knew that. But it was not the details of her death that went through her head. She thought of her son, Michael. She could see him in the dirty little yard where he played, and she wondered if his diaper had been changed, and if he was hungry. She was not a good mother. She closed her eyes and prayed for God to forgive her for that, something she did quite often, though it did not show in her life. She regretted that now.

He stroked her hair with the back of his hand, which caused her to squeeze her eyes tightly shut. He kissed her on the cheek and whispered in her ear, "When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are." Then he brought the black-handled knife to her chest and put his weight into it, shoving it through her ribcage and into her heart. With that her lies gave way to the truth, and for her penance he laid her throat open, cutting it in the shape of a T. Capital T for Papa Terrance.

© Bob Avey

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