This story is by Jenna Pitoscia and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
21 hours, 12 minutes, and 32 seconds ago, my girlfriend disappeared.
But it wasn’t without a trace, as she’d intended.
Olivia didn’t know that I’d walked in on the night guard asleep during his shift a few days ago. The security footage was handed over immediately in exchange for my silence.
I pulled my phone from my pocket and watched the grainy video for the hundredth time that day.
When the corner of the screen flashed to 1:02 a.m., the lights outside apartment 14 flickered on. A figure emerged from the doorway. It was a girl wearing a baseball cap and a purple JanSport. Something white was stuck in the zipper of her backpack and dangled loosely behind her. A navy sedan pulled up alongside a row of oaks that had lost half their leaves. The branches were mostly bare, and through them I watched Olivia glance over her shoulder, then open the passenger door. Before the car peeled off, I could make out an arm reaching across the driver’s side to pull her in for a hug. It was clad in university colors; a letter jacket, with a distinct “33” embroidered on the arm.
And that is why, 22 hours, 16 minutes, and five seconds later, I stood directly outside the home of Jordan Pieters—star running back, fan favorite, and player number 33.
It was Halloween night, and campus was overrun with catwomen, cavemen, and zombies whose bloodstains matched their lipstick. Pieters’ yard reeked of smashed pumpkins and light beer. With a Zorro mask pressed tightly to my face, I pushed past the door into a bass-bumping, body-writhing party pit of hell. I headed toward the kitchen. Not for the keg, but for the bit of light I could see that wasn’t strobing red and green.
A heavy foot came down on mine. I yelped as pain shot up my leg. Someone tall and lanky in a beaked plague mask stared down at me. I waited for his apology, but when I followed his gaze, I saw his real fixation was on a girl standing across the room in a white nurse costume.
A teetering bunny in heels thrust a cup of sloshing blue liquid my way, but I pushed it aside and forged ahead.
In the dim light of the kitchen, I unfurled the worn note Olivia had left in my wallet.
“Levi,” it read. “I’ll be blunt. I’ve met someone else.” The throbbing in my chest returned. “But you know what that’s like…don’t you? I’m going somewhere for a while. Don’t look for me.” There was no signature.
Me and Vera— it had been one kiss— months ago. Olivia had said she understood. And even though she had a history of holding grudges and exacting revenge, I thought I’d done everything possible to make it right.
“Dude, you need a drink,” a policeman in boxers offered me his cup. This one I took. The fruity smell said nothing for the taste.
“Stronger the punch, better the party,” I said, as warm blue liquid ran down my throat.
“Cheers to that.” Officer Underwear slammed back the beer he held in his other hand.
“Have you seen Pieters?” I shouted over the music, but he had already made his way across the kitchen and was handcuffing himself to an unsuspecting fairy.
There was a light tap on my shoulder. It was the nurse I’d seen before. Up close she wore a clown mask with red wax lips pulled into a grin, and black Xs for eyes. Her hand was outstretched, pointing toward the back door. I looked, and there he was, standing beside the fire pit. He was Indiana Jones—in a letter jacket.I briefly considered wrapping the lasso around his neck.
I glanced back to thank the nurse, but she had turned to face the plague doctor who was finally making a move, walking toward her with a drink. If it weren’t so creepy, it’d be cute, I thought. I started toward Pieters, my hands curled into fists.
I reached him and cornered him against the side of the house.
“Wanna tell me what you’re doing with my girlfriend?” I asked. He put his hands up.
“Woah woah, Zorro. Which girlfriend would that be?” I took off my mask.
Pieters balked, then laughed. “Liv? She’s like a sister. She just needed a place to crash before she headed out. Ask her yourself. You might still be able to catch her.”
“Where’d she stay?”
“Room at the top of the stairs. First right,” he said, downing his beer and belching. I started back toward the kitchen and heard him call after me, “There might be people making out in there, bro!”
Back in the kitchen, the staircase was immediately to my left, and I took it two steps at a time. The bedroom door was closed, so I pounded against it with my fist. There was a scuffling inside. Impatiently, I twisted the knob and entered, just to see the plague doctor and clown nurse pulling their masks back down over their faces. They giggled like morons and grabbed each other’s hands, slipping quickly from the room.
There, on the middle of the bed, sat a purple JanSport. I ripped open the zipper. Empty. I tried another. Empty.I pulled loose a tie on the front pocket. Nestled at the bottom was a lined piece of paper that matched the one in my pocket.
This one read, “I told you not to look.”
There were two more items buried in the pocket. I pulled out another slip of paper. A receipt for a bus ticket. Jefferson Lines. To Lincoln. Departure: 12:30 a.m.
My watch read 12:07. I knew I needed to move. But Lincoln…why Lincoln? I remembered a conversation from a couple of weeks ago.
I was meeting Olivia after her biology lecture. She stood outside the classroom speaking with her professor, Dr. Brady. He was tall, young, an accomplished pathologist, and one of her favorites. Liv was studying to be an RN, and he’d pushed her toward a specialization in infectious disease control.
I caught the tail-end of the conversation as I approached.
“…no plans for fall break,” Olivia was saying. Dr. Brady looked up and saw me watching.
“Not much for me, either,” he said. “Just a conference.”
“Where’s this one at?” asked Olivia.
I couldn’t recall his exact response, but I knew precisely where he was heading. And by the tilt of her head, and the intent in her eyes, I knew Olivia would be going there, too.
The last thing I pulled out of the backpack was a small patch. Like something you’d sew over the hole in your jeans. I flipped it over. Stitched across a white background was the symbol of the American Red Cross.
I flew down the stairs. A chorus of drunken expletives followed me as I elbowed my way through the crowd. There was flash of white, and I saw long, brown hair just ahead. I reached for her shoulder and spun her around.
“Ouch!” The girl in the ghost costume hissed at me. I let go and craned my neck, spotting a tall, familiar figure. The figure turned—a militant in a gas mask. I moaned. Where were they?
The front door was slightly ajar, and I raced toward it into the dark. Behind shrieks and screams of laughter, I heard a car’s tires screech. It sped down the block and turned the corner. I ran toward the street, dodging beer cans and pumpkin guts, and watched it disappear.
Discarded on the sidewalk in front of me lay the beaked mask of a plague doctor, and the white uniform of a nurse— with a red cross branded just above the heart.