Taylor's brother was a lovable annoyance. That's why she had no qualms about launching him from the sidewalk and into the path of a speeding truck. The spray was refreshing, and she closed her eyes in bliss. Its snowy color blemished in the front, the truck cruised to a stop down the road and belted a heated groan from its horn.

Taylor jolted, letting out a shrill cry while she fell from the bed. A thunderbolt struck up through her posterior from the floorboards, and her brain jarred in its enclosure. She put a hand to her temple, moaning. Struggling to keep sight, she moved her head around, took in the room little by little, white after white as if someone had deleted the universe. A figure in black stood a few feet away, she noticed, heaving a fit of laughter and holding a canister with a bell-shaped end.

"Noah, you piece of shit!" she said. He kept laughing as he spun around, speeding out of the room as if costarring in one of Mel Gibson's car chases. Still massaging her temple, she recognized the air horn and wondered if he'd debated its use or had no second thoughts. "When I find Bruce, I'll rip his costume off and kill you!"

Taylor's mother peeked in through the door—the obligatory raised brow was present. "What was that, young lady?"

"Sorry. Noah's being an idiot," Taylor said, managing to get herself onto the bedspread. Though on soft sheets, her back side suffered yet through its pangs.

"Oh, what did he do, honey?" Sarcasm mollified her concern. She stepped forward from the threshold and touched her hand to Taylor's head.

"Batman interrupted a pleasant dream."

Her mother laughed. She had a youthful face, with features that resembled Taylor's, and a loose-fitting tie-dye shirt. Her hair was smooth and brunette, also ponytailed. "You know you're missing dinner, right?" Her smile hung crooked in the world, hovered less playful inside her.

Taylor's eyes grew wider, and she tried to look more alert. "Now I do. Ugh…" She clutched her head now.

Her mother's worry manifested, and she pulled her hand away. "Are you okay?" she asked, though Taylor gave no response. As always, it was but useless rhetoric. Her mother moved closer, wrapping her arms around Taylor. "I love you, honey. I always will."

After a few moments, Taylor reciprocated. "Love you too," she said. The embrace was long, and thoughts of the medieval rack once again rounded in her mind. Coupled with the lingering twinges in her back side, that provoked her to break contact, and her mother pulled away with little hassle meeting her. Taylor centered herself on the bed, her bare feet hanging over the side. She could see her stony expression reflected in her mother's eyes.
"Be down in a few, please," her mother said. She took a couple soundless steps backward, paused, and turned before exiting the room.

"Okay," Taylor said, to a closed door. She folded her hands in her lap and yawned. The day slipped back to her in passing, but she thought instead about what had just happened.

She doesn't get it. If anyone receives my affection, it's her, but I can only give so much. Even my brother, annoying as he is, doesn't get crap.

Ugh. Do I fake all of it or let them witness the reptile I know best? Nothing feels right. Hell, I don't know what to think. It's too aggravating to give effort that could be better utilized.

Taylor wondered next if her exhaustion had in any way heightened the brevity of their conversation. It's off-putting to say the least. It's become a chronic vice. Has my mother accepted it though? Does she understand me? And, if deep, is that understanding worthy of reciprocity? She shook her head; there was a connotation of disgust to that last word—her tongue felt dry and violated, like it also had a taste.

This reminded her of dinner, and finally it was a welcome change of thought trains. She stretched her arms and yawned once more, then turned to the mirror on the wall closest to her. Her ponytail had undone, and her hair as a whole was rather disheveled. She looked down, found the hair tie and shoved the mess through it. She noticed her diamond earrings still in and her shirt's drawstrings uneven, but her concern with cleaning up sat dormant. She willed herself from the room with a ship-heavy sigh.

She arrived at the bottom with her feet pounding, clasping the end of the balustrade for if fatigue took her alive. The table was set for her and clean for the other three, whom all sat with their heads turned to Taylor. Noah, without his ridiculous alter ego and instrument of torture, had short black hair, a braced smile, and dark circles reminiscent of late-night gaming marathons under his eyes. Her father was likewise, clean-cut with short hair and a polite grin, just lacking the tired bags of goodness.

"There you are, sleepyhead!" Noah squawked. "Like your waking call?"

"Noah, shut up," Taylor said.

"Honey, I told you to come down here twenty minutes ago. What were you doing?" her mother asked. Again, the raised brow.

"Not caring." Taylor saw the pizza on her plate and sat down with a little more energy. It was doused in pepperoni, and she was surprised to find it hot to the touch.
Her mother sat silent for a moment, her mouth agape. "Okay, okay, I get it. We've had this problem before."

"What problem, dear?" her father asked.

"Problem? I didn't come down to deal with this crap," Taylor said, standing from the table and walking out on them. Light clacks then sounded from the tiles in the foyer.

"Taylor! Get back here!" her mother yelled. She'd barely stepped into the living room when the front door closed with a stifling finality.

The sidewalk lay heavy with murk, and a peaceful puddle occupied each square section for Taylor to rupture as she walked. The resultant splashes covered her legs freely. She assumed the job of a drizzle had completed itself while she'd dozed.


"What the hell was that?" Taylor asked the still waters below her—she tore through them before they could answer. She knew her ability to deal with criticism, but damn her exhaustion. Whatever she could do to release her rage was more than welcome. The lake at the end of the neighborhood invited solitary walks, so off to the races it was.

She made an effort to scan the intersection before traversing it. There was a black Cadillac parked in the grass adjacent to the road she'd crossed. A tinted windshield protected the driver's seat. Taylor paused to examine it from the pavement, wondering what such a sleek beauty was doing there and which asshole had the requisite audacity. She caught herself admiring it as she continued to the lake and rolled her eyes. Above, the sky drowned in a sea of dreary clouds, slim blue rivulets cracking it through. A skein of geese sailed in above Taylor, heralding a dark patch suggestive of a thunderhead in the distance. Perfect weather, she had to admit.

The sidewalk ended at a large, adamantine guardrail on the street, where behind it lay a white picket fence and a stone path leading to the lakeside. The houses along the adjacent road were all of a single story and blandly bricked, sitting upon a long hill like a row of cottages that would only be remotely appropriate here. Taylor stepped around the rail, came to an aperture in the fencing and carried on through. Muddy slots replaced the stone path in several places, and the hill the path lay on was wet, but she made her way down without cares. A man passed by before her, jogging along another sidewalk that ringed the lake, the grass sucked steadily into the water on a slope within its concrete annulus. A man fished in the vortex, a family of three walked on the far shore, and a suit-and-shades occupied a bench in the opposite direction of the jogger. Taylor thought it strange that this many people, if any, would be out here on such an evening, especially as it neared twilight, but a strange world has no such outliers. She trod the course of the sidewalk at a sluggish pace, her eyes downcast the majority of the way.

"What I would give to shove someone in the lake right now," she said aloud. She'd come to this place before and tossed stones into the water near people taunting the fish, confronted a teen or two when cigarettes alighted on the grass, and talked to all manner of mischievous children up to what they called "stuff." If it was suspicious or petty, she would call it out, much to the pleasure of adults nearby and the beehive inside her. The latter was storming this evening, angered as if hit by a rock at dinner. However, Taylor saw nobody to approach and nothing unordinary save the number of people, and she doubted that there would be much help in a simple stroll. "Damn it, Mom…"

Relegated to observing the lake itself, she saw some fish grapple for food close to her, a paddling of ducks swim in its center, and a lengthy fringe of cattails sway in the light breeze where the family was. This all would have failed to grasp her attention on any other day, but the only things alive were these sorry excuses.

She continued to watch creation flounder in itself while she walked—she could only wonder if she ever slowed down, since everything rang eternal. She passed the family, a white one with a boy of about five or six that looked pampered to a point just short of a silver spoon. The parents waved to Taylor, and she mirrored them, straining to meet eyes. The child had a large toy truck in hand that parted the cattails and fell into the lake as he waved. He started crying, and a smile briefly crossed Taylor. She wondered if there had been an action figure in the front seat. That was some enjoyment to be had, but it was one scoop of sand in a big bucket.

The jogger, a fit man who was approaching baldness, trotted by again and threw her a glance. "Hello, ma'am," he said. Taylor remade a smile for him and let him pass, unsure if he'd wanted legitimate banter. She was approaching the bench now and had almost completed a trip around when the jogger paused himself and turned his head back to her. A smile still on his face, he asked, "Aren't you gonna say hi?"

Taylor kept walking in his direction. "Hi…" she said, trailing off at the end. A few seconds went by, and his expression was that of a man in waiting. A few more went by. Fuck these people.

"Have a nice evening." He turned and began to run past the bench, evidently disheartened, but was met by the man with the sunglasses, whom had stood just moments prior. The jogger recoiled like a crack addict blindsided by an undercover cop.

"What do you think you're doing?" the man asked the jogger. "Harassing a minor, are we now?"

Taylor couldn't see the jogger's face, but his hands came up. "No, no! I didn't do a thing!" A tremor had impinged his voice.

The man shook his head lightly. "My, we do have a problem here. I suggest you watch yourself. We don't want to draw suspicion, do we?"

"Of course not!" the jogger said. "I'd best be on my way, sir." He made a move to get around the man.

"Consider this a warning. I will not have you on the streets if I see that again," he said, stepping aside, allowing the jogger passage. He watched him down the slope of the sidewalk before turning to Taylor.

She stayed silent, trying to read the man. Nothing. She might have examined a brick wall to better avail.

"Miss, are you okay?" he asked, staying where he was a few feet away. His frown had dissolved. Hair of a solid, dark luster covered his pate, like his suit, glasses and shoes, and his features shown smooth and refined. He couldn't have been older than thirty-five, though he reeked of professionalism.

Taylor remained cautious, matching his impassiveness as much as possible. "Yes, thank you."

"You looked like you could use some help. You look preoccupied," he said.

Taylor wondered if he was concealing a smile and if he knew how nervous she was that he was correct. "Possibly. Why does that concern you?" she asked, realizing afterward that this could result in more exhaustion.

"It doesn't. I just noticed," the man said, looking upward briefly. He then reached into his front pocket and drew out a small rectangle of cardstock with rounded edges.

"Your card." The man gave no response, and Taylor fought back a spasm of irritation. That's my gimmick.

After a bit of silence, the man stepped forward and extended the hand with the card. "Just use Google, another browser if you're smart. You'll find me," he said, nodding.

Taylor took the card and stuck it in her back pocket. "Thank you."

"I may see you again. That depends on you." He nodded once more and walked into a field of green blades. Taylor saw the Cadillac at the end, and he was trudging toward it, the grass wet and thick beneath him. You're shitting me.

She watched him get in and take off—he pulled away with care but still made an appreciable mud track—before pulling the card back out. There was a picture of his face, tinted sunglasses and all, at the top left of a mass of white with small black text. She read aloud, "Mark Smith. How generic is that?" With a name as popular as Taylor, she had every right to judge.

She stowed the card away and made her way home. The jogger once again passed her, but not a word or a glance was exchanged. She was glad for that, left to wits with her thoughts. She kept going back to the man's last two sentences, trying to decipher some deeper meaning if it existed. The only thing she could work out was the overwhelmingly detached nature of their conversation—that wasn't just her doing for once.


The killer spent the afternoon that same day perusing his treasury in search of inspiration. Reclining in a swivel chair, he still wondered if Tammy Gross had heard his last thoughts before he'd sunk the chainsaw into her leg. "I hope you enjoy how tidy this garage is. I'm going to hate the mess you'll make," he'd said, recalling the blind terror in her expression. He gave two short laughs and leaned forward to continue browsing.