“Ally, you damn fool!” There’s no time to ruminate. All I can do is run, but that won’t stop me from yelling at myself. “You screwed us all!”
I thought they’d let us free, Ally says. Now that I’m mad, I have more control over who’s talking in my head and I push her back down as soon as she’s finished.
My footsteps are hard on the concrete. For her part, Jordan’s body seems to be holding up well, other than the ache that’s building in my side. There are beads of sweat running down my face after a few minutes of running, but nothing too terrible and nothing that would stop me from acting if the Sadistic Woman or Cruel Man popped up around the next corner.
Thank you for not killing him, Isabel says when I double over gasping for breath. There’s been too much killing in all this.
The Cruel Man doesn’t seem like someone who leaves a host as well off as he found it. I don’t think it makes a difference.
Isabel says something in response but I’m running again as soon as I can catch even a modicum of breath. Modicum—that must be a Jordan word, or a Vivian word, but it’s definitely not a Victoria word. We’re intermingling, intertwining, becoming a patchwork mess of personalities stitched together on the tapestry of my soul and it’s getting impossible to tell where one stops and another begins. Or something. Victoria wasn’t a poet; maybe one of the others was.
I can see Jordan’s car off in the distance and push myself harder despite my legs and lungs begging me otherwise. I’m crossing from the walkway into the parking lot, sprinting, casting a glance over my shoulder. No one’s behind me, but I won’t let up until I know I’m safe.
A car is beside me when I turn back toward her car. Jordan’s body holds up well when I thrust my hand down and kick over the hood. This body is no Victoria, but I could get used to it.
There’s a cool breeze, one that’s different than the wind of running but one I’ve felt before. I scan the parking lot directly ahead. Check my periphery. Look over my shoulder. Nothing. No on there. I haven’t even broken my stri—
A man lunges from behind a parked car and grabs my arm. As he tries to drag me backward, I spin on my heels, thankful I was prepared for it even if I didn’t know where it was coming from and deliver a kick to his groin so strong I almost lift him off his feet.
He staggers a few steps away. I reach for his head, grab it, pull it into my knee as I launch myself from the ground. Yeah, I could get used to this body.
Isabel cries out in sympathetic pain as I leave the man writhing on the ground. His groans quickly fade behind me, something that would make me relax a little if not for the cool breeze that kicks up a few seconds later.
This time he comes from directly in front, a man in slacks and a button-down shirt, a far cry from the first host the Cruel Man used today. He must be getting desperate and the park must be getting empty after that gunshot if he’s using someone like this.
The Cruel Man looks to be coming at full speed. I played too much basketball with Donavan, did too much gymnastics, spent too much time running from pursuers to let someone running at me in a straight line get in my way.
His eyes are on my face instead of my belly-button. Those are the first two things they teach you when you’re defending: break down so you can always keep them in front and focus on the belly-button because the belly-button goes where the target goes. The head… that’s a different story.
I stutter-step one way and throw in a head-fake to the other. His feet split to both sides, his arms flailing, his body unsure if I’m going left or right. He stumbles, grunts, falls hard on the pavement, the arm he just happens to be flapping in my direction missing me by at least a foot if I’m being generous on his technique.
A cool breeze kicks up after he utters the word, and another, even less athletic man is bearing down on me an instant later.
This one has the thin-but-fat physique that of a man who may occasionally exercise but doesn’t find himself working outside or on the court too often. A beer-league softballer’s body. Emphasis on soft and beer.
He breaks down this time but it’s too early, expecting me to zig or zag. The funny thing about playing defense is you not only have to stay in front, but you must also stay strong. He’s in front, sure, but he’s lost all momentum, he’s flat-footed, and that body of his isn’t going to be strong enough without leverage or momentum to keep me at bay.
I don’t zig, and I don’t zag. I run straight at him, launching myself through the air, my knee to his chest, my fist to his face, my body driving his body into the ground. There’s a thud and the unmistakable cracking of ribs. He grunts in pain.
Another breeze kicks up, but at this point I’m beside Jordan’s car, fumbling for keys, yanking the door open, and firing up the engine. I throw the car in reverse, leave rubber on the pavement.
There’s another thud, the sound of a new man bouncing off the back of my car. I watch in my mirror as he crumples to the pavement and cries out in pain.
Victoria! What if that was someone else? Isabel grunts.
Eh, he’s alive, I say, throwing the car in drive and heading for the road. I run the first red light I see, as well as the second, before hitting the highway.
No wonder Albert wants me on his team, I say with a laugh. Even Gerard’s best are helpless when they don’t have a strong host or the element of surprise.
I’ve been driving for at least an hour before finally feeling safe enough to stop. I call Albert twice from a vacant lot downtown with no response before I start typing.
“Albert, did you make it out safely? I’m so sorry for getting you caught. I can explain what happened. Can we meet up? How can we get out of this? I want to help you take him down.”
I hit send and lean back in my chair, waiting for a response, looking over my shoulder and in the mirrors every so often to make sure I’m still alone. The lot is wide and open; I should be able to see anyone coming from far enough away to escape.
I don’t know what you’re worried about. No one is going to come for you now, Ally says, almost gleefully. They got what they wanted so—
Why would they try to kill us then? Rebecca snaps. Why would the Cruel Man attack us after that? Why would Catarina give him the gun if they didn’t care anymore?
Ally, I know you were trying to help, but you really screwed us, Isabel says, her normally soft voice full of scorn. What are we going to do?
I don’t know yet, I say, trying to keep my calm as I silence Ally. Letting her speak now would only incense the rest of us further.
I type out another message to Albert, this one even more pitiful than the last:
“Please, it wasn’t me who told them it was you. It was one of the voices in my head. Tell me what I need to do. Tell me how I can make it up to you.”
After hitting send, the weight of all this hits me. First, I decided to run, and I was fine with that if it meant Gerard would eventually be gone. Hell, I was even willing to accept the torture I knew was coming if I knew Albert would be able to give me the final, merciful death I long for. At least then I could hold out hope of getting set free, but it seems obvious now that Gerard will be torturing me forever and that even if Albert hasn’t been caught yet he is so furious at me that he probably won’t hold up his end of our bargain.
I turn my engine off and lean back further. Even running feels fruitless now.
My phone buzzes.
Lucidly dreaming. The sound oozes into the border between imagination and reality, gets lost amongst the rest of the sensations. I’m running through a field, sun high overhead, hands brushing against tulips and daisies, the fuzzy outlines of my parents and brother right in front of me. Not a care in the world.
Suddenly a snake appears, massive, coiled, eyes the size of golf balls, head blotting out the sun. I fall back, screaming. The tail is rattling, buzzing, warning.
My phone buzzes.
My neck is stiff from using my still fastened seatbelt and an extra pair of pants I found lying in the car as a makeshift pillow. I’m groggy, confused, unsure of why or how I fell asleep, unsure of how long I was out for.
My phone buzzes.
The screen is on, a message. I nearly jump at my phone when I go to grab it.
Gerard. My heart sinks, first in disappointment and then in fear. There could only be a couple reasons he’s texting me now and neither of them are good.
“Thank you, Victoria, for finally doing your job. It took over a week, but I’m glad you could hold up your end of the bargain. As we speak, Albert, that traitor bastard, is being hunted down by the rest of my team, including the ones you know and love so well. They’ll catch him soon, and when they do we’ll all have one person to thank: you. Give yourself a pat on the back.”
At least Albert is still on the run, I say to the ladies in my head.
Another message follows before I can fully process the first:
“So, you may be asking yourself what happens to you now? Are you free now that you’ve done your job? HAHAHAHA! No. Like Hemmingway said, ‘There’s no hunting like the hunting of a man’. It’s been a while since they’ve gotten to play with someone like you, and they can’t just go cold-turkey like that after having so much fun. I’ll tell you what, though, just to keep it interesting: if you can ever find me and meet me face-to-face, I’ll set you free. I promise.”
Carrot, meet stick. Just trying to string me along like he always has. Maybe later I’ll decide to play along, but right now I’ve got an idea I didn’t think I’d have before I read his text. Albert took me to his apartment because he thought it secure. Does Gerard know about it? If he’s still alive, that’s where he could be.
Then again, Catarina saw us just down the street. She used my anchor to find me and was surprised to see him. Has she reconsidered what she saw and asked herself why we were there? Has she put two and two together?
Whatever. At this point, there are no other options, and all I’ve got are Hail Marys and small glimmers of hope.
It takes me over an hour to get to Albert’s apartment, not because he lives particularly far from where I parked, but just because driving through downtown adds about forty minutes to any drive. By the time I park on the street in front of his place, pangs of anxiety and withdrawals from Vivian’s alcohol are shooting through my body and the tremble in my hands is so bad I can barely drive.
It’s all in your head, Rebecca says as though she is trying to get me to snap out of it. This body isn’t addicted. Just forget about it.
Easy for you to say, you’re not the one suffering from withdrawals.
We can feel the pain, too, Isabel says.
That’s news to me, but it doesn’t change anything. Pain is always just in your head. I say as I get out of the car and watch a parking enforcement car drive by. I’d feel guilty about the ticket I’m going to get if I thought I’d be living in this body long enough to have to pay it. Ignoring what I’m suffering through seems like a good way to end up like Javier or probably anyone else Gerard has tortured. I take a deep breath, hold my tremoring hand out in front of me. You try to ignore the issues without fully appreciating them until they consume you and all of a sudden you’ve lost control. I curl my fingers into a shaky fist. So, here’s to the pain.
Rebecca mutters something, but I’m able to tune out whatever follows. I’m at the front door of Albert’s building. There’s no doorman, which is good for sneaking in, but also bad because it means the doors are just locked downstairs and I have to wait on the corner even longer, trying my best to look like I belong, before someone will walk up and let me in. When a young man and his wife finally come out from the other side, I flash a casual smile and walk in as he holds the door open for me. Who says chivalry is dead?
I’m leaving the elevator on Albert’s floor when I realize that if he’s not there I’ll need to break in. I hadn’t even considered this on the drive over; nothing else was fathomable. He would be there. He had to be there. Where else could he be if he was on the run?
The door is ajar when I walk up. My skin tingles at the sight. There’s noticeable damage around the strike plate and knob—evidence of a novice lockpick getting frustrated and trying to force their way in when the door won’t budge.
I steel myself and push the door open to peek inside. Disaster zone. Bookshelves and furniture strewn all over the place, the dining room table broken in half, cupboards and fridge left open with the smell of spoiling milk pervasive in the kitchen.
Albert’s room is as bad as the rest of the apartment. His dresser drawers are hanging open and every piece of clothing he owned is in a haphazard pile on his bed. His closet is much the same, mounds of clothes thrown aside and a path leading to the back wall, where an empty safe is hanging open. I swing it shut to find that it will not latch; whoever broke into the apartment broke into the safe as well. Their handiwork is appalling.
If there’s any hope, I decide—rather, convince myself—it’s that Albert was apparently not here when they broke in. There’s no sign of a struggle. It seems instead they were searching for something. His anchor? Did they find it? Who knows.
Seeing the place where I had those fleeting feelings of hopefulness left like this nearly sends me spiraling, even if it means Albert has not yet been caught. I’m back in the living room, looking out the window. Clouds are hanging in the sky, not a shred of blue, the brief moments of sunshine I saw earlier replaced with the more fitting and natural chilliness of late autumn. Fitting, given the day I’ve had.
I walk to the couch, quietly pondering my next step. It’s so quiet in the apartment that I can hear the faint buzzing of a cellphone on the kitchen or coffee table of the apartment directly beneath me. I have little hope and I’ve exhausted all my leads.
This might be it, I say to the women in my head. There’s no way I can help him. Coming here was the last chance we had.
The phone downstairs rings again, taunting me with that which I want most of all.
If he’s not here and hasn’t responded, he’s probably on the run just like we should be. I lean back, put my hands behind my head, plan out which gas station I’ll hit on the way out and which road I’ll take.
You ladies want to go East? The phone rings again. For an instant I consider stomping on the floor and yelling at them to answer it so that I can go back to wallowing in the misery of my own phone being perfectly capable of receiving messages but never getting them when I need them most.
Want to go South? North to Canada?
The ringing eventually stops and maybe ten seconds later it vibrates a couple more times to signal that someone left a voicemail. I quietly listen for several seconds, waiting to hear the footsteps of Albert’s downstairs neighbors as they walk up to their phone.
No footsteps… Isabel whispers when we hear nothing but silence from below us.
The sound of her voice hangs for several seconds before a thought snaps into place. In a rush, I slide onto the floor and shove the couch aside. It drags and scratches along the hardwood paneling. Underneath is surprisingly clean, given that the couch seems to have been there for a while and the rest of the apartment, even when Albert was here, was not exactly immaculate.
One by one, I knock on the floorboards. The first one gives off a dull thud. The second as well. And the third. I hit the forth out of principle rather than some unfounded hope, but as I knock it one of the edges on the end lifts and a hollow ring replaces the dull thud of the others.
My heart is racing as I pry the board loose. Underneath is Albert’s phone, not the one he had on him earlier today, but the one he was texting on before he killed Vivian, nearly dead, showing missed texts and phone calls on the lock screen. There’s a four-number code to get in.
1887, Rebecca says. He was born in 1887.
I’d kiss her if I could. The phone unlocks and bombards me with missed notifications. In the last several hours, since I exposed him to the mercy of Gerard, there have been eighteen missed phone calls. One of them is from me, the rest are from someone called “Vaughn”. Searching through the texts is the same; a few from me, marked as unread so thankfully he wasn’t just ignoring me, and the rest from Vaughn. Scrolling through them is confusing and heartbreaking. At the beginning, only hours ago, the texts were urgent but not desperate. The latest are nearly unintelligible, and what I can decipher is as frightened as it is frantic.
The texts all seem to deal with the same subject, namely that Albert missed a meeting with Vaughn in a park a dozen miles away, which was apparently scheduled for a couple hours after I last saw him. When he didn’t show, Vaughn seemingly called or texted every five or ten minutes, begging Albert not to abandon him, not to leave him to the ‘wolves’. One early text from Vaughn, before the screw fell loose, strikes as eerily familiar, and if I didn’t know who sent it I could confuse it with one of my own:
“Albert, I know I messed up, but I promise I’ll make it up to you. You’ve been watching over me for so long. Please tell me how we can get out of this.”
Those are basically my words sent from a different phone by a different person. How did they mess up, I wonder? Could it possibly be any worse than what Ally made me do? I doubt it.
The later texts are indecipherable. Whoever Vaughn is, his mental state is deteriorating and deteriorating fast. Like for me, Albert must have been his lifeline, and now that his lifeline is gone—or, rather, he believes his lifeline to have abandoned him—he’s lost all hope. I can empathize with that, see myself in it. It’s a not a pretty picture of what could be if I ever stopped grasping for every tiny thread of hope I found.
I have a sudden urge to smile when another text comes in, and I immediately scroll to the bottom of the thread:
“I Ben out ish e rough oleas Ander”
The phone lingers in my hand until the screen goes black. I need to see Vaughn, even if he’s a ghostly shell rather than a man. For all I know, Albert is in danger, and Vaughn is the only one who could possibly have any insight as to where he might be. I type out a message:
“Sorry, Vaughn, I got held up and I’ve been away from my phone. I’ll meet you at the park just like we planned. Be there in an hour?”
The wait for his response is agonizing. Minutes go by. Did I send too many words for his fractured mind to comprehend? Is he too irrationally furious to agree to meet? Does he know this isn’t Albert from the words I used? Is this all an elaborate game set up by Gerard?
The phone vibrates.
“yes c u tere”
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