My stomach lurched at the thought of what I was about to do as I stepped past a line of naked trees and came to Loveland Apartments. I breathed in the cold, night air to try and calm down. It only made me shiver. Spring had finally come, but it was still chilly, especially at eleven o’clock at night.
I zipped my lightweight jacket up the rest of the way and continued into the parking lot. Streetlights were spread throughout the area, but I stuck to the shadows as best as I could. It was late for an eleven-year-old to be out prowling the streets. The last thing I needed was to draw extra attention to myself.
Father Vincent had given me my first job. I wanted to make him proud, but I wasn’t sure I was ready. Father Sebastian didn’t seem to think I was. He hadn’t even seen me off as I left. If I screwed up before I got inside, I would just prove him right.
I shook my head. Father Sebastian was right – he always was. Still, I couldn’t turn back. Father Vincent would be furious.
My heart began to pound faster as I approached the side entrance. The harsh light from the streetlights made the building’s sun bleached, yellow siding even more uninviting, but I didn’t let it turn me away. Instead, I pushed the door open and stepped inside into a small, cement stairwell with another door directly in front of me and stairs to my right. Since my target was on the second floor, I took the stairs.
With each step, dread began to course through my veins. I tried to breathe evenly to control my rising fear, but it did little to help. I continued up, anyway, until I came to the second floor and stepped out into the hallway.
The lighting was dim and the floor was covered in well worn, blue carpeting. It almost looked like something out of one of the horror movies I’d stayed up to watch after the Sisters went to bed. Part of me expected a monster to jump out, but that was stupid. There was no such thing as monsters; at least, I hoped not.
As I walked over to the second door on the right, my palms began to sweat. Once I knocked, that was it; there would be no turning back. If I failed, I would fail not only Father Vincent and Father Sebastian, I’d fail God, too.
That thought was almost enough to completely paralyze me with fear. As I struggled to breathe, I dug my nails into my palms and tried to focus on the pain. I knew I needed to quit thinking. The only thing I needed to do was act.
Slowly, I raised a shaky fist and knocked three times.
“Who’s there?” a tired sounding woman’s voice called from behind the door.
“Hi,” I said, pausing to take one final breath. “I’m looking for Nikki Taylor.”
The woman didn’t respond. In the deafening silence, I could hear my heart pound in my ears. I wondered if Father Vincent had given me the wrong address. If he had, I’d just have to go home and try again some other time. He wouldn’t be happy, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it.
The sound of a lock sliding back in the door interrupted my thoughts. Then, before I could move, the door opened. Inside was an exceptionally thin woman with long, wavy, black hair. I had assumed she was older because of her voice, but as I stared at her pink tank top and tight jeans, I realized she was only in her mid-twenties; not more than fifteen years older than me. As I looked up at her face, my blood froze. She had gray eyes, just like mine. I’d never seen anyone else with eyes like those before.
When our eyes met, her mouth went slack. From all of my training, I knew it was the moment I was supposed to strike. Father Vincent had warned me to do it before she had a chance to speak. He said she’d tell me nothing but lies. With every second I wasted it became more and more likely that I would fail. I couldn’t let myself fail. I couldn’t. Try as I might, however, my body wouldn’t move. Grabbing my knife was impossible. There was no way I could tear my eyes away from hers.
The woman regained her senses before I did. Tears ran down her cheeks and smudged the little bit of makeup she wore, but she bent down and pulled me into an embrace. “Oh Philip,” she whispered.
I tried to go for my knife again, but it was no use. I was frozen. Who was she? Why was she hugging me? Slowly, I shook my head. If I couldn’t kill her, I needed to get inside. All it would take was for one person to see me and things would get even more difficult. “Can I come in?” I squeaked.
The woman stood up with a choked laugh and brushed the tears from her eyes. “What am I doing? Of course you can come in.”
As she ruffled my messy, black hair and put her hand on my back to gently lead me inside, I took in her apartment with surprise. Unlike the hallway, the lights were warm and welcoming and the walls were a calming shade of yellow. Rather than blue and ragged, her carpet was plush and beige, too.
My gaze was immediately drawn to the red, comfortable looking couch in the middle of the room. A cluttered coffee table was in front of it and a large pile of clothes was beside it. Even with the mess, it was a lot nicer than I had expected given the building’s exterior.
“Oh, Philip,” she said again as she closed the door and stepped in front of me. “I can’t believe it’s really you.”
Without trying, I found myself captivated by her eyes – my eyes – once more. It was a mistake, but I couldn’t tear my gaze away. I felt almost like I was in a dream. I opened my mouth to speak, not even sure what to say. Somehow, the words found me anyway. “I’m not Philip. I’m Drake.”
She swooned, and for an instant I thought she was about to collapse. Then, before I knew what was happening, she burst into tears and dropped to her knees. As she did, she pulled me close and started to cry into my shoulder. “I’m so sorry. Of course that son of a bitch changed your name.”
“What?” I asked, unable to keep myself from trembling. Everything was all wrong. I wasn’t supposed to talk to her. I was doing everything Father Sebastian had taught me not to. I just needed to grab my knife and stick it in her. Why was that so hard? Why did she have to have my eyes?
She shook her head and stood up, but kept her hands on my shoulders. “Don’t worry about it. It doesn’t matter; all that does is that you’re here now. I can’t believe it. You’re all grown up. You don’t look a thing like your father, do you know that?”
I just stared at her, unable to help myself as the blood drained from my face. A thousand thoughts raced through my mind and fought for dominance. I’d wondered about my parents before sometimes, but never had the heart to ask Father Sebastian or Father Vincent. It was them who had raised me, after all, not my parents. The woman’s insinuation that she knew my father was almost too much. It shook me to my core and sapped me of any courage I had left. I couldn’t think straight, nor did I want to. Who was she?
She laughed, oblivious to the maelstrom of emotions inside of me, and stared back into my eyes. “It’s a good thing, believe me. How did you get here? How did you finally find me?”
“Father Vincent sent me,” I said as I took a deep breath and tried to get a hold of myself. I needed to remember why I was there. I had a job to do. Father Vincent was counting on me.
She squeezed my shoulders even tighter and her nails bit into my skin. I winced at the pain, but she didn’t seem to notice. “That bastard – I knew he was lying to me. Phil—Drake, I’ve been trying to see you for months. He kept telling me you weren’t there, but I knew you were. You have to believe me.”
She wanted to see me? Why? That didn’t make any sense. Then again, nothing did. Everything was swirling around in my head. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Father Vincent told me she was a liar. He must have known what would happen if I talked to her.
“I’m not the same stupid girl who left her baby on a doorstep,” she continued. “I can take care of you now.”
Hot bile rose to the back of my throat. I was going to vomit. It was her eyes. They were too much. Thinking was impossible when I stared into them. She was lying to me. She was. That’s all there was to it.
“I know I’ve put you through Hell, but I swear I’m going to make it up to you. I’ll do everything I can, starting by getting you out of that orphanage and away from that horrible man.”
She wanted to take me away? Why would she do that? Who did she think she was? I couldn’t leave Father Vincent and Father Sebastian. They were teaching me how to be more than just a regular kid. For years they’d worked with me, showing me how to do God’s will. And yet there I was, failing them anyway. Maybe never seeing them again was the price of failure.
“No,” I whispered as a tear slid down my cheek.
The woman pulled me into an embrace once again and began crying with a renewed vigor. “Oh, baby, I’m sorry. I just—”
I didn’t let her finish. I grabbed the knife from my waistband and sunk it into her side. Immediately, a warm, sticky substance covered my hand. Blood. I let go of the knife and shrunk back. My hand was covered in blood. Her blood. It was real. I had done it.
I looked back up into the woman’s terrified eyes as she, too, backed away and slowly sank to her knees. I froze. She was still alive. What was I supposed to do?
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