“Goddammit. You don’t even have your fucking suit on.”
Howard ducked under Layne’s arm and pulled him up off the couch.
“You smell like shit, Layne.”
No one shook his hand very firmly at the service, but everyone wished him the best and let him know they had all thought the world of Payton.
“Layne, we’re all terribly sorry for your loss. We’ve gotten in contact with a sub who’s willing to hold down the fort for you as long as you need. We all loved Payton, as a teacher and as a person.”
When Layne got back to the car, he twisted the cap on a bottle of Coke that was now half whiskey and started the engine.
Layne ran his thumb over the raised scar tissue under his collarbone. It was short and straight and tight to the bone and his collarbone shaded it so that even when he was shirtless it was well hidden. Payton had liked tracing the scar with her fingers at night; its existence was information few were privy to. He had been nursing the same slice of pizza for almost half an hour and even his glass was relatively full. The television’s volume was turned down low and other than the hand on his collarbone Layne was entirely still. Tinnitus keened in his ears, the ceiling creaked as his neighbors milled about their bedroom, and the television murmured softly about the latest flavor of brutal murder but he did not hear her voice again.
“Hey, it’s Howard. I’m gettin’ the guys together tonight, we’re gonna play cards and get hammered. You should come.” Layne pulled the phone away from his ear and brought the keypad up when Howard’s voice came back, small and hesitant. “You should fucking show up, man. Really.” He pressed “7” and deleted the message.
It took Layne a few minutes to find his pocket knife, buried as it was under the detritus of a drunken shut-in, but he eventually laid hands on the composite of the handle. He pulled the blade out until it clicked open and plopped down on the sofa. He spun the knife between his fingers exactly the way everyone’s parents taught their kids not to and grabbed the first letter off of the table. A swig of vodka and a moment of contemplation later Layne slit the envelope open and slid the letter out onto his lap.
Dear Mr. Shepherd,
I think most of the class had forgotten how boring History classes are when their teacher isn’t hopping around the room, swearing, and tossing erasures at their heads. We’re all looking forward to you getting back to Central. We’re all also wishing you the best; a lot of us had Mrs. Shepherd too. She was awesome.
Layne tipped the bottle back and gulped down cheap vodka to sear his throat and start his eyes watering. He dropped the letter into the waste bin and slit open a new one.
So help me god if you leave me here with this another week with this substitute douche. He’s corrected pronunciation more than he’s taught history. I’m about three corrections away from braining him with my textbook.
Seriously if you don’t show up I’m gonna end up a felon,
Another swig of vodka. Another slit envelope. Another letter. Two more pulls from the bottle. Another letter. Three more letters. Three more inanities. Layne set Derek’s letter on the sofa next to him and pushed the rest, opened and unopened alike, into his wire-mesh wastebasket. He stood up and wandered into the kitchen, set the bottle of vodka in the counter and started digging through the bric-a-brac drawer. Alcohol-clumsy fingers did not sift well through clothespins, twist ties, and coupons but he eventually found a book of matches. The matches went next to the vodka. He dragged the wastebasket onto the linoleum floor and took another drink before dousing the contents of the basket with the rest of the vodka. The first match snapped just below the head, the second and third just above his fingers, but the fourth caught. Layne could not actually smell the sulfur but it seemed more poetic to imagine he could. He dropped the match and the flames enveloped the paper. Had he not disconnected his smoke detectors days ago they would have gone off within seconds.
Layne turned the empty bottle over in his hands and wished he had used a little less to start the fire.
The fire twisted and writhed, twining itself with the wire-mesh and scorching the linoleum around the basket in a wobbly circle. Little flecks of fire bobbed away from the basket for seconds before the paper sustaining it crumbled to ash.
Layne leaned against the refrigerator and pulled a dry-erase marker away from its magnetic clip. He smeared the little whiteboard mostly clean with the side of his hand and scrawled a note across it.
“We’re glad to have you back, Layne.”
Layne smiled. Awkward and stilted and fake, his face could not seem to support even a small smile. “Thanks. Coming back felt like the best way to kick start my life again, so…” Layne smiled again and held out his hands in a gesture meant to encompass the school.
Principal Gould smiled and started poking through the metal mesh divider on his desk. He stopped at a thin blue folder that he pulled out and passed to Layne. “We got Thom Reynolds to hold down your class for you, he kept notes of what he walked each class through. Take a minute to catch yourself up.”
Jesusfuck it’s so quiet.
They had all returned his greeting. Hi. Hello. Hey. Some of them had even seemed quite pleased to see him, but after first contact settled reality set in. This was awkward. Plenty of them liked him and he had like plenty of them, but they were his students. They had often been friendly, but they were not friends and now there was a deeply personal trauma that had dug a trench between them and was watching over the no man’s land like a German machine gunner.
“So how did Mr. Reynolds take care of you?”
No one spoke at first. It was a phenomenon that was unique to high school and college; most of the people in the room knew the answer but they were all waiting for someone else to answer lest they be wrong or sound too interested and engaged. It was also a phenomenon that, at the moment, was like being slowly lowered into a vat of low-grade acid. Nothing so intense as to actually kill, but Layne could feel a slow burning sensation spreading through him.
Finally, Veronica Knowles spoke up. “He was fine. His classes weren’t nearly as fun though—we actually had some people falling asleep.”
He smiled, but it felt like someone had starched the smile to his face. I need a mirror. Am I smiling too wide? Am I smiling for too long? Does anyone actually believe I’m amused or is it just grotesque? Gah, fuck. Say something.
“Heh. Well at least he didn’t cater to the lazy whims of you little terrorists. If you’d had it your way not a soul in this room excluding myself would understand the first thing about the Crimean War.”
A wave of chuckles pulsed through the room and a couple kids shifted in their seats.
“Well. For those of you who didn’t pay a damn bit of attention, I’ve got a short musical review to catch you up. It’s an old song that most of you will hate, but suck it up.”
It took Daryl and Emily a few seconds to decide whether they were sympathetic to Layne’s loss or happy to see him back on his feet. Their eyes twitched between each other and they both decided to take the route that entailed more smiling. Daryl’s was too wide and Emily’s eyes were aimed firmly at Layne’s chest.
“Layne!” To his credit, Daryl’s voice boomed just the same as it had every other day they had eaten lunch together. Nerves had never been able to curb his enthusiasm. “Sit down, you’re just in time to help me change the subject. Emily is just endlessly fascinated with these recent…” Daryl’s grimaced. “Butcherings.”
Emily’s entire right arm twitched. She had made a point of not swatting or shoving her husband at school. Principal Gould had reprimanded them for it, saying it was inappropriate behavior in front of students. “It’s not fascinating, it’s disturbing.”
“And it’s not going to get any less disturbing the more you talk about it, so let’s move on.”
Layne started in on his sandwich and briefly debated asking what they were talking about before deciding that he had no interest in fascinating and/or disturbing butcherings.
Every week without exception for almost a decade, Layne had gone to the grocery store; sometimes with Payton, sometimes without. Even after Payton had died he had kept making the trip. It was ingrained in his every muscle and it would have taken him more effort to ignore the habit than to just walk around the corner. He also needed more alcohol on a regular basis. More often than not it was whiskey and Coke. When he had thrown out his alcohol he had kept a half-full two liter bottle of Coke and after three weeks of spiking it with whiskey, Layne took a sip of it without the liquor and realized he hated Coke. Pure goddamn sugar.
He dug a pad of sticky notes out of his briefcase, wrote “for everyone” on one, and stuck it to the two liter. If I stick it in the teacher’s lounge refrigerator and just leave it there it’ll be gone soon enough. Before settling back into the chair he snagged the remote for the television and put the news on. Volume set close to zero, Layne unpacked his briefcase and started tweaking his lesson plan for the rest of the week.
His second day had gone better than the first. At no point during the day had he broken out in a cold sweat, he had not stammered through any abysmal bastardizations of the English language, and the half-sympathetic/half-awkward looks he had noticed had been reduced by half. Had it not been for the newspaper article pinned to the bulletin board in his apartment’s lobby, Layne might have made it through the entire day without any overwhelming urges to drink.
Unfortunately the article was posted and Layne felt a panicky pressure build up inside of him as he read.
Glasgow Smiles Turn Serial
A third victim of the Glasgow Murderer was found last night, bringing the known total to three. The police are currently withholding all personal information about the victim, but it has been confirmed that the victim is a woman and does fit the grisly pattern set forth by the previous two murders. The victim’s body was found in the middle of the street in front of Hillstreet Market around 11:34, stabbed repeatedly. Her face was also disfigured, her mouth torn open from ear to ear. One police officer agreed to speak anonymously saying “Leads have been hard to come by, but we do have a couple avenues of inquiry open.”
He closed his eyes tightly and took deep, shuddering breaths.
In. Out. One.
In. Out. Two.
In. Out. Three.
In. Out. Four.
In. Out. Five.
He counted to ten. The blind panic abated. His insides were still pulled tight enough to strum and he was getting only limited sensory data from his lower extremities, but he felt able to move his feet without running madly into the streets. Progress. Layne looked over his shoulder and stumbled backward, slumping down into a chair against the wall. Eyes squeezed shut, he balled his hands into fists. Held. Released. Rolled his shoulders. Rolled his ankles. Rotated his head slowly. He stretched out every muscle he could. Then he did it again. And again. Twice he heard the lobby door open, heard footsteps stop short of him, and then continue on. Most of the numbness had abated and his mind felt less like it had been packed with cotton. He pushed himself up from the chair and ignored the sudden lightheadedness. Blotches of purple and red and yellow plodded across his vision and his skull felt slightly too tight for his brain, but he had walked up to his apartment hundreds of times. His path upstairs was not going to suddenly shift on him. He did not turn back to finish the article. He already knew who the first victim was and couldn’t honestly care who the second one was. Why should the third be any different?
“Would it look too panicky if I started wearing a surgical mask during class?” Emily had been considering a small fork-full of pasta salad quite intently since Harold Davies had rattled off four rapid fire sneezes. “I mean, you’ve both noticed how incredibly unsanitary most high school students are, right? A few take tissues, but mostly the best we can hope for is that they wipe their nose on their sleeves. Then anything on their hands gets onto their pens and pencils, which they lend out, and their papers, which they turn in to us. And that’s not even considering the fact that their hands have to touch their desk sooner or later—a desk they share with five, six, or seven other classes each day. Would it be so alarmist to want to take precautions?”
Daryl’s lips pressed together over a smile, “Emily, darling. You know that surgical masks won’t protect you from any of those things, right? They’re only good for airborne particles…” He caught his wife’s eye and pulled up a bit short, “like the kids who don’t cover their mouths when they sneeze. You’ll need hand sanitizer for the rest of that stuff.”
Layne smiled around a mouthful of sandwich. “Keep tissues and hand sanitizer at the back of the room and remind them that it’s there for them to use. Plenty of kids in my classes use them when they’re there.”
Emily took a moment to stop staring a black miasma of death at her husband to smile at Layne. “I’ve worked here for five years and I’ve dreaded this time of year every time it comes around and somehow the most obvious solution never occurred to me.”
Layne shrugged, “Stress isn’t terribly conducive to clarity of thought. I used to worry about it too, I actually bought a surgical mask one year but when I put it on and looked in the mirror I couldn’t bring myself to walk outside like that.”
The three of them laughed. Emily exchanged the half-empty Tupperware of pasta salad with Daryl’s bowl of tomato soup. Layne kept working over his turkey sandwich.
“So. Hillstreet Market.”
Daryl winced. “Emily, not this.”
The silence shifted, melted and re-forged itself into a cage, a strangling thing straining outward under deafening duress.
“Are we just not supposed to talk about it because it’s ugly, Daryl? That’s Layne’s grocery store and I feel entitled to my concern.”
Daryl pursed his lips, but did not respond.
“Just because it’s my grocery store doesn’t mean it’s my problem. Anytime any murder takes place in front of almost any building, it’s gotta be someone’s building. Doesn’t mean anything.”
“Layne. It’s not just the Market, it’s—”
“It’s always someone’s building; someone’s loved one.”
They finished eating in silence.
“Alright, first week back. How was it, man?”
“I’d forgotten how little most of them care about the actual subject matter.”
Howard smiled, “Forgotten what it was like to be a high schooler already, huh?”
“Fuck me. I’m plenty content to not remember. Did you ever get that pool put in?”
“Nah, but it’s prolly for the best. Diane’s pregnant and I swim about as well as a gut shot house cat.”
“I don’t have the slightest idea how I’m supposed to respond to that mental image…”
Howard leaned back in his chair and smiled again. Before he could express just how amusing he found himself, Diana walked in. Short, dark-haired, and six months pregnant Diane was looking only a little less put together than usual, which meant a long strand of hair was not pulled back with the rest and she was looking only as stunning as nature had made her rather than ever so slightly cosmetically complemented. She smiled and waved, always happy as can be to see a friendly face.
“Layne, hey! It’s so good to see you!”
Her smile was contagious and Layne quickly found himself a carrier. “Heya Diane. Heya fetus. How goes the labor of love?”
She narrowed her eyes at Howard, “Heavy.”
“And I bet he has a big head. Howard has a big head.”
“Layne. I said it was good to see you, not that I wouldn’t hit you over the head with a beer bottle.” Diane shifted her bag up her shoulder. “I’m getting the hell out of here before the rest of Howard’s idiot friends show up.” She started toward the door, swatting the back of Layne’s head along the way. “I hope you start coming around more often, Layne. Keep Howard from breaking anything.”
Layne swallowed the last of the cheeseburger slider and wished he had thought to grab a napkin on his way out. Jeans being the next best option, he rubbed his hands against his thighs. The sky had been threatening rain all day and now even the air itself felt pregnant. Layne turned his collar up. He started walking faster. He did not quite beat the rain—he had to run the last half block—but he did beat the police. The first patrol car pulled up across the street from the apartment just as Layne was brushing his teeth, met with the victim’s husband as he was stripping off his pants, and started questioning the tenets as Layne burrowed deeper into his pillow.
“Alright. Ladies and gents,” Layne tilted back something more closely related to jet fuel than coffee, “and teenagers of grade points.” Another swallow. “I’m exhausted as shit. I was kept up until four thirty in the morning by unavoidable personal nonsense and I have to wake up at five thirty to get myself ready to teach you ungrateful bastards, so I’m running on fumes.” Another swallow. Layne raised his cup. “I’ve got another one of these sitting in the teacher’s lounge which is a rather unfortunate way to survive a day because this stuff is so incredibly hyper-caffeinated I can feel it eating away at my esophagus as it goes down and as the day goes on my remaining cup will get more and more stale and, as all of you coffee drinkers out there know, stale coffee is a drink not fit for even the most uncouth of philistines.” Layne took a longer drink and fought down the urge to wince. “Who here can guess what this situation means for you?”
Clark Abasi raised his hand.
“Damn right. Do homework, play games on your phone, chat with friends, but anybody who gets too loud is getting a zero for the day. So. You go about your day and I’ll try to prepare for the rest of mine.”
Layne sat down and wondered if any of his classes would care if he stopped pretending to care. Probably not, all they would hear was “free day”. He resisted the urge to fall asleep at his desk and wished he had some more tests to grade, something to keep busy or at least to earn his pay. Instead he just sat at his desk and felt cold and tired.
“Jesus Christ, Layne, this one happened in your goddamn apartment building. You can’t pretend this is a coincidence!”
“Emily, leave it alone.”
“Goddammit, I will not leave this alone. Someone is out there fucking murdering people and since Payton was killed the victims have each been killed closer and closer to your home—this is a big fucking deal.”
At some point Emily had stood up and knocked her chair over and even the people who had been pretending not to notice the commotion were now openly staring. Layne was the only one not paying her any attention. He stood up and walked away. Emily started crying.
The police had acted like it was not a coincidence as well. They had talked to a lot of people, probably the whole building, but when one of the officers had made the connection between Layne Shepherd, resident of apartment 450, and Layne Shepherd, recent widower of the first Glasgow victim Payton Shepherd, special attention had been paid to him. First he had been the suspect, the sick bastard who had carved up four beautiful women including his own wife. They had been careful not to say it out loud, but it’s hard to mistake being interrogated for being questioned. Thankfully it had not taken them very long to change their approach. Layne had told them about the binging—a story the grocers could corroborate—and the little ring burnt into the linoleum that he would have to pay for whenever he decided to move out. He had told them about the times he would have sworn, hand to the Bible, that he had heard Payton’s voice in the apartment. He had told them everything because once he had told them something there seemed to be no way to stop the rest from bubbling up and out.
Layne sat alone in the teacher’s lounge, Emily and Daryl both taught seventh period classes, turning his last cup of battery acid coffee around and around. He had papers to grade, but he was not feeling all that sharp at the moment. He had not eaten enough lunch to get himself up and running and neither of the previous two cups of coffee had managed to make him anything more than a ragged sort of wired so he just stared at the pile of ungraded papers and turned his coffee cup around and around.
By eighth period he had mustered the strength to at least put an educational movie on in the background while the kids chatted and slacked off. He was slowly making his way through the papers as well, having finally discarded the childish notion that not feeling well was a good enough reason to not do his job or that a better time was sure to come and so he made that time now. He was moving too slowly through them, but it was progress and the act of doing something was creating enough inertia to hopefully carry him through the rest of the day. As he ran his green pen over Manuel de Rosas’ seventh spelling mistake in an otherwise compelling persuasive essay on the merits of Governor Ross’ stance on foreign affairs Layne let his mind wander to Emily. It would be nice to find a way to lay the issue to rest without having to apologize. What did she think was going to happen? What did she think he could do? He had cooperated fully with the police, they had seen his connection with the case, and as soon as he felt confident in his ability to follow-through he was moving out of the apartment. Even if he was as concerned as she was buying a new apartment was not a matter of wishing for a new place and then poof being all moved in. He had to look around, find the right place at the right price, and then work it out with the landlord. And while he did that he would still be living at his same apartment. Nothing about living in the apartment where his ex-wife used to live was easy, even before the murders came knocking on his door, but sleeping on someone’s couch because he was not able to sleep in his own apartment would be humiliating. So he did what adults often do when faced with unpleasant situations: he sucked it up. Emily would just have to do that same.
Layne got halfway through the stack of papers before mashing the mute button on the remote and letting the pretty Asian reporter mouth soundlessly about the storm rolling through the East coast. Hand held over the remote, pen perched precariously between two fingers, Layne stayed perfectly still as if the scrap of his shorts on the couch cushion might be enough to drown out the voice he knew he had heard. It did not matter that there was no one in the apartment but him, that there had never been anyone in the apartment since Payton died other than Howard, it did not matter than Payton was dead and her voice was just a manifestation of his grief. If he could hear a single word from her, imagined or otherwise, then he could keep pushing forward.
The television anchors signed off. Some late night talk show host strode victoriously on-stage, fists pumping madly. Payton’s voice did not come back. Layne dropped his pen, left the papers out, and killed the television. He did not brush his teeth, did not wash his face, just stumbled into his bedroom, stripped down, and fell into bed.
“Am I beautiful?”
Layne turns over, dragging the sheets with him and dangling his foot over the edge. Payton runs her knuckle gently down his cheek and he jerks awake. Eyes flitting around in the dark, his first thought was that a spider crawled over his cheek until he noticed the shadow standing over his bed.
“Am I beautiful?”
Her voice is soft. A quiver runs through it as if speaking was costing her a great deal. Layne’s eyes adjust to the darkness quickly. Payton is still wearing the beautiful red dress she was buried in, the one they had argued about buying in the first place it was so expensive. She looked perfect, not a day older than she had been before she died. The only detail out of place was the surgical mask drawn across her face.
Layne’s answered quivered like her question and he understood just how taxing this conversation would be. “Yes.”
Payton raised her hand to her mouth, pressed her finger against the mask as though to chew on her knuckle. She ran her finger along the string tucked around her ear for a moment before flicking it over her ear. It dangled lopsidedly for a moment, exposing her, before she delicately peeled it away, letting it drift to the floor. What had once been soft, red lips was now scabbed and ragged. All of her teeth were exposed and stained red-brown and her gums showed in places, mottled and gouged. Stroking his cheek gently with a folding knife, Payton looked into his eyes. Her voice sounded like it might fall apart and just disintegrate into the aether.
“Am I still beautiful?”
She dug the knife into his face.