Bleary early-morning sun, splintered bottle of vodka in the grass, and a troupe of skittish little birds perched on a spindly winterberry bush. These are the first things I notice as I stand on the patio, where once again I find myself wondering where to begin.
All it takes is a single step. You’ll soon find the rhythm. I swear I can almost hear her voice, all honeyed and warm, and in my mind I can see her again, eyeing me knowingly through tortoiseshell frames. I heave a sigh and put in my earbuds, then almost immediately take them out again and set on my way.
It’s been 19 days since I last spoke with Julie. Actually, it’s been 19 days since anyone spoke with Julie. No one will tell me what’s happened to her. Not even the chipper, chatty receptionist has any clue. Julie is 54, so getting up there in age. I hope she’s not ill. I couldn’t stand to lose her. She’s really helped me turn my life around. I used to be an overweight, depressed, anxious, video game addicted alcoholic. Since meeting with Julie, I’m now slightly less of those things. You know, it was Julie who said that I should start running. When she first suggested this I brushed it off, because what perfect psycho would choose to run in the morning when they could be getting an extra bit of sleep? But sure enough, one morning I found that I had woken up before my alarm and so I decided to heed Julie’s advice. I remember walking back inside, out of breath, muscles confused and smarting, but feeling pretty proud of myself, which was the first time in a long time I could say that. Since then I’ve felt like she knows me better than I know myself. I trust her. It’s a little bit sad to say “See you next time!” when I wish I could stay in the safe, cozy office, for just a little while longer.
I set my alarm earlier than usual this morning to allow myself a bit more time outside. It’s the only time I have really, because the majority of my day is spent in a cubicle, where I try to anticipate my bloodless, necktie-noose coworkers shuffling behind me so I know when to hide the not-work I’m doing or the work I’m not doing. If they’re confused as to why I seem to be staring intently at my inbox all day, they haven’t let on.
The beating of my feet on the concrete begins to slow as I near the end of the street. This time I take a left on Ginjeet St. as opposed to a right. It’s getting brighter out now. I try to match the rhythms of my breath with that of the birdsong. Sometimes, I panic when I find myself having to make decisions on the run. Pretend that you’re a character in one of your games. She further explained this in the way in which you’d expect a 54 year old woman to, complete with quizzical squint and endearing sputtering as she grappled with the correct terminology. If you don’t get the outcome you anticipated, it’s not the end of the world. You can save and... reboot. You can do what you like without fear. It was endearing. I close my eyes and two options flash on the smudged 720p screen in my mind. Two text bubbles. One blue, one red. Blue says Askepios St. while red says Kingsmeat St. I decide on Askepios St. because blue is my favorite color.
I turn and find myself facing down a steep hill. To my left, a sign says Dead End. I can see all the way down the long, long street, to where a cul-de-sac pools down below. The pastel houses along the route are unfamiliar to me, and no cars line the street. I’ll give this precipitousness a go. Gravity or inertia or whatever favors me, and, weightless, breathless, I speed down the hill.
I see that there’s a blob there in the street. It wasn’t there before. Oh! I hope it’s not a person. Bright, tall. Human-shaped. Yes, it’s definitely a person. I hope I don’t look stupid when I run. In the center of the inky cul-de-sac asphalt it is made apparent. Soft orange sweater. Curly blonde hair.
God, it’s her!
“Julie!” I call out. I’m midway down the hill. I can see all of her features now. Her collarbones fanning out below her soft skin, her crow’s feet that she tries to hide but I told her not to, she looks natural and fine. I’ve missed her, I’ve missed her. I’m so happy, my heart is full. “Hey, Julie!”
She doesn’t seem to hear me. She is looking straight ahead. I’m nearing the end of the street, and I try to slow down. The air feels heavy. Like it will crush me. When did the air change? I look to the sky, thinking maybe a storm front is rolling in. I look back to Julie. I smell metal. No, blood. I’ve finally stopped. The gentle up-down bob of my movement can’t blur it now. There is no rising and falling of her shoulders. Her eyes are unblinking. For all I know she could be a render pasted onto this picture-perfect picture of a perfect street.
“Julie?” I step off the sidewalk and onto the street. Still a ways in front of her. I walk into her line of sight.
“Are you okay?”
She begins to sway. Gently, like a house fern caught in a crossbreeze. I look into her eyes. In a second, I identify nothing. In two seconds, I identify the unidentifiable. She sways into a strange stance, like someone falling but trying to catch themself, but she stays that way. A beastly snarl carves into her lips. I don’t think humans are supposed to make faces like that. She advances.
I’ve never run up a hill this steep before. My calves are killing me. I think Julie might be trying to. I turn to look behind me. She’s too close for comfort, which is something I never thought I’d say about Julie. I focus on running up the hill, but my logical thought processes are incorrect and the thought that my lovely Julie is trying to kill me rudely pushes its way to the front of my mind. I can feel her hot breath on me now. This whole thing is very strange.
She tackles me. I’m down. I turn to the coping skills she taught me. What can you feel, hear, taste, smell, see?
I feel pain. Next.
I hear my own guttural screams. The sound of my flesh being ripped from my bones. Ksssch. Kssssssch. I hear ravenous chewing, gulping… Slurping.
I taste… Nothing. I don’t know. I can’t really think clearly right now. Next.
I smell blood. Julie’s sweet perfume.
“See you next time!”