Monday, May 4, 2015

The first few photos were… normal. A teenage girl with long blonde hair, a toothy smile, and some leftover acne from her preteen years. She had taken a lot of selfies and stupid pictures with her friends. Judging by her appearance alone, I figured I had been right in the first place, that she was a high schooler. But why would a high schooler be doing this? Could she even pull it off? She would have needed a pretty good fake ID to get into the club. And I think I would have remembered seeing someone so young. This just didn’t make sense.

I continued scrolling. Pretty soon a guy started appearing in the pictures, with messy brown hair and a dangerously charming smile. They seemed to be getting pretty close. Her friends slowly disappeared from her pictures and were all replaced by who I could only assume was her boyfriend.

And then the pictures turned black.

That was it, just blackness. Assuming it was a dud, I went to the next picture.

We scrolled through a few like this. Anna shrugged. “This is totally weird.”

I swiped right again, and the screen seemed to explode with color.

I saw the blonde teen again, but this time she was lying on the ground. Her hair actually looked like it had turned strawberry blonde. It took me a moment to register that it was matted with blood. Her head was crooked to the side and her right arm was twisted at an odd angle behind her. Blood had pooled around her and her formerly bright blue eyes had dulled and were staring out into nothing. Dead.

Anna let out a scream. I threw the phone down and ran to the bathroom. I was sick for a few minutes, before I returned. Anna was shaking on the couch, staring at the phone, still lying where I’d left it a few minutes earlier.

“Are you okay?”
Anna nodded. “What the fuck is this?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I admitted.

“We have to find out who this girl is. And if her boyfriend did this.”

I nodded. Gingerly, I picked up the phone again. I figured the remaining pictures might give us more clues.

Without looking, I swiped past the gory catalogue of the girl’s death. Next was another black picture. And another one. And another. My anticipation and anxiety grew with each swipe.

This time, it was the brown-haired boy who appeared first. I have to admit, up until this point, he had been my first suspect. She had spent all her time with him, after all. But when I saw his body half smashed through the windshield of his car, glass sticking into his stomach and blood pouring out of his eyes, I gave up on that theory. Looking at the screen, I felt his body would twitch any second, as death overcame him on the hood of his own car.

Swipe, swipe, swipe.

The next picture was another girl, older than Blondie, with long black hair and crows’ feet around her eyes. She looked like she was in her mid-30s. It was a formal picture, with her looking directly into the camera, standing stiff and straight in business attire. It looked like she’d taken it for her job.

Next. A similar picture, but this time it was a man staring into the camera. Colleagues?
A few more black swipes. Then I saw the woman lying on a patch of concrete, a knife stuck in her stomach, her face stretched out into a scream. Her eyes were lifeless, but only just so. She’d died just before the picture was taken.

More black stills. Would this ever end?

Then I saw the man. At least, I was pretty sure it was the man. As he hung from the rafters, his back faced the camera and I couldn’t get a good look at his face.
I felt sick again.

I continued swiping through the picture gallery, but I was always greeted with the same sights. A few normal pictures of a girl and a guy, and then both of their grisly deaths.
Finally, Anna took the phone from me.

“ENOUGH, Amanda. This isn’t helping.”

I could feel my panic growing. My first thought was the cops – I had to get them involved. But even that made me nervous. This phone just HAPPENED to show up outside my door with pictures of these disgusting murders. No matter how I presented it, it made me sound suspicious.

Without a word, I picked up my phone and dialed my dad’s number. I got his voicemail, so I left a message explaining what had happened. “Can you and your partners look into this for me? It’s probably just a prank, but it’s a damn good one.”
I took a few deep breaths after that. Okay. Okay. I have my dad in on this now, it’s going to be okay. I just need to be careful until he gets back to me. It’s going to be ok.
Anna picked up the phone again. 
“I’m going to look through the contacts. Maybe we can figure out who’s doing this. Maybe there’s a clue in here somewhere.”

I sat still while she thumbed through the phone. To be honest, I didn’t even want to look at the damn thing anymore.

“Whoa… Amanda, look at this!”
I glanced at Anna, afraid to look at the phone at all. I didn’t want to play this game anymore.
“What is it?” I asked.

“All the contacts… they’re all girls.”

I looked at her, puzzled. “So?”

“So, the first girl, the one the phone must have belonged to, she had a boyfriend, right? Why isn’t his number in here?”

That was a good point. I looked through the contacts. All girls.
I scrolled down to “my number.” Pulling up the contact information, I saw that a name was listed next to it. Weird. Tina Drescher.

Suddenly, I grabbed Anna’s computer.
“What are you doing?”

“Trying to find the connection.” There had to be a reason all these girls had died, there had to be a reason that Tina died. Something was connecting them.
I clicked on the first article Google spit out.

The picture accompanying the article was definitely Tina. I continued reading.
A recent tragedy has resulted in the death of Winona teen Tina Drescher. Tina’s body was found on April 6th, 2012, lying next to the main building of Winona Public High School. Although the police are continuing their investigation, the death appears to have been a suicide.
“Although it is unfortunate, it is not unheard of,” Chief of Police Robert Mansfield reported on Wednesday. “When teenagers like Tina come under severe pressure, they tend to make poor decisions. It is a pity that Tina felt this was her only option.”
Tina’s parents were shocked by her decision.
“Tina was such a happy child,” her mother explained tearfully to KTV Channel 12 reporters. “She would never have done something like this.”
Students and members of the community are welcome to attend a memorial service held for Tina on April 14th. The memorial service will be held in the Winona Public High School gymnasium.
“Here, try this one,” said Anna. “Emily Tressor.”
I punched it into Google and up popped the black-haired woman.
I skimmed the article this time. Found murdered outside of a bar downtown. But there was something new here.

“Anna… this girl was sexually assaulted,” I said.

“Look, it’s right here.”

“That doesn’t make sense.” Anna frowned. “The other girl committed suicide, this girl was raped and then murdered. Where’s the connection?”

I shrugged. We punched in the next name, and then the next.
Aside from Tina, all of the reports were the same. Women murdered, presence of semen and pattern of wounds indicating sexual assault.

“This doesn’t make any sense!” My frustration was growing. “These girls were all brutalized, all except for Tina. What makes her different?” I asked.
Anna was quiet for a moment. “Maybe she’s the same,” she said.
“Think about it. She killed herself for seemingly no reason at all. Maybe that’s why she did it?” Anna reasoned.

The pieces started to click together. “But what about her boyfriend? And what about the boys in the pictures? They’re all dead, too, but their names aren’t saved.”
That’s right. If whoever was doing this was raping and murdering these girls, then what about the boys? Why did they die in the first place? And why didn’t their deaths warrant saving?

Anna and I were still puzzling over it when the phone lit up between us.

I was beginning to hate that sound. I looked at it nervously.
“Put it on speaker,” Anna suggested.

I took a deep breath and answered the phone, doing as Anna said and pressing the speakerphone option.
“Who is this?” I asked.

Nothing but silence. Silence that was slowly breaking down my sanity.
My voice broke as I asked, “What do you want? Why are you doing this?”
“Stay away from him.”

Who the fuck was she talking about?

Wait… Mr. Bad Boy. He was in the picture that I received.
A picture started to form in my mind. Whoever was doing this was coming for me, to rape me, to leave me dead. But where did Anna’s friend (Derek was his name) fit into this?

As I was pondering this question, I heard Anna gasp next to me.
“The pictures,” she said.

She pulled up the phone again. “Look at the pictures of the guys.” I looked. The first guy through his windshield, the second hanging from the rafters, the third with his wrists split open, the fourth with a gunshot to the head…

“These are…”
“…suicides…” Anna finished for me.
The final piece clicked into place.

“He frames them,” I said, slowly. “He goes after the girls and he frames the men…and they kill themselves.”

We were silent for a moment. Then I bolted to my feet and grabbed my bag.
“Wait, Amanda, where are you going?” Anna yelled after me.

I paused at the door. “I have to talk to Derek. I have to tell him what’s happening. He doesn’t realize the danger he’s in.”

I hugged Anna. “You can’t come with me, I need you to stay here in case I need a place to crash again.” And because I don’t want you to get hurt along with me, I added silently in my head.

I think she would have tried to follow me, but I was out the door before she could say anything. I had swiped Derek’s number when he plugged mine into his phone, thank God. His phone was already ringing on the other end as I got into my car.
“Well, well, well. If it isn’t the lovely lady from the bar,” he said.

I blushed. Even under the circumstances, his voice was making me heat up. “Derek, I need to talk to you. I need to see you. Are you busy right now?”

I could almost hear the smile in his voice. “Am I so dashing that you can’t wait until tomorrow? Well, that’s fine with me. We can meet up. Why don’t you come to my apartment?”
I hesitated. That was no good, then my stalker would know where he lived.
“I was thinking somewhere more public…”

He laughed. “Don’t trust me yet? That’s not a problem. How about a restaurant, then? We can make it a real date.” He rattled off the name of a surprisingly expensive restaurant downtown and I accepted.

“I’ll be there in 20 minutes.”

“It’s a date.” I could hear the smile in his voice.

Talking to him seemed to help me access my inner strength. And for the first time since I found the phone, I got angry. Really, really angry. This guy thought he could just push me around? He thought he could intimidate me? Well, it wasn’t going to be as easy as he was hoping. If I was going down, I was taking him with me. And then no one else was going to have to suffer like I had.

There were still things I didn’t understand, however. Why was I getting calls from this girl? Did he have someone working with him? And what was their aim in doing this? Even as I arrived at the restaurant, these questions were buzzing in my mind.
I immediately felt safer when I saw Derek’s shock of black hair and his bright, sparkling smile. I felt tears rushing into my eyes as relief flooded over me. I was a little afraid of scaring him off, but I couldn’t stop myself from running into his arms.
He was shocked, but his arms wrapped around me in a tight embrace. “Hey, hey, what’s wrong, what happened?”

I couldn’t answer for a minute, so he just held me and talked in a low, soothing voice. “It’s ok, you can tell me, I won’t let anyone hurt you.”

After that, he led me to a booth towards the back of the restaurant where we could be alone. I poured out my story, the phone, the calls, the pictures… he listened silently, his face unmoving. I finished with my theory about the stalker.

“I had to tell you because I think he’s coming after both of us,” I finished, with tears springing into my eyes again. Derek reached across the table and took my hands in his. He looked straight into my eyes as he spoke.

“Listen to me. I won’t let this guy come near you, ok? Everything is going to be fine.”
I nodded, my frustrated tears replaced by grateful ones. I could finally feel safe.
It was dark by the time we left the restaurant. Derek had offered to put me up at his house, but I refused…I didn’t want to endanger him any more than I already had. Plus, I was getting worried about Anna. What if the guy had followed me to her house? I called to make sure she was okay. She answered and sounded fine, but I thought it would be better to get back as soon as I could.

Derek was walking me to my car when he suddenly stopped.
“What is it, what’s wrong?”
He looked around for a moment, then grabbed my arm. “Shit. I think he’s here,” he whispered. He was grabbing my arm so hard it hurt.

“Follow me.”
We ran down the street, me practically being dragged by his iron grip. Just before we hit the end of the street, he turned right and we veered into an alley.
I stood there winded as he peeked back down the street.

“Good, no one saw us.”
I looked up at him and I knew something was wrong.
Derek was looking at me, his goofy grin replaced with something…darker. He was smirking.

“You’re worried about your stalker, huh? This freak that rapes and murders these girls…here’s an idea! Maybe if I do his job for him, he’ll leave you alone! How about that?”

I stared at him, confused. What had happened to the protective guy I’d seen just a moment before?
“W-what are you talking about?”
He stepped towards me. I stepped back. He laughed.

“You know why I brought you into this alley? ‘Cause there’s nowhere to run. And you were stupid enough to believe me when I said we were being watched. Are you psycho?”

I backed into the wall at the end of the alley. My heart was in my throat. I began to realize that I had made a terrible mistake. I wanted to move, but I couldn’t. My hands were clammy and shaking. I had nowhere to go.

Derek reached down and tugged at the zipper of his jeans.
“You’re lucky. I don’t usually fuck crazy chicks, but for you? Well, I’ll make an exception.”

That seemed to break me out of my trance. I went into panic mode. Before I knew what I was doing, my leg had swung up and caught him right where it hurt the most.
He screamed a few expletives and grabbed his crotch. I tried to run past him, but he grabbed my arm in that iron grip again. I could feel tiny bruises forming where his fingernails dug into my skin.

“You fucking bitch, you’ll pay for that. Fucking whore!”
I yanked at my arm as hard as I could. His other hand grabbed my hair and yanked me back. I reached up with my free arm and clawed at his eyes. I could feel the blood soaking under my fingernails as he screamed. He released my arm, keeping a firm grip on my hair, and grabbed a knife from his back pocket.

And then suddenly, everything stopped.

I don’t know how we both knew something was there, but we did. He turned around to look, and as he did, I caught a glimpse of her.

It was the blonde girl from the photos, her thin stature and solemn eyes staring at us intensely. She looked at me for a moment before shifting her gaze to Derek.

Suddenly, I couldn’t see her anymore.
“What the fuck? What the fuck? What the FUCK?” Derek screamed. He let go of me and backed against the alley wall.

To me, she had disappeared. But whatever Derek saw, it was like torture.
He screamed and grabbed his bleeding eyes. I was surprised he could still see after the wounds I’d given him. He kept standing like that, screaming over and over again.
Finally, he dashed out of the alley, leaving me in the darkness.
I stood there on my own, breathing heavily, my whole body trembling like a leaf.

I picked the phone up out of my bag. I answered it right there in the darkness. This time, I didn’t say anything, but I waited.

Sure enough, Tina’s voice came over the phone.

“I told you to stay away from him.”

Although I reported Derek’s assault to the police, it turns out that I didn’t have to. A few days later, he was found in his garage, his car filled with noxious fumes that had lulled him into a deadly sleep. Another suicide to add to the photo gallery. I vaguely wondered what he had seen, what had driven him to that point.

I realized how wrong I’d been about the phone, about Tina. I knew now why she’d killed herself. Why her boyfriend had died so soon after. And why every woman who’d received this phone had suffered like she did.
She wasn’t coming after us.
She was just trying to protect us.
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