Erin Brennan was late. She couldn’t be late. Not tonight.
She trotted away from Blessing Hospital in east downtown, fishing for her keys in her drawstring duffel bag. A solitary streetlight fizzled between life and death overhead. She kept her head down, searching with her fingers, determined to distract herself from the consequences of not getting there on time.
Having to park under the interstate overpass didn’t help. But pre-med interns usually got the crappy parking spaces in the lot directly under the humming concrete of I-65.
If only she’d gotten a better spot. Tonight of all nights.
Cars still zoomed by overhead even though it was already past two in the morning. She, on the other hand, made very little sound in her white K-Swiss as she padded toward the chain link fence surrounding the lot under the interstate. She imagined wearing phantom heels that clicked in the dim light, echoing off the concrete struts that held up the highway. With the butterscotch glow floating down from halogen canisters mounted under the overpass and the buzzing flicker of that half-light behind her, echoing heels would’ve completed the scene. Maybe soft, foreboding music and long shadows accompanied by a car horn or a barking dog blocks away.
Too much imagination for someone so tired.
She finally snagged the keys and then looped the drawstrings of the duffle over her shoulders. What passed for illumination in the underlot would make a group of swaying cell phones at a concert seem like prison spotlights during a jailbreak.
She glanced at her watch. Yep. Definitely going to be late.
The lot gate groaned when she pushed through, reconstructing the eerie scene she’d imagined. Her bag snagged on the gate’s metal latch as she passed through, causing her to drop her keys.
She debated punting the keys across the lot, breaking into a stamping hissy fit, or both. She ultimately chose wriggling free of the gate with a loud sigh. When she bent over to pick up the keys, the weak light dusted a pair of shoes underneath the car three spots down the first row. Someone was crouching on the far side, heels up like a catcher behind home plate.
Erin managed to snatch up her keys, but not before dragging them a few inches and bumping her knee on the concrete, almost toppling over on her side. Her breath came louder, challenging the jingling of her keys. Fortunately, her dilapidated Ford Probe was parked away from the crouching feet. The feet were at noon, she headed for three o’clock, padding fast.
Just some homeless guy taking a dump. But somehow she didn’t believe that.
She reached the row where her rustbucket sat waiting and cut the corner so fast around the first car in line her hip clipped its rear bumper. An abrupt squeak jumped out of her mouth.
Frustration followed relief. She scampered toward her car.
Stupid. Why was she suddenly afraid?
She never even heard him.
Two wiry arms collapsed around her and catapulted the night air out of her lungs. One hand clamped over her mouth quick enough to hold in the scream that followed her expelled breath. Her nose worked overtime, sucking up strawfuls of milkshake-thick oxygen.
Someone’s breath tickled her right ear. She smelled cheese.
“This doesn’t have to hurt.” The man’s voice was dry. She imagined the rustling of crackling, dried leaves in the syllables.
She flailed, the toes of her K-Swiss scuffing the asphalt, stretching for surer footing just out of reach. She caught a glimpse of her attacker’s shiny black shoes. Had to be the same shoes crouched behind the car. But no homeless guy had hands and shoes that clean.
Erin knew she should make some noise of submissiveness, but her instinct was to kick and claw and rip off flesh. Only there was no loose flab on this guy. She was strong and toned, but this guy was stronger. Taller.
Her spirited struggle deepened his breaths. Again she smelled cheese.
“Shh-shh-shh. Come on, now, you got nowhere else to be.”
She did have somewhere to be. She was late. She used that anxiety to fuel her and bucked harder. Her desperation expanded even as her vision narrowed. The dark underlot became even darker.
Her attacker held firm and whispered, “It really is a shame it has to be this way.”
His left arm withdrew in a flash. The unexpectedness of it froze her. Before she could scramble again, she felt a tickle of wind across her neck. The wind immobilized her again--because it seemed to blow from inside her.
At first, a gentle breeze. Then a painful hurricane. What…
Her hand quaked as it flopped to her neck and felt the open flow of blood. She tried to scream. Couldn’t. There was only the gushing gale at her throat.
And blood. So much blood.
The arms around her became gentle, almost like an embrace. “That’s it, put your fingers in it.” The murmur fit the breeze, those dried leaves all blown away.
She slowly tilted forward, numbed by shock, and she saw splashes of blood on her white K-Swiss shoes. The shoes were old, but they looked so white in the darkness. The blood drops were inconceivably thick, like a wet wax seal on a medieval letter.
“Can you hear it? Can you hear it?” he asked.
No, she couldn’t hear her blood leaving her body. She could no longer hear the man’s excited panting, couldn’t hear the buzzing of the sputtering streetlight near the parking lot, not even the zooming cars overhead.
Erin Brennan heard only silence.