Estimated reading time — 33 minutes
Note: There is some gore in this pasta. If you believe this will bother you, please skip today’s story.
His hazel eyes skimmed over the words for what he knew had to be the twentieth time. His pupils darted back and forth over the lines, dancing rhythmically as they flowed toward the bottom of the page yet again. Braxton could feel his heartbeat quicken with each successive pass over the words. Small beads of perspiration began to form on his forehead, causing it to glisten under the soft, white light shining down from above his head. He felt a sudden pain in his jaw; he unclenched his teeth, which had tightened without his realizing it, relieving the growing pressure in his jaws. He could feel a low tremble building within his muscles, a product of the fear that was beginning to course through his veins, turning his blood icy.
He inhaled deeply, holding it momentarily before releasing it in a powerful whoosh. He closed his eyes tightly. He stood like that, motionless, for almost a full minute, the only movement coming from his fingers, which ran lightly over the pale white sheet of paper with the typed message. He listened to the low sshhh sound that wafted up to his ears from the paper. Before realizing that he was doing it, Braxton tore the paper in half and crumpled the two pieces into a tiny ball and hurled it across his small living room, where it bounced lightly from the wall and fell behind the tattered couch.
Braxton put his face in his hands, trying to regain his composure. Tears of fear and rage stung the corners of his eyes. He let out a scream, which was muffled by the palms of his hands. He raised his hands and ran his fingers roughly through his dark hair. His mind reeled at the implications contained within those now-crumpled words. Questions clouded his thoughts, prohibiting any course of action from being taken.
Where did this letter come from? Who brought it? How did this person get in and out of his house? And, most importantly, how did this person know the things that they did? Hadn’t he always been careful? He had always planned meticulously; hadn’t he?
Braxton felt his knees tremble slightly as his legs tried to give out. The room tilted to the left as a wave of lightheadedness washed over him, almost sending him to the dirty, yellowed linoleum floor. He reached out blindly, grasping until his fingers found purchase, feeling the smooth, yet slightly bumpy, texture of duct tape. He slid the barstool, well past its best days, towards him, scraping his palm on a torn piece of the vinyl cushion as he did so, and dropped down onto it. Using the first two fingers on each hand, he rubbed his temples softly, trying to focus.
This person obviously knows me, he thought. Somehow they know things that they have no way of knowing. In all the time he had led his double life, carrying out his acts of mischief (to him it was merely mischief. To others it was far more serious), he had never slipped up. He never spoke of his deeds. Under no circumstances did he keep souvenirs or trophies. A single camera, Polaroid or otherwise, was never used. And every single field trip that he took was at least three hours away from his home. He always did the proper reconnaissance beforehand, checking the weather, traffic flow of the town, and the habits of the local civilians. So how could this person possibly know what they do?
Braxton opened his eyes and sat upright as a sudden revelation, what he knew to be nothing but pure truth, dawned on him. The thought came with such ferocity that it almost bowled him over; literally almost knocking him to the floor as he sat up straight.
It’s a hoax, he thought. Someone broke in and left that note because they thought that it would be funny. It just struck a nerve because, by some stroke of luck, the house they chose happened to contain a resident with secrets.
Braxton stood up and began pacing the length of his small house. He nodded thoughtfully as the idea worked itself out within his mind. He slowly convinced himself that this could be the only plausible explanation. The idea that someone might know who he actually was was inconceivable. It was downright ludicrous.
What did the note really say, anyway, his train of thought continued as he stepped out of the shower and began to towel himself off. I know exactly who you are and exactly what you’ve done? Well, that was just too vague for his taste. If anyone really knew anything, they’d say something to prove what they knew. Give an example to authenticate.
Despite his best attempts to reassure himself, Braxton found himself obsessed with the locks, certain that he had forgotten to lock one, leaving him unable to go to bed. He walked through the small, two-bedroom house checking each lock, trying to raise the window afterwards. Once he had made his rounds, he began at the beginning once more, double- and triple-checking the locks.
Stop! he screamed to himself on his fourth pass through the house. This is insane. This type of scared, nervous behavior is the intended result. I won’t succumb to that. Now, it’s time to go to bed. Leave the locks alone.
And, surprisingly enough, he was able to do just that. He curled up in his bed, grasping his pillow in a tight embrace, and drifted almost immediately to sleep. He slept that way until he awoke the next morning, when he was greeted with absolute terror.
The thin band of yellow morning sunlight slowly stretched across the bed from the crack in the curtains as the sun rose. Braxton rolled over, still clutching dearly at his pillow, shifting the light into his eyes. His eyelids fluttered lightly as he gingerly rose from his sleep. He yawned loudly and stretched, groaning as he did so. His back popped audibly, and he chuckled at the thought of his age finally beginning to catch up to him.
“Good morning, Braxton,” a gruff male voice said from behind him.
Braxton flipped over quickly and scrambled away from the intruder. Reaching the edge of his mattress, his hand slipped, sending him toppling backwards. His head made a hollow thonk! as it connected with the floor. A piercing pain tore through his mind, and he could feel a trickle of warmth that he assumed was blood begin to run down the back of his head and neck. He pushed the pain aside, focusing his attention on the sudden unwanted guest.
“Who the hell are you?” he wanted to scream. He wanted to shout at the intruder. To demand answers. He opened his mouth to do just that, but only a small squeak managed to escape his throat. Instead, Braxton did the only thing that his body would allow; he continued backing away, relishing the illusion of safety that the distance managed to bring, until his back hit the wall just three feet away. He stared at the intruder, eyes wide. His breath was harsh and ragged. He inhaled deeply, unable to control himself. A wave of lightheadedness filled him, the quick, panicked breaths threatening to lose consciousness as he hyperventilated.
“Calm down,” the stranger instructed. “You shouldn’t lose consciousness right now. We have some things to discuss, you and I. I would think that it’s in your best interest to pay attention.”
The stranger sat in the old leather chair in the corner of Braxton’s bedroom. He was lounged back comfortably; legs spread wide, elbows resting on the arms of the chair. A sense of utter calmness radiated from him, as though breaking and entering was the most natural act in the world. A pair of smoky grey eyes stared out from behind the black ski mask that he wore. Those eyes were cold, calculating, showing no remorse. Light glinted from the scalpel that he held in his hands as he twitched it absentmindedly.
“Wh… who are you?” Braxton’s voice cracked and quavered, despite his best attempts to keep it level.
“That isn’t important.” The stranger leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “You may call me Teacher, for I am here to educate you.”
Braxton’s mind reeled. He fought desperately to understand the situation, but comprehension stayed just beyond his grasp. His face twisted into a look of confusion.
“You have led a horrible life,” the stranger continued, seeing the bewildered look that Braxton wore. “Your education will be one to show you the consequences of such a life; that is why I am your teacher. It has fallen upon me to show you the error of your ways.”
Braxton opened his mouth to protest, to deny the allegations that had been laid at his feet, but immediately closed it, a single sound unuttered, when the stranger raised his hand and shook his head. The gravity in the intruder’s movement said all that he needed to know: there was no bullshitting his way out of this. No quick thinking, followed up with expertly chosen words, would convince this threatening persona that he had broken into the wrong house, chosen the wrong pupil. Instead, Braxton remained silent. What the stranger said next was enough to confirm both his conclusion and his worst fears.
“August 10, 1994,” he began. “You were ten years old. In those days you had an affinity for fire. That night you snuck out of your window, a box of matches that sat on the mantel in hand. You wandered the streets for over an hour before finding the right location. It was a small, wooden house a few blocks from your own. You struck the match, using it to light a pile of dried sticks and leaves that you had placed by the front door.”
Braxton’s eyes continued to grow as he listened to the details of his life being recalled to him. The interloper spoke in a monotone voice, reciting the tale as if he were reading from cue cards.
“When the pile was lit, you rang the doorbell and ran. What you were unaware of was that an elderly woman lived there, all alone. She had taken out her hearing aid before bed, so she didn’t hear the doorbell. It didn’t take long for the old, dried wood to catch fire, quickly setting the house ablaze. The woman died in her bed. She never had a chance.”
The Teacher stood up, staring down at Braxton with reproach. “That was the first person to die at your hands, but it wasn’t the last. Although it was an accident, you found that you had a taste for murder. You craved it. It became an addiction, your own private heroin.”
He began to pace slowly around the room, hands resting behind his back, his empty hand clasped loosely around his wrist. “The time has come to right the wrongs. Now is the time of your redemption.”
“How do you know all this?” The terror rang through clearly in Braxton’s words, teeming behind each syllable.
“I don’t think that really matters; do you? The fact remains that I know. I know each and every detail of your horrid actions. Everything.”
He stopped pacing and stared down at Braxton, his cold eyes studying him calculatedly. Braxton felt as if those eyes saw past his outer appearance. It was almost as if they peered beyond the physical and into the metaphysical, into the nature of his soul. How else would he know such things? Those were things that no one had any way of knowing, or even had any right to know.
The black ski mask shifted, and Braxton knew that the man was smiling beneath that layer of cotton.
“I even know about the man that you planned to kill when you took your vacation from work in two weeks. You planned to do it slowly, to try out torture for a change.” His voice was grave. Braxton knew that the smile he wore beneath the mask was only for show. Perhaps it held back that raw emotion that he could sense lying behind the words, waiting to break forth.
“Jackson Humphries is his name,” he continued. “A middle-aged, mid-level executive at a pharmaceutical company. He’s a lonely man, but a good man. He gives regularly to charity, volunteers at a homeless shelter two weekends a month. You intend to subdue him at his house, keep him in his basement, and slowly torture him until he begs for death.”
Braxton was taken aback. The precision in these accusations was uncanny. It just wasn’t possible. What was going on here? Was this strange person some sort of demon sent to punish him for his deeds? How could he know things that he had only thought of, things that had never been voiced aloud, let alone written?
His eyes shifted upwards. He was just beneath his bedroom window. The bed separated him from the stranger. If he were to act quickly, he could be on his feet and dive through the window before the intruder had time to react. Braxton shifted his weight. His muscles tensed, prepared to move as soon as the opportunity presented itself.
“I don’t think that it would be wise to try and escape.” It was almost as if he had read Braxton’s mind. “To do so would only cause me to chase you. That would anger me. Anger could cause me to skip to the last lesson of your education, the lesson reserved for the possibility that you cannot or will not learn the others. Death.”
He was stuck and he knew it. Braxton decided on an alternate route. Simple denial. He licked his lips. Fear had sucked the moisture from his mouth, leaving only the horrid taste of morning breath in the barren wasteland that was his oral cavity. He took a deep breath. Here goes nothing.
“You’ve got the wrong guy,” he began. He no longer tried to hide the fear that drove his stammering words. Fear was good; it could destroy someone’s resolve. This he knew from experience. In the beginning of his mischief-making career, he had almost allowed several victims to slip through his grasp due to the weakening of his resolve from witnessing their absolute horror. He could only hope that the same was possible in this situation.
“I don’t know why you think I’ve done these things, but you’re mistaken.” He worked up some tears, letting them spill over and slide down his cheeks. He breathed in deep, wet sobs.
The stranger was over the bed in a flash, almost a blur of movement. He pressed the sliver of metal that was his scalpel blade, an eighth of an inch thick and sharpened to a deadly precision, against Braxton’s neck. Braxton didn’t need to see it to know that the blade was just above his carotid artery, the blade digging into his flesh. Only a bit more pressure, probably less than a foot-pound, and the vein would slice open, and he would bleed out in just a matter of minutes.
“Do. Not. Test. Me.,” the stranger commanded through clenched teeth. His face was inches from Braxton’s close enough that he could feel the weak puffs of breath, muffled by the mask. “I am giving you an opportunity to make amends, to rectify the wrongs that you have committed. Try my patience and I will kill you in ways so efficient that your final thoughts will be amazement at my prowess. Do you understand?” He pulled the blade from Braxton’s neck, revealing the thin cut that had been formed in his skin, a solitary bead of blood welling up.
“Yes,” Braxton stammered.
“Very well.” The stranger stood straight. He stared down at his pupil. “Sit on the bed. We’ve wasted enough time. Your lessons must begin now.”
“There are three lessons for you to learn,” the Teacher said once Braxton was situated on the foot of the bed. He stood across the room, leaning against the wall directly opposite Braxton. He had once again resumed the twirling of the scalpel. Whether his intention was to intimidate him, or if it was just a nervous habit, some deep need to keep his hands busy, Braxton knew not.
“Physical, mental, and emotional,” he continued. “Whenever you commit your heinous acts, you inflict pain of tremendous magnitude in these three areas on not only your victims, but their loved ones as well. It is for these reasons that you shall suffer greatly in these three areas. Do you understand what you are being told?”
Braxton nodded his understanding. He stared at the Teacher with a blank expression. Some part of him was still unable to accept that this was really happening. That part screamed that it wasn’t possible, that it was, absolutely had to be, a dream.
“I will not administer these punishments,” the Teacher went on to say. “There is no knowledge to be gained in this. Instead, it will be you who does this. Just as you administered this pain to your many victims. Your tasks will be set before you for you to accomplish on your own. Once these are completed, I will take my leave of you. Permanently. I will return later. Whether it be tonight, tomorrow, or next week, you will not know. You have until the sun sets to complete the tasks I have given you in their entirety.”
He crossed the room in a few quick strides. He leaned down, putting his face directly in front of Braxton’s, his hands resting on his bent knees. The anger in his eyes had dissipated, leaving only the gravity of his message.
“I cannot impress upon you enough the severity of the punishment should you fail to do as I have instructed. There is no escape from this. There is no ‘easy out’. You must follow the instructions to the letter. I will know if you do not. If you fail to do as I have asked, I will be forced to teach you the fourth and final lesson.”
Braxton, although terrified by what the answer would be, had to ask, “What’s the final lesson?”
“The answer should be obvious. Your education will end in the same place that your extracurricular activities did: death.”
Tears began to stream down Braxton’s face in thick rivers. He could feel them plopping gently onto his bare skin as they fell from his cheeks to his bare chest.
“Why are you doing this to me?” His voice was thick and watery.
“Why did you do what you did to the others? You must reform. You must learn the error of your ways. If you do not, you cannot be allowed to continue, to inflict this pain on anyone else. It ends today, one way or the other.”
He reached into his back pocket and pulled out three envelopes. In thick, black ink a number was printed in the center of each. He handed the envelopes to Braxton, who made no move to take them.
“Take them,” he commanded, his voice deep and guttural.
Tears fell with a renewed vigor as Braxton raised a shaking hand to receive the proffered envelopes. He wiped away the thick liquid that was running freely from his nose.
“Sunset tonight,” the Teacher reminded him. “Contacting the police will do nothing more than waste the precious time that you have. The fourth lesson will only be prolonged until they’re no longer protecting you. Like I said before, there is no escape.”
With that, he turned and left the room. His movements were quick and soundless, fluid and graceful.
Braxton sat, motionless, for almost a full minute. His entire body felt numb. Had that really just happened? If it weren’t for the envelopes that he held in his hand and the steady throb in his skull from falling from the bed in his mad scramble away upon awakening, he would be inclined to think that it hadn’t. Without moving his head, he cast his eyes downward in a desultory manner. He stared at the envelopes, seeing them, but still unable to feel them in his hand. Still in a daze, he stood and walked into the kitchen.
Pulling up the battered stool, he sat down at the counter and placed the envelopes on the counter before him. Spreading them out, he looked at each one closely. There was nothing extravagant about them, nothing more than plain, white envelopes. The numbers that had been printed on them were sequential, numbered one through three. He ran his fingers over the face of each envelope, then circled back, picking each one up and feeling it individually. Each of the three seemed to contain a single sheet of paper baring almost no weight whatsoever.
The thought crossed his mind to call the police. He dismissed this quickly, not seeing any way that this wouldn’t bring his favorite pastime to light. They would need an explanation, some reason as to why the psychopath had chosen him as a target. At best, the police would have no evidence, but would watch him carefully from now on. That would mean that he would have to quit. He didn’t think he could. Murder was like a drug, and he was addicted. Yes, he had found his own private heroin, without the use of a needle. Well, sometimes needles were used, but never on himself. He couldn’t help but smile at his own little joke.
He scooped up the envelope embossed with the number one. May as well get this over with. He glanced up at the clock on the stove in the kitchen. It read 8:07. He thought that the sun was setting around eight pm. That gave him about twelve hours to do whatever needed to be done. That should be plenty of time, right? He twirled the envelope in his hands for a moment, hesitating, before finally ripping the end off and sliding out the paper. He unfolded it quickly, his eyes widening as he read the words:
Before their deaths, you, intentionally or not, put each and every one of your victims through a rigorous mental torture. In the time before their deaths, they battled with themselves over several issues: why was this happening to them, what had they done to deserve such a fate, and, most importantly, whether they would live or die.
It is your turn. You know why this ordeal has been set before you. You have even been given the reason that you deserve this fate. Whether you live or die is completely up to you. In essence, your mental task is quite easy, compared to the trials of your victims. It is a challenge of memory. I want to see how much respect you have for your victims. This could possibly take all day, or it could take no more than an hour, to complete, it all depends on you.
Do you remember all of your victims? Or are they nothing more than tools to help you get your next fix, used and then discarded, from both mind and memory? We shall see.
Your eighth victim. Do you remember her? Do you remember where she lived? In that location her husband will be at the library all day. If you can get to him, find who he is, and confess every deed that you inflicted upon his wife to him, you may move on to the next task. He is well aware of your coming and the information that you bring to him. There are no cameras in the library; your identity will be safe, for now.
Braxton put the paper on the counter. He felt a burning in his chest and realized that he had forgotten to breathe. His hands trembled uncontrollably. Was he really meant to confess to the husband of his victim? Very well. If that was how it was to be, then so be it.
The name of his eighth victim jumped to his mind instantly. Tabitha Kinchen. He knew the names, faces, location, and how he disposed of each and every one of his multitude of victims, as unlikely as that may seem. From the moment that he had decided that he enjoyed killing and wished to pursue it further, he knew that he would never take a trophy. That would be reckless. It served as nothing more than the noose that tightened should the authorities ever catch wind of what was happening. No, he would not be so careless. Instead, he trained himself to remember each detail with clarity. Should he ever feel the need to reminisce, which he did frequently, as most do, all he had to do was look within himself to experience that joy and exaltation once more.
Braxton threw on some clothes: a pair of faded jeans and an old tee shirt. He grabbed a second shirt as he walked out of the bedroom. He grabbed his keys from the hook by the door and left his house quickly.
At this early hour, it took only twenty minutes to reach the small town where he had first spotted Tabitha. She was early in his career, before he had established his three hour boundary line, back when he was so naïve as to think that he couldn’t be caught, that he was smarter than the police. He had escaped capture and imprisonment several times before he rethought his plans and strategies, turning him into the efficient, ghost-like killer that he now was.
He parked his vehicle around the block from the library’s entrance. You could never be too careful as to who saw you coming and going. Grabbing the spare shirt, he tucked it into his back pocket snugly. He walked casually around the block and into the library.
He saw Tabitha’s husband almost instantly. He had watched the two together many times before he had ever approached her for the first time: eating dinner, leaving the movies, strolls through the park, once they even forgot to shut the curtains in the room and he watched as they made love (he watched for only a moment. He wasn’t a pervert. He never touched or raped his victims, male or female). Even if he hadn’t previously known who to look for, he would have been the obvious choice. The ten or so years since Braxton had last seen the man had not been kind. His face had a sallow, sunken look. His pale skin was hidden behind his mangy beard. His eyes still appeared to hide the grief of his loss, and darted around the room suspiciously, waiting for the one who would be approaching him. His dark hair was long and unkempt, probably hadn’t been brushed in ages. The clothes he wore were wrinkled and stained. Braxton thought that if he walked closer, he would pick up the aroma of body odor and despair. He tapped his foot rapidly, and constantly wrung his hands together nervously.
Braxton cocked his head to the side as he watched. Was the plan to make him feel guilty? If so, it wasn’t working. He had learned how to turn off his conscious many years ago. Yes, he was barely a teenager when he stomped on his Jiminy Cricket, squashing it out of existence forever.
He looked around until he found the sign that he wanted. He walked up to the anxious fellow. Without breaking stride, he nudged him with his foot as he walked by, grabbing the man’s attention.
“Bathroom. Now.” Braxton told him, and headed towards the bathroom sign that he had spotted. He never stopped to look back. The fool would follow; he was pushed by the unknown, too driven not to.
Braxton swung the door open, satisfied that the bathroom was empty. Never too cautious, he walked down the aisle of stalls, pushing the doors open one at a time. At the end, he turned, watching the door and waiting patiently.
“Lock it,” he told the grief-stricken husband as he entered the bathroom.
The man did as he was told and turned to face Braxton. “I was told that you know what happened to my wife.” His voice was anxious, his words eager for the answers that he had waited almost a decade for.
“Who told you that?” Braxton asked. The odds of this guy knowing were slim, but, hey, it was worth a shot.
He shrugged. “I never met him. He called me and told me that if I wanted answers, I needed to be here all day. That the one with the answers would be meeting me.” The pain in his eyes had faded now. In its place was a desperate need for closure, almost a sense of pleading. “Please tell me if you know.”
“She’s dead,” Braxton said coldly. “Her body is buried five miles north of here, down a small road. Tinkerton Way is the name. On your left will be a field. In that field is a small copse of trees in the northeast corner. She’s buried in the center of those trees.”
The man wore a look of bewilderment. “How could you possibly know that?”
“It’s easy,” Braxton smiled smugly. “I put her there.”
In a flash, the man was across the bathroom. He attacked without warning.
Although he knew he should have been expecting it, Braxton was caught totally off guard. The man’s haggard, weak appearance had been deceptive, and he had been lulled into a false sense of security by it. Perhaps he was only fueled by hate and pain, but Tabitha’s husband’s strength and speed had been well hidden beneath that exhausted exterior.
He crossed the bathroom in a few short strides. Before Braxton knew what was happening, the man had his shirt firmly clenched in one hand, and was swinging fiercely with the balled up fist of his other. Braxton’s vision blurred as his head was jerked to the side from the force of the blows. Bursts of light exploded across his field of vision. Braxton felt unconsciousness closing in, reducing his vision to a tiny prick of light as the darkness consumed him, as a volley of blows landed with concussive force.
Braxton went limp. The assailant released him, allowing him to slump to the floor in a heap. He could feel the heat rising from his battered face. His eye was already beginning to swell, leaving only a small slit open. He could feel his mouth and cheeks expanding as the puffiness began to break forth. Blood flowed freely from his nose and a small rill poured from his burst lips. The taste of copper was strong in his mouth as it filled with blood. He could feel a prominent sting on his cheek. Reaching up with a shaking hand, he felt the slice that had opened just beneath his eye, causing him to wince as he drew his hand away.
Tabitha’s husband, Charles, if he recalled correctly, stared down at the murderer, the one responsible for the rapid decline in his life, the loss of his beloved. Hatred filled his every feature; it teemed behind his eyes, waiting to be unleashed. He backed away from Braxton, never taking his eyes from the injured man on the floor. He looked down, examining his bloodied knuckles, his face twisted in a hateful sneer. He stared at his wounded hand for a few moments, then allowed his eyes to slowly drift back up to Braxton. Braxton felt a new sense of unease as he made eye contact with Charles. The hatred that was contained just behind his eyes was now gone; it had been replaced with something else, something fearsome. It was filled with something that Braxton knew quite well, an emotion that he had become well acquainted with over the years, like an old friend. Those eyes were filled with murder personified.
“Why?” His voice was harsh and ragged, strained through the exertion of his screams, mouthed through gasps of air. “What did she ever do to you?” His eyes were brimming with tears, glistening under the fluorescent lights.
Braxton stared vacantly at him.
“Answer me!” he screamed. His face flushed with rage, turning it a deep maroon. Veins bulged and throbbed beneath his skin. He began to tremble uncontrollably. He lashed out, kicking Braxton with all his might, connecting with his ribs with a hollow sound.
Braxton grunted painfully. He looked up at Charles, the anger that resided within him, always waiting to surface, began its ascent. It longed to be let free; it yearned for it always. “There was no reason,” he said defiantly, spitting his mouthful of blood onto the floor. “I was searching for a victim; she caught my eye. There was nothing more.”
Charles’ eyes widened in disbelief. He was clearly taken aback. His voice was full of incredulity. A bewildered look dawned on his face. He stared out blankly, his eyes empty.
“No reason?” He was talking to himself more than to Braxton, his words distant and almost dreamy. “It was nothing more than ‘wrong place, wrong time’?”
He looked back down at Braxton. “Get up,” he commanded, his voice stern and cold. As Braxton clambered to his feet, he reached around his back, pulling out the kitchen knife that he had concealed in his waistband.
Braxton stood, wobbling uneasily. His eyes widened as they rested on the knife, glinting in the light. He opened his mouth to protest, but closed it before he made the first sound; nothing he said would alter the course of events that were about to transpire.
“I’ve waited for this for almost ten years,” Charles said matter-of-factly. He watched the light flash from the blade as he twirled it in his hands. Without warning, he lunged at Braxton, brandishing the knife before him menacingly.
Braxton jerked sideways in a swift movement. He grabbed Charles’ wrist tightly and pulled. Charles’ eyes went wide in shock at the swiftness of Braxton’s movements. Had he not just been staggering, practically unconscious on his feet?
With a measured, precise movement, Braxton snapped Charles’ wrist back, forcing the hand open. The knife fell from his grip and hit the floor in a clatter. A yelp of pain escaped Charles’ lips. Grabbing Charles by the back of his shirt collar, Braxton slammed his head down on the sink with a loud hollow clink. Blood began to pour instantly from his forehead, rushing out in torrents. He threw Charles to the floor and stood atop him.
“You want to know what happened to your damn wife?” he said. His voice shook with fury, that familiar warmth washing over him, finally released from its confines within Braxton’s mind. He kicked Charles in the ribs with all his might, relishing the sound of pain that wafted up to his ears as he did so.
Braxton turned and picked the knife from the floor. He held it out before him as he turned around. “How about I just show you? You look like you’ve been in so much pain. Like you’ve missed her so very much. What if I help you get to her faster?”
Braxton bent down over Charles, who was still dazed from the blow to the porcelain sink. His eyes struggled to focus, barely remaining conscious. He fingered the tip of the blade idly. Flipping the knife in his hand with the ease of a seasoned chef, he traced it down Charles’ torso, feeling it drag across each of his ribs, bumping slightly. With his free hand, Braxton covered Charles’ mouth as he slid the blade between his ribs. Crimson roses began to bloom on Charles’ shirt as blood escaped from the fresh wound. Charles’ body strained against the pain as the cold steel slid deeper into his body, his cries of agony muffled by the hand covering his mouth. Tears began to flow freely as Braxton drug the knife across his midsection, widening the wound. Braxton’s eyes lit up, the pain in his face forgotten in the ecstasy of the kill.
“I’d love to stay and play,” Braxton said into Charles’ ear. “Really I would, but I’m on a bit of a schedule. Give Tabitha my best when you see her.”
With that, he slid the blade across Charles’ neck and stood. He listened to the gurgling of Charles drowning in his own blood with a pleasure that he couldn’t obtain by any other means. Grabbing Charles’ shirttail, he meticulously wiped away any fingerprints that he may have left on the murder weapon and dropped it into the restroom’s waste basket. He turned and began to wash the blood from his face gingerly, wincing at the tenderness of his swollen, battered face. Grabbing the now-lifeless corpse beneath the arms, he dragged it into the last stall, propped it on the toilet, and swung the door closed. After wiping any traces of blood from the floor and disposing of the blood-soaked paper towels in the trash, he washed his hands, dried himself off, and reached into his back pocket, removing the extra shirt that he had thought to bring from home. He removed his bloodied shirt, placed it in his back pocket, and put on the fresh one.
He walked briskly to the car, careful to watch his pace lest he should attract attention. The body would be discovered soon enough; he didn’t want to give anyone a reason to remember him at all. The bruised face that he now wore was bad enough.
Son of a bitch, he thought as he pulled away from the curb and merged into traffic. I was supposed to die here. That bastard that broke into my house set me up to be killed! It was just as well that it had happened; now he knew how the game was to be played. The rules weren’t as he thought them to be. As he thought back, he realized that the Teacher hadn’t mentioned any rules. It was his own assumption that there had been any, and that assumption had nearly killed him. This new knowledge may not change anything, he was at an obvious disadvantage, but now he knew to watch himself more closely.
Braxton was still fuming when he pulled into the driveway. He stormed into the house and went directly to the counter. He picked up the next envelope, the second of his three tasks. He ripped the end of the envelope away madly and slid out the paper, unfolding it.
You have managed to complete and survive the first challenge. You are proving to be a formidable adversary. There may be hope for you yet. Do not boast; the game is still in its adolescence. You still have two lessons awaiting you.
Throughout the course of your murderous career, you have inflicted an incalculable amount of pain to your victims. To finish this task, the pain that you inflict must be upon yourself. You may have noticed the scale that I have placed on your table while you were out.
Braxton turned and looked at the table. A feeling of apprehension built within him instantly as he saw the scale and found that the Teacher was indeed speaking the truth. He dreaded the lesson that lay before him. His eyes returned to the paper in his hands.
On one side of the scale is a one pound weight, the other is empty, as you have no doubt seen. Your task is to balance the scales. Should you desire to keep your miserable excuse for a life, I expect a pound of flesh placed in the scale to counterweight the lead weight and balance the scales.
The choice is yours.
Braxton sat frozen, reading and rereading the second letter. Did the stranger seriously expect him to do such a thing? He crumpled the paper into a tight ball and dropped it onto the counter. He glanced at the stove; it was now just after ten o’clock. Less than ten hours left. He slammed his fist on the countertop in frustration and let out a pained yell. How had things come to this? How did this complete stranger know so much about him to put him in such a position?
Braxton walked to the table and examined the scale. There was nothing spectacular about it; silver, plain, devoid of any ornamentation or engravings. They reminded him of the scales held by Lady Justice on the walls of every courthouse in America. Yet, despite their plain, simple appearance, they held within them the power to induce dread and malice, both of which Braxton felt as he stared dumbly at the magnificent artifact that held such a significance in his life at this moment. Dread due to the inevitable pain that was sure to follow, as soon as he managed to work up the nerve; malice for the so-called Teacher who had placed him in such a position.
Braxton’s eyes narrowed as he focused on the small, lead weight on the left side of the scale, a nondescript square with the number one carved into the side. It wasn’t the weight that caught his attention, but the small, white triangles that protruded from beneath. He took hold of the objects, the corners of some paper clippings, and pulled them out, looking them over.
They were articles that had been printed from the internet. No, articles wasn’t the right word. Obituaries: that was what they were. He thumbed through the papers, eyes skimming over the words. Each person had died a sudden and mysterious death, but, strangely enough, foul play hadn’t been considered in the cause of death. That would mean that the Teacher was either a terrific liar, or, even worse, he was a superb killer. Braxton laid the five slips of paper on the table in front of the scales, spreading them out evenly before him. He stared at them, bewildered. He didn’t know what to make of them. Were they meant to be warnings to do as he had been told, a clever ruse intended to push him further along this twisted game? Undoubtedly, the Teacher knew that he would be apprehensive with this lesson, more willing to risk himself rather than inflict the torturous pain that was intended.
“No,” he said to himself, pushing the obituaries away roughly. “I won’t do it.”
As if on cue, the telephone rang. The sudden chirping sound was a cacophony in the still air of the silent house. Braxton started, a small yelp escaping from his throat. He stared at the phone speculatively as the ringing continued, echoing through the rooms. After several moments, he reached out tentatively, his hand shaking slightly, and grabbed the handset.
“You wouldn’t be thinking about crying off, would you?” a gruff voice asked before Braxton could speak. “I would highly discourage such a course of action.”
Braxton couldn’t speak. Try as he might, his mouth wouldn’t form the words, leaving him silent. Instead, he stared silently at the scales on the table as he listened to the Teacher speak, his words cutting into Braxton’s psyche like a straight razor.
“Did you not receive the articles that I left for you? There’s no use denying it; I know that you did.” The Teacher chuckled maliciously. “I suppose that you have reached the conclusion that I had nothing to do with the demise of the subjects of the articles. That it’s nothing more than a clever trick to goad you into playing along, furthering your education. I can assure you that this is not the case.”
Braxton was finally able to find his voice. “That’s exactly what I think, you son of a bitch.”
An exasperated sigh travelled across the miles through the telephone wires and escaped through the speaker. “Such vile language is really not necessary.”
Braxton pulled the phone from his ear and stared at it incredulously. Was this guy serious? “You set me up to be killed!” he screamed into the receiver. He could feel his temper rising uncontrollably. At that moment, there was nothing that he’d rather do more than get his hands on this self-proclaimed Teacher. He had been caught off guard on their first meeting; it wouldn’t happen again.
The Teacher ignored this remark, instead continuing with his train of thought. “Let me ask you this; when you consider all that I know, the great lengths that I had gone through to enlighten you and change you, do you doubt?”
Braxton considered these words in silence. He wished that he could disregard the words, but deep within himself, he knew it to be true. If he wanted to survive this ordeal, he had no choice but to follow the Teacher’s directives. If he was going to live, he was going to have to suffer. While he came to this conclusion, he failed to notice that he was now alone on the line; the Teacher had left him to draw his own conclusions and decide his own fate.
The images flashed across the mirror in a blur as Braxton opened the medicine cabinet. He had made his decision. As much as he despised the thought, the Teacher was at an obvious advantage. He seemed to know everything about him, while Braxton knew nothing of the Teacher. This being the case, he had no choice but to endure the two lessons still set before him.
He rummaged through the medicine cabinet, pulling out various bottles of pain killers and setting them beside the sink. The Teacher had set the task before him, this twisted game for his amusement, but he had said nothing to the effect of Braxton not dulling his pain. And he intended to do just that. He knew he had to be careful. He still had another task beyond this one, a third envelope yet to be opened; he needed to remain in full control of his faculties.
Braxton poured out five of the strongest pain pills that he could find into his open palm. After eyeing the pills for a moment, he reconsidered, and poured five more into his hand to join the others. He shifted the small, white ovals around in his palm with his finger, hesitant to take them. To do so would be the first step in a chain of events that led to his own agony. On the other hand, he knew that he was wasting valuable time.
To hell with it, he thought and popped all ten pills into his mouth at once. He chewed them up, grimacing at the chalky, bitter taste that filled his mouth. He grabbed the bottle of vodka that he had set next to the sink and put the rim to his lips. Tilting the bottle up, he gulped down the alcohol, relishing the slow burn that replaced the taste of the bitter paste in his mouth. He gulped loudly, watching the bubbles rise in the clear liquid, loud glugging noises sounding out with each gulp. He pulled the bottle from his mouth, gasping for breath and fighting the urge to vomit.
Braxton flexed his grip on the knife that he held in his hands. The pills and alcohol had taken effect, blurring his vision and numbing his senses. Had he not seen the handle of the knife firmly within his grasp, he wouldn’t even have known that he was holding it. He swayed slightly on his feet as he stared at the scales on the table.
One pound. That’s what the note said. He could do this. He felt that he had sufficiently worked up the nerve to cut himself, and his body was almost entirely numb. Time was ticking away, one second at a time, bringing him ever closer to that dreaded deadline and the consequence that was promised after. So why was he just standing? Why wasn’t he getting down to the horrific act before he started to sober up and feeling began to return?
He had drunk too much. He knew it. He had wanted to dull his senses, and, in that, he had been successful. But he had forgotten to take into consideration the common side-effect of alcohol. It had entirely slipped his mind in his panic. Until now.
Alcohol thinned the blood. That was why it gave the illusion of warmth when swallowed on a cold day. If he were to begin carving himself up right now, bleeding to death was a very real possibility. The last thing he wanted was to exsanguinate. Suppose his plan hadn’t worked as well as he’d intended. What if he were to lose consciousness, the pain too unbearable, before he could tend to the wounds? Why, he would never reawaken. Instead, he would be found later on, probably once his rotting carcass had begun to smell, its putrid stench of decay finally reaching the neighbors. The police would find his bloated, fly-infested corpse lying in his dining room in a large pool of dried, tacky, congealed blood.
What choice did he have but to risk it? One o’clock was quickly approaching. He had watched the time whittle away as he attempted to inebriate himself and build the courage to do what had to be done. If he were to reconsider this course of action, he would have to spend hours waiting for himself to sober up. The day would be almost complete, and his life with it. No, he had made his decision; now he had to live with the repercussions. Hell, if he died, at least he did so with the knowledge that the Teacher hadn’t been the one to kill him, at least not directly.
He pulled his shirt over his head and sat it on the table, firm in his resolve. With his free hand, he grabbed the skin at his side, pulling it away from his body. He took a second to muse at this; he had been trying to rid himself of his love handles since he had started to gain them at age twenty-five. Now he finally was. He shuddered at the thought. Before he could begin to falter, he plunged the knife into his skin, trying to best to stay as close to his ribs as possible.
Although deadened, his nerve endings screamed as the steel pierced its way through them, severing them, and out of the other side of the grasped flesh. Braxton let loose an agonized wail. His teeth clenched together tightly, his jaw throbbing, slowly building to a steady ache. He felt his knees try to buckle, and remained standing by a mixture of stubbornness and sheer force of will. The thinned blood began to pour freely from the wounds, obscuring his view of the pained area. It poured down his side in torrents, soaking his jeans, spreading the warmth across his body, and began to pool at his feet, spreading in crimson waves, staining the cracked linoleum floor. He began the sawing motion, feeling his skin tearing as the teeth of the steak knife tore his flesh free from his body. Tears streamed down his face profusely. Braxton bit his bottom lip so hard against the pain that the metallic taste of blood filled his mouth. Lightheadedness washed over him like a tidal wave as unconsciousness sought to take hold. Blackness began to seep into his field of vision, narrowing his sight to a small pinprick of light. He fought back against his body’s natural defenses against such agony. The pain was unbearable, nausea building within him until he vomited. The remains of the vodka and stomach bile splattered down his chin and chest, finally landing on the floor where it mixed with the blood like some new-age piece of art. He felt warmth spread across his groin as his bladder released, but he pushed on, continuing the ragged plastic surgery, his own do-it-yourself liposuction.
His hand shook uncontrollably as he raised it to the scale. Blood dripped freely in small rills from his stained fingers. Braxton had gone white, his skin paled from loss of blood. His breathing was sharp and ragged. Sweat poured down his face, mixing with the rivulets of tears that still streamed from his bloodshot eyes. He uncurled his trembling fingers, dropping the hunk of flesh into the scale.
Braxton waited impatiently while the scale teetered back and forth. He grabbed his shirt from the table and held it to the large patch of exposed muscle and ribs. Blood poured freely from the wound, soaking his shirt quickly. His body cried out in horror at the torture it had endured. He felt his strength leaving him. If he didn’t stop the flow of blood, and soon, he was going to die. But first, the scale.
Braxton blinked rapidly at the scale, his eyes refusing to focus. Relief surged through his body as he noticed the tray that held what had been his side moments ago was resting just a bit lower than the side with the weight. A small sense of elation manifested itself within him. It was a small victory, one that could cause his demise in the end, but it was a victory nonetheless.
He pushed the feeling aside, focusing on his dire situation. He had to tend to his side, and soon. Even if he managed to not bleed to death, he still had infection to worry about. That could wait, he chided himself. First, the bleeding.
Braxton staggered to the bathroom, dragging his body along the wall for support. A large swath of blood trailed behind him on the walls, dripping down in small rills like a scene from a horror movie. He could hear small patters as blood dripped from his body and splashed on the floor. In the bathroom, he pressed a towel tightly to his side and wrapping it tightly around his midsection, stringing it around his body and tying it to keep it in place. He winced, groaning in torment as the coarse fibers of the towel dug into his wound. He stared down at the makeshift bandage. Small roses of blood began to bloom, then stopped suddenly.
Satisfied that the injury was sufficiently tended to for the moment, Braxton made his way back into the kitchen. He sat at the counter, head still spinning, and grabbed the last envelope. His fingers left crimson smudges on the crisp, white envelope. With a deep breath and a sustained effort from his numb, clumsy fingers, he ripped the envelope open. His eyes fought to focus, trying to make some sense of the blurred, jumbled letters on the page.
To be reading this means that you have endured much pain and suffering. Have you learned from the lessons that I have been trying to impart upon you? Have you taken to heart all that I’ve tried to impress upon you? I hope you have. I truly do. I commend you for making it this far. You are a far better pupil than any of my previous students. Your resolve is to be admired. Should you have chosen to put that determination to better use, no one would have been able to hinder your progress. Alas, you squandered your life through your misdeeds. The time has come for your final task.
Over the years, your actions have made you an emotional terrorist to your victims and their families. Fear. Despair. Terror. Hope. Your deeds have caused the multitudes that you have touched to experience these emotions plus scores of others. Now it is your turn. It is you who will feel the despair and hopelessness that you have been so quick to impart upon others throughout the years.
You must turn yourself in to the police. Do this immediately and completely. Confess to every death, every act of violence. You will spend your remaining years in prison, but your conscious will be clear. I implore you to consider this course of action and see that it is the right thing to do, not only because your life depends on it, but because it is truly right.
Make no mistake, you have no true choice in this matter. To go against these words is to sign your death warrant. Tucked away behind bars is the only place where you will ever truly be safe.
Braxton allowed the paper to slip from his grasp and watched as it wafted to the ground, his eyes drawn to the drying blood on the sheet. He dropped his head into his hands. What was he to do? If he did as he was instructed, he would die in prison. If he didn’t, he would either be slaughtered by the Teacher, or spend his life running, constantly looking over his shoulder. He had the distinct impression that he wouldn’t be running for long. The Teacher knew things that he had no way of knowing; Braxton didn’t trust that he wouldn’t seek him out in time. He had no choice. If he wanted to live, there was only one option.
Braxton stood on the sidewalk, staring up at the police station, trying to work up the nerve to enter. As he stood there, blood pooling at his feet, the steady throb in his side escalating to a searing pain as the pills and alcohol worked their way out of his system, he thought about the course his life had taken, the decisions and actions that had led him to this point. The first death at his hands had been an accident, of that he was certain. Until he realized how easily he could get away with it, not to mention the rush of pure adrenaline that came from taking a life, from playing God, he had never even considered murder as a hobby. Once he had taken that first life, it had become an addiction.
He had never had a twinge of guilt in all these years. He never stopped to consider the pain and anguish that he caused others. Did he regret what he did now? He wasn’t sure. Maybe he did. Then again, maybe it was just that he didn’t want to die or go to prison. Either way, the Teacher had made his point. He had gotten what he intended; Braxton was no longer in the business of murder. He had retired. He only wished that he had decided to do so earlier.
With a deep breath, Braxton walked into the police station, his haggard, weakened body fighting to stay upright. As he entered, he failed to notice the man standing to the left of the entrance, staring intently at him with a pair of smoky eyes. He was smiling contentedly at a soul that had been touched and reformed. The Teacher pulled a photograph from his pocket and stared down at it. The subject of the photograph was his next pupil, a young woman who he thought could still be saved. He tucked the photo back into his pocket and began to walk down the sidewalk, off to prepare his lessons for his next student.
Credit: William Davis
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