Here's the winning entry for the Horror category for the 7th Annual Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Writing competition by nursing student Stefani Corn.
A Hand to Hold
Eugene always liked the color pink. It reminded him of summer and the roses he tended with his mother as a child. It reminded him, oddly, of power. Pink marked the boundary line which, once crossed, marked the beginning of his very favorite end: watching life drain out of the body as his hands wrapped tighter around a throat. He approached such work like any decent doctor would, quickly and with relatively little pain. His victims were dead and gone in the first few minutes, looking as if they had simply drifted off to sleep.
Today he watched the pink ribbons attached to the six-year-olds’ braids. The girl and her playmate searched for a rather dopey-looking boy of the same age with shaggy brown hair brushing along his eyelids. Eugene didn’t need excuses for being at the park, and he wouldn’t ever need one. He’d perfected invisibility. No mother would ever notice him standing in the distance, his eyes trained on her and her spawn. No child dared run near him for fear of strangers. Or perhaps they, in their youthful acuteness, could see past the facade. Either way, his presence was but a minor blip on the radar of the playground inhabitants. Their world just happened to collide with his, just the way Eugene liked it. He never planned which child to take. It was purely based on chance encounters, small talk on the street corner or, like today, attracting his eye with a bright swatch of fabric. His targets were anyone, everyone. All they had to do was cross his path.
* * *
Lydia had taken her daughter to the same playground all of the six years she’d been a mother. Jemma had friends here, and there was no easy escape into woods or open roads. She’d seen her best friend lose a child like that, and she wasn’t going to let it happen to her. Perhaps she was overly protective, but Lydia wasn’t taking any chances. Her mother suggested Jemma might like more variety, but routine was often a parent’s strongest companion, and Lydia hated to upset her daughter. Jemma loved the playground.
For some reason, Lydia trusted Jemma’s radar better than her own. Children always saw what a parent couldn’t. They sensed things. Jemma always seemed to know which adults were safe to approach and which adults to stay away from. She wasn’t shy, but she was discerning.
Just the other day Jemma broke free of Lydia grasp and ran to pick up a glove a man had dropped on the path. Well-dressed and a bit dashing, Lydia appraised the man as handsome and old-fashioned. He patted Jemma on the head and whispered something to her. At that precise moment, a shriek arose from the playground, and Lydia turned to follow it, missing her only clue.
When the man spoke, Jemma froze. It was as if he’d reached inside her and pushed a special button, stopping her heart. It wasn’t natural. Jemma, six-years-old and always vibrating from her ADD, stood entirely still until the man turned and walked away. It was a trick Jemma’s mother could never accomplish, and Lydia missed it entirely.
Missed opportunities are life’s great slaps in the face; Lydia had just missed the biggest slap of her life.
* * *
Eugene worked maintenance at Parker Grove Elementary School Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays. No one knew about his medical training. He’d taken great pains to have all documentation incinerated. To the world he was a below-average toiler. If a man made a modest wage and kept to himself the world assumed he preferred the bottle to actual company, which suited Eugene just fine.
In the mornings and afternoons parents dropped off and picked up their little ones, and Eugene accomplished his best people-watching at these times. It disgusted him the way parents fussed over their kids, agonizing at the departure when most of them were truly relieved to be rid of the brat for the day. It was little more than an elaborate ruse they imagined the world didn’t notice, but Eugene did. Eugene saw everything.
It just so happened that Monday brought Eugene’s chance encounter right to him. The six-year-old girl from the park trotted along beside her mother. Eugene kept his eyes down—just another janitor, don’t mind me—but he watched her feet move along the pavement. It was interesting, the tight grip her mother kept even when the little one strained to run towards her classmates. The girl had presented him his glove in the park. He’d played the role of thankful old gentleman until her mother turned a blind eye.
“I like your ribbons, have you ever tried tying them around your neck?”
He had touched the ribbons, pulling them, then encircling his own throat so that she understood. The girl had completely frozen. Before she could scream, he was out of sight.
Eugene chose kids because they forgot everything, and they presented a challenge adults couldn’t match. They squirmed so delightfully.
A strangler’s worst nightmare was Eugene’s biggest thrill.
* * *
He’d wanted to move on the six-year-old sooner, but he’d been busy Saturday with a nine-year-old he’d caught stealing gum from the local grocery. Systematically he’d broken each finger on the child’s right hand at the knuckle; the kid denied stealing until the pinkie. Eugene let his victim writhe in pain while he grabbed a pair of pliers. In med school he’d had a professor who swore that bone pain was the worst pain. This theory was now about to be tested.
“Do you know what happens when you eat too much candy?” he asked the boy.
Nothing came from him.
“Your teeth rot and they have to be pulled.”
Gripping the boy’s first healthy molar he twisted and pulled quickly. The boy’s scream was muffled by the gurgling of blood that spilled into his throat.
Eugene extracted three more but bored quickly, watching the child’s blood spill over his hands and down onto his victim’s skin.
He’d had enough of play time.
* * *
Lydia missed the Amber Alert. She was just leaving Jemma with her teacher when a harried-looking woman rushed across the school grounds, holding a picture of a young boy and demanding to know if Lydia had seen him. Shaking her head grimly, Lydia offered to help the woman look, but the woman’s stricken face fell and she turned from Lydia and ran to another parent in another car.
Deciding to be the vigilant parent, she drove to a nearby internet café. Silently she clicked to the CNN’s webpage. Lydia recognized the boy’s face staring back at her from the screen. It was the boy from the photo.
He’d been missing since Saturday night. A policeman stated he climbed out his bedroom window. To where, no one knew. His terrified and helpless parents had no suggestions. The most eerie part: no footprints in the dirt surrounding the boy’s window. The search continued.
That day Lydia child-proofed her daughter’s first floor window and added dark purple curtains to block intruding eyes. She wasn’t going to let anything happen to Jemma, not while she was still around to make sure of it.
Eugene got a chuckle out of the mother’s curtains. A rather lame attempt. People did whatever they could to feel safe, even if the tools they used wouldn’t keep them safe at all.
Eugene had already taken care of the mom. Now he just needed to return to the school and wait.
* * *
Mondays were a crapshoot at the elementary. Parents ramming their minivans into spaces too tiny, small children bouncing about like loose pinballs.
Lydia was so busy locking her doors at home that she was already five minutes behind schedule. In ten minutes, school would be out. In fifteen, her daughter would be waiting, out in the open for anyone to grab.
Hurrying to the car, Lydia inserted her key and turned the lock.
She re-inserted her key, and got more of the same. Panic nipping at the back of her neck, she popped the hood, completed a quick survey and found nothing wrong. She repeated the whole process three times before noticing her neighbor. Franticly, she pleaded with him to take a look.
The man got under the car. Immediately his face shifted from bored to puzzled and ended finally at frightened.
“Well…uh…Lydia… umm… how do I put this?” He paused, scratching his day-old stubble. “Somebody cut your brake lines, your oil line, and your gas line. You aren’t going anywhere.”
Stunned into silence, Lydia called the only person she knew who would get there fast enough for her liking: Jemma’s father.
* * *
By the time Jemma’s dad arrived there were only a few stragglers left, none of which were his daughter. He jumped out of his Chrysler and approached the nearest teacher. He asked about Jemma, but the woman hadn’t seen his daughter since early that morning.
Next step, he thought, walking into the office.
“Excuse me, but I’m looking for my daughter, Jemma Gardner. Can you page her?”
The secretary nodded, noting his urgent tone. Five minutes passed. Jemma’s father stood and started franticly searching the halls. Other teachers joined the search, combing the halls and jostling closet doors.
Jemma was nowhere to be found.
* * *
Eugene snatched the girl right out from under them, ha. It wasn’t even a challenge. He played the friendly janitor, “watching” this little girl waiting for her mother. She didn’t even flinch when he offered to get her a soda. She just followed him. This is why he loved kids. No memory, no inhibitions. He was going to steal the innocent look right off her litle face.
Once they reached the storage shed, he guided her easily, pressing his large fingers into a pressure point on her neck. Eugene watched with giddy pleasure as she fell forward, gasping.
“Monday, Monday,” he hummed. “So good to me.”
The girl opened her mouth to protest, her eyes suddenly widening with the realization that this was not what it seemed. Eugene clapped a hand over her mouth.
Lifting three loose boards, he created a large black hole in the middle of the floor. He shoved the girl down into the hole and followed on her heels.
But only he would emerge.
* * *
Jemma had disappeared. Her father walked the school property, finding nothing except a locked supply shed. The principal told him the shed was abandoned, not even the janitors used it. Helplessly, he jiggled the rusted lock. It appeared fragile, but it didn’t budge. He leaned hard against it, his head making a soft, echoing thud.
He couldn’t tell Lydia he lost her. It’d only cement what she already thought. The world was a dangerous place, and he was a dangerous part of it.
He had to find his daughter before her mother got here.
* * *
Eugene could hear the rustling of the lock, then a soft thud. A toothy grin spread over his face. They can’t hear me down here, he thought.
Becoming a maintenance worker had been a small part of Eugene’s original plan, one that grew larger over time. The abandoned shed eventually became the heart of his operations. But he hadn’t always been a janitor.
He’d once been a pediatrician, working tirelessly to save the youth. Then one day while helping a young homeless boy, Eugene had been attacked by the boy’s mother. She stabbed Eugene with a used drug-needle. Turns out all Eugene’s do-gooding got him only an HIV infection. By this late date, AIDS was doing its worst inside him. Since that day he cursed children and parents alike. Quitting his practice, he made a solemn vow to teach parents what it was like to have their life snatched from them. As Eugene’s loving mama always said, “You, my baby, are my life.”
He’d strapped the six-year-old down. She’d be coming-to soon, and he needed to figure out a perfect method for her. Only trouble was he couldn’t think. Usually the punishment he gave fit their crimes, but with this one the only thing he had was the glove and her over-protective mother.
“Over protective bitch,” he said.
The light bulb went off in Eugene’s head, and the sinister look he gave would have scared the peace out of Mother Theresa.
He prepped the area with alcohol, then grabbed his scalpel.
I’ve gotten too soft, he thought, as he continued his work.
He was going to enjoy this.
* * *
Lydia arrived at the school almost an hour after it had cleared out. She saw her husband’s truck parked near the front and her heart skipped a beat. He shouldn’t still be here. Emerging from her car she ran into the office.
Seeing their faces her heart dropped into the pit of her stomach. Jay stood and wrapped his arms around her.
“We can’t find Jemma. She was gone before I got here.”
Lydia couldn’t speak, she couldn’t even breathe. In that moment, her ex-husband’s closeness was suffocating. Lifting her head, she asked if they’d called anyone yet. Her ex sighed and said they’d already issued the Amber Alert. The police were out in the neighborhoods going door to door. She didn’t want to cry. She wanted to know how this happened, why it had to be her little girl. They were questions she’d never really know the answer to.
Taking Jay’s hand, she spoke softly, “Can we look around here, again?”
The principal nodded. The couple proceeded down the hallway, poking in and out of the rooms in the same pattern the staff had taken earlier, getting only the same results.
* * *
The six-year-old opened her eyes during the process and let out a series of ear-shattering screams. Eugene paused to listen for footsteps from outside. He heard none. He finished his deed.
Her blood now seeped through the wooden table, the drops making eerie sounds as they hit the limestone floor.
“Hello little one,” he quipped. “Remember me?”
She looked at him vacantly, the pain overwhelming. The end was near.
Walking to his bench, he grabbed the plastic bag he had picked up on his way back to school. Streaming from the black bag was a length of pink ribbon, just like the one she had in her hair the day he saw her. Quickly he bent over her, wrapping the ribbon around her throat. She began to squirm, kicking her little legs, connecting hard with his groin. Pulling back, he lost the grip on the ribbon. The pain pulsed through him, but it couldn’t drown his enthusiasm. His excitement peaked.
Getting up, he walked around so her head met the bulk of his chest. Tightening the ribbon, he watched the pink come and go from her skin.
Later that night, Lydia and Jay arrived home, their bodies weary from the cold bench at the police station. There on her doorstep Lydia found a box. Immediately she dropped it, the stench loosening her grip faster than heat or cold.
Jay took it to the garage; wrapping a shirt around his face he opened the box.
Lydia passed out the moment she saw it. Jay took a moment, then emptied his guts on the driveway. Inside the box was Jemma’s little hand, between the fingers lay a note.
“For my over protective mother, the hand to which you so desperately hold.”
* * *
Lydia was never found, and Eugene never caught.
Three years later, he succumbed to his disease. No one ever knew of his work in the abandoned shed, or of the six little bodies sealed in airtight plastic that lay in the ground around it. He died happy, the little six-year-old girl his last kill.
The look on her mother’s face upon seeing the severed hand had finally quenched his lust for revenge.