The morning is cold and dark and quiet. The roads are nearly empty, strange for a Monday, even at this early hour. Victor Fetter watches the clouds, purple against the leaden sky, while he listens to the familiar rattle inside his mail truck. He thinks the clouds look like rain, and he is pleased. Rain means fewer people, fewer eyes, fewer conversations. He can go about his business with his head down, without fear of interruption, the way he likes.
As the truck crests a hill, he sees headlights approaching. The car passes him, then disappears over the hill behind him. “Five,” he says, because he has been counting.
The rain begins at six, and by six-thirty it is a driving gale. The wind whips and howls, and Victor grips the wheel tighter while he drives. He knows too well how dangerous this weather can be.
His heart seizes when he turns onto a quiet street and sees a woman. She is lithe and determined, and she is running in the street. His foot trembles on the gas pedal. He wants to stop. He wants to get out of the truck and scream at her: “What are you doing? Don’t you know how dangerous this is? Don’t you know you could be hurt?”
She waves as she runs past, disappearing around the corner, but Victor is distracted and misses the next turn on his route. He realizes his mistake and brings the truck to a whining halt. He checks his rear mirror to see if he can turn the truck around. The street is wide enough and there are no vehicles, only rain. He twists the wheel hard to the left and begins to turn.
Victor curses when he sees a boy of about sixteen in the middle of the road, appeared out of nowhere. Victor slams on the breaks. He lets out a frightened shout, which he muffles by clamping both hands over his mouth.
He recognizes the boy. More precisely, he recognizes the injuries. He sees the boy’s femur poking through the meat of his thigh. He sees the cavernous dent in his skull. He sees the buckled torso, where the ribs on the boy’s right side were shattered. He sees the blood—everywhere there is blood, and it is immune to the rain. It will not be washed away.
Victor scrambles for his phone, stashed in a pocket of his coat. He finds it and opens his camera, but when he looks up again, the boy is gone.
Victor is a ghost. A default image. An anonymous voyeur, who prefers to see the world through his phone. User5286669. BillyXxXxX. John Smith. On Twitter, on Instagram, on Facebook, he can lurk. He can experience the world without the threat of questions. He can monitor the things he needs to, without anyone asking what he’s doing.
On nights he cannot sleep, he scrolls through the apps on his phone. For months, they have provided reassurance but now, after seeing the boy, he searches them with renewed vigor. He sits in the dark, his face illuminated by the glow of his screen, and checks each of his profiles meticulously.
The boy had a small family, and it had been easy to follow them on every platform on which they had an account. The friends were harder to track down, but by monitoring the boy’s accounts in the weeks following his death, Victor was able to compile a comprehensive list from the condolence messages.
Once the boy’s network had gotten their fill of public mourning, they got hungry for justice. At first, the updates were constant. Family and friends posted about their interactions with police, updated the course of the investigation into the boy’s murder, and begged the internet for any tips that might help catch his killer. Eventually, the fervor died down, and Victor was able to rest easier. The world seemed to accept that the boy’s killer would never be caught.
Victor’s jaw begins to tremble when he comes to the Twitter profile of a girl named Ginny Morgan. Ginny was the boy’s girlfriend when he died. He had been coming home from her house that morning, in fact.
Just an hour before, Ginny tweeted this: I can’t believe it’s a year on Saturday. I miss you so much, Jordan.
It is an understandable message, innocuous even, and one that Victor would have expected had he given it any thought. Still, he is grasped bodily by fear when he sees it. He sees his freedom disappear as quickly as the boy in the street did today.
Thunder rumbles in the distance. He knows the vision of the boy was not real, that it was only his guilt, some misfiring neurons in his brain that dredged up that awful memory. He tells himself exactly this.
Why then, is he so terribly afraid?
The week sets new records for rainfall in the area. Sewers overflow, basements flood, and Victor works through all of it. The weather makes every step harder, every block seem longer, but no matter how tired he is, he cannot fall asleep for anything.
Jordan’s social media pages are active again. New messages of remembrance populate his Facebook wall and the comment section of his final Instagram post. His family and friends tweet about him constantly, pictures and fond memories. His face is everywhere, and Victor cannot escape it, much as he wants to. He has to know what’s going on. If the renewed interest in Jordan’s life leads to a break in the case, he needs to know, so he can escape. He checks his phone compulsively. He checks it while he is eating, working, driving.
On Friday morning, Victor is driving his truck to begin his route. The rain has abated, at least for the moment, but the clouds sit fat and low in the sky, warning that there is more to come. Still, people seem to want to take advantage of the reprieve—Victor counts twenty cars before five A.M.
Before he realizes what he’s doing, Victor has opened Instagram. He scrolls through his feed, glancing at the road periodically, to make sure he remains in his lane. The further he scrolls, the easier he breathes. People are sad, they are not suspicious.
Just as he reaches the end of the new photos, he sees one that turns his stomach. It shows Jordan, lying in the street as Victor left him, mangled and bloodied. A buzzard, black and ominous, is tearing flesh away from Jordan’s neck. Blood drips from its beak as it rips skin and sinew from the boy’s body.
Victor hyperventilates. His eyes start to sting, and he shuts them until the burning stops. When he opens them again, the picture is gone, and one of Jordan in his baseball uniform has taken its place.
He looks back at the road too late. He doesn’t get a good look at the boy who disappears under the truck, but he feels the wheels thump over his body, feels the scraping of bone on the undercarriage.
“Oh God, no. Not again. Not again.”
He stumbles out of the truck, crying, just as the rain resumes. Using the light from a nearby streetlamp, Victor searches frantically for a body. There is nothing under the truck, so he makes his way to the back, thinking the boy might have been spit out by the rear wheels.
All he finds is a gnarled tree branch, felled from the storm. At first he is not satisfied—the bark, made slick by the rain, looks as though it’s covered in blood. He touches it, and mutters, “Oh, mercy,” when his fingertips do not come away red.
He cannot finish his route; the truck sustained too much damage from the fallen branch. Another postman begrudgingly picks up his letters and parcels, and a maintenance crew hauls the truck back to the post office. Victor pretends to be injured, and his supervisor believes him. He looks worn and haunted, and the man tells him to get some rest. Victor cackles.
Saturday comes, and Victor calls out of work. He says he is going to the hospital, that his back hurts from the accident yesterday. It has been four days since he slept.
The rain persists. Victor drinks three cups of coffee at home and buys another from a frightened girl at the 7-Eleven, on his way to Jordan’s house. He arrives at a little before four A.M., and parks on the opposite side of the street, across from the old Victorian.
The house has been on the market for six months, but Jordan’s parents have long since vacated the building. Victor knows all this. He has seen evidence of it across Facebook and Zillow. He hasn’t even felt the need to drive by and verify it. In fact, this is the first time he has driven the block since he hit Jordan with his mail truck.
This street isn’t on Victor’s route, but it connects two of the major thoroughfares in town. On the day the accident happened, he was using it as a shortcut. If only the boy hadn’t been sneaking home from Ginny’s house precisely then. If only it hadn’t been raining so hard.
A flash of lightning brings Victor back to the present. As the thunder claps and ripples, he looks up at the house. Fear, now all too familiar, constricts his throat. He closes his eyes, tight as he can, then says a silent prayer as he opens them.
The figure is still there, silhouetted in a window on the second floor. From across the street, Victor can barely make it out, but he thinks the head looks deformed. It must be him. But how?
Victor steps out into the rain and runs across the street. He is not thinking, only acting on instinct addled by days without sleep. He only knows he cannot live like this any longer. When he tries the front door, he finds it unlocked.
Floorboards creak under his feet as he moves carefully through the foyer in the dark. At the base of the stairs, he tries a light switch, but nothing happens. Only then does he pause and think.
He takes out his phone and opens Instagram. He taps the button to broadcast live, and for the first time ever, he wishes he had more than twelve followers. He is desperate for someone to log on, to see what he is about to see. He doesn’t want to do this alone.
He creeps up the stairs with his arm outstretched, watching the steps cycle through his screen, too frightened to glance outside the border of his phone. Dust swirls in the light from the front camera, and a landing appears. He turns in the direction of the window where he saw the figure.
There is a bedroom on the other side of the open doorway. Victor scans left and right, moving his camera over the empty room. Even now, he can see the divots in the carpet where a bed once stood. A dresser, perhaps a nightstand.
“Hello?” says Victor.
No one answers. The wind blows, and the house creaks. Victor turns toward the doorway and peaks again into the hall, still hiding behind his screen. There is nothing but shadows and swirling dust.
A line of text appears at the bottom of his screen: NoBoDyJONES has joined.Victor lets out a clipped laugh. He doesn’t know who the person is, but he knows he isn’t alone anymore. Whatever happens now, there will be a witness.
Victor goes back into the bedroom. One more time, he thinks. The room is still empty, and he moves the phone to show his new friend. Even the rain has calmed some. It clatters lazily on the windows. Finally, he can hear himself think.
He lowers the phone.
Jordan opens his bloody, black mouth, but it’s Victor who screams.
Image: Amtrakfan4, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons