The outdoor mall was the wrong place to choose for my lunch break. In an attempt to distance myself from the summer crowds, I huddled under a vast free-standing umbrella, desperate for a spot of shade. I would’ve been bothered had I not been in a jubilant mood. My career was booming. I was the leader of a medical team that had just finished a successful round of tests on a new sedative. Prisons and hospitals would benefit from the new drug, meant to calm criminals or the mentally ill. My boss beamed when he gave me the good news. He told me to expect a newspaper article within the next few days. My photograph would be in the newspaper.
I took out my cellular phone, ready to call my wife to discuss dinner plans. Before I could dial our home number, I noticed a tall man eyeing me. More specifically, eyeing my phone. I could see why. It was a brand-new cell phone – not just a phone, but a personal organizer as well. It stored numbers, addresses and my schedule. It was still shiny, and there were no nicks in the screen yet.
The man looked at me pleadingly. He would have been quite striking, with his sandy blond hair and prominent eyebrows, but he wore a torn shirt and filthy pants that barely covered dirt-covered sneakers. I noticed his shoelaces were untied. He was sweating profusely, despite the fact that his clothing was appropriate for the day’s weather. In contrast, I was dressed in a dark suit, but my forehead was perspiration-free.
I began to walk away. Immediately, I heard the man’s voice.
“Sir!” he called after me. “Sir, wait, please.”
I was reluctant, but I stopped walking. I couldn’t bring myself to pretend that I didn’t hear him. When I turned, his face was less than five inches from mine. I gasped and instinctively stepped back several feet.
“May I borrow your phone?” he pleaded.
I hesitated. I didn’t want anyone touching my new phone, much less a stranger that seemed to need a bath. The man held out his hand. I didn’t say anything.
“It’s just a local call.”
I sighed and managed to hand him the phone. I watched to make sure he dialed only seven numbers and then tried to act nonchalant as he put the phone to his ear. My eyes lingered on his grimy fingernails. The man glanced at me nervously.
He mumbled two or three sentences into the phone that I didn’t understand. I didn’t even recognize the language, but then, foreign language had never been my strong suit.
The man closed the phone and handed it to me. He lingered as he dropped the phone into my hand. I felt what seemed like a quick shock on my palm. I pulled away.
That night I reclined in bed with my wife, watching the local news. I told her about my boss’s words.
“You’ll be famous,” my wife commented, with a laugh.
I think she expected me to laugh, but instead I added, “My picture will be in the paper.”
She didn’t respond, for breaking news on the television captured her attention. The newscaster began, “The male murderer known as the Killer Surfer, who was responsible for three deaths near the beach early this summer, has struck again. The bodies of a man and woman were found late this evening, leading police to believe the murder happened sometime this afternoon. They are notifying neighborhoods to keep windows and doors locked, use their alarm systems, and most importantly, do not open your door to any strangers...”
My wife shivered. “Gives me the creeps.”
“We’re quite a few blocks from the beach.” I reminded her.
“With the help of eyewitnesses, we finally have a police sketch to show viewers,” the newscaster continued.
“These drawings always look the same,” my wife said with a yawn.
The sketch appeared onscreen. I was immediately fixated. Those heavy eyebrows.
“He used my phone today!” I exclaimed.
My wife stared at me as if I were crazy. “What?”
“He made a local call.”
I tried to explain, but my descriptions were all over the place. I needed proof. Finally, I jumped out of bed and rummaged through my briefcase, searching for my phone. I knew for a fact that the numbers of all outgoing calls were stored in a file on the phone.
The pocket in which I usually put my phone was empty. I ran my hands around the bottom of the briefcase, but my phone wasn’t there. I dumped out all the contents. Nothing.
“It must be somewhere,” my wife insisted. “It’ll turn up.”
“I’m going to check the car.”
“It’s late, don’t go out in the dark. Didn’t you just hear the news?”
My wife looked nervous. I could tell she didn’t want me to go outside. As much as I wanted to find my phone, it wasn’t worth a big argument. I agreed to search in the morning.
The phone didn’t turn up in the car, and it didn’t turn up in my office. I sat at my desk and called my phone service to report a lost phone. The last thing I needed was some thief making calls from my phone number and pawing through my personal information.
Once I stated my name and address, the company worker on the other end of the telephone asked for my cancellation password.
“Wilma,” I said. My wife’s middle name had been an easy password to remember. She despised the name. She thought it sounded old-fashioned.
“I’m sorry, sir, that’s not the password we have on file.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “There’s a mistake.”
“We have to be careful about identity theft. What we can do is send a written cancellation form to the address we have on file, and then if your handwriting and signature matches out, we can cancel your plan...”
By this point I was barely listening.
I finished work early, eager to return home. I tried to call my wife to give her a heads up, but the phone kept ringing. I guessed she stepped out to chat with a neighbor.
Her car was in the garage, so I parked in the driveway. I walked up the front steps and took out my house key. I shoved it in the lock and tried to turn. It didn’t budge.
On closer inspection, the key didn’t seem to fit at all. What was wrong? Was my wife nervous enough about the Killer Surfer to call the locksmith? She hadn’t mentioned it that morning.
I pounded on the door. No answer.
“Key isn’t working,” I hollered, pounding louder.
Finally, the door opened. There stood the man from the mall – the eyebrows, the man from the news, the Killer Surfer. My heart raced.
“What are you doing here? Where’s Katherine?” I demanded. I was so shocked that my fear barely registered.
The man peered at me, leaning over a bit to get a better look. “Are you a friend of my wife’s?”
“Get out of my house!” I searched in my pocket for my phone, then remembered it was gone. Still, I threatened, “I’m calling the police.”
The man began to close the door. “I don’t know what your problem is, but this is my home. I’ve lived here for five years.”
Katherine and I had moved into the house five years earlier.
“My last name is on the mailbox,” I insisted. “Richards.”
“Anyone can read the mailbox,” he said, and slammed the door.
I feared for Katherine. Her car was there, which led me to believe that she was inside the house. I imagined her trapped in a closet, her hands tied behind her back, her mouth gagged. She was probably frightened and crying.
I snuck around to the back of the house. Our back door had never been as secure as the front – as I thought of this, I realized that the man could have used this same method to enter our home.
I crouched behind the door and listened. I heard a sizzling sound, and after a minute, a faint humming. I tried to breathe as silently as possible. I knew I had to look through the window, but I dreaded what I might see.
Slowly, I straightened my back until I was eye-level with the window. There I saw Katherine, standing over the stove, mindlessly stirring a pot of potatoes. She was humming a soft melody.
“Katherine,” I yelled, banging on the window.
My wife whipped her head to the side and shrieked when she saw me.
“Paul!” she screamed. I expected her to run to the window, but she seemed frozen. “Paul!”
“Let me in,” I mouthed. She remained motionless.
The man ran in the kitchen. He looked at Katherine, then directly at me.
“That’s it,” he said. “I’m calling the police.”
Then the Killer Surfer crossed our kitchen and picked up our telephone. His hands were clean this time. Katherine put her clean hand in his. I didn’t see the rest. I ran.
I ran around the side of the house to my car. I reached for my keys, but my pockets were empty. I briefly contemplated returning to the back of the house, to search for the keys in the grass, but somehow I knew I wouldn’t find them there.
I spent the night in my office at the hospital. No one greeted me, but I didn’t care. I needed to be left alone, to make sense of what was happening to my life.
I tried to call my friends, but they wouldn’t speak to me.
I tried to call my parents, but they hung up the telephone.
By morning, I couldn’t take it anymore. At the earliest bit of sunlight, I headed outdoors. I stopped at the corner to buy a cup of coffee. I gave my order to the man working there, but he just stared at me.
“Wait here,” he muttered, and disappeared through the hospital doors.
As I was waiting, I glanced down at the morning newspaper. The headline read: “Killer Surfer Strikes Again.”
And there, directly beneath, was my photograph.
© Lindsey Michelle