A new job in a new town holds a far different future for Katerine than she thought.
By Karl Weaver
Word count: 4731
Finally, she thought to herself as she carried her book and the steaming mug of cappuccino to the old Lay Z Boy recliner in the den, I’m finished. Katerina hated moving with a passion that she normally reserved for slimy, slithery things and silk spinning, eight legged freaks but, at last, it was done. Her knick knacks adorned the shelves and furniture around her, giving her a comforting sense of familiarity, although, truth be told, it had been there even without them. In an odd way, her entire experience here in Rockford had a sense of familiarity, like slipping into an old pair of shoes that seemed to fit just right. The job that had brought her here from her home town in Indiana was just perfect. The faculty at Rockford College had welcomed her with open arms, and her English Literature students loved her. The house she had found wasn’t spectacular, but it was close to the school and within her price range. It was in a section of town referred to as Mulberry Forest, and it was even situated within easy walking distance of a quaint little park with a walking path around it. All told, she couldn’t have hoped to land in a situation more ideally suited for her, and she closed her eyes in satisfaction as she sipped her coffee, the hazelnut aroma adding to its sweet deliciousness.
Before she could open the cover of her book, the latest collaborative offering from Fantasy moguls Margret Weiss and Tracy Hickman, she heard a sound from the living room. She laid the book on the end table beside her reading lamp and regretfully left the embrace of recliner to investigate. When she neared the front door she saw a pile of envelops lying on the floor beneath the antiquated brass mail slot and realized that the mailman had just left. She bent to retrieve the mail and returned to bask in her caffeinated glory.
As she walked through the den she began to flip though the mail, tossing bills onto her desk and the inevitable political ads into the trash can. She glanced briefly at a flyer that claimed she could own a new Camaro, regardless of her credit score, before one of the envelops caught her interest. It was addressed Katerina Lynch, 143 Peach Lane, Rockford, IL 61011, but the sender was blank. She tore open the flap and found that the letter was from Winnebago Eye Associates. They were letting her know that it had been three years since her last eye appointment, and that she should call them at her earliest convenience to set up an appointment. “Well, that’s odd,” she said out loud to the unresponsive hardwood paneling. She made a mental note to give them a call on Monday to see what they were talking about and then picked up her book.
It was a few days later, and the letter from the eye doctor had slipped her mind entirely. She had decided to take a leisurely stroll down the brick paved street to Fairgrounds Park. She knew from the historical marker at the entrance that the park was once the home of the city’s only major league baseball team, but after a particularly dismal season they had been disbanded and the site had eventually been turned over to the park district. She could not, however, see any signs as she walked along the ovoid path that had once been a race track that this area had ever been anything other than the beautiful, grass covered haven that she saw today. She giggled as she watched a pair of chipmunks chasing each other around the bole of a massive elm tree that looked as if it had been rooted in that very spot on the day that Moses parted the Red Sea. One of the tree’s lower branches had some kind of blight affecting it, and the leaves of that branch had begun to yellow and wither. She came across a bench set off the side of the path and decided that she would sit and enjoy the majesty of nature that was incongruously nestled in the heart of a downtown metropolis.
The chattering of squirrels and the warmth of the leaf dappled sunlight caressing her brow had nearly lulled her to sleep when returned to awareness with a start. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but something was wrong. It dawned on her that it was quiet. The merry chirping of birds and scurrying sounds of rodents was conspicuously absent. She looked around her and, for the briefest moment, thought she saw movement at the periphery of her vision. Before she could turn her head, however, it was gone. She felt a crawling sensation on her arm, and looked down to find a small, black beetle crawling on her, and hastily plucked it off. She stood, shaking her head, and retraced her steps down the path.
When she returned home she was greeted by another stack mail piled unceremoniously on the entry mat. After sorting through it she found another odd letter, this one from a time share association in Florida asking if she would be willing to list her holding with a new realty company. It also thanked her for her advance payment of maintenance fees and assured her that a place was available to her whenever she chose to schedule her vacation. “What kind of a load of crap is this,” she muttered.
She decided that she was going to find out what kind of a load of crap this was. She went to the desk in her den, fired up the Dell computer, and went to the association’s website. A few minutes later she was able to find a list of association members and, sure enough, there was her name. Apparently someone with her name owned a timeshare on a posh beach just outside of Malibu. Wouldn’t that be nice, she thought to herself? It was decidedly weird, though, that not only was the name the same, but they had somehow gotten her address as well.
She closed the internet and started to correct some papers, but her mind kept straying from analyses of Oedipus Rex and back to the strange mail that she had been receiving. Finally she realized that she wasn’t doing her students any justice by being so distracted. On a whim, she decided to pull up Google and search her own name. She was a little surprised to find that there were forty seven other people with the very same name. So much for having a unique name! Delving further, she found ten listings that were actually in Rockford. That number seemed unusually high to her, so she did a bit more exploring. She wound up spending a few dollars to gain access to a website that was designed to locate people, only to find that four of the ten Katerina Lynches in Rockford were listed as living at her address. Obviously there was some sort of mistake. She put the issue out of her mind and went back to grading her papers.
“So Katerina, how do you like it around here,” a baritone voice resounded behind her. She turned around to see Ronald Hassman, a professor in the IT department at the college. He was wearing a brown blazer that matched his olive complexion, and his receding hairline and wire rimmed glasses gave him a docile look that most people on the campus found endearing.
“Oh, I love it here, Ron. The campus is absolutely beautiful, and everyone here has been so nice to me.” They walked together across the campus, ducking under the occasional Frisbee. “After looking for work in Indiana for so long, I was worried that the only position I would be able to find would be at a freaking McDonald’s.”
“Well, I hardly think that it would have gotten so bad as that, but we are glad to have you here. English Lit. has been passed around like a hot potato in the English department over the last few years, and I am certain that everyone is relieved to have someone as qualified as you to relieve that burden.”
“Thanks. What do you know about the English department, anyway?”
“This is a small school, hon. Everybody knows about you; the new shining star of our Liberal Arts wing. Besides, I’ve only been around for a handful of years, myself. Now I’m not the newest kid on the block, as it were. Has anyone taken the time to show you around town?”
“Not really, but I think that I can manage. I appreciate the offer, though.”
“It is a standing one, so any time you are ready, just let me know. In the mean time, you should try Giovanni’s Pizza off State St. It is some of the best in town.”
She grinned and replied, “I will keep that in mind, and I appreciate the offer.”
“No problem,” he said with a mock bow. “I’ll see you around.”
Katerina rubbed her eyes and closed her book. She looked up at the grandfather clock standing in the corner of the den (which, oddly enough, had actually been built by her grandfather) and saw that it was after eleven o’clock. Why do I do this to myself? A whisper of a groan escaped her lips as she stood up from the recliner, her hands balled into fists to push against the muscles of her lower back in what seemed like an autonomic response these days. She headed down the oak paneled hall and up the stairway up to her second story bedroom. In the haze of fatigue she neglected to step over the loose third step, and its screech reverberated through the house for long moments after she had moved on.
She went to the bathroom to brush her teeth and wash her face, and the shock of the cold white porcelain tiles on her bare feet pulled her briefly out of her daze. She turned the hot water on immediately, since she knew that it had to make the long journey up from the water heater in the basement. By the time she was finished brushing clouds of steam were rolling out of the sink, leaving a thick layer of mist on the medicine cabinet mirror. After she was finished washing her face she quickly swiped her towel across the mirror and instantly felt her heart stop. Standing behind her in the claw footed white porcelain tub was a strange woman. She wore a dilapidated poodle skirt that barely hung on her emaciated frame. Wet, shoulder length black hair stuck to her sickeningly pale skin and thick, black framed glasses. The woman’s right arm was stretched out toward Katerina in a pleading gesture.
“Shit,” Katerina exclaimed as she spun around to face the monstrosity, only to find herself alone in the small bathroom. She started as the gusting wind outside sent a limb of an old Mulberry tree scraping across the mullioned bathroom window, but there was simply nothing there. By the time she reached her bed she had convinced herself that the whole thing had just been a figment of her imagination.
The next day Katerina found herself knocking on Ronald Hassman’s office door. Hearing him bellow she entered and found him engrossed in some type of highly technical computer programming that she did not even know how to begin to describe. Eventually he looked up and, realizing that it was her and not some student looking for advice, pushed himself sway from the desk.
“Well, come to take me up on my offer,” he asked?
“No, sorry. At least not yet, anyway. I have a question that I think you might be able to help me with.”
“Oh, yeah? Whacha got?”
“Well, I’m not sure how exactly to explain it without sounding… slightly disturbed. I’ve been getting mail for somebody else named Katerine Lynch. I went online to see what I could find, and it told me that there were four other women with my name that lived in the same house. I found that to be more than a little bit disturbing, so I thought that maybe you could look into it and tell me that I made some kind of mistake.”
Ronald chuckled a little. “If I had a dollar for every time I found a mistake on the internet, I wouldn’t have to work here. Tell me what you did to get those results.”
After she went over how she had found her results Ronald agreed to look into it for her after he finished the project that he was working on. She thanked him before heading to her next class.
Katerina was sitting in the cafeteria eating a turkey and Swiss cheese sandwich on a bagel when she saw Ronald come in. She waved him over, and after weaving his way through the crowded room he took a seat opposite her. “Hi, Ron,” she said. “How’s it going?”
“Alright, I guess. I found the information that you were looking for, and it looks like you’re not crazy.”
“Really? I don’t know if I should be happy or freaked out by that.”
“Well, I would guess a little bit of both.” He lowered his voice significantly before he said, “I found some stuff that you really ought to see, but I’d rather not do it here.”
Katerine thought about it for a moment before replying. “One of my students invited me to the drama department’s production of A Midsummer’s Night dream that’s premiering at the Coronado tonight. If you would like, we can meet there, and then discuss what you found over dinner.”
“Are you asking me out on a date, young lady?”
The blood rushing to her face was immediately evident as she started to stammer, but she was cut off by his laughter. “Stop, stop, I was just joking! Don’t be so serious. I was just trying to lighten the mood.”
She could do nothing but shake her head and giggle at herself.
“So, how does six o’clock sound to you? I’ll come by in my horse and carriage and I promise to have you home by midnight.”
“Alright, Sir Ronald, but if your intentions are the least bit less than chivalrous I shall be forced to turn you into a toad.”
“Duly noted, Madame,” Ron said with a bow. “I will see you then.”
Katerine had never been to the Coronado theatre before, and she found it to be an impressive sight indeed. The outside of the building was a classic early twentieth century movie palace, with the huge billboard lit up proclaiming the show tonight. The interior was even more impressive, transporting her to another time period entirely. Deco images of Spanish castles and Italian villas mingled carven oriental dragons and brass sculptures. As Ron led her up the expansive staircase she saw pictures of performers who had appeared there, including Sammy Davis, Jr., Louis Armstrong, Bob Hope, even John F. Kennedy. They proceeded to their balcony seat overlooking a classic vaudevillian theater. 1920’s chandeliers flanked the arch of the stage, which was capped by a brass image of Poseidon.
“This place is amazing,” she said.
“It is definitely impressive. This is my first time coming here as well.”
“What? I thought that you were my guide for a grand tour of Rockford. You’re not going to be much help if you’re as ignorant as I am.”
Before Ronald could reply the Grande Barton pipe organ began to resonate with the eerie tones that can be mimicked by no other instrument. The lights dimmed, and the curtains parted to reveal Theseus and Hippolyta as the opening act began.
At Giovanni’s afterward Ronald and Katerine were in a good mood. Ron drank a Killian’s Red to compliment the supreme pizza, while Kat sipped an excellent Moscato. The wonderful sweet, fruity Italian wine was a new delicacy to her palette, and one she would not soon forget. The conversation about the play began to lull, and Katerine took the opportunity to change the subject.
“Well, you used my request for a simple favor to lure me out into this precarious predicament. I have suffered through all of this with quiet dignity, but now I must insist that you divulge the information that you have found.”
Ronald clutched his chest as if mortally wounded and said, “If this shadow has offended, Think but this and all is mended; I have found what you did’st need, and if you’ll be quiet I will proceed.”
It was all she could do not to fall out of her chair in laughter. Her face squinched up in mock anger as she kicked him gently under the table. “Alright, Robin Goodfellow, out with it.”
His face became serious as he leaned forward. “What you found was not a mistake. There were four other Katerine Lynch’s that lived in the same house, according to tax and census records. The scary part is that the previous two tenants were apparently murdered.”
All of the good cheer had instantly vanished at Ron’s revelation. “Are… are you sure?”
“Absolutely. The only reason I couldn’t give you more details is that the old newspaper archives from the Star weren’t available online. We will have to go down to the office and physically find them.”
Katerine was dumbfounded, and at a loss for words. Ronald reached across the table to take her hand to comfort her.
“I’m sure that it’s nothing more than coincidence. We will look up the old articles Monday morning just to make sure. I really didn’t want to frighten you, but I didn’t want to leave you in the dark, either.”
“Well, I appreciate all of your effort. So, you don’t mind helping me?”
“Of course not. I don’t have any classes on Monday until afternoon, so it won’t be any trouble at all.”
“I really appreciate everything you’ve done, Ron. I know that this seems kind of silly, but it is really starting to freak me out. I’m glad you’re here to help me with this.”
“Well then, it’s settled. Now eat your pizza.”
Katerina grinned and picked up her square slice of pizza.
“The paper was called The Morning Star before it merged with the Register Republic in 1979 and took the name Register Star.” The young man who escorted them down into the subterranean dungeons of the State Street headquarters of the newspaper droned on in a monotone voice that clearly indicated that he had made this speech many times before. The archive turned out to be a monstrous, florescent lit chamber with racks upon racks filled to overflowing with newsprint. Indexes were housed within enormous, leather bound tomes that were cross referenced to include every topic imaginable, and it seemed to Katerina that they must surely span the entirety of human knowledge.
Ron, on the other hand, did not seem intimidated at all. Must be that analytical mind of his, she thought. In the span of half an hour he had a list covering half of a legal pad, and they moved off into the labyrinth of grey steel racks. They returned to the reading tables heavily laden with dust covered bundles of newsprint and began to work in earnest.
“Well, this must have been the most recent one,” Katerine said. “’Woman’s body found in Rock River’. Says here that the body of Katerine Lynch was found by a library employee as she was arriving for work. This is from August of 2009.”
“Hmm,” Ron mumbled, “this one from ’95 says local police officers arrested one Darrian Williams after witnesses said he stabbed Katerine Lynch in the parking lot of a bowling alley. But look at this, will you?”
Katerine laid down the paper she had been reading and moved around the table so she could see what Ron was talking about. The picture was unremarkable, a grainy black and white of a middle age woman in a flower print dress standing on the steps of… “Wait, isn’t that Scarborough Hall?”
“Yeah, it is. We walk right by it every day. It says she was an economics professor at good old Rockford College.”
“Boy, this just gets weirder and weirder, doesn’t it?”
“At this point, I’m inclined to agree with you.”
Katerine pulled another paper from the stack. This was an old one from the Register Star, date June 27, 1958. On the front page the headline screamed, “Dutch Elm Epidemic Ravages Forest City”. The photo showed one of the city’s picturesque boulevards, much like the one on which she lived, except for the fact that there were gaping holes across long stretches that should have been filled with trees. The picture showed a group of city employees at work cutting up a fallen elm that looked as if it had been weathering the embrace of a Midwestern winter rather than the joyous rebirth of early summer. She flipped over to page three and found the story of the search for a missing teacher, Katerine Lynch, who was last seen on the campus of Rockford College. The teacher had not been seen in two weeks, and anyone with information regarding the case was asked to contact the Rockford Police Department.
“So, is this the first one on the list,” Katerine asked?
“Yeah, I think so,” Ronald replied.
“Hmm, and were there any other references in the index?”
“Nope, I guess that she was never found.”
A cold chill washed over Katerine as Ron made that statement, and she could not shake the sense of foreboding that followed her as they left the archives.
The next week moved along with its typical fluid grace, and before she knew it Friday had arrived. During a lull between her classes Katerine checked her messages and found that Ronald had called.
“Umm…, hi Kat, it’s Ron. I’m gonna be caught up here for a while, but if you’re interested I would love to see you tonight. The Siberian Orchestra is playing down at the Metro Center, and I just happen to have acquired two tickets. If you are interested, call me back at 815-336-4270. I look forward to hearing from you.”
Katerine looked plaintively at her phone, as if imploring it to tell her how she felt about this turn of events. Admittedly, Ron was a great guy; he was polite, educated, and he had a humorous streak a mile long. So, why was she so hesitant? A few moments later she decided that she was just being a prude, and picked up the phone to call him back. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!
Ronald picked up on the third ring, sounding out of breath. “Hello?”
“Did I catch you at a bad time,” she asked?
“Oh, Kat, sorry, I’m late for my lecture in security systems integration. Did you get my message?”
“Yeah, as a matter of fact I did. I was planning on going out to an all night rave party, but I guess I can make an exception for you this time.”
“Well, you know, I don’t want to put you out. I suppose that I could always go slumming down at the teacher’s lounge and see if I can find any anybody else who doesn’t have a date tonight.”
“I couldn’t live with myself if I allowed you debase yourself in such a manner, so I guess I will sacrifice my night of lascivious debauchery to accompany you.”
“Ah, you truly are a princess. I’ll make dinner reservations and pick you up around six?”
“Sure, sounds great.”
“Fantastic! I’ll see you then.”
The Siberian Orchestra put on an impressive show, and the dinner afterward was even better. Ronald had taken her to a small place called Maria’s on the Southwest side of town. Ronald told her that it was supposed to be the best family owned Italian restaurant in town, and from what Katerine could tell that was no exaggeration. Afterwards he drove her home and, ever the gentleman came around to open her car door and escort her to the front step. Before they made it there, however, Ron took her by the elbow and turned her around to face him.
“You know, it’s a beautiful night out. Would you like to take a walk with me?”
“Sure, why not. There’s a park just down the road; I walk down there a lot whenever I need some air.”
“That sounds great. Show me the way.”
It really was beautiful outside. As they walked down the sidewalk bordering the brick paved boulevard they caught glimpses of a brilliant, star studded night sky through the gaps in the Mulberry trees. She picked out Orion’s belt through the leaves, and the flash of a jet’s taillights as it headed toward O’Hare airport. The first hint of a chill had crept into the evenings earlier in the week, and the scent of wood smoke wafted through the air. They crossed the road and entered the park, making their way across the grass and onto the track.
“This is nice,” Ronald said as they strode along side by side. “Simple, and yet relaxing. You typically expect a park to have lots of playground equipment, or be so densely wooded as to shut out the outside world. This has a kind of unity with the urban environment, like… symbiosis, almost.”
“Yeah, it feels so peaceful here to me, like something deep down inside me loosens up while I’m walking around this track.
They came to the bench that she was sitting on a few days earlier and decided to sit. The dew that had already fallen sent a chill up Katerine’s back as it saturated the fabric of her shirt. Across the walking path from them the gigantic Elm tree loomed, dark shadow against the even darker night. The street lights surrounding the park’s perimeter cast a halide gleam across the crushed stone path and gave definition to the tree.
“I’ll bet that that is the oldest Elm tree in the whole city,” Ron said. “You know about the epidemic of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s?”
“You know, I was reading about that down in the archives today. Isn’t that funny? It said that most of the Elm trees that The Forest City was named for were wiped out.”
“That’s right. It was apparently a real catastrophe. Nobody knows why, but the disease just seemed to run its course. I wonder how that one managed to survive.”
“I guess that will just be a mystery for the ages.”
Ronald stood up and wandered over to the massive tree, with Katerine trailing behind him. As he reached out to caress the bark of the tree, she did the same. The smooth skin of the bark felt slightly bumpy beneath her fingertips, and a lethargic feeling washed over her. She felt a crawling sensation across the skin of her forearms, but she somehow didn’t seem to mind it. Ronald’s voice seemed to come to her across a vast gulf.
“The trees demanded homage from the humans that enjoyed their splendor. That was why the first Katerine Lynch had to give her life. In order to keep the balance, a steady supply of sacrifices had to be maintained, because what would The Forest City be without these beautiful trees that gave it its name. I am truly sorry that it had to be you that was chosen, but it is actually a great honor. Just think, you will be the unknown hero that kept this city beautiful. You will live longer than any other human being could ever imagine.”
As his words began to sink in the distant sensation of the tiny black beetles burrowing into her flesh entered her consciousness. Every fiber of her being revolted against what was happening to her body, but she found herself powerless to prevent it. Struggle as she may, she could not pull her hand away from the smooth bark of the Succubus Elm Tree. As her body wilted, she felt her soul straining to escape, looking for any way out. The only conduit was the blindingly clear path before her which led into the heartwood of the tree. Her scream echoed within her own mind, unable to escape its new, wooden confines.
The prompt that I chose was obsession, which I also happened to use as my title. I did not do this to flaunt the rules, it just worked out that way. Thank you for your consideration.