...Dennis cringed as the sharp edge of the plastic top on his Dunkin’ Donuts coffee scraped against his upper lip. His engine ticked as it cooled; he was certain it was a sign it would shit the bed soon. The Subaru dealership had assured him that the sound was normal, but he was wary.
He stayed in the driver’s seat of the car and watched the dry leaves swirl in tiny vortexes around his driveway. He knew he had to rake: hell, he was becoming thathouse on the block: the neighbor who didn’t keep his landscaping up, the one who waited for the snow to melt instead of shoveling after each storm. He didn’t want the added attention.
Soon it would be time to turn on the heat, a task much less worrisome since he’d switched over his furnace to gas. When he first moved into the modest Cape Cod home nearly ten years ago, he’d had to shell out nearly nine hundred dollars to fill the empty oil tank the previous owners had left empty. Three winters later, he’d used up every drop he’d filled that year, then financed a brand-new gas heating system; now, he could pay for fuel on a monthly basis instead of being hit with a large bill all at once.
Four years ago, when his mother stopped going outside, a few people on the street dropped by to inquire about her health. He hadn’t adequately prepared for their interest, and his explanations came out jumbled and fuzzy, prompting a few of the neighbors to stop waving at him when he drove past them on his way home from work. From that point on, he was “that guy,” the strange man who lived with his agoraphobic, aging mother. He didn’t bother turning off his porch light on Halloween to dissuade trick-or-treaters; no one ventured up the walk to his home anymore. He was lucky the postal carrier still left his packages on his screened-in porch.
Dennis pulled the keys out of the ignition and climbed out of the orange SUV. A pimply teenaged boy in a navy hooded sweatshirt was lumbering uncomfortably along the sidewalk nearby. When he made eye contact with Dennis, he turned away immediately, quickening his pace, but Dennis saw the kid side-eye his car door as the alarm issued a tidy beep. That’s right, you little prick. Keep walking. Nothing for you to swipe here.
The day after Dennis had returned from his trip around New England, his next-door neighbor had discovered his sedan burglarized. Dennis only knew this because he overheard the man on a cell phone call berating his wife for leaving the doors unlocked. He lived in a nice neighborhood, a “good part of town” by all accounts, and so far, he hadn’t experienced any issues with theft or vandalism, but he was pro-active just the same: he always locked his doors, those both of the house and car, and he had programmed timers throughout his home to keep the lights on when he went out at night.
People, Dennis believed, were just too damn trusting these days. Julie Piedmont had been the last, or at least the most recent, in a series of encounters with young, healthy women whose lives he’d watched drain from their eyes just a few hours after leaving the sanctity of their family homes, boyfriends’ apartments, or college dormitories. All of them had been in decent physical shape with no impediments, ambulatory or otherwise, that could have prevented them from escaping him, or at the very least, fighting more ferociously for their survival. The third girl, a curvy coed with strawberry blonde hair who’d spent the afternoon window-shopping at Thornes Market, a multi-story emporium in a nearby suburb that peddled hipster clothing, eclectic housewares, and unusual gifts, never surveyed her environment for potential threats during his entire reconnaissance. He followed her for hours and watched as her eyes darted back and forth exclusively between store inventory and her cell phone screen, the two places engaged in a vapid tennis match for her attention.
Finally, he became so overcome with irritation at her carelessness that when she made her way outside to the small municipal lot by ducking out of the back exit, he tapped the girl on the shoulder and confronted her. “Excuse me, but I couldn’t help but notice that you were looking down at your phone almost the entire time you walked through the mall,” he said, staring into her eyes for the first time. They were pale blue, and for a moment, the Velvet Underground song covered by R.E.M. that his mother used to play when he was small— Dead Letter Office, that was the name of the album, he suddenly recalled—echoed nostalgically in his head. He had been very young, perhaps only five or six, and his mother Karen, a hungry prosecutor in New York City, worked nearly incessantly, and any quality time spent with her son was spontaneous and fleeting.
For most of his childhood, Dennis had been mothered by teenaged babysitters, by daycare attendants, and (when Karen was physically home but researching and writing briefs and organizing cases,) by the television in the den, the room farthest away from the enclosed pantry Karen used as an office. However, on a rare occasion, his mother would spend the morning in her worn pajamas and stocking feet, playing the stereo loud enough so that it could be heard in every room of the apartment. During these ephemeral moments, Karen would carry her son in her arms, pretend they were skating at Rockefeller Center, and sing along to Michael Stipe at the top of her lungs, unconcerned with the subsequent banging on the wall and ceiling from nearby neighbors. Dennis remembered nestling his face in the crook of her neck, seeing her thin, gold necklace scintillate when it caught the light, and smelling the remnants of her drugstore perfume as he listened to the whoosh-whoosh-whooshher thick wool socks made along the dark hardwood floorboards.
His reverie was broken, however, when the girl shook her shoulders slightly and stepped around Dennis, saying nothing, essentially ignoring him. She walked directly to her car in the lot without accelerating her pace, her head tilted downward and her eyes resuming their adhesion to the screen.
It was her sole car key that broke off in the door lock when Dennis wrestled her quietly to the ground. He searched her pale blue eyes again as he cupped his gloved hand over her nose and mouth, silencing first her screams of panic and then her life completely. The fog of warm breath escaping from the slits between his fingers thinned and then dissolved entirely. A half hour later, as he peeled the winter gloves from his hands and dropped them in a nearby trashcan in front of a Walmart three towns away, he cursed himself for the impromptu assault; he had promised himself that each target would be used as rehearsal for the big event; every girl was a learning experience, an opportunity to hone his craft to perfection because the game itself would be perfection. Her body was found two days later, shoved beneath her car in the lot where she’d parked it, her dead cell phone placed gingerly in the breast pocket of her coat. ...