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I was sitting on the sofa, eating a reheated slice of pizza, when I saw it.
My Facebook profile picture. On the local news. Underneath the text: PRIME SUSPECT IN JACKSON MURDER.
I blinked. Rubbed my eyes once, twice.
“The prime suspect is 24-year-old Hamburg resident, Amanda Duffy.” My name. She said my name. My heart doubled its tempo in my chest. “Kaylee Jackson’s family demands justice. We all do.”
“Who the hell is Kaylee Jackson?” I shouted at the newscaster.
As if to answer my question, a photo flashed up. A little girl. Curly black hair, tied into tight braids. Denim overalls. A beautiful smile.
I’ve never seen that girl before.
“Kaylee’s mom dropped her off at school on the morning of December 7th. But she never came home. Around 7 PM, her mother called the police. It wasn’t long before…” The newscaster coughed, clearly overcome with emotion. “It wasn’t long before they found her body, at the bottom of a ditch along I-95.”
My heart pounded in my chest. December 7th, December 7th… I eyed the empty whiskey bottle, tucked behind the trash can. Sure. I drank that morning… Like I have every Friday morning, since the breakup.
But I’ve never seen that girl in my life.
The news cut to a video. A tear-stained mother. “We lost everything because of her,” the woman said through sobs. “We need… we need to bring Amanda to justice. What she did to my little girl…” She never finished the sentence. She just crumbled into choking sobs.
I stared at the TV. Numb. Paralyzed.
I’ve never seen that girl in my life.
I eyed the empty bottle of whiskey again. Peeking out from behind the trash can.
Then I stood up. “I didn’t do anything!” My knee collided with the table; the pizza slid off, hit the linoleum with a wet slap.“I’ve never seen that girl in my life! Don’t you understand? I never even met her!”
“As we speak, police are heading to Miss Duffy’s door,” the newscaster said. “She will be brought to trial — and no doubt punished severely for this heinous crime. Now, on to the weather…”
No. Police? Now?
My heart thudded in my chest.
I ran over to the doors. Instinctively, my fingers turned the locks. I shoved a chair against the door. Don’t let them in. No — no, you have to let them in. The truth will come out. You’re innocent. You are.
You never met her.
I grabbed my cell phone. Call Mom. She’ll know what to do. But as my fingers slid over the screen, I saw the message:
39 New Messages
Shaking, I began to read.
You are fucking devil spawn. Don’t you ever contact me again. Rot in hell.
From my best friend of nearly 20 years, Shawna.
I hope you get the death penalty. I can’t believe you killed that poor little angel. Blocking your number now.
From my sister.
I dialed my mom’s number. “Mom?” I cried, when she picked up. “Mom! Did you see –”
“I gave you so much,” Mom said, nearly unintelligible through sobs. “I raised you… I loved you… I gave up everything for you. Why did you do this, Amanda? Why?”
“I didn’t do anything!”
“How can you lie to me? How can you lie, at a time like this?!”
“Mom, I didn’t –”
“Tell the truth. I don’t — I don’t care if you lie to me. But tell the police, tell those poor parents, the truth. That’s the least you can do.”
I walked over to the front door, removed the chairs, and unlocked the door. With a deep breath, I yanked the doorknob and swung it open. The icy air stung my face, fluttered through my blouse.
I didn’t do anything.
The truth always comes out.
I waited there for what seemed like hours. Until my arms were numb with cold, my legs stiff and aching. Until the night grew still as a tomb, and tiny stars winked down from above.
No one ever came.
So I began driving to the police station. I’ll tell them exactly what I know. I slowed as I approached the stop sign. That I saw the broadcast, but I didn’t —
A woman was crossing the street, holding the hand of a little girl.
A girl with braided pigtails, denim overalls.
What the hell? I shook my head. No. I didn’t just see that. But as I took a second look, I recognized the mother, too. Short brown hair, wine lipstick, heavily-tweezed eyebrows.
If they’re alive…
How am I guilty of murder?
I rolled down the window. “Hey! Are you Kaylee Jackson?” I shouted out the window.
The little girl turned back to me, fearfully. As soon as the mother saw me, she hurried up, practically dragging her along the sidewalk.
“Hey! Come back here!” I yelled. “Aren’t you the Jackson’s?”
They disappeared into the night.
I sat there at the stop sign, the car rumbling underneath me. If they’re alive… why did they broadcast that story? A terrible dread filled me. Something was very, very wrong.
So I didn’t turn left for the police
I continued straight — to the news station’s office.
The building was still lit up, despite the fact that the broadcast had ended more than an hour ago. I pulled into a parking space in the back, shoved my hands into my pockets, and tried the door. It was open.
The lobby was empty. A low buzzing sound filled the room. The HNN logo on the wall shined in the light, along with the familiar little icon of a dove.
I turned left and walked down the hallway. As I walked, a low rumbling sound filled my ears.
I walked towards them, careful to keep my steps quiet.
“Alright, good job, everyone!” a man was saying loudly, in a chipper tone. “Especially good job to you, Rebecca. Wow.”
I flattened myself against the wall. The door at the end of the hall hung open a few inches, spilling out golden light.
“Thank you,” a woman’s voice said.
“Really, you outdid yourself. With the tears, and the calls for justice. Amazing.” The man — or someone — clapped his hands together. “So, Amanda Duffy is ruined.”
I started at my own name.
The sound of papers shuffling. “Looks like it’s Reginald Smith,” a third voice piped up. “What do you want to do with him?”
“Who is he?”
“He’s one of the bums. Homeless for a good part of his life, now lives in one of the crappy apartments on Maple Ave. Trying to get his life together, keep his job.”
“Ah, I see,” the man replied. “How about rape?”
“We could do that.”
“Make it a pretty blonde woman. Everyone loves those.”
“I’ll make some calls, see if we can get one of the college students.”
“And you, Rebecca — you write up a script to read on air.”
“Okay! Well, that’s all for tonight. Good job, everyone!”
Rustling movements. Thumping footsteps.
Coming towards the door.
I ran out of the building as fast as I could. The icy wind slapped against my skin. My heart pounded in my chest. I raced across the parking lot, towards my beat-up sedan.
“Hey! It’s her!”
I looked up to see a couple was crossing the parking lot, from the offices on the other side. “It’s the woman who murdered that poor little girl!” the woman shrieked.
“Rot in hell!” the man shouted.
A glass bottle exploded at my feet, hurled by the man.
I scrambled to the car, yanked the door open, and peeled out of the parking lot. Clank — another projectile clanged against the bumper.
I pulled out into the dark street.
Then I turned left for Maple Ave.
I buzzed the button next to REGINALD SMITH.
“Hi, um. My name is Amanda Duffy, and –”
Dammit. I shouldn’t have led with that. “Listen. You’re in danger,” I said, ignoring him. “Tomorrow night, the local news is going to accuse you of rape –”
“Sounds like you’re threatening me.”
“No, I’m not. They are. Listen to me — there’s something terrible in this town –”
After a few moments of silence, I started away from the door.
That’s when I saw the police officer.
Smack, smack. His footsteps smacked against the cement. The crackles of a radio echoed through the darkness.
What if he sees me? Tries to arrest me? I ducked behind a hedge.
He stopped in front of the apartment building. But he didn’t ring the bell. He just stood there, outside the door. Watching.
Then he picked up his radio.
Crackle. “Johns here. Outside Smith’s building now.”
“You got eyes on him?”
“No. But he’s home. I’ll make sure he doesn’t leave.”
“Good.” Pause. “Make sure no one — and I mean no one — can give him an alibi. We don’t want our viewers losing faith in us, after all.”
I snuck behind the bushes, around the back of the building. Then I slipped into the parking lot, ducked in the car, and drove home.
The next day, I tried to warn him again.
This time I got lucky. Someone was exiting as I arrived. I barely caught the door in time.
When I got to his apartment, the door was already hanging open.
I took a step into the apartment. The smell of whiskey hit me like a truck. An open suitcase lay on the floor, spilling clothing. “Reginald?” I called.
The door swung shut behind me.
I whipped around. There he stood, between me and the door. Dark curls, touched with gray. Tired blue eyes. A bottle of whiskey in one hand, sloshing its contents onto the floor.
“It’s you. Amanda Duffy.”
I nodded, backing away.
“You know, there was a police officer outside my apartment all night,” he said, pointing a shaking finger at me. “Did you call him?”
“No, I –”
“I was just getting my life together! I got a job. The apartment. My ex-girlfriend is finally letting me visit our son again.” He quickly stepped towards me, closing the gap between us. “And now you’re calling the police, so they can put me in jail for a gram of weed?”
“No! I was trying to warn you! The officer was one of them. With HNN.”
“What are you, some kind of tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorist?”
“No! Didn’t you see the news? They accused me of murder! I’m not a murderer!” I backed away from him. My heel hit the wall. I shrieked in fear and closed my eyes.
“Okay, okay! Sssshhh.” He backed away, set the bottle down. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. I just… I thought you were trying to get me in trouble. I have a lot of enemies.” He stared at me, blue eyes soft. “What are you trying to say, then?”
I took a deep breath. “Okay. Last night, I was in HNN’s building.” I took a seat on one of the lumpy couches, keeping my distance. “I overhead them — planning today’s story. They said they were going to accuse you of raping some pretty, blonde woman. And the officer outside your apartment was there to make sure you didn’t leave… so you wouldn’t have an alibi.”
His face paled.
Then he spoke in a quiet tone. “I’m not saying I believe you. But, if you’re right — we need to stop them. This is my last shot — at everything.”
We made it to the HNN building in ten minutes flat. As we pulled into the parking space, my heart plummeted.
A pretty, blonde woman — wearing a hoodie with the words CARLTON UNIVERSITY — was standing on the sidewalk. Talking to a tall, thin man with spiky black hair.
“No, no, no. I bet that’s her.” My heart dropped. “She’s probably going to go on air, read the script. Everyone’s going to believe her and –”
I stopped. Rebecca was swinging the front door of the building open. She motioned them inside with a smile.
“Okay. We’ll go in behind them. When they get ready to film the broadcast… we’ll intervene. And then we’ll tell them everything. That we’re not going to stand for it.” The doors swung shut behind the three of them. “That sounds good. Right?”
But Reginald was already yanking the car door open. Before I could stop him, he was running across the pavement.
“Wait!” I sprinted after him.
The air inside the building was uncomfortably warm. The HNN logo shined in the dim light. Down the dark hallway, a green light glowed: ON AIR.
Rebecca’s voice echoed out into the hallway. “Good evening, Hamburg. Tonight, we have tragic news to report. Last night at around 11 PM, Marisa Fox — a sophomore at Carlton — decided to go for a quick jog. But that decision cost her everything.”
A high-pitched voice began: “I was… I was so scared. He suddenly jumped out of the bushes and ambushed me. Like he’d planned it all along. I tried to get away but he –” sniffle — “he was too strong.”
“Marisa has already spoken with police. She identified her attacker as Reginald –”
Reginald yanked the door open.
“Hey!” he yelled. “Hey, you!”
Rebecca turned, eyebrows slightly raised. Marisa leaned towards Rebecca, fear on her face.
“I didn’t do anything! I’m innocent!” He aggressively stepped towards them. “You hear? Innocent!”
Two burly men moved towards him from the perimeter of the soundstage. But the tall, thin man — who was sitting behind the row cameras — shook his head. Rebecca gave a small smile, and continued: “The attacker was –”
Reginald lunged at them.
“No!” I shouted.
But it was too late. Reginald charged the stage and roughly grabbed Marisa. “I didn’t do anything to you,” he shouted. “You know that. You know. Tell them.”
“Get off of me!” she shrieked, her fake tears turning to real ones. “Please, stop it!”
Rebecca shot a smile to the tall, thin man in the back. Then she immediately twisted her face into a fake look of terror. “Somebody call the police!” she moaned.
“This is my last chance. My last chance at a normal life,” Reginald growled. “I won’t let you ruin it all with some fake story. I won’t.”
The red lights of the cameras blared through the darkness, like dozens of tiny eyes. The faceless cameramen hunched behind them, chattering excitedly. Swiveling their equipment towards him.
Reginald. No. Please, please stop.
His arm looped around her neck, squeezing. “I’ll let you go if you tell them,” he said, his voice taking on a hurried, manic tone. “Tell them I didn’t do anything to you. Tell them.”
“Okay,” she coughed. “You didn’t — do anything — to me last night.”
“Hands in the air!”
The door burst open. Two police officers charged in, guns cocked. “Hands in the air, or we’ll shoot!”
Reginald backed away. Put his hands in the air.
He shot a glance at me. Go, he mouthed. Go.
I took off. I climbed in the car, peeled out of the parking lot. Thankfully, no one followed; they were all too distracted by the commotion.
The next day, the headline on HNN read:
LOCAL NEWS ANCHOR AND COLLEGE STUDENT ATTACKED BY REGINALD SMITH.
Check out Blair Daniels’ critically-acclaimed collection of short scary stories, Shadow on the Stairs: Urban Mysteries and Horror Stories, now available, on Amazon.com.