previous: Charmanderchar1692 ch8
The rain crashed down upon the roof of the plain white (typical kidnapper) van. I rested my head, as Henry drove in the direction of Niagara Falls. I was pretty calm, since that was the direction, I wanted to go originally. I paid no mind, watching the raindrops dance down the window, until we pulled into the parking lot of a Motel 6. I figured it was one of the cheaper multi-floor hotels in the area.
“And here we are.” Henry took a moment to roll his shoulders, as he removed the weapon from the holster on his back. For the first time I got a good view of what the heck it was; a large metal gun-sword. It was like something out of a videogame. It felt genuinely heavy to the touch. How Henry had managed to comfortably drive was a mystery.
“Why do you have that?” I asked, still touching the curve of the blade.
“A little something that I picked up at the convention,” he replied as if he looked completely normal wearing such an accessory.
“Was it a gift from your fangirl?”
“Cassidy,” he said with a nod. He held the sword on top of his hands, letting the uniquely shaped blade shimmer in the light.
“That’s the girl with the green hair?”
“Why do you sound so jealous?”
That got a laugh. “Well in that case, this sword was a gift from a kindred spirit, someone I connected to on a deeper level.”
I patted Henry’s back. “Yeah, I’m sure.”
“Can I trust you not to break it?”
“Oh, it’s breakable?” I asked. “I thought it was made of actual weapon-grade material.”
“It is, but I’m sure you’d find a way.” Henry left the vehicle with the weapon in his hand. He looked like an intergalactic space warrior looking to rob a Motel 6. Thankfully that was not the case. (You never know.)
I sighed, leaning back in my seat. “Why do I love you so much?”
“Love?” asked a familiar female voice.
I turned to the back of the van. “What about it?”
“Why would someone think about such things?”
“Because some of us are not ego-driven narcissists.”
“Thinking and dreaming are not one and the same.”
“What?” I asked, placing my hand to my head. “Are you a living fortune cookie?”
“I’ve been called worse in my lifetime.”
“Oh, I’m sure.”
“Let me out and I’ll tell you more.”
I glanced at the window, from where I sat, I could see Henry standing in line to check in. I had at least a few minutes. With that in mind, I crawled back to the hatch. The panel was held closed with a simple latch. It brought to mind true crime stories of children (or other small clout seekers who like to screw around with tight, enclosed spaces) dying inside chests and cabinets, (or while trying to mail themselves.)
This was just another mystery that had to be solved. I flung open the door, revealing the shopkeeper. “Hi there, long time no see.”
“Not really, but that’s beside the point.”
“Are you going to help me up?” She had been laying in a fetal position, in a space that was smaller than most coffins. Her long red hair was covered in sweat, but she didn’t seem to be in any physical discomfort.
“If I let you out, will you tell me your name?”
“Sweetie, you already know my name.”
‘Excuse you.’ I rolled my eyes at her comment. “I guess I’m not helping you escape.”
“Well, I’m not trying to escape. I just want to talk.”
“Fine, then tell me; are you Claire Milette?”
The shopkeeper sat up, crossing her arms over her chest. She reached for a hair tie on her wrist, easily pulling her hair back. “You know we kind of look like sisters.”
Was she really trying to appeal to my humanity? “I don’t have a sister.”
Claire leaned back, looking as relaxed as a tourist on a yoga retreat. “Look, I know I’m going to die here.”
“Is this one of those situations where you assume I’m going to help you because we’re the same gender?”
“No. For all I’ve done, I deserve whatever you and your friend have planned for me.” She leaned her head back, with a look of peace and serenity. “But if your partner does plan on assaulting me with a foreign object (possibly that sword) before pouring bleach on my wounds, I can’t guarantee I’ll go down without a fight.”
‘You are one twisted bitch.’ I felt myself channeling my ancestor; I wanted to know her story, to offer her compassion, even if I was in no position to save her wicked soul. “Okay, fine, let’s talk.”
I suddenly heard the sound of the door opening. Henry stood outside in the rain, looking only a tad bit annoyed. “Charlotte, be a dear and keep her out of my sight.” He paused to run his fingers through his thin layer of hair. “I’m going to head to the room.” He handed me a keycard with the room number written in sharpie.
“Room 1692?” The irony was not lost on me, or maybe it was a premonition; the room with my lucky number would be the place where my story finally came to an end.
“Should be easy enough to remember, right?”
“Right.” A thought suddenly came to me. “You used Vice’s credit card; he’s going to get a notification, and then he’s going to come find us.” I wasn’t sure how this made me feel.
“Yes, old master Vice,” Henry said with a confident nod. “He’ll be here soon and we’ll need to be prepared.”
“Prepared?” I knew Henry had a plan.
My partner was moving his eyes to the side, glancing at Claire. Clearly, he was not willing to go into detail in front of her. “Soon we can finally put all this to rest.” With that he left shutting the door behind him. He had no luggage, just the contents of his wallet but I assumed he would be just fine on his own.
“Well, okay,” I muttered as I turned to Claire. “I guess we should head inside, find a place to talk.” I needed a place that was quiet, private but also safe in case something went very wrong. (This whole situation felt wrong.)
“Here, we can use these trash bags as umbrellas,” Claire said, fluffing up one of the used but empty trash bags that littered the back of the van.
“You mean a poncho?”
“No, I think that would be kind of gross.” She was instead tying a series of knots, until she managed to construct a thin, woven bath mat. “Here, we can both fit underneath.”
“Impressive, you must have been one hell of a girl scout.”
Together we ran across the parking lot. Walking through the small lobby I asked God for a sign; should we go to the room, or maybe try to find an empty room or even a secluded closet? Suddenly I received an answer, in the form of a small child’s joy.
“Mama, is that an axolotl?” asked a girl with long black hair. She was waiting for the elevator with who I assumed was her parents. The child was tall enough to appreciate marine biology, while still small enough to come off as simply adorable. “It’s just like in Minecraft!”
My heart was melting. In the space between the check-in desk and the bank of elevators was an impressive aquarium. The rectangle box sat atop a table, low enough for kids to see, but high enough to keep the animals safe from unruly children (or drunk tourists.) The tank was filled with colorful fish, the very opposite of what would survive in the cold of New York.
Standing behind the family I attempted to look where the girl was looking. I didn’t know what to expect; a lizard, a fish with limbs. Maybe it would be pink, gray or perhaps even speckled like a dalmatian. I knew what an axolotl was, but I’d never seen one outside of internet images (and a certain videogame where they came in all colors of the rainbow.)
The elevator arrived, forcing the girl to abandon her viewing spot. I took a step forward, looking around, since I still could not see any lizard-fish creatures. I felt Claire place her head on my shoulder. I turned to her; we were practically the same height, appearing like the best of friends.
“And pray tell, what are you looking at?” she asked playfully.
“I’m not too sure, actually.” Just as I spoke, a smiling pink face looked up at us. Apparently, the axolotl had been burrowed under the aquarium gravel. It was quite an adorable sight, but what drew my attention was the creature’s bright red hair. The delicate frills looked like a cross between feathers and fluffy curls. “Aww, what cute hair you have, little one.”
“Gills,” Claire said bluntly. “I know they appear frilly and feather-like, but they’re actually a means of taking in oxygen.”
“Yes, I know they’re called gills.” That was beside the point. I was mesmerized by its head of long red hair, that framed its face. In fact, it kind of looked like flames. “You’re a fire type axolotl.”
Claire turned to me and giggled. “Um, what? That’s like a Pokémon reference, right?”
The creature’s tiny eyes looked up at us, as it opened its mouth to smile. The look was a cross between a baby Pokémon and a Muppet. It was actually kind of creepy.
I turned to Claire. “Is its mouth supposed to be that big?”
That got a giggle. Claire tapped the glass, causing the creature to recoil. “Aww you’re just a creepy little scaredy fish.”
“Don’t be mean,” I said slugging her playfully.
The creature started to climb. First it seemed to be going directly up the glass, like a species with suction cups on its feet. After a few failed attempts it appeared to have a new idea. It turned around and swam towards the decorative background items, starting at a replica of the falls. It gracefully swam, moving from rock to rock until it bumped its head on the plastic roof panel. For a brief moment I thought it was trying to get to us, but after poking the loose flap it returned to the water, drifting downward.
That gave me an idea. “The roof.” That was where we needed to be; a place for two redhaired freaks to chat about life. Across from the elevators was a fire exit stairwell. “Let’s take the stairs.” I looked back at the tank. My fish-lizard spirit animal was still smiling.
I didn’t even check if Claire was still with me, until we reached the final door. As expected, it had, in bright red lettering, ‘Fire Exit, Alarm will sound.’ It was worth the risk. With the lightest amount of pressure (like an axolotl in a fish tank) I pressed the door, and an alarm sounded, but just as quickly Claire appeared.
“Don’t worry, I got this.” She took out a lipstick tube. Rolling up the wax it appeared to be an odd metallic compound. She drew a squiggle on the door, immediately silencing the alarm.
“What is that?”
“Just a little something that makes shoplifting a whole lot easier. It’s kind of like the opposite of a magnetic signal.”
I had no idea what she was talking about. “Wow, that’s cool.” I opened the door to a rainy scene. “Yeah, this was a bad idea.”
“I still have the trash bag mat,” Claire suggested.
“We still need to find a place to sit.” I looked around for a source of shade. “Over there.”
We took a seat behind a chimney exhaust port. The massive upside-down capital L was just tall enough to offer shade and even a bit of warmth. We huddled close together as we looked out at the setting sun.
There was a moment of awkward silence as we both struggled to get clear of the gently cascading rain. I opened my mouth to speak, but no words came out. I audibly sighed, rubbing my arms. It actually wasn’t that cold, but I was just that nervous.
“Vice was very sick while in prison,” Claire said, with genuine emotion in her voice. “He was like an injured animal, just waiting for someone to hold him.”
I nodded in response. Her story made sense with what I already knew. This was my chance to ask about topics I did not know; like what (and who) the patchwork doll was made of. “Where’s your daughter?”
Claire crossed her arms and sighed. Her face was a look of peace and serenity. “Annaleigh always wanted to come with me.”
What did that even mean? Did she fake her daughter’s death? “Why couldn’t Vice come with you?”
“My husband served his purpose.”
“Vice served his purpose?”
“Yeah,” she said with a nod. “He was merely a beast of burden; like a horse or a cow
The coldness of her words made me want to hurt her. “I don’t believe you.”
“My Vinny, was one hell of a lover, yet somehow, he managed to not get me pregnant for the first five years of our marriage. Do you know what Vincent did for a living? I’ll tell you; he was a painter, a sculptor, an artist.”
“So, he was beneath you?” Why was I defending a cannibal rapist? Why did I even give a shit? Yes, he was absolutely beneath her.
“While I was working on my career; trying to change lives, change the world, my husband was a fucking junkie. don’t get me wrong, he was a great dad. he loved our daughter with all his heart.”
“The night I left on the boat. I knew I wasn’t coming back. I told myself I wasn’t cut out to raise a child; I needed my freedom but in reality, something broke in side of me. I’d been having an affair with my coworker.”
“Dallas Beniot, the author of the overpriced fantasy book?”
“First of all, it’s called pseudo-science, second I was going to give it to you for free.”
“And third, most importantly, he went by Danny.” Claire turned to me with a smile.
“So, you faked your death to run away with Danny?”
Claire’s eyes drifted off to a dreamy state, clearly fantasizing about the past. “Danny challenged me in ways Vincent never could.
“And your husband never knew?”
“Not to my knowledge. Whenever he wasn’t taking care of our daughter, he was high as a kite on whatever shit he could get his hands on. he always said the drugs inspired his creativity; the fuel to create his masterpieces.”
I nodded, focusing on the rain. The downpour was clearing up, allowing us to speak louder. “What happened that night?”
“My husband begged me not to go to the yacht party,” she said with a slight hint of shame. “Vince wanted me to stay with him so badly, there were tears in his eyes.”
“That wasn’t enough?”
“Same old song and dance. First, he tried to guilt me, he claimed I wasn’t home enough, I loved my work more than our family. Next, he brought in our daughter,” she said with a chuckle. “It was a smart move, I will admit. I was almost convinced. Annaleigh, she gave a pouty face, asking me why I was hurting her daddy. My heart was torn so badly I was actually willing to sit on the couch and talk to my daughter, just to make sure she’d be good.”
“And how did Vice screw it all up?””
“He left for a ‘smoke break.’” Claire made sure to do the finger quotes as she laughed. “Except instead of walking outside to light up, like a normal father, the fucker left the room and overdosed.”
I was going to give her the benefit of the doubt; it was probably not the first time she found him in such a state. “What did you do?”
“I carried my daughter back to V’s office where my useless baby-daddy just laid on the sofa ready to die. I put her on the floor, and watched as she ran to his side. And then I left.”
“You didn’t stick around to get him to a hospital?”
“There was no point. I knew he needed a doctor; his heart was weak, there was a real chance he’d finally achieve his goal of ending his worthless life.”
“But you just didn’t care?” I pulled my knees to my chest. I had almost forgotten how cold my bare legs were.
“Well with all due respect, Vince made it really easy.”
“Easy? To make the prospect of his death not your problem? Or to just not care?”
Claire slapped her head making the typical ‘duh’ gesture. “Think about it, what’s the difference between me leaving on a boat and Vince leaving the mortal world? Either way we’re both cowards, making the conscious choice to walk away from our lives.”
I could appreciate the validity of her argument; Vice’s addiction drove her to dive headfirst into her work, that was a world she could actually control. “What happened to your daughter?”
“She’s dead,” Claire’s words came out in a whisper. “But that’s a story for another day.”
“Sure, why not.” I swallowed hard, blinking tears from my eyes as the rain stopped. The moon was bright in the sky. “You at least have to admit, you played a role in creating a monster.”
“Yeah, maybe.” Claire placed her finger to her chin like a cocky mean girl contemplating her life of sin. “I guess I did.”
I wanted to cry, scream, anything to relive the pain in my heart. There was so much blame to be placed. “So, what happened next?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why did a body wash up on the beach?” I shouted over the rain.
“Body parts,” she clarified, her mouth curling into a partial smile.
“Parts identified as Claire Milette.”
“Manipulating DNA is actually pretty easy. The lab that employed me was part of the effort to create a male Plan B pill; a formula that could alter DNA for the purpose of avoiding paternity. I had a feeling the formula would never have been FDA approved, for obvious reasons, so I took it for myself.
“Wow, great; instead of going abroad to cure cancer, you faked your own death.”
Claire glared at me. For the first time she no longer looked like an emotionless doll, but rather an over worked wife and mother. “Everyone thinks they know what it feels like to be at the top of your field. They think once you climb the mountain everything comes easy, but life has no finish line. You just keep moving forward, one step after another until you pull out of the race.”
“I apologize. It was rude of me to comment on your work.”
“Yeah, it was.”
We sat in silence, both of us wearing similar looks of shame. “Did you ever love Vince?”
Claire giggled. “You finally called him Vince instead of Vice.”
“Sorry. I figured Vince was the name you had for him. I can go back to calling him Vice. I probably will once we see him again.”
“Vince or Vice (as he rebranded himself to be called), he was my student; a tired old dog who only knew how to beg or bite, and I taught him all-new tricks. I mentored him, taught the talented convict to work at my level. Unfortunately, he never managed to rise to my expectations.”
“That explains so much,” I said calmly, choking back my emotions. “Can I ask you something?”
“Isn’t that what you’ve been doing all along?” Claire was back to her usual sarcastic self.
“Was your husband a cannibal before or after you left him?”
“A what?” Claire cupped her hands over her mouth, muffling her laughter.
“Do you know what he has been up to?”
She shrugged. “Tattooing, making artsy prosthetics, trying to replicate my legacy and all that shit.”
I didn’t know what to make of her ego-driven statement. Was she referring to what VP worked on while she was still around to assist him with the engineering mechanics? “Who did you experiment on?”
“First nation convicts, prostitutes, anyone willing to give their time for fifty bucks and a hot meal. Sometimes I had people giving me their enemies, drugged and sedated, in exchange for a cool hundred up front and a spot on my rolodex.”
“Oh.” Henry had been completely right: Claire was the true monster. “You kept them captive, cut off their limbs?”
“Yeah, but I never ate them,” she said with a giggle, as if it was the most rational thing in the world. “But cannibalism? That’s a new low for my estranged husband. I guess all the drugs fucked up what few braincells he had left.”
And the loss of his family probably didn’t help matters. “How many people did you kill?” I assumed the superstar research doctor would have an answer that she was proud of.
“Good question.” Claire fiddled with her fingers, counting five, then ten. “I think I lost count after the first hundred.”
“Wow,” I muttered in a monotone. “And that was just your first year, right?”
Claire looked at me through eyes peering with anger. My words seemed to finally get her attention. I was not on her level; I was not proud of her accomplishments, (even if she was an extremely well educated, successful fellow redhaired female.) “Are you my executioner? Is that why we’re up here?”
“No, I’ll leave that to Henry.” Claire deserved to die, but pushing her off the roof would be too quick. (That, and I didn’t want the blood on my hands.)
“Well, what do you want?” Claire asked, looking up at the sky.
I said the first thing that came to mind. “I want you to give your husband some closure.” For whatever reason I felt like Vice deserved to know the kind of person she really was. It was extremely apparent he’d devoted his life to recreating her legacy of gore and mutilation, as an act of unrequited love. Maybe if he knew the truth, he’d finally be able to find peace.
“Fair enough.” Claire crossed her arms over her chest. “Part of me is even looking forward to seeing him again.”
“Are you for real?”
“As real as I can be.” She shrugged her shoulder, pursing her lips. “What now?”
“Now?” My heart was racing. I took a breath to calm myself but I was in no condition to move from my spot. “Are you hungry for McDonalds?”
“Yeah, maybe a little,” she said in a meek voice. “I haven’t had anything to eat since my morning coffee.”
“I guess it’s been one hell of an afternoon.” I was really craving McDonald’s chicken nuggets, maybe some fries and a Big Mac.
“Maybe we can order a pizza to the room?”
I burst into a fit of laughter. Of course, she’d want pizza. That was just the kind of day I was having. “For now, we can just enjoy the clear sky.”
“And discuss pizza toppings?” Claire asked, puffing out her lower lip like an adorable toddler.
“Sure. As long as you’re a fan of hot peppers and pineapple.”
“And stuffed crust? Or maybe garlic bread?”
The idea made me smile. “I think I feel up to walking back to the room.”
Claire stood up first, helping me to my feet. “Give me your hand.”
“Thanks, that’s really sweet of you.” Walking together hand in hand, she really did look like my long-lost sister.
When we got to the room, Henry was nowhere to be found. I assumed he was in the bathroom, so I settled in with a dry towel and the in-room phone.
Claire took a seat on the floor, scanning through the tv channels.
Growing up, I was always told there are two sides to every story. Little did I know, some had even more; Vice, Claire, Henry, even Alicia. Every character was a victim, and a hero, but everyone also had sins. I needed one of those libra scales like what the ancient Egyptians used.
When the time came, whose side would I stand with? That was the big question.
next: Charmanderchar1692 ch 10