The Balcony started as an experiment. I wanted to see if I could tell a story on Twitter – not just an anecdote in a single thread – but a full story told across multiple chapters with fleshed out characters, a plot, and dialogue. The challenge was making it fit into multiple tweets with the 280 character per tweet limit and have those threads be long enough to constitute a “chapter” (with a satisfying arc) but not so long that it was impossible to follow.
And then, just to make it even more fun (or frustrating) for myself, I started writing blindly, publishing each chapter as I went with no idea where the story was going. Once it was sent, I couldn’t take it back and I had to stick to the facts that I had already written.
Inspired by the videos of people singing on balconies during the lockdowns, I originally thought this was going to be a love story. I write a lot of movies for the Hallmark Channel so it made sense – a rom com about two people falling in love but 30 feet apart on opposite balconies. It would have a strong but quirky woman, a charming and handsome man, and a drag queen of course. All good stories have a drag queen, I think!
But something interesting happened. The characters started becoming real to me. I don’t mean I saw them in my living room as I typed – I’m crazy, but not that crazy – but when I really get into a story, it seems to start to take on a life of its own and it, and the characters that are in it, seem to guide me more than I guide them. You can call it following my muse or maybe I am just that crazy, but it happens and it’s one of the best feelings in the world.
So, the story takes a turn. And then it takes another. And another. And a few more. Believe me, I was just as surprised as you may have been. I didn’t plan any of it, it just sort of came out as I was typing. And once it was out there, I couldn’t go back unless I pulled a “Bobby was in the shower” trick.
Would I have done things differently if I had planned it all out first? Absolutely. But not a lot and nothing major. The story unfolded naturally and I’m pretty pleased with it and I hope you enjoy it!
Check the Postscript at the end for a little bit more about what’s next.
Jenny never paid attention to the balcony. The apartment itself wasn’t big, certainly, but it was cheerily decorated, so she felt comfortable and content in its confines, and she didn’t spend a lot of time there anyway.
Her schedule as a pilot for a private jet company meant that more often than not she was flying some CEO or celebrity or rich guy – it was usually a guy – somewhere, and when she was in her apartment it was usually to sleep or bingewatch all the TV she was always behind on.
She had almost forgotten the balcony was there. Her apartment at the back of the building hung two stories above a less-than-scenic alleyway that was mostly used by garbage trucks and the occasional drunk guy – it was usually a guy – looking for somewhere to take a leak.
Jenny’s was one of about 20 balconies in her building that faced a similar number on the building across the way and was flanked by even more on other buildings on the block. From the few times she had been out there, she believed that most were just as unused as hers was.
But that was before the lockdown.
When the coronavirus first poked its head out of whatever deep crevasse it crawled out of, Jenny spent even less time in her apartment due to the increase in demand for private jets as people tried to avoid commercial airliners at any cost.
But as more countries went into lockdown to quell the pandemic, fewer people were able to travel anywhere and those that could simply didn’t want to. By the time state governments started lockdowns in America, her job, like many others, had pretty much vanished.
It had been a week since her state had put a moratorium on going outside for anything other than emergencies or short trips to the grocery store to restock. It was the first time she had spent that many days in a row in her apartment since she moved in two years earlier.
For the first few days, it was okay. She had supplies and there was a lot of TV, books, and texting with friends to catch up on. Plus, the drumbeat of news designed to both inform and terrify people was addictive and she found herself staring at social media feeds way too much.
It was day seven of the lockdown, a Tuesday night, when she remembered the balcony. That’s when she heard someone singing.
Jenny was in the bathroom washing her hands for the nineteenth time that day when the singing started. She was halfway through the second round of “Happy Birthday To You” when she realized hers was not the only song in progress.
Doesn’t take much to make me happy
And make me smile with glee
Never never will I feel discouraged
‘Cause our love’s no mystery
At first, she thought it was from the TV, but since it was almost always tuned to end-of-the-world news updates, she realized the chances of Wolf Blizter crooning the classic “Best of My Love” by The Emotions were remote at best.
Demonstrating love and affection
That you give so openly, yeah
I like the way you make me feel about you, baby
Want the whole wide world to see
She double checked anyway, because if she had learned anything in the last couple of months of this global pandemic, it was that anything was possible. Who would’ve guessed that toilet paper would become a precious commodity? But alas, Wolf was not singing.
It was coming from outside. She looked at the balcony she had more or less forgotten was even there and went to investigate.
Oh oh, you’ve got the best of my love
Oh oh, you’ve got the best of my love
Jenny opened the sliding glass doors and stepped outside into the cool night air. It felt crisp and clean and made her think, “Why don’t I come out here more often?” The singing echoed along the alley.
Oh oh, you’ve got the best of my love
Oh oh, you’ve got the best of my love
People were out on several of the balconies like she was, looking for the source of the singing. She followed their gaze to one a floor beneath hers and a little to the left on the building across the way. That’s when she saw him. Or, rather, her.
She had huge hair and expertly applied, exaggerated drag queen makeup. Her dress was all glittery, shimmering movement, the lights from the apartments in her building glinting off of it like she was a disco ball.
Flowing in and out of changes
Kind that come around each day
My life has a better meaning
Love has kissed me in a beautiful way
Her voice was loud and clear and joyous in a way that nothing had been in weeks. As apocalypses go, this one may not have had the body count one expects from such events, but it was relentless in its ability to quash anything remotely like joy.
Jenny smiled and started to sing along.
Oh oh, you’ve got the best of my love
Oh oh, you’ve got the best of my love
The drag queen looked up and saw her and cheered, “Yes, girl! Everybody sing!” Within seconds, everybody was.
More people came out onto their balconies and joined in, a chorus of voices, some good, some not so good but enthusiastic nevertheless, and the entire block radiated with unbridled delight. For a moment there was no global pandemic, no lockdown, no quashing of anything.
The song ended and everyone applauded. The drag queen held up her hands in victory and screamed, “Thank you, thank you. My name is Augusta but everyone calls me Auggie and I’ll be here every night. Tip your waiters.”
She turned with a flourish and disappeared into her apartment. Jenny laughed and applauded again, then started to turn to go back inside when she heard someone say, “That was great, wasn’t it?”
Jenny looked at the building across the alley and on the balcony directly opposite hers stood a man. He was handsome, probably mid-thirties like her, with shaggy brown hair and what she could tell was a great smile, even if the low light of the alley.
“Yes,” Jenny said. “I needed that.”
“I think we all did,” he said. “I’m Carter, by the way.”
“Hi,” she replied. “Jenny.”
“Nice to meet you,” he said. “Maybe I’ll see you at the show tomorrow night?”
“Why don’t I come out her more often?” Jenny wondered to herself as she smiled.
The chair looked weird. Not the chair itself. That was fine – an, overstuffed armchair with a blue floral pattern. It looked good when it was in Jenny’s bedroom. But on the balcony, it looked weird. Out of place.
Or maybe it was just that there had never been anything on the balcony before. It had always been an empty space – a void that was waiting to be filled by something. Something more than just an overstuffed armchair with a blue floral pattern, apparently.
She was doing her best to not glance up at the balcony directly across from hers, the one belonging to Carter. Jenny hated being one of those women who got all swoony over a guy just because he was cute and could string a sentence or two together.
After all, she knew nothing more about him than those two facts. No, she’d get swoony if he was smart. She’d get the vapors if he was funny. She’d replace the comfortable armchair with a fainting couch if he was kind.
And yet, she glanced.
Jenny kept trying to tell herself that she had dragged the armchair out onto the balcony to better enjoy the weather and the interactive concerts from Auggie, and certainly that was a part of it.
While singing and clapping with her previously unknown neighbors the night before, she had felt connected in a way that she hadn’t since the virus took over everyone’s lives. Maybe even before. Definitely before. But she liked blaming the virus. It was easier on her ego.
But she knew she’d be lying to herself if she didn’t admit that it didn’t have at least a little to do with Carter. Flying around the world at a moment’s notice made dating virtually impossible and seemed to require epic levels of convenience to make it happen.
Living 30 feet away was convenient. Of course, the fact that she couldn’t get any closer than 30 feet away was decidedly inconvenient, but she figured that you had to start somewhere. Now all she had to do was make sure he wasn’t a serial killer.
“Or at the bare minimum make sure I don’t fit the profile of the people he kills,” she muttered to herself. “Beggers, choosers.”
“Girl, don’t you have any plants? That chair don’t work by itself.”
Jenny looked over the railing to see Auggie on his balcony a floor below, sans drag but still looking fierce in tapered slacks, a magenta blouse, and a casual scarf tossed around his shoulders.
“I was just thinking the exact same thing,” Jenny replied. “But no, I don’t have plants. I have a hard enough time keeping myself alive.
Auggie cackled – a big bawdy laugh that echoed along the alley.
“I knew I was gonna like you the minute you started singing,” he said.
“I hope that was okay,” Jenny said, abashed. “I’m not much of a crooner.”
“It ain’t Carnegie Hall, honey, it’s an alley,” Auggie said.
“Good point,” she laughed. “I’m Jenny.”
“Hi, Jenny,” he said. “Nice to meet you.”
“What are you singing tonight?” Jenny asked.
“I don’t know,” Auggie said, a finger to his chin. “We’ll just have to wait and see which direction the spirit moves me in.”
“Well, me and my lonely armchair will be here,” Jenny said.
“Wait! Don’t go anywhere.” Auggie said as he rushed into his apartment.
Jenny glanced again, thinking the conversation might draw Carter out onto the balcony. It didn’t. The glass door into his apartment was set back under an overhang creating a shadow that made it impossible to see inside during the day, so she wasn’t even sure he was awake.
“Stalker much?” Jenny thought as she looked away.
“Catch, girl!” Auggie yelled.
Jenny looked over her railing as Auggie heaved something in her direction. She didn’t realize until after she had caught it, that it was a long strand of colorful Christmas tree lights.
“String those around,” Auggie said, “and get a little cocktail table, and everyone is going to want to social distance there.”
“Thank you, Auggie,” Jenny said, delighted.
“And don’t worry, I wiped them down,” Auggie said. “See you tonight!”
Auggie disappeared inside and Jenny turned her back to the alley so she could get a better view of her own balcony. It was the best way devise the optimum lighting strategy.
And it kept her from glancing.
Although she could totally see Carter’s balcony in the reflection of her own glass doors.
She wasn’t an idiot.
The Christmas lights helped the atmosphere of the balcony, casting a lovely, multi-hued glow that softened everything. Or perhaps it was the vodka martini she was drinking that was making the surroundings feel homier.
Jenny stepped outside and smiled as she settled into the armchair to wait for Auggie to start singing. She was so relaxed and in such a good mood that she didn’t even glance over at Carter’s balcony. She literally jumped when he said, “what are you drinking?”
“Less of it, now,” she said, looking at the spill on the blue floral pattern of the armchair.
“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“It’s not your fault,” she said. “The world is making me a little jumpy these days.”
Daylight was fading, but Jenny could see that he was even more handsome than she had thought he was the night before. Cheekbones for days and eyes so blue she wanted to swim in them. She started to rue her decision not to order a fainting couch.
Auggie came out onto his balcony in a dressing gown and a towel on his head, a classic diva before the show look, and announced, “5 minutes to curtain!” then answered himself with, “Thank you 5!”
He looked up at Jenny and said, “Hey, doll. Told you the lights would help.”
“And I appreciate it,” Jenny said.
“Oh, hey Carter,” Auggie said, leaning out over his railing to wave up at Carter.
“Hey Auggie,” Carter said as he waved back.
“You two know each other?” Jenny asked.
“Oh, we go way back,” Auggie said.
“There was that time we rode up in the elevator together? And that other time I nodded and said, ‘what’s up’ when we passed each other in the lobby?”
“Good times,” Carter said with a smile.
“I must go prepare,” Auggie said dramatically, “3 minutes to curtain! Thanks 3!”
Auggie rushed inside and Jenny turned to Carter with a shy smile. Then she realized she had a shy smile and it made her feel like a character in a silly romantic comedy movie and she shook her head as if to fling it off of her face.
“So,” Carter said, searching for something to fill the silence. “Enjoying your lockdown?”
“Yes,” Jenny said. “It’s like a vacation combined with prison.”
Carter laughed. “Add the whole work from home thing and it’s really just like a regular job but with better snacks.”
“What do you do?” Jenny asked.
“I’m a teacher,” Carter replied. “AP English.”
“Wow,” Jenny said. “I’m suddenly completely aware of every word coming out of my mouth.”
“I won’t grade you, I promise,” he said. “What kind of work from home are you doing?”
“I’m a pilot,” she replied, “so until they can figure out a way for me to do that remotely, my work is mostly watching TV. I mean, reading books, she said to the AP English teacher.”
“TV is fine, too,” Carter said. “I’m pretty sure my Netflix app is going to melt soon.”
They lapsed into a silence that, oddly, felt comfortable instead of awkward. Jenny didn’t believe in love at first sight or instant connections, but there was something about Carter that made her feel calm. That was in short supply these days.
“I can’t believe it took an apocalypse for me to get to know my neighbors,” Jenny finally said.
“Maybe it was good for something, then,” Carter said with a smile.
It wasn’t one of those smiles that’s hard to read, like maybe he was talking about the lack of traffic or that you didn’t need to put on a tie to go to work anymore. No, this smile meant “you.” She hoped hers did, too.
If she had known this would be the last time she ever saw him, she would have told him exactly what her smile meant.
The previous night’s vodka martini had been replaced by a cosmo but other than that, the scene was more or less the same as Jenny made her way onto the balcony, eager with anticipation to hear Auggie and see Carter
Last night’s show had been nothing short of spectacular, as Auggie blew the metaphorical roof off the alley with a selection of disco classics. Sometimes she sang alone as dozens of people on their respective balconies danced and cheered.
Other songs she encouraged sing-alongs. Jenny decided there was nothing in the world quite as wonderful as a crowd of people belting out the volcanic chorus of Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” “Ohhh baby, my heart is full of love and desire for you!”
Carter had been just as enthusiastic as she was, jumping up and down like he was at a rave and offering full-volume contributions to the audience participation portions of the program. The fact that he wasn’t always exactly on key made him even more charming in her option.
But the highlight of the night had to have been the opening strains of Donna Summer’s legendary “Last Dance.” When Auggie started it, slow and haunting, Carter looked at Jenny and held out his arms in a classic close hold dance pose. Jenny laughed and took her own position.
The thirty feet between them seemed to melt away and Jenny could almost feel his touch, the whisper of his breath on her neck, as they swayed to the music. “Oh, I need you… by me… beside me, to guide me…” The music in the air was magic and it cast its spell on them.
After the show had ended, to uproarious applause it should be noted, Jenny and Carter had sat on their respective balconies and talked for hours. They traded stories about where they grew up (her Portland, him Chicago suburbs) and family (her 2 sisters, him only child).
They talked about their favorite TV shows (hers Hallmark Channel Christmas movies, his Ozark and Breaking Bad but secretly also Hallmark Channel Christmas movies) and music (hers Motown, his anything you can dance to).
They laughed and drank and chatted like they had known each other for years instead of a few hours. They finally realized that they were the last two out on their balconies. Worried that they might be disturbing the neighbors, they reluctantly said good night.
Today, Jenny kept looking out her window to see if Carter was on his balcony or visible in his apartment. Feeling like a peeping Tom, she forced herself to pay attention to other stuff but there were only so many games of Candy Crush she could play without losing her mind.
Now, more than an hour before Auggie’s showtime, Jenny poured her cosmopolitan and took her seat on the balcony, hoping Carter would come out early also. The light was fading as night took hold and Jenny turned on her Christmas lights – a signal perhaps.
But there was no movement in Carter’s apartment. No lights came on as it got darker. During the day she couldn’t see inside but at night, when he turned on the lamps, the living room/kitchen combination was in view. Now, the glass door was a blank eye, black and unseeing.
“Maybe he went somewhere,” Jenny thought before realizing the near impossibility of that. While the early “Shelter at Home” days of the virus outbreak had still allowed people out and about for walks and trips to the store, this new “Lockdown” was much different.
Nobody was allowed to leave their home except for an emergency. One person per household could go to the grocery store, pretty much the only thing left open, once per week based on a random online lottery designed to keep people away from each other.
The stores were only open for a few hours during the day, so even if Carter had gotten his lottery number drawn, he wouldn’t be out at this time in the evening. Nobody would be. The curfew started at 6pm and ran until 6am the next morning.
The military and the police were making regular patrols and anyone on the streets without permission was detained. They had thermal imaging cameras to take people’s temperature from a distance. Anyone running a fever was hauled away by people in “hazmat” suits.
“Maybe he’s taking a nap,” Jenny thought. “Or maybe he’s doing laundry. Or maybe he’s in his bedroom teaching a late class. There are a million different reasons why his apartment would be dark so don’t freak yourself out over nothing.”
Jenny settled back into her armchair and picked up her cosmopolitan to take a drink. It was only then that she realized that her hand was shaking.
Plink. “Carter. Carter!” Plink. Jenny had been tossing buttons from her previously unopened sewing at the doors on Carter’s balcony for ten minutes, calling out his name first in a whisper and then with more urgency.
He had not come out before Auggie’s show nor during it, despite the volume at which the covers of various nineties club hits were delivered. Knowing how much he loved dance music, she found it surprising that Robin S and Ce Ce Peniston didn’t rouse him.
Or maybe concerning was the better word for it. There was a gnawing deep in her stomach that was telling her something was wrong. She knew it was odd, this feeling like she was connected to Carter in some way she couldn’t quite define.
But that’s what it was. A connection – one born out of more than just the fact that she thought he was cute. For some reason she couldn’t explain, Jenny knew Carter; really knew him. And she knew that something was wrong. Possibly really wrong.
“Girl, it is one-thirty in the morning,” Auggie whispered loudly from below. “What are you doing?”
“Carter didn’t come out for the show,” Jenny said.
“Then I’m the one who should be throwing things at his windows, not you,” Auggie said.
“He never even turned on his lights,” Jenny said. “Do you have his phone number?”
“Why would I have his phone number?” Auggie asked.
“You know him,” Jenny said. “He’s your neighbor.”
“Exactly,” Auggie said. “This ain’t suburbia, honey. Nobody knows their neighbors.”
Auggie had a point. Jenny had lived in her building for two years and she barely knew anyone. There was Frida, the woman with the pair of distinctive Afghan hounds. John was the guy that lived right next door who said hi whenever they ran into each other in the halls.
Was it John? Or Joe? Maybe, Frank? There were over three dozen apartments in her building and while she knew many of the faces, those were the only two names she even sort of knew, and she certainly didn’t have their phone numbers.
“Can you go knock on his door?” Jenny asked.
“Now?” Auggie asked. “Did you not hear me say one-thirty in the morning?”
“Please?” Jenny pleaded. “What if something is wrong?”
Auggie stared at her and then finally sighed, “I don’t even know what apartment he’s in.”
Jenny looked at the building.
“One floor up and one apartment over,” Jenny said
“You owe me,” Auggie said and went into his apartment. A moment later she saw a shaft of light through his windows – Auggie opening the door into the hall.
One interesting thing about the lockdown was how quiet it was at night. Before, there was always some sort of ambient noise – cars on a nearby freeway or music from the bars the next block over. Now, it was almost silent. Eerily so. It was official. She had the creeps.
She thought it might be quiet enough for her to hear Auggie knocking on Carter’s door but a few minutes later Auggie reappeared on his balcony.
“There was no answer,” Auggie said.
“Where could he be?” Jenny asked.
“Maybe he had an emergency,” Auggie said. “Maybe his sister got sick.”
“He doesn’t have a sister,” Jenny said.
“Maybe his dog got sick,” Auggie tried.
“He doesn’t have a dog,” Jenny said.
“Maybe his 3rd cousin on his mama’s side got sick,” Auggie said, losing patience.
“The point is,” Auggie continued, “there are a million reasons why he might not be there. I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about.”
“But what if it is?” Jenny asked. “What if he fell in the shower? What if he took a sleeping pill and he had a bad reaction? What if he…”
Jenny couldn’t say it. Auggie did it for her.
“What if he’s sick?” Auggie asked, gently.
“Is there a building manager?” Jenny asked. “Someone with a master key that can go in and check on him?”
“It’s a property management company,” Auggie said. “There’s nobody onsite.”
“Then what do I do?” Jenny asked.
There was little that she hated more than feeling helpless. Here she was, thirty feet from where Carter might be in trouble, and there was nothing she could do.
“Well,” she thought, “nothing legal.”
The next day came and went. Auggie’s nightly concert/sing-along came and went. Jenny’s nerve came and went. But throughout it all, one thing remained constant: no sign of Carter.
She had not seen any movement in his apartment all day and, just as the night before, as darkness fell outside, it fell inside Carter’s home as well. In her mind there were only two possibilities: either he was gone for mysterious reasons or he was in there but in trouble.
There was a third possibility, but she didn’t want to go there.
Jenny had known since the night before that there was really only one thing she could do, but she tried to come up with alternate ideas all day.
After getting the number from Auggie, she had called the property management company to ask them to do a welfare check but all she got was a voicemail. She considered calling the police, but city officials had discouraged that for anything but the direst of emergencies.
First responders were just as affected by the virus outbreak as the rest of the population so there were fewer of them on the street and a lot more things to respond to than usual. Since people often couldn’t get through to the overwhelmed hospitals, they called 911.
Jenny figured that a call of concern about a virtual stranger who didn’t even live in the same building would most likely be put somewhere near the bottom of the queue, if it even made it into the queue at all.
She had even made contact via the balconies of most of Carter’s neighbors, hoping one of them might know him well enough to have a key or even his phone number. But like Auggie had warned, this wasn’t suburbia and nobody really knew their neighbors.
So, if something was to be done, it was up to her to do it. She kept trying to shove the fear away, almost willing herself to accept the idea that she was overreacting, and everything was fine. Auggie tried as well, advising her to “mind yours.”
Normally that would be fine. She was a private person and hated it when people inserted themselves in her life or her business. Because of that, she gave everyone else a wide berth as well., as was evidenced by the fact that she didn’t know any of her neighbors either.
But this was different for some reason. This was her business, although it had no right to be. She couldn’t help but feel like that person you see on the news who says “Something didn’t seem right to me, but I mind my own” as they’re digging up dead bodies next door.
So, yes, she had tried other options, she had waited another full day hoping for the situation to change or for some sort of alternative to present itself, she had tried to talk herself out of it, but in the end it all came back to this: it was up to her.
In a perfect world, there would have been a door from her building into the alley and another from the alley into Carter’s building, allowing her to only break the lockdown rules for a 30-foot dash, but this was far from a perfect world and neither building had back doors.
Worse, their buildings were almost dead center in the middle of their respective blocks. That meant she’d have to go out the front door, down the street to the corner, travel a full block to the next street, and then come back up the block to get to Carter’s building.
Auggie wanted nothing to do with the whole scheme, but Jenny had managed to convince him to give her the access code to the front door. Getting in would be a breeze, it was getting there that would be the problem.
She waited until 3am, figuring an excursion like this one was best done under cover of darkness. The police and the National Guard were making regular patrols, but they couldn’t be on every street at every minute of the day, so timing was key.
Jenny dressed in the darkest clothes she could find – dark blue running shoes, black leggings, a black sweater, and a dark grey baseball cap to cover her blonde hair. It wasn’t exactly the most fashion forward look, but it would get the job done.
She got as far as the front door of her building, her hand on the knob, when she had a moment of clarity.
“This is crazy,” she thought. “You’re going to get in trouble for a guy you barely know. Turn around, go back upstairs, and let this be someone else’s problem.”
Jenny hesitated for a moment, and then opened the door.
It was warmer than Jenny expected it to be. She wasn’t sure what she expected – it was June, so warm evenings were normal – but other than her recent excursions to the balcony, she hadn’t been outside in over a week.
The air felt foreign, somehow, a threat. It was as if the slightest stir of a breeze could carry the virus with it. She knew that was silly, but she still found herself taking shallow breaths, as if that might make a difference.
The street was deserted, as was to be expected considering the lockdown orders. She wasn’t often up at 3am, but she knew that even at that late hour in the world before the pandemic there would normally be some signs of life in this neighborhood.
From her building, if she turned left, she would go down a slight hill to Porter Street, a busy commercial thoroughfare lined with restaurants, shops, and bars, most of which were usually shutting down around this time of the morning.
She could go that way, turn left on Porter, and walk the block to Abbot St., which paralleled hers and was where Carter’s building was located. But even though all the businesses on Porter were closed, there was still plenty of light and, she figured, more regular patrols.
Instead, the plan was to turn right, go up the slight hill to Monroe Street, turn right, and use that to get to Abbot. It was mostly residential and although well-lit, there were more shadows in which to hide should the need arise.
She got to the end of the front walk of her building, carefully scanned the street to look for movement, and turned right onto the sidewalk. Her heart was racing, and her head was buzzing out of both fear and the illicit thrill of it all.
It was not unlike the first time she had piloted a jet. The rush of adrenaline when you pull back on the yoke and the plane starts to lift off the ground – off of the earth itself – is unlike any in the world. It’s better than a roller coaster and a zip line combined.
Being on a sidewalk at 3am breaking curfew and lockdown orders may not have been quite as thrilling as flying a plane, but it came close.
She moved quickly and with purpose, faster than walking but not running, attempting to not look like she was up to something. A spy novel she had read once contained a bit of advice about how to act when you were somewhere you weren’t supposed to be.
Simply put it was, “act like you own the dump.” Look like you’re sneaking around and anyone who sees you will be suspicious. Look like you’re supposed to be wherever you’re at and most people will ignore you and turn their attention to other things.
Jenny passed the four buildings between hers and the corner of Monroe, trying not to look at the windows and balconies facing the street. Spy novel advice or not, if she had seen someone seeing her, all illusions of confidence would be shot.
When she got to the corner, she exhaled for what felt like the first time. She still had a long way to go but it felt like an accomplishment. She realized how strange it was to be proud of walking a few hundred feet, but these were strange times they were living in.
She had just passed the end of the alley that her balcony overlooked when she heard the engine. Jenny stopped dead in her tracks. It was a deep rumble, one that she had heard a lot recently. It was a military truck, one of the ones used for the national guard to patrol.
With the rest of the world so quiet, the rumble of the engine echoed off the buildings surrounding her, making it impossible to figure out where it was coming from. It could have been down on Porter Street, passing by without coming anywhere near her.
Or it could have been coming up her street behind her or Abbot in front of her. It could be blocks away or just past the next rise. But wherever it was, it was getting louder. Louder meant closer. Closer meant trouble.
Abandoning her “look like you own the dump” attitude, Jenny bolted back to the alley, hoping it would be less likely to be patrolled and offer more places to hide. Behind the first building was a stairwell that led down to a gate into an underground parking garage.
She practically dove into it, crouching down as far as she could get. The engine noise got louder and closer. It sounded like the truck was on Monroe, where she had just been. She waited for it to pass by the alley and continue on its way.
But it didn’t. The engine note declined, and she heard the slight squeal of brakes. The truck had come to a stop at the head of the alley. A door opened and then another. She heard the voice of a man, a soldier, most likely.
“I saw something,” he said. “I’m going to go take a look.”
Crouched down in a tight ball, Jenny tried to will herself to become even smaller somehow; invisible preferably. She was sad to discover her powers to change the fundamental structure of matter were non-existent.
She heard the soldier walking down the alley toward her, no more than fifteen feet away. There was a chance he wouldn’t see her. The stairwell down to the parking garage of this building wasn’t well lit, an obvious safety hazard she was grateful for in the moment.
So, if he passed by, his eyes straight ahead, and didn’t look down, yes, there was a chance. She knew it wasn’t a good chance, so she tried to come up with excuses for why she’d be out here, breaking curfew and lockdown orders. All she could think of was a lost cat.
The footsteps were closer. Ten feet maybe. Now less than that, moving slowly and methodically, probably checking every nook and cranny for scofflaws like her. Five feet at most. Her body tensed and she started to stand, thinking surrendering was better than being caught.
From her vantage she could see the soldier’s arm and leg, clad in desert beige camouflage, a very mean looking weapon at his side. She couldn’t see his face – he was too far over into the center of the alley. Another step or two and she’d be in plain sight.
“Hey, soldier boy!” came the cry from somewhere down the alley. “Yoohoo!”
Jenny risked a peek. It was Auggie, standing on his balcony, waving a pink feather boa. The solider shone his flashlight in Auggie’s direction.
“May I help you?” the soldier asked, sounding like it was a question that he had absolutely no interest in hearing the answer to.
“The question is, may I help you?” Auggie said. “I just saw someone run down the alley. They went that-a-way!”
Auggie pointed to the opposite end of the alley, which emptied out onto Porter Street.
“Did you get a look at them?” the solider asked.
“It’s awfully dark out here, but I think it was a man, at least six-foot-tall, probably two hundred pounds. Very big. Hard to miss.”
“Okay,” the solider said. “Thank you.”
He said something into his radio and then took off running down the alley, never taking a single glance in Jenny’s direction. Seconds later she heard the military vehicle rev up and speed away. She exhaled a long slow breath.
After waiting a few moments to make sure the coast was clear, she emerged from the stairwell to see Auggie standing on his balcony, hand on hip, obviously not happy. Jenny mouthed “Thank You!” with her hands clasped in front of her.
Auggie shook his head and even from this distance, Jenny could see the eye roll.
After the close call, she could no longer play it casual – she ran as fast as she could out of the alley, back on to Monroe, around the corner onto Abbot, and down the block to Carter’s building.
Like hers, it sat more or less in the middle of the block, but unlike her strictly residential building, this one was mixed-use, with shops, offices, and quick-serve restaurants on the main floor and apartments on three floors above.
She went to the resident entrance and punched the code Auggie had given her into the panel by the front door. There was a buzz and a click and just like that, Jenny was inside the lobby. She almost collapsed onto the highly polished marble floor.
Her legs were like rubber and her heart was pounding a million miles an hour. She had changed her mind – this was much more of an adrenaline rush than flying a jet ever had been. Worried she might pass out, Jenny put her hand on the wall and willed herself to calm down.
A minute or so of deep breathing and her equilibrium started to return. She looked up and realized she had her hand on the building directory. There were listings for the various businesses and the first initial and last name of the residents plus their apartment number.
Although she had learned a lot about Carter, from his taste in music to where he went to high school to the name of his beloved dog that went to “live on a farm” when he was a kid, the one thing she hadn’t bothered to get was his last name.
But since she had asked Auggie for his apartment number, she could reverse engineer it to figure out which one was Carter’s. Auggie was in unit 208, which was technically the first floor of apartments but above the retail spaces so on the second floor of the building.
Carter was one floor above and one over, so probably 306, 307, 309, or 310 depending on how they were numbered. A quick scan of the directory showed only one of those units was occupied by someone with the first initial C. C McBride, to be specific.
Carter McBride, #310. His name was Carter McBride. She thought it suited him, for some reason.
Armed with a destination, Jenny headed toward the elevator at the back of the lobby. The doors glided open and she stepped on board, pressing the button for the third floor.
She had a thought as the doors slid closed that made her laugh a little. Considering everything she had been through so far, the thought was pretty ridiculous, but there it was.
“Now comes the hard part.”
As the elevator went up to the 3rd floor, Jenny marveled at how remarkable the internet is, and by that she meant terrifying. She didn’t even have to try hard to find videos and tutorials on how to pick locks.
A lot of them involved lock picking tools that she didn’t have, but there were plenty using things like hairpins, paper clips, and even an empty soda bottle. She immediately vowed to put heavy furniture in front of her door when she went to bed at night.
She had a ton of paper clips for reasons that escaped her, so those are the videos and tutorials she focused on. It seemed easy enough. It took the person on the video about 30 seconds using two clips bent into specific shapes.
It took her a little longer – hours, in fact, of trial and error and more error and frustration and quite a bit of profanity. She was on what she estimated to be her 417th attempt to pick the deadbolt on her front door when all of the sudden it just worked.
She was sure what she had done differently so she tried again and this time it only took another 10 tries to make the lock open. Another hour or so and she was able to do it with encouraging dependability, about every third or fourth attempt.
Armed with a dozen paper clips in the pocket of her sweater, Jenny got to the 3rd floor and made her way to unit 310.
The curse word that escaped her lips when she saw the electronic lock on the door was one she didn’t use often but felt was warranted in this instance.
She was familiar with these types of locks. While she preferred to stay in hotels whenever she had layovers, sometimes a vacation rental was the only option. Many had these keypad devices because the codes could be changed remotely by the property manager between guests.
It was not only more convenient, it was more secure, since it didn’t involve a key that could be duplicated or a code that was shared between multiple people.
Oh, and also, it couldn’t be picked with paper clips.
Jenny just stared at it for a few moments, perhaps subconsciously willing it to go away or magically open, but once again she was foiled by her inability to bend space and time. She knew that she should give up and go home, but she had not come this far for nothing.
She started with 1-2-3-4 and hit the “enter” button. The keypad flashed red and beeped softly at her twice. Then she went to 1-1-1-1 and got the same result.
“So,” she thought, “He’s not a lazy idiot. That’s good to know.”
The chances of her hitting the correct code by randomly punching in four digits was probably worse than winning the lottery, but she still did it a few times just to check that luck was not on her side.
“Okay, stop and think,” she whispered. “What do you know about him?”
He had told her his birthday was October 25th. She punched in 1-0-2-5 and 2-5-1-0 just in case he spent a lot of time in Canada, but neither worked.
“His mother’s birthday,” Jenny thought. He mentioned it was three days before his, so she tried 1-0-2-2. Sorry mom.
She cycled through a few other combinations based off random bits of information he had given her and was completely unsurprised to find out that the jersey numbers of two Chicago Bulls players that he loved (and she had to look up on her phone), didn’t work.
She was just about to give up when it came to her. Carter had spent a great deal of time talking about the dog he had as a kid. It was his best friend and even though it had died many years ago, he still felt the loss of it acutely. The dog’s name was Ruth.
The keypad on the door lock didn’t have letters like, so she looked to her phone keypad for guidance. 7-8-8-4. She held her breath and hit the “enter” button.
The door unlocked and popped open a few inches.
Every bit of the anxiety, fear, and stress she had felt when she made her way around the block came rushing back upon her. This was the point of no return. Breaking curfew and lockdown laws was one thing but breaking and entering was no joke.
She pushed open the door and went inside.
The air in Carter’s apartment was still, causing an unwelcome image of a tomb to pop into Jenny’s mind. She stood there in the dark, waiting for her eyes to adjust and waiting for her heart rate to drop.
She had heard the phrase “the silence was deafening” but had never experienced it before. There was no sound, no hint of movement. On the one hand this was good. No one was rushing at her with a knife or an axe or whatever crazed killers used these days.
On the other hand, though, it didn’t give her a lot of confidence in the outcome of this little expedition. If she had seen any hint of life, it would give her a little bit of encouragement about Carter’s well-being, but there was not even a glimmer
From what she could tell, the apartment had a standard layout, with the front door opening into the living room/dining area, from which glass doors led onto the balcony. A tidy kitchen was off to her right and a closed door to what she presumed was the bedroom to the left.
Enough light was spilling in from outside that she could see the shapes of furniture but no details. She had a small flashlight but was hesitant to use it since she figured that anyone looking at his windows might find that suspicious.
Still, she needed light, so she made her way to the glass doors and closed the blinds, plunging the room into a deeper blackness. She retraced her steps back to the front door and flicked the light switch. The warm amber glow from the lamps was a relief.
The first thing she noticed as she looked around the apartment was how spartan it was. There was a utilitarian couch and a matching chair, both seemingly designed more for a place to sit than for comfort or anything resembling style.
A modestly sized TV sat on a simple side table with no drawers or shelves underneath. There was no dining table but there were two wooden stools at the breakfast bar between the living room and kitchen. But that was it.
There was no art on the walls, no knickknack, no family photos, and no bookcases full of leather-bound volumes, something she was expecting from the AP English teacher. She had stayed in low-budget motel rooms on layovers that had more personality.
From her balcony, she couldn’t see into Carter’s apartment during the day, but at night she had been able to see some of it. She found it curious that she hadn’t noticed how bare the place was, but she had been more interested in looking at Carter than his living room.
She went into the kitchen, white and sterile. There was a dish towel on the counter near the sink, but otherwise they were empty – no toaster, no blender, no butcher block of knives for the crazed killer to select from. It gave her the creeps, or perhaps more creeps.
Jenny opened the refrigerator and found herself unsurprised to find that it was almost empty. There were a half-dozen bottles of water, a few bottles of beer, some luncheon meat, and a couple of condiments. An inspection of the cupboards found them similarly bare.
Limits on how much any one person could buy of staples like bread, meat, milk, and eggs meant that nobody would have a doomsday stash of food, but this was beyond rationing. This was as if nobody actually lived here, they just used it as a place to visit every now and then.
None of this made any sense. Carter was warm, friendly, funny, and smart, far from the type of person who would lead a monk’s existence. There was only one explanation that resonated: when Carter had disappeared, so had all traces of his life.
She wasn’t sure what that meant. Could he have packed up everything he owned and left in a hurry? Her eyes scanned around the living room again. There were no nail holes in the walls where pictures had been hung, no outlines in the carpet of furniture now gone.
Her concern for Carter was being replaced by a sense of something like dread. It was becoming obvious that whatever she thought she knew about him was a construct, a story designed to make him appear to be one thing when he was really something else. Someone else.
The question was who?
Her heart skipped a beat at the sound from the bedroom. It was soft and what she thought was “furtive.” She tried to rationalize that her fear was causing her to imbue the noise with ill-intent, but rational thinking was in short supply.
Thump. The same noise, the same aura of menace about it, as if someone was moving stealthily in the bedroom, but not stealthily enough.
She wanted to run, but there was only one way out, via the front door. And to get to it, she’d need to pass by the bedroom door.
Maybe it was her imagination. Maybe it was the situation causing an undue stress response that was causing her to think she was hearing noises that weren’t really there. Or if it was there, maybe it was coming from the apartment next door. Maybe she was just being silly.
The noise coming from the bedroom was maddeningly inconsistent. There were four thumps in rapid succession and then nothing for a minute then another thump. It made timing a hurried exit past the bedroom door tough.
But the longer Jenny stood there in the doorway to the kitchen not moving, the less the noise seemed threatening and human made. If someone was sneaking around in the bedroom with the intent of springing out in surprise to do her harm, they were doing a lousy job of it.
Without even really knowing she had made the decision to do so, she marched over to the bedroom door and flung it open, grasping for a light switch as soon as she could get her hand around the corner. She decided she’d examine how insane that was later.
The room was on the small side, with a closet just past the door and a bathroom past that. There was a mattress on the floor, a folding table with a computer on it, and a floor lamp next to the window… which was open. A bit of a breeze came into the room.
The breeze moved the curtains and the curtains bumped into the lamp and the lamp bumped into the wall. Thump.
“Oh,” Jenny said aloud, feeling more than a little foolish. It was becoming obvious to her that skullduggery was not her forte.
Relieved to have solved The Mystery of the Threatening Thump, Jenny took in the room and its contents, which were just as minimalist as the rest of the apartment. No one “lived” here, they seemed to merely “stay” here. Everything seemed temporary at best.
She went into the bathroom and found it decidedly unextraordinary. There were the basics of personal care – deodorant, toothpaste, and so on – but nothing else. There wasn’t even a magazine or a book next to the toilet.
The last place for her to investigate was the closet. She slid one of the mirrored doors aside to reveal a few shirts on hangers, a couple of pairs of jeans and slacks folded neatly on the top shelf, underwear and socks in a cubby, and a pair of dress shoes on the floor.
Jenny was about to dismiss the closet as being of any more value than the rest of the apartment when something on the floor near the shoes caught her eye. She knelt down and saw a small safe with an electronic keypad on its face.
Tucked into the back of the closet, it was hard to see and impossible to examine. She had to work herself all the way into the closet just to get a good look at the thing. This was not a simple lockbox, this was a small but very secure looking professional safe.
Shrugging, she punched in the same four-digit code she had stumbled on to get into the apartment, spelling out the name of Carter’s beloved childhood dog Ruth
– 7-8-8-4. She didn’t think it would work but much to her surprise it did. The safe popped open.
That heartened her a little. While it was becoming readily apparent that Carter was not who he said he was, at least she knew that the story about the dog was true.
“Then again,” she thought as she reached into the safe, “Ruth could have been a person or a car or a….
Gun. Ruth could be the gun she just pulled out of the safe. She put it back quickly, then thought better of it and pulled it out again so she could wipe off her fingerprints. It would be just her luck for the weapon to be used in a crime that she’d get accused for.
There were two more things in the safe. Stacks of things, actually. One was a stack of money, banded hundred-dollar bills, ten thousand a pop, and there were at least twenty of them. The other was a stack of passports. She opened one and saw Carter’s sweet face.
But on this, his name was Evan Percy. The next passport had Carter’s picture but the name Frank Moore. A third had the name Antoine Marchand. Apparently, Carter was French, sometimes. There were ten passports total, all with the same picture but different names.
After carefully wiping everything off with the sleeve of her sweater, Jenny returned all of it to the safe and pushed it closed with the back of her hand. Crouched there in the closet, she couldn’t believe she had been so duped by this man.
If she ever did see him again, she would not be seeing Carter. She’d be seeing a complete stranger. A potentially dangerous one at that.
The mystery of where the person who wasn’t Carter had disappeared to remained unsolved and she was fine with that. Good riddance.
Jenny returned the apartment to its previous state, closing the closet door, turning off the light in the bedroom, then the kitchen and living room, and opening the blinds on the balcony door again. From there she surveyed the room – it was as if she’d never been there.
She was about to start toward the front door, eager to leave all this behind and try to forget all about it, when she heard someone approaching in the hall. The footsteps got closer, came to the door, and then stopped.
Four soft beeps followed. Someone was entering the code to open the door.
The balcony of the apartment belonging to the person who wasn’t Carter McBride was different than Jenny’s. Hers had a solid wall around it with drain holes near the floor while his had a decorative metal railing.
Hers stuck out from the building while his was inset with walls on three sides – one mostly taken up by the glass doors into the living room, one with a small window into the kitchen, and a third blank wall that separated it from the bedroom.
The floor of the balcony above operated as the roof of this one, protecting it from the elements. There were two standard issue patio chairs and a small table that took up most of the space that was, at best ten feet long and four or five feet deep.
Jenny observed all this as she huddled in the corner between the glass doors and the kitchen window. With nowhere to hide and faced with being caught by a guy with fake IDs, stacks of cash, and a gun, she had chosen the balcony as her only possible salvation.
The lights in the apartment came on, making Jenny flinch instinctively. He wouldn’t be able to see her unless he came to one of the windows and looked in her direction, but the rectangle of light from the living room was uncomfortably close to her hiding spot.
She wanted to look inside to see who had entered but was afraid of being seen peeking around the corner. Besides, whoever it was wouldn’t matter at this point. If it was NotCarter, as she began to think of him, that would be bad. She used the gun as evidence of this theory.
If it was someone other than NotCarter, that could be worse. Anyone entering someone else’s apartment at this time of the morning was most likely up to no good. She used herself as evidence of this theory.
The sound of footsteps approaching, coming toward the balcony, vibrated through the glass doors. She wondered if she would leave behind a Jenny-shaped indentation in the corner she was pressing herself into with all her might.
While she was pretty sure that she had left the apartment in the condition it was when she entered, there was one bit of evidence of her presence she had no choice but to leave behind. There was no way for her to lock the door to the balcony from the outside.
All the person had to do was glance at the lock latch or try the door and she’d be sunk. But instead all they did was shut the blinds. She exhaled nervously. She realized she had been doing that a lot over the last hour or so.
The light in the kitchen snapped on and moments later the blinds on that window were drawn, too. Whoever was in there didn’t want to be seen. The good news, if you were willing to stretch the definition to the breaking point, was it made it harder for her to be seen, too.
Less than a minute later the light in the kitchen, still visible through the blinds, snapped off and then the lights in the living room did, too. She couldn’t see the bedroom window from her vantage point but she could see the light that began to emanate from it.
Jenny heard a scrape and a thump, then the light was muted in its intensity. The person had closed the window and then drawn the curtains. She allowed herself a moment to relax, just a tiny bit. Against all odds she had remained undetected. The question was, now what?
There were really only three options. Option 1 would be to stay there and hope that NotCarter or not Carter would leave at some point and she’d be able to sneak out. But of course, that would be dependent on the person not discovering her before that.
Plus, the sun would be coming up in a couple of hours and while her balcony had the most direct view of this one, other people on their balconies would be able to see her huddling out there. The mental pro/con list she built for this idea tipped heavily toward the cons.
Option 2: She could try to open the balcony door, push aside the blinds, shut the door, lock it, let go of the blinds, sneak across the living room directly past the door to the bedroom, which may or not be open, and get out the front door.
There was nothing on the pro side of that argument since she didn’t have the power to make herself invisible.
That really left only Option 3. She double checked to make sure no one was peeking through the drawn blinds and then stepped quietly over to the balcony railing.
There was a narrow ledge, about 6 inches wide, that ran the length of the building between the floors of the balconies. The pro of this option was that, theoretically, she could climb off NotCarter’s balcony and make her way to the next one, and then drop down to Auggie’s.
The con of this option is that she was on the third floor, some thirty feet above a very hard concrete alley, and she was terrified of heights. Like, she had a hard time getting up on a chair to change a ceiling fixture light bulb terrified of heights.
“This is going to suck,” she thought.
30 feet was not a huge distance when measured horizontally. You could talk to someone 30 feet away, walk it in seconds, and toss a ball that far without much effort. But when measured vertically, it seemed enormous.
30 feet across was no big deal. 30 feet down could kill you. Sure, if she fell, she might not die. She could merely break a few bones and damage some internal organs, but that felt like cold comfort as she swung her leg over the balcony railing.
Jenny had always heard “don’t look down” when dealing with heights. It had never worked with her. Heights always terrified her, although she found ways to deal with it, mostly through avoiding things like ledges 30 feet above the ground.
But in this situation, there was no avoiding it. This was the only way she could escape NotCarter’s apartment and stand even the barest chance of not being seen. With a death grip on the railing, she swung her other leg over and stood there, eyes closed.
Her heart was pounding, her breath shallow, her back feeling exposed in a way that was unbearably creepy. It was as if she had just stepped onto the precipice of the end of the world and all that waited behind her was a black, inky void.
Knowing that it was a possibility that she might just stay there until NotCarter or whomever had entered the apartment opened the blinds in the living room, Jenny forced herself to open her eyes and look at the path ahead. It didn’t make her happy.
Using the balcony railing as a cherished anchor, she slid along the length of it, stepping in between the iron bars that connected the handhold to the floor. When she reached the end of it, which was embedded into the wall of the kitchen, things got scarier.
The decorative ledge that ran the length of the building was even with the floors of the balconies. It looked like concrete – she hoped it was concrete – and was six inches wide, give or take an inch or two. She’d be able to get most of a foot on it but only most.
Holding the railing as long as she could, she tentatively put her left foot out onto the ledge and tested it, gingerly at first then with more force. It seemed solid. Jenny wasn’t petite, but she hoped her lean, muscular frame wouldn’t put too much stress on the ledge.
She had reached the point of go big or go home. Or perhaps go big or go screaming down to the concrete below. Jenny put her right foot on the ledge, her left hand against the wall of the building, and then, with great reluctance, let go of the railing.
If she had been capable of not breathing, she would have. Every inhale felt like it was pushing her away from the building, tipping her over the point of no return. She knew she had to move but she needed to wait a moment to gain something like balance.
Her face turned to the left, her right cheek to the wall, Jenny mentally measured the distance to the next railing. If she was imagining the inside correctly, it would be the width of NotCarter’s kitchen and the width of the bedroom in the apartment next door.
She realized she was wrong. 30 feet horizontally could feel like a mile under the right circumstances.
Jenny edged her left foot out and then shifted her body a few inches, drawing the right foot in as she went.
“There,” she thought. “Only 29 and a half feet to go.”
Moving in six inch increments, Jenny slowly shuffled her way along the ledge, past a window into NotCarter’s kitchen and then getting to the window of the neighbor’s bedroom. The curtains into the room were open and bluish, flickering light was coming out.
As she got closer, she could see a TV was on. The question was whether the person in the room was still awake, because they’d be able to see her as she passed the window. Knowing she had gone too far to turn back now, Jenny leaned a little to the left to peek inside.
She could see someone in the bed, unidentifiable as male or female, sprawled out face down and seemingly sound asleep. She relaxed just a bit… but just a bit too much. Her left foot slipped, and she felt herself beginning to fall.
The sensation of falling is something people never get used to, no matter how many times they go on thrill rides or bungee jump off bridges. It feels as though a portion of your body – your core, your stomach – starts to fall first, before the rest of you follows.
It’s that moment when you’re falling asleep and in your half-slumber dream you stumble and start to head toward the ground, but you jerk awake before you do. The myth is that if you die in your dreams, you die in real life.
But this was no dream. There was no waking up from it. Jenny was falling and at the end of the fall was not a mythical, imaginary death, but a very real one.
Still, as she went, all she could do is hope she woke in time.
Something happened in the moment Jenny began to fall. It was fast, like flipping a switch. Where there had been dark, suddenly there was light. It illuminated corners of her mind that had been hiding in the shadows.
But it was brief, too. Like the flash of a camera, giving her a short glimpse of things that she didn’t quite understand. Had circumstances been different it would have frightened her, this peek into the unknown – the unfamiliar. Instead, it filled her with confidence.
In that moment, Jenny saw a path toward saving her life. It was a narrow path, and even the slightest miscalculation could end in tragedy, but it was a path nevertheless and it was one she was somehow sure she could maneuver. She didn’t know why, but she knew it could work.
The calculations flowed like water from a tap. She was in front of the bedroom window of NotCarter’s neighbor’s apartment, about seven or eight feet between her and that unit’s balcony railing – the balcony just above Auggie’s.
She was 5’6” and if she stretched her arms above her head, that probably added another two feet. She was falling in the direction of the balcony and if she had done nothing, she probably could have reached out and missed it by a foot or two.
The world seemed to slow down.
As her left foot slipped off the ledge, the natural inclination would have been to try to pull back – resist the momentum that was pulling her down. Instead, she used it – leaned into it by pushing off with her right foot, which still had purchase on the ledge.
She ignored every single impulse in her body to want to stop the fall and dove, like there was nothing more than a cool blue pool of water in front of her instead of 30-foot drop to the alley below. For a moment, she was flying, free from touching any part of the building.
The fingers of Jenny’s left hand grazed one of the vertical iron bars of the railing, a few inches below the handhold, but could gain no purchase. She stretched, imagining herself to be elastic, and continued to use the angle of the fall to her advantage.
Her right hand grabbed an iron bar and clamped down like a vise. Before she knew it was over, she was hanging by one hand from the balcony, her legs pumping and her body twisting as if it didn’t know it wasn’t falling anymore.
Jenny reached up with her left hand and grabbed another part of the balcony railing, stabilizing herself. Her head was more or less even with the floor of the balcony while the rest of her body was dangling in the open space where Auggie’s was.
Instinctively, she began to swing back and forth, working up the momentum she needed. When she had enough, she let go of the railing and dropped down to Auggie’s balcony, landing on her back with a painful, but otherwise harmless thud.
She lay there for a moment, looking up and able to see the balcony above her and part of the ledge she had traversed. Her heart was pounding, and tears sprang to her eyes but not because of what she had just done. It was because of how. It was because of the glimpse.
Whatever dark corners had been exposed in that moment, they were gone, shut off to the light again. But Jenny knew they were there now, and it scared her to death.
The door to Auggie’s apartment opened and he appeared, mouth agape.
“What in the holy hell?” Auggie whispered intensely. “Where did you come from?”
All Jenny could do was point up. Auggie looked up at Carter’s balcony then looked back at Jenny.
“Girl,” Auggie said, “I knew you were crazy, but I didn’t know you were THAT crazy.”
“Are you okay?” Auggie asked with concern as he helped her stand.
“I think so,” Jenny said. “I can’t believe I did that.”
“I can’t either,” Auggie said. “There’s no way you could get me out on the side of a building like that. Unless it’s a man, I don’t do tall things.”
“Neither do I,” Jenny said, a bit of a laugh in her voice. “I’m terrified of heights.”
“Aren’t you a pilot?” Auggie asked.
The flash this time was even shorter – a microburst of light. Not even enough time to understand the shape of what was lurking in the dark corners.
But it was enough for Jenny to know that there was something hidden there. Something big. Something dangerous.
And it was waiting for her to turn on the light again.
After a few hours of sleep on Auggie’s couch, Jenny had awakened to grey light filtering in through the windows, an overcast morning the first sign of the thunderstorms that were forecast for that evening.
This was a big deal to Auggie, who upon reading the forecast, promptly changed his setlist for that evening’s show to include Tina Turner’s “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” and The Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men.”
“Predictable or on brand?” Auggie mused.
Recognizing a rhetorical question when she heard one, Jenny stayed quiet, hopeful that the performance would be the cover she needed to sneak home that night. She planned to leave earlier, but Auggie wanted a full debrief of the night after they both got some sleep.
Each revelation had been met with a gasp. “A gun!?” “Fake IDs!?” “A mattress on the floor? What is he, a hobo?!”
Now, they sat on comfy stools sipping coffee by Auggie’s breakfast bar, which was covered with jars of glitter and lots of things with feathers.
“How long have you known him?” Jenny asked.
“I don’t,” Auggie said. “The first time I saw him was just before the lockdown. Two weeks ago? I saw him the lobby once and another time on the elevator and I got his name, because he may be a shady serial killer but he’s hot.”
“He told me had hadn’t lived here for very long, but I thought it was longer than two weeks,” Jenny said.
She ran through the bits of information she knew about him, or at least thought she did based on what he had told her. It wasn’t much, but it was somewhere to start.
“Do you feel like doing a little Google stalking?” Jenny asked.
“Girl, we gonna get our Nancy Drew on!” Auggie said, cackling. He went to get his laptop and moments later they were digging into NotCarter’s life, quickly discovering there wasn’t much to dig into.
There were a lot of people named Carter McBride both on social media and on the web in general, but none of them were the one they were looking for. Ditto a couple of the other names from the passports she was able to remember.
They tried narrowing it down by adding things like “Chicago,” the town he had supposedly grown up in, and “teacher,” his supposed profession, but it yielded nothing of interest. They even combined his various aliases with “Ruth,” his beloved dog’s name, but it went nowhere.
“Why Ruth?” Jenny asked.
“What do you mean?” Auggie asked.
“If the rest was all lies, why include something real like the name of the dog?”
“How do we know it was real?”
“Because he used it for the codes for his front door and his safe. It must mean something to him.”
“Well, first,” Auggie said, “you don’t know Ruth was a dog. It could’ve been something else or nothing. He could’ve just made it up because its easy to remember. But if it is true, that makes sense, too.”
“How so?” Jenny asked.
“As someone who takes on an alternate persona myself,” Auggie said referring to his drag queen accoutrement, “I can say that there is a very fine line between what is real and what is fake. Augusta and Auggie are two sides of the same coin.”
“A part of me really wants to believe that,” Jenny said. “Because talking to him… I got a sense that he was a good guy. If he really is a serial killer or some sort of criminal, what does that say about my ability to read people?”
“It sucks,” Auggie said.
“Is there a scenario in which he’s not a bad guy?” Jenny wondered.
“He could be a spy,” Auggie shrugged. “A good one, on our side. Or maybe if he is a criminal, he’s a cool criminal, like a jewel thief! You know, all dashing and sexy and he wears tuxedos.”
“What do I do about it?” Jenny asked. “I mean, what if he’s dangerous? Should I call the police?”
“And tell them what?” Auggie asked. “That you broke curfew and lockdown, broke into his apartment, and nearly broke yourself trying to get away?”
“Yeah,” Jenny nodded, “that probably wouldn’t go over very well.”
“Probably not,” Auggie said. “Look, as long as he’s not aiming his dangerous intent at you or me, then I say it’s all business and you should mind yours.”
“What if he’s aiming his dangerous intent at some other innocent person?” Jenny asked. “What if the reason he was gone for two days is because he was out doing something nefarious or planning something nefarious or putting some nefarious plan into motion?”
“You’re not going to let this go, are you?” Auggie asked with a cocked eyebrow.
Jenny didn’t answer the question, which told both of them the answer they were looking for.
Flashes of lightning in the distance and low rumbles of thunder portended the oncoming storm bearing down on the city. A light rain was falling now, but the brunt of onslaught was at least an hour away.
Jenny waited until Auggie was ready to go out onto the balcony for his evening performance, thanked him profusely, and then slipped out the front door of his apartment. She heard the opening strains of “Singing in the Rain” and smiled as she made her way to the elevator.
She felt better about the perilous trek home, figuring the rain and Auggie’s performance would provide enough of a distraction. Besides after everything she had been through in the last day, breaking curfew and lockdown orders (again!) felt almost mundane.
The elevator doors glided open and Jenny took a step to get in before she realized that there was someone else in the cab. She glanced up and froze. It was Carter. Or NotCarter. Or Evan or Antoine or Frank or whatever name he was going by that day.
“Jenny?” he said, the surprise in his voice and on his face obvious.
“Hi,” she said, trying to be light and airy and not at all terrified but failing miserably.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“I, uh…” Jenny stumbled, “Auggie wanted to borrow some shoes.”
NotCarter’s eyebrows went up.
“You have shoes that Auggie wanted to wear?” he asked, obviously skeptical.
“Halloween costume,” she said, vamping. “Rain boots. He’s doing all rain songs.”
“And they fit him?” NotCarter asked.
“More or less,” she said, forcing a smile.
The elevator doors started to close, then bounced back when they sensed her half in and half out of the cab.
“Are you going down?” Carter asked.
Jenny didn’t want to get on the elevator, but she knew that going outside while Auggie was performing was the safest option.
“Yes,” Jenny said as she stepped in. The doors closed and it felt like all the air had been sucked out of the small space.
“It’s smart to go home while Auggie is singing,” he said.
That he figured that out bothered her. It felt, once again, as if they were connected.
Deflecting that disturbing thought, Jenny tried the old best defense/good offense strategy.
“Are you going out?” she asked.
“Checking the mail,” he replied, jangling his keys in her direction.
“You haven’t been out on your balcony the last couple of days,” she said.
“Oh, I know,” he said breezily. “Sorry. They put me on a project where I have to do AP lectures for students in Tokyo, so I’ve been up at ridiculous hours and sleeping during the day.”
She knew he was lying but didn’t want him to know she knew.
Still, it was hard not to poke at the obvious holes in his story the same way he tried to poke at hers.
“You speak Japanese?” she asked, trying to sound breezy rather than suspicious.
“No,” he laughed. She hated that she liked the sound of it. “They speak English.”
The elevator doors opened in the lobby and they stepped out into it.
“I can’t believe you broke the lockdown orders just to come over here and give Auggie some rain boots,” he said, smiling in a way that she couldn’t help but think meant that he knew she was lying.
“Anything for art,” she said, lightheartedly. “I better go before Auggie finishes.”
“Okay,” he said. “Be careful. Wave at me from your balcony when you’re home safe.”
“I will,” she said, even though she really wanted to board up her windows and never see him again.
Resisting the urge to look back to see if he was watching her, Jenny headed to the front doors and got out of the building as quickly as she could.
She was greeted by a steady rain and a flash of lightning, closer but still distant. Thunder, low and ominous, followed.
Shivering, and not because of the weather, Jenny hurried up the sidewalk. She could hear Auggie singing, his broad voice ripping through “It’s Raining Men.” That was his showstopper, so she picked up the pace.
Walking quickly, her head down, Jenny ran through the conversation she had with NotCarter. It was so banal, so uneventful, and yet it seemed almost as if it had been a high stakes poker game, one in which both of them were bluffing and both of them knew it.
Did he somehow know she had been in his apartment? If he did, would he just casually talk about rain boots and tell her to be careful heading home? Would he have let her go?
The sight of the front door of her building had never been so comforting in her entire life.
Once she had made it inside her apartment, she closed the door and turned on the lights. There was no music coming from the alley so Auggie had obviously finished his show for the night. She was kind of sorry she missed it.
Realizing how hungry she was, she headed for the kitchen but then stopped dead in her tracks.
A manila envelope was on her dining table. It hadn’t been there when she left.
Hands shaking, she picked it up. It wasn’t sealed so the pictures inside spilled out.
As if taken from security cameras in corners near the ceiling, they were pictures of her… in NotCarter’s apartment.
Filled with dread, she turned and looked out the balcony windows. NotCarter was standing on his balcony, not smiling, looking at her.
A lightning bolt sent a flashbulb effect through the alley, bouncing off the walls of NotCarter’s balcony. For a moment, as he stood there looking at Jenny, he appeared skeletal. He looked like death itself.
Acting out of instinct more than anything else, Jenny ran to the front door, fumbled with the lock for one heart-stopping moment, and then stumbled into the hall, gasping for breath as if she had just emerged from being underwater for longer than she should have been.
“Jenny?” came a voice.
Jenny screamed. Logically, she knew it couldn’t be NotCarter, but it seemed like he was everywhere. He was in her head.
“Jenny, it’s Josh,” he said. “From next door.”
Jenny focused and saw her neighbor, the one she saw in the halls occasionally.
Not John or Joe or Frank, apparently, but Josh. For a stupid moment of unimportant thinking she wondered if the only other person she sort of knew from her building, the woman with the distinctive pair of Afghan hounds, was really named Frida.
She had never really paid that much attention to him – he was just the guy that lived next door whose name she thought was John. If she had to identify him in a lineup, he’d probably get away with whatever crime he had committed.
But with adrenaline pumping and all of her senses on overdrive, she got a good look at him for what was probably the first time, scanning him like a computer. Mid-thirties, around 6 feet tall, dark hair and eyes, big in the way that meant he spent a lot of time in the gym.
“Jenny, what’s wrong?” he said, maintaining a distance from her that she appreciated.
“He’s there,” Jenny said, pointing at the apartment, still gasping and unable to get words out that actually conveyed what she was trying to say.
“There’s someone in there?” Josh asked.
Before Jenny could say anything else, Josh barreled toward her door and went into her apartment. Terrified that NotCarter might see him and drag an innocent person into whatever crazy dance they were involved in, Jenny followed Josh.
“Where is he?” Josh asked. He was standing near the dining table, knees slightly crouched, his right arm crooked toward his chest. It took her several seconds to realize that he was holding a large knife. It wasn’t a butcher knife or something you’d find in your kitchen.
This was bigger, meaner. Probably used for hunting or some other serious purpose. The word “wicked” popped into her head. This was the kind of knife you did wicked things with. He was holding it close to his body, palm down, the back of the blade angled toward his arm.
It was the grip of someone who knew how to use it. Even though he seemed to be there in defense of her, it scared her even more than she already was.
“Where is he?!” Josh demanded.
“No,” Jenny finally managed. “It’s not… he’s over there.”
Jenny pointed out the window.
NotCarter’s wasn’t on the balcony.
Jenny took a step forward, her panic increasing. Outside, the rain had built into a torrent, coming down in sheets, but the lights in his apartment across the alley made it easy to see inside.
It was empty. And the front door was open.
A flash of lightning exploded, so bright that she recoiled. It was followed quickly by a huge boom of thunder that rattled the room. When it had subsided, Jenny realized that the power was out.
He didn’t cause it, but he would use it.
“He’s coming,” Jenny said softly.
Josh didn’t hesitate. He moved quickly, grabbing her by the arm and hustling her through the darkened apartment into the hallway. There were no windows there, so it was pitch black, an inky depth that seemed impenetrable. Despite it, Josh moved with confidence.
“Where are we…”
“My place,” he whispered. She could hear his hand brushing the wall as he used it for guidance. “We’ll be safe there.”
Seconds later they were in his apartment. The ambient light from outside allowed her to recognize that it was a mirror of her place.
“I should call the police,” Jenny said, reaching into her pocket for her phone. It wasn’t there. She had set it down with her keys when she had gotten home. “But I don’t have my phone.”
Josh pulled his out and looked at it.
“No signal,” he said. “Must be the storm.”
“What are we going to do?” Jenny asked, feeling helpless. More than anything, she hated feeling helpless.
“He won’t be able to get in here,” Josh said, his voice low. “And if he does, I can handle him.”
“But he has a gun,” Jenny said.
“So, do I,” Josh said. “I just didn’t want to have to use it.”
That statement sounded strange, like he somehow knew something bad was going to happen. Before she could examine it too closely, she heard a rusty squeaking coming from the direction of the hallway.
She had heard it before. It was the sound the hinges on the door to the building’s stairwell made when it was opened or closed.
In the dim light, Jenny looked at Josh who had obviously heard the noise, too.
“He’s here,” Jenny said.
The pounding rain and incessant thunder masked any sound of NotCarter’s approach in the hall and would probably muffle any sound she or Josh would make in his darkened apartment, but they remained still, quiet, wary.
Once again, Jenny tried to let logic drive instead of emotion by embracing the idea that NotCarter could have no idea where they were. Even if he had seen Josh in her apartment, NotCarter wouldn’t know who he was or that he lived next door.
But a gnawing urgency tugged at the pit of her stomach. Something wasn’t right. It wasn’t like the weird flashes she got during and just after her escape from NotCarter’s apartment. This wasn’t her sudden, uncanny ability to calculate the physics of jumping to a balcony.
This wasn’t like the question of how a pilot could be afraid of heights. No, this wasn’t a glimpse of the scary thing hiding in the dark corners of her brain. This was simple gut instinct. Something about this didn’t add up.
The doorknob on Josh’s front door rattled.
It hit her like a wrecking ball.
Josh had said “he won’t be able to get in here.” Not “he won’t know where we’re at” or “he’ll never find us” but “he won’t be able to get in here.”
Josh knew that NotCarter would know they were in his apartment.
The only way that could be possible is if NotCarter had not only seen Josh, but…
“He knows you,” Jenny whispered as she looked at the dark shadow that was Josh.
He turned his focus away from the door for a moment, the knife turning in her direction as well.
“This is an inconvenient time for you to figure that out,” he whispered malevolently.
The gnawing at the pit of her stomach turned into a hungry, angry biting as an overwhelming feeling of dread washed over her. Suddenly she knew she had not one enemy, but two.
Everything that happened next, happened fast, almost like flashes of lightning catching every moment in a freeze frame.
The front door of the apartment burst open and NotCarter rushed in, gun drawn, looking for a target but unable to find one in the dark.
Josh sprang like a coiled snake attacking its prey, his knife catching the glint of a lightning bolt as it arced through air.
Jenny instinctively dove to the floor, seeking cover between the stools of Josh’s breakfast bar.
She heard a pop, then another, the sound of gunshots she thought. They were quieter than she imagined they’d be, but the fierce storm raging outside could have been damping the sound.
Something broke – a shatter of glass followed by sounds of a scuffle.
There was a stifled cry of pain. She couldn’t tell if it came from NotCarter or Josh. At this point she wasn’t sure that it mattered.
What did matter is that the sounds of the fight between the two men became softer. They had gone down the hall toward the bedroom.
Knowing it could be her only chance, Jenny scrambled for the front door, which hung open like a gaping maw waiting to devour her. That imagery made her hesitate but only for a second. If the choice was between two armed men and a pitch-black hallway, the choice was clear.
Her momentum carried her into the hall too fast. She slammed against the door to the apartment opposite Josh’s with a teeth-rattling impact.
Momentarily free of the immediate threat, Jenny was faced with a series of options, none of which seemed like good in the moment.
There were ten apartments on this floor, all of which were filled with people because of the lockdown. She could scream for help and hope someone would let her in or, at the very least, call the police. But as soon as she did, NotCarter and Josh would know where she was.
Although the dark hallway was terrifying on its own, she felt like it gave her a slight advantage in that they’d be just as blind in it as she was. Besides, dragging someone else into her danger wasn’t something she relished doing.
She could only hope that the noises they had made already would be enough to encourage one of her neighbors to call the authorities.
So, that left which way to go. Her apartment was to her right but that would certainly be a dead end in more ways than one.
To the left, down the hall about 100 feet, was the exit to the building’s stairwell, the one with the squeaky door hinges. Opening it could also alert NotCarter and Josh where she was going, but it seemed like her only choice at the moment.
Jenny began feeling her way along the hall with one hand against the wall and the other in front of her to keep from running into anything. She moved as quickly as she could, but the darkness and the now muted sound of the storm was disorienting.
After what felt like forever, her fingers brushed the metal exit door. She breathed a sigh of relief.
Someone grabbed her, one arm going around her chest, a hand over her mouth. She struggled but he was too strong. She tried to scream, but his grip was too fierce.
“Shhh,” NotCarter whispered. “We have to get out of here. They’re coming.”
Jenny tried to look at him, but he held her tight.
“You’re just going to have to trust me,” he continued. “You have to trust me… Ruth.”
“Ruth?” Jenny said after he had taken his hand off her mouth. Her voice was ragged with emotion she didn’t understand.
“I’ll explain everything,” NotCarter whispered, “but we don’t have time now. We have to go.”
She was afraid of him, but her gut told her that while he might be dangerous, he was not dangerous to her. At least not in the way that Josh was.
“Okay,” she whispered.
Using the light on his cellphone, he led Jenny down several flights of stairs to the emergency exit.
“Does this go to the alley?” he asked.
“No,” she replied. “It only goes to the street.”
“Damn it,” he said. She could see him calculating the odds of their options and could tell he didn’t like any of them.
“We need to move fast,” he said. “Stay low, stay close, okay?”
NotCarter put a round into the chamber of his gun and held it out in front of him as he opened the door just enough to see outside. The raging storm instantly tried to find purchase, rain and wind shoving its way inside.
Suddenly they were moving, out into the tempest, the onslaught instantly drenching them. As promised, they moved quickly, down the walkway between her building and the neighboring one. He hesitated before going to the sidewalk to scan the street. It was empty.
Lightning flashed and with it a flash of something else. An image. It was like those 3-D pictures everyone was posting on social media – not a video but not a flat photo. It had depth, life, motion. It was of a house, modern with lots of windows, surrounded by dense woods.
The thunder roared and like the lightning, the image was gone, fading like the shadows left behind after the flash of a camera.
She hadn’t even noticed that they were moving again, turning left and heading down the gentle hill toward Porter Street.
Crouched down and moving fast, they stayed off the sidewalk as much as possible, cutting through the lawns of the buildings and using whatever landscaping they could as cover. She didn’t see anyone but NotCarter acted as if danger was in every direction. Maybe it was.
Another flash of lightning and another image, this one of what appeared to be a lab of some kind. It was long and narrow, with worktable cutting through the center of it and counters on either side littered with machines of indecipherable intent, beakers, and test tubes.
By the time it faded, they had reached the alley behind the row of businesses facing Porter. It intersected the alley her balcony faced in a T a couple of hundred feet away.
NotCarter grabbed her and pulled her roughly into the alley, taking cover behind a big trash bin.
A heartbeat later she heard the roar of engines as several big army vehicles turned from Porter and barreled their way up the street. The storm overtook the noise as they drove away, but Jenny had a feeling they hadn’t gone far.
NotCarter pulled her up and she managed a quick glimpse. The trucks were stopped in front of her building and soldiers in “hazmat” suits with guns were pouring out, too many to count that fast.
They were looking for her. She didn’t know why she knew that, but she did.
They ran down the alley toward the T-intersection but stopped next to a metal door with a sign on it reading “O’Shaughnessy’s Irish Pub Deliveries.” NotCarter tucked the gun into the waistband of his jeans and pulled a small pouch out of his pocket.
He withdrew a couple of slender metal rods that Jenny knew from her failed attempt as a master criminal were lockpicking tools. It took him less than ten seconds to get the door open.
“Showoff,” she muttered.
“What?” he asked.
“Never mind,” she said as they went inside.
Shutting the door muffled the storm but also put them into another pitch-black void. NotCarter turned on his cellphone light and swept the beam around the space. They were in a storage room filled with cases of booze, kegs of beer, and supplies of all kinds.
A door on the opposite side of the room opened into a short hallway that led to the pub itself. It was simple, with a row of booths on one side, the bar on the other, and a handful of tables in between. The windows and door at the front were covered with plywood.
“We can’t get out that way,” Jenny whispered.
“We’re not trying to,” he replied as he sat on a bar stool, wincing as he did, his breath heavy. “We need to lay low for a while.”
“Shouldn’t we use the storm to… flee?” she asked. “What are we fleeing from, by the way?”
“It’s a long story,” he said. “I’ll tell it to you while you’re doing me a favor.”
“What kind of favor?” she asked warily.
NotCarter shone the cellphone at the right side of his abdomen. There was a jagged tear in his shirt, which was soaked with blood.
“Oh my God!” Jenny exclaimed. “What happened?”
“He got me with the knife,” he explained. “It’s okay. It’s not bad. But I’m going to need you to find something you can stitch it up with.”
“Me?” she said, shocked. “You want me to stitch it up? I’m not a doctor!”
“Actually, you are,” he said.
Another flash, another image. It was of her reflection in a mirror. Her hair was different; longer, lighter. She wore a lab coat.
The image faded. She looked at him, confused.
“I guess I owe you an explanation,” he said.
Jenny let him talk without interrupting. It wasn’t because she didn’t have questions – she had a LOT – but she felt like the very ground under her feet was giving way and poking at it would make it worse.
Besides, staying quiet gave her the ability to concentrate on sewing up the gory wound on his abdomen, something that definitely needed as much of her attention as possible. She didn’t think it was life threatening but it was bloody and challenging to work on.
He was lying on the bar of the pub, she was using a sewing kit she had found in the office, and the only light was coming from him holding his cell phone. Add the storm and the guys with guns looking for them and letting him talk seemed like the best strategy at the moment.
“Some of this I know directly,” he began. “Some of it has been told me or I found out later. Some of it is just me filling in the blanks with guesses or hunches.”
He paused. Jenny thought it was for her benefit, allowing her a moment to find her equilibrium.
“Your name is Ruth Abbott. You’re a doctor. You do clinical research for a company called Gardner Pharmaceuticals. Your primary focus was on brain chemistry – developing treatments for things like Alzheimer’s. Things that affect the memory.
“When the virus broke out, everyone became focused on finding a vaccine, including you. But you found something else instead. I don’t know the science, but somehow you traced the genetic code and found out that it didn’t come from bats in China. It was manmade.
“You didn’t know who had made it at first, although I think you had suspicions from the start. You were worried. Nervous. You decided to go to the one person at Gardner that you thought you could trust – a man named Charles Hoffman. Charlie, you called him.
“He’s the head of your department. A friend now, but he used to be more than that. You were engaged for awhile but you both realized that it wasn’t what you wanted, and you parted on good terms. You believed in him and thought he’d help.
“Then you disappeared… ow, God!”
“Sorry,” Jenny said. Her hand had slipped when he said that. A part of her felt amazed that she had gotten that far into his fantastical story before it did.
“That’s okay. I’m okay,” he said, probably lying, she thought.
“This is the part where it gets fuzzy,” he continued. “I’m not sure of the details, but I think your company was behind the virus. And I think Hoffman knew it; maybe even involved in it. I don’t know if it was on purpose or an accident or what, but they were involved.
“They needed to stop you from telling anyone, but whether it was because of Hoffman’s feelings for you or something more… dark… they decided not to kill you or put you in a hole somewhere. They decided to use you… as a guinea pig for your own research.
“You were using nanotechnology, microscopic… atom sized robots, I guess. It sounds crazy and I never really understood it, but they had been programmed to try to repair the damaged portions of the brain in dementia patients, hoping that it would bring back memories.
“But instead, they erased memories, or at least hid them. You said it was like putting a blank canvas over an existing painting. You thought people could relearn who they were – that they could relearn the memories they had lost. They could repaint their self-portrait.
“You were exited about it, but you were concerned because you thought the blank canvas could also be used to create a new portrait of an entirely new person.”
“Brainwashing,” she said, a chill coursing through her body.
“Yes,” he said. “That’s how I got involved.”
“I used to be Army Special Forces, counter-terrorism, but I left all that and went to work in the private sector… corporate security for Gardner Pharmaceuticals. Doctors like you are required to report to us if there are any broader implications to your research.
“If it could be used as a weapon, for instance. We met about a year ago and we worked together to try to make sure your project stayed contained – that it would only be used for good. We kept it very confidential. Not very many people knew. And no one knew about us.”
Jenny looked up at him, their eyes locking.
From the moment she had met “Carter McBride,” It was if she had known him, somehow. She felt connected to him in ways that didn’t make any sense. Now they did.
“I disappeared,” she whispered. “But you found me.”
“I’ll always find you,” he said as he reached out to caress her face gently.
“I want to hear the rest – how you found me, who Josh is – but I need to ask a question first,” she said.
“Okay,” he nodded. “I think you’re due.”
“What’s your name?”
“Zachary Peterson,” he said as he smiled. “Zach.”
“Nice to meet you, Zach,” she managed. “Okay… now you can tell me the rest.”
He took a deep breath.
Jenny… or Ruth… that was going to take some getting used to… returned her focus to sewing up the knife wound on NotCarter’s abdomen.
“Zach’s abdomen,” she thought. That would take some getting used to, too.
“You were going to talk to Charlie Hoffman,” Zach said as he continued the strange story of her abduction and brainwashing. “I saw you the night before and you were intent on uncovering the truth about the virus. I offered to go with you, but you wanted to do it alone.
“The next day I didn’t hear from you, so I went to your lab. It was dark. You weren’t there; Hoffman wasn’t there. I called. I texted. I left work and went to your house. You were just… gone. It scared me, and I made some tactical errors early on because of it.”
“Tactical errors?” Jenny asked.
“I kind of went through the Gardner Pharmaceutical offices with a gun knocking down doors,” he said, a bit abashed.
“I appreciate that,” she said. “But I’m guessing it probably didn’t go over well.”
“Not exactly,” he said. “I got fired.”
“The only reason I didn’t get arrested,” he continued, “is because I had a friend at the local police department. He talked them into dropping the charges, but I couldn’t get him to take me seriously. I guess I really can’t blame him.
“I mean, I was talking about a missing girlfriend that no one knew I had and brainwashing microscopic robots. Even I thought I sounded crazy. So, I started looking for you myself. I didn’t know who I was up against. Was it just Gardner or was it bigger than that?
“I still have connections from my special forces days, so I called in some favors and got some new IDs, put together some cash, and I got to work.”
“How long ago was this?” she asked.
“Three months,” he said. “It was nothing but dead ends… until the lockdown.”
“To go to the grocery store during lockdown, people had to register with a photo,” Zach explained. “I got a buddy to run a facial recognition program and there you were – Jenny Harris. Your hair was different, and you were wearing more makeup than usual, but it was you.
“This is all… ,” she started, trying to find the words. “I mean, I’ve lived in that apartment for two years. I’m a pilot. I grew up in Portland… all of that is so real to me.”
“You actually grew up in Phoenix,” he said, gently.
“My parents? My sisters?” she asked.
“You were an only child,” Zach said. “Your parents died years ago.”
For a moment, it didn’t matter that none of it was real – it FELT real. She grieved for a family that she never had.
“I don’t know where they had you before,” he said. “Somewhere at Gardner maybe.”
“Why would they put me in an apartment?” she asked. “Why take the risk of me being recognized?”
“I don’t know that either,” he said, “but we’re in a different city a thousand miles from everyone you knew. I think they saw the lockdown as being an opportunity.”
“To do what?” she asked.
“To test your technology,” he said. “I had suspected the government might be involved. The military, intelligence agencies… they’d be very interested in a way to brainwash someone. Seeing the soldiers with the guns tonight confirmed it.”
“Why didn’t you just grab me?” she asked. “Why create Carter?”
“One of the things you didn’t know was what would happen if someone was confronted with the truth,” he said. “You worried about trauma; even mental collapse. I didn’t want to risk hurting you.
“The apartment across from yours was available so I took it and watched for a few days. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And then Auggie started singing and you were there and… you didn’t know who I was.”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“I think that falls into the ‘not your fault’ category,” he said.
“Where did you go?” she asked. “You were gone for a couple of days.”
“I went to Gardner,” he said. “Finding you was the most important thing but taking them down was a close second. I needed evidence.
“I have enough to get an investigation started on a thumb drive in my pocket. When I got back, I checked my security cams and saw you had been in my apartment. I thought that meant you were asking enough questions that it might be okay to give you a push.”
“So, you left the pictures in my apartment,” she finished for him.
“Yes,” he said. “I thought it would maybe help you want to ask even more questions. But then I saw him with you.”
“Josh?” she asked. “Who I’m guessing isn’t really Josh?”
“His name is Ryan,” Zach said. “He worked with me on the security team at Gardner. They must have put him there to protect their experiment. When he saw me, I knew you were in trouble, so…”
“So, you ran into a knife for me,” she said, finishing the stitches.
“Yeah,” he said, “but he ran into a bullet, so, I think I got the better end of the deal. Unfortunately, he had already sent in a distress call.”
“Hence the guys with guns,” she said as she placed a makeshift bandage on the wound.
“Hence,” he said, sitting up.
“Okay,” she said, her mind swimming. “Then I guess there’s only one question left.”
“What that?” he asked.
“What do we do now?”
Zach opened the back door of the pub into the alley by an inch. The bulk of the thunder and lightning had moved out of the city, but a steady rain was still falling, and the power remained off.
The view through that once inch gap was foreboding, seemingly filled with unseen malice, but there was no immediate threat visible.
“It’s half a block up to my building,” Zach said. “There’s a gate on the side that leads to a door into the garage where my truck is parked.”
“Okay,” Jenny said, sounded more unsure about the idea than she meant to.
“We want to get to my truck,” he said. “I moved all my IDs and cash into it, plus my laptop. And I’ve got more weapons.”
“What if the people who are after us have already found it?” she asked.
“Then we’re in a lot more trouble than we thought,” he replied.
“So, we get to the truck,” Jenny said. “Then what?”
“Then we go somewhere safe,” he said. “I know of an old cabin in the woods not far out of town we can use. We hunker down, figure out our next move.”
“Why don’t we just go to the police?” she asked. “You said you had a friend on the force.”
“That’s an option, yeah,” he said. “We could also go to the nearest newspaper or TV station. But we don’t know for sure what we’re up against.”
“Evil drug company and probably the military,” she said.
“I only had a few minutes to look at the documents I downloaded onto the flash drive at Gardner Pharmaceuticals,” he said. “It could be much bigger than that and if it is, we need to know before we make a move.”
Jenny was silent for a moment, competing thoughts working overtime for attention in her head.
“What’s wrong?” Zach asked.
“I’m worried we might not have that kind of time.”
“What do you mean?”
“The brainwashing,” she said. “I think it’s… breaking down.”
“I keep seeing flashes,” she continued. “Memories, I think. I saw a lab. I think it’s where I work. And a house – lots of glass and trees.”
“That’s your house,” he said. “You’re starting to remember who you really are. Isn’t that a good thing?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “You said it yourself. I’m a guinea pig. Nobody else has had this done to them. Nobody knows how long it lasts or what happens if it falls apart. Maybe I just go back to being Dr. Ruth Abbott but maybe… you said I was worried about trauma.”
“You said you thought bringing someone out of the brainwashing too fast might cause damage,” he said.
“What if it causes damage no matter what?” she asked. “What if it all just falls apart and all that’s left is a blank slate? What if Ruth never comes back?”
Jenny had gotten glimpses of what was hiding in the shadows and was frightened by it. Now that she knew it was her – the real her, Ruth Abbott – she was scared to death. Not because she was afraid she’d have to face herself, but because she thought she never would.
She tried to hold it back, but a tear escaped anyway, tracing a line down her cheek.
“Hey,” he said, taking her face in his hands. “Listen to me. I found you once. I will do it again and again and again if I have to. You will come back.”
Jenny didn’t know this man. He was a virtual stranger to her. But from the moment she had laid eyes on him on the balcony, a part of her had felt calm. Even during the times when she thought the worst of him, she couldn’t help but feel like it would all sort itself out.
She didn’t know this man, but she leaned in to kiss him anyway. It lingered and she felt a tiny loss when it ended.
“Okay,” she said after her heart got closer to a regular rhythm. “I’m ready.”
He took her hand and they ran out into the rain.
Emily Garcia walked out onto the balcony off the master bedroom of her vacation house to soak in the view. The lake was a pristine blue, surrounded by unspoiled acres of thickly wooded hills. It was like something out of a nature documentary.
“There are worse places to be locked down,” she thought as she breathed deep.
When she bought the place three years ago, she had thought she’d mainly use it as a retreat – a weekend getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city.
But when the world started moving into a shelter-in-place mode, Emily though that this was a much better place in which to shelter than her relatively small condo that didn’t have a balcony, much less a view like this one.
Now, almost a month into the lockdown, she had fallen into a comfortable rhythm, watching old movies, doing work in the garden behind the house, exercising, taking walks, and experimenting in the kitchen. It was peaceful in ways that her life as a lawyer wasn’t.
“Maybe I’ll just stay here after this is all over,” Emily thought. “Maybe I’ll just reinvent myself.”
A flash – like lightning, even though it was a clear blue sky – washed over Emily. She saw something like a picture in it; a snapshot that took over her view of the world.
It was her, catching a glimpse of herself in the reflection of some sort of stainless-steel appliance, the image distorted and unclear.
She was wearing a military uniform and carrying a large, semi-automatic weapon.
The image disappeared as quickly as it came. Emily gasped and reached for the balcony railing to steady herself.
“What the hell was that?” she said.
The answer to your question is yes, there is obviously much more to Jenny/Ruth and Carter/Zach’s story. And yes, it does involve Emily… if that really is her name.
And yes, I do plan on coming back to this at some point. Whether it’s on Twitter or not is TBD and when I get back to it is a definite TBD, but their story will continue.
If you enjoyed this, check out my Interitas novel series. It’s got a lot of the same kind of thriller elements but in full-length novels that are much more epic. It’s amazing what you can do when you don’t have to write in 280 character chunks! Read more about it on Interitas.com.