“Mr. Wiiinnnstonnn,” the girl reminded him, “Where are you?” her voice elongating the words, asking as if they were playing an innocent game of hide and seek.

But that was far from the case.  A game of hide and seek, perhaps, but far from innocent.   The Writer wasn’t sure what they’d do if they found him, but he had a feeling he wouldn’t like it.

When this game ended, there would be no follow up round.

Winston shuffled his way past the living room and into the doorway that lead into his study.  He heard the footsteps of his intruders make their way towards the kitchen.  Hearing them move way brought him some relief, if only a small amount.  The girl’s clumsy footsteps up his staircase could be heard reverberating throughout the house.  There was time, but not much.

He stepped down a small staircase, the step complained with a whine.  Careful, he scolded. Quiet. He took the next two steps more gingerly, wincing each time he put weight on his left leg.

He entered a modestly sized room with walls lined with bookshelves, the rich musky scent of old paper and books assaulted the senses of those who entered the room.  There was little furniture in the room, a high backed (and comfortable, Winston oddly regarded even now) leather chair sat in the center with a simple nightstand next to it.  In the corner, a large mahogany desk with another leather chair sitting perpendicular indicating where his writing happened.  Its surface was decorated with pictures, baseball trophies, tournament ribbons and other baseball keepsakes from his younger, more active years. His study had been his safe haven from the outside world.  Hopefully it’ll do the trick again.

The floor creaked beneath his feat, and all movement outside the study stopped.  The women ceased walking about; he no longer heard the stomping steps of the girl, or searching the older woman did in the kitchen.

He heard the two discussing something.  He couldn’t make out most of the words.  The only snippet that reached his ears were an urgent whisper that said “—check it out.”

The awkward footsteps made their way back down the stairs, completely negating the necessity of hushed conversation.  The two of them were an interesting duo.  One of them silent, cunning and tactful.  The other… well, not.   The child is eager, he noted in his criminalist mind.

“Mr. Wiiiinnnnstonn, are you there?” her voiced urged him to respond.  She was a child who simply wanted to play a game, frustrated that she was being ignored.  “I know you can’t go far, Mr. Winston.  We’ve done our research.”  The tone of her voice climbed up and down.   Her feet walked across the tiled floor of the entrance.   They kept their shoes on, an action that in the past would have left him perturbed, but given the current situation any extra noise that broadcasted their position was quite alright with him.

Fight.  That was what had first gone through his mind. Protect.  Retaliate.  Attack. Injure. Harm.  Maim. 


Kill.

I need a gun; I need a weapon.  Driven by some animalistic sense of trespassing, he wanted to punish them.  To rid himself of this impending battle.  To rid himself of an all-encompassing fear. All his characters in his novels had somehow fought back, even if it seemed hopeless.   Something turned their direction eventually.  At the deepest depths of their luck, of their fate, they had somehow mustered the strength to fight back.

But this was not a world in his novel.  Hopelessness was never something he truly believed or wrote about in his crime dramas.  No one reads a story that has no hope.  No one reads a story where the protagonist dies.

The lingering realization of true hopelessness soon struck him.  This wasn’t a made up story.  As much as he wanted it to be, as much as he wanted to think about the logical chain of events, he knew that part of his analytical, writing mind was useless to him now.

Blast the gun, I need a place to hide.

Flight.  His eyes shot to the window.  A light snow had begun to fall outside, the first signs of a cold winter were making themselves evident on the bushes just beyond the glass pane.  There were still hours of daylight, but the sun had set behind the trees that surrounded his house.  Firmly gripping his mahogany cane, he walked towards the bench seat below the window.

His eyes kept glancing back at the doorway; there was a clear view from the living room to the window where he sought to hide.  If the child happened to look into the study, she would see him trying to make his escape.  From the middle of the room, Winston leaned his head towards the doorway, trying to get a vantage and see where the girl was.  He saw her looking through his stuff, distracted with the things he left lying around.  Her searching stopped when she came upon the notes for his overdue book.  A strange pang of anger gripped his stomach, but soon subsided.  There might not be a next book, he thought bitterly.

With her distracted, he moved as fast as his legs would take him.  Having reached the bench, he reached for the cover and lifted up the seat, revealing an assortment of blankets (for cold nights such as these).

Testing with his hand, he moved his way into window seat and took one more glance at the girl.  On her belt was an array of knives.  She was hopelessly overdressed for proof reading or making a house call.  The girl was out of place; she looked like someone who took a wrong turn on their way to a walkabout in the Australian outback.  The knives were held in what looked like Leatherman cases, each carefully placed in a protective pouch and buttoned closed.  That rules out door salesman, and Jehovah’s witness, he thought with a grim sense of humor.  He shifted his leg to get more room and the bench protested his movement.  The girl’s head stopped scanning the notes and slowly moved up from the paper.

With little time, he shoved his legs in and dropped the bench of the seat over him.  It closed without a sound.  There was a small gap between the top and the side of the bench, his body wouldn’t let it close quite all the way.  He cursed his overgrown beer belly and promised himself and God (if he did exist) he’d hit the treadmill and get his fifty-five year old body back into shape.  The gap was, however, covered by the lace bordering of the cushion he had put on there.  He spied the girl through the holes in the lace.

Her head towards the study.  “Mr. Winston?” she turned her body, still holding the notes.  After taking a few steps, she looked back down at the notes, “this stuff is quite good, you know.  I quite like it.  But I think it needs a different ending, if this is indeed the ending you want to use.”  She’s speaking to me.  His heart rate quickened.

Her movement stopped when she reached the doorway, she leaned against the frame, eyes still locked on his notes, “have you ever thought of writing a novel where you characters don’t find the killer?  I mean, surely, there must have been a time these guys were left stumped.  No, no I can’t say that…”   

Her face lit up with revelation, “oh! Why not kill off the main character?  Wouldn’t that make for a good turn of events?”

The girl moved into the study now, the stairs greeting her in kind with the creaks and groans they had greeted him with.  She didn’t seem to notice the déjà vu that should have hit her, the sounds undoubtedly should have peaked her suspicion.  “I’ve read all your stuff, Mr. Winston.  I loved your first books—I mean I love your books,”  she tossed her hair embarrassingly. “They always kept me captivated but the more recent ones, I dunno…” she trailed off, searching for a thought.

“They feel, recycled.” Her emphasis on the last word insinuated a sudden thought process.  A self-evident truth, he felt.  The Writer knew there would be a time when his trick would wear off, where his pattern would be called out, but he never thought it would happen like this.

He watched her through the crisscross pattern of the lace as it hung over the hole.  She moved about the study, still holding the paper, looking behind his leather chairs, under his desk and in places only a child’s mind could possibly think a full grown man could hide.

“I do love your stuff, Mr. Winston, despite that.” She admitted to no one in particular.  Her eyes went back down at his stack of notes, “My older sister showed me it a few years ago, and she’s loved it since she was my age.  That’s why I’m here – we’re BOTH here…” she trailed off again.  Her body now turned towards the window.  Her eyes met the cushion and–Winston was sure—the gap that existed between the seat and the bench.  The girl took a slight step forward, then another.  Her feet were greeted with the groans of the floor.  She ducked down and peered at his hiding place.

“Mr. Winston?” she said, smiling through her teeth.

He halted all breathing.  Cold sweat hung on his brow like a bad haircut.  His heart painfully pounded in his chest.  The little girl was getting closer; her eyes never broke from his hiding spot.  She dropped the papers now and continued to smile.

“Is that you?”

He felt trapped.  Like a rat in a cage, enclosed in the case that would take him to his death.  All of the sudden, a suffocating claustrophobia overtook him.  He was in his coffin, surrounded by his mother’s blankets. He wanted to slam the bench open, to reveal himself and let the air return to his lungs.  The feeling to reveal himself built exponentially upon itself.  He wanted to end the fear, end this terrible mental suffering.  Of course he’d rather end it with life, but now, amidst the growing panic of being seen, he cared little of the outcome.  The Writer wanted to rid himself of this crippling anxiety.

“Who are you talking to,” the older woman asked, her figure appearing in the doorway, “have you found him?”  Her tone was harsh.  She had an air of confidence, she seemed matriarchal.

“No.”

“Then what the fuck are you rambling on about?  I can hear you in the other room.”  Her thumb gestured towards the kitchen.

“I’m practicing…” she said sheepishly.

“Do me a fucking favor and practice for your monologues in front of a mirror, alone, like a normal person,” she snapped at her.

“Yes, Sis.”

The Matriarch regarded her sister with what Winston thought was a small amount of self-loathing, “I just checked the kitchen, go outside and make sure he’s not creeping around the side yard.”

“Yes, Sis.”

The girl turned and followed her sister, leaving him alone in the study.

He took a few deep breaths to try and regulate the panic that coursed through his body.  Closing his eyes, he brought his hands back from the seat tried to find the “Happy Place” his mother always reminded him as a child when the panic and paranoia kicked in.

I REALLY need my gun.

At another time, there would have been a gun in every room of the house.  When his paranoia had reached its apex, there wasn’t a place in the house that wasn’t ten feet from some sort of firearm, big or small.  After she passed, he had been a nervous wreck.

But in the recent years, as time separated him from her death, his mind had begun to calm.  The last fifteen years of living alone, without incident had made him grow soft.  That and thatgod forsaken security system had made him go complacent all together.  He hadn’t neededher “Happy Place” for five, or six years.  Now, all he had was his father’s shotgun, and even that was more of an antique than a form of protection.  Still, it was better than nothing.  The knives on the girl’s belt, he reminded himself.  These two seemed like they may be the sick type who do everything with a blade.  Maybe the shotgun would be enough.

If he could get to it.

It lay uselessly under his bed upstairs, and between him and the gun were two psycho bitches.  Both of which he assumed were not quite satisfied with simply taking his life.   There was a game afoot, it was more than just hide and seek; his writer’s mind knew the game wouldn’t end when they found him.  Indeed, their game would just be getting started, and the pain in his hip would seem paltry once the gig was up.

Don’t get caught.

He waited for a noise, waited for one of the girls to make a sound.  When he heard nothing, he slowly, carefully pushed the bench open and paused.  Again waiting for evidence of their presence.

And again a pregnant silence assaulted his senses.  He swung his leg out of the bench and slowly crept out of his hiding spot.  He closed the bench behind him.

There were two options in his mind.  He could walk from the study into the living room and take the stairs up to his room and hope that the two intruders didn’t see or hear him.  It was the quickest way to his room, something that would have taken him thirty seconds not twenty minutes ago.  But now that thirty seconds would be a painstaking eternity.  Even then he would have to pray, cross his fingers and perhaps sell his soul to the devil to not be seen.  The plan was stupid, he knew it the second he thought of it.  They weren’t complacent, they weren’t here to simply steal his stuff or intimidate him.  They were here for the real thing and they were not fucking around.  Even the fictional victims in his books weren’t foolish enough to risk something like that.

Which left with him option two, and really the only option he had as he saw it.  It was desperate, and left little room for error, but it was all he had.  Perhaps he could use his ailment as an advantage.  His weakness could compel complacency.  Did Odysseus feel the same I wonder?

He reached for his cane and gingerly stepped towards the bench.  The snow was really coming down now: sheets of frozen water clung to everything, coating the landscape in a purifying white blanket.  That’ll help with any noise, he thought, and visibility.  He stepped up on the bench and reached for the latch to the window; carefully, and quietly he flipped it and slowly lifted the window open.  A gust of cold wind hit his face.  He looked back into the living room to make sure he wasn’t being watched.  When he was certain it was safe, he looked back towards his escape.  Taking a deep breath he slid his first leg through the small crack of the window.

He shimmied his other leg into the window, the opening was just large enough for his middle aged body.  The square frame squeezed and prodded at him; pushing himself through it caused his hip to respond in kind with protests of pain.  Gritting his teeth, clenching through an almost unbearable pain, he continued to slide out.  The window and edges of his vision began to blur, blackness began to overtake his vision.  The affliction from his hip sent needles of pain down his thigh and up his torso, threatening a complete blackout.

Finally, finally, he thought while he grimaced, he slid through the window.  In his eagerness, in the clouded pain of his mind, he did not grab the pane as it came down.  It slapped shut against the frame and bounced several times.  His mouth creased with a cringe, scolding himself. Why don’t you shout, ‘I’m here! Please come stab me with your comical amount of knives!’

He heard movement in the house and decided he wasn’t going to be around to greet the one who would undoubtedly check out the noise.  Yanking at his cane, he hobbled onto the patio and over to the stairs that lead to the raised porch where he usually did his bird watching.

His hands groped for the railings of the porch.  Using the railing as a pivot, he whipped himself around the banister and began to take the stairs up (not bothering taking them one at a time).  All the while his eyes were glued to the windows of his house.  He saw one of them—he wasn’t sure which though he assumed it was the older—make their way from the foyer and into the living room.  The sound of the window it seemed provided the perfect distraction for him to make his way upstairs.    He finally reached the top and made his way for the sliding glass door.  His legs ached, his heart pounding through his chest.  Most of all, he could feel a pulse in his hip where the car had t-boned three years earlier.  He was out of breath, out of shape, and out of time.

The Writer reached the sliding glass door and pulled at it.

It didn’t budge.  Uselessly, he pulled again, as if hoping he simply hadn’t pulled hard enough the first time.

He cursed under his breath and began to reevaluate his one option.

Winston frantically looked for something to do.

“This place is tighter than Fort Knox!” a friend had once teased him, after seeing his setup.  That comment had brought him solace for the years that followed it.  Yet now that he was stuck outside and desperately needed in, he could feel anger filling his chest as the irony of the situation hit him.

The sound of a door interrupted his thought process.

“Mr. Underlock, I know you’re out here,” the voice rang out amidst the falling snow.

He had no key in, it sat where it always had when he was home; far away from where he was now.  A key isn’t the only way in.  His mind beginning to seek an answer.  The deck was devoid of everything, the furniture was put up for the winter; the only companion on the elevated porch was a pot.  A gift from a ‘pushy fan’—the kind he’d give his wealth and fortune for now— which held the sapling of a dwarf conifer.  The pot was large, the small tree would need room to grow, but for now it looked hopelessly too small for the pot.

There may not be another book…

“He’s there!”  cried a voice.  He followed the sound and spotted the little girl approaching from the side of the house, she pointed accusingly at him from thirty yards away, “Sis, Mr. Winston is up there!”

Winston was actually out of time now, and he knew it.  In a matter of seconds the women would be upstairs and on top of him, knives and teeth gnashing.  He spotted his one and only choice.  It was too awkward to drop on their heads, or try to throw at them, but it may open another path.

“Mr. Underlock?” the Matriarch below asked, he could see her pull something from her belt through the gaps in the wood beneath his feet.

Desperately, without other options, he grabbed a flower pot that sat next to do glass door.  He hefted it with both hands, the thing was heavy and awkward. With all the strength left in his body, he hurled it towards the glass door.

It hit the door with a loud BANG and fell back to the deck.  A crack appeared where the pot had hit, but other than that it seemed unharmed.

He glanced back at the girl; she was making her way towards him, knife brandished from her belt, but she seemed in no hurry.

“He’s mine!” she cried with a weird giggle and finally quickened her pace.

Again he hefted the flower pot.  With his teeth gritting, arms flexing and the strength in his left hip wavering, he threw the flower pot towards the cracked, glass door.

BANG! Another loud crack emanated in the forest that surrounded his home.  And yet again, the door stood stoic.  The glass was intact, but streaking cracks covered its surface like a giant spider web.  GOD DAMN SECURITY DOORS, he silently screamed to himself

There wasn’t time for another toss.  The child would slide that blade into him a dozen times before he had time to heft the pot again, he wasn’t sure he had the strength either.

The Writer took one step back, inhaled deeply, then ran towards the sliding glass door.  Adrenaline surged through his body, allowing him to ignore the anguish in his hip as he lumbered awkwardly forward.  He gripped his cane tightly in his right hand and fell towards the glass, throwing as much of his weight into the compromised door as he could.

The glass fell with him into the room of his house.  It shattered with a loud crash, a harsh exhale followed as the wind was knocked from Winston’s lungs.  He hit the ground hard, shards of glass slid through his flannel shirt and white-wash jeans.  Pangs caused by sharp needles assaulted him senses, but he ignored them.  There was no time.  He could hear the noisy footsteps of the girl as she made her way up the stairs.

“He’s down, and I’m gonna get him!” she screamed with childlike glee, “Gonna bleed him like a stuck pig, Sis!”

The adrenaline did its work as he pushed himself up from the broken shards, nicely cutting asymmetrical jagged patterns in his palms. Now on his legs, he hobbled over to the left, using his cane as much as he could for support.

The small footsteps of the girl followed behind him, her excited breath and exuberant giggle gnawed at the hairs on the back of his neck.  He turned the corner and into the hall way, towards his room.

She was gaining on him.  His legs carried him as swift as they could, but he was no match for youth of the girl.

He was just outside the doorway now.  He could see his bed and the rest of the objects that made up his room.  He dove for the bed and reached.

While on his back, he kept his eyes glued on the hallway.  She turned the corner slowly, at first revealing her head, a smile spread across her adolescent lips.  The rest of her body made it around the corner as she regarded him in his room.  He must have looked rather helpless, because she made no effort to fall upon him.  She smiled her smile and took a step towards his room, still clutching the knife.  It gleaned in the light of his lamps and reflected the snow bleached landscape.

“Mr. Wiiiinnnnnstonnnn…” she said with her mocking tune.  “I see you!” her voice filled with glee, a hand shot up to her mouth to cover a small giggle.    The child dropped her hands to her hips where she held them and regarded him with awe, “I love your novels Mr. Winston.”   She took another step, closer to where he lay.

There may not be another book…

“I saw the notes downstairs.” Her face changed from awe to contempt, “I used to like the endings, but after a while it gets old.” She threw up her arms and looked out into the snow covered trees, “how many times are you going to let the good guy win?!”  Everyone’s a critic.She looked back at him, hands back on her hips, she eyed him with incredulity.

“I mean, after a while the good guy has to die.  They can’t always win.  It really takes away the suspense, knowing they’re going to win.  It’s missing something, Mr. Winston.  There’s no real surprise.”  He could hear feet crunching over the glass from the door, her sister rounded the corner now.

A flash of epiphany struck the child’s face.  “There’s no twist!  The reader knows the end before they read it.”  She shot a look over her shoulder to her sister, then back at him.

The Matriarch looked upon him, “Jesus, Sis, looks like you already stuck him.”  Her eyes regarded him with what he thought might have been pity.

Her eyes shot back at her sister.  “He’s mine, I called him!” she roared, throwing her arms back, her hands balled in tight fists.

“Well he ain’t going to last long,” she scolded. “Get in there, we don’t want him dyin’ THAT quick.”  The two exchanged a smile that sent chills through Winston’s bones.  I’m not their first pig… “Well, go on!” the Matriarch urged on her sister, “Remember what I told you.”  She rested her hand on the child’s shoulder and gently nudged her forward.

A faint siren waned almost beyond ear shot.

There may not be another book…

The child turned her gaze to Winston and pulled another knife from her utility belt of pig-sticking.  The blood had been cleaned off but the blades would be corrupted forever.  Corrupt with the lives they had taken in years past.  The thought of any one of the five inches of those blades entering his body made Winston cringe.  She looked upon him with purpose, and took a halting step towards him.

That wretched smile created a crevice upon her face, revealing her perfect and terrible teeth.  As if hearing the firing of a starting pistol, she lunged forward.

A blood craze filled her eyes; she looked like a hyena charging towards a fresh carcass.  Lying on the ground, facing the door, he waited for his killer to make her death stroke.  She was halfway through the hallway now, her feet steadily bringing her towards Winston, towards her sweet release.

There may not be another book…

As she stepped through the threshold of his room, Winston produced his father’s antique.  Brandishing the double barreled shotgun, he leaned back and held it between his legs, firmly gripping it with both hands.  When she spotted it, she tried to halt her quickened pace.  She awkwardly stumbled forward, towards the wrong end his gun.  Her eyes were wide as she witnessed something that wasn’t part of the plan.

“How’s this for a twist?” The Old Writer suggested and squeezed the first trigger of shotgun.

The gun misfired, hammers fell and the air was filled with the unmistakable sound of a large shotgun firing off both chambers.  She was illuminated in a false light briefly before the buck shots reached her prepubescent torso.  The recoil kicked the gun back into Winston’s shoulder, badly bruising it, but the recoil of the buckshot she felt was far worse. The girl, with her small frail and light body, was carried a few feet into the air.  Pellets riddled her chest and shoulder.  They tore through her flesh, ripping open her skin and sending blood spiraling in a grotesque display of artful asymmetry.

The second shot caught her shoulder, twisting the body’s trajectory.  It fell near her older sister, rolled and came to a violent stop as it hit the wall of the hallway.  The Matriarch eyed her younger sister with what Winston believed to be the most sincere case of agony he had seen in his life.

“You bastard!” she screamed at him, tears forming in her eyes, “YOU FUCKING BASTARD!”  Her lungs let out a fierce battle cry as she sprinted down the hallway.  Eyes ablaze with hatred, she screamed with anguish and vengeance.  She waved one of her many blades above head and leaped towards him from the hallway.  Her body and blade covered the distance between the two of them at a pace The Old Writer thought inhuman.

The blade rapidly descended towards him.  He quickly brought up the shotgun in an attempt to block her attack.  The knife found a target, but not the one it intended; he wasn’t sure if it was skill or dead luck that he blocked the attack but the reason mattered little to him now.  With a blade quivering out of its stock, he swung the shotgun and struck the woman across the cheek, throwing her and the shotgun to the side.

The Old Writer crawled over to his dresser, away from the knife wielding lunatic.  The adrenaline was still going through him, but the magic it once worked had worn off.  A thousand cuts cried for his attention, all of which would have assaulted his mind if not for the pain in his hip.   He tried to stand, but a shot of halting pain threatened to black out his mind.

“You’ll pay for this,” she said through clenched teeth, “I’ll make you suffer, you fucking pig!”  She was getting up now, pushing herself off the floor with a blade in her hand.

He watched as she advanced towards him and helplessly sat on the floor.  The Old Writer gripped all that he had left in his right hand.  The Matriarch let out another fierce cry and lunged towards him; her knife slicing through the air, seeking to strip from him his blood and life.

There was a deafening CRACK as the mahogany cane connected with the crazed woman’s upper brow.  The force from the cane changed her trajectory, sending her sprawling into the dresser.  She crashed against it and fell back to the floor.

———————-

She moaned on the floor, dazed and confused.  Clutching her head, the woman rolled over, and blinked several times.  As her eyes opened and closed, she saw a figure appear.  The Old Writer steadily got to his feet, at first wavering but then finding his balance on one leg.  His glasses had broken at some point during events and his shirt was torn in more places that she should count.  Most of all, his face looked tired—or impatient, she couldn’t quite tell.   He was old, frail and severely injured.  He was an easy target, no one sees him and no one would come snooping.  Like all her other obsessions, he had fit the criteria.

But she had judged a book by its cover.  He was all those things she saw, but she missed the content of who he was. He was also imaginative.  He was quick witted and brilliant.  The Old Writer was dangerous.

The woman saw the man lift up his solid weapon over his head, reminding her of the stance her sister took in softball.  It seemed like a lifetime ago.

She held up her hand in a feeble attempt to protect herself.  Her lips trembled, “Please…” she whispered.  Her eyes wandered as the room began to spin; the swelling of her brain already began to take place.

“Please, mercy…” she whimpered again.

Sirens blared out beyond the walls of his home.  The Old Writer tilted his head in their direction, then back at her.

The man paused, his weight on his right leg, both hands still holding the weapon high above his head.  For an instant, for an eternity he froze and pondered.  Finally, his mouth opened.

“No.”

With his verdict given, he swiftly brought the cane down upon her head.  For the briefest of moments, she could feel her head cave in.  She felt the fragments of her skull cut and tear at the precious contents it sought to protect.

Then the world went cold and black.