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Life

By @garden_bella

I don’t like killing people. It’s a horrible feeling. I throw up every time I do it. But I have to keep on doing it. The jars of life are running out, and my mother needs everything she can get to survive.

I can’t let her go.

The last time I killed someone was almost a week ago. I keep postponing my next kill because my stomach has started to develop ulcers, my hair is falling out, and my teeth are progressively becoming yellower and yellower from the constant vomit. But I can’t stop now. My mother is almost pulling through with her chemotherapy. Or that’s what I’ve been telling myself. The doctor has said some completely different things.

I walk over to the safe in my closet and begin to input the code, but my hands are shaking so much that it takes me a few minutes to unlock it since I keep overshooting the code. Eventually, it opens, and I gingerly take the pistol into my frigid palms, my knuckles glowing white as I tighten my grip on the handle.

My heart is beating so hard, I’m afraid it’ll jump out of my throat and onto the floor. Maybe that’d be for the best. I wouldn’t have such an emotional investment in the people that I kill. I’d also be dead, which would be nice.

I ponder who my next victim will be. It has to be somebody with nobody to miss them to cause the least suspicion. That’s how I’ve gotten away with the last three murders–killings–sacrifices–without the police knowing. I was sloppy with my first two; they were published on local news, the anchor saying that there’s a new serial killer at large. Hopefully they’ve forgotten about me by now.

Cutting up the bodies is the worst part. I never thought I’d be capable of cutting into flesh and bone with a saw, the sound of tearing sinews and crushing bone haunting my nightmares. I used to get nauseated whenever the least bit of blood from a wound showed up on TV. Now there are bits and pieces of people buried across the city where nobody will ever be able to find them: junkyards, graveyards, my backyard, etc. Luckily, my garden of flowers is blooming because of the free fertilizer.

I tuck the gun into the band of my jeans, covering the handle with my hoodie as I head out. It’s raining. Sprinkling, if you will. Droplets of water falling softly from the heavens, splashing lightly on the fabric covering my shoulders and head. I look up at the sky, so dark, pitch-black. I have an idea of where I should go. I have to scope it out before I do the deed, though.

There are barely any cars in the suburbs, and anybody who is walking near me goes directly home. The streetlights offer barely any light, and it doesn’t help that most of them are either flickering or incredibly dull, highlighting only the droplets that are falling from the sky. The longer I walk, the fewer streetlights there are, and the more isolated I become. The only homes where I’m going are motorhomes for the people who can’t afford a house or an apartment, and when the motorhomes start to dwindle, all that is left are those who can only afford a tent.

I head down a dim alley, where the only light illuminating the alley and its mold-covered walls is the reflection of the moon up above. I step over a puddle increasing in size from the rain, but the smell leads me to believe it’s mostly raw sewage, not water. A plume of steam spritzes out of a pipe overhead, and I make sure to remember to match that sound when I pop somebody in the head.

My stomach is shrinking and cringing at the idea, but I keep walking.

It’s for my mother, I remind myself. My mother.

An encampment of tents appear in an opening in the alley, most of them shoved near the walls parallel to each other and the rest in the middle of the path, leaving barely any room to walk. It doesn’t help that people’s legs are sticking out of their tents, leaving an even more precarious obstacle course to overcome. This is the perfect site. Most of these people don’t have any family, and nobody would miss them anyway. Homeless people carry the “me vs. them” mentality, and if one is murdered, the only things that matter are their valuables. Nobody cares about the homeless.

A woman climbs out of her tent, her eyes lowered to the ground as she presumably starts her nighttime routine. She’s about to grab a can of baked beans when she spots me, and a smile grows on her face.

“Hey, puddin’,” she greets, her toothy smile so yellow that it makes my teeth hurt. “You lost?” Her tone of voice is sweet, and I can tell the look on her face is sincere. Goddammit! Now it’ll be even harder to murder her. It would have been much easier had she been rude or predatory.

“No,” I say, reaching my trembling hands into the pockets of my hoodie and taking out a notepad and a pen. “I’m with the Boston Globe, and I’d like to interview you for a story on homelessness.”

“What?” she asks, her grin growing bigger. “Little ol’ me? Of course!”

She sits down immediately and pulls out a crate, motioning for me to sit down on it. I oblige, mostly because my knees were shaking too much to support myself for any longer.

“Well, to start,” I say, trying to make up some questions before getting into her family. “What is it like to be homeless?” I immediately want to take that back because it will only make me more sympathetic towards her, and that’s the last thing I need. That’s why I didn’t ask for her name. Hopefully she doesn’t notice.

“Oh, it’s awful,” she says with a laugh. Oh, good, she didn’t notice. “Some of the people here preach about how living on the streets is better, but what the hell? I’d much rather have a bed, a house, and some actual food to eat instead of scraps from the garbage.”

I nod my head, pretending to write down notes, but really I’m drawing a scary picture of her to make myself feel more comfortable killing her.

“Do you have any family that can help you?” I ask, and her smile fades as she scratches the puncture wounds in the crook of her arm.

“My husband died, and then when I turned to dope, my children looked away and left me to rot.” The last word is gutteral, coming from the depths of her throat and from a place of pure hatred. Oh, God...couldn’t another homeless person have come out first?

Speaking of, a man pokes his head out of a tent and shushes the homeless woman.

“Beatrice, we’re trying to sleep.”

Great, now I know her name, and it’s a beautiful one at that.

“Shut up, Marlin,” she hisses, turning her attention back to me with a smile. “Sorry about that.”

I’d be putting her out of her misery…right? She can’t get a job, not in her state. Even if she did put in veneers, cut her hair, and take a long shower, she’d still be too old to get a quality job to support herself, even in the most run-down apartment. And she’d blow all her savings on heroin anyway. My rationalizing helps me feel better, but the gun in the hemline of my pants still burns against my skin.

“What’s your name, sweetheart?” she asks.

“Alex,” I reply with reluctance. Great, now she knows your real name, idiot, I think to myself. Could’ve made up a fake one.

“Did I tell you my name?” she asks, and I shake my head. “Well, it’s not like you asked for it. It’s-“

She hesitates when her eyes glance at the tattoo on my forearm. A look of skepticism replaces her previously carefree expression, and she rapidly stands up. I stand up with her, but she takes a step back.

“Why didn’t you ask my name?” Her eyes go wide, and her eyebrows furrow. “Isn’t that kind of needed for an interview?”

“Well,” I say, stalling until I can come up with an excuse, “it’s to protect the interviewee.”

“I don’t need protectin’,” she exclaims, her voice getting louder and louder. “I’ll need to see some journalist ID.”

I look around self-consciously, seeing more homeless heads poking out of their tents. The man from before rolls his eyes and goes back into his tent, but the rest of the population linger and stare at the encounter in front of them. It’s probably the best drama they’ve had all week. I turn my attention back to Beatri–the woman, but she only gets more angry whenever we make eye contact. I try to calm her down, but she only gets more hysterical. Her eyes are darting in all different directions, most notably toward my tattoo.

“That doesn’t exist, ma’am.” To be frank, I’m not sure if it does exist or not, but I’ll be ****** if a homeless woman knows that over me.

“Beatrice, what’s going on?” a young woman asks as she gets out of her tent. She’s petite, blonde, and frail. She doesn’t belong on the streets. Do any of these people belong on the streets?

Beatrice scratches idly at the needle marks in the crook of her arm as she continues to stare at my tattoo. “Look at the tattoo, Martha.”

Martha completely emerges from her tent to get a closer look, but I try to subtly hide away my tattoo. Why such a fixation on my tattoo? If I continue to hide it, it’ll make me look suspicious, but if I leave it out in the open, I’m making them more suspicious of me. Why? What does my tattoo have anything to do with this?

When Martha gets a good look at it, she screams and runs into her tent. I look down at it. Is it scary? It’s just a picture of a full moon with stars surrounding it, only the moon in full color. The moon is blue–is that what’s causing all this commotion?

“You’re gonna have to show me any ID that proves you’re who you say you are,” Beatrice demands. A crowd has begun to form around us, and two men begin to step forward to protect Beatrice.

“What’s all this fuss about?” I ask, disguising my fear with a lighthearted tone. “Why is my tattoo so important?”

Another spritz of steam comes from the pipe from before, right as Martha runs out from her tent with a knife. It glistens brightly from the moonlight, nearly blinding me as she wields it in my direction.

“Because,” Beatrice says slowly before taking a measured breath, “that’s the exact same tattoo a person described in the news after somebody was murdered.”

I gulp. They have me now. They certainly do.

I reflexively pull down my sleeve to cover my tattoo, but that only angers the mob more. I begin to panic, and everybody shouting at me all at once doesn’t help the anxiety growing in my chest. Martha, with her dull knife, advances, fencing the knife my way as I dodge all her attempts to cut me. The knife wouldn’t do any serious damage, especially with my thick coat, but the look of pure vengeance in her eyes doesn’t leave any room for doubt.

As I move away, the gun that I forgot was there suddenly reappears, and it’s painfully scratching my skin and itching me, its voice in my head echoing, “Use me.

The cacophony of voices rises to an insurmountable degree, and before I can react, Martha screams a rallying cry and charges toward me.

I scream bloody murder, my heart jumping into my throat and leaving me breathless. However, a loud sound stops everybody from moving or making any noise, and before I know it, Martha drops onto the hard concrete.

I reluctantly glance down at her, but I immediately look away. A pool of blood begins to form around her head, and at the sight of such gore, the gun in my trembling hand suddenly appears in my peripheral vision.

I just shot her. I shot her.

Everybody is stunned. Most of the crowd are running away, probably to not be considered suspects in the crime scene, but most likely because I have a gun in my hand.

Nonetheless, Beatrice stays put, her feet anchored to the ground as she stares at Martha, dead, her eyes glazed over and looking up at the night sky.

Her breath turns into a mist that illustrates just how fast she’s breathing, and her chest looks like it might implode any minute now.

I’m about to leave when I remember what I came here for. If I don’t collect the life from Martha soon, it’ll all have dissipated into the biting cold air. But Beatrice won’t leave. She stays there like an idiot while I have a smoking gun pointing right in her direction.

I don’t want to shoot her.

But I have to. She knows too much.

She knows my name, she’s seen my face for a prolonged amount of time, she knows my voice. I didn’t notice the tears falling from my eyes until one falls onto my wrist, and I quickly wipe it away as I raise the gun and point it at Beatrice’s weathered forehead.

Her eyes tear away from Martha’s deceased silhouette and meets my tortured stare, her gaze dropping to the muzzle of the gun.

“No-” she begins, but she’s already dead before she can finish the two-letter word.

The gunshot matches perfectly with the spritz of the pipe, but I barely hear it over the guilt screaming in my head.

I’m sobbing as I unload the gun and put the safety back on, stuffing it back into the hem of my pants and shakily reach for the small jars tucked into the pockets on the inside of my jacket. I walk over to Martha first, and although some of her life is already gone, I have another dead person to show for it.

I have to try and stop crying because my tears are falling on the floor and on Martha’s face, and that’ll lead the police straight to me. I support Martha’s head in my lap as I gently pry open her chapped lips and hold the jar next to her mouth. A yellow mist barely more visible than a breath in the cold releases itself from deep in Martha’s soul, and I try to catch it all as it drifts in different directions because of the frigid winter wind.

I cap the jar and place it back in my jacket and move onto Beatrice. I’m sobbing heavily by now, muffling my cries in the sleeve so people don’t hear me. I hold the jar up to Beatrice’s mouth and wait for the life to come. A narrow blue stream floats out slowly, and I would be okay with the time it’s taking to collect if this whole commotion didn’t happen and the police sirens weren’t interrupting my concentration.

Wait–police sirens?

I try to speed up the life, bobbing Beatrice’s head back and forth, but despite the movement of its host, the life barely increases in speed. I try my best not to look into Beatrice’s eyes, which are still open, but I do, and I start crying all over again. The sirens are getting closer, and before I know it, the sound of a car door closing bounces off the walls of the alley and echoes in my ears.

I have to leave. Now.

I quickly cap the jar and turn to leave, but it slips out of my hand and breaks on the concrete. I cry out in pain at the sight of the life freeing itself from the jar and disappearing into the sky above, and I frantically try to catch it, to prevent it from escaping, but it simply slips between my fingers and continues on its way.

The thundering sound of footsteps reflexively make me start running in the opposite direction, straight to the hospital to give my mother the rest of the life I collected.

I hear the shouts of the police officers on my heels, so I take several different routes to throw them off.

Ultimately, I ditch the idea of throwing the officers off and just try to get to the hospital as fast as possible. The doctor said she barely had a week to live, and today is the second-to-last day. I’m cutting it close, but she still has a day to live.

I see the glaring white hospital sign’s light in the dense fog, and I gun it, running faster than I ever have in my entire life. I throw open the hospital doors, cop cars straight on my heels and pulling up next to the ambulances at the entrance. I breeze through the receptionist and go up the stairs I’ve come to hate to the third floor: the intensive care unit. ICU. Whatever it’s called, I despise it. It stinks of bleach, blinds me through fluorescent lights, hurts my eardrums from the constant beeps and alarms that ring throughout the hallways.

I have memorized these hallways–not willingly. I take a sharp right and continue down the hallway, throwing open the door and coming across a scene straight from my nightmares.

There are several doctors surrounding my mother, one that is holding a mask over her face and one of the nurses is performing CPR. Two of the doctors look up, spot me, point to the nurses, and point to me. Three nurses approach me and try to guide me out, but I push them away and run up to my mother, getting the jar out from my pocket.

I fumble with the cap since my hands are quivering so violently, but I manage to throw away the cap and saddle up next to the nurse giving my mother CPR.

Before I can even open my mouth to speak, a harrowing, monotone beep reverberates throughout the room, everybody silent except the monitor displaying a flatline on its screen.

I push the doctor and nurse out of the way and rip away the mask from her face, holding up the jar to her lips. It’s all of blur of screaming, pushing, pulling, and crying. Eventually, the doctors pull me off her and throw me out of the room. Why didn’t the life work? Was I too slow? I could’ve done better, I could’ve done better…

She’s gone.

She’s really gone. Forever.

I watch through the window of the door as the doctor pronounces my mother’s time of death, and one of the nurses gingerly lays a white sheet over pale body. Her eyes are closed, almost as if she’s sleeping, but her chest doesn’t rise and fall, and her eyelids don’t twitch whenever her eyes move. Because she’s dead.

All her hair is gone, her skin is almost translucent, and the only things that’s preventing her from looking completely 2D are her bones. No muscle, no fat. She actually used to be a chubby woman with a womanly figure, perfect for a mother. I would lay my head on her squishy stomach as a child and relish in the feeling of her soft arms around my shoulders. Now look what this disease has done to her.

All I had to do was collect life. Why couldn’t I even do that right? My stupid sympathy for people got in the way and clouded my true vision: helping my mother survive.

I don’t even register my hands being cuffed behind my back until I’m being pulled away from the window of the door, to which I throw an extreme temper tantrum in order to continue watching the blank sheet over my mother’s body.

I continue to scream and cry until I feel a burst of electricity rip through my body, pain and pain and pain spreading through my muscles and internal organs. The only response I have to this exctruciating pain is to lie down on the floor that is soft enough to rival my mother’s stomach. It’s so soft. The only other option now is to sleep.

I look off into the depths of the hallway, filled with police officers, but one person stands out. My mother stands behind one of the officers and glides her way around the crowd, kneeling down in front of me and smiling.

“I love you, Alex,” she says, kissing my forehead. I blink slowly, savoring her touch and her voice, trying to memorize every freckle, wrinkle, and blemish on her skin. “You did good, my baby.”

I smile and close my eyes.

I sleep.

~~

“What was the killer trying to do?” a detective asks his partner.

She replies, “Holding up this jar to her mouth.” She puts on gloves and grabs the jar from the evidence rack, admiring it.

“Why?” the detective asks.

She raises an eyebrow as she puts the jar back. “The nurses said the suspect kept on muttering, ‘I have the life, mom. I have the life. Take it.’”

“What the hell is ‘the life’ supposed to be?”

“I don’t know,” she responds sincerely, frowning as she gazes at the jar. “But for all I know, that’s a figment of Alex Stutgart’s imagination.”

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