She was gone. He had made sure of that. Gone where nothing could hurt her, not even him.
He smelled her dark hair, felt her skin, and admired the gold still shining in her lifeless eyes. He couldn’t let her live, but how was he to live in a world without her?
He had to find her again. The same eyes. The same irresistible spirit. A spirit that could only be repressed in death.
He opened the container. As the smell of gasoline filled his nostrils, he thought about the other girls he had hunted. None had ever given him the same rush. The same feeling that swelled his chest and made butterflies bound in his stomach. It was the closest feeling to love a soul like his could experience. It is why he sought her over and over again.
He drenched her body and his own in the accelerant. The fire would have to burn hot and fast for it to work. His heart quickened. If it didn’t work, if he wasn’t able to hold on, he would burn into nothingness. But it had always worked.
He opened the box of matches and removed one.
It was time to depart. If he let thoughts of her take hold of every particle of his consciousness he could focus through the pain. The pain…. It would be terrible and exhilarating. He would let the fire consume him and the flame transport him to a place where she might still exist.
He breathed in the fragrant petrol and could feel the fumes affect him. He mustn’t become lightheaded. It was essential he concentrate.
He struck the match and let it fall into a puddle at his feet. He screamed in agony and anticipation as the flames consumed them both.
Zie Charles sat at her regular table and considered a universal problem all women face. Comfort or calories? She was pondering two dinner dishes she had enjoyed before, one which was her absolute favorite, macaroni and cheese. The other was a salad with berries and goat cheese that was tasty, but let’s face it, still produce.
It had been a difficult day for her, and being a bit of an emotional eater, she was leaning more toward the cheese-covered noodles than the leafy greens. She began her ritual of visualizing a pro/con chart in the air in front of her, labeling one column Salad and the other Happiness. Though she had skipped lunch, she had indulged in a cheese Danish for breakfast: one check for lettuce. She had just bought two new pairs of jeans: another check for veg. She was 23, hadn’t met a man she liked in months and hadn’t had any action for almost a year: a major check for cheese.
Zie, short for McKinzie, had long, straight dark chocolate hair and tanned skin. Her eyes were hazel but looked gold unless she was forced to wear green, in which case they looked like cat poop. She stood at 5’8” with curvier hips than she would have liked and a metabolism that left much to be desired. With a penchant for food of all kinds, she managed to maintain her slim figure by exercising and by balancing her food choices. Hence the pro-con chart.
Her corner booth curved around a circular table, allowing a front-row view of the other patrons and an excellent view of the front entrance, which opened to admit a tall, well-dressed stranger. He stared at her intently for a moment and then smiled. She didn’t smile back. Instead, she looked away, regretting making eye contact. His smile was more of a leer. There was something suggestive about it. She shook her head to clear the impression from her mind. It wasn’t difficult. Being ravenously hungry can make it hard to focus.
She quickly went back to considering dinner. Had she known this seemingly mundane moment would start a chain reaction altering her life forever, she might have abandoned the chart and gone straight for the pasta. Instead, she began to consider whether walking to the restaurant earned her a point in the ooey-gooey column when a voice sounded nearby. She jumped, and her chart popped out of existence.
“Hey, love.” Then seeing her over-reaction, the voice continued, “We meet here every Wednesday. No need to be dramatic.”
Zie smiled broadly up at Tim Bosch, her best friend and an essential part of her life ever since they met in her first high-school art class.
Their Wednesday spot was City Grill, a dive in downtown Denver that has been plying patrons with drinks and surprisingly delicious food for decades. The carpet was a little dingy and the woodwork was a little outdated, but there was never a wait, the tufted Naugahyde booth was cozy, the staff was cool, and the chef was bitchin’.
“You’re pro-conning it again, aren’t you?” He asked as he slid into the booth next to her. “Is it going to be dessert instead of dinner?”
“Mac and cheese versus salad,” she explained as she slung her arm around him.
“Well, your hair looks really nice today,” he said.
“Thank you,” Zie replied, and then shot him a suspicious glare. “Wait a minute, you’re trying to pad the score for salad.” Tim knew her too well. Zie had once bought a candy bar at a gas station after a particularly bad day but then threw it out because the attendant told her she liked her outfit. After the compliment, she simply didn’t need chocolate anymore.
“Zie, I can’t have mac and cheese at this table. You are not the only one with new jeans.”
“That’s just mean,” Zie complained, but then laughed. She should have known. Her hair was tied in a knot on top of her head. Though it had looked worse, it certainly wasn’t praiseworthy. “Well, salad is better for me anyway,” she sighed. The mac and cheese at City Grill was the best she ever had, but the salad was not a bad concession.
“The polite thing to do would be to compliment me in return,” Tim instructed. She gave him a once over. His thick, dark curls were cut short on the sides and back and were longer and wilder on top, setting off his gray eyes and ivory skin nicely. He was neatly dressed in a pair of navy slacks and a gray button-down. He looked the same as he always did.
“You look splendid, Dahling,” she said in her best snotty British accent.
“Why thank you,” he said, matching her accent with an even worse version.
“You both look beautiful,” interrupted the waitress, as she placed two diet ginger ales spiked with vanilla vodka in front of them. Caroline was their regular waitress and had learned their tastes. They hadn’t had to order drinks at City Grill in a long time. Now, beverages just magically appeared. “Have you decided what you are going to have with these?”
Zie grumpily ordered the salad, and then gasped out loud as Tim ordered a cheeseburger.
“What about the jeans?” she asked.
“I decided to risk it,” he grinned. When she narrowed her eyes rather than grinning back, he added, “Stop it. I love you.”
Caroline laughed and shook her head. “You sticking with the salad, Zie?”
“Yes,” Zie groaned, “but only because you called us beautiful.” Caroline winked and sauntered over to the bar to put in the order. Caroline was in her early twenties with hair dyed a vibrant red. As per her usual, her locks were swooped up in a retro-50s ‘do. Her right arm was covered in classic black and gray pin-up girl tattoos. Zie admired her look and her saunter and lamented that she couldn’t pull off either on her best day.
The bartender Matt caught Zie’s eye and grinned at her. Matt was gorgeous. He was slightly taller than Zie, his blonde hair was styled into a faux hawk, and he was very well built. She waved as he looked over at Tim and nodded. She glanced at Tim who nodded back, smiling.
“So, what’s going on with you two?” she whispered. She knew Tim had finally worked up the courage to get Matt’s number and was supposed to call him.
“I called him last night,” Tim whispered back.
Zie punched him in the arm, “And you didn’t call me?” she complained.
“It was late,” Tim explained.
Zie stared at him.
“Okay, okay,” he said, putting his hands up. “I just don’t want to jinx it.”
“You saying I’m bad luck?” Zie asked, feigning anger.
“I’d never say that,” Tim argued, “But I might insinuate you have terrible luck with men, and I don’t want your luck to rub off on me.”
Zie looked at him, opened her mouth, couldn’t think of a decent argument, and closed it again.
“How did it go? Was it good conversation?” Zie asked.
“It was,” he answered.
“And…” Zie prompted.
“And we are going to have coffee on Saturday,” Tim whispered.
Zie squelched a squeal. She didn’t want to make a big deal of anything in front of Matt.
Caroline dropped off their food, and they ate in comfortable silence for a while.
“Speaking of bad luck with men,” Zie began, digging through the lettuce on her plate for a candied pecan, “You’ll never guess the missed call I had on my phone this afternoon.”
Tim, whose mouth was full of burger, couldn’t reply. He raised his eyebrows to show his interest.
“Dylan Rogers,” Zie said.
Tim choked a little and swigged his spiked ginger.
“Zie, unless you’re trying to kill me, you can’t drop something like that when I have a mouth full of food,” he said, eyes watering. “Dylan Rogers… No way!”
“Yes way,” Zie said. “I couldn’t believe it either.”
“Did he leave a message?”
“Nope,” Zie said. “Probably just a butt dial.”
“Not likely,” Tim said. “It’s not like you’re on his recent call list or still number one on his favorites.”
“Drunk Dial?” Tim proposed.
“At 2:30 in the afternoon?” Zie countered.
“You never know,” Tim said. “The weasel could finally have figured out he’s an idiot and tried to drown his sorrows. You going to call him back?”
“Negative,” Zie said. “I have no desire to open up a dialogue with him ever again.”
“Bravo, Zie,” Tim said. “I know you wanted to marry him at one time, but he was never right for you. He wasn’t even right for our frenemy he left you for.”
“Agreed. It’s past time to move on,” Zie said, knocking back the rest of her spiked ginger. Caroline, ever on guard to keep her customers happy, swooped in with new, blissfully bubbling drinks.
“Was the hipster the only reason you were going to eat your feelings, or is something else bothering you?” Tim asked, taking a grateful sip of the fresh beverage.
“The Zuckermans keep hinting they want to move in early,” Zie said. “They haven’t given me the exact date, but there is no way the original bathroom tile I wanted will be here on time. It’s been back-ordered for weeks.” Zie was an interior designer, and her most recent project had been her greatest challenge yet.
“I loved that tile,” Tim sighed. He always followed Zie’s designs closely and had particularly liked the hand-made tile she had first chosen. Tim’s graphic-arts background made him the perfect person with whom to share design ideas. He always gave her great feedback.
“I know,” bemoaned Zie. “I really wanted that look for their space.”
“What’s plan B?” Tim asked.
“I was going to do the hand-made tile on the floor and do subway tile in the shower, but what if I reverse that?” Zie asked.
“I’m listening,” Tim said.
“The tile place has a few hand-made wall tiles in stock, so they can be ready to go whenever. What if I do a small octagon pattern in white on the floor and then do the handmade tile on the wall in the walk-In shower?”
“That sounds even better,” Tim said. “Might make more of a visual impact. What options do they have in stock?”
“Let’s take a look,” Zie said, opening her large brown leather bag and pulling out her tablet. They spent the rest of their meal looking at alternative tile options.
She was putting everything away when Caroline approached with the checks.
“I don’t want to put a damper on the fun,” the waitress whispered, “but the guy at the bar has been staring at Zie pretty intently. He’s been nursing a very expensive glass of scotch and totally ignores Matt every time he tries to talk to him.”
Zie and Tim both moved to look around Caroline who hissed, “Not both at once.”
Zie surreptitiously glanced over the little black leather folder the check came in.
“Do you know him?” Zie asked.
“Never seen him before,” Tim answered, peeking around his own receipt. “That’s a really nice suit. Looks like he’s rolling in money. You should go talk to him, Zie.”
“No!” Zie and Caroline said together, their voices uniting into a much louder response than either had intended.
“Why not?” he asked, surprised at their reaction.
“Hard to explain in words…. He’s just—” Caroline began.
“Not a nice man,” Zie finished. “Call it women’s intuition.”
Caroline nodded in agreement and walked away, eyeing the man at the bar with dislike as she went. He didn’t notice. His eyes never left Zie, who was doing her best to pretend he wasn’t there.
Caroline returned to pick up the checks. Zie looked up at the man again, who returned her gaze, unblushingly. It was not an expression Zie liked. He pulsed with emotion, so much so that she could have sworn he was vibrating around the edges. The emotion he was exuding was disturbing. There was curiosity in his air, but overwhelmingly, Zie sensed desire. She blinked and looked away.
“I want to leave now,” Zie said. “I don’t like that man looking at us.”
“Don’t let that creeper bother you,” Tim said. “He’s just a Lookie-Lou. That kind of guy never does anything.”
“Don’t you think there is something strange about him?”
“No stranger than some of the characters we pass every day on the street, and you aren’t afraid of them. At least this one is well dressed,” Tim answered. When she still looked nervous, he added, “Zie, I don’t think he’s anything to worry about.”
“Can we just go?”
“As soon as we sign the checks,” Tim said, taking the receipts from Caroline, who had just returned.
“The guy at the bar just put cash down and looks like he’s getting ready to leave,” she said in a whisper. “I’d rather you guys let him go before you. I’d hate for him to follow you.”
“I don’t suppose you drove tonight?” Zie asked Tim. “We wouldn’t have to worry about him as much if we could drive away.”
“You know I never take the car if we are going to have drinks,” Tim explained.
And so they waited, but the man waited too. After about a quarter of an hour, Tim had enough.
“Let’s just go, Zie,” he said in a whisper. “I promise, I’ll protect you.”
They got up and waved to Caroline and Matt, who were glancing nervously back and forth between the two friends and the man lurking at the bar. He didn’t immediately follow, but when they got to the corner and had to wait a few moments to cross the street, Zie looked back and saw him exit the bar, look around, and head in their direction.
“You still think I’m crazy?” Zie asked, motioning discreetly behind them. Tim looked over his shoulder.
“Plenty of people live in this direction, Zie,” He said, but sounded a bit more nervous. They crossed the street and a few moments later, so did the stranger. They turned down a side street, and he followed.
“He’s like a creepy shadow,” Tim said, heading for the next main road and hailing a cab as soon as they reached it. The man was still several yards behind. They didn’t talk much on the short ride, and Zie kept looking behind them as though she expected to see the stranger jogging to keep up with the car.
“Call me when you get home,” Tim said, giving her a swift kiss on the cheek before climbing out of the cab and heading into his building. By now, he was just as freaked out as she was.
Zie was happy to find the street deserted when the cab pulled up to her building. She gave the cab driver an extra big tip and asked him to wait for her to get inside safely before driving away. She breathed a sigh of relief when she finally closed the locked entry door of her building behind her and let the light from the vintage chandeliers wash away some of her uneasiness.
Zie climbed the stairs to her loft on the top floor and was just unlocking her door when someone said her name. She jumped, screamed, and turned around all at once. The man behind her jumped and screamed too.
“What the hell, Dylan!” Zie shouted, and then, remembering her neighbors, she lowered her voice to a loud whisper. “I was about to gouge out your eyes with my keys!”
The former love of her life was standing there, as though he had never walked out on her. They had dated her last two years of college. She had seen him around since it ended but had mostly been successful in avoiding him.
“I didn’t mean to scare you,” Dylan said. “Why are you so tightly wound tonight?”
Zie imagined the man from the bar and felt the hairs on her neck stand on end. She almost told him what had happened, then remembered who she was speaking to and said, “What are you doing here?”
“Cassandra and I broke up,” he replied.
“Okay,” Zie said, “what does that have to do with me?”
“I want you back,” Dylan announced. “I’ve never gotten over you, and I’m ready for us to be together.”
Zie laughed out loud, and then immediately felt bad for doing so. She took a moment to collect herself and then, as kindly as possible, responded. “When did this happen?”
“A few days ago,” Dylan said, looking at her earnestly.
She stared at him. Dylan had always been a bit earthy-crunchy, but since they had broken up, he had gone full-on hipster. He was wearing skinny jeans, suspenders, and a scarf. His dark hair was short but un-styled, and he had grown a beard that was a bit too bushy around the edges. His eyes were the same as they ever were, though. Coffee-brown and framed by obscenely long lashes. She remembered the countless times she had looked into those eyes and softened a little.
“Don’t you think you should take a little time to think about what you really want instead of trying to jump right back into a relationship, which I’m sorry, is not going to happen.” She felt blindsided. She hadn’t heard about the breakup, and even if she had, the last thing she would have expected was for him to show up on her doorstep.
“Zie, I could take a little more time, but it won’t change the fact that I want you back. I never stopped loving you.”
“Dylan, you’ve been with Cassandra for well over a year. You left me to be with her,” she said sharply. Her incredulity was beginning to make her squeaky.
“It’s always been on and off again with her,” he argued. “Not like it was with us.”
Zie shook her head as she opened her door. “Dylan, you have to go. I’ve had an incredibly long day.”
“I’m not giving up on us,” he said, his brown eyes pleading.
“Goodbye, Dylan,” she said and closed the door in his face.
She had not even finished locking the deadbolt before speed-dialing Tim.
“Safe and sound, love?” he asked.
Zie lost no time with pleasantries. “You will never guess who was waiting for me when I got home.”
“Not the creeper from the bar?” he responded, sounding concerned.
“No, even more bizarre than that!” she said with an air of preparing to drop a small nuclear bomb. “Dylan Rogers.”
“No!” Tim shouted.
“Yes! Zie responded.
“Holy hipster,” Tim said.
They spent the next hour discussing every detail, from what he was wearing, to what he said, to how he said it. The event put the stranger at the bar completely from their minds. Zie didn’t think about him again until she hung up the phone and the oppressive quiet of her loft, so different from the boisterous conversation with her best friend, brought her back to reality.
She knew she was being paranoid, but she went over every nook and cranny of her space to check for concealed lunatics. When she found her black cat, Isis, snoozing comfortably in her favorite corner of the closet, Zie figured all was right and headed into the bathroom to shower. It felt good to let the hot water run over her body and relax her muscles. It was not enough, however, to wash away the events of the evening. Images of the stranger and Dylan’s earnest expression floated in and out of her mind. It was more than an hour before she drifted into an uneasy sleep.