This story is by J. H. O’Rourke and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Ever since Carrie Harding’s mutilated body was found on the side of the road last month, I’ve scarcely left my apartment, except to go to class.
I had absolutely no intention of going out last night, but Laurel talked me into it.
After insisting that I stop hibernating and come out for drinks, her voice softened with concern.
“I’m worried about you, Sami. Locking yourself up in your apartment isn’t healthy. You need to get out and live your life.”
When I arrived at the bar, Laurel spotted me right away and motioned me over to the table where several of my classmates were already seated.
“You’re here!” she exclaimed, as I took the chair beside hers. “I wasn’t sure you’d actually show up!”
“I wasn’t sure myself,” I admitted, “I’ve had a sick feeling like something bad is going to happen all day and it’s driving me nuts.”
Laurel flagged down the waitress. “Maybe a drink will help.”
As usual, Laurel held court at our table. Her outgoing, friendly personality made her popular within our group, while her tall, slim frame, pretty face, and long blond hair attracted the attention of a number of guys at neighboring tables.
I watched, fascinated, as Laurel kept up several conversations at once, even finding the time to introduce me to a few people she had just met.
The main topic of conversation was the ongoing manhunt for the maniac who had killed Carrie, a fellow university student. She was the third young woman in the past six months who had been raped, murdered, and dumped in a ditch. The media had dubbed him the Daybreak Slayer since the bodies had all been discovered early in the morning.
Before I knew it, it was closing time and the bar staff began ushering everyone out. Laurel and I grabbed our jackets and headed outside.
“You’ve gotta admit it, Sami, that Todd guy was hot! I gave him my phone number,” Laurel confided, “I hope he calls me.” She was watching the steady drove of patrons exiting the door as if keeping an eye out for him.
I tried to visualize Todd and vaguely remembered a good-looking blond guy with a great smile.
“Of course he’ll call you!” I exclaimed, “He’d be crazy not to.”
“I’m so glad you came out tonight, Sami.”
“Me too,” I admitted.
Laurel gave me a hug. “See you tomorrow!” She started to walk away.
“Hey, Laurel! I’m about to call a taxi. Want to wait with me and get dropped off?” I asked, “It’s a bad idea to walk alone at this time of night, especially after what happened to Carrie and the other girls.” I shivered at the thought.
“No thanks. It’s just a five-minute walk for me. By the time your taxi gets here, I’ll be in bed!”
With a final wave, she began walking towards the intersection of Dobson Road and Vine Avenue, about half a block away.
As I groped in my purse for my phone, I watched her turn left on Vine. By the time she was out of sight, the bouncer had gone back inside and I was alone.
My phone wasn’t in my purse, so I checked my jacket pockets, but it wasn’t there either. Starting to panic, I pounded on the front door of the building, but my knocking went unanswered.
It was then that I noticed a black pickup truck with orange flames idling on the road a few feet away. The windows were tinted and the cargo bed was covered with heavy canvas.
The driver was staring straight ahead.
When he turned and looked at me, I realized that he was Todd, the guy who Laurel had been smitten with inside the bar.
I wondered how long he’d been sitting there.
“Hey, Sami, is it?” he inquired with a smile, “Need a lift?”
I considered the offer for just a moment. If I refused, I would have to walk the several blocks to my apartment. But my feeling of uneasiness, which had been masked by the drinks and company in the bar, came back full force.
With all of the unsolved murders in the area, I decided not to chance getting into a vehicle with a stranger.
“I appreciate the offer, but my ride will be here any second,” I lied.
As the truck zoomed off, I caught a glimpse of the driver’s vanity license plate, LDYZMN, and rolled my eyes.
As soon as the driver hung a left at the next stop sign and the truck disappeared, I headed in the same direction and turned right onto Vine.
Walking quickly down the dimly lit road, I thought I heard a vehicle backfire somewhere behind me.
I hope he doesn’t come back this way and see me walking.
A few minutes later, I heard a noise and nervously looked around. The road was deserted.
Get a grip!
Then I heard what sounded like footsteps. Terrified, I whirled around, but no one was behind me.
This is ridiculous, I silently berated myself and started walking faster.
For the first time, I wondered if turning down the offer for a drive was the right choice. I pulled the can of pepper spray I always carry with me out of my pocket and held it tightly in my hand.
As I was nearing the shortcut through the woods that I normally took, I considered staying on the road instead. The dark path would get me home faster, but the road offered better light.
Then I heard the footsteps again.
And a deep, guttural voice yelling something I couldn’t make out.
The source of the shouting emerged as a shadowy outline of a man about twenty feet ahead of me. His pace increased as he crossed the road and walked purposely towards me with an uneven gait.
I held back a scream as I ran onto the wooded path.
A few moments later, I risked a glance behind me to see if the man had followed me onto the path, and instantly tripped over a tree root, landing face first in the dirt. Dazed and terrified, but otherwise unhurt, I picked myself up and started running again.
With the sound of my racing heart pounding in my ears, I sensed rather than heard him getting closer.
It seemed like hours before the bright lights framing the entryway to my apartment building came into view. Leaning forward to help relieve the sharp pain in my sides, I sprinted towards the front door.
As I fumbled with my keys, a lumbering shadow appeared in my peripheral vision. Before I could react, a firm hand clutched my shoulder, and I could hear uneven breathing directly behind me.
Nearly jumping out of my skin, I spun around, wide-eyed, gripping my pepper spray tightly in one hand, my keys in the other.
A middle-aged man stood there with my scarf in his hands and a nervous look in his eyes as he stared at the can I had aimed directly at his face.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you,” he gasped, struggling to catch his breath, “You dropped this on the road near the path back there. I tried calling out to you, but I guess you didn’t hear me.”
I nearly collapsed with relief. “Thank you very much,” I said, reaching for my scarf. I opened the front door, told the man to have a great night, and went inside. As I waited for the elevator, I glanced outside and watched the Good Samaritan amble away.
After setting the deadbolt and securing all the windows, I changed into pajamas and crawled into bed. Beside me on the nightstand was my missing phone.
As I drifted off to sleep, I chided myself for how paranoid and frightened I had felt on my way home. I also realized that the haunting feeling that something bad was going to happen was finally gone.
The alarm clock startled me awake at 7 am. After finding my robe and slippers, I turned on the TV to catch the weather report and brewed a pot of coffee. After a quick shower, I poured myself a cup and sat down on the couch just in time to catch a late-breaking news story.
At approximately 5 o’clock this morning, the bound, partially nude body of a young woman was discovered by joggers in a ditch alongside Dobson Road. A jacket found at the scene indicates that she may have been a student at the nearby university, though no purse or other identifying evidence has been located. According to witness accounts, a woman fitting the victim’s description was seen getting into a black pickup truck with flame designs shortly after 2 am…
Overcome with dread, I dialed Laurel’s number.
My call went directly to voicemail.