October 29, 2036

“Another day, another record. Deaths hitting a new height in the New York state area as the number of Maikavirus cases continue to spike aggressively. On the front lines, the fight to save patients continues at a great cost…”

The year has proven to be quite the roller coaster and after months spent avoiding any sort of contamination, I’ve put myself in what anyone would consider to be quite a dangerous position; traveling in the middle of a pandemic.

Hilda’s husband has contracted the virus a couple of months back, and now he’s dead after a pre-existing chronic medical condition made it hard for him to survive the disease. I had no idea what to expect once I got to the funeral. I knew older individuals were advised not to attend and an e-mail forwarded to me cited certain safety principles like social distancing measures to avoid the risk of transmission as well as wearing masks and refraining from making close physical contact with the attendees.

I landed at O’Hare around 9 A.M. and was picked up by Landon. Upon our arrival at his apartment on Lake Shore Drive, we caught up for a bit before he left for his doctor’s appointment. As I unpacked, I noticed his large piano was gone, and that he replaced his vintage gray couch with an alabaster mid-century sofa which gave the place some sort of a fresh appeal. I would’ve have changed anything if I were him, but he’s made it clear to me that possessions don’t mean anything to him and even though I’m still struggling with that aspect of my personality (hoarding, that is), I’m slowly acquiring the same point of view.

I sat down by the window and watched the lake and within minutes it brought me back. Sometimes my memory surprises me as moments from my past can not only be recalled but also experienced with a decent level of vivacity. This comes from the fact that as I grew older and in a way more disconnected, my attention switched from feeling a moment to capturing it in fragments, sometimes in sequence if my mind permitted. When you’re no longer emotionally invested in things, you preserve them almost mechanically, like a photographer would. In those moments, I attempt at using senses other than visual. Remembering a specific scent, or a sound heard at the time. Some songs can take me right back in a flash. For some reason, I can still remember my preschool years simply because of the soap they used.

When I decided to go under Landon’s wing, I had to make a decision to give up love as well as normal friendships because I was tired of constantly looking over my shoulder and coming up with explanations whenever someone asked why I was spending most of my time in the company of an older man. Once I was able to reassess where I was in life and what I wanted my future to look like, my decision pretty much made itself. After Matthew, I knew finding love would never happen, and friends—why bother making friends when I knew they’d abandon me in the end? For a while, I tried to fake it—made myself believe friendships were vital to my well-being. Maybe they are. Thing is, even when I had them I felt sad, mainly because deep inside a clock was reminding me that I was on borrowed time when I was with them—that they’d soon leave or vanish. For a while, I comforted myself with the notion that we meet people at a specific in time in our life because in a way they’re meant to teach us something, yet I’ve known individuals who carried their friendships with them for decades. If that’s feasible—if friendships can last, then maybe I didn’t deserve them.

Landon has always been honest with me. For starters, he never lied to me or tried to conceal the truth of his on-going affair with his past lover, a man a few years his senior named Roger, a sophisticated and kind gentleman. For reasons beyond my understanding, after initially living together for two decades, they went their separate ways all while keeping their romantic bond intact. They were dedicated and loved each other tremendously, and so I could never grasp why they decided to stop being intimate with one another.

“Love distorts things”, I heard Roger say once as we headed to the piano bar where Landon occasionally sang. Although I’ve assumed he had a much younger lover on the side, Landon couldn’t confirm whether it was the case or not because he didn’t want to pry. After all, he was doing the same but wasn’t too concerned hiding it.

After Shawn’s death, I moved in with Landon and for the most part, I was happy and satisfied with where life had taken me. I knew there was an itch to do more, that’s why I eventually took on Criminology and became a forensic photographer, but until then I could perfectly envision living the rest of my life with Landon. I enjoyed us casually lounging in his apartment, watching TV or reading books, going to brunch with his male friends and socializing with them on the weekends. I also looked forward to watching him sing at the piano bar every other week. During the holidays, we went to visit his family in Ohio, and during Broadway season, we went to New York. I was happy with the rhythm of our life, but as soon as things got too comfortable, a part of Landon’s dark past came back knocking.

Steven Niall was the name of the boy who preceded me. For years, him and Landon had a romantic liaison and according to him, it was only pleasant the first couple of years, before Steven’s depression surged and his destructive behavior took control, messing up his mood and driving him to commit petty crimes like stealing money from Landon to support his drug habit. It wasn’t until he made a scene in front of Landon’s guests during a gathering that Landon finally took the initiative and cut ties with him. This caused Steven to grow bitter and more vengeful. He started showing up at Landon’s apartment building and stalked him when he was out with his friends. Soon, a restraining order was filed against him. Eventually, when Steven disappeared, Landon got ahold of his stepdad who informed him he was in jail for prostitution and aggravated assault. I didn’t know about any of this until Steven was released a few years later and showed up outside Landon’s building one day as we were heading out. Before knowing who he was, I remember seeing him around me a few times, so I quickly realized he had been stalking me once Landon revealed their history. I could tell that even though he was frightened by him, he still harbored some feelings for the guy. I tried to reason with him a few times he considered giving him some money to help him with his rehabilitation after being in prison for so long. Steven didn’t shy away from asking for thousands of dollars knowing very well Landon had them, and I’m pretty sure he would’ve given him whatever he needed had I not been there to stop him. Thankfully, he appreciated me looking after him and refrained from giving away lavish amounts of money. Even then, I felt like a hypocrite advising him while I myself was taking money and letting him take care of me. Difference is, we had a mutual arrangement. I was also very responsible and never a burden.

At times, I have to admit living a normal care-free life bored me. It just wasn’t for me, so I wanted to destroy it. Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t it. It would’ve hurt Landon so much.

When I looked into Steven’s eyes for the first time, I could spot a glimpse of his innocence. He was also very cute which explained why Landon’s infatuation with him persisted. He wasn’t someone you could forget about let alone quit. Hell, I was just as into him as he was. He was spoiled and entitled, troubled and dangerous. But when I think about where he came from and the things he had to endure, I was more inclined to feel sympathy for him and try to help out however I could. After my first encounter with him, I told Landon I wanted to participate and do some good by giving back. That weekend, we stopped by one of Landon’s friends who was moving out out of his suburban house after his mom passed away. We offered him a hand by packing some of his belongings and getting rid of the things he no longer needed. By the end of it, we had managed to collect home appliances, towels as well as other miscellaneous things we gave Steven upon his moving into his new home. The unfortunate part was that our act of kindness went in vain as we soon discovered how egotistical and self-centered he really was. Everything that came out of his mouth was a lie, and when he smiled and made small talk, it was just to get us under his spell so he could take advantage of us. Our last exchange consisted of him spreading rumors about Landon which he hoped would pull us apart. He texted me in the middle of the night to tell me that during his relationship with Landon, he found semi-nude photos of him on his computer. These photos were taken without his knowledge, while he was asleep, he claimed. Distraught, I barged into Landon’s room and showed him the texts. He was just as confused as I was and ultimately, the incident pushed us to cut contact with him altogether. In a way, though, I wanted to remain in touch with him, mainly because I was curious as to what he’d do next. Steven showed signs of both depression and ADHD, making his behavior erratic and constantly causing havoc—irreparable damage. He didn’t know when to stop. It was confusing to see him make one bad decision after another, especially when it came to both me and Landon—two individuals who were desperately trying to look after him. My reason being the fact I was bored and Steven managed to create this spark of excitement—seeing someone who’s a mess make awful choices. It was exciting to me. We were also partly in denial, justifying his own behavior and poor manners based on his tumultuous past. Landon went above and beyond for him. After his release from jail, he called him asking him to vouch for him for the landlord of his new apartment building down in Hyde Park. Steven had come up with this crazy idea of persuading Landon to showcase his exceptional handy-man qualities—qualities that didn’t exist—so he could land himself a good deal paying half his rent as the landlord was searching for someone with plumbing experience who could step in and fix any sudden damage or issue in the building.

The day we decided we were done with him, Landon was heartbroken and very much worried. Steven’s strongest weapon was social media, a platform he used to call out, expose and defame any person who rubbed him the wrong way. Even though we did nothing but take care of him, we knew he’d turn on us in a second. I wasn’t afraid of him simply because I didn’t care and had nothing to lose. Landon did. Luckily, nothing happened—until one day, a cop was killed by Steven during an altercation involving drugs. After committing the crime, he sought hideout inside a wealthy man’s apartment, an older man who took pity on him. Steven was immediately located by the police thanks to his ankle bracelet. Before heading to his location, the police stopped by Landon’s since his first arrest happened at his apartment. Landon insisted we went along with them hoping things wouldn’t escalate.

Steven was home alone. He refused to open the door and after many attempts, the officers ended up breaking in. When we stepped in, we couldn’t find him. Eventually, one of them caught a glimpse of his hand gripping the inside of the window frame. He was hiding outside, his feet struggling to stay on the ledge. No one could reach him and as I watched the officers decide which one of them had the courage to step in and deal with the situation, something pushed me to step out and try to deal with it myself. Obviously, I had no idea what I was doing. I remember feeling like I was about to faint as motion sickness took over. They say you should never look down yet it’s the very first thing I did, and I’ve quickly realized I’ve overestimated how high we were. I stretched my arm out to Steven and tried to talk him into surrendering himself since it was all over for him anyway—another stupid move. He was so self-destructive to the point he managed to find ways to make everything worse no matter the cost. For a second, I thought he would cooperate and the crazy incident would quickly come to an end even though our lives were literally hanging on by a thread. As his sweaty palm slowly reached mine, a sudden volatile move from him sent both of us down into the air. As I fell, I had managed to grip the window’s iron fence before we ended up in the abyss. Steven was putting his whole weight into bringing me down with him, something I initially perceived as a cunning plan to kill us both. But then I saw an intense fear in his eyes. He didn’t want to die. Of course not. He was too narcissistic to end his own life. He’d rather live under a cloud of immense despair and spread it above everyone that surrounded him. He was full of spite and hate.

The cops eventually intervened and we somehow made it back inside the apartment. Steven was taken into custody while Landon and I waited for the apartment’s owner to come back from work so we could explain to him what had happened. He was stunned after knowing just a small amount of Steven’s history and asked us to leave.

Until this very day, I’d like to think of my life as a collection of counter-reactions. If I could look back on my younger self, I wouldn’t in a million years be able to imagine or make up the ebbs and lows. We’re not as in control as we’d like to believe. Situations present themselves and we just adapt. Wondering about what could’ve been is no more than escapism. We are where we are for reasons beyond our understanding, and if we really stop and look within ourselves—try to grasp the reality of where our life has taken us, we’ll clearly see how each element was woven so perfectly to lead us to where we are now.

I walked down Halsted and entered the sleazy bar Shawn often dragged me into. It had just opened and I was the only patron. The bartender, a tall and slender blond kid with distinctively swollen lips welcomed me in. I sat at the bar and he swiftly handed me over a glass of water. Our eyes finally connected and something in my head immediately clicked. After making small talk, I asked him if he knew Anders and he froze in his spot. He was facing the shelf, so I couldn’t see his first reaction. He slowly turned and confirmed my gut feeling to be true. Half an hour later, I was so immersed in his backstory that I didn’t shy away from asking whatever question crossed my mind. I was mainly preoccupied with putting the pieces together—the ones that would finally give me an accurate and honest account of what their relationship was really like.

Zach didn’t seem too interested in sharing any information with me, for obvious reasons. He knew nothing about me, yet I knew a lot about him. Once he believed Anders and I were once close, he felt more compelled to engage with me to clear out any misinformation I might’ve been given. I told him Anders’ version of the truth and desperately waited to hear his.

“Is that what he told you?”, Zach said with great surprise when I revealed Anders stated he suddenly walked away from their relationship without providing any sort of closure.“Yes. Why?”, I asked.
“Because it’s not the entire truth. Yes, Marshall was a pushover—sexually speaking. He liked to give it rough. I didn’t really mind until his fetishes became twisted and extreme. Anders didn’t like the way he was treating me from the beginning; he was weirdly obsessed and very protective of me. Yet somehow they’ve managed to compromise a lot for each other. The real reason why I left, though, wasn’t completely up to me. I left my family to go live with them and for the most part, they took good care of me. Outside of sex, everything was fine. I lived in a normal and safe environment; I felt secure, was financially stable. Anders even gave me a job at the flower shop. However, I had a secret—one I knew would jeopardize my entire living situation with them.”
“What was it, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I was doing drag without them knowing.”
“You didn’t think they’d approve?”
“I knew they wouldn’t. They were practically anti-drag even though they came across like they were accepting of it. But they were too masc to condone it, if you know what I mean.”
“I’m assuming they eventually found out?”
“Of course, they did. I couldn’t keep everything hidden in the trunk of my car forever. Once it started to take a huge toll on me, I stopped caring. When they finally noticed the signs, they questioned me and I didn’t hesitate to tell them. Deep inside, though, I was scared shitless.”
“Why? Because they’d kick you out?”
“No, they were too nice to do that. But they definitely made me feel quite uncomfortable after they found out. They made derogatory comments toward drag queens, claiming they were just jokes, and criticized my way of living. The obvious sign I was no longer welcome in their home was when they started to look at me like I was less than which mainly translated into their lack of desire to have sex with me and them never coming to any of my shows. They were too busy having orgies at, The Hole.”
“I can’t believe what you’re telling me right now. This is like, a 360 degree spin on Anders’ story.”
“Yeah, and I’m not surprised. They were embarrassed to have me be part of their family after that. They looked at me with contempt — it wasn’t obvious, but I could feel it. I’m not stupid. I could also tell they were disgusted with themselves knowing they were sleeping with me the whole time I was dabbling with drag. They were purely ashamed of being associated with me. That’s when I knew it was time for me to pack my things and leave.”
“I’m sorry, but your story has gotten me a bit confused. Anders showed inordinate fondness when he spoke about you. It was real.”
“I believe you. But you have to ask yourself: What exactly was he remembering when he spoke about me? Was it the person he thought I was, or the person I eventually revealed myself to be?”
“How would I know?”
“You wouldn’t. What I meant was, there’s different ways to look at it. When I moved in with them, it was like I was making a fantasy of theirs come true. I don’t want to say they used me for sex because I’d be making them look like bad people, but sex really was all they wanted because once the truth about what I did came to light, their attraction to me diminished almost instantly.”
“Have you been in touch with Anders since then?”
“I bumped into him a few months ago.”
“How is he?”
“He’s good—has finally moved on with his life since Marshall.”
“How so?”
“He’s in a relationship with this guy, Wayne—Winston. I can’t remember his name.”

I definitely could. It took a second for the idea to sink in and once it did, it didn’t really affect me. When I was back in college, there was a group of five gay men who were shamed for dating each other’s exes. Considering the fact gay men struggle a lot to fit in and establish a sense of community in schools and universities, I understand why they do it. It’s much easier to get it on with someone you know instead of going through the turmoil of wondering whether some guy—an outsider—is gay or even remotely interested. Men are very sexual, and when you put two together, the tension tends to be really high. It’s like they can’t wait to get in each other’s pants. It’s shallow of me to narrow them down to being only one thing, but my point of view does have a lot of credibility as I’ve observed this phenomenon happen countless times before, especially in Chicago. Gay men mainly bond through their sexual orientation and not through common interests or compatible personalities. If they can all agree the guy sitting on the train is hot, then they’re pretty much a match and they’ll have a blast hanging out together. Even though it might not be the case with Anders and Warren, hearing about them being together made me cringe—a lot. At first I just couldn’t picture it. In my mind, it was a last resort type of thing—a desperate attempt to find love and not end up alone and hopeless. But then it made sense. Both of them have suffered a lot of heartbreaks over the years, and so they know what it’s like to be hurt and unappreciated. Two broken hearts appreciate each other for what they’ve been dejected in the past.

After this revelation, we were interrupted by a protest happening right outside, a block south of the bar, in a 7/11 parking lot. At the same time, on the TV screen, a newsflash appeared announcing new details about the case of a gay criminal by the name of Colin Burke, who purposely infected over 300 men with HIV. I had never heard about the case prior to the news report and what I found to be the most shocking is that it created so much controversy, stirring up hate from conservative communities and members of the church. We walked outside and spotted homophobic protesters bearing slogans saying, “God Hates Fags” and “Homosexuality is Sin”, while shouting anti-gay remarks and comments directed towards people demanding the criminal in question face the ultimate punishment for spreading a sense of panic in the city. What caused further outrage is a baptist pastor who went on TV and delivered an outrageous statement.

“Are you sad that 280 pedophiles were infected today?”, the pastor yelled. “I think that’s great. I think that helps society. Colin Burke is a godsend. He was sent by god to execute the punishment they deserve. The tragedy is that he couldn’t carry with his mission long enough to cause more damage. I’m kind of upset he’s in jail–because these people are predators. They are abusers. I wish the government would round them all up and put bullets into their heads”, he concluded.

Further deep into the 7/11 parking lot, an older man stood on a podium and delivered a speech. I only managed to hear the end of it.

“Our history has been wiped from history books to keep it away from the public”, he said as I snuck my way into the crowd. “It’s been considered a contemporary aberration just like we are now. We were and continue to be seen as a threat. Fuck this!”, the man screamed. The audience screamed back.

There’s so much hate in the world, between different communities, within the same communities and most dangerously, within ourselves. Is this the end of the world as we know it? A way for human kind to dismantle itself, so a newer, more reformed generation, can come in start again? Is being a good human being a weakness? If not, how can you explain how through the centuries, only evil men managed to hold positions of power and even worse, prevail? They still do, and what’s worse is that they now have the platform to spread hate so openly without shame or the possibility of facing any real repercussions. How is it still possible for a man to go on live TV and say he wished certain individuals would be put in front of a firing squad? Isn’t that enough to send him straight to jail? For the less fortunate ones, it is. People who take on the streets to vent and scream obscenities because life has fucked them over so many times they’re no longer able to keep their feelings bottled in are immediately seen as a menace to society. Those people, if they happen to threaten anyone without any real intention to cause actual harm, often end up in jail, yet a pastor is able to spread hate and land himself a spot on national television. The only way that’s possible is for a strong undercurrent level of hate and violence to exist within the majority of the country. I’m just as guilty of it as everybody else.

Despite its extensive restoration, Marlowe remains a cursed and haunted place. The upscale rooftop bar Matthew turned into his killing ground has been barely scraping by since the massacre. Being part of a hotel, only guests seem to spend time there as locals still aren’t able to forget the gruesome attack that happened there not too long ago. The first time I’ve been there was that dreadful night, and so I decided to go back as part of my downbeat walk down memory lane. I ordered a drink and strolled between empty tables. In a corner, a DJ stood. He didn’t seem too happy to be there. I walked over to him and asked him if he could play a song—the song that was playing when Matt first showed up inside the room. I wasn’t sure why, but in my mind I knew I was onto something.

The song’s beat blasted in the background as I aimed for the men’s restroom. An indistinctive presence exited as I entered the small, fluorescently lit space. It was as gutted as the rest of the place, but the memories were there and sharper than ever. Deep on the left side, the stall Warren and I sought refuge in was wide open—it almost felt as if it was summoning me. I walked inside, the music stretching and slowing down, my steps clattering against the shiny tiled floor. As soon the stall clicked shut, I was transported back to the night of the massacre. I reached for my belt and unbuckled it, took down my pants and underwear midway until they hung around my knees. Right hand wrapped around my hard-on, left hand serving as support against the wall above the toilet, I jerked myself off, edging to a close then stopping before I could cum. The clicking sound of the metal part of my belt hitting the floor reminded me of the sound of bullet caps falling and clinking on the floor. I pictured Matthew’s maniacal face staring right into my soul as he sprayed me with his machine gun, ripping my flesh and disfiguring my body until it turned into a huge pile of nothing. An intense burning feeling took over my organ as I ejaculated, and as I looked down I saw I’ve ejaculated a mix of semen and blood all over the toilet seat. I squeezed the tip of my penis to release the remaining drops of semen, rubbed them between my fingers against the light overheard to get a better and closer look at the sticky, slimy texture of my bloody cum. I licked them clean.

I walked out to the lacking human crowd which was mostly constituted of motionless and stoic individuals standing in obscured corners or sitting at the bar. The dread and trauma I felt coming in slowly became non-existent and trivial, probably due to the comedown of my climax. As my heart continues to ache for Matthew, sometimes I stop and wonder: Although I know I meant so much to him, would he have gone through the same amount of torment had I been the one who died? Because when I look back and think about what kind of person he really was, all I can think about is his total indifference—towards me as well as everybody else. He would’ve moved on in a heartbeat. Yet here I am struggling with a grueling, bottomless depression. I’m paralyzed, unable to move forward. Ever since he was gone, I cried every single night. The tears were uncontrollable. One trigger is enough to send my whole body shaking, an automatic reflex I can’t shut off. Nothing is able to distract me from the overwhelming sadness and racing anxiety his absence has caused me.

“When was the last time you cried?”, Hilda once asked me on our way home from school. She asked me with particular intrigue and curiosity, and at first I didn’t think much about it. It was probably because her question came out of nowhere and  sounded so “matter-of-factly.” I told her I couldn’t remember and we left it at that. But now that I think about it, it wasn’t because she wanted an affirmation on whether or not I cried too, generally speaking, but mostly in order to lower her embarrassment of having me witness her various crying episodes throughout the years. It could’ve been my own personal observation, though. Maybe deep inside she perceived me as stoic and indifferent which kept her wondering if I actually ever felt anything. I did and still do, maybe more than I’d like to admit.

Going to the funeral was one bad idea, but it couldn’t be avoided. The last time Hilda and I spoke, she made some hurtful comments and so I wasn’t sure about how she felt towards me now. When I thought about it, the obituary letter could’ve been automatically sent to all her contacts. I was very hesitant to go, but then I thought about the possibility Ellen could be there, and so I used that as my primary motivation.

I can’t help but cringe at my own attempts to convey emotions when it comes to someone else’s misfortune. I can’t do it. I wanted to show up at the funeral, express my condolences then fly back home, but upon my arrival and as soon as Hilda laid eyes on me, I knew I was in for a long, depressing weekend. It was the first time I saw her completely depleted, crying out in the open for everyone to see.

“Are we okay?”, she asked me a few minutes after we got caught up on each other’s lives.
“What do you mean?”, I asked even though I knew exactly what she was referring to.
“Have you forgiven me?”, she persisted. I looked away, threw a low-key look around for a sign of Ellen.
“Because you should forgive me.” My attention switched back to her.
“Look, you’re going through a lot right now. We can have this conversation another time.”
“Felix. My husband is dead, and I have no one here. I need you.” I looked away again. Why isn’t she here?“I know I’ve been a bad friend. I turned into a different person ever since I moved here. But nothing I did was intentional.”
“Hilda, it’s fine.”
“No, it’s not. I can’t take back the things I said to you, but I can be better. As you can see, after this, my perception has become clear again. We’re not going to live forever.”
“What do you want from me?”
“I want you to tell me you forgive me, and I want you to mean it.”
“Okay—I forgive you.”
“I want us to be close again—like we used to be. I don’t want to not hear from you after you leave.”
“Hilda…”
“Felix, please. You have to forgive me, or everything we ever were means nothing.”

Her apology seemed genuine, and although the bitter part of me didn’t want it, I had to take it. I’ve held on to my pride long enough in our friendship, and it was time to make amends and move forward. I don’t think I would’ve been able to do that if I was still involved in prostitution. I wasn’t necessarily ashamed of being a prostitute, only concerned how morally degrading other people perceived it to be. What made things even worse is that I wasn’t strictly doing it for the money which baffled her. How do you explain the thrill of walking into a hotel lobby or apartment complex, riding the elevator and making your way in front of the door of a total stranger? Everybody else considers this as a bold and unnerving move. I don’t see it that way at all—even when danger threatens to lie ahead. My thirst for risk is unquenchable. Without it, my life would be extremely dull. Sex and violence are the elements that shape my existence and its narrative. Strip them away and there’s really not much left.

I’m an abomination. Take a look inside my dirty mind and you’ll see how infected it has become. Every time I close my eyes, I can feel myself losing myself. Rage is the strange sensation that injects itself into everything I say or do. You love somebody so deeply until you start to hate them. You care about something then you throw it away. You work hard towards building a better future then you burn it all down. The pleasure I get from my attempt to build a better life comes from the fact I get to destroy it in the end, so I need to stop lying to myself about wanting to set things right. I’ll only pretend that’s what I want so people don’t judge me, then I’ll secretly carry on with my disgrace.

On the bright side of things, attending a proper funeral allowed for some sort of consolation to losing Matt. Although I’ll always be going through the grieving process alone, being surrounded by the comfort of familiar faces around me was a temporary relief. Hilda lost the love of her life, and I’ve lost mine. After the burial, Hilda and I went down to Rosewood Beach where Giovanni proposed to her. She stared into the horizon for quite some time and processed the idea she was now a widow. On our way back to the gathering, I inquired about Ellen’s whereabouts.

“You didn’t hear? She’s gone.” Hilda revealed.
“Gone?” I asked, suspiciously.
“It’s been a couple of month now. There’s missing flyers all over town. Her ex-husband and son too. They all just disappeared.”

I couldn’t possibly grasp the absurdity of that information. I’ve been getting hit with one bad thing after another as if I’m in some kind of lucid nightmare.

After the ceremony came to a close, Hilda insisted I stayed at her house instead of returning back to my hotel, and I obliged. We drove through the beautiful residential streets of Highland Park where she lives and on our way home, I caught a glimpse of the Public Library which I’ve only been to once during one of my weekends with Ellen. I remember us sitting in the common area with a bunch of true crime books.

“How do smart killers get away with their crimes?” I recalled her asking me.
“It depends. Mostly, it has to do with their modus operandi.” I replied.
“What’s that?”
“Their trademark—or killing pattern.” I added. “The way they kill, who they kill, the weapons they use, the prints they leave behind. It’s a combination of all these things that allow detectives to create a profile and track down a killer. Of course, the smart ones avoid sticking to a specific pattern causing investigators to be unable to put together a clear profile or trace a pattern. Some killers go as far as peeling the skin off their fingertips so they’re untraceable.”

I was’t sure why she wanted to know. Back then, I didn’t think much of it as she always showed interest in the things I was into. But under current circumstances, I found myself digging for clues. I came up with the possible scenarios in my head and scratched the ones that didn’t make sense. Due to their tumultuous marriage and divorce, something bad must’ve happened to either of them. Either Kurt killed her and their son or the other way around. And whoever did it to the other is probably in hiding. Suddenly and in retrospect, her inquiring about crime struck me as sinister. Assuming she’s the murderer, those questions revealed themselves to have an underlying motive. She might’ve been planning for it all along.

When we arrived at the large mansion and made our way inside, I immediately knew why Hilda really wanted me there. The house was tremendously big with so many doors I couldn’t possibly start to imagine what rooms existed behind each one. I settled into the guest bedroom on the second floor, put on a robe I found in the closet and joined Hilda downstairs, by the fireplace. We sat together quietly, then she leaned in, rested her head on my shoulder and broke into heavy tears.

I woke up around midnight and found both of us on the floor. I reached over to wake her up and take her to her bedroom, but I didn’t want to disturb her sleep. Mouth dry and feeling extremely parched, I grabbed a cold pitcher from the fridge and poured myself a large glass of water which I gulped all at once causing my brain to freeze. I squeezed my eyes shut and pressed each side of my forehead with my fingers to ease the discomfort. Outside, the grass was wet and the air extremely humid. In the sky above, a full moon illuminated the back of the house with a tinted blue light which reflected beautifully against the outdoor stone surfaces. Back inside, I heard a squeaky sound behind me. I turned and saw Hugo’s paw against the glass door. I knew then that I must’ve been dreaming. I closed my eyes and reopened them, and he was still there. He scratched the glass with his wet paws and I let him in. He snuck in and prowled through the hallway leaving behind muddy, wet paw prints all over the hardwood floor. I heard loud echoey cries coming from the dining room which startled me. I rushed to inspect. I saw my parents sitting at the table along with my sister. They seemed oddly detached with blank facial expressions. As I got closer, I realized their eyeballs were fully white. I touched my mom’s shoulder and it was cold as ice—stiff. A sudden thunderstorm sent me running away in the other direction and clashing with Hilda’s body as she stepped into the room. We fell to the ground, and I screamed in terror. Once she managed to get me back to my senses, she told me I’ve been sleep walking and talking to myself. But it was impossible. I’ve never sleep walked before. Nonetheless, I was embarrassed, so I packed my things and left. Something about that house felt off; maybe because its owner is now a dead man and his widow is the only person living in it, carrying with her the pain his passing had caused her. As my cab drove through the long pavement driveway, I turned and saw her eerily centered outside the mansion’s large door.

We drove around in the pure obscurity of the night sky outlined by the sharp edges of the trees outside. It wasn’t until we got closer to reaching the Wilmette train station that I started to see some light. I got on the first train to Howard then switched over to another one taking me straight down to Lincoln Park. I arrived at Landon’s apartment around 4 A.M. and fell flat on his living room sofa. I watched as the sky slowly started to light up hoping it would bring me some sense of security and add some warmth to my frozen insides.

If you met me twenty years ago and asked me what kept me awake at night, I’d tell you it’s my inability to make friends, my daunting thoughts racing through my mind telling me I wasn’t worthy, but most of all my biggest fear was that I’d grow up to be alone. I didn’t have any troubles back then. I had a home, I was going to school—my life was seemingly on the right track, but deep within me there was a dark void, a need to have someone by my side—something that others don’t seem to struggle with, at least not as much I do. It first happened when I turned sixteen and Stephen moved into our school. I wanted him, but he was unattainable. It’s what having a crush does to you. The person can be around five days a week for a whole year and you wouldn’t be able to utter a single word to them, let alone get close. Then Hilda got him, tension grew and I became bitter. I thought I’d never get the chance to be with a guy, but then I ended with many. Sure, most of them didn’t count, but even with the ones who did, that feeling of loneliness and hopelessness never went away. It was never processed. Because laying in bed last night, I felt it; that dreadful feeling of melancholy, sadness and gloom all mixed together, reminding me once again that no matter where I went, no matter what I did, life was out there to get me with one thick dark cloud bringing out my deepest fears and insecurities and projecting them right before my eyes, leaving my heart to crumble further until no emotion is left.

Just when I thought I’d reached the bottom, I feel like I’m dying again, and so as my tears clouded my view, I leaned back and buried myself in my bed, Ellen’s voice echoing over and over again in my head.

“Hold on. It’s not over yet.”

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