Psychic foster teen Julian Beaufort finds himself in the hands of serial killers.
|TRIGGER WARNING: Gory; Depictions of Violence; Violent Images; Difficult Family Dynamics; Mentions of Past Abuse; Mentions of Death; if any of these bother you, please do not read this story. It is not my intention to trigger anyone. Please exercise discretion.
Luck of the Draw
Julian stared out the window, listening to "Home" by Phillip Phillips on his self-bought Samsung phone, watching the trees flit by as the evening sun squeezed its way through pockets of cloudy skies and patchy early spring tree branches. His three-year-old L. L. Bean backpack sits on the floorboard between his knees. The formerly bright red backpack has morphed into a dark crimson, and the water-resistant fabric is threadbare at best. This unassuming backpack holds his most valuable possessions: a stuffed dragon with black thread fraying at the seams and a missing red button eye; a sketchbook chuck full of charcoal sketches; a dark blue spiral notebook with random symbols and doodles etched into its cover; two cases of charcoal pencils and sticks; an art blending-eraser; and, two t-shirts with faded band logos on them--one AC/DC and the other The Rolling Stones.
"We're almost there," his caseworker Chelsey offers.
Brad Paisley plays softly on the radio. He hates country music; he always has. However, Chelsey lives and breathes country music. If she had her way, he bets she would ditch her job and join the rodeo in Memphis, Tennessee. As it is, Julian knows life is unfair and unpredictable. He turns his music up louder.
"I'm certain this family will be perfect for you. They have a kid your age, and they're really great with teenagers."
"I don't care," Julian offers. Then, as an afterthought, he adds, "Ma'am."
He's trying to "mind his manners". How can he still hear her through the music blasting in his ears?
"Give this family a chance, Julian."
He turns the volume up as high as he can stand it, ensuring Chelsey's voice can't breakthrough. He might go deaf, but at least he won't have to listen to her optimistic lies. Every time a family rejects him, Chelsey finds another family for him that "is great with teenagers" or "loves children" only for the parents to treat him like an overdue library book they desperately want to return. Of course, there have been a few families over the years that treated him with respect and love, but even the most patient foster parents eventually give up and call him "difficult" or "distrustful" and beg Chelsey to take him back. On her part, Chelsey never shows her frustration or sadness when the family "doesn't stick"; instead, the overwhelmed and exhausted caseworker smiles and promises to "keep trying until we run out of options".
Chelsey pulls the car into a gated community--the family must be rich, stuck-up pricks--and Julian flinches from the window. A female ghost with her eyes and mouth sewed shut, ears cut off, ligature marks on her wrists, and serrated barbwire cuts wrapped around her neck appears. Against Julian's control flashes of metal chains, wooden walls, and spine-chilling screams jump into his mind; his stomach tangles into a tight knot, and he struggles to breathe through his increasing panic--fear, anger, outrage not belonging to him, but to the ghost--overwhelms him and he starts trembling. Rope chafes his wrists, sharp knives slice into his skin, surgeon-like hands sew his mouth shut, followed by his eyes, and finally the monster cuts off his ears--he can't scream, can't see, can't hear, and death abandons him. Days later, chained to a metal pipe, sitting naked on a damp and cold cement floor, abandoned, and forgotten until death finally takes him. He forces himself to open his eyes and look back out the window, only to see nothing there, and tries wash the violent images away with even louder music.
Gravel crunches as Chelsey's car smoothly pulls into a small, crescent moon shaped driveway that wraps around a marble birdbath. A classic two-story Northeastern Coast suburban house with slate-colored clapboard siding, weathered olive shutters, and a pale grey wraparound porch proudly stands in the middle of a well-kept yard. Julian already dislikes the rich pricks living inside, and immediately feels like an outsider.
Chelsey notices his clammy, shaking hands and requests, "Julian, you look sick. What's wrong?"
Chelsey is too in-tuned with his body language after bouncing him from home to home for seven years. She'll think I'm insane. "Nothing, just tired." The lie comes easily, after giving the same response every time he witnessed a ghosts' painful and untimely death since he was seven. Chelsey doesn't pursue the issue further.
"Well, we're here."
Why do those words sound like a death sentence?
Another ghost with the same injuries as the first one appears, and another round of violent images assault him. Phantom rope once again chafes his wrists; barbwire wraps around his throat; a knife slices into his skin; surgeon-like smooth hands steal his sight, hearing, and taste; metal chains trap him on a damp cement floor; infection creeps in; starvation; death. I think I'm gonna be sick.
He forces himself to open the passenger side door and drags his feet to the front door, falling several paces behind Chelsey's energetic steps. She's probably happy I'm no longer her problem.
Chesley knocks on the door and a middle-aged woman with fiery red hair, alabaster-pale skin, and an ample bust answers the door.Â Her jade green eyes widen and a giant smile stretches across her face as she gushes, "Julian! Ooh, we've waited so long for you to get here!"Â
The red-head woman is shorter than Chelsey's 5'4", and her child-like bubbly excitement makes the cynical teen question whether she's a 20-year-old co-ed instead of a 40-something middle-aged woman. She ushers them inside and directs them to sit on a plastic-covered couch with overstuffed cushions in her immaculate living room. Julian sinks a good three or four inches down despite the plastic sheet.
"Wait right here and I'll get you guys a drink," she rushes out before running over to the bottom of the stairs and shouting, "Tristian, Sal, Julian's finally here!"
Then she bounces--literally bounces--to the kitchen. Two sets of footsteps stomp down the stairs--one pair sounding heavy like steel-toed work boots, and another pair sounding like combat boots.
A skinny kid with two eyebrow piercings and dyed hair covering his left eye shuffles into the living room followed by a man with barrels for arms and legs. The man reminds Julian of a lumberjack, and the thick beard clinging to his square jawline with thick hair on the man's exposed forearms only reinforces the image. The lumberjack's sharp blue eyes stare Julian down with a frigid glare. Julian meets the lumberjack's eyes squarely and refuses to back down from his calculating look. The kid around his age is glued to his phone, most likely updating his Twitter or Facebook account, or playing a game. Julian doesn't like him either. Immune to the harsh staring contest, the bubbly, busty redhead returns with five glasses of limeade and passes them out, starting with Chelsey and Julian, and then giving one to the lumberjack and skinny kid. Then, bouncing on her heels with her hands clasped behind her back, she introduces her small family. Her coyly sweet child-like behavior does nothing to improve Julian's annoyance.
"Julian, this is Tristian, our sixteen-year-old son, and that's Sal, my husband of ten years. Don't let his intimidating appearance fool you; he's a sweetheart."
"And that's Anna, my wife. Don't disrespect her, and we won't have problems," Sal warns.
Sal's rumbling voice combined with his stern tone reminds Julian of his abusive step-father that used him as a punching bag whenever he had the chance. His dislike for the bear-like man intensifies.
"I don't want a brother, but since it's happening anyway, don't touch my stuff," Tristian mumbles, looking up from his phone long enough to shoot a frigid glare at Julian.
Great, another asshole foster sibling. Julian shoots a look at Chelsey. Why this family? For her part, the exhausted caseworker mouths, "Sorry."
Anna's bubbly attitude falters long enough for a vexed frown to cross her face before her sweet and playful mask returns. Her hip juts out and she wags her index finger in Tristian's and Sal's direction, "Now boys, behave yourselves; we're supposed to make Julian feel welcomed."
Julian wants to scream, Stop trying so hard to make us get along! It's not happening! Instead, he settles for stony silence and a distrustful glare. Anna's fake persona puts him on edge; how much of her friendliness is a front, and how much darkness does her coyly sweet smiles and warm tone hide? After all, in Julian's experience, fake people are dangerous people.
Chelsey intercedes preemptively, hoping to avoid a fight breaking out amid the tense silence, "Well, there are a few things you need to know about Julian that weren't disclosed in his file."
"Here we go," Julian scoffs and crosses his arms over his chest. This is the part where parents reject me on the spot.
Chelsey plows on, "He's sensitive to yelling; try to keep any fighting to a minimum. He has court-mandated anger management therapy every Thursday at two; and, an appointment with his psychologist every Tuesday at four. Also, he meets with a PO once a month--I'll send you more details later. He's a runner, so you need to keep an eye on him, especially if he gets into a fight or if he's noticeably angry and upset. Finally, no physical discipline; physical contact is fine, but only if he initiates it. If you have any problems, let me know and I'll whisk him away."
"Don't worry," Anna assures the worried and stressed caseworker, "Julian is in great hands."
Chelsey nods as a rare smile twitches onto her face, "I know." Then, with the same soft voice and gentle smile, she suggests to the weary foster teen, "So, why don't you get settled and I can talk to Anna and Sal alone?"
Julian shrugs and follows Tristian up the oak wood stairs. The pierced teen guides him down a long hallway and opens the second door on their left.
"This is the shared bathroom. Don't steal all the--," Tristian stops midsentence and tenses. Julian frowns, peeks around his shoulder, and sees a blood-splattered shirt lying on the otherwise spotless floor in the middle of the abnormally clean bathroom. Tristian shuts the bathroom door, clears his throat, and continues as if nothing happened.
"Don't steal all the hot water, and always put the seat back down or Mom will ride your ass about it. Don't touch my shampoo, soap, or hair gel for that matter. Also, don't steal any of my things. If you respect me, we won't have problems. I'm not difficult to get along with until you piss me off. So don't. Oh, and don't snitch either."
A scathing remark sits on the tip of Julian's tongue, but he stops himself to ask a more prominent question instead as he scratches the back of his left ear, "So, um, that shirt--why was there blood on it?"
"Oh--Dad gets bad nosebleeds due to the wood chip dust, asbestos, and fiberglass he breathes in at work; he's a contractor, and he's working on a housing project."
"Okay," Julian accepts albeit suspicious--if it's just blood from a nosebleed, why did Tristian panic? Barbwire wraps around a pale throat as specks of blood land on a stark white t-shirt. Julian breaks the tense silence--and dispels the gruesome image--with his scathing remark, "Anything else you want me to know, Princess?"
Tristian snaps from his odd trance and seizes the abrupt subject change, "Yeah. Don't call me that, asshat."
"Whatever you want, Princess Peach."
At the end of the hallway, Tristian pulls on a thin cord to reveal a set of rickety steps that lead into a finished attic. Julian despises attics as much as he hates basements, but he's not going to complain; an attic bedroom beats having a bed shoved into a tight corner while sharing a bedroom with three other boys at the group home.
"You get to stay in the attic like Anne Frank. It has a lot of cool things in it like a mini-fridge, a bean bag chair, a loft bed, and a tiny crawlspace. If you smoke dope, I won't rat, but make sure you open the window 'cause otherwise the smoke drifts through the vents and down into the rest of the house."
"Um, if the attic has all that cool stuff in it, why are you giving me that room? Shouldn't it be yours?"
Tristian smirks as he crosses his arms and leans against the door jamb. "It gets super-hot and uncomfortable during the summer, frigid cold in the winter--you have to use a space heater to keep warm--and it's haunted as fuck. You'll hear scuttling and scratching at night on the sealed crawl space door."
Julian matches Tristan's stance and snorts, "Oh yeah? Could just be a trapped animal." I'm too old for ghost stories; besides, ghosts don't frighten me. I see them every day and every night.
Tristian suddenly becomes animated and gestures wildly with his hands as he offers in manic glee, "No, really. It's haunted. One of Mom's strays was a practicing Satanist who performed spells and rituals right where the rug sits in the middle of the room. He used a pocket knife to etch a pentagram in the wooden floorboards. Then, he skinned a neighbor's cat and filled the etch with the cat's blood. I think Mom eventually returned him or sent him to an insane asylum. Mom and Dad hired a priest to cleanse and bless the room afterward. But it hasn't been the same since."
"Insane asylum, huh?" The other teen nods and Julian scratches the space behind his left ear, unimpressed but concerned all the same. Is that where I will end up next if he finds out my secret? His cursed gift is part of the reason why many parents "returned" him--as Tristian so eloquently phrased the relocation process--they couldn't handle a teen that sees and talks to ghosts. One super religious family believed he was the antichrist and decided to "burn away the unholy evil within his soul". The second and third-degree burns he received from that insane family six years ago still mar his back to this day.
In the off-chance Tristian isn't just trying to freak him out, Julian will deal with whoever--or whatever--haunts the attic. Right now, he doesn't feel anything "off" with the room itself. Maybe that will change once the sun sets.
Once Julian gets settled, he walks back down the stairs, turns right instead of left, shuffles down another long hallway, and catches movement in a doorway. Curious, he peeks through the crack and sees Tristian bent across the washing machine, muttering to himself, and scrubbing something. Julian pushes the door just a few inches more to get a better look at what Tristian is doing; the psychic teen frowns when he realizes Tristian is scrubbing the hell out of Sal's blood-splattered shirt with hydrogen peroxide and bleach. The scrub brush bristles are coated in a foamy pink soap, and a chill runs down Julian's spine when he realizes why; the peroxide is bubbling because it's breaking down the blood. If Sal only had a nosebleed, why not just put the shirt in a hamper? Why is Tristian scrubbing it down with chemicals designed to dissolve and break up blood?
Julian is about to walk away when Tristian suddenly tenses--like he did when they found the bloodied shirt on the bathroom floor--looks over his shoulder and shoots a glare that would put Sal's cold gazes to shame. Julian shivers and feels even more creeped out when Tristian points to the shirt, lifts an index finger to his closed lips, and then drags the same finger across his throat in a slicing gesture. Nausea chokes Julian's intestines and then, as if Julian never interrupted the clearly disturbed teen, Tristan turns back to his task of scrubbing evidence away. Julian slowly shuts the door until it clicks closed, and continues to the kitchen puzzled and disturbed by the scene he just witnessed. Maybe the ghosts Julian saw earlier in the day are tied to this family; maybe, Sal murdered them. Then again, maybe Tristian just wants to get the shirt cleaned now instead of later? Julian scratches the spot just behind his left ear as his discomfort at Tristian's odd behavior grows, only to walk into the kitchen and see Anna chopping vegetables like a professional chef. He pauses in the doorway, and hesitates, wondering if she murders people too. Why else is she so good with such a large knife? His stomach twists when he watches her wash her hands and pick up a meat cleaver to chop the pork roast into pieces--Ears chopped off, dismembered body parts scattered in the nearby woods and buried in the backyard garden. Ear piercing screams trapped behind stitched mouths--She glances up.
"Julian! Did you get settled in okay?"
Julian tries to force his clenched jaw to move so his mouth can form words, but he eventually gives up and just nods his head. Surgeon-like hands stitch mouths closed with practiced ease. He can't speak--and neither can they.
"Great! Help me with dinner. We're having pot roast tonight, and I'd love for someone to help me skin the potatoes."
A woman screams as skin is cleaved off her body and her mouth and eyelids are sewed shut before barbwire cuts into her neck. Then a broad-shouldered person dumps her naked, abused, and mutilated body on the damp basement floor. Metal chains pin her to a metal pipe as infection and starvation ravages her body until death finally claims her.
Julian dashes to the nearest bathroom--the half bath beside the laundry room--and vomits. He can't get the horrific screams and violent images out of his head as he continues heaving into the toilet. He wants to scream--stitches clamp his mouth shut--he wants to cry--no tears can escape--silence haunts him--his ears are gone--dry heaves are the worst part about vomiting, but eventually his stomach stops spasming as he pants and flushes the toilet. His entire body trembles as sweat soaks his shirt collar. He rests his head against the cool porcelain, trying to remind himself to breathe, that he can control what the ghosts show him--as if--only to jerk when a cold gaze chips its way into his back.
"You okay, Julian?" Sal requests, not once betraying compassion in his tone. Julian can't form words right now, so he just nods his head. "Do you need to lie down?"
The psychic teen clears his throat, and forces himself to speak, "No, just nerves, I think." Sal doesn't say anything further; he just tersely nods and leaves the bathroom. Julian feels the heavy atmosphere lift and breathes easier. What if Chelsey placed me with a family of murderers? The thought causes chills to shimmy down Julian's spine.
"How was work?" Anna questions, skewering a carrot in the stew with her fork.
"Work was work," Sal shrugs.
Anna frowns and turns to Julian, "Are you looking forward to school, Julian?"
Julian shrugs and picks at his plate; Tristian shoots him heated glares in-between bites.
"Now you boys will get along or so help me I'm going to lock all three of you in the basement," Anna half-jokes, half-threatens.
"Leave the kid alone if he doesn't want to talk. Both of them."
"Don't take that tone with me, Sal." Arctic ice bleeds into Anna's sickly-sweet tone. Julian shivers, and Tristian silently stares at his plate.
Sal hesitates, wants to say something else, but instead offers, "Sorry, dear. Work went well."
"That's what I thought."
Tense silence settles over the small family unit like river-silt settles on concrete after a violent flood. No one breaks it until, "May I be excused?"
"Of course, Julian," Anna agrees, Sal agreeing immediately. Tristian and Sal act like they're afraid of Anna. I wonder why.
Once in his room, Julian retrieves Simon--the thrift-store bought stuffed dragon his little brother Andy gave him for Christmas one year--from the desk crammed under the loft bed and hugs it tightly while he climbs onto the flattest part of the roof to watch the sunset. His perch overlooks Anna's backyard garden chock full of carnations, roses, sunflowers, heather bushes, poppies, and tulips. I didn't know she gardens. Julian watches amethyst and carnation-pink clouds leisurely stretch their feathered fingers across a fire-brick red and grapefruit blood-orange evening sky as memories of his four-year-old brother fill his mind.
"Idify the colors, Jule!" Andy begged as they sat on an overgrown hillside behind the seedy motel their parents brought them to while they 'conducted adult business'.
"It's i-dent-i-fy," Julian gently corrects before smiling, "I will, if you count them." Julian never wasted an opportunity to help his younger brother apply what he learned in class, especially since their parents never bothered to keep them in school for any consistent length of time.
"Six dif'rent colors," Andy proudly announced after Julian finished listing the colors. Then he frowned and asked, "Why so many?"
"I'll tell you one day, Andy."
A genuine smile slides onto Julian's face at the fond memory; he never did get the chance to tell Andy that pollution from the steel plants caused the sky to blossom into so many different colors. Child services whisked them away from their drug-trafficking parents the day after Christmas, and when Julian learned they would be separated because the psychologist believed they became too codependent, he nicked a dragon pendant from a nearby convenience store.
"Take this, and don't forget me."
"I won't," the four-year-old promised, his lip wobbling, not understanding why they can't stay together. "Keep Simon close."
Julian has never, no matter how many homes he passed through, lost the stuffed dragon. I hope Andy's okay, wherever they placed him.
Cold chills shiver down his spine as the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck prickle. Another ghost--this one a decorated Marine sergeant--appears just in front of the rose bushes. Unlike the other three ghosts, his eyes and mouth aren't sewed shut; instead, his sunken eyes stare at Julian in accusation as the dark purple ligature marks around his wrists and across his throat starkly contrast against his zombie-like grey skin.
"We're coming for them. They hurt us; we will hurt them," he threatens.
"Who hurt you? Who are you coming for?" Julian doesn't like how much power this ghost appears to have--most ghosts don't physically talk. Instead, they show images of their life.
Torture for the sake of torture. Agonizing screams, pleas for help, for mercy, for forgiveness. Electric shocks, waterboarding, fire licking his skin, needles poking him. A basement floor, metal pipe, chains, starvation, and death. "Stop!" The images stop. "I'll help, but you need to answer my questions."
"The family. The shed. Weeks in their basement. You're not safe. Run."
A ghostly wail that only a tortured soul could make pierces Julian's eardrums; taken off guard, he suddenly begins to choke as phantom wire digs into his throat. He scrambles back inside, slams his window shut, and drops the blinds. He vomits into the nearby trash can and doesn't dare look outside again. If these ghosts are Sal's victims, and Anna helps him bury the bodies in the backyard, will Tristian be scrubbing my blood from their clothes next?
Numbing cold burrows its way into Julian's bone marrow so he gropes blindly for the comforter he kicked off in the middle of the night only to feel dew-covered grass underneath his fingertips. That's not right. Why am I outside? What happened? The baffled teenager pushes himself onto his elbows before forcing the rest of his achy body to stand. He's in front of the padlocked shed; this is the shed the veteran warned him to stay away from. Curious, he glances through the only window and sees typical lawn maintenance equipment, some work gloves, a nail gun, a toolbox, and--he squints as he deciphers what's sitting on the workbench--duct tape, rope, metal chains, and a kitchen knife. What the hell?
"What are you doing?" Sal's thunderous voice startles Julian. "The shed's off-limits to kids. You could get yourself killed."
Julian doesn't feel reassured by those words at all, not after all the visions he has had in the last two days, so he tries to formulate a lie as to why he was outside in the first place.
"I must have sleepwalked outside. I'm sorry, it happens sometimes."
"Sleepwalking is dangerous," Sal rumbles as he checks the padlock for any tampering. "Do I need to lock the attic door at night?"
Run. You're in danger! Run! You're next! The haunting, panicked words echo in his skull but even as he tries to form words, an explanation, run, do something--anything--all he manages to say past a thick tongue is a meek, "No, sir."
"Get your ass back inside for breakfast."
Julian doesn't wait for another order; he's already bolting for the sliding glass doors. As Julian steps into the kitchen, he notices Sal's work boots--abandoned by the archway--have red clay mud caked on them. Could that be dirt-saturated blood instead? His stomach twists in knots, even as he chokes down bacon and pancakes.
At school, Julian chooses to haunt the library instead of the cafeteria during his lunch period. Although he only has thirty minutes for lunch, he uses his time wisely and searches the local newspapers and news websites for any articles about mysterious disappearances, homicides, serial killers, and police reports released to the public.
One newspaper article dated several years ago states that "Marine Sergeant Griffin Sanders disappeared during a fishing trip and his body was never recovered; no evidence of foul play, and no new evidence or leads." It went cold after two years. A day after police declared Sergeant Griffin's case cold, a similar disappearance occurred; this time, Mr. Terry Clive, a forty-eight-year-old high school teacher, drove his truck off a ravine five miles outside of town after leaving behind a suicide note. His body was never recovered, and without evidence suggesting foul play, police ruled his death a suicide against the family's wishes. Just two years ago, local high school nurse Miss Ava Malone went missing after visiting her parents a few hours north of this town, only for police to find her a month later naked and sodomized by a metal pipe, her eyes and mouth sewed shut, ears missing, and ligature marks on her neck and wrists. Sal was one of three suspects but his alibi--supported by his wife and son--checked out. Julian doesn't find an article for the fourth ghost he saw--the young father--but he's certain the Faust family is involved in the man's gruesome death.
In fact, the strange behavior of Tristian, Anna's expertise in wielding knives, the padlocked shed, Sal's cold glares and veiled threats, Tristian's direct threat, and the horrific flashes of the ghosts' murders lead Julian to one gut-wrenching, frigid realization:
I live with a family of serial killers, and I'm next.