Vicente was out of breath. The heat was exhausting and oppressive. It was as if he was being smothered under thick wool blankets. He leaned against a park bench, gasping and his mouth gaped open and closed like a pet gold fish.
My lungs feel like they are filled with embers, he agonized.
The sun sunk below shapes of Camelback Mountain and disappeared from view, but Phoenix still baked alive in the twilight.
Shadows popped up everywhere and lengthened into jagged, rotted teeth.
There was no one in the park. He looked about him, paranoid and anxious. Encanto Park was never this empty. Even in the early AM hours, bums and addicts roamed around the grounds begging for handouts or cigarettes.
Four, parked cars sat abandoned in the parking lot. The car owners were also nowhere in sight.
Ahead was an unlit, brick structure which served concessions and towels during the day to the squealing-with-delight kids that were lined up for the community pool. The ebony glass front reflected back at him, the interior empty and soulless.
He stood up and walked away from the bench. Pulling up his hoodie, he swiveled around and glanced again at the surrounding area as he crossed the lot.
This isn’t right, his instinct whispered inside.
His eyes couldn’t find anything wrong except something about the street lights that bordered the park. They were powering on, but only emitted tiny cones of light. At this hour, Vic was sure the park’s own tower lights should have been on. Patches of pitch black swallowed entire sections of the park.
An iron fence surrounded its interior. There were eight basketball courts, the hoops were silhouettes in the sky like forgotten soldiers in formation in front of the racquetball center. Behind the center, white lines which marked the tennis courts were barely visible.
No traffic came down 15th Avenue on the west side of the park grounds. In fact, Vic could not hear a single noise — car, person or otherwise. It was as if the city as one held its breath.
Night compressed upon him. Air thickened, wrapped its arms around him and the only noise he heard was his own heartbeat. More of the buildings in the distance were swallowed in pitch black. A charcoal wave washed along the western horizon, dots of light snuffed out one by one. They popped and twinkled away like shooting stars.
His skin prickled and an energy radiated through him. Fear lifted the hair on the back of his head. Involuntarily, he walked backward, away from the sight. After hours the gates were closed and the fences padlocked. This didn’t deter him. He heaved up and thrust his body up and over the top of the gate with a practiced precision.
He could see a set of cement dugouts above the dips of a skate park ahead. It wouldn’t be comfortable, but they would provide a little shelter and a place to sleep tonight. He tried to pretend all was safe and right.
“Park is closed.” A husky voice came out of nowhere behind him.
Vic spun on his heels to face it.
No one was there. His eyes strained to peer into the gloom.
He blinked. He blinked again.
The high rises of the eastern horizon were darkening. Their lights were not turning off but were diminishing. Fading as if their energy sources were drained to nothing.
All around the park, the city shut its bright eyes and slept inside the ebony blanket he saw earlier.
“Park is closed.” This time louder, the voice rasped over his right shoulder.
Vic spotted a lanky figure that hovered in the murky shadows of the racquetball center. The stranger surrounded in inky mists hadn’t been there moments before.
He couldn’t make out any features but he guessed by their stature that it was a man with a thick curly beard. Yet, he didn’t make any movement or sound.
“Hello?” Vic called out. In spite of being on the run and shouldn’t be attracting any attention, he felt compelled to react.
“I see you!” He shouted.
The Beard started forward, his feet making no sound as they skimmed over the concrete. “I see you too.”
Enough of this!
He charged to the left, sprinting through the sands of the volleyball courts.
“Where are my hands, Vic?” A high-pitched woman’s voice followed after him, terse and angry.
He skidded to a stop and spun around, his eyes frantic and searching.
“Who’s there? Who said that?”
“You know who.”
The voice came from a lump of shadows where someone sat in the sand at the base of a park lighting pole. She struggled to her knees and bucked forward and staggered to her feet. Light played over her gaunt and bloody features. Dirt caked her cheeks and patches of white skull gleamed through her thinning blonde hair.
“Give them back to me. Give me my hands!”
What the hell is this?
“Park is closed.” The Beard had gained on him and was only a few feet away. His features were still obscured in the smoky mist that swirled about him.
Vic retrieved a serrated knife from his waistband and brandished it. “Get the fuck away from me!”
He swung the blade back and forth in a semi-circle of threat in front of him. His arm trembled.
“That isn’t your knife. Not the one you used before.”
Another feminine voice came at him from below, down by his sneakers.
A naked body, missing arms and legs, thrashed in a pool of syrupy blood.
“Where is the knife you used on me before you stuffed me in the trunk?” she garbled up at him, choking on ropes of clotted blood that oozed out along with her words.
Vic shrieked and leaped backward.
“Why did you do this to us?” He snapped his head up seeing another woman hung from a light pole in the tennis court area. Her body on display in its mini cone of light. Blood dripped in endless streams from dozens of cuts and lacerations. She was strung up with a white and blue-striped nylon rope.
“I DON’T KNOW WHO YOU ARE, BUT I DIDN’T DO THIS!” He screamed at her. Screamed at the top of his lungs, “I DIDN’T DO ANY OF THIS!”
“We all saw you.” They chanted as one back at him. A hand clamped down on his leg above the ankle. He felt the cold of her skin through the material of his jeans.
Vic twisted to escape, but his leg remained locked in her icy grip.
He shrieked again when he felt another set of crawling fingers work themselves up his right shoulder. A severed hand, pale and with freshly done fingernails, grabbed at his face, covering his mouth. He lost his balance and fell with a loud splash into the sand.
Two new, bulky shadows crowded over him.
“Make this easy, buddy. Tell us where the others are and we’ll work a deal out with them.” The fat detective said as he chuckled and drank from his Circle K foam cup.
“We don’t have to hand you over,” Kemp, the skinny black detective said as he knelt next to Vic. He poked a thumb at the thrashing body which was rolling closer. “You left her teeth. She’s going to use them.”
NOO! His mind screamed. Reality like a mirror cracked and splintered into shards. The world bucked up and down under him.
Pain exploded in his head and a lightning flash of agony blinded him. He rolled over onto his back groaning and clutching at his forehead. Rivulets of blood pumped up between his fingers. Daylight pierced his vision and speared directly into his brain.
As his headache blossomed into a migraine, he understood that the morning had arrived. He was laying in the concrete dugout among spit out gum and patches of dried dog piss under the stone bench which he had used as a bed.
The graphic nightmare replayed over in his head again. Not a single detail had faded. No dream had ever come so close to reality before for him. His breath was still ragged and his body trembled from the terror.
A familiar voice was inside his head. It spoke independent and on its own…
“Park is closed.”
Vic sat straight up.
“I see you.” The voice repeated, this time it followed with a giggle.
At eye-level, a serrated knife had been placed on the bench. It hadn’t been there when he had gone to sleep.
It was his knife though. The knife he left at the house he shared with Cat, packed away under his bed. Someone retrieved it, placed it by his head and left while he was tortured by the nightmare.
His lips pressed into a thin line and his jaw locked when he spotted two distinct and wet, bloody finger prints on the handle.
WHO THE HELL IS DOING THIS TO ME?