The bus I was riding in ran over a pothole. I was lifted off my seat and the fear I’d been feeling since I left my apartment intensified. My breathing came in shallow, choking gasps as I clutched my backpack close to my chest. I shoved my face into the comforting fabric as my heart beat erratically. The steady pressure of it came across as a powerful rushing sound in my ears. Every nerve ending seemed to tingle with fear. Every tremble in my gut was magnified and seemed like a devilish entity was sliding its hand into my skin to grip my insides and squeeze them mercilessly.
I lifted my face from my backpack and looked around at the other people on the bus. It was hard to focus on them. My vision constantly felt like it was swirling, making it hard to see much of anything.
I missed my home. There was comfort there. And safety.
More importantly. There were no songs.
I looked out the window. There were three more stops till my block. Just three. If I could make it there, then everything would be okay.
I took some deep breaths, trying to calm my racing heartbeat but it wasn’t working. I had to get off the bus. I had to get home. Now there were only two blocks left. I turned away from the window, hoping to distract myself. Hoping my attention would shift away from the relentless terror that consumed me.
My eyes just so happened to meet a woman’s in the back corner of the bus and for a second, a very small second, the pressure of all my fears eased and the only thing that I could focus on was her. On her pretty blue eyes, which lit up whenever a stray shaft of sunlight hit them. On her dark brown hair that fell across her shoulders in wavy locks. On the mole on her temple, near the tip of her right eyebrow. On her soft, sun kissed skin. It was the first time since I was a kid that I could focus on anything other than my fears.
She noticed me looking at her and I jerked my face away before she could catch me staring. As I did, my fears came crashing back in. I huddled once again into my backpack and tried to keep myself as small as possible.
But that’s when they started. The songs.
There were sixteen other people on the bus. Nine songs started playing at once and the sound of it was enough to force a loud, shrieking howl from my throat. Everyone turned and looked at me, but I wasn’t paying attention to them. My hands were clamped over my ears and my eyes were squeezed as tightly shut as I could make them. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t stop the songs from drilling into my head. Their different pitches and melodies gradually picked up speed.
They felt frantic. Urgent. I couldn’t pin them down either. Nine of them blared and I had no idea who they were coming from. I looked around through watery eyes.
Everyone was staring at me, including the woman. She had a look of concern on her face and got out of her seat. She started walking over to me. As she drew closer, my heart lurched. One of the songs was definitely coming from her. There was no reason why I should’ve cared as much as I did. There was no reason why hearing a song coming from her would fill me with such dread and crushing loneliness.
But it did.
There was something different about her. That’s all I could say.
All of a sudden, the songs whirled and coalesced into a single piece. The frantic, fevered pitch of them heightened and became faster, like someone sped them up. I knew then it wasn’t going to be long.
Minutes? Seconds, maybe?
I looked out several windows and then at the people on the bus with me. I was trying to figure out what was about to happen in the next few seconds that was going to kill nine people.
That’s what the songs meant. They meant whoever was…emitting them I guess...was about to die.
The first time I heard one I was eight. We were visiting my grandparents. A song that sounded like a weird blending of country and classical music started ghosting through their little house. After spending what felt like forever trying to track the strange noise down, I finally realized it was coming from my grandpa. I heard it clearly. No one else did and I got a lot of awkward stares from my parents and grandparents. The staring didn’t last long, however. The minute the song finished playing, my grandfather clutched a hand to his chest and dug it into his shirt. His face contorted with pain. His teeth were bared and his eyes were squeezed tightly shut.
I remembered thinking he shouldn’t do that because it made his face wrinkle and made him look ugly. He collapsed to the floor a moment later, gone forever.
His doctor said he died of a major heart attack.
After that day, whenever someone was about to die, I would hear their song playing right before they did. It always started slow at first. Faint too. Then, as their deaths drew in closer, their songs would get louder and faster. The noise would be deafening in most cases.
Over the next few years, I did try to help people. I tried to stop their deaths from happening but no matter what I did, I lost. Death would beat me to them. After so many failed attempts I lost count, I became withdrawn and depression set in. I tried to kill myself twice but failed both times. I don’t have any proof but I’m pretty sure it’s because whatever lets me hear the death songs won’t allow me to die. I think it wants me alive so I can suffer. So it can torture me.
It wasn’t long after the second time I tried to kill myself that my parents “got me some help.” I spent a couple years in an institution. They put me on several medications, but nothing helped. The doctors couldn’t do a thing to stop them. The songs still came. They always came.
The only thing that stops them from coming is to wall myself away from people. If I never interact with anyone, if I never talk to anyone, or laugh, kiss, play, dance, have fun, drink, eat, all of it, with anyone then I won’t hear their death songs. I won’t have to watch them die, unable to change anything. I won’t have to feel like a complete and utter failure.
I snapped out of my own dark memories and huddled deeper into myself as I waited for the inevitable. It didn’t take long. There was a sudden, high-pitched squealing sound. My head jerked toward one of the windows and I saw a speeding delivery truck come hurtling toward us. The squealing sound was coming from its tires as the brakes tried desperately to stop the vehicle. The driver’s belated reaction, however, wasn’t enough to do any good.
A second later the truck hit the side of the bus with a horrendous crash, ripping all the way through the flimsy metal and into four of the nine people whose deaths songs had been playing. Their songs abruptly stopped, ending with a note of terrible finality. There was a moment when a familiar, bitter rage filled me. Rage at not being able to change what was going to happen. Of not being able to stop people from dying.
My anger abruptly switched to outright fear as I was sent flying. Things happened extremely fast and tortuously slow at the same time after that. I eventually crashed into one of the bus’s seats...on the opposite side of me. The breath was crushed out of me and I fought just to get enough air back into my lungs. The woman who’d been coming over to me was thrown from her feet. I didn’t really see what happened to her next, but I could hear her screams of pain. It was loud and it joined the cries of the other people on the bus.
There were several more minutes of crashing and jolting and then everything came to a standstill. The air filled with grey smoke and I coughed the second it hit my lungs. Two more songs abruptly stopped. Now six of the original nine were gone. That meant three songs were left and each one continued to speed up. It wouldn’t be long before they were dead too.
Not long at all.
When things settled down, I worked on getting up. I wasn’t really that bad off. Just some aches. I’d probably end up with some bruises and a minor scratch or two. I looked around the destruction and as I did, two other death songs reached their quickened, final tempos only to stutter and die off.
I ran to the people, afraid that I’d find the woman that had been walking toward me.
None of them were her, however. For the moment, she was still alive. I raced around and tried to find her.
The scene around me was one of utter chaos and confusion. Smoke still roiled through the bus and bodies lay strewn about like a careless child left all their broken toys lying around. There were quiet moans of pain, and there were loud ones. Some of the people were unconscious. Others were awake, bloody and obviously in a lot of pain.
Another song shut down. And then another after that.
My head snapped over to where I’d last heard them. The first person I found was a hefty, middle-aged man. He was holding a shard of glass five inches long in one of his hands. I glanced at his stomach and saw a ragged wound there pumping out the last of his blood. He’d yanked the glass out and probably shredded an artery or two when he did.
I pulled my eyes away from him and found the other person whose song just ended. It hurt to look at her. She was only a teenager. She sat slumped in her chair, her eyes glassy and unfocused and had a nasty, ragged gash in the side of her neck.
Of the nine songs that started playing only one was left.
I struggled to get up, but my legs felt too weak to hold me. A new song suddenly started up and my bleary eyes swept over to where it was coming from. It was an old woman. Her hands were pulled into claws that clutched at her grey dress near her heart. Her face was drawn into a mask of horrible pain that reminded me of my own grandfather. She looked almost exactly the same way in death as he had. The only difference was that half the old woman’s face was covered in blood. It was still pouring out of the nasty gash in her forehead near her hairline. I could see the torrent first slow to a sluggish trickle and then stop altogether when her circulatory system finally got the message that her heart wasn’t beating anymore.
I got my strength back to where I could stumble around. I searched for the woman and felt more terror flood my body when I couldn’t find her. Eventually, however, I saw her. I couldn’t begin to express how powerful my relief was. Despite the fact that I didn’t know her. It was weird for me to feel those kinds of emotions again. I spent most of my life walling myself away from people and my emotions. I had no idea why the girl brought them all crashing back into me.
But she did and I got swept up by her. And I realized that I liked it.
I moved around the bus, limping slightly, and threw bits of debris away. The girl had been thrown to the floor of the bus, half in and half out of the middle aisle. She was writhing in pain.
I bent down closer to her to see how bad off she was. There was a lot of blood on the jeans of her left leg and some of it had pooled around her. I moved in closer to her and tried to help. I knew it was ultimately a futile gesture. Her death song (a very emotional bit of instrumental that was heavy on what sounded like guitar) was still playing.
My anger resurfaced, hot and writhing inside my head. That song, so beautiful and sweet, was a tenacious and cruel bully that mocked me as I tried to save her life.
I pulled out my belt and wrapped it as tight as I could around her leg, right above the deep cut she’d gotten. She screamed with more pain but held on.
“Don’t move,” I told her, my voice stiff. “Stay still.”
She didn’t say anything, she seemed to be in too much pain for that, but she nodded her head. I found her hand and impulsively clasped onto it. She squeezed it so tightly I felt the bones there grinding against each other.
“It h-hurts,” she managed after a while. “It h-hurts so bad.”
“Shh,” I responded. “You’re gonna be okay. They’re gonna fix you.” I tried to be reassuring but my voice was awkwardly cracking every few seconds.
She nodded again and squeezed even harder on my hand. The whole time, her song still played. I stayed with her for what seemed like forever. I tried talking to her, but I’m not and will never be a world class conversationalist. My years of self-imposed isolation saw to that. I don’t think it mattered to her though. She only cared that I was there. That she didn’t have to be alone.
I looked around when a sudden noise caught my attention. Four paramedics, each one with bags of equipment, rushed onto the bus.
“Hey!” I shouted. “Hey! Over here!”
One of them heard me shouting and headed over to us. When she got close, she dropped her bag and crouched by my right side. She looked the girl over as she put on a pair of latex rubber gloves, assessing her injuries. When I started becoming more of an obstacle than she liked, she tried to get me to move out of the way. The girl, however, squeezed even harder on my hand, making it clear that she didn’t want me to go anywhere.
The paramedic nodded and then let me stay. I watched her as she worked to save the girl. I knew it was useless because her song was still playing. Part of me still hoped though. I knew better. I knew the outcome. I knew not to hope. But it was still there.
The medic cut her jeans with a pair of scissors, making one long, neat slit in her pant leg. She pulled the jeans apart to get a better look at her injury. I should’ve been relieved. They were taking care of her and should have no problem saving her life. But I wasn’t. That song was still coming from her. It was a haunting presence. A sad reminder.
She was going to die.
The paramedic managed to stabilize her. She explained that the cut looked deep and that it most likely tore into an artery in her leg, judging by the amount of blood she lost. They had to take her now before things got worse. The bleeding was currently under control with heavy, white pads and medical tape.
She called for a stretcher and another medic rushed through the destruction and brought one over. The two of them buckled her into it. Her head was wedged into those two upright pads and a white strap across her forehead secured her in it.
“On three,” the paramedic said to her partner. “One. Two. Three.”
On three, the two of them let out soft grunts of effort and then lifted the girl free of the ground. She whimpered in pain at being jolted roughly like that but didn’t cry out. They started walking, very carefully, toward the front of the bus.
“Sir,” one of them said, but I wasn’t paying attention. I was focused on the girl and her death song.
I shook my head and looked up at the medic. He glanced down at my hand, which was still entwined with their patient’s. Her arm was stretched back toward mine and it didn’t look comfortable.
“You need to let her go. You need to let us take her,” she spoke to me in a calm, yet commanding voice.
I nodded dumbly and tried to pull my hand from hers. She wouldn’t let it go.
“N-no,” she moaned.
I glanced up at the paramedic with a look of panic on my face. What was I supposed to do? She wouldn’t let me go. It wasn’t my fault.
“Do you know her?” she asked me.
I shook my head no and tried once again to get my hand back. The girl wasn’t letting go. The paramedic looked at her and then back up at me.
“Fine. You’re with us. Let’s go.”
“I-I…,” I stammered, my own panic killing my voice.
I didn’t want to go with her. And I sure as hell didn’t want to go to a hospital. I hate hospitals most of all. Images of when I lived in one flashed through my head and I suddenly had an anxiety attack. My breathing turned shallow and my heart started beating painfully. I tried to take deep breaths, but I couldn’t manage them. I was about a second away from ripping my hand away from hers when she suddenly tugged at it.
“J-just look…,” she started saying, taking a deep breath to tell me the rest. There was an intensity to her eyes that mesmerized me. “Look...at me. F-focus on me.”
I stopped mid panic attack. Mostly because of my own confusion. What she just did made no sense to me at all. She was the one that was hurt. She was the one in pain, but she was trying to make me feel better. I was a complete stranger to her. An awkward, intimidating, somewhat crazy looking stranger to top it off. But she didn’t even flinch at all that. She just wanted me there. I couldn’t help but feel even more attached to her.
I smiled, somewhat shakily.
“O-okay.” I followed her advice. I focused on nothing but her the entire time. “What’s your name?” I asked her when I realized I didn’t know it.
“Casey…Ames,” she responded. “What’s y-your na-”
She clamped down on her words as a sudden jolt of pain hit her. Her teeth were bared in a snarl of pain and her eyes were squeezed shut. My heart leaped into my throat.
Her death song suddenly quickened. Its pace was racing and urgent.
“No!” I screamed and the mass of people (the emergency responders, the onlookers, and the rubberneckers) all turned their eyes to me.
I didn’t care though. About those people. The only one I cared about was the strangely compelling woman that was dying right in front of me. A second later and her song quit playing. Despite the noise and commotion all around me, the only thing I heard was a deep and dreadful silence.
I cried harshly. She didn’t deserve what happened to her. She was only coming over to try and comfort me. She was only being a good person. She shouldn’t have died for that.
“Sir,” one of the paramedics said, but I ignored him. “Sir! Hurry up and get in the ambulance! If we don’t hurry, she’ll die.”
It took me a second to process what he’d said. I looked back at the woman and found her pretty blue eyes staring at me in mild confusion. I didn’t have time to contemplate what the hell just happened, or how. I got into the ambulance and sat next to Casey’s head. She seemed to still be hanging in there despite the fact that her death song already ended.
I couldn’t understand it. She should’ve died. I was extremely glad she didn’t but everything in my past experience told me that she should’ve died. I didn’t get much of a chance to talk to her (although I honestly didn’t know what I would’ve said to her if I had) because the paramedics were working to make sure she didn’t start bleeding out again. They monitored her all the way to the hospital. She remained stable the whole time and while her leg looked pretty gruesome, and she was looking deathly pale, she didn’t get any worse. She was going to make it.
The next day, I went back to the hospital to see Casey. I wanted to know how she was doing. I also wanted to know how, or why, she was still alive. I had to know what made her so special. I’ve had this curse for a long time and in that time, not one person has ever lived after their song ended.
I didn’t take the bus, for obvious reasons, even though the walk was a long one. It gave my agoraphobia more time to strangle me, but I thought it the lesser of the two evils. I had nightmares about the bus crash after I’d gone to sleep last night. I could still hear people screaming. I still saw people dying. It took me forever to even get some sleep.
I walked with my hands stuffed into the pockets of my coat and my eyes locked onto the sidewalk. I tried as hard as I could to ignore the oppressive number of people around me, but I couldn’t. Each time someone bumped into me my stomach fluttered with panic and my heart would thump painfully. I thought about turning around and going back to the safety of my home but each time I did I would see Casey’s face. Then the overwhelming need of knowing why she was special overcame me and I surged forward with a renewed sense of purpose.
Over an hour later, I arrived at the hospital. Its eight stories loomed over me like an evil giant that felt malevolent and hostile. I could feel myself starting to hyperventilate. I could feel my pulse quicken and pound through my body, making it hard to focus on anything but my fear. I stood in front of the automatic doors, frozen. I couldn’t make myself walk through them.
I really, really don’t like hospitals. There’s a multitude of reasons, really. Some of them I think other people could understand. Maybe they feel the same way I do. The other reasons I have, on the other hand, I don’t think anyone but me could understand.
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly, focusing my mind on the task it was supposed to be doing. When the last of that breath left my body, I took a step forward. Then another. And another. Before I let myself realize it, I was inside. I could smell the hospital around me. It smelled like every other one I’d been in. Clean. An overpowering scent of clean. And it was cold. Even in my coat, I felt it.
I shuddered involuntarily but pressed on to the front desk. I asked what room Casey was in. My own nervousness gave me a bad stutter, but I finally managed to spit it out. The receptionist behind the desk consulted his computer and then told me which room. I thanked him and left, heading toward the elevators.
On an impulse, however, I stopped at the gift shop and bought her a small bouquet of flowers. They were all pink and red, but one lonesome white rose poked up out of the middle. They seemed so perfect to me. They were perfect because Casey was a white rose in a sea of pink and red flowers. So different from the others surrounding it. I’d known that about her from the beginning, even if I hadn’t known exactly why at first.
I found the elevators and rode them up to the sixth floor. I have no problems with elevators in general. Never have. Despite the many things that I’m afraid of, elevators and claustrophobia have never been among them. Weirdly enough.
The elevator chimed and the doors opened. I got out and consulted some signs on the wall to figure out which hall led to Casey’s room. The signs told me it was to the right.
I started down it and walked slowly. Each step brought its own avalanche of anxiety and every step brought a different frightening thought into my head.
What if she doesn’t want to see me?
What if she doesn’t even remember me?
What if she thinks I’m some kind of psychotic stalker?
What if she thinks….
On those thoughts went, each one as depressing as the next. But I couldn’t turn back. Not now. I had to know if she really was all right. I had to know if she was actually alive. I had to fight every last demon I have up in my head to do it, but I did. There was just no way I was leaving without getting the answers I needed.
I came to her door and knocked lightly on it. She glanced up at me as I came in. Her sudden attention on me made me feel awkward so I turned my eyes to the floor again. I sort of shuffled inside, cursing myself for looking so foolish.
“Hey,” I heard her say. Her voice still sounded weak, but there was genuine cheer in it. “I was hoping you would stop by.”
That statement made me look up from the floor at her with open, naked shock on my face.
“Really?” I asked, unable to keep the shock out of my voice.
She smiled and nodded.
“Here, sit down,” she said, gesturing toward a chair next to her bed.
I didn’t hesitate. I sat down, offering her the flowers as I did. She took them and brought them up to her nose, inhaling their scent. Then she set them down on the roll away tray in front of her and turned back to look at me.
“Thank you. The flowers are beautiful.”
“You’re welcome,” I responded. Then I didn’t say anything for a long time. Eventually, my eyes shifted back to the floor again. When the silence was well on its way to becoming something heavy and unbearable, I said. “You look better.”
“I feel better,” she replied, sounding happy. She rose her adjustable bed up some so she could sit up better. “The doctors say my leg is healing nicely. There’ll be a nasty scar but given my other choice I can live with that.”
“You eating?” I asked her, noticing how thin and frail she seemed. I also saw that her lunch was mostly left untouched “I can get you some real food if you want.”
“No, that’s okay,” she replied. “I don’t have much of an appetite right now. Besides, I think my mom and dad went to Subway to get me something edible.”
She smiled again, bigger than the last. It was beautiful. But a moment later she turned away from me and looked out the window, the smile fading. When she looked back at me, her eyes were wet with tears.
“I watched the news you know. They said eight people died in the accident. Eight people,” Casey mentioned.
I reached out and grabbed her hand, a little shocked at how confidently and unafraid I was when I did it.
“It was a tragedy and it sucks. But nobody could’ve saved them,” I told her with complete confidence. I was pretty qualified to say that even if she didn’t know the reason why.
“I know,” she responded. “It just bothers me that I could’ve been number nine. I think about all those other people. All those families that are grieving and I th-thin…” She started crying and it took her a second to continue. “Th-think how easily it c-could’ve b-been my own fa-family l-losing me.”
“You’re alive,” I told her, giving her hand a little reassuring squeeze again. “You survived. Let them be happy for that. Don’t focus on what could’ve happened. That doesn’t do any good.”
She nodded, smiling again at me. I passed her a tissue and she wiped at her eyes.
“I wouldn’t’ve been number nine you now if you hadn’t been there,” she said.
“I didn’t do anything really.” I replied.
“They told me I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you,” she replied. “I wouldn’t call that not doing anything.”
The topic was making me increasingly uncomfortable. Some part of me was afraid that if I took too much credit for saving her life, my curse would go into effect and she would end up dying anyway. So I switched gears.
“Why were you coming over to sit with me?” I asked her instead. I did want to change the subject, true, but that was a question I had been curious about.
“Because you seemed so scared. And alone,” she responded. “I thought I might be able to help. I like to help people when I can. I feel like it’s my duty to show everyone this world isn’t as miserable and uncaring as it is most of the time. There’s already so much misery, I just wanted to spread some happiness. Some niceness. People shouldn’t feel like they have to forfeit that just to survive this life.”
“That’s very…” I paused, searching for the right word. “noble,” I told her.
“So why were you so scared?” she asked, curious. “You don’t seem that way now.”
“I don’t?” I asked her, realizing for the first time since our conversation began that I felt none of the crushing terror I usually did whenever I left my apartment. It felt good too. Like someone had lifted a huge weight off my mind. “That’s kind of amazing.”
“Really?” she asked, smiling.
Then she burst out laughing. She stopped abruptly though, wincing with pain and discomfort. I watched her clutch the top of her leg. The laughing must’ve moved it around too much.
“What’s so funny?” I asked, smiling myself. It felt a little strange on my face. I never really had occasion to smile a lot in my life.
“I just remembered, I still don’t know your name,” she told me, laughing again.
It really didn’t seem all that funny to me, or at least not as funny as she thought it was, but her laughter was a little contagious and I soon joined in.
“It’s C-Corneilius Brown,” I managed to say through my laughing, breathing hard. “I go by Neil though.”
“Okay Neil,” she held out one hand. I noticed her fingers were long and slender. “In case you forgot, I’m Casey.”
I hadn’t. There was no way I would’ve.
“So, why were you so scared again?” she asked.
I suddenly realized she was a relentless type of person. She wasn’t going to give up until she got the answers she was looking for.
“I’m an agoraphobic,” I told her. I was still smiling, but it seemed to drain off my face the moment the topic turned back to my all-consuming fears. Which were strangely not that all-consuming at the moment. It’s weird. I felt almost normal.
“You seem fine to me,” she responded.
“Yeah. I noticed that too.”
Before we could delve deeper into my...issues...we heard footsteps and some people walked in. I was expecting a couple of nurses, maybe some doctors, but instead Casey’s parents were there. Her dad, a big stocky guy with a neatly trimmed beard and dark hair, was holding a plastic bag from Subway. There was worry in his eyes, but also an exhausted sort of happiness. Her mother, about a foot smaller than her husband, had the same look of exhaustion mixed with happiness.
Fear coursed through me and my eyes shifted to the floor again. Casey must’ve noticed because she squeezed the hand still clasped in hers reassuringly. It didn’t really help. The fear that had been gone was crashing on top of me again. I started finding it hard to breathe and everything seemed to close in around me. I got up quickly, my movements awkward and jerky, and just hustled out the door.
“Uhh...bye, I guess,” Casey said with clear confusion in her voice.
Two months later, I was back to being stuck in my apartment, walled off from the world. My previous bout of rare courage was over now. I used to go out to get my own groceries and such (which is how I ended up on the doomed bus in the first place) but now I couldn’t manage even that much. It was so bad now that I could barely go near the front door. Apparently, I used up the last of my fearlessness going to visit Casey in the hospital.
I was sitting on my couch one day with the TV up pretty loud. The noise helped block things out. It blocked out my fear and more importantly, it blocked out the death songs.
What it didn’t block out was the loud knocking on my front door though.
I nearly jumped out of my skin.
I looked at the door with a healthy dose of skepticism and caution. Then I got up from my couch and stepped slowly toward it. When I got there, I swallowed hard, took a deep breath and brought my shaking body to the eyehole.
All the fear in my body drained away and I suddenly opened the door so quickly it bashed into the wall.
“Uhh...hi,” Casey said. She was on crutches, but she looked healthy.
“Hi,” I said. “Wha...how...”
I coughed roughly and then tried again.
“How are you? How did you find me?”
Casey didn’t answer at first. She just smiled at me and walked in.
“Can I sit down?” she asked.
“S-sure.” I pointed to the couch and she carefully made her way over to it.
She set her crutches off to the side and managed to lower herself down. She wiggled her butt a little to get more comfortable and then looked at me.
“Do you uhh...want...maybe like a dr-drink or something?”
I never had visitors, so I wasn’t sure what the proper etiquette was.
“It looks different here than I re...I thought it would,” she said. “It looks nice.”
“Thank you. I’m glad you’re here but how did you find me?”
“Google,” she replied. “It’s super easy to stalk people online nowadays.”
I laughed nervously at that.
“That's weirdly like a compliment of sorts,” I replied. “I can assure you though, I’m not worth the effort.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Casey said. She turned her head so she could stare out the window. Her eyes glazed over a little. “Do you know why we’re here?”
I didn’t know what she meant so I ended up just staring at her dumbly. I did manage to shrug my shoulders a little, so I didn’t look completely stupid.
“It’s a trick question Corneilius Franklin Brown,” she responded.
The way she said my name caused an involuntary shudder to run up my spine. It sounded almost like she was an anchor on the news. Her voice was detached and emotionless all of a sudden.
“I know why we’re here.” She suddenly turned her face back to mine and her eyes pierced right through me. “Well, not me so much as you. I know why you’re here.”
“Wh-what are you talking about?” I asked, suddenly very uneasy.
“I shouldn’t spoil it for you,” she replied. “I don’t want to just give away the twist ending.”
I was starting to get angry now. I didn’t want to be angry, but she was making me mad with all the cryptic things she was saying.
“Just tell me,” I nearly yelled. “Why did you come here?”
Casey got a pleased sparkle in her eyes when I demanded that. She suddenly whipped out a very large, very thick folder. It was overflowing with some kind of paperwork.
“I thought you’d never ask,” she replied.
She dropped the file on my coffee table, and it made a loud boom sound. I flinched at the noise.
“Go ahead,” she encouraged. “It doesn’t bite.”
I looked at the file with a feeling of dread. I knew one thing for sure, I wanted nothing to do with it. I even tried to back away from it.
“Look through it!” Casey suddenly screamed.
I was shocked at how loud she was. And how angry.
I reached out a quivering, shaky finger to the file and flipped it open. The first thing I saw was a sheet of paper with a photograph paper-clipped to it. The photograph was of my grandfather.
“What is this?” I asked. “Why do you have a picture of my grandpa?”
“Read the paperwork,” Casey coaxed. She took her crutch and pushed the folder to me.
I picked up the paper and skimmed through it.
As I read, my heart thumped louder and louder. My first reaction was confusion. Confusion quickly gave way to anger, though, and I threw the paper at her.
“Is this your idea of a joke?” I asked.
“Do I look like I’m joking?” Her face was stony and cold.
“My grandpa wasn’t murdered,” I said. “He died of a heart attack.”
“No. That’s just how he was programmed to die this time around.” She stared at me with satisfaction in her eyes.
“Programmed?” I asked, confused.
“Look at the next person and the next. Go ahead. Do it.” Casey watched me with growing excitement.
I skimmed through more of the papers. Each one was another murder victim. They just kept coming. One right after the other. All of them with the same MO. Their faces were badly mutilated, and their eyes were carved out of their heads. Their left legs were also amputated. It was horrifying. It was inhuman.
“Why are you showing me these?” I asked. I was disgusted by the things I saw.
“Not seeing the pattern yet? You never do at first. That’s okay though. Take your time. I have absolutely nowhere else to be.”
This was maddening. And it was driving me even crazier than I already was. But I played Casey’s weird game. I flipped through the horrible case files again, this time going through each one a little more thoroughly.
“Here,” Casey said. “This will help. Trust me.”
She handed over another case file. I looked at it and the paper nearly dropped from my suddenly nerveless fingers.
The file was of Casey herself. She was clearly beaten, cut up, and mutilated but she hadn’t been murdered like the rest.
“I escaped. In case you’re wondering,” she told me.
Everything clicked after she said that, and my mind put all the weird pieces of my life together into one clear image.
The death songs.
The people in the files. Each one corresponded to a death song. To a person I couldn’t save. All of them. My grandpa. A twelve-year-old girl that broke her neck from a nasty fall. A young man who had a severe allergic reaction to peanuts right in front of me. A car accident victim. The eight people from the bus two months ago. All of them were there.
“The songs, right?” Casey asked. “The ones that drove you crazy your whole life? Each death song you heard is in there. Including me. I’m different though. My song ended but I stayed alive. Weird right?”
“H-how did you…”
“Know about them?” she asked. “Because I know everything.”
“I don’t...I don’t understand,” I said. “Why are you doing this to me?”
“I am so glad you asked that question. I have been waiting FOREVER to answer it,” she exclaimed. Her smile was big, eager, but unpleasant. “Inmate number 090613, Corneilius Franklin Brown. Born March 5th, 1979. Edwardsville, Illinois.”
Casey’s voice changed from her normal voice to something more robotic.
“Inmate?” I asked, confused.
“Arrested on July 25th, 2023 for over 100 murders. Later charged and found guilty of 103 counts of murder. 64 counts of sexual assault. 13 counts of indecent liberties with minors and more counts of lesser crimes. Sentenced on November 4th, 2023 to the newly installed punishment of Purgatory. Inmate 090613 will serve 103 life sentences in the virtual world known as Purgatory and be inflicted with catastrophic events over the course of his virtual lives repeatedly until his natural death. Life simulation 004 is coming to its close. Purgatory program 005_Franklin to commence in one hour.”
I stared at Casey and stammered.
“Yes,” she replied. Her voice went back to normal now. “You were one of history’s most prolific and evil serial killers, Corneilius. You operated over the course of thirty plus years before you were arrested. That, by the way, was all thanks to me. Because I escaped. I went to the police and told them everything. The next day you faced a literal army of FBI agents, SWAT, and police. You tried to force them to kill you but they didn’t want you taking the easy way out. A SWAT sniper tagged you with a PATR bullet. Very new tech. Or at least it was back then. Essentially it leaves a person completely paralyzed for about three hours. All you can do is breath.”
I didn’t want to hear anymore. I didn’t want to listen to her nonsense.
“I’m not a k-killer,” I said.
“Oh but you are,” Casey replied. “And you were one of history’s nastiest, smartest, and most dangerous. It took the FBI ten years to finally get you and they only did because of me.”
I sat there and listened to what she said but the whole time my anger kept rising until it was white hot.
“Look at you now,” she smirked. “Reduced to a pitiful, miserable, crackpot piece of shit inside a fake world. It’s so satisfying to watch.”
I couldn’t control myself any longer.
I darted forward and wrapped one of my hands around her throat. We fell to the ground, but I kept my hold on her the whole time and ended up on top of her. Then I lost it even more. I pounded her face repeatedly for a while and then choked her with both hands.
I was screaming the whole time. All my anger and rage was poured into killing Casey. I lost what was left of my mind.
I heard laughing erupt behind me. I turned around. I was breathing hard and I was sweating. I wiped some of it off my eyebrows so I could see.
There was Casey, laughing hysterically.
“Stop it!” I screamed. My voice was raw from too much yelling and it stung painfully.
“This won’t stop. Not ever. You will experience life after life after life and each one will be more terrible than the last. You will break and each time you do, the next time will be worse. If you thought this time around was bad, you ain’t seen nothing yet.” As she said the words, she also began to fade. She grew indistinct at first. Then ghost-like. Her body went from opaque to translucent in a matter of seconds.
Then she was just gone. Gone like she never existed at all.
My heart thumped wildly with fear.
Fear that Casey was right. That I was a murderer. A killer.
“Life designation 004_Franklin has been terminated. Commencing life 005_Franklin.”
There was a wrenching, painful feeling on my entire body. It happened so fast I couldn’t even scream out (even though I wanted to).
Then everything was gone. Everything was black. The world was no more.
I was no more.
“Ms. Ames?” A voice called.
Casey turned around. She was standing with her arms folded across her stomach.
“Do you need anything?”
The voice belonged to Leyla Pierce, a receptionist that knew Casey well because she would always come in at the end of one of Franklin’s virtual lives.
They always ended the same. Virtual Casey would torment and torture him with the truth until he became so enraged, he attacked. Then the simulation would end and a new one would start. It was Casey’s right, by law, to watch, but Leyla didn’t think it was wise. It seemed to do nothing to help the woman.
“No. I don’t need anything. Thank you though,” Casey replied, kindly. Then she went back to staring through a window. On the other side of it was a simple room with a man lying on a hospital bed. He was hooked to numerous IVs, tubes, and other machines. On the wall above him was a screen. On the screen, playing like a movie, was a virtual rendition of the man on the bed.
It showed him in a small apartment with a virtual representation of herself. Casey watched events unfold in the virtual prison of her captor and personal monster, Cornelius Franklin Brown. There was no emotion on her face or her posture. She just watched.
She didn’t turn around and leave until that world went black.
When it did, she said nothing. She simply walked away. She had a severe limp though and upon close inspection, you could tell she walked with a prosthetic left leg.
“I’ll see you next month,” Leyla said.
Casey responded with a small nod.
Then she was gone.
My name is Corneilius Brown. I was told once that writing things down would help me, but it doesn’t. I try anyways though.
Because I’m desperate.
I… (I can’t believe I’m even writing this down) ...see demons.
Literal demons. There’s like a hundred of them.
The worst one is the girl though. Well, she looks like a girl at first.
She calls herself Casey Ames and she (along with her demonic friends) have been torturing me since I was a kid.