Breathe Your Last – Lisa Regan

I don’t always get to see their faces when they breathe their last breath. I wonder, when their time comes, do they know they’re about to die? Do they realize what’s happened? Are they afraid? Do any of them think about me? Do any of them suspect me? It’s kind of a letdown, never getting to be there in those final moments, but what comes after more than makes up for it. The satisfying part isn’t in the killing. It’s in the aftermath. The real thrill is in watching families and friends stumble around in a haze of grief and shock, as if they really expected nothing bad to happen to them in their lives. I’ve seen it all, from tear-filled eyes to full-blown breakdowns. My favorite mourners are the ones who are so overcome with their loss that they can’t even stand under the weight of it. Their bodies fail them. They collapse and shake, sob and howl. There is one thing common among all mourners, however. Each and every one of them is plagued with this universal question: What happened? Sometimes, I want to look right into their eyes and say, “They got what they deserved, that’s what happened.” But I can’t. If they knew what I’d done, I’d probably go to prison. If I went to prison, I wouldn’t be able to play my little game. Where would be the fun in that? ONE The city of Denton flashed past as Josie drove her friend Misty and Misty’s four-year-old son, Harris, into the mountains on the northern side of the city.

Sunlight filtered through the canopy of trees over the winding mountain road, making the Denton Police Department polo shirt she wore appear more hot pink than salmon-colored. The shirt—all of her work shirts—used to be white. Under her breath, she cursed her younger brother, Patrick, a sophomore at Denton University. The campus was close enough to Josie’s house that he often dropped by to eat or do his laundry. Misty said, “What was that?” “Nothing,” Josie muttered. “You’re still upset about the shirt?” Misty said. Josie glanced down at herself again, resisting the urge to curse out loud. “Not just this shirt,” she explained. “All my work shirts. I’m going to have to buy new ones!” Misty reached for the dash and toggled the knob for the air conditioner, turning it up.

The weather was still hot for September, even early in the morning, and Josie’s Ford Escape wasn’t cooling down as quickly as Misty would have liked, evidently. She said, “What was he washing?” “Every item of clothing he owns,” Josie answered, “including a bright red T-shirt his boss just gave him to wear to work. He washed it separately and forgot it was in there.” “Is he working on campus?” “Yeah, he got a job with the university’s towel service—” “Towel service?” “Yeah,” Josie said. “Basically he is assigned to one of the athletics buildings to monitor towel use. He gives out clean towels, collects dirty ones, and makes sure no one takes any towels out of the building with them. Anyway, they just started wearing red Tshirts. He left in a hurry last night to go see his girlfriend and left it in the washer. Then when I washed my work shirts for the week, this happened.” She motioned to her chest.

Misty eyed the shirt. “You didn’t check the washer before you put your own stuff in to make sure it was empty?” Josie shot her a glare fierce enough to end the conversation. Misty turned away to look out the passenger’s side window but not before Josie saw the small grin on her lips. Josie thought about the offending shirt, balled up into a plastic bag in the back of the car. Patrick had called her just before she left to pick up Misty and Harris and asked if she could bring it to him on her way to the station. He was due at work by eight thirty. Josie would be cutting it close, but she fully intended to lecture him on the importance of not leaving any more bleeding garments in her washer. Showing up in her ruined police shirt would surely drive the point home. In the meantime, she had texted her colleague on the police force, Detective Gretchen Palmer, and asked her to bring one of her extra shirts for Josie to borrow. It would be a little big, but at least it wouldn’t be faded flamingo pink.

Josie’s foot pressed harder onto the gas pedal. The further up the mountain they got, the more discomfort tugged at her, causing a strange feeling in the pit of her stomach. “I don’t like this,” she told Misty, changing the subject. “This place is too far out of town. What if there’s an emergency? It would take first responders at least ten minutes to get out here, probably longer.” Misty rolled her eyes. “Josie, this school has the best Pre-K program in the entire city. I researched this.” “What kind of ’mergency?” Harris asked from his booster seat in the back. Josie glanced in the rearview mirror and smiled at him.

He grinned right back at her and she was struck dumb by his resemblance to her late husband, Ray Quinn, with his dimples and his spiked blond hair. After Josie and Ray had separated, Ray started dating Misty. Harris had been born after Ray’s death and, in spite of the initial tension between the two women, their love of Ray’s only son had united them in a friendship that Josie now treasured. “Like the kinds we talked about, remember?” she told Harris. Misty blew out a breath, her blonde bangs flying up and then landing neatly on her forehead. “Please don’t start with this again.” Harris said, “Like what to do in a fire?” “Yes,” Josie said. “Exactly. What do you do in a fire?” “If I catch on fire, I stop, drop, and roll like a roly-poly bug, only a crazy one cause I want the fire to go out,” Harris said. “Right! What else? What if you’re in the classroom and there’s a fire?” Misty said, “Josie, seriously.

I want him to have a normal Pre-K experience.” Josie frowned at her. “And I want him to be prepared for anything that might happen.” “Did you go to Pre-K?” “No. Did you?” “Well, no, but how many fires are there at Pre-K facilities in this city each year?” Josie stayed quiet, chewing the inside of her lip. None, that was how many. She knew because she’d looked it up. She’d also talked to the city’s fire chief. As a detective with the city’s police department she had access to more information than the average citizen. Harris said, “First thing is, I have to find all the exits when we get there.

” “That’s right,” Josie encouraged. “Now what if you’re in the classroom and a stranger comes in and you think that stranger might hurt someone? What do you do?” “Josie!” “I go to the closest door and get out and I press my alarm and then you come with Uncle Noah and make the bad stranger go to jail.” Noah Fraley was Josie’s live-in boyfriend and a lieutenant with the Denton PD. His polo shirts had escaped the pink massacre. Harris held up one of his feet and shook it, the shoelaces on his sneaker wiggling. A small, gray device about the size of a quarter but in the shape of a guitar pick had been clipped to one of the grommets. Josie couldn’t see it from her quick glance in the rearview mirror, but she knew the tiny orange button was tucked away along one side of the device. It was called a Geobit. It was a GPS tracker for children. Josie had researched about a half dozen of them when Misty told her she was enrolling Harris in school, but Geobit was the only one with an alarm that alerted Josie’s phone directly should Harris need to use it.

“Not all strangers are bad, you know,” Misty said. “He knows that,” Josie scoffed. “I talked to him about strangers.” “I know. I know you also talked to him about sex offenders and bad secrets and bad touch/good touch. I know you talked to him about abductions, and I also know that you showed him how to get into the trunk of a car to disable and knock out a taillight so he can slip his hand out and signal someone.” “That was cool!” Harris exclaimed. “Can we do that again?” “No,” Misty said. “It’s always good to practice,” Josie said at the same time. “Josie,” Misty scolded again.

Josie opened her mouth to apologize but then clamped it shut. She wouldn’t apologize for overreacting because she wasn’t sorry. When Harris was a baby, he’d been abducted. They’d been lucky to get him back alive. He had nearly died. Between that and all the terrible things that Josie saw in her work as a detective, it was hard not to be paranoid. TWO I was exhausted, even by Monday-morning standards. It had been a long night waiting for her, putting my plan in place, and making sure to leave no trace of myself. I considered staying home and sleeping the day away, but I knew that wasn’t smart. I couldn’t call attention to myself in any way.

Just like all the other times, everything had to appear perfectly normal. This time, that meant going on almost no sleep, showing up when and where I was supposed to, and putting a smile on my face. Besides, I wouldn’t really know if my plan had worked until much later. I wouldn’t be there when she took her last breath. I rarely was. I had to be patient. It would be worth it. I imagined the phone call, visualized exactly how I would react, how I would modulate my voice so that people would think I was both shocked and horrified. This one would make the local news for sure. It might even go national, I thought with glee.

Of course, there would be a great outpouring of sympathy for her. Everyone thought she was so perfect, which was exactly why she had to die. I knew it was going to annoy me in the coming weeks having to hear about her shocking death again and again—in the news and pretty much anywhere I went because people were going to call her things like “special” and “amazing,” and her death would be touted as a “tragic loss.” But then the news stories would fade, and I wouldn’t have to hear about her supposed greatness any longer. No one should be so universally adored. She wasn’t the only person who was special or amazing. With her around, it was like no one else existed. I couldn’t take it anymore. Especially since I knew how she lied. She hid things from everyone.

Vile things. Secrets that made her just as contemptible as anyone else. So I did what I did, and now I waited for the news to hit. I checked my phone. No news yet, but my plan was underway. The magnificent wave of grief was about to hit Denton in all of its glory. It was only a matter of time.

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