I stare at the screen of my Dell laptop, my fingertips hovering over the keyboard. Small white letters engraved on black keys. Waiting for me to push. Come on, Jake. Writer’s block is pretty uncommon, since I write on a day-to-day basis for my job. Practice makes perfect, and writing is no exception to the rule.
But this story is different. I’ve never dealt with a case as peculiar as this one, and trust me when I say I’ve interviewed some shitty people. Solomon is just … unusual. I glance at my watch. 2:43 PM. I have dinner plans at 6, so I need to have the article written by 5:30.
“How’s it coming, Halbur?” Harry’s walking through the office, checking on his writers. He ruffles my hair. “Did the kid creep you out?”
I fix what Harry messed up, irritated. “Yeah…. You could say that.”
Harry pulls up a chair next to mine, adjusts his tie, folds his sweaty hands. “Well, tell me what happened. How’d the interview go?”
I chew my lip. Normally I’d have more information to present to him. But Solomon creeped me out. A lot. So I left the detention center before I could finish asking him all my questions.
I’m only human.
“It went okay,” I tell Harry. “I got some stuff out of him.”
He studies me. Furrows his brow. “Halbur, you alright? You look like your mom just died.”
I think about my answer carefully. No, I’m not really alright. But I don’t necessarily want to tell Harry just how much Solomon scared me. I’d rather he read the story when it’s completely finished, ready to go for tomorrow’s paper. Then he’ll understand.
“I’m fine,” I say. “I’ll be done with this in a few hours.”
Harry scratches his beard, pushes his glasses up on his nose. “Okay. If you need to talk about anything, let me know. When I was a staff writer, I interviewed some major weirdos. Once in a while, they’d get to me.”
You have no idea, I think. “Thanks, Harry.”
He pats me on the cheek, stands up and walks to his office. Good guy.
I turn back to my laptop. I chew my nails, text my dad, rub my neck, play Solitaire. Anything but relive the horror of today’s interview.
I check the time. 3:57. Damn.
No more pushing it off. I feel so uneasy. There’s a tight knot in my belly. I don’t want to admit what happened to myself, let alone the world.
But I haven’t got a choice.
My palms are wet. My heart is racing. Did I really just write that?
It’s 5:37. My mouse hovers over the Send button.
The story’s a little under 1,000 words. This will be a big feature, probably front page. As nervous as I am to turn it in, I’m proud of what I wrote. Never in my life have I been so descriptive, so detailed. Completely, unabashedly honest. Wholly vulnerable. The Sentinel readers will get lost in my meticulous portrayals.
News doesn’t have to be boring. Harry says it all the time. One thing’s for certain: This piece is the furthest thing from boring.
I take a deep breath and hit Send.
“You’re late,” Maggie says, kissing me on the cheek as I step in her sixth-floor apartment. “The pasta’s getting cold.”
I smile sheepishly. This isn’t the first time I’ve been late to dinner plans. “Sorry, Mags. I was on deadline.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she says, returning the grin. “I’ve heard that one before.”
Maggie is probably my favorite person on Earth. Compassionate, beautiful, easygoing, intelligent. And her hair is red. Bright red, down to her elbows. Everything I’ve ever looked for in a girl.
I’m pretty lucky to call her my fiancée.
Over dinner, we discuss the wedding. Our plans to move in together next month. We’re heading south, to the center of the city, in a spacious one-bedroom overlooking downtown. Maggie makes me happy, and soon I’m forgetting about Solomon, about the interview. The weird buzzing noise. How he knew the nightmarish song from my childhood. The sick feeling he left me with.
Maggie’s green eyes light up when we talk about the future, like there’s a fire within her, hot and alive. I live for that fire. Ensuring that it never burns out feels like what I was meant to do in this life.
Later that night, we lie in bed, watching some old rom-com on TV. The guy’s a pinhead, not realizing that his gorgeous business partner is in love with him. We laugh at his stupidity, and I hold Maggie, feeling grateful for what I have. What we have.
During a commercial break, she turns to me. “How was work?” she asks. “Anything interesting today?”
Maggie’s a major horror buff, so she loves hearing about my interviews. Normally I tell her everything. But tonight, my instincts tell me not to bring Solomon up.
“Not really,” I say. “I mean, I interviewed somebody, but you’ll read about it in tomorrow’s paper.”
Maggie slaps me on the arm. “Come on, Jake! You can’t do that to me.”
I smile. Teasing her is a grand pastime. “Be patient, Mags. Don’t lie; you love the suspense.”
She bites her lip in frustration. God, I love it when she does that. “Fine. But it better be good.”
“‘Good’ maybe isn’t the word to describe it,” I say. “‘Horrific’ is more like it.”
Maggie sits up and bounces on the bed. “I can’t wait!”
I laugh. At 25-years-old, she’s so childlike. It’s refreshing.
But my laughter dies away as I think about what she’ll be reading tomorrow. Because “horrific” doesn’t even begin to cover it.
The next morning, I get to work early with a box of donuts. I figure this story will either do incredibly well, or the readers will think I’m insane and it’ll be a total flop. No matter the outcome, donuts are my fallback. I’m either going to celebrate with a sweet treat or eat my feelings out.
Harry approaches me as soon as I sit down at my cubicle. Crouches down so we’re level. “Jake,” he says. “That story. I mean, whoa. It was great, but it sounded a little like fan-fiction. Were you being honest? You know we’re nothing but honest at this paper. He really had the guts to say he was the devil?”
I look him in the eye. “Harry, everything I wrote in that story is true. All of it.”
Harry pauses, then sighs. “That was a heavy read. The kid sounds like a real nut job.”
“Tell me about,” I say. “He really psyched me out.”
Harry stands up. “I think the readers will eat it up. Everyone loves a good psycho.”
I smile to myself. Maybe something good will come of this bad situation. This city deserves to know the creeps who dwell within it.
Harry pats me on the shoulder, grabs a glazed donut and stuffs it in his mouth. “Take the day off, buddy,” he says. “You had it rough yesterday, but you wrote an awesome piece. David’ll cover today’s crime.”
David’s our intern. He mostly runs office errands, but this’ll be great experience for him. Besides, I could really use the rest.
“Oh, and Halbur,” Harry says, licking the last of the donut off his fingers. “You should really do something about those migraines.”
I thank Harry and walk down to the parking lot, out to my CR-Z. I hop in, rev the engine. I think I’ll go home and take a little nap. I didn’t sleep very well last night, even with Maggie next to me. I can’t remember my dreams—just total blackness. Deep, unsettling darkness all night long.
When I get home, I throw the keys on the kitchen counter. I run to my bed and crash down on it. Ahhh. My sheets are so cozy.
I think of Maggie. Her hair, so shiny and beautiful. I love running my fingers through it. Her green eyes, bright and full of life. The white of her skin. The way her collarbones jut out. Her slender figure. The curve of her hips…
Soon I’m fast asleep, dreaming of my fiancée. A welcome change from last night’s cold blackness.
Something wakes me with a start. A sharp noise, like a knife falling on hardwood floors. My eyes shoot open, but I’m disoriented. Did I forget to lock the door?
Probably just part of my dream. Calm the fuck down, Jake. I close my lids and drift off again.
But now I’m dreaming about something else. The clown from the Broken Bow circus. His evil eyes. The way he beckoned me. And the song … that wretched song. “Barnum and Bailey’s Favorite.” The one Solomon knew. It plays in my head now, loud and panicky.
I wake up again, breathing heavily. A cold sweat drenches my skin.
But the song. It’s…it’s still playing.
My pulse races. Bewildered, I look over at my stereo on the other side of the room. It’s on, and “Barnum and Bailey’s Favorite” blares from the speakers.
Oh God, what’s happening? What’s happening? I’m on the verge of hysteria. I force myself to get up, grab my baseball bat with slick, trembling fingers and tiptoe around the apartment. No trace of anyone or anything out of place.
I return to my room and jerk the stereo’s power cord out of the socket, shaking hard. I sit on the edge of my bed. And I cry.
Church is a funny place. It makes you want to get on your knees and beg for your life. It makes you want to run away. It makes you want to laugh out loud; it makes you want to hold your head in your hands out of shame. All at the same time.
As I sit in the back-row pew, I pray. I pray that whatever’s happening to me will stop. I pray for the Davis family. I pray for Maggie. I pray for my soul.
Maybe I’m praying for nothing. Maybe this is all some sick joke, and I really am just crazy. Maybe God isn’t real. Maybe Satan is just a crutch we use to explain the worst people on this earth. The ones who hurt living things for pleasure.
“It’s okay to believe, Jake,” something whispers next to me.
I turn, almost in slow motion. I’m surprisingly calm, like I knew this was coming all along.
Next to me sits Solomon. Holding a butter knife.