Final Girls – Riley Sager

Pine Cottage, 1 a.m. The forest had claws and teeth. All those rocks and thorns and branches bit at Quincy as she ran screaming through the woods. But she didn’t stop. Not when rocks dug into the soles of her bare feet. Not when a whip-thin branch lashed her face and a line of blood streaked across her cheek. Stopping wasn’t an option. To stop was to die. So she kept running even as a bramble wrapped around her ankle and gnawed at her flesh. The bramble stretched, quivering, before Quincy’s momentum yanked herself free. If it hurt, she couldn’t tell. Her body already held more pain than it could handle. It was instinct that made her run. An unconscious knowledge that she needed to keep going, no matter what.

Already she had forgotten why. Memories of five, ten, fifteen minutes ago were gone. If her life depended on remembering what prompted her flight through the woods, she was certain she’d die right there on the forest floor. So she ran. She screamed. She tried not to think about dying. A white glow appeared in the distance, faint along the tree-choked horizon. Headlights. Was she near a road? Quincy hoped she was. Like her memories, all sense of direction was lost.

She ran faster, increased her screams, raced toward the light. Another branch whacked her face. It was thicker than the first, like a rolling pin, and the impact both stunned and blinded her. Pain pulsed through her head as blue sparks throbbed across her blurred vision. When they cleared, she saw a silhouette standing out in the headlights’ glow. A man. Him. No. Not him. Someone else.

Safety. Quincy quickened her pace. Her blood-drenched arms reached out, as if that could somehow pull the stranger closer. The movement caused the pain in her shoulder to flare. And with the pain came not a memory, but a realization. One so brutally awful that it had to be true. Only Quincy remained. All the others were dead. She was the last one left alive. CHAPTER 1 My hands are covered in frosting when Jeff calls.

Despite my best efforts, the French buttercream has oozed onto my knuckles and in the hammocks between my fingers, sticking there like paste. Only one pinkie finger remains unscathed, and I use it to tap the speakerphone button. “Carpenter and Richards, private investigators,” I say, imitating the breathy voice of a film noir secretary. “How may I direct your call?” Jeff plays along, his tough-guy tone pitched somewhere between Robert Mitchum and Dana Andrews. “Put Miss Carpenter on the horn. I need to talk to her pronto.” “Miss Carpenter is busy with an important case. May I take a message?” “Yeah,” Jeff says. “Tell her my flight from Chi-Town has been delayed.” My facade drops.

“Oh, Jeff. Really?” “Sorry, hon. The perils of flying out of the Windy City.” “How long is the delay?” “Anywhere from two hours to maybe-I’ll-be-home-by-next-week,” Jeff says. “I’m at least hoping it’s long enough for me to miss the start of Baking Season.” “No such luck, pal.” “How’s it going, by the way?” I look down at my hands. “Messy.” Baking Season is Jeff’s name for the exhausting stretch between early October and late December, when all those dessert-heavy holidays arrive without reprieve. He likes to say it ominously, raising his hands and wiggling his fingers like spider legs.

Ironically, it’s a spider that’s caused my hands to be coated in buttercream. Made of double-dark chocolate frosting, its stomach teeters on the edge of a cupcake while black legs stretch across the top and down the sides. When I’m finished, the cupcakes will be posed, photographed and displayed on my website’s roster of Halloween baking ideas. This year’s theme is Revenge of the Yummy. “How’s the airport?” I ask. “Crowded. But I think I’ll survive by hitting the terminal bar.” “Call me if the delay gets any worse,” I say. “I’ll be here, covered in icing.” “Bake like the wind,” Jeff replies.

When I hang up, it’s back to the buttercream spider and the chocolate-cherry cupcake it partly covers. If I’ve done it right, the red center should ooze out at first bite. That test will come later. Right now, my chief concern is the outside. Decorating cupcakes is harder than it seems. Especially when the results will be posted online for thousands to see. Smudges and smears aren’t allowed. In a high-def world, flaws loom large. Details matter. That’s one of the Ten Commandments on my website, squeezed between Measuring Cups Are Your Friends and Don’t Be Afraid to Fail.

I finish the first cupcake and am working on the second when my phone rings again. This time there’s not even a clean pinkie finger at my disposal, and I’m forced to ignore it. The phone continues to buzz while shimmying across the countertop. It then goes silent, pausing a moment before emitting a tell-tale beep. A text. Curious, I drop the icing bag, wipe my hands and check the phone. It’s from Coop. We need to talk. Face 2 face. My fingers pause above the screen.

Although it takes Coop three hours to drive into Manhattan, it’s a trip he’s willingly made many times in the past. When it’s important. I text back. When? His reply arrives in seconds. Now. Usual place. A spot of worry presses the base of my spine. Coop is already here. Which means only one thing— something is wrong. Before leaving, I rush through my usual preparations for a meeting with Coop.

Teeth brushed. Lips glossed. Tiny Xanax popped. I wash the little blue pill down with some grape soda drank straight from the bottle. In the elevator, it occurs to me that I should have changed clothes. I’m still in my baking wear: black jeans, one of Jeff’s old button-downs, and red flats. All bear flecks of flour and faded dollops of food coloring. I notice a scrape of dried frosting on the back of my hand, skin peeking through the blue-black smear. It resembles a bruise. I lick it off.

Outside on 82nd Street, I make a right onto Columbus, already packed with pedestrians. My body tightens at the sight of so many strangers. I stop and shove stiff fingers into my purse, searching for the can of pepper spray always kept there. There’s safety in numbers, yes, but also uncertainty. It’s only after finding the pepper spray that I start walking again, my face puckered into a don’tbother-me scowl. Although the sun is out, a tangible chill stings the air. Autumn making its swift approach. I regret not bringing a jacket. I pick up my pace as Theodore Roosevelt Park comes into view, the leaves there poised between green and gold. Through the foliage, I can see the back of the Museum of Natural History, which on this morning is swarmed with school kids.

Their voices flit like birds among the trees. When one of them shrieks, the rest go silent. Just for a second. I walk on, heading to the cafe two blocks south of the museum. Our usual place. Coop is waiting for me at a table by the window, looking the same as always. That sharp, craggy face that appears pensive in times of repose, such as now. A body that’s both long and thick. Large hands, one of which bears a ruby class ring instead of a wedding band. The only change is his hair, which he keeps trimmed close to the scalp.

Each meeting always brings a few more flecks of gray. His presence in the cafe is noticed by all the nannies and caffeinated hipsters that crowd the place. Nothing like a cop in full uniform to put people on edge. Even without it, Coop cuts an intimidating figure. He’s a big man, consisting of rolling hills of muscle. The starched blue shirt and black trousers with the knife-edge crease only amplify his size. He lifts his head as I enter, and I notice the exhaustion in his eyes. He must have driven here directly from working the third shift. Two mugs are already on the table. Earl Grey with milk and extra sugar for me.

Coffee for Coop. Black. Unsweetened. “Quincy,” he says, nodding. There’s always a nod. It’s Coop’s version of a handshake. We never hug. Not since the desperate one I gave him the night we first met. No matter how many times I see him, that moment is always there, playing on s loop until I push it away. They’re dead, I had choked out while clutching him, the words gurgling thickly in the back of my throat.

They’re all dead. And he’s still out here. Ten seconds later, he saved my life. “This is certainly a surprise,” I say as I sit. I can hear the tremor in my voice, and I tamp it down. I don’t know why Coop’s called me but if it’s bad news, I want to be calm. “You’re looking well,” Coop says while giving me the quick, concerned once-over I’m now accustomed to. “But you’ve lost some weight.” There’s worry in his voice, too. He’s thinking about the six months after Pine Cottage, when my appetite had left me so completely that I ended up back in the hospital, force fed through a tube.

I remember waking to find Coop standing by my bed, staring at the plastic tube slithered up my nostril. Don’t disappoint me, Quincy, he said then. You didn’t survive that night just to die like this. “It’s nothing,” I say. “I’ve finally learned I don’t have to eat everything I bake.” “And how’s that going? The baking thing?” “Great, actually. I gained five-thousand followers last quarter and got another corporate advertiser.” “That’s great,” Coop says. “Glad everything is going well. One of these days, you should actually bake something for me.

” Like the nod, this is another of Coop’s constants. He always says it, never means it. “How’s Jefferson?” he asks. “He’s good. The public defender’s office just made him the lead attorney on a big, juicy case.” I leave out how the case involves a man accused of killing a narcotics detective in a bust gone wrong. Coop already looks down on Jeff’s job. There’s no need to toss more fuel onto that particular fire. “Good for him,” he says. “He’s been gone the past two days.

Had to fly to Chicago to get statements from family members. Says it’ll make a jury more sympathetic.” “Hmm,” Coop replies, not quite listening. “I guess he hasn’t proposed yet.” I shake my head. I told Coop I thought Jeff was going to propose in August, during our vacation in the Outer Banks, but no ring so far. That’s the real reason I’ve recently lost weight. I’ve become the kind of girlfriend who takes up jogging just to fit into a hypothetical wedding dress. “Still waiting,” I say. “It’ll happen.

” “And what about you?” I ask, only half-teasing. “Have you finally found a girlfriend?” “Nope.” I arch a brow. “A boyfriend?” “This visit is about you, Quincy,” Coop says, not even cracking a smile. “Of course. You ask. I answer.” That’s how things go between us when we meet once, twice, maybe three times a year. More often than not, the visits resemble therapy sessions, with me never getting a chance to ask Coop questions of my own. I’m only privy to the basics of his life.

He’s forty-one, spent time in the Marines before becoming a cop, and had barely shed his rookie status before finding me screaming among the trees. And while I know he still patrols the same town where all those horrible things at Pine Cottage happened, I have no idea if he’s happy. Or satisfied. Or lonely. I never hear from him on holidays. Never once got a Christmas card. Nine years earlier, at my father’s funeral, he sat in the back row and slipped out of the church before I could even thank him for coming. The closest he gets to showing affection is on my birthday, when he sends the same text. Another year you almost didn’t get. Live it.

“Jeff will come around,” Coop says, again bending the conversation to his will. “It’ll happen at Christmas, I bet. Guys like to propose then.” He takes a gulp of coffee. I sip my tea and blink, keeping my eyes shut an extra beat, hoping the darkness will allow me to feel the Xanax taking hold. Instead, I’m more anxious than when I walked in. I open my eyes to see a well-dressed woman entering the cafe with a chubby, equally well-dressed toddler. She’s an au pair, probably. Most women under thirty in this neighborhood are. On warm, sunny days they jam the sidewalks—a parade of interchangeable girls fresh out of college, armed with lit degrees and student loans.

The only reason this one catches my attention is because we look alike. Fresh-faced and well-scrubbed. Blonde hair reined in by a ponytail. Neither too thin nor too plump. The product of hearty, milk-fed Midwestern stock. That could have been me in a different life. One without Pine Cottage and blood and a dress that changed colors like in some horrible dream. That’s something else I think about every time Coop and I meet—he thought my dress was red. He’d whispered it to the dispatcher when he called for backup. It’s on both the police transcript, which I’ve read multiple times, and the dispatch recording, which I managed to listen to only once.

Someone’s running through the trees. Caucasian female. Young. She’s wearing a red dress. And she’s screaming. I was running through the trees. Galloping, really. Kicking up leaves, numb to the pain coursing through my entire body. And although all I could hear was my heartbeat in my ears, I was indeed screaming. The only thing Coop got wrong was the color of my dress.

It had, until an hour earlier, been white. Some of the blood was mine. The rest belonged to the others. Janelle, mostly, from when I cradled her moments before I got hurt. I’ll never forget the look on Coop’s face when he realized his mistake. That slight widening of the eyes. The oblong shape of his mouth as he tried to keep it from dropping open. The startled huffing sound he made. Two parts shock, one part pity. It’s one of the few things I actually can remember.

My experience at Pine Cottage is broken into two distinct halves. There’s the beginning, fraught with fear and confusion, in which Janelle lurched out of the woods, not yet dead but well on her way. Then there’s the end, in which Coop found me in my red-not-red dress. Everything between those two points remains a blank in my memory. An hour, more or less, entirely wiped clean. Dissociative amnesia is the official diagnosis. More commonly known as repressed memory syndrome. Basically, what I witnessed was too horrific for my fragile mind to hold onto. So I mentally cut it out. A self-performed lobotomy.

That didn’t stop people from begging me to remember what happened. Well-meaning family. Misguided friends. Psychiatrists with visions of published case studies dancing in their heads. Think, they all told me. Really think about what happened. As if that would make any difference. As if my being able to recall every blood-specked detail could somehow bring the rest of my friends back to life. Still, I tried. Hypnosis.

Therapy. Even a ridiculous sense memory game in which a frizzy-haired specialist held scented paper strips to my blindfolded face, asking how each one made me feel. Nothing worked. In my mind, that hour is a blackboard completely erased. There’s nothing left but dust. I understand that urge for more information, that longing for details. But in this case, I’m fine without them. I know what happened at Pine Cottage. I don’t need to remember exactly how it happened. Because here’s the thing about details—they can also be a distraction.

Add too many and it obscures the brutal truth about a situation. They become the gaudy necklace that hides the tracheotomy scar. I make no attempts to disguise my scars. I just pretend they don’t exist. The pretending continues in the cafe. As if my acting like Coop isn’t about to lob a bad-news grenade into my lap will actually keep it from happening. “Are you in the city on business?” I ask. “If you’re staying long, Jeff and I would love to take you to dinner. All three of us seemed to like that Italian place we went to last year.” Coop looks at me across the table.

His eyes are the lightest shade of blue I’ve ever seen. Lighter even than the pill currently dissolving into my central nervous system. But they are not a soothing blue. There’s an intensity to his eyes that always makes me look away, even though I want to peer deeper, as if that alone can make clear the thoughts hiding just behind them. They are a ferocious blue —the kind of eyes that you want in the person protecting you. “I think you know why I’m here,” he says. “I honestly don’t.” “I have some bad news. It hasn’t reached the press yet, but it will. Very soon.

” Him. That’s my first thought. This has something to do with Him. Even though I watched Him die, my brain sprints to that inevitable, inconceivable realm where He survived Coop’s bullets, escaped, hid for years and is now emerging with the intent of finding me and finishing what He started. He’s alive. A lump of anxiety fills my stomach, heavy and unwieldy. It feels like a basketball-sized tumor has formed there, pressing against my bladder. I’m struck by the sudden urge to pee. “It’s not that,” Coop says, easily knowing exactly what I’m thinking. “He’s gone, Quincy.

We both know that.” While nice to hear, it does nothing to put me at ease. I’ve balled my hands into fists pressed knuckle-down atop the table. “Please just tell me what’s wrong.” “It’s Lisa Milner,” Coop says. “What about her?” “She’s dead, Quincy.” The news sucks the air out of my chest. I think I gasp. I’m not sure because I’m too distracted by the watery echo of her voice in my memory. I want to help you, Quincy.

I want to teach you how to be a Final Girl. And I had let her. At least for a little while. I assumed she knew best. Now she’s gone. Now there are only two of us. CHAPTER 2 Lisa Milner’s version of Pine Cottage was a sorority house in Indiana. One long-ago February night, a man named Stephen Leibman knocked on the front door. He was a college drop-out who lived with his dad. Portly.

Had a face as jiggly and jaundiced as chicken fat. The sorority sister who answered the door found him on the front steps holding a hunting knife. One minute later, she was dead. Leibman dragged the body inside, locked all the doors and cut the lights and phone line. What followed was roughly an hour of carnage that brought an end to nine young women. Lisa Milner had come close to making it an even ten. During the slaughter, she took refuge in the bedroom of a sorority sister, cowering alone inside a closet, hugging clothes that weren’t hers and praying the madman wouldn’t find her. Eventually, he did. Lisa laid eyes on Stephen Leibman when he ripped open the closet door. She saw first the knife, then his face, both dripping blood.

After a stab to the shoulder, she managed to knee him in the groin and flee the room. She had reached the first floor and was making her way to the front door when Leibman caught up to her, knife jabbing. She took four stab wounds to her chest and stomach, plus a five-inch slice down the arm she had raised to defend herself. One more thrust of the blade would have finished her off. But Lisa, screaming in pain and dizzy from blood loss, somehow grabbed Leibman’s ankle. He fell. The knife skittered. Lisa grabbed it and shoved it hilt-deep into his gut. Stephen Leibman bled out lying next to her on the floor. Details.

They flow freely when they’re not yours. I was seven when it happened. It’s my first memory of actually noticing something on the news. I couldn’t help it. Not with my mother standing before the console television, a hand over her mouth, repeating the same two words. Sweet Jesus. Sweet Jesus. What I saw on that TV scared and confused and upset me. The weeping bystanders. The convoy of tarp-covered stretchers slipping beneath yellow tape criss-crossing the door.

The splash of blood bright against the Indiana snow. It was the moment I realized that bad things could happen, that evil existed in the world. When I began to cry, my father scooped me up and carried me into the kitchen. As my tears dried to salt, he placed a menagerie of bowls on the counter and filled them with flour, sugar, butter, and eggs. He gave me a spoon and let me mix them all together. My first baking lesson. There’s such a thing as too much sweetness, Quincy , he told me. All the best bakers know this. There needs to be a counterpoint. Something dark.

Or bitter. Or sour. Unsweetened chocolate. Cardamom and cinnamon. Lemon and lime. They cut through all the sugar, taming it just enough so that when you do taste the sweetness, you appreciate it all the more. Now the only taste in my mouth is a dry sourness. I dump more sugar into my tea and drain the cup. It doesn’t help. The sugar rush only counteracts the Xanax, which is finally starting to work its magic.

They clash deep inside me, making me antsy. “When did it happen?” I ask Coop once my initial shock reduces to a simmering sense of disbelief. “How did it happen?” “Last night. Muncie PD discovered her body around midnight. She had killed herself.” “Sweet Jesus.” I say it loud enough to get the attention of my au pair lookalike seated a table away. She glances up from her iPhone, head tilted like a cocker spaniel’s. “Suicide?” I say, the word bitter on my tongue. “I thought she was happy.

I mean, she seemed happy.” Lisa’s voice is still in my head. You can’t change what’s happened, Quincy. The only thing you can control is how you deal with it. “They’re waiting on the tox report to see if she had been drinking or was on drugs,” Coop says. “So this could have been an accident?” “It was no accident. Her wrists were slit.” My heart stops for a moment. I’m conscious of the empty pause where a pulse should be. Sadness pours into the void, filling me so quickly I start to feel dizzy.

“I want details,” I say. “You don’t,” Coop says. “It won’t change anything.” “It’s information. That’s better than nothing.” Coop stares into his coffee, as if examining his bright eyes in the muddy reflection. Eventually, he says, “Here’s what I know: Lisa called 911 at quarter to midnight, apparently with second thoughts.” “What did she say?” “Nothing. She hung up immediately. Dispatch traced the call and sent a pair of blues to her house. The door was unlocked, so they let themselves in. That’s when they found her. She was in the bathtub. Her phone was in the water with her. Probably slipped from her hands.” Coop looks out the window. He’s tired, I can tell. And no doubt worried I might one day try something similar. But that thought never occurred to me, even when I was back in the hospital being fed through a tube. I reach across the table, aiming for his hands. He pulls them away before I can grasp them. “When did you hear about it?” I ask. “A couple hours ago. Got a call from an acquaintance with the Indiana State Police. We keep in touch.” I don’t need to ask Coop how he knows a trooper in Indiana. Massacre survivors aren’t the only ones who need support systems. “She thought it’d be good to warn you,” he says. “For when word gets out.” The press. Of course. I like to picture them as ravenous vultures, slick innards dripping from their beaks. “I’m not going to talk to them.” This again gets the attention of the au pair, who looks up, eyes narrowed. I stare her down until she sets her iPhone on the table and pretends to fuss with the toddler in her care. “You don’t have to,” Coop says. “But at the very least you should consider releasing a statement of condolence. Those tabloid guys are going to hunt you down like dogs. Might as well toss them a bone before they get the chance.” “Why do I need to say anything?” “You know why,” Coop says. “Why can’t Samantha do it?” “Because she’s still off the grid. I doubt she’s going to pop out of hiding after all these years.” “Lucky girl.” “That just leaves you,” Coop says. “That’s why I wanted to come and tell you the news in person. Now, I know I can’t make you do anything you don’t want to, but it’s not a bad idea to start being friendly with the press. With Lisa dead and Samantha gone, you’re all they’ve got.” I reach into my purse and grab my phone. It’s been quiet. No new calls. No new texts. Nothing but a few dozen work-related emails I didn’t have time to read this morning. I shut off the phone—a temporary fix. The press will sniff me out anyway. Coop is right about that. They won’t be able to resist trying to get a quote from the only accessible Final Girl. We are, after all, their creation. Final Girl is technically film terminology, used to describe the last woman standing at the end of a horror movie. At least that’s what I’ve been told. Even before Pine Cottage, I never liked to watch scary movies because of the fake blood, the rubber knives, the characters who made decisions so stupid I guiltily thought they deserved to die. Only what happened to us wasn’t a movie. It was real life. Our lives. The blood wasn’t fake. The knives were steel and nightmare-sharp. And those who died definitely didn’t deserve it. But somehow we screamed louder, ran faster, fought harder. We survived. I don’t know where the nickname was first used to describe Lisa Milner. A newspaper in the Midwest, probably. Close to where she lived. Some reporter there tried to get creative about the sorority house killings and the nickname was the end result. It only spread because it was casually morbid enough for the Internet to pick up. All those nascent clickbait websites starving for attention jumped all over it. Not wanting to miss a trend, print outlets followed. Tabloids first, then newspapers and, finally, magazines. Within days, the transformation was complete. Lisa Milner was no longer simply a massacre survivor. She was a straight-from-a-horror-flick Final Girl. It happened again with Samantha Boyd four years later and then with me eight years after that. While there were other multiple homicides during those years, none quite got the nation’s attention like ours. We were, for whatever reason, the lucky ones who survived when no one else had. Pretty girls covered in blood. As such, we were each in turn treated like something rare and exotic. A beautiful bird that spreads its bright wings only once a decade. Or that flower that stinks like rotting meat whenever it deigns to bloom. The attention showered upon me in the months after Pine Cottage veered from kind to bizarre. Sometimes it was a combination of both, such as the letter I received from a childless couple offering to pay my college tuition. I wrote them back, turning down their generous offer. I never heard from them again. Other correspondence was more disturbing. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard from lonely Goth boys or prison inmates saying they want to date me, marry me, cradle me in their tattooed arms. An auto mechanic from Nevada once volunteered to chain me up in his basement to protect me from further harm. He was startling in his sincerity, as if he truly thought holding me captive was the most benevolent of good deeds. Then there was the letter claiming I needed to be finished off, that it was my destiny to be butchered. It wasn’t signed. There was no return address. I gave it to Coop. Just in case. I start to feel jittery. It’s the sugar and the Xanax, zipping through my body like the latest club drug. Coop senses my change in mood and says, “I know this is a lot to handle.” I nod. “You want to get out of here?” I nod again. “Then let’s go.” As I stand, the au pair again pretends to busy herself with the toddler, refusing to look my way. Maybe she recognizes me and it makes her uncomfortable. It’s happened before. When I pass, two steps behind Coop, I snatch her iPhone off the table without her noticing. It’s slipped deep into my pocket before I’m out the door. Coop walks me home, his body positioned slightly in front of mine, like a Secret Service agent. Both of us scan the sidewalk for members of the press. None appear. When we reach my building, Coop stops just shy of the maroon awning that shields the front door. The building is pre-war, elegant and spacious. My neighbors consist of blue-haired society ladies and fashionable gay gentlemen of a certain age. Every time Coop sees it, I’m sure he wonders how a baking blogger and a public defender can afford to rent an apartment on the Upper West Side. The truth is, we can’t. Not on Jeff’s salary, which is laughably small, and certainly not on the money my website takes in. The apartment is in my name. I own it. The funds came from a phalanx of lawsuits filed after Pine Cottage. Led by Janelle’s stepfather, the victims’ parents sued anyone and everyone possible. The mental hospital that allowed Him to escape. His doctors. The pharmaceutical companies responsible for the many antidepressants and antipsychotics that had clashed in His brain. Even the manufacturer of the hospital door with the malfunctioning lock through which He had escaped. All of them settled out of court. They knew a few million dollars was worth avoiding the bad PR they’d get from going up against a bunch of grieving families. Even a settlement wasn’t enough to spare some of them. One of the antipsychotics was eventually pulled from the market. The mental hospital, Blackthorn Psychiatric, closed its faulty doors within a year. The only people who couldn’t shell out were His parents, who had gone broke paying for His treatment. Fine by me. I had no desire to punish that dazed and moist-eyed couple for His sins. Besides, my share of the other settlements was more than enough. An accountant friend of my father helped me invest most of it while stocks were still cheap. I bought the apartment after college, just as the housing market was recovering from its colossal pop. Two bedrooms, two bathrooms, living room, dining room, kitchen with a breakfast nook that’s become my makeshift studio. I got it for a song. “Do you want to come up?” I ask Coop. “You’ve never seen the place.” “Maybe some other time.” Another thing he always says but never means. “I suppose you need to go,” I say. “It’s a long drive home. You going to be okay?” “Yeah,” I say. “Once the shock wears off.” “Call or text if you need anything.” That one he definitely means. Coop’s been willing to drop everything to see me ever since the morning after Pine Cottage. The morning I, in the throes of pain and grief, had wailed, I want the of icer! Please let me see him! He was there within half an hour. Ten years later, he’s still here, giving me a farewell nod. Once I return the gesture, Coop shields his baby blues with a pair of Ray-Bans and walks away, eventually disappearing among the other pedestrians. Inside the apartment, I head straight for the kitchen and take a second Xanax. The grape soda that follows is a rush of sweetness that, coupled with the sugar from the tea, makes my teeth ache. Yet I keep on drinking, taking several gentle sips as I pull the stolen iPhone from my pocket. A brief examination of the phone tells me that its former owner’s name is Kim and that she doesn’t use any of its security features. I can see every call, web search and text, including a recent one from a squarejaw named Zach. Up for a little fun tonight? For kicks, I text him back. Sure The phone beeps in my hand. Another text from Zach. He’s sent a picture of his dick. Charming. I switch off the phone. A precaution. Kim and I may look similar, but our ringtones differ wildly. Then I turn the phone over, staring at the silvery back that’s smudged with fingerprints. I wipe it clean until I can see my reflection, as distorted as if I were looking into a funhouse mirror. This will do. I finger the gold chain that’s always around my neck. Hanging from it is a small key, which opens the only kitchen drawer kept locked at all times. Jeff assumes it’s for important website paperwork. I let him believe that. Inside the drawer is a jangling menagerie of glinting metal. A shiny tube of lipstick and a chunky gold bracelet. Several spoons. A silver compact plucked from the nurse’s station when I left the hospital following Pine Cottage. I used it to stare at my reflection during the long drive home, making sure I was actually still there. Now I study the warped reflections looking back at me and feel that same sense of reassurance. Yes, I still exist. I deposit the iPhone with the other objects, close and lock the drawer, then put the key back around my neck. It’s my secret, warm against my breastbone.


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