I’m planning on completely re-structuring, adding to, and remaking this into a novel. The finished version will be completely different from this short story.
He had been running for a long time. He didn’t know why anymore; all he wanted to do was lie down and sleep. He knew he couldn’t, nor could he slow to look for something to eat or drink. Whatever was behind him was catching up.
“Hello, Jonah,” the leggy blonde said as she sprawled in the chair beside him in the student union. Her voice was the deep, husky contralto of his fantasies.
He looked up from the exams he was grading, and frowned. Her golden hair was fashionably tousled, her full, black skirt fashionably short. Her red, scoop-neck baby tee, and the cleavage it exposed, competed for attention with a heart-shaped face with high, sharply defined cheekbones, enormous, dark eyes, and full, pouting lips. He tried to remember if he’d met her before, and if so, where. After a few heartbeats, he decided he didn’t. “I don’t know you. Do I?”
“Not yet.” She winked. “Maybe you will after tonight.”
He blinked. “Are you propositioning me?”
“Yes. Are you interested?”
“I don’t know you.” He started shuffling his students’ exams together with hands that trembled. He was so tempted he could taste it. “And I’m married.”
“I know that. I know your wife. I know your wife doesn’t even attempt to satisfy you anymore. I know your wife is leaving you right now. As we speak.” The blonde crossed her long, long legs, staring into Jonah’s eyes. She licked her lips and leaned towards him. “Are you sure you don’t want to know me?”
Jonah stared down at the exams in his shaking sweating hands, and shook his head. Given the problems that they’d been having lately, he wouldn’t be surprised if this woman was telling the truth. He didn’t think so, but he wouldn’t rule it out until he got home. He stood to leave. “Until I know differently, I’m a married man. If I get home and find my wife—and all of her belongings—gone, I might regret this. Maybe. Someday. If she hasn’t left me, I never will. Regret this.”
She shrugged, which did interesting things to her chest. She didn’t seem to be wearing a bra. “Your loss. You’ll see me again.”
Jonah shuffled his students’ exams around to free his right hand. He offered it for her to shake. “I didn’t catch your name.”
She didn’t shake his hand; she leaned forward and pressed it to her cheek. “You can call me Ash.”
He jerked his hand away as if she’d burned him. “Goodbye, Ash.”
When he looked back, she sprawled provocatively on one of the couches—one leg stretched along the seat, the other foot dangling over the floor, propped up on her elbows—watching him walk away. From where he was standing, there by the door, he could see that her hair color was natural.
He didn’t remember, now, how long he’d been running. He didn’t know what he was running from. He’d been running long past a second, or even third, wind, and the stitch in his side was nearly doubling him over. He was so thirsty that he couldn’t even pant anymore. Soon, whether he wanted to or not, he’d have to stop.
Jonah pulled up in front of the home he and his wife just finished paying for. He noticed that his wife’s car was still there. The woman—Ash—apparently hadn’t known what she was talking about. His wife wasn’t leaving him. He smiled, glad he hadn’t given into temptation this time, either.
He pulled into the driveway next to his wife’s car. Like always. Like always, he thought about having a garage built to shelter their cars from the elements. But, like always, he found an excuse not to. Today’s excuse was that it had rained and washed both cars the night before, though his was dusty again from parking on campus next to the main drive through campus.
He put the car in park and opened the door, reaching for his satchel with his right hand while fumbling the keys with his left to find the key to his front door. With the recent crime spree around the professors’ homes, he’d told his wife to keep the doors locked, whether she was home or not. He jogged up the steps and tripped over the top one, just like always, and dropped his keys. He reached down and picked them up by the house key, just like always, and fitted it into the lock. The tumblers disengaged and he pushed the front door open. The comfort of routine helped ease away the last of the tension in his shoulders and trembling in his hands.
“Honey, I’m home,” he called, setting his satchel on the front table. She didn’t answer, but he wasn’t really concerned. He usually had to go to her. He shrugged out of his favorite gray tweed jacket with the leather elbow patches and laid it on the table with his satchel for pickup in the morning, just before he left.
“Honey?” he called, walking into the living room. She wasn’t there. He loosened his tie and went on into the kitchen. He draped the navy and red tie over the back of the nearest chair in the breakfast nook, and went through into the dining room. He stopped short.
On the table, the mahogany slab trestle table, was his wife. She was spread eagled, pinned to the table by four of their set of six solid stainless steel steak knives. She’d been raped; he could see that from where he stood. It looked like she’d bled out from her wrists and ankles; he couldn’t see anything else that could have killed her. And there was a lot of blood. Her blood ran off the edges of the table, pooled on the floor, ran across the polished hardwood to where he stood. He was standing in her blood.
Jonah backed away, slapping his hand over his mouth. He gagged, turned away, and vomited onto the threshold between the kitchen and dining room. He hadn’t had anything to eat that day, so it was mostly bile and liquid, running back to mingle with the blood pool. He stepped over the puddle he’d made and staggered to the phone in the kitchen. He dialed 911.
He didn’t know how much longer he could keep running. It was getting harder and harder to stay on his feet. The ground was starting to slope and dip, but he couldn’t see it. He couldn’t see much, now. His vision had narrowed until it was like looking through paper towel tubes taped to his face. What he could see he couldn’t see clearly. Fatigue blurred the narrow field of vision. Eventually, he’d be running completely blind.
Jonah had been in the station for hours. Or days. Or maybe only minutes. He didn’t know. He couldn’t think. He didn’t really even see the standard black and white tile floor he was staring through; instead, he saw his wife, sprawled over the dining table (which was now in the crime lab instead of in their dining room).
A man’s voice, hoarse with decades of cigarettes, pulled him out of his reverie. Jonah dragged his eyes up from the tiles. “Yes?” He didn’t know how his voice could sound so normal under the circumstances. His wife was dead, in the most horrible way he could imagine. His eyes were so dry they burned, so dry he couldn’t see properly. He blinked, and the plain clothes officer came into focus. The officer bulged out of a brown suit that needed the waist let out, with a matching coffee stain on the end of a chartreuse tie.
“I’m Officer Brown.”
Jonah stared up at him for a moment before understanding sank in. “Officer. My wife is dead.”
Brown took a deep breath and sighed, straining the buttons on his shirt and making Jonah glad that the suit’s jacket wasn’t buttoned. He sat down on the bench in the hall, next to Jonah, but about an arms’ length away. “I know that, Professor. I was wondering what you could tell me.”
“I don’t know. My wife is dead. I told her to keep the doors locked.” Jonah dropped his gaze back to the tile he’d been staring through when the officer had walked up to him.
“The only door unlocked was the one you came in through, Professor. What can you tell me about your day? Were there any suspicious characters in your neighborhood when you left this morning?”
“I didn’t see anyone strange. I never see anyone but early morning joggers. I go to my office for early hours so that I can come home early. My wife likes it that way. Liked it that way.” Jonah took a deep breath, let it out through his teeth. He didn’t see the tile floor. He saw the mahogany slab, with his wife. “She’s dead.”
“Yes, Professor.” Familiar scratching sounds told Jonah that the officer was recording the interview on a piece of paper. “What about when you came home? Was there anything different?”
“Not that I noticed. I even tripped on the top step. The indoor/outdoor carpet on the porch is loose, and I always trip there and drop my keys. My work goes on the table, with my jacket, the tie goes over the back of the nearest chair in the breakfast nook, my shoes go under the sideboard in the dining room.” Jonah stopped, gagged. The pool of blood replaced the tile, the mahogany slab. That was where the day went wrong. “Not today.”
“So you didn’t notice anything different?”
“I very rarely notice anything different.” He tried to smile. He knew it was a failure even though he didn’t have a mirror. “Helen always said I didn’t notice anything that wasn’t in a book.”
“In a book? That’s right, you’re a professor. What do you research?”
“Ancient religions.” Jonah let the failed attempt at a smile join his gaze on the floor. He sighed. “I tried to be a good husband. I loved my wife. I never cheated on her, no matter how many chances I got, or who offered. She said it wasn’t enough, told me she hated competing with my research. She felt cheated, even though she had plenty of time to back out before we got married. I told her while we were dating that I probably wouldn’t ever change.” His eyes burned. There were no tears to sooth the pain.
“Tell me about your day today.” Jonah looked up at the officer, frowned. Brown offered him what seemed like a genuinely sympathetic half-smile, and shrugged. His pencil stayed poised above his notepad, ready to take down anything Jonah offered. “You may have noticed something that you didn’t consciously think of. I want as much detail as you can give me.”
“I can do that. But this may take a while.”
“We’ve got all the time in the world.”
As Jonah predicted, the interview took hours. He liked his days structured. Every minute was accounted for, from how long he generally took over coffee, to when and what he taught, to office hours, to meals to research. He told the officer everything he could remember, even the students he’d caught trying to cheat on the exam that morning. He went through his day, minute by minute, from the time he left home until the time he returned. He mentioned the girl—Ash. It seemed irrelevant, but Jonah wanted to be thorough. Brown didn’t comment one way or the other. Brown wanted to know what Jonah had done the day before, and the day before that. Wanted to know what he was researching, when and where he did his research, and how long he took each day. Jonah answered questions like a machine, unthinking. Honest.
“Thank you for your cooperation, Professor Smith. Where can we reach you?”
“Can I go home?” Jonah was so tired his eyes were sticky. When he closed them, they didn’t want to open. But he didn’t want to close them, either; when he did, the image of his wife as he saw her when he first stepped into the dining room, burned into his retina, was there to meet him, promising him nightmares worse than any he’d ever had.
“We’d rather you didn’t. Can we drop you at a hotel?” Officer Brown seemed genuinely sympathetic, but that could be just the training. Jonah wasn’t sure he’d notice the difference at the best of times.
Jonah rubbed his forehead, trying to think. His head felt like it was packed with cotton batting, and he couldn’t stop staring at his wedding band. “I need the satchel on the front table—thank God I don’t have to have those tests graded until the day after tomorrow at the earliest. Clean pants, a clean tie, and my jacket. Underwear and socks. Shoes. I teach tomorrow at eight and ten, and I have office hours from ten until noon. Usually I’d be home by a quarter after, but I probably will just stay at the office tomorrow. I’ll need my car, too. How long will I have to stay at the hotel?”
Brown reached across the distance between them, squeezed Jonah’s shoulder. “I’ll have someone escort you to your house so that you can pick up some things for a few days in the hotel.”
Jonah jumped. He’d been thinking; he hadn’t realized he’d spoken his thoughts. “Thank you, Officer Brown.”
He clutched his side, now. His run was more of a fast stagger. His eyes were fixed on the ground right in front of his feet. He couldn’t see very far, now. He was too tired. He could barely see his feet. He stumbled, kept running.
Jonah parked in the lot of the Ramada, thankful that the police had let him pack enough for the duration of the investigation. After that was over, he planned to have some professional movers pack his books and the rest of his clothes, and sell the house. Everything there would remind him of Helen. He didn’t think he could stand that.
He stepped out of his car, reached back and took his suitcase from the back seat, grabbing his satchel with the other hand. He still had a baker’s dozen of exams to grade, and it was still long before midnight. He spent a couple of minutes memorizing the license plate number so that he wouldn’t have to come back out—and so he wouldn’t have to think about what he’d left behind.
The man behind the desk looked up with a professionally friendly smile. “Will you be staying with us tonight, sir?”
Jonah nodded. “I’ll be staying here for a month at least,” he said.
“Very good, sir. If you’d fill these out?”
Jonah took the forms, raced through them. The license plate number went down first, so he wouldn’t have to worry about forgetting it. The rest was easy, especially since he was using a credit card. The clerk handed him a key card, told him his room number, already turning to the person behind him. He picked up his suitcase and turned. As he turned, his gaze swept the lobby. He dropped his satchel.
Ash was waiting by the door.
He knew it was inevitable. His vision was so blurred he couldn’t see his feet clearly anymore, much less what was in front of them. His run had become a stagger. His legs shook, his breath came hard. The stitch in his side was more like an awl boring a hole in him for something larger than thread. He couldn’t go much farther and he knew it. It was inevitable. He stumbled. Fell.
“Ash?” he asked. He staggered a little as he stepped away from the desk. He told himself it was only because his suitcase was heavy, and he hadn’t had anything to eat since breakfast. He always waited for lunch until after he got home. It was long past the time that he’d have had dinner, on any other day. Really, though, he knew it was something else. He wouldn’t let himself think about what else it could be. It had to be hunger. Had to be. He stopped, next to the door. Next to her.
She smiled. “You remembered me.”
He didn’t see how he could possibly forget her. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he was regretting having turned her down earlier. And somewhere else in the back of his mind, the part that remembered what she’d said earlier wondered if she had been involved in rearranging his life. “You said my wife was leaving me.”
“Do you want to talk about this out here?” She reached out and tucked her hand through the elbow of the arm he carried his satchel with. “Why don’t you invite me up to your room?”
He thought about it. His wife was lying on the medical examiner’s table. He felt bad for even contemplating inviting this woman up to his room. But it couldn’t hurt anything—now. Vows only held until death. “This way.”
He landed on his knees. Hard. His breath sobbed in and out of his lungs. The thing behind him was catching up. He pushed himself to his feet. He’d be damned if he’d just lie there and wait for the beast chasing him to catch up. He lurched into a staggering parody of a run. He was so exhausted it was the best he could do. He wished he could have some water. He couldn’t stop, though. Even falling took too much time. He could hear a woman’s deep, husky chuckle behind him. He had to keep going. He forced himself to pick up speed.
Ash took Jonah’s key card and opened the door for him. He stepped through and dropped his suitcase on the floor. His satchel full of the student exams that he still had to grade he set on the table. Ash closed the door, stepped into his arms and kissed him.
At first, Jonah froze with surprise. Then, he wrapped his arms around her, cradling the back of her head in his hand, kissed her back. He intended for it to be a short kiss, but allowed the kiss to go on for longer than he initially planned. It felt good to have a woman in his arms, to kiss a woman who kissed him back with passion. It had been so long since his wife had kissed him like that that he couldn’t remember how long it had been. But, he had to know. He gently disengaged. “You said my wife was leaving me.”
Ash smiled up into his face. Her eyes were so dark that they seemed like bottomless pools. “So she was. She’s gone, isn’t she?”
Jonah pulled away, decided he needed to unpack. Right now. He turned away, lifting his suitcase onto the bed. He flipped the latches open, lifted out a stack of clean underwear, set it on the bed, reached for his socks. Stopped. Clenched his hands. He didn’t want her to know that he was starting to shake. He could feel her, feel her warmth, smell her scent. His awareness of her suddenly hit him, and he straightened, readjusted himself. He cursed himself under his breath. His wife was dead, but so recently that he hadn’t fully comprehended it yet. “What have you done?”
“I’ve freed you, Jonah.” Her deep, husky chuckle rubbed him like velvet. “Didn’t you want to be free to worship at another altar?”
He staggered to a stop. He couldn’t run anymore. He had nothing left. Nothing but defiance. He turned and glared into the pitchy blackness behind him. He couldn’t see anything, but he knew it was there. “I don’t believe in you!” he screamed. His tongue felt thick, stuck to the roof of his mouth. His voice was almost gone from the lack of moisture in his throat.
Jonah choked, cleared his throat. He picked up a pair of his socks—his wife had folded those for him the last time she’d done laundry. He’d hated doing laundry, and had been gone, that night, researching. His research had certainly paid off. He’d found another reference insinuating that the worship of Ashtoreth had been linked to the Jewish myths of Lilith. “Worship at another altar. You mean you killed her.”
“Yes.” She stepped closer, slipped her arms around him from behind.
He leaned into her arms. He couldn’t help himself. He caught what he was doing, and stepped away, to put his socks and underwear into one of the drawers. Really, he just wanted to be a little farther from her. “You couldn’t have. My wife was raped.”
Ash laughed. Her deep, husky chuckle wasn’t like velvet anymore. “I know. I did that, too.”
Jonah swallowed. His wife’s head had been at the far end of the table, her feet toward him, pinned with her legs spread. He’d seen the semen, still wet between her thighs, pooling on the table beneath her. “You couldn’t have. It was a man that raped her.”
“Yes.” Ash pulled a chair around so that she could watch him unpack. Waiting. “Let me tell you how she died. I entered your house just after you left.”
He sank down onto the edge of the bed. “The doors were locked.”
“Hush. I didn’t come in through the doors. Your wife was still in bed. I went upstairs, and brought her down. She struggled, but I’m stronger. I took her through the kitchen so that I could get the rest of the set of those nice stainless steel knives that you used on your steak last night while you read your research. While you wished for simpler times, like the ones you read about. While you wished you could do to your wife what I did in your image.”
A finger of ice traced Jonah’s spine, made him sit up straighter to hide the shudder. “In my image. What the hell are you talking about?”
“Your wife died thinking that the one that pinned her to the table and raped her was you. It was your face above her, your voice that mocked her, your hand that slapped her when she screamed. It was your penis that violated her.” Ash’s smile was no longer sexy; her dark, deep eyes burning pits rather than bottomless pools.
“How?” he whispered.
“Don’t tell me that you’re still in denial about who I am,” she whispered. “I thought my first worshiper in this century would be wiser than that. You’ve certainly done enough searching for me that you shouldn’t be surprised that you’ve found me.”
Ashtoreth. “You—” He choked, tried again. “You don’t exist. You were the attempt of a primitive people to explain a hostile environment.”
“Oh, but I do exist,” she purred. “I exist under many names, in many forms. I am that which would destroy mankind. I am that which nihilists worship. I am that which the so-called Christ tried to defeat in one of your greatest religions. I am that which Mohammed fought against while he was forming his religion. The Israelites fell into my worship many times, and fought against me when they didn’t worship me. You’ve searched for me for a long time, long enough that your will gave me shape. Gave me power.”
“I don’t believe in you,” he whispered.
Two pinpoints of darker darkness appeared in front of him. The inky blackness swirled, revealing a many-breasted, deformed humanoid figure. He forced himself to straighten, his breath sobbing in and out of his lungs. “I don’t believe in you,” he whispered, watching the thing solidify into the demon he’d been searching for.
“That’s all right,” she said in a husky contralto, reaching out and laying a burning, taloned hand on his shoulder. “I believe in me enough for the both of us.”