I opened my eyes. The night’s sleep was leaving my body and I was returning to consciousness. With a contented sigh I pulled the covers up beneath my chin and turned on my side. A glance at the small clock on the nightstand told me it was 10 p.m. A good night’s sleep without strange, incoherent dreams was a luxury I didn’t get to enjoy very often. I hadn’t felt so rested in weeks, maybe even months.
Enjoying the feel of the soft sheets I felt like staying in bed all day, but my growling stomach demanded food. Throwing back the covers, I got up and pulled on a pair of jeans I had left on the floor, then went to the bathroom. After I had washed up, I thought I’d go down to the bakery on the corner and get some fresh bread. Grabbing my wallet and keys I went to the door and opened it. I took out the key and was about to put it in the lock when my hand paused mid-motion.
There was a red rose, with a card tied to it, taped to the door beneath the peephole. The fourth one this month. Every week, a new rose, and a card with only one single word on it: “Soulmate”, “Forever”, “Beautiful”. Nothing more. No name or anything. Just one word.
Stepping back inside the apartment, I closed the door and looked at the card attached to the rose. My mouth fell open when I saw the word written on it.
What the hell…?
It wasn’t the word itself (“Waiting”) that unnerved me, but what it was written with. The other cards had been written in black ink with a calligraphy pen, but this one was written with what was unmistakeably… blood. Really. Not red ink or anything. Blood.
I stared at the card. It seriously creeped me out. I marched straight into the kitchen and threw it in the trash, then I cut the rose up in two pieces with a pair of scissors and threw it away as well. The other roses were wilted; I had thrown the last one away only yesterday.
I sat down at the kitchen table to eat a bowl of cereal instead of going down to the bakery. The sense of peace I had felt only a few minutes ago had faded. As I thought about it, I realized that the roses must have been delivered in person, and the thought of that just made me even more uneasy.
Whoever it was, it definitely wasn’t a fan. Sometimes the company would forward fan mail to me, and granted, they could be pretty damn weird, but a fan had never gone to so much trouble as to seek me out in person and leave flowers anonymously. The notes didn’t even refer to my work; they seemed more intimately meant.
There was only one person I knew that would do something like this, but it was definitely not him. He was safely locked away and wouldn’t be going anywhere soon. So… who? Who was this person?
* * * * * *
I suppose I should tell you a few things about myself. As long as I can remember, I’ve loved art in all its forms. I’ve spent innumerable hours of my life with a sketchbook in front of me, oblivious to anything but the images in my head and trying to make them come alive on paper. In my teens I put my sketches on a personal website, and at sixteen I was contacted by a company who were impressed with my art and wanted to use it.
The company was called Grave Dirt. They produced t-shirts and posters with dark, mostly gothic designs and my style suited them. I started making illustrations for their products, and within just a few years my art was in high demand. I was able to pay for my own education, and sometimes I was contacted by music bands and book publishers who wanted me to do illustrations for them as well.
Now, at age 23, I was still a very popular illustrator and I was able to fully support myself on it. I worked mostly from home. My apartment had an extra room that I used as my work space. I had a good drawing table and good lighting, which was all I needed to be able to work comfortably.
I guess you could say that professionally, I was very happy. I made a living doing what I loved more than anything. On a more personal note, however, I had issues. Major issues.
I had my reasons for that, though. I’ve never really had any friends, but when it comes to my family I’ll make a long story short and just say that my mother abandoned me when I was twelve and my father later cut me out of his life for “being a damn queer and a constant source of disappointment and embarrassment.” Those were his exact words.
And also, I’d had really bad luck regarding my love life. I’d had four real relationships, each one a bigger fiasco than the other. My first three boyfriends were cheaters, and the fourth one was violent and abusive. After I escaped that last relationship I built up invisible walls around myself. I could project an air of confidence if I wanted to, but on the inside I was nervous and messed up. Sometimes I would bring guys home for a one-nighter, but that was it. I allowed no one to get closer than that.
Ever since that nightmare of a relationship I’d also had a problem with actual nightmares. I’d had them periodically for about two years. They would plague me for weeks on end, then they’d disappear for a month or two only to start again. I was almost beginning to accept that I would never really be free of them.
That was my life at the time. Far from perfect, but my work made me happy and so I was content enough.
* * * * * *
Later that afternoon, I had managed to put the ‘secret admirer’ out of my head. Thinking I’d get some work done, I went into my workroom and sat down at my drawing table with a sketchbook. The people at Grave Dirt had recently asked me to do a series of zombie themed illustrations. Closing my eyes, I relaxed and an image floated up in my head. Smiling, I began sketching.
A goth boy and girl are sitting on a bench, making out. A full moon shines brightly in the sky. Directly behind them is a wrought iron fence, and a graveyard. The moon illuminates the graveyard, in which the dead are coming alive and are in the process of escaping their graves. Rotten-looking skeletal hands are bursting through the soil, and the living dead are all approaching the fence, casting long shadows on the ground in the moonlight. One of the zombies is right by the fence, reaching through the iron bars towards the oblivious couple.
I stopped drawing and looked at it. It was a very good start. With good, subtle coloring it would be perfect. And when I was done with it I had several more ideas. I licked my lips.
Maybe I should sketch them out right now, while I’m on a roll.
I turned the page. As if on cue, my phone started ringing in the other room. Swearing to myself, I reluctantly put my pencil down and went to answer it.
“Ash! How’s it going?”
It was my friend Jeff.
“Can’t complain,” I replied.
“Great. Listen, you’re still hanging out with us tonight, right?”
I heard Jeff sigh.
“Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten? It’s Matt’s birthday. You said you’d go out drinking with us tonight.”
“Oh, right! Right, I’ll be there, but are you sure you two don’t want to be alone?”
“No, I’ve made plans for just us later. Tonight he wants to be with his friends. So, you’ll meet us at the restaurant in an hour?”
“Okay, see you then.”
Jeff and Matt were, except for one other person, the only two people I could really count as friends. I had met them through Tim, my last boyfriend. They were pretty good friends of his, but when they found out that he’d been beating me up they took my side and helped me. Tim ended up in prison, not just for what he did to me, but a whole lot of other shit, too. I’m not ashamed to admit I hope he drops his soap in the shower.
Without the support of Jeff and Matt, I don’t know what would have happened to me. I owe them a lot. They are such good guys with warm, open personalities. They have been a couple for more than five years, but they keep acting like they’re newly in love. It’s cute… in a slightly sickly-sweet way.
* * * * * *
An hour later I was approaching our regular restaurant, Matt’s birthday present tucked under my arm. As I crossed the street, I could see Matt and Jeff outside the restaurant, talking to a third guy. As I began walking towards them, the guy hugged Matt and patted Jeff on the arm, then walked down the street in my direction.
My eyes met his as we were about to pass each other and I stopped. It was Kenji. He stopped as well. His lips parted slightly, but he didn’t say anything for a few seconds, he just looked at me. Then he smiled and said hello.
“Hey, Kenji,” I said, smiling nervously. “Are you leaving? You’re not having dinner with us?”
“No…” he put his hands in his pockets. “I can’t. I’m helping out on a case. I just happened to be in the neighbourhood so I stopped by to wish Matty a happy birthday.”
We stared at each other in silence. I hated that it had to be that way between us. So awkward and uncomfortable. Why couldn’t things go back to the way they were? Why couldn’t he stop looking at me with those sad, brown eyes whenever we met?
Such beautiful eyes. So velvety and soft…
I quickly looked down at my feet.
I’m not going to look into those eyes. They’re dangerous. They can swallow you whole.
“Well… I should get going,” he mumbled.
I nodded. Forcing myself to look at him, I smiled weakly.
“It was great seeing you, Kenji.”
He reached out towards me as if he was going to touch my cheek, but then he hesitated and instead placed his hand on my shoulder. I still shivered a little.
“You too,” he said, almost whispering. Then he lowered his hand and continued walking down the street, and I walked over to where Jeff and Matt were waiting.
Once we got settled in the restaurant and had placed our orders, I nervously cleared my throat and glanced at Matt and Jeff. They had definitely seen me talking to Kenji outside. If I didn’t bring him up, they would.
“I haven’t seen Kenji in a while,” I said casually. “He seems to be doing good.”
“Yeah. I wish he could have stayed, but he was busy. Apparently the police asked for his help again.”
“Yeah, he mentioned that. It was cool of him to take the time to stop by, though.”
“He’s always been like that,” Jeff laughed. “No matter how busy he is, he always has a moment to spare for his friends.”
Kenji sometimes helps the police on missing persons cases. He has… abilities. He can sense things, see things. I suppose it depends on your beliefs whether or not you want to call him a psychic, but the fact is that every missing person he’s helped search for has been found.
Kenji, Matt and Jeff have been friends since high school. They cheerfully used to call themselves “The Three Gay Musketeers”. I didn’t get to know Kenji until after that whole Tim disaster. The first time I met him was actually on my birthday, and he gave me a mixed CD he made himself — filled with my favorite music. Of course, Matt and Jeff could have told him what kind of music I like, but they said they hadn’t. And I don’t think even they knew that I secretly like Pat Benatar. Blush.
The four of us used to hang out a lot. Until he told me that he liked me — and I mean really liked me. I turned him down. It wasn’t that I didn’t like him; I did, a lot, and that was the problem. I was still too messed up from what I’d been through that even the thought of going out with someone scared the hell out of me. So, even though I knew Kenji was a good guy I just couldn’t give him what he wanted.
Kenji stopped hanging out with us after that. I felt really guilty about it. Matt said that it was okay, that Kenji understood why I had turned him down, and that he just needed some space to get over it. I still felt like a dick.
After we had eaten, I handed Matt his present. His eyes gleamed when he accepted the flat, rectangular package.
“Oh, man… You made me a picture!”
“Yup,” I smiled. “An Ash Lucas original.”
Matt tore excitedly at the gift wrapping. When he had gotten it all off he gasped.
“Wow… it’s beautiful.”
The picture was much more romantic and whimsical than my usual stuff. It was of Matt and Jeff, sitting on a rock in the light of a full moon, surrounded by water. Arms around each other, they were staring into each other’s eyes. I had made Jeff into a merman, his fin splashing in the water. As an extra cute little touch that I think suited them, Matt held a fishing pole in his hand.
“Thank you so much, Ash. It’s amazing,” Matt said as he smiled at me.
“Yeah, it’s really something,” Jeff said as he looked at it. “But…” he pointed at himself in the picture. “How come I have no junk?!”
Me and Matt burst out laughing.
“It’s just a picture, you moron,” Matt giggled.
“I don’t care, I have my pride!”
“You’re a merman, Jeff. You’d have junk if you were on dry land,” I said, trying to keep a straight face and failing.
“Hmph. Whatever,” Jeff grumbled.
“Aw, don’t pout, baby,” Matt purred, nuzzling at the side of Jeff’s face. “I know you’re properly equipped.”
Jeff smiled and kissed Matt. I smiled at them, silently wondering what it was like to have a relationship like theirs. Of course I could have found out if I’d had the guts to take a chance with Kenji. I mentally shook myself. What’s done is done.
Jeff and Matt make a good looking couple. Great, even. Jeff is tall and has thick, brown curls that frame his round face, and has a body fit for the Olympics. Matt is slightly shorter than Jeff, not as fit but still in great shape. He has short brown hair and green eyes. Sometimes he sports a neat goatee but he’d shaved it off for his birthday. They’re both a year older than me.
Kenji is the same age as me, though. He’s Japanese-American, born in the States. Kenji is… well, lets just say it: he’s fucking gorgeous. He has that elegant-looking body type: defined and almost slender. His hair is the darkest brown and always slightly messy. His lips are pouty, almost feminine. He has a slight overbite, which is just adorable. And those eyes… those warm, soft eyes…
Matt and Jeff told me Kenji was still single, though why was beyond me. People always drooled over him wherever he went, and I had figured he’d be seeing someone else by now. As the waitress showed up with the bill, I drummed my fingers against the table, silently wondering if I was ready to finally give a real relationship a try. Kenji would be a great boyfriend.
No! Not gonna happen. I don’t want a damn relationship, not even with Kenji. My life is fine the way it is. Completely fine.
* * * * * *
After dinner we swung by Matt and Jeff’s place to drop off the picture, then we headed to a club where we met up with some of their friends. As the others were laughing and talking, I let my eyes wander around the club. Here and there, I spotted some really hot guys. I smiled to myself. It had been a while… Maybe a night of smokin’ hot sex was just what I needed to stop being so fucking tense.
My thoughts were interrupted as a large arm clumsily draped itself around my shoulders and I wrinkled my nose at a puff of seriously bad breath.
“Heeey, beau’ful,” a voice slurred, and I turned to glare at the red, drunken face next to mine. “Whass your name?”
“Ash,” I said, then mentally kicked myself for giving the fool my name.
“Ash… wanna see a big one?” the guy laughed, rubbing his crotch.
“Some other time… when you can get it up,” I muttered and shrugged his arm off.
“Aw, don’t be like that! Ash with the nice ash…” the drunk said, pinching up said ‘ash’, then somehow managed to trip over his own feet and fell down on the floor. A guy standing nearby hurried over and helped him up.
“Okaaaay Jerry, let’s go outside for some fresh air,” his friend said, then turned to me with an apologetic look. I shrugged and turned back to the others. They were all shaking with laughter.
“Very funny,” I said, flipping them off.
“Oh, come on,” Jeff laughed. “He seemed like a real keeper.”
Matt giggled, then tugged at Jeff’s arm.
“Come on, I want to dance.”
As they were getting up, I felt a hand on my shoulder. Thinking that the drunk was back, I turned around with the intention of asking him to fuck off, but the scowl on my face quickly turned to an appreciative smile. The guy in front of me was mouth-watering: jock-type, with a broad, muscular chest, short blonde hair and blue eyes.
“Wanna dance?” he asked, flashing me a blinding smile.
I got up without a word and led the way to the dance floor. I put my arms around his shoulders, he put his hands on my hips and we started moving, at first to the beat of the music, but as our bodies pressed closer against each other our movements slowed down.
I moulded my body against his. I could already feel a hard bulge against my hip. The thought made me start to harden as well. Moist lips started kissing along my jawline, then they pressed against my own. I opened my mouth, and his tongue slid inside.
We kissed for a while as we danced, then he pulled away.
“Hey, uh… uhm…” he panted.
“Ash,” I informed him.
“Ash. I’m Benny. Listen…” he slid his hands down to squeeze my ass. “I was thinking we could go some place more quiet. What do you say?”
Grinning, I leaned over and ran my tongue over his earlobe, making him give a faint groan.
“Sounds like a great idea,” I said softly into his ear. “Just let me say goodbye to my friends and go to the bathroom, then I’m all yours.”
Smiling, I moved over to where Matt and Jeff were dancing.
“I’m gonna take off.”
“We figured,” Jeff smirked, “what with they way you were rubbing yourself against that guy.”
I hugged Matt and wished him a happy birthday, then hurried to the bathroom. Having taken care of business, I looked in the mirror as I washed my hands.
My looks weren’t what you would call spectacular, but I wasn’t exactly butt-ugly, either. I looked allright, I guess. Slightly shorter than average, with a slim build. My eyes were what I liked best about my appearance – dark green, with hints of gray and blue. My hair was naturally brown, but I had dyed it black to suit my preppy-goth style.
I dried my hands, then left the bathroom and went back to Benny. We left the club and grabbed a cab to my place. As soon as I had closed the door behind us he was all over me, mashing his mouth against mine.
“Fuck, you’re hot,” he whispered before slipping his tongue in my mouth. His hands wandered over my body while his tongue played with mine. He abandoned my mouth and kissed my ear before his lips started wandering down my neck. I moaned and closed my eyes. My neck is so sensitive…
I slid my hands down to his belt and got it open. Opening his fly, I reached inside his underwear and wrapped my hand around his hard cock. Benny moaned in my ear as I began to stroke it.
“Oh, yeah… that’s good,” he panted, then moaned again when I dropped to my knees in front of him. I was just about to pull down his pants when the decidedly unwelcome sound of a ringtone reached my ears.
“Shit!” Benny groaned and fished his cell phone out of his pocket. He looked at the display and winced. “Hang on, I’ve got to take this.”
I stood up, trying to conceal my irritation.
“Hi, Janie. How was the bridal shower? Already finished? I thought you would be drinking Margaritas all night, or something. What? Playing poker with the boys. You don’t have to wait up for me. All right. Love you, too. Bye.”
Benny turned his phone off and turned back to me with a lecherous look in his eye.
“Now… where were we?”
He tried to put his arms around me, but I folded my arms in front of my chest and stepped back. He frowned.
I smiled stiffly.
“You have a girlfriend?”
“Yeah. I’m surprised she didn’t give me the third degree just now like she usually does. She’s the suspicious type.”
“Obviously with good reason.”
He laughed and moved towards me, but I squirmed away again.
“I think we should call it a night right here.”
I walked over to the door.
“Oh, come on,” Benny sneered. “Don’t get all prissy just because I happen to have a girlfriend. Why do you care? This is just a one-time fuck anyway.”
“I know that…” I said and held up the door for him, “…but I really hate cheaters.”
He didn’t move.
“Come on, I know you want this as bad as I do. ”
“I’m not in the mood anymore. Good night, Benny.”
He buttoned his pants, then picked up his jacket which he had dumped on the floor and moved towards the door. He stopped and glared at me.
“Your loss. Fucking cocktease.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Whatever. Nice knowing you, Benny.”
He grabbed a hold of the door and slammed it on his way out. I slumped down on the couch and sighed, wondering how come I attract so many assholes. I groaned when there was a knock on the door. I stomped towards it and jerked it open. I was about to yell: “What?! Did you forget something or did you just want to call me a cocktease again?”, but I silenced in surprise when I realized the face I was looking at wasn’t Benny’s.
The man seemed vaguely familiar, but before I could try placing him he pushed his way into the apartment and with a quick movement he locked the door behind him. A reflection of light caught my eye, and I gasped and backed away as I noticed the knife in his hand.
“Please…” the guy held his empty hand out. “Don’t be afraid.”
“Who are you?” I croaked. “What do you want? Money?”
The guy sure didn’t look like a robber. He looked neat and tidy. He had thick, short auburn hair, had a medium build and wore a black coat and pale jeans. If he hadn’t just forced himself into my apartment and pulled a knife on me I probably would have found him attractive.
“No, no…” He continued, smiling at me, revealing his teeth. A wide smile like that, on the face of a man threatening me with a knife, made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.
“I don’t want money,” he continued. “All I want… all I’ve ever been waiting for in my whole life… is you.”
I swallowed nervously.
“Are you the one who’s been leaving me roses?”
His smile softened.
“Did you like them? I wanted to do something for you… show you how much you mean to me. So I started leaving the roses and the cards. But… I realized that it wasn’t enough, so I wrote this latest card with my own blood, so you would understand how serious I am.”
I took a deep breath. This could get really ugly. This guy was clearly unhinged. And not only that, he was much bigger than me and if it came down to a struggle I probably wouldn’t be able to take him. I would have to stall while I thought of a way to get away.
“What’s…” I swallowed, and tried to keep my voice from betraying how scared I was. “What’s your name? You never signed the card with your name.”
“It’s Ryan… Ryan Patrick.”
I smiled shakily at him.
“That’s a nice name… So, uhm…”
My mouth fell open. I suddenly realized where I’d seen him before.
“I remember you… you’re the photographer! From the exhibition.”
He looked so ecstatically happy when I said that, it was almost funny.
“You do remember! I knew you would!”
Several months ago, a museum put together an exhibition featuring the talent of young, local artists: a comic book artist, a graffiti artist, a tattoo artist and me. It had been a pretty big success, and received some attention from the press. There had been several photographers on opening day, but there was one who kept coming back to take pictures of me and my work.
He took a step closer to me.
“I was so excited that day. I had loved your art for quite a while and I really wanted to meet you. And then…” A tear trickled from the corner of his eye. “I will never forget the moment that I saw you. You were so beautiful… like some sort of dark angel. I felt so inadequate. So unworthy. But then… when I was about to take your picture, your eyes met mine and that look in your eyes… It was so intense. It gave me hope. So I tracked you down, and ever since then I’ve watched you come and go… waiting for the right time. I was going to wait just a little longer, but…”
His eyes suddenly flashed with anger, and I automatically took a step back as he raised the knife a little.
“I was so angry,” he growled, “when I say you with that guy tonight.” He ran his thumb over the blade of the knife. “I was going to come in here and teach him a lesson for touching what’s mine, but then you threw him out. I understood then that you didn’t really want to be with him. You were just lonely. Because you were waiting for me. Right?”
He took another step closer, pointing the knife at me as he kept rambling.
“Isn’t that right? Even if you didn’t know who I was you could feel me out there… You were waiting for me to come to you so we could be together. Right?”
Too scared to say anything, I just nodded. He took another step closer, then fell to his knees at my feet.
“I knew it,” he whispered. “You don’t have to wait any longer. I’m here now. We can be together forever.”
I took my chance. I swung out my leg, kicking him hard in the chest. He dropped the knife as he bent over, coughing. I ran for the door. I unlocked it with shaking fingers and was just about to open it when I was pulled back. Ryan had already gotten back on his feet and had gotten hold of my shirt. I struggled, trying to pull myself free as I yelled for help, but he wrestled me onto the floor and pinned me down.
“WHY?!!!” he roared, spraying my face with spit, his eyes wide and furious. “Why are you running from me?! I thought you understood! You said you understood! You lied!”
Staring up at his deranged face, I expected to feel his hands close around my throat any second, but they didn’t. Instead, he glanced over to where he dropped the knife. Letting go of me with one hand, he reached for it. And that’s when I raised my head and bit down on his neck.
He screamed and struggled, and I could literally feel my teeth break through skin and flesh. Blood dripped into my mouth, causing me to choke. I released him and crawled away, coughing and spitting. Getting on my feet, I tried to get to the door, but he threw himself in my way.
He had already managed to get up, and he had retrieved the knife. He stood staring at me, dripping blood on the floor, unmindful of the damage I had done to his neck.
“You’re not what I thought you were,” he said, his voice hollow. “You’re a fake. You tricked me.” He glanced at the red droplets on the floor. “I’m bleeding for you. You will bleed, too.”
He made a sudden move towards me, raising the knife. Holding out my arms to protect myself, I felt a sharp pain on my right arm as the blade slashed it. He raised the knife again, but I caught his wrist and tried to hold his arm back.
At this point, I was pretty sure that I was going to die. The crazy bastard was so strong; there was no fucking way I would be able to overpower him. My heart was pounding, and I was terrified, but I sure as hell wasn’t going down without putting up one hell of a fight. So I did the only thing I could think of.
I kicked him in the balls.
Because I was struggling with holding on to his wrist the kick was at an odd angle and not very hard, but it was hard enough to make him drop the knife and bend over, groaning, hands between his legs.
I snatched the knife from the floor. As I did, he lunged towards me with a furious roar… and then he stopped. His face twisted into a pained and mildly confused expression. I looked down. The knife was deeply lodged in his chest. He had thrown himself straight at it.
I let go of the knife’s handle. His face was white and he kept staring at me as blood poured from the wound in his chest and started forming a little puddle on the floor. Taking a shaky step back his knees buckled. He fell backwards onto the floor and then lay completely still, eyes closed.
Shaking uncontrollably, mind reeling, I stared at his lifeless body.
“Oh god, oh god, I’ve killed him… The phone, I have to get the phone and call for help…”
Forcing myself to move, I took a shaky step towards the phone. Suddenly, Ryan’s hand shot out and he grabbed my ankle, making a gurgling sound as blood sprayed from his mouth. Screaming, I tried to shake him off, but I stepped in the pool of blood and slipped. I fell down, and my head struck the floor.
Everything went black.
To Be Continued…