He suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, this inability to do something only once. Before he leaves the house, he checks the stove to ensure the burners are turned off. He reexamines the ironing room to see that the plug dangles free from the socket. He walks through each room to confirm all lamps are off. He rechecks the stove again, standing in front of the appliance saying, “It’s off, off, off, off,” as he points to each burner.
He locks the door. He feels the lock turn, hears it click, then pushes and turns on the handle. Locked. He begins to walk away, but returns to the house with the notion that a stove burner sits on high, waiting for a dust mote or the dangling edge of a potholder to brush its surface and ignite into flame. He unlocks the door and bursts into the kitchen to stare at the stove.
Off, off, off, off. The refrigerator clicks on with a hum. Performing the customary ritual, he examines the stove, shuts and locks the door, and tests the handle. Locked. He walks away and pauses, then goes back to push and turn the handle once more. Once, twice, three times.
“Locked,” he says aloud.
He forces himself to get into his car and drive to the address of his new girlfriend. He has a problem keeping girlfriends. The longest relationship he ever maintained lasted three months. She was plain and desperate, but in the end she told him that he frightened her. He locked and re-locked her front door. He checked her stove. He once hid her iron when she forgot to unplug it. Ultimately she refused to take his calls or unlock her apartment door to speak with him. They conducted their last discussion through the gap in her door.
This new girl is prettier and seems taken with what she calls his “wit.” He is intellectual, and he’s read that extreme intelligence and creativity are forms of constrained insanity. His family doctor once referred to his “condition” as a neurosis. He’d looked the word up immediately. The definition included synonyms such as ‘eccentricity,’ ‘complex,’ ‘hang-up,’ and ‘quirk.’ None sounded complimentary.
The new girl’s name is Betty. Betty has dark red hair, light brown eyes, and a constellation of freckles across the bridge of her nose. She is coy and studious. She is in his abnormal psychology class where they are studying anxiety disorders. He has cross-diagnosed himself at least three times within the pages of the DSM-ll.
The night before, while out having a drink and dinner in a local restaurant pub, his neurosis took hold. It was their third date. He’d managed to restrain himself during the first two outings, but felt that if this were indeed true love she’d be able to accept him for himself. Rather than try to discourse at length on the topic, he made the decision to allow his “ways” to emerge in subtle, yet steady increments.
It began with the napkin. During dinner he unfolded the napkin and laid it across his lap. He measured it, noting that exactly four inches of stiff white paper dangled down both the left and right thigh. She didn’t seem to notice his attention to detail. After the meal came time to wipe his mouth. He wiped the left corner of his lips, then the right. He wiped the left again. This demanded that the right side be equalized. He wiped - left, right, left, right, left, right – feeling his flesh grow warm from friction.
She glanced up.
“You’ve got it all,” she said.
Left, right, left, right. If he left off on the right side the left side would feel neglected, and visa-versa. He ended by dabbing the center of his mouth, convinced this created some semblance of balance. He refolded the soiled napkin, first forming a rectangle, then the perfect square, then a smaller rectangle, until he achieved a square two inches-by-two inches in diameter. He tucked it neatly under the side of his plate.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“I’m fine,” he almost snapped. A pause hung in the air.
“Well, I guess it’s time to call for the bill,” she said. She motioned for the waitress.
He paid, leaving a crisp five-dollar bill on the table as a tip. The bill was new. He arranged it so it sat centered above his plate. Upon getting up, wind from his passage sent it floating across the table to land near the salt and pepper shakers. He reached out and straightened the bill. In doing so, his head brushed against the cloth of the overhead umbrella perched on an angle to omit the early evening sun. He felt where the umbrella had brushed the left side of his forehead. The right side tingled to be touched. If he walked away without equalizing the sensation on the other side of his head, the right side would throb and beg and demand equal attention. Determined to right the sense of equilibrium, he leaned forward and rubbed the right side of his head against the umbrella. The left side screamed for another caress. Left, right, left, right, left, right.
A young couple seated nearby, forking torn bits of radicchio and vinaigrette into their mouths, paused in mid-bite to regard him. They stared at him for at least ten seconds before looking about for management.
The umbrella quivered. He forgot about his new girlfriend. Everything in him demanded that he centralize the sensation. He centered his forehead against the cloth and rubbed hard. A cobweb stuck to the bridge of his nose.
“Are you all right, sir?” cut in the waitress who had served them. She stood at what he recognized as ‘bolting distance.’
“I have an itch,” he said quickly. “I’ve left you a tip.”
He turned and saw that the new girlfriend had left the eating area. She stood on the sidewalk. Her facial expression told him that she’d recognized the first nugget of doubt in their relationship. He hurried to catch up with her. On his way, his right hand brushed a telephone pole by accident. Its surface felt nubby and somewhat oily. The left hand begged to indulge. He brushed the pole with his left hand, then forced himself forward. Of course, having touched one pole, his body demanded that he touch all others along the way. To miss one might result in any number of karmic afflictions - disease, accident, or death.
Three more poles before the intersection. Tap, tap, tap. Left, right, left, right.
She ran now, her light evening coat flurrying behind her
“Betty!” he called after her.
The light turned red but she scooted behind a passing car. Her jacket brushed its decorative fin. Her dark red hair looked copper in the waning sun.
He counted his footsteps as he tore after her, reaching one hundred and thirty-seven paces when he reached the light. That would never do. That meant one foot had acquired more steps than the other. He stamped his left foot to even the odds.
She was well ahead of him now. She’d cut past the parking lot where he’d carefully parked his car.
“Betty!” he yelled again. A city bus approached. It would not bring her anywhere near her apartment but she got on, grappling with her purse. The doors whooshed shut and as he stood on the sidewalk feeling pedestrians squeeze past him, he watched her sit down, her profile deliberately ignorant to his presence.
“Betty!” he called out to her. The bus turned the corner and disappeared from sight.
He would go to her apartment and try to explain. He found his car and unlocked the door. Had he locked it before or had it been unlocked all along? He couldn’t recall. He re-locked it and unlocked it again. He started the engine and revved the gas pedal: once, twice, three times, four times with his right foot. The left foot begged for attention so he alternated between gas and brake; the car plunged forward, rolled back, plunged forward, rolled back. Someone yelled, “Moron!”
“I am not a moron,” he mouthed into the mirror. “I am intellectually profound. I am simply quirky.”
He finally tore backwards out of the slot, narrowly missing the front end of an SUV, and circled into traffic. He reached her apartment twenty-two minutes later. He parked perfectly, locked, checked, and rechecked the door.
He entered the lobby and rang the doorbell above her mailbox four times: two with the right index finger and two with the left. She refused to open the door. Her electronic voice, buzzed over the intercom system, told him to go away, to leave her alone. He rang the doorbell again: four times with each finger, counting out equal amounts of seconds for each ring. She threatened to call the police if he continued. She told him that he was unstable; that normal people don’t flirt with umbrellas or physically molest telephone poles along the street.
Unstable. The word suggested something uneven, like odd numbers. Anger flared like neon inside his brain, sending a rippling sensation of discomfort behind one ear. He shook his head a little and rubbed the opposite ear to try and harmonize the feeling.
“I am not unstable!” he screamed into the intercom. She didn’t answer. He stood in the lobby, smelling its dust and old floor wax, noting a recycling bin filled with castaway flyers and yellowed newspapers.
He would show her.
She always walked to school and she’d taken an apartment within blocks of the campus. This morning she wore jeans, a white blouse, and a dark blue V-necked sweater. A string of fake pearls adorned her throat. She carried a brown leather school bag that dangled from a long strap from her left shoulder.
“The right shoulder needs balancing,” he murmured, keeping his car at a steady but safe distance. In order to reach the campus she must turn north onto University Avenue, then cut through a patch of woods for a quarter of a mile. It was a well-traveled spot in the later hours, but his car clock read 6:15 am.
Her first class could begin at eight. She would arrive at the campus at 6:30, go to her locker, deposit her school bag, and trail down to the small cafeteria in the basement to order a large orange pekoe tea, (bag in – one sugar) and a carrot muffin. Even she had her habits, he thought. He would point this out to her very soon.
He pushed the car into the edge of the woods, and for the first time, ever, shut the engine, but left the door unlocked. He pocketed his keys. He carried a four-inch blunt letter opener – the one he’d used to open her perfume-scented love notes. He followed her trail, counting his footsteps as he hurried: one, two, three, four, five, sixseveneightnineten…
A branch popping beneath his left foot made her whirl. He stomped on another branch with his right foot to equalize the effect.
“I am not unstable!” he shouted. She broke into a run, wailing, her school bag banging against her hip. Her hair slapped back and forth, back and forth, like a silent metronome needle, helping him keep time in his steps.
He caught up to her where the path thinned, its surface enveloped in a thin veil of morning light. One hundred and thirty-two steps exactly: sixty-one steps for each foot. He hauled her back towards him.
The letter opener slashed across her throat twice with his right hand. He switched hands, noting that holding the blade in his left hand didn’t feel as dexterous, but he had to give both hands identical attention.
She fell to her knees, both hands clasped to her throat, her life bubbling out of her and into the ground.
Scared by the noise she created, he stabbed her in the back three times with the right hand again, just below the shoulder blade. Panic hit, urging him to run before anyone came along.
He raced back to his car, thankful for the early morning quiet on University Avenue.
He arrived home fifteen minutes later. His mind gibbered as he counted his steps into the shower and removed her blood. Another twenty-eight steps to the building’s incinerator with his clothes.
He returned to the garage with fabric cleaner and a cloth. Other than one tiny spot of blood on the vinyl seat, the car bore no trace of his act. Yes he’d dated her a few times. Yes they’d had dinner last evening. She’d gotten on a bus and left him standing on the street. He’d driven to her house to beg reconciliation. That, Your Honor, had been the last time he’d seen her. Honest.
He sat in the car, thinking.
The number three surged into his mind. Three times with the right hand into the mid-section of the back. Odd number. His left hand tingled. Even it up.
“No,” he told his hand. It itched, refusing to give in to denial. He glanced at the clock. It read 7:05. People would be leaving their dorm rooms and rented apartments by now. She would like be discovered. Or, perhaps not yet, not if he was quick. To not even things would surely invite bad luck, especially with an act as significant as this.
He ran back up to his apartment to retrieve the weapon.
Checked the stove burners. Off, off, off, off. Lock the door, unlock, re-lock, unlock, re-lock, unlock. To lock the door and keep it locked would always end on an odd number of lock circulations. Hadn’t that ever occurred to him before? Madness twigged at the outer edges of his thoughts. Frantic, he left his apartment door unlocked as he returned to the car. Gas, brake, gas, brake, and finally gas…a cycle of five in order to get going. He wept.
He reached the woods at 7:11. Leaving the car unlocked on the edge of the woods he attempted to walk leisurely into the trees where he’d left her. He heard a hum of conversation and as he edged toward the spot he saw that she had been discovered. A circle of students stood near by. A police officer was calling for backup on his radio. Someone was crying.
He needed balance.
He leapt at the body, knocking the crying girl out of the way and startling the cop. One, two, three with the left hand, its flesh tingling until the final stroke, when the itch began to subside.
He heard a shot ring out from behind him. He felt heat above his right ear. He had a microsecond to rationalize that the left side of the brain would require a shot, too. Otherwise, death would be irregular, asymmetrical.
He fell forward and landed on the right side of his face. Life ebbed out of him in an uneven number of heartbeats: eleven beats before darkness drew a veil over his eyes. Both hands were content, the itching finally subsided.
Carol Weekes has been publishing short fiction and novels since 1995; she writes mainly in the Horror genre, but has also written Scif-fi, Dark Fantasy, Mainstream, Literary, cross-genre work, and non-fiction. She edited the now defunct speculative fiction magazine, Northern Fusion, in the late 1990's. A first novel, 'Walter's Crossing' was released from NSP Books in 2007. A new, dark novel, 'Ouroboros', co-written with Michael Kelly, is now available through Bloodletting Press. Carol lives in a haunted house, which pleases her immensely, and continues to write more fiction in the vein of things that go ker-bump, 24/7.
|< Prev||Next >|