By Kyle Labe

The cross is white. Her portrait embellishes the center, as if she’s crucified. As if she died so we can live. It’s on the side of the road, near where they found her body. It’s posted there to remind us. I think her boyfriend placed it strategically. To inform drivers: “My innocent girlfriend died here!” But she didn’t die. Not exactly. She was murdered.

I don’t observe it for long. It gives me the creeps. Actually, no one in town likes to be reminded, but nobody has the gall to remove it. Anyways it’ll always be there, lodged somewhere in our collective unconscious, lingering, simmering, waiting to pounce. I keep walking.

Parties like tonight, where everybody and their cousin is drunk, are the ones I hate. It becomes too sloppy if you’re there too long. There’s an obvious line to cross and no one acknowledges it. Soon it becomes a mesh of human flesh and body odor. People make out with strangers. Enough girls reject a guy, so he locates another boy to hook up with. Liquor spills on the floor and your Chuck Taylors stick. The deejay blasts the same beat and nobody realizes. They just came to dance. They came to get their mind off life, but just like life, it grows terribly claustrophobic.

On nights like these, there’s a dampness in the atmosphere. No matter how dry the sky, no matter how luminescent the moon, everything underneath is wet. It’s the dew in the grass and the puddles on the asphalt. It’s the sensation of drowning when you’re not supposed to be outside. For the springtime it’s impressively humid. My clothes stick to me. I can’t discern if it’s fog or mist ahead, but I can’t see the street. I wonder if the weather is beckoning me indoors.

A car pulls over. The window rolls down. My anxiety vanishes when I see it’s a woman.

“It’s awfully late, hon,” she beckons. “Do you want a ride home?”

I smile. “No, I’m fine. Thank you. I like to walk.”

“Do you live around here?”

“A few blocks south.”

“Well…all right. Don’t let me see you on the news tomorrow, you hear?”

I nod, and she drives away. Normally I’d accept a ride, but I’m craving a smoke. Typically, I don’t carry cigarettes. If I ever purchased a pack, my dad would have a hoot. He’d find them regardless the hiding spot. So I stole a few from a boy at the party. Drunk, he went off somewhere and should’ve known better than to leave his Camels on the kitchen table. I swiped his matchbox too.

As I strike the match, I see a car. Half of it’s on the street, the other in the grass. It’s too dark to see anything else. A lamppost flickers in the distance, so I use the match as light. When I approach it, I realize it struck a tree.

No one is nearby to help. I wonder why the lady stopped her car for me, but not this. I hope to God there’s nobody dead. I don’t think I have the guts to see a dead body in real life. In the movies it’s different, but right in front of you? No way.

“H-hello?” I call, but there’s no response. Creeping closer, I peer in the window. The glass is shattered on the leather seat. The prindle is still at D. Nobody is in the driver’s seat. It’s completely empty. I sigh of relief.

Suddenly, there’s a shrill scream from the woods. I study the area but nothing is visible. Using my phone as a flashlight, I shine it into the trees. There’s nothing but military green and camouflage. My phone dies even though I swear I charged it earlier.

Ambling forward, I hear another rustle in the forest. Then something charges at me, grabbing my shoulders and shoving me to the ground. When I open my eyes I immediately recognize her.

“Ambrose? Is that you?” I say.

She’s in shambles. Her hair is disheveled with twigs and mud, and her clothes are ripped to shreds. Her legs bleed down the insides, and her pale skin appears purple.

“They’re coming,” she says. “They’re almost here!” She sounds like a banshee.

“Ambrose, are you okay?” I ask, rising to my feet. There’s a brush burn on my knee, and blood trickles onto my pants.

She holds me and glares wildly into my eyes. “They’ll be here soon. We have to hide!”

I shake my head. “Your memorial is back there,” I mutter, pointing to the white cross. “You’re supposed to be dead…”

Glancing at the vehicle, she says, “Is this yours?”

I try to say no, but words don’t come out. Darting into the car, she digs in the glove compartment and finds a key. “I have to go, I have to go,” she repeats, revving the engine and reversing onto the street. She sits on the broken glass. “I have to go. They’re coming,” she says and floors it. I watch her drive into the night and disappear.

I piece together what I recall of Ambrose’s case. She was seventeen and walking home alone after a graveyard shift. Some out-of-town hooligans jumped her and dragged her unconscious body into the woods. The coroner theorized that her attackers tried to burn her, and when that didn’t work, dumped her into a lake. Her linebacker boyfriend found her body three days later. During a halftime, he kickstarted a charity campaign in her name. I think, when a boy is killed, he’s stabbed. Yet when a girl is murdered, she’s beaten, raped, strangled, kicked, smothered, stabbed, dismembered, and burned.

I hear voices. Groveling, they overlap one another and emit the distinct odor of chewing tobacco. At first, it seems in my head. But up ahead I spot three men at the curb. I sprint towards them.

“Did any of you see that car?” I splutter, catching my breath.

If I didn’t look closely, the men would seem identical. They don the same greasy wife-beater and have shiny bald heads. Their faces are cut from shaving. Two have unibrows, and the other wears a single shoe.

“Lookie here,” one says, “Don’t y’know it’s dangerous for a girl to be out this late?”

“Yeah,” another growls, “Ain’t everybody nice as us.”

I stand my ground. “Did you see that car or not?”

The other spits his tobacco at my feet. “Barely legal, huh?”

“You never know these days,” the one-shoed man says. “I see some of ‘em 13-year-olds, and Christ, if they don’t make me question myself…”

I back up away from them. My palm grips my dead phone. Watching them, I reassure they don’t follow me.

“Bet youse trimmed as a slut down there, ay?” a unibrowed man shouts. “All fresh and wet.”

The one-shoed man whistles. “C’mere, girly. Lemme pet your kitty…”

“We’ll make you purr,” the other says. He holds the last syllable on his tongue.

I trip over a rock and stumble onto the asphalt. My head crashes on the blacktop. When I gain my senses, I realize the men disappeared. There’s a tiny, delicate mew beside me. Startled, I almost roll onto a kitten. It mews again, stretching its mouth into a yawn.

Black, the cat has yellow eyes and a white spot on one of its paws. It’s missing half an ear. It wears no leash, so I scan the area for an owner.

While I investigate, I usher the animal under a bush. There’s no one around, and it’s so dark I’m lucky to see the feet below me. I rap on a neighbor’s door, and a light switches on upstairs. Knocking again, I wait to no avail. Repeating this on another house, I receive the same response.

When I return to the cat it remains under the shrub. It purrs a soft mew. Just then, as I’m yards away, a snake slithers beside it. My eyes widen as I dash over, but I’m too late. The serpent opens its jaw and clasps its teeth around the kitten’s neck, consuming it in one gulp.

When I scream, the door of a household slams open. A woman points a pistol into the night. “You thug!” she hollers. “Don’t you know us decent folk are trying to sleep?”

I reach my hand out for help, but she shoots the gun and it rings in my ear. I scramble behind the bush until she reenters the home with the click of a lock.

Standing, I know my house isn’t far. If I run, maybe I’ll be safe. Then I can call the police. So I speed down the alley, and the woods whip by my periphery. I pay no attention to the stars or the moon or the whispers of the leaves.

The shape of my house appears like the light at the end of a tunnel. Its two stories and green shutters, colorful garden and freshly mowed lawn. As I run, the street stretches further into infinity. The distance increases as I move closer, as if taunting me. I pause to catch my breath, and it seems miles away.

I think, this must be a nightmare. That’s it. What do they say about dreams? You can’t look at the same spot twice. I try it out. Focusing on a sewer grate, I turn away, then back, and it’s still there. I hear that bald man’s warning: Don’t y’know it’s dangerous for a girl to be out this late? I recall every film and every true crime show where a girl like me dies, because she believed the place she lived was safe. If I had accepted that car ride, none of this would be happening. All I want is my bed. Pinching myself, I stay in the nightmare.

Maybe the world itself is a nightmare, and girls like me are never meant to dream.

I’m too focused on my thoughts to realize a silhouette under the lamppost ahead. It positions itself like a shadow. Cocking my head, I squint, trying to study its image. Except it’s impossible. It’s darker than the night. It may as well not be human. I call out to it.

“Excuse me, do you have a car?” I say. “I live just down the street, and I don’t like walking at night…”

The voice of my father answers. “You went out wearing that?” it barks. “Jesus, you look like a hussy. My daughter! Dressed like one of those trash women. You’re asking for it, asking for it, asking for it…”

By this point I’ve had enough. His voice is enough to crush me but I won’t let it. Stealing a rock, I storm at the silhouette, ready to bash its skull in. Yet there’s no opportunity before the shadow teeters to me and collapses into my arms. We’re spotlighted under the lamp, and every house on the block disappeared. It’s as if we’re alone in our own black infinity.

I realize, it’s Ambrose I’m holding.

She stares into my eyes, petrified as all hell. Weirdly enough, it’s as if she is the one who witnessed a ghost. The more I gape at her, the more her pupils dilate until her corneas are pools of black.

“He’s coming,” she says. “I have to hide.”

I want to reply but I don’t have the energy. As I hold her, a samara floats onto her nose. When she notices it she screams, and the noise shakes us back to reality, and all our surroundings reappear.

“He’s going to kill me,” Ambrose shouts. She scrambles to her feet and, daring to peer behind her, flees into the forest.

More maple seeds fall from the sky like rain. I remember these. My grandpa used to pay me a penny for every one I cleaned off his lawn. He compared them to miniature helicopters spiraling down from the clouds.

The seeds fill the atmosphere around me like a sandstorm. Covering my face, I fight through them. The tap tap tap when they hit the ground is maddening. It won’t cease. My only solace is when the sound of drumming vibrates the seeds to ashes. The booming music brandishes the area and quakes the ground. I stop picking maple seeds from my hair in order to block my ears.

When I get a good look, I notice a marching band. It consists of at least fifty students—some I recognize, some I don’t—with all sorts of woodwind and brass and percussion instruments. A color guard leads them my direction. They have no conductor, but some boy crowd surfs above. Cheering for him, the musicians lift him into the heavens. They hoot and holler and play some triumphant fight song. I push, shove, and weave through, trying to catch a glimpse. I think, this must be the man Ambrose was rambling about. Whoever it is they’re lauding is the culprit.

Then he and I lock eyes. He winks at me. It takes moments to register, as his fists pump the air and the students scream for him.

It’s the linebacker. It’s Ambrose’s boyfriend.

I think, oh my God, this is Ambrose’s doing. She’s telling me something. Of course—nothing else makes sense. She coerced me into some nightmare world so I could feel what she did that night. Her fear, her terror, her hopelessness. She wanted me to know. She wanted me to find out that her boyfriend murdered her in cold blood. Even in death, she didn’t want to be alone…

The moment that clicks, everything evanesces. The maple seeds, the marching band, the linebacker. It all evaporates into thin air, and I’m utterly alone. It’s like I was jettisoned into reality. I scan around for any hint, any remnant, but there’s nothing.

Hazards on, a car pulls beside me and its windows roll down. It’s the same lady from before.

“It’s awfully late, hon,” she says. “Do you want a ride home?”

I nod. “Yes. Yes, please.”

She drives me safely to my home, and I thank her. She waits to leave until I’m inside. I watch her from the peephole. All the lights in my house are off. My parents are fast asleep, so I sneak up the stairs. My heart trembles. I pour myself water, but my hands are so shaky they drop the glass. I ignore the mess and climb into bed, locking my door and window. It’s strange I should slip into unconsciousness now, when I’ve been there and back.

The whole night is enough to coax me asleep.

About the Author:

Kyle Labe

Kyle Labe is an undergrad at Emerson College. His debut book, Butterflies Behind Glass & Other Stories, was released last year. He’s had multiple works published around the country.