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Cold

It was Tuesday that he had decided to do it after the homecoming dance. He would go to the party at the Sweet twins’ house and collect the others, then leave quietly. Either no one would notice or they would assume he had taken some pretty young thing, drunk, to the empty master bedroom belonging to the now out-of-town Mr. and Mrs. Sweet. He hoped it was the former; there would be fewer problems with Tasha that way. He wouldn’t have to lie to the stupid cow about how she was the only girl for him and that they would be together forever. The lies got tiresome to tell. He wanted to enjoy this.

He came to the house on Cornwall street, following the caravan of ecstatic teenage drivers drunk now only on a crushing homecoming victory. He came alone, stopping first to drop Tasha off at home to change, then doing the same. They would meet up later. She would be his alibi. The party that now engulfed him, this surge of wanton jubilation, would strengthen it.

As he pushed through the throbbing crowd, his stomach vibrated with every beat of the music’s blaring bass. He hated the sensation, but stayed, grabbed a beer, and sipped it as he scanned the faces of the partygoers. One of his classmates swerved up alongside him—his eyes glassy and bloodshot, his movements sluggish and dumb.

“Look who’s here, man!” chortled the long-haired stoner. “It’s Jer the King! Where’s your letter jacket, man?” His brown eyes struggled to focus on the quarterback and his stupid grin took up half of his face.

“I left it in the car,” Jeremy Higgins replied, running nimble fingers through his dark hair. “Figured it’d be too hot in here to wear.” Jeremy didn’t think it was possible, but the stoner’s grin grew larger.

“Aw yeah, Jer, it’s hot in here. This party’s poppin’!” His voice hit a falsetto note on the last word, and he stretched it out.

Jeremy flashed his winning smile—the smile that had removed panties and poor test scores alike. “Looks like it. Hey, man, you know if Rob and Clark came by yet?”

The stoner twisted his mouth as he concentrated, rolling his eyes up into his skull to help in the difficult task of sifting through his memory. “Uh… yeah! Yeah! I think… I think I saw ‘em outside. By the pool, bro.”

Jeremy clapped a hand on the stoner’s shoulder. He’d never seen him before in his life. “Thanks bro. You have a good one.” He raised a muscled arm wrapped in the too-tight fabric of a black t-shirt, his fist balled. He roared, “Go Tigers!”

A legion of red Solo cups and brown beer bottles surfaced above the pulsating sea of party-goers, the cheers of camaraderie crashing against Jeremy’s eardrums like a deafening wave. He was the King and everyone knew it. Everyone complied. Everyone obeyed.

Everyone except for her.

*

The road was unsteady, or perhaps it only seemed that way to Jeremy. His comb-over head pounded like a drum, the rhythm of pain just a half-beat off from the steady thump of the wiper blades. Somewhere behind his seat, a bottle of doe urine had come undone and did absolutely nothing to aid his pounding head.

Thump, thump, thump.

Jeremy fumbled for the open fifth of Dark Eyes sitting shotgun. The weight of the bottle confused him. He inspected it with foggy eyes, shocked to find it half-empty. He had no idea how that had happened. Frustrated, Jeremy took a longer swig than he had originally intended.

It had been a terrible weekend. Clark was getting married on Monday, and it was now Sunday. The event stirred unpleasant memories, but it wasn’t the memories that had made the past few days uncomfortable.

On Friday, Clark had driven off a cliff in his old black Mustang.

This combined with the canceled hunting trip bachelor party and Tasha’s lawsuit for unpaid alimony (which Jeremy had drunk away) pushed Jeremy into a self-destructive tailspin.

Thump, thump, thump.

The truck hit a bump. Some six millimeters jostled out of their box and onto the floor. Jeremy cursed and glanced back, trying to locate the fallen bullets. His tires hit a slick spot on the road, and in his sluggish stupor, Jeremy dropped the bottle of vodka while attempting to stabilize the truck. His crotch covered in cheap, foul-smelling booze, he slammed his hand back onto the steering wheel and tried to regain control.

Thump, thump, thump.

Left and right, fishtailing down the narrow backwoods junction, the Chevy’s tires screeched as they tried to grip the road again. The highbeams did little to pierce the rain-soaked slush of sight, so Jeremy’s gut fell out from under him when he saw the pale girl in the middle of the road.

Jeremy pulled hard on the wheel and slammed on the brakes. The truck spun, leaving a curved trail of black rubber on the road behind it. Just when Jeremy thought he had avoided the girl, a sickening thoom reverberated from the truck bed. Jeremy screamed, unable to stop the spin, swerving across the asphalt until finally, he skidded to a stop on the shoulder, inches away from a tree.

His hands shook. His legs may as well have been a soft jelly nothing. Furious heart pounding, beating his ribcage like a frightened bird, sickness poured into his gut and the familiar feeling of failure rotted inside of him. With the aged creak of rusty hinges, he pushed the door open, collapsed on the asphalt, and all that yellow defeat poured from his mouth in the form of liquor and half-digested Cheetos. Jeremy rolled onto his back. He let the rain wash the chunks of cheese puffs off his chin. At least, he thought, he hadn’t done that in the truck.

The truck.

Jeremy rolled onto his big flabby gut and onto his hands and knees. He scrambled to the truck bed, engaging in the almost impossible task of pulling his drunken self up with the back tire. Steadying against the lip of the bed, he passed a sluggish hand over the metal. There was definitely a dent—a huge dent. Jeremy groaned and ran his hand over his face. He tasted blood.

Somewhere, Jeremy realized, there must be a pale girl lying broken on the rain-slick asphalt of a backwoods junction, blood staining her thin, white nightgown.

*

As Jeremy crossed the living room, he made sure to accept as many fist bumps and congratulatory bro hugs as possible. He wanted everyone to see him. Exiting through the sliding door and into the cool, crisp air of Midwestern autumn, he searched the backyard by the fluttering light of the pool. Girls approached and he made passing small talk, returning congratulations with a smile. So many smiles. His cheeks ached.

At last, he spotted Rob and Clark and headed toward the redwood gazebo. They sipped beer amongst a plethora of pretty girls. Even from Jeremy’s distance, it was plain from the soft glances and casual laughter that they could take any of them. He almost felt bad that he had to pull them away.

Spreading another smile across his face, Jeremy approached the group. “What’s up, ladies?”

“You were hot out there, Jer,” a small blonde cooed.

“Yeah, you guys kicked NVH’s ass out there,” another, also blonde, added.

Jeremy shrugged. “What can I say? Me and my boys are the best.” He nodded to the two, their faces cast with disappointment. Their thunder stolen, they resigned themselves to their beers. Jeremy Higgins, star quarterback, was the center of the universe here. They could have the leftovers. “You ladies don’t mind if I take ‘em for a bit, do you?”

The posse of pretty girls dispersed, waving cute little goodbyes to Jeremy before dissolving into the pulsating throng. Rob and Clark groaned.

“Man, why you gotta play us like that, dog?” Rob took a resentful swig of his beer, his plump lips pulled into a grimace. “You got access to all the pussy in the goddamn world and you gotta come and mess with my game.”

Clark scoffed. “Your game? Yo, what you talkin’ ‘bout, bro? Give me ten minutes and I would’ve had all them girls with me.”

“Bro, keep dreaming.”

“Boys,” Jeremy snapped, his brow furrowed, his voice impatient. “Focus. There’s work we have to do.”

Clark scratched the back of his head. “Yeah, Jer, I wanted to talk to you about that—”

“You pussing out?”

Clark raised his hands in front of him. “Naw, bro, naw. Nothin’ like that—”

“Then spit it out, Garson. What’s the matter? You swallow your tongue or something?”

Rob puffed out his lips disparagingly. “Sounds like our boy here is havin’ hisself a crisis of conscious.”

“Shut the hell up, man!” Clark scowled. “”I just…. Why we gotta do it, Jer? She ain’t nothin’.”

Jeremy crossed his tree trunk arms across his barrel chest. “I think you may be right, Rob.”

“Man, Jer, don’t play me like that.”

“You in or are you a bitch?” Rob took another swig of his beer.

Clark sighed, eyes closed, brow raised. He had no choice. “Fine, let’s get this done with.”

*

At forty-five years, Jeremy was positive that he was too old to hunt for dead girls in the pouring rain. If anyone was wandering around in the woods at two in the morning with nothing but their pajamas, they couldn’t have anyone who cared about them. Anyway, three-fourths of a vodka fifth would put him above the legal limit, and he had enough shit on his plate. He staggered back into his old blue Chevy, crawled in, and burned rubber. His headache worsened, and, despite puking most of it up, the alcohol sloshing about in his stomach had soured. He felt awful. Doe urine had never smelled so bad.

The rhythm of the windshield wipers made him anxious, so Jeremy turned on the radio and missed three times before he managed to hit the seek button. His eyes fluttered from the road to the radio display as he watched the green numbers scrambled.

Distorted screaming—a woman and a baby, yawned through the cab like ghostly fingers reaching out for his ankles, his arms, anything and all of him. A thought tore through Jeremy—the mother and child wanted someone else to scream, too.

The radio returned to abrupt silence. The little green numbers scrambled again, stopping on a new station.

“Confess! Confess! Come forth and testify and confess!” The preacher’s auburn voice barrelled through the radio like a rockslide. “Fear no evil and fear no retribution ‘cause God is here and waitin’ and ready to hear you apologize! And that’s all you gotta do is apologi—”

The preacher cut out, the radio searched for a new station, and Jeremy slammed his open-palm against the radio to turn it off. His heart still raced in his chest. Panic made everything clearer. He was soon upon the house.

The Chevy’s headlights illuminated a gravel driveway that ended in a little vacation home he’d inherited from his father. The neglected cottage wept at the rotting wooden shutters. The peeling red paint flaked like old scabs. Jeremy staggered out of the truck, falling against it as he closed the door. A gust of wind picked up, scattering the rain and tearing one of the shutters from its rusted hinge. At the last second, Jeremy dodged. The old shutter splintered against the truck. His legs were useless again; Jeremy collapsed, rolling onto his torso before vomiting again

Jeremy Higgins rolled onto his back and wondered how a king could become a pauper.

*

The three football stars journeyed over the blistered road in Clark’s sleek black Mustang. Jeremy studied the moon reflecting in the shiny hood. It had watched their game, seen them win thirty-five to fourteen; it hung in the stoic ink of the sky, unimpressed by the deeds which made them famous for the evening.

Rob reached into the inner pocket of his letter jacket, pulling out a crumpled pack of Kools. As he jostled one of the cigarettes out of the pack, Clark cast a quick glance back at the thing with unconcealed distaste. “Bro, those things be nasty.”

“So was your defensive game tonight.” Rob arched the bottom half of his body above the seat to position better access to his pocket and pulled out a cheap gas station Zippo knock-off. The casing was black, a marijuana leaf peeling off the front. He tried lighting it, but only a few measly sparks to danced about the frayed, charred wick.

Clark shook his head. “It’s a sign.”

“Yeah, a sign you need to shut yo’ ass up.”

“Both of you, shut up,” Jeremy intervened. “Clark, take a left up here.”

“You know, for hating Lilith so much, you know a lot about her,” Clark replied quietly.

Jeremy turned a cold glare on his linebacker, and Clark obeyed, eyes darting away, lips pressed together, turning to the window. Cramped in the back, the sound of Rob’s lighter resumed.

A block down the road Clark asked, “Where to now?”

“Stay in the right lane. You’ll see a plaza up ahead.”

“The one with the Denny’s?” Rob was still fumbling with the lighter. Flick, flick, flick.

“That’s where we’re headed.”

Quiet once again. Ahead, the yellow and red emblem of Denny’s loomed into view. Flick, flick, flick.

Clark began his sentence slowly, choosing his words carefully. “So… when we get there… we do what? What’s the plan, bro?”

“The plan?”

“Yeah, Jer, the plan. How… what… are we gonna do?”

Like stone, Jeremy said, “We’re going to make her pay.”

The smell of smoke drifted through the car as Rob finally lit his cigarette.

*

Jeremy pulled himself up to his feet, feeling better but more ashamed as the rain rinsed him of his sick. The world wouldn’t stop swirling, and as soon as he stood straight he stumbled backward, banging his head against the edge of the truckbed. He collapsed.

On the other side of the truck, bloodless white feet pressed against the gravel.

The girl.

That’s impossible, thought Jeremy as he scrambled to his feet. He turned and met the girl’s face just inches from his own.

With a scream, he made to push her away, but his hands met only smoke. Jeremy ran for the cottage, scattering gravel everywhere. The girl waited for him at the doorstep, her white arms outstretched as if beckoning. From puckered wounds slashed across her narrow wrists, gushed black blood mixing with the storm, washing away like thin mud.

“I’m so cold, Jeremy.”

He froze. What should he do? Could he get to the truck in time? Could he push through her into the cottage? I am never drinking this much ever again, he thought. Patting his torso, he searched for his cigarettes until it dawned on him. Rain. It was raining. He couldn’t light the cigarette in the rain. Jeremy rubbed his face with his hands. His eyes hurt from all the drinking. He wanted to close them and be swept away into the sweet release of oblivion.

I’m home, he thought, covering his face, rubbing his temples, swaying in the downpour. Just a little bit further and I’ll be home and in a bed.

The doorway was empty. There stood no girl. Jeremy heaved a sigh, surprised that it caught a little. His throat constricted. Not now, you baby. With only the truck’s headlights to guide him, he staggered toward the derelict cabin. He pulled the keys from his pocket and fumbled for the red one—the red one would open the cabin door.

Thinking he saw movement, he peered into the window beside the entrance. It was too dark to see inside, but the window’s surface was bright and reflective under the highbeams’ glare. Jeremy saw himself there; saw his prickly, unshaved face, like a budding cactus; the dark bags drooping beneath his bloodshot eyes; the wet, horseshoe-shaped ring of thin hair. His old letter jacket didn’t fit around the sagging paunch with its jagged stretch marks and the blue varicose cracks.

Where had he gone wrong? The man in the window could hardly even be the King’s shadow, much less the star quarterback, the magical lover, the envy of all men. What Jeremy Higgins saw was an empty sack of flesh, its life drained of anything resembling glory.

A trembling gasp escaped. He frowned and could hold it no longer. He stood in the rain, staring at regret, and sobbed bitterly through clenched teeth.

By now, he’d forgotten the bundle of keys in his hands and they slipped from his palms and landed on the concrete stoop with a fuzzy metallic crash. He snapped out of his reverie. Massaging the bridge of his nose, he bit his lip, got himself together, and then bent for the keys. The red one, he thought.

Out of the little pile on the stoop, the red key poked out of the top like a conqueror’s flag. Jeremy grabbed it and straightened up.

A patch of fog smeared across the bottom pane of the window. In it was scrawled: COLD.

“What the fuck?” He furrowed his brow and wiped at the misted patch. The word remained.

The fog was on the other side of the window.

Jeremy jammed the red key into the lock, but it clicked before he could turn it and the door swung inward, exposing the shadowy innards of the silent little cottage.

Panic thrashed deep inside his lizard brain, begging him not to enter. A second wind wiped out his exhaustion and his balls felt like they curled back into his body. Confusion turned to anxiety blended into fear.

“Who’s in there?” he slurred. He clenched his teeth, aware of the clumsy way his words slipped over his tongue and tripped over his teeth. “I’ll kill you, motherfucker!” Jeremy winced. The threat was sloppy. He prayed the intruder was just some teenager.

“Jeremy.”

He whirled around. The night’s stoic ink framed the truck. The headlights flickered and, startled, he stepped backward on the slick stoop. He barked, cussing, and it echoed in the rainy nothing as he plummeted again. White pain erupted around his shoulders, then his knees. The fall rolled him into the cabin a few feet from the edge of the open door. Stunned and coughing, he lay on his back and watched shadows engulf the opposite wall as the door closed.

Click.

He was excommunicated from the light completely. Darkness embraced him with hollow arms.

“Jeremy.”

It was only a whisper, a muted hush, but so close that he felt her breath. His every muscle clenched. As he quaked in the darkness, he wondered how long he had to lay silent until whatever it was in the cottage to lose interest in washed-up Jeremy Higgins and leave.

“Jeremy.”

She stretched out the syllables, sang them; the satisfied purr of a predator before its dangling prey. Jeremy whimpered. Somewhere in the dark, he felt the bleeding malice of a small smile—pure and bitter. He closed his eyes, combating the darkness with darkness. The rain danced on the roof, crackling. Jeremy lost himself in the crackle, convincing himself that this was all a dream; Clark was still alive, no pale dead girls ever crossed his path, and he was still the King.

“Jeremy,” she reprimanded, “I’m so cold.”

*

Denny’s was busy, so Clark’s Mustang blended inconspicuously in the tiny, packed lot. The streetlamp in the middle burned out months ago, so the big yellow sign served as the only illumination. They parked close to the front entrance, hidden behind a baby blue F-150 and a tan Windstar.

Rob took another long drag of his Kool and then said, “We doin’ this in the parkin’ lot, Jer?”

Jeremy shook his head, eyes fixed on the gap between the truck and the minivan. He focused, face crumpled with imagination and spite, his mouth taut, the corners pulled back in a vile frown. “No,” he said. “Back alley. Next to the dumpsters.” He twisted to face Rob. “Next to the trash.”

“How we gonna get her there, bro? Seriously, Jer, I don’t think you thought about this at all.” Clark motioned over the steering wheel at the restaurant. “That diner’s full. That’s like, seventy people, bro, and there are big-ass windows up on the front. An alibi don’t mean shit if seventy people see us here, Jer.”

“She’ll exit out the side, the employee entrance,” Jeremy replied calmly.

“Then why we watchin’ the front?”

“Because the night manager has register duty on Fridays, and she’ll clock out with her before leaving. We’ll see her go to the manager, and then she’ll turn in her apron and leave through the side.”

“Carryin’ the trash,” Rob added darkly. “Takin’ it to the dumpsters.”

“Exactly.”

Clark bit his lip, holding his tongue for fear of reprimand. He shot a quick, fleeting glance at Jeremy. Madness creased the King’s face, his eyes burning black with obsession. Little Lilith Casey, quiet, dark-haired Lilith Casey with the somber eyes and alabaster skin had never done anything to Jeremy.

But then, Clark thought, maybe that was exactly the point.

*

The rain seemed to soften, or perhaps Jeremy simply didn’t notice it anymore. Perhaps the static tattoo of heavens’ tears simply blended with the terror ringing in Jeremy’s head, fusing into a silence of noise.

He opened his eyes. A pale glow illuminated the cottage. At his feet stood the door. Jeremy’s gut told him it was futile. The door would not open. It would never open ever again. Not for him, anyways.

“It’s been so long, but I found you, Jeremy,” she cooed. The light matched the voice the way a face might. “I found you, I found Clark, and I found Robert.”

It took a few moments, but Jeremy dredged an ugly memory from his liquor-slickened mind and recognized the voice.

The glow flickered. “Do you remember, Jeremy? Do you remember me at all?”

Jeremy closed his eyes again and curled into a ball. He would wake up any second now. Dream, dream, dream.

“I will never forget you, Jeremy. You touched me. You changed my life.” The voice snickered quietly. “The only one you’ve ever affected.”

Jeremy whimpered. Soon, the whimper grew into a sob.

“Look at me, Jeremy.”

“No,” Jeremy whispered through tears. “No, I don’t want to.”

“Look at me.”

“No.”

“Look at me!” She roared with two voices: that of a demon and that of little Lilith Casey.

The air turned electric. Jeremy feared for what she might do if he did not obey. He turned to gaze upon the light.

The white nightgown, so wet that it was transparent, clung to glowing, moonlight alabaster flesh. Little Lilith Casey stood in the center of the room, her dead, black eyes glaring through clumping strands of soaked hair. She raised her palms to Jeremy, held them aloft to show the shredded, bleeding wounds. The stream pulsated with the rhythm of her heart, and with every beat her skin seemed to grow even whiter and whiter.

“Jeremy,” she whispered, “I’m so cold.”

He opened his mouth to scream, but she’d stolen his voice. He tried to stand, but no limb would move. He was petrified with fear; paralyzed by Lilith Casey.

“Ever since that night I’ve been so cold.” Her obsidian eyes flinched with hateful memory, and a dark tear raced down one cheek, and then the other, until twin, black-red streams raced to her chin. “I touch my cheeks and they’re like ice. I touch my legs and they’re like ice.” Lilith’s face flickered, her expression twisted like hateful shrapnel, and she screamed, “You made me so cold, Jeremy!”

She searched his face for something, her shoulders heaving with quickened, angry breaths. She brought her hands to her stomach and whimpered. Her wrists smeared blood into her nightgown. “And he’s cold, too.”

Adrenaline brought panicked strength to Jeremy. He flailed onto his knees, pushed up to stand, and then Lilith’s little fingers wrapped around his throat, gripping, squeezing, crushing. He struggled as his blood froze, his sight fading to black.

Lilith’s mouth curled like burning paper. “Long live the King,” she said. Jeremy went limp.

*

When she came out of the restaurant they were waiting for her. It was a flurry of arms and muffled shrieks. For the three of them, it seemed to go by quickly, but for Lilith, time stretched into an infinite, gaping void. Seconds were centuries. Centuries were pain.

Jeremy threw her to the ground and Rob mounted her back, holding a firm hand over her mouth. He squeezed her torso with his thighs and she wriggled, trying to escape.

“Clark, take off her pants.” The stern order came from Jeremy who was unbuckling his belt. Lilith screamed at the clattering snicker of the metal buckle, but thunder boomed overhead, drowning her cry.

Clark stood immobile, hands to his face. He said nothing. He did nothing.

Jeremy shot a murderous look at Clark. “Pussy.” He approached Lilith’s backside, taking hold of her pant waist with one hand and unbuttoning them with the other. He jerked down the slacks, revealing Lilith’s striped panties. Black stripe, white stripe. Black stripe, white stripe. Jeremy took out a pocket knife and cut the elastic band, then ripped them apart, exposing smooth alabaster flesh.

Then he dropped his pants.

Then he plunged into her.

Again.

Again.

Again.

Lilith screamed into Rob’s palm and rain began to fall.

Again.

Again.

Again.

Clark began to cry but he dared not make a sound.

Again.

Again.

Again.

Jeremy sighed through gritted teeth. Rob laughed. Lilith sobbed. Thunder rolled over them again and the drizzle became a torrent.

Again. Faster.

Again. Harder.

Again. Faster.

A low groan escaped Jeremy’s throat as he finished. He pulled out and stood up. He pulled up his pants and buckled his belt. He said, “Let’s go,” and Rob released the sobbing, wet, little Lilith Casey. Jeremy grabbed her by the hair and pulled it close to his face. “Go kill yourself, you worthless little whore.” Lightning flashed as he threw Lilith to the asphalt, where she buried her face in a puddle of rain and blood.

Jeremy and Rob left the alley with a high-five, but Clark stayed, eyes squeezed shut, hand clamped over his mouth, listening to the roll of the thunder and the sound of rain and tears. He pried his eyes open and looked down at the pale girl with the long black hair; crumpled, sobbing, incoherent and quiet. Always quiet, little Lilith Casey.

Clark took his letter jacket off and draped it over the broken girl, then he made his way back to the black Mustang where his two best friends waited.

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in All Stories, Horror

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