You’re biking home from your desk job, and the day’s ache settles into your mind and soul, but your nerves are as alert as the night is alive. Every third or so streetlight flickers or is dead, and the rest are only bright enough to drown out the stars.
You pull up to the intersection between 6th and Center, where you’ve witnessed countless night prowlers skulking in the shadows, invisible until the moonlight strikes at just the right angles. Gate-less, crumbling apartment complexes line the right side of the street, and slow-dying businesses line the left. The neon sign on the bargain grocery store buzzes.
You dread pausing long before turning onto Center, but tonight the light is red, and the camera above the traffic signal is pointed right at you. The intersection is empty, and the overgrown bushes beside the crosswalk signal rustle. You swallow hard.
A car pulls up in the lane beside you. The whistling wind bristles the hairs on the back of your neck. You shiver and happen to glance toward the car. Your gaze meets the driver’s for just a second, and you look back toward the traffic signal.
Out of the corner of your eye, you can feel the driver’s eyes still latched onto your face. Slowly, you peek in his direction. He is staring at you.
Your heart pumps ice through your veins. You dare not look again.
The light turns green, and you wait for the car to pass. The car sits. Slowly, you cross the intersection, turning left. The car keeps your pace.
You grip the handles and pedal as fast as you can. It’s a long uphill, but your legs are numb. The car remains right behind you. You allow yourself a glance backwards. Still, the driver stares.
You turn onto the sidewalk, crashing through a layer of decorative grass bushes, weaving in and out of short leafless trees, leaping off the sidewalk and into a parking lot, dodging parked cars and shopping carts, never looking back. You pull up to the entrance of the grocery store, jump off your bike, and slam the glass doors open. The doors glide shut behind you. You whirl on a heel, staring out through the smudged glass, into the night.
You lost him. You’re safe.
Panting, you turn to face the remainder of the store, and find the few lone night shoppers staring at you, questions in their gazes.
You clutch your backpack straps tighter, staring down at your feet as you shuffle down the first aisle. A uniformed employee approaches you, her eyes fixed on your face. “Can I help you?”
You shake your head and turn away toward the cereal, and the employee continues to watch you. You sneak a glance at her. Her spiderleg eyelashes blink, but her gaze remains fixed on you. Your knees feel weak. Down the aisle a few feet, a gray-wigged customer stares at you over the top of her tortoise-rimmed glasses.
Stomach turning somersaults, you turn from the employee to the customer, and run, turning left. The once-empty produce section is crawling with dozens, maybe a hundred people — some shopping, some chatting amongst themselves, some tapping at their phones.
The store quiets as, pair by pair, all eyes turn toward you.
Your legs freeze. What bewildered you at first is all too obvious now.
They know. What you’ve done. The secrets you kept. The people you betrayed. They know about everything.
You pry your eyes from the crowd and run. Their stares follow you, but their bodies remain in place. You burst into the empty bathroom.
Alone in the single stall, you slip off your backpack and rummage through the water-damaged books, the ink-stained notepads, the broken pencils. Among the crumpled papers lining the bottom, you find what you’ve been carrying with you for years, but never used.
You fall to your knees, and clutch the rosary beads to your chest. You don’t remember exactly how they work, so you recite every prayer you’ve heard, filling in words where you can’t remember them, rocking forward and backwards, beginning in a whisper but slowly raising the volume and pitch of your voice, until you’ve lost all memory of the words to the prayers and all that is left is your desperate cries: “GOD, PLEASE, FORGIVE ME!”
But God will not find you here. Your time has come; the chance for forgiveness and redemption has passed. You made your choice. You had your whole life to make amends. Today is the day you face the consequences for the path you chose.
It is time.
With great effort, you pull open the door, and step out into the gathered crowd. Their gazes, once benign, have turned fiery. Step by step, they close in on you, forcing you into the supply area — a long, pitch black hallway. When you can bear the guilt no longer, you turn away from the eyes, and the darkness envelops you, and the crowd is lost, and you have never felt so alone.
In the distance, you can just make out a dim light, like a single guiding star. Its glow pierces the stillness, and you stare up at it. You take small steps toward it, and you can almost taste its goodness, its glory, its solace. Perhaps there is redemption to be had.
You trip over your ankle, and your foot lands on nothing. You fall, and you keep falling. As you fall, the air grows hotter, hotter, stifling, FIRE. You hold your breath and wait for the impact —
You gasp and blink a couple of times. You squint in the bright fluorescent lights of the kitchen.
You glance over your shoulder. Your mom is still sitting on the couch, talking on the phone. Her back is still turned.
You let your breath out and gently place the cookie back into its jar.
KM Dailey has been writing novels and short stories since her preteen years. You can stay updated on her writing adventures at kmdailey.com