As Fiona stepped out of the Forever 21 and into the airy brightness of the mall, the chorus of ‘Somebody’s Watching Me’ sounded from behind her. She spun around; her long auburn hair swirled like a satin sheet. No one there.
‘Ah, my phone.’ She thought, though she still sported a furrowed brow over a frowning mouth. She wiggled it out of her jeggings back pocket and looked at the screen.
Penny came out of the store, carrying a humongous yellow shopping bag. She said, “What is that?”
Fiona glanced up at her cherub-like blond friend and said, “I don’t even know what that is. I didn’t put it on my phone. It says, ‘Scam Likely.’ I get a LOT of those.” She was about to hit the decline button when the tune cut off.
Penny tossed her hair over her shoulder. She did that a lot. She said, “Did Bobby put it in there?”
Fiona said, “I don’t know who else could have. He did give it to me last month for my birthday. And he does like funning with me.”
Bobby was her 19-year-old big brother.
A familiar whistle noise sounded, a text alert. It always sounded to Fiona like it was saying, ‘hey you’ in whistle-speak. She said, “Oh great. Probably another one saying, ‘refinance your home!’ Or ‘pay your taxes!’ I get, like, 50 a day.”
Penny commiserated, “Ugh. So annoying. Can’t you block them?”
Fiona said, “I do, but they just come in from other numbers.”
Penny said, “If you keep frowning like that, you’ll get forehead wrinkles.”
When Fiona didn’t respond, Penny asked, “What is it?”
It says, “If you do not stab Joseph Hurley in the throat, your brother will be in a terrible car accident.”
“WHAAAT?! That’s crazy! It must be Bobby messing with you again. Who’s Joseph Hurley?”
“My neighbor. He’s like, 80-something. Nice as pie.” Fiona said. Her healthy glow had turned the color of sour milk.
Penny shook her friend’s arm in an attempt to bring her back to reality, “Hey, forget about it, it’s just a stupid prank.”
Fiona said, “Yeah, you’re right. It has to be, right?”
Penny, still holding Fiona’s arm, pulled her in the direction of the neighboring store. “C’mon! Express is your fav! Then Chipotle for lunch!”
Fiona stuffed her new phone into the snug pocket and let herself be pulled down the mall.
Far from the Northfair Shopping Mall in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Josephine Parker ran in the middle of a rural road in Shelby, Montana. The middle was fine, very few vehicles travelled the rutted, nearly forsaken country road and that’s why she liked it. It was just paved enough to be safe and joined up with her own road in a two-mile-long loop. Ralphie, her Labradoodle, ran a little ahead, or a little behind, depending on the odors du jour. He was a big, bouncy, dirty-cream colored cross breed with soft, feminine curly hair-fur. When it grew longer, she teased him, calling him, ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy.’ Joe’s short red ponytail bobbed side to side like a pendulum.
As she cleared the last shady copse of trees, her pop-rock playlist was interrupted by an unfamiliar ringtone. Annoyed, she slowed to a fast walk and plucked the phone from the arm holster she wore on her left. ‘What the…?’ she thought. Although she didn’t know the name of the song, or who sang it, she recognized it as one currently accompanying an insurance company ad on tv. The company ran the Halloween-themed ad every October. It was catchy but not catchy enough for her to add it to her iTunes. Too eighties. Ralphie trotted on ahead until he realized his human had stopped.
The screen said, ‘Scam Likely’ and ‘I always feel like, somebody’s watching me…’ played twice more, then cut off. Joe put the phone back in its holder and quickened her pace. ‘Honk-honk’. Her text alert. ‘Whatever,’ She thought. ‘It can wait.’
She went in through her back kitchen door, usually left unlocked in the day. Ralphie stayed out on the porch, sloppily gulping from his water dish. He’d use the doggy door when he was ready to come inside. Joe guzzled a third of a cool Smart Water, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, then carried the bottle with her to the bathroom. She turned on the shower, and while waiting for it to get hot, she unfastened the phone holster and set it on the towel shelf by the shower. Then she peeled off the rest of her sweat soaked clothing.
After showering, she started dinner for her and her husband, Peter, who was due home from work any minute.
At five-fifteen, she poured herself a glass of chardonnay and glanced at the clock on the stove again. ‘Odd’ she thought, ‘He always texts me if he’s gonna be late.’ Then she remembered she’d left her phone in the bathroom upstairs.
She sighed, ‘Yup, there’s his text. Not too late though. Cool.’ She smiled. Peter was a nerd. She’d married a ‘nice guy’ instead of one like her earlier mistakes, the ‘bad boys.’ At twenty-nine, she finally grew up, and wizened up in the process. He always texted when he was running late. He always garnished the texts with heart-y emojis, turning them into love notes. She smiled.
When she closed his text, she saw the one she’d forgotten. She opened it. “If you do not stab Annie Stubins in the throat, Ralphie will die a horrible death.”
Annie was the fourteen-year-old girl who dog sat Ralphie when her and Peter went somewhere dogs weren’t welcome. “This is stupid.” She said aloud and deleted it, then she said to herself, ‘Must be someone playing a joke. Well, joke’s on them. They got the wrong number.’
Ralphie started barking. Excitedly, not menacingly. Peter was home.
Fiona waited with Penny outside on the porch of Jesse’s house. The party was winding down, but the hip-hop was still loud enough to be heard down the block. Bobby was coming to pick them up, so they’d be back at Fiona’s in time for her 1 o’clock curfew
At five minutes to one, Fiona started fidgeting. “We’re going to be late.”
Penny reassured her bestie, “It won’t be your fault. It’ll be Bobby’s.”
Fiona only nodded. She had a bad feeling in her gut, it was clenched as tight as a rubber band ball.
At one-fifteen, she tried texting him. No response. When she tried calling, she was sent straight to voicemail. At one thirty, Jesse’s dad offered to drive the girls home. Grateful, they said yes.
Just before two am, Jessie’s Dad’s old model four runner pulled into Fiona’s driveway. Bobby’s car was not there. He never came home.
Joe brought the empty popcorn bowl into the kitchen and placed it by the sink. She heard the creepy music from the living room, the credits to the horror movie they’d watched were rolling. She looked out the kitchen window, across the yard, towards the woods. Peter touched her waist gently and she jumped. He put his arms around her and said, “It’ll be okay. I’m sure he’ll show up. He’s a big dog. Let’s not worry yet.” As he tried to reassure his distraught wife, an escaped tear slid down his cheek.
The two teenage hackers in the shadowy room stared at the computer screen on the desk. Next to the computer was a blue mason jar, the kind with a rubber seal and metal wire latch. There was now 600 dollars in the fat turquoise jar. The month before, one pawn was caught in the act and sent to prison, the other committed suicide. That made the pot extra fat this month.
The man in black had paid the boys well, he was amused to see them placing bets and encouraged depraved behaviour.
They were in Suki’s dark basement bedroom; the window was curtained heavily; the only light was the brand new 24-inch computer screen. The inky black devoured everything but their rapt boyish faces, and Suki’s hands as they tapped the keyboard.
Matthew slapped Suki’s shoulder and said, “Duuuude! I thought your girl was gonna crack and actually do it man!”
Suki replied, “I know, right? She’s such a twit. She’ll crack the next round for sure.”
“I don’t know…my chick’s back on her gnarly meds. Hey, wanna up the ante? Another hundred says the psycho chick offs herself.”
Wallets came out, the soft shushing of crispy bills, then the faint crump as they were crushed into the jar. Suki clamped the lid down with his thumb and winced. It didn’t throb much anymore; the slice had been no bigger than a deep paper cut, it must have gotten infected because it was still tender after over six months. Matthew caught the wince. He remained silent but looked down at his own thumb, still encased in a black fabric Curaid. It had been six months since the pact with the man in black. He shuddered at the memory of the man’s sickly pallor, so pale was the skin stretched tight over his skull it looked translucent. With blue veins at his temples, like rivers on a map. His tall, gaunt frame was clothed in tight black jeans, black jack boots, and a black fleece hoodie. From within the dark hood, he’d emitted a gravelly, whispery voice. Matthew recalled the painful icy sizzle when the man’s hand had touched his own, when he’d taken blood from his thumb.
“Hey, incoming.” Said Suki. His email program was open, one was highlighted. A slight tremor shivered through his hand, making his fingers flicker like butterfly wings. “Heh heh,” he nervously laughed as he opened the email.
Though Matthew peeked over his shoulder at the screen, Suki insisted on reading aloud. “Nice work, little hackers. What fine little demons you are. Here are your next messages…”
Fiona jumped. She felt faint as the dreaded first chorus line rang from her phone…’I always feel like, somebody’s watching me…’ This time it only rang once then went to text. ‘whooo-hoo’.
Penny said, “Nooooo!” She leaned over the bed and grabbed Fiona’s arm. They were in Fiona’s way-girly pink room, binge watching American Horror Story.
Both their eyes were wide, Fiona’s were filling with tears. She said, “I can’t.” She shook her hands in front of her, they were like nervous little wrens. She said, “040194. Justin Bieber’s birthday.”
Penny rolled her eyes and said, “Okay.” And reached for the glitter covered iPhone. After a minute she said, “Oh wow. Now it says you have to put an ax in Sue-Ann Marshall’s head, or your mom gets hit by a bus.”
“Sue-Ann? But she’s so nice. She’s in two of my classes and I’ve known her since third grade. Oh Pen-pen, what am I going to do?”
“I think she’ll do it!” Exclaimed Matthew. “Did you see her face? She’s cracking!”
On the computer screen was the girl’s pink bedroom. Suki hit the ex in the corner and the image was replaced by a screen divided into four views: bedroom, living room, kitchen, and bathroom. He doubled tapped the living room scene and it filled the screen.
He picked up his cell phone and sent the message to Josephine’s phone.
In the Parker’s living room, the old pop song sang tinnily. The couple were watching tv on the couch, on the coffee table before them, an iPhone pulsed with green light. Next to the phone was a box of Kleenex and a little pile of wadded, damp tissues. Before the phone rang a second time, Joe snatched it up, hit the red button and screamed, “Where’s my dog!? What have---”
Faint static on the line. The text alert sounded immediately, ‘Honk-honk’.
Peter studied his wife’s face. Her pretty features were contorted into a mural of fury, frustration, and incredulity. He asked, “What’s it say?”
Joe relayed the message, “If you do not put an ax in Harold Marsten’s head, Peter gets decapitated.” She looked up into her soul mate’s face with frightened owl eyes.
Peter said, “Harold? Little Harry? He’s only ten!”
“He’s a little shit…” Joe muttered under her breath.
“Joe! You’re not---”
“---No, no. I’d never! I couldn’t…”
Suki said, “Did you see that? She’s gonna do it.”
Matthew said, “Duuude. I’ll bet she does it on Halloween.”
Suki said, “I’ll take that bet. That’s tomorrow.”
In a cavernous dwelling, hidden from the world by a veil of unearthly conjuring, sat a thin, lanky figure stooped over an iPad sized computer screen. He wore a shimmering black silk robe, with the hood pulled over his head. His white beak of a nose protruded from it like the spadix of a cala lily. His bony shoulders shook as he snickered, the sound like an asthmatic cat expelling a furball. The room was lit by brass wall sconces against red velvet wallpaper, the Victorian furnishings were dark mahogany, and as knobby as the man.
On his nine-inch screen, Josephine Parker said, “---No, no. I’d never! I couldn’t…”
Out loud, the man in black hissed, “Ah but you could.”
He pulled a bowl across the table closer to him, reached into it with fingers like bare, stretched bones, and plucked out a few kernels of popcorn.
Fiona dressed as Marie Antoinette, Penny had done a fabulous job of her makeup and fake slashed throat. Penny herself, had worn all sexy black and done her make-up Día de los Muertos style like she did every year. Half her face was regular makeup, half was white with stick-on sequins and black ‘stitching’. She wanted to be a professional make-up artist when she grew up.
The girls climbed the front steps of the school. Halloween themed music streamed through the open doors to the gymnasium. The song the DJ was spinning was Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
Penny said, “Ugh. This song is so old. This dance is gonna be totally lame.”
Fiona said, “Maybe, but we don’t have to stay long.”
“Why’d you want to come here anyways?”
“Jesse’s party won’t get going until after ten---”
Penny sucked air harshly and cut Fiona off, “---You’re going to do it!” Fiona dragged her eyes away from the girl dressed like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. Her outfit was complete with a little stuffed dog in a basket.
“Fiona!” shrieked Penny. She stepped in front of Fiona, cutting off her view of Sue-Ann Marshall in the blue gingham pinafore.
“Penny. They took my brother. I can’t lose my mom too. I’ve got to.”
“I get it. In your shoes, I’d do the same. I’ll help you. Let’s just do it and get it over with.”
“I love you Penny. You’re a true sister. Check this out.” Fiona lifted her long, puffy skirt. She had a belt slung low on her hips; Penny saw it was her Gucci fanny pack. Stuck into the belt was a hatchet, the steel flashed crimson briefly, reflecting the flashing red lights around the dancefloor.
“She’s heading to the bathroom! C’mon.” said Fiona. “I’ll follow her in, you stand watch outside.”
In the darkness of the basement room, both the boys said, “WOAHHHH! She did it!!!”
Matthew grabbed for the jar, but Suki said, “Hang on! The night’s not over. It could be a tie. How cool would that be? Giant pot next month!”
Matthew said, “I bet Josephine would do it on Halloween. But your girl did it first. If Miz Parker comes through tonight it’ll be a tie anyways.”
Suki minimized the Fiona screen and popped up the Josephine one.
The camera showed a sparkling clean, brightly lit kitchen. As Joe was re-filling the candy bowl, the doorbell bing-bonged.
“I’ll get it!” Called Joe from over her shoulder towards the living room.
The kitchen went dark as she exited it.
The camera in the living room ceiling came to life and followed her across the room, showing an above her head view. The room was dark, the eerie flickering light from the spooky movie on tv was the only illumination. The camera angle changed from overhead to her back as she reached the front door. The ax looked huge in her small hand. She placed the candy on the little table by the narrow window and opened the door.
A miniature pirate stood on the stoop, grinning like a little fiend. It was just after ten, the street behind Harold was deserted. He was only out this late because he lived only three homes down.
“Trick or Treat!” he screamed and held his bulging pillowcase out and open. In the yellow porchlight, Joe was a ghastly silhuette as she raised the ax and brought it down in front of her. She hollered, “Trick!” The ‘thunk’ was like a hammer hitting a large pumpkin. The small figure before her collapsed. She wasted no time and dragged the body inside where it was swallowed by darkness when the door slammed shut. Peter was waiting behind the door. He draped a blanket over the body.
“Holy shit dude! This was the best month ever! Who cares if it’s a tie?”
They high fived. The scene on the screen was too dim to make out anymore so Suki turned it off.
Matthew said, “I guess he’ll be in touch shortly. He’ll be pleased.”
“Did the light go off yet?” whispered Joe in the dark.
“Wait.” Peter whispered back. The tiny red light in the ceiling fixture winked off. “There.” He said in a normal voice.
“Great job Harold!” Said Joe as she pulled the blanket off the boy. He sat up. “That was fun!”
Peter opened his wallet and handed the kid a twenty.
Deep within the black hood, two eyes opened, sucking in light like a cat’s does. They glowed bright amber ringed in red. They were very, very angry.