In private Camilla can follow anyone she likes. And Camilla likes a lot.
Especially her old school friend Valerie Hutchens. Camilla is obsessed with Valerie’s posts, her sickening joy for life, her horribly beautiful face. But then Camilla spots something strange in one of Valerie’s posts – a man’s face looking through her window, watching, waiting…
And then Valerie goes missing…
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I was born with a scream inside me. Lodged between my heart and throat. Can’t swallow it; can’t choke it down. Can’t spit that motherfucker out. It’s stuck, like me … anchored to the in between, slowly rotting in the core of me. It festers like a sore, oozing through my bloodstream, sending seeping shocks of silent fury to every nerve ending in my body. Like an IV, it drip, drip, drips, but there’s never a release. One of these days, I’ll open my mouth and the world will rumble from the roar.
My body is broken. Arms like dying, desperate fish, they flop on the seat beside me. Hips yanked from their sockets. Red-rose gashes on my chest and neck. A deep dark hole where my nose once was. And my teeth … these teeth don’t belong to me. Like broken eggshells, they stab the roof of my mouth, pricking my cheek and gums. Are they Chris’s teeth? If so, how did Chris’s pearly white, now-broken teeth end up in my mouth? Did I kiss him? No, not a kiss. I can’t remember the last time I kissed him … but I can taste his blood in my mouth. Chris with the cocoa-colored eyes and hair like silk on my skin. Chris with the lips, soft as falling feathers on a windy day … Chris: the love of my life. Chris: who is dead. One minute we were laughing … or were we shouting? Discussing our plans for the day … although now I’ve forgotten what those plans were. And the next … the next … we’re upside-down, strapped in our seats like a rollercoaster, only we can’t get off, we’re stuck, suspended in mid-air. The roof of my Buick becomes the sky. I’m mesmerized as it swirls like one of those psychedelic spinning tunnels, like they have at the county fair. Oh, the fair. That’s where we were going, weren’t we? Chris promised me a deep-fried Snickers bar. And I promised him I’d stay sober. Chris: The Love Of My Life and Chris: The Headless Man On The Seat Beside Me are one and the same. This is my fault. Chris is dead. I did this. I. Did. This. *** I stopped answering my phone months ago, but that didn’t stop my sister from calling. Every day, at five past noon—a phantom phone call, followed by a buzzing barrage of texts. Hannah is calling … read my phone screen. But Hannah was always calling. And I, her less attractive, less successful, less stable sister, was always ignoring those calls. As predicted, the texts came next:
Hannah: How are you today? Want to go out to lunch? Need me to stop by? Translation: Are you alive? When are you going to do normal things again? Don’t tell me I need to come over there and drag you out of bed again. Me: Busy. Can’t. No. My sister is more than my sister. She practically raised me after the death of our mother. I would love nothing more than to answer her calls, to have her beside me—but not this version of her. Not the sister that tiptoes around me like I’m a melting chunk of ice in the center of a deep, black sea. I’m a sinking ship she wants to save … but she’s too afraid to come aboard. Because, deep down, she knows I’ll suck her into the murky black hole, too, just like I did with Chris. Wiggling my jaw, I tried to ease the phantom tooth pains as I pulled myself out of my twin sized bed. The sheets and comforter lay tangled at my feet. Angry red numbers blinked at me from the clock on my bedside table. It was 12:30 in the afternoon, the time when most normal people were working. Everything hurt: my arms, legs, chest, and back. My teeth. Traces of the dream still lingered and would stay there for most of the day, the way they always did. My nightstand was covered in pill bottles. I twisted the caps off, one by one, and swiped out two pills of each. Pain pills. Anxiety meds. Leftover antibiotics. Another med to counter the side-effects of the first two. I washed them down with an ashy can of Mountain Dew. Grimaced. Every night, the same thing: the car accident reenacted, but the details were always fuzzy, always evolving … whether the actual memories of that night were becoming lucid or more convoluted, was unclear. I just wish they’d go away. Period. It’s not that I don’t want to think about Chris. I miss him … I love him … but I can’t. I can’t let myself go back to that place. I’m Hannah’s sinking ship, and Chris … well, Chris is mine. No, dear husband, I will not come aboard. Because if I do, if I let myself go there … that ship will suck me down, down, down, and never let me loose. During my wakeful hours, I’d become an expert at burying my feelings. But these dreams— these warped flashbacks of the accident—were trying to remedy that all on their own. I could push away the memories and the horrors while I was awake, but when I closed my eyes … the dreaming side of myself took control. That side of myself wouldn’t allow me to forget, no matter how much I wanted to. Maybe it’s payback for what I did. Karma. What goes around comes around—isn’t that how the saying goes? For the rest of my life, will I have to relive those awful, ticking moments in that crushed-up Buick? Of all the things about me that needed fixing, the sleep/dream issue was my priority. But my doctor wouldn’t prescribe sleep medication, or any other downers. They didn’t mix well with my other meds. I want to be reassembled. Scrapped for parts. My memories wiped clean. I padded down the hallway to the bathroom, leaving my buzzing phone behind. Without turning on the bathroom light, I began my lonely morning ritual in the dark—brushing my teeth,
gargling mouthwash, combing the knots from my hair. The dream snaked its way back into my brain while I brushed. Cringing, I recalled the gummy taste of my own teeth. The teeth that I had initially—and strangely—believed to be my husband’s teeth. I can still taste blood in my mouth. But whose blood is it? It’s like sucking on a battery dipped in sugar. Taking a deep breath, I flicked the light switch on before giving myself a chance to change my mind. My toothbrush fell from my mouth, bouncing in the sink, as I studied my reflection in the bathroom mirror. No matter how many times I saw my face, I’d never get used to it now. I look worse than the last time I checked. It looked like someone was pinching my nose, the bridge a hard knot in the center of my face, the nostrils squished flat on both sides. The plastic surgeon had done the best possible job. There’s only so much we can do, Camilla … The skin on my nose was darker, which made sense—it didn’t belong to me. Ten surgeries and counting. So far—two to “repair” my nose using someone else’s skin and cartilage, four to fix my broken teeth with mostly false ones, and another four to fix my legs. My hips hadn’t been pulled from their sockets, but it sure had felt that way at the time. But both legs had been broken, one worse than the other, and now two metal rods and countless screws resided inside me, extending from my shin bones all the way to the top of my thighs. My wrist had been sprained. My elbow shattered. My heart smashed to bits. I was beautiful once. Chris used to say so. Until my reckless driving had led us to the backend of a flatbed truck. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to hear the gravelly shake of his voice … to see that one eyebrow flexing playfully as he tucked my always-messy brown hair behind my ears … You’re the most beautiful girl I ever did see: his words. We hadn’t been upside down either, like the dream implied—another figment of my twisty reinterpretation of what actually happened that night. The car was crushed beneath the semi’s trailer, my whole world spinning like a top because that’s what happens when you have a concussion. A big chunk of my nose was severed by windshield glass. And Chris … he’d lost more than his nose. His death was horrific. He didn’t deserve to die that way. Splashing icy cold water on my face, I forced myself not to think of him. Deep down, I knew that if I gave in to that craving … to think about Chris, to go back in my mind to how things used to be … that it would become an obsession. If I think too long and hard about Chris, I may never stop. The anxiety pills helped with the flashbacks while I was awake. It’s like there’s this version of me, living inside my head, and once the meds kick in, I can hear her in the corner, her voice murky and low … she’s scared, she’s worried, she’s ashamed … but then the pills flood my bloodstream and her voice gets drowned out completely. I imagine her in there somewhere, floating in the lazy river of my bloodstream, wondering when I’ll let her back out. The numbness never lasts—drugs help, but they can’t alleviate my misery. They can’t cure loneliness, either. Sometimes that girl drifts so far downstream, I don’t think I’ll ever reach her again … I flipped the light switch back off, the sudden change in lighting causing a sharp twinge in my right temple. The head pains often came and went so quickly, almost like they were a figment of
my imagination. I liked leaving every light in the house off and the shutters closed until darkness came, and I was forced to illuminate myself and my surroundings. But one light in the house was always shining—the glare from my laptop computer. It beckoned me from my desktop in the living room. Now, here is an addiction I can handle, and sometimes, control. I turned on the coffee pot in the kitchen then sat down in front of my computer, a rushing wave of relief rolling through me. This was my life now—the internet, my only window to the outside world. Lucky for me, it’s a pretty large window. A lonely window, but a window, nevertheless … “I wonder where we’re going today?” I refreshed my browser from where it had frozen last night, and Valerie Hutchens’ shiny face blossomed like a milky-white flower across my home screen. _TheWorldIsMine_26 had over 2,000 posts and nearly 10,000 followers, and like Valerie herself, the Instagram account was growing and improving daily. “Where are you now, Valerie?” I clicked on her newest Instagram story. Branson, Missouri. Straddling this world and the next. #livingmybestlife, her caption told me. Valerie’s hair was different today—her sunny blonde bob had skinny curtains of pale pink on either side of her face. Maroon lips. Kohl-rimmed eyes. A body that was neither fat nor walking stick thin, just perfect. Valerie Hutchens is perfect. In this latest story, she was straddling two train rails, arms spread wide in a V. Her palms were open, fingertips reaching for the sky. Dusty sunlight shimmered through her pale white dress. She had on brown leather boots—the boots she’d bought in Texas three weeks ago, I remembered—so tall they almost reached the hem of her dress. I could feel the goosebump-inducing burn of the sun on the back of her arms and legs. She was looking at something overhead, something no one else could see … It’s like she doesn’t care if we’re watching. Like she’s simply living out loud, while the rest of us sit here in awe of her, just like we did back then. But technically, that wasn’t true. If Valerie didn’t care what people thought, she wouldn’t be posting about her travels all day and all night on social media, I reminded myself. But still, I didn’t really believe that either. Valerie operated on her own agenda, independent of everyone else—she always has. I liked her post—I always do—then I flicked the screen off. Next, I forced myself to go shower and make some lunch. My addiction to Valerie had become so great that I was restricting myself to one check per hour. And believe me, an hour was generous. *** Lunch was a sizzling plate of chicken fajitas and spicy black beans. The best fajita in the whole world lives right here in Branson #nomnom, according to Valerie. It did look tasty—the juicy strips of meat and plump toppings spread out on an iron skillet billowing with steam.
She had changed her clothes since this afternoon. In a dark back booth, she wore a low-lit smile, in what appeared to be a mostly empty restaurant. She posed for the camera in a lacy black shawl that slipped from her shoulders. If I maximized the screen, I could almost see the constellation of freckles on her right shoulder … four dots in the shape of a diamond, with a few little dots forming a tail, almost like a Valerie version of the Little Dipper on her skin. Her smudgy black makeup from this afternoon was gone, replaced with pale-pink shadow on her lids, no trace of concealer. Lovingly, Valerie stared down at her plate of fajitas and beans. Her beauty was inspiring, but also a constant reminder of my own ugliness. My own isolation … I can’t remember the last time I ate Mexican. Or ate out anywhere for that matter, I thought, slowly chewing my limp cheese-and-mayonnaise sandwich. The cheese had expired two days ago, the edges of the slice slightly stiff. Chewing, I tried not to taste it. My cherry-oak computer desk was littered with soda cans and leftover plates from last night’s snacking-while-stalking session. What a mess. Valerie makes me feel like a total slob. At the same time, I can’t stop watching … My incision sites on my legs were sore but manageable; the headaches were painful but short lived. The damage to my face was mostly about vanity … The accident had changed me, and the damage was done. But it wasn’t so much damage that I couldn’t get around, or walk, or even drive for that matter. I had to be careful about driving because of my medication, but the doctor had cleared me anyway, much to my dismay. Ten weeks of physical therapy and now my therapist was encouraging me to get out and move more. I can leave this apartment. I can clean up after myself. I’m capable of so much more … But the truth was … I didn’t want to leave. I wasn’t ready to face the world, or more specifically, the people in town who knew about the accident. The accident that I caused. I slammed my fists down on the desk on either side of the keyboard, rattling half-empty cans and spilling the contents of a dusty old pencil-holder. Focus. Focus on what she’s doing. Valerie’s newly dyed hair was pulled up into a sloppy ponytail, loose strands of petal pink curling around her face and neck. I’ll never forget the first time I saw her. Valerie wasn’t local; not one of those kids you’d known since grade school, wiping boogers on the back of your seat in first grade, then sporting a Wonderbra in seventh. We didn’t know anything about this new girl, not really … She came from … where was it? Arizona, I think. Her parents were either dead or deadbeats; she’d moved in with her aunt. She was the ‘new girl’. But to us, it was like she’d stepped off another planet and crashed into our hemisphere without any warning. And without an invitation. Two weeks into seventh grade—my first year as a middle-schooler at Harmony—the alien showed up at our morning assembly. I was proud of how I looked that year. My breasts had developed into tiny buds that weren’t much, but they made me feel good, and I’d worked all summer, doing odd jobs, mostly babysitting, in order to buy six new outfits for school. Designer jeans. Fancy flannel button-ups (they were reversible!). A couple name-brand hoodies. A pair of
painfully stiff Doc Martens. White, no-show socks and panties with designs on them that weren’t cartoons. Every morning, I spent no less than an hour making my hair and makeup as flawless as they could possibly get. The only girls I envied were the few who did it better than me—some girls had better clothes, or they didn’t have to wear a repeat outfit on week two. Some of the girls had a knack for hair and makeup. I envied some, but not many. I felt good in my skin … well, I thought I did. But then the alien showed up, posing as a girl named Valerie Hutchens. When she walked into our morning assembly, the envy I felt was instantaneous. It consumed me … But what I couldn’t understand was why. She was wearing a T-shirt that obviously belonged to her father, or maybe an older brother. Violent Femmes, the front of it read, the es on the end so faded that I couldn’t actually read it, I just knew the band, so I filled in the blanks. The shirt was three sizes too big for her and the crack of her shorts was crooked in the back. No-name shoes without any socks, the laces untied. Tweety Bird panties protruding over the top of her shorts every time she bent over to pick something up. On that first day, she walked in and took a seat in the first open spot on the bleachers. She smiled at our principal, Mrs. Sauer, and even though Mrs. Sauer never smiled, she smiled back at Valerie that day. I couldn’t take my eyes off her as she finger-combed her shiny, shoulder-length blonde hair. Long hair was in style that year at Harmony, or it was supposed to be … but somehow, Valerie’s short, stylish ’do ruined all that—it made me self-conscious of my own long, brown locks, and it wasn’t long before the “in style” was nasty tees and short hair and don’t-give-a-fuck shoes, because, let’s face it, what was really in style was: Valerie Hutchens. Can I borrow a pencil? she’d asked one of the boys on the seat above her. He fell all over himself scrounging one up. Keep it, he said. I’m Luke. Luke was a nerd, so I rolled my eyes. But Valerie didn’t—she smiled with all her teeth, not a flirtatious smile but a genuine one, and then busied herself, writing in a black-and-white notebook poised in her lap. What is she writing about? It seemed so stupid, so unimportant, how I felt this urge—this need —to know exactly what words she scribbled into that tattered old book of hers. But I never found out; no one did. She kept her writing to herself, just like she kept everything. She was so available, yet so private at the same time … As the school weeks marched on, I learned a few more things about Valerie Hutchens: she was just as nice as she was pretty; she was smart as a whip without even trying; and she was talented in all things extracurricular: volleyball, music, theater, cheerleading, art, you name it. She signed up for everything. And it didn’t seem like a ploy to gain popularity, just an actual interest in all things Harmony. The boys followed her around like puppies; the girls wanted to be her friends. And although she was kind to everyone, she was never really close to anyone. Including me. I admired her from a distance for the next six years as she blossomed into a young adult and carried her magnetism with her into high school. It wasn’t until tenth or eleventh grade that I realized why I wanted to be friends with Valerie. It wasn’t her talents or her creativity. It wasn’t her good looks or the way she lit up a room when she walked inside it. It wasn’t even the fact that she was so goddamned nice and likable. It was the way she didn’t give a shit about any of these things.
Valerie Hutchens never laid awake at night, worrying about what she would wear to school, or who her friends were, or if she’d make the basketball team. Valerie was a floater, freely drifting through life on a fluffy cloud, always living in the here and now. She had the confidence that I lacked, which is why I wanted to be her friend. That smile … I wanted to be on the receiving end of it. But her eyes floated over me; I might as well have been a ghost, stalking the airless halls of Harmony … I would have preferred being hated or mocked … anything besides ignored. I watched the others who followed her around—Luke and some of the other nerdy boys. Valerie was too nice to turn them away, too cool to give them a real chance. I wouldn’t stoop to their level; I wouldn’t grovel for her attention. Shortly after my accident, memories of Valerie came floating back like they’d never left in the first place. It wasn’t until I had managed to get out of bed and venture back online that I thought about the girl from high school. Her perfect face consumed me. I don’t know what triggered it—I just woke up one day and wondered if she was on Facebook. Like so many of my other classmates and former friends, I expected her to have a profile where she doted on her husband and kids; maybe occasionally bragged about her Etsy business … but Valerie didn’t have a Facebook profile, much to my surprise. Apparently, Facebook isn’t really that cool anymore among young people. Who knew? I certainly never got the damn memo. But Valerie did. Of course she did. A few weeks later, I tried searching again. Only this time, I used Google to find her. She hated Facebook, but she was active on Instagram and Snapchat. In fact, she spent more time posting than she did living, or so it appeared at first. Since finding her profiles, I’d become absorbed in all things Valerie Hutchens. When Valerie goes to the beach, so do I. I can almost taste the salt of the ocean, hear the whisper of waves in Panama City … Valerie was a pharmaceutical rep, which meant she traveled for her job—a lot, apparently. How ironic, that I was the one choking down the pills while she was the one peddling them. But that wasn’t her only job. She was also an aspiring writer, like me. Almost done with my first novel. Will you guys read it someday? Please say yes! #amwriting #writerforlife. It was a black-and-white photo of her sitting on the edge of a pier in Ocean City, Maryland, dangling her toes over the edge, all the while balancing a notebook full of tiny, neat words on her lap. Hell, it could have been the cover of her very own book—that’s how good the picture was. But the photo itself made me nervous—What if a sudden breeze came rushing by, and her pretty little words floated out to sea? But, of course, Valerie didn’t worry about things like that. Because bad things didn’t happen to people like Valerie. Bad things happened to me. Look on the bright side, every once in a while, Kid, Chris’s words and cheesy smile ripped like blades through my cerebrum. He was the optimist; I was the realist—and together, we kept each other in check. But not anymore. There’s no one left to lean on. I pushed aside thoughts of Chris, focusing only on Valerie. Maximizing the old picture of her on the pier, I tried to catch a few of her words. But I couldn’t make them out. Even now, nearly fifteen years later, I couldn’t sneak a peek into
Valerie’s inner world, no matter how hard I tried … My favorite post of Valerie’s was one from about a month ago. She was standing outside our old middle school. Passing through town again, thought I’d stop and see Aunt Janet! Look where I am! I don’t remember much about Harmony, but it feels right being back in Wisconsin. Only back for one day. What should I do? #Imbaaaack #homesweethome #instawisconsin She couldn’t remember much about Harmony, but one thing was certain: Harmony hadn’t forgotten about her. Dozens of people commented on her post, including her old pal Luke, and I recognized some of my other classmates by either their usernames or profile pics. I even recognized our old high-school algebra professor in the comments—young and old alike, everyone worshipped Valerie. Apparently, I’m not the only one still watching Valerie from a distance. I felt embarrassed for all the commenters. But most of all, I felt embarrassed for me. Back pressed to the brick under the Harmony Middle School sign, she had one leg bent, her foot pressed to the wall, both hands casually tucked in her torn jean pockets. I imagined myself sending her a private message—Just saw that you’re in town! This is Camilla Brown. Do you remember me from school? I thought if you weren’t busy, we could meet for coffee or drinks. Catch up? But of course, I didn’t send it. I’m ashamed to even admit that I practiced writing it. Even if my fucking face and body weren’t twisted and lame, I still didn’t think I could face her. I liked her post—the way I always did—then erased the message. Closing my eyes, I tried to imagine what a meet-up with Valerie would look like. Do I think she would meet up with me if I asked real nicely? Yes, I do. Because Valerie is polite like that. Valerie is … well, Valerie. Always charming, always kind, always out of my league … When I imagined us sitting across from each other in a local café, chatting away like old friends, I couldn’t help picturing my real face—correction: my old face—the one I had before the accident. It wasn’t until weeks later, when she was back out on the road, far enough away that it felt safe, that I sent my first message. She’d responded—it had taken a few days, but still—and since then, we’d chatted briefly. She remembered me from school. She asked me how I was doing. She didn’t mention the accident or Chris, so one could only hope she hadn’t heard … In my messages, I complimented her pictures. I tried to keep it short and sweet, un-desperate. We talked a little bit about writing, although she still hadn’t told me—or any of her other followers—what she was writing, exactly. I didn’t mention my face, and I never suggested that we hang out in person. She didn’t either … perhaps she is waiting for me to suggest it? There was no point in trying to see her in person. There weren’t going to be any chatty meetups. Because I didn’t want to be her friend—I don’t think I ever really wanted to be her friend. No, that wasn’t it at all. I didn’t want to be on the receiving end of Valerie’s smiles, I wanted to wipe them off her pretty face.