BY CARLEA HOLL-JENSEN
The sky is black milk and the clouds are ash. Along one side of the road, the trees are indistinguishable from the stone hills rising behind them. On the other side, the dark mirror of the sea. It’s been miles since I saw any light but my own headlights, even longer since I’ve seen another car.
When the tire goes, I careen onto the shoulder and shudder to a stop. No problem, I tell myself, remain calm. I strike the flares, lay them out in a semi-circle around the car—purely ritual at this lonely hour of the night, but I’m comforted by their sizzling glow.
The jack suspends the car and I work the lugs off the tire. The spare goes on easily and I’m tightening it up when the drone of an engine separates itself from the drone of the sea. As the headlights crest the hill, I have to shield my eyes.
The car slows. It pulls up behind me, also on the shoulder, and the shape of a man emerges from the passenger side. “Need a hand, Miss?”
In the dark, he is indistinguishable from the rest of the night.
“That’s all right, thanks.” My voice boils out of me, too loud. “I’m almost finished here.”
Isolated as we are, he seems too close. He takes a step towards me. “Really,” he says, “it’s no trouble.”
I will the flares to make a barrier between us. “Really, I’m fine.”
“I don’t think you are,” he says.
That’s when I notice the driver’s side door of his car is standing open. That’s when the second man comes up behind me and strikes me down.
I come to tied to a bed beside a dead woman. Her throat is a red aperture, but her eyes are open and staring at me. Our wrists are lashed to the headboard, our ankles to the foot of the bed. Her blood swamps the mattress, still warm.
My body convulses upward, arching away from the wet bedclothes. A scream gutters in my throat, but I won’t let it out. No problem, I tell myself, remain calm.
I force myself to look around the room, breathing deep and slow even though I can taste the drowning copper of her blood. There is a lamp on a nightstand beside the bed, chintz wallpaper, a mirror on the opposite wall that reflects our image back to us. My companion is not looking in the mirror, her eyes still fixed on me. To my left, a door; to my right, a window.
If I hold my breath, I can hear the sea. Downstairs, a radio plays sentimental songs. I can hear someone moving around, voices fluctuating softly.
“You don’t have long,” the corpse tells me. Her lips don’t move, because she’s dead.
“How do you figure?”
“I can see through the floorboards,” she says. “Also, I’m floating above you. I don’t know if you noticed.”
I hadn’t. There she is, scudding along the ceiling like a lost cloud. I wonder what it’s like to look down and see your body below you. I might soon get to find out.
“You’d better hurry,” she says.
While I struggle to free my hands, my companion reports what’s happening downstairs.
Through the floorboards, she observes our assailants dancing a waltz. They seem very much in love, she says. Sometimes even killers need a little human touch. They’re probably very sympathetic, for murderers. One of them, the one who spoke to me, the one who is not a man but a dark shape, is drinking slugs of isopropyl alcohol. It won’t kill him, because he’s impervious to harm. If anything, it makes his stomach flutter, like nervous excitement—butterflies.
As she’s telling me all this, I slip free of the ropes. Not because I get the knots loose or anything. What happens is my hands change size. Then I can sit up and undo the ropes around my ankles. “This doesn’t normally happen,” I tell the corpse.
“You look familiar,” she says. “Do you play checkers?”
I try the window, but the frame is nailed shut.
“No? What about chess?”
Even if I broke the glass, which would certainly attract attention, we’re two stories up and the ground below is bare rock. Beyond the stony hill is a soft dark beach and, beyond that, the sea.
“I thought maybe I knew you from one of my clubs.”
“I don’t suppose there’s a back stairway,” I ask the corpse.
“Just the one,” she says.
It was worth a try. No problem, remain calm.
I tread carefully across the bare floor. The door is not locked, but it comes away from the frame with a groan. I hold my breath.
Downstairs, they’re still dancing. Their heads lean close. The dark one’s hand dips lower along his companion’s back.
Just a little more and I can slip out, my blood-wet dress catching on the tongue of the lock. Edging down the hall, I approach the stairs. In my stocking feet, I am quiet, but I crouch down to make myself quieter and smaller still. If I could, I would shrink down entirely, the way my hands changed size, but that portion of the evening seems to be at an end.
On the balls of my feet, my fingertips brushing the floor like an ape’s, I creep around to the top of the steps and look down—straight into the living room, where the killers are swaying in one another’s arms to a standard of days gone by. The music is louder here, and more sentimental, too. One of the men, the one who knocked me down, appears quite moved. Big, fat tears seep out of his closed eyes.
There’s no chance I can get past them. The stairs let out onto the front corridor, in plain view of the living room. The only reason I haven’t been discovered is that the killer facing in my direction has his eyes closed.
Scuttling back against the wall, out of sight from the first floor, I close my eyes and breathe carefully in and out. No problem, remain calm.
There must be another way out. That ghost means well, but just because she can see through walls doesn’t mean she knows everything.
As I crawl along the floorboards, splinters wedge themselves into my knees. I’m leaving a trail of borrowed blood behind me.
Back in my room, I stand up. There must be something in here that could help me escape. The corpse watches me search the room with reproachful eyes, while her spirit follows me around, bumping against the ceiling like a balloon.
“I know I’ve seen you before,” she says. “Was it on the number nine bus?”
The bureau drawers are empty, except for a case of tarnished war medals. Maybe the killers were brothers in arms. Or maybe the medals belonged to someone they killed. Maybe they came with the house.
“Or, no, wait,” the ghost says. “I know how I know you! We went to elementary school together, remember? We played hide and seek in your attic and you kissed me through a length of gauze?”
I could fashion the sheets into a rope, but I’d have to get them out from under the corpse, and the killers would probably spot me out the ground floor window. And I’d still have to break the window to get out.
“Or was it—You were the woman I saw on the street corner, looking up at a flock of birds in flight. Yes, that must be it. I remember the shape of your jaw.”
Then again, maybe breaking the window wouldn’t be such a bad idea. With what? Not the war medals, surely—but the lamp has promise.
“You don’t really think that’s going to work, do you?” the ghost asks.
I ignore her. I’m only going to listen to constructive criticism from now on.
The lamp lets me unplug it from the wall, and I carry it over to the window. I cradle it. “OK,” I whisper, my lips brushing its glass base, “we’ve got one shot at this. Don’t let me down.” Remain calm, remain calm.
The lamp smashes through the window with wonderful force, arcing through the night to shatter on the rocks below. I am so proud of it, but only for a moment, because then I am listening to shouts of alarm from downstairs.
I hear the killers run outside to see what the commotion is. I can hear them blundering around in the dark, yelling at one another. Down the stairs I go, my stocking feet slipping, skidding in the hall, and then I am spilling out the front door, down the walkway, running, running into the night. The dark is absolute, and somewhere behind me I can hear the killers shouting, pursuing me, but I will run. I will keep running.
Soon it will be light.
“Wait,” the ghost calls out, hovering in the doorway. “Where are you going? We were getting to be such good friends!”
Carlea Holl-Jensen’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in, among others, Grimoire, Psychopomp, and Fairy Tale Review, where I was recently runner-up in their 2018 Prose Award, judged by Kathryn Davis. I'm the co-editor of The Golden Key, an online journal of speculative writing, and co-host of the podcast Feminist Folklore.