The following short story, FOR JACK, was originally published for the horror magazine Shock Totem: Curious Tales of the Macabre and Twisted. Simply put, FOR JACK is a horror story about finding
Seems appropriate for valentine's day, right?
by P. K. Gardner
The first time I see my soulmate, she's covered in blood. It's smeared over her face, obscuring the details of her features. But even if she'd been wearing a mask, I would have been able to recognize her.
It's a heady-feeling, that first meeting. There's eye contact and almost instantly, I can feel the thread start to form, that moment where two people are pulled into one.
My best friend, Watson, once while very drunk, told me it felt like a noose slipping around his neck. He'd been seven when he met Sherry.
I'm twenty-two and it's not so much a noose as a few rounds of machine gun fire slamming into my chest as my heart skips a beat to catch time with hers. Not the sort of thing I expected to happen in the mail room of my apartment building.
"Fuck," she says, backpedaling. "Now? Why'd it have to be now?"
I reach for her. There are protocols for this. Drilled into children from the first time they could understand. Touch cements the connection. An unfinished bond is dangerous. "What's your name?" I ask.
"Get the hell back." She steps into shadows. "I wasn't here. Forget my face."
I nearly laugh. Forgetting is impossible in matters of biology. "You know I can't."
"I don't want you," she says. "And you sure as hell don't want me."
One of us moves. For the life of me, I'll never be sure whom. All of a sudden, there's a mouth against mine, the taste of blood on my tongue and I understand why this is supposed to be the greatest day in a person's life. The proverbial noose tightens and a gloved hand trails from my hair down to my neck. A stab of pain shoots through my side.
The girl pulls back and flashes a smile. Her teeth stand out against the blood stained face. "Don't follow me," she says.
I look down at my stomach to see the hilt of a knife protruding out of a steadily growing dark stain. My vision blurs as I move to follow her. But I trip over something large and soft. The landing nudges the knife farther into my side. I maintain consciousness just long enough to see I'd fallen over the left leg of a corpse. There are words carved into his chest, but I can't focus enough to read them.
In distance, police sirens howl.
Everyone in the world has a soulmate, someone so essential that they're sewn into your DNA. They're your perfect balance, a reflection of everything you need in your life. The human race is not meant to walk alone. By age thirteen, 50% of the world has met their match. By twenty, 98%.
My mother never found hers. She looked her entire life and then she died alone.
When I come to, Watson's next to me, head buried in his hands. Above him looms an IV stand, pumping me full of borrowed B negative. I wonder if the person who donated has any idea who they saved. "Dante?" I ask.
"Lee?" He shifts. "That had better be you. They told us you might not make it."
Watson always talks in plural now. Sherry might not be in the room, but she's still here in that same indefinable way the girl tickles at the edge of my consciousness. "What happened?"
"They found you in the mail room with two corpses. You were about an hour away from being the third.”
The number on my bed says 504. There’s an empty one next to me with the same number. People get sick in pairs. Always have. Even dying of cancer is not a solo venture. I let my eyes drift to the window, sliding out of focus as I strain to see the ground.
A hand presses against my shoulder. "Stay with me, Lee. I can get a real doctor, but your vitals look good."
Watson is due to start his internship at the hospital in two weeks. All jokes about a Dr. Watson had been spent well before he got to med school. "I got stabbed."
"Yes you did, you idiot. Police are camped outside. As soon as you get the all clear, they're going to be in to talk to you."
"Why did they let you in?"
"Sherry works here. She pulled some strings." He stands up moving for the door. "We thought we'd lost you, Lee. And since you're still here, we need to nail the bastard who did this to you."
Bastard. The word makes me flinch. Too personal. Watson doesn't notice. Sherry will apologize for him later and it will mean the same thing. I poke at the foreign spot in my mind. That connection tying me to the girl I don't want. The other side remains stubbornly silent.
When the police come in, they spend an hour going over the details of my story. I tell them the truth. Mostly. They ask if I could identify my attacker should I ever see her again.
I tell them no and when they leave I watch the news.
Two bodies found in an apartment building one survivor, stabilized in the hospital. Both corpses had two words carved into their chests. For Jill.
Sherry is worried because Watson is worried.
She hovers just outside my periphery as she always has. Sherry isn't pretty. She has a long face, thick glasses and crooked teeth. Her dark mess of curls twists off into fly-aways and puffs out in humidity. She's solidly built and broad shouldered, exuding a steady presence every place she goes.
I've never liked her. She tumbled into Dante's life and changed him into Watson. As long as Watson has Sherry, there's no room for another person.
Sherry likes me. She likes me because Watson does.
She also resents me, just a little. Sherry may be the center of Watson's world, but I'm his best friend.
I'm someone he chose.
I dream of mother's face after the men beat her to death, blood bubbling through her cracked teeth. I dream of Dante dangling from the noose that Sherry holds.
And I dream of the girl. The slick slide of a knife into skin, so much more personal than the whip-crash of a gun. I dream of curved blades and lighting quick movements. Dream of a girl who made herself into a weapon. A girl who likes watching people bleed.
Mostly, I dream of hate.
You'll find them someday, mother whispers, stroking my hair. I might not, but I promise you, you will.
When I wake up again, the girl's at my bedside, trailing a knife against the fabric of her jeans. Her hair is pulled into a loose ponytail. She has wide blue eyes and a scar that slices through her left eyebrow and onto her cheekbone.
"I should kill you," she says. "I've never tried to make it painless, but I think I probably could."
The ache in my side dulls as she trails the knife down my cheek.
"But then I wouldn't get a chance to see what make you tick. And I'm surprised someone like you exists." The words sound crass, but there's genuine wonder filtering into my mind. She’s been out there for years just like me, walking alone in a world of pairs.
"The police are coming. I told them what you look like."
"No." She tilts her head as if listening. "You didn't."
When I sleep, there's blood on my hands, something that is not quite anger coursing through my veins. The man in front of me struggles to stand. My knife slides against the sharpening block.
Without looking I raise my heel to meet his forehead and push him back to place.
"Why are you doing this to me?" he sputters. "I've never hurt anyone in my life."
"You know why."
I check the sharpness of the knife against a finger. An ounce more pressure would draw blood. "You never stopped to think, did you? You just did the tests and moved on."
"Please. I have a family."
"So did I."
I wake up drenched in sweat.
Ten hours later, I see the body on the news. The fifth with the same M.O.
I spend the day trying to wash off blood that isn't there.
"You're calling me Dante again," Watson says. He's wearing blue scrubs. Another week and he could be the one undoing my sutures. "No one's called me Dante in years."
It's true. Even Dante's mother calls him Watson.
"I dunno. I've been thinking a lot. I mean if I ever find that person, what happens to me? Am I rewritten? Do I just become something different?" I look my friend in the eyes. "I just want to know. What happened to Dante?"
"Just because I found Sherry doesn't mean I stopped being me."
"What would you do if she died?"
Watson takes a sip of his coffee and answers as if this isn't even a question. "I'd follow."
She's in my house when I get back, standing behind the door, holding a knife. I stop at the entryway and look sideways. Behind me, Watson wavers. "Are you sure you're all right, Lee? You can always stay with us another week."
"I'm fine. Just feels weird to be back home."
The girl mouths, Get rid of him.
"Aren't you supposed to be back at the hospital anyway?"
"Not for another—" Watson looks down to his watch and curses. "Five minutes ago. You sure you okay, buddy?"
"I'll be all right. Promise."
Watson bolts for his car and when I shut the door, the girl reaches over to lock it.
"I never did get a name from you." I raise my hands over my head and move away from the door. "Mine's Lee."
"I know. I saw your chart."
A smile curls, unbidden onto my lips.
"You can call me Red," she offers.
"That's not a name."
The knife is still in her hands. I don't think I've seen her without it. There's a shadow of a whisper in the back of my head that says the knife means safety. Hope.
I try to ignore it.
"It's the name I call myself," she says. "I don't have another anymore."
"Your hair's brown."
Her teeth seem very sharp when she smiles.
I was twelve years old when mother was beaten to death. I found the body. I sat through the police interviews. I saw the cops' faces shut down when they find out what she was.
Mother died alone, discovered by her bastard son. If it had been different, maybe there could have been justice. Instead, they looked into her past and found out about the men she fucked in dingy alleys. The ones she dragged home from dive bars to see if they could have been the one. She stepped between soulmates more than once, had a bastard son, and died for it.
I could see the disgust in the cop’s faces. They thought I was an abomination, product of my mother's sin. But mother's only sin was that she never stopped looking. The cops wanted to know what was wrong with her, like maybe if she stepped between her murderer and his soulmate that made it okay.
Ten years later, the murder is still unsolved and it's not because of lack of evidence.
It's because nobody bothered to look.
Justifiable homicide is Red's anthem. Her morals don't mesh with the rest of the world. When she was sixteen, Red decided some people needed killing.
Once she started, she only found more.
Watson wasn't actually Watson until he was nine years old. He was Dante Rike right up until the moment he laid eyes on Sherry Locke and everything changed.
Sherry had parents who were sadists, or literature fanatics or some horrible combination of the two and spent the better part of her first decade calling herself Sherlock. The first thing did upon meeting Dante's eye was declare, "You can be my Watson!"
And just like that he was Watson. Nine years of Dante erased into nothing.
"Jill's a figment." Red's mind has slammed shut, starbursts of anger ballooning out through the air. "The faded memory of a dead girl."
I can hear her breathing. Her fingers clench compulsively against her knife and I reach up to brush back her hair. She leans into the touch, starving for it. It's been years since someone touched her at all. I can feel that truth written in every inch of skin.
When I push her to the bed, she drops the knife.
People say a soulmate is your perfect balance. A window into everything you are.
Red is a serial killer.
What does that say about me?
"Your mother died," Red says. I have no idea if she pulled it from the back of my head or if she found it on the Internet. "Did they ever find the one who did it?"
The television is on in my dingy apartment. Red sits on the side of the couch opposite me, back ramrod straight. Her latest victim is on display. Red looks away. They will find that every cut was made before death, that he'd been gagged but conscious.
She's close enough to touch, but I won't touch her while the news plays. "They don't have anything to pin this on you. Christ, they don't even have the right gender."
"Are you asking me to stop?"
Most people find their soulmates early, grow up together, plan the direction of their lives together. They don’t get a chance to be an individual. I won’t take that from her. Not even if I should. "I'm just telling you that you can."
"You really don't remember anything about the person who attacked you?" Sherry pushes her glasses up on the bridge of her nose, but they slide right back down. I wish Watson were here instead.
"Do you have any idea how lucky you were? It's a serial killer, you know. Police have seven murders in the past five years."
"Maybe they deserved it."
"You really believe that? You think there are people out there who deserve to die?"
(Mother died with her mouth open, displaying eight cracked teeth as the blood dribbled down her chin.)
"I've got a present for you."
Red's in my bed when I wake up, her face just inches away from mine. Her knife is on the nightstand, gleaming in the moonlight. I should be startled, but I'm not. "I was just dreaming about you."
She captures my mouth in a kiss. She always tastes vaguely of copper. I push back against her, wondering when the hell that became a turn-on. When she pulls away, the smile stretches wide and she looks like the child she never got to be. She stands and picks up the knife, twirling it loosely in her hands like a teddy bear. Her hair swings across her neck and as she looks back at me, I don't even notice the scar. "Follow me," she says.
In my living room, there is a man tied to a chair. A bloody gag is shoved in his mouth. He's conscious but the vast black bruise spanning his face seems to suggest he's concussed. Red stands on her tiptoes to whisper in my ear. "It's the man who killed your mother."
Red won't tell me her story so I pull pieces of it out of her mind.
When she was four years old, her mother enlisted her in a scientific study on the nature of soulmates. More specifically the study of how to sever that bond connecting them.
Anything deeper in her mind brings up mental walls, huge insurmountable things cast in iron. But every once in a while, I catch a glimpse around them. I see an operating table, a scalpel and a man in a lab coat.
This I know: Red spent almost a decade in the hands of men with no morals.
This I know: the first person Red killed was her mother for leaving her alone.
The man who killed my mother could be any one of the million faceless people passing by on the street. He has neatly cut brown hair and brown eyes. Under the massive bruise, his face is unremarkable. His eyes are deep set, his face wide and flabby. He's twenty pounds overweight and has the physicality of an athlete gone to seed.
Red yanks his head back by the hair. The man moans. "Tell him," she orders, snatching the gag from his mouth. "Tell him what you told me."
Not even a flinch as Red continues, "The night outside the bar. There was a woman. Her name was…"
"Alyssa James," I say. "She took you all the way back to her apartment before you hit her." Time hasn't dulled the images. "When she fell, you didn't stop."
The man has a flicker of recognition in his eyes. Red traces the blade over his exposed throat.
"Her son found her." I give my best imitation of Red's feral smile. "Hello."
Red presses the blade into my hands.
Morality is a moving target. Watson tries to tell me it's not, but he's got the Hippocratic Oath and Sherry Locke standing behind him. I've got a past stained with blood and a girl called Red. I can say one thing for sure: killers aren't born.
The blade shakes inches above his skin. "Go ahead," Red says. "Some people deserve to die."
I press the blade down and draw a vivid red line against the man's neck. I think of Watson, who wants to be a surgeon and Sherry peering at my sutures. I think of my mother's face and the little girl Red used to be.
"I always suspected you'd be weak," hisses the man tied to the chair. "The bitch's abomination. You should have never been born."
"Shut up," I say.
Press harder, I tell myself.
The man is laughing.
Red steps in front of me and takes the knife. "I'll do it if you don't want to."
He'd knocked out all of mother's front teeth. Jagged fleck of enamel sliding through the red of her blood. She'd died in agony.
"Make sure it hurts," I say.
For Jack, the body reads when the police find it and the police don't know if it's the same person or someone completely different. The Jack and Jill killer, the press says. I wonder if Red likes her new title.
Wonder if she'll ever stop.
If I even want her to.