This story is by Molly Mack and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“And the game is over! The game is over! The Philadelphia Eagles are Super Bowl champions. Eagles fans everywhere…this is for you!”
Melanie turned to the total stranger next to her, a drunken frat boy who had poured beer on his head just as time ran out, and hugged him fiercely, ignoring the stench. It was South Philly, and they’d just won their first Super Bowl ever. She wanted to lose herself in this moment, forget her life for just a few glorious hours. She deserved it—needed it.
The party was a treat to herself, a reward for finally snagging a job and seeing a light at the end of the paper tunnel constructed of medical bills and divorce papers. She was a secretary; not the dream job she’d anticipated when she had majored in Information Sciences and Technology at Penn State, but a job, and she wouldn’t sneer at something she’d been so lucky to get. Desperation had a way of laying waste to your ideals and altering your perspective, and life had a way of turning dreams into ash.
A drunken night in her senior year had destroyed those dreams. Pregnancy, a quick marriage and quicker divorce had left her alone and afraid. A single mother with a sick child could not dictate terms to the world. She felt as if she was living every moment a step behind, never in control, every decision simply a reaction. Nothing in her life had prepared her for the cruelty the world could throw at those who were unprepared.
Her college degree was useless. Lack of experience and a child with an immune deficiency meant that any hope for a real career was lost. She had experience in sitting in the pediatrician’s office, in cleaning up sickness and in singing lullabies. No one wanted that.
This celebration in a South Philly bar was the closest she had been to happy in three years, and she was grateful to the entire rabid fanbase. If she had to hug every drunk in this bar to keep the feeling for a few more moments, she would.
Her cell phone vibrated. A text, from a number she didn’t recognize.
Your daughter is so pretty.
What? Melanie shrugged and put the phone back into her pocket. Weird…probably a wrong number. A lot of crazies, Philadelphia fans. There was a reason they had a bad rep. And her daughter Addie was pretty. She grinned to herself. The most beautiful three year old in the world. Addie was the only thing that held Melanie together most days.
The cell vibrated again.
That was all. Melanie felt a chill worm its way up her spine. What the hell?
And just like that, the evening had lost its joy. Melanie hailed a cab and sat in the back seat as it wove through the streets filled with happy revelers, staring at her phone, willing the screen to stay dark.
No such luck; it lit again. Shame if something happened to such a pretty little girl.
She fought down nausea and checked the number associated with the text. Nothing she recognized. Suddenly trembling fingers typed, Not funny. Who are you?
What do you want?
Kiss Addie goodnight for me.
“Pull over!” Melanie leaned out of the cab and threw up all the beer she’d consumed—was it only hours ago? The city was celebrating the win of the century, and some madman was threatening her daughter.
Melanie knew she wasn’t brave. She knew that whoever this was, whatever he wanted, he would win; she was not strong enough to fight. She ran into the house and into Addie’s room. Her daughter slept on her back, arms folded over her chest. She was beautiful, and she was safe. It had been a crank, after all. She looked down at the love of her life and sighed with relief. She paid the sitter and lay on the bed next to her daughter.
But wait…how would a crank know her daughter’s name? Someone she knew, then? But who? The nausea was back, curling in her stomach like a poisonous snake. She needed to talk to someone, but there was no one. Her shame and feeling of failure had driven away any friends she might have once had. In a city of a million and a half people, Melanie was completely isolated.
Her phone vibrated. A text.
Are you alone?
Her heart lurched. Who is this? It took several tries for her shaking fingers to type the words, but it didn’t matter. She knew.
You will send the names of the participants in the Evocil study to this number.
What? I can’t do that! I’m just a secretary! I don’t have access to that information!
Silence, and then another text came through. Melanie stared in disbelief at a picture that froze her heart. A picture of Addie, sleeping, in this bed, in this room.. It was time stamped an hour ago.
You’ll find a way. By noon Wednesday.
Shock ratcheted through her body. He was asking her—no, commanding her—to commit a crime, to steal from her new employer! Because that was what it was. She was being blackmailed. Evocil was a drug that had been developed to fight early onset Alzheimer’s, she knew, but trials were being held in secrecy. The study participants were highly placed officials in the government and the entire project was cloaked in shadow in order to protect their identities.
Pretty Addie goes to Mrs. Clare’s daycare.
Tears blurred Melanie’s vision. He knew her routine! She understood with a sickening certainty that the information he was demanding would mean disaster for the Evocil trial group and for the company, but this maniac was giving her no choice. And she could get the information; computers were her second language and she could likely hack into the system. Her technical ability had probably helped her get the job. It was why the blackmailer had targeted her, she realised with horror. He knew she could do what he wanted.
She curled up next to Addie and let the thoughts swirl, black and oily. Her choice was not a choice at all. It was like deciding between the sun rising or the moon lighting the night sky. She had no power over the heavens; she didn’t even have control of her own life!
In the movies, the victim always went along with the blackmailer’s agenda, and something inevitably happened to make everything all right in the end. A hero, or some stroke of luck that helped to defeat evil. The victim never went to the police.
But that was fiction. Here, in the real world, there was no hero to rescue her. Melanie was on her own, no movie heroine…and her luck was pathetic at best.
She made her decision.
The 1st District station for the Philidelphia Police Department was located in a modern building on 23rd Street. Melanie sat for only a few minutes before she was welcomed warmly and taken to an interview room. A female detective listened carefully to her story, checked the texts on her phone, asked sincere questions. No one suggested that she was imagining things; no one condescended to her. Already different from the movies, she thought. Everyone was businesslike and cheerful. Probably all happy Eagles fans.
She relaxed. This had been the right decision. These people were going to help. It was their job, and she had to believe that they meant it when they told her not to worry, that she had done the right thing in coming to them. The snake in her stomach uncoiled a little.
The female detective was back, smiling sympathetically. “We know how frightened this must make you feel, so we’re going to give this threat all the attention it deserves. We are fortunate to have a detective here on loan from the NYPD who is an expert at blackmail cases; he’ll know exactly what to do. He’s the best.”
Melanie followed her into a well-appointed office and was pointed toward a chair in front of the large wood desk, behind which a man sat. His eyes were kind, and he looked capable, strong. The snake uncoiled further.
“Now, tell me everything,” he said gently. Melanie did, trying not to leave anything out. When she was finished, he sat back in his chair and made a tent of his hands.
“Do you have a picture of your daughter?” he asked. Melanie brought up Addie’s most recent preschool photo and handed the detective her phone. He sat, looking at the image for a long time, and then he looked up.
The eyes were no longer warm and kind; they glittered like ice on a winter street—and Melanie knew, before he spoke, that the sun was not going to rise tomorrow. Not for her. The snake buried its fangs deep in her heart.
“Your daughter is so pretty,” he said.