Beautiful Woman

“Am I beautiful?” she asks.
Marty is unsure how to respond. At seven years old, his mother has taught him to always be polite to a person, but she’s never mentioned what to say when someone asks you if they’re beautiful. Naturally, he’s inclined to say yes, that she is very pretty, but isn’t sure how to go about it. He’s never been asked this question before.
What do I say? he thinks. What I do a say to a lady who’s very pretty?
Should he say yes?
Should he say no?
What, exactly, should he say?
Glancing up, the child begins to take in the woman’s appearance, from top to bottom. She’s wearing tennis shoes much like his own, but black and with white laces. Her pants are brown, but her coat… it’s a funny color. He knows the word in the back of his head, though he’s not sure how to say it. He does know, however, that it starts with a B and ends with an E.
Bei… Guh.
Beige is the color of the woman’s coat.
Satisfied with himself, Marty smiles and looks up—expecting to see the face of the pretty neighbor he has not yet met—but frowns when he finds she is wearing a mask. Like a doctor on TV, she is wearing a white mask. He thinks she might be sick, but he quickly shakes that off and looks at her eyes.
They’re dark.
They’re very dark.
Finally, he comes to her hair, which looks as though it’s been brushed thousands upon thousands of times. That’s how straight it is, and what’s more is that it glows, like the earrings his daddy bought his mommy for her birthday.
She is beautiful.
Satisfied with his answer, he smiles and nods.
“Yes,” he says. “You’re very beautiful.”
Marty expects the woman to smile, just like everyone should when they’re told they’re beautiful.
His mommy smiles when his daddy says she’s beautiful.
But instead of smiling, or her white cover moving like he expects, the beautiful woman reaches up and lowers her mask.
Marty screams.
He is unable to run away as the woman lunges forward, pulls a hook from her coat pocket, and cuts his mouth open from ear to ear.

A child has died today.
Erik is tired of hearing it from his mother. She’s been going on about it over and over again, as if it’s the worst news she’s ever heard. Worse than the towers falling, worse than the bridge collapsing, worse than the war exploding—but here, in her moment of panic, she’s talking about a child, about a little boy who makes no impact on the world beyond his own family.
The original shocked excitement of hearing the little boy’s mouth had been slashed open quickly wore off when his mother wouldn’t shut up.
“ERIK!” she shrieks. “Where are you GOING?”
“Out,” he says, as though she hasn’t just screamed at him.
“You can’t go out! There’s a killer on the—”
“I’m a big boy Mom. I can handle myself.”
“Erik Daniel James Crawford, you get your sorry little ass back here right now or I’ll—”
Erik walks out the door.
He knows it’s not an open threat. His mother never punishes him. She has no reason to. He gets straight-As in school, is one of the best players on the soccer team, and hasn’t been in trouble for the past year. There’s no reason for her to ground him for the next three months over going outside.
And on the porch, no doubt.
Sighing, he leans against the porch railing and takes a breath of fresh air. He looks out at the nearby street and imagines how the little boy was killed. First he would have been walking alone, without his parent’s permission and with all the neighbors’ windows closed. Next, the killer would have stepped out of an alley, or walked down the street as though nothing were amiss. And finally, after all the dramatic buildup that would have been tingling in thin air, the man would have rushed forward, grabbed the little boy, and cut his face open.
But why would someone cut his face open? Erik frowns. That won’t kill him.
Unless, of course, you didn’t get to a hospital on time—otherwise you’d die from blood loss.
The little boy had been nowhere near a hospital.
Reaching up, Erik feels his face, giving in to the imagination that runs wild in his head. What would it be like to have your face cut open, or to have someone come out of an alley or down the street and do that to you?
He doesn’t really want to know. He’d rather go in and listen to his mother complain than have anything like that happen.
Looking up, Erik smiles as he sees his father’s car pull into the driveway.
Thank God, he thinks. At least he’ll be able to put some sense into mom.
After all this time, he knows what his father is capable of.

“Did you hear?”
Erik is unable to control his sigh.
Here we go again.
“Hear what?” Benjamin Crawford asks, tucking a kerchief into his shirt. He winks at his son before reaching for his sandwich.
“A little boy was murdered today.”
“Oh? Who was it?”
“A little boy named Marty.”
Erik’s father chokes on his sandwich. He takes a moment to regain his composure before speaking.
“Marty Crenshaw?” he asks.
“Yes—that was his name.”
Erik swallows a lump in his throat.
It isn’t until just now that he knows his father’s best friend’s son has been killed.
“Little Marty?” Erik frowns, spiders crawling through his chest. “Adam’s son?”
“No, it couldn’t be,” Benjamin says, standing. “I would’ve gotten a call, I would’ve heard something about this, I—”
As if God has heard his father’s plea, the phone rings.
“Benjamin,” Erik’s mother says, hand cupped over her mouth. “It’s not… it couldn’t…”
Benjamin walks to the phone.
He takes the call, leaves the room, and doesn’t return for nearly ten minutes.
When he comes back, his face is pale and his eyes are red.
“Marty’s dead,” he says, the first tear slipping down his face. “They don’t know who did it.”

Erik sits with his father in Adam Crenshaw’s living room.
Tea—the common drink around the house—sits in fine china in front of them, waiting to be drank.
So far, no one has made a move to touch any.
Not sure how to respond to anything going on around him, Erik remains still, listening to the small, whispered conversation between his father and his friend. He’d like to say something—anything—to help improve the mood and possibly put the man at ease, but doesn’t. He knows he’ll just screw something up or make something worse if he opens his mouth.
Poor Dad, he thinks, watching the forced composure on his father’s face. Poor Mr. Crenshaw.
The man’s usually-cheerful, bright brown eyes are muddled. Like holes drowned with water, nothing but black reflects on their surfaces. It’s expected though. The pronounced lines around his mouth, the darkness in his eyes, the color drained from his face—all signs of grief, pulled from the deepest and darkest places of the human heart.
“Where was he?” Benjamin asks. “When… when it…”
“Walking to a friend’s,” Adam says. “Just walking to a friend’s.”
Nothing more needs to be said. Marty was often seen walking the streets of their small town in Maine, en route to a friend’s or to the local candy shop. Normally, everyone looked out for him; some even went so far as to walk out onto their porch and watch the boy as he passed their houses and until he cleared their roads. But for some reason, no one seemed to be around earlier today. No one stepped onto their porch, no one walked out to their mailbox, and no one said hello to the little boy who could.
Erik takes a deep breath.
He tries not to cry.
His tears come anyway.
“It’s all right, Erik,” Adam says.
“No it’s not,” Erik says, reaching up to wipe his eyes. “No one should have to go through something like this.”
“No,” Adam nods, “no one should.”
But it’s happened, Erik thinks.
Standing, he walks to the nearby window, both to distract himself from his emotions and to let the men talk. From here, he can see nearly everything—their garden, their mailbox, the pier that rests at the very end of the road. He wants to see boats pulling in from a long day of adventure. He wants to see the shock on the men’s faces when they come to find that someone—especially a child—has been killed.
With his second sigh of the visit, he closes his eyes.
He knows that won’t happen.

“That didn’t go well,” Erik says.
“No,” his father replies. “It didn’t.”
Erik’s mother is standing in the kitchen, talking to a friend on the phone while Erik and Benjamin try to recover from their trip. While no more than a few tears were shed on their end, it doesn’t help that they’ve just visited a father who’s lost his son. Erik’s been to few funerals—mainly the ones of his grandparents on his father’s side, but nothing more than that. He remembers the way it felt to lose a grandparent—how that, after a while, you don’t begin to think about them on a day-to-day basis, but you still remember that they’re gone. He can’t imagine how it feels to lose a child, someone born of your love, flesh and blood.
“Dad,” he says.
“Yes, son?”
“Why would someone want to kill a little boy?”
Benjamin narrows his eyes. In Erik’s fifteen-and-a-half-years, he’s asked his father many questions—some simple, some complicated—but nothing like this. He knows he may have crossed some forbidden line, but some part of him wants to know why someone would want to kill someone like Marty, and why someone would want to do it.
“Well, son,” Benjamin says, setting his hands on his knees. “People will kill each other for a lot of reasons.”
“I know that, Dad. I was asking why someone would want to kill Marty.”
“There’s no easy way to answer your question, Erik. Maybe whoever killed Marty was sick.”
“Sick.” Benjamin taps his head for emphasis. Erik ‘ohs’ and nods, gesturing for his father to continue. “Honestly, if you want to know my opinion, I think anyone who kills another person is sick. Some doctors say that the people who kill without meaning to—like someone who gets charged for manslaughter, for example—do it because the part of their brain that tells them what’s right and wrong stops working for a second.”
“So it’s not their fault then,” Erik says.
Benjamin doesn’t immediately reply.
There is no right or wrong answer to that question. That is already obvious.
“But some people,” his father continues, leaning forward so their faces are only a foot apart, “aren’t able to tell what’s right or wrong, or what’s real or imagined. Some people are born that way, and some get like that because of things that have happened to them in the past. But you want to know what I think, son?”
“Some people don’t have that part of their brain,” Benjamin says, closing his eyes. “They never have, and they never will, no matter what they do.”

That night, after his parents have gone to bed, Erik lays awake pondering what his father said earlier. While he does this, he places his hands behind his head and stares at the ceiling, tracing the uneven lines of paint back and forth across the room.
Some people don’t have, he thinks, and never will.
The thought chills him to no end.
Even on a warm, summer evening, the idea that a person can be born to kill fills him with ice.
Throwing his legs over his bed, Erik rubs his eyes and looks out his window. Here, so far away from the road, a person would have to cross onto their lawn and step over his mother’s rock garden to get anywhere near it. He’s never pulled the curtains over it, but he’s always kept it locked.
His mother once told him when he was four that strangers could come up to your window and get inside if you left it open.
She’s never mentioned anything about anyone looking in.

“You’re not walking to school today, Erik.”
He says nothing. He’s more than willing to let his father drive him to school.
After a few tense moments, he finally replies. “I know.” He slugs his pack over his shoulders. “Don’t worry, Dad—I don’t care.”
“Good,” Benjamin nods, sipping his fourth cup of coffee. “Are you almost ready to go?”
“Yeah. Why?”
“I have to go to the bathroom.”
“All right.”
Smiling, Benjamin slips out of the kitchen and into the living room, where he leaves Erik to adjust to the slowly-rising light of the morning sun as he makes his way toward the bathroom.
That’s all right, Erik thinks. At least I won’t have to walk.
He usually sits on the couch and watches TV for another half-hour, then makes the nearly mile-long trip to school. However, with his father having to leave early for work, he’s unable to laze on the couch. As far as he sees it, morning TV is no big loss.
“All right,” his father says, clapping Erik’s shoulders. He laughs when his son jumps. “Scare ya there, son?”
“Yuh-Yeah,” he smiles. “You did.”
In the back of his mind, a faceless man traces his face from ear to ear.
He’s more than ready to leave.

The principal is standing at the front door when Erik steps out of his father’s car. Frowning, Erik turns to say goodbye, only pausing to tell his dad that nothing’s wrong when he notices his frown.
“I’m ok,” he says, forcing a smile, despite the fingers sliding down his back. “I was just wondering why Mr. Barniff was standing outside the door.”
“Just a precaution,” Benjamin smiles, patting his son’s hand. “Have a good day at school, buddy.”
“I will. Thanks Dad—love you.”
“Love you too. Bye.”
Waving, Erik turns and approaches the principal, only stopping to look over his shoulder and make sure his father has truly left before turning to face the man.
“Sir,” he says. “Is everything all right?”
“Yes sir, mister…”
“Crawford,” Erik finishes. “Erik Crawford.”
“Ah. I thought I’d recognized the man dropping you off.”
He nods. His father’s a well-known and respected real-estate agent in their small town.
“There’s nothing to worry about, Erik. We’re just making sure that everyone gets in safe and sound.”
“All right. Thank you, Mr. Barniff.”
“You have a good day today, all right?”
“I will,” he says. “Thank you—”
He doesn’t finish.
His voice is lost in a pool of whispers, laughs and giggles.

The process is repeated as he leaves. Teachers—at least three—stand on the long, concrete path that connects the jagged U of the road. All men, he realizes. They wouldn’t leave a female teacher in a vulnerable position, especially not with a killer on the loose.
“You hear?” his father asks, leaning over to open the passenger seat, as he always does.
“Hear what?” Erik frowns.
“Curfew at six.”
“Uh huh. Six at night ‘till seven in the morning. Anyone caught out past then’ll get taken in for questioning.”
“I know,” Benjamin laughs. “Watch what you say. Your mother’ll lay an egg if she hears you talking like that.”
“Sorry, Dad.”
“Nothing to be sorry about. I honestly don’t care—it’s her you’ll hear it from.”
Nodding, Erik pulls his seatbelt over his chest and waits for his father to pull out of the parking lot. He expected him to be a little late—by at least ten minutes, maybe even twenty. Apparently though, Benjamin Crawford has left his illustrious offices early to pick up his son.
Figures. Mom wouldn’t even begin to let Dad think about letting me take the bus.
“Thanks for picking me up, Dad.”
“No need to thank me, Erik. I’m more than happy to come get you.”
“I thought you worked until four?”
“I do. Dropping an hour off my schedule isn’t going to hurt business any.”
Erik shrugs.
“That is,” Benjamin continues. “if I still have any.”
“The word’s spread, son—our town’s got a killer on the loose, and no one’s going to move somewhere where they be murdered.”
“You mean—”
“Yeah.” Benjamin takes a deep breath. “Five clients I was supposed to meet today cancelled. They’re looking elsewhere.”
Erik swallows a lump in his throat.
Nothing good will come from this.

His parents have been fighting all day. His mother’s been saying, He shouldn’t be going to school, while his father’s been adamantly replying, Yes he should.  It got to the point previously in the evening where Erik had to flee to his soundproof room to escape the noise, less he go nuts from the sound of their harsh voices.
Waking to the sound of silence, Erik sits up and opens his eyes to find the room dark. Confused, he blinks, wondering how he got here. This confusion lasts for about a minute before he realizes that, earlier, he succumbed to a nap after lying down to drown his thoughts away.
Pressure weighs on his bladder.
He needs to pee.
Rising, he gives himself a moment to gain his composure, then crosses the room and slides out the door.
In the hallway, he listens for the sound of his parent’s voices, or the buzz of the TV.
He hears neither.
Thinking they went to bed early, he gives into his body’s inhibitions and dashes for the bathroom, quick to empty his bladder and flush the toilet, but dreading the sound it will make. The sound—not loud, but not quiet either—will wake his father, whose light sleeping and unease in the wake of a killer will seek him out at this ungodly hour of the night.
Oh well, he thinks. What’s the worst that could happen?
He flushes the toilet, then waits—one minute, two, three, then four.
The sound of his father’s footsteps do not come.
Relief coursing through his system, he exits the bathroom, glances down the hall to make sure neither of his parents have risen, then heads toward his room.
Just before he enters the bedroom, a figure slides away from the window.
Erik’s heart drops.
Oh God.
His first and only instinct is to scream for his father.

“Are you sure you saw something?” Benjamin asks, taking hold of his son’s trembling shoulders. “Erik—Erik!
“I saw someone,” Erik nods. “I wasn’t seeing things, Dad. I’d already been up for five minutes.”
“Are you sure your eyes weren’t playing tricks on you? You weren’t just seeing light reflecting off anything?”
He shakes his head.
“Damn it,” Benjamin swears, running a hand through his hair.
“You’re all right though,” his mother says, “right?”
“Yeah Mom. I’m fine.”
“Thank God.”
After his mother kisses his face more times than he can bear, Erik pulls away and follows his father into the living room. His mother—most likely as traumatized as he is—remains in the hallway. Erik isn’t sure whether or not she’s already retreated to her and his father’s room.
“Dad,” he says, “it’s ok. Don’t worry—I’m fine.”
“I know. You just scared the hell out of me, son.”
“I didn’t know what else to do. I mean, I know I shouldn’t have yelled, but…” Erik sighs. Despite seeing someone who could possibly be the person who killed Marty Crenshaw, the guilt of screaming still remains. A man—even if he is an almost sixteen-year-old boy—doesn’t scream when something startles him. He may yell in surprise, but he does not scream, not even when he sees a killer.
“Erik,” Benjamin sighs, wrapping an arm around his son’s shoulders. “Scream or no scream, at least you got me up.”
“Thanks Dad.”
“No problem, son.”
Erik waits, expecting his father to say something more. When he doesn’t, he slides out of his father’s grip and looks at the living room windows. Like his own room, their drapes aren’t drawn.
“Dad,” he whispers.
“Yes, Erik?”
“Can we close the curtains tonight?”
“Yes,” Benjamin says. “We can.”

A police officer arrives at six the following morning, sporting a casual, undercover attire and a calm, reassuring grin. When Erik answers the door—dressed in boxers and an undershirt—he blushes, surprised at the man’s presence.
“Excuse me, sir,” he says, looking down at himself. “I didn’t know you would be—”
“It’s all right, son. It’s Saturday—a boy deserves to walk around in his underwear.”
Erik smiles, not the least bit humbled by the man’s words.
“Your father called last night and said his son saw someone outside his bedroom window. I assume that was you?”
“Yes sir—it was.”
“What’s your name?”
“Erik. Erik Crawford.”
“Ah,” the officer smiles, extending his hand. “I figured I recognized this place. Sorry I didn’t introduce myself earlier. I’m Officer Rudy Daniels.”
“It’s nice to meet you, sir.”
“Pleasure’s all mine.”
Stepping aside so the officer can enter, Erik closes the door and calls for his father. Benjamin arrives in the same type of attire, sans a shirt.
“Oh, hello,” Benjamin smiles, but cocks unimpressed eyes at his son. “I’m sorry—I didn’t know someone was here.”
“It’s all right. You’re Mr. Crawford, I assume?”
“Yes sir.”
“Officer Rudy Daniels. I’m here to take a statement from your son and walk around the property.”
“All right. Do you need me to—”
“Actually, Erik’s the only one I need to speak to, since he’s the one who saw the lurker.”
“Ah… All right then. Would you like some coffee?”
“It’s not necessary, but if you’d like, I’ll have a cup after your son has shown me his room.”
“Ok. Thank you, Officer.”
“No need to.”
Taking his cue—both by the officer and his father’s wandering eye—Erik leads the policeman down the hall and to his room, which he hasn’t bothered to step into more than once this morning. He slept in the living room with his father last night, both out of safety and the overwhelming fear of waking up and seeing the person again.
“You don’t have curtains?” Rudy Daniels frowns.
“No, sir. My mom used to tell me not to open the window when I was a kid. She never mentioned anything about putting curtains in here.”
Rudy marks this down. His pen speaks silent words as it dances across the paper.
“What time did you see the person, Erik?”
“At around midnight, I think.”
“Was it a man or a woman?”
“I… I couldn’t tell,” he frowned. “It looked like a man, but I didn’t get a good look. Whoever it was slid away from the window before I could look at them.”
“Anything you remember?”
Brown against his bedroom window.
“They had brown on,” he mumbled. “It looked like a coat.”
“Long, short hair? Height?”
“Long, past the shoulders; maybe my height.”
“So about five-eight?”
Nodding, Erik approaches the window, but stops short.
Something about the closeness of being where a possible killer stood bothers him.
“Did you need me to go outside with you?” he asks. “Because if you need me to show you where they were, I can—”
“There’s no need to,” Rudy smiles. “Besides—the crime scene investigators are coming to see if they can get anything off the ground. None of you went out in the garden, did you?”
“Then we should be set to go.” Rudy extends his hand. “It’s been great talking with you, Erik. Thanks for all your help.”
“No problem,” he says.
As he watches the officer leave the room, he can’t help but feel like he could’ve done something more.

“What’d he say when he walked out of my room?” Erik asks.
“Nothing,” Benjamin says. “I gave him a cup of coffee, walked him around the house, and talked about what happened while the crime scene investigators came and took a look at the area. Why? Did something happen?”
“No. Nothing happened.”
“All right. Just making sure.” Benjamin stands to get another cup of coffee, but stops. He swears under his breath and turns to his son.
“What’s wrong, Dad?”
“We’re out of coffee.”
Frowning, Erik starts to sit at the table, but stops, crossing the room to stand by his father’s side.
“You don’t work today,” the boy mumbles. “Do you really need it?”
“No, but it’s nice to start off the day with a little caffeine, you know?”
“I guess.”
Benjamin chuckles and slaps an arm around his son’s shoulder.
“Nothing to worry about, Erik. Hey—you want to go do something today?”
“Like what?”
“I don’t know. The mall, grocery shopping, a walk—something simple like that.”
“Would you really want to go for a walk with someone hanging around the house? What about Mom?”
“I think she mentioned something about going to a friend’s house. You don’t remember?”
He doesn’t bother to think about what he might have done if he’d been alone and someone had tried to break into the house. Instead, he nods, forces a smile, and says, “Sure—let’s go do something.”
“Honey!” Benjamin calls. “We’re going for a walk!”
“Erik and I.”
“All right,” she says. She steps into the room, slides her shoes on, and slings her purse over her shoulder. “I was going to go to Connie’s anyway.”
“Sounds good.” Benjamin turns, sets a hand on Erik’s shoulder, and smiles. “Ready, buddy?”
Ready as I’ll ever be, Erik thinks, sliding his jacket and preparing to follow his father out the door.

The neighborhood is empty. Like a ghost town in the middle of a desert, the only thing that seems to move is the wind and the trees that border the road. The feeling of isolation is enough to force Erik closer to his father.
“You ok?” Benjamin asks.
“I’m fine,” Erik says, sliding his hands into his pockets. “Just the wind, that’s all.”
The wind would be a good-enough excuse. He doesn’t need his father to think that he’d intentionally moved over to be closer to him.
Not that it would matter. Dad wouldn’t care.
If anything, his father would only smile and throw an arm over his shoulder.
“It’s a nice day, isn’t it?” Benjamin asks, turning to look at his son.
“It’s ok,” Erik shrugs.
“What do you mean ‘it’s ok?’ It’s beautiful.”
“There isn’t anyone out here, Dad.”
“Oh.” Benjamin frowns. He stops in midstride to look up the road, shoving his hands in his pockets in the process. “You’re right.”
In the moments following the awkward realization, Erik steps forward, reaching for his father’s arm, but stops before he can fully touch it.
He sees a figure approaching from the end of the street.
“Shh,” he whispers. “Be quiet, Dad.”
Benjamin does as asked.
As the figure approaches, Erik can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of dread. The weight of the world is on his shoulders, as it was when Atlas first carried it. Stones are tied to his feet, sand is thrown in his eyes, and water is filling his ears with each and every passing moment. It is he who can speak out, he who can make them turn to leave the scene of what might become a horrible crime.
In the back of his mind, he sees a brown-colored coat pressed against his window. But in front of his eyes—in front of his cold, blue eyes—he sees the figure that looked in his window last night at the stroke of midnight.
He sees a woman with long, black hair and a shining, white mask.
“What is it, Erik?”
“That’s her.”
“That’s her.”
“Who’s her, Erik? What’re you talking about?”
“She’s the one who was looking through my window.”
She’s the one who killed Marty.
As forbidden as his thought is, he can do nothing to restrain it. Marty, walking down the street with a bag of change in his hand; a woman, beautiful, with an Asian face and a white mask; a hook, long, sharp and curved, slicing through a child’s cheeks—all are forbidden, all are secret, but all are true.
How he knows the child’s demise, he does not know. All he knows is that Marty’s killer is making her way down the street, mask and hidden hook in toe.
“We’ve gotta go, Dad.”
“What’re you talking about, Erik?”
“We’ve gotta go! Now!”
“She did it!” he cries, grabbing his father’s arms. “She killed Marty!”
“Get a hold of yourself, Erik. Just because you think you see someone who might have looked in your window doesn’t mean—”
Erik doesn’t listen.
With one mighty tug, he pulls his father a foot down the street.
“Erik!” Benjamin cries, half in surprise, half in anger. “Let go of me!”
“Boy, you let go of me right now or I’ll—”
He can no longer hear his father. Sound is distorted as the woman comes closer, face bereft of expression and hands limply at her side as she takes each individual step. She doesn’t step on the cracks, nor does she stop and carve a symbol in the air when a black cat passes by. She is not superstitious, nor is she afraid of the screaming man and his son before her. Erik knows this because he feels this—that this woman, as normal as she may seem, is anything but.
She is mute.
She is calculating.
She is unreal.
In but a moment-and-a-half, she will be no more than a foot away from Erik and his father.
“Erik,” Benjamin whispers. The boy blinks. How long has he been unable to hear anything? “Let me go. Now.”
You can run, you know? If you run, he’ll have to come after you. You know he will. You know he won’t just stand there as his son’s running off at a million miles per hour. You know what you have to do, Erik. You know that you have to run.
“What’d you say?” the man growls. “What’d you just tell me, boy?”
“Let’s go home, Dad. I-I-I don’t want to go for a walk anymore.”
“We’re already half a block away. Why don’t we just keep going and—”
Benjamin stops speaking.
The woman has stepped in front of them, silencing any words that might have been spoken.
“Please, excuse us,” Benjamin says, ripping his arm away from Erik’s grip. “My son and I were having a slight disagreement. He doesn’t normally act like this in public.”
“Am I beautiful?” she asks.
Taken aback, Benjamin frowns.
Erik stares at his father.
She killed him, he wants to say. She did it, Dad. She—
“I’m sorry,” Benjamin sighs, taking a step back. “I’m in no position to answer that question. I’m a married man.”
“Come on Dad—let’s go.”
“Erik, would you give me one goddamn—”
A flicker of movement distracts Benjamin from finishing.
Erik turns in time to see the woman’s eyes widening, pupils dilating like a deer trapped in a pair of headlights.
“Miss, I’m sorry about my son. He’s not usually like this. He’s a well-behaved boy. He’s just a little nervous about being outside when there’s been a killer going—”
Her hand shoots in her pocket.
The hook appears a moment later.
Rushing forward, Erik barely has time to push his father out of harm’s way before the woman can lash out. Hook in hand, she slashes at his father’s face, barely missing his mouth by an inch.
“ERIK! RUN!” Benjamin screams.
The mask comes free of the woman’s mouth as she attempts another slash at Benjamin’s head.
Like Marty, her face is open, mouth exposed in a disfigured ear-to-ear grin.
Erik can do nothing but stare as the woman eases toward him.
“Am I beautiful?” she asks, bringing the hook back for another slash. “Am I beautiful?”
“Don’t say anything,” Benjamin whispers, easing toward Erik as slowly but carefully as possible. “Don’t answer anything she says, Erik.”
“I’m not going to, Dad.”
“Just follow me, son. Don’t turn around, don’t run away—just keep… backing… up.”
Slowly—as to not run into his father or trip over a crack or break in the concrete—Erik begins to take his first few steps backward, all the while watching the woman advance on him. The simplicity of such an act frightens him. How could someone, especially a killer, move so slowly, so purposely? How, despite each tenacious motion, has she never lost her footing or broken the lock on Erik’s frightened eyes.
Because she wants me…
“…to say something,” Erik whispers.
“Erik,” Benjamin warns. “Don’t say a single thing.”
“I’m… not.”
But what is she? he wonders. She can’t be human.
How could something so haunting be human, or could have ever been human?
He doesn’t know, but now, he doesn’t care.
“Am I beautiful?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” he whispers, closing his eyes.
Seconds, moments, minutes—all pass within what seems like a blink of the eye.
When he opens them, the slit-mouthed woman is nowhere to be seen.
“Dad? Are you there?”
A hand touches his shoulder.
He jumps.
“Yes,” Benjamin breathes, pulling Erik against his chest. “I’m fine, son.”
“Where did she go?”
“I don’t know, but I’m not sticking around to find out.”
No kidding, Erik thinks.
Taking his father’s cue, Erik begins down the street, just as a voice in his head begins to whisper.
Am I beautiful? it says, dangling a hook in front of his face. Am I beautiful?

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